The Host needs Travis Keane—needs his powers. For the prompts "fire" and "expelled."
|Summary: The Host needs Travis Keane—needs his powers, the extent of which even Travis doesn’t know—and they need them yesterday. They’ll do anything, absolutely anything, to access those buried powers . . . use any means and anyone necessary. They may be sorry they did.
Notes: Liberties take with Christian mythology.
Word Count: 4,799
Prompt: Fire and expelled. Written for "The LGBT Writing Contest - CLOSED" .
Travis Keane stood at one end of the small, municipal underground carpark, facing the opposite wall some meters distant. His eyes were closed and his entire body was covered in a thin sheen of exertion-sweat.
In a moment of absent distraction, he wished he’d thought to leave his best navy hoodie and black leather jacket at home, if all he was going to do was sweat them up.
Then he was just thinking: OW! as he was smacked on the back of the head.
“What’s that for, then?” he demanded, eyes flying open to blurred and trebled vision that seemed to waver as if an unobstructed heat was baking up from the surprisingly rubbish-free floor.
“Your mind, or what passes for it, was wandering,” the General said in his clipped, disapproving Knightsbridge accent. The older man paced behind Travis on his column-like, muscular legs, with slow, measured steps—as always—before pausing to lean in and murmur in his negligently cultured baritone: “If you were out in the trenches, Keane, you’d be dead, already . . . letting your attention go walk-about like this.”
Shivering as the General’s cool breath ghosted across the shell of his ear, Travis squared his shoulders and winked playfully at the far wall before closing his eyes once more. Not that it helped with drowning out the distraction of the General’s nearness, or Travis’s own inability to focus. “It might wander less if you’d back up, mate, and give a bloke some breathing room, yeah?”
Another shiver-causing breath drifted past ear and cheek as the General snorted.
“I’m not your mate, mate,” he said—terse, but without any traces of irony. Travis rolled his closed eyes. “Do you suppose that, out in the field, back to back with the rest of the Host, there’s such a thing as breathing room? That, when the Legions are upon you, slavering to get their fangs into that pretty, porcelain-pale hide of yours, there’ll be breathing room?”
Flushing, half-incredulous and half-amused, Travis blinked his eyes open again, noting that the trebling sensation was lessened and the distant wall was once more sharp-edged. That the blurred vision and dizziness that came with focusing in the way the General wanted, only seemed to relent when he wasn’t focused on the very thing on which he needed to bend all his fickle attention. . . .
Channeling the not-so-small amount of carefully-buried rage within into pure destructive force.
It was going about as well as could be expected . . . which wasn’t very.
“Oi, you think my . . . hide’s pretty, then, Mick?”
A beat that was just a second longer than the General probably meant it to be—or hoped Travis would notice.
“Pretty or not, I think you’ll be lucky to even keep it, at the rate you’re going,” the acerbic General noted dryly, a sneer in his voice. Travis chuckled and, fully distracted, now, and seeing no point in pretending otherwise, he pivoted on the heels of his classic Doc Marten’s face-smashers to find the other still whisper-close, bent a bit from his prodigious height of nearly seven feet tall, to berate Travis.
The beleaguered General—second only to one in the hierarchy of the Host—seemed unusually startled, all but jumping back out of Travis’s personal space, for a change, his silver lining-colored eyes wide in his umber-dark face. Travis smirked, looking the erstwhile trainer over: from close-cropped black hair and the shining, rune-etched breast-plate adorning his chest, to the knee-length crimson kilt and the plain, brown leather sandals with ties that went halfway up his calves.
(And at his right hip, in an ancient leathern scabbard—nonetheless burning brightly, despite not consuming the scabbard that contained its fury—was a sword made of flames and wailing, vengeful souls. It was the width of a two-by-four and half-again the length of a claymore.
Even sheathed, the bloody thing gave off heat and a steady, angry, hungry hum.)
It was just criminal that someone dressed so awfully could still be so ridiculously handsome and strikingly noble.
“But you do think my hide’s pretty?” Travis persisted, keeping his eyes on the prize, distracting thoughts quite aside.
The General huffed and crossed his thick, muscled arms over a powerful barrel of a chest. Or so Travis assumed, as he’d never actually seen the other out of the armor he wore. For all Travis knew, the General’s chest was unimpressive under the armor. Though it’d be the only unimpressive thing about the General of Hosts. The heart’s blood-colored wings that draped his back and sides like a crimson cape—six of them, he had, and spanning wider than even he was tall, from tip to tip . . . with flights and remiges the length of Travis’s forearm and half-again as wide—only barely brushed the floor, bristling and tense as they were with agitation.
“I think you’re doomed, Nephilim. And with you, the rest of the Righteous and Graced, if you can’t even command your own rage when it matters most,” the General informed him flatly, his dark, stark, strong-featured face as giving and forgiving as stone.
As ever it was. For though the Highest was supposedly all-forgiving, the General was not known for his merciful nature.
Or his patience.
Or his tolerance for humans and demi-humans.
Or for anything that wasn’t ripping the wings off demons like a kid might tear the wings off a butterfly.
“Aw,” Travis said, grinning and shrugging. “Don’t take on so, Mick. It’ll all be grand, you’ll see. Your God has a plan, an’ all that.”
“Yes, but our God also helps those who help themselves,” the General noted forbiddingly, pointing one huge, bare arm toward the far wall. “Enough lollygagging, Hell-spawn. We’re not leaving this carpark until that wall is rubble or you are.”
Travis groaned and shuffled back around to face the other end of the carpark, focusing his gaze on the wall—taking in every inch of it, till it felt as if he could study at Oxford as a wall-scholar—then closed his eyes. “I can think of some much better things we could be doing than trying to trigger a skill-set I might not even have.”
“I’m certain you can. Now, focus.”
“Anyone ever tell you that you bear a remarkable resemblance to Idris Elba on steroids?”
“You have. Several times today, alone. Focus on your rage.”
“I’ve always fancied Idris, y’know?”
“Fascinating. The wall, Nephilim.”
“I do have a name, Mick.”
“And I have a rank, recruit. And as long as you continue to ignore it at your leisure, then I’ll feel free to ignore your name.”
A tickle of annoyance leavened Travis’s flirty game. “You’re not the only one with a rank. General.” And in the grander scheme of things, I very much outrank you, Travis thought loudly, but didn’t say.
“Oh, that’s right, isn’t it?” The General snorted again, the breath on which it came out stirring Travis’s stylishly messy, mouse-brown hair. “You’re one of the Great Princes of Abaddon, are you not? Anti-Christ, and Heir-Presumptive to the Infernal Throne; Red Duke of Mammon; Commander of Hell’s legions; prophesied Messiah of the Fallen and the Nephilim.” Another beat: this one calculated and disdainful. “The clever-tongued and cunning-minded, radiant and fair son of the Light-Bringer, himself.”
Throughout the purring, but contemptuous recitation of his former titles—titles he hadn’t even an inkling that he’d possessed until some demon calling himself Azazel showed up on his doorstep, claiming to be an emissary from Travis’s “Royal Father” . . . and which he hadn’t believed in till the big brute looming behind him had crashed into his life and just barely kept him out of Hell’s clutches—made Travis’s back go steadily up, until he was tense and gritting his teeth. His ears were boiling hot and his face was freezing cold.
“That’s not what I am, Mick. ‘S not who I am.”
“Who you are, demi-human,” the General enunciated slowly, thoughtfully, “is a low-level narcotics dealer who habitually sold his wares to school-children, and whose known associates include other dealers, thieves, usurers, and killers, isn’t that right? A man who’s sold everything from incriminating information to others’ treasured possessions to his own body because he has no line beyond which he will not stray? No honor? No pride? Isn’t that who you really are, Travis Keane? Isn’t that the only reason you sided with the Host?” The General was closer than ever, his scent—like cinnamon-ozone-fall leaves-hot metal—was overwhelming. “Because once the Legions found out what and who you really are, you niggling little worm, they’d have eaten. You. Alive.”
The heat that was practically melting Travis’s ears had slowly been working its way across his face, down his neck, and onward, until his whole body felt as if it was aflame. Until every inch of his pale complexion had gone as crimson as the General’s six huge wings.
“That’s not why I joined the Host,” he gritted out from between clenched and bared teeth, his tenor dropped to a low, rumbling growl. “That’s not why, at all.”
“Of course, it is, Nephilim. Your kind are blessed with powers even the Host cannot stand against. And yet, you’re also cursed with the frailties of character that plague your human half: fear and cowardice and greed. Vanity and selfishness. Faithlessness,” the General huffed a laugh, his breath seeming arctic on Travis’s hot, damp cheek. “You may be no worse than all the demi-humans who’ve come before you, but stop pretending that you’re any better.”
“I am better,” Travis insisted, his voice as cold as the General’s breath, despite the pounding and raging of his blood in his veins, and the throbbing and thudding at his temples. He could barely hear his own quiet voice over the thrash and crash of his lungs and heart. “I’m better than those others. Better than the Legions and the Host. Better, even, than you, Mick.”
“Better? Than the Host? Than me? At what, exactly? Deluding yourself? Clearly, you are, Nephilim!”
“Don’t call me that!”
“I’ll call you whatever I wish and not fear reprisal or revenge. After all . . . it’s been months of trying to coax even a dram of your supposed power from you, and so far, not even a drop in any form, whatsoever. I suppose that makes you what mortals call . . . a dud, isn’t that so?”
Setting his jaw, Travis didn’t answer, only squinched his eyes shut tighter, till the backs of his lids burned red-black. The General laughed, low and richly-amused.
“I’ve been wasting valuable time attempting to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse on precious little evidence you could ever be better than you were born. You’ve never in your life stood for anything or anyone—not even yourself. You take nothing seriously, neither life nor death, neither salvation nor damnation. You have a grudge against the world for treating you no more or less fairly than anyone else. And you’re, at best, a neutral party at heart, without the courage or conviction to pick a side and pick up a sword. Joining the Host is the only opportunity in your life you haven’t squandered! Yet!”
“I don’t—I haven’t—” Travis started to deny, but the General cut him off.
“Your own shameless, unabashed delinquency contributed to the death of the woman who, despite realizing the truth of your conception, gave you life, anyway. A mistake for which she eventually paid with her life, as we all will.”
A muscle near Travis’s left eye ticked and he swiped his dry lips with an even drier tongue. “Don’t—don’t you talk about my Mum.”
“And why not? At least I’m not responsible for her miserable death. Or her miserable life.”
“Neither am I!”
“Then who is, exactly, if not you, most powerful Nephilim? So powerful, but he couldn’t even save the life of the woman who loved him unconditionally? Who, I ask, is responsible, if not you?”
Swallowing his rage and guilt, or trying to, Travis bowed his head bullishly, but still kept his eyes shut. The last thing he needed to see was a blurry, red-tinted world. One that would no doubt seem to be shaking and quaking, for it certainly seemed to be, even with his eyes closed . . . like the entire world had been knocked off its axis by a titanic swat. “My Fath—Lucifer—he—”
“Oh, and like so many who refuse to take responsibility for their lives, he blames his parents for his own shortcomings and failures. How original!” The General’s laughter was unrestrained, now, with both sarcastic delight and utter disgust. “Well, let me let you in on some confidential intel, Travis Warren Keane: You’re not only a poor excuse for a human being and a poor excuse for a Nephilim, but you’re exactly like your father.”
“No!” A loud cracking-crunching-grinding sound suddenly eclipsed the beat and slush of his heart and lungs in his chest, and the rush of blood through his veins. “I’m nothing like him!”
“You know, you’re right,” the General agreed pleasantly, before delivering a coup de grace Travis knew was coming, even if he didn’t know the form it would take. “Lucifer, say what you will about him, at least had the courage of his convictions. He had determination and faith in an ethos greater than himself. And to that end, he raped, and impregnated your virgin-mother with his bastard Hell-spawn. But it was you who finally dealt her the killing blow, was it not? Broke her heart so badly and so often, she eventually died of it. Of you.”
“NO!” Travis roared, as that cracking-crunching-grinding reached a volume so loud, he screamed with the near-living din, turning toward his tormentor, who’d at last been drowned out by that awful sound.
In the span of time it took for Travis to open his burning, wet eyes, he’d already reached out—not with his actual hand, but with something else from deep within him . . . something that ripped free of his soul and psyche agonizingly, and almost audibly: a sledgehammer-subtle force, huge and wantonly destructive—reached up to grab the General by the throat and hoist the massive man into a spin-toss. That terrible, raging scream continued to howl and tear from his throat like a cyclonic furor that beggared the crunching sound.
Travis’s eyes opened just as his knees hit the floor . . . just in time to see the General flying back-first at the distant wall, in which large and ominous cracks had appeared and were spreading.
Less than a second later, with a concussive force, the General was hitting that wall right against the largest crack—the noise of the sound-barrier being shattered drowned out all, even as the General hit like an atom bomb—his starkly handsome face both calm and triumphant. And then. . . .
The fluorescent, overhead lights flickered and winked, and . . . everything fell down.
And most of it fell on a still-screaming, still-raging, still-kneeling Travis, until even the unleashed maelstrom of his insane rage and chasm-deep grief—and his nascent, uncharted power . . . unearthed at long last—was entombed in tons of cement and stone.
When next Travis Keane opened his eyes—the instant he regained consciousness—it was to a nagging headache and all-over dull pain.
He was laying half in someone’s lap, half on something that felt textured and rough even through his jeans, like slate or roofing tile. Above him stretched the overcast, early morning-sky. In the distance, a murder of crows flew in a vaguely W-shaped formation, cawing and calling. Warm hands held Travis’s right hand and cupped his face, respectively. A soft, deep voice that’d been singing quietly in a language Travis did not recognize, but which was so beautiful, it almost broke his heart, fell silent when Travis took a deeper, longer breath.
“So,” he croaked out around a dry, dusty throat. A glance to his right showed that he was, indeed, on a roof. He could just make out the tops of homes and other buildings beyond the ledge. “The carpark wall’s rubble.”
“Yes, it is,” the General agreed mildly, his thumb stroking Travis’s cheek rather tenderly. “So’s the carpark.”
“I’m nothing like my father.” Travis’s Adam’s-apple bobbed reflexively. “I never meant to hurt my Mum . . . let alone to break her heart so badly. So repeatedly.”
“I know you’re not, Travis. And I know you didn’t.”
Travis turned his head left, toward the General’s voice. He found himself staring at his own smeared reflection in worn silver armor. He let his gaze travel up and up, finally stopping when his eyes met the General’s. Those pale, ancient eyes were weary. That dark, saturnine face was smudged with grey-white dust . . . but the full, mobile mouth was curved in an unusually gentle smile. Travis wanted to return it, but just turning his head had been as draining as a game of Australian rules-football.
“And fear of the bloody, fucking Legions isn’t the reason why I joined the Host, either,” he added, and the General’s smile faltered, his brows furrowing in question.
“Then why did you join us, Travis?” he asked softly, as if needing to hear and fearing to hear the answer. “Why throw your lot in with your father’s enemies?”
Travis huffed. “It wasn’t because I’m afraid of your desert God. Or because I love him. I only ever loved two people in my fucked-up life, and neither of them is Yahweh.”
“In time,” the General began, seeming almost reticent—unusually so—as he avoided Travis’s naked, intense gaze. “When you see the extent of my Lord’s and your Savior’s love and forgiveness—”
“Oh, I’ve seen both. And I’ve seen the extent of their mercy in the dead, hopeless glaze in my Mother’s eyes whenever she looked at me.” Travis smiled ruefully. “I’m not doing any of this for those tyrant-geezers.”
“Then what are you doing it for? Tell me, at last,” the General prodded and Travis’s smile changed. Became genuine, if small and self-mocking.
“One of those frailties of my human half you were on about before: Love. Selfish, greedy, grasping, possessive, obsessed, unending love.”
The General nodded as if he understood and didn’t judge. When he didn’t comment, Travis went on. “I left who I’d become behind because of those two people I loved, even though I changed my ways after it was too late to prove myself to one of the people I loved. The only question is . . . am I too late to prove myself to the other, as well? Have I lost the last of the love in my life because I was too slow getting with the program?”
The General swallowed and looked down at Travis’s hand in his own, his breath shuddering out of him when Travis painstakingly linked their fingers. “Why’re you asking me?”
“You know why, Mick. Michael.”
Wincing, the General left off gazing at their hands and glanced back at Travis. “Maybe . . . maybe I do. But what I don’t know is what you want of me—what you expect of me.”
Travis struggled to sit up for a few seconds, then was aided by the General of Hosts. When he was upright, he shivered in the wind, from which Michael had been shielding him with his six expansive wings. He looked the Highest of Archangels in the eye and reached up to cup the familiar, dusty, beautiful face in his hand. “Don’t you know, Mick?”
Frowning, Michael sighed and looked down. “If I were to . . . act on any . . . less than altruistic feelings I may have developed for you—for my charge—I . . . I believe that I would be cast out and Fall from Grace. Rightly so.”
Travis snorted. “And here I thought your God was love.”
Michael’s smile was small and sad. “My God is love, Travis. But love can also be quite cruel. Crueler than even you know.” Shaking his head, Michael sighed again. “I want to, Travis. Believe me: I’ve never wanted anything half so much. But . . . I can’t. I can’t. Not when they’re counting on me.”
“Look at me, Michael. Please?” Travis asked, leaning in until his forehead was pressed against Michael’s. The angel huffed a shaky little chuckle when, a minute later, Travis sat back to look at him. He was still staring down at the scant space between their chests. “Look at me.”
“I don’t think that’s wise.”
“Then . . . close your eyes. . . .”
“I know that’s not wise,” Michael said shortly, but did as he was bidden.
Still smiling, Travis Keane took the face of the Archangel Michael—General of the Hosts of Heaven, Champion of the Throne—in his dirty, dusty, scraped-up hands and pulled it close, even as he himself leaned in.
“You want me to put you first,” Michael whispered before their lips would have touched. “To put you before even the Throne.”
Travis paused, millimeters from Michael’s mouth, and shook his head slowly. “I could never ask that of you. I would never.”
“Doesn’t stop you from wanting, though, does it?”
Travis opened his mouth to deny what Michael had said, but . . . he couldn’t. Since joining the White Hats, he’d become a piss-poor liar.
“I can’t help wanting you all for myself, Mick. Fuck Heaven. Fuck Hell, too,” Travis murmured in a semi-fearful rush. “I don’t care for either side. I just want to be where you decide to be. If that’s Heaven, I’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Even be good. If it’s the battlefield, I’ll lock-n-load, and have your back for as long as I’m able. If you Fall . . . then you’ll find me waiting for you at bottom, arms open and smiling.”
At last, Michael’s eyes met his, wide and shocked . . . shattered, somehow, as if Travis’s words had broken something dear and important within him.
Or Travis’s love had.
“I don’t even remember what it is not to command legions and orchestrate battles. I’ve been fighting this War for nearly the whole of my existence and I’m tired,” Michael admitted wearily. “Tired of it consuming everything that I am . . . tired of caring for people who don’t lift a finger to help save themselves. Tired of death and endless destruction. Of every day, of every year, of every millennia, of every eon being exactly the same . . . I had lost all hope long before your distant ancestors left Africa. And then . . . ”
Michael’s small, wry smile widened and he looked down again. “Then you were born . . . the doom of mankind and thence us all. And I took it upon myself to keep any eye on you. In the name of keeping my enemy closer, and all that. I watched you learn and grow—watched the bright shine of God’s Grace and Favor follow you even when you walked in darkness. And I watched it become tarnished as the world dealt cruelly with you, from the very day of your birth. And yet . . . no matter how cruel you became in response—no matter the unrighteous things you did, there was still a spark in you . . . a shine as of a diamond buried at the bottom of a bog. And I only hoped. . . .”
Travis blinked and tears ran down his face. “What did you hope, Michael?”
When Michael met Travis’s gaze again, his own eyes, abyss-dark and brimming, too, were wide and guileless like a child’s. Innocent.
“I hoped that you’d find your way back to the light, where you so clearly belonged. That the bog would recede and the diamond be found. That . . . that I’d be the one to help you recover the precious gem of your Grace.”
Travis sighed, shaking his head. “And instead, here I am, come to tempt you to the bottom of the bog with me . . . in the slime and the muck.”
“No.” Michael leaned closer slowly, until Travis could only see the dark glitter of his eyes. The hand that had still been holding Travis’s hand let go and Michael shifted a bit. With a rasping ring, his wailing, flaming sword was drawn and held aloft. Travis instinctively sat back from the heat and hum of it. Michael’s smile turned sad again and he slowly lowered the sword . . . then cast it aside with a clatter, just beyond easy reach. Instantly, the flames began to sputter and the keen wailing to quieten.
When that wail was little more than an almost pleading whine, Michael went on: “It was my hubris and vanity that led me to desire your salvation at my own hands . . . my selfish and greedy hope of earning an Earthly reward that I nonetheless have deemed greater than the entire Host and the Heavens that contain them.”
Travis swallowed, his eyes widening, then slipping shut as he, too, leaned in. “And . . . wh-what Earthly reward is that?”
“Can you not guess, Travis Keane?” Michael murmured on Travis’s lips, then pressing them firmly with his own. He gasped when Travis surged forward into the kiss with a soft, sighing whimper and a hungry moan.
Neither demi-human nor archangel noticed when, several minutes into their feverish, urgent kiss, the world around them began to go insane. The skies above cracked open, letting loose great, forking tongues of green lightning and a torrent of steaming, crimson rain that bore the scents of copper and rue.
The ground below—far below, for Michael had, in the last watches of the night, unearthed then flown them both to safety on the roof of a row-house in South London, about half a mile from the demolished carpark—began to rumble and grumble, jump and jive, shiver and shake. And quake.
Then, it, too, cracked open.
From all over London—and spreading from there, outward to the rest of Great Britain, Europe, and beyond—screams of surprise, fright, and despair rose like the wailing of the damned, to the shattered Heavens above.
The Last Day and Judgment were upon them all.
And those cries of fear and regret and remorse fell on deaf ears as the Hosts of Heaven—and the Legions of Hell, itself—took up arms for this, the final battle of their Forever War.
All across the Earth, graves and sepulchers were opened, and the dead rose to walk among the living as battle-lines were drawn. The ravening hordes of the guilty and slow tide of the innocent marched toward each other in every land, as their Heavenly and Hellish counterparts did the same in realms which those trapped between good and evil could not and would not see.
Even the least among them, and the sick and the dying took up arms in the knowledge that here, at last, was the ultimate test of conscience . . . of character . . . of conviction. . . .
The ultimate stand, for which there were no also-rans.
The battle had been joined. The forces representing and controlled by the eternal Tyrants playing tug-of-war with the Earthly plane and every denizen of it had squared off for the very soul of creation.
On the cusp of War’s end and the beginning of the Apocalypse, another—much smaller, but no less important—drama . . . rather, a romance . . . was reaching a long-awaited crescendo.
For on their forgotten rooftop, Travis lay prone under Michael’s massive, armor-free body, and the expansive, sheltering spread of Michael’s crimson wings. Despite this cover, they were both soaked in the sheeting rain of the tears of the Host . . . the blood of dead saints. The culmination of their mounting desire was heralded, baptized, and celebrated by the screams of the multitudes—saint and sinner, living and dead alike—which rose not only from the bowels of the Earth, but rippled across the skin of the world and poured from the war-torn Heavens above.
Michael did not notice. He was shaken and taken by the depth of his nascent and unfurling passion—and his unmatchable need—for the demi-human in his arms. And by the upheaval and consternation of the Earth that now anchored and harbored them both.
Michael did not hear that upheaval and consternation. Nor did he care. Even as, also unnoticed, and just beyond even Michael’s prodigious reach, the murmuring sword of lost souls lay. Its heat and hum were now quenched at last, so that only a heavy, blackened, iron hilt remained.
After an existence spent doing nothing but caring for everything . . . he now cared for nothing beyond the man in his arms and the body that gave around him and for him so sweetly. Thus, lost to the possessive clutch-and-keep of his lover’s bare limbs and desperate body, and the wonder of Travis’s every stuttered cry, Michael—his own eternal Grace guttering, guttering . . . and gone, like a shining diamond sinking into a murky bog—simply did not care.
And above the lovers, the skies had dried up. The rain of bloody angels' tears had ended . . . and the rain of flame and sulfur—of fire and brimstone—had begun.