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One Night Every Year
Many hours had passed when Danny finally took the last step up the stairs and reached the door to his room. He grabbed the handle and pulled, needing all his remaining strength to creak it open enough to squeeze inside. Leaving it ajar, he stumbled to his bathroom and washed his face. Stings of pain shot out from where his skin had been bruised or broken, but that was nothing compared to the throbbing inside his head. For a brief moment, he considered just collapsing then and there, but he managed to pull himself away from the sink.
"Hi mom," he croaked as he returned to the room. "How was your day?"
As always, the statue standing next to the window gave no answer. Danny had long ago ceased to expect one. He stood up on his toes and kissed her cold stone cheek, then sank down onto his bed with a sigh. From a bedside table drawer he fished out a near-empty packet of crackers, and shoved one into his mouth. While he ate a couple more he stayed silent, but once he had swallowed his last mouthful he began retelling his Halloween adventure to the room. When he reached the point where Ari had almost kissed him, his voice became uncertain.
"I don't really know what to think, mom," he confessed. "Or what to feel. I almost wish I'd done it. But he's an angel! I'm not s'posed to like an angel."
For one split second, Danny thought he had seen the statue's eyes move, ever so slightly, but when he looked closer he found that he must have been mistaken. His mother's face was as set in stone as he had ever seen it. With a dejected sigh, he went back to his bed and fell down on it. Within seconds, he was asleep.
In his dream, Danny was back in the Petrified Forest, only it wasn't really him. He was younger, so little his horns were nothing but tiny stumps, and his wings hadn't started to grow in yet. And he was scared. More scared than ever before.
All around him the trees moved. Impossible! It should have been impossible... The trees never moved! Yet their branches reached for him, and the souls that died forever inside them all wailed his name. His real name. Not the nickname he preferred but the cruel joke that had been his since birth. Danial, Danial. Danial!
Closer and closer they came, no matter how fast he ran, and he could find no way out. Soon they would catch him, and that would be the end of him. They would... He didn't even dare to imagine what would happen.
Then it all ended. The Forest was as still as ever; even the souls had gone quiet. From somewhere behind Danny, a bright light shone, but whichever way he turned it stayed at his back. Warmth spread inside his chest, melting his fears away and reshaping him into his usual form.
"That's better," said a soft whisper into his ear. "Now you look just like I remember you."
"M-mom?" Danny's voice quivered, and he suddenly felt close to tears. "Is that you?"
"No, silly!" the light giggled as it came into view and landed in front of him. "I'm not your mother. Come on, you know me, don't you?"
Even as he said it, Danny knew it was true. He did know this light. Slowly it took the shape of a boy, a boy with long soft hair and bright eyes, and white wings on his back.
"I miss you already, Ari."
"Me too, Danny." The two boys moved closer together, and reached out to hold hands. This time Danny knew that he wouldn't resist, but while their lips were still a fraction of an inch apart, Ari shied back. "No! It's too late!"
"I can't stay, Danny. He's coming!"
Then Ari was gone, and all of Danny's fears returned in full force. He knew what the angel boy had meant, as an impenetrable darkness spread out all around him. This was...
It had to be...
* * * * * *
By the time Ari was done sulking over his punishment, the night was over. A golden dawn spread over Elysion, and the angel boy alit from his rooftop and flew out across the fields. At the moment he had no wish to meet any of his kin. They would all know by now what had happened to him, and what he had done. Some would scorn him, some would gloat, and some would be sympathetic. Ari could not decide which was worse.
Instead he spent his morning among the wards of Heaven, the once-living who had found their way to the presence of the Light. He chatted for a little while with a couple of newly arrived child spirits, but they were in such awe of their new surroundings that they soon grew bored with him.
Later in the day, in a faraway forest, he found a herd of winged horses, grazing peacefully in a glade. The rare sight lifted his spirit, and while the sun sank towards the horizon, he played with a young pegasus foal. The tiny horse could barely lift off the ground, but the two of them happily chased each other in and out among the trees. Once night fell, though, the foal went to its mother to feed, and Ari left the forest.
His good mood left him when he returned to the Cathedral. From deep inside he could hear a choir of angels singing the Light's praise, and one of the clearest, most beautiful voices belonged to Michael. Hearing his guardian sing brought back the feelings of unfairness. He missed Danny, and wished that next Halloween would come soon, so they could meet again. In his heart, he knew that there was nothing wrong with the devil boy, nor with their friendship. If they could only talk to each other, get to know one another properly, then Ari could prove to Michael that he was right.
Suddenly, an idea formed in his mind, and Ari grinned to himself. It was kind of naughty; a way to obey and defy at the same time. If it worked, then he would at least be able to feel Danny's presence. He flew up, higher and higher, his eyes scanning the skies in front of him. If only he could find...
Then it was there! A flutter of movement just barely registered in the corner of his eye, and he turned around to watch the little creature. It was an air elemental, a wingelf, a race almost as ancient as the angels themselves. From a distance, it looked as if a star had come down from the sky; a tiny speck of light that danced among the clouds. When Ari called to it, the light changed from white to red, then a bright blue as it approached him.
"Hello there, little one," he cooed as the wingelf landed on his outstretched palm. It was so small that he could have enclosed it with his fingers, had he wanted to. "I need some help, do you want to aid me?"
The wingelf dimmed its light and nodded, and Ari saw now that it was a girl, and that she was very pretty. He felt glad that he wasn't in human form, or he would have blushed. How Danny would have laughed at him! Pushing those thoughts aside, he explained his plan to her, and she nodded again. Then she fluttered up to his forehead and touched it, forming a bond between them. This could work, Ari thought happily. This could actually work!
He landed on the perch outside his bedroom and climbed in through the window. On his bedside table he found a message from Michael. To purify his thoughts and clear his mind, he was to work with the once-living the next few days, tending to the fields and the villages of Elysion. Boring, he thought as he crumpled up the note and tossed it into the corner with a snort. Then he lay down on his bed and closed his eyes.
Immediately, he was flying with the wingelf, their minds now as one. Down, down they went, through clouds and across borders where angels could not easily go. For the elementals, though, the borders might just as well not have existed. They were on Earth now, searching for something, someone. After a few minutes, the wingelf spotted a light in the distance, an Ari urged her towards it. It was a campfire, and some teenagers were sitting around it, talking. But what they sought was in the flames. Ari called out with the wingelf's voice, and a faint rustle from inside the fire answered.
A salamander came out; a small dark-skinned lizard, the elemental of fire. It scuttled over to the wingelf, and she relayed both the plan and the mind-contact with Ari. Being inside the salamander was weird, even stranger than in the air elemental. All it seemed to think of was fire and flames and heat, but it readily agreed to take him to Hell.
Again the journey went downwards. Not through the ground as Ari had thought, but through fire. They hopped from flame to flame; here the flicker of a candle, there a roaring forest fire. Faster and faster they went, until suddenly the salamander popped out of a stone hearth. They were inside a castle, it seemed to Ari, and for a second he got very scared. The salamander calmed his mind though, as it knew where to go. It climbed a tall staircase, then slipped through a half-open door. There, sleeping on his bed, lay Danny.
Ari felt his heart beat faster, from somewhere far behind, back in his own bed. The word he had almost used during their Halloween night together returned to his mind, but he was still afraid of voicing it, even to himself. Especially in this place where it might literally raise Hell. The salamnder darted over to the bed and climbed up it until it reached Danny, who was thrashing about as if he were having bad dreams. Ari had no time to feel sorry for his friend, before he was plunged into yet another mind.
He flew above a forest. Not a lush green one like in Elysion, nor a vibrantly alive one as on Earth, but a dead forest. Naked branches reached towards him, and from somewhere came wails of fear and despair. Even though he knew this was a dream, Ari shuddered. To Danny, this must be the memory of a real place. For the first time, he realised just how different their lives were.
Then he saw something up ahead. The trees were reaching for a small figure who was cowering on the ground, and they were groaning louder than ever. When Ari approached, however, it was as if the branches gave way for him, and soon a silence fell. He recognised Danny, though this was a younger Danny. Maybe only four or five years old. Ari almost giggled out loud; he was so cute! Then he decided to tease his friend, and whenever Danny tried to face him, he stayed behind. Then the dream-Danny seemed to regain his courage, and he grew back into the devil boy Ari knew.
"That's better," he whispered into Danny'ss ear. "Now you look just like I remember you."
"M-mom?" Danny's lower lip trembled, and Ari decided to end his teasing. "Is that you?"
"No, silly!" he giggled as he set down onto the forest floor. "I'm not your mother. Come on, you know me, don't you?"
"Yes..." Ari concentrated, and slowly changed his mind-self from angel to human form. Danny grinned at him. "I miss you already, Ari."
"Me too, Danny."
He reached out and took Danny's hand, and the two of them moved closer together. Ari closed his eyes, and he knew that it was going to happen. They were finally going to...
Just then, there came a warning from the salamander. Ari could feel a darkness approach, a cold shadow that filled him with unimagined fear. He snapped back from Danny, his eyes wide.
"No! It's too late!"
"What?"Danny cried out. "Wait!"
"I can't stay, Danny. He's coming!"
Then the forest was gone, and he was back in Danny's bedroom. The salamander was trembling, and together they fled out the window. Ari couldn't help noticing the statue that stood a little to the side, a statue of a beautiful woman. Was that what Danny's mother looked like? She certainly looked a lot like his devil friend.
The thought vanished as the bedroom door swung open, and just before the salamander left the windowsill Ari saw the most frightening sight his eyes would ever see. So THAT was Danny's father!
The salamander quickly scampered down the rough stone wall until it reached another window. A girl sat by a mirror inside, brushing her hair. Again Ari saw the likeness with Danny, but this time twisted and hateful rather than beautiful. He had no more time to reflect upon it, because then she saw the salamander and swatted at it, snarling with rage. The little fire elemental managed to dodge, then jumped into her blazing fireplace. Immediately, they were back at the campfire, and Ari's mind went back inside the wingelf. A little while later he sat up in his bed, panting hard and shivering with fear.
* * * * * *
Danny woke up to find that he was not alone. Gasping with fear, he backed away from the silent figure sitting beside him on the bed. He didn't stop moving until he bumped his head against the wall. The urge to cry out was all but overwhelming, yet Danny managed to quench it. The face he found himself staring at was every bit as handsome and flawless as Damien's, but the eyes made all the difference. Behind them, Danny saw none of the malice and cruelty of his oldest brother, just age. Ancient age, and a quiet, calculating calm. Those eyes scared him more than anything else he had ever known.
"What's the matter, son? Bad dreams?"
The voice was friendly, almost velvety smooth. Most people who heard it would call it endearing and trustworthy. But Danny knew that it could change in an instant, depending on his father's mood. For the moment, though, he seemed benign, even caring. For a second Danny almost belived he could sense genuine concern.
"Y-yeah," he squeaked. Danny thought he had better lay it on thick, in case his father had sensed thoughts about Ari. "Really bad one, like there was some awful thing inside my head."
"Really?" He chuckled. "Has Belle been up to her tricks again? I swear your sister gets better and better at those mind games of hers."
"Or did you truly have an intruder here?" There it was, that sudden glimmer of fire in those eyes, that barely discernible edge of steel in the voice. "Some outside... friend?"
He knows! Danny thought. At that moment he realised that Damien had told on him, had let their father know about Halloween. About Ari. He felt anger grow inside him; his friendship with Ari was none of their business! They had no right to tell him what to do and who to see! But he managed to control himself. His head was still sore after the beating he had taken from Damien earlier, and he did not wish for a repeat performance.
"You're not saying anything, son." Danny's father stood up and paced around the room, pausing now and then to kick some discarded toy out of the way. "Ah well, I guess I might be mistaken. Surely you would not be so foolish as to invite an outsider down here?"
"Of... of course not!" Danny felt puzzled. What was going on? All he had done was dreaming. A dream about Ari. "I wouldn't know how, even if I wanted to. The borders..."
"Can be breached, if you're clever enough." There it was again, that vague hint of danger. Danny shuddered. His father stopped by the window, eyeing the statue that stood there. "She was clever enough. Oh yes, found her way, into the palace itself. Have you inherited her cunning?"
"I'm pretty sure you have." The smile looked kind and loving at first glance, but it hid a condescending smirk that struck Danny right in the heart. "You know, I often wonder why I chose to breed her. I must have thought some good would come of it."
Danny's fingernails bit into his palm so hard that he felt sure he was drawing blood. It took every ounce of his willpower to keep from lashing out, from jumping up and rushing at his father, who was now stroking the statue's face like a connoisseur appreciating fine art. Touching something he shouldn't, never ever, ever! Then something else caught his attention, and Danny looked to see a salamander sitting on the windowsill.
"What's this, then? A new pet?"
"Uh... yeah!" Danny said, hopping to his feet and scooping up the little elemental. "I caught him down by the lake, and I'm gonna grow him as big as Kerbie."
"Really?" This time the smile was an amused one. Maybe, just maybe, Danny had saved the tiny creature's life. "Well, good for you. You've been way too interested in those pesky little humans lately."
"Yeah." Danny sat down on his bed with a barely audible sigh. "Sure."
"What's with the groan, are you feeling ill, son?"
"A bit. Too much Halloween candy."
"I see. Well, your presence shan't be required tonight for dinner. We'd better let you rest in peace."
As if he had just been told a very funny joke, Danny's father began to laugh as he left the room. Danny could hear him all the way down the stairs, even as he shut his door and locked it. So, no dinner. He didn't much like being hungry, but it was better than spending quality time with the family. A couple of crackers filled him up somewhat, but when he was about to put the last one into his mouth he suddenly remembered what was in his other hand. He held up the salamander and studied it carefully, feeding it a crumb which it happily swallowed.
"Hello there! Who might you be?" The little lizard's only response was to scurry up Danny's arm and onto his head. "Hey!"
Then it touched his forehead, and somehow Danny knew. Knew where it had come from, and whose thoughts and mind had come with it. Ari! So the angel boy had really been there; it hadn't just been a dream. The happy smile that formed on Danny's lips froze, however. So stupid! If they had been caught...
It was too scary to even think about.
Yet at the same time it was brilliant. A way to sneak past the borders even when they were closed. Genius! But stupid. And brave, Danny thought while he petted the salamander. Surely this proved that their friendship was more than just that of two kids spending Halloween together? It could even mean...
Yet even now, Danny couldn't think the word.
* * * * * *
Ari was just about to fall asleep when he felt something brush against his face, light as a feather. At first he thought it had just been his imagination, and he closed his eyes again. The second brief touch made him roll over in bed, and he kicked off his blanket, muttering to himself. Then he felt a sharp pinch on his buttock, and he sat up with a yelp. Immediately, he saw her. The wingelf, who had left once they were back at the Cathedral, had returned. She hovered by the window, changing peevishly through all the colours of the rainbow as if laughing at him.
"Hi," he said in a slightly squeaky voice, while he rubbed sleep out of his eyes. "Didn't think I'd see you again."
The air elemental bobbed up and down, then flew closer to the window. Was she beckoning him? Ari got out of bed, but as he approached her, she flew out. Yes, she definitely wanted him to go with her. Pausing to rub the place she had pinched, he then hurried to slip on his robe, before jumping out the window.
They flew away from the Cathedral, and down towards the same forest where Ari had met the pegasi. The wingelf led him in among the trees until they found a place where a group of once-living had set up camp. They were all asleep around a small fire, and Ari grinned when he saw the little salamander waiting just outside the flames' reach. He picked it up, and at once he felt the presence inside it. Danny!
As quickly as his wings would carry him, he returned to his room, tossed off his robe and hopped back into bed. The wingelf joined him, but to his surprise she stopped him when he tried to touch the salamander to his forehead. Instead, she kissed his cheek, and once again he felt his mind leave his body.
With the salamander on her back, the air elemental left the room and started the journey downwards. But not to Earth, as Ari would have guessed, but to some place he had never seen before. When she finally stopped and let his consciousness out, he found himself standing on a misty grass plain, overhung with steel-grey clouds. There was just enough light for him to see the lithe figure that stepped out from the mist.
Ari squealed with joy as he ran over to hug his friend. The two of them embraced each other tightly, but when Ari tried to fulfill the promise he had made on Halloween night, Danny backed away slightly.
"Please, Ari, I'm not ready yet. Let's just be friends tonight."
"Okay..." Ari said dejectedly, but then he looked around and tilted his head quizzically. "Where are we?"
"Dunno. Someplace the salamander found, far away from both Heaven and Hell. I did it, Ari, I figured out how they helped you, and I got them to help me, too."
"That's great! Then we can meet here, like, whenever we want?"
"Yeah, but only in the mind like this. I'm back in my own bed, really."
"Me too. I think. It's a bit confusing."
"We have to be careful, though. Nobody can be around, or they'll catch us for sure."
"Yeah." Suddenly, Ari let out a giggle. "I got spanked, you know. For being with you on Halloween. And I'm doing chores all next week."
"That's 'cause you were naughty," Danny laughed. "You cussed!"
"You made me do that!"
Danny took off running, screaming as Ari gave chase. During the next few hours, they ran all around the grassy plain, chasing and catching each other, rolling and tumbling, wrestling and fighting and playing until they finally fell down next to each other, completely exhausted. Ari was the first to find his breath.
"That was fun."
"Did... did you get into trouble? After Halloween?"
"I'm always in trouble," Danny answered cockily, but his demeanor changed when he saw the concerned look in his friend's eyes. "Yeah, I kinda did."
"In what way?"
"Damien, my brother, he beat me up. And dad was... well, he was dad."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I don't know what he was thinking. He didn't hit me or anything, but I think he's gonna keep an eye on me from now on."
"What? Then what are you doing here? You shouldn't..."
"I wanted to see you. And I wanna see you again and again."
"I... I want that too, Danny. But we can't... I mean, if HE is on your tail..."
"He ain't!" Danny turned around and wagged his pointed tail at Ari, who broke into giggles. "I don't think he knows what the salamander can do. He just thought it was a pet."
"I'm not sure, though," Ari frowned. "I mean, I bet he's a lot cleverer than we can ever hope to be. Maybe he's just tricking you."
"I don't worry too much about him," Danny said, and Ari thought he could hear bitterness in the devil boy's voice. "Damien's worse. He hates me. Dad mostly just... doesn't care."
"Either way, maybe we'd better get back home. Michael's gonna check on me soon, to make sure I get up for work."
"I guess so." They hugged again. "I asked the salamander to stay with me for a while, so we can meet like this again. Will yours stay too?"
"She's not mine, but..." Ari glanced over at the wingelf, who had joined in the boys' games together with the salamander. She bobbed up and down and flashed him a bright green light. "I guess she says yes."
"Great! Let's meet here again, a week from now."
"Sure!" They both held their respective elemntal in their hands, and were just getting ready to leave, when Ari shared one last thought. "Danny, I'm glad you stopped me from kissing you."
"Yeah, because I wanna wait and do it when I really meet you again, not just with our minds like this."
"Uh, okay... I can still stop you, though."
"I bet you won't!"
"Bet you I will!"
"Fuck you, Danny!"
"Fuck you too, Ari!"
And the misty plain was empty.
* * * * * *
In the throne room of Hell, slumped casually in his high seat made from the bones of ancient gods, Danny's father smiled to himself. Things had happened exactly as he had thought, from the moment he spotted the salamander on Danny's windowsill. If he so wished, he could easily have dealt with this atrocious insurrection, but he chose to do nothing. Better to wait, to let events play themselves out. Better to see how Damien would deal with it.
Might just be more amusing, too.
And in Heaven, in one of the innermost meditation chambers of the Cathetral, Michael felt it when Ari's mind returned to his bedroom. A flash of anger rippled across his face, disturbing its usual detached and serene beauty. This had gone too far! This was disobediance after disobedience. Unthinkable! Yet he decided to do nothing, at least for the moment. He would give Ari a chance to prove himself; to either show that he had been right by actually redeeming the hellspawn, or to cease this foolish behaiviour by his own free will.
But if neither of these things happened, Michael would act.
To be concluded...