“Beat it,” the angel of death, Aksariel, growled to the guardian angel still hovering over his dying charge. Aksariel knew being gruff was the only way to get through the myriad of profound emotions overwhelming the other angel at the moment. Aksariel made a sweeping gesture towards the snow-filled night sky. “Go wait for her. I’ll bring her to you as soon as she passes.”
The guardian, Jael, blinked back at Aksariel with a crestfallen expression. His gaze shifted from the angel of death to where his charge lay dying, and then back again.
“No. I want to take her with me,” Jael protested, passing his hand over his fair face in a clear attempt to stave off the tears that threatened.
Aksariel sighed and pushed his long burgundy-colored hair over his shoulders so it settled down the center of his spine, between his two wings, and out of his way. It was time to get down to business. Of course, his job would be a lot easier if these guardians ever did what they were told.
“It doesn’t work that way and you know it,” Aksariel told him, softening his deep voice to comfort the young angel, but too late, he realized he’d only come off sounding as impatient and weary as he felt.
Aksariel knew after spending a lifetime by this girl’s side, the other angel was hard-pressed to leave her just because she was dying. Aksariel was aware Jael was both grieving the tragic end of his charge’s life and celebrating her impending arrival into heaven. The guardian was conflicted and not thinking right. He obviously didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
In any case, he was only delaying the inevitable and Aksariel wasn’t in the mood to take the time to coddle his younger brother tonight. There was a soul in need of his comforting and that was where the angel of death intended to focus his energies.
“Get lost, Jael! I’m telling you for the last time,” Aksariel said through his teeth. With new determination, he turned to face the smoking, hissing wreckage of the demolished automobile.
“All right!” the guardian retorted under his breath, sounding frustrated and irritated. He shook his head as if with disbelief. “You don’t have empathy for anyone, do you, Aksariel? Why do you have to be such a miserable, cold-hearted jerk all the time?”
Aksariel froze in his tracks and resisted the urge to punch the guardian in the face for being so mouthy, but he didn’t want to let the other angel know the insults he had spat actually had any kind of impact on him.
“Jael, I’m giving you to the count of three,” Aksariel growled, curling his hands into fists at his sides in an additional warning.
For a moment longer, the guardian stood where he was, regarding Aksariel coolly, but then snapped his wings open and fanned them back and forth. He nodded his head. “I’m going.”
Aksariel turned his back on him then, assured he was complying. As the other angel took to the air and disappeared into the night, the angel of death paused just long enough to grumble at him over his shoulder.
“Good riddance, you stubborn, thick-headed, lovesick fool,” he snarled. He shook the snow from his wings and refolded them comfortably down his back, shaking off his anger and settling his temper at the same time. “I am not cold-hearted.”
Aksariel conceded to being a jerk readily enough, however. He realized his rather straightforward, somewhat tactless mannerisms sometimes rubbed people who didn’t know him well, the wrong way, but he was not about to admit to being cold-hearted. He liked to think he was as gentle and compassionate as any of his angelic brethren, in spite of what he was.
Which reminded him. It was time to get to work. Aksariel stepped up to the car, taking a deep, measured breath, and emitted a cloud of visible vapor in the frigid night air. He was in a more corporeal form out of necessity, to help aid in the transition of a soul from the body they inhabited to the spirit they’d become. Touch and sensation was crucial for a smooth passing, so the angel utilized it for the sake of the souls he collected, but it also left him just as vulnerable to sensation as any mortal being.
Barefoot, bare-chested, and clad only in a pair of soft leather pants with a studded leather belt and the required chains for binding evil looped around his svelte waist, Aksariel realized he wasn’t dressed for this kind of inclement weather, but then he didn’t have any intention of sticking around long enough for it to adversely affect him. For the time being, he was a little uncomfortable, but he could deal with it until this job was done.
Peering through the shattered remains of the passenger side window, Aksariel fixed his piercing gray eyes on the car’s single occupant. Behind the car’s twisted steering column was a young, petite, Hispanic female. The angel guessed she was somewhere between seventeen and nineteen years old—twenty, at the most. It was hard to tell from looking at her face in the ruined state it was in and her soul remained invisible to him since she hadn’t passed yet.
That would be any minute now, Aksariel noted. She was barely breathing. Her brain waves were practically nonexistent at this point and her heartbeat faltered and waned more with each passing second. He could feel the readiness of her soul to depart her body down to the very marrow of his bones. It was this readiness that called to him and alerted him to prepare for her death.
“Eve?” Aksariel greeted her, bending down to lean through the car window. “Eve Vega?”
To his surprise, the girl opened her eyes and peered directly at the angel with an unseeing gaze.
“Am I dying?” she asked, her voice coming across as clear and strong as if she’d spoken it even though her lips didn’t move.
Aksariel knew it was her soul addressing him and not the girl herself, so to speak. Death was allowing the soul the liberty by separating it from her body, making it an entity of its own. Before replying, Aksariel passed the tip of his tongue over his full upper lip, feeling apprehensive. This was the hardest part of his job—even more than chasing off the guardians. He never liked having to inform a soul that their body could no longer sustain life and they needed to abandon it. No soul liked to hear that, no matter how gently he conveyed it.
“Yes, you’re dying,” he said in a quiet voice. He leaned back and tugged open the car door. It gave way with a groan of tearing metal. “That’s why I’m here.” He slipped inside the vehicle to sit beside her, paying no mind to the blood splatter and broken glass blanketing the car’s interior. He did take note of the jeweled rosary wound around the rear view mirror and the small colorful prayer card of Our Lady of Guadalupe tucked in the sun visor above him along with the vehicle’s registration and a couple of store receipts. Obviously, this girl was devout and faithful. Her passage would be an easy one.
“No,” Eve murmured almost as if to argue that last thought of his. “No. I can’t die like this.” Her eyes closed again.
“Yes,” Aksariel repeated, a little firmer this time. “I’m sorry, but your life is over.”
“I’m not ready to die,” she moaned. “I don’t want to die like this. I want to be with my family. I want to see my little brother. Mama. Papa. I need to tell them how much I love them. Please, don’t let me die out here, all alone like this.”
With a heavy sigh, Aksariel leaned forward. “You’re not alone, Eve. I’m with you.”
He could see the glowing aura of her soul now as it cast a shimmering haze across Eve’s broken body. Her consciousness wasn’t able to maintain its hold on it anymore.
“No,” Eve protested. “No! I don’t want to die!”
“I know,” the angel acknowledged. “Don’t be afraid, all right? I’m going to take care of you.”
Tears streamed unchecked from Eve’s closed eyes, leaving a shining trail of moisture over the curve of her cheeks.
“I know who you are,” she whimpered. “You’re a monster. And I know if I don’t look directly into your eyes, you can’t take me.”
Aksariel grimaced hearing that and sat back. “That’s a myth, honey,” he told her. He reached up to massage his temples. There were so many misconceptions out there regarding who he was and what he actually did. Aksariel had heard this particular one before. It seemed to be one of the more prevalent ones.
“No. No, please. Just go away,” she pleaded.
“You can look at me, Eve,” he told her, his deep voice rumbling. He realized how perturbed he sounded, but that was the one mythological misconception about an angel of death that he detested most of all. “I don’t suck out a soul with my eyes. I don’t kill people. I escort them. I’m not the monster you think I am. I’m not a skeletal figure robed in shadows carrying a scythe. And if you’d bother to really look at me, you’ll see you’re how wrong you are about me.”
Her insult stung more than the guardian’s had, but then, maybe she hadn’t gotten a good look at him. Aksariel had always considered himself to be an attractive person—maybe not as breathtaking or beautiful as some of his angelic brethren were, but just as pleasing to the eyes, nonetheless. After all, everything about him was meant to be alluring and comforting to the souls he fetched.
He was maybe just a little younger than time itself, but he didn’t look much older than twenty-five in mortal years. He had a rangy, brawny build and a wholly masculine face with deep set, piercing gray eyes, strong chiseled lines, with perfect and proportionate features, all covered in flawless, pale skin that complimented his dark, burgundy-colored hair and wings. His coloring was meant to fascinate as much as soothe, his body’s strength was made to inspire capability and confidence, his deep voice was supposed to lull, and even his angelic cinnamon-like scent was meant to comfort those close to him.
His touch was the epicenter of his power, however. With the mere brush of his fingertips, Aksariel could bring peace to even the most distraught souls and earn him their trust and faith. This was the very reason the angel of death came to the souls in this corporeal form. Their dying bodies needed to experience the sensation of his touch in order for the soul to feel the peace of passing into death and come with him willingly. He couldn’t force a soul to come with him, but he prided himself on the fact he hadn’t lost any to spiritual limbo in ages.
It was clear; Eve was in need of his power to soothe. In spite of her faith, she was frightened and fighting him. Aksariel knew she wouldn’t go with him if he couldn’t ease those fears and earn her trust. He raised his hand to touch her cheek just as she opened her eyes and fastened her gaze on his face.
“No!” she gasped with her last breath and expired.
Aksariel felt Eve’s heart come to a complete stop. The last activity in her brain faded shortly after and her battered body slumped against the seat as her soul slipped free of its confines at last.
Realizing he was suddenly alone in the car, the corners of Aksariel’s mouth turned down in a frown. He looked around, searching the immediate area outside the vehicle in something of a panic. When he spied Eve, he emitted a heartfelt sigh of relief. She hadn’t left him, even though she had evaded his caress, and was now well out of his reach, standing across the icy road from her car, regarding him with a wild-eyed defiance. As he stared back at her, he almost didn’t recognize her, but he understood her soul was showing him her true self for the first time, and the angel found himself completely mesmerized by the sight of her.
Her long black hair was mystically dancing around her shoulders as if it was caught up in the wintery wind billowing around her. Her face was as lovely as any angel’s he knew with wide, dark eyes lined in thick lashes, full, curvaceous lips, and high, delicate cheekbones. Her pristine clothing was clean and vibrantly colorful, her slim, athletically-built body bearing none of the injuries that had been wrought upon it by the accident that had killed her. She was the picture of health and beauty and life itself…and she damn near took the angel of death’s breath away.
“No!” Eve repeated, stamping her foot for emphasis.
Her declaration snapped Aksariel out of the bewitching trance her loveliness had put him in and he scrambled with a new surge of panic to get out of the car.
“Eve! Calm down!” Aksariel said in a clipped, but precise manner. He hurried her way, but came to a stop in the middle of the road just in front of her. He didn’t want to scare her into fleeing from him. He knew he needed to calm down before he could expect Eve to, and mentally chastised himself for panicking the way he had. He took a long, deep breath, commanded his expression to ease, and then softened his voice. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t harm you. Come here.” He extended his hand towards her and as he waited for her to comply, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander a little and imagined what it would feel like when she pressed her soft palm against his in absolute trust of him.
Eve pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and bit it, shaking her head. “No! I won’t!” she yelled. She even went so far as to tuck her hands behind her back in a misguided, protective maneuver.
Letting his hand fall to his side, Aksariel straightened to his full, impressive height. If he could just touch her, he knew she’d find peace. He toyed with the idea of rushing her and simply overpowering her. After all, she was a tiny, little thing and wouldn’t exactly pose any kind of challenge to him if he did, but the idea went sour on him even before he’d fully worked out the logistics of it. He couldn’t bear the thought of making her more afraid of him than she already was if by some off chance he actually wasn’t able to lay his hands on her and she escaped him again.
The only thing left to do was reason with the girl.
With that in mind, Aksariel gestured behind him at the crumpled car her corpse lie in. “You may as well come with me. You can’t go back to that.”
Eve shook her head. “I don’t want to die,” she replied, emotion making her voice crack, despite her spiritual state.
Aksariel lowered his eyes. “You’re already dead, Eve.”
Eve’s eyes drifted towards the wreckage. Her dark, arched brows knit in clear contemplation. “I can still go back. People…come back from the dead. That’s what ‘near death’ experiences are.”
Hearing that, Aksariel’s heart sunk. He raised his eyes, cocking his head to the side. “Think about what you’re saying. Your body is severely damaged, Eve. Stop and consider the kind of life you would lead inside a body that needed machines to keep it alive. Make it exist for a little while longer, anyway. You wouldn’t be alive in any real sense of the word.” The angel sighed and moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. “You’re more alive now than you’ve ever been and better things await you than you could possibly imagine. All you have to do is trust me. Take my hand and I’ll reconcile you with your death. I’ll bring you a kind of peace that’s everlasting. There won’t be anymore pain, or sorrow, or suffering. Just…trust me.”
With another shriek of defiance, Eve covered her ears with her hands, obviously unwilling to hear any more of the angel’s promises.
“Peace? How can I be at peace dying like this?” she snapped. Fresh teardrops welled in her eyes. “I just turned eighteen. I was going to college next fall. This summer, my friends and I were taking a trip to Europe that we’d been planning and saving for, for over a year!” She let her hands fall to her sides. “There were so many things I wanted to do before I died. This isn’t right. It’s not fair! I’m not ready to die yet!”
Aksariel put his hands on his hips. “You know, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be a very wealthy angel,” he said in a quiet voice. He waggled his eyes brows at her, but then offered her a sad smile. “Eve, listen to me. I can understand how you feel what’s happened to you isn’t fair, but that’s only because you keep looking back instead of looking forward. Come with me. Let me show you what’s planned for you now. I promise you, you’ll still have experiences, wonderful experiences, and you’ll still have a life…just a different one.”
Eve’s pretty face crinkled with a new wave of grief. “I don’t care. I want to stay here. I want to stay with my family, my friends. If you let me stay with them, I’ll be happy. I’ll be at peace.”
Aksariel didn’t hesitate to shake his head. “No. If you roam the earth like that, you’ll never find rest, you’ll never find peace. You’ll always be longing for something you can’t have and always be searching for something you’ll never find. You’ll be haunting the people you love, is that what you want? Do you think that will make your death easier on them? Your loved ones will want to be assured you are at peace and happy. Seeing tormented shadows and apparitions of you, is not going to heal their hearts, it will break them even more. Stop being selfish! I know you don’t want that for them.” He raised both arms now, beckoning her to him. “Eve. Please. Come to me.”
But that gesture only made her shrink farther away from him. “No! If I go with you, I’ll never see my family again!”
The angel narrowed his eyes at her in a mild reprimand. “You know better than that.”
Eve burst into tears. “I’m not going with you. I don’t care what you say. I want to live! I want to fall in love and get married and have babies. I want to buy a house and grow a rose garden. I want to retire and visit my grandchildren. But now I’m dead and I’ve never even kissed a boy yet! You insist my life is over, but I’m not ready! Why can’t you understand that? Why are you so cold?”
Aksariel lowered his arms in defeat. His heart felt like she’d just stabbed it. The last thing he wanted was for her to think he was cold and unfeeling. He was trying to understand her, but it wasn’t coming across apparently. He knew death tended to be harder on someone so young with so much left to live for with so many dreams and expectations left unfulfilled, but knowing what he did, sometimes, it was hard for him to empathize with the dead.
Aksariel recalled Eve’s guardian had accused him of not empathizing with anyone. Maybe a little empathy now would do the trick and convince Eve that she could trust him and believe him after all.
“Cold?” the angel repeated with a sneer. “Why would I be cold? It’s only ten degrees below freezing and it’s snowing.” To emphasize his point, he tossed his head to rid his hair of the snow that had accumulated on it to keep it from melting against his scalp and wetting his hair down. “I’ve been here for the good part of an hour exposed to these elements, but what would you have me do? As much as you want me to, I’m not about to leave you. I can’t and I won’t. We’ll stand here all night, if that’s what it takes, so excuse me if I come across a little…frigid to you.”
With that, Aksariel folded his arms across his broad chest and sank to ground, folding his long legs underneath him, pouting for all it was worth. He looked away from Eve and bowed his head, hoping he appeared as dejected as he actually felt at the moment.
All of a sudden, Eve stopped crying and sniffed down her last sob. She gave the angel of death a wary expression at first, but then her face reflected her concern. She wiped at her cheeks with the palm of her hand and stepped forward as if to get a closer look at the forlorn creature who had been so mercilessly harassing her earlier. Her eyes were wide and round as she peered down at him, her mouth forming a little circle of surprise.
Aksariel glared up at her. “No! I’m not crying! Why would I be crying? But I guess according to you, I should be! After all, I’ve never experienced any of those things you seem to measure a fulfilled life by! You’ve never kissed a boy, well, I’ve never kissed a girl! Girls don’t want to kiss…monsters. I might as well just curl up here and sob my heart out too. Unfortunately, it’s not going to solve a whole heck of a lot, but it might make me feel better.” He drew his knees up to his chest and covered his bare feet with his hands to warm them. “Just…go back to your side of the road there and leave me alone.”
For a moment, Eve looked lost, as if she wasn’t sure what she should do. She swallowed hard and knelt down next to the angel, fixing her gaze on his face.
“I’m sorry I called you that,” she lamented in a soft voice. “You’re not a monster. You’re really very handsome.” She blinked at him, her expression growing curious. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Aksariel,” he said with a heavy, heartfelt sigh. She was even prettier up close and her proximity was doing all kinds of odd things to his insides, making him feel downright giddy. He was careful not to move or try to touch her in any way, though, which was a torture all of its own. He was grateful he had at least gotten her to come to him. His eyes roved her fine, feminine features with new appreciation, however. “Look at you. You’re beautiful, Eve.” His voice had gotten breathless and soft. “I really have to wonder if you’re telling me the truth saying you’ve never been kissed. I would imagine the boys would have been lining up for the chance to kiss you.”
She visibly blushed at his compliment and Aksariel felt himself swoon. He smiled at her and took a steadying breath.
“I could say the same about you,” Eve commented, clearly moved by his smile. “It’s hard to believe you’ve never been kissed either.”
The angel shrugged and bowed his head again. “Is it? For instance, you don’t even want to touch me.”
To his surprise, Eve settled onto the ground next to him. “Oh, no, it’s not that I don’t want to touch you…” She paused and seemed to consider something. “If I touch you, would it have the same consequences for me as if you touched me?”
Aksariel shook his head. “Not unless you’re an angel of death too. So…if you’d like, please, touch me. You have my blessing.”
Eve raised her arms like she was going to hug him, but then stopped. Her expression darkened with suspicion. “This isn’t some kind of trick, is it?”
Aksariel frowned. “Honey. If you can’t trust an angel, who can you trust? I promise. I won’t lay a finger on you.
Now Eve smiled at him. It was the first time he’d seen her smile and the genuine warmth and sweetness pouring out of it at him just about slew him. He didn’t think she could rattle him anymore than she already had, but when she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and buried her face in the crook of his neck, he felt like he’d died and gone to heaven himself. It took all the self-control the angel had not to reach for her and envelope her in his embrace. He didn’t dare even blink at her, let alone move a muscle, but as her small hands briskly rubbed over his upper arms and she nuzzled his hair, he let his eyes close to better savor the euphoric sensation of her caresses.
“Oh! You poor thing! You are cold!” she exclaimed in a rather breathy voice in his ear.
“Hmm, I don’t feel very cold,” Aksariel murmured in all earnest. In fact, he felt like she’d covered him with an electric blanket. Her long hair spilled onto his shoulder sending tickling tingles skittering over his skin. “Not anymore, anyway. Thank you for hugging me. I feel better now.”
Eve pulled back just far enough to gaze into his eyes. Her hand reached up and trailed down the side of his face. “You’re welcome,” she told him in a soft voice.
Aksariel gazed back at her with open fascination. “Eve,” he began, aware of how shaky he sounded and even more aware of how close Eve had inadvertently put her lips to his. “Kiss me. Then you can let me feel what it’s like to kiss a girl and I’ll let you feel what it’s like to kiss a boy. How about it? Do you want to kiss me?”
He’d barely finished getting his words out when she covered his mouth with hers, clutching fistfuls of his long hair on either side of his head to keep him imprisoned against her.
Not that Aksariel had any intentions of resisting her. The moment he felt her satin-soft lips press into his, he closed his eyes and sank his mouth over hers, indulging in her sweetness with a savoring thoroughness. Tentatively, he raised his hand and brushed his fingertips over her hair. She moaned quietly, but it was obviously not in protest. Encouraged, he stroked her face, tracing her brow and the curve of her cheek down to her neck. She didn’t pull away. She leaned closer to him, in fact. Aksariel’s senses were reeling as he wrapped his arms around her, his lips never parting from hers, and pulled her into his lap. Eve shifted somewhat to make herself comfortable and then continued kissing him with a fervor that surprised and delighted him.
Slowly and with the utmost care, not wanting to startle her, Aksariel increased the pressure on her jaw, inviting her to open her mouth to him, and then boldly touched the tip of his tongue to Eve’s, letting her experience the novelty of the sensation of deepening their kiss right along with him. He felt her tense slightly, but then she groaned into his mouth with obvious pleasure, and practically plunged her little tongue down his throat in response.
Aksariel’s heart was pounding so hard, it felt like it was about to leap out of his chest. There was definitely something to be said for having empathy. He was certain no one would ever accuse him of not having empathy after experiencing it like this, even though Eve was the one who had initially shown empathy for him.
“Wow,” Eve sighed, finally drawing away from his mouth after kissing the angel for several minutes straight. She gulped down a lungful of air and then broke into a huge, self-satisfied smile.
“Yeah,” Aksariel agreed and pried open his eyes. He wished he could think of something poetic and profound at this rather pivotal moment between them, but his head was spinning, his body was thrumming like an engine, and his skin felt so flushed with heat, the snowflakes falling on his cheeks actually burned. He took a deep, long breath and smiled.
He realized she still held handfuls of his hair, holding him captive to her lovely face, so he took the opportunity to dot her equally flushed cheeks with more kisses. “You’re so beautiful, Eve,” he whispered against her skin. “I can’t stop kissing you.”
Eve tensed in his arms, making him pause in his affectionate ministrations to peer with inquiry into her eyes. She peered back at him with a stern expression, unsettling him. He would have eased away from her, but she continued to clutch his hair.
“Aksariel,” she more or less sighed his name. “I thought you said you had never kissed a girl before.”
The angel’s lips curled upwards with relief. “I did say that. I’ve never kissed a girl, until now.”
Eve narrowed her eyes. “That was a really nice kiss.”
Aksariel’s smile widened. “You liked it, huh?” He raised his brow. “I wanted it to be special. One you’d never forget. I’ll never forget it. It was nice, wasn’t it? Now I know what all the fuss is about.” He paused and studied her face. She didn’t seem appeased at all. Then he realized what she had meant. “Oh! You think because it was…nice…that I’ve had lots of practice?”
Aksariel chuckled. “I said I had never kissed a girl. I never said I didn’t know how to kiss a girl.”
Now Eve smiled and nuzzled his chin. “Oh. Okay. For a minute there, I think I was jealous. Aksariel, do you think….” Her voice trailed off and she fidgeted in his lap, looking away from him briefly. When she faced him again, her dark eyes were smoldering with longing. “Aksariel, will you kiss me again?”
The angel of death blinked back at her. “If you want me to, I will. I think I’d like to, actually.” He hadn’t been expecting her to ask for another kiss, but he was glad she did. Then, there wasn’t too much about Eve he had been expecting. She had surprised him at every turn. He suddenly realized how he was holding her, touching her, and she wasn’t afraid. He tightened his grip on her small body nestled in his lap. “Eve. You’re letting me touch you. It isn’t so horrible, is it? How do you feel?”
“Happy,” Eve replied, tugging on his hair to bring his mouth closer to hers. “At peace. Now that I’ve kissed you, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Aksariel’s eyes fluttered closed. “Me too,” he said and exhaled a caressing breath over her lips before capturing them in his second kiss.