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praesertim me in hora mortis meae protege

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First day

Michel Lavroux is dead. The papers will report the sad story the next morning: the handsome young surgeon and his family, tragically burnt to death as they slept in their holiday villa.

Rey wipes some ash off his face with his cuff as Battista shoves his hands in his pockets with a scowl.

They both stare down at the man on the bed.

“You can't possibly be thinking of keeping him, can you?” Battista says.

“Of course not,” Rey snaps. “Now go find something I can use for bandages.”

“...Because it sounds like—”

“Oh, shut up!” Rey shouts. “You're lucky I went through with this instead of just letting them strangle you.”

Battista winces and backs out of the room as Rey regrets his outburst. Underneath Battista’s temper and his enthusiasm for violence he is still so young, a boy, really—Rey had to protect him, no matter who those consequences fell on instead. There’s no point berating him for things neither of them could undo, not now, no matter how much they wish the events had never been put in motion.

"He's going to die at any rate," Rey says as Battista returns with a crumpled bundle of fabric. "We might at least let him die with a roof over his head."

“You’re in charge,” Battista grumbles, dumping the sheets on the end of the bed and retreating once again, slamming the door behind him.

Rey remembers how Michel's bloody fingers had clutched at his trouser leg when he stumbled over him in the woods. It would have been a simple matter to kick his hand away, put another bullet in his head and get rid of the little doctor’s inconvenient life forever. Rey can't quite put it into words, or at least not words Battista would understand—but he knew instantly, looking down at Michel lying in the dirt, that wiping out such a defiant spark would be too unholy an act even for him.

After setting a jug of water and a basin on the small, rickety nightstand, Rey sits down on the edge of the bed and unties the scarf he tied roughly around Michel’s head before carrying him down the mountain. He whistles softly as he sees the ugly seeping gash his first bullet had ripped through Michel’s skull.

“I expect we won’t have to worry about you any more after tomorrow,” Rey says as he tears off a strip of sheet and wets it to clean the wound and the blood obscuring Michel’s face. “But there’s nothing wrong with making you comfortable until then.”

There’s no reply, of course.

From the photographs their employer provided Rey knew Michel was good-looking, but now that the blood and dirt is gone he’s startlingly attractive, the pained expression giving his delicate features a noble cast—a martyr to another man’s ambition, laid out in effigy.

Rey is no doctor, but soon he’s managed something resembling a decent bandaging job on Michel’s head, and opens his clothes to work on the other two bullet wounds in his chest and side. It feels like a callous violation, baring him like this, even though he’ll never wake up to know or care what happens to him.

The gunshot wound in Michel’s abdomen is deep, but doesn’t seem to have struck any vital organs. The third bullet glanced off his ribs, leaving a long but shallow wound. There’s no point in stitches, but Rey bandages him up as best he can before moving on to more important things.

There’s a lake around a half-mile away that should do for getting rid of the body. It’s deep enough that Michel’s remains might not be found for months, if ever, but Rey knows better than to be careless.

He starts by stripping off Michel’s wedding ring, a simple gold band engraved with a wreath of leaves on the outside and ‘M.L.~C.R.~1888’ on the inside. The small silver medal of twin saints around his neck is next; the catch won’t come loose and Rey finally breaks the chain, wincing at the sharp snap and holding his breath for a moment.

Michel is still silent and motionless, and Rey begins searching his pockets for anything else that might be used to identify his body later. 

In a few moments, all that is left of Michel Lavroux is laid out on the nightstand: a bullet-dented silver watch with a family photograph inside the case—notes for a telegram to be sent to one of his colleagues—a blood-smeared Christmas card inscribed by his wife—a prescription slip with a childish cat drawn on the back.

Next is to burn everything. Rey picks up the tiny pile, walks over to the fireplace, and stirs it, standing there staring into the flames. Finally, he tucks the jewelry, watch and papers into a pocket of his own coat, unable to take this last step in erasing an innocent man’s entire life.

There will be plenty of time for that later, once he no longer has to look the man who was Michel Lavroux in the face.

Walking slowly back to the bed, Rey buttons Michel’s shirt again and picks up the worn quilt draped over the headboard. “I…I’m sorry,” he says as he lays it gently over Michel.

Then he leaves the room without looking back, knowing this will be the last time anyone sees Michel Lavroux alive.


Fourth Day

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“We have to do it eventually!”

“And I’ll do it, not you, get out!”

Rey leans against the door as Battista’s protests fade from the other side, waiting for his heart to slow down after the burst of panic that struck when he opened the door to see Battista standing over the bed with a pillow.

The icy feeling in his chest is completely irrational, he knows. Battista is right—they can’t afford to keep Michel alive forever, and every additional day he still breathes puts them both in more danger.

Michel’s death is Rey’s duty.

Michel hasn’t moved, of course, completely unaware of the danger he was in a few seconds before.

Rey picks up the pillow Battista dropped and walks slowly over to the bed. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, though he knows there’s no point in it now or any of the other times he’s said it.

The soft light of morning shining through the faded curtains illuminates Michel’s sleeping face in gentle shades of gold, giving his features an unearthly sheen under the blood-stained bandages. Rey is suddenly reminded of a painting he saw once, early in his travels, of a fallen, bloodied angel being carried to an unknown fate.

It’s kindest to do it now, Rey tells himself, before Michel can regain consciousness enough to be afraid. His fingers dig into the velvet case of the pillow as he rests one knee on the bed and leans over Michel.

“I have to do this,” he whispers, as if having no choice would offer him any absolution. “I have to. To protect all of us.”

Michel doesn’t move, lying there in silent acceptance of anything Rey could do to him.

"Damn it all,” Rey mutters finally. “I’ll regret this one day.”

Sliding an arm around Michel’s shoulders, Rey lifts him up enough to put the pillow under his head. Michel’s head rolls against his arm and Rey gently brushes a lock of ember-brown hair out of his eyes as he lowers him back down.

“Tomorrow...plenty of time tomorrow,” he mutters to himself, just as he did yesterday, and the day before.

The next morning, he tries to pretend he isn’t relieved when Michel makes it through the night yet again.


Twenty-Fourth Day

As the days pass, and then the weeks, Michel wavers in the doorway between life and death, but stubbornly refuses to take the final step. And despite how well Rey knows it’s near madness, he can’t bring himself to give Michel the last push over the brink.

By the time two weeks pass, Rey is keeping a near-constant vigil in the room where Michel lies, to prevent Battista from taking it into his own hands to hurry things along. Rey never intended for them to stay there long, so the only entertainment they have is a pack of cards (which Battista steals from Rey’s pocket before the first week is out) and a translated volume of Rosetti that a previous resident forgot on a shelf.

He should find it dull, he thinks, sitting by the bedside of a man who is dead in all respects except that he still breathes, but somehow he never tires of watching over Michel. Often he does nothing but stare at him, transfixed by his pained beauty and strangely ageless appearance (even though he knows, from their employer’s details, that Michel was just under twenty-six before the fire). Sometimes he finds that hours have passed by the next time he looks at the clock.

Once or twice he nods off during the day and falls into disturbing dreams, facing down a golden-gleaming angel with Michel’s face and making useless, pathetic excuses for what he’s done. He always wakes up just before the flaming sword can fall.

Michel is named for an angel—Archangel Michael, one of the greatest warriors of Heaven, protector and intercessor for the dying. And yet where had his guardian been, when he needed him most? He abandoned his family to be slaughtered, and left Michel himself to a lingering death in the hands of his enemies.

Sensing movement, Rey glances up from the book he’s ignoring, but Michel looks the same as ever, so he tells himself he’s imagining things and starts trying to read again.

He did not love me living; but once dead/He pitied me

Rey flips the page.

It seemed to mean so little, meant so much/If only now I could recall that touch

Living had failed and dead had failed/And I was indeed alone.

Rey puts a hand over his eyes with a sigh and tosses the book onto the bed. Then he freezes, trying to determine whether he actually heard the soft gasp and rustle of fabric in response.

Slowly, Rey takes his hand away from his eyes and looks down.

Michel is shifting under the blankets, his delicate hands tight in the worn quilt and a pained crease between his brows. His forehead is hot and he moans softly when Rey touches him—the first sound he’s made since the night of the fire. 

Rey winces, trying to forget how Michel had called out for his dying wife and daughter, and the sharp agonized noise of pain and confusion when the first bullet hit him.

The rational thing to do would be nothing. Do nothing, sit in his chair and keep reading Rosetti, and let the fever drag Michel into the grave.

Rey stands to get the jug of water off the mantelpiece.

"Venger...je venger...."

It takes a moment for Rey to comprehend the faint murmur. Then the water jug falls to the floor with a crash.

"Something wrong? Is he awake?"

Rey doesn’t know why, but he moves quickly as Battista opens the door, leaning against the bed to hide Michel’s movements. “No...the jug was wet. That’s all.”

“We only had four dishes!”

“Is there anything else you can put water in?”

“I think I saw an old teapot somewhere…”

After a clatter in the kitchen, Battista returns with a rust-stained teapot full of water. Rey grabs it and shuts the door in his face before he can try to come in the room or look towards the bed.

Venger…

“I know, I know, just a moment,” Rey says, wetting some spare bandages. Sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed, he lays the makeshift compress on Michel’s forehead, snatching his hand back in surprise when Michel gasps and tosses against the pillow. “Keep still! It won’t stay.”

Bracing himself against the headboard, Rey cups Michel’s face with his other hand, gently brushing his thumb across his cheekbone. Michel relaxes slowly, some of the pain leaving his face as he leans into the touch. As his head turns, Rey suddenly realizes that a wide strip of hair along the path of the bullet that struck him has now gone stark white, a silent accusation standing out against the rich brown.

Je venger…” Their faces are nearly touching; Rey can feel Michel’s fever-warm breath as he speaks.

"So it's revenge you want, is it? I can't say you haven't got a right to it." Heaven knows Rey deserves it, for this and so many other things. “If you live…no. No, never mind that.” He wets a new bandage compress and lays it across Michel’s forehead, and settles back into his chair to watch as the pain in Michel’s face slowly eases.

Is it Michel he is trying to spare, or himself, with this parody of kindness? Rey tries not to consider the question, and half hopes that he will wake to find Michel beyond any worldly help or cruelty. If Archangel Michael has any thought for his namesake, the least he could do would be to remove him from this earthly hell.

Michel’s fever is gone the next morning, and Rey empties a bottle of wine.


Sixtieth day

Rey follows the same routine he has every other morning for the past four weeks. After a fitful sleep in a cot set up near the fireplace, he opens the door of the little room to make sure that Battista is still where he expects him to be. Then, he reaches around the headboard of Michel’s bed to open the curtains.

“Good morning,” he says idly as he sits in the chair by the nightstand and picks up the Rossetti, ready to start another day of watching over Michel.

Michel’s eyes open.

By the time Rey realizes what he’s seeing, Michel has already pushed himself up on one elbow, staring at him—Rey is so shocked that he doesn’t notice for several more seconds that the rest of Michel’s hair has gone entirely white overnight. It gleams in the morning sun like an angel’s halo. 

Rey waits, frozen, for Michel’s eyes to go wide with panic, for him to look helplessly towards the door and window for escape. He wishes he would run, or beg, anything to keep Rey from being the one who has to make the first move.

Michel just stares at him silently.

Unconscious, Michel could be treated kindly, guiltily appreciated for his beauty, pitied for his unlucky fate. Awake, Rey has only one option left.

Michel’s eyes do go wide as Rey stands up slowly, but his gaze remains steady, seeming to take in everything about Rey, all that he has done, and at the same time nothing at all. Rey remembers the eerily direct gaze of the gilded icons that used to frighten him so as a child.

When Rey grabs his arm Michel pulls back a little, but doesn’t struggle, letting Rey guide him into a sitting position against the headboard. There’s little point in being gentle now, but Rey wants to spare Michel any final distress that he can, even if it is only to ease his own conscience.

Michel doesn't flinch as Rey gently cups his chin and puts his other hand around the back of his neck, under the silver hair. He'll barely feel it, Rey tells himself. Best to get it over with quickly. 

Now that the little doctor's eyes are open, Rey can see that his eyes are very bright and blue, like the free sky. He tries not to think about how blank and dead they will be in a few seconds.

He’s done this so many times before. It shouldn’t be so hard now, just because Michel is staring up at him. He’s killed so many others who looked up at him and pleaded for their lives—what right does he have to treat Michel any differently, just because he finds him beautiful?

The last moments of Michel’s life grow longer.

Rey knows the worst thing he could possibly do now is to start talking.

"You're awake," he says.

"What...who are you?” Michel’s voice is low, yet soft, and slightly hoarse from long silence. “What happened to me?"

"Don't you remember?" Rey slides his hand down, feeling the warm pulse under his fingers.

Michel blinks slowly, a small wrinkle appearing between the fine white brows as he frowns. His gaze focuses distantly past Rey’s shoulder. "Pain...darkness...then waking up here. Nothing else."

"Not even your name?" Rey begins to let himself hope, trying to keep relief from showing on his face at this cruel miracle.

“I was...I...No. No, there’s nothing.” He reaches up to catch Rey’s wrist, his fingers trembling slightly. “Do you know who I am? Please, can you—” He breaks off with a gasp, releasing Rey’s wrist and putting his hand to his temple.

Rey reaches around Michel’s shoulders to ease him down onto the pillows where he lies panting with pain and exhaustion. One of Michel’s hands clasps his as he adjusts the blanket, the slender fingers warm and alive.

Rey grips Michel’s hand in return as he makes a decision he knows will damn them all.

“I don’t know you,” he says slowly. “We found you on the mountain, in the forest. You were...someone shot you.”

“Shot…” Michel repeats faintly. “Why…”

“To rob you, maybe. Whoever it was, they took everything you had except your clothes.” 

Michel’s other hand goes to his open collar in some leftover instinctive movement, but his confused expression doesn’t change.

“Whatever happened to you, we can’t afford to stay much longer now that you’re awake,” Rey continues urgently; if he gives Michel any time to question things now it could ruin everything. “Can you stand?”

“I can try…” Michel says doubtfully, still holding tight to Rey’s hand.

Rey pulls the covers back and holds out his other hand for Michel to take as he moves slowly to sit on the edge of the bed, resting his stockinged feet gingerly on the worn wooden floor.

“Easy now…” Rey pulls Michel to his feet, waits until he looks relatively steady, then takes a few steps back.

After the first two steps Michel stumbles, landing against Rey’s chest. Without thinking, Rey puts an arm around his waist to catch him, and for several long breaths they stand there staring at each other. Michel is small enough that without his shoes, Rey could easily rest his chin on the top of his head or bury his face in his cloud of white hair.

“Thank you.” Michel’s eyes are sorrowful, but trusting. “Thank you for saving me.”

“I…” Rey waits for the choking feeling of revulsion to pass. “Anyone would have.”

“No...no, it must have been a miracle that you were the one who found me.”

“We have to call you something,” Rey says abruptly, desperate to change the subject somehow.

“Oh,” Michel says, his eyes going absent again as he tilts his head thoughtfully. The movement makes his hair shine in the light, bright gleaming silver like the medallion Rey ripped away from him.

“Silver,” Rey declares. “Your name is Silver.”