Not now. God, please, not now...
"Not now," Nathan muttered, shaking his head. "Not now, Susan. Please, I don't want to talk about it..."
"Don't want to talk about it?" Susan snapped back, her voice cracking. "This is the first thing you should have talked about! You could have at least been upfront about it from the start so I didn't even bother..."
"I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!"
He didn't give her a chance to recover from his sudden outburst, jumping to his feet and rushing out of the auditorium before anyone could stop him. Nathan ran as fast and as far as his feet would carry him, not caring where he was going or who would try to follow him. He hoped no one would follow him. He didn't want to answer any questions about anything, but especially not about Marni. When he was at last out of breath, he crouched down and buried his head in his hands. It was only while he slowly began to calm that he realized what he had done.
"I'm sorry," Nathan breathed, choking back tears. "I'm sorry, Marni. I should have told her about you. I should have... I should have checked the light first. Marni, I'm so sorry. Why did you have to leave me..."
"And this is why you are a special case."
Nathan felt like all the air had been sucked out of his lungs, a chill suddenly washing over him. He didn't want to move, didn't want to confirm who was standing beside him, but reluctantly lifted his head to look over at the angel watching him. Raphael chuckled and shook his head.
"Gabriel must certainly have his hands full with you."
"What do you want?" Nathan growled at him, flinching when the angel reached out to him. Raphael's smile never faltered, but was oddly gentle, despite the writer's refusal to take his hand.
"At the moment, I want you to stand so that I do not have to look down at you to talk. Do you realize where you are, Karol? What you have done?"
He didn't want to have anything to do with him, didn't want to do as he wanted, but he was curious, wondering where he'd run to, so he stood and looked around. He wasn't too far from where he'd started, a fair distance away from the parking lot, perhaps, and in the middle of the street, but... "Holy shit!"
Nathan staggered back, caught by the angel as he tripped over his own feet, staring in horror at the car that was barely an inch from him, the driver's expression matching his own. Except... the driver wasn't moving. Neither was the car. It hit Nathan that the air was uncomfortably still, that there was no sound except for his and Raphael's breathing, and as he took a good look around again he realized that everything was frozen, as still as a snapshot. The angel laughed quietly.
"You must have really wanted to be run over, Karol," Raphael said to him. "Otherwise Gabriel would be here and not me."
"No... no, I didn't!" Nathan whirled around to face him, his brows tightly knotted. "I was not trying to kill myself!"
"Perhaps not, but your desire to die, to be reunited with your fiancee, was certainly strong enough that you were willing to accept being killed. You may not have been trying deliberately, but you were ready to die."
Nathan's legs felt weak, but as he began to drop, Raphael caught him. He looked up at the angel in confusion. "Then what's going on? Am I dead? Is that why you're here, to reap?"
"Technically speaking, yes." Raphael shrugged. "I figure I can do Gabriel this one favor and not let you die. He would be so very upset, after all, and it would ruin Lumiel's game. He is testing your will to live."
"I know that." Nathan regained his balance, still unnerved by the world stopping around them. "So that's the only reason you're here then? To try and put yourself back into Gabriel's good graces by saving my sorry ass?"
His answer was so finite, the writer wasn't sure what to make of it. He waited, hoping for more explanation. Eventually, Raphael sighed and shrugged.
"I know you have many questions," he continued. "Least of all about Lumiel's game. You want to know if I put the sisters up against him, for one..."
Raphael smiled, but surprisingly shook his head. "No, I did not. None of us have. Why they are opposing him, if they actually are, is a secret only Lumiel knows. He plays a dangerous game with you, for very little gain on his part, I might add. Come to think of it, you have very little in incentive to win; all they have told you is that if you lose, you will die. Am I correct?"
Nathan started to protest until he realized he was right: none of the angels had told him what would happen is he wins Lumiel's game. He was only promised death if he lost. "If I lose, it's because I've lost my will to live," he mumbled. "But if I win..." Nathan was more confused now than ever as he looked at the angel. "I get to live, just like I already am?"
"Seems like it," Raphael said. "You get to carry on with your life, sans the interference of Sins and angels. You get have what you had before you came to Virtue, with the exception, of course, that you would still be missing a certain someone..." He reached for Nathan's hand, lifting it as he traced his finger over his engagement ring. "Would it not be a better prize if you could convince them to give Marni back to you?"
Nathan jerked his hand away. "I don't like what you're insinuating. Are you trying to make some bargain with me, Raphael? You know, Gabriel warned me about you."
"I expected as much, but then I am sure he also expects me to try and manipulate you into doing something that hurts him, such as tricking you into killing yourself." The angel raised an eyebrow, watching him carefully. "Am I right?"
Nathan didn't want to answer, but somehow knew, just knew, that Raphael would know anyway. "He thinks you'll use your knowledge to use me in some way to mess with him, yes," he admitted. "But I'm not going to be a pawn between you two."
Raphael laughed. "You are suspicious, and rightfully so, given what you know and from whom you gained this knowledge. I understand your apprehension and hesitation to trust me, especially given the impression I made."
"Yeah, impression." Nathan snorted, and couldn't resist sneering at him. "You threw lightning and taunts at one of my friends, and more or less threatened to rape the other in front of me. I'd say you left me with a pretty bad impression."
"I had no intentions of hurting Lumiel; he would have done the same to me, were our situations reversed. As for the incident with Gabriel... well, I was admittedly angry. I am not exactly the most polite person when I am upset. I regret greatly how all that played out." He drew a deep breath and sighed. "I do miss Gabriel, and I could have forced him to comply, but you stepped in. That you stood up for him surprised me greatly, and I freely admit your selfless (if not foolish) bravery is why I wanted to speak with you again." The angel locked his gaze with Nathan. "I wish to ask you a favor, Karol."
"No way," the writer said immediately, breaking the gaze. "You're an ass, and I'm not playing into your games." He turned away so Raphael couldn't lock his stare on him again, but was surprised to hear him heave another sigh.
"Please?" the angel asked. "I can make it worth your time and effort, more so than what Lumiel is giving you for this game. Gabriel could have offered this to you himself, but chose not to. I am sure it is because he is afraid it would defeat the purpose of your test."
"What, then, is it?" Nathan turned back around, startled to see the pleading look on Raphael's face. The angel smiled wearily.
"I can give Marni back to you."