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The Archangel Gabriel Is Dead

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Raphael is lounging around with Uriel and Michael when the call comes. One moment, they're enjoying the rest and the chance to watch their siblings train, and the next every angel around is reeling in shock and terror. Distress and fear reverberate throughout Heaven.

 

Gabriel is screaming for help. Michael – Michael – Raphael – Uriel – Remiel – Azrael – Abaddon – Lucifer – anyone anyone anyone – fire pain shadows ripped wing Grace bleeding – scared hurt save avenge – sibling sibling sibling love Father Father glory highest duty –

 

Of course, it is not exactly a scream, and it does not require any length of time or pitch or tone or words to encapsulate so many meanings together. But it is very like a scream. Beyond the words the call is shaded with bursts of pain and darkness and the smell of burning feathers.

 

Michael has already exploded into motion by the time Raphael even comprehends what he just heard. Raphael follows his eldest brother without a thought, Uriel at his side, and so many others behind. They are flying through Creation (not flying, as their wings are not exactly wings) towards Gabriel as fast as they can go; in solid, fixed places in space-time they can just teleport, but these are not solid, fixed places.

 

As they fly Michael relays orders to his army. He speaks in a tone that is determinately controlled and level, though everyone can feel the worry his Grace broadcasts. His speech is not Gabriel's Grace-call, which is a level of communication so intense even angels rarely resort to it, but rather the comfortable mind-speech they prefer to use in Heaven. It is more than even Enochian, and carries meanings other languages cannot encompass well.

 

'Raphael, when we arrive tend Gabriel. Uriel, by my side; we will take down the threat. Anael, Remiel, establish a perimeter. Castiel, watch my back. Abaddon, aid Uriel. Barachiel, … '

 

Michael continues, but after that it is only a list of who goes to help whom. And as it turns out, none of Michael's orders matter, because when they arrive at the place Gabriel's Grace-call emanated from the only thing that any of them can do is gaze on it in horror.

 

They are trained soldiers of the Lord, and have been for a very long time, and this is not their first skirmish, nor their first aftermath. But they had never thought to see such a sight. Even during the war they never saw this.

 

They have arrived in a dark cavern (though the natural light they produce throws eerie shadows on everything). Every surface is rough and unhewn, dark mottled stone. There are stalactites and stalagmites dripping from the ceiling and rising from the ground in sharp protrusions. There is shining blood flung about the cavern, in droplets on the walls and roof but great thick congealing pools on the floor. It forms a starburst pattern from a point just on their right, perhaps twenty feet away. Opposite that epicenter, on the left is a pile of smoldering coals. There is a huge horned skull on its side, smoke flowing out of its eye sockets; patches of it are burning but others give off shadows that seem to eat light. On top of the pile of coals (which is easily twenty feet wide, forty feet long, and fifteen feet deep) a bright silver sword rests.

 

Raphael has difficulty in allowing himself to look at the epicenter of the blood. He recognizes the silver sword, he knows all of his brethren do; Gabriel taught many of them swordplay and he sparred with anyone who approached him. The reminder of Gabriel gives him the strength to look to the right.

 

Burned into the ground is the outline of a figure with large wings. Some of the feathers, torn out in the fight, are resting in the pools of blood. As Raphael watches, one singed feather detaches from a stalactite and drifts down to rest in the center of the outline. It brings with it droplets of blood that glow faintly.

 

There are no bones. Gabriel had been sent to deal with a demon plaguing another realm; he had gone as himself. There are no bones to collect, and the outline on the ground is made of fragile ash.

 

Michael recovers first. 'Raphael, you would know better than I; is there – could – '

 

He breaks off. Michael cannot bring himself to say, 'Could he still be alive?' because that would imply he believes Gabriel to be dead. And Gabriel cannot be.

 

But Raphael understands. And he does not know. He wants to say, wants to be sure, that Gabriel is going to be fine and they just need to find him. But burn outlines are caused by dying angels, everyone knows that, they saw so many in the war. Every death was like this. Incredulity, because they are angels! They are the first of God's creations to be aware, they are unending, undying, infinite, except when they are not.

 

The war did not kill any archangels. That some demon could is inconceivable. Yet – but he needs to check.

 

Raphael strides forward purposefully but carefully. He avoids the blood and feathers and ash. When he reaches the outline he kneels at its side and steels himself. Then he presses both palms into the outline and reaches with his Grace. And he feels nothing. Gabriel is not here. Gabriel's Grace is still in the blood, though, or it wouldn't shine, so next Raphael submerges his hands in the largest pool. He can feel the echo of pain and terror (any sensitive standing in that cavern would be able to tell something terrible had happened there). But he cannot feel Gabriel.

 

He does not feel death, and Azrael is already shaking her head when he turns to face her. 'Neither do I,' she admits. 'The coals are dead, and were once alive; the feathers were once alive and are dead; the blood is dying. But I cannot feel a greater death here.'

 

That should be a good sign. But even an archangel would not be able to lose so much blood and so many feathers and then get out on their own. And no archangel would ever leave their sword behind. They wouldn't even have to think about it. Angel swords were a manifestation of Grace, not finite physical objects. If Gabriel had somehow escaped he would have taken the sword.

 

'I cannot say for certain that he is dead,' Raphael pronounces. 'But I cannot truly conceive of how he could not be.'

 

Michael slumps. 'We can't leave this here,' he says, glancing around. 'I'll take the sword. Uriel, Castiel, Anael, destroy the demon's remains. Remiel, Barachiel, Raphael, collect – collect what you can. Abaddon, head home; organize the others.'

 

Raphael sets Barachiel to work collecting feathers. Remiel he tells to gather up the blood. Then he closes his mouth and does not reopen it for a very long time. He himself takes the task of scraping up Gabriel's ashes. They are sticky and dark, and smell like cooked flesh. The smell is the worst part.

 

Soon the cavern is empty as if there had never been the bodies of a demon and an archangel decorating the floor. Michael has created a sheath from the stone of the cavern and carries Gabriel's sword in his left hand (not that they really have hands). Raphael carries an urn made of the same stone; Barachiel has a leather bag with fifteen feathers in it, and Remiel a thick glass bottle.

 

The troop leaves silently. Very few of them have spoken at all. Between shock, fear, and grief very few of them are in any state to articulate anything. Michael, Raphael can see, is clinging to the hope that Gabriel is alive. Raphael doesn't want Gabriel to be dead, but he just doesn't see how he couldn't be, and wouldn't it be easier to just mourn now instead of later after false hope crushed them all?

 

<><><>

 

Upon their return Michael speaks to the assembled multitude. Abaddon had done his job well.

 

Michael does not turn fish and bread into a feast. He wants to turn the fifteen feathers and bottle of blood into Gabriel, but Michael is not the Son. He cannot.

 

'Brethren. Gabriel is missing. We cannot conclude that he is dead, but he may be. Search parties will be assigned a quadrant each. Garrison captains have search party details. Go.'

 

They scramble. Raphael watches uncomfortably. He has begun to believe that Gabriel really is dead. There is no way he could have survived that. And if he had, by some miracle, he would have been lying in the cavern for them to save.

 

Raphael wants to build a memorial garden. They cannot bury Gabriel's remains; he was a creature of air and freedom, and confining what was left of him to stone, as he died in, seems unutterably cruel. But perhaps there could be a fountain at the center of the garden. He would use the stone to make it a smooth circular two-tiered fountain. The lower tier's edge could be decorated with the feathers, and Gabriel's sword could go in the center of the upper tier, and his ashes could be released into Creation, and the fountain could run with his blood.

 

Nothing in Heaven decays when angels will it otherwise (except for other angels). The fountain would forever run shining with angel blood.

 

<><><>

 

Michael is never around anymore. He is busy organizing searchers or running searches himself. Raphael wants to shake him until he understands that their brother is dead and gone and drawing this out is scarring many other brothers. But Michael is almost as good as their Father in his absence, and Raphael does not rebel. He has seen what happens to dissenters.

 

Michael does not rest. He is not kind to others, and sometimes his light is bright enough to hurt. He gives orders every time he speaks now. Raphael wishes the Michael who asked for things was still around. But Michael is a commander, a war veteran, who has seen many deaths and died a little inside with each.

 

Raphael thinks that Lucifer's Fall broke Michael like a window with a baseball impacting it. It shatters and the glass comes apart into many pieces of different sizes, some large, obvious ones that are easy to collect and avoid (although they land on both sides of the window), some smaller but obtrusive ones that take some thought to gather (though some look smooth and are while some look smooth and are not), and some very small splinters that catch people years after the window has been repaired, and some dust, so fine that everyone nearby inhales it (but so sharp and dangerous that your insides end up with more holes than a sieve).

 

Everyone can see the ball about to hit the window, and no one can stop it. The tinkle of the breaking glass is distinctive, and the punishments are both severe and predictable.

 

<><><>

 

Uriel used to tell jokes. He was the funniest angel in his garrison. Theoretically he still is, but as he hasn't even tried to make a pun since they found Gabriel's sword in a dead demon Raphael doesn't think the title really applies any more.

 

Jokes were a bonding point between Gabriel and Uriel, Raphael knows. Gabriel had a strong sense of humor that most of his siblings didn't understand or appreciate. Raphael certainly never did. The tricks Gabriel played weren't funny. They were, in a sense, appropriate – like the time Gabriel created the platypus (their Father was only responsible for the animals from before the Flood) because Jophiel had boasted that her hyenas were as unusual as an animal could be – but they weren't actually funny. Uriel had thought they were, though, and it meant a lot to Gabriel. It had meant.

 

Uriel has just shut down. He follows orders. He is very good at following them, and very thorough in his searching. Raphael wonders, once, if this is what people see when they look at him; he hasn't spoken since he collected Gabriel's ashes.

 

<><><>

 

Ten years after they find Gabriel's ashes on the ground Michael ends the search. He declares Gabriel dead. Heaven goes into mourning.

 

Raphael builds his memorial garden. Once he has put in the finishing touch, the sword, he kneels down on the ground in front of the fountain and does not get back up. He prays to their Father for weeks straight, begging for Gabriel to be in a better place. Heaven is the better place for humans. Is there anything better for angels? Raphael doesn't know. He has never let himself think about what happened to dead siblings before.

 

But then, the last time a sibling died their Father was still around. It was much easier to remember all the good times with them, and forgive the bad, when Father was around. Without him everything seemed colder. Harsher. Songs were less beautiful, gardens less green.

 

<><><>

 

Some of the malakhim come to the memorial garden. As messengers, they saw Gabriel more often than others; unsurprisingly they knew him better and mourned him more personally.

 

Of course all of Heaven mourns the loss. But some of them only saw him every few hundred years. Some had only learned how to block an uppercut from him. Others saw him daily and learned everything they knew under his tutelage. Those who had not been close to Gabriel mourned the loss of an archangel. Those who had been mourned the loss of Gabriel. It's different, and they don't like that it's different, because they like to all be similar and matching. Individuality is scary and forbidden besides, but they cannot help but mourn as individuals.

 

Most of Raphael's brothers think his memorial is disturbing. He doesn't understand why. The Son's blood blesses humans frequently, and they imbibe it specifically to be blessed. All Raphael is doing is displaying the remnants of his older brother's glory. It is not an idol. Gabriel is not worshiped there. They are all very careful about that. No false idols, no idolatry, and no worship of angels.

 

Some of Raphael's brothers appreciate the sentiment but think he overreaches himself.

 

'After all,' Remiel murmurs, 'Father never made memorials to anyone else.'

 

Raphael always replies, 'If Father is offended, He will punish me, and if He is not offended, He will not. I am honoring Gabriel.'

 

Well, that is what he always thinks in reply. The shared telepathy between angels means the message comes across sometimes, though Raphael can control who hears what when. He does let Remiel understand.

 

<><><>

 

Fifty years after they find Gabriel's ashes Raphael is kneeling before the fountain. He comes by less often now. Fifty years is nothing when he should have had an eternity with his brother, but it's still eighteen thousand two hundred fifty sunrises that Gabriel never sees. Many of them are glorious. Raphael remembers one, thirteen years three months and six days ago, that he watched sitting on the earth's moon. The sunlight breaking over the edge of the world had filled him with joy in his Father's creations, and for the first time in a long time he had thought to sing in praise.

 

He hadn't, of course, because at this point he would have scared his siblings. He knows they think he will never speak again, and he has heard at least one (Verchiel) state (never, ever, ever question) that he believes Raphael to have been silent for so long he will not be able to speak again if he tries.

 

Raphael is not sure. But he doesn't try to speak. He doesn't know.

 

Fifty years since he has seen his brother. There are many siblings Raphael has lost, many he has tried to save and failed, and many whose ashes he has collected and brought home to Heaven. Gabriel, though … Gabriel was Raphael's older brother, the closest in age to himself. Gabriel had been a constant throughout Raphael's existence. It is different to lose Gabriel.

 

He never imagined that Gabriel could die. Actually he never thought any archangel could; even as Michael repelled Lucifer on the battlefield Raphael had not feared for either, not truly, not even when he first saw a brother fall in battle. He had grieved that Lucifer misunderstood his purpose so greatly, he had lamented that Michael was forced to fight the brother who was as close as a twin (they weren't, but other twin angels all agreed it was as if they had been), but he had never worried that either of them might die.

 

But apparently they can. Raphael wishes this knowledge were a fruit he had not tasted.

 

<><><>

 

For a long time Raphael does not speak. Michael does not speak, either, because the only communications he makes are orders. Uriel does not joke.

 

Raphael watches Anael watch the edges of the training fields each day. He is always near to heal any mishaps. Each week, her gaze grows more and more longing. The day she is so intent on something beyond cloudy weapons that she must be ordered to fall in twice he knows. He had hoped she would forget it, but she hasn't. He doesn't know if she will Fall, or just fade away, or offer herself as a sacrifice to their Father or some other deity, or let a wing be caught by some enemy next time she's out on assignment, or just stab herself in her bower and bleed out, but he knows that a day will come when Anael is gone.

 

He thinks about trying to stop her. But if she isn't strong enough to go on she doesn't deserve his help. Better that she die, than that she drag her whole garrison down with her in distraction.

 

Her hatchmates must have seen this as well. (Angels did not actually hatch from eggs. Nevertheless they often used words like bird-words for themselves because those were reasonably accurate descriptions, and because the freedom of flying birds was much like the grace of a garrison. Hatchmates were created together but not as twins.)

 

Yes, her hatchmates must have seen this. None of them come to Raphael to ask his aid. Perhaps they believe they can heal her themselves. Perhaps they, like Raphael, would rather a disobedient angel die.

 

He ignores the sense that even if his help were asked for it would come to nothing, and that perhaps her hatchmates do nothing because they want her to be happy and she is not, here.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael knows that the writings humans make concerning his Father are not always accurate. They are written down by humans, for one, and for another, rarely do any humans actually interact with anyone in a position to know anything about his Father. He is usually unconcerned when humans record falsehoods or exaggerations.

 

But in the fifteenth century humans begin to write about Joan of Arc (she called herself Jeanne d'Arc). Raphael rather vaguely recalls Michael taking some saints to speak to the girl. Father was away, but they did know some of what they were supposed to do; appearing to the girl was one of the tasks they were intended for.

 

Raphael doesn't care if other humans called her crazy because she admitted to speaking with his brother. But there is always a variation on the story. First he hears that she began to hear the saints when she was fourteen, and later Michael himself spoke to her, urging her to save her country. Raphael doesn't care.

 

Then he hears that she was scared. She was frightened to be thought mad and anxious to stay virtuous. Despite the saints' (Catherine and Margaret, or some such, Raphael thinks) and Michael's encouragement she would not go. The humans say that one day, while she worked alone in the garden, on a day when Michael was not visiting, the archangel Gabriel appeared before her and urged her to go before the king of France. That Gabriel, as the angel of justice and judgement, told her she would be guaranteed the rewards she wished: freedom and virtue. That it was only because of Gabriel's words that the girl followed her path.

 

Raphael hears this and flies into a rage. How dare they talk about his brother. He would give anything to have Gabriel back, and these worms just bandy his name about as if they have any right to, as if it wouldn't hurt anyone. He is ready to smite every human who has lied about his dead brother, and he storms over to the training grounds to begin the round of smiting by soundly chastising the idiot brother who must have known about the lies. And better, incinerating those useless saints who probably encouraged the blasphemy.

 

Michael is ready for him. He is standing firmly between Raphael and the saints.

 

'Brother, calm yourself. You know the human scripture is flawed. This too is merely a flaw.'

 

Raphael sees red. That Michael could – Gabriel was Michael's younger brother, how could he not – Gabriel is dead!

 

'I am not happy, either, Raphael. But you must not punish the ignorant,' Michael continues. But he looks down and away. Michael is not earnest. He is parroting beliefs he does not share.

 

Michael does care. He is just too dutiful to do anything about it. Was this what let Michael raise his sword against his closest brother? This disturbing obedience?

 

Raphael is cooling down, but Michael speaks again. 'Gabriel would not have been offended by the praise.'

 

Raphael snaps. Michael, who traumatized siblings for his fear, who has never cried for Gabriel's death, who struck down the only being who loved him more than anything else, has no right to talk about what Gabriel would have been offended by.

 

Raphael speaks (yells) for the first time in centuries. 'How dare you,' he hisses. 'You never grieved for him. You have no right to even speak his name!'

 

'I have grieved every day for the last four hundred years!' Michael bellows back. 'But I have not let my grief destroy my brethren!'

 

'Look around you, Michael!' Raphael sweeps his left wings around in a violent arc. 'Who here is not scarred by you? You have done nothing but destroy us since the day Gabriel died!'

 

Michael jerks back, his wings flaring out and tucking in quickly. He shrinks down and pulls them mostly around himself. He says nothing. The training grounds (full of angels watching) echo with the silence.

 

Raphael abruptly understands. Michael feels guilty. And why shouldn't he, he was the one to send Gabriel on his last mission, he was the one who thought Gabriel could handle it alone.

 

It is a revelation. Michael is guilty of sending their brother to his death.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael does not do well after his revelation. He blames Michael, as he now sees that Michael blames himself.

 

But Gabriel was an archangel, older and wiser and stronger than Raphael himself, and Raphael would have been insulted if Michael hadn't thought him able to handle one demon alone. There is no way Gabriel would have appreciated Michael underestimating him. It would have been just like Michael to want to send someone with Gabriel as back up, but let himself be persuaded that Gabriel would be fine, because it would have been just like Gabriel to persuade Michael to send him alone.

 

Raphael understands both sides of the debate that he's now certain happened centuries ago. But no matter how he rationalizes, no matter how he looks at it and agrees, intellectually, that he understands why Michael let Gabriel go alone and why Gabriel in particular was sent, it remains that Michael is still here and Gabriel is not.

 

Except that ever since their argument in the training fields Michael really hasn't been here. He hasn't been giving orders, or overseeing sparring matches, or advising the younger angels on their flight patterns. He hasn't sung or praised their Father in weeks. Michael seems to have lost whatever was keeping him going when Raphael deduced that it was Michael's fault Gabriel was dead.

 

Raphael doesn't regret that right now. Michael deserves to feel the way he does. And until he is truly penitent he will get no forgiveness from Raphael.

 

<><><>

 

Michael … fades away. It's a bit like dying, except less permanent and (usually) more self-inflicted. Raphael doesn't hear from him often for a while, then for a longer time almost never, and then Michael just stops. Raphael doesn't think Michael does anything. It's not just his guilt for Gabriel, either, and Raphael knows that, because Michael feels (rightfully, in Raphael's opinion) guilty about a lot of things. Most of them are siblings' deaths or Falls. A fair number of them were killed or thrown out by Michael himself, so really he has a good reason to feel guilty about them.

 

And it's fine. They don't need Michael. Really, they get along just fine without him. Raphael's happy Michael isn't in the way all the time now.

 

<><><>

 

It takes Raphael another two hundred years after Michael stops doing anything to admit that, okay, maybe he should do something about the whole situation. Michael is, after all, the only big brother Raphael has left, and that used to mean something. Michael used to mean something to Raphael.

 

But now it's been six hundred years since Gabriel died and Raphael's a bit removed from most of his brethren. He doesn't actually know how to help Michael. He doesn't even know if maybe Michael's fine, he just doesn't talk to Raphael anymore.

 

Raphael guesses that is the best place to start. Figure out what kind of state Michael's in first, and then think about what to do about it. He can do that.

 

<><><>

 

'Remiel,' Raphael begins.

 

Remiel is so startled to hear Raphael speak that he trips and falls over in a ridiculously undignified manner. Raphael doesn't laugh, because a brother embarrassing himself isn't funny, but the sight makes something nasty inside him happy.

 

'Yes, brother?' Remiel manages, once he has picked himself up again. Raphael didn't offer to help.

 

'How is Michael?'

 

Something in Remiel's stature falls. Perhaps it is his wings sagging slightly, or perhaps it is his eyebrows clinching.

 

'I do not know,' Remiel replies. 'Michael has not spoken to us for many years now. I do not even know where he is.'

 

Raphael frowns. 'He is not in his bower?'

 

Remiel shakes his head. 'Michael left, some decades ago. I do not believe he told anyone where he was going.'

 

This is worse than Raphael thought. And slightly worrying. Father left, Michael left, Lucifer Fell, and Gabriel died.

 

This means that Raphael is the oldest being in Heaven. Raphael is in charge of Heaven. Has been for years and didn't know. He has been failing his siblings.

 

He needs to do something about this.

 

<><><>

 

It takes Raphael another hundred years to actually get Heaven organized again. He hasn't forgotten about Michael, but running all of Heaven kind of has to take priority over fixing one brother.

 

He does not have Michael's innate gift of command, or Lucifer's oozing charisma, or Gabriel's bright and attractive laughter. He does not draw people to him; he goes to them. That is how he has always been. He has sought out his siblings when he needed to speak with them, and they have sought him when they needed to be healed. They have never flocked to his side to just bask in his presence as they did all his elder brothers.

 

It takes a year to just find out what everyone has been doing since he fought with Michael. His brethren have taken to doing as they will, following orders when they are issued (but they often aren't; few angels have a strong capacity to make decisions for themselves), and generally roaming the world. He collects them in flocks, offering small healings they often don't notice. He soothes irritated feathers, warms cold limbs, and brightens their inner light. Never does he do much, partially because he has had enough time to think and he doesn't want to be seen as kind (he believes kindness did nothing good for him in the past), but partially because he doesn't want them to realize what he's doing. He just wants them to think of him and remember feeling a little bit better.

 

Yes, it's manipulating his siblings, but what other course of action does he have? He can't leave them to fend for themselves, that would be cruel and irresponsible. He doesn't have anything else to make them follow him (it never occurs to him they would do so out of love for their older brother, as he had followed Gabriel). He needs them to expect orders to come from him and follow them when they do.

 

He notices, as he collects siblings, that Anael is still among them. He's rather briefly impressed. She's doing worse than ever, but she follows orders, and that is all he needs from her.

 

Once he establishes his power he begins to send groups to find Michael. He doesn't really want to rule Heaven. Well, he likes the power, he does, but the point was to fix Michael. He has a duty to do.

 

He sometimes accompanies the search parties. (It doesn't occur to him that he's doing what Michael had after Gabriel died, or that it makes lesser angels worry that Michael too has fallen in battle.) He observes his siblings' interaction more than he participates in it – he's always been quiet – but he does build some stronger bridges.

 

Especially with Uriel, who he's always been rather fond of, and Uriel's superior, Zachariah. Raphael wonders why Zachariah changed his name, and when, but he never asks. (Zachariah had been Zechariel, once upon a time, but then Lucifer too had once been Helel, and Raphael doesn't want to know if Zachariah switched for the same reasons Lucifer did.)

 

Uriel still doesn't tell any jokes, but the memory of them is alive and well. His garrison refers to him as the funniest angel. They tell Raphael he can ask anyone. He doesn't tell them that is because Gabriel was funnier and Gabriel is dead, because they all know it. Still, Uriel is dutiful, and strong.

 

Zachariah is charming. He is sometimes too smooth with words – occasionally Raphael looks at him and sees another brother – but he is good at what he sets out to do. More importantly, he is driven to succeed. Zachariah confesses, one day, that he wants many things.

 

Raphael raises his eyebrows. 'What do you want?'

 

'Like I said, many things,' Zachariah responds. 'But mostly? I want to see Michael better and I want to see Father home.'

 

Raphael nods slowly. 'I too desire these things,' he admits. He should not. 'But I do not know how I might accomplish them.'

 

Zachariah smiles widely. 'I have an idea,' he confides.

 

'What?' Raphael asks quickly.

 

'Well, Father loved paradise, right?'

 

'Yes,' Raphael agrees. 'He did. Very much.'

 

'If we brought about paradise, everywhere, would not Father be enticed to return home?' Zachariah asks, his wings flaring upwards slightly.

 

Raphael thinks about it. Eventually, he says, 'He may indeed. How do you propose we bring about paradise everywhere?'

 

Zachariah smiles. 'This is where it gets good. This part will fix Michael too.'

 

Raphael urges him on, his wings making hurried nod-like motions.

 

'After the apocalypse will come Paradise.'

 

Raphael frowns at that. 'That is Father's plan. And I do not see how that would help Michael.'

 

'Father cannot complete his plan if he is not here,' Zachariah counters. 'And it is written that Michael will take up his Sword and strike down Lucifer and evil in the end. If we begin the apocalypse Michael will have to participate, and then he will be victorious and that will please him, and then Paradise will buffet him upwards, and then Father will be back and all our hurts will be healed.'

 

Raphael is not at all certain that striking down Lucifer will please Michael. He thinks, actually, that it may be the blow that breaks Michael himself, if he must fight his closest brother again. But aside from that one point, it is a good plan, and Raphael doesn't have a better one. They will just have to deal with Michael's fight with Lucifer when it comes.

 

Still. He should, maybe, think for a while before he agrees to begin the destruction of all of his Father's creation.

 

'I need to think on this,' Raphael tells Zachariah.

 

Zachariah nods. 'I understand. Might I suggest you time-travel? Perhaps re-view some of your past. Seeing Michael at his prime again may help you decide.'

 

Raphael thinks that is actually a very good idea. He's not sure why he hasn't time-traveled since Gabriel died; why didn't any of them just go back and save him? (He knows why not: because they already would have, and because they are not children with a toy, they are powerful manifestations of the powers of their Father and they do not treat his gifts lightly.)

 

He leaves Zachariah and returns to his own bower to decide what he should re-visit. This is important.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael decides, eventually, that he wants to see Michael struggle with the desire to protect Gabriel and the knowledge that treating him as anything less than supremely capable will be insulting. He thinks it will be good motivation to love his older brother again. Right now Raphael isn't sure if he does love Michael, which he feels may hamper his mission to help Michael heal, because if he doesn't really want Michael to get better he will be far less focused than he should be.

 

It is less than a thought to be seven hundred and one years, four months, two weeks, six days, eight hours, fifteen minutes, forty-seven seconds, three hundred twenty-two nanoseconds in the past. Raphael would know the time exactly even if it weren't Gabriel's death he had been counting from. Raphael always knows precisely when he is.

 

He does not show himself. He is not here to affect the events that occurred, he is here to observe them, and that will be all that he does. He may have all of the power of Heaven left without the four strongest beings in Creation at his wingtips, but he will not use it, even when he is sorely tempted. He decided this because he knows he will want to save Gabriel, and he cannot. For one thing, the results of altering the past are extremely complex to predict, and for another, if he were to have saved Gabriel he would already have done so. Since he has not, he will not, because he did not.

 

Still, he has given himself his word that he will not interfere, because he will want to. And he does not break his word, so he is comforted that he will not betray himself.

 

Raphael watches.

 

<><><>

 

Michael is in his bower.

 

(It is not a physical place, and Michael has no more need of a bower than any other angel, and there is no reason to call it a bower (they are not birds), but sometimes angels like to have a place they are at peace in, and when they decide they want this they make themselves a bower. It is like a home, but they do not live apart, but neither is any bower connected, excepting that all bowers are truly as one bower, and any angel who wishes their bower to be connected to another's bower may make it so, excluding of course when the other does not wish it.)

 

Michael is not doing paperwork because there is no such thing as paper in Heaven (unless they want it to be there, and Michael is not one of those who enjoys paper or paperwork). But all the same Michael is doing paperwork because it needs to be done. Commanding the Host is sometimes not enjoyable at all, but Michael is not commander because he wants to be (though he does) but because that is his purpose.

 

Michael is also waiting for Gabriel to stop by. Time is irrelevant, given that this is Heaven, there are no clocks every angel will pay attention to, and they can time-travel. But Gabriel will stop by soon.

 

Gabriel does, appearing suddenly in front of the desk Michael is doing paperwork at. Michael's wings flare slightly in surprise, but his expression does not change. He is, after all, used to his brother doing this. Gabriel thinks it's funny.

 

'What's up, bro?' Gabriel asks. Michael disapproves of the slang (especially as it's anachronistic), but he also finds it endearing.

 

'There is a demon,' Michael begins. Gabriel interrupts.

 

'Yeah? What do you want me to do about it? Talk it down? Capture it? Kill it?'

 

Michael sighs. 'I want it neutralized. I do not expect you will succeed in that if you do not kill it, but please prove otherwise if you wish to.'

 

Gabriel has much more leeway than other angels get in their missions. Michael has always given Gabriel more, because Gabriel's sheer personality has always demanded it. And of course because Gabriel has always had the requisite might to back up his desire for personal freedom.

 

'Really? You're letting me go not kill a demon?' Gabriel is skeptical. He is likely not entirely aware of how free he truly is when Michael is in charge.

 

'Yes, I am,' Michael replies. 'I believe you will be forced to resort to violence, but I do not enjoy ordering my siblings to kill. I would rather you not have to.'

 

Gabriel smiles. 'Cool.'

 

Michael knows how much Gabriel in particular hates being sent to kill. He was sent often enough in the past, and it was always to protect their family and those under their care, but that does not negate that Gabriel has been forced to kill many beings and has been scarred by it.

 

'So what is it, when, and where?' Gabriel continues.

 

'It is a demon of flame and shadow,' Michael says. Gabriel's eyes widen and his wings curve around his body, blocking much of it from sight. The feathers look like silver steel.

 

'I get to play with the big boys now, then.'

 

'Yes,' Michael says. 'I would send reinforcements with you.'

 

Michael has not told Gabriel where or when yet. He does not want Gabriel to leave before Michael can tell if Gabriel will truly be fine alone.

 

His insinuation makes Gabriel's wings flare up and out, though they look no less like silver steel.

 

'I'll be fine on my own,' Gabriel snaps. 'Besides, it's practically traditional.'

 

Michael looks at his brother carefully. 'Are you certain?'

 

'Yes,' Gabriel hisses. 'I'm an archangel. I'm certain I can handle one measly demon alone!'

 

This is a little prideful, Michael reflects, but no less true for it. He wants to send others, but he does not want to endanger them, and he does not want to insult Gabriel. There must not be a rift between him and his other siblings.

 

'Fine.' Michael nods. 'But you must swear to me that you will call for help, should you require it.'

 

Gabriel rolls his eyes, his wings fluffing into regular soft feathers.

 

(They are not white, in the same way that none of them are actually human-shapes with wings, but also in the same way that there are no colors in Heaven. Except there are also all of the colors, and none of them, and yet neither, and only some, and each monochrome. But even though many prefer their wings to be white when they have wings, Gabriel is one who doesn't. Just as Gabriel always chooses amber eyes when his brethren choose blue, he chooses tawny wings. Sometimes they are a cascade of brown shades, and sometimes stripes of blues and greens (once Michael saw a striking pattern of green with golden accents, swoops and points and curves), but they are most often tawny like a tabby cat, except feathered, more diverse than a barn owl, more radiant than a tawny owl, and never in the same pattern of color shifts twice.)

 

'I promise,' Gabriel huffs. 'Now when and where, Michael?'

 

Michael relays the coordinates and watches as Gabriel gives a half-wave in goodbye. He shakes his head, a fondly exasperated wing-set belying his stern face as he returns to what is definitely not paperwork.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael does not grab Gabriel's wings as they pass him. He does not tell Michael to burn the image of their brother alive into his head, because Michael will never see Gabriel alive again. He does not shake Michael for his stupidity.

 

Raphael has a choice, now, whether to go back immediately or stay to watch Michael some more. He is bored by the paperwork as Michael must be, but he is not encouraged yet. Perhaps he should stay. This will work best if Raphael can foster some real admiration for his brother.

 

But Michael is frankly boring right now. Raphael has better things to do with his time than silently watch Michael, even for a self-set mission.

 

Then it occurs to Raphael that he could follow Gabriel.

 

He could not interfere, and it makes him wonder if he could handle that. Can Raphael watch his brother die?

 

There was no-one there at Gabriel's side. Raphael has spent seven centuries thinking of this, that their brother died alone underground; he could not see the sky. Was there even room in that cave to spread his wings in flight or fight?

 

Didn't Gabriel deserve to have someone there? Angels were not made to be solitary creatures. There was no occasion where any healthy, sane angel would want to be alone for any real length of time or space. And yet Gabriel had had no host to accompany him, no guard to fight at his side, no standard bearer to proclaim the glory and the might of the army.

 

If Raphael couldn't stop his brother's death, could he not at least bear witness?

 

Realistically, now that the possibility has occurred to him there is no way Raphael will be able to stop himself from following Gabriel. He knows that. He thinks that if he stops and considers he might talk himself out of it, but that is a futile wish and he is well aware of it.

 

Even if Raphael did not know where Gabriel was going or when, he could feel his brother's Grace beating regularly (it had a triplet pattern that both mimicked and defied the human heartbeat, which Raphael has always assumed to be both a joke and an homage on Gabriel's part). It drummed out a pulse Raphael hadn't heard in so long … he imagines it as alive-alive-alive, over and over and over, Gabriel, Gabriel, Gabriel.

 

Raphael spreads his wings and flies.

 

<><><>

 

On a second thought, Raphael splits himself. He sends a portion of his consciousness back to follow Michael around and keeps the majority on Gabriel's wingtips.

 

Raphael usually prefers not to split (it's a bit disorientating even for him). But he feels that this is a special occasion. It's important that he know exactly what both brothers are doing. He expects that the part of himself watching Michael will be very bored (Michael probably just did paperwork for a few hours before joining himself and Uriel at the training grounds). But all the same, it's important that he be certain.

 

If nothing else, it will be nice to have a part of himself not watching Gabriel die.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael tails Gabriel across Creation, following several wing-lengths behind, always hidden. Gabriel is not going to notice him any more than Michael did. They are both older than him, but right now he has seven hundred years of experience more than they expect. They aren't looking for him and he is an archangel; he will not be found if he does not wish to be. Another archangel is indeed the only other being that would have even a chance at locating him, but unless they try they will not succeed.

 

/|\

 

Beat-beat-beat … beat-beat-beat … beat-beat-beat …

 

/|\

 

Raphael watches Michael continue his paperwork. As he suspected, it's boring. This is part of what Raphael hates about being in charge. The constant nagging feeling that he should be filling out forms.

 

Raphael doesn't, actually, fill out forms. Unlike Michael, he hates paperwork more than he believes he must complete it, and so under his control Heaven runs without the ridiculous quantities of wasted paper Michael favored. If Heaven sometimes seems to be less efficient than it used to, well, so much the more interesting. It's not as if what they do needs to be efficient.

 

What are angels even required to do? Raphael has always believed that the answer was follow orders. They are soldiers of God, messengers of God, beings born (made) to be His strength, His light, His wrath, His glory, His grace, His beauty, His splendour, His majesty.

 

They sing praises. They bless those they are meant to bless. They carry the word of God when given it. They sometimes answer prayers (they always hear them, though not every angel always listens). Occasionally they fight unrighteousness or lead armies. Sometimes they heal hurts or sooth dark dreams.

 

Most of what they do is just working from a list of events that should occur at a certain time, in a certain place, involving certain people. It's rather like a list of chores.

 

Raphael detests chores nearly as much as paperwork. But he can choose to not do the paperwork. He was never ordered to do paperwork.

 

/|\

 

Raphael tails Gabriel. Gabriel flies quickly and efficiently. It is a surprise to Raphael; whenever he saw Gabriel fly before he was always so delighted to be in the air. Gabriel used to twirl in circles and loops for the sheer joy and the pranking possibilities. He would dance in the air, playing his own tune with the sounds of the wind as his wings cut it.

 

Raphael never saw this focused intensity. Perhaps Gabriel was having an off day; perhaps he had much on his mind. Or possibly he just flew like this normally, and showed off around others for their amusement. It has never before occurred to Raphael that Gabriel alone might be a very different angel than Gabriel surrounded by younger siblings. The idea seems to fit Gabriel too well to comfort Raphael. He wonders – if this is true – and it seems likely – did he ever truly know Gabriel? Had any of them?

 

No, of course he had known his own brother. If Gabriel was a private angel he had the right to be. He was not obligated to share all of his being with his siblings. Discovering that his flight patterns were different than Raphael had assumed does not mean Raphael never knew Gabriel.

 

/|\

 

Beat-beat-beat … beat-beat-beat … beat-beat-beat …

 

/|\

 

Michael signs a document about the requisition of blue. It is important that blue is correctly distributed among the various garrisons. It is an extremely useful and versatile color.

 

Raphael briefly considers removing his own eyeballs with a three-tined silver salad fork.

 

The issues with this plan are obvious. Being said simply, one, he has no eyeballs technically, two, a three-tined salad fork is not the correct type of fork to stab eyeballs with, and three, this would not alleviate his boredom for any substantial length of time.

 

And of course it would hurt.

 

/|\

 

Gabriel arrives in the cavern. Raphael takes extra care not to let himself shine at all. In such a dark place he would be like a fire at night. Gabriel throws shadows in more than three hundred and sixty degrees. He is magnificent, wings spread wide and high in greeting and warning.

 

Opposite him stands his target. It is enormous, a hulking shadow that burns. Its skull is prominent and horned; in its left hand it wields a sword. The sword is burning darker than its body, a steady, deadly heat that counterbalances the random bursts of flame and compliments the ever-present smoke the smoldering limbs give out. It raises the sword and steps forward with its right leg, a challenge.

 

A hilt is resting in a scabbard. The grip is two-handed, plain, with a tiny guard and a rounded metal pommel. Raphael hasn't seen Gabriel's spatha in so long. The Roman longsword is straight, shining, and bitingly sharp. Their siblings don't touch a spatha in respect. (Not that it had been Gabriel's only sword choice ever. Once Raphael had seen the sword evolved, a Viking longsword, with a big cross-guard, a heavier iron pommel, and a long fuller gouged down the blade's center.)

 

Gabriel calls out to the demon in a clear, calm voice. “Greetings to you, dark one,” he offers with a sweeping bow that does nothing to hide the sword-hilt in a silver scabbard at his side.

 

He doesn't need the sword to be out, and he will never (has never) need (needed) the scabbard; the sword is a part of him, not a separate entity. He carries it visibly only ever to intimidate.

 

The demon growls back. It's not wordless, but none of his reply is polite.

 

“Well, your mother and a tulip,” Gabriel volleys back jovially. Raphael is surprised at Gabriel's calm. He is bubbling with anger over the insult to their Father, but Gabriel is managing reasonable diplomacy. Perhaps Gabriel specifically was sent because he had skills others lacked.

 

The demon snarls viciously.

 

Gabriel sighs. “That's the way it is, huh? You know I really did want to prove Mikey wrong for once. I'd have liked that.”

 

Raphael reflects that Michael has been proven wrong many times by Gabriel, but most spectacularly by Gabriel's failure and subsequent death.

 

/|\

 

Beat-beat-beat … beat-beat-beat … beat-beat-beat …

 

/|\

 

Michael looks up at the wall. He doesn't have any decorations. That would be frivolous. He does not support frivolity.

 

He worries about Gabriel. But no, Gabriel can handle this. And he has promised to call for help if he cannot (remember that he can). There is nowhere so far away a garrison of angels could not be there before Gabriel suffered any lasting harm.

 

/|\

 

The demon swings its sword. Gabriel parries the blow with ease, jumping backwards, momentum wing-aided.

 

“If you get tired of this, just swear on the name of your master that you will never fight again, and we can stop.” Gabriel calls out to the demon.

 

Raphael is impressed by Gabriel's dedication to not killing the demon. It is more than many angels would manage, even if they had been ordered to do all they could not to. There is a natural revulsion towards demons, the smell is sickening, and they bring terror wherever they go. Gabriel's self-control is admirable.

 

He dodges right but thrusts his sword up and left; the demon is surprised. It shudders backwards, leaning over its own body to avoid the thrust.

 

It retaliates with a second sword that Raphael had not seen – and apparently Gabriel had not either. Its right arm bears upwards terrifyingly fast – Gabriel barely manages to block the uppercut.

 

In blocking the right he has lost sight of the left and its inwards swing severs four feathers from Gabriel's wing. He cries out in shock and pain but does not stumble.

 

/|\

 

Beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat …

 

/|\

 

Michael pushes his chair backwards as he stands up. He straightens the papers on his desk into neat piles. He moves those completed into a wire outbox (labelled) and those unfinished into a wire stacker (labelled). He replaces his pens into the pencil jar (mislabeled).

 

He tucks his chair under the desk and heads out of his bower. He has some free time and it would be better not to sit and worry about Gabriel, who will be fine. He will go spend time with his brothers. Perhaps Uriel is free as well. Uriel is funny.

 

Raphael follows Michael discreetly.

 

/|\

 

Gabriel is being driven backwards. Out in the air, his wings are practically an assurance of his victory; he can attack from almost any direction and dodge however he wants to. But underground he can't leap up and backwards nearly as high safely. He's restricted to flying low if at all, and the stalactites are sharp enough to be a veritable minefield for his feathers. He's lost three to a poorly judged flap.

 

The demon swings both swords inwards in an x. Gabriel leans back, ending nearly horizontal as his own sword jumps up to block his chest. The demon presses downwards viciously and Gabriel's balance stutters; he tips over but his wings flap out to catch him, flaring sideways and curving backwards.

 

On the left a wing catches on a tall stalagmite. Gabriel realizes when he throws himself down to roll right around the demon and the wing tears. The ripping sound echoes in time with his own pained keen.

 

The ache is so sharp, sudden, and severe that his eyes loose focus – pain – he can't see the demon, there's just a red and black blur – hurt – the blur is moving – raw flesh – another orange blur – pain – crackling, hissing just above him – he needs to swing the sword – hurt hurt – lift the sword, lift the damn sword, stab it –

 

/|\

 

Beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat …

 

/|\

 

Raphael discreetly rolls his wings. They shudder in a cyclic wave. Michael is lazing about on the fresh green grass.

 

(It's not green and it's not grass. But it's not cloud either, and it isn't not green grass.)

 

His past self laughs at a joke Uriel has just begun. He's heard Gabriel tell it before, though it is still funny.

 

'So a seraph, a cherub, and a malakh fly up to this garden,' Uriel repeats.

 

/|\

 

Raphael watches as Gabriel's sword jerks up. The angle is very poor to hit anything vital, but it certainly gives the demon pause.

 

The lumbering hulk stumbles away from Gabriel. Gabriel drags himself up to stand and face the flames.

 

His left side is tilted away, the wings folded in tight. He's shed five feathers tucking the wound away from sight. He's breathing hard.

 

The demon hisses. Gabriel snarls back his reply.

 

“My wing's torn, you idiot! It didn't do anything to my hearing!”

 

The demon rumbles. It might have been a laugh. It might have been a plea.

 

“You don't get to ask for mercy now,” Gabriel scoffs. “I offered you a chance, and in payment you ripped my freaking wing!”

 

/|\

 

Beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat …

 

/|\

 

'And then the blueberry bush says, “What aphid?”' Uriel crows triumphantly.

 

Raphael's past is shaking with laughter. The rush of wind knocks Barachiel to the ground, where his own laughter rocks him back and forth. Michael lets out a huff of amusement. Uriel basks.

 

/|\

 

Raphael reflects that technically Gabriel tore his own wing. But he had no way of knowing he would, and he never would have if he weren't forced to fight this demon in this cave filled with natural lances, and really Raphael could blame every wrong in history on this demon right now.

 

The instinct to use his wings in fight must be nearly overpowering. It's a testament to Gabriel that he's only lost twelve feathers so far. One torn wing is far less than most angels would manage.

 

Wings are an extension of the self. Raphael personally thinks he would no more be able to stop himself using his wings than he would be able to stop being. Gabriel's self-control deserves to be legendary for this. It won't be, of course, because Gabriel is about to die.

 

/|\

 

Beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat … beat-BEAT-beat …

 

/|\

 

'All right, all right,' Barachiel raises a hand. 'I've got one. I heard this a few weeks ago.'

 

'Tell us,' Uriel urges. He's very interested.

 

Raphael remembers this. It's not very funny, but it is rather clever.

 

'Okay,' Barachiel begins. 'What do you get when you cross two mountain climbers?'

 

/|\

 

Gabriel lunges forward, stabbing. His strike doesn't reach the demon. It leaps away before he even fully extends his arm; the wing is slowing Gabriel down.

 

He's overextended; his side is open. The demon's arm swipes round and slashes. Gabriel jerks and an artery sprays.

 

This must be what caused the cavern to be so completely coated in blood.

 

/|\

 

Beat-BEAT-BEAT … beat-BEAT-BEAT … beat-BEAT-BEAT …

 

/|\

 

Barachiel scowls in frustration. 'But it's great, d'you see, because they're scaling the mountain,' he attempts to explain, for the second time. 'So they're scalers! Scalars!'

 

They understand, but hearing it for the second time doesn't improve the joke for Raphael. It's still not funny.

 

Barachiel huffs. 'Fine, I'll go somewhere where my talents are appreciated.' He stalks off.

 

Raphael remembers. The call will come soon now.

 

/|\

 

Raphael can see how stretched out Gabriel is. He looks pale, greyish. His wings are brown tawny still, but appear to be covered in a fine layer of dark ash.

 

Gabriel is in pain. He is tired. He needs to end this soon and go heal.

 

He rallies. He draws his wings in close, turning them even sharper and harder than before, silver steel. His side he ignores. He will fix it later.

 

/|\

 

Beat-BEAT-BEAT … beat-BEAT-BEAT … beat-BEAT-BEAT …

 

/|\

 

Michael smiles at Raphael's past. 'How are you today, brother?'

 

Raphael grins back. 'Much pleased with the sunshine, brother. And yourself?'

 

'I am –' Michael pauses. 'Actually, I am worried about Gabriel, but I'm sure he's fine.'

 

/|\

 

Gabriel advances on the demon. He pulls his sword up in front of him. The demon steadies itself, great burning wings drawing close.

 

/|\

 

Raphael's past reassures Michael. 'Gabriel can take care of himself.'

 

/|\

 

Gabriel hisses. “Get thee behind me, demon!”

 

/|\

 

Raphael's present snorts in fury. Gabriel could take care of himself, up until he couldn't.

 

/|\

 

Gabriel yells, strikes, stabbing up, piercing the demon's heart with his shining blade. But as the demon collapses it brings its own swords to bear on Gabriel, slicing out across his abdomen.

 

/|\

 

BEAT-BEAT-BEAT … BEAT-BEAT-BEAT … BEAT-BEAT-beat … BEAT-BEAT-beat … BEAT-beat-beat … BEAT-beat-beat … beat-beat-beat … beat—beat—beat … beat—beat——beat …

 

/|\

 

Raphael knows he has only seconds left with his brothers now. He must memorize Michael like this, happy and glorious and concerned for the well-being of his brethren. That is why he came back in the first place. He must see Michael as loving and worth Raphael's love.

 

/|\

 

Gabriel chokes. He stumbles, staggering back and forth. He drags himself away from the demon barely in time to escape its falling bulk.

 

This is what produced the enormous pile of coals with a silver sword struck into it.

 

Gabriel trips over his own feet as he flees the dead demon.

 

He catches hold of a stalagmite with his right hand; it slices open the palm and shining blood drips down the cone, mixing with the water and limestone suspension already flowing.

 

His left hand is clutching his cut side; his forearm desperately presses into his stomach. He gasps, harshly, harsh, soft, and then weak. His gaze stutters over the floor. Sweat drips down from his brow and burns his eyes.

 

Raphael reflects that Gabriel is still standing up, and that is very impressive, considering his injuries. It's lucky that Gabriel came as himself and not in a vessel. He can take more damage this way. And of course a vessel would be spilling its intestines out over the floor of the cave, long shining pale ropes of organ. There would be blood all over the floor (even more than there is now, drips and splatters and pools thrown around). There would be a terrible cloying scent of the contents of the human digestive system. No, all together, it's lucky that Gabriel came as himself.

 

Raphael wonders what Gabriel is doing. Why has he not yet called for help? Shouldn't he be calling now?

 

Gabriel is having trouble focusing. He is in pain. His wings ache. His grip on the stalagmite is slipping. His head pounds. He pants. He should be doing something. What was he not doing? He had promised someone something. What had he promised? Whom had he promised it to?

 

Michael. Michael. Maybe Raphael? No … Uriel? RemielAzraelAbaddon? Lucifer, brother, elder brother, light, so bright, morning breaking over the world, Lucifer? Who? Someone?

 

It hurts. The burning corpse gives off acrid smoke that hurts to breathe. He singed a wing in getting away from its fall. It's dark. His wing is ripped. His Grace is bleeding out everywhere. He can't remember … something. He doesn't want it to hurt. He doesn't know what to do. He wants Father to make it all go away. He wants to curl up and hide. He wants someone to beat up whatever made him hurt … there had been something there. He wants his brothers, his sisters, to make the hurts go away. He loves them, he really does, even when they argue all the time … He loves Father. Where is Father? A snatch of something flits through his mind. Glory be to Father in the highest – gloria in excelcis – and to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire – glory to the Lord God of Israel – the glory is departed – thou art the glory of their strength – he needs to do something. What was he doing? There was something. He had been a good soldier. He had done his duty. He had a duty … there is something he can't remember …

 

/|\

 

Beat——beat——beat … … beat——beat——beat … … … beat——beat——beat … … …

 

/|\

 

Raphael has one final instant to watch Michael smile, to hear himself laugh, and then the call comes.

 

Michael – Michael – Raphael – Uriel – Remiel – Azrael – Abaddon – Lucifer – anyone anyone anyone – fire pain shadows ripped wing Grace bleeding – scared hurt save avenge – sibling sibling sibling love Father Father glory highest duty –

 

As it had seven centuries ago, it shocks Raphael to his core. He shakes in grief and terror. Michael has begun to fly when he collects himself and follows.

 

He had forgotten (if he had ever known) that Gabriel had been so scared that he even called out to Lucifer.

 

/|\

 

Raphael realizes that Gabriel had Grace-called without understanding what he was doing. He hadn't known he was calling all that out to his siblings. He was too injured to comprehend it.

 

Then Raphael looses himself.

 

He can't handle this, he can't watch Gabriel die. It's too much, it's too hard, he's had enough, he wants it to end. He never wants to see this again, not even now, he never wants to even think of the smell of this forsaken cave ever again, he never wants to hear brothers' blood drip down around him.

 

He snaps. He must help Gabriel, he must. Gabriel is more important than respecting some stupid law about paradoxes! Gabriel is everything right now.

 

He should just snatch Gabriel up and snap into the future right now. Then maybe he wouldn't see this inside his eyes, painted more real than real life, every time he blinks. Would it really matter so much? Would Father care about this misuse of power? Is Father even there to care anymore? For His sake, is Father even alive?

 

Raphael's poised to grab his brother when his Grace reminds him that there is no ash outline on the floor.

 

Michael is coming to look and Michael must find what Michael found. If not time will break and bleed into itself internally. It may pool into bruises that cause an aneurysm (in the metaphorical brain of the universe). The hemorrhage would be devastating. This could kill billions.

 

Raphael swore to himself he would not alter the past. If he breaks his oath to himself he will pay the price and it will be painful. Raphael keeps those oaths that he is so foolish as to swear. In this moment, he hates himself for knowing himself so well. If only he had forgotten that he would not be able to bear watching this! If only he were ignorant!

 

But he is not. He knew he would do this. That is why he swore he would do nothing to alter the past, after all.

 

Raphael settles back. He should not attempt to change the past. He will bear witness to Gabriel's death. He will sing Gabriel's praises. He will stand vigil, silent and unseen though he is.

 

/|\

 

Beat——beat——beat … … … … beat——beat——beat … … … … … beat——beat——beat … … … … … …

 

/|\

 

Raphael follows Michael. Raphael's past is following Michael as well.

 

He reflects that Michael had clearly loved Gabriel once. Perhaps Michael was, even if at fault for Gabriel's death, still a victim too.

 

/|\

 

Gabriel swallows with difficulty. His lungs are bubbling up with blood. He tries to stand and trips over a stalagmite. His head impacts a stalactite as he falls and the impact is jarring; his wings flare out to catch him, but between the tear and the lost twelve feathers, and the singe, they aren't strong enough. They slam into the ground fully extended and several bones shatter. Gabriel shrieks.

 

Three feathers dislodge from the singed portion and float away. He yelps.

 

The blood from his head pools on the ground. It's deep and he pants at the dizzy feeling.

 

Gabriel is spread out on the ground. He can't breathe. His Grace's triplet thrum is faltering, irregularly, beat——____ ——beat … … … … … … ____——beat——beat … … … … … … beat——beat——____ … … … … … … …

 

He groans and tries to rise. His skin breaks out into a flush of cold sweat. He doesn't make it off the floor.

 

/|\

 

Michael's shoulders are set sternly. Raphael sees a double image, Michael then and Michael now, superimposed onto his brother's wings. It's startlingly different and yet the same.

 

Then he hadn't even noticed the arming sword at his brother's side, a long double-bladed weapon with a large pommel and larger cruciform guard. Raphael had never thought to fetch his own sword.

 

/|\

 

In his head Raphael composes an elegy for his brother, so strong and so old and so bright.

 

Gabriel shudders. His whole body shivers, a wracking shake that spatters blood across the floor.

 

He convulses.

 

Raphael prays to his Father. He doesn't expect an answer, not really, not after praying so many times and hearing nothing in response. But he still prays all the same.

 

Gabriel gives a gasping scream, and as the echoes die down he relaxes into the floor. His face clears and his wings curl softly into feathers kinder than angora.

 

A spark blooms from his sternum. Within seconds Gabriel is burning. The flames dance over his wings and exult over his hair and crawl down his limbs.

 

The smell of burning feathers and hair and flesh fills Raphael's lungs. It brands itself into his memory.

 

/|\

 

Beat … … … … … … … beat … … … … … … …

 

/|\

 

Raphael can feel himself getting closer.

 

Well, relativity being what it is, he is the one getting closer (he's the he moving at a non-zero velocity with respect to the, practically, inertial frame of the ground), but it appears that he is staying still and he is the one approaching.

 

The feeling is disconcerting. For a second, with all the focus on himself, the sound of fire fills his ears.

 

/|\

 

Raphael watches Gabriel's body burn. He's not sure at what point it stops being Gabriel and starts being Gabriel's body, but that point has definitely been reached when the flames burn out and all that's left is the ash outline.

 

Raphael almost wishes dead angels didn't burn. There would be a body to bury. But then they would have to bury it, an inexpressible cruelty, and flames are better than that. It is only almost a wish.

 

/|\

 

Raphael's past still clearly believes Gabriel is alive. He's rushing, ignoring air currents, bypassing little tricks to make the flight easier on his body. Michael approves, or at least Raphael assumes so, because it's very obvious and Michael does nothing to stop Raphael's past from abusing himself.

 

Raphael considers briefly – the smell of ash – that Michael simply doesn't care if Raphael's past hurts himself this way. But no, he reminds himself, Michael cares about his siblings. Michael does. Raphael believes that. If Raphael doesn't believe that why did he put himself through this again?

 

/|\

 

Raphael watches – Michael's back – the ash outline on the floor. It doesn't change, which is extraordinarily surprising. Well, if he were himself but past himself, then it would be. Before Gabriel died originally Raphael would never have believed that Gabriel could die. He would have assumed it to be an extremely elaborate prank in terrible taste. He would have expected the ash to spring back up into his brother again, laughing like his joke had been hilarious. Of course the ash doesn't, because Gabriel is actually dead.

 

/|\

 

Raphael flies discreetly. He likes to think – this would be a bad joke – that he is discreet. It's a little thrilling in a way, to be so devious.

 

It's not really – technically it's not ash – devious at all. He doesn't like to think of himself in that way. It's contrary to his open and honest nature.

 

/|\

 

If Gabriel had been human Raphael would know – why Michael doesn't stop his self-abuse – he went to a better place, because Raphael knows that Heaven is a better place for humans. He has never gotten a good answer if there is a better place to go to for angels.

 

His prayers were never answered. It makes him wonder if angels can truly – understand what they're about to see – pray. There is more to prayer, Raphael knows, than directing words to a deity. There must be – a way to help Michael – real belief, and the deity must be willing to listen.

 

Can angels believe in God, Raphael muses. They know he exists. Can anyone believe in something they are certain of? Is it belief if you know? Isn't faith the leap between knowledge and belief?

 

Hmmm. Is Raphael faithful? Perhaps others are. Perhaps it is only Raphael who cannot believe, because it is only Raphael who has no faith.

 

/|\

 

Will Barachiel resent his brothers someday? Raphael – is staring into an ash outline – has begun to worry. The total lack of – Gabriel – positive response to his joke seems relatively minor, but it may be the beginning of – seven hundred years of grief – a slow, growing resentment.

 

It cannot be pleasant to – stand over your brother's body as it incinerates itself – never find empathy, only sympathy. But surely – they will arrive soon – others of Barachiel's siblings understand him in ways Raphael – is getting anxious – and Michael and Uriel do not.

 

/|\

 

Raphael will not have to see – Michael's flight so disturbed – this for much longer. He can leave as soon as he – is flying hidden and silent – rejoins himself.

 

He will see this every time he – is sighing in worry over the sight to come – closes his eyes, and every time he – wants to get this over with and leave already – leaves his eyes open for too long.

 

/|\

 

Raphael – does not like how good his memory is – doesn't like not being whole. It's – so dark in here – odd and a bit confusing, even – though he makes shadows – being who he is. He wants – to forget the smell – to reconnect faster, but – it is unlikely – he must – not regurgitate upon what was his brother's corpse – follow Michael.

 

/|\

 

Raphael thinks – why can't – this seems – fly faster – be a – need to – time, longer – Gabriel from – he remembers – he was – it's just – scared by – perspective.

 

/|\

 

(He also thinks thattheytotheylongsavethanwhatevermaybesohis. Generally in that order, but mainly simultaneously. This is why Raphael dislikes splitting himself.)

 

/|\

 

Raphael shifts/lands away/behind from/Michael's Gabriel's/massive outline/wings. He waits/walks for/towards himself to/so reattach/he to/can him/join. It/The seems/walk far/is too/across long/the in/outline; this/he cave,/had when/forgotten his/the past/stark brethren/gore are/of staring/the in/cavern mute/that horror/Gabriel at/died Gabriel/in. At/Finally last/he he/crosses arrives/the and/cave he/and rejoins.

 

<><><>

 

It is so good to be whole again! Apart he was so much less. The feeling is a spot of beauty in a dark day. He rejoices, he exults, he wonders!

 

The wonder dries up the instant Michael speaks. 'Raphael, you would know better than I; is there – could – '

 

He should leave, right now, before he relives this too; he never wants to think of scraping up ashes again, not ever, he can't watch himself gather Gabriel.

 

Raphael readies himself to snap forwards seven centuries and begin the long task of determining if the torture he watched was worth accomplishing something he's not even sure he accomplished. Then Azrael breaks his concentration.

 

'Neither do I,' she states. 'The coals are dead, and were once alive; the feathers were once alive and are dead; the blood is dying. But I cannot feel a greater death here.'

 

Raphael pauses. She cannot feel the death he just watched? What does that mean? He saw Gabriel burn. He saw it, he bore witness, he can still smell it!

 

He needs to figure this out. He should ask Azrael. But she and Abaddon Fell not long after Michael faded.

 

(Raphael supposes it was no surprise. They had been on Lucifer's side in the war. But Michael had brought them back to be Heaven's defense mere hours before the last battle, and their defection had spared them their Father's wrath. Though they never were much favored by their siblings after. The angels of death and destruction … the angels who were traitors to the Traitor himself … no, they were not held in high favor.)

 

But he needs to speak with Azrael.

 

He could speak to her the day before his argument with Michael about the stupid girl and the saints. Yes, he will do that. He will learn much.

 

Raphael leaves.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael arrives. He is outside of Azrael's bower, which she shares with Abaddon. For a moment, he merely observes. Their bower is tall and graceful, decorated with a motif of their weeping siblings. It has a timeless grief to it that Raphael feels he can appreciate better now than ever before. He begins to see why Azrael has always been so weary: she has been around death of all kinds (she is death of all kinds) for her entire existence. Her perspective on life is unsurprisingly very different than many of her brethren.

 

Raphael is now three hundred years in his past.

 

He looks one final time at the crying winged beings before he shifts into notability and strides forward. He does not knock or ring any bell: she will know he is here to speak with her.

 

She does. As he reaches the bower a door melts open and he walks through.

 

Inside the lights are low and eerily greenish-blue. They are set into the walls at regular intervals, but at ground level. Shadows stretch upwards into a curling, pointed roof far above. Azrael's furniture is sparse. All metals are dull grays; all fabrics are black, or a purple so dark it's nearly indistinguishable. She is waiting on a low couch whose feet are clawed and whose arms are the bat-wings of gargoyles.

 

Honestly, Raphael thinks, Azrael is a little over the top as an interior designer.

 

(It's possible she just like this, or that Abaddon wants it this way, or some such. But he doubts that. He thinks she plays up to her image, because if she didn't she would be entirely misunderstood, not merely misrepresented.)

 

Azrael is curled up on her couch. Her wings (a myriad of gray flutters, like a thousand rainstorms on a dreary Tuesday) shift smoothly from side to side. He's reminded vividly of a lioness before it pounces.

 

(Of course, angels don't have genders (though as lionesses are the ones that hunt, Azrael would be a lioness metaphorically, any which way). Unless they want to. Azrael doesn't, but when she takes vessels they are always women. When Raphael has to use gendered languages he prefers to refer to siblings as whatever gender he last saw them in a vessel. Of course some of his siblings he has never seen in a vessel.)

 

She smiles at him. 'Brother.' She pauses. 'Future brother,' she corrects with a playful grin.

 

He does not smile back. 'Past sister,' he replies.

 

She pauses. 'Not sister?' she asks.

 

Raphael grimaces. 'No,' he says brusquely.

 

She frowns and leans forward, unfolding her legs from their contorted position beneath her torso; her wings freeze where they are, like a butterfly in amber. 'What do you – why did – we went together, didn't we?'

 

Raphael knows she means Abaddon. But he makes no reply, shows nothing on his face. His wings shut inwards and relax again, though, and that is all she needs to see.

 

'Ah, of course we did,' she murmurs, refolding herself. Her wings settle back into their sway. 'No, don't tell me anything else, I understand,' she continues. 'What do you wish to discuss, future brother?'

 

He knew she would understand. Azrael is very understanding. He appreciates that more now.

 

'I have a question for you,' he says. 'I need you to clarify something you once said.'

 

'Certainly,' she nods. 'What is it?'

 

He watches her carefully as he speaks. 'The day Gabriel died,' he begins and she tenses, her wings curling around her faster than his blinks, 'you told me you could not feel a greater death in that cavern. What did you mean?'

 

She looks at him coldly. 'Why are you bringing this up now? What do you hope to learn?'

 

Raphael is surprised. 'I simply want to understand.'

 

Azrael asses him. 'I believe you. But be aware that if I did not I would eject you this moment and forever more be silent to you upon this matter.'

 

He nods. What is so terrible that she must be so secret about this?

 

'It is no great secret,' she assures him. 'But it is a personal failing that I do not lightly discuss. I will indulge your curiosity, because I do not believe you would visit a past-sister-but-not-sister without good reason which you cannot share.'

 

Raphael nods again. He is uncertain if there is a good response to that.

 

'I never felt a great death in that cave,' Azrael starts. 'I meant what I said, that I could feel the deaths of the blood and feathers but nothing else of Gabriel. And yet we concluded that he must have died. I know death, I am death, and I know what will kill any creature alive. Gabriel could not have survived the injuries that would cause those smaller deaths. He would not have had the strength to flee the cave either, and besides that we had his ash. He must have died to leave the ash and the sword. Yet why did the sword not burn with him?'

 

Raphael is not sure. He's here to get answers from her, not more questions.

 

'So Gabriel must have died in that cave. But I have never not been able to feel, see, be the death in any place I have walked, excepting Gabriel's death in the cavern. I cannot explain beyond that. I should have been able to tell Michael immediately what happened and how, down to the microsecond, down to the deaths in individual Grace-cells. But I could not. I failed in my purpose that day.'

 

It clearly haunts her. Raphael regrets bringing her this pain. He understands feeling as though you have failed your purpose; each time a sibling under his healing dies Raphael goes through the doubt of duty she still feels. It is harder even than a feeling of failure, because their patronage is their whole being, and she believes that a part of her is inadequate. It is not good for angels to doubt their actions, because they begin to doubt their worth, and because doubt is dangerous for angels.

 

Azrael has not truly answered his questions, but he supposes that if she doesn't know the answers there is no one who will.

 

Raphael bows low to his past sister. 'Thank you for your words,' he whispers.

 

She sighs. 'I hope they bring you more understanding than they bring me.'

 

On an impulse Raphael hurries forward and catches Azrael up in a hug. 'I hope your pain is relieved some day,' he murmurs into her wings. She wraps her arms and her wings more tightly around him at that.

 

'And yours, brother, future brother,' she replies quietly. As she is about to pull away, Raphael adds,

 

'Past sister, not sister, but always the sister of my Grace.'

 

She blinks and her wings stutter in her shock. Raphael steps out of the embrace and vanishes before she can do anything sentimental. He doesn't enjoy sentiment.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael returns to his present and Gabriel's memorial garden. He has much to consider.

 

Obviously he trusts past Azrael's word that she did not feel a greater death. He believes that she did not feel it. He also believes that she is correct, there had been (from the evidence) no way Gabriel could have survived that. Moreover, he watched Gabriel die himself, and then burn. There is no way Gabriel did not die in that cavern. Azrael would agree with him if she had been there.

 

But she hadn't been there … no, she had only seen the cavern after the body burned, she had not stood beside as he watched Gabriel burn. He could always find her and ask her to do so; but he would have to find a past Azrael from before her Fall, because he has spoken to her three centuries ago. And any time between his argument with Michael and her Fall will not be enough recovery time for her, after their conversation. He will not subject another sibling to that torture.

 

It blinks through his consciousness that he is not the only angel who can time-travel. He does not know that others of his brethren have not or will not stand beside Gabriel as he dies. But surely they would not torment themselves like that. They are too sane to mimic Raphael in this. He hopes.

 

So Azrael's word is that of one who never watched Gabriel's fall. But why should that matter to the angel of death? She should be able to feel the death still.

 

If Gabriel had been human and an angel had resurrected him (oh, the irony), Azrael would not have felt his death in the cavern unless she looked for it within him. She had once told him that the stain of death was only washed away by the bloom of returned life.

 

But the only beings who could resurrect someone were angels (and even then there were so many restrictions on what they could and could not do and when, and it left Grace-marks all over the resurrected and the place of resurrection) and their Father.

 

Raphael considers. Would his Father have brought Gabriel back to life?

 

No, he decides. If He had, why had Father not done so immediately? Why had Gabriel not returned? Why resurrect Gabriel and none of those killed in the war?

 

Raphael's Father has never returned life to a dead angel. Raphael loved Gabriel, and rejoiced in what differentiated Gabriel his siblings, but Raphael cannot believe his Father would bring Gabriel back out of all those He could. Gabriel, at least, had died fighting; many of Raphael's siblings died begging for salvation, bleeding to death uselessly, needlessly.

 

(Raphael has never begged for anything. He has a measure of dignity, and no loss will he allow to tear that away from him.)

 

No, Gabriel has not been resurrected. Which means Azrael's lack of feeling is still a mystery. Raphael supposes he will never solve it.

 

<><><>

 

Five years pass. Zachariah has not sought Raphael out again yet. But then, even a decade is nothing more than a blink to beings as old as they are.

 

Raphael is passing a bower (he doesn't know whose, he has too many siblings), on his way to oversee the distribution of lighting bolts to thunderstorms, when he hears a snatch of song. It's some light, airy ditty about the flap of owl's wings in the night.

 

Raphael is reminded that he had promised himself he would sing Gabriel's praises. He has not yet done so. He should.

 

Raphael does have the elegy he composed; he could sing that. But an elegy is too mournful for praises, really, and it seems crass to sing what he composed as Gabriel's death song to anyone else.

 

No, he will write a symphony of Gabriel's glory and serenade the stars.

 

<><><>

 

A year later Raphael has finally finished. He has been busy; writing symphonies is no small business, and he has had other duties involved in running Heaven that he had to attend to. But now he feels it is worthy of being sung.

 

Raphael leaves Heaven. He doesn't intend his siblings to hear this if they are not listening.

 

He goes looking. He will know what he is looking for when he finds it.

 

He finds it in a constellation. It is exactly what he has looked for – Lambda Cancri. Raphael flies to the center of the dwarf star and looks around himself.

 

Lambda Cancri burns bright (it is well-named) blue, whiter at the center. It is very hot around Raphael. The temperature could conceivably reach high enough to singe his wings if his attention wavers. But unless he is careless he will be fine. He is only standing inside of a star.

 

Raphael likes sitting inside stars. He doesn't disturb them with his presence, and they are comforting. They remind him of the beginning of time, when everything was closer together and there was such wonderful warmth.

 

Raphael takes a deep breath. Then he begins to sing, all the various parts of his symphony at once, and his song reverberates through empty places that should by rights defeat him, but which at his insistence bow down to his melody.

 

He sings of Gabriel. Gabriel's humor, his wings, the beauty of his flight, the majesty of his sword, the truth of his message, the renewal of his presence. His charm, his grin, his chuckle, his hugs, his tears, his compassion, his love.

 

Raphael sings, and as he sings he weeps, and as he weeps he begins to laugh.

 

<><><>

 

A week later Raphael is taking a break from running Heaven to visit Gabriel's memorial. He still thinks it is beautiful. Remiel still disagrees with him. Raphael is uncertain how he feels about disagreement. It is not dissension, and thus it is not rebellion, but it is close, and anything close is too close. Still, Remiel is faithful. Remiel is loyal. Remiel will not Fall.

 

Unlike Azrael and Abaddon. They had Fallen. But then that had not been unexpected. Tragic, but not unexpected. Supposedly they had gone gracefully, holdings hands for the plunge. Raphael heard that they had smiled, and cried over their smiles, and then let go of whatever was keeping them aloft. Raphael thinks now that it was Michael. Michael specifically. They had not been accepted as they perhaps should have been.

 

Raphael realizes then that he did not see them Fall, only heard that they had. He had been far too busy blaming Michael for Gabriel's death to witness anything.

 

It strikes Raphael that he does not think he has ever actually seen anyone Fall.

 

Not even Lucifer. Raphael had not been on the field of battle the day Michael triumphed. He had been away, trying desperately to save Nakir from a rather deadly poison. (He had managed it, to his everlasting surprise; he honestly believed Nakir's faith had blessed him that day).

 

No, Raphael had not seen Lucifer Fall, and it had been a terrible blow to hear of it. Lucifer had been … well, he had not been the greatest of them, that had been Michael. Raphael supposed it might be him now, though that stank fetidly of false pride; more likely it was Remiel or Barachiel or Nakir or Uriel or Zachariah or someone else.

 

But Lucifer had been great, very great, glorious; beautiful beyond compare; fair and brilliant; he had not been as the sunshine, he had been the sunshine, he had been more than the sunshine; he had been the star that guided them all. He had shone them the promise of new day in the darkest hours of the night. He had always had a new wonder to behold, to demonstrate, to explain to younger siblings, and he had loved Michael more than anything.

 

Lucifer had, finally, loved Michael more than their Father. Raphael supposed that had been counted as his greatest sin (if that was not pride). But, well, really … Michael had practically raised Lucifer. Father had (Raphael has heard) not much been around when Lucifer was new-made. Michael had been, though, and much despite the commander of Heaven's Host not being fit to raise a child he had managed it admirably.

 

(Not that angels were ever children, or helpless. But when new they were, while not ignorant or unintelligent or unable or even naïve, new. And they were, after a fashion, raised. As for Michael managing admirably, just looking at the way Lucifer turned out was enough to sprout questions.)

 

Raphael muses that perhaps the issue was always that Father and Lucifer clashed, because they were far too similar. But he never allows these musings to reach beyond his own Grace. That would be open rebellion. (Would Father even hear it, though? Would Father even care, if it were true?)

 

He will likely never know. What with Father being wherever He is, and Lucifer the Prince of Heaven (why Lucifer, why not Michael, Raphael wondered, in the expansively dark and lonely spaces between galaxies and the crushingly tiny and dense places beyond the event horizons of singularities; why was Michael not Prince if there was to be one; why was he not Crown Prince or Heir if Lucifer was to be one? Why not even the Son?) being locked in a cage far too small for his being in a lake of fire and pain.

 

Fire, pain, and Lucifer together like that strike Raphael. He has recently thought of these three together; what had it been? Oh yes, he recalls now. Raphael had heard Gabriel's dying Grace-call for the second time and been struck that Gabriel had thought of Lucifer in his call.

 

Why had Gabriel done that? Conscious, aware, and lucid, Raphael can consider his once brother with reasonable calm. But Gabriel had been nearly gone with pain and blood loss, and still he had thought of Lucifer as a brother; yet he had called to Lucifer, not to Helel. Gabriel still held a great place in his heart for his elder brother Lucifer, despite it being Lucifer as he is and not as he was before his rebellion and his war and his Fall.

 

Raphael had not ever realized quite how much Gabriel must have loved Helel to still call him brother as Lucifer. Raphael himself had not had enough love to forgive Lucifer for all the grief he had brought Raphael and their siblings. But Gabriel had (Raphael assumes Gabriel forgave Lucifer; Raphael at least cannot comprehend Gabriel loving without forgiveness). Raphael had never known.

 

More that he never knew about Gabriel. How delightful.

 

Gabriel had still loved Lucifer as a brother. He must have been terribly unhappy about the way Lucifer is, was, had been, referred to in Heaven. What a pain to hear those derogations each time the subject arose … Raphael would not have had the strength to stay silent.

 

Was it strength, though, that kept Gabriel silent all those years? Strength, wisdom, or fear? To keep his tongue bound when he dearly wished to loose it, strong; to hold his words when he knew their reception would be violently poor, wise; but to look away when he saw brutality, to close his ears when he heard slurs, cowardly.

 

Raphael does not see why an archangel need fear anything, truly, excepting the Fall (or death; he can see, firsthand, why they might fear death). If Gabriel had spoken in Lucifer's defense Raphael expects Michael would have stood by him. Raphael might have if Gabriel's words had been convincing enough, and they would have been, Raphael knows.

 

But Gabriel may have lost some of the love his siblings bore him. And that would be a hard loss to bear. Raphael can understand why Gabriel would not speak, then.

 

Still. Raphael doesn't know why Gabriel ever did anything, not really, it seems. This is just another mystery to remain unsolved for him.

 

<><><>

 

Ten days later, Raphael is taking a moment's break in his bower (office) when Barachiel disturbs him. He bursts into the room, wings flapping violently behind and alongside him. Barachiel's face is set in a frown.

 

Raphael sits up straight in his chair. He does not begin the conversation. Barachiel likes hearing himself talk, Raphael knows, and it is a nicety to allow him to do so, Raphael feels.

 

'The cherubs need to stop stalking me,' Barachiel announces. Raphael does not react.

 

'They have been trailing my flights these past three months,' Barachiel continues. 'Always just beyond my peripheral vision. I can feel their stares on my feathers.'

 

'Have you ever actually seen them following you?' Raphael asks, raising a single wing (he is unable to raise a single eyebrow, so he compensates).

 

'No,' Barachiel admits. 'But I know they're there!'

 

Raphael appreciates that Barachiel is relaxing. Formal speech from Barachiel is odd, stilted; unnatural.

 

'Why would the cherubim be following you?' Raphael questions. He doesn't dismiss the possibility that Barachiel is not paranoid because he is really being stalked.

 

'Because they know!' Barachiel exclaims.

 

'Know what?' Raphael responds.

 

'About the thing! The you-know,' Barachiel insists.

 

Raphael does not, in fact, know. But he can misdirect with the best of them (Lucifer, Zachariah, and, before, Gabriel).

 

'Ah, I see,' he says. He does indeed receive and understand interpretations of electrical signals sent by the optic nerves he is currently choosing to use.

 

'Exactly!' Barachiel cries, throwing his arms up, his wings following a second later in belated echo. He paces just past the edge of Raphael's decorative chair-height table. (Raphael refuses to call it a desk, because that would imply that he does work there, and Raphael will not start himself down the slippery slope to paperwork.)

 

Raphael frowns. 'What do you want me to do?'

 

'Fix it,' Barachiel hisses, whirling to stare Raphael in the eye, slamming his hands down on Raphael's table, wings furling upwards, feathers fluffed like an angry alley cat.

 

Raphael raises his wings and eyebrows in the same instant, gaze flicking down to Barachiel's hands. Barachiel glances down, and his face tinges red as he steps back, wings folding down.

 

'Sorry,' he mutters, looking away.

 

'It's fine.' Raphael says simply, and it is now. 'I will speak to the cherubim,' Raphael continues. 'And I will see what I can do.'

 

'Thanks,' Barachiel smiles at him. 'Excuse me,' he says, and Raphael nods. Barachiel nods his head, wings flapping in a strange half-dip, and departs as rapidly as he arrived.

 

Raphael sits back in his chair after Barachiel is gone. He doesn't really understand what just happened. But he told his brother he would try to solve a problem for him, and he will. Raphael sighs and stands to seek out the cherubim.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael discusses Barachiel's possible stalking with Zaphiel. Zaphiel is nominally in charge of the cherubim, but Raphael doesn't know how much power or authority that actually gives Zaphiel. It's not a topic Raphael has ever needed to know much about in the past.

 

Zaphiel claims that no one has been following Barachiel. Raphael recognizes that is not the same thing as no one following Barachiel. But Raphael extracts a promise from Zaphiel to find out the truth of the matter and end it. He feels he has done all that he could, considering he has no idea what's going on.

 

Raphael returns to his bower, questionably satisfied. His curiosity is aroused but Barachiel believes him to be in the know, and not being in the know he can't tell who else is, so he can't even just ask someone else.

 

It seems that Raphael continually discovers new mysteries. He had never realized how complicated his siblings were. He is not sure if he likes it or not. But he supposes it isn't up to him. Very little about what his siblings do or think or feel is up to him. He would never have let them mistrust each other, for one thing; he would never have let them scoff at one another. It brewed resentment, which led to dissension, which led to rebellion.

 

Raphael wonders, leaning back in his comfortable table chair, if Barachiel resents his siblings.

 

He remembers wondering this before, while flying to Gabriel's aid, seven hundred years in the past. He remembers hoping Barachiel has some sibling who truly understands him, as Raphael does not.

 

He does not know, still. But in the seven hundred years since his joke went unappreciated much has changed, and Barachiel is still in Heaven. He has not Fallen or faded or died. Raphael supposes that in comparison to many of Barachiel's elder siblings he is doing splendidly.

 

Especially considering all that Barachiel has seen and done. No less or more than many of them, to be sure, but then Raphael spent some four hundred years without speaking after he was forced to gather up his brother's ashes in a cold stone urn, and they all grieve differently. Raphael was a bit distracted during his own mourning period, so he doesn't know how Barachiel had grieved. If Barachiel had. Which he had, presumably. Raphael thinks. Barachiel had been the one to gather up Gabriel's fifteen last feathers from the cavern; surely Barachiel had been troubled by that, if not by Gabriel's death, and surely he had been troubled by Gabriel's death? Surely?

 

Raphael doesn't know. He has never known Barachiel as well as some siblings, partially because he has never taken the time to get to know Barachiel as well as some siblings. Which in turn is partially because he has never understood Barachiel as well as others.

 

Yet Barachiel is under his charge and his care, and even if he had not been, Barachiel is his younger brother. Raphael has a duty and a desire to see him happy and healthy. Surely Barachiel has cause for being disturbed or resentful, if he is. But Raphael doesn't know.

 

It bears watching. But Barachiel had relaxed earlier in Raphael's office. He had calmed when Raphael had not dismissed his worries out of hand. And he had come to Raphael when he had a problem. Barachiel must not wholly mistrust his siblings at the least.

 

That is good. Still, Raphael doesn't know, know without a shadow of doubt, that Barachiel truly trusts his siblings. Raphael must know. He must know if Barachiel trusts that the orders he follows are worth following. He must know if Barachiel will follow orders. He must know if there will be a day when he must cast Barachiel away and order him to never return.

 

Raphael will watch Barachiel more closely in the future. That is all he can do.

 

<><><>

 

A month after the perplexing and mysterious incident concerning Barachiel and the cherubim, Raphael is weaving bandages from moonlight just off of Io. He likes Io. The proximity to Prometheus is useful; the sulfur dioxide he enjoys collecting, bottling, and distilling into a type of angelic smelling salt. It may not be the kindest way to revive his siblings, but it is effective, and Raphael takes a certain measure of humor from giving them a tangible reason to stop getting hurt and being brought to him unconscious.

 

(Bandages and smelling salts are not exactly required to heal angels – but similarly, angels never exactly need to be healed, and Raphael does not exactly heal them.)

 

He weaves bandages from moonlight off of Io because here, it can be not only sunlight reflected from Io, it can be sunlight that has passed many empty spaces, an asteroid belt, and reflected off of sixty-six lunar bodies, though the major contributors are of course Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto. It is a good number, Raphael feels, yet one much-maligned. Numbers, he feels, are misunderstood, and misrepresented, far too often. Seven, for example. Seven is powerfully magical in many spells that can be very dark indeed, requiring blood sacrifices and horrors that echo over years, but seven is also the number of the archangels, those highest of the high who can stand in the presence of God and look upon His face.

 

Seven was the number of the archangels. Right now it is four.

 

(The other three – Raphael does not speak with them. (He's not sure his younger siblings actually know they exist.) One vanished after the Flood, furious with the wholesale slaughter of animals, but is presumably alive somewhere out in the night. One has never really been entirely here (though quite sane; Raphael would know). An, ah, interesting being. The last is probably arranging a cannibal sacrifice-orgy in a leopard-print-filled bachelor pad lit by lava lamps. Raphael doesn't judge, but he asks himself, really, just really? How has that one not Fallen yet, when their other favorite activities include eating babies and flaying dogs?)

 

Raphael's point is that numbers are much misrepresented.

 

Zachariah thankfully interrupts Raphael's soliloquy. He appears beside Raphael suddenly. But Raphael hears the rush of wings before his brother appears, and he is not alarmed.

 

Zachariah smiles. 'Good day, brother,' he remarks.

 

Raphael turns his head to indicate his attention. He is still weaving.

 

'Good day to you as well,' Raphael manages. He is unsure of how he feels about Zachariah right now. Zachariah's plan is still the only plan he has, but it was Zachariah who convinced him revisiting the past was a good idea. Yet it was not Zachariah who convinced him he ought to watch Gabriel die. That is not his younger brother's fault.

 

Zachariah must have caught something in Raphael's tone or expression. He pauses.

 

'Have I disturbed you, brother? I thought to only briefly break your solitude, I hope I am not intruding.'

 

Raphael does actually see Zachariah as an intrusion right now. But he had told Remiel where he would be so that he could be found by any who came looking. He had left his destination so that siblings could come and intrude upon his work. He puts down the bandage he is currently working on.

 

'No,' Raphael says. 'You are not. What did you wish to speak about?'

 

Zachariah tosses a half-bow, very similar to Barachiel's half-dip. 'I wondered if you had considered any more my plan.'

 

'Yes. I have.' Raphael answers flatly.

 

Zachariah pauses again. He seems adept at reading body language. Better than Raphael is. Perhaps it is a natural talent. Perhaps he studies.

 

'Did you reach a decision, brother?'

 

Why does Zachariah keep calling him brother? Why did Barachiel? Raphael is indeed their brother, but why use it so often to address him? It is almost as if they consider it a title, not a truth.

 

'Not exactly,' Raphael admits. He is still unsure if Zachariah's plan would work, or if it is even sane. Of course if not he should be all for it; Raphael is, after all, the champion, the patron, the saint of insanity. More importantly, Raphael is still not sure if he loves Michael. That was what the entire point of the trip back was, yet Raphael has not figured it out yet. Raphael needs to love Michael for the plan to work at all. He will have no motivation otherwise.

 

'Hmmm,' Zachariah hums in response, looking down on shifting clouds. Raphael thinks he is supposed to understand this as some type of agreement, commiseration, or objection, but he can't tell which. And that is confusing.

 

'What do you mean?' Raphael asks, finally, after waiting for some time.

 

Zachariah glances at him. 'I mean hmmm,' he replies, smiling in a thin, wide way that reminds Raphael of other brothers.

 

'I do not understand what “hmmm” means,' Raphael admits.

 

Zachariah smiles wider. 'It can mean many things, brother, but right now I mean only that I am considering what you said.'

 

'See that you do,' Raphael replies, nodding at Zachariah as if he means anything by his command. He has no clue what Zachariah can be thinking of; Raphael does not exactly have an answer for Zachariah, and Raphael thinks that is as clear as he can be on the topic. He doesn't know what else Zachariah expects to learn.

 

Zachariah's smile shrinks. 'I shall, brother,' he pronounces. 'And now, by your leave, I will attend to my duties elsewhere.'

 

Raphael nods Zachariah's dismissal and returns to his weaving.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael has decided that this is the third time in recent days when a simple conversation has left him far too much to think about. It is frustrating and puzzling. This needs to stop occurring, he thinks, but he does not know how to make sure it does. It is a goal to eventually accomplish.

 

He must face the question he has been hiding from. Does Raphael still love Michael, despite knowing he sent Gabriel to his death?

 

To be fair to Michael, Raphael is certain that Michael did not realize Gabriel would die. Michael thought he was sending the best weapon he had to slay a demon he needed to be dead. His decision makes sense. It is not Michael's fault that Gabriel could not kill the demon alone and live to exaggerate the story a hundred times over.

 

Raphael does miss Michael. Michael had not been funny or charming, but he had been captivating. Being in his presence was enrapturing. Michael lit up any space he occupied, and though Raphael did not remember him laughing or even smiling often, when he did they filled the area with unbounded delight.

 

Michael had not told jokes, but he had told stories; the kind of story an eldest sibling tells to frighten little children. They were always full of monsters in the dark, that would hide under perches, ready to steal feathers or eat new angels. Raphael had always been scared by Michael's stories, when he was new (and for some time after), but he had equally always believed that whatever scary monster walked or flew or crawled or slithered or oozed out in the darkness, Michael would stand between it and Raphael, guarding him from harm. Michael could slay any monster he found himself facing.

 

Michael had even done paperwork. That was a monster Raphael could not even imagine attempting to vanquish.

 

Raphael wants to see Michael's face again, feel the warm wind his fluttering wings made, hear his fond sighs over his siblings' silliness.

 

Raphael wants Michael back. Raphael hates running Heaven.

 

Raphael wants to see Michael happy and whole again.

 

(He ignores the part of his Grace that points out that with Lucifer gone Michael will never be whole again.)

 

Raphael must love Michael. What can this be, if not love? (This could be duty and sloth.)

 

Well, then, that is that. Raphael did not watch a brother die for nothing.

 

He loves Michael. He must help Michael heal. That is who and what Raphael is. He will find a way to heal his one remaining older brother, even if he has to implement Zachariah's insane apocalypse plan. Michael is worth it. Michael is his brother.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael has many brothers. Michael is not the only one to need his help. Or at least not the only one to demand it. Raphael suspects that few siblings need his assistance, really, but they like having someone to oversee their various duties. It makes them feel secure in their purpose. Raphael remembers when Michael made him feel secure like that. He is extremely frustrated with the sheer quantity of siblings and jobs that require him now. Running Heaven is not fun. Necessary, certainly, someone must, but it is not fun. Raphael will be happy to hand it back to Michael when he is feeling normal again.

 

Though that may be a long time from now. Raphael has spent the past three weeks, since deciding that he does love Michael, trying to figure out how to help his brother recover. Without any real success. He is not particularly imaginative, Raphael, because he has never needed to be. He is a healer. Imagination does not mend broken bones or soothe scraped knees.

 

Briefly Raphael considers how he might be different if he had been imaginative. Perhaps he would have been less frequently surprised. Over the years Raphael has often been baffled or nonplussed by events that many of his siblings saw coming a long way off. Raphael can predict an action's consequences, if he takes the time to consider them, but it does not come easily to him. Harahel, he recalls, can tell how people will react to nearly anything without a second's pause or thought.

 

Harahel can almost see the future. Did Harahel know, when Raphael and Michael argued, that Michael would fade?

 

Did Harahel know, when Michael faded, that Azrael and Abaddon would Fall?

 

Ah, Azrael … it is odd to consider Raphael's past sister. It has been six years nine weeks and three days since Raphael saw her. That is not a long time for angels, but it is longer than Raphael is used to not seeing siblings (though he has become used to not seeing her or Abaddon; they Fell a while ago). Yet if he wanted to see her now he could, probably, he supposes. He would have to seek her out, and she would not make it easy. Fallen angels quite rightly were wary of visits from former siblings. But Raphael can be resourceful. He could probably find her. If he wanted to.

 

Raphael doesn't want to. He did begin to understand Azrael better when he visited her six years ago, but Raphael isn't sure he wants to understand her any better. He thinks that comes with a price he would rather not pay again.

 

Raphael also doesn't want to be seen consorting with a Fallen angel. He may regard his past sister highly, but that is very different than regarding a Fallen highly. That is too close to rebellion for Raphael to be comfortable with it. None of the angels Raphael knows would be comfortable with it, really. It's just too risky. Michael would never approve, and who knew about Raphael's Father, but Raphael doubts He would look kindly on it. Forgive and forget and all that but Raphael remembers what happened to the Grigori and the Nephilim. Well, He won't hear about any rebellion, because there won't be any from Raphael. (Maybe He wouldn't hear about it even if there were … does He know anything about what's been happening in Heaven?)

 

No, there will be no rebellion from Raphael.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael admits he may need to go along with Zachariah's plan after two months of personal failure. He can't come up with anything to help Michael. He's never needed to help a sibling who's already faded. Raphael has, in the past, helped to calm and nurture a sibling who is in danger of fading, but it is much easier to cure a disease in the early stages. Michael is not in the early stages.

 

Raphael has never tried to heal a faded sibling because there is no reason to believe they can be healed. Human doctors cannot bring back the dead; they can re-start a heart that stops, if they arrive soon enough (Raphael knows irreparable brain damage causing lack of brain function can occur at five minutes without oxygen for humans); they can keep a body alive without brain function for years (Raphael understands humans are conflicted about the morality of doing so, however); they can wake up people frozen and suffocated at the same time (Raphael understands that oxygen deprivation combined with sudden intense temperature drops can slow bodily functions enough that humans can survive for up to thirty minutes in those conditions). Raphael imagines that him healing a faded sibling is a bit like a human doctor bringing back the dead.

 

But maybe it is like restarting a stopped heart. That is a bad metaphor, though; Raphael has been away from Michael for three centuries, and even for archangels, three hundred years is not like five minutes for humans. Perhaps it is closer to simultaneous freezing and suffocation. Yes, that is not at all a bad expression for what Raphael is hoping to do.

 

He can do this, if he just thinks of Michael in this way.

 

Think of Michael as being very slow … alive, but very slow … Michael had fallen into the lake. There must be a lake. Roughly circular, and edged with dark, wet, tall reeds and low-lying frozen ferns. Dark waters with a thin layer of ice and snow covering them. Michael had gone out onto the ice, skating in the bleak winter sunlight, foolishly proud, overestimating the ice layer and his own abilities … his skates had caught a lump in the ice, a frozen water lily leaf, yes, a crystallized lily pad; Michael had tripped, and stumbled, and his knees had broken through the thin ice … Michael had sunken into the dark water and vanished beneath the ice … Raphael had watched in incomprehension, and dawning horror, mounting terror … Raphael was calling for help, and Zachariah had a plan, he had an idea to pull Michael out … it was very simple, really, they would get Lucifer to lie down on the ice, distribute his weight so he didn't break it, and his hand would pull Michael out of the water … Michael would grab it, weak and cold but determined to live, and pull himself up … Lucifer would be jerked forward as Michael came out of the hole in the ice. Michael would lie panting on the ice as Lucifer slid, unwatched, headfirst into the depths … it would be Lucifer's life given for Michael's, and it would work, Michael would live … but Zachariah's plan required that Lucifer die, and Lucifer wouldn't want to, they would have to keep it secret … Lucifer would give his life for his brother's … wasn't that redemption in death? Would that be enough?

 

Raphael is shaken from his vision of the lake by the question. Is it enough, for his conscience, that Lucifer's death redeem him, for Raphael to pass sentence and decide that they will kill their brother and use his death to save another brother?

 

Yes. It is enough.

 

<><><>

 

Why had Gabriel's sword not burned with him?

 

Why had Azrael not felt Gabriel's death?

 

What in the world had Barachiel been up to with the cherubim?

 

Is it even possible to heal Michael?

 

Where is Michael?

 

Would Zachariah's plan heal Michael? Would it offend their Father?

 

Why was their Father letting all these things happen? Was He even still around? Was He watching? Could He?

 

Raphael is tired of mysteries. Part of not being imaginative is not being very inquisitive either. He doesn't enjoy these questions. He doesn't enjoy being unable to answer them. And he is getting fed up with accumulating new ones.

 

Gabriel must have done something to his sword. Raphael has no idea what or how, especially because the sword was a part of Gabriel's Grace, but there is no other explanation for it lasting beyond his death.

 

Azrael's lack of feeling must be because she was not in the cavern as he died. It still isn't a good explanation, but it's the only one he has.

 

Raphael will probably never know what Barachiel was doing. But considering that it was the cherubim, Barachiel had probably let slip some romantic preference. Or slighted love or romance somehow. Raphael decides firmly that he neither knows nor cares.

 

Raphael cannot allow himself to believe it is impossible to heal Michael. That kind of thinking will get him nowhere.

 

Wherever Michael is, if Raphael goes along with Zachariah's plan, surely Michael will be drawn out by the plan's consequences. Michael will come to them.

 

Zachariah's plan is better than no plan. And Raphael does remember how winning a spar always pleased Michael. He had enjoyed being good at his job and his role. (Raphael ignores the voice that says Michael had not been pleased by winning the war, because it had left him alive to see the battlefield that his blade had splattered shiny red with the blood of siblings.) If it offended their Father, He would be sure to tell them, just before they were punished. But really, Raphael doubts it will. It is, after all, His plan, just enacted a little bit early. Being early never hurt anyone.

 

Who knows where their Father is. Or if He can see what's happened. Or if He's letting anything happen. Raphael knows some pagan deities have faded into shadows of themselves. Some have died. But Raphael thinks angels, as the living extension of their Father's power, would have faded or died with him.

 

Raphael thinks.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael calls Zachariah to him the next morning. He is watching the sun shatter over the world from the moon. The view is not really singular, but it is impressive.

 

Zachariah is prompt at the summons. He gives Raphael a half-bow in greeting. 'Good morning, brother,' he says.

 

Raphael has begun to dislike this usage of “brother”. It is a relation. It should be personal and heartfelt. Recently Raphael's siblings have used it as a title to address him. It is not personal. It is not heartfelt.

 

'Good morning,' Raphael returns.

 

'What did you wish to speak to me about?' Zachariah inquires.

 

'I have reached a decision concerning your plan.'

 

'Oh? What did you decide?'

 

'After considering its virtues and vices, I believe that it has more virtue than vice in it.' Raphael pronounces carefully.

 

Zachariah smiles. It is not nice, but neither is it mean. It is pleased and somehow outwardly apathetic.

 

'Excellent,' he bites out, through a mouth full of sharp teeth.

 

Raphael is a bit disturbed by Zachariah's glee. He has an instant of second thought, but he quashes it. He must not be hesitant in front of this brother, he is certain of that.

 

'I leave initial preparations in your capable hands,' Raphael replies smoothly. 'I am occupied, managing Heavenly affairs, but do not hesitate to ask me for any help I can provide you.'

 

Zachariah gives him a sweeping nod. 'Of course,' he murmurs. 'If I might be excused, brother, I have much to do.' His wings fluff outwards, beginning to move into flight patterns.

 

Raphael considers for a second. If “brother” is a title, if they bow in greeting, if they ask to be excused, he is not merely the eldest sibling, he is the lord commander.

 

'No, you may not be excused yet,' Raphael tries. Zachariah looks surprised, but doesn't leave. His wings settle back slightly.

 

'Brother?' Zachariah asks carefully.

 

'I do not need to tell you that your plan is not to become common knowledge,' Raphael states. It is not exactly an order, but he thinks he could make it an order, and it might be followed. 'Tell only those assisting you directly, and from each extract their word they will be silent. This enterprise must be successful, and I will not have it sabotaged by those who do not understand it.'

 

Zachariah gives Raphael a half-bow. His wings bow too, which is a surprisingly subservient gesture. 'It shall be as you say, brother,' he says to Raphael's feet.

 

Raphael is torn between pleasure and disgust at this obedience. 'You are excused,' he offers.

 

Zachariah stands, nods his head to Raphael in farewell, and leaves.

 

Apparently Raphael has more power than he thought. And apparently Zachariah's enthusiasm disturbs Raphael (Zachariah's sword has disturbed Raphael for years). He will need to think about this.

 

Just when he had finally figured everything out. This is a sign that his Father is not watching, clearly, because Raphael had been one of His beloved children, and why would his Father torment such a son as this?

 

<><><>

 

Raphael is watching the training grounds a week after telling Zachariah to begin the necessary measures to end the world. He has heard nothing from his Father regarding his decision. Which means either that his Father is going to give him time to retract it, his Father doesn't care, his Father approves, or his Father doesn't know. None of these possibilities are helpful to Raphael, who has not been resting well recently. His decision sits poorly with him. The worry he is doing the wrong thing weighs heavily upon his flight feathers.

 

But Raphael has already sent Zachariah out to put his plan in motion. Raphael doesn't know how long he has until the plan is too far gone to be reversed or stopped, but considering the apocalypse is foretold plainly, he suspects not long. Prophecies and foretellings are a confusing business, often, and always frustrating. They frequently contradict one another or send those concerned down a path they would otherwise revile. Raphael is uncomfortable attempting to speed one up, but he has no better plan.

 

That is the heart of the matter. Raphael is not doing anything to further this plan personally because he cannot fully support it. He has too many doubts. He has no other plans. Without other plans, Raphael has no other options. He still doesn't really know if he can heal Michael (or if this won't break what little is left of him) but he feels that waiting any longer than he already has will not improve his chances. Raphael doesn't think he has any other choice – Michael is his brother.

 

(This will kill many siblings, some Raphael knows for certain and others he can only generally guess. This will scar any that make it through. It will decimate his Father's creations and desecrate His holy places. Seas of fire and blood will rain down destruction upon the land. Raphael does not have to allow this to happen. Not doing anything to save Michael is a choice too.)

 

Raphael's eyes clear as Remiel strides out onto the sparring ground. He unsheathes his sword and his wings edge themselves in gunmetal grey steel, curling up and out like a homeless city cat preparing to fight dirty for a scrap of old fish. Remiel waits for a challenger to come forth.

 

(Remiel's sword today is an estoc; it's odd, he usually prefers a claymore, but perhaps the lack of cutting edges is purposeful, and it's a lighter weapon. The estoc is going out of use, but for a spar it's less dangerous.)

 

Anael and Castiel approach at the same instant. Castiel stops, looks at Anael, gives her a slight bow and expansive arm-wing sweep that offers her the first fight. She nods in thanks. He steps back, wings folding in waiting, hands down at his sides.

 

Anael draws her blade. She sets her legs apart and spreads her wings. They turn copper, reflective blurrily, matching the shine of her sword, a saif. (The scimitar variant is her favorite blade, though Raphael has always thought the single edge to be a disadvantage.)

 

Remiel is a statue. He doesn't so much as blink while Anael begins to shift left and right, wings flicking in and out, faster and faster, and then she dives forward and he parries.

 

She breaks away, twists, comes back again, feinting uselessly; he catches her gouge on his sword's blunt edge, whirls it away from himself. But he does not follow it forward, maintaining his defensive strategy. Anael ducks down and around and springs upward; Remiel twirls smoothly and sidesteps the uppercut. She flicks away.

 

Raphael watches; Remiel swims through the air. Anael becomes a distracted blur, flitting in random directions, up left down right back front left up, trying to surprise Remiel. He is too long learned for her tactics, though, and his blade is there to block hers at every swing, stab, slash.

 

Remiel's avoidance is tiring her out. Her strikes begin to fall slightly slower, and as Raphael looks on, a downwards hiss is too far left. Remiel's estoc slinks upward, neatly tossing aside Anael's thin saif.

 

Remiel's longsword draws to halt at Anael's collarbone. Her throat would be a deadly spot, if they were truly fighting, but the estoc's current resting place would slice through one of the major joints between torso and wing, if Remiel brought it down into her flesh with the strength he could exert. Anael releases her scimitar and murmurs, 'I yield, brother,' staring down at the weapon.

 

Remiel raises his blade. He hasn't even scratched Anael. She retrieves the saif, holding out a hand for it, and absorbing it as it contacts her skin.

 

(Not that any of them have shoulders, or collarbones, or skin.)

 

Anael retreats off the field. Castiel politely gives Remiel a patient pause to gather himself. When Remiel looks at Castiel, the younger angel steps forward carefully. His cautious prowl puts Raphael in mind of a soldier walking a meadow studded with hidden land mines. It's not a very inaccurate metaphor.

 

Castiel halts, just out of the range of Remiel's sword. It's at the upper end for an estoc, not a surprise, considering that Remiel has the strength for the weight and the wings to balance out the length. Castiel's known to choose some type of scimitar almost exclusively.

 

(Angels do tend to pick favorite blades. They can use whatever they want, but what they train with affects how they fight. Raphael prefers a double-edged rapier, not that he uses a sword much, but when the healer has to fight it usually means he's defending a patient, and he has no time to waste with a fight. He'd rather stab them somewhere crucial and move on.)

 

Remiel's longsword means he needs to dispatch an enemy before they get too close (or he'll have to shrink it), but Castiel's typically shorter and curvier blades mean that he needs to get close to do real damage. The estoc is a stabbing weapon, designed to go straight through the opponent, but the scimitar is meant to leave long, shallow wounds all over. It's not a good match for either fighter.

 

(Raphael wonders why so many of Uriel's garrison like curved blades. Anael's favorite is the saif; Castiel swaps between different scimitars; Uriel prefers a kilij. Raphael remembers one day where the entire garrison trained with khopeshes. That had been surprising, impressive, and a little bit terrifying.)

 

Castiel has still not moved from his place out of Remiel's reach, and neither has Remiel shifted from his waiting stance. Raphael blinks in surprise. Has Castiel even drawn his sword yet? No, he hasn't, what is his young brother doing?

 

Raphael glances around the field, searching for some sign of comprehension from a sibling, but though the edges of the sparring ground are ringed with Castiel's garrisonmates, none of them share his plan, it's plain to see. Raphael catches Uriel's gaze and raises his eyebrows in question, but Uriel shrugs.

 

Fine. Castiel and Remiel are having a staring contest before they spar. That makes sense. As much as anything Castiel ever does. Remiel is as close to a cat as angels get. Castiel is sure to lose.

 

Raphael lets his mind drift away from his ridiculous siblings, but it calls back to them. Why does Remiel just wait to play defense now? He used to surge into the attack at the first possible moment. Before he'd had to siphon Gabriel's blood into a jar to carry back to Heaven. Maybe that has something to do with the change? It's striking that Raphael isn't sure, and that it's taken him seven hundred years to notice. He has, perhaps, been a bit self-absorbed. He will change that, in the future.

 

Remiel – what else had collecting that blood done to him? Well, it's been so long, who knows? (Remiel. Raphael could ask. He won't. He has enough terrors to fill his days and nights without letting in another's.) Being a defensive warrior isn't a bad thing. It might keep him alive someday. Either way, Raphael can't do anything. Raphael can't heal what isn't ill or wounded … and he's never been intended to heal the psyche. Raphael might patronize the insane but he doesn't bring their minds back. (Raphael ignores the implications for Michael.)

 

No, his Father had never set him to that task. Ah, his Father … recently his Father seems to have done little to nothing. Is He even around anymore?

 

In that dark moment after Gabriel's Grace-call Raphael had despaired that his Father was dead.

 

Surely that is false. His Father cannot be dead. Besides, Raphael has already established that angels would have died with Him. So his Father is fine … just somewhere else. Not listening. Not watching. Not helping.

 

Raphael has prayed for help so often and never heard a word, never seen a sign.

 

Somewhere inside him a voice whispers that Raphael doesn't know that angels too would die.

 

Angels would surely perish with their Father. They are beings of His creation, after all; His power, but sentient.

 

Why could not a creation outlive its creator, though? Raphael has seen that phenomenon happen among humans since the world began. Angels are not limbs of God, they are beings He made in His image. Could not they survive to see His death?

 

No, no of course not. Raphael's Father is fine. Just absent and creating enormous abandonment issues in His wake. Just letting everything head off to Hell in a handbasket while He, while He, snorkels or, or skis, or gets a full-body massage in some cheap spa's dirty back room under old fluorescent tube lights. It's great parenting.

 

Something grabs Raphael's attention and yanks it back to the spar. Has Castiel finally given in to Remiel in their staring competition?

 

No, Raphael sees, it is the opposite. Remiel has given in to Castiel. What a precedent to set before they fence. He can tell Uriel shares his opinion from the shake of his head directed at Remiel. Uriel must agree that Remiel should not encourage Castiel's … oddity.

 

Raphael loves his brother, but there is no denying that Castiel is unique.

 

Finally, finally, Castiel's left hand reaches down to a sudden scabbard. He draws out a piandao, shining in the light he throws. Left-handed, what a way to keep Remiel off balance; Raphael had never known Castiel to fight with his left. He's not the only one surprised; Anael's wings are bristling in shock. Castiel's wings –

 

Remiel blinks.

 

Castiel's wings shudder and are blue, the blue of the ocean, the Atlantic, the Pacific, as seen on a sunny day from above. They ripple. Raphael imagines he sees waves cresting, dolphins leaping, a shark's fin rushing down, a cloud of floating jelly pulsating in the current. The blue is amazing. It is water, in so many shades; it's an incredible blue, the real true blue of water that you can only see with enough of it together. Castiel's wings are the sea, living, fluttering, swimming over feathered appendages before their astonished gazes.

 

Raphael has never seen such wings before.

 

What use could they be in battle, though? How will the water help his cause? (Why must they be useful? But they must serve a purpose, he chastises himself.)

 

Castiel begins to swing the piandao (and what an interesting choice, it's technically a sabre, Raphael recalls, slightly outside of Castiel's comfort zone). Remiel shifts backward, wings shading to an even charcoal grey tint. Remiel thinks this will be a harder fight than his bout with Anael.

 

Castiel slides closer, sword cutting the air. Remiel raises the estoc. Castiel launches himself forward, stunningly fast, single-edged blade slamming down against Remiel's just-barely-blocked left.

 

Then Remiel is slashing back, attacking, marching forward, pressing Castiel's arm into his chest ferociously. Castiel shoves, hard, nearly skewering Remiel's left ear with his own sword. Remiel tosses his head out of the way, wings catching the new angle swiftly. Castiel hops away, sword swirling around to tease at Remiel's right ankle. Remiel leaps up above the cut, smacks the flat of his blade down at Castiel's hip. Castiel parries, piandao sending the estoc rippling away like sunshine on the breaking foam.

 

Perhaps the water-wings are worth something. They seem to influence the fluidity of Castiel's movements. Castiel's dodges and sidesteps are the sweeps and ripples of an eel's tail. His strikes are the the sudden shocking lunges of the sand-burrowing Squatina squatina.

 

The two trade ringing blows under the garrison's eyes. Castiel is equipping himself well, for one so young; for one at any age, truly. Uriel will be proud of this fight. Yet Raphael sees something strange, as the spar continues; he can't quite catch a wing around it.

 

They dance. Or so it seems to Raphael, who has never before understood why sword fights were spoken of majestically.

 

Castiel circles left, Remiel keeping pace. Castiel feints down, as Anael had; again, Remiel's blade deflects the blow. Castiel uses the opportunity to turn even more and jerk his sword away. Remiel tips forward slightly, brought off-balance by the loss of resistance, and stumbles. Castiel's sword jumps in and Remiel actually leaps back to avoid it.

 

Then Remiel gathers himself and begins to press an attack in earnest. He appears to have decided that his best defense will be a good offense. Remiel slashes heavily, putting both arms to the task, slamming down into Castiel's sword, which flies through the air like a stingray in the shallows, consistently turning and twisting to visit everywhere Remiel aims to wound.

 

Castiel's left arm must be aching; Remiel's two-handed swings are naturally twice as powerful as Castiel's one-handed blocks, so Castiel must work harder to keep up, but he is actually holding his ground very well when Raphael realizes what has struck him as odd.

 

Castiel's right arm has nothing. Typically, a one-handed blade was accompanied by a shield or a shorter blade in the other hand. Otherwise the empty arm was vulnerable to getting in the way or getting cut off.

 

Castiel's right arm is empty, and then it is not, his piandao splitting into two, one for each arm, and he fights on, twirling the pair in neat circles. Now Remiel is using a single stabbing blade against a double sabre wielder. The match is even more lopsided.

 

Remiel is the one tiring now. More importantly, as it begins to seem that Remiel will lose, when had Castiel learned to fight with two swords? Where?

 

Castiel's two blades flicker around Remiel's estoc. Remiel keeps forgetting the curves, catching replying swings at the last second. He remembers both sabres (more than Gabriel had managed), but their angles are unlike his own, and then Castiel's right piandao slaps the sword out of Remiel's hands while his left threatens to separate Remiel's torso from his legs.

 

Remiel freezes. 'I yield,' he proclaims, and Castiel releases him. As the two stow away their swords, a storm of applause picks up around the field, and Castiel's garrisonmates flood around him, embracing and congratulating their younger brother. Remiel bows to Castiel, who returns the movement in a deeper respect, earning a louder wave of applause for his gallantry.

 

Raphael picks his way over to Uriel as the crowd begins to exclaim over Castiel's water-wings, and asks quietly, 'Where did he learn that?'

 

Uriel shrugs lightly. 'I do not know. Not from me. But all the same I am pleased.'

 

Raphael had known he would be. 'So too am I,' he replies. 'He fought well.'

 

Raphael takes his leave and heads back to his bower. Castiel's prowess was not something he predicted, though admittedly Raphael had never before taken the time to look over his brother well.

 

He had not let on that he was that skilled with his left arm or both at once until he disarmed Remiel. Raphael is not sure the apparent talent for secrecy is pleasing (so few of them can manage it at all) or worrying (what might he hide in the future?).

 

Castiel and Anael had been Uriel's assistants in disposing of the demon's remains. Again, Raphael finds that he has never considered how they might have been affected by the task.

 

He knows how it affected Uriel: Gabriel's death, the demon disposal, and the futile ten-year search had dried out Uriel's sense of humor until all that was left was a crackling husk.

 

Anael … maybe that is why she is still around. He had honestly expected that she would have given up years ago, and she has not yet. If the body had shown her what happened to angels alone she might have been too frightened to leave; if Gabriel's death had shown her what lack of glory was to be found in dying valiantly she might have been too jaded to kill herself. If Michael's fading had shown her how easy it was for any of them to fail, and how hard it was for the rest of them to move on, she might have been encouraged to stick around for her hatchmates.

 

Castiel? Raphael really isn't sure. Maybe he'd gotten the idea for the two swords from the demon. Raphael hopes not. That disturbs him like Zachariah's sword (actually a wicked little dagger, a misericorde, used to give the wounded a mercifully quick death).

 

Maybe he had been driven to fight the way he did. Maybe that was why he had begun with the staring contest. Mental warfare. Castiel had used every weapon at his disposal, and done so in an atypical manner. He will be a fierce soldier. Raphael can see that someday Castiel will be very dangerous indeed. He'll probably surprise them all again.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael drives all curiosity out of himself. He doesn't need it, he's never wanted it, and it will do him no favors. He has a job to do and an apocalypse to oversee.

 

He continues to run Heaven. There is much to give official approval to, much that might be better handled as paperwork, and that is when he knows that he needs Michael back right now. Raphael will not do paperwork. That is not who he is and he refuses to become the kind of archangel who spends his days buried in mountains of dead trees.

 

Raphael decides that when Zachariah next comes to update him on the plan's progress he will press that it be hurried along. There isn't exactly a time limit, but this takes priority over other things.

 

Indeed, when Zachariah visits him two days later, Raphael orders that Zachariah speed it up. Before something goes wrong and it all goes bad and rots and decays and putrefies and oh, Father, why doesn't his Father care that he is ordering the destruction of all that He created?

 

There is no way Raphael can believe his Father would let him continue like this. He's sped up the countdown to the end of the world. If He was giving Raphael a chance to back down Raphael just spurned that. He must care. This was His plan, it mattered to Him, He would not just roll over and take it while Raphael commanders this ship. He can't possibly approve of Raphael literally letting the world burn to save one life. Raphael can't believe He would think Michael's health worth more than several billion lives. No, He always said angels ought to bow to humans, He would not approve of saving one angel this way. If He doesn't know … Raphael's Father is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. The last one is apparently hit and miss, but Raphael had never known his Father to not be omniscient. Even if He has dwindled into a voice echoing on the wind, He would know what Raphael is doing, and He would find a way to object. Vociferously.

 

Raphael has eliminated all the possibilities, leaving behind only the impossible. It must be impossible. The only other alternative is that his Father is dead.

 

Which cannot be true. Raphael could not stand it. His Father is fine.

 

Raphael could not stand to lose another. Ever. (He will lose so many … )

 

No, Father is not dead, He cannot be dead, He will not be, Raphael will find Him, Raphael will save Him, Raphael will heal Him, Raphael –

 

Raphael cannot do both. He cannot save both Father and Michael. He is only one archangel. He has only so many hands. (More than two, when he wants, but it's the principle of the thing.) Raphael has already started the plan to save Michael. He is committed. He will not back down from the orders he gave.

 

Raphael will find Michael.

 

Raphael will save Michael.

 

Raphael will heal Michael.

 

Michael is not dead. Raphael knows Michael to be alive. (There is no alternative.)

 

Father … Raphael has his wings extended completely to shelter Michael from the wind and the rain and the driving cold. Raphael has no space, no time, no presumption, to shelter his Father.

 

If Raphael cannot find Him, cannot save Him, cannot heal Him, who can? Who is there who could do more than Raphael? What being in all of Creation could give more to his Father than Raphael could?

 

None. If Raphael does not seek out his Father, there will never be any that can. But Raphael has already set in motion his plan to save Michael. Zachariah's plan. To end the world and bring about Paradise, to tempt their Father back home.

 

Lead us not into temptation … watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak … God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but when you are tempted He will also provide a way out so that you can endure … when tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone … and Moses said unto them, wherefore do ye tempt the Lord? … they tempted the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” … ye shall not tempt the Lord your God … lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert … yea, they that tempt God are even delivered … my brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations … every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed … he himself suffered when he was tempted … he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan … deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever … amen …

 

Raphael wishes, fervently, that he did not know any scripture. He wishes he were ignorant, and that he did not know everything wrong with this plan. He wishes life were simple, life were easy. It isn't, of course, and won't get any simpler or easier by wishing. Futile though it is, Raphael wishes, fervently.

 

Raphael has to choose. If he does not save his Father, no one can, but Raphael must save Michael, and he cannot save both. It is a quiet, steady truth that at this point Raphael is running a huge and dreadful hospital, and saving Michael is just triage. It makes sense. Raphael chooses.

 

Raphael has already set in motion the apocalypse plan. There will be no search for his Father. Raphael will save Michael, watch the world burn, and then Raphael will sit at the gates of Heaven, he will sit in the gardens of Paradise, with his siblings at his sides, and he will wait for his Father to come home, and Father will never come. Because Raphael's Father will always deny the temptation. Because Raphael's Father will be much grieved to see the evils His children did. Because Raphael chose. Because, at the end of all things, Raphael will admit to the survivors, Raphael's Father is dead.

 

<><><>

 

Raphael likes gardens. Heaven has many. His Father likes – his Father liked gardens.

 

Raphael has not spoken a word to any of his siblings about their Father. They do not need to bear the grief. He will carry it for them all, a solitary mourner.

 

Well, the silver lining to Raphael's wearisome cloud, Raphael has had practice mourning dead family. So there is that.

 

When Gabriel died Raphael built a fountain and a garden to memorialize him. Did not his Father deserve the same honor on a greater scale?

 

Raphael will grow a beautiful memorial garden for his Father. It shall be magnificent, filled with every color of flora that now lives, many that will die out shortly, and some that are already gone. There will be an abundance of corpses of fauna, so Raphael will not be short of good fertilizer. He expects quite a few siblings will suffer unpleasantly sharp endings, so there should be a sizable supply of angel's blood to water his garden with. They would want to be part of the garden, if they knew what Raphael was planning.

 

Hmm. What to do for a fountain? Perhaps Raphael will hollow out a mountain and fill it with the liquified remains of his Father's favorite creatures. Like a blood (and melted skin and juiced organs and ground-up bones) volcano. But far less messy. Raphael will give the fountain a decently large river basin, like a moat, around the edges to catch overflow.

 

Yes, that will be pleasant. It will evoke the wonder Raphael feels his siblings so often lack. He himself is not nearly as wondrous as he should be at his Father's Creation. The garden will be the perfect place to appreciate all of that, to mourn their Father and rejoice in His life.

 

After the apocalypse shall come Paradise. All who survive shall be healed.

 

Michael will be whole once more. Raphael will be able to rest in peace. Gabriel's loss will be felt keenly for eternity.

 

Paradise will bring great joy to Raphael's siblings. It would please his Father to see, but Raphael's Father will not see it. God is dead.