The guy next to her has one of those faces-- you know the ones, that look like you've met them twenty times before, but you just can't quite place them. She swings her feet, kicking against the stainless steel legs of her uncomfortable chair, sneaking a surreptitious glance. He's even-eyed, light-skinned; his hair curls lightly to just above his ears, and he grins at her very slightly when he catches her looking.
"Hi," he whispers. "I'm Gabe."
She blinks. "Anna," she whispers back.
The supervisor, at the head of the circle (not that circles usually have heads, but a failed metaphor is the least of Anna's issues, and it's more of a wobbly ovoid anyway) clears her throat and looks at them. "Are you two finished?"
He laughs, "yes Ma'am," sketching a mock salute.
Anna just ducks her head, in a close approximation of a nod. She's not used to getting paid attention, except in one-on-one sessions, which she hates anyway. Over the three months she has spent here, she has gotten very good at staying exactly where she wants-- unnoticed.
"All right," the supervisor says. She is an older woman, maybe mid-forties, wearing an obnoxiously floral blouse over white pants, hair falling in a straight dyed-brown sheet to just above her shoulders. "Let's start with some introductions, shall we? Our names, and then the reasons we came here, to seek help. I'm Doctor Wilton."
They go around the circle. Anna shrugs, at her turn. "I’m Anna. I hear voices."
Gabe runs a hand through his hair, leaning back in his chair. "Gabe," he says, "I find people easy to manipulate."
He grabs her wrist on the way out of group. His hands are smooth, not rough.
She hasn't been touched in a really long time so she shivers, flinches, pulls away.
"Sorry," he says, looking sincerely apologetic, hands in the air, flat and separate from anything else. "Anna--"
She shakes her head. "It's fine," she says. "What did you need?"
"Just to talk," he says. "You hear angels."
She bites her lip. "Yeah," she says. "It's not like it's that uncommon, as far as being crazy goes--"
There is something in the air between them, something tight and tense that will not crack. It makes her shiver, like her mom used to say, someone walking over your grave.
He stares at her, weight of his gaze so heavy she can feel her shoulders start to droop. "I don't think you're crazy," he says. "Can we talk in your room?"
She sits, cross-legged on the end of her bed. Her hair falls in a messy braid over her shoulder, and she plays with the end of it, feeling small.
He stands, awkwardly, in the doorway. "So," he says. "What do the angels say?"
"Latin, mostly," she says. "Stuff about the end of the world." The hospital gown itches at her collarbone; absently, she rubs at her skin. "I didn't think I was crazy, for a while."
He looks away, then back again. "But you do now?"
"Do I have any other option?" she asks. Her mouth hurts; she touches her lip with her tongue, and tastes old bitter copper. The bedspread underneath her is pure, unmarked white.
He says, "Faith," looking like it's hard for his mouth to wrap around the words.
"You don't sound convinced," she says. A strand of red hair catches under her fingernail. She breathes in.
"The evidence of things not seen," he muses. "C'mon, Anna Milton, haven't you ever wanted to just believe?"
"Lucifer is rising," she says. "Maybe he's already risen; I can't tell. You want me to listen to those voices? You want me to believe that everyone I’ve ever loved is going to die?"
"I don't want you to," he says. "That doesn't mean you don't have to." he stops, and stares at her for a long heavy moment. "C'mon, I think they have roast potatoes in the cafeteria."
"Have you ever thought about who you are?" he asks. "I know it sounds like a stupid question."
"Hey," she says, "I’m in therapy. There’s no such thing as a stupid question."
They are sitting in his room, side by side on his bed. There’s a carved wooden chest at the end of his bed. It’s the only thing vaguely resembling life in the entirety of that whitewashed stale room.
Her hand slips over the edge of the bed; she runs her fingers along the carved patterns, sworls and curves spelling out a language she doesn't understand. "We’re not supposed to have personal belongings," she says. "Breaking the cycle."
"Open it," he says, gently.
She puts both hands flat on the lid, pressing down, before she pulls it open, watching the light inside spill over her palms.
You were a kid, he says, do you remember being young?
She looks at him and says, I was never young.
(That’s a lie.)
The first time Anna quantified love, she was four years old. She had fallen, on the sidewalk just outside her house, and skinned her knee.
Her mom sat her down in one of their wooden kitchen chairs, where her feet dangled 'cause they couldn't reach the ground, and dabbed antiseptic on the raw, bleeding bits of skin, one hand balanced carefully on the other side of Anna's knee.
Anna hissed when she breathed in, because it hurt, and all of a sudden she was crying; it seemed like it hurt more now than when she had tripped.
Her mom reached up and smoothed the tears from under Anna's eyes with the ball of her thumb, and kissed her forehead. "It’s gonna be okay," Anna's mom told her, very gently. "Oh, baby, I’m sorry it hurts."
"You don't understand," Anna cried, shaking her head, because it hurt so bad.
"If I could," Anna's mom said, looking right into her eyes, "I would take this pain from you, and feel it myself."
And Anna sucked in a breath, and startled, stopped crying, just stared at her mother.
Anna's mom smiled at her, reassuringly. "I love you," she said, and then put the bandage on.
There’s an angel named Castiel, somewhere in the vast reaches of His universe, who is wearing Anna's love on his Grace; guilt makes the heaviest burden anyone's ever fathomed, and he knows it. But he will bear it, for the sake of the world, and two brothers who play him loud music, and a little girl who misses her father.
She knows that she loves him, because if she could she would take even that from him; he is her brother and though he has betrayed her, though he has sent her back to an empty Heaven where she is wrapped in cotton memories, smothered by illusions that choke everything she’s ever been, there is nothing in her that would ever not die for him. There is nothing in her that wouldn't Fall for him.
I have wings, she says, gasping. Where am I?
Ruefully, he shakes his head. Welcome to Heaven, sis, he says, and the longing in his eyes catches her and renders her breathless.
Her first day of school, Anna got caught sneaking out of the staff room with a fistful of brown sugar crystals from the bowl on the table. Curiosity killed the cat, she was told, reprovingly, before being lead down the hall and back to the room where naptime was underway.
The next day, she was armed. She managed to get into the jar of m&m’s on the counter, before she was glared at down the bridge of a stern nose, and warned, What have I told you, Anna Milton?
Anna grinned brightly, even though her teeth were multicoloured. "Satisfaction brought it back," she said, and followed smugly down the hall.
She remembers watching trees grow, flowers bloom; little girls fall and skin their knees, little boys scrape their palms trying to get up trees; time passing in a steady flow where she could do nothing, not even dip her toes in it. She remembers being stuck at a one-step remove, kissing-close but just out of reach; remembers the way life seemed to pulse in their veins and seem so much realer, for the fragility of it.
She remembers reaching one hand down, just to see if she could touch something.
She remembers thinking, what the hell, and the sharp burst of satisfaction that was nothing compared to the pain of falling, but brilliant all the same.
Remember who you are, he tells her.
Easy for you to say, she retorts. You’re the douchey brother.
She doesn't know if this ever happened; she thinks it would be nice, if it had.
She is sitting on a roof, with a demon wearing the body of an almost-dead girl. They are sitting on their jackets, side by side; mirror images, except that she is light where Ruby is dark, and empty, where Ruby is bursting at the edges.
The sun brushes along their bare arms equally, like there is not a world of difference between them, warmth seeping through, almost liquid, into her veins.
Anna catches her breath; up here, it's easy to believe there isn't.
"You’re not scared--" Ruby starts, and then shakes her head. "I was going to say of falling."
"Not much point in that," Anna says. "Why, are you?"
Ruby shrugs. "I know I’ve taken the big fall, but I don't know. The little things are scary enough, some days."
Anna puts her hand down, palm-up, between them. The roof is kind of hot, but she doesn't mind. "It’s good to lose a little perspective, sometimes," she says. "Besides, little things can be good."
What are you doing here? she asks, reaching up with one hand to feel for her own pulse; her Grace is there, beating steadily, glowing like a million fireflies.
You and I, he says, you and I are the only ones who left for the joy of it. I couldn't let them have you.
Before Gabriel left, he used to tell her about their father. He used to say, He is wise and brave and beautiful, and He will never let us falter. They would sit, side by side, and watch the stars blip into existence, and he would say, He is all the love in all of His creation, and more.
She was young; she used to press herself against his side, and let his awe seep into her.
After their brother flung himself from Heaven with all the rage that had just been named, Gabriel stopped talking about their father. They would sit together, still, but Gabriel’s bitterness would colour everything.
Once she asked him what their father thought about the mess that Michael and Lucifer had gotten themselves into, lightly and brightly, struggling into her armour.
Gabriel stopped, like a wind-up doll running out of clockwork; looked at her with broken empty eyes and said, He doesn't care; He left.
And then he was gone too; and all she could wonder was, would he have stayed, if only she hadn't asked? And she kept thinking, come back, fiercely; she was never quite sure who she was thinking it to.
"You ditched me," she says, voice crystal-sharp, and too loud against her ears. She is kneeling with her hands pressed to the chest; acutely aware of her wings, every feather trembling, in a little white room, in a hospital Heaven built to make her forget everything she ever knew. "You left me in Heaven. Alone. At Zachariah’s mercy, and you know he’s always hated me. I thought I was insane!"
"I feel bad about that," he says, wryly, sprawled across the bed, "really, I do. Can we get out of here now? This place is giving me hives, I swear."
"Could just be laundry detergent," she says, but she takes his hand when he gets up, letting him pull her to her feet. "I’m not gonna be some kind of Disney princess," she informs him, "just because you rescued me. You do realize we have some saving of the world to do, and you have been seriously remiss--"
He makes a face, stretching his wings out behind them. "Follow my lead," he whispers, "and hold on tight. This is gonna be one hell of a ride."
She squeezes his hand, once, and does what he tells her.
The gates of Heaven open wide for him, at the force of his will.
Show-off, she says. I bet you can't drink for shit.
The warmth of his laugh keeps her safe all the way to Earth. We’ll see about that, he says, as soon as we get home.