Gabriel opened the glass door of the diner, setting off a cluster of brass bells that announced his arrival. He scowled at them. Bells. Never had been one for bells.
He shook off the damp that had collected on his hair and jacket and gazed around the room. A dozen booths with vinyl bench seats and linoleum tables wrapped in aluminum, a counter with another half-dozen swivel chairs with the kitchen behind, metal signs on the walls, black and white tile floor, all very…quaint. He couldn’t figure out if the look was new retro or actually just very old and well kept.
A young woman in skinny jeans, a short sleeve aqua blouse and a three-pocket apron looked up from a table where a trio of men sat. “Have a seat anywhere,” she called back to him as she set down the first of three heaping dinner plates, “I’ll be right with you.”
Gabriel took a booth and sat so that he could see the majority of the diner, including the door. It was a defensive position, but once learned he’d never been able to give up the habit. He chose to keep on the leather biker jacket that he had purchased a few days ago; it had a comfortable warmth that helped to fight the chill that had crept into his bones over the last hours.
How could humans do it, he thought to himself. These fragile, pathetic bodies, susceptible to the least changes in temperature or altitude. He silently cursed his ill fortune. Father must have overheard his diatribes against the humans, it was the only reason that Gabriel could see for being given this task of watching over one of them, and as a human no less. Why he was forced into the ignominy of this human form once again he could not understand, but Father was not one to explain his decisions, nor one to be questioned.
The young woman arrived at his table brandishing a pot and cup and offered them. “Coffee?”
Gabriel scowled again. “Is it warm?”
A grin split her face; she liked it when people came in a bad mood, she saw it as a challenge. “Actually, it’s hot.” She put the cup down and filled it up. “Don’t burn yourself.”
He took a sip, then nearly spit it out. “What is this foul liquid?”
“Coffee?” she said again, laughing. “Most people say we have good coffee here. I wouldn’t know, I drink tea.”
He tried it again but his expression did not change. “At least it is warm.”
“You can add some sugar or creamer or something.”
His eyes followed her outstretched finger toward the ceramic container filled with tiny packets. He pulled one out and examined it suspiciously while she slid a folded paper out of one of the pockets of her apron and onto the table in front of him. “I’ll give you a minute to look at the menu,” she offered, turning to go.
“Do you have pudding?”
The waitress had only gone a couple of feet and came up short. “Excuse me, what?”
“Pudding. Do you have pudding? You must know what pudding is: chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, even that rather questionable tapioca.”
She walked back to his side with a look of disbelief. “I know what it is, I’ve just never had anyone ask for it before.”
“Oh.” He sounded more disappointed than irritated. “Then you don’t have it.”
“Um, no, sorry.” She frowned and rubbed at her forehead. The loonies really did come out at 3 a.m. “But we have pie. And it’s fresh, still warm even. The owner just finished baking a little while ago.”
“Pie.” He pondered the thought for a moment.
“Today we have strawberry rhubarb or raspberry cream cheese. I can make it à la mode for if you want but I don’t suggest it on the raspberry.”
He stared at her uncomprehending.
Again, a laugh escaped her. “How about I just bring you a piece of the strawberry rhubarb and you can see if you like it.”
She returned in a few minutes with a generous slice of pie garnished with a small mountain of whipped cream. Setting it down in front of him, she picked up the four empty packets of sugar that lay scattered across the table. She suppressed a grin – the guy obviously had a sweet tooth, the pie should work. Lastly, she set down a fork, and leaned against the seatback opposite him.
Gabriel picked up the fork and experimentally picked at the pie. He pulled off a small bite and tasted it glumly, expecting results similar to the coffee. Instead, it was…delightful. Flaky crispy carmelized crust, a mélange of tart and sweet, and as she had promised, still warm. He took another, larger forkful and eagerly ate it, and another and yet another. Only then did he remember that he was being watched.
“So, you like it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he mumbled around what was still in his mouth. Societal norms be damned; this was too good to stop eating. The humans did have one advantage in their too-short lives and that was occasionally dining well. Alright, there were a few other perks, but right now all that mattered to him was the pleasure that was sitting on a plate in front of him. A pleasure nearly gone. “May I have another?”
Her expression was a bit smug. “Do you want the same or do you want to try the other one?”
“The same.” This deserved more investigation.
Gabriel ate the second piece more slowly, savoring each bite, allowing himself to enjoy the texture, the flavors, the whole essence that made it “pie.” This time, thankfully, he did not have an audience; the waitress had left the second plate and returned to the only other patrons in the diner. He was grateful, it was an experience he wanted to have all alone. He’d even taken his jacket off so as to make himself more comfortable. For a few moments, he’d forgotten how annoyed he was being sent on this mission, being in this town, in the cold, being human again.
The corner of his mouth curved up. Should he have a third?
“Hey there, back again?”
Gabriel stopped just inside the doorway of the diner. He once more felt irritated. Irritated that he was still in this city, irritated that he should feel embarrassed for coming back to this simple restaurant, for being so easily recognized. Granted, it was the middle of the night and he was one of a total of five people in the entire establishment, he should not have expected to be incognito.
Nonetheless, he was scowling once again as he sat down in the same booth he had before. The waitress arrived but without the coffee pot. “Try something different tonight?”
His chin jutted out stubbornly. “Do you have pie again?”
“You’re hooked, aren’t you?” Her eyes sparkled in amusement. “Tonight, Tim baked apple and pecan. Almost feels like fall, not nearly spring.”
“I will try apple.”
“You want whipped cream, ice cream or cheddar on that?”
He regarded her as if she had just suggested something scandalous. She laughed heartily. “Ok, ok, just whipped cream. Didn’t know you were a pie purist.”
When she returned a few minutes later, she once again waited while he took his first bite. “Good?”
“Ok. I’m going to bring you a glass of milk to wash that down with.”
She set the glass in front of him and he looked up at her. He’d been too annoyed, and then too preoccupied, to really take in any details about her the day before. Now he noticed her dark blond hair, held back in some kind of a knot, her green eyes, her mouth, almost perpetually pulled up in an ironic smile. She wore another pastel blouse, and the same jeans and apron. On her blouse, he saw a nametag that he had missed the day before.
“Char.” He said the name with a hard “ch” as in “charcoal.” “That is an odd name to have in a restaurant.”
She shook her head in mock irritation. “Char,” she pronounced it as “Shar.” “As in ‘Charlotte.’ Except my boss is cheap and won’t pay for the extra letters, so here I’m Char.”
He swallowed a sip of the milk, cold and perfect with the sweet dessert. “It is still an odd name.”
“Then don’t use it,” she jibed back. Like he was one to call anyone odd. She flicked a finger toward the pie in front of him, already halfway gone. “Are you going to want another one again?”
“No, I don’t think so. Not today.”
“Ok, enjoy then.”
She turned back, intrigued. She’d never heard her name spoken quite like that before. The guy had the most unique accent, she couldn’t place it.
“Thank you for introducing me to pie.”
There was no way that she could help laughing. This guy, he was good looking and all, but so very strange. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, not from around here. From very far away.”
“I guess that explains it then.”
Gabriel looked after the girl as she walked toward the back of the restaurant. Of course, he had already known her name. He already knew quite a bit about her, not only where she worked but where she lived and went to school and did nearly everything else. She was, in fact, the whole reason he was there.
What he didn’t know was why she was so important that Father would send him to watch over her.
Michael landed gently at the top of the hospital building, folding his wings in while he scanned the rooftop. In the floors below, beds were still filled with victims from the various battles the city had recently witnessed. He knew, however, that they were only tended by half of the number of skilled nurses and doctors necessary – the Darkness had been especially brutal when it came to this building.
He gazed out over the edge to see another, even more tragic view of the city. Even in the dying rays of the desert sun, he could see the remnants of the devastation that the last few months had wrought upon Vega. That, and the memories of the Darkness, were why he had known to come to this place when he’d found that Gabriel had once again slipped his guards. He knew his brother’s current mindset all too well; Gabriel would want to revisit the spot where he had uncorked the ancient amphora and unleashed its hideous curse upon these people.
Michael found his quarry sitting on the other corner of the building. He walked up cautiously, not wanting to startle him. “Gabriel.”
“Yes, brother, you’ve found me.” The archangel’s voice was weary, sardonic. “Just as it seems my past has.”
Michael’s eyebrows rose.
“Have you ever asked yourself why you stay with the humans?” Gabriel turned toward him. “Why you stay in this city and help them, live with them, fight with them?”
“We’ve had this discussion before, brother.”
“Yes, but I’ve never really gotten an answer I like.” Gabriel stood and swept his arms around, taking in their surroundings. “You could have anything on the planet, Michael, and instead you burden yourself with this tiny little city and its tiny little inhabitants. Humans, mortals. Men – and woman,” he added. “I know you’ve managed to dabble a bit with them, tasted the fruits of your labors, if I may be so crude,” his leer was a shade lecherous and Michael turned away in disgust, “but really, why do you do it? Is it out of sheer spite? Just to be contrary? You always were a tad contrary. Or do you do it for forgiveness? You’ve killed tens of thousands of these pathetic creatures, you were Father’s bloody sword for millennia, Michael, why do you now fight for their future?”
Michael turned on him now, a simmering anger building behind his dark countenance. “And why do you now care, Gabriel? You helped to protect Alex against Julian and Duma, but that was to ease your conscience for setting Duma on the city in the first place. Since then, you’ve done little to aid in the war against the eight-balls, the war that you started. Why then are you here, revisiting the scene of your latest sin? You’ve helped to kill billions of humans, and yet you are haunted by one, one woman whom I dare say you never thought you would see again. Who is she?”
For a moment, the carefully constructed façade of sanity that Gabriel worked so hard to maintain for his siblings cracked. A muffled sound that was both stifled laugh and muted sob escaped him and his face contorted.
He looked tortured.
Seeing the concern in Michael’s face, he quickly passed it off, gaining control again. “You once said that I was at my best when I was human. You were wrong. I was at my most vulnerable when I was human, and that is not my best.”
“Some would disagree.”
They stood in silence for a moment, watching the stars collect along the horizon.
“Who is she, Gabriel?”
“An assignment. A job for Father. One I’m fairly sure that I failed him on.”
Michael looked at him quizzically but said nothing. He noticed the accent on the pronoun – odd.
“Didn’t you know, Michael? You’re not the only archangel to,” he paused, “shall we say, ‘protect’ her.”
Again, the strange emphasis, wording. “Then she is – “
“Oh yes.” Gabriel turned away from the skyline and scuffed at some of the gravel on the rooftop. “Yes, she is Alex’s mother, if that’s what you’re wondering. Charlie, Charlotte, whatever she’s calling herself these days. Obviously not dead. That was a bit of deception I cooked up trying to get you to give up on your pigheaded devotion to the Chosen One, to try to get the family back together. You can see how well that worked.”
“I don’t understand. We were both there, Gabriel, we fought each other in that house and you left Alex’s mother lying in a pool of her own blood. There was no breath in her body, no heartbeat. We mourned her and Jeep buried her there on that land. You and I stood with Noma over her grave. How can you say that Charlie was not, is not dead?”
“Yes, that burial was bothersome. Still,” the corner of Gabriel’s mouth ticked up in a tiny, proud smirk. He took his brother by the arm and led him to the edge of the building. “Look down,” he said, pointing. “The rather pathetic one with the bag.”
Below them, a middle-aged woman was just emerging from the doors of the hospital, a large duffle slung over one arm. In midstride she suddenly halted and set down the bag. Without any warning, she gracefully collapsed onto it, her body as limp as a ragdoll. Other people rushed to her side, calling out for aid. Words drifted up to the two angels: “I’ve got no pulse!” “What happened?” “Code blue, code blue!”
Michael stared at the other archangel, horrorstruck. “What have you done?”
It took a moment for Gabriel’s focus to come back to the rooftop. He laughed but it was forced, fatigued. “Oh, please. Your little human pet is just fine. Look for yourself.”
The darker angel watched over the edge once again to see the previously unconscious woman sitting up, confused but perfectly normal. The others fussed over her but she begged them off, pushing her way to her feet. There was no sign that she had been lying on the ground, for all intents and purposes dead, just a few moments before. “Possession,” he snarled.
“I thought it quite impressive myself,” Gabriel answered, a bit put off. “Control on a cellular level. No visible life, but no death. Tell me you’ve seen that trick before.”
“That is very dangerous territory, brother.”
“Dangerous? Dangerous? I wanted to burn down the world, Michael, what difference does a little possession make!” Gabriel’s fury faded as quickly as it had flared. His expression clouded over, his mind over 25 years and hundreds of miles away. “You saw what I was like that day. Nothing mattered, not you, not humanity, not anything. I just wanted things back to the way they had been. I just wanted Father back. I was sure that if I could do away with the precious little Chosen One, Father would return, I was sure of it.” His voice flattened. “And then you and Noma both went off to find the child and I sat there, drowning my sorrows. I’d never felt so completely abandoned. First it was Charlotte who betrayed me, then Father had gone and then finally you Michael, my twin who I loved like no other, even you had left me.”
“I’m sorry Gabriel, I didn’t know.”
“You knew, brother, but you didn’t care. You were on your righteous course and out to save the human race. I was out to save our family. When Noma returned and said she had found the child, I thought had my chance. I could redeem myself and bring Father back and…” The tension in his voice had risen as he spoke and now he stopped. His face twisted as if the memory caused him physical pain. “We got to the farm and Noma pointed through the trees at the house and there she was: Charlotte, the woman I’d left not even a year before. I had no idea…no idea Father could be so cruel, that He would choose her, the woman who had betrayed me –”
Again, he stopped, unwilling to follow that thought further. “I burned with so much anger, so much rage, against Charlotte, against Father, against you. I wanted to hurt you all but she would be the subject of my wrath. Death would be too good for her. I knew a pain that would be much worse, I knew it because I still felt it in my own heart, still felt the agony of it. I told Noma not to touch her, to only take the child – to kill her son in front of her. We went into the house, I said something cruel to her…” His gaze snapped back toward Michael and he grabbed at his shirt front, suddenly agitated. “Charlotte came at us, first with a gun, then with her bare hands. She was always so very… so very brave. I hit her with my wing, and even as I did I realized I hated myself for it. She struck the wall, fell to the floor, but she wouldn’t stop.” Michael watched as Gabriel’s brow furrowed in pain, his mouth quivered, he could see tears forming in his brother’s eyes; he felt the same in his own. “I don’t think she knew anything but protecting that damned child, she just kept fighting. And Noma, she drew her sword – I tried to stop her – Charlotte screamed –”
Michael grasped his brother’s shoulders, felt them shuddering. “Then she was in my arms,” Gabriel continued. “Blood pouring out of her, her life pouring out of her. What could I do?” He searched Michael’s face for an answer. “What could I do?”
“But you said she had betrayed you, why would you save her? You said that your only goal was to bring Father back, why would you go to such lengths to save this one human woman?”
Gabriel tore himself away from his sibling’s grasp, stumbling across the rooftop. He laughed, but it was not a laugh of mirth or happiness. His eyes looked even more haunted than they had before as he angrily brushed away the tears. “Isn’t it obvious? Father abandoned us and all we want is for Him to return. We are betrayed and all we want is love. Isn’t that just the way it is?”
Gabriel strode along the darkened street, his head tilted up, watching the snowflakes as they swirled in the overhead lights. It was a light, late-season snow and the flakes were oversized and fluffy, looking more like clumps of downy feathers lofting in the air. It was really quite lovely, tiny gossamer fairies floating in the pools of incandescence. They would hit the ground and disappear and this made them all the more precious.
He realized he was smiling, all alone, walking down the street. He felt a little foolish but he couldn’t stop. The last chill of winter before spring, the beauty of the snow, the softness of the new scarf he had purchased the day before, and yes, the fact that he was on his way to the diner for his daily visit. For pie.
The whole universe had been his playground for millennia, he’d seen beauty of unspeakable grandeur, fought wars against unbelievable odds, seen pain and suffering, lust and greed, joy and exultation. Now his happiness focused on one simple thing.
He wondered what flavor Charlotte would set in front of him today, and if she would have the time to sit and share a slice as she had a few times before. The past two weeks he had come to look forward to the moment when she appeared over his shoulder and put down that plate, announcing whatever delights Tim the owner had baked up that day. Thick and tangy cherry; tart cranberry walnut; four-inch-tall lemon meringue; Charlotte’s favorite blueberry peach; he had enjoyed every one of them.
Then there was his favorite of all – the day Charlotte had put down a plate with one very large piece covered in whipped cream. She had slid into the bench across from him, a mischievous grin on her face. His first bite had been tentative as he had hadn’t been able to see what hid beneath. It had been delightful; a delicate shortbread crust, and the filling, the smoothest dark chocolate with just a hint of spice. And the texture… Charlotte’s nose had crinkled up as she grinned even wider. “I know, right? It’s chocolate custard pie, like pudding, in a pie! I asked Tim to make it for you.”
Gabriel had been touched. Not only that she’d remembered his request that first day, but that both she and her employer would go out of their way to do this for a relative stranger.
It was ridiculous. He was an archangel, one of the heavenly host, afforded the glories of all creation by God his Father, and yet here he was in the middle of this human city as contented as he could ever remember feeling. That was it really, he felt content. He hadn’t felt this way, this gentleness of spirit, the inner stillness, since… He sighed. Since those halcyon days watching over David. Now even that was different, the memories of the boy brought joy instead of pain.
Perhaps content wasn’t the term, because there was definitely something he wanted that he did not have. He was alone, yes, lonely, perhaps, but there was more to it. Charlotte had cast a kind of a spell over him. She was more than a job, more than his Father’s assignment.
He didn’t want to be a stranger anymore.
After that pie, he’d asked to meet the former-beat-cop-turned-restaurant-owner Tim and thank him personally. Charlotte had been happy to introduce him, and also to George who came in each night and silently but efficiently cleaned the entire diner. Gabriel could see the affection that the two older men held for the waitress, a fondness for the “daughter” in their third-shift family.
There had been the occasions where Charlotte had taken her break and sat with him (especially on the day of blueberry peach pie) and they had had the opportunity to talk. She had told him about her acting and psychology classes at the university, the feral cat that lived in her apartment complex and the allegedly mob-related tycoon that wanted to buy the restaurant. Normally, this kind of prattle, the human need for exposition, would have turned his stomach, especially as he already knew almost everything about her (except for the cat and the tycoon.) Instead he enjoyed listening to her, watching her animated manner of speaking, laughing at her stories.
He wanted more. He didn’t want to be just a customer, a chance acquaintance. He became the slightly awkward “Gabe,” listening more than sharing, telling little about himself, walking the fine line between café regular and stalker.
His pace slowed as he came to the intersection. This was the corner where he stood to watch her as she went to work each weekday. It was a good vantage point and he was fairly sure that she had never seen him on his sentry duty. Once she was safely within the diner, he usually felt free to spend an hour or two on various tasks, secure in the knowledge that Tim and George were there to watch over her until he would arrive.
She didn’t work on the weekends, and the last two days had stretched out interminably. He’d followed her on her regular errands, always staying in the shadows, but never coming into contact. Where in years past this would have been an interesting activity, a chance to practice his trailing skills, now it had seemed like torture. Time and time again he found himself coming up with scenarios where he could “accidentally” bump into her and not just follow her around like some crazed maniac. Then he chided himself for the thought – that certainly wasn’t part of the plan.
Nonetheless, being so near and yet not with her had become a special kind of torment. “Gabriel, old boy,” he growled to himself sotto voce, “what have you done? You’ve gone all soft in the head over the girl, a human no less. What would Father say?”
The glow from the diner’s windows infused the street up ahead and made the huge tumbling snowflakes look even more ethereal. The light seemed to reach out and warm him and the corners of his mouth curled up again despite himself. Inside that golden light there was a piece of pie waiting for him, and a girl in jeans and an apron with a look in her green eyes that made his heart beat faster. He shrugged the collar of his jacket up a little higher, adjusted the Walther P99 in the shoulder holster he’d taken to wearing and started across the street.
It was a very good time to be human.
A knock sounded at the entrance to the apartment and the door opened tentatively. “Commander?” A youngish voice called into the foyer. “The archangel is here to see you.”
“Yes, show him in,” she called from the other room. She wasn’t ready – there had been a shower, a REAL shower, with unlimited water, and she had spent far too long in it this morning. How many years had it been since she had taken more than a three-minute shower? How many years since she had used scented soaps, luxurious towels and creamy lotions? Whoever had lived in these rooms before had been a woman of refinement and taste. Michael hadn’t said much about her other than she was dead; there was a story there that he wasn’t willing to go into and that hinted at more than a professional relationship. Whatever it was, Charlie was grateful to be able to use the place, to have access to the late owner’s things, to be able to luxuriate in all that delightful hot water.
Now she was running late. She walked into the sitting area still buttoning her shirt over her tank top. Michael had offered her the use of the clothes in the closet but she hadn’t felt quite ready for that step. Maybe later.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “I couldn’t help taking a long shower. I don’t know the last –” She stopped, instantly on guard. “What are you doing here?”
Gabriel stood near the couch, mindlessly fingering the edge of a glass bowl on a nearby table. He wore the same long black leather coat and armor that she had seen him in the day before. He lifted his head slowly and she could see his face, haggard and drawn.
“I need to ask you a question,” he said, his voice quiet but determined.
“And I need to kill you, but we don’t always get what we want, do we?” Her heart instantly started to thump in her chest, the old familiar pain starting up again. Her fists balled at her sides and she had to control the urge to rush at him again, desperately missing the weapons they had confiscated from her at the gate.
“If that’s what you want, Charlotte.” He unsheathed his sword and set it on the table. “Just answer my question first.”
For a moment, she stared at him in disbelief, then recovered. “You will do me the courtesy of addressing me by my rank of Commander,” she shot back.
“Commander,” he conceded, stepping back, his head bowed.
Her eyes were cold but wary as they darted back and forth between him and the sword. There was something so very wrong here, something wrong about him, something that just didn’t add up. She couldn’t believe that this was the head of the army that she had been battling since she had learned how to fight, that this was the military genius who had brought the world to its knees. Gabriel didn’t look like the leader of the ranks of higher and lower angels, and he didn’t look like the confident, powerful man she had known all those years ago.
Training overcame emotion and she took a calming breath, flexing her hands to let out the tension, but she couldn’t take the anger out her voice. “Why are you here? What do you want to know?” Each word came out a pistol shot.
He raised his head again and she could see emotions flicker across his features like heat lightening across a summer sky. “Yesterday, when you realized who I was, you said something to Michael. You said ‘I lost our son because of his war.’ You said ‘our son,’ not ‘my son.’ You said ‘our son’ and you were looking at Michael when you said it. I need to know the truth, Charlotte. Is Alex Michael’s child?”
She was completely stunned. “What?”
He took a step forward, not aggressively but earnestly. “Is Michael Alex’s real father?”
“What?” she repeated. Stumbling back a little, she found the edge of the couch and leaned against it. It felt as if all the air had been suddenly sucked out of the room, leaving her gasping. She wrapped her arms around herself and started rocking back and forth. “Oh, my god, you never knew.”
“He is then.”
“Shit.” Her chest shook as she tried to catch her breath. “This has got to be some kind of a nightmare.” Her head fell back, searching the ceiling for answers. “I really should be waking up now.”
“I’m sorry,” Gabriel offered. “I should have known, it explains so many things.”
“No, no, you don’t understand.” She paced a few steps, struggling for words, looking back and seeing his devastated expression. “You don’t understand at all. I came here for my son, to find Alex, that’s all.” Her hands raked through her still-damp hair. “I didn’t expect to find Michael here; I certainly didn’t expect to find you. Then, to find out who you really are – I’m still trying to make sense of it.”
She walked over toward him. The Archangel Gabriel had struck fear and hatred into the hearts of people for decades now, but somehow, she couldn’t resolve that name with this shattered being in front of her. His head hung down, his hair falling across his face. He looked utterly defeated. How long had she dreamt of seeing her enemy in exactly this way and now…now she felt pangs of pity for him?
This was crazy.
Her hand reached up to the side of his face and she looked into his stormy grey eyes. Grey like the winter skies over Denver. Long dormant feelings whispered in her heart. “I can’t believe I was so wrong about you, that the man I knew all those years ago is the same monster I’ve been fighting for half my life. What happened to you, Gabe?”
He didn’t have an answer. His eyes flicked away.
“I don’t know what made you so bitter that you can’t see what’s right in front of your face. No,” she said softly. “No, Michael isn’t Alex’s father. Dammit, you are.”
Michael walked into the room to find Alex’s mother seated, her elbows on the desk, her head resting in her hands. She hadn’t heard the guard announce him, hadn’t responded to his greeting. He touched her gently on the shoulder and she started, nearly jumping out of the chair.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she gave him a weak smile as she wiped at her face. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
He held her arm as she rose from the chair. “You’re upset. What happened?”
She grimaced. “Gabriel.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“No…no. Rather, I think, the other way around.” She sniffed. “He was a little upset when he left. I think it’s hitting him like it’s hitting me, just how amazingly screwed up things are. How we’re at the center of it.”
Michael eyed her quizzically. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, shit,” she rued, rolling her eyes. “You don’t know either.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
This was all so much more complicated than she had expected. She had come to Vega to find her son, and now this…mess.
“Can you do me a favor; can you explain this ‘Chosen One’ business. What is it all about? I’ve only heard bits and pieces. I’ve always known Alex was special, but people act like he’s some kind of messiah.”
“He could be. He is the last pure heart, and he has a destiny, to be the bringer of great good or great destruction. Alex could save all of mankind or destroy it.”
“A savior? Are we seriously talking about my son?”
“Yes. Jeep understood. He was an excellent father to Alex. He believed in the prophecy, he protected the boy, he even bore the markings that Father gave me and passed them on to Alex when the time came. He helped make Alex the man he is today.”
“That sounds like him. I thought he was gone, too.” She sighed deeply, then sat for a moment, lost in thought. “Does Gabriel believe in the prophecy, in the Chosen One?”
“Yes. He tried to kill Alex many times to prevent him from uniting mankind against the angels. Now that there are so few of you left, he’s tried to use Alex to unlock the secret of his markings. Gabriel believes that the markings hold the key to bringing Father back.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I believe that they will have some role to play in it, yes.”
She was still contemplative. “What do you know about my relationship with Gabriel?”
“Only what I learned from him last night. That years ago, Father gave him the task to guard you, as a human; that the two of you developed a connection; and that he eventually left you and took back his angelic form.”
Her laugh was perhaps a little more bitter than she meant. “Is that an archangel euphemism, ‘developed a connection?’”
“I don’t understand.”
“Michael,” she said seriously, “Alex is Gabriel’s son.”
This time it was Michael’s turn to be stunned. “His son. And Gabriel never knew.”
“I didn’t find out I was pregnant until weeks after he left.”
The archangel paced the room. “This changes everything.” He thought for a few moments. “It would have changed everything.”
He turned toward her. “That was what you meant about being at the center.”
She nodded. “You know him better than I do, I mean, I didn’t even know he wasn’t, isn’t, well…human? Whatever. But honestly, knowing him the way you do, do you really think he would have started this damned war if he realized that his son was the Chosen One? That his son was the one to fulfill the prophecy?”
Now it was the archangel’s turn to be lost in thought. “Gabriel saved your life.”
“You said you don’t remember the day that you lost Alex.”
“No. I…I lost quite a bit of memory. Like I said, brain trauma, retrograde amnesia, whatever, I’m not a doctor.”
“This is the other thing that Gabriel told me last night: when he went to find the Chosen One, to end the prophecy, he took another higher angel with him, an angel named Noma. He said that when they arrived and he recognized you, when he realized that you were the mother of the child he wanted to destroy, he decided that he would take your child but spare you, to get you out of the way but not do you any lasting harm. The other angel, Noma, went against him and drew her sword on you. She dealt you a mortal blow. Gabriel sent her away with the baby while he did what he could to save you.”
“I don’t get it…mortal blow…and before you said that you saw me dead. I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“It’s difficult to explain,” Michael went on, “but he essentially stopped every one of your cells, a little like stopping your body in time. Only a very powerful higher angel could perform this kind of deed and even then, it must have exhausted him. He kept it up for hours to make us believe that you had passed.”
Charlie sat heavily in the lush couch. “I think I’m sorry it’s too early for a drink.”
The angel poured her a glass of water from a pitcher nearby and pressed it into her shaking hand. “The important thing is that Gabriel not only spared you, he saved your life. I think you need to keep that in mind. He cared enough for you to do that. If he had known about Alex – I think you are right, things might have been much different.”
“I know.” She looked up at him earnestly. “That’s what got my mind going in circles right now. Six billion humans lost their lives because no one knew who Alex’s father was. Six billion lives. Because I didn’t say.”
Michael sat down next to her. “You said you never knew that the father of your child was the same as the enemy you were fighting all these years.”
Another deep sigh. “No.”
“And you don’t remember seeing Gabriel that day.”
“No. I told you, I’ve lost a couple of days around that time. I don’t remember him or this other angel.” She dropped her head and ran her fingers through her hair. “It’s so pathetic, I don’t even remember Alex being born, I mean, who forgets when their child is born? But no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember it. I only remembered that I’d had him, I knew that he was special, and that he was gone.”
“It’s not your fault, Charlie. Not your injuries and certainly not the war.” He looked pensive for a moment. “I’m starting to feel that there is more to the war than any of us thought.” Then he smiled at her kindly and laid his hand on her arm. “We can discuss this all later. I came here for a different reason. Alex is on his way back, your son will be here soon.”
Michael guided Charlie to the new Command and Control center. After the events of the Darkness and the war with Julian’s troops, it had been decided to move Command to a more centralized location, closer to the barracks and more easily defended. Technicians were still installing components that had been scrounged from other locations or built with parts that were pulled from derelict equipment, but at least at this point they had some semblance of functionality. More would come with time.
Charlie told Michael some of her story as they walked there. “Colonel Andrews was the surgeon who stitched me back together. He was also base commander; it was essentially a military hospital complex. When he realized that I didn’t have anyone, he let me recuperate at his house, but I rarely saw him because he was so busy trying to fight the chaos at the beginning of the war. He refused to turn anyone away so the base became kind of collecting point. We had a defendable position and fair supply of munitions, eventually various troops made their way there after the military collapse – that’s how the Wildcats started.
“I can’t say that there was a lot of order those first few months, but somehow Colonel Andrews kept us together. As soon as I recovered enough, I started helping him out, doing whatever I could.”
“So, that is how you became a soldier?”
“That and hands on training. The colonel made sure that everybody who could was trained; it was one of the first things we decided. Everybody is a soldier and everybody is a teacher, share the knowledge. Whatever you know, pass it on to the next generation.” She smiled. “I didn’t have a whole lot to teach, acting isn’t exactly what you would call a primary life skill.”
“Did you learn surgery from the colonel also?”
This made her laugh out loud. “Oh hell no. I have no talent for that. But he was a military man as well as a doctor, a brilliant strategist and great leader. I had a hole in my life, there was nothing left to go back to, so I was just a sponge and I learned everything he had to teach me.”
“You sound as if you cared for him.”
“He kept us alive.” A momentary melancholy seized her. “He saved us all, but he was more to me; a teacher, a mentor, I guess you could say he was the father I never had. We lost him about ten years ago; I still miss him.”
Suddenly a young corporal ran up to them, his face flushed. “Archangel, sir, the helicopter transport has been fired on. They’re down.”
Michael grabbed his arm. “Where are they?”
“About an hour out. Southwest.”
“Alex.” Charlie’s voice came out in just a whisper. To have come so far and to have something happen now, it was almost too much.
“I’ll go,” Michael turned to her. “I can fly there quickly.”
“No.” The change that came over her was dramatic, from fear to control in a split second. “With all due respect, you’re only one, even if you are an archangel. We don’t know what they’re up against. Take me to your C&C, we need intel.”
Michael shook his head but they nonetheless ran toward the command center and burst through the door just a few moments later. Inside, the communications room was abuzz.
Before Michael could say a word, Charlie stood at the center of the room. “May I have your attention, please? My name is Commander Charlotte Lannon and I need your cooperation. I need exact GPS coordinates of the downed chopper; I need any information that you’ve received regarding who and what is hitting them and the last time you had communications with them. And Michael,” she turned toward him. “I need the equipment that your guards took from me when I arrived. I had a radio; it’s not a band you use.”
None of the technicians bothered to question her. Even though she was wearing a different uniform, the tone of her voice and her name seemed to be enough to lend her the authority she needed. Michael dispatched a runner to get the radio. “What are you thinking?” he asked her.
One of the technicians called them both over to show them a screen with the location of the downed helicopter relative to Vega. She pointed to a spot nearby. “I have troops about twelve miles away from them; they can be there in ten minutes if Alex can hold out that long.”
Another called out to the archangel. “I’ve got them back on the line, sir. It looks like they landed hard but no one’s hurt. Taking sporadic fire. The pilot says it looks like there are vehicles on the horizon headed their way.”
“They’re not there to kill him, Michael.”
“No, they’re not. They want Alex alive. That is our only hope.” The runner came back with the radio and he handed it to her. “Call your troops in. I’ll fly out there now; you can take a squadron from here and get there fast as you can. Hopefully we won’t need you.”
She gave him a feral grin he didn’t expect. “My Wildcats will beat you there. You won’t need anything else.”