Things were not going according to plan.
Julian hobbled from his desk over to the leather couch that took up one side of the room. It was covered in blankets, some of them still stained with blood – his blood – and he fell into it heavily. He’d been sleeping there for the last three months, unable to gather the strength to walk the distance to his sleeping quarters, unable to do much except lay about, brood and plan his revenge.
He was supposed to be better, to be healed. He was a dyad, after all, stronger than any of the angels except a higher angel, and there weren’t a whole lot of those around these days. Even without his secret weapon, he should have been able to withstand being run through with a sword.
But Gabriel hadn’t merely run him through, no, he’d forced Julian to perform some kind of monstrous seppuku, driving the sword through his belly and straight through to his own back. And not just any sword, it had to be one of the finest empyrean steel.
It just had to be.
Julian held his stomach and tried not to laugh at the bitter irony of it all – if he laughed too hard, he tended to start bleeding again. He’d spent decades collecting all the empyrean steel he could find, storing it up in his city, hoarding for the promised day when he rained hell down on Michael and Gabriel and anyone around them, only to end up starring in his own bloody Kurosawa film. It was all rather hilarious.
Then again, that could be the pain killers.
His secret weapon, his shining prize for a job well done – it hadn’t worked. Well, it had worked, just not enough. He wasn’t dead, (and in those first few hours after Gabriel had turned on him, he had seriously thought that might be the end result) but then again, he was barely living. When he’d finally found himself a safe spot, finally had the chance to pull out that glorious, glowing white feather, he thought everything was going to be better, all the pain was going to go away, and he could go about getting his vengeance on those twin archangels and their damn Chosen Boy.
Then it hadn’t worked.
Well, it had, but not completely. He figured that the worst of his injuries, the serious internal damage to organs and tissue, had probably been repaired, because he was still alive and not suffering from something lingering and dramatic like liver failure or blood poisoning. He was grateful for that, but it was like only having two reels of a three-reel film – he didn’t have the dénouement, and it was driving him mad. His muscles and skin were healing at something like a human rate, maybe even slower.
He shifted, grunted with the pain and reached for the bottle of pills that sat on the table nearby. He shook out two, then three, and poured out a generous glass of wine to wash them down with. He tried to reach for the projector but the pain seared through his abdomen, making sweat pop out on his forehead and forcing him back onto the stained blankets. The room would remain in semi-darkness.
In days’ past, he would have had at least three or four people who would have poured the wine for him and started the projector; now, he was serving himself. They’d left, some of them. Some had died in that little roustabout with the Angelic Duo, others had met their end in the attack on Vega.
He was losing them. His people, HIS people, were losing faith. It wasn’t right, he’d done everything for them, found them a home, kept them safe for all these years. Still, he knew the price of leadership, he’d seen the films, they spelled it out. The great ones, they were never really appreciated, not until they had given it all…
It wasn’t going to happen. There was still hope, still a way to break into the daylight, to take back what had been taken away from him, from his people. He had friends, powerful friends that he could bargain with. He still had the remnants of his army, depleted though it may be.
He still had a dream.
The combination of pills and wine had created a warm and fuzzy little mental bubble for the dyad and he was happily floating there when one of his remaining lieutenants, one of the possessed, entered the room. It took a moment for Julian’s vision to come into focus. “Morax, give me some good news.”
“You have a visitor.”
Morax’s speech had never been distinct, even on a good day, and it took a little while for the message to get through the cotton wool that surrounded Julian’s brain. He sat up, painfully, and concentrated. “Who is it?”
“She said she’s an emissary from a Commander Lannon.”
The dyad’s eyes grew wide, his thoughts suddenly clear. “Did you say ‘Lannon’?”
“Yes. She brought this.” Morax handed a long alabaster box to his boss.
Julian took the box carefully, turning it over, looking for wires or any other sign of a booby trap. Nothing was obvious, it seemed safe, but one could never tell, especially with a Lannon. He thrust it back at his lieutenant. “Open it.”
The fallen angel did as requested, pulling back the top and revealing the contents within. Lying inside the creamy stone box, a single iridescent black feather shone in sharp contrast.
If possible, Julian’s eyes were now even wider. His jaw fell open and he gave a short little whoop, then instantly regretted it and clutched his stomach with one hand. “What do we have here?”
Morax knew better than to answer his boss’s rhetorical questions, he’d learned that lesson long ago with the help of a large stick. “Where do you want me to put it?”
“Oh, right in my hand, friend Morax, right in my hand.” He reached out for the box and took it, tucking it alongside him on the couch. “And bring that candle over here, I’m going to need that, too.”
“What do you want me to do with the emissary?”
“Show her some hospitality. Real hospitality,” he emphasized. “We want her to feel welcome, she’s a very important guest, but I’m going to need a few hours before I meet with her.”
With a few other impatiently delivered instructions, he dismissed Morax. Once he was alone, Julian pulled the feather out of the box, spinning it slowly in front of his face. It was especially beautiful, a spread of crushed black diamonds, the aurora borealis in a midnight sky.
No question, it was from an archangel. An unexpected gift…especially from a Lannon.
“Time to put yourself back together, old boy,” he whispered, running the sensuous flat of the feather along the line of his cheek. “I have the feeling things are about to get very interesting.”
Gabriel had gone directly to Charlotte’s apartment when he arrived back in Vega. Michael had asked him to report to him as soon as he returned, but it was late and frankly, Gabriel had said with a devil-may-care leer, Michael could wait.
Now he and Charlotte lay nested together like a matched set, front to back, the sheet loosely covering both of them. Charlotte cradled his arm against her chest like a teddy bear and she could feel his heartbeat against her back as it gradually slowed back to normal, sense the whisper of his breath against the side of her neck. It was so peaceful, so comfortable, she was loath to break the silence.
“So, do you want to tell me what that was all about?” she asked softly.
“Mmm,” he moaned, nuzzling closer. “I thought it was about your pleasure.”
“Well, yes, that,” she had to admit with a snicker. She turned over onto her back to look at him. “No, I’m talking about you. Why you had to…” she frowned, “…conquer me. You had me pinned to the bed not once, but twice. I’m all for a little change up here and there, but that’s not your style. At least, well, it wasn’t.”
She watched the peaceful expression on his face drain away. “Gabriel, what is it?”
He opened his eyes and looked over at her, running his fingers through her hair. He loved the gossamer silkiness of it. He hated what he had to do. “How many troops do you lead?”
It was a sudden change of topic. Charlotte sat up, pushing her hair back, pulling the sheet over her breasts. For the first time, she felt naked in front of him. “Do you mean troops, or people?”
“Does it matter?” Gabriel already regretted the question, but it was out and he might as well follow it to the end. “How many do you lead?”
“I have twenty active battalions with an average of two hundred soldiers each.” Her voice had changed to cool professionalism. “The group here is my personal unit stationed at my base, Jenkins is my XO, but he tends to run the show. We have five bases, settlements, towns, whatever you want to call them, and then the refinery and half a dozen smaller outposts and villages. All in all, it’s about 100,000 people, two-thirds of whom are trained to fight at any time. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes.” Gabriel lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. “You haven’t told anyone this before.”
“No, but I haven’t actively tried to keep it from them. From you. It’s, I don’t know, force of habit? After trying to stay hidden for more than two decades, it’s not the first thing you do, tell people your location, your numbers.”
“Your people, your…bases, you’ve been hidden this whole time.”
“Yes, for the most part. We got very good at it. We had to, it was the only way to survive. The villages are small, the towns are off the beaten path, hell, we even use caves. The refinery is tiny, and we’ve made it so it doesn’t look active. It’s worked for years; no one knew we existed unless they stumbled onto one of our outposts. When you were hunting us, I mean, hunting humans, you certainly didn’t know we existed, did you?”
Gabriel let out a long breath. “I thought we’d exterminated nearly every human in that area of the continent.”
She thought about that for a moment. “That’s where you’ve been the last couple days, isn’t it? You were checking up on me.”
“Michael sent – “
“Michael doesn’t trust me either?” she interrupted.
He sat up and turned toward her. “Michael doesn’t trust anyone. Nor should he, there’s too much at stake.”
“And you? What about you?”
“Michael doesn’t trust me anymore. Especially when it comes to you.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“It’s what I meant.” He grasped her gently by the shoulders. “Michael can’t figure out if he should be protecting you from me or protecting Vega from you. He needed to find out. I needed to find out.”
“Then why didn’t you just ask?” she said in exasperation. “Where is this coming from?”
He had no answer. Michael’s reasoning seemed feeble when he was face to face with her.
“I didn’t betray you, Gabriel. I will never betray you.” She enunciated each word as she looked directly into his eyes, her own burning with intensity. “You asked me to marry you, I’m asking you to trust me.”
Gabriel knew that he was like Michael, but worse – he didn’t trust anyone, not even Father, and after the Darkness, he didn’t even trust himself. His face contorted in shame. Trust her? She knew all of his secrets, knew the good and bad that fought for his soul, did he have a choice?
She resisted at first when he tried to pull her close, but finally she gave in. “I do,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head. “I do.”
Malcolm Jenkins finished making his notes from their meeting and closed the small leather-bound booklet, tucking it securely into the breast pocket of his shirt. He liked to keep it close, not that he was worried anyone would ever be able to read it easily. He and another mate had come up with their own cipher years ago while they were waiting to be placed in yet another foster home. They’d promised that they would keep in touch with their secret code for the rest of their lives. The other boy had been adopted by a nice couple in Southampton, while little Malcolm had been shuffled through four other families, none of them ready to keep the rambunctious, intelligent young boy. The code had lasted, the friendship had not. Life moved on.
When he had joined the British Army at the tender age of 16, the code had come with him. When he made SAS at just 18, he had bought himself the small leather journal, embossed with the sword and wings and SAS motto of “Who Dares Wins.” He’d replaced the pages in it more than a few times now, and his fingers had run over the raised emblem so often that it had almost become illegible, but he had never lost it.
He still found it ironic that now in battle he carried a sword, and that he fought against creatures with wings. Who could have seen that coming?
Then again who would have imagined that doing well fighting extremists in Afghanistan would have landed him in Washington D.C. when the sky fell? Swap intel with the Yanks, his superiors had said, it’ll be a lark, they said, you deserve it, you’re the brightest of us all, do the unit proud.
Then the war, the real war had started and he’d never seen his home again.
He knew he’d been lucky, anyone with a gun had been lucky that first day. A group of chaps that hadn’t been touched by whatever madness had taken over – they certainly didn’t know it was possession those first few days – had banded together and managed to get out of D.C. essentially unscathed, gathering up whatever weapons they could find along the way. For the most part, they were military of one sort or another, and that gave them another advantage. It was soon obvious that just about everything had gone to hell in a handbasket – the police, the army, the government, they’d tried but the chaos was too great. Anarchy took over in mere weeks, and only those with luck, determination or a whole lot of crazy were going to make it.
Jenkins’ group had all three.
They had started out with just over thirty, mostly men, but a few women. Some cracked from the strain after the first six months and ran off, never to he heard from. They lost more to the constant battles with what had by then become known as eight-balls. They picked up a stray here and there, but they rarely stayed, finding it hard to deal with the discipline the group espoused. And they were disciplined, forcing themselves to train and workout and ration, spying and hiding, doing whatever it took merely to survive.
The group (they never did give themselves any kind of a name) gradually moved away from the East Coast and toward the middle of the country, looking for less populated areas, places where the eight-balls might not have settled, places where they might be able to stay for more than a week or two, where they might actually be able to set up some kind of village or camp. It took almost five years, five years of fighting and hiding and scrounging, but they finally found what they were looking for – a small town near a clean river, houses still mostly intact, farmland nearby, far off the roadways and virtually undetectable from anywhere nearby.
Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case might be, their little dream town was already inhabited by the Wildcats. By that time, it didn’t really matter, because there were only seven of them left. Colonel Andrews had taken them in gladly, given them homes, and most of all, let them feel safe for the first time since the angels had rained from the sky.
Jenkins remembered that first day. He and his buddies had looked like something between POW’s and chimpanzees, all dirty, ragged, hairy muscle and sinew. There were no women remaining by this time: two had left, three had been killed and one had died during a particularly hard winter that had claimed three other men. They had shambled into Andrews’ home, suddenly aware of their unkempt state and their pungent scent. The Colonel had listened to their story, asked each of their names and rank and welcomed them. Most shocking of all, his assistant/adopted daughter had positively insisted they sit their dirty asses on the furniture, poured them all drinks, brought them sandwiches and taken their names and clothing sizes. Then she had hugged each and every one of them as they left to find their new quarters, never even flinching with how bad they smelled or felt.
It was a fair bet that Jenkins had fallen for Charlotte Lannon right then and there.
Being a wise man, the Colonel had soon learned of the former SAS-man’s abilities and training and brought him into his staff. There young Malcolm had gotten to know more about the woman he had met only briefly that first day, the then Sergeant Lannon. Over the years, the two of them planned, trained and fought together, and saved each other’s hides more than once. He and Charlotte had worked together well, his practical knowledge complimenting everything the Colonel had taught her, his more cautious nature tempering her sometimes audacious bravery. It was many, many years and many battles before she let down her guard enough to hug him again, and it had involved a very late night, a very bad loss and a suspect bottle of rum, but that was all that happened.
Eventually, when Colonel Andrews had stepped down and the heir-apparent had taken over, Commander Lannon had become Commander-in-Chief Lannon and she had asked Malcolm Jenkins to be her Executive Officer, her heir-apparent.
They’d created a whole community together, a tiny little world of their own where the Wildcats and their families were safe, well-fed and happy. He was so proud of it, so proud of her, of what she had become, from that wide-eyed girl with a tray of sandwiches to the leader of a hundred thousand people.
Now they were here in Vega, almost two thousand miles from home, on a mission that seemed to be slowly spinning out of control.
The meeting tonight had gone relatively well. Mouse, as always, had given them all the intel they needed and had now arrived back in New Delphi on the next phase of the mission. The tiny slip of a girl had a major chip on her shoulder, but she was a pistol. Woe be it to the man who thought she was actually a child because she would sooner put a knife in your gut than let you treat her like anything less than an adult. Treat her like a soldier, however, and you had the most loyal 86-pound warrior anyone could find.
The transport group that shuttled Mouse back and forth had more data on the shipments in and out of New Delphi and on the close environs to the base. Commander Lannon was like a pirate when it came to information, collecting and hoarding it like gold. The practice had served her well.
They also had reports from two of the other squad leaders regarding the state of the city of Vega. Given free rein as they had, it wasn’t difficult to get a feel for not only the defenses, but also the infrastructure and even the populace of the city. He and the commander had been “assisting” with some of the defenses – they were legitimate upgrades that would beneficial to the city, but only if Vega had the manpower to staff them. That was where Vega seemed to have a serious problem, one that could be exploited by the right tactics.
Things were coming together.
Jenkins had sat back and watched his commander as she ran their little covert get-together tonight. She hadn’t seemed as focused as usual, her eyes straying often to the big picture windows that framed one wall of the apartment she was living in. He doubted that the others had noticed, but they hadn’t spent the last twenty years of their lives with her. For all intents and purposes, he and the commander had a “work marriage,” as close as some regular marriages, but without the fringe benefits. He knew her like he knew no other person on earth.
That was the issue. She was keeping something from him and that wasn’t like her at all. He’d tried to broach the subject yesterday morning – after all, sitting with a cup of tea is the perfect time to discuss personal matters – but she’d neatly deflected his attempt. Again tonight, as everyone else was leaving, he’d asked to stay and discuss a few extra items, but she’d put him off, claiming she had an early meeting with the Archangel Michael the next morning and that she needed sleep.
She had never put him off before, especially in regards to a mission as critical as this. It was so unlike her that for a moment he wondered if she was ill.
No, she wasn’t ill, but he felt a little sick.
From the beginning, he had expected the possibility of finding her lost son to cause some distraction to their mission. Merely the concept of reuniting with a child after so many years – he couldn’t imagine what she was feeling. The lad had turned out to be a fine boy; intelligent, independent, and whatever this Chosen One thing would mean in the end, he seemed to be dealing with it well right now. That he was in so tight with Michael was a little troubling, but that couldn’t be changed this late in the game. It didn’t matter, she was building a good rapport with Alex, one that might be critical later.
No, the problem was Gabriel, the very last person – being – Jenkins had expected to find here in Vega. The originator of the Extermination War, the reason that the world was in the state it was in, the unholy bastard himself, and under the protection of his brother, Michael. And why? Because of some supposed “other war” that everyone needed to be preparing for, a battle with yet another higher angel, the invisible Lucifer. Michael, Alex and even the commander were all buying that load of horse shit from Gabriel, he had them completely fooled, the commander most of all.
There was no doubt about it; she was under the archangel’s sway. Jenkins had started noticing her change in attitude only a few days after they had arrived in Vega, from a perfectly normal deep-seated hatred of their most reviled enemy, to her comment about “new intel” on the archangel, to that debacle at the Fountain Square. The archangel had gone against all protocol there, and instead of being furious at him as any good commanding officer would have, Charlotte had been afraid. She’d tried to hide it behind her usual military efficiency, but years of familiarity showed, and Jenkins had known.
As Commander Jenkins walked into the barracks room, he scanned the rows of bunks, checking on his people, listening for any sound that might be out of place. This was his place, amongst his soldiers, with his people. He wasn’t any more comfortable in that fancy apartment than Charlotte had been; give him a cot and the sound of twenty other souls any day. Even back home he preferred to stay in the community barracks and not in a separate house. That said, he rolled his eyes in amazement; Ramirez snored like a wild beast, it was a wonder anyone could sleep with that racket. Still, it seemed that everyone was well settled. It was nice to be able to sleep off the ground for a little while.
He moved to his own bunk on the far side of the room, slipped off his boots and weapons belt and folded his uniform and put it at the end of the bed. Weapons always stayed near at hand and he carefully slid his sword under the bed, trying not to make too much noise. Not that anyone could hear anything with Ramirez sawing wood.
He climbed into the bunk and pulled the sheet and blanket over himself. For a moment, he wondered about the commander, thought about her in bed and who she might be with. A long sigh escaped him. Was he simply jealous? After all, he and Charlotte had been working together for twenty years, and now this archangel walks into her life and things go completely to hell.
No, it wasn’t simple jealousy, he was truly concerned, and not only for her. Their entire mission was at stake and he didn’t want his commander's sudden need for a dalliance to blow it up.
He pinched the skin at the bridge of his nose as if trying to ward off a headache. It was so unlike her. Jenkins had given up on any thoughts of a romantic relationship many years ago, and not only with the commander. He’d actually found quite a bit of satisfaction in their platonic “work marriage” and thought she felt the same. He’d never found her to be the kind of woman who needed to have a man around for emotional, or sexual, fulfillment. Not that she was cold - in fact she was exactly the opposite, she was warm, giving and often quite bawdy – but he’d gotten the impression that she had given her heart away once and that was the only time it was going to happen.
Which made this so odd, so sudden. Why pick the archangel, her enemy for half her life, for her unexpected paramour?
Jenkins sat up in the bed, his mind spinning, trying to put together a dozen strands of thoughts. He kept coming back to the day in the war room when Alex had confronted the two archangels. Jenkins had warned the commander off, telling her not to interfere with what was going on between her son and the brothers, but what had been going on? Alex had always been aligned with Michael and against Gabriel, but for some reason, the moment had felt pivotal. Watching them, the commander had been hyper alert, as she was before a major battle. Why was this confrontation so important to her?
There were simply too many questions. If he had to be truthful, Jenkins admitted, he was jealous, and that was why. Charlotte was no longer confiding in him as she had done for nearly two decades. At any other time, they would have sat together with a bottle of something suspicious and sorted out this whole mess, but tonight she had brushed off his attempts at talk and hurried him out of her rooms.
Once again, it came down to the mission. They were there for a purpose, and he was going to have to remind her of that, even if it got ugly. That’s what a second-in-command did.
Jenkins lay back down, pulling the sheet back over his shoulder and checking the safety on the gun near his head. Hopefully sleep would come quickly; he was tired of these pesky thoughts.
The day dawned early, and Michael was waiting.
Archangels needed very little in the way of sleep. When injured, it was a necessity, but when healthy, it was more of a way to pass the time than anything else. They could go days and even weeks without resting if the mood struck them.
Michael paced the floor.
He sensed rather than heard the sound of wings far off and had the glass doors to the balcony open long before his brother arrived. “Keep your voice down,” he admonished as soon as Gabriel entered the apartment. “Alex is still sleeping.”
“Don’t you find it odd that you’re living with your nephew?” Gabriel asked, walking in and immediately making himself comfortable at a chair at the table. He pulled off his sword and put it on the table – they tended to get tangled in modern furniture. Then he grabbed a pear from the bowl in the center, took a bite, and wiped the juice off his chin with the backside of his hand. “Not bad for hothouse,” he mumbled, leaning back and propping his feet up on the table next to the sword.
“No, I don’t.” Michael swatted his brother’s legs off the table. “I’ve watched Alex for most of his life, I know him better than anyone. It works out well for both of us. He certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing to move in with his father.”
Gabriel nearly choked. “That will be the day.”
“I expected to see you last night.”
He shrugged and took another bite of the pear. “Headwinds.”
The darker angel sighed; the lie was obvious. “What did you learn?”
A pause, another bite, then around the pear: “You were right.”
Michael let out a long breath. This changed everything.
“And so was I,” Gabriel continued, gesturing with the fruit emphatically. “You should have simply asked Charlotte, she would have told you anything you wanted.”
“You did that? You talked to her before you came to me?”
“I did.” Gabriel rose. “We have no secrets between us. She explained it all, the strength of her troops, the size of her following. She told me everything.”
“Of course she did, she figured you already knew.”
Gabriel shook his head. “No. Charlotte didn’t know where I’d been until afterward, and damned angry she was. We need to trust her, Michael.”
“No, brother, you want to trust her, for your own reasons.”
“She’s a valuable ally!”
“She’s your lover!”
The truth hung in the silence between them for a long, tense moment. Finally, Gabriel spun away, throwing the half-eaten pear across the room and into a wall. It thudded dully.
“What if she is? I’m not going to apologize to you or anyone, Michael. Father chose her for me, she’s the mother of my son. She’s the only woman who’s even made me feel –” he paused, searching for the right word, “whole. You don’t understand what it’s like to be alone, to be shattered, and then to find someone who can heal you.”
The accusation hurt. Not only did Michael know the feeling, he knew how he had caused it in his brother. He moved toward Gabriel, resting his hand on his shoulder. “Do you really think I don’t understand? I’ve always tried to be there for you, brother, but this time, I failed you. I couldn’t save you, I couldn’t put you back together. I could only watch your pain, knowing I was part of the cause.”
Gabriel brow knit tightly. “You did what you had to do.”
“I never wanted to hurt you.”
“Then don’t do it now,” he pleaded. “Trust the woman I love.”
Michael shook his head and raised one brow. Gabriel’s gentle manipulations were legendary. “What if you trust her, and I remain cautiously optimistic?”
A broad grin creased his sibling’s features. It was as much as he could hope for.
“You said ‘love’?” Michael asked, a bit more serious. “I’ve not heard you use that word before when it comes to a woman, at least not in an emotional sense.”
“Charlotte is different from any other woman. Everything that you admire in Alex, it comes from her. She’s brave, determined, stubborn and complicated.”
“That sounds like Alex.”
“She’s a leader and a warrior, Michael, but she can be caring and tender. She’s so strong, and yet there are times when I hold her, she trembles.”
“The war,” Michael whispered.
“Yes. My war. I have to make it up to her.”
“Like hell!” Alex interrupted from the hallway. He was still sleep-tousled, clad in loose pants and a t-shirt. “You can’t make it up to anyone, you son of a bitch. You can’t make up for 25 years, you can’t make up for six-billion lives!”
“Alex!” Michael was stunned. “How long have you been there?”
“Long enough.” He moved toward the table and deftly picked up the sword, advancing on Gabriel. “Long enough to hear the crap that came out of his mouth.” He raised the sword across his shoulders, pushing Gabriel toward the wall. “Lies, just a bunch of lies, because you don’t know what love is, you can’t know what love is, you’re a goddamned archangel.”
Gabriel backed up as far as he could go, knowing full well that the sword moving toward him was empyrean steel, and wielded by his very angry son. Retreat seemed the wisest course.
Alex took the blade right to Gabriel’s throat. “If you touch my mother again, I’ll kill you.”
“You know, they write plays about people like you,” the archangel deadpanned.
“Leave her alone. You’re not good enough for her.”
“Well, we agree on one thing then.” Gabriel calmly grasped the blade of the sword held to his neck, the steel biting into his hand. He winced. “But I think Charlotte is old enough to make her own decisions about whom she spends her time with.”
Michael’s came up from behind and rested his hand firmly on the younger man’s shoulder. “He’s my brother, Alex. Do not harm him.”
“How many times did he threaten me, Michael? How many times did he try to kill me? Now he’s playing games with my mom, I won’t let him hurt her.”
“Gabriel won’t hurt her, I promise you. I won’t let that happen. And you said yourself that your mother doesn’t need your permission to live her life. Let him go, Alex.”
For almost a minute father and son stared at each other while Alex slowly pressed the sword forward. In a fight, he would never have had a chance, his strength nothing compared to an archangel’s, but at this moment he held the advantage. The empyrean steel edge slid into flesh and blood pooled into Gabriel’s palm, trickling down his wrist.
Michael could also see a thin red line appearing across his brother’s throat where the sword met skin. “Alex, no!” Michael commanded, now pulling him off. He twisted Alex’s wrist and wrenched the weapon away. “Gabriel is not your enemy.”
“What is he then? You say he’s not my enemy, but what the hell is he doing here? He’s not helping to fight Julian anymore, he’s not helping the city like you are. He’s just wasting space.” Spinning back around he faced his father. “Why are you even here? Why don’t you go away? Go back to heaven or wherever it is you angels live when you’re not messing up our lives. Just leave me and my mom alone.”
Gabriel glanced up from his bloody palm. He’d been calmly studying it while Alex ranted, wiping at his neck with the other hand. “He doesn’t know, does he?”
Michael responded with a weary shrug. “It’s never come up.”
“What are you talking about?” Alex demanded. “What don’t I know?”
Gabriel looked back at his son. “Have you never wondered why the entire choir of angels is here on your little spit of a planet?”
Alex was defensive. “You brought them here, everyone knows that. Everyone knows you came here to destroy the place, and he came here to help us.” He tossed a thumb toward Michael.
Gabriel laughed bitterly. “How perfectly egocentric, how perfectly human. The entire universe does not in fact revolve around humanity, Alex. Do you honestly think that with all the glories of the cosmos to choose from, with all the galaxies and stars and planets, we angels would actually choose this forsaken rock? We didn’t choose Earth, Father did, the site of His great experiment in evolution. He picked here to plant His so-called greatest creation, humans, and so it was here that we, His angels, came to carry out his commands. Now until Father returns, every one of us is stuck here, we can’t return to Heaven, we can’t go anywhere. We’re trapped here, Alex, we can’t leave.”
It took Alex a moment to comprehend this. “So, what, you just decided to take over then?”
“No, I decided to bring our Father back. I thought that if I could rid this planet of the pestilence of humanity, a second Great Flood if you will, Father would return to start it anew.”
Gabriel gave out a short sardonic bark. “Of course it was, it was complete madness, there was nothing sane about it.”
“You’re admitting it? You’re admitting you’re a psychotic bastard?”
“Is that what you really think of me?”
Michael stepped forward. “Alex, you have to understand, we all took Father’s leaving differently, but it affected every angel. Many of our brothers and sisters went into solitude, hiding all over the earth, waiting for His return. I think Noma tried to explain to you what it meant to her, but she had a mission to keep her occupied, she was watching out for you, just as I was. Growing up you were never completely alone.
“Gabriel took Father’s leaving harder than all of us, and I didn’t understand why until recently. He felt betrayed, desperate and alone, Alex. He’d lost his father, his family, and the woman he loved.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Alex retorted. “I’m not going to feel sorry for him. Millions of people lost their families in the war, they lost people they loved. It didn’t make them genocidal murderers.”
“No,” Gabriel chimed in. “That’s a special hell reserved for bad artists and archangels. No one’s asking you to feel sorry for me, Alex. I accept what I did, there’s no forgiving it. I think Michael simply wants you to understand why.”
“It doesn’t make any difference.”
“You’re right,” Gabriel said ruefully, “it didn’t. Father didn’t return. That’s why I came after you. Just another insane idea in a long string of insane ideas. I got rather good at them,” he added with an odd sort of pride.
“So, what, you’re telling me you’re all better now? I’m supposed to forget what you did because you were having a couple of off decades?”
“No.” Gabriel’s voice was serious. “Don’t ever forget what’s happened in the past. It’s the best reason you have for what you do in the future.” He looked down again. He quite literally had blood on his hands. He gave a small, ironic smile as he took his sword from his brother and moved toward the balcony. “I’d best clean up; someone might think I’m back to my old ways.”
He glanced back and his expression was hard to read. “I’m sorry, Alex, for what I did to you, for what I did to your people. I’ve never said that before, but it’s true. I wish I’d better understood the situation, things could have been…very different.” Without another word, his wings unfurled and he stepped off the ledge into the morning sky.
Alex turned back toward the other archangel. “I don’t get that guy, what did he mean, ‘understood the situation?’ He created the situation.”
“No, he didn’t, not all of it. We’ve been manipulated by Lucifer, Alex, all of us. Lucifer has been exerting his influence since before you were born, to what end we still do not know. If any of us had known, your life, our lives, would have been much, much different. Gabriel would have liked nothing better than to have the opportunity to do things differently, to be your father as you grew up.”
“Gabriel, a father? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“There are so many things about Gabriel you don’t know. Gabriel was never happier than when he was raising a young boy named David. I think he would have been an excellent father to you.”
Alex’s face turned bright red. “No, Jeep was my father. He raised me, he loved me and he died for me. Gabriel is nothing but a donor. He’s nothing to me and he never will be.”
With that the young man turned on his heel and stormed back to his bedroom. Michael watched him go and sighed.
Family was never easy.
Charlotte was finally alone but she knew it wouldn’t last. She’d been busy since the moment she’d woken up, shuttling between her own people and Michael’s, planning other smaller joint training exercises, arranging for lectures. At the same time, Jenkins had “special projects” that needed reviewing, reports that should be read and further plans to be made. She felt as if she was leading a double life, and maybe she was.
And then there was Alex. She’d seen him ghosting around her periphery the entire morning, wandering into places where she knew he really hadn’t any reason to be, but he’d never found her in anything but a group setting. It was obvious that there was something on his mind that he wanted to talk to her about.
Now she was back at her apartment for exactly that reason. Taking a late lunch, she’d left word with the guard at her door to let her son in without question.
The sound of his voice, the use of that term, made her smile. She’d never really thought she’d ever be “mom.”
“I’m in the kitchen, sweetheart. Did you have lunch?”
He came around the corner as she finished up plating a last slice of fruit. “Yeah, earlier, thanks,” he said. “I’m glad I finally caught you.”
She licked the juice off her fingers and then washed them and the knife in the sink. “I got the impression you wanted to talk. Come sit down with me while I eat this, I’ve got maneuvers this afternoon.” She motioned toward the couch.
He followed a little awkwardly, then couldn’t decide where to sit. She noticed his discomfort. “Alex, just sit. You can talk to me about anything, you know that, right? What’s the matter?”
Finally, he perched on the edge of the seat near her, clearly still uneasy. “It’s about Gabriel.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “Whatever. The point is, I don’t want you spending time with him anymore.”
The statement froze her in mid-bite. “What did you say?”
“It’s obvious you’re getting involved with him. I want you to stop.”
Charlotte replaced the slice of pear on the plate and set it on the table. “Wait a minute, I think you’ve got things a little confused. I might be new at this but I’m the parent here, not you. I’m the one who gets to set the rules.”
“That’s not what this is about. I know Gabriel better than you do, and I want you to stay away from him.”
It would have been so easy to get annoyed, but she didn’t. Her adopted father/colonel had always taught her to look for someone’s motive, and one look at her son’s face told her how sincere he was. This wasn’t a power-play on Alex’s part; he was still scared and hurt and angry, but his concern came out of love.
She took a long, calming breath, then leaned forward and took his hand in hers. “I appreciate you looking out for me, I really do, but I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time.”
“Not with someone like him.”
“With someone exactly like him. I think you’re forgetting that I do know Gabriel; in some ways, I know him better than you do. I know a different side of him than you do. I’m not forgetting what he did in the war, I fought him too, remember? But as cliché as it sounds, he’s not the same.”
“Nobody changes that much. You haven’t seen him in a fight, he’s brutal.”
“You haven’t seen me in a battle either, Alex. For that matter, I haven’t seen you with a sword in your hand. War changes people, it has to. It makes us into something we don’t necessarily want to be.”
“Yeah, maybe, but Gabriel is an archangel, he’s different from you and me. He’s absolutely merciless.”
“Isn’t Michael an archangel? I imagine he can be quite merciless, too.”
“That’s different, he’s tried to protect me my whole life.”
“And so is Gabriel now!”
“Now he is, so you say. What about before, when he was so ready to kill me? I just don’t see how we can trust anyone who flips 180-degrees like that.”
“You’re young, you’re seeing everything in terms of right and wrong, black and white, but people are made of shades of grey. Well, everyone but you, maybe. Michael’s right, you do have a pure heart.” She smiled and reached up to put her hand on the side of his face. “But the rest of us aren’t so lucky. We’re all made up of good and bad.”
His expression told her she wasn’t getting through. “Here,” she continued, “let me give you an example. Do you remember the first day we met when I said I’d explain later how Jeep thought I was dead but I wasn’t?”
Alex nodded. “Michael had told me that you died protecting me. He said that the three of you were fighting a bunch of eight-balls when you were killed.”
There was a pause before she spoke, and Alex could see the concentration on her face. “In essence, what he said to you was true. I was protecting you when I, well, for lack of a better word ‘died’, but not from the eight-balls. And I’m sure that Michael and Jeep saved you from eight-balls a hundred times while you were growing up, but not that day. The story wasn’t quite the way Michael told you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, obviously, I didn’t die,” she laughed. “I’ll get to that in a minute, but I think there was a reason Michael didn’t tell you the real story.” Her fingers gently pulled the yoke of her tank top down. It stretched, exposing her sternum and a long, puckered scar that obviously continued below where Alex could see. “It wasn’t eight-balls that attacked that day. It was Gabriel and your friend Noma.”
Alex was shocked. He felt an icy chill run down his spine. “Gabriel did that to you?”
“No. You’re assuming that it was Gabriel. It wasn’t.”
“It was Noma, Alex. You told me a little about her, how she was your friend, maybe a little bit more?” Her other hand rested on his, trying to cushion the blow of her words. “She was with Gabriel that day, and she was the one that stabbed me with a sword. He didn’t try to kill me, she did.”
“That’s not true,” he said defensively. “Noma wouldn’t do that; she wouldn’t hurt an innocent. You said yourself that you don’t remember that day. Gabriel’s lying to you.”
“You’re right, I don’t remember it, I don’t remember it at all. But Gabriel didn’t tell me about it, Michael did. Why would Michael lie?”
Alex was silent, staring at the scar on his mother’s chest.
She pulled the tank top back up, fixing the collar of the shirt she wore over it. “I was dying, Alex. I would have bled to death, but Gabriel saved my life. He did something, some kind of possession, I don’t really understand it, but somehow, he made all of my cells kind of…stop. Everyone thought I was dead, they even buried me, but then he came back and rescued me and took me to a hospital to get help. He saved my life.”
“I don’t get it. How can you be dead and not dead?”
“Yeah, well I don’t really understand all of it that well either, but that’s what Michael told me. Honestly, I’m trying not to think about it too much, because being buried alive isn’t something you really want to dwell on. The important thing, the really important thing is that Gabriel saved my life. He had just started a war to exterminate humanity, but he stopped to save me, to take me to a hospital to get me help. It’s what I’m talking about: Michael, Noma, Gabriel, no black and white, just shades of grey.”
Alex’s face screwed into a pout. “That’s not grey, that’s just nuts.”
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe that’s exactly what it was.”
“I don’t know, madness, lunacy, whatever you want to call it – I could give you specific psychological terms but it doesn’t change what it is. Gabriel as much as admitted it, he wasn’t…right. It was more than anger or betrayal, he’d lost his mind.”
“You’re trying to tell me he’s pleading temporary insanity? For killing six-billion people? Yeah, he said that to me, too. I’m not buying it.”
“I know, it sounds like an excuse,” she sat back in the sofa and sighed, “but honestly, the more I find out about angels, the more I think they’re all crazy, at least at some time or other. I don’t think they can help it.”
“What are you talking about? Are you saying that all the angels are insane?”
“I don’t know, maybe? It’s only that everything I’ve heard about the angels, there’s a pattern. Gabriel talked about his own problems, and then he told me about his sister Uriel, he out and out called her crazy. Julian, this character in New Delphi, he doesn’t seem real stable either.”
“No, Julian definitely lost his marbles a long time ago,” Alex agreed, “and he had an asylum, a prison really, for the eight-balls that were too crazy even for New Delphi.”
He thought about it more, his brow furrowed in concentration. He didn’t like where this was going. “Something happened to Michael last year, right in front of me. He killed Becca when he found out she’d been experimenting on higher angels, and for a second I thought he was going to kill me. I’d never seen him like that before – out of control. He ended up leaving Vega for a while; he said it was to protect me.”
Charlotte glanced around the apartment, suddenly uncomfortable. So, that was the story of the previous owner. Michael had actually killed her for her betrayal. It was something to keep in mind. She felt a sheen of sweat between her shoulders that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room.
“Noma always seemed normal,” Alex continued, “until she lost her wings. Then something, I don’t know, something inside her snapped. I thought it was the Darkness, but it didn’t go away. She never recovered from losing them, and then she joined Lucifer.”
Charlotte leaned forward and put her hand on his. “You sound like you blame yourself for that.”
“I was the one she was trying to save.”
“No, don’t think that way. I know you didn’t tell me the whole story, but from what you did tell me, from what Gabriel told me, it was her decision. She tried to help you, Alex, that’s how she lost her wings. You didn’t do it to her.”
“I still can’t believe she joined that guy. What was she thinking?”
“She’s not thinking straight, Alex, and it sounds like Lucifer is the type to take advantage of that.”
Charlotte waited as Alex mulled this over. She could almost see the progression of thoughts in his head, watch as he put the various pieces of the puzzle together.
He looked up at her with large, questioning eyes. “Do you think we can trust any of them?”
Yes, she thought to herself, she had the final pieces all laid out before him. She could make the puzzle turn out to be whatever she wanted. She could turn him against Michael, against Noma, for all time. It was a powerful feeling.
Powerful, but that wasn’t something that helped her mission. “I do think we can,” she answered definitively. “At least some of the higher angels. I think maybe there’s a fault in their design, maybe it’s their immortality, I don’t know. Sooner or later, their minds break down, but I think they can recover.” She squeezed his hand and smiled. “Maybe that’s why God created us and gave us specific life spans – maybe we’re actually Angels 2.0, the upgraded versions that don’t short out as often.”
She laughed. “Yes, I guess so.” Something sang in the back of her memory, something her colonel had taught her, but there were so many things that he had taught her over the years. Better angels, it seemed so familiar. Something about Lincoln.
Alex frowned. “I’m not going to talk you out of seeing Gabriel, am I?”
She squeezed his hand once more and then let go. “No. When I was your age, we had a term for relationships like the one I have with him – ‘It’s complicated.’ Except ours is complicated on a cosmic level I can’t even begin to explain, or even understand some days. We have a history, and we have you, and that’s the start. Beyond that, well, it’s complicated.”
“You’re my parents, yeah, but it’s not like we’re some kind of family.”
Her hand went up to the side of his face again and she gently held it. “That’s where you’re wrong, Alex. That’s what you have to come to understand. We are a family.”
He roughly turned away from her. “That’s your dream, not mine. More like a nightmare.”
“I’m sorry.” Charlotte sat back. “I know I shouldn’t press this on you. I only know how I feel, how Gabriel feels.”
“How Gabriel feels? Are you kidding me? He doesn’t feel anything, he’s an angel.”
“No, you don’t even believe that. You told me about Noma, and I’ve seen the way Michael is with you, he would die for you in a heartbeat. Don’t tell me those aren’t feelings, that that isn’t love.”
He didn’t have an answer.
“Finding out that you were his son shook Gabriel to the core, Alex. It’s changed him. He was already, I don’t know, recovering? But this, this changed everything for him.”
“Why? What difference does it make? I’m still the Chosen One and in his mind, I’m still the one standing between him and his Father.”
“That’s just it, you’re not. You’re from his Father. Everything is about family to Gabriel, everything. You’ve become one of the most important things in his life.”
“I was before,” he said sarcastically. “He tried to kill me for years.”
“You know what I mean.”
“If he’s all changed and everything, why doesn’t he tell me this himself?”
Her eyebrows rose. “Really? What happened the last time the two of you talked?”
Alex blushed. His mother couldn’t have heard of his most recent run-in with his father already, or could she?
“You’re both so strong willed,” she continued. “That’s me being polite, by the way, and not saying pig-headed.” Once again, she reached over and put her hand on his. “You’re his child. You have no idea how that instantly changes things.”
“Actually,” Alex answered, his voice now low, “I do. Claire.”
“The general’s daughter?”
“Yeah. She was,” he paused. Even after all these months, it was still hard. “She was pregnant. She lost the baby.”
Charlotte’s hand flew to her mouth. “Your baby.”
Her son nodded.
“Oh, my god, Alex. I’m…I’m so sorry.”
“There’s nothing you could do, you didn’t know. It’s just that I do understand. For a few months there, I was a father. I understand the responsibility, the sacrifices you’re willing to make. I left Vega because it was the right thing to do for Claire and the baby. Then, when I came back…” he gave a tiny involuntary shudder, “there’d been an assassination attempt, Claire had lost a lot of blood. The baby didn’t make it.”
Tears stung the commander’s eyes and she tried to blink them back. She could see the same in her son’s. She sniffed and rubbed at her nose.
“There was this thing that happened to Vega,” he went on quietly. “The Darkness. For some reason, it didn’t affect me, but other people saw visions, dreams, nightmares, and a lot of people died. No big surprise, it was Gabriel’s doing. Anyway, Claire saw our baby, our life together, or what it could have been. She said that we had a little girl, we named her Willow.” His face twisted up, pain that he had put aside now back and fresh. “Claire was Lady of the City. You know, she never really wanted to be, she didn’t want the power, she only wanted to help the people. We could have had that life together, we could have been a family, I could have been a father to Willow, but somebody else wanted the power. Instead of that life, Claire got a bullet courtesy of David Whele.”
Charlotte watched as Alex closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, his hands fisted tightly. He was reliving a moment he hadn’t seen, imagining it as she knew he had probably done a thousand times. She knew because she was the same way, she did the same thing, torturing herself with histories she couldn’t change, scenarios she blamed herself for. Her heart ached for him.
“I don’t know what to say, Alex. I shouldn’t have assumed. There’s still so much of your life I don’t know about.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay, how could you? I didn’t tell you. We all have to work with Whele, and I wasn’t sure how you’d take finding out that you were almost a grandmother.”
She hadn’t thought about it that way. Her son in emotional pain, that had hit home, she wanted to do something, to fix him, to comfort him, even if there was no comforting. But being a grandmother…
Alex stood abruptly, his eyes still red, his jaw still set. “I should get going. I didn’t come here to discuss this, and what I did come to discuss seems to be off the table.”
Charlotte stood also and reached up to rest her hand on his shoulder. “I wish there was something I could do. I’m not trying to cause you pain. Please believe that, I would never intentionally hurt you.”
A small, sad smile skittered across his features and then was gone. “I know, I believe you.”
Without warning, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. He was caught off guard, but slowly, tentatively returned the affection.
“I haven’t said this before,” she spoke into his shoulder, her voice thick with emotion, “because I didn’t know where you and I stood, but I love you, Alex. I always have. I want you to remember that.”
There was something strange about the way she said it, but Alex couldn’t doubt her feelings. For a minute, he simply stood there, wrapped in his mother’s arms. It felt good, it felt safe. A tiny part of his mind wondered what it would have been like to have that refuge when he was younger, but he shut it down – there was no use going there. Better to savor the moment now.
“I love you, too, Mom.”
Gabriel entered the apartment through the balcony as usual, his body instantly on alert. It wasn’t that the rooms were dark, he’d seen that before more than once, often because Charlotte was already waiting for him in the bedroom. It was something else, something that didn’t register through his regular senses. Something was wrong.
His hearing, always super-acute, caught the sound of breathing coming from the large, elegant sofa at the other end of the room. He moved toward it carefully; it faced the wrong direction and was mostly hidden from view.
A short lamp sat on a table nearby and he turned it on. Charlotte sat in the middle of the sofa, legs crossed, her hands in her lap. A crystal tumbler sat on the coffee table in front of her along with the bottle of Macallan, but it had not been used.
She looked up. “Hi.” Her voice was hushed, her expression grateful to see him.
The archangel squatted on the floor in front of her, taking her hands into his. “What has happened? Why are you sitting in the dark?”
The sides of her mouth turned up in a sorry excuse for humor. “I guess I didn’t notice the sun had gone down.”
He searched her face, saw the red-rimmed eyes, the tracks of tears now dried. There was one obvious answer. “Alex was here.”
“Yes, even a few minutes with our son can drive one to tears.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes but couldn’t hide the hint of a smile.
“I imagine he told you he disapproves of our…consorting.”
She laughed softly. “Oh, yes, he disapproves, he most definitely disapproves. I don’t care, I’m going to consort with you all I want.” The humor fell away from her features. “It was something else he told me. We were talking about other things, we have a lot to catch up on, a lot I don’t know about him. Did you know about Claire Reisen?”
Gabriel sat back on his heels. These were things he wasn’t necessarily proud of. “Yes, the general’s daughter. Quite the firecracker. Actually dropped an atom bomb on me.”
“Yes, she was. The girl had a set, if you get my meaning.”
Charlotte gently laughed again. “I do. I think I would have liked her.”
“Oh, you would have. A bit of a princess, but when it came time for the tough decisions, she wasn’t afraid.” His brow furrowed. “Duma killed her, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know, Alex hasn’t told me how she died, only that it was during the war with Julian’s army.”
“Except they weren’t Julian’s army then.” Gabriel stood up and walked toward the picture windows. Vestiges of the destruction he had caused could still be seen in the city below. “I controlled them. I was under the sway of the Darkness, I was out to destroy Michael and Vega and everything I could find.”
“Oh, god.” Charlotte’s hands covered her face and she fell against the back of the sofa. She felt sick. The rift between father and son seemed to get wider and wider every day.
Gabriel turned back toward her. “The Darkness was within me, I didn’t completely know what I was doing, but that won’t matter to Alex.”
“No, it won’t. Especially if he didn’t feel the effects of the Darkness. He said he was the only one who didn’t.”
“Then he’ll never understand. Even Michael understands, he was infected when it swept the city. My brother won’t forgive me for beating him half to death and nearly running him through with my sword, but he understands. A little.”
There was a long, thoughtful pause. “Did you know about Claire’s pregnancy?” she asked.
“Yes, I…I felt–” The archangel stopped in midsentence and Charlotte watched as comprehension dawned across his features. He’d never put all the facts together before. “The child. Alex’s child.”
“Yes,” Charlotte murmured. “I have to admit I don’t feel quite old enough for the idea, but yes, our grandchild.”
The effect on Gabriel was more horror than the melancholy she expected. As she watched, he backed away with a kind of revulsion, his breath coming in short, ragged huffs. “I – I was the one who sent Duma to invade Vega. I’m responsible for, for…” He couldn’t get the words out.
“No!” Suddenly Charlotte understood and she leapt off the couch and to his side. “No, not for that. The baby, Claire had already lost it, she’d been shot at, miscarried. No, that’s not your fault.”
He searched her face, looking for the lie.
“Alex said it was an assassin, hired by someone named David Whele.” She let out a disgusted breath.
“Whele,” the archangel growled. “Why am I not surprised?”
“I think I’ve already met him, he was on the helicopter with Alex. My Wildcats saved his miserable hide. If I’d known…”
“You wouldn’t have done anything different, you’re too good of a person.”
She sighed. “You’re probably right, not because I’m good, just because…oh, dammit.” She curled into his shoulder and reached her arms around his neck. “I didn’t expect this. I’ve just gotten used to the idea of being a mother, I’ve never even thought about being a grandmother.
Gabriel put his arms around her, pulled her in tightly and kissed the top of her head.
“It’s too late,” she continued, her voice barely above a whisper. “Claire is gone, the baby, little Willow is gone. I never even met them and suddenly I have this hole in my heart, I don’t know what to do about it.”
He gently led her back to the couch and he sat down, pulling her into his lap, wrapping his arms around her protectively. The silence spoke everything that needed to be said.
Gabriel’s mind was filled with too many memories, too many thoughts. He held this woman who was filled with sorrow for a child she had never known while he felt a dangerous mixture of guilt, anger and grief. He kissed her forehead. Tonight, they would mourn. Tomorrow…
Tomorrow was another day.
Gabriel walked into Michael’s apartment as he usually did, without preamble, but this time with even more purpose than usual. His guards stayed in the hallway. “Where is David Whele?”
Michael was just finishing dressing. He pulled his long coat over his shoulders and straightened the collar. “I don’t know, but I can find out.”
“It would save some time hunting him down.”
“He usually spends at least part of the day at the hospital, I can start there. Why do you want to see him?”
“Oh, I don’t want to see him.” The archangel pulled out his sword and quite dramatically inspected it side to side. “I’m going to kill him.”
Michael was taken aback. “Gabriel, why?”
“Really, brother, don’t you think his list of sins is long enough?”
“Yes, what he’s done in the past, but why would this matter to you now? Why does it matter to you at all?”
“It’s not for me, Michael, it’s for Alex. You’re right, the boy does have a pure heart. He’d never take vengeance for himself.” He sheathed his sword forcefully and glanced up with bitter derision. “Luckily, I don’t have that problem.”
“I don’t understand, David has never –”
Gabriel cut him off with one word. “Claire.”
It took a moment but then realization dawned. “The baby she lost when she was shot.”
“Yes. Alex’s baby. The child of my child.”
“Brother,” Michael started, but there were no other words to say.
“A little girl. They would have named her Willow. Charlotte told me. Did you know that I heard her heartbeat? That day that Claire came to me when she had me imprisoned. I heard the flutter of the baby’s heart, I felt her tiny life while Claire stood before me.”
A cold chill ran through the darker angel. “Gabriel, I never knew.”
“And it was I who told Alex. Ironic, isn’t it? I told my unknown son that he was going to be a father.”
“When he went into your cell,” Michael recalled. “I thought he was going to kill you, but then he stopped when he had you at his mercy. That’s when you told him.”
“He wasn’t exactly going to kill me with that tiny knife, you knew that. But the news did rather deflect things, as it were.”
“You were using the child as a weapon against him,” Michael accused. “Both the child and Claire.”
Gabriel was silent. The self-assuredness had seeped out of his features. “Yes, well, all’s fair, etcetera, etcetera,” he offered, casually falling across a chair.
His brother wasn’t fooled by the blasé attitude. “Why has this come up now?”
“Charlotte told me what she had learned from Alex and I’ve only just put together the pieces. I knew about Claire’s injury, of course, but I didn’t know how it had occurred, or the result. I didn’t know Whele was the one behind it. I really don’t understand why Alex hasn’t run a sword through him already.”
Michael set a hand on the other angel’s shoulder. “I can’t imagine how you feel, how Alex feels. I only know that killing Whele won’t make you feel any better.”
“Are you sure? I’ve done it before.” Gabriel offered a crooked sneer. “I’ll tell you a little secret. When things were at their worst, when I really wanted to torture myself, I used to imagine what it would have been like to watch my David grow up. To see him grow tall and strong, to watch him fall in love, to dance at his wedding, to hold his children in my arms. All the things that Saul took away from me when he threw him from the rooftop.
“I felt her, Michael. I felt Alex’s child, and in the midst of that prison, in the midst of my madness I felt the beauty of her spirit. But none of us will get the chance to know her, because of what that bastard Whele did. Alex will never carry her upon his shoulders, Charlotte will never sing her songs and I will never hold her in my arms. Just like Saul, Whele took that away from us all when he sent that assassin after Claire.” He leaned forward, beseeching. “She was my chance, Michael, my chance to make up for everything that happened with Alex. I would have loved that little girl and she would have loved me and maybe Alex would have seen that I’m not the monster he thinks I am. I could have made up for all the mistakes I made with him, shown him…but Whele took that chance away from me.”
“Gabriel, you didn’t merely make ‘mistakes’ with Alex, you vowed to kill him more than once. You imprisoned and tortured him and tortured his friends. Playing grandfather wouldn’t fix things, nor will taking vengeance out on Whele in Alex’s name. There isn’t going to be a quick fix between you two.”
The archangel jumped out of the chair. “I don’t want a quick fix, I want –” He stopped, paused, his gaze focusing on something far away. “Back in that cell, when I told Alex about the child, he was shocked. Then he was afraid, because you’re right, I did threaten them, both Claire and the baby. But then, for a moment, I saw it in his eyes, the happiness of responsibility, the overwhelming joy that comes from the realization that you are a father, and I was jealous. I want to feel that again, Michael, to feel that joy. Alex is my son, but we’re strangers – no, worse, enemies. I only want a chance to be his father.”
“You won’t get it by killing David Whele. All you’ll do is start back on the path you were on. The path you began with another revenge killing, another man called David, this one a king.” Michael moved in closer. “Do you remember that one, Gabriel? You killed him because of your pain, but you didn’t stop there. You slaughtered his children and his grandchildren. Blood ran from your sword and into the streets but it didn’t take away the pain, it never takes away the pain. It only stains your soul.”
Gabriel took a step back, disconcerted by his brother’s words. He remembered too well the agony of losing his child, the hole in his heart and the horror of what he had done to the imposter who had sat on the throne of Jerusalem. No, he hadn’t felt any better for the bloody deed, the hole remained even after these thousands of years.
He let out a long sigh. “I don’t want you to be right, Michael, it bodes poorly for me.”
“I’m sorry, Gabriel, but you know I am.”
For a moment, he was silent, the anger leaching out of him, replaced by a quiet ache.
Michael rested a hand again on Gabriel’s shoulder. “I wish there was something that could make you feel better.”
“I can’t believe I’m letting you talk me out of it.” The corner of his mouth twisted up. “Really, Michael, when did God’s Sword become the voice of restraint? It’s positively abhorrent.”
Michael smiled wryly but shook his head. “I don’t honestly know. Some days I don’t even recognize myself. Lately it’s all politics and handholding.”
Gabriel gave a mock shudder. “Politics…are you sure I had it wrong with the Extermination?”
The other angel laughed. “Yes, quite wrong.” It felt good to laugh, Michael hadn’t done that enough lately. Gabriel had always been the one with the sour disposition, at least since he had lost his first son. Now he seemed to be laughing and joking on a regular basis. Maybe there was something to be learned.
Michael grinned and clapped his brother on the back. “I have an idea. Come with me, and bring your sword, I’ll let you sit in on a Council meeting. You can envision all sorts of proper retribution while I try to navigate their little disagreements. I imagine the humans will move a little more quickly with you there brooding.”
As promised, two archangels sped things along quite well. The subcommittee was more than eager to come to agreement when there were three swords in the room, and Michael had to suppress a smirk more than once as to how rapidly his motions were carried. They adjourned in half the time it would have normally taken.
“I’m going to have to bring you along more often,” he said to his brother as they left the Council offices and walked toward the war room, Gabriel’s guard in tow. “I’ve never seen the councilors argue less.”
“All I did was sit in the corner and scowl.” Gabriel offered.
“We all have our talents.”
They rounded a building and came upon a small group of Wildcats, their commander in the center. Gabriel had to suppress the desire to go to her; the sight of her was both a jolt of energy and a balm to his soul.
Charlotte looked up from the diminutive woman she was speaking to. “Archangels, your timing is impeccable. We may have a situation that needs your input.”
“Situation?” Gabriel’s concern was immediate.
“Yes. I’ve been looking into the problem of who leaked Alex’s flight path.”
This was more than interesting to Michael; he also had been investigating the leak. Although she was Alex’s mother, somehow this felt to him like an invasion of sovereignty. Nonetheless, his inquiries had so far been fruitless. “Have you found something?”
“I think so. I think Julian may have a mole here, specifically on your radio staff.”
“You have a suspect?”
“How did you come across this information?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Michael narrowed his eyes. “You expect me to arrest one of our staff, but you won’t tell me why?”
“No,” Charlotte stood her ground, one eyebrow raised, her tone composed. “I expect you to question one of your staff regarding the attack on my son. If there is cause, then you can arrest him. I’m only pointing you in his direction given the intel I received.”
She couldn’t tell the archangels that Mouse had an exquisite memory for faces, a skill that had saved her on more than one occasion. She couldn’t say that the tiny woman was just back from a spy mission in New Delphi, or that when she had returned she had walked past the radar tech in the mess hall and that his face had sparked the recollection of someone living in New Delphi who could only be his brother. Charlotte couldn’t tell Michael or Gabriel any of it, she was just going to have to hope that they took what she could give them.
Gabriel came to her defense. “If any of it is true, Michael, then we should investigate. At worst, we frighten the poor sod; at best, we find the bastard.”
Michael considered this for a moment. As much as he wanted to find whoever had compromised Alex’s flight, he was not sure about trusting this unnamed source. His brother, however, seemed to have no problems with plunging forth. Was it due to concern for his son or blind faith in whatever Charlotte had to offer?
“I’ll speak with the individual in question,” Michael announced, silencing his brother’s objections with a look. Gabriel’s interrogation methods could be…messy. “I want to clear this matter up as much as you do. I will forward you my report.”
Charlotte took his response formally. “Thank you, Archangel. I appreciate your willingness to share any information you might glean. Our objective here is the same, after all.”
Gabriel noted the reserve, the formality between the two. Michael’s promise of “cautious optimism” seemed to be slipping and Charlotte seemed strangely vague. He felt a little like a child caught between two bickering parents, trying to make everyone like each other again.
“Alright then,” he clapped his hands together, forcing cheeriness into his voice. “Let’s go and try to find the son of a bitch who tried to steal the Chosen One, shall we?”