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Charlie

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Charlie

 

 

   

 

Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, December 25, 2016, 11:34 pm

 

 The triage nurse shifted her head, trying to get a better sense, a better read.  The disposable surgical cap she wore slipped down and she pushed it up with the back of her hand, taking the opportunity to quickly rub her forehead – she’d had a headache for hours.  With practiced fingers, she pressed the stethoscope down further into the dark brown crust of blood that covered the skin of the patient’s neck.  Nothing.  She shifted to the other side of the neck just below the jaw, a little less blood there, but still, silence.

Her eyes raised, the dark circles below them obvious in the bright overhead light.  Her voice was flat with fatigue.  “I’ve checked four points, sir.  I’ve got no pulse.  No respiration.”

Colonel Matthew R. Andrews, MD, FACS, US Army, handed another technician the stainless-steel shears he had been using to cut open the woman’s shirt.  He wasn’t surprised.  The copious amount of blood present on the woman’s clothes was already sticky, even dry in places, and her wounds, what he’d been able to see of them as he peeled back her blouse, were traumatic.  They hadn’t brought him a patient; they’d brought him a body.

“There’s too many others,” he decided quickly, already pulling off his gloves, “call the time.”

“Time of death, twenty-three thirty-four-”

“No!”

The shout coming from the door of the trauma suite startled them all.  Three heads spun around to see a man standing there in the last stages of exhaustion, covered in blood and dirt, holding himself up by the doorframe.  “No,” he said again, this time more quietly.  “She’s not…she’s not gone.”

The colonel hurried over to the man, his next patient if his assessment was correct, and tried to move him toward a nearby chair.  “I’m sorry, sir,” the doctor said as kindly as possible, “there was nothing we could do.  You look like you might need help, let me –”

“No,” the man repeated, pushing his way upright.  “Save her.”

Andrews watched the man close both eyes, saw his brow crease in concentration as he wobbled on unsteady feet.  “Sir,” the colonel insisted, reaching for the stranger’s shoulders, “you’re going to fall.  You need to sit down.”

“No.”  It was barely a mumble.

There was a thump, then a sudden wet, coughing sound from the other side of the room.  A monitor let out a high-pitched double beep.

“Colonel!”  The nurse’s tone was somewhere between fear and disbelief.  “She’s breathing!”

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Vega, 2042

 

The Archangel Michael looked down onto the city, down onto the towers and the buildings and the ruins and the piles of debris.  Not for the first time, his heart sank – Vega had been a shining jewel in the middle of the desert, a thriving city in the new Cradle of Civilization, hope for what had remained of mankind.

And now?  Now she was battered, bruised, contracted upon herself.  Three months after the Bad Times, after the civil war, after the curse of the Darkness and the invasion by Duma and Julian’s eight-ball army, Vega was just beginning to recover.  Huge sections of the town had been abandoned, whole neighborhoods had been forced to move, buildings had been bulldozed into piles of rubble and made into emergency bulwarks.  The hospitals were still filled, with very few people to work in them.  The funeral pyres had burnt for weeks.

Yet, he thought to himself, there was hope.  He could see it down there in the streets, streets still pockmarked by mortar blasts, still blocked by abandoned vehicles and fallen storefronts.  The wars and the Darkness had claimed nearly half the population but those that remained had found a new purpose.  They would reclaim, rebuild, and re-secure the city that they had nearly lost.  There was no place for a hierarchy of classes here.

It was tragic really that it had taken such catastrophes to bring the people of Vega together, but perhaps the city would be better for it.  Not unlike the biblical flood, there had been a certain cleansing.  Vega was different now. 

He looked down at the sheaf of papers in his hand – this was certainly different.  There had been dozens of roles in Michael’s long, long life, but this one was new to him.  His place with the humans had changed from protector, guardian, military tactician to…administrator?  With the creation of the new governing Council, both he and Alex had allowed themselves to be drawn into the running of the city.  He’d had to suppress his understandable desire to simply take flight and leave the wreckage of Vega to the humans and instead ended up a reluctant legislator.

In his heart, he realized that it was important.  Vega needed to prepare for what the future held, whatever that might be.  That was the crucial question – just what might be coming? 

The archangel’s dark eyes swept out across the city.  Somewhere out there Alex was working, either training new recruits, helping to move a family into new housing, working to distribute food or one of a dozen other tasks.  It was hard to believe that the headstrong young man who had earned a whipping just over a year ago was now embracing his role as the Chosen One, as a leader. 

If, perhaps, just as reluctantly. 

A tiny smile of pride crossed Michael’s face, but then it faded.  He still felt strongly that Alex was the point about which all things revolved.  It was obvious that Lucifer had designs on the Chosen One, that he still had designs on the world, but Michael had not seen or heard from his older brother since, well, since before Julian’s army had invaded the city.  Since the chapel in Mallory.  Lucifer’s presence had been strong there, he had even saved Gabriel, but….

Gabriel – yet another problem.  Michael sighed, an all-too-human gesture he’d found himself doing lately.  His twin had joined him in his battle against Lucifer, up to the point of protecting Alex and aiding in the fight against Duma.  Gabriel was even staying here in Vega, much to the horror of many of the residents.  It had taken quite a lot of convincing to get the people to allow their former enemy to stay within the walls of the city.  Michael had even included the posting of round-the-clock Archangel Corps on his brother to assuage their fears (although in all honesty, Michael thought of them as more for Gabriel’s protection than for that of the city.)  Still, no matter where Gabriel was, Michael couldn’t help worrying about him.

The truth was, Gabriel was different.  Michael doubted that anyone could come through the triple threat of Julian’s torture, infection by the Darkness and the literal “cleansing by fire” that had saved him without it affecting their lives, but Gabriel was fundamentally changed.  As difficult as it had been fighting brother-against-brother for the last twenty-five years, Michael had always thought he had understood what drove his twin, the calling of his heart.  Now, however, it seemed that Gabriel had not only given up his war against the humans, but had given up part of his spirit, too.  He had still fought fearlessly against Duma and the eight-ball army, his sword as swift and deadly as ever, and he had pledged to do the same against Lucifer, but there was something missing, some intangible that Michael could not easily identify. 

The archangel put the papers down on a nearby table, leaned out on the railing and scanned the city again.  Vega.  He’d watched the city rise and fall and now start to rise again.  This wasn’t the same birds-eye view he’d had from the rooms he had previously held at the top of the Stratosphere.  He’d decided to be closer to the people now, closer to the city, there when they needed his guidance, not sequestered away.  He’d hated to give away the advantage of highest point, but it had needed to be done.

Instead, he had given his rooms in the Stratosphere to his brother.  That was when he knew with certainty that something was wrong.   Michael had been sure that the over-the-top rococo decorating would elicit some kind of a response, but there had been nothing – Gabriel had uttered not a single quip nor snipe nor smart remark.  It was very unlike the normal acerbic archangel.  Something was very, very off.

Michael’s brow furrowed in worry.  One sibling crushed in a mountain, another not himself, one suddenly risen from the dead and the last still missing like Father.  His family was in shambles. 

And he was here playing politics.   How had he become so entangled with these humans?  How had he ended up in a war battling first one and now another member of his own family? 

How did he end it?

 

 

 

Helena

 

Alex brushed away the fingers that tried to wind their way through the blond curls at the nape of his neck.  If nothing else, Arika’s women were determined.  He tried to move over on the plush divan to get away from the voluptuous redhead so interested in his hair only to find himself up against a brunette who looked at him just as hungrily.

“Arika, can we just talk?” he complained, rising and moving to the other side of the room.  “I’m not here for…whatever.”

The beautiful leader of Helena cast a slow, languorous smile at him.  “You can’t blame them for trying, Alex.  It would be a great coup to carry the child of the Chosen One.”

“I thought you didn’t even believe,” he countered.

“Much has happened in the last year, Alex.  Much of what I believed in has been challenged.”  Her large dark eyes fell.  “I’ve had to reevaluate many of my choices.”

“That’s why you brought David Whele here?”

She laughed.  “David and I are both on a journey.  We needed each other.  After he helped to defeat Duma to save your city, he needed healing.  I thought he could do that here, and frankly, Helena needed his kind of help.  He really is a genius, you know.”

“Yeah, a genius at helping himself.  You’ll understand if I don’t trust the guy.”

“I don’t think he trusts himself right now, so you are on equal ground.”  She waved an elegant hand and the other two women left the room.  “Tell me, Alex, why do you want David to come back if you feel so strongly about him?  He is welcome to stay in Helena.  He has…found a place here.”  Her intonation spoke more than her words. 

Alex watched her for a moment.  Yes, that was it, she was possessive of Whele.  Were the two of them…?  He found the thought more than a little repulsive.  “He has information about the infrastructure of the city.  We lost a lot of people during the Darkness and the battle with Duma, we just don’t have the manpower we need to do some of the things we have to do.  Whele had his hands in almost everything in the city, he has the knowledge that we need to get things done.”  He leaned in closer.  “But he’s going to be on a very short leash.”

Arika twittered musically.  “You don’t leash a man like David.  I think, however, you’ll find he’s willing to help you.  He’s not the same person you knew before.”

“What, have you tamed him or something?”

“Tamed him?  No, I think the better term would be ‘bandaged’ him.  We fixed his hand for him…and other things.”  She left the sentence tantalizingly unspecific.  “He is a different man now.  You’ll see.”

He gave her a sideways look.  “For the record, Arika, I don’t trust you either.”  Again, she only offered that dazzling, enigmatic smile.  “Before she died, Claire told me what you did to her, and I’m not going to forget it.  I’m only here because Helena and Vega are two of the only cities left.  We need to work together if we’re going to survive what’s coming.”

“And what is that, Alex?  From what I heard, Gabriel is no longer fighting his war.  Do you think his angels will continue?”

“I don’t see them stopping.  They may find someone else to follow.” 

“Another archangel?”

“You could say that.”

 

 

 

Vega

 

The convoy drove up within a hundred yards of the tall city gates and stopped.  It was a small group, only three vehicles, but they had planned it that way.  One, an ancient looking VW bus, one a small military transport of unknown vintage and the last, an SUV that sported a motley pedigree of parts and colors.  All in all, an unimposing group.  Nothing to be afraid of. 

Two figures exited from the transport, a woman from the driver’s side and a man from the passenger’s.  He walked over toward her and handed her a small duffel.  “Are you sure you don’t want us to hang about a bit until you have a better feel for the place?”  His accent was British, his age pushing fifty.  His toothbrush mustache and his upright bearing belied a lifetime in the military.

The woman lifted worn goggles from her eyes and set them on top of her shoulder-length hair.  She squinted into the sunlight, making the tiny crow’s feet at the corners of her green eyes more noticeable.  Her hands checked the gun at her right hip and the long sword on her left, then she patted the second gun that hung further down her left thigh.  “No, Jenkins, I’m good.  Fall back like we talked about.  I’ll contact you when I know what’s going on.”  She unzipped the duffle and checked for the radio that lay on top of a small bundle of sand-colored fatigues similar to the ones she was wearing.  She clicked the send button and heard the familiar response from one clipped to Jenkins’ belt. 

Jenkins raised his own goggles and looked at her seriously.  “And you’re sure you want to do this alone?”

The corners of her mouth curled up into what was a typically wry smirk.  “Yes.  I don’t need you to hold my hand.”  Then she did just that and held his.  “Thank you.  For coming with me.”

“My duty, mum.”

Her smile widened, not just at the appellation.  Technically it was his duty, but it was also more than that.  “You’re a good friend.”

He gripped her hand tightly and then released it.  “Take care, mum.  I hope you find what you’re looking for.”  Turning on his heel, he reentered the transport on the driver’s side.  A swing of his arm out the window started the engines of all three vehicles, and within moments they were rumbling away, leaving the woman standing in a cloud of dust.

She lowered her goggles against the sand, took a determined breath and strode toward gates.  A few moments later, an amplified voice sounded through the hot air.  “You have approached the city of Vega. State your name and intention.”

She pulled her goggles off and let her long, dark blond hair loose from the straps.  “I’m Commander Charlotte Lannon of the Wildcats, and I’m here to see my son.”

 

 

Michael stared out the window at the far horizon as if he could see the farmhouse a hundred miles away, see the scene that had taken place decades ago, look to find some detail he had missed, some explanation for what he had just heard.  He couldn’t believe it, he simply could not believe what the sergeant had told him.

Charlie?  Alive?  And here in Vega?  It couldn’t be true – he had seen Charlie’s dead body, helped Jeep dig her grave.  It simply could not be true.

His mind ran through a dozen possible scenarios.  The woman must be mistaken, or perhaps delusional, longing to attach herself to the savior of Vega.  Or, he thought, this might very well be Lucifer’s gambit to get to the Chosen One, an elaborate ruse designed to lure him away from Vega.

The archangel unconsciously stood taller and squared his shoulders.  No one was going to get to Alex without going through him first.

At least there was one small consolation – the helicopter had not yet returned from Helena.  Michael could quickly deal with this pretender and Alex need never know a thing about it.  He could save his young friend the pain of the inevitable lie.

A fresh-faced guard, one of the new recruits since the war, came into the room and announced his visitor.  “Archangel, Commander Lannon to see you.”

The woman who entered his quarters was middle-aged, dressed in fatigues, now sporting an empty holster and scabbard.  Michael watched as she quickly took in her surroundings, the sign of a trained soldier, before turning to him and extending her hand.  “You’re Michael the Archangel, I take it.”  Her tone was professional but friendly.  “I’ve heard a bit about you, I’m pleased to finally get the chance to meet you.”

Michael looked from her hand to her face, ready for the offensive, then stopped, dumbfounded.  He blinked, unbelieving.  It was her, it was Charlie.  Older, a streak of gray at her temple, a few lines in her face, but it was her.  A rush of memories flooded down on him and he stepped back reflexively.  He had expected an imposter, someone he would reveal as a fraud and send away but this, this woman was too perfect.  “Charlie?”

The woman blushed in embarrassment.  “Oh, wow, I haven’t been called that in 25 years.  I’m sorry, do we know each other?”

Michael tried to speak but couldn’t find the words.  She was just as Charlie would have looked after a quarter-century, standing there in military fatigues and brown boots.  Her hair was darker and shorter and she was obviously more mature than the last time he had seen her.  He stepped closer and gently set his hands on her upper arms.  The blush rose higher on her cheeks – she was also much more alive.

“But it…it can’t be you,” he said, still mystified.

She dropped her extended hand and frowned, drawing back from him just a bit.  “I’m Commander Charlotte Lannon.  Were you expecting someone else?”

“No, I –” The archangel continued to stumble over his words, attempting to put them into some kind of coherent form.  “But Charlie, you… you died.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You died.”

Now she tried to pull away from him.  “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”  A note of irritation crept into her voice, replacing the embarrassment.  “I’ve lost a few days from early in the war, yeah, I had a head injury, but I certainly didn’t die.  It’s not like I’m a zombie or anything, and I am not an eight-ball.”

“No, I know you’re not.”  Michael let her go and walked a few feet away, needing space to think.  Nothing was what he had expected.  He had sensed no otherworldliness about her, no possession or other spirit form.  “It is you, but we all thought you dead.  We mourned you.”

 “I don’t know what you’re talking about, this doesn’t make any sense.”  She shook her head, her brow creased in frustration.  “I woke up in a military hospital, not a morgue.”

“I don’t understand it either.  I saw your body.”  He turned back toward her.   “Jeep…Jeep buried you.”

“Jeep?”   Her expression suddenly changed, relief shining through the confusion, her breath coming fast.  “Jeep – he made it?”

“Yes,” Michael nodded.  “We lost him only last year.”

“Oh.”  The commander closed her eyes, trying to put her feelings into some kind of order.  Michael could see the struggle play across her features.  When she looked at him again it was with a kind of fervent hesitation.  “If Jeep did make it here, if he…”  She paused, breathing deeply, gaining control.  “I’m sorry, I…maybe I should explain why I’m here.”

The archangel silently encouraged her, this was what he had been waiting for.

“About three months ago,” she started, “we had some traders come through our camp.  They’d heard things, they said, just tales maybe, but they talked about a young man here in Vega, they called him the Chosen One.  They told a story about how his father had died to save him.  They called him Alex and called his father Jeep.  The coincidence was too much, I mean seriously, how many people have the name ‘Jeep’?”   She gave a little laugh but it couldn’t overcome the intensity in her eyes.  

Michael smiled but said nothing.  He was still trying to work out what was going on, what he was willing to say.

“I had to know,” she continued, “I had to come to Vega and find out for myself.  Now you tell me that Jeep survived, that he made it to Vega…” she faltered again, afraid to go on.  The confident woman that had walked into the room was suddenly gone, replaced by a fearful mother.  Fearful, hopeful.  She bit at her lower lip, holding back emotion.  “Please, tell me, Archangel, are those stories true?  Did Jeep die to save Alex?  Is my boy alive?” 

Looking into her face, seeing the sincerity there, it was difficult to doubt that this was the woman who had lost her child so many years before.  Michael’s expression softened.  “They are true.  Alex is alive.”

For a moment, she did nothing, stunned.  Then her hand flew to her mouth and she stumbled toward a nearby chair to sit, unable to trust her legs.  Her body started to visibly shake.

Michael stood back, watching her reaction.  He could see tears welling up, they seemed genuine, but he was still confused.  Confused and grateful that Alex wasn’t here in the middle of all of it.  “But I’m sorry, he’s not here right now,” the archangel apologized.  “He went to Helena, on a diplomatic mission.”

“Seriously, a diplomatic mission?”  The commander laughed through the tears, wiping at her eyes.  “I never thought a child of mine would be a diplomat.”  Her hands spread out, showing her fatigues, her empty weapons belt.  “Not exactly in the genes, if you know what I mean.”

“It wasn’t by choice,” Michael allowed with a certain amount of chagrin, “but we needed someone we could trust.”  He paused, thoughtful.  He didn’t want to interrogate her but he still needed answers, before Alex returned.  “You’re not from Helena then.”

For the first time, there was a split-second of hesitancy in her response.  “No, I’m in the Midwest now.”

“I’m not familiar with any settlements there.”

“It’s a small compound, pretty far away.”

The archangel mulled this over.  There were still pieces missing from her story.  “You’ve been there all this time?”

“I found good people, they took me in, gave me a purpose.  Like I said, I woke up in a military hospital.  That was in Texas, I don’t even know how I got there.  I really don’t remember anything about those first few days of the war.  I just figured I was one of the lucky ones, if you call thinking you’ve lost everyone you care about lucky.”

Lucky?  Michael’s eyes narrowed just a bit.  He had seen her lifeless body placed into the ground – luck had nothing to do with it.  There was something much greater than luck at work here, but he had no idea what it was. 

It was strange, she’d evaded his question, but still, Charlie appeared quite genuine.  For years, it seemed, she’d had no idea that Jeep had survived, that her son had lived.  He couldn’t imagine what she was feeling right now.  It wasn’t surprising that her answers were less than cogent. 

“This thing about Alex,” she asked tentatively.  “They called him ‘the Chosen One.’  What exactly does that mean?  I want to –”

She was interrupted by a commotion, arguing voices in the hallway outside.  “But sir, he’s in a meeting!”

“I don’t care, little man.  I’m his brother; he’ll make time for me.”  The door opened explosively and Gabriel strode in, clad in his usual black leather coat, fully armed.  “Michael, we need to talk. I can’t –”

He was halfway across the room when he halted abruptly, staring at the woman seated in the chair opposite Michael.  The look of annoyance that he typically wore changed to one of confusion, then to uneasy recognition.  “Charlotte?”

The commander stood, still a little shaky, resting her hand on the back of the chair for support.  She seemed just as stunned.  “Gabe?  Is that you?”

Then without waiting for a response, she ran across the room to him, throwing her arms around his neck.  “Oh, my god, I never thought I’d see you again.  You made it, too!  You’re alive, and you’re here!  I can’t believe it!”

Gabriel stood motionless, overwhelmed by her affection, his face a mask of shock.  Eventually he pushed her gently away, holding her at arm’s length.  His eyes travelled over her face, his hand rose to tentatively touch her hair, as if he was afraid that it would disappear at his touch.  “Charlotte,” he said again, his voice nearly cracking.  “What are you doing here?”

“I came to find Alex.”  Her eyes lit up as realization dawned.  “Of course, that’s why you’re here.  You’re here for Alex.”  A broad smile creased her face and she looked over her shoulder at Michael.  “And you said you were there that day with Jeep, you must have helped save Alex when I…” she left the words unsaid, still trying to comprehend what had happened, what Michael had told her.  “If I couldn’t be there…if Alex had you both ….”

Michael was just as bewildered as his brother was.  Until she had walked into the room a few minutes ago, he had thought that Noma and Gabriel had killed this woman, but now she greeted Gabriel with unmitigated affection, even relief.  Why would she feel that way for her assassin? 

“Charlie,” he asked, now not even sure of her name, “how do you know Gabriel?”

“What?”  She looked at him, still smiling, trying to make sense of what he had just asked.  “What do you mean how do I know Gabe?  He’s –” 

She stopped, her head tilted to the side and Michael watched as the happiness leached from her expression.  Her brow knit and he could see her mouth the name: “Gab-riel.”

She turned back toward the fairer angel.  “Gab-riel?”  This time the name came out in just a whisper.  “You,” she pushed herself away from Gabriel slowly, deliberately, her hands raised defensively.   “You said ‘brother’ when you walked in here.”

Gabriel only stared at her, unable to speak.  Michael stepped forward.  “Gabriel is my brother.”

Charlie turned back toward him, anger and dread combining in a volatile mix.  “But you – you’re an archangel.”

The moment of understanding was like a silent thunderclap.  The commander rocked on her feet, her breath suddenly ragged, her eyes very wide.  She spun on Gabriel, any affection she had shown him instantly transformed into revulsion.  “You…you lying son of a bitch!  You’re him!  You’re Gabriel!”

It was all the accusation that needed to be made.  Gabriel’s face was stricken with torment.  “Please, Charlotte, let me try to explain.”  He reached toward her.

Instantly the commander was on the offensive, a blur of much-practiced speed.  Then she was a few feet back and Gabriel was holding the side of his mouth with his hand, stunned.  “Don’t touch me!” she hissed.  “Don’t ever try to touch me again!  And don’t try to explain, I know all about you, I’ve been battling you and your legions for the last 25 years.” 

She was in a fighter’s stance as she whirled on Michael.  “You’re the one who needs to explain.  I lost everything because of Gabriel, I lost our son because of his war, but all the stories said you were on our side, on the human’s side.  What are you doing with him now, Michael, what the hell is going on here?”

Even without weapons, the woman was formidable.  More than that, she was brave; Michael could think of few other humans who would even think of striking an archangel unprovoked, normally a death sentence.  He moved between her and his brother, his hands raised in a calming gesture.  “Gabriel is here because he is working with us, Charlie, not against us.  We face a common enemy and we must band together if we are to defeat him.  Alex is with us in this cause.”

The commander would not be dissuaded.  “Are you kidding me?  This…this monster?  I don’t care if he is your brother, Michael, he’s responsible for the deaths of six billion people!  Do you actually trust him?  Are you telling me that Alex trusts him?”

Michael had to be honest.  “Trust is a difficult subject.”  He turned toward his brother.  For a split second after she had hit him, Michael had seen Gabriel’s eyes flare in anger, then they dimmed to a kind of bewilderment.  Now he nursed his swollen lip, strangely silent.  It was not like an archangel to take this kind of attack, verbal or physical, without response; something was very, very wrong.

“Gabriel.”  Michael didn’t like the combination of confusion and despair he saw brewing in his twin’s eyes.  “Gabriel, please, go.  Let me speak with her, I will find you later.”

Gabriel looked at the woman standing at a distance from him now, shoulders back, fists clenched, a warrior’s posture.  She radiated hatred like a star threw off heat.  For a moment when he had first seen her, his heart had soared, but now he felt nothing except a twisting crush of guilt and self-loathing. 

He wordlessly turned and walked away, her fiery glare following him to the door.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

 

 

Denver, 2016

 

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?” 

He nodded.

“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.”

 “Charlotte?”

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.

 

 

Vega

 

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?”

 

 

 

Denver, 2016

 

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.

 

Vega

 

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. 

He looked…broken

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.”

“Exactly.”

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.”

“What?”

“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.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

 

 

Denver, 2016

 

Gabriel opened the door into the diner and was instantly on his guard – the bells, the hated hanging bells, had been cut off the door.  His head swiveled around and he saw them in a snow bank a few feet away, lightly covered with the downy flakes that were still falling.  Someone had wanted to be able to get in and out of the restaurant without warning any of the occupants and it hadn’t been long ago.

Now all his senses were on the alert.  The diner was eerily quiet, no voices, no clatter of dishes and pans, no sizzle of food cooking in the background, only the tinny music coming through the speakers in the ceiling.  He could see no customers, and the window into the kitchen was missing the familiar shape of Tim’s back.

Most disturbing was the smell.  Gabriel’s sense of smell was acute, a leftover of his angelic form, and beyond the familiar grease and disinfectant, he could pick out scents that were out of place: burnt food, an impossibility with Tim at the grill; the acrid smell of gunpowder; and worst of all, the tang of blood.

His hand reached into his jacket for the automatic as he carefully made his way through the rows of tables, searching each before moving on.  There was nothing to be found until the second to last row.  There, an older couple lay crumpled on the bench, hidden from sight.  The mark of a small caliber bullet darkened each of their temples. 

An execution.

Gabriel paused only a moment while anger flooded his body.  He’d seen the couple before, sweet elderly insomniacs who would occasionally come in for a late-night treat together, giggling and talking and holding hands like teenagers. They’d always had a smile for him, and eventually, he’d taken to smiling back. 

They didn’t deserve this. 

A terrible dread seized him and he shouldered through the swinging doors that separated the kitchen from the rest of the restaurant.  His fears were instantly realized when he found George lying on his back just inside, another bullet hole in his temple.  Another execution, another innocent dead.

He pushed his way past George’s body, forcing himself to keep going.  A veteran of hundreds of wars, he’d seen death more than he wanted to admit, but this moved him more than ever before.  The gun shook in his hand, his heart pounded in his chest as he cautiously padded into the hall behind the kitchen.  He had to keep searching, he had to know.

Tim’s body leaned against the door of his office.  His death hadn’t been as swift as the others, there was no simple bullet to the head here.  Instead, Gabriel saw three black holes in the front of the ex-cop’s apron, normally pristine white, now soaked with blood.  One of the shots had hit his heart, but it hadn’t been the first.  The man had suffered, but first he had tried to fight – a large kitchen knife lay a few feet away.  Nearby a desk drawer fell partially opened, a hand gun still inside, never reached.

Gabriel scanned the office.  The safe was still closed.  He looked back toward the counter; the cash register was also unopened.  This hadn’t been a robbery.

Where was Charlotte?

Gun still in hand, he stepped out of the office carefully, trying not to touch anything.  This was a human matter and he would have to call the police soon or chances are someone else would.  He didn’t want to become a suspect, but he needed more time to look.  Where was she?

In the back of the hallway, Gabriel caught the reflection of a small glass window.  He’d never noticed it before, but then again, he’d never spent any time back here.  Wondering if it might be a rear exit, he tried the door.  It was locked. 

He was just turning away when a blurry face appeared in the frosted glass, then disappeared.  “Charlotte?”  He banged his hand on the wood.  “Charlotte!  You’re safe.  They’re gone.”

The top of her head appeared again, then two huge, frightened eyes, shrouded in the rime of the window. 

“You’re safe,” he said again.  “You can come out now.”

She shook her head.  “I don’t have the key.”  The heavy door made it difficult to hear her. “Tim locked me in.”

“I’ll get it, I’ll be right back.”  Gabriel put up his hand in reassurance.  “I’ll be right back.”

It was obvious now what had happened.  With his police background, Tim had somehow recognized the danger of the situation as it was developing and secreted Charlotte away in what looked like a walk-in freezer.  It had saved her life.  Gabriel hurried back to the hero’s dead body and quickly found a ring of keys hanging from his belt.  He pulled them off and rushed back to the freezer.

The lock was dealt with and Charlotte stumbled out.  She had an old Denver Police Department jacket on but her hands were stiff and her body shook violently.  Gabriel wasn’t sure if it was from the cold that rolled out of the freezer in frosty waves or the shock of what she must have known had happened.  Probably both.  He pulled her into his arms.

“They’re dead, aren’t they?” Her voice was muffled by his shoulder.  “He killed them.”

For a moment, Gabriel held her tightly, trying to warm her, to calm the shuddering of her body.  He hated what had happened, what he knew was going to happen.  He would have given anything to spare her this pain.  Finally, he pushed her out to arm’s length.  “Charlotte, this is very important.  Did you see who did this?”

She nodded her head, still shaking.  Tears started to overflow, she’d tried so hard not to cry in the freezer but now it was just too much.  “It was Bertoni’s guy.  Him and another.  They were in here last week with Bertoni.  I recognized them.”

Bertoni, the so-called mobster who had wanted to buy the restaurant from Tim.  Gabriel pulled her close again, trying again to hold in the tremors that shook her like a leaf in a hurricane.  It was no use.  Once the tears had started, they weren’t going to soon stop. 

It was only going to get worse.  He pushed her head down, covered her eyes with his hand.  “Come with me now, I’ll guide you.  Don’t look.”

“No.”  She thrust his hand away.  “I need to.  I need to see what they did.”  She shoved away from him and rushed toward the office.  Her cry of anguish tore at his soul.

“Oh, god, oh, Tim, I’m so sorry.”  Bent over his body, she rocked back and forth.  “Oh, Tim, oh my god.” 

Gabriel reached down to pick her up.  “I want to get you out of here.  You’re not safe.”

She tried to push him away but ended up collapsing in his arms.  “We can’t leave.  Tim’s a cop, we have to call the cops,” she sobbed.  “We have to.”

He couldn’t argue with her, especially as she pulled away from him and stumbled over to the phone on the desk to make the call herself.  Her gaze fell on Tim and she tried in vain to stifle a sob as the call went through.

“911, what is your emergency?”

Charlotte’s hand shook as she held the phone but her voice was strong.  “There’s been a shooting.”

 

 

Gabriel sat in one of the booths at the front of the diner nearly two hours after he had first arrived.  He watched Charlotte over the shoulder of the young detective who sat directly across from him.  She was seated on the other side of the restaurant, still wearing the Denver PD jacket, wrapping it around herself like a protective blanket.  Her eyes were bloodshot from crying and she looked exhausted.  He’d insisted that they give her some hot tea earlier after telling the officers of her time in the freezer, but that had been the extent of their hospitality.  They seemed to be treating both of them more like suspects than witnesses to the terrible crime. 

And yet she appeared to be holding up quite well, all things considered.  She’d even flashed him a strange kind of grimace earlier, and thanked him silently for the tea.  The technicians worked quietly behind her, gathering all their evidence, while she told her story time and time again. 

As did Gabriel.  His gun had been confiscated for testing almost immediately, which was only to be expected.  He’d also been fingerprinted and had his ID checked.  Thankfully he had spent a fair sum when he had arrived in the city to have a properly documented identity arranged.  One could never be too careful these days. 

“So, Mr. Aequitas,” started the detective once again, “what is that, Greek?”

“I’m sorry, what?” Gabriel brought his attention back.

“Your name, is it Greek?”

“No.  Latin.”

The detective frowned.  He was usually pretty good with nationalities, and this guy neither looked nor sounded Italian.  Well, maybe northern Italian or one of those weird border regions.  Hard to place.  “So, you’re in security.  That’s why you have the gun.”

“Yes.  Private security.”

“And your employer is?”

“Very private.”

The detective fidgeted, shooting the cuffs of his off-the-rack suit.  “Mr. Aequitas, that’s not going to be enough.  We’re going to need to know who’s employing you right now.”

 “Then we’re going to say that I am currently unemployed.”  Gabriel leaned over the table, his voice extraordinarily calm.  “I have explained my presence here, more than once.  You have my weapon and the permit for it, and I have given you any other information that you have requested.  I do not understand why you are continuing to question me, or for that matter, Miss Lannon.”

“We need to get the story straight.”

“It is not a story, it is a tragedy.”  Gabriel stood up.  “And a very personal one for Miss Lannon.  She is exhausted and in grief.  You’ve had enough of her time for today; I’m going to take her home.”

The young detective scrambled after him as Gabriel strode over to the other table where Charlotte was being interviewed.  She looked up at him as if he were a shining knight on horseback come to rescue her from a dragon. 

“Miss Lannon is done for now,” Gabriel announced.  “This incident has been traumatic and she needs rest.  If you want to speak with her further, she will be available later in the day.”  He reached for her hand and helped her to rise.

The other detective, older, wiser and in a better suit, also rose.  “Are you Ms. Lannon’s attorney?” he asked, knowing full well the answer.

Gabriel paused, then turned and faced the senior detective square on.  He quickly took the measure of the man.  “Detective, I’m going to assume that you knew the owner of this establishment.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I knew Tim.  We went back to our rookie days together.”

“Then this is personal to you.”

The older man set his jaw.  “Tim was good people,” he admitted.

“Perhaps then you understand how Miss Lannon is feeling right now.  She has lost more than an employer; she has lost a friend.  She is a victim here, not a suspect.”

The detective considered this for a moment and then backed down.  “You’re right.  I’m sorry for your loss, Ms. Lannon.  Tim was a good guy.  I’m sorry we’ve kept you here so long, I just really want to nail the bastards that did this.”

Charlotte nodded but didn’t say anything.

He handed them both his card.  “I’ll have your statements typed up so you can read them through and sign them down at the station later today.  If you think of anything else before then, please give me a call.  Can I have one of the officers give you a ride home?”

Gabriel knew that the offer was not made out of kindness; the driver would be listening to anything they said.  Still, it would be nice to have a warm ride.  “Yes, thank you,” he agreed for both of them.

 

 

Gabriel stood outside the apartment building and waved as the squad car pulled away, motioning as if he was headed inside.  He wasn’t, it wasn’t even where he lived, although this was the address he’d given the police.  Through a little bit of luck and a little bit of planning, he had managed to move into a building that had an address with numbers exactly transposed to the address of this location.  If necessary, he could pass off the mistake as a new arrival – he had only been in town three weeks after all, and slipups could happen when one had just stumbled across a homicide. 

His ID was from another state, and there was nothing else to tie him to his actual residence two blocks away.  It had originally seemed like an unnecessary precaution, his paranoia running rampant, but now he wasn’t so sure.

He jogged up the alley behind the buildings, seeing the slate grey of the sky through the gaps.  Dawn was still an hour away but the sky was starting to lose its velvety depth.  The snow had ended, replaced by scattered clouds that scudded across the darkness, only reflected by the city lights below, dark grey on dark grey.  His thoughts ran back to how happy he had been just a few hours before and it all seemed like a dream.

He’d been lackadaisical, unfocused, and it had almost cost Charlotte her life.

That wasn’t an option now.  He was tempted to immediately go back to her house and stand guard but he knew that he wasn’t prepared.  This fragile human body was not ready to stay outside her building for the next ten hours in the freezing temperatures.  He had warmer clothes in his apartment and it would be just a matter of minutes to change, then he would hail a cab rather than walk back to her place, saving time that way. 

Thoughts ran through his mind – Charlotte’s wide, frightened eyes on the other side of the door; her agonized cry as she bent over the dead body of her friend; her silence on the ride back to her house even as she huddled next to him.

When it had come the time, he hadn’t been there to protect her, Tim had.  Tim, the retired cop, had realized the danger before it became apparent and pushed her into the freezer, locking her away and then drawing the murderers off armed with only a butcher knife.  The older man had given his life for her.  Gabriel was in awe of him. 

Gabriel had failed her.  He’d forgotten his mission, wrapped up in the trappings of being human.  He’d forgotten that his sole purpose for being on this forsaken planet was to protect her.  He’d failed her, and failed Father.  Thankfully someone else had done his job for him, but he wouldn’t fail again.  

From now on protecting Charlotte would be the essence of his existence, his only reason for being.  At least until Father decided otherwise.

 

 

Gabriel leaned against the wall of the police station, arms crossed, staring at the door of the interrogation room down the hall.  They’d taken Charlotte in there over an hour ago, then hustled him into another room nearby.  He’d listened carefully to any sounds that might have meant that she had been moved or otherwise disturbed, even while a sergeant went through the statement sitting on the table between them.  Gabriel really didn’t care about the statement; it wasn’t as if he was going to testify.  Ever.

He gave the paper a perfunctory scan and signed it with an illegible scrawl, then asked to leave.  The sergeant, with no reason to keep him, let him go and Gabriel had immediately taken up his perch on the corner, watching. 

Now busy little people skirted around him like ants going around a particularly loathsome beetle.  He knew he was radiating antagonism in a police station, not always the best of plans, but he didn’t particularly care.  Charlotte had been in that room much too long. 

Finally, the door opened, but someone else came out, a small, balding toad of a man in an expensive charcoal suit and designer tie whom Gabriel had never seen before.  The stranger looked up and down the hall, adjusted his tie and collar, then walked briskly toward a stairwell.

Gabriel’s patience was at an end.  He was purposefully striding down the restricted hallway with a uniformed officer on an intercept course when the interrogation room door opened again and Charlotte walked out.

A few hours earlier, when Gabriel had picked Charlotte up in the cab, she had been wearing an emerald green wool dress, boots and makeup.  Underneath the eye shadow and mascara, he could see dark circles of fatigue, but she had smiled and said that she wanted to look “human,” to look nice for Tim’s friends at the precinct.  Then she’d pulled on the Denver PD jacket, once again wrapping it around her tightly.  It didn’t go with the dress, but it had become her superhero cape, the talisman she drew strength from. 

Now her expression was like stone, hard and brittle, her eyes too bright.  She walked toward him looking neither left nor right.  As she approached him, her gaze rose just a bit to meet his but she kept moving.  “Please take me out of here.”  Her voice was unnaturally level.

Just outside, he rested his hand on her back and it became obvious that she was shaking beneath the oversize jacket.  “Charlotte?” he queried.

“Not here,” she said sharply.  “Please, don’t say anything here.  I just want to get home.”

He hailed a cab and they climbed in.  In contrast to the night before, she tucked herself into the corner, far away from him, her arms wrapped around her body protectively.

Gabriel gave the address to the driver and then sat back in silence.  He wouldn’t push her, not right now.

“I signed my statement,” she began eventually, her voice once again oddly unemotional.  “I read it through and I signed it.  It was like reading a bad crime novel from the 30’s, I can’t believe it’s real.  It’s just so incredible.  Except, of course, they’re dead.  I mean, Tim and George and that old couple are dead, they’re really dead.”  She looked at the back of the driver’s head and shook her own.  It probably wasn’t the strangest thing he’d heard in his cab.

“The sergeant left me in the room and said there was someone else that wanted to talk to me.  I sat there for a little while and then that other man came in.  He wasn’t a cop.”

Gabriel’s eyes narrowed.  “The small man in the expensive suit?”

“Yeah.  Bald, grey suit.  He didn’t have a badge or a gun, no holster.  He didn’t act like a cop either, he acted like a lawyer.  He told me I was wrong, that I hadn’t seen what I said I’d seen.  He told me I couldn’t really identify the men who came into the diner.  I told him I could and he told me I was mistaken, that it was in my best interest if I couldn’t.”  Her voice was starting to rise now.  “He was threatening me, Gabe.  I don’t know who he was, but he was threatening me.  He asked if I wanted to rewrite my statement and I said no.  Then he said that he was going to hold onto it for a day, to see if I might change my mind.  Why does he have my statement, who is this guy?”

“Another associate of the man you implicated, I would assume.”

“You mean Bertoni?  He wanted to buy the diner, build condos on that corner, but Tim wouldn’t sell. It was his men, I recognized them.  I can’t believe he’d go as far as murder just to get his hands on it.”

“Men will do extreme things to get what they want, especially men of power.”  His thoughts flashed back to a king who was willing to push a child from a rooftop.  “Their actions were brazen; I doubt that they expected any witnesses to survive.  You are not a part of their plans.  Now they are trying to silence you.”

“Silence me?”  She rubbed the sleeve of the jacket, Tim’s jacket.  Her eyes flashed.  “No, nope, not ever.  Not gonna happen.”

 

 

They arrived at Charlotte’s apartment a few quiet minutes later.  Both of them had been lost in thought, staring out the cold windows as they rode through the city.

Gabriel got out of the cab, telling the driver to wait.  He would pay him off as soon as Charlotte was inside, but she didn’t have to know that.  They walked toward her building.

“I feel like I should ask you inside for a cup of tea or something.”  She searched in her bag for her keys when they reached the door.   “You’ve been so kind to me through all this.  I really appreciate it.”

Gabriel’s heart did a little flip-flop that he hadn’t expected.  He hadn’t been kind, he’d been doing his job, a job he’d nearly failed earlier, but her words meant more than he wanted to admit.  He wanted to come inside, he wanted to stay the rest of the day, not spend it perched in a corner hidden from view, trying to stay warm.

He wanted to spend it with her.

Nonsense, he told himself, and mentally shook his head like a dog.  “I’ve done nothing,” he said out loud.  “You’re the one who has been very brave.”

“I don’t know about that,” she laughed, a rather musical little sound, and opened the door.  “I go back and forth between furious and feeling like I’m going to fall apart any –”

The laughter died immediately, replaced by a garbled yelp.  Charlotte threw her hand over her mouth and backed up into Gabriel, still outside.

“What is it?” he asked, seeing her horrified expression and trying to peer past her.  Even as he did, she turned toward him and buried her face in his chest.  He wrapped one arm around her protectively and leaned over to look inside the room.

Not five feet from the doorway, a small black cat dangled crudely from the ceiling on a length of wire, it’s neck broken, its tiny pink tongue hanging out obscenely.

His anger barely let him speak. “Is that?” he forced out between tightly clenched teeth.

Gabriel could feel her head bouncing against his jacket.  “It’s Midnight.”  She gave a shuddering sniff. 

Years of combat had already put Gabriel’s mind into overdrive.  His hand first went to a sword that wasn’t there and he cursed under his breath – his gun had also been seized.  Weaponless, he carefully took Charlotte by the shoulders and maneuvered her into the kitchen area.  He searched and he found a knife block, picked the largest and put it in her hand.  “Stay here, don’t move.  I’m going to check the other rooms.”  She nodded robotically while he took the next largest knife and hefted it for a moment, checking it for weight and balance.  It would do.

It took only a minute to sweep through the small apartment and find it empty.  Gabriel had been sure that it would be; the message had been sent, there was no reason to remain.  From the way that Charlotte stared at the body of the poor dead creature, the message had been received loud and clear. 

He returned to the entrance with a towel and wrapped it around the cat, untwisting the wire from the ceiling and pulling the whole thing down.  The proper thing to do was report it to the police but somehow, he thought, that report would be mysteriously lost.  Never very trusting to begin with, he felt even less so now.

Laying the tragic bundle on the table, he returned to Charlotte.  She watched him from the corner of the kitchenette with unblinking eyes, her teeth clenched, the knife tightly held in both hands.  When he tried to take the blade away she didn’t want to let it go.

“It’s not right,” she whispered.  “It’s not right.  She was just a little wild cat, just a sweet little kitten.  She wasn’t even mine.  She didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

Gentle fingers pried the knife from her grip but his voice was firm.  “You cannot stay here any longer.”

“We can’t just leave Midnight.  We have to bury her or something.”

Gabriel took a moment to watch the young woman.  She was upset but not afraid, staring at the table, her nostrils flaring in indignation, more concerned with the death of the cat than her own safety.  He wasn’t sure if it was due to bravery or ignorance.

He took her by the shoulders and forced her to pay attention.  “You’re not safe here, Charlotte. I can return and take care of the cat, but we need to take you out of here immediately.”

She peered up at him and he could see a myriad of thoughts running through her head.  “I don’t have anywhere to go.  I can’t afford a hotel and I don’t have any relatives here.  I don’t want to leave town.  I don’t want them to chase me away, Gabe, I want to see this through.  For Tim, for all of them.”

Gabriel gave a long sigh.  Bravery it was. 

There was only one real choice but he had hoped something else would appear.  From the instant he had found her in the walk-in freezer, he’d been fighting the impulse to wrap her up and whisk her off to his apartment where he could stand watch over her night and day, ensure her safety, take care of her.  Now it seemed he actually had no choice, neither of them did, but that was not the way he had wanted her to come to his home.

He buried the thoughts and instead gave her a warm, comforting smile.  His hand cupped the side of her face.  “You may stay with me.  No one knows where I live, they won’t find you there.”

Charlotte frowned, her mouth pursed.  “You’ll take care of Midnight.”  It wasn’t a question, it was her conditions for going with him.

The ground was frozen, it wouldn’t be easy, but at this moment he would do anything for her. “On my honor.  Get some things together quickly, we need to go now.  The cab is still waiting.”

She walked the few feet over to the table and tenderly stroked the towel-wrapped bundle.  “I’m sorry, Midnight, I’m so sorry they did this to you.”  Then she moved over to a nearby cabinet and reached inside, pulling out an unopened bottle of scotch.  She banged in loudly on the countertop.  “Tim gave this to me for my twenty-first birthday.  Macallan was his favorite.  I was saving it for a special occasion but I think it’s going to come along now.  I think I’m going to need it.”

 

 

 

An hour outside of Vega

 

Alex Lannon had been in worse situations, but nothing quite like this.  Being shot down in a helicopter was something he didn’t need to ever do again and he silently thanked the pilot from Helena for being so cool under fire.  The gunfire, and it had been gunfire, not rocket fire, had taken out the main engine, allowing them to land safely but out in the middle of nowhere. 

As he scrambled out of the fuselage and under cover, he looked to see if he could find the shooter (or shooters) but they were well hidden.  Puffs of dirt rose around the chopper, more gunfire, preventing them from trying to leave.  Obviously long-range sniper fire; Julian was getting a better class of friends.  He glanced up at the holes in the body of the engine compartment.  They were larger than what was hitting the ground around him, maybe 50-caliber.  This wasn’t some spur-of-the-moment potshot, it was well thought out.

Which led him to his next conclusion – this wasn’t an ambush, it was a kidnapping.

Alex took stock of the situation.  There were five of them in total; pilot and co-pilot, David Whele, another emissary from Helena, and himself. The pilot hunched over in the cockpit and worked to try to get a message through to Vega with Whele offering unneeded encouragement.  Both the co-pilot and the emissary were arming themselves from a box in the back of the fuselage and they tossed an extra assault rifle to him.  Obviously, this was something that was not unexpected for Helena’s airline.

The emissary had grabbed a pair of binoculars and found a position that afforded her cover to take a long look at their surroundings.  She was a young woman dressed in the traditional haika of her people, but she had torn off the headpiece as the helicopter went into a spin.  Now she looked Alex straight on, more soldier and less diplomat.  “I can’t see the shooter but there are dust tracks on the far horizon, maybe five miles out.  They’re coming slow, taking their time.”

“They’re coming for me.  They know they have us pinned down here.  Someone leaked our flight plan, this was all arranged.”

“If they only want you, they’ll kill us, or worse.  I’m not going to die for you.”

“I’m not asking you to.”  Alex checked the sight on the assault rifle.  “I’m not going down without a fight.”

“You misunderstand,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.  “Arika told us that you are important to the plans of the one called Lucifer.”  She threw him the binoculars.  “That is reason enough not to let them have you.  I will kill you myself if I need to but I would prefer if none of us die.”

Alex glanced at her warily.  “Yeah, I like that plan better, too.”

 

 

Whenever anyone moved more than a foot or two away from the helicopter frame, a bullet would ricochet off the dirt nearby.  It was obvious that the shooter was an expert marksman.  It was also obvious that he was playing with them, daring them to move into his kill zone. 

They wouldn’t.  Instead they kept busy.  Alex directed them the best he could, being that most of his companions were from Helena and respected only his experience, not his gender.  The pilot worked a radio that went in and out but received a garbled message of some kind of help on the way. The emissary tried to do what she could to make her long robes more serviceable and the copilot checked and re-checked her weapon, a nervous habit Alex tried to calm with a smile.

Alex watched the dust trails on the horizon, waiting for them to solidify into some kind of recognizable form.  Whele sat next to him, a rifle in his lap, trying to figure out how he was going to use it with his hand still bandaged.  He slapped the stock angrily, then instantly regretted it, holding his wounded hand to his chest.  “Damn it, I should know better.”

Alex glanced over at him.  “What did you do this time?”

“I didn’t do anything, I never did anything,” the older man whined.  “The first time I was shot, and this time Arika insisted on having her surgeons try to repair the injury.  I should have told her no.”  He rubbed at the bandages.  “It’s better to have the reminder.”

“Reminder of what?”

“Of what an egomaniacal bastard I was, if you really must know!”  Whele’s patience was thin.  “How far away are they?  If I’m going to die today, I’d really just like to get it over with.”

Alex snorted.  “Blood sucking vampires don’t die.”

“Is that what you think of me?”

The young man shrugged, his features humorless.  “If the coffin fits.”

There was a long silence while they waited, watching the inevitable approach of their fate.  Shapes began to emerge in the dust, a truck, a van, another truck.  Alex strained his eyes to count.

“Son, I just want to say – “

“Don’t call me that,” Alex interrupted, not bothering to put down the binoculars.  “I’m not your son.  We all know what happened to your son.  The last thing I’d ever want is you for a father.”

“Yes, I’m sorry Alex, you’re right.  I’m…” He sighed.  “It’s just, if I am going to die, I want to – “

Again, Alex interrupted.  He turned on the older man. “I’m not going to forgive you for what you did, David, not because we’re out here together, not because you might die, not for any reason.  You’re a murderer.  You murdered my child, nothing changes that.  You can come back to Vega and do all the good deeds you want but nothing will change the fact that you’re a murderer.  If we happen to make it out of this alive, I’ll have to deal with you for the sake of Vega, but that will never, ever change what I think of you.  Now just shut up and figure out how to use that damn gun.  They’re almost here.”

 

 

The emissary heard the noise first, a strange howling coming from the northeast.  Alex swung the binoculars around and was surprised to see another set of dust tracks, these coming even faster.  “Shit!” he yelled, seeing the motley assortment of vehicles through the sandy whorls.  “Those are not from Vega.  They’ve got us surrounded.  How the hell did this happen, this is supposed to be open space!”

The pilot glared at him.  “This part of the flight plan came from Vega, not Helena.  Talk to your people.”

“None of us are talking to anybody unless we get a miracle.”  Alex went to the back of the fuselage and rummaged through the ballistics boxes.  “We’re so screwed.  Tell me you’ve got some grenades or something back here?  Rocket launcher?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the Chosen One?” she said sarcastically. “The savior?”

“Yeah, well my markings don’t stop bullets, okay? I’m trying to save all of our asses, so a little help would be appreciated.”

They watched in tense anticipation as both sets of vehicles quickly approached.  Alex had them focus their attention to the northeast for the moment as that group would arrive first. They would deal with the others if and when they survived.

The convoy came down on them incredibly fast, a cloud of sand and dirt billowing out behind them.  One was an old MRAP, dinged and dented as if it had seen a hundred wars.  Two of them were off-road pickups, the fourth was a formerly luxury-SUV.  The last was a green two-door Jeep that had to be at least 75 years old.  Alex shook his head ruefully; his father would have loved that one.

“All right people, wait until they’re in range, we have limited ammo,” Alex called out.  “And David, just try to shoot something other than yourself.” 

The emissary gave Alex a wary look.  “Don’t worry,” he said as he flashed her a sarcastic smirk, “you won’t have to save a bullet for me.  I’ll try to die first.”

With sound and fury like a miniature sandstorm, the first of the vehicles swept toward them, now only two hundred yards away, and then…past.  Alex peered out the doorway.  “What the hell?”  It didn’t make sense, there was no reason to sweep around them because the other group was coming from that direction, and yet the whole convoy went right past their location. 

All except one.  Completely hidden by the cloud of dust, a lone motorcycle appeared like a wraith and sped toward the helicopter.  Alex raised his gun but the rider lifted a hand, palm forward.  He stopped thirty feet away and raised his visor.  The face that appeared was young and eager.  “Heard you got shot down.  We’re here to help.”

Before anyone could respond, a bullet ricocheted off his handlebars and they heard the delayed report of a rifle.  Eyes huge inside the helmet, the rider slammed his visor back down and gunned the engine, spinning in circles and putting up a plume of dirt for camouflage.  He suddenly zipped back toward the helicopter.  Alex heard a muffled “Catch!” just before a black box sailed through the clouds of dust and the motorcyclist roared off after the rest of his group.

Alex scrambled back inside the fuselage to examine the box.  It vaguely resembled a radio, but he’d never seen anything like it before.  Extending a thick rotating antenna from the side, he pushed a call button.  “Hello?  Is anybody there?”

“Please identify yourself,” came a taut female voice on the other end. 

“This is Captain Alex Lannon, Archangel Corps, Vega.  Who is this?”

Alex thought he heard a sigh of relief on the other end.  “This is the commander of the Wildcats, Alex.  Those are my people you just met.  Can you give me a sitrep?”

The voice wasn’t familiar, but the tone of authority was, at least it gave him a clue how to respond.  “Chopper’s down. There are five of us; we have no injuries or casualties.  There are approximately nine vehicles approaching from the north about a half mile out and I don’t think they’re friendly.  We have assault rifles, small arms and ammunition but not a lot.”

“Alright, Alex, you’re in good hands.  You have Mayweather’s squad there and they’re the best at what they do.  Let them handle the bad guys and you just keep your head low.  Michael is also on his way; he should be there any minute.”

“We have at least one sniper pinning us down.”

“I’m sure Michael will see that.   He’ll take care of them.  You’ll be fine.

“With all due respect, ma’am, I don’t need a pep talk.  I’ve been in worse situations.”

The voice laughed.  “I’m sure you have.  It’s not a pep talk, Alex, it’s just the truth.  These are my soldiers and they’re very good at their jobs.  They’re going to love those odds.  The rest of us will be there in 30 minutes to mop up.”

“We’ll try to keep the snipers busy and off your people until Michael can deal with them.”

“Excellent idea.  Thank you.  See you soon.”

The pilot looked at Alex and the radio.  “Your miracle?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Didn’t expect that.”

In her truck, the commander clicked off the radio and stared out the window, watching the dusky landscape speed by.  So, she thought, that was him, her son.  Cocky son of a bitch, wasn’t he?  She grinned, then sobered.  The first time she’d talked to him, had she made a horrible first impression? 

What a thing to worry about while your son was getting shot at.

 

 

The Wildcats stopped a few thousand feet away from the helicopter and set up their vehicles in a ragged perimeter only partially hidden by a low hill.  It didn’t look very impressive until you saw the large-caliber machine guns that started lifting out of the back of the pick-ups and the half dozen RPG launchers that were pulled out of the back of the MRAP.  Ten men and women worked like a well-choreographed ballet company, trained to perfection and in their places in moments. 

Alex was torn between watching them and dealing with the sniper who he knew would be taking aim as they watched.  His best guess to one gunman’s location had been a berm to the east so he took a chance and let loose a few shots, quickly picking up the binoculars to see if there was any movement.  Nothing.  “This isn’t working,” he said to the emissary, tossing the binoculars back to her again.  “Here, watch where I shoot and see if anything moves.  We’ve got to keep the snipers off those people.”

The emissary followed the line of his gun to watch.  Alex let loose another round, again nothing.  He tried a hillock further south.  “There!” she cried.   “I saw the top of his rifle!  He’s ducking for cover.”

“That’s one,” he beamed.  “Keep your eye on him until I can get somebody else to keep him down.  I need to look for another one.  Maybe we can actually survive this and you won’t have to kill me today.”

He could see her mouth curve up behind the binoculars when suddenly a series of roars echoed behind them.  Her body tensed but she never took her eyes off her target.  Alex was impressed.  More explosions followed and Alex turned to see.  “Those are good booms, not bad ones,” he explained. 

“Thanks for the update.”

At the line, the Wildcats had sent off a volley of RPG rounds into the oncoming vehicles.  Two of three met their marks perfectly and sent both a truck and a van cartwheeling into the air.  The other round created a hole that neatly swallowed a four-wheeler, catapulting the driver headfirst into the dirt.  The enemy convoy, now down to six, dispersed across the landscape. 

Without warning, the two Wildcat pickups launched themselves to the top of the hillock, taking the high ground and the best line of sight.  Their gunners let loose a barrage of fire that sent a hailstorm of casings flying across the ground.  Another round of RPG’s went off, this only 33% effective, but still bringing the odds to even.  The rest of the Wildcats rolled out in pursuit, the motorcycle running around like an angry mosquito with a smaller machine gun in its nose.

Alex had the co-pilot holding down the known sniper with sporadic fire and was actively pinging other likely locations when the emissary cried out.  He looked up to see a dark shape rapidly approaching in the bright blue sky.  “Finally, a little air support!” he grinned and reached over to grip the co-pilot’s shoulder.  “Don’t shoot him, he gets pissy.”

Michael’s excellent eyesight had seen that Alex and his party were facing the opposite direction from the rest of the fighting and he had immediately deduced a sniper.  Although Alex had been unable to determine the location of the second marksman, it did not take Michael long.  Within minutes, both snipers were dispatched with the archangel’s twin swords and unerring precision.

On the other side, the battle was louder, but not less successful.  Now that he didn’t have to deal with the sniper issue, Alex could watch.  The Wildcats (and Alex had to admit they were rather wild) had used the machine guns to take out another truck and a cargo van.  Down to three enemy vehicles, they had driven their prey like cattle toward a rocky area that would be difficult to get out of.  Their tactics were flawless, their execution perfect if a little flashy.  Once they had the three remaining vehicles trapped, they formed a front-to-back line that both held them in and offered defense from anything new that might show up.

Michael landed near the helicopter, coolly looking over the damage to the engines.  “Are you alright?” he asked Alex.

“We’re fine.  They didn’t want me dead.”

“No, they didn’t.  I’m assuming it’s Julian’s people but it’s best to be sure.  I’ll go down there and see.”  He pointed to the stand-off a thousand yards away. The gunfire had stopped and both sides held tight with an uneasy peace. 

“I don’t think you need to.”  Alex jerked his head toward the motorcycle, once again speeding toward them.  “Who are these people anyway?”

Michael’s mouth tilted up on the side.  “Friends.  You’ll get to meet them.  I didn’t know we had so many, though.”

The bike came to a quick stop in front of them and once again the rider pulled off his helmet.  Alex saw this time how young he was, not more than sixteen or seventeen, with a thick dialect.  “Commander says she’s just a minute out.  Those guys down there ain’t talking.  Only a couple of ‘em’s eight-balls, mostly humans.  Major says we’re gonna wait for the commander, see what we’re gonna do.”

The archangel agreed.  “We can transport prisoners to Vega for interrogation.  I’ll discuss it with her.  The most important thing is that you’re safe, Alex.”

Alex was feeling a little disconcerted.  It seemed that most of the battle for his life had been taken out of his hands and he wasn’t used to that, at least not recently.  “I still don’t know who you’re talking about.  I’m gone for a week and suddenly you’ve got a new best friend or what?”

“No, an old friend,” Michael said warmly, then looked up at the sound of approaching vehicles.  “Come, I’ll introduce you.”

David Whele ran up to join them.  “Michael, I’m so glad you came, I was getting a little worried there.  Thank you for helping us out, you saved our lives.  And your reinforcements, well, they were quite spectacular.”

The archangel’s expression cooled.  “Actually, they’re not mine.  Will you see to the people from Helena, David?  They will need to get back home.”

It was obvious that the former consul was being dismissed from the conversation.  “Yes, of course, I’ll be happy to.”  He watched silently as the archangel and his protégé walked away.

 

 

The group from Vega was coming in almost as fast as the Wildcats had and they had to brake hard when they saw the downed chopper.  The passenger door to the first transport opened even before it came to a complete halt and a woman jumped out.  For a moment, it seemed that she was going to bolt and run the twenty yards towards them, but then she stopped.  She surveyed the scene quickly, assessing the full situation before she started walking, under control. 

Alex eyed her critically, this new/old “friend.”  She was middle-aged but fit, dressed in fatigues and boots that she seemed quite comfortable in.  Her dark blond hair was up in a knot and when she took off her goggles he could see that her eyes were quite green.  There was something about her that was familiar but he was sure he didn’t know her.  The strangest part was that she radiated command, this was obviously her mission, and yet she seemed oddly nervous.

“Michael,” she hailed as she approached them.  “Did I tell you my Wildcats would take care of things?”

“Yes, they did.  Thank you.  We have only to decide what to do with the prisoners.”

She beamed with pride but as soon as she saw Alex, her expression softened.  She took a deep breath.  “You must be Alex.  I’ve heard quite a bit about you.”

It was the same voice he had heard on the radio.  “Yes, ma’am.”  He held out his hand.  “Pleased to meet you, Commander – “

Michael interrupted, speaking slowly.  “Alex, this is who I wanted you meet.  This is Commander Charlotte Lannon.  Charlie Lannon.  Alex,” he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, “this is your mother.”

For a few seconds, Alex stopped dead, staring.  He could hear the world around him, hear the trucks moving, recognize voices of people he knew, hear a shout, a short burst of warning gunfire, but mostly he heard the echo of two words: “your mother.”  They rang in his head like some kind of blaring klaxon, he couldn’t think through the noise, couldn’t get his mind to process it.

No, that couldn’t be right.  His mother was dead, it was one of the certainties of his life.  When it all fell apart, when he doubted everything else in his world, he knew that one thing – he knew that his mother had died protecting him from Gabriel.  When he mistrusted others, when he questioned himself, he always had that one thing to go back to – his mother had died for him.  It was both a terrible burden and the greatest gift he could have possibly been given.

He thought of the picture that Jeep had given him, the only picture of his mother. 

“Alex?”  The woman watched him in concern.  “I’m sorry, this isn’t exactly the way I’d hoped we’d meet.”

His eyes questioned Michael.  “It’s true,” the archangel answered.  “I recognize her.”  He paused, momentarily – oddly – uncomfortable.  “Others have recognized her, too.  She is your mother.”

“No,” Alex countered.  “Jeep said my mother died.  He said he buried her.”

The woman sighed heavily, looking to Michael and then back to her son.  “I know.  He didn’t lie, don’t ever think he lied to you.  There’s an explanation, but another day.  Not today.”

“But if…if you…” Alex’s features twisted into a grimace, his brow furrowed in both pain and doubt, “…where have you been?”

The commander had been tested by many different battles, but that question, and the look in her son’s face, nearly broke her.  It was the question of a lonely little boy who wants his mother, who cries himself to sleep at night, missing the warmth of her arms, of her love.  Her eyes burned with tears she refused to shed and she unconsciously rubbed at the center of her chest, the ache there a memory of that day so long ago.

“I’m sorry, Alex.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t know you might even be alive until just a few months ago.  I was far away and you were here and I didn’t know.  It seems like somehow, I should have felt it, that I was your mother and I should have just known, but I didn’t.  I’m sorry.  I’m so very sorry.”

Charlie.  He’d heard that name all his life, could she really be standing in front of him?  He thought again of the picture that hung above his bed.  The kind eyes, the laughing mouth.  Since Jeep had given it to him, he had wanted desperately to be able to reach through that tiny photograph and touch her, just once. 

He looked up.  The eyes, through their sparkle of tears, were kind and loving, the mouth, smiling in a mixture of fear and hope. 

He reached up and touched her cheek.  “Mom?”

 

 

There were perks to being a commander, and one of those was commandeering a vehicle and announcing that you were going to drive back to the base by yourself.  Or as the case may be, with your son, which is exactly what Charlotte Lannon did, laying claim to the nicest of her squad's vehicles and letting them sort out who would ride with whom back to Vega.

So it was that Alex found himself admiring the inside of a luxury SUV complete with leather seats, burled wood trim and working air-conditioning.  He'd never been in as nice a vehicle in his life and he absent-mindedly stroked the soft calfskin of the armrest, then stopped, embarrassed.  He glanced around the interior while they drove away from the crash site.  Certain changes had been made – a different radio, a plotting display and bank of controls on the passenger's side – but everything had been done to integrate with the style and grace of the original design. 

"It's nice, isn't it?" The commander broke the silence between them. 

"Yeah.  Yeah, it’s a sweet ride.  Is it yours?"

She laughed.  "Sadly, no.  This one is all Olivetti's work.  We don't actually own our own vehicles, but if someone is willing to put time into one, I let them keep it for their own use.  He's put years into this one, finding parts, modifying it, keeping it running, I think he even made his own saddle soap for the leather.  He's got a nice radar array in the back, plus a full communications setup.  We rotate comm officers through, but he always drives.  The only thing is you can't bring any food or drinks along.  If you do, Olivetti will kill you, but he'll haul your ass outside first to make sure there are no bloodstains on the seats."  She gave him a quick grin.  "I told him we could be trusted with his baby.”

Alex hunched down between the seat and the door, his arms folded defensively.  "I'll try not to bleed on it or anything."

"You’re bleeding?"  There was instant panic in her voice.

"No!  No, I'm sorry, I was just joking.  Sorry."

"No, Alex, don't be.  We're both, ugh," she sighed.  "I’m sorry, this is the strangest situation and I'm handling it all wrong.  I mean, at least I had a couple months to get used to the idea that you might be alive, but you've had, what, fifteen minutes?  It's not fair, I shouldn't have dragged you off like this.  I just," she paused, navigating around a derelict truck on the side of the road, always on the lookout for ambushes.  "I just wanted some time with you alone, to get to know you a little, before we were back in Vega and everyone else needed your attention again.  I know you're important there."

"It’s ok.  Besides, I'm not that important," Alex protested, "I was just playing ambassador to Helena."

The commander risked a longer look across the cab.  Her son was wedged as far as he could be into the corner between the seat and the door, his shoulders hunched in, legs crossed, chin on his chest.  It was a classically self-protective posture, trying to make himself as small as possible.  He might have said that it was ok, but in reality, it wasn’t.  He was nervous and scared, and how could she blame him? 

At the same time, she could see something else in his wide blue eyes, not apprehension but hope.

“We both know that’s not true,” she said quietly, turning back to the road.  “I know you’re the Chosen One.  I’m not entirely sure what that means yet, but I know it’s important, to Vega, to all of us.”

He turned away and stared out the window.  “I didn’t ask to be that, the Chosen One.”

“Alex, none of us asked to be who we are today.”

“Who are you?”

The question startled her.  “What?”

“I don’t who you are,” he tried to explain.  “You might be my mom, Michael says you are, but I don’t know you.”

She glanced over at him again.  He was less diplomat and more soldier, she liked that.  “You’re right, you don’t.  And you don’t have any reason to trust me.  Hell, I’m surprised you even got in here with me.”

He shrugged.  “Air conditioning in a car.  I’d never felt it before.”

The commander laughed.  “That’s an easy way to your heart.  Ok, if you want it, I’ll give you my 30-seond life story.”  She spoke quickly.  “I was born in a town called Kansas City, I moved to Denver when I was 18 to go to college, I got pregnant a couple years later, I met Jeep, I had you, the War came, I was injured and ended up at a military hospital thinking you and Jeep were dead, the man who saved my life at the hospital was a soldier and he taught me everything about being a soldier and now I’m part of a group called the Wildcats based in the middle of the country.”  She breathed deeply.  “A few months ago, I heard about a young man named Alex in Vega, I came down to Vega and I found you.  How’s that?”

Alex sat up.  “That doesn’t explain everything.”

“It’s not supposed to, it’s only 30 seconds long.”  The wisp of a smirk played around the edges of her mouth.

“I take it the smartass comes from you then.”

He could see her thinking about it for a moment.  “Actually, that was 100% genetically guaranteed.”

They both laughed.  “So, then, my father,” he started.

“Is a discussion for another day.”  She grasped his hand, now sitting on the armrest.  “Right now, I want to know about you.  I’ve missed your whole life – I don’t even have a baby picture of you.  I want to hear everything, the good and the bad and everything in between.”

“We’re only a half hour away from Vega.”

“Alright then, a 30-minute life story, get going!”  She smiled broadly and then sobered.  “Seriously, Alex, I’m so sorry that I couldn’t be here for you for all those years, but I am now.  I don’t really care about this Chosen One thing, I just care that you’re my son.  I know it’s a lot to ask with absolutely no warning, but I want to try to get to know you, to know your life.  I want to be part of it, if that’s ok with you.” 

Alex gave the woman careful consideration.  On the whole, she kept her focus on her driving but she would cast quick, friendly glances at him, not pushy or demanding, just waiting.  He didn’t know why but he’d always imagined Charlie his mother as a gentle, soft kind of woman, quietly taking care of her family.  This Charlie, however, was completely the opposite – commanding, outgoing, humorous, and most of all, a soldier.  It was going to take some getting used to.

“Yeah,” he finally nodded.  “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

 

 

 

Vega

 

Michael strode into what had previously been his rooms in the observation deck of the Stratosphere, his own private aerie.  He had left this place behind when he had returned to Vega after his time in Mallory.  The luxurious bed, the voluminous drapes, the overall sensuality of the place, it had all felt so very wrong.  It had also been filled with memories of her, of Becca, and he couldn’t face the thought of her, the remembrance of her night after night.  Of all the things he had done in his long, long life, her death haunted him most keenly.

The rooms looked different now, his brother had put his own private stamp on them, most probably in a fit of pique.  The chiffon draperies lay scattered in piles here and there, torn violently from their rings.  Pillows had been thrown off the bed and into a corner and one of the brocade velvet chairs leaned against a wall drunkenly, one gilt leg missing. Gabriel sat brooding in the chair’s twin, the one that had obviously not displeased him. 

“I see you’ve done some redecorating.”  Michael righted a tufted ottoman and sat down. 

His brother did not bother to look up from the spot on the floor that seemed to hold his attention.  “Mid-century brothel was never my style.”

Michael’s eyebrows rose.  Finally, here was the acerbic banter he had expected long ago.  “Strange.  I would have thought – “

A wordless glare from his brother cut him off. 

“We could have used your sword today.  Julian’s army attacked – “

Again, he was cut off.  “Attacked the helicopter coming from Helena.  Yes, yes.  And was soundly defeated by a sudden appearance of armed troops not from Vega.  Yes, I’m aware.  Commander Lannon,” Gabriel used the name with a certain disdain, “is certainly full of surprises, isn’t she?”

“You didn’t expect her to come all the way to Vega alone.”

“No, but I doubt even you expected to find a battle group entrenched around the city.”

Michael ceded the point with the tiniest of shrugs.  “She has explained her reasoning.  Until she knew the conditions of the city, a certain amount of caution was necessary.  Especially when she was concerned about her child.”

Gabriel once again took up staring at the spot on the floor.  Michael leaned toward him.  “Concerned about your child.”

His brother’s gaze rose slowly to meet his, but it was emotionless, blank.

“Alex is your child, is he not?”  Michael’s voice was full of hope, of warmth and pride.  “Brother, you have a son.”

Gabriel set his hands on the sides of the chair, pushing himself upright and letting out a bitter half-chuckle.  “Yes, a son.  Congratulations to me.”  Turning away, he looked absently out the panoramic windows.  “A young man who hates me more than any other on this planet, who would gladly run a sword through my heart except for his loyalty to you, dear brother.  A lad whom I have imprisoned, tortured and done my damnedest to kill since the very day he was born.  This!”  He spun around, hands held wide, “this is my son, my long-lost, unknown son.  It’s all too ironic even for Father’s taste.  Family reunions are going to be quite the party, don’t you think?  ‘Hello, Alex.’ ‘Hello, Dad,’” he mimed sarcastically.  “‘I hate you, Dad, shall we kill each other before or after dessert?’”

Michael’s excitement faded.  His brother was right; as much as Alex wanted to know who his biological father was, he was just as entrenched in his hatred of Gabriel.  There was no way that he would easily accept the archangel as his parent.  Finding his lost mother was one thing, as incredible as it had been, but this would be too much for the young man to accept.

Too much.  Yes, it was too much.  It was all too much.  Gabriel had said it – their Father did love the ironic twist of fate, but this was simply too much.  It wasn’t ironic, it was cruel.

It wasn’t right.

“Gabriel, why did you leave Alex’s mother?”

The change of subject startled the other archangel.  “Is my current self-pity not enough for you, brother?  Need we delve into another painful topic?”

This garnered a rather condescending look.  “Humor me, if you will.  You told me before that she betrayed you.   But there had to be something before that, or there would be no Alex, and you would not have risked yourself to save her.”

For the first time Gabriel’s expression softened.  “Yes, there was…something.  At the time, Father had you off on another mission, I don’t know where, but He made sure that you were otherwise engaged.  It was part of His plan, no doubt, to make sure that you weren’t around when He sent me to Earth, as a human, mind you, to do little more than babysit a young woman.”

“He gave you no special reason for this assignment?”

“No, no demonic forces, no special spiritual circumstances, and no reason that I could see why I needed to be human.  I was sure that Father had overheard my growing contempt for humanity and had done it to put me in my place.  I thought I was being punished and I understandably resented the situation.  Especially the human part.”

“And then you met Charlie.”

“Then I met Charlotte.  And yes, perhaps after I met her I may have resented the assignment a bit less.” 

“Father was playing matchmaker again,” Michael pondered.  This habit of their Father’s had always been a source of amusement.  “Then if the purpose of this assignment was to introduce you to Charli – Charlotte,” he corrected himself, “what went wrong?  I would think He would have wanted you together, at least until Alex was born.”

“You have always claimed that I was at my best when I was human, but humanity does not change pride, jealousy or hubris.  I felt that Charlotte had betrayed me, so I left her and regained my angelic form.”

“So you have said.”  It was obvious from Michael’s expression that he had hold of an idea and was trying to reel it in.  “I understand that the memory is painful, but please tell me what changed your relationship, what made you leave her and your unborn child.”

Gabriel closed his eyes and spoke through clenched teeth.  “I was told it was not my child.  That is what he said, that she carried another man’s child.”

“Who said this?”

“Gadreel.”  The name was just a whisper.

“Gadreel…the angel?”  Michael shook his dark head.  “He hasn’t been heard from in centuries.  I thought Father had banished him.”

“He said he was there to save me from yet another betrayal by the humans.”  Gabriel looked over at his brother.  “There had been so much treachery, so much death.  First losing David, then the humans turning their backs on Father, one betrayal after another.  When he said it to me, even though…” his voice caught in his throat and he stopped.

“Even though you loved her, you believed Gadreel’s lie,” Michael finished for him.

Gabriel nodded silently.

“You’ve always taken everything so very personally.  And then Father left.”

“Yes, just a short while later.”

Michael walked over to where his brother stood with his head hung low.  He thought about that Christmas day in the bar, the expression on Gabriel’s face, how he had been inconsolable.  “I understand now why you seemed more affected than the rest of us.  It wasn’t just that Father left, it was that you felt everyone had left you.  I’m sorry, brother, I’m so very sorry.”

A panoply of emotions played over the fairer angel’s features, all of them featuring some degree of pain or turmoil.  It was if he was reliving the last few decades all over again.  “You have nothing to be sorry about, Michael.  But I, I’ve done terrible things.  To Alex, to Charlotte, to this whole planet.  Breaking the Seventh Seal was just the beginning of my sins, Michael.  How can I ever expect them to see me as anything but a monster?  How can I ever atone?”

 

 

Charlotte Lannon said goodnight to the guard at her door, dropped her gun belt on the table and nearly fell into the depths of the posh sofa.  She didn’t bother to turn on the lamp; the night sky and the lights of Vega twinkled through the filmy draperies, giving just enough illumination to find her way.  Funny how she had forgotten how pretty city lights could be. 

Her head fell back against the cushions and she sighed expansively, both exhausted and exhilarated.  It had been so very difficult to say goodnight to Alex, to say goodnight to her son, but he had promised that he would be by early in the morning with breakfast and they would continue to catch up.

She smiled to herself as she pulled off her boots and socks and stretched her toes into the plush carpeting.  Was it possible to ever actually catch up 25 years’ worth?  She was damn well going to try. 

Alex was everything she could have imagined; smart, strong, handsome, brave.  It was like she had won the jackpot when it came to a son.  His life hadn’t been easy but he had done so well, was doing so well.  The people of Vega respected him; she could see it in their expressions as they had driven down the street.  They didn’t treat him like a god or a savior, they respected him. 

For a moment, she allowed herself to think about the helicopter crash, the ambush, how close she had come to losing Alex even before she had met him.  The thought made her blood run cold.  Someone had known his flight path and itinerary and had leaked it to the eight-balls.  That was the only way they could have been in just the right place at just the right time to hit the chopper the way they did with a large caliber weapon.  Anything like a SAM or grenade launcher would have sent the aircraft up in a fiery ball.  No, it had to be a large caliber gun carefully aimed.  Whoever it was had wanted the helicopter down but not destroyed – they had wanted Alex alive. 

For the hundredth time, she silently thanked her Wildcats for their dedication and their training.  They had responded beautifully, like the proverbial well-oiled machine.  She was as proud of them as she was of her new-found son.  It felt strange not to be bunking with them now, recounting stories of their recent battle (listening as they grew more and more impressive as they always did in the retelling) but Jenkins had insisted that she remain in the apartment while they were in Vega. In all honestly, she appreciated the kindness, especially after a rollercoaster day like today.  As much as she tried to ignore it, she wasn’t getting any younger, and a warm bath and a soft bed were going to feel very good tonight.

That is if she ever made it that far.  The couch felt oh-so-comfortable right now and this pillow, it was just the right size…

 

 

Gabriel moved silently through the French doors that led from the balcony into the apartment.  He was grateful that there was a second entrance to this place, one that Michael had made use of more than once, he was sure.  The last thing he wanted to do was have his arrival publicly announced as it had been the last time, he wanted this meeting to be a bit more private.

The apartment was in darkness with only the lights of the city and a half moon spilling in to give him the outline of furniture and walls.  Suddenly his resolve faltered.  Perhaps he was too late, perhaps he had better come back –

The cold, hard and unmistakable barrel of a gun muzzle pressed firmly against his temple and he froze. 

“I thought we had gotten past trying to kill each other,” he said.

There was no response.

Gabriel raised his hand slowly, holding a medium-sized wooden box.  “If you shoot me, I’ll drop this, and that would be a tragedy.”

The commander lowered her weapon.  “Why are you here, Gabriel?”

It was difficult for the angel not to outwardly sigh in relief.  He hadn’t expected an armed confrontation, and as much as a gunshot might not be fatal to him, it was never enjoyable.  He handed the box to her.  “Peace offering.”

“What?”  She was tired, annoyed.  With one hand, she took the box from him, while the other casually tucked the gun into the back of her pants.  The action looked well practiced.  “What is this?”

He waited while she turned on one of the table lamps.  The amber pool spread across part of the room but he remained in the darkness.  In the light, it was obvious that the box was older than expected, dusty and water-stained.  He watched as her fingers ran over it, brushing away the dust, feeling the grain of the wood, turning it over and gently but determinedly searching for the opening.  Her hands had always been strong; he remembered the feel of them on his shoulders, kneading away tension he hadn’t even known was there.  Finally, she found the catch, sliding the wood cover off to reveal a tall bottle nestled inside.  He watched as she read the label, saw the corners of her mouth turn up, her eyes soften.

“Macallan.  You remembered.”

In the shadows, he shrugged.

“I haven’t had anything but bathtub hooch in at least ten years, this is – oh my god, this is the 1938!”  She looked up at him and beamed.  “I don’t believe it, this is what we talked about all those years ago.  Where did you find it?”

He ventured a few steps toward the light.  “This was a town of restaurants and bars, there were storehouses everywhere.”

“Bullshit,” she teased him.  “This scotch was over $30,000 a bottle before the war, no restaurant had this just sitting around.”

He wasn’t about to tell her that he had stumbled upon the bottle when he had commandeered a Bavarian castle nearly twenty years ago and kept it ever since.  He and his angels had drained the quite considerable wine cellar of the place (as well as many others) but he had never even considered opening the Macallan.  It had always been a kind of talisman to him, a memento of days gone by, sacrosanct. 

“You wondered before what it would taste like,” he said, pointing to the bottle.  “There is your chance.”

Her face split into a smile that reminded him fiercely of the young woman he had known.  Mischievous, adventurous, playful, she actually ran to the other side of the room to retrieve a pair of cut crystal glasses and hurried back again.  She treated the bottle gently but it was obvious she could barely contain her excitement, first peeling the covering off the cap, then carefully easing it off, and finally daring a sniff.

His brows rose.  “Well?”

She didn’t respond but instead poured out two fingers each into the crystal tumblers.  When she offered it to him, her face was serious.  “Thank you.”

“You haven’t tried it yet.”

Raising her own glass, she did just that, first a tiny nip, then a long, languorous mouthful.  Her eyes closed, Gabriel could almost see the smooth delicious burn course through her.  She breathed deeply.  “I’d forgotten that alcohol could actually taste good.” 

Gabriel took the smallest of sips.  It did taste good, but that was something he’d recently done his best to forget. He swirled the tawny liquid and watched the light dance through it.  Scotch held too many memories.  The last time he had drunk scotch – albeit a poor substitute for this fine liquor – he’d thrown the last of the bottle against the bar wall and gone off to kill a child.

Charlotte drank off her glass in two more and poured another.  This time she sipped it more slowly, letting the different flavors dance across her tongue.  The citrus and vanilla hints were unexpected, subtle, not the usual peaty overtones that she remembered.  Over thirty years in a barrel would do that.

Thirty years.  Almost as long as the world had been at war with the angels.  Strange how time could make one thing so wonderful and another so devastated.

She lowered herself back down onto the couch, cradling her drink, her tone stern once again.  The excited young girl was gone.  “I know you didn’t come here just to bring me this, as nice as it is, and I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say you didn’t come here to get me drunk.  So, tell me, why are you really here?”

The archangel still gazed contemplatively at the dance of golden light in the crystal tumbler.  “Do you think that it is possible for one to be both drunk and insane for 25 years?”

“Seriously?” she laughed bitterly.  “You’re an archangel, for you that’s just a weekend bender.”  Then she caught his expression and stopped.  “You are serious, aren’t you?  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

He waved it off.  “I did not come here for diagnosis.  Although if madness is hereditary, Alex would perhaps rather not know.”

“Know that you’re his father?”  Charlotte put her glass down, now mostly empty.  “He has a right to the truth.”

“What is the truth?  What is a father?  Jeep would have died for him, he did die for him, and no one could love him more than Michael.”

“Yes, they’ve been wonderful father figures, and I’ll be forever in their debt.  But they weren’t, aren’t, his father.  You are.”

“I am also the one who has tried to kill him since his birth.  I am the one who has imprisoned and tortured him, who has attacked his people, destroyed his home and ruined his planet.  Do you really think these are the actions of a true father?”

 “No, but they are the actions of someone trying to protect his family.”  Charlotte sighed, sitting forward on the cushions.  “I’ve learned a lot since I got here, talking to Michael, to Alex.  Over the years, I’ve killed literally thousands of eight-balls trying to protect my people.  Now Alex tells me that the men and women that are possessed can be saved, that he can save them.  Which means that theoretically all of them that I’ve killed, every one of them – I’ve essentially murdered them.  People who could have been saved.”  She stood up and walked over to him.  “And Michael has tried to explain why you did what you did, that you were trying to bring your Father back.  I know that what you did made sense to you, that you had a reason.  That’s just it, nothing’s ever black and white and none of us are completely innocent.  I’m not saying that I forgive you for what you’ve done, Gabriel.  I’m just saying that maybe I’m starting to understand a little more why you did it.  And if I can, Alex can.  Eventually.”

“He hates me more than anyone.”

“I know.  But even that can change.  The thing is, we’re not talking about you, we’re talking about him, and he deserves to know about himself.  He deserves to know that he wasn’t just another mistake, that he wasn’t the result of some drunken binge or a horrible decision.  He deserves to know that his parents truly cared about each other.”

There was both a finality and a wistfulness in her last words.  His eyes narrowed.  “Why is this so important to you?”

“I know what it’s like to have a series of stepdads and ‘uncles’ and men you don’t know living in your house.  I never knew who my real father was.  I don’t want to do that to my son.”

Gabriel thought about this for a moment, thought about his own relationship with his Father.  It might be tempestuous, occasionally confrontational, but he had always known his Father’s love.  If Alex were to doubt the circumstances of his beginnings, to think that he was, as Charlotte had put it, just another mistake, how would that affect him? 

Pieces were starting to fall into place for the archangel, strands in a diabolical web.  She was right, it was important for Alex to know his lineage; in fact, it was vital.  He needed to know his place in the world.  “Has Michael told you about Lucifer?”

“A little bit.  He said that he was one of the reasons that you had joined forces with Michael, that Lucifer is a greater threat than your, um, ideological differences.”

“Well put.”  He gave her a wry smile, then grew serious.  “Since my experience with the Darkness, I’ve come to see things a bit differently than I did before.  I believe Michael is correct about our brother.  Lucifer has plans, plans for Alex.”

“So, you’re telling me that I finally get you to stop trying to kill me and my son, and now I have to worry about your big, bad older brother?”

The change in the archangel was sudden and dramatic.  “Lucifer will not harm you,” he growled, his jaw set in fierce determination.  “Either of you.”

“Ok, ok, I believe you.”  Charlotte rested her hand on his sternum and her gaze fell.  She could feel his chest rise and fall and she realized he wasn’t wearing his ever-present armor.  The pistol still tucked in her belt suddenly felt awkward and heavy – she’d drawn on him, she’d been willing to shoot him and now he was promising to protect both her and Alex.  Her mind whirled and she wished she hadn’t had that second measure of scotch.  “Thank you, I really appreciate it.  That means a lot.”

His finger crooked beneath her chin and raised her head so that he could look into her face.  “You are my family now, too.”  He was both tender and resolute.

She looked away, embarrassed. “I know, I know.”

An audible sigh escaped her.  Gabriel seemed stronger today, less fragile, less broken, and that was good, right?  Or was it; were they enemies or allies now?  Things were moving in a direction she wasn’t sure she wanted to go.  She shook her head.  “I’m sorry, you need to leave now.  Alex is coming by early tomorrow and it’s been a really long day.  I need…I need sleep.  I need to…”

“I understand.”  It seemed as if he really did.  He brushed her jaw line with the back of his finger ever so softly.  The corner of his eyes crinkled in merriment. “You humans are such delicate creatures.” 

“Excuse me?”  She couldn’t believe he was being so cheeky.  “Sorry if I’m a little tired after fighting eight-balls and saving my son.”

“Yes, an impressive battle.”

 “What do you mean?  You weren’t there.”

“No,” Gabriel said mysteriously, walking toward the balcony door.  “No, you didn’t see me there.”

“You – what?”  Charlotte stared after him, listening to a sound that could only be the rush of his wings as he took flight into the night.  He’d been at the crash site watching?  But he had kept purposefully hidden.  Why?  Would he have given aid if they had needed it?

She thought about the expression on his face as he had left and shook her head, remembering only too well the enigmatic man she had known years before.  Mercurial, guarded, witty, acerbic, kind, attractive…

No.  No, she didn’t like where her head was going with this.  This was not the plan, not the plan at all.  She spotted the other tumbler of scotch sitting on an end table, barely touched.  It wouldn’t do to waste it, not something that good. 

Mumbling an apology to Tim and the long-dead distillers, she downed it in one.

 

 

Gabriel returned to his rooms in the Stratosphere.  It did make it easier that the defensive guns of Vega were still off-line and he could fly where he wanted to go, thus being able to escape his “guard” if and when desired.  It would be a pity when they had those blasted things repaired.

Guards, human guards.  He appreciated Michael’s situation but that didn’t make having a pair of babysitters any better.  Michael was a worrier.   He worried that the people of Vega would feel threatened if the Archangel Gabriel was not being watched day and night lest he suddenly take up his nefarious ways again.  At the same time, Michael worried that someone would come after Vega’s newest angel, bent on revenge for two-and-a-half decades of death and destruction.

Of course, they had reason to come after him, but really, if someone decided on vengeance, what good was a pair of human bodyguards?   If Gabriel, a soldier of God the Father, could not take care of the situation, a couple of corpsmen were not about to do better.  It was all a bit laughable.

Nevertheless, he quickly scanned the room as he entered, an ingrained defensive reflex.  After Michael had left the last time, Gabriel had realized his brother’s scornful looks had been justified; however gaudy the place had been before, he’d managed to tear it up like a rampaging toddler.  It wasn’t just unseemly, it would make hiding easier for a potential enemy, or so Gabriel told himself as he set about picking up. 

Merely a safety issue. 

Now the room at least had some semblance of order.  The abundance of pillows that had previously occupied the bed (and reminded Gabriel too well of the palace of Solomon) and the yards and yards of chiffon draperies had been donated to whatever worthy cause Michael could find.  The broken chair rested comfortably in the corner, waiting for the day it could be mended, and all the shattered pottery had been swept away.  Gabriel fell onto the great expanse of the bed and lay spread-out there.  It wasn’t his apartment in Denver, nothing was quite like that perfectly designed place, but it would do, and the view was rather amazing.

His head fell to the side and his gaze went out the window.  Vega stretched out before him, and for the hundredth time he wondered why he was really here.  A small part of his mind still defaulted to destruction mode and started planning what would be necessary to turn out the lights that glittered beneath him, to lay flat this town and everyone that lived in it.  Another old habit.

But no, not anymore.  Down in those twinkling lights lived his family.  That was what had hit him so hard earlier, the realization not that he had a son, but that he had a completely different family, one that he hadn’t known about just days before.

He’d destroyed an entire planet for Father, for family.  Above all else, family mattered to him: his cherished twin brother, his sisters – Uriel, now lost, and Raphael, wherever she might be.  He’d loved them, fought them, warred against them, but always they were family, the most important thing to him.  Even Lucifer…once.

Now he had another family, Charlotte and Alex.  The wave of protectiveness that had overcome him when he realized that Lucifer might threaten them had been nearly crippling.  He’d had to stop the urge to grab them both and bundle them off to a secret place where Lucifer could not find them, where they would be safe, where he could watch over his son and his…his…

What was she?  What was Charlotte Lannon to him other than the mother of his son?  His ex-lover?  She was more than that, the way she muddled his feelings and how his heart raced when she touched him was proof of that.

No matter what, there was definitely a positive aspect to having her around.  He hadn’t felt so, what was it, focused? in years.  There was something about her that made him feel stronger. 

After his foray into the Darkness, he’d emerged with an overwhelming blanket of guilt and self-loathing, horrified at what he had done to his beloved brother.  The memory of those black days, the remembrance of the hatred he had felt, of the all-consuming desire to kill Michael, still remained, and it tore at him.  He was no stranger to violence, and he and Michael had had their fallings out over the course of the millennia, but never had Gabriel felt such a desire to see his brother dead, to plunge a blade into Michael’s heart and watch the light slowly fade from those dark eyes.

The thought of it now, the memory of that time, that bloodlust, made him ill.  He had never apologized to Michael; words would do nothing to change what had happened.  Michael understood the power of the Darkness, but he also understood that at its essence, it could do nothing except magnify the sentiments that were already there, take emotions long buried and bring them to surface, uncover those secrets that were hidden deep within the heart.  No apology could make up for what it had exposed in Gabriel.

Which was the real reason why he had stayed in Vega.  He could only convince Michael of his true feelings if he were standing next to him as they faced Julian, as they fought Duma and the army of eight-balls.  That wasn’t enough, and he would have to keep proving himself for a long time.  Archangels had very long memories.

Lucifer had a very long memory.  Lucifer was also a master at holding a grudge.

All of this had come together as he had been talking with Charlotte, discussing Alex.  The dawning clarity he felt (he wasn’t sure if it was from Charlotte’s proximity or the fact that he no longer had a flask with him at all times, perhaps both) led him toward the realization that Lucifer not only had designs on Alex now, but may have had a hand in things long before anyone had realized.  The people of Mallory might not have been his opening gambit. 

It was very likely that Alex was a pawn in an angelic chess match that no one even knew was being played.  Alex needed to know the danger he faced, he needed to understand the full extent of the situation.  He needed to comprehend that this went beyond the battle of good and evil, beyond the fight for Earth, that this was about revenge on a level that even Gabriel could not imagine.  Alex would be horrified to find out who his father really was, but he must know, he must understand his place in the chess match if there was any hope of winning.

The archangel stared at the ceiling and sighed deeply.  The bed he lay on was overly large and it made the emptiness around him even more obvious.  For a moment, his mind slipped back in time to a quiet winter morning and the corner of his mouth turned up just a bit.  Life had been so much simpler.  He’d ruined it of course, ruined it for everyone, but first…

First, he’d fallen into Father’s elegantly laid trap, and then he’d fallen for Charlotte, a very un-angelic thing to do.  Uriel had had her dalliances in the past, and Raphael had played around with more than one human, but never before could Gabriel think of an archangel becoming this entangled, this committed.  

“My son, Alex.”  Gabriel spoke the words aloud to no one but himself.   He’d never actually said it before, not like that.  It sounded strange but not bad.  Ironically, he thought, he’d always rather admired the lad, even while they were trying to kill each other.  In the months that they had spent together in the aerie, while Alex had nearly driven him to distraction, he’d come to appreciate the boy’s attitude.  He liked his spirit, the way he laughed in the face of death, it reminded him…

It reminded him of himself. 

“My son, Alex.”

 

 

 

Denver, 2016

 

Her companion punched in the code on the keypad outside the doorway while Charlotte looked up and down the hall.  She was already taken aback; when they had first entered the chic brick edifice, she had thought that they were going to go right through it and out the back, like they had at the building before where the cab had dropped them off.  “To keep people from knowing that this isn’t our final destination,” Gabriel had explained while they walked through the lobby and out the back door.

Instead, they had taken the elevator of this building to the top floor and gone to the very end of a hallway that had been swathed in the thickest carpet Charlotte had ever had the pleasure to walk on.  Their footsteps were completely muffled and she nervously trailed behind, afraid to say anything that would break the silence. 

He opened the door and gestured inside.  The carpeting gave way to a rich, dark hardwood flooring that led into an apartment worthy of a design magazine.  The architecture, the woodwork, the artwork and the furnishings, everything worked together as seamlessly as if it had been birthed instead of created, born whole and beautiful and complete.  It was masculine but not mannish, done in wood and metal and leather, with décor to match.  The lines were clean, the spacing generous, the overall feeling light and comfortable. 

Charlotte walked around the central room into the kitchen, then onto the enclosed patio, checking out the breathtaking view of city and mountains.  “This is your place?”

Gabriel smiled.  One of the most expensive apartments in Denver, he had had nearly the same reaction when he had first seen it.  Sometimes humans could manage to create true beauty, even in something as mundane as living quarters. 

“Not exactly.  Rented furnished,” he explained, taking her bag toward the back of the apartment.  That room was just as elegantly appointed.  “You may have the bedroom for your stay.”

“No, please, I can sleep here.”  Charlotte gazed at the buttery soft leather of the overstuffed sofa.  It looked much more comfortable than any bed she had ever owned.  “I don’t want to kick you out of your bed.”

“I insist,” he called from the other room.  “I’m sorry I don’t have a second bedroom.  I wasn’t expecting to have a guest.”

There was something odd about the way he said it, but Charlotte couldn’t put her finger on it.  Like he had purposely moved here, but something hadn’t gone according to plan.  She shook the thought from her head as he came back out.  “I can’t thank you enough for letting me stay with you,” she said.

“You may not thank me when I tell you that there’s none of your modern conveniences.  No cable, no internet.  No food, either, I’m not here often enough.”

Her nose crinkled up in humor.  “You’ve been living on pie for the last few weeks?”

How accurate she was he couldn’t tell her.  Truthfully, he was probably starving his body, but he found eating to be a chore.  Unless it was pie.

“I will go get something for us,” he offered.  “I’m sure you’re hungry, it’s been a long day.  There are a number of restaurants close by.”

The humor left her face.  “You promised you’d take care of Midnight – of Midnight’s body.”

“Yes, I did.”  His head tipped to the side questioningly.  “This bothers you greatly, the death of this animal.”

“Hell yeah, it does.  She was just an innocent little cat.”

“They did it to frighten you.”

“Sorry, fail,” she snapped back.  “I don’t respond well to threats.  That just makes me want to march downtown and call a press conference or something, tell everyone what a murdering bastard Bertoni is.” 

“You can’t do that.”

“No.”  Her lip quivered and her eyes sparkled with unshed tears of frustration.  “I know I can’t.  I don’t have that kind of clout, I’m just a waitress and he’s rich and powerful with a lot of rich and powerful friends.  But that doesn’t mean I have to give in.  I’m not going to change my statement.  Somebody downtown must be honest.  You still have that cop’s card?”

Gabriel fished in the pocket of his jacket.  “Yes, I do.  You’re right, he seemed an honorable type.  I can contact him from the restaurant and tell him about your visitor at the station and about the cat.  I think he will find it quite interesting.”

“He’ll probably want to do something stupid like put a guard on me or put me in protective custody or something.  If they actually do that.”

“Is that what you want?”

Charlotte paused for a moment, thinking about the man that stood before her.  She knew so little about him, and what she did know didn’t exactly make him trustworthy.  There was hardness about him, a sense of danger that he couldn’t hide behind his occasionally brilliant smile and rare but remarkably tender displays of kindness.  He’d shown her that he knew only too well how to keep from being tracked, and this apartment…who could afford a place like this?

And then there was the gun that the cops had confiscated from him.  Tim had taught her a thing or two about weaponry.  The Walther was the kind of gun a professional chose.

Once again, she wrapped the oversize Denver PD jacket around herself protectively.  She still wore the green dress that she had put on to go to the police station and the combination of the two made her look childlike.  “I feel safe with you,” she finally said. 

The corner of Gabriel’s mouth turned up just a bit.  “You’re very brave.”

“No, I’m not.  I’m running on anger right now.  Tim and George were like my family.  You don’t mess with family.”

He nodded.  “I understand.  Then I will leave you here and tend to things.  Do not open the door for anyone, no one knows you are here.  Only I know the code.  I’ll return as soon as I can.”

She grasped his hand as he started to leave.  “Thank you again.  For letting me stay.”

He smiled.  It was his job after all. 

 

 

Gabriel returned two hours later, his hands full with a number of bags.  It took a bit of juggling to punch in the security code on the door panel and turn the handle.  Such was the price for safety. 

Charlotte was reclined on the couch, her boots off and her feet tucked underneath her, a book in one hand and a pencil in the other.  She looked up when she heard the door, her face a little puffy and red, but not fearful.  She had been crying while he was gone, but she felt safe.  It was as much as he could hope for.

She saw the name on the bags, a well-known Chinese restaurant, then realized how many bags there were.  “Did you get enough?” she asked sarcastically.

He glanced at the four bags in his hands, each filled to the top.  “Variety is the spice of life, or so I’ve heard.”

She couldn’t help but to laugh, sometimes he said the strangest things.  “Ok.  You unpack, I’ll be right back.”  She hopped up and headed back toward the bedroom.

The table in front of the couch was quickly filled with nearly two dozen different boxes, cartons and bags.  Gabriel brought forks from the kitchen.  “Bring two glasses,” Charlotte called to him. 

She set down the bottle of Macallan in the center of the table.  “This is probably the worst combination ever, scotch and Chinese food, but I feel like I owe Tim something.”

“I think he would forgive you.”

She cracked the seal on the bottle and poured out two generous measures.  They each took a glass.  “To Tim McAfree, the closest thing I ever had to a real father.  And George Polzin, the best adopted uncle a girl could ever hope to have.”  Her face was soft and wistful. 

They clinked glasses and Charlotte downed half of hers in one sip.  She closed her eyes for a moment, partially to keep the tears from escaping, partially to appreciate the smooth burn of the drink as it travelled through her.  “Not bad, Tim,” she whispered.  “Not bad at all.”

Gabriel sipped at the glass; scotch wasn’t something he typically drank.  This, however, was good.  He took another deeper drink, letting the smoky liquid roll across his palate, the subtle fruit flavors and the hint of toffee.  This was something he could learn to appreciate.  He picked up the bottle. 

“Tim knew all about scotch.  This is the 12-year single malt,” Charlotte explained.  “He once had a bottle of 18-year single malt that he loved, but it was also over two hundred dollars a bottle.  They gave it to him for his retirement.  He kept it in his office and would take a little nip every once in a while.  He let me have a taste once, but that was all I got, just a taste. He loved me like a daughter, but not enough to share that scotch.”  She grinned ruefully.  “God, I’m going to miss him.”

Downing the rest of her glass, she reached for one of the boxes.  “Do you have any idea what’s in these things?”

“None at all,” Gabriel replied, picking up a different carton and opening it up.  “It’s going to be a bit of an adventure.”

“Oh good, just what I need,” she said, stabbing a piece of chicken and waving it around. “More adventure.”

Gabriel allowed her the sarcasm and changed the subject.  “I noticed you had a book out when I walked in.”

She nodded while she finished chewing.  “I have a monologue due tomorrow; I figured I might as well work on memorizing it.  I missed my classes today so I really can’t –” Her eyes caught the serious expression in his and she stopped.  “Oh.  I’m not going to be able to go to class, am I?”

“If these people, whoever they are, were able to find your home, they will be able to determine you are a student.  They could find you there, too.”

“I get it.  The gloves are off.  I didn’t buckle when they sent that guy to talk to me and now they’ll do whatever it takes.”

“’The gloves are off’?”  Gabriel was not familiar with the term.

“Yeah.  It comes from boxing.  It means no more rules, things are going to get ugly.  Tim taught me that.”

“It’s very appropriate.”

“I wouldn’t put it beyond these guys to take out an entire classroom just to get to me.”

“No, I wouldn’t put that completely out of the question, not until we know just whom we are dealing with.”

She stabbed disconsolately at the noodles.  “I know who we’re dealing with, I just don’t know how far he’ll go.  The first time Bertoni came by the restaurant, he was just a normal businessman.  He offered Tim a decent amount of money for the restaurant, enough to retire on, maybe buy a small place in Florida or somewhere.  Tim wasn’t interested, so he told Bertoni no.  Then the guy came back a couple weeks later and he made an offer that was ridiculous, like four times what he originally offered.”

“That’s quite an increase.”

“Exactly.  Also, very, very questionable.  Tim considered it for about a minute, he’d had his eyes on this 1938 Macallan he’d found, it’s more than $30,000.00 a bottle,” she laughed.  “We joked about how other people wanted money for houses and cars and women, and all Tim wanted was a good bottle of scotch.  But he did say that he’d give me a sip.”

“Why did he not take the offer?”

“I asked him that too, we used to talk about it at night when things were slow.  There were a couple of reasons.  First off, he really loved what he was doing, he loved the people and working the stove and making pies, he just loved the whole thing.  Secondly, it made him really nervous, you know, him being a retired cop and all, especially how much the offer went up.  He took a closer look at Bertoni and he found some connections that didn’t look as clean as they could be, some people that he’d dealt with that might be considered less than reputable.  Nothing has ever been pinned on the guy, but Tim didn’t feel good about him.  He felt like there was just something fishy about the whole deal.”  She sighed.  “I guess he was right.”

Gabriel sat back and watched her thoughtfully.  This could be helpful in her defense against the mobster.  “Do you have any of his information?  Anything that could be used as evidence?”

She put down the second box and picked up another one, peering inside.  “Maybe.  There might be some files in his desk.  That is if my friendly visitor from the police station didn’t get to them.  I don’t trust those people not to toss his office.  Then again, Tim might have put it in the safe.”

“Could you tell me where to find them?”

“Sure, I –” she paused, her head tilting to the side.  “You know, you never really explained this ‘private security’ thing you do.  Maybe I’m naïve, but I guess I didn’t expect to see you with a gun.  What are you, a bodyguard, private detective, ninja assassin?”  Her hand swept around the room.  “Whatever you do, it seems to pay well.”

Gabriel shrugged nonchalantly.  The last thing he wanted to do at this point was lose her trust.  “Perhaps all of the above.  As for the apartment, I have some money from my Father.”

Charlotte accepted this, it was fairly typical of all the answers he had given her over the last couple weeks and actually contained more information than usual.  Still…

“You don’t talk much about yourself, do you?” she said, offering him a piece of shrimp from the container she held.  He leaned over and bit it off her fork and she grinned.  “You know all about my life, hell, I never shut up, but you don’t have much to say.”

So, she had noticed his reticence in discussing himself.  Gabriel skewered a piece of pineapple and offered it to her, returning the favor, and she smiled and delicately removed it with her teeth.  “Your life is much more interesting, more important than you think,” he replied.  Important enough that Father had sent him to guard her.

“I doubt that.”

“Do you think I would bother with you if you were not?”

Charlotte put her food down and sat back, her brow furrowed.  The statement was rather brutal, not that her host hadn’t said things like that before.  But never about her.

Gabriel watched her reaction.  “I’ve offended you.”

“No.  Just, sometimes you say the strangest things, I’m not sure how to take them.”  She poured another two fingers of scotch and drank half of it down, then in afterthought, offered the bottle to Gabriel.

He declined with a shake of his head.  “You have a problem seeing yourself as important, Bertoni does not.  Right now, I imagine you are of primary concern to him.”

She wrapped her hands around the glass and stared into it.  “That’s not exactly how I’d like to be important.”

They were both silent for a moment.  Finally, Gabriel spoke.  “Do you know the tale of the boy, David, and his battle against the Philistine, Goliath?”

“Yeah, everybody knows that story.”

He thought about this.  Everyone knew a story, but they didn’t know the real story.  After thousands of years, it still hurt.

Perhaps that was why he was here, although he didn’t understand why Father would be interested in the antics of a mid-level mobster.  Still, no one questioned Father.  “David was just a young boy,” he continued, “but he was very brave and he was able to defeat a very large man.  Perhaps that is what you are also destined to do, perhaps you are the one who will defeat this man Bertoni.”

Charlotte drank the rest of the glass off.  Talk like this needed a little liquid courage.  “You really think so?”

“It’s one possibility.”

“But I’m just a college student, a waitress.  I’m a nobody.”

“David was a young boy, a peasant, and yet look what he did.”

She thought about this for a few seconds, staring into the empty glass.  “You know anybody that can coach me in my stone throwing?”

The corner of Gabriel’s mouth curved up.  “Actually, I do.”

 

 

They picked through the various boxes and cartons for over an hour, finding favorites, sharing with each other a bit of this and that.  Conversation drifted away toward less serious matters; her acting, some happy memories of times at the restaurant, even Gabriel’s penchant for wearing dark colors. 

Finally, they packed away the leftovers. He watched as she poured another short glass of the scotch and once more turned down the offer. 

Charlotte gazed at the tawny liquid wistfully.  “If you won’t join me, I might just take this with me and go to bed.”

“It’s been a very long day, I’m sure you’re tired.”

“Yeah,” she gave him a momentary questioning look that he couldn’t decipher.  “Yeah, I am.  Thank you again for letting me stay here, Gabe.”  She turned and padded toward the back on bare feet.

It was only a minute later when she stepped out of the bedroom, her arm twisted behind her back, her face red with frustration, her eyes sparkling with barely contained tears.  “My stupid zipper is stuck.”

Gabriel couldn’t help but to smile.  For someone who was so very tough, it was a stuck zipper that had her at the breaking point.  “Turn around.”

She did, roughly pulling her hair off to the side and tilting her head.  It took only a couple of gentle tugs for him to be able to get the stubborn zipper to start.  The top of her dress opened up before him as the zipper slid down, revealing the creamy skin of her neck. 

Almost of its own volition, his hand continued to slowly pull further down, exposing more and more of her bare back beneath the emerald fabric, like folding back the petals of a deep green flower.  As the zipper continued along, he could see the tension release from her shoulders.  She turned her head just a bit, stretching her neck, her eyes closed, lost in the moment. 

He was mesmerized, his senses suddenly overwhelmed.  He could smell the cologne she used, her shampoo, the lingering scent of the scotch.  His fingers wanted to caress her, his arms wanted to wrap around her waist, he wanted to kiss the soft curve of her shoulder, the arc of her neck, the temptation of her ear.  He thought about opening up the flower, pushing the dress over her shoulders, down over her hips, letting it fall to floor.  He wanted to breath in her scent, feel the soft warmth of her skin against his own.  His heart pounded in his chest.

“There you are,” he said, his voice huskier than he would have liked.  “Now go, get some sleep.”

“Thanks,” she whispered, then tentatively padded back toward the bedroom, holding the dress to her chest.  She stopped in the doorway and turned back with a hesitant smile.  Her eyes still glittered with unshed tears, but there was something else there.  “Tell me, are you always such a gentleman?”

“No.”  His look was without expression and yet seemed to speak of a thousand emotions.  “Goodnight, Charlotte.”

She watched him for a long, silent moment.  “Goodnight, Gabe.”  The door closed softly behind her.

Gabriel stood staring at the door for a lengthy time, his breathing measured, his expression never changing.  Finally, he sat down on the couch and poured himself a generous quantity of the scotch.  He drank deeply, letting the fiery glow of the alcohol wash over him.

It was the human thing to do.

 

 

The first cry jerked Gabriel out of his meditation, the second saw him off the couch and across the room.  By the third he was at Charlotte’s bedside with a long kitchen knife clutched in one hand.

The room was empty except for the girl, looking tragically small in the center of the king-sized bed.  She wore an oversize cotton nightshirt, pale pink in the moonlight, making her look even more childlike.  As he watched, her body shook with deep heartbreaking sobs.  Her face was wet with tears, the sheet and blanket kicked nearly off the bed – she’d been fighting this nightmare for some time.

Again, she cried out, the words incoherent but the meaning all too obvious.  Gabriel set the knife on the bedside table, careful not make any noise.  Then he slid off his shoes and climbed into the bed as lightly as possible, trying not to startle her.  Remembering David’s nightmares, he brushed the hair off her face and murmured the same soothing sounds. 

She rolled toward him and he managed to get one arm around her shoulders, pulling her tighter to him.  He could feel the shuddering of her body as she cried.  Gently, he wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Hush, little one.  No one will hurt you, you’re safe here.”

Finally, he was able to lay her head on his chest, wrapping both arms around her.  The heartbreaking trembling that wracked her body slowed, her sobs becoming less frequent.  He could feel her breathing slow and her body relax.  Eventually he could sense the long, even rhythm of deep sleep.

Lying there, he marveled at how well she fit in the crook of his shoulder, her head resting just below his chin, her arm draped across his chest and her hand resting almost perfectly over his heart.  It felt so very natural, so comfortable, he thought that he could stay there for a very long time.

 

 

The late winter dawn came through the windows, a silvery haze that looked more like moonlight than sunlight.  Sensing it, Charlotte sighed contentedly.  She stretched out one leg, then the other, then arched her back and rubbed her eye with the back of one hand. 

Gabriel felt her body suddenly stiffen.  He glanced down at her upturned face, still on his shoulder.  “Good morning.”

“Good…morning,” she replied hesitantly.

“Are you aware that you stretch like a cat?”

She looked up at him bemusedly.  “I suppose I do.”  Proving the point, she reached both arms skyward and not-so-surreptitiously took in her surroundings.  Her bedmate still had on both shirt and pants – good; big knife on the bedside table – bad.  “So, um, not to seem ungracious or anything but how did you…”

“You had a nightmare,” he answered, sparing her further embarrassment.  “I heard you crying from the other room.”

“Oh.  Ooh!  That makes more sense.”  She sighed, her fears abated, and rested her head on his shoulder again, her hand back over his heart.  “Weird, I don’t remember it at all.  I feel like I haven’t slept that well since I was a kid.”

If Gabriel thought about it, he felt the pretty much the same way.  He hadn’t meant to, but he couldn’t remember ever sleeping that well.  Thankfully, he was fairly sure no one had figured out where Charlotte had gone yet, he felt less than vigilant.

They lay like that for a few minutes, neither of them wanting to break the spell of the soft morning glow.  “I should get us some breakfast,” he finally offered.

“No!”  Charlotte’s head popped up.  “I mean, not on my account.  I mean, if you’re hungry, it’s just…I’m fine.”  She grimaced, silently chiding herself for sounding too eager, too scatterbrained.  “I’m sorry, whatever you want to do.”

Gabriel’s laughter was gentle.  “We can do whatever you want.”

She scooted up further on the bed until she was level with him and propped her chin on her elbow.  “Ok then, I want to stay here.  With you.”

“Then we shall stay.”

For a moment, she merely looked at him, her eyes crinkled with affection.  Then gradually, her expression changed.  Her head tilted to the side just a bit, quizzical, as if she was trying to hear a melody that was just barely out of range.  With her free hand, she reached up and followed the curve of his cheekbone with the back of her finger, then brushed the solid line of his jaw with her thumb, an artist finding the lines of a composition.  Then her head tilted the other way as she gently traced his strong brow, the roughness of his unshaven cheek, the fullness of his expressive mouth.  He closed his eyes as her fingertips pushed back his hair, softly drawing down over the side of his face, over his lips, his chin, his neck, barely touching his skin.

When she kissed him, he wasn’t even sure what it was, it felt as soft as butterfly wings.  She kissed him again and his breath caught in his chest.  The sensation was warm and sweet and innocent.  Yet even as his hand reached up and intertwined in her hair, pulling her closer, pulling himself up to meet her, he felt a twisting wrench of guilt in his chest.

He pushed her gently away while his head fell back onto the pillow.  “No.  This can’t be.  You know nothing about me.”

“I know what I need to know.”  Charlotte was resolute.  She grasped at his hand, holding it to the side of her face.  “I’m not a child, this isn’t some stupid crush.  I know you have secrets, I know you’re not what you say you are.  I’ve noticed things, like how comfortable you were with that gun and that knife, and that violence doesn’t really bother you.  I’ve noticed that you don’t have a cell phone or a computer or anything that could be tracked, and that you always pay in cash.  I’ve figured out stupid little things like English probably isn’t your first language.”

He looked at her, dumbfounded.  She’d seen through his masquerade, seen the truth in the carefully constructed persona he had built for this mission.  But was it because she was that good, or because he wanted her to?

“Yeah, I know all that,” she continued.  “Most of all, I know the important things.  I know that you don’t smile or laugh very often, but you do with me.  I know that you’ll never let anything happen to me, ever.  And I know that you’re alone.”

He gave her a small, sad smile, proving her right on that point.  “I’m not alone.  I have a twin brother, two sisters, and a Father.”

“But they’re not here, are they? And you don’t have anyone else.”

Gabriel dropped his eyes.  Had it been that obvious how much he resented being forced to live here among the humans?  Maybe at first, but things were different now and he didn’t feel so isolated, so lonely anymore. 

That was it, wasn’t it?

He looked up at her, up into a face that was both fearless and filled with trepidation and he realized the searing pain in his chest wasn’t guilt at all.  It was need, it was want and it was hope.  For a moment, he warred with himself, his hard-fought cynicism battling his terrible longing for exactly what she was offering.

To not be alone.

His arm wrapped around her waist and he effortlessly rolled her body into his arms and under him so that he now looked down at her.  Her long hair spread out on the pillow like a halo, her eyes sparkled and the early morning light gave her skin an almost translucent glow.  Gabriel couldn’t help but to smile broadly – she looked like a Renaissance painting of an angel.

“What is it?” she asked.

“You’re beautiful,” he answered simply.  Then he kissed the soft curve of her shoulder, the arc of her neck, the temptation of her ear, and everywhere else he could think of.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

 

 

 

Vega

 

Alex was a little nervous.  Even though he’d spent some time now with his mother, he still wasn’t completely comfortable around her, and the thought of having dinner with her was more than a bit intimidating.  He hadn’t exactly been raised with the best manners, as Claire had noted on more than one occasion.  He didn’t know which fork to use, or what to do with a napkin, or any of those society niceties.  Growing up, food had been whatever you could put in your mouth as fast as possible, not something that you put rules and regulations around.  He was trying to develop some kind of sophistication, especially as he was taking more of a leadership role, but he wasn’t sure he was up to the level of a “Commander.”

When she opened the door to her apartment, however, most of his nerves disappeared.  She greeted him with warm smile and a kiss on the cheek, apologizing for the fact that she had to wear clothes that weren’t her own.  Alex recognized the navy sleeveless tunic and pants set that she wore – it had been Becca Thorn’s – but where the senator had paired it with three-inch heels and a gold chain, his mother was barefoot with her hair tied up in a messy bun.  The contrast couldn’t have been more dramatic.

They sat on the couch and ate monstrous salads that included too many things, but the variety of fruit, scores of different vegetables and multiple vendors with their oils and spices had been too much temptation for Charlie, and she had spent every chip that Michael had given her.  She hadn’t seen that kind of variety of produce since before the war. 

There were still so many things to talk about.  The agri-towers were, of course, one of the first topics, and Alex explained what the city planners had done in their original designs.  Charlie was fascinated.  He went on to explain how the aqueducts had been built to bring water into the city, and the development of the nuclear power plant.

“You’re so lucky,” Charlie raved, taking the now empty bowls and setting them on the table.  “So much technology has been lost, but you still have it here.”

“We were lucky,” Alex conceded.  “We had a hell of an engineer here pretty much right from the start.  Gates Foley set up a lot of the city, helped to design the power plant.  He kept it running, hell, from what I found out, he kept most of the city running.”

Charlie heard something in her son’s voice.  She shifted to face him.  “You sound like you knew this guy.”

“In a way.  When I left Vega, Gates and Claire…” His voice trailed off.

“Oh.  I see.”  He had told her some things about Claire, but not all.  It was obvious why.

“Yeah, I came back and it was pretty awkward.  The guy was an ass.  He knew his shit but…”

His mother waited, there was more to the story and Alex wanted to tell it. 

“Gates sacrificed himself for the city.  I was the only other one there, but he wouldn’t let me do it.  He died to save Vega.”

“That bothers you, doesn’t it, that he would die for you?”

The young man blew out a breath and looked away.

“That’s your job, isn’t it?  You’re the soldier, you make the sacrifices, right?”

Alex didn’t say anything but the way he rubbed his hand over his face told her that what she said was correct.

“We had a guy like that at one of our bases, just a genius,” she went on.  “Could build anything.  Granted, we didn’t need a power plant, but he got our refinery up and running for us.  He had an amazing skill with gadgets, just loved tinkering.  Loved electricity, batteries, stuff like that.  Loved to invent and he came up with some great things, things we could use against the eight-balls, even against higher angels.  We were so lucky to have him.  The problem was, he liked to experiment on himself first, and when you’re talking about things like energy bombs and super-Tasers, that gets a little scary.  I can’t tell you how many times I came into his lab and found him missing eyebrows or wrapped up in bandages, but I couldn’t get him to stop.

“One time, after he just about killed himself, I asked him why he kept doing it, was he stupid or masochistic or what?  You know what he said?  He said that in a war, we’re all soldiers, it’s just that we wear different uniforms.  And he was right.  Sometimes it’s easy to know what your path is, what you’ll be called upon to do, but other times, it’s not so clear.  We all have a part to play, but we don’t necessarily know what that part is going to be.”

“That’s just it,” Alex countered.  “Gates was special; he knew things nobody else did.  He didn’t have to die, I was right there, I could have gone in his place.  I’m not important, he was.”

Charlie tilted her head to the side.  “He’s not the only one, is he?  The only one who you have on your conscience.”

“God, no.  Jeep, Claire, Bixby, they’re all dead because of me.  Noma sacrificed her wings for me, that drove her off the deep end.  She’s gone now, I don’t even know where.  Michael almost died a couple of times for me.  Shit, you’re the only one I can actually take off that list.”  He grimaced.  “Wow, way to bring down a conversation.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so depressing.”

“That’s okay.”  His mother’s expression was warm.  “It’s part of getting to know you.”

“I just don’t get it, why they all had to give so much.  I’m not that special.”

“Well, I might disagree, but then I’m rather partial to you.”  She rose from the couch.  “Come on, help me clean up these dishes.  I was thinking of having a drink; do you like scotch?”

“Uh, yeah, why?”  He followed her toward the kitchen area. 

“I have something really unusual that I got for a gift, I think you’ll like it.”  She put her bowl in the sink.

Alex followed suit.  “Why don’t you get that and I’ll take care of these?  It’s the least I can do after you fed me.”  He pushed his sleeves up and shoved the dishes under the running water.

“That’s sweet of you, thank you.”  She reached into a cupboard for two glasses and stopped.  Her gaze had drifted to the sink, fallen on Alex’s hands in the soapy water, on his forearms.  She hadn’t realized…  “Are those your tattoos?”

“Oh.”  He lifted his arms up, letting water drip off.  “I forgot you hadn’t seen them before but I guess you haven’t.  Yeah, these are,” he sighed, “mine.”

She reached forward, then paused.  “May I?”

“Uh, yeah.  Got a towel?”

They both laughed awkwardly and she handed him a towel to dry off.  Then she took his hands in her own, gently rotating his forearms.  “I had no idea,” she said in awe.  “They’re beautiful.”

He shook his head ruefully and pulled his hands back.  “That’s just a little bit.  They’re freakin’ everywhere.”  He reached up and unbuttoned the top of his shirt revealing the tableau across his chest.

Charlie’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open.  “Everywhere?”

“Well, not quite,” he admitted with a grin, then pulled his shirt over his head.  “What the hell, you’ve already seen me naked.”

“That was a long time ago, and you were an infant,” she chuckled.  “I think you can stop with your shirt.”  Still, she was fascinated, slowly walking around him, following the various trails of scrolling up and down the lines of his arms, his chest.  “Can you read it?”

“A little.”

“What does it say?”

“One of them said something like ‘Beware those closest to you.’”

She paused.  “That sounds ominous.”

He shrugged. “Maybe, but good advice.”

“Anything else?”

“Michael can understand a little of it.  Sometimes some of the lines seem to move, which is really weird.  And new ones show up, like the one about Lucifer.”

His mother moved around to his back and saw the scar on his shoulder right in the middle of one of the designs.  Her fingers touched it gently.  “What happened here?”

Alex breathed deeply.  “Julian did that.”

“The man from New Delphi.”

“He’s not a man; he’s a dyad, half-angel half-human.  Got a real thing for torture.  I had something he wanted.”

“Oh, my god.”

“It’s all right, it’s not the first time.”

She stared at him, horrified.  His tone was so calm, so even.

“Gabriel’s pretty good at torture, too, although not as direct.  He could learn a thing or two from Julian.  Then again, he was there watching, maybe he did.”

Her stomach flipped, she felt nauseous.

Alex misunderstood.  He saw her face and reached out to her.  “It’s okay, I’m fine.  The tattoos fought back, I don’t know how, but they fought back and Noma and I got out of there before Julian could do anything more to me than give me that scar.”

Charlie’s head shook back and forth.  “Gabriel.”

“Yeah, that son of a bitch.  He’s like a cat, got nine lives or something.  He had me and Noma in his aerie until it got bombed, but he got out, too.  He’s obsessed with my tattoos – he thinks that Michael should never have given them to Jeep.  He’s got it in his head that they’re the only thing that will bring his Father back.  Whatever.  He once threatened to skin me for them, can you believe that?”

Charlie’s head fell to her chest, and she rubbed her forehead with one hand.  She couldn’t look at him as he continued.

“He kept threatening me when I couldn’t read them, then he said he would hurt Noma.  When that didn’t work, he stopped threatening and just did it.  It went on and on for months.  The only reason that we got away is because Claire dropped that bomb on him.  I just wish it would have gotten him as good as it got his psycho sister.”

“Alex, stop.”  Her voice was quiet.

He didn’t hear.  “I can’t believe Michael lets him stay here.  I know they’re brothers and I know there’s this whole thing with Lucifer coming back, but there’s no way we can trust Gabriel, the guy’s a psychotic bastard.  He’ll sell us out, just wait, he’ll make some deal with Lucifer and humanity will lose again.  He wants us gone, all of us.  Six billion dead isn’t enough; he wants to finish the job.  If it weren’t for Michael, I’d run a sword through him tomorrow.”

“Alex, please stop it.” she pleaded again, this time louder.

“Why?  It’s all true, you know it is.  You’ve been fighting him since the beginning, you know what kind of evil he is.  Michael’s blind to it because he’s his brother, he can’t see that the only way we’re going to be safe is if Gabriel is dead.”

“Alex,” she shouted.  “Stop!”

He did, his brow creased, surprised at her vehemence.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “I didn’t mean to yell.”  Then she grimaced.  “I can’t put this off anymore.”

“What?”

She gently rested her fingertips on his bare shoulder. “You said you weren’t special.  That’s not true.  It’s not just because of the tattoos, or because you’re the Chosen One, whatever that means.  I think you understand, you’re different.”

“No,” he shook his head.  “I’m not.  I’m just like everyone else, I just happened to have these markings.”

“That’s not true, Alex.  I’ve watched people around you, they can sense it.  They sense that you’re a leader, that you’re important.  They respect you, they want to follow you.  And you have abilities.”

“That’s the tattoos.”

“No, it’s not.  Michael couldn’t use them.  Neither could Jeep, only you can.  They only work for you, they only speak to you.”

He wasn’t going to be convinced.  “I’m just a person.”

Charlie moved her hand to his cheek, cupping the side of his face.  She wanted to take a minute to see him this way, innocent of what she was going to tell him.  The news was going to change his world and he might very well not talk to her again.  Memories of the times she had questioned her mother about her own father flooded her thoughts.  Evasions, half-truths, downright lies, she’d never actually found out.

It was better to know, she told herself, it had to be.

“What is it?” Alex asked again.  “What is this all about?”

  She took a deep, steadying breath and wet her lips.  “You asked me earlier about your real father.”  She could do this, it was the right thing to do.  Another breath.  “Gabriel is your father.”

Alex gave a sputtering kind of laugh but he backed away from her, out of her grasp.  “That’s not funny.”

“I’m serious, Alex.  Gabriel is your father.”

“No, that’s not possible.  Humans and angels can’t…”  He shook his head, his face starting to contort with a kind of revulsion.  “It’s not possible.”

“He was on Earth as a human.  It wasn’t the first time.  It was before the war, I met him, we –”

Her son threw his hands up defensively.  “No!  I don’t want to hear what you did, god, please!”  He grabbed his shirt off the counter and pulled it on.  “I don’t even…Gabriel, no.  No.”

She reached for him but he shied away.  “What I was trying to say is that we fell in love.  We were going to be a family, Alex.  Gabriel was different then, he wasn’t –”

“A sadistic homicidal psycho?” Alex interrupted her again, sarcastic and cruel. “You mean he wasn’t trying to exterminate all of humanity back then like he is now?”

“He’s not!  You’ve seen him, he’s, I don’t know, he’s changed.”

“Changed?  You’re insane!  You’re as nuts as he is if you think Gabriel is ever going to change.  You and Michael both, you think he’s on our side, but he’s not, he never will be.  It’s his game, he acts like he’s going to help you and then he turns on you.”

Charlie watched her son as he tried to button his shirt, his fingers shaking with fury so much that he could barely get the buttons through the tiny holes.  His face was red and when he looked at her there was a kind of horror in his eyes.

She could feel tears ready to topple down her face but she tried to sniff them away.  She wanted to keep calm.  “I’m sorry, Alex. I know this hurts.”

“You don’t know anything,” he snapped.  “I was just fine without a real father for 25 years.  Now you try to tell me it’s the guy who’s been trying to kill me my whole life.  Thanks.”

“He didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know what?”

“Gabriel didn’t know about you; he didn’t know you were his son until just a couple days ago.  Nobody knew, not Michael, not even me, not till I came here.”

Alex latched onto the wrong fact.  “Michael knows?”

“He’s only known for a couple days.”

Disgusted, he finally finished the last of the buttons.  “Seriously?  Does anybody else know, or wait, does everybody know and I’m just the last one to find out?   No, don’t tell me.  I need to get out of here.  I need a drink.”

“Alex, please don’t go, we need to talk about this.”  Her hand reached out for his but once more he shied away.

“I think you’ve said everything you needed to, Mom.”  There was no affection in the last word, only bitterness.  He marched determinedly toward the door.

“Please, Alex,” she pleaded.  The tears spilled over and cascaded down her cheeks but she still tried to keep control.  “Stay.”

When he turned back to glare at her, his eyes were hard, his jaw thrust out, his fists balled at his side.

He looked just like his father.

The door slammed loudly and startled her.  She pulled in a shuddering breath. 

Commander Charlotte Lannon hated to cry, she’d been fighting the impulse since she was young.  As someone in a leadership position, she couldn’t afford to, especially in front of people.  She couldn’t afford to be seen as weak.  Nonetheless, there had been many more tears than usual for her on this trip.  She hadn’t planned to get so involved, to care so much – none of this was according to plan.

And now…she leaned her forehead against the cool wood of the cabinet and tried to pull herself together, tried to be “mission commander” and not “mother,” but try as she would, it wasn’t going to work. 

Finally, she simply gave up and let go, let everything go.   Sobs wracked her body while tears ran off her face and splashed against the fine granite counter.  It didn’t matter, no one could see her, no one could hear her, and it was okay to have an old-fashioned breakdown every once in a while, it cleansed the soul.  She was pretty sure she would be good and cleansed when she was done with this one.

It was better to know, she told herself again.  It had to be.

 

 

It was the third day in the “war room,” a third day of compiling information and liaising with twenty people who had dramatic, but still limited, experience in the theater of war.  Jenkins motioned his commander over to the side of the room where they could have at least the semblance of a private conversation.  She looked tired today.  He’d noticed that more recently; she wasn’t taking care of herself again.  He’d have to start nagging her about getting enough sleep, but first they had to deal with the situation in front of them.

“With all due respect, Commander, these people have very good intentions, but they are sorely lacking in almost everything else.  As you requested, I’ve been watching their maneuvers and strategy.   Their command structure is loose, their troops are raw and they have very little in the way of combat theory.”

“I know, I know,” she agreed, her voice hushed.  “They’re doing all they can.  They’ve lost most of their command staff and half their seasoned veterans.  They’ve also lost a large percentage of their defensive grid.  To be honest, I don’t know why Julian isn’t attacking now; he’d be able to march right through the city.”

“They do have determination,” Jenkins allowed.  “I think they could teach some of our troops a thing or two about tenacity.”

“Shush, you,” she countered.  “You know I’d put our Wildcats up against anyone.  But you’re right, they’re tough.  And maybe just a little stupid.  They have one of the best military leaders in the last millennia at their disposal but they’re afraid to use him.”

Jenkins followed her gaze to the other side of the room.  “Are you serious?  The archangel?  Gabriel?”  He snorted.  “As if I would trust that chap to lead a flock of geese.”

“Desperate times make for strange bedfellows.”

“Look at him, even his brother doesn’t trust him; he’s followed around by a couple Archangel Corps guards all the time.”

The commander snickered.  “They’re not to protect us from him, Jenkins, they’re to protect him from us.  Michael thinks that someone might get it in his or her head to take revenge.  He’s right, of course.” She sighed.  “There are plenty of people who feel like you do.”

“That he’s an evil bastard?”

She couldn’t help rolling her eyes.  “I want you to keep straight exactly which evil bastards we’re worrying about while we’re here.  Remember that.  Keep your head straight, and tell the others, too.  I don’t want personal feelings messing things up.  We have a mission.”

“Again, Commander, with all due respect.”

“Jenkins, have you noticed that every time you start your sentence with that phrase, you’re about to insult someone?”

He sighed.  “Yes, mum, I mean no, no insult intended.  I’ve just noticed that your, um, feelings toward the archangel, toward Gabriel, have, well, shifted, if I may say.”

“You may say, Commander, and duly noted.  And yes, they have.  Call it new intel.  Things are…are not what they appeared, and much more complicated than I expected.”  She rested her hand on his shoulder.  “I’ve relied on you for so long, for your knowledge and your truthfulness.  None of us would ever have made it this far without you.  Don’t ever be afraid to tell me what you think.  I’ll explain everything to you soon.  Don’t worry, I haven’t been possessed or switched sides or anything.  The mission is still the same.”

A commotion drew their attention and they looked up to see Alex as he entered the secure room.  He was unshaven and it looked as if he still had on the same shirt he had been wearing the night before.

Charlotte made to move toward him but her XO held her back.  “Commander, I’m going out on a limb here but I don’t think he wants to talk to his mother right now.”

Her brow rose imperiously.  “Then perhaps he wants to talk to a superior officer.  He should have been here 15 minutes ago.”

Michael, however, had also noticed the Chosen One's entrance and beat her to the rebuke.  “Alex,” he called, waving him over.  “You’re late.”

“And I’m not staying.”  Alex looked from one archangel to the other, aggressively defiant.  “I only came to tell you I’m going out to the western border to work on the wall.  You can do whatever the hell you want without me.  It’s what you seem to do anyway.”  He turned to walk away.

“Alex!”  Michael called.  “We need to talk.”

The young man turned back.  “Maybe you should have thought about that before,” he countered.  “Maybe you should have said something when you found out about him!”  His finger pointed at Gabriel.  “I thought you were watching out for me, Michael.”

“I am, always.  We will talk.”

“Too little, too late, Michael.  Thanks for nothing.  But you,” Alex rounded on Gabriel.  “I don’t want to ever talk to you, I don’t want to see you, I don’t want anything from you, is that clear?”

Gabriel looked at him with flawless equanimity.  “Perfectly.”

The room had gone quiet as the scene unfolded before them.  Now Alex glanced around, realizing that everyone was watching him.  His eyes, rimmed in dark circles, roamed the faces until the settled on his mother’s.  His expression was not kind.

“Let him go,” Jenkins whispered so that only she could hear.  “I don’t know what’s going on, mum, but the boy needs to work it out himself.”

She nodded imperceptibly as she watched her son shove fellow soldiers out of the way and storm out the door.  The thumping of her heart made the old pain in her chest flair up again.  For the hundredth time, she wondered if it was real or imagined.   At least all the tears were gone, spent the night before.

On the other side of the room, Michael turned back to his brother, concern etching his features.  “I’m sorry, Gabriel. I will talk with him.”

If he expected his brother to disturbed by the outburst, he was disappointed.  Gabriel watched his son leave, bemused.  “No, let the lad be.”

“But Alex has rejected you.”

Gabriel’s teeth bared in a grin that almost seemed prideful. “So he has.  Familiar, isn’t it?  It’s exactly what I would have done in this situation.”  He scanned the group assembled in the room; advisors, military, technicians.  To a man, they looked at him with wary concern.  “However, I don’t think the rest of the people here see the humor.  I’m wondering, perhaps this would be a good time for me to check on the aerie, see if any of the old gang has been hanging about.”

Michael frowned.  He realized that when Alex had walked out the door he had lost the most important advocate for Gabriel’s continued time in Vega.  It had been a fragile relationship – Alex had been none-too-happy about it – but they had at least been working together.  Now it was painfully clear to everyone present that the Chosen One no longer wanted the second archangel around.

“Perhaps.”  He gripped his brother’s arm.  “We could use their help against Lucifer, but I don’t want to send you out there alone.”

Gabriel gave him the crooked, cocky smile that had been missing for a very long time.  “I don’t need a nanny, Michael.”  He returned the grip, squeezing tightly.  He winked.  “Try not to lose the city while I’m gone, will you?”

Michael watched Gabriel as he left, noted his head held high and his shoulders proud beneath his armor.  Just yesterday he had been devastated by the thought of Alex knowing his parentage, and now he was laughing off his son’s rejection.  Something very important had changed in Gabriel’s mindset, but his brother did not know what it was.

 

 

 

Two miles outside New Delphi

 

The battered pick-up pulled to the side of the road and the driver turned off the engine.  He turned toward his passenger, a petite woman in her early twenties with short brown hair and dark chocolate eyes. 

“I don’t like it,” he said, pulling a knapsack out of the back.  “I think I can get you closer.  There’s too much ground to cover and too much can go wrong.”

The woman grabbed the bag from him and began to rummage around inside.  “This is close enough.  We don’t know what kind of patrols they run, and I’d rather take my chances with a couple of coyotes than a squad of eight-balls.  This way I can see them coming.”  She pulled a dingy hooded poncho out of the bag, along with a small canteen and pistol.  “I’ve done this before, Craig.  You worry too much.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”  The driver was twice her age and his interest in her was more paternal than anything else. 

“Well, if I have to pull rank on you, I will.  I say this is where I start so this is where I start.”

Craig rolled his eyes.  Technically there was no difference in their rank, but she was the team leader, at least for this part of the mission.  “Yes, ma’am,” he answered with a finger salute and a smirk.

She pursed her lips, not sure whether to grin or flip him off.  “Just pick me up in a week, will you?”

“Right here?”  He looked around, trying to find any identifying landmarks.

“No,” she said, climbing out of the truck.  “At that town we passed about twenty miles back.  I’ll find you.  Just be there.”

He rolled down the window as she pulled the poncho on and hitched the satchel onto her shoulder.  “Alright, one week then.  Good luck, Mouse.”

She grinned back at him.  “Thanks.  Hopefully I won’t need it.”

 

 

 

Denver, Early Spring 2016

 

Charlotte sat at the dining room table and stared out the balcony window.  Most of the snow was melted now, replaced by the dingy grey crust that was a harbinger of spring but nonetheless interminably gloomy.  Everything was grey – the clouds, the sky, even the streets, not yet scrubbed clean by the rains that would soon come.  It was all depressing as hell.

Especially her life.

She stared at the assortment of items before her.  A short stack of newspapers, a letter on heavy bond paper, an alarmingly small pile of money and the worst thing of all, a five-inch plastic stick.

The letter had arrived by messenger that morning and forced her into this dark reverie.  It was from the realty company, asking for the rent.  According to them, Gabe had paid for three months up front, but now the next month was due.   She had been shocked to see what he had been paying for the apartment – she could have put a down payment on a house for that kind of cash – but in the end, it didn’t really matter.  She didn’t have it, and she wasn’t going to be able to find it, because Gabe was gone.

Gone for almost four weeks now.  She didn’t know where or why, he was just gone.  One day he’d woken up, gotten dressed, kissed her while she still lay in bed and said that he had some business to take care of.  She hadn’t questioned him, she never questioned him on things like that, but it had been the last thing he had said to her.  Not “I’ll see you later” or “I love you,” no, it was “I’ve got some business I need to take care of, go back to sleep.”  So, she had.

He’d never come home.

At first, she thought that whatever he was doing might have taken longer than he expected.  That lasted a day, a day of eating leftovers and trying not to finish off the bottle of scotch by herself.  Then she started to worry that something had happened to him, that maybe Bertoni had gotten to him, or some other person from his shadowy past.   Knowing so little about him, the possibilities were endless.

There was no phone, no television, no internet, nothing with which to hear from the outside world, and frankly she was still afraid for her own safety.  At a loss, on the second day she started searching the apartment, trying to find some clue as to what he was doing or where he could be even while she felt guilty about doing it, invading the privacy of the man who had kindly taken her in.

She found very little, and what she did find made even less sense.  His closet was only half full, and nothing looked like it was more than a couple months old at the most. (He did, however, seem to have a fondness for clothes with hoods, everything from shirts to jackets.)  The bathroom had the usual articles, but even those were all relatively new.  Most interesting was what she found in the dresser drawer in the bedroom: three business cards (from the realtor, the detective they had dealt with, and an antique dealer) $220 in cash, all twenties; and surprisingly, a half-dozen ancient Roman gold coins.

The gold coins weighed heavily in her hand.  They tied in with the card from the antique dealer, they could even explain Gabe’s penchant for using cash, but where had he gotten them?  There were no other bits of personal information, the flotsam and jetsam that regular people created just by living.  She had only vaguely noticed it before but now she realized how freakishly sterile the apartment was: no books or magazines, no scraps of paper, no receipts, no mail.  The only items of this kind were her own.  In the back of her mind, she’d probably put it down to the fact that he hadn’t lived in the space for very long, but now she realized that he had to have kept it that way purposefully. 

Another part of the mystery.

 

 

By the third day she had run out of leftovers to eat and was beginning to go more than a little stir crazy.  The twin specters of abandonment and fear for Gabe’s life fought for her attention and she had little to do but read the few school books she had brought from home.  Still, Gabe’s warning about Bertoni echoed in her mind – she was a threat and the man was determined to eliminate that threat.  She thought about going to the detective, she had his card now, but then she remembered her expensively dressed visitor at the police station.  Bertoni’s man.  He may not have worked for the mobster directly, but there was no doubt he was in some kind of contact with him.  The police, all of the police, remained suspect.  For now, hiding would be her best bet.

On her first excursion outside, she thought that her heart would burst out of her chest.  She put on one of Gabe’s thickest shirts and one of his hoodies, disguising her figure, and pulled the hood up over her head.  Her goal that day was only to find a couple of cans of soup, a large scarf and the biggest sunglasses possible. 

Back in the apartment, she silently thanked her Muslim roommate from freshman year and the hours they had spent experimenting with all the ways one could wear a scarf.  After some experimentation, she managed to wrap her head in a passable version of hijab, adding the sunglasses to further hide her features.  Feeling somewhat incognito, she ventured out the next day to purchase a newspaper and a few more groceries. 

And that was the way she had spent the last month, heading out every couple of days to buy a newspaper and the least expensive food she could, then huddling in the apartment and waiting.  She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for, with every day it seemed less and less likely that Gabe would return, but a part of her didn’t want to leave, to abandon her post.

Then there were the newspapers.  She scoured them front to back, reading every article, every ad, doing every crossword, sometimes twice, using new words and making them fit.  Every once in a while, however, she’d seen something that made her heart race.  It seemed that Bertoni’s men (well, “gangsters” if she wanted to be truthful) were having a terrible string of luck.  An accountant had been killed in a skiing accident, an accountant who happened to work for Bertoni.  Two security men were in a deadly head-on collision, with each other, while they were on duty at Bertoni’s mansion outside of town.  Bertoni’s in-house chef suffered a rare but fatal reaction to a mushroom while he was preparing a dinner for the mobster and twenty other “associates.”  The meal was not served.

The stories continued.  Not surprisingly, given the appearance of the small man at the police station and his not-so-vague threats, the two men that Charlotte had identified had never been formerly arrested for the murders at the diner.  However, it seemed that they decided that this was the perfect time to take a vacation in Mexico.  Their small private plane, registered under the Bertoni corporate umbrella, went down somewhere in the jungle of the Yucatan.  It was never found.

Charlotte read each story with a strange mélange of glee and unease.  She knew there was no way that this was simply a string of “bad luck,” but she was afraid to attribute it to the only person she knew could be responsible.  Even if Bertoni deserved it, even if every single one of those people deserved everything they got, she didn’t want to think that Gabe, her Gabe, might be responsible.  On one hand, it meant that he was alive and well; on the other, it meant that he was, after all…an assassin.  It was simply too much to accept.

Two days ago, she had donned her scarf and her glasses and gone to the little local store once again.  Standing in the checkout with her few items, it hadn’t been only one newspaper that caught her attention, but every local paper and magazine, all shouting out basically the same thing in big, bold type:

LOCAL DEVELOPER DEAD

BERTONI FALLS FROM TOWER

SUSPECTED MOBSTER TAKES LEAP

She’d already felt nauseous, but it took every bit of her will not to throw up right then and there in the line.  She had grabbed two of the papers, begged her way past a woman with an armful of items and dropped two twenties in front of the cashier.  It more than paid for what she was taking.

Back in the apartment, she’d yanked off the scarf and glasses, tossing them onto the counter with her purchases while she poured hot water for some ginger tea.  She had prayed it would settle her queasy stomach, but nothing much had helped lately.  Her eyes had travelled to the small rectangular box that sat near the loaf of bread and new jar of peanut butter.  Best to get it over with.

She’d set the pregnancy test on a tissue on the table and picked up the cup of tea and newspaper.  This would be the longest three minutes of her life.  In the meantime, she had scanned the story about the mobster’s death, how he had fallen from the top of his own building while working late one evening.  No foul play was suspected, but no one could figure how, or why, he had done it.

The tea was soothing, but it wasn’t going to do the trick.  The queasy had turned into full blown nausea and she’d gagged twice.  No, she wasn’t going to give in, not over Bertoni, not over that murdering asshole.

Her eyes closed, she’d concentrated on breathing.  In, out, deep cleansing breaths. 

She was safe now.  However it had happened, whoever was responsible, the threat was gone.  She was safe.

When her eyes had opened they’d immediately fell on the two blue lines in the window of the plastic stick.

She was also pregnant.

Now she was trying to figure out what to do.  The thought that Gabe was out there watching over her was like a tantalizing dream, a fairy tale where she was the princess waiting for her prince to come back to her.  But as much as she might be currently living in a modern-day castle, she certainly wasn’t a princess, and the chances of that particular prince coming back were pretty much nil.  If there had been any chance of his returning, she knew he wouldn’t have kept silent for so long, especially now that Bertoni was dead.  Unfortunately for the mobster’s reputation, the newspapers went on at length to describe the enemies the he had made over the last few years.  More than one had seemed the type to go to extremes to take out their vengeance.  As much as she missed him, a part of her was relieved to think it might not have been Gabe.

That still didn’t explain why he had gone.  She was hurt, and she was angry, and she very soon going to be pregnant and homeless, but that didn’t mean she was going to be helpless.  A plan was already forming in her head – she’d always been good with planning things.  She would take the gold coins and sell at least one of them, get enough to buy a cheap car and head out toward California.  Her mother lived there, and while she hated scurrying back to momma with her tail between her legs, especially pregnant, it was the smartest thing to do.  She had quite a while before the baby came, she could find some work along the way, keep the rest of the coins for insurance.  People were always looking for a good waitress.

Her hand fell down to her waist and rested over her stomach, over the tiny thing growing inside.  There were…options.  She didn’t have to keep it.  If she got rid of it, it would be easier to keep a job, maybe even see if she could do some acting…

Her stomach cramped and a wave of darkness washed over her vision.  She groaned, clutching at her middle.  Was this what it was going to be like, was she going to be tortured like this for nine months?

The feeling fell away as quickly as it had come over her, leaving her weak but relieved.  She remembered how Gabe had held her when she felt that way, when she felt like she couldn’t go on.  She would look up into his face and see those steely grey eyes and everything would be right again. 

A little boy with sparkling eyes, just like his daddy.  She smiled softly.  He would be adorable, with that same mischievous glint, that same independent streak. 

Could she really be a mom?

Nothing had to be decided today, she had weeks for that.  First, she had to finish her plan, then she had to pack up her few belongings and move out. 

She’d miss Denver.

 

 

 

Vega

 

Charlotte Lannon followed her escort to the door of an extravagantly appointed building near the Fountain Square, all Italian marble, Greek statues and Romanesque mosaics.  As she came to the eight-foot double doors with their oversize cast iron handles and stained-glass windows of grapes and wheat, she had to grin – it was all so very “Vegas.” 

Two Archangel Corps had arrived at her apartment only an hour earlier with an invitation to dine at the only formal restaurant currently open in the city.  She’d spent twenty minutes rummaging through the closet of the apartment trying to find something that fit, then the rest of the time trying to make herself presentable on very little notice.  The results were satisfactory if not exceptional.   She loved the “little black dress” she had finally settled on, and the three-inch sling-backs she’d found were tight but manageable.  Some things never went out of style. 

The soldiers opened the doors for her and then waited outside.  She entered into a dimly lit foyer draped in silk and artificial grape leaves, a fountain in the center.   Classical music lilted from speakers discretely placed in amongst large amphorae, replica artifacts and other ancient looking treasures, a strange combination of ristorante and archeological dig.  

A small, older man in a three-piece suit and a pencil mustache rushed up to her.  “Mademoiselle, I apologize to you, I did not see you come in.”  His voice accent was thick and French, his hands moving with every word.  He grasped her hand in both of his.  “You are the Commander Lannon, non?  I am Marcel, please, welcome to the Le Chantecler.”

Charlotte was a little overwhelmed.  She was definitely not in the “mademoiselle” category anymore, but the little man had a merry twinkle in his eye.  “Um, thank you.  I believe I’m here with my son?”

“Ah, yes, yes!  The story of his mother, after all these years, to find him!  The whole city talks of this.”  He squeezed her hand tightly.  “And the mademoiselle, so lovely, so very lovely.”

Nodding her head, Charlotte did the only thing that made any sense in the circumstances.  “Merci, Marcel.  Merci beaucoup.” 

“Ah!”  The little man burst into a trill of cheery laughter.  “Une si belle femme! I show you to your table now; we will not keep the young man waiting for his mama.”

She followed him into the dining room, surprised to see a full restaurant laid out before her.  Waiters and waitresses in crisp black pants and white shirts bustled from the doors of a kitchen far beyond to dozens of tables decked out in linen cloths, crystal and fine china.  Of course, all of it was accented with an abundance of frescoes, pottery, draperies and tiny fairy lights, the “Vegas” was just as evident inside as it was out.  Charlotte looked around in amazement; she hadn’t seen anything like it since before the war. 

Most interesting was the clientele.  There were large parties of up to a dozen right down to intimate tables for two, but the dinner guests themselves were the most varied.  Charlotte could see people dressed in what could only be described as the height of fashion, others in uniform, and still others who would actually be complimented if they were described as “shabby.”  Yet all of them were being treated with the same dignity and decorum, as if everyone was a high roller or foreign dignitary.  It was a little surreal

Marcel led her toward a row of tables near a broad expanse of windows, candlelit and shimmering with crystal goblets.  “For you, Mademoiselle,” Marcel said conspiratorially, “the very best table.  The mother of the Chosen One, she is special, non?”

“Please,” she begged off, glancing around, “I don’t want any fuss.”

“No, no, no.”  He beamed at her.  “This is my restaurant, it is my choice.  And here is the young man, does he not look handsome tonight?”

With that, she had to agree.  Alex stood up as she arrived at the table, the corners of his mouth twitching up nervously.  He was dressed in grey slacks and a collarless blue shirt; even in the candlelight, it made his eyes look like cornflowers.

“I’m glad you came,” he said uncertainly.  “I wasn’t sure you would, after what I said.”

“Of course.”  She glanced around and grinned.  “Do you think I’d miss this for anything?”

Behind her, Marcel loudly cleared his throat and Alex started.  “Oh, yeah, I forgot.”  He moved around behind her and held out her chair.  “Madame,” he said, in a passable accent.

Charlotte felt herself blushing.  She sat down and let Alex help push her chair in, then waited while he took his seat.  She noticed Marcel giving him a surreptitious nod of the head; he’d done well.

“Tonight is a very special night.  Tonight, we have black sea bass with parsnips, arrowleaf spinach and a saffron-vanilla sauce.  It will be magnifique!

“It sounds delicious, Marcel, thank you.”

“I will send over the wine, then.  Enjoy!”  With that, the little man departed.

Charlotte was dumbfounded.  “This is incredible.  Where did he find saffron, or for that matter, even vanilla?  Those were all imported, they haven’t been available for decades.”

Alex shrugged.  “I don’t ask.  Who knows, maybe he doesn’t even use them, but no one is complaining.  He’s a famous chef, he studied somewhere in France, everything tastes amazing.”

“Le Cordon Bleu?”

“Yeah, I think so.  How do you know about that?”

“My mentor, Colonel Andrews, taught me so many things I can’t even begin to list them.  He was more than just a great military man, he was a doctor, too, and well, I guess you could say...he had class.  Anyway, go on, tell me why this great French chef is in this ridiculous Italian-looking restaurant.”

Alex contemplated the room.  “It’s bizarre, isn’t it?  The upper V’s set this restaurant up for themselves originally, no one else was allowed.  The only reason I knew about it was because I came here on guard duty for the Reisens.”  He took a sip of water from a crystal goblet.  “Nothing was too good for the upper V’s.”

“Or too excessive, it would seem.”

“Basically.  That’s how we ended up with a civil war.  There were a few places like this, restaurants and clubs.  A lot of them burned down.”

“I’m not big on anarchy, but I can’t say I blame the people for trying to change the system.”

“I don’t either.  Even Claire understood, she abolished the V-system when she was Lady of the City, but by that time the civil war had already done its damage.”

A waiter came and filled their wine glasses, asking if they would like the bottle.  Alex said yes and he left it on the table.

His mother picked it up and read the label.  “This is real wine, from before the war.  Good wine.”

“Marcel,” Alex answered.  “He’s spoiling us.”

“But where did it come from?  I still don’t understand.”

“Probably from a V-5 or 6.  After the civil war, the new Council took possession of a lot of their things for redistribution.  We’re breaking up their big apartments to make smaller homes, and we’ve taken things like clothes and food they’d been hoarding and spread it around.  That was one of the things that started this place – we had all these bottles of liquor and wine and no plan for them.  Marcel came to the Council with the concept for using this building.  It had been empty since the war and he was out of a job.  He came up with the idea to turn it into a place where anyone could come for a really nice meal or a special occasion, regardless of who they were or what they did.”

“High-class, but egalitarian.”

“Exactly.  Now, once a year, each citizen of Vega can come here with a guest for whatever Marcel is serving that day.  The City supplies the food and pays the wages of the workers here, and Marcel runs it all.”

“What a wonderful idea.”

“It’s not just a nice idea, it’s smart politics.  Look around, you’ve got people of all kinds eating together, meeting each other on the same level.  They’re not separated by social status here; they’re all just people who are eating the same food, being treated exactly the same way.  It sets a precedent.”

Charlotte also regarded the room.  He was right; wherever she looked, she saw people of all types talking, laughing and eating together, no matter what they were wearing or what they looked like, the lines of social strata completely missing.  It was a brilliant concept.

She raised her wine glass.  “Thank you then for bringing me along on your special occasion.”

Even in the candlelight, she could see the blush that ran up Alex’s cheeks.  “I needed to apologize to you.  I was kind of an ass.”

“That was a pretty major bombshell I dropped, Alex.  I don’t blame you for being upset.”

“Yeah, bombshell.”  He took a healthy sip of his wine.  “Still, I took it out on you.  I shouldn’t have.”

“I understand, Alex, I mean, I really understand.  I felt the same way when I found out who he was.  I didn’t know until I came here that the man I’d known all those years ago, your father, was the archangel I’d been fighting for half my life.  I’d never seen Gabriel.  I’d only fought against his armies.”

The younger man mulled this over for a minute, then looked up imploringly.  “Can we not talk about him anymore?  I want to enjoy dinner.”

It wasn’t said with anything like rancor, and his mother had to agree.  “For the rest of tonight, Gabriel is off the table, so to speak.”

The relief in Alex’s face was like a new dawn.  “Can I ask you kind of a strange question then?”

“Um, sure.”

“Why ‘Wildcats’?”  That’s kind of an odd name for an army.”

Her eyes crinkled in amusement while she sat back in her chair, wineglass in hand. “You’re right, it is an odd name.  There are a couple of answers – you’ve met them, of course, so you know the name is rather appropriate.”

“Yeah, they’re uh…wild.”

“Oh, you haven’t seen the half of it.”  Her face split in a broad smile.  “They are remarkably well trained, and bordering on insane.  I love them, each and every one of them.  They’ll follow me to hell and back, I can’t ask for anything more.”

Alex looked at the woman sitting across from him, comfortably sipping wine in a chic black dress and heels.  At the moment, it was hard to remember that she was a Wildcat commander.  He still knew so little about her.

“What’s the other reason?” he asked.

“Well, years ago, a ‘wildcatter’ was somebody that would dig oil wells on dry land just hoping that they would strike it rich.  We’ve got a few of those, people who’ve tried things, crazy things, just hoping that they would work against the angels.  Back at our base, we’ve also got a small oil refinery.  It was one of the things Colonel Andrews was looking for when he moved us from our original location in Texas, so we have a few real wildcatters that we rely on.  It all kind of came together and then somebody made a logo and we were stuck with it.  You know, once you have a logo…”

“Yeah, once they start making logos and uniforms, it’s all over,” Alex joked.

“Exactly.”  She wasn’t about to tell him that she was the one who had designed the patch that everyone wore on their shoulder, a stylized black cat, black as midnight.

“And your ranks, they aren’t normal army.  I would have expected that Colonel Andrews would have run things the same way.”

“I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a lot of politics involved in rank.  Colonel Andrews hated that.  He thought that by reducing the ranks down to just four, by promoting because of ability not politicking, he could try to keep his people together, keep them fighting the angels and not each other.  It worked.  I told you, he was an amazing man.”

“So why are you a commander instead of a colonel?  Commander isn’t even an army rank.”

“Oddly enough, that’s a British rank.”  She leaned forward conspiratorially.  “Jenkins may have had some input on that.”  Sitting back again, her voice took on a note of respect.  “No one wanted to try to take Colonel Andrew’s place, he was like, I don’t know, our savior.  We would never have made it without him.  I didn’t want to even try to fill his shoes, much less take his title.  Just like he never wanted to be a general, I never wanted to be called Colonel.”

Alex thought about this while two waiters arrived at their table, one carrying a wide tray and the other a folding cart.  The cart was set up expertly and the tray set upon it, their plates presented to them with just the right amount of flourish.  Cracked pepper was offered, declined, and the waiters departed.

Charlotte looked down at her meal in awe, it was beautifully presented and smelled delightful.  “I still don’t believe this.  This smells like real vanilla,” she dipped the tines of her fork daintily into the sauce. “Tastes like it, too.  Where does he get it?  How does he even get sea bass?”

Alex shook his head.  “I told you, I don’t ask.  I know he got a lot of things from the upper V homes. He also works with some traders, some scavengers, they find things and bring them to him, he has a real way with people, they love him.  The sea bass?  That I have no idea.  Maybe he has a deal worked out with Helena, we’ve been doing more trade with them lately.”

“I can understand why people love him, he’s quite the character.”

“He told me once that he hated working for the upper V’s, I think this is kind of his revenge.” Alex leaned forward.  “You know that accent isn’t real, well, not that heavy.”

“I figured as much, but it’s still charming.  Besides, who can complain when the food is this good.”

They ate and talked, a waiter came and silently refilled their wine glasses and the mood of the evening moved into a warm, soft glow.  Charlotte asked about his life in Vega; about the V-system, about Jeep, about Claire and Noma, and he told her some, if not all.  Not all the memories were good, but they were his and he wanted her to know.

The meal was, as expected, delicious, and when the plates were removed, Marcel himself arrived with two small dishes of a light pink sorbet.  He set them down.  “My apologies, mademoiselle, but we do not yet have the le gateaux et les patisseries, the desserts that I would like to serve.  There is no dairy, we do not have the cream.  I have heard of the wild cows, but I have not yet chased them down.”

Charlotte turned to him and took his small hand in hers as he had done to her before.  “Marcel, you only give me reason to come back another day.  The dinner, everything, was wonderful, très bon.”

The little restaurateur turned her hand over and kissed it delicately.  “You are too kind.  I watch your eyes when you look around, mademoiselle.  You see what I see.  You are the soldier, but inside here,” he tapped his chest, “you are the artist, yes?  This place, the pots and the grapes and tiny lights, it is how you say, horrible, mais non?”

“It is a bit…Vegas.” 

“Yes, so Vegas!”  Marcel laughed.  “But we shall change, you will see, everything will be so very beautiful, so very French.  First, for the food, then for the eyes, this is how it should be.  The people, they deserve this.  Fine things, very fine things, not just for some.”

“It sounds wonderful, I can’t wait to see,” she leaned over conspiratorially, “but I have to admit, I’m rather fond of the tiny lights.”

Marcel stood up, a twinkle in his eye.  “Perhaps for you, we will keep some of them.  I regret, I must attend to the kitchen now.  Bonsoir, mes amis.”

Alex shook his head as they turned back to the bowls of sorbet.  “How do you do that?  You’ve completely charmed him.  How do you know French?”

Charlotte pulled the spoon from her mouth slowly; the sorbet was excellent.  “I know half a dozen phrases, and I probably used them all wrong, but it’s part of the game.  If you have a known enemy, you gather intel on their strengths and weakness and use them to your advantage in battle.  It’s the same thing, except you’re not doing it maliciously, you’re doing it because you want the other person to be at ease, to like you.  You want to be their friend.  Honestly, Marcel is quite the master, he knew just how much to flatter me without going overboard.  I imagine he figured you out pretty quick, too.”

“I guess he did.  When I got here, he gave me a crash course in restaurant manners so I didn’t look like an idiot.”

“I noticed you sampled the wine prior to the waiter pouring.  I didn’t expect that.”

Alex shrugged.  “He told me about that.  Not like I would have known if it was bad.”

“A bottle that old, you probably would have, but it was a nice gesture.  Marcel is a sweetheart.”

“He is.  He said something about you being an artist.  Is that true?”

She scraped the last of the sorbet out of the tiny bowl and pushed it back toward the middle of the table, delicately licking the spoon.  It had been a wonderful treat.  “No, that was just him being kind.  I took a couple of art courses but it was just for fun, I was in school for acting and psychology.  Back then I figured I’d go for one completely unrealistic major and another one that might actually get me a job.  Now, after the war, after what the world has become, it all seems pretty unrealistic.”

“I don’t know much about it, but it sounds like you might still use the psychology.”

“As a commander?  Yeah, I guess, pretty much every day.”

Alex’s eyebrows rose.  “Maybe you can help me act out my problems with Gabriel.”

Charlotte barked out a laugh and covered her mouth in embarrassment.  “I don’t think you have a problem with that,” she grinned, her green eyes sparkling in amusement.  “You don’t exactly keep them hidden.  No, I think it’s going to take someone with a lot more schooling than I had to fix the two of you.”

 

 

Alex walked into the apartment and found Michael standing near the window, a sheaf of reports in his hand.  It was strange to contemplate an archangel doing something as mundane as reading a report. It was even stranger still to think that he was Alex’s roommate, but there he was. 

The arrangement worked out well because neither of them was there very often.  On those rare occasions that they did inhabit the same space, they’d worked out an amicable formality.  They were inextricably bound with the running of Vega, but neither of them interfered with the other’s personal life.

Right now, however, the archangel could tell that Alex needed a friend.  When the young man went for a large glass of water instead of something stronger, it was an indication that he was either too drunk already or wanted a clear head to think something out.  By the way he was walking, it could only be the latter.

“How did your dinner with your mother go?”  Michael asked, feigning only mild interest.

“It was nice,” Alex answered, falling into an easy chair and dropping his legs onto a nearby coffee table.  “I’m still processing the whole Gabriel thing but her, she’s okay.  It’s weird to say it about your mom, but I like her.  She’s smart, she knows things, but basically she’s just kind of…normal.”

“She’s a soldier like you are.”

“Yeah, that must be it.”  He drank some of the water.  “She doesn’t talk about herself much, she talks about her troops or other people.  Mostly she asks me questions.  I don’t mind, I want her to know about me.  I told her about Claire but not about the baby yet.  I mean, she was almost a grandmother, she should probably know, but it’s still hard.”

“It was a difficult loss.”

“Yeah.”  Alex pushed aside the subject, it still caused pain.  “Well, like I said, she doesn’t talk about herself much, more about her soldiers.  They do a lot of training.  I don’t know, maybe they could help us out, we kind of need it.  We’re short on trainers here.”

“That’s not a bad idea.  Our new recruits would benefit from the experience of well-seasoned veterans, and our regular forces could learn new tactics.  Do you think they would be open to this?”

“I can ask.  I mean, my mom is their leader.”

There was something in the way he said “mom” that struck the archangel as odd.  “How do you feel about suddenly having this family?”

Alex shook his head, at a loss for words.  “For the first of half of my life I only had Jeep.  Then I had nobody.  Now, well…it’s one thing to find out your mom is still alive, but then to find out your real dad is your worst enemy…I swear, if someone says I have a long-lost sister –”

“They didn’t tell you?” Michael interrupted, trying to lighten the mood.

“What?”  Alex nearly jumped out of the chair, then he saw the droll expression on the archangel’s face.  “Screw you, Michael.  Seriously, having Gabriel as a father is bad enough.  I don’t understand what she saw in him.”

“You knew him as an enemy, Charlie knew him as a human.”

“I know him as an asshole.”

Michael pressed his lips together to avoid smiling.  Alex wasn’t altogether wrong.  “You haven’t seen the side of Gabriel that she has.  He can be kind, generous and gentle.  He’s loyal and brave.  You have many of his traits.”

“He’s an asshole.”

The archangel shrugged.  “I can’t change your mind about him, only you can.”

“Not gonna happen.”  Alex sat and brooded for a moment.  “Wait, if Gabriel is my father, doesn’t that make you my uncle or something like that?”

“Yes,” Michael agreed.  “Something like that.”

 

 

The draperies rustled in the night breeze and the balcony door clicked close.  Then there was only silence and darkness, the lights of the city failing to penetrate through the chiffon that covered the windows, the moon an inefficient sliver in the sky. 

“Hello, Gabriel.”  Without warning the table lamp clicked on and the amber light pooled once again across the center of the room.

The archangel stopped short.  He had expected to find the same person he had visited before, sarcastic, perhaps even defensive, dressed in fatigues and probably threatening him with a gun.  Instead he found himself staring not at a soldier, but at a woman.  Charlotte was dressed in an elegant robe and gown ensemble crafted from a lustrous jade silk, a hint of ivory lace accenting the plunging décolletage.   It was very feminine and very flattering, falling in gentle folds over the curves and angles of her body.  Her hair was loosely pinned up, her feet were bare, and the last thing she looked was threatening. 

It took him a moment to recover his wits.  “No gun?” he finally managed to quip.  “I’m disappointed.”

“Sorry,” she jested back.  “I didn’t expect you tonight or I’d be weapons ready.  You’ll have to let me know if you’re going to be making this a regular occurrence so I can set up the arsenal and meet you in my battle gear.”  Her hand casually held out the side of the robe, unaware that the silk gently hugged the outline of her breast, that she exposed one long leg through a slit in the gown beneath.  “Not exactly standard issue, but I’m running out of clothes.  Had to borrow from the closet.”

 His eyes narrowed appreciatively.  “Green has always suited you.”  Memories of another day, another emerald dress came to mind, but he forced himself to push them away.  He couldn’t afford those thoughts, not now.

A tinge of blush may have touched her cheeks.  “Thanks.  It’s not quite my style, but it is beautiful.  Whoever lived here before had excellent taste.”  She moved toward the side table.  “I had a lovely dinner tonight with a lovely wine.  I was just going to have a nightcap.  Join me?”

Gabriel did not respond.  Instead he turned away and walked toward the expanse of windows, still wondering why he had come again to her apartment, weighing the strong desire to leave with the same longing to stay.  He felt claustrophobic, violent, confused and yet oddly more clearheaded than he had been in years.   The last two days in the sky had been liberating.  He’d had the chance to think, to take in all that had gone on recently, especially the appearance of this disconcerting woman and the life-changing news she had brought with her.

He turned back.  “You and I have been at war with each other for a very long time.”

The change of topic was abrupt and something in the confrontational tone of his voice put Charlotte instantly on her guard, the warm glow of the wine suddenly gone.  Now she took in his armor, his sword.  Since she’d come to Vega, she’d seen a transformation in the archangel’s demeanor, from the pathetic, shattered soul she had first met to something more like the confident man she had known years ago.  But this was even more – the way he stood, the pugnacious thrust of his jaw, the cast of danger she caught in his eye – he was very, very different.

For the first time, she realized she was seeing Gabriel the Archangel, the master of the dogs of heaven.  Her heart beat faster and she instinctively scanned her surroundings, looking for potential weapons and escape routes, even while she tried to keep her voice level and calm.  “Yes, we have.”

“Do you know why?”

The question was confusing.  “Why there is a war?  Or why you and I?”

“The war.  Do you know how it started?”  He paced a little, distractedly fingering a vase, a lamp shade.  “Do you know why humans and angels are fighting for this tiny rock in the middle of space?”

She was still unclear where he was going with this.  “I was told that you started it.”

“Exactly!”  He pounced forward and she stumbled away from him.  “I broke the Seventh Seal, I let out the souls of the lower angels and unleashed them upon Earth.  I started the whole damnable war because I was convinced it was the only way to bring Father back.”

Charlotte found her back pressed against the side table.  Slowly, her hand reached for the bottle of Macallan, the only defense she could think of at the moment. 

“So, then you did start it,” she replied, still trying to keep her tone even. 

“Yes, and I was wrong.”

 “Wrong?”  Now it was getting difficult to keep the irritation out of her voice.  “Wrong?  Well, yeah, it was a war, of course it was wrong.”

Gabriel came even closer.  He still emanated anger, but he seemed more cynical than violent.  “It was all wrong.  I was arrogant and foolish, convinced that Father had given me the Seventh Seal so that I might finally prove my love for Him, to save my family.  I was going to wipe out the treacherous human race.”  He spread his hands wide.  “Father would return and I would be the hero.”

For a fraction of a second, Charlotte saw beneath the mask to a little boy who only wanted his daddy’s approval.  Then it was gone and the cynic remained. 

“But I was wrong,” he continued.  “The Seal wasn’t His gift to me, it was a test.  One that I failed rather spectacularly, I might add.  I was meant to save humanity from the dangers of the Seventh Seal, not unleash it upon them.  I was probably meant to keep it from Lucifer.”

“Oh.”  Charlotte’s hand slowly released the bottle, no longer feeling as threatened.  “I never thought of it that way.”

“Neither did I until I realized Father’s true plan.”

“You know something the rest of us don’t?”

Gabriel pursed his lips.  “I think I know the reason for Father’s gifts now.  It is not what we thought.”

“I thought they were meant to bring him back or something.”

“Yes, some of them, but there is more, a more specific purpose.”

“I don’t understand.”  She shook her head.  “I’ve seen Alex’s tattoos.  He was a little embarrassed, to be honest, but he let me see.  They’re beautiful.”

Gabriel laughed bitterly.  “Yes, I’ve coveted them for quite some time.”

She understood what he meant and how he regretted it.  “Those were Michael’s gift, weren’t they?”

“Originally, yes.  They hold Father’s last words to us.  With them, and with the information from the Apocrypha that Uriel received, possessed humans can now be saved.  And now new tattoos are appearing, and Michael is able to help decipher them.  Then there are the Prophecies that were given to Raphael, including the one about the Chosen One.”

“About Alex.”

“Yes. That is the point.  I thought the gifts were for us, for the angels, but there’s no denying that they are for you humans as well.   Father knew Alex would be needed, knew that angels and humans would need to work together against some common foe and that the Chosen One would be the deciding factor.”

Charlotte tilted her head to the side, working through it in her mind, putting all the pieces together.  “Angels and humans,” she said, still thinking.  “Your father knew about Lucifer.  He gave out these things, these gifts, to defeat Lucifer.”

“Yes.” Gabriel nodded.  He felt vindicated that she had seen the same things once the facts had been put before her.

“Then if he didn’t give you the Seventh Seal, if you said that was actually a test, what did he give to you – oh.”  Her face dawned with comprehension.  “Oh, my god.  Oh, it’s Alex.  Alex was your father’s gift to you.”

“Yes.  A most precious gift.”

“Because of David.”

“Yes, because of David, but more.”

Charlotte remembered the night long ago.  They had been lying in bed, surrounded by a warm cocoon of darkness.  The time had been perfect for telling each other those parts of their lives that were difficult to deal with in the harsh reality of day.  She had told him about her broken, dysfunctional family.  He had told her about the boy, David, at least part of the story.  At the time, she knew it wasn’t all of it, but she hadn’t pushed, the tale was too tragic already.

“David was a gentle, beautiful child, but was not my child.  He was an orphan whom I raised.”  Gabriel’s voice was soft now, his gaze far away.  “I could not have loved that boy any more if he had been my own.  The few years I had with him were some of the happiest of my life.”

He snapped back to the present.  “But as I said, he was not my child.  Angels and humans cannot have children together, not normal children.  They’re monstrosities, abominations.”

“What are you saying, deformed or something?”

“No, I mean beasts.  They are the Nephilim, neither human nor angelic.  They make eight-balls look tame by comparison.”

Charlotte was horrified.  “You knew, when we were…when we were together, you knew that that was a possibility?”

“No, you misunderstand.”  Gabriel put his hands lightly on either side of her face, lifting it to look into her wide, worried eyes.  “That was the beauty of Father’s plan.  He sent me to guard you as a human. While we were together, I was as human as you are.  Yet somehow Alex, our human son, is gifted with abilities only a higher angel should have.”

Her eyes grew even larger and she pulled away from him.  “No, no, this is too much.  Having a son who is supposed to be some kind of Chosen One, I’ve accepted that, a little skeptical, but I’ll go with it. Honestly, hearing it from someone with wings, it makes a difference.  But now you’re trying to tell me that this was all planned specifically to defeat big brother Lucifer, whom you didn’t even know was alive, all before Alex was even conceived?  You’ll excuse me if I’m having a hard time buying this.”

“Father’s plans are sometimes difficult to fathom.”

“Ya think?” she said sarcastically.

Gabriel understood her reticence.  “Tell me this, why did you give Alex his name?’

“What?”

“Why did you name your son ‘Alex’?”

“Seriously?  I don’t know, I always liked the name, since I was little.  Alex, Alexi, Alexis, I just liked it.  I always knew one of my kids was going to have that name, boy or girl.”

“Alex from Alexander.  All names have meanings.  Do you know what the name ‘Alexander’ means?”

‘No.”  She frowned, her previous horror now giving way to a growing annoyance.  “I wasn’t into that kind of stuff.  I told you, I just liked it.”

Gabriel had a knowing look.  “Alexander means ‘defender of mankind’.”

“No, you’re making that up.”

“I am not.  The name is Greek in origin, although many cultures have adopted it.”

Charlotte viewed him suspiciously. “Are you kidding me?  You’re telling me that even his name was part of some giant plot?”

“Not a plot, a plan.  I told you, sometime Father’s plans –”

“– are difficult to fathom.  I know, I heard you.”  She shook her head again.  “No, sorry, not a big fan of predestination.”

“It is not predestination as much as destiny.  Alex has always had a destiny, either for great good or for great evil.  The choice is his.  We all have a choice in the path we take.”

“Seriously, a choice?  Like you chose to leave me in Denver?”

There was a long and uncomfortable silence between them.  Mumbling “dammit” under her breath, Charlotte turned back toward the table and the bottle of scotch.  She poured out an inch and took a drink.

Gabriel came up behind her.  “I knew you were with child.  Somehow I sensed it.”

“Shit,” she whispered.  “I didn’t even know then.”  She drank deeply and splashed more into the glass, then suddenly rounded on him.  “How the hell is that supposed to make things better?  If you knew I was pregnant and you wanted a kid so much, why would you leave?  You just disappeared, I didn’t know if you were dead or missing or if Bertoni had gotten to you, you just didn’t come back.  I waited there for weeks but you never came back.”

Every word she spoke felt like a blow from a blade of empyrean steel.  Gabriel felt his psyche cracking again, his new-found strength withering against the onslaught of her accusations because they were true, everything was true, he had abandoned her and her unborn baby.  And why?

He recalled all the pain of the moment he heard the words and his voice broke with emotion.  “I was told that the child was fathered by another.”

“What?  Who told you that?”

“A friend, I thought, trying to save me from your betrayal.”

Charlotte closed her eyes and rubbed her face. “Oh, god.  Then Alex was born a month early and perfectly healthy, no wonder you never figured out the truth.  So, who was this so-called friend?  I’d like to thank him in person, maybe with, I don’t know, a grenade?”

Gabriel had to appreciate her attempt at humor, even at a time like this.  “A higher angel named Gadreel.  I had not seen him for centuries.”

“So, what, you believed him, just like that, just because he was an angel?  You had that little faith in me?”

He sighed.  “I had that little faith in humans. After that…”

“…you had none at all,” she finished for him. 

“Yes.  And then Father left.

“And you decided to start a war.”

He didn’t refute it.  “I was disillusioned, bitter and alone.  I played into Lucifer’s hands perfectly.”

“Lucifer?  I thought Alex was supposed to deal with him.  What did he have to do with you, with me?”

“Gadreel is one of Lucifer’s angels.  Without his lies…”  Suddenly he grabbed her around the upper arms, shaking her a little, causing the slippery robe to fall off one shoulder.  “Do you see now?  Do you understand?  Lucifer has been in this from the start.  He’s taken it all from me; my son, my family, even my sanity.  If not for Lucifer, you and I –” His face contorted with a kind of aching rage.  “I’m taking it back now, all of it.  I want my brother and my sister, I want my son.”  He paused and cupped his hand around the side of her face, his grip gentle but his tone still fierce.  “I want the life that Father had planned for me.”

She was temporarily speechless.  Her eyes searched his, searched his face and saw the raw honesty there, not the ravings of a madman.  He could see the dawning understanding of what he was saying.

Again, she drew away, trying to straighten her disheveled clothes.  “If this is all true, if it means saving Alex or saving the world, I’ll fight Lucifer.  I’ll fight alongside you, Gabriel, I’ll die fighting next to you, but it’s just not…I can’t…”  She faltered.

The archangel was determined.  “We have both lost too much, little one.  I won’t let Lucifer take this from us.”

The use of the sobriquet rattled her; she couldn’t look him in the eye.  “You don’t get it.  It’s been too long.  Too much has happened.  The war, the war changed everything.  We’re both different people.  Hell, you’re an archangel now.”

“One thing stayed the same.”

“Yeah,” she echoed sarcastically, “one thing did stay the same.  You.  You look just like you did; you haven’t aged a day in 25 years, the same as when I met you.  But, I mean, look at me; I’m tired, I’m scarred, I’m battle weary and I’m just plain old.”

 “Do you really want to debate age with an archangel?”   The side of his mouth quirked up in challenge.  “You will not win that fight.”

“Damn it, you know what I mean.  I’m not who I used to be, this isn’t me.  Seriously, look at me, these aren’t even my clothes!”  The robe she wore fell off her shoulder once again and she yanked it off in frustration.  She thrust it at him.  “This, this is silk!  I don’t belong in this!  I should be in a t-shirt and shorts.  This isn’t me, I’m a soldier playing dress up.”

“What difference does it make what you wear, you are a warrior and a leader!”

“That’s not what I’m talking about!”  She threw the balled-up robe to the side.  “This isn’t Denver and I’m not the girl you used to know.”

“You’ve never been a girl to me, you’ve always been a woman.”  For a moment, Gabriel seemed to fight within himself, his heart and his mind battling, then he reached out unexpectedly and wrapped his arm around her waist to pull her closer.  “You are my woman.”

The phrase was so archaic she wasn’t sure whether to be offended or not.  Then he kissed her and she understood.  It wasn’t a matter of being owned, of being a possession, it was a matter of belonging.  He kissed her and she understood that she belonged to him and he belonged to her and that was the way it was always supposed to be, that everything that had happened in the intervening years had simply been a terrible mistake. 

Her hands reached up to embrace him and found…armor.  The moment was broken, nothing had really changed.  With a grimace, she pushed herself away from his grasp.  “You cheat,” she hissed, her breath shuddering. 

“And you don’t listen to words.”

“Then show me.”  Her expression was both desperate and challenging.  “You said that you and I have been fighting for too long, yet you’re here armed and armored.  Show me then, prove to me that the war is over, that we’re not going to fight any more.” 

Without taking his eyes from hers, he stepped back and began to disconnect the latches on the side of his chest plate, first with one hand and then the other.  Next came the spaulders on his shoulders.  He yanked them off quickly and threw them aside, his teeth bared in determination. 

Never did his eyes stray from hers.

Lastly the archangel pulled his sword from its scabbard, the blade making a tone so pure that it could only be made of the finest empyrean steel.  “The war against humans is over.  Next I raise this sword, it will be beside you, not against you.”  He threw the weapon contemptuously to the side, then released his belt and let it and the empty scabbard fall to the floor.

Now he stood in front of her in only boots, leather pants and a loosely knit tunic that had seen better days.  The tools of war craft lay scattered around him like so many overgrown toys.  Still his eyes did not waver from hers, his determination clear in their grey depths.

Charlotte clutched her head with her hands.  “It doesn’t work that way, Gabriel!  You can’t just say the war is over and everything is fine.  It doesn’t make it go away.  I can’t ignore the last 25 years…I can’t just forgive you!”

“I’m not asking you to.  What I’ve done can’t be forgiven.”

She threw up her hands in frustration and walked toward the windows.  Turned away, he couldn’t see her contorted face, couldn’t see how she grit her teeth to try to stay in control.  She kept her back to him as she spoke, her voice low.  “You act like it’s so easy, but it’s not.  I don’t know you anymore.  You’re not the man I fell in love with, hell, you’re not even human, but you’re not the monster I’ve been fighting for half my life.  You’re not even the same as when I first came to Vega.  I don’t know who you are.”

The room fell eerily quiet.  Charlotte stood there, her arms clutched around her waist protectively, refusing to turn around.  Part of her desperately wanted to hear his voice, to feel his touch, to know that he had not left, but another part simply wanted to be left alone, to fall into a little puddle of self-pity and cry herself to sleep trying to figure out what the hell she was going to do.

Damn it, she was a soldier, a commander, not some hopeless romantic school girl, why did he make her feel this way?

He was the only one who had ever made her feel this way.

There was a rustling sound, she couldn’t place it, but she waited to hear the door shut.  So, he had gone.  Maybe it was for the best, she had a mission…  She closed her eyes and sighed.

Gabriel’s fingers wrapped gently around her bare arms.  He had tried not to startle her but still he felt her flinch, heard the catch in her breath.  His head was bowed and he spoke into the crook of her neck, his voice hushed.  “You say you don’t know who I am.  Do you remember this?”  His hands continued to move around her, one across her shoulders, the other across her abdomen until they held her close to him.  She felt the strength of his arms, the rise and fall of his chest against her shoulders, the muscles of his stomach against her back, the warmth of his skin where the tunic had torn.  “Do you remember the feeling of our bodies together?  My arms around you, the embrace of the man who fell in love with you?”

She did remember, she couldn’t help but remember, and her body melted into his, her head falling back upon his shoulder, one hand grasping at his arm, holding him even closer.  The side of his face pressed against her bare neck and she could feel the roughness of his beard, the soft feathering of his hair against her ear, the whisper of his breath on her skin, all so very, very human. 

Still he felt the tension in her, the shudder of a sob held barely in check.  His hand tenderly cupped her chin and turned her head toward him.  The trail of a tear crossed his palm.  “This is a part of me, Michael would say the best part.  I am not as proud of others.”

Charlotte felt his shoulders flex behind her, then heard a rush.  She gasped aloud as his wings unfolded around her, beautiful, proud and deadly.  They shone like the most exquisite otherworldly jewels in a prism of blues, purples and blacks and yet Gabriel could see that her face was marred with instinctual terror, not admiration.

For a split second, it felt as if she were going to fight to escape him and Gabriel held her even tighter, then he stopped and dropped his hands.  He couldn’t force her to listen. 

“You’re frightened now,” he said.  “I understand.  I was once Gabriel the Archangel, messenger of God the Father.  Now the sight of these wings inspire terror.  You called me a monster but you don’t know all of it.  You weren’t there, you don’t know of what horrors I am capable.  When I was under the sway of the Darkness, even the monsters feared me.”

He carefully turned her around to face him.  “You said that I was different when you first came to Vega.  When Lucifer cured me of the Darkness, I felt that I could finally see through the fog of my madness.  I was broken, but I could see that I was broken.  Then, when you arrived, when I saw you for the first time in so very long,” his fingertips brushed the side of her cheek, “it felt as if the broken parts of me started to come together.  Since you’ve been here, I’ve been made whole again.

“You say that you don’t know me, but only Michael knows me as well as you do. I was never meant to be alone, I was born with another, my twin.  I have always had my brother, Michael.   I thought that Michael would be enough for me, to keep me true to my calling, but the humans and their cruelty, their selfishness and their petty jealousies,” he was starting to get worked up again and he had to consciously settle himself down, “they were too much for me, even with Michael’s aid.  Father saw this, He knew that I needed someone to remind me of the beauty of humanity, its kindness and warmth, its strength and potential.  Father sent me you.

“This world we live in is not as it should be, Charlotte, our lives are not as they should be.  This world is not Father’s making, it is Lucifer’s.  He has twisted Father’s plan, manipulated us all.  I, for one, refuse to be manipulated any longer. 

“I know now that I need you in my life.  I need you because I am all of these things I have described, good and bad, but I am more when I am with you.  As we fight Lucifer these coming days I may need to be the greatest and most ruthless warrior I have ever been, but I will also need to be the most human.  I need your guidance, your strength.  Your love.”

Charlotte looked up at him, the tears still sparkling in her eyes, but with less fear, less pain, even a little humor.  “I guess it would be pretty horrible to turn you down after that speech.”

Gabriel chuckled and put his arms around her, pulling her closer.  “It was rather nice, wasn’t it?”

“I repeat: you don’t fight fair.”

“No, I haven’t.”  He was somber again.  With one hand, he pushed back the hair at the corner of her brow, exposing exactly what he thought he would find.  His finger traced the inch-long scar along her hairline.  “I gave you this scar.  I am the one who threw you into the wall where you hit your head.  I’m the reason you don’t remember that day.”  His hand moved down to the puckered line in the middle of her chest, visible above the lace of the gown.  “I told you that I would protect you, and I failed you.”

“You can’t protect me from everything, Gabriel.”

“Oh, but I can try.”  Slowly, majestically, his wings wrapped around them both, gently enfolding her within.

Now Charlotte looked at them in fascination and not fear.  They really were quite beautiful.  She leaned in, her hands on his chest, her fingers mindlessly playing with the loose weave of his tunic.  “Do you plan on keeping me here forever?”

“Would that be so bad?”

She looked up at him seriously, up at the face she had fallen in love with over 25 years ago.  At the face of her enemy, yes, but he claimed that war was over.  Her ally now, her protector, and the father of her son.

An angel.  An archangel.

Her archangel.

 

 

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a perfect kiss is worthy of a fine book, hand-set, leather-bound and gilt-edged.  They met together in that perfect kiss and everything that hadn’t been said for 25 years passed between them, all the hopes and fears and loss and dreams and heartache, all the loneliness and pain and memories, all the desperation and rage and hollowness, all the feelings that had been held inside, the story of their lives waiting to be shared.

Underlying it all a low burning ember of passion, a passion that had never died, never extinguished, held in memory for one another.  

Charlotte’s arms wrapped around his neck and she held on tight.  Her whole body seemed to be floating, caught somewhere between weightlessness and melding into his.  It felt as if Gabriel was her only source of oxygen, she craved it, craved him.   “This is insane,” she whispered.

His voice was low next to her ear.  “This is the best that insanity has felt in a very long time.”  He continued a slow line of soft kisses down her neck.

It was more than merely words.  Charlotte’s head started spinning, her equilibrium off balance.  She pulled away, her breathing ragged and he questioned her silently.  “You’re making me dizzy,” she explained, giggling like a young girl.

To say that Gabriel picked her up effortlessly was an understatement.  She was less than a child, a mere featherweight, and she giggled again.  He gave her a smile that was playful, wolfish and hungry, and her heart nearly skipped a beat.

The ember burned brighter.

He carried her into the bedroom with her arms around his neck, her face buried into his shoulder.  Her eyes were closed and she breathed in the scent of him.  He smelled of ocean breezes and pine forests and dry desert air, and his own subtle fragrance that she hadn’t even known she remembered, sandalwood and sunshine.

 

 

Charlotte opened her eyes as he laid her on the bed.  The room was starlit by the yellows and reds and greens of the lights of the city and it reminded her of his apartment in Denver so many years ago.  She released her hands from around his neck and slowly sank onto the pillows as he knelt next to her, his body outlined against the windows.

“Wait.”  She sat up, confusion evident on her face even in the low glow.  “Where did…?”

Gabriel answered by kissing her again. “Hush,” he breathed into her and her heart raced, but she wouldn’t give up.  Even as they kissed, her hands fumbled at his tunic, tugging and pulling at it, until he finally relented and yanked it off over his head with a good-natured “Satisfied?”

Charlotte simply looked at him kneeling in front of her in the radiance of the city lights, a vision she had only dreamt of for so many years.  He hadn’t changed, not one bit, still all lean muscle, power and willowy grace.  Her mind wondered if he was a dream, if it was all a dream, then she reached up and let her fingers run over the lines of his chest, his shoulders.  His skin was warm, smooth, perfect and perfectly kissable, as real as could be.  She continued to explore with her hands, her mouth, up over his shoulder, across the expanse of his back, searching, caressing.

The ember sparked and lit.

He watched her over his shoulder, a knowing smirk on his face but still enjoying her touch.  “You won’t find anything,” he said, his voice husky.  She nipped him playfully in the neck and he arched his back in pleasure.  “Not that I mind you looking, but an angel’s wings are not to be understood by humans.”

She made a whimper of good-natured frustration but that was not the kind of sound that he wanted to hear from her.  Without warning or effort, he reached around and pulled her on top of him, falling back onto the bed, covering her mouth with his with near violence.  Charlotte responded in kind, ferocity and passion mixed together in a war of desires.

Long fingers ran down the sides of her body and then up again, drawing the silk gown with them.  She wrapped her knees around his hips and pulled herself as close as she could get but it wasn’t close enough.  She could feel his hands now underneath the silk, warm, strong, seeking.  Fingertips brushed across the sides of her breasts and she shuddered.

Again, her head started to swim, and she pushed herself away from him, her hands on his chest. Damn that scotch, she thought to herself.  

Gabriel looked up at her in concern.  “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I’m…” Words failed her.  She felt the desire to cry and sleep and kiss him passionately all with the same urgency, along with a dozen other things.  “I’ve led people into battle hundreds of times, but right now, alone with you, I think I may be a bit overwhelmed.”

His hand reached behind her head and he drew himself up to her.  Slowly, cautiously, he lifted her leg off him, then slipped his arm beneath her and effortlessly laid her back onto the bed.  She wrapped her arms around his neck.  “Please, don’t go.”

He smiled and brushed the hair from her face.  “Never again.”

He kissed her forehead, and her nose, and her chin, and she responded with tiny happy bubbles of amusement.  Then he lay down next to her and slid one arm behind her neck, pulling her closer.  His hand caressed the side of her face and they looked into each other’s eyes.

“I missed you.”  Charlotte’s voice was a soft whisper.

“I missed you, too.”

He kissed her again, this time slow and gentle.  The seconds turned to minutes and the minutes to hours and the years fell away as if they had never happened.  It was all as it had been before, every caress remembered, every touch, every shiver.  There was no war, no time, no angels, no conflict, only the two of them making love in the glow of the city lights.  Vega became Denver and for a time they were the only two people in the world.

 

 

Charlotte nestled her head into the crook of the archangel’s shoulder.  Just like years before, it fit perfectly.  His arm wrapped around her waist, her hand tracing lazy patterns across his chest, it was all perfect.  She sighed contentedly.

Gabriel pulled her tight and kissed the top of her head.  “What thoughts are you having that bring forth this great sigh?”

“A couple.  The first being that I could stay here for a very long time.”  That brought on an even tighter yet somehow tenderer hug.  “The second thought is how I’m going to explain to certain people that I’m consorting with the enemy.”

A low rumble of laughter echoed through his chest.  “Is that what we were just doing, ‘consorting’? What an interesting way of putting it.”

She swatted at him playfully.  “You know exactly what I mean.  You’re still, well, Gabriel, to a lot of people.  They aren’t going to understand if suddenly we’re best friends.  Or worse….”

“Consorting.”

“Yes,” she rolled her eyes at him.  “Consorting.”

“Alex will not understand.”

“No, Alex will definitely not understand.”

“And was there another thought?”

“Yes, there was.”  She lifted herself onto her elbows and gazed into his face, brushing back the hair that fell over one side.  He looked relaxed, peaceful, his eyes soft and warm, more green than grey in the low light, the corner of his mouth turned up in that slightly sassy way she loved so much.  For a moment, she thought about how he had been just a few days before: haggard, drawn, his brow constantly furrowed and his chin fiercely thrust out in defiance. 

“I was thinking about how perfect it is right now.  How we fit together just right, how we know each other so well even though we haven’t been together for a very long time.  How you know just the right thing to say to me, how you get my sense of humor and I get yours.  I’ve never met someone I felt so…perfect with.  It’s a little scary – you’re not even human.”

Again, she felt the rumble of mirth in his chest more that heard it.  “Father sent me to guard you for a reason, because He knew that we would be, as you said, perfect.”

“Wait a minute, are you telling me that I got set up on a blind date…by God?”

“Father always has a plan.”

She laughed.  God’s plan was something that people talked about all the time, but God’s matchmaking was something completely different.  “But then Lucifer came along and wrecked it all.  Why?  I mean, what difference does it make to him if you and I were together?”

Gabriel thought for a moment, mindlessly running his fingers up and down her bare back.  “Lucifer holds a special hatred for me. He and I were once close, but when it came time to send him down from the heavens, I was the one who betrayed him.”

 “So, it’s not just a matter of him messing with things or using Alex, you think he’s actually been getting revenge on you?”

“Until recently I thought him dead, but now that I know he lives I can see the pattern of his vengeance.  This would be his perfect punishment, to reduce me to a raving madman bent on destroying the people I had once cherished.  It would be his way to have me persecute my own son, to turn me against my twin, to fail Father on such a grand scale.” 

“All because you felt betrayed.”

“Yes.  Betrayed just like he was.”

She mulled this over for a moment.  “So, it’s personal.”

“Yes, quite personal.”

There was a companionable silence between them for a few minutes, then she spoke up again.  “You said before that Lucifer cured you of the Darkness.  Why would he do that if he hates you so much?”

“He owed Michael a debt.  If nothing else, Lucifer is honorable that way.  I’m sure it also worked into his plans.  His emissary said something about ‘family’ but I don’t know what he meant.”

“Family?”  Charlotte sat up.  “I don’t like that.  Alex is his family now, too.  I don’t want him putting claims on my son.”

“Our son,” he corrected her kindly and pulled her back down next to him.  He kissed her softly on the forehead as she burrowed back into the crook of his shoulder.  “Do not fear, little one, nothing will happen tonight.  I promise.”

 

 

Gabriel brought a glass of water and put it on the nightstand near the bed.  He had put his pants and boots on but was still looking for his tunic, probably hiding under some of the bedclothes that they had scattered earlier. 

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he took a moment to look at the woman who lay there.  Charlotte was partially covered by a sheet but still quite exposed, too lost to sleep to worry about modesty.  It was obvious that she was still active and athletic, but just as obvious that she was no longer a young woman – her hips had widened in childbirth and the angles of youth had softened into the curves of maturity.  Her hands, once smooth, had roughened over time but also strengthened so that they looked less feminine.  She had crow’s feet around her eyes from squinting in the sun and smile lines around her mouth.  If the lights were brighter, he knew that he would find that many of the scattered highlights in her hair were grey rather than sun-bleached.

Nor could the soft light hide the scars.  Charlotte was right; she carried the evidence of many battles upon her body.  Gabriel could see a half-dozen on her torso and arms alone, and that didn’t include the puckered line that he knew lay between her breasts, the 10-inch incision that had been necessary to repair the damage from Noma’s sword.

She stirred, sensing him next to her and looked at him drowsily.  “What’s up?”

He handed her the water.  “I brought this for you; it’s drier here than you think.”

Her face screwed into a pout but she took the glass and drank deeply.  “Are you leaving?”

“I think it would be best if I were not found here come morning.”

“Oh.”  She thought for a bit, still fuzzy-headed.  “Were you watching me sleep?”

“No.”  He took the glass from her and set it back on the nightstand, then pulled the sheet up and tucked it around her. “No, I was thinking about how beautiful you are.” 

She peered at him as if she still wasn’t quite awake enough to understand and he laughed softly.  “Go back to sleep, there are still a few hours until dawn.  I will see you later today.”  He kissed her on the forehead.  “Sweet dreams, little one.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

 

After the night of the Darkness and the subsequent battle with Duma and the eight-ball army, there was very little left of the command staff of the army of Vega.  In truth, there was little left of the army at all, command or otherwise.  Duma, with his ability to access General Reisen’s vast knowledge of the city and its defenses, had been able to plan attacks calculated to decimate the Vega security forces. The Archangel Corps had fared slightly better, only because they were under a different command and tended to be better trained.  Still, they had suffered heavy losses as well and both divisions were stretched overly thin.

Thus, the new Council, at the urging of Alex and Michael, had announced an aggressive recruiting campaign.  The fresh recruits would have first pick of the housing that was becoming available as the luxury homes of the upper V-classes were split up and doled out.  Barracks-living would no longer be required past the first three weeks and rations became an actual incentive rather than a barely edible meal plan. 

However, new recruits meant raw recruits and that meant that if the new soldiers were going to actually make a difference, there were month’s- or even year’s-worth of training to be crammed into as short of time as possible.  Basic training was cut from six weeks to three and boots were thrown into battle simulations as soon as they were weapons-trained.  Additional training was whatever could be organized by the staff that remained, from sergeants to their only remaining colonel. 

While seeing “Charlie” alive might seem like a miracle, Michael soon realized that having “Commander Lannon” visiting could be an answer to a prayer.  If what she said was true, and so far, her actions and the actions of her people had shown it to be so, she had extensive military background and training.  He did not hesitate to ask her if she would help out in training the corps of Vega defenses.

After a brief discussion with Jenkins, her XO, Charlie had agreed.  She had explained that her troops trained in one form or another almost every day and that this would be a welcome diversion from their usual maneuvers. Michael had given her free rein to design the exercises, and had been pleased when she announced that today they would be working on a hostage-rescue type scenario, a situation that had occurred all-too-often recently.  Michael had even suggested the building they were now standing in.  In hindsight, that may have not been the best idea, as memories here were still strong.

Michael now stood with them in the center of the floor of the Coliseum, the early afternoon sun streaming through the doors on the far side of the building.  The Wildcats assembled on one side of the room numbered around 25 (he knew there were more but they rotated in and out of the city on patrol.)  His own people, closer to 50, included the first class of new recruits as well as some of the more seasoned Archangel Corps and regular army.  There would be something for everyone to learn here today. 

The first lesson was hubris.  Michael looked around the room at the assembled troops.  “It was over a year ago that the people of Vega collected in this space to witness a celebration,” he started, his voice strong, reaching out to the corners of the huge space.  “Thousands of people dressed in their finest came here for a spectacle, to celebrate the great city of Vega.  I was here, up there,” he pointed to a luxury box. “I witnessed what happened that night, I saw the slaughter.  But more than that, I saw what caused it – no, not an eight-ball, but arrogance.  One man’s arrogance in thinking that he could tempt fate.  A city’s arrogance because they were too comfortable behind their walls.  We had all forgotten that there is always something out there that is trying to take it away.  We simply cannot afford to make that mistake again.  It’s not only the eight-balls that we are fighting now; we are fighting for our very existence.”

Commander Lannon walked to the center of the group.  “The archangel is right, this isn’t a game we’re playing here, this is reality, and what you do or don’t do can mean your life or the life of the person next to you.  That’s why we go through these simulations, to give you the opportunity to make mistakes here and learn now so you can do the right thing when the time comes. 

“I know that we’ve got a lot of different experience levels here so we’re going to pair you up, new recruit with someone with more experience.  However, I want all of you actively participating – no holding back.  In fact, I’ve decided that we’re going to make this as realistic as possible.  Short of live ammunition, this will be a full-contact exercise.  We’ll be using our laser sights and body nets to register hits, but when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, it will be no holds barred until you are given the code-word.  Muscle memory is a powerful learning tool – you may hate me when we’re done here today, but you will never forget it.   Do you understand?”

Stunned looks went around the room.  No one had ever trained the Vega troops like this before.

“The Wildcats with the red armbands will be the aggressors.  Obviously in real life, you won’t be able to tell that easily who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy, but we’ll give you this one this time.  I’ve also asked Michael to step in – as an aggressor. You will be going up against an archangel, and I’ve asked him to follow the same rules as the rest of us – no holds barred.”

The silence was complete.

“The last thing – I will be taking the role of hostage.  It will be your job to get me out alive.  There are a number of us who will be evaluating your performance, but the most important thing about this exercise is to learn.  I’m going to walk out of this building just fine, but the next time you’re faced with a situation anything like this, that result isn’t guaranteed. 

“This is not a short drill – it will go until completion, or whenever all of you are deemed out of commission.  When we’re done, we’re going to meet in the mess hall and the beer’s on me – alright, maybe one or two of you will be going to the infirmary first, but still, I’m buying.”  There was an awkward rumble of laughter.  “We’re going to sit down there and go over what everybody did right and what they did wrong, and everyone is going to learn from it, including me, alright? 

“Ok, everyone outside for your assignments, we commence in five.  Jenkins, make sure they all get out so I can get in position and then you know what to do.”

“Yes, mum,” he answered, then faced the group.  “Group leaders have assignments, meet with them.  Oh, the commander neglected to tell you one item – we’re going to be doing this in the dark.”

 

 

Alex hunkered down in a hall on the third level of the promenade, his rifle tucked against the side of his head, trying to make himself as small as possible.  Beside him, his partner, a slight, dark-haired woman with fear in her eyes and nothing on her shoulder patches, did her best to take up the very same space as he was.  It might be against the laws of physics, but that wasn’t stopping her.  They had little cover behind a marble pillar in the middle of a wide-open space and they could hear footsteps approaching.

The darkness around them was almost complete, but not perfect.  Tiny emergency lights spaced at intervals in the halls gave a ghost of illumination, just enough to show the difference between a wall and an arm. 

Alex swore silently to himself.  It was difficult to remember that this was only a war game and that they weren’t actually attempting to rescue a hostage while trying not to get killed.  He was drenched in sweat, his back was cramping, his head hurt from trying to see in the dark and he’d bumped into more things than he could remember.  Add to that the strange tingle that came from the laser net vest he wore, the sensor that would record a “hit” made by one of the special gun sights they had been equipped with by the Wildcats.  He’d seen one of his men take a “hit” and it looked like it hurt, not as bad as a real gunshot but enough to incapacitate him for a minute or two. 

Romana, his partner, squeezed his shoulder tight. She didn’t know what to do and wanted him to decide.  Either they would stay and chance being seen or…  For about the hundredth time he wished that she was Noma and not this stranger.  Noma would instinctively know what to do, not need to be told, to be guided.

But right now, Noma was more lost than this woman would ever be.

He gritted his teeth and motioned her to the left; he would go right around the pillar.   One way or another, it was time to get this show on the road, time to demonstrate to this recruit what being Archangel Corps was all about. 

Alex leveled his sight as he fell to the floor, making the instantaneous decision of friend or foe and letting off four well-placed “rounds.”  Three of the four laser bursts were hits, two of them centered on one of the Wildcats’ torso.  The soldier went down moaning, clutching at the laser net that sparked and shimmered around her chest. 

One of the other “hits” was a glancing shot off of the other Wildcat, catching him just on the edge of the shoulder as he turned to duck.  The vest he wore also sparked, but not nearly as vibrantly as his companion’s.  He tumbled to the floor and started reaching for the weapon that had dropped out of his hand when he had taken the hit.

With an unexpected but tremendous yell, Romana launched herself at him, springing through the air and landing on his chest.  She threw two rapid punches that put the young man back on the ground with his eyes rolling back in his head.  Finishing the task, she kicked his weapon out of his reach.

Her hand was raised to strike him again when Alex ran up to grab it.  “Romana!  Eagle, eagle!!” he yelled, using the code word.  “Stop!  You’re going to kill the guy, it’s just an exercise!  At ease!”

“Oh, shit.”  The young woman stumbled off her captive, nearly falling on the ground herself.  “I got caught up in it.”  She tried to stand at attention but even in the dim light Alex could tell that her body was shaking.  “Sorry, Captain.”

“No, you did great.  They said gloves off,” he offered, giving her shoulder a little rub.  He shot her a sideways look.  “Just, from now on, save it for the actual bad guys, ok?  You’re tougher than you look.”

She grimaced.  “Four older brothers.”

He nodded and jerked his chin toward the two forms on the floor.  “We took these guys fair.  They owe us some intel, don’t you think?”

 

 

Thirty minutes later, Alex and Romana were gathered near a storage closet behind the amphitheater.  Alex had been pleased to see that Ethan Mack had been one of the first to respond to the radio call for support.  The other four were regular army, and at least one of them had a couple of stripes to show for it. 

They huddled together, voices low, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, spaced between the emergency lights so as not to be seen.  Alex looked around at the shadow faces.  “The commander is in the media room 200 yards down this hall and to the right.  There are two guards posted 100 yards down the hall and two immediately outside the room.  They all have night-vision glasses which means they’re vulnerable to bright light.  I found some flashlights in this closet.  We’re going to have four people on flashlights and two on sniper – blind them first then take them out.  Take out the first two then go as fast and quietly as possible, and take out the others before they have a chance to react.”

One of the new recruits raised a hand tentatively.  “Why don’t we take the night vision goggles from the first two and use them?”

“I thought about that,” Alex admitted, “but I don’t think we’ll have the time.  The door guards are going to hear the commotion, they’re going to know something’s going on.  We need to take them out immediately and get to the objective.

“Romana here,” he looked proudly at his new partner, “managed to climb up into the ducts and get a look into the media room.  There are six inside with the commander.  They have lights in there so the flashbang thing won’t work.  I’m sending her back up there to come in from above.  How long do you need?”

Romana checked her watch.  “Five minutes if I go fast, seven if I’m as quiet as last time.”

“Take seven.  We don’t want to give ourselves away. Are you sure you can get in?”

“No problem.  Air ducts like that kick in really easy.  I’ve been crawling around in them for years getting away from…” She left the sentence unfinished. 

Alex knew that in the cover of darkness, her pretty face was blushing.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.  “There are a lot of interesting skills a V-1 learns in Vega.  Get going.  We’ll coordinate for 20 after.”

She smiled, only her teeth and the whites of her eyes showing in the dimness, then she scampered off to the storage closet and the way she had found into the ductwork.  Alex took back all of the uncharitable thoughts he had had about her; she was a brave, capable soldier wrapped up in a skinny, fierce package. 

 

 

They set up their assault, timed it to start a minute before Romana arrived, and got into position.  Alex looked at the three new recruits.  Even in the dark, he could see the fear in their faces, and this was only practice.  What would they do when they were faced with the real thing?  Granted, this was more intense than almost any tactical exercise he had ever done, and he had to consciously remind himself that it wasn’t real time and time again.  They were going on their third hour now; his mind was reeling with possible scenarios and he was just waiting for Michael to show up and kick their collective asses.

Ethan gave a tiny chirp and it was time to go.  As planned, Alex and Ethan, with more experience, would man the rifles while the others carried the high-powered flashlights, forming a phalanx in front of the gunners.  Two sets of three, moving along the walls.  The gunners would look only through their laser scopes.  Lights on, shoot, lights off, allowing everyone to keep as much of their night vision as possible.  It was risky, but it was the best shot they had with the equipment at hand. 

With his heart pounding in his head, Alex signaled for the group to begin.  Ethan gave him a toothy grin from the other side of the hall and they started running silently.  It was tempting to shout, to scream, but it wasn’t that kind of an assault.  Instead, as they neared the sentries, the oversized flashlights burst on nearly simultaneously, bathing the hallway in white and sending overwhelming brilliance into the eyes of the men in night vision goggles. 

It was almost too easy.  Looking only through their scopes, Alex and Ethan put two laser rounds into each of the guards and sent them tumbling to the floor, twitching in pain.  The lights switched off again and the group hurried past.  Alex looked down, recognizing one of the men as the motorcycle rider who had risked his life at the helicopter crash.  “Sorry,” he whispered, feeling a bit guilty.

The two soldiers outside the door had been alerted when they had seen the flash of light spilling from down the hall, but not enough to remove their headgear.  They were on their guard when Alex’s group arrived and managed to get off a couple of shots before the flashlights hit them, too.  One of Ethan’s men went down, but his partner grabbed his light and focused it on his target.  This battle took longer, Alex was almost hit, but in the end the door was free and clear.

Alex checked his watch.  Perfect.  They gathered at the door, flashlights traded for rifles, everyone set.  He glanced down at the Wildcat writhing on the floor nearest him, read the name on his pocket – Plummer. 

He banged on the door.  “It’s Plummer!” he yelled, his voiced purposefully strained.  “We’ve got problems”

The door cracked open and that was all they needed.  Alex’s group stormed in.  With the initiative, they were able to laser hit two of the guards inside immediately, and Romana burst through the ventilator to take out another.  One of the new recruits went down and Ethan took a laser hit to his left shoulder but still managed to punch one of the other guards across the jaw.  Romana jumped another of the Wildcats, her arms around his throat. The fight was furious and real, neither side wanting to accept defeat.  Finally, Alex looked around and shouted “That’s it!  Eagle! Eagle!”

A cool voice spoke in his ear as the muzzle of a gun pushed against the side of his head.  “I’m sorry, Alex.  We’re not done.”

 

 

Michael ran up to the open door of the media room and stopped, shocked into immobility.  Alex had made it this far but this wasn’t the scene the archangel had expected to find.  Instead of Charlie as hostage, it was now Alex.  The commander’s left arm snaked around the young man’s neck and held him tightly.  Her son was a bit taller than she was but it didn’t matter, her hold was one of an experienced fighter and Alex was not easily going to get away.

It was the Colt 1911, however, that horrified him.  There had been no handguns issued for this exercise, only the rifles modified for the laser targeting – no live ammunition allowed.  The archangel could tell from the gleaming nickel finish that this was the commander’s own weapon; she had broken the rules, changed the game.

Now she held it to her son’s temple.  Michael’s eyes locked with hers across the room and he saw only cold calculation.  It chilled him to the core.

Before he could act, she raised her voice.  “Everyone, weapons down, hands up!”  They complied without hesitation, as confused as he was.   “Congratulations, you’ve just failed, and your squad leader is dead.”

Just as Michael was about to rush her, she pulled the gun away from Alex’s head and holstered it.  The immobilizing grip slipped down onto her son’s shoulders and into more of an embrace. She leaned in and whispered in his ear.  “Is this what I have to do to hug my boy?”

As she let him go, Alex stepped back.  His expression was as dumbfounded as most of the rest of the room.  Michael was at his side in a heartbeat.  “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, fine.  You didn’t know about that?”

“No.  That was not in the plan.”  Michael’s face was stern.  It would seem that Charlie was still full of surprises.

The commander had taken a position in the middle of the room and was talking on the radio.  They could hear the lights and air conditioning starting up throughout the building. 

“Alright everybody,” she began, “we’re going to debrief in the mess hall with the rest of the group, but I want to tell you what just went down here right now, so you have it fresh in your memory.  First of all, you did a great job, right up until the end.  Having someone up in the ductwork was brilliant – yes, I knew you were up there but I’m paid to think that way.  Who was that?”  Romana raised her hand and the commander went over and shook it.  “Very well done, and you’re a new recruit, too?  Excellent work.

“Now we get to the problem.  When it came to your final assault, every single one of you failed to identify and secure your objective first, in this case, the hostage.  There are a number of possible scenarios that would have bearing on your actions.  For example; the hostage is already dead and so the risk to personnel is not as necessary.  Or, the hostage is in imminent danger with a gun to her head or similar situation, this will also mediate your actions.  Or, as in this case, we have an example of Stockholm Syndrome, where the hostage has become sympathetic to her kidnappers and taken up their cause.  Prior to your initial actions, you should have recognized that I was not at all confined to my chair, my hands were not tied, and in fact, I had a gun in my lap.  As you can see, failure to identify this type of anomaly can get people hurt or killed.  The important lesson here is to never assume anything.  Friendly fire can kill, your allies can turn on you and what looks like a sure-fire situation can go to shit in a split second.  Always be on your guard.  That’s how Jenkins and I got to be old enough to have grey hair.

“Alright then, let’s wrap this up here and meet at the mess, we’ve got a lot to go over and the beer is waiting.  But seriously, overall, well done.”

Alex and Michael were still standing near the door.  The younger man shook his head.  “She’s right; I never said or did anything about securing the hostage.  We assumed that she would just be sitting there waiting.”

“She did say there were lessons for everyone to learn.”

“Any for you?”

“I don’t think it would be a good idea to underestimate your mother.”

“Is that the politician or the archangel talking?”

The corner of Michael’s mouth curled up while he flexed his hands and shoulders.  “Both.  Although the archangel was very happy to get out and actually do something today.”

They were moving out into the hallway when Alex’s earpiece buzzed.  Ethan, now recovered from his laser hit, felt the same.  Since they had been on a select maneuver, they were off the regular Archangel Corps radio broadcast, but this was an emergency signal.  Both men signed on.

Michael immediately recognized the situation.  He watched as Alex listened in to the broadcast, watched as his face changed from confusion to concern to anger.  “What is it?”

“It’s Gabriel,” Alex answered, his voice thick with both irritation and unease.  “He’s down in the Fountain Square.  There’s a man there with a gun.  He wants to kill your brother.”

 

 

The Fountain Square was situated in a valley not far from the coliseum in one of the rare lower elevations in the city.  It had previously been the site of a small casino, but when the planners of Vega had drawn up their personal vision of Utopia, it was more important to have a constant reminder of how they had brought water to this city in the desert than to create something like affordable housing for the lower V-ranks.  Thus, the casino had been torn down and a ten-meter fountain installed – without wading pool, of course, because that might have been used by the lower ranks for something as banal as bathing.

The fountain splashed onto a large circlet of cement that had been engraved with the names of the brave men and women who had originally fought to keep the city free.  A nice touch, until someone noticed that the water was slowly wearing away the memory of all those courageous souls. 

Around the circlet was an open space and benches that were more often than not completely empty.  Today, however, a collection of people was gathering around the edges like buzzards to a kill. At the center, just out of the spray of the fountain, four figures stood, an odd tableau of men and angel.

As soon as he had heard the news, Michael had rushed from the media room of the coliseum, followed closely by Alex and Ethan.  Alex had caught his mother’s eye.  “We have to go, there’s someone trying to kill Gabriel.”

Her face had blanched but the command response was instantaneous.   “Where?”

“Fountain Square, not far.”

“We’re coming, you lead.”

Now they stood clustered above the square in a grove of unlikely trees, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible for 75 people.  Another training exercise, another hostage rescue, but this time the stakes were much, much higher.

Alex, Ethan and Michael and Charlie moved toward the edge of the hill.  The scene was set below them:  Gabriel and his two guards stood facing another man.  They couldn’t see details of the fourth man, his back was to them, but it was obvious that he was older, dressed in rags, and that he held a gun toward the archangel’s head.

“Why doesn’t his detail shoot?” Ethan asked.  “They can’t miss.”

Michael watched, his head cocked to the side.  Gabriel had his hands spread wide, pushing the two guards back.  He was saying something.

“He has a bomb,” Michael said.  “Strapped to his chest.”

Charlie was incredulous.  “You can hear him from this distance?”

“Yes, if I concentrate.  The man blames Gabriel for his son’s death.  Gabriel is trying to get his guards to back away; he doesn’t want them caught in the blast.”

“Neither do I.”  Alex thumbed his comm.  “Archangel Guard, this is Captain Alex Lannon.  Back off, I repeat, back off.  Get those bystanders out of there, we don’t know how big a blast it might be.”  He looked at Michael.  “I’m sorry, I have to worry about the other people first.”

“I understand.”  He also understood Alex’s mixed emotions about his father. 

The commander’s feelings were not as confused.  She called up two of her snipers, speaking in low tones.  “Pick a spot and paint the old man, repeat, the old man only, NOT the archangel.  You have permission for live rounds when I give the word.  Go.”

The pair hurried away to find a clear line of sight, pulling radios and earpieces out of pockets while their commander did the same. 

Michael pushed his way toward her.  “What are you doing?”

“When we can get a clear shot and determine there’s no dead man switch on that bomb, we’ll take the hostile out,” she explained calmly, trying to soothe him.  “No one else gets hurt.  If you can hear Gabriel, can he hear you?  Can you ask him about the bomb?  Does the guy have a switch in his hand?”

Michael had to admit that it was a valid plan.  “I can ask.”  He paused, watching his brother’s gaze move away from his captor and up the hill.  It travelled from him, to Alex and his mother, then back down to the man with the gun.  Gabriel pointed over the man’s shoulder, held his hand up to stay some action, then threw his hands to the sides and let them drop.  The old man’s arm shook, the gun wobbling dangerously as it pointed at Gabriel’s head.

Then unexpectedly, they both walked toward one of the benches.  They sat down with the archangel on the other side, the broad expanse of his back completely obscuring the other man’s body.  Michael let out an exasperated breath.

“What the hell is he doing, having a chat?” the commander begged.  “He’s just ruined any chance of a clean shot!”

“He knows, he heard you,” Michael spat out between clenched teeth.  “He did it on purpose.”

“Is he trying to get himself killed?”

“I don’t know, perhaps.  He’s always been reckless.”  He tilted his head to the side and listened some more.  “They’re talking.  The man lost his son early in the war…he was just a boy…”

“Oh, god,” the commander sighed, running her hand over her face.  “David.”

“You know about him?”

“A little.  Enough.”

Michael listened again.  “Gabriel is remorseful, no, more than that, he says that the boy’s blood is on his soul.  He understands the man’s pain.  He wants to atone.”

“This isn’t the way.”  She looked up and spoke louder, toward the fountain.  “This isn’t the way.  This won’t make it right, Gabriel.”  She saw the archangel’s head lift; he could hear her.  “Your death won’t change anything; it won’t bring that little boy back.  You can’t atone by dying, you can only do it by living, by making a difference.”

The seconds stretched.  Nothing seemed to be happening and whatever discussion was going on near the fountain was now too low for Michael to hear.  Voices called in the commander’s ear, asking for instructions.  She yanked the earpiece out, there was nothing to be said. 

Alex, too, received word via his radio.  Other Archangel Corps had arrived and the civilians that had congregated were being disbursed.  He came up to his mother and Michael.  “We’ve got another sharpshooter on the other side.  They’ve got a clean shot.”

“We still don’t know about a dead man switch.”

“They’ve cleared out the gawkers.  It’s only us now.”

The commander made a decision and raised her voice.  “Everyone fall back.  We’re not going to take any chances.  You too, Alex.”

As the troops hurried away from the hilltop, she looked back and saw Gabriel rising from the bench, his arm around his captor.  “Damn it, he heard me again.”

Gabriel’s wings flexed out and wrapped around the old man.

Alex tapped his comm.  “Abort fire, I repeat, abort fire!  Do not shoot!”

Michael shouted out “Gabriel, no!” but it was too late.  The archangel shot up into the sky, carrying his captor with him.  All that remained was a gun sitting on the stone bench.

“What is he doing?” Charlie cried.  “Where is he going?  That guy still has a bomb strapped to his chest!”

“I don’t know,” Michael answered furiously, unfurling his wings.  “But I’m going to find out.”

 

 

Charlotte paced in front of the windows of the apartment, stopped, stared out into the glittering darkness, and started pacing again.  She’d done all she could to try to calm her nerves but they were having none of it.  Her usual workout hadn’t done the trick, nor had some meditation she’d learned long ago.  Now she stood in tank top and shorts contemplating the bottle of Macallan.  Unfortunately, she expected it would take most of the bottle to get her overworked mind to settle down, and that was a waste of exquisite scotch.

She didn’t need it.  She knew Gabriel was alright, he had to be alright or Michael would have come and told her otherwise.  Damn those self-righteous archangels, and damn herself for caring. 

After Michael had flown off, it had taken every bit of her years of compartmentalizing and sublimating to get through the scheduled debriefing of the HRT exercise.  First had come a quick wrap up of the “Gabriel situation” – the archangels had supposedly taken the obviously deranged man away and dealt with him properly.  Only Alex knew that this was a fabrication based on hope rather than fact. 

Then she and her team had done a primary dissection of the hostage rescue training.  The men and women from Vega had done well, better than she had expected.  There were many lessons to be learned, and there would be a second debriefing, but she knew that it was best to go over things when they were fresh in peoples’ minds.  She saw only a few bruises and bandages so the hand-to-hand combat must have been kept to a minimum.  The laser vests were generally regarded with evil looks, so that meant they had worked, and more than a few people had experienced the laser “hits.”  Similar to an old-fashioned Taser shot, they were short, painful and most of all, memorable.   Those mistakes would not happen again.

They recounted the final moments in the media room for all to hear, both the highs and the lows, and Alex was gracious in admitting his failure to take all possibilities into consideration.  She had felt his eyes on her throughout the entire meeting, and she knew he wondered what she was thinking.

Eventually she’d left the group with Jenkins with orders to buy a couple of rounds of drinks.  The exercise had been difficult and the expense was worth it to build camaraderie.  If her mind had not been elsewhere, she would have stayed and joined them.

Instead, she was here, pacing, brooding, imagining every bad thing that could have happened and hating herself for it.  She silently cursed herself again – this was not why she had come to Vega.

Finally, she heard the whoosh of wings and the sound of feet landing on the balcony.  As much as part of her wanted to rush out to meet him, another part held her rooted in place.  Gabriel walked through the glass doors as if nothing was wrong, smiling, eager to see her.

The first thing she noticed was that he was not wearing his armor or even the leather coat or tunic, but instead wore a long sleeve shirt of some kind of material that perfectly draped every angle of his body.  It was the last straw.  She’d been waiting here for hours, how dare he finally arrive and look so good, so completely normal?

It only took her three steps to reach him but her hand drew up far earlier.  Early enough that Gabriel could easily grasp her wrist before it reached his face. 

The smile fell away when he saw the fury in her eyes. “You’ve struck me once before,” he responded coolly.  “You shan’t do it again.”

As if to test him, she raised her other hand, but he caught that one too.  He could feel her body trembling with rage. 

“You son of a bitch,” she spat out.  “I didn’t know if you were alive or dead.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” he quipped, pulling her hands to the side.

She ignored him, tried to yank her hands away.  “Why did you leave the fountain?  You had no backup.”

“You were going to shoot that man.  He was an innocent.”

“Hell yeah we were going to shoot him!  He wasn’t innocent, Gabriel, he was trying to kill you!”

“He was justified.  I killed his son.  The man was mad from grief, he knew no other course.”

“That doesn’t give him the godda –” She stopped, stopped struggling.  Instead, her fingers reached out to touch the soft material of his sleeve.  “Gabriel.”  Her mind reeled against the thought that had forced its way through.  “Where’s your armor?”

He released her and took a step back.  “About time for a different look, don’t you think?”  His voice was light but there was the unmistakable air of a guilty child about him.  “New attitude, new armor.  I’ve already started on the design.”

Charlotte breathed deeply.  She felt nauseous.  “That nut detonated, didn’t he?”

“Well…yes,” he admitted.  “It wasn’t a very effective bomb. The armor took the brunt of it but it will sadly never fight again.”

“Seriously?”  She couldn’t believe how blithe he sounded.  “Gabriel, this isn’t some prank.  The man tried to kill you.”

“As I said, he was justified.”

“Don’t you understand?  So are a hundred thousand other people out there who would gladly see you dead.  You’re never going to be –”   She threw her hands in the air in exasperation and turned away.  “I can’t do this.  Not again.  No, don’t.”  His fingertips ran over her forearm as she flinched away.  “I don’t understand you, where did this death wish come from?  Yesterday you were ready to take on Lucifer by yourself, save the planet and everyone, and today you’re willing to throw your life away for one man?  I don’t get it, Gabriel.”

He moved around to face her, his expression earnest but with growing frustration.  “I did not do it for one man, I did it for you and for Alex, to show you what is in my heart.”

“Don’t try to put this on me.”  She waved him off.  “I’m not going to sit by and wait for the day you decide that it’s time for you to pay for your sins.  I can’t do that.”

Gabriel stood quietly for a moment, his mind flooded with thoughts.  He had tried to prove himself worthy of her and their son, to make reparations for one of the six billion deaths he was responsible for and ended up adding yet another instead.  After all the carnage of the last two decades, he’d been surprised by how much the old man’s death had affected him, but he had hidden it.

Now, he realized, the incident had affected Charlotte just as much, but for completely different reasons.  Her eyes shone with unshed tears, radiated with silent fear.  Her mouth was tight and determined. 

“Are you saying you would…leave me?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t want to, but I will.  I can’t watch you try to commit suicide day after day all in the name of some kind of penance.”  A single tear fell out of the corner of her eye and down her cheek and she brushed it away angrily.  “I’d rather walk away than lose you again.”

The archangel weighed her words for a time.  “No.”

Charlotte was thunderstruck.  “What?”

“No.  You will not leave.”

“You can’t say that.  You can’t make me stay here!”  She tried to push past him.

Without warning Gabriel’s wings erupted into full spread and she was halted in midstride.  “I can, and I must.”  His voice was reserved and deliberate, but his patience was wearing thin.

He reached for her but she shied away, horrified.  “Let me go!”

“I cannot do this without you!” he roared, his features twisted in exasperation and anger.  He rose to his full height, his wings looming over her like a huge shroud. 

Charlotte’s mind worked to try to get past the physical fear, to understand what he was saying, but all she could see was those great, black wings.

He grasped her shoulders and pulled her roughly to him, but he could see that in his frustration he’d gone too far; she was no longer afraid for him, but of him.  “You are the key,” he tried to explain.  “If you leave, Alex will never trust me enough to fight alongside me, and we will have no chance against Lucifer.”

“Then I’m a prisoner?”

“No!” he protested, horrified at the accusation.  “Never!” 

He released her and turned violently away – how had it all gone so wrong?  Slowly, his head bowed and his eyes closed, his face was hot and his fists were clenched at his sides; he felt a perfect fool. Hoover Dam in miniature, when would he learn?

This day had been a spectacular disaster.  He’d been held at gunpoint, blown up, had a man die in his arms, lost his favorite armor, and irritated this woman to the point of violence.  Now she feared him and thought he was keeping her captive.  He could sense her behind him, stepping away, ready to bolt for the door.  Michael had called him reckless; he so hated when his brother was right.

He breathed deeply, trying to calm himself.  

When he opened his eyes again, they fell on the green silk robe she had tossed off, still strewn across a chair.  He remembered how she had said she didn’t belong in silk, how she should be in shorts and a t-shirt.  Now, for all intents and purposes she was, better dressed to race away from him as fast as her feet could carry her.

His hand reached for the robe, fingering the soft fabric, and his mind cast back to that emerald dress so many years ago.  A simpler time.  They could have had all of these years together if he had not let his mistrust and pride get in their way…

The robe had a twisted silk cord for a belt, two thick strands wound around each other.  He stared at it, his mind following a hundred different paths. 

He grasped it, pulling it out of the loops, twining it around his fingers. 

Reckless indeed.

Charlotte watched him warily, automatically going through a dozen lines of attack and escape even as she tried to make sense of what was going on.  His back to her, she thought she could see his wings trembling in the low light of the table lamp, their iridescent purples and greens twinkling in the depths of the blackest black.  They were so beautiful, and so frightening. 

Suddenly he turned around and was in front of her, standing close.   Gabriel grabbed her hand and took it in his.

“Let me go,” she said again, but this time her voice was low, hostile.  She yanked her arm back but he only held on tighter.  “Let go.”

Instead of doing that, the archangel took the cord he had pulled off the robe and began deliberately tying it around her hand. 

“What are you doing?”

“Something I should have done a long time ago.”  He looped the belt once, then twice.

“Gabriel?”  A note of panic was starting to creep into the commander’s voice.  She had been in a great many battles and fights, but never encountered anything like this.

He finally raised his gaze up to her, his brow was furrowed, his steel-grey eyes intense.  “I am trying to salvage something of this day.”

“By tying me up?”

“No,” he replied.  Then he paused, thought a moment and raised an eyebrow.  “Well, maybe later.”  It came out in a low purr.

Charlotte was completely bewildered.  First, he was threatening, and now he was teasing her?  She looked down at the green silk wrapped around her – no, their hands.

Wait, why…

Her heart skipped a beat. 

He held out one end of the cord.  “I will not make you stay, Charlotte, but I will ask you to. I believe tradition holds that three loops ‘round will bind us.  It is your choice; do I go around the third time or not?”

She stared at him for a moment, dumbfounded, then looked down at the cord encircling both their hands.  He was talking about a handfasting ritual.  An ancient ritual. 

A marriage ritual. 

Finally, she found her voice.  “You realize this is the worst proposal ever.”

He was silent.

“I’m in a tank top and a pony tail.  This isn’t exactly how I envisioned things.”

He shrugged and still said nothing, but she’d seen that look before, that look of temptation, so difficult to resist.

“And I’m furious with you.”

“I doubt this will be that last time I earn your wrath.”  He reached up and untied the ribbon that held up her hair, pulling it down to frame her face.  Her eyes still sparked with intensity and her cheeks were flushed, she looked especially vibrant and alive.  “I think that you’ve never been more beautiful.”

A sigh of exasperation left her lips as she shook her head.  The last thing she’d expected on this trip was a quickie Vegas wedding.  This was so not in the plans.

“Give me that.”  She grasped the cord and yanked it tight, wrapping it a third time and finishing it with a half hitch.  “There, now you’re stuck with me.”

Gabriel laughed, a joyous, carefree sound.  His free arm reached up behind her head and he wrapped their joined hands behind her back, pulling her in so close the breath was forced from her chest.  He kissed her fiercely and she couldn’t help but to do the same, holding tight.

Finally, Charlotte pushed herself away. “If you think this changes anything, you’re wrong,” she panted in a husky voice.  “I’m still mad at you.”

“Of course you are,” he said with a wicked grin, and swept her up in his arms, light as a feather.  He felt as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders, a wrong finally set right.  This was the way things should be, how they should have been for years.  Charlotte could be mad at him for days, but it wouldn’t matter, it was only proof of her feelings for him.  He kissed her again as he carried her toward the bedroom. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

 

Michael sat at the table in the apartment that he shared with Alex.  The morning sun was peeking over the surrounding buildings, but he had been sitting there for more than a little while.  Sometime after midnight pacing had lost its charm and he had chosen one of the chairs that faced the windows and set up camp there. 

Eventually, he had picked an orange out of the bowl of fruit in the center of the table.  Oranges had always been one of his favorites, neat, orderly, well contained.  Of course, he had known Father’s original creation, small little nuggets of sunshine, not these genetically enhanced navel behemoths that the architects of Vega chose to grow.  Still, he enjoyed them, and started to absent-mindedly peel the one in his hand. 

Once again, he played the last few days over in his memory – Charlie’s arrival, Gabriel’s confession, Alex’s near kidnapping, the truth about Alex’s paternity, and finally this latest stunt of Gabriel’s, almost getting himself killed. 

Then, for a moment, the archangel simply sat there, staring at the random pieces of orange peel on the table.  When he’d gone out looking for his brother, that’s what he had half expected to find, just random pieces, bits and shards of angel and man strewn across the desert.  Gabriel had been insane to fly off like that, taking the bomber with him. 

The scene hadn’t been as bad as Michael had expected.  It had been instead more of a tragedy, with Gabriel holding the traumatized body of the old man in his bloody arms, begging forgiveness from sightless orbs.  For a second, from the look on Gabriel’s face, Michael had wondered if he was going to once again lose his brother to madness.  He had pulled Gabriel off the ground, picked up the pieces of his shattered armor and healed his many wounds, at least the physical ones.  He was still not sure how deep the psychological scars ran.

That was it, he thought.  Putting his brother back together was like putting the skin back on this orange.  On the outside, it might look close to right, but the cracks were still there.  Gabriel had gone on to act as if nothing had happened, as if he had not done something immensely stupid, had not basically attempted suicide, and for what, to atone for his sins against one man? 

Gabriel had been especially mercurial lately, his moods swinging high and low, with one common denominator – Charlie.  She had an influence over his brother that worried him.  Michael understood their past relationship, even the bond that they now shared over Alex, but there was something else there that gave him pause. 

For a moment, it occurred to him that maybe there was nothing wrong at all, that maybe it was merely a matter of how he was seeing things.  Charlie had arrived and upset his entire world.  She’d laid claim to the boy Michael thought of as a son and then his brother had revealed this past relationship with her, something that seemed to still have hold on Gabriel’s fragile heart. 

Perhaps…perhaps he was simply jealous.

Michael set the fruit on the table and pushed it and the rind away.  He was no longer interested.

It was then that Alex walked into the room.  His uniform shirt was half-open and he was still running a towel through his hair, but he had the urgency of one who is already out the door.

“Oh, good, you’re still here,” he said, reaching toward the fruit bowl.

“Here, have an orange,” Michael offered disconsolately.

Alex gave him a questioning glance but still took the peeled fruit.  “David Whele cornered me last night.”

“He must have been feeling rather brave, given what you told me about your last time with him.”

Alex pulled off one of the orange sections and popped it in his mouth.  “I told him what I thought about him, big deal.  It’s the truth.” 

Michael silently agreed.  “What did he have to say to you last night?”

“I think he’s trying to get something going with my mother, I’m not sure what.”

“How so?”

“He asked me if he could take her to dinner, which was weird.”

Michael smiled.  “Actually, it’s rather old-fashioned.  As her only relative, he would ask you out of respect.  What did you say?”

“I wanted to say that if he touched her, I’d finish the job on his hand, but instead I told him that she didn’t need my permission.  She’s the last person who needs permission to do anything.”

“I’d have to agree.  Charlie has always been rather independent.”

“Yeah, maybe more than we thought.  He told me something else about her, I’m not sure whether to believe it or not.”

“What was that?”

“He said that she’s not just a group commander like that guy Jenkins.  She’s actually the commander of all of them, I mean, of all of her people, more like Commander-in-Chief.  Whele said there are over a hundred thousand of them scattered around in over a dozen different bases.  They’ve stayed hidden until recently but now they’re looking to trade, they have oil and gas.  He said he only heard about them in the last year and thought that it might be a rumor, but then she showed up here.”

“A hundred thousand humans we didn’t know about?”  Michael was stunned.  “And Charlie is their leader?”

“That’s what he said.”

The archangel was quiet for a few seconds.  “Do you believe him?”

“I don’t know.  I mean, it’s David Whele, he’s always got an angle he’s trying to work, but I don’t see what lying about this gets him.  If it’s true, then he can set up trade, but a lie doesn’t help anyone.  Still…”  He left the sentence unfinished.

“Yes, it is David.”  Michael finished it for him.  “Although he seems to be more altruistic recently, I think he can only truly be trusted when it comes to serving himself.  However, I believe you are correct, lying about something like this doesn’t serve him well.”

“He might be right.  When she and I went to dinner, there were a couple things she said.  She talked about the refinery they have, and things about leading and about taking over from this Colonel Andrews guy she talks about.  It made it seem like there were more than just the people we’ve seen.”

“Interesting.  Did she say how many?”

“No, but if Whele’s right, it’s a lot more.”

“Yes, quite a few more.”

Alex shrugged.  “I could ask her.”

“Perhaps,” Michael considered.  “It’s more important that you don’t appear to question her integrity, we need to protect your relationship with her.”

Alex didn’t expect this cautious answer from his friend.  Michael sounded less like himself and more like the members of the Council they regularly butted heads with.  “My relationship with her is that she’s my mom.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that she might not have another agenda.  Especially if this information is true, and she’s keeping it from us.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed.  Paranoia wasn’t his thing, but it had kept him alive more than once.  He finished eating the orange.  “I’m going to be late for another training session with her and one of her squads.  What am I supposed to do?”

“Say nothing for the time being.  Let me look into this further.”

“You don’t trust her.”

Michael was solemn.  “I don’t trust anyone anymore.”

 

 

Michael had asked Gabriel to meet him outside the war room.  Normally, he would have used his wings to send the message, but here, living with humans, it was just as simple to send it via the radios that Gabriel’s guards wore.  After yesterday, it was going to be much more difficult for him to slip their grasp.

The three of them arrived together, Gabriel seeming none the worse for the explosion the day before, and the two Archangel Corps guards looking just as uncomfortable as they always did around their charge.  Michael dismissed the escorts and took Gabriel aside.

“Yes, brother, you called?”  Gabriel’s look was obsequious but completely disingenuous, his hands held out in mock servitude.  “What bidding would you have me do today?”

Michael was in no mood for his Gabriel’s jests and he ignored the comment.  “You look well."

His brother’s expression was enigmatic.  “Is that why you called me all the way over here?  I’m touched,” he said without sincerity.  “Well, yes, I’m fine, thank you for your concern.”

“I meant after yesterday –”

“Much happened yesterday,” Gabriel interrupted him.  “I won’t be hanging about with suicidal bombers anymore, if that’s your worry.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.  Yes, I’m pleased to hear that but...”  Michael faltered, unsure how to proceed.  “This morning, at our defense meeting.”

“Yes?  I’m not invited to those so you’ll have to clue me in.”

“I noticed…” Michael hesitated again.  How could he say that Charlie had walked in with a sense of calm that she hadn’t had before, or that with his angelic senses he could see a flush in her skin that hadn’t been there previously, that under the smell of her shampoo and soap, he could still recognize the scent of his brother.

Finally, he said merely: “The tea.”

“Tea, brother?”

“Yes, tea.  Charl – Commander Lannon was drinking it this morning.”

Gabriel wasn’t giving an inch.  “Isn’t tea a common morning beverage?”

“Yes, of course it was, but that was years ago.  I can’t think of even a V-6 that has had any in the last ten years, and yet there the commander was sipping a cup.”

Gabriel raised an eyebrow.  “Very interesting.  Perhaps you might ask her to share.”

“Don’t play games with me, Gabriel, I know you gave it to her.”

“What if I did?  We have a history, she’s the mother of my son, I can give her a gift if I want to.”

“It’s not your history I’m concerned about.”

Gabriel paused and looked at his brother.  “Just who is it that you’re worried about, Michael?  Charlotte…or me?”

Michael tried to look away but was suddenly grabbed by the front of his shirt and forced back.  Gabriel’s face was inches from his.  “Do you honestly think that I would harm her in any way?” he snarled through clenched teeth.  “After everything I’ve done to her, do you think I could ever hurt her again?”

“No, no,” Michael eased his brother’s hands from their grip.  “No, of course not.  I’m concerned, that’s all.  What do we really know about her?”

Gabriel shoved him away in disgust.  “Charlotte?  I know all I need to know.  Why would you suspect her of anything?  She’s Alex’s mother.”

“Which is all she’s told us.”  Michael remembered the calculating look she had given him while she held a gun to her son’s head.  It had only been an exercise, but in that instant the archangel had wondered if he had seen something deeper within the commander.  “I know that she is helping with Vega’s defenses, but she has not been truthful about her own.  She’s offered the flimsiest of explanations for her troops here and certainly been less than accurate about her actual position.”

“What ‘position?’  She’s a soldier, a commander, like this Jenkins chap.  This is her unit.”

“She’s the Commander, Gabriel.  Commander-in-Chief.  She leads them all, perhaps up to 100,000 humans, somewhere northeast.”

“No,” Gabriel said with disdain.  “No, where did you get this ridiculous notion?”

“David told Alex.”

“Whele?  That professional worm?  He lies like he breathes, every time he opens his mouth.”

“David Whele knows things, it’s how he gets what he needs.  I can’t see any benefit for him to lie about this.”  Michael put his hand on his brother’s arm.  “You’ve spent time with her, I want to know what she’s told you about herself and her people.  We need to know if they’re something to be concerned about.”

“The subject hasn’t come up.”  Michael’s eyebrow rose infinitesimally and Gabriel glared back at him. For a moment, Gabriel thought about telling everything, how he and Charlotte had rekindled their relationship, perhaps it would calm Michael’s fears, but then he saw the doubt in his brother’s glance. “We’ve discussed other matters,” was all he offered.

Normally this would have been the perfect opportunity for Michael to tease his brother, but this was not a normal time.  Nothing had been normal since Charlie had arrived.  “We need to know if this information is true.  Would you be willing to scout the areas David has information on?  I can’t leave, and it would take too long for anyone else to get there.”

“Why don’t you just ask her, Michael?”

Again, the simple answer, but the archangel was still uncomfortable.  “If she’s hiding the information, she’ll lie, and if she’s not, we’ll be offending an ally.  Neither is the kind of situation I want, but we need to know.”

“She could have a very good reason for not telling us.  Why distrust her?  You’re beginning to sound like a politician.”

Michael scowled. “Not by choice.  I simply can’t take the chance.”

Gabriel glanced through the doors of the war room to where Charlotte was sitting with half a dozen others, discussing another training exercise.  He hadn’t realized how comfortable she’d become with command but the evidence was in front of him; she looked at ease and in control and her mastery of tactics and warfare was formidable.  His brow furrowed as he watched her.  “Oh, little one,” he said quietly, “what have you been up to?”

As if she had heard him, she looked up and across the room.  She caught his eyes with a small, secretive smile before returning back to the group around her. 

Gabriel turned back toward his brother.  “I’ll have to make up some excuse why I’m leaving.  Best we have our stories straight.”

 

 

Gabriel met her outside the building an hour later after dismissing his “bodyguards” with threats of eternal damnation if they didn’t back off fifteen feet, just for a few minutes.  After the attack on him, they were loath to do as he requested, but the fires of hell were a potent motivator. 

As usual, the commander was surrounded by a retinue of soldiers, both her own and those from Vega.  She was becoming a bit of a celebrity.  “Commander Lannon,” he called out to her.  “May I have a minute of your time?”

Her face brightened when she saw him.  “Archangel, of course.  Please,” she motioned to her companions, “go on ahead, I’ll catch up with you in the mess hall.”

They both waited a moment for the others to leave.  Charlotte stood close to him, her voice low and sultry.  “Thank you for the tea, but I would have preferred to wake up to you.”

“Does that mean you’re not angry with me anymore?”

“Oh, no, I’m still mad at you,” she said with mock seriousness, “but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to wake up next to you.  And other things.”

Gabriel worked his jaw, trying to stay focused on what he was trying to say and not on the images from the night before that instantly appeared in his mind.  He would have given anything to continue what they had begun.  “Michael wants me to leave again,” he finally forced out.  Now that he was with her, his brother’s concerns didn’t seem to be as valid as they had been before.

“What – why?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not exactly popular in Vega.”

For a moment, she gave him an appraising look, the interrogator ready to begin.  Then, quite suddenly, her expression changed, she was frightened.  She took a step back and with visible effort composed herself, the soldier in control once more.  “Are you coming back?” she asked coolly.

Gabriel realized that this was exactly why she had been hesitant in their relationship; she still could not trust him.  “Yes,” he said definitely.  He leaned over and stroked her cheek with the side of his thumb, not giving a damn right now who saw, inwardly cursing his brother.  “I’ll be gone for two days, no more.”

She flashed a quick, relieved but embarrassed look.  “Not exactly a honeymoon if only one person goes on it.”

He laughed.  “I’ll make it up to you.”

“I’ll hold you to that.  Alright, I don’t like it but it will give me some more time with Alex.  Which reminds me that I’m supposed to be meeting him for lunch right now.”

“Please give our son my regards.”  The archangel’s tone was more than a little sarcastic.

“Oh, I’ll be sure to do that, I’m sure he sends his love.”  She shook her head.  Her hand reached out to his but then she pulled it back, clenching it into a fist.  “Be careful, okay?”

“I shall.” 

As he watched her walk away, he tried to make some order of his thoughts.  She was a complicated woman, but so genuine, so emotionally honest when they were together, he found it difficult to believe that she would be hiding some nefarious scheme.  However, Michael’s information had a ring of truth about it, as did his reasoning for not questioning her directly.  She had never said anything about all these people she supposedly led, and yet, if she did in fact, was it not her prerogative to protect them?

Just before she turned a corner, she looked over her shoulder and threw him a brilliant smile, a mischievous glint in her eyes that promised she would be eagerly waiting for him two days hence.

A sensual, beautiful, complicated woman.

His woman.

He sighed.  It would be good to be up in the air again.

 

 

David Whele was running late.  He’d never had this problem before, he’d been known for his punctuality, known for usually being early rather than on time, but now he was running late.  It was happening more and more often these days, and he wasn’t sure what to do about it.  He wasn’t sure he cared.

The biggest problem, of course, was transportation.  For the majority of his life, he’d either had his own car, or as Senator, a chauffeured vehicle of one type or another.  Now, he was reduced to walking everywhere.  Walking!  It took four times longer than he expected, it made his feet and legs hurt, it exposed him to the stares and glares of the general populace…

…and he loved it.  He’d spent so many years locked up in the ivory towers of Vega, towers he’d help build, that he’d missed seeing what a crazy, beautiful city it really was.  Even now, battered and beaten by wars and attacks, it was still vibrant and alive, a wild mish-mash of designs and styles that could only have happened in this town.  The people were working so hard to rebuild, soldiers alongside former diplomats alongside merchants alongside the poorest of the poor – sometimes his vision clouded up and things got a bit swimmy.  Vega would always be his city, he’d helped to build her and it hurt to see her broken and abused, but it made his heart swell to see how many people felt the same way he did, how many people wanted to make her whole again.

Now, however, he was late meeting with Michael in the war room.  It was a rare appointment; his relationship with the archangel was strained at best, so he hated to keep him waiting.  He’d tried to leave the hospital early, to give himself enough time to walk the five blocks, but as usual these days, he’d lost track of time. He stared down at his freshly bandaged hand – at least he didn’t have finger paint on it today, that was a less-than-professional look.

A self-satisfied grin spread across his face.  Every day since he’d returned from Helena, he’d gone to the hospital to have his hand rebandaged and for a little therapy.  That first day had been bad – the wound hurt, the tendons and ligaments refused to stretch and he had whined like a schoolgirl.  His therapist, disgusted, had thrown down his chart and told him to get out, that he had better things to do, then stormed across the room.  David had watched while the big man helped a child out of a wheelchair, adjusting braces and buckles, steadying the tyke while they wobbled toward a set of parallel bars.

It was a depressing sight.  The boy was only seven or eight, and from the damage that David could see to his legs, there was really no hope that he would ever walk on his own again, but the boy didn’t seem to know that.  Neither did the therapist.  Both of them worked the boy’s legs, struggling to make them move back and forth, sometimes through nothing but pure strength of will.  Every tiny accomplishment was greeted with cheers and high fives, every fall was downplayed, pushed through, put in the past.

The boy did little but work up a sweat, he didn’t walk, he could barely stand, but after an hour, the therapist sat him back in the chair with a congratulatory glass of juice.  They both looked remarkably satisfied.  David felt a complete ass.

The therapist wheeled the chair toward the elevator, past where David still sat.  He glared at him as they passed. “Are you still here?”

“Yes, I was…I was watching.”

The little boy was still beaming.  “Did you see?  I stood for two minutes, by myself!  That’s a record!”

“That’s wonderful, son.”  He could barely get the words out.

The boy saw his hand.  “What happened to you?”

“I – I had an accident.”

“Me too.”  The child was completely guileless.  “My name’s Sean.  Do you like puzzles?”

“Well, yes, Sean, yes I do.  I like puzzles very much.”

“I’m going to go do a puzzle now.  Do you want to come?”

David glanced up to see the protective glare of the therapist.  The man was not going to let anything happen to his small charge.

He looked down again at the boy, at his barely-grown-in hair, his pallid skin, the still-fading scars on the side of his head and face, the catheter still in his scrawny arm.  He’d been critically injured, probably in the hospital for months now, and yet he was so warm, so happy, so alive.

“Sean, I would love to do a puzzle with you,” the former consul had answered, “and please, call me David.”

Thus had begun his daily trips to the hospital, not only for his own therapy (which he now endured silently) but visits with Sean and Tamara, Peter and Kayla, Kait, Jonathan and any of the other children who wanted a companion to play a game with them, read them a book, paint, color or merely sit and listen. He had nothing to give them but his time, and they loved him for it.

They loved him.  Every night, he lay in his small apartment and went over his time at the hospital, remembering their little faces, trying not to think of his own children, trying not to dwell on the times he had lost chasing something that didn’t even matter.

Today he’d been doing another puzzle with Sean, a 500-piece picture of the Eiffel Tower, and they’d been so close to finishing.  Sean had looked at him with those big brown eyes, silently begging David not to leave, and it had worked; he’d stay past the time he planned to leave and no matter how fast he walked, he was going to be late.  He could only hope that Michael was too busy with Vega’s recent visitors to notice.

Which was why he had come to a full stop when he rounded a corner and found one of those visitors in conference with the archangel’s brother.  From what David had learned, Commander Charlotte Lannon was the reason he and the other occupants of the downed helicopter from Helena were still alive, and he was grateful.  He’d also found out that she was Alex Lannon’s long-lost mother. 

Then what was she doing with Gabriel?

David did not like Gabriel (well, truth was he wasn’t fond of any archangels, but Michael needed to be tolerated.)  The commander, however, had even more reasons to hate him.  According to his trusted information, she was the leader of quite a large settlement and Gabriel had been until recently trying to exterminate all of humanity – hence they’d been fighting each other for 25 years.  Gabriel had also been the one who had been trying the hardest to kidnap, kill or maim her son. 

What was she doing talking with the enemy?

Not only talking.  David tucked behind the corner of a building and watched them, his curiosity piqued.  After a few seconds, his mouth fell open; this was no casual meeting, no polite discourse between former foes.  Commander Lannon knew the archangel well, and vice-versa. Their exchange was purposefully reserved but he could read the emotion beneath.  Then he saw Gabriel reach up and gently stroke the side of the commander’s face. 

A lover’s touch.

The conversation broke apart shortly and each went their own way.  David leaned against the wall he’d been hiding behind, stunned. 

For his whole life, David Whele had been dealing in information.  He had bought it, sold it, bargained and traded it for whatever he had needed.  Even if it was supposedly the only true way to Heaven, it had still been about the information.  Now he had a piece of information that was so hot it would have burned his hand if he had written it down on paper.  Spontaneous combustion.

What would he do with it?  What could he do with it?  So far, he hadn’t been able to get very far with Alex’s mother.  He’d had nothing more than the briefest of introductions after the helicopter crash; that day her mind had been on her son and nothing else. 

Obviously, Alex hadn’t gone to her with the troop information that David had artfully dropped into his lap.  He’d expected that to bear some fruit but so far nothing.

That would change.  David had an agenda and a timetable.  Things needed to move forward.  He’d been feeling a little lost since his return from Helena, trying to feel out his place in the new Vega.  This, however, this was like a signpost from God (if he had actually believed in Him anymore,) like the “Start” block on the board games he played with the children in the hospital.

A light shone in his eyes that had been missing for quite some time, a spark that had dimmed glowed once more.

Let the games begin.

 

 

Jenkins stepped into the suite and dismissed the two guards who stood at the doorway to stand further down the hall.  While he was there, he felt little need for their close vigilance.  He would die before anyone would get through to his commanding officer, and he had no interest in dying today.  At the same time, he had also had no interest in anyone possibly overhearing what they were about to discuss. 

The commander walked out of the kitchen area with two steaming cups and handed one to him.  “I’m sorry I didn’t bring you some earlier,” she apologized.  “I didn’t realize that tea was just as rare here as it was at home or I wouldn’t have brought it down to the hall.”

Although he wondered where it had come from, her XO sipped at the hot liquid, closed his eyes and smiled.  “I can’t remember the last time I had a cup.  Reminds me of home.”

“I know.  I was never a coffee drinker, only tea.  I think it’s been at least a decade, maybe more.  Since we found that overturned grocery store semi.”

“The one at the bottom of the ravine?  It was like Father Christmas came that day, wasn’t it?”

She laughed.  “I’ve never seen grown men get so excited over bars of soap.”

“Real soap,” he corrected her.  “And razor blades.  We all looked and smelled good for at least two months.”

“And I think we had a baby boom about nine months later,” she grinned, then sobered.  “We’ve come to appreciate the simple things.”  She looked around the elegantly appointed apartment.  “It’s nice, but I’m not comfortable here.”

“But mum, you deserve a bit of niceness, more than just a cup of tea.”

“Thank you, Jenkins.  I’ll still be glad to get back home.”

“What about,” Jenkins started uncertainly, setting the cup on the table, “what about the archangel?”

The commander’s demeanor changed.  She became the tactician, the woman in the war room.  “Interesting that you should bring him up.  Has Mouse gotten back from Delphi?”

“She arrived last night.  Things went as expected; she’s verified the rumors about Julian, found out a couple of other things.  Nobody ever sees that wisp of a thing, she’s so small.  Best intelligence officer we’ve ever had.”

“Brave too.  I want to talk to her later today to get the details, then we’re going to turn her around and get her back there as soon as possible, but this time, she goes in the front door.  She’s going to be my emissary.”

“Emissary, mum?”

“Yes.”  She reached over to a side table and picked up a long alabaster box that lay nearby.  Opening it, she pulled out one gleaming iridescent black feather and held it up to the light.  For a moment, she twisted it between her fingers, watching the light reflect off it in magical blues and purples and greens, deep in thought.

Finally, she handed the feather to her first officer.  “It’s time we opened negotiations with Julian and I think this is our key.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

 

 

 

 

New Delphi

 

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.”

 

 

 

Vega

 

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.

Goddamned angels.

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.”

“That’s insane!”

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.

“Mom?”

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.”

“Your father.”

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.”

“Wh-what?”

“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 didWhy 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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Better angels.”

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…

A grandchild…

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.”

She nodded.

“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.”

“Impressive.”

“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?”

She nodded. 

“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?”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

 

 

 

The invitation arrived by messenger while Commander Lannon was at lunch.  She read it quickly, and then read it again, not completely believing what was written.

Mr. David Whele respectfully requests the honor of your company this evening at Le Chantecler Restaurant, 8 p.m. sitting.  Regrets Only.

Her heart thumped in her chest and the pain behind her sternum started up again.  She massaged it with the back of her hand, the note held in the other.  She read it a third and fourth time.

David Whele wanted to have dinner with her?

 

 

Charlotte was not surprised that Whele had picked Le Chantecler for their dinner; after all, he had previously been a V-6 and was obviously used to the finer things in life.  She was surprised, however, when he met her outside the door of the restaurant in a suit and tie that looked like they had seen better days.  His reputation had prepared her for something much more elegant. 

For herself, the commander had picked a jade green sleeveless dress with a high chiffon neckline and very little accent.  There were rumors about David Whele and his predilections; she didn’t want to give him any more encouragement than she had planned.  Besides, she was fairly sure he would recognize it as belonging to the late Becca Thorne.  With any luck, the memory would be disconcerting.

She released her escorts as Whele hailed her. 

“Commander Lannon, it’s a pleasure to finally have the opportunity to get to make your acquaintance.”

Charlotte put out her hand and then realized that her host’s was wrapped in bandages.  There was a moment of awkwardness before she decided on a brilliant smile instead.  “Yes, Mr. Whele, of course, the last time we met things were a bit more hectic.”

“Yes, well getting shot down in a helicopter will do that.  I can’t afford too many of those, I don’t have a tailor I can run to anymore.  And please, call me David.”

The comment was odd.  Charlotte wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a complaint or self-effacing.  “I’m pleased you weren’t injured, David,” she answered.

“I’m most pleased that your son was alright.  We can’t have anything happening to the Chosen One, can we?”

“No,’ she said, still unsure.  “No, we can’t.” 

They were just about to enter the restaurant when Charlotte heard a voice coming through the sounds of the city around them.  “Commander!”

Her blood ran cold.  No, not now, she silently cried, not now!

“Commander!”  the voice called again.

“I think he’s talking to you,” David noted. 

Again, she pulled out the brilliant smile.  “Yes, of course.  I’ll see what he wants, give me a moment.”  She turned quickly and hurried over toward where Gabriel was approaching, his two corpsmen a few feet behind.  “Archangel.”  Her tone was cool.  “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“I didn’t expect to see you.”  His glare never left Whele, still standing at the door of the restaurant.  His voice was tense, his words measured.  “I’m meeting Michael on the other side of the square.  What are you doing here?”

“I’m having dinner.”

“With him?”  The last word nearly dripped with disgust.  “How will you eat?”

She took a calming breath.  “Sometimes I need to be a diplomat, as difficult as that is.  From everything I’ve heard, David Whele still has connections I could use.  I have to think of the big picture.”

“Politicians, diplomats, it’s an infection,” the archangel rumbled quietly.  “I can get any information you want in five minutes, and then end the murdering bastard’s miserable life.”

She could see the anger and the hurt in his face, and she knew that the only reason it didn’t show in her own was because she had buried it deep down inside.  “I know, I feel the same way, but for now, we have to play the game.  If Alex can do it, so can we, right?”  She wanted to reach out to him, do something to soothe his anger, but she couldn’t, not here, not now.  “I’m sorry, I have to go, I don’t want to keep him waiting.”

A low growl came from Gabriel’s chest.  “You’re wearing green again.”

“Yes, I am.”  Her eyes teased as she looked at him over her shoulder, walking away.  “But not for him.”

David Whele was holding the door open when she came back and they entered into the foyer.  “I hope there was nothing wrong.”

“Oh, no,” she said lightly.  “You know archangels, they think anything they have to say is the most important thing in the world.  I do apologize.”

“No need, I’m just glad he didn’t take you away from me.”

Again, Charlotte found the comment odd, but didn’t know how to respond.  She was saved by the figure of Marcel bustling toward them at high speed.

“Mademoiselle Lannon!  You are back so soon!  Merveilleux!”  He leaned up to kiss her on both cheeks, European-style.  “I did not know you would be sitting with us tonight.”

“Mr. Whele invited me, I certainly couldn’t say no to the opportunity.”

Marcel’s face fell as he turned toward the former Senator.  “Yes, well, it is a pleasure, however it happens.”  He extended his elbow to Charlotte and she took his arm, a little awkwardly as he was quite a bit shorter than she.  “I seat you at the same table then.  The dinner, it is vegetarian tonight, slow roasted artichokes stuffed with spinach served with a cauliflower tabbouleh.  It is,” he kissed his fingertips dramatically, “tres bon.

“It sounds delightful, Marcel.  I’m simply in awe of what you’re doing here.” 

The little Frenchman helped her into her chair and left, promising to send a bottle of wine “worthy of the lady.”  Whele sat down across from her, setting the napkin into his lap with his unbandaged hand.

“I take it you’ve been here before.  There goes my little surprise.”

“Yes.”  Her legs crossed under the table, one of the elegant sling-back heels peaked out from below the cloth at the side.  She gracefully lifted the water goblet to her lips and sipped.  “Alex brought me here a few nights ago.  We had a wonderful sea bass.  I haven’t had anything like it in, well, I can’t say that I’ve ever had anything like it.  Vega is very lucky.”

“Yes, yes, it is.”  His gaze flicked from her face to her ankle and back again, then dropped.  Her look had been cool and reserved.  She was sizing him up and they both knew it.  This was a game that he usually played, and won, but this time his opponent was formidable.  He also took a drink of water.  “You’ve been in Vega for a little while now,” he opened, “what do you think of our city?”

“Well, obviously, it needs a little work.”  Her expression was not unkind and they both smiled; it was impossible to miss the piles of rubble and holes that still needed to be dealt with.  “In all seriousness, it looks like the new Council is dealing with a lot of the problems that existed.  I think there’s hope.  I’ve consulted on a few improvements on defenses and my people are doing some training with the Vega troops.”

“Then I’ll speak for the common man and say thank you, we appreciate it.”

The gentle reminder that he had been part of the old government that had caused most of the problems hadn’t gone unnoticed.  Charlotte could see little points of fire in his eyes no matter how solicitous his words.  “Of course,” she said.  “We all need to work together.”

“You’ve been working together with Gabriel quite a bit, haven’t you?” he said, the same smile still on his face.  “The archangel who was trying to kill your son until just recently.”

“Yes, well Gabriel has had a change of heart when it comes to Alex.”  She nearly choked on the irony of her words.  “And who better to work on defenses with than the best military mind in the city?”

“There is that,” he conceded, “but I don’t think that was military strategy that you were discussing earlier.  Or when he visits you in your apartment at night.”

If he expected a reaction, he was disappointed.  One brow raised, she remained convincingly unperturbed.  “David, really, snooping?  Isn’t that rather…vulgar?  And before we’ve even had the wine.”

His response was equally as blasé.  “I gather information on my potential allies as well as my enemies.  I think it’s important that we both know where we stand.  You may be the mother of the Chosen One, but you’re also the leader of an army.  I helped build this city, and I’m going to continue to do everything I can to protect her.” 

“As a leader of an army, I appreciate that, and you’re right, Gabriel and I are…collaborating.”  She leaned forward on her elbows, her chin resting on the back of her hands, her voice now sultry.  “But let me put your mind to rest and tell you that neither you nor Vega need worry about it.”

The waiter picked that moment to appear with the wine.  He poured a small amount into David’s glass, who tasted it and frowned.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, leaning back in her chair again.  “Has it gone off?”

“No,” he grumbled and twisted the bottle in the waiter’s hands so he could read the label, a fine Tuscan Sauvignon Blanc.  “It’s excellent.  It should be, it came from the House Whele cellars.” He flicked his fingers toward the waiter.  “Fine, go ahead, pour it.  At least I can appreciate one bottles’ worth.”

Charlotte had to work to hide the grin that wanted desperately to sneak out.  Instead she reapplied the cool, sophisticated persona she had picked out for the evening along with the green dress.  “It must be rather difficult for you, losing everything like you did when the new Council took over.”

David took a long drink of the wine and let in roll around in his mouth.  He closed his eyes, appreciating the moment.  “There are things I miss, like this.”  When he opened his eyes again, they had a sadness she did not expect.  “The truth of the matter is I lost everything well before they took my home and my belongings.  I sold my soul long ago, Commander.  All I’m trying to do now is find some way to buy it back.”

She sat back, gently swirling the wine in her glass instead of drinking.  She’d expected verbal sparring, she’d expected hard diplomatic tactics, but this was going in a direction she hadn’t foreseen.  She needed her wits about her.  “How do you plan on doing that?”

Once again, the waiters seem to have incredibly good or incredibly poor timing, depending on the point of view.  Their food arrived and they took a few minutes to begin, pulling apart the tender artichokes, raving about the delicate seasonings, the way the flavor of the artichokes changed the dryness of the wine.  It was a brilliant pairing.  David took back his initial misgivings that they had come on a vegetarian night; he admitted to being a die-hard carnivore, but this was enough to sway him.  Then again it was much less difficult to eat this with one hand.

Finally, they returned to the previous conversation.  David found it easier with the distraction of food between them.  “Are you familiar with the city of Helena?”

Again, an unexpected twist.  “Yes,” Charlotte answered, setting aside another artichoke leaf.  “You and Alex were on your way back from there when your helicopter was shot down.  I’ve never been there but I’ve heard it’s set up as a matriarchy.  I can’t say I have any problem with that.”

“Yes, Arika, an exceptional woman.  I think you’d like her.  She and I have been working together for a while, since before…” He stopped, his fork in mid-air.  “Since before everything went to hell.”  He smirked.  “Again.”

“I heard a little about what happened here.  The civil war, the eight-ball army, that thing called the Darkness.”

“The civil war.”  David set his fork down, pulled his napkin off his lap and laid it to the side of his plate.  He sat back.  “Yes, that was me.”  His head moved slowly back and forth, his gaze lost somewhere in the past.  He reached for the wine and filled his glass again, drinking half of it.  He held up the glass.  “I’ve tried, this doesn’t make it go away, no matter how good the wine is.”  As if to try to prove himself wrong, he drained the rest of the goblet.

Charlotte finished the last few morsels of the dinner in silence, then set the silverware on the plate and pushed it all a few inches toward the center of the table.  She picked up her own wine glass and took a generous sip.  It was good wine, but more than that, she needed time to think.  Things were not going the way she had expected.

The waiters came and silently took their plates away.  Charlotte reached toward the center of the table and smoothed the fine linen with her fingertips.  “I learned something about you recently.”

David waved the wineglass.  “If it’s bad, chances are it’s true.”

She ignored the comment, still staring at the table top.  “Alex told me about his relationship with Claire Reisen.”

“Claire.”  He pointed with the finger of the hand that held the wine; it was just a little unsteady.  He’d “fortified” himself with a stop at a bar prior to arriving at the restaurant.  “That girl was the bane of my existence, and I returned the favor.  She was smart and determined and by God she was a Reisen, everything the general was and more.  If we had worked together, we could have done incredible things, but I was just too damn ignorant, too wrapped up in my own thirst for power to see that.”  He took another drink.  “I thought I was doing what was best for Vega, but what I was doing was what was best for my own damn self.”

Charlotte listened to his confession but it didn’t change the glacial tone of her voice.  “You tried to assassinate her.  You had her shot.”

“I did.  It was stupid.  At least she didn’t die.”

“Her baby did.  Alex’s baby.”

He sat back further into his chair, looking for all the world like someone had let the air out of him.  “Yes, Claire told me about that.  At the time, I didn’t know she was –” A mixture of emotions swept across his face as he came to understand: confusion, horror, sadness, regret.  “Your grandchild.  I didn’t know.  I swear to you, I didn’t know.”

“Would it have made any difference?”  The ice in her voice was even more disturbing than emotion.

“I can’t say.  I don’t know, maybe.”  He set the wine glass down and pushed it away.  “No, probably not.”

“Gabriel wants to kill you.”

His eyes rose to hers.  “Why?  What difference did that baby make to Gabriel?  Just because you and he are –” He stopped, his head tilting a little to the side, then his eyes grew wide.  “Alex?  Gabriel is…”

Charlotte nodded slowly, her expression wintry.  “I’m telling you this because you deal in information.  Not for you to use, but to understand why you have a death sentence on your head.”

“No less deserved than the last time.”  He absently-minded rubbed his neck.  “This thing they called the Darkness, did they tell you about it?”

“Yes, some.”

“I was supposed to die that day.  I was at my execution when it happened.  What I saw during that time, what is showed me,” his shoulders curled in, his face fell and he looked ten years older.  “What I was on the path toward being, I almost wished that the rope had swung.  I realized that night that I couldn’t continue, it was either change or die.  That’s what I mean about selling my soul.  I feel barely human as it stands, if I have to claw my way back up, I’m willing to do it.”

“‘Clawing’ has rarely gotten anyone anywhere positive.”

“You’re right,” he laughed bitterly. “I’ve spent too much time clawing and backstabbing, stepping on and over people.  I need to find a new vocabulary.”

She waited, silent.  It was an old psychology tactic.

“I mentioned Arika before,” he continued.  “She had the same kind of, I don’t know, epiphany, during the Darkness.  We’re working together now, trying to save what’s left of our cities.  Helena’s got problems.  Arika is a powerful woman; originally her plan was to take over Vega, to move her people here to save them, but she realized that’s not going to work.  She needs to find a new place where they can be safe.”

“Why are you telling me this?  If you know as much about me and my people as I think you do, you know we don’t have the room for them, we’re pretty much at capacity as it is. Besides, that would be a helluva relocation.”

“You’re right, that won’t work.  But you have a large army, and they’re very mobile.  She has a small air force and that’s all.  She can’t defend her people if they take to the road.  You could.”

Charlotte thought about this for a few seconds.  “You want me to subcontract for Helena’s defenses.”

“That’s the idea.”

“What’s in it for me?”

David’s mouth turned up; he had her interested.  “Helena has a wealth of medical knowledge that has been pretty much lost to everyone else.”  He held up his bandaged hand.  “They put this back together, I may even be able to use it someday.  They can train your people, give them the knowledge, help pass it on.  Maybe they can even help some of your people with medical problems.”

For a split second, a tiny thought glimmered in the back of Charlotte’s mind, then she pushed it away.  Nonetheless, this didn’t sound like a bad trade; her Wildcats were always looking for another adventure, and they’d lost valuable medical staff over the years both from battle and old age, and lost their knowledge as well.   If she could get some of it back, it would be worth the road trip for a battalion or two.

“It sounds doable, but on my terms.  I’ll talk to my people and we’ll get the preliminaries going to send people to Helena, but first I want something from you.”

“Yes, of course.”  David was almost giddy at her acquiescence. 

“You don’t know what it is yet.”

“Whatever I can do to help, of course I will.”

“This is something different.  I want information.”

He squinted at her.  “About what, or is it whom?”

She paused, still not sure that this was the right thing to do.  What had she said to Jenkins about strange bedfellows?  “I want everything you have, everything you can get on the settlement at New Delphi and the people there.”

He frowned.  “Of course, if that’s what you want.  I’ll talk to Michael –”

“Ah!”  She raised a finger and silenced him in mid-sentence.  “That’s the caveat.  I don’t want Michael or Gabriel or anyone else to know.  Not even my son.  This is strictly between you and me, do you understand?  I know you have alternate resources; get me military reports, layouts, maps, building specs, get me anything you can find.”

“That will take a little more time.”

“I need it as soon as possible.  Time is a factor.”

“You can’t rush things, especially if you want me to do them on the sly.”  He looked uncomfortable.  “I’m not sure I want to get involved with –”

“Have you ever noticed,” she cut him off again, abruptly changing the topic, “how old-fashioned archangels are?  I mean, not only their weapons, insisting on using only those swords, although they are very good with them.”  Again, she traced patterns on the table linen, this time with just one fingertip.  “It’s their code of honor, too, so very…biblical.  An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  Her hand stopped and she looked up at him across the table.  “A life for a life.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Oh, no, merely summing up our discussion.  You, of course, pointed out that I have a unique relationship with Gabriel.  I’m pointing out that it would be in your best interest to assist me, for everyone concerned.”

His face fell into a well-used glower.  “You’re quite the cold-hearted bitch, aren’t you?”

She gave him a smile as brilliant as diamonds and just as sharp.  “Coming from you, I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult.  The war changed us all, David, we became what we needed to be.  The difference is, some of us worked very hard to stay human.”  She stood gracefully, laying the folded napkin on the table and smoothing her skirt.  It was a vaguely sensuous move, a last salvo in the battle.  “Thank you, David.  It was a most interesting evening.”

He rose in his chair but stayed there.  “Thank you, Commander.  It was very…enlightening.  I’ll be in touch.”

“Soon?”  Her brow raised; it was a command, not a question.

“Yes,” he said, sitting back down and reaching for the last of the wine.  “Soon.”

 

 

It was early in the morning but the sun had been up for some time and Charlotte was nearly ready to face the day.  She was taking a singing kettle off the stove when one of her guards peered cautiously around the front door.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but Commander Jenkins is here to see you.”

“Jenkins?”  She frowned, puzzled; they weren’t scheduled to meet for a few hours.  “Please, show him in.”

It reminded her, of course, of that fateful morning when Gabriel had startled her not long out of the shower.  She’d really wanted to kill him that day, actually would have taken his sword and put it right through his chest.  Things had changed so much since then, and not only her shower habits, although she still liked to luxuriate under the water with….  She bit her lip to try to hide a grin.

“Jenkins!” she greeted as he walked into the apartment.  “What brings me the pleasure of your company so early?  We were scheduled for 0900.”

Her XO lifted a small bag and grinned.  “Did you know this town has a real honest-to-goodness bakery?  They’ve got cakes and tarts and almost anything else you could imagine.  Haven’t seen anything like it since before the war.  I bought scones.  Can you believe it?  Scones!”

“You’re kidding me, let me see those.”  She rushed over and tried to take the bag from him, but he pulled it close.   Jenkins had a notorious sweet tooth.

“I’ll share,” he warned, “you don’t have to pull rank on me, I brought enough for us both.”

“You spoil me.  Come into the kitchen, I’ll get some plates.”

“They even had tiny pots of jam.  Got two of those, too.”

“Oh,” she said, setting out the dishes, “now I know you have ulterior motives.  Scones and jam?”

“Well, if you have any of the tea left…”

Her eyes crinkled.  “Of course.  I may have even saved some for you.”

For anyone who had lived before the Extermination War, there was always talk of “the old days.”  Some people became obsessed with it, some found ways to remember it fondly but to move on.  The former rarely had survived more than a few years, unable to deal with the reality of the world that they were faced with now.  The latter, however, found those few times when things were “like the old days” and cherished them dearly, not because of what was lost, but because they evoked precious memories.

Jenkins slathered one scone with berry jam, nearly covering it completely.  “At the boys’ home I lived in, we used to get day-old bakery once a week.  Well, to be honest, some of it was a wee bit more than a day old, really the cast-offs from the market in town, but that didn’t matter, it was heaven.  We’d stuff our faces with it every time, didn’t care that it was the same thing week after week.  Matron would split it all up and then we would trade, two biscuits for a scone, a slice of cake for a tart, everyone trying to get what they liked the best.  Learned some valuable bargaining skills that way.  There was one chap, Eddie, he would trade everything for cake, just loved cake of any kind.  My favorite was always scones.  They make them a little lighter here, but I still love them.”

“You never cease to amaze me.”  Charlotte broke one of the scones in two and reached for the jam knife.  “I think I know everything about you and then you pull out these little nuggets, these little stories about your life.”

Jenkins shrugged.  “You knew I grew up in a home.”

“I knew you lost your parents, and I knew you had problems getting adopted.  I just never imagined you sitting around with a bunch of other boys trading baked goods.”

Once again, Jenkins lifted his shoulders.  He chewed thoughtfully, then took a slow, appreciative sip of the tea that had been poured.  “You don’t know everything about me.”

Charlotte picked up her mug and rested back in her chair.  “Like the real reason you came over here this morning?  It wasn’t to bring me breakfast, as much as I’m enjoying it.  And it wasn’t for the tea.”

A hint of blush crept into the commander’s cheeks.  “I’m…concerned about you, mum.  You seem distracted lately.  We’ve got a lot going on, I’m worried that you’re –”

“Overdoing it?” she finished for him.  One eyebrow rose.  “I can’t tell if you’re actually concerned or politely prying.”

The blush crept even higher.

Charlotte leaned forward and put her tea down on the table.  “Malcolm, you know that you’re much more than just an officer to me.”   She reached across and rested her hand on his.  “Protocol be damned, you’re my very best friend, and I love you dearly.  You have been with me through…” she sighed deeply, “…almost everything.  If you really want to know – I don’t like what we’re doing now, I don’t like this double-life spy shit, this isn’t me, you know that.  And you’re right, I do have other things going on, and I haven’t told you about them.”

“I want to protect you, mum.  I can’t do that if I don’t know what’s going on.”

“How did I get so lucky?”  Her hand went to the side of Jenkins’ face and she held it there.  “You’re so very good to me.”

“No.”  He smiled and took her hand in his, pulling it off his cheek.  “You’re the only one that’s put up with me all these years.”

They had the strangest, and yet most wonderful relationship, Charlotte thought.  That was going to change now.  It had to.  She was going to add someone to the mix and Jenkins was not going to be happy one bit.  “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you the whole story about what’s been going on before.”

“That’s your prerogative.”

She appreciated his words but at the same time, she could tell he’d been hurt by her reticence.  “I didn’t tell you because I was trying to figure out where I fit into things.  I needed to know where my head was at before I involved everyone else.  Does that make sense?”

“A little.  Go on.”

“You said that I don’t know everything about you.  That’s true, although you’ve always been very open with me.  I’ve been a little more reserved, not because I didn’t trust you, but because some things,” she shook her head, “they’re not good memories.  Others were simply too painful to remember.  One of the things that was painful was Alex’s father.”

Jenkins suddenly rose in his seat, his hands clenching into fists.  “Did he – did he hurt you?”

“No, no, no,” she laughed.  “No, you don’t have to be my white knight, you don’t have to go beat anybody up.  That’s not what I meant.  Yes, it hurt, but not physically.   I thought he left me, but, well, it’s complicated.  It wasn’t his fault.”

The XO sat back down slowly.  “But you were pregnant.”

“I didn’t even know I was pregnant then.  Like I said, complicated.  Alex’s father just disappeared one day, I never found out where he went or why, not until I got to Vega.”

“You saw him again in Vega?”

“Essentially, yes.”  This was more difficult to explain than she expected.  “The thing is, when I knew him in Denver, he was human.  When I saw him again in Vega, he was…he was Gabriel.”

There was very loud silence, broken only by the sound of Jenkins’ breathing.  Charlotte knew what he was doing, knew what would come next.  He sat up ramrod straight and faced the table, his fingertips resting gently on it.  Then with meticulous, silent care, he arranged the dishes in front of him.  Plate here, perfectly centered.  Knife across the top of the plate, bisecting the upper third, blade facing in.  Coffee mug up to the right at 45 degrees, handle facing out.  Crumbs swept up, deposited on the plate and pushed into a tiny, orderly pile at the base.

She watched him patiently, letting him order his thoughts while he ordered the table.  She’d seen him do the same before with other things that were difficult to accept – the death of Colonel Andrews, the loss of an entire battalion.  As a leader, a commander, she would often fight through until she found the time to let herself fall apart, but Jenkins had a different method; he took his few minutes and force-marched his emotions into place, locking them into order, taking control.

He finally looked up at her.  “Gabriel is the one, the one you’ve always…”  He swallowed hard.  “Gabriel is Alex’s father.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Gabriel, who you and I have fought together for the last twenty years.”

“Yes, but I didn’t know.  I didn’t know that he and the man I was with in Denver were one and the same.”

“Goddamned angels.” 

“I know, I know.  Life was a lot simpler before they showed up.  Mine certainly was.”

He ran one hand over his face, rubbing at the stubble on his chin.  “You’ll excuse me, but people talk, especially in the barracks.  The stories about the Chosen One are starting to become legendary.  You’re telling me that Gabriel’s been trying to kill his son all this time?”

“Gabriel didn’t know that Alex was his son, and I didn’t know that Gabriel the Archangel was Alex’s father until I got to Vega.  I told you, it’s complicated.  It also looks like our third party, Lucifer, may have had a hand in things.  I’m still piecing that together.”

“I repeat, goddamned angels.”  He sat silently for a few moments.  “You’re involved with him again.”

“I am,” she admitted.  “I know you’re wondering how I can feel anything but hatred for a mass murderer, but he’s different, he’s changed.  You’ve seen him yourself, that’s not the leader of the dogs of heaven out there, that’s not the angel that rained down destruction on half the earth.  He’s not the same.”

“That doesn’t excuse what he did, Charlotte.”  It was rare that either of them used each other’s first names; the fact that they both had emphasized the gravity of their conversation.  “He’s goddamned freakin’ Gabriel!  And you’re sleeping with him!”

She appreciated his restraint, what he had wanted to say would have been quite a bit more colorful.  She also understood some of the emotion beneath his reaction; whether she had acknowledged it or not, she had always known of her friend’s feelings toward her.  “I’m not blind, this isn’t some schoolgirl crush.  And no, it doesn’t excuse what he did, nothing can excuse that.  He’s not asking for an excuse, or even for forgiveness.  Gabriel wants a chance to atone, if there’s any way to atone for six-billion lives.”

They sat in silence again while Jenkins mulled this last bit of information over.  “What does this mean for our mission?”

“It’s not going to be a problem, nothing’s changed.  No,” Charlotte checked herself, “no, that’s not really true.  The final goal hasn’t really changed, but some of the details might.  I know you doubt me right now, but I think we can work this to our advantage.  Having a certain amount of influence over an archangel isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

“I don’t doubt you,” Jenkins ribbed, “I doubt your sudden need to mess about with an angel.”

Again, she could see beyond the words to the feelings beneath.  Malcolm, her friend, would have been more than happy to “mess about” any time over the last twenty years, even while Jenkins, her comrade and fellow officer, worked hard to keep his proper professional distance.  She’d been tempted; there had been nights when the weight of the war, the losses, even the triumphs narrowed the gap between them to paper thin, when she’d laid in her bed or cot or sleeping roll and thought about the strong, courageous and certainly attractive man that had battled side-by-side with her every day.

Then the only man she’d ever truly loved would wander into her head and all other thoughts would disappear. 

Poor Jenkins.

She’d thought about Gabe for 25 years, and by some strange miracle, she’d found him.  How could she ever explain to her XO that it was so much more that “messing about”? 

How could she ever explain that she and Gabriel were married?

 

 

They’d arranged to meet in the barracks at dinner time.  A minor point, but the average person was surprisingly less vigilant when they knew that a meal was waiting for them a few feet away.  People tended not to notice little things they might at any other part of the day.

It was a smaller group, chosen for their discretion and unique abilities.  First Platoon, under Commander Jenkins himself.  Which also meant that they were at the beck and call of Commander Lannon at any moment, and they liked it that way.

Jenkins met his commanding officer at the door of the barracks.  He noted again how tired she looked.  He would be happy when this whole mess was over and they could get back to their pleasant little town.  Even with their random sorties and maneuvers to various parts of the country as a normal occurrence, that life was still better than this long-term mission in Vega. 

“Everyone is here,” he announced to her.  “They’re waiting on our briefing now.”

“Good.  I apologize for being late, I ran into Michael on the way here.”

Jenkins noted the tone of her voice.  “Is there a problem?”

“Yes and no.  It’s obvious that he doesn’t trust me anymore.  Gabriel said as much but now Michael is making it known.  For the most part that actually works into our plans but I don’t want him doing something creative like putting a tail on me when I need freedom to act.”

“Would he do that when you’re, well, involved with his brother?”

Jenkins' embarrassment was actually rather endearing to his commander.  “I doubt it,” she said.  “Gabriel would lose his mind if he thought I was being watched.  Nonetheless, let’s get this meeting over with so we don’t give Michael something else to be suspicious about.  Did you get that intel?”

He fanned out a small packet of papers.  “It’s good stuff.  How did you get it?”

All he got for a response was a shrug.  Sometimes, he’d learned, it was better not to know the answers to these things. 

They walked over toward the assembled group and Jenkins took roll.  Men and women of various ages and types, all in peak physical form and, he knew from experience, intellectually superior.  He also knew from experience that they tended to be a little wilder than the average Wildcat, a little more prone to “finding creative solutions.”  Why force a door when you can burst it open with detcord?  Why clean up your garbage when you can blow it to bits with some homemade explosives?

This mission, Jenkins knew, would be right up their alley.  Odd, potentially dangerous, and done for their Commander.  They were going to love it.

 

 

Charlotte looked around at her gathered soldiers.  They were huddled together around her in a corner of the barracks to try to keep things as quiet as possible, looking a little like a bunch of campers listening to ghost stories.  To a person, their faces were eager and alert.

“Before I begin, I want to thank you all for your patience.  I know that this has been a drawn-out mission, and you haven’t always had a clear idea what the objective was.  I want you to know that I appreciate your faith in me and what I’m trying to accomplish.  In the long run, I believe that the final outcome of what we’re doing is going to significantly impact your lives and the lives of everyone you know.  Keep that in mind, especially when things look…well, a little weird.  Jenkins?”

The XO moved forward.  “Speaking of weird, one of our prime objectives is to create an impression for this chap, Julian.  Julian runs New Delphi, but he’s the one who’s got the connections we need.  Our goal is to make Julian want to do business with us, to feel that he can trust us so much that he lets his guard down.  Mouse has brought us her impressions on him and we’ve come up with a plan to do that.”

The tiny woman named Mouse stood up in the middle of the group.  “Julian is obsessed with films, old movies.  He’s collected thousands of them and he has one going in his office 24 hours a day.  Every night, he has a screening and four or five of his people are invited, or I don’t know, maybe required, to come and see it with him.  Most of the time they fall asleep, but he stays up and watches it through every single night.  It’s like an obsession.  While I was there he invited me to watch three different films: an old musical, a war movie and a really bizarre one about two guys bouncing around through time.  I guess it was ok, but for him it was like a drug, like he was high.”

Charlotte spoke up again.  “The thing of it is, Julian doesn’t just love movies, he loves theater.  In a way, he’s always on stage, always performing.  He sees himself in a great story and he’s playing a kind of antihero.  We’re going to use that mindset to our advantage.  We’re going to give him theater, give him a story he can be part of.  He doesn’t know much about us, no one does, so we can create our own back-story.  Mouse has already started with that, she’s laid the foundation for what we want him to think the Wildcats are.  Now we’re going to give him not only what he expects from us, but even more.  We’re going to dig back into those old movies and pull out all the clichés and archetypes and use them to our advantage.

“Julian created New Delphi as some kind of oasis in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world.  We’re going to take that idea and then turn it up a notch.  We’re going to go full-on Mad Max and shove it in his face in HD and Dolby surround-sound.”  The older members of her group smiled with the memory but younger ones looked on in confusion.  “Don’t worry,” she laughed, “you’ll all get the idea when we’re done.”

Jenkins started handing out small piles of chips to each of the soldiers.  “We’re not going to meet him as regular troops, we’re going to meet him as characters.  Over the last few days I’ve been trading some of the things we brought from home so that we could raise enough of what this town calls money.  I’ve got enough cash for you to go out and put together your characters.  I want the veterans to get together with the young pups and tell them what we’re looking for.  It’s not difficult – basically shocking, over the top and, if at all possible, scary as hell.  One possession short of an eight-ball is not a bad starting point.  There are resale and thrift stores all over; I don’t think you’ll have a problem coming up with what you need.”

Charlotte chimed in.  “Like Jenkins said, some of you know exactly what we’re talking about, so you can help out.  As your commander, I expect to be completely horrified by your purchases – that’s the idea.  Get creative, get outrageous.  That said, this will still be a military maneuver and I expect you to be the exceptional soldiers that I know you are when we do engage.  Jenkins will liaise with the rest of the troops and tell them when we roll out, but expect it within the next 36 hours.”  She turned to her XO.  “Jenkins, is there anything we forgot?”

“I don’t think so mum.  I’ll be going through this intel and funneling it to the proper people later.”

“Alright then!”  She clapped her hands, a somewhat wicked expression on her face.  “It’s time to go shopping.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

 

 

 

Two days later, twenty miles outside of New Delphi

 

Commander Charlotte Lannon stood in the back of one of the pickups, one arm casually resting on the machine gun mounted there.  The plan was to arrive with guns in position; in fact, all their guns would be out, everyone fully armed and ready to fire.

They were also going out of uniform.  She looked down at her XO, who sported a black beret and patch-covered leather vest over his regulation shirt.  He also seemed to be wearing three belts and fingerless leather gloves.  “Is that a cigar?” she asked.

He smiled around the cheroot dangling from the corner of his mouth.  “Uh huh.”  He pulled it out and twisted it thoughtfully.  “Don’t actually remember why I liked these any more, but it looks the part.”

“If you’re going for disgusting, then yes.  So, tell me,” she held out the other arm and leaned back, “do I look as ridiculous as I feel?”

Jenkins took a long moment to eye her up from the tall leather knee boots to the tight denim pants and the forest green tank top that showed off every one of her curves.  Over the top, she wore a fitted black leather coat that fell behind her to mid-calf.  Her head was covered with a long scarf worked into a keffiyah and her eyes were rimmed with kohl, adding a seductive depth that was normally hidden.

“Jenkins!” she called when he failed to answer.  “I swear, if you laugh at me…”

“It’s not that mum,” he stumbled.  “Actually, well, you look quite…” he searched for a word that wouldn’t betray what the parts of his mind that were not soldier, were not her XO, that were very much male, were telling him. “You look quite…formidable.  You wanted dramatic, and I think you’ve done that, without being overly campy.  I think the look is quite effective.”

She squinted at him, not completely believing him.  “Well it’s too late to change now.”  She slid two daggers into leather sheaths attached to her left thigh – there was no way to wear a sword with that coat – then snapped the Colt 1911 into the holster on her hip.  Colonel Andrews’ Colt.  It always made her proud to carry it.

The afternoon sun was a golden hue against robin’s egg blue, almost like a blessing from above.  They’d planned to come in with the sun directly at their backs, adding an element of disorientation, and she was pleased to see nary a cloud in the sky.  Things were going as planned.  “Please call the troops together; it’s time we get this show on the road.”

 

 

The commander looked at the personnel assembled around her.  All in all, there were 27 men and women, mostly younger, but now it was difficult to tell.  What would have normally been her well-disciplined (if a bit cocky) First Platoon had been transformed into a motley collection of bikers, ruffians, hell-raisers and…well, she really wasn’t sure what to call some of them.  One of the male snipers was wearing nothing but a bright pink fur vest and fatigues while his female sergeant was sporting an Anaheim Ducks hockey jersey over booty shorts, fishnet stockings and combat boots.  And of course, a hockey mask.  Where she had found that in Vega was anybody’s guess. 

They’d done quite well “shopping.”  She had said to get creative, and they had certainly done that.

With a rueful but still satisfied smile, she motioned them to gather in closer.  “The old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.  Well, you look like the most disgusting band of miscreant bastards to ever walk the face of this earth, and that’s exactly what we wanted.”  A loud cheer went up from the group and she grinned.  “Seriously, we wanted to put on a show, and you’ve come ready for it.  What we’re going to find from New Delphi is different from what we’re used to.  There are not only eight-balls; there are humans and there are possessed and the possessed are very, well, human.  They’re smarter and more advanced that the scum we’re used to which means that they’re going to be tougher to deal with.  To take care of that, we’re going back to some old-school tactics, a little something called Shock and Awe.  Jenkins?”

Jenkins climbed on to the back of the pick-up.  “Normally the technique of military dominance is used to mentally disable the enemy on a first strike with displays of power and force.  In this case, we’re not going to attack so much as disorient and show superior might.  We want to put Julian and his people back on their heels and make them think twice about taking any measures against us, for whatever reason.  We have to remember that they are not to consider us as ‘enemies’ but they should consider us as ‘dangerous.’

“We’ll be arriving in a modified delta pattern with four squads deployed evenly, the commander in front with a spotter and sniper on each side.  Again, the idea is to be seen as fearless but dangerous.  Once we are 200 meters outside the arranged meeting place, we will split from the delta pattern and circle contra in the method that we have previously practiced.  Alpha and Charlie Squad will go high, Baker and Delta Squad go low.  Finnegan, I want you and Mouse weaving in and out on your bike.  You both have Kevlar?”  The two young people nodded.  “Good.  Mouse, you’re in charge of getting a count on the hostiles, or, should I say, our ‘potential allies.’  These antics should bring most of them outside.” 

Charlotte spoke up. “While you’re coming in, you will be weapons free and I want you to judiciously blow up every suspicious rock, boulder, tree and plant that you see.  If a grain of sand looks at you crosswise, take it out.  If you don’t like a leaf, burn it down.  Be smart with your ammo but make a big show.  Do not, and I repeat, do NOT aim anything toward the buildings that we are headed toward – I don’t want any stray fire causing a shootout.  Keep in mind the position of your friendlies, clear lines of fire are paramount, but make some noise.  With that in mind, Campbell, did you get the sound system rigged?”

Campbell, a short fireplug of a Scot complete with flaming red hair and beard, nodded.  “Got five vehicles wired to a central unit.  Picked a song out, too.”

“I take it that we’re not going in to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’?”

Campbell laughed.  “I did consider it, ma’am.  Fond memories of movie night with you and Commander Jenkins, but no, I found something a little more recent.  My dad told me about listening to this one when he was in fighting in Iraq.  One of his favorites.”

A slow knowing smile bloomed across the commander’s face.  “Campbell, did you find me some Drowning Pool after all these years?”

“That I did ma’am. My own personal collection.”

It was perfect.  Sometimes, even after all these years, her soldiers still amazed her. 

She gazed out again over her motley troops, a shimmer in her eyes.  “Some of you know what song Campbell is talking about.  It’s a song about kicking ass and taking names, about doing what needs to be done. That song led troops into battle all across the globe, even in the beginning of the Extermination War, before we lost hope.

“Things are different today.  As that song plays, I want you to remember those who have gone before you, the men and woman who have run into battle with their eyes open, sacrificing their lives so that others may live freely.  Today we are called to do no less.  We’re not here for one man, or even for ourselves.  Today we’re called to put our lives on the line so that every remaining man, woman and child on Earth can live in a world free from the tyranny and horror of the angels. 

“Remember that what we are about to start is not the final battle, it is the first battle in a new war.  A war for all of humanity, where we get to choose which side we stand on, where we get to choose who is our enemy and who is our ally.  Today we change how things are done, we grab hold of Fate and make it our own.  We will no longer hide, we will no longer bow to the whims of angels, we will choose our own destiny!”

 

 

Perched atop the pick-up, Charlotte took one last scan of the platoon. They had removed the mufflers from some of the trucks, the better to make more noise.  Stealth was not part of the plan and the combined rumble of close to a dozen different SUV’s, ATV’s, MRAP’s and other assorted vehicles vibrated through her chest. Her truck would be first and she would be an easy target if that was what Julian planned.  That would be stupid, not only because he would be throwing away a valuable opportunity for an ally in trade and war, but also because her two best snipers, riding outrigger, would instantly take out anyone and everyone that was visible, and the rest of her group would level whatever was left. 

She was fairly sure she was safe.

There was only one item left on her list.  She pulled the radio off her hip and toggled it on.  “Rudolfo, how are you doing?”

“Just fine, ma’am.  Everything’s quiet.  Very quiet, if you get my drift.”

“Good.  Keep it that way.  We’re underway in one, should be contacting you within ten.  If you don’t hear from us in 30, abort and return, do you copy?”

“Copy that, ma’am.  Abort and return if I don’t hear from you in 30.”

“You’ve got precious cargo.”

“I know ma’am. We’ll keep it safe.  Always do.”

She smiled.  Rudolfo was ex-Special Forces, if there was such a thing as “ex” these days.  She knew she was lucky to have him and his partner Silva, especially in a situation like this. 

With one last deep breath, she lowered her goggles and pulled the scarf around her face, tucking the end into the strap to secure it.  Wrapping one arm around the blatantly obvious mounted machine gun on the back of the truck, she set her feet securely and banged on the top of the cab.

Time to play. 

 

 

Jenkins manned an RPG in the back of an MRAP leading Baker Squad, fifty meters behind the lead group.   He would only shoot off one and wanted to pick the perfect spot, but he was having a difficult time taking his gaze off of his commanding officer.  She stood quite fearless in the back of the truck, her long leather coat flying out behind her, snapping in the wind.  Something about her attitude reminded him of General Patton, or a movie about Patton, he wasn’t sure, but he was rather awestruck at the moment. 

A mile out from the ranch where they were to meet their new “ally,” he saw the commander smack the cab of the truck twice.  Within a few seconds, he could hear the sibilance of words coming from the vehicles all around him…

 

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floooooorrr!!!

 

It worked like a switch, turning on the unholy terror that was the Wildcats.  Without warning, a tree was eviscerated by machine gun fire, a boulder decimated by a grenade, a sign reduced to splinters by .50 caliber rounds while tracers arced through the sky like tiny rockets. 

A small grove of trees appeared on the left and Jenkins had his unfortunate victim.  It wasn’t much of a challenge but the trees did explode with an impressive orange and yellow whoosh that scattered bark and leaves around like organic hail.

Up ahead, Alpha Squad closed in on the compound, a collection of buildings that had formerly been a large ranch on the outskirts of an abandoned town.  Unkempt and overgrown, they were less than inviting, but the windows were intact and the roofs mostly whole.  As the raucous group approached, Jenkins could see faces behind the windows of the main farmhouse and the doors of the outbuildings opening cautiously.  The noise and the fireworks were doing their job.

 

 

Behind the lenses of her goggles, Commander Lannon’s eyes were hyper-bright.  She was always this way during the opening salvo of a battle – wired without drugs, focused and yet seeing everything.  She consciously had to relax or she might have jumped from the truck at any moment, every fiber of her soldier body wanting to engage, to draw, to fire.  This wasn’t that kind of battle; she wasn’t in that kind of war right now. 

The music helped, such a good song.  Around her she could see the other drivers, other soldiers bouncing their heads to the beat, some of them even singing along.  She grinned.

Wedging her legs against the framework of the machine gun, she brought one hand up in a circular motion, then both out to the sides.  The movement was fluid, graceful, a conductor creating a symphony orchestra of destruction.  She knew that Julian would be watching and she wanted him to be both mesmerized and a more than a little afraid.

They circled the buildings in a weave pattern that looked chaotic but was in fact carefully choreographed, sending up clouds of dust and exhaust.  Wildcats, insanely dressed and body-painted, leaned out of trucks, screaming and hollering, shooting into the air, leering at the faces peeking out of the doors but never firing at them.  The motorcycle with Finnegan and Mouse buzzed around like a crazed hummingbird, creating a half-dozen near-misses, or so it seemed.  It was a scene from a nightmare apocalypse, trucks instead of horses, and exactly what Charlotte wanted.

With one last dramatic hand signal, all 12 vehicles formed back into position in front of the compound and halted.  Charlotte scanned the buildings in front of her.  As she had planned, many of the inhabitants had emerged and gathered in a loose crowd.

 The motorcycle and its riders pulled up behind her.  “What have you got, Mouse?” she asked quietly.

“I count 26.  There may be a few more inside.”

“Do you see him?”

“Yes, in front of the house.  He’s in the back of the crowd.”

“Good job.  Stay close, I may need you to play ambassador.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As gracefully as possible, Charlotte jumped from the back of the pickup.  Two flicks of her index fingers brought up a duo of leather and chain draped escorts complete with AR15 rifles.

The trio sauntered slowly toward the location that Mouse had described.  Twenty feet away they stopped, the commander planting her feet and leaning on one hip lazily, removing her goggles and pushing the scarf down around her neck.  She dramatically shook out her hair, then rested her gloved hand on her thigh holster.  “So, which one of you is Julian?”

 

 

 

Vega

 

Michael found his brother seated in the corner of a conference room surrounded by books, folders and papers.  They were stacked on chairs, piled on the floor and filling any other flat surface.  Various lists and maps of the city covered most of the table in front of him, spilling onto the floor haphazardly.   Even as Michael approached, one of his brother’s guards brought another small load of dossiers and carefully placed them on the only clear space he could find.

“Gabriel, what is this?”

The archangel looked up from his papers, his face split with a broad grin, his arms held wide.  “Brother!  Welcome to my office.  You didn’t seem likely to give me one so I made it myself. Do you like it?  I even have executive assistants.”  He waved his fingers at his two guards.

“What is all this about?  What are you doing?”

“To begin with, research.  Alex said that I wasn’t doing anything for the city, and he had a point.  It’s time I started earning my keep here, don’t you agree?  And truthfully, I’ve grown a bit bored just brooding.  I’ve decided that no one knows the art of war as well as I do these days, even you, dear brother, so I might as well put it to work.  I’ve been analyzing Duma’s last attack and the changes that Charlotte has suggested – she really does know what she’s talking about – but there are a few other defenses I think you could try.”  He picked up a map and pointed to a spot.  “I’ve thought about where I would attack and I think there is room for improvement along the western wall here.”

Keeping up with Gabriel’s mood swings was difficult enough on a regular day, but today Michael had no time for it.  “I don’t care about that now.  Is Alex here with you?”

Gabriel’s face fell; he’d been rather proud of his new self-made position.  “If you remember, the last time Alex and I had any length of time together, I spent most of it torturing him.  I don’t think father-son bonding time is on his to-do list.”

This wasn’t what Michael had wanted to hear.  “Do you have any idea where he might be?”

“No.  Have you asked Charlotte?”

“I can’t find her either.  I thought perhaps you would know.”

For a moment, Gabriel simply looked at the other archangel.  He knew that Michael was not one to panic but he’d heard something in his brother’s voice that was coming close.  He stood and walked over toward him.   “You’ve checked her rooms?”

Michael breathed deeply, the bearer of bad news.  “Her things are gone.  So are Jenkins’ and all their people.  I spoke to some of the Archangel Corps; the previous group left the barracks yesterday.  They expected another group to cycle in as they have done for the last few weeks, but no one arrived.”

Gabriel crossed his arms and ran a thumb across his lower lip, staring into nothing. 

“You don’t know where she is then,” Michael queried.

“No,” Gabriel answered, still unfocused.  Then he looked up.  “She’s gone?  And you think that she took Alex with her?”

“It would seem that way.”

The fairer angel frowned, his lip jut out petulantly.  “No, no, she wouldn’t do that.  She wouldn’t do that to me.”

“Gabriel,” Michael grasped hold of his arm, “they’re all gone.  This was obviously planned for some time.  We don’t know what, if any damage they’ve done to the city yet, but we do know one thing:  Alex is missing.  Chances are they took him.  Charlotte took him, Gabriel, Charlotte took your son.”

His head shaking, Gabriel wrenched away from his brother’s grasp.  “No, not Charlotte,” he asserted, his belief still steadfast.  “I don’t understand, I left her only a few hours ago, everything was…was fine.”  It had been more than fine; it had been wonderful.  Charlotte had made just the right amount of fuss over his new armor, appreciating the design, the workmanship and the days of labor that he had put into it.  Her eyes had lit up as she explored the detail work, the mesh of metal and hide, form and function.  She’d run sensuous fingertips over the intricate knot pattern he’d carved into the leather of the front panel, the leather that so elegantly covered the thin empyrean steel plates.  She’d been especially interested in the design of the clasps, and then she’d popped them off with a mischievous grin.  Soon enough the armor was lying on the floor and they were sprawled across the bed.

He’d only been slightly put off when she’d insisted that he leave hours before dawn.  He’d grown comfortable laying there with his arms wrapped around her, listening to the gently sighing of her breath, the slowing of her heart as she neared sleep, but she’d turned toward him suddenly and sent him away.  It had been done in the kindest of manners – people weren’t ready for their relationship yet, Alex was proof of that, he’d best not be seen coming from her apartment in the morning, it wasn’t as if she wanted him to leave, she claimed – but nonetheless she had been adamant.

There had been nothing wrong with it, he’d understood her concerns, until now.  Now he could see the obvious ruse, seen that she’d been eager to have him gone and away so she could finish whatever plans she had and leave.

And take Alex with her.

His heart sank.  No, it couldn’t be true, the night they’d spent together, no one was that good of an actress, and he wasn’t, couldn’t be, that much of a fool.  “Something happened to Alex and she went after him, she’s trying to save him,” he countered.  “You’re simply seeing the situation all wrong.”

“Then why didn’t she tell you or me or anyone, Gabriel?  We don’t have time to argue about this.”  Michael reached for him again, trying to both soothe and cajole his brother.  He didn’t like the glint of instability he saw in Gabriel’s expression.  “Come with me.  We’ll find them together and you can prove that I’m mistaken.”

Gabriel hesitated for a moment.  To go with Michael implied that he believed him, that he believed that they would find Charlotte with Alex somewhere out there when in his heart, he knew that all of this had to be some great misunderstanding.  It simply had to be, because the alternative was unthinkable.

“Yes, yes, we should do that,” Gabriel finally said, more to himself than to his brother.  “We have to find Alex, find Charlotte, she’ll explain.”  He reached for the sword that rested against the back of his chair and slid it into his belt.  “You’ll see, Michael, you’re wrong about her.  She’s taking care of Alex, nothing more.”  His voice was soft now, his eyes wide and fearful.  “You’ll see.”

 

 

 

Twenty miles outside of New Delphi

 

Charlotte waited while Julian slowly made his way from the back of the group assembled in front of the farm house.  She envied Jenkins his disgusting cheroot; at least he had something to chew on, something to alleviate the tension.  She would have given her eyeteeth for a stick of gum right now, snapping it obnoxiously would have been perfectly in character.

Eventually, the dyad emerged from his motley group of humans and eight-balls.  He didn’t seem to be as fazed by the Wildcats’ little pyrotechnics show as the rest of them, although Charlotte watched him take quick inventory of their vehicles, their weapons and their colorful personnel.  A pleased look gradually spread across his features – he liked what he saw. 

Finally, his gaze turned toward her and he gave her a gratuitous once-over.  She didn’t mind, it was part of the plan.  She’d even changed positions to facilitate it, and she now stood with her hands on her hips, the sides of the leather coat pushed back, both her exotic weapons and her feminine curves on obvious display.

“Commander Lannon, I presume.”

She stepped forward to meet him, her hand extended.  “Julian.”

“I’ve been looking forward to this day since you sent me that gift.  Thank you, by the way.”

The feather.  Gabriel’s feather.  She couldn’t let herself think about how she’d come to have it, not now. “Yes, of course.  It was helpful?”

The dyad’s hand reflexively pulled back his abdomen.  “Always good to have around.”

Mouse had been right then, he’d been hurt, unable to heal himself, but he wasn’t about to admit it.  Time to move on.  “I have other things that I think you would be interested in.”

“Yes, your little emissary said.  If you can actually deliver, I’m willing to bargain.”

Charlotte looked around at the group assembled behind him, then leaned in and lowered her voice.  “Is there somewhere we could go that’s not quite so crowded?  I like to deal with the people in charge, not the hired help.”

“Of course,” he answered, not quite sure if his people had been insulted or not.  “Why don’t we go up to the house, it’s a little more private inside.”

Charlotte nodded to two groups of her people and they quickly split up, half falling in behind her, half stationing themselves around the vehicles.  “One can never be too careful,” she explained with a diplomatic smile.

The farmstead had been built over a century before, built when construction meant quality materials, hard work and plenty of it.  The main house was a classic, three stories of white clapboard and brick with a wrap-around porch and enough rooms for the servants and family of a prosperous and society-conscious man.  The clapboard was now faded to a sun-bleached grey, the porch had drooped and lost more than a few rails, but all-in-all, the building was still in good shape despite its many untenanted years.  Little of the original furniture remained – anything made of wood had been burned for heat decades before and anything else of value had been carted off.  What remained was either too big or too ugly to be taken away.

Julian brought the group into a large open area that had once been a formal dining room and living room.  Charlotte looked around appreciatively; the oak was still on the walls, too difficult to remove for kindling, and the floors beneath them had once been polished maple.  It was the kind of house she had dreamed of as a child, with a giant table covered in china and crystal, and a big crowd of people all in fancy dress.

Now however, a dozen of Julian’s men (or eight-balls, as the case may be) filed in behind them with half of Charlotte’s Wildcats, forming an uneasy ring around the outside perimeter of the space.  Not exactly what she had dreamed of.  Not exactly as private as she had hoped, either.

At one end of the room, a massive leather recliner sat next to a huge leather sofa.  Both of them looked worn, perhaps a little mouse-nibbled, but still usable.  Too heavy to steal, she reminded herself, the kind of seating that would grab someone when they sat down and never let go.

“Please, have a seat,” Julian offered.

“No, thank you, I prefer to stand.”  She wondered if he could see her thoughts about the man-eating sofa.  Time to get focused again.  “I assume that you know who I am then.”

“I’ve heard some rumors about you and your Wildcats, Commander.   You’re a mysterious bunch.”

“I prefer the term private.  However, recent events have made privacy less desirable.  I’ve heard things about you, too.  I’ve heard you were interested in my son.”

“Alex and I already know each other.”  He deliberately kept the association neutral.  “We’ve had some previous dealings.  Rather less successful than I would have liked.”

“The rumor I hear is that you’re looking for him.  That you would like to…obtain him.”  Charlotte put an accent on the last two words, changing Alex from a person to a commodity. 

The dyad was taken by surprise.  “Yes, I have an associate that is very interested in the boy.  He’s willing to make a generous offer to make his acquaintance.”

“Let’s not play games here, Julian.  I know what Alex is, I know he’s this fabled ‘Chosen One.’  I don’t know what you and your ‘associate’ want with him, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than to make his acquaintance.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Only if the price isn’t high enough.”

Julian broke out in a paroxysm of laughter.  “Oh, I think I like you, Commander.  I like you very much.  We can certainly do business.  You have Alex here?”

“Do I look like an idiot?”

“No!  No, not at all.  Tell me, have you brought any other items to trade?  You have some lovely…weapons.”  He gazed at the nickel-plated pistol on her hip.

“We can get to those in a minute.  I heard that your refinery failed a few months ago.”

Once again, Julian was taken aback.  “No one knows that.”

“You’ve tried very hard to hide it, but I have my own refinery, and I know when one is working, and when it isn’t.  You must be running low on fuel.”

“Our reserves are perhaps not what they used to be.”

“Would a full tanker truck help?” she asked innocently.  “I mean, for a start.  We have more.”

Julian was more than a little suspicious now.  “Why are you offering me all this?”

“Because I don’t want to bother bullshitting around.”  The time for diplomatic niceties was over.  “Like I said, I’m not an idiot.  I’ve seen what happened in Vega, I’ve talked to people.  There’s something big going down and Alex is going to be part of it.  I don’t know what it is but I get the feeling that it could affect everyone left on this planet.”  She walked to his other side, the heels of her boots clicking on the floor.  “I don’t give a crap about everyone else, but I want a guarantee that my people will be safe.  All my people.  I think you’re the one that can get me that deal and I’m willing to sweeten the pot even further if you can.”

“How so?”

Charlotte could almost see him wringing his hands in anticipation.  It was time to place her other cards on the table.  “There’s something you want just as much as you want Alex.”

The dyad purposefully crossed his arms, trying to remain nonchalant.  “What might that be?”

“The archangels.  Michael and Gabriel.”

Julian was momentarily speechless, he’d never expected to be offered this kind of bounty.  “Just what are you proposing?”

She had his full attention now.  “I can get them for you.  I have equipment – weapons and restraints – that can incapacitate and hold them.”

“They’re archangels, Commander.  I don’t think you understand just how strong, just how bulletproof they are.”

“Strong, but not invincible.  The Battle of Hoover Dam proved that angels are susceptible to electricity.  Ever since we found that out, my people have been working on weapons based on that premise.  These aren’t regular guns, they don’t shoot bullets.  They’re more like lightning bolts in a can, five times more powerful than a Taser.  And the restraints are based on the same principle; they disable the muscles to the shoulders and the wings.  They’re foolproof, and painful as hell.”  There was a certain satisfaction in the last statement. 

Julian’s eyes narrowed.  Charlotte could see he was tempted, but he was also cautious, perhaps burned before on a deal that seemed too good to be true.  “I’m not an idiot either, Commander.  I know that you’re Alex’s mother, but you’ve only just been reunited, you don’t really know each other that well.  I could understand that your relationship with him might be a little…tenuous.  Now what you’ve been doing with Gabriel on the other hand…”

“Oh.”  She looked up at him through her lashes, her bottom lip pouted out, her attitude suddenly submissive, no longer the woman in control.  “You heard about that.”

“Rumor has it that since you’ve arrived in Vega, you and Gabriel have been playing more than war games.  In fact, I’ve heard that he hasn’t slept in his own rooms for weeks.”

Interesting, she thought, proof that they hadn’t uncovered the only mole Julian had in Vega.  Once again, she shifted tactics, this time less dramatically.  She walked up to him slowly, one foot in front of the other, her hips swaying a bit more than they needed to.  “You know more about me than I expected.  Your network is quite impressive.”

“One can’t be too careful.”

“No, one can’t.”  She paused, looking him over as he had done to her earlier.  A gloved finger reached out and rested on the feather pendant he wore around his neck.  “And sometimes one must take extraordinary measures.  I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘sleeping with the enemy.’”

“Julia Roberts, Patrick Bergin, 1991.”  The dyad made a little rumbling noise in his chest as she continued to finger the pendant.  “Is that what it was?” 

“Really,” she said kittenishly, running her finger further down his chest toward his abdomen, “do I look like someone who would fall for an archangel?”

Julian tried to wrap his arms around her waist, but she managed to turn away from him so adroitly that he was left empty handed.  “You’re willing to give them up then, the archangels?” he asked, a little disconcerted at his failure.

“Oh, it won’t be a matter of giving them up.”  She’d managed to put the leather chair between them now and she eyed it as if she considered sitting down, taking up the power position he had abandoned.  “They’re going to follow their precious Chosen One wherever he goes.  If you give me what I want, I signal my people and Alex shows up here in a couple of hours.  The Wonder Twins won’t be too far behind.  Then we use my equipment to subdue and restrain them.  It’s really quite simple.”

“When you put it that way, yes.  Then again, what if I had my men kill you all?  I could take your equipment and go after the archangels myself.  That’s quite simple, too.”

“Why would you do that?  You don’t know where Alex is, and to be quite honest, I’ve heard the stories, your track record against Michael and Gabriel isn’t that good.  You don’t know how to set the manacles so they work properly; it would be the same story all over again.  Face it, you need me.  I’m offering a fair deal – guarantee that my people will be unharmed, no matter what, and I’ll make sure that you have the Chosen One and two archangels to do whatever you want to, plus I throw in the tanker.  Is it really that difficult of a decision?”

Julian thought about it for a moment, he squinted in concentration.  “Alright, you have a deal.  No harm will come to any of your people, provided that you deliver Alex, Michael and Gabriel to me.”

Charlotte laughed.  “Oh, not so fast.  You can talk all you want, but that doesn’t make it true.  I want to hear it from the source.  I want to meet this ‘associate’ of yours.  I want them to tell me.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.  My associate is very…private.”

She walked back toward him again, this time moving in to press her body against his side.  Her hand went up to pick up the feather pendant again, a subtle reminder of what she was willing to do, what she had already been able to do.  “I think you can make it happen,” she said, her voice low in his ear. “I have faith in you.”

 

 

The tanker arrived three hours later.  Julian was surprised to see it pulling up the overgrown path that had once been the driveway to the farmstead.  “What is that doing here?” he questioned, walking out of the front door of the big ranch.  He was irritated; this woman had an annoying habit of doing things her way, not how he wanted.  “Tell him to go to New Delphi, I don’t need that here.”

Charlotte followed him, her movements purposefully casual.  “He’ll go there next, but I think you might be interested in part of his cargo.”

The rig pulled up, a Kenworth sleeper festooned with chrome accents, with a full-size tanker behind it. Even under the collected road dust, Julian knew he hadn’t seen anything like it for years, even decades.  It parked facing into the dying rays of the sun, the light obscuring the driver.   Once it came to a complete halt, the passenger door opened cautiously and a small bulldog of man emerged, an M4A1 carbine in his hands.  He quickly scanned the half dozen eight-balls that had followed Julian out of the building.

“Commander,” he called in a strong New Jersey twang.  “Everything copacetic here?”

“Yes, it is, Major.  Everything is five-by-five.”

There was little to show that Silva relaxed when he heard the code phrase they had chosen, but Charlotte knew that his finger had come off the trigger.  “Would you like your package, ma’am?”

“Yes, gently if you please.  Campbell will help.”

Silva banged twice on the side of the cab, letting the driver know that the coast was clear.  Rudolfo would not leave his place behind the wheel, nor would he turn the engine off, but he, too, flicked the safety back on his weapon.

Campbell ran forward and jumped into the cab behind Silva.  The sunlight shining off the plate glass windshield made it difficult to see what was happening inside, but eventually, a pair of legs emerged, then with the help of Silva and Campbell, the rest of Alex Lannon.

Silva put a shoulder under one arm, and Campbell scurried down to do the same on the other side.  Alex’s head lolled to the side like a ragdoll as they half-carried, half-walked him over to his mother.

Julian looked at the semiconscious young man in concern.  “What did you do to him?”

Charlotte lifted Alex’s head with both her hands, gazing at eyes that were half open, seeing nothing.  “A little something in his drink to start with, then a steady diet of benzodiazepine and narcotic.  We didn’t want any trouble from him.”  She jerked her head toward the house.  “Take him inside and have Kelsey check him out.  Then Sylva, you can take the rig on to New Delphi.  Julian here will give you whatever passcodes you need to get through the gates, won’t you, Julian?"

Once again, the dyad had the annoying feeling that he was losing control of the situation.  “Yes, come back here when you’ve dropped the boy off and I’ll let you know what you need to do.”

Charlotte’s smile was dazzling.  “Half your delivery, Julian, as promised.  I don’t imagine the other half will be far behind.  Better get going on my side of the deal.”

 

 

Darkness fell and the crickets came out, sounding like a great chorus among the tall grasses that surrounded the ranch.  Jenkins had always marveled how the world had basically come to an end for humanity but the natural world had barely noticed.  In truth, it seemed happier without mankind’s constant intervention.  The crickets certainly had thrived without pesticides and chemicals, their song was almost earsplitting.

As previously arranged, he met his commander outside what had once been a pump house in a yard south of the main building.  He grimaced.  “We’re being watched, one of those damned eight-balls.”

Charlotte nodded but seemed distracted, staring at a window in the back of the farmhouse.  She sighed loudly, like blowing off pressure she’d been holding inside.  “I expected as much.  Keep your voice down.”

“I’ve got everything stowed in the kitchen area, all the equipment we might need.  I marked the manacles as you requested, should be easy to tell apart.”

“Get everything prepped, and when you’re done, move the extra vehicles into the barn, I don’t want it to look like we’re having a party.”

“Mum, I said I was done.  It’s all there, ready to use, and we moved the extra trucks a half hour ago.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she apologized, her gaze returning to him.  “I misunderstood.”

“No, mum, you didn’t.  You’re distracted, and you can’t afford to be.  With all due respect –”

“Jenkins…” she warned, cutting him off.

“No, I mean it.”  He put his hand on her arm, his voice low and serious.  “You don’t have to worry, you’ve got this.”

A soft smile replaced the stern look she had been giving him and she rested her own gloved hand on top of his.  “Thank you for that.  I don’t know if I believe you, but it’s nice to know somebody has faith in me.  I’m not sure that I do right now.”  She shook her head.  The confident, commanding presence that she had been projecting since they had arrived suddenly fell away.  “I don’t think I can do this.”

“You can, and you will, because you’re the strongest woman I know.”  He squeezed her arm.  “And because it has to be done.  You know that.”

She sighed again.  “You’re right.  We’ve been planning this for months, I can’t let a little case of nerves bring the whole show to a screeching halt.”

“It’s not nerves, mum.  You’ve never had a case of nerves in your entire life.”

“No, you’re right, it’s not nerves.  It’s fear.  I’ve never had to… to be this way before.  I’ve had to be tough, and I’ve even had to be merciless, but I’ve never had to be…”

“‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.’”

“Jenkins, are you quoting Nietzsche at me?”

His shoulders pulled up into a shrug.  “It seemed appropriate.”

“Very.”

“Then I’ll say it again, you don’t have to worry.  You’ll never be like them, you’ll never be one of the monsters.”

“Thank you.”  The words, thick with emotion, weren’t enough.  She pulled him into an impulsive hug.  “Oh, thank you, Malcolm.  I needed to hear that.”

Jenkins held her tightly, his eyes closed, trying to memorize the moment.  He knew all too clearly how precious it was, what a dangerous game they were about to play.  He held her, his commander, his partner, his friend.  He was afraid, too, but for quite different reasons.  No matter what, things would never be the same.

“Any day, mum,” he said, just before he forced himself to let go.  “Any day.”

 

 

Alex was in a comfortable, warm cocoon, nestled in dark, soft wool, floating weightlessly.  All of the pain and cares of the last few months had slipped away to be replaced by a feeling of peace and tranquility he could never remember having before.  Time had come to a standstill and he felt as if he could stay this way forever.  It was wonderful, perfect. 

Somewhere in the distance, he heard voices, but they were too far away to understand, and it didn’t really matter anyway.  There was a tug at his arm, a prick that almost hurt, but his arm felt like it belonged to someone else, and so it didn’t matter either.  Nothing really mattered.

The speakers drew nearer, became clearer.  He thought he could recognize one or two of them but putting voice to name was difficult and probably not worth the effort.  Still, they kept getting closer.

“I brought my medic along specifically for this purpose,” one voice said.

“Nothing’s happening,” said the other.  The voice gave Alex a cold feeling, like a handful of worms.  He noticed with growing alarm that his sense of peace was receding rapidly.

“We gave him two different drugs to keep him sedated so we have to give him two different reversal agents,” continued the first.  “He’s going to need another dose in 20 minutes or so, but I think that will probably be enough, he should remain lucid after that.”

The soft, tranquil darkness, the wonderful cocoon, they were all falling away.  Alex tried to grasp at it with his mind but it was like trying to catch a cloud.  Instead, he started to feel a cool hardness against his body, his legs and back.  A chair, he was sitting upright in a metal chair with an uncomfortably lumpy seat.  He tried to move his arms but they wouldn’t – no, they couldn’t, they were tied to the chair, as were his legs and feet.  His head wobbled drunkenly and it took effort to open his eyes, but he did, only to see –

Julian.

The dyad’s face was only inches away.  “Welcome back, Alex.”

Alex let his head fall back.  “is…bad dream,” he mumbled.

The dyad laughed.  “No, dreamtime’s over, you’ve had your fun.  Time to face reality now, time to make good on your destiny.”

Alex tried his tongue in his mouth, moving his jaw around to get a feeling for it, trying to get his eyes to both go the same direction.  It seemed like days since he had last spoken.  “Only destiny you…and I have…is me putting a sword through you.”

Julian spread the sides of his duster open dramatically.  “Didn’t you hear?  Gabriel already tried that one.”  He abruptly leaned in, his mouth next to Alex’s ear.  “Didn’t work.  But you,” he pulled back again, his voice full of false pomp, “The Chosen One, you think you can do better than an archangel?”

Alex, however, wasn’t listening.  Instead, his eyes wandered, partially of their own volition, and his attention drew past the dyad to the corner of the room where a group of oddly dressed people stood near the door.  One, a woman in a long, leather coat, lifted her gaze from the floor.

His heart dropped in his chest and his mind, still fogged by the remnants of drugs, struggled to understand.  “Mom?”

“Oh!” Julian cried.  “You’ve seen my other guests.  Well,” he said in a confidential way, “I hope to have even more soon, but we’ll see how that goes.  Yes, how do you think you got here, Alex?  Dear old mum brought you, trussed you up like a little piglet ready for a spit.”  He stroked Alex’s cheek.  “Maybe I should say lamb instead, what with that savior complex you’ve got going and all.  More appropriate.”  He winked.

The younger man struggled against the ropes in frustration, his vision, his thoughts becoming clearer but his situation more confusing.  “Mom?  What are you doing here?”

“Don’t you listen?”  Julian’s voice raised in irritation.  “She – brought – you – to – me!”  Each word was bitten off like the head of a bat.  He threw his hands up in the air and turned toward the group in the corner.  “Is he still stoned, can you please explain to the boy what’s going on?”

Charlotte eyed them both with a kind of weary resignation, then she walked back toward her son, hands on her hips, her coat pushed back, weapons exposed.  On one side, Alex could see the nickel-plated handgun she had pressed against his head during the training exercise.  On the other, twin daggers were strapped to her thigh. 

Alex couldn’t believe how changed his mother looked, like a completely different person.  It wasn’t only the leather coat, the tall boots and the tight jeans, it wasn’t the bizarre choice in weapons, it was her attitude, the way she held herself, the way she looked at him…with contempt.

“Is it really that hard to understand?” she asked disdainfully.  “Or do we need to up your dosage?   You’re the one who explained it to me, Alex – everything in New Delphi is a deal.  I needed to make a deal and you’re what I brought to the negotiations.” 

“What?” 

“You’re a bargaining chip, Alex.  Julian put a price on your head, and he had something I wanted.  Done deal.”

Even without the residual effects of the drugs, it was nearly impossible to Alex to understand.  His face contorted in confusion, then anger.  He tried to speak, stumbled, then tried again.  “You…you gave me up to him?  For what?  I’m your son.”

Charlotte leaned down over him, resting her hands on his knees and coming within inches of his face.  “Have you ever wondered why I didn’t look for you before?  Do you seriously believe I ever wanted to be a mother?  When I found out I was pregnant, it was the worst day of my life.  I would have gotten rid of you but every time I tried – ”  She stopped, standing up and breathing deeply.  “You were the result of a cold night and too much scotch, Alex.  You were a drunken mistake, nothing more.  The war gave me a second chance, do you honestly expect me to give up everything I worked for, my life, my people, for you?”

“Everything you said, it was all a lie?”

She threw her head back and laughed cruelly.  “Are you really that stupid?  It’s called acting, Alex.  I take that back, you are that stupid, because you fell for it, all of it.  Shit, I even started to tell you what I was doing, and you didn’t catch on.  Remember that little discussion we had on gathering intel on strength and weakness of your enemy?  You were so easy to play, I almost felt sorry for you.”

“Don’t feel too badly, Alex,” Julian joined in.  “I get the feeling the commander is a master at this sort of game.” 

Charlotte turned and glared at the dyad.  “I do what I need to stay alive.  Now we had a deal.  I brought you Alex, I even threw in the tanker.  I want to meet with this new player.  You said they would guarantee me safety for my people, now I want it done.”

It was time to take back this situation.  “All in good time, Commander.  You know that Alex was only part of the deal.”

“It’s out of my hands now.”

Julian turned away dramatically, his arms spread wide.  “Oh, my dear Commander, I don’t think you understand how this works.  A deal’s a deal, and I don’t see any archangels.  I couldn’t care less about Alex Lannon; he’s annoying, yes, but I’m merely picking up a package as far as he’s concerned.  Now, Michael and Gabriel, well, they’re another story completely.  We have a long, long history and more than a few scores to settle.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing them again.”

“They’ll be here!” she spat at him.  Her thumb jerked toward her son, still tied to the chair.  “Alex is here, Michael and Gabriel will do whatever’s necessary to find him.  He’s their precious Chosen One.”

Suddenly Julian was mere inches away from her.  “And you’re sure you can capture them?”

“I told you we have stunners and manacles, they’ll work on any angel.”

“These are archangels, they’re not just any angel!”

“They’ll work!  Do you want me to go to the kitchen and get them?  I’d be happy to demonstrate on you.” 

Without warning, Julian’s demeanor changed and he was once again smoothly genteel. “Commander.”  He lifted her gloved hand and brought it to his lips.  “We shouldn’t argue, we both want the same things.  Freedom for our people.  Life without the interference of the archangels.  We can do so much more together than separately.” 

“More?”  Charlotte backed down instantly.  She sounded intrigued.

“Oh, yes,” Julian continued.  “You and I, together.”

“Really?”  The commander pulled her hand out of the dyad’s and ran a gloved finger down his cheek.  “Are you talking about an alliance?”

“That could be discussed.”

“You realize that changes things considerably.”

He leaned the side of his face into her hand like a cat begging to be scratched.  “I’d like to see this be the beginning of our…working relationship.”

“In that case,” she paused, as if mulling over what to put on her Christmas list, then smiled sweetly.  “I want Vega.”

He pulled back.  “You want what?”

“I want Vega,” she purred again, tucking a finger under his chin and drawing him near once more.  “I’m sorry, Julian, I know that was originally your plan, but you’ve already proven your army can’t take the city by force.”

“You want our armies to attack together?”

“No, it’s not necessary.  With Alex, Michael and Gabriel gone, there’ll be a power vacuum in Vega.  The people will be desperate for a leader, and to be perfectly honest, the military is already smitten with me.  I can step in easily, if there’s a reason.”

A sly grin spread across his face.  “You want me to supply the reason.”

“That’s the idea.”

“A diversionary war.  Wag the Dog.”

“I’m sorry, what?

“1997, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DiNiro.”

“Yes, something like that.”  She wasn’t sure what he was referencing but she knew the concept well enough.  “We make the people of Vega so worried about one thing that they forget about another, in this case so concerned about their security that they forget they know very little about me.  They bring me in as leader, then gradually, my people move in.”

“I like the way you think,” Julian smirked.  “Take the city from the inside.  That’s rather ingenious.”

Charlotte Lannon gave him a long, solemn look.  “I told you, Julian, I do what I need to.  I take care of my people.  All of them.”

 

 

Alex felt like running, felt more like running than he’d ever felt before, like running away was the only reasonable course of action, the only way to deal with what he had just heard.  In the past, he’d run: run from danger, run from commitment, run from his destiny, but sooner or later he’d always returned.  Now he wanted to run and run and run and never look back, never come back, never return to the hell his life had become.

Bound to the chair, ankles tied to the legs, he couldn’t run.  He couldn’t even turn away from the scene as his mother – no, he couldn’t call her that anymore – as Commander Lannon bargained him away to Julian.  The horror of it had gone on and on, shocking him into silence.  First, she betrayed him, her own son, then she betrayed Michael and even Gabriel. 

For what?  She wanted Vega!  She wanted to rule Vega!  She was just like the rest of them, like David Whele and all the other upper V’s, only interested in power.  His own mother.

Charlie…

He felt sick.  He wasn’t sure if it was the drugs they’d been pumping into him for a day and a half or the nightmare he’d awakened to.  His medic guard had given him another dose of whatever antidote they were using and he felt nearly lucid, but now he only craved the warm comfort of the dream world he had been in.  At least in that drug-induced haze he hadn’t realized, hadn’t known who had betrayed him, and why.

Maybe, just maybe, he was still under the effects of the drugs.  If that were true…

“None of this is real,” he lied to himself, hanging his head forlornly, the ropes around his shoulders digging into his skin.  “None of this is real.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

 

 

Twenty miles outside of New Delphi

 

Gabriel and Michael landed a quarter mile from the ranch, the darkness of night cloaking their flight.  It had been a painful decision, but they had chosen to head toward New Delphi first.  The possibility of Julian’s involvement was too great, especially when they had seen the numerous tread marks heading in that direction.  Now, twenty miles outside of the dyad’s stronghold, their worst fears were beginning to take on the strength of reality.

The sliver of moon offered the barest illumination over the tangle and scrub that surrounded the buildings.  Ahead, four vehicles faced the main farmhouse, but they were in disarray, parked at odd angles with doors open. The two angels could smell the aftereffects of explosives, burnt tinder and scorched grass, gunpowder.

“I don’t like this, Michael,” Gabriel growled.  “Those are Wildcat trucks, yes, but there’s no one about.  Whatever happened, Charlotte would post a sentry if she could.”

His brother had to agree.  With his keen angelic eyesight, he could see no guard, no one at all.  It made no sense; above all else, Commander Lannon was a superior tactician, too smart to leave their flanks unguarded.  Something had gone wrong.  “Perhaps you were right and she did go after Alex.”

Gabriel grasped at his arm.  “I told you, she would not betray me.  Now she needs our help.  Julian – I should have taken his head off when I had the chance.  If he harms her or Alex…”  With his other hand, he pulled out his sword, the steel ringing like a bell in the cool darkness of the night.  Michael could see the tendons of his knuckles even in the pale moonlight, so tightly did he hold the grip.  The corner of Gabriel’s mouth turned up in a cruel smirk.  “If he harms them, he’ll wish I had.”

Michael reached down and drew both his swords.  He could feel his blood start to sing with call of war but there was another feeling, even more primal, that made his heart beat faster, prouder.  He stood next to Gabriel to once more fight Julian, to fight with his brother, not against him, and now, unlike the last time, their final goal was the same.  It had been a very long time since he had felt this kind of camaraderie with a member of his family.

It didn’t matter whether he was right or wrong about Charlie, what mattered most was that he and Gabriel were on the same side.  Together with Alex, he almost felt like they had a chance.  But first, they needed to rescue the Chosen One.

Michael pointed his sword toward the farmhouse where a few lights shone through scattered windows.  “As brothers, then?”

Gabriel grinned, the bloodlust that sparked in his eyes making it a brutal, fearsome sight, and drew up the hood of his leather duster.  “As brothers.”

 

 

Julian had taken his place in the leather chair, reclining it as far back as it would go.  He crossed his feet and lay back with his arms folded across his chest, eyes closed, an air of contentment settling over his features.  Finally, it was all going to come together.

Across the room, Jenkins sat with his commander in a pair of metal chairs that matched the one that Alex had been strapped to.  Around them, a motley collection of Wildcats and soldiers from Delphi stood.  They were all waiting, some more patiently than others. 

Alex sat in another corner, still bound but now gagged, guarded by two eight-balls with short, deadly looking weapons.  He never stopped looking, watching.  The effects of the drugs had fully worn off and he was almost hyper-alert.  Every time his gaze fell on his mother, she could feel the cold burn of his rage.

Charlotte angled her chair away from the rest of the room, from Alex.  “I hate waiting.”

“You always have.”  Jenkins pulled the cheroot out of the corner of his mouth and spun it between his fingers.  Tobacco flakes fell to the floor in a tiny brown snowfall.  “These things don’t get any better with age.”

Charlotte suppressed a smile.  “Good thing the war came along or you might have died of lung cancer.”

He rolled his eyes.  “Remind me to thank Gabriel for that.”

“Speaking of,” she said, still quietly.  “I expected him by now.”

“Have faith, mum.  Everything in time.”

As if he had heard their conversation, one of Julian’s eight-ball sentries took that moment to walk into the room and toward his boss.  He leaned down and whispered into the dyad’s ear.  The relaxed look of satisfaction bloomed into a toothy grin.  “Thank you, Morax.  Get the men ready, will you?”

Charlotte was amazed at how gracefully Julian leapt out of the recliner; from her experience, they were never easy to extricate oneself from.  “Head’s up, people!” he announced.  “We have a couple of visitors coming in.”  Like an old-time movie impresario, he waved his arms in the air grandly.  “Places everyone!”

 

 

Gabriel was a formidable warrior and brilliant military leader, but the one thing his brother had never been able to teach him was stealth.  They approached the back door of the farmhouse quietly enough, finding not a soul in sight, but when they reached it, Gabriel sent it exploding inward with one mighty kick of his booted foot.  It sounded like a mortar blast had gone off.

The two archangels entered a small room that had once been a laundry area, complete with cast iron utility sink and sagging cabinets.  A man in fatigues and a ratty poncho was just entering the room to investigate the noise when Gabriel caught him by the neck and forced the side his ragged head into the wall of the sink, making a distinctive “thunk.”  The man slipped to the floor, unconscious.

“One down,” Gabriel announced.  “You worked with Charlotte’s people, do you recognize him?”

“No,” Michael said.  “He looks more like Julian’s.”

“Agreed.  I don’t think we need bother to interrogate.”

They stepped over the slumped body and were just about to leave the tiny room when another figure appeared in the doorway.  With both hands, Gabriel quickly grabbed the newcomer around the head and wrenched violently to the side.  A gruesome crack erupted from his neck and that body, too, fell unmoving to the floor. 

The archangel stared down at his handiwork.  He looked pleased.  “Eight-ball.  Definitely one of Julian’s.”

Michael pondered the still form.  “We need to find Alex.  I don’t know what Julian has planned for him, but it can’t be good.”

“We need to find both of them, Alex and Charlotte, and then we need to send that forsaken dyad back to the ether where he belongs.”

They moved along a hallway, as quietly as Michael could get his brother to be, and toward the main part of the house.  Strangely, they found no other guards or personnel, and it made Michael nervous. Something wasn’t right.

From the far end of a long hallway, they could hear commotion up ahead.  Gabriel made to rush forward but his brother held him back.  Then they both heard Charlotte’s voice, a strangled yelp of pain, and there was no way that Michael could hold his brother at bay.

The two angels ran the rest of the way toward the large open area that had once been the living and dining rooms and burst through the arched doorway with swords drawn.  What they found there was alarming.  Wildcats lay scattered about on the floor or slumped against walls, Julian’s soldiers standing over them with rifles and handguns.  In one corner, Alex was bound to a chair, a crude gag shoved in his mouth, his eyes wide and imploring, an eight-ball holding a submachine gun to his head. 

Gabriel’s first instinct was to run into the room, his sword slashing, but he stopped as Julian came out from behind a corner. 

The dyad’s arm was wrapped around Charlotte’s waist and he pressed a short, curved blade against her neck.  “Gabriel, Gabriel,” he called out mockingly.  “Always rushing in where other angels fear to tread.”

Michael came up immediately behind his brother, his keen mind assessing the situation in milliseconds.  The feeling that there was something deeply wrong had not left him.  He looked down at the Wildcats strewn across the floor, their weapons flung away from them.  Alex, his eyes huge, shook his head violently, trying to scream through the gag, his fear evident.  On the other side of the room, Charlotte stood pressed again Julian, her head tipped back, her hands out to the side in surrender.  She’d never had the chance to draw a weapon.

No, that wasn’t right…

He remembered the hostage rescue exercise, the gleaming silver gun pressed to Alex’s head…

…there was no blood….

“Gabriel, it’s a trap!” he shouted, but an instant too late.  The supposedly unconscious Wildcats at their feet turned over suddenly, strange black pistols in their hands, and fired.  Twin wires shot out from each weapon, burrowing into the archangels’ skin, into Michael’s chest and Gabriel’s thigh.  Simultaneously, massive electric current coursed through the archangels’ bodies, arching their backs and sending their arms flying open.  It went on for excruciating seconds until both of them fell onto the floor, their limbs still convulsing spasmodically, swords falling from their hands, eyes wide with shock and pain.

“Brilliant!”  Julian shouted as he pulled his arms from around Charlotte and slid the knife into his belt.  He rubbed his hands together in glee.  “You told me that they would work, Commander, but I never expected that they would work so well!  I have to say, this is better than anything I’ve got, I must purchase a few from you.”

“Not for sale.”  Charlotte’s voice was taut as she stared at the two archangels on the floor.  She rubbed the back of her hand along her neck where the dyad had pressed the blade of the knife in a little too hard, causing her to cry out in pain.

Her head jerked toward her Wildcats, now off the floor and re-armed.  “You’ve only got about a minute before the stun effect starts wearing off.  I want those manacles on them before they regain any control.  Don’t disengage the barbs until you get them tied up in case you need to hit them again.”

Four men went immediately to work.  Both Michael and Gabriel were disoriented, weak and unable to control their limbs, their bodies’ electrical systems still overloaded.  The Wildcats dragged them across the floor into nearby chairs, set them down and drew their arms around toward the back.  Each archangel was fit with a set of the thick manacles, their wrists and forearms encased in the gleaming metal.  Rope was quickly wrapped around their chests and tied off, fastening them to the chairs.  

Charlotte watched as they gradually became more lucid, Gabriel recovering faster than his brother.  She motioned one of her men over.  He checked Michael’s pulse at his neck, then lifted the archangel’s eyelid, flashing a light into it.  “He’s fine,” the medic announced.  “Just slow to recover.”

The Wildcat moved toward Gabriel.  “If you touch me,” Gabriel croaked out, his voice gravelly, his eyes still closed, “it will be the last thing you ever do.”

Charlotte shook her head, waving the medic off.  She watched Gabriel for a moment.  It seemed that he was sitting still, but she knew that wasn’t true.  The corded muscles in his neck and jaw belied the effort he was expending trying to do something she knew was impossible. 

“Give it up,” she finally said.  “It won’t work.”

He opened his eyes and looked up at her through the hair that had fallen over his face.  If he hadn’t been tied up and in agony, he might have appreciated the sight as she stood before him.  The tight green top and jeans hugged the curves of her well-toned body, and the tall boots and long leather coat… well, leather had always been his favorite. 

“It seems to be working for you,” he muttered sardonically, letting his eyes close again.  “You’ve got all sorts of new friends.”

She leaned in closer, her voice low in his ear.  “I know what you’re doing, Gabriel.  Stop wasting your energy.  That pain you feel?  That’s the electric manacles, the same thing we just hit you with but at a different level.  They won’t let you use your wings, you simply can’t, so stop trying.  You can smash the chair and use your head as a battering ram and take out everyone in this room, but you can’t use your wings and you won’t get out of them.  Eventually somebody will take you down, you can’t get away.  Be smart, just give it up.”

“Your invention?” he asked.

“My design, yes.”

“Clever girl.”  He opened his eyes again but she was already walking away. 

“Gabriel.”  Michael’s voice was as hoarse as his was; the involuntary convulsions must have affected even their throats.

“Yes, brother, I’m here.  Don’t struggle, they’ve got us in some kind of contraption.  It’s not worth the effort.”

“It was a trap,” Michael continued, his voice weak but getting stronger.  “There was no blood, there was no battle.”  He had realized that in this scenario Charlotte had been unarmed, her weapons still in their holsters, but there was no way she would have failed to draw with the rest of her troops.  “It was all just an act.”

“I know.”  The sound of defeat in Gabriel’s voice was nearly heartbreaking.  “She used Alex to lure us here.  She’s working with Julian.”

The dyad seemed to know they were talking about him.  He sauntered over, gloating like a schoolboy with all the marbles.  “A regular reunion, isn’t it?  First Alex comes to visit, and then you two.  I feel so popular.”

“You don’t need him, you’ve got us now,” Michael responded, his strength gradually returning, pulling against his ropes in frustration.  “Your grievance is with us, Julian, let Alex go.”

“Oh, no, no.  We’ve got big plans for Charlotte’s little boy.” He turned back toward her.  “Don’t we, love?”

Her hand waved toward two other Wildcats, then at her son.  “Untie him from the chair, take the gag out.  He’s not going anywhere, especially when we have his two friends here.” 

Gabriel noticed the coolness in her voice, the casual, almost lazy sense of command.  It was a side of her that he was not familiar with, even the way she walked was different.  Then again, none of this was familiar to him, he still could not believe what he was seeing.  Her troops seem to have taken on equally alternate personalities.  They were dressed quite ridiculously, even the normally staid Jenkins.

Interesting though, he thought to himself, she’d said “two friends.”  Obviously, she’d kept Gabriel’s real relationship to Alex to herself.

Alex hadn’t been silent throughout the attack on the two archangels, but the gag had muffled even his most ardent protestations.  However, as soon as they pulled the sodden cloth from his mouth, he started up again.  “They’re working together, Michael!  She’s going to take Vega!”

“Oh really, Alex!”  Julian threw up his arms in disbelief.  “We give you a little freedom and you abuse it.  Charlotte, I realize you haven’t had much of a say in his upbringing, but he is your son, can’t you keep him quiet?”

She gave a long-suffering sigh.  “Jenkins, if Alex says another word, would you please out a bullet through Michael’s head?”

“Yes, mum.”  The XO moved toward the other side of the room and pulled out a SIG 9mm.  He held it at ease behind the archangel’s chair.

“Alex?” she questioned.  “Do you have anything else to say?”

The young man glared at her, the hatred that blazed in his eyes palpable, but he remained silent.

“That’s better.  Now, Julian.”  She walked over to the dyad, her movements fluid and sensual, warming up where she had previously been cold as ice.  She dropped two small keys into his hand.  “Everyone’s here except for your associate.  I’ve held up my side of the bargain, what about yours?”

“I told you, in time, m’ dear.  To be honest, I didn’t expect to have things wrapped up so tidily so soon.  If the manacles work as well as your little stun guns, I won’t have any problem getting these two back to New Delphi.”

Her eyes sparkled coyly.  “Oh, they’ll work just as designed.  I don’t think we’re going to have any problems with that.”

Michael was getting even more desperate.  “Gabriel and I will go with you willingly, Julian, let Alex go.”

The dyad turned on them explosively. “This!”  He stormed over to the two archangels.  “This is the problem!  You act like you’re more important than anyone else, that this is all about you.  You and I both know that Alex has a destiny, he has a purpose, and I’m going to help him fulfill it.  Not you, Michael, me!”

“Alex’s purpose is to bring humans and angels together!”

“And so he shall!  He already is, just look at us here, working together to capture you two!”  Julian leaned in until he was a few inches from Michael’s face.  “You’ve been holding him back, Michael.  He has a greater destiny than you’ve let him know.  I’m going to take him to the one who can help him reach that.  A different archangel.”

“Lucifer.”

“Yes, big brother himself.”  The dyad stood up again.  “I’ve found that Lucifer and I have quite a bit in common – unfairly cast out of heaven, damned to darkness by a self-righteous hypocrite, that sort of thing.  He’s got the right ideas, Michael, he feels the same way I do about things.  It’s time my brothers and sisters stop living under the yoke of the higher angels, subject to their whims, under their rule.  Lucifer wants to free us all, humans and angels, to live our lives without your moral superiority getting in the way of everything we do.”

“He wants anarchy.”

“He wants freedom!”  Julian’s voice rose to a screech, then he stopped, breathing slowly, regaining control.  “Lucifer wants what’s best for us all, and I’m going to help him get it.”

“By sacrificing the Chosen One.”

The dyad threw his hands up nonchalantly.  “If you want to make an omelet…”

Michael let his gaze fall to the floor.  He tried to flex his arms, his wings, but it was as impossible as Gabriel had warned him.  He looked up to find Julian settling into a large leather chair, his feet raised comfortably. 

The archangel’s eyes travelled over toward Alex.  The young man had lost the anger that had burned in him before.  Julian’s callous disregard for his life, the desperation of their circumstances, it had been just too much, and he slumped in his captors’ arms.  Michael had never seen the young man so defeated looking; he couldn’t decide if he wanted to scream or cry.

He finally turned his gaze to Alex’s mother, his expression filled with nothing short of contempt.  “I can’t believe that you’re part of this, Charlie.  You bore the Chosen One in your womb,” he spat out.  “How could you turn your back on him?  How could you do that to all of us?”

The commander froze, her back toward the archangel, but Alex answered instead.  “Don’t bother, Michael,” he said quietly from across the room.  “She doesn’t care, it was all an act.  We’re nothing to her, I’m nothing to her.” 

“Mum?”  Jenkins asked, his gun raised toward the Michael’s head.  He’d had orders.

Charlotte pursed her lips.  “Stand down, Jenkins, that won’t be necessary.”

Alex continued, getting louder.  “Why don’t you tell him what I really was?  Just a drunken mistake, isn’t that what you said, Mom?”  The last word dripped with melancholy bitterness.

Gabriel’s head snapped up.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  A drunken mistake?

Michael, on the other hand, looked as if he had been gut-punched.  “Father chose you, Charlie.  He chose you to be Alex’s mother.”

Suddenly Charlotte whirled to face him, eyes blazing.  “Your ‘father’ never did me any favors, so don’t give me any of that bullshit.”  Then, with deliberate slowness, she walked over and set her foot on the seat of the chair between his legs.  She leaned over, resting her hand on her raised knee.  Her voice was malevolently icy.   “If you think leaving me knocked up and alone with nowhere to go was some kind of goddamned honor, you’ve got another thing coming.”  Slowly, she leaned toward him, her face moving near, never looking down, the hard sole of her boot drawing down dangerously toward his crotch.  Every male in the room watched in fearful anticipation.  “And you will do me the courtesy of using my title of Commander.”

Michael said nothing, did nothing but glare back.  The moment stretched on until the side of the Charlotte’s mouth twitched up into a self-satisfied smirk and she straightened back up.  Then, without warning, the foot that had been on the chair seat jerked up and planted firmly into the archangel’s chest, sending him and the chair crashing backwards.

Alex dived forward, struggling to get loose while Gabriel helplessly watched his brother hit the floor.  Michael’s head bounced violently off the rock-hard wood and his bound arms smashed between the floor and the back of the chair.  The chair strained but did not break.  Less could be said of the archangel as he lay there, moaning, dazed, his eyes unfocused.

“You bitch!”  Alex lunged at her as she walked past but Julian’s guards had him well in hand.

Charlotte glanced up at Jenkins, standing only a few feet away from the tipped chair.  Only he saw the split-second of doubt that flashed across her features, the clenched fists, the deep breath.  His head bobbed in the tiniest of nods – she could do this, she had to do this.  He watched as the steel returned to her spine and her expression hardened.

Julian threw his hands in the air and laughed.  “Oh, I love it!  Family drama!  It really is where we get all our best stories, isn’t it?  Trust me, Alex, parents are never what we expect them to be.  Am I right, Michael?”  He waited for an answer but heard nothing.  “I guess he doesn’t want to talk about it, always was the stoic type, wasn’t he?  What these two couldn’t teach you about daddy issues, Alex.”  He watched as Alex stared horrified at Michael’s still form.  “Oh, that’s right, you don’t know your daddy, do you?  The Chosen One is a true bastard.  Well, maybe we can get mum here to tell us, cheer you up.”

Charlotte turned her back on the archangels and crossed behind the dyad, leaning her elbows on his shoulders.  The fingers of one gloved hand traced along his collar and down his breastbone.  She pressed her face to the side of his head and spoke in a low, sultry voice.  “As much as I hate to admit it, that was a long time ago, and after a while, well, they all sort of blend together.”

Julian sprang from the chair gracefully, spinning around to her side.  He grasped her hand, turned it over and kissed the inside of her wrist, never taking his eyes from hers.  “Gabriel,” he called, the side of his mouth still against the exposed skin.  “You’ve been remarkably silent.  That’s not like you.  I’d have expected at least one insult by now, unless…”

“Unless I haven’t figured out what kind of crazy you are today,” Gabriel deadpanned, looking up from Michael’s unmoving figure.  “Diagnosis is difficult when there are so many choices.”

“There we go!”  Julian flung his arms up in the air again, releasing Charlotte’s hand.  “Now it’s a party.”  He glanced at Michael still on the floor.  “Oh, do pick him up, will you?  He’s not dead, we’re not that lucky.”  Two of his eight-balls righted the chair, and the archangel did his best to focus.  Julian went back over to slap his cheek.  “Come on now, you don’t want to miss everything, do you?”

It took an extraordinary force of will for Michael to concentrate enough to fix his eyes on the dyad, then on the rest of the room.  He could see Alex, now held by two strong guards.  The young man struggled, but it was a half-hearted attempt.  The despair Michael had seen before was returning.  Some of it no doubt had to do with the circle of men and women that had gradually filled the room, Wildcats and eight-balls and Julian’s other troops, all armed and waiting for instruction.

Michael blinked once and again, trying to focus – his head had hit the floor harder than he thought.  He watched as Julian walked back to Alex’s mother and wrapped an arm around her waist, overly familiar.  It made him ill.  He was sure Alex felt the same way.

The only comfort was Gabriel sitting next him, still tied to the chair, yes, and still bound by the infernal electric manacles.  His brother’s chin was thrust forward menacingly as it always was when he was angry, and he glared from beneath his brow, but strangely, only at Julian.  The glances that Gabriel would take at Alex’s mother were filled more with questions than fury.  Michael didn’t understand: why wasn’t his brother fuming at Charlie when she was the one who had put them in this situation?

“Now Gabriel,” the dyad continued.  “Where were we?  Ah, yes, I believe I was wondering why you’ve been so silent. We’ve all heard the rumors – you and the commander here, you dog.”  He jerked her middle and pulled her uncomfortably closer.  “Are you really going to sit there and say nothing while I take your woman away from you?”

Gabriel’s eyebrow rose as he watched Charlotte none-too-delicately remove Julian’s hand from her waist.  His lip curled up and he laughed haughtily.  “Good luck with that one, Julian.  The commander may be a traitorous whore, but she will never belong to any man.”

The room grew uncomfortably silent.  Relieving herself of the dyad’s grasp, Charlotte sauntered slowly back over toward the two archangels, her steps as carefully placed as a model on a catwalk.  Her eyes met Gabriel’s and held them for almost a full minute before her hand swung violently across his face, the fine leather making a resounding crack as it hit his cheek.

He took longer than she expected to recover, his face turned away as he worked his jaw experimentally, running his tongue along the inside of his lip and tasting blood.  Finally, he turned to look at her again, sullenly peering up at her from under his brow.  “I imagine you’ve been waiting to do that for some time.”

“Decades.”

“Feeling better?”

Her arm rose to backhand him again, but then she thought twice of it.  Instead, she reached and took his lower face in her gloved hand, squeezing tightly as she raised his head up to look at her.  He was nearly helpless with his arms still bound in the electric manacles and roped to the chair.  She could feel the muscles of his jaw clenching while his nostrils flared and his eyes blazed. 

“Really, we mustn’t,” he sneered salaciously, “not in front of the children.”

She answered by swinging her leg over his and landing heavily on his hips.  There was no way the angel could avoid a grunt of pain and his eyes shot open.  Still holding his face, she leaned against him, pressing her breasts against his chest plate.

Her eyes locked on his, only inches apart, then travelled down and up his body.  “It was fun, I’ll give you that.”  She let out a contented sigh, leaning even closer. 

He grimaced and squirmed in her grasp, trying vainly to move away.  “I hope you enjoyed yourself,” he rumbled.

“Oh, I did.”  She grabbed his chin and forced his face to the side, then flicked her tongue out and licked his cheek.  “I like the taste of archangel,” she hissed between clenched teeth.

Gabriel’s teeth ground as she swung her leg off of him, pushing him back in the chair and nearly sending it toppling over like his brother’s.  He glowered at her sullenly as she walked back toward the dyad. 

Charlotte looked around the room.  Julian and his minions were nearly salivating over her performance, just as she had hoped.  Both Michael and Alex looked as if they were about to be sick.  Her troops had managed to position themselves evenly around the space.  Things were going according to plan.

She once again strolled seductively toward the dyad, sliding her hands up over his shoulders and down his back, resting them there with fingers splayed.  She sighed.  “I’m bored, Julian.  I don’t want to play with archangels any more, it’s not like they’re any threat with the manacles on.  When are we going to meet this contact of yours?  You said they would be here.  I want to get this over with and get back to my people.  I have things to do.”  She emphasized the last sentence.

“Soon, love,” Julian placated.  “Not the type you hurry, if you know what I mean.”  He gave a slightly nervous smile.  Once again, he tried to grasp her, only to have her slip through his hands like smoke.  Like everyone else he watched her pace the room, a caged black panther in leather and heels.  “Soon.”

 

 

Jenkins had caught the signal – the commander’s hands on the dyad’s back.  Seven fingers meant that they had just over half the battery life left on the manacles; they tended to drain fast in the beginning, especially if the captive struggled.  How their creators had come up with this testing method still boggled his mind.  Originally, they had planned to use a galvanic skin sensor to test the strength of the manacle battery, but Charlotte hadn’t wanted to be that obvious, she’d insisted on alternate methods.  Jenkins mentally shook his head – what nutcase had decided that licking was good option?  And who volunteered to be put into electric manacles and then licked by a scientist, or worse, their commanding officer?  But it had worked, and they had added that option to their game plan.

Although now, watching Charlotte as she prowled around the room, a strange seductive mélange of commandant and dominatrix, the XO thought he just might have put himself on the list of test subjects for that particular experiment.  It would have been worth the pain.

Jenkins wet his lips, trying to keep his expression blank.  Dyad or not, Julian had no chance, he simply didn’t know it yet.

 

 

The most difficult thing was avoiding their eyes.

Charlotte had been a fairly successful actress in college, one of those people who were just starting to create a “buzz.”  Being a pragmatist, she’d always had her fallback psychology degree planned, and living on her own she’d been forced to work when many of her fellow acting students had been performing in small, local shows, but she had had enough exposure that people were starting to remember her face, her name.  People that mattered.  She had hoped that when she graduated in the spring of 2016 she would have been able to say goodbye to the diner (as difficult as that would be) and pick up a counseling job that would let her do more weekend plays, fill her resume.  She was a good actress, she just had to prove it.

She was proving it now.

It was a toss-up whether the role of Julian’s sex-kitten partner was more difficult than that of Alex’s uncaring bitch of a mother, but both of them were taking it out of her.  Then there was Gabriel.  There was more than one time that she’d had to grab a chair (or in one case Jenkins) to keep from running across the room to the aid of her son or her husband.  Years of command, difficult decisions and hard choices had given her a steel backbone but it had never completely removed her humanity, and she was proud of it.  Nothing, however, had prepared her for a situation like this.

She felt their eyes upon her, felt the searing hatred from Alex, from Michael.  And from Gabriel?  In that long moment that they’d stared at each other while she straddled him, she thought – no, she prayed – that he’d seen beyond the surface, beyond the agony she was putting him through, but it was impossible to tell.  Enigmatic at the best of times, anger and pain made reading him hopeless right now.

Just a little longer.  They were near the end, the dénouement she’d been working on for months.  It was all going to be worth it in the end, she had to keep going.

This was the most important performance of her life.  For a little while, at least, she’d have to keep working to avoid their eyes.

 

 

The sky was just beginning to lighten in the east, the precursor to dawn, and everyone was waiting for the Morning Star.  Outside the farmhouse, dual pairs of sentries prowled the grounds, one from New Delphi, one set of Wildcats.  Inside the house, things were quieter than they’d been for hours, blanketed in a thick layer of tension and anticipation.

Over the course of the day, Charlotte had sent her troops off to rest in shifts.  She herself had slept on the trip from Vega, the habit of “catching sleep when you can” ingrained into her early in the war.  Now she sent her Wildcats either off to bed down for a few hours or to tend to the vehicles and weaponry.  With the archangels secured, she stated, there was no reason for half a platoon to remain in the house. 

Julian had nestled back into the leather recliner, pulling a scantily clad female eight-ball over him like a comforter.  He eyed Charlotte hungrily while he stroked the eight-ball’s long hair and ran his fingers across her exposed skin.  His fantasies were only too obvious.

The dyad had also let many of his people wander off to rest while they waited for the last member of the negotiations to arrive.  Seeing the archangels try, and fail, to move in the manacles, he’d felt confident that a nominal guard was sufficient.  Besides, he still had the Chosen One.

Alex had finally fallen asleep, strapped back into the metal chair in the far corner of the dining area.  The sight of his father and his mentor, both powerful archangels and both now reduced to the role of merchandise in a contract negotiated by his own mother, had been too much for him.  Hatred and anger could only sustain him for so long, eventually the adrenaline faded away and exhaustion had taken its toll.

Michael watched him sleep from the other side of the room.  The violent impact with the floor coming so soon after the electrical assault caused by the Wildcat weapon had hurt more than usual.  The archangel had been left feeling weak and disoriented.  Over the course of the last few hours, he had recovered somewhat but not as well as he had expected.  The greatest problems, of course, were his arms and wings.  Despite Gabriel’s warnings, he’d tried time and time again to overcome the infernal manacles, to no avail.  Frustrated, fatigued and in pain, he’d finally given up a few hours ago.

Now, like his brother, he sat off to the side of the room, head hung low, without a plan or even the beginning of the plan.  “Gabriel, are you sleeping?” he whispered, although there was no one with ten feet to hear.

 “No,” Gabriel grumbled.  “I don’t think this is the time for sleeping.”

“Lucifer could arrive at any time.  We can’t let him take Alex.”

“I’m well aware, brother.  It is the entire reason we came here.”

“It’s these manacles, they’re so effective, Julian hasn’t even bothered to guard us.”  Michael’s brows lifted around a grimace of pain.  “It’s rather insulting.”

The ghost of smile flitted across Gabriel’s features.  Michael was finally learning to find humor in the face of danger.  There might be hope for him yet.  “Charlotte’s little toys are quite ingenious, and well made.  The only improvement would be to make them of empyrean steel.”

“They’re not?” 

“No.  Too heavy for aluminum, I’d say probably stainless steel.  The current doesn’t seem to go through the manacles as much as into our arms.  They’re not wired to anything, they run on some kind of battery.”

“What difference does that make?”

A slow, knowing look grew across Gabriel’s face.  “Haven’t you noticed anything?  The pain?”

Michael frowned, then tilted his head to the side.  His brother could see understanding bloom in his eyes.

“Don’t say anything,” Gabriel whispered.  “We don’t want their attention, but if this continues…”

“A design flaw.”  Michael looked vindicated.  “One that we can exploit.”

“Exploit, yes, but a flaw?  No, I don’t think so.”  For a moment, Gabriel sat and watched Charlotte as she discussed some matter with her XO.  Her expressive hands were still covered in the fine leather gloves.  He’d never known her to wear gloves, and yet she hadn’t taken them off.  And that strange behavior from last night – licking his face?  They’d done many things in the bedroom (the memories brought him a momentary flicker of warmth) but that one seemed out of character.  Too many things were too far out of the norm.  Even for someone who had abandoned her friends and family, her behaviors were bizarre.  Too bizarre.  She’d been avoiding his eyes since their verbal sparring match and he hadn’t been able to get a read on what lay behind them.  There had to be another reason for what she was doing, and maybe he had just found it.

“No,” he continued, “I think they were made exactly according to design.”

 

 

Word arrived like a children’s game of telephone, passed from one sentry to another and another and finally whispered into Julian’s ear as he reclined in the big chair.  He shoved the female eight-ball off him unceremoniously.  “How far?” he demanded.

The last messenger gave him a mumbled answer and slunk away.  Julian’s mouth twitched to the side, although it was difficult to say whether it was out of nerves or happiness.

He took a quick inventory of the space.  There were a half dozen Wildcats hanging about doing whatever Wildcats did, and seven of his own people, plus the two archangels, the commander and her XO off in the corner.  Her son dozed in a chair in what had been the formal dining room.  That would have to be fixed; he couldn’t turn over his prize in less than peak physical form. 

“Alex,” he said, walking over and tapping the boy’s face less than gently.  “Alex, wake up.  You’re about to have a visitor.  Time to put on your traveling shoes.”

Alex’s head snapped up but his eyes remained unfocused.  However, it took less than a second of seeing the dyad before he was lucid enough to remember where he was and why.  “Go to hell, Julian.  Oh, wait, you’re bringing hell here.”

“Oh, Alex.  Your quaint human attempts to understand our reality have always made me smile.  George Burns as God, a sweet kindly old man.  Tim Curry as Lucifer, all red devil and horns.  Things are very different than what you think they are.  You’ll understand.  Soon.”  Julian laughed and patted his face again, then sauntered away chuckling.

Alex hadn’t understood what the dyad had been rambling about, but as he watched him stroll confidently away, he was more afraid than ever.

“Make sure the front door is open, I don’t want to seem inhospitable,” Julian bellowed to one of his human guards.  “And please, do something about your hair; you look like you combed it with an egg beater.”

Given Julian’s rather laissez-faire attitude toward his own style, Charlotte was surprised to hear him say this, but it spoke volumes to the dyad’s mindset.  He was still an underling, a servant longing to please his master.  As much as he wanted to convey the idea that he and Lucifer were on equal footing in this deal, it simply wasn’t true.

Charlotte turned toward Jenkins.  They’d been quietly going over plans for the last two hours, plans that had nothing to do with what was really going to happen next.  Now she looked at him gravely.  “You really think we can pull this off.”

“I do, mum.”  He tilted his head toward the other side of the room, the side where the archangels sat.  “I think someone else does, too.  Someone you’ve been quite obviously avoiding.”

She had been.  Steeling herself, she raised her face to look at Gabriel.  As if he could sense her, he took that moment to look up toward her. 

She’d expected to see pain, fury, perhaps even disgust, but there was none of that.  Instead, he gazed at her with patience…and trust.  One eyebrow rose ever so slightly in question. 

He knew, and he wondered what her plan was.

She turned away, clenching her teeth so as not to grin or laugh or otherwise burst out in an expression of joy – that would simply not do.  But he knew, he knew!  He would follow her lead.

Michael, on the other hand, was confused.  One glance in his direction was enough to show that.  He had mistrusted her, for good reason, and he wasn’t about to trust her again so easily.  Gabriel might be pleading in her favor – she had seen the two whispering together when they thought no one was looking – but Michael seemed unconvinced.

Michael could be a problem.

 

 

An excited rustle went through the assembled soldiers, humans, and possessed like a whitecap rolling up the shore, starting with the sentries on the perimeter and moving though the outbuildings to the farmhouse, up the hallway and into the large double room that Julian had made his theater.  A whisper of “they’re here!” that finally broke when Julian looked up from his La-Z-Boy throne to see that “they” was a bit of a misnomer.  “They” was singular, escorted into the room by two of the guards from New Delphi not usually known for their immense size but who looked like giants beside the new arrival.

The tiny figure was dressed head to knee in a robe of some kind of thick, quilted wool, nearly black, with the deep hood pulled well over their face, obscuring it completely.  Both hands were buried into the sleeves of the other side. The only body parts that showed were a pair of boots on tiny feet, well-worn and trail dusty, neither masculine nor feminine.  Just boots. 

Julian climbed out of the recliner gingerly, not springing from it like a cat as he had done before.  Everything about the figure screamed “use caution” even with its diminutive size.   This was not what he had been expecting.

“Welcome,” he offered.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t offer you the hospitality of my city, but I thought perhaps this first time, it would be wise to keep this a more intimate affair.”

Small, delicate hands, the color of chocolate caramels, extended from the depths of the sleeves and reach up to the hood.  The hands pulled it back, revealing a face so exquisitely beautiful that Julian gasped in spite of himself.  Skin the same luscious color, long, almond shaped eyes in a striking grey, high cheekbones, full, sensual lips, all highlighted by hair cropped so close to her elegantly formed head as to almost be nonexistent.

On the other side of the room, Gabriel also gasped.

Michael had a different reaction.  His heart skipped.  “Raphael!”

She turned away from the dyad and strolled over toward the two archangels.  Her eyes, almost a metallic grey, sparkled.  “Hello, brothers.  I didn’t expect you so soon.”

“Sister, what are you doing here?”

Julian stormed across the room, wondering the same thing.  “Yes, what are you doing here?  I was expecting Lucifer.”

The newcomer arranged the heavy hood around her shoulders like a cowl, then began carefully rolling her wide sleeves.  Everything she did was performed with the grace of a ballerina.   She looked back from her brothers over to her host and smiled beatifically.  “Lucifer asked me to come in his place, to meet with you, dear Julian, or do you prefer Lyrae?  He sends his warmest regards, of course, but unfortunately he is not yet in the condition to attend himself.”

Julian was slightly mollified.  Michael, however, was horror struck.  “You’re working for Lucifer?”

She tittered musically.  “No, of course not, sweet brother.  Lucifer and I are working together.  He has wonderful plans for this world, and now that Father is gone, now that we know we will have the Chosen One, we can make them come true.”  Again, she beamed, her face glowing in the knowledge of the truth of her words.

“I cannot believe what you’re saying, sister,” Michael retorted.  “You’ve aligned with Lucifer?  How can you do this?  You know how he went against Father’s wishes.  You helped us to cast him down from Heaven.”

“I think if you remember correctly I was pressed into service for that, Michael.”  The smile fell from her beautiful features.  “You and Uriel were all too happy to take up arms against our own brother, and Gabriel, well we all know how he betrayed Lucifer.  No, I never agreed with Father, but I had no choice against the three of you.  But now,” her mood changed again and she moved toward Julian, “we shall erase all those unfortunate millennia and get back to the way things ought to be.  Lucifer can move forward with his work, thanks to Lyrae and his brethren.”  Turning her back on the two archangels, she completely dismissed them, returning to Julian’s side and taking up with her aborted pleasantries.

Gabriel let out a low snarl of frustration as he watched Julian glow in her praise.  “I fear for our sister, Michael,” he said quietly enough that only his brother could hear.  “She’s become a revisionist.  I’ll admit she never was fond of the sword, but was it not she who petitioned Father to have Lucifer cast down?  She’s forgotten her role in this farcical game.”

“Father’s departure affected her as deeply as the rest of us,” Michael agreed.  “She’s been missing this whole time.”

“Lucifer no doubt sought her out.  He’s a master at taking advantage of less than stable hearts.”

“You would know.”

“Yes, exactly,” Gabriel growled.  His gaze passed from his sister and Julian, bantering like old friends, and off toward where Charlotte stood in the corner of the room.  She had moved close to Alex, closer than she had been the entire time they had been in the farmhouse.  It couldn’t be pleasant; her son’s hatred of her was nearly palpable, even at this distance. 

She had also neglected to introduce herself to the newly arrived archangel.  Interesting.

Michael, however, was more interested in their sibling.  “Raphael!” he called again, trying to restart their conversation.  His sister had always been fond of talking about herself.  “Where have you been?  We looked for you, all of us.  Uriel spent years trying to find you.”

The diminutive archangel looked back at him, her attention momentarily torn.  “I don’t know that you would have ever found me.  I didn’t want to be found.”

“Why?  Why did you abandon your family?”

She strode back toward them purposefully.  “My family abandoned me!” she thundered, suddenly furious.  “First Father left, and then you two went off to fight each other.  I wanted nothing of it!  It took me months to find a place uninfected by your humans, possessed or otherwise.  I simply wanted to be alone!”

Michael was taken aback.  Raphael had always been social, concerned, a healer.  To remove herself from all contact was indicative of a radical change of mind.  He looked up at her sincerely.  “We were worried about you.”  He still was.

The sentiment seemed to calm her.  “And I worried about you, both of you.  But I couldn’t stop you, so I stayed in Chang Tang.  It was quiet there.”   She turned toward Gabriel and her hand stroked his cheek.  “Dear brother, what chaos you’ve caused.  This horrible war, all of this death.  I feared for you terribly.”

The war, his war, had damaged her, Gabriel could see it in the depths of her silvery eyes.  He gave her a sad smile.  “I’m better now, ask Michael.  I haven’t killed anyone in hours.”

“The war didn’t need to happen, you know that,” Michael countered.  “You know that Lucifer manipulated Gabriel, put him in the mindset where he would open the Seventh Seal.  He’s played all of us like this was a great game and he was the chess master.”

“Lucifer has a plan,” Raphael repeated.  “Just as Father did.  It isn’t any different.  Father was always manipulating people, putting them in situations where they would have one choice, the only choice that would work for His plan.  Lucifer is no different, he learned from the best!”  She smiled as if this was some great accomplishment.  “You’ve done what needed to be done to bring about this moment, to bring the Chosen One to him.  It was all in the plan!”

“You’ve seen this then, in the Prophesies?”

The brilliance of her smile faded somewhat.  “The Prophesies are difficult to read, you know that.  Father gave them to me but He never told me how to interpret them.  I’ve done my best.”

“Then Lucifer isn’t in them.”

“They speak of an end to war.  How can we have an end to war if we are not united?  That’s what Lucifer wants to do, dear brother, to unite us all.”

“There’s another option,” Gabriel said offhandedly.  “The war’s over when everyone’s dead.”

The beautiful face turned into the petulant visage of a child.  For a second, Gabriel thought she was going to stomp her foot in frustration.  “You don’t understand, you refuse to understand.  I can’t help you if you insist on being this way.  Julian has made a deal, I can’t break it.  You’re his now.  If you had chosen to join me, to join us, I might have been able to do something, but not if you’re going to be this stubborn.”

“Stubborn?  Stubborn!”  Michael was dumbfounded.  “You’re talking about our lives, sister.  Our lives and the lives of everyone on this planet.  What would Father think?”

“I really don’t care, Michael.  Father left us.  Lucifer came back.  He cares about me, obviously more than Father.  I’m here to help him, to bring him the Chosen One to fulfill his plan.  I was hoping I could convince you to come with me, but I’m giving up, you can’t be redeemed.  I’m very sorry because I love you both, but this has to end.  Goodbye, brothers.”  She turned and walked back toward Julian, her perfectly shaped head tucked into the deep folds of the cowl.

“Raphael…” Michael’s voice cracked.

“She can’t hear you, Michael.”  Gabriel was weary.  “Lucifer has made her deaf to reason.  It’s time to face facts – little sister’s moved to Crazy Town.”

 

 

Raphael and Julian seemed to have much to talk about.  As they continued to chat, Gabriel scanned the room once again.  Little had changed.  There seemed to be fewer of Julian’s people milling about, fewer of Charlotte’s for that matter.  With another archangel in the room, it seemed they were not wanted.

He spied the swords that had been taken from them while they had been incapacitated, lying in a haphazard pile on an old metal table behind Alex.  Charlotte leaned against the edge of the table, her legs in their long boots stretched out in front, crossed at the ankles, the picture of alluring nonchalance. 

While Gabriel watched, she turned back over her shoulder to look at the weapons.  One gloved hand reached out and she ran a finger down the center of a blade, his blade.  It was the lazy, sensual act of a bored seductress, until she glanced up.

There was the tiniest tilt of her head, the barest raise of her brow, but he caught it.  She turned back toward the sword, her hand running up to the grip, resting there.  Again, she glanced at the archangel only for a fraction of a second, then she pulled her hand back, crossing her arms and leaning casually against the table once more. 

She stared at him, cold, emotionless, blank.

Gabriel was impressed.  He knew that she had been in acting classes, but he hadn’t expected this award-worthy performance.  What to anyone else would have looked like merely another taunt aimed at her former lover, another emotional knife wound, had been in fact a complex message. 

What had she called the two of them together – perfect?  Yes, quite perfect, because he understood exactly what that tiny tilt of the head had meant, why she had laid her hand where she did.  His own words came back to him:  Next I raise this sword, it will be beside you, not against you.

His head fell forward and his eyes closed, he concentrated on the manacles, his arms, his wings.  The pain was still quite bad, but not as excruciating as it had been.  The batteries or whatever ran the devices were continuing to wear down.  The worst of it all was the exhaustion caused by the constant firing of the muscles of his arms and shoulders – that would take some time to recover from.  If necessary, though…

His eyes still closed, a satisfied, feral grin spread across his face.  No one would see it unless they were watching.

He knew Charlotte was watching.

 

 

Julian felt better.  For a while, it had seemed as if things were slipping out of his control.  He didn’t like that feeling, it reminded him only too well of when Gabriel had seized his body and forced his own hands to thrust a sword through his gut.  He mentally shook his head – best not to dwell on that thought.  No, things were looking up now, what with this miniature archangel putting her brothers in their places and the commander finally finding hers.  He glanced up at Charlotte briefly.  The woman was like a caged panther, all sensuous energy ready to spring, but she’d finally backed off when the archangel had arrived.  Hadn’t even introduced herself yet.  Probably time to fix that.

Raphael finished the last bit of the negotiations that she had been delivering.  He should have been paying better attention to her and not to the commander. “…and Lucifer would appreciate it if you would lend troops in support if the need should arise in this area of the world.  He would send his generals to lead them.”

“Yes, of course,” he said automatically, then instantly regretted it.  Definitely should have been paying better attention.  What had he just agreed to?

“Very well then,” Raphael sounded to him like she was in a board meeting, not negotiating the foreseeable future of life on the planet.  “The last matter is to take the Chosen One back to Lucifer.  This has been quite a productive day, I can’t thank you enough for your assistance, Lyrae,” she said.

“Yes, well,” he agreed, “a pleasure to do business with you.”  Even as a master of the bargaining table, Julian felt a bit disconcerted.  It was time to get this done with.  He looked over to the other side of the room.  “Why don’t you bring the Chosen Boy over here, Commander?”

The commander looked up from her perch on the edge of the metal table and gave Julian a long-suffering look.  It was about time, the look said, she’d been waiting while they talked and talked and talked.  Slowly, sensually, she pulled the leather gloves off her fingers, as carefully as if it was a strip-tease act.  The gloves were left on the table as she moved around to the front of Alex’s chair and pulled one of the knives from the sheath on her thigh.  It was a long, wicked looking dagger with a ten-inch blade and an elongated cross piece below the handle.

Julian smiled inwardly.  He did like her style.

 

 

Charlotte waved the knife in front of Alex’s face menacingly. 

“Get away from me, you bitch,” he spat at her.

“Don’t move or you’ll get hurt.  We can’t have damaged goods now, can we?”  Her tone was no-nonsense, as if she had not even heard his insult.  She squatted down in front of him and reached for the ropes that held his calves against the metal legs of the chair, carefully sliding the blade of the knife in behind them. 

She took a deep breath, her head down, seemingly concentrating on the rope.  This was it, the curtain was rising.  “Alex, I need you to be quiet and listen to me.”  Now she was nearly whispering.

“Go to hell.”

“Please, Alex.”  She peered up at him briefly and he was shocked by what he saw in the short time.  She looked desperate. 

The knife continued to saw at the ropes, but not as quickly as it might have.  She was buying time.  “I know you don’t trust me,” she continued, her voice so low only he could hear, “but when the opportunity presents itself, and it will, I need you to run and hide.  Stay in the buildings, don’t let this new archangel get to you, she’ll fly off with you.”  She switched to the other leg and sawed away at the ropes there, her head still bent.  “You’re the most important thing, you’re what this is all about.  I need you to get yourself to a safe place, we’ll take care of the rest.  Do you understand?”

Alex was dumbfounded.  He stared down at the top of her head, the look of disgust still plastered across his features. 

“Tell me you understand, Alex.”  Her knife popped one rope, only one to go. 

She looked up again, only a split second, but it was all that Alex needed to see.  The mask she had been wearing since he had arrived fell away and he saw once again her fierce love.

“I – I do.”  It was whispered but it was enough. 

“Good.  Follow my lead.”  She popped the last strand and stood.

The knife sliced roughly through the rope that held his torso to the chair.  As soon as the strands fell away, she grabbed his shoulder and yanked.  “Get up,” she barked, instantly reverting back into the gruff, no-nonsense persona.

 

 

Alex stood with some difficulty – he’d been drugged or tied to a chair for over two days now, and his legs were wobbly at best.  His hands were still tied together behind him which didn’t make balance any easier, but his mother had him firmly by the upper arm.  He noticed that – it wasn’t an aggressive grip, she wasn’t holding a prisoner, a hostage, she was supporting him, helping him walk.  He was trying to process this sudden change of heart.

Hell, he was still trying to process her first change of heart.

Wait…could it all have been an act?

“Move it!”  His mother’s voice was harsh, but her actions belied the words.  She wasn’t forcing him forward, she was still holding him up gently, supportive.

“You’re what this is all about.”  That’s what she’d whispered.

He nervously glanced around the room as he shuffled toward Julian and the new archangel.  Where was that bastard Jenkins?  He wasn’t standing behind Michael anymore, threatening to put a bullet into his head.  Had that been part of it, too?  Was Jenkins in on it?  Michael certainly didn’t seem to know anything was up, he was glaring at her as only Michael could do.

Gabriel on the other hand…Alex thought he could see the faintest smirk on the archangel’s face.  Even tied to the chair, arms locked into the electric manacles, he found something humorous in the situation.  Such an asshole.

 

 

Jenkins had a lifetime’s practice in stealth.  First as a young child stealing an extra biscuit, a blanket, or evading a whipping, then as a soldier, in the SAS, in Afghanistan and other far off lands.  For the last 25 years, he’d been trailing and eluding the angels, in all their forms, in theatres of war his young mind had never imagined.  He’d gotten very good. 

The best option, of course, was moving when everyone’s attention was in another direction.  The commander had given the signal – “gloves off” – and then provided the distraction of moving Alex.  She made it as public as possibly, drawing everyone’s attention to her so that her XO could quietly slip along the wall and out of the room. 

The last act was beginning, finally!  He had much to do.  He pulled his radio out of his belt and quietly toggled it on.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

 

 

Raphael stood near Julian, who had once again ensconced himself in the big leather recliner, sitting like a pasha in his padded throne.  Julian looked pleased but Raphael was like a kid on Christmas morning. 

She glided toward Alex with the grace of a dancer, all the while gazing wide-eyed at him as if he were an exotic zoo animal.  “This is the boy who has caused all the problems.”  There was both wonder and excitement in her words.

“Rather unimpressive, isn’t he?” Julian noted.  “I expected something a little more Clark Kent at least, if not Superman, hidden strengths and all.  Rather disappointed in the casting.”

“No, I like him, he reminds me of someone.”  Raphael had to peer up at him, she was almost a head shorter.  She tentatively reached out toward his now-filthy shirt.  “We’ll have to get him cleaned up, I can’t present him to Lucifer like this.”

Alex leaned backward, avoiding her touch.  “I’m not a specimen.  And get your hands off me.”

The archangel grinned.  “He has spirit, I like that.  He has the markings?”

Julian nodded.  “I’ve seen them myself.  Sorry about the one, might have gotten carried away with m’ toys once, done a little damage, but for the most part, they’re intact.”

“I don’t see any major problems.” She finished her walk-around inspection.  “Thank you again, Lyrae, you’ve saved us quite a bit of bother.  It’s too bad that my brothers felt that they had to get involved, but at least now Lucifer will finally have the Chosen One.  I’ll take him with me now and we can begin to fix this world.”

Charlotte had remained a few feet behind her son, seemingly bored, playing with one of her twin daggers.  Now she stepped forward, still twisting the knife back and forth between her fingertips.  “I don’t think so.”

“What did you say?”  Raphael was taken aback.

“I said, I don’t think so.”

The dyad jumped out of his chair.  “Commander, this isn’t the time to renegotiate.  The deal is done.”

Raphael shushed him with an impatient wave of her hand.  Her grey eyes narrowed.  “Who are you?”

“I’m surprised Julian didn’t tell you.  Why didn’t you tell her, Julian?”

Julian was dumbfounded – that feeling that he was losing control of the situation was happening once more, the damned commander was taking over again. The archangel turned back toward him, suspicion replacing the solicitude that she had previously shown him.  He shrugged his shoulders nervously.  “I…I thought you –”

“Julian thought you would already know.”  Charlotte interrupted.  She felt preternaturally calm, completely in command.  Everything she had worked for during the last three months was about to come to fruition.  She slid her knife behind the ropes that bound Alex's wrists and deftly slit them, betraying none of the clumsiness that she had demonstrated cutting the ropes at his ankles.  “Julian thinks that because he’s part human and part angel, he understands both, but he doesn’t.  He was wrong about you knowing about me, he was wrong about so many things.”  With practiced ease, she slid the knife back into its sheath. 

“She’s my mom.”  Alex piped in, his voice filled with pride and perhaps a little bit of relief.  

“You’re…his mother?  No, no that can’t be.”  The archangel’s beautiful brow wrinkled in irritation, then in disbelief.  “No, his mother died.”

“That’s what everyone keeps telling me.”  The corners of Charlotte’s mouth curved up and she leaned over to whisper conspiratorially.  “I got better.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“No, really, not dead anymore,” she said straight-faced, subtly baiting the angel.  Her hand went up and gently caressed Alex’s cheek.  Her eyes were filled with just as much pride, with love.  “Julian actually thought that I would give up my son to Lucifer.  Ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“No, this isn’t right, this isn’t what the Prophecy foretold.  The Prophecy says that the Chosen One will stand alone.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but your Prophecy isn’t quite on game.  I may not have always been there, but Alex has never been alone, he’s always had someone watching out for him.”

Julian had been watching the scene unfold but now he could take no more.  “What are you doing, Commander?  We had a bargain.  You don’t have to discuss family trees or prophecies or any of that, just hand Alex over and let’s move on.”

“You don’t get it, do you?  Alex isn’t going anywhere with you or with her.  It’s over, Julian.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You, Julian, you’re done, you’re through.  Roll credits.”

The dyad was stunned by her audacity.  “I think you forget who you’re speaking to, Commander.  You came to me with the deal.  You wanted my help to get protection, then you upped the ante and asked for Vega.  I have the means to get you those things, you really can’t do much without me.”

“You mean you and your vaunted army of eight-balls?  Or maybe all your loyal followers in New Delphi?  I have a news flash for you, Julian.  I’ve had soldiers infiltrating New Delphi for the last two weeks, well over two hundred – that place is like Swiss cheese if you have the right intel.  And that fuel tanker of mine you let in earlier today?  Yeah, it had some fuel, but it also had a whole shitload of weapons and ammo for those same soldiers.  About an hour ago, two battalions of my Wildcats surrounded New Delphi, and the people inside got their signal.  It didn’t take long.  A little surprising how many of your very loyal followers just surrendered.  The others, well…”  She shrugged indifferently. “Your city belongs to me now.”

What have you done?!” the dyad shrieked, lunging toward her, but Raphael held him back, her petite frame belying formidable strength.

Charlotte instantly had the long knife back in her hand, pushing Alex behind her protectively.  “Careful, Julian.  Empyrean steel, the only pieces we were able to scrounge.  Now I know why, of course, you have all the rest.  But I promise you, you won’t heal with a feather if I cut you with this.”

“Why?” he hissed.  “What have I ever done to you?  I don’t even know you.”

“But I know you, Julian.  You made yourself a little too famous.  You threatened my son, my family. You put a bounty out on Alex, I don’t take kindly to that.  I told you, I take care of my people, all my people.” 

“I don’t care about your feud with the dyad,” Raphael spoke up.  “You can have your petty war between you, but I must have the Chosen One.”

Julian laughed, a sound of relief.  “I don’t see two battalions here, Commander.  You’ve only a few people, you’re not going to defeat an archangel by yourself.”

A slow confident smile spread across the commander’s face.  “But I’m not by myself.”

There was something in her expression that made the dyad’s blood run cold.  She wasn’t looking at him, but past him, at….

Gabriel.

The archangel still sat in the chair, still bound by the electric manacles, but his head was bowed, the muscles of his neck showing like cords above his leather armor.  He was straining, pulling.

“He can’t get out,” Julian murmured under his breath.  “You said so, they can’t get out, and I have the keys.”

As if he had heard the dyad, Gabriel raised his head.  His gaze was directed inward, focused.  Then his eyes rolled back and his jaw thrust forward, the strain of concentration causing sweat to break out on his forehead, his arms.  Charlotte knew that sweat only increased the conductivity of the electrodes in the manacles, increasing the electrical output.  She could see that he was in agony, but it didn’t stop him.  His shoulders flexed, once, then again, his face bared in a rictus of torture, and then two glittering blades of ebony erupted from his back, his beautiful, deadly wings.  They sliced through the ropes that bound him to the chair and the strands fell to the floor around him.

In an ecstasy of pain, he raised his arms, still bound behind him, and twisted.  Charlotte thought that the archangel’s powerful shoulders would pull out of their sockets before the manacles gave way, she’d had their shear points designed specifically, but what if she had been wrong?  Inside, she suffered as much as Gabriel, watching the torment that he was putting himself through. The batteries had held out longer than anticipated, he shouldn’t have been in this much agony, she hated herself for causing it.   She grasped at Alex’s hand, squeezing it much too tight.  She could see Michael’s horrified expression; it seemed that his brother was intent on tearing himself apart.   He blamed her, hated her for Gabriel’s torture, he didn’t understand that it was a necessary part of the plan.

Everyone was watching now, how could they not?  His great wings spread out behind him, Gabriel clenched his teeth and let out an anguished howl, a last effort to overcome the incredible pain.  Suddenly, the manacles flew apart in a half-dozen pieces, broken bolts and clasps and pieces of steel flying in every direction.  

As everyone stared, Gabriel regained his feet, his hair sweat-matted, his face red from the exertion. He stood, swaying slightly, but undoubtedly free.  He breathed deeply, his chest still heaving.  “Walk away, Raphael,” he panted.  “Leave now, there will be no retribution for your part in this matter.  Julian however,” the side of his mouth curved up in an exhausted but wicked smirk.  “Leave the dyad, I have plans for that one.”

With a great groan, Gabriel then reached down and grasped Michael’s manacles, twisting them violently.  They broke apart and he threw the pieces to the side.  Michael tore at the ropes that held him to the chair, shredding them in an instant.  He stood next to his brother, rolling his shoulders reflexively, running a hand over the lump at the back of his head – he’d wanted to do that for hours. 

“You can’t have Alex, Raphael,” Michael added.  “We won’t let you take him.”

There was an awkward, pregnant silence.  Around them, the few remaining members of Julian’s retinue stood uneasily on guard, unsure of what to do.  The three Wildcats that were left, however, were weapons ready, waiting for a signal.  Charlotte still held Alex’s hand, and she started to slowly back away, her knife still out in front defensively.

Raphael’s lovely face twisted into a grimace.  “You don’t understand, brothers.  I must do this, I must do this for Lucifer.”

Michael took a step forward.  “We will fight you, sister.  You will not win.”

Her head tilted to the side unexpectedly and she closed her eyes.  A beatific glow came across her features, full of warmth and joy, and when she opened her eyes again, there was a determination that had not been there before.  Her delicate hands reached up and unfastened a clasp at the side of the cowl, at her shoulder and waist.  The overcoat fell open, revealing a tight jersey, leggings and tall leather boots, but most importantly, two long curved blades at her waist.

She shrugged out of the coat and pulled the blades from their sheaths.  “Are you sure, brother?”

Julian was smart enough to know the opening of a fight scene.  He glanced around the room, checking to see that he still had the numerical advantage, then pulled out his old officer-issue Glock 19.

Time for a tight shot, the focus on him.  “Now, Commander, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

Charlotte shook her head in disgust.  “Really, you can’t come up with something more original?  That line is so overused.”

The insult worked.  Any measure of reserve that the dyad had remaining was instantly gone.  “Morax,” he yelled to his lieutenant, waving the Glock, “get the damn boy.  The rest of you, just…kill them, kill them all.  And where the hell are my other people?”

As if on cue, an eight-ball burst through the front door, followed closely by Jenkins and another Wildcat, all with weapons drawn.  The eight-ball screamed out a garbled “Boss, it’s an ambu-” before two quick shots from Jenkins’ silenced pistol tore through the top of his skull.  His lifeless body slid into the archway that opened into the dining room.  Jenkins came up short, just visible on the other side, gun still raised.

For a shocked fraction of a second, no one moved, no one breathed, then as if hit by lightning, the room exploded into action.  The rest of the Wildcats went on the attack, engaging the remaining members of Julian’s crew, using guns, swords, fists and even the metal chairs.   Gabriel and Michael rushed toward the table and their swords, Raphael trying to intercept.  Julian launched himself behind the big leather armchair, using it as cover while he scanned the room for targets.

Charlotte threw herself back toward her son, sending them both to the ground.  As she rolled, one hand reached for the pistol on her hip.  She looked up to see the huge imposing figure of Morax moving toward them.  He had the obsessed look of a fanatic; this was more than just a job for him, he was one of the true believers, one of Julian’s inner circle of devotees.  There would be no easy way of stopping him.

She took a kneeling shooting stance.  “Alex, now!  Run!” 

“Give me a gun!” he countered.  “I can fight!”

She fired twice and glanced back at him with a look of desperation. “Go!” 

“Alex!”  Gabriel shouted from across the room, his sword swinging in a wide arc and connecting soundly with the ribcage of one of the eight-balls.  “This way, Alex.  Run!”

 

 

For Alex, time seemed to suddenly, mystically slow and a terrible clarity took hold.  Still lying on the floor, he swiveled his head, taking in all the chaos that had erupted around him. His mother was laying down covering fire aimed at Morax, and he thought he could see each of the bullets as they entered the giant’s chest, but they didn’t seem to stop him.  Instead, the eight-ball grinned, a great black-eyed shark’s smile.

Alex scrambled to all-fours, feeling like a prey animal.  To the left, Raphael advanced on Michael, her scimitar-like blades slashing through the air in a deadly dance of steel and grace.  Michael had his two swords in hand, but he was in a defensive posture, ready to protect himself but not to fight.  His sister did not share his sentiments.

To the right, Julian stayed behind the leather recliner, gleefully taking pot-shots at whomever he could, missing more often than not, but delighting in the spectacle of the fight.  A few more of his people ran into the room from other parts of the house to take on Jenkins and the Wildcats, who fought with a tenacity worthy of their name.

“Alex!”  It was Gabriel’s voice again, commanding, cutting through the dilation of time.  “This way, now!”  Alex turned, clawed his way to his way to his feet and stumble-ran as fast as he could toward the archangel and the doorway behind him.

Gabriel tore at the body that now lay in front of him, pulling off a handgun and throwing it to his son as he passed.  Somehow Alex caught it in midstride, he couldn’t say how, his reflexes were still shaky, but he flashed a grateful look back at Gabriel.  At least now he had some kind of a weapon. 

A weapon he had to instantly use.  Three steps down the hallway, another one of Julian’s guards suddenly appeared. They both stared at each other, a split-second of “friend or foe” recognition.  Alex was faster, “eight-ball” and “enemy” caused the instantaneous reaction of a double shot that put the guard on the floor.  He had meant to aim at the eight-ball’s heart, but the unknown gun fired low and into his gut.  Good to keep in mind. 

Hedging his bet, he put one more bullet into the guard’s head and kicked the weapon out of his now-still hand.  This one was an Uzi-type submachine gun – now that was more like it.  Alex tucked the handgun into the back of his pants and tossed the strap of the submachine gun over his shoulder, spending a few precious seconds to hunt for another ammo loader.  Enough time had been wasted, he couldn’t count on having any more alone in this hall.

Hide.  His mother had said to hide.  It went against all of his training, against all of his instincts, he was a fighter, dammit, Archangel Corps.  He’d been fighting all his life.  Then again, he’d been hiding most of his life in one way or another, too.  He was pretty good at it.  He thought again about the expression on his mother’s face, that look that said just how important she thought he was.  Part of him hated it, part of him loved it because it meant how much she cared.  A kind of thrill washed over him as he made his way down the rest of the hall toward the stairs.  She loved him, she always had.  It was starting to make sense; this had been a wild, crazy, elaborate plan to flush out Julian, maybe even to flush out Lucifer. 

Up or down?  Where to hide?  She had said to stay inside, stay in the building.  Basement, second or third floor, which was safer? 

A crazy idea, using him as bait.  Who had been involved?  Gabriel?  Not Michael, that was for sure.  And it hadn’t gone quite according to plan, he was sure of that.  Time to improvise.

That look his mom had given him, the same look that Noma had before she had torn off her wings.  The one that said that Alex was more important than everything. 

No, actually, he didn’t like that look at all.

 

 

Michael moved as quickly as he could, using the element of surprise to his advantage.  No one expected him to run up along the wall, not unless they were his sister, that is.  As soon as he flipped down across the room in front of the metal table, he could see her on the move, rushing toward him.  He reached for two of the three swords that lay on the table and instantly threw one to Gabriel, still near the doorway.  His brother grabbed it out of the air, spun and sent it immediately slicing through an eight-ball’s rib cage.

Michael barely had time to pick up his other sword before Raphael’s assault.  She swung the curved shotels from high above, slicing down on him with brutal force. 

Millennia of fighting had honed his skills, but nonetheless, this violence was unexpected.  He crossed his swords in front of him defensively, catching his sister’s strike before the razor sharp shotels could do any damage.  Sparks flew as the empyrean steel struck his blades and slid down along the edges, stopping close enough that he could see the diamond patterns etched along their sides.

“I do not want to fight you,” he gave her a cold look.  “But I will.”

“Then join me, join Lucifer.”  Raphael’s countenance held a fervor that her brother did not like to see.  “Join me or fight me, Michael, those are really the only two choices here.  Only one of us is leaving with the Chosen One.”

“Alex is here to for both humans and angels, we’ve seen it.  Show me the Prophecies, sister, let me prove it to you.”

This seemed to enrage her even further.  She yanked both curved blades back viciously, nearly pulling Michael’s swords from his grip.  “The Prophecies are lies, Michael, your commander just proved what I’ve suspected for years.  They’re a foolish diversion given to us by Father to hide the fact that He didn’t care what happened when He left.”   She swung one blade toward Michael’s head with more fury than precision.  “His precious gifts were a trick, Michael, a decoy.  He didn’t want us coming after Him.”

Michael easily deflected her attack, but he refused to counter.  No matter what he had said, he remained strictly defensive.

Raphael did not have that problem.  Again, she struck, this time with both blades, a double slicing move to his side that was much more difficult to parry.  Michael was forced to bend backwards at an inhuman angle.  He rolled at the waist, stood upright again, and one glistening wing shot out, sweeping forward, violently knocking his sister from her feet. 

The tiny archangel launched across the room, past fighting eight-balls and Wildcats, and through the doorway into the hall.  Her body crashed into the plaster and lathe with a bone-jarring crack.  Spider webs of lines appeared in the wall and pieces of plaster rained down over her as she lay motionless.  Her shotels scattered when she hit, skittering across the wood floor out of her reach.

Michael flew to her side.  He hated the fact that it had come to this but he hadn’t seen any other choice – someone had been training his sister of late, she had become much more proficient with a blade than she had ever been before.

He leaned over her still body and brushed the dust from her face.  “I’m sorry, sister.”

Suddenly the point of a dagger was pressed against the bottom of his chin.  “You will be, Michael.  You’ll be sorry you ever got in our way.”  Raphael had pulled the blade out of nowhere in a lightning fast move.  She jabbed at him, forcing him to stand and move back.  “Alex is coming with me.”

“I can’t allow that.  I promised to protect him.”

Still holding the knife toward Michael’s throat, she leaned down and picked up one of the shotels.  She shoved it into the sheath on her belt and then retrieved the other.  “Protect him?  What about us, what about protecting our family, brother?”  She sounded close to tears.  “You pick this boy over your own family?” 

It was the same accusation Gabriel had made for years, the cause of the rift between them, and it cut to his heart.  “Alex is our family!” he retorted hotly. “He is our blood!”

As soon as Michael said it, he realized his mistake.

She squinted at him.  “What did you say?” 

Then, as if in answer, her eyes unfocused, her head tilted a bit to the side, and her face fell into a kind of relaxation.  Michael was tempted to rush her right there and then, but the fugue was only temporary and he was beginning to remember just how quick his petite sister had always been. 

Her eyes refocused on him, now filled with loathing.  She knew.  “You never told me about Alex’s true nature.  Gabriel never told me!”

“But now Lucifer has, hasn’t he?”  Michael shouted.  “He has kept the truth from you all this time, from all of us.  Gabriel never knew he had a son until just a few weeks ago, none of us knew, except Lucifer.”

“And Father!” she retorted.  “Just another one of Father’s games.  I’m sick to death of His games, Michael!  Lucifer promises to –”

“To do what?  He won’t bring Father back for some kind of punishment, and he can’t change what has happened in the past.  Do you really think he will create some kind of Eden here on Earth again?”

Her gaze dropped from his, the look of a guilty child.  Was that really it, was that what Lucifer was promising her? 

“I don’t care what he does, Michael, as long as this ends.  It can’t go on like this any longer, I can’t stand it.  The humans have destroyed this planet, and now Gabriel’s angels are destroying them.  Alex is the key to fixing it all, to bringing back some kind of balance, some kind of order.  Don’t you want that?”

“Yes, Alex is the key, but not by being Lucifer’s victim!  Can’t you see, sister?  The only reason Lucifer wants Alex is for sacrifice.  To regain his corporeal form, Lucifer needs the blood of a pure heart, the blood of his own family.”

“No, no, you’re just trying to turn me against him.”  She swung the dagger out in front of her once more, swiping it left and right.  “Stay away from me, Michael.  I’m going to find that boy and I’m going to bring him back to Lucifer.  If you get in my way, I’ll kill you, I swear.”

“Please, Raphael,” Michael pleaded.  “Listen to what I’m saying. Lucifer is the one who has been tearing this family apart from the beginning.  He took Alex away from Gabriel, he is responsible for Gabriel’s madness, for the war, and now he is using you for his own aims.”

“NO!” she screamed and simultaneously swung the shotel in her hand in a broad, sweeping arc.  It released, scything through the air toward Michael, the light glinting off the diamond patterns as it sliced toward him.  Only his angelic speed and reflexes allowed him to fall to the ground fast enough.  Still, he felt the whoosh of air as it passed within millimeters of his shoulder and face.

When he jumped up from the ground again, she was gone, disappearing deeper into the house in search of Alex.  He had no better idea where Alex had gone than she did, it was probably better to follow her than try to find the boy on his own. 

She was so very, very fast.

 

 

Charlotte looked up into the black orbs of Morax, Julian’s favorite lieutenant.  He really was a beast of a man, she thought, or eight-ball, whatever.  She’d put a quick pair of .45 slugs into his chest with no discernible results; no damage, no blood, and definitely no pain.  It didn’t make any sense, even eight-balls were susceptible to gunfire at this range, but all he’d done was taken a few tiny steps back and given her that leering shark-tooth grin.  It was more than disconcerting, it was downright disgusting. She’d turned back to Alex, made sure he was moving, then put two more rounds into Morax to keep him busy while Alex scurried away; again, nothing.  The brute was taunting her, baiting her, forcing her into using her limited supply of ammunition.

Morax started toward her again, arms out, growling like some kind of creature in a B-movie.  Must have spent too much time with Julian, Charlotte decided, scrambling backwards, trying to get to her feet.  As if to prove it, the possessed behemoth reached up dramatically and ripped open his shirt with a triumphant howl, revealing a Kevlar vest on top of overly developed arms and shoulders. 

An overacting eight-ball with body armor?  Now she’d seen it all.

“Morax!”  Julian shouted from behind his chair.  “Forget her, get Alex.  We need him alive!”

The eight-ball sprang forward with inhuman swiftness, leaping across the room toward the doorway Alex had escaped through, but not before he took the time to backhand Charlotte across the side of the head.  She flew into the hardwood paneling on the wall, smashing her shoulder and soundly thumping the side of her skull. 

For a little while, she was motionless, re-evaluating her opinion of Morax while she sat inside a fuzzy grey world.  Then she felt strong, firm hands gripping her arms.  “Charlotte?”  She recognized Gabriel’s voice, recognized the warmth of his touch.

“I’m okay.”  Her hand rubbed quickly at her temple and she shook her head gingerly.  The grey mist receded.  “Payback for what I did to Michael, I guess.”  She robotically cleared her gun, still in her other hand, checking the clip and ramming it back home.  “Sorry about that one.”

“Tell him later.”  Gabriel lifted her none-too-gently from the ground.  “They’ve gone after Alex.”

Charlotte scanned the room – how long had she been out?  It had seemed like only a moment, but both Michael and Raphael were gone.  Morax, she knew all too painfully, had gone after her son, but Julian was missing, too.  The rest of the eight-balls were either dead or unconscious – her Wildcats had done their jobs well, but her task was still unfinished.

“I told him to hide, no one knows where he went,” she said with a little hope.  This wasn’t exactly how her original plan had gone, but she’d had to improvise.  “He’s smart, he’ll find a place.” 

“We must find Raphael and Morax,” Gabriel pulled out the sword he had sheathed, his eyes narrowing in determination, “before they find Alex.”

“And Julian,” she added pointedly.

“Yes.”  His face shown with a certain delight.  “Especially Julian.”  The list of reasons he wanted the dyad dead just kept growing.

 

 

Alex spun into the big kitchen, weapon drawn, ready to fire.  A quick scan showed only a rusty sink, an ancient potbelly stove, crazed oak cabinets, and a pile of rucksacks stashed in one corner.  No eight-balls, no Wildcats, but the bags were certainly out of place.  He closed the heavy oak door behind him and searched for something to bar it with.  Nothing, but the door did have a sturdy deadbolt.  Odd for an interior door but damned convenient.

He heard footsteps run down the hall on the other side of the door but it was impossible to tell if they were friend or foe.  Luckily, no one seemed to bother with the latch, he’d bought himself a little time.

Time for what?  What the hell was he going to do?

As he’d made his escape, he’d heard Michael and Raphael arguing, and it hadn’t sounded as if it had gone well.  He knew what he’d do – Michael was the only archangel he trusted, the rest of them were better off…

…then again…he glanced at the handgun...

He pulled one of the rucksacks out and started to rummage through it.  “Goddamned Gabriel,” he muttered to himself.  What a way to screw things up, now Alex couldn’t even hate him properly, the guy had come to his rescue.  His father had come to his rescue.    

The bag held another pair of the big electric manacles his mother had used on Michael and Gabriel, the ones that had failed.  Or had they?  He thought about the raw agony on Gabriel’s face as he had struggled to break free.  That hadn’t been an act; the manacles had caused him horrific pain, but he had broken free, and Charlotte hadn’t seemed surprised at all.

The manacles were supposed to fail, the archangels were supposed to get free.   It was all part of her crazy plan. 

The plan that now left him somehow trying to keep away from both Julian and Raphael.  He imagined that his mother (and Gabriel and Michael) had some kind of idea how to deal with both of them, but in the meantime, she had said to stay inside.

Right.

He scanned the room once again, running over the big mullioned windows, mostly unbroken, the wooden cupboards and cabinets, still intact on sturdy iron hinges.  He checked the cupboards quickly.  Empty, but yet…

These old houses, such beautiful craftsmanship.  He hated to damage them, but it had to be done. 

Lifting the manacles in his hand, he hefted it once or twice to check its weight.  Significant, plenty to do the job.

The large window over the sink shattered like a bomb had gone off, the old, untempered glass sending out thousands of needle-like shards into the air.

Alex climbed onto the sink and looked down.  The broken glass glinted in the sun, a strange spectacle of beauty and danger.  Tiny sparkles covered the forgotten garden like snowflakes while larger fragments leered up menacingly, their edges begging for a bite of flesh.  Alex smiled.  It would be difficult but not impossible to climb down. 

Perfect.

 

 

Julian waited impatiently while Morax shoved his shoulder into the kitchen door.  He hadn’t expected it to be latched – the house was old and who put a deadbolt on a kitchen?  Obviously, years ago someone had very much wanted to keep the hired help out of the larder in this place; it took the eight-ball three tries before the frame finally let loose and the door swung open, before Julian could rush into the room.

Where the hell was the damned Chosen One?

The dyad had been sure that he had figured it out, that he had been the only one who had noticed the closed door while everyone else rushed out about like proverbial chickens.  Even the other archangel had run upstairs, her brother, Michael, in hot pursuit.  They were probably battling it out on the roof by now.

But Julian had taken a more reasonable approach to matters, he always had.  The boy had limited weaponry, he was surrounded by enemies and in the middle of nowhere.  What to do?  Find more weapons.  The Wildcats had left their stash of extras in the kitchen, Alex had heard the commander talk about it.  He would go there to get something to help himself.

So, where was he?

The window over the sink was smashed open but there was only a little glass in the sink area itself.  The window had been intact earlier, this had been done recently, and from the look of it, by someone on the inside.  He scanned the weeds that grew outside, seeing one of the electric manacles (how he hated those things now!) lying a few feet away, with one of the empty rucksacks nearby.  Yes, this was it, this was what he had been looking for.  It was too dry to see footprints, but it was obvious that Alex had taken this way out of the room, escaping the house while everyone looked for him inside, using the heavy material of the bag for protection against the broken glass.

Clever boy, but not clever enough.

“Morax!” Julian shouted.  “Climb out the window and see if you can find him.  I’ll go through the door and see if he came around that way.”

Julian was desperate, but he wasn’t stupid.  Broken glass hurt.

 

 

Raphael had never been like her siblings.  While they were out investigating the universe, traipsing from planet to planet, she had been happy to spend her time in deep contemplation of more simple things.  A single asteroid in a field of thousands, an ice ball on a path into a star, an odd rock formation on Mars or a lone cluster of edelweiss on a wind-swept Alpine slope. 

The inhabitants of this world, well they’d been an interesting little diversion now and then, but not to the extent that the other archangels had taken it.  Father called them His greatest creation, but she wasn’t sure.  If they were, then why was Father always reprimanding them so?  She’d abhorred the wars that He had had sent Michael off on, and she had actively campaigned against Gabriel’s involvement, knowing her brother’s fondness for humanity and his notoriously soft heart. 

Uriel had always seen the humans a bit like a favorite pet, a terribly intelligent plaything, and that wasn’t much better.  Yes, Uriel had been responsible for some of the most beautiful artwork ever, the epitome of the word “muse” but that didn’t make up for the way she had treated her living dolls, her sentient toys.  It had made Raphael rather sick. 

Raphael had enjoyed the human capacity for wonder, for thought.  Humans were intelligent, creative, capable of so much love (and so much hate) and yet still had so far to go in their development.  It was fascinating to watch, to see them as they ran through the millennia, learning to crawl, then to walk, then to run, and eventually, to fly.

Figuratively, that is.

Which made Gabriel’s gradual disgust with them, with the whole human race, so much more difficult to fathom.  She understood his personal reasons, but she couldn’t understand why he had let that affect him so deeply.  It was only one small child!  And yes, there was the matter of the way the humans turned away from Father, their creation of a long succession of new gods that they placed before their Creator, everything from actual golden calves to piles of golden coins to the shining ideas of power and science.  How stupid could they be?  It was all related, all connected, could they not understand how the cosmos worked?  The yin and yang of it all?

The centuries passed and she did her best to hold on to her philosophies, to hold on to her beliefs, to stay the course of nonviolence, the beauty of intellectualism, but it became more and more difficult.  She found Gabriel’s disillusionment held more than a grain of truth – the humans were a treacherous lot.  Still, the Universe was more than this mere planet, there were more mysteries to be had than those here on Earth.

And then Father had left, and she and her siblings had been trapped here.

She remembered the feeling – how could she ever forget – the unexpected, wrenching hole inside her psyche, the knowledge that He was gone, that Father had left them all, that the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner, the Alpha and the Omega was suddenly, simply…not there.

Of course, Father had left them His gifts.  His vaunted, mysterious, USELESS gifts.  She’d spent decades trying to decipher the damned Prophecies, twisting her mind into directions only a contortionist would appreciate, but it had never made any difference, they never made any actual sense, never actually said anything.

The Chosen One is capable of great good or great destruction.”   What was that supposed to mean anyway?  Quite literally everyone was capable of great good or great destruction, it simply depended upon how motivated they were.

Lucifer had shown her, had laid it all out for her, how Father had used them all, had given them their “gifts” like an abusive parent making up for assault with ice cream and a puppy.  It wasn’t going to work, not any more.  Lucifer had shown her the web of lies that had started with her and her siblings and included every angel in the firmament and below, the terrible imbalance that pitted her kind against the humans in a contest for their Father’s favor. 

Most of all, Lucifer had shown her the power that she carried inside, how she didn’t need Father anymore, and how she could help to make things right, how together they could bring symmetry back to the universe.  It was glorious, wonderful thought, truly heavenly.

They could do this, they would do this, and her brothers would not stand in her way.  It meant too much.   

Now Michael was chasing her through an old house while she desperately looked for, yes, she had to admit it, her nephew.  For the space of a heartbeat her resolve waivered – Alex was family, he was part of her – but no, it was too important, sacrifices had to be made for the good of them all.

Sacrifices.  Alex, Michael, Gabriel.  All of them?

She glanced back over her shoulder, saw no one and started up the stairs.  Michael had never been able to keep up with her, she’d always been the quick little mouse to his bigger cat.  They use to play among the stars…

Her foot caught on the body before she saw it, sending her falling forward.  A human woman, her eyes open but obviously dead, a gaping wound in her belly still seeping blood onto the floor.  Raphael picked herself up, horror-stricken, her hands covered in the bright crimson.  She did the best she could to wipe them off on her tunic, her pants, then started to run up the stairs again, leaving great red streaks on whatever she touched.

Damn human, she thought.  There was blood everywhere now.  It was the humans’ fault; all of this was the humans’ fault.  It could have been so simple, but they had to get involved.

No, just one human.  That woman, the commander, Alex’s mother.  Her fault.  She was the one who had brought Michael and Gabriel into this, she was the reason her beloved brothers had to…  The thought sent a spasm through her chest. 

Alex’s mother, she wasn’t even supposed to be alive!  Raphael reached the top of the stairs and shoved open a door, looked inside for the boy.  Nothing.  On to the next.

That was it!  Her brothers both had connections to the humans, Michael had sworn himself to protect the Chosen One and Gabriel was both Alex’s father and involved with the commander.  If she could eliminate those two, get rid of both Alex and his mother, those connections would be gone.  Her brothers would have no one left in their lives.

Except family, their true family.  Except Raphael and Lucifer.

She smashed open the next door, scanned the room automatically, her mind already working on what needed to be done.  Her eyes glinted in the light that made its way through the foggy glass of the windows, an unearthly shine of both emotion and instability.

She could help Lucifer and save her brothers at the same time. 

She could save her family.

 

 

The house hadn’t seemed that big when they first arrived, but now that Charlotte was trying to find someone inside, it was huge.  She and Gabriel had managed to locate Jenkins almost immediately; he and two others had taken care of eight of Julian’s troops that were still in the building.  Another pair of Wildcats had chased two eight-balls out the door, and Morax had run out of the room with Julian, which left only one unaccounted for.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good showing for a start.

Charlotte had sent Jenkins out to coordinate the rest of the troops and the mop-up that would be going on throughout the rest of the ranch.  Her instructions had been no more than a few words.  There was no doubt that Jenkins would have the grounds under control shortly; two dozen of Julian’s lackeys were no match for this group. 

That left finding Alex, Raphael and Julian to her.  To her and to Gabriel.

She turned to him, finding herself both pleased and comforted to have such a warrior, her warrior, at her side.  “I don’t know which way to go first.  I told him to hide, to stay inside.  I don’t even know if he listened to me.”

Gabriel cocked his head to the side, listening.  His senses were far more acute than any human’s.  “There’s someone upstairs searching.  I think it’s Raphael, the footsteps are light.  Someone else is going up the stairs toward her, it sounds like Michael.  Those are the only sounds I hear in the house.”

“Do we want to go help Michael?”

“No, he can tend to Raphael.  We need to find Alex.” 

“But what if Alex is upstairs?”

“I doubt that his is.”

“Why?  What makes you so sure?”

One eyebrow raised and he looked at her with a certain amount of pride.  “Because that is not where I would go.”

The radio on Charlotte’s belt had been to this point blessedly, and purposefully silent, but now it burst into unexpected chatter.  She nearly jumped at the noise and pulled it off, bringing it to her ear to try to decipher.  One voice was clear over the rest of the cacophony.  “Mouse,” she called, toggling the radio on, “this is Command.  Sitrep!”

“Julian has XO at the pump house,” the tiny woman reported.

“Pinned down?”

“No, hostage.”

It was Charlotte’s worst fear.  “Casualties?  Injuries?”

“He’s unconscious but breathing.  No others.   We are four in the immediate area, but hostiles have heavy firepower.”

“Count on hostiles?”

“Just two.”

Julian and Morax. 

She looked up at Gabriel, he had been listening to every word.  Their eyes met in a moment of understanding.

“Mouse, I want you and everyone to disengage and fall back. Do you hear me?  Fall back to the vehicles.  I want you prepared for evac.”

There was second of hesitation.  “Yes, ma’am.  Disengage and fall back.”

She hated the thought of leaving Jenkins with Julian and that animal, Morax, but Alex’s safety had to come first.  Jenkins knew the risks, he knew the mission.  Still, she breathed deeply, trying to steel herself.  “I want to get some things.”

 

 

Gabriel followed her down the hallway toward the big kitchen.  Both of them were shocked to see the remnants of the doorframe hanging drunkenly inside, then they saw the broken window.  Charlotte looked up, her face etched in dread.

Gabriel rested his hand on her shoulder comfortingly. “Your Mouse-person did not say that Julian had Alex, only Jenkins.   Raphael is still searching.  This was done looking for him, they have not found him.”

“You’re right.”  This wasn’t normal, she didn’t usually let the fear rise to the surface.  Best to get a hold of it now and get it under control.  “I’ll get what we need, you look around and see if you can figure out what happened.”

While she worked the remaining two bags, Gabriel quickly surveyed the room with the practiced eye of a tactician.  He saw the broken window, the glass on the outside, the bag lying on top of the weeds there, the places where heavy boots had trampled the plants.  He scrutinized the rest of the room, saw the old wood-burning stove, the rows of cupboards, short and tall, narrow and deep. 

And that one, an odd shape.  He opened the door.  It was empty.  Not just empty, it didn’t have shelves or even a floor, just a rope hanging down the middle.  “Charlotte!”

She scurried over.  “What?  What is it – oh, a dumbwaiter!”

“Dumbwaiter?”

“Like a little elevator.  They probably used it to bring up wood and food stored in the cellar.”  She yanked on the rope, it was still sturdy.  “You think Alex went down there?”

“The others thought he went through the window, but I believe that was a merely a ruse.”

She grinned and took the cupboard door from his hand, closing it tightly.  “I told you he was smart.  He’ll be safe for a little while.”

“Then we may deal with that bastard, Julian.”

“Exactly.”

 

 

Morax was beastly strong.  Julian had his skills, but over the years he had seen Morax do things that edged close to the range of archangel in their scope.  Flipping over truck tires had once been part of Morax’s human host’s workout regimen, now Morax regularly flipped over trucks just for fun.

When the Wildcat XO had charged them in a foolish attempt to give a hobbled compatriot time to escape, Morax had quite easily backhanded the man, sending him flying through the air like an old American football on kick-off.  Jenkins had landed against the ancient iron water pump, his forehead smacking against the handle, creating a horrific squeal.  A gush of water had instantly erupted and doused him head to waist but that hadn’t been enough to wake the Wildcat.  Jenkins was out.

Julian saw it as a sign.  Whether or not there were two archangels there, Commander Lannon had greatly depended upon her XO, and now he had been delivered like a gift from above (quite literally, thanks to Morax’s backhand.)  They grabbed the crumpled but still breathing body and retreated into the broken-down shed nearby.

Time to make a deal.

 

 

Michael reached the top of the stairs and stopped, listening.  Someone was further down the hallway, opening and closing doors in one of the bedrooms and being none too quiet about it.  He only hoped it was Raphael.  She’d gotten so far ahead of him that he hadn’t been able to figure out what direction she had gone until he had heard her tiny feet on the floor above his head. 

She’d always been quick, but now she had an added advantage over him.  The blow he had taken to his head would normally have been little more than an inconvenience, but something about the combination of electric shocks he had received in the last day had turned a minor headache into a full-blown concussion.  Add to that, he wasn’t healing properly.  The hours that he and Gabriel had been tied to the chairs should have been more than enough down time for his body to recover, but it would seem the constant electrical charge flowing out of the manacles was enough to stop that, too.

He knew he was at less than peak condition, physically and mentally slow.  Raphael’s whirling blade had come perilously close to taking off the top of his head.  It was certainly the only warning he was going to get – there was not going to be a second chance in this battle.  He needed to draw on whatever reserves he might have and do it immediately.

He found her in a large bedroom at the end of the hall, no doubt the old master suite.  The doors to the closets and bath were thrown open, already searched.  Raphael stood in front of the French doors that led to a small balcony, contemplating her next move. 

“I won’t let you take Alex.”  Michael had managed to get inside the room before his sister had noticed.  She spun around to face him, startled at the sound of his voice.

“I haven’t found him yet.”  Raphael gave him a friendly smile, as if this was a game they were playing instead of a battle.  The remaining shotel was already sheathed in her belt, now she stooped down to snug the dagger she carried into a casing in her boot. “I know how you feel about him, brother.  You’ve watched over him for his entire life.”  Her hands spread apart beseechingly, her expression wide and caring.  “But he isn’t really family.  He’s human, he doesn’t understand us, our ways.”

She walked up to him and gently touched her brother’s cheek.  Michael flinched away, but she persisted, resting her fingertips on his chest.  “How can he?  How can he understand how foreign these mortal bodies are, how frail and weak?  You know, you feel it.  The pain, the hurt.  It’s not the way we were made, we’re above these things, these weaknesses.  We shouldn’t have to endure them, we don’t belong here, we belong in the heavens.”

“Father did not make us perfect, Raphael.”

“No, no of course not.  But Alex is…”  She sighed.  “He’s simply inferior to us, Michael, they all are.”

He slapped her hand away.  “Is that what you think?” he shouted.  “That we are superior to the humans?”

She stepped back, “Well yes, of course!  You can’t see the truth because you and Gabriel are infatuated with them, with Alex, with that Charlotte woman.  You’ve granted your little pets more value than they deserve, you can’t see that they’re actually quite witless.”

“That’s ridiculous!  Father created all of us, humans and angels.  We are equal in His eyes.”

“Equal?  Then why did He have you meting out His wrath, killing them by the thousands?  Why do they kill each other, why did they die of starvation and disease when they had the means to end it?  Face it, Michael, the best thing that ever happened to humanity was when Gabriel broke the Seventh Seal.  At least a few million of them were upgraded by possession.”

“I will not defend Father or myself to you, Raphael.  If you think that possession is somehow an upgrade, then I fear for any sensibility you may have had.”

“My sensibility?  Can’t you see, brother?”  She grasped his arms, her hands gripping tight.  Her striking grey eyes looked up at him with a kind of fierce desperation.  “I love you and Gabriel so much.  I’m just trying to save my family.”

“That is the same reasoning that Gabriel used for his genocide.”  Michael pushed her hands off of him once again, stepping back.  “I’m trying to save us all.”

For a moment, she simply stared at him, her chin thrust forward in defiance, her bottom lip quivering like a child’s.  Then, abruptly, she turned on her heel and moved toward the window.  “I tried, Michael.  I tried words but you refuse to hear.”  She peered out the dirty glass doors onto the tableau that was developing outside in the area around the water pump.  “I’m going to save our family.”  Her head turned and she looked him over her shoulder, her brow furrowed.  “One way or another.”

It took only a fraction of a second for her to pull the glass doors open and launch herself skyward.  Michael had no time to react.  He rushed onto the old balcony, calling her name, knowing that she was the one who refused to hear.

 

Charlotte hated how long it had taken to get outside, to get to Julian, but she knew that knee-jerk reactions were bound to fail.  The extra minute or two that it took to put a plan together could make all the difference between failure and success.  Jenkins’ life was on the line; all of their lives were theoretically at stake.  Now was not the time to be rash.

 They rounded the corner of the house cautiously, scanning the empty area around the water pump in front of them.  Gabriel had his sword drawn, his knuckles nearly white on the handle.  Charlotte came quietly behind him.  She’d taken off the long leather coat and now stood with Colonel Andrews’ Colt 1911 in hand, two other weapons in crisscross slings over her chest and the empyrean steel knives sheathed to her leg.  A frisson of excitement ran up her spine; this is what she’d been training for half her life.  She felt ready for almost anything.

A hail of bullets fell upon them almost immediately and Gabriel’s reaction was just as swift.  He turned back toward her, one wing extended, protecting them both.  His hand reached out and he swept her up, pulling her completely off her feet.  She tucked in tightly against his chest, one arm around his neck, waiting for the impact of the shots, dreading what would happen, but there was nothing, nothing at all.  Not even a sound, those exquisitely beautiful feathers deflected everything like they were raindrops.

The escape from harm served only to intensify the energy that had been building inside her.  She dared to look up and she could see that Gabriel felt the same way.  His eyes flashed with a kind of wicked thrill.  Never before had she had a fighting partner so matched to her temperament, her style.  Whole conversations took place with just a glance.  They were, in a word, perfect. 

Still behind the protection of his wings, behind the barrage of gunfire, she pulled his head down and kissed him with a quick, fiery passion.  “I love you,” she breathed.

“I love you.”  He was sure, confident.  “Are you ready?”

She grinned, tucking the .45 into its holster and pulling one of the slings from over her shoulder.  “Let’s do this.”

Standing in the doorway of the shed, Julian’s lieutenant emptied the contents of two full clips at them, secure in the hail of bullets as protection.  Instead of taking out the pair, however, he watched in horror as the archangel advanced on him, marching slowly forward, impervious.  There was a sudden silence as the second of the machine guns ran out of ammunition.  Morax scrambled for an Uzi, grabbed off a corpse back in the house, and swung around to start again.

It was enough of a break.  With startlingly fast reflexes, Gabriel threw open his wings, dropping Charlotte once again to the ground.  In a graceful, practiced movement, she took a sideways shooter’s stance, minimizing her profile, with one of the modified Taser guns in her hand.  It took only a split second to aim and shoot, the movements so ingrained into her that they were reflexes more than conscious thought, then she tucked and rolled to the side, seeking cover behind a battered steel horse trough. 

The barbs of the stun gun burrowed into Morax’s overdeveloped bicep, instantly delivering the huge jolt of energy that had originally been designed to incapacitate an archangel.  The eight-ball’s head snapped back, his arms flew out to the side, and he nearly lifted off his feet as his muscles simultaneously contracted.  Even rolling away, Charlotte was able to keep the trigger in her hand and she kept it held down for as long as the battery held out, expelling its full charge.

 

 

Inside the shed, Julian looked on in horror.  His most loyal lieutenant, his bulwark, lay on the dusty ground jolting around in the worst kind of seizure he’d ever seen.  Pink foam flew from the eight-ball’s mouth, his black eyes were rolled back in his head and terrible cracking noises were coming from his joints.  He was quite certainly tearing himself apart.

“Julian!”  Gabriel’s voice boomed from outside.  “Where are you, you worm?”

The insult brought back less than pleasant memories.  The dyad’s lips curled back, partially in disgust, partially in anger.  There was no way he was going to let that damned archangel control him again, and no way he was going to let himself be electrocuted like the still-twitching Morax.

He leaned out of the doorway, saw Gabriel coming closer, fired and ducked back inside.  Julian the Air Force captain had never been great with a gun; in fact, one year it had taken a healthy bribe to obtain his marksmanship qualifications.  Now, he realized, it really wouldn’t matter, not if he was shooting at an archangel.  Every time he fired at Gabriel, the damned angel’s wing would be up and deflecting the shot before it had the chance to strike.  It would be a sword fight then, and if he were honest with himself, he didn’t like his odds with that, not with Gabriel.

His plan had been a good one, until Gabriel and the traitorous Commander had ripped it apart.  Even now, Julian had cover, he had more than one weapon, he even had a goddamned hostage, but things still looked bleak.  It was unbelievable, how did these bastard archangels keep coming out on top?

There had to be another way.

 

 

Alex was relatively pleased with his hiding place.  The basement had two exits – the stairs to the main part of the house and a cellar door that opened outside.  That gave him at least some advantage when it came to escape.   Although dark and more than a little bit musty, the basement had closets and storage areas that would need to be searched, giving him time to make his exit, or his attack. 

If worse came to absolute worst, he could probably climb up the rope back into the kitchen, the way he had come down.  Make that three ways out.

It wasn’t perfect, but neither was this situation.  Alex didn’t like hiding, he didn’t like the idea of other people putting their lives on the line for him, and he didn’t like waiting for the enemy to come to him.  It all grated on his nerves.  He understood now that this probably wasn’t the plan his mother had originally had in place – hell, improvising was right behind planning when it came to war – but it didn’t make him any happier.

There was a constant hum of activity going on all around him.  He could hear feet running across the floor overhead, shots fired, voices outside.  It took all of his willpower to stay where he was, to let his vision acclimate to the darkness and search out the best place to lay in ambush.  That was his idea now, he would take out anyone that came for him.  At least it wasn’t waiting around twiddling his thumbs.

The sounds from outside the cellar door reached a kind of crescendo and then stopped.  He could see light where the old wooden doors had shrunk over time, pulling away from each other, leaving a gap almost an inch wide.  It was tempting to hide behind them and watch the battle that was taking place in the area around the water pump.  He’d heard Jenkins’ voice and that woman they called Mouse.  Things seemed to be going well, then there was quiet – hard to say if that was good or bad. 

Suddenly a cacophony of weapons' fire erupted, at least two submachine guns on full auto.  Alex involuntarily ducked at the sound, he couldn’t help it, even in the safety of the basement.  Whoever was shooting wanted not to kill but to completely obliterate their target.  It couldn’t be one of the Wildcats, they were too professional for that.  A chill ran down Alex’s spine.  There was only one reason for that kind of firearms zealotry.

Someone was trying to kill an archangel.

Alex scurried over to the crumbling concrete steps that rose up beneath the cracked wood of the doors.  The gap between them was frustrating – wide enough to see a swath of the yard, but not wide enough to see all of it.  He crouched down, peering out, trying to decipher what was going on just as the firestorm of bullets came to a blessed end. 

He could see the figure standing in the middle of the yard, see the protective armor of black feathers that shone iridescent blue, purple and green in the sunshine, but he couldn’t tell who it was.  Then suddenly the wings flew open and he could see his mother.  She dropped her feet to the ground, took her stance, shot one of the stun guns and rolled off to the side as if it was some kind of choreographed dance, as if she and Gabriel had been rehearsing the move for months.  They were seamless together, perfectly timed, and Alex couldn’t help but to watch with a kind of wonder.

What she was shooting at, he couldn’t see, but she must have hit it because she held on to the trigger while she rolled.  Finally, she released the handle and scrambled to take cover behind an old metal trough.  For protection, it was strictly adequate, but better than nothing.

Gabriel, on the other hand, stood with his wings back, exposed.  The stun gun had obviously taken out the shooter.  “Julian!”  Even from inside the cellar, Alex could hear the raw power the archangel put into his voice, power and contempt.  “Where are you, you worm?”

He watched as the dyad eventually came into his narrow view, his head weaving back and forth like a cobra, a gun in his outstretched hand, held sideways like a gangster.  Alex had always thought that there was something reptilian about Julian, that his angelic side must be more snake than seraphim.   He strained to hear what the dyad said but he was too far away. 

Then, suddenly, Julian’s meaning was all too clear.  One hand dropped and another came up, this one facing Charlotte.  The pistol was huge, powerful, and Julian was taking careful aim.

Alex felt his heart stop.  Even at this distance, he could see the fanatical gleam in Julian’s face, the need to win at any cost.  “No,” he whispered to himself, fumbling for the latch on the ancient wooden doors.   It was rusty, stubborn.  “No.”   He banged the side of his hand against it, then the butt of the gun.  “No,” he said to himself again, a note of desperation creeping in. 

His mother’s warning to stay hidden echoed in the back of his head but he pushed it down, hitting the latch again and again…he glanced up, saw Gabriel’s contemptuous look as he faced down the dyad…

…no, he couldn’t trust Gabriel, not with his mother…. 

…he hit the latch again and again and suddenly it broke free, falling to the floor in pieces.  Alex stumbled back, startled, then rushed up to force open the door.

It wouldn’t budge.

He searched inside for another latch, he dared a split second to glance up at Julian, at his mother, still in the same place, still in that terrifying stand-off, then he saw it – an inch-thick, round bar across the door about two-thirds of the way down – on the outside.

“NO!”  The sound roared from his chest.  He was locked in by a stupid, simple, horribly effective slide bolt, locked in from the outside.  He pressed up against the doors, pushed with all his might, but they wouldn’t give.  As old and dry as the wood might seem, it was thick and still sturdy, the original builders had made those doors to withstand epic storms and they had seen their share.  Even the hardware was heavy duty, bolted not into the wood but through, made to last.  Of all the times to find quality craftsmanship.

Alex slid to the concrete stairs in a combination of horror and despair.  Julian was about to execute his mother and there was nothing he could do.  He stared at his hands in the faint light that came through the crack.  The glow fell on the lines and whorls that started at his wrists, ran up his forearms.  The damned tattoos.  They’d blown Julian halfway across the room before, but the dyad wasn’t anywhere nearby.  If only he could…

If only he could control it.

It was a crazy idea.  Nobody had ever said anything about using the tattoos like that.  Then again, nobody really had any idea of their power, not even Alex himself.  If he could figure out some way, just some way to channel that power…

He took a deep breath.  How had it worked before?  First there had been the fear.  That wasn’t too difficult to find, all he had to do was glance out again to see Julian’s gun trained on his mom.  Then…

Alex put both hands on the old cellar doors.

 

 

Gabriel felt his heart stop.  He hadn’t expected Julian to be this brave, certainly never expected him to turn on Charlotte.  He saw the gun that the dyad held in his left hand, different than the other, larger and unquestionably deadlier.  The silver barrel flashed in the sunlight.  “You don’t want to do that, Julian.  I’ll cut your throat before the bullet even hits her.”

Julian laughed while he holstered the first pistol to get better grip on the Desert Eagle.  “You know, it’s taken me this long, millennia now, to find your weaknesses, Gabriel, but it was so worth it.  First it was your twin, Michael.  Now this human.  Don’t you think it’s a little kinky, I mean, even for you?  You know, bedding the woman after you’ve been trying to kill her son for all these…”

His voice trailed off, his mind wandering.  Then understanding.  “You dog.  You dog!  You’re his father, you’re Alex’s father!”

Gabriel stared silently back at him from beneath a glowering brow.  At his sides, his hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically.

“I might have thought Michael, surely, they’ve always been tight,” Julian continued, a wide grin spread across his face, “but not you.  Oh, ho, ho, this is rich.”  He laughed again, now waving the gun around, barely able to contain his excitement.  “Yes, Father and His delicious irony.  So, then she’s –”

“– the only reason I’m not squeezing the blood out of your heart right now.”  Gabriel interrupted, stepping even closer. 

“Tut tut tut!  Let’s not be too friendly.  Wouldn’t want this to go off accidently in a tussle.”  Julian took aim once again at the horse trough, a poor defense against that caliber of weapon.  “This,” he nodded toward the gun, “this will blow a nice little hole right through Mrs. Gabriel there.”

Behind the trough, Charlotte closed her eyes and grit her teeth.  Like most battles, this hadn’t exactly gone as designed.  “Remember why we’re all here,” she whispered.  Maybe Gabriel could hear it, maybe not, but she needed to tell herself. 

Her hand slowly reached for the radio on her hip.  Time to call in the troops. 

 

 

So much happened in the next few seconds that it was difficult to keep it straight, yet Michael was witness to it all.  The only witness to the complete scene, still standing at the top of the rickety balcony, the only patron for the drama that was being played out on the stage below.  His angelic mind gathered in all the facts, the actors and the actions, and yet it unfolded before him in a kind of underwater slow-motion, forcing him to see everything in the minutest detail, to have it indelibly carved into his memory, to witness it all and yet not to be able to stop any of it.  He was trapped by his own inertia, his own fear.

Michael could see the strain in his brother’s face, in his shoulders and arms, he could tell how desperately Gabriel was holding himself back from attacking the dyad right then and there, but they were too close, less than five yards away from Charlotte.  A shot at this distance couldn’t miss, couldn’t be anything but fatal, and Julian seem almost giddy with the opportunity.  Michael knew that it was only a matter of time before his twin’s temper flared out of control and he backhanded Julian into oblivion, mindless of any weapon in the dyad’s hand, but for the moment, Gabriel was in check.

Everyone was looking Charlotte’s way then, when Raphael landed only a few feet away from her, the force of her descent sending up a small cloud of dust and dirt around them.  She rose, her hands in fists, not as much aggressive as angry, her jet-black wings quivering in the sun.

 

 

Charlotte stood, momentarily forgetting her radio, forgetting Julian and his gun, forgetting everything, her mind fully focused on the archangel who had suddenly appeared before her.  Her hand instinctively reached for the weapons on her hips, the old Colt 1911, the twin daggers, but she did not draw them yet.  There was something odd, something indecipherable in Raphael’s expression. 

“You,” the tiny archangel said, pointing accusingly.  “You’re tearing my family apart.”

“You’re trying to take my son,” Charlotte countered. 

“He’s the Chosen One.  He’s necessary, but you!”  The angel threw her hands the air.  “You’re stealing Gabriel from us, from our family.  You and your son, you’re ruining everything.”

“What?”  Suddenly, Charlotte understood the fervor behind those striking grey eyes.  Raphael was unhinged, obsessed.  It was little comfort to have her insanity theory verified.

“You’re not supposed to be here, you know.”  Raphael continued, more and more vehement.  “You’re not even supposed to be alive.”

Charlotte could only stare at her dumbly, her hands gradually edging toward her weapons.

“I can put our family back together.”  Raphael pulled out her remaining shotel.  “I can fix it.” 

Gabriel screamed out “Raphael, no!” but his sister did not seem to hear.  Her sword sliced through the air directly at Charlotte’s neck.  Practice honed into instinct, Charlotte reacted without thought, pulling out the two daggers and using both of them to parry the shotel away, redirecting the force.  Two ten-inch blades against a crazed archangel with a long, curved blade of empyrean steel. 

At the last possible moment, Charlotte twisted both of her knives downward, wrenching the sword out of Raphael’s less experienced grip and sending it flying off into the dirt.  It was a risky move, only possible because the commander’s years of training, her height advantage, and, frankly, her complete sense of desperation, but it worked.  Raphael fell back into a heap, weaponless and confused.

Charlotte was seized with a heady rush of triumph – she’d just disarmed an archangel.  Then a muffled blast interrupted her victory.  They all heard it, coming from the house, from the basement or close by.  She dared not turn to see what it was; distractions were deadly.

“Mom!”

The word did what the shotel could not, cutting to her very heart.  Her breath caught in her lungs, fire burned through her chest.  “Alex.”  Her voice was barely audible, she had no air.  She turned back toward the house, oblivious to everything else: to Raphael, to Julian, to everyone around her. 

“Alex!” she croaked out, panic in her words, her face stricken with fear.  “No, Alex, go back!”

 

 

Michael saw it all happening, helpless to do anything.  Perhaps it was the injuries he had sustained – the electrocution, the head trauma – but he hadn’t been able to do anything but watch as Julian had pulled the gun on Charlotte, as Raphael had swung the shotel at her.  It felt almost as if these things had been preordained and he was merely meant to observe, to tell their story later, but he knew that couldn’t be true.  Father had not sent him as witness, this was not his mission here. 

Things weren’t making sense, and then unexpectedly they did.  He both heard and felt the boom of energy that sent the cellar doors blowing back on their hinges, he understood immediately that it had been something much more than grenades or chemicals that had caused it.  Then Alex ran out of the basement and Michael finally lost the paralysis that had gripped him since he had arrived on the balcony, he knew he needed to move, move immediately, but how?  Those same angelic senses saw everything at once again, everything that was happening and about to happen and he knew that he could not stop it all.

Charlotte turned and saw Alex.  She saw her son and called out to him, a terrible mistake.  Michael could see the combination of horror and fright and guilt on her face, she knew Alex had come out to try to save her, had exposed himself for her sake. 

Gabriel, too, saw his son and understood the same thing.  Fear and anger fought for control of his features, his teethed bared in intensity.

Julian, ever ready to take advantage of a situation, took a step back.  He knew when something big was about to happen.  This might be the opportunity to finally take back control or it might be the chance to get the hell out – either way he was going to be ready. 

No one was watching Raphael – except Michael.  He watched her stand up awkwardly, glowering at Charlotte, her jaw thrust forward like Gabriel’s when he was being stubborn.  She saw Alex and a kind of change came over her.  She stood straight again, her beautiful head held proudly, calmly.  Michael watched as she reached to her boot and pulled out the long dagger he had seen her put there just a few minutes before.  A tiny, grim smile played across her face as she looked from mother to son.

Michael could see them all from his perch up on the balcony: his brother, his sister, Julian, Charlotte, and Alex, the young man he loved like a son.  He saw the web that tied them together, saw the future that was about to unfold and how only he could make a difference. 

It was his choice, but then again, there had never really been a choice.  The archangel already felt the ache in his heart as he stepped off the balcony and swooped down. 

 

 

Alex had run from the darkness of the basement into the bright light of the yard and been instantly sun-blinded.  He held one arm up to shade his eyes, the other held the pistol.  His forearms burned from where the tattoos had blazed to burst open the cellar doors, but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered but protecting his mother, saving her from Julian.  He’d half-hoped that the door blast would be enough to throw the dyad off his game, to let Gabriel take a shot at him.

He hadn’t expected to find Raphael there.

“No, Alex, go back!”  His mom was angry, scared, he understood why, but he shook his head, running toward her.  No, she didn’t understand, it was his job to stand in harm’s way, his duty to take the hit, he was the one who should be there fighting Julian.

There was no way he was going to leave her there, he’d only just found her.  He ran faster.

Then out of the blue, he was tumbling onto the ground like he’d been hit by a truck, the world gone dark.  He fought against the pressure holding him down, realized it was strong angelic arms, that a great wing blackened out the sky.

“Alex, stay down!” Michael yelled.

He fought against him, struggled to get away.  Michael was doing more than just trying to keep him down, he was holding him back, his arms wrapped around Alex’s chest, pushing him back toward the house.  No matter what Alex did, he couldn’t get free.  He scrambled to his knees, pulling away from Michael’s grasp.  He could see Charlotte start to move toward him, forgetting about Julian.

Forgetting about Raphael.

“Mom–” The word was cut off in his throat when he saw Raphael’s knife and her eyes – bright, too bright.  He knew Gabriel saw it, they all saw it, everyone but his mother.  Michael’s grip went suddenly slack, and Alex nearly fell forward.  Gabriel had been frozen in place, uncomprehending, now he started to move.

“Raphael,” Michael said, almost too quietly to be heard, “no!”

With a kind of righteous glee, Raphael burst forward and thrust the eight-inch dagger into Charlotte’s back right up to the hilt.  The blade erupted out the left side of the commander’s chest, startlingly crimson against the green of her shirt.  Her back arched and her eyes flew open in shock and puzzlement – this hadn’t been part of the plan at all.

The petite little archangel stood to the side, a pleased expression on her face, as if she’d just completed a particularly difficult pirouette and she wanted everyone to applaud.

 

 

Charlotte looked down at her chest, the blade protruding from it obscenely, then up at Gabriel.  Her eyes were huge, unbelieving.  One hand went to the point of the dagger, as if to see if it was real, if it wasn’t merely a nightmare, a memory of that time long ago, but the feeling of blood-slick metal against her fingers was a terrible, fatal truth.

Gabriel had been moving toward her already but he hadn’t been fast enough.  Now he finally reached her, his face gaunt with horror, his mouth open in a wordless cry.

Charlotte’s head tipped up drunkenly.  “Really?”  A wry expression of disbelief twitched the side of her face.  She half-laughed, half-coughed, pointing to the bloody center of her chest.  “Again?”  Then she collapsed into his arms.

“No, no, no, no,” Gabriel mumbled, pulling her to him, falling slowly to the ground with her.  “This cannot be, this cannot…” He held her carefully, the handle of the dagger still protruded from her back, blood welling up around it, surging with every heartbeat.  His hand held her face, tipping it upward.  “No, no, not again, not again.  I won’t let you go, I won’t lose you, not again.”

She coughed again, tiny flecks of blood spattering her lips.  “It’s ok, it’s…ok.”

“No, it is not ok,” he countered fiercely.  His jaws clenched together, his eyes squeezed tightly closed, he fought back tears, fought back the avalanche of emotion that threatened to overwhelm him.   “I told you, I cannot do this…I need you.”  

The realization was instantaneous; he had only one choice.   Gabriel breathed in deeply, his head raised as he fought a silent battle within.  He’d done it once before, banished all the thoughts, all the terrible fears, to find that perfect moment of concentration.  He had to do it again, had to find that place where he had control.

Charlotte saw it, saw his eyes roll back in his tear-stained face, she knew what he was trying to do.  Her hand reached up and stroked his cheek, breaking his concentration.  “Gabriel, no.”  Her voice was weak, tremulous, but determined.

He was momentarily furious.  “I can save you!  I did it before!”

“My archangel.”  Her hand reached up again but it was shaky, her fingers slipping off his cheek.  Her breath came in short, sharp gasps.  “Save Alex.”

Gabriel shook his head, his face contorting in an anguish that could not be expressed.  He felt as if he, too, had been stabbed, a searing agony that burned through his core.  He pulled her closer, holding her tight to his chest, his head bent over her, hot tears falling onto her head.  He kissed her forehead, her cheeks, her lips, tasting the sour copper of the blood that stained them.

His fingertips pushed back the hair that covered her eyes.  They opened slowly, it was a great effort, and he was surprised at what he saw there.  Charlotte gazed up at him, a soft, sweet smile overpowering the pain.  She was content

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you.”  The words rushed out of him, he’d never realized how few times he’d said it to her.  Now today, twice, so different.  He wanted the chance to say it every day in a thousand ways, it wasn’t right, they hadn’t enough time, Father had chosen her, it couldn’t end this way…

She sensed his anger returning and with great effort brought her hand up to his chest as if to still the fury that grew inside.  Her voice was so low the word was mouthed more than spoken.  “Always.”  Her head nestled close to him and she closed her eyes.

Gabriel could feel her spirit as it left her body, feel it rise like a soft breeze and flow through him.  His breath caught in his chest, for a fraction of an instant he and Charlotte were truly one, knowing each other completely, a shining, glorious interwoven entity.

And then she was gone.

 

 

Michael had instinctually released Alex when he realized what Raphael was about to do, but now he grasped him again.  He felt Alex’s cry of sorrow as he watched the knife burst from his mother’s chest, felt him try again to bolt toward the center of the yard. 

“Let me go!”  Alex screamed.  “My mom!  She’s hurt!”

“No, Alex, you can’t!  You’ve already given yourself away, get back into the house!  We can protect you there.”

“She’s dying!”

Michael grabbed him across the shoulders and shook him violently.  “So that you can live!” he yelled through clenched teeth.  “Run!  Now!”

The tactic worked.  Alex turned, shocked, and ran toward the side of the house.  Michael glanced back to see his brother cradling Charlotte on the ground.  Gabriel looked stricken, helpless.

Raphael did not.  She’d taken only a moment to watch Charlotte fall, then casually retrieved her curved blade from the ground.  Now she bore down on Michael with purpose.   

“Raphael, what have you done?”

The petite archangel approached her brother proudly.  “I’ve done what I told you I was going to do.  I’m fixing our family, Michael.  Gabriel won’t have that human to fuss over any more, he’ll need us now.”

Michael couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  “This wasn’t some dalliance of Gabriel’s.  Father chose Charlotte for him.  The only reason they weren’t together was due to Lucifer’s interference.”

“The reason they weren’t together is because she was supposed to be dead!”  Raphael countered.  “And I’ve fixed that problem now.”

Michael stole a momentary look back at the figures in the yard.  He knew why Charlotte had not died all those years ago, he knew that it was a possibility again.  Obviously, Raphael did not.

“If she dies,” he said seriously, “Gabriel will kill you.”

“No, he won’t.”  Raphael laughed as if this were the funniest thing her brother had said all day.  “He’s going to thank me when he realizes he’s been wasting his time on that human.   When we’re a family again, with Lucifer.”

Michael had not wanted to believe what Gabriel had said, what his own mind had told him about Raphael’s sanity, but he could deny it no longer.  “Little sister, I still love you so I’m telling you this: for your own sake, flee now.  I’m warning you, Gabriel is going to kill you.”

“No, no, I can’t leave.  I still have to bring the Chosen One to Lucifer.”  She smiled beatifically.  “You’ll see, Michael.  When you’re free of him, free of all these humans, things will be much better.  We will be a family again.”  She said it like an announcement, a portent of things to come.  “I’ll see to it.”

Michael was torn.  He had to find Alex again, had to protect him, and yet there was Gabriel, his twin, huddled over the body of his lover.  Michael could almost feel the pain radiating off of him.  How often in the past had he failed his brother, failed to be there for him, to comfort, to understand?

Raphael glanced back at him as she moved toward the house, looked back at Gabriel, still smiling brightly. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

 

 

 

 

Jenkins rubbed his forehead, squinting into the sunlight and leaning against the lintel of the tiny pump house shack, fighting nausea.  He’d only just pulled himself out of the fog that had refused to let go of his thoughts, refused to let him move or see or do anything, and had finally made his way painfully to his feet.  Behind him, Morax lay on his back, his limbs splayed out at unnatural angles, his face contorted into a rictus that did not bode well for his future.

Then Jenkins looked out into the yard and wished he could go back into the fog, back into the safe oblivion of whiteness.  The commander stood a few dozen feet away, red spreading across the front of her shirt, dripping on the ground behind her, the bright, bright red of arterial blood. 

Too much.  Too much red.

The people around him moved quickly, all except the commander.  Julian scurried off like the rat he was and the archangel Raphael took a moment to appreciate her work, then ran off toward Michael. 

Jenkins watched as Gabriel rushed up to the commander, catching her as she collapsed.  He could tell how the angel felt, the horror, the guilt, the fear, because he felt the very same.  Charlotte was laying there bleeding to death because she’d come to save him, save his hide, because he’d been idiot enough to let the bloody dyad get the better of him.  Jenkins had been too stupid to help himself, too out of it to stop Raphael, and now there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to save his commander's life.

He stumbled out of the shack, uncertain of what to do.  His thoughts were still jumbled – shock, trauma, injury, it didn’t matter why, he had to struggle to think.

His radio was missing, probably stolen by Julian.  The other Wildcats would have converged on the scene immediately if they were nearby – Charlotte had called them off then, sending them in other directions for their own protection and to secure the area.  She was good that way.

Charlotte. 

His commanding officer.  No matter what, he had a duty to her.

Charlotte.

His feet were leaden, his steps uneven as he approached the two forms crumpled on the ground.  Gabriel huddled over her protectively, but Jenkins could see the way the archangel’s body shuddered, the emotion he tried to hold in but failed. 

“I can save you!  I did it before!” Jenkins heard Gabriel protest, and for a moment his heart soared, but he knew it couldn’t be true.  No one could save her, not with the puddle of blood that stained the earth around Charlotte’s body, not with the dagger handle still in her back like an obscenity drawn on a wall.

Charlotte answered, Jenkins wasn’t able to hear the first part, but the second was clear enough.  He should have known.  “Save Alex.”  The whole reason that they were there in the first place, and now, even in her last minutes, it was what she was thinking.

He felt torn as he came closer, part of him feeling like an intruder and part of him wanting to shove the archangel away from Charlotte, to take those last few moments for himself, to…to…

And then it was too late.  He knew intuitively that she was gone, that it was too late to do whatever it was that he had wanted to do, to say.  He stood there, swaying a little, trying to control the quivering in his jaw, the burning behind his eyes.

There was no time now, he was in command.

 

 

Jenkins lowered himself to the ground gingerly, his balance precarious at best.  His hand went to Gabriel’s shoulder, a firm but gentle grip.  “I’m sorry, mate.”

The archangel raised his head and Jenkins was stunned.  Gabriel’s expression went beyond shock and disbelief, beyond grief and mourning, it was as if he had lost a part of his soul.  He looked shattered.

For most of his life, Jenkins had been a soldier, and it was to this he now turned, even though the same shock, the same grief pummeled at him like a boxer landing undefended hits.  The XO had a mission, a duty, but in his current state he wasn’t able to carry it out.  He had to find another way to complete it.

“Gabriel,” he started, trying to get through the blank stare.  “Alex is still in danger.”  Nothing.  “Julian and Raphael are still after him.”  Still no reaction.  Jenkins shook the archangel’s shoulder.  “I can’t do it, man.  I can barely stand, I’m not fit.  You have to go, you have to save Alex.”

Perhaps it was the last words that echoed in his mind, but Gabriel’s eyes came into some kind of focus.  “I’ll take care of Charlotte,” Jenkins continued, buoyed by what he saw. 

Gabriel still sat, his fingers running gently over Charlotte’s hair, brushing along the curve of her cheek, the softness of her lips.  He wanted to memorize her features, never to forget her beauty, her strength.

He didn’t want to let her go.

“Gabriel, your son needs you.”

“Alex.” Gabriel said the name more like a thought spoken out loud than anything else.  He turned his head toward Jenkins, tried to say something but couldn’t find the words.

Jenkins understood.  “I’ll take good care of her, I promise.  The best.”  His hands reached out to take her.

Carefully, gently, Gabriel laid her body into Jenkins’ arms.  The XO held her tightly against his chest, seizing the handle of the dagger and yanking it clear.  He threw it away violently, and then wrapped his arms around his commander’s still form. 

Gabriel stood up slowly, as if every muscle in his body hurt, as if his joints were wracked with arthritis, his bones brittle with age.  He paused and his gaze drifted toward the dagger that Jenkins had pulled from Charlotte’s body.  Then he slowly stood taller, lifting his face up, squaring his shoulders, his chest expanding with each breath.  Jenkins watched in fascination as the mask of grief and pain slowly gave way to a completely different look.  Gabriel’s brow relaxed, the lines in his face smoothed, and he gained an air of haughty control.  His jaw thrust out and the corner of his mouth curved up into a cold, cruel smirk. 

The archangel rotated his head, stretching his neck, readying himself for combat.  Then he looked down at his hand, covered in Charlotte’s blood, and coolly wiped it on his chest plate, leaving a broad crimson streak across the left side.

The steel of his sword made a distinctive sound as he pulled it from its scabbard and shone brilliant in the sun as he turned it from side to side.

The radical change in demeanor was more than a little disturbing, and Jenkins was at both relieved that he had never faced Gabriel on the battlefield and pleased that they were now on the same side.  “They went back into the house,” Jenkins said.  “At least Alex and Michael did.  I’ll get the rest of the troops to help you.”

‘No,” Gabriel announced in a tone that was not to be ignored.  “I won’t need anyone else.”  For a brief moment, his features softened as he glanced down at Charlotte’s body, now cradled in her XO’s arms.  He reached down and ran gentle fingers across the back of her hand.  “Take care of her,” he said, “I’ll take care of Alex.”

 

 

 

Gabriel had never felt such determination before, or such focus.  It was as if the rest of the world had fallen away and all that was left was the ranch in the middle of nowhere, an old farmhouse that held his son, his brother and his enemies.  Nothing else mattered, not yesterday, not tomorrow, not anywhere or anyone else.  He felt as if every murderous, violent thought he had previously had was merely a precursor to this, a dress rehearsal for the perfect bloodlust that coursed through his veins.

This would end today, now, at his hand. 

He burst through the back entrance of the house, slamming the door against the wall with a thud that resounded throughout the first floor.  “Julian!”  he called.  “Where are you hiding?  I want to tear out that poor excuse you have for a spine.”

Gabriel knew, of course, where Julian would go first.  The dyad would be low on ammunition, he would need to reload.  That meant the dining room area where the supplies from New Delphi had been kept.   The archangel strode that way, his eyes straight ahead, heedless of the bodies that lay strewn across his path.  He didn’t care if they were human or eight-ball, they were merely obstacles to be stepped over.  Or, occasionally, stepped on.

The room was empty but underneath the acrid odors of gunpowder and blood, Gabriel’s heightened sense of smell could detect the faintest traces of fear.  Tangy, sharp, delightful fear.  Specifically, Julian’s fear.  For all his bravado, the human side of the dyad was pumping out pheromones like a fountain, leaving a trail like a bright yellow path as he ran through the house.

This was going to be too easy.

Not surprisingly, Julian had gone next to the kitchen area, undoubtedly looking for anything the Wildcats had left behind.  Gabriel was still down the hall when he heard voices coming from there.  He did not hurry his steps or change his approach, his demeanor did not change from the impassive, focused mien that had destroyed thousands of cities, ended millions of lives. 

He didn’t need to.

The door to the kitchen still swung on its broken hinges and the archangel walked in without having to open it, his steps silent, his icy gaze immediately assessing the situation. 

Julian stood only a few feet in front of him, a short, stocky machine gun in his hands.  Alex had obviously had the same idea as the dyad, and now stood over the pile of rucksacks on the other side of the room.  His young face was tearstained, his red-rimmed eyes held a dangerous cast of recklessness.

In his right hand, he still held the pistol Gabriel had tossed him earlier, but both hands were raised in automatic deference to the dyad’s superior firepower.

Julian waved the machine gun threateningly.  “I told you, boy, step away from the gear and you won’t get hurt.”

“And what if I don’t?  What are you going to do, Julian?  You still need me to trade to Lucifer.”

“Screw Lucifer, I’d simply like to get out of here in one piece.  Now get out of the way before I accidently take your knees out with this thing.”

The young man squeezed his eyes tight and dropped his head.  Gabriel knew that Alex had seen him standing behind Julian, seen that he was alone, seen the swath of dark red that marked his breast plate.  There was only one reason for that crimson stain.  He watched as his son’s hands lowered, his chest heaving with exertion and emotion. 

“No,” Alex announced.

“What?”  Julian was stunned.  “Don’t be an idiot, Alex.  We can both get out of this monumental cock-up but I need that gear.  Just move aside now, or I swear I will shoot you.”

“No,” Alex said again, shaking his head vehemently.  “No, this is over.  I don’t care anymore.”  He raised the pistol toward Julian, his hand trembling.  “Fuck you, Julian.  Fuck all you goddamned angels.”

The shot went high, and Alex watched with dismay as the bullet ripped into Julian’s shoulder, not his heart.  His aim was off, he’d overcompensated for the faulty sight.  The dyad’s weapon fell from his now useless arm and he spun a little to the side…

…to face Gabriel.

Julian’s head snapped up.  He hadn’t heard the archangel come in behind him, he’d been too focused on Alex – on threatening Alex, Gabriel’s son.  He saw with growing horror the smeared handprint that blazed the archangel’s armor like a bloody crest, saw the way Gabriel’s sword bounced ever so slightly in his hand, as if it was eager to fly.

“I didn’t do it,” the dyad cried, stumbling backward, whining like a child.  “I didn’t hurt her!”  He grasped at his shoulder, grimacing at the pain.  “It wasn’t me!”

“Oh, but it was you, Julian.”  Gabriel’s voice was frightfully calm, emotionless.  “You set the scene, you picked the actors.  You brought my sister here, gave her the part.”

“I didn’t know it would end like this.”  Julian’s feet kept backing up, trying to get away from Gabriel’s slow, determined approach, but he suddenly found himself against the far wall.  “How could I know Raphael would do that?”

Gabriel stopped, his head tipped just a bit to the side.  “Of course, that’s ridiculous, what am I thinking?”  He sheathed his sword in its scabbard.  “None of this is your fault, Julian.  You didn’t say that you’d spent millennia trying to find my weakness.  You didn’t use my brother against me, use the amphora to twist my mind.  You didn’t threaten to shoot Charlotte and I certainly didn’t come in here now and find you doing the same to my son.  No, Julian, you must be completely innocent,” he gave a glacial, mirthless smile, “because it was obviously all Lyrae.”

Gabriel pulled the dagger from beneath his breastplate in a movement so sudden and so unexpected that Julian had no chance to even react before the blade thrust deep up into his chest.  He fell over the archangel’s arm, gasping, blood immediately pouring from his mouth, choking his words, his breath. His hand grabbed at Gabriel’s collar, he pulled himself up, gaping into the archangel’s face, his eyes wide with shock.

Gabriel gazed down at him coldly, the corner of his mouth curling up in a tiny, satisfied smirk.  “Charlotte’s blade, fine empyrean steel,” he explained.  He leaned closer, his voice just a whisper in the dyad’s ear.  “My wife’s blade.”

 

 

For a split second, memories cascaded back on Julian, Julian the human.  Memories of a woman with flaming red hair and a temperament to match, a woman who wanted a better life, who wanted to marry an officer, to live in a nice house, to have the finer things.  Julian had done everything for her, anything to make her happy.  He’d worked his way up through the ranks, done the tours, bought the house, the cars, paid for the vacations.  He’d done whatever needed to be done to keep his fiery redhead happy.

He remembered his wife, his beautiful wife.

Julian looked up into Gabriel’s uncaring face and he realized what a terrible mistake he had made.  The man, the human, was drowning in his own blood and he knew it.  There was no getting out of it this time, no crawling off to a corner to heal, no secret talismans, no gifts that might save him at the last minute.   More than that, he understood Gabriel’s pain, the same pain that Lyrae had buried for almost three decades.  As the angel inside him wrestled for control, the hurt came flooding back, the loss, worse than anything physical.

Julian had come back from Iraq and found her lying in the bathtub in a pool of her own blood, the papers declaring his demotion on the floor nearby.  She’d used his combat knife to slit her wrists.

Rosalind, his proud, beautiful Rosalind.

Coughing, choking, his eyes locked on Gabriel’s, he silently begged for mercy, for help, for release. 

 

 

Gabriel grasped Julian by the front of his shirt with both hands, slowly lowering him to the ground.  He watched calmly as bright red bubbled from the dyad’s mouth with each torturous, worthless breath.  It wasn’t the slowest way to die, but it wasn’t quick, and it seemed exquisitely appropriate.

Many warriors were afraid to look their victims in the eye when they died, but Gabriel was not one of them.  This was something Michael had taught him – to accept the deed, to tender honor unto the valiant, to confer judgment unto the wicked.  He gazed at Julian now, watched the life slowly slipping away and felt…nothing.  He wanted to feel vindicated, to feel justice had been served, that he had rid the world of another plague of angelic hubris, of celestial egotism, but he felt numb.

No, not quite.  For a fraction of a moment, there was something in Julian’s eyes, something that had been missing since they had met in New Delphi.  For that tiny iota of time, the dyad fell away, Lyrae was gone, and Gabriel found himself staring into the eyes of a man.  A man who knew, who understood, who felt the pain, and if he did not necessarily regret what he had done, above all else, he wanted it to be over, to be done with the farce of a life he’d been living since the angels had rained from the heavens. 

Gabriel’s stony countenance cracked, his teeth bared and he threw the dyad to the floor.  His hand went to his sword, pulling it from his scabbard with a pure, ringing tone.  “Lyrae,” he spat out from between clenched jaws, “for your crimes against angels and humans, I banish you to the outer sphere for all time.”

Julian fell back, his hands clutching at his chest, blood pulsing through his fingers.  He blinked and his eyes flashed coal black, insolent, furious.  There was a message there, a message Gabriel could not read, but it didn’t matter, not now. 

Then Julian blinked again and his eyes reverted back to their natural blue.  The angel within him had retreated, afraid to be there at the end.  He watched as Gabriel lifted the sword high in the air. 

Gabriel cried out a roar of anguish and hatred and vengeance as his sword sang through the air.  Now he could feel, now he could let the pain and the agony power through him, acknowledge the rent in his soul, the loss that threatened to break him apart once again.

Grunting through the blood, with the last effort he had in his body, Julian sat up straighter and lifted his chin.

As the blade struck, barely slowing as it separated head from neck, Gabriel could see only one thing in Julian’s blue eyes…

…gratitude.

 

 

Alex walked over and none-too-gently kicked the dyad’s head with the toe of his boot.  His face was still tearstained but his demeanor was cool, matter-of-fact.  “Is he really dead, or is he coming back as somebody else?”

Gabriel reached down to wipe his sword on a dry spot of Julian’s shirt; it was difficult to find.  “I banished him to the ether and you destroyed the amphora.  Without it, there’s no way for Lyrae to return.  He shan’t be back.”

“Good.”  He stared down at the body, at the head now rolled near it.  “Thanks for the assist.”

Gabriel didn’t answer.  His emotions were too volatile, he had to get some kind of control.  Alex’s indifferent attitude bothered him just as much.  Everything was too unstable.

“What about Raphael?”  Alex continued, never raising his head.  He seemed determined not to look at his father.

This was really the very heart of the matter, the point that neither of them wanted to face.  Julian’s death had been a near necessity, but now that it was done, they both had to deal with the one who had torn their worlds apart.

“Michael went after her, I don’t know where they are.”

Finally, Alex lifted his head.  “What are you going to do about her?”

Gabriel knew he was being tested.  “She is a threat to you.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

The archangel sheathed his sword.

“She’s your sister,” Alex pressed.  “Family.”

Gabriel’s head snapped up.  “Yes, she is, as you are my son.  I will not allow anything to happen to you.”

“Like you didn’t allow anything to happen to my mom?”

The silence between them was tense, angry. 

“If you won’t do anything, I will.”  Alex reached over to Julian’s body, grasped the blood-slicked handle of the dagger that protruded from his chest and yanked it out.  He held it out, his hand now red-stained, the blade covered in gore.  “I heard what you said, this is empyrean steel.  It’ll kill your sister.”

“You won’t get close enough, Alex.”

“I’m damn well going to try!” the young man thundered.  He returned to the knapsacks in the corner of the room, rummaging in them.  “Here, I can use this,” he pulled one of the stun guns out of a clamshell box and lifted it over his head.  “I guess my mom knew how to kill an archangel, she just never got the chance.”

Gabriel nodded, a terrible mixture of pride and pain swirling inside him.  “Stay behind me.  If you see your opportunity, take it, but do not take risks.”

Alex wiped the bloody dagger on his pants, casting one last look at Julian’s head as they left the kitchen.  “I’ll take whatever the hell I please.”

 

 

Forcing himself into a decision, Michael had followed Raphael back toward the house.  Once again, he chose to work defensively, to prevent his sister from reaching Alex rather than trying to find the Chosen One himself.

He watched as she veered off toward the cellar, scurrying down the steps that Alex’s blast had opened up.  He didn’t understand why she would go this way, it didn’t make sense.  Alex certainly would not return to where he had come from, there was little protection there now that the doors were rendered useless.  Why would she pick the basement?

He found her standing in a corner, her back to him.  Even in the dim light, he could see that she was unarmed, seemingly mindless of his presence.  He reached for her shoulder, pulling her about.

She spun to face him, stumbling a bit, unstable on her feet.  Her eyes were unfocused, her features still held the remnants of the sublimity that came only when she spoke with Lucifer.

“Communing with our brother again?” Michael accused.  “I can’t imagine who he’s adding to your kill list, there’s no one left.”

“Michael.”  She seemed to only just recognize him and she smiled at him sweetly.  “I keep telling you, but you don’t understand.  Lucifer has a plan.  Our family can be whole again.”

“You’ve just murdered the woman that Gabriel is in love with, sister, he will never forgive you.  How can our family be ‘whole’ when you’ve earned your brother’s undying wrath?”

“But she was only a human!”

“She was the mother of his son!  Also a human.”

She shrank away, her lip curled up like a pouting child.  “I don’t like him, this Chosen One.”

“He is part of our family as well.”

“He’s not!”  This time she stamped her tiny foot.  “How can I ever make you understand, brother?  He’s a cog in a wheel, he’s part of the plan, no more.”

“Yes, Father’s plan.”

“Father is gone!”

“As is your sensibility, sister!  Lucifer has warped your heart.”

Her eyes blazed at him.  “How dare you!  I nursed you while you recovered from the beating at Gabriel and Uriel’s hands.  I showed you the beauty of discourse instead of destruction, the power of thought over the power of the sword.  I turned your rage into reason, and now you dare to tell me I have lost my senses?”

Michael leaned forward, pleading.  “I only know these things because you did show me, dear sister.  I see in you that which I turned away from, the same path that Gabriel has shunned.  And now you say that it is the course that Lucifer has chosen for all of us?  I cannot accept this.  It’s madness.”

“Madness?  Madness is wanting chaos when you can have balance.”  She turned away, running her hands over the fine fuzz the covered her scalp.  “Madness is being rejected by the family you love.”

“I’m not rejecting you, Raphael, only this course you insist on.”

“I’m sorry, brother, I truly am, but you can’t stop this.”

She spun so quickly that Michael never had time to react.  In one perfect movement, she pulled the shotel from its scabbard and swung it in a great arc, slicing it across his middle.  He could only pull his body back at the last instant, preventing her from cutting him in two but not stopping the blade from carving a long gash through his abdomen. 

Michael stared down at the rip in his shirt, the blood that slowly began to seep from his skin, then flow more freely.  There was no pain now, only surprise, the pain would come soon enough.  The wound was more than skin deep and he wrapped his arm around his middle, falling to his knees.

“Sister?”  A dozen questions in one word, he gaped up at her, his body already starting to shake, shock setting in.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.  A stifled sob escaped her.  “Perhaps it is madness, but it’s all I have.”

She turned and walked away.

 

 

As they walked down the hall, Alex looked out the windows and saw two of the Wildcats crouch-running outside, trying to stay as hidden as possible.  He prodded Gabriel with the dagger and silently pointed toward them.  The archangel nodded and turned his head back only partially.  “Jenkins,” he whispered, then made a twirling motion with his finger.  Alex understood – the XO would be deploying the Wildcats around the house, either as defense or as an eventual assault.  Either way, there was going to be plenty of back-up just outside the walls very soon. 

It made Alex feel a little better.  He was fairly sure that most of Julian’s troops had been taken out in the fighting that had been going on over the last – shit, he had no idea how long it had been.  Time was all out of whack, was it ten minutes or ten hours?  The drugs he’d been under certainly hadn’t helped and he had no idea what direction the sun was.  No matter what, it seemed like the longest day of his life.

He was following Gabriel through the house and he assumed that the idea was to get out, especially now that the Wildcats were stationed on the perimeter.  A pretty big assumption.  He didn’t like depending on the archangel, Michael was the only archangel he really trusted, even if Gabriel was – ugh, he really had to start admitting it – his father. 

The hallway was clear, except for the dead bodies.  They made their way to the dining/living room, Julian’s former staging area.  From there it was only a few feet down another hall to the front door.  With any luck, Jenkins might have one of the big MRAPs standing by; they could high-tail it out of there with a phalanx of other Wildcats fully armed.  He’d feel like some visiting dignitary with his own detail, way better than how he arrived in that fuel truck.

“Lucifer said you would come to me.”

Gabriel and Alex both stopped short, startled by the voice.  They turned toward the leather recliner that had been Julian’s pseudo-throne.  Raphael sat within, almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the oversized chair.  She looked like a child, her feet hanging above the ground.

“He said you would, and here you are.”  She crossed her arms and leaned back, pleased with the prophecy, pleased with herself. 

The diminutive archangel looked less than threatening, but even so Alex felt the rage coalescing within him, the strands of his grief and pain and anger weaving together into an essence of its own, a tight ball of seething fury deep inside.

“Lucifer has no idea what I’m going to do,” he said, his voice barely above audible.

“Why, you’re going to come with me, of course.”  She said it like a grade-school teacher, condescending and overly saccharine.  Then her tone changed, she sounded manic, barely holding on.  “Because if you don’t, I’ll kill all your little friends gathering around the house.  I can, you know.  Ask Michael – I’m so very, very fast.”

In the corner of his eye, Alex saw another of the Wildcats taking up position beneath a window.  He’d counted at least twenty of them over the course of the time he’d been tied up when he was trying to figure out their strengths.  There were probably more, depending upon how many had been injured in the fighting.  Call it two dozen.  Two dozen lives.

She’d do it, he knew that.  She’d go out there with that damned curved sword of hers and she’d cut them up like they were paper dolls – no matter how good they were, no one could stand up to an archangel.

Except maybe his mother.

Then Raphael would take him anyway, and Alex would have two dozen more deaths on his conscience.  Claire, Bixby, Jeep, the list kept mounting up.

The ball of rage kept growing inside, he could feel the heat of it, his breath coming fast.  He looked at the dagger in his hand, his mother’s dagger.

The rage kept growing.

 

 

“Ask Michael.”

There was more to that statement than a taunt.  Gabriel quickly scanned the large room; his twin was nowhere to be found.  He wasn’t sure whether to be concerned or relieved – Michael wasn’t unconscious slumped up against a wall in the corner, but then again, where was he?

Michael had gone after Raphael and now she was here in this room.  Alone.

Where was Michael?

 

 

Raphael slid to the edge of the recliner, her feet dangling off the edge, still an inch above the floor.    “Put away your toys, Alex.  You’re not going to use them, I know you won’t.”   She was back to talking in that same overly sweet sing-song voice, like Alex was just child, and she was his favorite aunt.  “I know all about you, Alex.  Your friend Noma has told me so many stories.”

Alex felt as if he’d been hit by the stun gun he held in his left hand.  “Noma,” he whispered.

“Oh, yes, we’re great friends.  You’ll see.”  Raphael hopped off the chair.  She was more serious now.  “Drop the weapons, Alex.  I don’t want to have to say it again.  I don’t want to be cross.”

The other archangel stepped forward.  “Don’t listen to her, Alex.” 

“Oh, Gabriel, don’t be tiresome.  I don’t want to argue over the boy with you, too.  I thought you’d come to your senses once I’d gotten rid of that woman.”

Gabriel took a long, slow, deep breath.  He felt calm, overly calm.  He’d found the icy place within himself once again, the place without emotion, without heartache.  He needed to stay there, not let Raphael bait him.

“Her name was Charlotte,” he said softly. 

“Yes, whatever.”  Raphael dismissed the name with a toss of her delicate hand.  “The important thing is that you’re with your family.”

“Yes, yes I am.”  He took a step closer to Alex.  “With my son.”

Raphael sighed dramatically.  “You know what I mean.”

“Then tell me, sister, where is our brother, Michael?”

Her eyes darted away, only for an instant.  “Do you know, he said you were going to kill me?  Can you believe that?”

Alex hadn’t thought about Michael since the archangel had tackled him to the ground.  Where was Michael?  Fear started to grow, adding to the ball of rage, feeding it.  His hands started to tingle.

“Where is he?”  Gabriel repeated more emphatically.

She turned her lovely head away, silent, pouting.

The tingle turned to a burn, it rode up Alex’s wrists to his forearms.  His breath came short and fast and a terrible pressure started building up in his skull; he’d never felt this way before.  It was difficult to think, to concentrate, and yet there were thoughts he could not escape.

Gabriel pulled his sword, brandishing it in front of his sister.  “WHERE IS MICHAEL?

Raphael gave a nervous little laugh.  “Michael didn’t understand.  He was going to cause trouble.”

A buzzing started in Alex’s head, filling his ears, his thoughts.  Michael, his mentor, his protector.  Michael…Claire…Willow…his mother….  His hands opened involuntarily, the dagger and stun gun clattering to the floor. 

The ball of fear and anger and hurt grew and grew and grew…Alex’s vision faded to a dull, throbbing red…the burning rolled up across his arms, his chest…he couldn’t breathe…

Raphael and Gabriel stared, first at the dropped weapons, and then at him.  Every tattoo on Alex, every marking, every whorl and line, glowed with a golden light.  Both archangels could see it, an energy that could not be held in by cloth, or skin…or man.

“Alex?”  Gabriel’s voice was taut with concern, with fear.  He watched as Father’s last words grew brighter and brighter…

Then it happened – a great surge of power, a shockwave of pure energy, rushed out of the Chosen One, expanding and filling and forcing everything away…

The wave of raw energy coursed everywhere.  The leather recliner and sofa went skidding across the floor like toys while the old metal table and chairs tumbled violently backwards.  Every pane of glass in the room exploded into a thousand shards.   Boxes and cartons whirled about as if in a hurricane; stray papers instantly burst into flame. 

It was as if a miniature nuclear bomb had detonated in the middle of the house. 

With his last remaining bit of conscious effort, Alex raised his arms toward Raphael, channeling much of the power toward the tiny archangel.  She flew through the air, crashing deep into the far wall, splintering the old wood.  The oak charred instantly, fire erupting from the massive energy that it absorbed.  The wall bowed out, supports and struts broken by the strength of the impact.

Gabriel was knocked from his feet by the explosive force, thrown partway across the room.  He landed violently against the rear wall, dazed. 

Alex, too, flew backwards, his body a victim of an unearthly recoil.  He dropped in a bone-jarring heap.

In the aftermath, there was nothing but the tinkling sound of glass falling, the crackle of burning fire, and the far away moans of pain. 

“Alex.”  It came out only a whisper.  Gabriel blinked to clear his eyes in the gathering smoke, turning his head from side to side.  He could see his sword shining in the hazy sunlight a few feet away.  Slowly, he pulled himself up to his hands and knees.  It hurt, everything hurt.  “Alex!” he called again, and crawled to his sword.  He used it to haul himself to one knee, a crutch instead of a weapon.  He felt weak, useless, not even human much less archangel.  Somewhere inside there must be the strength to go on, to fight.  If not for himself…he looked around again, saw another form on hands and knees…his son.

Alex squinted in the smoke that was gradually filling the room.  He had only one thought – his mother’s dagger.  It had to be somewhere close.  He searched for it with his hands, sweeping the floor around him.  The job wasn’t finished.  His mom knew how to kill an archangel and now he did too.

Sounds now filled the air, screams and shouts, sifting through the ringing in his ears.  The exploding glass had hit the Wildcats outside, too many were down, injured.  Alex could hear them, he felt bad, he hadn’t known what would happen, but it would all be worth it if he could finish it here.

Another sound trying to filter through the noise – his name.  Gabriel.  Son of a bitch couldn’t take a hint and die for once. 

Alex found the dagger a few feet away, a little surge of hope giving him strength.  He clutched it in his hand, close to his chest.  He could do this, he could finish this, avenge his mom, avenge Michael.  Slowly, he pulled himself to his wobbly feet. 

He scanned the far wall.  The charred oak showed where Raphael’s body had impacted, but there was no sign of her, only a blackened outline high up on the wall.

Alex groaned.  Nothing was ever simple.

Then he saw it, peeking out from behind the old leather sofa that been had shoved up against the wall by the force of the blast.  A small, delicate hand, still stained with blood.  His mother’s blood.  He started toward it.

“Alex…”  It was hard to hear above the mounting chaos, above the humming that still filled his ears, but something in the voice stopped him, a kind of stabbing in his heart.  He turned around.

Michael leaned against the doorway, one blood-soaked arm wrapped around his middle, the other holding his sword.  As Alex watched, the archangel swayed, his head unsteady on his neck.  The sword clattered loudly to the ground, and the archangel followed, collapsing across the floor. 

“Michael!”  Alex and Gabriel shouted at the same time. 

Gabriel was closer, the first to stumble across the room to him.  He gently rolled his brother over, pulling back the bloody shirt to see the gaping wound across Michael’s stomach.  “Oh, dear brother, what stupid, heroic thing have you done today?” he admonished, gently pressing back the skin, grimacing at what he saw.

“Raphael,” Michael breathed.

“Well, yes, obviously.”  He grunted in his own pain as he pushed Michael’s arm down over the wound again, trying to staunch the flow of blood.  “You probably tried to talk her out of ‘crazy.’”

Michael gave him a weak smile.  “It worked on you eventually.”

Gabriel grasped his brother’s shoulder gently and winked.  “You had help.”  He then turned back toward Alex, standing behind them and looking ill.  “I need fire.”

Alex couldn’t take his eyes off the blood that covered Michael’s chest and stomach.  “Is he…?”

Gabriel stood abruptly and extended his wings, a great black rush of ominous purpose.  He grabbed Alex by the shoulders, exhausted but determined.  “Fire!  If you want to save Michael’s life, I need fire!”

“I, uh, yes, of course.”  Like a switch flipping on, it made sense; he remembered Michael healing himself with a feather and a lighter.  Yes, fire.  

There had been flickering flames crawling up the wall near Raphael.

Except she wasn’t there anymore.

Alex stood dumbly for a moment, staring at the place where he had seen the tiny archangel’s hand coming out from behind the couch.  She had survived the crash against the wall, but he had expected that.  Now the furniture had been moved a few inches and she was gone.  She had recovered too soon. 

His chance, his only chance to put his mother’s empyrean steel blade into that bitch’s heart, and it was gone.  Part of him wanted to scream and another part of him wanted to cry.

“Alex!”  Gabriel yelled back at him through clenched teeth.  “Priorities!”

Alex’s head snapped up.  Fire.  There were a few places where the old oak was starting to burn more than smolder.  They’d have to put the wall out soon or the whole building would go up.  But for now...  He dug the tip of the dagger under one short plank, inches below where it burned cherry red.  He twisted, the blade dug deeper, the plank lifting from the wall.

It wasn’t what he had planned on using his mother’s dagger for when he had pulled it from Julian’s chest, but if it saved Michael’s life, he wouldn’t complain.

Another day, Alex promised himself.  Another day.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

 

 

 

Vega

 

Gabriel stood in the doorway, his hand held up to his brow to shade his vision from the glare.  Against the backdrop of the late afternoon sun, between the reflection of the low buildings and the haze of dust, he could just make out a lone figure walking down the street toward him.  The call of a shofar sounded in the distance, echoing off the hills of Judah.  Then, closer, a melody began on a homemade flute and drum, joyful and exuberant.  There was a celebration starting, it would probably go on for hours.  He smiled as he turned back inside.  Life could be difficult, it was wise to celebrate the good times.

He had a cup of wine waiting when the figure pushed through the linen cloth that covered the doorway.  “My hero!” she said, kissing him on the cheek and taking the cup from him.  She took a long drink. “How did you know I’d been thinking of this for hours?”

“How long have we been married, Chaya?” he answered, reaching over to fill the cup once again.  “They’ve started to celebrate, I take it everything went well?”

“It was a difficult birth,” she explained while she shrugged out of the cloak she wore.  “But after five sons Micah finally has a daughter.”

“I’m sure Ilana is happy.”

“I’m sure she would be happier if she could get some sleep!  She’s exhausted and Micah will keep this noise up all night,” she laughed.  “He did not spend the last day pushing a baby out of his body.”

“It was good that she had you there.  You look like you could use some sleep, too.”

“It was a long night.”  His wife paused, starting to unwind the cloth that wrapped around her head. “It never ceases to amaze me, though.  That tiny little life, so precious.  Speaking of, where are the boys?”

“I sent them to catch something for dinner.  I didn’t know if you would be home or not, and if you were, I thought you might want to rest.”

He was rewarded with a tired, grateful smile.  Her hand caressed the side of his face.  “How did I get so lucky?”

Gabriel went behind her and pulled the brass combs out of her hair.  He’d bought them for her on their tenth anniversary, and she’d worn them almost every day since.  Unimpeded now, her hair cascaded down almost to her waist, a shining silken curtain he couldn’t help but to run his fingers through.  Hints of silver glistened in it now, like strands of precious metal.  She complained, said it made her look old, but he didn’t care, he’d always loved her hair.

He gently pushed it to the side, nuzzling up against her ear.  “Have you ever thought about having a daughter?”

She chuckled softly.  “I think it’s a little late to be thinking about that.”

The neckline of her dress had slid off to the side, exposing her collarbone, all too tempting.  He kissed it gently. “Stranger things have happened.”  He turned his attention to the curve of her neck, her ear.

“Yes, and this is how we came to raise David.”  She pirouetted in his arms to face him.  “I can only expect one miracle child in my lifetime.”

“Still, a little girl as beautiful as her mother…”  Gabriel lifted his wife’s chin with the crook of his finger, watched as a delicate blush crept over her cheeks.  Another child, one with those same sparkling green eyes, the same spirit that challenged him to better himself every day – only this could make him any happier than he already was.

Without warning, he swept her up off the floor, lifting her as if she weighed next to nothing.  Caught off guard, she wrapped her hands around his neck, hanging on as if she were about to fall, knowing full well he would never let that happen.  The musical sound of her laughter filled their small home, filled his heart. 

He set her down carefully on the low bed, pulled off her sandals, and lay next to her.  As much as he desired her, as he always desired her, he could see that her eyes were already half-closed, the strain of the time with Ilana and the birthing of the child taking its toll.  His arm slid behind her back, pulling her close and she responded by snuggling into his shoulder, making little murmuring sounds of pleasure.  Even though they could both hear the music from the other side of the town, the house was peaceful.  These quiet times were rare and precious. 

Her hand reached across his chest and she felt the opening of his tunic.  Strong, graceful fingers slipped inside, her palm moving over his chest, coming to rest over his heart, warm, loving, gently possessive.  She sighed contentedly.  “Perfect.”

It was perfect.  Everything was perfect. He closed his eyes and basked in the glow of it, of the feeling of that rightness.  If he thought about it, he could imagine his two boys hunting up in the hills together, so different and yet so close, so perfect for each other.  Alexandri had been an only child for so long, they had wondered how he would react when they had brought the tiny orphan into their home, but he had surprised them all by becoming the model big brother.  Gabriel could envisage them now, walking together, talking, joking, the tall, fair Alexandri ruffling young David’s dark locks in a good-natured ribbing.   Brothers, best friends.

Alex, David.  His sons.  Suddenly he wanted them to return, to hear their raucous laughter when they burst through the doorway, the commotion that seemed to travel with them wherever they went.  The house was too quiet, too still.  The celebratory music had stopped, the wind had died.  Even the birds had finished their afternoon song. 

“Chaya,” he whispered.

“I’m here,” she replied, her voice low.  She raised her head to look at him.  “You know that I will always be here.”  She pushed back his hair and he closed his eyes, feeling the gentle touch of her hand as she softly drew her fingertips down over the side of his face, over his lips, his chin, his neck, barely touching his skin.  She kissed him and it was warm and sweet and pure.  “I will always be with you.”  Once again, she nestled down in the crook of his shoulder, her hand seeking the spot over his heart.  “We will always be with you.  Right here.”

 

 

Gabriel felt the first tentative slivers of sunlight on his face as they peeked through the window, calling him to the day.  His head lolled to the side, his neck stiffer than he had expected, and he opened his eyes, squinting into the haze.  Outside, he could see the familiar hills and mountains around…

…Vega.

Angels didn’t dream.  No, that wasn’t quite correct – angels didn’t dream like humans did.  In cases of extreme illness (very rare) or severe injury (less rare, especially in the last few decades) an angel might suffer from delusions akin to human dreams.  Certain parties had also proven that psychotropic drugs could produce a similar kind of hallucination, but in general, angels did not dream.  That was a psychological security upgrade that God made in His next creation, humans.

Gabriel lay in the center of his bed at the top of the Stratosphere tower.  He hadn’t meant to fall asleep but his body had needed to heal, to rest, to recover.  He hadn’t meant to sleep, he certainly hadn’t meant to dream.

He hadn’t meant to fall in love.

He could still feel the warmth of Charlotte’s hand on his chest over his heart, still feel the gentle weight of her head on his shoulder.  For a moment, he simply laid there, eyes closed, all alone, trying to hold on to those feelings, to capture them in some kind of memory vault.  The dream had been more vivid than anything he could remember, even Julian’s twisted little drug experiment. 

That was just it, it hadn’t been like a dream at all, it had been as if he were living it.  Living that life, a life with Charlotte and Alex and David, a peaceful life in a peaceful little rural village in a time without chaos, without war.  It wasn’t real, it couldn’t possibly be real, and yet, it had been, or so it had felt.

It had been perfect.

Without warning, the reality of Charlotte’s death flooded over him like a tsunami, sending him swirling, gasping, toward an abyss at the center of his soul he had thought mended.  Now it dragged at him once again, a dark force, pulling and clawing at his mind while the shear agony of his loss hit him with wave after wave of grief.  He felt trapped, pinned to the bed, unable to move, barely able to breathe, coldness creeping in.  Darkness edged at the corners of his vision and he closed his eyes.  It didn’t matter, the demons were within.

Then he felt it, the warm, golden glow, the touch of skin on skin.  The feeling of her fingers over his heart once again.  It wasn’t real, he knew it wasn’t real, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.  He put his own hand under his shirt – he could feel it – a kind of sensory tattoo, an outline of warmth on the left side of his chest where Charlotte had always rested her hand. 

What had she said in that dream reality?  “I will always be with you.  We will always be with you.  Right here.”  He felt her now, felt her pushing him back from the abyss, felt her guarding him against the waves.  The warmth slowly spread through the rest of his body, through the abused and aching muscles of his shoulders and back, his arms and legs, banishing the demons, leaving him, if not peaceful, at least with some peace.

He breathed deeply, a great cleansing sigh of relief and gratitude.  “I will always be with you.”  His head fell again to the side, his eyes drifting out the window again, his gaze on the hills of Judah far, far away.

A single tear crept down the side of his cheek.

 

 

It was an odd sort of a wake.  Jenkins was the first into the commander’s apartment and he headed to the sideboard immediately.  He returned with the bottle of Macallan in one hand, five glasses pinched between the fingers of the other.  Setting them down on the counter, he began to pour. 

“I know the commander wouldn’t have wanted this to go to waste, so I’m going to pass it out before the rest of the people get here,” he announced.  “The medicos told me no drinking because of this thing,” he rubbed at the blue and green lump still developing on the right side of his forehead, “but she always did say I was a stubborn ox, so there’s that.”

He looked around the room and saw the few who had followed him in: Alex, Michael, Gabriel, and another Wildcat commander named Miravich who’d been in charge in Delphi.  “The commander told me that if anything happened to her, I was to explain what our mission was to those who didn’t know.  I guess now is as good a time as any.

“It’s strange,” he continued, contemplative, “I probably knew her better than anyone else, but you,” he pointed to Alex, “you were always her family, her real family.  She made up for losing you so long ago by adopting about a hundred thousand of us, but that never changed things for her, there was always a place in her heart that she kept for you.  That’s why three months ago, when she heard rumors about a young man named Alex, about his father named Jeep, nothing else mattered.  All of our ops, all of our intelligence assets were redirected into getting information about you.”

Commander Miravich stepped forward.  She was a short, athletic woman in her mid-thirties.  “The commander was always a bit of an information hound, but this was different.  She wanted to know everything that was available on you, about your life, and about the people who were interested in you.  That was the alarming part, because not only were there rumors about you, about your title as the Chosen One, but we began hearing stories about a bounty put out on you.  Someone else was interested in you as much as we were.”

Jenkins nodded.  “It didn’t take long for us to determine, at least to the commander’s satisfaction, that you were the son she had lost all those years ago.  She was tempted to run down to Vega to find you, but she was also a military woman who had spent too many years fighting a cunning enemy.”  His eyes glanced up at Gabriel’s and for a moment they locked.  The hostility that Gabriel expected, however, was missing.  “There were too many signs that you were in danger, possibly from an enemy you weren’t even aware of.  Nothing against Vega’s defenses, but you’re isolated from the rest of the country and you don’t have the network that we’ve developed over the last two decades.”

“Truthfully,” Michael said in his defense, “we had no idea there were any large settlements left outside the Cradle.”

“Then we were doing our jobs, weren’t we?”  Miravich gave him a knowing look.  “The commander worked very hard to keep us under cover, hidden from the angels.  We owe our lives to her and to Colonel Andrews.”

“She was going to do the same for you, Alex,” Jenkins continued, turning toward him.  “She was determined to keep you safe, undercover if need be, safe from the angels or whomever was trying to find you, but the final goal was to flush your enemies out into the open and deal with them if we could.   Before we left our base, we had about six contingency plans developed, taking into account all of the intel we could get.  What we did would depend on what we found out when we arrived in Vega.  We had some intel on New Delphi and that character Julian and she didn’t trust him.  Then again, she’d heard some stories about you being mistreated in Vega, so she wasn’t sure whether or not to trust the people here.  Then she got here and found the archangels.”

“I imagine that put quite a wrench into her plans,” Michael said.  “Especially finding Gabriel here.”

“It did, but she’d already decided that Julian was the one that she was going to concentrate her efforts on.  We sent people to New Delphi undercover, and they verified what the commander suspected, that Julian was the one who had put the bounty out for the Chosen One.  The question then became whether or not he was working alone, and what to do about it.”  Jenkins stopped and stood silently, staring into the glass he had poured, swirling the golden liquid.  He licked his lips.  “In the meantime, Charlotte worked on building her relationship with Alex, with her son.  You’ll excuse me if I use her name and not her rank, but she was my friend as well as my commanding officer.  I was happy to see her reunited with you, but something wasn’t quite right, and she wouldn’t tell me what it was.  I learned to trust Charlotte a long time ago, so I went along with it.  Eventually it was obvious; she was involved with you, Gabriel, the one that she and I had been fighting against for half of our lives.  It was hard to accept, but she told me that the mission hadn’t changed, and I believed her. 

“The thing is, she had told me one thing that no one else knew, no one else could know except her doctor.  You see, her heart was damaged, she’d been living with it for 25 years, but it was getting worse, and basically, this would be her last mission.  She didn’t have much longer, we don’t have cardiac surgeons like we used to have in the old days, there wasn’t anything that could be done.  There was one mission left to be done, one most important, unfinished thing in her life, and she was going to do everything in her power to take care of it.”

Alex was stunned.  “You mean she knew she was going to die, and she didn’t say anything?”

“I mean she didn’t care if she died, as long as you were all right.  That was the mission, that was always the mission, to eliminate threats against her son not just for today, but for tomorrow and next year and ten years from now.  Before she ever met you, that was what she decided.  As complicated as things seemed, that’s all she was ever trying to do, but she only had a limited time to do it.  Charlotte would never have wanted to die in a bed, tied up to machines and tubes, she wasn’t that way.  I know that she couldn’t think of any better way to go out than protecting her son,” he looked at both Alex and Gabriel, “protecting her family.  That’s how she wanted it.”

Jenkins handed the glasses around, the last of the Macallan.  He’d tried for a day now to come up with the right toast to send off his commander, his best friend, the only woman he’d ever truly loved, but nothing seemed appropriate.  Finally, he’d given up.  Nothing was ever going to really do her justice.

He raised his glass.  “To Charlotte.”

 

 

The room gradually filled, an ebb and flow of soldiers and politicians mingling with restaurateurs and shop keepers.  It seemed that whomever Charlotte Lannon had met over the last weeks, she had left a lasting impression on, and they all wanted to offer their sympathies to her son. 

For the most part, Alex stood on one side of the room, flanked by either Michael or Jenkins.  He mouthed the right words, accepted condolences, shook hands, he even took a few hugs.  When his automaton motions stalled, one of his friends would prod him back into action.  It was awkward, painful, unfortunately necessary.  One look into his face was proof enough that he wasn’t really there, he was mentally somewhere else, somewhere safer.  The time would come when he would meet this reality, but it was not now.

Crudités and finger food had magically appeared on tables, wine and other drinks whisked in and out by uniformed waiters.  No one knew how it had happened until Michael saw Marcel whispering to one of the wait staff and sending him off toward the door with an empty tray.  The archangel caught the restaurateur’s eye.  Marcel dipped his head; it was his honor.

Jenkins walked out onto the balcony, needing a moment of relief from the heady grief in the room behind him.  He’d been dealing with the aftermath of death for a very long time, but this was personal and he needed a little time by himself.

Except he wasn’t alone.  The Archangel Gabriel leaned against one wall, almost hidden from view, staring out at the city lights.  He still held the tumbler Jenkins had handed him hours earlier; it looked untouched. 

“I don’t hold with scotch on the rocks, mate, but it doesn’t get any better warm.”

Gabriel glanced down at the glass.  A wistful smile flashed across his features and disappeared.  “If I drink it, it will be gone.”

“You gave it to her, didn’t you?  The bottle, I mean.”

He swirled the glass.  “Yes.  A memory of better days.”

“She wasn’t complaining about these last few days.”

The archangel gazed at him, his head tipped slightly to the side.  “You were in love with her, weren’t you?”

Jenkins shrugged.  “Everyone that met her loved her in one form or another, the room back there is testament to that.  But yes, at one time, I was.”

“It must have been difficult for you.”

“You mean working with her every day, knowing that she’d given her heart away a long time ago?  Maybe a little, but the trade-off was worth it.  We built something great together.”

“Yes, you did.  You essentially defeated me.  I never knew you existed.”

Jenkins stared out into the darkening hills toward a home he could not see.  His hand worked the guard rail as he leaned against it, his knuckles hard white against the tan of his skin.  “That was before.  Things were different here.  Here she trusted you, so I did, too.  But she’s gone now.”

“And you’re wondering if I’m going to revert to my old ways.”

The commander was silent. 

“It’s an understandable reaction.  In fact, it’s tempting,” Gabriel continued, his voice just above a growl, “but no.  I’m sure she told you of the situation with my brother, Lucifer.  Charlotte wanted to protect Alex above all else.  She removed some of the threat, but Lucifer still remains.  He has plans for our son, but I plan on spoiling them.”  He looked up at Jenkins from beneath a shadowy brow.  “I could use help.  Something like a well-trained army, and someone to lead them.”

They stared at each other for a long minute, each taking the other’s measure.  Jenkins recalled the words Charlotte had said before they had surged down on the farmhouse: Today we change how things are done, we grab hold of Fate and make it our own.  The side of his mouth curled up.  “Maybe we can work something out.  I happen to have an army, and I’ve recently lost my biggest foe.”  He looked down at the glass in his hand, now filled with some kind of mixed drink.  He raised it.  “To the mission?”

Gabriel raised his glass slowly, reverently, then tapped it against the other.  The ring of fine crystal filled the night air.  “To Charlotte,” he said, and drank it down.

 

 

Michael found Gabriel sitting with his back to the rest of the now nearly empty room.  An unopened bottle of scotch sat on the low table before him, a crystal tumbler nearby.  He gazed out the nearby windows.

“I haven’t seen much of you this afternoon,” Michael said, pulling up a chair.  “I thought you’d left.”

“I don’t know if you noticed, brother, but I’m in the rather awkward position of still being the most hated individual on the planet who was involved with someone I believe has become the most loved.”

Michael motioned toward the bottle on the table.  “Is that your answer?”

“That?  I thought so, but no.  Not anymore.  Besides, anything else would taste like swill after the Macallan.”

“Your son obviously doesn’t feel that way.” 

They both looked over toward the other side of the room.  Alex sat with Jenkins, Miravich, Ethan, and two other Archangel Corps.  The group sat around the dining table in various states of partial uniform.  Jackets lay across chairs, ties had been pulled off, sleeves rolled up, shirts unbuttoned and untucked.  On the table in front of them there were at least three empty liquor bottles and another two half-full.  Shot glasses had replaced tumblers.  The table had started out hushed but was gradually getting louder. 

“Let the boy be, Michael.  He feels too much.  He gets it from his father.”  Gabriel sighed.  “When he’s had his fill, he can stay here tonight, I’ll put him to bed and stay with him.  I’ll give him Charlotte’s pillow, it still has her scent.  It will comfort him while he sleeps, whether he realizes it or not.”

Even after millennia, Gabriel could still surprise his brother.  “That’s very kind of you.”

“He’s my son, Michael.  I know you’ve watched over him for most of his life, but I think perhaps it’s time I take up part of the burden.”

“It’s not a burden, Gabriel.  He’s the Chosen One, it’s a privilege.”

“Yes, of course, you’re right.  Poor choice of words.  Nonetheless, Charlotte gave her life to protect him.  I’m going to finish what she started.”  He raised one eyebrow.  “Whether Alex likes it or not.”

“I wish there was some way to bridge the gap between you two.  You need each other, and I need both of you.”

“There was.  She’s gone now.”

Michael frowned.  There was no other answer.

Grimacing, Gabriel fished in the pocket of his pants and pulled out a small silvery ring.  “I’m rather annoyed, I never had the chance to give this to her.”

Michael took it from his brother and examined it.  A platinum band, it had a triskelion pattern cut into the face, a Celtic-type knot with three lobes.  It was simple yet classically beautiful, it would have been perfect for Charlotte. 

“You were going to propose?”

“No, we were a bit past that stage.  We were wed days ago, this was merely a formality, a human thing.  Let the world know and all that.”

Michael could hear the hurt that his brother was trying to hide.  “Does Alex know?”

“That he’s actually legitimate now, he’s no longer a bastard, at least in that sense?”  Gabriel smiled sadly.  “No, we didn’t tell him, she didn’t tell him.”  He looked up at the ceiling and took a long, shuddering breath.  “She didn’t tell me about her heart, either, but the signs were there.  I saw them, but I was too caught up in my happiness to realize what they meant.  I would have, eventually.  We would have done something for her.  We were going to be a family, Michael.  Eventually.  But dear sister Raphael had other plans.” 

“Raphael is not herself, Gabriel.  She always abhorred violence, something has happened to her.”

“Obviously, Lucifer happened to her.”

“Which is all the more reason why we need to find her, to help her see reason.”

“You’ll forgive me if helping sweet sister Raphael ‘see reason’ is not high on my priority list, Michael.  She put a blade through my wife, that’s not the forgive-and-forget kind of thing.  You may recall I wasn’t exactly besties with Noma, either.”

Michael looked at the ring again.  He glanced up and saw the breast plate of Gabriel’s new armor, the same pattern carved into the leather.   He counted the loops on the knot.  “Three,” he said aloud.

“Yes,” Gabriel agreed.  “I know, I know, rather biblical all in all, threes all over the place.”  He was silent for a moment, then gently took the ring back from his brother, staring at it.  “I had meant it to be Charlotte, Alex and myself, but I guess it will have to be us now.  You, me and Alex.  We’re rather a dysfunctional little trio, but …”  He left the rest of it unsaid.

Michael understood.  They had a war to fight together, the three of them.  More than that, they were family.

The sound level on the other side of the room rose considerably, then fell again.  They both watched for a moment as another round of shots was poured and consumed.

“Obviously, Lucifer still has designs on Alex,” Michael said.  “If his Prophet was telling the truth, there are still more out there who hear his voice.”

“Which is why I’ve got myself a new army.  I’m tired of waiting for Lucifer to make the next move.  It’s time we go after him and bring this to an end.”

Michael was confused.  The last army that his brother had led had been the eight-balls from New Delphi.  “What are you talking about?”

Gabriel’s expression was bittersweet.  “Meet the new leader of the Wildcats.”

Once again, the noise from the other group rose precipitously.  A chair crashed to the ground and both looked up to see Alex stumbling backward from the table.  His friends struggled to get out of their own seats, some more successful than others.

“No, no, I’m gonna ask him,” he slurred, making his way drunkenly across the room.

Jenkins reached for his arm but somehow Alex slipped out of his grip.  “No, mate, you don’t need to do that.  Not today, for the love of Pete, leave it be.”  The commander’s accent was heavier than normal, his usually stiff carriage slouched and unsteady. 

Ethan, however, was quicker.  He threw an arm over Alex’s shoulder as they stumbled around the sofa.  “Do it.  You got a right, man, it’s your mom.  I got your six.  Damn archangels think they run everything,” he mumbled.

Michael and Gabriel both stood as Alex and his friend approached.  Alex’s head weaved back and forth as he looked between the two brothers.

“Alex, you’re drunk.”  Michael’s voice was matter of fact, not condemning. 

“Damn right I’m drunk.  It’s a goddamned Irish wake, it’s what we do when someone dies.”  He lifted Ethan’s arm up from over his shoulders and pushed his friend toward a chair.  Ethan dropped into it sideways.  “You wouldn’t understand that, Michael, you’re not human.” 

He turned toward Gabriel, wavering on his feet, his head thrust forward pugnaciously.  “And you’re not human either, so what the hell does that make me?”

“You’re special, Alex, you know that,” Michael answered.

“I don’t want to BE special!” he yelled back.  “I’m sick of being special.  I don’t want people to DIE because I’m so goddamned special!”  He turned once again on Gabriel, his finger poking the angel in the chest.  “Why did you let her die?  You could have saved her, you son of a bitch, I know you could have done something, you did it before.”  His teeth bared, he struggled to keep back tears.  He accented each word with a poke.  “WHY DID YOU LET HER DIE?”

Gabriel was silent.  He looked around him, at the ragged half circle of Alex’s friends now gathered.  They had all lost a friend, a leader, a role model.  They wanted to know. 

He met his son’s eyes, bloodshot, unfocused.  “I wanted to save her but she said no.  She asked me to save you.”

“No.”  Alex’s voice was almost too low to hear.  His head turned slowly side to side and the tears that he’d worked so hard to hold back fell down his cheeks. “No, not my mom.  It’s your fault, asshole.”

“Blame me if you want, if it makes you feel better, I don’t care.”  Gabriel’s own voice was just as low.  “The truth is that you were the most important thing in your mother’s life.  It was her choice, Alex, Charlotte chose to save you.” 

Without warning he grasped Alex’s wrist, twisting it around so that his hand opened up before him.  Gabriel placed the ring in the center of his son’s palm, folding his fingers over the top and holding them tightly closed.  Their eyes met and the archangel’s shone brightly.   “She chose you.”

The seconds stretched out painfully and then Gabriel pushed himself away.  “I’ve had enough of this human mourning tradition.  I need air.”  He stepped toward the balcony.  “Michael, I’ll return.”  With the whoosh of wings, he was gone.

His legs unsteady, Alex fell rather than sat into a chair, while the rest of the group disbanded in a wobbly path toward the door.  In the other chair, Ethan’s head had fallen back and he emitted a deep, sonorous sound.

Michael crouched near Alex’s side.  He watched the young man open his hand and stare at the small silvery circlet that lay on his palm.  It was obvious that thinking was more than a bit difficult.  He looked up at the archangel questioningly.

“Your mother’s wedding ring.”

“But,” Alex frowned, “she wasn’t married.”

“She was.”

Alex gave a deep sigh of frustration, concentrating hard.  Understanding came slowly.  “Gabriel?”

“Yes.  I only found out about it myself tonight.  Their bond was much stronger than any of us knew.”

If possible, the creases in Alex’s forehead grew deeper, but he remained silent. 

“What Gabriel said was true, Alex.  Charlotte chose you, she chose to save you, not herself.  You did not cause her death, nor are you to blame.  She made the choice to have Gabriel save you.”

The young man stared at his hand, tears once more overflowing and trickling down his cheeks.

“There’s something else, Alex, something no one is saying.”  The archangel slowly closed Alex’s fingers over the ring, closing it back inside his shaking hand.  “Gabriel could have saved her, he could have saved the woman he loved as he did years ago.  He had the choice, but he didn’t.  Gabriel saved you, Alex. 

“Gabriel chose you.”

 

 

 

 

Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, December 25, 2016, 11:35 pm

 

 “Colonel!”  The nurse’s tone was somewhere between fear and disbelief.  “She’s breathing!”

The surgeon’s head spun around.  “What? That’s impossible.”

“I’ve got vitals, sir, barely there.  Respiration is labored.” Both nurses immediately sprang into action, moving around the bed, ripping away the remains of the blouse, sticking on monitor pads, wrapping an oxygen mask around the unconscious woman’s face.  The first nurse looked up from her stethoscope, now pressed against the patient’s chest.  “Definitely a left pneumothorax.  Heartbeat’s irregular…”  She grimaced, then slowly shook her head, once, twice.

The exhausted man grasped the surgeon’s forearms with a grip that was startlingly strong.  “Save her,” he rasped again.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do, her injuries are too severe.  There are so many others.”

The other man lifted his head slowly, his sandy brown hair, speckled with dirt and blood, falling to the side, his blue-grey eyes set in haunted caverns in his spattered face.  He caught the surgeon’s gaze and held it with an unwavering intensity.  “Do you believe in God, Doctor?”

Colonel Matthew R. Andrews didn’t know what he believed in anymore, except for perhaps Hell.  He’d done tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan and nothing had prepared him for the past 12 hours.  Right in the middle of a routine double by-pass, with no warning or provocation, his anesthesiologist and two of his surgical nurses had gone absolutely bat-shit crazy.  It had taken every dose of anesthetic they’d had in the operating room to get them under control and he’d lost the patient and one of his techs in the process.

Then, when he and his shocked crew had burst out of the surgery suite a few minutes later – well, there wasn’t enough ketamine in the state of Texas to take care of the chaos that reigned.  He still didn’t know what it was, pathogen or WMD or mass psychoses, it really didn’t matter.

Now he was doing dual duty as base commander and trauma doctor, coordinating his soldiers to separate those infected from those who were unaffected while organizing triage for the scores and scores of wounded who kept pouring in.  All the while he was trying desperately to get in touch with Command, to no effect.

They were alone, in the dark, with no end in sight.  He didn’t want to be brutal, but he had to be. “Mister, you’ve seen what’s going on out there.  God left us.”

The ghost of smile crossed the other man’s face.  “A realist.  I like that.”

“Then let’s be real.  I can tell you love her, but I can’t save her, and there are two or three hundred people out there that I can.  You can stay here with her if you want, but I’m sorry, I can’t do anything else.”

“No, no, you must.”  If possible, the other man’s expression became even more intense.  “You don’t understand, she’s all that’s left that’s good in this world.  God chose her.”

It was impossible to say what the doctor saw in the man’s eyes, but it went far deeper than the pain and desperation that he was used to.  There was a raw honesty that drove straight to his heart; it was incredible but he believed this poor man. 

The stranger grasped the doctor’s arms, again, tighter than he expected.  “You can save her.”  He said it like a pronouncement of fact. 

“I’m a surgeon, not a miracle worker.”

“That part is already dealt with.”  Again, that shadowy smile, then it fell away and his brow furrowed deeply.  “Please, help me right at least one wrong today.”

“Colonel!” one of the nurses called. “BP is dropping, 55 over 30.  We’re losing her.”

Andrews couldn’t tear his gaze away from those ancient grey eyes and their annunciation of truth. He realized he was breathing faster and his heart was pounding, an adrenalin reaction gearing up for battle.  “Alright,” he sighed, giving in despite all logic, all reason.  It just felt right.  He turned his head toward the techs at the bedside behind him.  “Give her two units and intubate.  If there’s a suite open, we’ll move, otherwise get me a surgical kit and an assist and we’ll operate here, we have to stop that bleeding now.  See if there’s anyone for anesthesia, otherwise we’ll do it ourselves.”  He’d give her a battle, and damned if he wasn’t going to win.

“Thank you,” the stranger said softly, releasing the doctor’s arms.  “She’ll be safe with you.  You’ll all be safe…”

The doctor nodded.  “I’ll take care of her.”

“Charlotte,” Gabriel whispered reverently.  “Her name is Charlotte.”

“I’ll take care of Charlotte for you.  I promise.”