Unrepentant: Chapters 14-16

Chapters 14-16 of my novel Unrepentant, freely available for your enjoyment. New chapters will be posted every Friday. If you enjoy the book, please consider supporting me via my Patreon account. Thanks!

Chapter Fourteen

Michael looked at me. “Oh, shit,” he said. “You can stop him, though, right? There has to be a way to stop him.”

“I can’t stop him,” I said. “He was an Archangel before the Fall. I could never compare to his power. Ever.”

“Shit,” Michael said.

Morrigan looked at me curiously. “You are certain of this?”

“It’s prophecy,” I said. “It cannot be changed.”

“So?” Michael asked. “Screw prophecy. We have free will. We decide our own fates.”

You have free will,” I told him. “I don’t. Angels don’t. For us, prophecy is the fundamental force of our existence. It is inexorable.”

“Then do not try to stop it,” Morrigan said with a sly smile. “Redirect it. Bend it. Twist it, if you must.”

I shook my head. “That’s impossible,” I said. “Even if I had the level of power necessary to do more than get in Lucifer’s way, I don’t know what I could do to unravel the fabric of the future. What will be is what will be.”

“Indeed?” Morrigan asked politely. “You truly believe this? I find that hard to believe, coming from a being who once rebelled against her omnipotent creator deity. You are a fallen angel, Ashariel. You were not meant to concern yourself with whether or not something is impossible. I would think that such defiance would extend to all things, even something as inexorable as prophecy.”

I thought. “Maybe,” I said. “But what could I do? I’m not powerful enough to stop Lucifer from doing anything. I’m an insect in comparison!”

“Based on my understanding of such things,” Morrigan said, “prophecies are very specific things. There is an order to the sequence of events. One need not stop these events, merely alter or delay them and then prophecy would find itself at the mercy of an even greater force.” She smiled widely. “Chaos.”

“Upset the sequence of events,” I said. “Pull on one wayward thread to start the unraveling.”

“Even the tiniest insect could perform such a feat as that,” Morrigan said.

Yes. Yes, I could do that. The fact that I was free at all already meant things were bending; my presence could not have been predicted by any prophecy. All that it would take was a small push at a critically weak juncture and everything would fall apart. Lucifer’s war would be over before it started.

“What are the parts of the prophecy?” Michael said. “Is it like in Revelations?”

“Revelation,” I said. “It’s not plural.”

“How do you even know that?” Michael asked. “It had to have been written after you were imprisoned.”

I stared hard at Michael for a moment. “Are you really willing to argue with me about whether or not I know how the world is going to end? This knowledge is innate. It’s in my bones. I didn’t glean it from some human book.” And then, a bit loftily, I added, “a human book that got several important details wrong.”

“Fine, fine,” Michael said. “You don’t have to rub it in.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “So what happens in Revelation? The real one, I mean?”

“First, the barrier is breached and Lucifer is freed,” I said.

Michael squinted at me. “Isn’t that exactly what you did? It sounds to me like maybe you’re part of this prophecy after all.”

I shook my head. Rather than discourage me, this only buoyed my hopes that I might be on the right track after all. “Lucifer wasn’t meant to be released by one of the Fallen,” I said. “I don’t know who is meant to free Lucifer from the Pit. It might be a mortal or perhaps a new angel will fall from Heaven. Lucifer is freed first, though. That’s the important part.”

“What happens next?” Michael asked.

“Lucifer walks the earth for a time, takes the measure of the world, sews seeds of discord, etcetera,” I said. “Once this is done, he returns to the Pit and smashes open the Gates of Hell. The Fallen will rally and reform his army.”

“And that starts the Apocalypse?” Michael asked.

I shook my head and my face turned grim. “Lucifer will not make the same mistake. He will not renew the war with the same army, not when that means he’ll just be defeated a second time. No, instead, he will journey into the depths of the Pit until he finds the Great Seals. There are seven in total, but he will only need to break four of them. He will break the Seals and gain the allegiance of the Four, who will ride forth as his general and make war upon Heaven. With the power of War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death at his command, Lucifer will storm the Gates of Heaven and the End Time will begin in earnest.”

“Who wins?” Michael asked. “Does the prophecy say who will win?”

“It doesn’t,” I said. “Only that this is what is destined to happen.”

“You know what will happen if you do nothing,” Morrigan said. “The question is: what will happen if you take action? What will happen if you intervene, Ashariel of the Fallen?”

I didn’t have to stop Lucifer. I didn’t have to avert the war. I just needed to be at the right place at the right moment and then provide the tiniest push. All that was needed was one tiny push, from a tiny insect, at just the right opportunity.

I knew of just such an opportunity. I turned to Morrigan. “The Great Seals,” I said. “That’s the weak point. That’s where I can intervene.”

Morrigan smiled. “Tell me more.”

“Lucifer will break the Seals himself to gain the Riders’ allegiance,” I said. “They will swear loyalty to him in payment for their freedom.” I smiled wickedly. “What will happen if those Seals are already broken by the time he gets there?”

“I don’t understand,” Michael said. “If these Rider dudes are so powerful, why hasn’t Lucifer already freed them? He’s had plenty of time to nail down that particular detail.”

It all unfolded so brilliantly and beautifully in my mind that it wouldn’t be until much, much later that I would wonder just how fortuitous it all could have been. The answer, of course, was that it wasn’t fortune at all; that this moment, this plan, everything that I thought I had to do hadn’t just been random chance. It had all been carefully orchestrated.

But I hadn’t known that, not then.

“The Great Seals can’t be broken by a Fallen alone,” I said, my smile slowly spreading until I was grinning. “They can only be broken by a Fallen in possession of a mortal host. That’s the key. And that’s Lucifer’s biggest problem right now. The power of an Archangel is too great to be contained in a mortal form; it’s why Lucifer and Gabriel have to create their own hosts. Nothing else can sustain their power. A created form isn’t sufficient to break the Seals, though. Lucifer needs a Fallen contained within a mortal host.”

Michael looked from Morrigan to himself to me then back to himself. “Well,” he said. “I guess we’ve got that part covered.”

“More importantly,” I said, “Lucifer needs the Fallen to be one that he can trust to not betray him. Whoever unseals the Four will gain their allegiance. Lucifer can’t risk letting one of the other Fallen hold that power, not when there’s a chance that Fallen could overthrow him.”

“That’s why he wants you, isn’t it?” Michael asked. “He trusts you. He thinks you won’t betray him.”

“She’s an idealist,” Morrigan said. “You can always predict what an idealist will do.”

I glared at Morrigan, who smiled in response. “There’s just one problem,” I said. “There’s no way I can make it to the Great Seals alone. The other Fallen will intercept me and I’m no match for them, not alone.”

Unless.

Unless I wasn’t alone.

I looked at Morrigan. She looked at me. “What are you thinking?” she asked.

“Come with me,” I said. “Together, we can do this.”

“I’m not in the business of charity, dear,” Morrigan said. “I don’t do anything for free.”

“You set me free,” I said.

“I had my reasons,” she said. “Those reasons didn’t include this. This is a terrible risk.”

I sighed. I suspected that she was lying. For some reason, I thought she was very pleased that I’d arrived at this moment and this conclusion. She wouldn’t help me for free, not unless I gave her something in return. The price was almost certainly too high.

Almost too high, but not quite, not when I considered the prize.

It could mean true freedom. True, actual freedom, freedom from prophecy, freedom from Heaven, freedom from Hell.

I could change everything.

That had to be worthy any price. At least, that’s what I told myself.

“So,” I said to Morrigan. “Let’s make a deal.”

“A deal?” she asked. She leaned back against a tree and folded her arms across her chest. “What makes you certain that I have anything to offer you? What makes you think I even care about what happens to the world of mortals? I have my own world.”

“You care,” I said. “I don’t know why you care, but you wouldn’t have brought me out into this world if you didn’t have a reason. You have a plan.”

Morrigan smiled slyly. “You’re smarter than you look,” she said. “Why do you think I’ll be interested in making a deal with you?”

“I’ve asked for your help,” I said. “You denied me. Now I’m willing to buy it. You need me for something and you need the assurance that a deal will provide. You need to know that I can’t go back on my word.”

Morrigan’s smile deepened. “Very perceptive of you.”

I held my arms out to the side. “I’m ready,” I said. “Let’s deal.”

“What are you offering?” Morrigan asked.

“What do you want?”

“Is that wise, girl?” the Fey Queen asked. “Are you truly prepared to offer me whatever I desire?”

Now it was my turn to smile. I took a step closer to her, bringing me inside of arm’s reach. We were very nearly the same height, though she had slight advantage on me. I stared into her eyes. She did not flinch.

“I have been in Hell,” I said quietly. “Do you know what that means? Truly?”

“I have been there,” Morrigan said.

I shook my head.

“You have seen Hell,” I said. “You haven’t been in its grip. You have not been its thrall. You do not and cannot understand the Pit. Not until you experience the slow passage of time and the agonizing realization that this is your eternity. Until you have felt the ice and the terror for yourself and realized, deep in your soul, that this is your fate forever, you cannot comprehend the magnitude of Hell. For you, it is only a place.”

Michael looked at me in silence. I realized I was breathing hard. I broke eye contact with Morrigan and stepped away from her.

“I do not think there is a price you can ask that is worse than what I have already paid,” I said.

“Ash,” Michael said, but his voice faltered when I looked at him.

“What?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. Just be careful.”

“He is wise, this human pet that you keep,” Morrigan said. “You should know the dangers of an open deal.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “You aren’t going to send me back to the Pit. Any price less than that is one I can pay.”

Morrigan smiled. “As you wish,” she said. “I will help you in exchange for one small thing. A favor.”

I knew better than to take her at her word. A favor could be a very large thing to a being of power. A favor owed to a Fallen was nearly as dangerous as owing it one’s own soul.

“A favor,” I said. “In return, you help me stop Lucifer from ripping open the Gates and unleashing the Four.”

“Easy enough,” Morrigan said with a light laugh. “We are agreed?”

“Yes,” I said. “We are agreed.

A silent moment passed. There was no rush of power, no fluttering of wings. The deal was made and it simply was. It didn’t require theatrics to demonstrate its power. I was bound to the Fey Queen as she was to me.

“That’s it?” Michael asked. Morrigan eyed him curiously. “You just agree to help her stop the Devil from springing the Four Horseman? Is there a plan? Please tell me that there is a plan, at least.” He looked at me, and then at Morrigan. I didn’t answer. The Fey Queen merely shrugged.

“I don’t have a plan,” Morrigan said. “The mortal raises a valid concern, however.” Her lips curled into a wicked grin. “Unless you believe I am equal in strength to all the minions of Hell, I would advise against a frontal assault.”

“See?” Michael said. “Even the living nightmare agrees with me!”

Morrigan raised an eyebrow. “Living nightmare?” she asked.

He chuckled nervously. “Look, no offense, but as pretty as you are, you scare the crap out of me.”

Morrigan looked more amused than offended.

I sighed. “Let’s stay focused, please.”

“Let me just state again, for the record,” Michael said. “I think we need a plan.”

“Do you?” Morrigan asked.. “Do you have a one, mortal?” When he didn’t answer, she nodded. “I did not think so. Be silent.”

I felt a sharp flicker of irritation then, a surge of protectiveness towards Michael. I frowned and ignored it.

“You will have all of my power at your disposal,” Morrigan said. “Together we will stop Lucifer.”

It was the way she said it. There was a self-assurance in her voice that transcended the limits of mortal speech. For just a moment, we each saw the other as we truly were. She saw the luminous, ruined being that clung to Michael’s mortal shell. And I saw-

I saw something vast and powerful beneath the mask she wore. I had only a fleeting glimpse of what the Fey Queen truly was, but it was enough; enough to fill me with certainty that she was up to the task.

What was she? All I knew from that glimpse was that she was something far greater than I had suspected.

“She can do it,” I said. When Michael started to protest, I gave him a level gaze and he fell silent.

“When you have need of me, I will be there to follow you,” Morrigan said. “Until then, I will take my leave of you.”

“What?” Michael asked. “Why are we waiting? Why not go now?”

“Because,” Morrigan said, her voice patient. “Because time flows differently between these worlds, as Ashariel can tell you. A few hours spent here will not matter.”

“So?” Michael asked.

She sighed and looked at me. “You can tell him, if you want. I have a dream to attend.” She vanished without another word.

“Jesus Christ,” Michael said when we were alone. “She scares the Hell out of me.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Does she scare you more than I do?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, Ash, I know that you’re Fallen but I just don’t get the same feeling from her as I do from you.”

I thought about the glimpse I’d had of Morrigan’s true self and nodded. “What is different about her?”

He shrugged. “You’re practical. You would destroy me for getting in your way. It wouldn’t be personal. Morrigan, though.” He sighed. “When she looks at me, it makes me feel as though I’m an insect. Something barely worth her consideration, something beneath her notice entirely.”

“Most angels feel that way about mortals,” I said. “It’s nothing personal.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe.”

We both fell silent and I was glad for it, because it meant I didn’t have to tell Michael how, compared to the thing I saw beneath Morrigan’s mask, I felt like an insect, too. And I’d gone and made a deal with it.

What had I done?

Chapter Fifteen

In the end, it was the waiting that was the most difficult.

We were inside his head again, though no longer on the imaginary beach. Given that this was most likely our last night together, I told Michael to let his fantasies run wild. Anywhere he wanted to go, I would take him. He’d been a good host and I felt that I owed him at least that much after enslaving him to my will.

It explained why we seemed to be drifting through outer space at the moment. Stars and galaxies surrounded up in brilliant arrays of color and light. I had crafted the illusion out of a picture I had taken from his head, some wonderful little gem made by a human telescope. It was quite beautiful, that picture, and it made my heart ache, that I would not get to see such stars for myself. They really were quite beautiful.

Michael took my hand and we drifted through the wispy arm of a nebula together.

“Do you think it will work?” Michael asked.

I thought about it for a moment. “No,” I said finally.

“Why bother then?” Michael asked. “Why does it matter to you if Lucifer starts the Apocalypse and destroys my world? Why fight for a lost cause?”

“I’m an idealist,” I said. “Lost causes are the only ones worth my time.”

“I suppose that means you betrayed Morrigan, doesn’t it?” he asked. “I mean, you made a deal with her knowing you wouldn’t be able to keep it. Isn’t that wrong?”

“There’s a lot you don’t understand about the nature of deals,” I said.

“So explain them to me,” he said. “Just in case I ever need to make a deal with a devil in the future.”

My smile faded and I looked at him, my eyes hard. “Don’t joke about that,” I said. “Don’t ever even suggest a thing.”

He flinched and I realized that I had held his hand too tightly. I let him go, but did not take my eyes away. “Promise me,” I said. “Promise me. No deals. Ever.”

“Ash, what’s wrong? Why shouldn’t I ever make a deal? You made one! Hell, you made more than one!”

“That’s different,” I said.

“Why? Because you’re an angel?”

“Yes,” I said. “I understand how they work. I know how they trap you, how no matter how good of a deal you think you might be getting, you cannot appreciate the magnitude of your mistake until it is too late.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Eternity, for one thing,” I said. “It seems a small thing, to a human, to forfeit an eternal soul for temporary power or gain. But no matter how much power you bargain for, it will never be sufficient when the demon comes to collect, and you’re forced to pay up. A demon’s gift costs him or her at most a little bit of difficulty, some expenditure of power. You’ll be paying your end forever. No deal has terms that good.”

“Okay, fine, fine,” he said. “No deals with demons. But the Fey don’t ask for souls, do they? Morrigan didn’t. She just wants a favor.”

For a moment, I didn’t answer him. I watched as we drifted through a cluster of stars and marveled at their beauty, the radiant purity of their light. I felt a moment of connection when I glimpsed a star explode outward in a brilliant burst. I wondered if that star was me. Power and light and fury seemingly going on without end, until one brief moment, a single brilliant flash, and then I’m gone.

“A favor can be anything,” I said.

“How is that worse than an eternal soul?”

I took Michael’s hand again in a warm, comforting grip. “The Fallen are very good tempters,” I said. “We know what you want and we’ll offer it to you, whatever your heart may desire, we can give to you or create the illusion of giving it to you. Frankly, you won’t know the difference. But you always know what we want, what we’re after. We may tell you that the deal is a good one, that these are good terms, but if you’re smart, you know that when a Fallen offers you a deal, it’s for your soul.”

“I got it,” he said, somewhat impatiently. “All Fallen want souls. Well, present company excluded.”

“I don’t know what the Fey Queen wants,” I said.

“I thought you didn’t know anything about the Fey,” Michael said. “I thought no angel did.”

“I don’t,” I said. “And that’s dangerous. I assume that the Fey are forced to play by the same rules as our kind; that we cannot renege on a deal once it’s been made. Assumptions are dangerous. By assuming that Morrigan won’t betray her word, I don’t know what she gets from her deal, what she really wants. Favors can be turned into anything. Perhaps she’d simply use my power to further her own ends. Or perhaps she wants something else entirely.”

“How is that worse than selling your soul, though?” Michael asked.

“I fell because I would not kneel to one tyrant,” I said. “I will not willingly sell my freedom to another.”

“Okay, okay, I think I get the point. No deals.” He fell silent then and we watched together when a comet flittered past us.

“Beautiful,” I murmured.

“Yeah,” Michael said, but he sounded distant, distracted. I turned to look at him.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He waved his free hand and indicated the space all around us. “This is lovely, Ash,” he said. “Really. If it wasn’t for the fact that I would freeze to death and suffocate if this were the real deal, I’d think I was really out here drifting through the stars.”

“But?” I asked.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” he said.

“As you wish, my host,” I said. “Where would you like to go? The peak of the world’s highest mountain? The deepest jungles? Or perhaps a world entirely of your own choosing, a fantasy you’ve always wished to experience? Tell me, and I shall make it for you.”

He stroked the back of my hand with his thumb. “I think you know what I want, Ash,” he said. “I don’t care where we go.”

“There must be something,” I said. “Ask.”

“Maybe there’s one thing,” he said. “Show me Heaven?”

I grimaced. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” he asked. It seemed like an innocent enough question, but there seemed to be an edge in his voice. Was he pressing his advantage against me? Testing me for weakness, trying to see if he could push this knife into me?

“I don’t remember what it looks like,” I said.

“You don’t remember anything at all?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I remember that it exists. That’s it.”

There was a look of understanding on his face. “The memories of Heaven were taken from you?” he asked. “Part of your punishment, I take it?”

“Yes,” I said. “The Fallen will never know Heaven again, our Father has decreed, not in soul, and not even in their thoughts. Our banishment extends across all possible worlds, real and imaginary. There is no losing myself in happy times.”

“Oh,” he said. He looked uncomfortable.

“Indeed,” I said. “Oh.”

“That sucks,” he said. “I can understand the need for punishment, the need for justice, even if it’s brutal, even if it’s intense. But that? To not only banish you but not even allow you the tiny mercy of remembering what you lost? Taking away even your ability to dream of your home? That sucks.” I thought I saw something that looked more like empathy than understanding.

“You begin to understand, don’t you?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Michael’s face was blankly innocent.

I grinned. I couldn’t help it; there was a particular delight in seeing that first flash of recognition in my host’s expression, the realization that he might not be all that different from me. I didn’t want his redemption, but I would take satisfaction in the vindication.

“It is my Father’s lofty opinion that since he is the source of the rules, he is able to break them at will. I disagreed. “If there were rules and they were worth obeying, they should apply to all things. Even God.”

“Makes sense to me,” Michael said.

“Lucifer understood my frustration,” I said, my voice fond with remembrance. “He told me that if I joined him, if we all stood up together, we could convince our Father of the error of his ways. We could show him, as his creations, that we deserved to be treated fairly.” I smiled bitterly. “Obviously, that didn’t work out so well for us. Tyrants do not like being told that they are tyrannical.”

The stars around us were still beautiful, but now as I looked at them, I felt cold. These things, these jewels created by my Father, they might have been lovely, but they also seemed false and flawed, things that were created not for the sake of beauty itself, but because my Father wanted to experience beautiful things.

“I tire of looking at this void,” I said. “Is there anywhere else you’d like to go?”

He thought for a moment, and then I saw a warm, honest smile appear on his face. “You know, I might have one idea,” he said. “Is there still time?”

I glanced back into the physical world. There were still a few hours left before midnight. I could make the time stretch, however, if I wanted to. And I very much wanted to, for as long as I was able.

“Of course,” I said. “There is plenty of time.”

He closed his eyes. “Look inside my head,” he said. “Recreate what I’m thinking about.”

I slipped into his thoughts and saw a house, a dining room, actually, with a table that had been laid out in preparation of a feast. There were other humans that I didn’t recognize, but seemed somehow familiar. I pulled all of this information into myself and wove the illusion. The starry voyage through the blackness of space shimmered and became the feast Michael had showed me.

The table was long and covered in a white cloth. Platters of food, meat and vegetables and other things that I didn’t even have names for, spread out in abundance before me. I saw the other humans seated around the table, and realized there was an empty chair in front of me.

Michael sat in the chair beside it and when he saw me, his face lit up in a bright smile. He stood up and cleared his throat. The general murmur of conversation faded away.

“Everyone,” he said to the illusionary humans. “I’d like to introduce you to Ashariel. You can call her Ash, if you like. I do.”

I heard a ripple of greetings and ‘pleased-to-meet-you’s.’

“Ash,” Michael said, turning to look at me. “I’d like for you to meet my family.”

Chapter Sixteen

They weren’t real, of course.

They weren’t real because I had created them, spun them out of the material of Michael’s memories, which would explain why none of them commented on my name, on the fact that I was very obviously not a human like they were, or at least, were supposed to be.

I knew all of this, and yet I still felt something well up inside me, some great tide of emotion that left me speechless for a moment.

An older man with a crown of graying hair stood up and offered his hand to me. In a daze, I reached out and clasped his hand. He gave my arm a firm pump. “Welcome to our home, Ashariel,” he said. “Will you be joining us for dinner?”

“Ashariel,” the woman beside him said. “Such a pretty name.”

Michael looked at me and his smile was deep and warm. “Ash, these are my parents,” he said. “Thomas and Eleanor.”

“Pleased to meet you both,” I said.

He gestured to the other people around the table, one after another. “That’s my cousin Sammy. Over there’s his brother, Bobby. My aunt and uncle, George and Miriam.” He gestured last to the young boy sitting at the table looking at me with wide eyes. No more than nine years of age by the look of him, he seemed like a much younger, smaller version of Michael. “And this is Stephen,” he said and reached out to ruffle the kid’s hair. “My little brother.”

Murmured greetings and words of welcome. “Well, come on, boy,” Thomas said to his son. “Pull up a chair for your lady friend. We already said grace, so you’re free to dig in.”

“Michael, honey, fix up a plate for Ashariel, won’t you?” Eleanor said.

Michael flashed a lopsided grin. “Sure thing, Mom,” he said.

I sat down in the available chair and watched the exchange of the illusions around me. Michael’s memory had proven to be a very useful material; I saw little quirks and mannerisms in their behavior, such as the way Father Thomas would slide his hand up on Mother Eleanor’s leg when he thought nobody was looking. I saw the way she’d slap his hand when he crept too far along her thigh, but it was always playful, a warm rebuke instead of a cold refusal.

This was Michael’s family. The Stroud clan.

Michael set a plate down in front of me and sat beside me. “Cool, huh?” he asked. “Well, I mean, for family members, anyway.”

“They all seem very nice,” I said. I picked up the fork, but hesitated. I’d eaten before, a few times in Michael’s body, but it had always been biological need, the visceral craving of physical hunger. It felt strange to pantomime it now, in my avatar form.

“Would that I could ask you a question, Michael?” I asked.

He looked up from his plate. “Yeah?”

“Did you do this for me?” I asked.

I saw his face waver slightly. “No,” he said. After a moment, he added, “maybe.” Another pause. “Yes.”

“Why?” I asked. I knew that the illusions around us were watching us, but would be polite enough not to interrupt.

He didn’t say anything. His gaze dropped from mine and he focused on his plate.

“I just thought it might be nice to show you something better,” he said finally. “You talk about your relationship with your Father with so much anger. You don’t have a family at all, really.”

He was right. I didn’t. Not amongst the angels in Heaven, nor amid the Fallen in Hell. I was alone.

“I thought you might like to see what it’s like to have a home and a family,” he said. “I thought you might like to see something good for a change.”

“You’re trying to change me?” I asked. To my own surprise, I sounded more tired than angry.

“Not change you, not exactly,” he said quickly. “Just show you that there are some good things in life. There are good people. There are good times to go with the bad.”

“Such an idealist,” I muttered.

He looked sheepish and shrugged.

“This isn’t what your family was really like?” I asked, wanting to change the course of the conversation. I looked again at the people I had created out of his memory. They seemed real enough to me, but then, I was the one who’d carved the illusion.

“In some ways,” Michael said. “But not completely. We had things like this once, but it was a rare thing, and it was already gone by the time I was twenty or so.”

“I see,” I said.

“I wanted this for both of us, Ash,” Michael said. He set his fork aside. “I wanted to show you what a home could be like, what I always thought of when I thought of home. I wanted to experience that home again for myself, because this is all gone now. Everybody here is either dead,” with a long, sad look at his parents, “or else completely lost to me,” and with that, he looked at his little brother. “This is the way things should have been. I guess I wanted a chance to say goodbye this time. I didn’t get to do that before. It’s something that I regret.”

“I think I understand,” I said.

He looked around the table and his expression was sad. “It’s stupid,” he said. “I know that this isn’t really. But it’s nice to pretend, at least for a little while. It’s nice to be reminded of the times when it was good; of the times before it all fell apart.” He sighed.

“It’s not stupid,” I said.

I reached out and took the glass of wine that was next to my plate. I held it up in a toast. “If I could have your attention, please?” I said to the gathered memories of Michael’s family. Everybody stopped and looked over at me politely, and then followed my example.

“I’d like to make a toast to Michael,” I said. “For bringing us all here. He is many things, and I’m sure most of you know him better than I, given that he and I have been together only a short time, but I wanted to say how honored I am that he have invited me to share in this time with all of you.” I smiled at him and saw him blush as he smiled back in return.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Michael said.

“Yes?”

“Have there been others?”

“Others?” I asked. “Other whats?”

“Like me,” he said. “Other men. Other hosts.”

“Why, Michael,” I said and smiled seductively at him. “Are you jealous?”

“No, it’s not that,” he said. “I just need to know. I want to know.”

“Why?”

“Just tell me?”

I knew that he thought of me as basically human, despite knowing what I truly was. He thought of me as female, as beautiful, and as free to make my own choices as he himself was. I could have retorted, at that moment, but I decided not to, not when it was a question that I knew mattered to him and had, of course, been asked in good faith.

“No others,” I said finally. “You have been my first and only host. To be honest, most of the other Fallen aren’t at all like me. Even before I met you, I was still more ‘human,’ so to speak, than the others. Most of them don’t think of themselves as having any particular gender, and few of them even bother to try to recreate things such as physical pleasure or sensation. In that regard, one might say I am the most human of all of the Fallen.”

“Hmm,” Michael said. “Well, that’s good. I don’t think I’d like it as much if there was some bland genderless bald dude riding around in my body. I like this better.”

“Why would this other angel be bald?” I asked.

“It’s just a hypothetical,” he said.

“Ah,” I said, and we both laughed, and the family of illusions, who had been listening to our exchange with infinite politeness, laughed as well.

It was good even though it wasn’t real. I was glad to do this, and glad for Michael, that he asked me to do this. It was nice to know I would have a good memory no matter what happened tomorrow.

Thinking of what was to come sent a chill through me but nobody else noticed. Then the feeling of trepidation passed and I joined Michael and the memory of his family as they laughed, ate, and celebrated the pleasure of each other’s company. For me, though, it was the celebration of feeling a glimpse of what it meant to be human, if only for one moment.

One very special, very pleasant moment that I would cherish for as long as I was able, that I would make last for as long as possible. But as I looked around the table, saw Michael laugh alongside his mother and his father, both long dead, I knew that even this happy memory could not be made to last forever.

Time was marching on, and not even I, with all of my power, could make it seem otherwise.

I saw his eyebrow lift in a curious expression. “Time,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “Is it time yet?” His expression was pensive.

“Not yet,” I said. “But it’s getting close.”

I stood up from the table and inclined my head to Michael’s family. “Thank you all for a lovely meal and for inviting me to share this time with your family.”

Eleanor favored with a warm smile. “Of course,” she said. “Any friend of Michael’s is welcome here, always.”

Michael led me out of the dining room and up the staircase in the hallway. I passed the rows of pictures of what I assumed where Michael and his brother at various ages. I took a moment to pause and admire a few of them.

“What are you doing?” he asked me from the top of the stairs.

“Just getting a better sense of you,” I said. “Humans are so much more transitional than we are. You practically change your appearance moment to moment.”

“I guess it would seem that way to you,” he said.

We walked together past a collection of doors until we came to the last one in the hall. “I haven’t lived here for eight years. In the real world, I have a crappy studio apartment that leaks in three places. I guess part of me never stopped thinking of this as my real home.”

He opened the door to his room. “Wow, it’s just like I remember it,” he said. “All my old posters. My books.” He glanced at the overflowing basket of clothes near the door. “Even my bad habits.”

I stepped into the room behind him and willed the door shut with a thought.

“It’s nice,” I said.

He turned when he heard the door close. “It’s not,” he said. “It’s sad and pathetic. I’m holding on to a memory. I’m clinging to something that will never be.”

“We both are,” I said.

There was something sad and lost in his expression as he looked around the room. It was like he was searching for something that he knew wasn’t there.

“What are you searching for, Ashariel?” Michael asked.

I paused for a moment. It wasn’t often that he used my name.

“Home,” I said finally.

“Heaven?” he asked.

“That’s not home,” I said. “It never was. It never will be.”

“It’s where you’re from,” he said. “It’s where you were made.”

“Sometimes where we’re from is not where we’re meant to be,” I said. “Sometimes, where we are isn’t where we want to be either.” I nodded to the room around us that was now nothing more than a memory.

“Where is home?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it doesn’t exist for me.”

“Maybe it does,” Michael said. He stepped closer to me and our physical proximity was such that I could reach out and touch him. I hadn’t realized before that he was a few inches taller than me; just enough that I had to look up at him.

I wasn’t sure who moved first. Maybe it was Michael, wanting to be comforted in the midst of his memories. Maybe it was me, hoping and wanting for something I’d never really known.

Maybe it didn’t matter who moved first.

Maybe all that mattered was that the embrace began. His arms found their way around me and mine slipped around his. I held him just as much as he held me.

We clung to each other as this final moment passed us by in silence and not even I, in all my power, could bring it back.

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