IN ANSWER to a call that went out once every thousand years, Archangel Gabriel walked slowly down the uneven stone corridor. He paused to take stock of his surroundings as it opened out into a wide, round chamber. In the center of the chamber was a table, hewn from rock, overlaid with a simple white cloth, and with lit candles set in the center. High-backed chairs made of stone and with padded cushions on the seats were set evenly around it.
The call went out to all ten of his kind, the Brotherhood of Archangels. They were the highest of God’s creations, made for specific purposes and given free will to live, learn, and grow, all the better to follow their Orders and protect humanity and all the creatures on Earth.
There were so many stories about the Brotherhood of Archangels, Gabriel mused as he strolled down the corridor. Things had been written on the walls of caves very much like this one, in crude cuneiform scratches, stories that had been handed down from father to son over countless generations and embellished with every retelling. Gabriel could not help but wonder if somewhere in these caves he now walked were faded reminders of things he and his kind had done in the distant past.
Gabriel ran a hand through his hair, short and blond, slightly mussed. He was fond of his physical form; the male shape he had taken was a handsome one, and Gabriel was the first to admit that he was vain. His rationale was that if they had to take physical shapes to shroud their true forms from human eyes in order to protect humanity from being blinded, then he would take a form that looked good.
His body was strong and muscled, well toned and fit. It was the body of a warrior, a fighter, a soldier. Gabriel was the General of God’s Armies and commanded the choir of warrior angels called Seraphim.
Gabriel was looking forward to seeing the other nine Archangels again. Some of the Brotherhood he had not seen for centuries, and he was particularly excited to see Michael. It had been so long, and Gabriel missed Michael deeply, so much so that it was almost like a physical ache. Many times over the centuries, Gabriel had considered going to find the older Archangel and see what he was doing, seek him out and talk with him, spend time with him, but his courage had always failed him.
Admitting that last had been an uncomfortable experience for Gabriel. Nothing frightened him, but the idea of facing Michael after so long apart made his insides turn to jelly and his knees go weak as pudding. He wasn’t entirely sure why he felt that way, why the nerves rose up in clouds of butterflies in his stomach, but here, at the traditional meeting of the Brotherhood of Archangels, Gabriel would have a formal reason to see Michael. A better reason, he thought, than one based solely on curiosity.
Gabriel, Archangel, called saint by some, was the Archangel of War and Annunciation, the Strength of God, God’s Rage and Jealousy. In the eternity of his life, Gabriel had completed all his Orders to the best of his ability, and when humanity had been expelled from the city of Eden so very long ago, he and his nine fellow Archangels had made a pact. Every thousand years they would meet, sit and talk, reconnect with one another. It was now one of Gabriel’s favorite traditions, and he never missed a meeting.
Gabriel turned, a smile crossing his face as he saw Samael, Archangel of Death. “Sammy.” He moved to grip Samael’s hand in a strong handshake. Of all the Archangels, Samael and Remiel were the two Gabriel saw the most often.
“It is good to see you, Gabriel.” Samael smiled warmly, his teeth white against the dark skin of his face.
“You too, Sammy.” Gabriel grinned, lightly buffeting the younger Archangel’s shoulder with his free hand. “You’re looking happy.”
“I find that I am.” Samael’s voice was filled with wonder. “It is a remarkable emotion.”
“I rather like it, yeah.” Gabriel chuckled. “C’mon, let’s go sit. I think Raz has outdone himself this millennium.”
“I heard that.” Raziel, Archangel of Secrets and Mysteries, marched up to them. “Sammy,” he said, his grin boyish as he hugged the elder Archangel. “It’s good to see you. You too, grumpy,” he teased as he hugged Gabriel.
“Brat.” Gabriel laughed. “Are the others here yet?”
“No. Knowing Michael, he’ll show up last and leave first. The others will all be here before he is.” Raziel rolled his eyes theatrically. “I feel like he avoids us on purpose, like he’s been riding his First Archangel title as an excuse to avoid the rest of our kind forever. I wonder if he even likes us.”
“He’s just more reserved than us, Raz,” Gabriel scolded gently. “Cut him some slack.”
“I’ll cut him some slack as soon as he realizes I’m not five thousand years old anymore and that trying to ground me is an utterly futile exercise.” Raziel lit a cigarette. “Who does he think he is? He’s not God. He needs to lighten up and realize that life is not always doom, gloom, and despair. Life is for living and having fun too. He has no concept of the word ‘fun’. He’s a buzzkill.”
Samael and Gabriel exchanged a quick glance, and Samael smoothly changed the subject. “You have taken a new form, Raziel,” he said, nodding at Raziel’s body.
Raziel nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been wearing my Scottish lad here for ooh… six hundred years, give or take? I see you’re still liking the British Ghanaian look.” Raziel cast an appraising gaze at Gabriel. “Looks like Gabe wanted to try something different. Interesting choice,” he added.
“Aye.” Gabriel regarded Raziel impassively. “I like the UK and I like Russia. Last time, I chose a Russian form; this time I decided on British.”
“Fair enough.” Raziel’s bright blue eyes were calm. “We all have our favorite nations and cultures, it’s true.”
“Aye,” Gabriel said again. “We have our own prejudices just as humanity does.” The slight dig at Raziel’s disgruntled remarks about Michael did not go unnoticed, and Raziel flushed, looking a little sheepish. Gabriel smiled a little as he looked around the caves once more. “So I suppose we’re first?”
“Remiel’s gone to get food and drink.” Raziel led them deeper into the circular chamber. “He seems to think we’ll need it.”
“All the better to stop ourselves saying harsh words.” Samael nodded. “If we are eating and drinking, we can rein ourselves in from speaking without due thought or care. A wise move. We are not immune from speaking in haste and repenting at leisure.”
“I don’t know that it’ll work for everyone.” Raziel sighed. “Uriel doesn’t eat at all. He doesn’t understand why we do. He doesn’t understand the concept of enjoying the taste of things. And even if I could stuff a sandwich in his mouth, he’d just spit it out and continue to speak his mind, regardless of what anyone thought.”
“Uri’s stuck in his ways.” Gabriel sat down on one of the stone chairs, pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the cushions made it. “How’s he doing anyway?”
“The same.” Raziel sighed once more, sitting at the table. “Some days are better than others, though,” he added.
“Way to dash my hopes, Raz,” said a new voice, and the three Archangels turned to see four Archangels appearing out of thin air behind them.
“Remiel,” Samael said fondly. “And Tzadkiel, Raphael, and Metatron. Well met.”
Seven Archangels embraced, ruffling each other’s hair and exchanging greetings. Gabriel was pleased to see all of his companions looking so well. He had not seen Tzadkiel, Raphael, and Metatron for centuries, and all three had changed their forms since he had last seen them. Tzadkiel now wore the shape of a male in his mid-forties, North American to judge by his accent. Raphael had taken the form of an African-American male in his early forties, and Metatron a New Zealand Maori male in his thirties. Tzadkiel was brunet, and Raphael and Metatron had black hair. All three, like Raziel, Remiel, Samael, and Gabriel himself, had the trademark Archangel blue eyes. It was rare that an angel did not have blue eyes, but not unheard of—some angels chose to have brown or green or hazel eyes, usually those angels who interacted closely with humans and needed to blend in seamlessly.
There was a flutter of wings as the seven greeted each other, and Uriel and Haniel appeared and were caught up in the greetings and embraces. Uriel, his expression sardonic, was as Gabriel remembered him—sharp tongued and sarcastic. His form was that of a white American male perhaps the same age as Tzadkiel’s form, with blond hair like Gabriel’s own. Haniel, darker skinned though not so dark as Samael, told them all that he had chosen his form from the peoples of the city of Kolkata, India.
“Michael’s late, huh?” Raphael shook his head. “He’s always late to these things.”
“Gabe says he’s more reserved than the rest of us.” Raziel shrugged.
“He is, but—” Raphael was cut off by the appearance of the first Archangel. “Oh. Hey, Mike.”
“Greetings, all.” Michael, first Archangel of God, Commander in Chief of the Armies of Heaven, stood slightly to one side. “I trust I am not too late?”
“No.” Raziel rolled his eyes facetiously. “China?”
“I beg your pardon?” Michael looked confused.
“Your form. Chinese?”
“Oh. Yes.” Michael nodded. “Shall we begin this meeting, gentlemen? I have much to do.” He moved toward the table, his expression one of calm determination.
“Okay, sure.” Raziel shook his head and gestured to the table. “Let’s sit down and get to it, then.”
They sat, and Raziel called the meeting to order, picking up a quill and leaning forward, preparing to take notes of the meeting for the records he kept. Gabriel paid little attention to the reports on the state of humanity and the world given by the rest of the Brotherhood one after the other—it was nothing he was not already aware of, after all. Instead, he watched Michael out of the corner of his eye, taking in the tense set of his shoulders, the almost brusque way Michael answered questions, the blush that rose to his cheeks whenever the reports contained lewder subjects. He scolded them from time to time for their language, scoldings that went largely ignored as most of the Archangels could and did curse like pirates. Gabriel could not pull his gaze away from Michael entirely; the blushing was, he thought, adorable, and the way Michael scolded them all for language was no less so.
With a pang of sadness, Gabriel reflected on the last time he had seen Michael. Their meeting had been brief—Michael had been grieving the loss of his human lover and had simply laid a parchment with the details of his previous thousand years on the table beside Raziel’s hand and left. They had spoken once beyond that time—heated and harsh, during the Crusades—and Gabriel did not want to dwell on that. Michael had not been seen by any of the Archangels for centuries, although they had felt his presence and his power as they moved around the world, taking care of their duties and living their lives when they were not working.
Now, Gabriel noted, Michael sat with his hands loosely clasped together, resting on the surface of the table. He was listening attentively as Remiel finished talking about the latest duties he had taken care of, providing mercy and compassion, as was his gift, to those souls who needed it. Remiel, strawberry blond with his nose and cheeks lightly dusted with freckles, would often work in tandem with Samael and Gabriel. War and Death frequently needed the touch of Mercy to temper the violence and pain that both caused.
Gabriel was still only paying scant attention to what was being said. He continued gazing at Michael, making sure not to be obvious about it. He didn’t want to embarrass Michael for one thing, and he didn’t want to leave himself open for endless teasing from the others for another. Michael was beautiful, Gabriel thought, watching as Michael sat, calm and composed, his simple pale-gray suit elegant and refined. However, Gabriel knew that beneath Michael’s civilized exterior lay a powerful being capable of destroying civilizations, and Gabriel found the dichotomy of shy, gentle Michael and violent killer fascinating… and not a little sexy. He wondered what Michael’s body looked like beneath Michael’s clothes, if the power he knew lay at the core of Michael’s Grace was represented in his physical form by muscles and a lean, hard body. Gabriel suppressed the thrill he felt as the idea of shoving Michael up against a wall and kissing him, tearing his clothes off, and being kissed back filled his mind. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Gabriel forced himself to pay attention to the Brotherhood and not dwell on erotic thoughts about Michael.
Uriel was next to make his report, and he was short and to the point. Archangel of Sanctification and Glory he might be, but he was also the Guardian of the Gates of Hell and Keeper of the Secret of Eden. Apart from the ongoing discontent of various demons and Fallen Angels, there was little new in his report. As he lit a cigar, Uriel sat back in his seat and gestured grandly to Metatron, seated beside him.
“Succinct as ever, Uri,” Metatron chuckled. “Unfortunately, my report, too, is succinct. There is little to say that has not already been said of my duties—God speaks, I listen and convey His word as required. You all know what you’re doing without me sticking my oar in. God is pleased with you all.”
“That’s good to hear.” Tzadkiel grinned. “Sometimes I wonder. What?” he asked as he took in the surprise on some of the faces of the Archangels seated at the table. “Our tasks aren’t exactly always pleasant, are they? I am Judgment and the Head of God’s Secret Police; I see a lot of depravity that you guys don’t.”
“Fair point,” Raphael agreed. “And my butt is getting sore. Let’s take a break.”
Raziel laughed and nodded. “All right. An hour?”
“Sounds good to me,” Raphael said and stood up, with the others following suit.
As the Archangels moved to talk to each other in small knots of two and three, Gabriel moved around the table to join Michael, who was looking at a cell phone with an expression of mild confusion. “Hey,” he said, feeling a little awkward.
“Hello, Gabriel.” Michael looked up at him, flashing him a small smile. “It is good to see you again. Are you well?”
“Aye, I’m good. You?”
“I am as well as can be expected.” Michael tucked the cell phone into his pocket. “Do you think this meeting will go on much longer?”
“No idea. You itching to run off, huh?” Gabriel watched Michael intently, noting the set of his shoulders and the slight furrow in his brow.
“Not in so many words, but I have duties to attend to.” Michael sighed. “I have much I need to do and none to help.”
“I’ll help.” Gabriel shrugged, trying for nonchalance even as he privately cheered at having been given an opening to spend time with Michael so quickly—and without having to do anything to maneuver the conversation around to the opening he wanted. “I mean, I can come and go and… stuff. It’d be good, though. I’ll help you out, and we can spend time together, yeah? It’s been ages since we did that, you know.”
“Forgive me.” Michael shook his head slightly. “I did not mean to distance myself from you all.”
“So, I’ll help you out with your stuff and come by tomorrow.” Gabriel nodded firmly, pressing the issue.
“I… all right. Yes, I would like that.” Michael flashed Gabriel a small smile, and Gabriel felt his heart give a little flip-flop at the expression. Michael really was gorgeous, Gabriel thought, keeping his thoughts tightly contained, deep in his mind where none of his companions would hear them. Michael was truly more beautiful than Gabriel had first thought.
Although they had known each other forever, seeing Michael now after so many years apart made Gabriel realize that he had always been drawn to him. He had always found Michael attractive, and, Gabriel realized with sudden insight, he had always been more than a little fond of Michael and wanted to be near him. Gabriel had not realized until that moment just how much he cared about Michael or just how much he had missed him. It felt so great that it was akin to being run over by a fleet of trucks loaded down with bricks. Gabriel took a slow breath to steady his pounding heart as he cast about mentally, trying to find something else—anything—to say to Michael.
Being part of an all-powerful, almost omniscient Brotherhood could, at times, be a trifle annoying, especially when they could hear each others’ thoughts quite clearly. Gabriel dismissed that with a quick shake of his head, raking his hands through his hair, and, inspiration failing him, settled on mundane topics of conversation in the hope of keeping Michael close.
“Where are you based these days?” Gabriel asked.
“Oregon.” Michael pulled a business card from the inner pocket of his coat and handed it to Gabriel. “The address is there.”
Gabriel looked at the card, quirking an eyebrow in curiosity. “Venatores Inc.” He looked at Michael then at the card again. “What’s this about, then?”
“I will tell you tomorrow.” Michael shot a quick look at the others standing not far away, talking animatedly. “I have been working on this for the last three hundred years. I will give Raziel a summary to include in the records he keeps, but I am not comfortable discussing it at such a formal meeting.”
“Does God know?” Gabriel asked.
“Yes. I hope I have not disappointed Him too much.” Michael bit his lip, looking down at the floor. “Apologies. I do not mean to speak of my shortcomings.”
“Michael,” Gabriel began, but he was cut off by Raziel calling the meeting back to order. Tucking the card into the pocket of his jeans, he returned to his seat.
Gabriel was not at all surprised when Michael left as soon as possible. Once the formalities were out of the way, Michael gave a shallow bow, handed Raziel a thick envelope, and vanished with the soft rustle of feathers that was the trademark sound of the arrival or departure of an angel. Raziel opened the envelope, reading the contents carefully, his expression impassive, and without a word, replaced the sheaf of papers into the envelope and attached it to the records book with a brief brush of his power.
Gabriel watched Michael go, making sure to keep his expression neutral. He felt a pang in his Grace as Michael left and a yearning to follow him, to find some excuse to spend more time with him. He wanted to make up for lost time and be with Michael now, talk to him without fighting or arguing. Gabriel was not entirely sure that Michael would be as attracted to him as he was to Michael, but Gabriel, never shy or one to err on the side of caution, decided that he would do what he could to find out if Michael would be open to something more than friendship… perhaps something like a relationship.
Mentally, Gabriel shook himself and forced himself to pay attention to the rest of the Brotherhood.
“So,” Raziel said, looking up as he closed his book, “how are things with everyone outside of duty?”
Conversation became more relaxed with that question, Gabriel listening intently as the Archangels talked about the things they’d seen, humans they’d met, their loves, lives, joys, sorrows, and losses. He laughed with them and felt once again that shared comradeship and companionship that came with being part of a small, tightly knit group of beings, bound together by love, power, Grace, and shared experience.
Finally, Tzadkiel turned to Gabriel, idly tearing the paper label off a bottle of beer. “What about you, Gabe? What have you been up to?”
“Apart from work?” Gabriel grinned as he lit a cigarette. “Took in two orphans some years back. Mira and John. They’re good kids.”
“How old are they?” Haniel, Archangel of Love, asked.
“Mira’s nearly twenty-five now. She’s a spirited lass.” Gabriel chuckled fondly. “John’s twenty-one. He’s a quiet lad. Very shy.”
“You and Michael and your strays,” Raphael teased.
“Please, Healer. Like you wouldn’t adopt an orphan who needed you?” Metatron asked.
“No way, bro.” Raphael shook his head. “I’ve got too much to do without that as well. No, I’ll leave that to the sappy and warlike ones of us.”
“They are fine people,” Samael said. “Gabriel has every reason to be proud of them. He has raised them well. They call me Uncle Sammy,” he added, a broad grin on his handsome face.
There was a chorus of fond “awws” at that. Everyone knew that Samael found it difficult to connect with others, even those of their own kind. Being the Archangel of Death meant that he was often feared and that fear led to his being avoided. All the Archangels tried to soften things for their quiet, sensitive companion, but they were not always successful.
“They like you,” Gabriel said. “John wants to take you horseback riding when you’re free.”
“I would be honored,” Samael said sincerely.
“Why don’t you drop in tomorrow?” Gabriel smiled at Samael. “I’ll be out all day, and I know your company would be welcome to ’em.”
Samael’s smile broadened. “Then I shall be happy to. Thank you, Gabriel.”
Gabriel nodded, taking a drink from his beer. “Anytime, Sammy. You’re always welcome, you know that.”
“Do we get to meet them?” Metatron asked.
“Aye, if you want. I’d be honored to introduce you all.” Gabriel grinned. “Let me know when you want to meet ’em, and we’ll sort something out.”
There was a chorus of nods, and the conversation moved on to other subjects, growing more lewd, boisterous, and raucous as more alcohol was consumed.
It was after midnight when Gabriel left the cave and the meeting, hugging his companions tightly in farewell and promising to keep in touch. He returned in good spirits to his house in Wisconsin—one of many he owned around the world—and his adopted children.