Gabriel watched as his troops bowed, turned, and walked toward the various buildings of the shantytown that had sprung up on Oregon’s eastern border. The town was named Hope and was relatively young, only fifty years old. The buildings all had a temporary look to them, made as they were out of rusting corrugated iron and rough-hewn wood, some with flat roofs, others with sloped ones. Some of the windows had glass, others did not. There was a slapdash, “good enough” atmosphere to the place, as if whoever had built it had done so in a hurry and then not cared to make any improvements.
Gabriel’s thoughts were a jumble of sadness and anger, weighted with regret. So much death and destruction caused by one man—Bob Taytton—whose narcissism had led to him making a deal with a Fallen One and opening portals to Hell. So many demons had come through to Earth and wrought havoc, and it had taken years to not only close all the portals, but to eradicate the demons. In all his immortal life, Gabriel could not remember any war causing so much pain and violence. He sighed to himself and shook his head. It was over now; that, at least he was certain of. The years of the war and Bob Taytton’s plans were behind them, and everyone—human, angelkind, monster, and yes, even demon—could move on.
Gabriel sighed once more and turned toward the admin building, an unattractive structure. The concrete bricks were rough and pitted with chips and holes, and had seen better days. The doors were painted green, which clashed with the rusted metal and gray brick.
Rain fell, a persistent drizzle that formed muddy puddles and slowly soaked through clothing. Not far away, beneath a broad plastic awning, a group of children were playing jump rope, and the sight gave Gabriel pause.
“They can still be happy, even after all they have endured.”
“Shateiel.” Gabriel smiled at the mental voice of his second-in-command. “I said you were dismissed.”
“I’m going, sir. I just thought I’d say that it’s good to have the conflict over with.”
“Amen.” Gabriel turned and faced his lieutenant. “Go to Agrat. Take a few weeks off, yeah? You deserve it.”
Shateiel bowed. “Thank you, sir. And what will you do now?”
Gabriel sighed. “See Michael. My kids are gone. A lot of Venatores are too.” The two human children he had adopted so many years ago had died not long into the war, killed while harvesting food, and Michael’s special unit comprised of humans and monsters had had their numbers thinned during the fighting.
“It has been seventy years, General. Human life spans are short.”
Gabriel nodded in agreement and clapped Shateiel’s shoulder with his left hand. “I know. Go home, Lieutenant. You’ve earned a period of R and R.”
Shateiel bowed again and vanished.
Gabriel turned away from the spot where Shateiel had been standing, and walked toward the admin building. He could feel Michael within it, hear the constant hum of his power’s aura and identify it easily within the morass of white noise that was the Heavenly Host. The sound and sensation were audible to angelkind only; it was their connection to the Source, to God, to Heaven, and to each other.
Taking long, measured strides, his chain mail clinking as he walked, Gabriel nodded to those humans who greeted him as he entered the building. His mud-spattered blue wool cloak billowed and swirled around his legs as he marched down the corridor, the broad silver-and-gray fur trim at the neck ruffling as he walked.
It had been six months since Gabriel had seen Michael, and he missed him terribly. The only thing that prevented him from running down the corridor was decorum—the Archangel of War should not be dashing hither and yon like a lovestruck teenager. Even if that was what he was—well, minus the teenager part.
Humans were well aware of angels now—what they did, who they were, that they existed and lived on Earth—thanks to the media’s reports of the war, which alternated between gushing and respectful, and horrified and somber. The war had taken seventy years to end, and now, finally, in the year 2082, it was over. Gabriel was tired, weary of decades of constant fighting and very much looking forward to taking a break and spending time with Michael. Preferably, that time would be spent in bed, and preferably, they would be naked.
His thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt as Michael emerged from a room to Gabriel’s left. Michael wore a loose, sleeveless dark-red robe over his trousers and leather-and-steel jerkin, his sword and dagger belted at his waist. His hair was longer now, sweeping down his back, and braids at his temples kept it out of his face. His boots were scuffed and worn, and there was the air about him of one who had seen too much despair and pain in too short a time.
Michael turned, and he fixed his dark eyes on Gabriel’s own. The two of them stared at each other, and Gabriel could see the emotions rapidly chasing each other across Michael’s face. He could only imagine his own face was much the same. Six months apart had felt like six centuries, and Gabriel ached for his lover so much that it was almost physically painful.
“Gabriel?” Michael’s voice was soft, full of desperate hope.
Gabriel nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Then he was moving, closing the distance between them and grabbing Michael in a rough embrace, kissing him with hunger and need. Michael kissed him back, small noises of want coming from him as he threaded his hands through Gabriel’s hair and pushed Gabriel back against the wall.
“Gabriel,” Michael murmured between frenzied kisses. “Gabriel. You are not hurt?”
“No, ’m not hurt.” Gabriel nipped Michael’s lower lip. “I missed you. Fuck, so much.”
“Language,” Michael scolded, gasping as Gabriel nuzzled his neck and nibbled. “Gabriel….”
“Let’s go home,” Gabriel murmured roughly into Michael’s ear.
“Are the doors to Hell all closed?” Michael asked in a voice that trembled with desire.
“Aye. And they’ll stay closed for good. Raziel’s putting the finishing touches on that.”
“Thanks be to God,” Michael said piously, and then he moaned as Gabriel’s tongue snaked around the shell of his ear. “Gabriel. You said home?”
“Aye. Yours or mine?”
“Why not ours?” Michael’s hands were fisted in the wool of Gabriel’s cloak. “Our island.”
“Best idea yet.” Gabriel kissed Michael’s mouth once more and then moved them, not caring who saw them or what anyone thought. Right now, his need, his desire, his everything was Michael.
They emerged in the bedroom of the palatial house on the private island Gabriel shared with Michael. The birds sang lustily from their perches in trees just outside the house, and the windows were open to let in a fresh breeze. The scent of ripe fruit and the salt brine of the sea were heavy in the air, but Gabriel was aware only that Michael was in his arms, clutching him, kissing him with fevered desperation that erased all thought.
Michael was tugging at the fastenings of Gabriel’s cloak, and Gabriel groaned, shoving off the robe Michael wore, fumbling with buckles and laces that held the leather jerkin closed. As Michael made a frustrated sound, Gabriel laughed, breaking the kiss and releasing Michael only long enough to shuck his cloak and pull off his chain mail.
“Better?” he asked as he kicked the chain mail to one side.
“Much.” Michael grabbed Gabriel and kissed him again, hard and hungry, slipping his hands beneath the rust- and sweat-stained gambeson Gabriel wore.
“Y’know,” Gabriel panted as he finally got Michael’s jerkin open, “we could just use our power to get naked.”
Michael stilled, breaking the kiss. His expression was sheepish and, Gabriel thought, utterly adorable. “I confess I did not think of that.”
Gabriel laughed, waving a hand and using his power to get them both naked, not caring where their armor ended up. “You are so adorable and I missed you so bloody much.”
“Language, Gabriel,” Michael said.
“Missed that too. The scolding.” Gabriel reached for Michael, and Michael moved into his arms and clung to him. It felt like bliss, holding Michael like this, tight against him, skin to skin with nothing between them. It felt like home. Gabriel kissed Michael’s cheek as he ran his fingers through Michael’s long black hair.
“I like your hair,” he said.
“I need to have it cut.” Michael hummed. “I have not yet had the leisure.”
“You look all primitive warrior of China. From the Tang Dynasty.” Gabriel ducked his head to kiss Michael’s neck. “It’s sexy.”
“You are odd, Gabriel.”
“And you love it.”
“I do.” Michael tilted his head to give Gabriel better access to his neck. “Perhaps we should move to the bed?”
“Mm.” Gabriel pushed Michael back and nipped warm skin as they collided with the mattress. Michael lay back, wriggling to get comfortable, and Gabriel followed him, covering Michael’s body with his own, kissing his way down the line of Michael’s neck to his shoulder. As Michael wrapped his legs around Gabriel’s hips, bucking up into him, Gabriel growled, caressing every inch of Michael’s body that he could reach with his hands. He slicked his cock with a thought, and as Michael arched into him, small noises of pleasure coming from him, Gabriel slowly thrust into Michael’s body.
“Fuck!” Gabriel gasped as tight heat gripped his cock, as he felt Michael’s hands go straight to his wing joints. He started to move, thrusting hard and slow, shifting to kiss Michael’s mouth as Michael moaned louder.
It didn’t take long. They had been too many months apart, and their desire and need for each other was too great. Michael clenched his hands in Gabriel’s wing feathers as he gave voice to a low cry, his muscles tightening around Gabriel’s cock. As Gabriel, groaning, wrapped a hand around Michael’s cock and stroked, Michael came. A few more hard thrusts and Gabriel was coming as well.
He collapsed on top of Michael, panting against his neck. “I missed you,” Gabriel murmured against Michael’s sweat-damp skin.
“I missed you too,” Michael said in a very soft voice. “More than you could possibly imagine, Gabriel.”
“I can imagine quite a lot.” With great reluctance, Gabriel pulled out of Michael’s body and rolled off him. “I need a shower.”
Michael smiled at him. “You did not take the time prior to seeing me?”
“No.” Gabriel rolled onto his side. “I were too eager to see you to bother. Besides, now you can join me in the shower and we can have shower sex.”
Michael’s expression became confused. “Shower… sex? How is that possible?”
Gabriel chuckled. “Trust me, dear one.”
“Always,” Michael said immediately. “I simply do not understand how that could be possible. Or enjoyable.”
Michael’s naïveté was one of the many things Gabriel found adorable about him. So he smiled a gentle smile and touched Michael’s cheek with one hand. “I’ll show you.”
“As you say.” Michael turned to kiss Gabriel’s palm. “I confess that I am reluctant to be too far away from you.”
“Same here.” Gabriel sighed. “At least this war’s done. Until the next one.”
Michael sighed. “Yes. You are certain that all the gates and portals are closed?”
“Raziel took care of it,” Gabriel said, hoping to reassure Michael. “He was making sure they couldn’t be reopened when I left.”
Michael nodded and was quiet for several moments. Then he asked Gabriel a question that made Gabriel feel ten times older than he was.
“Did you wish to visit the graves of your children?” Michael’s voice was cautious, and Gabriel let out a heavy, weary sigh.
“No,” he said, “no, I don’t. Their graves are in my heart, and no human-made memorial’s going to be good enough.” Gabriel didn’t yet feel able to discuss Mira and John.
“As you say.” Michael fell silent, gazing at Gabriel as he touched his chest.
“So, shower,” Gabriel said, changing the subject and sitting up.
Michael nodded. “Shower.”
“And shower sex,” Gabriel added with a wicked grin.
Michael blushed. “I… all right.”
“You are so adorable.”
“I am not.” Michael frowned.
Gabriel laughed and stood, offering a hand to Michael. “C’mon,” he said, “let’s go get wet.”
“ARE you done?” Uriel stood to one side, smoking a cigar.
Raziel, bronze light shimmering around him, stepped back from the burned-out and desolate remains of what had once been a town in central Paraguay. “I am now, yes.” The glow surrounding Raziel faded, and he walked up to Uriel, pulled his own cigarettes from the pocket in his jacket, and lit one. “That was the last one.”
“Finally.” Uriel frowned. “And we’re sure these aren’t going to pop open again?”
Raziel fixed Uriel with an offended look. “Are you trying to annoy me today?”
“I’m just making sure.” Uriel was unfazed by Raziel’s expression. “The Gates of Hell are supposed to be unbreakable, and look how that worked out.”
Raziel growled. “Those too are fixed.”
“Yeah. Now they are.” Uriel pulled Raziel into a hug. “Stop scowling. Your face will fix like that forever, and it’s not a face I want to wake up to every day.”
“You don’t sleep.” Raziel bit Uriel’s shoulder. “And you scowl more than anyone I know.”
“You love it.” Uriel ruffled Raziel’s hair, and then he sighed. “I just don’t want this shit to fly apart again for a damn long while. You can understand that, can’t you, Razzy?”
“Of course I can. You do not have to be so insulting when inquiring about my abilities to maintain these things, however.” Raziel still looked annoyed.
“I’m sorry. Forgive me?”
Raziel rolled his eyes. “You’re an insufferable bastard sometimes, but yes, I suppose I do.”
“Good.” Uriel grinned. “So we can report to Mikey that everything’s fixed and no more demons are coming out to try to own the world? At least, not through these doors.”
“We can.” Raziel took a long drag of his cigarette. “I am tired, Uriel. I hurt. Take me somewhere warm.”
Instantly attentive, Uriel tilted his head, looking into Raziel’s bright-blue eyes with concern. “Did you overdo it?”
“No. There were simply a great many portals and doors, and I’m tired. Is that okay with you?”
“Snippy.” Uriel wrapped his arms around Raziel and moved them to the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. “And sulky,” he continued as they emerged in the warm and lambent air of the tropics. “Sulky and bad-tempered. You must be tired.”
“Shut up.” Raziel tugged off his cloak, spread it on the sand like a blanket, and dropped down onto it in a graceless sprawl. “I’m hungry.”
“Fine.” Uriel gave up. “What do you want? I’ll go get it.”
Raziel pulled a pair of sunglasses out of the ether and slid them on. “I want a burger with extra cheese, fries, and a Coke bigger than my head. And later, ice cream.”
“Right, the junk food of the carbon apes. Gross, but okay. I’ll be right back.” Uriel shook his head as he teleported to the nearest fast-food restaurant.
He couldn’t hide that he was worried. Raziel and Tzadkiel had withstood the worst of closing up the portals and doors to Hell that had opened and allowed hordes of demons to run amok across the planet. Two Archangels to do the job, and it had barely been enough. Despite the warmth of the summer sun as Uriel walked across the parking lot and into the restaurant, he felt ice-cold. He didn’t want to think about how close he had come to losing Raziel.
The power of Mysteries and Secrets had been used too much, Uriel thought grimly as he ordered Raziel’s food. While he couldn’t argue that much of what Field Marshal Michael and General Gabriel needed was what Raziel’s power and knowledge could provide, Uriel still worried. As he paid for the food, Uriel decided to tell Michael that Raziel was going to be off duty for a month. Maybe two. Michael would argue, but Uriel wasn’t going to let him—or anyone else, for that matter, save for maybe God—deter him. Raziel needed a break.
They all did, Uriel realized as he moved back to Raziel. The fighting had been hard, and they had lost many people. Humans and monsters had died, angels too, and demons by the score. That it had taken seventy years to end did not sit well with the Archangel of Fire and Judgment. Uriel preferred short, bloody battles, and a lot of the fighting had required guerrilla tactics that were more the department of Tzadkiel and his Ophanim and Dominions.
“Here.” Uriel sat down beside Raziel and held out the paper bag with the burger and fries and the large Coke.
Raziel sat up and took them. “Thank you.” He hesitated a moment and then smiled. “And sorry for biting your head off.”
“It’s fine.” Uriel lay down on his side, propping himself up on one elbow. “You’re on a month-long break, by the way.”
Raziel quirked an eyebrow at him as he slurped down Coke.
“I’ve decided.” Uriel nodded. “And you won’t argue with me because you love me.”
“Since when has loving you stopped me from arguing with you?” Raziel looked incredulous. “That’s a ridiculous notion, Uriel.”
“Obviously.” Uriel rolled his eyes. “But you’ll do it, Razzy. Take a break, I mean.”
Raziel started eating his burger. Between mouthfuls, he nodded. “Okay.”
“Good.” Uriel fell silent, looking out at the sea as Raziel ate. It was peaceful here, he thought, no sign whatsoever that only very recently had there been a war that had encompassed the entire globe and changed the face of human society forever. There was no sign here of the poverty or food shortages; of the destroyed countries, towns, and cities; of the collapse of economies. Recovery was going to take a long time, he thought. Possibly longer than the war itself had.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Raziel said.
Uriel turned to look at him. Raziel had finished his food and sent the trash away with a thought, and Uriel hadn’t noticed. He smiled. “Good food?”
“Good food,” Raziel agreed. “What’s on your mind?”
“The world’s changed a lot,” Uriel said. “If humans thought they knew suffering before, they now know they had no idea. Their lot is a hell of a lot worse than it was before the war.”
“And you care about this because…?” Raziel’s expression was confused. “You don’t like humans.”
“No, but I hate seeing strong spirits downtrodden.” Uriel frowned. “Things are hard for them now. Harder than ever.”
“And they’ll bounce back.” Raziel touched Uriel’s shoulder. “They’re resilient, Uri. You’ll see. You’ll be amazed at how much humanity can rally together to help each other in times of crisis.”
Uriel grunted. “Maybe.”
“It will be okay.” Raziel smiled. “I have faith.”
“Glad one of us does.” Uriel shook his head. “I think I need a break too.”
“So we’ll stay here for a while.” Raziel gestured at the beach and the Gold Coast. “There’ll be houses and such. We’ll rent one and just spend the time on the beach.”
“I hate how ridiculous this makes me sound, but that is a very good idea.” Uriel chuckled ruefully. “Peace and quiet and watching these carbon apes of yours prove me wrong about them sounds like a damn good way to spend a month or so.”
“There, you see? Things are looking up already.” Raziel tugged Uriel down for a gentle kiss. “We’ll swim and relax and have loads of sex. It’ll be good.”
“I can live with that.” Uriel ended the kiss and gently brushed Raziel’s messy dark hair back from his face. “And you can dazzle me with your tenacious humans and their response to tragedy.”
“I expect to be eating a lot of expensive meals.”
“How do you figure that?”
Raziel smirked. “Because you made me a bet, centuries ago, that you’d take me anywhere I wanted for dinner whenever a human surprised you.”
Uriel laughed. “Okay, okay, lots of expensive meals. Maybe.”
“No maybe.” Raziel kissed Uriel again. “Definitely.”
“Brat,” Uriel muttered.
“I absolutely am,” Raziel said, stretching like a large, contented cat. “And I find that I can endure that with astonishing fortitude.”
“I’m so proud.” Uriel rolled his eyes then laughed.
“SHATEIEL!” Agrat raced out of their house in Indonesia and down the few steps to the lawn and the figure of her armored bondmate. He grinned at her, wrapping his arms around her as soon as she was close enough, swinging her around as he kissed her soundly.
“You’re okay?” Agrat asked, a little breathless after the kiss. She rested her hands on his shoulders as Shateiel set her down on her feet.
“Yes. I am uninjured.”
Agrat took his hand in hers and led him inside. “You should get changed,” she said. “And also shower.”
Shateiel laughed silently. “Do I smell?”
“A little.” She grinned at him. “Go.”
Shateiel bowed elegantly to her and headed off to wash and change out of his armor. He returned to the living room half an hour later with damp hair and wearing simple blue robes. Gracefully, Shateiel sat down on the sofa with a contented expression on his face.
“The doors and portals are closed?” Agrat joined him, tucking one leg beneath her as she got comfortable.
Shateiel nodded. “Not without loss, though. We lost many good souls in the fighting. Many humans and monsters, many of those who work for the Field Marshal. Many of our kind. But the portals are shut and sealed now. The General has given me time off for rest and recuperation.”
“As he should.” Agrat sighed. “I’m glad it’s finally over. It wasn’t an Apocalypse, no, but it was close enough.” She bit her lip, thinking hard before continuing. “I’m worried about Raphael.”
Shateiel quirked an eyebrow in surprise. “Why?”
“His lover was injured in one of the battles. He has not stopped fretting over him ever since.”
Shateiel blinked. “Raphael has a lover? I did not know that.”
Agrat shrugged. “Few do. I don’t think anyone did before all this—except for Haniel—but things got hectic. So when Israfel got injured, Raph was… not happy. Heartbroken is probably closer.”
“Israfel… Angel of Music?” Shateiel’s expression was one of complete astonishment. “Raphael is involved with Israfel?”
“Yes.” Agrat laughed softly at his reaction. “Surprised, huh?”
“Very.” Shateiel shook his head in wonder. “I would not have thought they were compatible. Israfel is… not the most intelligent of beings, and he is overfond of his liquor and his music-filled parties.”
“Israfel’s a rock star, you mean.” Agrat grinned as she reached over to run her fingers through Shateiel’s hair. “And yet, he and Raphael are very well matched. They adore each other. It’s very cute.”
“Remarkable.” Shateiel shook his head once more. “Who else knows of this?”
“Ishtahar, so probably Remi as well, now. Haniel, of course, as I said. Raphael’s assistants do too. Tabbris, Angel of Free Will, because he’s Israfel’s best friend. The humans we worked with over the years. I think that God would know too.” Agrat pursed her lips. “I always thought Michael was the most private of the Archangels, but I think Raphael outdid him here. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw the two of them together and realized they were involved and in love with each other.”
Shateiel opened his mouth in a soundless chortle. “I can imagine. Well, well. How about that.”
“Now things are over and everyone can start to heal and move on, I hope that those two will be okay. I think Israfel is likely to get impatient and frustrated if Raphael confines him to house arrest.” At Shateiel’s confused look, Agrat shrugged. “He didn’t want Israfel doing anything until the war was over. He said that Israfel’s tendency to go into the worst-hit parts of the planet and play music got him into more trouble than not. Israfel argued that music helped uplift the spirits of people and they needed it, so Raphael’s injunction was harming more than just him.”
“I am surprised Israfel was able to come up with such a good argument, considering.”
“He’s not an idiot,” Agrat said. “He’s just young and impetuous. He’s right about music, though. It’s his gift, after all. All music comes from him. Music does lift people’s spirits. But I know how Raph feels—having your beloved be injured and not be able to do anything about it except watch it heal and wait is frustrating.”
Shateiel touched her cheek. “I am uninjured now, wife.”
“I know.” She smiled, leaning into his touch. “But you haven’t always come home to me whole.”
“That is true.” Shateiel ran his fingers through Agrat’s long dark hair. “But I always come home.”
Agrat nodded, smiling. “And I am always grateful and glad when you do.” She moved closer, crawling into his lap. “Always,” she murmured against his lips, and Shateiel wrapped his arms tight around her.