Unsurprised, Drake stared up at Jordan. The result was no less than Drake expected, no less than he had received multiple times before. Absolution by the council hadn’t helped then, and it didn’t help him feel better now.

“Then whose fault was it?” Drake asked, knowing the answer but unable to keep from voicing his despair. The compassion in Jordan’s sky blue eyes didn’t ease the pain.

“You are aware of what cannot be changed. There is no fault. It just is.”

Drake shrugged, a habit he’d picked up from the humans he spent his entire existence protecting. The motion flexed his wings, and the dark feathers shimmered even in the low light of the Hearing Hall as he pulled them closer to his body. He dropped his gaze, hyperaware that his attitude set him apart from the other guardian angels even more than his appearance. Among them blonds tended toward light-colored wings and brunet to dark. As far as Drake had seen, only he sported platinum blond hair and feathers so black they glinted blue in bright light, and he was positive he was the only one worried about remembering those he’d watched and lost.

Drake hated to admit it, but Jordan was right—some things just were. Too many things, but Drake didn’t understand why human suicide had to be one of them. He turned and left the presence of the Angelic Council without further comment. He felt Jordan’s eyes fixed on his back until the doors closed behind him.

Ralph stood there, his strawberry blond hair curling over his ears and forehead, pink wings folded tightly against his back, each blush pink feather tinted along the edge with a slightly darker color and speckled throughout, like the freckles sprinkled over his upturned nose and fair shoulders. Drake thought Ralph had the most beautiful wings. He wondered vaguely if thinking so made him odd. He seemed to always think about things no one else cared about. Concern showed in Ralph’s blue eyes.

“Are you alright?” he asked, his voice soft, as another angel entered the hearing room just vacated by Drake. Wishing he could sit down in the middle of the floor and wail out his hurt and anger like a human child, Drake managed to remain in control, even giving Ralph a small smile. Drake remembered when Ryan was two, he’d often given in to such vocal protests much to the despair of his mother. Who could have guessed that the sweet-faced young woman, so quick to scoop up her crying toddler, would turn into a woman who would help drive her teenage son to suicide? Drake’s head hurt from the unfairness of knowing Ryan was mistreated for something he couldn’t control. Despite Drake’s smile, Ralph must have read something of what he felt on his face. He reached out to grip Drake’s bicep briefly, in what angels considered an extreme show of emotion and support.

Drake sighed, another human habit. “I’ll be alright. Time will see to that. What are you doing here?”

Seemingly reassured that Drake wasn’t going to give in to despair and do something crazy like retire to corporeal form, Ralph smiled. “Zyn passed.”

Drake paused in their walk down the long hallway to study Ralph’s face. “Natural death?” he asked.

Ralph smiled. “Not exactly, though Zyn was a hundred and two.”

“He didn’t die in his sleep?” Drake closed his eyes, briefly trying to imagine watching over a person who lived so long.

“Not him. Waterskiing accident.”

Drake’s eyebrows rose. “Waterskiing?”

Ralph laughed. “I know, perhaps I should have intervened in his going, but at a hundred and two, I couldn’t deny him.”

Drake frowned. “Are you called to judgment?”

Startled, Ralph frowned. “No. Jordan asked me to act as courier for the AIC while I wait for my next charge. Could be awhile, but I don’t mind. It is nice to have something to do.”

The arched ceiling-to-floor windows on the outside wall of the hall let in the bright sunlight. The ceilings were so high, angels flew overhead intent on some mission or another. Drake never had figured out what they did all day. Despite the hardship of being a protector, he was glad flying paperwork around wasn’t his eternal fate.

“Really? What do they need a temporary courier for?”

Ralph shrugged. “He said something’s coming up and he needs a courier he can trust. I asked if that meant there were angels he didn’t trust. He told me not to be silly.” Ralph rolled his eyes, his dimples showing in his cheeks briefly.

“That’s true; Jordan is Jordan. Maybe being Head Angel in Charge makes a guy flaky after a while.” They reached the huge double doors that stood open to the outside. The beautiful grounds spread out before them, well-manicured, the grass green and unblemished. In the distance, beyond the darker hills, the purple mountains rose on the horizon.

“I suppose you are headed for your perch?” Ralph didn’t look pleased.

“Ryan was a good man; he deserves someone to remember him as he was, and not with the distorted view of those who drove him to his death. It costs nothing for me to do so for a little while.” Drake looked at Ralph’s hand gripping his arm in what amounted to a second embrace. Drake wondered if he should be concerned by Ralph's extreme show of emotion, but when he peered into the other angel's honest round eyes, nothing seemed amiss. 

Unable to handle more than his own troubles, Drake let the moment slide away.

“Don’t get so lost in your remembrance you fall off your shelf.”

Drake spread his wings to their full span, not as wide as many other angels, but the silky black feathers gave back the light with a blue shimmer. He spared a glance at them over his shoulder; he supposed they were beautiful. “Unlike some, I have a safety net.” He made little effort to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Ralph didn’t let go of Drake’s arm, studying him with a grim expression. “Make sure you don’t fail to use it, should the need arise.”

Drake doubted he could keep the others from worrying over him considering the bad luck of having his last ten charges commit suicide. His record was unprecedented as far as he knew. Only Jordan was aware he’d specifically requested to watch over gay males. They required a lot of work. While things in their world were improving for them, progress came at a snail’s pace and despair was too often their constant companion. Drake supposed that one day he would have to face the consequences of losing a charge to suicide once too often, but he hadn’t yet reached the end of his endurance. Drake didn’t share his thoughts. He returned the solid grip on his arm with a reassuring squeeze of his own, before he took to the sky with a single push of his wings.

The air of Home was like crystal, free of the pollutants that thickened the air of Earth. Drake discovered flying under the clear sky made remaining depressed impossible. Instead of the dark final moments of Ryan’s short life, Drake found himself focusing on the highlights. By the time he settled onto his shelf, high on the sheer rocky sides of one of the mountains, Drake’s heart was lighter than it had been in a long time. He believed Ryan deserved to be remembered as more than the heartbroken, despairing man who jumped to his death from a bridge. Drake closed his eyes recalling instead Ryan’s first breath, first smile, first step.

Little Ryan was learning to ride his bicycle without training wheels when the sound of someone clearing his throat brought an abrupt end to the memories playing through Drake’s mind. He opened his eyes with a sigh; usually no one bothered him during his meditation. There wouldn’t be another charge for him until the wait time was over. He wished they would leave him alone. Ralph stood on a narrow shelf beside the broader one Drake was using.

“Jordan sent me for you.” Ralph sounded breathless; he must have flown hard to get there.

Drake frowned. “Did they finally decide it was my fault?”

Ralph shook his head. “No nothing about that. It’s Noah. He’s resigned his charge, requested to go corporeal. I think Jordan is going to ask you to replace Noah. They cannot deny the request to corporeal. He’s already gone, Hawaii or somewhere, but his charge….”

Drake was on his feet. “Is unprotected.” He leaped off the ledge without a glance toward the ground. He flew with a strength that soon left Ralph far behind, and when he strode into the hearing room for the second time that day, he was alone.

“I’ll do it.” The words burst forth as soon as he stopped in front of the council table. Jordan frowned.

“We need to tell you….”

“Nothing. Someone is unprotected. I have nothing to do but sit around on a rock, thinking. I can think and work. Is it in the stars for this charge to be without a guardian? If not, then there is no time! Send me, now.”

Jordan stood, his wings spread to their full span. He was an impressive sight with his golden hair and gold-tipped, blindingly white-feathered wings. “He is correct.” Jordan’s words silenced the murmur that rose up against the unprecedented happenings. “He goes.”