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Chapter 2, Part 2



      A muffled sob. She rolled onto her side, burying her head in her arms. Stephen stared as another wing joined the first. Her spine, a trembling chain dimpled into a back the color of soft cream, arched as the two pinions rose above her. He could see for himself now that they were attached. Very attached.
      "My God," he whispered again, then brushed her shoulder. "Please! Please... don't cry. Are you hurt? Where does it hurt?"
      She was still shaking so he chanced stroking her back between the wings. One of them sliced over his head so sharply he ducked.
      She stared at him and any doubts he might have entertained about her vanished. Her face was smooth and too finely pored for any creature born under the sun, and her eyes were not only the color of gold, but had the same metallic sheen. Ringed with tears they reflected the light too perfectly, and in them he saw himself, a grey silhouette against sodium yellow light.
      "You!" she said, her voice a soft, torn soprano. "You're human!"
      "I'm sorry to have to admit it... but yes. That I am." He reached out to her, then stopped as she flinched. "My name is Father Bann, Stephen Bann. Did you hurt yourself?"
      "Nowhere you could heal," she said, and the sorrow in her voice ill became it.
      The awkward silence vanished with the susurrus of the wind and Stephen frowned as the cool air pricked his cheekbones. Reminded abruptly of their vulnerability in the open, he stood and offered her his hands. "We need to leave here, get you someplace warm where you won't be seen."
      The woman—angel—nodded wearily and slid her cold hands into his. He was surprised at how little she weighed though he knew he shouldn't have been. If she wasn't the product of a platonic Heaven she still flew, and even the birds of Earth were hollow-boned.
      The angel shivered when he touched her, and reluctant as he was to let her walk alone Stephen tried to minimize any accidental contact. He coaxed her beneath the oak tree, watching with a kind of quivering interior silence as the moss brushed over the feathered arches; her way of moving them entranced him, as if they were another set of arms, as agile as her first. Each feather seemed as mobile as a finger, flexible and heavy. Were they actually heavy, or was it only an illusion?
      He led her down the ditch and out onto the campus grounds, to his building. He opened the door, turned to warn her but she was already stepping through, her wings tucked tightly to her back. In the cool darkness of the brick classroom, she looked utterly out of place and Stephen hastened to the narrow stairwell. He suppressed the urge to glance over his shoulder to see how she was handling the enclosed space.
      The door to the dormitory upstairs was unlocked, as always. He'd kept the lamp on in his absence but the room was cold.
      "Have a seat. I'll get things warmed up."
      Stephen flicked the space heater on, then crouched beside the fire and tossed a few starter logs on the grate. With the iron in hand, he turned on the gas until the kindling caught, then stacked a few larger logs in a cross pattern. The aromatic scent of resin wafted to his nose and the heat dried his face as he worked, long past when the fire actually needed his intervention. At last, he turned.       He'd almost managed to convince himself he'd been dreaming but she remained undeniably real, somehow more believable sitting on his battered dark green sofa with her knees pressed together and the granny square afghan Tom Vasquez's mother had given him for Christmas wrapped around her thin shoulders. Her wings rose behind her, catching the firelight in their delicate feathers. Her hair fell in limp waves to her knees, and she was trembling.
      "Lady, how can I help you? Why are you here?" He cleared his throat. "I'm not... accustomed to miracles." And, without knowing why he added it, "You'll forgive me if I'm coarse?"
      "You cannot help it." Her voice shook, fragile. "You're human."
      Stephen nodded after a moment. "Yes. And you... an angel."
      Her head drooped. "I was."
      "How can you be anything else?"
      "I have no halo."
      "But you still have wings. And God knows you're not human." Stephen frowned. "You didn't intend to come here. Who sent you?"
      She laughed, a sharp bark that sounded far too close to a sob. "Oh... just the Archangel." And then she began to cry in earnest, not the soft disheartened things on the asphalt of the parking lot, but paroxysms of grief so intense Stephen longed to reach out to her. Instead he stood jerkily and made his way to the kitchen. The cooler air made him twitch as he set a pot to boiling and brought out two mugs. He poured two packets of hot cocoa into them, then the water. A few minutes later he set a tray with both mugs on the coffee table, wary of its one short leg, and offered one to her.
      The angel gathered in a shuddering breath, lifting wet eyes to the mug. "What... what is it?"
      "It's hot cocoa. It's soothing, warm. Drink."
      "We don't need to drink that often...."
      "Well, you need to drink now. Please, just take it."
      Rolling her lower lip beneath her teeth, she nodded and wrapped her small hands around the mug. Her first sip appeared to agree with her, and the flicker of a pink tongue-tip appeared over her lip, wiping away the foam.
      Stephen sat with one elbow braced against the coffee table, pressing backward on it to keep it from rocking. He stared resolutely at the fire, listening as her irregular breathing steadied. He closed his eyes. Of all the people in the world, he would have had to be the one to discover an angel, he who had run to the priesthood in defiance of God.
      God, Stephen decided, had a wicked sense of humor.
      "My name is Asrial," she said.
      He glanced at her face; she was staring at the fire, lashes lowered over glowing eyes. "Asrial," he repeated. He cleared his throat. "I... hadn't thought there to be female angels. In... in Heaven."
      "Why not?" she asked, her voice still brittle. She looked at him, delicate brows arched.
      "There's no mention of them in the Bible."
      "The Bible?"
      Stephen did stare at her, then. "The book by which we know God. The one written by the prophets and apostles. You know, the people who actually talked to God and Jesus Christ, and angels."
      "Oh." One of Asrial's thin shoulders lifted in a sort of shrug; her wing moved fluidly in conjunction. "I knew that some of our number had been to Earth, but I didn't know humans had written about it."
      "And you know nothing of the Son of God."
      Her polite gaze continued to rest on him. "He came to men, not to angels. Why would I?"
      "Why indeed," Stephen murmured. He cleared his throat. "So why did you drop into my backyard, if I may?"
      "I didn't drop," Asrial said haughtily, and then hesitated. "I Fell."
      "Fell? From Heaven?" Stephen sat up, leaving his mug on the table. "You're not...one of Hell's, are you?"
      "No!" She cringed. "At least, I don't think so."
      "Don't think so? Don't you know those things?" He had no idea how to read her body language. Her wings added an element he couldn't intuit and her face and motions conflicted so utterly he couldn't tell if she was angry or miserable or confused or contemptuous, or all of them at once.
      "If I would have Fallen to his level, I would be in Hell right now, not on Earth," Asrial said, her voice growing more certain.
      "So what are you doing here?"
      "I... I don't know!"
      "Maybe you should start from the beginning, then," Stephen said. As her mouth tightened and she looked away, he added, "You might as well. I need to know if I'm going to help you at all."
      "I don't need—"
      "Don't you?" he interrupted.
      He could read her face then: crestfallen, with her chin sinking toward her chest. "You are human."
      "And you're an angel. We've established that much... keep going." Asrial glanced at him, and Stephen spread his hands. "It's a joke! Please. Go on."
      "I made the Archangel angry by suggesting that God had mercy for... for the Great Betrayer."
      "He does?" Stephen asked, realizing suddenly she could have asked God directly.
      "Oh, He must. I found a place where all the halos of the Fallen ones are still waiting, kept living. Why are they kept, if not against the day they may reclaim them?"
      "Kept... living?"
      "Oh!" She lifted her hands. "You really don't know anything, do you?"
      "Bear with me, lady. I'm a fallible mortal, you know."
      She stopped and eyed him and he grinned. Wrinkling her nose, Asrial said, "Halos are... well, a kind of living extension of your soul. They can't ordinarily exist apart from you."
      "So you found the repository for the halos of all of Hell's denizens and decided this meant that God would one day gather them back to His breast," Stephen said. "And then... you told the Archangel and it upset him. Did you know it would upset him?"
      "Well... I suppose."
      "Why did you tell him, then?"
      Asrial blinked her great golden eyes: the first time, he realized, that she had. "Because he was talking of coming to Earth to make war on them."
      Stephen's hand blindly groped for the mug, dragged it back into reach. He wished there was something stronger in it. "Pardon?"
      "War," she repeated. "The final battle. As was inevitable. Surely even humans know about that?"
      "Not that part," Stephan said. "The 'on Earth' part."
      "Oh!" she said. "The Archangel will not let the Fallen into Heaven to war... and refuses to go to Hell to fight. So it must be on Earth, you see."
      Dragging his composure back together from its shatter, Stephen said, "So the Archangel was making war plans and you interrupted him with the news that God's mercy would prevent him from having to tear up the Earth. And then?"
      "And then he struck me and my halo ripped off, and I Fell." She looked down at her lap where her fingers chafed the mug's walls.
      "So you didn't Fall at all... Michael Pushed you," Stephen said dryly. "Interesting to see that some things are typical to both human and angelic nature."
      When the silence drew on too long, Stephen looked up and found Asrial staring at him, her mouth ajar. He chuckled sadly and reached up to press it closed, but stopped himself a few inches away. "Ah... and you not expecting that. Perhaps angels and humans have more in common than either of us know."
      "Pushed," she whispered. "No... I must have deserved it."
      "Did you? For pleading that one should forgive God's enemies? Turn the other cheek? Isn't God love everlasting? What exactly did you do wrong, Asrial?"
      She bent forward over her mug, one hand stealing from its wall to clasp the edge of the afghan looped beneath her wings and over her shoulders. "I don't know," she said, her voice soft, almost inaudible. "But I must have done something. God would not have let it happen had it not been His will."
      "Then trust in it," Stephen said, not quite able to believe he was saying it; much less that he was saying it to an angel. He stood, collecting his mug and the tray. "You must be tired. There's a bed in the next room... you can rest there."
      "I shouldn't stay," she said half-heartedly.
      "And where would you go?" Stephen asked, suddenly tired of watching those feathers rub against one another, the swell and fall of her chest and back, the smell of her, like frankincense. "It's not close enough to Christmas for me to pass you off as someone dressing in costume... if anyone would even believe your wings were fake. I hate to say it, but you wouldn't be safe wandering around."
      "Safe?" Asrial asked. "What does it matter now? And who would hurt me?"
      "It's a different world these days. We're not used to believing anymore, and we hate anything that tells us we might be wrong in our unbelief. Just... trust me on this one." Stephen stepped back as she rose from the sofa and placed her mug on the tray. "The bed is that way."
      The angel ducked through the door to his tiny bedroom, the afghan dragging behind her on the floor. He followed her and stood in the door frame, watching her settle on the bed; chest down, wings splayed upward and outward, their long primaries and secondaries drooping over the frame and falling to the floor like soft, shaped silk. He cleared his throat.
      "I'll be in the front room if you need anything. If I'm not here when you wake up you can assume I'm in school. We're on exam schedules so I'll be back around noon."
      She stared over her shoulder at him. Stephen managed a smile and said, "Sleep well, then."
      He closed the door. And his eyes. And rubbed his forehead. The lost look on her face clenched a knot in his stomach. He busied himself with cleaning the mugs and the pot he'd used to heat the water, and the sink, and the spoons... and even the window sill above the sink. Outside the stars were still lit.
      It could be worse, Stephen decided as he stretched out on the couch, his feet hanging off the edge and an overstuffed crocheted pillow under his head. She could have been hurt, and what would a doctor have thought of those wings? He found a chuckle somewhere in himself. For the first time in seventeen years, a woman would be waiting for him when he got home, and wasn't that just a joke? A beautiful, terrible one, everything he'd come to expect from life. He reached blindly for the rosary on the table and dragged it close, but only reached the word "grace" before falling asleep.



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