Agony and Grace

I was born from agony.

The cherry red agony of impure metals, heated to the point of almost losing coherence, and a stiff-necked spirit bent by force and will to lay back on itself. It had been a fracturing, a multiplicity formed from what had been a proud singularity. Then beaten against itself into something more flexible than the singularity of crystal that it was. Heated, bent and folded again and again and again and then quenched, shocked back into layers of crystal. Apart from all logic, the weaker thinness, layered, beaten together with other weak sheets, taken through agony and shock, together became stronger than the old whole. Stronger, sharper, more flexible and more capable of surviving forces greater than itself.

So I should be used to this.

I really should.

It had been so comforting to work with someone who knew what she was doing again. To be a part of something bigger than just myself, and sweet to be going after big game again. And she was so sweet to know. I never told her that I'd formed a bit of nickle over the tail of the coin, giving both sides heads when we flipped to see who would hit the roof first because I wanted to work hard again. I also cared that she not be hurt. In that, perhaps, I was stupid.

Construction sites make great battle grounds. Muffle a bit of tile with a rag, toss, underhand and the fall-slide of the small weight sounds so much like a missed step. The Djinn and his poor underlings never knew what hit 'em as they ran towards the sound. I had no time, no numbers, so I simply stepped in behind the Djinn and slit his Vessel's throat. As soon as the blade left flesh, and the only one who would notice was gone, I sang my Song of speed, slipping away as all the paniced gunmen turned towards me and fired on each other. I melded back into the darkness and watched the humans stumble about on the roof, shooting at each other.

That's when I heard her tell that poor sot of a Seraph, "Beg me." in a voice which had lost all grace. That's when I knew the source and focus of her selfishness, the Darkness in her nature, and knew that there was no choice. To serve, I had to destroy what I had known. He was so young. So fresh, so stupid. But he was good, whole, in the given place he had. She would have taken him and pulled him away from his grace.

I gave her everything I had. Everything I was. Agony and making in one. The ending of a life is the framing of it, the completion of her choices and mine in mingling my life with hers. It was a brilliant fight, as she was fast, tough, and so flexible. She managed to hurt me good, and it was only my reflexive parry-thrust that rammed through her chest and through her heart and released her. A slightly different angle on the parry, a slick tile on the roof, and it would have been me.

Her blood dripped onto the concrete, along with the rain, spreading bright patterns on grey stone. It's just a Vessel. But my hand reached out and stroked white skin, so softly after the agony of the steel. It's over. She's dead. It's just a Vessel.

But I picked it up, anyway, and my stupid envelope of flesh protested as if it meant anything. The boys from Laurance hauled off the bodies from the other demons. Bad form, you know, to leave bodies lying about as humans are going to be meeting here in minutes. The L-men swarmed about like ants. But for one.

Cherry red hot agony, just on the edge of melting me down, and then the cool, cool hiss that always brings me back to myself. So cold, this.

He watched me with eyes still white around the edges. Poor kid. So scared. What's worse was she would have had him for lunch. Easy. And he knew it. She's the one who told him, in terms that would likely have Felled an angel with three times his experience. I heard her.

He fell to his knees before me. Damn.

"Th-th-thank you." he stammered.

"It's okay, kid. Get up..." I put a friendly hand on his arm and tugged him up. "We gotta get outta here. Too much heat coming down." He was still trembling. So cold. "Whatsser name, kid?"

"Aceris, sir."

I grinned then, this might even be fun, "Okay, Gilette. Welcome to Earthly duty... it's time to get while the getting is good."

"Gilette?" his voice was high with disbelief. "I'm no cheap razor, I'm Aceris, or at least Jonas Thompson, as that's my role here." Good. Better anger than self-pity.

"Oh. Hm. Okay. I won't call you Gilette then, Remington" And I turned to follow the others and was rewarded with a bark of laughter by Aceris.

The whole swarm of L-men moved into the night, and we set up a bonfire for the bodies. Nothing else to do with 'em, and I set her on the flames... no... it. It's just a Vessel.

"Where do you think she is?" Aceris asked, watching me closely. He needed to concentrate on something else.

"Perhaps in Hell, or if she was as I thought she was, she'd likely have another body waiting somewhere. Smart, she was. Smarter than me and my Heart inna box." I said, watching the flames and the smoke. It stung my eyes a bit.

I should be used to this.

"In a box?" he was giving me that look again.

"Hyup. Empty cartridge box."

"Not in a place of honor in Heaven?" Quite the change.

I looked at him, "Nope. No hifalutin' glow box for me. Or some of my brothers," I said quietly. "Emptiness is justa 'minder of what our job does to Creation."

Lucky for me, he had nothing to say to that.

Alvla, with his God-blessed cherubic eyes, watched both of us for every word of that conversation, a question wrinkling his brow. He didn't ask it. Feeling fey or maybe it was just vertigo, I reached into my pocket and tugged gently at that silken rope within, and came out with a thin rat's tail of pale blonde hair. "Maybe our Cherub can find out where she is."

I handed that pale blondness to Alvla, who looked at me first before taking it. It was a measuring look. I met it. His dropped first, to the lock of hair. He gathered himself and then *looked*. It was a look that saw beyond the corporal world and looked for the connections which bind us all to everything else that exists. He looked and from his expression, he did not see.

There was nothing. Nothing left but ash.

Alvla then turned that look on me.

What he saw was something I did not want to know. Nor what he might follow through connections which were not mine to give. So I took the slender blondness and tossed it into the flames. The strands caught and crumbled into glowing ash, and floated away on the heat of the fire.

His eyes followed the ashes. "No, I guess I can't," said his voice. Then his gaze swung back and said something very different to me.

I looked back at them, nodded, and then measured the young seraphim with my own eye. Alvla nodded and that was that.

I took 'em where they could get help locally, the Novalis doll. As folks were pretty beat up and she did a good job patching everyone up while giving us all a piece of her mind. She gave me a good, old-fashioned tongue-lashing because she was worried about me. I just smiled at her and forgot to listen. Eventually, they all bedded down for the night at the shelter and sleep filled the old building as the Chicago winds howled outside.

I slipped away.

The wind cooled me as I stepped out into the darkness, away from too friendly eyes, prying me apart like pulling a crab from its shell.

Away then.

Okay, so Red Moe's had every resemblance to a crab's shell, nothing beautiful or fragile about it, especially after Moe replaced all the furniture with stuff that just doesn't break when you whale someone over the head with it. But it had the least cut-down whiskey I could find in Town.

So I sat, paid my money and swallowed fire.

After a while, in bleary craftiness, I moved on to another speakeasy. Then another, swallowing a few drinks and then going out the door. Just let 'em try to find me while I was doing this, I thought in what little mental capacity I had left. Finally another place, with a piano player that I puzzled over as I drank. I remembered him from somewhere, where was it? He was good. Nearly good enough for me to pick up one of the sax'es by the piano and join him; but I had other goals in mind. Too much in mind. There was something else about him... but I couldn't be bothered.

I drank liquid fire until it didn't make me cry anymore. Finally my Vessel gave up fighting the daze and I passed out...

...and appeared in the Marches.

"What?!" I wasn't supposed to do that. Every other time, I just passed out from the alcohol into oblivion. Nothingness. Not here.

I groaned, folded my head in my hands and then sighed.

After a while I looked around in resignation. Slowly allowing recognition of the landscape seep back into my memory. That way was Heaven, that way Hell. All the important things only borders on the horizon, all the small things, everyday things, human concerns here right in front of me.

It'd been a long, long while. I hadn't really realized how long until now. The wings were like a burden on my back, until I stretched them and remembered their dynamic balance. The feeling of how they counter-balanced me so easily. I pushed away thoughts of flight. It had been a long time, and I didn't want to ruin this by crashing. Ruin this... Just perching on a rock felt right, the balance with the weight and waft of the wings an easy thing. The warm weight of chain was so familiar, though, so right even after so long. All five of my oaths hanging heavy and solid, warm and reassuring of what I was. The traditional two, the one which had brought me so much trouble, and the two that patched the troubles in various ways.

It's hard, sometimes, to balance letting no evil live and creating a chance for every being to choose the right. Guarding creators is a no-brainer, an easing when I don't have a chance to create. Learning, as well as I might, those that I have to kill eases the confusion as to wheither or not someone really is evil or not. Gives me the chance to offer them a choice, and if they choose wrong, as she chose wrongly, then I know what I have to do.

It must have been the alcohol or something, but it just didn't hurt quite as badly anymore. Or maybe it was just being here again. Something about the scent of the air, the spirit of the place breathing deep in lungs more real than real.

I stroked a chain quietly, watching sparkling dreams come to existance around me and fade quietly away. The few I watched surprised me a bit by matching my mood. Of loves lost or loves who chose to walk away.

A Reliever of a red as bright as flame came and circled me three times. I looked up at it and then touched my shoulder for it to perch if it wished. It chose, settled to my shoulder in a flurry of brilliantly colored wings. So colorful and bright amid the darkness of the shadow of my wings.

"Good Dreams, sir Malakite," it piped in fluting tones.

"Good Dreams citizen Reliever," I greeted it courteously. "How's the patrol goin'?"

"Well, sir. On the most part." It preened carefully, eyes watching me. I just looked back at it, with one eyebrow quirked. It chuckled and then nodded at the dreams around me. "Why do you hurt like that?"

I blinked at it and then frowned at it. It's eyes got just a bit wider, but to its credit, it stayed right where it was, listening. There are some angels that can't even do that to a Malakite frown.

It chirred softly, "You don't want to hurt me."

I had to laugh. It nodded, pleased with itself and perched quietly, bright wings trailing down my shoulder. So I thought a while about how to tell it why and what was happening with me. How to tell it to something that hadn't even touched Earth duty... that would be hard. But as I watched the dreams around me, perhaps it would know something.

"Well, you see, little guy, it gets hard down there. You care about people you shouldn't, and ya want to throw things at the people you should." I added in a mutter, "If they'd have the decency to get within range."

The reliever's eyes ripple-blinked. "But you feel guilty about these desires. Why?"

I blinked back, "Uhm... shouldn't I? Hitting the Good Guys ain't the right thing, is it..." and more softly, "... and loving the Bad Guys. They just don't do that in the movies..."

The Reliever coiled its tail around one of the chains that encircle Faber's torso. "They do it in Dreams, sometimes... but everything works out in the end."

I scritched the brightly feathered creature gently behind its ears and grinned, "In the movies? Or in Dreams?"

It flicked a wing, the light shimmering along it in fire-hues. "Here. In people's dreams."

I brooded quietly over its answer, touched by its faith that things would work out. I had no idea why or how or even what I needed to do, but its steadfastness was so sure and so oddly sweet after all the confusion. And if it had seen that many dreams...

It rubbed its head against my hand and I scritched it quietly. It looked at me, pleased looking, "Better?" It asked.

I nodded.

It preened red feathers, "Walk in Hope, Malakite."

I smiled quietly, "Fly in Faith, Reliever."

It took off, wings glimmering in the twilight, headed towards other dreams. I watched it until it had faded to nothing more than my imagination before I sighed, tucked and pulled corporeal reality back around me.

Felt like I pulled a vice onto my head. I moaned in protest. My Vessel was being shaken, none too gently. Brutally even as I tried to open gummy eyes. I saw only burlap, then felt bindings on my wrists and ankles. Bad. Very bad.

"He's coming to."

That's when I remembered where I'd seen that pianist before. With Caliah Lily, when I'd first met her in a Tether of Lust. I started to struggle at the memory.

"Drug him."

The stab of a needle deep into a thick muscle and I got the oblivion I'd been seeking on the way into the bar.

I just didn't want it any more.

I woke in a cell. I was solidly straitjacketted in, and to insure my safety they'd wrapped foot wide bands around both my shins and bucked them solidly tight. No thin bands for me to just strangle myself with.

I looked at the walls and sighed, wanting a drink. My mouth felt like some small mammel had decided to make a nest in it and brood and my head was pounding.

Worse yet. A lovely girl breathed softly in sleep on the padded floor in little more than fringes and bangles and makeup. Her soft arm lay across my legs in that tiny cell.

Right. A padded cell, with walls of soft velvet. It had to be Andrealphites. This was one of their little Toy Boxes, and that either a toy or a toy in training. This was going to be so not fun.

I resonated on her anyway and it hurt my head in more ways than one.

A runaway. A girl that broke her mother's heart, rebelled against father and various teachers at her school and then ran away to be a prostitute, all in the last year. The best things she'd done by her own feelings for herself were inextricably entwined. The rebellion had been against an abusive father and she'd tried to offer her mother the option of leaving. It hadn't worked.

She shouldn't have turned away from her teachers, as some of them would have listened as well; but so hurt from the Authority she'd wanted to love and trust the most, she'd just blasted them all and left. She knew it, too, regretted it with an ache that would make steel scream. I gritted my teeth as I saw whose Vessel it was that had greeted her at the busy train station when she'd first rolled into town, lost, confused, and exhausted. Who it was that offered her the job as a prostitute, from whom she'd accepted the offer that shamed her so deeply.


Oh Hell. She'd also rebelled against him. One of her shames and joys. So mixed up, this girl.

So possible to offer a choice. A hard one, perhaps, as I likely wouldn't get either of us out alive, not if this was the Tether, but still a choice.

What did I do? How could I be so stupid? Drunk and followed and bagged and jumped like a bloody novice in a nunnery. I deserved this and more, but she didn't, and I had to do what I could to get her out. Which was exactly what Avicinis wanted. A way to keep me here, to keep me from offing myself even if I found a quick way to do it, simply to see her through her choice.

I closed my eyes and then a laugh forced its way out. At least he wanted me. Wanted me in a really bad way. No. I shook my head. That way lay something I just did not want to even walk near. Instead, I concentrated on seeing what I had left. Someone had drained off all my essense. A wise precaution on their part, crippling on mine. I tried to go celestial and the band around my legs held me solid.

This was going to be so not-fun.

She woke up slowly, long limbs unfolding, and as she sat up, I saw that she was collared. A thin wire ran from the collar elsewhere. A bell rang down the hallway. She simply looked confused, rubbing at her face with her hands.

The door banged open, startling her badly. I watched as Avicinis walked in and then kicked me in the ribs. I grunted, but said nothing; and then he reached down and his hand cradled my jaw for a moment. Then I think I screamed as that touch ripped into my very soul. A Calabite of Lust, the instant Celestial Hurt.

I bit down on the sobs that tried to rip from my throat as my entire Vessel trembled in outrage at what he had done. Avicinis simply smiled and kicked me again and then hunkered down to bring him to my eye level. He frowned as I was able to even my breathing, "What we want is simple, Smith, we want you to tell us how you got your buddies to come running and where they gather. The Boss wants a few of those self-righteous bastards for a himself. So you get to tell us."

I just spit in his eye.

He laughed, "Good. I was hoping you'd make this hard. Me, I don't care if we get any of those tight asses, I want yours." He walked over to the girl, "This is Sara," he said, and took her by the hair, pulling hard enough to get her to cry out, "And I'm going to hurt her, too, until you tell us..."

I rasped out, over-riding anything he was going to say, "No. You hurt her and I tell you nothing. Not a single thing."

Our gazes met.

I resonated. Here was horror. True horror. I did not look away. I had to know. Centuries upon centuries of feeding the Word of his Superior, hundreds of souls slowly torn apart by the hunt for sensation, children in hopeless situations made only the more hopeless by those that would use them, and building the perfect organization to make it all the easier in his roving whorehouse. Where the worst wasn't simply finding true victims for those that wanted power over any human soul for their pleasure; but wanting them for himself. He wanted this, wanted to rip me open like a bug and watch me wiggle and as much wanted to get the girl to help him, bring her in with him. Wanted her without care, without love, without anything but simple lust.

I breathed deep and looked deeper.

This is why I was made. This is what I was meant to fight in ways innocent, arrogant, pure little Aceris would never understand or shatter against on impact.

Even in the straitjacket I lunged for him, teeth bared. He jumped back. Then laughed and hit me. And kept hitting me until he got tired, or maybe it was because I got blood on his coat.

"I'll do any fucking thing I want," he said angrily.

I simply met his eyes steadily. The pain was just pain. Heck, I'd had worse than this simply from fun with some of the Davidians who liked their love rough. I gave him nothing, not even a gasp of pain or knocked out breath.

Avicinis' gaze dropped first. Even with me tied up the way I was. Finally, he looked back up, "You promise not to try to physically escape?"

"And you promise not to hurt her. No damage." I said back.

He snarled and then nodded. "Done."

They put us in the cell together, chaining me most picturesquely with my arms stretched over my head, cuffs solid enough that there was no breaking them even with my strength. They were Relics, too. No Celestial hightailing. My legs spread by other cuffs. They didn't gag me, which I found interesting. They hadn't touched her.

It always worries me when demons are true to their promises. Just say that it's experience.

They reassured me, fairly quickly, by coming with clubs, a hardon for some angelic ass, and some of the nastiest jokes I'd ever had the displeasure of hearing. They also, prefuctorily asked about the Laurence Tether, but didn't even give me the time to answer. I chose to assume that they didn't believe anything I'd tell them. They left laughing. Sara had retreated into a corner, but they'd made her watch the whole sordid proceedings, pulled her head up when she tried to hide. They hadn't kept the collar on her, though. I was too far gone to even blush when she crept out of her corner, so I tried panting out a joke instead, "Never... knew.... anyone thought... I was so... uhm... desireable." She didn't laugh. Oh well.

"Why don't... why didn't you just give him what he wants?" she asked, brown eyes frowning with concern. "He'll just keep hurting you until you do it."

"I can't." I said, shortly, my body still sobbing for breath.

"I don't get it. It's just a small thing, just saying a few words. Why get so banged up over it? You can't fight him, so why even try? If you just relaxed and let him do it to you, it'd hurt so much less..." What was terrible was her sincerity, it made my throat ache.

"It's... it's..." I coughed hard, spitting blood to clear my throat. I took a breath and gripped my control of my Vessel, "It's only pain, Sara. What words they want would hurt others far more than this hurts me."

"But they don't care about you, not enough to save you, so why should you care about saving them? And are you so much of a masochist that you like pain?"

My voice shook more than I wanted it to. "No... I hate this. I hate pain taken without my consent." She recoiled from me a frown gathering in her eyes. "But..." I shivered quietly and closed my eyes to pick the right words, to say the right things. "But this is my choice. They... they're trying to take away my choices, to make them not count, to render them useless." I opened my eyes to meet hers, "And I won't let them. My choices... my self... I'm worth the pain. Knowing that I'm not giving myself to them, knowing, however futile the fight is, that I'm doing my best to prevent them from having what they want... it's important to me. It should be important to you."

She looked hard at me.

I sighed, "What do you think I just said? Tell it back... to me without using my exact words... please?"

Her eyes were hard, "You were telling me what I should do."

I shook my head. "Sorry, if that's what you got, I said it wrong." She blinked, and the closed stance she had taken opened a bit, relaxed with surprise.

I thought quietly about how else to ask it. "You ask me why... I'm fighting this." I looked up at the chains, down at my bloody body, "Fighting even... when it's so obviously hopeless... right?"

She nodded slowly.

"Remember..." I took a breath, tried to stand straight on a trembling leg. It was going to be soon enough when my legs would give out and my arms would pull up and my breath would fail me, now I would use what breath I had to try and kill the evil in this room. "Remember what it was like when you stood at the bus station? When you saw all the filth there and the homeless people sacked out on the benches? What did it feel like?"

Sara's eyes narrowed, "What do you mean, bus station?"

Patiently I said, "When you got on the bus to come to Chicago, to the Big City. When you had nothing left at home."

"How do you know that?" Sara asked, taking a step back.

I grinned, "I'm an angel, I know what you did."

Sara looked at me a moment before she actually laughed. "An angel. Where are your wings?"

I shrugged, "I can't show 'em to you, they took away my ability to. I might be able to show you in the morning."

"Yeah, right." She wasn't buying it. Which didn't matter too much to me. Sara paused a bit and thought, "The station was pretty scary, and it did feel like I had just lost everything I'd ever known."

"So why did you get the ticket and try anyway?"

Her eyes closed and when she opened them again her smile had something torn in it, "Because I thought I could make it." She looked around her and laughed, "Shows you how stupid I was, doesn't it?"

"No." I shook my head. The flat denial brought her attention to me, pulling it from wherever it was inside her. "Doll, you did the right thing in hoping for the gold strike, you did the wrong thing in choosing to allow the worst to happen because you couldn't imagine it getting better. This," I looked around me, "was your choice of despair, when you betrayed your hopes. Wasn't it? This isn't what you chose at your town's station, this was what you chose when you saw the station in Chicago, filled with people with somewhere else to go, to be, to do and you had nothing but the courage that had only brought you that far."

Sara just looked at me for a long moment. Then she frowned, "You can't be an angel. You can't even help yourself out of this jam much less me."

"Not physically, no. But when were angels about the physical?" I grinned quietly as one of her eyebrows went up as she looked at the entirely too physical evidence of what I was to her. "It's about choices, even when reality is whacking you bad and choosing to be who and what you are, whole rather than giving up pieces of what you really are to people that'll just use you and throw you away."

She huffed a deep breath, then I knew I had her when she said, "That's easy for you to say," turned her back on me and curled up in her bed.

I coughed instead of laughing. It hurt less. She squirmed where she lay and then looked at me again, where I stood or hung more like. She sighed again, turned away and there was just silence for a while. I eased into it comfortably, shifting a bit to ease various pains, closing my eyes and breathing into it, accepting it, letting it be a part of me instead of tensioning to wall it off.

It was a moment before I realized she was speaking again, but to the wall in front of her rather than to me. Softly, so softly.

"... never got it. You know? So everyone remembers Jesus, why have a special bit to remember him when that's the only one anyone really remembers if they're at all religious. I mean, if you're an angel, why is that? Why ask everyone to remember Him when he's so easy to remember and the rest of us are so hard? I don't even remember the name of my first John, my first date, my first friend. Who will ever remember me?"

I cut in, "I will."

She stirred restlessly, "But you'll be dead."

"Well, he died, didn't he?"

"Yeah, but..."

"How can you know I'll remember you even if I'm dead when you don't even know if being dead is a continuation, not an ending?"

A slow nod.

I wished I knew what was going on in her head, but there was no answer that I could give her that wasn't just based on faith. She just kept her face to the wall and fell into an uneasy sleep. Mine was no better.

It was a long time before morning.

They woke us up when my body was the stiffest. Mind, brain, and body all caught still in the throes of sleep that my spirit really didn't need; but it was habit. Old human habit. I'd been gone so long.

When demons break promises, they do it solidly. I guess something we said must have triggered something somewhere. I don't know. Maybe we didn't have anything to do with it at all and they just got orders from their masters. I only know that they dragged her out, screaming and kicking and they were already starting on her when they got out the baseball bats and started on me.

I've only ever had dawn essence come to me when I was screaming once before this. I don't ever want to know what'll happen the third time.

They dumped her, moaning, on her cot, curled up against herself. Everything around her and them jangled with the dissonance from celestials changing the Symphony by destroying a bit of mortal creation with their actions.

I wasn't in particularly good shape myself, I could feel ribs moving in ways they shouldn't and I could feel the beginning of my lungs' compression against the pull of my arms upwards. My calves cramped hard and the muscles in my legs trembled everytime I straightened enough to take a full breath. They had, however, forgotten to take my morning's Essense. I guess they just didn't think of it.

"Sara." I whispered.

She only moaned in response, the noise twanging in a way that set my teeth on edge.

"Hey, kid," I whispered. "You come here... take some... of my blood to heal you. Choose?"

Her breathing, shallow, fast, slowed just a bit. Her body shivered, shook, and then slowed as she gulped at her sobs, finally holding back, controlling them slowly. A brown eye, shiny with tears shone at me from her dark hair. She very carefully moved all four limbs, and then slowly, with soft gasps and winces that made even me wince, she gradually got to her feet. Just a bent over crouch at first, but then, slowly, so painfully slowly, she shuffled over to my bound body.

Sara looked up at me. "You..." she slurred, something in her jaw broken, and the word alone made her cry as she realized another hurt she hadn't inventoried. It took her a moment to get herself back again. "Heal me?"

I nodded, "Yes." I breathed, with difficulty. "Taste my blood... it's the covenant... if you choose..."

She whimpered softly, leaned forward, her tongue licked forth and tasted the blood that flowed from my side; and a bit of my life flowed into her. She looked up and murmured, "Remember me?"

I gathered myself, pulling with my arms so that I could straighten enough to take a deep breath. "Always," I sang. With that word, with that breath, with that touch of the Spirit which is breath, I sang a soft counterpoint to the dissonance, to her pain. With the organic matter that was my own blood, I shaped and changed and mended all that was broken. Taking the pain and building something of myself beside it, countering it, mirroring it within me, within this body that I could sing with and finally bringing that pain and her back into harmony.

Her breath shook when she brought it back in; and then there was a soft gasp of surprise. "Wha--?"

Sara sat up on her bed and her hand stroked over sore ribs, what had been a painful side, touching along a jawline that had been cracked and broken. She started crying again and hugging me tightly. I rubbed my jaw gently against her hair and murmured quietly to her.

It took a good long while before she quieted, calmed, slowed. She gently nuzzled back into my throat and shoulder and finally hiccoughed a last long sigh. Finally she wiped her eyes on my shoulder and then looked at me, quizzically, "Why don't you heal yourself, if you can do this for me?"

I grinned at her, crookedly, "I want to die."

She surprised me, instead of the instinctive reaction, she just thought a bit, frowning. "So you can't give them the information they're asking for?"

"Yeah... besides, I... I'm not supposed... to git captured." Why did dying this way have to take so long? "Was supposed to die..."

"I could kill you." she stated it straightforwardly.

I shook my head "Would imperil... your... immortal soul..." and then grinned around pants, "But... thanks... for the... thought."

She started that motion that would toss that thought away, but then thought about it. "That's very important to you, isn't it?"

I nodded.

She frowned, "I'm very important to you." She stated it, didn't ask.

I smiled and nodded and breathed softly, "Yes. Very."

She hit me in the shoulder so hard that my arm cramped hard, and yelled at me, "You're insane! No one can be worth that kind of agony!!" and whirled away, crying wildly again, to fling herself into her corner and curl up on herself, looking even more hurt than when she'd come in.

I had no idea what I'd said, or what to say anymore, or even if I'd have the breath to say anything again.

They came to take her away, later, and she didn't protest at all or struggle. She walked away from me, and, even if I had the breath to say something, I wasn't sure what I'd say. That shook me. Had I walked away, like this, from Eli?

My lungs were slowly collapsing under the weight of my flesh, the fire of pain eating at my will, my mind. I struggled against burning muscles, against blinding, dizzying fatigue to stay standing, to keep the weight from my arms, as the animal that was my body fought my will, but the respites were short and shortening. The fire was eating at me from the inside out, the fear of the pain of losing this life for no reason, fear for her, fear for what they would do to her because I had to keep faith, to lose this Vessel my Maker had given me with his own hands all running through my head, filling me as the agony filled me. The fire of slow pain melting me.

The agony broke me, filled me. Fragments of thought. So easy to just say it. It would break me worse. I can't do it all. She'll die. Horrible way to die. Her blood. My hands. She'll die because of me. Stupid pride. Broken rules. They broke their rules like they've broken me. Broken. Her. She'll break. I can't. Rules. Help me. Oh, Master, help me. I can't play by their rules.

Then a figment of my imagination, a hallucination perhaps, a deep warm voice saying. "No rules. Just have fun." And I remembered that I was born of agony. That this was what I was in purist form.

It was like the first tempering, when Aceris cut me down with a cry. An awful agony as my arms came down and muscles all through my body spasmed as they moved in ways they hadn't been able to for the last few days. I thought I screamed, but it came out a whimper as my lungs did not fill enough. Then the compressed tissues opened. The agony enclosed me again, crushing me, beating on me, but this was the agony of life, not death.

I screamed and cried like a baby. And, like a baby, as the agony receeded, I felt arms around me, cradling me, holding me. "Faber... Smith... John... can you hear me, are you okay?" was being said into my ear. I sobbed again as a breath burnt my lungs, but I nodded against the shoulder my head leaned against.

Hoarsely, I whispered, "Yes." and nearly cried again as the arms closed tight around my broken ribs.

"We have to get out now. It's just the three of us, come to get you from here, Laurance wouldn't let us have any more to just... " he trailed off. Good boy, he's learning.

I murmured between wheezing breaths. "Stupid... Malakite... doesn't know... to die..."

He laughed. He actually laughed. "Right. We have to go. They're coming with way too many for us to kill."

"No." I said. Felt him freeze. "Sara." I said. "She..."

The silky voice was as hateful this time as every other time. "What about our sweet Sara?"

I blinked my gradually returning eyesight into blurry focus. I didn't like what I finally managed to see. A dozen demons filling the hallway behind Avicinis, the two other angels standing with clenched fists. Sara in Avicinis's arms, leaning against him with that blissed out look on her face, her eyes closed.

"Sara." I whispered in my ruined voice.

Her eyes opened and simply stared for a moment. Then I saw the shock hit her soul. She saw all that had been done to me. She took in the outnumbered angels as well, but she didn't staighten from Avicinis's grasp, did not do a thing. Her eyes, though, those windows to the soul widened to my gaze. She shivered quietly and Avicinis's arms tightened around her possessively.

Avicinis's focus was on me, though. He was watching me like someone would watch a fly stumble about after its wings were pulled off. "What about Sara, little, crushed Malakite?" He asked me in that smooth sweet voice.

I could feel Aceris stiffen, and as much as it cost me physically, I squeezed him to keep him quiet. I rasped out, instead, "She has... to choose, Avicinis."

"Oooh!" he clapped in delight. "What a good game! She gets to choose if you live or die?"

"No. She chooses... go with us... or stay with you." The angels looked at me as if I were mad, but Aceris looked at me with narrowed eyes and for an instant they shone with divine light. A testing that I didn't resent, I wanted him sure of me. Then he sighed quietly and settled.

Avicinis peered at me and laughed with delight. "But you can't get out of here alive, not as broken as you are and with my numbers, so you're asking her to choose to die!"

I coughed, a wet awful cough, didn't want to see the bright red I was spitting, feeling something rip. Gasping, I finally nodded, and met Sara's eyes when I whispered, "Yes. Live... with us... or die... a living death... with him..."

She shrank away and Avicinis laughed a trumphant laugh. "Of course you deluded, honor-bound angel, I'll play your stupid game. She can choose. I'll let her come to you, if she wants to, but I'll destroy her with you as I was going to all along. No mortal would be stupid enough to lose their life just to save something as insubstantial as a soul. It's sensation, being alive that they worship, not an invisible God."

She looked at him, eyes even wider the moment he said the word 'angel'. She looked at me again, and I said softly, "Please. Choose, Sara."

Aceris' hand tightened on me like a vice, and I couldn't help it as my body shook from the pain. Her mouth suddenly tightened and she started to cry as she shrugged Avicinis's possessive arm from her shoulders and walked to me and gently and thoroughly kissed my bloody mouth.

Avicinis's jaw dropped. To be honest, so did Aceris'.

She whispered, "Remember me."

I smiled back and whispered, "Always." She nodded and gave me a fierce, frightened grin.

I hugged her and let Aceris tug her behind us. I swallowed my own blood and it tasted like wine. As Avicinis's arm came forward, trusting a hallucination, a memory of a voice, I sang, within my agony, full-throated in the celestial tongue, "Eli, Eli, thou art with me." The chord of his name felt like tears of joy within my throat.

There was a commotion in the hallway and a big black man appeared after shoving aside a demon or three, who were not expecting someone to come from that direction. He was trenchcoated, dreadlocked, and smiling, "'Bout time you got off your high horse and called, Forge." I nearly fell over, it was the piano player at Lily's club! There was no jangle of disturbance that usually happens when one of the archangels manifests on Earth, but I knew him now as one who knows whose one is.

He quietly touched me on the head with those long, strong hands; and it was the quenching all over again, cool, soothing touch, settling me, crystalizing me around my Word, my essence. I was poured whole and complete into the Vessel chosen for me as his one touch healed me, made me whole and reaffirmed that I was whole and holy. He laughed that deep smooth laugh and handed me a sword, a very pretty one, and murmured into my ear, "An original Remington."

I was laughing my ass off when the demons flooded in.

Alvla fell in to guard Sara. Aceris and I flanked him as Aphek and Eli went to work. Whatever jokes might be made about the Servitors of Laurence, they are well disciplined about their posts, and both pulled swords from some Laurencian place that I never could figure out. Andre's folks weren't so well prepared, possibly thinking that raw numbers would overwhelm us and not prepared to do full gun fire on their own. I took the left side and concentrated on guarding Aceris's left side and doing as much damage to everything within my reach that I could and he took care of his own. The Cherub only had to take care of one Calabim who poured ressonance into rusting apart Aceris's sword by letting him hit it while some other burly Vesseled demon hit me with full fury. I finally threw it by tossing Aceris the Remington sword and going for the inside attack when it was expecting more of the distanced fancy work. Putting my fists deep into it felt really good.

There was a hard, hot flash of essense from Aceris as he swung the suddenly brighter sword at an in-coming demon.

Eli just danced through them. I swear he didn't even lay a hand on 'em and had 'em laying each other to waste. Always just beyond the touch of claw or fang, bullet or knife, he swirled through them like a wave. Aphek whirled, grinned and took off after him, emulating this most efficient fighting style as enemy after enemy took themselves out. One demon rushed Eli and it looked like the creature flipped itself into the air and landed on it's head, painfully. Others, opening fire in sheer desperation, mowed down their own in waves.

Avicinis screamed orders from the hallway, and when he saw the tide starting to turn, he gathered two Djinn around him and fled.

Aceris shouted in fury. Eli grinned, motioned Aceris to break rank and stepped into his place. Aceris hesitated, looked back at me, and I grinned, "Go for it, Remington." He flashed a grin back and went, Aphek on his heels and reving higher.

The last two demons facing us, without a leader, without encouragment turned and fled. Eli chuckled, quietly, suddenly hugged me and said softly, "You've pleased me well." When I hugged him back he grinned, kissed me full on the mouth and while I stared back at him in astonishment he loped off after the fleeing demons.

Alvla wouldn't look at me. Sara was looking at me in about as much astonishment as I was feeling and she said, "You like men?"

"Uhm... he... uhm... he owns me." I said lamely.

"But I thought you said you get to choose!"

I never blush. Never. Alvla's shoulders shook when I said, "Uhm... yeah. Okay. Okay. I like him. In fact, I guess I love him..."

"Wow." was all she said and then stepped forward and hugged me, too. She murmured, "I guess you must think I'm pretty special if you usually like guys." I stared at her in complete confusion, and then just sighed and hugged her back. These human children of God will never cease to surprise me. Alvla's shoulders just kept shaking really, really hard.

I just rolled my eyes at him and waited, quietly holding Sara, until Aceris and Aphek came back bloody and triumphant.

It was the Remington sword that brought Laurence with a flash bang when they called him. He admired it in Aceris' hand, but his eyes narrowed when he heard how they'd gotten it. He only looked at me once, before their report and looked away from me with very grudging approval. Aceris' report was complete and terse, and Laurance's eyes narrowed at the end of it. I gave thanks to God he hadn't seen the second kiss.

"So, who was the mysterious angel that appeared for the fight?" he asked.

"I don't really know, sir. He appeared after Faber called for help from God, handed over the weapon to Faber, and then took off after the fight."

"Sounds very suspicious."

"But it's fine workmanship, sir."

"Indeed." said the slender archangel as he gently stroked the edge of the blade. "And you've done a good job blessing it, Aceris."

"Thank you, sir, but it's Faber's, I should return..."

"No." I cut it. "It was meant for you, Aceris."

They both looked at me, Laurence's eyebrow going up, Aceris's eyes were a bit wide. I just smiled back at them blandly.

Laurance shook his head, "Just like one of Eli's bunch, no appreciation for really great things."

I just kept very, very quiet.

Aceris looked at me, looked at his boss and then back to me and bit his lip. "What about me, sir?"

Laurance blinked up at him, "You?"

"Yes, sir. Me."

The archangel suddenly focussed for a moment on his Servitor and blinked once at what he saw. "Aceris, you are a fine edge which has cut deeply into the Evil here, today. You've done more than I could have hoped or expected of the task I gave you, and you have done it well."

I breathed a very soft sigh of relief, as I saw something in Aceris finally balance and center. Laurance nodded quietly to me, and I surprised both myself and him by saluting him, crisply.

Softly, he said to Aceris, "Carry on." and disappeared in a flash of Essence.

Aceris sagged just a bit.

"Hey, Remington." I said and he just looked at me. "Thanks for saving my life. If you'd been another half an hour, I'da been..."

"Dead. Yes." He said it quietly and then something in his face lightened, eventhough his voice was as severe as always when he said, "Instead of calling me by a name that isn't mine."

I chuckled. "Good point." I nodded to him, then. "Good work then, Aceris, and may God go with you in all you do."

Aceris looked at me and then smiled, "And also with you, John Faber Smith. Also with you."

I nodded, at peace at last, "I think He will.

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