Thomas felt like screaming. Every night he came out to this bar, sat in the same spot, drank the same drink. Talked to the same collection of shallow losers, all out for a quick fuck. Listened to the dame inane drama being enacted, discussed, and dissected over and over. And not once had he found a guy who might be interested in something more.

Occasionally, he'd go home with a guy, but only to get off. Romance and its proponents were all well and good, but a body has needs after all. Depressed, he ordered another amaretto sour. As the bartender slid it to him and took his money, he found his gaze drawn to the old couple in the corner.

From the looks of it, both were easily in their seventies. They came here every night, had a couple of beers, and just enjoyed being out, secure in their togetherness. It was both beautiful and depressing to watch them, a beacon of hope for what might be that taunted him because hadn't found it yet.

On impulse, Thomas grabbed his drink and slipped off his seat. He'd probably lose his coveted place at the bar, but it wasn't as if it were doing him any good.

He threaded his way through the crowd, making his way over to the table where the ideal couple sat. At some point, they must have realized he was headed their way. He glanced down to avoid tripping over a long pair of legs, and when he looked back up they were watching him curiously.

Finally, he made it to their table. This close he could see that they were polar opposites. The one on the left wore overalls and a flannel shirt, worn and stained with grease and oil. His hair stood up in all directions, a mane of salt and pepper that gave him distinguished look. His tanned, clean-shaven face was lined with the subtle tracks of a life of laughter, and he reclined in his chair as though daring anyone to make him move.

His partner was dressed casually, but well. A dark shirt, tucked into a pair of well-kept jeans drew attention to his pale skin; shoulder length white hair brushed against his collar, neatly styled and tucked behind his ears. Though his face was not as lined as his companion's, his steel grey eyes were ancient, and seemed to bore into Thomas.

Thomas opened his mouth and closed it again, suddenly unsure of why he was here or what he'd planned to say.

The one in the overall's chuckled, and playfully batted at his partner's shoulder. "Stop it, Ori. Boy's obviously wantin' to set and talk a spell. We're not doing anythin' so important we can't talk to the young folks."

Ori's face broke into a broad grin, and he shrugged.

Thomas blinked as a sense of purpose filled him again. "Ummm … right. I just wanted to come over and tell you that I admire you two. What you have is beautiful, and I wish I could find something like it for myself."

The man smiled, and waved at the chair opposite them. "Why thank you, young un'. Care to set a spell and jaw with a couple oldsters?"

Thomas nodded and took the offered chair. He extended his hand. "Thomas Mackelby."

The one who'd been doing the talking accepted the proffered hand with a surprisingly strong grip. "Michael Hyle. Call me Mike. The quiet one's Oriale, and you'd best call him by name. He'll tolerate it from me, but he's rather firm about other people using his name."

Oriale gave him a shallow nod, which Thomas returned.

He and Mike exchanged pleasantries for a while, just talking. Occasionally, Oriale would shift and signal the waiter to bring them another drink, but was otherwise still and silent.

At some point, Mike asked the right questions to bring up the subject of Thomas' search for a partner. The frustration and loneliness Thomas felt came pouring out, and he spoke passionately and at length.

He broke off when he realized he'd begun to repeat himself, and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry about that. You get me on that particular rant, and I can go for hours."

Mike laughed, a deep belly roll of amusement. "Ain't no trouble, youngster. Ori and I only come here cause I get to itchin' for the sound of people at the end of the day. It's mighty pleasant to hear there's still young folk searchin' for love, steada just grabbin' the first dick comes handy and headin for bed."

Thomas grinned. "So how did you two meet?"

Oriale sighed, the first sound Thomas had heard him make, and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Mike rolled his eyes. "Don't be looking like that, Ori. He asked fair and square, I done nothin' to push him to it." He turned to regard Thomas with a twinkle in his eyes. "I done told this story so many times, Ori here's made me promise not to, less some 'un asks first."

Thomas laughed, and spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "Sorry, Mr. Oriale. It just seemed polite to ask."

Oriale made a "go ahead" motion without looking up.

Mike leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Ori."

When he turned back to Thomas, though, his eyes were serious. When he spoke, his tone brooked no argument. "This ain't the kinda story young folks believe easy, Tommy-boy. So you let me tell it the way it comes natural, and keep your peace 'til I finish, you hear?"

Thomas frowned, but he nodded.

Mike leaned back, took a sip of his beer and smiled. "I was 17 when the Depression started, and like many young fellas my age, I took to the road to make a livin' … "

Mike trudged along the side of the road, feet aching from the hours he'd been walking already. The sun burned golden as it slipped towards the horizon, and he walked a little faster, trying to get as much use out of the fading light as he could before he stopped for the night.

As he walked, he began to look around, trying to find a good place to camp. He'd been on the road two years now, and he'd long since given up on finding a friendly house to stay in. With all the drifters wandering around, no one in their right mind took in a burly teenager off the road for fear of having their throats cut while they slept.

And he didn't dare go into any towns around here. He'd been dumb enough to get drunk in the last one, and he'd barely escaped a lynching when the barkeep had found him in the storeroom with the busboy up to his balls in Mike. How was he supposed to know the boy was the barkeep's son?

The sun was half set when he spotted a small clearing about a hundred yards back from the side of the road. It sat in a hollow, and had enough pine trees around it to cut down on the wind. And those pine needles would make good tinder, and a welcome break from hard ground for bedding.

A glance around told him this was as good as it was likely to get, and the sun showed no signs of changing its mind about setting. He struck out for the hollow, a sense of relief filling him at the thought of a campfire and some much needed sleep.

Nearly an hour later, a small fire crackled cheerfully in a depression dug into the ground. The little stewpot that was his most prized possession balanced on a pair of thick branches, and the smell of a lean stew filled the hollow. Mike sat Indian style on his bedroll, daydreaming about the few men he'd met like him.

A faint rustle of pine needles being disturbed caught his attention, and he looked up from the fire. A man stood on the other side of the hollow, a smile on his ugly face. He was six and a half feet tall, if Mike was any judge, and built like a blacksmith. His clothes strained to contain him, and just one of his hands could have palmed Mike's face.

Mike's hand moved cautiously towards the knife at his belt. "Help ya', stranger?"

The giant nodded. As Mike began to ask how, he felt a sharp crack on the side of his head. Sickening pain shot through him in waves, and he collapsed into darkness.

When he awoke, he found himself bound and gagged. The giant stood over him, smiling like the cat that found the canary cage open. Flanking him were a pair of men that looked as though they'd once lived comfortably, and hadn't taken well to their new circumstances.

"Welcome back, kid. For awhile there, looked to be like you'd not waken again."

Mike glared at him, head throbbing. The giant laughed. "Oh, of course." He clapped one of his companions on the back, and the man rocked under the blow. "Get his gag out, Bart. Can't be showin' unkindness to our guest."

Bart knelt, rubbing his shoulder, and untied the gag. He returned to his place behind the giant as Mike worked his jaw, trying to get some moisture back in his mouth. He choked a little on the dust from the dirty cloth that had been used to gag him, and the giant laughed again.

He squatted down next to Mike, and patted him on the shoulder, thumping blows that set his head aching again as his body jerked in response.

"Sorry bout that, kiddo, but ya' have somethin' we be needin'. And I daresay you'd not be giving it up friendly-like."

He stood and stretched. "Come on, boys. We got a circle to set, and the moon ain't gonna stay up high all night."

The three men set about drawing weird symbols on the ground around Mike, pausing occasionally to consult a book the giant had produced from somewhere in his dirty overalls.

Mike squirmed, testing his bonds. "What y'all want from me anyhow? I'm just a drifter, I ain't got nothin' but what ya saw when you walloped me."

The giant paused to watch his companions critically for a moment. "Your blood, boy. We need your blood. Damnit, Dan, you gotta draw that one startin' from the left! No, your left, ya' moron! Damn, if you fuck this up again, we gonna find us some un' else to do this and just use you!"

Dan went white and erased the symbol, before drawing it again properly. "Sorry, Jethro."

Jethro watched a moment longer, before he squatted back down next to Mike. He fished in his pocket and drew out a small flask that looked almost delicate in his monstrous hands. He unscrewed the cap and knocked back a swig of whatever the flask contained before turning to look at Mike. He chuckled softly, and held the flask up, inspecting it in the moonlight.

"Don't be lookin' at me like that, boy. We ain't aiming to use it all. Course, if we get it right, the demon'll probably et' ya', but that's neither here nor there. Wanna belt?"

Mike stared. "Demon? They ain't no such thing as demons! Demons is just somthin' preachers use to get money on the plate come Sunday service!"

Jethro roared with laughter. "Hey boys! We got us a heathen!"

His companions laughed dutifully. Jethro cocked an eye at Mike and wagged a finger at him mockingly. "Think what you like, boy. Come sunup, you'll be demon shit, and we'll have be living like them A-rabs in the fairy tales."

He tucked the flask away. "But hows about I stop tellin' you 'bout it, and get this done? Bart! Toss me that gag, will ya'?"

Bart pulled the dirty cloth out of his pocket in a wad, and threw it to Jethro. He caught it, and fight and squirm though Mike did, managed to get it back in Mike's mouth and re-tied.

He stepped out of the ring of symbols carefully, and walked around it a couple of times. He made a correction here and there, and nodded. "Looks good boys. Lessen' you knuckleheads screwed your parts up again, I think we got it."

Jethro drew a small knife from his belt, and Mike felt a stab of anger as he recognized it as the one that usually hung at his own belt. Jethro saw the look of anger, and grinned. "Thanks for this, by-the-by. Mine was gettin' dull, and we wouldn't want to have to saw at ya' to get a vein open."

He stepped back into the circle, and flicked the knife swiftly. A shallow cut opened up on Mike's arm near the shoulder. Blood welled up, and Jethro scraped the knife across the wound. He stepped out of the circle, and stabbed the bloody knife into the ground at its border.

At a nod from him, Bart and Danny took up positions around the ring, and began a slow chant. The sound of it made the hairs on the back of Mike's neck stand up, and he shuddered when Jethro joined in.

The chanting rose and fell within the hollow. Just as Mike was starting to think he'd been captured by a roving band of lunatics, a smoky red glow began to fill the clearing. Before his disbelieving eyes, the outline of a figure formed in the circle with him, and his stomach knotted in fear.

The chant rose to a crescendo, and the figure solidified into a nightmare. Matted fur covered its misshapen body. It was big, ugly, vaguely man-shaped, and resembled nothing he'd ever seen, least of all red men with wings and horns from Sunday prayer books. Mike couldn't look at it too long before his head hurt from the sheer ugliness of the thing.

It spoke, and its voice sounded impossibly human and gentle. "Why have I been brought here?"

Jethro swaggered forward. "We done a sermony, and there's a kid in there with ya' as pay. When ya' get done eatin', your gonna give us what ever we ask, hear?"

The demon chuckled and indicated the circle. "This?" It stepped out, laughing as Jethro stumblingly backed away. "I recognize this. Many have cast this, but few have succeeded. The hubris of your kind of man somehow leads to the belief that it's not necessary to cast the binding in gold if the magician is strong enough. Sadly for you, it is most certainly necessary."

The demon blurred forwards, and Jethro went down screaming. Bart and Dan had fled the moment the demon left the circle, and it saved their lives.

As the demon feasted on Jethro's body, Mike struggled to crawl away, inching along on his stomach and fighting the urge to retch at the sounds of flesh tearing and being gulped down. He screamed into the gag when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

A resonant baritone spoke softly in his ear. "Hush and be still if you wish to live, child."

Gentle hands loosened the ropes, and he found himself free in seconds. He rolled over swiftly, and squinted at the soft glow surrounding his savior.

The man knelt in front of him, lean and muscular, but in a graceful way. The only clothing he wore was a loose tunic and a pair of straps that crossed his chest and waist, supporting the most massive sword Mike had ever seen. Eyes like liquid mercury bored into him for a moment, checking him over for injury. Silver hair framed his face, and as he turned to regard the demon, Mike say that it hung in a braid that fell to the small of his back.

The man looked back at him, and smiled grimly. "I am Oriale, angel of the Most High. Stay well back, lest you be struck down in the combat."

Oriale rose and strode over to the circle. His voice sounded in a clarion roar as he spoke. "Azazel All-Devourer! You have come again to this world through the pride of humans. The human has been punished for his arrogance. Leave or fight, but know that God's Will prevails here."

Azazel whirled, snarling. Mike got his first good look at it, and wished he hadn't. It was little more than thousands of gaping mouths, filled with fangs and strung together in the shape of a hunchbacked man. The mouths poke in concert, thousands of variations of the soft, high voice he'd heard earlier, and the effect was chilling.

"I have been summoned, guardian, and killed the summoner! By law and right, I am free upon the world. You have neither right, nor power to banish me, nor any duty to fight me." A crafty note threaded through its voice that reminded Mike of a cure-all salesman he'd once travelled with. "Why not take your charge away and let greater powers fight me? Just walk away, and do your duty to the human, hmm?"

Oriale's back stiffened, and he drew his sword.

Azazel chuckled. "Very well, little guardian. The death of your charge be upon your head."

It rushed forward, snarling curses from its myriad mouths. Oriale raised his sword and leapt to meet the charge, an aura of light trailing him in the form of a huge pair of wings.

The battle was a blur of light and shadow, and Mike watched dumbfounded. It occurred to him that he should run, but he couldn't tear himself away long enough. Besides, where would he run? If Oriale lost, Azazel would probably just chase him down and eat him anyway.

So he sat and stared, trying to make out which one was winning.

It ended as suddenly as it had begun. Azazel screamed, a horrible discordant sound, and fell back clutching at a gaping wound that burned with silvery fire. Oriale stood over it, sword poised to deliver the killing blow.

Time stood still for a moment as angel and demon regarded one another. Then Azazel bowed slightly.

"Well fought, guardian. I'll descend." It sank into the ground like quicksand, the smoky red haze that had marked its appearance swirling around it fitfully. Just before it vanished into the ground, it chuckled maliciously. "But someone will call me forth again, and on that day, you and I will have words."

Oriale watched until the red haze dissipated. He turned to look down at Jethro's mangled remains with distaste, and stabbed at them with the tip of his sword. A brilliant silver fire flashed over them, and they crumbled to ash in seconds. He walked back over to where Mike sat; cleaning his weapon with a scrap of cloth he'd produced from somewhere.

Mike climbed shakily to his feet. "Thanks, friend."

Oriale stared at him for a moment, a strange look on his face. He carefully sheathed his sword, and took another few steps, so he stood almost nose-to-nose with Mike. His strange, metallic eyes searched Mike's for a moment, and then he pulled him into a gentle hug.

Mike jumped in surprise. "Uh … "

Oriale whispered into his ear. "I am your guardian, created for the purpose of watching over you, and guiding your steps through life. And if you ever scare me like this again, I will kill you myself."

Mike blushed. "Hey, it's not my fault I got clocked on the head and almost fed to a demon!"

Oriale chuckled, a rich dark sound that sent shivers up Mike's spine. He pulled back, and gave Mike a thoughtful stare. "Indeed not. Still, perhaps I should keep a closer eye on you."

Mike's eyes narrowed. "Meanin' what?"

Oriale grinned, and stepped back. He drew his sword again, grabbed his braid, and lopped it off with a single stroke. He walked over to Mike's pack, and began rummaging through it, sword still in hand.

"Hey! What're ya' doin'?" Mike yelped.

Oriale pulled out Mike's spare clothes, laid his sword on the ground, and unbuckled his scabbard. Laying it atop his weapon, he pulled his tunic off over his head.

Mike's jaw dropped open. Oriale was completely naked … and incredibly handsome. Muscles rippled smoothly under milk pale skin that shone from within. He had a light build, but there was nothing soft or feminine about it, especially when he turned to face Mike. Angels, it seemed, were not created sexless, and Oriale had been blessed in the department of maleness.

Oriale smiled at the dazed look on Mike's face. He pulled on the clothes he'd grabbed from the pack, and swiftly reattached his scabbard to his back. Once the sword was sheathed within it, it seemed to fade until it was barely visible.

He nodded with satisfaction as he looked down at himself. As he knelt to re-pack the things he'd pulled out in his search, he spoke.

"It means, Michael, that I'll be staying in human form until I feel comfortable allowing you to travel alone."

Thomas stared at Mike as he finished his story. "A guardian angel? You're telling me that Oriale is a literal angel, and you met when he saved you from a hillbilly Satanist?"

Mike grinned, and ran a hand through his thick mane. "Well, young un', that's the truth. You believe me or not, it don't matter none to me."

Oriale spoke for the first time, and Thomas jumped. "I still don't understand why you enjoy telling this tale, Michael."

Mike shrugged. "You know me, Ori. Never can resist telling folk 'bout my angel."

Oriale rolled his eyes. He stood, and extended a hand to Thomas. "A pleasure meeting you, young Thomas," he said as they shook. "But I believe my dear one has had more than enough to drink, and we should return home."

Thomas nodded. "It was a pleasure meeting you too. And thanks for a hell of a story, Mike."

Mike smiled slightly, a twinkle in his eye. "Sure, youngster. Just a story."

As Mike and Ori walked away, Thomas sat back down. He turned the story over and over in his head, but no matter how hard he tried to justify it, he couldn't escape the nagging feeling that Mike was telling the truth.

Knocking his beer back, he stood and followed the pair. He caught sight of them stepping out the door, and hustled through the crowd to catch them.

After a minute of shoving and dodging, he made it to the door, and shot out onto the sidewalk, head snapping back and forth looking for the old men. He caught a glimpse of Mike's shock of hair turning into an alley, and broke into a run.

He skidded to a stop staring down the alley, and froze, staring in disbelief.

Mike and Oriale were walking hand-in-hand down the alley. Ori was shining fiercely and after a moment, the light enveloped them both and they vanished.