Chapter 24

"So, how long have you been watching over our family?" Robert asked, side-eyeing Val from where he lounged on the old, plaid couch.

"A very long time," the young blond said, not really paying attention. His eyes were fixed on the TV screen, but he wasn't seeing it. His mind was far, far away.

"Like, how long?" Rob prompted.

Val scrunched up his face. "Since the year fifteen-hundred-eighty-something."

Robert sat up straighter, his eyebrows rising. "How's that work?" He asked. "You're, like, twelve, and you're trying to tell me you've been around for something like four-hundred years?"

"Four hundred twenty seven," Val supplied distractedly.

Rob stared. "But you're twelve."

Finally, Val's eyes focused and he dropped unceremoniously back into reality. "Time passes differently in Heaven than it does here on Earth. In Heaven, every twenty-five years for you is the equivalent of one year for us. If you took the time to calculate," he paused, doing the math quickly on his long fingers. "I'd be the equivalent of a seventeen-year-old. Not twelve."

"Well you look twelve," Rob muttered, idly changing the channel.

Val snorted, uncurling himself from the armchair and wandering off in search of something to occupy his frantic mind.

It felt good to be alive again. Droplets of sweat clung to Ben's long hair and slowly rolled down his brow, cooling in the brisk autumn air as he worked, churning the fallen leaves up into an ever-growing pile. With a huff, he canted his hip, propping himself up on the rake. "What's up, angel?" He asked, watching as Val slid the screen door closed, settling on the deck with a notebook he'd scrounged from somewhere and a handful of pens and pencils.

"The sky," Val said, not looking up as he flipped through scribbled-on pages.

Ben chuffed out a laugh. "You've been listening to Catcher, haven't you?"

Val smiled. "I've listened to all of you for years. Of course it's likely that I picked up on some of your family's more interesting phrases." He laughed, dragging his pencil across the notebook page in long, sweeping strokes. "Witless plague-boiled carbuncles was a good one."

The dark-haired man blinked. Had he heard correctly…? "Witless plague-boiled carbuncles?"

Val tapped the pencil against his bottom lip. "Godfrey Rozaline. The Gatekeeper about thirteen generations your prior. Very strange man."

Ben worked his jaw up and down, but there were no words that he could think of to spit out. He blinked. "Okay…"

"Okay what?" Catcher asked, crunching through the fallen leaves that Ben had finished raking. Looking his cousin up and down, the mechanic seemed to silently dare Ben to complain about the fact that he was messing up the once-tidy pile.

Ben narrowed his eyes, glaring pointedly at Catcher's sneakered feet, as though by sheer willpower alone he could make them move out of his leaf-pile. A few strays, still clinging to their crisp fall colors swirled up around Catcher's beat-up chucks. Taking the hint, Catcher chuckled, stepping out of the pile with a satisfying crunch.

Glancing up, Ben's expression softened, his eyes warming as they fell on the former angel who had quietly disengaged himself from the conversation and focused intently on whatever it was he was drawing once more.

Catcher watched his cousin's face change, the strange expression that pulled at his lips and smoothed out the tension in his brow. "Penny for your thoughts?" He asked, nudging Ben out of the reverie he was drifting into.

For a moment the raven-haired Gatekeeper was silent; thoughtful. "Does it seem like something's changed to you?" He asked quietly. "I mean, besides the obvious. Something just feels… different."

"Yeah," Catcher nodded solemnly. "You smile more."

Ben frowned up at his giant cousin. "What do you mean?"

Catcher shrugged. "After Charlie died you were a mess." Ben snorted. "It was like it sucked the life right out of you. Blank looks, sad eyes. And you didn't smile anymore. And then you took a ride on the crazy-train and started hallucinating about angels and demons-" he winked at Ben, trailing off as the younger Roslyn shot him a dirty look. "My point is, ever since that scrawny blond twig showed up in your hospital room you've looked better. You smile more, you do stuff." He raised his eyebrows. "I think that kid saved your life."

Ben smiled. "I know he saved my life, Catch. None of this would've happened if he hadn't."

"That isn't what I meant," Catcher protested mildly. "I think he saved you from yourself." He shook his head, normally bright eyes solemn. "Hate to think what would've happened to you if he hadn't decided to show up." Suddenly, Catcher barked out a laugh, shaking his head.

"What?" Ben demanded quizzically, tapping his fingers on the wooden rake.

"How crazy are we?" Catcher chuckled, tossing his bangs out of his face. "I mean, you've got magic powers, we've got an angel rooming with us… What's next? We all get unicorns?"

Ben laughed. It was a ridiculous situation. But that was the reality of it, no matter how absurd it seemed. "You're right," he admitted with a snort. "Our family is weird."

"Crazy," Catcher chuckled. "We are all absolutely, completely crazy."

Somehow, Ben didn't think he minded crazy all that much anymore.

"Hey," Catcher interrupted his train of thought before it could even leave the station. "Do you still fence or did you quit?"

"I didn't quit," Ben protested. He'd loved fencing. "I just haven't had time."

Catcher grinned, mischievous and challenging. "Betcha I could kick your butt."

"Are you challenging me?" Ben asked, raising an eyebrow.

"The gauntlet has been thrown," Catcher said, nodding seriously. Anything to keep Ben smiling.

Ben stared. "And you think I'm the crazy one."

"You can use Rob's saber," Catcher called, disappearing into the garage.

Leaning the rake up against the nearest tree Ben chuckled, shaking his head. Who would've thought… He watched Val scribble something down and then violently erase it again with a petulant scowl between his brows.

"Whatcha doing?" He asked, ambling over to the deck.

Val glanced up. "Nothing."

Pulling himself up onto the deck, Ben wedged his feet between the wooden posts, leaning on the rail. "Nothing?"

Val made a face. "It's nothing important. Well…I don't know. What do you think?" He raised a questioning eyebrow at Ben, turning the notebook around.

It was a graveyard. Row upon row of uneven, varying tombstones set into the sparse grass. And there was a tree. A huge, gnarled willow, stooped with time and age. Its' crooked spine twisted, curving down toward the Earth, brushing the ground with leafy tendrils.

"Look at that," Val pointed at the tree, his long, delicate finger smudged with graphite and ink. Drawn into the bark of the tree, barely noticeable at first, was a handprint. It fairly jumped out at Ben as he squinted, leaning closer. There was something strange about it, some power unknown in its existence. Something… frightening, almost.

"What is it?" Ben asked. He looked up, finding himself suddenly and unnervingly close to Val. If he wanted to, he was sure he could count each individual freckle that spotted the angel's cheeks and nose. He didn't try. "What does it mean?"

Val raised his eyebrows, surprised. "Don't look at me," he insisted. "I only drew it."
"Yeah, so you should know what it is," Ben said, puzzled.

"I don't," Val sighed, running a hand through his hair. There was a pencil smudge on his cheek. Ben resisted the urge to wipe it away. "I draw things, I see them and I put them on paper. Interpreting them is very different. I wasn't good at it in the first place, and now…" He shrugged. "Now I'm useless."

Ben narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing the fleeting sadness on the angel's face. "There are plenty of useless people in the world." He said, propping his chin in his hand. "I doubt you're one of them. Useless people don't accomplish nearly as much as you have."

"I suppose," Val shrugged.

"You suppose," Ben snorted, rolling his eyes. "The only reason I'm alive is because of you and you suppose that maybe you're sort of a useful person." He shook his head. "Jeez."

Val smiled, watching him with a fondness that warmed his face with a steady glow. He sobered. "What do you think the handprint means?"

"I'd think you'd be the expert on all things supernatural," Ben said with a shrug. "Beats me."

Val gnawed at his bottom lip, fingertips dancing. "I guess we'll find out eventually?"

"I guess," Ben agreed with a shrug. He jumped down off the deck, snatching the saber Catcher tossed his way out of the air, settling into an en garde stance with easy, effortless grace that drew an odd, near silent sigh from Val's lips. "Have at thee!"

Catcher rolled his eyes dramatically. "Really?"

"Eh," Ben shrugged. "Just channeling my inner Inigo Montoya."

Dropping his lanky body into a slight crouch, Catcher made a face, brandishing his saber. "I'm putting and end to that now before you start in with the 'you killed my father, prepare to die'."

He froze, realizing just what he'd said. His eyes widened, mouth gaped. He looked like he was going to be sick. "Ben, I-"

Ben lunged forward like a spring, his fencing blade a swift flash of quicksilver, surprising the mechanic.

Catcher parried desparately, leaping out of his cousin's range with a startled yelp.

"For Frodo!" Ben proclaimed, pointing his blade at Catcher's chest with a dramatic flourish.

Val didn't know what a 'Frodo' was, but he remembered clearly watching the boys grow, honing their skills as they dueled across the backyard, shouting strange quotations back and forth.

Catcher grinned, relief evident in his bright eyes.

The dance had begun.

Val leaned his elbows on the railing, unable to fight the grin spreading across his face. He could feel it growing.

Fire.

Spirit.

His boys.

Dizzying speed, flashing blades. Barks of laughter and breathless counting of points.

Ben yelped, dodging a well-aimed blow. "First to ten?" He questioned, wheezing slightly. A bead of sweat rolled lazily down his forehead as he launched himself forward in a jabbing riposte.

"Can you handle it?" Catcher huffed, grunting as he took the blow on his arm.

A flash of quicksilver grin as Ben twisted away from his cousin's blade. "Absolutely."

"You're on."

Faster and harder, a dance that led them twirling, leaping, and lunging across the large yard, kicking up wet, brown leaves and dripping sweat as they played.

For Val, who had never even learned how to weild a knife particularly well, watching the Roslyn boys duel was like watching one of the epic battles of ancient stories. The masterful control of the blades; moving in quick flashes, almost faster than the eye could follow. Lunge, riposte, parry. The way they danced around one another, light on their feet, fire in their eyes – these were men who would be heroes. He knew it. He'd seen it.

He had seen quite a lot in his few years. Not much of it good.

Returning his attention to the duel, Val smirked, watching as Ben backpedaled away from Catcher as fast as he could, brandishing his saber. The shaggy-haired mechanic only needed one more point to win the duel. With a wicked grin, Catcher lunged, his blade darting forward faster that Val could follow.

Something flashed, dangerous and unnatural, in Ben's eyes. A snarl curled the corners of his lips. A flash of teeth, a warrior's cry. He lashed out and steel clanged viciously. Sparks exploded in his eyes and the strength of the blow sent the blade spinning from Catcher's hand.

Catcher gaped, staring at his suddenly empty hand. His eyes found the discarded saber, a good ten feet from where he stood. "Oh my God," he whispered, feeling the force of Ben's attack throbbing in his wrist.

Val jumped to his feet, gripping the splintered wooden railing with white-knuckles. Oh no. Oh God no.

The fire slowly faded from Ben's eyes. He swayed on his feet, his whole body hanging like a limp marionette from its strings. He shuddered, breathing hard. Sweat rolled down his face, clammy and unpleasant.

Catcher took a hesitant step forward. "Ben?" He asked quietly. What had he done? Oh, God, what had he done? "Ben?" He reached out, taking his cousin's limp hand, gently prying the saber out of his grip.

"DON'T TOUCH ME!"

Ben roared, a flare of violent fire burst behind his eyes. The wind picked up, the sky darkened. Without a second thought, Val hurdled the porch railing, pelting toward the boys.

Darkness gathered around the screaming Gatekeeper, a black, hazy void that surrounded him. Black fire blazing, licking at his skin.

"Stay back!" Ben threw up his hands, his face twisted with an animal's snarl, bearing his teeth as he drew Catcher to him by the shirtfront.

"Ben!"

Shoving Catcher, the Gatekeeper sent his cousin flying backwards with a cry. The giant of a man slammed into Val, taking them both to the ground with a low moan of pain.

"What the hell is happening to him?!" Catcher shouted above the howling wind.

"He's panicking!" Val shouted back, staggering to his feet. The wind tore at his clothes, stung his face. He'd never seen so much raw, tangled power. "Ben?!" Struggling forward, he screamed the Gatekeeper's name, waving his arms. '"Ben! You have to calm down!" He begged, struggling over the fierce, howling currents. "You need to stop!"

"BEN!"

Lunging forward, Val wrapped his arms around Ben with all his strength. The sheer agony of it burned, took his breath away with ferocity. He pressed his face into Ben's chest, keeping the Gatekeeper's arms pinned at his sides. "You have to stop this," he begged above the wind. "Please."

Tense muscles began to slacken, the wind died down and with it went the wretched screams. The dangerous fire in Ben's eyes died down to a vicious spark and the dark flames that licked his skin sputtered and went out.

The dark-haired boy swayed on his feet, propped up by Val who refused to release him. He groaned. "Wha… What just happened?" He froze. "Did I-?" He saw Catcher, picking himself up off the ground. His cousin's eye was bruised and puffy, his hair and clothes touseled. Looking down, he saw the thin cuts on Val's face and arms, the terror in the angel's eyes. "Oh my God…" He pushed Val away, stumbling, staggering. That spark in his eyes ignited itself once more, lit with the panic of an animal that knows it's caught. "Oh God…"

He stumbled backwards, holding up his hands, shaking his head.

"Ben," Val started forward. "It's all right. It's all right, everything's fine. You'll learn how to control it-"

"Stay back," Ben warned, eyes wild. "St-stay away from me!" With a cry of despair he turned and fled, fumbling his way down the embankment and into the sparse woods.

Catcher stood, exchanging a worried look with Val. The angels hands fell limply at his sides, the frustration and distress clear in his bright, bright eyes.

Running a hand through his hair, Catcher sighed. "Well, that went well." Val eyed him with a venemous glare. Catcher gestured after Ben, sweeping his hand as thought ushering Val through a door. "Do you want to go after him, or should I?"

"I'll talk to him," Val sighed, taking off at a brisk jog in Ben's general direction. Could it get any worse, he wondered.

Apparently it could.