Leather skin stretched between delicate bones, extended to their fullest, and printed on the back of a black t-shirt. Mocking him. Alec stared at the design on the girl's back that even partially obscured by magenta hair was too easily visible.
Humans were stupid sometimes. Alec knew that. He'd been around a while. Sometimes humans were stupid, and sometimes dogs were stupid, and birds were stupid, and wolves, and even cats, the arrogant bastards. Alec knew this, so he could forgive the random girl her fashion sense—although it was awful.
He knew that everything under the sun was stupid sometimes, so he should forgive an Angel who thought the same thing as a teenage girl. It was just a stupid mistake.
But humans could take off the wings with the shirt and toss them to be washed clean. Angels needed to be more careful.
His back itched.
Alec managed not to think about the incident for the next few hours, until he made it into work that evening. But the printed fabric popped into his head once more when he saw the heavy black attire most of the patrons were wearing. He forced a smile and slid behind the bar. All he had to do was serve beer for a few hours and he could go home. Maybe by then, he wouldn't be thinking about it anymore.
Two hours later found him waving acrid smoke out of his face and frowning at the woman who'd blown it in his face. "Cherry," he said. "What are you doing here? And where's Ryder?" He looked away from her for a moment and scanned the crowd. He didn't see Cherry's partner anywhere, and at over six foot with the muscles of a gorilla, he was hard to miss. He wasn't there.
She blew another cloud of smoke at him and he scowled. "Oh, lighten up," she said, taking yet another drag on her cigarette and pulling one out of her jacket to give to him. "Here, this'll help."
He frowned at it. "You aren't allowed to smoke in here, you know." He flicked the offered cigarette away. While Alec was fairly certain he wouldn't sustain any lung damage or addiction stemming from them, he had never been able to get over the guilt of making everyone else choke. He hadn't smoked since the 1970's.
Cherry ignored him and stuck the cigarette between her lips. "Ryder's around," she said vaguely. "That's not why I came here. We'd like to ask for…your assistance with a little something."
Alec's frown deepened. Neither Cherry nor Ryder liked him. They thought he was weak and soft, and they were probably right. He never cared much for them, either, and ever since Aki had returned home, he'd barely seen them.
He should have known they were plotting something.
"With what?" he asked. "And are you going to order something or not? I'm working."
She sighed and waved her hand. "Fine, fine. Vodka. On the rocks."
Alec started pouring her drink without turning away. "That's seven bucks," he said. "And you might want to tip if you want me to listen to you."
Cherry handed him a ten and brushed her bleach blonde hair out of her face when she retracted her hand. "We have a plan to go back."
"Home," she said, smirking, the dim lighting reflecting off the lipstick as red as her namesake, as red as the hair that fell in Alec's face.
That sounded more dubious than anything. Fallen had been looking for a way to do that for millennia and nothing had ever turned up. The desire never made any sense to him. Heaven was Heaven. They had all left it for a reason, even if they ended up regretting it.
"How?" he demanded.
Cherry laughed, a deep, throaty sound that he half expected to end in a smoker's cough. It didn't. "Oh, come now, Alec. You don't honestly expect me to tell you that, do you? I don't trust you half enough to share that information."
"Then why do you want my help?" He folded his arms over his chest and leaned back against the shelves of alcohol behind him. His coworker, Lisa, glanced over at him and tilted her head to one side, asking if he was all right. He held his hand up in acknowledgement and dismissal. Cherry wouldn't hurt him. And if she was inclined to do so, Lisa wouldn't be any help.
She shrugged. "We need a third to assist with some of the procedures." Cherry swallowed her drink in one long swig and set the empty glass back on the bar, inspecting her midnight blue nails.
"You know, if we can manage this, we might get all of our memories back. I know how you want yours."
Alec pressed his lips together instead of responding. Her voice was too honey sweet. "I'll have to think about it. When are you planning this?"
"We'll need your answer by the weekend," she said, putting her cigarette out on the polished wood countertop. It left a dark burn mark that Alec hoped he wouldn't get yelled at for.
When he finally got home that night, he kicked off his clothes at the door and headed to his bed naked. He was too tired to pick his clothes up, too confused and pensive to do anything else. He needed to rest so he could think in the morning. Or the afternoon, which was more likely. It was already the wee hours of the morning.
Cherry thought she had the secret to their memories…huh.
He opened his bedroom door, intent on heading to bed.
He jumped at the sound of a male voice and turned to see the man sitting on his bed. Man was probably the wrong word. His guest hadn't been human in a long time.
"What are you doing here?" he managed, splaying his hands out in front of him as he tried to figure out what to do with them.
"Why aren't you wearing anything?" Akiel asked, standing up and straightening out the long, white robe he wore. It contrasted with his dark hair and eyes, and Alec had never seen him in white, but he didn't comment on the new attire.
"Because I didn't expect to run into anyone in my bedroom!" Alec said, throwing up his hands. "Why are you here? I thought you went back to Heaven months ago. Where's Kitiel?"
"Waiting for me. I came straight here."
"And why are you here? You still haven't gotten to that yet."
Akiel nodded and waved Alec to the bed. Alec took a seat and pulled the blankets well past his waist. He wasn't exactly embarrassed, but comfortable wasn't the right word, either. "I'm here," Akiel said, sitting down at the foot of the bed, "because I've heard some things about Cherry and Ryder. We're not entirely sure what they're up to yet, but they've gotten their hands on something they shouldn't have. Kit and I were sent to stop whatever they're doing."
"And you're…in my bedroom…why?"
"I came to ask for your help, Alec."
Alec frowned. "Why? Why would you need my help? You were down here for decades. You know your way around as well as I do. And you know those two as well as I ever did. You know they don't like me."
Akiel acknowledged that with a nod. "I know. But you can help us stop him. Kitiel…isn't very talented at combat. He's not used to it. And Cherry and Ryder are going to make it a fight."
Alec glanced away. "Why should I?" he asked.
"Because it's the right thing to do, Alec."
Alec scowled at that and clenched his blanket in one hand.
Akiel sighed. "Jason misses you. I came to see him…after I returned. He talks about the time he spent with you incessantly." Akiel gave him a leery glance. "I hear way too much about you, old friend."
"I'm sure he misses me," Alec agreed softly. "I knew he would."
Akiel shook his head. "I have the same cell number as last time I was around. Call me, we'll set something up. I've got to get back to Kitiel before he asks someone the wrong thing." The Angel shook his head. "He still isn't used to how things run around here."
Akiel nodded, gave Alec a smile, and then left without another word. Alec felt him leave the apartment and turned his light off.
Akiel and Cherry, both in one night. Something serious was going on, and he was directly in the middle of it.
The park was starting to get dark early. Alec hadn't noticed the changing of the seasons—they happened too fast and too often for him to care much—but sitting in one of the city's parks and watching his long gray scarf get caught in the wind over and over again reminded him that autumn was reigning.
A few people shuffled by his bench, huddled against the chilly wind, hurrying home from wherever they had been. It took a certain kind of person to like the dark. Even in Heaven, the safest place imaginable, Jason had always been jumpy after dark had fallen.
Alec had always wondered about the reason behind that. Nothing had ever happened to him after dark; he had made sure of that. But Jason clung to him anyway. Alec had wondered if the behavior could be leftover from his human days, but how could it be, when Angels didn't remember that?
That wasn't entirely true, Alec reminded himself with a sigh. But those that remembered anything were much older and higher ranking than either Jason or Alec, and they had earned their memories back…somehow. No one had ever explained how the process worked, or why the memories were taken in the first place.
He hoped someone was taking care of Jason while he was gone. He wasn't in danger, but humoring him made Jason calmer and Alec had been happy to oblige.
He should have asked Akiel how Jason was doing. He would have known. Maybe he'd ask when they saw each other. Even if he never called Akiel, Alec had no doubt that he would see the Angel again soon.
But first, he needed to figure out if he wanted to or not. When Akiel came calling, he had to have his decision made. And Cherry, too. He wasn't sure he was going to be honest with either of them. Akiel probably deserved honesty if nothing else, but there was no way that saying "no," to either one of them was going to end well for Alec.
Neither one of them had solid promises for him, which would have made his decision a little easier. Akiel had no idea what He was thinking, and Cherry didn't know what she could accomplish. And neither of them had given him any specifics about what they wanted him to do.
He sighed. Evaluating which was a better deal didn't work when it came to these kinds of decisions. He had to figure out who he wanted to help. It shouldn't have been hard; a old friend against an old enemy, but he didn't even know why Akiel wanted his help.
He was still torn two days later when Akiel showed up at his door, this time with Kitiel in tow. Alec sighed, but let them both inside. "What do you want now?"
Akiel raised both his eyebrows. "I thought you would know that."
Alec shrugged. "I can help you, I guess," he said. "What do you need?"
Akiel smiled brightly, but the silver-haired Angel at his side frowned. Alec forced his eyes back to Akiel before Kitiel became any more suspicious. "Great," Akiel said. "Do you know when Cherry and Ryder are going to make their move?"
"Why do you know that?" Kitiel asked.
Alec met his gaze without hesitation. "Why do you think?"
"That is why I am curious."
Akiel glanced at his partner for a moment. "Kit?" he asked.
Kitiel looked over at him and they shared a long, communicative glance before both of them turned back to Alec. Alec tried to ignore the roiling in his gut. "He's right, Alec," Akiel said. "Neither of them trusted you a few months ago. What happened? Are you sure they aren't lying?"
"They said they wanted my help. I couldn't help them if they lied to me about that."
"Unless the help they wanted was for you to misinform us," Akiel murmured. "But I don't think that's likely. Saturday will be twelve days. It makes sense."
Alec shrugged. He didn't know anything about that, and if Kitiel wanted to be suspicious of him, he was glad that Akiel had other reasons to believe him. "Twelve days? Since what?" he asked.
Akiel glanced up at him before turning away. "No offense, Alec, but you don't need to know that."
Of course he didn't. Alec nodded tightly and pressed his lips together tightly. What was he supposed to say to that?
"Well," Alec said finally. "They also said something about the church on 7th Street, so you might want to be there before midnight."
"The church?" Kitiel asked. "Why? There is nothing special here. I would think that they would head to a holy place to…enact their plans."
Alec resisted rolling his eyes. He knew it would probably only upset Akiel and that wouldn't get him anyway. "I know," he said. "But it's still holy ground, and I don't think they want to make anyone suspicious. They probably don't know you're here yet. Doesn't mean they're unprepared, but they're trying to keep things low-key."
Akiel nodded. "That makes sense," he agrees. "I'll see you there."
"Yeah," Alec agreed. "You will."
Friday night came and Alec called in to work, hanging up when his boss pressed him for a reason. He probably didn't have a job after that, but something told him that no matter how things turned out, he wouldn't need one anymore.
He dressed in his loosest clothing before heading out to the church, knowing that he would probably end up in a physical confrontation of some kind. He wore his heavy boots and a t-shirt that was already stained, not bothering with a jacket. The chill wouldn't bother him, and a coat would only get in the way.
The churchyard was quiet when he arrived, empty. He didn't see Cherry or Ryder anywhere, and Akiel and Kitiel evidently hadn't shown up yet, either. He peered around the grounds and went inside the unlocked sanctuary. It, too, was empty.
At least that meant there wouldn't be anyone in the way of whatever was going to go down. He looked up at the cross nailed to the front, dim fluorescent lights glowing behind it to keep it out of the darkness.
He was contemplating finding a light switch when he heard Ryder's rough growl behind him. "So you did show up."
Alec made a show of turning around calmly. "Of course I did." A smaller, slimmer figure stood next to Ryder's bulk. It had to be Cherry. Where were Akiel and Kitiel? "So, what do you need me for?"
Cherry and Ryder exchanged glances before Cherry nodded and pulled something out of her jacket. "Three of us are required to activate this. You don't need to do a thing but let us take a bit of your blood and make sure no one stops the two of us while we do the rest."
Alec took a few steps closer and peered at the object in Cherry's hand. It was difficult to see, but the long, slender key of white gold was recognizable anyway. Alec felt his jaw drop open and didn't bother to try to close it. "How did you get ahold of that?"
His hushed tone made Ryder smirk. "We have our ways."
"Ways that involved the deaths of several Angels." All three of them looked away from the Key to the doorway where Kitiel's voice came from.
Alec gaped at him. "Deaths?" he asked. "Of Angels?"
Kitiel didn't answer him. Alec took a few steps away from Cherry and Ryder. A Fallen was the only thing that could truly kill an Angel—true death, that only He knew anything of—but it was difficult. Alec wasn't sure he'd ever actually heard of a Fallen managing it before.
Ryder snarled and closed the distance again. "You sold us out."
Alec shook his head and retreated again. "No, they already knew. I didn't know anything to tell them."
"Ryder," Cherry said sharply. "Calm down, honey. He's right. We can still use him. Can't we, Alec?"
Instead of saying anything, Alec stared dumbly between her face, the Key, and Akiel's form at the back of the church. Why wasn't he coming closer? Didn't he want the Key back? Didn't he want to punish Cherry and Ryder? Wasn't that his job?
All four of them stared at him instead of each other. This wasn't how it was supposed to go! They were supposed to be fighting. They didn't have to just stare at him until he did something. Since when did anyone care what his decision was, anyway?
"No," he said finally. "You can't use me. And if you can't use the Key without a third, than Akiel and Kitiel can just take it back and everything can be resolved."
That didn't stop them from staring at him, and finally Cherry stalked towards him. "I don't think you understand, kid. We don't have to have your agreement. Hell, with the way things work around here, it might be even better if we don't. We just need your blood." She flung out her hand at him and he flew to the floor. A few more steps and one of her feet was firmly planted on his chest. "Now sit tight."
"That's not going to happen, you realize," Akiel replied. "Did you think we were expecting Alec to do everything for us? Kit?"
The room flared white for a moment and Alec shut his eyes against the light. When he opened them again, both of the Angels were at the altar and he, Ryder, and Cherry were all covered with white feathers.
"Ryder! Stall them!" Cherry demanded, pulling a blade out of her waist band and cutting Alec's collarbone open.
"Already working on it, babe. Hurry," Ryder replied with a grunt. Alec couldn't see around Cherry and Ryder's wings, but he could hear the heavy thud of flesh on flesh. If Ryder was keeping both of them busy, Akiel hadn't been exaggerating about Kitiel's uselessness in a fight. He reached his arms up to grab the foot still pressing him into the carpeted floor.
It didn't move when he tried to force it off. Cherry was heavier than her slight body suggested. She rolled her eyes and pinned his arms down with one hand before wiping his blood onto the Key.
She grinned as she stepped back and held the Key arm's length from her body. "Now," she said. "Now, things will finally change."
Alec groaned as he made his way to his feet. The cut hurt more than it should have, the length of it notwithstanding. It burned and stung. It had felt like modern steel, not stone, and he wasn't an Angel. He wasn't vulnerable to unholy objects, if there were any even made out of steel.
"Alec!" Akiel called, finally managing to pin Ryder beneath him with Kitiel's help. "Stop her!"
"Just—get the Key out of her hands!"
Alec stared at the Key for a moment; watching it begin to glow, the light growing brighter. "I, uh…" He reached forward and placed his hands on the handle, above Cherry's hands, and yanked.
The Key didn't budge, but he wasn't about to stop trying. He pulled again, harder, leaning all of his weight against Cherry's grip. She snarled at him and pulled back as the Key grew brighter and hotter.
"This is juvenile," she hissed. "Let go."
"So is the way you're acting. You made your choice, didn't you? Why do you even want to go back to Heaven?"
Cherry smirked. "So that I can make it my paradise, you idiot. Isn't that what everyone wants?"
"No." He kicked at her, but nearly unbalanced himself in the process and didn't get any power behind the blow.
The Key grew hotter still, to the point of pain. Alec gritted his teeth against it. He could let go of it as soon as he had it out of Cherry's hands. He twisted his wrists, trying to lever it out of her grips, but she adjusted it and kept her grasp.
And with that, the room went white and Alec's hands slipped off. When he could see again, the Key was red-hot and Cherry was lying on the ground in front of him. Kitiel was staring at the Key, blocking it from Cherry and Ryder, but not willing to touch it, either.
Akiel was holding out a hand to him. Alec took it and made it to his feet. "What happened?"
"You lied!" Cherry said. "You tricked us. That had Angel blood on it."
Alec stared at her. "What does that have to do with me?" he asked. "You killed Angels to get your hands on the Key. Maybe…Maybe it was…Cephas'." Alec bit his lip. He hadn't considered the possibility of Cephas being one of the dead, but he was the guardian of the Key and the Gates. He wouldn't let it out of his sight.
Akiel rested his hand on one shoulder. "No, he survived."
Alec eyed him suspiciously. "He would have rather died than—"
"Yes, well, there are others who wouldn't rather he sacrifice himself."
"It has to be yours," Cherry said, making her way to her feet. "We made quite sure not to contaminate it."
She glared at him and hissed something that Alec didn't quite catch under her breath before he screamed.
He heard the thin cotton of his shirt rip apart, making way for his wings to emerge from his back. They unfurled without his permission, stretching out the cramps of being kept hidden for so long, tingling with the power Cherry had used to pull them out.
"What did you just do?" he asked hoarsely.
"I knew it," Cherry snarled. "I knew it. You were never the type to Fall."
Akiel gaped at him. "Alec," he asked. "When…ah, when did you last…check your wings?"
Alec frowned and glanced over his shoulder at his wings before freezing into speechlessness.
Instead of the desiccated, leathery wings he had seen the last time he'd flown, they were covered in smooth, white feathers. "I…I don't…I couldn't stand to see…what had…what had happened to them," he managed, crumpling back to the ground. "I never looked at them. Not for ages."
He blinked back wetness in his eyes.
Akiel smiled. "Well, it looks like you probably should have. Let's get you home."
Kitiel pressed his lips together and eyed Alec carefully. "Yes, that is a good idea. But we have to bring the Key and those two. Surely there has to be a punishment for this."
Akiel nodded contemplatively and Alec sat back against the wall, letting it support him. He was too drained to stand, and his collar was still burning. "Well, let's hurry, then. It's been too long."
Kitiel reached down and picked the Key up, dangling it between his fingers and eyeing it carefully. "Hurry up and tie them up or something, then," he said. "I want to go home."
Alec nodded, stumbling to his feet. Akiel was already binding Cherry and Ryder with silvered chains. "Yeah," he croaked. "Me, too."