Minuet noticed the fire first, as we were making our way down garbage-lined streets. I had stolen a new long scarf, and had it wrapped over my mouth, partly to escape the rotting smell that pervaded that particular narrow alley. I was adjusting the knot when she stopped and sniffed at the air.
"What is it?" Kronos asked, pausing at the mouth of the alley where it led out onto the main road; she had her thumbs stuck in her pockets, a habit which always made her look intolerably cool, and one that seemed to make all the gentlemen and ladies draw close. Needless to say, it was a move I tried myself, and everyone who didn't know me personally still kept their orbit of twenty paces away.
Damn you, gentlemen and ladies.
"Smoke…fire," Minuet said now, her chin tilted up as her nostrils flared to pull in some of the putrid air, her large eyes gleamed in the low light. She was the tallest of us, standing at eight or so feet without her studded boots. She was a half-giantess, the way all of us were. Well, we were all half-something: Kronos was half-elf, wiry and sharp; Helen was half-fairy, a tiny delicate character; and I had some ogre milling around my blood. That was another reason I wore my scarf over my lower face. Even now, people tended to be wary of the way my jaw jutted, and how my teeth curled out sharply over my lower lip. I hadn't inherited the cracked, scaly skin of a true ogre, but my eyes were still a disquieting yellow shade...unlike Kronos' captivating blue, or Helen's widely innocent grey. Even Minuet had a soft green shade that I envied deeply, even though she tried to tell me that yellow eyes were 'interesting'.
"Where?" Kronos turned and peeked down the road, as if the fire would suddenly display itself, flickering over the worn brick faces of the nearby abandoned buildings. Helen, who was standing as close as one person could stand to another without being declared conjoined, stared at right in Kronos' face instead of searching for a fire. Then again, Helen looked at Kronos all the time. I'm not sure if she really knew what Minuet or I looked like.
"Not close," Minuet rumbled and then made her way to where Kronos was turning her head from side to side, quick and curious as a bird. Helen cringed against Kronos as Minuet approached, and I made sure to give her a withering glance when I got near to them as well. Kronos, Minuet and I had been roaming these streets since we were small (or younger, in Minuet's case). Helen recently started to follow us around as we went from one corner of the town to the other, so I guess she wouldn't understand as yet, that as imposing as Minuet appeared, she was the most sensitive and gentle of us.
...except when she was bashing in the heads of the North Street gang, when they had made the mistake of trying to move in on our territory. Then, the use of her boots was inspiring; almost poetic, in a bone-smashing way.
Now, she raised an arm and pointed towards the east. I peered up and raised my eyebrows at the brilliant glow. No one could mistake it for the dawn, for sunrise nowadays was perpetually obscured by the low, almost oily smog. It was a blooming orange shade, the kind only seen in movies nowadays, and was probably the prettiest thing I'd seen in a long time, apart from Helen or my own brother.
"Where's that?" I asked, plucking my scarf a little so my voice wasn't too muffled. "The museum?"
"Nah." Kronos narrowed her eyes, and the pointed tips of her ears twitched. "Looks like... I think it's the Investigatorium."
Helen finally looked and nodded her confirmation; her eyesight was as good as Kronos's, probably better. When I'm stumbling around some house, trying to decide what's best to take, she and Kronos step through as if they've lived there for ages. At least she can tell which jewellery is paste as opposed to real precious stones, which is probably why Kronos kept her around.
Minuet glanced at me, and I shrugged. The Investigatorium was a massive building with wide columns guarding the front entry, like a library, or some other place of great learning. A lot of scientists went in and out of it daily; I knew that because I picked one of them one time, and his wallet had contained very little cash and a card that had declared him Dr. Wingweather, an expert in some DNA crap. I had tossed the wallet and used the money to buy a doll for my brother.
Kronos was bouncing on the balls of her feet, obviously wanting to head over there and mingle with any gawkers that had gathered. Now I could hear the wails of the fire-engines, and the gorgeous glow of the fire was joined by the red strobing of the emergency lights. I was just about to suggest that we sneak on over, when a loud explosion tore the air, almost dispersing the ever-present smog. We all just stood and stared at the massive wall of flames.
"Look!" Helen's finger trembled as she pointed to the sky above the Investigatorium. A ball of fire had been propelled out, streaking up and out like a massive shooting-star. I don't know what a shooting star really looks like, but from the books my brother Ribbit liked to read, I think I had a close idea.
"It's coming this way!" Kronos shouted, and she sprinted off without waiting for anyone else. Minuet reached out to help Helen, maybe offering to pick her up and run with her, but Helen batted away her hands and raced off as well. Minuet and I took off, and we skittered into the next alley just as the fireball landed right where we had been standing.
Kronos and Helen had sought shelter behind a battered dumpster, and Minuet was right behind me as I peeked around the wall. Something...someone was staggering out of the flames; they were burning.
"Sascha!" Minuet screamed at me as I dashed back out, heading towards the conflagration of a human being. I took off my long coat as I ran, my scarf slipping down to my neck and when I got to the person, I threw it around them and dragged them back from the miniature copy of the fire that was raging over at the Investigatorium. They fought me, but I was stronger than they were; still, it was a surprisingly hard task, and I gritted my teeth as I hauled them away from the heat and light. If I wasn't busy rescuing someone, I would have gazed at the fire for a bit longer. It was amazing. I would have to tell Ribbit about it when I got to the house later.
The person underneath my coat was now shrieking in a language I couldn't understand, and a long, thin arm escaped from the folds of the coat, waving wildly. I snatched it from off them, bracing myself for a view of a ruined face.
I wasn't prepared for the large brown wing that folded out and snapped across my face. I found myself sprawled out on the ground, gaping up at a naked young woman. She had short, curly brown hair and two massive wings of the same shade, which were now held up and outwards. The fire backlit her as she pointed at me, a snarl twisting her pretty lips.
"Do not touch me again, foul demon," she spat.
I blinked up at her, and then glanced up at Minuet, who had come to stand beside me. The normally paper-white skin on Minuet's face had gained bright red spots on her cheekbones, possibly from all the running around, and naked winged women in the streets.
"Not very grateful, is she, Min," I observed, and let Minuet grab me under the arms and drag me to my feet.
"You're naked," Minuet told the winged woman gently. "And she saved your life. The least you can say is thank you."
The combination of Minuet's imposing height and her soft voice must have disarmed the woman completely, for she dropped her hand and her wings wrapped around her nude frame.
"I would not have burned," she sniffed, turning her head away. Indeed, there wasn't a scorched inch on her, even though I had seen her aflame. Her hair and skin appeared perfectly fine. "But... thank you."
I didn't answer her. I took up my coat, which had a singed lining now, and handed it over to Minuet.
"Put it on," Minuet said, holding it out to her. "You can... fold your wings behind you. Sascha's coat is big enough for that."
The woman hesitated, and then took the coat from Minuet's massive hand. The wings shifted, making a sound like dry leaves over the hard pavement, and for a moment she was naked again. Minuet averted her eyes, and gave me a wry shake of her head when I gave her an amused wink and adjusted my scarf over my mouth.
"Who's she?" Kronos asked from behind us. I looked over my shoulder to where she was standing, Helen hanging onto her arm. "Where'd she come from? The Investigatorium?"
"I think she did," I answered and turned back to the woman, who was belting my coat around her waist. I missed it already; the air was kind of chilly. "Hey, what's your name?"
She folded her arms across her chest, and her eyes narrowed at me. "I am the Archangel Michael," she informed us. "The commander of the Holy host. I have returned to this plane, to rain judgement on the wicked and offer protection to penitent of the human race."
"There are no more real humans," Helen said, her voice thin against the background of the dying flame. "So you're out of luck, there, Mikey."
Kronos giggled at that, wiping the back of her hand across her nose. Minuet glared at them, but the... the angel looked absolutely devastated. Her skin was as dark as Helen's, and she was thin, almost gaunt.
"Did you come from the Investigatorium?" Minuet asked, and the angel's eyes flashed. She lifted her chin, appearing defiant once more.
"I escaped from that den of iniquity," she said and she gave me another pointed glare. "Where the most deceitful of monsters roam the halls."
"Right," I said, and turned away. "Keep the coat," I threw over my shoulder as I walked off. I wore a short, sleeveless vest underneath, and the skin of my arms was prickling with goosebumps. Behind me, I heard Minuet ask the angel where she was going to go.
Michael said, "I... I don't know."
For some reason, it was decided that Michael would stay at my place.
"What? No way!" I glared at Kronos and Helen, who glared back. "You can't expect me to keep her at my place."
"I will not go with you," Michael muttered from where she was leaning against the wall of another alleyway; it seemed as if this town of lost angels was full of little roads like this. "I refuse."
"Thanks for your opinion. It really counts. Seriously," I said, raising my voice in a threatening manner; it worked on most people, and Michael was no exception. She shifted away a little, giving me a defiant stare. Under my coat, her wings seemed to lurk in an almost menacing fashion. At a goblin party, she would fit right in with that back-hump, if it wasn't for the smooth skin on her face.
"Where's she going to stay, Sash?" Minuet looked at me with sorrowing eyes and I threw my hands up in the air. "Helen and Kronos live with their folks--"
"Lucky them," I grumbled.
"--and I don't have space for guests," she finished and then swallowed. I felt a bit ashamed at that; 'no space for guests' was a pretty sad euphemism for 'living in the abandoned subway lines'. "But you have your own building, Sash. She can stay with you."
I swallowed hard and looked down, staring at but not seeing the worn, cracked material of my boots. I had my own building because my step-father didn't want me in the main house. I didn't mind; my place was neat and open, and I got my meals from the kitchen, which I could see from the small patio of my apartment. As soon as I hit eighteen in another couple of years, I would be turned out. I heard my step-father swear that, at the stroke of midnight, I'd be out. I don't know where I'd go, but I'd figure it out. I hope. I wasn't even going to school regularly, so I had no hopes of getting a job...not that I wanted to work in some office, anyway. The only thing I wanted was to be able to see my brother.
"Fine," I said and Minuet gave me a massive hug, nowhere near as rib-cracking as it appeared. I extricated myself from her hold and jerked my chin at Michael before turning around and walking in the direction of my step-father's house.
"Later, Sascha!" Minuet yelled from behind me and I flapped my hand in her general direction. I didn't look around to see if Michael was following; I didn't hear her footsteps for that matter, but now and again I would pick up the rustle of dried up branches as she brushed past them.
Those dried branches began to gain leaves the further away we got from the city. As a general rule, I walk like a train; even Minuet had problems keeping up with me when I had it in my head to be somewhere. I don't like the city bus system, and I never got a ride from any of my step-father's drivers, so I just walked. Everywhere. Ogres have the legs for it, I guess.
The incline of the road got a bit steeper, the road itself became an avenue; the houses were set further apart, actual trees dotted the massive yards and the smog extractors were located on every roof. I didn't slacken on my pace one bit, but I still heard no footsteps behind me, no laboured breathing. I knew Michael was still back there, because I could see her shadow on the ground out of the corner of my eye, cast down by the brash streetlights.
I stopped and looked across the broad street to a brightly lit house, secure behind a tall fence. A few men dressed in black jumpsuits patrolled in front, and I waited until the right person was passing before making my move across the street.
"Sascha," Joseph said, stopping in his march as I reached to him, a grin under his long grey moustache. Joseph worked at this house since before my mother and I came here and he never...let's just say he always looked me in the eye and smiled. His warm gaze flickered over my shoulder and his easygoing demeanour faded. "Who's this?"
"Friend of mine," I answered and finally looked over at Michael. She was gazing at the house with an unreadable expression. "She's okay. I guess." Internally, I cursed Minuet's damned bleeding heart. She was always doing crap like this, picking up strays off the road and so on. She had nowhere to keep them, and yet she still tried. That was the nice thing about Minuet, apart from all the other nice things about her: she tried.
"Okay, Sascha," Joseph said and dug into his pocket. He dragged out a small black box and held it out for me. "This is for you."
I'm not going to lie: I clapped my hands like some kid and took it from his pale, spidery fingers, a trait of hobgoblin descent. Joseph was great at fixing all types of contraptions around the compound, and on top of that, he remembered birthdays.
"Happy birthday," he told me, and I grinned as I opened the box. The earrings were small, but pretty, bright clusters of red stones. I would probably never be able to wear them: the skin of my ears was too thick, and any pierced hole would close up again in hours. I would never sell them either, no matter what Kronos said we could get if we showed them to Vaster in his pawn shop. They were mine; Joseph gave them to me.
"Thank you," I told him, touching them reverently. "They're wonderful, Joseph." I smiled up at him again, and he nodded at me. He said I reminded him of one of his children. I don't know where he got that one from, but it made him happy to give me gifts he made for his dead daughter, and it made me happy to get them.
"It's your birthday?"
I pocketed the earrings and turned to Michael as the two sections of the enormous wrought-iron gates began to swing open. She was giving me that same look she had given my step-father's house.
"Yeah. Come on. Later, Joseph."
"How old are you?" Michael asked as I led her on the narrow path that led around to the back of the house. "You don't look as young as your friends."
"Thanks, that's always my aim." I stopped at the wooden stairs that led up to my apartment. The lower part of the small, square building was used as storage-room, and the doors were chained and locked. The sturdy stone structure supported the lighter walls of the place I had been living in since I was ten. "How old are you?"
"Ageless," she intoned as I clattered up the stairs. "I am--"
"I get it, I get it. Commander of the Holy host and so on. I heard you the--Ribbit!"
My little brother was sitting cross-legged in front of my door, a fur-lined jacket pulled over his pajamas, red rubber boots on his feet; he had one of his toys as company, a puppet he had been dancing across the floor of the landing. Ribbit grinned up at me as he got to his feet, all big brown eyes and crazy black curls. I rushed over to lift him up and hug him tightly; little arms snaked around my neck, the poor puppet crushed between us. In my whole life, Ribbit was the best thing ever. He was the only reason I came back to this place.
"Hi, Satta," he said, smiling as I drew back to look at his face, settling him easily on my hip. I brushed his hair away from his forehead, tucking a few strands behind his pointed ears. He was small for his age at four; he had also been unusually silent until quite recently, and had problems with speech. 'Ribbit' was his way of saying his own name, and nearly everyone called him that now.
"Birt'day," he said now, and presented me with his puppet. I swallowed hard, and took it from him. This was La-La, his favourite toy.
"For me?" I whispered, and rubbed my nose against his.
"For keeps!" he crowed and pressed a kiss to my cheek. I felt tears prickle at the corners of my eyes and blinked rapidly. He had stolen out of the main house (most likely with Joseph's help), climbed all those steps and waited for me to come home so he could give me a present. As usual, I swore to myself that if anyone even looked at Ribbit askance, I would tear them to pieces. I had the claws to back that threat up, too.
"Thank you so much for giving me La-La," I said as I set him on his feet. "Are you sure?"
He nodded so emphatically, his curls whipped against his honey-smooth cheeks. He spared Michael a brief glance as I took him by the hand and led him back down the stairs, walking with him back to the main house. I told him about the fire as we went. Ribbit gazed up at me in wonder, stumbling a little on the first step of the massive back patio. I stopped there, watching as he made his way to the back door and went on tiptoes to turn the knob.
"Night, Ribbit," I called, and I saw a pale flash of his palm as he waved. I clutched La-La close to my chest as I went back to my apartment, untangling the strings. Michael was standing in the shadows against my door, arms folded across her chest. I waved her out of my way, and reached into the front pocket of my jeans for the key.
"Who was that?" Michael asked. I didn't answer as I pressed up on the door-knob a little; the door stuck and that was the only way it would swing properly without scraping the floor. I flicked on a switch so that she wouldn't fall over the single step which led down into the sunken area, which held my narrow bed against one wall, a desk and chair beside it. The bathroom door was closed, but I knew it was clean because I'd scrubbed it yesterday. My mother had a habit of 'visiting' at random moments. The rest of the living area had a couch and a few chairs, all atop a large, frayed rug. I'd placed it there so the draft from the store-room below wouldn't bother me too much as it seeped through the spaces between the wooden floor joists.
"My brother," I finally said, dropping down into the couch, and tucking La-La against the single cushion. "Robert Taurean. Ribbit."
"He doesn't look like you. He's so lovely," she said, staring at the front door as if Ribbit would come hopping back through it. Then, she looked at me with her eyes wide, but she didn't say anything else.
"I know I'm hideous," I said, pulling down my scarf and giving her the widest grin I could manage. I felt bitterly triumphant as she glanced away. "And Ribbit is beautiful. That's just how it is."
"He is a true blessing," Michael said, rubbing her thin arms. "God has—"
"Please don't talk to me about any god," I snarled, leaning down to unlace my boots. "Don't even start. You came from the Investigatorium, so you know what that place is. People get created there. You were made there, just like everybody else. If there's any god, or even any church, it's that place."
"It's not!" Michael yelled and stomped to loom over me. "That place is wrong! It's bad! It and all the creatures of abomination deserved to burn."
"Were people in there when it caught fire?" I jumped up and shoved at her, glaring as she stumbled back. "Creatures like me? Don't you get it, you stupid bird, real humans don't exist anymore. You're a creature, Michael. So let's hope you weren't the one who set the Investigatorium on fire."
"Don't you dare speak to me that way." Her nostrils flared as she gave me a stare which was an obvious attempt to melt the skin from my bones. I had lots of practice from my step-father's manner of staring at me, so I didn't melt at all. "I was sent here for a purpose. This earth needs me to cleanse and—"
"What a lot of crap they put into your head," I said in wonder. "You really believe all that. That you're a real angel and not a creation of some investigatorian, based on… on a whim to put wings on a humanoid." I formed my lips into a small moue, an expression I'd spent an entire day perfecting. "I'm so sorry for you."
"Save your pity," she hissed, and the feathers in her wings shuddered with an air of self-righteousness.
"Michael, do you even know how to use those wings of yours?" I asked and she blinked rapidly at the change of conversation. "Do you?"
"I escaped in flight from that place," Michael said, but she sounded uncertain. I snorted.
"You were blown from it, and you fell like a rock," I said. "You were built strong, like everybody else on this planet, but I seriously doubt if anyone designed you to actually fly." I toed off my boots. "The Investigatorium has been around for hundreds of years. All our evolution? That place had a hand in it."
"Blasphemy," Michael muttered. I ignored her to go over to my tall chest-of-drawers. My mother told me that she was given it when she was leaving my father; her shame at having spent so much time in an ogre compound, willingly, had finally caught up with her, and she had returned to her fae-family with an odd, unwanted child in tow....and that wildly lovely piece of furniture. I don't remember my father, but apparently he was not as ogre-ish as he could have been. The chest-of-drawers looked like a massive tree-trunk, the drawer handles studded haphazardly up along the rough surface. I tugged on the second one from the bottom, on the left, and pulled out a t-shirt and a loose pair of pajama-bottoms. Julianna, the housekeeper, allowed me in the main house on Wednesdays to use the machine that pulled dirt from cloth, so these were nicely fresh.
I tossed the pajamas in her general direction, and went hunting for a pair of scissors. I was just about to give up and sneak into the main house, when I located one under the bed, which I used to cut two holes in the back of the shirt. I threw this at Michael too, and then went to take a shower. I don't know how wings were washed, nor did I care. I just let her take her own bath while I found some extra sheets and made up a bed for her on the couch.
There was a lamp beside the couch that I left on when I rolled into bed, taking La-La with me. I had turned off the overhead light, and with my back to the rest of the room, I couldn't tell where she was when she came back into the main room, what with that noiseless manner of walking she had. I only heard when she got into the couch, pulled the thin sheets over, and clicked off the lamp.
I was luckier than most teens my age and type, I suppose: I got fed regularly; I had a parent that I saw from time to time and the best brother in the world. I also had my own place, and the land that stretched behind the storage-house was pretty in a gloomy kind of way, spindly grass that seemed afraid to grow up towards the low-hanging smog. I woke up the morning after my eventful birthday and didn't see Michael in the couch…but I did see Ribbit standing by the back window, a doll clutched in one fist as he peered out back.
"Morning, Ribbit," I yawned, grinning as he turned around to race over to me. He leaped into the bed, still wearing his rubber boots and crawled up to hug me, placing his doll beside La-La to leave his hands free. Our mother and his father must have gone on some business trip, for Ribbit wouldn't be allowed to escape so many times in two days.
"Satta," he whispered in my ear, very loudly. I grimaced, but did not move away. "Satta, angle."
"Angle?" I swung my legs out of bed and walked over to where he had been standing, half-hearing his scramble in my wake. I looked out between the crooked blinds and spotted Michael standing very still, almost at the far end of the enclosed field. Her wings were stretched out to their impressive span and I groaned, hoping that the compound's closed-circuit system wasn't picking her up at that distance… and even if they were, I hoped Joseph was manning the desk.
"Angle," Ribbit repeated, tucking in close to my side and looking out the window again. I put my hand on his head, feeling the soft curls against my rough palm.
"Angel, Ribbit. Angel."
Ribbit thought about the word very hard, and then said it again properly, his tongue and teeth trying their very best to work around the sounds. I petted his hair; Joseph told me that the Boss, my step-father, had brought in a speech-therapist for Ribbit. He was learning how to talk properly, but it seemed to be a laborious process. I heard that sometimes Ribbit cried after the sessions, and I longed to find the therapist and kick them in the face.
We looked out again, watching as Michael raced across the field, stumbling now and again over hidden rocks. She made one strenuous bound and her wings snapped out, once, twice... but she gained only a few seconds of lift before falling to the ground hard, tumbling over and over again.
"Oh!" Ribbit put his hands over his mouth. "Poor angel!"
I was about to drag on some clothes and go out there, but we watched her get up, her wings drooping as she brushed the grass from her knees and smoothed her hair from her face. She was still in the nightclothes I had given her, and they hung off her form in an alarming fashion. Did she eat? What could she eat?
"Beautiful," Ribbit said, enunciating carefully. That was his current favourite word. "Beautiful."
"Yes," I agreed. "She's very beautiful."
There must have been something in my voice, for Ribbit looked up at me, his sharp little chin pressing into the side of my thigh.
He said, "Satta beautiful," very solemnly, and I smiled down at him.
"Come on." I lifted him up and carried him out of my apartment. "Let's go find some breakfast."
Julianna scolded him when we got into the main house of the kitchen, but he refused to go upstairs and change his clothes. He hung around as I packed some food into some containers, and took my hand again as I headed back out.
"Master Ribbit," Julianna said in scandalized tones. "Your father said you should stay in the house."
"No," Ribbit said and pouted, tugging me towards the door. "Satta, I go," he informed her and Julianna turned to me, obviously wanting me to tell him to stay.
"He'll be fine, it's not like as if my room is far away," I said, grinning. "If I don't tell Boss Branlie, and you don't tell Boss Branlie, then how will he know?" Julianna narrowed her eyes and, grumbling, went back to her chores. Ribbit and I marched out with the manner of conquering royalty, the image only spoiled by us giggling along the way. When we climbed back up to my apartment, we found Michael sitting cross-legged on the floor, her wings wrapped around her.
"Here's some food," I said, putting the containers on the low table that was placed in front of the couch. "It's breakfast. You eat regular food, right?"
Michael was silent for a long time, and Ribbit got down on all fours, crawling towards her curiously. He always wanted to know things, my Ribbit, and he had once managed to escape the compound and onto the main road when he was two, walking stolidly towards the city. Boss Branlie had worked himself into a fine rage that time, tempered only by the soft words of my mother; ostensibly, Ribbit had wanted to know where I had gone. Even though we lived apart, Ribbit seemed to sense that there was some connection between us, and regularly sought me out. If there was only one reason I loved him so much, this would be it: he loved me first.
"I can't fly," Michael murmured, and Ribbit paused in his sly sneaking up to her. "I've been trying. What is my purpose, then? Why did God put me here? I'm supposed to fly."
"I keep telling you, your god had nothing to do with it. The Investigatorium—"
"My beliefs are my own," Michael said, lifting her head to glare at me. "I have a purpose, there is a plan for me. God knows this." She cleared her throat, and seemed to gain some confidence. "I may not know what that plan is now, but in time, it will be clear."
"Keep telling yourself that." I indicated to the stacked containers with one hand. "There's fruit and other stuff in that one, I didn't bring any meat. I'm gonna change my clothes."
When I came out of the bathroom, I found that Ribbit had managed to install his little self in Michael's lap. He had the opened container clutched in one hand, and was carefully handing out bits of food to her with the other, watching her narrowly as she ate. Every time she attempted to refuse, Ribbit would simply give her another until she gave in and consumed it.
"Angle, eat, beautiful," he rambled, and sprinkled some peanuts into her palm. "Angle."
"Why does he talk like this?" Michael asked, not looking up at me as I huffed out in amusement.
"He just can't talk properly yet," I said. "That's just how he is."
Michael nodded slowly and ate her handful of peanuts. I watched as she brushed her hand along the feathers of her closest wing, stroking down the feathers a few times. Then she touched Ribbit's throat, a quick press of long fingers, then to each of his temples.
"What are you doing?" I stepped towards her, confused and alarmed. "You better not be—"
"Ribbit?" Michael asked. "How do you feel?"
"Fine," Ribbit answered, and held out another bit of fruit to her. "You should eat some more. You're too skinny, and people who are too skinny get sick real easy. That's what Julianna says. I don't know if that's true though."
I stumbled and nearly fell flat on my face. My eyes felt as if they were inches away from falling out of my head. I had never heard Ribbit speak in full sentences before and not ever so clearly.
"How did you do that?" I whispered, and only distantly realized I had put my hands on my face, palms pressing against my cheeks.
Michael shrugged, and her wings shifted up and down with the movement. "I don't know. I felt like I could, so I did. Ribbit?"
"Yes?" He smiled up at her, trustingly.
"Do you love your sister?"
Ribbit turned to look at me. "I love Sascha," he said, and tears filled my eyes. He was saying my name properly, but still with that tone he always used. "Sascha is the best."
"Do you think he'll always be like this?" Michael said to me over his curly head. They looked so much more like siblings than Ribbit and I ever did, same wide dark eyes and smooth brown skin. "Don't you think that one day, he'll see you the way everyone else does?"
"I don't care," I told her, not snarling like I wanted because I didn't want to scare Ribbit. "If you think your purpose here is to save the world from itself, that's fine. That's okay. My purpose is to love my brother, no matter what happens." I was breathing hard because I didn't want to burst into tears. "That's my purpose," I repeated. "That's my purpose."
In a contemplative, almost distant tone, Michael said, "I think God let me meet you for a reason. In that place, I forgot many things. I saw monsters all the time, and I vowed to rid the world of their evil. But what of their hearts? What of their love?"
I said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'm thirsty." Her smile was tired. "You didn't bring anything to drink. Can I get some water?"
I nodded, and staggered out, hearing Ribbit's piping little voice as he hassled her to eat some more. When I returned with a pitcher of water and a glass, my apartment door was standing open. La-La and Ribbit's doll stared accusingly from my bed.
Michael and Ribbit were gone.
"I called the Boss," Joseph said after I ran to him in panic a few minutes later. "He and your mother will be here in three hours. I don't… I can't understand how she managed to get past these men."
I looked at the men who were sitting in the guardhouse, clutching at their stomachs or heads. I could have told Joseph that even on my worst day, none of these men were any match for me, but that wasn't important now. I had known Michael was strong enough, because it had been so difficult to pull her away from the fire. I should have told Joseph; I shouldn't have left Ribbit with her. Where could she have gone? The first place I searched was out in the back field, but it had been completely empty, and the surrounding wall seemed too tall for her to climb while holding onto a small boy. Still, she had overcome five physically powerful men, so anything was possible.
"I can't wait for them," I said to Joseph and raced out onto the street, my boots clomping heavily. "You call the police!" I yelled at him over my shoulder. "I'm going to look!"
I found Minuet hanging around beside Vaster's.
"She took off with Ribbit," I said to her, holding my side. It was the fastest I had ever raced down from my step-father's compound. Minuet's pale face went even paler, something I had not known was possible. "Min, I have to find them, she could be anywhere."
Minuet looked down in my face, and then shook her head. "There's only one place she knows in the city," she told me and my chest felt so tight, I could barely breathe. I turned and took off, not waiting for Minuet to follow me to the Investigatorium. The building was still standing, but its entry was burned dark with soot and there were warning tapes stretched around the silent structure. A crowd had gathered behind the barricades, though, pointing. I looked up, and what I saw propelled me to shove my way forward, Minuet helping by reaching over my head and simply plucking people out of the way.
"Michael!" I screamed as I got to the front. "Michael, don't hurt him! Bring him down from there!"
At the highest point of the ruined building, at the very top of the copper dome, Michael stood firm against the prevailing wind. Something red sparked in her earlobes; I realized that they were the birthday earrings that Joseph had made for me, but they were so far down in my consideration right now. I could see Ribbit hanging tightly around her neck, shivering even though her wings were wrapped around him. The police-sirens shrieked in their approach, but I didn't think they would be too much help right now.
"Michael!" I screeched again, my voice breaking. "Please!"
"Do you love him?" she called down, bending forward a little as though she was sharing a secret, though everyone could hear her voice as it echoed off the taller buildings that hemmed in the Investigatorium. "Do you love your brother?"
"I told you already!" I yelled back. "I love him more than anything!"
"Look at her," Michael said and I grasped that she was addressing the rest of the crowd. Some of them indeed turned to inspect my face, tears streaming from my yellow eyes and dripping over my large teeth. In my mental agony, I had completely forgotten my scarf. "Look at how her love makes her beautiful."
She spread her wings, and held Ribbit up to the air, as if offering him up to the smog. The wind howled, and then the heavy grey clouds parted; bright sunlight pierced through and illuminated them. The crowd murmured and I squinted, unaccustomed to the pure quality of the light.
"If you love him, then believe," she said. "Believe you can catch him."
She threw him out, and my brother was eerily silent as he described a wide arc in the air, descending rapidly. He would land right in front of the steps of the Investigatorium; for one tortuous second, there was a clear image in my mind's eye, that of his body crumpled still and broken on the pavement.
I ripped right through the cordon and sprinted; then I leaped. While I was good at walking, at running, I was never as light on my feet as Helen or Kronos, but I sprung as far and as hard as I could. I reached and cried out as he landed safely in my arms, twisting as I went down. Landing heavily on my side, I cupped the back of Ribbit's head as we rolled, trying to protect him. I had been crying all that way, and still wept openly as I got to my knees, trying to spot any injuries. I couldn't really check properly because he was wailing too, holding on tightly to me.
I managed to look in his face, brushing away his hair from his face and wiping his tears away with my thumb. Against his perfect skin, my claws looked monstrous.
"You caught me, Sascha!" he kept saying in his now marvelously clear speech, his eyes shining with love and awe. As long as he lived, that was the way Ribbit looked at me; he also insisted that it was I who had helped him talk better, and would stare at me with deep bewilderment when I tried to remind him of Michael.
"Sascha," Michael said from on high. "Sascha."
I stood up shakily, holding Ribbit close and gazing up at the roof. Michael was still lit by that strangely direct sunbeam, almost on fire with it.
"Sascha," she said, "do you believe in me?"
I nodded and her smile was radiant. In a few moments, I could hardly see her; the sunlight became so shockingly bright, awful in its beauty.
"Thank you," I heard her say, and her wings beat in the air.