The house where Gabriel grew up was warm and inviting. In the living room a floral couch was offset by peach cushions and behind them a warm fire crackled in the hearth.
When his mother had opened the door and seen Gabriel standing there, Aurora feared the woman was going to faint. At first, she simply stared at him, but then tears rolled down her cheeks. As she pulled him, in his father appeared and when he saw his son, he too had been left speechless. Aurora expected them shout, to be angry, at least at first, but there had been none of that. Just relief, love and forgiveness. The essence of family.
Aurora was alone in the living room with Gabriel’s mother Rose while he and his father had gone out the back to start a barbecue. Instinctively she walked over to the flames and warmed her hands. On the mantle stood an endless array of framed photos, a tribute to their family. Among them were pictures of Gabriel as a child and she couldn’t help smiling at one that showed him squeezing a ginger cat, freckles sprinkled across his face like warm cinnamon. She moved along the mantle and grinned at another of him as a teenager standing in an awkward pose, his eyes hooded with confusion. It was like looking through a secret window at all the parts of him she had missed. It was the story of his life, right up until she had inadvertently ended it. She took a breath and tried to shake off her guilt. It was time to look forward, not back. They would be okay, he loved her. Everything would be fine. She leaned in and looked closely at an image of Gabriel as a young man, sword in hand at a fencing championship, and another of him swinging a baseball bat. There were later images of him taken in his Army uniform tangled up beneath the arms of a group of soldiers, their smiles wide and honest. He looked happy and another pain stabbed at Aurora’s heart. Gabriel had enjoyed a joyful and purposeful life before the Council had turned him. Had it not been for her he would have met a woman, fallen in love and become a wonderful father. Now any chance of that was gone. She closed her eyes and sighed. She hated what their relationship had cost him but if Lucius was right, the Reapers were going to try and decimate the Earth. Maybe the price he had paid was small in comparison to the cost of not fighting. Maybes… There was so many of them she could barely keep track. She opened her eyes and looked at the last framed image. Gabriel standing with his arm draped around the shoulder of another young man. They shared the same golden highlights in their hair, the same curved jaw and the same light in their eyes, the kind that came from being loved unconditionally. She turned to Gabriel’s mother. “You must be so proud of your family. Is this other man Gabriel’s brother? He never mentioned having any siblings.”
The woman’s eyes clouded and sadness fell across the room the way an unexpected cloud could block the sun. “I can’t say that surprises me,” she whispered. “Gabriel finds it hard to talk about his brother. He still blames himself.”
“Blames himself? Oh, I’m sorry Mrs Stone I had no idea…”
“Please, call me Rose. And of course you didn’t. How could you? Gabriel keeps his emotions very close to his chest, although I’m sure you must know that by now.”
Aurora was shocked to realise that Gabriel had a brother. She thought about all the times she had burdened him with how much she missed her sisters and the guilt he must have felt for killing Stefan and yet he had never said a word.
“They were twins, Christopher the eldest by just a few minutes.” The woman smiled as she remembered her sons. “They were both wonderful boys and they served their country well. It had taken some convincing for Gabriel of course, but once he made up his mind, he committed everything to the service.”
“Convincing? How do you mean?”
“Well, when Gabriel was young he wasn’t like Chris. In fact, he wasn’t even like his father.”
As Rose spoke, Aurora sat down on an armchair and leaned in, eager to hear more.
“He was a thoughtful boy, emotional and easily hurt. He hated to kill anything and those hunting trips his father would make him go on, well, he would come home and cry all night for what he had done.” She took a moment and stared out the window.
“Please tell me about him,” Aurora encouraged. “There’s so much I still don’t know.”
“Well it seems there’s a lot that I don’t know either,” Rose replied sadly. “Like why he would just leave us like that.”
Aurora looked away. How could she possibly answer his mother’s question? She deserved an explanation, but the truth would sound ridiculous. More than that, it could put both she and his father in danger. “Gabriel wants to explain everything to you Rose, and he will. But for what it’s worth, I’m very sorry for what you must have gone through while he was missing, especially since you’ve already lost a son.”
Rose nodded and folded her hands into her lap. “Gabriel adored his brother. I think he only agreed to enlist because Chris was. They were fourth generation Army you see, that’s a lot of pressure and I worried that Gabriel didn’t have the heart for war, but he surprised me. He seemed to find purpose in it somehow. But before they were to leave on their fourth tour of duty their father took them on a camping trip up to the Peaks. The idea was to have a boy’s weekend, you understand, hiking, fishing those kinds of activities. On the first night, Gabriel thought it would be fun if he and Chris went for a night hike, just the two of them while their father slept. But my husband was an Army Colonel and not much got past him, certainly not two young men off to make mischief.”
Aurora smiled gently but her heart began to ache. There was so much sadness in the room, so much loss.
“It was around midnight when Chris and Gabriel snuck out to go on their secret hike. They had only been gone for about 30 minutes or so when the cougar found them. Gabriel had always been an excellent tracker, he astounded his father so many times with his skills, but it was dark and they had been fooling about. He wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t see the tracks or catch wind of the cat until it was too late. When it pounced their father wasn’t far behind, he had been trailing them of course. He ran toward Chris just as fast as he could, but it was Gabriel who got there first. Somehow, he managed to pull the cat off his brother but not in time. Gabriel’s bravery probably saved my husband’s life but not Chris. Despite their best attempts to get him back to camp, Chris had passed by the time they got there.”
Aurora listened to the story and her heart ached for the family, especially Gabriel. She understood why he had been so fast to fight off the cat that threatened them on their way to the Council and why he had gone so quiet afterward. A lot of things were beginning to make sense and Aurora realised there was much more to Gabriel than she knew.
“He blamed himself of course, for suggesting the walk and for not picking up the scent,” Rose continued. “He believed that if it were not for him, Chris would still be alive. My husband and I always figured that’s why he left. Chris was his twin brother, but he was Gabriel’s big brother, even if it was by only a few minutes. Gabriel felt like his idea to go out fooling around that night had taken something, not just from us, but from everyone.”
Rose thought quietly before answering. “Chris was one in a million. He was smart, athletic, strong and handsome. He was school captain, he had the highest grades and the most girls chasing after him. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved both of my boys and Gabriel knows that, but I think everyone admired Chris. I have no doubt he would have gone on to be an Army Colonel just like his father and along the way made a great difference in the lives of many people.”
Aurora rubbed at her forehead, the weight of so much pain starting to find its way in.
“Oh, I’m sorry dear,” Rose apologised. “I’ve said too much and we’ve only just met. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to burden you.”
There was so much Aurora wanted to say, but Gabriel came and sat on the arm of the couch next to his mother.
“What’s going on in here?” He looked from his mother to Aurora and back again. “You have a weird look on your face Ma. Were you just talking about me? You didn’t tell her about that time when I was five did you?”
“No, she didn’t,” Aurora smiled. “But now you better.”
“No chance in hell,” he grinned. “Anyway, the old man has cooked up quite a feast and it’s ready. Let’s go and eat.”
Sitting outside in the heated pergola, Gabriel’s family enjoyed smoky ribs and juicy steaks while Aurora feasted on a bowl of fresh salad.
“Seriously? No meat at all?” Gabriel’s father asked again.
“That’s right,” Aurora nodded. “I’m a vegetarian.”
He shook his head in bewilderment. “Rose says I should give up the steaks and bacon. Just can’t bring myself to do it though. Tell me, how did you go about it? And please, call me John.”
Aurora swallowed a mouthful and put down her fork. “Well, the truth is I’ve never eaten it.”
Gabriel looked up from his plate. “What do you mean?”
“I mean just that. I’ve never tried meat.”
To Aurora and her family, the idea of eating another living being was out of the question. In the forest she could feel their life force, their heartbeat. When she came across a mother deer and its young she could feel their unconditional love, and their fear. She understood that animals had thoughts and emotions. They had self-awareness. They felt pain, anger, love and contentment. To take a life for the small enjoyment of taste was an unbearable thought for her. It was something she just couldn’t do.
“Well now I’ve heard it all,” John replied. “Never even tried it, huh?”
“No sir, never.”
“Tell me Aurora,” he continued. “Where are you from originally? I mean, your parents?”
The question caught her off guard. “My parents?”
“You sure don’t look like anyone from around here is all,” he smiled. “Where was your mother from?”
Aurora cleared her throat. “My mother passed away when I was just a child, my father too. They were in an accident.”
“Oh sweetheart,” Rose soothed. “That must have been a terrible thing for you to go through. I’m so sorry.”
“It was difficult,” Aurora nodded. “I miss them very much.”
“Well let’s change the subject shall we?” Rose smiled. “Gabriel you will never believe who I saw at the shopping centre yesterday.”
But as Gabriel and his mother chatted easily, Aurora could feel his father’s eyes staring at her. When she dared to look up, John Stone was peering at her as though she was someone he had seen before but couldn’t quite place.
“Did you hear that John?” Rose was asking. “I saw Gabriel’s oldest friend Harrison at the shopping centre yesterday and do you know what he was buying? Rosary beads of all things. I swear I haven’t seen him in 10 years and there he was buying rosary beads.”
Aurora glanced nervously at Gabriel.
“That right?” John replied, lifting another piece of steak to his lips. “Did he say why?”
Rose placed her fork down and looked at her husband. “Well, it was the strangest thing. When I asked, he looked right at me and said, ‘well you never know when you might need them’. Now what on Earth do you think he meant by that?”
“You got me,” John replied. “Any idea what he could have meant by that Aurora?”
Aurora coughed and took a sip of water. “Me? No, I have no idea. I don’t know Harrison.”
“Oh of course, that’s right,” John said shaking his head. “Forgive me.”
“John,” Rose scolded. “Why are you asking her? That’s just silly. Did you take your vitamin today?”
“I don’t know love,” he smiled. “I guess I just feel like she’s already part of the family.”
Aurora feigned a smile, but she wasn’t buying it. Something was off. She glanced at Gabriel and knew from the look on his face that he wasn’t buying it either.
“It was quite a shock to see him after all these years,” Rose continued. “He’s aged quite a bit compared to you Gabriel.”
“Well it must be all the fresh air I’ve enjoyed out on my adventures,” he smiled. “Speaking of that, I believe I owe you both an explanation.”
As they finished their dinner, Gabriel told his parents how Chris’ accident had affected him, how he couldn’t bare the idea of feeling responsible for his death. He told them how he had wandered all over the globe hiking and camping, living off the land with almost no human contact. It wasn’t as far from the truth as it sounded.
“And the two of you?” Rose asked. “How did you meet?”
“Well,” Aurora began just as they had practiced. “I was hiking in the Appalachians trying to find myself as they say, but what I found was Gabriel.” She touched his arm and smiled. Her feelings were not a lie, just the story of how they met.
“And the rest as they say, is history,” Gabriel finished. “When you know, you know.”
“So what’s next for you both? Marriage? A family? I’d love to be a grandma,” Rose grinned. “It almost feels as though you are family already Aurora. Will you both be staying here now for good?”
Aurora thought of Gabriel and her vision. She also thought about the humans she had seen running toward the Reapers. They had been willing and eager to join the fight.
“So far it has just felt like Gabriel and I against the world,” she smiled honestly. “But I’m starting to see that perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way.” She glanced over at Gabriel. “Maybe it’s time we starting putting together a little army of our own after all.”