I'm sorry about the awful wait, I really am.
I've run out of steam with this; I wanted to wait to update until I had a buffer, but I still don't have one, and you all deserve this. I'm still getting little "story watch" and "story favourite" emails, and it makes me smile, and also feel guilty.
I'm not going to abandon this story; there's too much that needs to be told, one way or another. I'm not promising I'll tell it well, but I will tell it.
Audrey awoke mid-morning, and squinted at the sun in her eyes.
"You're awake," Gabriel said. "Good." He appeared at her side and handed her a purple mug. "Drink this."
Audrey sniffed at it; it smelled weirdly sweet. "What is it?"
"Juice concentrate from one of the fruit cans. The simple sugars will give you energy."
Audrey sipped at it, cautious, then swallowed the rest in a few gulps. It was strong, but not gross.
"Good." Gabriel came around to the other side of her, so the sun was hitting his back, and sat on his knees at the edge of the bed.
"You're acting like this is major surgery, or something." Audrey moved the blanket and made to sit up.
"Don't move." Gabriel pulled the quilt away, exposing Audrey's skin to the chilly air, and ignored her gasp of surprise. "This is, for all intents and purposes. It is not as dangerous, but it will have the same effect on your body."
"Will I be sore afterwards?" Audrey asked.
"No." Gabriel took the hem of the pantleg covering her broken calf and began to fold it backwards, easing it over the cast. "But you will be very tired, as will I."
"Did you even sleep last night?" Audrey wondered.
"Yes. Stop talking." Gabriel flexed his fingers in an oddly human gesture, then settled his hands around the break in her leg. Audrey raised her head to watch, curious—would it glow, like the magic in movies? That wouldn't have surprised her.
It didn't. Gabriel closed his eyes, and parted his lips. A rush of wind came from between them, too strong to be a sigh, too sweet to be a whisper. His hands warmed around the break, and Audrey felt a sudden rush in her ears and hollowness in her head. Her fingers tingled, and then she was suddenly, sharply aware of her pulse beating in her calf. It didn't hurt, but it was fierce and steady, thrumming under her skin. Audrey's head fell back to rest on her makeshift pillow, and she closed her eyes.
It was all she could do to just lay there and be; she was so intensely aware of everything about her, of her heartbeat, of the flutter of her eyes beneath her lids, of the movement of her diaphragm as she breathed—in, out, in, out. She could feel her goosebumps under Gabriel's hands, feel the irritation of a speck of dirt under her fingernail, feel the shift of the mattress under her skin. She was so alive.
In, out. In, out.
Thousands of breaths passed. Gabriel moved to her arm. Audrey opened her eyes and turned her head on the pillow, watching him as he silently pushed back the sleeve of her flannel and cradled her wrist in his hands. She looked so delicate, under his fingers; her wrist was tiny and fragile, and broken. So broken. But this time, Audrey didn't feel pain, or regret at the realization, she only knew it to be a fact. Her wrist was broken. So was her leg. So were her ribs. Her neck was bruised and her skin was torn. She was alive.
Her wrist warmed in Gabriel's hands. She gazed at the contrast between their skin through half-lidded eyes for longer than she knew, mesmerized by the flutter of her pulse under her bruised skin.
Then he laid her wrist down on the mattress and shifted, taking the hem of her shirt in his fingers and raising it. Audrey could feel goosebumps rise as the cotton glided over her skin. Gabriel folded the shirt up delicately to cover her bust, then placed his hands, fingers spread, over the broken ribs. Again, his lips parted, and again, the sigh came. Their skin warmed.
His face was so gentle, Audrey marveled, watching the shift of muscles under his skin. His eyes were half-closed, focused on his hands and whatever was going through his head at the same time. His lips were still parted, and that same rushing breath was still coming and going, in and out. Soft. He was so big, and so strong, and could be so cruel, but he was so gentle.
He really was kind. To heal her, to take care of her, when he could just as easily have dumped her into the village over the mountains and left her there? Whatever his responsibility, he was here, caring for her, doing more than leaving her on bed rest and forcing her to stay together. He helped her live.
Audrey closed her eyes.
She could feel his calluses against her skin, softly rasping. Warm. A tiny speck of warmth that grew and grew until it covered her whole body, pooling at her leg, her wrist, her arms, her ribs, her chin—places he had touched. So gentle. Audrey was swimming in that warmth, floating in it. She felt so little, this tiny fragment of a thing in this massive sky of everything else, of warmth and light and horses and angels and Gabriel's hands on her ribs, coaxing her body to heal, to reknit bones and repair muscles.
Audrey was alive.
After what felt like seconds and days, Gabriel removed his hands from her ribs and replaced her shirt. Audrey turned to look at him, and found suddenly that she was too tired to lift her head from the pillow.
"Wow," she mumbled, squashing a yawn before it began. "I'm so tired…"
"Yes." Gabriel was drooping a little himself. His eyes were still half-shuttered, and his wings weren't held quite so high. "It will be easier next time, as your body adjusts. There was a lot of healing to do."
"Yeah." Audrey yawned on that one, and Gabriel's mouth twitched as he replaced the blanket over her.
"Go back to sleep."
"Okay." She shifted a little, making herself comfortable, and then slid her good arm across the mattress—she was too tired to lift it—and touched Gabriel's elbow with her fingers. He looked down at her touch with a hint of surprise, and then back up at her.
Gabriel raised an eyebrow, his surprise magnified. Audrey yawned, and then clarified: "You have to sleep, too. Stay here."
"You just made me alive." She yawned again, her jaw cracking.
"That doesn't answer my question."
"Stay," Audrey repeated, too tired to care about giving rational answers, and closed her eyes.
Gabriel's wings rustled, and she felt the mattress shift as he moved beside it. "Yes," he said quietly, and did not move his elbow away from her touch. His elbow was rough, too, rough and cracked from years of use, and Audrey moved her fingers in miniscule amounts as she drifted off, running her fingertips over the same tiny patch of skin over and over, like a child with a favorite blanket.
The next time Audrey awoke, it was to Gabriel beside her with a can of soup in his hands. "Drink," he said, and Audrey wanted to obey, but she could barely lift her head. Gabriel slipped his hand behind her neck and cradled the base of her skull in his palm, lifting her head so she could swallow the soup.
"What's going on?" Audrey asked, in between sips. Her head was spinning and her body felt heavy and useless.
"You are undergoing weeks' worth of repair in a few hours." Gabriel moved his thumb on the nape of her neck, reminding her to drink again. "Your body is exhausted."
"Tell me about it," Audrey mumbled, but all that came out was "mmnph." What little energy she had was gone, spent taking those few gulps of canned soup.
"Sleep," Gabriel commanded, laying her head down on the pillow, and replaced the blanket over her. Audrey obeyed.
She swam in and out of wakefulness, roused by food or Gabriel or the occasional need to go to the bathroom—which always took all of her strength, but which she did on her own, thank you. Gabriel's healing sessions were patches of golden sunlight and warm life among dreams that were blue and nonsensical and, as time went on, more and more frightening: monsters with huge shadowy wings, and eyeless faces, and sharks with smiles a mile wide; guns that burst into flame and ate her from the inside out; little children turning into old grandmothers turning into flies that wiggled down her throat and clogged up her nose and poured out her mouth and buzzed until Audrey awoke in a spasm of panic and pain—and Gabriel would appear beside the bed, and touch her forehead, and replace the quilts, and sit beside the mattress. Audrey would turn towards him and close her eyes, would reach out with a soft fingertip and gently touch his elbow where he always rested it, leaning on the mattress, and that tiny connection would comfort her and chase the nightmares away so she could sleep again.
Gabriel had not expected the healing to take such a toll on her body.
Admittedly, it had been centuries since any Archangel had directly healed a human. G-d was always the divine intervener, and the healing He charged them with occurred on a miniscule scale, adjusting molecular reactions and cell regeneration. The humans would absorb the changes and heal on their own.
But this was different. Gabriel was going into Audrey's broken bones and rallying the troops, as humans would say. He was Commanding hundreds of millions of cells to work together, to burn calories, regenerate, regrow and repair. It was exhausting work.
It was also exhilarating. Every time Gabriel placed his hands over Audrey's skin and Spoke, it was as if a small piece of Heaven resonated in his chest. The amount of Life he was pouring into the young woman's body was more than most humans acknowledged in a lifetime. He knew Audrey could sense it, too, though she wouldn't have any idea what it was; as soon as the first Word issued forth from his lips, her face took on a glow, and an expression of fascination unlike any he had seen in years. He knew she was feeling the pulse of her heart and the thrum of her body in a way she never had before, and it was a beautiful thing. That much, he readily admitted.
The side effects were more concerning. Audrey fell asleep almost as soon as he finished the first Healing, and didn't awake for almost a full day. He eventually resorted to rousing her, concerned by her lack of sustenance, though she consumed little before falling back asleep. After a few days of the same pattern, Gabriel was reassured that she was simply sleeping to recuperate from the Healing, and it was his repeated sessions that kept her asleep.
The dreams were more alarming. They first appeared a week after the first Healing, and he could hear Audrey's scream from the pasture.
She was tossing fitfully on the mattress when he entered the house, in more haste that he'd ordinarily admit. He crouched by the bed and touched her shoulder, and when that didn't work, said, "Audrey!"
She awoke suddenly, sharply, and blinked up at him deliriously before gasping in a breath that was not tainted with dreams, and grabbing at his wrist.
"Don't leave," she whispered, and Gabriel, perplexed, had complied. He sat down beside the bed and rested his arm on the mattress. Audrey let go of his wrist to touch his elbow, as she had after the first Healing, and closed her eyes.
Her hands were small and soft against his skin, almost too much so to be noticed. Nonetheless, Gabriel was well aware of the stroke of her finger over his elbow, again and again, the same patch of skin. It was a strange, unconscious movement, clearly one of self-comfort, but it was not unpleasant, and he let her continue.
The second time she had the nightmares, and then the third and the fourth, the routine was the same: Gabriel heard her scream from somewhere beyond the front room, awoke her with a Word, and then stayed at her side until she fell back asleep. Soon, he began to pick up on a pattern: the nightmares only came six to seven hours after a Healing, and grew in strength over the period of half an hour to an hour before Audrey cried out. Gabriel began to adjust his schedule so that he could be inside and near her when the nightmares began, so that he could forestall them earlier. He didn't always catch them before they reached a peak, but sometimes, he could see Audrey shifting in her sleep or furrowing her brow, and that signal was enough.
Now that Gabriel was aware of how much attention he paid Audrey, he could track his own observations. He knew when he began to notice the rhythm of her breathing (two days), when he started tarrying beside the mattress after she fell asleep (four days), when he began to impulsively fix the quilt around her (five days), when he became able to predict the cycle of her hunger, her dreams, her fits of wakefulness to tend to her needs (one week). He couldn't explain his attention to her. She was nothing special—just a small, young woman, scarred in the way many humans were scarred, who had stayed alive and fiery through the apocalypse, who had the strength to trust him and the willingness to forgive him.
He did not feel a need to find a reason.
Between the Healings, feeding Audrey, and taking care of Apple, Gabriel found himself suitably occupied. He read less than he would have liked; taking care of his charges consumed his reading time, and what time he had left was inevitably spent sleeping. Gabriel did not need to sleep as much or as deeply as Audrey did, but he still needed to sleep, and he did so beside the mattress, situated so that the rising sun or moon always struck his back through the uncovered window. The change in light always roused him, allowing him to keep track of the days, and then weeks, as they passed.
Audrey healed. Apple grew healthier, and fatter. The rest of the house beyond the basement, front room and bathroom, grew dusty from disuse. The barn grew cleaner from the attention. The apples ran out. Occasional short scouting trips were made to retrieve food and water as their supplies were depleted. Gabriel watched over them all, and time went by.