Sep 202014

[ Master Post ]

Title: Vengeance and Mercy
Fandom: Nicoverse
Characters: Gabriel , Lucian , one of Lucian’s many human families
Rating: M (L2 N3 S0 V0 D1)
Warnings: Expletives, blasphemy, dysfunctional family dynamics, genderbending, drugs, wine, enough sugar to rot your teeth
Notes: The year is 587 BC, first year of the reign of Jeconiah of Judah, and the Temple of Jerusalem has burned to the ground, the city is in flames, and the Babylonians are rejoicing in having conquered Judah, at last. But, the angel commanded to destroy Jerusalem, to let Babylon take the kingdom, had second thoughts, and now is paying the price of partial disobedience. Introducing some of that heavily-hinted history between Gabriel and Lucian, long before they held those names. (Don’t worry, you’ll catch on pretty quick.)

Twenty thousand dreams ago, in a kingdom by the sea…

Everything was arranged — words inscribed in the wet sand, a dozen bottles of date wine, sigils that would be remembered until the end of time (or until the holy father erased them, which was always possible), the perfect arrangement of the stars just before dawn. A young man, dark skinned and dark haired, knelt in the centre of the circle, calling out in sixteen languages at once, silicates in the sand pooling into little, damp balls of glass.

"Light-bringer, Lord of Morning, Light of Truth—" It was an insane plan, really, but only two angels had been stranded on earth, and the other one’s name was lost. More names and titles poured forth as the young man opened three of the bottles, setting them in an arc before his knees. "Hear me, Firstborn; come to me!"

The pleas continued, strangely rhythmic, and the sand continued to dance and boil as the sound dove into it, running out into the desert in rings. Until the young man heard another bottle of wine open, behind him.

"You look like heaped donkey dung, Jibril." An honest observation followed by a swallowing sound. "That’s what they call you, now, isn’t it? And you can stop scaring the desert cats any time now."

The young man stopped suddenly, with a sound like he’d choked on his tongue. This, too, resonated through the sands, but more locally. "Brother. I wasn’t sure you would come."

"Neither was I. What are you yelling for? Tell the old man I’m not coming home, and no amount of bothering my cats will change that." The sand shifted quietly as the wine-drinker crouched.

"He doesn’t want you home, Light-bringer. He doesn’t want me home, either." A hint of panic crept into the young man’s voice. "Jerusalem is in flames and I am exiled."

"And that’s the sound of the camel pissing in my millet." The Lord of Morning snorted. "What’d you do, Jibril?"

"I tried to stop him from making a mistake. I knew he didn’t want what he was asking of me. Michael tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t hear it. So, I did as he said. I did it to the letter. But, the letter was open to interpretation. I am … attached to the people of Judah. Some of them survived his wrath." Jibril pressed a palm to his forehead, a terribly human gesture. "He was not pleased. He will be, later."

"You? He didn’t design you for this. You carry his word, not his sword! Where was the Sword of Our Father?" The light-bringer’s anger glowed brightly enough that Jibril cast a shadow, as the cool clay of the bottle nudged the back of his arm. "Have a drink. It probably won’t help, but it’s better than not drinking, at a time like this."


They sat quietly together through two bottles, watching the sky lighten.

"Did you say I looked like shit?" Jibril finally asked.

"Yes. Metaphorically." A smile split the Lord of Morning’s face, and he hid it in another swallow of wine. "You look very unlike actual excrement."

"I was told this would be a very handsome body," Jibril sighed.

"It is. It just doesn’t look good on you." Handing off the bottle, the Lord of Morning stretched out in the sand. "As a human man, the women of four villages would giggle and swoon for it and half the men, too. You just don’t look comfortable in it."

"I don’t feel comfortable in it." That much was true. And pretty important, since Jibril had worn the same shape on nearly every mission. "I just assumed we weren’t supposed to feel comfortable, so we’d remember to go home."

"That does sound like something the old man would do, doesn’t it?" Laughter rose up from behind Jibril. "But, it wasn’t in his design. You’ve been cheating yourself out of the pleasure of a decent fit. It’s not as good as going without the shell, but since that’s not really an option, down here, it feels better than you look, right now."

"I guess I could go back to the river and try again." Jibril shrugged, opening another bottle of wine, "But, I don’t know if I can get anything better, and it takes so long."

"Why start again? Change what you have."

The thought had never before crossed his mind. "I can do that?"

"With enough devash, there’s not much you can’t do to that shell. Costs less to change it than it does to start again, too." The light-bringer slung his leg over his companion’s shoulder, letting his knee catch on it. "We should still probably go to the water. It helps."

Jibril pushed the knee off his shoulder. "I won’t be treated as furniture."

"You still live at home. Yes, you will."

"No, I don’t." This time, Jibril turned around to face the Lord of Morning, finally taking in the long, lean body stretched behind him in the sand, still faintly glowing gold.

"Yeah, I guess you don’t, do you. Still held out longer than I did." The light-bringer stretched and grabbed another bottle of wine.

"No, I didn’t. You’re older."

"You’re looking at the wrong span of time. Abba wasn’t always so… weird and inconstant. I don’t know if you remember. I don’t know how old you are, other than ‘younger than me’, which isn’t saying much. I like to avoid thinking about how long we’ve lived." The light-bringer shrugged, which forced sand down his collar, and he sat up, trying to shake it out. "You were made in his corner of the divine lands, and you stayed. By then, I’d spent a couple hundred million years in the garden. I only saw our father when he wanted to be seen. You saw him constantly, didn’t you?"

"More constantly than you did, I guess." Jibril’s eyes widened, as he tried to take in that information. Hundreds of millions of years alone.

"So, when I say you were there for more of his crap than I was, I’m very serious. After all, you barely know me." The Lord of Morning tugged at the back of his robe, still trying to get the sand out.

"I met you once, when you came up. I was new, then. You were complaining that our father had decided to kill everything and try again, for the third time? Fifth time?" Jibril smiled sadly. "I remember thinking it was his design, and his right to change it until it was what he wanted. I don’t think I connected that he probably didn’t warn you that he meant to destroy the home he’d given you."

"He gets tired of things and throws them away. I think all the creators do. Not all the destruction I complained about was his doing, but that one was. He saw a design he wanted to create, and he couldn’t see anything but how to make space for the new design." The light-bringer paused. "Just because I know the truth of it doesn’t mean I forgive him for what he’s done to us. I just can’t waste the time to be angry any longer."

"I haven’t gotten as far as angry. I’m still afraid." The clay jar sloshed hollowly as Jibril drank the last of the wine in it. He reached for another and changed the subject. "I keep trying to say your name, Light of Truth, but this body won’t make those sounds. What do I call you, now that I’m trapped down here with you?"

"Right now? In this place, at this time, I am called Namru. In another twenty years, that may change. Or I’ll just move down the coast again."

"You’ve been in a shell since he cast you out?"

"Not always. It gets harder every decade to escape the eyes of the creatures that belong here. I burn too brightly for most of them, and I have no intention of attracting the wrath of any more of the Kings of the Gods. So, yes, usually. I take time to myself, now and again, but never for long. This place is different, now, and it doesn’t feel right. The land has moved too far." Stretching his arms up, Namru let the momentum carry him to his feet. "Come, we’ll go to the river. I’ll stop at home and get some devash and honey for you, so you don’t burn out, before you get it right."

"You would do that for me?" Jibril stared up at the faintly-glowing angel towering over him.

"You’re expecting a catch? Bring the wine. I’ll trade you." As far as the horizon, the only other creature large enough for Namru to consider was a single donkey. "Is that your donkey? Why did you bring a donkey?"

"I couldn’t carry all the wine by myself, and I didn’t want to make two trips," Jibril answered, rising to his feet with the rest of the bottles. "Do you want to carry back the empties, or should we just bury them?"

"I’ll bury them." A moment of silence, but for the scuff of sand, fell as Namru kicked the bottles into the ground, nudging more sand over them with his feet. "Did you ride out here or did you actually transport a donkey?" he finally asked.

"I’m young, Namru, not stupid. I transported the donkey." Jibril scoffed and rolled his eyes, before calling to the donkey.

It wasn’t riding out that Namru had thought stupid. "A donkey. You transported a donkey, because you couldn’t carry the wine?"

"I didn’t expect to be able to transport myself back, after I was done." The confession was quiet, almost lost to the desert winds. "I didn’t think you would come."

"I thought you were an angel, not an artichoke." Namru slung a leg over the donkey’s back. "Why wouldn’t I have come? It’s not like you’re Michael — and even if you were, I’d still have come to laugh."

"I didn’t know you well. The others say that being cast out changed you and twisted you. Some of them say you were twisted before that. That it’s proof of the flaw in the initial design that both you and —" The name didn’t come. Jibril tried again, but no sound was produced. "—you and the Light of Love both turned against his will."

"I failed her, and she tried to follow me down, but he wouldn’t let her go. Yes, it was a design flaw. He made us too stable, too intent on the one road, and then he pushed us onto another path, and wouldn’t let us return. She is lost to me, now. She is lost to me, but I have beautiful sisters, in Lakkum. Come, Jibril, I will transport your donkey and your wine and you, as well."

"We have sisters?" Jibril asked, loading the bottles back into the donkey’s baskets.

"No, I have sisters. I came from the east, and married easily. They liked the look of me and my Akkadian accent. I’m exotic."

Jibril was not in a position to argue with that last statement. He doubted there was anything like Namru, in Lakkum or anywhere else in Israel.

And that was the last thing he had time to think, before the world moved out from under him, and he suddenly stood between a donkey and a cistern, with three women eyeing him oddly.

"Ah! My wife! Sister of my wife! Daughter of my wife!" Namru smiled broadly and waved them closer. "Come, come. This is my brother, Jibril. He has come up from Jerusalem to visit me."

Jibril opened his mouth to greet the family, but the words came forth in a multitude of tones and languages. The water in the cistern rippled, and a few chimes of bone and shell around the courtyard sang dangerously clear notes. His nerves had gotten the better of him, and he quickly closed his mouth.

Namru smiled even wider, sliding down from the donkey to drop an arm across Jibril’s shoulders. "Don’t mind my brother. He sings when he’s nervous. The important thing is that he’s brought you half a dozen bottles of wine, from the south! Yes, I know, a normal man. One who drinks wine instead of date syrup."

Namru’s sister-in-law was the first to speak. "I like your brother, Namru! He’s handsome; he knows to bring wine; and he’s already afraid of us!" She clapped her hands on Jibril’s shoulders and grinned like a hyena. "I am called Rachel."

"You’re sure you didn’t marry this one, Namru?" Jibril joked, quietly, voice barely whispering through his throat, to keep the strange noises to a minimum.

"I tried. She wouldn’t have me. I’m not her type." Namru rested his chin on Jibril’s shoulder and his hands on Jibril’s waist. "Let him go, Rachel. I just came to get some devash, before I take my brother out to get very drunk. We’ll spend the day by the river, and with any luck, he won’t fall in and drown."

"Drown? You know me better than that." Actually, that wasn’t true at all, but Jibril hoped it was a suitable stand-in for ‘You can’t drown an angel, you idiot.’

"Abba, don’t drown him! He’s very handsome!" The youngest of the three dashed over, a basket of wet washing still hooked in one arm, as she looked Jibril over.

"Tamar, don’t look at your uncle like that. It’s unbecoming," Namru chided.

Jibril could feel the hot breath of Namru’s laugh against the side of his neck. "So, this is your daughter?"

Namru straightened up, sharply, hands darting back from Jibril’s waist as if he’d been burned. "No, she’s not my daughter. She’s my wife’s."

It was an important distinction, for the reasons Jibril was asking, but not important in the context of their family. "But, she’s enough my daughter that you may not seduce her and take her away to Edrei, when you go."

Edrei? Jibril hadn’t said anything about Edrei or setting out again. He assumed Namru was trying to convey to him how long he could convince the women to let Jibril stay, before the welcome wore out.

Tamar laughed, and Rachel laughed with her. Finally, the third woman, who had been quietly tending the oven at the side of the courtyard, spoke. "How long is he staying with us?"

"Not long, Yiskah. I may travel with him. I have been here with you seventeen years, and in all that time, I have not seen my brother." Namru smiled and pulled Jibril back against him, again, looking over his shoulder. "Surely you can forgive me a few months riding to Edrei and back. I’ll bring you back barrels of that barley malt you like to use in the bread."

"Barrels. On a donkey." Yiskah looked unimpressed.

"Who said anything about a donkey? It’s his donkey, not mine." Namru shrugged. "Anything you want, that I can get in Edrei, I’ll bring back. Make a list, while we’re out. Make a list all week."

"I will never understand how you have made such wealth, when you spend like you do."

"I am a wise man, and I trade well."

"And you show up in the blink of an eye with strangers and donkeys," Tamar pointed out.

"One stranger. One donkey. A little bit of magic never hurt anyone. Isn’t that right, Jibril?" Namru let go and began unpacking the wine.

"A little bit of anything never hurts anyone. It’s only when you get to a lot that the pain starts." Jibril curled his legs and sat, a little less than quite gracefully, right on the ground, beside the donkey. "Speaking of a lot, I have ridden almost non-stop from Jerusalem. I’m not feeling quite myself."

Rachel took the basket from Tamar and cocked her head. The young woman raced off into the house and came back, shortly, with a bowl of dates and a few slices of sweet bread. She offered these to Jibril, with an awkward smile.

"Abba likes this bread, and you are his brother, so…" She shrugged after he took the bowl from her. "I’ll get you a glass of the sweet water."

After she made for the house again, Jibril looked up and asked around a mouthful of bread, "Sweet water?" He paused, savouring the sugary taste of the bread. "This is wonderful bread. Is this the bread Namru was talking about, Yiskah?"

"Yes, that’s my bread. That man has to put syrups in everything." She shook her head.

"Sweet water is this horrible thing that only I drink," Namru assured him. "Cool water from the cistern with honey, date syrup, and crushed mint."

"That sounds like the best thing I’ve heard since I left Jerusalem." Jibril confessed, still speaking carefully around mouthfuls of bread and dates, to avoid any unusual side effects. "This bread is delicious, Yiskah. Would you teach it to me, before I go?"

"A man, baking!" She laughed, and Rachel laughed with her. "Is your whole family as strange as you, Namru?"

"Every one of them." He shrugged, arranging the last of the bottles in the donkey’s baskets. "I told you I came from strange folk."

The banter continued, as Jibril ignored everything but his food, until Tamar returned with his beverage.

"Here, uncle. See if this is good."

"May the blessings of the Holy Father and his First Children be upon you," Jibril breathed, ringing the very air with the declaration, before he chased all he had eaten with the sweet mint drink.

"Did he just…?" Rachel asked.

"Yes." Namru answered, drawing up water for the donkey. "He blessed her."

"I guess you weren’t joking when you said you weren’t a djinn. Look at you, still standing there, like nothing’s changed," Rachel continued.

"I’m still not a djinn. Neither is my brother, obviously enough."

"Djinn?" Jibril asked, finally looking up from the food. "No, we’re not djinn. Our family speaks for the God of Judah."

"Priests?" Tamar asked, fascinated. She’d never had a real conversation with a priest.

"Like priests, yes. Priests and prophets. We bring the hand of the Holy Father where it’s needed."

Namru eyed Jibril intensely, and the young man stopped trying to explain.

"Did you serve at the temple in Jerusalem?" Tamar asked, wide-eyed. "I heard it’s magnificent. I want to go to Jerusalem, one day."

Jibril’s eyes closed, and his hands tightened on the edge of the bowl. "Not this day. Jerusalem is in flames, and the Temple lies in ruins."

Silence spread like cold tendrils through the garden, racing along the sudden scent of fear, winding around the throats of all present.

"Jerusalem is fallen." Jibril rose to his feet, every movement of his clothing a sharp rasp against that chill silence. "Settle for Sidon or Tyre. Tyre, I know, is beautiful in the spring."

He handed the dishes back to Tamar. "I’m sorry. And thank you."

Namru grabbed Jibril’s arm in one hand, and the donkey’s lead in the other. "And this is why my brother needs to be drunk. Excuse us. We’ll be by the river."

None of the women moved or spoke, until the brothers left the courtyard.

Halfway to the river, down a narrow path between smaller houses, Jibril finally spoke again. "They cried out to us, and he insisted I burn them. I, not Michael. He wouldn’t do that to Michael. Michael belongs to them; they belong to Michael. But, me? I carry his word, and it was an angry word, this time. He called on me to take the coals from beneath his chariot and strike down the walls of the temple, of the city, to burn it out and leave it for Babylon."

Namru wrapped an arm around Jibril’s shoulders, silently.

"I could have done it with my hands. I needed no coals, for the Cities of the Plain. I am his vengeance, just as I am his mercy."

"That was you?" Namru choked down his horror that their father had so misused the messenger.

"That was me. But, they did not cry out to us. The Cities of the Plain paid us no mind, even when we showed ourselves. Even when I called out our father’s judgement, and shook down the walls with the sound of it. We had no hold on them; we had no connection to them. They had wronged the ones who minded us. They wronged us. They wronged me, my advisor, and my standard-bearer." Jibril shook his head. "So, yes. That was me, and I have few regrets, if any."

Slow understanding washed across Namru’s face. "They wronged you?"

"He sent me down to see if it was as bad as we were told. I took —" He couldn’t make the names. "— I took my advisor and my standard-bearer, and we posed as travellers. A kind man took us in, for the night, and when he learned what we were there to do, he tried to bargain with us, for the lives of his neighbours. We took his challenge — if we could find ten righteous men in the whole of his city, we would spare the plain."

"Ten? You couldn’t even find ten? By what definition of ‘righteous’?"

"I was going easy on them." Jibril scoffed. "Provided they weren’t causing harm to others for profit or amusement, I was willing to count them. I couldn’t even find ten. I counted his daughters, Namru, and I still couldn’t find ten."

"That’s merciful. I probably would have burned that place to the ground, myself, if I’d heard it had gotten so bad." Namru was quick to concede the point. "But, they wronged you? They tried to harm you?"

"All three of us. It— I don’t want to talk about it." Looking down the alley, Jibril wrung his hands.

"Then you did no wrong. You did all the world a great favour."

"I know. I even brought away the kind man, Lot, and his family, although his wife tried to run back to save her friends. He and his daughters — they got away."

"Our father gave you the gift of his kindness. Perhaps that is why it has left him," Namru joked.

"You’re nothing like the others make you out to be."

"And you’re nothing like the others. I suppose we’re even." Pulling Jibril closer, Namru pointed to the end of the alley. "And there’s the river. The river dedicated to a hundred of the gods and Kings of Gods. The water will do you good. The date syrup will do you better."

"You’ll teach me to change?" Jibril asked, nervously.

"You already know how to change. Just let it take you. Let the change show you what you look like." Leading them down to the edge of the water, Namru took the time to tie the donkey to a tree. "I’ll show you how to keep your body intact, while it happens."

"Devash. Syrup of dates." Jibril pulled a bottle from the basket. "You want me to drink this?"

"Trust me. It’s better than it sounds." Namru shrugged, stripping off his clothes and folding them, while Jibril investigated the clay bottles.

"If you ever doubt my faith, I’m pointing to this moment," Jibril declared, and his discomfort resonated in a ringing sphere around him. Finally, he picked open the wax seal, pulled off the lid, and drank.

The ringing stopped.

"This— this is really good! This is amazing!" Round-eyed with wonder, Jibril looked back and forth between Namru and the bottle. "Can I drink the rest of the bottle?"

"You’d best drink the rest of the bottle. And when you’re done, fill it with water, and give it to me." Namru sat on a stone at the edge of the river, hanging his legs into the water.

Jibril wasted no time in pouring the rest of the syrup down his throat. He felt better about everything, almost immediately. The body still felt wrong, but it didn’t feel like it was leaching his will to live.

As he walked down to the water’s edge, Namru called out to him. "You should take your clothes off. You won’t want to wear them, if they get wet."

All Jibril could think was how wrong the body felt, and how much more wrong it had felt before he clothed it. But, he could fix it, now. He could fix it and then put the dry clothes back on.

He slowly peeled off the layers, folding them next to Namru’s clothes.

"Remember, no matter what you feel like, you look like a handsome young man to everyone else. No one sees what you see, what I see," Namru reminded him.

That did help, strangely. At least he didn’t look like the monster he felt like, as he stepped out into the river, still holding the empty clay bottle. The cold washed over him, but it passed, almost instantly. He was still aware of the water temperature, but it wasn’t relevant to him.

Passing the bottle of water to Namru, he asked, "Why don’t I care how cold it is, in here?"

"You’re not a son of Adam. It doesn’t actually matter. You can’t get cold, just like you can’t get hot."

"I never noticed." Jibril poured the water over himself with both hands, washing the desert off his skin. "I come, I speak, I leave."

Namru swirled the water in the bottle, trying to loosen up the syrup still stuck to the sides."You don’t hang out and drink with the locals."

"Sometimes, but not for very long. I had supper with Lot and his daughters, but I destroyed the city the same night."

"Just lie back and let the water hold you up. Relax. Don’t worry about breathing the water, if you start to sink. The only reason you breathe is to speak, anyway." A swig of the syrupy water, then Namru continued. "Let yourself be. Let the body speak to you, respond to you, become what you need it to be. If you start to feel dizzy, tell me, and I’ll get another bottle of devash."

Jibril felt the body start to shift. Little changes, first. Longer hair, leaner limbs. A softer face.

Namru kept talking, and Jibril fell into the words, no longer paying attention to the body.

"I fell into the desert, when I left, the final time. I landed in the mountains beside the great salt sea — the far side of the mountains, where the clouds don’t go. But, these lands were mine, as they’d always been. As they’d been since before the sea was born, and there was only Tethys and Uranus — and those were the waters I knew. There were other waters, other currents, but I didn’t know their names.

"I fled to the land called now called Lebanon, and concealed myself among the cedars, light and breath as I had always been in my lands. I so loved the smell of the trees, as if I were still in the garden our father had given us. The garden where my sister still lived with our father’s second son. I didn’t want to be found. I was sure he would call me back, but I wanted him to have to look for me to do it."

Namru took a long drink from the bottle. "Jibril? Did he call to me? Did I miss it?"

"No, Namru. He sealed the gate after you, and forbade us follow. Some tried, but you must have already been in Lebanon. Some of those never came back, and the ones who did, he burned." Jibril made a strange sound. "I don’t feel right. Everything’s so far away."

"Time for the second bottle!" Namru and the next bottle of syrup appeared in the water beside Jibril, without so much as a splash. He wasted no time. "Hold on to me with one hand and take the bottle with the other."

Jibril did as instructed, taking the bottle and clutching Namru’s arm for balance, as he rendered himself vertical. For a moment, the world seemed to spin around his head, but as he poured in the syrup, the spinning slowed and then stopped.

"It’s better," Jibril admitted. "I don’t know if it’s finished, but it’s a lot more comfortable than it was."

Namru took in the new body. "You look unusual. Very attention-getting, but I don’t think people will suspect we’re brothers, any longer."

"I never was your brother. Your sibling, but not your brother." More of the syrup disappeared down Jibril’s throat.

"Ah, that’s right. I have no brothers but Adam." Namru reached for the first bottle again.

"I think it’s trying to start again. Stay with me, this time?"

"Anything for you." Namru stepped back to set the bottles in the wet sand of the bank.

"Why?" Jibril asked, leaning back into the water.

"You’re the only one to find me. You’re the only one so afraid of being alone that you ran into the desert and called for me so loud I had to hear you. You’re the only other one he cast out, who thought of me."

"You were so beautiful and powerful and true. You and — and her. You weren’t like us, and you weren’t like Adam. And you’ve been here longer than most of us have been alive. All of us, really, since he made the home he gave to Adam for you, and he made us to bring life and breath to that garden. I know that I’m young. I know I saw you so infrequently, and knew you not at all, but I knew the only reasonable thing to do was throw myself on your mercy." Jibril’s body continued its transformation.

"Yet, you are his mercy, are you not? His mercy and his vengeance, which is a truly unusual decision, on his part, though I suspect you are his mercy when another is his vengeance, and his vengeance when another is his mercy." Namru ran a soothing hand down Jibril’s chest. "Your mercy is what got you into this mess, so you call upon mine, and my mercy is something no one has ever spoken of. How certain were you that such a thing existed?"

"I was certain it didn’t."

"You were correct."

"Then what are you doing?"

"It’s not merciful, it’s right. You of all of us should know the difference."

"I do." Jibril squinted up at Namru, a strangely serious look. "You’re still beautiful, even with that stupid beard."

"That beard is not stupid. I like it very much. It protects me from the consequences of that beauty you remember." Pausing, Namru gripped Jibril’s chin and studied his face — not that he was sure Jibril counted as a ‘him’ any longer. "How do you feel?"

"Warm, open, stupider than your beard." Jibril giggled and the river swirled.

"Yeah, I thought you might. That was a little more serious than I was expecting." Releasing Jibril’s chin, Namru raised his hand into a fist, holding it above Jibril’s face as if wringing out a rag. "Open your mouth. You need this more than I do."

"Need wha—" and then Jibril knew, as the sticky-sweet gel spilled between Namru’s fingers and dribbled into his mouth. He swallowed again and again, and finally it stopped.

Namru took a deep breath and opened his hand, which was strangely clear of all traces of the gel that had been there, moments before. "The next bottle goes into me, before I get a wicked headache. How are you feeling?"

"Like you just set a fire in my chest. Manna? Really?" Jibril twisted himself upright again.

"Really." Namru headed for the donkey, taking slow, precise steps. "It’s good for you. Not so good for me to give up that much of it. I just need a drink."

"Feels like you just gave me a new life." Jibril waded to the edge of the river and picked up the bottle of water. "Are you sure you haven’t hurt yourself?"

"Nothing I can’t fix." Anything else Namru might have wanted to say had to wait until he finished guzzling devash. "You look different. I say you look better. I don’t know if that’s going to be an entirely popular opinion."

Jibril blinked and turnd back around, trying to use the water as a mirror.

"Stand on the rocks. It’s easier if you’re higher above the surface," Namru suggested, and so Jibril climbed.

The view was not what he expected. A smooth, androgynous body. He looked at himself directly, and found the reflection to be true. Lighter skin, like a woman of Lebanon. His curls hung to his shoulders, some just as black as they had been, others red like henna, and a few that gold that was only found naturally in the far north.

"I don’t think I’m going to pass as your brother."

"Cover your head. We’ll say you’re mourning for Jerusalem. No one will have to know." Namru sounded thoroughly unfazed.

"I don’t think I can be a man again, Namru. I am no son of Adam, as you so rightly pointed out."

"Tell me your truth, angel, and we will make it work." Namru stepped up on the rock behind Jibril.

"I will be your brother, for the rest of the week, because it is expected. Then ride out with me, as far as Beth-arbel, or maybe Tabbath. Then I will go and find my new life." Jibril took a deep breath. "I know you’ll hear me, if I call. I hope to hear you, if you call. You know my names. Use them."

"Tabbath? You’re heading back toward Judah?"

"No, not Judah. Not again. But south. Past Moab. Maybe to the water in the south. Maybe not so far. I’ll take to the desert and live like a djinn. No one will know the difference."

"Except the djinn. Don’t piss off the djinn, Jibril. Really and truly, don’t piss off the djinn," Namru warned.

"So, I won’t pose as a djinn intentionally. There’s no help for what people think, when they find a magic spirit in the desert. You don’t tell anyone who you are, obviously. Neither will I." Jibril shrugged and leaned back against Namru’s chest, taking a long drink of water. "Where do they think you’re from, anyway?"

"Dimashqu. They think I’m Assyrian."

"She thought you were Assyrian and she married you anyway?"

"You can spit across the river and hit Assyria, if you go a couple parsa’ot to the south. Still exotic, if you catch the right widows."

"You really did lose your mind, when he threw you out, didn’t you?"

"You love me anyway."

The conversation stopped for a few moments, as Jibril stared across the water.

"You’re right. I do."

"Of course you do. We’re designed like that. You’re a sibling of my light and a child of my father. You can’t help it." Namru rested his chin on Jibril’s bare shoulder, again. "And now that you know it, be careful of it. You can use it to your advantage, but it can be used against you, if you’re not watching. You’re all afflicted. Even me, if a whole lot less so than the rest of you."

"How do you know you’re less afflicted?" Jibril paused. "Afflicted. Fool."

"Because there were two of us, and he gave it to her. She was intended as the source for all his children. He gave the truth to me. He gave the love to her."

Jibril inhaled sharply.

"Ah, now you understand the problem."

"Afflicted. You are, aren’t you? But, not like she is," Jibril breathed.

"Indeed. Don’t let it be used against you."

"I don’t know if I have the choice. Still, I’ll try to recognise it." Jibril drank the last of the water from the first bottle. "Do you love your wife?"

"No, but I enjoy her. She doesn’t give me a difficult time about ageing well. She’ll give me a difficult time about anything else, though." Namru laughed easily. "One day, she’ll die, and I’ll move on. Maybe I’ll become a trader. Maybe I’ll sail to Tarshish. But, I won’t be able to stay here. People don’t like immortals they can see and touch. They like their gods distant. And I don’t want to be a god. If I’m a god, he’ll send Michael after me, for profaning his reign. No gods or prophets of his family but those he announces."

"This world displeases me," Jibril confessed. "I love the world. I announce the mercy of our father. I bring news and revelations of things to come, and I hear the cheers of the afflicted, soon to be relieved, but this world displeases me. We serve it, and it does not permit us to be as we are."

"Are anyone’s servants permitted to be as they are?"

"Somehow, that displeases me even more." Jibril sighed and crossed its arms behind Namru’s back. "You said wine wouldn’t help, and it didn’t. Does anything help?"

"A night under the stars and some good Egyptian hashish. You’ll feel better in the morning, or at least you’ll mind less." Namru wrapped his arms affectionately around Jibril’s waist. "For now, it’s time to dress. We shouldn’t be here, like this, when the children come to swim, in the afternoon. Especially you."

"And that’s why you’re now even more firmly attached to me," Jibril scoffed.

"No, that’s because I’m enjoying the first angel I’ve seen in a few million years, and I really don’t want to let go, however much I know I should," Namru sighed. "I missed you. Any of you. All of you."

"You have me for a week, and then for the ride out to wherever I decide to go. And after that, you can call for me. We’re it. I don’t know if I’m going home. I don’t know if he’s going to call for me, after what he did to you."

"I won’t blame you, if you do go. If he calls you, I think you should go. Don’t do this to yourself, if you have the option to do otherwise."

"If he calls and I don’t go, I don’t think you’ll ever find the mark in the sand, where he struck me down."

"And that is the best reason of all." Letting go, Namru took a deep breath, before he stepped back. "Come, let us clothe you, before someone notices you are not like they are."

"I am so displeased." Jibril followed Namru back to the folded clothing and the donkey.