The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Honestly, it is, we checked.
With each intention it becomes a step longer, these noble plans and hopes turning into neatly stacked cobbles. These in turn are heated to the point of melting into lava by a whole team of low-level demons, who work overtime, unpaid. It goes without saying, that the sinners walk it barefoot.
What happens when an angel’s intentions backfire? A lot. A lot of shiny new cobbles.
Crowley enjoyed ruffles. He despised wigs, but ruffles were, in his opinion, a stroke of fashion genius. Jacobean era suited him well. If he was honest with himself, anything suited him well. Crowley honed his body into a source of envy; his mere presence instilled awe and visceral understanding of own unworthiness. The flurry of lace at his throat, elaborate sleeve cuffs that screamed “never worked a day in my life”. Few things were as excessive, decadent, useless and annoying as ruffled long cuffs. They got into your drink. One wrong flick of the wrist, and port wine or gravy went everywhere. Nuns could spend months weaving elaborate designs for you only to have them thwarted by the common gravy stain. Of course, gravy stains happened to other people. Crowley’s ruffled existence was never sullied with such indignities. His presence added insult to injury of everyone else by being always ever so pristine.
Crowley sometimes wondered though, how these excessive embellishments dared to appear in the age when very few gravies of the time were designed to be digested successfully. As such posing the next… ehem… problem with long ruffled sleeve cuffs. Crowley had tried digestion once, he decided that this particular bodily function he could do without, especially until the human world re-discovered to the joys of functional plumbing.
Truly, Crowley was doing everyone a favour by not adding to the filth on the very streets he now walked through. Or rather, levitated over; it took far too much effort to mind his shoes when wading through the overwhelming amount of excrement that layered daily.
He would have you know, emptying the chamber pot through the window was all Crowley’s idea. One of his bigger achievements in this age. He was proud of himself. Back in Hell, he had received a commendation for it from the higher-ups, (or was it lower-downs?). Have you ever had literal shit dumped on your be-feathered hat? His superiors called it “an innovative and unparalleled experience.” He actually never believed it would catch on, yet look at them go (pun intended)! Humans never failed to surprise him.
Meanwhile, the likes of Ligur reaped the laurels of the Inquisition’s technical innovations. Crowley found it distasteful, not to mention, all of these were on the humans themselves. You would be amazed what an inspiring chorus of desperate cries did to the certain type of human imagination.
He once attempted to explain to Ligur how low-grade annoyances rotted the core of human soul, while the inquisition bred martyrs like nothing else. In the last two centuries, a handful of crazy maniacs, who would go to Hell anyway, were populating the Heaven rapidly with what Aziraphale referred to, as “the best stock” and the “canonization material”. The insufferable git even had the gall to lament that turn of events. Typical celestial hypocrisy.
Adjusting an overwhelming amount of intricate black lace under his chin, Crowley got into the carriage that stopped for him as he exited the palace. After Elizabeth’s death and much-disputed enthronement, the king’s colourful household moved into Whitehall. Steeped in Tudor history, it now reluctantly welcomed the first Stuart. James, a controversial man who promise to unite the country, but so far managed quite the opposite.
Of course, Crowley had settled himself comfortably within King James’s court. It was entertaining and instructive. The new King was… one of those people. You know the type: a survivor of childhood trauma with unbridled inherited leanings towards violence and sexual exuberance. (Sometimes performed simultaneously.) There was also a generous helping of well-honed, paranoid delusions. Although, in James’s case, it was mostly justified. He had a surprisingly keen mind, despite years of aristocratic inbreeding. The king’s interests vacillated between a decent grasp of politics, witch-hunts, poetry, and a certain type of handsome young men. In addition to all this, he had inherited a clever ruthless maniac pulling the strings behind his back. And there you have it: a tyrant on a mission. The Inquisition, Part Two: British Edition.
Yet Crowley was rather fond of King James despite himself. Unhinged as the man was, he had style, and the understanding of that special pleasure that arose from creating bureaucratic Hell, which the king unleashed upon, of all people, the Catholic clergy. The process was more or less streamlined before him, what with Elizabeth’s excommunication, but somehow James’s enthusiasm was endearing Crowley. The man truly understood the fine art of grinding a person down, one tax at the time. Oh, bureaucracy! Had Crowley not been a demon, he would probably end up being an accountant somewhere.
Crowley settled on to the velvet-cushioned seat that did little in lieu of amortization. In front of him was a sullen-looking short unattractive man with clever and dangerous eyes that appraised the demon. A curt nod acknowledged him, truncated by crippling scoliosis. Crowley nodded back. Neither spoke. They did not like each other. The demon knew too much, while Cecil knew nothing for sure, and therefore suspected Crowley of everything with relish.
The calm cold eyes did not relinquish their hold on Crowley, but the demon resolutely refused to feel intimidated by a mortal. Since time immemorial – (although, that would be inaccurate since Crowley had a really good memory) – since the very beginning… humans never stopped to exceed his expectations with their ceaseless capacity for cruelty.
“Any special orders from His Majesty?” Crowley inquired politely, smiling at the other man, without looking at his face.
“Nothing after the morning briefing. I believe, Lord Wade had begun with gentle tortures already,” the voice was cold and impersonal, but Crowley picked up displeasure. His companion did not enjoy being supervised.
The man was Lord Cecil. A person who essentially ran this country, beginning during Elizabeth’s reign. Manipulating… everyone, he managed despite his many handicaps to garner the respect and trust of the king. He was orchestrating the worse of this century. Seemingly impervious to simpler earthly perversions, he was driven by lust for power and banal greed. This combination of drives resulted in a convoluted, complex scheme; he taxed the Catholics, all right, but would not stop there, shaping the King’s paranoia into focused bloodlust. After Catholic purses were bled dry, Cecil usurped their land, doing away with the owners for praying in the wrong language. In a slow, elaborate, humiliating and very painful way. Unfortunately, the king and Cecil shared that special fondness for the collateral of medieval bureaucracy – torture. This was not Crowley’s sport.
Hanging-drawing-and-quartering was a literal overkill. Crowley closed his eyes, they passed a few heads on spikes, grotesquely decorating the entrance of the London Bridge. These days The Tower’s torturers and executioners worked overtime, and had almost reached the level of desperation necessary to begin a labour union. The demon recently found out that the chief executioner Lord Wade took up gardening to recuperate from the stress and was making strides in growing imported spiky plants, called cacti.
The Middle Ages were a murky business to begin with. Growing tired of the irony of the crusades, Crowley took to sleeping regularly, sometimes decades at a time. The Enlightenment era held promise, but ended up bringing about the Spanish Inquisition. Anything but enlightened, in Crowley’s humble opinion. That was bad enough, but the 15th century had nothing on the 16th. New confession techniques got truly creative, and the rake, although still effective, was losing a popularity contest to other devices that Crowley tried hard not to get updated on. If he could, he would have hibernated longer, but he didn’t want to endanger his position with Hell’s administrators; he only had so many vacation days left.
Now, the Hellish ride that was the 17th century smoothly slid on the tracks to Crazytown, well-oiled by the bloody centuries that came before it. Only now, fellow Christians saw both death and the murder of each other in the name of God as an honour. Crowley felt cognitive dissonance at this. It seemed both pointless and distasteful to him. He enjoyed a healthy paradox as much as any other fiend, but some things he preferred to be clear-cut. Otherwise, what happened to him, losing Heaven, being stripped of Grace… just stopped making any sense.
It was not too long ago, he had run into that angel, Aziraphale again at the Shakespeare’s play. He’d tried to mention it, curious what the other side made of all this, but there never seemed to be enough time between all the respective plots they both had to ruin or promote. Funny, they had millennia, but time shrank when they were together. Odd thing, that.
Tonight, he ended up sharing a ride with the most hated man in London on the way to the torture supervision, despite his many protests of paperwork that needed stamping. His royal highness asked him specifically, as he was otherwise occupied that evening. “Occupied” by a neat Spanish man, who came with the entourage of Constable of Castile. As for the unlucky participant at the Tower of London, Lord Cecil had caught some poor bugger. There didn’t seem much justification for the imprisonment, besides being found with potential religious malcontents. Despite this, Cecil seemed convinced that some terrible scheme was afoot.
“So, this man wasn’t just a bystander at the tavern, where you found the rest of the plotters? Would hate to tick off the locals,” Crowley said as they bumped along.
Cecil’s stone-faced, gruesome expression remained.
“There is no such thing as bystanders to a treason,” he said. “Any Catholic priest with a whisper of knowledge in regard to harming His Majesty to please King Pope is an enemy of this country!”
A priest, Crowley thought as they made their way up the curling stone staircase. The man was a Catholic priest, and they were just the worst. These types believed in dying a martyr. The inbuilt celibacy feature rendered them frequently with very little to lose. This was supplemented with ardent belief that they were on their way to Paradise. As a result, they largely ignored anything that was done to their bodies on the way there. Considering how well Crowley kept his own corporeal form, this seemed particularly offensive. It was also the dangerous mindset that often led to violent fanaticism on both parts. King James, or should he say, Lord Cecil, specifically met such violence with preventative violence. Bodies piled up with as much vigour as in the throes of plague.
Everyone, every last one of them, claimed good intentions.
No one knew who invented Good Intentions. Both sides were apprehensive to claim it.
At first, he did not see the man as they climbed the stairs to the torture chamber, but heard the douse of water against the stone floor. The demon’s face set into a stony mask as they came to the entrance. Of all the different instruments afforded to them, the tortures had picked one of the simplest, yet effective – Spanish water torture. The pitiful figure was soaked; his limp, pale hair sleuthed to either side of his wide blue eyes. A waded, soiled fabric was lodged in his throat. His captors poured rivulets of murky water into his mouth, taking professional pride in the choking cough of drowning lungs. The figure twitched – whole body wreaked by the spasm. The face was mostly hidden by Lord Wade’s skilled wide hands, holding him down, but the overall form seemed vaguely familiar.
Crowley’s disdain for the scene started to veer towards curiosity. The priest’s eyes were surprisingly clear for a man under such physical duress. There was also profound sadness in them rather than fear. There was… Grace?
Suspicion crept in. Meanwhile, Cecil decisively stepped forward, pushing Wade’s tall broad figure aside, and ripped the mangled sash out, making Crowley twitch. It would be a lovely magic trick if it wasn’t very real and consequently nauseating. If only doves came out at the end instead of a slop of cloth, steeped in stomach acid. Once the simple instrument was extracted, the man gave a horrifying rasping gasp, catching air, and then vomited a bloody wet splash onto his torturer’s boots. Spitting out the rest of the bile, he finally set his teeth together and tried to clear his throat again, painfully, but somehow… for the lack of a better word… politely?
Crowley’s suspicion started to turn into recognition. Still, he did not understand what was going on. Finally, the man looked at Cecil, who was repeating his inquiry for the third time. Having a length of cloth pulled from one’s larynx was not overcome so easily.
The shade of celestial blue, the wheat gold of the hair. The apologetic, miserable look, as the man struggled to find his voice to most probably ask Cecil to repeat his question, if he didn’t mind, terribly sorry… it couldn’t be that an Angel of God was now being tied up and strung from a simple pulley attached to the ceiling by the chief executioner and his two guards.
The suspected Heavenly being, still obscured by dim light and layers of grime was searching around the room with terrified cerulean eyes for the clues of what else would be done to him.
Strange, Crowley observed. The Angel took a punch better than even a very fit human, however was not healing himself – Crowley did not sense any minor miracles. And, it definitely looked like he actually felt the pain during the torture? Because the Heavenly stock, by definition, were shit at acting, considering the whole endeavour a theatrical art of lying .
The snap of the demon’s quill punctuated the drawn silence. Everyone turned head to him.
“Don’t make them like they used to,” was all Crowley (reluctantly) offered, then turned away to study all the available quills on the side table. The men’s attention, returned to the task at hand. Apart from one specific angelic attention, which now fixed on the man in black ponytail who busied himself with paper. At least the said attention would steadily return to Crowley when it was not otherwise occupied with being strung out on the pulley until his joints popped. The demon eventually tipped his head aside and, between the figures of the interrogators, flashed his yellow eyes at the Heavenly suspect. Instead of being terrified and praying to God, the “priest” managed a wilted smile, alight with reciprocated recognition.
Aziraphale – for it was him under grime, blood, and a variety of bodily fluids that Crowley usually did not observe on an angel – for a moment got distracted with their mute exchange, and lost balance on his tiptoes falling full-weight on his shoulders with a sickening meaty pop. He cried out in earnest, and his eyes lost focus. Crowley blinked, which his reptilian nature did not encourage him to do often.
To himself the demon thought grimly, It just had to be him. Of all the angels of the Lord, this bloody angel always found a way to appear in front of him. Why did Aziraphale have to get mixed up in this?
Crowley wrenched up and glared through the black abyss of his glasses at the man, a small hiss (and momentary forked tongue) escaping between his teeth. Aziraphale surfaced from the pain and looked at Crowley with another almost smile, spoilt by cracked lips and blood staining his teeth (a full set too good for this century… for now). Crowley growled… Aziraphale, of all Heavenly beings, was least known for such things as subtlety… however, the demon was somehow relieved that the angel recognized him, despite his eyes going in and out of focus.
Meanwhile Lord Cecil clearly was losing his patience. Taken aback with the priest’s surprising resilience, he ventured forward, gripped the narrow face between his fingers so tight, the leather of his gloves squeaked. “Would you like to make a confession, father?”
“Not really…” the captive strained, the voice not quite his own. And did not even comment on the pun.
By default setting, both angels and demons did not have the burden of pain, or any other excessive tactile sensation or hunger. These instincts kept human bodies informed when they were damaged, a matter which obviously was beyond supernatural concern. In London, Crowley also preferred to mostly forgo sense of smell. This quality made things easier on a daily basis, considering the prevalent suffering experienced in the human world. It also helped Crowley to get through some occasional more personal encounters with King James, putting his earthly vessel on autopilot.
As a result, if something traumatic happened unexpectedly, the average celestial being would have to improvise quickly. Crowley recalled an incident where he and the angel were having a pleasant meeting at a local pub. As usual, the angel was going on about something and failed to notice he had cut his thumb clean off with his carving knife. This was however instantly noticed by the approaching server. She screamed. The angel panicked and, in realizing his injury, wailed, “Oh the pain!” Crowley reviewed the performance as pedestrian, at best. And if he was generous, it was obviously inspired by the ancient Greek dramatic stylistics, as Kabuki had not been invented yet.
This time however, it was either attending all those Shakespearean plays had suddenly paid off, or the Angel enabled bodily function of tactile sensation and pain for some… fascinating reason. Why would he put himself in such a situation was beyond Crowley. If he, however, had to make an educated guess, the angels probably got in over his head with some Catholic zealots, and tried not to stand out. Amazing awareness of his lacking acting skills?
“Milord,” Crowley offered. “It seems clear this man has gone mad with pain. Even if he was involved with some suspicious characters, in his current distraught condition he will hardly give us any accurate details.”
Cecil raised a pointed brow at that. True, Wade and his cronies had been at it for several hours without any results. Could it be that the captive transitioned from stoicism to madness? What would it take to pry open the insight this man may have? It seemed doubtful at this point.
“Put him back in his cell, but no food or drink,” Cecil said with a nod.
“Thank you for this… mercy, Our Lord in Heaven will reward your kindness,” the angel droned out on one painful note, sounding deranged. His body was taken off the pulleys and, unable to support itself, heaped on the floor. It would almost have been darkly funny, had his remark not been met with Cecil’s boot to his teeth. Aziraphale’s wail caught and stumbled into another blood-spluttering, pitiful cough. The guards jerked him up and half-carried him off to the cells.
Crowley glared helplessly at the puddle of blood, that remained on the floor and dragged in a long smudge, marking the angel’s progress out of the room. He clenched his teeth and sighed through his nose. Bloody idiot, he thought, you’ve really done it this time!
There was no current opportunity to split from Cecil. Crowley got involved in seemingly endless conversation with the king’s advisor, masticating the little information available. It seemed the “priest”, who went by John Gerard, was a companion of Father Garnet, one of the leading Catholic clerics, well-known in London also as a sympathizer to notorious revolutionary Robert Catesby. Catesby was related to a former soldier Thomas Wintour. Cecil suspected that they were also connected to Lord Thomas Percy, with whom the king had especially troublesome personal history. Taking into consideration Catesby’s previous involvement with Essex Rebellion and Percy’s recent run-in with King James, Cecil felt quite justified in his suspicions. They must be planning some type of diversion against the king in retaliation for the recent “abuses” of the Catholics. Especially specific aforementioned Catholics. King walked into this one. He waltzed right into it with a reckless display of power. First giving Percy the promise, a sense of purpose to the fool, and then retreating from it. Percy was still rather young, so he took such things personally. Many plotters did. Revolutions often started with a pitiful personal grudge.
The demon was very aware of the referred abuses. It was the main reason he had made himself a fixture at the king’s court and ingratiated himself to His Highness. The administrators below were thrilled at the Catholics’ persecution and wanted Crowley to keep an eye on things. Although he allowed Lord Cecil to reap the laurels, it was he who suggested instating the taxes for the Catholics to Henry VIII himself. As usual, the humans went overboard with his suggestion. Nowadays, a Catholic could not serve mass, go to confessions, get married or officially be baptized in their faith, get a decent job or education unless they renounced the Pope. The priests were hidden in the secret rooms, living a windowless existence, no better than a prisoner, in the wealthy homes that provided semblance of safety. They were hunted as a sport, with Cecil’s secret police raiding prominent catholic houses regularly. Just the other week Crowley saw the young fledgling priest Father Smith brutally slaughtered, while his esteemed patron Lady Dibdale was squashed like a bug under the weights in front of a cheering crowd. The boy was hardly older than fifteen, and the lady past sixty.
For generations now countless people were losing their lives for the right to pray in Latin, but it was James’s promise of lenience and its subsequent rebuttal, that was truly bringing Catholics to the boiling point with more and more plots and conspiracies being powered by the spiritual fervour and the purse of the wealthy papists. Hell merely planned to twist the knife a bit into the Vatican. They shared a long history together. Especially the exorcism had remained a persistent thorn in the Hell’s side. No other confession streamlined it quite like that. But the King and Cecil had gone for the jugular, resulting in the sickening practice of public executions of women and children.
These days, Crowley often muttered to himself, “I didn’t come up here for this!” but now he found himself stuck. All the crumhorn playing, and drunken parties couldn’t soften the torment he saw and heard outside the palace walls… and now somehow the angel had gotten involved. No doubt it was some ploy from above. Certainly, they weren’t happy with their side being bullied. This must be it, Crowley decided.
As he and Cecil took their waiting carriage back to the palace, Crowley thought carefully. He wondered, could this very annoying winged problem that was Aziraphale be used to his advantage? The whole martyrdom business was becoming redundant. You can only see a man’s beating heart be ripped from his chest so many times before you’re ready to move on.
Crowley had moved on already in the time of Aztecs, thank you very much. In this configuration, only one of them would go to Hell, usually the one with the pointy thing in one hand and the aforementioned beating heart in another. What a waste of a perfectly corruptible soul! That’s the bigger picture! Crowley thought globally, finding shades of evil that everyone would be lining up to be tinted with. And no need to haul buckets of water up a very tall, astrologically perfectly aligned pyramid.
Cecil watched the reflections of London lanterns flashing in dark lenses of Crowley’s glasses. They half hid a distant dispersed gaze of large light eyes, hypnotizing in the sway of the carriage. The man in front of him was everything Cecil was not; tall and fit, his mere presence made Cecil look smaller, and more disfigured. Lord Crowley had a sharp striking face with long Roman nose, shapely lips framed by a goatee. And a sharp mind armed with a sharp tongue, that was famously talented around the king’s nether-regions.
No matter how Cecil hated the man, he had to give him credit. The spymaster was too clever not to. Cecil interpreted the silence in relation to the interrogation. He even asked to hear Crowley’s thoughts on the puzzling conspiracy. Crowley just gave a short laugh in acknowledgement, but did not respond. At least he could pull rank on the man, being so close to the king.
Back at the palace, they walked off to the royal quarters, only to find the monarch “preoccupied” still by the young man from Spain. They even invited another friend. The demon gave the King credit for the fascinating fit of sexual engineering that he was entangled in, when Crowley poked his head through the door. All that with James’s bad leg! A remarkable display of dedication. Annoyed and slightly amused, Crowley refused invitation to join, that came slightly muffled from between slender tanned thighs of the newcomer Spaniard, citing the many letters and maps he needed to study. Unacknowledged and unwanted, Cecil looked on resigned, and bid them all a good evening.
The demon removed some of the cumbersome and identifiable details of his dress, exchanging his garish frills for soft leather – less noble and more sleek, then went back out to the entrance. The guards, which stopped on seeing him approach, were anticipated and blinded to his presence with a simple pass of his demonic hand. Simple humans…
In the stables, Crowley’s infernal beast Bentley was already under the saddle. Currently in the shape of a black Andalusian with fiery eyes, it greeted him with a gentle nicker and affectionate nudge. Crowley took him into battle alongside Alexander of Macedon. The steed took off into the night like a shadowy wind, hooves not touching the ground. The streets were empty and dark.
He approached the wall, on the side of The Tower, underneath it were the cells where he sensed familiar if somewhat dampened presence of Aziraphale. Should he go up the side? No, he thought, too conspicuous. Only an idiot would do that. He entered through the main gate, flicking his hands at the guards, and headed down into the stinking dungeons.
Aziraphale was crouched against the dirty wall, the moonlight from the small window right near the ceiling blanched his knotted hair, deep shadows aging his emaciated face. Crowley always wondered why Aziraphale chose such a dowdy looking vessel. Angels, like demons, caught on the importance of marketing early. And Crowley had seen his fair share of golden locks flowing in the wind, eyes colours of gemstones framed with eyelashes, casting butterfly shadows on their soft kissable cheeks. But not Aziraphale. His vessel at best times looked malnourished and unassuming, a patchwork of leftover features, sharp crooked nose, hollow cheeks, large eyes that crowded his face and wispy light hair that did nothing for the high forehead. On hearing footsteps, the angel’s head tilted up on thin neck with twitchy Adam’s apple to see what fresh torture came calling for him. He seemed…weathered, even afraid.
“Well, well,” Crowley began in front of the bars, putting his wrists on his hips. “This is a fine mess you’re in. How exactly did this happen?”
“I’m glad to see you, my friend,” the angel offered, looking away. His voice sounded as if he had a horrendous cold, rasping more than vocalizing past the split, caked lips, “You could have used the link, but looks like I warrant a personal visit. I am flattered. Are you here to rescue me?”
Crowley dropped his hands with a huff. The nerve! Although, the Angel was right, since The Arrangement necessitated means of communication that neither Heaven nor Hell could detect, so Crowley had linked them on a mental frequency protected with a joint spell. Why did he come then? A force of habit?
“Well, aren’t you presumptuous!” he replied, keeping his tone light and dismissive as he absently inspected his fingernails. “Maybe I came here to give you another round.”
“You wouldn’t do that,” warmth returned to the tired eyes for a moment and then was out like a match. Crowley had no time to think of thrashing that idiot expression from the angel’s face when it dissolved on its own, cut off with a painful cough. The angel wiped some blood out of the corner of his mouth with a blackened wrist, bent at an odd angle. He then lifted his wrist as if mildly surprised by the damage.
“It seems even when vulnerable like that, our vessels are quite resilient,” the angel muttered. “There was a child sitting on the other side of the cell with me. His name was Jacob. Probably twelve or thirteen, yet already accused of witchcraft. He didn’t have our… talents... When they brought me back here, the boy had passed on from his injuries already. They took him out. Who knows where the body went…” Aziraphale stopped catching his breath with a shuddering inhale, “Despite humans being so fragile and temporary, they treat each other’s lives so incidentally. I don’t understand it.”
“Why bother?” Crowley pressed. “Nothing new. They’ve been like this since that failed experiment in the Garden.”
“Yes, they were… capable of the most atrocious sin, and the most amazing grace, in the same breath… by the same person…”
“And I noticed, that although we observed for so long, we never understood. And never will understand.” Aziraphale began to sound deranged, Crowley for a moment, wondered, if Heavenly beings could lose their mind when confronted with traumatic bodily injuries. “We lack the means, Crowley. To truly fathom the uncertainty of death and the crystal-clear finality of life. And a choice to give it all up for an idea! A thought, really, less than a hope. To create a chance for someone else! Crowley!”
“It’s so beautiful! And… and I met someone… like that…”
“Angel…” Crowley sighed in exasperation, searching for words. “Have you tried hanging out with Buddhists?” he asked instead.
Aziraphale looked up at him with pity, giving up on Crowley understanding.
The demon looked away. Four and a half millennia – sometimes it seemed to him, he knew the man. Sometimes, he noticed that he did not. Lately, that recognition disconcerted him.
What his, for the lack of a better word, friend, did not understand, is that Crowley did take a leap of faith further than many. He had already staked everything and lost, without a chance for redemption. Without a chance for it to ever end. Unless… it really did all end one day.
Crowley felt a rise of indignation and who was he to hold himself back.
“So, you are trying on martyrdom.”
“Crowley--” Aziraphale bristled, outraged and humiliated.
“--And you know it’s useless. Why bother?”
“I only thought, I could at least… get some insig--” Aziraphale tried to stand up to level their faces, but his legs did not hold him up and he flopped backwards on his ass with a wince. Crowley smirked which only riled up the angel’s exasperation further. “I should have known better than to try and explain it to you!”
“What I fail to understand is… why are you still here?”
“Oh… oh my…! you have to go!”
“Someone is coming to save me!”
“Really? How are they gonna manage that, then?”
Aziraphale looked around anxiously. His face fell, the angel was hiding something so obviously. Why was he not healing?
“Well…we’ll, um…have to figure something out at this point…”
Crowley’s brows rose over the rims of his glasses. He even felt, it warranted taking the lenses off, revealing yellow eyes round with indignation.
“So, you think, a human, presumably alone, would storm The Tower for you?” – Crowley recalled the wall that he decided not to scale. He dropped his brows, he laughed. And then he laughed some more.
“Yes, I know he will,” – Aziraphale nodded calmly, observing his fr-enemy’s rather theatrical display of untimely mirth.
Crowley’s laugh stuck in his throat. The surety in Aziraphale’s words brushed him the wrong way. These were the early years of their armistice arrangement, after all.
“Why not escape by yourself. Just walk out of here, save a few souls along the way? Wouldn’t that be safer for your… friend?” Unless, you want to see him again, of course.
“It’s…” He hesitated, something on the edge of his mind about to tip onto his tongue. He stopped it. “That is our business, Crowley, I suggest you go. Thank you for your concern.”
“Concsssssern…! Angel, you give me too much credit. It is merely-”
“Get out get out get out, he is coming!!!!”
Picking up the commotion in the corridor, the angel started to make desperate shooing motions, cutting short Crowley’s tirade. It looked rather tragicomically with all the damage that severely limited his motion range.
“-curiossssssssity…” Crowley finished in the middle of a hasty retreat through the back wall. He hated doing this, passing through inanimate objects made him feel like the said object, in this case, cold, mouldy rock. The sensation lingered like a layer of grime, and it was very hard to wash out.
He appeared in the corridor, in time to catch a glimpse of a young, determined man with lively dark eyes and messy curls striding down the stairwell towards Aziraphale’s dungeon. He was not tall, and left several corpses in the corridor. A capable young man. Crowley decided that his curiosity warranted an extension, to see how the two idiots would get out of the jail… safely. With that, he did another elegant pass with his wrist and a sleek black viper dropped on the floor, where he stood a moment ago.
Meanwhile in the dungeon, the said capable young man rushed past the corridor to the angel’s cell. Aziraphale tried to stand up again, to greet his rescuer, but repeated the pathetic exercise, and as before, landed on the stone floor with a groan. He looked up apologetically, then at his mangled hands hanging loosely at his sides, he tried to smile with the split lips, and winced.
The intruder’s black eyes swiped around the pitiful scene and, setting his face in a grim but capable scowl, he unlocked the door with the key’s he took off one of the corpses now decorating the corridor, and with a curt bow crouched next to the priest.
“Oh, Lord Catesby,” said the angel, being hoisted over the man’s shoulder. “You are really here?”
Catesby, the man Cecil mentioned as the possible leader of some mysterious plot. Crowley’s ears would have perked up, but snakes did not have ears.
Catesby fixed a hard, serious look on Aziraphale’s face.
“Yes, my friend, how could I leave you!” (Crowley could taste the emphasis.) “No respect for a man of the cloth. Bloody heathens!” Catesby slid his hand around Aziraphale’s waist, trying to balance the taller angel. “Do you think you can stand?”
“Yes… with some help,” Aziraphale sighed. Unused to physical discomfort of any kind, the angel was feeling exhaustion for the first time. His feet slid against the mucked straw and Catesby ended up shouldering half his weight. The priest looked up to give him thanks, but words got stuck in his throat. Above Catesby’s head, in the shadows of the stone walls, he saw yellow reptilian eyes study the scene. Couldn’t the demon take a hint?! Aziraphale tried to make a dismissive gesture at the fiend, but the mangled wrist just jerked, sending another unexpected spike of pain through his arm.
Catesby regarded his paling face with concern. The angel tried to look reassuring, both to Catesby and the shadowy presence of the demon.
The scope of the situation was hitting Aziraphale in nauseating waves. Afraid to fail the Heaven’s mission, he made a decision to stay in The Tower and wait for the promised rescue. But he failed when he tried to heal himself enough for the escape and was now a sitting duck. A panicking sitting duck. Something was wrong with his earthly body. And the worse part, this sudden predicament was endangering this young man’s life. And he even thought, experiencing the torture could bring him closer to humanity… Mortified, and failing to hide it from the two sets of concerned gazes, he leaned into the offered shoulder.
“F-forgive me,” he pushed out.
“What for, my friend? What you did… that you survived and kept us all protected…” earnest eyes intent on his face, Aziraphale felt profound shame engulfing him.
“I’ve brought rope…” Catesby continued, revealing the twine at his side. “But with your hands… I am afraid that would be impossible to go over the wall… I’ve heard there was an underground passage under the outside wall and the moat. But we need to get out of here first.”
Aziraphale’s sight was swimming in an out of focus. Crowley watched with what he reluctantly admitted to himself was growing concern.
“Leave me and save yourself, if such a time comes,” Aziraphale tried to smile, leaning heavier and heavier into Catesby’s side. The man returned his gaze without any words, conveying clearly, he would not do that.
“I think, I can hear the guards, please, try to walk.”
Dragging his feet, Aziraphale pushed his body to follow his saviour down the staircase. They reached the lower level of the building and were prepared to turn a corner when the sound of approaching footsteps, and the metal clang of armour and sword held their feet in place. Catesby’s solemn expression became resolute. Thomas and Guido would continue with the plan, they came far enough. He felt his life was of no grave importance any longer…
Having no other option, they went down the opposite hallway. Aziraphale’s fears were confirmed when they reached the end and found the small door, but it was locked. Catesby’s loot was of no help, key after key proving useless. Presumably, the guards were not supposed to exit through here. While Aziraphale rested on the side of the doorway, Catesby looked around feverishly. The footsteps hastened, the guards understood they went down, into the dead-end.
Aziraphale looked up to the stone ceiling and sighed. His body was too busy performing a balancing act between human and inhuman faculties. He felt certain it was nearing its limit.
Is thisss all part of The Ineffable Plan, perhapssss? The demon’s thoughts came through the link.
The angel thought nothing back. Ignore him. Ignore the bloody demon and think! This was punishment for his arrogance…
It was important this rescue was successful to give Catesby’s associates the impetus and drive to complete whatever opposition they were preparing against the king. If the young revolutionary failed here, so was Heaven’s plan to help the English Catholics! He didn’t want to explain that to the management…
The gleam of Crowley’s eyes from the stones above followed them. Aziraphale could tell from the slight, amused curve of the yellow irises gazing back at him that the demon was smirking.
Oh, it appears this rescue has gone pear-shaped. Need a hand? A tail, perhaps?
Said tail dangled from the ceiling above him and wiggled. Aziraphale automatically turned away from the offer, and his eyes fell on the desperate attempts of Catesby to force the door.
Come now, angel. Even you aren’t as naive to think you can make this work on your own without showing your cards. Your little project here is as good as dead at this rate. Just say it.
Aziraphale bared his teeth, eyes shut.
“…help me!” He whispered under his breath.
Catesby stood up, taking a stance, bearing his sword, and turned back to Aziraphale, a farewell in desperate gaze. The priest’s eyes were shut tight, as if he was praying. Before he could call out to him, an orange sheen filled the hallway beside them. Catesby craned his neck and gawked at the spectacle forming out of thin air behind Aziraphale.
Fleshed out of the shadows and soot of the tower hallway, a figure’s silhouette burned with the intensity of struck coals, casting sparks on the floor beneath it. The black, outstretched arms formed, heavy folds of red silk coiling around the vision’s feet. Powdery, grey wings spread over the figure’s shoulders, touching the sides of the hallway. Otherworldly sleek features bloomed in the darkness, a thin blue flame arching above his black hair that fell down in rivulets against the red robe.
Aziraphale balked, but had to admit the fiend put on a good-looking spectacle. It was painful to watch as Catesby bought into all of this, and clasping his hands together, fell to his knees in reverence at the image before them.
“Behold, I am thy prayers made flesh!” Crowley’s voice echoed against the narrow walls of the stairwell, keeping his reptilian eyes demurely downcast. He brought his right hand down, pointing to a miraculously open gate near the floor. “This way shall lead thee to thy salvation!”
And with a shimmer of flame and smoke, the image flared white-hot, then vanished, leaving displace air and swirling ether. Catesby trembled, hands still clinging to one another in front of his chest. He weakly turned back to Aziraphale at the doorway, eyes wide and black. He stood up and grabbed the angel by the shoulders.
“A miracle from your prayers! God has provided. Praise him! My dear friend, you and I shall not die here! No, we must leave and continue our mission for the glory of God!”
The dungeons lined the perimeter of the Tower complex, enclosed by the moats. Stinking standing water into which the cesspools drained from cells, torture chambers, and guards’ quarters. The Glory of God led them into one of these drains. Catesby flung the lid of it shut, submerging them into darkness and excrement. It was only when they had both managed to splash down into their “salvation”— a narrow “sewer”, first vertical, then leading towards the moat, filled with countless years-worth of fermented waste – that Aziraphale grasped the joke of Crowley’s assistance. Of course, the demon’s grand pantomime of angelic guidance would lead them through shit and piss… Aziraphale watched Catesby’s back in front of him, relentlessly charging forward. How did the mortal manage to breathe through the poisonous fumes?
When the two men spilled out of the exit of the sewer, here too, miraculously, the grate gave to Catesby’s push and they stopped at the exit onto a thin strip of land, sloping towards the moat. By now, they were covered in enough “night soil” to give an English farmer three years of good crops. It was hard to know if the guards guessed which way they went. They stopped, pausing with a crouch, listening for the commotion, as torchlights danced above the Towers’ walls, reflecting as yellow glimmers in the murky water in front of them. Catesby understood that the priest would not be able to swim over to the boat, hidden away under the bridge. He waited, holding Aziraphale up, for the guards’ attention to turn elsewhere. The angel on his shoulder was getting heavier by the minute. Hot shallow breath tickled Catesby’s ear. Two still shadows, clinging to the slimy grate, feet slipping in slowly crawling sludge. Finally, as the reflections of the torches disappeared, Catesby whistled, quietly. After a few moments of tense stillness, a rowboat detached itself from the dense shadow of the wall. A young, sharp-faced man, who Aziraphale knew as Thomas Wintour, eagerly watched them from the edge of the boat, coaxing them on with a hand. The tall, bulky figure of the gunpowder expert, Guido Fawkes, loomed beside him, watching their emergence with disbelief.
“Father, you’re alive,” Thomas cried, slapping his wet back as he pulled the angel aboard. “We feared the worse!”
“Yes,” said his companion, “It seems somehow this worked…Ah! For God’s sake, the smell!”
Aziraphale collapsed at the bottom of the boat, looking over to Catesby who crouched over him. Settling the tortured comrade more comfortably with gentle hands, the man then proceeded to busy himself with an oar. Thomas could not take his eyes away from the bloodied swollen wrists that showed from the torn and soiled sleeves of his tattered doublet.
“First we deliver him to my residence. Then I need to speak to Father Garnet about what happened in the dungeon. I feel we have been blessed by God tonight, and we cannot waste a moment! I hope he sees the necessity of our plot now!”
Thomas cocked his head, waiting for more information as to what their leader meant, but no further was given, so he turned to the rescued priest, who only shook his head with a tortured smile. Whether Crowley had intended to or not, he had helped their crusade for Catholic freedom greatly.
Crowley teleported straight to his quarters from the stable. He took off the black leather, took off his chemise and skimpy lace-trimmed braies, stepped into a basin and let it rain. A small cloud smelled of ozone, it crackled with static. The rain was warm, like that first rain. That first rain they spent together at the Pearly Gate. Maybe a bit warmer, because the reptilian side of Crowley liked warm. The warm water slid down his body, washing off the feeling of the mouldy wall, the smell of the dungeon – excrement, fear and pain – and the pervasive coppery-sweet scent of the angel’s blood.
He stood like that for a long time, lost to the world. His hair was long now, longer than in times of Greeks, it streamed down his shoulders, sleek and heavy with rainwater. James liked his hair, and when he was feeling charitable, he would not pull away if the king slid a hand up his back, to tug at his ribbon. Then he would stop him, careful not to insult. There was something vulnerable in the king at times like this. Crowley did not bother to pry, but it felt like the demon reminded him of someone, someone the king would not force.
Crowley dried himself off. He clicked his fingers to raise the temperature in the room, forgoing the clothes. He plopped into the soft armchair, opened the book. And spent another half hour staring through the page. He knew it by heart, but at the moment, he was not sure which book was in front of him. It was cool resting against his thigh. Aziraphale loved books, he would object to such treatment. So, Crowley closed the book finally noticing the title – Symposium. James would appreciate it.
Crowley took the book, slid into the soft silk gown, did his hair up, and walked down the corridor.
James was asleep now, exhausted by the two Spanish boys. The spacious bedroom was excessively decorated, but not by the king himself. Crowley observed through the ages, how monarchs rarely lived in spaces that held anything much of value to them. They were placed like dolls in lavishly decorated dollhouses. Maybe this is why so many went mad. And then there was the inbreeding…
Crowley put the book on the bedside table. And left.
As a Heavenly being, Aziraphale usually had no need of sleep, but when they arrived in the grey hours of the morning to Catesby’s London residence, he could barely keep his eyes open. Still trapped in his human condition, unable to heal his injuries, his body was losing its resources. Unfamiliar sensations were overloading the angel’s system; he did not know what he was feeling, and how to tend to all the uncomfortable sensations that battled for his attention. It was getting more and more pressingly clear, that he needed to very promptly recall in what way human body would respond to these stimuli-- hunger, fatigue, pain. For now, a very kind, older man of the cloth, who went by a humble name of Brother Glynn, surveyed the damage and fretted on the septic waste the wounds were exposed to. The angel still hoped that soon he would give the kind friar a delight by making a miraculous recovery, in spite of getting close and personal with the liquid death in the moat.
Aziraphale allowed himself to drift in and out, fatigue felt like being tipsy, really. Almost nice, if not for the pain. His many injuries were cleaned and dressed in dry bandages. The angel felt more exposed than in all the 5,000 something years on God’s green Earth, as the elderly friar manipulated his naked body. In his disorientation, he wanted to cover himself for some unfathomable reason. Finally, a loose chemise and soft pair of threadbare braies hid his shame. Being dressed and having the restriction of cuffs and torn, twisted cloth around his corporeal vessel put him at ease. He laid back in the pillow and shifted to settle, breathing and feeling as close to sleepy as he could… if only he had some hot tea with a bit of honey in it. That was asking a bit much of his current situation, however.
It was already near daybreak. The sky was lightening to a fine powder blue behind the wrinkled window glass of his room, and Aziraphale could hear the early shuffling of the working merchants rising for their practice in the streets below. The movement, the rough drop of footsteps on creaking floorboards, somehow comforted the angel. In Heaven, there was no sound, or no incidental sound, to be heard. There were spoken words and song, but the clack of silverware or clop of horse hooves were nowhere. He sunk into the sounds laying there, feeling life moving all around him.
Aziraphale cracked opened his eyes a fraction at the quiet creak of the door, to see Robert Catesby, creeping into his room in a nightshirt. Odd, he thought, shifting up on his pillow.
“Oh, Father, I’m—I hope I didn’t wake you. I came… I came to check on you. I was worried with your wounds, they seemed so terrible…”
The angel smiled at him tiredly. The man wouldn’t say so, but it seemed he didn’t think he would make it through the night.
“The friar has been very good to me,” he said, looking at his fingers sticking out of the bandages and splints, encasing both his arms. “I will recover… with time.”
“This must be God’s will!” The other man said, tenderly and hesitantly. His eyes wandered about the room, his hands covering, half-clasped with agitated fingers.
“Was there something else…?” The angel finally offered. The other man’s chronic, sober gaze came back. He crouched next to Aziraphale’s cot in such a quick drop, the angel shifted back. With genteel respect and careful movement, Robert reached out with his hands and looked up at Aziraphale, who returned a questioning gaze. He laid a careful palm on the bruised fingers. The angel twitched in surprise. The sudden closeness put a strange thrill into his body, an odd shot of heat that had no physiological explanation. Catesby’s fingertips moved in a simple caress. Aziraphale found it…nice, but bothersome, somehow.
With fierce burning eyes, yet gingerly, Catesby clasped the angel’s hand.
“My friend, I believe we are fated to be together.”
The disquieting heat inside him grew hotter. Aziraphale felt a giddy smile on his face that he did not mean to put there. He tried to take a hold of his wits. What his human body was doing… his corporeal vessel was giving him confusing signals.
“You and I…” Catesby continued, “have been blessed by God. Granting us a vision of His angel!”
Aziraphale’s panicked argument with himself stopped. The unidentified pleasantness seeped away as he realized what the man was referring to – none other than Anthony J. Crowley, the fiend. He tried to keep his face straight.
“Yes… the… ‘angel”,” Aziraphale strained. It was true, he thought, in a way, if you forgo the specifics, angel stock, that one, expired, as it is, but… “I saw it, too.”
“We were saved by a messenger of God…surely…there must be a reason! Despite all our doubts… surely our Plan is blessed by Him!” there was barely any voice in his words. If Aziraphale had wanted to laugh, he could not now, seeing the pained, desperate expression in the young man’s eyes. He seemed close to tears. Who would have thought, Crowley’s antics were pushing this man into a moral crisis?
“You too have joined us, Father… What other way is there to save our Catholic brothers and sisters from such brutal persecution if not with a sword?”
“Indeed,” the answer was automatic. Divine interventions did not work in this day and age anymore. Jesus would have been hung drawn and quartered after a short witch-trial, had he tried to go around healing people and turning water into wine. Although, water into actual drinkable water would have been preferable in this specific case.
Not angels, but people, had to stop people.
Two days ago, Aziraphale met another angel, who had arrived with the Spanish Embassy, and would, hopefully, promote the possibility of Spanish pressuring King James into leniency towards the Catholics. In the meantime, through the Jesuit Superior, Father Garnet, Aziraphale came upon a convenient local Catholic resistance. The leader of said group, Robert Catesby, hatched some (doubtlessly altruistic) plot, which Aziraphale was soon to be initiated into, in which he planned to remove the biggest eyesore in Heaven’s eyes – King James I. Aziraphale had hoped to circumvent the bloodier option of regicide by peaceful diplomacy with Spain. However, considering his current celestial disability, and the lack of word from his partner in the Spanish court, the sword may very well have to be drawn and honed for the repressive king.
On Aziraphale’s apparent agreement, Catesby’s face broke in relief, and he smiled up at the angel.
“Then if that is the case, Father, please join me in a prayer… for your recovery, and for God’s guidance as we continue our cause!”
Little did Catesby know how close he was to divine guidance at that moment!