Chapter 1: Bloody Glasses
There was a lull in the music. Just in time for three adverts and an announcement for a production going on at the West End, coupled with the warm and steady hum of traffic just outside the dusty windows. Orange light spooled on the floor, lazy whorls cut into circular runes of dancing particles caught in syrupy beams. The comfortable silence between them was interrupted by the soft click of tongue against teeth, of wetting a thumb to turn the glossy page of a magazine with some shirtless Rockstar stud splashed across the front. Which Crowley was only reading to both pass the time and annoy Aziraphale. It did not succeed in the latter. Aziraphale was quite happy for the company. Always. Eternally.
Plus, the bloke looked an awful lot like a certain serpent and it was fun to let fantasies play on in the back of his head, tickling him like recorded fingers tickled ivory keys and a piano tinkered on from the radio up behind Aziraphale’s head.
“Someone’s ears will be burning soon.”
Aziraphale startled gently with a blink, his smile inconsequential but easy and free.
“Beg your pardon?”
Crowley’s eyes were yet hidden beneath his mirrored sunglasses, which he wore indoors and outdoors and during the day and at night. Sometimes, after imbibing on Aziraphale’s stock of expensive reds, he’d fling his glasses away with abandon and dance about while he waxed poetic about wax and poetry and dolphins. Lord, he liked his sea creatures. Not the point. The point is, Crowley rarely let himself be unguarded, at the very least with his eyes, even in the comfort of Aziraphale’s bookshop. Not unless they were drunk. The both of them. Together.
Anyways, it was annoying. Not the tawdry magazine cover or Crowley pointedly putting his foot on the sofa. None of that could bother him, unless he was feeling particularly uppity and wanted to tease the demon back. Aziraphale pouted because Crowley looked at him, or perhaps the magazine, or maybe up at the ceiling, who knows, when his eyes were yet hidden away.
Then Crowley set the magazine spread across his chest and dipped his chin, so Aziraphale could catch just a glimpse of forbidden gold, and he had to fight off a strange new warmth in his cheeks.
“I said,” Crowley answered slowly, drawling, taking his time in a way that meant he was putting on an act of chilling coolness, which sometimes made him sound a bit drunk. “That someone’s ears would be burning.”
“What’s that mean?” Aziraphale asked, trying to pout again when all he wanted to do was smile.
“It’s an expression,” Crowley whispered haughtily. “Thought you should—”
“No, my dear, I know it’s an expression. I meant what do you mean.”
“I mean you haven’t turned a page for the past half hour.”
Aziraphale glanced down at his book, the words swimming together. Generally, the Bibliotheca Classica was a fine enough read, a quick bite of classical mythology, consuming the retellings of fables and myths there before he soldiered on to something thick and meaty, like that first edition copy of Ulysses he’d picked up in Paris. And, to be true, he had been stuck on a page for a while now, rereading the same sentence over and over again.
Aziraphale turned the page now, as if to make a point.
Crowley chuckled, shook his head, and tipped his nose back up so that his eyes were masked again by those bloody sunglasses. His head rested against the cushion and he took a long, unnecessary lungful of air before he settled completely. He looked like he might take a nap.
A few more sentences then. A paragraph. Aziraphale did his best to focus on the work in front of him, which wasn’t any work at all, except that he liked to glance up through his pale eyelashes at the dashing demon on his sofa. All long lines, loose limbs that could spool up into tight, rough muscles. Crowley was just beginning to let his hair go a bit longer up front, a little looser near his ears. There might be some curls coming in soon. Aziraphale imagined absently dragging his fingers through Crowley’s hair, combing out the curls, braiding it across his lap as his demon lay against him, eyes closed, glasses off, hands gently folded on his chest.
The book—and he was certain to be gentle with it, considering it was hand-pressed paper and such delicate binding—went to the table beside him. He stood and walked over to the sofa, only for Crowley to lift a hand for him, proving he had been watching the angel behind his sunglasses the whole time, the fiend. Still, they were no longer forbidden these touches, these moments, and damn him—please, not literally, not this time—he was free to take them as he pleased. Aziraphale slid his hand across Crowley’s, found their fingers interlocked, found him bracing his free hand on the armrest beside Crowley’s head, found his lips hovering and diving and finding and connecting perfectly, perfectly perfectly.
Crowley’s magazine was tossed aside and slapped the hardwood floor behind the sofa without a second thought. Sturdy binding. It would be alright.
The dust captured by the sunlight froze, trapped in the uncommon magic. And then it danced again, as a current of air was disturbed by someone’s jacket being tossed away, a bowtie flung after it. The radio was forgotten behind whispered “I love you so, my dear,” and “right, you’re on my…bloody hell, right there, angel,” and “not so hard,” and “harder, please, pleasssse.”
Aziraphale was tucked in nicely against Crowley’s chest, his warm, cinnamon-stained breath tickling Crowley’s neck, who twitched and wriggled until Aziraphale shifted up to kiss a damp line from jaw to jugular. Doing it “the human way” always made them a bit breathless, a bit boneless, a bit sweaty and clingy and delirious. Not to say it wasn’t wonderful. All these tiny gestures, these little pleasures they could pull from skin and teeth and nails. Crowley couldn’t help but laugh, the sound vibrating nicely up from his bony ribcage, which jumped and jabbed until he settled back down to the perfect plane for Aziraphale to rest his head again.
“Didn’t like the book, then?” Crowley asked, his voice a little scratched around the edges. He had yelled a great deal for that last one and Aziraphale kissed his throat again, as though to heal him.
“No. I just thought you needed something,” Aziraphale answered gently. Crowley snorted. “I’m serious.”
“You needed something,” Crowley answered, shifting enough to kiss his forehead. “It’s alright to admit. You’re just a horny old bastard.”
“Careful, dear,” Aziraphale warned, worming up to pluck at the black frames of Crowley’s glasses, still firmly in place despite his best efforts to fuck him and them into oblivion. “Or I’ll do something truly wretched.”
Crowley ducked his face out of the way before Aziraphale could remove them completely. He caught Aziraphale’s hand and kissed his plump palm, his knuckles, his little angelic ring on his pinky. The metal must’ve burned just a little, but Crowley slid his tongue across the insignia and closed his mouth over it like he would when he got between Aziraphale’s legs. It was enough to make Aziraphale fond again, soft again, even though he was always very soft, thank you, and comfortable too. Aziraphale sighed, resting his cheek down over where the demon’s heart sometimes remembered to beat, though not often enough.
They could nap.
The fact that they could nap was a miracle in its own right. An angel and a demon, post coitus, wrapped like candy wrappers round each other, snug and safe on their worn sofa, in a bookshop that had burned down and then didn’t, in a world that could have burned down and then didn’t. Proper miracle.
So they did.
“I was thinking lunch.”
Aziraphale was up first, as always, already retying his bowtie. Had to do it thrice up and down and up and down before he got the knot in the right place. He liked doing it with his hands, even if he wasn’t that good at it—if Crowley would just wake up, he might miracle it in place, but that was considered cheating. No, just the hands. Like a puzzle. Same as he liked making cocoa with kettle and spoon and sugars, same as he liked putting on reading glasses he hardly needed, or how he went to a barber twice a month, or how he sometimes went over to get postage stamps and wrote letters to strangers to give the mailman something to do. It was all very human. The sweat on his chest and at the damp small of his back? The uneven socks on his feet? The little gurgle and hiccup as his tummy rumbled for want? Humanity, worn so well it was a second skin, loved so fiercely it was a child to them. A child, even, 6000 going on thirteen with scabby knees and a yappy dog and three wonderful friends and all the rest of them, too.
“Maybe at the café?”
He put his hand on the back of the sofa, just next to Crowley’s slightly cold hand, teasing it with his pinky. It was a solid perch as he bent to pick up the tossed magazine. The garbage was folded up, curled up once more, and tucked under his arm.
“The one across the street?”
“Aziraphale,” Crowley finally grumbled, his mouth all mashed up against the cushion.
”Crowley,” Aziraphale answered with a smile.
The demon rolled over on his side just as Aziraphale came around the sofa to kneel over him, threatening him with a kiss to his cheek.
“Not fair,” Crowley answered, his fingers tangled in Aziraphale’s hair as he bent over him. “Just come nap with me.”
“I can’t,” Aziraphale said softly. Their noses were so close, and he did the right thing by brushing them together, gentle and sweet, as everything should be. “I want some lunch and then of course we should go for a walk. Eases digestion. And perhaps we need to stop by the pond and feed the ducks and then I thought we—”
“Nnnhhh!” Crowley dragged his fingers from Aziraphale’s hair and up to his back, clinging to the ancient fabric, which only served to draw Aziraphale closer, so he didn’t tear it. “That’s too many things! Just pick one! I just woke up.”
“Lunch,” Azirphale said immediately, pecking Crowley’s nose again.
“And the park.”
“…guh, fine.” Crowley took advantage and kissed Aziraphale again, his slippery tongue greeting Aziraphale’s lips until he they parted so gently and allowed him a brief taste. It warmed up his serpent, got his blood flowing again, and nearly ready to finally pull himself off the sofa. “I spoil you.”
“Yes, but only the correct amount.”
Aziraphale had to close his eyes because, so close, he could almost pretend to see those golden eyes behind his sunglasses. A simple trick of wanting memory. Just seeing his own reflection back at him was distracting. Better yet to touch their foreheads together and then, slowly, carefully, pull away to give Crowley room to get up. He rolled out of his comfort, out of his sleep, out of his warm haven that smelled like Aziraphale and like their sweaty passions and climbed up with a spine too bendy to be ordinary. But then he was snapped up to attention, stretching, yawning, slinking so perfectly over to put his hand in Aziraphale’s pocket and fish out one of the mints he kept there.
“Alright. I’ll drive.”
“I just thought we might go across the—”
“Nah.” Crowley was picking up his coat, a hat that he considered and then left, and stepped into snake-skin shoes. “There’s that French café across the way that you like. My treat.”
Aziraphale’s eyes lit up at the prospect. He already had on his coat and almost didn’t bother with the keys, only just remembering on the way out. While a simple miracle could do the trick, why not do it the human way instead? That was their side of things, after all. And it was nice to have the metal in his pocket as a counter balance to the mints he kept for Crowley in the other.
They had to wait ten minutes for a table to clear up for them.
Aziraphale swayed left and right in his loafers, his face falling into its most pronounced pout as time wore on. It did not go unnoticed, of course, and eventually Crowley simply slipped his arm around Aziraphale’s and pressed his nose against the angel’s cheek.
“You said we should be doing it the human way.”
“Yes, but ten whole minutes? That’s much too long a wait.”
The demon simply laughed at him. Rude. Ruder yet as Crowley didn’t even entertain the idea of shifting things about and suddenly having a table or, even better, just a bag with a croissant inside to tide him over. He was stubbornly sticking to the messy rules of be human. Be as human as possible. Be in love with humanity, for it saved them all and that’s where we live and breathe and, maybe, one day die.
Bloody mistake, is what that was!
Except Aziraphale didn’t miracle them a spot either. Not when Crowley could do it so well. And his pouting was perhaps just as human as they needed.
There was no further fuss when they were sat at their table. They ordered, a few too many delightful treats for Aziraphale, a mint tea with a little black devil’s food cake for Crowley, because the idea of it made him laugh, especially when it was presented with the little slice of angel’s food next to it, sitting on their respective sides of the table. Aziraphale nicked the raspberry on top and hummed around the delicate tines of his fork when he ate it.
“Hey. I might have enjoyed that!”
Aziraphale licked his lips in reply, the tip lingering along the bottom, before Crowley rushed forward as planned and kissed him to steal a bit of the tart flavor.
“You taste too sweet,” Crowley grumbled.
“That would be the powdered sugar.” He laughed just beside Crowley’s lips, licking in to steal some of the mint and honey of his wonderful partner.
“Well, you can’t go wrong with a decent crepe, my dear.”
“C’mon. Drove you all the way you out here. Better than decent?”
“Oh, yes, alright. Better than decent. Most assuredly.”
They were both affectionate and sweet and nauseating, even so boldly here. In public. For any and all to see. Heaven and Hell having written them off for the freaks that they were and that deserved copious displays of affection just to snub their noses at the “opposition.” Which was damn near everyone now. Occult. Ethereal. Beyond, too, maybe. God didn’t speak to anyone these days.
Crowley was about to start in on something, his nose tilted up, so he was looking firmly through his black sunglasses—which were appropriate, at least, sitting outside in the sun. They could be forgiven this time—when his mouth curled peculiarly to the left.
“What?” Aziraphale spun to see from the same vantage point, expecting a certain Duke of Hell storming their way or, worse yet, Michael coming across the street like the billowy clouds of a thunderhead. He spotted the Bentley, parked neatly in its space, waiting and ready to take them home. He saw a man in a uniform standing near the Bentley. “Are they going to try and tow it?”
“No!” Crowley answered with a shout. “Worse! They’re giving me a bloody ticket!” Crowley got up to cross the street, stopped by both foot and mechanical traffic. “Hey!”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, dear. Come sit down! We’ll just make it disappear,” Aziraphale said, his fingers lingering on the edge of Crowley’s jacket.
“Noooo,” Crowley drawled, letting some gravel and grit play about in his vocal chords. “No, let me just go have a chat.”
“Human thing to do, Angel,” he teased, and could very well have winked. Aziraphale wrinkled his eyebrows together and laughed, letting Crowley’s jacket slip effortlessly out of his grasp.
“Oh, alright,” Aziraphale conceded. “I mean, I could have just blown it up. If you asked.”
“Could have,” he said, walking backwards across the uneven asphalt. “Butcha won’t!
“Oi!” Crowley shouted, watching the annoying traffic cop pop off around the corner. He snatched his ticket off the windshield, afraid it might leave a greasy residue. He bunched up his sleeve and wiped it quickly before he followed the man. “What’s the meaning of this? We weren’t overstayed. I followed all the signs and traffic speeds and everything! Hey!”
He did look a bit ridiculous, chasing after the man. Enough to give Aziraphale a chuckle before he turned to the table and stole another bite of the airy chocolate cake. He wondered, idly, if he might just make the ticket explode anyways. Far simpler than dealing with all this and it would get Crowley back to him, right where he belonged.
Aziraphale leaned back in the chair to look across the street once more when he spotted that remarkable gait ahead of anything familiar like style of clothes or hair color. He raised an eager hand.
Crowley held up a crumpled pamphlet with his ticket inside.
“Can you believe?” He started across the street, brows all furrowed and properly angry while his mouth was twisted upwards in amusement. “I’m going to have to fight this one!”
“No, don’t fight it. Just come here and I’ll take care of—”
I’M NEVER FAR AWAY.
The sound was sucked out of the world, same as color and taste and smell. One minute, yes, it had all been perfectly fine. Perfectly normal. All this walking about and talking and existing and breathing and….
Lord, it hurt to breathe.
It hurt to breathe.
It hurt to be.
And then, like a great big wave crashing into the shoreline, the tsunami come to devastate, the sound. Blaring horn and a scream or two, shattered glass as the plate of devil’s food cake was dashed aside and suddenly very numb hands met the iron table, slipped off, and threatened to clock his chin.
The sky was stained with red.
Or, well, the bus that had come barreling down the street and now stopped ten feet away with smoking tire tracks behind it and alarms growing in the distance. That was red. The sky too, perhaps.
This could not be.
They were occult. Ethereal.
Only human, too.
Another sound clamored up above the rest. It would have been kinder if everything just shut the hell up, but Aziraphale realized it was being ripped right out of his own throat. He was very nearly to the body, shoving easily through the crowd, his wings tucked in, his angelic strength weeping from his bones from the shock. Would he just think, he could blink and make everyone disappear. Straight up to Alpha Centauri if he were feeling so dastardly. He could make the bus the size of a pea, crushed in his fist. He could melt their bones and claw open the earth to toss them into magma, a facsimile of the Hellfire they all deserved and GOD! GOD! No!
Yes, Aziraphale. I hear you.
Aziraphale gasped and stopped just short of the closest perimeter to the scene. He stared at the red and the metal and the boiling sea of humanity as his heart lurched up and woke with a painful start.
“You…you took him,” he whispered shakily.
No, my poor Principality. Not this time.
“You took him,” he said louder, and his vision went all squiggly and hazy, warped by hot tears. “You just….” He looked upwards, which was pointless, as She would never show her face. He could barely remember what it looked like, even 6000 years ago, when they were new and blind and innocent. Somebody shoved past him. He considered shoving them back, but he didn’t have the strength to move, let alone smite these poor, innocent, beautiful nothings. “You couldn’t just…leave us alone!”
He was starting to get looks. Didn’t they have a body to attend to?
“You couldn’t! Give him back!”
Somebody was trying to get him to move and he gripped their arm without breaking it. Oh, so tender, so soft these creatures.
“Give him back! Give him back!”
The sun hurt to look at, but no more holy or divine than it was any other day. The clouds did not speak, the earth did not shatter, and angels and demons collected wingtip to wingtip when the faint alarm went out that the Demon Crowley had been discorporated. What did that mean, for someone like him? What did that mean for someone like Aziraphale? Even DEATH was there, across the street. He waited until the angel saw him and nudged his head downwards before he disappeared when a man in a neon jacket rushed in front of him.
When it was clear that She had gone away again, Aziraphale screamed his frustrations. Seemed the only thing he could do. Straight up to that red, red sky. Screaming his head off, or damn near close. He was considered in hysterics and, somehow, dragged away by three men and a woman in a blue knit cap. He didn’t recognize their faces, so they couldn’t be the opposition come to collect him. They shouldn’t try. They shouldn’t dare. They should. They would. They will.
But, for now, an angel is covered in a blanket and given a cup of mediocre cocoa. And people, humans, all of them, go to tend to the dead.
There wasn’t even that much to see. These bodies, sturdy, yes, but so suddenly wet and flat when met with the force of a fast-moving bus and all the weight of metal that came with it. They would find the parking ticket, of course, and some might argue, well, still needed to be paid. And then further, away from the wheels, with a few cracks and a bent frame. Those bloody sunglasses.
Chapter 2: And the Paperwork
Aziraphale is desperate to get Crowley back. Enough that he attempts something he didn't think he'd ever try before, considering it's never worked. He's made a summoning circle to get in contact with Hell.
Me? Looking at a random side character and falling in love with them? Like the disposable demon? Whaaat? No, you're right. You're right. That's exactly what I did.
It was the first day after Crowley passed and it was raining.
1 AC, as he might put in the ledger. The grand restart to this whole numbering business. Striking a hard line through the A so it intersected with the C with zero regard for Christ and the years that came after him. But a man, smart and kind and dead on a cross. But a demon, smart and secretly nice and dead on the street. He scribbled even harder through the two letters at the top of his diary and chucked the book away from his desk, delicate binding be damned.
Who’s to say how the poor angel got home, only that he was so and had shored up the exterior of the place with dim boarded-up windows, the “business closed” signs, and chains on the lock out front to make it look properly condemned. All with a thought, a prayer. A wasted miracle.
The very first thing he did was attempt to contact Hell.
No easy feat for an angel, even one misaligned from Heaven and scarcely welcomed by either side.
Aziraphale had removed his coat and hung it up by the door, near a black hat and scarf. He unbuttoned his waistcoat and rolled up his sleeves before he dragged away the rug over the same portion in the shop that had once seen his own accidental discorporation. One might consider his miracle of being returned to the world and how the action might be repeated, but it had been right smack dab in the middle of the start of Armageddon and, at the time, Heaven was not actively against him for him to return. They were disappointed, but they hadn’t attempted to have him step into a ring of hellfire. Now that Hell had written Crowley down in all their worst books, simply fetching a body and filling out the tedious paperwork didn’t seem enough.
But a summoning circle just might do the trick.
There was no fiddling with candles, no incense to soften the moment. He had chalk and salt and he dragged lines aggressively across the floorboards, twisting symbols this way and that, very much the opposite of the design he had drawn in his attempt to contact God, only to find out he had wrung up the Metatron instead.
Lord, what figurehead was in Satan’s place. Baal? Mephistopheles probably. It would be very rude to send Pithom, wouldn’t it, that serpent. Of course, weren’t there plenty of serpent demons to send up and torment him? Absolutely. But they’d each be the wrong one and it seemed a waste of time just to even think about it.
He wished Crowley were there to see his efforts. A drop of sweat went down his nose and he wiped it away, only to find it wasn’t sweat at all. Another and another and soon a steady stream of tears stained his face and he had to wipe them against his sleeve to continue on with his work.
Wouldn’t do to have whatever demon he summoned see him cry.
Unless that demon miraculously turned out to be Crowley.
Oh, he’d waste the very last of his miracles on such a thing. He’d wring himself out, every drop, down to the last bit of his ethereal qualities, till he was nothing short of a middle-aged man through and through, if it would work.
The whole thing was dashed with salt, a fine circle of it laid around in a ring. Aziraphale closed it off with another shake of the box and sat back on his knees, his fists bunching the khaki there on his thighs. He dropped his head down to his chest like he was praying—which, certainly, he was—before he nudged the symbols to light up and start.
There’s something to say about the stubbornness of angels. Aziraphale sat there in front of his cobbled-together summoning circle for hours, long enough to start up a good cry and to dash it back down, clear his throat, and begin a healthy draught of cursing at the nameless lines and symbols. Long enough to grow silent again and the sun to climb overhead and back down to the other side. Long enough that a hot cup from the kitchen sounded better than anything. He considered his personal favorite, a rich and cinnamon-heavy cocoa with whipped cream and marshmallows—too much flavor and sugar, Angel, really, as one might say, if he were not being a bastard and were here to say it. The angel even considered the packets of peppermint tea he kept up in the cupboard just for his…well…. But, instead, he rooted around in his pocket, fished out a crinkly wrapper, and simply pressed it against his mouth, shivering with another bout of sorrow.
There was a light, thin and nearly black, bleeding up from the center of the piece. It stretched out, arms first, then torso, the oily head crowning up and up and up to two matted stalks. A mouth cracked in the center of the gob with a punch of a painful gasp. Aziraphale stiffened, simply watching as the poor sod was birthed in his wretched summoning circle.
“Oh Satan’s Great Arse!” The demon flopped backwards, panting towards the dim ceiling. He looked like he’d been dunked into a giant vat of hot tar. It didn’t look like it was any fun for the thing and, good Lord, the smell was damn near unbearable. Aziraphale was grateful that he had the peppermint pressed up to his nose. “That’s no way to do it. No way, I say.”
The poor demon was thin and while his complexion was entirely marred by the hot tar, he clearly had two matted stalks of hair that climbed up his head. He seemed quite keen on an overly dramatic makeup scheme with long matted eyelashes, one or two breaking from the tar as he attempted to blink his eyes open. A bit of tar fell back down and seared it, which he grasped instantly and thrashed about, clunking his head on the invisible barrier of the circle.
It looked like he’d gone and knocked himself out.
Aziraphale finally stirred, sitting forward to snap his fingers once or twice.
“Wake up,” he demanded, snapping again. “Listen to me, demon. Wake up this instant.”
It was like two paddles had gone to his chest, zapping him hard enough that his back lifted off the circle that had gone and stained his floorboards in scorch marks. He flopped back, but his ribs kept jumping, far more than simple breathing or a spasm. They cracked suddenly and a clean—well, relatively clean, considering the tar and general stain of Hell on him—demon burst out of the ruined remains. There was a great deal more black blood and awful noises to boot before a copy of the demon climbed his way out and flopped next to the remains.
“Oh my Heaven,” Aziraphale said gently, twisting his fist about on his chest. “You’re a legion.”
There was a moment or two of simple breathing, grasping where he was, before the demon laughed and shook his head, crawling up to sit in inches. “Nah,” he answered, patting down his dusty jacket. “I mean yeah, but none of the fancy ones. Just disposable, I suppose. I’m sure that’s why Hastur tossed me up through the shoot when that big weird thing cracked open on the wall of the office. I’m, uh….” He sniffed, snubbing his nose. “Eric.”
“Eric?” Aziraphale blinked at the common Human name. “Not Eligor or Ephippas or…or Eurynomus?” The demon shook his head like Aziraphale had just asked him if he wanted a toasted sandwich. “Zarika?”
“Well, you know lots of their names, don’t you?” Eric sat back, crossing his ankles. “S’pect that’s from spending all that time with Mr. Crowley then, right?”
“Just Crowley, dear,” Aziraphale answered on his behalf, considering he wasn’t around to say it.
The taste of the name coming from the demon’s lips made Aziraphale’s chest hurt enough, he patted it just to see if it had suddenly been split open.
“Just Crowley. Right. And you’re…that one fellow. The angel, uh….”
“D’you know where he is?” Aziraphale asked instead of providing his name—exorcism etiquette number one, wasn’t it? You don’t give the demon your name? Not that they didn’t know his, obviously, but it was the principle of the thing.
“Dead, I thought,” Eric answered, blithely looking around with an almost innocent wonder. “Where are we? This your place? It’s nice, in a bad way, y’know. You got that spooky sorta….”
Whatever he was saying, the words faded instantly upon Aziraphale hearing anything the awful word, “Dead.”
“You mean discorporated,” Aziraphale answered mid whatever this demon was saying.
“You meant discorporated, not dead.”
“Oh. Well…strictly speaking….” The demon batted such long eyelashes, wisps of black feathers plucked from the downy backside of a demon’s wings, perhaps even themselves. The eye lashes looked like moth antennae around tar-stained eyes. “One and then the other, I suppose. I wouldn’t expect anybody down there keeping him around for long. Payback for…well, loads of things.”
“We already had our trial.” It was suddenly hard to breathe, even for someone who strictly didn’t need to. “We passed and now you think…you think you can just—”
“I don’t think, Mr. Angel.” This time, Aziraphale didn’t correct him. “Thinking has done everything wrong for me, so. Nope.”
“Yes, but you must have some idea of what’s going on.”
“No, I’m bottom of the barrel sorts. Legions made to serve the dukes and princes and presidents and all that bullshit, those guys get to do some real mischief. I get fed to the hell hounds. Or fix the broken pipes. Or to stand in an avocado field for a decade just waiting to be turned into goo. I don’t know shit.”
“You must know something!” Aziraphale shouted desperately.
Eric flinched, just a little. Heaven see him now, eh? Threatening demons like he was “supposed” to. It was aggravating and exhausting. Aziraphale pinched his eyes, both to stop the pressure building there behind his eyes and to press back any angry tears.
“Hey.” The demon shifted on its bottom, drew it’s knees up, and hugged them. “I don’t, but I can have a guess, right? Here’s mine. They find your boyfriend down there, they’re gonna capture him and try every trick in the book to end him completely.”
That was too much to think. Aziraphale’s fists were so tight, he threatened to shred his trousers at the knee.
“But Mr. Crowley’s always been oddly resourceful. Might still find enough of them too afraid to touch him after the bath.”
Aziraphale did his best not to react to that. That he had been the one bathing in holy water. Any advantage Crowley could have while in Hell needed to remain intact.
“D’you wanna know something else?” the demon asked, leaning forward again, his hand shifting away the old dead lump that he had once been. Aziraphale tracked his movements with a keen eye, watching especially for the circle of salt that should, in theory, keep him trapped. “You got this symbol here wrong.”
“Wrong? But I’ve summoned you.”
“Barely,” Eric answered with a snort. And, true, the ground beneath him was starting to go black and oily, little tendrils snaking up the invisible bubble of the perimeter. “You want to summon your boyfriend? Next time be sure you—”
The legion demon popped like a perfectly ripe grape, splattering the walls of the summoning circle in a watery black smear.
Aziraphale was left gaping, blinking wildly, as though some of the mess had splashed up onto his pristine clothing and face. There was nothing to do but sink back onto his haunches, all the taught energy keeping him upright snapped with a pair of proverbial scissors. The next best thing was to collapse onto his knees in a maudlin display of defeat.
There would be an awful mess to clean up later. Even some things couldn’t be dashed away by a simple miracle.
Having a cellular had not been Aziraphale’s idea. He was quite competent at the rotary phone hooked up in the back of his shop, which he only used to call up for different bids on rare manuscripts he heard about through back channels and to ask Crowley to take him to a show under the guise of comparing notes during their Arrangement. He barely remembered the thing even after he pulled himself up off the hardwood floor, fetched a dustpan, broom, mop. Hell, he even had a sponge and a bucket and was on his hands and knees for a time to help scrub up the legion’s remains. Which was possibly why he missed the buzzing in his waistcoat pocket.
He missed it again during the sweeping.
He missed three more when he replaced the rug, the sofa, and did, indeed, burn a few sticks of incense to help with the smell. It was some autopilot reaction to the mundane hours of the day to actively move when, by all rights, he could sit there like stone and let the dust and cobwebs consume him.
Except it was hungry work, being stone for dust and cobwebs. Even hungrier after cleaning.
Aziraphale sank back down into his armchair, looking to all like a satisfied gentleman who had done some minor labor and found peace in the activity and certainly not a wrecked shell of a being. His hand went to the side table, resting on an old tome, when his belly tingled near where a kidney should go. Aziraphale hummed, touching the pocket there, and held it for a moment until the action repeated itself.
“Oh, right,” he said, only for the sudden hope that it was Crowley calling that made him yank it out and nearly drop it three times to the floor. Aziraphale fumbled and caught it and stared with manic desire at the bright screen.
Text messages from…Ana—
Aziraphale closed his eyes and pressed the warm screen to his forehead, groaning out the hope so it could go lie dashed across the freshly clean floor.
No Crowley. Not even an Anthony, which would be annoying but forgiven.
It took considerable effort to bring the phone back up and click open Anathema’s little message. Darling woman, of course, and generally meant well. Maybe she was asking them both out to visit Tadfield. It had been nearly a month since their last visit and maintaining these silly friendships had always been disaster in the past, but it seemed important now that they were making the effort to be more human.
Aziraphale’s stomach twisted painfully. Not even a hunger pang this time; he should be so lucky.
There was a haphazard gesture to get his spectacles, so he could look down the slope of his nose at the letters that would present themselves clearly whether he was wearing said glasses or not. He liked the gesture, as it made him feel more honest in his love of books, noting the common look amongst older scholars in his studies over the past, oh, however many hundreds of years it happened to be.
[Anathema Device, sent 10:13 am] (1/2) We’re wondering if you wanted to stop by next Thursday. Newt and I have some more news on wedding plans. Thought you might
[Anathema Device, sent 10:13 am] (2/2) like to see the flower arrangements we agreed upon. I sent pictures to Crowley. No doubt he’s already showed you.
[Anathema Device, sent 1:16 pm] Adam’s told me the news! Call me! We can be up there with the 7:15 bus if you don’t answer!
[Anathema Device, sent 1:16 pm] I’m so sorry. I’m sure there must be something we can do. Looking through everything I have here. I’m grilling Adam. He’s sorry, too. He really likes you two, you know.
[Anathema Device, sent 1:17 pm] Ive already got the tickets Adams grounded but I think I can convince Mr Young to let him come.Emergency Please call me back!
[Anathema Device, sent 2:29 pm] They’re coming RUN
[Anathema Device, sent 2:29 pm] NOW
Aziraphale stared at the messages, his thumb stuck on the last one. Capitol letters? No punctuation? Why was she yelling at him? Why—
There was a cursory knock on the door and then the world tipped sideways with the force of a blast that should, by all rights, kill him. If only he were so lucky. Tattered yellow scraps of paper whipped by, bindings wrenched apart, and the chair thumped twice on its arm rest. So much for cleaning the floors. They were covered in rubbish now! And, oh, there would be mourning again for those beautiful rescued manuscripts that were caught up in the blast. Hopefully nobody burned the place down. There was no way to know the intent as two beings stepped inside, looking around with bright, ethereal eyes, their wings spread to shield from the dusty orange glow of the sun, only to find a chair. The books. A coffee mug. And lingering despair.
“Sonovagun,” Gabriel said, tapping his fist against his leg, the motion carrying down so that he stamped his foot on the ground in a petulant display of displeasure. He fixed his jaw, straining to look over his companion’s shiny pate at the top of his head. “Empty.”
“Looks like,” Sandalphon answered. “I don’t suspect he’s gotten very far?”
“Well I don’t know. What do you see, hmm? Looks pretty empty to me. Doesn’t it.”
“Yes,” Sandalphon said, wilting next to him. Gabriel pursed his lips and squared his shoulders before he gripped Sandalphon’s in a friendly manner. “Don’t worry. We’ll find him.” There was the glint of gold from that angelic smile. Gabriel returned it in kind, even if they both forgot how to spread that happy warmth up to their eyes. “Come on. Just, watch your step, alright? This place is a mess and you know what the paperwork looks like if anything happens down here.”
Sandalphon nodded in agreement and followed Gabriel through the empty wreckage.
Another file popped down the overstuffed pneumatic tube, tumbling across the pile that had yet to be sorted near Dagon’s desk. This was not their fault. They kept impeccable records, their files immense and all encompassing of everything that passed through Hell. The bloody problem was getting the memos from the tubes to the actual inbox on their desk to be properly sorted. They relied on one of the legions to do it and, as of late, their work ethic had been deplorable. Something about no point with the Armageddon all tossed to shit. Something about a chance at promotion with all their heedless sacrifices. But their paperwork was filed away, and their station deemed appropriate and they should shut their mouths and move on before they got tossed into one of the pits with the Worthlessly Damned.
Which, if they would get around to that memo that just now came through the tube, might alert them that that was exactly where a certain Wanted Demon had crashed down and was, even now, trying to claw his way back up.
Chapter 3: Funny Thing, Being a Friend
Angels and Demons are meeting to try and discover where Aziraphale and Crowley have hidden themselves. Meanwhile, Crowley is stuck in a pit, but, damn him (again), he's going to get out!
Well, Gabriel and Beelzebub are anywhere near each other, soooooo...Ineffable Bureaucracy is afoot!
One might have heard the sordid tale of the demon who not so much fell as sauntered vaguely downward. And while getting the boot out of Heaven wasn’t precisely pleasant for any of them, it didn’t come without its own special set of rewards.
An immunity to Hellfire was rather nice. Roasting over a pit of bubbling black lava could almost be considered recreational when curled up in soot-blackened wings. They trapped the heat in so nicely and it did make the bones squeak a little less.
A high tolerance for certain activities also came to mind. Dropping from great heights. Looking devilishly cool while doing it. Keeping one’s head when waking up in one of the pits for the Worthlessly Damned, sinking into the annoyingly cold mud that trapped the usual suspects—namely any of the Legion demons that had pissed off a superior or maybe just a fellow Demon Whomever that bumped your shoulder on the way to Lord Beelzebub’s office.
Sometimes a nice mud bath was also enjoyable. Even a cold one had its merits, probably. Up on earth. With a glass of cucumber-accented water and a cigarette. With someone rubbing your feet and some soft classical music playing on the sound system overhead, not even once tripping over to Queen. A real good mud bath. Nothing like this.
Crowley stabbed his fingers into the slag above his shoulder, digging around until he found proper rock and hoisted himself up another three inches or so. He grunted through permanently clenched teeth, currently glued shut until his jaw was reset properly. Oh, the body was discorporated, there was no two ways about it. But the spirit remembers, and it was in a right mess. Something to sort out when he wasn’t being actively sucked down into the muck with the hundred or so other writhing demons here at the surface. The wet noise, the screaming, the grunting, the gnashing all piled up same as the bodies, which kept smashing up against him like the worst mosh pit.
Don’t you know you who I am? he wanted to ask, like he could earn any special favors. Scratch that. Don’t remember me at all, because one of you bastards will tattle on me and that’ll be that. Fuck!
Someone had grabbed him around the middle and attempted to climb him like he was climbing the wall, jostling about a set of already well-jostled ribs. If there were any left that hadn’t been cracked to incomprehensible jigsaw pieces by that bloody bus, he’d eat his hat. He’d climb out of Hell, march right to the bookstore, snog Aziraphale like he was the elixir of life, and ask him to put a kettle on so he could sit down with his hat on a plate, knife in one hand, fork in the other, and just fucking devour it. Wash it down with a nice herbal blend.
The big demon using Crowley like a step-stool now dragged him back down, slipping across the wet slag, chipping one of his fingernails. It caught on a little jut of rock of the uneven wall and came right off. Crowley choked out a sound and slumped flat against the rock while the bastard kicked his head to get a little higher.
While recovering was near impossible down in the pit, Crowley did his best to at least compartmentalize which pain was to be at the forefront of his thoughts. Hands wouldn’t do, he was using those to climb, so he squeezed his fist tight until the offending finger with the ripped fingernail stopped throbbing. More demons pressed against him, none of them having enough room, and he fought to stay up at the top of the mass. They were all piled up on each other and, the further down he got, the more mud started to cement the bodies together like misshapen bricks. Those poor bastards at the base. Truly mad things, probably.
The ground—that is to say, the bodies beneath them—started to shift again and Crowley’s foot got pinned between one bloke’s leg and another’s shoulder. He couldn’t even shout as they started to steam roll him to his knees. The only thing he couldn’t do was get pulled away from the wall, because then he was truly done for. In the middle just meant a vortex that swallowed until he was one of those bricks, one of those mad men lost to the dark and the cold and the mud. He had seconds, really, to stab his hand back into the rock, gripping the bloody holes in the stone and held on until the thrashing stopped long enough for him to slip his limb free. His shoe came off. His sock nearly followed, but he managed to curl his toes and yank up enough that he was, once again, climbing just a little bit over the group.
No rest for the wicked. Not when another demon was getting tossed in over their head or one of the weak bastards fell off the wall and tumbled back down into the wet and the writhing pile. Crowley hauled upwards, fighting every inch for success, for that little red skylight miles above them. He may have sauntered downwards, yes, absolutely, but he was going to tear every fiber in his body to get right back up again.
Up. Up, you daft bastard. Get up there! For Aziraphale. To Aziraphale. Wherever you are, angel, I’m coming.
The angels in Heaven were having a similar thought.
“Well?” Gabriel put his fingertips on the table, tilting forward, which gave him a sense of overbearing certainty when faced with the overbearing certainty that they’d actually lost the traitorous Principality. Gabriel’s soft lilac eyes bore holes into the black and white photograph stills they’d taken from earth’s extensive surveillance. Michael had helpfully laid them out on the desk and, occasionally, Gabriel leaned closer so he could touch one of the corners to make certain they were all lined up perfectly. “Where could he have gone?”
“We’re still searching,” Michael answered, their own eyes trained like lasers on the dated photographs. For starters, Crowley was still in them, and they all knew The Great Serpent Crowley was no longer “in the picture.”
“Only in the archives?” Gabriel asked, hopeful with a dash of annoyance, which just made him appear unamused.
“Certainly, to see where his usual haunts are, yes, but we’re doing active sweeps now, of course.”
“Maybe he went,” Uriel started and looked down at their feet, gesturing pointedly with elbow and clasped hands. They all had a habit of not touching when they were all grouped in like this. Gabriel knew that, just occasionally, Uriel asked for a hug. They were one of the few who managed to embrace embracing when it was absolutely necessary. “You know. Down there.”
“Have you checked back channels?” Gabriel asked, who not so long ago had denied that they even existed. He denied a lot of things, truly, as all angels did, for the good of Heaven.
“I’m afraid I’ve lost contact with…you know.” Michael swallowed twice, their delicate neck hidden behind the silky folds of the big white cravat tied and pinned so perfectly at the join of their throat. “If you have any means…?”
Gabriel liked the way he was standing, hands on the table, leering over the offender’s old images. He liked the presence it gave him. But, still, he stood fully and tucked his hands behind his back, turning away from the group assembled. He enjoyed his compatriots well enough, serving Heaven for 6000 years together. Insightful, loyal, ruthless, all of them. They were created together, trained together, combatted together, came out on top together. Each of them dear, dear companions, was the point.
The point, also, was that he didn’t trust them to understand and he wanted them out of his office. Michael’s half-hearted insinuation put a dull blush over his complexion and he didn’t want them to see it until he had it reigned back in.
“Double check current surveillance,” he said after a moment. When he turned, he was smiling, bright enough to show his teeth, eyes crinkling just so around the edges. Big and wide and as fake as the replica of Earth outside Heaven’s windows. “Something should come up sooner or later. And we’ll reconvene when we get a hit, yes?”
“Yes, alright,” they answered, happy enough. If they were not happy with it, they kept it to themselves, and he truly appreciated them for it.
“We’ll call you, then?” Sandalphon asked, bopping upwards on his toes when he spoke, a peculiar and funny little habit he had that always amused Gabriel. Like he was trying to look over someone’s shoulder at the secrets they had in their hands.
“Or Michael,” Gabriel said with a nod. It was always better to keep things “even,” right? Keep Michael happy with a task and they were less likely to bubble up and go smite a city on some coastline. You have one argument and, woops, there goes Pompeii.
One by one, the angels escaped the office, which looked like any other office of Heaven, probably, with the same pastural painting on the wall, the same glass window that overlooked Earth, the same pneumatic tubes polished to a pristine chrome shine. Gabriel sat at his desk, perched on a stool, and tucked one foot neatly against the bottom rung before he reached for a clean piece of paper. The desk itself was immaculate, even with the images pulled up from the archives laid out like tarot cards. If it was orderly was another matter, but the aesthetic was sterile and beautiful and perfect.
Gabriel licked the nib of his pen before he began to write.
It was easier, apparently, to simply meet up at the scene of the crime. Gabriel stood on the sidewalk, his hand neatly tucked away in his pocket, the other gripping a paper cup of something hot and black and awful. A nifty little watch that he had picked up sometime while patrolling Sweden chirped pleasantly against his wrist, and he glanced at it out of formality. A moment later, the same bus line that had managed to murder the treacherous Demon Crowley drove on by, reenacting the moment without the final, wonderful ending.
“You’re late,” he said simply and handed the cup over as the presence pressed against his side.
“You’re early,” they answered. They sniffed the coffee lid and presumably made a face. Gabriel did not like to look directly at them so boldly when they were still standing under the naked sky, so he kept his eyes fixed on the spot where a certain black Bentley was still parked, gathering two more tickets on the windshield. Somebody had attempted to put a boot on it, but, apparently, it was not having any of that. Next, someone might think to tow it away, but it would miraculously return, waiting for its driver better than any well-trained dog. “Plain?”
“I put sugar in it.” He remembered the pale gray note that came back up in the tube after his personal letter. “They didn’t have goat milk.”
“Oat milk. How many?”
“How many?” Gabriel almost glanced at them but stared at the Bentley instead. “Oh. Uh. Six.”
Beelzebub made a disgusted sound, a little peak of pink tongue between thin lips. Do not look. They sniffed again and took a long, messy slurp of it, allowing coffee to dribble down their chin. Don’t look. Don’t touch. And they gasped with a satisfactory smack of that tongue against those lips.
“Zzzzzzixteen next time, Gabriel,” they said, immediately dropping the half-full cup to the pavement, where it threatened to splash his polished loafers. He side-stepped it quick enough, bracing himself by grabbing their shoulder and performed the tiniest miracle to move the garbage over to the nearby trash receptacle. “Can’t get your fingerzzzz dirty, huh?”
“Not this time.”
Gabriel quickly rubbed said fingers together, brushing away some of the dust off their coat. He wanted to trail his hand upwards and clean the mess of their chin. They might even tell him to lick it off, to taste that bitter awful human garbage and, as a reward, let him taste something sweeter when they got back to—
“We lost Aziraphale,” he said, straightening back up.
He could see over the top of their head, where they should have their demon perched so neatly with big red eyes staring up at him. Nobody should ever know that the fly liked their tummy rubbed, that it was downy soft and kissable, too. Nobody should know that Beelzebub blushed and moaned so sweetly whenever the fly’s tummy was kissed, that they squirmed like they were being tickled, that they sometimes smacked hands away and told him to stop teasing already.
“Of courzzzzze you did.”
“Have you heard any word? We thought, maybe, he tried to, you know. Sneak down and find his…friend?”
“’No,’ you haven’t heard or ‘no,’ he hasn’t gone to Hell?”
“No,” they repeated. Gabriel puffed out some air before he got truly frustrated.
“So, have you found Crowley’s form yet?”
Beelzebub already had their arms crossed, but they glanced up quickly and then back down at the busy street.
“You haven’t, have you?”
“We are working on it,” they answered, not anywhere near shouting, but bold and angry nonetheless.
“It’s not like he can get another body, anyways.”
But they shifted from one foot to the other, like a pebble had gotten in through that giant hole on the sole of their ratty shoes.
“Well, it wouldn’t be eazzzzy.”
“But not impossible?”
Beelzebub shoved him, disrupting the neat little bubble of their private talk so that he nearly tripped on a woman walking her dog, some awful little thing with a flat face and a slobbery tongue. Gabriel apologized, touching the woman’s arm, inspiring her to spread good cheer. Apparently, that was enough to offend Beelzebub completely, because when he turned around, the sidewalk was empty and there was a spot left on the cement, black smudges that could almost be mistaken for footprints.
Gabriel showed Sandalphon the image of the dog later, when they were standing in the corridor, shoulder to shoulder, passing the time. He laughed, but he wondered why Gabriel thought it reminded him of Sandalphon, and, later, he looked through thousands of pictures of dogs until he found a pair that seemed like them. He put it up in his office, next to the pastural picture. He tucked away the little picture Gabriel had given him in a breast pocket, same as tucked away many feelings. He sat, and wrote his own secret letters to secret demons, like they were all doing, hoping to find Aziraphale and end this whole stupid affair so they could get back to the way things were supposed to be. Probably. Definitely.
“It doesn’t seem right.”
“That’s because you have that piece there tied all wrong,” said Anathema, tugging on the strap until it fit neatly across Aziraphale’s back. She brushed her hands down, inadvertently tickling the spot of his lower back that was always a little too tight and a little too sensitive, for which she apologized soon after. “There. That’s better, don’t you think?”
Aziraphale flattened his hand across his chest, where several odd mismatched buttons made up the front of the vest. He wanted to fiddle with his bow tie, but it had been discarded back at the bookshop and should be left alone, in the event one of the angels was doing a sweep for any clues.
The get-up was a little odd. A harness-like contraption they’d procured from a trunk sent by Former-Madame Tracy, which Anathema had tied little ribbons to with various wards written in red and black inks. Half of them didn’t mean a thing, but there were a few decent ones amongst the lot and, though they were a tad itchy at first, they did make him feel more secure before he put on the overshirt and the vest borrowed from Newt’s dresser. Aziraphale spared a miracle to make the clothing fit, immediately wishing he hadn’t.
“It’s alright,” Adam said, swinging his feet against the counter before he took a big bite of a crisp apple. “’ey ‘on’ shensh it.”
“Beg your pardon?”
Adam chewed and chewed, smiling a little around his big bite. The lad had shot up quite a few inches over the year and a half they were gone, his hair still all golden curls, which he had taken to occasionally tying up at the back or letting Wensleydale braid it while Brian and Pepper perfected their slingshots. Eventually, Adam cleared his mouth and tried again.
“Up there, right? Looking for you? They won’t sense it. Not right now,” Adam answered. “They’re lookin’ all over, but just not in the right spot.”
Aziraphale blinked, turning to face the boy who was once the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of this World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness and who is now simply Adam Young, the Boy Who Stopped the Apocalypse, Leader—with certain caveats so he isn’t a big tit about it—of the Them, proud owner of Dog, son of Mrs. Diedre and Mr. Young, and friend.
Funny thing, being a friend. And yet, here they were.
“And will they eventually come across the ‘right spot,’ do you think?”
“They might get lucky,” Adam said and took another bite. He tried to ask another question, only for Anathema to finally roll her eyes and gently shoo him off the counter so she could set up some proper lunch.
Anathema was also a good friend. Not the dearest, of course, but only because Crowley had secured that title for millennia.
Aziraphale soon found himself in a chair with a plate and a sandwich and a glass of somewhat-cloudy-but-not-outright-terrible water in hand. He found himself in the company of previously mentioned friends, who gathered around the table with him to eat peanut butter and jam with pickle spears for anybody who wanted one. He found himself taking one bite and unable to continue, not because it wasn’t good—it was—but because his bow tie was gone and his shop was no longer safe and his heart hurt and his best friend, his lover, his closest companion since he first stepped out of the Garden of Eden was gone and it was too hard to swallow, even with the help of peanut butter and jam.
“It’s alright,” Adam said across from him, taking the head of the table, where a convenient beam of light lit up his hair like a halo. “We’ll get him back. They can’t keep him forever. It’s just not fair, y’know? Not how that happy endings are supposed to go, and everyone knows happy endings are the best kind.”
Aziraphale almost asked if he promised, which seemed silly to ask of a child, but Adam looked at him anyways and gave a little nod.
“Promise,” he answered, and took another bite.
Chapter 4: In Hell We Sing, We Dance, We Merry Unmerry Kings
The disposable demon is having a hell of a time in hell, you know. So is Crowley.
And then Aziraphale has a conversation on how to get himself damned.
Lots of murder in this chapter, as a warning.
A legion handed over the case with a previously mentioned important memo before he bent over the pile and picked up another. His identical counterpart took it and popped the case open, stretched out the memo, and glanced at the convenient To and From lines.
To: Lord Beelzebub (or anyone suitable)
From: Lower Management (name unspecified, probably Mento, The One Who Very Much Should Shut Up and Does Not)
“Another for the fly pile,” Eric said flippantly, tossing the form down on the giant, meaty stack. He almost turned when a familiar name leapt out and nearly gouged out his eyes. Hastur would have that pleasure in a fortnight, obviously, but, in this moment, he used said eyes to scour the page and blinked owlishly as something warm and hopeful bubbled up in his chest. He had important information. One of his many copies sensed it too and stepped close.
“They know where Crowley is,” he said excitedly. The two looked at each other and clasped hands and a pipe burst overhead, showing one of their identical identities in an acidic sludge. He perished noisily, without a second thought.
“Who do we tell?”
“We should tell L—”
Another pause. There were other legions around them, matched to other demons, who were not a congregation of Erics. They were Raums and Dalphons and Bobs. The two Erics pressed in closer, whispering softer.
“We have to do the right thing here,” said Eric Who Would Have His Eyes Gouged Out By Hastur.
“Which is, obviously, the wrong thing,” said Eric Who Would Have His Throat Ripped Out.
“Obviously,” said Eyes.
“Except, doing the wrong thing here could be a win for sparkle wings up there, right?” asked Throat.
“We have something very important here. We could use this…as leverage.”
“Use what?” asked Eric Who Would Be Set Aflame in A Shitty Situation as he butted into Eye’s and Throat’s private conversation. Set Aflame was always such a nosy bastard and was drawing the attention of the other drones scattered at desks, sorting through files, spending eternity in the dreadful monotony of a desk job. “What’ve you got there?”
“Nothing,” Eyes said quickly.
“Just something,” Throat answered at the same time and the two wished they could speak in unison for a change, but that was one of his many defects that put him firmly at the bottom of the proverbial Legion-Serving Ladder.
“Nothing, what?” Set-Aflame-Eric reached to see the memo but was blocked so helpfully by Throat.
“Listen,” said Eyes, drawing the three of them together, their heads touching and their little rabbit-ear-like hair stalks tangling. “We have to decide if we’re going to do just what we’re supposed to do and report something important to Beelzebub, or we do something selfish and we take it up to Azir—”
Throat reached out and put his hand over Eyes’ mouth, his own eyes fluttering open, wide and frantic.
“Don’t say his name,” he whispered.
“What?” asked Set-Aflame. “Aziraphale? He—”
A good rule for anyone, legion or otherwise, is to keep mentions of angels, especially Armageddon-thwarting angels, out of their mouths and off their tongues. There are a few very tetchy about the subject. Hastur liked to go into a shrieking rage. Dagon liked to sharpen their teeth on some idiot’s skull when those syllables lined up juuuust so. And then, when there’s music—
Oh, there’s awful music in Hell. The Girl from Ipanema is a big favorite. Baha Men’s number 1 hit finds itself in rotation. There’s a certain demon, one of the lords of hell who wanders the cramped hallways, who’s always greeting everyone first with a jingle, a jam. He’s picked a plucky little number for the past decade that’s driven into the ear drums like blunt nails, a bop that makes everyone’s stomachs curdle in an unforgettable rage.
Set-Aflame turned around in growing horror to the beat of Wham! proclaiming “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.”
“Aziraphale?” the demon king asked, his back hunched over to accommodate the unruly horse he was almost always seated on. The low ceilings were doing him zero favors.
The Erics stepped back, leaving Eric standing alone. Beleth had some mighty and terrible legions under his belt and it was best not to get too close to them, either. Only in that they kept their mouths open and kept chanting in near-gregorian unity: “I don’t want to miss it when you hit that hiiiiiiiIiIIIIIIiIIIGH.” Psychological torture aside, the unified singing was really working for them. The Erics wondered if they should start practicing on weekends.
“Did you say Aziraphale?” Beleth asked again, and it was becoming even more pronounced just how alone Eric was out there in the center. “That bastard who’s put us all back to work?”
“I-I…well…only in…in passing, Ser.”
“In…passing?” Beleth reached a long bony hand for Eric, gripping him under his jaw. “In passing. In passing.” A low gurgle announced the likelihood that Eric was choking, but he kept his hands firmly at his side. “I’m passing, did you know? Stupid little—”
Eric often felt stupid. And little. The Erics on the side held hands and waited for Beleth to trample Eric with his horse or rip his head off. But Beleth just let Eric Who Would Be Set Aflame in a Shitty Situation go, walking past, the horse lifting its tail for droppings on the way out. Good for them that Eric had a wide berth. Hell’s horses were notorious for their magnificent magma shits. It was not one of the more pleasant ways to go, that’s for certain, as Eric caught the mess in his chest and went up like a roman candle, as predicted.
The legions of Beleth and the murderous horse and the great big bastard atop him pushed on, sharing Wham! wherever they went in unholy gospel. Eric Who Would Have His Eyes Gouged Out By Hastur and Eric Who Would Have His Throat Ripped Out were pressed against the wall to make room for the procession. Eric Who Would Say The Wrong Thing Again looked up from the pile of memos by Dagon’s desk, feeling a little alone, but just glad to do his work. Throat and Eyes watched the black sludge that was a part of them on the floor, then the memo trembling in their hand.
It very well could be used for good, which would be bad. But it was better to use it for bad, which would be good.
Or, in simpler terms, they decided they were justifiable cowards and that they would deliver it to Beelzebub. Together. Safety in numbers and all that.
“It’s for the best,” said Throat.
“Absolutely,” said Eyes, the two of them linking arms even tighter and holding the corners of the important memo between their hands that announced Crowley was in Pit 1171217998456GG137-Blue of the Worthlessly Damned. The one that got filled up with little rocks half a century back and had to be cleaned out, down in that spooky subsection of the basement that is Hell.
Easy to miss.
Beelzebub should be pleased to hear about it, probably, and would only get a little frustrated, only enough that Eric Who Would Have His Throat Ripped Out finally fulfilled his destiny. Eric Who Would Have His Eyes Gouged Out by Hastur in a fortnight missed him just long enough to be sentimental, and then didn’t.
“Get him out of that pit,” Lord Beelzebub droned, their face a messy wash of red. “Now.”
Eric’s fingers worked over the paper in hand and he nodded. “Right away, Your Most Unexcellence.” He retreated from the red glare of the Prince of Flies and hurried down the hall to collect a few more of himself to go pick out Crowley and bring him back.
“—and I think that tooth’s gone loose and it’ll be ages before I can go see anyone to screw it back in and who wants to even go back out to Earth to get tortured by a human who goes around claiming he’s a doctor and all when really he’s just a maniac with little drill bits and I think I could do a thing or two with them drill bits if I wanted you’d think, right, under the fingernails for a start or, well, into the gums is always nice if you really dig around I wonder how many pieces you could cut off a tongue if you just used that little hooky bit, I bet it would be even harder with—”
Mento continued speaking as he sat in a little rickety chair that would have looked more in place at a haunted middle school that had gone through a bad flood and fire, in that order. He continued speaking even as he fingered at a tooth at the back of his mouth, wiggling it occasionally, wincing at the pain, but undeterred from his never-ending vocal spewing.
“—if they tried but I bet they don’t so down you go, oh, here comes another one then looks like you’ll be having fun did you enjoy your stay that’s what they say, right, when you come in for a visit, d’you know I haven’t had a vacation in centuries I’d almost accuse my left buttocks fusing to the chair except I can lift it just so and let out—”
There was a loud scream and then a heavy whump as another body fell out of the warbling little vortex in the ceiling another mile above their heads. These dank lower levels had deceptively high ceilings and, sometimes, people would come down here for the chance to stand at their full height but were quickly deterred when they came across Mento.
He couldn’t blame them, either. He’d love to be in their shoes, walking away, back into the offices above, silent as you please.
“—I think to myself ‘that’s cause you had that cheeseburger from that ferryman fella last year’ even though you’re not supposed to talk to them at all and you definitely aren’t supposed to eat anything from them but what’s a cheeseburger among friends I always say because I’m always saying—”
While being cursed to simply sit and keep watch, Mento was tasked to hold a flimsy, rusty spear and jab it into whoever managed to climb out of the pit. They each were dropped down for a reason and only someone with the proper paperwork could come and collect whoever it was that had been pushed in. Mento was then tasked to look over the paperwork, nod, talk about whatever train of thought he was on, and push that person in as well. It was an easy job. A lonely job. An easy, lonely, noisy job.
Mento continued babbling as a set of claws made it into the bedrock that surrounded the pit. He gripped his spear and held it up, watching as a shock of messy read hair peeked out before the rest of the demon followed.
“—so how it goes and hello there welcome back up I do hope you enjoyed your climb but I’m gonna have to send you right back down again sorry, only hard feelings and all that so here we go I’m gonna—”
He stabbed the spear down quickly, aiming for those black-stained fingers, expecting to hit meat and hear a scream before the demon tumbled right back down. Only the rust-red spear-tip jabbed into rock and flaked off with a jarring bounce. There was a blur of movement and suddenly his spear was clean through Mento’s neck, where he choked and gurgled his ceaseless chatter.
Crowley stood behind Mento, panting rough and angry ovals of air against his back. He reached up and shut the poor man’s mouth, feeling his tongue work uselessly against teeth and flesh.
“Shh – Sh – Shut up.” Felt bloody good to rest his head a moment on the soft, dingy flesh of a former coworker. Crowley’s own tongue was clicking along the back of his throat as he tried to swallow down some of the dust stuck there from his climb. “Shut up,” he said again, his teeth still clenched shut.
Mento wasn’t bad people. Kept his head down, did his job, that sort’ve thing. He was also a demon of Hell and that, by simple default, made him the enemy and Crowley had plans to get right out. He needed sustenance before he could do anything about, say, finding a body and, oh, just maybe, returning to Earth where he belonged.
It was harder than he imagined, prying his mouth open, grunting out a useless gasp before he sank his teeth into Mento’s poor neck and drank down words and blood and pure, refined, demon essence. Tasted like dark chocolate mixed with petrol. Almost delicious and then definitely not. And definitely, definitely worth it.
Mento’s eyes rolled up to the ceiling to watch another demon drop into the pit and likely greeted him around the rod of metal stuck through his throat. Crowley’s teeth would free it soon enough. Bless him, in the worst damnable way.
“Do you think he’s in Hell, then?” Anathema asked after the plates were cleared and the kettle was off, and they had migrated from the safety of the kitchen table to the safety of the living room sofa—it had this marvelously tacky blue and green and pink tartan pattern to it and Aziraphale sat in the corner, loving it entirely. “Or, perhaps, would they actually have him in Heaven because…well, if he’s a demon and if you’re an angel and you went and died and…?”
“I don’t know,” Azirpahale answered quietly, his heart heavy with the thought of either possibility. “I’ve only been discorporated the once. Not pleasant, let me tell you.”
Neither is getting hit by a bus, so he knew that Crowley understood the sentiment.
They drank their tea while Adam sat in an armchair across from them, much a throne as anything, and looked sort’ve through them. Not in a mystical sense, or a magical sense, or a metaphorically powerful sense in any case. Just plain childish boredom and contemplation that settles in when there’s nothing exciting happening and they’re satiated with food.
“I bet he’s in Hell,” Adam said.
Apparently, he was paying more attention than Aziraphale thought.
“Yeah. I bet he is. It’s a surprise, right? You two didn’t plan it or anything.”
“We certainly did not.”
“Then nobody’s got it all sorted yet if they should scoop one up for Heaven or Hell or whatever, right?”
“And they attacked you in your bookshop.”
“So, they’re confused.” Adam lifted his chin up first, then his eyes, striking Aziraphale as someone who was very sure of themselves. “They’re scared.”
That…wasn’t entirely unpleasant to think. Heaven and Hell, scared of Crowley and Aziraphale? They certainly had been when they thwarted those attempts at executions. An advantage yet remained if that was the case. Aziraphale felt himself warming up, one of those privately smug smiles he shared with his Crowley—now for his Crowley—sneaking up without his permission.
“Oh, I hope they are,” he answered quietly, gravely, and sipped his tea, which was a mite bit warmer than it was a moment before. And then cooled again when Aziraphale’s mood cooled. “But what can we do about it?”
“You can go to hell,” Anathema offered sweetly.
“And you can too!” Aziraphale shot back, mistaking it for a rude comment. He blinked and raised a hand to his forehead as she startled back. “Beg your pardon. That was uncalled for.” He sighed and set his tea down before it had a crisis about whether it was supposed to be too hot or too cold and threw itself over his borrowed waistcoat in protest. “Bit on edge, I suppose. All of this. I just…I don’t know what to do.”
“But you could go to Hell, couldn’t you?” Adam asked a little slower than Anathema. It still sounded rude and hurtful, even from the Now-Not-Anti-Christ.
“Easier said than done, I must say.” Aziraphale folded his hands. “I’m not even sure how I could go about that without dire consequences. Pop in as an Angel?” He rolled his eyes and allowed himself a good dose of sarcasm. “Yeah right.”
“How do you become a demon, then?”
“You fall,” said Aziraphale with a soft, reverent hold of the words.
“Well…you could try falling?” Adam offered, of the mind to have solutions to things than all these annoying problems. It was a nice enough suggestion, other than it was possibly the most heartbreaking. Not for Aziraphale, mind you. He simply found it horrifying on simple rejection to his ethereal sensibilities, but that passed just as quickly as a breeze. No, it was heartbreaking for poor Crowley, who would be distraught to discover his angel had gone and leapt off the ethereal bridge and plunged into damnation right alongside him. They’d had one conversation in the past about it and it did not go well.
The idea was still very tempting.
“I’ve never tried actively falling before,” Aziraphale answered. If pressed, he might confess that he toed the line, strictly speaking. “I wonder what one might do to accomplish that.”
“Murder?” the two answered in amusing harmony.
“Oh.” Aziraphale scoffed. “I’ve never murdered before.”
Perhaps, over his years on Earth, he had “inconveniently killed” someone, but they were freshly dead, and he could pop their souls right back in with none the wiser. So, that surely did not count.
“Stealing?” Mm, possibly. “Uh, what was it.”
“Covet,” Anathema answered Adam, the two of them going through their half-remembered order of the famous ten commandments, it seemed.
“Right. Covet a neighbor’s, uh…wife?”
Oh, definitely not. Wrong bookshop and wrong angel.
Aziraphale sighed again and sank back and rubbed his index finger across his lips. They suggested crimes, both petty and felonious. They suggested blaspheming, and came up with clever ways to accomplish that, which just made Aziraphale sink back further and further into his own thoughts. He felt like crying again. He thought he had squeezed every drop out when he was waiting for that summoning circle to work. He thought—
Aziraphale nibbled the skin of his finger a little and raised his eyebrows slowly, turning that thought over and over. Anathema and Adam had tripped away from helpful suggestions and on to an argument about whether Adam should know the differences between murder and manslaughter and they should really back off from hurting other people even though that seemed the easiest way to get damned.
Their argument was oddly noble and adorable, in a way, but it was distracting and Aziraphale needed items, standing up suddenly to go and rummage.
“What is it?” Anathema asked, going after him.
“My dear, do you have any chalk?”
“I mean, of course I do.” Anathema circumvented Aziraphale to go to the kitchen and pry open a drawer that seemed to be a treasure trove of odds and ends. The wonderous Junk Drawer so many spoke of. Hers might have less pens and paperclips and more silver medallions and cloves, but it served the same purpose. “I’d be a bad witch if I didn’t have any chalk.”
“You’re a wonderful witch,” Aziraphale said, touching her elbow, because she liked to hear that thing and because he might fundamentally need to be against witches, he found he really wasn’t. Not ever. Not really. “Thank you.”
“What do you need it for?” she asked, fetching a half-empty package.
“Well.” He took it from her, their fingers overlapping. “Possession is a good idea.”