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Good Intentions

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The Jesuit Superior, Father Garnet was in his early fifties. In 17th century, it had been an achievement in itself, but he was a Catholic priest of all things. Many of his peers perished in Elizabethan reign. How did he survive, you may ask? He learned to hide and stayed away from people who may get him in trouble. He preached God’s love, and forged it into a shield. He shielded himself from all the fervent young men who confessed to him their thoughts of resistance, or drastic measures they were about to take. He renounced their aspirations of violence. And yet, he maintained a relationship with Spain, building his own line of defense. Even though, hopes for salvation coming from Spain or Flanders were currently dwindling. Despite all that, he did not leave London, choosing to remain with his much-suffering parish, moving from one priest hole to another and currently settling in the residence of Catesby’s cousin, Anne Vaux. Father Garnet was not a simple man, nor was he pleasant. He was, however, a skilled judge of character after much trial and error.

The Jesuit did not like the awkward-looking priest, who was placed under his supervision by the Vatican, from the moment he laid his eyes on the man’s open and earnest narrow face. John Gerard was a strange man; he was young, barely older than thirty, but he did not feel young. His overly large blue eyes sometimes looked like two direct lines to Heaven, and that scared Father Garnet. It made him feel as if he truly was constantly watched from above.

This “Gerard” remained stubbornly oblivious to the cleric’s antipathy, and was nothing but kind and considerate. He tried to help everyone. He almost rushed out of their hiding place in Lady Dibdale’s mansion when Wade found the young Father Smith in the secret niche under the window. The only thing that stopped him, were Garnet’s pleading eyes. This made Garnet in turn feel like a lesser man, a notion he attempted to disregard throughout his life of hiding and avoiding risks.

Garnet watched the young priest in the execution crowd. The narrow figure was clad in a worn, dusty doublet and tattered breeches, yet people streamed around him, without touching him. No elbow poked his ribs, no foot stomped his foot – people parted for the lanky, dusty unassuming figure. Then, Gerard put his large hands in front of himself, closed his eyes and started to pray. The words falling off the thin lips were unintelligible; obviously, Latin would not be a hit with bloodthirsty Anglicans. Still the old Jesuit felt the words, whispered under the priest’s breath. Whatever he was saying reached the two pitiful victims, and suddenly fear and pain disappeared from the eyes of Lady Dibdale, as well as Father Smith. They looked up, as if they saw Heaven above the blue sky. Their screams quieted, and they went beyond with dignity and beauty. Then the young priest turned around and walked through the parting crowd as the last breaths were drawn behind him.

Garnet was apprehensive rather than indignant when Gerard rebuked him politely but sternly and walked out to join Catesby in his resistance. Although if you asked him why, he would not be able to reply coherently why exactly Gerard was such a danger. He just knew.

But the door closed, quietly, without a slam, despite the sharp words exchanged, with a lingering sad gaze.

 

***

 

The momentum that had earlier pushed Aziraphale on this path of impromptu martyrdom began several days ago at a London tavern where the conspirators were reconvening. As he made his creaking way up the shadowy stairs into the private room on the second floor, Aziraphale sensed a presence. He walked into the distinct residue of a minor miracle, but the human disguise he took to donning when going undercover, somewhat dampened his senses. He failed to perceive exact nature of the miracle. Neither was the presence threatening. In this day and age, crossing paths with a heavenly colleague was not a rarity. Heaven was running all sorts of schemes, rivalled in enthusiasm only by Hell and Lord Cecil. The angel hardly paid attention anymore. He hugged the satchel with his Bible to himself and spurred his step up to the meeting place. Distracted, the angel failed to notice a small hunched man at the table following his progress up with watery eyes. Cecil’s spy put Gerard’s name next to Catesby’s and Percy’s on a ratty piece of paper, nodded to himself and set out of the establishment at a surprising speed for such an old rundown body.

Aziraphale was trying to curb his excitement, but mostly failing. Finally, the plan was set in motion. Through Heaven’s favorite – Father Garnet, he managed to get acquainted with Lord Catesby. The man was well-spoken and charming. His faith was failsafe, reliable martyr material. Aziraphale was dispatched with rather vague instructions. The plan needed supervision, according to The Heavenly Forecast, it had potential to save Catholics, yet it also could get out of hand. It was not initiated by Heaven, therefore it was potentially volatile. Maybe even ineffable. Heaven was somewhat apprehensive of ineffability; it never worked the way it seemed to have been intended. There was only The One Being who knew what was intended and She frequently left the others guessing   

In Catesby, Aziraphale sensed a strength of spirit rarely met among mortals. Others were also attracted to him, like ships following the beacon of a lighthouse. Aziraphale wondered if the Spanish Embassy and the new angel were getting involved in this, as well.

Today he was supposed to be accepted and initiated into the intricacies of the plot, which they planned to wield as a flaming sword against the king’s persecution. Aziraphale was weary of that specific metaphor; Heaven still reminded him of the Flaming Sword Disaster all these millennia later. Angels had a Very. Good. Memory… and a very shoddy, passive aggressive sense of humor.

Guido Fawkes met the angel in the doorway; a towering, glowering presence placed the lead weight of his gaze onto the “priest’s” face. Aziraphale looked up at him with a timid smile, and the man moved to let him in. Thomas smiled politely, Lord Percy’s handsome face retained the skeptical, and slightly constipated, look of a seasoned courtier, but Catesby welcomed him cordially. The angels noticed before, that the short man was surprisingly tactile for a 17th century gentleman. Clapping his shoulder, guiding him with his hand still firmly on the small of his back to the table, Robin Catesby’s dark eyes were warm and earnest. Aziraphale positively basked in the presence of undeniable love of God and faith, as well as loyalty to each other. Their resolve to stake their lives in hope for the best possible future for their peers. The best of intentions.

All men swore before the God their loyalty to each other and to their cause. Father Gerard offered his benediction and joined their pledge. He led the voices with an elated prayer.

Then all Hell broke loose. 

The sound of stomping and rushing steps downstairs alerted the accomplices to the impending trouble. The specific timbre and pitch of the voices discharging commands gave away that they belonged to the city guards. There was no other way out, so the men took out their swords, rushing down. Guido tried to guide the angel out of the tavern, yet they were separated as they ran down the narrow alley. A clang of metal on metal stopped, or rather skidded, Aziraphale in his tracks. He turned around and ran back. If Crowley ever found out, his “heroics” would be the butt of every upcoming joke for the next century or so.

Guido was fighting off two men from Cecil’s police. A few steps further Catesby was attacked by three other men. Aziraphale appraised the situation and rose his voice in loud and perfect Latin, the likes of which no one have heard in the last half a millennia. The five attackers all turned head, like mesmerized cobras. Two were promptly speared by Catesby and Fawkes, and three charged after the priest, to the surprised blinking of the two abandoned men.

Aziraphale ran.

But he did not run very well. The three men ran after him, hardly knowing why this one man was so important, just feeling it. More of them joined. They all ran well, gaining on the sprinting angel. Suddenly Aziraphale saw Lord Wade in front of him – and realized he was surrounded. What happened next was hardly consciously thought through, and more of an ineffable coincidence. He tried miracling himself away, but only blinked on the spot, body discorporated, then came back the same instant, in barely a flicker, unnoticed by his pursuers in the dimly lit alleyway. There was no time to think. He dashed, feeling the limits of his earthly vessel.  

Wade tripped him; Aziraphale “flew” a few paces before landing face-first into a standard issue London puddle. A large hand grasped his neck, plunging him in the muck once and then hauling him to his feet. The rest of the guards surrounded him.

At least he led away all the guards who were still standing. Catesby and his comrades must have escaped unscathed.

Maybe, he thought, he could try miracling away again in the privacy of a cell in the Tower. Someone would just think he escaped.

One of the guards came behind him, seeming to check his tied hands, the man bent down and whispered in the angel’s ear: “Lord Catesby will come for you, stay strong.” When Aziraphale looked around, he could not say which one of them had said it.

He let himself be led to the Tower. Miracling himself out of the Tower now would mean revealing himself to Catesby as either double agent or supernatural being, both would preclude him from further involvement. He needed to see the plot through. It was his job.

Aziraphale took a long, deep breath. This experience will give him an insight into martyrdom that he did not exactly anticipate.

Suddenly the angel was uncharacteristically very unsure of himself. How resilient did God design these vessels…? Well, he would just have to find out.

The face of Lord Wade was perfectly human, but not at the same time. Humanity could be only very broadly applied to the empty eyes that appraised the captive. Even if the angel’s vessel was tall, he was also narrow and thin, with large hands and clumsy feet. He was taken by the scruff of his neck, like a child. There was no paternal concern in the gesture, only desire to diminish and humiliate him.

“You sang so well in your Latin, let’s see what else you can recite for us!”

“I am not afraid of you…” Aziraphale spoke, hardly sure of his words, as he saw no soul behind the yellowed grey irises. What happened to this man, to have made him this way…?

And Jesus died for this.

“Then, you will learn.” A relentless grip tightened, pushing his head down.

 

***

 

In Catesby’s London residence, in a small room on the second floor, Aziraphale woke up late in the afternoon. Only he did not know it was afternoon. It took him a moment to understand what exactly happened at all.

He. Woke. Up.

Which meant he slept.

But he had no capacity to process it at this moment.

He woke up with a cast iron head. He could not lift it; a crippling headache disoriented him, and he bent over the bed instinctively, then vomited, mostly liquid from his yesterday’s torture. The room swam around him, so much he could not focus on it.

Brother Glynn’s kind face appeared blurred and blotched before his eyes. The man said something, but Aziraphale could not decipher what; these words too only resonated through the vast expanse of his very empty head, adding to the pain.

He closed his eyes.

“Why…” he made attempt at the language and failed. Some liquid was brought to his lips, but it went out as soon as it went in. 

He opened his lips to comment on the surprising circumstance he found himself in, but all that came out was: “Ahhhhh…”. And then: “AHHHHHHH!!!!” when someone attempted to unwrap his left hand and tugged at the bandage securely dried onto the wound.

With a tongue the size of two mouths, Aziraphale tried to call to his bosses: “Our Lord in Heaven, Blessed be Thy Name…” was incomprehensible, and above all, unanswered. Aziraphale tried again, it was very hard to grasp heads or tails of a prayer.

He was burning up. He felt cool cloth swipe over his body. Brother Glynn put cool damp rags on his wrists and forehead, trying to take down the fever, but the angel twitched incessantly, throwing the rags off. Aziraphale thrashed and tried to escape from a vessel, that was torn and broken, it hurt and it was scorching him, squashing and trapping his soul. His swollen eyes burned, ached, and the ache dropped down his bruised cheek in hot lines. Tears, human tears slid down his face on their maiden voyage.

“Let me go, let me go…”

And finally through his teeth and into ether: “Whoever is listening, help me…”

 

***

 

Crowley blinked behind his dark lenses and lost the train of thought, dumping the sentence half way through. Lord Cecil who always watched his face, looking for some clues, perked up.

“Is something the matter, Lord Crowley?” he inquired politely, poison dripping of each quiet word.

“No-no, just remembered I left some documents in my quarters, how careless of me!” Several papers obediently disappeared from the bottom of the pile. “Would you excusssse me for a few moments.”

Without waiting for Cecil’s reply the demon stood up, towering over the spymaster’s seated crooked shape like a luxurious bird of prey.

Lord Crowley started to hiss a little when agitated, this much Cecil knew. He wondered what he’d said to cause such a reaction. Whatever it was, he took getting under the tall courtier’s pampered pale skin as a compliment.

“Take your time, my Lord.” Cecil reveled in the rare opportunity to dismiss the man with a nod of his head, but the demon ignored the gesture.

It was not frequent that he heard a cry for help on his inner infernal radio. People usually did not address such inquiries down below. The voice that called out to him through the ether was familiar like no other.

So, something was wrong with the angel, after all.

Crowley shut the doors behind himself, looked around and teleported directly into his room.

What is it?! he finally responded, tuning into the angel’s telepathic wavelength.

But in response there was only static and anguish. He never felt something as human from a celestial being. A fading intent filtered through pain and confusion, reaching towards Crowley’s ethereal presence. What was barely traceable was the sense of angelic. The usual undercurrent of grace and goodness was dulled, barely there at all.

Crowley was tied up until nightfall, his presence was requested by Cecil and he did not wish to leave angelic breadcrumbs for the paranoid man to follow. Since morning, Cecil was on guard, having had a small victory over Northumberland. Success always made him more paranoid. The wait irritated Crowley beyond all reason, but what can you do.

 

That morning during the king’s toilet, the usual confrontation between Lord Northumberland and Cecil escalated, catching the king in-between them. Crowley observed the tragicomic spectacle, perched on the velvet chair, away from potential splashback.

The heavy curtains were opened, letting in the morning sun. The room looked cozy and well slept-in. The atmosphere was especially tangible due to the figure of the king’s recent protégé, young Robert Carr, who splayed himself on the unmade bed in his garish, disheveled clothes. His brocades were crumpled. The lace was fine and silken, but needed ironing and starching. A tableau of The Morning After. He must have slipped in after Crowley brought the book. The small tome sat on the bedside table where the demon left it, untouched, probably unnoticed.

Correspondingly, the king was in good spirits, throwing glances at the young man and smiling over Cecil’s head, which was bent in a reverent bow. Northumberland did not push the agenda, until the king disappeared behind the screen, and distinct sounds and smells informed the present company that his royal digestion left much to be desired.

It was the cue for the two senior courtiers to begin their usual tug of war over their captive royal audience. With the arrival of the Spanish embassy, both men thought they had leverage and were all too glad to shove it in their monarch’s face. James planned to market himself as the king who ended the Spanish war, and toyed with a possibility of leniency towards Catholics as a show of good will towards the Spaniards. As a result, the religious freedoms were in a constant state of intermittent reinforcement. The Catholics were promised abolition of fines for not attending the Anglican church, yet these came back within a few months. Priests were exempt from prosecution, and then inexplicably, they weren’t again. A similar fate befell all other attempts of the king to sweeten the pill. His royal subjects no longer believed in any practical change in the status quo. It did not look good at the negotiation table.

So, Northumberland piped up, rubbing it in the king’s face, proclaiming that James can bury his aspirations of stopping the war if the situation with the Catholics did not resolve itself. Indeed, it was widely known that the Constable was reverently continuing the proud tradition of the Spanish Inquisition, setting Jews aflame at every convenience.

Cecil listened carefully, with a single brow rising towards his receding hairline.

Taking a fat wet plop from behind the screen as his cue, Cecil began a soliloquy discrediting Northumberland’s words. His rhetoric was not that innovative and mainly pressed the fact that a large portion of king’s budget depended on the lucrative niche of taxing Catholics. Most of them were rich anyway, peasants could no longer afford being a Catholic and as a rule converted. As for the Spanish, the war depleted their purse as much as that of the British, and their fleet was aiming at the safe passage through the British waters; they depended on the king’s leniency, and they were the one asking for favors. The Spanish were shrewd merchants; they would sell their own or anyone’s soul for profit.

Behind the screen, the king went silent… on both ends.

Crowley entertained himself by messing with his constitutions. He would generally be above such a crude joke, but since the procedure was directly correlated to so many political decisions, the demon could not remain impartial. The King listened to his gut quite literally. His decision-making had been linked with the speed and ease of his evacuations at the moment specific political moves were proposed to him. And Crowley was wondering what would benefit his global vision the most. He was leaning towards relaxing the chokehold on Catholic necks. The Demon flexed his long fingers, and waited for Northumberland to propose a credible course of action, which was not long in coming.

Meanwhile, the king’s pet was entertaining himself with juggling mandarins. Vibrant orange fruits flew into the air one after another, until one of them aspired for better things in life and headed for Crowley’s lap. On instinct, demonic fingers grabbed it out of the air, squeezing tight. It became loudly apparent that the tide had suddenly turned for Northumberland, who understood today was not his day.

Crowley cursed, and let his grip loosen immediately, resulting in an audible sigh of relief from the king.

However, when James emerged shaken from his Trials of The Throne, it became quite clear the decision had been made, and it was not in the Catholic’s favor. The king coveted the income as the country was barely recovering from the long war. He wanted to believe Cecil’s promises of getting all the benefits from the treaty. Crowley’s keen ears picked up Cecil whispering to the king about the letter his spies intercepted. Peace was in their pockets. The Spanish would never risk losing a possibility of the safe passage through The Channel.

In the light of the circumstances, Crowley had been firmly attached to Cecil, monitoring closely what James’s bloodthirsty Beagle [Cecil’s nickname] was brewing.

 

***

 

Leaving Father Gerard, who was delirious with fever, Catesby rode across London, uneasy and exhausted, yet elated. He was barely managing to hold himself upright on his grey mare. Nevertheless, propelled by conviction and hope he made his way to Father Garnet’s current hideout, the house of esteemed Anne Vaux, Catesby’s cousin and a rare voice of reason he actually cared to listen to… occasionally.

The dowager looked him over, with a practiced brow arched over stormy grey eye, and let him in. Anne was in her early forties. Wearing the commanding air of a widow, she stood proudly taller than Robert (although, that was really not that hard to do).

In the hallway, they exchanged the news about Robert’s young son, who, orphaned at birth, was under grandmother’s and Anne’s supervision. Catesby hardly saw the boy this year, afraid of implicating his remaining family in the treason. And yet, despite all precaution, the news Anne delivered were troubling. Apparently, Lord Cecil himself had paid a visit, sniffing out Robert’s whereabouts.

“Are you hurt, Robert?” Anne’s keen eyes caught how slanting her cousin’s gait was. He was favoring his right side, cradling a slash he’d received in the tavern. Catesby attempted to dismiss it, promising that the monk whom Thomas brought to tend to Gerard already took care of it. However, one does nor argue with the dowager. Meanwhile, Father Garnet let himself into the room, attracted by the sound of familiar voices.

“You only come to visit when you need help, my son.” The jibe was aimed low, but failed to make the mark. Catesby turned to show him an inspired face of a fanatic, sending a cold shiver down the cleric’s spine. Such eyes led (usually others) straight to the scaffold (best case scenario).

“Well, I will leave you to it…” Garnet said, starting to edge towards the door, when, as anticipated, Catesby’s voice stopped him. Indeed, such eyes did not let people leave the room. But it was the words, that truly bore ill omens.

“I come bearing word of a miracle! I was granted an angelic visitation… In the Tower, when…”

The two sets of eyes watching Robert had a rather similar expression of incredulous alarm in them, although, for different reasons. While Garnet, who witnessed his fair share of fanatics, worried for his own skin, Anne, despite her own faith, felt a legitimate suspicion about her cousin’s sanity. 

“Father, I want to make a confession…” Messing up unfastened bandages, Catesby kneeled awkwardly.

The cleric, incapacitated by the weight of his duty, looked at the woman, who attempted to mend the loose dressing.

“Allow your cousin to finish and let her leave, my son,” Garnet’s voice lost the edge and sounded tired. “Whatever you say, should not endanger her wellbeing.”

Catesby, who was preparing for a fight, and long persuasions, nodded and waited in a strained, thick silence, glaring at the old cleric from under the curly bangs. His relationship with the old priest was not easy. Garnet’s high status in the church hierarchy and Catesby’s staggering wealth naturally aligned them on life’s thorny path. At first, both were highly satisfied with the arrangement. Yet, what started as empty, heroic rhetoric and should have stayed that way (in Garnet’s opinion), with Catesby’s zeal and ample purse, suddenly grew out of control. The old priest did his best not to know the specifics of the plan. Incriminating knowledge of actions against the crown, as he observed, always had lethal side effects. But here they were… he really should have declined Lady Vaux’s invitation after the demise of his previous patron, Lady Dibdale. Why did he stay? Was it for Madeira, meats, or pride?

He looked at Catesby’s furrowed brow, at Anne’s careful, unhurried ministrations. At some point, he stopped resisting what began to look like fate. After young Gerard left him, with his clear eyes and adamant faith, something shifted in the ether. Garnet woke up that day and felt as if he no longer was protected… by something. More and more he started to think, that he lived a very long life. More and more he started to hope, that he had done more good than… he did not.

Anne left. Catesby laced up his shirt, then hurriedly shrugged on a doublet, feeling the early Autumn chill lapping at his sides, raising goosebumps. Garnet sat down in front of him on a chair, and the man lowered himself to his knees again.

“I would like to confess,” he began anew, not looking into the priest’s face, favoring the pattern on the cold floor, making a sign of the cross.

“I gathered as much.”

“Yesterday I aided in Father Gerard’s escape from The Tower and something happened that I need to share with you…”

“…” neither word of encouragement, nor a nod, only pointed silence.

“I believe, God gave His blessing to us… to kill the king.”

Garnet looked at Catesby’s lowered head, suppressing a gasp, hiding his own thoughts, as was instinctual at this point. For a moment, it seemed to him that he saw the Grim Reaper kneeling in front of him. Could as well have been, although, according to Death himself, He was otherwise occupied.

“You are a prideful imbecil,” Garnet quietly breathed out the tired insult, and decided this would not go well without lubrication. He stood up, shook remainders of tea out of a cup onto the floor and poured wine into it, taking a long draft and wishing for something stronger.

“And you are a coward, Father,” Catesby said decidedly; two could play a name-calling game. “There are already over 20 barrels of gunpowder in our possession, strategically placed to end the reign of James the First and last!”

“What are you—”

“I saw a messenger of God. He led me and Gerard out of the Tower yesterday, at the moment when we were trapped. If it were God’s will to stop me, He had an ample chance, yet an angelic apparition led us out of the dead end. God is on our side. Without this intervention, we would both be dead!”

“In all my years—”

“In all your years, you never once tried to change something! God does not shy the sword, or the fire! In Sodom, He—”

“What if you fail?”

“We cannot fail with Him on our side! We will lay ruin to Parliament. We’ll seize the power; bring England to the One True God, finally! Can you imagine how many souls will be saved?!”

Garnet sat speechless. The scope of the disaster shaping in his mind into something incomprehensible.

Lay ruin with gunpowder..?”

“Yes!”

“You’d condemn the remaining Catholics to complete annihilation, the Spanish—”

“I have been to Madrid! The Spanish did not respond to our plea, they refused to support our cause…”

“They are here now,” Garnet cut back. He mostly kept his own negotiations close to his chest, but now he took his time to patiently outline to the reluctant Catesby his hopes for the Constable intervening on the behalf of Catholic Brethren.

Catesby knew about the Spanish embassy’s arrival. He also knew, it was spearheaded by the man, who personally gave him the first-row seat to the Spanish Inquisition. While the victims wreathed and burned, the Constable took time to explain how the fires would not light themselves, neither would witches and Jews tie themselves to the poles for execution.

Although the weather and food in Spain were a highlight, the Constable’s response in translation read unequivocally: You may as well blow yourself (up or otherwise). Of which he informed Father Garnet to only be dismissed with a skeptical frown.

“They are here to help…”

Catesby’s thoughts turned to the one argument that he felt was foolproof.

“You should have seen him, Father! Luminous, beautiful… majestic vision. He spoke to me, he… said, that he is all of our prayers made flesh… He… was…”

Catesby’s eyes glassed over, there were tears in them.

Garnet looked on in awe and terror. Here was a man gearing to do good, and who believed in his own words. Without a shadow of a doubt. This never ended well.

“Do you repent?”

“No!”

“I will never support you. I will not absolve you Even thinking that you have the right to decide the fate of men. How many innocents will die?”

“Holy Wars always bring collateral. All those men are now martyrs--they are in Heaven, released from the suffering of the mortal realm”.

“You…”

“If the king and the Parliament that supports him live on, how many innocents will die! Surely, more than from one explosion!”

“Get out! I will not listen to your madness. I will never see you from this point on! I would excommunicate you if I could! You prideful, fanatical fool!”

This went on for a while, the angelic visitation forgotten over the sound of two prides colliding. Anne, who was listening at the door thought of interfering, but decided that both men needed to let out the steam and maybe then, reason would have a chance.

Anne was wrong. Reason had no chance.

Both men in the small stuffy room had the best of intentions in London on that day. It was a stroke of celestial irony that Crowley would have appreciated, after he would have stopped panicking and packing his bags to move to Japan (he heard good things about the upcoming Tokugawa period). But Crowley did not know. This was not how he would come to know about the Gunpowder Plot. But to each its own time.

 

***

 

Finally extricating himself from courtly matters, come evening, Crowley headed straight towards the angel’s signal. Forgoing the carriage, he teleported directly into the dark alley next to the inconspicuous house, taking note that he now knew Catesby’s hideout.

He slithered into the house in his reptilian shape. The whole building was so saturated with faith that the walls themselves felt unpleasantly hot to the touch of the snake’s belly. But Crowley pushed on, to the small cozy room on the second floor. He slithered under the door. On the chair next to the bed an old monk in grey robes was dozing off. Crowley whispered a simple incantation and the friar sunk into deeper slumber.

Aziraphale was laying still on the narrow bed, only his chest was twitching with shallow fitful breaths though parted lips. Crowley took his human form and lowered himself onto the side of the bed, bending over the angel. Aziraphale was sweating, burning up like a furnace. His physical vessel was exhausted, riddled with multiple injuries and rife with infections, not to mention it was dehydrated and famished.

“I guess, this is my fault, for sending you down the drain…”

Crowley unconsciously brushed away a strand of coppery hair plastered with sweat to the high forehead.

Aziraphale’s eyes opened, but there was no recognition in them.

Crowley felt something akin to worry. He dismissed it as indigestion after another one of the king’s rich dinners (ignoring the fact that he did not digest).

The long threadbare undershirt opened on the angel’s chest. The demon fitted his palm there. The heat was pleasant. He splayed his fingers, gathering the warmth, he closed his eyes, allowing his essence to leach into the body in front of him. Infection seeped out of the wounds, and body heat noticeably fell. Crowley felt an urge to heal further, an echo of his own angelic nature, but he pulled his essence away. Too much and the humans will notice. His fingertips lingered. The angel moved in his sleep, drawing a long deep breath. Crowley’s hand dipped and then rose with the chest.

Without his neat worn clothes, Aziraphale looked even thinner and more awkward, his stomach concaved under protruding ribs. Chemise hiked up to his chest, and there was a gap at the waist of his braies, where hipbones stood out from the abdomen. A trail of light hair disappeared under the flimsy fabric.

Too many questions pushed within his head, elbowing each other. How is it possible that the angel was almost human, yet unable to heal himself? Why was he called to help him, and not some other heavenly host? The deeper his healing essence sank into the muscles and veins below his fingers, the more he felt something, some tinge of ill-spoken word or damnation that had soaked into the angel’s marrow. A curse? Crowley’s brows knitted together in thought. He searched for the sour tone of demonic magic on the angel’s form, but found some unnatural seed of discord that singed his mind, resisted recognition. Whatever oath spoken against Aziraphale, it wasn’t given by a hellish tongue. Yet it felt… familiar?

The angel moved into the touch of his hand, and Crowley pulled it away as if burned.

Suddenly the demon became aware of another presence in the room.

Catesby stood at the cracked door, still, barely breathing, absolutely stunned by the outlandish spectacle before his very wide, very scared eyes that recognized the sharp features of the angel from the dungeon.

Crowley let his gray angel wings unfurl. Catesby twitched, as if struck, still blessedly mute. The demon stood up slowly from the bed, and approached the petrified witness.

He bent over the man, and took his face in hand. Their eyes met, and there was no hiding the serpentine slitted irises this time. Nor did it matter. Crowley lowered his face to level with Catesby’s and whispered: “You are assssssleep… you will go to your room. You will dream the wildest dream your puny human mind and libido will let you…” He caressed Catesby’s cheek with his thumb. “I even allow you to dream about me. I know what you want, under all your sssssssanctity…”

Catesby’s eyes went glassy, body stiff, as he turned around and with wide wooden steps headed to his room like a wind-up toy.

When the mortal walked out, Crowley returned to the angel’s side. Aziraphale breathed easier now, fever subsided, and his wounds were beginning to scab. Lowering himself to the side of the bed, it dawned at the demon that his patient was asleep. Aziraphale never took to sleeping, despite Crowley’s attempts to advertised it as a way to pass the (horrible, bloody, crusade-infested) time to him since early Middle Ages. Now, as the fever subsided, Aziraphale turned to his side and attempted to curl up, breathing noisily through the nose. Crowley absentmindedly let his palm drop on the tortured shoulder and healed the torn ligament. The angel pulled his knees to his chest, rolling on the side and quieted down.

Crowley thought of waking him up, yelling in his face that he owed him a solid, but the narrow face sank into the pillow, quiet breath evening out after two days of torment. And Crowley stood up. With a snap of his fingers, a note landed on the pillow next to the angel, the kind only Aziraphale would see. Flaming sharp letters said: “Will drop by tomorrow. C”

Sliding out of the room, Crowley leaned on the wall. The corridor was dark, but it never bothered hell spawns. He closed his eyes, and took a slow deep unnecessary breath. The house settled already. In the next room, Catesby was moving fitfully in a troubled slumber, mumbling prayers. Crowley’s sensitive ears distinguished different tonalities of snoring along the corridor. Behind him, Aziraphale’s human breath was even and deep. The angel did not snore. It suited him, quiet economical breaths. 

Crowley reached out into the dream of Lord Catesby out of sheer curiosity. He was surprised… and felt it necessary to add some colorful and titillating detail to the vivacious and energetic picture he observed, for educational purposes. Aaaaannnd, one never knows where one would pick up a soul.

Hell’s biggest achievement was persuading humans that sex was bad, sneaking the verses into the Bible later, when no one was looking. Showing the church the power of control over sexual desires, and ensuring a steady stream of (for obvious reasons mostly Catholic) clergy fallen from grace and right into the fires of Hell. After all, sin was truly only what you believed it to be. But turning all these natural, creative urges, and simple pleasures into taboo, that begot self-doubt, fruitless struggle, and self-defeat. That was truly profoundly wicked. Scariest thing was – even Heaven started to buy into it.

Oblivious to all the visitors in the room, Brother Glynn, slept peacefully through the commotion. He too dreamt of angels. His long life was dedicated to serving his patients, and his agile mind had never had the time to become tarnished by hatred or desires. He saw a dream of a beautiful, luminous, gray-winged angel and his awkward-looking friend with a Flaming Sword.

In his dream, the angel never fell.

 

***

 

Lord Catesby woke up slowly, stuck between a very vivid dream, and a very vivid understanding of having had that specific dream. He surfaced out of the superheated decadent creation of his subconscious and got stranded in the austere reality of his room. A life-altering orgasm splayed him on his stomach, lungs gasping for breath, aftermath leisurely leaching into bed covers and his unfortunate underwear. The flashes of the dream kaleidoscoped inside his curly-haired head, as his habitually thwarted libido clung desperately to the images of intertwined bodies.

…Father Gerard’s legs hugging the slender hips of the angel, urging his lover on, in an act that Catesby never through possible, but which now seemed so pleasurable. In attestation to that a deep shuddering moan in such a familiar voice…

It did not help that he saw the priest almost naked when Brother Glynn was tending to his wounds. Catesby buried his face in his hands, but it only made things worse, bringing the residual images to life behind his eyelids. He shuddered with resurfacing arousal, and felt a chilling horror spread down his spine at the thought of the inevitable confession.

But where did it all come from? He never… he did study at the seminary, so… he knew some things, but not these kinds of things--

…Black hair spilling over the priest’s narrow chest when his lover dove for a lingering exploring kiss…

He visited Father Garnet at his cousin’s lodgings just yesterday, bringing news of their blessing, describing the angel in minute detail. Glorious, beautiful, celestial, incorruptible, ineffable.

…Gerard’s back arching, head thrown back, the whole body melting into the caress of wayward fingers, tracing the shadowy geography of long tense neck, quivering Adam’s apple, sharp collarbones…

The thoughts of the antagonistic old priest for a moment sidetracked him, long enough for the last vestiges of arousal to dissipate, replaced with gently escalating panic. He shivered in the early autumn morning chill, as the copious fluids began to dry.

From the depths of despair, shame, and confusion he was drawn out by a commotion in the corridor. Finally tending to the soiled linens and changing into fresh(er) undergarments, Catesby poked his messy head through the door. Thomas was climbing the stairs with a bucket of hot water, trying not to accidentally scald himself.

“The fever broke! Cousin! Bother Glynn is optimistic!” The man disappeared behind Gerard’s door.

Catesby picked his jaw off the floor. With shaking hands, he closed the door and after a brief “Praised be our Lord” sat down, as his knees went weak under the weight of yet another recollection.

A narrow palm, fingers splayed on the priest’s chest – a prayer, falling off the Angel’s lips, stilled Gerard’s delirious thrashing. Pained fitful breaths through destroyed throat evened into a deep sigh of relief. The palm moved down, onto quivering abdomen, and the bruises faded, the twisted shoulder fitted into place. The priest’s hand rising to catch on the angel’s robes, and pull the heavenly host blindly into a languid kiss. As their lips parted, blue eyes opened slowly, dark and moist, and eager in recognition. The angel was then drawn unhurriedly into an embrace, and his fingers found another willing purchase.

Lord Catesby sat on his bed in stunned silence, dismantling his feverish memory for clues of divine intervention. Throughout the labyrinth of fervent shameless desire, the signs were nonetheless unequivocally scattered. The fading bruises, the untwisting joints, the healing wounds, the body filling with life, spilling over with--spilling over

Catesby threw on a vest and breeches, and headed out to investigate. He made a few short steps to the room the priest was convalescing in to find Gerard being preened and gently inspected by a fresh-faced Brother Glynn. Thomas observed the procedure, thoughtfully leaning on the back of a wooden chair. The friar inspected the skin and range of motion of his patient. True, Catesby thought, the bruises, once purple as an overripe prune, seemed a duller, grey-green color now, and the swelling went down considerably, which resulted in a more acute pain, but also indicated healing. The injured man’s wrists and joints overall were hard set and barely movable by the splints placed on his arms up to his hands. The friar nodded in satisfaction as Gerard looked over his immobilized arms with discomfort.

“Bless the Lord, my son. I know it is not pleasant, but truly your recovery is— almost miraculous for one night,” Brother Glynn finally said.

His patient tried to smile, still in more pain than his secretly celestial form had been prepared for. To which now hunger and thirst added further discomfort.

“I’m sure it’s due to your care, Brother,” he replied weakly, feeling trapped by all the well-wishing spectators in the room. Through the haze of pain, he struggled to maintain the grasp of the situation and adequately respond when his borrowed human name was called.  

“God watches over us…” The friar’s light gray eyes misted over for a moment, but he blinked it away, turning to Catesby, who also approached the priest’s bedside-- “I don’t think it’s coincidence that I had the loveliest dream last night – about angels.”

Both Catesby and Gerard flinched at the word, their gazes crossing intently from the opposite sides of the room on the friar’s face, then both said, “Oh?” in perfect unison

“Yes,” continued the medic, sighing a little. “It was a black-haired angel…and… Father, you were there, too! For some reason, you had a flaming sword”.

Prickles of heat dotted the back of Catesby’s neck, while a chill of apprehension ran down his spine. The sinful images began playing again, on repeat, inside his mind. His troubled look dropped further into dark consideration, which caught Thomas’s attention.

Aziraphale had different, more wary thoughts. Was it a coincidence – his healing and the friar’s dreams? Or had Crowley further butted into his mission. Never lean on a demon for assistance, he scolded himself in thought. He considered the ghostly imprints he felt upon his chest, as if another spirit touched him from the inside. Then his eyes swiped over his mottled skin, almost expecting to see hellish handprints. If his suspicion was correct, it didn’t bode well for his plan to have Hell’s protégé sniffing around. It bode even less well to be at the fiend’s mercy.

“It must be another sign,” Thomas interjected. He went to throw a hand on Gerard’s mangled shoulder, but seeing its state, he only patted it gingerly with the tips of his fingers. “You’ll be much better soon, Father, I’m sure.”    

“Are you feeling ill too, Lord Catesby?” the friar asked after a long, concerned look at the bleak color. “Is your injury troubling you?”

Hearing his name, the man, looked down and clinched his jaw, trying to picture the body of Christ, the sacrament, to replace the hedonistic forms dancing in his mind’s eye. He cleared his throat. Thomas looked at his cousin with a warning. After all, the medic was not aware of the goings on, and was only informed that one of the men was tortured and released. They also had to lie that Catesby’s conveniently simultaneous injury was from an illicit duel.

“Yes … it’s been… a… trying few days,” he stated vaguely, and forced a smile. Brother Glynn looked at him for a moment, obviously discarding a few questions that sat on his tongue. Instead, he nodded sympathetically and with a promise of a strengthening brew, slid out of the room, giving the men space.

The would-be priest attempted to turn his face to Catesby with a wince.

“I’m afraid I’ve put a great stall in our plans,” he offered quietly from his bed. “I do apologize.”

“Don’t!” Catesby’s voice rose in exasperation, but he collected himself, under the scrutiny of Gerard’s blue eyes. The wondering, gentle look was so… “Don’t apologize, Father. You have done more than you know… for all of us. You’ve… given us a sign, by God, that what we do is righteous.”

The priest’s truncated awkward nod, and gentle smile nearly broke Catesby’s composure, the images of his dream lapping at the shore of his consciousness. He pushed them down into the rising tide, until they stopped struggling, and nodded curtly back.

Thomas cocked his head, observing the intent if mute exchange, feeling left out.

Just then, Guido stepped into the doorway. Among the four of them, he was surely the most well-groomed and clothed at the moment. He ascertained the scene clinically, leaning his back against the doorframe.

“Father, glad to see you are not going to Heaven any time soon”, he deadpanned with his usual unparalleled tact.

Oh, if only you knew! If only I could, Aziraphale thought to himself miserably.

Then, he continued with a darkening demeanor: “None of you are dressed yet? Robin, Percy is planning to book the cellar for the gunpowder, they should not wait.”

“Ease up, Guido,” Thomas complained from his coop. “We only came to check on our good Father.”

“Yes,” Catesby agreed, desperate for distraction. He gave an assured nod to his friend. “Guido, I’ll be just a moment. We can’t waste the day.”

Guido shrugged, turning himself into the hallway and walking down the stairs with decisive steps. He ran into Brother Glynn coming up the stairs with a tray of steaming mugs, humming a liturgy under his breath. Guido nodded and received a smile in return. He ventured down, face hidden under the hat, hiding a reciprocating crooked scowl.

Catesby walked closer to Gerard’s cot.

“Thomas, please help Brother with Father Gerard, if you could”-he dared a glance at the priest and tried to hide a smile-“Although, at this rate, you’ll be better very soon, I’m sure.”

“Anything is possible with God’s love,” Brother Glynn returned from the threshold, busying himself with his medical supplies on the small table next to him. “Before you go, please, drink this. I am worried riding will open your wound again. It is not deep, but we must be weary of it.” An unidentified dark yellow brew slid down Catesby’s throat coating it in sweetish-bitter-dusty taste that made him gag, then warmed him from within.

“My Lord,” Gerard addressed Catesby, his voice still dry with abuse. “When will we reconvene? When will we discuss the… issue we planned to discuss?”

“Soon,” The man assured, against his better judgement, touching a cautious hand, briefly, on the priest’s. “Soon… but rest now, your body needs it.”

Aziraphale could not argue. His body felt less on the edge of death, less frantic, but nowhere whole. He couldn’t think about how many humans experienced this type of pain throughout their existence, knowingly inflicting it upon one another. Humans were still a mystery to him, even though he felt wiser in their ways from one night of abuse than the previous almost five millennia. It was a bitter lesson, and one he felt he would rather have no further education on. The question remained, however… where would Crowley fit in all these machinations? Would he hinder or help him?

 

***

 

After the customary dubious honor of attending the morning toilet and presiding over the king’s audiences, Crowley followed James, alongside Lord Cecil, who was limping more than usual, truncated by the official regalia. A trove of emissaries awaited them in the audience hall for the first round of the official negotiations of Spanish peace. It was scheduled right after a copious breakfast in the audience hall.

Why did God construct human bodies so… unproductively? Crowley wondered how Aziraphale would fare until they reconvene. After all, humans were condemned to forever stuff their faces, only to expel it a few hours later. Aziraphale will not be happy with this circumstance. The demon looked on, reluctant, at a table laden with meats and pastry, not in the mood for gastronomical excesses; images of torture were still vivid in his memory.

Lord Carr presented a rather sour mood at the king’s side, to which James responded with a cunning little smile, flattered with favorite’s display of jealousy. It looked like the king’s new Spanish companions unnerved the courtier, who was reluctant to share the warm place in the king’s bed. Lacking in intelligence and cunning, the young man was not politically ambitious; therefore, Crowley’s presence at the king’s side never bothered him as much as potential of a Spanish lover displacing him with sexual proves.

Crowley took a long draft from his goblet and returned the king’s gaze with a casual smile, sharing in the jealousy joke. At least the wine was decent, and white, no religious, angelic or torture connotations there.

The Constable and his advisor presented a pair of short and decisively unattractive men. Both overseas politicians stood hardly taller than Cecil, who blended in well into the present company. The king, looking at the trinity of old shrews felt uneasy, suddenly doubting the ease with which the Beagle promised him peace.

Crowley observed the Constable’s entourage with narrowed eyes from behind his outlandish glasses. He saw both convoys on the night of Aziraphale’s escape in the king’s bedchambers, but briefly. Now, by the light of the day he truly appreciated the efforts Madrid invested into the negotiation. The one who caught king’s attention first, was soft and short. Handsome, a few years older than king’s current flame, and rather fair skinned. He reminded Crowley of Lord Carr, and was somewhat redundant, but pleasing to the eye. A safe bet to catch the crown’s attention. The Constable addressed him dismissively by his first name as Esteban, without titles.

It was his counterpart, who drew Crowley’s interest. A tall man, sinewy, almost too thin, in a stance so regal that his two vertically challenged superiors looked like another breed of human altogether. His face was striking, but not beautiful. A kind of face that stays with you. If Crowley were to choose a vessel again, he could even be conflicted between his current form and the tall frame in front of his eyes. His skin was tanned, face narrow with high cheekbones, dominated by an aquiline nose and accessorized with a groomed moustache. His black hair was sleeked back into a glossy monolith. He had unnerving and peculiar eyes, grey, almost white, that looked at Crowley intently, appraising the power balance in the chamber, swiping between Cecil, Crowley and the king, but lingering on the demon’s face repeatedly.

Crowley would have taken him for the bodyguard, calculating the risks, but before the men entered, the demon’s unrelenting gaze caught how the tall emissary bent down and whispered something into the Constable’s ear. He was not dismissed, and the ambassador turned to him respectfully and nodded in distinct agreement, if not reverence. He did no hear the man’s name so far, and tried to recall if the king referred to him in any way that night. Perhaps not.

The demon shrugged off a chill, and caught the gaze of the tall Spaniard. The man nodded in respectful and impartial acknowledgement, then returned his attention to the Constable, currently performing a ceremonial greeting, sweeping the floor with the splendid feathers of his hat.

A short exchange of pleasantries followed. The ambassadors bowed, and king returned their greetings with a curt nod.

The Constable expressed his hopes for the peaceful treaty. To this the king replied eloquently about mutual benefits of ceasing warfare that inconvenienced both their subjects for 20 years now. Lord Cecil preened, expecting victory while Northumberland looked on, frowning.

Yet with the next polite tirade, the Constable informed the king that his sovereign instructed him to advocate for the Catholics, who were just recently again attacked by yet another ruthless legislation.

“The fair laws of this land, should not concern his majesty. I will take it upon myself to keep informed on what is best for my kingdom,” the king eye twitched as he snapped his barely polite response, looking down at the small man in front of him.

Cecil caught his own hand on the way to his face, biting the inside of his cheek. Northumberland made an effort to catch his gaze, with carefully measured elevated brows. Cecil ignored the man, turning his attention to the king and Spaniards. Constable also looked at him and smiled. Crowley tried to glimpse into the ambassador’s thoughts, but a heavy crucifix suspended from the scrawny neck under all the elaborate clothes, precluded him. A powerful amulet. What a convenient coincidence! Everything about the embassy was wrong, everything. And the timing was… Crowley set his jaw, and took a deep unnecessary breath out of habit.

“Perhaps, it would be prudent to discuss further course of action with your advisors, Your Majesty…” the Constable trailed off with a polite nod towards the seething Lord Cecil. “Perhaps, there had been some miscommunication as to what our sovereign was proposing in his letters…”He almost winked at that, and although Cecil was good at his poker face, the deadening of his eyes betrayed explicitly homicidal feelings.

Crowley escorted the king back to his chamber, going through the ceremonial motions automatically, while listening in on the litany of accusations and insults that the king hauled liberally at crestfallen Cecil. In front of his mind’s eye was the tall Spanish man, whose name he knew now, Miguel Jose de Goya, a “beautiful accessory” to the embassy, who put a hand on the Constable’s shoulder and nodded in approval at the small man’s eager thrilled face. A nobody…

 

***

 

The sun suspended high in the pewter sky of downtown London, rose and dipped between the clouds of sooty smoke that billowed from the worker’s quarters and the docks. It was, in other words, a beautiful London day. Among the horses, carriages, and a collection of disheveled common folk on foot, who limped and scampered to their various destinations, an uncommonly clean figure appeared on the cobbled streets of a more reputable area seemingly out of nowhere. It was a man in a finely cut suit, engulfed in a flowing coat.

He wore dark-shaded spectacles, framed with a delicate filigree of silver. A casual observer may not have noticed, but the tight bridge of the glasses had a serpent etched into it. The owner thought this was a particularly clever inside joke. He clacked and tapped his black cane that probably concealed a blade, down the road, the sharp sound echoing against the storefronts and houses that he passed, turning heads. He held a handsome leather bag with similar fittings in his other hand. His arm stayed stiff, allowing the bag itself to swing with every footstep.

Reaching his apparent destination, the man turned sharply to the front of an unassuming, respectable house and rapped the head of his cane against the front door.

After a long, sleepy moment, the door opened slightly, revealing a cautious Thomas behind it. He eyed the handsomely dressed man, then looked down at the bag and cane.

“I’m here to see my patient,” the man said, calmly.

“Patient…?” Thomas parroted back. He glanced behind him, appearing to think. “Who sent for you?”

“Why, you did, less than an hour ago,” The stranger tried again. “Chop chop, my boy, my time is sssssacred.” Thomas thought a moment, but it was difficult. He pushed the palm of his hand into his ear, distracted by a strange ringing.

Crowley’s brows crinkled sternly around the lenses of his spectacles. Bloody spell, he thought. Work, work!

For all humans, there is a part of the brain that recognizes when something is wrong or missing. This vague and visceral sense of wrongness. What most don’t realize, is that there is a matching area that recognize when things are as they should be. Crowley discovered he could slither into this area of contentment and trick cow-eyed humans to trust him. The gray matter of a paranoid conspirator was proving more difficult to manipulate. His spell coiled tighter around Thomas Wintour’s mind and-

There was a pop. A strange pop, and the pesky ringing was gone from Thomas’s ears. He took his hand away and looked at the doctor with newly-found recognition.

“I’m sorry, doctor. I don’t know where my head went just now. Yes, please, come in. He’s upstairs,” He said, opening the door with a slight bow. The demon managed to conceal his relief by turning his sigh into a short puff of indignation. He swooped into the house, cane first, and assessed the room. It seemed quite sparse and vacant at the moment, but he could sense two other humans upstairs. His heels still scorched a little from residual holiness that leached out of its devout residents, but he tried to accustom himself to it with short, straight steps. His serpentine nature did find the burn just a little pleasant. A little.

Up the narrow stairs and down the hall, Thomas introduced the doctor, that of course was called for, to Aziraphale and his attendant caregiver, Brother Glynn. The angel, in his half-broken form, looked weakly up from the straw mat, and a flash of life touched his eyes. The old friar looked wonderingly over to Crowley, who defensively clutched his fine leather bag in one hand and his cane in the other.

Oh bloody Hell, Crowley thought as smaller man came up to him in a hurried way. The demon immediately felt a blast of heat as if the sun had turned to its face to him. It seemed the cleric had a very good, kind soul whose spirit was like a furnace to the demon’s infernal skin. Crowley cleared his throat, trying to focus through the heat. He immediately began to work his trust spell again, expecting similar resistance. However, he was surprised to find the friar’s mind had an abundance of trust and contentment for him, a stranger, and the spell was barely needed.

“Sir… you look…familiar in some way?” The cleric finally said. “Have we met?”

The demon’s brows shot up in alarm.

“He’s the doctor Robert called,” Thomas explained. “Doctor…oh…”

“Doctor Raphael-” The angel blurted out. “Lord Catesby called for you.” Crowley looked over the top of the friar’s head in the most disgusted glare he could manage behind his shades.

“Oh, very nice of you to come,” The friar said, trying to offer his hand, but failing to make contact with the demon as he clutched his bag and cane tighter. It could have been taken as rude, but true to his nature, the friar smiled kindly at the “doctor” and clasped his empty hands in front of him respectfully. “Your surname is quite auspicious to your profession, doctor. You share a name with the healing archangel Raphael.”

“Or are you a better painter than doctor?” Thomas added with a grin, demonstrating surprising erudition.

They had a little laugh over that, which Crowley tried to mimic as well as possible, all the while thinking to himself, that had the enthusiastic Thomas known what kind of pastimes the Renaissance man favored…

“I shall go bring some tea for you, doctor. Thomas, could you help with the bandages?” 

“Of course,” Thomas said, following the friar out, finally released from the tedium of tending to the infirm.

The remaining supernatural entities waited a moment until the creaks of the floorboards had faded back.

“You know,” Aziraphale began. “You could have left a note before co-“

A hissing, sulfurous crackle of glitter and colors exploded from the angel’s pillow, forming Crowley’s abandoned message in mid-air. The letters were a tasteful cursive, but they blistered hot before collapsing in a shower of sparks in the angel’s lap.

“-ming,” he mumbled to a finish.

“It was set to go off when you were alone in the room. If these pesky humans could have given you a moment of privacy, you would have had it earlier,” Crowley answered, approaching his bedside. He removed his flowing coat, casting it over the chair next to the bed then sitting there. “More importantly, Raphael? Are you serioussss?”

Aziraphale tried to hold a straight face, but did snort to himself a bit.

“Apologies, I panicked. It’s not a bad name.”

“It’s the same as that twat,” Crowley muttered back. “Was always shining and showing off that bloody trumpet. Such a tosser. And why is he a healer? Bollocks! Even I was a better healer before… ”

“He’s not that bad,” Aziraphale defended his colleague, watching Crowley remove the black gloves. “How--when did you find me?”

“Yesterday, I heard your signal… well, it barely sounded like you. All… panicky and human, freaked me right out, you know!”

The “priest” looked down at his worn, human body, swallowing.

“I’ve been calling out, but no one can hear me… I don’t, I don’t know why.”

“It’s your form, Aziraphale. It’s lost its heavenly—” Crowley spun his wrist, trying to pick a good word for it: “heavenliness? Surely you can feel it? The banality of yourself. I’d say, your vessel is mostly human.”

The angel did feel it. He felt his heart thumping against his mortal ribs, the beading sweat sprouting across his neck. His diaphragm started contracting rapidly, pupils going to pinpricks-

“Easy,” Crowley warned, putting his palm on his chest. “Don’t forget, you need to breath now.”

He did. It was ragged, weak and sore, but he breathed. The tension in his muscles loosened, just a bit.

“Humans have a pesky thing called adrenaline,” The demon mumbled, moving his thumb absently across the angel’s mottled collarbone, deleting a nasty bruise. “It makes them move faster, but they tend to do stupid things when it starts flooding their system.”

“Have I been cursed…? Did you tell anyone—” Aziraphale whispered. “About our arrangement?”

Crowley drew away his hand, sitting straighter.

“Of course not! I’m not eager to take a bath in holy water. Besides, this is not an infernal curse. It’s something else, angel. Do you have enemies, anyone with a grudge?”

The angel looked up with wide, strained eyes that told Crowley that he did not.

“Told anyone?”

“No! I’d never,” The angel said, a little hurt by the implication. “Could…they have figured out?”

“Why after all these millennia, would they suddenly find out now?” Crowley did really find the idea preposterous. “Besides, this is a strange punishment, don’t you think? A sternly worded celestial memo, even a smiting I can imagine, but this is—”

“Have I Fallen?” The angel whispered, feeling his insides deaden.

“Whot?”

“Think about it— I am the only one affected,” Aziraphale tried to gesticulate dismissively, but only managed to drop his splinted hand off his lap with a wince. Crowley picked it up and restored it with a pat. Aziraphale did not miss a beat. “After all, wasn’t it like a self-destruction mechanism with you? Once triggered… It makes sense— ” he shrugged.

“You are not Fallen,” Crowley cut in. “This is not what Fallen looks like— trust me, I know.” There was a conspicuous absence of snark in the demon’s voice, Aziraphale looked up at him. Crowley shrugged under his compassionate scrutiny. The angels always gossiped about it – what it’d be like to be Fallen. Crowley knew, in all intimate details. Aziraphale considered this and tried to find assurance, but if not Hell or Heaven, what then? Who had the capacity for such a strange… assault?

“We’ll need to keep this form in decent shape,” Crowley continued, bringing the angel’s attention back to the present. “Since your spirit may be even mortal now, I’m not sure where your soul would go if you were to die in this state. Hold still.”

The demon raised his pale hands again and started slow movements across Aziraphale’s chest, pushing away his chemise. The angel knew what he was doing, healing him from the inside, but the cool touch and pressure of his hands felt… poignant. His blue eyes floated up, gazing at the beams of the ceiling as Crowley’s essence drifted into his ligaments, muscle and bone. He breathed in, shifting against the mat. It felt familiar… amplified Crowley’s presence. It felt good. The angel sighed, reaching in; it felt almost as if he was whole again.

Abruptly the contact ended, it took the angel’s breath away, he doubled down in a cough.

“Hot tea for you, doctor,” Brother Glenn’s incorruptible voice cut through the haze. Crowley pulled back and reseated himself. The angel sighed, feeling fractured again.

“Oh, lovely,” Crowley said between his teeth. The steaming cups did seem inviting, but he felt exposed without his gloves on, especially with this friar’s…radiating faith. It was both exquisite and uncomfortable. If Brother Glynn noticed his unease, he did not show it, and carefully placed the cups on the table side.

“This is my special brew,” he began, “willowbark tea. It helps with the fever and pain…”

There was an awkward pause before he realized why the friar still stood over him, watching. Resigned, Aziraphale turned back over and cleared his throat.

“Why don’t you try some, doctor?” the angel offered loudly.

“Oh… of course,” the doctor replied, then carefully reached out to the cup. His fingertips almost seemed to tremble. He couldn’t help worry that this little cleric may have accidentally blessed the water with the amount of Grace pouring out of him. He took the cup, sat up and barely sipped a spoonful of tea. After swallowing and sitting still a moment, it seemed clear he wouldn’t dissolve into sulfurous vapor, he took another proper sip. It was slightly earthy and pleasant.

“Very good,” the demon finally admitted. Brother Glynn nodded then hummed a bit to himself and cleaned up the linens in the room.

Crowley helped Aziraphale drink more tea by holding the cup to his lips and supporting his head with his other hand. The angel found this a bit awkward, but he endured for the reward of the friar’s tea which he’d become very fond of. It did seem to help with the pain he was in. Crowley whispered across the signal that something was a little odd about the friar – that he had a very strong holy aura. Aziraphale replied in silent words that he was offended at the thought of Brother Glynn being the source of the curse, and how could Crowley think that?

No, he didn’t place the curse, the demon explained. He is human through-and-through, and the curse doesn’t feel the same as his soul. Still, why is he so sacred?

He is a kind man, that is why. Have you never met a good human before?

Crowley thought a moment. He did find himself with a rather different crowd by necessity. The humans he came across often thought themselves “good,” but a whiff of temptation and they marched in neat rows straight to Hell.

They absently bickered in thought a bit longer as Crowley feigned medical assessment, preforming for the friar. After finishing a couple mugs of the tea, Aziraphale began to display new signs of distress, discretely groaning and fidgeting in his seat.

“Are you alright, Father?” Brother Glynn said, putting down his broom. His ears were keen to sounds of discomfort, which Crowley only noticed when the small man came over to the bed.

“It’s – my, my abdomen feels tight and it hurts,” Aziraphale said, shifting up as best he could on his splinted arms. Crowley looked down and started to push on his stomach, but the angel swatted him away in pained irritation. The friar looked over at the tea.

“Do you need the bucket? I’ll get it,” the cleric bent down, picking up the pristine chamber pot. “It will be better if you can use this. The linens from last night are still drying.”

You have to piss, idiot, Crowley hissed in his mind, the accusation startling Aziraphale.

What? But I can’t. I’ve never!

Oh yes you have, Crowley goaded on. You’ve definitely pissed the bed by what the friar’s saying. Want to make him clean you up again?

The angel really wished he could miracle himself away from this whole new level of humiliation. Death’s icy embrace never seemed so welcoming. As accommodating as always, Brother Glynn came to the other side of the “priest” and put his splinted arm over his shoulder. It was obvious that, despite the healing, Aziraphale had not regained enough articulation of his hands. The chamber pot was put directly in front of him, between his legs, but there was an awkward pause as directing the organ itself to the pot was obviously impossible for its owner.

Do you need another hand? Crowley offered in thought, very sweetly, lifting his fingers in front of the angel’s face.

“Brother Glynn, can you, please!?” the angel nearly cried out (very unnecessarily, as the friar was right next to him).

In a continuing show of the friar’s Grace, he helped him relieved himself with as much dignity as situation allowed.

Isn’t this quaint! You’re really getting a full tour of the human body, Crowley commented, eyes shamelessly glued to the spectacle. The angel threatened to cut their signal line, but the demon just chuckled at the idea. You really shouldn’t be making threats in your current state.

The friar and “doctor” settled Aziraphale down, back into the straw mattress, and idly discussed his condition. Crowley admitted to Brother Glynn that “the priest” was progressing very well under his care, but suggested that he return to check on “Father Gerard” as he was still in a fragile state. Brother Glynn seemed happy by the prospect of another visit, as he had some other herbal remedies he wanted him to weigh in on.

Through their signal, Crowley spoke with the angel regarding their next move. He would bring the necessary ingredients for a tracking ritual. If it worked, they would learn the source and essence of the curse, maybe even who did it.

With that, Crowley said his goodbyes with a promise to return soon. He nearly made it out of the house when, being called by the friar, he turned around and suddenly found his naked hand clasped in Brother Glynn’s holy grip with an impromptu handshake. Crowley cried out at the blessed, scorching heat searing his skin. The cane clattered to the floor.

“My apologies, doctor,” the cleric said, quite concerned. He picked up the fallen cane and offered it back, traces of guilt in his vibrant gray eyes. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“No…it’s fine…I—have terrible arthritis,” Crowley nearly wheezed, guarding his burned hand. Within seconds, the skin had healed, and he nodded with weak appreciation as the friar carefully gave him his walking stick back.

As the “doctor” closed the door with half-hearted cheer, Brother Glynn sniffed the air where he once stood.

Strangely, he thought he smelled sulfur but dismissed it as candles that burned in the dark, damp home.