While there were certainly many perks to being a demon, there were times Crowley would curse the restrictions of his infernal nature. If Aziraphale were to be “cured” at all, the logical course of action would be to sift through the Heavenly archives and give a thorough paging to the holy tomes. They must have something to shed celestial light on the condition afflicting the angel. Sadly, Crowley’s library card for said resource had expired. No, as good as his disguises were, nearly nothing could sneak him into Heaven. So, Crowley made do with Hell’s archive, a musky, dank chamber in the basement of the tower of all creation that required a shower after visiting. Cussing under his breath, he found himself walking down the very long staircase (elevators would have to wait a few hundred years) to the outer sphere of Hell.
Dante interpreted Hell as having “circles”. He missed the mark somewhat. Hell was, in fact, comprised of nested spheres of torments, rather than two-dimensional planes. Each sphere was separated into specialized compartments for approximations of sins and adequate punishments as interpreted by all existing religions. Religions separated by confessions, fractured further into elaborate patterns. Lesser sins were on the outside, in the biggest sphere, shrinking as they went inwards. This elaborate Matreshka was based on the primordial principles of good and evil. After all people almost always knew when they did bad deeds… it was much harder to know if they did good ones. Sin was such a relative concept, only truly understandable and possible to evaluate in context. Hell processed the countless cases, each reviewed ad nauseum.
The inherent understanding of good and evil, that Eve and Adam got kicked out for, became an absolute of human nature. Sometimes called an “conscience.” Yet, somehow, humans continued to override their “blueprint” which ultimately led them here. Depending on how far they strayed, it would either be a brief inconvenience or an eternity of kicking themselves.
Crowley glanced as he passed the overcrowded, compartmentalized processing halls. There, all religions would dump the chaff of humanity, turned down at whatever version of the Pearly Gates they ended up at, to be sorted by intensity of ill deeds. The luckier ones would be purified by the “waiting room” that was purgatory, or Gehenna, as referred to by children of Abraham. Crowley had petitioned for this bureaucratic concept to be introduced in governments across Earth. He would not truly get his vision realized until the 20th century, when human administrators found the endless joys of making people wait for their number to be called.
Many of Hell’s potential population was lost in this area. The odd farmer, who swore an oath against God when his plow raked across his foot, would get a sentence of some pedestrian amount of time to burn off the sins at purgatory. Then he would sit in the drone of shuffling papers, waiting an unknown time to be called for absolution. Many souls were given back to Heaven after this process. It was part of the treaty, reached after Lucifer’s banishment that the Upstairs would get the minor offenders.
Crowley had worked in this division in the early years. There was fun to be had, such as reading aloud the soul’s offenses, and explaining that, yes, maybe sacrificing that nine-year-old wasn’t actually the best move for their god, and whoops, you’re actually being promoted (demoted) to a lower level! He especially enjoyed watching the confusion and horror as they realized the truth, that little voice in the back of their heads, the one they drowned out with the screams of sacrificed toddlers, was right all along. It was less atheists and more “godly” people that had manipulated humans for their own benefit that went to the lower globes, or rather were dragged screaming and kicking. The atheists had their own Hell and Heaven too. Basically, their Hell was finding out that higher powers existed, while Heaven was a blessed nothingness. And, in all honesty, no one was sent to Hell for praying to the wrong God. They were the self-styled human “Cult-Gods”, telling their followers to drink the coolaid, who were Hell’s stock. These false prophets populated the core sphere, alongside rapists, murderers and pedophiles with no universal belief between them.
He tried to shirk around the lost souls, pull up his black, flaming collar to sneak under the radar of the adoring brownnosers. It was the curse of being on the good side of the top brass. They always seemed to sniff him out down here… and it wasn’t easy to smell anything between the choking sulfur and decay that filled the polluted air. Yet, somehow, the bootlickers would find him.
“Crrrrrraaaaawleeeeey,” an ancient voice growled behind him, nearly feet away from the archives. Crowley hunched, as if trying to dodge the name. He turned back, slowly, and gave a bleak grin to the lightless eyes of his fellow demon, Hastur. “Been a while since I’ve seen you down here. What’s the occasion?”
“Oh? Nothing…much. Just looking for some inspiration in the whole… inquisition torture department,” he managed, as casually as possible. He was too close to the archives to pretend he was going anywhere else. In an effort to get away, he continued to walk, unwittingly bumping into Ligur who appeared in his path.
“Really? You? Needing inspiration?” Ligur ventured, looming as best as he could (he and Crowley were the same height). “Seems a bit odd. Hear that the humans have got that down pat.”
Hastur began to circle around the demon, black eyes affixed to Crowley’s naked yellow ones.
“Wouldn’t be going about some other business…would you?”
“If the Zerpent hazzt such bizinezz, tiz not thine,” a gargle of spiked tones came from the encompassing darkness. The two interfering demons froze with their not-so-metaphorical tails tucked between their legs at the “voice” that rasped at their ears. Pitch darkness shaped into the blood-red form of Beelzebub himself. Crowley looked up at the Prince of Hell, while Hastur and Ligur noticeably shrank, folded into sycophantic bows.
“Of course, Milord,” Hastur said.
“By all means,” Ligur said.
“Oi Prince, how you managing?”
The infernal Lord of the Flies absently shrugged at Crowley’s greeting.
“It iz how it alwayz hath been and alwayzzz will be,” the high-ranked demon “bzzzed” his phlegmatic response.
“My apologies, Milord, I do believe we are needed in sixth globe due to a slight understaffing on the impaling field,” Ligur said in a wavering voice, grabbing at Hastur’s arm. “If it does not displease you, we-”
As instructed, they dissolved into the shadows.
“My thanks, your lordship,” Crowley sighed, slumping with relief.
“Do not mention it… thou art known for thine wizzzzzdom…many feel threatened. Ignore the underlingzzz and go the way to glorithy Luthither.”
Crowley choked back a laugh. He’d forgotten about Beelzebub’s slight lisp at the name of the Lord of All Hell. He hid his face with a supplicating bow, then headed back to the library.
Reading was not a leisurely pastime for most demons, but the constant drive for a procedural approach to all things resulted in a well-organized archive, with fetid candles burning with green flames, leaving slimy soot streaks on the walls. A patchwork of gray mold veiled sagging bookcases, but despite the “protective” casing of spider webs, the volumes here were in good condition. It was a contrast of states that demonic magic thrived on. A squat little djinn librarian in a fancy turban was taking a snooze against some satanic texts at the front desk, and Crowley easily avoided him. Most demons who enlisted to man the library took the position for the perks of eating the silverfish and cockroaches that infested the leaves of paper.
Crowley muttered to himself, walking past the rows of volumes. Most of the traditional volumes were of no interest to him. Quite a few were filled with propaganda, and typical Hellish self-promotion, others with pedestrian spells that any demon learned before the Great Flood. There were some grimoires of interest, but they were hardly helpful in Crowley’s current mission. No, what he searched for was a room in a small side-corner, a black placard declaring “RESTRICTED TEXTS”. The entrance was “tastefully” blocked off by an enchanted beaded curtain to keep fledglings at bay. Crowley, being of time immemorial, had no trouble batting the black pearl(y) gates away with a skittering clack.
The demon walked into the unlit room, surveying the mountains of strewn volumes. Most of these books were semi-holy, and the librarians disdained touching them. It was certain they’d been picked up with either mittens or tongs and thrown carelessly into the chamber. Striking a flame in his open hand, Crowley looked closer at the discarded tomes. There was no organization to speak of, but he had his own way to find what he needed. He put out his unlit hand and focused on any heavenly signature in the archives. He let his power reach out into the blackness and, after a few sways, felt a tug. He followed the pulling force until, nearing the object, a hill of blackened books in a corner tumbled away and revealed a matte brown tome.
Crowley squinted at the book… Idle Musings of Bob the Pious. (“The Pious” was scribbled in another hand later.) It was a small volume, filled with tight economical handwriting. Bob was not overly wordy. Yet it held many revelations from a friar that lived hundreds of years ago. Although the account seemed impossible, Crowley had it on good authority (himself) that the events written down were true.
In the high hills of ancient Britain, there sat a small monastery named The Order of Saint Genesius of Rome. There, Robert Brownsberry, Robert Shrewsbent, Robert Faultfinger and Robert Delwynn resided. The good people of the nearby town called it The Order of Too Many Roberts. For most, it would be very confusing to live in a monastery with several people sharing the first name. The monks dealt with the conundrum by referring to their peers as Brother, and then their last names. Brownsberry, however, went by the title Brother Bob, as he found it very amusing.
According to the book, Brother Bob was in the garden one day when he came across a Woman. The Woman said, “Hello what are you doing there?” “Oh,” he replied, “Just checking on the radishes. Who might you be?” “Why,” she said, “I am God.” “Really?” the friar replied, “You don’t look like the pictures in our Bible!” “Well, mortal imaginations are lacking in some respects. I should work on that.” (As the reader may note, it took another 400 years to improve on the design.)
The conversation continued. The demon licked a finger (spit sizzling) and skipped the banal chit-chat. God had gotten a bit bored and wanted to take a stroll in Her backyard (Earth). Finding a solitary place and someone to talk to, God began to visit Brother Bob in his small garden and have insightful conversations on various subjects. As She always did, God chose Her conversational partner well, as Brother Bob was not only trustworthy, he could keep up with Her peculiar sense of humor. They talked about all manner of things, including angels. God lamented the fall of Lucifer and his followers, wished things had worked out better, and surmised the trouble with angels, was that although they were loyal to Her, they sometimes fought with their brethren in ridiculous ways.
Brother Bob’s personal diary was kept by the brethren out of sentimental value. When it was later discovered during overhaul of the abbey’s library, years after the friar had peacefully passed away in his sleep, the Biblical scholars found the text sacrilegious (A woman? Preposterous!) and conspired to hide the ridiculous musings of the delusional monk.
Scholars did not know, as Crowley knew, that God was known to take walks in disguise and speak to the people around the time this little book was written. Aziraphale himself had gossiped with Crowley on this subject. The Archangel Metatron had gotten very twisted out of shape about the Lord speaking to humans without him. It was the scandal of that century, though, as centuries go, there were many, and ultimately the “incident” fell out of celestial memory… for most, but not for Crowley; one of his best features was his long memory (which many wished he didn’t have).
There it was – the spell that helped to track the source of anything, and revealed the core-truth. God entrusted it to Bob, perhaps out of scientific curiosity, because the friar refused to be tempted or corrupted by anything. It showed the one who casts it the true core of whatever it was aimed it. Aimed at person, you would see the core of the person. Brother Bob never used it on a person, including God. He did not want to make hasty assumptions of anyone he met, and believed that people can change against all evidence to the contrary. He did once cast it at the pea soup in the mess hall and never dared to again. Aimed at a curse, it would reveal the core of the curse, which, Crowley hoped, would ultimately lead to uncovering the one who cast it. And if they are lucky, how to undo it. The ritual that went with the spell was not complicated; a few diagrams on the floor, a few magic crystals, but Crowley had a stash at home in a safe behind Da Vinci drawing of him nude that Crowley really really liked.
With the book hidden carefully in the front of his fashion forward doublet, Crowley left the archives. It was pleasantly dangerous just the right amount, held between the layers of fabric, away from the skin. The demon even got a bit distracted by the prickly heat on his chest and failed to notice he had wandered into the Buddhist division. A certain god had his door open, the demon was spied as he passed by. His name boomed in a friendly baritone, and this time with less hostility, Crowley looked over his shoulder at looming large red face of Enma.
“It’s been a while, mate. Fancy a drink?” The lord of the Buddhist underworld (not to be confused with his cousin Yama from the Hinduist underworld, who was rather above all this nonsense) was a large bulky fellow with red skin, fangs, and a fancy hat. For some reason, he recently took to speaking with what later will be referred to as British accent. Surprisingly, it suited him better than his Russian phase. (He had his own concept of “reincarnation”.) He and Crowley had become good “mates” in Crowley’s time supervising the many purgatories (a bureaucratic clusterfuck even by Crowley’s standards). Enma was by and large more benevolent to the minor sinners than Beelzebub would like him to be, and Crowley helped the big guy out in a few more questionable cases of pardon. Enma was surprisingly well-liked by many in the netherworld, maybe because he always had the best booze (sorry Aziraphale).
“What are you offering?”
“Got some good brew from the Lower Worlds…” he trailed off demonstrating a clay vessel, dwarfed by his enormous clawed hand. Inside sloshed something potent and psychedelic. “They owed me a favor.” Two caterpillar-brows wiggled, as if Crowley should have known what kind of favor was in the deities’ mind. He wiggled his shapely brows in response anyway.
“I’ll pass today…”
Enma’s face fell visibly at the rejection.
“Too bad! Anubis was taking the evening off too…”
But Crowley had too many secrets to juggle at the moment, to risk the spirit vine un-bottling his inhibitions in front of the colleagues. Even though their immortal bodies were immune to the more… visceral… side effects. They agreed to have a night of drinking at another, more auspicious time. All the while, the little brown book was just the right smidgen of uncomfortable at his chest, demanding to be read.
Thomas Wintour peered down the stairs, leading into the cellars. The sense of depth was amplified by a candle shining from the bottom up. Musty air filtered from beneath the ground alongside the muffled voices of Catesby, Percy and Fawkes, who were discussing how they could safely transfer the already assembled 36 barrels of gunpowder all by themselves from current storage in their headquarters in the affluent area of Lambeth. A stroke of conspicuous luck, truly, to be able to rent the storage space under the parliament building itself; no need for any tunnels or any other crazy early schemes. Still, the amount of labor that was going to be involved, with only 12 pairs of hands in the next months until the November Parliament, intimidated the soldier. Two barrels were currently loaded onto a cart outside; two men could hardly lift one together, less so carry it down the steep stairs. Fawkes was devising a system of pulleys to lower them safely. After all, blowing themselves up in this early stage would not even count as martyrdom.
The cavernous, cool room in front of him made the explosion plans all too tangible. Above them stood an imposing grand building, which they planned to reduce to rubble, along with the king, queen, princes, the lords of the parliament, and God only knew what other collateral. Not all of these people were Anglicans, and even if they were, they were also… you know… people. Catesby spoke of their “martyrdom” (a convenient euphemism for murder) so dismissively now that he thought Heaven was on his side. Thomas agreed in theory… as a soldier, he saw people die in bulk on the battlefields of Flanders and Spain. He understood the necessity of sacrifice. Yet now the practicality of it was staring him in the face, getting in his personal space, and the sacrifice looked more and more like the old-fashioned slaying of the tributes on a blood-splattered altar.
Guido’s perpetually grim face poked through the doorframe. He looked up at Thomas, waving him in. Thomas’s smile was forced as he started down the stairs. With Gerard’s ill-fated attempt at initiation in Duck and Drake, planning the priest’s escape and convalescence, he saw the man frequently in the last week or so. The past several months, since Lord Percy’s appointment as the commander of the prince’s bodyguards, Guido resided with the man in his new house, conveniently situated next to the Prince’s Chambers and Parliament building. Fawkes posed as his servant John Johnson (winning an award for the most original alias), keeping an eye on the enterprise. He was now a rare guest in Lambeth.
Thomas looked around, Catesby, passionate as always, waved his hands, discussing with Fawkes where and how to stack the barrels to be hidden effectively under the firewood. After the incident with the “Angel”, Catesby’s zeal intensified tenfold, and disturbed the cautiously optimistic equilibrium that the plotters had maintained so far. Thomas liked the priest, with his quiet, compassionate demeanor, and was against getting the good man involved. He still hoped Robert would reconsider revealing the plot to him, and send him away to a safe place, such as Flanders or even further. Yet Catesby was intent to keep the man close, considering him something akin to a talisman. The other day, Thomas stopped himself from asking Gerard if they truly saw that angel, catching himself guiltily on this suspicious thought. He missed Guido’s advice…
The first barrel started its maiden voyage down the stairs, strapped with belts and ropes and cradled by Catesby himself. Thomas leaned onto the cart’s side, watching the fixtures of the pulley contraption, squeaking and shaking, but holding up. He offered his pipe to Guido, who took it and sipped at the tip with a pensive smile. It was dark outside; the lanterns attached to the sides of the cart carved the handsome face out of the shadows. Their silences were always comfortable. But Thomas dared to break it.
“Do you ever doubt?” he ventured into the dark air in front of himself.
“Hmmhh?” a cloud of smoke whispered past Guido’s lips.
“That what we do is right?”
“I lost sight of any other choice…” the low voice, and dismissive shrug. Guido averted his eyes.
“I know…” Thomas knew indeed. King James or more likely Lord Cecil did way more damage, just in spaced measured portions, aimed specifically at Catholics. He opened his mouth for a “But-”
A curse, a few rhythmic bumps, a boom, and a yelp sounded from beneath in quick succession. Both men rushed down. They found Lord Catesby sinking in a pile of gunpowder at the end of the stairs. The first cask had slipped out of its harness, cracked and lost its top at the fall, spilling gunpowder everywhere. Some finer residue was still hanging in the air. Lord Percy was rather unproductively, yet profusely, cursing through a face-full of grey dust. A few unimpressed rats watched from the shadowy corners, heads cocked in world-weary curiosity, paws poised for escape.
As his eyes caught a lit pipe in Guido’s hand, Percy woke up to reality and yelled in an ungodly voice: “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!!!!!”
Guido, who already caught the gist of the matter, jumped back, disappearing up the stairs. Meanwhile Thomas got to his knees, shoveling the grey powder off Robin and into a pile with his hands. His heart fell deeper, getting closer to his stomach. His eyes scanned the dark corners for some kind of container. Finding nothing, he made an attempt at the cracked cask.
“Thomas, it is dangerous,” Catesby half-heartedly tried to stop him, cautiously shaking the explosive dust from extremely unsuitable crooks, crevices and folds of both his clothes and his body.
Percy and Guido returned with buckets of water.
“Should we undress them?” Percy sized Catesby up with a suspicious squint. The size was not very impressive.
“Nah, just splash them good!” Guido took a ladle with smiling eyes trained at Thomas. Thomas blushed. But, it was dark, so no harm done.
Half-dead with exhaustion and still moist from the waist down for safety, Thomas finally reached the stables of Lambeth as the sky began to blush at the advances of a new day. Robert did not return with him, having stayed to finish up and dismantle the pulleys. The man appeared exploding with energy and fervor from the inside, but Thomas gave up, leaving him his mare and driving the cart back. Guido went with Percy. After all the misadventures, the second barrel agreed to go down smoothly, although cleaning and scraping the floor took ages. Thomas was not looking forward to the remaining 34 barrels. While putting the plan together piece by piece, celebrating small victories and mourning losses filled Thomas with sense of purpose and belonging, now the anticipated nights of hard labor ahead of them, started to feel like a final countdown. It would probably take them over a month, no less, to transfer the load and the firewood to cover up the casks. And then, it would all end, one way or another.
He changed and washed off as much as was possible with cold water from the pitcher, and crawled downstairs to raid the kitchen. The house was quiet. Upstairs, Brother Glynn and Gerard were asleep, but the small friar was to wake up soon. He appeared to get up with the sun. Something that smelled of herbs and spices stood on the hibernating coals in the kitchen stove, next to a pot of stewed vegetables. The priest was starting on the solid foods, although it appeared, he was extremely averse to simple bodily functions and gave the small doctor a lot of grief with his attempts to tend to himself, all the while more unable to stand up than he cared to admit.
Thomas threw a piece of bread and cheese into his mouth and sat down heavily on the bench, polished by generations of servants’ bottoms, dropping the plate in front of him on the table. Now the house was almost empty of help, as it was too dangerous to keep uninitiated people, apart from his own and Catesby’s personal valets, who were in the know of the plot. He managed a few more bites and half a cup of tea, before his head gravitated towards the boards of the table.
The amount of time passed was anyone’s guess, but a clack of the metal pot jolted Thomas back to consciousness. He raised his head (which now had an intricately patterned shiny red mark where it had found the table for a pillow), and looked over his shoulder to see Brother Glynn fidgeting with his fragrant brew. Through Thomas’s sleepy greeting, the friar made apologies for disturbing him, which were shooed away as unneeded. The cleric looked uncharacteristically bleary-eyed. Thomas rubbed sleep out of his own red eyes and offered to help with the brew, which the plump warm hands were pouring unsurely with a geriatric tremor. Thomas ended up taking the platter in his left hand, while holding his right behind the friar as they proceeded with the breakfast up to father Gerard. It looked like the monk did not get enough sleep, and Thomas wondered if Gerard was again… difficult. The last two nights, he heard keening and thrashing; the priest seemed to sleep badly, plagued by nightmares, unable to find a comfortable position, pushing away the cushions that were used to accommodate his injuries.
Thomas quietly announced his presence, poking his head through the door first, aware of the early hour. It seemed either the friar and his patient woke up simultaneously, or one woke the other, as Gerard regarded the younger man with languid blinks from his disheveled cot. His fine hair was mussed, the thin morning light lit up the dusting of stubble on the side of his cheek. Lack of sleep left its telltale dark marks under the priest’s eyes, but overall, he appeared much stronger.
“You look better?” Thomas offered awkwardly, appraising the priest, his visible bruises seemed much lighter, only a few yellow stains on his neck and cheek.
“I feel…less pain, yes. My hands, I think they are beginning to heal.” Gerard looked down, the splints came off of his wrists last evening, after only a week. Thomas glimpsed in the loose neck of the chemise the bandages on the shoulders that held the joints supported. The man lifted one bony hand and inch above the mattress and flexed his fingers, demonstrating the rate of the recovery. Even if the shoulders appeared still largely incapacitated, too weak to hold any weight, Gerard could now very awkwardly stand up on his own.
The priest’s attention turned to Brother Glynn, holding the platter of food for him. Gerard eyes considered the steaming mug of herbal brew, then tensed at the “threat” of a stew that the friar placed on the bedside table.
“Eating will help,” the medic encouraged. “Your body needs its strength.”
A reluctant smile pulled at the priest’s lips, brows crinkled in defeat. They helped him into a more seated position. All the while Gerard suspiciously eyed a nice thick, crusty slice of bread. Finally, he loudly proclaimed he could not possibly eat all of, and please, gentlemen, help yourself.
With a humoring sigh, the cleric relented and broke the bread into three even portions, (firmly) handing a bigger one over to Gerard, and the other to Thomas, who saw through the ruse. Brother Glynn then closed his gray eyes and lowered his face, giving a simple prayer in thanks for the meal.
The demure words exuded quiet surety of profound love and fealty to God. Gerard looked in front of himself with a complicated mix of sadness and tenderness in unfocussed eyes. The intimate and earnest connection the two men shared at that moment gnawed at Thomas. Was the way Brother Glynn loved God the same as his? Or Catesby’s? What would the kind friar or the pious priest think of their true intent? Where would this all lead them? He looked at Gerard’s tortured exhausted frame, remembered the torn bodies of Father Smith and Lady Dibdale now sharing an unmarked grave. If the plan fails, there will be no one to get them out of the Tower, or bury them...
Thomas made it a habit not to question a decision he already made. Yet he found it harder and harder to hold on to the faith, heart growing heavier with a cold, dull ache. The dread started to fill him up in a crushing wave; he ducked his head down lower and rubbed his hands against his face, chasing away the premonition. Joining the final words of the prayer, he breathed in sharply and raised his head, forcing a smile. Filling his mouth absently with dry bread, he watched the friar spoon-feed his patient.
A cup of tea thrust into his hand, Thomas dared to glance up, and caught Gerard studying him. He dipped his gaze back into the dark liquid.
Brother Glynn stood up to open the window to let in fresh (well…fresher) air.
“Are you alright, Lord Wintour?” A cautious quiet voice asked.
“Yes, of course,” Thomas said, cursing the priestly instincts.
“You were out quite late. Were you with Lord Catesby?”
“Yes, we had…an errand to run in another part of town. But I think we managed it alright,” he replied in a quiet mumble, busying himself with stray crumbs in his lap.
When he stole another look at Gerard, wide blue eyes shone sharply, reading his disposition.
“What troubles you, my son?” the priest finally asked. Brother Glynn also turned to him with a cocked round head. He looked like a balding sparrow.
Thomas felt an urge to confide in the two clerics, seek cowardly absolution before the sin was committed, secure at least some surety and council. Disgust welled up inside him at that selfish thought. He should tell them to run. To save that pure faith, to hold it close and to carry it as a beacon for people who needed the God’s love and deserved it.
“We will be alright. We have God on our side.” Thomas’s words did not sound true to himself. Blue eyes searched him, noticing something, and then noticing that Thomas was not ready to speak.
The priest let it slide without pressing, went quiet for a moment, then looked at the friar, back at Thomas as he finally said:
“I understand… maybe later…”
With all the miraculous improvement, Aziraphale was allowed more and more privacy. He had to figure out quite a few things about bodily functions, where in Crowley’s insight proved invaluable. Now he had it mostly worked out, and with more freedom of motion he fought for the right to not make the matter anymore public than absolutely necessary.
He could not walk well yet, it took a lot of effort to sit up and look out the window, but he insisted to witness at least the daily commotion of human life.
He watched Thomas clean Catesby’s horse outside, brushing down its heaving sides with straw. So, the Lord of the house had returned, and these were probably the heavier footsteps he heard a few moments ago. Wintour’s servant meanwhile was shoveling manure out of the stable into a neat pile in the yard to be taken away for fertilizer later. It was a nice quiet morning, even sunny by London’s low standard. The house was waking up in earnest now; he heard some clatter from the kitchen, shuffling footsteps up and down the stairs. Aziraphale’s nightmares were finally turning into mere transparent ghosts, brushing against his consciousness.
Thomas’s troubled expression kept coming back to his mind. The fear and worry on the young man’s face was ever more palpable the more he tried to hide it. It resonated with the heaviness growing in the angel’s chest. Confined to his room, trapped within the aching, alien body that demanded constant attention and degrading rituals to keep it alive. The angel had no prospect of investigating whatever troubling developments were happening outside of Catesby’s home.
Still unaware of the plan that brought him into this impossible situation, he was growing more and more restless. The sideway glances the other men shared when they would come to see him worried him immensely. The more he was actually with Catesby and his coconspirators the more he saw their youth, the multitude of injuries they and their families suffered from the hands of Cecil’s politics, the persecution by the crown. And while Father Garnet was an obvious coward, Catesby’s intimidating focus on the false angelic visitation staged by Crowley, unnerved the angel. So did the constant insistence on Aziraphale’s contributions to the “cause”.
What help was he now to anyone?
He shifted, feeling his aching muscles protest the movement, and almost fell out of the chair. Barely managing to steady himself with his slow feet, his hands slipped off his lap like two heavy broken branches, pulling mercilessly at the mangled shoulder joints. This form! This immovable, weak form! It was so…limited! Why, why was he trapped in it? Who was against him to curse him this way? He managed to pull the arms up with a painful effort.
Crowley assured him Hell was not the source of the curse, and that he was not Fallen… and Aziraphale just… believed his word. As he always did. Crowley… The demon’s handsome face loomed in Aziraphale’s memory. Smug, always there when you least expect him. Persuading him to agree to the arrangement. Which was also Crowley’s plan. Why did he ever trust a demon? A player for the other side? Was his “friendship” a larger ploy, for a larger infernal plan? Was the arrangement a part of this ploy?
Just accidentally running into him just after he discovered his predicament! Imagine that!
Crowley was healing him. It did not feel wrong… Oh Heavens… Aziraphale prayed under his breath out of habit, rather than any hope.
How could they truly ever believe no one would notice the connection they created, the link.
What if someone did?
Still, why turn him human? Humans…
Humans died all the time. Another fever, plague, undercooked bad meat, a fall off the stairs; every moment of their lives was filled with perils and pitfalls.
What if he died? Aziraphale felt how his insides froze at the thought. What would happen to his soul…?
As an angel or a demon, infinite being, when they were destroyed, they were destroyed finitely. Very few things could accomplish that; only holy water, or the fires of Hell.
Something stirred in the back of Aziraphale’s mind, unnerving him… It was a memory from another turbulent time. Elizabeth’s first decade or so on the throne, some forty years ago… Aziraphale forgot when was there ever a peaceful century on this Earth. The backlash towards Mary’s reign of terror, Catholics again driven underground, prosecution gaining momentum. Aziraphale was involved in a heavenly investigation. An angel’s mangled empty female vessel washed up on the bank of the Thames, but the soul was never recovered. At the time, they assumed reincarnation, Hell proved its noninvolvement. And there was no other option… but… what if… there was another possibility.
Aziraphale felt a wave of panic, adrenalin… yes… breathe…
He shook his head, chasing away the oppressing darkness of his thoughts and failing, his throat spasming around shallow breaths. Too many things went through his head, his mind clinging to the worst of them. The bloated face of a drowned corpse incorporated all his fears into one grisly image.
Would he die? Eventually, if no one manages to restore him… would he parish?
…or would death liberate him?
Just then, the laws of narrative causality took pity on him, Aziraphale heard a high-pitched wail outside. Automatically his face turned towards the disturbance. A child, not yet of an apprenticeship age, a toddler son from the neighboring shop was charmed from the street by Catesby’s handsome brown horse. Spooked by the animal’s nicker, he tripped over the watering bucket, falling onto his bum into a spreading puddle of water mixing with manure. Thomas picked the boy up and was brushing him off, or, smearing the horse crap over him more evenly (it depended on how you looked at it). A woman came running, recognizing from the other end of the street that peculiar tone of your own distressed child. A soothing coo of her voice quieted the fledgling siren, “there-there’s” dissolving the moans of pain to quiet sniffles. The angel realized he was sniffling as well, and felt by now familiar sting of tears in his eyes. Intrinsic angelic empathy overwhelmed him.
Humans knew even less than he did what waited beyond the veil. They went about their daily lives, hoping and praying for justice in the afterlife, but never truly knowing what the next step was. This panic he felt, the helplessness, he realized… humans felt it daily, yet how, how did they meet every new day with this blank terror of the unknown? How did they have enough faith to bring the precious young into the world? How did they dare to love…
He understood, finally, that he would have to do the most human thing possible – and hope. He would hope Crowley would help him, hope he would be restored, and hope for a good path for Catesby and his group to follow. What else could any human do?
Aziraphale settled, not necessarily comfortably, into his newfound respect for humanity.
Crowley looked out of the dark window onto the barely distinguishable inner yard of the Whitehall palace. Guards under the lanterns, faintly glowing windows of the opposite adjacent buildings, ghostly beneath squat dark roofs. Cecil was working late again. The small man sat at his desk, ears deep in papers, secret communiques, reports from his spies. He pretended to ignore Crowley, who had sprawled himself in a chair in front of the politician, looking to the side and onto the rainy, unwelcoming street, thinking about all the other tasks he’d rather be doing at the moment, instead of entertaining the Beagle. He should have the spell circle, and the few fineries of the Brother Bob spell mastered soon enough (if only he could get time to study). Bored and becoming fidgety in the dull silence, Crowley thought it best to needle his companion.
“You made a missstake,” the demon annunciated calmly. “The Ssspanish played you.”
“The intercepted letter was a red herring,” the man’s calm voice did not betray any emotion. He met his own reflection at an angle in the demon’s spectacles. “But nothing is lost yet.” A pause followed, in which Crowley returned his attention to the tired man in front of him. Cecil continued. “What young and passionate King Phillip wants and what his country truly needs are two different things, My Lord, and The Constable understands that better than anyone. Better than his King…” Cecil shrugged, and even allowed himself a smirk. It was a rare display of emotion, almost giving humanity to the unattractive face.
“So it all begins now.” Crowley cocked his head. Cecil nodded. “You need to be weary of de Goya. Something is not quite right with him.”
“Oh, you noticed as well, my lord?” The demon ignored the condescending aftertaste of Cecil’s words, and stood up in one languid elegant motion that propelled his slim body upwards, arranged shapely limbs into a perfect stature, opened his chest, straightened his shoulders, reminding Cecil who was the unfortunate leftover, fallen off the table of creation. He turned on his heels and sauntered out, dripping with deliberation.
The king’s summons stopped him halfway to his room as he was picking up the pace, a brown book, like a hot potato burned in his pocket. A pageboy called out his name, in a stuttering admiring voice. As Crowley’s attention turned to him, he reported that his majesty demanded him to be escorted to his chambers.
The demon’s perfect brow rose over the rim of the spectacles. He dusted his clothes off, shedding the tedium of politics. As an afterthought, he took a moment to magic the book into his table drawer under a lock no human could pick, just in case he had to undress. Then he headed after the messenger.
King James was restless, measuring his quarters from one corner to another in slightly limping, brisk steps. “Giddy” would have been a more appropriate adjective, but his majesty would have anyone flogged for using it. James’s temper was not famous for tolerance. Despite decidedly not being giddy, he jumped a little at the anticipated knock, barking the visitor in. Lord Crawley did not disappoint, making a fine show of flinging the doors open and striding in with a gliding gait, which appeared to the king almost serpentine.
The king felt a smile tug at one corner of his thinly pursed mouth, mood lifting somewhat.
“Your Majesssty!” Crowley’s habitual hint of a hiss always did a number on James’s insides. It reminded him of the more unguarded, uninhibited moments they shared.
“You came,” the king responded, as if there was any other option. Crowley bowed. The king shooed the boy away with a very royal flick of a narrow wrist, without sparing a glance. A soft quiet thump of the heavy doors marked the page’s disappearance.
Crowley turned his attention to the man in front of him. King James was neither too attractive, nor overly unpleasant. The demon grew fond of the pallid intellectual face with attentive eyes and telltale frown-lines. He had an unmistakable sense of character behind bland features and mousy coloring. Like many monarchs, his family history (both bloody and riddled with inbreeding) had scarred him for life with paranoia. In his particular case, James, despite his education and overall indifferent approach to religion, could never shake off the fear of witches. He even penned an impressive tome on witch-trials, which Crowley read with utter curiosity, half enthralled by the man’s imagination, half feeling second-hand embarrassment for humanity. His majesty was indeed opinionated. Unfortunately, the king’s obsession provided a leverage to Cecil’s manipulations.
As soon as the page closed the heavy doors behind himself, the king took a decisive step towards the demon and looked up into the handsome face. Crowley returned the gaze, filtered through the tinted shades. James lifted his hand and unhooked the glasses from Crowley’s demurely pointy ears. A muttered camouflage spell ensured that during the tete-a-tete, when James looked into the reptilian, yellow eyes of a hell spawn, he saw only a deep amber brown.
“It has been so long…” the king trailed off, raising a hand to the demon’s face, tracing one sharp cheekbone. Seeing Lord Crowley’s eyes, seeing him in his chambers unaccompanied by a flock of other courtiers driven by political agenda, excited him. What had it been… months..? The king was constantly censored in his affections by Cecil, who even forced him to pen some sharp paragraphs on the topic of Sodom’s sin, condemning the (quote-unquote) abhorrent practice. But it was an open secret at the court and judging by the Spanish embassy, outside of it as well. James hardly cared. In his world, he took what he wanted. But… not with Lord Anthony J. Crowley. It was not that he looked like… him, but he felt like… him. Taken away too soon…
“I hear, Lord Carr serves you so diligently, and—”
“I received the book”, cutting through Crowley’s polite attempt to reinstate distance with a non sequitur, the king cocked his head and smiled a relaxed, confident smile.
“I hope it fills a few of your eveni— ”, a finger to his lips silenced Crowley. The king’s hand caressed his cheek, and slid further, around his neck, encouraging the demon to bend lower.
“You talk too much, Anthony…”
“I am afraid that’s my job…” The demon smiled, playing coy, pulling away and feeling the pressure of the fingers on the nape of his neck.
Crowley thought back to the tanned, attractive face of de Goya. He hadn’t seen the emissary interact with the king outside of their… intimate encounter. The man did not show any signs of discomfort, when they shared a nonsensical conversation about weather of all things, after the audience was over. The Constable must have been in the know; after all, the two handsome men were obviously a part of their promotional campaign.
Indeed, a convenient quickie with the needy monarch may reinstate the power balance, at least for now. The demon’s bibliophilic bait had brought the vector of royal attention back to him. Anything was better than allowing James to become ensnared in whatever game the Spaniards were playing. It had been a while… Crowley pulled away from the pressure and warmth of the king’s hand, and settled himself deep within his human vessel, cutting off all sensory input, relying on muscle memory and reflexes.
Reaching for the waiting mouth with his own lips, he stalled, breathing in the king’s air (a necessity when going undercover, as opposed to only breathing to produce words, people notice when you do not breathe or have no pulse while screwing someone into the mattress).
The demon stared at his own hand on the royal chest. Deft fingers automatically slid under the elaborate lacy collar of the opulent doublet, searching out the buttons. He could not feel the sleek cool brocade or rough raised lines of the embroidery with the numbed fingertips, but he could not tear his eyes away from the motion. Yesterday his fingers splayed like that on a narrow chest, steeping in the warmth of a malfunctioning human vessel, opening a portal between his essence and the core of the angel. He was welcomed, embraced by a crippled yet profound spirit.
Soon the same hand would touch the angelic sternum again. Same hand that was planning today to venture beyond completely different horizons. Crowley’s eyes appraised the kings light figure. The man, used to compliance, did not try to conceal his intent, now visibly growing against the fashion forward buttons of Crowley’s breeches.
Crowley closed his eyes, ending up in an empty sepia tinted space between his ears that monitored what the body was doing. Even no longer looking out of his own eyes, the deepening kiss seemed wrong for some unintelligible but persistent reason. Crowley pulled away, catching the unnecessary breath. Why?
He knew the king’s mouth leaned in and up, but navigated the vessel to the side, king’s lips finding purchase on his neck, worrying the tendon in an attempt to leave a mark. While he was preoccupied with the unexpected dilemma, his subconscious magic weaved a spell. Suddenly Crowley was being shoved away. The king yelped and jumped onto the bed. Crowley blinked, refocusing his vision and tactile senses. Just under his feet a healthy and well-fed and very familiar looking brown rat scampered, stopped, sat on its hinder legs, evaluating the panting human clinging to the bedpost and then looked up to his demonic master, who had called him out. The shapeshifted Bentley, nodded respectfully, then scurried under the table. Crowley blinked, a luxury his human vessel afforded him.
“Dirty animal!” The king flayed his hand in the general direction of the offending hell-beast, presently shaped like a standard issue medieval domestic rodent. Crowley half-heartedly flung a cushion under the table, hearing a squeak and a sound of a swift evacuation.
“It’s gone, your majesty.”
“It may come back… it must be a curse… they are always after me!” The king regressed from a confident man into a fanciful child, who blamed the horrors that plagued his life on supernatural hostile forces. Crowley wondered idly, as he let the king grab and pull at his sleeve, if reincarnating as European royalty was some kind of punishment in a Buddhist worldview. “Witches…”
The monarch settled on the bed, pulling Crowley closer, while his eyes searched across the room, squinting at the shadows. “I need more candles, call the guards… no! Stay, stay, come here…”
Crowley lowered himself onto the bed, the king’s lips slid against his jaw. Having forgotten to switch the senses off, the demon was caught off guard. He suppressed the shudder and slid back into the observation mode, thoughts running through his mind. He did not do it on purpose; his demonic nature took the better of him, conjuring an escape route out of a situation, which should not have posed a problem in the first place.
At the moment, while the king’s hand frantically attempted to undo the suddenly unyielding buttons of his breeches, an urgent knock sounded from the other side of the door. The king’s brows rose, hand sliding away from Crowley’s crotch, and he asked in a still shaking voice, “Who is it?”
“Majesty, it is me, your Robert!”
Lord Carr, who was in his quarters preparing for bed just a few moments ago, felt an unparalleled urge to explore the limits of carnal desire with the king right that instant. Fortunately, for Crowley, the young man’s rooms were very close to the object of his affections.
The door cracked open, and meeting no resistance verbal or otherwise, opened to reveal the disheveled young man, looking perfectly desirable in his loosely tied oriental gown and mussed blond hair. Feverish eyes with blown up pupils evaluated the tableau, and headed straight for the half-standing monarch, who moved away from Crowley automatically on a reflex, instilled in him through the years of hiding.
“Crowley—” the king squeaked, reaching for the tall man, who stood up with obvious intention to leave.
“I shall not impose upon your recuperation from such unfortunate shock, your majesty, my lord…” Crowley bowed in hasty retreat, flinging a glamour charm at young Robert on his way out. On cue, the king’s gaze turned to the face of his favorite, who already put his knee on the bed, and reached, for the royal hand lowering the hot lips to still twitching fingers. The spell lit the young man’s stormy grey eyes on fire, and gave his skin an iridescent, delectable glow that king’s mouth immediately gravitated to.
Why? Crowley asked himself as he closed the door behind himself, assessing the guards at the end of an empty corridor and listening to the sound of rustling clothes, whispered hurried words, and wet smacks and slurps that filtered from the room.
Receiving no answer, he did what Crowley always did in such situations. He ignored it. It would sort itself out. It always did… one way or another. He saluted stone-faced soldiers, the reluctant witnesses to the king’s private life.
The tall pines rose into the grey-blue sky, sparse canopies swayed in the breeze, creaking and swooshing. Underneath, shorter trees and shrubbery spread liberally, with signs of autumn in the changing hue of its leaves. Wade noticed gooseberry, a rare sight in these parts, round green berries with sparse whiskers ripening in heavy bunches under the sandpapery leaves. He marked the spot in his mind, to come back for saplings. The end of summer brought gentle chill into the air of the forest. Cecil trudged on ahead, following the faint path, strewn with pine needles. They crunched with uneven rhythm of his limping, unsteady gait. Wade walked, adjusting to the master’s slow pace, scanning the surroundings, part to see if anyone was following them to their meeting place, part taking note of the rich plant life. Lord Wade worked hard to conceal his surprising pastime – plants fascinated him. Gardening helped him to keep his sanity, or what was left of it, functioning though the drudgery of hate and pain of his day-to-day life. This was hardly what his old mother wanted for him. At least her lilacs bloomed every May in fragrant purple bunches around the house that used to be theirs, and was now his.
Lord Wade returned his gaze to the lopsided, hunched back of his master. Cecil was not cruel or abusive with him; he never flaunted their hierarchical relationship. King James’s Beagle was in a strange way, respectful to the men who served him, knowing how to manipulate them with the knowledge of the horrors he may unleash balanced out by the promise of the reward to be gained from obedience. Despite his mangled body that served as a butt of cruel jokes and nicknames, Cecil’s mind had been revered from an early age; first by his father and later by his royal employers. Somehow, Cecil managed to hold onto the pride in his wits and sense of superiority that shaped him into a ruthless tyrant, without developing the handicap of wounded pride, in need of petty vindication. Something that was not past King James. Wade respected the man, and followed him, glad for the Cecil-shaped filter between him, his interrogation office, and the sodomite king.
Currently they were on the way to the rendezvous with the Constable of Castile. The sparse forest provided them with a safe space, transparent enough to see any spy from afar, although to begin with, it should not be a problem.
The Spanish were waiting for them already, including the Constable, his secretary and the tall young man, whom Wade disliked. From Cecil he heard that the king fancied him, so he gave the foreigner a good once over as per protocol. Wade failed to understand the appeal of a male body, or the complexities and perils of the Sodomites’ liaisons. Softness and ease, and above all eagerness is what he looked for in his lovers, having seen too much violence day in and day out. Miguel de Goya therefore looked to him like any other handsome man, tall, sinewy, each movement spoke of some military training. Only de Goya’s eyes were strange, too light for a Spaniard, and too light for anyone. From afar, it seemed he had no irises, only pupils, pinpricked in the sunlight. Wade shrugged. Then he thought back to Lord Crowley, and shrugged again, recognizing king’s taste. He did not like Crowley either. It figured…
Wade nodded at the tall Spaniard, bowed to the dignitaries and fell back with de Goya, while the three old men walked a few paces to secure privacy to their conversation.
Cecil was sweating despite the chill of approaching autumn. A walk would not tax him that much in normal circumstances, but the uneven treacherous terrain weighted his every step. The tight, heavy brocades he was obliged to wear, constricted the movement of his misshapen body. Sweat beaded over his brows, soaked the fine linen chemise, concealed under the layers of ill-fitting silks. He wanted to sit down, however, allowing himself such weakness in front of the rivals was inconceivable. Compromising, he took a swig of tonic from his flask.
The niceties had been exchanged, seemingly more ritualistic than even in audience with the king… as if they were not hiding in the corner of the forest, plotting.
“I understand the issue of safe passage through the English Channel concerns his majesty, King Phillip gravely?” Cecil cut to the chase after the small talk about the benefits of fresh air, a recent medical hypothesis that Cecil was not fully convinced of.
“Somewhat,” The Constable said, allowing his dark impressive brow to rise over the shrewd crinkled eye. “But the fate of our Catholic brothers pains his Majesty’s heart even more.”
“More than the bloodletting that the war gives to the Spanish purse?” Leaning on the tall slender pine tree, Cecil wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
The Constable winced, but did not comment on the choice of words. He lowered his head, feigning confidentiality.
“The English purse, I hear, may equally benefit with the end of the war…”
“Currently Catholic taxes sponsor the war. Maybe, if you comply, and take all the benefits that Channel and British ports may offer you, the Catholic plight will lighten on its own”.
“Oh, my king will rejoice at this hopeful message!” The Constable bowed with exaggerated elegance. They bargained for a while, milking the potential agreement, skirting the semantics, juggling the benefits. Cecil felt the strain of the uncomfortable meeting place more and more. There was one more thing that he had to assure. And it will not be pretty, but of course the fidgety man would comply.
“There is something I will need to ask of you. You must understand, only for the benefit of the Catholic brothers.”
“How may I lessen their burden?”
“I hear that the priest, who goes by the name of Father Garnet…” Cecil watched for signs of recognition from the Constable, but got none. “This esteemed Jesuit may be in unfortunate possession of information about a plot against his Majesty”.
“It must be very perilous and inconvenient for Father… ?”
“Garnet. Very easy to confuse with Father Gerard. I hear that man is an agent of the Vatican. He recently escaped from the Tower of London. They are not the same person… you understand…”
“Indeed, the names sound similar. But who are these unfortunate gentlemen?”
“Your Catholic brothers. Misguided, doubtless out of their best intentions, they had been implicated in a heinous crime by a truly vile man by the name of Robert Catesby!” Cecil glimpsed the widening of the man’s dark eyes at the name. He hit the mark. “I need information on what Robert Catesby is planning.” Turning to face the Constable, he deadpanned, discarding pretense: “Give it to me, and you will get your safe passage and you can dock in our ports. I will even leave the Jesuits alive, take them. You need us, you need The Channel. If not, we will destroy your every ship, we will sink anything under Spanish flag appearing along our coasts. We will bleed the Catholics dry to win. the. war. We will salt your land.”
Wade watched from afar the familiar site; the small man grew, like a shadow of death, filling the eyes of the Spanish ambassadors. He glanced at de Goya, whose gaze was glued to his master. The Constable looked at the young man imploringly, and got a small nod in return. Wade felt a cold shiver run down his spine at the empty soulless look that fixed the lopsided figure. Whatever leverage Cecil thought he got just now, would come at a cost.
The Spaniards left first. Cecil lowered himself heavily onto a tree stump, when they disappeared from the view. He looked up at Wade, who was offering his own flask with strong homemade herbal liqueur – a medicine and a mood enhancer. One of the perks of Wade’s botanical prowess. Cecil took it without pretense, and made several sips, before handing the flask back.
“Can you trail de Goya?”
“We tried. Some men end up losing him, others turn up dead.”
Cecil did not react. Wade did not push his luck.
Birds sang something cheerful in the airy canopy of the forest. The sky was grey now, but it did not feel like rain, just the wind got a shade cooler. The road back will be longer, Wade through stuffing his flask into the sack on his shoulder. Lord Cecil never took an offered hand for fear of having to give back.
Letting his human senses take measure of the cooling air out his chamber window, Crowley decided to wear a heavier coat and grey layers to keep up human appearances. Even though it was cold, the hallowed brown book kept his chest warm, nestled in his coat pocket. He slipped out a piece of chalk from his desk drawer, his blood-red sigil etched across the white side. He had the mark especially emblazoned and delivered by a glossy, three-eyed raven, who gleefully took a payment of salamander tails for his services. He had high hopes that the sigil would amplify the strength of the spell and give a more concrete direction than what was described in Brother Bob’s journal. There was, also, a danger of the spell rebounding or even rejecting its caster, as Crowley was technically a hell spawn (He never really agreed to any of it!).
He felt in an especially good mood walking through the polished wood hallway of the palace, his feet irresistibly bouncing on each step. He managed not to hum, a strange human tick that annoyed him to no end. As he walked through the colder, stone-walled servants’ quarters, exiting through a weathered side door absently left opened by a frantic cook, he realized his own light mood and questioned what exactly did he have to be “happy” about? He may be sauntering off to his own destruction, or the angel’s… no, he’d get it right. Undoubtedly. There’s no way he’d made a miscalculation in his interpretation of the spell. For a moment, he thought back to the healing spell he’d applied to the angel a few days ago, and remembered a notion of…exhilaration? Something… no, nothing. It was very interesting, the spell, and knitting Aziraphale’s weakened form was… insightful to him. Since that day, their link had strangely intensified. One night, while besting a courtier at a card game of Triumph, he had suffered a twinge of solemn contemplation that he knew did not belong to him. The royalist took his million-yard stare as drunkenness and took advantage by winning the game. The blindsided demon took note of the man’s name for the future retaliation.
Crowley’s smile dissipated as he crossed the courtyard. He wondered if the bond was permanent. Maybe he should try to… no, he couldn’t undo it. Not now, anyways. Aziraphale couldn’t get himself out of his deep-burrowed disaster at this point. That made him vulnerable… both of them. They would both feel better when this entire Catesby incident was behind them and they could go on their usual semi-separate ways.
He had expected to receive his stallion at the side gate of the palace, but instead he found the Spanish carriage returning from some unscheduled outing. The whole affair was made all the more suspicious by the weight of the glances he felt on himself as the servants aided the ambassador and his emissaries out of the carriage. Crowley did his compulsory bow then swept a look across the yard to notice a commotion in the stables. An argument between the servants was in progress, how entertaining! One of the involved stable hands had promised the demon he’d have Bentley ready for him to ride.
Jacob, a young man in his teens, was pushed up against the door of one of the stalls as the stablemaster Matthew threw curses at him that would have made Moloch blush. A quivering rider’s crop was trained at the youth’s head. In Crowley’s peripheral vision, Miguel de Goya appeared to be observing the argument too. The demon found the attention unnerving and bothersome, and wished that the bloody stablemaster would bring out his horse or put away the carriage already. He sucked his teeth for a moment… It really wasn’t Crowley’s thing to break up domestic disputes with the servants… but the argument was getting louder and more melodramatic (perfect, in Crowley’s book, but currently inconvenient). It was turning more and more heads. Fed up, Crowley strode over to the entrance and asked what the problem was in an exasperated tone.
“This dolt before ye, Milord, has lost yer stallyen,” The stablemaster cried, grabbing the man by his shirt. “That horse ‘es wirth more than yee!”
“I swear, Milord the fine black horse was here, in the front stable!”
“Ye bastard, dun lie! How were’t not ‘ere then?”
Crowley sighed deeply, knowing the answer. Bentley was still somewhere in the palace as a rat. Absorbed in Brother Bob’s spell, he himself had forgot to recall the animal to the stables. It slipped his mind when he told Matthew to get his horse ready. He made a call to his familiar with a nearly inaudible click. On cue, a plump brown rat scurried out of a pile of hay in the corner, a half-eaten pig foot, twice its size, in its mouth. It hustled through the stables and, looking guilty back at his master, dove under one of the stable doors further down.
“There’s no need for such dramatics,” Crowley drawled, ready for the country play to be over and everyone go back to work. Between the shouts, he could hear someone approaching behind him, walking in a straight line from the carriage.
“Nay, Lord, this sinful creature be a liar and need corr-“
“The Andalusian is back there, Senores,” a cool voice said behind them. The three of the players looked back to de Goya’s imposing figure, who was pointing straight forward at a box stable nearby the carriage hold. There, the handsome black stallion who appeared to be walking in circles and making a great show of being present.
Crowley was about to let drip an acidic insult regarding certain nearsighted stablemasters, but before words formed, Matthew raised up his whip again, arching it in one fragment of a second to bring down its violence to the stable hand’s face.
The abusing hand never reached its destination, paralyzed by Miguel’s grasp, who twisted his wrist out, curling the man’s finger’s away from the battered tool. Matthew’s curse died in his throat, crying out himself as the angle of the twist sharpened.
“This has been ‘entertaining’ to watch, but do you think you can spare us your attention, Senor? We have been waiting…patiently,” Miguel said, still watching the horse’s fluid movements. He let go, pushing away the stableman as if batting off a fly. Matthew caught his stance, shuffling in the hay and breathing heavily. He looked up with a murderous glare at the foreigner.
“Thank you, Matthew,” Crowley said, a scant offer of consolation at the Spanish man’s abuse. He didn’t particularly enjoy the unexpected alliance, but he was more concerned with courtly networking than soothing the man’s bruised ego.
The stablemaster regarded both of them, then brusquely told Joseph to bring the horse out, and slumped back to the carriage to guide the waiting horses to their resting place.
“Apologies. So hard to get good help these days,” Crowley muttered to the Spaniard, not really sure what else to say. De Goya picked up the riding crop and studied its pliancy, seeing to be in no hurry, despite what he had said. Why wasn’t he going back to The Constable? “Can I asssssisst you with something else?”
“I have heard about your horse. I wish to see it, if it’s not too much trouble.” Strange, the man still hadn’t fully looked at him. Didn’t he have someplace to be? Crowley feigned delight at the idea.
Joseph, with a somber, straight walk, brought the saddled Bentley out to the front of the stable. The black horse nearly cantered up to his master and nuzzled him with a force that pushed him half a step back. The demon chuckled to himself, brushing off the hay from the creature’s glossy hair to show the Spaniard his shapeshifting familiar.
“An Andalusian. Magnificent,” Miguel said, silently following the path of Crowley’s hands running his bare fingers across the muscular length of the black stallion’s neck. “Do you prefer Spanish breed?”
“I prefer this horse,” Crowley said, fixing the stable hand’s sloppy strapping of the reigns. “I’ve had him for… ages.”
Crowley felt a pressure on his side, and turned his head to find De Goya at his shoulder. The gap was immeasurably close between them now. It was not possible to pull away discreetly, politely. Crowley wondered at the translucent silver of his eyes. What an unlikely hue, considering the burnished, dusky color of his skin, the dark wisps of his goatee. The contrast was unnerving, even more when those eyes turned attention to him.
“An unparalleled delight… riding a… Spanish…” Miguel whispered into his ear, lips almost touching the skin. The contact chilled him and he had to stop himself from disconnecting his senses right there, unsettled by the forced intimacy… Instead, he pulled back the muscles of his face into a smile, and whispered in return:
“Care to elaborate?”
Luckily, Crowley’s tongue moved faster than his mind (there was much empirical evidence to support the statement). At the offer, Miguel let the riding crop in his hand discreetly touch the inside of Crowley thigh, a triumphant grin spreading over his face. The come on was such a blatant cliché; he had to hold his breath not to laugh. The demon felt momentary relief, now understanding the man’s odd intensity as an attempt at seduction. He wondered at James’s—did he enjoy this lack of subtlety? Then he answered his own question, why yes, as he’d seen it in action. The Machiavellian portion of his mind screamed at him to reciprocate, quickly. The emissary was both in the pocket of The Constable and was crawling into the King of England’s other pocket quite quickly. It would be best to feign interest, intimacy with such an ally in the great game they all played.
Bentley, who had managed to stay very patient for the past several minutes of this nonsense, swatted the back of his master’s head with a thwip of his long tail. Crowley then remembered where he was meant to be and made apologies that he simply must go to a scheduled appointment, but maybe they could discuss further later. He swooped up onto the horse and, looking down to Miguel who made a delicate bow at his feet, which Crowley reciprocated as best as he could on top of a horse.
Leaving the courtyard, he again passed the Spanish carriage and the Constable. He stopped to give a compulsory slight touch of his hat, which was followed up by Bentley’s well-timed bowel movement onto the polished stones. The Constable sneered something like a smile, ultimately soured by the heady earthy smell. Feeling lighter, the beautiful Andalusian trotted out to the courtyard.
As Crowley passed through the stone entrance, he absently flicked his hand back, throwing a curse of pubic lice on the stablemaster for wasting so much of his time.
Aziraphale was expecting Crowley. He got the message through the link, the smugness leaching through the ether. Still it brought comfort.
In the morning, the household was buzzing. Someone “invited” the doctor, but if Aziraphale would ask who, they would not be able to reply. So he did not ask. Thomas helped to dust the room before he left. Brother Glynn pulled out some more small dark glass vials with mysterious preparations he wanted the serpent’s opinion on.
A tired Catesby dropped by, promising Aziraphale that they would talk this evening. He lowered to his knees and asked for a benediction. So close, Aziraphale felt the man’s breath on his hands, warm and moist. The angel whispered a prayer for him to find solace and be guided by the God’s love, making a lopsided sign of cross with stiff fingers. Thomas watched on and made a sign of cross over himself.
Both cousins left early; they were away a lot these days, and each day the black circles around their tired eyes grew in diameter and deepened in hue. By noon, the house quieted down.
Aziraphale slept better tonight, nightmares finally letting go of him. He woke up with pain a few times, but Brother Glynn accommodated him with cushions and soothed him back to sleep. Aziraphale’s resolve vacillated, glum thoughts lapping at the edges of his mind – he fought them off. He was learning to hope, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. It was only two days since his newfound realization. He focused on his body, on the diminishing pain, on the feeling of satiety when he ate, on the strange relief he felt when the excess liquid left his body. One moment, he hated the obscenity of it. Another, he marveled at the engineering prowess of God. Then he dismayed at Her odd sense of humor.
He waited for Crowley, the only link he had to the supernatural, if not celestial…
And he was afraid.
The sun was high in the sky, but the day was overcast. The light filtering through the wrinkled window was grey. Aziraphale entertained himself with finding ways to open the window with his current disability. It took him several tries to get a purchase on the knob, slide his other hand along the secured forearm to unhook the simple lock with shaky fingers, and finally, push at the glass with his whole forearm, finding the angle not to stress his shoulder. Looking out onto the street, he sat, breathing in the smells that the breeze brought from the stable, from the kitchens, latrines… At least the wind was not from the river today; they were spared the brunt of the potent reek from the poisoned Thames.
He saw Crowley appear on a horse at the end of the street. Bentley’s slender legs measured the cobbles with a silvery clop. The angel lost himself for a moment, marveling at the majesty of the God’s creation. The Andalusian shook the silky mane, slowing down at the gentle nudge of his master. Aziraphale smiled to himself, then he remembered whose creation was in front of him. Crowley felt his gaze and waved at him prettily, sliding out of the saddle with a flourish and dropping the reins. Bentley blew a raspberry and proceeded into the stable in search of food. Crowley’s black silhouette disappeared through the door. Soon his steps sounded on the stairs accompanied by the shuffling gait of the friar.
It was long few days.
A conversation, started downstairs, entering the angel’s room before the two men did. Crowley’s drawl, Brother’s soft hurried chatter. The door creaked open. Aziraphale watched with a smile how the demon found himself holding a cup of tea and sitting in the chair, before he even had a chance to greet the infirmed. He nodded, and stifled a chuckle, catching the serpent’s exasperated gaze from behind the ever-present shades. They were continuing to talk about some herb mixture the “doctor” had brought the friar, and how he should try steeping it with the willowbark tea to increase its potency. Brother Glynn seemed very enthusiastic, sniffing the packets and turning them over in his hand. He was happy to grant his patient privacy, while he experimented with a new brew in the kitchen.
“Alone at last,” Crowley smirked. Without haste, he breathed out an incantation, sealing the doors and soundproofing the room. Besides distracting the friar, another mild charm would convince the household that any noises or lights coming from the room didn’t exist, if it came to that. The tertiary characters would find themselves occupied till Crowley released the charm.
Aziraphale nodded suddenly unsure, feeling his heartrate rise as the spell locked them inside the room. The demon came closer, and allowed himself onto the bed. He looked the “patient” over.
“You are healing well.” Crowley proprietarily opened the angel’s shirt and checked the shoulders, making the sullen face wince. “It is amazing… I wonder if it is because the body is a vessel… if I cure you even more, it would look too much like a miracle…” He curiously rubbed at the stubble on the angel’s chin – it felt sandpapery. There was a crumb stuck in a wheaty whisker, he flicked it off.
“Oh, I am not sure if I would mind, really…” Aziraphale lowered his head, slanting his eyes to follow Crowley’s fingers.
“Come on, angel, be a good sport…” The demon rearranged his loose collar neatly and gave it a pat.
“I know, I know… I just feel so… useless…”
Shapely black brow rose and then lowered above a complicated long gaze, but no words came out. The demon even opened his mouth, cleared his throat, and closed the mouth again. Comfort was never his forte. True of his self-serving nature, he gave up before trying.
“I found the spell,” he said; at least he tried to placate his patient with gifts.
The demon placed Brother Bob’s memoirs into Aziraphale’s hands, opened at the right page, dog-eared.
“What is THIS?!” The angel gawked, and almost cursed the inability to simply page through the unexpected treasure just landing in his lap. He looked at the spell. “What magic is this?”
“Creational… I think…”
“God’s own magic, I have never… Who was this man?”
“God’s bosom buddy? We don’t have too much time, please, take a look. You can peruse further later.”
Aziraphale read through the spell and the ritual, marveling at the unfamiliar yet familiar magic. His hands shook, well, more than usual.
“You have the chalk?” he whispered reverently.
“Candles?” it dawned at him very slowly and vaguely, that the demon brought the book to him, for him… he looked up at the indifferent smug face, covered with impenetrable shades.
“Shooore,” the serpent drawled; you could see his forked tongue for a moment.
“Should we then… you know…” Aziraphale swallowed nervously. “…do it?”
“Can’t see why not.” Crowley said, shrugging.
Aziraphale settled in the bed, his legs sliding past Crowley under the covers. The demon took his glasses off, blinking at the angel, as his vertical pupils shrunk and then dilated again, adjusting to the light. Aziraphale instinctively jerked away, the familiar yellow too much of a reminder on whose mercy he now depended. Crowley’s eyes fell shut. With a snap of his fingers, the chalk on the demon’s palm started to shrink. Fiery lines ran around them, enclosing them in intricate beautiful circle of patterns, ancient words and sigils. Aziraphale gasped. Crowley smirked full of himself, now looking at his perfect handiwork.
“You think this is enough?”
The demon slid off the bed to place the candles at the tips of the windrose like eight-point star. Then he snapped again to light them. Aziraphale choked at the rush of pure power that whispered passed them. Neither angelic nor demonic, just pure power of Creation that had no vector – the raw material of … everything. Crowley looked shaken as well; he blinked it off without a comment.
“Right… now…” He relocated himself on the bed, looked the angel in the eyes, and placed his hand flat on the narrow chest into the open collar. Aziraphale put up a brave front while his heart thrashed under Crowley’s palm like a trapped canary.
“If…if I don’t…”
“Sorry, I don’t know… what… just do it!”
Crowley allowed himself a grounding breath, and nodded at the angel. Aziraphale closed his eyes, and felt the moment when Crowley started to read the spell. The power manifested instantaneously, seeking to fit the intent. Both of them entered into the spell, as in the shallow of the sea, the waves pulling them further in, lapping at their legs, knees, raising higher, until they both immersed. Aziraphale cried out, not hearing his own voice, only the reverberating toll of Crowley’s words.
The demon finished the incantation, and in the sudden echoing stillness, the spell took its shape.
Neither of them were ready for it. Nothing could prepare them either. One moment Crowley did not know what or who he was, and the next all that was, was him. Them. He gasped into the ether, no, into Aziraphale. Aziraphale was everywhere, the warm, comforting, encompassing light, a prism that focused God’s love, breaking it into a rainbow of unimaginable colors. An Angel Of God. Behind that – the shape of the prism, that was only Aziraphale, incomprehensible and familiar. Never, before or after the Fall, had Crowley seen anything more truly beautiful.
Crowley felt the aching emptiness within himself lean into that light, slide against it, soaking up the warmth, the almost forgotten sense of belonging that was taken from him at the Fall.
And then, he heard Aziraphale’s… he heard Aziraphale.
Crowley, can you hear me, focus, focus, like that…
And then, he felt Aziraphale. And Aziraphale guided him, deeper into the warmth and softness that was him. The demon followed obediently, and finally saw and felt the light of the angelic core woven into the fabric of the vessel, muscle, skin, organs, hair, eyes, every cell of the body’s system was completely irredeemably interwoven with the … with Aziraphale The Angel Of God. Crowley looked further and he saw that the binding of the two irredeemable substances was glowing words, beautiful, familiar, deadly, celestial words. Angel language, Enochian language, but the words formed a horrendous and complicated curse. Crowley was flung into the horror of it, the burning anger and hatred that shaped the curse with angelic tongue. Crowley cried within the light, mourned the pain that bore such hatred. He was lost, disoriented within grief.
Now, Aziraphale was breaking his fall, the light overcoming the darkness, guiding him out.
Crowley emerged gasping for breath, still feeling Aziraphale’s cursed lungs that were forced to run on oxygen. He moaned, clawed at his chest, separated violently from the core of the trapped angel. He slid off the bed, and pressed his forehead to the angel’s knee, grasping at the covers.
“You are not Falling…” Crowley, finally managed to control his vocal cords.
“Her light is still there. You are full of it… this is what it is… If you lose Her light, that’s it. It just feels like you are alone. That nothing else matters but yourself, because you are… alone now.” Somehow, this felt important to say.
“You feel it, right? Her light…”
“Crowley…” Aziraphale tried to reach for the demon, but his hands were useless. He felt… so much. And he was not even the one controlling the spell.
“Right… right…” Crowley sat on the floor, and leaned his head back onto the side of the bed, eyes closed. “Sorry… it was… intense… are we still, you know… “
“Two separate beings?”
“I think so…”
“Un…holy…” Crowley finally pulled himself together. Dusting off his fine breeches, he plopped back onto the bed, looking at Aziraphale. The angel was there. In his usual vessel, looking thinner than a week before, but healing well, with all his pea-soup colored bruises intact, and bandages on still useless shoulders. Crowley tried to chase away the invasive feeling of how beautiful he was. Lips parted, eyes feverishly bright… his shirt was torn at the collar, Crowley must have grabbed at it, trying to hold on. There were a few scratches on the chest, where he must have fisted his hand, damaging the skin. He reached towards the injury and fitted his fingers over them, gently pushing a healing spell into the angel’s skin.
Aziraphale felt a strange, shivering prick, branching out from the touch—“goosebumps,” he’d heard them referred to. At the same time, he pushed into the warmth of the demon’s palm. It seemed they were still more connected than before. He felt the weight of the demon’s essence, sidling up to him like a friendly cat, it was by now so familiar… so welcome… He felt an almost painful thud of blood running through him, but the ache was nice, he welcomed it, as it washed through his whole body. He could feel the blood collecting – there was a strange, sweet hardeni –
Aziraphale’s eyes flew open. Nearly choking on his breath, he bent his hips to the side defensively, and turned away from the demon’s hands.
“What? Does it hurt?”
“No-” Aziraphale’s voice cracked. “I felt – nevermind, I’m fine.”
Crowley looked the angel over from flushed face to bunched shoulders to drawn up knees …
Aziraphale shivered as the healing essence rapidly waned. The yellow eyes returned to meet his; they were unreadable, as if Crowley left his vessel for a moment.
“This is nothing… just a human body…” the demon shrugged, looking to the side, obviously feigning nonchalance.
“Crowley— I’m so sorry, I… ”
“Jussssst your body dealing with… that…” A dismissive flick of the hand was meant to encompass the life-altering experience they just shared. “It must be very confusing to it.” Aziraphale was too preoccupied with his shame to notice the demon’s sudden, uncharacteristic sensitivity. “Regular human men can’t control it either, it’s quite hilarioussss. Really- ”
Under such scrutiny, the tent in the sheets deflated. The angel tried to cover his head with his mangled hands in an attempt to hide further.
“How do people handle this… it makes no sense?!”
Crowley smiled slyly and winked, returning to his default settings. “No, they normally handle it by handling it.” It felt half-assed, even by his standards. “Now, let us return to the more pressing matters. Or more metaphysically pressing matters, as opposed to… really… presssssing…” The demon twitched his shoulders nervously, shaking off the aftertaste of this unfortunate barrage of bad puns.
“Alrighty, yeah, now…”
Aziraphale switched from mortified to frantic, sitting up. “Crowley! It was Enochian!”
“Yes… and it was a curse”
“A curse! In angelic language… how is it possible? It’s a contradiction in terms.”
“I know…right? Fassssscinating!”
“An angel could not do that! We cannot place such curses, we would immolate!”
“And a demon, even those who read in angelic tongue, would not be able to speak the incantation without dissolving at the first sounds…” Crowley sat straighter, a very distinct sense of karma coming to bite him in the ass descending upon him. He swore with a wince.
“Who then, what creature could combine these?” Aziraphale watched his pantomime.
“I am afraid… I know who it could have been,” the demon scowled uncomfortably. You will hate me for this… he thought to himself.
“What is it, Crowley?”
“The Enochian magic-users.”
“Who? The prank-callers?” Aziraphale blinked. Some half a century ago, Heaven registered a very strange phenomenon. Gibberish-prayers were calling out to Heaven in mangled angelic language. Whimsical nonsensical incantations, which would have been normally filtered by the celestial spam algorithm, were coming through incessantly, because they were formed in the secret language of angels. One of the more famous examples that angels got to ponder over was: All Hail the Holy Broom of the Seraphim, potty-trained by the Mother of Dragons. Apparently, the complex system of pronunciation and tones (which inspired God to create Chinese, after the Babel Tower fiasco) was impossible to grasp for human minds or vocal cords. Therefore, the Enochian prank-callers, who were untraceable because of some demonic (literal) firewall setting, were after a while identified as harmless and after another while, another algorithm was created that filtered them out, leaving their prayers unanswered and ignored.
“Don’t tell me… that was YOU?!” Aziraphale, as a principality, was on the committee that attempted to solve that crisis and spent a decade sorting through endless files of the celestial gibberish, never getting any concrete results. “Do you know how much grief you caused us?!”
“Well, that was the point, I got such a generous commendation for this from Lord Satan, you have no idea!” Wheat brows drew together in a lovely display of divine wrath, Crowley caught himself staring at the way pale light touched the indignantly fluttering eyelashes… damn, the aftermath of the spell was distracting. The demon shook his head, chasing away the illusion. Meanwhile, Aziraphale looked less affronted and more amused now.
“Oh, Michael got his knickers in such a twist, you should have seen it!” Aziraphale suppressed a chuckle but it ended up coming out as a snort. “So what did you do, Crowley?”
“Well, I taught angelic language to an amateur alchemist, and since I cannot pronounce it without killing myself, he had to grapple on his own. I thought it should be a drawback, turned out it was the best part! Oh, Beelzebub had a book of the best ones, you know the one about Mother of Dragons?”
“Apparently he thought, there were dragons in the Garden of Eden.”
“Oh… wouldn’t that been nice,” The angel said wryly.
“Yeah, right...” Crowley felt a weight fall off his shoulders, he might have been thwarted right there right now, had the short-tempered angel had his powers. “But, problem is, this guy – John Dee, ended up taking the study of the language a little further, to the point he began to gain followers. He may have gotten his hands on some grimoire or something, maybe…”
“John Dee as… Elizabeth’s advisor?”
“But he was so far off with his alchemy, how he or his followers… craft such a potent spell?”
“Worth looking into it. I am out of options, angel! I will pay him a visit. This one was ours from day one…” Crowley got off the bed settling into the chair. Heating the teapot with a touch of his finger, he poured two congratulatory cups of tea. “What does your friar-friend put in these?”
The lock spell lifted, and Brother Glynn had soon returned to refill their cups with the “doctor’s” new herbal mixture. It was a little more earthy than normal, but after half a cup Aziraphale and Crowley felt some of their unearthly energy return. Through the link, Crowley explained that this was actually a mixture he’d picked up from some druids a few centuries back. Aziraphale was less enthusiastic than Crowley had expected. He assured him, it was white magic. Good magic. Surely, he couldn’t protest that, now could he? Well, it was grey magic, specifically, but harmed no living thing. Neither of them immolated, and that was all they could ask for in their circumstance. If anything, Aziraphale felt more relief and ease in the moment than he had since being captured. Avoiding irrevocable death (if only for the moment) had this effect.
Brother Glynn himself found the mixture very pleasing, reminding him of the countryside he grew up in. He talked about the small village at the walls of the monastery, where he was born. How he found God at an early age, and never regretted his decision. But the two men in his presence seemed to be enjoying each other’s company, almost as if they could speak without talking. It was good, he thought, that the doctor has such excellent rapport with his patient.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” a familiar, solemn voice said. Aziraphale felt a panicked chill put out the warm conversation he was having. He looked up, slowly to the man in the doorway. The one who had been notably absent for several days. “Father Gerard. You’re looking well.”
Crowley jerked back, recognizing Catesby. With a well-aimed quick spell, the conspirator blinked his black, fierce eyes, forlornly. Then he straightened himself and ventured into the room. Thankfully no unwanted hostile questioning as to who the demon was followed. Maybe because of the dream he and Aziraphale starred in, there was less apprehension to overcome.
“D…doctor…” Catesby tasted the word on his tongue. He seemed to forget where he was for a split second, then recovered. “How is Father doing?”
“He’s doing better. He’s been under good care and should be able to use his arms properly soon enough,” the “doctor” said, closing up his bag and slipping on his coat. The “priest” watched his friend stand up, his lightened expression sinking down, realizing he was leaving.
“Do you have to go, doctor?” he finally said, trying to sound cheerful.
“Yes. I have other errands to take care of,” Crowley answered, puzzled by the change in Aziraphale’s demeanor. What was wrong with the angel? Could he stop sounding so forlorn, or did he really think he needed his protection from these witless conspiracy nuts? Crowley manage to cover his hands with his gloves before giving Brother Glynn a firm handshake, making up for their last time (The friar asked if his joints were better). He tried to exit the room as inconspicuously as possible, but that was hardly an option with all the elegant trailing layers Crowley was wearing. Catesby’s penetrating stare narrowed on his face as he passed, and the “doctor” found his shoulder clasped for a moment.
“Doctor…are we…familiar with one another?”
Catesby so wanted to make a sly remark about how familiar they could be, but bit his forked tongue. He did not meet the man’s eyes, keeping the glassy barrier of his shades tightly adjusted below his brows.
The infirmed angel regarded the scene unsurely, shifting in his bed and feeling the renewed thump of his human heart. Catesby’s fingers pulled back from the demon’s shoulder, seemingly confused but unable to communicate his level of inquiry. Feeling the pressure lessened, Crowley pulled away with a casual tip of his hat and a swift exit.
“Lord Catesby?” The friar said after a moment, getting up and offering him a chair “You’ve turned pale again. Please, sit down.”
Catesby didn’t argue, silently seating himself next to Father Gerard as Brother Glynn took the cups down to the kitchen, checking to see if his pot of soup was ready.
Robert’s eyes searched the bed as if proper words were waiting there to be recovered. He didn’t see the mundane sights of the room he sat in. Instead, he was chasing half-projected images of nude bodies writhing in celestial stardust. Catesby shoved his palms against his eyes. Aziraphale, a helpless witness to his distress, reached towards Catesby, but shoulders betrayed him again, his hand twitched limply in his lap. Aziraphale pulled his legs out from his blanket and fully turned to him placing his feet on the floor at the edge of the narrow bed, leaning closer with concern.
“What is it… what are these dreams telling me?” The other man muttered to his hands.
“My lord, what is in them?”
“It’s…you… with the Angel. The one that saved us. His image, it came to me that very night and-“
Aziraphale hesitated to respond. He thought back, carefully to the night he was magically healed, putting the two and two together. Here we have exhibit A – a distraught man, and Exhibit B a certain demon, who did not see it beneath himself to toy with human dreams. The “priest’s” human skin started to burn with an inkling. Oh God… oh...!
“It’s alright, Robert, you…it’s been a troubling week. I’m sure you haven’t been sleeping well-”
“I believe… you are… intertwined with God’s plan, Father,” he said quietly, tentatively touching the “priest’s” sleeve, seeking out the thin hand beneath the folds. “The angel, I see him. Everywhere.”
…Bloody Crowley. Always with the best timing, Aziraphale thought.
“God granted us this angelic vision. Led us to safety. I believe, you are the key,” his voice broke as he bent his head down, forehead landing on “Gerard’s” shoulder. Catesby’s hand gaining more purchase at the threadbare sleeve, fingers closed around the healing wrist, pulling the angel even closer. The abrupt arrangement was awkward; the man’s legs had interlocked with his own. Gerard’s left knee was – oh dear – and Catesby’s knee was – oh no – he felt Catesby’s moist breath. Aziraphale could not stand up. He started to pull back, but realized that would lead him to a horizontal position, which was not a good idea at the moment. Catesby held onto him anyway. “Please, understand, John… I cannot do it without you.”
Aziraphale felt the tickle of dark curls on his cheek. He got distracted for a moment, looking for wise words that would sooth the man. The eyes that looked up at him were steeped in madness, the expanded pupils filling in the irises. He saw them fully and felt the heat radiating from the man’s skin.
“You must agree, you have to. What we are doing, it’s God’s will.”
“My lord…will you enlighten me about the details of the plan?” Aziraphale said measuredly, holding on to the last vestiges of his sanity. The wild look that Robin bore upon him demanded it.
And finally, he did. Catesby unleashed the truth of the plot. Aziraphale listened, heart sinking, if only Heaven knew… in what way the king was to be displaced...! Yes, they would kill the king, but at the cost of the entire hall of Parliament, the King’s successors, and the Queen. Catesby ran through the skillful preparations; the gunpowder, the conspirators, and the Catholic army they were raising outside London. The king’s daughter who will be forced to take her father’s place. Aziraphale could not suppress the admiration for the man’s strategic skill. Everything was accounted for. As he ran through each brutal polished detail, the concerned, empathetic eyes of “Father Gerard” changed, turned, widened, filled with terror and pain. There in front of the angel was a man so lost in his need to do good… to stop the violence and desperation that shaped the miserable world around him. And yet… Aziraphale ached with the thought of the suffering, which he planned to unleash.
The pain that Catesby saw in Gerard’s blue eyes crushed him with despair, as he had seen the same look cross others that he loved.
“I thought you understood…”
“I… understand…” Aziraphale caught the man’s gaze. “Lord Cecil and the king are… they took your future, and your son’s. And not just yours, everyone’s… but… can you truly bear to place this burden onto innocents… Lord Catesby!”
“So many innocents have already perished. You were at the execution, and I saw the resolve in your face! The funeral…” the other man whispered. “Can’t you see how your people are suffering under the King? Some will be sacrificed, yes, but for a cause.”
The words ‘your people’ stung the angel. He paused, swallowing hard, thinking of all the humans who had died in the name of God. The God who had brought him into being out of Love, to serve humanity. After touching Her light so intimately with Crowley just hours before, he knew that it could not have been Her intent. The Human factor… the greed and ambition of Cecil and the king, against desperation and arrogance of Lord Catesby and the conspirators… Aziraphale was lost. Trapped. And made complicit.
“I know the change has to come, but… have you inspected every avenue?” the angel insisted meekly. “There must be a better way. From my sources, I know, the Spanish-“
“They will not help,” Catesby moved back, mercifully sitting up. “They are traitors to the Catholics!”
Aziraphale felt a drop in the pit of his stomach. Without access to Heaven or to the angel who arrived with the embassy… He did not know what to do, or say, to this passionate man. Having no fast return for him, Catesby dropped his head, sweat-curled hair falling over his face, veiling him from the scrutinizing gaze of the “priest.”
“Will you help us? Be with me?”
Aziraphale wanted to help, save everyone, every human life, each fragile spirit. Desperately. It was now impossible. He felt so small, useless and alone. He reached out, clinging to the man’s hand still grasping his arm, leaning to embrace him in consolation. But hearing no reply, Catesby stood up, slipping through Aziraphale’s grasp. He watched Catesby’s back as he walked to the door, only slightly turning back to give the last lingering, pained look.
“I cannot demand your answer immediately, please… rest now... forgive me…”
Then he walked swiftly out, and down the hall. The angel had barely registered his meaning before he heard a clatter and splash of dishes, and Brother Glynn making sore apologies.
Aziraphale slid back under the covers, numb from the exchange. He looked out at the dark sky, thinking of how to break to Crowley further bad news.