Actions

Work Header

Good Intentions

Chapter Text

 

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Literally.

With each intention it becomes one step longer, they turn into neat cobbles, and then the whole team of low-level demons work overtime to heat them up nice and toasty. It goes without saying, that the sinners have to walk it barefoot.

What happens when an angel’s intentions backfire? A lot. A lot of shiny new cobbles.

 

 

***

 

 

Crowley rather enjoyed ruffles. He despised wigs, but ruffles were, in his opinion, a stroke of fashion genius. Jacobean era suited him fairly well. If he was honest with himself, anything suited him well. Crowley honed his body into a source of envy; his mere presence instilled awe and visceral understanding of unworthiness. The flurry of lace at his throat, elaborate sleeve cuffs that screamed “never worked a day in my life”, were recently his favorite indulgence. Few things were as excessive, decadent, useless and annoying as ruffled long cuffs. They got into your drink. One wrong flick of the wrist, and port wine or gravy went everywhere. Of course, gravy stains happened to other people. Crowley’s ruffled existence was never sullied with such indignities. His presence added insult to injury of everyone else by being always ever so pristine.

Nuns could spend months weaving elaborate designs for you only to have them thwarted by the common gravy stain. And then on your walk of shame, when you try to shuffle the folds to conceal your transgression, you would meet a devilishly handsome, tall, dark gentleman wrapped in lace so pristine, you would believe his servants fed him. You would suspect that through his fancy darkened glasses and down his long nose, the man saw through your futile attempts at concealment.

Then you’d go home to face another challenge – trying to wipe your ass without further tragic incidents. Very few gravies of the time were designed to be digested successfully. This problem too, was side-stepped by the perks of being a supernatural being. Although Crowley had tried digestion once, he decided that this particular bodily function he could do without, especially until the human world re-discovered to the joys of functional plumbing. Had they forgotten the Roman aqueducts already? The human race had a selective memory; they clung to the memory of one unfair trial and a botched execution on Golgotha, but forgot the carefully-cultivated engineering skills of Romans and Greeks. In the case of Jesus and the aqueducts, what a waste (pun intended).

Truly, Crowley was doing everyone a favor by not adding to the filth on the very streets he now walked through. Or rather, levitated over; it took far too much effort to mind his shoes when wading through the overwhelming amount of excrement that layered daily.

He would have you know, emptying the chamber pot through the window was all Crowley’s idea. One of his bigger achievements in this age. He was proud of himself. Back in Hell, he had received a commendation for it from the higher-ups, (or was it lower-downs in this instance?). Such a fantastic potential for endangering public health, really. And what a glorious nuisance. Any time, day or evening, the chorus of manually tossed flushes could be heard at any Jacobean window in the London streets. He particularly liked the frequency with which a septic splash would be followed up by cries of dismay below from any unlucky bystander. Have you ever had literal shit dumped on your be-feathered hat? His superiors called it “an innovative and unparalleled experience.” He actually never believed it would catch on, but look at them go (pun intended)! Humans never failed to surprise him.

Meanwhile, the likes of Ligur reaped the laurels of the Inquisition’s technical innovations. Crowley found it distasteful, not to mention, all of these were on the humans themselves. You would be amazed what an inspiring chorus of desperate cries did to the certain type of human imagination. He tried to explain to Ligur how low-grade annoyances rotted the core of human soul, while the inquisition bred martyrs like nothing else. In the last two centuries, a handful of crazy maniacs, who would go to Hell anyway, were populating the Heaven rapidly with what Aziraphale referred to, as “the best stock” and the “canonization material”.

Adjusting an overwhelming amount of intricate black lace under his chin, Crowley got into the carriage that stopped for him as he exited the palace. After Elizabeth’s death and much-disputed enthronement, the king’s colorful household moved into Whitehall. Steeped in Tudor history, it now reluctantly welcomed the first Stuart. James, a controversial man who promise to unite the country, but so far managed quite the opposite. 

Of course, Crowley had settled himself comfortably within King James’s court. It was entertaining and instructive. The new King was… one of those people. You know the type: a survivor of childhood trauma with unbridled inherited leanings towards violence and sexual exuberance. (Sometimes performed simultaneously.) There was also a generous helping of well-honed, paranoid delusions. Although, in James’s case, it was rather justified. He had a surprisingly keen mind, despite years of aristocratic crossbreeding. The king’s interests vacillated between a decent grasp of politics, witch-hunts, poetry, and a certain type of handsome young men. In addition to all this, he had inherited a clever ruthless maniac pulling the strings behind his back. And there you have it: a tyrant that was on a mission. The Inquisition, Part Two: British Edition.

But Crowley was rather fond of King James despite himself. Unhinged as the man was, he had style, and the understanding of that special pleasure that arose from creating bureaucratic Hell, which the king unleashed upon, of all people, the Catholic clergy. The process was more or less streamlined before him, what with Elizabeth’s excommunication, but somehow James’s enthusiasm was endearing Crowley. The man truly understood the fine art of grinding a person down, one tax at the time. Oh, bureaucracy! Had Crowley not been a demon, he would probably end up being an accountant somewhere.

Crowley settled on to the velvet-cushioned seat that did little in lieu of amortization. In front of him was a sullen-looking short ugly man with clever and dangerous eyes that appraised the demon. A curt nod acknowledged him, truncated by crippling scoliosis. Crowley nodded back. Neither spoke. They did not like each other. The demon knew too much, while Cecil knew nothing for sure, and therefore suspected Crowley of everything with relish.

The calm cold eyes did not relinquish their hold on Crowley, but the demon resolutely refused to feel intimidated by a mortal. Since time immemorial – (although, that would be inaccurate since Crowley had a really good memory) – since the very beginning… humans never stopped to exceed his imagination with their ceaseless potential for cruelty.

“Any special orders from His Majesty?” Crowley inquired politely, smiling at the other man, without looking at his face.

“Nothing after the morning briefing. I believe, Lord Wade had begun with gentle tortures already,” the voice was cold and impersonal, but Crowley picked up displeasure. His companion did not enjoy being supervised.

The man was Lord Cecil. A person who essentially ran this country, beginning during Elizabeth’s reign. Manipulating… everyone, he managed despite his many handicaps to garner the respect and trust of the king. He was orchestrating the worse of this century. Seemingly impervious to simpler earthly perversions, he was driven by lust for power and banal greed. This combination of drives resulted in a convoluted, complex scheme; he taxed the Catholics, all right, but would not stop there, shaping the King’s paranoia into focused bloodlust. After Catholic purses were bled dry, Cecil usurped their land, doing away with the owners for praying in the wrong language. In a slow, elaborate, humiliating and very painful way. Unfortunately, the king and Cecil shared that special fondness for the collateral of medieval bureaucracy – torture. This was not Crowley’s sport.

Hanging-drawing-and-quartering was a literal overkill. Crowley closed his eyes, they passed a few heads on spikes, grotesquely decorating the bridge at equal intervals. The Tower’s torturers and executioners worked overtime, and had almost reached the level of desperation necessary to begin a labor union. The demon recently found out that chief executioner Lord Wade took up gardening to recuperate from the stress and was making strides in growing imported spiky plants, called cacti.

The Middle ages were a murky business to begin with. Growing tired of the irony of the crusades, Crowley took to sleeping regularly, sometimes decades at a time. The Enlightenment era held promise, but ended up bringing about the old man Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. Anything but enlightened, in Crowley’s humble opinion. That era was bad enough, but the 15th century had nothing on the 16th. New confession techniques got truly creative, and the rake, although still effective, was losing a popularity contest to other devices that Crowley tried hard not to get updated on. If he could, he would have hibernated longer, but he didn’t want to endanger his position with Hell’s administrators; he only had so many vacation days left. 

Now, the Hellish ride that was the 17th century smoothly slid on the tracks to Crazytown, well-oiled by the bloody centuries that came before it. Only now, fellow Christians saw both death and the murder of each other in the name of God as an honor. Crowley felt cognitive dissonance at this. It seemed both pointless and distasteful to him. He enjoyed a healthy paradox as much as any other fiend, but some things he preferred to be clear-cut. Otherwise, what happened to him, losing Heaven, being stripped of Grace… just stopped making any sense.

It was not too long ago, he had run into that angel, Aziraphale again at the Shakespeare’s play. He’d tried to mention it, curious what the other side made of all this, but there never seemed to be enough time between all the respective plots they both had to ruin or promote. Funny, they had millennia, but time shrank when they were together. Odd thing, that. Crowley felt certain that given the time, the angel would feel the as he always seemed to, somehow, be in the same frame of mind as he was. Only Aziraphale never witnessed the inside of The Tower’s torture chamber. Crowley did.

Tonight, he ended up sharing a ride with the most hated man in London on the way to the torture supervision, despite his many protests of paperwork that needed stamping. His royal highness asked him specifically, as he was otherwise occupied that evening. “Occupied” by a neat Spanish man, who came with the entourage of Constable of Castile. As for the unlucky participant at the Tower of London, Lord Cecil had caught some poor bugger. There didn’t seem much justification for the imprisonment, besides being found with potential religious malcontents. Despite this, Cecil seemed convinced that some terrible scheme was afoot.

“So this man wasn’t just a bystander at the tavern, where you found the rest of the plotters? Would hate to tick off the locals,” Crowley said as they bumped along.

Cecil’s stone-faced, gruesome expression remained.

“There is no such thing as bystanders to a treason,” he said. “Any Catholic priest with a whisper of knowledge in regards to harming His Majesty to please King Pope is an enemy of this country!”

A priest, Crowley thought as they made their way up the curling stone staircase. The man was a Catholic priest, and they were just the worst. These types believed in dying a martyr. They did not have families[1]. Nothing to lose. They believed they were going to Paradise, and largely ignored anything that was done to their bodies on the way there. Considering how well Crowley kept his own corporeal form, this seemed particularly offensive. It was also the dangerous mindset that often led to violent fanaticism on both parts. King James, or should he say, Lord Cecil, specifically met such violence with preventative violence. Bodies piled up with as much vigor as in the throes of plague.

Everyone, every last one of them, claimed good intentions.

No one knew who invented Good Intentions. Both sides were apprehensive to claim it.

At first, he did not see the man as they climbed the stairs to the torture chamber, but heard the douse of water against the stone floor. The demon’s face set into a stony mask as they came to the entrance. Of all the different instruments afforded to them, the tortures had picked one of the simplest, yet effective – Spanish water torture. The pitiful figure was soaked; his limp, pale hair sleuthed to either side of his wide blue eyes. A waded, soiled fabric was lodged in his throat. His captors poured rivulets of murky water into his mouth, taking professional pride in the choking cough of drowning lungs. The figure twitched – whole body wreaked by the spasm. The face was mostly hidden by Lord Wade’s skilled wide hands, holding him down, but the overall form seemed vaguely familiar.

Crowley’s disdain for the scene started to veer towards curiosity. The priest’s eyes were surprisingly clear for a man under such physical duress. There was also profound sadness in them rather than fear. There was… Grace?

Oh…

Suspicion crept in. Meanwhile, Cecil decisively stepped forward, pushing Wade’s tall broad figure aside, and ripped the mangled sash out, making Crowley twitch. It would be a lovely magic trick if it wasn’t very real and consequently nauseating. If only doves came out at the end instead of a slop of cloth, steeped in stomach acid. Once the simple instrument was extracted, the man gave a horrifying rasping gasp, catching air, and then vomited a bloody wet splash onto his torturer’s boots. Spitting out the rest of the bile, he finally set his teeth together and tried to clear his throat again, painfully, but somehow… for the lack of a better word… politely?

Crowley’s suspicion started to turn into recognition. Still he did not understand what was going on. Finally, the man looked at Cecil, who was repeating his inquiry for the third time. Having a length of cloth pulled from one’s larynx was not overcome so easily.

The shade of celestial blue, the wheat gold of the hair. The apologetic, miserable look, as the man struggled to find his voice to most probably ask Cecil to repeat his question, if he didn’t mind, terribly sorry… it couldn’t be that an Angel of God was now being tied up and strung from a simple pulley attached to the ceiling by the chief executioner and his two guards.

The suspected Heavenly being, still obscured by dim light and layers of grime was searching around the room with terrified cerulean eyes for the clues of what else would be done to him.

Strange, Crowley observed. The Angel took a punch better than even a very fit human, but was not healing himself – Crowley did not sense any minor miracles. And, it definitely looked like he actually felt the pain during the torture? Because the Heavenly stock, by definition, were shit at acting, considering the whole endeavor a theatrical art of lying[1}.

The snap of the demon’s quill punctuated the drawn silence. Everyone turned head to him.

“Don’t make them like they used to,” was all Crowley (reluctantly) offered, then turned away to study all the available quills on the side table. The men’s attention, returned to the task at hand. Apart from one specific angelic attention, which now fixed on the man in black ponytail who busied himself with paper. At least the said attention would steadily return to Crowley when it was not otherwise occupied with being strung out on the pulley until his joints popped. The demon eventually tipped his head aside and, between the figures of the interrogators, flashed his yellow eyes at the Heavenly suspect. Instead of being terrified and praying to God, the “priest” managed a wilted smile, alight with reciprocated recognition.

Aziraphale – for it was him under grime, blood, and a variety of bodily fluids that Crowley usually did not observe on an angel – for a moment got distracted with their mute exchange, and lost balance on his tiptoes falling full-weight on his shoulders with a sickening meaty pop. He cried out in earnest, and his eyes lost focus. Crowley blinked, which his reptilian nature did not encourage him to do often.

To himself the demon thought grimly, It just had to be him. Of all the angels of the Lord, this bloody angel always found a way to appear in front of him. Why did Aziraphale have to get mixed up in this?

Crowley wrenched up and glared through the black abyss of his glasses at the man, a small hiss (and momentary forked tongue) escaping between his teeth. Aziraphale surfaced from the pain and looked at Crowley with another almost smile, spoilt by cracked lips and blood staining his teeth (a full set too good for this century… for now). Crowley growled… Aziraphale, of all Heavenly beings, was least known for such things as subtlety… however, the demon was somehow relieved that the angel recognized him, despite his eyes going in and out of focus.

Meanwhile Lord Cecil clearly was losing his patience. Taken aback with the priest’s surprising resilience, he ventured forward, gripped the narrow face between his fingers so tight, the leather of his gloves squeaked. “Would you like to make a confession, priest?”

“Not really…” the captive strained, the voice not quite his own. And did not even comment on the pun.

By default setting, both angels and demons did not have the burden of pain, or any other excessive tactile sensation or hunger. These instincts kept human bodies informed when they were damaged, a matter which obviously was beyond supernatural concern. In London, Crowley also preferred to mostly forgo sense of smell. This quality made things easier on a daily basis, considering the prevalent suffering experienced in the human world. It also helped Crowley to get through some occasional more personal encounters with King James, putting his earthly vessel on autopilot.

As a result, if something traumatic happened unexpectedly, the average celestial being would have to improvise quickly. Crowley recalled an incident where he and the angel were having a pleasant meeting at a local pub. As usual, the angel was going on about something and failed to notice he had cut his thumb clean off with his carving knife. This was however instantly noticed by the approaching server. She screamed. The angel panicked and, in realizing his injury, wailed, “Oh the pain!” Crowley reviewed the performance as pedestrian, at best. And if he was generous, it was obviously inspired by the ancient Greek dramatic stylistics, as Kabuki had not been invented yet.

This time however, it was either attending all those Shakespearean plays had suddenly paid off, or the Angel enabled bodily function of tactile sensation and pain for some… fascinating reason. Why would he put himself in such a situation was beyond Crowley. If he, however, had to make an educated guess, the angels probably got in over his head with some Catholic zealots, and tried not to stand out. Amazing awareness of his lacking acting skills?

“Milord,” Crowley offered. “It seems clear this man has gone mad with pain. Even if he was involved with some suspicious characters, in his current distraught condition he will hardly give us any accurate details.”

Cecil raised a pointed brow at that. True, Wade and his cronies had been at it for several hours without any results. Could it be that the captive transitioned from stoicism to madness? What would it take to pry open the insight this man may have? It seemed doubtful at this point.

“Put him back in his cell, but no food or drink,” Cecil said with a nod.

“Thank you for this… mercy, Our Lord in Heaven will reward your kindness,” the angel droned out on one painful note, sounding deranged. His body was taken off the pulleys and, unable to support itself, heaped on the floor. It would almost have been darkly funny, had his remark not been met with Cecil’s boot to his teeth. Aziraphale’s wail caught and stumbled into another blood-spluttering, pitiful cough. The guards jerked him up and half-carried him off to the cells.

Crowley glared helplessly at the puddle of blood, that remained on the floor and dragged in a long smudge, marking the angel’s progress out of the room. He clenched his teeth and sighed through his nose. Bloody idiot, he thought, you’ve really done it this time!

 

***

 

There was no current opportunity to split from Cecil. Crowley got involved in seemingly endless conversation with the king’s advisor, masticating the little information available. It seemed the “priest”, who went by John Gerard, was a companion of Father Garnet, one of the leading Catholic clerics, well-known in London also as a sympathizer to notorious revolutionary Robert Catesby. Catesby was related to a former soldier Thomas Wintour. Cecil suspected that they were also connected to Lord Thomas Percy, with whom the king had especially troublesome personal history. Taking into consideration Catesby’s previous involvement with Essex Rebellion and Percy’s recent run-in with King James, Cecil felt quite justified in his suspicions. They must be planning some type of diversion against the king in retaliation for the recent “abuses” of the Catholics. Especially specific aforementioned Catholics. King walked into this one. He waltzed right into it with a reckless display of power. First giving Percy the promise, a sense of purpose to the young fool, and then retreating from it. Percy was young, so he took such things personally. Many plotters did. Revolutions often started with a pitiful personal grudge.

The demon was very aware of the referred abuses. It was the main reason he had made himself a fixture at the king’s court and ingratiated himself to His Highness. The administrators below were thrilled at the Catholics’ persecution and wanted Crowley to keep an eye on things. Although he allowed Lord Cecil to reap the laurels, it was he who suggested instating the taxes to the Catholics to Henry VIII himself. As usual, the humans went overboard with his suggestion. Nowadays, a Catholic could not serve mass, go to confessions, get married or officially be baptized in their faith, get a decent job or education unless they renounced the Pope. The priests were hidden in the secret rooms, living a windowless existence, no better than a prisoner, in the wealthy homes that provided semblance of safety. They were hunted as a sport, with Cecil’s secret police raiding prominent catholic houses regularly. Just the other week Crowley saw the young fledgling priest Father Smith brutally slaughtered, while his esteemed patron Lady Dibdale was squashed like a bug under the weights in front of a cheering crowd. The boy was hardly older than fifteen, and the lady past sixty.

For generations now countless people were losing their lives for the right to pray in Latin, but it was James’s promise of lenience and its subsequent rebuttal, that was truly bringing Catholics to the boiling point with more and more plots and conspiracies being powered by the spiritual fervor and the purse of the wealthy papists. Hell merely planned to twist the knife a bit into the Vatican. They shared a long history together. Especially the exorcism had remained a persistent thorn in the Hell’s side. No other confession streamlined it quite like that. But the King and Cecil had gone for the jugular, resulting in the sickening practice of public executions of women and children.

These days, Crowley often muttered to himself, “I didn’t come up here for this!” but now he found himself stuck. All the crumhorn playing and drunken parties couldn’t soften the torment he saw and heard outside the palace walls… and now somehow the angel had gotten involved. No doubt it was some ploy from above. Certainly, they weren’t happy with their side being bullied. This must be it, Crowley decided.

As he and Cecil took their waiting carriage back to the palace, Crowley thought carefully. He wondered, could this very annoying winged problem that was Aziraphale be used to his advantage? The whole martyrdom business was becoming redundant. You can only see a man’s beating heart be ripped from his chest so many times before you’re ready to move on.

Crowley had moved on already in the time of Aztecs, thank you very much. In this configuration, only one of them would go to Hell, usually the one with the pointy thing in one hand and the aforementioned beating heart in another. What a waste of a perfectly corruptible soul! That’s the bigger picture! Crowley thought globally, finding shades of evil that everyone would be lining up to be tinted with. And no need to haul buckets of water up a very tall, astrologically perfectly aligned pyramid.

Cecil watched the reflections of London lanterns flashing in dark lenses of Crowley’s glasses. They half hid a distant dispersed gaze of large light eyes, hypnotizing in the sway of the carriage. The man in front of him was everything Cecil was not; tall and fit, his mere presence made Cecil look smaller, and more disfigured. Lord Crowley had a sharp striking face with long Roman nose, shapely lips framed by a goatee. And a sharp mind armed with a sharp tongue, that was famously talented around the king’s nether-regions.

No matter how Cecil hated the man, he had to give him credit. The spymaster was too clever not to. Cecil interpreted the silence in relation to the interrogation. He even asked to hear Crowley’s thoughts on the puzzling conspiracy. Crowley just gave a short laugh in acknowledgement, but did not respond. At least he could pull rank on the man, being so close to the king.  

Back at the palace, they walked off to the royal quarters, only to find the monarch “preoccupied” still by the young man from Spain. They even invited another friend. The demon gave the King credit for the fascinating fit of sexual engineering that he was entangled in, when Crowley poked his head through the door. All that with James’s bad leg! A remarkable display of dedication. Annoyed and slightly amused, Crowley refused invitation to join, that came slightly muffled from between slender tanned thighs of the newcomer Spaniard, citing the many letters and maps he needed to study. Unacknowledged and unwanted, Cecil looked on resigned, and bid them all a good evening.

 

***

 

The demon removed some of the cumbersome and identifiable details of his dress, exchanging his garish frills for soft leather – less noble and more sleek, then went back out to the entrance. The guards, which stopped on seeing him approach, were anticipated and blinded to his presence with a simple pass of his demonic hand. Simple humans…

In the stables, Crowley’s infernal beast Bentley was already under the saddle. Currently in the shape of a black Andalusian with fiery eyes, it greeted him with a gentle nicker and affectionate nudge. Crowley took him into battle alongside Alexander of Macedon. The steed took off into the night like a shadowy wind, hooves not touching the ground. The Streets were empty and dark.

He approached the wall, on the side of The Tower, underneath it were the cells where he sensed familiar if somewhat dampened presence of Aziraphale. Should he go up the side? No, he thought, too conspicuous. Only an idiot would do that. He entered through the main gate, flicking his hands at the guards, and headed down into the stinking dungeons.

Aziraphale was crouched against the dirty wall, the moonlight from the small window right near the ceiling blanched his knotted hair, deep shadows aging his emaciated face. Crowley always wondered why Aziraphale chose such a dowdy looking vessel. Angels, like demons, caught on the importance of marketing early. And Crowley had seen his fair share of golden locks flowing in the wind, eyes colors of gemstones framed with eyelashes, casting butterfly shadows on their soft kissable cheeks. But not Aziraphale. His vessel at best times looked malnourished and unassuming, a patchwork of leftover features, sharp crooked nose, hollow cheeks, large eyes that crowded his face and wispy light hair that did nothing for the high forehead. On hearing footsteps, the angel’s head tilted up on thin neck with twitchy Adam’s apple to see what fresh torture came calling for him. He seemed…weathered, even afraid.

“Well, well,” Crowley began in front of the bars, putting his wrists on his hips. “This is a fine mess you’re in. How exactly did this happen?”

“I’m glad to see you, my friend,” the angel offered, looking away. His voice sounded as if he had a horrendous cold, rasping more than vocalizing past the split, caked lips, “You could have used the link, but looks like I warrant a personal visit. I am flattered. Are you here to rescue me?”

Crowley dropped his hands with a huff. The nerve! Although, the Angel was right, since The Arrangement necessitated means of communication that neither Heaven nor Hell could detect, so Crowley had linked them on a mental frequency protected with a joint spell. Why did he come then? A force of habit?

“Well aren’t you presumptuous!” He replied, keeping his tone light and dismissive as he absently inspected his fingernails. “Maybe I came here to give you another round.”

“You wouldn’t do that,” warmth returned to the tired eyes for a moment and then was out like a match. Crowley had no time to think of thrashing that idiot expression from the angel’s face when it dissolved on its own, cut off with a painful cough. The angel wiped some blood out of the corner of his mouth with a blackened wrist, bent at an odd angle.

Aziraphale lifted his wrist and observed the damage.

“It seems even when vulnerable like that, our vessels are quite resilient,” the angel muttered. “There was a child sitting on the other side of the cell with me. His name was Jacob. Probably 12 or 13, accused of witchcraft. He didn’t have our talents. When they brought me back here, the boy had passed on from his injuries already. They took him out. Who knows where the body went…” Aziraphale stopped catching his breath with a shuddering inhale, “Despite humans being so fragile and temporary, they treat each other’s lives so incidentally. I don’t understand it.”

“Why bother?” Crowley pressed. “Nothing new. They’ve been like this since that failed experiment in the Garden.”

“Yes, they were… capable of the most atrocious sin, and the most amazing grace, in the same breath… by the same person…”

“Yesssssss?”

“And I noticed, that although we observed for so long, we never understood. And never will understand.” Aziraphale began to sound deranged, Crowley for a moment, wondered, if Heavenly beings could lose their mind when confronted with traumatic bodily injuries. “We lack the means, Crowley. To truly fathom the uncertainty of death and the crystal-clear finality of life. And a choice to give it all up for an idea! A thought, really, less than a hope. To create a chance for someone else! Crowley!”

“Yesssss?”

“It’s so beautiful! And… and I met someone… like that…”

“Angel…” Crowley sighed in exasperation, searching for words. “Have you tried hanging out with Buddhists?” he asked instead.

Aziraphale looked up at him with pity, giving up on Crowley understanding.

The demon looked away. Four and a half millennia – sometimes it seemed to him, he knew the man. Sometimes, he noticed that he did not. Lately, that recognition disconcerted him.

What his, for the lack of a better word, friend, did not understand, is that Crowley did take a leap of faith further than many. He had already staked everything and lost, without a chance for redemption. Without a chance for it to ever end. Unless… it really did all end one day.

Crowley felt a rise of indignation and who was he to hold himself back.

“So you are trying on martyrdom.”

“Crowley--” Aziraphale bristled, outraged and humiliated.

“--And you know it’s useless. Why bother?”

“I only thought, I could at least… get some insig--” Aziraphale tried to stand up to level their faces, but his legs did not hold him up and he flopped backwards on his ass with a wince. Crowley smirked which only riled up the angel’s exasperation further. “I should have known better than to try and explain it to you!”

“What I fail to understand is… why are you still here?”

“Oh… oh my…! you have to go!”

Ssssssorry?”

“Someone is coming to save me!”

“Really? How are they gonna manage that, then?”

Aziraphale looked around anxiously. His face fell, the angel was hiding something so obviously. Why was he not healing?

“Well…we’ll, um…have to figure something out at this point…”

Crowley’s brows rose over the rims of his glasses. He even felt, it warranted taking the lenses off, revealing yellow eyes round with indignation.

“So, you think, a human, presumably alone, would storm The Tower for you?” – Crowley recalled the wall that he decided not to scale. He dropped his brows, he laughed. And then he laughed some more.

“Yes, I know he will,” – Aziraphale nodded calmly, observing his fr-enemy’s rather theatrical display of untimely mirth.

Crowley’s laugh stuck in his throat. The surety in Aziraphale’s words brushed him the wrong way. These were the early years of their armistice arrangement, after all.

“Why not escape by yourself. Just walk out of here, save a few souls along the way? Wouldn’t that be safer for your… friend?” Unless, you want to see him again, of course.

“It’s…” He hesitated, something on the edge of his mind about to tip onto his tongue. He stopped it. “That is our business, Crowley, I suggest you go. Thank you for your concern.”

“Concsssssern…! Angel, you give me too much credit. It is merely-”

“Get out get out get out, he is coming!!!!”

Picking up the commotion in the corridor, the angel started to make desperate shooing motions, cutting short Crowley’s tirade. It looked rather tragicomically with all the damage that severely limited his motion range.

“-curiossssssssity…” Crowley finished in the middle of a hasty retreat through the back wall. He hated doing this, passing through inanimate objects made him feel like the said object, in this case, cold, moldy rock. The sensation lingered like a layer of grime, and it was very hard to wash out.

He appeared in the corridor, in time to catch a glimpse of a young determined man with lively dark eyes and messy curls striding down the stairwell towards Aziraphale’s dungeon. He was not tall, and left several corpses in the corridor. A capable young man. Crowley decided that his curiosity warranted an extension, to see how the two idiots would get out of the jail… safely. With that, he did another elegant pass with his wrist and a sleek black viper dropped on the floor, where he stood a moment ago.

Meanwhile in the dungeon, the said capable young man rushed past the corridor to the angel’s cell. Aziraphale tried to stand up again, to greet his rescuer, but repeated the pathetic exercise, and as before, landed on the stone floor with a groan. He looked up apologetically, then at his mangled hands hanging loosely at his sides, he tried to smile with the split lips, and winced.

The intruder’s black eyes swiped around the pitiful scene and, setting his face in a grim but capable scowl, he unlocked the door with the key’s he took off of one of the corpses now decorating the corridor, and with a curt bow crouched next to the priest.

“Oh, Lord Catesby,” said the angel, being hoisted over the man’s shoulder. “You are really here?”

Catesby, the man Cecil mentioned as the possible leader of some mysterious plot. Crowley’s ears would have perked up, but snakes did not have ears.

Catesby fixed a hard, serious look on Aziraphale’s face.

“Yes my friend, how could I leave you!” (Crowley could taste the emphasis.) “No respect for a man of the cloth. Bloody heathens!” Catesby slid his hand around Aziraphale’s waist, trying to balance the taller angel. “Do you think you can stand?”

“Yes… with some help,” Aziraphale sighed. Unused to physical discomfort of any kind, the angel was feeling exhaustion for the first time. His feet slid against the mucked straw and Catesby ended up shouldering half his weight. The priest looked up to give him thanks, but words got stuck in his throat. Above Catesby’s head, in the shadows of the stone walls, he saw yellow reptilian eyes study the scene. Couldn’t the demon take a hint?! Aziraphale tried to make a dismissive gesture at the fiend, but the mangled wrist just jerked, sending another unexpected spike of pain through his arm.

Catesby regarded his paling face with concern. The angel tried to look reassuring, both to Catesby and the shadowy presence of the demon.

The scope of the situation was hitting Aziraphale in nauseating waves. Afraid to fail the Heaven’s mission, he made a decision to stay in The Tower and wait for the promised rescue. But he failed when he tried to heal himself enough for the escape and was now a sitting duck. A panicking sitting duck. Something was wrong with his earthly body. And the worse part, this sudden predicament was endangering this young man’s life. And he even thought, experiencing the torture could bring him closer to humanity… Mortified, and failing to hide it from the two sets of concerned gazes, he leaned into the offered shoulder.

“F-forgive me,” he pushed out.

“What for, my friend? What you did… that you survived and kept us all protected…” earnest eyes intent on his face, Aziraphale felt profound shame engulfing him.

“I’ve brought rope…” Catesby continued, revealing the twine at his side. “But with your hands… I am afraid that would be impossible to go over the wall… I’ve heard there was an underground passage under the outside wall and the moat. But we need to get out of here first.”

Aziraphale’s sight was swimming in an out of focus. Crowley watched with what he reluctantly admitted to himself was growing concern.

“Leave me and save yourself, if such a time comes,” Aziraphale tried to smile, leaning heavier and heavier into Catesby’s side. The man returned his gaze without any words, conveying clearly, he would not do that.

“I think, I can hear the guards, please, try to walk.”

Dragging his feet, Aziraphale pushed his body to follow his savior down the staircase. They reached the lower level of the building and were prepared to turn a corner when the sound of approaching footsteps, and the metal clang of armor and sword held their feet in place. Catesby’s solemn expression became resolute. Thomas and Guido would continue with the plan, they came far enough. He felt his life was of no grave importance any longer…

Having no other option, they went down the opposite hallway. Aziraphale’s fears were confirmed when they reached the end and found the small door, but it was locked. Catesby’s loot was of no help, key after key proving useless. Presumably, the guards were not supposed to exit through here. While Aziraphale rested on the side of the doorway, Catesby looked around feverishly. The footsteps hastened, the guards understood they went down, into the dead-end.

Aziraphale looked up to the stone ceiling and sighed. His body was too busy performing a balancing act between human and inhuman faculties. He felt certain it was nearing its limit.

Is thisss all part of The Ineffable Plan, perhapssss? The demon’s thoughts came through the link.

The angel thought nothing back. Ignore him. Ignore the bloody demon and think! This was punishment for his arrogance…

It was important this rescue was successful to give Catesby’s associates the impetus and drive to complete whatever opposition they were preparing against the king. If the young revolutionary failed here, so was Heaven’s plan to help the English Catholics! He didn’t want to explain that to the management…

The gleam of Crowley’s eyes from the stones above followed them. Aziraphale could tell from the slight, amused curve of the yellow irises gazing back at him that the demon was smirking.

Oh, it appears this rescue has gone pear-shaped. Need a hand? A tail, perhaps?

Said tail dangled from the ceiling above him and wiggled. Aziraphale automatically turned away from the offer, and his eyes fell on the desperate attempts of Catesby to force the door.

Come now, angel. Even you aren’t as naive to think you can make this work on your own without showing your cards. Your little project here is as good as dead at this rate. Just say it.

Aziraphale bared his teeth, eyes shut.

“…help me!” He whispered under his breath.

Catesby stood up, taking a stance, bearing his sword, and turned back to Aziraphale, a farewell in desperate gaze. The priest’s eyes were shut tight, as if he was praying. Before he could call out to him, an orange sheen filled the hallway beside them. Catesby craned his neck and gawked at the spectacle forming out of thin air behind Aziraphale.

Fleshed out of the shadows and soot of the tower hallway, a figure’s silhouette burned with the intensity of struck coals, casting sparks on the floor beneath it. The black, outstretched arms formed, heavy folds of red silk coiling around the vision’s feet. Powdery, gray wings spread over the figure’s shoulders, touching the sides of the hallway. Otherworldly sleek features bloomed in the darkness, a thin blue flame arching above his black hair that fell down in rivulets against the red robe.

Aziraphale balked, but had to admit the fiend put on a good-looking spectacle. It was painful to watch as Catesby bought into all of this, and clasping his hands together, fell to his knees in reverence at the image before them.

“Behold, I am thy prayers made flesh!” Crowley’s voice echoed against the narrow walls of the stairwell, keeping his reptilian eyes demurely downcast. He brought his right hand down, pointing to a miraculously open gate near the floor. “This way shall lead thee to thy salvation!”

And with a shimmer of flame and smoke, the image flared white-hot, then vanished, leaving displace air and swirling ether. Catesby trembled, hands still clinging to one another in front of his chest. He weakly turned back to Aziraphale at the doorway, eyes wide and black. He stood up and grabbed the angel by the shoulders.

“A miracle from your prayers! God has provided. Praise him! My dear friend, you and I shall not die here! No, we must leave and continue our mission for the glory of God!”

The dungeons lined the perimeter of the Tower complex, enclosed by the moats. Stinking standing water into which the cesspools drained from cells, torture chambers, and guards quarters. The Glory of God led them into one of these drains. Catesby flung the lid of it shut, submerging them into darkness and excrement. It was only when they had both managed to splash down into their “salvation”— a narrow “sewer”, first vertical, then leading towards the moat, filled with countless years-worth of fermented waste – that Aziraphale grasped the joke of Crowley’s assistance. Of course, the demon’s grand pantomime of angelic guidance would lead them through shit and piss… Aziraphale watched Catesby’s back in front of him, relentlessly charging forward. How did the mortal manage to breathe through the poisonous fumes?

When the two men spilled out to the exit of the sewer, here too, miraculously, the grate gave to Catesby’s push and they stopped at the exit onto a thin strip of land, sloping towards the moat. By now, they were covered in enough “night soil” to give an English farmer three years of good crops. It was hard to know if the guards guessed which way they went. They stopped, pausing with a crouch, listening for the commotion, as torchlights danced above the Towers’ walls, reflecting as yellow glimmers in the murky water in front of them. Catesby understood that the priest would not be able to swim over to the boat, hidden away under the bridge. He waited, holding Aziraphale up, for the guards’ attention to turn elsewhere. The angel on his shoulder was getting heavier by the minute. Hot shallow breath tickled Catesby’s ear. Two still shadows, clinging to the slimy grate, feet slipping in slowly crawling sludge. Finally, as the reflections of the torches disappeared, Catesby whistled, quietly. After a few moments of tense stillness, a rowboat detached itself from the dense shadow of the wall. A young, sharp-faced man, who Aziraphale knew as Thomas Wintour, eagerly watched them from the edge of the boat, coaxing them on with a hand. The tall, bulky figure of the gunpowder expert, Guido Fawkes, loomed beside him, watching their emergence with disbelief.

“Father, you’re alive,” Thomas cried, slapping his wet back as he pulled the angel aboard. “We feared the worse!”

“Yes,” said his companion, “It seems somehow this worked…Ah! For God’s sake, the smell!”

Aziraphale collapsed at the bottom of the boat, looking over to Catesby who crouched over him, settling him more comfortably with gentle hands, and then proceeded to busy himself with an oar. Thomas could not take his eyes away from the bloodied swollen wrists that showed from the torn and soiled sleeves of his tattered doublet.

“First we deliver him to my residence. Then I need to speak to Father Garnet about what happened in the dungeon. I feel we have been blessed by God tonight, and we cannot waste a moment! I hope he sees the necessity of our plot now!”

Thomas cocked his head, waiting for more information as to what their leader meant, but no further was given, so he turned to the rescued priest, who only shook his head with a tortured smile. Whether Crowley had intended to or not, he had helped their crusade for Catholic freedom greatly.

 

***

 

Crowley teleported straight to his quarters from the stable. He took off the black leather, took off his chemise and drawers, stepped into a basin and let it rain. A small cloud smelled of ozone, it crackled with static. The rain was warm, like that first rain. That first rain they spent together at the Pearly Gate. Maybe a bit warmer, because the reptilian side of Crowley liked warm. The warm water slid down his body, washing off the feeling of the moldy wall, the smell of the dungeon – excrement, fear and pain – and the pervasive coppery-sweet scent of the angel’s blood.

He stood like that for a long time, lost to the world. His hair was long now, longer than in times of Greeks, it streamed down his shoulders, sleek and heavy with rainwater. James liked his hair, and when he was feeling charitable, he would not pull away if the king slid a hand up his back, to tug at his ribbon. Then he would stop him, careful not to insult. There was something vulnerable in the king at times like this. Crowley did not bother to pry, but it felt like the demon reminded him of someone, someone the king would not force.

Crowley dried himself off. He clicked his fingers to raise the temperature in the room, forgoing the clothes. He plopped into the soft armchair, opened the book. And spent another half hour staring through the page. He knew it by heart, but at the moment, he was not sure which book was in front of him. It was cool resting against his thigh. Aziraphale loved books, he would object to such treatment. So, Crowley closed the book finally noticing the title – Symposium. James would have loved it.

Crowley took the book, slid into the soft silk gown, did his hair up, and walked down the corridor.

James was asleep now, exhausted by the two Spanish boys. The spacious bedroom was excessively decorated, but not by the king himself. Crowley observed through the ages, how monarchs rarely lived in spaces that held anything much of value to them. They were placed like dolls in lavishly decorated doll-houses. Maybe this is why so many went mad. And then there was crossbreeding…

Crowley put the book on the bedside table. He looked at the sleeping man.

One should not do good things on purpose.

Guilty as charged.

***

As a Heavenly being, Aziraphale usually had no need of sleep, but when they arrived in the grey hours of the morning to Catesby’s London residence, he could barely keep his eyes open. Still trapped in his human condition, unable to heal his injuries, his body was losing its resources. Unfamiliar sensations were overloading the angel’s system; he did not know what he was feeling, and how to tend to all the uncomfortable sensations that battled for his attention. It was getting more and more pressingly clear, that he needed to very promptly recall in what way human body would respond to these stimuli-- hunger, fatigue, pain. For now, a very kind, older man of the cloth, who went by a humble name of Brother Glynn, surveyed the damage and fretted on the septic waste the wounds were exposed to. The angel still hoped that soon he would give the kind friar a delight by making a miraculous recovery, in spite of getting close and personal with the liquid death in the moat.

Aziraphale allowed himself to drift in and out, fatigue felt like being tipsy, really. Almost nice, if not for the pain. His many injuries were cleaned and dressed in dry bandages. The angel felt more exposed than in all the 5,000 something years on God’s green Earth, as the elderly friar manipulated his naked body. In his disorientation, he wanted to cover himself for some unfathomable reason. Finally, a loose chemise and soft pair of threadbare drawers hid his shame. Being dressed and having the restriction of cuffs and torn, twisted cloth around his corporeal vessel put him at ease. He laid back in the straw-packed pillow and shifted to settle, breathing and feeling as close to sleepy as he could… if only he had some hot tea with a bit of honey in it. That was asking a bit much of his current situation, however.

It was already near daybreak. The sky was lightening to a fine powder blue behind the wrinkled window glass of his room, and Aziraphale could hear the early shuffling of the working merchants rising for their practice in the streets below. The movement, the rough drop of footsteps on creaking floorboards, somehow comforted the angel. In Heaven, there was no sound, or no incidental sound, to be heard. There were spoken words and song, but the clack of silverware or clop of horse hooves were nowhere. He sunk into the sounds laying there, feeling life moving all around him.

Aziraphale cracked opened his eyes a fraction at the quiet creak of the door, to see Robert Catesby, creeping into his room in a nightshirt. Odd, he thought, shifting up on his pillow.

“Oh, Father, I’m—I hope I didn’t wake you. I came… I came to check on you. I was worried with your wounds, they seemed so terrible…”

The angel smiled at him tiredly. The man wouldn’t say so, but it seemed he didn’t think he would make it through the night.

“The friar has been very good to me,” he said, looking at his fingers sticking out of the bandages and splints, encasing both his arms. “I will recover… with time.”

“This must be God’s will!” The other man said, tenderly and hesitantly. His eyes wandered about the room, his hands covering, half-clasped with agitated fingers.

“Was there something else…?” The angel finally offered. The other man’s chronic, sober gaze came back. He crouched next to Aziraphale’s cot in such a quick drop, the angel shifted back. With genteel respect and careful movement, Robert reached out with his hands and looked up at Aziraphale, who returned a questioning gaze. He laid a careful palm on the bruised fingers. The angel twitched in surprise. The sudden closeness put a strange thrill into his body, an odd shot of heat that had no physiological explanation. Catesby’s fingertips moved in a simple caress. Aziraphale found it…nice, but bothersome, somehow.

With fierce burning eyes, yet gingerly, Catesby clasped the angel’s hand.

“My friend, I believe we are fated to be together.”

The disquieting heat inside him grew hotter. Aziraphale felt a giddy smile on his face that he did not mean to put there. He tried to take a hold of his wits. What his human body was doing… his corporeal vessel was giving him confusing signals.

“You and I…” Catesby continued, “have been blessed by God. Granting us a vision of His angel!”

Aziraphale’s panicked argument with himself stopped. The unidentified pleasantness seeped away as he realized what the man was referring to – none other than Anthony J. Crowley, the fiend. He tried to keep his face straight.

“Yes… the… ‘angel”,” Aziraphale strained. It was true, he thought, in a way, if you forgo the specifics, angel stock, that one, expired, as it is, but… “I saw it, too.”

“We were saved by a messenger of God…surely…there must be a reason! Despite all our doubts… surely our Plan is blessed by Him!” there was barely any voice in his words. If Aziraphale had wanted to laugh, he could not now, seeing the pained, desperate expression in the young man’s eyes. He seemed close to tears. Who would have thought, Crowley’s antics were pushing this man into a moral crisis?

“You too have joined us, Father… What other way is there to save our Catholic brothers and sisters from such brutal persecution if not with a sword?”

“Indeed,” the answer was automatic. Divine interventions did not work in this day and age anymore. Jesus would have been hung drawn and quartered after a short witch-trial, had he tried to go around healing people and turning water into wine. Although, water into actual drinkable water would have been preferable in this specific case.

Not angels, but people, had to stop people.

Two days ago, Aziraphale met another angel, who had arrived with the Spanish Embassy, and would, hopefully, promote the possibility of Spanish pressuring King James into leniency towards the Catholics. In the meantime, through the Jesuit Superior, Father Garnet, Aziraphale came upon a convenient local Catholic resistance. The leader of said group, Robert Catesby, hatched some (doubtlessly altruistic) plot, which Aziraphale was soon to be initiated into, in which he planned to remove the biggest eyesore in Heaven’s eyes – King James I. Aziraphale had hoped to circumvent the bloodier option of regicide by peaceful diplomacy with Spain. However, considering his current celestial disability, and the lack of word from his partner in the Spanish court, the sword may very well have to be drawn and honed for the repressive king.   

On Aziraphale’s apparent agreement, Catesby’s face broke in relief, and he smiled up at the angel.

“Then if that is the case, Father, please join me in a prayer… for your recovery, and for God’s guidance as we continue our cause!”

Little did Catesby know how close he was to divine guidance at that moment!

 

 

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then all Hell broke loose. 

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

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

Aziraphale ran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus died for this.

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

 

***

 

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

He. Woke. Up.

Which meant he slept.

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

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

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

He closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

“Let me go, let me go…”

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I gathered as much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you—”

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

“In all my years—”

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

“What if you fail?”

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

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

Lay ruin with gunpowder..?”

“Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

“They are here to help…”

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

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

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

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

“Do you repent?”

“No!”

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

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

“You…”

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

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

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

Anne was wrong. Reason had no chance.

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his dream, the angel never fell.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catesby walked closer to Gerard’s cot.

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The demon’s brows shot up in alarm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“-ming,” he mumbled to a finish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowley drew away his hand, sitting straighter.

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

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

“Told anyone?”

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

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

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

“Whot?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What? But I can’t. I’ve never!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

 

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-”

BEGONE.

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!

No…

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 crossbreeding) 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…

He hoped.

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.

“Yeh…”

“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…”

“Hmm..?”

“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.

“I…”

“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.

“Crowley…”

“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?”

“Yeah… separate…”

“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.

“Crowley!!!!”

“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?”

“Yeah…”

“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?”

“Yeh…”

“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?”

“Good, right?”

“Damn good…”

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.

“Shared acquaintances…”

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.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The dishes cheerfully cluttered down the stairs, redecorating the steps. A clay bowl smashed quite dramatically at the friar’s feet. Brother Glynn had made it to the top, when Lord Catesby, blinded by some tremendous rush, nicked his elbow and sent the dinnerware on its current unorthodox path. Luckily, his own round body did not join the cutlery, but the skirts of his neat gray habit displayed a fascinating pattern of splashes and wilted vegetables.  

At least, the culprit had the decency to look startled by his own doing. The nonplused face looked up then down at the mess. Having stopped abruptly, the momentum still carried Lord Catesby’s thoughts forward. The man appeared desperate to make a way out for himself, hands twitching, shoulders turning to the stairs, while he stole glances at the door that he slammed shut behind himself. Honed thought years of experience, Brother Glynn’s inner voice urged him to stall the young man.

“My Lord… oh, what do you have here…” Catesby stepped forward mechanically, and the friar plucked a stalk of leek from the sweaty curls at his temple. “Not the best accessory to wear out of the house?”

“F-forgive me, urgent…”Catesby began, stopped, then looked down guiltily. “My apologies, Brother. Let me help you.” He crouched at the cleric’s feet, picking up a sharper clay chip. Although the cleric’s hands were not as nimble as they once had been, they appeared more steady than Lord Catesby’s.

David, Lord Wintour’s valet – one of the very few servants initiated into the plot, caught them picking up the pieces of pottery and stewed vegetables. As the young man rushed up the stairs with apologies, the familiarity of the hierarchy seemed to call Catesby to his feet. The master of the house nodded curtly, and hurried down the stairs, escaping the friar’s scrutiny.

Brother Glynn straightened his back with a sigh. He looked after the stiff-shouldered figure. The young man appeared to go into bouts of passion very easily. A mild sickness of youth, but sometimes it could lead to unhealthy choices.

“Shall I bring another cup of tea and soup up?” David interrupted his reverie. The young man built a rapport with the friar, offering much needed help with their … challenging charge.

“If it is not too much of a bother, there is plenty of stew still, and if you can bring up the whole pot of tea…” David offered him a supportive arm. “I shall… go see how the Father is. Thank you, David.”

 

With a heavy premonition, Brother Glynn opened the door to find his patient laying down, with blanket and sheets in disarray around him. Despite the mess, the thin body was posed very uniform; arms straight and palms down. Gerard’s pale hair, smoothed out during an earlier wash, was now rustled up in white tufts. The priest stared ahead at the blank ceiling. The old man sighed. In the past week, he noticed clearly Gerard’s perchance for the dramatic.

“Father,” he called to Gerard. The stare shifted, head turned, eerily diffused attention slid towards him. The friar met it with a stoic smile. “We had a bit of a tangle in the hallway. David will be up shortly with your dinner. How is your pain?”

“Oh…it is…better, I suppose… ” Gerard offered with a stiff swallow and no elaboration. Considering Lord Catesby’s dramatic exit, it seemed there was more to it than the cabin fever, expected after days in disabled confinement. Disturbed bandages at the shoulders attested to that theory, and the chemise now had a conspicuous rip that implied at least some type of violence. At that revelation, the grey bushy brows met in a frown.

The friar’s careful hands undid the shirt, pulling it down the priest’s shoulders to fall around his waist. To the accompaniment of stifled groans, they went about repeated cleaning. The bandages came off, lye and water still stung the abused skin. Brother Glynn dabbed a salve into the cuts on his side and front – these were healing so nicely. Done with re-arranging the dressings, he pulled a folded shirt of finer linen with detailed needlework from beneath the bed. As expected, Father Gerard eyed the garment with suspicion, beginning to lean on the friar. 

“This is too… fine for me to wear,” he protested.

“Don’t concern yourself. Our host is generous within his means,” the old man’s eyes crinkled at Gerard.

“Mmn,” was the only offered response.

Looking away, the angel leaned forward, allowing his damaged arms to be lifted, old shirt came off, new one slid coolly over his skin. Tying the lacing also demanded dexterity beyond Aziraphale’s means. Through the procedure he avoided meeting Brother Glynn’s keen gaze. However, he failed to hide the strained muscles of his jaw that moved as if he was chewing on all the troubling thoughts. Some mortals, however, had an annoying habit of putting two and two together. He expected the following question.

“Was there an argument?” The cleric finally, asked, finished with his work. “Lord Catesby appeared… agitated…”

Aziraphale looked up, then closed his eyes. It was easier being an angel – you could just pause the world. Humans had no such option, having to freefall through panic and somehow find their way to rational thought and action. How, they managed it, he wasn’t sure, but he was getting more familiar with the finer point. Crowley called this feeling – adrenalin. Sharp Adam’s apple bobbed nervously. He felt read by the cleric, but of course, the truth of him was beyond even the wise old man.

“It seems… our … opinions…differed on… certain matters. I hope we can come to an understanding…” He offered with hesitation. “Brother…Did… they tell you how I was hurt? I just now realized, not once have you asked.”

The old cleric looked pensive, settling the “priest” down against the pillows.

“What is there to know, my son? You were a child of God in need. That is my only concern.”

“Brother,” he tried to sit up awkwardly with dubious results. “Brother, you…you should be more mindful of the situation…here. It is not…”

He stopped, looked to the side, choosing the correct word, then-

“Safe. It is not safe for you…now that I am better… and we have Doctor Raphael visiting, you don’t need to be here, putting yourself at risk from—”

“…from?”

“…I…cannot say, I’m sorry. It’s best you do not know why. Trust me … it would be better if you leave now, before decisions are made that will endanger you.”

Brother Glynn leaned back in his chair, what a strange patient he had. So, the boy was worried about him. Was that what the fight was about? The monk was not naïve, although he did not know the exact shape of the danger looming, he could guess. After all, Lord Catesby famously failed with a coup two years ago. Closing his eyes, he heard a movement on the bed, his patient must have leaned in, waiting.

“No…no I don’t think I will go. Not now,” he finally answered, sitting forward again, and resumed preparing the fresh bandages.

“Oh…” the priest blinked owlishly at him – an endearing quirk. “Do you not believe me, Father?”

“I do,” Brother Glynn could not help his voice becoming even more wistful. “I do very much believe you, my son. I am not blind, nor deaf…not yet, anyways. No…I know what you say is true. Let me ask you, Father…will you leave? If I tell you, even in your condition, I can help you leave, will you go, yourself?”

The priest blinked quickly, looking away. He did seem to consider the offer, then shook his head slowly.

“I cannot… I-”

“-You feel you can do good here? You feel you can help them?”

“…I should…”

Brother Glynn smiled, he reached out and placed his hand on the young man’s discolored arm. The words that felt right came easy. “I am the same. I am old, nearly 70 now. I have few days ahead of me. I have seen people do terrible things, and also much good. I will likely see more, yet still I hope, and do the work as God wills it. You understand, yes?”

It appeared Father Gerard did, the mournful way he looked back at him. The friar nodded, settling on the silent understanding of their treacherous circumstance.

 

That was a very long day… Evening rolled around, weighing down on Aziraphale heavier than ever. Before heading to get some rest of his own, Brother Glynn helped the angel to sit up. He proceeded to place two books in his lap, one was the bible, but the other one, was a small printed novel, entitled The Unfortunate Traveller. The even rows of uniform letters brought to angel’s mind Herr Guttenberg, an inspired German fellow, who dreamt of literacy for everyone. The worn tome appeared to be an odd choice for a friar. The angel’s surprise, however, was dismissed with a cheerful encouragement to distract his mind with some colorful images of adventure, if only for a little while. Brother Glynn reasoned, the human imagination was God’s gift, wasn’t it? So reading the fruits of the human mind’s labor was worship in itself. Aziraphale thought back at a few grimoires that passed his hands, but assumed that could be a discussion for another time.

Aziraphale latched onto the familiarity of books. He missed the small study lined with his collection, and idly wondered if Cecil’s spies already desecrated his little personal Heaven. Someday, he wanted to open a shop to keep all his books on neat shelves.

His nature obligated him to leaf through the bible. Even the printed tome sat heavy in his lap. He started from the beginning, but found himself chuckling at the human elaborations and scowling at the finer points of female treachery. It was amazing how the basics of the story were reinterpreted, and then further abstracted. He thumbed through to the New Testament, looking for some peace of mind from that kind gentleman from Galilee, and indeed found some soothing words there. His mood soured however, as he reached the part with passions and Golgotha. Far from humanity’s finest hour.  

The fear and allure of power gave Hell a solid purchase to lead mankind astray, despite the best efforts of celestial emissaries. Yet at the same time, so many remained steadfast. How did they manage? His current predicament was a testament to human resilience. Here he was, a useless nuisance to his caretakers, who nevertheless showed to him nothing but the continual kindness. Humans were…so trying! And where do you begin to wrap your mind around the likes of Lord Catesby – a contradiction in terms incarnate – so wholly devoted to God, in what fashion he saw Her (or “Him”, as most presumed these days), that he tethered between misguided death and a horrific unimaginable sin. What would Crowley make of him? Gullible pawn, plaything, conveniently falling into the pit?

(If Brother Glynn could have foreseen this effect, he would have guided his hand to Psalms. Oh well…)

Hope, he had reminded himself to hope for a good resolution, even as said resolution seemed insurmountable, especially in this flimsy, base form he found himself trapped in! He could not complete his mission this way, or even take a shit with any aptitude!

Aziraphale’s mind yet again was heading for the loop of mental self-flagellation. Was it not his reckless action that resulted in the new bold light in Catesby’s eyes? His experiments with martyrdom enabled the volatile man to act on his outrageous plan, believing he was backed by Heaven. Aziraphale’s own action put the lives of good men at risk. The kindly friar, earnest Lord Wintour, misguided Lord Catesby. He had initially come with all those great hopes of vanquishing an oppressive king, saving Catholics, ending the confusing vicious cycle of martyrdom… had he even thought of the collateral damage? The numbers seemed to increase by the day. Was he himself ready to make this faceless statistically beneficial sacrifice just two weeks ago? On Heaven’s orders… just like Catesby…

Aziraphale blinked, realizing the aforementioned accursed form was slipping out of his control again. The banal fear pulsed in his veins, morphing into debilitating shame, pushing his mortal heart to skip and trip over his morose thoughts. He recalled the demon’s instructions and breathed, his lungs flexed soothing air in and out of their chambers. Accursed form! Its ---weakness was designed to push the soul astray!

He thought back to the last time he felt – anything besides pain, fear or sadness. A vivid image came to mind readily. The strange, visceral safety of the spell, and then the almost-light conversation he shared with Crowley a few hours ago. What a long day… He focused on it, a new and yet familiar feeling. A sense of being known by Crowley over all the millennia focused and amplified in one moment. He just never noticed it before. His f(r)iend’s presence (as irritating as it often was) had afforded the most freedom to him, before from drudgery of celestial bureaucracy, and now from the confines of human form...

Pacing himself, he retraced the patterns of the walls, and considered the ceiling, which had been considered more times than he cared to admit.

Crowley had said (“promised” was not in his vernacular) that he’d contact him again when he’d obtained more intel. Yes… “intel” …he wouldn’t mind if he had sent a line to check on him… a small word… a friendly voice in his head didn’t sound like the worst… he thought carefully a moment, biting on his lip absently. It was clear, he should not tell Crowley, yet, about the plot. He was not sure what additional ears would hear it, or whose good graces the demon had nestled himself in here in the human world. But…

With some effort, he turned to one side and watched the flame of the candle of his nightstand dance on the tip of its wick. He studied it fiercely in silence, and, with exasperation (seemingly at himself), engaged the link.

The signal lifted from the bed and stretched out, tentatively, past the solid wood of the walls, into the black expanse of night above, meekly extending an offer. If it wasn’t a hassle. If it was alright…could we?

The fragile line found its recipient in a very strange turmoil of, quite literally, flashing rage. Aziraphale heard the echo of split glass and even caught a whiff of smoke. Oh Goodness!

Concerned, he reached out again, more urgent, until he grasped Crowley’s spirit, exhausted and in dis-ease. His request for connection again and, pushing forward—

BUGGER OFF. The invitation was pushed away with a near-magnetic repulsion that made the angel retract through the link at a speed that made his human form arch, eyes wide open, momentarily confused and dizzy.

“…Bloody… twat,” he said to the crucifix over his head. Once the shock of the rebuttal faded, he covered his mouth with shock at his own words… that was definitely not him! Some of the demon’s penance for vulgarity must have rubbed off on him through the link, he reasoned, shifting and rutting in the bed.

“A little ‘no thank you,’ would have sufficed! No need to be rude! Demons! Really!” He stuffed the link away in the small light of his imprisoned celestial essence.

Having exhausted all other resources for comfort, the angel returned to his books. With resignation, he opened the second volume, and read the novel. As the scenery and action of the story caught him in its sway, he tipped his hat to Brother Glynn’s ability to soothe his patients in both body and mind so well. It was a long day…

 

***

 

Only one human lifetime ago, Crowley had decided to have some fun with one of the many alchemists cropping up in Elizabethan England. The man, who seemed on the fast track to becoming the Queen’s confidant, was John Dee. The young up-and-comer was brilliant in many aspects, inventing pulley systems and mathematical compositions that had given England’s royal fleet advantage in the previous war. He also charmed her royal highness with his accurate horoscopes. However, as some great minds do, he did not stop there. In his pursuit of glory and power, he became fixated on marrying science with every other crazy thing in the box. He grafted a variety of ancient texts from around the world, attempting to piece together a rather lopsided Leviathan of that primordial wisdom. And while many of his time were enamored with Buddhist or Judaic teachings, he set to making them instruments in attempts to manipulate the fabric of reality.

Crowley couldn’t blame him for trying; that with all the … religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants and all. The church was a biased institution, which used the clergymen to manipulate their respective parishes. Men of science found the restrictions frustrating, and in the early period of empirical thought, fancied applying math or even… architecture to the divine design. Go figure! Dee dedicated his life to searching for the pulley or gear of the Creator. He wished to use angels as instruments for ushering the Armageddon. (What is it with everyone and their mother so intent on that old thing?)

In Hell, the whole alchemy business was observed gleefully. Demons milked a possibility to muck up the Celestial paperwork for what it was worth. Some posed as angels in visions, some whispered recipes for holy cures that resulted in nasty boils on delicate parts. Crowley found all these attempts a bit pedestrian. He wanted to really create some gridlock.

John Dee seemed to be the answer to his prayers (metaphorically speaking). The Hermetical-alchemist-mathematician-advisor had begun studying the Steganographica, an ancient book written by an abbot documenting a cipher-like version of Hebrew. He hoped that it would allow him to speak with spirits. The (then) young alchemist, was thrilled to pour over such potentially revolutionary texts, but had little time to copy the script. So, to spur things up, Crowley had lifted the papers, while Dee entombed himself at the library, and added some fine-tuning, revealing to the human glimpses of actual Angelic language. The catch was, though, that as a demon, Crowley could not teach the complex pronunciation to his new charge. Had he spoken it, he would combust. The complexities of angelic tongue therefore escaped Dee on his first several tries. With exasperation, Crowley appeared to the alchemist in his best angelic disguise, to tutor his enthusiastic charge.   

Dee knew enough of Latin and Hebrew, which were at some point derived from Enochian language, however, the angelic tongue was safeguarded with an obscure pronunciation system with 75 tones, which was closer to… for the lack of a better reference - Chinese. The alchemist tried his best at reading out the annotated “summoning” (Crowley even tried to add musical notation!). He definitely looked the part, raising his hand and bellowing the arcane vowels at his crystal ball. However, the defective pronunciation turned the misleading intel that Crowley wrote for him into something truly psychedelic. For example, one receipt which was supposed to enlighten the celestial spheres with the news that Archangel Michael was having an affair with Beelzebub. Crowley was anticipating the inside investigation. It arrived however as “the Archangel Michael learned to breathe through his asshole and died when he sat down”. He would also attempt to report the second coming of Jesus to remote areas of the earth, but ended up starting a few crocodile cults, most of them very memorable, yet short-lived. As short lived as the followers who disturbed the reptiles’ siesta to offer venerations. The exception was the one in Iceland. For obvious reasons.

Despite Heaven’s growing suspicion, the messages stubbornly got caught on the heavenly frequency, as they were technically in Angelic language and had to be checked. Oh, the “blessed” gridlock! Crowley gave up trying to make sense, and even once had Dee read out his shopping list, which remained in records as an accidental love-ballad in which a demon professed his undying passion for an angel. Happens all the time with Chinese too.

Crowley continued to “reward” his charge with “angelic visitations”, granting him the vision of a gossamer gray, black-haired angel (whose strange gold eyes had vertical pupils... still better than eight-winged floating heads…) that foretold his summoner’s importance to both the British Empire and the coming Armageddon.

The tutoring lessons, which were hilarious for exactly one of its participants, continued for a few months and were becoming tiresome. Crowley gladly bailed after Hell got word that their celestial rivals were looking into all the ridiculous communications they were getting from Earth.

The incident seemed to have evolved further after he had left Dee to his own devices.

Even without Crowley’s magic, John Dee was not hard to find. Notorious, first for his accomplishments, now, he was renowned for his spectacular downfall. Which however, gave him an aura of misunderstood genius, attracting a few followers at Christ College. Queen Elizabeth begrudgingly threw him that financial bone, instating him as the Ward of the facility. Was it Dee, or an admirer now leaving similar handiwork scrawled on the form of his trapped friend Aziraphale?

 

That evening, after Crowley retired to his room, escaping the flighty diplomats and the incessant meddling of Cecil, he materialized his reliable old crystal ball, gave it a polish with a sleeve, and stared into it. It was prime scrying hour; Dee always preferred to delve into the ball late evening by candlelight. The demon waited patiently for the hook of an incantation to reach out through the flickering, bent flame reflecting in the glass. Then –

Swoop. His spirit warped into pitch black shadow, darting through the gap of distorted chants and reforming a split second later on the stone floor of Dee’s study.

The dry old man, who apparently had been bent over his own crystal ball moments before, toppled back in his chair from the force of the apparition and hung, tilted, until Crowley’s black boot stamped down on the wooden seat between the bony knees and swung him forward to a horizontal position.

“Hello, Johnny, been a while,” He drawled, leaning into the trembling man’s pallid long face. “Keeping the old lines burning, are you?”

“You’ve returned…Cassiel, oh sweet Cassiel, you’ve returned!” He cried out, raising his wrinkled hands up, almost touching Crowley’s face. The demon stood up, brushing off the feeling of being pulled through the eye of a needle. He didn’t care for scrying, but desperate times…

The demon took a glance around, and was surprised to find the library, once fastidiously managed, in disarray. He remembered it brimming with volumes, now only a few tomes were scattered on the vacant shelves. Some of the finer golden weights and scientific instruments that had cluttered the room were conspicuously missing. He raised one sharp brow above his shades.

“Did you have a bargain sale?”

Dee looked about the disheveled study, he sighed.

“They pillaged my home, my instruments… Years of research, gone!” He growled between his (remaining) teeth. “Oh Cassiel…it all went so badly…why did you leave?” the alchemist’s voice rose in a whine at the end.

Crowley sighed. Humans tended to get severely attached to the promises of glory, and proof of their own importance, especially when you pretended to espouse heavenly magic. He cleared his throat.

“My apologies…I had important…angel business. Why don’t you catch me up on things?”

With a “heavenly” audience, Dee began a litany of his many trials and travels. After his “success” with Crowley, he had been desperate to summon another angel. He enlisted the help of several like-minded alchemists, but the special spark was missing. Obviously, because what they were doing without Crowley was rubbish, but the “angel” was not inclined to reveal that just yet.

Finally, he miraculously met one Edward Kelley, whose scrying abilities seemed to predict minor future events. The alchemist begrudgingly noted that duller minds would consider Kelley’s premonitions mere “coincidences.” Crowley smirked into a small silver mirror and took a moment to appreciate how good he looked in the sheer robes. Even given that his anatomy had to be standard issue human imagination “angelic”. Popular precaution most of his kin followed – alchemists were… handsy folk. His attention dwindling, he tuned back into the drone of Dee’s words.

Through Kelley’s inspired suggestions to Dee’s summoning spells, they worked together to draw out the voice of an angel. Unfortunately, their devotion to days-long scrying and aspirations of speaking to God directly, were not at all appreciated by the alchemist’s many-suffering patrons (namely, Queen Elizabeth). With royal patience waning, his and Kelley’s families were forced to flee to the continent. There they found financing with Polish and Bohemian royalty. Boooohoooo…

“We ended up in Trebona, in Prague tasked with creating a Philosophers stone. At first it seemed our fortunes turned for the better,” Dee continued, rattling on with little encouragement from the bored “Cassiel”, who idly paged through the remaining books in his collection. “As we chanted and scryed, day, night, we started to get flashes from the ball again! I recall, an image of a hand, and eye!” Crowley’s brow rose over his spectacles, and his ears perked up. “… and I felt soon we would make her become flesh. And she did!

Crowley looked up, turned back to the half-crouched man in the chair.

“‘She’, did you sssssay? Who is ‘she’?”

Dee turned his drawn face back, fires licking at the worry-lines on his forehead, sharpening the crooked nose into a beak. He grinned, broader and broader.

“Why, Medini, of course,” He whispered. “Sweet Medini came to us.”

Crowley went still, calculating on the horrifying math adding up.

“You…sssssssummoned an angel?”

“Yes!” Dee breathed. “She was beautiful…oh, well… not as beautiful as you, dear Cassiel. Her hair and wings were the color of fire. He eyes held the Milky Way within them. Her bosom, oh... her bosom!.. Oh, Medini!”

Oh fuck, Crowley thought. It did sound like he’d actually managed to summon an angel… Heaven must have sent an agent to check… shit…

“Yes, but she kept blinking away. She would stay with us a moment, held by the echoes of my voice, with Kelley’s direction of tone, we managed to hold her and question her…longer and longer…until…she could not leave us. I think…it was quite distressing to her…but she had to understand, we needed her. She had a great purpose.”

No… this was completely utterly impossible.

How?” The demon hissed, clutching at the arms of the man’s chair and leaning in quite menacingly. “How did you do it? How did you hold her there?”

“It was another spell,” Dee answered, sounding a bit hurt with the demon’s lack of understanding. “The spells you and I worked on…Kelley, had an eye for how they fit. Corrected some small mistakes. He said, for the magic to work, I would have to speak them. There were many trials, so many, but eventually we came to it.”

“Kelley…did?”

“Yes, he was a natural, as if he heard the words himself!”

Indeed…

“What happened to the angel?”

“Oh…she spirited away one day. I think she was unhappy on earth, in our laboratory…we tried everything to have her come back…Kelley called to her in the crystal ball. She had strange demands… about our wives…”

Crowley looked at the man, suddenly gone quiet, lost in reminiscing…

What about your wives?”

“Well… Kelley told me… we had to… you know… cross-match, in a… variety… of configurations… but even after that she never returned.”

Kelley told you, huh… Crowley entertained himself with a detour into his vivid imagination.

“Did you see her go?” He returned to business.

“No, it happened while I was out. Kelley told me…”

The demon rubbed his temple, growling to himself. The entire affair stunk to Heaven. He wondered if Aziraphale knew of a Medini, who might or might not want mortals to shag each other silly in various configurations. And if she indeed, was returned safely to Heaven? Something told Crowley that it was unlikely. If she did, there would have been a major investigation. Heaven would want to hush it up if there was a way to trap them, for sure. He knew, he would have… Dee would have been found easily, probably disposed of. Yet here he is in front of the demon. It did not add up at all. If Medini was an agent of Heaven sent to investigate Dee’s prank-messages, the alchemist would have been implemented in weather it was: a disappearance, captivity or whatever else happened to her. It sounded way too similar to Aziraphale’s predicament, and the demon knew all too well not to believe in coincidences when such magic was involved. So! Where did the angel go, if she escaped? Why would she not talk? Was she… silenced… and did it mean that now Aziraphale was… mortal?

Crowley, sat down. Fuck!

“Where’s Kelley now?”

“Gone. Died. He had gotten himself involved in some alchemy scheme… died in prison, as I hear it.” Shit! However, he knew Dee and his propensity to record everything.

“And what of the summoning spell, John? Where did you write it down?”

“I wrote it down…in our little book, remember?” He offered wistfully.

Ah yes, it was a small, purple book that perfectly fit in the palm. Crowley stood up stiffly, then walked back to the shelves, looking over with more urgency than before.

“You won’t find it there,” Dee called over his shoulder, then sunk his chin in his hand. “It’s gone…lost with all my other treasures.”

Bloody hell, this was bad. Crowley nearly banged his head on the shelves in despair. Aziraphale will never get over this; neither would Heaven or Hell... Dee was not a reliable narrator, but everything indicated that the destructive nature of his prank seemed to be deepening by the moment. And now the spell was gone, and apparently, someone picked it up! But how did they know how to pronounce it? Hell tribunal loomed in his mind’s eye… No, not the time to delve into speculations about which specific tortures would top brass unleash upon his sorry ass… he let the thoughts skip across the mind like a stone over water.

Now, now, the book…

Crowley started pacing, measuring the stone floor, rubbing his temples and thinking over the circumstances. He folded his hands in front of him, appearing in parody to prayer. Finally heel-turning briskly, he pivoted back to the seated man, who was longingly staring at him. The alchemist smiled, hopeful for another prophecy.

“Johnny-boy,” Crowley started again, folding down his fingers and pointing at the man. “My friend…who knows you reside here? Have you had other visitors?”

“My daughter Katherine comes to see me,” He offered. “Oh, and the young fellows, scholars from Christ College came by sometimes. They were crestfallen when they saw the state of the library…not enough bones to pick through for their own betterment!”

That seemed to be the only thread he could follow at the moment. Christ’s Church was in Manchester, so-

A strange chord thrummed through the room. The vibrations felt foreboding. Crowley’s pointed ears adjusted to the solemn tone, and realized it was Dee chanting behind him. He turned back to see the man’s black eyes wide and glimmering in the candlelight, his thin lips curving to the Enochian syllables.

“And just what are you doing?”

“I cannot let you leave me again… I remember enough…” Dee said, then began again. The shadows in the room seemed to spasm for a moment, a chorus of rushing wind and primordial roar of flame, then-AND THEN-

…Dee stopped, blinking at the demon’s unchanged form. Crowley snorted.

“… Oi, my mother’s a what?” he asked, putting his hand on one hip. “Bloody old fool, you’re really hopeless on your own. Thanks for the info, best be on my way now, Johnny! By the way, I don’t have a mother!” The desperation and abandonment in the man’s face felt so good! Killing him would not garner such satisfaction as a promise of powerless eternity alone.

With a snap of his finger and the bend of space-time, the demon warped back through the crystal ball’s candlelight reflection and back into his own chamber. He stumbled a little upon touchdown, feeling a strange unsettling premonition. It interfered with the equilibrium of his vessel. Unbending his back, he gave a long questioning gaze into the ball swathed in crushed velvet. Again, he was reminded of what he had been told, of what had come about with his little prank on a silly alchemist. A flash of rage engulfed him, worse yet that he had only himself to blame. A bright crack split the ball into two jagged pieces, flames licking the cloth underneath it. Crowley felt the growl leave his throat, he clicked his fingers snuffing out the fire.

The mixture of anger and hopelessness welling up in his mind, choking his reasoning, disabling his senses… he staggered to his bed, dropping himself down on his back with a groan. He lay there, trying to recalibrate his body. The anger he felt was familiar, and he owned it, but the melancholy and terror, felt foreign and invasive. No…it felt…like his

“Bloody hell, Aziraphale, I can’t handle your sympathy pains at the moment!” He pushed the energy of the angelic angst out of his ethereal body. After a moment his vessel finally relaxed. The demon’s back sank against the pillow.

He felt a ripple in space and something landed on the bed next to him. Not having the energy or interest to lift his head, he tried to ignore it. Not one to be ignored, the now-fluffy feline form of Bentley jumped over to the edge of the bed and intrusively sniffed Crowley’s mouth. Luxurious black whiskers tickled the demon’s no less luxurious long nose.

“Bad choice,” his master said, noticing the familiar’s black coat. “Don’t let the king see you like that. He hates cats more than rats.”

Bentley’s ears wilted. He shook his head and in a blend of shadow, turned into a neat black dachshund with a wagging tail. With no further protests from his master, the creature curled up against the demon’s chest. The warmth wasn’t terrible. Crowley deigned to lift his hand and rub his thumb against the familiar’s neck.  

“…bloody angels…bloody humans…done with the whole lot of them,” He muttered against the embroidery.

 

***

 

Holding the horses’ reins, David watched with interest how his two lords toiled for a change, trying to roll the barrel up the plank onto the cart. David did not know who Sisyphus was, so he thought of dung-beetles instead. Amidst his metaphorical ponderings, Guido’s broad back appeared in the doorframe of the storage room. The cellars of the Lambeth lodgings were emptying steadily, even if not necessarily very quickly. The horses stood phlegmatically, chewing at their bits, shifting from one foot to another, awaiting the crack of a whip to set them going. Thomas accepted the barrel from Robert and settled it, leaning it towards the side of the cart, then secured it with rope. Their task took time and deliberation. With three barrels loaded, Guido got onto the cart with him. Even transporting the explosives along the uneven cobbled streets was as exercise in faith. Another cart, filled with firewood, was being steered by Catesby’s valet out of the gates. The lord thanked David, taking the rains and climbing up onto the seat. Despite the labor shortage the stubborn man refused to allow the servants to risk their lives. Thomas and Guido secured the last load and settled themselves next to their cargo. Percy would meet them at the storage.

Robert clicked his tongue and gently urged the horses on. David bowed to them as they rolled out of the gates on the heels of the first cart. Thomas watched the servant enter the house. There was a shadow in the priest’s window, but Thomas’s attention already turned to Guido. His friend was sitting in front of him, eyes closed, hands crossed. He looked tired, the late nights and the duties he had to perform with Percy during the day took a toll on him. He grasped at any opportunity for a nap. Thomas shrugged off a sense of loss at a wasted rare face-to -ace with a friend, and crawled up, settling behind Catesby instead. Darkening streets with candles being lit behind the mismatched gaps of windows rolled by. On their backdrop Catesby looked like a bird of prey, hunched onto himself.

In the fading light of day, the man at the reins appeared even worse for wear than Fawkes. Pale, with shadows under his eyes. Robert’s hands had a small nervous tremor, the kind he got when he was excited or worried. He was not immune to their nightly tours, after all.

“Aren’t you looking green around the gills?”

Catesby grunted, pulling at the reins to keep the horses’ leisurely pace.

“Did you talk to Father Gerard?” Thomas saw only a part of Catesby’s profile, the wide brim of his hat throwing shade over one tired eye. Yet, even at this angle the spasm that rippled through his cousin’s face was evident. No words followed. Thomas pressed: “How did he take it?”

“I am not sure… he…” Robert hunched even lower, completely obscuring his face behind wild hair and the hat.

“Why would you burden him this way? He did so much already, he staked his life for Our Lord in Heaven…”

“He hoped for a better solution,” Catesby’s voice was very quiet, body locking down into a pained resigned stance.

“Don’t we all”, Thomas sighed.

“I was so sure… I was so… it had to be him!” Thomas just listened. “All those dreams, these prophesies…” A shudder went through the speaking man.

Once triggered by Crowley’s careless prying, his subconscious went into overdrive; so many versions of the priest, angel, and sometimes even himself filled his nights. This kaleidoscope of delightful indecencies overshadowed anything he remembered from his own youthful indiscretions. At first, they were disconcerting, but he grew to anticipate them. Every night it felt like Gerard was getting closer and closer to him. It was not real and Catesby was perfectly aware of that. Yesterday thrust in his face an uncomfortable truth – he hoped, more than he was aware of.

Thomas had no idea what was going on in his cousin’s head. It did look however like something beneath these curls was more explosive than their cargo. He looked at the man’s hands, they were already shaking and they had three barrels of gunpowder to move on a steep descent. He regretted his timing.

Robert watched the cobbles disappear beneath the carriage into the dusk, the horses were obedient elderly mares, no sense of competition, just honest hard work. The rhythmic sway and clop put him into a waking trance. Thomas’s voice was a distant echo, Guido’s snores a soft rumble of waves lapping at his mind. He looked back to the last evening. The strange doctor leaving him with Gerard.

There was something disturbingly familiar and at the same time attractive about that tall, dark stranger. A handsome face, piercing eyes, prideful spread of shoulders. Brother Glynn appeared to like him. Catesby had no time to spare to figuring it out though as his attention was drawn to the priest.

Gerard on his bed looked rather pitiful. His tall body was emaciated from his ordeal, appearing small draped in covers and sheets. Objectively, rather unappealing sight. But it was not the looks that Catesby chased, this man was proof that visitation was not a figment of his imagination. This man was what called the Angel to them, his safety was Heaven’s priority. The pale presence gave him clarity. But the anticipated discussion left his mind muddled and sore with contradiction. The priest never objected to the dethronement of the king, and it seemed even to his death. In their many previous discussions, he noticed detached deliberation in him, humility in the face of necessity when Catesby mentioned how righteous God smites the infidels. It was what drove Catesby to him after Lady Dibdale’s execution. The Jesuit agreed then that surely such violence does not stem from any godliness that the Anglicans may preach. Now, after what they went through in the Tower… Gerard’s reluctance blindsided him, when he was so, so sure. Is Heaven still speaking through his lips? He could not allow the doubt back into his heart.

Then again, how naive of him to expect a man of God, whose kindness was palpable and courage indisputable, to accept in stride the full monstrosity of his plan. Especially the mass-murder part, or the way he phrased it to himself: the sacrifices of the unaware martyrs… Here Catesby reluctantly recalled a display of Spanish Inquisition, and groaned. Did not hapless victims of the Constable weigh similarly on Robert’s conscience? But he was not going after Anglicans – he was going after the Devil himself, the King and Lord Cecil… It took himself time to see that there was no other choice… years of burying people he grew to respect. Years of visits to the gibbet, salvaging what was left for a funeral in unmarked graves. And then, to come to accept a possibility of himself at the helm of such violence. Catesby clung to the belief, that given the choice, all of the collateral victims would choose their soul and eternity with their Lord in Heaven to the meager desperate Godless existence. Yet, he was the one making that decision for them.

But surely, with the help of God and His Angels, with just a bit of time… Gerard would also glimpse the inevitability of their action? Would come to support him… in every way. The thought resonated in his groin with an unexpected tug. He pressed his knees together, glancing at Thomas, whose attention slid across the windows lighting up as they rode along.

Looking at the fading kaleidoscope of cobbles beneath the horses’ legs, Catesby struggled with uncomfortable truth. What he expected and what was not given to him was not just unquestioning loyalty to the cause. His heart ached with residual hope.

 

Thomas watched the dark street for a while, turning to the dark face of his friend. Catesby seemed to go further and further away from him into a place where Wintour did not want to follow. Suddenly, Robert shivered and appeared to wake up, blinking.

“You are right, Thomas. I burdened him… and now we… need to find a way to keep him safe…”

“Safe? For us, or for him?”

“Safe…”

The laws of narrative causality took pity on the two men, and the solid dark mass of Guido shifted in his dream with a snort and a sigh, breaking the tension. Thomas’s face automatically turned towards the man. Even asleep his presence gave him a sense of normalcy. Deciding that for tonight they had enough drama, he moved to sit next to his friend. Guido was warm and smelled of horses and sweat. Probably, like most men in London, and very likely like Thomas himself. The questionable reek reminded Thomas that they were still alive. He closed his own eyes, shutting out the world filled with suffering and injustice. The cart jumped on a cobble and Thomas’s body froze, heart skipping a beat. When he allowed himself to breathe out and settle back, an uncharacteristic thought occurred to him – being alive felt good.

 

***

 

Crowley woke up, opened one yellow eye, and understood with perfect clarity that he needed a break. The weather was quite awful, fine drizzle hung in the air, fog slithered in through the gaps in the window frames. Chill couldn’t harm the serpent, but it made him sluggish. He burrowed into the blankets, and told the world to wait. No, really, he stopped the time for himself. So, when in the next ten minutes the page politely knocked on his door Crowley had another couple of hours of quality down time and was ready to face the reality. The reality was, that he did not want to go to Manchester and find out that his reckless shenanigans caused even more damage. With all the angel-commotion, he disregarded his own agenda of ending the martyr-factory that was the Catholic prosecution.

The king’s toilet was low-key, but still waters, obviously, ran deep. It appeared Cecil was more full of himself than usual, and the king seemed to be in the know. Northumberland was evidently not, cut down mid-tirade about the necessity to appease the Spanish envoy’s demands. Registering the drama, Crowley focused on Lord Carr. The king’s young lover was so earnestly devoted to the benefits of his position, and had become a reliable indicator of the king’s state of mind. The young man appeared satisfied. Apparently, the king’s sunny disposition translated into some good graces, if the boy’s slight limp was something to go by. Which meant, he should begin by making James talk.

The king emerged from behind the screens wearing another shade of red velvet. The valet was attaching a good helping of ruffle to the collar. Crowley caught the royal eye and demurely dropped his lashes behind blue tinted lenses that made his eyes look green. He swiped his glance towards Lord Carr and then back to the king, with a twitch of a brow and a brisk smile, part devilish, part vulnerable. The king’s breath hitched for a moment, and he adjusted his breeches discretely, stepping through the door.

The demon cocked his head, watching the courtiers filing out of the room after their liege. Cecil was last, and tried to give Crowley an arrogant glance; for once, the king’s bespectacled favorite was unaware of the pact with the Constable. Crowley held his gaze, lips twitched gently into a small smile under the always perfect moustache. The demon’s eyes grew narrow, one brow rose over the vexed gaze. Cecil’s paranoia reared its head at the display, and he left with a very strong suspicion that there was something up the man’s sleeve. 

 

True to his plan, Crowley enjoyed himself by ignoring the king during breakfast. Relentlessly. An old human tactic, but oh so effective. By evening, James would speak on any topic Crowley would engage with. Humans invented so many creative ways to mess with each other’s heads, who needs mind reading (anyway, mostly unreliable, because you never knew if you were reading reality, wishful thinking or false perception) when you can alter someone’s reality with a well-timed manipulation? He tried it on Aziraphale once, but it did not work; the angel did not even notice the attempt, and they ended up just not talking for half a century. Crowley was the one who gave up.  

No! No Aziraphale today. No angels, no demons, no magic, just good old fucking with the king’s head and maybe some other parts of him, if he felt so inclined to reward his royal minion. The recent chain of events, escalating in urgency and unpredictability, felt like a garrote around his demonic neck. Crowley almost craved the emptiness, solitude, and above all the control of the sepia space between his ears.

There was one more issue he had to address.  

 

***

 

Bentley scurried across the kitchen floor in his habitual rat form. Today’s pickings were generous as usual. The ham looked inviting; there were poultry and meats, pastry, breads, and for a less discerning customer – vegetables. However, deep within himself he felt there are better things he could aspire to as a true aficionado of mortal… mhhhmmmm… not as much the cuisine, as the verisimilitude of gastronomical experiences. Oh! He knew it when he saw it! On the bench, reflecting the warm orange glow of the fireplace, cradled in a wicker basket, shiny green-yellow half translucent beads of luxurious grapes. Fit for a king indeed. Bentley froze, his beady red eyes reflecting the object of his desire. There was plenty, a rat would take its fill easily. However, Bentley stalled, sitting on his hinder paws, giving the whole affair a good old ponder as he washed his whiskers. Having come to some conclusion, he jumped into the basket, snug between the bunches of taunt berries, tight coils, and soft leaves. A moment of black blur and he shrunk into a small round shape, burrowing beneath the leaf to have his fill in exactly the form that would appreciate the food the most. His antennae eyes bulged with unabridged culinary desire, the few neurons that were installed in a snail’s brain were firing on all cylinders.  

And… then!

Then… he felt a familiar pull of beloved master’s regretfully untimely summons. Bentley dissipated, creating a tiny sad vacuum between the lush green leaves with a barely audible pop.

 

Something small and round fell at Crowley’s feet and spun on its side. The demon looked down at an offending object. It was a rather large black grape snail still attached at the mouth to a shiny grape. Crowley raised one brow over the rim of his spectacles. Bentley wiggled at him his antennae-eyes that held a degree of indignation rarely seen in a mollusk. With what would have been a sigh, had he been a mammal, he blinked into a dachshund. Crowley picked him up without comment. And pointed through the window. 

The hell’s beast saw a pair crossing the inner yard. A tall and a short figure, dressed in unassuming, clothes that lacked the excess of aristocratic fashion, as well as any distinction of a uniform. Anyone would have taken them for visitors or petitioners with their wide brimmed hats, and nondescript cloaks of conspicuously similar cut and color. However, Bentley recognized the military bearing and stiff gait of a strange man who wasted his master’s time in the stables. The shorter man he did not know.

Crowley instructed him to follow the pair and lock in memory what he saw and heard. Presently, the demon could not be bothered with a live viewing of the chase. The small dog gave a curt, soft bark and was let onto the floor. Fiery eyes gave Crowley a loyal stare, the nails on the short bendy legs clicked across the stone floor as the creature hurried away. The demon smiled benevolently. It was good to feel some things never changed. The familiar disappeared discretely, with a last wilting glance at the grape right next to his master’s polished boot. But nothing tasted as good as his master’s graces felt.

Through the window, the demon saw a small black shadow attach itself firmly on the heels of the two Spaniards.

 

True to himself, Crowley spent his day in the delightful drudgery of the palace, recuperating. After a copious late lunch, he dogged Cecil until mid-afternoon just for the heck of it. The spymaster was good at keeping his secrets. Crowley, of course would get the answers from the king. However, assuming he would get all of the answers was quite imprudent. The spymaster never revealed the whole truth to anyone, let alone his majesty. Which only made it more fun, in Crowley’s book! Spite, competition, small and fairly large mind games. How he did miss it all. The simplicity of it…

From a pointed questioning, the demon got an inkling that whatever was brewing had something to do with the Spanish embassy, and therefore bode ill for the Catholics. So maybe Bentley’s excursion would shed some light on whatever was going on. Good, good… Crowley sprawled in Cecil’s guest armchair, going through the documents that the spymaster did not manage to hide from him yet. Cecil was seething. Crowley was mostly bored. Legers of the Catholic taxations, lists of suspects, dates of the raids. A whole untidy pile of folders from the Tower’s torture department. Wade’s disastrous scrawls were a cipher in itself. One folder caught the demon’s bespectacled eye; it was entitled “John Gerard”. Crowley blinked at it, and had to stop himself from immolating the whole lot of them. Failing to stop his own hand, he reached for the documents. He would regret later… but…

“Oh, our escaped priest…” Cecil nodded.

“Esssscaped? Did he? How?” Crowley effortlessly feigned surprise.

“Through the sewers… as does befit a rat,” Cecil’s crooked mouth bent even more out of shape around the dismissive syllables. “Someone helped him… we will get him in time.” He looked at the demon with a soulless stare. “Some other rat will squeal…”

Crowley held his gaze, and settled more comfortably into the chair. The demon’s long fingers paged through the folder, eyes swiping over the accounts of the tortures performed on the prisoner, with a verbatim record of what he revealed. There had been a lot happening before Cecil and Crowley joined the interrogation. He never stopped to ponder what the king’s advisor referred to as “gentle tortures”. Crowley’s eyes fell onto the pathetic man lopsidedly hunched over the table. A poisonous nauseating disgust ran down his spine. Lips wrapped around an incantation, quietly and deliberately.

There was a pregnant pause, the magic crackled, reframing the mortal’s personal reality. Lord Cecil’s eyes opened wide, lips parted in a scream that Crowley skillfully outsourced into another dimension. The scoliotic body jolted out of the seat with haste unfit for it. The abrupt motion unbalanced the man and he stumbled, went to his knees, grasping at the table. There was darkness before his eyes, the room dissipated into blood curdling nothingness.

“What isssss it, my Lord?” the familiar voice chased him, but the spymaster could not recall where he knew it from. Cecil found himself on a tall chair, studded with long steel nails. His legs were too short to reach the floor, so with every breath his twitching body was pushed onto the needlepoints, steel ripping into his flesh, spasming muscle, vulnerable tissue. Blinding pain pushed him to squirm, millimeter by millimeter shredding his sanity, violating him. Trapped hands twitched, braced between bars of metal, screws tightened and he heard his joints split before he felt it. When he jerked, feet reaching though agony for a leverage to stand up, tear himself out of the trap, his heels landed onto red hot iron, burning the soles off to the bone in an instant. The world stopped, and the spymaster lost ability to differentiate the shades of pain. He could smell his own burning flesh, and his mind was wrapping itself around the irreparable damage done to his body. Terror paralyzed him, his heart lost any semblance of a rhythm, the windpipe spasmed one final time. Lord Cecil died.

The spymaster blinked; he was lying on the floor, decorated ceiling was far away. Between ceiling and himself Lord Crowley’s face was hovering, feigning worry while exuding curiosity. Disoriented, the small man attempted to figure out how to start picking himself up. He managed to sit. Looking down at his fine breeches, stockings and shoes on the ever-crooked legs – all intact, Cecil lifted his hands, let the palms brush at the stiff fabric, dusting himself.

He groaned, blinking the illusion away, rubbing his eyes. Lord Crowley’s brow rose over the dark lens.  

“Vertigo…” he managed in a shaky whisper. “My eyes are not that good any more, I get dizzy sometimes…must have fainted…”

The spectacles obscured the owner’s eyes completely, reflecting at Cecil his own pathetic, shaken face. He took an offered glass of water, automatically taking a sip. Warmth and feeling were slowly returning to his extremities.

“Let me call a physician,” the demon knew no mercy. He sent the closest guard for the doctor. The one who was particularly fond of leeching and bloodletting – exactly what Cecil deserved and then some.

Not waiting for the medic, Crowley bowed out. Staying in a room with a folder, containing details of Aziraphale’s torture became quite… quite… much…

He needed to feel in control.

 

Bentley was still running his errands, Crowley stopped in a corridor looking out at the sun now hanging low over the horizon of uneven haphazard roofs. The light was yellow and forgiving, the kind of light that made the world golden and warm, and faces of people young again. He found himself at the king’s door, and was allowed in immediately. He blinked on the masking charm, and took his glasses off, stopping at the closed doors in a beam of light. He knew the generous illumination will catch his eyelashes, light up the fake dark amber of his eyes, sparkle on his trimmed goatee. Crowley settled in for a ride inside his handsome skull. He liked to think himself an artist at work, manipulating his tool – his perfect body, like a complex machine from a safety of his isolated mind. And he looked damn good doing it.

James came up to him, limping more than usual. Despite discomfort, the king leaned in and up, rising on tiptoes to place a kiss over Crowley’s smile.

“Your majesty appears to be in such splendid spirits!” the demon walked past the monarch towards the drink cabinet, and chose a bottle that he would normally enjoy had he had a sense of taste. Taking a sip, he turned to the king, who was extending his arm towards Crowley’s goblet. “What made your majesty so happy?” The king took a sip right where Crowley’s mouth touched the rim.

“Good news, Sir Anthony…” the king cut himself off, evidently remembering Cecil’s advice not to share the information. Then he looked at Crowley again, who stood with his arms crossed over his chest, embodying anticipation.

“Wherever from?” he feigned nonchalance, glancing out of the window and refusing to meet the king’s searching eyes.

He heard James’s chuckle.

“Do you really side with Northumberland, my friend?” the king asked him instead. Face sharpening with a definitive squint in shrewd grey eyes.

“I don’t really care for politics too much, your majesty. What I do care for, however, is that your reign is remembered as successful. And right now the Spanish appear…”

“They only appear, my friend…” James’s voice lowered, as he found a middle ground between keeping quiet and revealing his secret. He whispered it into Crowley’s ear. “Beggars can’t be choosers, Anthony. Catholic taxes sponsor this war. Spanish want to lift their burden – end the warhhh…” James breathed in a scent of lavender and smoke, clinging to Crowley’s dark hair. His hands slid over the demon’s chest, fingering the filigree buttons on the tightly shut always-black doublet, feeling the landscape of muscle under dark richly stitched velvet.

Crowley picked the snippets of information apart. So, there was some kind of double deal they made with the Constable. What were they playing at? Spanish meant to help Catholics, must be some kind of ruse again. He will have to do something about de Goya before the man left for Spain.

Crowley blinked, returning to the present.

James took the bottle of wine from him and settled on the bed, taking a decidedly unroyal swig from the neck. He patted a spot next to him, placed the wine on the floor and began popping the buttons out of the silver-embroidered loops. He wore a demure shade of blue in the afternoon; it actually made his muddy gray eyes look steely-clean.

“Your majesty relies on Lord Cecil…” Crowley watched the king disrobe. James proceeded to untie the fine lacing of his own shirt. Catching Crowley’s eye, he smiled.

“I rely on his lust for power… he needs me now. Which means, for now… I live…” the narrow lips formed words that did not match the light smile or a flippant tone. They did match the eyes however. Haunted and empty.

“What do you mean?” the demon cocked his head, watching the king’s nimble fingers. For a moment, he thought of Aziraphale – unable to untie his own breeches. He chased the image away.

“Well, for once, my mother…” the king’s hands stopped, but the voice remained calm, no doubt, lubricated with something he drank before Crowley arrived. “I saw her… passing… I wonder if he could have stopped it. But she was… inconvenient to…them,” calm and quiet. The demon had hard time keeping his brows from rising in alarm. He managed.

The king continued, looking down at his own feet. By the end of the day, his old injury and childhood sickness pulsed through his legs. He toed the inconvenient shoes off.

“If I wanted to live – I had to become a convenient king.” He looked up at Crowley and smiled tiredly. “There are things I can do for this country. If he allows me…”

Crowley remained quiet. James had a strange habit of sometimes catching him off-guard. It was not meant to raise pity, but rather the king needed to speak his mind to someone. And of course, a demon, who ingratiated himself to the king was a natural first choice. They haven’t had a chance to speak of politics lately, as the demon preferred to cut out the middle man and deal directly with the spymaster.

“Your majesty…” Crowley started and realized he had no idea how to finish. James spoke instead.

“I have loyalty in you and Robert… He is a bit of an idiot, and he is mostly loyal to what I can provide him with. But he has no mind and no interest for politics. God bless him!” The demon felt his lips twitch into a smile. Indeed. “But you, Sir Anthony, remain a mystery… Why would someone as accomplished remain loyal to me?” Crowley blinked. “Are you Catholic? In the few years I know you, that was the only cause you were behind…”

“No…” Crowley was unable to suppress a laugh. “Your majesty, that I am definitely not.

“Why then? Do you pity me…? No, don’t answer. I wouldn’t want to know… I would just rather have you.” The smile on the king’s face was directed at himself. This mediocre man was aware of his limitations, which to the demon made him wiser than most. The pathetic mortal… so much depth, yet so much petty evil. A sense of isolation is something a fallen angel in Crowley could relate to.

Words that usually served the serpent as his best weapon recently acquired a new tendency to betray him. Instead, the demon breached the two wide steps that separated them, and bowed low at an angle, sliding into a kiss already waiting for him on the king’s lips. Muscle memory perfected through millennia kicking in, he managed to skillfully curtail the royal thought process. It was better the man did not question him. For both of them, really… Crowley broke off at just the right moment to allow the king a breath. His distraction worked, questions forgotten, the man moaned into his mouth, pulling the air into his lungs and diving in again, grasping at the demon’s shoulders. The unfeeling fingers plucked James out of his chemise, pulling it over his head. Unyielding to the hands going around him, Crowley stiffened his back, playing coy. The game was learned and perfected, but he caught himself intrigued by the man underneath him. Crowley, still fully clothed, pushed the king onto his back, hovering, looking. The royal physique did not offer anything particularly attractive, the demon’s fingers slid along the dry body. For his own good, James lacked the gluttony of his predecessors, and was intent on compensating the weakness of his legs with exercise and walking. Aware of the scrutiny, he tried to cover himself. The king’s simpler desires were always in conflict with the deep-seated conviction that he was surrendering to an unredeemable sin.

Crowley’s lips now aimed at the king’s neck, where a sensitive trail led from behind the royal ear to the sharp protruding collarbone. Meanwhile, the demon’s hands were getting more and more adventurous around the dusty nipples. His lover leaned into the caress, attempting to reciprocate, with searching fingers that kept failing at coordinating an assault at the shiny buttons. With a surrendering moan James fell back, hands borrowing into the covers, overwhelmed by the skillful ministrations and a dose of magic. In the last year or so Crowley had learned how to play the king masterfully.

The demon pulled away and looked into the eyes by now completely blackened out by the pupils. On the bottom of these narrow wells, he glimpsed another James. Before his mother’s fanatical savagery, Elizabeth’s long shadow, Cecil’s manipulation… before the monstrous world molded that one young soul to become fit to survive, there was a man he could have been. That man was clever and maybe even kind, the way he struggled to reach out to Crowley, slide a soft palm against the demon’s cheek, the way he repeated his name and ached to please his lover.

The light within a singular human being fueled by endless possibilities, to Crowley appeared brighter than humanity ever shone collectively.  

He nudged the king’s thighs further apart; allowing his caress to acquire a definitive aim, he slid to his knees. Crowley took a moment, cocking his head to appraise the spectacle of his majesty at his mercy. It was a somewhat endearing sight, even though the demon’s vintage point accentuated specific nuances of the king’s predicament. Crowley smiled to himself.

Reading into the smile, and rather missing the point, James pushed himself to sit again, and embraced Crowley’s shoulders and neck. He placed a kiss into the serpent’s dark hair. The demon, caged against James’s abdomen, looked up. Yes, he could do that to a man, given a week or two. Probably to almost any man or woman. And he did it often. Sex revealed them to him, as easy as paging though a book. Simple caresses unraveled them, until they offered whatever he needed willingly.

Sidetracked, Crowley wondered, if anyone could ever open him up like that, and see him for everything he was. Probably not, after all, no human mind would be able to encompass neither the core of him, nor the experiences that shaped him through millennia. At least, the last time he tried… Well, it was instructive. He did not pursue a shadow of that memory. Demons were, of course, out of the question – backstabbing weasels with questionable hygiene – the lot of them.

And there is was again. A twinge in his heart followed by a vague visceral sense of unease. Just like last time, maybe a little bit less, maybe a little bit more.

Snuffing the unproductive sentiments out, Crowley kissed the royal stomach. The only residue of a dismissed turmoil was the urgency of his fingers, dealing with the buttons on the king’s breeches. As nature’s bureaucrat, the demon was thorough.

Preoccupied, he missed a note of surprise that echoed through his energy field briefly, retracting instantly into the ether.

 

***

 

Focused on the task at… mouth, Crowley failed to notice a tentative nudge, opening the link, which he had so rudely snapped shut last night. A nudge, of course, was from an angel, currently in a process of getting an unexpected eyeful.

It took a moment for Aziraphale to realize what he was seeing… was Crowley mending the man’s trousers or—

Oh.

Oh no.

He certainly was not, unless he was holding the needle between his teeth.

Oh for – GOD’S SAKE, CROWLEY!

One absolutely has to mention that the talented forked tongue probably had the dexterity to do that or even the embroidery, if the demon was thus inclined. However, the appendage in question was occupied otherwise.

Stunned Aziraphale’s attention (probably fueled with curiosity, but he would have never admitted it) travelled up the arching, shifting body, attached to a cock currently between Crowley’s lips. It then took the unwitting observer a few long moments to understand why the face, wrought with pleasure seemed vaguely familiar. The nagging feeling overrode the angel’s first impulse to break the connection instantaneously. And then it dawned at him that he never saw these pale thin features, or lackluster hair in such disarray and with so much emotion.

He saw them in the case file for his current mission that Michael slammed onto his table. It happened on a clear morning a few weeks ago. The Archangel appeared in Aziraphale’s small flat, when the angel was going through the new play by his old friend William. Attached to the file were heavenly imprints of the official portraits, including the one from the coronation. On the images, polished to look regal and serene, even if failing to be attractive, King James the First looked out at Aziraphale.

The shock of recognition forced the angel’s essence to withdraw with lightning speed, snapping back into his corporeal form with a painful jolt. It was becoming a habit. He gasped, lurching up as best he could, hands twitching in an attempt to grasp at the fire in his chest. The book he was feigning to read flopped down his stomach, and brought Brother Glynn’s attention up from some troublesome sewing project he was attempting. Having forgotten about his company, the angel froze, staring into the empty room. He squeezed his eyes shut. It did not help. It appeared the pervasive image burned itself onto his ethereal retinas. A quiet menacing growl filtered through the angel’s clenched teeth, as his heart worked overtime to pump all that blood, boiling with indignation.

Crowley! Crowley! The insufferable impropriety!

“Are you alright, father?” the weathered voice of the friar broke his focused anger for a moment. Nervously, Aziraphale looked over at the man and made a rather uninspired attempt at a smile. Faking nonchalance, he shifted awkwardly, trying to reach towards the book that had fallen open.

“Yes—this—swordfight is quite…exciting!” pushing the words out in controlled casual tone took real effort. However, politeness was the angel’s most prized quality. He did not wish to endanger it, or reveal something was wrong.

“You were reading? I thought you’d fallen asleep! You must have been very involved.” The old cleric stood up and helped to restore the book to Aziraphale’s lap, looking for the duel scene. Luckily, the book actually did have a few, the hapless angel just chose one at random, hoping the friar will not press for further literary discussion.

“Yes… I may have dozed off and dreamt of what I read… ” Aziraphale flinched internally at the feebleness of the excuse. He pretended to read again, in an attempt to end the conversation. The ability to act casual was failing him. His awkward fingers stiffly turned the page. With a smile, Brother Glynn allowed his attention to return to his work. Being granted privacy of his own mind, the angel turned again to the intimate scene he had just witnessed.

For starters, unable to decide what to be angry about first, he made a mental list. One, the fiend had been ignoring—no, repelling his calls. Two, he preferred to investigate the king’s crotch, rather than Aziraphale’s predicament, which, as Crowley himself had admitted, might have been the demon’s own fault! Three, he was in—“congress” with King James, the very man oppressing Catholics country-wide! Four, he was having sex, being intimate, sharing a bed… pleasuring the king! (Aziraphale failed to notice several numbered complaints had a recurring theme…it seemed ‘doing that’ with the king was the most offensive.)

Aziraphale was not born yesterday. Even if he himself did not understand the necessity of sexual intercourse, he knew it was a popular pastime among humans, rather than means to a reproductive end. He did not slant them for it. And to his knowledge, this specific way was favored as it would not produce surplus of offspring. Sexuality was an intrinsic lever installed into the whole free will package. A fascinating and volatile mechanism that demons thrived on abusing! He would not admit that lately it was more on his mind than ever before in the five thousand years of God’s green Earth.

He stole a glance at the friar, who could habitually while away the hours with mending. At the moment it was Aziraphale’s abused undershirt. Short fingers masterfully wielded a needle, sewing up a rip and now darning some threadbare patches. Aziraphale wondered if in his 70 years the kind man ever looked at another with more than godly love. Was he raised in a monastery, or joined of his own volition? Did he leave a life behind? Aziraphale met humans who had no qualms with celibacy. Some appeared to channel the passions into profound spirituality, some into every day kindness. A question hung of his tongue, but he bit it down. If this did not go well, he would have to spend a couple more very uncomfortable weeks in a company of a disgruntle medic. God forbid, no more tea!

That being said, Aziraphale suddenly realized that somehow, he always assumed in this respect Crowley was on the same page with him. That the demon would be above “playing fiddlesticks” with a human… somberly, Aziraphale wondered why would he think this way in the first place? Demons were different than his stock. They used whatever means necessary to turn the ears of mortals to treachery. Seducing leaders of countries was just a casual Tuesday for most of them. Why would Crowley be any different? They have spent more time apart than they ever did together, anyway. Just last century, the demon chased Renaissance in Florence, the Sodom of the day, while Aziraphale in Vatican attempted to mitigate the damage of an endless procession of corrupt popes did to the Catholic faith. The demon had secrets. The demon had… a life without him. The demon had sex, probably with countless mortals.

His thoughts jumped with alarm to the recent memory he had shoved away with embarrassment; Crowley was right there… Crowley caused the issue to “come up” in the aftermath of sharing a spell. Aziraphale pushed the memory out of his mind, but… what if… what if… as with the king? Would Aziraphale himself ever want this? If he stayed in this pitiful form…. Would he then… want… would he then… fall?

He caught himself wondering if Crowley enjoyed it? Having been too shocked, Aziraphale failed to register any sensory input, looking out of the demon’s eyes. The thought made his skin burn strangely. Distraught with where his thoughts were going, he focused on the most distressing point…

-and with the king! The king! The man who thrived on pain and torment of the fellow Christians! King James who had driven the lord of this house, a pious man, to plot mass-murder. Aziraphale could go on with a litany, but in reality, it seemed very logical for a demon to be around the court, he always was. Question was, in what capacity did he serve… and to what end? Could it be that Crowley had spoken to James, regarding Catesby’s and “Gerard’s” whereabouts? After all, he was supervising “Gerard’s” torture. Something angel so eagerly dismissed without a second though! Did the spell rob him of his mind too? In calling for Crowley’s assistance, had he invited a viper into Catesby’s home? Why else did the demon not think such an asset would be worth bringing up?

He tried to consider what he knew, which was very little. It had never been a problem before; Aziraphale would go one way, Crowley another. Somehow, sometimes, they met in similar circumstances, this being one of them. What was he actually doing, in England? With the king…well, Crowley was doing whatever Hell required of him. And sex… was a tool for the hell spawn, and whatever pleasures derived from it was likely to be reveled…

Aziraphale’s thoughts came full circle returning to the shocking act he glimpsed. He couldn’t, he could not think further on what he saw; it was so ridiculous to think of Crowley’s caustic, clever mouth around the monarch’s... organ… An immortal being! Crowley! Both blasphemous and ridiculous! Admittedly, the two words did suit the demon very well.

Aziraphale snapped the book shut – and met Brother Glynn’s surprised eyes.

“Sorry… this story is more exciting than I sometimes can handle!”

The old man’s brows rose and fell, clearly indicating he did not believe him, but was too tactful to pry. He pointedly returned to the darning.

Grasping at the logic, Aziraphale attempted to collect himself by turning his thoughts to the unnerving images and anger he felt last time he had reached out, and gotten his hand celestially slapped back. Breaking crystal, smoke. Something more was going on? And Crowley just did not feel like a traitor.

Either way, if the demon failed to help him, there would be one other possible way out… a very finite way out. Aziraphale felt a shiver run down his spine at the mare thought of it. His living body shrunk from the notion. However, he will cease to be a burden and danger to his hosts. Humans had learned after experiencing millennia in torment, how to flee, corporeally. Forbidden by the bible, even if some other belief systems were less categorical. Yet everywhere it was seen as a waste, to strike life out of one’s body – against nature, for nature always wishes to thrive – the anti-thesis of creation, in physical form. But…in this case…under these circumstances…And what awaited him… release from the vessel or…

He didn’t want to consider it yet, the most desperate act a living creature could execute. For he was indeed a living creature now…

The angel took a very deep very long breath, pushing down the indignation. He may want to straighten this king business out first, very pointedly, with Crowley. That was, if he planned to show his smug face in this house any time soon!

The angel flopped back and abandoned the novel. Brother Glynn still pointedly did not react to the apparent anguish happening next to him. One cannot really help someone who is not ready to accept help. He hid the tail of the thread skillfully and bit the rest of it off. He placed the folded shirt under the bed and rose to head to the kitchen.

Aziraphale watched him for a while. The sight calmed him down. Maybe a life in a monastery, even if it were some 30 more years or so, would not be so bad. He could truly help people. Only there, a demon would not be able to visit him. He closed his eyes and went back to the words of the Bible etched in his mind. He calmed himself by meditating on Proverbs, as it always brought some semblance of proper order to the world.

      

***

 

Crowley swallowed fitfully, and with a long breath, adjusted tightly buttoned doublet, sitting back on his heels. The king’s fingers slipped out of his hair and the demon took his hand, placing it at the monarch’s side. Aided with a well-timed spell, the mortal drifted off to sleep. Crowley stood up. Having moved the prone body to rest on the pillow, he snapped his fingers, rearranging the king’s clothes.

His own reflection in the mirror at the king’s bedside stalled him. Another short spell got rid of a translucent white streak on the velvet shoulder. Having smoothed his beard and rearranged the disturbed hair, the demon gave himself a conspiratorial wink, and without a backward glance, exited the room.

He was careful enough to soundproof the king’s chambers, so the guards were none the wiser, hearing only snippets of muffled conversation. If anything, they were surprised at how thorough the king was with his recent political pursuits.

“His majesty is taking a break,” Crowley’s voice came out low and hoarse – the limitations of the vessel. He cursed under his breath and healed the sore throat, restoring reasonable sensory input. With a nod at the indifferent soldiers, he marched away along the darkening corridor.

As he was… tending to his duties, evening had rolled around. The demon reached into the ether, wondering if the familiar was back already.

Bentley eagerly responded, inquiring if he should come back or follow the men further. It appeared the two were on their way back, passing the bridge with its gruesome decorations. The dusk hid the more grisly details of the decomposing limbs and heads. The expressionless faces peaked into the carriage window. Bentley sat under the driver’s seat in a rat form. The familiar found out the hard way that the Constable’s amulet precluded him from getting too close to the emissaries. Forcing himself to be at least in the same room drained his spirit. Even one of his lesser physical manifestations barely held up.

Crowley reached out and picked the shrinking spirit through the ether. With his last strength, Bentley changed into a more desirable canine form and whined quietly, soaking up the master’s energy. Crowley placed him onto the bed. Yellow eyes without shades appraised the damage. He stood up.

The small dog dozed off for a moment, and woke up feeling a dip in the mattress when the master landed next to him. One fiery eye opened, rolling towards a familiar scent. In front of him on a silver platter was a big bunch of grapes that looked way better than the king’s. Large and dark, with a delicate blue dusting, almost the size of plums. The demon took one, rubbed it with his fingers disturbing the powdery coating, popped it in his mouth and smiled. Only master smiled like that, all teeth and beard, it could almost seem like he did not care. Bentley opened his mind to Crowley’s invitation, and bumped his wet nose into the ripe berry, licked it, and finally felt the first burst of tangy flavor on his tongue.

 

Bentley’s memory preserved for him what the familiar saw. Crowley observed Lady Vaux looking out of the door, and into the pale grey eyes of her visitor. She stared the men down, alternating her attention between him and his shorter companion. It took her another moment to confirm that the two men were indeed the ones Father Garnet expected. Long enough for a small black mouse to dart between the three pairs of shoes into the dark hallway. The lustrous fur smoldered briefly as it passed next to the Constable’s boots. The dowager finally stood to the side to allow the Constable and his companion into the house. The tall man bowed to her, while the older one ignored her presence altogether, instead turning to the priest, who stepped into the corridor to greet them.

The Jesuit Superior bowed amicably, showing the men along the narrow, hidden stairs into his comfortable secret lodgings, and closed the door in the dowager’s face. Crowley took a mental note of the strange tension between the Jesuit and the lady. He knew her from Cecil’s reports – Catesby’s cousin. It made sense that Catesby’s kin hosted the highest-ranking cleric in London. The demon may have struck gold with his prying.

 

Garnet poured the wine – a generous gift the Spanish had presented to him. The Constable’s dark weary eyes followed him around the room, de Goya, dispassionate as ever, stared into one spot on the wall, like an automaton that had spun its gears out to rest. He stationed himself at the door, while Bentley squeezed himself into the furthest corner, feeling the heat of the religious paraphernalia and above all the ancient cross that hung around the Constable’s scrawny, wrinkly neck.

 

Crowley rubbed the dog’s head absentmindedly in quiet empathy. Bentley nuzzled his cold, wet nose into his palm in return.

 

The old men exchanged niceties, wine was poured again and sipped with evident connoisseurship. The Constable settled comfortably into Garnet’s padded armchair, leaving the owner of the room to consider with a long glance a stiff, high-backed wooden chair.

Crowley took a look around. He saw priest holes in recent years, but Garnet’s quarters were spacious and luxuriously furnished, doors divided the space into several rooms. It seemed the chamber they were occupying now was used to hold mass. Crowley wondered how many Catholics gathered in this place for worship. Did Cecil know? He will need to go by and leave a protective spell, Cecil’s interference now would be a disaster.

After all, he was failing to escape the angel’s reach today.

 

“Your grace, it is a rare honor to find myself in your presence,” Garnet started, facing his guest. “To what do I owe such pleasure?”

“My king sends his regards, Father,” the old man bowed with reserve. “Your service to Our Lord in these turbulent times is nothing short of a martyrdom! I am sure the Vatican is taking note!” In Crowley’s books, the Vatican had very little to do with God or any of Her agents.

“High praise, my lords. I am unworthy,” the cringeworthy exercise in false humility was a customary social dance both parties felt vaguely embarrassed, yet obliged to perform.  

“On the contrary,” the Constable placed his glass decisively on the table. The Jesuit Superior mimicked his gesture, succumbing to the hierarchy. “I have been informed about your recent pursuits. So admirable!”

“I am afraid the only thing I managed in the last year or so, is fairly successfully hiding from the prosecution… and losing some of the most valuable patrons,” Garnet slanted his eyes, seemingly unnerved at the dispassionate presence at the door. De Goya did not appear to notice the scrutiny, staring at the wall with utmost concentration.

“Modesty is so becoming our brethren. Indeed we received devastating news about the tragic passing of Lady Dibdale, such a generous donor to the righteous cause!”

“It was a tragedy…” Garnet shivered.

“It was a sacrifice befitting a martyr! What else could you do, but persevere as a beacon of light in these trying times in Lady Dibdale’s name.” There was a definitive dismissive note in the Spaniards tone. Judging by the escalating air of unease, Garnet heard it too.

“My only regret was that I could not join her on the gibbet that day… But Our Lord willst otherwise,” his response came at an unseemly haste.

“That would be irreplaceable loss, my dear friend. I shudder to think of such possibility. A young soul that ascended that day with her… our ranks suffered irredeemable losses already.”

“Yes…” Garnet’s face fell. Crowley understood what the man was referring to. He did not observe the execution, leaving the mortals to their barbaric devices. Cecil appeared to hold it against him. Hastur later recounted to him how he planned to borrow the “squashing under a weighted door” idea for a new subdivision of Hell they were currently troubleshooting.

“But I also picked up on some hopeful news!”

“What is it, my lord?”

“I heard one of our brothers survived the tortures of the infidels and moreover miraculously escaped from his barbaric confinement!” The Constable’s voice rose in celebration, accent becoming ever more pronounced.  

“Who may you refer to?” Crowley scrutinized both old men.

“Why the miraculous escape of Father Gerard, your young protégé!” Crowley felt secondhand how Bentley’s canine ears picked up a change in tone. A tension rising in the speaker’s throat.

“I am so cut off from the world in my confines…” the Jesuit lied through his teeth, a tremble in his throat was evident even to a human ear. The Constable picked it up too.

“His example needs to be celebrated! He may inspire, maybe even convert the souls to the one true faith. How can you not reveal this miracle to your parish?!” The Spaniards voice dropped, at the door, Miguel straightened his shoulders, attracting the demon’s attention. He was making such an effort to look professionally detached. Crowley gave him a once over.

“I am afraid I was not aware…” Garnet seemed frantic. “… of the recent… developments?”

The white eyes narrowed slightly.

“How most peculiar, for I have heard that it is no other than Lord Catesby himself, who aided Father Gerard, doubtlessly inspired by divine providence,” the Spaniard’s voice rose and fell to a whisper.

“Your sources are better than mine, your grace…”

“Surely, your generous donor, Lord Robert Catesby informed you?” The Constable appeared confused.

“I had not had the pleasure of conversing-”

“Then Father Gerard must be in even better shape than we expected, if you are not the one taking the lord’s confessions?”

“I…” Garnet looked cornered. Crowley wondered, why the old man would not take the opportunity to assure alliance with the powerful Catholic force. It definitely looked like the Jesuit knew more than what he was saying. So, he did not trust the Spanish. Why?

“Your attempts to protect Lord Catesby and his valiant plan is commendable, Father. But I assure you, I have been informed of the entire width and breadth of their holy task.”

“I am sorry, what do you mean?” Crowley could taste the mounting desperation in the room.

“Please, Father, you need not hesitate with me. Lord Catesby visited me in Madrid, asking for assistance with his dashing enterprise,” The Constable leaned forward, catching the other man’s eye. “At that time, I had no other means to help, but to caution him. Yet, recently… his Majesty had been reconsidering… the English Lion is proving to be quite… obstinate in certain regards. As long as he remains on the throne, England has no hope of salvation! Lord Catesby’s anointed solution, however radical, would benefit both our country and our brethren in Catholic faith. ”

Garnet moved away, as if physically escaping from the words of the delegate, his chair made a nauseating screech across the floor.

 

Crowley lifted a finger and paused the memory. He played back the words again…then once more, finding violent intentions toward James quite evident. Were the angel’s little conspirators…did they have the gall to – try to kill King James? His James? He curled his strained finger back down to a gnarled coil and resumed the memory.

 

“I…am afraid, there is no more information that I could possibly disclose to you. Whatever little I may know, is all entrusted to me under the seal of confession.” Garnet pulled out the big guns. Indeed, that was one thing that would stop him from revealing any further information, even if he were so inclined.

The constable seemed to size up the weight of the priest’s silence, then, glanced over to the bodyguard. Out of Garnet’s sight, the Constable’s companion gave a short nod. The Constable’s eyes widened. Miguel returned his gaze to the wall. Bloody hell, the strange dynamics Crowley noticed before, were now clear. Was de Goya the real Spanish agent, while the old man was a decoy? He remembered the stables, now more than ever getting to know the odd man more closely seemed like a worthwhile idea.

“I understand your concern,” The Constable began again. “We are, however, willing to help. If Lord Catesby or Father Gerard are willing to reach out, or you may find it in you to become a conduit of our assistance getting to him…Father.”

The low tone undoubtedly was a call for Garnet’s attention. The priest turned, measuring his gaze very carefully.

“I should hate for Catesby and his followers…or any of his associates… to be put in unnecessary danger…danger that we, under the seal of the Spanish Monarchy, could easily prevent.”

Garnet remained silent, busying his lips with this freshly poured wine. He swallowed unevenly, as if he were about to choke.

(Crowley had to ignore Bentley’s absent wonderings on wine during this memory, and grapes, and illustrious grapes that still waited for his attention at home. Grapes, Master! The demon pressed the excited thoughts down so he could hear better.)


“We shall stay in London for now, while these ‘negotiations’ with the current king continue.”

“Thank you, my lords! What a generous offer, if only I had any means of transferring it to Lord Catesby.” Garnet’s eye was twitching now. The constable nodded with a courteous smile, and requested a possibility to make a confession. As he had no access to a catholic priest otherwise. The young man, seemingly relieved at being offered a reprieve, exited, giving them privacy.

Bentley then had to back away as the holy vestiges were brought out, a soft murmur of the prayer permeated the room, scorching Bentley’s dark fur. He had to burrow deep into a mouse hole to escape the blessed onslaught, and could not catch what was further going on in the room.

Withdrawing from the memories, Crowley placed a hand on his familiar’s belly, giving it a grateful rub. He sat, staring at the wall, there was a slight discoloration, where a crucifix used to be. His head was buzzing with thoughts and possible machinations.

Bloody Hell… where to begin?

The Spanish were looking for Aziraphale too... Which was the least of today’s revelations! The angel gotten himself tangled up not just with the wrong crowd, but with every crowd! Did he know?!! Of course, he did not.. it’s Aziraphale!!! Things happen to him… like the Flaming Sword! The idiot was trying to save Catholics and got mixed into this travesty!!! He had not fully considered how dangerous Aziraphale’s inept gang of terrorists were… Who would, really! Oh you dumb little wanker! Crowley allowed himself to feel betrayed anyway, because what the He…aven!…. Not like he did not keep some things form him… Indeed, the angel would probably be scandalized had he seen what went on less than an hour ago. Good for you, angel, keeping all your secrets while begging for help! Prissy winged snot…

He smelled smoke again, and turned to look at the bedpost, withdrawing his arm and seeing a border of orange coal framing blackened wood. Oh, for fuck’s sake, he’d burned through a perfectly fine piece of mahogany…he sighed and busied his hands with stroking Bentley.

He was at least pleased to see the apprehension of Catesby’s holy man. No, Garnet did not seem to trust them enough to fully conspire. But he also appeared to be the kind of person who would not trust anyone, because he knew himself. But to Crowley who was present at the audience with the king, the intention was rather clear. What bothered him the most was however, the “valiant plan” of Lord Catesby – that sounded like a suicide mission. Kill the king? He couldn’t deny that James had agreed to tortures and executions that he himself felt were unneeded. You cannot tax the dead, James! Maybe he should have guided the monarch’s hand better?

There were only so many things Crowley could take the blame for in so many days. Manchester would have to wait. He would need to get details from Aziraphale about this ridiculous plan. It wouldn’t work, and with his own king in danger, he would have to be certain of it.