“Aziraphale, there’s a couple of kids at your door!” Crowley called from his hiding place somewhere in the back shelves of the bookshop, rather than getting up to open it himself.
“Yes, I know,” Aziraphale grumbled, making his way towards the two hesitant figures, distorted by the glass. He had sensed them long before they rang the bell; the desire to enter the building radiating off them was so strong it had even woken Crowley from his nap. “You could make yourself useful and answer it.”
“I thought you frowned on my frightening children,” Crowley said, but he slouched after Aziraphale anyway.
The ‘couple of kids’ turned out to be two backpack-laden teenagers, hands clasped between them. The shorter of the two clutched a business card.
“What are you,” Crowley drawled, “the patron saint of queer kids?”
Let’s rewind a few years.
Galilee, c. 1100 BCE
Hadassah exhaled as silently as she could, her breath ragged in her throat. The pounding of her heart slowed to a lethargic murmur.
She could not sleep.
The wetness between her thighs was uncomfortably sticky in the cool night air, and she could feel it drying on her fingers, flaky and shameful. She could not rise to rinse it off without waking her sisters. She would have to lie there with her shame until morning.
And still, her mind was filled with Rivka, of the embrace they had shared that afternoon and the way Rivka’s body had fit alongside her. Hadassah grit her teeth against the desire.
It was like this every night. On days when she saw Rivka, she lay awake, savoring every memory of their time together. When they were apart, she spent sleepless nights aching for Rivka’s touch. And each night, she wished for the same thing.
Please help me, she thought, not daring even to whisper. Help me stop feeling this.
Guilt-wracked, she remembered her nakedness, and the shameful remnants of her desire evident to anyone who might choose to listen in.
But no one would, would they? She was alone with her damning secret, and no one could help her.
If you can’t, then at least – I know it’s wrong. I know I shouldn’t give in to it. But if there’s someone, anyone, who understands – I just want a sympathetic ear.
Hadassah shut her eyes against the darkness of the room and began her litany, rote as any prayer. As such, she did not see the figure bloom into existence beside her with a startled burst of light.
“I want things I shouldn’t want,” she began, in a tight whisper.
“Don’t we all,” said the figure.
At first, she screamed because a strange man was in her house, hovering over her naked body. But then, when no one came running, as her sisters slept unnaturally still in their beds and the stranger glowed with more than just moonlight, she screamed because there was nothing else to do, when faced with the Terrible.
“Goodness,” said the man. “There’s no need to be like that. You’re the one who called me.”
Hadassah blinked at him. Nothing moved.
The man wasn’t that bright; he glittered as if some invisible noonday sun shone down upon his glossy hair. Once the sunspots had faded from her eyes she could see he looked slightly mussed, as if he had been woken from sleep to appear before her. What she had thought at first to be folded wings was just the drape of his robes.
“Why are you here?” she whispered, frozen. She could not pull the blanket up to cover herself, because that would draw the man’s attention to her nakedness.
“Beats me,” he said, huffy. “I don’t normally take these sorts of calls – oh, I have a script.”
He reached into a fold of his robes much too flat to contain any sort of pocket and pulled out a small clay tablet. Glancing at Hadassah rather self-consciously, he cleared his throat and read aloud, “Fear Not. I am your name here, angel of the LORD. The LORD has heard your – oh. I am Aziraphale, angel of the LORD –“
A nervous giggle escaped Hadassah and she clapped a terrified hand over her mouth to stifle it; laughing at a messenger of the Lord was surely worse than anything she had done so far.
But instead, the angel flashed a sheepish grin and tucked the tablet back into its pocketless robes.
“Sorry, this is the first time I’ve ever had to give that speech. There’s loads more to it, but since I don’t think you’ve been selected for any special trials by God most of it isn’t applicable. It’s got some dialogue branches, though, so I might need to refer back to it.”
Then it finally took in the full picture before it: Hadassah’s nakedness, the sweat drying on her temples, the offending hand covering her mouth. Its face colored. “Were you – “
“I know it’s wrong,” she said quickly, “and I’ve never given in to it before, I swear –“
She thought she heard a mumble of that makes one of us, but then the angel said, “there’s nothing – I think we would both prefer it if you were wearing clothes for this.”
Mortified, nearly shaking in shame, Hadassah dressed herself. The angel kept its face politely turned until she was decent.
She didn’t know why she hadn’t realized from the start that it was an angel and not a man. There was something unsettled about its features, like a creature caught halfway through process of creation which hadn’t yet decided what it wanted to be.
The angel Aziraphale cleared its throat awkwardly. “So. I assume your request to speak to the Divine was related to your – activities, immediately preceding?” It looked crestfallen at Hadassah’s nod of agreement. “I don’t think the dialogue trees cover that.”
Aziraphale’s halting, unsure manner was not what Hadassah ever would have imagined, if she had been asked how an agent of God would act, and it was that disparity which gave her courage to voice a correction.
“I didn’t want to talk to God.”
Aziraphale’s face brightened. “You didn’t? Must have been a mix-up, then. I’ll be out of your hair in just a –“
“I wanted to talk to someone,” she continued. “Someone who would understand.”
Aziraphale paled. Hadassah had never seen such nervousness and embarrassment on the face of a grown man before – or not a man, but seeing it on the face of an all-knowing, infallible being was even stranger. “Oh. I – I’m not sure I’m the right person to speak to about this – although I suppose no one up there would even – oh, alright.”
Aziraphale sat beside her, a respectable distance apart. Hadassah appreciated its courtesy. It might not have been a man, strictly speaking, but it still looked like one, and propriety screamed at her to maintain a separation between them.
“Well,” it said. “Tell me about it.”
So Hadassah talked. She told it of Rivka’s beauty, her dark eyes and her smooth skin, the faint scent of the desert that followed her everywhere and the coolness of her touch. She spoke of Rivka’s kindness, her bright laughter and her way with children, and the way she calmed even the wildest tempers with just a look.
Aziraphale did not look disgusted. It looked sad, sometimes, and wistful, almost as if it was seeing someone else when Hadassah described Rivka’s flowing hair. That wistfulness spurred her to speak of things she would not have otherwise – the shape of Rivka’s breasts beneath her clothes, her perfectly-curved lips, the low coil of heat in Hadassah’s stomach when they touched.
After a long time, she stopped. There was nothing else to tell – at least, nothing else she could put into words. She could not say how deeply she loved Rivka, as a woman should a man, but she thought Aziraphale understood anyway.
Aziraphale lifted a hand to its robes, where the tablet lay in some otherworldly space, then let it drop to its lap. It struggled to speak. “I can’t say I understand, exactly –“ It faltered, and in one moment of clarity, Hadassah thought, liar. “But to want someone – something – you can’t have – “
It broke off again. Hadassah wondered who that someone was, for Aziraphale, what human or angel or creature she could not even comprehend had caught its gaze and held it like Rivka held hers. But she could not ask.
“She sounds lovely,” Aziraphale said at last. “Do you… think she feels the same?”
“No,” Hadassah said, certain of that, at least. Rivka, perfect in every way, could not feel the shameful things Hadassah felt.
But the angel Aziraphale had not called her shameful. It had not judged her, as she had expected a messenger of God would. It had called Rivka lovely.
It cleared its throat again. “Strictly speaking I’m not supposed to – but I would reconsider that assumption.”
And then it left.
Hadassah sat on her bed, cradling her sticky hand to her chest as her sisters breathed in and out, for a long time.
Many nights later, the angel Aziraphale returned. Hadassah did not scream, though it was a near thing. Somehow, its face had been transformed into something less human, more ethereal, and rays of light flickered across its features, lighting its eyes with holy fire.
“Sorry,” it said. The light dimmed. “I was running an errand, had to do the whole,” it gestured around its head in a halo shape, “thing. I would have done it for you, but you caught me at a bad time.”
Hadassah did not know how to respond to such flippancy from someone who had only moments ago been shining like the sun itself, so she merely nodded like she understood. Aziraphale beamed at her.
“But I have news for you. I spoke to an – associate of mine,” and its voice went wistful again, “and he says your – friend, your Rivka, is – his words were ‘go hit that’.”
Hadassah frowned. “What?”
Aziraphale shrugged. With every moment she spent in its presence, Hadassah found it harder and harder to remember she was speaking to a Divine being. “I think he meant she’s like you.”
“Oh,” Hadassah said, softly. She hadn’t expected – she hadn’t prayed, since the last time she had seen Aziraphale; she could not guarantee Aziraphale would be the one who heard her a second time, and that was a risk too great to take. She hadn’t expected it would come back on its own. “I didn’t need her to be. But thank you.”
Aziraphale inclined its head jerkily, like it was unsure of the proper response to being thanked. “Well. That’s that sorted.”
“You’re leaving?” Hadassah said, before she could stop herself. Aziraphale made a very human face.
“I have to uphold my end of the bargain.”
“With your… associate?”
Aziraphale flashed her a guilty look. “I would prefer if you didn’t… tell anyone about this. One has to make deals, sometimes, but one’s supervisors don’t always have to know about those deals, right?” It sounded almost as if it were asking Hadassah for confirmation, which was ridiculous given that Hadassah had never made a bargain in her life and her only supervisor was her father. And her father knew everything – except, now, this.
“Of course not,” she said, more decisive than she felt. “You did only what you had to do.”
Aziraphale relaxed. “Exactly,” it said, but the guilty furrow of its brow did not quite fully smooth into reassurance. It patted its robes absently in an admirable show of inhabiting corporeal space, then gave up and simply plucked the clay tablet from thin air. “Well. It’s been nice talking with you, Hadassah. I, Aziraphale, angel of the LORD, hereby declare that your prayer has been answered and addressed. If further follow-up is desired, please direct all subsequent prayers to Archangel –“
“That’s alright,” Hadassah said quickly. She had no desire to tell anyone else about this, ever. “I’m very satisfied.”
“Good,” Aziraphale said, smiling at her, and for a second, Hadassah could have believed it was as human as she was.
“Thank you,” she said, again.
Aziraphale did not disappear in the same flash of fire as it had the last time, winking out of existence like a star suddenly obscured by the first rays of dawn. Hadassah watched the darkness left in its wake, imagining the silhouette of a man standing before her, and a voice not so terrible in her memories. It was almost like a dream.
Behind her, her sisters stirred, drawing breath into lungs that had held frozen while the angel spoke.
Anytime, the angel had said. But Hadassah knew, no matter how her life unfolded, she would not call on it again. Once had been enough.
Gaul, c. 200 CE
Caturix stumbled into his tent, drawing the flap closed behind him. He was alone, Epona be thanked. He could not stay another minute outside, watching Atecorius and feeling…
He knew there were other places in the Empire, in Rome herself, where such desires were accepted, normalized. But here, in Gallia, even among the Legionnaires from the Capitol, things were different. It was one thing to look at another man in admiration of his physical strength; it was quite another to view his naked body with lust.
He closed his eyes, pressing the heel of his hand to the shameful hardness between his legs as images of Atecorius flickered behind his eyelids. Atecorius, strong and bronzed and lovely, glistening with sweat and oil as he fought, sunlight glinting off his blade and his brilliant auburn hair.
Caturix hissed in a breath between his teeth and willed the desire away, knowing it was futile. Traitorous hands crept below his robes. Surely no one would know if –
A cheer rose from the ring of men outside the tent: Atecorious had bested another opponent. Caturix grit his teeth and fisted his hands in his lap.
It was no good. Everyone in the camp knew Caturix held a pathetic longing for Atecorius, just as they knew Atecorius did not want him back. Even the women who served as bed-warmers for the foot soldiers looked at him with pity, and they never offered to spend the night in his tent.
Even now, those who had seen him flee probably thought he was –
Caturix groaned, then abruptly realized how that might sound to any one of the men mere feet from him and dropped his head to his knees in silent agony.
He would pray; he had prayed, except that he didn’t know what to pray for. It was too late to take the desire away; the shame of exposure would remain. And there was no use wishing for Atecorius to want him with the same intensity; the parade of women who passed through Atecorius’ tent put any such fantasies to rest. There was only one thing Caturix knew he wanted, and he knew it was the last thing he would likely receive.
Please – Belenus Apollo, Epona – anyone – if you’re listening – which I doubt you are – if you could just show me – show me I’m not alone in this. Even if it’s not him – if there could just be someone.
A sudden gust of wind blew the tent flap open, and Caturix saw the glint of sun on steel, Atecorius’ flashing blade, nearly blinding him. He blinked. The tent flap settled back into place, but the spots did not fade from his vision.
A shining, golden man stood before him, looking poleaxed. “That young man out there is very muscled, isn’t he?”
“Apollo?” Caturix breathed.
The man blinked back at him. “Well. I can’t say I’ve ever been called that before.”
The man was not Apollo, Caturix realized – or if he was, all the frescoes were lying. He was not chiseled and lithe; he looked more like a hearth god in his softness and his kindly face. But he was shining, bright as the sun’s chariot, and that had to count for something.
“You came,” Caturix said, awed. “I called, and you came.”
The god who was not Apollo looked guilty. “Yes, I – I suppose I did. I’m not strictly supposed to answer prayers for other deities, you understand, but I was in the area and I knew no one else would be listening –“
Belatedly, Caturix realized the sounds of fighting outside had stopped. The still forms of his fellow soldiers in the early morning sun threw shadows onto the walls of the tent in a frozen tableaux, like a strange, hazy mosaic. Caturix began to feel afraid.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Aziraphale. Only don’t go spreading that around; I’m not supposed to be here at all and if word got out – “ The god Aziraphale made a strange hand gesture, like plunging off a cliff. He stood, expectant, but Caturix could not tell what he was waiting for Caturix to say.
“Are you always so bright?” he blurted, remembering the stories of the wine-god Bacchus, whose mother burned to nothing when she looked on Jupiter’s shining form.
“I thought it might be easier for you, if I looked like someone you recognized. I can turn it down,” Aziraphale said, perhaps a little pink in the face beneath the light, and then he was no longer radiant brilliance, illuminated by something only slightly brighter than the weak sun lighting the rest of the tent. Caturix felt his eyes relax and realized he had been squinting.
“Thank you?” It sounded more uncertain than Caturix had meant it to, but he was at a loss for how to speak to a god, even one who was most certainly blushing. Aziraphale, however, did not seem to be one to stand on ceremony, since he merely smiled and picked his way through the tent to sit beside Caturix.
Caturix froze. Gods, from all the tales he had heard, were never so friendly with mortals, except when they wanted – and he had said he was lonely, but –
“That’s a dangerous path of thought,” Aziraphale said mildly, “and I wouldn’t go down it if I were you. I assure you your virtue is safe with me. With regards to that boy out there, however – “
“Atecorius,” Caturix said, through numb lips. Somehow, this god Aziraphale had heard his praises of Atecorius’ beauty, thoughts he had never spoken aloud, and had come to –
“So quick to assume the worst. You remind me of a – friend, of mine. I have no intentions toward your friend, either.”
The way Aziraphale said friend, as if it wasn’t enough to encompass the depth of his liking, calmed Caturix’s fears. “I’m sorry. I’ve just – never spoken about it before.” He didn’t say he had never spoken to a god before at all, though surely it was obvious. He wanted to preserve what little dignity he could before the celestial being who had walked in on him with his hands in his tunic.
“I imagine that’s why you asked for me.”
It was not, and Caturix almost told him that, but a sudden thought stopped him. This minor god, perhaps of a sparkling river or a sun-dappled glade, had taken time out of his affairs to come listen to Caturix speak. No one else would listen, Aziraphale had said, but he would. Caturix was smart enough to read the signs.
“I just wanted to feel not so alone,” he admitted, and Aziraphale’s kindly face finally broke into a smile.
So Caturix did. He spoke of Atecorius’ strength, his skill in battle, his easy commanding nature. He told Aziraphale of each and every smile Atecorius bestowed on him, each friendly touch, each moment of camaraderie that meant much more than camaraderie to Caturix.
And, because his hands were still fisted beneath his robes and Aziraphale had not said anything about it, he detailed Atecorius’ body, glorious in its oiled nakedness, the wickedness of his grin, the way his hair looked after battle, and the way Caturix ached for him.
Oddly, Aziraphale seemed to understand those last parts the best.
“You care for him a great deal.”
“I do,” Caturix confessed, in a voice barely above a whisper. He could never admit it to anyone else, but this kind stream-god had taken pity on him, and he deserved the truth. “Thank you for… for understanding. I do feel less alone.”
Aziraphale looked uncomfortable, for the first time since Caturix had begun to speak. “Well. I wouldn’t say I understand – I mean, your affections are obviously – “
Liar, Caturix thought. He knew gods sometimes lusted after mortals, and gods always got what they wanted. But they were not friends with mortals, and if Aziraphale had a friend-who-was-more-than-a-friend, perhaps gods did not always get what they want when it came to other gods.
“Of course,” Caturix said, and Aziraphale relaxed.
“I could… if you wanted… I could ask around,” he said.
Aziraphale looked shifty. He was so unlike every story of every god Caturix had ever been told that it was difficult to reconcile him with what Caturix thought he was supposed to be. Perhaps there was a reason, after all, that Aziraphale had been listening in for prayers like Caturix’s. “My friend – well, more of an acquaintance, really – has certain… connections. Skills, you might say. If he looked in on your Atecorius, you might find you are not so alone as you thought.”
“What’s in it for him?” Caturix asked suspiciously. Gods never did favors without repayment, and there was nothing Caturix could do to repay either of them that did not fill him with terror.
“Never you worry about that,” Aziraphale said, arranging his face into a semblance of reassurance, but the mouth was all wrong and the eyes were too hard to be believable. Someone would have to make a sacrifice, but it would not be Caturix.
“What’s in it for you, then?”
Aziraphale laughed. “A flawless track record, if I’m correct.”
Well. If minor gods kept score of petty wishes, that was not so unbelievable. Gambling with human lives, it seemed, was not restricted to the greatest of deities.
“Alright, then,” Caturix said. “But next time, don’t interrupt me like that.”
Aziraphale sniffed. “You interrupted yourself. I just came when you asked.” On his way out of the tent, he paused, one hand on the flap. “You prayed to a horse god about this?”
Aziraphale never returned. But the next week, as Caturix passed by Atecorius’ tent, Atecorius smiled at him, and the blush that stained his cheeks in greeting told Caturix that perhaps Aziraphale’s friend had done a bit more than look in.
Caturix was not one to look a gift horse, or a pretend horse-god, in the mouth.
Ireland, c. 900 CE
Seger fell back against the unforgiving bark of the tree, hand pressed to his lips, at the halfway point between elation and despair.
Wystan had kissed him. Wystan had kissed him, and then Wystan had run.
Seger flung an arm over his eyes, fighting the smile threatening to overwhelm him. He had to compose himself before returning to the monastery. No one could know.
At that thought, his blood froze in his veins. Wystan had run – what if he had told someone, in his excitement or panic? Excitement, surely; Wystan had kissed him, so it couldn’t have been disgust that made him flee. Perhaps he had feared Seger’s reaction.
Seger wished desperately to speak with him, but he knew he could not. Their only moments together were ones like these, in the woods, when Seger went to gather plants, and Wystan went to meditate on the nature of the Almighty, or whatever devout to-be monks did in the woods besides kiss less-devout to-be monks. Wystan would be at dinner now, saying his prayers as if he hadn’t just had Seger backed against a tree.
The roughness of the trunk digging into his back reminded Seger that he, too, should be getting back. His moment with Wystan must remain their secret, no matter how badly Seger wanted to shout it from the top of the steeple for all to hear.
If I were Wystan, I would pray about it, he thought, pushing himself away from the tree and dusting off his cloak. He did not believe in the Christian God as fervently as Wystan did, but he figured it couldn’t hurt. I would say – whoever cares to listen, whoever might be interested in these sorts of things – it happened, and it was wonderful. And I’m terrified.
The tree behind him rustled. “Why?” it said. “It seems things are going quite well.”
Seger whirled about, and came face to face with – an angel. It could be nothing else; it wore flowing white robes and behind its head hovered a disc of golden light. Its bare feet just skimmed the tops of the decaying leaves.
“Sorry,” the angel said, brushing a leaf from its shoulder, “there are an awful lot of trees in this forest. I meant to appear before you, do the whole visitation thing properly, but I got a bit turned around.”
“I don’t really see the problem here, to be honest,” the angel said. Seger’s stunned silence did not seem to be an impediment to their conversation. “He kissed you, you liked it, you aren’t having a crisis of faith – which is quite refreshing, I must say – everyone’s happy. No?” it added, when Seger only shook his head mutely.
“He ran.” The angel made a noise of encouragement, and Seger ground his teeth. The danger of his situation was obvious; there was no need to dance around it. “He’s probably confessing everything to the priest right now.”
The angel laughed, which did not help Seger’s terror. “I highly doubt that. Most likely he’s – “ it cut itself off, a faraway look in its eyes and a blush tinting its cheeks. Seger’s own face warmed at the implication.
“Can you – see him?”
“It’s not quite – more of a, ‘the eye of God sees everything,’ sort of way.”
“So when we – “
“Heavens no, what do you take me for? It’s not like I go looking for that sort of thing, I just always seem to… stumble upon it.”
“You do this often, then?” Seger said, relaxing back against the rough trunk. Flustered like this, the angel looked like any other normal person Seger might run into in a forest at dusk. Wystan would call that blasphemy, but it made it easier to hold a conversation if he thought of this being as just another holy man – though perhaps a tad holier than the ones Seger usually encountered.
“Not intentionally. But it does seem to have become a bit of a pattern,” the angel admitted.
The angel shrugged with what Seger recognized as bravado. It knew exactly why, but it wasn’t telling. “I’m the only one listening for it, I suppose.”
Seger nodded. “So the monks are right. It is a sin.” And this lone rogue angel, who took a special interest in people like Seger, did so because he was like Seger, too.
“No, it’s not – “ the Angel sighed. “I would never contradict the Almighty like that. That’s a good way to get oneself – it’s just that no one else particularly cares.”
Well. That was comforting, Seger supposed, but probably more to Wystan than to him. More importantly, it confirmed several things the angel probably had not wanted confirmed. If angels, as a rule, did not care about petty human dalliances, and this one did – that said something.
“Have you got a name?”
The angel hesitated.
“I’m sure you know mine; it’s only fair I know yours,” Seger said. It was a wager, and not particularly selfless of him, but he was not Wystan, and selflessness had never suited him well where getting answers was concerned. “How can I trust you if I don’t know who you are?”
“I’m an angel; I’m the most trustworthy –“ the angel took one look at Seger’s stubborn, challenging face, and gave in. “Aziraphale. But please don’t tell anyone.”
“Why not?” Seger asked again. It had gotten him scolded by the senior monks more than once, this dogged tendency to question and pursue answers to things one was supposed to take on faith.
“Asking too many questions is another good way to get oneself in trouble,” Aziraphale snapped, but Seger knew he had won. “If you must know, I’ve been accused of meddling too much in human affairs lately. I’d prefer if my name stayed out of any thanks-be-to-heaven.”
“And have you?”
“No. Yes. Well, not me personally. But I have been going through some… not officially sanctioned channels. I only mean to listen, you understand, but when it’s so easy to help someone who feels lost…” Aziraphale brightened. “But you’ve already figured all that out, so this ought to be fine. How can I help you?”
And Aziraphale had told Seger his name, even if it didn’t sound exactly angelic, and he had shown up when Seger asked for guidance. So Seger told him of working side-by-side with Wystan in the garden, of writing silly notes back and forth in the margins of manuscripts, of the countless times they’d been reprimanded for sneaking off alone to wander the woods and just talk. And because an angel’s job was to give guidance, Seger told him of the lectures they’d received on celibacy and sin, of the terrified tension in Wystan’s limbs just before he’d bolted, of every time their conversations drifted, as they inevitably did, to damnation.
At that last one, Aziraphale smiled.
“I should hope my presence has put that fear to rest.”
“One fewer out of a thousand,” Seger said morosely. Talking to an angel was supposed to make you feel at peace, or at least better than you had felt before. But saying it all aloud to a sympathetic ear, admitting all the fears he didn’t let himself think about to someone who wasn’t allowed to do anything about them, only brought home the futility of his situation.
Aziraphale favored him with a face so perfect and holy that for a moment, all of Seger’s anxieties melted away under that ethereal gentleness. That wasn’t fair; that was cheating. Seger did not want temporary relief. “Does being with this boy make you happy? Forget the world for a moment. Does he make you happy?”
“Yes,” Seger whispered, the hardest thing of all to admit. “But I don’t think I make him happy. He worries so much about his soul, and about being good enough – and I know he doesn’t mean to when he says heaven wouldn’t want us to be together, but it makes me feel like – like I’m not good enough.”
For a brief second, Aziraphale’s holy fired dimmed and he looked impossibly sad. “I think I understand. But just know – he doesn’t mean to hurt you; he’s just afraid. And that,” he said, grinning, once more the approachable sort of unflappable kindness he had been, “I can help you with.”
It was dark by the time Seger made it back to the monastery. He hadn’t noticed the gathering dusk while Aziraphale’s holy presence surrounded him, but without that light and without another person beside him, the woods were frightening and full of shadows. Aziraphale had said he would still be beside him, but Seger felt alone.
The abbot scolded him for missing the evening meal, but seeing as how he had returned long after Wystan, the usual lecture on morality was avoided for the moment.
He found Wystan in the library, hunched over a manuscript. The dull candlelight threw the anguished twist of his face into sinister shadows. Up closer, Seger could see that he was not working, but idly sketching flowers in the margin – the same flower he had laughingly placed behind Seger’s ear just before kissing him. That flower lay crushed on the forest floor somewhere, dislodged when Seger had whirled to face Aziraphale.
At Seger’s footsteps, Wystan looked up, his pale hazel eyes glinting gold in the candlelight. He looked guilty.
“Is that him?” Aziraphale asked, blinking back into existence. “I see why you like him.”
Wystan’s eyes widened impossibly in fear and his mouth opened, but no sound emerged.
“Now, now, no screaming,” Aziraphale chided. “No one will hear, but it’s not a very polite greeting, is it?”
“What are you?” Wystan choked. Seger frowned. Aziraphale looked no different than he had in the forest, but from the way Wystan’s eyes flickered back and forth, roving over something just outside the edges of Aziraphale’s shadowed outline, perhaps they were not seeing the same thing.
“I would think it should be obvious,” Aziraphale huffed. “Your boyfriend took this much better.”
“My –“ Wystan said, looking frantically behind him to where their brothers sat, squarely within hearing distance. But the room was motionless beyond the three of them, the still monks gilded with Aziraphale’s glow like the frontispiece of a manuscript. Wystan paled.
Seger glared at Aziraphale. “I said help him, not terrify him!”
“You said to give him a Visitation,” Aziraphale grumbled, “but very well.”
Seger could see no change in him, but something must have changed, because the terror in Wystan’s eyes dimmed to suspicion. “Who are you?”
Aziraphale spoke woodenly, as if he was reciting from memory. “Fear not. I am Aziraphale, angel of the – oh, bugger that. Your friend here asked me to visit you.”
“So many questions, the both of you. To put your soul at ease? You’d have to ask him.”
Wystan’s gaze flicked to Seger and back to Aziraphale. “Am I dying? Are you here because I –“
“No, and yes,” Aziraphale said, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “Look, do you believe me when I say I come on behalf of the Lord Almighty?”
That was a lie, but Wystan’s body uncoiled from its fight-or-flight tension and he finally looked away from Aziraphale, so Seger decided to wait rather than call it out. He supposed that anything an angel did must be alright in the eyes of god, even if god himself didn’t know it was being done. No one could be everywhere at once. That was what delegating was for.
“I suppose I must,” Wystan said quietly, with another glance at Seger. Seger tried to look supportive and reassuring.
“Then will you believe me when I say your immortal soul is safe?”
“I – I suppose I could.”
“The world of men may never see what you two share as a good and lawful thing,” Aziraphale said gently, “but in the eyes of heaven you have done nothing wrong, and will continue to do no wrong if you choose to keep doing… what you were doing.” He looked embarrassed, and Seger recalled what Aziraphale had insinuated Wystan had been doing when Seger had summoned Aziraphale. Wystan’s guilty look suddenly took on new meaning.
“Why are you telling me this?” Wystan asked, his voice small but, Seger hoped, relieved.
“He asked me to.”
Wystan’s smile, when he turned it on Seger, was as dopily grateful as it had been just before he ran, when Seger had kissed back. Then he frowned, again suspicious. “Why did you agree?”
Aziraphale hesitated, and Seger could see him preparing a glib falsehood like the one he had told Seger. But Wystan saw it too, his expression hardening once again into disbelief, and Aziraphale closed his eyes briefly as if asking for courage. “Call it doing for others what one can’t do for oneself.”
Seger opened his mouth to say something; an apology, maybe, for causing an angel distress, but Aziraphale shook his head. “Don’t mention it. In fact, don’t mention it to anyone. It’s better if word of this never reaches… certain people.” He waited until Seger and Wystan had both nodded agreement to say, “they’ll be like that for another twenty minutes or so. If you want time to… talk it out.”
As Seger pulled a pliant, shocked Wystan into his arms, he looked back at Aziraphale. The angel watched them – Wystan’s russet hair fire-red against Seger’s pale complexion, so like Aziraphale’s own – for a beat longer before he was gone, the room returning to darkness in his wake.
Seger could name only one emotion in that brief glance: longing.
New England, c. 1600 CE
Cecily shivered. The courthouse loomed large and imposing behind her, and the cold of the stone steps seeped through her skirts and up into her bones. October seemed to have arrived all at once, with its drizzling rain and its cutting winds. At least if she didn’t drown, she thought, she might freeze to death before they got to her.
The night was overcast, only a sliver of moon visible behind the clouds. She would have liked there to be stars.
She shouldn’t be out so late. A week ago, her father would have been searching for her, would have roused the whole town to find his darling girl. But that was before they’d been caught in the woods. God knew what they thought she was doing now, out and about at midnight. The witching hour.
She laughed. Somewhere in the woods, an owl answered.
It had been stupid to come. Stupid to believe that Faith would meet her, when she had gotten them both into this mess. Stupid to hope that Faith would change her mind – Faith, who was so terrified of the truth that she would rather perjure herself and die innocent than speak it.
Cecily didn’t understand. If they were innocent, what was the harm in saying it? Wouldn’t it be better to live with the shame than die, either mourned or condemned?
She could tell them. Faith would hate her, would never speak to her again, but it could save them both.
Or damn them further.
What would Faith do? Faith would pray. She was not one to make decisions on her own; in everything she did, she asked for guidance first. Cecily didn’t much see the point of asking for guidance if no one was going to answer. But it couldn’t hurt.
God, or whoever listens to these things – if anyone ever does, she whispered, so soft not even the owls could hear it, hands clasped atop her knees in a mockery of grace, I know I’m damned either way, but – I don’t want to die lying. And I don’t want you to tell me it will be alright, because I know it won’t be, just – what do I do?
“What about what I want?” said a mild, pleasant voice from above her. “Seems a bit of a waste, to call for help but say I can’t do anything about it.”
“Who are you?” Cecily demanded, scrambling to her feet. The man before her glowed pale in the moonlight; even his black vicar’s robe seemed lit as if it were day. And yet – the clouds still covered the moon, and there were no stars to reflect in the man’s blue-bright eyes. Her teeth chattered in something beyond cold. “Are you the devil?”
He blinked. “I knew I shouldn’t have worn black,” he said.
In an instant his vicar’s costume was transformed into shining white robes, and now Cecily understood his glow. She dropped to her knees.
“Now, now, that’s no good either,” said the angel, extending a hand to help her up. “I can’t stand people genuflecting while I’m talking; it makes me feel like you’re not listening.”
Cecily let him pull her to her feet, struck nearly dumb. “Genu-what?”
“Genu – oh, you don’t do that here, do you?” The angel frowned, as if trying to remember a word it had heard only once before and didn’t quite know the meaning of. “Protestant, right?”
“Puritan?” She nodded again, and the angel sighed. “It’s so hard to keep track of them all. Well, whatever denomination you are, you asked for advice. What would you like me to tell you?”
“Your name, first,” Cecily said, remembering her manners. Though really, this man had been the rude one, appearing in the night uninvited and striking up conversation without so much as a by-your-leave. Even angels ought to abide by good manners.
The angel laughed. “Of course; forgive me. Ezra Fell, doer of the Lord’s will on earth. And you are?”
“I don’t mean to question you,” Ezra said, looking her over with an appraising eye that would have gotten him slapped if her were any sort of man other than the one he was, “but are you sure?”
Cecily shrugged. She was fairly sure she was not a witch, but the time to argue that was past. “They all say I am.”
“Who is ‘they?’”
“The people who know these things.”
“And on what evidence do they believe they know them?” Ezra almost sounded indignant on her behalf. That would be some comfort, as hypothermia overtook her, she thought: that at least someone had seen the unfairness of it all.
“They say I’m possessed by a demon.”
Cecily turned her back on him, fuming. How dare he laugh at her, when she had asked for his help? How dare he mock her fate and the bigotry that had condemned her to it? Let him stand there in his moonlit robes and his starry eyes; she wanted nothing to do with him. He could offer his advice to the owls, for all she cared.
“No, wait, I’m sorry,” Ezra said. “I’m not laughing at you.”
“Then who are you laughing at? Them? Ridiculous or not, it’s still going to get me killed,” she snapped, shoulders tense. The audacity of him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s only – I know a demon, and the idea of him ever doing a thing like that – it is a bit laughable.”
“Because demons don’t do that?” She refused to turn around, just in case he was still laughing to himself. She could speak to him so long as she imagined him looking guilty.
“Well, they do, sometimes. But not recently. And never him.”
She could hear in his voice that he was still smiling, but not at her. The fond amusement in his voice was reserved for this apparent kind-hearted demon who, against all seeming odds, had won the trust of an angel.
“Well, that’s a relief, I suppose,” she said, turning back to confront him. The smile slid off his face at the expression on hers. “But it won’t hold up in court.”
“I won’t laugh, but you have to acknowledge what a farce it all is,” he said. “What can I do?”
“Nothing. It’s already decided.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Ezra said, his voice sharp. She gaped at him. Stupid? He knew nothing.
“Excuse me?” How could he be so incredibly rude? Now she was glad no one had answered her prayers before, if all she would have received were insults and laughter.
Ezra glared back. “Stupid. You’re a strong-willed girl. You turned your back on an angel; not many could do that. You know it’s not true. You have the earthly embodiment of god’s will at your command, and you don’t fight? Tell me why that isn’t stupid.”
“Because she doesn’t want me to,” Cecily said, quietly. “And if I’m going to die either way, I don’t want to do it with her hating me.”
Ezra’s eyes, and his entire form, softened. Suddenly he was not so tall, not so bright – a little dowdy, even, despite his immaculate robes. She realized he had been hovering only now that his feet touched the ground. “Ah. This is one of those calls. I didn’t realize, since you’re wearing all your clothes.”
“Never mind that; it’s not important. Nice change of pace, actually.”
He smoothed his palms over his robes, like a bird settling ruffled feathers. “So. You got caught together, they made a cockeyed assumption, and you went along with it rather than admit the truth.”
Cecily nodded. Ezra was an angel; with one look he could know everything about her. There was no point in lying to someone like that. “In the woods. We were –“
“I can infer,” Ezra said hastily. So angels were prudes, she thought. Who knew.
“She doesn’t want anyone to know. She’d rather drown and be exonerated than admit to a sin worse than witchcraft.”
“Small quibble there,” Ezra said, holding up a finger. “But we’ll come back to that. What’s so special about this girl that she’s worth dying for?”
“She just is,” Cecily said, knowing that she sounded stubborn and childish, but she didn’t care. She had already been judged by a whole jury of men who could never understand; she didn’t need one more.
“I might understand more than you think,” Ezra said gently.
She glared harder. “You read my mind!”
“I didn’t need to. You have a very expressive face.” Then, “humor me.”
Angel or no, Cecily didn’t trust him. She didn’t even like him, when it came down to it. But if she was going to die tomorrow, it might be nice to have told at least one person.
So she told him of Faith’s devotion and her unwavering goodness, of the way she held herself prim until they were out of sight and she could pick up her skirts and run, of her hair the color of strawberries and her too-loud laugh that startled the birds from the trees. And because Ezra said he understood, and because she was going to die anyway, she told him of Faith’s lips against hers, of the press of her body on the mossy floor, of the memory of her touch lingering long after evening prayers.
Ezra smiled at her through the whole thing. Maybe, she thought, she could like him. Just a little.
“Not such a sin when you say it like that, is it?”
Cecily smiled back. “I never believed it was. But then I never believed in you, either.”
“Well, it’s always nice to make new friends, isn’t it?” Ezra said, very cheerful for one whose new friend was scheduled to die in less than twelve hours. “Tell you what – are you a good actor? No matter, these people will believe anything. Back in a jiff.”
And then he was gone. Cecily sat for hours, awaiting his return, but he never came. That was what you got for trusting men.
At least the steps were warmer than they had been.
The next morning dawned just as gray as the night before. Cecily stared into the icy-dark river and tried to imagine what it would feel like. The foolish, sentimental part of her that had truly believed Ezra would return urged her to take Faith’s hand. She didn’t.
Suddenly there were voices behind her.
“ – pageantry, angel, don’t see why you dragged me to the new world for – “
“You owe me, Crowley, and besides, if last time wasn’t pageantry, I don’t know what is – oh, here they are.”
Cecily turned, Faith a beat behind her. There was Ezra, the shine of his robes less unworldly in the daylight, trailed by a lanky, redheaded man all in black.
“Apologies for taking longer than expected,” Ezra said. “This one’s a bear when he’s woken up. But it looks like we’re right on time.”
The redheaded man grumbled and slouched forward, and for the first time Cecily took in the scene behind him: her mother, tear-stained in pious grief – appropriate for the loss of a daughter but not excessive – and her father, stone-faced among the men who had sentenced her. It was all so unreal, like a grotesque woodcutting. She laughed.
“What’s so funny?” snapped the redhead. “I swear, angel – “
“I’m sorry,” Cecily said, shaking her head. “I know I shouldn’t. It’s just – it is ridiculous.”
Ezra grinned, his gaze sliding from Cecily to Faith beside her, silent with fear. “Glad you see it my way. Faith, I presume?”
Faith nodded mutely.
“You’re very lucky to have this one.” Ezra shoved his companion forward. “This is the friend I spoke of. Be polite, Crowley.” His eyes followed Crowley’s every movement with ill-concealed longing.
Ah. So that’s what he had meant by understood.
“Charmed,” Crowley drawled, looking for all the world like he would rather still be asleep.
“He’s doing his best,” Ezra said, conspiratorial, which only deepened Crowley’s scowl. He clapped his hands together. “Now. Are you girls ready to be possessed by a demon?”
Cecily would learn only later what the onlookers saw. To her eyes, there was a great deal of smoke, the smell of sulfur, and a pair of sickly yellow eyes glinting in the mist. Then, shouting, the clash of blade on blade, and a booming voice:
“Thou art vanquished, foul fiend. Never approach these maids again, or thou shalt feel my wrath.”
There was a terrible hiss just as a blinding light cut through the smoke and Ezra’s voice in her ear whispered, collapse. A strange force pushed her to the earth, buckling her knees, and she fell.
The clamor of voices reached her ears: her mother’s relieved weeping, the vicar stuttering, the awed murmurs from the crowd. Cut through all of that was Ezra’s voice.
“In future, perhaps choose your rendezvous points more carefully.”
As his presence faded from her mind and Faith stirred beside her, Cecily caught one last exchange.
“Stop whining, Crowley, fair’s fair.”
“…just doesn’t fit right anymore.”
“You look fine.” Then, quieter, a “thank you.”
And again, just as soft: “anytime, angel.”
The English Channel, c. 2000 CE
Jaime stared at the picture propped against his desk lamp. It stared back at him with a banal grace.
This was definitely the weirdest thing he had ever done.
The picture itself was a bit ridiculous, like one of those saint cards his grandmother always slipped into his suitcase before he boarded the plane back to the UK. It didn’t even say who it was – someone burned at the stake for delivering breech babies or something, probably – but Martina had said it didn’t matter what it looked like, so long as he believed.
Ordinarily Jaime would have scoffed at that. But he would attempt anything for Eliza’s sake, so believe he would.
The part of him that carried some congenital Catholic guilt rebelled at the idea of doing this in front of a saint, but Jaime was desperate. So he unbuttoned his jeans, pulled down the zipper, and closed his eyes.
The he opened them again, in case he had to be actively looking at the picture for it to work.
Aziraphael – I think that’s your name – I was told you could help me. I don’t know if I believe that, but I’ve got nowhere else to turn. Even just a sympathetic ear would be nice.
Nothing. Jaime removed his hand from his jeans, feeling silly. Maybe it had worked for Martina, but he was crap at praying. He closed his eyes again. This Aziraphael person probably wasn’t even listening, anyway.
He had to get up. He couldn’t keep sitting in a desk chair with his dick out. What if someone walked in and saw it and thought he regularly got off to religious iconography? It had been a stupid idea. Angels didn’t even exist.
“Have a little faith,” said someone. “And please put that away.”
Jaime’s eyes flew open. There in front of him, perched on his desk like a cool youth pastor, was – an angel. Jesus fucking Christ.
“You’re Aziraphael, aren’t you,” he breathed.
Jaime couldn’t say how he knew it was an angel, other than the fact that he had prayed and it had shown up. Cause and effect. It looked more like a Victorian dandy, or at the very least someone really into making their own period-accurate clothing. But it had winked into existence on top of Jaime’s desk and knocked over the picture of Saint – Casimir, according to the text on the back Jaime hadn’t bothered to read – so, unless he was hallucinating, it was an angel.
“I prefer Aziraphale, but yes,” Aziraphael – Aziraphale said. “Please pull your trousers back up.”
Fuck, right, he was sitting in front of an angel with his dick out. Martina had better be right about this. He shamefacedly put himself back together, searching for a way to redirect the conversation back onto Aziraphale. “Sorry. I just thought it might – do you have any, er, pronouns?”
“You know, he, she, they, et cetera,” Jaime said, reeling. What was he doing? The earthly embodiment of god sitting in his bedroom, and he was asking about pronouns? You probably weren’t even supposed to refer to angels by anything but their title.
Aziraphale laughed a little, bemused. “No one’s ever asked me that before. Strictly speaking, angels don’t have gender, so you can call me whatever you want.”
“They, then,” said Jaime, because he would feel rude assigning a gender to something that didn’t have one to begin with.
“If you like. How can I help?” Aziraphale examined the picture. “Is this supposed to be me? It’s a terrible likeness.”
“I got it from an occult shop,” Jaime said, flushing when Aziraphale laughed.
“Oh, he’d love that if he knew,” they said, and didn’t elaborate. Who was he? God? Did god not know about this? Was this an unauthorized visit? Jaime didn’t like to think about the implications of that.
“You said you could help me.”
“That is generally why an angel visits a person, yes.” Aziraphale paused, thoughtful. “Well, these days. Virgin births have gone out of style in recent millennia.”
Was this a joke to them? No matter. Jaime had already thoroughly humiliated himself to summon them, so he might as well ask.
“I have a girlfriend,” he said. Aziraphale frowned.
“That’s not how this usually goes.”
“The problem with that is that – “ Jaime took a breath. Aziraphale had said they didn’t have a gender; this would go over fine. And if it didn’t, he could always… un-summon them, somehow. “We kept it secret, because my parents don’t know I’m bi, but now she…”
“But she?” Aziraphale prompted, when Jaime couldn’t continue.
“Her parents found out she’s trans,” Jaime said. Then, the terrifying reality he couldn’t let himself face: “they’re sending her to conversion therapy.”
Aziraphale went still, carefully pushing themself back until they were sitting fully on Jaime’s desk, legs dangling off the edge like a child. “And you want me to… give you strength in this trying time?”
Jaime frowned. “I want you to stop them.”
Aziraphale sagged against the wall, tilting their head back to press against the fading plaster. “I can’t do this,” they muttered. “Damn you, Crowley.”
Jaime didn’t know who Crowley was, but that was less important than the fact that Aziraphale couldn’t help him.
“Why not?” he demanded. “You’re an angel. Enact a miracle, or something.”
“There’s a very complex reason why I can’t do that,” Aziraphale said, sounding so dejected that it must be the truth. “Are you sure you don’t want to tell me your troubles? You did say a sympathetic ear would be enough.”
“My troubles are that my girlfriend is being sent to – to some horrible brainwashing institution and there’s nothing I can do about it! And I called on you because someone told me you could, and now you’re telling me you’re just as useless as I am and I jerked off in front of Saint-fucking-Casimir for nothing.”
Aziraphale looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Well, as the patron saint of bachelors, if I recall, I suppose he might not mind so much.” They pushed themself forward on the desk, just enough to rest their elbows on their knees and drop their head to their hands, rubbing their temple in some combination of weariness and agony. “I’ve never failed one of these before.”
Jaime was still angry, but Aziraphale looked so defeated, so tired, that Jaime couldn’t help but feel bad for them. Martina had been right, after all; they did just want to help. And for whatever reason, they couldn’t, and they felt awful about that.
“I’m… persona non grata in Heaven right now,” Aziraphale said, choosing their words carefully. “Appearing to someone who asked for me specifically is one thing, but big flashy shows of divinity… it would end badly.”
“There’s nothing you can do, then.”
“I’m sorry. If I can be of help in some other way –“ Aziraphale’s eyes widened. “No. Well. I suppose – are you sure I can’t just… put your soul at peace, or something like that?”
Jaime didn’t understand whatever internal debate Aziraphale was struggling with, but it seemed slightly more promising than there’s nothing I can do. So he put on a look of absolute dejection, hung his head, and said, “no, that’s alright. You can go.”
Aziraphale looked like they desperately wanted to take the out Jaime had given them, but some angelic code of goodness must have kicked in an overridden it, because they pushed themself to their feet, dusted off their frumpy suit, and finally looked Jaime in the eye.
“Alright, you win. But can I just ask – just for my own records – what makes her worth all this?”
“Makes her worth – people don’t get sent to these places because they’re unworthy –“
Aziraphale held up their hands, starting forward in earnest correction, stumbling a bit over Jaime’s laptop charger. “No, no, of course not, I would never suggest – just – it will be much less paperwork if I can write this off as a ‘spiritual guidance’ visit. So if you could just… give me the long-story-short version, if you want.”
Jaime didn’t want, but somehow, with him still seated and Aziraphale hovering anxiously above him, the situation did a feel a bit… holier. Aziraphale was still wearing an outdated suit and they still looked frazzled, but from below the kindly cast of their face became benevolent and with their feet obscured their light bearing almost seemed to float. They did not look like the sort of angel who could fix Jaime’s problem. But they did look like the sort of angel who could listen.
So Jaime told them the long-story-short version. He told them of meeting Eliza on the first day of secondary school and bonding over the Iron Man stickers on Eliza’s notebooks, of passing notes in their shared classes, of long afternoons spent in this bedroom, scrambling to look studious when Jaime’s parents came to check on them.
And because it seemed angels responded well to sob stories, he told them of the way Eliza’s hair looked splayed over Jaime’s pillow, her one crooked canine when she smiled at him across the room, the stupid, uninhibited way she danced along to his study music; the indomitable spirit the world was so determined to crush.
Aziraphale closed their eyes. “I’m going to regret this,” they said, and fished inside one of their many pockets for several seconds. With an air of great resignation, they handed Jaime a stiff white business card.
Principality to Earth
Angel of the LORD
And on the back,
For all enquiries, please prepare
Summoning Circle no. 8735966A
Below that, in handwriting that looked as if someone had tried to illuminate a manuscript with a ballpoint pen, someone had added,
A.Z. Fell & co. Booksellers
And below that, in a spiky, compact hand with an odd flourish on the s,
Don’t knock, just stand outside and think really hard. Works every time.
Jaime stared at the card. This must be a joke. Angels didn’t own bookshops.
“I can’t house you, you understand,” Aziraphale said. “But if you ever need a friendly face in London...”
Jaime clasped the card to his chest, fighting a smile. The heavy cardstock dug into his palm and he realized that, while it looked like paper, it refused to crumple or even bend in his grip. Not a joke, then. “Thanks for this. And… for listening.”
“It’s what I’m here for.” Aziraphale turned as if to leave through the bedroom door, which Jaime suspected was only a habit of years of pretending to be human. Then they stopped. “Can I ask – how did you know to call on me?”
“There’s a girl from Argentina on my discord server. She said she prayed to the Virgin Mary to change her and you showed up – which, bit of an upgrade, in my opinion – and told her it was all nonsense.”
“And the –“ Aziraphale waved an embarrassed hand in the vague direction of Jaime’s crotch. Jaime felt himself go red. Saint Casimir was one thing, but knowing that an actual, honest to god angel had watched him jerk off was something he would have to repress for the rest of his life, probably.
“She said it seemed to help. Something about vulnerability, or… something.”
“Correlation does not imply causality,” Aziraphale muttered, shaking their head in rueful amusement. “But I suppose most prophecies are self-fulfilling. I wish you both luck.”
“You, too,” Jaime said, with the unthinking reflexiveness of wishing your waiter an enjoyable meal. Aziraphale was clearly operating on several levels of historical precedent that Jaime wasn’t aware of. Half the things they said seemed meant for some invisible fourth-wall-breaking sidekick, maybe the he who would be so tickled by Jaime’s visit to the occult shop.
Aziraphale laughed, and it was definitely at Jaime, but Jaime supposed nothing an angel did could ever be truly mocking. “I hope it works out. But if you do need me again – you really can just ask for me.”
And they were gone, before Jaime could even choke out a, “noted.”
But the business card still cut into his palm, and when he looked at it again, the spiky letters still glowed as stark as an invitation.
Don’t knock, just stand outside and think really hard. Works every time.
Who wrote that, he wondered. He? Crowley? Who knew this angel well enough to make snarky additions to their business cards?
Jaime supposed he’d find out.
SoHo, Friday the 11th of January, 2019 CE
Eliza watched the two indistinct figures inside the bookshop draw closer. She could feel Jaime shaking beside her through their clasped hands and squeezed reassuringly. Jaime would not say where he had found this shop, only that its owner would help them, and Eliza had never seen Jaime so confident in anything, and so they had gone.
The door opened. Eliza caught the tail end of “ – frightening children,” before the bookshop’s occupants came into view.
The first one had to be the one Jaime had told her about – Aziraphale. They had a soft, kindly face; almost grandfatherly, if they had been thirty years older. They looked puzzled, which was an appropriate reaction to two strange teenagers showing up on one’s doorstep. Then their eyes fell to the business card Jaime still held, and Eliza watched comprehension and resignation war for preeminence on their face.
Aziraphale audibly gave in. “You had best come inside.”
Eliza stepped gingerly over the threshold, gripping Jaime’s hand like an anchor. This felt very sketchy. Not the bookshop; it looked like every other small antique shop she’d ever seen. But it was entirely empty of customers, and there was an odd, pervasive sense that she was not welcome. Jaime had better be really sure about this.
The other occupant – proprietor? friend? partner? probably the mysterious he Jaime had mentioned – squawked in indignation. “You’re just going to let them – “ Then he caught sight of the business card too. “You actually give those out? I wouldn’t have written the bloody note if I’d known a bunch of hooligans were going to stand on your front step thinking at us.”
“It was all I could do,” Aziraphale snapped, and Eliza saw a determination in them she hadn’t seen before. Maybe they were the protector Jaime had promised they would be. “You know my hands are tied.”
Their partner, in whatever sense of the word, pinched the bridge of his nose, pushing fashionable sunglasses askew. For a moment, Eliza thought she saw a flash of yellow eyes. “Then why’d you even take the call?”
“I can’t well ignore a personal request,” Aziraphale said, clearly hedging their words. It only served to make them sound shiftier.
“They asked for you?” Sunglasses said, incredulous. “I suppose it’s not so surprising, if you go around just handing out business cards with your name on them.”
“Technically, I knew it before they gave me the card,” Jaime offered. Aziraphale looked as if they were trying to make themself as unobtrusive as possible as Sunglasses gave Jaime a disconcertingly searching look. Where on earth had Jaime found these people?
Sunglasses finally left off his visual interrogation of Jaime and turned those accusatory eyes on Aziraphale. “You’re hiding something from me.”
Aziraphale let out a nervous laugh.
“How’d you learn it, then?” Sunglasses asked Jaime.
“Crowley, don’t grill the poor –“
Jaime shrugged with an abandon that Eliza privately feared would get them both killed. This Crowley looked like the murderous type, and wasn’t it sketchy for a grown human to just give out their address to a couple of kids? Maybe Aziraphale was the bait and Crowley was going to dismember both of them. But Jaime, with an astonishing degree of trust, answered.
“Someone told me they’d help me if I asked them to.”
“A girl I know. She was struggling with her sexuality, and Aziraphale helped.”
Aziraphale had shrunk back as far as they could without hitting the shop’s front counter, and now they seemed to be looking for a quick exit. But whatever they had hoped to avoid was too late to prevent, because Crowley’s smile went gleeful and his voice sardonic as he turned, slow and predatory, to face Aziraphale.
“What are you, the patron saint of queer kids?”
“You are!” Crowley crowed, reveling in this apparent discovery. “You’ve been answering these prayers for so long that now they ask for you specifically. All those years – ‘oh, Crowley, could you check up on this Gaulish soldier for me, I think he’s practicing adultery – oh, he fucks men? Fascinating, thanks ever so for the tip’ – ‘Crowley, is there by any chance a young Jewish girl you’ve been struggling to Tempt with your heterosexual wiles’ – you were helping sad historical queers get laid.”
“I never said heterosexual wiles,” Aziraphale muttered. “Not about you, anyway.”
“Jaime, what the fuck is this?” Eliza muttered, hoping Aziraphale and Crowley were too busy sniping at each other to hear her. “Who are these people?”
But Aziraphale gestured angrily at both of them, and Jaime’s mouth clicked shut on his answer. “And anyway, this is all your fault,” Aziraphale said, making it clear that Eliza and Jaime were nothing more than props in an argument that was clearly much bigger than the four of them.
“They’re sending this girl to a conversion camp, Crowley.”
The silence that rocked through the bookshop at that bombshell was different for all of them. Aziraphale, breathing hard, looking ashamed of their outburst; Eliza, blindsided by the revelation that a perfect stranger knew why she had come; Jaime, righteously furious that anyone would stand in their way; and Crowley… gutted, was the only word for it. He tried to speak, but only a punched-out, wounded noise emerged.
“And how is that – you think I did that?” he managed.
Aziraphale’s shame seemed to double in the face of Crowley’s hurt, but they doubled down. “Well, in absence of anyone else to blame –“
“Pray away the gay? That’s your side’s style, not mine.”
“My side would never –“
“And neither would I! God, angel, I can’t believe you thought –“
“I didn’t want to, Crowley, but there was no other –“
“Humans! Humans do terrible shit like this all the time.”
This was like being a spectator at the worst tennis game ever, but Eliza was slowly putting the pieces together; the things Jaime had glossed over when he’d explained where they were going. She knew Jaime was more religious than he liked to claim he was; Catholicism dies hard. Jaime might not be above praying, if he felt he had no other avenues.
Eliza was not religious. She might even go so far as to call herself an atheist. But the evidence before her said she might want to rethink that conclusion.
“I may be morally reprehensible most of the time, but there are lines even I won’t cross. That’s one of them. Anything that makes you unhappy is another.”
“Crowley, what – are you saying what I think –“
Crowley ducked his head and looked away.
But Jaime had missed this. Crowley was that he, and there was a reason Aziraphale, of all people, had been answering these prayers for all those centuries – Gaul? Really? That was mindboggling.
“You never said anything,” Aziraphale said quietly.
Crowley put his hands in his pockets, took them out, ran them through his hair, took off his sunglasses, put them back on, and dropped his hands back to his sides. His eyes, Eliza realized, were in fact yellow. Neat.
“You were always so cagey whenever I brought it up. I thought you knew and were just… I don’t know. Teasing me.” He sounded like any human forced to admit an embarrassing secret to their crush. Eliza was pretty sure he was some sort of demon, but she couldn’t help but feel bad for him, especially when his mouth twisted into a forced grin and he said, “turns out you were just playing renegade cupid.”
“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale breathed.
Eliza squeezed Jaime’s hand. “We should go.”
“What? But we just got here.”
Eliza rolled her eyes. Jaime could be so oblivious. If she had prayed to Aziraphale, she would have figured this out in time to not inadvertently out two ethereal-slash-occult beings. “They deserve some privacy.”
“But where –“
Eliza dragged him by the hand further into the shop, weaving her way through forbidding shelves and signs instructing her to look, don’t read – what kind of shop was this? – to a nondescript door at the back.
“Eliza, this is someone’s personal – “
She pulled the door open and shoved Jaime inside. “That out there is personal. This is just a stockroom.” With a pair of nice chairs, a coffee table, a sideboard, and several wine racks, but still probably a stockroom. “We’re going to hang out here until they’ve sorted out whatever they’ve got going on, and you’re going to explain to me how the hell you found this place.”
Jaime finally cracked a smile. He had been on edge, Eliza realized, from the moment he’d texted her and told her to pack a bag because they were going somewhere safe. Only now did he think they’d reached it. She smiled back.
“You’re not going to believe it.”
Back to the present moment:
“They’re gone,” Crowley said, unnecessarily, but it broke the awkward silence.
“That girl’s a perceptive one.”
Aziraphale laughed, relaxing enough to lean back against the counter rather than trying to become one with the wood. “I knew she would be, from the way he talked about her.”
He saw the shift in Crowley’s posture, too, a loosening as Crowley pushed one shoulder against the shelves opposite Aziraphale and cocked a hip in his usual unflappable stance. If there was any conversational topic Crowley felt comfortable with, it was teasing Aziraphale.
“So you really do play Cupid for these kids, huh.”
“Not always. Not usually, even. I just… I’m whatever they need me to be, if it’s within my power.”
Crowley shifted, folding his arms across his chest. His sunglasses hid his expression from Aziraphale’s view. “Why?”
“There wasn’t really a reason, at first,” Aziraphale said slowly. “Or at least I can’t remember one. It’s been going on for so long that I’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint a beginning. I was in the area, and someone would pray… and they were such small prayers; I knew no one else would take them, and it’s not like it’s a hardship for me to put someone at ease. After a while I guess I just started to keep an ear out for them.”
“So not exactly a passion project, then.”
Aziraphale was prepared to agree, to put the whole matter to rest as a funny side hobby he had hidden from Crowley for the better part of three millennia just for the hell of it, but that the look on Crowley’s face stopped him. Crowley’s eyes were still hidden behind protective shades, but his mouth was a tight, unhappy line, poised to tilt into a false smile if Aziraphale gave the answer he had planned; the answer Crowley expected.
Aziraphale changed plans.
“Once upon a time I knew what it was like to believe I must have been abandoned by god, to feel the things I felt,” he said, watching Crowley’s mouth slacken in shock. “And I still know what it’s like to want something you can’t have. So I suppose in some ways I was telling them the things I wished I could believe for myself.”
Crowley looked torn between pushing himself off the bookshelf towards Aziraphale or sinking further into it in tentative expectation. But he summoned up some bravado from that infinite store of it he had, which Aziraphale had always found so charmingly transparent, to say, “what do you want that you can’t have? We saved the world, angel; it’s our oyster now.”
There was an easy answer – a shortcut, almost, which would bring them to the inevitable conclusion of this conversation with just a word. But Aziraphale had, in his millennia of listening to lovesick humans, developed a bit of a fanciful streak, and there were ways he had imagined this going, when he allowed himself to imagine.
So he didn’t say, you.
Instead, he breathed in and out, once, just to feel what it was like to breathe with a secret pressing on your lungs one last time. “I’ve been listening to those kids telling me about the people they love for three thousand years, and you know what I learned?”
Crowley did shift forward, then, sunglasses dissolving into ether so that he could fix Aziraphale with a hunted, searching stare, cataloguing all the planes of Aziraphale’s face, the way it had looked for those three thousand years, as if memorizing what it had been before the revelation that was about to forever transform the way Crowley felt about it.
“Tell me,” he said.
“Humans are all unique, and that’s wonderful. But the things they feel are all very universal, and after the hundredth prayer or so, all those beloveds start to run together. It got boring, for a little while. But then I realized – the way they talked, and the things they felt… after a while I just… started to pretend it was you.”
Crowley’s voice was small, uncertain, but he stepped into Aziraphale’s space like he was completely certain of his welcome. Aziraphale laughed. It seemed only right that he now be the one seated, approached by an immortal being unused to navigating the waters of human-esque desire but determined to try.
“Well, I couldn’t exactly relate to a Victorian governess in love with her employer’s oldest daughter,” he said, and Crowley grinned a very Nanny-like grin at him. “But if I imagined her feeling about the daughter the way I felt about you… empathy is more effective than sympathy, sometimes.”
Crowley had come to rest just before Aziraphale, the tips of their shoes brushing on the scuffed wood floor. “And… you feel, about me,” he said slowly, like he couldn’t let himself believe it.
“Would you like me to tell you?”
Aziraphale reached for Crowley’s hand, and spared a brief thought for the two teenagers currently doing god-knew-what in his back room. He supposed he ought to thank them. “Are you paying attention? Active listening is the most important part of this job.”
“Yes, angel,” Crowley said, rolling his eyes, but he turned his hand to lace his fingers through Aziraphale’s.
So Aziraphale held his hand, and breathed in and out, and told him of Rivka’s cascading hair and Hadassah’s undemanding devotion, of Atecorius’ devious smiles and Caturix’s fear of discovery, of Wystan’s anxieties and the secret moments Seger treasured, of Faith’s steadfastness and the way Cecily would have followed her into death.
And he told Crowley of the fear on their faces when he appeared, of the names they gave him, of how they would laugh when he didn’t know the right thing to say, of the knowing looks they sometimes gave him when he mentioned Crowley – but most importantly, of how they always looked just a little bit happier by the time he left.
“I know you think I value my relationship with heaven more than my relationship with you,” he said quietly, head bowed over their clasped hands, “and I’m sorry I never corrected you. And I know you thought I could never possibly feel what you felt, or that I would choose heaven over you if I did feel that way. Every time I helped one of those children – I was saying the things to them I wished I could say to you.”
“You could, you know,” Crowley said. “Say them to me. If you wanted to. Do the whole visitation thing.”
Aziraphale looked at him, uncertain of whether it was a joke, and even if it was, whether he should take it seriously anyway. But Crowley shot him a small grin and rubbed his thumb over the back of Aziraphale’s hand, so Aziraphale set the more sobering implications of that request aside for another day and smiled back.
“Do you need my help getting laid, Crowley?”
Crowley hummed, leaning in. “Depends. How averse are you to having sex in front of those two kids?”
Aziraphale twisted out of Crowley’s hold to look behind him, where Eliza and Jaime stood guiltily.
“Sorry,” Eliza said. “We didn’t hear any talking so we thought we could just sneak out. Glad you two, uh, worked things out though.”
Jaime said, “if you’re trying to summon Aziraphale, there’s actually a trick to it I bet they didn’t – “
“No trick,” Aziraphale said hurriedly, glaring at Jaime. Jaime grinned back, unrepentant. Kids these days, honestly. Sometimes Aziraphale missed the days when people feared angels. “Same old summoning as it’s always been.”
Crowley used their linked hands to pull Aziraphale flush against him, bringing a proprietary arm around Aziraphale’s waist. “No, let the kid talk. I’m sure he’s about to tell me something very embarrassing for you.”
Aziraphale scrambled to think of a plausible lie, but Eliza, bless her, beat him to it. With a vice-grip on her boyfriend’s forearm, she backed the both of them towards the door with an apologetic, “we really were just leaving. Thank you for the business card; I’m sure we can figure something out from here.”
“My door is always open to you,” Aziraphale forced himself to say, with Crowley’s free hand trailing distracting lines over his hipbone, “just –“
“Not right now,” Crowley and Eliza finished. They grinned at each other.
And then she and Jaime were out the door, with a parting, “ask him about Saint Casimir!”
“The bachelor?” Crowley asked, perplexed. Aziraphale turned his head to hide his face in Crowley’s neck and gave in to laughter. Crowley kissed him on the forehead. “What now?”
“I don’t know,” Aziraphale said honestly. “I’ve never stuck around long enough to see how things played out.”
“Funnily enough, angel, I didn’t take you for a voyeur,” Crowley drawled. “But tell me –“
“Tell you what?”
So Aziraphale did.