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Home is Where the Heart is

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In this part of the world it’s very hot in summer. Crisp the grass, bake the ground, start brush fires hot. It’s not the kind of weather anyone would want to be walking far in, especially at midday. The lone traveller trudging along beside the sterile and poisonous inland sea wants nothing more than a cool drink, a bit of shade and a few people he can get into some amusing trouble. Not too much trouble, because he’s far too hot to get inventive. Just enough to make him smile as he has that drink. Luckily, he only has a few miles to go before he reaches the city. It’s a small city by the standards of the Land of the Two Rivers, but it counts as a large city for these parts. He has returned to the city time and again, and can pass for a local when he wants. And he knows a very nice little pub that serves very nice drinks, and quite tasty pub grub. He can wait for a proper meal until after the drink. Something floats into his eyes, and he wipes his face wearily. A little later he has to wipe his face again. He stops and sniffs the air. Then the traveller begins to run, ignoring the heat, ignoring the fact that his brain should have been fried with dehydration long before he got this far. He tops the rise that should give him a fine view of his favourite cities and sees nothing. The ash is too thick. The traveller gives a wordless howl of horror as he falls to his knees. He tears his clothing, then lies full length on the ground, pouring dust and ashes on his head. Anyone from the area would be able to explain this behaviour as formal gestures that indicate grief and mourning. Everyone from the area has ceased to exist as anything more than fine grey flakes of ash floating on the still hot air.

* * *

Aziraphale honestly tried to like America. It was a very vibrant country, the people had a commendable get-up-and-go attitude, and a lot of the scenery was just beautiful. On the other hand, they charged VAT on books, which Aziraphale felt was a sign of ultimate evil, or at least one of Crowley’s nastier little jokes. And the fundamentalists. Aziraphale was very nearly as embarrassed by fundamentalists as Crowley was by Satanists. He’d found it very hard to be properly disapproving that time Crowley had told him about his little visit to a snake-handling church. Dear oh dear. Thinking about Crowley left without proper supervision was not something that made for a peaceful mind. He didn’t quite like to think what was happening back home without him. Of course, the Arrangement dictated that all the things marked ‘urgent’ on his to-do list would be done before he got home. Probably the day before he got home, resulting in a sudden rash of religious experiences all over the country. Speaking of which . . . he rummaged round in his suitcase until he came up with the piece of paper Crowley’s list was written on. Hmmm. He hated doing this, and felt he really wasn’t cut out for tempting. Best to get it over with.

Over the course of that day,

A middle-aged man tripped over nothing, and yelled “Jesus!” in shock. He immediately felt very guilty, and resolved not to swear ever again.

In an overpriced tourist shop an artist was hanging large number of exceptionally tasteless pictures of angels all over the walls. They weren’t very accurate. She was rather taken aback when the pleasant tourist who had wandered in showed her what angels really looked like. She drew one last picture, and then gave up tacky religious art for good.

A lawyer gleefully took on a case that would pay her a lot of money to cover up her client’s unhealthy interest in small girls. When she realised the next day that she was putting money before God and all that was decent she sold everything she had, gave the proceeds to the poor, and applied to become a public defender.

A very small child told a huge lie to his mother, who forgave him. They both felt good about that, and the child told her she was the best mother in the whole world. Aziraphale ticked two items on the list.

A poor and desperate man stole a loaf of bread. When he shamefacedly went back to apologise, he discovered the storeowner was looking for an assistant, and could hire him immediately.

A couple committed adultery. They were going to do so one way or the other, that was clear. It was just unfortunate that their respective spouses suddenly both got the urge to visit the offices where their dear ones worked. It’s so hard to come up with a plausible explanation for being found in flagrante on the photocopier.

Round about dinnertime, a chef killed a lobster. Aziraphale liked seafood.

In the same restaurant, one diner suddenly coveted her friend’s lemon cheesecake like anything. She ordered two helpings. It did look rather tasty, so Aziraphale had some too.

There was only one item left unticked, and it had to wait till the weekend anyway. Aziraphale dithered about which day to choose, and finally flipped a coin. Accordingly, that Sunday, an elderly gentleman decided he wasn’t sure if he believed in God and couldn’t be bothered going to church. Instead he went to the local park, fed the ducks and had a nice conversation with someone he met there. He went home with a much stronger belief in God and a firm conviction that He could be honoured by feeding His quacking creations.

 

There was also of course his own work. Inspiring good deeds, strongly urging people to be nicer to each other, trying to suggest that public spending on the destitute should be increased. That was as popular as it had always been everywhere. After three days of intense do-gooding, Aziraphale felt he’d earned a little holiday, and began visiting museums and concerts, and starting vicious fights in antiquarian bookshops. His hotel room was rapidly filling up with assorted purchases, and he rather thought he might be charged excess baggage on the way home. Well, may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. He went shopping in earnest.

The fun was spoiled somewhat by coming back to the hotel to see the little light flashing on the phone. He carefully rang down to the desk to ask what that meant. Oh no. Only one person could possibly be ringing him here. He didn’t want to know, he really didn’t want to know. He had to know, he supposed, and picked up the receiver.

“Aziraphale, it’s Crowley. I need a word, I’ll ring back later.”

“Aziraphale. Where are you? Look, ring me at home when you get in.”

“Aziraphale! Bugger it, where the hell are you? I need to talk to you!”

“Bugger! You are the most useless excuse for a being I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. It’s 9 at night here. Ring me.

Oh dear. It must be almost midnight there now. Aziraphale rang reception again and asked for a trans-Atlantic call to be placed. After four rings the phone was picked up.

“Crowley –”

“Hi. This is Anthony Crowley. Uh. I’m probably not in right now, or asleep, and -.”

Blast. Wrong phone. He rang reception again, and gave them the other number. After four rings the phone was picked up.

“Crowley -”

“Hi. This is Anthony Crowley. –”

Aziraphale put the receiver down. He waited twenty minutes and rang back. After another twenty minutes he rang back again. And after another twenty minutes. After another hour he admitted he wasn’t going to be talking to Crowley. He fretted all night long, and tried again in the morning. There was still no answer, or at least no answer from a flesh-and-blood Crowley. Even though he stayed in all day, Crowley didn’t ring him, and every time he rang Crowley’s flat he just got the Ansaphone. By the next morning, Aziraphale had decided that the matter mustn’t have been that urgent, or Crowley would have tried harder to contact him. He had quite a nice day attacking strangers in bookshops.

Two days after that his peaceful dinner was interrupted by Crowley dropping into the seat opposite.

“You are the most useless, hard to contact, malingering angel in all of Creation. Where the hell were you? Floating round some annoying art exhibit or just stealing from libraries again?”

“I stayed in for thirty-six hours trying to ring you, Crowley. There’s no need to be unpleasant. Are you going back to England soon?”

Crowley scowled and beckoned a waiter. He glared at the menu and sent the waiter scurrying again with his order.

“Never mind. I dealt with things. And no, I’m not. The room next to yours was free.”

“With what? Tell me. What’s wrong? Right next door? Aren’t there other hotels you might prefer?”

“Oh, nothing’s really wrong. I was just hoping you’d be able to handle it for me. I had a lot of work to do in Britain, that’s all. But you wouldn’t have been able for it anyway.”

Aziraphale looked at him sternly.

“What’s going on? Is this something you should have mentioned before?”

“No. I got a message the other day. It’s just human political stuff, Aziraphale, not big political stuff. Watch the news over the next few months. There’s going to be some interesting developments with a few senators.”

“Getting Republicans to sell their souls?” Aziraphale said.

Crowley grinned.

“Where’s the challenge there? Anyway, did you cover for me?”

Aziraphale nodded, chewing what he considered a rather overcooked piece of lamb, given what they were charging for it.

All of it?” Crowley asked. “Without cheating? You always cheat.”

“All of it. And I don’t cheat, that’s like lying,” Aziraphale lied. “How about my stuff?”

“I made a start. Then I had to come over here. Let’s see, I did the thing with what you’re still calling the GLC, the old lady, I started the work on that Methodist congregation, but then this took precedence.”

“What about the little girl?”

“One peaceful death, as requested.”

Aziraphale looked at him in horror.

“Crowley! She was supposed to go into remission! It was the old lady who was to get the peaceful death!”

Crowley squashed down a look of embarrassment.

“Well, in the end it’s swings and roundabouts, isn’t it?”

Aziraphale buried his head in his hands. Crowley sheepishly ordered more drinks. After enough wine, a happier thought occurred to Aziraphale. If Crowley was in America, then it was his bounden duty to make sure he didn’t cause trouble. And it was Crowley’s bounden duty to make sure that Aziraphale didn’t do good. As they cancelled each other out, neither of them should feel guilty about doing nothing at all. He put this forward as a theory. Crowley raised an eyebrow at this line of reasoning and said he didn't feel guilty in the first place, but a break was fine by him. He wasn't going into bookshops though.

* * *
One of the very best things about American museums, Aziraphale thought, was that there was always a variety of intriguing and pleasant cafes and restaurants quite near to them. So when on had elevated one's mind enough one could go and eat delicious - if frequently overpriced - food. This was especially important if one happened to have a demon with a short attention span around. Well, that wasn’t really fair, he supposed. Crowley could always concentrate if he were personally interested in something. He’d been quite well behaved while looking at the more gruesome exhibits. Mediaeval Christian art, however, didn’t really fit the bill. The only things that he’d paid much attention to were the depictions of Hell, which had amused him greatly. Aziraphale had felt quite embarrassed by the way people had looked at them, but Crowley was behaving himself now. Aziraphale offered the plate with the last pastry on it to Crowley in a way that indicated he hoped it wouldn’t be accepted. Crowley waved a bored hand, and Aziraphale put the pastry on his own plate. He’d already paid for it and it would be a shame to waste it.

“I want a drink,” Crowley hissed. “No more antiquarianism for the rest of the day.”

Aziraphale nodded, chewing the pastry. Hardly an unexpected statement for Crowley to make.

“Later,” he said. “I want to go to a park and feed ducks.”

Crowley gave him a flat stare. Aziraphale knew this meant that he was rolling his eyes. Why the dear boy bothered if he wasn’t going to take the sunglasses off, Aziraphale couldn’t fathom. He shooed Crowley along to the park he’d seen earlier without too much mayhem being caused.

“What is it with you and wildfowl?” Crowley said, throwing a crust with unerring accuracy and making a duck capsize.

“Stop that. It’s relaxing.”

“So’s this,” Crowley said, capsizing another duck momentarily. “Can we go for a drink yet?”

“All right, all right. You win,” Aziraphale said, emptying the bag into the water.

Crowley grinned.

“Can I put that in my next report? ‘Angel gives up in despair, beaten down by my diligence and successful tempting towards alcoholism’.”

“I’ll report your mercy towards small animals. And the fact that you sometimes do your elderly neighbour’s shopping,” Aziraphale smiled.

“Well, if she starved to death the smell in my flat would be unbearable. And I could have drowned that duck if I felt like it.”

Aziraphale’s smile faded as he felt a sudden unease. He looked at Crowley, saw him jerk his head around as if someone had called his name. The next moment Crowley simply vanished as several somethings whizzed through the space he’d been in. Aziraphale looked round in horror, and saw a fair-haired young man with a gun pointed right at him. There was a crazy smile on his face.

“In the name of the Lord of Hosts, God of Heaven and Earth!” he yelled, squeezing the trigger again.

Aziraphale gasped, and found himself lying ten feet from where he’d started. He was winded but wasn’t hurt, he realised. Possibly that had something to do with his unclear memory of Crowley appearing and tackling him. Crowley groaned, but didn’t move. Aziraphale felt wet warmth seeping onto him.

“Crowley!” he cried, wriggling out from underneath.

Oh dear. He put his hands over the hole in Crowley and pictured him whole and uninjured. Crowley groaned again, and adjusted his glasses.

“Ow,” he said, clambering up.

They turned to face the sound of running feet. The fair-haired young man was a lot closer, and had been joined by a dark-haired friend who was trying to pull him away. A few wild shots hit the ground around them.

“Let go! Let go and let me shoot the fucker!” the fair-haired man shouted.

“Stop! Stop this instant!” Aziraphale yelled.

The gun swivelled his way, and was jerked skywards as the trigger was pulled. The young man stared at him in shock. Aziraphale felt fairly shocked himself now he got a good look at the fellow without fearing for his life.

“Shit, man,” the young man said. “You’re a fucking angel.”

“Oh dear,” Aziraphale said. “So are you.”

Everyone stopped moving for a moment as the realisation that the supernatural being quotient had increased dramatically hit home. Aziraphale looked nervously from one side to the other. Whichever way he looked, he seemed to be caught in the middle. Two angry angels on one side, one angry demon on the other. The trouble was clearly not over, just taking a little breather.

“Why don’t you just crawl back to the Pit, demon?” the dark haired angel asked. “Three against one isn’t good odds for you.”

“Three against one?” Crowley laughed. “We’ll see. Come on then, angel. Show me how you do now you’re out of bullets.”

Aziraphale winced as the fair-haired angel shrieked and flung himself on Crowley. He shrieked louder when claws ripped his arm from top to bottom. Dear, oh dear, Aziraphale thought. I wonder if he knows Crowley’s poisonous.

“Let him go!” the dark haired angel yelled, jumping into the fray to separate them.

Aziraphale bit his lip as he watched them inflict damage. Oh, stupid, stupid. He’d long ago learned that one simply didn’t unfurl one’s wings if Crowley had one in a headlock. Not if one didn’t want a really nasty bite on a major artery, anyway. The fair-haired angel seemed to agree, given the noise he was making. Crowley spat out a mouthful of feathers, spared him a fast sarcastic glance.

“A little help here, Aziraphale?”

Hmm. Yes, well that was the question, wasn’t it? Did the Arrangement really cover skirmishes with other inhabitants of the heavenly realm? Oh dear, Crowley was about to get his head stamped on . . . oh. He’d forgotten Crowley’s spine was that flexible. What an interesting manoeuvre.

“Aziraphale!”

“Hey, you! Give us a hand!”

Aziraphale dithered for a last moment. Oh dear. In for a penny, in for a pound. Which, when you thought of it, didn’t have the same buying power these days, so why did people even bother saying . . .

AZIRAPHALE!

Ah. Yes. The dark haired angel was holding Crowley’s arms tight behind his back, and the fair-haired one had produced a nasty knife.

Y’hi Esh,” the angel said, and the blade burst into flame.

Aziraphale jumped him, knocking him off balance, and into Crowley’s restricted reach. He was alarmed, not to say disgusted, when Crowley lunged forward and bit the angel’s throat out.

“Eugh!” he said, dropping the body.

“Loki!” the dark haired angel screamed, letting go of Crowley and flinging himself down by his friend. He pressed his hands down over the wound, murmuring softly. The fair-haired angel moaned, and moved a little.

“Bugger. Must be losing my touch,” Crowley said, wiping his mouth, “and let go of me,” he continued as Aziraphale tried to pull him away. “I want to settle things with these jokers.”

“No, no, no. Let’s get out of here!”

“Hey, Aziraphale,” the dark haired angel said. “That your name? What d’you think you’re playing at? Helping a demon? The bastard nearly killed Loki!”

“Well, he started it,” Aziraphale said desperately. “And you know he’d only have been discorporated.”

“Only discorporated? Only?” the angel continued. “And where are we supposed to get new bodies? But to return to my first fucking point: you helped that fucking demon, man!”

“I don’t see what you hope to achieve with such vulgar language,” Aziraphale said stiffly.

“Achieve this,” the fair-haired angel said, suddenly jumping up and propping his quite obviously reloaded gun on the end of Aziraphale’s nose.

“Eek,” Aziraphale said.

At that point the three way angelic stand-off was rudely interrupted by Crowley doing one of those horrid fast slithery movements Aziraphale had never liked, and opening the angel’s throat up again. With claws this time, at least. For good measure he dislocated the fellow’s left wing as he fell.

“Now,” Crowley said casually, snatching up the gun. “Let’s discuss this like adults.”

* * *
The hotel lobby was strangely deserted. People didn’t linger, just hurried through with a vague feeling they should go elsewhere and fast. This possibly had something to do with the four men sitting in the corner, glaring at each other. Not that anyone walking through the lobby could see them, but the icy atmosphere in the corner wasn’t very welcoming. Bartleby and Loki, as they had eventually introduced themselves, sat in armchairs and Aziraphale and Crowley were seated on an unpleasantly patterned sofa. Aziraphale was feeling a little put out, because he was the one who had been sent off to get drinks. Again. Crowley had made it clear he wasn’t handing over the gun, and therefore could Aziraphale please just go and buy some alcohol before Crowley took said gun and pistol-whipped every angel within a half-mile radius?

“They’re drinking beer,” Aziraphale muttered.

“American beer at that,” Crowley said. “And you say I have vulgar tastes.”

Aziraphale poured the regrettable California wine, and turned it into a nice Cotes-du-Rhone. The other angels sneered and went on drinking their Budweiser. From the bottles. Aziraphale shuddered, and placed a glass in Crowley’s outstretched hand. Crowley waved the gun cheerfully at their unwilling guests.

“Ah-ah. Keep all four hands where I can see them.”

Loki sullenly took his hand out of his pocket.

“Just wanted a Kleenex, man.”

“Too bad.”

“So – what are you doing on Earth?” Aziraphale asked.

They shrugged.

“This and that,” Bartleby said. “What’s your story?”

“Oh, I’m stationed here,” Aziraphale said.

“Uh-huh? With your demon buddy?” Loki said, sniffing in an unpleasant manner.

“He’s not so bad,” Aziraphale replied, ignoring the exaggerated sigh from his left.

“Not so bad, are you? What’s your excuse for being here?” Bartleby said to Crowley.

“I’m Hell’s main field agent,” Crowley said with absolutely no inflection.

Bartleby choked on his beer.

“Hell’s main field agent? Not so bad? Are you insane?”

Aziraphale decided not to say anything. He knew quite well that being Hell’s main field agent gave Crowley as much influence as being Heaven’s main agent gave him. It wasn’t exactly a highly sought after job. But if Crowley wanted to sit there implying that the legions of Hell were his to command, well, Aziraphale wasn’t going to contradict him. Not in front of these annoying people anyway, even if Crowley had probably only said it to get back at him for the ‘not so bad’ remark. Loki’s sniffing was really beginning to irritate him. He took a neatly pressed handkerchief out of his pocket. As he leaned forward to hand it over, Aziraphale was surprised to find himself grabbed from behind and pulled back violently. The pistol went *snick*.

“Are you holding me hostage?” he asked in astonishment from his new and rather uncomfortable position half across Crowley’s knees.

Crowley gave a snort of laughter.

“No, I’m holding you down out of my line of fire. He would have held you hostage. If you were lucky.”

Loki was sitting very, very still. He seemed to have got another knife from somewhere.

“Oh,” Aziraphale said quietly.

“No more faffing around,” Crowley said. “Put it on the table, and then keep your blessed hands on the arms of the chair. Both of you.”

Loki slowly put the knife down, and sat back.

“Aziraphale, pick that up. Don’t get too close to him.”

Aziraphale did what he was told.

“How come you’re working for Hell?” Loki said. “Why’d you get stationed here if you’re one of the Fallen?”

“I’m not fallen!” Aziraphale said angrily. “How dare you! Attacking us, insulting me like that –.”

Crowley cleared his throat.

“Oh, sorry – um, I didn’t mean to imply --," Aziraphale stammered.

“Yes you did. Anyway, our friends were about to tell us exactly what ‘this and that’ they’ve been up to. Starting with who sent them down and why they’re here now, and when they’re going back.”

Bartleby and Loki looked at each other, and shrugged.

“We’ve been in Wisconsin,” Bartleby said.

“Since?”

“About 1400 BC.”

Aziraphale pursed his lips.

“Since when? Why? Why wasn’t I informed?”

“Why would you have been told?” Bartleby asked.

Crowley cut off Aziraphale’s reply.

“Shush. Carry on, gentlemen. Wisconsin. Why?”

“I gave God a piece of my mind,” Loki said. “I was pissed at the time. And drunk, too.”

“I’m warming to you. And you ended up in Wisconsin. Were you offered Hell? There’s more to do there. Why did you tell God off?”

“I was resigning,” Loki said, with some slight pride. “Bartleby here persuaded me of the injustice of my basic job description, so I quit.”

“Quit? You can’t just quit,” Aziraphale said incredulously. “What was your job?”

“Angel of Death. I smote the unrighteous like you wouldn’t fucking believe. Bartleby thought it was wrong.”

“All those kids.”

“Fuck ‘em. Anyhow, it was after I slew the first-born of Egypt that I quit. But Bartleby started on me way before that, I mean, after Sodom and Gomorrah, we got so drunk I thought I might have become mortal, and -”

“Gomorrah?” Crowley said in a dangerous voice. “You did that?”

“Yeah, what’s it to you, demon?”

“I knew people there. I liked it.”

“Figures.”

Crowley raised the gun very deliberately. Aziraphale carefully put a hand on his arm.

“He was working under orders, Crowley. You can’t hold him responsible.”

“Just obeying orders,” Crowley said bitterly. “Not much of a defence. Even humans don’t think so.”

“Please, Crowley. Don’t kill him. Please.”

The gun lowered slightly.

“I’ve decided I don’t like you after all,” Crowley said. “So you obeyed, then you disobeyed, and for some reason you fell to Wisconsin. You really should have asked for Hell.”

“We are not among the Fallen,” Bartleby said.

Crowley grinned ferally. It didn’t seem to indicate amusement.

“No? Sounds like it to me. Accept it, lads. You’re no better then me. Actually you’re worse, because you’re kidding yourselves. Personally, I’ve never used kids for target practice.”

“We didn’t follow the Morningstar! We fought on the side of Good in the War! We’re not Fallen, you pathetic loser, we’re prisoners of conscience,” Bartleby said.

“Whatever you say. It’s all right; Aziraphale’s pretty tolerant. He won’t mind you being demons.”

Aziraphale did his best not to smile. They didn’t look like demons, as he knew Crowley had to be aware. They really did look like angels.

“What are you doing here?” he asked

“If we stayed in Wisconsin any longer we’d have gone crazy,” Loki said. “I figured we could probably travel around a bit, see more of the States at least.”

“You’re tourists?” Aziraphale said in bewilderment. “How nice.”

* * *
The traveller forces himself to walk slowly through what used to be heavily populated streets. The buildings are mainly destroyed, half melted into glassy lumps. There are no signs of anything made of less durable material than brick. The traveller steps carefully along the red hot paving stones of the main processional way that once led to the palace. He is not discomfited by the intense heat, sometimes reaches out to touch what used to be people’s houses. Most of the time he has a hand across his mouth. This is not to help him breathe, but he has discovered that without his hand held there to remind him, he will scream and scream. He loved this city. It wasn’t home, for he has no home any more, but it was a place he could return to. One more thing he values, gone. He stands in the ruined street, tears in his eyes. They dry up instantly. The smell of brimstone is overwhelming.
* * *
Loki and Bartleby stood in the line for coffee. They were feeling somewhat frazzled after being kept up all night at gunpoint. Bartleby had already suggested running, but Loki felt it was unworthy of angels to flee their enemies. Their enemies had already got their breakfast, and were sitting down.

“Look at them. It’s disgusting,” Loki said.

“Your problem, my friend, is that you are a judgmental and vengeful creature,” Bartleby said. “Although I can’t bring myself to argue with your assessment. It is disgusting.”

The objects of their scorn continued to eat and occasionally laugh at each other’s comments. Crowley shoved his plate across the table at Aziraphale, who waved his hands around in an 'Oh, I couldn’t possibly' sort of way before tucking in.

“First,” Loki said. “It’s unnatural, an angel getting along with a demon. They should be fighting.”

“Right.”

“And second,” Loki went on. “Look at them! Unnatural freaks.”

“That guy must be Fallen,” Bartleby said. “Turned his back on the Light, embraced evil.”

“‘Embraced’ evil isn’t the half of it, man. Look at them.”

“They could just be English.”

“English, Schmenglish. You know I’m right.”

“The first thing we’ve got to do,” Bartleby said. “Is get them off-guard. I want you on your best behaviour, my friend.”

“All right, I’ll do my best,” Loki said. “I’ll be penitent.”

* * *
Bartleby and Loki took their coffee over to the table. Everyone sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, the other two angels looked at each other. Bartleby made a ‘go on’ expression at Loki, who sighed.

“Sorry for shooting at you,” Loki said.

“He got a bit excited,” Bartleby said. “Seeing a demon, and all. He shouldn’t have waded in like that.”

Aziraphale smiled. It was good to see decent behaviour from other angels, especially in front of Crowley.

“So, you've been here for a while?” Loki asked. “Crazy place - all these humans, running around sinning and then whining about it afterwards.”

“I think Earth is lovely,” Aziraphale said with some pride. “Have you ever been to Shropshire? Oh, no, I don’t suppose you have. But it’s really nice. I designed it myself. Lots of wild flowers.”

Loki gave him a jaundiced look, exchanged an expressionless glance with Bartleby.

“Flowers. Flowers? Is that all you can think about when you’ve got the Enemy sitting beside you? Running him through with your flaming sword, that’s what you should be thinking about.”

Aziraphale pursed his lips, took another sip of coffee. So much for good behaviour from other angels. If he were very lucky, everyone else currently present that knew about the sword incident would keep his forked tongue behind his teeth. He seemed to be lucky, although the smug amusement radiating from his left was palpable. He felt rather embarrassed to have the strangeness of his situation with Crowley pointed out. He rarely had the chance to talk socially with other angels, for which he was really quite grateful as they tended to be a boring lot at the best of times, and he was feeling uncomfortable thinking about how all this must look to them. Even if they were uncouth and practically fallen.

“Go right ahead and daydream you could take me. How’s your wing today? Your boyfriend was awfully worried about you,” Crowley said silkily.

“Oh. I’m not his boyfriend,” Bartleby said.

“Kiss my non-evacuating ass,” Loki suggested.

Crowley grinned. Aziraphale sighed, and wished the other angels wouldn’t show when his barbs hit. It only encouraged him to worse behaviour.

“We are not - involved,” Bartleby said calmly and reasonably.

Crowley somehow managed to inject scepticism, irony and an air of sophisticated detachment that implied he could see this was a highly sensitive personal matter into a single lift of an eyebrow and a tiny sip of coffee. Aziraphale was astonished that anyone could drink coffee in such an offensive manner. Loki and Bartleby reacted rather badly and turned very interesting colours.

“Angels are sexless, you idiot,” Loki said after drawing breath. “We don’t engage in those mortal practices. We don’t even have the equipment for it.”

Aziraphale put his coffee down quickly so he could give his fit of coughing the attention he felt it deserved. Crowley had gone very still beside him in the way that meant he was considering which target he should go for first.

“Excuse me?” Crowley said in a light and pleasant voice.

“We’re sexless,” Loki repeated. “Is he all right?”

“He’s fine. Take a blessed breath, Aziraphale. Sexless. You don’t want sex? Or ‘sexless’ meaning you’re eunuchs?”

“We’re not eunuchs, you moron,” Bartleby said. “Angels aren’t meant to have genitals. Why on earth would we?”

Aziraphale stopped coughing just as he felt Crowley turn to him. He rather wished he could start coughing again.

“I’ve seen you naked,” Crowley said cheerfully. “You have genitals.”

Loki gave Bartleby a significant look.

“Told you,” he said.

“Everyone has genitals. We’re all made following the same basic Pattern . . . aren’t we?” Aziraphale said uncertainly.

He found he had the undivided attention of everyone. Bartleby and Loki were gazing at him in astonishment, and Crowley was smiling in a way that promised years of teasing about this. Feeling awfully unsure of the right thing to say, he took refuge in his breakfast. Bartleby and Loki dropped their gaze down from his face. Aziraphale made a tsk sound, pulled in closer to the table, and crossed his legs.

“It was after the whole intermarriage scandal,” Bartleby said, apparently trying to see through the table into Aziraphale’s lap. “The Metatron read the proclamation himself. You didn’t know?”

“Was there a memo? They should have sent me a memo,” Aziraphale said irritably. “No one keeps me informed of anything.” A cheering thought occurred to him. “Maybe they didn’t think it was necessary if it was connected with that affair. I’m hardly likely to fall in love with a girl, after all.”

He found he had everyone’s fascinated attention again.

“I’m far too busy,” he said in a small voice.

Crowley was looking at him in a very strange way, and seemed to be shaking. The demon pulled a key card out of his pocket.

“Aziraphale,” he said in an odd sounding voice. “Go up to your room and move your things in with mine. Our friends here can have your room.”

“What? Why should I be the one to have to move my things?”

“Because your stuff will be all neatly put away, and will be easier to move. I just threw my stuff everywhere. It’d take too long. Go on, off you go.”

Aziraphale sighed, and did as he was told. He looked back at the table to see that Bartleby and Loki looked a little hysterical, while Crowley was making ‘shush’ gestures at them. What very odd behaviour. When he eventually came back down after moving all his purchases, Aziraphale found them in a much more cheerful humour. Loki was wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. Well, something had happened while he was gone. He hoped it hadn’t been one of Crowley’s jokes, because those weren’t fit for angels’ ears. Crowley stood, indicated the others should get up, and precede him up the stairs. Aziraphale opened the door to his perfectly nice room that he’d rather not have given up, and the other angels entered.

“We’ll let you out later,” Crowley said. “Try not to make too much noise when you’re attempting to escape, because I want my sleep undisturbed.”

“You sleep? What are you, a demon of sloth?” Bartleby asked.

“Have a nice nap, Genital Boy,” Loki said nastily to Aziraphale.

Aziraphale sniffed.

“Crowley can suit himself, but I’m not planning on sleeping,” he said, shutting the door on their shocked faces.

He was surprised to turn and see Crowley shaking again. The demon took a breath and tried to speak, but was sniggering too much. Finally he stood upright and made a gesture at the door, which sealed itself into the wall. Still laughing, Crowley staggered off into his own room, trailed by Aziraphale.

“What do you suppose they’re doing?” Aziraphale said.

“Holding a glass eagerly to the wall, I shouldn’t be surprised,” Crowley said, a wide grin on his face. “Now, if you’re not sleeping, you get to be on watch. Here’s the gun. Show me that you can take the safety off. All right – if they cause havoc, wake me. If you hear strange noises you can’t identify but feel are probably your imagination, wake me. Definitely wake me at 3pm, and I’ll take over. If you can’t wake me and you’re convinced they’re going to get in here, that thing’s powerful enough to shoot the bastards through the wall. I’ll probably wake up then.”

Aziraphale felt a bit lonely, sitting in the armchair, keeping an ear out for mischief. It also felt a little chilly, and Crowley had taken all the extra blankets out of the wardrobe.

At noon, Aziraphale sat bolt upright, his face scarlet.

Oh,” he squeaked. How very embarrassing.

At 3pm he gingerly woke Crowley up. The demon growled, but got out of bed eventually.

“Gun,” he said, yawning. “Get some rest.”

“I don’t need to sleep,” Aziraphale said.

“So you said,” Crowley sniggered.

In embarrassment, he decided he didn’t want to talk to Crowley just now, and he’d go to bed after all. Crowley put on his sunglasses, gave him a bland smile, and ostentatiously turned his back as Aziraphale undressed.

I’ll just lie down for a little bit, Aziraphale thought, pulling the still warm covers around him. Almost immediately Crowley was shaking him.

“Whuzza’?” Aziraphale inquired.

“6pm. For someone who doesn’t sleep, you snore a lot.”

“I don’t,” Aziraphale said, feeling that it wasn’t the most scintillating argument he could have made.

“Up,” Crowley said, pulling the blankets off quickly. He gave Aziraphale a wicked smile and a head-to-toe glance. “Knew my memory wasn’t playing tricks.”

Aziraphale scowled and got dressed. He was feeling very put out.

“There should have been a memo,” he muttered. “This is very embarrassing.”

“Forget it, it’s nonsense,” Crowley said, polishing his sunglasses.

“It’s not. Do you think I’m made wrong?”

Crowley sighed.

“No. You were right, we’re all the same basic pattern. You and I, we conform to the unaltered pattern. Those jokers are bowdlerised. If they’re telling the truth.”

Aziraphale remained unconvinced, and wrung his hands several times. Crowley seemed to be getting impatient.

“Look. Why believe them? You can’t trust what fallen angels tell you. Except me, of course. And I’m telling you to stop thinking about it.”

“But suppose I’ve been disobedient for millennia? Wouldn’t that make me fallen, too?”

“You didn’t know. And that’s rubbish. You don’t feel fallen, do you?”

Aziraphale looked at him sadly.

“I don’t know. What does it feel like?”

“You’re fine,” Crowley laughed, a little bitterly. “You’d know.”

“I want to be sure,” Aziraphale wailed.

Crowley looked at him seriously. Aziraphale got a little worried when the sunglasses were put to one side and he got a straight, yellow gaze.

“You want to be sure? I think saying ‘All hail Satan’ should do it for you.”

He held out a hand, unsmiling.

“Is that what you want, Aziraphale? You want to come over to my side? You won’t need to worry if you’re ok or not. You’ll be perfectly sure of exactly what your status is and where you belong. You just take my hand and renounce all your old allegiances. Come on, it won’t hurt much at first, and you’ll get used to it quick enough. I’ll see you right. I don’t have much pull, but I’ll do my best for you. I’ll take as good care of you as I can. If that’s really what you want.”

Aziraphale gulped.

“I don’t want that,” he whispered.

“There you go,” Crowley said, putting on the glasses. “Now you’re sure.”

Aziraphale looked carefully at him. They never talked about certain issues. Attacks of self-loathing on either of their parts were the number one topic for non-discussion. Crowley was smiling cheerfully and had materialised an even more expensive looking suit. He seemed very content with himself. It would be best, Aziraphale thought, to go down to dinner and to pretend that was the reality.

* * *
In their room, Bartleby and Loki were biting their fingernails. The door and window were sealed tight. They were not amused.

“When they open the door, we can rush them,” Loki said.

“They have the gun. And that demon’s a good fighter,” Bartleby said. “I’m not sure we can do it and both get out alive.”

“So what are we going to do, man? Just sit here and take whatever they’re planning on handing out?”

Bartleby paced up and down, thinking.

“No. No, of course not. Hell’s main field agent, shit. We need more information. Who’s our agent? I mean, we have to have one if they do, right?”

“I suppose,” Loki said. “I never paid much attention to what was going on down here unless I was throwing lightning bolts at the time. No one back home’s going to tell us anything, so how are we going to find out?”

Bartleby stopped pacing.

“I know who we can ask. Did you see those navy blue candles down in the lobby? They’re not black, but they should be close enough for a summoning. We’ll do it later tonight.”

A cheery smile crossed Loki’s face.

“Shit, yeah. He’ll be able to get us that bastard’s file.”

* * *
The next morning, after some persuasion, Crowley judged it safe enough to let the angels out for a bit of exercise. Aziraphale was feeling guilty about keeping them locked up. They’d been well behaved at dinner and pretty quiet all night. Aziraphale felt that it was possible to build bridges, make friendly overtures and generally act in a pleasant manner. So far, it seemed to be working. Bartleby and Crowley were strolling a few yards up ahead. Bartleby was bewailing the abysmal state of American TV, and Crowley was looking quite flattered. Aziraphale had felt it safer if he kept Loki company. He didn’t want any reminiscing about Gomorrah to set Crowley off. It was somewhat boring though, because Loki had only two topics of conversation: his professional skills at smiting the unrighteous, and homesickness. Aziraphale had quickly reached the point of making vague and automatic replies.

“Bartleby and me, we want to go home,” Loki said.

Aziraphale nodded in sympathy.

“So do I, you just can’t get a decent cup of tea here. I’ve been drinking coffee instead.”

Loki looked at him oddly.

“I meant Heaven,” he said.

Aziraphale blushed slightly. Oh, of course. It was just possible that several millennia in Wisconsin had been more boring than being in Heaven. Really, he thought wryly, he’s built Heaven up into some sort of paradise. Why he can’t just look around and see what we’ve got here, I don’t know.

“You see, all we want to do is get a pardon,” Loki said quietly. “He’s merciful, right? So, I figure we should eventually be able to get back into His good books. Or the Good Book. Or whatever.”

“I’m not sure it’s that easy,” Aziraphale said, feeling sorry for him. “I mean, it’s one thing to say you’re sorry, but quite another to really demonstrate repentance. Are you willing to go back on your previous position?”

Loki skipped along backwards in front of him, an excited look on his face.

“Yes! Yes, see I knew you’d understand. This is what I’ve been thinking; I was one of the best, man. The unrighteous didn’t have a rat’s ass of a chance if it was my shift. So, then Bartleby brings his moral relativism and the whole humans-are-poor-pitiable-fallible-creatures argument to bear on my drink-addled mind, and what do I do? I screw up, man. Pity wasn’t in my remit. So, the way I see it is, if I show the proper attitude, plus some humility of course, then I should at least be due an appeal. What do you think?”

“You want to smite the unrighteous?” Aziraphale asked. “Without a license?”

“Only those who deserve it,” Loki said with a happy smile. “This place is full of sinners. If I take out some of the worst, eventually someone Upstairs has to at least notice, right?”

“I suppose so,” Aziraphale began dubiously, “but . . .”

“Good. I’m glad you understand,” Loki interrupted, dropping the smile. He drew a wickedly long, black-bladed knife. “Because you’re first on the fucking list, you fucking traitor.”

Ahead of them, Bartleby slammed an elbow into Crowley’s face, shattering his sunglasses, and the demon dropped without a sound. Aziraphale found himself in danger of having a knife inserted through his eye. He held on to Loki’s wrist for dear life, trying to force the knife back. It hurt just having the thing near him, and the occult symbols on the blade were all too obvious. How Loki could bear to hold it was beyond him, although it did give credence to Crowley’s theory that they were dealing with fallen angels. Focus! he told himself. Now is not the time to reason this out! Running away seemed like the best option, if he could get loose, so he chanced his luck and used one hand to drive fingers at Loki’s eyes. The angel flinched back, and Aziraphale ran. He hadn’t gone far when he found himself wrenched up into the air. Dangling high above the city, he wished his coat wasn’t made of such good material, wished it would rip and let him drop. Loki held onto his collar with one hand, and drew the knife again with the other. This was not a good position, Aziraphale thought unhappily. Oh well, he could always buy another coat. He opened his wings and gave a good beat against the air to drive himself away from danger. Loki was fast, very fast, he realised as he was kicked in the back.

“When was the last time you flew?” Loki sneered.

On the ground, Crowley shook the blood out of his eyes, and rolled aside just in time to avoid having his ribs staved in. He came up off the ground, claws fully in action. Bartleby danced back, tried to kick him in the face. Crowley growled and aimed a swipe at his head, but Bartleby dodged. The angel had learned from Loki’s previous fight, it seemed, and wasn’t getting too close. The blood kept getting in Crowley’s eyes, and his vision was more and more obviously obscured. Twice he had to leap back blinking and trying to wipe his eyes clear. Bartleby grinned, and readied himself.

“That all you’ve got, demon?” he jeered, coming in close and aiming a solid blow as Crowley desperately tried to blink the blood out of his eyes yet again.

Bartleby was somewhat surprised to find his fist grabbed in a clawed hand as Crowley gave him a ghastly smile.

“No, moron. Demons can see perfectly well through blood.”

Bartleby screamed as the other set of claws lodged in his side, and Crowley became a very large snake that commenced squeezing the life out of him.

“How’s this for a party trick?” he said furiously, and sank his fangs into Bartleby’s chest.

Screams of agony floated down from high above. Crowley resumed his usual form, dropped Bartleby writhing on the ground, and flung himself into the air, opening his wings.

Aziraphale clung on to Loki. It was the only way he could avoid falling, but it wasn’t a good way of keeping away from the knife. His right wing drooped broken and useless, half sawn off, and his right arm was bleeding. He’d lost an awful lot of blood, and felt like he was going to faint. He had a choice, he realised. He could let go and fall, and then spend a lot of time explaining and pleading for a new body. Or he could get himself stabbed a few more times with a weapon that was doing a lot more damage than it should. Damage he didn’t appear to be able to heal, at that. It was very possible that it could do more than kill his body. Aziraphale let go with one hand and hit Loki with all the strength he had left. As Loki winced, he let go with the other hand, and fell. He had barely started plummeting when something shot up past him and grabbed hold of his right arm. The jolt of pain went all through him, making him black out. He came to and found both sets of Crowley’s claws embedded in the arm. It didn’t hurt anymore and was in fact going icy and numb. Oh bother, he thought weakly, poisoned as well. Something like a wave of warmth rolled though him as he was deposited on the ground and he felt stronger, and not so sick. Seemingly from very far away he heard someone tell him he’d better not die, if he knew what was good for him, and then Crowley was gone again. He swam in and out of consciousness. There was a lot of swearing overhead. After an uncertain amount of time there was a loud crash near his head, and he saw Loki lying stunned on the ground. A second later Crowley landed, the horrid knife in his hand. He stalked over to Loki and proceeded to kick him unconscious. When Aziraphale came round again, Crowley was trying to get him on his feet.

“Come on, up we get. Let’s get you back to the hotel. Those bastards are already locked up.”

Aziraphale felt his undamaged arm being draped round Crowley’s neck, and Crowley’s arm round his waist holding him up. Walking was extremely unpleasant, but it didn’t seem like he was being given the option to refuse.

“I’ll fix you up properly when we have a bit of privacy,” Crowley said. “For the moment it’s just first aid, just to get you back safely.”

He glared at a horrified passer-by who never could describe just what it was he had seen, but went on to live a better, and more frightened life because of it. Aziraphale felt a little stronger, now that he was being supported. It lasted long enough to get back.

The other angels were securely locked in their room. Aziraphale sat miserably perched on the straight chair in Crowley’s room. No one had blinked an eye at the sight of someone with wings limping into the lift. He’d been too sore to even think about whether he was visible or not, so he had to assume Crowley had taken care of the matter. He did as he was told and lay down, and winced as hands touched his right wing, poked at his injured arm.

“Interesting,” Crowley said, lifting a torn section of wing. “This was definitely done with one of our more unpleasant weapons.”

Aziraphale bit back the acerbic comment. Interesting was not the word he’d have chosen. He did his best not to squirm too much as Crowley parted the feathers and rummaged round the wounds.

“A very nasty job, too; you’re in tatters,” Crowley said. “Hold still, I’ll fix it for you. This may smart a little.”

Aziraphale felt the wounded wing being forced back together, and then it was like hot lead was being poured into him, and he made rather more noise than he wanted to. His involuntary reaction involved violently buffeting Crowley into the wall with the other wing. Angry adult swans can do a fair bit of damage with their wings, as most people know. Scale a swan’s wings up to the size needed to lift a six foot tall human-shaped being into the air, though, and you have something that can do a lot more than break a man’s arm. Crowley hit the wall fairly hard, and sat there dazed for a few seconds.

“I said, keep still,” he muttered, going back to work. “I know it’s unpleasant, but it’s better than leaving the poison in there. I’m keeping this as painless as I can. Special anti-angel weapons. Who would have thought those idiots had the contacts? Keep still. The arm’s going to be bad too.”

Aziraphale did his very best to keep quiet and still. It was difficult but finally it was over. Crowley patted the healed arm.

“There. The wing was the really nasty bit. Does it feel better?”

“Yes,” Aziraphale whimpered. “Now it’s just very stiff and really itchy.”

Crowley laughed and put his fingers back into the feathers. Aziraphale sighed as he scratched where the wounds had been, and then flexed the wing’s joints.

“Your flight feathers are broken too, “ Crowley said. “No sitting on clouds for you for the next while.”

He pulled the offending feathers out, ignoring the complaints.

“See? You really want those hanging off the end of your wing? That bastard tried to cut it right off, you know.”

“I know,” Aziraphale said tartly. “I was there.”

He shut his eyes, enjoying the feel of the itch and stiffness being vanquished. How odd that he’d like Crowley touching his wings. They’d generally been the demon’s prime targets back in the bad old days.

“Remember when I tried to pluck you alive?” Crowley asked softly, stroking one hand from the root of the wing to the tip.

Aziraphale stiffened. He hadn’t realised his thoughts were that obvious.

“You’re very trusting, Aziraphale,” Crowley murmured. “I could do really horrid things to you and you’re not exactly ready to stop me.”

“But you’re not going to, are you?” Aziraphale said, keeping his voice calm and even.

“No,” Crowley said, and put both his hands deep into feathers.

After another few minutes he stopped.

“Are you asleep? It’d do you good, you know.”

Aziraphale opened his eyes, wondered if it would be awfully improper to ask Crowley to keep going. He felt terribly relaxed and lazy.

“Want me to do the other wing? Even though it’s not hurt?” Crowley said, a smile in his voice.

“Please,” Aziraphale said, spreading it out.

By the time Crowley had finished, Aziraphale felt he’d be good for nothing for days. He felt too pleasantly wrung out to even fold the wings properly, and had to have Crowley do it for him. He was sounding terribly amused, which was usually a bad sign, but Aziraphale couldn’t quite bring himself to care very much. A hand landed on his shoulder, and Crowley grinned down at him.

“Well, well. Imagine learning something new about you after all this time. Go to sleep. I’ll wake you later.”

* * *
That evening Aziraphale felt wonderful. Wide awake, rested, full of energy and happy. Crowley seemed cheerful and ordered far more dessert than he normally ate. He admitted defeat before he got through half of it, and Aziraphale obliged him by finishing it off.

“I had a little word with our friends while you were resting,” Crowley said. “I thought they might want to tell me where they got that knife.”

“Did they scream much?” Aziraphale asked. He didn’t approve of the mistreatment of prisoners, of course, but he didn’t approve of himself being sliced up either.

“I tried not to wake you,” Crowley said. “Anyway, it turns out that they’ve been very bad boys indeed. Weapons like that aren’t supposed to be allowed on Earth, they’re classified. I’ve only ever heard about them. Want to know how our American friends got hold of a military secret?”

“You’re enjoying this far too much, you know. How?”

Crowley leaned back and favoured him with a lazy smile.

“Their close personal friend the demon stole it for them.”

Aziraphale bristled with indignation.

“Those hypocrites! Really!

“Apparently he’s not so bad,” Crowley laughed nastily. “He’s a guy by the name of Azrael.”

“Who? The Angel of Death?”

“Nah. Everyone Downstairs goes by a different name than the one they were created with. It probably makes him feel important. I know people who know him, he’s a sad bastard who tried to remain neutral during the War. He was picked up with a bunch of our guys and shipped off to Hell with the rest of us. He's never stopped complaining since. Anyway, be that as it may, he’s a demon with a problem. The knife was supposed to be a loan, and he needs to get it back before some over-zealous clerk does an inventory. I’d say we’ll be getting a visit before too long.”

Aziraphale narrowed his eyes. Some days he really missed his sword. He wondered if he could get another one assigned to him. A rather important thought struck him.

“Can I have the knife?”

“What? Why? You won’t even be able to hold it without feeling ill.”

“You said it’s a classified weapon. I could send it Up There for research.”

Crowley put his coffee down, and looked at the table. He took a breath and looked up.

“Aziraphale, I can’t do that. You’re asking me to commit treason.”

Oh. It was technically treason, Aziraphale supposed. Sometimes it was easy to forget that they weren’t on the same side. Crowley was looking very serious about this. He decided he’d feel pretty put out if Crowley had asked him to hand over state secrets. He nodded.

“Sorry, dear boy. Forget I said anything.”

“Just as well,” Crowley said dryly. “How you’d explain getting hold of it, or how I’d explain likewise I shudder to think. Let’s go torment those idiots.”

They brought some weak coffee and domestic beer up to the others. Aziraphale untied one hand each and balanced the cups and saucers on their knees, Crowley standing menacingly behind him.

“Fuck you,” Bartleby said between mouthfuls of coffee.

“Yeah, fuck you,” Loki agreed.

“Fucking bastards,” Bartleby said, accepting the bottle of beer.

“Fucking unnatural bastards,” Loki said indistinctly round the neck of his bottle.

“I so enjoy your sparkling conversation,” Aziraphale said, his voice laden with sugar. “Did you entertain much in Wisconsin?”

“Fuck you, you fucking faggot,” Loki said angrily. “You were pretty fucking loud earlier, you fucking freak.”

“Shut up,” Crowley said. “Now.”

“Oh, Ay’m kwait sorry for causing offence”, Loki sneered. “Ay forgot the kwaint English ways one seems to have fallen into.”

“I don’t talk like that,” Aziraphale said. “And I was rather severely injured earlier, or had you forgotten?”

Crowley kicked Loki’s chair over backwards and snapped his fingers. The rope rose by itself and tied Loki’s wrist down again.

“Come on, tie up the other one and let’s go,” Crowley said.

They left, ignoring the shouts of outrage from both of the prisoners. Crowley grabbed a bottle of wine from a passing room service trolley, unnoticed by the waiter. In his room he poured large tumblers of it out.

“Let’s stake them out,” he said.

“As bait for their friend?” Aziraphale said.

“I hadn’t really got past staking them out, to be honest,” Crowley said. “But yes, as bait.”

* * *
The traveller makes himself visit the next city over. Memories of the nightlife there keep him entertained on cold nights. That is all gone now. The destruction is worse here, something he hasn’t considered till he sees it. He is no longer crying, no longer has the urge to scream. He just wants to be sure everything is gone. Finally he trudges out of the city, covered in ash and filth from head to toe. Some miles away he finds a group of bodies, people who somehow had warning and ran. The ground around them is charred and blackened by a lightning strike, as if they had come into the sights of someone with very good aim. The traveller bends down, gently touches the smallest child’s skull. It crumbles into dust under his hand. Methodically, the traveller brushes all the bones into dust, watches as a light wind scatters the evidence of what has happened. He turns his back on the cities and walks back into the desert. He is no longer thinking of anything except the need to be somewhere with absolutely no smell.
* * *
Out in the park where they’d fought, Aziraphale untied Bartleby’s hands and stepped back. The angel glared at him in hatred, and looked over to where Crowley was holding the knife at Loki’s throat.

“I don’t believe this,” Bartleby said in a low and furious voice. “You’ll stand there and let a demon do this?”

“You tried to kill us twice,” Aziraphale pointed out. “I’m afraid I’m a little low on fellow-feeling for you at the moment. Now, summon your friend.”

He tossed the bag of supplies to Bartleby, who sullenly began to make a pentagram. When the candles were lit he looked once back over at Loki, and called out loudly,

“Azrael, Azrael, Azrael!”

Aziraphale snapped his fingers and the discarded rope tied Bartleby’s hands again. He grabbed the angel and pulled him back to Crowley and Loki. A darkness was gathering in the centre of the pentagram, pulling the flames of the candles towards it. With a slight popping noise all the candles were extinguished, and a young man in a white suit and hat was standing in the centre.

“Hi guys, what’s up?” he said. “Can I have that knife back now?”

He looked round in surprise at the scene, and focused on Crowley coming towards him. He covered a look of fear with an insincere grin.

“Eh . . . Crawly? Is that you? Er. Hi! Beautiful day for the damnation of souls, huh? I see you’ve met the guys.”

“Is this what you’re looking for, Azrael?” Crowley asked, holding up the knife and advancing closer.

The white-suited demon took a step back, an ingratiating smile on his face.

“Hey now, pal. Take it easy, we’re batting for the same team. I’ll just take my property and go, leave you to get on with things. I can see you’re busy.”

“It’s hardly yours, is it?” Crowley asked.

Azrael shrugged.

“Property is theft, my friend. It’ll go back where it should be.”

“You brought this to earth,” Crowley said. “You handed it over to the enemy. Do you think you can get away with this just because you think you can put it back?”

“Why not?” the demon smiled.

“You gave those bloody morons an angel-killer!” Crowley yelled.

“Well to be fair, they did say they wanted to kill an angel.”

Crowley hissed in fury.

“You’re not as funny as you think you are, Azrael. Stop interfering in my affairs up here. Come up for a visit, I don’t care. I really don’t even give a damn about what you do with your little angels -”

“As long as I stay away from yours? Does he know you think of him in those terms? How . . . ecumenical,” Azrael said.

Crowley growled and struck out, lifting Azrael by the neck. His hat fell off, revealing small horns on his forehead.

“I think I should tell you I’m almost certainly immune to poison,” he said indistinctly.

“Fine. I’ll just rip your head off then,” Crowley hissed. “You’ll find it a little harder coming up here without a body. Stay away from me, stay away from him. Do not set your angels on us. Am I making myself clear?”

“At least mine are cute. I don’t much fancy yours,” Azrael said, turning a strange shade of red as his throat was compressed.

Crowley dropped him.

“You’re trying to provoke me,” he said. “I would strongly advise you to wise up.”

Azrael gasped for breath, looking round for his hat. Crowley took a mean pleasure in standing on it. Azrael dusted it off sadly, jammed it back down over his horns and shot a look of hatred at Crowley.

“It’s all right for you. You’re up here all the time. You don’t have to be Down There,” he said bitterly. “You have no idea what it’s like. I shouldn’t even be there; I didn’t fight on the rebel side. All I want is to go home.”

Crowley looked at him in astonished disgust.

“That’s what this was about? You don’t like Hell? No one likes it, that’s the point. I don’t bloody believe this,” he said. “You’re feeling hard done by and you think teaming up with a pair of idiots who don’t count as Fallen only by a technicality will get you back to Heaven?”

Azrael glared at him.

“Why not? I wasn’t a rebel, I didn’t fight for the Morningstar.”

“You’re not a rebel? Aren’t you Fallen then? Was it all some big mistake, hanging round with the wrong people, getting tarred with the same brush, turning round one day to find you’re in the middle of the War and practically everyone you know is telling you you’re on the losing side? Pardon me for not being sympathetic.”

“You know,” Azrael said. “I’d settle for your job. You’re a traitor twice over, why shouldn’t I get something for killing you?”

He sprang at Crowley, and seemed rather surprised to find his opponent slip round behind him.

“I don’t have the patience for this,” Crowley said, and hamstrung him.

He waited until the screams died down to moans, and waved the knife in front of Azrael’s eyes.

“Hurts, doesn’t it? As you said, you’re probably immune to poison – maybe not this stuff though. I hope this is teaching you not to try to fuck me around,” he said. He leaned in, hissing in contempt. “Pay close attention – you’re going home all right, but it’s back down to Hell. If you interfere with Aziraphale or me again you’ll be very sorry. Between us I’m sure we can pull enough strings to make your life even less enjoyable than it is now. Don’t even bother to lodge a report – with all your whining about not being rebel scum like the rest of us you must have even fewer friends Downstairs than a newly arrived sinner.”

He threw the knife down beside Azrael.

“Heaven doesn’t want you, Azrael. You’re never going back there, never. Get used to the idea. Now, take this thing and get out of my sight.”

Azrael looked up at him with an expression of hatred and deep, deep despair. There was a sizzling sound and a smell of sulphur, and he vanished with the knife. Crowley strolled back to the others. Loki and Bartleby were doing their best to yell obscenities around the gags. Aziraphale gave him a quizzical look.

“I think I’ve sorted things out. We’ll come up with a good story, though. Plausible deniability, that’s what we have to aim for.”

He prodded at Loki with one foot.

“As for these two love-birds, fascinating views our departed friend had on them. He said he owns their cute angelic arses.”

Aziraphale sighed.

“Such vulgarity. I’m glad he’s gone.”

Crowley prodded Loki some more.

“You and your boyfriend should get back to Wisconsin and enjoy the wholesome Midwestern atmosphere. Try not to shock the locals with your lifestyle choices.”

“Don’t be so judgmental,” Aziraphale said. “Love is good, and you shouldn’t tease them about their relationship. It’s no one’s business but their own. I think they’re very sweet.”

Loki and Bartleby tried harder to yell obscenities. Aziraphale smiled vaguely at them.

“Dear boys,” he said and wandered off.

Crowley grinned down at them.

“It shouldn’t take more than a few hours to chew yourselves free,” he said, and walked off after Aziraphale.

He found him leaning against a tree with tears streaming down his face, and stifling laughter.

“Oh, my dear! Their faces!” Aziraphale gasped.

“I think I may be a bad influence on you,” Crowley laughed.

Aziraphale wiped his eyes.

“Let’s go home,” he said. “I’m dying for a proper cup of tea.”

* * *
In Wisconsin, two beings that still think of themselves as angels sit in Milwaukee airport. The fair-haired one has just destroyed a nun’s faith and is feeling very amused by his abilities. The dark haired one is people watching and reflecting that observing the vagaries of the human condition close up is the one thing he’ll miss when they get out of this shit hole. They talk of inconsequentialities until the dark haired one cannot contain himself any longer and whisks out the key to their salvation. He tells his friend they’re going home at last, and they stride out of the airport, laughing like reprieved prisoners.

In London, two beings, only one of whom still considers himself an angel, stand by a pond feeding ducks. They are discussing opera and are having a mild disagreement over the best counter-tenor of all time. It’s not a serious argument, and seems to be one they’ve had before and are enjoying having now. When their bag of bread is gone they stroll away from the pond, still happily arguing in the way that only very, very old friends can manage. They part at the edge of the park, promising to meet later for dinner. As they walk away, each turns and waves. They are content. For they are already home.

* * * * * * * * * * * *