…Was darkness. That’s what happens when the sun isn’t up, and as it was almost the middle of the night —the first night, leading into the first day in the Garden of Eden— darkness was only to be expected.
The Great Plan was being set in motion. The countdown to start the countdown to the end of the world had begun. Things were getting down to the wire and the Heavens were in a tizzy to make sure everything went off without a hitch during the official launch.
Down in the Garden of Eden, all was peaceful. This was also to be expected. The only living beings in the entire Garden were two corporeal but unconscious angels reposing among the roots of the Tree. They’d been held in stasis since their incorporation a number of days earlier and weren’t due to wake until things were officially under way. Ostensibly this was to allow them to acclimate to corporeality, but in reality it was to keep them out of everyone’s metaphorical hair.
Of course, even the best laid plans never do go quite as planned, do they?
There was no Heavenly fanfare heralding the occasion, no Celestial sign except the eternal march of the stars across the sky, nothing at all to indicate that something was being set into motion as midnight of the day in question rolled around.
But down in their resting spots, the angels awoke.
The first thing the angel resting on the eastern side of the Tree noticed was the cool comfortable darkness. Awareness slowly spread outward and they distantly took note of the strange ache muffling their thoughts as well as an odd but not entirely unfamiliar heaviness that surrounded them on all sides. What happened? they wondered and instinctively tried to move themself the way they did when non-corporeal, only to gasp and open their eyes in shock when the attempt sent lances of pain radiating from their wings throughout their entire corporation. ...Ow.
They discovered the darkness was not absolute; their resting spot was illuminated by a faint glow, just enough for them to make out their hands when they cautiously lifted them towards their face. They closed their eyes again and took stock of themself, trying to sort out their muddled thoughts. I’m… A Celestial. Part of the Host of Heaven, an angel. And I’ve been… incorporated for some reason? They opened their eyes again and looked around, unable to see much except vague shadowy shapes beyond the range of the light emanating from the single pair of wings furled neatly beneath them. There must be others…
They turned their thoughts outward and immediately noticed there was no pressure against their passive senses indicating the presences of other Celestials nearby. Even the sensation of stray thought-forms sliding over their shields was gone. The angel cautiously relaxed their shields and still sensing no one, sent their Celestial senses outward as far as they could, concerned at how reduced their range proved to be. They still detected no one and they mentally called out, Hello? Is anyone there? but there was no response.
I’ve a feeling I’m not in Heaven anymore.
The angel withdrew back behind their shields and drew in a long shaky breath. Impersonal knowledge, like that gained secondhand from an outdated encyclopedia, rose in their mind to explain what they were experiencing; the scents of moist dirt and plants. Over the pounding of what they understood was their heart, they could hear the greenery rustling as the air stirred, could feel the wind moving over their dew-dampened robes, short curly hair, and the feathers on their still aching wings.
Perhaps I’ve been laying on them wrong. No, that doesn’t seem right. But I’m not sure why that doesn’t seem right. The angel flailed about for a bit before figuring out how to roll over and, after steadying themself for a moment, pushed themself up onto their feet. They stumbled over the uneven ground but a plant-covered wall helped keep them upright.
Inhaling the delightful sweetness of the flowering vines covering the wall of the depression they were in, the angel cautiously stretched open their wings, their primaries brushing the sides of the hollow long before they could fully extend. The radiance coming from their wings barely lifted the gloom in the hollow, but the motion eased some of the ache.
Perhaps I’ve been laying here a very, very long time… They carefully stretched their wings upward, accompanied by the sound of something like sand pattering onto the leaves around them and a little more of the ache eased. Is, was there something I’m supposed to be doing? No, surely someone would have come to scold me if that were the case.
Well, no point in staying in the darkness. Let there be light! They snapped their fingers and a beam of light radiated down around them from a point high above. They took a good look around and finding no sign that anyone else was or had ever been there, furled their wings and began looking for a way out. One part of the depression had collapsed into a gentle incline, and the strong serpentine roots hidden beneath the greenery made it easy for the angel to ascend.
On the western side of the Tree, the angel resting there became aware of the warm, comfortable darkness, and a strange ache constricting their thoughts. Ugh. Where did they send me now? There was an odd but not entirely unfamiliar heaviness and they tried to move themself the way the usually did, but the effort sent shock waves of pain throughout their entire corporation. They hissed out a breath. …Ow.
They rested until the pain receded back into a low-grade ache before slowly lifting their head out from under the dense vegetation surrounding them. It was a relief to discover that the darkness was merely shadow, and they could see with surprising clarity in the starlight-dappled darkness. However their small stature made it almost impossible to see anything beyond the plants growing around them.
They flicked their tongue through the air and the corporation’s instincts named what they were sensing; mostly the scents of the soil and plants around them, but also the faint perfume of flowers blooming far overhead. That triggered a memory: Oh right, I was assigned to the Garden. Lucky me. Didn’t say it was going to hurt. They looked down at the dull dark scales of their snake-like corporation. Didn’t even warn me I’d have to be corporeal.
They looked around at what little they could see and let out a heavy sigh. To their passive senses they seemed to be alone, but they knew passive sensing could be fooled with a bit of shielding as well as simple distance. There’s no way I could ever be lucky enough to have been sent here alone. Right, so, got to be others around here somewhere, just out of range, having a nice laugh at my expense. Well… might as well get it over with.
Using a shielding technique they’d honed to keep themself out of the awareness of the hostile Celestials, the serpent focused on dampening their power signature while carefully extending filaments their awareness beyond the edge of their outer aura. To their dismay, they discovered couldn’t sense very far at all compared to their non-corporeal range. They abandoned being cautious and sent out their awareness as far as they could, still woefully short of even a tenth of their former range, and still encountered no other auras. As far as they could sense, there were neither Celestials or Elementals nearby.
As much as they preferred solitude to the constant derision and sometimes outright hostility of the other Celestials, the thought of being stuck in a small vulnerable body while alone in a place with unknown dangers, was not a good one. Now what?
Well, make this shape stop hurting for one. Maybe moving around’ll help. They began an exploratory slither that revealed they were in a huge mossy plant-filled hollow with no sign of anything but plants nearby. The movement didn’t relieve much of the ache but they kept exploring for lack of anything better to do while they mulled things over. So they sent me here, like this, for what? They said it was a promotion… maybe it’s really a punishment.
When they finally reached a wall they turned to move along it and their chin brushed against the edge of a rock peeking out of the dirt that seemed no different from all the other detritus they’d slithered across. Something was different about it though, because the contact had actually eased the ache for a moment, and glad to have something to distract them from their unhappy thoughts, they experimentally rubbed their snoot against the rock again, then again and again until there was a sharp pain and sudden resistance and pressure.
A surge of instinctive fear jolted though their body. There was a brief desperate struggle before something gave, and the angel bolted away up what they would later realize was the shallow incline of a collapsed wall of the hollow. They hid in a dark crevice beneath a pile of leaf litter gathered between two massive roots.
With the miraculous light illuminating things, the eastern angel quickly discovered the origin of the roots; the gigantic blossom- and fruit-laden Tree whose canopy blotted out almost the entire sky. Seeing the Tree struck the angel with a sense of familiarity that went beyond mere memory into their very soul. They looked around at their verdant but oddly lifeless surroundings in consternation. Where is everyone? Where is… They unconsciously unfurled their wings in alarm as they turned to look around, but the motion sent more lances of pain through them, distracting them from the thought and it trailed away, unfinished and forgotten.
Feeling keenly off balance, the angel took stock of themself in the miraculous light. They were garbed in white linen robes embroidered with golden swirls and they absently brushed their hands over the cloth to magic away the dampness and smudges they’d gained by disturbing the plants. Well, this won’t do. Who thought wearing stark white was a good idea? It’ll be a magnet for every last speck of pollen and dirt! Well, at least I’m comfortable— what’s this?
A golden ring adorned the smallest finger of their right hand. An inexplicable sense of dread formed in the pit of their stomach to see the wingless gryphon emblazoned upon it. They quickly twisted the ring around, trying to slip it off but when that failed to work they pulled hard, gasping at the blaze of pain that shot up their arm into their chest, worse by far than the pain from their wings.
Rubbing at the reddened finger they tried to calm themself, twisting the ring around as they considered. It’s just a ring. Why are you afraid of a ring? There’s certainly no use in panicking. Not that I seem to be able to stop. No, you can’t let this get the better of you! First things first, figure out why your wings are still hurting.
The angel unfurled their wings and curled them forward to look at them, feeling even more frightened by the unfamiliarity of the dull stark-white plumage. But when they tried to recall what they should look like, there was another blank in their memory and they nervously furled their wings tightly against their back and looked around again. I don’t understand… I was… I don’t know, but it seems I’ve been given a new assignment, that much is clear. With a corporeal form, because… oh!
The angel stared about in shock and wonder. This... this has to be the Garden, down in Eden! They carefully moved closer to the Tree, trying to recall more. They knew it was really two Trees; they knew about it and the Garden and the land called Eden, but not how or why it all felt hauntingly familiar. Nor why so many of their memories were missing.
The mindless panic began to subside after a moment and the western angel realized that part of their face was no longer aching even though their chin was throbbing in pain. A distant recollection of snakes shedding their skin had them feeling quite confused. But why would I shed? I’m not actually a snake! A bit of magic and this body is good as new— oi, why didn’t I think of that earlier? They put thought to action and called on their magic to heal the cut on their chin but the persistent ache along the rest of their body was unaffected by the miracle.
What the supernova did they do to me? The serpent contorted around to look at the dark stiff tatters of what was quite clearly not shedding skin, wondering; And what will they do when they realize I’ve broken it?
Doesn’t matter. ‘Snot like I’m going to just put up with it, now that I know I can be rid of it. Course of action decided upon, they peeked out of their hiding spot and tasted the open air, savoring the familiar scents that were almost intoxicating in their richness. They reared up when understanding hit them like a physical blow; the Garden wasn’t just something they’d been told about, it was familiar. But there weren’t any memories to explain how or why it was familiar.
They looked upward, at the Tree silhouetted against the stars, and knew it as deeply as they knew the scents of the Garden. Why can’t I remember? They pushed that worrisome thought away and moved purposefully over the gnarled exposed roots of the Tree until the unnatural covering caught on the coarse bark.
By the time they freed themself of the last tattered patch on their tail, they’d scaled quite a distance up the Tree. Exhausted, triumphant, and at a complete loss for what to do next, they coiled up into a roomy spot sheltered between the two trunks of the Tree. I’m really in for it this time. No point in dwelling on it. The nook they’d found was sheltered from the breeze and surprisingly comfortable and the gentle sway of the Tree soon lulled them back into sleep.
The eastern angel reached the base of the Tree and looked outward, towards the horizon but it was obscured by yet more plants, though here and there a faint glimmer of stars peeked through. What should I do? I was obviously sent here for a reason. The angel found themself smothering a yawn. Probably best I stay here until I can see better. Sunrise is still a ways off.
It didn’t even occur to them to question how or why they knew when the sun would rise.
They settled down on a pile of leaves amid the roots of the Tree and dismissed the light, tossing and turning as they tried to find a comfortable position. Eventually they settled on their back, the leaves giving enough cushion to not not worsen the ache and they stared up at the branches and the occasional glimpse of sky, thoughtfully twisting the ring on their finger.
The darkness and soothing sound of wind rustling through the leaves soon had sleep overtaking them again.
While the angels rested, the night brightened into dawn and flashes of pale blue sky glimmered through the dense canopy of dawn-gilded greenery. It was long past sunrise when a rush of Celestial power against their passive senses startled them both from their slumber.
The serpent reared up fearfully, or tried to, bumping their head quite soundly on the branch above them. They hissed at the upper bough, yet again annoyed with their corporation and themself. Keep that up. They’ll love knowing you’re afraid, they sneered at themself, struggling out of the tight space into the morning light. Huh, could’ve sworn this was bigger. Maybe it just seemed that way in the dark.
They moved toward the source of the wave out of curiosity and a tiny bit of relief. They had made it most of the way around the Tree’s intertwined trunks when one Celestial started talking out loud and then yelling at the other Celestials. They felt a surge of not-very-guilty pleasure that it was someone else being yelled at for once. See how you lot like it. Not so much I bet!
The source of the power and the noise finally came into view and there, washed out by the painful radiance of the gathered non-corporeal Celestials, was the only other corporeal being they could recall seeing. Lucky bastard! Legs and hands!
The angel started awake, casting around with all their senses for what had awoken them. The source of the Celestial magic was lingering beyond the edge of the Tree’s canopy, on the far side of the hollow where they had first awoken, too far away for them to passively sense who was there and caution made them reluctant to try actively sensing too closely.
What they’d recalled of previous interactions with other Celestials had not been reassuring. It was more like the opposite of reassuring. They climbed to their feet and miracled their robes clean, waiting with a sense of trepidation to see what the Celestials would do. When nothing happened they made sure to shift their wings into a more neutral pose to keep their uncertainty and fear hidden before reluctantly moving closer to the spot. When the angel was close enough to passively sense that there were seven of them, they stopped and politely waited for the Celestials to make themselves known.
A moment later the Celestials became visible with a flash of light. The angel flinched away from the painful flash, wiping at their suddenly wet eyes and squinting at the assembly of bright unearthly beings. It took them a moment to recognize the manifestations and process the welter of emotions that followed. Oh… of course it’s them, they thought privately, safe behind their shields before sending out a polite, Hello?
There was an odd hiss then, “…this thing isn’t— ah there we go, that seems to have got it working. So, are we happy with everything so far? Good, okay, so on launch day— Hmm? … No no, Sandalphon, you’ve got it all wrong. I told you, the light and dark thing together is called a day. Days make up a year, Eden circling the sun is a year, not a day, do pay attention. Yes, you would find that confusing, wouldn’t you. Anyway, when the right moment comes, I appear here and I use this spell to wake them up. I give them the whole speech we will have worked out by then, give them the sword and…”
The Celestial speaking had wafted away from the others towards the edge of the canopy, nearer to where the angel was standing and their words trailed away, their projection shifting subtly to display confusion. “What’s the meaning of this?” There was a susurrus and a fluctuation of their radiances as the others reacted to their words.
The angel couldn’t help but flinch, their wings closing up apologetically. I’m sorry, I—
“There’s nothing there! You brought us to the wrong spot! The whole point of this was to make sure I could hit my marks, which I can’t do if we’re not in the right place.” There was a drawn out silence before the audible Celestial responded. “Then go find someone who can figure it out Raphael. I mean, the Elementals can do it, it can’t be that hard.”
The corporeal angel watched and felt one Celestial leave and realized they hadn’t sensed any thought-forms from the Celestials. As often as they’d been excluded from conversations, there had always been what could be equated to whispers: bits of projected thought-forms traveling beyond the intended recipient, accidentally or not. The angel had gotten quite good at blocking them out, but even so, they’d still sensed something. The exclusion had never been so utterly complete as what they were experiencing now. Excuse me? Hello?
Another susurration and the Celestial turned to face the others. “Yes, I suppose it is better to get this sorted out now. Can you imagine what the Almighty will do if things don’t go smoothly on launch day?” A brief pause as one of the others seemed to be asking a question. “Uh, we’ve got three days to launch. Why else would we be here? What? … Well, it’s obvious; day is when the sun’s up in the sky, the night is when it’s not. There was a memo, but I’m guessing none of you bothered to read it.”
Perhaps my shields are too strong and not enough is getting through for them to sense from this distance? the angel wondered, unable to think of another reason why the others hadn’t noticed them standing there. That seemed to be the only possible reason why they weren’t responding either, not even to shush them for interrupting. The angel dredged up a name for the audible Celestial and with a growing yet-unnamed emotion that had their eyes stinging, they partially lowered their shields and called out again; Gabriel? Is that you?
“Now why would anyone think a day starts at sunset Uriel? It only makes sense for a day to start at sunrise. Hmm? … Oh, them. Yes, I suppose going by their rules would make sense, all this being for their sake to begin with…”
With growing understanding the angel risked lowering their shields completely. Gabriel! I… I think you’re being… rude! The angel’s heart was racing from having even thought the thought let alone trying to project it towards the Celestial in question. But the complete lack of reaction combined with their newfound limitations made it clear that their own thought-forms, once so easily projected outward, were all but undetectable now that they were inside of a corporeal form.
And though it posed an obvious problem in terms of communication, they finally had a name for the emotion they’d been feeling: relief. No more getting scolded for being ‘too sensitive’ for having my shields up all the time. Now I can’t sense their thought-forms at all! And they can’t sense mine!
“Starting in the middle of the night doesn’t make any more sense than sunset!” Gabriel’s voice and form clearly displayed their annoyance. “Why are we even discussing this?”
There was another long silence where another of the silent Celestials seemed to be reluctantly explaining something to Gabriel. “So, if I’m understanding right, you lot decided, without consulting me, to have Beelzebub of all people ‘mediate’ deciding when a day should start? And now the Eden day, named, you know, for the time when the sun is visible, starts halfway between sunset and sunrise, when the sun is not visible. Is that right?”
The Celestial that had left had returned by that point and Gabriel made a noise of disgust. “Look, it doesn’t really matter when an Eden day starts or ends, it’s not as though we’d bother to use Eden units for anything this important anyway. The launch is obviously being marked by Celestial days. Now what did you find out? We are on a schedule you know.”
There was a sense of dismay from the returned Celestial and Gabriel went pointy with fury. “How is that even possible?! They weren’t supposed to wake up until I woke them! No, I’m going to stop you right there. You can not honestly expect me to believe that this was just some ‘unexpected side effect of gravity,’ especially after the conversation we just had! All this planning, coming all this way, and for what?”
The other Celestials shifted about placatingly. “Well, nothing for it now,” Gabriel said, making an obvious effort to calm themself. “It’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. But you’d better hope it worked and you damn well better make sure everything else goes according to plan, understand? Very well, let’s get this over with. Where are they? … What do you mean, you don’t know?!”
They can’t even tell that I’m here. The angel thought it best at that point to reveal themself before Gabriel could become any more upset. They stepped out from under the Tree’s canopy and past the collective edge of the gathered Celestials’ auras, raising their hands in greeting but also to shield their eyes from the uncomfortable brightness.
The other Celestials were still clearly trying to appease Gabriel, none of them noticing the corporeal angel as they moved closer and closer. They tried calling out again right at the edge of the circle of looming Celestials and still none of them responded. Desperate, the angel resorted to sending a blip of power towards the one whom they recalled was called Michael.
The Celestial visibly started in surprise when the corporeal angel’s power pinged against their shields like a pebble tossed at a window.
“What happened?” They all turned their regard upon Aziraphale, who gave them an apologetic wave of greeting. “Oh. Is that really them? Not the other one? Yes yes, I believe you, it’s just, I can’t sense a thing with them all corporeal like that. Well, on with the show.” Gabriel turned all their attention on the little corporeal angel, their radiance brightening to painful levels. “Hello! Is this working? Do You Understand Me? I don’t think they understand. HELLO! AZIRAPHALE?”
The angel cringed in pain, scrunching their eyes shut and covering their ears. It took a few tries before they figured out how to make themself heard in turn, but the increasing radiance and volume in which Gabriel was inanely bellowing soon had them desperately yelling back, “Stop Gabriel! Stop, I can hear you! Too loud! Too bright! I said, STOP!”
Gabriel’s radiance immediately went back to merely eye-wateringly bright. “Oh. Ah. Well, it’s Archangel Gabriel,” they corrected in their previous only-slightly-too-loud volume. “Suppose we should’ve known you’d forget. Gravity.” They laughed sardonically, their attention momentarily searing the other Celestials who gave a sheepish susurrus in response.
“GR- ahem, gravity?” the angel asked.
There was an awkward pause. “Uh, does weird things we’ve been told. I’m sure you’ll get used to it. You do remember that you’re an angel? Do you know why you’re here?”
“Right, angel,” the angel said but they looked away from Gabriel, down at the wingless gryphon on their ring. “I… I’m afraid I don’t know why I’m here,” they said in a small voice.
“Oh. Well, you’re here to protect the Garden of Eden.” There was another susurrus and Gabriel let out an annoyed noise. “What? Oh, alright. Ahem. You are the angel Aziraphale, and you are the Guardian of the Eastern Gate, and Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge and Life.” Gabriel shifted a little to address the others, clearly unaware that their voice was still being projected. “Really though, why did we decide to let them have even that much… Hmm?” There was a long pause. “Huh. Oh, right.” The air hummed with power and an item dropped to the ground in front of Aziraphale. “This is to help you execute your duties. Anyway, hope you like your new wings, we decided they suited the brand better.”
The angel called Aziraphale was too focused on the sword to respond to Gabriel’s odd comment. This was another thing the angel knew in their very soul and they carefully picked it up and unsheathed it. But the connection the angel expected to be there was gone, and the flames that lit along the bronze blade felt subtly wrong in a way they couldn’t explain. “Did, er, is there anything else?” Aziraphale asked hopefully, unsure exactly what they were hoping for.
Gabriel made a dismissive noise. “Why would there be? You’re here to protect the Garden and the Tree from outsiders. It’s very basic, I mean, even you can’t mess that up, Aziraphale.”
Aziraphale cringed at the disparaging tone. “Yes, right, the Tree and the Garden.” They sheathed the sword and reluctantly tied the belt around their waist.
“What else? …Ah, yes. You haven’t seen anyone else— no? As it happens, someone else is assigned here with you, so you can rest at night, which is when it’s dark,” said Gabriel, clearly for the benefit of the other Celestials. “Big on rest, the Almighty. Try not to distract them with your ridiculous chatter, hmm? But do keep an eye on them — they’re one of Beelzebub’s; sullen, rude, adversarial. The whole lot of them are not to be trusted. You really don’t want to be associated with their sort, Aziraphale,” Gabriel warned. “It might give us the impression that you’re ungrateful for the risk we took in giving you this promotion. So you just do your job and keep to yourself and you’ll get your proper reward when this is all over.”
The gathered Celestials all vanished from view with another flash, and Aziraphale blinked and rubbed at their eyes to clear the lingering spots away, sensing that they were all still there. Gabriel said to the others, “Well, that’s done. Michael, go deal with the paperwork while we get on to the next thing on the schedule.” There was another wash of power as they all departed.
“Uh?” Aziraphale took a moment to make sure the others weren’t going to come back before shaking their head and sighing heavily, relaxing their wings. They were unsure how they knew they couldn’t trust Gabriel, but they had absolutely no doubt that the Archangel was not to be trusted. They really don’t like me, and I have no idea why. There had been something in the Archangel’s voice at the end that had sent a shiver of foreboding down the angel’s spine. Well, I don’t particularly like them either. Insufferable self-aggrandizing autocrat.
They looked back up at the comforting presence of the Tree and did a double-take, distracted for a moment when they thought they saw something move among the branches. When it didn’t happen again they shook their head at their whimsy and looked away, back down at the ring. They tried to remember more, but that impenetrable fog continued to cloud their memories, leaving only the vaguest of recollections. Well, I suppose Gabriel is correct in one regard; I am not grateful. I don’t like not being able to remember things. Important things. Personal things. Not grateful at all!
“Not grateful at all,” the angel murmured, just to get used to the sound of their own voice. They considered the mysterious other guardian and their own disorienting awakening that had apparently happened ahead of schedule. “Well, they put me in the east, so…” They circled south and around to the west, sending their senses out around the base of the Tree, letting out a disappointed sigh to find no one. But it felt different on that side of the Tree. Like they weren’t alone. You’re being silly, they told themself, looking around curiously. But the feeling didn’t subside.
“Well, if they’re to guard at night, perhaps they won’t awaken until nearer sunset?” Aziraphale said aloud, looking around hopefully. They didn’t recognize any signs that anyone else had been there and they twisted the ring around on their finger, trying to ignore the tangle of emotion churning in their stomach. “I’ll just plan to be back here before then, so they won’t be alone in the dark.”
I wish… They didn’t even let themself finish the thought and there was a long silence filled only by the faint rustling of leaves overhead. “Well… I suppose I should get to guarding. Whatever that entails.” Aziraphale quickly oriented themself and without any real purpose in mind, circled north and retreated eastward, throwing one last thoughtful glance over their shoulder before their view of the Tree was blocked by the other trees of the Garden.
The serpent had frozen when the other angel had looked up, reluctant to reveal themself. So that’s the way of it, huh? the serpent thought bitterly, quickly retreating back to the other side of the Tree when they’d had the chance to move unseen.
They’d felt instant sympathy for the angel on hearing the Celestial’s nasty tone. And when Gabriel had given their little warning lecture, an angry hiss had escaped the serpent before they could stop it.
Shouldn’t be surprised. I knew there had to be a catch when Beelzebub said this was a promotion, they thought, looking for the nook they’d been resting in previously. Got a nerve, saying all that just ‘cause Beelzebub’s my boss, like I’ve a say in the matter. And I bet I’ll be blamed the moment anything goes wrong. Well, we’ll see about that. They hissed in frustration when what they thought was their previous resting spot proved far too small.
Resentment simmered in their belly as they slithered from one branch to another in search of a new resting spot, recalling the angel’s bewinged bipedal form. At least they got a useful shape! I got stuck with this! Well, I’m not going to take it laying down! If they can look like that instead of like their astral form, then so can I… I just need to figure out how. They happened into a ray of sunshine and the blissful warmth sapped their anger-fueled energy, reminding them just how exhausted they still were. After I think on what I learned for a bit…
They stretched themself along a branch to soak up as much sun as they could, and had almost fallen into a doze when movement below caught their attention. They watched the angel circle around to their side of the Tree, seemingly looking for something. Probably came to gloat, the serpent thought, but they couldn’t quite believe it, not with the cautiously welcoming posture of the angel’s wings, nor their obvious disappointment when they didn’t find anyone. The serpent found themself easing to a lower branch out of curiosity.
“Well, if they’re to guard at night, perhaps they won’t awaken until nearer sunset,” the serpent heard the angel say to themself as they nervously twisted their hands together. “I’ll just plan be back here before then, so they won’t be alone in the dark.”
Those words, said in such a kindly hopeful tone, had the lingering resentment shifting into something far more painful. I hope… I hope they’re not like the others, the serpent thought, secure in the knowledge that no one could overhear their quiet plea. Let them be… let them be however they wish to be, just …let them not hate me? That’s not too much to ask, is it? they asked, looking up, but not at the Tree. Just one angel…
They slipped lower yet in the silence and heard the angel say, “Well… I suppose I should get to guarding. Whatever that entails.” And the serpent watched the angel walk towards the sunrise, the gently swaying sunlit branches soon lulling them into an exhausted slumber, still blissfully unaware of the ongoing changes being wrought by their unbinding.
At the edge of the Tree’s canopy Aziraphale found a slightly overgrown path through the greenery heading east, towards the wall. The longer the angel walked, the less agitated they felt, soothed by the peace of the Garden and the knowledge that they would have little contact with Gabriel or any other angels aside from their fellow guard. And maybe not even them. Thought I honestly can’t imagine they’re as bad as Gabriel was implying. At least I hope not. I really hope not. …Please?
The wind died down as the sun rose higher in the sky and eventually the giant stone wall loomed before them at the end of the path. There they found an arched tunnel through the wall, partially blocked with a tall pile of rubble and they could just make out, with the help of the miraculous light, the top of the golden Gate beyond it. Neither the wall nor the Gate sparked the sense of knowing.
Relieved to have an outlet for their anxious energy, Aziraphale went to work manually clearing away the debris. It was hot dirty work and the angel found they needed to rest frequently, fanning themself until the unpleasant breathlessness faded. At the hottest part of the day they took a longer break, and found one of the many irrigation canals keeping the Garden watered. Mind occupied with a great many other things, they pulled off their robe and waded into the sparkling clean water to cool off without a second thought. They drank enough to satiate their growing thirst and let themself float as their thoughts circled, the cool water easing some of the ache away.
They were not even aware of what they had done until when they felt it was time to go back to the wall. Why did I do that? Why did I do any of that? they wondered, staring at the dirty robes they’d absently laid over a nearby bush. A little magic returned them to their pristine state but nothing could soothe the disquiet their unthinking actions had awoken. It had felt natural to cool off in the water. The same urge had prompted them to drink when thirsty and was urging them to eat to satisfy their hunger. And though they knew they didn’t have to do those things, the more they thought about it the more it seemed a ridiculous waste to maintain their corporeal form magically when there was a plethora of mundane means right at hand.
It was one more mystery to put aside until a time when they weren’t feeling so off balance, so they put it from their mind as best they could. They finger-groomed their wings some but left their feathers damp to help keep themself cool before miracling their robes on. They started back for the gate, plucking berries from the bushes as they walked, their thoughts returning to the many odd broken artifacts they had found amid the rubble.
When Aziraphale saw how much was left to be rid of before the rapidly approaching sunset they gave in and miracled the rest of the rubble away. That done they examined the plain burnished gold Gate which was adorned with mirror-bright golden filigree hinges and a shiny golden seal where the lock should have been.
They didn’t give me a key, they realized. Well, I suppose it could be magical… They then examined the seal with all of their senses, relieved to discover spells they recognized. Ah it should open at my touch. They reached out to test their theory and the Gate made a melodic chiming noise and swung open with a shocking scream of failing metal from the beautiful but useless hinges.
“Oh good lord,” Aziraphale huffed with wry amusement, pressing a hand to their pounding heart, their whole body having instinctively jumped from the dreadful noise. They miracled the hinges into actual working order, testing them a few times before resealing the Gate and returning to the interior of the Garden, at a loss for what to do next.
It felt too early to return to the Tree. They were quite curious about the rest of the Garden but they didn’t want to get distracted and end up being late returning to the Tree, which only left the wall to focus on.
Upon closer inspection, the wall seemed even stranger than they’d first thought, having not even a speck of anything growing on the massive blocks of pale stone. Further examination revealed magic embedded into the very mortar binding the blocks together. They found they recognized spells of defense against all manner of attack, including the slow degradation caused by nature itself. Further curiosity had them looking for a way to the top of the wall.
Finding no way up, they eventually expended some power to counter the gravity keeping them earthbound, floating upward and instinctively unfurling their wings for balance when a breeze caught them and they flinched when the motion again sent bright lances of pain through them. Perhaps I should’ve asked… no, I can’t imagine Gabriel would have done anything but berate me for damaging this body. And it’s a little better than it was earlier, Aziraphale tried to convince themself. Perhaps I somehow bruised them while I rested and now they’re recovering. That’s probably all it is.
There were more spells at the top of the wall. Some of the spells they could partially puzzle out the purpose of but others yet were a complete mystery. When they grew tired and a little frustrated at the gap in their knowledge, they put aside their examination of the wall’s spells and looked instead into the Garden itself. From their perch Aziraphale could see how much the Tree of Knowledge and Life eclipsed every other plant in the Garden. The Tree of Knowledge’s branches were bright with flowers and ripening fruits of innumerable types while the Tree of Life seemingly bore nothing but leaves.
Unseen by the distant Guardian, the Tree of Life did bear something upon its boughs; a Celestial serpent slumbering fitfully amid a tangle of foliage. As the sun westered, the formerly blissful warmth turned to blistering heat and the serpent sleepily flicked a hand at the unpleasant trickle of sweat rolling down their nose and shifted their weight to try to find a more comfortable position, almost rolling right off of their precarious perch.
Would have rolled off, if not for the instinctive reaction of their currently ape-shaped brain to cling. With a garbled exclamation of shock they desperately wrapped arms and legs draped in black cloth around the branches and splayed out their iridescent black wings.
There was the ominous groaning creak of wood pushed to its limit by the sudden motion and memory supplied an appropriate response to their current situation. “Shit!”
Go back to being a snake, be a snake, snake snake snek! their mind burbled as they closed their eyes against the dizzying sight of the ground far below. There was a momentary struggle with themself to be willing to let go of hands and legs after going so long without, but a gust of wind caught their wings and self preservation had them hurling themself into serpent form.
The creaking stopped and they let out a relieved sigh and slowly lifted their head to assess the situation. They looked back along their length— and back, and back, discovering there was a lot more of themself than there had been earlier. Oh, that’s not good. They couldn’t help but look down at the ground when a flash of light among the green caught their eye and they hissed. I really don’t need this right now! Ugh, maybe if I stay still they won’t notice me.
Aziraphale had left the wall not long after becoming frustrated with the spells, and their nervousness grew the nearer they came to the western side of the Tree. When they arrived at the place they’d visited that morning, they sent their senses out again and sighed heavily to find no sign of the other Guardian. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
A moment later they sensed the arrival of a non-corporeal Celestial and they ducked desperately into a fern-covered depression to hide. Oh, this isn’t nice of me, but I really don’t want to deal with any more archangels. Maybe if I just wait here, they won’t notice me?
“Dunno why I have to do this. Wouldn’t have even known if Ligur hadn’t seen Michael changing the paperwork. Supposed to be Beelzebub’s responsibility but now they’re ‘too busy’, like we aren’t all too busy?” grumbled a sullen slightly-too-loud voice followed by a flash of light as the Celestial made themself visible. “Hello? Crawly?”
The two angels, unknowingly not alone in that moment, tried their best to keep still in the hopes of not being discovered.
The glowing Celestial drifted closer to the Tree and the serpent did their best to keep perfectly still but they had to look away from the painful brightness. “Hey!” The voice was painfully loud at close quarters. “Wake up. How’d you get up in the Tree?”
In the Tree?! I never even considered that they’d be up in the Tree. There was a hissing breath that Aziraphale recognized as a resigned sigh, raising their hopes that if nothing else, they would have one thing in common.
Crawly stared sidelong at the Celestial who they recognized Hastur, wondering what they were playing at, acting like nothing was wrong. “Uh… Slithered?”
They blinked at Hastur’s continued lack of a reaction, remembered snakes couldn’t blink and swore inwardly before cautiously telling them a truth while not actually answering the question they were asking. “It’s warmer up here in the sssun.”
“Oh. Well get out! You’re supposed to start working when the sun sets.”
“But Hastur, what —” Crawly caught themself before they could say what they’d almost said. Don’t call their attention to it if they haven’t noticed! “Er… working?”
“It’s Archangel Hastur now. You’re in the Garden, in Eden, remember?”
Crawly tried to shift themself backward towards the trunks of the Tree but there was another creak of straining wood as the branches dipped downward. Stall. “Uh, what?”
Voice laced with annoyed disgust, Hastur said, “You’re Crawly, Guardian of the Western Gate, Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge and Life. Don’t you remember even that much? They said it would affect your memories but not like this.”
“Uh, right. Why me?” Crawly asked distractedly, trying to figure out a way move themself without straining the branches any more than they were already strained.
“Well,” said the archangel, “another guardian was required, for nighttime. You got picked by the Council. We’d have warned ‘em about picking you, but they never asked for our input.”
“O-oh.” They don’t know about the binding, Crawly realized, almost dizzy with relief. “But what are we guarding it from? Why do we need to be corporeal?”
Another annoyed noise prefaced their explanation. “You’re guarding it from the others, and from those from outside Eden. You need a corporeal body to affect the corporeal world. We decided this form suited you better, given your nature.”
They can’t tell the difference between the little snake form and whatever this is. “That’s almost clever,” the serpent mumbled, “especially for you, Hastur.” They’d long given up on trying to keep in Hastur’s good graces, knowing how much they and the others looked down on them.
“It’s Archangel Hastur now. And I’m not the one being cast down into the dirt, Crawly.”
There was a crack as the branch supporting most of Crawly’s weight broke. There wasn’t time for them to react before landing with a painful crashing thump that knocked the breath from them. Need a corporeal form to affect the corporeal world huh? Yeah, right.
Hastur laughed nastily. “I wonder what that other angel did to end up being stuck here? Gabriel must’ve been real mad, to send one of those obedient little goody-four-wings down here in the dirt with you.” Hastur taunted, “Oh, that’s right, you haven’t met them yet. They’ll be even less happy with you than we were. Love following all the rules and making sure everyone else does too. Probably hope to get back into Gabriel’s good graces, dealing with you. Maybe if you actually do what you’re told, serpent, you’ll get a reward when this is over.”
The taunting words stung, all but confirming what Gabriel’s warning had implied. “Reward, sure,” they echoed. “Ssso… what am I supposed to do?”
“Don’t know, don’t care! I’m sure the goody-four-wings will tell you what to do, they like doing that.” There was another nasty laugh and Hastur’s presence vanished completely.
Knowing Hastur wasn’t clever enough to think to play tricks, Crawly didn’t hesitate to close their eyes and focus their entire being on the form they’d woken up in and had oh-so-briefly enjoyed. They felt themself shift back and they let out a sigh that was more like a sob when they opened their eyes and found themself standing upright, wings splayed out as though still on the verge of falling.
Crawly didn’t know if they wanted to laugh or cry or both from the welter of emotions running through them. There was relief, that their breaking of the binding hadn’t been discovered, but there was worry too. There were too many unknowns and unanswered questions to feel safe yet.
They lifted their wings to let the wind play through their feathers and inhaled a slow deep breath, absently noting how different their sense of smell was in this shape. Their ribs twinged at the motion and they pulled on their magic again to heal their injuries, glaring down at the broken branch. They hadn’t sensed Hastur do anything to break it but that didn’t prove anything. It was clear that being in a corporeal form limited a lot of their Celestial abilities in ways they didn’t understand yet.
Aziraphale could hear the other angel moving around but waited a little while to make sure the archangel was going to stay gone before their curiosity overcame their caution and they eased out of their hiding place. They stood for a long moment, just taking in the sight of the first other corporeal being they’d ever seen, that they could remember.
The other angel was dressed in dark robes ornamented in red; So much more practical for a garden, Aziraphale mentally noted. Their angular form was overshadowed by their singular pair of black wings that gleamed with iridescence, their head crowned with long curly hair that matched some of the ripening fruit of the Tree. They were staring down at the ground and Aziraphale moved closer yet, staring at them in fascination, struck by the feeling that they somehow knew the black-winged angel. The feeling became stronger yet when they were about two lengths away and they could actually feel the other’s presence against their passive senses.
Crawly gasped and jumped in alarm to feel the sudden presence of another Celestial, whipping around to face them.
Aziraphale jumped at their reaction and held up their hands apologetically. “Oh, I’m sorry! Didn’t mean to alarm you.”
Crawly stared at the plump white-robed angel they’d seen earlier from a distance, taking in their kindly face haloed by curly white hair, their stark white wings again held in a cautiously welcoming pose and Crawly found themself relaxing a little in spite of themself, drawn to take a step closer. “Oh, uh, hi.”
Aziraphale blinked and sheepishly looked away from the other angel’s bright yellow slit-pupiled eyes when they realized they were staring. “I um, I’m Aziraphale. The other guardian?”
“Ah, Aziraphale. They uh, they call me Crawly,” they answered reluctantly, peering at the white-winged angel curiously. There was something about the sense of them that had Crawly unable to shake the feeling that Aziraphale was as familiar to them as the Garden was. Or had been, before their memories had been muddled. They blurted, “Do we know one another from somewhere? I feel like I know you.”
“I-I don’t know,” Aziraphale admitted, trying to not stare, watching Crawly sidelong as they cautiously sidled closer, taking their own cautious step closer. “You seem rather familiar too. But being incorporated makes us forget things, I was told. Something to do with gravity?”
“Hmm, yeah, gravity... important isn’t it?” asked Crawly as they circled around Aziraphale, who turned to keep them in view. How do I know you? Your name isn’t familiar, but I know you. Crawly didn’t speak the thought out loud however, having learned from experience that it was better to keep those sort of questions to themself. Finally they stopped pacing and stood staring at Aziraphale. “I really feel like I aught to be able to remember…”
“Yes, I’ve been feeling that a lot myself today.” They continued to stare curiously at one another and it was Aziraphale who broke the silence to say, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier. Waking up alone was rather disorienting, and I’d hoped to save you from that.”
Crawly wondered if they could really trust their kindness to actually be a kindness. Or if it was an act, as all the others’ had been. “Uh, that’s alright. Thanks though.”
Aziraphale was disappointed but unsurprised by their continued caution, especially after hearing what Hastur had said. When the silence started to become awkward they asked, “So… um, I, I was wondering, what did the archangel mean about this form suiting you?” Crawly’s eyes went wide and Aziraphale could tell from how their wings clamped tightly closed that they were upset by the question. “Oh no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… Bad habit of mine, being curious, please forget I ever asked!”
As upset as they were knowing someone had witnessed that humiliating scene, Crawly was surprised to hear them admit to being curious. “How much did you see?”
Aziraphale could feel their face getting hot with embarrassment. “Oh, I didn’t see— I mean, I was, er, I couldn’t see you from where I was. But, um, I heard, well, everything.” When Crawly closed their eyes with a sigh, Aziraphale blurted, “I’m so sorry! It was terribly rude of me to have mentioned it, wasn’t it? I must assure you that I didn’t mean to overhear your conversation. You see, I was returning to see if you’d awoken yet when the archangel appeared and I covered my ears but they were far too loud to block out —you know, I think they must be projecting their voices magically as well as in an auditory fashion, because there was very little dampening effect—” They cringed at the bemused expression on Crawly’s face. “Er, sorry, I babble when I’m nervous. The others hate when I do that. Um, what was, oh, right, I should have made more of an effort to give you privacy. I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.”
Crawly blinked at the apologetic and informative outpouring and found themself again just staring at Aziraphale. The sheepish expression and apologetic tilt of their wings and worried crease in their brows had Crawly admitting, “’Sokay. I also overheard… stuff? This morning. Woke me up when they all arrived.”
Aziraphale couldn’t help their reaction to those words; disappointment and a sense of dread, waiting for the taunting laughter that was sure to come. “Oh.”
“Not our fault they can’t keep their voices down,” Crawly added hastily when Aziraphale’s wings began to furl defensively closed. “Seems like they’re all just loud and obnoxious, eh? Probably a requirement for the job,” they joked. “But I figure we’re even now, yeah?”
Aziraphale relaxed slightly. That was a far better reaction than they could have hoped for. “All right. And you might have a point there,” they chuckled. “But…” -why didn’t you say anything? Why did you hide? They didn’t ask, sure they didn’t want to know the answer.
Crawly found they could read Aziraphale’s hurt and could guess what they’d bit their lip to keep from saying. “I, er, should’ve said something but I… was so tired I fell right back asleep. Slept all day,” they said with a dismissive wave of their hand, turning away so Aziraphale couldn’t see their face. “’Sides, I figured you wouldn’t want to meet me after what they’d said.”
“Oh… Yes, I can understand that, but I’m not, I mean, they’re, er…” Aziraphale stammered, knowing that no matter what they might instinctively feel towards Crawly, admitting their distrust of Gabriel would be the height of folly. Yet, they wanted to make it clear that they weren’t an unquestioning follower the way Hastur implied. “That is to say, I prefer to form my own conclusions once I have a grasp on a situation, as opposed to just taking someone else’s word for it. And it seems quite clear to me that certain sonorous others are… not in possession of all the facts.” They tried to reassure the black-winged angel with a cautious smile. “I’m quite pleased to meet you Crawly. Hopefully you’re feeling more rested now?”
“Oh. Me, uh, me too. Yeah, rested, thanks.” Crawly tried a shrug and liked it, feeling lightheaded with relief and more feelings that they couldn’t yet name. They really wanted to trust Aziraphale, wanted to tell them about what they’d experienced, but Crawly didn’t really know them, no matter what they might be feeling. But they had to say something. Wanted to say something, as a gesture of goodwill. “Er, to answer your question, about the, uh, form thing? I was in a different shape when Hastur showed up. Changed it to this one after they left.”
“Oh!” Aziraphale’s eyes went wide in amazement. “That sounds quite interesting! Useful too, I should think?” They bit their lip again to keep anything else awkward from escaping.
“Er, I s’pose? To tell the truth, I like this one better.” They looked down at themself and bumped their fists against their thighs. “Legs, good to have legs again,” they mumbled, darting a worried look at Aziraphale when they realized they’d said the thought aloud. “Er, I mean, they could’ve given us a bit of guidance on how to use these things, right?”
Aziraphale nodded in confusion but said, “I suppose they want us to figure them out on our own?”
“Pft. And if we break them beyond repair? I’m sure they’ll give us a telling off for that, never mind not bothering to tell us anything about them to begin with.” Crawly glared at the broken branch, the leaves already wilting. “Breaking them hurts by the way. A lot.”
Aziraphale couldn’t deny any of what Crawly was saying, and being unwilling to discuss their fear about their wings, they changed the subject. “I have a sword, if you’d like to use it? While you’re guarding?”
Crawly canted their head curiously at the offer. “Sword, sword… long sharp cutty thing, right? Haven’t seen one of those, don’t think. What’s it look like?”
Aziraphale pulled it from the sheath, getting it to flame to life without much thought.
“Ooh, that’s something,” said Crawly, rearing away from the unpleasant heat. “That won’t be necessary, will it? Seems a bit excessive, cutting things and setting them on fire at the same time.” They bit their tongue to keep from saying anything more, assuming they’d already said too much. Still, they tried to make amends with a bit of honesty. “And, er, I don’t know how to use it. Probably best you keep it. Thank you, for offering though.”
“Oh, you’re welcome.” Aziraphale sheathed the sword and surreptitiously rubbed their hand against their robe to rid themself of the odd tingling sensation holding it had caused. “I’d be glad to show you how to use it if you change your mind. Doesn’t seem right, that they didn’t give you something too. I mean, we’re in this together, right?”
Crawly’s lingering wariness shifted ever so slightly into something like intrigue. “Yeah, sure. Together.”
Aziraphale graced them with the full power of a joyous smile, but reached out in concern when Crawly’s eyes went wide and they swayed a little. “Ooh, are you all right? Did the gravity get you?” They quickly withdrew when they realized what they’d done. Touching, or brushing outer auras in the case of non-corporeal Celestials, was not something you did willy-nilly, especially not with someone you just met. Why’d I do that?
“Maybe?” Crawly shook their head in confusion, pressing a hand over their heart where the strangest little ache had developed, not noticing Aziraphale’s faux pas. “I’m really not sure about this whole corporeal thing. And look at what they did to my wings-”
Aziraphale frowned worriedly. “They don’t hurt, do they?”
Crawly shook their head, eyes flicking to look again at Aziraphale’s strangely stark white plumage. “No… I just, I know they did something. Changed something. Can’t tell what though.”
“Ah. Yes, Gabriel did say something about that when they gave me the sword, not that they explained mind you. But I must say, yours turned out quite lovely,” said Aziraphale, smile fading when Crawly frowned disbelievingly. “I mean it, with the whatsit, iridescence, I could just watch the light playing over them for ages. They look very soft to the touch.”
Aziraphale’s body went cold with mortification when Crawly’s eyebrows arched in surprise. Touching was also very much NOT something you mentioned to someone after a single conversation! Get a hold of yourself! “I only meant they’re very pretty! I would never touch you- I mean, not without permission of course. Not that I’d presume to think you’d want to give me permission,” the white-winged angel stammered. They closed their eyes and a little miserable laugh escaped at how ill-mannered they were being. They unconsciously pressed a hand to the little stab of pain over their heart and mumbled to themself, “This is why none of the other angels like you. You always say the wrong thing.”
Crawly felt that sentiment down to their core, and a little more of their apprehension faded. They couldn’t help but feel for the white-winged angel and wanted to soothe away the wretched expression on their face. “It’s alright Aziraphale, I know you didn’t mean it.”
But I did mean it, I just didn’t mean to say any of it out loud, Aziraphale didn’t confess, reluctantly opening their eyes. Crawly was smiling at them and they found themself relaxing and cautiously smiling back.
“’Snot like you said something bad.” ‘Specially not in comparison to some of the things I’ve said. Some of them even on purpose. “You didn’t offend me, Aziraphale. I don’t think you could.”
“Oh, well, well thank you Crawly, that really is the nicest thing to say! I was so worried we wouldn’t get on,” Aziraphale admitted, thinking of Gabriel’s warning and the vague memories of interacting with others, which consisted of feeling ridiculed and disdained. And lonely. “The others don’t seem to like me very much.”
Crawly made a face, thinking of their most recent interactions before being told of their assignment, of the others mocking and blatantly avoiding them. “Yeah,” they agreed. “Same. But that’s a bright side I s’pose. Won’t be seeing them much if we’re down here in these,” the black-winged angel said, tapping themself over the heart.
Aziraphale’s expression brightened. “You know, I had that very same thought, my dear.”
Those words sent another little inexplicable twinge around Crawly’s heart. “My wot?”
Aziraphale felt their face get hot again and they twisted the ring nervously. The words had just slipped out, as though they’d been saying them to Crawly since before forever. “Ah, oh, uh, it’s a term of end- to, uh, convey friendship. I-I-I mean—” While nowhere near as rude as talking about touching, it was slightly crass to mention friendship on a first meeting.
“No no, friends, yeah, that- that’s fine. I… I’d like that,” Crawly blurted, looking away when Aziraphale looked up in surprise, their eyes wide with hope. “But, ha, I thought you meant the animal, with the,” Crawly splayed their hands over to their head to represent horns.
Aziraphale laughed in relief that Crawly wasn’t upset by their presumption, heart soaring that they even seemed pleased. “No no, they’re homophones but not nearly the same thing.”
“Homophones, means words that sound alike when spoken but mean different things.”
Crawly just stared in amazement. “How do you know that?”
Aziraphale opened their mouth and closed it again with a frustrated sigh. “I have no idea. I really am not fond of this gravity nonsense messing with my mind, I must say.” That’s all this is, just gravity muddling things.
Crawly made a few noises of agreement and nodded, darting an uncertain look at Aziraphale when the silence began to drag on again. “So… er, do you know what we’re supposed to be doing? Didn’t sound like you got any more information than I did.”
“They were not forthcoming, no,” Aziraphale agreed. “They said I was Guardian of the Eastern Gate, so, that’s where I went. It was in a shockingly dreadful state of disrepair and once that was fixed up I waited on the wall until I felt it was time to return here.” They copied the black-winged angel’s shrug. “It takes a long time to walk from here to the wall, by the way. And flying is very tiring. Discovered that getting up and down from the wall.”
“Another thing gravity messes with?” Crawly darted another look at Aziraphale, getting a nod in answer before looking off to where the sunset was painting the sky to match their hair. “Well… I suppose we could continue looking around? Unless you need to rest-”
We? Aziraphale did not want Crawly to see the little surge of hope they felt at that. Being too eager was one of the many things the other angels found annoying about them and they did not want to risk annoying Crawly. “Oh no, I’m hardly tired at all,” Aziraphale quickly asserted, wilting to remember what Gabriel had said. “But, I wouldn’t want to distract you— ”
“You’re not,” they corrected in a mild tone that hid the anger they felt on Aziraphale’s behalf. “’Sides,” Crawly drawled with a little smirk that invited them in on the joke, “they said you should keep an eye on me. Can’t do that if I’m too far away to see.”
Aziraphale couldn’t resist that smile. “You do have a point. And I suppose it couldn’t really hurt for me to keep you company while you guard.” As long as I act like a proper angel.
“That way you can make sure I don’t fall asleep on the job.” Crawly gestured to take in the entirety of the Garden. “Where to?”
Aziraphale shook their head in amusement and considered. “Considering the state the Eastern Gate was in, should we check on the Western Gate?”
“Sure,” Crawly agreed, relieved when Aziraphale began walking and they could casually fall into step with them, saving them from having to admit they had no idea what ‘eastern’ or ‘western’ meant. “So what was at the Gate?”
“Oh, there was… stuff, piled in front of it,” Aziraphale said, wondering if they should elaborate. “And the Gate itself clearly wasn’t designed with gravity in mind.” Gabriel’s words rang again in their mind. As little as they trusted the archangel, they didn’t want to annoy Crawly by talking too much either, and definitely didn’t want to admit to being so easily overcome by their very unangelic curiosity.
Crawly hummed thoughtfully and didn’t ask anything else, assuming the odd tone in Aziraphale’s voice was a sign of annoyance and took their silence as proof. They hadn’t been walking long when Crawly realized the emerging stars were being washed out by a ray of light beaming down from above Aziraphale. It showed no sign of dissipating as they walked and Crawly asked, “Ssso, what’s that?”
Aziraphale looked at Crawly quizzically, jarred out of their tired reverie by the question and looked upward when they pointed. “Hmm? The sky?” Crawly made a face and Aziraphale chuckled to realize what they meant. “Oh! It’s a miracle for light. I can’t see very well in the dark I’ve discovered,” they admitted. “It, er, it’s not bothering you, is it?”
“No no, no bother. Just…” Crawly swallowed down the far too risky admission that had almost escaped; a confession of looking forward to seeing the night sky again. “Just er, curious. Good thing you didn’t have it going earlier— Aziraphale? What’s wrong?”
Aziraphale had stopped walking and was looking worriedly up at the radiance. “Yes, being noticed would probably have been unpleasant. Which has made me realize that it’ll be quite the beacon in the darkness, should anyone be looking.” Reluctantly they ended the miracle, blinked and peered into the darkness. They could just barely make out Crawly’s face in the twilight. “Oh, oh dear, it’s gotten dark rather quickly, hasn’t it? Perhaps you should go on without me,” they said unhappily. “I’ll only slow you down, having to pick my way in the darkness.”
“Pft,” Crawly protested. “I’m not in a hurry. ‘Snot like the Gate’s going anywhere, eh?” they said playfully, teasing a smile from Aziraphale. “I’ll let you know if there’s anything dangerous in the way. No moon tonight I’m afraid. No idea how I know that.”
Aziraphale stared at them for long moment, nervously twisting the ring around their finger, wondering if they could trust Crawly. They wanted to. “Are you sure?”
That single softly spoken question, said so lowly Crawly almost didn’t hear them, reassured Crawly of Aziraphale’s sincerity more than a hundred conversations could have and they answered in kind, “Yeah, I’m sure.” When they’d walked together in silence for a while, Crawly said, “If they’d wanted us to hurry, they’d’ve said. ’Sides, it’s your time to rest. Big on rest, the Almighty. Can’t interfere with that.”
Aziraphale’s nervous frown melted into a suppressed smile when they saw Crawly’s sly little smirk in the dim light of their wings’ radiance. “Ah, yes, keeping an eye on you, as I was explicitly told to do, while I just happen to be resting in your general vicinity.”
Crawly’s smirk widened into a pleased grin at Aziraphale’s playfulness. “Exactly. We’re just doing as we’re told.”
They walked on in companionable silence, with Crawly warning Aziraphale of the occasional trip hazard hidden in the deepening darkness. The sun was well down by the time they reached the Western Gate and the shadowy tunnel was completely untouched by the dim starlight.
Crawly stared at the dark archway and then up at the pale towering wall, the first parts of the Garden that didn’t feel vaguely familiar. “Huh. And there’s a Gate in there?”
“I assume so. Wait, Crawly-” Aziraphale hurried ahead to block Crawly from going into the darkness. “It’s, surely it’s too dark for you go in there safely…”
“Eh…” A denial was on the tip of Crawly’s tongue until Aziraphale held up the flaming sword, revealing a jagged piece of splintered wood right in Crawly’s path. “I guess a little light wouldn’t hurt. So you don’t trip on anything.”
Aziraphale gave them an amused look, snorting when Crawly gave them a playful look in return. “Hmm. Right.” They considered miracling light again, but the concern of being spotted had them just keeping the sword raised as they stepped into the mouth of the tunnel behind Crawly. The light revealed a large pile of rubble much like the one Aziraphale had dealt with at the Eastern Gate and watching Crawly picking through the detritus, they again wondered if they should mention the odd things they’d discovered. Gabriel’s words about ‘ridiculous chatter’ echoed in the back of their mind however and kept them silent.
Crawly almost spoke up more than once, about the odd things they were finding while poking at the pile, but their natural caution kept them from saying anything. Aziraphale was still a stranger after all and Crawly didn’t want to jeopardize their tentative friendship, especially by asking questions the white-winged angel might feel obligated to pass on to Gabriel.
When Aziraphale switched which hand was holding up the sword for the second time, Crawly stopped poking about and miracled the rubble away. They checked the Gate, frowning at the shiny golden seal and looked back at Aziraphale, who had respectfully remained near the entrance to give them room. “How’s it work?”
“It opens to your touch, at least the other one did for me. But, er, the hinges made the most awful noise and broke when I opened it. Quite beautiful but, well…”
“Gravity.” Crawly rolled their eyes and shook their head. “Thanks for the warning.”
While the black-winged angel miracled the hinges and tested the Gate, Aziraphale rubbed at their eyes, feeling tired, more tired than seemed natural, but they tried to ignore it and the twinges of pain their wings were giving them again. Unsure what else to do, they miracled themself, getting some relief from the pain, but only making the tiredness worse.
“There. Done. Thanks for the light,” Crawly said with a smile, dusting off their hands and joining Aziraphale at the mouth of the tunnel. “Part of me expected they didn’t really mean it,” the black-winged angel blurted. “The titles, you know?”
“I understand. And you’re quite welcome.” Aziraphale sheathed the sword with a sigh of relief, again wiping their hand against their robe. “So-” They turned to Crawly to ask what they should to do next but the world kept spinning and their knees went weak and they stumbled and barely caught themself, falling back against the wall with a gasp of surprise and pain when their back and wings struck the stone arch. “Ooh!”
“What’s wrong?” Crawly instinctively reached out to steady Aziraphale but caught themself and quickly tucked their hands into the folds of their robe. Being corporeal was proving far more complicated than being non-corporeal had ever been. If just talking about touching was upsetting, then actual touching was probably far worse. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure,” Aziraphale admitted, pressing a hand to their head and cautiously moving to ease the pain in their wings. “My head went spinny and my legs went all wobbly.”
“Here, Aziraphale, sit,” Crawly urged, miracling back one of the larger pieces of rubble, positioned so the white-winged angel didn’t have to move away from the archway.
“How embarrassing.” Aziraphale slowly lowered themself onto to the cracked stone slab with a heavy sigh and a cringe when the sword hilt prodded them in the side. They fumblingly unbelted it and carefully set it against the wall, resting their shoulder against the wall as well. “I may have overdone it earlier, clearing the Gate by hand.”
“All of it?” Crawly asked in shock, thinking back to the size of the rubble pile. “No wonder you’re tired! Is there, can I do anything?” they asked, watching worriedly.
“Oh, thank you Crawly but I can’t imagine what.” Aziraphale smiled gratefully up at them. “It wasn’t the entire pile, but it wasn’t an insignificant portion. I wanted something to keep me occupied, you see.” Aziraphale let out a heavy sigh. “I suppose the best thing for me is to actually rest,” they said ruefully. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll stay-”
“Here, with me,” Crawly finished, dropping down into a cross-legged seat a polite distance away. “While I guard the Gate. ‘Smy job, right? Well, here I am, doing it.” They leaned back on their hands and let their wings relax open into a more comfortable position as they lifted their face to gaze up at the sky. But their eyes were drawn back down to the deep shadows beneath the archway and the angel quietly sitting there, gilded by the soft radiance of their wings.
Aziraphale felt tears pricking their eyes to see Crawly silvered with starlight, so clearly at ease in their presence. They couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped. “And here I am, watching you watching the Gate. This is proving to be a very successful first day, I must say.”
Crawly laughed and grinned at them. “It’s certainly been an interesting day, angel.”
Aziraphale smiled back. “I heartily agree, my dear.”