Chapter 1: Mesopotamia, 4004 B.C.
Ed encountered James for the first time but a split second after he’d done an extremely silly thing. He’d left his post for a better look off towards the horizon. Only, they’d just been made. They’d barely a week to experience Paradise before the hammer had fallen, the poor dears. Really, it was enough to break your heart.
I do so hope they’ll be all right he’d said, causing James to scrunch his face up like he’d just got a good whiff off the durian tree. But honestly, if She’d been wanting them to keep well clear of anything in the Garden, that would have been the one to pick. Not that Ed would question Her, but still. It did seem rather unfair.
I mean, you can’t really fault them. Her Indoors — he jutted his chin out, up, and Ed had practically quivered to think about one of his comrades — Greg, most likely, the absolute rotter; stooped down to whisper his infraction into her ear — though it wasn’t as if She wouldn’t know already. If he was going to be — smitten? smote? smited? — then it would have happened the moment he’d handed over the sword. Greg was only trying to curry favour — was the one what decided they should have choices in the first place.
James pursed his lips. He squinted into the distance, occasionally rising up onto his toes as they stood side by side on the rocky precipice. Ed thought he might have felt sorry for them too. The dark tip of one wing danced into Ed’s sightline. Black, different than the usual white. Like those birds? Oh, what were they called? The black ones — ah yes, blackbirds. That made quite good sense. James's wing brushing lightly against his neck jolted Ed from his reverie, suddenly all too aware that they were stood right at the edge.
Trust him lose his footing and fall, clumsy and graceless, straight on down. At the moment Ed was in no particular rush to test out the buoyancy of his wings, especially since he'd discovered his tunic was a little snugger than it had been before the durian. Delicious stuff, once you’d made it past the smell. And the pears. Lovely, lovely pears. He particularly liked it when they were absolutely dripping with juice, but as this was Paradise, whatever pear he plucked was bound to be exactly as it was meant to be. That was without even mentioning the grapes! Cool and tart when plucked straight off the vine, but Ed had also discovered that if they’d been left out for a few hours, in the sunshine, they developed squishy insides. They made him, and the monkeys, who also liked the rotten fruit, giggle for no apparent reason.
James folded up his wings in disgust. He crossed his skinny arms in front of his chest. What’s the point of hanging up the equivalent of a bunch of big flashing lights — Ed wondered what those could be: stars, perhaps? Stars were lights, and he’d seen them twinkle in a reassuring manner. Maybe James was confused about the twinkling — on the tree. Here his voice morphed into almost a hiss, causing Ed to take a step back — was there a snake lying in wait for them? — and then laying down what is a frankly ridiculous rule that says — sure, humans — James swung his head from side to side — sure, let’s see how you handle this one. Here’s a situation which neither you, nor anyone else — because there isn’t anyone else, in fact, there has never been anyone else — has had to deal with before.
Ed looked off into the distance. The sky was being overtaken by inky black, the way it did at nightfall up here. They’d be able to outpace the gathering rainclouds though after that it’d be anyone’s guess. He did hope they’d be all right. Between his fingers, he worried a large fig leaf, rolling and unrolling it until it curled up on itself into a tight little cylinder.
James flung his hands up in the air. He turned his gaze on Ed. His eyes were amber, flecked with gold, that was something he hadn’t seen before in an angel. Ed would know him if he’d been an angel. Whatever he was, his eyes narrowed as he looked over at Ed - look what’s your name?
Ed Ed said. I mean, technically it's Edward. He knew his own name. She’d given it to him, after all, which meant it suited him perfectly. But everybody calls me Ed.
Well Ed, James said, I’m James. He spluttered with anger. Do you think it’s fair, Ed, to treat them as if they know what consequences are when they’re really only children? Children should be allowed to make mistakes.
Rules are there for a reason Ed said primly, although he silently thought James was probably in the right.
James made an aggrieved noise through his mouth and stomped off in a huff, leaving Ed to continue looking out over the horizon, worrying his hands in front of him, for anything that could reasonably be considered a flame.
Chapter 2: Transcaucasia, ~2500 B.C.
Not a huge fan of mountains, James. Nice enough from a distance, no arguing with that; he might have been a colourblind demon, but you know what? Wasn't actually blind. Misconception, that.
But there were times when he'd appreciated them. Gliding above them? Nice. Catching a sweet thermal and coasting on it way up into the clouds? Couldn't beat it.
They’d told him to go round; all the little villages, hamlets tucked into the mountain-folds. Find every errant shepherd. Within a thousand mile radius! On foot? Reports due to Head Office quarterly, and you could bet your butt they'd be cross-referencing to make sure he’d legged it properly.
“The old-fashioned way,” was Jo’s precise wording and when James’d rolled his eyes skyward — because, let's face it, old habits died hard. Maybe a little divine intervention was in order after this long out of the old Heaven. Couldn't hurt. — and Nish had snapped his stupid fingers right in front of James’s face.
“Oi!” he’d said in his normal voice, which for anyone else would have been their loudest voice, “Direct orders from the Big Man Downstairs, okay?”
“But,” James had whined, because really? On foot? “But it’s going to take ages. And it’s all hilly.”
Nish stamped his foot against the grass, looking for all the world like he was about to go off again. Jo intervened, stepping in front of him to speak once more.
“James,” she said in the voice that made him feel more like a youthful human than an ageless vessel into which had been poured infinity made flesh, kind of, “listen, love, that’s the brief. All you have to do,” and here she touched him on his shoulder, which had the effect of making him remember that his body was to small to actually contain him, “is walk round a bit, talk to people.”
“Sow confusion,” Nish menaced from behind her. "Nothing to it." And then he'd moved his hands around like he was bundling up a load of errant yarn, his eyes wide and intense, never once looking away from James. What would it be like to kick him, James wondered? Would he double over in pain? That would be quite funny.
“Get in there!” Jo said to rally him. "Let the little humans know that, y'know, there's more than the one game in town.”
“Exactly!” Nish said, now looking at his hands as if he expected them to suddenly be holding a tidily wound skein of wool, which of course they weren't, the idiot. "And don’t forget —"
“ — the reports.” James sighed hard enough to blow the hair back from his forehead. He could stand the millennia alone, the mountains if he must, but the paperwork? Could absolutely suck it.
Up the slope he trudged, down its other side he ambled. All he saw were sheep, the rutted path, stones piled in little configurations that must have been significant to someone. The next hill over, more of the same, and then the ridges grew steeper for a while, and he longed to find a place to have a nice long lie-down.
A bed was unlikely to be found this late in the day, but he did find a little watering hole. After he’d splashed his face with water, cupped some into his scummy mouth with both hands, a good deal of it running down his chin and soaking the front of his garment, he stood up with a pained groan, put his hands on the small of his back, leant back until it popped, and pressed on.
He’d been fairly fortunate since getting the brief. Only been chased out of one sheep pen. So far. The people had been friendly, when he located them. Short, but friendly. Listened to what he had to say, over tables set with bread, grapes, goats cheese. There were hammered kettles filled with odiferous mountain herbs, the wine, the spirit that they made from the wine that made his head ache and teeth chatter when he so much as looked at it. Add in the women, stooped over from hard labour, their few remaining teeth gone black, who were always inviting him in to their huts, and, once inside, bringing out any daughters they might have going spare.
James usually tried to defuse the situation with a little story, a parable if you will, that he hoped would have the dual effect of teaching his interlocutors about the ongoing battle between Heaven and Hell, whilst also making clear that he was not currently — nor would he ever be, though he didn’t bother trying to explain that bit, far too complicated for the puny human mind to handle — in the market for a wife.
Why couldn’t they have assigned him to the desert? James liked deserts. Fewer people in all, and the ones that were there tended to be on the move as well, which meant you could go for weeks without seeing anyone in particular. As he was not bound by the need to eat or drink, that left James free to wander the channels carved out by the winds blowing up from the south, to see what else besides people and desert foxes inhabited that bare blank space. Old things there, that weren't on either side. He found that to be oddly reassuring. The djinns lived in invisible glass castles carved from melted sand, air that scorched like a bellows, and how cool was that?
But as he wound his way up yet another bloody mountain, this one cultivated, vines curling up and down the carved-out terraces, the path more serviceable, the light beginning to fade, he swore he heard someone call his name.
Bloody Nish, again.
Only it wasn't Nish.
If it'd been Nish then James's first instinct would have been to leg it right back down the hill. Hide under a rock outcropping, maybe, see if there was some shrubbery he could dive into.
James squinted up, shielding his eyes against the setting sun. The face was rounder, redder — though that could have been the light — but no. It was him. Undoubtedly him. Pale eyes in a place where most were dark, round here; a shimmer that extended around the perimeter of his body. Ordinary mortals wouldn’t be able to sense it. They had them too, of course; puny little things. Guttering tallow candles on a windy night whereas Ed’s shone out clear and bright like the moon at her most pregnant.
“Ed?” he said, more incredulously than he would have liked to come across. He was glad it wasn't Nish. What was that feeling? Relief?
Ed stepped away from the onlookers who had gathered around him and walked over to the path.
“James!” He beamed down at him as he descended to meet him halfway. The exertion seemed to tire him, but he seemed happy, despite that.
James didn't smile himself, exactly, but his mouth did twitch on one side. He turned a bit to the side so it wouldn't be quite so obvious.
“You seem - well?” James said, taking Ed in. He did look well. Pink from the sunshine, soft around the jawline, but he seemed happier than he could ever recall him being in the past.
Ed grabbed a handful of his own substantial belly and let out a laugh. “It's this place,” he told James. “The feasts! The speechifying! They love a toast. In fact,” and he twinkled in the direction of his guest, “now that they’ve caught on you’re an old friend, I reckon we’ll have to crack open a cask of something spectacular. Are you hungry? You must be famished.”
James really hadn’t planned on smiling, but found himself doing it nonetheless. Ed saw, and Ed? Didn't seem to mind.
“Come inside, come in,” Ed spun him around by the shoulder, and it was if all the miles he’d trudged up the side of an effing mountain were somehow now worth it.
The paperwork? Could absolutely wait.
Chapter 3: Roman Gaul, Languedoc Region, ~350 A.D.
“Burned," Ed said with a drawn-out sniffle. "Every last hectare."
It had been a long time since James had seen him this distraught. Must have been a good few centuries, come to think of it. Since Judea? Was that right? Jesus. It had been a while.
"Grain production, if you can believe it, for all their bloody wars." He wiped a hand across his eyes. They looked green at the moment, when sometimes they seemed to be more blue, but right now they were green, and wet, and that was absolutely not on. James hadn't intended to let his guard down so obviously, enough to pat Ed on the back, maybe, if it would help him feel better, when anger — Ed's anger, which tasted like lightning, ozone, charred grain — danced across his senses.
But what on earth had Ed expected? People. Good for very little other than disappointing you, James had found over the millennia. Best to keep one’s distance.
"They betrayed you," James said, realization dawning on him. Those absolute bastards. Well, James would see to it. If it took a century to do the whole place in then it'd be time well spend. Let the whole damned thing collapse, if that was was it took. But for now, Ed would be happier if he wasn't faced with the stark evidence of it right outside his window.
Another wet sniff came from Ed's direction. James fervently wished to make it go away.
Oh, he was proper angry now. "Those bastards," he said through gritted teeth. Ed flinched, his plump face twisting up into a damp curlicue. The hair didn't suit him. It looked oily, in need of a wash. He was wearing it longer than it had ever been since first they'd met, even now curling up around his ears. James wore his short, as was the fashion in town. Good to keep up to date, wasn't it? Modern man and all that?
Now there was an idea. Bit of shopping? Something well-made always cheered Ed up. Maybe that would do the trick.
"I've got some business in the capital," he said, casual as anything, "why don't you come along? There'll be plenty for you to do, too. Or, if you'd rather, there's a newish stall at the Forum," he suggested, his voice wavering when Ed shot him a sharp look of reproach.
It made his chest hurt, that look did.
Maybe one little miracle? Just a tiny one. They were happening all over the place these days, miracles. Surely a few could be going spare. Who would notice, really, if he pocketed a few for later use?
"I'm certainly not going there," Ed snipped. James was hurt for a second before realizing that yes, actually, Ed was right. Why dive into the belly of the beast, so to speak? "I'm going to get as far away from those —" he shut his eyes and breathed heavily through his open mouth before finishing the sentence, "— those rotters as I can."
Then, as if merely saying the words had exhausted him entirely, Ed let out a tiny, drawn-out moan, before collapsing onto the trestle table face-first with his head in his hands.
James looked around for something with which to distract him. A new bottle; that would do nicely. “Let’s have a bit of this,” here he fussed with the cork, eventually easing it out with a satisfying, slow pop, “and you can tell me about it.”
Ed grumbled, scrutinized the open bottle like he was going to refuse, but accepted the generous pour nonetheless.
Two hours on they’d worked their way through a good half dozen vintages. Ed had told him about the pressing from one year, how the harvest had been a race against the rains during another, how people from this whole side of the valley would come together to do the work, what they’d done to a poor defenceless pig each time when they’d finished on one estate. James would have prefered it with less gore, but Ed told it so well that he found it didn’t bother him too terribly much.
They’d been having a lovely time, actually. Ed had been making the kind of ambitious plans brought on by intoxication — he might go north, set up shop there for a while. New territory. Interesting things happening with bubbles and fortification.
"Good," James found himself saying, "that's really good."
"Back East, as well," Ed hiccoughed. "They're innovating like you wouldn't believe. I've been meaning to make it back there for a long while."
James's stomach gave a lurch. That would be quite far, wouldn't it?
Ed was pouring from the bottle, which was resolutely empty, shaking it to get the last few drops into their glasses.
"I think that might be done," James said gently, and Ed huffed out an angry sound.
"Hang on," he heaved up from the table, swaying as he stood. James lifted himself up, too, in case he had a wobble. The floor looked hard.
Ed was properly drunk, but he was in a good mood. Jovial, James thought, considering what he'd just been through. He proferred spirits in place of wine, and they clinked glasses, though instead of drinking to the harvest — because this autumn there would be none — they drank instead to whatever Ed wanted to give a toast to: to the noble grape, to old friends, to poetry, to the Plan.
It was all very sentimental, and James was only starting to relax himself, finally, when Ed slurred his way through yet another toast, then another.
"Ed," James said, when the next bottle of brandy was depleted. "It's been a long day. Let's call it, yeah?"
Instead Ed stumbled once more to his feet, his face red and sweaty, his breath laboured. Why do this to himself? The spirit sloshed out of his glass, splashing onto the table, and his voice was loud, almost reaching Nish levels of shoutiness.
"The Plan!" he screeched, causing James to jump in his seat with alarm. Then Ed leaned forward as if about to divulge a great intimacy and said, in a slurred mumble, "Y'wanna know something, Ja — ange — Jangel?"
He frowned, repeated the nonsense word, then said, "James. Angel. Wha'ever. Here's what I think." Ed put his elbows on the table. His breath reeked of wine and brandy. The sun was setting, late afternoon light filtering down from above them. "I don't think —" he said, "They haven't got one. 'S what I reckon. Otherwise why d'we keep running in circles round one another?"
They probably should discuss it. It had been eons, more or less. But this wasn't the type of thing to discuss when one party was busy pickling themselves like an onion and the other was simply watching them do it. This was a conversation to be held over a long luncheon with good wine, but less of it overall.
James asked in a voice he hoped wouldn't cause offence, “Ed, you might be right. But I don't want to talk about it while you're drunk."
Ed pursed his lips.
"Do you maybe want to sober up?” he suggested, taking the empty bottle and placing it on the floor. "And we can discuss it — them — the Plan?"
Ed's eyes flashed. "Do you maybe want to piss off?” was what he yelled, nearly knocking James back off his stool.
He was taken aback by the outburst, and did indeed do as Ed had demanded. He fucked off. For, oh, about a thousand years, until things were really kicking off in that old fertile crescent, shit being stirred all across the Mediterranean basin, and he'd thought, then, that maybe they'd got their ducks in a row and that this was it, finally. The Big One.
If it was the Plan coming to pass, then James didn't want to spend it alone. He wanted a friend by his side, and there was only one of those. Jo and Nish? Absolutely did not fit the bill.
Chapter 4: Hotel Angleterre, Petrograd, Russian Empire, 1917 A.D.
The sounds of gunfire ricocheted outside. James really, really hoped that they'd pick up straightaway, like, before a legitimate hostage situation erupted?
She answered on his second attempt, which meant that someone had stepped away from the office. She'd long ago outgrown the secretarial duties for which she'd been recruited. And He liked her, and He didn't like anyone, practically. But her? On the short list apparently. She was a purist, was why. Nutters, the lot of them.
James wasn't keen on thinking about Him or about His inevitable displeasure, but he didn't have all that much time to ruminate as she told him to skip the pleasantries and get straight to the point.
"I need you to pass along a message," he said, eyes raking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the lobby. Worst came to worst he could always take advantage of the phone lines. That was an option. “I’m going to need you to tell the Man Downstairs that he got on the wrong train. He was meant to go to Finland proper but by the time I made it to him—’
“No, no,” Julia stopped him short, “It’s all working out according to plan. You did exactly what you were supposed to.”
A chill fell over him. It wasn’t just the frigid winds coming all the Baltic, either. It was like his insides went all icy. It was like lying on a rock when the sun went behind a cloud right as it started to set. Nope, didn’t like that.
“Well,” he looked around furtively again, only remembering at the last second to stop the swivel of his neck somewhere human and, therefore, inconspicuous, “well does that mean that the Other Side —’
“Has men on the ground?” Julia sounded far too excited for his liking. Surely it wouldn’t be kicking off now? Would it? They couldn’t have waited until later in the spring when things had started to thaw at least? “I wouldn’t put it past them. You’ll have a formidable adversary, but we’ve the utmost faith in you. Good luck, Acaster.”
“Right,” he’d said, and rung off.
He remembered the fires because the smell clung to them, days after they'd managed to commandeer a train, armed, of course, and James was hoping that when it dissipated Ed would look at him again, directly. Like he used to.
James opened his mouth like he wanted to speak, thought better of it, and stared out the window at the smoke coiling up in streams off in the distance. A wheat field set alight, probably. As if history wasn't eternally repeating itself.
It hadn’t been by the book, what he’d done to make this journey happen, and he wasn’t terribly proud of it, to tell the truth, but if they’d both been sent there, same time, same place, then the easiest way to ensure that nothing Big happened was to simply remove the variables. The variables who happened to be them. It had taken all spring, summer, and a bit of autumn to convince Ed to flee, and from what James could tell, he was none too pleased about the way things had turned out. Would you believe he wanted to stay put, convinced that it would all work out for the best? Historically, James thought, things typically worked out for the worse. Historically, you would think Ed would know that.
But then historically history just kept sodding happening, and for not the first time, in however many hundreds of years, James had considered that it might simply be easier to bow out of history. Why not let them end the thing, once and for all? Why not let it all crumble into dust, when the only viable alternative was to let history keep happening — the reek of death that they, humans, seemed drawn to every few decades like a dog to its own sick.
It was all getting to be too much.
James stayed put in their carriage and looked out the windows. Ed walked up and down the passageways, and looked in on the engine room, and it was only when they were nearing the big lake after an endless expanses of flat grasslands, arctic desert, he pine forest dense as a thicket, did James try his hand at an apology.
“It was going to happen irregardless of us being there or not—” he’d begun, only for Ed to peevishly snap, “That’s not a word, James!”
“What’s not?” he asked, genuinely curious, to which Ed had merely thrown up his hands in exasperation and said, cross as anything, “I’ve a headache, please. Just, I beg you. Stop.”
They abandoned the armoured train at what was passing for a border crossing these days and made their way overland, snaking back in to the big port city before it was totally iced in for the winter.
He'd purchased Ed a fur hat to wear on the journey, just as he'd purchased the fare on a slow boat bound for America. He'd carried Ed's luggage, into which he'd packed vine cuttings that were mysteriously still alive and which the customs agents had, mysteriously — all right, he'd really been playing fast and loose with the miracles these days, but who could blame him, when a mystery was basically the same thing as a miracle — overlooked, but none of that had got Ed any closer to talking to him.
"Not even a goodbye?" he'd asked, as Ed stalked off like a furry little mushroom and made his way into the queue for passengers. A hot prickle worked its way into his throat. The ungrateful bastard. He was no better than any of them on the other side, was he? They were all the same.
"Fine," James muttered, and blew on his hands to warm them, then shoved his cold hands deep into his coat pockets. He touched upon something that hadn't been there before. Beyond the crumpled bills of sale, the stacks of notes that were only worth using to start bonfires with and that didn't even make a passable bribe.
An envelope, with heavy paper inside.
James stopped where he stood, people swirling all round him — noises and luggage, shouts, horns, excitement, singing, argument — and read it.
Dear James —
This has been difficult for me. I think it must be the children. One would hope that they, at least, could be spared. It's difficult to square with a belief in human goodness, I suppose, although you might say that to hold such a belief is to be entirely misguided in the first place. On this we will have to agree to differ.
I have not been easy company these few months, and fear I will not be wholly myself for some time to come. Say, a few decades? You'll be able to locate me, I've no doubt.
And thank you. For everything.
Yours, with fondness,
James reread the words written there in Ed's fine, steady hand, folded the paper back up, tucked the envelope safely into an inside pocket, and though he couldn't catch sight of Ed on the deck, by now, he waved a goodbye to all the passengers.
A few decades? Piece of piss.
He'd find a way to fill the time.