Zachriel wasn’t accustomed to being in the penthouse offices; the Human Guidance Bureau was situated several storeys down, on a windowless floor filled with open-plan workspaces and regulation motivational posters that proclaimed “Do it for Her!” and “If thought corrupts memory, then memory also corrupts thought.” Here, the windows stretched from floor to ceiling, and the archangels had offices with actual walls, with generous open space around their desks.
They even had personal items on display. That was forbidden in HGB. She tried to stop wondering what significance Gabriel’s blown-glass butterfly paperweight might have and to focus on what he was saying.
“This is a great opportunity for you, Zachriel,” Gabriel said. “You can use your special God-given talents to advance the cause of Good, to strike back against a traitor. If it goes well, it could augur well for your future advancement through the ranks.”
Zachriel bowed her head modestly. “I would of course be honoured to serve, sir, but I am still unclear on exactly what it is you want me to do. I’m only a mnemonic technician, sir; not exactly cut out for an assassination attempt against a traitor.”
Michael gave a cold smile. “What we have in mind is much more subtle than that.”
“Ha ha,” Sandalphon said; he didn’t laugh, but literally spoke the words, as if he’d read about laughter but hadn’t experienced it personally. “‘In mind.’ Very good.”
Uriel cut her eyes over at him, unamused. Zachriel got the impression it took a lot to amuse her. “Indeed. We need your special skills, Zachriel, for this very special undertaking. This unofficial, undocumented undertaking.”
So if it all went pear-shaped, she’d be left as the scapegoat while the archangels denied all knowledge. Great. On the other hand, she didn’t think much of her prospects if she refused the assignment. Reallocation to lift maintenance or staffing the lobby as a receptionist for visitors who never came would be the best she could expect.
“I will serve to the best of my ability. What exactly do you need me to do?”
Being a retired demon had turned out to be pretty spectacular. Sure, there was the looming dread of when Heaven and Hell would figure out their ruse with the body swap and how they’d retaliate, but that was a problem for Future Crowley. In the meantime, he and Aziraphale were finally free to do as they liked.
What they liked consisted largely of just spending time together. It was such a luxury to be able to dine together without fear, to walk in the park, hang out in the bookshop with wine or tea and coffee, shooting the shit and bickering and making each other laugh. Ordinary things, made magical because they were together, openly. If there was considerably more holding hands and whatnot involved than there used to be, Crowley would be the very last to complain.
Aziraphale was fussing about the kitchen in the bookshop’s flat, preparing second breakfast while Crowley sat at the table, immersed in a particularly annoying mobile game. Second breakfast was always better than first breakfast: Crowley had drunk enough coffee by then to be awake, and Aziraphale, who had been forbidden from making cheery morning conversation until Crowley was on his second cup, tended to have calmed down from his overly perky early-morning exuberance.
“So after the hospital visit, I went to that new online bookseller I’d heard about and, well, I might have gotten a bit carried away. I’m afraid I just couldn’t help myself when I saw their collection, and I wound up ordering a dozen books from them. They had the most marvellous copy of Foxe’s Actes and Monuments. Sixteen thirty-two, original leather binding, absolutely gorgeous engravings. Not very accurate text, though, I’m afraid — he got a bit carried away with the gore for some of the martyrs. More coffee, dear?”
“Nuh. Thanks.” Crowley didn’t have time for coffee right now: he only had six energy left, and needed five stars to complete this timed level. There was little margin for mistakes.
Humming tunelessly, Aziraphale came up behind him and started playing with the russet strands. “Have I ever told you how much I love your hair?”
“Angel!” Crowley squawked, ducking away from the stroking hands. “Thirty seconds, angel! Just let me finish this level, and I’m all yours, promise.”
Aziraphale sighed; Crowley could just feel the eye roll behind his back, but couldn’t let himself be distracted. He vaguely heard the angel making tea, setting his plate on the table, sitting down beside him.
“Ha! Finished, with four seconds to spare. Take that, you bastard!”
“It’s your own fault, getting snared by that game. I believe that was one of yours?”
Nodding with considerable pride, Crowley said, “Yep. Freemium games with in-app purchases, all my idea. You would not believe the amount of tarnish a good rigged game spreads on a soul. Like,” he glanced over at Aziraphale’s waiting second breakfast, “like clotted cream piled on scones.”
“That is indeed quite a lot of tarnish. Very impressive. And I suppose the jam is the tears of the damned souls?”
“Nah, it’s the time they waste on this when they could be doing better things. Sweet, sticky regret; gets on your fingers and all over everything you touch.”
“And you fell prey to it, as well.”
“Well, yeah. They’re designed to be addictive, aren’t they?”
Aziraphale raised a neatly groomed eyebrow. “And may I ask what better things you would be doing if you hadn’t been ensnared by that game?” He bit into his scone, letting out only the faintest sigh of delight.
“Watching you eat.” Crowley lounged back in his chair, letting his limbs sprawl in different directions, and gave Aziraphale an insouciant grin. “Watching you do anything, really. Talking with you, drinking with you; whatever you want to do.”
Softening, Aziraphale gave him a warm sidelong look. “What I want to do today is something to make you happy — and if you turn around and say that whatever makes me happy is what makes you happy, I shall be very cross.”
“That’s not very fair, angel.”
“I never claimed to be fair. Today is Spoiling Crowley Day, and I intend to observe it scrupulously.” He somehow managed to enunciate the uppercase letters.
Smirking, Crowley reached for his coffee, warming it back to the perfect temperature. “Is that an official bank holiday?”
“Indeed, it is. Printed on my calendar and everything.”
“Well, we can’t go ignoring an official holiday, I suppose. That would be rude. Let me think.” He sipped his coffee, savouring the chocolate caramel aromas as he racked his brain. What on Earth did he like to do besides whatever Aziraphale wanted? Was he really that sappy, that far gone? Yeah, he kind of was. “Um, ducks?”
“If you like,” Aziraphale said evenly, “but I thought perhaps you might enjoy a trip to Kew Gardens. We could bring your pens and sketchbooks, make a day of it?”
“Ooh!” Crowley sat up straight, hardly noticing the coffee that splashed his hands. “I could use that new pen you got me, and the malachite ink!”
“Just an idea, darling. It’s entirely up to you.”
Crowley grinned. “I want Kew.” He rose, gave the angel an appreciative kiss on the crown of his head. “Let me get my gear. I’ll be back before you finish your scones.”
They’d promised — no, they’d hinted at advancement. Zachriel would believe that when it happened: Heaven’s order was static, unchangeable. It was almost heresy to believe you could advance in this age, but surely there was no going back after this. She’d either succeed in her mission or fail; whatever happened, the archangels couldn’t possibly just let her return to normal afterward, now that she knew the details of their scheme. If she succeeded, she’d likely be promoted to personal assistant to one of them, a useful pet to be kept under scrutiny. If she failed, she’d just be a liability to be eliminated. Only the Almighty could make her Fall, but the archangels could make her wish she had.
She enjoyed her usual job in the Mnemonic Division of HGB, ensuring that this memory followed a human for the rest of their life, shaping all their actions to the good, or that that memory got lost amid the infinite fractal space between the synapses on the way to the hippocampus, so the human never remembered what could have warped them toward the path of evil. It was delicate work, sometimes rote but often rather fascinating, and she was extremely good at it. She’d learned a lot about humans and their motivations. It was her purpose, that for which she’d been created, and she revelled in it.
This new job, though, was intriguing, a challenge. As far as she knew, nothing like it had ever been attempted. She tapped the notification on her tablet and started sorting through the dossier Michael had sent her. Photographs, history of assignments; lists of miracles performed (authorised and not), reprimands, and accolades; notes on personality, habits, performance reviews.
Zachriel had heard about the target — everyone had, there had been no stopping the rumour mill, however harshly the archangels had clamped down — but didn’t know much beyond gossip. This was going to be an interesting job, indeed. She wasn’t sure how she could pull it off, though, not without more time and resources.
“Thinking this job may be too big for one angel?” Michael said, making Zachriel start. The archangel had somehow managed to approach without Zachriel noticing, despite the complete lack of barriers between her workspace and the rest of the office.
Zachriel glanced around, relieved to see that the few other HGB clerks present were too far away to overhear. “Actually, yes, I was. I want to do this properly, to pay back the trust that’s been placed in me, but it’s, um, a bit overwhelming right now.”
“I thought that might be the case.” Michael pulled out her phone and began sorting through it. “I have arranged for some assistance for you, though I must warn you it is of an unorthodox nature. Any objection to going through back channels?”
Whatever that meant. “Of course not, Archangel.”
“Excellent.” Michael flicked an elegant finger across the screen, and Zachriel felt her phone vibrate with a notification. “They will be expecting your call.” Her eyes skimmed across the other angels in the cavernous office, still absorbed in their own work. “I’d suggest finding some privacy before calling. Good luck, Agent Zachriel — and not a word about this, even to the others.”
As the archangel swept away, Zachriel pulled out her phone. When she saw the new contact sigil, she froze momentarily, disbelieving. Surely Michael hadn’t intended — oh, that was what she’d meant by “back channels,” wasn’t it? Well, damn. Quite literally.
Maybe it was a test, but Zachriel couldn’t decide whether they might be testing her commitment to obedience or her loyalty to official policy. Best to err on the side of obedience, as usual. If they really wanted to nail her, they’d find a way no matter what she chose. Might as well get it over with.
This floor’s meditation and prayer cubicles were usually free, and she knew they were soundproofed. She found one that was unoccupied and slid the door closed behind her. Carefully, gritting her teeth, she traced the new contact sigil and forced herself not to fidget until the call was picked up. “Hello,” she murmured. “I was told you’d be expecting my call?”
1Rumour had it that Gabriel had designed the first, and Sandalphon had designed the second after overhearing something similar on a trip to Earth. Zachriel wasn’t sure how accurate the rumour was, but she was prepared to believe that Sandalphon, at least, would see nothing amiss in adapting an Orwell quote for Heaven’s purposes.[back]
2And also Jolt Awake in the Middle of the Night Filled with Abject Screaming Terror Crowley, who showed up with some regularity even now, after months of radio silence from their former employers.[back]
3Not that there is anything wrong with this. Many couples are doubtless familiar with the “Where do you want to eat?”/“I don’t know, wherever you want”/“I don’t care, whatever you want” struggle. One of Aziraphale’s many sterling qualities was that he always knew where he wanted to eat and to do. He welcomed Crowley’s suggestions, at least those of the less ridiculous variety, but it was reassuring to know you could rely on him to get you unstuck when you were too tired or overwhelmed to think.[back]
A tiny amount of blood/angelic ichor appears in this chapter. If you'd prefer to skip over that, stop at "Thank you -- ouch" and skip the next five (short) paragraphs.
Zachriel was glad she’d taken Michael’s advice and called for reinforcements. She just wasn’t entirely sold on whether the archangel had suggested the best possible source for that support.
Dolus pursed his lips as he perused the dossier. “Fascinating. I’ve heard rumours, of course, but,” he trailed off, waving a hand vaguely. Zachriel couldn’t blame him; she couldn’t find the words, either.
“I have a plan, but I’ll need your help. It’s a big job.”
“Definitely too big for one entity.” Dolus frowned, flicking through the photographs. For a demon, he cleaned up fairly well, at least enough to pass without comment in this Nando’s in Dalston. Not that that was saying much, but at least he could fly under the metaphorical radar when necessary. The tufts of dirty blond hair were long and tousled enough to hide the furred ears; he was in need of a shave, but that helped mask the faded spots near his hairline; his dark irises were unnaturally large but close enough to human unless you looked carefully and realised he wasn’t wearing lenses. “The whole history of the world. You’d need a staff of twenty to do this properly, and a lot longer than seven blessed days.”
“Then you’re fucked. You are fucking fucked up Fuck Creek without a fucking fuck, darling.”
“It was all I could get. Gabriel kept going on about Her making the entire universe in less than seven days, and it did no good whatsoever me pointing out that I’m not exactly the Almighty. And anyway, it doesn’t have to be perfect: just good enough.” Zachriel reached across the table and tipped the tablet down so she could see Dolus’s face. “Please?” Even she had to admit that her attempt at puppy-dog eyes probably looked more like digestive upset than pleading. Her stolid face wasn’t suited for enticement and she’d never gotten any practice in, but she did the best she could.
Dolus sighed, setting the tablet down on the slightly sticky table. “All right, I’ll help. But you owe me one.” He turned to the server who’d arrived with their drinks. “Thanks, love. I think we’re ready to order. I’ll take a half chicken, lemon and herb, double chips. And a spiked lemonade.”
Trust him to order off the pricier side of the menu. “Hummus, please. Tap water is fine.”
The demon’s pointy-toothed grin suggested he knew what she was thinking, and was rather enjoying it. “Come on, it’s a business expense. Live a little!”
“I’m not on an expense account,” Zachriel said sharply. “And how am I supposed to submit receipts for this, anyway? ‘Entertained the opposition and took a demon to lunch’? Accounting would have my head.”
“It’s all in how you spin it, my dear. I’m not the opposition here, simply an outside consultant. Didn’t your bosses explain that?”
“Not in so many words. It was more that I wasn’t to mention your existence at all, on pain of their supreme displeasure.”
Dolus threw his head back and laughed gave a braying laugh. “Figures that they’d want plausible deniability. My lot were the same. Wouldn’t even tell me what it was about, just told me to help you when you called, and to keep mum. I was not expecting this.”
So Michael’s back channels did not connect directly to Dolus; interesting, but she put it aside as irrelevant for now. What was more relevant was that he’d made her beg when he’d already been commanded to help her, the malicious little bastard. “Honestly, neither was I. I can perform the ritual myself, but compiling the spell itself it going to be a challenge. I’ve modified isolated memories millions of times, but nothing this big.”
“I think I have some programs we can adapt,” Dolus said thoughtfully. “Some tweaking here and there, combine them with some of your old spells, and it should work.”
Zachriel brightened; cribbing off previous work would save so much time, and none of her spells were complex enough to serve as a base. “Can I see?”
“Oh, honey,” Dolus gave her a pitying look, “I don’t have them on me. We don’t have fancy portable tech like your lot does. For Hell’s sake, our plumbing only works about half the time. No tablets, only landline phones.”
That was incomprehensible. She knew things were bad there, it being Hell and all, but she’d never imagined it was quite that horrible. “But how do you get things done?”
“We manage. We use old desktops, 25 MHz, 4 meg of RAM. Bit slow, and some of the more complicated spells take up a lot of floppies, but it works. Oh, and we can play Pong on them, too.”
Zachriel didn’t know what Pong or floppies were, and was afraid to ask. “So how can we get to your spells? Are our systems even compatible?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem; the basic underlying Enochian should be the same on both platforms. I’ll go have a rummage in my archives and export anything that looks promising into an HVN format, ftp it up to you.”
“You have the internet?”
“Just file transfer. We’re still on dial-up, 300 baud modems, so we can’t do anything fancy.”
That dreadful screeching noise old modems made: of course Hell would still be using them. Even the Fallen didn’t deserve that. “Good lord. I had no idea; I’m so sorry.”
“Eh, we get by. The exports may be a little outdated compared to what you’re running now, but if your software wonks have any sense at all, they’ve made sure their updates are backwards compatible.”
As it turned out, Heaven’s software designers had not had any sense at all, but they found a way to make it work anyway.
“Angel, they’re here,” Crowley yelled over his shoulder. He shot the delivery person an apologetic smile for shouting and scribbled something that might pass for a signature on the tablet. “Sorry about that. He’s just been waiting for these books. Hasn’t shut up about them for days.”
The package was bigger than anticipated, requiring both arms and forcing him to tilt his head back so he could see over it. As he shoved the door closed with his hip, Aziraphale poked his head around one of the stacks. His hair was in disarray, and there were streaks of grime on his face. “Did you say something, dear?”
“Books. They’re here.” Crowley looked around for a table with enough space for the box, failed, and just put it on the floor near the till. “What were you doing back there, anyway?”
“Moving things about, clearing a bit of space of the new arrivals, of course.” He dusted off his hands, beaming with anticipation as he contemplated the package. “Goodness, they certainly didn’t spare the packing tape, did they?”
Crowley hunkered down on the arm of the sofa to watch; seeing Aziraphale unwrap presents, even ones he’d bought for himself, was always a good show. It made his insides go all undemonically gooey. “Box cutter’s in your desk, angel.” A minute’s rummage produced the cutter, and Crowley couldn’t help but say, “Careful with that thing, now.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “I was a soldier, if you remember. Big flaming sword? I think I can handle a box cutter without seriously damaging myself, my love.”
“Sorry. Just reflex. Little overprotective, I guess. Not that you were all that fearsome a soldier, giving away your sword first chance you got.”
“I know, my love. You have mentioned that before, I believe.” Aziraphale looked up from slicing the box open to flash a fondly exasperated smile at him.
“Oi, don’t make that face at me! Eyes on what you’re doing. Sharp blade, soft fingers.”
“All done, see? No blood anywhere.” Aziraphale held up his hands as proof. “I do love your taking care of me, darling, but I can’t help but think you’re going a bit overboard if I can’t so much as open a box without you worrying. I’m not completely incompetent.”
Crowley left his perch on the sofa arm and crouched down on the floor beside Aziraphale, bumping deliberately into his shoulder. “Don’t mean it that way, angel, really. Sorry. You’re brilliant and capable and all that. ’Sjust that . . . I worry sometimes. A bit.”
Aziraphale paused in pulling out packing paper. “Worry that something will happen? That we’ve been too ridiculously lucky, and that something is bound to happen to mess everything up?”
“Something like that.” It was barely audible, even to Crowley.
Aziraphale placed a hand gently on Crowley’s cheek and kissed him. “I feel that way too, sometimes. It would be odd if we didn’t, after everything. But I promise you, nothing will ever keep us apart again.”
“I’m being stupid.”
“No, we’re being normal. After everything that’s happened, it will take us a while to feel safe. We’ve never really been safe before, you know; it’s a new experience for us. We’ve just been coming out of some, as the Americans so quaintly put it, ‘heavy shit’ right now.”
Crowley laughed despite himself; it was most definitely not a giggle, he was sure. “Such language, angel!”
“And almost up to date.” Aziraphale grinned, pulling his white cotton book-handling gloves from his waistcoat pocket and working his deft fingers inside and smoothing down the fabric.
“Ish. Up to date-ish.” Crowley waggled his hands like a scale wildly out of balance, and Aziraphale scrunched his nose back at him, half playful, half disapproving.
“Ah, look at this!” The last of the packing paper was gone, and Aziraphale pulled a red cloth-bound volume out, covered with gold floral embossing. “Poe, 1882, collected poems and memoirs. Magnificent, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah. Magnificent.” Crowley didn’t give a good Somebody-bless about the book, though Poe was at least an entertaining writer. The important thing here was the angel’s expression: eyes wide, pink lips parted just a bit in awe, gloved fingers caressing the cover hungrily and delicately leafing through the pages. “Absolutely beautiful.”
“It is ready, as you commanded.” Zachriel stepped aside and let the archangels see into the room. It was a good setup, if she did say so herself, even if the only available space was another meditation/prayer compartment, temporarily enlarged to accommodate their needs.
Gabriel strode in, careful not to approach the chalk circle too closely. That was good: it was inert right now, but she’d spent ages drawing it, erasing mistakes, and redrawing. It had very nearly made her swear.
Michael and Sandalphon trailed in behind him. “Impressive. I like the circle; good work. Good penmanship on those sigils, too,” Gabriel said.
“Clear handwriting, clear mind,” Sandalphon said approvingly.
Shuffling her feet, Zachriel dropped her gaze; ostensibly it was to appear modest, but honestly it was to avoid looking at Sandalphon. She found him a little unnerving. “One does one’s best.”
“Of course.” Gabriel blinked, as if the thought of an underling doing otherwise would never have occurred to him. “How long will it take for the . . . process to take effect?”
“It will take a few hours for it to reach an operational threshold. After that, the effects should increase in strength over time.”
Michael straightened from examining the circle, her eyes cold and piercing. “Are you certain? They cannot reverse its effects?”
“Well, no, I’m not certain. This has never been done before,” Zachriel added, as the archangels’ collective brows lowered. “I’ve had to cobble together rituals from half a score of diverse ceremonies, and mix in some human magic as well as some other things. But I’m 99% certain that it will work, and it will be irreversible.”
Michael’s eyebrow raised; she did not look impressed. “Human magic?”
“They have spells for everything. It seemed better to adapt their magic, the things we know work, than to try to create my own spells from scratch.”
Huffing, Michael retreated to stand next to the other archangels. “I suppose that is sufficient,” she said, giving the impression that, if she’d been in charge, she could have created an entire branch of magic from nothing, and it would have worked perfectly because it would never have dared not to.
Thank the Almighty, none of the others seemed to about to question what “other stuff” had been used. Perhaps Michael’s questioning had been intended to derail such thoughts? Zachriel wouldn’t put it past her.
“Very good. You have done an admirable job under difficult conditions, and we will make sure your permanent record reflects that.” Gabriel gestured toward the circle. “Please begin.”
Kneeling, Zachriel opened the spell app on her tablet, then flicked her fingers to summon flame and lit the first of the candles. She was proud that her hands only trembled the slightest bit. If this went wrong, she wasn’t sure what would happen to her. She could only hope that Dolus had been true to his word, that he and Michael hadn’t double-crossed her.
“Comier’s Oracle of Sibyls,” Aziraphale sighed, giving the battered cover a last caress before setting it down. The pile of books on the dropcloth had reached Crowley’s shoulder and the discarded packing paper covered every horizontal surface for a good few feet in all directions, but apparently that was the last of them. Aziraphale heaved a happy, sated sigh and peeled off his cotton gloves. “Such lovelies you all are. I cannot wait to get to know all of you better.”
Crowley paused; he was never entirely sure on occasions like this whether the angel was expecting a response from the books. When none came, he said, “Well, that’s done, then. Cup of tea, angel?”
“Ooh, that would be marvellous. Jasmine, perhaps? Thank you, love. I’ll just collapse the carton for recycling.”
Crowley raised himself off the floor like an ungainly crane, using Aziraphale’s head for extra leverage. Ignoring the angel’s swat and indignant huffing, he meandered into the back room’s tiny kitchenette and refilled the kettle. Sounds of packing tape being sliced through filtered into the kitchen as he had a poke through the tea shelf.
“Don’t see the jasmine, angel,” he called. “Just English breakfast, Irish breakfast, French breakfast, Russian — how many countries have their own breakfast teas? For fuck’s sake, it’s ridiculous.”
“I think the jasmine might be upstairs, actually. Would you mind?”
Upstairs, as in “in the real kitchen with the flat.” All the way upstairs. Crowley groaned. “The things I do for you, angel.”
“Thank you — ouch!”
He was back in the bookshop without seeming to cross the intervening space, tea quest forgotten. “What happened?”
Aziraphale took his index finger out of his mouth, looking embarrassed. “Paper cut, that’s all. The cardboard box got me.” He held up his finger as evidence, a little golden ichor oozing from a neat, thick slice.
“It’s a very naughty cardboard box, then.” Crowley applied pressure to the cut, kissed the back of Aziraphale’s hand, and spared a glare for the offending carton. “We will have words later.” The box appeared to cower just the slightest bit.
“It’s nothing, my dear. See? The bleeding has already stopped.” The edges of the wound were healing, and the cut disappeared even as Crowley watched. “No harm done.”
“Hmph. Still, be careful. Don’t want you getting another paper cut and bleeding over your nice new, er, old books.”
Aziraphale chuckled and cupped Crowley’s cheek in his hand, stroking his newly healed finger across the hint of stubble. “As if I would ever allow that, my love. Now, about that tea you promised me?”
“It is done.” Zachriel said. All the candles were guttering low now as the circle powered down, and the sacrificial inscriptions on parchments had long since reduced to cold ashes. Getting the blood to complete the rite had been tricky; thank the Almighty for subtle motor control incantations and paper cuts.
Gabriel clasped his hands in front of him, a faintly patronising little smile playing on his lips. “Outstanding. We look forward to your report as it takes effect.”
As Sandalphon said something equally trite and perfunctory, Michael unobtrusively slipped out her phone, traced a sigil on the screen, and murmured a few words before hanging up. Zachriel wasn't sure what that was about, but the sharp glare she received as the archangel returned her phone to her pocket was enough to make her swallow any questions.
1A great drinking companion as well, though in retrospect Crowley felt a bit guilty about that. He probably shouldn’t have flaunted his demonic capacity for alcohol, since old Eddie seemed to take that as a challenge. It hadn’t turned out well, and Crowley hadn’t had the heart to cite it as an accomplishment on his quarterly report.back
CW: A couple of mentions of a hypodermic needle in this one. As usual, it's nothing graphic, but it might be helpful to be forewarned.
Reading while Crowley slept sounded like a peaceful, cozy endeavour. It was definitely one that Aziraphale wouldn’t trade for anything, but it had turned out to be a little less restful than anticipated and a little more like sharing a bed with a particularly twitchy octopus.
“Mummerjammer, tiffle popsicle,” Crowley muttered, and turned over to bury his face in the pillow, taking most of the covers with him.
Aziraphale sighed and reached for the spare throw blanket he kept for just these episodes. If Crowley wasn’t wrapped in a tangle of limbs around him, making it nearly impossible to turn pages, he was snorfling in his sleep, flinging himself about, or stealing all the covers. It was utterly maddening, and entirely endearing.
“Foul fiend,” Aziraphale grumbled, tucking the throw securely around his toes. “Why I put up with your machinations is beyond me.”
“’Ss ’cause you luuuve me.” Still half asleep, Crowley flopped back over, fumbled toward him, and snuggled up, his cheek nestled against Aziraphale’s belly.
“Obviously I have very poor judgment.” He ran his fingers through the demon’s chaotic hair and tried to relocate his place in his book.
“Obviously.” The little huff of laughter tickled against his belly.
Aziraphale opened his eyes, head fuzzy with sleep. That didn’t make sense, though: he rarely slept. He’d been awake just now, hadn’t he? Reading in bed and cuddling with a sleepy Crowley. This was wrong. He was no longer in the comfy, pillow-laden bed he shared with Crowley, but on a smaller, harder mattress. The sheets were appallingly cheap, nothing Crowley would have allowed within a mile of their bed. The light was wrong, harsh blue-white fluorescents overhead, rather than the gentle filtered sunlight and warm yellow-toned bedside lamp of his home.
Keeping very still, he scanned the room as much as he was able to, trying to ignore the wave of wooziness this caused. There were other beds, occupied, fitted out with the same low-quality greying sheets and rough blankets. A man in blue scrubs was bent over one of the beds, murmuring encouragement to the occupant, urging them to swallow the contents of a paper cup.
“Hey, you’re awake,” said a voice, and Aziraphale turned his head cautiously, unsure what to expect. It was another man in scrubs, purple this time, smiling kindly at him. “Welcome back, Paul.”
Aziraphale blinked. He was back in their bedroom, tucked up securely, Crowley snugged up against him and just dozing off again. It was as if nothing had happened. Cautiously, he scanned the room, checking for danger, for anything unexpected. Yesterday’s clothes still rested, neatly folded, on the wing-backed armchair upholstered in eggshell-blue velvet; Crowley’s socks lay where he’d flung them the night before, on Aziraphale’s heavily carved walnut dresser; the windows were open as usual, letting in a mild breeze and the morning sounds of Soho. There was nothing obviously amiss, no whiff of another ethereal or demonic presence.
What in the seven celestial circles had that been? Trying to slow his heartbeat so Crowley wouldn’t notice, he ran through the possibilities in his mind. It had seemed to be a hospital setting, and he’d just visited the Royal Hope the week before, visiting with lonely convalescents and scattering a few furtive blessings and nudges toward healing. Perhaps he’d accidentally created some sort of psychic link to one of the patients? He’d never heard of such a thing between an angel and a human, but what if one of the patients was a witch, for instance, or a medium, or a seer? Unlikely, but then, who knew what bizarre side effects such a chance psychic collision might have. Any number of improbable things could happen.
Yes, that was most likely it. The healing energy he’d sent out had created an empathic link of some sort, purely by accident, and that patient was now waking up. Possibly from a coma or a traumatic accident, something remarkable enough to warrant being welcomed back. Nothing to worry about, then. Good news, in fact! A family would be welcoming their lost sheep back into the waking world, and the empathic connection would fade away. All was good, and it was nothing he needed to wake Crowley for. No need to worry the poor dear, no need to mention it at all. Back to his book.
He spent the next hour and a half staring at the same page, not noticing as the angle of the sunlight slowly shifted, not realising he was worrying his hands, tugging at each finger in turn.
Dolus frowned at the screen. “Is that it? I’d expected more oomph.”
“The oomph comes later,” Zachriel said, minimising the viewing app. They were in a pub this time, drinking pints. Hers was a bitter; his was a Bellini, which Zachriel was almost positive normally came in a smaller glass.
“I’m looking forward to it. I just wish we could’ve started with more of a bang. Another round?”
“Why not?” Zachriel pulled up the spell on her tablet, scanning through the lines of code until the demon returned with another two pints, one amber, one bright yellow-orange. “Do you think there’s anything we missed?”
“Almost certainly, with such a rush job.” Dolus sipped his drink and began playing with the garnish. “Whatever it is, though, we can fix it on the fly.”
“Hmm. I didn’t think Bellinis came with umbrellas.”
“They do if you make nice with the bartender.”
Something in his tone of voice made her think he wasn’t just referring to exchanging pleasantries. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Dolus — no corrupting the humans!”
“You’re no fun.”
“I am a great deal of fun; unlike some people, I simply keep business and pleasure separate.” Sipping her ale, she gave the demon a friendly nudge with her elbow to take any sting out of her words. “Still, we are off to an excellent start. Your idea about using an avatar was a good one.”
Dolus grunted, but he was trying to hide a smile. “I’ve always found they’re helpful. Being on the spot in real time means you have greater control.”
“Doesn’t it tax your processing power, though?”
“Yeah, but we usually don’t get up to anything this complex. If you’re doing it right, they don’t even notice a bit of lagging, or they chalk it up to going mad.” His dark eyes gleamed as he glanced at her tablet. “If we had access to your tech, though, just imagine what we could do.”
With a nervous titter, Zachriel said, “Probably a good thing you don’t have it, then.”
“Yeah,” Dolus said musingly. “That is a good thing.”
“It’s time for your meds.” A hand grazed down Aziraphale’s arm, took his elbow like you might take a child’s. “Come with me.”
How had he gotten here again? It was the place with the bright lights and the threadbare, disorienting aura, and a kindly-looking woman in blue scrubs was leaning over him, her face tired. Aziraphale pulled his arm away from her grasp.
“Who are you? Where am I?” His eyes skittered, seeking anything familiar as he leapt from his chair. He was in a spartan room, the walls of cement block painted faded mint green, utilitarian furniture, a television blaring some dreadful daytime nonsense in the corner. There were others there, humans in shapeless pastel clothing, some downtrodden and blank, others moving calmly but with purpose. “What is this place?”
“It’s all right, Paul. You’re at St Albans, and it’s time for your meds.”
“That’s not my name. You’ve got the wrong person!” Aziraphale insisted, backing away as she reached for him again. His shoulders hit the wall, its blocks cold through his — wait, why was he wearing scrubs? Not even a cardigan for warmth. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Others in the blue scrubs had closed in. “It’s okay, Paul; it’s all right. You know the routine.”
“Stop calling me that! My name is Aziraphale.”
“We know, mate. It’ll be all right. We just need you to take your meds, and then you can see the doctor. Your family will be here later, too. Won’t that be nice?”
“Let go of me!” Aziraphale tried to wrench his wrist free, but there were too many of the blue scrubs, on all sides, grasping and pulling him from the wall. He didn’t want to hurt them by fighting back, hadn’t wanted to reveal himself with a miracle but they were leaving him no choice. They weren’t listening, and this was getting out of hand. Aziraphale snapped, willing himself back to the bookshop.
He was so astonished that nothing happened, he barely noticed the hypodermic slipping into his arm.
“Angel? Angel, what’s wrong?”
Aziraphale realised he was sitting in the back stairwell, one hand still clutching the handrail, the other clasped by a very worried-looking Crowley. “It’s nothing,” he said, and tried to shake his head. The rush of dizziness and nausea surged, and Aziraphale was glad he was already seated.
“That was not nothing. In fact, it was so far from nothing, it passed right through all the spectrum of somethingness, became a big singularity of compressed Everything, and exploded in a great bang into a whole new universe of Something Really Fucking Alarming.”
“A ‘big singularity’ is a contradiction in terms,” Aziraphale said, letting his head drop down to rest on his knees. Oh, that had been a good idea: the room left off swooping and shimmering quite so much, and he felt his stomach regain a firmer grip on its contents.
“Stop changing the subject. What the fuck just happened? You looked like you were going to swoon.”
Aziraphale peeked one eye out to shoot Crowley a malevolent glare. “I take exception to your choice of words. I’ve never swooned in my life.”
“Take exception to all you like, angel. I’m not letting you move from this spot until you tell me what that was.”
“Just got a bit dizzy, that’s all.”
“You nearly passed out. On the stairs. Where you could fall and break your bloody stupid neck.”
“It was nothing.”
“Was not, was not, was not times infinity.” Crowley stuck his tongue out. “I can do this all day, angel. Spill. The whole truth.”
Cautiously, Aziraphale sat upright again; the room and his stomach were settling down now, and it seemed to be safe. “You are an insufferable annoyance, my love.”
“Yep. Firmly established fact.” Crowley poked him in the ribs. “Get to the point.”
“The point is,” Aziraphale sighed, “I’m not really sure what that was. I thought the first time — ”
“The first time? This has happened before?” Crowley growled, the yellow in his eyes expanding. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“It wasn’t that bad last time! And you were asleep, and I thought it must have something to do with my hospital visit last week.”
Crowley closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths. “Right.” He opened his eyes again, and his golden stare pinned Aziraphale to the wall like he was a particularly recalcitrant butterfly who’d been getting on his nerves lately. “Start from the beginning, and tell me everything. Absofuckinglutely everything.”
“And then it happened again, only this time it was longer. I was a patient again, but this time they held me down, forcibly gave me an injection that knocked me out.”
Crowley’s hands had been stroking Aziraphale’s arms reassuringly, encouragingly, but now they stilled and manacled themselves around his wrists. “Where, angel?
”My arm, here.” He freed his hands and touched his left tricep; it was reassuringly normal, with no lingering soreness. Aziraphale gave a nervous laugh. “I tried to miracle myself away, but nothing happened.”
“Okay.” Crowley hissed softly to himself as he digested this. “So at least we know these episodes aren’t real.”
“They certainly feel very real, I assure you.”
“I mean they’re not taking place in any kind of reality, or you’d have your powers. They must be hallucinations or something, not someone abducting your actual true form and leaving your corporation behind.”
“Hmm. Yes, I agree. Heaven, do you think? Or Hell?” Aziraphale tried to keep his voice calm and neutral, scientific, but even he could hear the nervous quaver.
“Could be either one.” Crowley scooted closer to him on their shared step, slipping a comforting arm around Aziraphale’s waist.
“Since you haven’t had any visions, that rather suggests it’s Heaven’s doing. You haven’t, right?”
“No visions. But they both must know that a strike against one of us hurts us both, so it could be either. Or both, working together.”
Aziraphale shivered. “Now, there’s a cheerful thought.”
“Well, when I said I thought the next big one would be all of them against all of us, I wasn’t thinking about all two of us. I’d figured all of humanity would be in there as well. Maybe I was wrong about that bit.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. Heaven’s certainly got the resources — there are whole divisions devoted to visions, apparitions, even broadcasting false prophecies to confuse natural prophets. I assume Hell has something similar?”
“Yeah. Less emphasis on the prophets, but they’ve got specialists in all the rest. Madness, deception, and hallucinations, too.”
“Fabulous.” Aziraphale let his head rest back against the wall; he still felt drained, but the frustration was mounting now. “This is getting us nowhere, Crowley: endless speculation, going round in circles and spirals. We need facts, research.”
“Yes, my books. I’m sure the answer is in them somewhere.”
Crowley harrumphed and glared back at him, evaluating. “Well, I’m not letting you out of my sight, that’s for sure.”
“That is entirely unnecessary — ” He cut off with a squawk as Crowley scooped him up bridal-style, stomped down the stairs, and plumped him down on the faded sofa in the back room.
“I’m not taking chances with you having another fit. Could fall down the stairs, break your neck, or hit your head on the desk and bleed all over your precious books. Then where would you be? D’you think Heaven’s going to just give you a new body, no questions asked, even if they aren’t behind this?” He began summoning cosy blankets and pillows, tucking them in around Aziraphale rather more viciously than necessary. “Not getting discorporated on my watch. Bloody stupid angel. Swooning all over the place, having fits, psychic attacks, whatever the fuck this is — and keeping it secret from me. From me!”
Aziraphale pouted. “I would have told you if I thought it was significant.”
“You wouldn’t know significant if it crawled up your nose and lit your head on fire. No, you’ll stay here, tucked in, where I can keep an eye on you. If you’re a good little angel, I might bring you some tea and snacks.”
“I don’t need rest; I need to research. I need my books.” He paused, then added, “And perhaps some snacks.”
“I’ll bring them: books, snacks, wine, a fucking string quartet to play you chamber music, whatever you want. But you Will. Stay. Here.”
Grumpily, Aziraphale relented, settling into the sofa and loosening the overly tucked blankets. “You never made Warlock stay off his feet all day.”
“I would have if he’d started swooning all over the place. Now hush.”
“Would you stop fluffing the pillows? Leave it!”
“I’ll smite you.”
“Oh, is that what we’re calling it these days?”
“Aziraphale!” Crowley mimicked. He stopped fussing with the pillows and knelt beside the sofa, his fingers stroking Aziraphale’s wrist. “You’re not getting out of this, angel. Just let me watch over you, while we figure this out together. I can’t take the risk that you’ll be hurt the next time you have one of those . . . episodes. Please.”
It was the please that did it, and the love glowing in his amber eyes. Crowley was just as terrified as he was himself, and just as frantic to put on a brave face. Just as determined to fight back for all he was worth. With Crowley at his side, Aziraphale was sure he could do anything, including letting his demon coddle him unnecessarily. “All right, my love — but I’m making a list of the books I’ll need, and I expect you to bring them to me immediately. Understood?”
“Whatever you want, angel.” Crowley let a hint of a smirk creep onto his face; the smug git knew he'd won, though the tightness around his eyes and the furrows on his forehead were still there. “Whatever you need, as long as you're safe.”
CW: nongraphic mention of coming out to family and it going badly.
Dr Mertz was middle-aged, perhaps in her fifties, with dark waves down to her shoulders and large, outdated square glasses that had last been in fashion in the 1980s. She looked more like someone’s gran than the head of long-term care at St Alban’s. Even her clothes were soft, flowy, loose, instead of the tailored professional suit he’d expected.
She smiled at him, as if he’d scraped his knee and she was going to make it all better. “I understand you have some questions, Mr Faile.”
That was not quite his usual alias among humans, but it was close enough that he let it pass without comment. “Yes. Most importantly, I demand to know why I am being kept here against my will.”
“That’s a long story.” Dr Mertz got up from her desk and walked over to an electric kettle. “Would you like tea while we talk? Or cocoa? I only have instant.”
“Cocoa, please.” Instant cocoa was abhorrent, a pale imitation of the real stuff, but he felt he deserved chocolate right now and would take what he could get.
She handed him a mug and a packet, let him open it himself and pour the powder into the mug while the water heated. That was a kind touch, recognising his fear and letting him make his own cocoa. He wouldn’t have to worry about her slipping something into his drink; he was already feeling discombobulated enough, with that unsettling sensation he got during these episodes, as if his head was slightly displaced onto another dimension from his body. Would a drug within this vision actually have an effect? Would drinking the cocoa be the equivalent of Persephone and the pomegranate arils? No, he was overthinking again; there were perils here, but cocoa was surely not one of them.
“You know where you are, correct?” Dr Mertz flipped the switch on the kettle. The blue on light gave her face peculiar shadows.
“I have been told I am in St Alban’s, in a mental hospital.” Aziraphale bristled. “I can assure you that I am as sane as the next person, and I demand to be released immediately.”
Dr Mertz’s dark eyes examined him, detached but compassionate. “I wish it were that simple. You’ve been with us for eighteen years, Mr Faile, and this is the first time we’ve been able to converse rationally, about anything other than your delusions.”
“What nonsense!” That was impossible, of course. This whole thing was a nightmare Heaven was inflicting on him for his disobedience, and it had only been a few days. Vague memories tried to get his attention, of fighting desperately against restraints, of injections that knocked him out for what seemed like days, of waiting dully in meds lines, of sitting in this office on so many other occasions mumbling or ranting or weeping, but he dismissed them. They could not be anything except part of Heaven’s attack, some sort of psychic assault on his mind.
The kettle reached a boil, and Dr Mertz poured water for her tea, then some into Aziraphale’s cocoa. Handing him a spoon, she resumed her place behind her desk. “I’m afraid it’s the truth. Your exact diagnosis is a source of some debate among the staff, but you have been experiencing paranoid, self-aggrandising delusions and severe loss of contact with reality for nearly two decades.”
“Really.” Aziraphale blew on his cocoa and glared through lowering brows at the doctor. “Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”
“That’s to be expected. From what you’ve been able to share with us over the years, it looks like your delusions have been firmly entrenched and intricate.” She consulted something on her computer screen; every key tap seemed to send an echo reverberating through his skull. “An angel, named Aziraphale.” She got the pronunciation right. “Sent to watch over the Earth from the moment of its creation.” Not precisely correct, but close enough, within a few days. “Guardian of humanity for over six thousand years. Uses a bookshop as a cover, under the human pseudonym ‘A.Z. Fell.’ Difficult relationship with Heaven; your only friend is a demon. Interesting choice, that one.”
Of course the doctor knew about him — she was a Heavenly (or Hellish?) agent, so obviously they would have shared what they knew of his history. The little flash of panic that she knew most of his secrets was just habit, after hiding his true nature from humans all these centuries. This wasn’t real, and it was okay to fight back with the truth. Well, most of it. There was one thing in particular he must keep hidden, at all costs. “All of that is entirely correct. Crowley and I have thwarted Heaven and Hell’s schemes before, and we will do so again this time.”
“Ah, yes: the Apocalypse.” Dr Mertz scrolled down a few screens. “Averted through a series of highly improbable events, including possession of a middle-aged woman, a flying scooter, and a bunch of eleven-year-olds facing down the Four Horsemen.”
“Horsepeople, if you don’t mind. War uses she/her pronouns, and Pollution uses they/them.” Aziraphale sipped his cocoa; it was too sweet and not chocolatey enough, but it would do. It felt realer than he did right now.
Dr Mertz merely nodded at this correction. “Noted. And it’s also clear that you are in love with Crowley, your demon friend.”
Really, there was no need to make personal comments. “And what of it?”
She settled back in her chair, holding her tea, her head tilted as if in thought. “May I tell you a story, Mr Faile? It might help shed some light on your situation.”
“If you insist.”
“There once was a rather pretentious artist who had three children. She named the eldest Hermes, and her twins Artemis and Apollo. Yes, I’m afraid so, but at least the twins had the sense to go by Timmy and Paul. The eldest, not so much; he was a bit of a berk. Paul, though, was intelligent, bookish, reticent, kind-hearted. He suffered from occasional depression and anxiety, but they were manageable. He loved his family and they loved him, but as they grew older, they grew apart. It happens sometimes.
“His mother took a job travelling around the world and disappeared from his life, becoming just a voice on the other end of the phone once or twice a year. His sister moved away, married, and only saw him at holidays. His brother became ambitious and conservative, and when Paul came out to him, he was angry. He said hateful things, disowned him.
“Paul lost interest in his studies, lost interest in everything, hid from the world. He thought it was his chronic depression returning — which was a reasonable assumption. But in reality, the stress was triggering a severe dissociative episode, turning some switch deep in his genetic makeup from off to on. To protect him, his mind told itself stories: that he was a powerful but kindly being, sent to protect others. The whole of humanity, in fact. That those who should love him most, his brother and sister in angel form, were instead distant, manipulative, cold. That he could spend his days creating miracles and then retire to a safe, secure place surrounded by books. That, even as powerful as he was, he was still broken somehow, and the only person who could love him was a demon.”
Dr Mertz turned to her computer briefly and tapped a few notes before turning her gaze back to him. The light reflected on her outsized glasses, making it difficult to read her expression. “Those stories your mind told were lies, but they were necessary at the time for you to survive. Now, I think you’re almost ready to let go of the comforting lies and rejoin us in reality.”
Aziraphale swallowed in a mouth suddenly gone dry. The longer these episodes went on, the more difficult it was for him to fight against the drag of mental lethargy and confusion. It almost seemed as if he could remember parts of the doctor’s tale, as if they had really happened: the sense of abandonment when his mother left to travel the world, the loneliness, the isolation and yearning for someone just to touch his hand, tell him he was loved, that he wasn’t alone. Echos of how he’d felt sometimes in reality, over the millennia. “I admit that your story does sound more plausible on the surface, but I assure you, it is completely incorrect. I am an angel, and my name is Aziraphale, not Apollo or Paul.”
“And we can call you that, if you like. If it will make things easier for you. It must be extremely difficult to renounce the only world you’ve known for so long, the only place you felt safe from being hurt.”
Despite himself, Aziraphale gave a bitter laugh. “‘Safe’ is not exactly the word I’d use to describe it, not until recently.” He hadn’t meant to admit that. Could the cocoa be drugged after all, or was the disorientation of this place just getting worse?
“After the Apocalypse, yes. Apparent resolution of your anxieties and finally admitting how much your family had hurt you, deciding to be your own person regardless of what they wanted. But even now, that world isn’t really safe, is it? You’re still waiting for retaliation by your former family, and it could come at any day.”
“Ironic of you to say that,” he managed, wanting only to put his head down now and close his eyes, “given that you’re part of their retaliation.” Just rest for a moment, relax his guarded posture and put his elbows on his knees, support his spinning head. Just for a moment.
“On the contrary,” Dr Mertz said, “I’m part of the solution, your solution. You’re ready to face your family now, as your own person. You can resolve this, come back to the real world in safety.” Her voice was fading now, but he faintly heard her say, “I can help you, if you’ll let me.”
Crowley paced, circling the desk where Aziraphale sat surrounded by books and scrolls. “Honestly, I should have expected something like this. They couldn’t destroy you physically, so they’re trying to destroy your mind. Just picking up where they left off.”
Marking his place with a torn scrap of paper, Aziraphale sighed. “They are playing rather to their strengths, true. Heaven has over six thousand years of experience manipulating me, after all.”
It was too soon after the third episode for Aziraphale to be sitting up, but he’d insisted with all the might a tetchy, frightened angel could muster. Crowley got the distinct impression that he hadn’t shared all the details of what happened during that incident, probably in a misguided and idiotic attempt to spare Crowley from worry, the daft fool. Never mind that every detail hidden was another thing that could hamstring them, another nameless unknown for Crowley to worry about. “And they’d be glad to share their expertise with Hell, if they’re the ones behind it. They won’t win, though. We’re too strong for them, and you know their mind games too well now. You know they’re a bunch of lying liars who lie.”
“Yes, dear. But I’m afraid my research is not leading to any conclusions just yet. Just more possibilities.”
Crowley came up behind him and looked over his shoulder at his notes, beautifully traced out in Aziraphale’s fine Spencerian hand. “Poison?”
“Just one possibility, dear; it could very well be a spell instead. There are multiple ways such an attack could be carried out.”
“Great, so it could have been in something you ate or drank, or something someone else did half a world away. Not really helping to narrow down the possibilities here.”
“It also could have been delivered via the paper cut: an ethereal poison on the box of books. Or by putting something in the ventilation system, or on any surface in here. But at the moment my money is on a spell. None of my symptoms fully match any of the psychoactive poisons I’ve been able to find.” Aziraphale rubbed the spot right between his eyebrows; it made him look old, fragile, and Crowley swore silently. Whoever was doing this to his angel was going to be stopped with extreme prejudice.
“Suspects? Tell me we have suspects.”
Aziraphale handed him another sheet covered with notes. “Yes, in a very general way. None of the archangels have the skills for something this advanced, and I doubt very much that the Dark Council would, so they must have had to call in specialists to do the actual spell. There’s just very little recorded about how such specialists work, or how to counteract their influence, or even who they are.
“If it’s Heaven, my best guess is the Human Guidance Bureau's apparition department: they have experience in creating quite vivid hallucinations to direct humans onto their desired path. They also have a number of skilled mnemonic technicians, but unless their focus has changed lately, they tend to work with obscuring or emphasising existing memories, not making new ones out of whole cloth.”
Crowley grabbed a pen and started adding to the notes, using Aziraphale’s back as a squidgy sort of table. “If it’s Hell, our most likely candidates are Ose and Malphus. Madness demons, both of them. They both get their kicks from disconnecting humans from external reality.”
“Or it could be any of a dozen others.” Aziraphale slumped a little in his chair, running a hand through his pale curls. For him, it was equivalent to anyone else burying their head in their arms and howling.
“We’ll figure something out.” Crowley dropped the paper back on the desk and wrapped his fingers around his angel’s shoulders, massaging, soothing. “I was thinking it might be time to call for reinforcements.”
“Reinforcements?” Aziraphale laughed tiredly. “We’re on our side, Crowley. We don’t have reinforcements.”
“Maybe we do. Book Girl is a witch; she might be able to help us out.”
“Book Gi — oh, Ms Device. Well. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
Crowley nodded. Now for the hard part. As lightly as he could, he said, “And I have some old contacts who, er, might be amenable.”
This earned him a suspicious stare over the shoulder; the storm-coloured eyes were faded, their usual sparkle faint. “I’m assuming you’re not referring to Mr Shadwell. What kind of old contacts, then? I won’t have you endangering yourself over this; we can only fight on one front at a time.”
“No danger. Eric’s a demon, but he’s cool, mostly. Does his job, keeps his head down when he can.”
“Oh, well then, nothing to worry about there! As long as he’s ‘mostly cool.’”
“Sarcasm is not helpful, angel. The point is that he isn’t particularly evil, he’s just kind of doing his job. Doesn’t put a lot of thought into whether it’s good or bad; he’s just trying to get through the century like everyone else.”
“He is a demon, Crowley. You cannot seriously be proposing we bring in a demon to help us.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow pointedly, leaning around so the angel could see his wide amber eyes. “Ahem.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, but not all demons are like Hastur and Ligur. Some of us are just doing the job in front of them. Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of other career options these days when you’re Fallen, or when you’re born a demon.”
Aziraphale’s eyes widened. “Wait, you can be born a demon?”
“Story for another time, angel. My point is that just because you’re a demon doesn’t mean you’re automatically all evil, all the time. Some even snuck off after the Fall because they didn’t like what Luci and his mates were setting up. Became water nymphs or some such, I think. They're the reason for Hell having a Census Bureau, so nobody can sneak off again. Everyone present and accounted for, down to the smallest imp.”
Taking off his unnecessary reading glasses, Aziraphale rubbed his eyes and groaned. “You’re speaking nonsense again, darling.”
“My point is, don’t buy into the party line. Some demons can be harmless or even friendly. Not many, I admit, but a few. And Eric’s not a bad sort. He likes me, and I think he’ll help.”
Leaning back into the massage, Aziraphale huffed, but it had a resigned sound to it. “Very well, if you insist. Call in whoever you want. We certainly can use all the help we can get.”
At the very least, that earned him a few minutes alone. As soon as Crowley was out of the room, hunting for his phone, Aziraphale let his head drop into his hands and took a shuddering breath.
Heaven had controlled him since before time began, but his mind had always been his own. It had been clouded by propaganda and manipulated by Gabriel’s belittling scorn and troubled by doubts, but at least he’d always been able to trust his own memories, to know the thoughts and light heresies that scurried beneath the suffocating blanket of orders and indoctrination were his own. Now, someone was trying to take that away from him, trying to rewrite his very history and essence, to convince him he was someone else.
Preposterous, of course. But these invasive new memories chased him, worried him like a dog with a toy, trying to get at the squeaker in the centre. And like the toy, he felt powerless to fight back, to run or hide, even to move so the gnawing landed on a less vital body part. His brain had been replaced with fluffy polyester stuffing, and his limbs felt nerveless and disconnected, every movement an effort.
He couldn’t let them succeed. He refused to be taken away from Crowley, from their well-earned retirement and the life they were building together. He refused to let them destroy his very being.
He just had no idea how to stop them.
“Got it!” Returning, Crowley lofted his phone in triumph, waving it about. “I’ll call Book Girl first; she’s got farther to travel. Eric can just pop up through the pavement outside.”
With an effort, Aziraphale pasted a smile on his face. “Excellent idea, my dear.” No sense in worrying Crowley even more than he already was. There was so little he could do, but he could protect Crowley, at least.
CW: memories of homophobic reaction by a loved one. Not graphic, but more than a passing mention.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was not really any such thing as morning or evening in Heaven, so the various work schedules were assigned names such as “Numinous Shift” or “Piety Shift.” At the moment, Glory Shift was just straggling in as Midrash Shift wound down, and Zachriel was clearing her desk to leave, as her coworkers were doing.
“Are you coming to trivia night?” Oopz asked.
Zachriel sighed. “Not this time. I’ve got to catch up on my special project.”
Oopz gave her a sympathetic look. “They’re working you too hard, Zach, giving you that project on top of your regular work.”
“No rest for the weary, I’m afraid.”
“Are you sure you can’t skive off, or do it later? I hear they’ve got a lot of new Sound of Music questions this time.” Oopz’s dark eyes sparkled, and her grin looked much more impish than angelic; she was a hard worker, but tended to leave her job worries behind when her shift was over. That was something Zachriel had never gotten the hang of doing.
“I don’t know; I really shouldn’t. What’s the prize?”
Oopz leaned in conspiratorially. “A tour of the Maintenance Department, led by Sandalphon himself.”
“I know, right?” Perhaps an angel should not be able to cackle, but Oopz’s laugh was awfully close to one. “Half the fun will be watching everyone do just well enough to seem enthusiastic, but not well enough to actually win.”
“Tempting, but I’ll pass. I really do have a lot of work to do, but I’ll walk with you a bit.” The meditation cubicles were on the way to the nearest official recreation centre, and a bit of a chat would be a nice bracer before she had to assume her avatar and enter the spell. She shoved her work materials into her messenger bag and slung it over her shoulder, leaving the desk perfectly bare and ready for its next occupant.
“So are you ever going to tell me what this top-secret project is all about?” Oopz said, linking her arm through Zachriel’s as they walked. “Or are you just going to torture me with the mystery?”
“Sorry, can’t. Kind of the nature of top-secret things that you can’t tell anyone about them.”
Oopz wrinkled her nose. “Spoilsport.”
“Bah. If I spilled all my secrets, you’d have no reason to talk to me any more, and we can’t have that.”
“As if. There’s a pool going about you, you know. Ephra thinks you’re trying to restore demons’ memories from before the Fall so Hell will fall into chaos, and Pado is convinced you’re working on some sort of mind control to turn us into automatons so we’ll work without breaks.”
Zachriel chuckled. “He’s so paranoid. And what about you?”
“I think it’s got something to do with that Apocanot business a while back.” Oopz shot her a sidelong glance through those lush lashes, but Zachriel had already schooled her expression to blankness. “I can’t imagine the archangels would let that traitor go without some kind of retaliation, and if you can’t destroy him physically, why not go after his mind?”
“That sounds a lot more plausible than Pado’s idea,” Zachriel said evenly.
“So, am I close?” Oopz danced a bit in gleeful anticipation. “Blink once for yes, twice for no.”
“I’m not going to blink, you idiot. I am under orders, and I am not disobeying them, not even for you.” She smiled to soften her words as they neared the meditation cubicles. “I’m stopping here, but good luck with the trivia.”
Oopz sulked away, and Zachriel let herself into the cubicle, securing the door behind her. If she were interrupted while she was immersed in the spell, things could get awkward very quickly. A snap summoned a small desk and chair, and she pulled out her tablet, tapping to project her notes, a trackspace and Enochian keyboard, and the viewing app.
The tablet bleeped mournfully and displayed a rotating halo. Zachriel swore as the thing rebooted.
“You do that on purpose, don’t you? Bloody useless piece of silicon. Will you behave if I don’t open the trackspace? Fine, have it your way. Just don’t do that while I’m in the spell, or I swear to Earth I will smash you to bits and jump up and down on the atoms.”
Chastened, the tablet obediently called up the spell and her avatar, letting her enter.
The cotton-wool-brain feeling was worse this time; the more he fought against it, the worse it seemed to become. He was in Dr Mertz’s office again, only now Gabriel and Michael were there too, sitting one on either side of him. That had to be deliberate, to put him off balance, only able to keep one of them in sight at any time. A familiar tactic.
“Mr Faile — Aziraphale,” the doctor said, steepling her hands and leaning forward on her desk, “is there anything you’d like to say to your brother and sister?”
“I don’t have a brother or a sister,” Aziraphale reminded her tiredly. They’d been over this before, hadn’t they? “That,” he pointed, not caring how rude it was, “is the Archangel Gabriel, and that,” he jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, “is the Archangel Michael. They are not my family. They are my enemies. I should have known they were behind all this.”
Gabriel bowed his head, pressing a hand to his lips. Michael asked, “Why are you using that ridiculous name, Dr Mertz? I would have thought that would be supporting his delusions.”
“It helps create a safe environment,” Dr Mertz said. “He is quite convinced that is his name, and calling him by any other is an antagonistic move.”
Aziraphale shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it; that never worked, and he didn’t know why he kept trying. “He is in fact in the room, you know, and would appreciate not being spoken of in the third person.”
The doctor gave him a genuine-seeming smile then. “You’re right, of course. I apologise. I hope you won’t mind if I call them by their preferred names, as well?” She indicated the archangels. “Hermes and Timmy?”
“As long as I am not compelled to do the same. I refuse to play along with this farce any more than I absolutely must.”
“As you wish, Aziraphale. Is there anything you’d like to say to . . . the other two people in this room right now?”
“Anything?” The doctor nodded, and Aziraphale tried to marshal his disordered thoughts. Vision or no, the idea of telling off his former bosses was too tempting to pass up. “Gabriel, you made my existence a misery. Six thousand years, and I could never be good enough for you, no matter what I did. You were condescending, manipulative, and idiotic; you never listened to me, always so sure that you knew what was Right and that I didn’t. You insulted my corporation. You tried to undermine my thoughts, my perceptions, my very essence. You were wrong, Gabriel, and my only regret is that it took the end of the world for me to finally stand up to you.”
Dr Mertz gestured for Gabriel to remain silent. “And the other person?”
Aziraphale turned to face Michael, who was bracing herself as if to meet a firing squad. “I know you tried to bring me down, make me Fall. I know it was you who showed those photos of Crowley and me to Gabriel. I know you brought the holy water to Hell when they tried to execute Crowley. You are a heartless, stone-cold bitch, Michael, and about as trustworthy as, as, as a,” he fumbled for an appropriate simile, his brain refusing to collaborate with him.
“As a snake?” Michael suggested quietly, dropping her eyes.
“Hardly. I’ve known snakes that I’d trust with my life and everything I hold dear. You are as trustworthy as a mongoose.”
She just nodded, biting her lip. “I think I understand why you feel that way. It’s because of how I behaved in real life, right?” Michael cast a glance at the doctor for confirmation. “I know I’ve been distant since I moved away, and I wasn’t there to help you when you needed me. I got caught up in my marriage, in my job, my own happiness. But believe me, A — Aziraphale: I would never intentionally sabotage you. I’ve been selfish, I know, and I’m so sorry, but I do love you and hurting you in any way is the last thing I’d ever want to do.” Her voice was trembling now, and tears dripped down her face unheeded, eyes darting up from her lap and then back down, as if she was afraid to meet his gaze for more than a moment.
There had been a time when they’d been close, hadn’t there? His twin sister, always by his side, sharing secrets and stories. When she was a girl and they’d played war games in the back garden, Timmy’s greater reach and agility usually beating out his clumsier strength. She’d taught him fencing, her grin brilliant behind the mesh mask; taught him chess, where they were more evenly matched.
Then she’d grown up, finished university, taken a high-flying job far, far away from him. Married someone he’d never met, whose name he didn’t even know. Too busy for her brother now. It had felt like being scorned, discarded as a disappointment.
“You are allowed your own life,” he murmured. Those memories were false, he was sure of it, but with the woman in front of him, the tears on her face, he could not bring himself to condemn her completely. “You are not your brother’s keeper.” He saw the hope spring in her posture at that, and he added, “Just an expression. You are not my sister, but you are still entitled to live your life as you choose.”
Michael took a deep, shaky breath and smiled tentatively back at him. “Thank you, Aziraphale. And I promise I will never abandon you again. I love you.”
That was perhaps not as reassuring as she’d meant it to be. She seemed to be sincere, but this was all a trick, wasn’t it? Doubts were beginning to creep in, assailed by the flashes of new memories. Was this Michael in front of him, or his sister Timmy? No, it had to be Michael. None of this was real; reality was back with Crowley.
“I want to apologise too, Polly — I mean, Azh, Azhurafil.” The pronunciation of his name was massacred, but Aziraphale couldn’t tell whether it was an intentional slight from Gabriel or a stumbling attempt by Hermes to deal with an unfamiliar word (or unwelcome confirmation of a brother’s insanity). “I don’t know if you remember, but the last time we spoke to each other, I . . . I said some pretty horrible things to you.”
Unbidden, another memory surfaced: he’d just come out to Hermes, only to be met with an avalanche of invective and slurs and threats. Hermes’s face had turned purple, snarling, hateful. “I remember. And it’s pronounced Aziraphale.”
“I was wrong. I was stupid and hateful, and I’m so, so sorry, um, Aziraphale.” Hermes’s lavender eyes were flooded with unshed tears. “Timmy really let me have it when she found out. I didn’t know about her and Ursula then. It kind of blew my mind when I found out, but eventually I realised that I was being stupid. Nothing about her had changed except that now she was happy and in love, and nothing about you had changed, either. You were both still the same people I’ve always loved, you were still my baby brother, and anybody who had a problem with you would have to come through me. She helped me see that.”
“More like I beat you over the head until you saw sense,” Michael murmured, and Gabriel gave a half-laugh, half-sob. “It took a few years, but the blockhead finally came around.”
“Yeah, and I deserved everything you said to me. I was an idiot, and a truly awful, despicable person, and I apologise, Pol — Aziraphale.” Gabriel brushed his hair back from his face in frustration. “I’m not saying this right. I’m not good with words like you are. I just want you to know that I understand if you can’t forgive me for that, but — ”
“I forgive you.” Aziraphale remembered it all now, how Hermes’s face had gone incandescent from yelling, disowning him. “No brother of mine” and “never want to see you again” and “you’re breaking Mum’s heart, you know that.” The foul slurs his brother had hurled at him, the revulsion in that chiseled face. He remembered how those words hit him like shrapnel, how seeing the disgust and fury in his big brother, the one he’d always tried to emulate and make proud, had ground his heart into mince. And now he could recognise too Hermes’ fear of what others might say, fear of mockery or rejection or lost business opportunities, all because his little brother was gay. Hermes had been wrong, so cruelly wrong, but he knew better now and was trying to do better. He was his brother, his only brother, apologising for the first time he could remember. How could he not forgive him?
His mind felt clearer than it had in ages now, filled with clemency and mercy. “Just never call me Polly again.”
Dr Mertz’s smile was warm and encouraging. “That’s a very good first step, Aziraphale. I’m so proud of you.”
11Another morale-boosting effort by the archangels, Zachriel suspected, and about as effective as their mortifyingly awkward motivational posters.[back]
Wikipedia's list of Enochian angels describes Oopz as a minor angel but provides no further detail. Obviously she's been to work on the Wiki editors, blurring their more specific memories of her.
CW: passing mention of a grandparent's death. Not graphic, but I thought it should be mentioned just in case.
“This is wicked,” Eric said, his eyes gleaming with excitement. “I never thought I’d be here, in the actual bookshop with you guys. Oh, and, uh, sorry about asking to punch you, my man. Er, angel. It was a stupid idea; got carried away.”
Aziraphale wrinkled his forehead, confused. “What?”
“Never mind, angel. Water over the duck’s dam,” Crowley said. “I’ll, er, remind you about it later. Do ducks build dams? Never mind; you get the point.”
It wasn’t much of an army, Crowley thought: two demons, one witch, one useless and nervous human, and an angel who was wobbly on his pins and disoriented half the time. Aziraphale looked drawn, the sparkle in his eyes dimmed, and his reaction time was dulled — not by much, just a fraction of a second, but the tiny delay in responding to a question or being handed a cup of tea was a flashing red alert beacon to someone who’d spent thousands of years observing him. He claimed it was just the episodes tiring him, but Crowley didn’t believe that was the full truth. Historically, it had never been a good portent when the angel hid things from him.
Anathema put down her tea. “You said you needed our help. What’s going on?”
It looked like Aziraphale needed most of his energy just to stay upright, so Crowley decided to explain. “Someone, either Heaven or Hell or both, is doing something to Aziraphale. Something bad. Could be a poison or drug or a spell, but whatever it is, it’s messing with his memories and making him have visions.”
“What sort of visions?”
“That he’s human, in a psychiatric hospital. Insane. That this whole world is nothing but a hallucination.”
Anathema’s dark eyes widened behind her glasses. “That’s . . . quite some spell, then. Manipulating someone’s mind is dark magic, and tricky to get right.”
“Nah.” Eric bit into a pink-frosted biscuit and gestured with the remnants, scattering a few crumbs. “I can think of two or three demons who could pull that off, easy. It’s specialist work, but some of our wonks could convince you you’re a hamster, and do it so well you’d be shredding these books for bedding and demanding one of those wheel thingies.”
Nodding, Crowley added, “And some of the angels are masters at manipulation. Aziraphale says they’ve got a whole division of angels who specialise in visions, and scores of mnemonic technicians in the Human Guidance Bureau.”
“That’s, er, unsettling,” Newt said. He had been silently fidgeting since they’d arrived. “Are you sure human magic could go up against something like that?”
“Not sure of anything, except that someone’s coming after Aziraphale. I’ll be blessed if I don’t throw everything I can against them. I want to take those bastards down.”
“I’m in,” Eric said, grinning. “Anything I can do to stir up trouble.”
“Is that safe?” Anathema asked him, blinking behind her glasses. “I’d imagine your, um, bosses in Hell could exact some pretty vicious vengeance.”
Rolling his eyes, Eric groaned. “Oh, please — causing chaos, even without specific orders, is number one on my to-do list. They’ll be thrilled if they find out.”
“Which they won’t,” Crowley said, glaring at the younger demon.
“Right-o: mum’s the word. Nobody’ll even notice me poking around, and even if they do, the worst they’re likely to do is discorporate me. They do that anyway at least a couple times a day.”
Anathema put her mug down, eyes round with horror. “What? But that’s awful!”
“It’s not as bad as you might think,” Crowley said. “Eric is a, a wotsit.”
“Multifocal consciousness,” Eric supplied.
“Yeah, that. Means he’s one mind spread around a lot of different bodies. Each body can focus on what they’re doing, but they can also share information with each other. Ultimate multitasker.”
“Why am I not surprised that Hell came up with multitasking?” Anathema grimaced.
“And since I’m pretty low down in the ranks, my bosses tend to discorporate me when they get annoyed. Easy scapegoat, safety valve for their frustration. They know there’ll always be a few dozen others of me around, and the Recorporation Department always fast-tracks new bodies for me.” Eric patted her on the hand soothingly. “It’s not so bad once you get used to it, really.”
“It still sounds absolutely awful.” Anathema tried to smile sympathetically back at Eric, but it came out as more of an appalled rictus.
“That’s Hell for you,” Crowley said.
Throughout this conversational detour, Newt had been looking increasingly worried. “Aziraphale, you don’t look well at all.” Crowley’s eyes snapped to the angel’s face: his skin looked pallid, and the lines on his face were deeper. When Crowley reached for his hand, the skin felt dry and fragile somehow.
“Ah, yes.” Aziraphale cleared his throat. “My apologies. I’m afraid I am feeling a bit off colour; I had thought the tea would help, but apparently I was mistaken.”
“What do you need, angel?”
“It’s terribly rude of me, but, er, would you all mind if I excused myself for a bit? I’m just so tired, can’t concentrate. Think I might lie down. Dreadfully sorry.”
Amid assurances from the others that no offence was taken, Crowley ushered Aziraphale into their bedroom and helped him take off his shoes. “Is that all it is, angel? You’re not having another episode, are you?”
“No, no,” Aziraphale assured him, mustering a washed-out smile. “Just tired. I’ve been fighting it all day, but it seems to have gotten worse since our company arrived.”
Crowley fixed him with one of the stern glares he’d found so useful when Warlock was being recalcitrant. “You’re not lying to me, are you?”
His tired smile widened, but it never reached those dulled silvery-blue eyes. “Not lying. Cross my heart. Just need a bit of a lie-down.”
“All right, angel.” Crowley tucked one of their hand-knit throw blankets around Aziraphale and kissed him delicately on the forehead. “You are under strict instructions to call me if you feel worse, though, or if you start to feel another episode coming on. If anything happens, yell for me, understood? I’ll be back soon.”
When he returned to the kitchen, the others were all gathered around Anathema, who was hunched over what looked like an A5 sketchbook, pen scritching. “We’re just outlining what we know, and what needs to be done,” she said. “I’d like to talk to Aziraphale later, when he’s feeling up to it. I need to find out more about how he’s feeling and what the episodes are like. Do you think that will be all right?”
“Yeah, but don’t be surprised if he clams up. He gets that way when he’s scared, sometimes: just denies everything, and when he can’t do that any longer, he downplays the situation, tries to keep you from worrying.” Crowley flipped one of the chairs around and straddled it with a sigh, resting his forehead briefly against the back of the chair. “Just getting him to admit the problem was an unbelievable ordeal, and he still isn’t telling me everything.”
Anathema’s businesslike expression softened, and she reached out to him before thinking better of it. “It’s frightening enough when a loved — er, when someone you care about is ill. Not knowing what’s going on or even if you know the whole story can make it so much worse, can’t it?”
“Especially when the person is a daft, mule-headed idiot of an angel created explicitly to protect others. He’s trying to be strong so I won’t worry.”
“Yeah, ’cause that always works so well.” Anathema rolled her eyes.
Newt said, “My grandmother was the same: she’d never admit when she was ill, until she literally couldn’t make it out of bed.”
“Oh? How did you get her to stop?” Crowley said.
“Er, we didn’t.” Newt shifted uneasily, looking as if he regretted speaking at all now. “She developed pneumonia and passed away.”
“A cautionary tale, then. Great.” Crowley knew the human polite thing to do would be to express condolences, but he couldn’t be bothered.
“We won’t let that happen to Aziraphale,” Anathema said, shooting a reproachful look at Newt. “We’ve got a plan. Look.” She shoved the sketchbook over so he could read it: neat columns labeled symptoms and suspects and what to do about it. “Step one: diagnostic spell, so we know what we’re dealing with. Step two: protection. If it’s a spell, strengthen the wards on the shop and research counter-spells. If it’s poison or a drug, identify the substance and the delivery method, and research antidotes.”
Eric added, “Meanwhile, I’ll be poking about in Hell, finding out if there’s any scuttlebutt. I get everywhere, and nobody will even think twice about my hanging around snooping.”
“And if it’s Heaven that’s behind this?” Crowley asked.
Spreading his hands magnanimously, Eric said, “Then I just manufacture an errand and pop up there for a bit. I’ve done it before.”
Crowley doubted it would be that easy, but he kept his reservations to himself. “What about you, Newt?”
“Er, I’m research assistant and errand boy. And on catering duty.”
“Right. So step three is identifying who’s behind this? I need to know who to destroy.”
“Step three,” Anathema said firmly, “is stopping this whole thing and getting Aziraphale back to normal. Hopefully we can identify the culprit during step two, but the most important thing at the moment is Aziraphale’s health, mental and physical.”
That seemed fair, but Crowley itched to get his claws on the instigator of all this. Normally, violence was repellent; it was inelegant and messy and unnecessarily cruel, but a line had been crossed now. Somebody was hurting his angel, and he would make them stop, and make them pay. “You’re right. Vengeance can wait until step four.”
“Er, right. I’ve got the materials for the diagnostic spell — they’re pretty basic — so I’ll get started as soon as Aziraphale feels up to it.”
“Are you sure using a human spell on Aziraphale is safe?” Newt asked.
“No, I’m not sure,” she admitted, “but I’m reasonably confident. It’s not as if we have any other choice, though. We need to know exactly what we’re up against, whether it’s a drug or a spell or something else, before we can do anything to fight it, and we can’t exactly send a blood sample off to a lab for tests.”
“You’re to stop immediately at the first sign of danger, for either of you,” Crowley said sternly.
Anathema swung her bag onto her shoulder and gave him a fond smile. “You big softie.”
“Not a softie — just don’t want our witch being taken out in the first skirmish. Keeping you safe keeps Aziraphale safe.” Who was he kidding — if it came down to it, he’d sacrifice them all, himself included, if it kept the angel safe, but together they did stand the best chance of fighting back.
Aziraphale could hear them still; it wasn’t clear enough for him to make out words, but the voices drifted up to his bedroom, muffled as if through cotton wool. The whole world felt increasingly as if he were wrapped in cotton wool, layers of it, vaguely unreal and distant.
He’d been working too hard, that must be the reason for the dissociation, the exhaustion, the loss of appetite and nausea. He hadn’t even thought to offer biscuits with the tea for his guests, because even the thought of biscuits made his stomach warble and waffle uncomfortably. Especially the little jammy thumbprint ones — urgh.
No, it was better to lie here and float, with the room slowly rotating around him. Probably he should be poring over his books, making reams of careful notes to bicker about with Crowley later, hunting for clues about drugs that can warp angelic senses or spells that could alter ethereal realities, but he couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty or worried about it.
The whole business felt unreal and of no consequence.
A tiny part of him knew that was a dangerous path and screamed that he should put a stop to those thoughts immediately, should bustle out of the bedroom and force his reeling brain to focus on research, but that part was drowned out by the larger part that just wanted to lie there, fully dressed except for his shoes, while the room quietly shimmered. It was peaceful, and all he wanted to do was drift.
1It was some weird herbal blend with mushroom extracts she claimed would help concentration and focus. She’d offered to share with the others when she pulled the packet out of the satchel that held her emergency supplies, but the twiggy mixture had not looked appetising and the smell while she brewed it was . . . something else. There had been no takers.[back]
The worst thing was the terror of not knowing. He wasn’t even sure of his name any more: was he Aziraphale, ageless immortal angel and slightly incompetent guardian of the Earth, lover of Crowley and of fine food, expensive alcohol, and exquisite books? Or was he Apollo, known to most as Paul and to his condescending brother as Polly? Either way, he considered, he’d gotten the short end of the stick when it came to names.
He took another turn down the hospital garden path, not paying attention to where he was going. It was walled in, so he couldn’t get lost, but the relative peace and green living things helped him think.
It felt so real, being Aziraphale. Less so of late; Dr Mertz had explained that, as his grip on reality improved, he’d feel more drained and ill during his hallucinations, when once he had felt healthy and alive. Still, the emotions connected to that world had not faded.
Crowley. Could he have invented Crowley — impossible, maddening, ridiculous, gorgeous Crowley, with his snark and unexpected softness? His love? If he were honest with himself, it was all a little too perfect, a little too improbable. No one who looked like that would ever fall in love with a frumpy middle-aged man, even if he were actually an angel. No one could be that perfect.
But six thousand years of history together? He could remember it all even now: the invention of agriculture, domestication of animals and plants, invention of writing — that was a favourite memory. Invention of alcohol, now that had been fun. He remembered the first time he and Crowley had tried beer, sharing a jar with two straws in Uruk: it hadn’t been very good compared to what came later, but at the time it had been a revelation, a near miracle created by those marvellous humans.
He remembered the first time he’d seen Crowley on a horse, the poor beast’s ears laid back and her eyes rolling as she tried to figure out why the human-shaped thing sitting on her back smelled all wrong. He remembered laughing and helping Crowley up, brushing the dust off him and ensuring there was no lasting damage, after the mare unceremoniously bucked the demon off and into the roadside ditch before taking off for her stable.
How could these memories, and all the others, be just products of a deranged mind?
But, then, his other memories had been coming back to him, too. Memories of a human childhood, playing and fighting and arguing with his siblings. Wondering where their father was, when their mother was coming back from her latest trip abroad, or, later, if she’d ever come back. Hiding in the library at school with the books, better friends, safer, than any of his classmates. The pangs of loneliness, of fear of rejection, of being invisible, of being different and desperate and not knowing why. How terrified he’d been when he came out to Gavin, and how horribly it all had gone wrong.
How could all those memories be wrong?
He paused to admire a rose bush at the side of the pebbled path. It wasn’t a particularly robust example of its species — Crowley would have been severely disappointed if it were one of his plants — but it was trying its best, struggling to survive in the poor soil and muted sunlight. The blossoms were few and scraggly, but their perfume was sweet; he could smell it even without bending. The poor thing was doing its best.
“We misfits need to stick together,” he told the bush, and leaned forward to sniff, grasping a blossom. “Ouch!”
It seemed the rose bush did not appreciate being lumped in with such a poor specimen as himself, and had stabbed him with thorns hidden just below the petals. “Really, my dear, that was quite unnecessary,” he said, and brought his wounded finger toward his mouth.
He froze with the finger half raised. There, on the tip of his finger pad, a drop of blood was welling up. Not golden ichor, but red human blood.
Zachriel still felt a twinge of unangelic envy at the comparative luxury of the penthouse offices. No bare, open-plan workspaces for them, and even the polished floors felt somehow cushier underfoot, as if you could stand for hours and never end up with aching feet. As she waited for the archangels to come for her, she amused herself by imagining what she might put on her desk if her hinted-at promotion actually came through. A plant was too pedestrian and would shed leaves. An elegant dagger-like letter opener, like Michael’s? Too impractical when most of her work was on tablets. Perhaps a ball of energy, containing some of the memories she’d extracted from humans who were better off without them?
The door opened, and Gabriel, Michael, and Uriel entered. She rose respectfully and gave a small bow.
“Ah, Zachriel,” Gabriel said, closing the door behind them. “Good to see you. Please, sit, sit. Tell us all about how your project is going.”
Zachriel waited until the archangels were seated, arranged to either side of her at the small conference table. “I am pleased to report that everything is on track. The subject’s acceptance of our alternate reality is increasing; he is not wholly convinced, but between supplying false memories, emotional manipulation, conditioning, and careful guidance through my avatar, he is becoming more malleable.”
“Conditioning?” Michael inquired. “What sort of conditioning?”
“Operant, positive and negative punishment. When he resists the scenarios, he feels disoriented and nauseated. Unpleasant corporeal sensations,” Zachriel clarified, since it was clear that at least one of the archangels had no idea what those were. “The more he accepts the reality we present, the healthier he feels in our reality, and — this is the good bit — the worse he feels in actual reality.”
Michael’s eyebrow rose, and her lips quirked into a cold smile. “Excellent. So eventually he will associate our false reality with feeling well, and the real world with illness?”
“That is the plan, Archangel: enlisting his corporation to help us achieve our goal.”
Gabriel frowned. “That seems almost too simple. Won’t he be suspicious when he suddenly starts feeling better?”
“I suspect he’ll believe he feels better because he is becoming ‘healthier,’” Uriel sniffed. “Humans rarely seem to recognise even the most blatant manipulation, and we are convincing him he’s human, after all.”
“Huh. Well, I’ll leave that to you, Zachriel. You’re the expert, after all. How soon do you think we can implement phase two?” Gabriel said.
“Fairly soon, I think. We’ve made a good start on winning his loyalty to his false family and undermining his hold on reality. Perhaps in a few more days.”
Uriel said, “We must not move too soon, though. Precipitate action could destroy all we’ve gained.”
Zachriel agreed, grateful that she hadn’t had to say that herself; Gabriel seemed to have only a surface understanding of the plan’s actual implementation and how complex and delicate the whole web was. “Of course. We will not move forward until we are certain of success.”
“Hey there.” Timmy poked her head around the doorframe. “Up for some company?”
The disorientation was less today; he still felt a bit slow of mind and dull of emotion, but the horrible limp-scarecrow sensation was almost gone now. He looked up from the book he’d been wrestling with and smiled at her. “Of course, Timmy. Please come in, sit down. Oh, and Ursula, so nice to see you, too.” He still wasn’t sure those were really who they were, but calling them by those names instead of Michael and Uriel made the mind fog abate just a bit.
Ursula trailed the other woman as they entered, giving him a warm smile. She was softer than the Uriel of his other memories, dressing more like an ageing hippie than a fierce grey-suited archangel. Her eyes were gentle, and when they landed on Timmy, full of love.
Timmy worried her lower lip with her teeth as they sat by his bed, and reached for Ursula’s hand. “How are you doing today?”
“A bit better, I think. It’s still difficult to concentrate enough to read, but I’m managing.” He lifted his paperback as evidence.
Tilting her head to inspect the spine, Ursula said, “The Heart Goes Last? Isn’t Atwood a little grim for you right now?”
Aziraphale chuckled, marking his place with a torn scrap of paper and putting the book aside. “Perhaps, but sometimes a little grimness is good for the soul. How are you two doing?”
“We’re fine. I’ve got news, though.” Taking a deep breath, Timmy said, “Mom’s here. Will you see her?”
Aziraphale froze. He had a mother? Of course he had a mother, everyone did. Davina Faile, the great artist, travelling the world and installing ground-breaking artistic creations the likes of which no one had ever seen before. A creative force, influential, powerful. Absent since his early teens, as soon as Timmy and Hermes could look after him themselves.
“Mom?” His voice sounded like a croak, even to him.
“She heard you were doing a bit better, and she made a special trip from the Emirates to see you.”
“Mom’s here,” he repeated. Was this good news or bad?
“Please, Aziraphale, I really think you should see her. It would mean so much to her, and Dr Mertz said it was okay. If you said yes, that is.”
Davina, his mother, here. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to see her, to become even more mired in this world, but the idea of seeing her was an irresistible siren song. Familial love, belonging, acceptance, a caring and present parent — could he actually have all of that?
“Yes. I’ll see her.”
Ursula gave Timmy’s hand a squeeze and stood up. “I’ll fetch her.”
“No, I’ll come with you.” Timmy rose as well. “They should have some privacy, I think.” Together, they stepped outside the room. There was a murmur of voices in the corridor outside, and then Davina appeared in the doorway.
She was breathtaking, just as the memories flooding his mind told him she’d always been. Not physically beautiful by ordinary standards, somewhat plain actually, but almost luminous in her confidence, her grace. Her salt-and-pepper hair was now stark white, and the new lines in her face were deep, but she still had the gravitas that had always left him speechless with adoration.
“I understand you go by Aziraphale now,” she said. Her voice was mellifluous, soothing and inspiring all at once; it made him want to be a better person. “You can call me Davina, if that makes you more comfortable. May I come in?”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Davina gave him a luminous smile and glided over to take the chair Timmy had just vacated, arranging herself elegantly.
“I’ve missed you, Aziraphale,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”
“Twenty-nine years, they tell me.” He’d been eleven when his mother left to travel the world, leaving him in the care of his older siblings. There had been postcards and occasional holiday visits, but it had been a lifetime since they’d actually spent time together, one on one.
“Far too long. I regret that.” Davina kept her eyes on him. They were the deep, rich brown he remembered from an impossible childhood, a brown that evoked the Earth and all its generative power. “I shouldn’t have left you behind. I should have taken you with me when I went.”
It was difficult to breathe with the aching lump in his throat. “Why did you leave me?”
“I thought it was for the best, at the time. It was no life for a child, no stability, in a new part of the world every few months. I worried about your schooling, your friends.”
“I didn’t care about any of that. I wanted to be with you!” Aziraphale’s voice broke, but he couldn’t be bothered with that now. The sharpness of being left behind, discarded, was too fresh now in his mind. “I didn’t care where we lived or whether I had friends. You were all I needed.”
Davina nodded, her eyes dropping to her lap. “I know that now, and I apologise. Maybe it would have been different if you’d had another parent, but I realise now that you needed me, your mom, not your brother and sister. I’m so sorry, dumpling.”
It was the stupid childhood nickname that finally crumbled his defences, and he let out a choking sob. Davina made a soft “oh” sound and moved to his bed, cradling him like a child and letting him weep onto her shoulder. “Let it out, darling. It’s all right. I’m here now.”
“I was all alone in the universe,” he wailed. “Nobody, I had nobody. Only Crowley.”
“Shh, dumpling. I’m so sorry. You needed somebody to love you unconditionally, I get it. I should have been there for you. I should have taken you with me.” She rocked him tenderly, stroking his back like she had when he was a child and had woken up with nightmares.
Gradually, he got himself mostly under control, hiccoughing a bit, still nestled against her shoulder. Safe. “I understand, you know. As an adult, I do. It makes sense.”
“But the kid inside you still feels angry and afraid.” Davina kissed him on the forehead.
“Yes, but that’s my problem, not yours. You did the best you could at the time.” He sat up straight and met her earth-brown eyes. “This isn’t your fault.”
“It isn’t yours, either, my love.”
He nodded, grimacing a bit. “Dr Mertz says it’s a genetic predisposition. Not anyone’s fault.”
“Still, I’m so sorry for the hurt I’ve caused you, my darling Aziraphale.”
Reaching up to touch her cheek, he smiled damply. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt so safe, so loved. Home, in his mother's arms, cocooned in unconditional love and acceptance. “Call me Paul, please.”