She was Hel Lokasdottir, Maiden King, Ruler of Niflheim, Goddess of the Dead. She was the daughter of a Trickster, sister of the Wolf and the Serpent, Vassal of Death. She had held archangels as they trembled, and gods as they fell. She was all there was to be feared in this world. She was not afraid of angels.
She did not know this one. She had not seen him, and heard of him only distantly, rumours of the intricacies of this world, this Midgard, and all that happened here, where all other realms converged. She had only heard the rumour of his name, murmured with wry amusement, or perhaps annoyed confusion, or a distant vague contempt. Such were the views of gods. But from her father, from her father's angel ...
They had told her of Heimdallr, and what had almost been. Told her of the chase, of turning at bay, of being bested and then ... defended. Moved from harm to safety, from seeing eyes as well as seeking hands, and asked no price in return. And as they told, in her father's eyes ...
Bemusement, and an odd respect. And it was few indeed to earn the respect of Laufey's son. Fear, yes, her father was often moved to fear, but respect? A rarer thing. And Gabriel, too, afraid and appalled and grateful and annoyed, things their archangel reserved for gods, and not the family that had failed him. Interesting. Worrying.
And despite it, here she was. For she had a duty to do, and neither fear nor worry had any hold where duty need be met. For her father's safety, she owed this angel. For Gabriel's secret, twice the debt. And if neither of them would own it, well. She would sort them in their turn, once this was done. Oh yes.
But first, the angel. First, this little bookshop ("Whatever you do, don't touch the books! He's ... not stable, if you do that ..."), in this little street, in this strange and dismal city. First, Aziraphale.
The bell tinkled accusingly at her as she opened the door. For a moment, despite vague apprehension as she studied the dusty interior, she smiled, and counted it a good trick.
"Oh, for ... I'm sorry, my dear, I'm afraid we're closed, didn't you see ... the ... Ah. Uh. Oh dear."
Hel turned towards the back of the shop, to the ... angel? ... standing in the recessed doorway to a dim and distant interior, the tired and frumpy gatekeeper to a secret realm, a soft creature with a soft, kindly face, and gentle eyes that flared in worry at the sight of her, and then weary resignation.
She blinked at him. "Aziraphale?"
"Oh, bugger it," he grumbled, turning around on his heel. "I thought I'd another twenty years left on this corporation! Bloody management, they never tell you anything ... Just a minute, my dear!" he called back over his shoulder, not seeing her look of increasing bewilderment. "I'm sorry, I'm really not ready right now, and really, you're not my usual Death, you'll have to forgive me ..."
He wandered off into the recesses of the shop, his mutters gradually fading and being replaced by the odd thud and occasional yelp as he apparently started shuffling things around, and Hel simply stared after him in distant amazement. Such were the views of gods, but really ... such must be the view of anyone, she thought, faced with ... with this. What by Nidhoggr's teeth was he doing?
"Oh, bloody Hell!"
She turned, startled, as someone else staggered out from where the angel had gone, an angular scramble of limbs in a pitch-black suit, and a flash of golden eyes behind smoked glass as he fetched up against the counter and turned his head to glare at her. She blinked back at him. Whatever his problem was, it was none of her doing. The man ... creature ... demon? ... glared at her for another minute, impressively enough, when so few could hold her gaze, then turned back towards the interior and shouted.
"Angel, for pity's sake! You can't be expected to go off with the first bloody death god that shows up! Calm the fuck down, get back here, and find out what the hell is going on first, will you?"
The angel popped his head around the doorframe, and glared at the demon. "Easy for you to say, Crowley!" he snapped back. "You spend your entire existence waiting to get shoved off back, you paranoiac, you! Some of us like a little more warning, thanks!"
"It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you," the demon snarled back, but there was a difference, now. Something languid running underneath it. "And you might at least ask the girl if that's actually why she's here before you go panicking. Considering that barring freak anvils from the sky, I'm the only one in range likely to kill you. And I haven't done that in forty years!"
"Which, given the maximum length of your patience, means you're just about due," the angel grumped back, but he'd come fully into the room again, and there was something almost cheerful about his complaints now. "But since you may have a point ..."
He paused, took a deep breath and set a gentle smile on his face, and turned to her. And Hel, who had been watching the byplay with some confusion and a lot of amusement for the past few minutes, found herself blinking at him, and accepting a soft, firm handshake before she really knew quite what she was doing.
"My apologies, my dear," the angel beamed, cheerful and genuinely apologetic. "I do get carried away sometimes, don't mind me. Ah. How can I help you, then?"
She stared at him for a little minute, first, feeling the warmth of his hand in hers, feeling the strength and gentility and the way he didn't flinch in the slightest from the chill of her touch. She stared at him for a time. And then, she smiled, genuinely, and said, "It is more how I may help you, I think. I owe you a great deal, Aziraphale First-father's son."
They blinked at her, the pair of them, eyes sliding sideways to meet, blue to gold, and speak silently among themselves. The way her father's eyes turned inwards to speak to Gabriel, a flash of connection that excluded everyone else. Then the demon's mouth curled into a brilliant smirk, and the angel blushed clear to his eyebrows, and looked away again with a dark little mutter.
"Well," the demon drawled, rich and slow, and somehow his sprawl had gone from precarious to provocative without him ever moving a muscle. "Well, angel, what have you been up to?"
"Oh, do shut up, Crowley," Aziraphale scowled blackly. "And get your mind out of the gutter, too."
He looked back at her, managing a bright and embarrassed smile for her on top of the demon's scowl, and Hel suddenly had to resist the urge to trace his features, to taste the reality of the expression, and determine which, if either, was illusion. She had spent too long her father's daughter, perhaps, and had learned a Trickster's appreciation for truth.
And there, as if hearing the thought, the angel's smile became gentle, and he asked: "Is this anything to do with the little scuffle in my back room a few weeks ago, by any chance?"
She nodded, sobering a little, drawing dignity around her as an old, familiar cloak. For this, she needed dignity. For this, she needed gravity. "Yes," she answered, simply. "For protecting my father, and keeping what secrets needed to be kept, I owe you gratitude. If there is anything you need from me ..."
Aziraphale blinked, honestly surprised, from what she could tell, and then quietly delighted, a soft suffusion of gratitude. "Oh, now," he murmured gently, still holding her hand. "That's quite alright, my dear. Nothing to worry about at all. Though I thank you for the thought ..."
"Angel," the demon cut in, before she could answer. He looked ... thoughtful, and worried, and suddenly a good deal more dangerous than before. Suddenly a coiling danger that reminded her, in a very visceral way, of her brothers, of Fenrir and Jor, something poised to leap or to run, and the danger in the uncertainty. "Angel, seriously, what have you been doing? Because last time I checked ... interfering between gods is a very, very good way to get killed ..."
"It's alright, Crowley," the angel interrupted, but gently. Softly, as he turned smiling eyes on the demon. Hel stared between them, unashamedly fascinated, since they didn't seem to mind what she saw either way. "Trust me, dear. It's all quite alright."
"Uh-huh," the demon growled, stalking over to them, crowding close to the angel. "Which is why you're expected death-gods to show up on your doorstep asking you to come along with them, is it? Honestly, I leave you alone for two months, and you're breaking up pagan brawls in the backroom!" He paused, allowed an unexpected sliver of a grin to show through. "If it weren't so bloody risky, I might almost be proud of you for that ..."
"Yes, because any brawling in backrooms is obviously because of your wholesome influence, is it?" the angel sniped back, his smile creeping further across his face. "Really, dear one, you could credit me with some thoughts of my own, you know." He grinned, and said as primly as inhumanly possible: "I was only trying to protect the books."
The demon laughed.
Crowley laughed, a half-snort as if he'd done his absolute best to keep it in, and had just failed. Crowley snorted helplessly, and Hel found herself fighting a grin, not for the joke, unknown to her, but for the sheer mischief in the angel's laughing eyes, the sheer echo of her father at his most playful, Gabriel at his most relaxed. The wickedness that could only live in purity. She found herself grinning, and reached out without thought towards the angel's shoulder, instinctive to share the delight.
And found her hand suddenly imprisoned in a fierce, pale grip, and the demon's golden eyes suddenly harsh and savage against hers. His lips twitched in a warning snarl that melted after a moment of startlement, and then he was staring at her in wary, defiant confusion, poised protectively before the angel, and Hel felt her heart turn over in her chest. For the echo of Gabriel in that expression, for the memory of her family in that motion. She felt her heart turn over, and twisted her hand in his grasp, curled her fingers softly over his. She was Death, but death was not ungentle, sometimes.
"I mean you no harm," she said softly, gently. "Neither of you. For my father, and my father's secrets, but for your own, too. I mean you no harm."
"We know," Aziraphale said, impossibly gently, tired and hopeful as he cupped their hands between his own, smiled so softly for his demon. "Sometimes we may forget, but we do know. And you, my dear." He turned to look at her, to smile a smile just for her, that reached into her chest and melted ice that had never thawed before. "We mean no harm to you or yours, nor ever will." A quirk of his lip, soft and rueful. "I won't demand the fulfillment of any debt, Hel. That's not why I'm here."
"It was," the demon muttered. "It bloody was, when it was tit-for-bloody-tat for six thousand years, and I still maintain I did not owe you two salvations just for warning me about Raguel, that time. One salvation, maybe one salvation and a middling-good deed, at most, you stingy bastard ..."
"Dearest?" Aziraphale murmured, his twinkling eyes never leaving hers as he gently disengaged their hands to elbow the demon lightly. "Do shut up, will you? Or I won't tell you about Heimdallr, and the backroom brawl, and Loki's secret."
Hel stiffened, instinctively, at that last, and the demon's eyes, which for all his rambling had never lost their sharp focus, narrowed rapidly. Curiosity, and wariness, and a slow, protective hunger. For the angel at his side, for whatever mess he'd landed himself in, and despite the urge to keep Gabriel's secret, despite the urge to demand that the angel could not share ... Somehow, she didn't think it would be shared beyond these two. Somehow, she didn't think they were a threat, for all their danger. Not like that.
"Gabriel was grateful to you, for not revealing him," she murmured softly. "It ... has been a long time, since one of his brothers has treated him fairly. He was ... very grateful."
It was oddly gratifying, seeing the demon's jaw drop. A little squirm of satisfaction she rather thought she got from her father. Yes. Oddly gratifying indeed.
"Gabriel??" Crowley stuttered, looking between her and the angel. "Gabriel and Loki?" He looked stunned, though not unpleasantly so, and then something changed. Something soured in his expression, and he turned to glare fully at Aziraphale. "And you ... You waded into a bloody ... You stuck your nose into a fight involving an archangel! Of all the ... Stubborn, stupid, prat ..."
"Crowley!" the angel snapped, truly nettled. "Firstly, I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions, thank you! Secondly, he was using one of my bibles to stop a sword. Thirdly, the other god didn't know, and didn't need to know about the archangel. And fourthly, Gabriel was in trouble, and on the run, dear one, haven't you been listening to the gossip upstairs, and I will not stand by if someone truly needs my help. I have never stood by for that, you know that ..."
"I know!" Crowley shouted, though mostly, Hel thought, in order to actually get a word in at all. "I know," he said again, a little softer. "I bloody know, angel, believe me, six thousand years and one apocalypse down the line, I know. Just ... I leave you for two months! Two months! And look what happens!"
Aziraphale softened, a little. "It couldn't be helped, dearest," he said quietly. "He really did need my help, and perhaps he didn't intend to end up on my doorstep asking for it, but ... well. Ineffable, you know. I may not be the angel I once was, but ..."
"You're more an angel than any of 'em," the demon growled, then flushed to his hairline. "And I didn't say that! You didn't hear me say that, got it?"
Aziraphale grinned, a wobbly thing, and nodded. "Deaf as a post, Crowley. Couldn't hear a thing. Could you?" he asked, slanting a smiling look back at her, bringing her back into the conversation with a sly grin. Hel felt her mouth twitch, and nodded seriously in return. Honestly. It was almost as much fun as watching her father argue with his angel.
"Not a word," she promised solemnly, and from the flicker in his eyes, knew that this pact of silence included more that a demon's slip into sentimentality. Much more. They met her gaze squarely, an angel and a demon to face down Death, and sealed the arrangement between them.
"Not a word," they echoed softly, and she smiled. For a long moment, while silence seemed to lay thick across the little dusty shop, in a little dusty street in a dismal, glorious city, Hel Lokasdottir smiled.
Then the moment broke, and traffic sounds filtered back across them, and the angel broke away with a cheerful smile and beckoned them to follow him deeper into the shop, into the arcane mysteries that lie behind every second-hand. The demon snorted, rolling his eyes and strolling languidly after him, and they both turned to look at her, innocent and sly, a pair of perfect, gentle tricksters.
"Can I interest you in some tea, my dear?" the angel said. "Since you came all this way?"