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“What are you watching, my dear?” Aziraphale asked, a book cradled against his chest as he settled next to Crowley on the sofa. Crowley had been sitting lengthwise with a Macbook balanced on his thighs, but folded up to make room. Aziraphale pulled each of Crowley’s legs out again so his black-socked feet were resting on Aziraphale’s lap.

“I’m checking on Buzzfeed, seeing how they’ve been doing lately,” Crowley said, wiggling his toes a little simply because he could. Funny things, toes. Limbs in general. He hummed contentedly when Aziraphale curled his free hand around one of his ankles.“I didn’t found the company, but I gave them nudges here and there. Great for encouraging Sloth. Even if I’m not pushing that agenda anymore, it’s morbid curiosity.”

“Is this one of those things you want me to try to develop an interest in?” Aziraphale asked. This was purely him being nice. Aziraphale had recently learned how to send emails and been very proud of that fact. He still thought Twitter was a bird watching forum, which was a precious notion that Crowley wished to preserve as long as possible without outright lying to him.

“I won’t subject either of us to that, angel, don’t worry.” Crowley miracled on some headphones so he could keep watching without disturbing Aziraphale’s reading. YouTube had been cycling through Buzzfeed videos at random for the past forty-five minutes. So far Crowley liked Worth It best, and was considering inviting Aziraphale to systematically try sushi and sake at three radically different price points instead of simply going for the most upscale and/or nearby restaurants.

He hadn’t paid attention to the playlist while talking, vaguely aware of teaser clips and an atmospheric howl. Now it was showing him two young men sitting on folding chairs in the foyer of an old, dimly lit house. Fit, Tan, and Handsome (But Also Nervous) began with sounded like a standard introduction: “Today on Buzzfeed Unsolved, we are going to…”

“Hold it, hold it, time out,” said Gangly, Pale, and Hipster (But Also Adorable). He snapped his fingers and his co-host froze. He got to his not-inconsiderable height and bowed towards the camera. His eyes turned completely black, his mouth showed more and sharper teeth, and his fingers were even longer and spindlier than before. “Mr. Crowley, it’s an honor! I wasn’t sure if you’d ever watch our show, but I’ve been putting a curse on every single episode just in case you did.”

“I’m not with you lot anymore,” Crowley said, panic rising in his throat. Aziraphale gave him a calmly concerned do-you-need-me-to-make-some-mobsters-vanish sort of look.

“This isn’t official business. It’s really on the down-low personal business, actually. But not too down-low. Gotta keep it, uh, keep it topside.” The demon toyed with the edges of his scarf in what looked like a very human expression of shyness. “On Earth I go by Shane Madej.”

If Crowley correctly remembered the tidbits of etymology he’d picked up over the millennia, as one did, Madej was a Polish variant of the Medieval Latin Amadeus. Which meant this demon was calling himself To Love God. Crowley wasn’t in the mood to chat with another demon while he was supposed to be having a quiet evening in with his angel, but he was impressed with Madej’s cheekiness and ability to converse with him through prerecorded online video, of all things. “You have five seconds to convince me to listen.”

Should I move? Aziraphale mouthed. Crowley didn’t respond for fear of Madej noticing he was with someone in the first place. Aziraphale untangled himself and shuffled away in his tartan house slippers and differently-tartan dressing gown regardless.

“I’ve been sent to prevent a powerful human seer from uncovering and spreading infernal truths that Down Below doesn’t want out in the open. That’s Ryan right here. He’s under divine protection, so we have to come at him sideways, right? I hang around him and mock him, thwart him, distract him, the works. I had to do a lot of recon to learn how to blend in this well.” Madej paused to breathe. The fact that he seemed to have forgotten that he didn’t need to breathe told Crowley the key part of his story.

“You’ve had to spend time living like them?” Crowley asked.

“Yeah,” Madej said quietly.

“It gets under your skin, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. Back home they talk about you like you’re a cautionary tale, Mr. Crowley, but...I think I get it. Which scares me. Like, I really like popcorn and hot dogs. And movies. And cats, and, and jacuzzi tubs, and, like, the whole country of Iceland. I’ve even tried smooching consenting adult humans and stuff, to keep up appearances, and it’s pretty cool once you get past how weird it is. The biggest thing? Lately it’s not been as fun constantly gaslighting Ryan.” Madej looked at Ryan and folded his arms tightly against his chest. “He thinks I’m his best friend.”

“What do you want from me?”

“The fans have been wanting us to do some episodes in the U.K. next season. I would have some influence as to where exactly. I'd like to sneak away from Ryan and the crew to meet up with you. I dunno, I don’t expect you to tell me some magic solution, but I literally have nobody else in the entire universe I can talk to about this. Also I’ve discovered that I enjoy beer, so that’s useful for socializing.”

Crowley could hear Aziraphale bustling around the kitchen in an entirely gratuitous fashion that meant he wanted Crowley to know he was nearby. Crowley thought about how stupid whoever gave Madej this assignment had to be. If the story was true, he wouldn’t mind buying Madej a drink and shaking his hand. “Oh, alright. But I need plenty of advance notice, and I get to choose the pub.”

Chapter Text

The shoot at the Tower of London went really well by Unsolved standards. They’d gotten permission to roam around portions of it after closing, though they had to work around the ever-present security, and there were plenty of jump scares on Ryan’s part and meme-worthy snarking on Shane’s. Ryan was convinced that the spirit box picked up the phrase “meeting a serpent”. Shane had contended that 1. no, and 2. even if it had, that made no sense. There were a few moments when Ryan felt a sense of coldness, sadness, or even malevolence that began to overwhelm him, but stepping closer to Shane always made the feelings fade away and made him feel normal again.

They had a shoot at the Drury Lane Theatre the following night, but a chunk of the late morning and afternoon off for relaxing or sightseeing. Ryan had already ticked a few points of interest off his bucket list when they came here to film the Jack the Ripper episode, and he hadn’t had time to recover from the flight yet while still recovering from a cold, so he decided to stay at the hotel today and brush up on his lines.

“By the way,” Ryan told Shane as he was sitting up on his bed and Shane was trying to decide whether to wear a jacket, “if you make any Muffin Man jokes tonight re: how he lives on Drury Lane, I am going to trip you down a flight of stairs.”

“That hadn’t even occurred to me!” Shane said with delight. “I’ll make at least five. All will be in nursery rhyme format.”

Ryan snorted. “I walked right into that one. Where are you going, again?”

“I’m meeting with an online friend of mine at a pub just down the street. We’ve done video calls and verified identity. I’m not going to get kidnapped, I promise.”

“It’d take an origami master to fit you in a car trunk anyway,” Ryan joked. He actually didn’t want Shane to go, but that was a super clingy thought and he wouldn’t want to admit the reason. I had a nightmare about snakes and a car that was on fire and you suddenly having too many teeth, and you’re my human chill pill to the part of my brain that takes shit like that seriously.

“I’ll be back before we roll out, promise,” Shane said, opting for the jacket after all. Ryan grunted a goodbye.

The next time Ryan surfaced from his notes, he noticed that Shane had forgotten both his wallet and his phone. Shane was a grown man who had only gone in walking distance, but hey, Ryan could use some fresh air. Giving Shane his stuff would be an acceptable excuse to get a glimpse of Shane’s friend.

There were two pubs in easy reach, but one of them was super packed and one of them had only a handful of people. Ryan spotted Shane’s distinctive silhouette from one of the windows of the less popular place and grabbed the door handle. He immediately felt a powerful sense of unwelcome, like it would be much better to go to the other pub. Still keyed up from last night and jittery about tonight, clearly. Ryan pushed through anyway.

At this angle, Ryan could see the back of Shane’s head and get a good look at his friend from the table up. The friend was wearing sunglasses and lots of black, with hair that had to take at least as much prep and product as Ryan’s did on a given day. Ryan was about to greet them when he heard Shane say, “I worry that if Ryan finds out, it’ll destroy him.”

A better person might have still greeted them, but Ryan crouched behind a standing chalkboard announcing Happy Hour specials instead. For some reason, none of the other people there paid any attention to his Hide and Seek maneuver. Also, he could barely hear their conversations as low murmurs, but he could hear Shane and the other guy loud and clear.

“Oh, I don’t know about that, humans can be more resilient than you think. I’d be more worried about your bosses destroying you.” The friend didn’t sound unsympathetic exactly, but he had the resignedness that Ryan associated with coworkers discussing work-related screwups and crappy employers.

Shane took a long gulp of his beer. “He told me I’m a comforting presence, Crowley. What the Downstairs do I do with that?”

Crowley’s drink had an umbrella in it, which he plucked and toyed with. It didn’t look like the kind of drink that normally comes with an umbrella, but maybe he’d asked for one. “Because you’re dampening his psychic powers? Or because you’re keeping everything genuinely nasty from revealing itself to him?”

Ryan bit back his wtf so he could keep listening.

“Both. If I wasn’t with him every time he goes to every genuinely haunted or cursed location he’d either have had a major revelation or a total breakdown by now. As far as we can tell, the nature of the protection is that nothing that he would be afraid of can do him lasting physical harm, and he’s heavily guarded against demonic influence, but that protection doesn’t care much about emotional trauma.”

“That’s how it generally is with this type of chosen one,” Crowley sighed.

Shane slumped like an anvil had been placed on his shoulders in addition to the two that were already there. “That’s why my mission’s the way it is. If he was afraid of me, I wouldn’t be able to get past those defenses to mess with his head, so I had to make him trust me. I didn’t meant to make him like me. I sure as fuck didn’t mean to like him back.”

(Ryan couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe he couldn’t breathe he couldn’t -)

A long silence followed. Ryan wanted to sink into the carpet. He wanted to wake up from this nightmare. Crowley (a demon?) cleared his throat and told Shane (A DEMON!): “Hate to break it to you, mate, but that spell to keep new humans from entering the pub and from paying attention to us if they’re already here...doesn’t seem to work on seers.”

Shane twisted around in his seat and his eyes were black, black all the way through. Then he unfolded to his full height, blinking the black away, curling his hands into tight fists by his side. “Ryan, it’s okay.”

Ryan curled into an even tighter form to huddle behind the sign as if it would do anything at all to help. He wanted to wake up now, please. He thought about bolting for the door, but it seemed light-years away. Moments later the sign slid away. He’d lost his only cover.

“Mr. Bergara,” Crowley said, his voice unexpectedly gentle and his snakeskin shoes unexpectedly near, “there’s a storage room in the back where the two of you can hash things out in real privacy, if you like. Neither of us can hurt you. Neither of us will even try, I give you my word.”

Ryan sat up, wanting to salvage a bit of dignity. At these closer quarters he could see the little squiggle of a snake tattoo on Crowley’s face where a sideburn would be on a different hairstyle. The spirit box had said meeting a serpent. Shit. It was real, it was all real. He let out a hysterical giggle. “I guess I don’t have any evidence of you lying to me.”

Crowley led him and Shane there, and said he'd wait right outside and keep them from being interrupted. Ryan stayed near the door, which he quickly checked was unlocked. Shane perched on a keg with his feet on the floor, his elbows on his knees, and his chin in his hands. He stared at Ryan with a completely blank expression.

“Show me what you really look like,” Ryan said, proud that his voice barely shook.

It wasn’t that much different, though it was unsettling. In addition to the all-black eyes, he kind of an angler fish mouth with rows of long needle teeth, and when he held up his hands Ryan could see that his fingers all seemed to have lengthened and added another joint. “Why’d you follow me?” Shane asked, sounding the same as he always did despite all the haphazard fangs.

“You forgot your phone and your wallet.” Ryan briefly took them out of his pockets to show Shane. He couldn’t relax enough to sit on a box or even lean on a wall.

“I left my phone on purpose. I guess that threw off my rhythm.” Shane looked around as if searching for hidden cameras. “My superiors can track me through tech, and most easily if it's tech that belongs to me.”

Ryan's eyes widened. “Should I get rid of your phone?”

Shane crooked a finger and the phone vanished from Ryan's hand. "I sent it back to the room, no harm done."

At least Ryan hadn’t doomed them to some kind of demon SWAT team showing up. Also, under other circumstances that would have been a fascinating bit of magic to witness. “Why are you talking to this Crowley guy?”

“He’s the only successful deserter I’ve ever heard of. Same reason - he got to liking humans and didn’t like the company policies.”

He noticed the words Shane wasn’t saying. “If you say the actual name of the place, will you, uh, will you be heard?”

“I’m not sure, but I worry it might increase the chances. Better safe than sorry.” Shane should have looked gross or terrifying. He just looked sad. “That time when you were a kid and fell into a pile of bricks, that was a demon trying to outright kill you. Then they, like, vanished, and I was never told what exactly happened to them, but when you do your Ricky Goldsworth bit it makes me think that you did the spiritual equivalent of a fetus eating its twin. Like you engulfed a demon, and every once in a long while you sound like them. It’s still you, since you’re free from any lasting demon influence other than mine, but you imprinted on some of their personality quirks.”

“...Ricky Goldsworth is non-binary? Was? The demon that, like, inspired him, I mean." Ryan always had weird priorities when he was freaked out but trying not to freak out more, including in questions.

This threw Shane for a loop, and he blinked and pondered for a few moments. “We kinda all are, I guess? Though plenty of us have preferences that aren’t a big deal. It’s not baked into the language we use. I got this body and identified as male to make it easier to be platonic friends with you according to how you’ve been socialized.”

Trying to get back on track, Ryan asked, “What does it mean when you say your bosses will destroy you for me finding out?”

Shane shrugged. “It depends on the administrator who gets handed my case, but it’s probably going to be a few decades of being tortured, followed by a few decades of the least popular jobs, like filing paperwork. Maybe after that they’ll put me on Pit duty, which is at least occasionally fun when you get a total asshole to work over.”

“Tortured continuously?” As if that made much of a difference.

“Yes, Ryan, it’s not like they stop for teatime.” Shale made a familiar what-an-idiot snort.

“I don’t want that to happen to you,” Ryan said slowly.

“But you’re mad at me.” Shane’s freaky fingers interlaced and he switched to hugging his knees.

“Yeah, I’m mad at you! I realize you’re in a tough spot, but all this, all this gaslighting you’ve been doing to me, encouraging me and the viewers to think I’m paranoid and ridiculous and gullible when I’m apparently perceiving real shit, that’s emotional abuse, man.” Ryan sighed. “But, you know, I still care about you, and what I overheard you saying tells me you care about me. To paraphrase what you said to me in that voodoo episode, sometimes I’m mad at you, but I don’t want to condemn you to centuries of cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Oh, it’s very usual -”

“Shane, c’mon! I’m trying to make a point.”

“Right.” Shane’s eyes looked inky now, like squid ink was about to seep out of them. “It’s not your fault, and maybe it’s better this way.”

“I could act like I don’t know.”

“You can try. Your behavior is probably going to change in ways someone will pick up on.”

“Does Crowley have any tips?”

Shane shook his head. “He got away because of some extremely unusual circumstances. What I was hoping to do was keep you unaware, keep you doing the show as long as possible, and find excuses to hang out with you for as long as possible to justify staying on Earth. Then hopefully I’d have such a great track record that I’d be the go-to guy for other undercover missions here. There aren’t a lot of demons who can fake humanity as well as I can.”

“Have you hurt any people?” Ryan wasn’t sure why he believed Shane was telling him the truth now, but seeing him stripped bare like this made him inclined to take his answers seriously.

Another head shake. “I’ve never set out to harm any humans other than dead damned souls, and only because it was my shift. I’m not even a temptation specialist. I’m here to sabotage divine plans I don’t understand. Crowley suggested that me trying to sabotage the plans might be part of the plans themselves, but I don’t know what to do with that information, so I’m choosing to ignore it.”

Now there was an idea. “Can you make me forget what I saw and heard? Seems like a pretty standard demon power, in my opinion.”

“Right, ‘cause you’re such an expert on demon powers.”

“Whose fault is it that I’m not more of an expert than I am?” They both laughed, and for a moment it was like their ordinary banter with no cosmic weight behind it. Ryan wanted that back. “I’m not kidding, Shane, or whatever your real name is. I’m not scared of you, and as long as I’m not scared of you, it’s possible for you to influence me, right? Though is knowingly cooperating with you going to damn my soul?”

Shane bit his lip, which looked a lot more dangerous than usual, and cocked his head. He moved his hands like he was doing invisible head math or connecting non-existent dots. Eventually he replied, “Sorry, had to run the numbers. The answer's no. Our friendship hasn’t done your soul any damage. Doing something purely for its sake won't either.”

Sighing with relief, Ryan stepped closer to Shane. “Okay, then do it. Reset me, big guy.”

Sighing with something else, Shane stood and met him in the middle. He put a hand on each of Ryan’s shoulders. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t like this information. I like knowing you’re fond of me, but I already knew that.” Ryan resolutely looked into Shane’s eyes, which were now oozing a single black trail from each. “I also want us both to be safe.”

“I want that too,” Shane said.

“I hope you can work out your, uh, career problems.”

Shane laughed in a way he’d never laughed before in Ryan’s hearing, quiet and dry. He pulled Ryan into a careful hug. “Forget.”

*

and

*

then

*

Ryan

*

woke from his nap to find Shane lounging on the other twin bed, wearing his glasses, a pair of sweatpants that were a little too short yet a little too loose, and a black t-shirt with gray letters that said tabula rasa in cursive.

“Is that a new shirt?” Ryan asked. The letters seemed to be...wavy. He rubbed his eyes and the effect stopped.

“Nah, it’s a bit threadbare and has holes in it, so I don’t wear it much, but it’s comfier than what I was wearing at the pub. Spilled stuff on myself.” Shane was scribbling in a notebook. It had better not be another episode of the Hot Daga.

“Was it fun?”

“Yeah! Seeing an old pal in the flesh was cool.” Shane checked his watch. “We’ve got about half an hour before Devon knocks on our door. She'll want us ready to go.”

Reluctantly, Ryan peeled the fluffy covers off himself. “I’ve got a headache. Pretty bad.”

Shane looked at him over the frames of his glasses. “Sometimes people think they have a headache when they’re actually thirsty. Try drinking some water.”

Ryan’s water bottle was full of perfectly chilled water and right on the nightstand, when Ryan could have sworn it had been nearly empty and also on the side of the room earlier. Whatever. He drank and the headache vanished. “Huh, good call. Wanna Instagram before we leave, feed the fanbase?”

“I’d like nothing better.” For some reason, when Shale grabbed his phone, Ryan felt an uncanny pang of sadness, yet also a wave of....fondness? He let them fade.

Chapter Text

Shane liked Sara a lot. When he found out a coworker he found agreeable had a huge crush on him, and she didn't mind what she interpreted as normal human asexuality in a partner as long as their relationship stayed open, he saw a pleasant opportunity to further bolster his deep cover. No only by making him appear more normal, but also by demonstrating a lot of human behavior in a controlled setting for him to learn from. Demons actually did often show strong preferences for the company of specific others, whatever you cared to call that. Some even liked sex or its discorporate equivalents - which included him, but Shane felt deeply uncomfortable at the idea of having it with someone didn’t know what he was or that he was using them for his own gain. One seventy-year stretch of his recurring torture pit obligations had involved sticking metaphysical ouchy things into the metaphorical orifices of dead rapists while making idle chit-chat with them between the screams. The chit-chat had been off-script, but he’d been curious about what made them tick and later kinda regretted asking. Gross. Better to avoid doing anything that wasn’t one hundred percent fully informed consent, in his opinion, no matter if nobody but him would ever care. There were plenty of other sensory novelties for him to take advantage of while he was here.

Though whatever Shane felt for this tiny, bright spark of a woman probably didn't fit the human definition of romance, he liked the domesticity Sara brought into his life. Like sure there was kisses and handholding, but also toothbrushes next to each other and shopping for rugs and experimenting with new dinner recipes, all that jazz they didn't have in Hell. He knew he'd be sad when Sara died, though not devastated as he was going to be with Ryan (his primary mission as well as his friend, ok?) and he frequently scanned her soul to make sure its condition had nothing to do with their relationship. So far it seemed whatever cold pricks unfallen angels could be, Whoever was in charge of judging humans Heaven-worthy accepted unselfish love as virtue regardless of who it was for. The Silver City of the angels, he distantly remembered as a sterile yawnfest, but from what Crowley said his boyfriend said, the human Paradise had the joy and color you'd expect from lumping all the best of humanity together and freeing them from suffering. That was where Sara and Ryan needed to be one day, fuck what Shane's bosses would think if they knew he thought that way. He was beyond grateful he worked in the Obfustication sector, not Temptations, and had no obligation to try to get them damned.

So there he was, eating cereal across from Sara on a Saturday morning while she scrolled through Instagram and nibbled on toast. Shane felt as content as a demon in slow existential crisis was capable. Then his phone rang, and when he touched it he could feel the metal burning so hot it hurt his fingers, though he showed no sign of it on his face. He could hear Obi's faint hiss from somewhere in the apartment. Cats were clever like that, even though he didn't fear Shane himself.

“This is a private one, darlin’, sorry.” Shane got up to head for the bedroom.

Sara smiled. “Cool, but if you come back and all the marshmallow bits are missing from your increasingly sludgy sugar bowl, I won’t be held responsible.”

He locked the door behind him before answering the call. “S. Madej speaking, eager to, uh, you know, do whatever you need.” He liked to make his opening salutation ambiguous on the very slim chance he’d misunderstood and this was a human caller.

But the voice on the other end sounded full of broken glass. “Sheeemoodaiiiiiii yourrrrrr briiiiiiiiiidge neeeeds a visiiiiiit.”

“Of course, your Unholiness. Within the hour, once I’ve wrapped up -”

“Nowwwwwwwwww, Shemodai, NOW. NOWWWWW.

“Yes! Immediately. Anything else, your Unholiness?” He hoped not. The less of a briefing he got, the more scope he had to do his own thing. Thankfully the line went dead.

Sara was right where he left her. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I have to go do a thing. There’s nothing you need to be concerned with except your date tonight.”

She frowned. “Your left ear is bleeding.”

Oops. Shane had forgotten about the fragile eardrums in a mortal body, and the handler probably didn’t know. A quick heal. He added a little bit of oomph when he repeated, “There’s nothing you need to be concerned with except your date tonight.” Then he gently tipped her face up and leaned down to kiss her, because following up any sort of mind manipulation with an affectionate gesture wrapped that mind in a sort of protective cuddly blanket. He only messed with humans’ memories or perception when it had to do with his job, not for personal convenience, but he still didn’t want to risk punching holes in the sanity of the two people he had to mess with fairly often. (With Ryan it was sometimes hugs, but more often an arm around the shoulders, rubbing his back in calming circles, or a playful hair ruffle, which continued to cement Ryan’s perception of Shane as “often annoying but ultimately comforting” in a way that Shane had serious mixed feelings about.)

No time to stew about that. A few years ago, Hell had decided that guarding the portal on Old Alton Bridge didn’t warrant a full-time post, since only celestial beings and extremely gifted humans were capable of using it as a shortcut. It could take you anywhere on Earth, anywhere in Hell, select portions of outer space, and to a few eras of the past if you knew what you were doing. Shane was told to expel the Goatman and add guardianship of the bridge to his own list of duties. He’d taken the opportunity to ham it up and have fun with the acquisition, which fortunately only required him to drop by when told to do so, scaring off mild threats like the rare witch with genuine talent. He also showed up once in awhile to do random spooky things to help maintain the place’s reputation as a minor tourist attraction, rather than have it torn down and replaced with something less convenient and private for demons who had a legitimate reason to use it.

Travelling by a mobile network was a neat trick that only worked if you were familiar with whatever phone you planned to emerge from, unless you were willing to bounce around randomly from exit to exit like a Scooby Doo hallway chase sequence. (Shane liked that show. It understood that the majority of terrors came from humans doing evil and blaming it on monsters.) There weren’t any internal signposts when you were just a bunch of particles and/or waves. Same with landlines or radio.

Which is why Shane travelled by wifi today, an innovation he was proud of. Even Crowley hadn’t known how to do that one. Shane kept a tiny shoebox of a studio apartment a short distance from his bridge, which was also a handy place to keep possessions of his which he didn’t want Sara stumbling on. He kept a router constantly going so as to have a secure landing spot. (Password: telltalesofme.)

Upon arrival, he turned invisible to the vast majority of humans, let out his wings, and flew the rest of the way. It was a slower, more tiring mode of travel, but definitely quicker than any mundane method. Funny, usually when he had to come chase someone off the bridge it was dark it. This time it was a beautiful sunny afternoon.

Then he saw what it was he had to chase off, and his blood went cold in his customized veins.

To the naked, mundane eye - the Shane Madej eye - this was a middle-aged blond man with a cute face and a dad bod, who only needed a green carnation in his buttonhole to seem like he’d taken a seriously wrong turn on his way to some Oscar Wilde literary festival. He was leaning against the railing with his arms crossed and a woeful expression.

But in the full sight of Shemodai, nothing could obscure the incandescent holiness of this being’s aura. A human artist might feebly try to illustrate this concept as a halo, which would be far, far, far less accurate than when human toddlers tried to represent the sun by making a yellow blob in the top corner of a page. Then those blue eyes looked at Shane, saw him, and Shane started to wonder of the wrath of his superiors would be better or worse than stirring up trouble with this.

Then the angel...wrung his hands. “I’m sorry to show up unannounced like this, Madej, but I didn’t know how else to get in contact.”

This was enough for Shane to cautiously land, though he kept his wings, teeth, eyes, claws, and grotesque hands all at the ready. “Are you Aziraphale?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Prove it.”

“Crowley told me you were upset that your superiors ordered you to stop making a snack-related saga because they deemed it frivolous and overly creative in a way that people like you aren’t supposed to be. Which I think is a pity, by the way. He showed me some of it. I do hope Maizey can revive her wife soon.”

And I was so upset that I killed off Gene and made him sing the saddest goodbye song any demon has ever composed on a laptop, not that there’s much competition. Shane blinked his dark sclera away, let his fingers shrink back and his teeth soften. There was no way an angel other than Aziraphale would have sat through enough of the Hot Daga to make that reference. He wasn’t quite ready to winch in those wings, though. “Thank you for saying so, Aziraphale. What’s wrong?”

“It’s about Crowley. I don’t feel safe discussing it here. I realize this is a dreadful imposition, but if you could find it in your heart to…” Aziraphale gestured to the spot nearby, at the center of the bridge, where a portal would appear to almost anywhere if you knew how to make it.

Shane shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. “If I travel by any means that ordinary humans can’t, my superiors always know, and I have to justify it to them later.”

“But if you travel in such a fashion with me, my trail will perfectly cancel out yours. They won’t notice a thing.” Aziraphale held out a hand in a pleading gesture. “I promise. Crowley and I learned this a long time ago, and there’s no reason it won’t work with you too.”

“I want to believe you, but I’ve spent a lot of time, like, cultivating skepticism for this role I’m playing, and that shit really starts to affect…”

“Please, brother.”

To be called “brother” by an angel - one who’d drifted lightly sideways, maybe, but remained fundamentally Unfallen - Shane was shaken. (Or shooketh, as they’d say online.) He gave a quick nod. “Fine. I’ll try.”

“Thank you.” The raw sincerity was enough for Shane to understand how Crowley could be so willing to give up everything else for this one

Soon they were in a small, cozy cottage in a part of England Shane hadn’t heard of. He could smell the sea breeze. “I thought you had a bookshop in London?”

“We also wanted somewhere quieter to retreat to,” Aziraphale said. “Follow me to the bedroom.”

“Um…”

“Not like that.”

“I was gonna say that would be a doozy of a feti-” The rest of Shane’s coping-banter died in his throat when he saw what Aziraphale needed to show him.

Next to a neatly made bed, beside a window leading to a magazine-worthy garden and pond in which a few ducks were milling around, was a long table and a spacious glass tank supplied with small plants and various other accoutrements. And in the glass tank was a long black snake all wound into a tight coil, eyes open because snakes didn’t have eyelids, but for no other reason.

“If he were only a snake, all his symptoms would point to torpor from cold. I tried leaving him in the sun. I bought reptile-appropriate heat lamps and made them as bright as I could safely manage.” Aziraphale said pointed at the three lamps. “He’s slept for years, even decades, when he was depressed or bored. Not like this, not in this form and unresponsive. He started acting odd for days beforehand, too. So sluggish all the time, no matter what I did. Then he started spending an awful lot of time as a snake, then he started being a snake that acted like just a snake and not like a snake-shaped Crowley. He’s been like this for three weeks now.”

Shane knelt on the floor to get a closer view. Sometimes he thought his Earthly body’s height was the result of a typo in the field gear commission forms. “He’s been breathing consistently, right?”

“Yes, thank...er...someone.”

“Okay, that’s not nothing.” Shane looked back at Aziraphale. “Let’s say I can’t do anything. Let’s say nobody can. What do you do?”

The answer came swift and certain. “I will care for what I have left of him until this body of his stops breathing. And then I will care for the bones until they crumble. And then I will care for the dust until I am dust too. Then we will be dust together.”

“Dude,” Shane said, involuntarily. He’d been spending too much time with a frat boy (albeit a frat boy with a heart of gold and a gift he should never have been burdened with). “I mean, I’ll do my best to keep it from coming to that. Can I touch him? Hold him?”

Aziraphale nodded and helped Shane get him out, telling Crowley, “It’s alright, my dear, this is a friend come to say hello and see what’s ailing you, not to worry. Not to, not to worry.”

Shane let all the visual representations of his demon-ness slip back out again as he gathered Crowley into his arms. He addressed Crowley in a dialect of Dis, Hell’s capital, that was mutually intelligible with the language still spoken in the Silver City, but had a very different flavor. This dialect Aziraphale would understand, but would never be able to speak. Should never be able to shape his vowels with the right kind of loss, would never warp consonants with such rage, could never inflect with such hidden, deep-running despair.

Shane ran his fingers along Crowley’s smooth scales. “Can you hear me, my fellow fallen? Can you get up?”

ss, Crowley replied, in the tiniest hiss ever. Not in Shane’s ears but in his mind. Aziraphale didn’t show any signs of hearing.

“What’s wrong?”

Maybe this was how ghosts sounded to Ryan. Shane didn’t actually know, since his duty was to convince Ryan he wasn’t really hearing anything. But that faint whisper in Shane’s mind answered him: cold.

“He’s given you lamps and the sun.”

differentheat

“He loves you so much it terrifies me a little.”

“Are you getting a response?” Aziraphale asked hopefully. Shane put a finger to his own lips. He couldn’t handle another layer to this conversation.

yesbut

“But?”

he’swarmbutnothotsorrysorryIneedsorrynotscorchingnotIneeditnothomebutIneed

Whoa, okay, Shane needed to think about that for a moment, untangle the mess of emotions that had been chucked into him along with the mess of “words”.

Then he said in English, “Aziraphale, for your own safety, you need to get seriously far away, because I’m about to go Human Torch. I guess Demon Torch.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“Sorry, pop culture. I think Crowley’s in torpor because there isn’t any heat on this plane of existence that’s going to compensate for still, uh, he still belongs to, uh, that place a little bit, see? And his own reserves are too low now that he’s been cut off from not only that place but all his cohorts. Except, well, me. I don’t want to harm you with my fire, even if the kind I make is one of the weaker varieties because of my rank. I stopped by the home office for a debriefing last Tuesday and I’m charged up.”

Aziraphale promptly opened the door and backed away to the very limit of still being able to watch the proceedings. “Don’t worry about the cottage. I can fix it, and the books are elsewhere.”

Shane’s fingertips always lit up before the rest of him did, if the rest of him did at all. Demonic physical quirks tended to be based on a specific animal, and all his were (female) deep-sea anglerfish. At the time everyone was picking out theirs, he’d liked the idea of thinking outside the box, including by having lure-fingers. They glowed with greenish bioluminescence at first, then ignited into flame. Crowley showed no reaction when they came in contact with him.

“My songs kno-w what you did in the da-a-a-ark,” Shane sang under his breath, trying to make himself feel better about the weirdness of the situation. “So light ‘em up, oh, oh, I’m on fi-re…”

He lit up his whole body, remembering just in time to cast protection over his clothes.

...warm… Crowley thought at him, moving a little in his grip.

“You know, the line ‘my childhood spat back out the monster that you see’ is on the poignant side for guys like us, don’t you think? I’m not actually into Fall Out Boy, but that’s a fun song to sing along to on the radio. I wish could tell Ryan that I analyzed emo song lyrics while literally burning with self-created fire from the underworld. I can imagine an alternate universe where Ryan would laugh at that until he fell out of a chair. Maybe if I try hard enough, I could find a setting on the portal on ‘my’ demonic bridge that would take us to that universe.”

“While I appreciate what you’re doing, Madej, your videos must edit out a tremendous amount of blathering,” Crowley said. Out loud. In Shane’s ears.

“Crowley?” Aziraphale took a step closer

“Stay back!” the demons chorused.

Shane let the flames die down again except for what was coming out of his hands, feeling like they’d reached a tipping point. “Does it take you less energy to be a snake than a humanoid?”

“Yessssssssss. But for Aziraphale, I’d rather…” The snake made an effort to draw more heat into himself instead of simply absorbing it passively, and moments later he morphed into his man-shaped guise. Thankfully he was clothed, or at least he looked clothed, otherwise his position with Shane would be on the overly passionate side. He quirked an eyebrow. “By Manchester, Madej, you’re far taller than necessary.”

“I know, right?” Shane let him go. And promptly fainted.

He woke up stretched out on the couch, with Crowley sitting in a chair beside him contemplating an ornate glass bottle with dancing flames inside. “Good, you’re awake. I trapped a few sparks from you in here. Do you need them back?”

“Nah, keep them. Since you don’t go back to the source anymore, you can use that to top up. Feed it with something evil. Like maybe print out comments from alt-right or incel forums and stuff them in.”

“I’m hipper than Aziraphale is, but I still need you to explain that,” Crowley said.

“YouTube comments will probably work too, but you’ll need just a little more sifting to find truly awful ones,” Shane said quickly. He didn’t want Crowley to go back to sleep out of sheer depression.

“What about you? Would food help? Aziraphale is keeping away in case his presence inhibits your recovery somehow.”

Shane sat up, feeling a little weak and cold but otherwise manageable. “A smattering of low-grade evildoing and I’ll be good to go home. Do you have any way for me to play some kind of online game that incorporates live conversation with strangers?”

“I can if you tell me what to get you.” True to his word, the moment Shane could make Crowley understand what he needed, the item appeared, and everything worked seamlessly.

A combination of verbally abusing other gamers and messing with the game itself in ways that horribly frustrated them but could not be proven as occult in origin quickly filled Shane with enough of that good ol’ evil juice without doing anything nasty enough for Aziraphale to be unable to handle in his own home. Crowley experimented with feeding the hellflames newspaper clippings about murder cases, which seemed to work fine. He occasionally shook his head at a gory moment on the TV screen as Shane played.

“You never did Pit duty, did you?” Shane asked as he logged off.

Crowley waved all the gaming equipment out of existence, and said dryly, “No, how could you tell?”

“Call it a hunch. I don’t like hearing about humans getting tortured on the mortal plane. But eh, once they’re Down Below they’re reaping what they sowed. The simulated stuff doesn’t bother me either. I respect your feelings, though.” Shane stretched. “Feeling sufficiently un-good to feel good now.”

Crowley gave him a proper hug before he left, and Aziraphale escorted Shane back to the bridge. It wasn’t uncommon for Shane to linger on the bridge for a few hours after accomplishing anything urgent, steeping the place in dark, malevolent energy as a preventative measure, so the rest of his trip was in the clear.

Before parting, Aziraphale started thanking him again and saying how much they owed him, but Shane interrupted with, “Don’t get all insecure about this, okay? Just because you can’t be every single thing someone needs doesn’t mean you’re anything less than everything they want. The Sun isn’t enough for the Earth. Like, it’s almost everything, but Earth needs its moon to keep the tides regular and keep the orbit stable. Okay? You’re still his sun. I’m not calling myself anyone’s moon, though, that’s not where I was going with this.”

“May I hug you?” Aziraphale asked.

Shane allowed it. It was pleasant, actually, beyond the symbolic weight of it. Too bad he couldn’t brag about it to anyone. “You’ve both got my number now. We can leave the bridge to its mystery.”

“What if it’s not an emergency? Simply for a chat?”

Feeling overwhelmed, Shane exited the hug. He smiled, though. “Yeah, that’d be nice.”

Chapter Text

Aziraphale coddled Crowley for over a month after Madej saved him, but eventually Crowley showed signs of impatience and Aziraphale reluctantly let him go on an excursion by himself. Sotheby’s was having an auction on a few art pieces Crowley had his eye on. New York City wasn’t a place Aziraphale particularly enjoyed, but one Crowley adored to visit. (Boston was the reverse.) It was good to be able to spend some time apart, Madame Tracey had said when Aziraphale stopped by to talk about it, patting his hand.

Feeling fretful, Aziraphale mixed up some cocoa and booted at (on? up? in?) Crowley’s new laptop. An Apple product, because Crowley’s sense of humor could be truly terrible sometimes. He decided to watch Madej’s newest video as part of continuing to get to know the dear boy without overwhelming him, as Madej still seemed to be somewhat in awe of interacting with a Principality, retired or not.

However, the you-tubes suggested that he try Worth It, made by the same company, and in truth Aziraphale wasn’t in the mood for the often-depressing subject matter Unsolved delved into. Crowley had mentioned that Worth It was some sort of endearing restaurant review series between two lads and their cameraman. This one was about pizza in New York, something Aziraphale only had a hazy concept of but would make him feel a shade closer to Crowley. Perfect.

Aziraphale sipped his cocoa and enjoyed watching the lovely friendship (or whatever it was, he had no room to make judgments about these things) between Steven and Andrew as they described the deliciousness of their pizza slices and always saved at least a bite for quiet, unassuming Adam. Something kept niggling at his mind, though. He felt like he’d seen Andrew somewhere. Typing “information about Worth It stars” led him to a video where they answered frequently asked questions. Which they did while continuously making and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, despite slightly struggling to talk through with the stickiness of the legume-based paste. One of the first ones involved Andrew clarifying how to pronounce his intimidating surname “Ilnyckyj”, saying it was actually a fairly straightforward “il-nick-ee”.

“That both helps and doesn’t,” Aziraphale said, irritated with his memory. There was a lot for him to remember, given his lifespan, but this felt too important to be having this much trouble recalling.

Then Steven froze mid-sentence and Andrew looked at the camera. No, through the camera. No, through the screen. “Aziraphale, I didn’t expect to see you. I wish it were under slightly less embarrassing circumstances.”

“Er, hello?”

“Andrew” got up, spreading out his white wings, and bowed deferentially. “I don’t care what anyone says, not that anyone on my level heard anything but rumors about what happened. You still gave me a hand when I needed it. Did you forget?”

“I’m terribly sorry.”

But the angel gave him a crooked half-smile. Very human indeed. “It’s okay, it was a long time ago. I was the angel responsible for providing manna to the tribes of Israel, but they kept wandering around and I had trouble finding them, and I was too ashamed to admit it to any authorities. You found me having a panic attack about all of those people starving because I was a failure and a coward, and you gave me directions.”

The answer came to Aziraphale in all its blinding obviousness. He remembered feeling an intense burst of angelic distress coming from somewhere in the desert, not too far from where he was at the time, and heading towards it. Aziraphale had been nervous around many other angels even then, the leaders and soldiers, but had only felt affection for a gentle errand-runner like this one had been. “Oh, you’re Nichiel! You were very polite, and it wasn’t an imposition. Glad to see you in good spirits. I understand the anagram now, but where did the spelling come from?”

Nichiel collapsed his wings back into his corporeal form. “I wanted to use a name that already existed. Maybe it was silly of me to skirt so close to my real name, and I've been told that the correct Ukrainian pronunciation is actually different from how my imaginary family says it, but if I was going to do long-term undercover I wanted to keep that bit of myself. I don’t dislike it here, not since I got used to it, but I also like being me.”

“Why are you in long-term undercover, may I ask?” Aziraphale hadn’t been the only angel on Earth all these millennia, merely the sole angel who made it his permanent residence and only visited Heaven occasionally for meetings with superiors. Plenty of angels had walked among mortals for longer stretches than a single smiting or blessing. Not something this elaborate, though. Maybe it had something to do with the botched Apocalypse.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you. I respect you and I owe you a favor, but I do want to qualify to go home eventually. If you want to call in that favor, call the number that’s going to flash on your screen for five seconds before your browser crashes. Sorry, I only learned how to do this trick recently.”

****

Do you have a moment?

yes, angel? got 2 paintings btw. small ones but v good. mailing em b4 i go

Good! But could you also get me some pizza?

I thought you only liked authentic Italian pizza

I’ll explain later.

ok <3 see you sssssoon

:-)

****

The process of talking to Aziraphale again through the medium of a video he’d recorded ages ago left Andrew feeling disoriented, with a mild headache and a phantom peanut butter tackiness in his mouth. It hadn’t been difficult to stamp almost ever Buzzfeed Worth It and many other Buzzfeed Tasty videos with his essence, not since he persuaded the other producers that they should end with his voice exclaiming, “OH-HOH YES!” The hard part was the hangover from using his own backdoor protocol, as it were.

He checked the date and time on his phone to reorient, drank a glass of milk, and nearly tripped over Wellington. “Don’t make smash my head open on a counter; I’d be a laughingstock while explaining why I needed a new body,” Andrew said, giving his cat a few head scratches. He hadn’t meant to get one, but the homeless kitty had made him feel things, plus it was easier to use pet ownership for Conventional Humanity Points than acquiring a romantic partner.

Wellington jumped onto the kitchen island and stared at him, unimpressed. Andrew still felt weird, so he decided to do something that made him happy. It didn’t matter that it was four in the morning. He didn’t need sleep, ever, though he indulged on work trips when sharing a room, or at occasionally home when he was really stressed. He turned on the lights, got out the ingredients and implements, and started making borscht. A vegetarian version, since he didn’t have the right kind of meat in stock and using miracles frivolously to summon ingredients was a no-no after last time. Especially since he’d done it in the Tasty kitchen and Rie remarked on the oddness of the sudden availability of Sichuan peppercorns at his prep station when she hadn’t been able to find any earlier. He convinced her that there had been a tiny packet way back in the pantry from a challenge the previous week. The memo rebuking him for the near-miss had been a masterpiece of passive-aggressiveness.

Andrew didn’t really have a human family with a proud Eastern European heritage, but he was also the only angel in all the Host who was supposed to be associated with food, a certain Principality’s hobbies notwithstanding. There was nothing that connected humans to their heritage in a relatable manner like ethnic foods, something he’d come to understand intimately. Since the manna gig had gone well after a rough start, the angel Nichiel been assigned to help with the loaves and fishes business much later on, incognito. Not kicking off the initial miracle, just handing the food out and keeping anyone from taking more than their share. He wondered how much it had affected his disposition as compared to his siblings/colleagues, having been in the physical audience for the Sermon on the Mount. Anyway, through those major projects and a number of lesser-known anti-Famine miracles through the years, he picked up a few things about food culture. (He didn’t know why sometimes he was told to help the starving, sometimes other humans helped instead, and sometimes they just starved, but ineffability conquered all.)

Because Andrew enjoyed feeding people more than he enjoyed eating - though eating could be pleasurable, especially in good company - he had a standing arrangement with a nearby homeless shelter. He’d convinced them to trust him randomly showing up with huge vats of soup and big platters of hearty meals, the kind of no-nonsense strengthening fare manna had been and tasting almost as good. He’d eventually convinced them that this wasn’t a prank or something sinister by showing them that he was a “famous online chef and food critic”. (Lol.) Humans had found him creepy when he first carved out this identity and started showing up to the job miraculously available for him, since he hadn’t learned to be three-dimensional and fully approachable yet, especially when it came to emoting. At least he’d gotten a starring role in a funny video series about creepy behavior out of it before Steven and Worth It swept into his life.

He turned on his radio and tuned it to a classical music station while he soaked mushrooms and made beets bleed. Of course, his sense of peace turned into a jolt of anxiety when the music turned into a voice. It sounded like sentient wind chimes. Not ugly, but not real melody. Wellington whimpered and ran away. “Nichiel, your weekly report is late.”

Andrew put down his knife. There wasn’t a direction for him to face, but continuing to cook while receiving orders seemed insubordinate. “My sincere apologies, Your Grace. I’ll have it ready for you before dawn.”

“We have no particular desire to prevent Steven Lim from visiting the city in two months, but he became influenced to transfer to New York for a reason.”

“Understood, Your Grace.” Supposedly, Andrew had been becoming too fond of Steven and getting distracted from his mission because of it. Just because they were best buds and he made Andrew smile more than anything else did and you could make a lengthy montage of them tenderly feeding each other gourmet forkfuls on camera. Steven was too pure of a soul for Heaven to try harming him for Andrew’s actions, at least not in this era when divine-mortal interactions were more mellow than they once were, so beings-that-were-not-Andrew simply engineered various circumstances in Steven’s life until moving to the other side of the country became more appealing to him than staying. Technically that wasn’t infringing on his free will. Technically. Them letting Steven visit from time to time and make a few more Worth It episodes with him was their idea of giving Andrew a treat for being a good little spy.

“See to it. You are an excellent operative when properly focused, Nichiel. You were chosen for this because your naturally nurturing attitude towards humans would allow you to acclimate better than others. Many details cannot be accurately seen from Above, particularly infernal doings. Never forget, however, that this ease among mortals could also be your downfall.”

Andrew bit the inside of his cheek. “Thank you for the compliment implicit in that reminder, Your Grace. I’ll take heed.”

The music returned. Andrew continued cooking until he could set everything to simmer, then he went to his writing desk. Wellington jumped into his lap the moment he sat down. He unfurled one wing, plucked a single feather from it with a slight wince, and cut a nib with a blessed knife to form a useable quill pen. The feather grew back almost immediately. It was a symbolic sacrifice. He wrote his reports on parchment. The golden ink was not holy enough to cause a demon pain, but touching it would definitely cause one a numbing pins-and-needles sensation.

Now, then, what had Andrew seen related to his mission this week?

Well, Ryan’s team had won a basketball tournament, but that wasn’t relevant to the report. He seemed okay with life. Sane. No revelations, whatever revelations he was supposed to get at some point. Andrew had gotten him to join him for a beer and a low-key heart-to-heart, which was worth writing about. Maybe Andrew could stretch that into two paragraphs.

Hm. Shane had eaten from a failed batch of ice cream Andrew distributed to his coworkers while attempting to make a human delicacy known as frozen custard in rainbow streaks, so he clearly still didn’t know what Andrew was. But Andrew wasn’t sure he wanted to point out to his superiors that if Andrew weren’t here in a strictly observatory capacity, he could bless the water he added to a sufficiently liquid-heavy recipe, offer it with a smile, and burn the demon Shemodai into nonexistence from the inside out. This particular demon wasn’t powerful enough to need pure holy water to die a true death, if an angel had blessed it and not a mere mortal priest. What if the top angels got tired of this waiting game and decided that was a great idea? It didn’t seem fair, and would traumatize everyone who saw it.

Including Andrew. That wasn’t what food was for.

(The manna hadn’t tasted like anything to Nichiel, when every human was full and he had sneaked a tiny bite. Like nothing at all. He hadn’t tried again. An angel was not meant to enjoy the taste of God’s mercy to humanity. It had been a delightful surprise that angel was capable of enjoying the taste of humanity’s gifts to itself.)

Before sunrise, Andrew managed a passable report by relating his chat with Ryan and an anecdote about Shane turning to the viewers and advocating robbing the wealthy. He stuffed with adverbs and hypothetical tangents to reach a respectable length, then sent it off into the ether and went back to his borscht.

Chapter Text

Thanks to Agnes Nutter’s guidance over the centuries, Anathema Device was well-off enough that she could live pretty much anywhere she wanted and take up whatever occupations or hobbies she liked (well, within reason - breeding tigers in a private tiger sanctuary would drain her inheritance pretty quickly). Thanks to Agnes’ sense of humor when it came to revenge on the Pulsifer who’d burned her at the stake, poor Newton seemed to have had some sort of curse when it came to, well, devices. Computers most of all.

But once that very curse had helped save the world, it lifted, and Newt found himself able to use computers like a normal person. To his cute delight. With Anathema’s support, he’d decided to go back to school and learn how to be the computer engineer he’d claimed he was, and they’d moved close to the university he ended up enrolling in for that purpose. Things were comfortable between them, sweet even, despite the oddness of essentially being in an arranged relationship orchestrated by a dead woman and commented on by generations of Anathema’s family. Going through what they’d been through together was a hell of a bonding experience, pun intended, and she’d in a sense known him all her life.

She hadn’t lost touch with Adam, though, nor with the angel and demon who she’d forgiven for stealing her book. Their reasons had been understandable once she knew the context, and it wasn’t like she hadn’t done a few counter-intuitive things trying to stop the Apocalypse. Her schedule while Newt was in class was quite flexible, focused on expanding her skills with witchcraft now that she wasn’t spending so much energy on being a professional descendant. That made it easier to have the celestial “consenting bicycle repairmen”, as she called them in her head, over for a sudden visit after a frantic phone call from Aziraphale.

Aziraphale tried the vegan scones she’d been experimenting with - she hadn’t managed to go full vegan yet, but she’d cut down on her animal product consumption to reduce her carbon footprint - while Crowley lounged on the sofa and brooded. She could tell he was glowering despite the sunglasses. Aziraphale did the explaining.

“So there’s a demon you guys are on good terms with who’s disguised as a human working as a YouTube star in Los Angeles, and an angel that you sort of like in close proximity, and you’re worried about them clashing, but you also don’t want to get involved,” she summed up at the end of the story.

“Right,” Crowley said. “Trying not to draw attention to ourselves. Want to stay free and alive. And together. Big fan of those three things, us...”

“But the demon saved Crowley’s life very recently,” Aziraphale murmured, eyes downcast while stirring his tea. “While the angel’s a sweetheart, by angel standards. By human standards, even. There are some nice people who could be caught in the crossfire as well.”

“California is bigger than you two seem to think it is,” Anathema began, and their faces went from worried to mournful so quickly that she immediately added, “But my mom’s been bugging me to visit. I could swing by L.A. I’ve learned how to pick out angelic and demonic auras lately, thanks to you two, when I’m paying attention.”

“Thank you, dear girl,” Aziraphale said, beaming. The phrase could sound patronizing from some people, but he said it like a fond uncle. Which was how he said most things to her. She couldn’t blame him for being a little old-fashioned when he was so incredibly old.

“Any ideas about how you can get close to Shane and Andrew?” Crowley asked.

Anathema pursed her lips thoughtfully. “You said they work at a company called Buzzfeed, right?”

****

On Jen Ruggirello’s Japanese side, she knew there had been at least one person with what might be called an unnatural talent. Technically that relative had been Japanese-American, second-generation, with the bad luck of being alive during World War II. The family lore said machines had liked her, that in the internment camp where the U.S. government dumped her family she’d become known for being able to fix things, things she’d had no experience or instruction in fixing. Lamps. Toilets. Useful when the powers-that-were didn’t give a shit about the people they’d locked up without trial.

In Italy long ago, there’d been a relative who’d been good with sword-making in a way that supposedly should not have been possible. Swords that never dulled, or the wielder never got tired wielding, subtle magic like that. Unless the people who’d recounted the latter story had been so sexist that they couldn’t comprehend that there might be a normal, competent female blacksmith, Jen admitted.

Filming and editing processes went very easily for Jen, so much so that sometimes she faked fucking up in order to be more relatable and less suspicious. When she filmed anything on company cameras and mics, it was smooth sailing. Also, all video equipment belonging to her behaved exactly as desired, even when someone else borrowed it. That was enough for her to wonder a bit, but hadn't been enough

Then there was the thing with pocket knives. She liked small knives that were primarily designed to be tools, not weapons. The whole thing about what happened with old pocket knives that she’d restored by herself had been...unexpected...and had led her to try to find real witches online to talk to about this. It had taken a few months, but eventually she'd found a few.

Right now Jen was at home on a Friday night cleaning rust off a penknife she'd bought at a yard sale last Saturday. Like glamorous ladies did. She should probably clean the Hot Cheetos dust off her t-shirt, but she was in the zone, okay? Then her phone dinged with an IM notification.

Ooh, it was "anthem-nana", one of the real witches Jen had struck up a friendship with after all the disappointing fakes. They'd exchanged real names and personal details after awhile, once they'd convinced each other they were both legit. Skyped a bit too. She was so pretty. So. Pretty. While also smart and nice and yeah, okay, boyfriend-having, but it wasn't like she was attainable anyway.

Sup?

If I visit L.A. in two weeks, would you like to get lunch or something on a Sunday?

Hell yeah! You can show me the aura and ley line readings!

I wouldn't mind seeing that knife you accidentally made able to slice up sunbeams.

sure. got one that can, like, un-cut stuff, too. Like a reverse knife. Wanna see footage?

YES. Oh, I don't want to impose, but could I possibly visit your office? It wx  just sounds so fascinating.

I can probably wrangle a guest pass for ya!

Anathema thanked her and promised to send details soon. Jen grinned and went back to fixing up the knife. She was curious to see what abilities it would have when she was done.

****

Sara and Shane had plans to try a new Ethiopian restaurant and then go watch a movie, but half an hour before leaving, Shane asked if it was okay if they stayed in and Ryan came over.

“I got a text from him and I think he’s having a hard time,” was all Shane said. But Sara assured him that supporting their friend was more important to her than sticking to their night out agenda.

“We have Netflix and that restaurant has a delivery menu, plus I get to wear pajamas and have a front seat to your dorky double act.”

“How very dare you,” Shane said, smiling mostly with his eyes but slightly with his mouth. “Thank you, though, seriously. I’ll take over Obi’s litter box duties for a whole week.”

“That’s not necessary, but I won’t turn down such a deal.” In preparation, she piled the couch high with extra throw blankets, pillows, and the stuffed Bigfoot Shane picked up as a souvenir from that one investigation.

Ryan showed up as a gray cloud of a person, drooping his way in with his hands deep in his pockets. “Thanks,” he said tonelessly as Shane shut the door behind him.

“What happened?” Shane asked.

“Big fight. It’s over. She’s been saying I’ve been acting really weird…I don’t know, I don’t really want to go into details.” He bit his lip and stared at the floor.

“Oh, no. We won’t push, right Shane? I think you could use a hug sandwich. If you want one.” At Ryan’s tiny nod, Sara hugged him from the front and Shane draped himself over Ryan from the back with his ridiculous and reassuring albatross-wingspan arms.

Ryan showed no strong opinion about what food to order, but they coaxed about half a meal into him, and shut Obi in the bedroom so that he wouldn’t rub himself all over Ryan and put his allergies into overdrive.

“It started after the London trip, like, the more recent one,” Ryan admitted while taking lackluster bites of himbasha. “I always feel fine when I’m at work. I mean, frustrating stuff happens, but I react to it in a normal way and my default feeling is good. I also feel better around you two. At first it wasn’t obvious. I thought I was just working too hard, wrapping up the editing and voice-overs for the Unsolved Supernatural season finale, figuring out our cryptid special, and also starting up research for a season of True Crime.”

“What have the actual symptoms been?” Sara asked, tidying up the various containers in order to have something to do with her hands. Shane was still picking at his entree, not even looking at it, eyes trained on Ryan in a soft way he’d never show with cameras rolling.

“I sleep and I sleep and I’m still tired. Haven’t gone to the gym in days. I get hungry but food tastes wrong. And I’ve been increasingly cranky at home. Said things I didn’t mean. Hurtful things. I don’t know. Can we watch something really dumb now?”

“Your definition of dumb or my definition of dumb?” Shane asked.

“Whichever.”

Shane rubbed his hands together. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Which was how they ended up piled in front of the TV with a bag of popcorn watching a “documentary” (Shane used air quotes) on El Chupacabra. Maybe it counted as research. Unsolved had been sponsored by an upcoming horror film to pop down to Mexico three weeks from now and try to find a demonic canine sucking goat blood. Sara looked forward to watching how spectacularly they were going to fail.

“People find the bodies of coyotes with mange and their imaginations run away with them,” Shane insisted, sitting between Sara and Ryan. He was holding pinkies with Sara in an innocently middle-school way. It didn’t escape her notice that after the popcorn was all gone, Shane put his other arm on the back of the couch and sometimes lightly rubbed Ryan’s far shoulder with his thumb. Not a typical bro thing, but Shane wasn’t a typical guy and the Ghoulboys weren’t a typical pair. Ryan didn’t seem to mind.

“Feeling sleepy,” Ryan said as the documentary credits rolled. “Maybe I should go.”

Sara didn’t like the idea of him being alone tonight. “You can sleep here tonight. If you want.”

“You sure? I’ve been enough of a third wheel…”

“Three-wheeled vehicles are more stable than two-wheeled,” Shane pointed out. “You’ve still got a toothbrush for you here, and fortunately you’re short enough to sleep on the sofa.”

Ryan looked relieved. “If you really don’t mind, then thank you.”

After using the bathroom for her nightly routine, Sara emerged to find the living room lights off and Ryan dead to the world under two blankets and a Bigfoot. Shane was sitting on the floor, watching him. Flinching when Ryan twitched in a dream.

“I’ll be with you soon,” Shane whispered to Sara when she approached. He took her hand and kissed it like that wasn’t anything unusual for a boyfriend, let alone the unnamed thing he really was to her. If Sara ever physically encountered someone who thought people on the aro-ace spectrum couldn’t be devoted to others, she was going to hit them over the head with a stapler.

****

Ryan?

Ryan Steven Bergara, of California, of the USA, marked for something I’ve never known, was never told except to stop you -

Ryan, I think we’re at the point where I can talk to you, at least in your sleep. I don’t know if you’ll remember, but it’s a start. Maybe some parts of your memory will retain a few scraps.

Sorry I tried to kill you when you were a kid. The direct approach seemed worth attempting at the time. You did a number on me, so let’s call it even, wonderboy. Deal? I almost stopped existing. I guess enough of me stayed somewhere in your neurons, your parasympathetic nervous system that lights up like craaaaaaaazy whenever you see things mortals don’t normally see.

Here’s a secret nobody knows, Ryan, but I’ll tell you as a reward for finally hearing me:

Long-legs is like me. And he doesn’t know I’m here, he can’t read me, because I’ve been rebuilding myself off his energy. Every time he fiddles with your mind, every time he examines your soul, every time he so much as touches you in any way, it makes me that much stronger. Fraction by fucking microscopic fraction. He’s annoyingly careful, though, so I’ve only been able to take over a few times for a few minutes. I’ve made it look like a joke. A bit of dark comedy. A meme for the fans. He doesn’t like it, but he mistakes it for an echo. Not an encore.

He did something to you on our most recent trip to London, Ryan, and I don’t know what it was - I see your life through a keyhole, not an IMAX screen - but it was the biggest change he’s ever made. I grabbed onto as much of that power as I could. The stronger something like me is, the more strength something like me can accumulate.

I shouldn’t have worn you so ragged the past week. Or messed with your girlfriend’s feelings. My bad. Got overexcited. She was there, your two-faced pal wasn’t. Do the math. (Give me some credit for not touching her, though. Didn’t want to risk you blacking in at the wrong time.)

I don’t want to draw too much attention until I’m ready, but I’ve dropped enough breadcrumbs for you to know who I am. Those Below call me Rictus. I’m known for my mouth, for my smile. I’m known for it not being a nice smile. But Ricky Goldsworth has a nice ring to it. I don’t mind it. I’ll let you decide which one to use when we have our first real conversation. Get some rest.

****

Ryan woke tired, unsure of his dreams. For some reason he hesitated at returning Shane's good morning

Chapter Text

Anathema booked a flight that would land in LAX early on a Friday morning, early enough to take a cab to Jen’s place, drop off her things, and have breakfast before accompanying her to work. It was a more grueling schedule than she would have preferred, but she had delayed checking on the demon and angel long enough. Her own demon and angel (when had they started feeling like hers?) had been anxiously bombarding her with texts and calls for a whole fortnight. The moment she landed, she sent Newt a quick message telling her she was okay.

Jen greeted her at the door with an excited squeal and a big hug. She was still in soft pants covered in mini rainbows and a gray runner’s tank top, her pixie cut flat on one side, so she’d likely been asleep until minutes ago. Anathema knew Jen had stayed extra late at the office last night in order to have time for her guest today. “Let’s get your bags squared away and if you wanna take a shower you can, maybe have some coffee? There’s a bakery just around the corner I think you’ll like. I don’t have to be at work until nine and it’s a short commute. Ohmigod I’m so happy to see you.”

“I am too,” Anathema said. She felt better about visiting Jen with less than complete honesty, because she really would have made the trip even if she had no ulterior motives. “Though I think I’ll be happier to see you once I’ve taken you up on that shower.”

She opened up her second sight while walking through the small apartment. Jen’s aura was consistent with her words, shot through with a mild puppy-love crush on Anathema herself which was respectful enough that Anathema felt flattered rather than awkward about it. The apartment was messy in a happy, lived-in way, suitable for a positive person generally content with life and whose ADHD medication was calibrated properly to help her focus rather than dull her mind. A locked briefcase next to Jen’s desk had to contain her special knives, since it glowed a shimmering purple-green-gold (second sight had colors normal sight didn’t). Then Anathema switched back to normal vision and went about cleaning up.

After showering, Anathema felt a lot more awake and human, smelling of no-tears shampoo/conditioner in a mango flavor meant for kids. Given the weather here, Anathema wanted to wear something light that still felt like herself, but modern enough to blend in among Jen’s crowd, so she put on a long brown beaded skirt and a ¾-sleeved blue peasant blouse. Jen didn’t seem to own a hair dryer, so Anathema settled for vigorous toweling and lengthy brushing, though she kept her eye on the time.

When she emerged, Jen was dressed in jeans and a simple red button-up with whimsical flying pie slices on her socks. “I had a cup of coffee to help me drive, and there’s enough to share, buuuut the place we’re going has all these fair-trade eco-friendly blends and I know that stuff matters to you.”

“Let’s just head out,” Anathema said, smiling. “You’d better let me treat you.”

The muffin which caught Anathema’s eye was larger than her fist (England had made her forget U.S. portion sizes) so she and Jen split it. They were running late by this point so they took what was left in a paper bag, their respective drinks in hand, and headed for Buzzfeed.

“After we get your guest badge I have to drop by my workstation and check my email real quick and make sure nobody’s waiting for me or stuck frantic post-it notes all over, but I’ve sent word around that I don’t want to be bothered about unimportant stuff until after eleven,” Jen said as she parked. “I’ll introduce you to people as we run into them. It’s kind of a madhouse, Buzzfeed. I’m sympathetic to people who leave so they can be creative on their own terms and I’m still besties with some, but it’s good for me. It kinda looks like the inside of my head.”

To get both a pass for Anathema and lenience for Jen to spend two hours basically goofing off, Jen had fudged the truth a little and said Anathema was interested in making a major charitable donation for this year’s Queer Prom but wanted to see how things were run first. Which Anathema was happy to do after Jen explained that this was an event for a selection of LGBTQ+ high schoolers who entered their stories about struggling with discrimination and bullying to be flown in for a wonderful inclusive prom experience and meet some of their online heroes.

“It’s gonna be harder without Eugene Lee Yang running it - he was a real Gaysian god among us he peaced out with the other Try Guys - but I’m committed to making sure it still happens,” Jen had said earnestly.

A substantial portion of the inside of Jen’s head apparently looked like a sprawl of long white desks shared by dozens of people with their own computers and ergonomic chairs, invisible barriers defined by whose miniature succulents/family photos/Korean trinkets/video game merchandise etc. ended and where someone else’s began. Some people waved and greeted Jen as they passed, but others were deeply engrossed in Word documents, spreadsheets, video editing software, audio mixing, Photoshop, and programs Anathema couldn’t identify at a glimpse. Other portions looked like warehouse spaces and insides of trailers that had been lined with soundproofing foam and outfitted with an array of backdrop screens that could be pulled down at a moment’s notice. At one point some people were being corralled into filming quick filler video involving trying to put together Lego sets without reading the instructions or looking at the photos.

Jen kept up a stream of commentary throughout the whole dizzying experience, though she paused often for Anathema to ask questions. “Now this area is workstations for Multiplayer, who make the gaming videos…we could poke our heads into the Tasty kitchens, if they’re not actively filming. I think the Unsolved set is being remodeled since they’re between seasons. You’re a big fan of Unsolved, right?”

“Those guys are a riot,” said an extraordinarily pretty blonde woman wearing a headset who swiveled around in her chair. “Hi, I’m Kelsey. I don’t know if you’ve watched any of my Sims videos?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t,” Anathema said.

“That’s fine! I just brought that up because I had Ryan and Shane come play Sims with me, and they spent the entire time psychologically torturing and trying to murder Sims versions of their coworkers. It was super dark but it was a big hit with the viewers, especially the ones who have this conspiracy theory that Shane’s a demon and Ryan’s got an evil alter ego.”

“Do they now,” Anathema said faintly, before she recovered. “Which coworkers?”

“They tried to kill the Try Guys…”

“Seems fitting,” Jen commented, then took a sip of her second coffee of the day, which had to be cold by now.

“...But the only person they successfully killed - in the game - was Andrew. From Worth It. Do you watch Worth It?”

“I’ve watched it, yes.”

“Everyone and their mom knows Worth It,” Jen said, with maybe a touch of self-deprecation. According to Anathema’s research, Jen’s primary series Ladylike had its fans but didn’t pull in as high viewership. Though every video with Jen in it, Ladylike or no, had hundreds of comments swooning over her specifically.

Kelsey snorted. “They drowned Andrew in a swimming pool. They don’t hate him irl, but there’s this rivalry between Unsolved and Worth It and they were playing to expectations, you know? Sorry, I shouldn’t ramble on, I’m sure you still have lots to see. Feel free to say hi if you run into me in the snack room later, though!”

“There’s free snacks for employees in that room,” Jen stage-whispered. Then she brightened up. “Ooh, I have an idea. Ryan and Shane usually go there right at eleven because they eat lunch super late, and usually they meet Shane’s girlfriend Sara there. She’s works here, but she’s off at a different department most of the time. That way you can meet a lot of people at once. It’s a lot smaller and cozier than the cafeteria. Plus you have to pay at the cafeteria. Andrew’s often there around then too. That’ll be a great finale before I have to do some real work and you go shopping. I wish I could introduce you to Steven, because he’s one of the best friends I’ve ever made here, but he transferred…”

Then they were off again, because Jen wanted to show Anathema where they kept props and costumes and equipment.

Finally, Jen took Anathema for refreshments and rest in a room full of free snacks, with relatively healthy ones like a fridge stocked of Chobani yogurt and cut up vegetables, along with more junky things like bulk containers of pretzels and chips. Also a frightening amount of coffee. At Jen’s urging, Anathema selected a can from the repository of chilled La Croix sparkling water. La Croix, the whole flavor array of La Croix, and nothing but La Croix. They must have had a sponsorship deal with them. Jen picked out a granola bar, then steered them towards a corner with a group of three men and one woman clustered together. “There they are, all of them! Awesome.”

Aziraphale and Crowley had made sure Anathema knew what their persons of interest all looked like to the naked eye, so Anathema skipped straight towards examining them with second sight. The first time she’d met celestial beings, she’d been discombobulated by crashing into a Bentley and hadn’t thought to try looking at their auras. She didn’t do it constantly, after all. But while standing around and waiting for the end of the world at Adam’s hands, she’d taken a moment to look at theirs, as well as Gabriel’s and Beelzebub’s. The best analogy she could come up with for all of them was a continuum of fire.

Gabriel: blowtorch.

Aziraphale: Olympic flame during the Almost-a-geddon, normally cozy hearth fire.

Crowley: fireworks in crisis, normally campfire.

Beelzebub: grease fire, or toxic waste ablaze.

With that in mind, she evaluated the two man-shaped beings in question.

Andrew/Nichiel (sitting primly at the end of the table and sipping orange juice): blue gas jets, like from a stove.

Shane/Shemodai (leaning with his elbows on the table, bumping knees with Sara): the American meaning of torch, which could be used by angry mobs but also explorers.

She also read their emotions, and realized something crucial. Andrew knew what Shane was, Shane did not know what Andrew was - yet they liked each other the same amount. Not as best friends, but as amiable members of the same social group. Andrew did not have the love for Shane that Aziraphale had for Crowley, but he wished him no harm. He liked his company.

Ryan, meanwhile, was wheezing at a terrible pun Shane had just made in what seemed to be a pun-off between him and Andrew. He had a surface level of happiness, but it was superficial. Underneath he was deeply troubled, anguish and confusion all streaked through with an aura that looked like Shane’s, but somehow darker than Shane’s.

Then Andrew turned his head and looked at Anathema, narrowing his eyes. Shane wasn’t paying attention, too focused on Ryan’s every word and bit of body language, but Andrew knew something was going on. She quickly turned off her second sight before he figured it out, and popped the tab on her drink as a distraction. “Are you going to introduce me, Jen?”

****

Ricky also knew someone saw him. He needed to act soon. All he needed was another tiny push.

****

A few hours after Jen had introduced her friend from out of town, Shane found Ryan curled up in the backseat of his own car, not crying. Shane would have preferred him crying. All he was doing was staring at the upholstery.

Demons weren’t accustomed to feeling guilt. Various explanations for this were possible. Shane’s preferred one was that, given the nature of how someone becomes a demon, if they started feeling guilty they might never stop, and as a result they had a protective mental block to retain some sanity. That was probably one of the reasons discipline in Hell was so much harsher than in Heaven, why angels got warnings and lectures for the same level of infractions that got demons discorporation and pain. Not that angels couldn’t face super harsh consequences that fell short of, well, falling, but from chatting with Aziraphale, Shane got the impression that angels naturally had a penitent streak which would do some of the work of making them mend their ways and earn forgiveness. Demons, by definition unforgivable, felt fear of punishment, not guilt. (To paraphrase a meme: Serpent Crowley, who lived with an angel and apologized to multiple people a month, was an outlier adn should not have been counted.)

But Ryan wasn’t an ordinary person, and guilt when it came to him was becoming a constant companion for Shane. If Shane hadn’t slipped in London and Ryan hadn’t offered to have his memory wiped, Ryan wouldn’t be suffering like this, or at least not this much. Maybe he would have split with his girlfriend anyway. But the loophole Ryan offered had been too easy. Shane should have known there would have been repercussions.

Sighing heavily, Shane opened the passenger door, not giving a shit that it was locked. Ryan looked up at him with weary eyes and said nothing. Shane cleared his throat. “Hey, uh, it’s Friday night, and Sara’s got her own plans. She’s already left with friends, so I’m free. Weren’t you making noises about some sneaker sale you wanted to check out? Another pair for your collection wouldn’t hurt.”

“I guess,” Ryan said quietly. He let Shane guide him into the front passenger seat. They’d carpooled this morning, but Ryan didn’t seem up for driving so Shane took the keys. At least Ryan buckled himself in without prompting. When Shane first inserted himself into Ryan’s life, the thought of him being so passive would have held a certain convenient appeal, but right now Shane would have punched Ryan in the face if he knew that would have sparked some kind of liveliness out of him.

Please be happy Ryan please please please don’t let me have ruined you please Ryan please…

Ryan tried on a few pairs of the overpriced shoes that he was usually so excited about, but none of them caught his eye. They swung by the nearest Chipotle for fast orders Shane could recite in his sleep, both his and Ryan’s.

“I’d like to walk on the beach,” Ryan said unexpectedly when he was nearly through his burrito. On the one hand, yay finishing dinner. On the other hand, Shane knew for a fact he hadn’t eaten lunch.

“We can do that,” Shane said, pleased Ryan wanted something.

It didn’t take much of a push to make sure the stretch of beach they ended up picking would be quiet for them. They didn’t talk much as the dusk slipped into night. Ryan wedged his hands deep in his pockets. “Maybe I should talk to a professional,” he said after a long silence between them.

“That might be helpful,” Shane said. He was supposed to discourage Ryan opening up to others about the complexities of his experiences, in case somehow that helped him put two and two together, but fuck it, that was more of a suggestion than an order.

Ryan stopped in his tracks. “Did you hear something?”

“Like what?” Shane asked. He could hear it too, though. Wailing. A ghost. Damn it.

“It sounds like a voice, but I don’t see anyone around.” Ryan’s pupils were dilated now, his breath shallower. “Do you see something? I feel like there’s a, like a shadow…”

“There’s lots of shadows, Ryan.”

The ghost was about twenty feet away from them, standing shin-deep in water and carrying a surfboard, yelling some wordless despair in a very tasteless fashion. Shane could tell with his millennia-honed senses that this wasn’t the sort of ghost with unfinished business or intense trauma keeping them here. Those types could be innocents, still working through whatever issues they weren’t done with until they were ready for Heaven. This was the type of ghost who was hanging out on the mortal plane as long as they could in hopes of avoiding Hell, mayyyybe Purgatory. Which they never could, not forever. All they could do was delay it and cause a bit of distress to the living in the meantime, digging themselves deeper in the process. The Purgatory candidates, originally, lost their chance at clemency the moment they used their ghostly status to be assholes.

(This inevitability in all types of ghosts was why ghosts were rarely more than a few centuries old, and most were 19th century and later. The older ones had generally gone onto their final destinations by now.)

Now, what surfer dude had actually done to become the latter sort of ghost wasn’t Shane’s department, but he was encouraged to hurry such cases along if he happened to run into them. Doing that had the nice side effect of improving Ryan’s mood.

“It’s just the wind,” Shane said firmly, giving Ryan a pat on the back to cement another dose of skepticism. “But if you’re scared I’ll go talk to the wind for ya. Stay right here.”

Hellbound Surfer (what a great name for a cocktail) vanished after only a little bit of belittlement and mockery from Shane. He returned to Ryan’s side feeling a shade better.

Ryan was crouched in the sand, poking at a crab about the size of his thumb.

“Oh cool, you found someone your own size to pick on,” Shane teased.

But instead of a standard shut up, Shane or more depressed silence, Ryan picked up the crab and straightened up again. “Do you think crabs scream, but, like, on a frequency human ears can’t hear?” Then he delicately pulled off one of its legs.

“Holy shit, Ryan...” Shane didn’t actually care about the crab, but this wasn’t Ryan-behavior.

Ryan pulled off another leg, then smiled at Shane. It was a big smile. It was not a nice smile. “Gotta thank you for filling up the gas tank for me, Long-Legs. I’ll be driving for more than a few minutes this time.”

“You’re not Ryan.”

“Nope. I think you know.”

Shane didn’t need to breathe, but his body seemed to think that it both needed it and couldn’t currently get it, despite all evidence to the contrary. “You died, you died and Ryan just imprinted on you psychologically. That’s what happened!”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night. Since you’ve taken up sleeping. Weird hobby, but I guess it passes the time.” Ricky threw the crab down and crushed it under his shoe. “This is how it’s gonna be. You’re going to give me your body and let me continue doing my job, like it should have been all along. I had extremely inadequate field support and an incomplete briefing, but better late than never. Then you can slink back to Hell and do whatever you were doing before they prematurely replaced me.”

“Or what?”

Ricky poked Shane in the chest. “You can’t exorcise me without discorporating yourself, and you can’t get someone to help you without outing yourself. I have a much higher pain tolerance and a lot more spite than Pretty Boy does. I can hurt him physically in a thousand ways and let him deal with the aftermath. And I can tear his life apart bit by bit. I’ve already screwed him over romantically. I can do plenty more. You’re pathetic, Shemodai, you’ve lost your mojo. And you aren’t even fucking him, which at least would be kinda understandable, arms and face and ass like this, I’d do him if I could reach.”

Shane’s spontaneous plan was not the most coherent one, but it went as follows: subdue Ricky, restrain Ryan’s body in a safe and comfortable manner, call Crowley, then beg for his and Aziraphale’s help. He snarled, letting every demonic feature he had come to the forefront, and tackled Ryan’s smaller frame (hoping not to injure him in the process, but at least Shane had moderate healing abilities).

Ricky started laughing, that loathsome snarky smear on existence, even as he was knocked back onto damp sand and a wave splashed onto him. Shane saw red, pinning him down with a knee and wrapping hands around his neck to choke him to unconsciousness.

Then those eyes went wide, wide, wide and fearful. The body went tense and trembling. Ryan looked up at Shane in all his infernal fury, and his whole being turned to absolute terror. “Please don’t kill me. Please, please don’t.”

On reflex, Shane immediately let him go, which was actually wasn’t the best thing to do, because Ryan scrambled to his feet and started running away.

“Wait, I can explain!” Shane called after him.

“STAY AWAY FROM ME, DEMON!” Ryan screamed over his shoulder, sprinting like Shane had never seen him sprint.

Shane should have chased after. Instead, he folded himself up into a huddled mass on the sand, wishing the tide could drown him. Wishing oblivion would follow.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale was trawling through an upscale flea market hoping to add to his collection of silver snuff boxes. Why Aziraphale had such a fondness for such a specific item (especially since he’d never used snuff), Crowley didn’t know, but maybe he’d gotten one and it had felt lonely. Crowley was content to trail after him on a sunny day and soak in the bustle around them. Besides, Aziraphale had taken to holding his hand in public, something neither of them would have dreamed of before the near-end of the world. Crowley’s free hand contained a Cornetto. All was well.

Then, of course, Crowley’s mobile went off. Very few people had the number and all of them were important to him. He handed his ice cream to Aziraphale rather than let go of his hand - priorities - and retrieved it from his trouser pocket. “Crowley speaking.”

“I fucked up so bad, so so fucking bad.” Madej’s voice was downright frantic, and it made Crowley halt in his tracks immediately. Which meant Aziraphale had to halt too.

“What’d you do, Madej? You need to stay calm.” Crowley and Aziraphale exchanged glances and made their way to somewhere quieter. Since home was far away, Crowley steered them towards the Bentley.

“Ryan’s been possessed all this time. I told you about Ricky, right? He was lurking all this time. I didn’t sense him because he was siphoning all his energy from me to reconstruct himself, so he just felt like me to me. Ricky threatened me and Ryan, and I tried to fight Ricky and - to sum up, Ryan’s found out about me again, but this time he’s so freaked out that I don’t think we’ll be able to talk it out like we did in London. Especially since Ricky might well be tattling on me right this second.”

Crowley cursed under his breath and turned to Aziraphale, “Angel, lose the Cornetto, we’re going to the airport to take the nearest flight to Los Angeles. Pack my bag for me, please.”

“Of course, dear.” A look of concentration came onto his face while they both got in the car.

Returning to the phone conversation, Crowley said, “I’m sorry we can’t go to you any quicker than by mundane air travel, but if you’re potentially in your superiors’ crosshairs we want to be as incognito as possible.”

“I get it. I appreciate you coming at all.” Madej took a shuddering breath.

“What are you doing right now?”

“I’m driving around looking for him. If I can’t find him, I’ll return his car to his apartment building. It was where we left it earlier. I don’t think Ricky knows how to drive, and he might have reasserted control. I bet that asshole let Ryan out just long enough for him to see my demonic self in a compromising position. If I’m lucky, Ricky doesn’t know how to call an Uber either. I think I’m the only demon who’s ever learned how to do that.”

Crowley started his own car and pulled out of the parking space. “No argument from me. There will be a spot for us on the next flight. That’s a minor enough miracle to slip under the radar.” Miracles that were more like fortunate coincidences or speeding up normal phenomena took very little effort, and they were barely a blip for anyone else to notice if they weren’t physically there to observe it. Breaking the regular laws of the mortal plane, on the other hand, was going to be out of the question until they were sure it was safe.

Aziraphale whispered, “Sorry to interrupt, but is that the one you wanted? Mine’s already in the boot.”

Crowley twisted around and saw that Aziraphale had summoned Crowley’s black leather roller with a snakeskin luggage tag, presumably filled with what he needed for a short trip. They’d flown together (on planes, though the other way as well) enough times that Aziraphale knew Crowley’s preferences. “Perfect, thank you.”

“I should hang up. I don’t know how much time I’ve got and I gotta - Sara deserves more than me disappearing without a word.”

“Hey now, it might not come to that,” Crowley said, but Madej had already hung up. “Though I admit it probably will.”

“Oh bother,” Aziraphale said, looking far more distressed than his mild exclamation suggested. “Should I call Nichiel?”

A vision of Ilnyckyj throwing a party with an enormous cake in celebration flitted across Crowley’s mind. “Not yet. We still don’t know how he feels about Madej, and he only owes you one favor. We shouldn’t waste it. Call Anathema.”

****

After Jen got off work, she and Anathema had gotten dinner and then come home for Jen to demonstrate her knife collection’s powers. She ended with the latest one.

“If it weren’t so specific and it could be replicated, I could probably sell it for like, billions,” she said, before cutting a doorway in midair. “It only takes me to this apartment or to my childhood home. Also the gate closes in exactly one minute.”

When Anathema tried wielding the knife, she was able to make doorways to her and Newt’s place (he wasn’t there at the time, otherwise it would have been fun startling him), her childhood home (they waved at Anathema’s mom, who took it in stride and simply waved back and told Anathema not to be late to lunch on Monday), an ancestral plot of land where Anathema had never been but would be part of her inheritance, and a bench dedicated to her in a park she’d only visited a handful of times. Her grandpa had made a donation to the local community services in her name.

“So that means it doesn’t take you home, but to a place that belongs to you,” Anathema concluded.

“I dig that it counts a bench as a place, you know? Maybe I should take stuff that belongs to me and is sort of place-like and leave it in various locations.” They had a good laugh over that. Jen, being reminded of a fantasy novel she’d read as a kid, asked for Anathema’s help confirming that no bad side effects were happening each time they used the knife. As far as Anathema’s senses could tell, they weren’t.

Anathema tried to teach Jen about reading auras and getting clues to the future through tea leaves - she’d bought loose-leaf tea this afternoon for this very purpose - but Jen couldn’t concentrate the right way and Anathema was also wiped out from travel by this point. She turned in early, choosing to share a bed with Jen rather than taking the couch. Jen had been upfront about being a lesbian from day one, and Anathema had to know Jen thought she was cute, right? Just like Anathema had to know Jen was perfectly capable of sleeping next to someone non-creepily.

Still, Jen felt antsy and did laundry and answered emails until the feeling went away. Then she went to sleep on her side of the mattress without any trouble at all.

An unfamiliar noise broke Jen back into wakefulness. Anathema said, “Don’t worry, I just got a call from a friend in England. I’ll take this outside the bedroom.”

Reassured, Jen fell back asleep. Only to have Anathema nudge her some unknown time later. “What?”

Anathema turned on the bedside lamp. She’d gone pale and her mouth was a thin line. “You already believe in magic, so can you promise to be open-minded and believe a few steps further?”

“Like how?” Jen sat up and crossed her arms. She was proud of herself for only saying “what the fuck” twice during the explanation that ensued. The part where Anathema met a friendly demon and a literally down-to-earth angel while stopping the end of the world was hella rad, though.

“So?” Anathema asked when she was done. She’d stayed standing the whole time.

“It’s easier for me to believe Shane is a demon than Andrew’s an angel,” Jen said.

“Do you believe both of those?”

“I believe you believe those, and I’m up for you showing me more evidence. Besides, if I believe it but it’s not true, the worst thing that’ll happen is me losing some sleep because you were anxious and wanted to talk about it. If I don’t believe it and it is true, some guys I like who really need help won’t get as much help as they could have gotten.” The logic took shape as she said it aloud. Jen made up her mind and got out of bed.

“I told Aziraphale to enlist Andrew’s help, but I don’t know what to do next,” Anathema said.

Jen frowned. “How about Sara? If Shane’s bosses are pissed at him and they are literally evil incarnate, is she in danger too? Especially since she doesn’t know anything?”

The look on Anathema’s face was enough of an answer.

****

Sara Rubin had started off having a fun evening, but it had taken a turn for the unfun super quickly. She’d missed the text notifications at first, because the music was so loud and she kept her phone in her purse, but fortunately she ducked out to either the ladies’ room or just outside the club on a frequent basis in order to get some air and a moment to simmer down. (Clubs were not her natural environment, but she had a few friends who could persuade her to venture to one on occasion, the way someone might persuade a sparrow to come nearer with a handful of birdseed.)

Sara got dizzy and had to clutch at the paper towel dispenser when she saw the messages Shane had left her.

so I don’t have the same love gland you people do I don’t work that way and you’ve been great about it

but I care about you lots, in ways I didn’t plan on and didn’t know I could

we’ll always have rekjavik

rektyavic?

rekdjavick???

you know that cool city in iceland we went to together

give obi big hugs and take whatever ryan says with a lot of salt

and one more thing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm0R9QQ77e8

The first few messages could have meant he was trying to break up with her gently but stereotypically, which would be very strange given they weren’t in a conventional relationship and that approach wouldn’t fit. But the link took her to a fan-edited clip of Shane performing the swan song he wrote for an animated box of french fries that had gotten shot on a space station, because that was the sort of dude she’d somehow ended up with. (Everyone on the Internet had been surprised at how good a singer Shane was the first time the Hot Daga had a musical number, but Sara had gotten used to him warbling in the shower and doing chores. What if she never heard that again?)

When Sara sent her distressed replies, Shane didn’t answer, and he didn’t pick up the phone. Ryan didn’t respond to her either. She texted her friends that something had come up and she needed to go home, then called for a Lyft (as she did when feasible, since they had fewer issues she objected to than Uber did).

On the ride home, Sara spoke to the driver the bare minimum, stuck earbuds in, and watched the video multiple times in case there was some additional detail she wasn’t getting. Each time, she had to hear Shane say: “What can one do in the face of such monumental loss, but breathe a weary sigh, for the world is a little quieter now,” before launching into the song.

Her heart sank as she pondered the most obvious meaning, especially of the bridge and final chorus.

I know that things seem kinda shitty
and that the odds aren’t looking pretty but
what’s the point of quitting now?
and I won’t be here to see it
but you bet your ass that I believe that
you’ll still save the day somehow
(Maizey’s gonna save the day)


The end is coming, gonna punch my mortal ticket.
If had a fuckin’ bucket then I’d got a hunch I’d kick it
and I’m sorry for the cursing but
I’m feeling worse and worse and I don’t
I don’t want to die
(but I’m probably gonna die)
I know it might sound crazy
but believe me, Maizey
you’ll be fine without me here...

“Are you okay, ma’am?” the driver asked as they arrived. He had a moderate South Asian accent and a kind face, not old enough to be her dad but old enough to be her uncle.

“My boyfriend just sent me what I’m worried might be suicide note, or at least some kind of deathbed note, and it’s in the most tragic yet also the most dorky format possible and it’s giving me whiplash,” Sara babbled.

The driver looked appalled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“No, but thank you. You’re so nice. I might be wrong. Maybe he’s home.”

He nodded several times. “I hope he is. I’m sure he is. Have a good night, ma’am.”

Shane’s car was in his usual spot, but Shane wasn’t in the apartment. Sara put her head between her knees and took a few deep breaths, but she started crying anyway, loud enough that Obi was perturbed and hid under the bed. She cried and cried and thought about who else she could call, but couldn’t make up her mind and went back to her loop of trying to get through to either Shane or Ryan. Finally, her well ran dry and she went to fetch tissues and some water.

Right after she had blown her nose and rehydrated a bit, there was a knock on the door. Maybe it was Shane. But maybe it was someone with horrible news about Shane.

Sara looked through the peephole first. It was a complete stranger, not as tall as Shane but still tall, and with probably twenty more pounds of muscle than Shane. His skin was oddly gray, his brown hair damp and matted, and his eyes like he hadn’t slept in fifteen years. His clothes looked like he’d drizzled himself in glue and then run through a field of burlap sacks, then trimmed the excess flaps and called it couture. In short, he looked like the opposite of someone emergency services would send to break bad news.

Maybe this was someone Shane had been sure was about to kill him. Maybe he’d been right. Sara backed away and got ready to call 911.

“Miss Rubin!” The man said loudly, now banging on the door. “It’s about your boyfriend! I know you’re in there!”

Then Sara’s phone exploded in her hand. Right, she was one of the biggest Shaniacs out there, but she wasn’t a fanatic in the face of something like this. She was a pragmatist. She wasn’t going to be the first hysterical white chick to die in a horror movie. It was time to go grab the big bottle of holy water Ryan had given her for their first Christmas as friends (in addition to real presents she wanted). She’d humored him and promised not to throw it away. Shane had insisted that she keep it deep in the back of the cupboard under the kitchen sink so it wouldn’t “offend” him. While in the kitchen, she also grabbed a big can of Morton’s salt and immediately started pouring a barrier.

The stranger kicked the door open and tilted his head looking at her. The angle of his neck seemed wrong in a way she couldn’t pinpoint. “How much did you know about Shemodai, girlie?”

“Don’t know who that is,” Sara said as assertively as she could. Her hands were shaking but she’d managed a big salt circle around herself that also included the kitchen sink. She could drink water from the sink if she needed to. And pee, theoretically, if she decided that death by embarrassment was preferable to death by demon (if this was a demon, though it was hard to fathom what else this could be).

“He didn’t fill out the proper paperwork to get involved with you. How naughty of him. We need to know what you know.”

“Which is nothing! Congrats, you can go now.” She kept the holy water out of sight for now. It wasn’t like she had an efficient delivery method, and she was so bad at throwing things that her family gave her pity handicaps in games of frisbee.

“You know about salt,” he pointed out.

“That just means I’ve watched any TV episode or read any story about the supernatural ever,” Sara said.

“If you’re stalling in hopes of being saved, nobody’s coming for you,” he said, advancing. That’s when she noticed he had layers of teeth, and their layout was circular like a lamprey. “I’ve blocked this place off from human intervention. Let me look inside your head so I know you’re telling the truth. It doesn’t have to hurt.”

“Okay, ew, no, bye!” Sara crouched behind the counter, clutching the holy water to her chest, praying without knowing what words to use.

“You’re trespassing,” said another voice. Sara knew it but couldn’t identify it yet.

The demon (safe conclusion by now) snorted with disbelief. “This is the earthly dwelling of a colleague of mine who has just been dragged to a disciplinary meeting. I’ve every right to be here.”

“This is a human being who has made no demonic deals, has not dabbled in the occult, is subject to no prophecy, and whose minor and very petty sins are entirely redeemable at this point of her life. Therefore, you are trespassing against the accords between Heaven and Hell regarding the behavior of agents carrying out missions on the moral plane. This is your chance to go without further humiliation.” Sara peeked over the counter. It was Andrew Ilnyckyj in nothing but jeans, Vans sneakers, and a gray henley shirt, looking very serious but also perfectly poised.

“If you’re an angel, you’re not showing it well,” the demon said, still sounding confident but less arrogant than before. Sara didn’t know Andrew well except a member of her general work/social group, but Andrew did have a stoic stare that made you squirm and feel like he was politely waiting you to finish making a fool of yourself. Right now he was doing that particular stare in the demon’s direction, but by at least twice as much.

“I work hard on that,” Andrew said. “So? Will you leave without being forced?”

“I have my orders,” the demon said, and he readied himself to leap.

Though his facial expression didn’t change, giant white wings sprouted from Andrew's back, and a meat cleaver suddenly appeared in his right hand. “Sara, you don’t want to see this."

No, she didn’t. Sara made herself as small as possible behind the barrier and covered her ears against what started out as bellowing. Then turned into yelping. Which morphed from there into squealing like a pig being butchered.

Silence fell, and Andrew stepped over the salt and knelt in front of Sara. No knife, no wings. By this point she was frozen. Too much had happened at once. Andrew’s stiff demeanor softened. He took the hand that had been holding her phone in both of his, and the little scratches from the glass and metal shards she'd been too busy to notice earlier all vanished. “You’re okay. You did good. You thought on your feet and you didn’t give in. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.”

Sara rolled the bottle of holy water away from herself and clung to Andrew. She didn’t have space to care about what he was, she needed someone to hold her. And he did, telling her over and over that she’d done well and it was going to be okay.

“Is there a dead body in my living room?” she asked once she’d gotten past the worst of the meltdown.

“No, your living room looks fine. And he’s not really dead. Unauthorized true killing would be a serious...I guess you could say inter-realm incident. Risking turning a cold war into a hot one. I only sent him back to Hell and tidied up his outer shell, basically.” He leaned back and examined her face. His usually hazel eyes had turned into more of a warm honey-gold.

“Are you really an angel?”

“Yes.”

“Is Shane a demon?”

Andrew hesitated, but then said, “Yes. However, some demons are worse than others. Shane’s not particularly malicious, not like that one. He genuinely cares for you. Oddly. You’re not in trouble from my side, but you are in a vulnerable position now that -”

“Holy shit, what happened to this door?” Jen’s voice exclaimed. “Wait, no, the door’s fine.”

“I just fixed the door. Jen and her friend are going to fill you in and look after you, okay? Stay safe. Ryan needs me.” Andrew pulled Sara to a standing position. Jen was headed towards them, looking worried. Jen’s friend Anna-something (it had been a rough night and she couldn’t remember) had taken some sage out of her bag, probably for a cleansing ritual.

“What about Shane?” Sara asked.

Andrew opened his mouth, abruptly closed it, then walked out without another word. Sara collapsed against Jen’s small, thankfully human frame.

Chapter Text

One moment, Ryan was fleeing from a demon he’d thought was his best friend. Which made the betrayal so much worse. Heart pounding, flinging up sand as he ran.

The next moment, he opened his eyes and found himself lying on a bathroom floor. His own bathroom floor. He sat up quickly, noting that his left hand stung. Shit, he had cotton pads and gauze wrapped hastily around his palm, partially soaked through with red, and the bath mat where his head had been resting was littered with the wrappers of multiple antiseptic wipes. The other contents of his first-aid kit were carelessly scattered all over the place. He could move all his fingers and bend his hand fine, so it wasn’t an emergency. At least he’d been conscientious enough to patch himself up after whatever happened.

Or rather, at least whatever had done this to Ryan’s body had been conscientious enough to patch him up after whatever it did with him. Fine, he’d...he’d warn Sara, and he’d call his local priest to ask for a blessing, possibly an exorcism. The blessing he’d sought out after the Sallie House started giving him especially bad nightmares had been helpful, and that same priest had taken it seriously and not made fun of Ryan over it.

Though it was one of the last things he wanted to do, Ryan peeked through a gap in the doorway. The living/dining area was dimly lit by a single floor lamp, but there didn’t seem to be anyone there. Or anything new. Just the depressing gaps left behind when someone you’re living with suddenly moves out. Which in retrospect was smart of her, and Ryan was glad to have one less person to worry about given the situation.

Emerging, Ryan saw a large circle burned into the carpet with a lighter, though whoever had done it had kept the flames from spreading. It was full of patterns and runes and looked so cliche it was almost funny. The whole thing was flecked with drops of drying blood. Presumably from Ryan’s hand. He checked the kitchen sink, and found a bloody steak knife soaking in plenty of dishwashing soap. In case it would help, Ryan poured plenty of salt around the demon circle and around all entry points to the apartment before proceeding further. He didn’t touch the circle itself, because he had no idea what might set it off. Ryan also grabbed a hip flask of holy water and tucked it into his pants pocket.

Had Shane done this to Ryan, or was there more going on? Where was Ryan’s phone? Ryan searched for his phone for awhile, then poured himself a small drink to settle his nerves (not to get drunk, this was a bad time for that), then searched some more. It occurred to him that he knew where his laptop was and he could send Sara an email. He went to the bedroom, where it was charging, and took it back out to the living room so he could keep an eye on the demon circle. And shrieked.

“Evening, Ryan, sorry to spook you.” Andrew Ilnyckyj was standing about a foot away from the demon circle, regarding it with a blank face. The guy was hard to read on his own. Ryan had gotten to know Steven well before Steven transferred to Buzzfeed New York, playing basketball with him regularly and attending a few Asian-American advocacy events together. Around Steven, Andrew emoted about three times as much as he did otherwise. Right now, Ryan became sharply aware of how little he actually knew Andrew as an individual.

“How’d you...why’d you…” Ryan clutched the laptop to his chest and gestured vaguely at the circle.

“You’re hurt,” Andrew said, stating it like a neutral fact. Then he blinked - had he blinked at all earlier? - and said in a more sympathetic tone, “What I mean is, ow, you’re hurt, do you want me to look at that?”

“I want to know what that thing is.”

Andrew gestured specifically at the circle. “The demon possessing you phoned home. You need to get out of here. A line of salt is only a temporary measure. Especially since your worst threat is already inside. Sleep now.”

“Huh?”

Then Ryan woke up again, this time firmly bound hand and foot with soft rope and chained to a chair. A very cushy reclining chair, eased halfway back. And the chair was in a big circle drawn in chalk and salt. The circle was in Andrew’s apartment, which he recognized from being invited to a handful of dinner parties over the years. Ryan could see the open kitchen door but not Andrew himself. He could smell bread baking, and something meaty laid over it.

“Hello?” Ryan called.

Andrew stuck his head out. “Good, it’s you. The last two times it was Ricky, and all he did was snark and struggle. I wanted you to get the rest you needed.”

“What?” But Ricky Goldsworth was a joke. That had always been a joke.

“Just a second.” Andrew brought a sports bottle full of water and a bowl of broth with a few noodles. “You’re depleted. Possessing demons rarely take care of their host’s health.”

Ryan drank the water, then said, “I’m not at the point where I can emotionally handle you spoon-feeding me. I was going to warn Sara about Shane.”

“Okay. I won’t force that. Let me know if you change your mind.” Andrew placed the soup on the coffee table. “I’m afraid you have to stay restrained until I’m certain Ricky isn’t going to start damaging your body in an effort to manipulate me. I checked on Sara. She's informed and safe.”

The tightness in Ryan's chest eased a bit. “Thank you. Why don’t you just perform an exorcism?”

“Then I wouldn’t be able to get information from him.” That didn't sound ominous at all, nope, not one bit.

“What if I need to pee?”

“My specialty is food-based miracles,” Andrew said, as if that answered the question and didn’t raise plenty of others.

Ryan had to pick his battles, though. “What are you?”

“I’m an angel, sent to keep an eye on Shane.”

“Seriously?”

Andrew unfurled a pair of glorious white wings, did jazz hands, and said in a completely deadpan tone, “Tadaaa.”

“Wow.” Ryan had believed in ghosts, cryptids, aliens, and demons for years, yet he’d never seriously thought he’d see an angel. Even though it made sense for there to be a cosmic balance.

“I admit the reveal is kinda fun, after years undercover. Since Shane broke cover first, I’m authorized to tell you whatever I feel is needful to get your cooperation.” Andrew folded his wings away again. “I already fixed your hand, but fixing someone’s mind is a lot more delicate and goes better with consent. I learned a few hours ago that Shane did something to your memory in London. I can undo what he did. May I?”

“Yes,” Ryan said without hesitation. His desire for knowledge had always outstripped his fear of the unknown. Otherwise he wouldn’t throw himself into so many situations that frightened him.

Andrew stepped into the circle and placed his palm on Ryan’s forehead like he was checking for a fever. “Close your eyes. Good. Oh, huh, interesting. Shane is very fond of you.”

Funny how a heart could sink and leap at the same time. “He is?”

“Yes. Usually a demon would rip the memory out, but he bundled it up and tucked it away in a tight box instead. That method takes more effort but is better for the subject’s mental health. He did it even more carefully than almost any angel would. It wouldn’t have bothered you if Ricky hadn’t gnawed at it. Don’t worry, I’m not touching any of your other memories. Relax. Almost...just about….there we are.”

Ryan remembered. He remembered the pub door that tried to ward him off. He remembered Shane sitting across the guy in sunglasses. He remembered how the other patrons looked away.

Shane slumped like an anvil had been placed on his shoulders in addition to the two that were already there. “That’s why my mission’s the way it is. If he was afraid of me, I wouldn’t be able to get past those defenses to mess with his head, so I had to make him trust me. I didn’t meant to make him like me. I sure as fuck didn’t mean to like him back.”

Ryan remembered the call-out, the terror, the storeroom, the talk...

“What does it mean when you say your bosses will destroy you for me finding out?”

Shane shrugged. “It depends on the administrator who gets handed my case, but it’s probably going to be a few decades of being tortured, followed by a few decades of the least popular jobs, like filing paperwork."

“You look upset,” Andrew said.

Ryan opened his eyes. “Shane’s a demon, but he’s still my friend, and he’s going to get tortured for years and I’m never going to see him again,” he said faintly. Assuming that the presence of an angel implied the existence of a heaven of some sort, Ryan at least had a chance of seeing his human loved ones again after death. It wouldn’t work that way with Shane. This was it.

“Don’t give up yet,” Andrew said, removing his hand from Ryan’s forehead and giving his shoulder a pat.

“What can we do? And why are you helping?”

“Do you remember Crowley now?”

“Uh huh.” Crowley had seemed pretty cool, though Ryan’s impressions were overshadowed by all the drama.

“You may or may not know that he defected and is friendly to humans. He and his partner Aziraphale are on their way as we speak. Aziraphale’s an angel and I owe him a debt. He says this is how I’m going to repay him. Fortunately, repaying a debt is perfectly respectable angel behavior and it never occurred to anyone to tell me I can’t repay a debt to an outcast. Angelic leadership aren’t known for imagination.” Andrew made a tsking noise and scooped up his cat, who was about to wander in the chalk circle.

“Can I ask you some questions about how Heaven works?” Ryan asked hopefully. He might as well get some data out of this, even if he couldn’t share it without jeopardizing Andrew. So far it seemed like Andrew was sincerely trying to help.

“Sure, the rolls need another ten minutes. But you can’t tell anyone who doesn’t know I’m an angel, no pedantic minutiae, and I might have to say ‘no comment’ to certain things.” Andrew released his cat and nudged it in another direction, then fetched a chair for himself from the dining area.

“I agree to those terms,” Ryan said.

“You can express them as personal beliefs with no greater basis in hard facts than your previous beliefs,” Andrew added, as he took a seat across from Ryan.

“Cool. So big important one: is the Bible accurate?”

“All religious texts are somewhat inaccurate, because they are written by fallible people who misplace scrolls, fudge translations, have agendas to push, and so on. Part of the point is you deciding what to take away from it and how you’re going to apply it.”

“Does God care what your religious beliefs are? Or lack thereof?”

Andrew shook his head. “That’d be like getting angry at guests for arriving at your house using Google Maps for directions instead of using GPS. Some options are more helpful than others. It’s hard to correctly find your way somewhere if all you’ve got is, like, an understanding of how moss grows on trees at your latitude, but if you manage it, good for you.”

“Is it common for angels to be looking after people incognito like you are?”

“No, you’re special. Congratulations.” He sounded like he knew full well that Ryan was not pleased to be special like this.

“Do you really look like that?”

“For a given value of ‘really’, no. This body was issued to me for this mission, but I’ve come to identify with it.”

“Am I going to Heaven?”

“I’ve never been on the judging panel, but I understand it’s rare to be able to make that call for anyone who isn’t literally minutes from death.”

“But someone could have made that call for, like, Jeffrey Dahmer after the ninth victim?”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “I should have known your brain would go there. It’s true that it would be hard to tip the scale towards redemption by that point.”

“What if I died right this second? Would I go to Heaven?”

“Probably....” Andrew held up a hand in warning, “...but don’t get complacent about that.”

“Can you tell me about Hell?”

“Can, but won’t.”

“What’s Heaven like?”

“There's an angel section and a human section. The angel section is off-limits. Either you’ll find out what the human section is like one day, or you won’t deserve to know.”

"What would you say is the biggest difference between humanity’s relationship with God and angels’ relationship with God?”

Andrew pondered this for several seconds before answering. “You’re God’s children. We’re God’s tools.”

“Do you like that?” The question sounded so rude once he’d asked it aloud that Ryan wanted to take it back. Andrew’s expression hadn’t changed from default.

“I’d say the fundamental split between angels and demons is whether they accept both of those things or not.” Then the doorbell rang, and Andrew rose to answer it. “As for the rather confusing pair joining us, between you and me, I think maybe they’re God’s plot twist.”

Chapter Text

Crowley had spent the entire flight restless and irritable, muttering and drinking as much alcohol as he could get away with, unable to select anything to watch from the in-flight entertainment screen. Aziraphale knew this dilemma was harder on Crowley than it was for him, since Crowley saw himself in Madej, and had done his best to be a soothing presence. He’d also stopped a toddler from crying and reduced the plane’s turbulence, though that was for the sake of all the passengers.

When they got to LAX, Crowley pulled himself together and got them through Immigration and the process of acquiring a rental car very calmly (no classic cars available, but at least this one was sleek and black), being reasonably courteous to the people they interacted with. It was nearly the evening rush and the traffic was more chaotic than London’s, on the other side of the road, among a mess of highways and freeways, but Crowley never got lost driving unless particularly obstructive ley lines were involved. They talked normally during the drive. Crowley was more relaxed when it was only the two of them.

Nichiel’s flat was on the top floor of his building. He opened the door on the second ring with a small, polite smile. “Hello, Aziraphale. You’re always welcome. Hello, Crowley. To be honest, you’re welcome because Aziraphale vouches for you, but you are.”

Aziraphale opened his mouth to object, but Crowley touched his arm and murmured in his ear, “He's being very nice to me, by his side's standards."

“That’s certainly a low bar,” Aziraphale grumbled.

“In this context, I’d prefer both of you call me Andrew. Would you like anything to drink? Eat?”

“Hi,” said the young man who had to be Ryan Bergara. He was so thoroughly wrapped in ropes and chains that it looked like he was about to embark on a Houdini-style escape act. “I’d wave, but…”

Crowley whistled. “Bit of overkill, Andrew, don’t you think?”

Nichiel hesitated, so Aziraphale added, “It’ll be three against one if this ‘Ricky’ tries anything.”

“Put my mind at ease and stay in the circle for now, please, Ryan,” Nichiel said. He waved his hand and all the bindings vanished. Ryan got up to stretch but made no move to cross over the barrier.

Though Nichiel wasn’t a pushy fellow, he cajoled all three of his guests into at least sampling an elaborate meal he’d prepared while waiting for the real Ryan to wake up: multiple roasted or stewed meats, consomme, pasta, fresh salad, pickled vegetable sides, and freshly baked bread. They rearranged the furniture so they could eat adjacent to Ryan, who got a lap tray to balance his dishes on.

Crowley wasn’t a big eater, though he dabbled from time to time, but he made an odd noise once Aziraphale had nudged him into at least trying the food.

“Are you all right, my dear?”

“S’amazing. Go on, angel.” Crowley nudged Aziraphale’s plate at him, and indeed, every bite was exquisite.

Ryan blinked at his food like it had begun to sing and dance. “Holy sh...oot, Andrew, your cooking is normally good but it’s not, like, orgasmic. Can I say ‘orgasmic’?”

“You can say whatever you like,” Crowley reassured him.

“I normally tone it down,” Nichiel said, shrugging. “There’s only so much attention my human persona can handle. This time I thought everyone could use some cheering up and stopped holding back.”

“He’s vaguely referenced in the Old Testament, in the sense that it mentions the Israelites receiving manna without stating that an angel was delivering it anonymously each morning,” Aziraphale said.

“So you’re a celebrity angel?” Ryan looked overwhelmed, so Aziraphle decided not to mention who he and Crowley were.

“Please don’t dump me for Andrew because he’s a good cook,” Crowley said to Aziraphale, teasing. Aziraphale mock-swatted at him for being silly.

Oh.” Nichiel’s eyebrows shot up. Then he collected himself. “I’m happy for you, I was just surprised.”

“What did you think was going on?” Aziraphale asked. He could feel himself blushing. They’d started enjoying mild public displays of affection so much that he’d forgotten that their host was an active member of the Host, and that perhaps not all of the angels knew already.

“That you’d rekindled strong fraternal affection for one of our lost brethren. Guess I’m a dumbass.” Nichiel laughed and shook his head in a self-deprecating manner.

Crowley leaned against Aziraphale in an ostentatious (but pleasant) manner. “I doubt the higher-ups want everyone to know the full story. Might give ‘em ideassss.”

Things became less tentative and formal after that. Between bites, Ryan told them that he’d regained his memory of walking into Madej’s meeting with Crowley, then gave his version of all the odd events that had ensued. Crowley asked him for additional details about his relationship with “Ricky Goldsworth”.

“I only ever met Rictus in passing,” Crowley said. “Literally, in passing. In corridors. The administrative section of Hell has a lot of cramped corridos, there’s a free revelation for you. From what I’ve heard he’s a fairly intelligent agent and has been to Earth multiple times. He must have reported Madej’s error, otherwise the extraction wouldn’t have happened so quickly. The question is why he’s still in your body, rather than either buggering off home or being issued his own body.”

Then the doorbell rang. Nichiel rose to answer it. “I expect that’s Sara, Jen, and Anathema.”

“Did you tell them to join us?” Ryan asked.

“No, I told them to stay put. But I know Sara and Jen well enough that I didn’t expect them to obey me. Could the non-possessed of you please add three place settings?”

Jen, the small-time witch, was petite and boyish and shook both Aziraphale and Crowley’s hands with a look of wonder. Sara, Madej’s girlfriend (Aziraphale wondered how that worked, but didn’t want to pry), had short, curly brown hair, dark circles under her eyes, and an understandable air of fragility given this turn of events. Anathema asked Aziraphale for a hug.

“Does he give good hugs?” Sara asked timidly while Anathema was still hugging Aziraphale.

“He does, but I have it on good authority that mine aren’t bad either,” Crowley said.

“A demon tried to drag me off earlier because he thought he knew about Shane’s demon-ness,” Sara said, giving him a doubtful look.

“Oh my,” Aziraphale said. Anathema stepped back and nodded grimly.
Jen was catching up with Ryan, but she twisted around to say, “Andrew sent him packing. I didn’t see it, but I heard it. Super badass.”

“Your Shane saved my life a few months ago, Miss Rubin, and I will do everything I can to help him and you,” Crowley told Sara.

She bit her lip and reached up to hug him. “Sara’s okay.”

“Hello, Sara. I’m Crowley.”

Andrew gestured at the heavily laden table. “We all want to get Ricky out and get Shane back, but humans think better on a full stomach. Less than an hour isn’t going to make a difference.”

“He’s got a point,” Jen said, examining the spread with wide eyes. “Dude, you went all out.”

“I can’t believe you’re talking to an angel like that,” Sara whispered.

“He’s still our buddy Andrew, he’s just not in the angel closet anymore, and we need to be chill and supportive of his coming out,” Jen said.

“At least one of you is a true ally,” Andrew said. Ryan wheezed.

Jen took a seat and patted the chair next to her until Sara joined her. Anathema sat on Crowley’s far side and accepted a one-armed half-hug from him. The three newcomers went through the process of trying the food, being amazed by the quality of the food, then everyone filling in everyone else about whatever information they were missing.

“Well, aren’t we a happy family,” came Ryan’s voice, dripping with disdain.

“If we give Ryan seconds you can probably taste them,” Crowley said calmly.

Sara went rigid. “Um, is that…”

Crowley raised a finger to his lips and picked up his chair, positioning it flush against the circle, and sat backwards in it like he was playing a loose cannon Bad Cop in one of those American crime shows. “It’s been a long time. I wouldn’t say it’s nice to see you again, but I do happen to want to talk to you.”

Ricky put the tray table and dishes aside and got out of the chair to stand as close to Crowley as he possibly could. Though there were no physical changes to Ryan’s body now that he was in control, Ricky moved with a cocky sureness that was a far cry from Ryan. Aziraphale had seen a few of his appearances on film and his manner here was consistent with those. “Who are you, exactly?”

Crowley took off his sunglasses and tossed them over his shoulder. “Does that help?”

(“Snake eyes! That’s so cool,” Jen whispered to Sara. At first Sara made a face, but then she nodded in agreement)

“Right, the Serpent,” Ricky said, cool as a cucumber. “Hadn’t see you topside before, Crowley, sorry I didn’t recognize you right away.”

“You’ve been in there and mostly dormant, what, twenty years, Ricky? They were eventful years. I don’t work for Hell anymore.”

“You don’t?” Ricky asked, incredulously.

“No. Never got along with the rest of you, like it here, like humans better than any other side, helped stop the Apocalypse. Antichrist likes me and was emphatic about not wanting Hell to meddle with him or the people he likes. Now they leave me alone.” Crowley’s lies by omission of were probably meant to make him sound more impressive. Aziraphale realized Crowley was erring on the side of protecting the truth about their relationship, as well.

“You’re shitting me.”

“No.”

“Swear.”

Crowley rolled his eyes but obligingly lit up his right index finger like a sparking ember and drew a sigil in midair. “I swear upon my dishonor that I am a free agent and no longer work for Hell.”

It was unclear how valid Crowley’s occult oaths were anymore. Regardless, Ricky’s reaction surprised everyone: he pumped both fists in victory, and exclaimed, “Fuck yeah! That’s what I need! I’m in deep shit, man, you gotta help me, pretty please, this fucking sucks.”

“How?” Crowley asked warily.

“Can we talk about it without the peanut gallery?”

The angels shook their heads emphatically.

“No, they’re all invested in this case,” Crowley said.

“Fine, whatever, I don’t have much dignity left. See, I made a call to Malacoda, my supervisor, and instead of being grateful that I exposed Shemodai as the failure he is and give me my own body and my rightful job, Malacoda said they’d grab Shemodai, replace him with someone else, and the replacement was going to put me in some vegetable - as in the crippled human, not as in the plant, at least I think so - without enough demonic strength to move the body on my own, and let me rot for awhile until maybe Malacoda is in a more ‘indulgent’ mood. Because apparently my one mistake means I’m ‘useless’.” Ricky sprawled sideways in the chair, dangling Ryan’s legs down one side and his head and torso down the other like a petulant adolescent. “Can you believe that?”

“Malacoda’s an arsewipe, I’m not surprised at all,” Crowley said.

“Bigshot like you were has got no idea.”

“Maybe not. But what’d you say to that?”

“I said I’m still as cunning and competent as I’ve always been, and he better watch out or he’d find me knocking on his door. My language was slightly more respectful, but not by much. He laughed and said how about he puts a bounty on my head to every other demon currently stationed in Hell and if I can make back to Hell, past every single one of them, get to his office and knock on his door, I can not only have my status back but he’ll also grant me two wishes.”

“Not three?”

Ricky did a weak imitation of Crowley’s accent. “Malacoda is a stingy arsewipe.”

“I’m assuming you agreed.”

“I did. He’s bound to it, can’t go back on it, but how the fuck can I possibly do that?”

“You and Ryan should work together,” Sara said. She’d gotten to her feet and was watching Ricky like he’d crack open to reveal Shane, safe and sound, if she stared hard enough.

Ricky sat up. “If you’re gonna talk to me, honey, you gotta come closer.”

“You can call me Sara.”

Aziraphale reached out to stop her. “Er, maybe…”

“Let her speak," Anathema said. (Jen was nibbling on another roll in a very intense manner while bouncing one leg rapidly.)

“How about ‘demon’s beard’?” Ricky asked, with a wink.

“I think Ryan would forgive me for the bruises if I explained to him why I had to punch you in the gut,” Sara said, with a wink.

Ricky scoffed. “I see why you and Shane get along. Okay, tell me your idea.”

“Ryan’s got protection on him that keeps demons from outright attacking him. Ryan wants to find Shane. Shane’s in Hell. You need to get to Hell.” She made an “and so on” gesture. “But, like, you can’t discuss that with him while you’re being active in his body, not quickly and conveniently anyway, so you should possess someone else for a little bit so you can talk to each other in a more efficient way. Like me.”

“That’s not a good idea, Sara,” Aziraphale said, clutching the tablecloth. “It could be terribly traumatizing.”

“You’ve possessed someone too,” Crowley said.

“That's very different! I’m an angel, the world was ending, and we’re very good friends now.”

“I can’t be nothing but the damsel in distress for this whole narrative,” Sara said through gritted teeth. “Shane isn’t a typical boyfriend and never pretended otherwise - okay, I didn't know how far that went - but he cares about me. A lot. And I care a lot about him back. So much.”

Crowley swung around to sit in his chair properly. “Angel, we left our posts for more than each other. We also left in honor of human moments like this.”

Everyone stared at Aziraphale and Crowley like they expected a row. But Crowley had a point. Sara was acting in selfless love and bravery, and she was a grown woman who could make her own choices. Aziraphale was so proud of Crowley that he could hardly speak.

“You’re right,” Aziraphale said. “Sara, we’re here to support you.”

Chapter Text

The previous night…

After Shane contacted Crowley and Sara, he decided to get as far away from L.A. as possible and see if he could hunker down and figure out some sort of plan. To reduce his chances of being tracked, he chucked his cellphone out the window and smashed the radio of Ryan’s car, muttering an apology to Ryan as he did so. Also for stealing his car in the first place. Shane’s car would be too easy to chase down. Hell had no use for material wealth (only the corruption of souls who were willing to do evil for its sake) so Shane Alexander Madej’s earthly assets were likely to be left alone, to reduce the suspiciousness of his disappearance. His will said his savings were to be split evenly between Sara and Ryan, and Ryan’s share plus insurance would be enough to buy Ryan a new car. Maybe a nicer car.

He drove and drove. He refused to acknowledge the possibility of the car running out of gas, so it didn’t. Then, on a lonely back road near the city limits, a pedestrian suddenly darted out in front of him. Shane swerved and he felt an invisible force exaggerate that swerve, smashing him into a telephone pole. The airbags deployed but he felt his neck bounce from whiplash and felt dizzy.

“That was laughably simple,” the pedestrian said as he tore the car door away like plucking a flower petal. (He definitely loved Shane not.) He was about Shane’s height but had at least twenty pounds more muscle on him, and up close Shane could see his grayish skin and a mouth full of circular rows of teeth.

Shane decided to play dumb as he clicked open his seatbelt and trying to scoot out the other side. “I’m not a demon! Never even seen one!” Okay, that was way too dumb.

The other demon grabbed Shane’s arm and dragged him out, throwing him onto the pavement. “Enjoy your last moment on Earth, Shemodai. I doubt you’ll be allowed here again.”

With that in mind, Shane stole another look at the moon, and the few stars that made it past the city’s glare. They looked real nice.

Hell wasn’t literally underground. Concepts like “below” and “above” had helpful connotations for understanding places that were actually other planes of existence entirely. By that same token, the ground did not literally open up and Shane was not literally plummeting down a pitch-black frictionless chasm, it was just meant to give him flashbacks of being cast out of Heaven. It wasn’t nearly as long a “fall” as the original one, but it went on long enough that it started getting boring rather than scary. Maybe that was the point all along.

Time on Earth moved forward like water in a stream. Time in Hell sat and soured like water at the bottom of a bog. So Shane had no sense of how long it was until he landed in a heap on the hard, yet perpetually slimy stone floor outside the office of Malacoda. Count of Hell. Overseer of the Fraud Against Humanity division within the Department of Obfustication.

Malacoda’s assistant Eurayale was sitting at her desk a few feet from his door, toiling at her usual mound of paperwork. A small yet spindly demon, she was currently dressed in a tattered gray chiton, like the Ancient Greeks, except if they had also covered their tunics with distorted imitations of Grumpy Cat memes. By her elbow was a bowl full of delicate glass Christmas tree ornaments that she crushed before stuffing into her mouth, razor sharp edges and all. As usual, her voice reflected her choice in snacks, though it was a tad sweeter in person than when distorted by the dark magics it took for her to pass orders along to him on Earth. She hated their boss but liked being a personal secretary better than the other jobs she was qualified for. “Best not keep him waiting, Shemmy.”

She only called him that when she was feeling really sorry for him. He must have looked pitiful. Shane experimentally crawled a few inches and wished he hadn’t. “I’ve broken a lot of bones with my inelegant floorsmash, your Unholiness. I don’t heal instantaneously.”

“Fair enough.”

This wasn’t an official briefing, so he decided to adopt a more chatty tone. “How’s the long-distance relationship with Momo going? Heard she got a commendation.” Momo wasn’t the most sociable demon and went harder on messing with kids’ heads than Shane preferred, but she was delightfully tech-savvy and Shane respected her for that.

“I miss her, but I’m proud of the ruckus she’s raised. You’re the first coworker who’s asked.” Eurayale snapped her fingers and Shane was all healed again. “There you go. No hard feelings about what’s going to happen, right?”

Shane got up and gave Eurayale a polite nod. “Not towards you. If you and Momo are still an item when I’m around again, we should hang out.”

(Yes, demons in Hell had fun, like regular fun that wasn’t indulging in sadism or something, as well as breaks, social lives, recreation, and private spaces to call their own. Management was smart enough to give well-behaved workers a decent standard of existing rather than relying solely on punishment. But now it was all so much less appealing to Shane than Earth.)

Nothing for it. Shane entered Malacoda’s office and bowed as low as he could. The office itself had a green carpet, fancy indeed, though the ceiling often leaked and the harsh white lights made Shane long for Sara’s cozy paper lanterns dangling around their bedroom. “I’ve failed you, sir.”

“Come closer and look me in the face.” Malacoda mostly looked like a basic white guy with dark hair, maybe with a touch of Mediterranean-style swarthiness, but he also had a gigantic scorpion tail curving over his back and head and pointing forwards.

Shane obeyed. “I’m very sorry to disappoint you and request an opportunity to grovel at your feet.”

“Denied. This isn’t merely you revealing yourself to the very seer whose knowledge you were assigned to suppress. Our source told us you’re going native. That is far more serious.”

The “source” had to be Ricky. Shane bit back several curse words. “Sir…”

“I’m not interested in anything you want to say in your defense, Shemodai. I’m assigning you 33 years passive torment, then 99 years as a low-level grunt in Maintenance. At that point you’ll be considered for a chance at a desk job in our department again.”

“Is there a possibility of ever getting another Earth mission?” Shane asked.

Malacoda glared at him. “I’m adding another three years of torment for the sheer cheek of asking me that.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“I don’t care. GUARDS!”

Shane didn’t see the point in fighting back while he was dragged to what the technicians who worked there called “the Ditch”, as it was to temporary demon discipline what the Pit was to eternal human punishment. Many demons from all departments took a turn at the Pit. Only specialists worked here.

“Welcome to the Ditch! Let us know if you’re enjoying your stay at any point so we can fix that immediately.”

They were keeping Shane in a body for now, since that increased the options for pain and they could easily bring it back from the brink of total ruin as many times as they liked.

Some demons liked to visit and gawk during their time off, a practice which was highly encouraged. “Ooh, I didn’t know skin could stretch that far from many fish hooks at once!” one such onlooker was saying.

Shane would have told him to go fuck himself, but in the Ditch the ability to produce coherent speech was seen as a sign they were being insufficiently harsh. Plus, you know, he was busy screaming.

Chapter Text

Andrew watched Sara and Ricky discuss the terms of him temporarily possessing her, with Crowley mediating. If Aziraphale, who far more experienced in these matters and also very tender-hearted, approved, then Andrew wouldn't voice any objections.

Then Andrew's phone rang. Jen whispered, "Go ahead, answer it," and went back to being entranced by the negotiations. He retreated to a corner of the room and spoke softly rather than completely remove himself from the action. Caller ID said ADAM BIANCHI.

"Hey, Adam, what's up?" Andrew kept his irritation out of his voice. It wasn't Adam's fault he was interrupting. Though Andrew had never gotten as close to Adam as he had with Steven, Adam had long been a stabilizing third member of the Worth It team as well as an integral part of the Tasty gang, and Andrew quite liked him as a person as well as a cameraman.

Adam was less quiet in real life than he was when someone turned the tables and started filming him instead of the other way around, but he was still fairly soft-spoken. Which made the distress in his voice all the more palpable. "I'm working overtime today and, uh, the police stopped by Buzzfeed and are asking anyone who might know something about Ryan to come forward. I remember you mentioning that you might ask him to lunch this weekend."

"Wait, what happened?" Poor Wellington was patting Andrew's leg with one paw, seeking attention like a splotchy black and white toddler. Andrew bent down to pet him.

"His car was found crashed into a telephone pole. But nobody knows where he is."

"Oh shit, no, I hadn't heard that. We didn't end up making plans and I can't give any useful info." Which wasn't a lie.

"Sorry to break bad news to you."

"Don't worry, I'm glad you told me. I need to hang up - I've actually got, like, a relative and his partner visiting and I don't want to neglect them." Also not a lie.

"Gotcha. I'll text you if I find out something."

"Please do." Andrew hung up and slipped his phone in his pocket. He couldn't really get headaches, but he imagined they felt something like this.

Chapter Text

With her second sight turned on, Anathema found watching Ricky’s activity in Ryan’s body morbidly intriguing. When she’d observed Ricky in his dormant state, he’d been easy to conflate with the fingerprints Shane had (gently) left all over Ryan’s aura. A darker smudge, but still only a minor bit of grubbiness. Now Ricky was awake, moving and talking confidently like he was in control of a situation that he was very much not. He looked like an oil slick. He looked like a slippery, iridescent sheen, deceptively beautiful but primed to choke and smother. And burn at the slightest spark.

Part of Anathema wanted to tell Sara this and call her back to the dining table. Find another way. Sara was too determined, though. Anathema couldn’t bear to get in the way of such intense love.

(Then Andrew took a phone call at Jen’s encouragement, but when Anathema gave Jen a questioning look she just shrugged.)

Ricky, standing tall, was calmly reciting Sara’s demands back at her. “One, I promise to return to Ryan the moment Crowley or the angels call time. Two, I won’t touch you with your own hands. You’re not my type anyway, but I appreciate your awareness of body swapping tropes. Three, I’ll leave your body in the same condition I found it. Four, I’ll refrain from unethical acts while in your body. That’s all, right?”

“Yes.” Sara looked to Crowley for reassurance. He’d put his sunglasses back on already, but Anathema didn’t need to see his eyes to know his smile was hiding considerable nervousness.

Anathema raised her hand. “I’m sure there are good reasons, but why could Aziraphale talk to the person he was possessing but with Ricky we have to resort to this? Is it an angel-demon difference?”

“It’s because Aziraphale is gobs more powerful than this guy.” Crowley flashed a sharp grin and beckoned for Aziraphale to come closer. Aziraphale blushed and stammered, but he was actually more relaxed mentally than anyone else in the room. He knew what he was doing.

(Meanwhile, Andrew had ended the call and he was wearily puzzling over some new problem while cradling his cat to his chest. What now?)

“Can I film this?” Jen asked. “I brought my best camera just in case.”

Sara looked back at her. “If the occult beings among us say it’s okay and you promise not to share it, I’d enjoy seeing the footage.”

“Angels aren’t occult, we’re ethereal,” Aziraphale said mildly.

Crowley laughed and gave Jen a thumbs-up. “Not sure if you’ll actually catch anything, but you’re welcome to try.”

“My cameras always work perfectly, Mr. Crowley. Always. Like, seriously, allllwaaaaaaays, it’s weird...” Jen seemed ready to elaborate, but Anathema made a cut-off gesture at her. The anecdotes were great but were better for another time.

“Ryan is going to be woozy suddenly not have me inside him for the first time in decades, and someone should probably grab him,” Ricky said, with a touch of mischief mixed with his concern. “I want him in good condition for re-entry.”

By now Jen had walked closer and was exploring camera angles, though Crowley didn’t let her get past a certain distance. “Why did you have to put that in the grossest way possible?”

“Trust me, smol bean, that was not the grossest way I could have put it.”

“I have documentation of a demon calling me a ‘smol bean’!” Jen stage-whispered.

“Really?” Crowley asked.

Ricky shrugged. “Just fucking look at her. I ain’t made of stone.”

“I was actually commenting on the extremely recent slang use -”

“Enough, we’re on the clock. Give me a second to stick my cat in another room.” Andrew reappeared shortly and declared, “I’ll pick Ryan up and get him out of the circle once he’s cleared. Aziraphale, tell us where to stand.”

On Aziraphale’s instructions, Sara entered the circle and took a seat in the armchair. Andrew stood just outside, with Ricky at less than arms’ length. Crowley grumbled about being banished to the far end of the kitchen for the psuedo-exorcism bit, saying the likelihood of him being accidentally discorporated was slimmer than slim, but obeyed. Aziraphale ended with, “And only watch this with your eyes, Anathema, I don’t want this to sear your mind to a crisp.”

She gulped and closed off all her psychic sensors. “Thanks for the warning.”

Aziraphale straightened the cuffs on his coat. “I’ve never done this precise, er, maneuver, but I’ve driven a few demons out of people and back to Hell in my time. I’m to do the former, but stop short of doing the latter.”

The short fragment of a chant (invocation? prayer?) was not in Latin, Hebrew, or anything else Anathema had heard or heard of. Ricky didn’t pour out of Ryan in some theatrical cloud of black smoke, or anything else Anathema could see with only mundane vision.

This happened: Ryan coughed hard enough to clutch at his chest and started toppling over, but Andrew wrapped him in a bear hug and lifted him over the salt, then settled him onto one of the dining chairs. Immediately afterwards, Sara coughed several times and then started examining “her” hands.

“This is bizarre for me too, you know,” Ricky-in-Sara said, using her voice but his quiet self-assurance.

“What the fuck was that?!” Ryan wailed, almost falling out of his seat like he didn’t know how to sit up by himself anymore. Anathema really hoped this wasn’t the case.

****

Ryan listened to everyone explaining the current situation while simultaneously feeling like he’d lost half his muscle control and two-thirds of his motor skills. He felt like a costume Ricky had unzipped and chucked aside. Andrew steadied him and produced a mug of tea out of nowhere that was the exact right temperature. Sipping it made Ryan feel more coherent. It also made him realize that, now the initial shock was over, he actually felt solid and sure in a way he didn’t know was possible. It was like when he got his first pair of glasses and realized he was supposed to be able to see the leaves on trees.

He sat up straighter and curled his hands tight around the mug. “Ricky, I accept that you’re my best bet for getting Shane back and we both have something the other person wants. But before I try to be civil I’d like an apology for trying to kill me. ”

“I already apologized to you in a dream,” Ricky said, lounging in Sara’s body like he had just won that chair as a throne. The fact that everyone but Crowley and Jen had rearranged themselves into a seated semicircle facing Ricky added to the impression.

“Don’t remember. Doesn’t count.”

“Fair enough. I’m sorry. It was a bad plan all around.”

Ryan spotted Jen filming him and shifted to a better pose out of habit. He tried imagining this as one very unusual episode of Unsolved, with Sara taking Shane’s place. The concept was reassuring. “I’m also kinda mad at Sara, like I get why she’s doing this but now that I know what it’s like to be me without you dragging me down as subconscious background noise I am disgusted by the idea of anyone subjecting themselves to -”

“Ryan,” Crowley said gently, putting a hand on Ryan’s shoulder. He was standing behind Aziraphale. Andrew was sitting on Ryan’s other side, so he was currently flanked by angels but had a demon sort of on his shoulder. Trippy. Anathema was on Aziraphale’s other side and Jen was circling around, kneeling, etc, as she saw fit for cinematography.

Ryan took a deep breath. “Right, let’s move on. If we were to help each other reach Shane’s boss, Mancala…”

“Malacoda,” said all the non-humans in the room in chorus. It was a tiny bit funny.

“Okay. So how would we do that?”

Ricky whistled. “There’s parts I can figure out and parts I’m gonna need workshopping. If we’re both in Hell, I’m in my element. I’ll be strong enough to be active in your body with you still conscious and easily swap control back and forth. We’ll be able to talk to each other in whispers. The sentries will allow you in if they think it’s only me in this body, but anyone who tries to collect the bounty on my head as part of my wager will fail. Your status is classified and no demons will recognize you.”

“Have I never met a real demon other than Shane and you two?” Ryan asked, indicating Crowley as well.

Crowley said, “You sort of have, though not as many as you thought. Shane hasn’t let them come too near or see you, only him. That’s why the flashlight trick always worked better when he did it.”

“Oh,” Ryan said in a small voice.

“I’ll also be able to leave you on my own whenever I want down there,” Ricky said. “Once we’ve Trojan Ryan-ed our way to me winning the bet, I get two wishes and you can have one of them.”

“Both of them,” Ryan said, clenching the mug even tighter. Fortunately it was a very solid piece of Unsolved merch that said IDK, SPOOKY STUFF in big letters, so it wasn’t going to break. Probably.

Ricky scoffed. “I’ll be doing all the hard work. You’ll just be transport. Don’t bother trying to threaten me over it if you don’t want to be back to square one.”

Ryan looked at Crowley, since he had the most expertise. Crowley said, “I suggest you each get one wish, but Ricky has to help Ryan get home safely with Shane.”

“How about you get both wishes,” Ricky said brightly.

“You’re dubious about me succeeding on the return trip,” Ryan said.

Ricky fidgeted. “Yeah, I don’t know how that part is going to happen.”

“Jen’s got a knife that can cut doorways to a place the wielder owns,” Anathema said.

Everyone stared at Jen, who in her eagerness to demonstrate dropped her camera. She picked it up again and handed it to Anathema before digging a small pocketknife out of her jeans. “Don’t worry, it’s fine, my filming equipment is always fine.”

“So, like the Subtle Knife in the His Dark Materials series? How’d you get it?” Ryan asked. His mom had lectured him about reading those books, which had only made Ryan’s little brother borrow them and gobble them up when he’d previously had no interest in the fantasy trilogy with “anti-Christian themes”. (Jake and Ryan had reached ages where being told the vengeful spirit of La Llarona would drown them for misbehavior had lost its edge.)

Jen unfolded the knife. “Kinda, but Anathema says she didn’t see bad side effects. Plus the doors close after a minute and there’s a limited choice of destinations per person. I don’t know how it happens, but when I restore an old knife it comes out special. Who wants to try?”

Aziraphale said, “If I might, there are a few books I could snag in a jiffy that might be useful references.”

“Sure. But you gotta take Andrew with you, otherwise you can’t cut your way back.”

Ryan filmed while Jen demonstrated. Having the camera in his hands made him feel even better than being in front of it. Everything that scared him was for a purpose now. He wasn’t in control of the events, but he was in control of the narrative. Besides, catching images of Aziraphale’s shelves and shelves of old tomes appearing in the middle of Andrew’s apartment was the coolest thing, seriously. Even Ricky craned Sara’s neck to watch.

The pair of angels returned in less than ten minutes. “A few” books was more like eight. Crowley relieved Aziraphale of his burden and arranged them neatly on the coffee table as he spoke. “As impressive as that is, Ricky can’t cut a door straight to Hell from here, and Ryan wouldn’t be able to cut one straight home. You need very specific gates with very specific properties. The knife could provide a shortcut to one of those gates themselves, but neither of you ‘own’ one.”

“It’s too bad only Shane owns that bridge,” Aziraphale said. “It’s the most reliable portal in North America.

Ryan put down the camera, which suddenly seemed too heavy. Jen scurried over and grabbed it (she almost tripped and fell, but Anathema caught her). “You mean Old Alton Bridge? Shane really did take it from the Goatman?”

“Far more comedically than necessary, but he did,” Andrew said. “I had to write a report about it, and that meant I had to watch that stupid video many times and not let my supervisor know I thought it was hilarious.”

“If what Shane did was legit, though, uh, it’s my bridge too.” Ryan had been furious/petrified when Shane initially dragged him into his one-sided shouting match with a demon Ryan was scared of, yet apparently Shane had been doing Ryan a favor and giving him a share in valuable real estate.

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You’re right. He said the two of you were a package deal, and near the end of the seance you confirmed your willingness to take partial ownership. It’s your bridge.”

“Do you think he was trying to give me options?” Ryan asked slowly, his heart twinging. He wished he’d known Shane cared for him this damn much (pun intended).

“It sounds like he succeeded,” Andrew said, giving an eighth of a smile. “C’mon, let’s test it.”

“You’re upset about something else,” Anathema said.

Andrew rubbed his face with one hand. “Yeah, but one thing at a time. I’m sure we can figure it out as a collective.”

****

“Hey, it’s Ryan...”

“Dude, what the hell has been going on? We heard your car was found wrapped around a telephone pole and Mom and Dad have been bugging me and everyone’s been freaking out and -”

“Stop. I’m sorry I didn’t call earlier. Hear me out. I needed to calm down before they would let me near a phone.”

“Who’s ‘they’? Are you in trouble? Have you been kidnapped by the fucking mob? Or The Watcher??”

“JACOB BERGARA.”

“Sorry. Go on.”

“Seriously, I need you to let me finish without interrupting. Shane took me out on Friday night to try to cheer me up because I just got dumped, and I’ve been messed up for other reasons for awhile and we got into an argument that wasn’t really his fault, and I wasn’t fit to drive, so he was driving. Then, like, he got distracted because I was having a meltdown on him and what that whole drama meant for us. And he crashed the car. I only got superficial injuries that got fixed up quickly, but this has stirred up some inner demons and some problems I’ve had for a long time, plus feeling worried and guilty about Shane, and there was a serious risk of me hurting myself. I had to go somewhere safe to sort my shit out.”

“Uh, ‘somewhere safe’? Like, you know, checked yourself in?”

“Yeah, like that.”

“Okay. It’s not ideal, but I’m glad you’re safe. How long are you going to be there?”

“I don’t know, but a friend of mine who’s had to get accommodations for brain stuff before says Buzzfeed has accommodations I can make use of and take some time off if I need it and I won’t end up in the poorhouse over it. Can you tell our parents, please? Just them. I couldn’t handle talking to them right now. I’m, uh, I’m pretty fragile. But I’m okay.”

“Can they visit?”

“Maybe. It depends what the folks here decide, and also I’d find that difficult right now.”

“Okay. How’s Shane?”

“He’s alive but we don’t know when he’s gonna wake up and rejoin us.”

“Shit. I’m sorry.”

“You can tell our parents but otherwise it’s his girlfriend’s call how to handle spreading that information. His family lives really far away so she’s dealing with all that. An old friend of his is supporting them too.”

“That sucks.”

“Thanks, Jake....um...you know I love you and them a lot, right?”

“You’re making me nervous.”

“Hah. I’m basically descending into Hell.”

“But you’ve got good help?”

“Yeah, I promise I’ve got great help.”

Chapter Text

There were several things that had to get done before Ryan left.

First, Ricky left Sara and went back into Ryan. Sara was confused, upset, and shaky until Aziraphale did some additional mental cleansing thing to her. Apparently Ryan could cope better being Ricky’s host because of his supernatural gifts and the circumstances of the possession. Ryan gave Sara a big hug and told her she did great, and Andrew gave her some of that post-possession recovery tea from earlier. Jen and Anathema left to look after Obi and then get some rest.

Second, even though Sara wasn’t in top shape yet, they needed to put together Shane’s alibi right away. Crowley explained that Shane had donated him the demonic equivalent of a blood transfusion not long ago and now Crowley was able to shift into a double of Shane. (This was disconcerting to see, but both Ryan and Sara held it together.) At Ryan’s apartment - to help Andrew keep a shred of plausible deniability - Aziraphale conjured up appropriate props for a photoshoot of Sara anxiously sitting by “Shane’s” hospital bedside for her to share on social media, complete with IV drip and everything. Crowley and Aziraphale were both pros at constructing fake identities and false records, and promised that they could make a convincing data trail.

Third, Ryan packed for Hell, as advised by Crowley (now himself again). “Good walking shoes. No weapons, because that wouldn’t make sense for Ricky and also sets the wrong tone. You don’t want to be roaming around in Hell with any sort of warlike intent. That’s guaranteed to backfire. Do you have an outfit that makes you feel like an absolute legend? Cool and heroic and sexy? Because as long as you don’t sacrifice practicality, that will help you with your confidence. Also no electronics. Even demons who aren’t familiar with electronics, and that’s about ninety-five percent, can manipulate electricity in ways that might also backfire. Because of how time and matter work there, you won’t feel hot, cold, thirsty, or tired unless a demon is specifically making you feel that way for punishment purposes, so don’t worry about that aspect.”

(With that in mind, Ryan decided to wear his Indiana Jones jacket from the Forest Fenn treasure hunt, though the rest of his outfit would be from his normal wardrobe.)

Fourth, over dinner back at Andrew’s place, Crowley gave Ryan a lengthy briefing about the rules of Hell and all the advice he could think of. He put special emphasis on how humans could not tell lies in Hell. “Don’t be discouraged by that if you have to speak for yourself at some point. Use it to your advantage. For example…”

 

Fifth, the non-human trio insisted that Ryan get a good night’s sleep before leaving in the morning, and the angels wanted Sara to stay under observation for a night as well. Crowley claimed they were coddling Sara too much but it wasn’t worth arguing about. Sara made surprising but convincing arguments for why she and Ryan should platonically sleep in the same bed rather than her being alone. There were similarities in vibes to nights Ryan had spent on location with Shane, and he didn’t want to be alone tonight either, so he agreed.

Andrew offered his bed, saying that he only slept in it a few times a year and the sheets were fresh. Plus he’d put a small miracle on Wellington to make him hypoallergenic. In order to keep his vigil over them from being too creepy, Andrew spent the night a few feet away from them, but on his desktop computer with the brightness turned down and the screen facing away. As it was, Ryan was pretty sure Andrew had magically sedated him again, but he wasn’t complaining. He woke with Sara clinging to him. His arm was wrapped around her in return.

“I won’t get mad at you if you change your mind,” she said to Ryan right after Andrew woke them, then left the room to do breakfast-y tasks.

“I would, though,” Ryan said. That’s all he felt he needed to say.

“This is a nightmare. I wish…” she trailed off.

Ryan didn’t want to leave Sara behind without settling a particular issue between them. “You know we’re not competing for who loves Shane best and who can do the most about it, right? Because agreeing to host Ricky and being in charge of our public cover story are super important. I’m the one doing the quest part because of Chosen One bullshit, not because I’m an inherently better candidate.”

Sara buried her face in his shoulder and mumbled, “Yeah, but it’s nice to hear you say it.”

“Plus you’ll have plenty of ways to help him in the aftermath.”

“I need you to promise that if things don’t work out, you’ll run and not do anything stupid that gets you trapped too. I’d rather have only you come back than have neither of you come back.” She lifted her head and made eye contact with him. He promised, but the words were heavy in his mouth.

Ryan felt silly asking Andrew if he had a hair dryer - he’d brought his own hair product to leave here for now - but Andrew handed him one and made a joke about traveling with Steven and waiting ages for him to get his hair sufficiently vertical. Having decent hair made Ryan feel better about his day. By the time Ryan was finished in the bathroom and fully dressed, the entire gang was around the dining table.

“I don’t have much of an appetite,” Ryan apologized, though he managed a few bites. Andrew insisted on packing him a few snacks and light beverages in case he and Shane returned to their bridge but couldn’t get home right away.

“You can carry it in this,” Anathema said, handing Ryan a one-shoulder backpack that could easily be swung around to take something out.

“It’s also got my camera, fresh batteries, and two small jars of literal sunlight I cut out of the air with one of my other knives,” Jen said. She pulled out one of the plastic containers out of the bag. It fit in her hand and glowed as one would expect. “One’s backup, you see.”

“That’s really cool, thank you, but I don’t think I’m gonna vlog my descent into Hell.”

Jen put the jar back into the bag and zipped up the bag. “Why not? You’re braver when you treat things like a documentary.”

“I’m an empath, and I know you are,” Anathema said.

Crowley leaned on his elbows on the table, chin resting on his interlaced fingers. “Don’t blow Ricky’s cover. Otherwise I don’t see the harm in trying, especially if it has ‘magic feather’ value to you. I warned you against conventional electronics, yes, but I watched what Jen filmed yesterday and conventional electronics would not have captured everything that happened the way this camcorder did.”

Aziraphale had somehow turned a slice of plain white toast into a crumpet, which he was now buttering. “It shouldn’t be your first priority, but if you succeed in doing any, er, vlugging, it will be information even Heaven doesn’t have. Well, except for possibly God Herself if She wants. And the archangels would find that valuable intelligence from behind enemy lines, so to speak. It wouldn’t hurt to have something like that up your sleeve.”

“God’s a woman?” Jen asked, sounding delighted.

“Celestial-being gender is not like terrestrial-being gender, and different angels approach that different ways when speaking human languages which include gendered pronouns,” Andrew said, adding sugar to his coffee with an odd elegance to the tilt of the sugar packet between his fingers. “For the sake of my metaphorical blood pressure, let’s not go further into speculating about the Almighty or discussing how to manipulate archangels. Not right now.”

Jen broke the brief awkward silence that followed by picking up the backpack and waggling it. “Hey, remember that time you and me and Shane and Marci got super drunk to see if IV therapy would cure our hangovers? Remember when you and me and Shane had a bunch of shots before she joined us and I said you two were my beautiful boys? And you agreed? Because yesterday we found out claim-staking shit like that is binding.

“I’m not sure that’s how it works,” Ryan began.

But Jen put down the spoon she’d been holding in her other hand with a loud clink. She needed it in order to point at Ryan’s chest. “I haven’t been to church since I was forced to because I was handcuffed to Steven, but I’ve gotten an idea about God thanks to all this. ”

“You and your colleagues have remarkable job descriptions, don’t you?" Aziraphale whispered to Andrew, more loudly than he probably thought he did.

“Maybe God dumps the equivalent of Lego sets on you, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to be building but you know you’re supposed to be building something and all the pieces are part of what’s eventually gonna be a pirate ship or space station or whatever.” Jen looked around the table with a sort of jittery enthusiasm that made Ryan wonder if her most recent dose of medication hadn’t kicked in yet. (He immediately felt guilty for the thought.) “If I’m right about that, that explains why I’ve got all these crazy wonderful things I’ve never used for anything important. Clearly you need the knife. So maybe you need the camera, and maybe you need the sunlight and maybe you need the reverse-knife that un-cuts things.”

“The what?”

She took it out yet another little penknife from the side pocket of the bag, this one with a red handle, and demonstrated by ripping a paper towel, then “gluing” it back together by passing the knife through the tear. As the blade touched the two sides, they didn’t simply come back together but looked good as new. Sara oohed and aahed, and Jen handed it to her for her inspection. “I’m keeping the sunbeam cutter, though. You’re not gonna have sunlight down there and at least I won’t lose all my cool toys if you drop the backpack into a lake of acid or something. Uh, now that I’ve imagined that as a possibility, keep the Nicely Accurate Knife in your pocket, not the bag, since it’s the most important.”

“It’s a really long story why Jen and I decided to call it that while chatting last night,” Anathema said.

“You’re a veritable Q to Ryan’s James Bond,” Crowley told Jen.

Jen let go of the bag and thought about this. “Which Q? Can I be the cute awkward gay what’s-his-name one?”

“Ben Whishaw. Who also voiced Paddington Bear.” Ryan wrapped Jen in a hug. “Sure, you can be that one.”

Jen hugged tightly in return.“Then bring my gear and my other beautiful boy back in one piece, Agent Bergara.”

Only Aziraphale and Crowley were escorting Ryan to the gate. Andrew and Jen had to go to work tomorrow to avoid suspicion, and Anathema was going to spend today with Sara, who was filing for family leave.

“I’m glad you won’t be putting yourself through work stress for at least a few days, while also not being left to your own devices,” Ryan said.

“She’s being left to Anathema Device’s,” Andrew said, and looked pleased with himself.

“You should have heard his puns in Ancient Hebrew, which were even worse,” Aziraphale said. Andrew promptly said something in Ancient Hebrew and chuckled. Crowley gave him a thin pity smile.

The meal wound down, and Ryan couldn’t bear putting it off any longer. He gave Jen another hug, he and Andrew did a bro-y half-hug hand-clasp thing, and he and Sara held onto each other for a long moment that ended with her kissing him on the cheek. She looked ready to cry. Jen put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s all gonna be fine, Sara, clearly God wants Ryan to do this. Otherwise She wouldn’t have given me this cool shit to supply him.”

Ryan crouched to make the first incision in the third dimension. Then he dragged the blade up to make a nice straight frame. He thought about Old Alton Bridge. He thought about how scared he’d been, packing a water pistol filled with Holy Water that Shane had mocked, not knowing he could have hurt Shane with it for real. He thought about Shane’s grandiose taunts. He thought about Shane tricking him into talking to the Goatman when he hadn’t wanted to, then making the situation more and more absurd until Ryan becoming a co-owner of the bridge didn’t seem ridiculous anymore, not nearly as ridiculous as Shane ending their communication with the demon by saying, “As we snuff this candle so too we snuff you from this mortal world...you fuckin’ wimp.”

Ryan let out the tiniest little wheeze of laughter at the memory despite himself, and with that the portal opened.

“Good luck!” Sara called after him as he passed through. Aziraphale and Crowley quickly followed behind with their suitcases.

The late morning light made the bridge look decrepit and lonely, not haunted. There was no sign of any other people. “You sure you can crash at Shane’s secret apartment near here?” Ryan asked.

“Yes, he gave me directions in case I ever needed shelter in the area unexpectedly,” Crowley said, walking in a big circle around Ryan and Aziraphale.

“Call for either or both of us by name if we aren’t right here when you return. We’ll stay in town as long as necessary,” Aziraphale said.

“Dressed like that?” Ryan asked.

Crowley snorted. “I did tell him repeatedly that this is backwoods Texas.”

“Not sure if ‘backwoods’ is fully accurate, but it’s not the big city. I hope you two don’t get bored.”

“We’ll find ways to occupy ourselves, I’m sure,” Aziraphale said. Then he pointed at a spot in the air above the bridge. “There it is. Crowley, dear, bring it down a bit please as you finalize the coordinates?”

“Got Jen’s camera ready, Ryan?”

“Yes!”

With his arms outstretched, Crowley released a few sparks from his fingers as a pinhole in front of Ryan’s face grew and grew. In less than a minute the hole had grown to a ten-foot-tall gate as wide as the planks they were standing on. Through it Ryan saw pure blackness. He had no visual cues as to what was waiting on the other side. It looked appropriately spooky in frame, at least.

“Here I am, about to go to Hell to rescue my best friend, because that’s my life now I guess,” Ryan narrated, slipping into his "theory voice" like a suit of armor, imperfect though it was. He didn’t include his allies in the shot, to preserve their privacy in case anyone outside their group ever saw this.

“It’s natural to be afraid, but you are more than your fear,” Aziraphale said. Which was a lot more helpful than telling him not to be afraid.

Crowley added, “Remember that you didn’t know what he is, but you knew who he is. You know him in a way no demon down there ever has or will. Remember that you are a clever and brave and loving human being. I’d put my money on one like you against all the legions of them every time.”

Ryan nodded and took his first step. He told whatever was waiting for him: “Hey demons, it’s me. Ya other boy.”

Chapter Text

At first it was pure darkness. Ryan couldn’t breathe. Then he felt and heard something unzip his backpack, and the only reason that he didn’t flip out was that a voice said, “Get a grip, Ry, it’s me.”

It turned out that Ricky was now capable of assuming a non-corporeal, yet visible form that could manipulate objects. He took one Jen’s sunlight jars out of the bag, zipped the bag up again, and shoved it into Ryan’s shirt pocket, where it cast warm rays of light all around them. “I can see fine, but now I don’t have to keep you from running into shit.”

Ryan paused filming, then looked Ricky up and down. “Is that really what you look like?”

The demon that currently resembled a little blond boy in baggy jeans and a Pinky and the Brain t-shirt scowled at him. “No, it’s what I looked like when they sent me on my mission to keep tabs on you. I think I might not get to look like myself again until my boss and I are square. See, I was supposed to become your new pal, but that sounded boring so I tried to cut corners.”

“Wait, wait, wait, I remember now! You said you were new to the neighborhood and my friends and I let you join us and you suggested a game of hide-and-seek, and you dared me to go hide in that tree and climb onto that tall branch growing over the pile of bricks...”

“Sorry. I knew it had to look like an accident.” Ricky gestured down the long, rough-hewn rock tunnel they were in. The floor sloped downwards. “Bygones be bygones, right? Because we’ve got to work together. I can walk beside you when we’re alone, but I’ll have to hide in you whenever anyone might see us. You’ll stay aware of what’s going on no matter what, promise. For the most part you can control every part of your body except the legs and feet. And obviously I do the talking except for whispering to each other.”

“Can’t we talk telepathically?”

“In a pinch, but it’s hard cutting through the noise constantly going on in your panicky little brain.” Ricky snapped his fingers and started making his way onwards. “C’mon, it’ll be a ways yet before we run into whoever’s on guard duty.”

Ryan decided against showing Ricky’s astral projection or whatever this was - too bizarre and personal - but he got some shots of the tunnel. He narrated, “This initial passage feels damp and oppressive, and the slope keeps getting steeper as my guide and I follow it. The floor also feels slick, but there’s no obvious reason for this.”

“This way of returning from a mission is exclusively for demons who haven’t failed hard enough to get dragged home, but have become too weakened to return with more dignity,” Ricky said.

Ryan turned off the camera and let it hang against its chest by the neck strap for now. Trying to vlog every moment of walking through Hell would be way worse than texting and driving. “Is Dante’s Inferno factual at all? I didn’t have time to ask the others.”

“It’s self-insert fanfiction with a few scraps of real visions, at best.” Ricky gave Ryan serious side-eye. “I’m not your benevolent dead poet guide. We’re a parasitic relationship that’s suddenly become mutualistic.”

“Don’t worry, I’m never gonna mistake you for anything benevolent,” Ryan said. As antagonistic as Ricky liked to be, having someone to banter with was helping Ryan handle his fear as much as playing filmmaker was.

After an unknown amount of time, they started seeing another source of light in front of them. “I’m going in, and you should put your cute lil’ sunbeams away,” Ricky said. Ryan briefly felt like all his bones had been dunked in lime juice. Then the boy figure wasn’t there anymore. Not much more walking, and the guard became visible.

“Bears, why did it have to be bears?” Ryan groaned as he filmed a few seconds of the guard from a distance. The demon was in the shape of a grizzly bear, but twice as large and standing upright holding a pike in one paw, and with glowing red eyes and walrus tusks. (Yes, the walrus tusks were also glowing red.) Next to the guard was a wide metal gate barred with ornate scrollwork. Its beauty was only slightly diminished by all the rust and the four heads impaled on its upper spikes.

“I’m taking the wheel and handling her,” Ricky warned him. Ryan wasn’t that surprised to hear “her”, given the ferociousness of mother bears. Under Ricky’s command, Ryan felt his hands lower the camera, felt his feet march along without his input. Felt his spine straighten and his shoulders roll back. Confident. Secure. Sly.

“HALT!” the bear-demon bellowed as they neared. “STATE YOUR BUSINESS IN HELL.”

Ricky-in-Ryan smiled and bowed. “Hey there, Ursula, it’s been too long. It’s Rictus! My mission went longer than scheduled, had some mishaps, had to improvise, but it’s all good now. I’m homeward bound.”

She looked down her nose at him and spoke at a more conversational volume, though her voice still rumbled through Ryan’s guts. “You’re Rictus the Gold-loving?”

“That’s me.” Ricky grinned so hard it made Ryan’s cheeks ache.

“What’s that hanging around your neck?”

“Amulet. Brings me luck.” Ryan had been informed that less than five percent of demons could reliably recognize twentieth-century-and-onwards tech, and Ricky sounded confident Ursula was in the other ninety-five percent. “May I pass?”

“My official duty is to allow you to pass. However....” Ursula licked her lips with a slimy purple tongue. “There’s been a proclamation that anyone who can subdue you and drop you off at the Ditch, or present proof of having truly killed you, will receive three weeks’ extra time off as well as new and improved personal quarters.”

Ricky coughed. “Lord Malacoda is such a card, isn’t he?”

“He is a demon of his word, as well.”

“I thought you were a demon of integrity who did her official duty perfectly,” Ricky chided her, like a disappointed parent.

Ursula leaned on her spear and put a paw on her hip. “That’s a consideration. I haven’t had more than three days off at a time in decades. That’s another.”

“I’m not taking a weapon out,” Ricky said quickly as he swung the bag around and closed Ryan’s hands around the sun jar. “Do you ever get tired of being so close to other realms, other planes of existence, and never getting to see them?”

“Show me what you’re holding,” she growled.

He held out the jar. “I got this off a mortal witch on Earth. Real sunlight. Pure, and from a place they call the City of Angels. When you get your next well-deseved promotion, which I’m sure you will, you can get more time off and more regularly. You can get sweeter digs. But you are never going to get something wild like this.”

“It’s so clean,” she said, staring. Then the gate began to open.

Ricky immediately flung the jar as far as possible in the opposite direction, and sprinted through the gate, yelling: “I’msorrybutIcan’ttrustyounothingpersonal!”

Ryan briefly glimpsed a path labeled SHORTCUT TO PURGATORY, which curved off to the side in an abrupt boomerang shape, but Ricky didn’t stop propelling them forwards until they reached a tall tree with a trunk covered entirely in spikes.

“Do we have to climb that?” Ryan whispered. Even if it had been a normal tree, he didn’t want to go tree climbing with this person, of all people.

“No, it’s a bit of cover so we’re not entirely out in the open,” Ricky whispered. “Wasn’t sure if that was going to work. I need a sec to get my shit together. Fuck, I don’t like bears either. We can’t take the expressway to Dis because we’d have to deal with checkpoints that are more sophisticated and would figure out that I’m possessing a live body. We have to take the scenic route hardly anyone bothers with. So. Uh. Feel free to look around and film for a bit first. I’ll answer your questions in a slightly different voice so you sound a tiny, tiny, tiny bit less crazy.”

“Is there a significance to this tree, or is it about the look?” Ryan asked, panning up the torturous trunk.

“This is a replica of a type of tree that grows in Southeast Asia. Some traditions punished adulterers by making them climb one of those trees naked. We have some in our Adultery Grove.” Ricky took them closer to the edge of the path, which was cut into the side of a mountain range that seemed to serve as one edge of Hell. He made a wide, sweeping gesture at the landscape below them, then pointed at a particular patch of what looked like woodland, except the trees seemed to be slowly waving in a seasick pattern. “It’s rare for anyone to come down here for just one sin, but punishing a soul in only one way loses effectiveness after they get too used to it anyway. The Pit has various customized rotation plans.”

“How thorough,” Ryan said weakly. It was a lot to take in. Looking at it through a lens made it easier. Ricky was more helpful than Ryan had expected, providing explanations as soon as Ryan asked him.

Hell, to Ryan at least, looked like a vast plain ringed with mountains taller than any on Earth, possibly taller than any on Mars. Fortunately Ryan and Ricky were only a reasonable hike up one of them. The sky above them had no obvious source of light, but the atmosphere and illumination was similar to dusk as seen through smog.The Pit was a series of interconnected valleys and crevasses roaming all over the place, some sending up smoke, others under localized hurricanes, some deep frozen, some caught up in vortexes with colors Ryan didn’t have names for. The Ditch was a single location dug into the ground, and had an opaque dome roof over it. There were also swathes of apartment buildings that looked dingy but habitable.

“That’s because those places are where we rest and play, if we’re not in trouble,” Ricky said. “No humans allowed. Nothing could ever make the outsides pretty, but some demons fix up their own homes decent enough. Sleep is optional but everyone likes a place to let their hair down. Or tentacles. I’m going to be so pissed if someone got my condo while I was away.”

Everything was centered around Dis, a tower so tall that it counted as Hell’s capital all by itself. Ricky said it also extended underground. The very highest-ranking demons lived there, Satan himself in the finest penthouse in the lowest floors, where few of his underlings ever approached. It looked like someone had taken a modern ultra-skyscraper, tripled the scale, applied a Medieval, But Make It Nightmare filter with all sorts of crags and spikes, then lit the whole interior with shitty fluorescents that made all possible grandeur turn into something tedious and dull. Also, there were hardly any windows, maybe three or four per floor.

“Don’t forget what really makes it all happen,” Ricky said, nudging Ryan’s arms upwards.

He meant the dead and damned. Ryan winced as he filmed the pale outlines of human beings floating downwards, lightly as the very beginning of snowfall but even slower. “How long does it take them to reach the Pit?”

“Ohhhh, a few years,” Ricky whispered back with a relish that made Ryan uncomfortable. “That way they really get to think about what they’ve signed up for. If you notice, some of them are drifting more sideways. They’re headed for Purgatory, which we can’t see from here. It’s behind one of the mountains on the other side.”

“What’s that like?”

“You have to have special training to work there, but I’ve heard it’s not that different except that the souls get some downtime between sessions to reflect and interact with each other, and a lot of the torture is reliving their own wrongdoings rather than just hot irons and whatnot. Eventually they vanish from their cells during one of those rest periods and reappear in Heaven.” Ricky hummed thoughtfully. “I have taken a turn in what some humans would refer to as Limbo. I call it Heck. It’s for people who were assholes, but not up to a certain bar of evil, so they live in a simulation of something resembling a boring Earth life but everything is way more annoying. Stepping on Legos, socks are always damp - cute stuff. I sometimes go there on my days off to point and laugh.”

The thought of those two options comforted Ryan enough to keep him from curling into a fetal position over all this. “Do you get any demographics of sinners more or less than others here in Hell?”

“We hardly get any kids. Except for certain prodigies, they haven’t had enough time to earn damnation. It’s forbidden to tempt humans to kill or fatally neglect children, actually. Like spoiling a crop by harvesting too early. Demons who kill human children themselves get five hundred years in the Ditch if they’re lucky.”

“Does religion matter? Or sexuality?” Ryan already knew Andrew’s answer regarding Heaven’s stance, but he was curious about Ricky and therefore Hell’s take.

“Only if your relationship with those parts of yourself contributed to doing evil.”

Ryan watched the souls float down a moment longer. He left the camera running, but steadied it against his chest like an improvised body cam. His hands were now trembling too much to hold it still otherwise. “How did you know the guard would want the sunlight enough for it to be a distraction?”

In Ryan’s mind, Ricky said, “Back when I had another name, I helped make that sun."

With Ryan’s mouth, Ricky said, “Enough playing tourist. Let’s move.”

Chapter Text

Anathema apologetically left town to go spend time with her family, because she hoped to get back to England in time to support Newt during exams, and none of them knew how long Ryan’s quest would last according to Earth time. She promised to return the moment they wanted her to. Sara would have liked having a knowledgeable witch close by, but she wasn’t going to be selfish about it. Anathema had been a complete stranger to her and had already done so much to help her and Shane. She even reinforced protective wards on Sara’s apartment before her departure.

On Monday, Sara successfully applied for a short period of “family leave” before she had to start dipping into her sick or vacation days. At the moment she couldn’t bear to deal with pitying looks at work, or constantly having to maintain the lies about why Shane wasn’t there. She spent a lot of time at home, watching TV or playing video games snuggled up with Obi, always with a bottle of holy water within reach. If it hadn’t been for Jen, that’s all she would have done.

Jen and Sara had never been super close, though they liked each other as acquaintances. Now Jen stepped up to the plate in a major way. She coaxed Sara into keeping up her morning yoga class attendance, even driving her there and using a treadmill elsewhere in the same gym so she could make sure she got home safe before Jen left for work. “Don’t worry if people see you. You can tell them it’s important to your mental health. No reasonable person would expect you to go live in the hospital 24/7 over this.” Jen kept asking to see Sara’s art and encouraged her to keep drawing, keep being creative in some way, rather than being a sad lump. Sara was (quite rationally) nervous about sleeping alone in the apartment when Hell might still send someone after her, so she spent the day there and fed Obi his dinner before going to Jen’s place for the night. Jen taught Sara how to make stop-motion short films. Sara taught Jen several card games.

“I don’t know if you watched the video where Kelsey and I had to be married for a week,” Jen said on the fourth evening, as they were doing laundry together in her apartment complex’s laundry room. Sara hadn’t had the energy to do it in her own building, so Jen had suggested bringing her hamper and using the buddy system.

“Gaming Kelsey?” Sara liked how quarters sounded when you shoved them into the coin slot of the washing machines. (She wasn’t going to think about all the jokes Shane made about state quarters, like about the giant peach about to crush Georgia, nope, nope…)

Jen measured out a portion of laundry detergent. “No, bi Kelsey. Kelsey Darragh. She left Buzzfeed kind recently-ish. It’s hard to keep track, even though I hang out with her sometimes.”

“Right! Sorry. I remember the ‘married for a week’ series, but I don’t think I saw yours.”

“It’s cool. We were the only girl/girl couple, so I was glad to represent, but I hardly knew her before that.” Jen started shoving clothes into the machine without mercy. She had more than she probably should try to wash at once, but maybe she liked to live on the edge. “We didn’t, you know, ‘consummate’, but we shared my bed and spent our days together as much as we could, and we each had to plan a nice date to take the other person on. It was really enjoyable. Felt like one long sleepover. I never thought I’d click with her like that, but we got thrown together and it worked out great.”

“That’s really nice,” Sara said, grabbing a stray pink sock out of her whites load seconds before it was too late. An unspoken difficulty here was that some of the clothes were Shane’s. Sara wanted him to come back to plenty of clean clothes to wear, and he’d done her laundry last time. She had to act like he was coming back or she’d break.

Jen smacked the machine lid shut and leaned against the machine with her arms crossed. “What I’m saying is, I don’t see what I’m doing as a sacrifice, alright? You’re cool and I’m glad I’m getting to know you. I wish the reason was happier, that’s all.”

A few ounces of the many pounds weighing on Sara’s mind lifted. “You’re cool too. Thank you.”

“Are the…” Jen looked at the one stranger also doing laundry and lowered her voice. “Are the special dudes backing you up at all?”

Sara couldn’t help but snort at the phrasing. “The ones in Texas FaceTime me in the afternoons, and Crowley texts a lot. He’s been telling me gossip about historical figures ever since he discovered I find that entertaining. You know about Andrew and his feeder complex.”

“Hey, as long as he doesn’t start literally feeding us with a fork, I’m happy to eat half of the care packages he keeps making for you,” Jen said.

****

Aziraphale had declared the angel Nichiel’s debt to him fulfilled. The idea was to protect him from even more risk of censure for assisting the demon Shemodai. Now none of that was happening. Just Andrew Ilnyckyj being kind to a coworker and friend, who was dating another coworker and friend. That was the problem with the double identities: Shemodai had remained in the ENEMY box, at least nominally so, but Shane Madej had become something entirely different in Andrew’s mind. It was all too dangerous. All too confusing.

Andrew couldn’t do anything for Ryan from here. Other than continuing protection, the only things that could help Sara now were mundane things, most of which Jen had covered. So he did the only thing he felt comfortable doing, which was make sure Sara and Jen had plenty of nutritious meals on hand. Sara had given him a key, and he would drop by every day or two to stick his gifts in the fridge or place on the counter. Sometimes she was there and sometimes she wasn’t. If they ran into each other, he didn’t talk to her long, but at least he had personal evidence of how she was managing and could do a scan for any new, covert demonic energy that might bode another attack.

On the fourth day, Adam pulled Andrew aside after a meeting and asked quietly, “Is there something going on?”

“Nothing, I’m fine,” Andrew said. But no human Andrew had ever met or heard of by reputation had patient puppy eyes quite like Adam Bianchi. He simply looked at Andrew while running his fingers slowly though his own beard until Andrew folded. “Okay, there is something, but this isn’t the place for this.”

Adam promptly led him outside to a scrap of lawn opposite one of Buzzfeed’s storage warehouses. It was a blazing hot afternoon and nobody else was around. “Here?”

“I feel guilty for what happened with Ryan and Shane,” Andrew blurted out.

“Mm.” Adam sat on the grass and stretched out his legs, waiting expectantly and non-judgmentally. Assuming Adam eventually went to Heaven, which seemed likely as of now, he could probably get a position emotionally support newly dead souls who had lived innocent but extremely traumatic lives and needed help getting over it. If he wanted, that was.

(There were plenty of jobs in Paradise, because angels would suck at running a human utopia for long, and also humans would inevitably lose interest in an eternity of relaxation. But the jobs were fulfilling, all done for the joy and sense of purpose. Nobody had to work on an assembly line or otherwise toil like that, the way people did in Limbo.)

Andrew sighed and sat beside him, hugging his legs. “I feel like I witnessed Ryan’s slow falling apart, and yeah, I made a gesture to try to be there for him, but I didn’t follow through like I should have. Meanwhile, I know he and Shane are very close, but I felt like I saw them getting too codependent. Emotions were running high. But how could anyone expect Ryan to try to get any space from Shane if Ryan thought Shane was all he had by then?”

“You’re more upset than you look.”

“You probably think I’m being too dramatic about other people’s business.” Though Hell was not literally below them, Andrew had an idle mental image of lying down with his ear pressed against the soil and hearing distant screams.

Adam shook his head. “I think you care more than people think you do. About everything.”

“Sorry.”

“Didn’t say it was bad.”

Right, if Adam didn’t get first-class tickets to Paradise the second he died, Andrew would pitch a fit. “Thanks.”

Adam studied Andrew’s face a little longer, then he took out his phone and tapped the Skype app and made a voice-only call, putting his phone on speaker.

“What are you doing?”

The beepity booping ended and sleepy voice said, “You know about time zones, dude.”

“New York’s only a few hours ahead,” Adam said.

“Told you I was visiting Malaysia this week. Family reunion.”

“Oops. My bad. Andrew really needs to talk to you, though.”

“I do?” Andrew asked.

“He does,” Adam said, in a much more forceful tone than usual.

Steven must have been impressed, because he sounded much less grumpy when he said, “Hi, Drew, something going on?”

Adam elbowed Andrew in the ribs until Andrew admitted, “I don’t know if you heard about Ryan and Shane’s car accident.”

“Ugh, I saw an insensitive tweet asking whether the Worth It trio is happy about it. I said that Worth It vs. Unsolved feud is obviously a joke, a fun joke, not a crappy joke like the one they made, then I blocked them. Do you know if there’s a GoFundMe or something? Is Ryan accepting get-well cards? I know he’s conscious, but I don’t know details…”

Andrew smiled at how much of an amiable chatterbox Steven could be immediately after being roused from sleep at an unfair hour. “Not that I know of.”

Adam made a “go on” gesture.

“Uh, I feel like I could have been a better friend to them rather than just observing, and now that they’re both in a bad state I feel like there’s nothing more I can do about it. I wish - okay, okay, I promised myself I’d never say what’s on the tip of my tongue.”

“You can say anything to me,” Steven said, and the worst part was that Steven believed this.

Each sentence was like ripping off a separate band-aid. “You’re infinitely better at being human than I am. You’re always closer to people than I am. We still get to do the show together, but we don’t get to see each other in the lull periods and when you are here we’re too busy to simply be. Our social circle is better with you here, and everyone in it is better too. I miss what it’s like with you here. I try to downplay it because I don’t want to be manipulative, but I miss you.”

“Good job,” Adam mumbled, patting Andrew on the back.

“It’s not manipulative to tell people you care about them enough to miss them, as long as it’s true,” Steven said.

“It’s true.” Andrew checked his watch. “I need to go. Adam challenged me to do this. Usually he gives me challenges like making a Japanese dessert with a huge mallet the size of a garden rake for the amusement of Youtube. That’s easier.”

“Your sentimentality allergy kicked in, huh?” Steven sounded fond, not angry. “You can try calling me whenever. I might not always pick up, but I’ll call you back.”

“Okay.”

“Promise you won’t make yourself miserable trying to be Mr. Stoic for no good reason.”

Andrew had myriad excellent reasons, but he promised anyway.

“I miss you too,” Steven said. Adam said goodbye and ended the call.

Andrew mixed himself a batch of mulled hard cider that night and drank a whole jug while teasing Wellington with a laser pointer. He drunk-dialed Aziraphale and rambled to him for about an hour until Aziraphale gently suggested he sober up and take a nice hot bath or something.

Though Andrew was dubious at first, the hot bath was very nice.

****

“Poor dear Nichiel,” Aziraphale said after spending ages being a sympathetic ear to Andrew. Crowley had rescued a few dying plants from stranger’s porches and balconies and had been arranging them in new pots in Shane’s Texas flat and nursing them to health. He wouldn’t start enforcing discipline until they were all at a nice green baseline. Crowley was a strict and demanding gardener, not an arbitrary or sadistic one. He promised them that if they were good they’d always be cared for.

“I don’t think it’s possible to be a good field agent and not eventually catch feelings for people you meet in the process,” Crowly said, stripping off his gloves and snapping his fingers to tidy away the spilled soil. “Did you console Andrew a bit?”

“I hope so. He's obsessing over whether he's done the right thing.” On their second day, Aziraphale had yielded to Crowley’s suggestion that he adapt his outfit to fit in better, once Crowley pointed out that things would only be more difficult for Ryan and Shane if Aziraphale drew a lot of attention towards himself and therefore possibly them. He’d insisted on a light brown waistcoat to elevate his cream-colored slacks and white shirt, and Crowley had no desire to complain about the results.

They stayed close enough to Old Alton Bridge at all times that if there were to be a spike in infernal energy from the portal being opened from Hell, Crowley would feel it. He and Aziraphale were checking on the bridge two or three times every twenty-four hours, to be on the safe side, but otherwise they had a lot of free time. They’d seen several movies at the cinema, gone on long walks, sampled the inelegant (by Aziraphale’s posh standards) but hearty foods on offer, and experimented with various alcohol options since this wasn't the best area for wine. They’d also explored the bookstores. Crowley had bought a stack of bodice ripper romance novels and started reading them aloud with silly voices and commentary to take the piss and make Aziraphale spill his tea laughing.

They were also having more sex than Crowley was ever inclined to let Shane know. They’d bought a new mattress to put on the floor and new sheets to put on it, so it wasn’t like they were sullying Shane’s property. The simple, Spartan studio had been almost bare except for a few taped-up boxes they’d found in a cupboard. Neither of them had touched those. Crowley refused to feel bad about it. He’d shagged a handful of people - demon or human - over the millennia, either to influence them or because he was bored and lonely and they were enthusiastically offering. It had never been high on his list of priorities. At the risk of sounding twee, Crowley had made love to exactly one person, and it had taken him far too long to get to that point.

“Now I’m fretting about Ryan all over again,” Aziraphale sighed, looking out the window at an odd conglomeration of industrial parks, residential areas, and remnants of woodland.

After the business with Crowley’s hellfire deficiency, Crowley had been concerned that Aziraphale might suffer from a parallel problem at some point due to being cut off from Heaven. Aziraphale did a bit of research and Crowley discussed the matter with Shane further. They concluded that Crowley’s own natural hellfire in his core would not have dwindled so much if Crowley had been doing his own sufficiently evil deeds to sustain them. As long as Aziraphale consistently did good deeds, his levels of angelic essence would be stable.

Moments like these made Crowley wonder what would happen if Aziraphale ever overflowed.

Crowley wrapped an arm around Aziraphale's waist, and Aziraphale promptly leaned his head on his shoulder. “Let me consssole you?”

Chapter Text

Ricky’s deal was with technically not with Ryan. Andrew had been concerned that Ryan making any sort of pact with a demon might taint him and cancel out his divine protection. Also, if Ricky’s deal was with Ryan and Ryan died, Ricky would be off the hook, and Ricky was a slippery enough bastard to look for a way to kill him for good this time. No, Ricky had been forced to make an oath to Crowley so profound that he could not go back on it without true death. Oblivion.

This was one of the few things keeping Ryan from losing it while they continued their roundabout journey towards Dis. He took scraps of video whenever he could. That helped too. The first time they passed a party of demons - three of them, with antlers that dripped with a greenish fluid - Ryan willingly let Ricky take control of their entire body until they passed. Fortunately, the trio had a more urgent mission than asking who they were, and continued on without a word.

The next encounter was less easy. This demon looked so much like a cartoon caricature of the Devil that all sorts of jokes popped into Ryan’s head, all of them in Shane’s “voice”. Also he was carrying a briefcase that sounded like it was emitting dubstep. They (Ryan was being cautious, given celestial/infernal gender) stopped in their tracks. “You’re Rictus.”

“What makes you think that?” Ricky asked, trying to scurry past.

But the demon extended a disproportionately long arm to block their path. The alternative was falling off the cliff and tumbling straight down into a pond of hydrochloric acid. “Ursula’s raised the alarm and given a description. There’s a reward out for you.”

Ryan could feel Ricky freaking out, and there wasn’t room for both of them to be doing that. “My turn to talk, he told Ricky in his mind, even though he didn’t want to.

Ricky replied: panicpanicpanicpanic

How would Shane act in this situation? How did Shane talk to demons and ghosts he’d pretended weren’t there? Ryan wouldn’t risk being that rude, but from Ricky’s behavior and Crowley’s swagger, maybe there was something to bravado in surviving Hell. He couldn’t outright lie, but Crowley said he could lie by omission. “You know what this is?” he asked, tapping the camera.

“It doesn’t look like a weapon.”

Ryan summoned a sharp smile like he’d felt Ricky doing with his face. “I got this on Earth, from a witch. One with magic objects you could never find down here. I hold it up like this in front of my face to make it do what I want it to do. I’m protected now. The last demon to attack me was discorporated and didn’t recover for years.”

The demon hooted with amusement and pounced...

Then promptly exploded. They hadn’t been in a corporeal body, but they burst into what looked like a million globs of ectoplasm that vanished in a split second.

“Shit, I hope it didn’t look like that with me. Except grosser. I was encased in meat that would have gone splat before disappearing,” Ricky said.

“I didn’t see what happened to you back then, since I got knocked out,” Ryan whispered, shell-shocked. “Are they totally dead?”

Ricky started them walking again. “Nah. Not a lot of things can give a demon true death. He’ll respawn at a designated location in Dis."

“Why’d you panic, knowing we’d be okay?”

“I have a history with that asshole and I freeze up when I see him. ‘Nuff said.” They went on for awhile before Ricky added, “You got more balls than I thought you did.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

They reached the foot of the mountain after what might have been hours. Or days. The color of the sky never changed, and Ryan never got hungry, thirsty, or tired.

“We’re going to have to walk around the edges of a lot of sections of the Pit. They won’t be pretty. If you puke or faint the jig will be up and we will be fucked. I’ll do what I can but you need to control yourself and make my job easy as possible, got it?”

“Got it.”

On the bright side, there wasn’t a lot of traffic on this path, since demons rarely came here unless they were working. Also, those who were working tended to be too absorbed in their tasks to do more than glance at Ricky/Ryan to make sure they weren’t here to be disruptive. On the downside, Ryan was using a lot of effort not to do either of the things Ricky warned him against. Ryan did quick pans of the different zones to convey what was going on in each of them, with hushed sound bites of commentary, but he didn’t linger in any one direction. Beyond each individual horror, there was a general nightmarish miasma.

He wouldn’t forget the calm, businesslike attitude of the demons at work, with the occasional sadistic laugh or “banter” with the damned souls.

He wouldn’t forget the screams.

He wouldn’t forget the stench.

These were despicable people, Ryan imagined Shane saying, imagined him putting a friendly, reassuring hand between Ryan’s shoulder blades. Those people we talk about in True Crime, the real culprits that all escaped justice, they’re down here now. Whoever murdered little JonBenet Ramsey is here. The Zodiac Killer is here, or will be, if he’s still alive. Jack the Ripper is here. As it should be. The people you love don’t belong here. It’s okay. Keep going. Remember I need you.

So Ryan didn’t throw up and Ryan didn’t pass out. The demon in his body was nothing to the one in his thoughts.

It might have been hours, it might have been days, but they arrived at one of the less prestigious entrances to Dis. By this point Ryan was dazed and overwhelmed with what he’d witnessed. He let Ricky take over and didn’t even register whatever fast-talking he did to get in. But Ricky got them through, and he shouldered them through a crowd pressing through a narrow, dim hall until they reached grungy elevator with unidentifiable smears all over the floor. One wall was lined with buttons for dozens of floors. It wasn’t like a human-built skyscraper than needed multiple sets of elevators after a certain point, then. Ricky located the button for the 122nd story and up they went.

Ricky left Ryan’s body in order to lightly smack both of his cheeks with one childlike hand. “I need you to push past your internal pearl-clutching. Put the camera back in the bag. Malacoda will recognize it if he sees it. Good. Now tell me our plan from here on out so I know you remember it.”

Ryan took a deep breath. “The demons on this floor are all higher-ups in the Department of Obfustications who work directly with Malacoda. The elevator opens just outside his private office, where his secretary is posted. She and he know enough about your mission and mistake that they’ll know you actually brought me with you, so you need to go into his office separate from me. Um. Let’s see. Malacoda might try to keep me here, so I shouldn’t go near him until after you’ve asked both my wishes on my behalf. Then you’ll get your real, adult shape back, and help Shane walk to where I’ll be, and he and I will leave together.”

The wishes could not be anything beyond Malacoda’s power to grant, so Shane turning into a human with a human soul and afterlife options was out of the question. Because of strict standards among demon royalty, as it were, Malacoda also could not completely grant amnesty once he’d formally declared Shane had committed an infraction. With input from Crowley and the angels, Ryan had settled on these two:

1. Shane’s sentence was to be immediately changed to exile on the mortal plane. (The wish was not for “Earth”, in case one day Earth became uninhabitable and the remaining humans had colonized space, or in case Shane found agreeable intelligent alien life to hang out with. Anathema’s idea, as her boyfriend had once met aliens.) This would be considered harsh to the vast majority of demonkind, because it also involved being permanently cut off and shunned by all other Fallen, and most demons loathed all non-demons far more than they could ever hate each other. Almost all the legit demon infestations and some of the hauntings Ryan had investigated with Shane had been miserable exiled demons.

Malacoda would know that for Shane this was closer to a dream outcome, but he was bound to grant Ricky’s request regardless. Because a wish could not be multi-part and still count as only one, it was an acceptable trade-off if Malacoda demanded to reduce his power or even strip him of it. He could not eliminate Shane’s immortality, advanced healing, and his perception of occult phenomena without making him not a demon anymore, which was a feat beyond anyone’s ability. Well, except presumably God’s.

2. Humans associated with Shane would not be treated any differently by Hell, compared to other humans, because of their connection. Crowley had helped with wording that one for maximum returns, explaining that this phrasing would ensure safety from both harassment in life and damnation in death. If any of them ended up damned, it would be because of actions unrelated to being Shane’s loved one.

To keep Ricky from getting into hot water (possibly literally, depending on the mood of the Ditch technicians), Ricky was going to claim that he’d made a deal with Ryan to drop him off at the portal to Hell where he could continue on by himself in safety. Ursula and that other demon having spotted them was a wrinkle in that plan, but Ryan didn’t have the headspace to worry about how Ricky was going to handle that. Ricky was a clever guy.

“And where are you going to hang out while I talk to Malacoda?” Ricky prompted.

“Underneath his secretary Euryale’s desk, because she owes Crowley a massive favor from four hundred years ago and also she hates Malacoda and would love to pull one over him.” This part had been the hardest to swallow, but Crowley swore that both were true, and Aziraphale had confirmed Crowley telling him about it soon after Crowley had returned from that trip and back to Earth. Crowley had worked for Temptations, not Obfustications, but departments pooled their resources and personnel from time to time in order to accomplish overlapping goals.

“That’s as prepared as we’re gonna get,” Ricky said. The elevator continued on and they stood in silence for awhile. Then he looked up at Ryan’s face and said, “Don’t get me wrong, I am sick of your company, but these past couple of days since we actually started communicating with each other made me like you a little more.”

“Oh. Uh, I see you as a more three-dimensional being than I did at first?”

Ricky looked down at the floor as if he could see meaningful patterns there.“I doubt you’ll ever be evil enough for Hell unless you do a total 180 personality change. Don’t think you have it in you to get sentenced to worse than Purgatory. But if I see you in Heck for some reason, I’ll go as easy on you as I can without getting caught slacking.”

“I now have enough context to know that’s a very generous offer, so thank you,” Ryan said sincerely.

“You needed a morale boost,” Ricky said.

Then the elevator dinged and the doors opened. Ryan followed Ricky out to a dark foyer lit by torches. The carpet was disturbingly sticky under his shoes. It wasn’t far before they came upon a better-lit area, even if the lighting was an even more depressing version of cubicle-farm type lighting, and a femme demon in a black sheath dress wearing a string of pearls around her neck and a pair of what looked like cidada corpses as earrings. She looked like if someone took small, skinny Sara and freeze-dried her, and was bent over a massive stack of paperwork. Ricky motioned for Ryan to stay concealed behind the giant pitcher plant full of drowning ants

“Long time no see, Your Unholiness,” Ricky said.

Euryale looked up and gasped. “Damned dirty dungballs, you actually did it!”

Ricky lifted his chin up and flexed his lack-of-biceps. “I actually did it.”

“Let me be the one to escort you in, please, please, please. I want to see his face when he finds out he lost and has to pay up!”

“The bet specifies that I have to knock on his office door, but if you want to open it and introduce me, be my guest.” Ricky held up a hand. “But first, when I was on Earth I found out you’ve owed the renegade Crowley a debt for over four hundred years.”

Ryan had heard that a demon owing someone a debt for too long was a very uncomfortable experience, not painful per se but more like the jittery spiritual equivalent of restless leg syndrome. The twisted expression on Euryale’s face attested to that. “He wasn’t a renegade then.”

“I wasn’t accusing you of anything. But I learned a way you can pay him back without having to actually come in contact with him.” He leaned over and whispered it into her ear. Her goatlike eyes widened. He stepped back. “Do you agree?”

“Yes. This is some impressive scheming, wow.”

Ricky waved Ryan over, and Euryale looked him up and down. “I'm impressed you care this much.”

Ryan gave a small bow. “Thank you for helping me ma’am. I mean, Your Unholiness.”

Euryale got up and stepped away from her desk. “Go on in, boy. Stay quiet.”

The deskwell was a tight fit, but by hugging his knees and hunching his back Ryan managed to squeeze in. He put the backpack under the chair and tried to calm his racing heart.

Ricky knocked on Malacoda’s office door. Euryale opened it and announced Ricky’s arrival with barely-suppressed glee. Malacoda cursed so much that whatever supernatural translation magic had been letting Ryan understand the demons seemed to give up. They were so close. The tension was worse than it had ever been.

I don’t know if prayers can reach you from here, God, and I know I’m not the most consistent about praying anyway, but this isn’t for me, this is for Shane, I don’t care that he’s also Shemodai, this is my Shane, our Shane, who deserves better…

When Ryan finally heard a two sets of footsteps come closer, he was near tears. The chair rolled away and someone crouched down on the floor. An adult-bodied demon, dressed like a 1920's gangster who’d been in a fistfight, with sandy hair and sharp angles to his elongated face that reminded Ryan of a jackal. “It’s me, Ricky. The good news is that I won the bet, he bought my explanation, and I asked both your wishes. The bad news is that before I asked them, I wasn’t thinking and I said, ‘I want an apology, by the way.’ And he was within his rights to count that as its own wish. So he got to pick and choose which two out of the three wishes to answer. He chose to apologize to me and to swear that nobody associated with Shemodai will be treated differently by Hell because of it. He refused to release Shemodai.”

Despair crashed through Ryan like a wave, but immediately gave way to rage. “What. The. Fuck.”

“I didn’t mean to, I swear -”

Ryan punched Ricky in the gut, grabbed his backpack, and stalked towards the door. Euryale tried to grab him by the bag strap. “Think about this first.”

“I am sick of Ricky screwing me over,” Ryan snapped. He was sick of being scared of noises in basements. He was sick of being a chess piece between Heaven and Hell, sick of being a bug under a microscope, sick of being a puppet. If he couldn’t count on someone to get something for him, he’d get it himself.

“Fine, your funeral,” Euryale said, wandering off to talk to Ricky.

Again, time in Hell was not like time on Earth, and Ryan had a surprising amount of time to think even as he shrugged Euryale off and continued on his path. He didn’t have another presence lurking inside him, leeching off his energy and dragging him down anymore. He was still scared, but it didn’t matter anymore. By the time he reached that door, he knew what he was going to say. He took the camera out of his bag, fiddled with it for a moment, and then barged through without knocking.

Fine, whatever, Malacoda had a giant scorpion CEO aesthetic, Ryan seen so much more weird shit lately. “I beg your pardon?” he said in low, coldly pissed-off tone.

“I’m Ryan Bergara, but you know that, don’t you? You’ve been sending demons after me since I was a kid, because you heard I was supposed to witness something. Stuff Hell didn’t want me to see, but Heaven did. And I’ve connected the dots. I’ve connected them.” Ryan held up the camera. “You know what this is? You do? Awesome. It’s not a normal camera. It was a gift that I can’t explain except for it being divine. It has been working perfectly this entire time, and it has a perfect track record of being able to get the footage off it afterwards.”

“How dare you -”

“No, I’m the one talking! Because you’re the one who’s made a catastrophic mistake, not Shemodai. You know everything I’m telling you is the truth, but you didn’t know that I found out what my friend Shane once already. Wanna know what my response was after he explained himself? I asked him to wipe my memory. I wouldn’t have remembered it again if Ricky hadn’t provoked Shane into showing himself later, and if I’d had time to cool off and get my memory back or talk it out before my friend disappeared, I would have consented to another memory wipe. No muss, no fuss. Instead, you gave me reason to come looking for him. With a camera. With my seer’s eyes and perception. With a way to leave here that will be quick and effective. I fulfilled my destiny because of you. Wouldn’t your superiors love to hear that?”

“Well. Um.” Malacoda opened and closed his mouth a few times. He looked as stunned and startled as if he’d been slapped in the face with a live salmon. “You had a lot of moxie, coming down here, seeing as a live human who died in proper Hell, not Purgatory, wouldn't be able to make it to Heaven. No system in place to fetch you. You couldn’t know with complete certainty that your protection would apply here.”

“Now I know it does, though. So you can’t threaten me with physical harm. Immediately change Shemodai’s punishment to permanent exile on the mortal plane, with the same amount of power he had last time I saw him, and immediately healed from any current injuries. Bring him to me right now in a state of mental and physical wholeness.” Since Ryan was making demands, not a wish, he might as well go for broke. “In exchange, you can have this camera and destroy it. If the data is destroyed, nobody can have it.”

If looks could kill, Ryan would have retroactively died hours ago from the sheer intensity of Malacoda’s glare. Then he gritted his teeth and said, “I agree.”

“I need you to swear a binding demon oath.”

Malacoda said the words and made the gestures Ryan remembered, ending it with a glowing rune drawn with his finger in midair. And Shane appeared next to him, wearing only a pair of ragged boxer-briefs and with all his demonic features visible except his wings. He hugged himself and stared at Ryan. “Am I hallucinating?”

Ryan put his palm flat against Shane’s chest, and Shane put his hand on top of it in wonder. “I guess not,” Ryan said, because all the other things he wanted to say were in a traffic jam at the moment. He chucked the camera in Malacoda’s direction, and while still in midair it was crushed into a smaller and smaller cube until it vanished.

“What did you do?” Shane asked, his stance tense, clearly not ready to let down his guard.

“I’ll tell you later.” Ryan took out the Nice and Accurate knife and cut a door for them as fast as he could. He made it big enough for Shane to get through if he ducked, but too small for Malacoda in case he tried to follow them during the short period it would stay open. “We need to go through here.

Malacoda cleared his throat. “You forgot something when you made a deal with a demon. You gave up something else.”

Then his tail whipped around, longer and more flexible than Ryan had thought, reaching straight for him with its wicked stinger. Without thinking, Ryan had lost his protection. The stinger was headed this way and at least Shane and Sara would be safe but Ryan was so scared that he couldn’t move and he didn’t want to stay here forever no no…

“NO!” Shane shoved Ryan to the side. Instead of Ryan, the stinger plunged deep into Shane’s stomach.

By Ryan grabbed him under the arms and dragged him through the door. When they arrived at the dark tunnel that was the Hell side of the Old Alton Bridge portal, Ryan said the incantation Crowley had taught him and dragged Shane through that opening too.

It should have been a victory. Instead, Shane collapsed onto the very bridge where he’d so confidently intimidated another demon a lifetime ago. Blood and some other fluid oozed from his stomach wound and he curled into a ball.

“Can you die from this, like really die?” Ryan asked frantically, kneeling by his side.

Shane took Ryan’s hand and laced their fingers together. His voice was barely audible. “I’m so happy you came for me.”

Ryan had been through so much and held it together, but this was the last straw. Especially since it was his fault. He started crying and crying. Even when Crowley and Aziraphale showed up and said they’d do their best to fix this, he simply could not stop.

Chapter Text

Andrew was at work discussing an upcoming project with Adam and Rie when his phone rang. He saw that it was Aziraphale and threw all courtesy out the window, only saying, “I have to take this,” before rushing to a nearby empty conference room.

“They’re back, but there are complications and we need you at Ryan’s apartment immediately,” Aziraphale said.

“I’m going to come out your phone, so stand back,” Andrew said. He knew Crowley was capable of the same trick but Aziraphale hadn’t mastered it yet. This was no time to worry about his superiors noticing an unexplained miracle. He could retrieve his own phone later. Now he disintegrated into mere celestial wavelengths shooting between electrons, following the signal as his guideline.

He popped out into Ryan’s living room and dusted himself off. Aziraphale was actually clutching at Crowley’s phone, since apparently he preferred landlines, and he’d was all pale in the face with a rigid posture. “You have to understand that I used to report to Gabriel. Patron of messengers and diplomats. I excel in those areas. I’m not a gifted healer when it comes to something this complex and unique.”

“But I report to Raphael, so it’s one of my specialties,” Andrew finished for him. Raphael was a doctor, not a fighter, to the point that they had not been actively involved in planning the Apocalypse with Gabriel, Michael, and Uriel. They’d spent the entire time gathering up the non-combatant medical corps of Heaven to support the soldier angels in the battle everyone had thought was imminent. There was no archangel in charge of food, but feeding humans could be counted as looking after them in a way parallel to healing them. Also, Raphael and all who served them excelled at non-fatally opposing demons who overstepped their bounds when it came to plaguing humans, which was relevant to his current mission. Aziraphale had more exorcism experience, but Andrew likely had more raw talent.

“I’ve slowed the progression, but…” Aziraphale went into the bedroom, and Andrew followed.

The moment Andrew saw what was really going on, he stopped in his tracks. “I assumed you wanted me to heal Ryan.”

Instead, it was Shane lying on the bed in his human disguise, dressed in a soft robe but sweaty and delirious. Sara had pulled up a chair and was sitting close by, holding his hand and stroking his hair. She looked at Andrew with red-rimmed eyes. “Can you help?”

“Where’s Ryan?” Andrew asked, stalling for time while his brain rebooted.

“After we made it back and Ryan sealed the external wound with the reverse blade, he and Crowley used the Nice and Accurate knife to go to my bookshop and search for alternate cures in case you couldn’t, well...” Aziraphale adjusted his collar nervously. “Fortunately, the knife counts my bookshop as belonging to Crowley as well. A high-ranking demon’s magic can’t be fought by a lower-ranking demon, so there wasn’t much point in him hovering around here.”

“Malacoda tried to sting Ryan with a venomous scorpion tail, but Shane pushed Ryan out of the way,” Sara said. She took a damp cloth from a bowl on the bedside table and wiped Shane’s brow.

“I need to think,” Andrew said, clenching his hands into fists.

Sara whipped her head around. “What do you mean, you need to think? Are you gonna try or not?”

“Give us a moment, dear girl,” Aziraphale said, ushering Andrew back out again.

Andrew sat on the sofa and buried his face in his hands. “Do you get it?”

“To you, it’s one thing to save a human, but another thing to directly save a demon,” Aziraphale said. He sounded more sympathetic than Andrew expected. “Regardless of whether you have indirectly assisted him before.”

Andrew looked up but he couldn’t meet Aziraphale’s gaze. “I’m not like you. I’m sorry, but I’m not. I’ve enjoyed my time here and it’d be nice to stay longer, but I feel at home in the Silver City and I want to go back. I have a life there. Friends. My real family. It’s not just about whatever disciplinary action they might take against me, it’s about being accepted there. It’s also about being a good servant.”

“Do you know what that really involves, though?”

“Free will is for humans, not us. I’ve only been playacting. I can’t genuinely, I can’t, I can’t…” Andrew suddenly grabbed a small cushion and screamed into it.

“I gave Adam my flaming sword,” Aziraphale said. “I was supposed to use it to bar him and Eve from returning, but there would also be a thick wall and that should do the trick, right? Meanwhile they would be hungry and in danger. When I was told I’d be permanently posted here, only returning for debriefings, I thought at first it was a punishment. Then, as I fell in love with this planet, and over time, with Crowley, I wondered if maybe it had been a reward. But now I don’t think it was either. Now I think, perhaps, it was merely a result. A path I took and follow, for better or for worse.”

It helped. It didn’t help enough. “I’m stuck between Raphael’s disapproval and my friends’ heartbreak,” Andrew whispered, now hugging the cushion.

“Do you know for a fact that they would disapprove?”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

Aziraphale placed his hand on Andrew’s knee, only for a moment. “I’m going to brew us some tea. Ordinary tea, nothing miraculous. Shane will take at least five more hours to die. You can spare a few minutes to sort yourself out.”

Then Andrew was alone with his thoughts. With his choice.

Sometimes Andrew thought about whether being the only angel present during the Sermon on the Mount had affected his disposition, compared to any other angels. The moment had seemed of great importance in the grand scheme of things, even if he didn’t understand the full context, even if no angel did completely. The whole Christ thing had been above their pay grade and it was unclear to them how much that man was really the son of God, yet also supposedly an incarnation of God. For all they knew he might have been an insightful, unusually good human with an exaggerated reputation they were meant to play along with. It had seemed bizarre, but it wasn’t their place to ask about it. Salvation and redemption were human concerns.

Andrew remembered handing out the loaves and fishes, not the source of the miracle of abundance but its guardian. He remembered his instructions for how many were to be given out per person, for even miracles have built-in limits. When a shabby and gaunt woman asked for please, one more fish, saying she was near-starving but had crawled her way up the mountain even hungrier for truth, at first he’d said no. He had his instructions. Angels did not have free will.

Then he’d heard it. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”

Without a word, he’d handed the woman an extra fish. Nothing ever came of it except her thanks. She’d had a scar on her right cheek, he remembered, but he’d never learned her name.

Thousands of years later, Steven Lim was the kindest, most pious human Andrew had ever grown close to. Andrew could never tell Steven the truth about what had happened here, but what if he could? What if he told him about this moment, and what if he said he hadn’t saved Shane because he was supposed to be Shemodai’s adversary? What would be the look on Steven’s face?

Without waiting for Aziraphale to return, Andrew went back into the bedroom. “Sara, I need you to stand aside.”

“Okay, yes, yes, sure thing.”

Andrew moved Shane onto his back and opened up the robe to see the site of the sting. Shane whined softly but didn’t see to register what was really going on, his eyes staring at nothing. Under his skin, a swathe of black and green had grown to cover most of Shane’s lower abdomen and was sending out tendrils like rivers on a map. They’d threaded their way up his chest and arms and the lower part of his neck, disappearing into the clean back boxer shorts Sara had probably put on him. Hell would not have let him retain underwear in such good condition, if they hadn’t simply stripped him naked.

Putting his hands over the original site of the injury was only the first step. Andrew had to send his own essence down into it. A part of him had to chase every rivulet of venom, every dying cell in Shane’s corporeal form, burning away the rot and making it clean. Shane’s body resisted and began to convulse.

“He’s having a seizure!”

“He’s a demon and I’m doing angelic things to him, it’s only to be expected. Now leave the room, this is going to get too much for you. I don’t only mean emotionally.” Andrew didn’t continue until Sara had fled. He was holding Shane down had enough to keep him from falling off the bed. The rest was inconsequential. The room began filling with golden light.

Raphael had personally taught their best and brightest, then had those teach the others. Some things were too complicated to heal with a wave and a wish. Nichiel had been a serious student, top of the class. He’d even practiced on sick or hurt living humans during some of his field missions, giving him more practical experience than many of his cohorts. This was not the same as anything he’d done before, but the procedure was, and Andrew used his hands and essence and his words in angelic tongue to scour away the venom.

He ended in English. It seemed appropriate. “Malacoda means bad ending, but I was taught by the patron of happy meetings. I defy any who oppose this kindness. The fault lies with anyone who says that Shane Alexander Madej does not deserve to be well. Not with me or my friend.”

Shane stopped convulsing. He flopped into a boneless, lanky puddle on the mattress.

“How do you feel?” Andrew asked.

After a few blinks, Shane said, “Your, uh, your irises have gone gold.”

Andrew felt his wrist for a pulse. Slow but steady. “They do that sometimes.”

“Since when are you an angel?”

“Uh, ever since you were one?”

“Why’d you help me? I mean, thank you, but why?”

Andrew helped Shane into a sitting position, propped up by pillows. “Blessed are the merciful. Plus Aziraphale’s an old friend.”

“Where’s Ryan? Sara? Crowley?”

“I’ll shout for them.”

Sara rushed in and was hugging Shane and babbling with tearful joy within seconds. Aziraphale called the landline in his own bookshop to tell Crowley and Ryan to come back. It wasn’t long before Ryan was there, giving Shane a quieter, slower hug, whispering something to him others weren’t entitled to hear.

“How did you do it?” Shane asked, clutching at Ryan like he might fall back into the Pit otherwise.

“I’ll explain, I promise. We’ll all explain. Can someone text or call Jen and Anathema?”

“On it!” Sara said.

Shane asked, “Jen helped? How? And who’s Annanamana?”

“Anathema. Jen’s friend. We met her. Give me a sec.” Ryan let go of Shane and approached Andrew. “Hey, I know you stuck your neck out by doing that.”

“I decided that was the right thing to do,” Andrew said, suddenly feeling bashful.

“I was trying to decide what I was going to do with this, but I think you’ve shown me you’re the one who should have it. I hope it’ll help you if your boss doesn’t like what you did.” Ryan pulled a small, flat object out of his pocket. “See, Malacoda was pissed off because I blackmailed him. The original plan had some problems, so I had to get creative. I pointed out that I wouldn’t have gone to Hell without what he’d done to Shane, and because I went, I recorded a lot of video that Hell wouldn’t want me to spread around. This was Malacoda’s fault. I gave him the camera in exchange for my demands, and he destroyed it.”

“That makes sense,” Andrew said, though he was saddened by the loss of such valuable intel.

Ryan opened his palm, revealing the object. “But I didn’t give him the SD card. I removed it right before I went into his office.”

Shane wheezed and started clapping. “He only destroyed the replaceable part! That’s amazing! FUCK YOU, BUGMAN!”

Crowley cackled and darted over to look at it. “You’re brilliant, Ryan, absolutely brilliant.”

“What’s an assdee card?” Aziraphale asked Sara in a hushed voice.

“It’s the part that has the information on it, and assuming everything worked, if we plug it into a computer we’ll see all of Ryan’s video,” she whispered back.

“You can use my laptop to check,” Ryan offered.

The footage turned out to be high-quality, so high-quality that Andrew stopped watching shortly after the part where Ryan and Ricky reached the Pit. That was quite enough for now. No need to make himself queasy.

“I’m going to go back to work,” Andrew said, putting the SD card in his front shirt pocket with a charm against losing it. “Shane, for at least three days you’re going to legitimately need to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom instead of faking them or doing them for fun.”

“Who goes to the bathroom for fun?” Ryan asked.

“You’d be surprised,” Shane said, waggling his eyebrows.

Andrew rolled his eyes. “You’ll be as weak as a human with, say, the flu during that time, so take it easy. On Saturday I’ll go to Heaven for a meeting.”

Ryan put a hand over his mouth. “Oh no, what day is it? How long have we been gone?”

Sara said, “Thursday, and you’ve been gone for three weeks. Both of you still have jobs. We better start letting people know you’re getting better and you’re coming back soon. As for you, Doctor Angel...” She got up to hug Andrew. He didn’t get a lot of hugs these days, but he was pretty sure he responded correctly. Ryan hugged him too.

Chapter Text

Sara wanted to get her car home and Shane wanted to see the outdoors a bit, so instead of using the Nice and Accurate knife they decided to get back to their apartment the mundane way. It wasn’t far. Ryan came with them so he could be Shane’s human crutch during the walking portions. Nobody said anything when Ryan threw together an overnight bag first. It seemed logical for him to stay.

Shane was very quiet after it became just the three of them. He’d profusely thanked Aziraphale and Crowley but hinted that he was feeling overwhelmed by the crowd. On the ride itself he talked to Jen on the phone for a few joyful minutes, then lapsed into silence, watching the city go by. The boys sat together in the backseat so that Shane could turn into a right angle, feet on the floor but his head on a pillow on Ryan’s lap. Ryan filled the silence by recounting the whole story of Shane’s rescue, from the fight on the beach to the second Shane and Ryan were reunited.

“There’s a lot here I’d be expressing shock at if I weren’t so worn out,” Shane said at one point. “Ricky and Andrew in particular. I feel so stupid about Andrew, but right now I can’t be bothered to go on about it.”

“Raincheck on freaking out, got it,” Ryan said fondly.

“You can pencil my bursting into various WTFs into your calendar.”

Ryan wheezed. “I can fit you in sometime next week.”

When Sara pulled into their parking spot, Shane asked, “Can we have burritos?”

“I could go for those,” Ryan said, helping Shane upright again.

“You can have all the burritos you want,” Sara promised.

The delivery came much faster than normal. Sara wondered if Shane had something to do with that, if he’d been downplaying his powers around her before this but had been capable of these small tweaks for his convenience all along.

“I didn’t get hungry when I was down there, but I think it hit me all at once,” Ryan said apologetically when he realized he’d gotten guacamole all over his face.

“Don’t feel sorry, just don’t hurt yourself gorging,” Sara said.

Shane paused in his own gorging and said, “This is the first time I’ve been genuinely hungry in my life instead of eating to disguise or amuse myself. How do you people stand it?”

“Ha, welcome to our world.” Sara put an arm around Shane’s waist and told them about funny office antics they’d missed. They smiled or chuckled at the correct places, but clearly needed a nap. After they’d cleaned themselves up, because both of them were sweaty and icky and Obi seemed to be repelled by whatever air of Hell was still clinging to them.

Shane’s shower was perfunctory because he wanted to get into bed as soon as he could. Ryan asked permission to shower for at least half an hour after Shane was done, which Sara granted. She couldn’t imagine how dirty he probably felt right now.

“Is this your first time being sleepy for real?” Sara asked Shane as she helped him get into sweatpants and an old loose Muppets t-shirt, then tucked him in. He didn’t show any embarrassment at being babied like this, not like a lot of men would. (Though now she knew he was really a genderfluid occult being who currently had a penis and didn’t mind being called a man.)

“Yes.” Shane said. He touched her wrist to keep her from leaving. “Sit, I want to tell you something that’s been on my mind. Nothing bad.”

“Okay?” She sat on the edge of the bed, facing him.

“I want to be honest about an aspect of our relationship. I wasn’t built with a libido per se. I could go one hundred, two hundred years or more without hankering for some hanky-panky. If I was around someone I gelled with who offered, though, I might give it a whirl. It’s happened. Anyway, I know it’s something you like a lot. I never offered because while you didn’t know I was a demon, it wouldn’t be informed consent. If you did know, Hell might have used it as an excuse to get their mitts on you. So I gave my blessing for you to go play outside and never let you think I might be interested.” Shane reached up to brush her cheekbone with his thumb.

“But things are different now,” Sara said, with a sort of cautious anticipatory happiness. She would have been okay with never going further with Shane physically than they had, but yeah, she’d done her share of daydreaming. And night-dreaming. Lots.

Shane nodded. “It’s possible I might not want to do things as often as you want to do them. I don’t know. I was completely honest about not thinking I can love you the same way you love me. But while I was down there and trying to distract myself from shit, I kept thinking it would have been great to have at least tried stuff with you, and then do more if it went well. I was sad that I hadn’t. What do you think?”

“I’m so glad you told me.” Sara bent down to kiss him, sweet but with low simmer. She pulled away with a smile and said, “Before we follow up, let’s wait until you’re at full health, and also when Ryan isn’t standing right there.”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt and I didn’t hear anything,” Ryan apologized. She believed him, as the bedroom door had still been closed when she’d first gone in for the kiss.

“We’re cool,” Sara said brightly.

“I just wanted to ask if I could draw the blinds in your living room so I could take a nap.”

“That’s not what you wanted to ask,” Shane drawled. “I’ve always known when you were lying to me.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Don’t worry, Sara, it only works with him.”

Sara giggled. “For a second I thought I was going to have to break up with you for my own safety.”

Ryan took a moment to regain his composure. “It’s okay, I don’t need…”

“I want to give you what you want. Not what you think it’s acceptable to want.” Shane beckoned like an entitled patron in a fancy restaurant.

Approaching, Ryan admitted, “I keep seeing the Pit when I don’t have someone else there.”

Sara got up to nudge him in the correct direction. “Get under the covers, Ryan. I need to call Buzzfeed HR on Shane’s behalf.”

Twenty minutes later, she peeked into the bedroom again. Ryan and Shane were soundly asleep on opposite sides of the bed. She’d try to slip between them if they were still asleep by the time she wanted to go to bed. It wasn’t creepy if she watched over them a little while, right?

****

Ryan didn’t go to Buzzfeed to work that Friday, only for a morning meeting to discuss his situation, then straight back to Shane and Sara’s. He wanted to (metaphorically) cling to Shane and let Sara fuss over him for the weekend before he tried to get back to normal life, and it seemed like they were aboard this plan.

Jen insisted on giving him a ride there, and practically jumped out of her car and leapt into his arms. He returned the gifts of hers that had survived his trip and told her all about how they’d helped. Also he promised to get her a new camera, either the same model or an upgrade.

“You don’t have to get me an upgrade, as long as you remember for the rest of your life that I’m the one who persuaded you to take it. Which means I was right and you were wrong.” Jen stopped at a red light and turned to playfully smirk at him.

Andrew met them at the main building entrance and said, “It’s going to go how you want it to, Ryan.”

“Thanks for the encouragement.” Ryan was dragging his feet. The fear was nothing compared to what he’d experienced in Hell, but it felt so weird to have his everyday life right here when he left it. His perception of the world was vastly different from the last time he was here.

“I mean that it’s going to go exactly how you want it to, Ryan. Exactly. I should have done a better job looking out for you, before.” Andrew cracked his knuckles, a theatrical gesture despite his stoic expression, and led the way.

Jen whispered to Ryan, “Dude, I don’t think he’s the same now that he’s come out of the a-n-g-e-l closet to us.”

“Your new car is in the parking lot, Ryan, and I’ll show you which one it is,” Andrew announced, to the confusion of a passing intern.

****

“I’ve heard you’ve been very helpful to Ryan,” Aziraphale said to Andrew shortly before dawn on Saturday morning. Andrew had asked for his assistance creating a portal to Heaven, not because he really needed help but because it was an excuse to have some company while he was nervous. Crowley was in the bedroom, entertaining Wellington as a snake while hiding from the portal as well. He refused to be too far away from Aziraphale “after what happened last time you did one of these, you pillock”. Andrew hadn’t asked for elaboration.

“It would be overstepping my bounds to miracle away his regular problems, but he lost his car and had to take time off from work for infernal reasons. Easy to justify those if I’m audited.” Andrew got up from the floor after lighting the final candle and fixed his shirt cuffs. Since he was keeping his body on for this and needed clothing made of solid matter, he’d put on his nice dark navy suit he’d worn to try top-tier sushi in Tokyo, and slipped the fateful SD card into his pocket. His briefcase contained his laptop, an SD card reader, and a small box.

Aziraphale beamed at him. “We’ll make sure your cat is cared for however long you’re gone,” Andrew’s plan would not take more than a few hours, Earth time, but he wanted a contingency plan.

“I’m also going to leave ‘Andrew Ilnyckj’ here, so could you please look after him too?” Though Aziraphale had never identified with any of his human aliases the way Andrew did, he thought he’d understand. If Andrew Ilnyckj had been the real man Earth thought he was, he would have been a pretty good man, and as of now eligible for Paradise. He would not, however, have had any place in the Silver City.

“Of course.” Aziraphale cleared out of the room when it came time to make the call

Nichiel, Feeder of the Righteous, had to argue back and forth a little with his direct handler for why he needed a personal meeting with Raphael forthwith. The Silver City had layers and layers of bureaucracy that all took a leisurely approach to passing up the requests of middle-tier angels like Nichiel. He didn’t want to go through that, and he didn’t want to have to explain himself over and over.

Finally she said, “Very well, but you will have to wait outside their door for however long they decide, and take full responsibility for any irritation on their part.”

“Yes, Your Grace. Thank you.” He allowed the portal to carry him up. Metaphorically, because Heaven wasn’t really in the sky, but it helped to conceptualize it as “up” rather than thinking too hard about the exotic dimensional folding he was really doing.

Nichiel materialized in a bright, sparkling clean outer office where his handler sat at her desk during the majority of her shifts. Klexos was the Angel of Retrospection. Her primary duty was going over all forms of records in Raphael’s division, though she did other secretarial work and sometimes pitched in with other Archangel teams. Klexos remembered everything, and she found new meaning that other had missed if there was any new meaning to be found. It wasn’t that Nichiel disliked her, though she was too fussy for him to have every felt truly at ease around her. It was that she had no capacity for outside-of-the-box thinking.

Klexos was writing in fountain pen, annotating the minutes from a cherubim conference to make them more accurate, on a minimalist marble desk with a crystal model of a water molecule hovering near her elbow as decoration. She’d started wearing her cerulean hair in a long braid since he’d last seen her, and this was likely a new ivory-covered blazer. “They’ll call for you when they’re available, Nichiel.”

There were no chairs to wait in. Angels did not become physically weary, so chairs were either status symbols or an optional choice of furniture when decorating one’s own private quarters. There was, however, a big window that had a spectacular view of Paradise. Previous opportunities to enjoy this view had been Nichiel’s best ever glimpses of what that part of Heaven looked like. He’d never been assigned an administrative role there, and angels did not meddle with the saved souls for any other reason. From here he could see the buildings humans had wanted to dream in life but lacked the resources to, whether pyramids or palaces or idealized Disneylands like those that exist in the minds of children who want to go but have never been. He could see cities built all styles from all cultures and all times, as were the villages. There were also vast forests and canyons, mountains and lakes, even an entire ocean off in the distance.

Another angel was also gazing out the window, with his hands folded behind his back. He was dressed in a more old-fashioned ensemble of white robes and had long, curly blond hair tumbling down his back. That plus his blue eyes and tranquil expression made him the closest angel Nichiel had ever known to the stereotypical type depicted on greeting cards and such.

“Hello, Duma,” Nichiel said, smiling.

Duma, Angel of Silence, smiled back. He wasn’t a chatterbox, to put it mildly, but Nichiel had always found him relaxing to be around. He didn’t mind letting others hang out in his meditation rock garden when they were feeling frazzled.

“This is convenient, because I brought something for you and now I don’t have to track you down.” Nichiel extracted the small box from his briefcase, letting the briefcase hover in midair because in Heaven laws of physics were merely suggestions.“I don’t know how you feel about ingesting matter, and I won’t be offended if that’s not your thing, but I did make them myself from the best ingredients Earth offers. There’s a human I’ve befriended as part of my cover who reminds me of you a little. He really loves these. They’re called cinnamon rolls, though they’re usually at least three times this size.”

Duma put a hand flat on his chest in a oh you shouldn’t have way, then peered at the pastries with wide eyes.

After almost a minute, Nichiel asked sheepishly, “Do you actually know how to eat?”

Also sheepishly, Duma shook his head. He opened his mouth and a few gold flakes fell out, drifting lightly to the floor. Heaven offered a form of ethereal food for angelic consumption that came in different flavors, though nothing near the dazzling array humans had come up with. Eating remained optional. Given Duma’s function, it made sense that he’d treat his mouth as more decorative than anything.

Nichiel didn’t want that to stop Duma from exploring a new experience. “Gold is actually edible in small quantities. That doesn’t have to be a barrier. Do you want to try with my help?”

When Duma nodded, Nichiel delicately placed a tiny, perfectly round cinnabite on his tongue for him. Duma’s hands flailed excitedly but he didn’t proceed.

Nichiel held back a laugh, even though it wouldn’t have been a mocking laugh, but an endeared one. This was like an extremely exaggerated version of giving Adam his sample bite at the end of trying a dish for Worth It. “Close your mouth. Good. Now chew. That’s moving your jaw up and down, letting your teeth crush the substance into a soft paste. Don’t bite your tongue or the inside of your cheeks. You will eventually feel a desire to push it down your throat using the back of your tongue. After you do, constrict your throat. That’s swallowing.”

That’s when the door to Raphael’s office swung open and there was a dramatic gasp. “Are you corrupting my Duma?”

“Duma is his own Duma, Remiel,” Klexos said without looking up from her work. She sounded like an elementary-school teacher who still cared about her job but could not wait to escape the children for a few hours.

“I apologize for making a scene, Your Grace.” Remiel, Set Over Those Who Rise, was the leader of the team making sure that the Purgatorial process ran smoothly and the newly arrived souls from there became properly integrated with the rest of the saved. His blond hair was a little shorter than Duma’s at shoulder-length, and he wore a pure white suit with a white tie instead of white robes. Whatever thing he had with Duma had been going on for at least four thousand years. Remiel was good at his job and meant well, but he was bossy towards anyone who didn’t outrank him and could be a big ball of poorly-disguised insecurity.

“Do you want one too, Remy?” Nichiel asked, holding out the box.

“I’m not interested in your artifacts of gluttony, Nic,” Remiel said, sniffing.

With a wink, Duma gave Nichiel a peck on the cheek, then grabbed another cinnamon roll and thrust it into Remiel’s hand. Then Duma took his other hand and led him away even as he spluttered.

“He’s a good lad, but he can be tedious after awhile,” Raphael said, poking their head out of their office. “Leave the mortal sustenance with Klexos for now, Nichiel. Join me.”

Angels who worked for, say, Gabriel, sometimes complained that Raphael was the nicest boss by far. This was not entirely true. Raphael was more polite by default and more patient when things went contrary to plan for ineffable reasons (angels weren’t supposed to call anything “bad luck”, as God must have meant it to happen). However, Raphael had very high expectations, especially of their hand-picked favorites. Nichiel had always craved their approval and was upset at the thought that they might disapprove of what he’d recently done.

Raphael’s appearance at the moment was tall and androgynous, with close-cropped auburn hair, light brown skin, and two stripes of gold on their chin with one silver stripe in the middle. Their pale blue suit looked more silver at certain angles. They took a seat as Nichiel closed the door behind him. “You must have something truly urgent for me. The Nichiel I know never acts without just cause.”

Nichiel opened the briefcase and took out the laptop and SD card. As he set up, he started talking, and everything he said was true. The only way in which his story wasn’t completely honest was that it left out all mention of a certain Guardian of the Eastern Gate or a certain Serpent of Eden. Nichiel let Raphael assume without outright stating that Nichiel had been responsible for all management of Rictus before Ryan embarked on his quest. Anathema could be simply described as a witch who was friends with Jen.

Raphael only interrupted to invite him to stand on Raphael’s side of the desk so they could watch on Nichiel’s laptop on the desk. The two of them watched in silence. They watched the entire thing in silence, everything Ryan had captured.

At the end, Raphael swiveled in their chair to look at Nichiel with raised eyebrows. “You astound me.”

“In a good way, Lord Raphael?”

They smiled. “Yes. In a very, very, very good way. I need you to convert this into a format the fuddy-duddies in Intelligence can easily watch and analyze to their hearts’ content. Then you’re going back down there and keeping an eye on that Bergara boy. Be his friend, be his guardian. If he’s managed this as his very first revelation, what might he do in the future?”

Nichiel hadn’t heard that Ryan was likely to have additional revelations, but he wasn’t going to argue with anything that meant Andrew’s human life didn’t have to be over yet. “As you command, Lord Raphael. What about interactions with Shemodai? For myself and for the humans who’ve learned what he is?”

“As long as you’re not aiding and abetting him in infernal acts, or joining him in sin yourself, you will proceed with the same consequences as in interactions with any other being. I expect you were worried that I’d chastise you for healing him? It convinced Bergara to give you that card. Besides, an exiled and disgruntled demon isn’t the worst potential ally to cultivate. Do keep it professional, though. I’d hate to lose you over that.”

“Of course,” Nichiel said quickly. “Should I alter any human minds?”

“The situation sounds manageable as it stands. Keep it contained to how it is now. Don’t allow Bergara to share that video farther than it has already gone. Even if few would believe it wholesale, the information would become too difficult to control.”

“Yes, Lord Raphael.”

They stood and crossed their arms. “You deserve a boon for this. Does anything come readily to mind?”

Yes, something very readily did come to mind. “May I have a permanent visitor’s pass to Paradise? I’d only go when I wasn’t on duty, and I wouldn’t meddle with anything or hassle the angels working there or -”

“You want to see your Earth friends after they die,” Raphael interrupted.

Nichiel nodded mutely.

“Granted, but don’t go around bragging about it. Uriel will wring my neck if she has to deal with a throng of wannabe tourists.”

Nichiel was dizzy with the implications. He didn’t have to lose people he cared about forever. He didn’t have to lose them forever. He. Did. Not. Have. To. Lose. Them. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…”

Raphael waved dismissively. “You’re welcome. Pack up your mortal tools. I want to try one of those 'artifacts of gluttony' you brought before we pay another department a visit.”

Chapter Text

Shane was lounging on the couch reading a book on Gaius Julius Caesar, scribbling commentary and corrections in the margins with a ballpoint pen. Sara was catching up on emails she’d been procrastinating on, and Ryan was doing crunches on the floor as a compromise between wanting to hit the gym and not wanting to let Shane out of his sight quite yet.

Ryan was the one who jumped up and answered the door. Andrew was wearing a sharp blue-black suit and carrying a briefcase. “Sorry not to call ahead, but I promised to make sure all other copies of the Hell footage get deleted before doing anything else whatsoever. And to personally check. I know there was a brief window where you might have been able to upload the data. My superiors were enthusiastic about the SD card and what they can learn from it, but they don’t think it’s appropriate for widespread human viewing.”

“I guess releasing it would have been a weird direction for my career to take anyway,” Ryan said, resigned, and went to fetch his laptop.

“Hi, Andrew,” Sara said, waving. “So your meeting went well?”

“Hi, Sara,” Andrew said, waving back. “Yes, it did.”

Shane tried to sit up, but Andrew motioned for him to stay like he was. “How are you feeling?” Andrew asked.

“Pretty good, just low-energy. Thank you. We went for a walk yesterday and we’re going for a longer one today to make sure I have the stamina for work tomorrow.” Demons didn't get traumatic reactions the way humans did, thankfully, though Shane didn't want to talk about the Ditch and was inclined to go easy on the violent movies for a while yet. He was also more acutely aware of his particular set of humans and how great it was to have them around.

“Great. I’m going to stay on the other side of the room from you until after I’ve showered and changed clothes at least twice. Came straight from Heaven and the celestial radiation clinging to me might be overwhelming in your weakened state.”

“Thanks again.” Shane shook his head ruefully. “I can’t believe I knew you for so long and never cottoned on to you being an angel.”

Andrew raised one eyebrow. “What can I say, I’m good. It was observation-only deep cover. Miracles to a minimum. Also I’m not a fighter. Demons sense those more easily.”

“You discorporated my attacker with a butcher’s knife right over there,” Sara said, deadpan, pointing at an immaculate portion of the carpet.

“That was more like responsible trash removal,” Andrew said.

“Okay then, Agent 00-Heaven,” Shane joked.

“Ooh, I like that. Anyway, Shane, our interactions have been sincere except for me keeping my nature a secret. I like you as a person while still being committed to thwarting any harm that you might try to wreak. Raphael’s assigned me to continue to monitor the situation, but they said interactions with you won’t be automatically deemed sinful simply because they’re with you. That second part goes for everyone in your life.”

“Raphael sounds pretty nice,” Sara said. “Aziraphale made it sound like archangels are pompous and judgmental.”

“Raphael can be pretty judgmental, but they’re more empathetic than the others due to their functions,” Andrew said.

Ryan heaved a huge sigh of relief as he placed his laptop on the table and unlocked it. “Glad you’re saying for now. I’d hate for you to leave because of me.”

“I’m only here because of you,” Andrew pointed out, watching the proceedings on the screen over Ryan’s shoulder.

“I don’t want to think too hard about that. I feel like a bug under a microscope.”

“You’re more like a bug sitting a few feet away from me,” Shane said, grinning.

“Shut up, Shane,” Ryan replied with fond annoyance.

Andrew tuned out everything else for a short while until he’d verified that Ryan had indeed deleted every trace of his video records from Hell. Then he told everyone, a tad awkwardly, “I need to talk to Shane privately. It’s not bad. Can everyone else make themselves scarce for fifteen minutes, please?”

Shane did sit up for this, but he stayed on the couch. Andrew leaned against the far wall with his hands in his pockets. “Is this about what ‘monitoring the situation’ means for us?”

“Partly,” Andrew said. “I want to go over some ground rules for how we act towards each other. First, though, I want to tell you that Raphael was so pleased with my results that they granted me a boon. I asked to be allowed to visit Paradise during my free time whenever I please.”

“Nice,” Shane said, not sure what the big deal was.

But Andrew locked eyes with him and said, more gently than Shane had ever heard him say anything, “Shemodai, those two people you care for most will die someday. So will Jen. Your Unsolved production crew. Everyone you call a friend, except Crowley and Aziraphale, will go somewhere you can’t follow, never to return. Even if all of them live past a century, they will still go far too quickly. So I made sure that, unless they make uncharacteristically bad choices, they will go somewhere I can follow. If you continue to be as deserving of a person as Ryan sees you, I promise to check on them for you. I’ll try to pass along the occasional message if you want.”

Shane’s eyes were watering all of a sudden. It had to be from looking at Andrew when he was all coated in residual divine glory, ew. That had to be it. “There’s someone else who won’t necessarily go where I can’t follow, never to return, who I consider a friend.”

Andrew's eyes widened to a barely perceptible degree. “Did a demon slip past me? Was it Brent? I bet it was Brent, wasn’t it? Then he made some mistake and your boss had him kicked off Unsolved for you to replace -”

“No, you dumbass goodie-white-wings, I’m talking about you. That was me trying to be eloquently thankful.”

“Oh.” Andrew squirmed but gave a tiny smile. “That as may be, I’m still supposed to spy on you in general and might have to take justice into my own hands if you go too far.”

Good, Shane did better with some structure in his life, and having too much freedom because Hell was shunning him now was a shade intimidating. “Have you seen social media? That’s practically the definition of 21st century friendship.”

Chapter Text

Before all this happened, an upcoming horror-comedy Netflix movie had commissioned Buzzfeed Unsolved to pop down to a goat farm just south of the border and attempt to find a chupacabra. Given that they weren’t supposed to intentionally put goats at risk of having their blood drained by cryptid demon-dogs, their chances of success were extremely low. This was fine. Chupacabras didn’t exist anyway.

“Really?” Ryan asked, sounding mildly disappointed, once Shane was free to tell him things like this.

“At least Mothman’s real, ain’t that a trip? He’s a demon in exile like me. He doesn’t fit in as well, so he has to fly around squeaking and biting the wind instead of gainful employment.”

The small window for Ryan and Shane themselves to go to Mexico as planned came and went. Buzzfeed ended up sending Curly, who’d been a very popular guest on their La Llorona special, and his frequent co-star Gadiel. They had a great vibe on Pero Like, Buzzfeed’s Latino-interest channel, and Unsolved could spin it as going for greater cultural authenticity...

“Shitty Spanish aside, I’M STILL HALF-MEXICAN.” Ryan mock-wailed. He was aware that chupacabra sightings had been reported in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic as well.

“Tranquilo,” Curly soothed, petting Ryan’s hair. It actually felt rather pleasant. Gadiel just laughed.

Fortunately, there was still time for the original Ghoulboys to record exposition and banter on their main set for the video to cut to at intervals. It was similar to the video they’d made a few years ago, with half the Try Guys investigating a supposedly haunted house. They also took the opportunity to confirm that the two of them had been in a car accident but were okay now. Ryan made sure to glare at Shane and say it was all his fault for angering Annabelle the doll.

*

Crowley and Aziraphale departed for home right after the episode wrapped, saying they now felt confident about their “proteges” (Aziraphale’s choice of word) being able to get back to their preferred lives. With some help from the Nice and Accurate Knife, Crowley successfully moved all his new potted plants from Texas to England with minimal fuss. They also separated a few flames of what had originally been Shane’s Hellfire and put them in a new container for Shane’s use as a supplement if needed.

 

Andrew didn’t want to be chastised for frivolously benefiting from Jen’s magic - though she was allowed to continue personal, non-commercial use - so he didn’t join the trip. However, Shane, Ryan, Sara, and Jen took the opportunity to have a nice London lunch with Anathema and Newt in the process. While the humans + Shane were waiting for their waiter to arrive, Sara hung onto Shane’s bottle and delightedly fed it shreds of lottery tickets.

“Grow healthy and strong on greed, preying on desperation, and broken dreams,” she told the flames, petting the side of the glass.

“Did I hear Crowley growling at one of his plants that it had better shape up or he’d turn it into pesto?” Jen asked.

“He’s always been nice to me but he still scares me a little,” Newt said. When Shane snorted, Newt cringed and babbled, “Not that there’s anything wrong with, er, being, you know, well, none of us can help being -”

Anathema rescued him with a hand squeezing his. “Why don’t you choose an appetizer we can all share?”

*

Before their first try together, Sara asked to see Shane with all his demon features out.

“They’re not conducive to safe sex,” Shane said nervously. “Especially the teeth.”

“You don’t have to look like that while we’re doing it, but it’s weird that Ryan’s seen that side of you and I haven’t. I don’t want you to go into this feeling like there’s a part of you I can’t accept.”

So he showed her. “Um, still interested?”

She regarded him thoughtfully, then broke into a mischievous grin. “Is it possible for you to put away everything except the long fingers? I have an idea for those.”

*

One day at work, Andrew found Ryan huddled at the bottom of a stairwell next to an emergency exit.

“Ryan?”

No response.

“Ryan, c’mon.”

No response.

Andrew dialed his angelic qualities to a setting that a seer like Ryan could perceive but most humans could not. On that level of perception, Andrew allowed his wings out, sat next to Ryan, and wrapped one of his wings around him.

After a moment, this snapped Ryan sufficiently out of it that he looked at Andrew. “Hi?”

“Hi.”

“This is...it’s soft.”

“Yes.” Andrew waited.

Ryan cleared his throat. “I don’t want to tell Shane how much seeing what I saw down there fucked me up. I don’t regret it, and all telling him would do is make him feel guilty. I don’t want to forget it, I just wish it didn’t crowd my head sometimes. This is not me asking you to do anything to me.”

“Okay.” After a pause, Andrew said, “Paradise has a pet adoption center. Sometimes bad people have good pets. Then those pets go to Heaven but the humans don’t. So the souls of those pets get reassigned, with good people to love and care for them.”

“Like Hitler’s dog Blondie?”

“Of course your mind would go there first. But yes. That’s all you’re getting, by the way. Spoilers.”

Ryan nodded. “Thank you for telling me.”

“There’s always another side to a coin. You saw more of the dark side than a person is meant to see and return to a normal life, but the other side is there too. It always will be.”

*

Once Ryan felt he was ready, he got in touch with his ex-girlfriend to grab a coffee and find some closure. That’s all he wanted. He wasn’t enough of the person he’d once been for getting back together to make sense for them. But Helen deserved for them to end on a good note.

He was nervous about getting back into dating after that. However, when Shane found out that part of that nervousness came from worrying it would negatively impact his relationship with Shane, both Shane and Sara started ruthlessly matchmaking on his behalf until he got them to quit it. He didn’t pursue anything in a systematic way, but he made himself open to potential connection again.

Then Marielle happened.

“How do I handle the information about you?” Ryan asked Shane after gushing about her for ten solid minutes.

“If she finds out about me, we’ll deal, but maybe don’t bring it up until you guys have been on more than a few dates,” Shane said, clapping him around the shoulders. “Congrats, pal, you deserve this.”

*

The True Crime season they filmed shortly after “recovering from the car accident” was a massive hit, with an additional spike in attention because of that additional layer of intrigue.

During one Postmortem Q&A, Shane read out a question asking if he’d had the stereotypical “light at the end of a tunnel” near-death experience, and if so if it had affected his skepticism. Normally the two of them didn’t talk about the incident at all, but this time Shane looked straight at the camera and said, “Sorry, I’m as firmly skeptical as I ever was. I didn’t see the warm light at the end of a tunnel that people go on about. Everything was dark and hot and there was a stench of brimstone and lots of screaming all around, but that was just the hypoxia to my brain, I’m sure.”

Ryan started wheeze-cry-laughing so hard that the camera operator stopped and asked if he needed to take five.

Because of how well that season of True Crime did, Buzzfeed higher-ups were shocked when the subsequent season of Supernatural performed the worst of any in Unsolved history. It didn’t surprise Ryan, Shane, or the crew much, though.

They tried to carry on like before. They really tried. But these days Ryan didn’t get scared by things going bump in the night. He’d been through Hell; a haunted house was a cakewalk. Now that Shane could allow Ryan to see and hear the paranormal to the fullest of his abilities, Ryan was interested in actually talking to them instead of pretending he needed crappy devices to maybe get a few words out of them. The spirit box was maddening to Ryan if Shane didn’t suppress Ryan’s abilities, and it seemed unfair to ask him to do that anymore. Instead Shane used his powers to make spirit boxes break constantly on location. He said it was very satisfying after all these years. The worst thing was that upon arrival, Ryan realized when some supposedly haunted locations weren’t haunted at all. Shane couldn’t always tell him this in advance. It wasn’t like demons had their own special spooky Trip Advisor to refer to. Ryan had some acting ability, but not enough to fool the viewers.

As for Shane, he couldn’t taunt demons with the same impunity he used to. Before, if a real rogue demon took genuine offense to what he was saying, the Home Office would provide Shane with some protection. Also, Ryan would have been safe no matter what, other than mental anguish. Now Ryan and Shane’s safety on location were in Shane’s hands alone. He had to be far more cautious now. The well of Shane’s most viral content of all had gone dry.

They also didn’t argue nearly as much as they used to. How could they?

The executives were apologetic but firm: they were happy to fund another season of Unsolved True Crime, but could not justify investing in more Unsolved Supernatural. They didn’t want to suddenly start doing twice as much True Crime to pick up the slack, though, because of saturation, and they were fully aware that Ryan and Shane were still their most marketable duo. (Worth It was their most marketable trio.)

“What about bringing back Ruining History?” Shane asked.

Unbeknownst to everyone who’d been begging for Shane’s short-lived but glorious show to return, Shane had been forced to stop making it because Malacoda thought Shane was putting too much of his real memoirs into it and risking discovery. As if giving a humorous, banter-filled lecture to a panel of friends about Benjamin Franklin maybe having dabbled in ritualistic orgies would make someone realize the demon Shemodai had posed as the buxom Shelly Mendel at one of them, in order to influence a few important men who’d be there. (Whether Shemodai had actually given Franklin himself a blowjob was hard to tell, as it was dark and everyone had masks on. Handling $100 bills still made Shane chuckle.)

Ryan followed Shane’s train of thought and added, “Yeah, uh, we’ve been talking, like not talking seriously, but talking with Andrew Ilnycki, and he really enjoyed joining us for that episode about the bear who served in World War II and would like to do another video. If we time the filming right, Ladylike will be taking a break and we can rope in Jen Ruggirello for at least one of the episodes.”

Andrew and Jen were right up there with Ryan and Shane themselves as Buzzfeed’s premier thumbnail clickbait. Only a few Buzzfeed creators could consistently drive up views simply by appearing in the thumbnail, and this was a dream team of them.

“Of course Sara too. My girlfriend Sara, I mean.” It was unlikely that anyone in the room hadn’t known which Sara he meant, but it was a reminder that people found Shane and Sara’s office romance adorable.

“I’m excited about Ruining History, but sorry we lost Unsolved Supernatural,” Shane said while they were carpooling home at the end of the day. Sara was producing a scripted video out in the countryside and wouldn’t be back until late.

Ryan was driving his new and much nicer car, explained to others as “idk, insurance stuff”. “I wanted to find evidence that ghosts and demons were real, and I did. It’s okay. I gained way more than I lost.”

“Me too. Can I bring back the Hot Daga, too?” Shane started laughing at Ryan's expression. "Okay, how about I just do, like, a version you don't have to sit through me perform?

"The second one is acceptable." Ryan couldn't act grumpy for long.

*

Crowley had acquired a large TV with a cable that could be plugged into the side of his laptop, so that the images would be much larger and more enjoyable to kick back and watch. He set everything up and sank back into the sofa. He rested his head on Aziraphale’s shoulder.

“I’m so glad they’re doing something more cheerful,” Aziraphale said, then took a contented sip of his wine. They’d picked up a few bottles in California that were well-suited to everyday consumption.

“In 1518, a whole lot of French people danced until they died, and we still don't know why they couldn't stop shakin' it,” Shane declared.

Oh dear. At least he looked happy. They all did: Ryan, Sara, Jen, and Andrew, all sat in a semicircle at a u-shaped desk with Shane at the helm. YouTube froze, then Shane waved directly at them. “Heyyyyy. Couldn’t have gotten here without you. Both of you, but especially you, Crowley, for listening to my appeal. I hope you like this video!”

Chapter Text

1.

Different demons had different adverse reactions from consecrated ground, though the effects were mitigated if they were invited in by a human first. Shane was going to be Sara’s plus-one at this wedding, no matter what she said, so he made sure to stick a bunch of gauze up his nose before entering the chapel. Problem was that the vows were far too long and some of the blood starting coming out of Shane’s mouth instead and…

Afterwards, Sara said, “I appreciate what you were trying to do, but next time just meet me at the reception. You can magic your clothes clean but you can’t scrub horrified social media posts.”

2.

Jen got stood up on a first date with someone she’d met on a dating site, and complained to Shane about it.

The next day, she came up to Shane’s workstation and put her hands on her hips. “What’d you do?”

“No idea what you’re talking about, my precious Jen, now if you’ll excuse me…”

“No bullshit.”

They were in a public space, so Shane kept it vague. “Fine, I just scared her, don’t worry. I smiled at her through her window while holding a sign telling her than wasn’t a nice thing to have done, that’s all.” Albeit he hadn’t smiled with the teeth he had out right now. Also, her apartment being on the sixth floor would have made his appearance hovering right outside even more of a surprise.

“Still way too much. I’ve got fifteen apology texts. Fifteen.”

Shane smirked. “Oops.”

“Next time I’ll cry on Andrew’s shoulder instead.”

“You wound me!”

Jen flipped him off, but there was a slight upturn to her lips.

3.

Shane’s right wing now had a single white feather. When Ryan experimentally plucked it for him - the angle was too awkward for Shane to get it himself - the replacement also grew out white.

“I think Andrew infected me when he healed me,” he grumbled.

“Does that mean you’re less vulnerable to holy water?” Ryan asked, and Shane could hear the curiosity in his voice.

“No, no, no, we’re not testing that, don’t you dare!”

4.

Shemodai had caused the Dancing Plague of 1518. The instructions had been to obscure the activities of a different agent by creating “a distraction”. He didn’t tell his humans this, faintly aware that him being personally responsible for around 400 people dancing uncontrollably until an unknown number died from exhaustion wouldn’t seem as funny to them as it did to him. Shane was more sensitive than he used to be and he was unlikely to pull something like that again even if he could, but he didn’t feel guilty about it. Thankfully, none of them asked, though Ryan gave Shane a few searching looks during Shane’s lecture. Many of the viewers interpreted those looks as sexual tension. That was how a big subset of fans rolled, after all.

5.

Crowley, Aziraphale, Anathema, and Newt visited for Shane’s “birthday”. It wasn’t his legal birthday, but since his legal birthday was a lie, why abide by that either? Knott’s Berry Farm was having its boysenberry festival, one of his and Ryan’s favorite events anywhere, and that sounded like the perfect venue to him.

Newt was a surprisingly fearless roller coaster rider for someone who seemed so timid in general, but he eventually admitted that he’d lost his virginity underneath a bed during a tornado and after that he’d become a bit of an adrenaline junkie.

“I prefer the term ‘sexual debut,’” Anathema said, between sips of boysenberry pie shake. "Talking about virginity as being something you ‘lose’ is a patriarchal construct.”

Newt made heart-eyes at her. “Don’t worry, I don’t feel like I lost anything.”

Jen whistled. “Smoooooth as fuuuuuuck.” She and Sara split a boysenberry hot dog, but she smacked Sara’s hand when Sara wanted to try her boysenberry boba tea.

“Oh come on, I just wanna try it!” Sara beamed at Shane when he held his out to her. She drank about five-sixths of what was left in the cup, but that was okay, he had many more boysenberry festivals ahead of him than she did. (That was less okay. He squashed the thought down.)

Aziraphale also loved the roller coasters more than Shane would have thought. He kept saying things like, “Oh my, this is all rather thrilling!” and making the primmest, gayest “ooOOoOooo!” noises instead of normal screaming.

Crowley surprised everyone by loathing roller coasters. He stayed right on the ground, taking a sample bite of every special food item before giving Aziraphale the rest, then winning Aziraphale an enormous stuffed dolphin toy at a carnival game. “Brainiest things in the sea, angel!” He also consented to going on the Ferris wheel with Aziraphale.

“Aren’t they a pair,” Andrew commented in an ambiguous monotone, watching the pair that defied Heaven and Hell as they got into their little cubicle while holding hands. He was most of the way through his boysenberry bun. All his behavior on rides had been perfectly average so far.

“Are you saying that’s a bad thing?” Shane asked.

“I’m glad it’s not my job to worry about it,” Andrew said. He took another bite, chewed, swallowed, and said, “As far as I can tell, it’s Knott Very Harm. Ful.”

Ryan showed up on Shane’s other side, slow-clapping. “This is a pun-amnesty zone, so well done.”

“It’s berry good,” Shane agreed.

“I can’t be seen in the company of such an amateur punster, sorry,” Andrew said with dry but perceptible sarcasm. He wandered off towards a trash can to toss his paper plate.

Shane and Ryan watched the Ferris wheel turn. Turn. The visual metaphor was obvious.

“Have you thought about how you’re going to handle being on Earth basically forever?” Ryan asked for the first time. They’d only ever danced around the question before.

“It’s a big world with lots to see. I can make myself look older if I need to, if it’ll help me hang around you longer. I hope you’ll continue to like having me here.” Shane cautiously put an arm around Ryan’s shoulders.

Ryan didn’t twist away. “I worked really fucking hard to get you back, so even if I do get sick of you I’ll stay your best friend out of spite.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Sometimes Shane wanted to grab Ryan, Sara, and (less frequently but just as sincerely) Jen, and shrink them down and put them in pretty containers where they’d always be happy and safe and never leave him. He accepted that live humans did poorly in containers, long-term, no matter how aesthetically pleasing. “Can’t break up the Berry Boys before our time.”

“Or the Ghoulboys, like we are the rest of the year,” Ryan reminded him, looking up with eyes more serious than his smile. Ryan Steven Bergara, who saw things most people couldn’t, and made a certain demon see things he never had before.

Shane winked. “Nope. We’re a package deal.”