Being palpable itched.
It was like everything was slightly out of sync — just a tad too slow, sounds not matching up quite right — and he wanted out of this body, but insubstantiality was too expensive. Gone were the days when angels could just flit to and fro as they pleased, winking in and out of observable space at will. The Almighty was gone from this universe, along with nearly all of the Upper Host, and without Her Grace to sustain them, they only had mortal faith.
Faith that was dying.
Oh, sure, there were True Believers, of all varieties, some Heaven would rather not claim at all — the fundamentalists were all the same, whether they worshiped God or Satan — but as the world grew, as scientific discovery became easier, as God’s presence erased more and more each day, so did the true faith of humans. Even the ones who claimed to be true believers were often more perfunctory about it than anything, attending services and saying all the right things and caring more about whether other humans thought they had faith than actually tending to the faith they might have nurtured otherwise.
Palpable forms didn’t need faith to sustain them. They weren’t as reliable as corporeal forms, but they didn’t need to worry about discorporation, either; this was a perfectly reasonable alternative, and if anyone grumbled about it, they could just…
...something. Gabriel wasn’t sure yet. How did punishment work? He’d never punished anyone before. Smiting wasn’t appropriate.
The Archangel Gabriel did not, as a matter of fact, want to lead Heaven. It was a thankless job that forced him to make hard executive decisions about things he didn’t understand, and invariably he found his thoughts turning dark and dangerous. He even, sometimes, caught himself asking what the point was. Such treasonous thoughts were unacceptable; that was why he had to step up and do the job. He couldn’t let anybody else risk their souls on a daily basis. He couldn’t bear to see Michael fall, or Uriel, or Sandalphon — no. Especially since nobody knew how that would work now that God was gone. Gabriel would just have to do his best and spare them the grief.
The palpable forms would help with that, too. Angelic thoughts were vast and largely uncontrolled; they existed on multiple planes and occasionally tasted sour, which was how you knew a thought was dangerous. Palpable brains were less complex, and didn’t have the same capacity for multiplanar thinking. If they had to think before thinking, they were all less likely to fall by accident.
“Gabriel,” said Michael, looking uncomfortable in their own form, tugging at one of their sleeves. One of the flakes on their neck was peeling off, another frightening reminder of everything they had lost and were still in the process of losing. “I don’t understand the point. Neither do the Lower Host.”
He looked around and felt a pang of loss. Heaven had once been a beautiful, gleaming, open place. It was still all those things, but all of the little angelic trinkets they’d brought into being under God’s watchful eye were being liquidated one by one, a task assigned only to the newer angels who hadn’t had a hand in creating any of it. You never knew when you might need spare Divinity, after all, and Gabriel didn’t want anybody spiriting something away out of sentiment.
Not that angels had much of that. But he had to be careful. They were his charges now.
He sighed and ran an almost-hand through his almost-hair. “These forms will help us focus, Michael. We have to ration our Divinity. Uriel did the math: if we all keep these forms and keep our miracles to a minimum, we’ll have enough Divinity for the Great War. And when we win that…”
“The Almighty will return,” Michael said, a note of hope in their tone.
“It’s not like She left us a list, but if we prove ourselves to Her, I can’t see why She wouldn’t.”
“And Cherub Aziraphale?”
He winced, knowing that nobody would like the answer, least of all Michael, who’d always looked down on Aziraphale a little more than the rest of them. “Principality. We both know what will happen if he takes up his old role. He must have his own source somewhere, or She set some special Divinity aside for him. None of his miracles have ever made a dent in our stores. But don’t worry, I won’t let him burn out. He’s on the ration, same as us. I sent him a message.”
“It would serve him right, shirking his responsibility to us like this. I remember when you used to be the message,” they said softly. Their almost-hand fluttered, as though they wanted to reach out, but why would they do that? It didn’t serve a purpose.
“Me too,” Gabriel replied, wishing for a moment that things could go back to how they had been. Who had failed so badly that God had decided to pack up and leave, taking Her favorites with her? Was she too angry with the humans for killing Yeshua? Or was she angry with Her angels for some other reason she’d forgotten to share? “Will you tell Sandalphon I need him if you see him? We’re having some prayer problems I’m not sure how to solve.”
“Of course,” they said, turning swiftly on their almost-heel. They paused, though, and asked, “What shall I tell the rest?”
He wanted to curl up and let this be someone else’s problem, but needs must. “Tell them we’ll find a way to solve the problem, and at that time, we’ll lift the restrictions. In the meantime, it’s important to learn to use these vessels anyway. The opposition will have an advantage in the End Times if we don’t know how to fight them form for form.”
The second time Gabriel walked into Aziraphale’s sanctuary for material objects, it was 2018 A.D., and for the first time, he felt hope. It was like walking into the Heaven he remembered, albeit a Heaven strangely threaded with something dark — not evil, but nearly. Gabriel attributed that to humanity. It had been the humans who’d caused the rift in the first place; even the abstract concept had pissed off Lucifer enough to make him plan a coup.
A discerning eye would recognize celestial symbols glowing just out of sync with reality, protecting the premises from people who had malicious intentions. They weren’t very complex — the more powerful ones would probably incinerate any human who tried to walk through the door, so they could only address surface intentions, and that would mean allowing someone in if they thought they were doing the right thing — but it was still more power than anyone on the ration should have been able to pull off without setting off drainage alarms. There were drips of nurture strung up like fairy lights all around the human-made objects, and the entire area was absolutely blanketed in Grace. Even the darkness felt protective. It was very possible that Aziraphale had recently sheltered a human from something evil.
A silly and pointless effort, considering that the End Times were upon them, but, well. Aziraphale had always been a little odd. He was something of a joke up in Heaven by now, really, the Cherub who refused to be one, the Principality who inspired too many sinners and not enough saints, the Emissary who spent more time communing than reporting. Gabriel secretly respected him, but not enough to say it aloud, not when it was important for Management to show a united front.
He took a deep breath in his corporeal form and let the Grace sink into his soul, darkness and all. If he closed his eyes, for just a moment, he could forget that God had left them to drown, just like Her wicked humans all those centuries ago.
Only a short time later, he would tell Michael over a set of grainy photographs that there must be a perfectly innocent explanation for Aziraphale to be so cozy with the demon Crowley — keeping the enemy close, perhaps — and would be furious with Michael, Uriel, and Sandalphon for threatening Aziraphale behind his back.
A short time after that, he would angrily tell Aziraphale to shut his stupid mouth and step into Hellfire, feeling foolish and used and betrayed by everyone.
Uriel made a habit of sneaking away from Heaven to visit Earth. At first, Gabriel had considered putting a stop to it, but her despondency had lessened after the first time, and after the second time, she’d come back practically glowing. So he played dumb and allowed it, and it turned out to be a good decision. The first time he saw a rose gold flake appear at her hairline, he thought he might cry. It wasn’t the same kind of Divinity that the rest of Heaven relied upon — not by a long shot — but it was still Divinity.
Maybe there was hope for Heaven, after all.