“I had the nightmare again.”
It was actually a comfort that the sessions started this way. Ariel was grateful Dr. Collins never pushed her. The older woman sat comfortably in her chair, hands resting in her lap. Her eyes reminded Ariel of a Dryad she’d met once. A calm spirit who’d seen more than she’d care to tell.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Dr. Collins asked.
Ariel looked down at her hands, clenching her fists in an effort to keep herself from trembling. Poking his head out from under her scarf, Danger Noodle gazed anxiously at his companion, her discord radiating all around her.
“You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to,” Dr. Collins said. Ariel swallowed.
“I… I was told if I talk about it… it… it’ll help me heal…” Her voice trembled.
“For some people, talking about it does help,” Dr. Collins said, her voice softening. “But if you’re not ready, then that’s all right too.”
Ariel stared at her firsts, her assigned heart slamming against her ribs. She licked her lips.
“It always starts off the same,” she said. “I’m closing the office…. I stayed up late because I wanted to see the new puppies.” She glanced up at Dr. Collins. “It’s a Vet’s office,” she clarified.
The woman nodded.
“I turn around…” She swallowed. “And he’s standing there…. He doesn’t say anything… but there’s this smile on his face… it’s twisted… like…” She drew her arms in closer, hands no longer in fists, but clutching her arms for the comfort she knew she couldn’t give herself. “Like everything’s gone wrong, but he’s still going to… get what he wants. Then he hits me… and it goes dark.”
It was an abbreviated version, but not far from the truth. She’d never forget the look in Gabriel’s eyes. The eyes of someone who felt no one could touch him. Who wasn’t afraid of anything despite the fact that everything that could go wrong did…
And she’d told him “no.”
“I will not return to Heaven and I will not help bring about the end of the world.”
“Do you even understand that what you’re saying? You’re bordering on rebellion. You disobey an Archangel’s command, you’re likely to fall.”
“If disobey the Lord, I will fall. She came to me and gave me the duty of looking after the animals on Earth. I swore to follow that command till the end of time. Even through Armageddon itself, I will look after and protect the creatures of Earth… including humanity.”
He’d smiled at her, then his fist had made contact with her face and she fell unconscious.
“When I wake up… there’s laughter….”
She remembered the grime, the smell of decay that followed anyone who came close.
The cold iron cuffs biting into her wrists and the chains pressing down into her back. She blinked, feeling the tears in her eyes.
“I’m chained down… I can’t move… I can’t even see…. But I can feel other people around me.”
“Who said the Almighty isn’t giving?”
“Look at the little birdie now!”
“Seems almost a shame…. She’s actually kinda cute.”
“They…” Ariel felt the breath catch in her throat. The python moved his head closer, nuzzling her cheek as she made herself speak. “My back is bare… and my wings are chained down. Their hands….”
Her stomach twisted as she remembered the demons coming up to touch her wings, like poachers admiring the skin of their latest kill.
Again, the doctor said nothing, just regarded her thoughtfully. It was a kindness that she didn’t press. It was her job, of course, but pressure always made Ariel want to draw back.
“They…” She gripped her arms tighter. “There’s fire….”
In reality, she felt the flame before she saw it. Turning her head enough to see and feel the first of her feathers burn.
“And after the first feather burns… they bring out the knives…”
There had been rough hands pinning her shoulders still.
“ Always nice to have a blank canvas, eh lads?”
More laughter and cheering, then the blade dug in.
She was crying now, only distantly aware of Dr. Collin’s standing up to retrieve a tissue box and place it at Ariel’s side before returning to her seat. Trembling, Ariel took one of the tissues, clutching at it like it might try to escape.
She couldn’t remember how long it had gone on for. Time has no meaning when your wings are burned to ash, the skin from your back is carved away by someone who has spent a thousand years mastering a knife… and the laughter and jeering never goes away… because for everyone present, this is too good a show to miss.
“I keep screaming,” Ariel breathed out through the tears. “I know there are people who can help me and I scream for help… but they don’t come.” She shook her head. “They won’t come.”
It hadn’t been long before she realized the extent of her predicament. She knew the angels could hear her… anyone who had any connection to Heaven could… but no one was coming. She remembered Gabriel’s smile. All it had said.
“ It’s all over. No one is coming. ”
“It happens again and again and again,” She drew herself up into a ball. “And no one comes to help me… no one…” She pressed her face to her knees and sobbed. She felt Danger Noodle press his face against her cheek, refusing to move as the tears dripped onto his head. It was soothing, knowing he’d stay there until she stopped crying. “Every time I think it’ll stop, they find some new way to…”
She couldn’t. She couldn’t go any further back. Not right now. She had to stop. She made herself take deep breaths, remember it was over, that it wouldn’t happen again… that her family wouldn’t let it happen again. Eventually, she pulled her face back and untucked herself from her ball. Dr. Collins was still sitting there, eyes locked on her, but the look of compassion and heartache nearly made Ariel cry again. Maybe it was because she knew Dr. Collins truly felt it… or maybe it was because she knew the doctor would never fully understand how it felt.
“They keep going… and when I think it’ll never stop… there’s a light. It’s blinding… it scares away everyone who’s been watching…”
The light that had filled the chamber had nearly turned several demons to ash. For a brief moment, Ariel had believed it to be God, come to put an end to her suffering.
“It’s an angel,” Ariel whispered. “He… he came for me when he wasn’t supposed to…” She sniffled and took another tissue, wiping her eyes.
“I woke up after that,” Ariel said, voice tired and distant.
“Do you have this dream a lot?” The Doctor asked.
Ariel nodded. “Almost every time I sleep…. And I hate it.”
“Have you been able to talk to your family about it?” Dr. Collins asked.
It wasn’t exactly something any of them wanted to talk about. For all Crowley’s fussing over her, he automatically pulled himself back when he saw her really withdraw and put up her guard. These past few months had been taken in slow and steady strides, with small conversations slowly growing into nightly talks and fear of physical contact carefully being replaced with friendly pats on the arm and the occasional hair ruffle. The only time anyone had brought it up, it hadn’t even been talked about.
“You know, my dear,” Aziraphale smiled as he poured her a cup of tea. “If you ever want to talk, I’m here to listen.”
“Thank you,” Ariel smiled. “It’s just…. it’s not something I can just dive into at a moment’s notice.”
Aziraphale nodded. “I understand.”
It had been in his tone of voice, the way his form curled in on himself, the look in his eyes that made Ariel almost drop her tea cup. And it hit her like a punch to the gut. Because it wasn’t just a gesture of kindness.
He… really knew.
“Who…” she breathed.
“Gabriel,” he said.
Neither of them said anything else, opting to drink their tea in sad, but comforting silence. But there was a shift between them after that.
When the bell to the shop door rang, Aziraphale rose to answer it, pausing when he felt a light touch on his hand. He looked to see Ariel’s trembling fingers enclosed around his, the closest thing to a hug she was able to give at the moment. He smiled and patted her hand.
“How have things been with your family?” Dr. Collins asked.
Ariel was quiet for a moment before a small smile pulled at the edge of her lips, almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye.
“Better,” she said. “Things are…” It took her awhile to find the right way to say it. “Ease.”
“Easier?” the doctor asked for clarification. Ariel shook her head.
“The feeling. There’s more ease between us every day. It’s like…. there are some times.. I realize… I don’t feel scared anymore. Of them, I mean…”
What had begun as something that could only be described as an “awkward-three-way-ballroom -dance-on-a-somewhat-active-mine-field” had melted into a friendly acquaintance and, with the increased amount of time they spent together, something Ariel could call… She felt her stomach twist slightly as she glanced back up at Dr. Collins.
“There are still times I’m worried they might… I mean, I know they won’t…”She fell silent again.
“Hurt you?” Dr. Collins offered.
“Abandon me…” She reached up and stroked Danger Noodle’s scales, eyes drifting to her lap. “They- my brother and his boyfriend- didn’t… they didn’t abandon me. When my brother was kicked out, no one told me anything… and the people I thought were my family… they didn’t care. I wasn’t important until they needed something from me and then… when I said no, they…” She sniffled and wiped her eyes again. “I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t even think about them… they didn’t care about me, why should I…
“We all want to have a connection to family,” Dr. Collins said. “It’s what makes us human.”
Ariel smiled, but said nothing.
“There’s a difference between family by blood and a real family,” Dr. Collins said. “Relations mean nothing when there is no effort or love. Some people are raised to believe you have to be loyal to family no matter what, but that isn’t true. If a family is toxic or harmful, they aren’t worth your time. The people you lived with hurt you, it’s only natural you’d be scared your brother might hurt you, too.”
“But I know he wouldn’t,” Ariel said. “I know it with all my heart and I still…”
“Healing takes time,” Dr. Collins said softly. It was something she said at every session and Ariel knew it was true… she just hated what the fear did to her. How it made her scared Crowley and Aziraphale might turn their backs on her as heaven did, how it made her worry one day they might see her as worthless…
But they never did. There wasn’t a day she saw them that they didn’t look at her as though she were something special to them. Even on the days when she didn’t see them, there was a phone call or text message asking her how she was.
“The worry is simply that,” Dr. Collins said. “Worry. From all you’ve told me of them, I highly doubt that worry is based in reality.”
Again, Ariel smiled, lips trembling as she nodded. “Thank you.”
“Good,” Ariel nodded, wiping her eyes and tossing the tissue in a nearby waste basket. “We finally got Blueberry adopted. Two new strays came in yesterday. Blizzard is timid, but we’re working on that. I don’t think Cassie will stay long. Everyone loves ginger cats. And my new cupcakes went over well!” She added as an afterthought. “I’ve been working on some new cookie recipes at home. Crowley and Aziraphale love them, but I think they still need work.”
“That’s wonderful,” Dr. Collins nodded.
“It’s nice to keep busy,” Ariel agreed. She didn’t mention it was how she spent most of her nights now, for fear that Dr. Collins would- understandably- take it the wrong way. As sleep was optional for an angel and Ariel was not the biggest fan of binge watching tv, playing video games or going out late, Ariel occupied most of her nights with baking. It kept her mind busy, provided Mary’s Cat Cafe and Aziraphale’s bookshop with baked goods and extra income and, if she allowed herself a little sin of pride, made her happy. It didn’t even come close to her love of animals, but she couldn’t deny the joy she felt when she saw a customer’s eyes light up after taking a bite of one of her cupcakes or cookies.
“I’m glad you’re finding ways to do so,” Dr. Collins said. “But remember to give yourself a break if you need to.”
The Doctor glanced at the clock. “We do have to stop for today,” she said. “Are you free to meet the same time next week?”
“Yes,” Ariel said, collecting her coat. Danger Noodle slithered carefully under her scarf, keeping himself covered. Dr. Collins smiled.
“I am amazed at how well you’ve trained him,” she said. “I’d never think of a snake as a therapy animal.”
“He’s my miracle,” Ariel said, putting on her coat. Danger Noodle poked his head out quickly to give her another nuzzle before hiding away.
‘Well, it’s clear how much you adore each other,” Dr. Collins said. “Take care of yourself and, as always, call me if you need anything.” She held out her hand.
Ariel smiled, shaking it gently. “Thank you,” she said. She left the doctor’s office, closing the door behind her as she started down the hall and exited the building into the cold night air. She couldn’t help the small laugh that escaped her when she saw the Bentley pull up at the curb. The driver side window rolled down.
“Need a lift, miss?” Crowley asked playfully. From the passenger seat, Aziraphale waved. Ariel returned the gesture.
“Where are you gentlemen going?” She asked.
“There’s a nice Italian place a couple blocks from here,” Crowley responded. “Reviews are raving about their vegetarian lasagna. We’ll take the bill if you handle dessert.” He winced as Aziraphle gave his arm a gentle smack. Ever since Ariel had started baking, Crowley had been obsessed with her desserts, enough for him to suggest he and Aziraphale go to her for their eventual wedding cake.
Ariel grinned. “I think that sounds wonderful.”
Crowley snapped his fingers and the backseat door opened for her. As she settled herself, she felt a warm glow fill her heart. The words of the Almighty filling her head.
“You’ll never be alone again.”
It had been in the forest. The night she’d received Danger Noodle as he companion. She knew the Lord had been referring to him… but… there had been something else. The feeling that had eluded her for 6000 years. One of care and comfort. She smiled as “Under Pressure” by Queen filled her ears as Crowley sped through the streets, clearly ignoring Aziraphale’s pleas to watch out for pedestrians.