Thunder rumbled somewhere out on the broad, flat Kansas horizon. Grass fires smoldered as a weak rain blanketed the cemetery and extinguished the few untoppled candles that had survived the demolition of the pentagram. A scrawny young man in black robes and a tattered, horned headdress sat in the back of an ambulance, holding an ice pack to his groin and avoiding eye contact with his friends. A much older and louder man fought against the paramedics who were struggling to get him into a different ambulance. He shouted to anyone who would listen that agents of Satan walked among them, pointing mainly at the people in the robes but also at medical personnel, law enforcement officers, and a few members of the local television news team who were setting up cameras. EMTs darted through the crowd, strapping blood pressure cuffs to shell-shocked onlookers with their arms still raised, phones out, continuously recording and transmitting the devastation surrounding them. The wind kicked up clouds of pink glitter at their feet.
Crowley walked between the headstones with his hands in his pockets, frowning at the mayhem. He had to pause when a squat brown goat, its coat faintly glitter-speckled, ambled across his path with a colorful poster in its mouth. The poster made some bold claims about the feelings of the Almighty towards homosexuals. The goat chewed on it contemplatively.
Crowley sighed. “Well this is a shitshow.”
“Quite.” Aziraphale came up beside him and produced an umbrella, raising it to cover both of them before the rain picked up in earnest. “What’s more…” Aziraphale gave Crowley a pained look, though Crowley was locked in a staring contest with the goat and didn’t see it. “I’m afraid it might be a successful one.”
The goat fixed Crowley with its steady, untroubled gaze and the demon conceded defeat. (Crowley’s glasses would almost certainly have prevented the goat from seeing him blink, but goats can always tell. They won’t hold it against you, but they will know that you cheated, and you will know that they know.) It gave a high-pitched bleat, dropped the poster, and trotted over to join some other goats in a game of headbutting the emergency responders. A few black-robed humans tried to corral them, but the goats had twice as many legs and considerably fewer injuries than the humans so it wasn’t much of a competition.
One woman swung her handbag at a lanky black-and-white goat that had ventured perilously close to the news crew. The goat ducked, caught the bag square on one horn and yanked sideways, ripping the bag open and scattering keys and cough drops everywhere. The joyful bleating this elicited from the rest of the herd forced the news reporter to pause her recitation of the day’s events. She gestured at the goats with her microphone and addressed her crew. “Okay, this isn’t gonna work if they won’t shut up, so let’s cut. Frankie, can you grab some B-roll of the livestock?” The crew members nodded and ceased filming, except for Frankie, who shifted focus to the goats.
The reporter pointed over the heads of the crowd and started walking without pausing her instructions. “Dominique, let’s set up on the other side of the cemetery, maybe get some long shots of the ambulances.” The crew minus Frankie hastily gathered their equipment and jogged to keep up with the reporter’s brisk pace. “Make absolutely sure you get the crater in frame while I’m talking, okay? Eyes on the prize, team! If we play our cards right, we could go viral.”
Crowley sighed again, more deeply this time, and Aziraphale rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “Yeah,” Crowley said, rubbing his eyes. He could feel a headache coming on. “Angel, I think you might be right.”
-One Week Earlier-
It had been a quiet but productive day for Crowley. The weather was dreadful, so he’d curled up on the sofa with his phone to spread digital despair while the wind howled outside and sleet pelted the windows. Social media had completely changed the sin game. It was the best thing to ever happen to the internet as far as Crowley was concerned— half the time he didn’t even need to leave the flat to meet quota. He’d spent most of the day on tech support forums answering printer troubleshooting requests with instructions that would result in reformatted hard drives and/or fires, and had just settled in for a long, relaxing evening of snitch-tagging content creators into Twitter threads that criticized their work. He hadn’t felt so cozy in ages.
He flung his legs up over the arm of the couch and scrolled through news feeds. Just as he was tapping out a choice contribution to The Discourse, the letters slipped from under his fingertips and changed. CROWLEY, the tweet draft now read, WE HAVE RECEIVED YOUR REPORT.
“Gah—fuck!” Crowley jumped and fumbled not to drop the phone. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to this. Couldn’t they just send an email that he could ignore for several months and to which he could eventually reply with an obvious lie like “oh no, I never saw this, it must have gotten caught in my spam filter, you know how they are,” like normal people, and leave his poor electronics (and nerves) in peace?
The Hellish text continued: YOUR OBSERVATIONS ARE ASTUTE AND WE HAVE DEVELOPED A PLAN BASED ON YOUR SUGGESTIONS. “Suggestions? What suggestions?” Crowley wondered aloud, thinking back over everything he’d written in his last report. That had been the one about the ironic Satanists, hadn’t it? That report didn’t have any action items, it was just a basic brief on a weird new phenomenon that Crowley found perplexing yet endearing. He definitely hadn’t imbued it with an “I await your instructions on this urgent matter” vibe. In fact, Crowley devoted a great deal of energy to deliberately excising that vibe from all of his communications with the higher-ups down below. The next words to appear on the screen snapped his attention back to the present: HERNE WILL EXPLAIN THE ASSIGNMENT TO YOU IN DETAIL.
“Oh fuck, not that guy,” he said.
“Why not that guy?” Herne asked, perched on the opposite arm of Crowley’s sofa. Crowley jumped again, and this time failed to not throw the phone.
“Jesus, fucking— Herne.” Crowley hissed, scrambling upright and retreating as far from Herne as the couch would allow. “Why do you have to do that?”
Herne smiled. “I don’t.” Sunlight shimmered on the beads of sweat dappling Herne’s skin as the ocean breeze tousled his raven-black hair, which was impossible, since they were indoors in London in the middle of the night in a rainstorm. He braced one elbow on the sofa cushions and leaned, allowing his half-unbuttoned shirt to fall open on his tanned, chiseled pecs. From somewhere, Crowley could hear the cries of seagulls.
“So what is it?” Crowley asked. Fucking Herne. Every time with the damn seagulls.
Maintaining that placid, infuriating smile, Herne lifted a hand and plucked a leather-bound folder from the air, then held it out to Crowley. “I’ve brought your assignment.” Crowley snatched the folder and started flipping through it, mostly to have somewhere to look other than the discount cologne ad lounging on the end of his sofa. “The bosses were impressed with your investigation of the insincere Satanists. They thought you showed uncharacteristic initiative.” Herne raised a sly eyebrow at Crowley because of course he fucking did, fucking Herne, and Crowley conspicously ignored it. “They’d like you to put the fear of Hell back into the unbelievers.”
Crowley froze. “They want me to do what now?”
“Our Dark Lord and Master is displeased with the growing number of humans willing to take his name in vain. They hail Satan as a performative stunt, for shock value, for laughs, or else to add some occult flavor to an otherwise mundane orgy.” Herne brushed a nonexistent speck of dust off his shirt collar and sniffed. “We feel it cheapens the brand.”
“Uh.” That was not at all the point Crowley had intended to make with his report. “So… I’m supposed to, what, punish them? For copyright infringement or something?”
“In a manner of speaking. We want you to infiltrate an upcoming ritual and answer their prayers.” Herne’s voice went quiet and deliberate. “Show them the true power of the forces they invoke. If these flippant children are so intent on dressing up as occult acolytes ‘for the Gram’, give them something to really post about.”
“Well that’s just—” Crowley’s self-preservation instinct kicked in before he could say complete bollocks. “...sort of an oversimplification of the, um, the situation I described.” He swallowed, flipping back through the file. “This ritual you want me to— fulfill, I guess? Yeah, it’s not…” He searched for some way to communicate his meaning without risking death by hot pointy objects. “I understand why Hell might be concerned, but really, this has nothing to do with us. It’s… it’s just a joke. They’re being ironic.” Crowley held up the file and gestured at the text. “The whole point of it is we can’t even do the thing they’re asking. Nobody can.”
Herne didn’t blink. “We understand their intent perfectly. Your job is to make sure that they understand ours.”
“...right.” Crowley wished he had enough conscious control over his physical body to make it quit sweating. “By doing some... scary fireworks and creepy voices, I guess.”
“Or murder. Dismemberment. Manifesting unimaginable yet remarkably squid-like transdimensional horrors. Whatever gets the job done.” Herne looked away and ran a hand through his stupid perfect hair. “You’re a smart little demon, I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”
With some effort, Crowley unclenched his teeth. “Yeah. Okay. Got it. When is this happening?”
“Saturday at two in the afternoon, local time. It’s in Topeka, Kansas. The file has directions to the precise location.” Herne glanced back at Crowley. “You sure you can handle this one?”
“Yes. Definitely.” What else could he say? “I’ll do my best.”
“Mm. Hopefully not. If you fuck this one up, I get to eat you.” With that, Herne vanished in a puff of sea spray and sandalwood.
It took a moment before Crowley could say anything. Still dazed, he glanced back down at the papers in his lap, hoping that maybe the intervening minutes had miraculously transformed the assignment into one that made even a single ounce of sense. Alas, they had not. “What the fuck?” he whispered once he had regained the power of speech.
Had they even read his report? Well, clearly they had, but it had gone right over their heads. Served him right for assuming anybody in Hell would be able to grasp a concept like irony. Or, well, he supposed Hell did understand dramatic irony, but only the kind with a bunch of accidental incest and grisly death. Not the weird, vague, absurdist human kind, the sort that might inspire some creative milennials to perform a Black Mass solemnifying the ritual murder of the paper napkin industry. Crowley thought it was harmless fun, all things considered, but he was apparently in the minority with that opinion.
He knelt on the floor and wedged his arm underneath the sofa to retrieve his mobile, then sat back on his heels, stared at the screen and weighed his options. He could just do the job. Scare the living daylights out of a few performance artists and show them the error of their ways, all for the glory of Satan. It would backfire spectacularly, of course, no question about that, but maybe he could spin the failure into an “I told you so” and be rewarded for his foresight, instead of… Herne hadn’t been serious about eating him, had he? Who could tell with that weirdo? He probably fucking would. No, Crowley couldn’t risk it.
On the other hand, if the project were derailed by something totally unexpected, something that Crowley obviously couldn’t have anticipated, much less prevented, well, then, who could blame him? ...Hell. Hell could blame him. Hell would definitely still blame him. But perhaps not as fatally?
Crowley tapped the digits of a number he did not, for good reason, keep saved in his contacts but nonetheless could have dialed blindfolded, and waited. “C’mon, pick up,” he muttered, drumming his fingers on the coffee table. “Don’t pretend you’re sleeping, I know you’re not.”
Aziraphale answered on the fourth ring. “What do you want, Crowley?”
“Pretty rude, angel, not even saying hello.” Crowley concealed his relief under a thick layer of sarcasm. Aziraphale usually took his calls, but it wasn’t always a sure thing. “Who says I want anything? Maybe I was calling just to chat.”
“It’s half past three in the morning, and you never call just to chat.” Aziraphale’s voice was chiding in a comfortable way that spoke more of habit than scorn. “So what is it you want?”
“Right. Well. So I just got this new assignment—”
“The less I know about that, the better, I think.”
“See, normally I’d agree with you, but this one…” Crowley glanced back at the file and winced. “It would really, really help me out if you could, uh. Thwart me.”
There was a pause. “Thwart you?”
“Yeah.” Crowley crossed his free arm over his chest and fidgeted. “Just this once.”
“You want me to thwart you.”
“Yes. Hard as you can.”
“Despite our entire relationship resting on a foundation of strenuously avoiding any unnecessary thwarting.”
“Despite all that, yeah.”
“Why?” A note of worry crept into Aziraphale’s voice. “Crowley, is something wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong.” Crowley got up and started pacing the room. “This job’s just…”
“No! Nothing like that.” He rubbed his face and searched for a way to say it’s just really stupid and I don’t want to do it. “It’s... just... really... stupid. And I don’t want to do it.” Nice work there, Crowley, very smooth.
The change in Aziraphale’s facial expression was audible. “You’re calling in the middle of the night with an unprecedented request for aid because you don’t feel like doing your job?”
Crowley tilted his head. “Well don’t put it that way, angel. Come on, isn’t it your job to stop me from doing my job?”
“We’ve never operated that way and you know it.” Aziraphale sounded almost tired enough for the late hour now. “I don’t understand why we should change a system that’s been working for millennia. I stay out of your way, you stay out of mine, and we’ll catch up over drinks next Thursday. Are you free next Thursday? I forgot to ask when we—”
Crowley cut him off with a hiss. “No, Aziraphale, if you don’t help me with this then I won’t be free next Thursday because I’ll have been eaten by a demonic Calvin Klein model!”
“I thought you said this job wasn’t dangerous?”
“It’s not the job, it’s the consequences of—” He sighed. “Look, can I come over? I promise it’ll make more sense if I explain it in person.”
There was silence on the line for a moment, then Aziraphale made a sound that Crowley had come to associate with impending unpleasant lectures. “Fine. The shop’s locked up, come in the back door. Don’t let anyone see you.”
“Of course I won’t let anyone see me. What do you think I am, an amateur?”
“No, I think you’re a capable and experienced demon who ought to know better than to flagrantly waltz into your enemy’s sitting room in the middle of the night, but here we are.”
“Nobody ‘flagrantly waltzes,’ that’s a stupid phrase,” Crowley mumbled, cradling the phone with his shoulder as he pulled on his coat. “And you’re not my enemy, you’re my counterpart.” He straightened and moved the phone to his other hand. “My stuffy, uptight, annoying—”
“Take an umbrella. It’s pouring outside.”
“I don’t need—” Crowley looked down to find an umbrella in his previously free hand. “Really, angel?”
“I’ve just cleaned and I don’t want you dripping on everything.”
“You’ll miracle me an umbrella halfway across town, but you can’t do anything about a few puddles on your floor?”
“Goodbye, Crowley,” said Aziraphale, and he hung up.
Crowley considered the umbrella and rolled his eyes before stuffing it under his arm. “You’re lucky you’re pretty, you nerdy bastard,” he muttered under his breath, and walked out the door.
Aziraphale paced the length of the bookshop’s back room, brow furrowed, stirring a mug of tea he’d brewed half an hour ago. Crowley watched him, sitting backwards on a desk chair and resting his head on his folded arms, steaming— literally, since the rain had been pretty intense on the way over. This method of drying off might be less effective than an umbrella, but it was immensely more satisfying given that it annoyed Aziraphale and made Crowley look really cool at the same time. The file from Herne lay open on the desk between them.
Every few minutes when the angel’s rounds brought him near enough, Crowley reached out and tapped the edge of Aziraphale’s cup, reheating the rapidly-cooling tea. Aziraphale hardly seemed to notice.
“Are you ever actually going to drink that,” Crowley asked, “or do you just like carrying around beverages and stirring them symbolically?”
Aziraphale waved a hand in Crowley’s general direction. “The process is meditative.”
“I think you’ve been ‘meditating’ long enough to give me an answer.”
“Crowley…” Aziraphale sighed and shook his head. “It’s a complicated situation.”
“What’s complicated about it?” Crowley shrugged. “Some devil-worshippers are planning to desecrate a grave, you swoop in and put a stop to it. Do the freaky wings-and-eyeballs thing, that’d work. Satanists wet their pants and run home crying for their mommies, angel saves the day, demon gets to tell his bosses ‘oh well, tried my best, maybe next time.’ It’s a win-win.”
Aziraphale set down the mug and picked up one of the pages from Herne’s file. “The problem isn’t how to foil their plans,” he said, pointing at a line of text. “The problem is precisely who would benefit from my intervention.”
Crowley squinted to read the name Aziraphale had indicated. “Yeah, what about them?” he asked. “They’re wankers, sure, but they’re your wankers.”
Aziraphale bristled at that. “They most certainly are not.”
“Not wankers, or not yours?”
Aziraphale took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “They are beloved children of God.” His lips pressed into a hard line. “And while all of God’s children receive infinite grace, some of them require… slightly more infinite grace than others. An uncountably infinite set of grace as opposed to a countably infinite one, if you will.”
Crowley nodded. “So, what you’re saying is, on a scale of one to the set of all real numbers, they’re wankers.”
“I said they were beloved children of—”
“Angel, when you say that, it means wankers.” Aziraphale remained expressively silent.
He returned the papers to the desk and sat down on the sofa opposite Crowley. “The fact remains, all agents of Heaven are under strict orders to render no aid whatsoever to any member of the Westboro Baptist Church.” Aziraphale spread his hands and gave Crowley a look of genuine regret. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t interfere with this.”
“Well, okay, so that’s—” Crowley grasped for some loophole. “I get why you don’t want to touch those fuckers with a ten foot pole. But you’re not technically aiding her if she’s already dead, right?”
“That’s not a line I feel comfortable treading. If anyone—” here, Aziraphale flicked his eyes toward the ceiling— “were to take notice, what am I supposed to say? ‘Oh, sorry, I was just doing a favor for my demon friend, which by the way is a thing I have’? I don’t see that ending well for either of us.” The angel fixed Crowley with a look that made him feel like he’d dog-eared a page in a second edition Principia Mathematica and should prepare himself to never hear the end of it. “Maybe instead of trying to pin your failure on me, you could put that effort toward actually doing your job? As you’ve said, the poor woman is beyond help now. You may as well use this as an excuse to recruit some new devotees.” Aziraphale picked up his cup of tea and took a sip at last. “It sounds like you could even have some fun with it.”
“Angel, you don’t get it.” Crowley groaned and dug his fingers into his hair. “Nobody’s coming out of this with a newfound devotion to Satan! It’s not a matter of genuine unholy reverence, it’s performance art. Best case scenario, all I do is put them off anything with even a whiff of the occult for the rest of their lives. Hell, a scare like that could even push some of them into the arms of the Church, and then where would I be?”
Aziraphale fidgeted with his mug. “… Kansas?”
“Fucked,” Crowley corrected. “I’d be fucked, Aziraphale. And you would be too. I mean, what if word gets around that weird rituals are packing heat now? You remember the 80s, do you want another Satanic Panic on our hands?”
Aziraphale shuddered. “Oh, no, that was exhausting.”
“Right, so unless you want to spend the next twenty years doing damage control, let’s figure out how you can stop me from completing this really fucking poorly-thought-out evil plan in the first place.”
Aziraphale tapped the mug against his lips and adopted his thinking face. “Well, I’m limited in what I can do. Maybe I could... keep you here?” He gestured at Crowley with a halfhearted look. “I could say I caught you plotting some nonspecific-but-likely-evil schemes, and just, I don’t know, lock you in a closet somewhere so you can’t carry them out?”
“Not sure I like setting that precedent,” Crowley said, spinning slowly on the desk chair. “Besides, sitting tied up in your storeroom for a week? Sounds boring. Unless you’re gonna whip me and call me your dirty little demon slut.”
“That’s true,” Aziraphale said, frowning. “We don’t want to give my superiors the impression that I can just imprison you whenever it’s convenient. Plus we’d have to come up with an explanation for how you eventually escaped.”
Crowley shrugged as the chair brought him back around to face Aziraphale. “Easy, I seduced you.”
“Crowley, please.” Aziraphale stuck his foot out to stop Crowley from starting another spin.
“Tell them I hit you with my sexy wiles and you folded like a horny origami swan.”
“I know you’re only making lewd jokes because you’re nervous—”
“It’s not a joke! I’m a legit snack.”
“—but we need a practical solution.”
Crowley grumbled and scuffed the floor with his feet. “Well, in a perfect world, they’d just call off the whole thing on their own. If nobody actually gets around to invoking any dark forces then I’m off the hook.”
Aziraphale perked up. “Now that’s something,” he said. “What if they did call it off? Not because of some awesome display of supernatural power, but for reasons that would appear entirely mundane?” He looked out the window at the storm. “Something like inclement weather or a nasty case of norovirus.”
Crowley flinched, visibly horrified. “Jesus, angel, don’t throw around words like ‘norovirus.’ I don’t actually hate the little weirdos.”
“No?” Aziraphale inclined his head toward Crowley. “They certainly seem to be the source of your current headaches.”
“Nah, it’s not their fault.” Crowley waved his arm dismissively. “Truth be told, I’m kinda fond of them— they piss off the sincere Satanists like nothing else, which earns them plenty of points in my book. And sure, yeah, they’re doing it all for a noble cause, but I can overlook any incidental good deeds as long as they’re a big enough pain in somebody’s arse.” He slumped further down on the chair. “Wish I could just leave the poor fuckers alone and let them have their fun.”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were getting soft in your old age.” The smile Aziraphale gave him might have been condescending on someone else’s face, but long experience told Crowley it was merely infuriatingly tender.
“You take that back.” He pointed and glared. “I’m a very evil bastard.”
“The absolute worst,” Aziraphale agreed. “Utterly despicable. Not one compassionate bone in your body.”
“Well I wouldn’t go that far,” Aziraphale murmured, casting his gaze aside and smirking.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“So no illnesses or injuries for any of the participants.” Aziraphale set the tea back down and steepled his fingers. “That still leaves a wide range of minor misfortunes that could discourage them from going through with the ritual. There’s the weather, traffic delays, malfunctioning equipment, last-minute schedule conflicts…”
Crowley turned the idea over in his head. “That’s actually not a bad plan,” he said, “but I can’t risk setting up any of these ‘misfortunes,’ no matter how minor. I mean, if I got caught—” Crowley didn’t like to think of what Herne might do to him upon discovering evidence of explicit insubordination. He had a brief vision of thousands of seagulls blacking out the sun in a shrieking cacophony, then he shook himself and refocused. “You could do it, though.”
Aziraphale tensed. “It would be almost as risky for me as it is for you. I can’t be seen to aid any—”
“You wouldn’t be, not directly.” Crowley spun the chair around in an acrobatic fucking pirouette and sat with his hands braced on his knees, leaning forward at Aziraphale. “There’s a world of difference between defending the gay-bashers and just playing a few tricks on some fake Satanists. They’d barely even look like miracles! You’d have loads of plausible deniability.” Aziraphale looked queasy, but Crowley pressed on, bringing his hands together in supplication. “Come on, please angel, help me out just this once? I’ve been your friend since the beginning of time.”
“That’s using a very generous definition of ‘friend,’” Aziraphale countered.
“And what are you, angel, if not the very definition of a generous friend?” He let his glasses slide down his nose a fraction. Crowley was at something of a disadvantage when it came to making puppy dog eyes, but he’d seen Aziraphale’s heart melt over pictures of snakes wearing tiny hats often enough to think he had a shot.
Aziraphale scowled at Crowley. “Stop that. I know what you’re doing.”
“What, what am I doing?” He batted his eyelashes.
“Well, is it working?” He quivered his lip. “Do I need to add some waterworks?”
“Oh, for the love of— no.” Aziraphale closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “This ritual. It happens on Saturday?”
“Yes, this Saturday,” Crowley said, feeling a glimmer of hope. “But I’m heading over tomorrow to do some recon first. Scout the location, all that.” Aziraphale looked thoughtful, and the glimmer of hope grew into more of a sparkle, threatening to become a full-on ray.
Aziraphale bit his lip and it was not fair what that did to Crowley’s pulse, not at all. “Not tomorrow,” he said, “I can’t leave on such short notice. The shop—”
“The shop will be fine, you get negative three patrons a week and you’re hardly going to disappoint them.”
“I have things I need to take care of,” he said, firmly but not unkindly. “And I can’t even promise I’d be any use to you. And I would like to note for the record that this is still a very dangerous plan that I shouldn’t be involved in at all, and I’d be bending a lot of rules just to help you skirt your responsibilities. But, once I’ve made all the necessary arrangements… yes.” A smile tugged at Aziraphale’s mouth at the same time that a quiet resignation claimed the rest of his face. “Give me a few days, and I’ll meet you in Kansas and see what I can do.”
Crowley lunged from the chair and threw his arms around Aziraphale fast enough to knock the breath out of him. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said, squeezing Aziraphale in a tight hug. “You are a lifesaver, angel.” Without thinking about it, Crowley planted a hard kiss on Aziraphale’s cheek. “I owe you one. I owe you one million.”
“All right, all right, you’re welcome.” Aziraphale squirmed in Crowley’s grip. “Now let me go before I come to my senses and tell you to go jump in a lake like I probably should have done in the first place.”
Crowley pulled back and grinned— Aziraphale was flushed pink to the tips of his ears. Oh, damn me to Hell and back again a few extra times for good measure, he thought, you are just too fucking cute to be anything but the death of me.
It was a quarter to two on Saturday, and someone had beaten Crowley to the gravesite. Next to the granite headstone, a slight woman with a ginger sidecut sat on a cooler and scanned the cemetery, tapping her foot and humming. Crowley ducked behind a bush before she could spot him. She didn’t look much like a Satanist, ironic or not, but he preferred to be safe rather than sorry.
Before long, another person walked up. She had dark glasses and black clothing with a lot of unnecessary buckles and spikes on it, more in line with a classic Satanist image. The redheaded woman waved and smiled.
“Hi Felix,” she said.
Felix nodded back. “Hey Susannah. Anybody else here yet?”
“Nope. We’re the first.”
“Awesome.” Felix took a pack of cigarettes out of her jacket pocket and offered one to Susannah, who declined with a shake of her head. She lit one and took a drag. “I’m like a hundred messages behind in the group chat. What are we supposed to be doing here?”
“To be honest, I’m not really sure.” Susannah leaned back and looked at the clouds. “Trevor said he’s bringing candles and glitter. #Ted said to bring beer. I’ve got us covered there.” She patted the lid of the cooler. “I don’t think we’re supposed to have open containers on cemetery property, but what the groundskeepers don’t know can’t hurt them, right?”
“They don’t give a shit,” Felix said. “I’ve been coming to parties here for years. As long as we don’t litter, nobody’s gonna notice we were here.”
“Really? Even with…” Susannah cocked her head toward the headstone.
“What about her?”
“Kinda a big name around here. I’m surprised they don’t have more problems with vandalism.”
“Shit, is that what we’re doing?” Felix let her head fall backward. “Ugh, Trevor, that little shitlord. If he burns the best fucking rave spot in the city, I swear to god—”
Susannah put up her hands. “Pretty sure we’re not doing anything permanent. No spray paint, no sledgehammers. Trevor made it sound like some kind of sacred ritual.”
“You’re telling me our resident YouTube atheist found religion?”
“Nope.” Susannah’s expression soured. “If you wanna know most of what you’re missing in the group chat, Trevor is definitely still on his Dawkins kick.”
“Big fucking surprise.” Felix exhaled a long plume of smoke. “Whatever this ends up being, I’m getting pictures. Whether they turn into blackmail or evidence is up to fate.”
Crowley looked up as Aziraphale touched his back and crouched beside him. “Sorry I’m late,” the angel whispered. “What have I missed?”
“Not much so far.” Crowley pointed out the two women. “The short one’s Susannah and the cool one’s Felix, sounds like at least two more people on the way.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Which grave is the, ah, subject?”
“Right there. Woman of the hour.” Crowley scooted aside and gave Aziraphale room to get comfortably seated near the opening in the hedge he’d been using to surveil his targets. “They mentioned candles and— glitter? For some reason?”
Aziraphale wrinkled his nose. “Ugh. They’ll never manage to clean that up.”
“Herpes of the arts and crafts world. You’re welcome.” Crowley had received a commendation for inventing glitter.
Susannah and Felix turned their heads as three new figures approached, all dressed in long black robes— though one of them was in a terry cloth bathrobe and crocs.
“I’m gonna hate myself for asking this,” Felix said, “but Radu, are you wearing anything under that?”
The balding man in the bathrobe scratched himself. “All I’ve had to eat today is like six Benadryl and a magic brownie,” he said with a thin, gravelly voice and an unfocused smile, “so your guess is as good as mine.” Felix and Susannah both inched away.
“Aww, Radu,” said a second man, “you thought my brownies were so good they’re magic? Thanks, dude!” He put his arm around Radu. Big block letters shaved into the side of his head spelled out the name #TED.
“Wait, they weren’t?” The final man— really more of a teenager— set down a grocery bag overflowing with craft supplies. “You mean I coulda had one?”
“Oh no, those brownies were chock full of ketamine.” #Ted gave the teen a stern yet warm look. “No good for a growing boy like you, Trevor.”
Trevor balled his fists. “I’m old enough for drugs brownies!” His voice cracked when he spoke.
“Not for breakfast, son,” Radu said, patting Trevor on the shoulder. “But when we get home, you can have a little drugs brownies. As a treat.” Trevor pouted.
Aziraphale leaned close to whisper in Crowley’s ear. “Are those his legal guardians? They seem frighteningly unfit for the job.” Crowley shrugged, equally bewildered.
“Who are we waiting on?” Trevor smoothed his robes and stood up as straight as he could. “We need everyone here before we begin.”
“Sugar and Dino are on their way,” Susannah said, looking at her phone. “Dino just texted. He says they got stuck in traffic. Huge wreck on the highway.”
Crowley nudged Aziraphale. “Was that you?”
“It wasn’t huge,” he rushed to say. “No one was badly injured. They’re going to give the driver an X-ray to check for broken ribs, and that’s going to reveal a precancerous mass that his doctors can remove before it becomes a problem, and the insurance payout will more than cover the cost of a new car.” He coughed. “And it knocked over a billboard displaying a very crass advertisement for extra-long hot dogs, so everyone benefits.”
“Whoa, hold up—” Susannah’s eyes widened. “Dino says Angel’s coming with them.”
“What? No!” The blood drained from Trevor’s face. “He said he wasn’t gonna!”
“Yeah,” Susannah said, “I didn’t think he would be interested either. He’s so…”
“So uptight it’s like he’s got a nun’s ruler shoved up his butt 24/7?” Felix interjected.
Susannah made a face. “I was going to say ‘lawful good,’ but, yeah.”
“It’s all right, Trevor,” #Ted said, “I know how hard you worked on this. We won’t let Angel guilt you into changing your mind.”
Trevor attempted to look defiant. “He wouldn’t be able to guilt me!”
“Yes he would, son, it’s his Catholic superpower. He can guilt any one of us.” #Ted paused. “Well, obviously not Radu, but you know what I mean.”
Radu gave a thumbs-up. “I watch my porn in the regular browser,” he said. “No incognito mode for me.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” Felix cut in. “It took me weeks to get rid of the malware. Could you please get your own fucking computer? Or at least resist the temptation to click every pop-up ad you see on mine?”
Radu’s smile did not waver. “Nope.”
“Wait a minute.” Susannah narrowed her eyes. “Radu, you live in a condemned Blockbuster. You text on a Jitterbug. Since when do you know how to use a computer?”
Felix glared. “He clearly doesn’t.”
“First rule of being a dealer,” Radu said, “don’t get high on your own supply. Vintage VHS porno got a limited lifespan and I can’t be putting my precious babies through their paces every time I wanna crank it. I gotta keep the good stuff in pristine condition for the viewing pleasure of all my loyal customers.”
Felix stubbed out her cigarette on one of the headstones. “You run a video rental store. It’s 2013. You don’t have loyal customers.”
“Ah ah ah, shhhh,” #Ted said, pressing a finger to his lips. “The IRS has ears everywhere.” He shot a suspicious look at a passing squirrel. “We’re a cash-based business with low overhead,” he said, a little too loudly. “There is no suspicious discrepancy between our foot traffic and our revenue, everything is very normal at our legitimate real store that is definitely not a money laundering scheme.”
“Yeah, taxation is theft!” Trevor shouted. The jar he had been struggling to open exploded in his face, showering him with glitter. Crowley glanced sideways just in time to see Aziraphale lower his hand. The angel had that mildly seasick look again and it tugged at Crowley with a feeling that he was professionally obligated not to call ‘guilt.’
“Hey, nice one,” he said to Aziraphale, giving him what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “Very subtle. Wouldn’t raise a single celestial eyebrow.”
“Don’t mention it,” Aziraphale said. He cut his eyes toward Crowley. “Seriously, don’t mention it. To anyone.”
Trevor coughed and spat glitter as Radu pounded on his back. #Ted and Felix broke into the beer while they unpacked the rest of Trevor’s supplies: stacks of scented candles, matches, more glitter, and a few folded black robes. Periodically, Susannah checked her phone for updates from Sugar’s car. She frowned and turned the phone over in her hands— “Hey, what gives? I just had at least 40% and now my battery’s in the red.”
“I got you, Sus.” Felix dug into one of her jacket pockets and pulled out a heavy, bricklike external battery. She pressed a button on its case, then pushed up her shades and stared. “Okay, what the fuck? This thing was full of juice when I left home.” Felix held the battery up and showed the others the faintly blinking charge indicator. “Now it’s dead.”
“Uh, guys,” Trevor said, “my phone’s dead, too.”
#Ted checked his phone and looked up sharply. “They’re all dead.”
“Didn’t know you could do that,” Crowley murmured. “Impressive.”
Aziraphale nodded. “I’ve been practicing. It’s very effective at keeping the shop free of loiterers.”
Radu’s eyes darted wildly and he scratched at his thinning hair. “#Ted, what’d you put in those brownies again? Cause I’m getting seriously paranoid here, man.”
“Yeah, guys, this feels really weird.” Susannah chewed her lip. “We can’t get in touch with Sugar and Dino, all our phones die suddenly… maybe we should just call it a day?” The five exchanged uneasy glances.
Crowley leaned forward. “Yes, that’s it,” he whispered. “Give up, leave, forget about this and go get brunch. C’mon, Satanic rituals are overrated, wouldn’t you nerds have so much more fun with a nice D&D campaign or something?” He touched Aziraphale’s hand. “If they don’t make up their minds in a few minutes, could you give me a freak rainstorm?”
Aziraphale’s face twisted in discomfort. “That’s rather high profile,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything with the weather unless we have no other choice. The chances of drawing unwanted attention—”
The arrival of the last three fake Satanists interrupted both Aziraphale and the group at the headstone. A blonde woman with a smile almost as bright as her crisp yellow sundress bounded up, jumped on Felix and Susannah, and pulled them both into a fierce hug, heedless of Felix’s spikes. “Hey y’all!”
“Hi Sugar,” Susannah said, returning the hug. “So glad you made it! We were just talking about leaving if you didn’t show up soon. Traffic was bad?”
“The worst,” Sugar groaned. “Half the highway’s shut down.”
“Just happy to finally be out of that car,” said a short man with a suit jacket and an immaculate pompadour. He carried a cloth-lined basket and held it out to Felix. “Please, get these away from me before I eat them all. Sugar’s a bona fide pastry wizard and this spell of hers has got one powerful area of effect.” He winked at Sugar.
Sugar rolled her eyes. “Dino, quit flirtin’. You did all the decorating.”
“Can’t stop, won’t stop,” Dino replied. “But yeah, the little pentagrams were my idea. They came out pretty well, if I do say so myself.”
“Wait a minute, Dino,” Sugar said, reaching into the basket. “Radu, catch.” She tossed him a ziplock bag filled with cookies. “Those ones are dairy-free.”
“Sweet! Not gonna shit myself to death today!” Radu opened the bag and took out a shortbread cookie sporting a neat little pentagram drawn in red icing. “Aw, Sugar, you shouldn’t have.”
“Yeah. I know.” Sugar beamed threateningly. “That’s what makes me the nice one.”
As everyone gathered to share the cookies, the eighth and final member of their circle stood a few feet away with his arms crossed over his chest. He looked like a bouncer, black-clad and lean but well-muscled. By process of elimination, this had to be Angel.
Angel cleared his throat. “So, Trevor.” Silence fell and Trevor choked on a bite of pentagram shortbread. “Wanna enlighten us as to what we’re all doing here?”
“Oh, um—” Trevor trembled. #Ted laid a hand on his shoulder and shook him supportively until he achieved a sort of resonant frequency and regained a smidge of composure. “Well, uh, we’re all gathered here today because, uh… because we’re gonna use devil magic to turn Fred Phelps’s mom gay.”
“Is that so?” The chill in Angel’s voice could freeze the Everglades solid. “And why, exactly, are we doing this?”
“Cuz he’s in charge of Westboro Baptist Church and they hate gay people!” Trevor sputtered, waving his hands in exasperation. “Come on, Angel, you of all people should appreciate this.”
“Yeah, no,” Angel said, “this does nothing to materially benefit me or any other member of the LGBTQ community. It’s barely a step up from moving Bibles to the science fiction section in Barnes & Noble.”
Trevor set his jaw. “That was a vital exercise of my freedom of speech!”
“A minimum wage retail worker had to reshelve each one of those so that you could get seven upvotes on r/atheism.” Angel gave Trevor a deadpan look. “You definitely struck a blow for rationality there. Much logic. Very wow.”
“They’re right, he is good at that,” Aziraphale murmured.
Crowley narrowed his eyes at Aziraphale. “Are you taking notes?”
“I absolutely am, this is excellent material. Expect to hear some of it the next time you do something moronic.” Crowley shoved him.
Dino stepped between Angel and Trevor, spreading his arms. “Angel, baby, lay off the ass-chewing,” he implored. “It’s only Trevor. Is he really worth it?”
Angel fumed. “I’ll lay off when he admits he’s so steeped in Christian cultural hegemony that he’s unconsciously reinforcing the very same moral hierarchies he claims to oppose!”
Dino took Angel’s hands in his. “We both know that’s never going to happen.” He leaned in close and gave Angel a conspiratorial grin. “At least this stunt’s getting him off the message boards and into some fresh air, right?”
“Just please, Dino, tell me you don’t buy this ‘doing it for the gays’ bullshit.” Angel’s posture softened a tiny bit as he relaxed into Dino’s embrace. “Last week he was abusing Bayesian statistics to ‘prove’ you’re not really bi. Trevor’s not exactly a learned scholar of queer theory.”
“Nah,” Dino said with a quick wave of his hand. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a shiny silver harmonica, and flipped it into the air before catching it and bringing it to his lips for a quick phwee and a shrug. “This is a tire fire, I just want to see how it shakes out.”
Angel jumped back. “Dude, what the fuck, I thought you left that thing at home!”
“What, this?” Dino held up the harmonica. “I bring it everywhere. Fun to have around, never know when you might need a little—” Here, Dino made as though to blow into the harmonica again, but Angel smacked it out of his hand with a look of abject terror.
Sugar rushed over. “Angel, what the sam hell?” She glanced at Dino retrieving the harmonica from the grass, then put her hands on her hips and glared at Angel. “Are you still on about this?”
Angel shook his head at the harmonica. “That shit is bad news,” he said. “Abuela didn’t raise no fool. I know haunted when I see it and that thing is fuckin haunted.” He made the sign of the cross without lifting his eyes from the gleaming instrument in Dino’s hand.
Sugar gave an exasperated sigh. “He got it at a pawn shop in a strip mall, not a damn crypt. You’re acting ridiculous.”
“Was that pawn shop still there when we drove by the next day?” Angel shot Sugar a challenging look. “Was it?”
“Retail space in that part of town has a really high turnover rate.”
“It vanished into thin air the second we were gone.” He crossed himself again and thrust an accusatory finger at the harmonica. “Haunted!” Dino slipped the harmonica back into his jacket and put up his hands in a conciliatory gesture; only then did Angel step down from red alert.
“A-hem,” Trevor said— actually said, out loud, pronouncing it like a word rather than a throat-clearing noise. “If nobody else has any other interruptions planned, I think we can begin.”
Crowley looked over at Aziraphale. “Please tell me you’ve got some other interruptions planned?” Aziraphale made a face and didn’t answer. Crowley felt a tightening in his chest.
“So how exactly do we do this, o wise and powerful leader?” Felix drawled, lighting another cigarette.
Trevor puffed up his chest. “Okay, well, according to the WikiHow, we need two couples who are willing to kiss for the sake of the ritual. One that’s two girls and one that’s two boys.” He failed to conceal an eager glance at Felix, who flipped him the bird.
“Nnnnnope,” she said, “no way am I acting out your weird Suicide Girl fantasy, you little turd.”
Sugar and Susannah exchanged a brief series of inquisitive looks and acquiescent shrugs, then Susannah said, “We’ll do it. But yeah, Trevor, you have to look the other way while it happens.” Trevor’s shoulders slumped.
“Okay, fine,” he said, “but we still need two guys. I’m gonna be leading the whole thing so it can’t be me.”
Dino flashed Angel an inviting look, eyebrows raised. Angel shook his head. “No, man, I still think this is a shitty idea. I’m not getting involved.”
Trevor frowned. “Well if it’s not you guys, that leaves…”
#Ted wrapped an arm around Trevor’s shoulders and looked at him with warm concern. “Now son, your daddy and I might make some weird noises here in a minute, but that’s just because we love each other so much. I don’t want you to be scared little buddy. It’s all perfectly natural.”
“Love’s a beautiful thing, Trevor,” Radu agreed, pouring baby oil on his chest.
“Uh…” Trevor ducked out of #Ted’s fatherly embrace. “You guys do know you’re not my real dads, right?”
“Ohana means family, son,” #Ted said. “And family means nobody gets left behind when you need some dudes to make out for Satan.” #Ted turned and clapped his hands on to Radu’s shoulders. “All right, brother, you ready for this? Are you ready to take our friendship to the next level?” He stared at Radu with an intensity bordering on mania. “Will you join me for what might be our most excellent adventure yet?”
Radu grinned. “Hell yeah buddy, fuck me in the ass ‘cause I love Jesus.”
“JUST KISSING!” Trevor yelled, waving his hands in alarm. “All you need to do is kiss! Keep your clothes on! Please?”
“Now would be a really great time for that rainstorm, angel,” Crowley hissed.
“I can’t just make it rain,” Aziraphale whispered, “weather patterns take time to shift!”
“Then get shifting!”
While Susannah and Sugar donned their robes, Dino and Felix sprinkled glitter in the shape of a pentagram on the grave. The task was tricky enough to start (five-sided shapes are notoriously difficult to eyeball without a compass and straightedge), but they weren’t helped by the sudden uptick in the wind’s intensity. Each line they laid down vanished almost instantly into the twinkling breeze. Cursing and shielding their eyes from the stinging hellsparkles, they redoubled their efforts, digging glitter into the dirt with their fingers. Crowley might have admired their determination if it wasn’t a key ingredient in his impending doom.
Trevor and #Ted had similar trouble with the candles. They huddled together, using one another’s bodies as mutual windbreaks, but every match they lit was swiftly snuffed. Eventually, Felix stomped over with her lighter and burned the wicks into submission with the practiced determination of a lifelong smoker. They set clusters of flickering, pumpkin-spice-scented candles at the five corners of a pentagram made of equal parts mud and glitter. It might not win any beauty contests, but the group now had a passably-serviceable summoning circle. The clouds overhead thickened.
Crowley felt like he might throw up. He had planned this far, he’d put together an outline of what he could do if the ironic devil-worship progressed to a point of no return, but he’d been clinging to the hope that Aziraphale could disperse the crowd before that. He couldn’t even be mad— Aziraphale was obviously trying, the concentration was clear as day on his face. Weather was tough! Bless him, the angel was giving those humans all the plausibly-deniable Hell he could muster. But if humans were good at anything, it was persevering with a bad idea despite innumerable gentle and not-so-gentle hints that they probably shouldn’t. It was, literally, the oldest story in the book.
Trevor took up his position behind the grave marker. “Okay,” he said, “kissers, come kneel on either side of me up here. Everybody else, just… uh…” He gestured around the circle. “Sorta stand around? Like in a solemn way.” He reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a pair of horns on a headband, then fastened them into his sandy hair.
“Cool evil priest costume,” Felix said. “You definitely don’t look like Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s trollsona.”
Trevor blushed furiously. “Shut up, Felix!”
Susannah and Sugar knelt on Trevor’s left and linked hands across the headstone. #Ted and Radu took up their spot to Trevor’s right, leering at one another disconcertingly. Dino glanced at the darkening sky and sucked his teeth. “Hey friendos, we might want to hurry this up. We’ve got rain coming.”
Aziraphale was making a nervous noise in the back of his throat and it was all Crowley could do not to leap from the bushes and start physically knocking people over. He would really have to go through with this, wouldn’t he? He pictured himself explaining to Herne why several promising young acolytes had all of a sudden devoted their lives not to the Prince of Darkness, but to the pursuit of serious psychiatric help. If Crowley was exceptionally lucky, he’d only get pecked to death by seagulls; being transformed into one and then roasted on a spit seemed equally likely.
Trevor raised his arms, but before he could speak, he saw something on the edge of the cemetery that made his eyes go wide. Seven humans, one angel, and one demon turned their heads in unison to see an approaching crowd armed with bright neon picket signs, led by an aged, animated little man who could be none other than Fred Phelps himself. They were headed for the circle.
“Oh shit,” Trevor squeaked. “They found out.”
“Oh, no no no no no,” Aziraphale whispered. “They’re here. Crowley, they’re right here!” There was terror in his eyes. “I have to stop, they’re too close. If anything I do gives them even the slightest advantage—”
Crowley laid a hand on Aziraphale’s shoulder to quiet him. “It’s okay, you did all you could. Don’t risk it.” He frowned at the advancing mass of angry churchfolk. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll scare everyone off for us.”
Aziraphale gave a short, flat laugh. “Given how events have unfolded so far, what makes you think we’re at any risk of being lucky?”
Phelps pointed and bellowed. “Get your filthy hands off my mother’s grave, you bunch of—” Here, he used a word that Crowley inferred from context did not mean ‘cigarettes.’ The four who had been kneeling beside Trevor scrambled to their feet and backed away, but Trevor stayed frozen to the spot, staring at the mob and shaking so hard that it knocked his horns askew.
“Come on, kid, we gotta run!” Radu pulled at Trevor’s arm. “You’re too skinny for prison! You won’t last a day!” Trevor didn’t budge.
With a frustrated groan, Angel marched over to where Trevor stood paralyzed. He took a deep breath and planted himself squarely between the acne-scarred teenage disaster and the oncoming wave of Christian extremists. “My friends might be assholes,” Angel declared, “but they’re still my friends.” He curled his fists and stared down the worst the WBC could throw at him. “If you wanna get to them, you go through me.”
Phelps came level with Angel and sneered. “You have no right to talk to me that way, you dirty little trespassing—” Phelps punctuated his sentence with a racist slur followed immediately by a homophobic one in a neat one-two punch. Angel was silent for a beat, and then he punctuated Phelps’s face with his fist.
The old man went down hard and the mob erupted into chaos. Most of them threw down their posters and fell on the Satanists with their fists, while a few swung their picket signs like scythes. #Ted ripped off his shirt and ran full-speed into the fray, screaming, followed closely by Radu— who, thank whatever powers had the unenviable task of watching over him, had in fact remembered to put on underwear that morning. Someone had Angel in a headlock, but dropped him as #Ted and Radu tackled them from behind. Sugar helped Angel to his feet just as Angel knocked the legs out from under a guy who’d been swinging his fist at Sugar. In the space of a breath, Sugar took up one of the discarded protest signs, tore away its day-glo message, and started cracking skulls like softballs. It was hard to say what was more disturbing: the sharp thwack of her weapon connecting with an unlucky head, or the gleeful, thousand-watt smile that never left her face while she did it.
“This is getting out of hand,” Aziraphale said, wincing and gripping Crowley’s arm. “We have to do something.”
“Absolutely not,” Crowley shot back. “As long as they’re fighting, they’re not summoning anything. They keep this up and we might just get out of this without a single miracle.”
“You mean you might,” Aziraphale snapped.
A woman grabbed #Ted’s arm and bent his fingers backward with a sickening crunch. #Ted screamed and fell to his knees, freed from the woman’s grasp by Radu, who leapt up and bit the lady right on the face. Felix, Dino, and Susannah huddled together and watched in horror as Radu threw his head back and snarled at the sky like a pasty, horny panther. Dino held his harmonica to his chest as though it was a talisman, gripping it so firmly it turned his knuckles white.
Aziraphale glared. “I gave you a car crash and a freak thunderstorm,” he said, “I think you owe me one.” He narrowed his eyes. “One million, if I remember correctly.”
Crowley groaned. “All right, fine, I’ll do something, you can call off the flipping exorcism.” He shut his eyes and concentrated for a moment. “Okay. The police just got an anonymous tip that everyone’s favorite free speech fans are causing trouble at the graveyard again. They’re on their way.” He crossed his arms at Aziraphale. “Happy now, angel?”
Felix and Susannah each grabbed one of Radu’s arms and yanked him off a sobbing, bleeding woman. He had something disturbingly ear-shaped clutched in his teeth. “You don’t want me to answer that question truthfully,” Aziraphale said.
“Oh, you’ll live,” Crowley grumbled. “Just as long as they get here before…” He spotted Trevor still standing at the headstone, improbably untouched in the midst of all the fighting. He’d gone white as a sheet when the Phelps clan first appeared, but now, a sharp aura of resolve had overtaken him. Crowley knew that look. Correctly identifying that look happened to be a vital survival skill for anyone spending most of their time in the company of angels, demons, or other overdramatic idiots. It was the look of a man who’s just decided (with no input from his compatriots) that he has nothing left to lose, and whose only remaining concern is finding the most spectacular way to sacrifice everyone for his cause.
Trevor straightened his spine, then his horns, and took a deep breath. “In the name of Lucifer,” he cried—
Crowley broke out in a cold sweat. “Oh fuck, kid, no, don’t say it—”
A couple heads turned at the sound of Trevor’s voice, and with that same stony determination, he hitched up his robe and fumbled with the zipper on his jeans. “We beseech all the powers of Hell—”
“Stop it, stop it, fuck, shit, stop—” Crowley dug his fingers into his hair.
“—to turn this dead lady gay as fuck!” In full view of everyone present, Trevor whipped out his dick and slapped it down on the headstone in front of him.
“TREVOR WHAT THE FUCK?”
“Holy shit, Trevor, what—”
“Oh my god kid, put that away, for fuck’s sake!”
“WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?”
“Son, we’re gonna need to have a serious talk about manscaping.”
“Oh dear,” Aziraphale said, his voice hollow. He tapped Crowley on the shoulder. “I’m… I’m afraid that’s your cue.” Crowley whined involuntarily. He couldn’t watch this. With a sinking, suffocating feeling, he squeezed his eyes shut and snapped his fingers.
The ground shook. All around the grave, the pentagram flared to life as the glitter took on a deep red infernal glow. Candle flames surged upward and fire licked around the circle and across the poor old woman’s headstone, causing Trevor to shriek and stumble backwards, slapping frantically at his flaming crotch. The earth inside the ring of fire surged and boiled. From the center of the pentagram, a hairy, horned head emerged and thrashed from side to side, throwing off showers of deep black prairie topsoil as it struggled to free the rest of its body. A second goat followed close on its heels, kicking and screeching, clawing its way up with sharp little hooves. Soon, dozens of goats were pouring out of the earth, stampeding in all directions and filling the air with bone-chillingly human screams almost loud enough to drown out the cries of the humans they pursued. The goats saw no difference between the combatants of the strange battle they’d been thrown into. They ran down anyone and everyone, ironic Satanist and zealous homophobe alike, united in their terror and hatred of anything on two legs. The crowd scattered.
A shaggy white goat with a bell clanging at its neck plunged blindly toward the bushes that concealed Aziraphale and Crowley. The noise made Crowley open his eyes, but not quickly enough— Aziraphale threw himself protectively over Crowley as the goat vaulted over the bush, rebounded off Aziraphale’s back, and shot off into the distance, bleating wildly.
“Ow,” Aziraphale said, lifting himself off Crowley with one arm and rubbing at his back with the other. “This was your plan?”
Crowley grunted and sat up. “One of them. Honestly not my best.” He straightened his sunglasses and pulled a couple twigs out of Aziraphale’s hair. “But what was I supposed to do? Turn into a snake and do a hypnotic dance? That never helps.”
“Well you’ve certainly made a spectacle, that’s for sure.” Aziraphale craned his neck over the bushes to survey the chaos, ducking down again as a pair of goats chased a frantic, flailing #Ted past them. “Do you think it will satisfy your employers?”
“Maybe?” Crowley grimaced. “Probably not. I don’t think I won many hearts and minds.” He peered through the branches and tried to pick out the Satanists in the flurry of hooves and shouts.
Dino was curled in a ball with his back pressed against a headstone, rocking back and forth. The harmonica was still in his hands. He stared at it, transfixed, sweating, practically hyperventilating, and Angel cried out to him. “Dino, no!” It was no use. He moved with a jerk that looked less like Dino raising the harmonica and more like the harmonica yanking Dino’s hands along behind it as it flew to his lips. Dino inhaled, and the sharp notes of the mouth harp tore through the din like a saw.
The air filled with a thick, crackling energy that snagged at the skin like steel wool. Dino rose from the ground. Crowley squinted. He looked… taller? Sharper? No, he looked exactly the same as he had a moment ago. But there was also more of him.
Aziraphale’s eyes widened. “What did you do?”
“That’s— that one’s not me,” Crowley said, struggling to keep his voice even. “I don’t know what that is.”
Dino rolled his shoulders and cast his gaze over the cemetery, taking in the turbulent sea of goats, blood, fire, and screams like it hadn’t reduced him to a shuddering mess just minutes before. He curled his lip.
“What the fuck-ass white nonsense is this?”
The voice that poured from Dino’s chest was deep and rich and hailed from nowhere near Dino’s native Atlantic City. Every human present swooned, while every goat ceased its bleating and stared at the source of the melodious sound.
“Is he possessed?” Aziraphale asked in a frightened whisper. “That looks like possession, is it a demon? Who is it?”
Crowley scowled. “Okay, first off, not all demons know each other, and second—”
The thing that wasn’t Dino brought the harmonica back to Dino’s mouth and squeezed air from Dino’s lungs into it, and then a wall of light and sound swept the world away.
“Give it to me straight, doc, am I gonna lose the hand?”
Susannah paused wrapping the elastic bandage around #Ted’s wrist. “What? #Ted, it’s a sprain. You’ll be fine.”
#Ted gripped Susannah’s hand with his good one and stared into her eyes, unblinking. He was seated on the cooler while Susannah knelt to examine him, and blood trickled down his face from a head wound that threatened to rechristen him #FED. “Don’t sugarcoat it for me. I can take it. Just promise me one thing: if you have to amputate—”
“Amputation is not on the table here, trust me.”
“—put my hand on ice. Save it. Use it to clone me with your doctor magic.”
“#Ted, honey, we’ve been over this. You’re not a starfish.” Susannah finished securing the bandage around #Ted’s wrist and patted him on the cheek. “I’m also not a doctor.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Sus, I don’t care if you’re a hologram.” #Ted bobbed his head in a motion that managed to be a nod and a shake simultaneously. “You’re just as good as Beverly Crusher and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Susannah screwed up her face. “Are you talking about… I’m an EMT, not an EMH. That’s not even a real thing. Please tell me you know that’s not a real thing?” She pulled a pen light out of her pocket and shined it into each of #Ted’s pupils in turn.
“It’s okay, buddy,” Radu said. He stood behind #Ted massaging his shoulders, robe open and chest spattered with blood, glitter, and goat hair. “I’ll be your healthcare power of attorney, make sure they carry out your wishes. We’re gonna cut off your hand and clone us a new son. A hot one.”
#Ted put his newly-bandaged hand on top of Radu’s and gazed up at him with glowing fondness. “Oh, Radu, you know I always wanted to give Trevor a little brother.” His eyes welled with tears. “If I don’t make it through this, promise me, you’ll raise him right.” He choked back a sob. “Promise me you’ll name him… Barry.”
Sugar stumbled toward Susannah, moaning and holding her head. “Gimme a beer. No— two beers. I need two beers.” She kicked the cooler and made a growling noise at #Ted and Radu. “You’re between me and the beer. Be somewhere else.”
#Ted rose from the cooler and Sugar lifted the lid, but Susannah reached over and snapped it back down. “Nope, absolutely not,” she said firmly. “Alcohol and concussions don’t mix.”
“You suck,” Sugar slurred. Susannah handed her a bag of ice and she held it against her head. “Dunno what’s worse,” she mumbled, “the goat hoof to the face or that music. Feels like I’m still hearing it.”
“Yeah, about that,” Felix said from the ground, still sprawled out where she’d fallen. “Dino… what the fuck?”
Dino did not appear to know what the fuck. He had been the only one standing when everyone came to, shaking off memories of blinding light and harmonica chords winding together into a soul-piercing blues song that blocked out all thought. By the time everyone had made it shakily back to their feet, the police and the news crews were already there, and Dino was once again a mere lounge singer— albeit with a few more hairs out of place than he preferred. He hadn’t done much since then except stare into the middle distance and absently stroke his thumb along the back of the harmonica.
Sugar offered Felix a hand and lifted her off the ground. They walked tentatively to Dino and stood on either side of him, exchanging significant glances over his head.
“Hey, hon,” Sugar said, forcing her voice into a semblance of its usual Southern sweetness, “maybe I should take that harmonica off your hands for a little while.”
Dino snapped back to life and right into a too-casual shrug. “Nah, no need babe, I’m fine,” he said through chattering teeth. “Just peachy.”
Felix put a hand on his shoulder. “Dude, you know I’m like, the last person to give any credence to Angel’s whole, you know, deal—” They all glanced toward Angel, who had gone to his knees immediately upon waking and had not ceased his stream of trilingual, profanity-laden prayer since then— “but all available evidence suggests you should not be the one holding that thing right now.”
“Dollface, you’ve got it all wrong,” Dino said, smiling. “This old thing? It’s nothing!” He waved the harmonica just out of reach of Sugar’s free hand with calculated indifference. “I can put it down any time I want.”
“Cool,” Felix said. “So…” She held out her hand in front of Dino expectantly.
Dino hugged the harmonica to his chest and his eyes darkened. “I just don’t want to.”
Meanwhile, Susannah dabbed at Radu’s chest with a gauze pad soaked in antiseptic. “Radu, uh, is any of this blood actually yours?” The police eyed Radu suspiciously, and Radu eyed them right back, licking his lips. “On second thought,” Susannah amended, “I don’t really need to know.”
#Ted hobbled up to Trevor and put an arm around his skinny shoulders. “Look at you, kiddo,” he said, beaming with pride. “Never thought I’d see the day. Feels like just yesterday you were crawling around in diapers, babbling nonsense and chewing the feet off all your Barbie dolls—”
Trevor winced. “We’ve known each other for a year and a half, #Ted.”
“—and now you’re all grown up, leading unholy rituals and violating municipal livestock ordinances like a pro.” #Ted clapped him on the back. “I’m proud of you, son.”
Trevor gasped. His lip trembled, and his grip on the ice pack slipped as he looked up at #Ted. “Y-you… you really mean it?”
#Ted smiled. “You bet I do.” Trevor burst into tears and threw his arms around #Ted.
Susannah pointed sharply. “Trevor, I swear to god, if you ever want a boner again you need to pick that ice pack up and put it right back where you had it.”
At long last, the clouds opened, and rain poured down on the crowded cemetery. Paramedics, news crews and zealots scrambled for cover, and in all the commotion, no one noticed a couple of strangely-dressed British guys ducking past the cops and cameras.
“Before you ask,” Crowley muttered, glancing over his shoulder, “no, I don’t know what that was. All I know is it didn’t come from Hell and I never, ever want to find out where it did come from.”
“As grateful as I am for its assistance halting the bloodshed, I believe we’re in perfect agreement there,” Aziraphale replied. He stepped out of the way of a baby goat making off with some poor soul’s windbreaker. “Where did you find all these goats, anyway?”
“Petting zoo, about five miles up the road that way.” Crowley gestured off to the distance and frowned. “Guess I ought to put them back.”
“Oh, no, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Aziraphale said, watching some goats splash and frolic in a puddle. “They seem much happier here.”
Crowley nodded and made a noise of assent. “Mm. Oh, here, almost forgot.” He handed Aziraphale a shortbread cookie with smudged red icing. “Nicked you one of those biscuits.”
Aziraphale’s face lit up. “Oh, you’re too kind!”
Crowley groaned. “Don’t give me that, angel, it was theft.”
“Right, right,” Aziraphale said easily, “very wicked. Bad demon. Want half?” Crowley shook his head and Aziraphale took a bite, closing his eyes and humming in sugar-fueled contentment.
“What I could really use is a drink,” Crowley said, shoulders sagging. “If I’m getting recalled to Hell for an exciting disciplinary debrief, I’d rather not do it sober.”
“I’m sure it won’t be as bad as you think,” Aziraphale said. “You did as well as you could under the circumstances. They have to appreciate that.”
Crowley glanced over. “Your optimism is as adorable as it is tragic.”
“Hm. Well, I suppose it can’t hurt to be proactive, just in case.” Aziraphale patted Crowley’s elbow and gave him a warm smile. “Let’s go get you drunk, dear.”
Crowley’s phone buzzed again, face-down on the bar between him and Aziraphale. Crowley studiously ignored it.
Aziraphale gave him a pointed look. “You’re going to have to answer that eventually.”
Crowley buried his head in his arms. “I can’t do it right now.” He gave a muffled groan. “One more drink and I’ll check my messages, promise.”
“That’s what you said four drinks ago.” Aziraphale gently nudged the phone towards Crowley. “Surely the suspense is worse than knowing?”
Crowley whined. “Just… ugh.” He pushed the phone back. “You read it. Tell me how bad it is, scale of one to ten. So I can mentally prepare myself for how fucked I am.”
Aziraphale made a little disgruntled noise, but turned over the phone and swiped through Crowley’s notifications. He knit his brows in puzzlement. “Um…”
Crowley opened one eye. “How bad?”
“Well… the good news is, I don’t think you’ll be making it back to Hell any time soon.”
He lifted his head. “They don’t know about the screwup yet?”
“That’s the thing,” Aziraphale said, frowning. “They know what happened. But, well, it seems they think you performed splendidly, and they’d, um. They’d like you to do it again.” He held the phone out to Crowley with a hesitant look. “Congratulations?”
Crowley grabbed the phone and stared. In the hours since he and Aziraphale had first barricaded themselves in the hotel bar, the Kansas Goat Massacre (goats being the perpetrators of said massacre, not victims) had flooded the internet at the speed of memes. Three different autotuned remixes of the local news vied for the coveted spot at the top of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. New Vines of Trevor catching his privates on fire set to various dubstep songs cropped up faster than censors could take them down. Message boards overflowed with speculation about whether it was a hoax, and intrepid skeptics documented their attempts to recreate the rituals needed to summon forth hordes of angry livestock. The sudden surge in occult interest had drawn competing official statements from the Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple, and the webmasters of both organizations were working overtime to meet increased demand. Herne had already sent a list of a dozen new services, séances, and summonings Crowley was expected to oversee in the upcoming weeks. “Oh, fuck me,” he groaned.
“Come now, don’t act so glum. You thought they were going to torture you!”
“This is worse than torture,” Crowley said, “it’s work!”
Aziraphale pursed his lips. “You poor thing.”
Crowley rubbed his temples. “This was so stupid, I’ve started a damn fad. They’ll have me chasing down every idiot who squirts a ketchup pentagram onto his hamburger now. I won’t get a moment’s rest.”
“Hm.” The angel had an inscrutable look. “Could I see your mobile again for a moment?” Crowley handed it back and took a long swallow of his drink. He looked up when Aziraphale gasped, holding the phone out in front of him. “Oh heavens, I’m afraid I’ve broken it,” he said, his face a mask of perfectly shocked contrition. “You know how I am with these newfangled technologies— dreadfully sorry, darling.” He set the now-dead phone down next to Crowley’s hand. “If I had to guess, I’d say you’ll be entirely unreachable for at least twenty four hours. What a terribly inconvenient disruption to your workflow.” There was a glint in his eye.
Crowley grinned in spite of himself. “You cheeky bastard.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Aziraphale picked up his drink. He glanced sidelong at Crowley, and his mouth twitched into one of those half-suppressed smiles that tended to give Crowley a weird, warm feeling like glitter was exploding inside him— the nice kind of glitter, not the ecological nightmare kind. “Crowley,” Aziraphale said, gazing at him with a dangerous level of fondness, “may I be emotionally candid for a moment?”
Crowley made a face. “Ew, I wish you wouldn’t.”
“It’ll only take a minute, I promise you’ll survive.” Aziraphale looked down into his glass. “I know things didn’t exactly go to plan today, and I fear I was less help than you’d hoped for, but… I’m really quite glad that you asked for my assistance. I know we’re good at staying out of one another’s way, but it’s gratifying to know we can also work together if something complicated comes up. Something neither of us could handle alone.” He met Crowley’s eyes again and smiled warmly. “That you trusted me with this, it’s— well, I’m touched.”
Crowley struggled to smother the glitter-feeling with the familiar, comfortable weight of dripping sarcasm. “Aww,” he teased, “I love you too, honey.”
Aziraphale sighed. “Yes, of course, Heaven forbid you accept my gratitude with anything approaching actual candor.”
“Yeah, angel, Heaven does actually forbid that,” Crowley replied with a roll of his eyes. “But, you know, if it weren’t cosmically fucking verboten for me to feel anything but contempt for you and all you stand for, I might say…” He nudged Aziraphale’s shoulder with his own. “...that it’s nice to know you’ve got my back when shit goes sideways.” He took a drink. “Though hopefully it won’t, not for a good long while. I’m sick to death of sideways shit for now.”
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” Aziraphale agreed, beaming and raising his glass in a toast. “Lovely adventure, thank you for inviting me, let’s please not do anything like it ever again.”
Crowley smiled and clinked glasses with Aziraphale. “Cheers to that.”