It took Gabriel two days to realise he was seeing in colour.
Full colour. Clear colour. Not gilded with the glory of the Lord, not nimbused with a halo of potential and never-was, not opalescent and waxed and lifted and embossed. Just flat fucking colour.
When it finally hit him, he cried. Couldn't help it, couldn't keep this inside of him, had to let it all pour out, salt tears as though he could wash it away, wash this from his eyes and please, please God, please almighty benevolent fucking God.
But there he was, huddled in an alleyway, between the green-smeared orange brick wall and the blue-grey of mottled old concrete, choking on his own disgusting mucous and unable, completely unable, to stop the tears.
That was the end of the second day. It didn't get better. Gabriel knew that, knew it wouldn't, know it never got better. You just got used to it. And the one thing in the universe to which you couldn't become accustomed was the one thing he had to learn to do without. For eternity.
The fifth day, he ran into Constantine on the street. Literally. Gabriel had been watching the sky when someone bumped his elbow, spun him around like a top, a whirl of colour and movement, and into John's path.
"Watch it!" The words were barked and there were hands on Gabriel's arms, and by the time Gabriel was peering up through the hair fallen in his eyes, John had recognised him. "You." The grip tightened. There were people passing them by; a mother with toddler, three teenage boys in convoy, a man in a pinstriped suit with a phone pressed to his ear and urgency on his lips.
"Me," Gabriel agreed affably. "Hello, John."
The look on Constantine's face suggested there was something about this incident he found entirely unbelievable. Gabriel took in the crease between his brows, the brace of his stance.
"You look well," Gabriel noted, and wasn't that good? Wasn't that good news? That he looked well?
Constantine didn't so much let him go as fling him away. Gabriel teetered back a step and a half, a twinge in his shoulders as he tried to balance himself with wings that no longer existed. Phantom pain trickled down his fingers. A young woman scowled as she skirted him. "Can't you just crawl off and find a hole to die in?" John demanded.
"No," Gabriel answered, perfectly truthfully. "No, not really."
About a week after that (the eleventh day), Gabriel was sitting in a bar when Constantine came in. It was mid afternoon, the sun slanted past the tinted windows. There was baseball on the television and a man reading Steinbeck in the third booth. John went straight to the bar and exchanged terse sentences with the bartender; a question, an answer, a hand-gesture, a point to the corner where Gabriel was sitting at his table, the ace of diamonds in one hand, the nine of spades in the other.
Constantine came over, taking the shortest route through the tables in between.
"A man walks into a bar," Gabriel said, and John frowned. "Wait, no, I can remember the rest of it. A man walks into a bar..."
Constantine shook his head. "What are you doing?"
Gabriel smiled, and applied his two cards with a careful tilt. "Building." He pulled his hands away, and the structure remained. It was three levels high, now, and six stands across. "Creating."
"Playing God?" John sneered.
Gabriel looked up at him. "They're just cards. Will you sit?"
Apparently, John would. He pulled a chair away from the table, didn't pull it in again as he sat down. Gabriel decided not to bring up the looking well matter again; maybe it wasn't such a good thing. See? He was learning! John was looking around again. "This is hardly Midnite's," he said.
"They never liked me there," Gabriel pointed out. "They would like me even less now." He picked up the next two cards; six of clubs, king of spades. "Are you checking up on me, John? I'm doing quite well, thank you. I have a room upstairs where I sleep. It has a window over the alleyway. I like alleyways, straight and narrow." He balanced the cards, moved his hands away.
"How are you paying for the room?" John asked.
Gabriel looked at him. "I'm selling my services..." John's eyebrows went up. "As a fortune-teller," Gabriel finished, with a smile.
"Isn't that against the rules?" Constantine asked.
"I never said anything about fate," Gabriel pointed out. "Every man has many fortunes. Every woman, too."
A truck went past in the street; the batter hit a home run on the television. "I'm not checking up on you," John said.
Gabriel turned over the next card. The jack of diamonds, the knave, cheery and untrustworthy. "Red," he said, tracing a finger over the face, and that he was learning too. Red, not the dark vermillion copper of dirt soaked with the blood of the unrighteous, not the burning villiany of the Fallen, just red. (Black was taking a little more time, the dry dusted charcoal of old sin, the arching wings of the night, the pit, the pit, the darkness in the absence of Light; but Gabriel was confident he'd get there eventually. He had time.)
"Sure, whatever." Constantine was on his feet, and when he pushed the chair back in, it nudged the table leg, and the house that Gabriel built came slithering down, waxed cards skittering over the edges of the table. "Sorry."
Gabriel looked up at him. "They're just cards," he repeated.
After Constantine had gone, and Gabriel had gathered the cards again, sorted them so they were all facing the same way, aligned them into a neat pile, he turned over the first two (the three of hearts, the ten of diamonds) and began again. After all, he had time.
On the grey, lowering morning of the eighteenth day, Gabriel was following someone down a street when he saw John in the window of a diner. He drummed fingers on the glass, grinned and waved when John looked up. He was with someone else, a woman with dark hair and quick eyes, good posture and shock on her face. Familiarity, met only for second, but the knowledge was there when Gabriel put his hand out for it, like a ripe plum yielding from the tree.
She was half out of her seat by the time Gabriel made it inside to the table. "Angela Dodson," he said, holding out a hand.
Her knuckles were white, fingers wrapped around her butter knife. John grabbed Gabriel by the elbow. "Outside," he growled, tugging Gabriel along, off-balance, fingers flaring.
"I don't understand," Gabriel said, as the door closed behind them. "I was friendly, am I not supposed to be friendly?"
John half threw him across the footpath, scattering sparrows into flight. Gabriel watched them go up, disappearing into the lancing rays of the sun. "Three weeks ago you were going to kill her," John spat, "and now you want to shake her hand?"
Gabriel blinked at him, blind. "That wasn't personal. I wasn't trying to kill her."
John glared, got that tilt to his head he always had when he couldn't believe what he was hearing, what Gabriel was saying. "You were just trying to rip a doorway straight to hell through the middle of her. Sorry, I'm floundering here. I suppose you weren't fucking trying to kill Chas either."
The diner door opened behind him. "It's alright, John," Angela said, stepping out onto the footpath beside him.
"No, it's fucking not."
"I have to get to work, anyway." She slung her bag over her shoulder on his long strap, swiped strands of hair back behind her ear, and finally shot a glance Gabriel's way. "Goodbye," she said, firm and final.
John glowered at Gabriel again, but then turned and followed her down the street, jogging the first couple of steps until he was walking beside her.
Gabriel sat on the footpath and waited for the sparrows to come back. They did, eventually, bright-eyed and curious, but then someone tossed a coin into Gabriel's lap, and they fled once again.
A woman handing over her crumpled dollar bills told Gabriel that he was too amazing to be stuck away in this crummy place, that there was a night fair down on the beach, that he should be there instead, so the twenty-fifth through thirtieth days he was. The beach was salt like the desert and clouds, and colour like life in miniature, and sun like blistering need (during the day, and need like blistering sun at night) and Gabriel didn't go back to the room where he slept for days, dreaming in dunes or doorways or just not at all.
On day thirty-one, John emerged out of the diminishing crowd in the late hours of the evening's trade, eating something noxious on a stick and walking up to the folding table that Gabriel used to offer his glimpses into infinity.
Gabriel didn't paused in packing up, sliding cards back into their box, collapsing the table. "People expect me to ask them to cross my palm with silver. Should I dye my hair black and get a gold hoop earring?"
John dug in his pocket, pulled out a silver dollar. "And what's in my future?"
"A tall, dark, handsome stranger," Gabriel offered.
"Every morning in the mirror?"
"Do you truly want me to look?" Gabriel asked, stowing the table and looking over a shoulder. He was used to that, at least, line of sight where there would not have been, before; eclipsed by the span of ethereal feathers. "There might be death."
"Certain to be, surely. Comes to us all."
Gabriel shook his head. "Keep your dollar. You'll need it more."
They went down onto the sand, closer to the hissing sea. The moon was silver on the water, a long way out, where there was no competition from landbound illumination (brighter, gaudier, trapped). There were shells and weed in the sand, sharp and slimy against Gabriel's bare feet, but they all just crunched under the soles of John's shoes.
"Your nose is peeling," John said, finishing his snack and pitching the stick into oblivion. "It's ridiculous."
"I didn't think I'd see you again," Gabriel said. Perhaps this was an excuse for sunburn. He picked up stones as they walked; this one perfectly smooth and white, that one a jubbled mess of pumice.
"Angela's sorry for you." He was many things about this, Gabriel could hear it. Bemused, frustrated, perplexed, tolerant. A hundred thousand tiny facets to the human voice.
"I like her," Gabriel said. And then, after a moment's thought: "Of course, I like everybody, so perhaps I'm not the best arbiter."
John stopped, and Gabriel stopped as well, turning to face him, outlined as he was by the dying lights of the fair. "What are you doing here, Gabriel?"
Gabriel held up his hands full of stones, balancing, weighing. "I am talking to you? I am walking towards the water's edge where I will let the water wash over my feet, just up to my ankles... Shall I go on?"
"I mean here." He gestured, a flap of arms, a flap of coat. "In the world."
"The same as everyone," Gabriel answered. "Marking time." He opened his palms and let the collected fragments of the earth fall. "What are you doing here? On the beach."
Constantine shoved his hands into his pockets. "Checking up on you."
Should he go on? He does go down to the water's edge, when John's gone, and wets his heels, just enough to singe the cuffs of his trousers so they cling and clam, dip in the sand as he walks on. Two hundred yards down the beach there's a hidden dip where a desperate junkie's shooting up, and when Gabriel passes there, his mind's final gasp will be so vivid it can almost be picked out of the air, and that should have a witness, shouldn't it, shouldn't it? Like the violinist casting Mozart up to midnight or the three teenage girls pelting down to the water, streaks of moon-bare limbs who only notice him when he's almost past and shriek "Freak!" like a benediction floating back from the deep. Like the quiet early morning tick-tock of the waves that still don't stop, have no care for light or dark, the passing of the time they're marking. And this beach, he thinks, this beach goes forever and so could he, but the night won't, so he turns around. He won't be able to follow his footsteps, for the tide has come and washed them away, but by the time the dawn is breaking silver across the land and creeping into the water a jogger will have found that junkie and there'll be police tape as Gabriel walks slowly by, slowly by, back to where he started from, to the point where John asked him and he answered.
And that will be the thirty-second day.
By the fortieth day the beach had given way to other streets and Gabriel was unsurprised when he found himself on John's doorstep.
John seemed mostly unsurprised as well. "Figured I was overdue this joy," he said, nudging the door open wider. "Better come in, then."
Gabriel did, feeling a prickle over the threshold, tilting his head, taking it in. "Place hasn't changed much. New smell, of course."
"Thanks." John shut the door, reaching for the glass on the table as Gabriel prowled along the apartment. "One for you as well?" he offered, hand hesitating over the scotch bottle.
"Why not?" he mused. The banks of blinds, allowing the world in strips. The bedroom, caged off. (Freud would have a field day, he'd said that, hadn't he? The first time he came here.) "Don't you find the smokey taste of the Western Isles single malts just makes it worse?"
Glass clinked behind him. "Don't you find looking at the sun makes it worse?"
Gabriel peeked around a doorway. "New bathtub," he noted.
He came back to the table, accepted the glass John held out. "Everything," Gabriel said, glass lifted. "Everything makes it worse."
"Exactly," John said. And they drank.
Later, liquor will have left its peat-smoke iodine trail across their mouths. It will have made fingers less deft, the senses less precise, the infinite possible. That Freudian cage will be cold with Gabriel's fingers wound through it, searing ice against the scaled scars of his shoulder blades; John will be heat enough for both of them and more, burning between Gabriel's grip, wrapping him in a tangle of fire.
With John weighing him down, Gabriel will feel the urge to flee, to spread his wings and escape, but of course that's impossible. And wasn't it right? wasn't it? that John who had been the first to exalt him in pain should also be the first to mire him in pleasure.
Forty-eighth day; a Tuesday; raining. Gabriel discovered a new way of building card houses, and Constantine came to visit him, shaking the water off his coat as he stalked across the bar. There were more people here today - the weather, perhaps - and Gabriel had a table in the middle. Constantine didn't look around before sitting down. Didn't bump the table, either.
Silence for six cards. Then John said, "Don't you get bored?"
"I hope not," Gabriel replied.
"I've been reading up."
"Ah," Gabriel said, selecting another two cards.
"That's it?" Gabriel looked at him over the balancing act. John just looked back. "So what are you now, Gabriel?"
"No shit." John leaned against the table (the house wavered) and rubbed a finger between his eyebrows. "Not Fallen, no longer Blessed. What happens to you?"
"Nothing." He reached for the card pile, but John's hand closed over his (the house quivered) and Gabriel looked up at him again. "Eternity happens. The world spins, you die, I remain. There is no Hereafter for me, John. Just Here. Just now. Forever."
Gabriel's fingers were trembling between John's. "Don't be stupid. It can't be." Oh, his stubbornness, always his stubbornness. "Can't you--"
"Repent?" Gabriel shook his head, almost wild, feeling tears rattling around inside his skull. But he spoke quietly; there were people around, just ordinary people. "You don't listen to a single thing I say, do you John? Not ever." He looked at him, wishing he could feel it. Just a glimmer, straining for a glimpse, but he was as incapable now of hate as he'd ever been. Only love, boundless fucking love. He tilted his head back, and felt the sun burn away tears through closed eyelids. They were inside, but he felt it anyway. "Alone among all the races of the universe can man claim his distinction: that he may repent, and be forgiven."
"So repent," John growled.
Gabriel shook his head again, eyes still closed. "Only man."
"Oh come on, even God isn't hard-assed enough to deny you if you--"
"Not won't," Gabriel snapped, eyes flashing open again, chin coming down. "This isn't a fucking whimsy, John. I am not human; I never have been; I cannot repent."
And the rest, and the rest. He didn't need to know.
Gabriel took his hand back, sliding it out of John's grip. "Go. Go to your fortunes," he ordered.
"Death?" John snapped, but he kicked his chair back, stood up.
"Life," Gabriel corrected.
The evening of the fifty-third day was pleasanter than the day had been. The streets prickled and hissed as they cooled, the people were feeling magnanimous. One almost smiled back when Gabriel offered. The wind wasn't blowing from the desert, but from the sea, and when Gabriel turned into it, there was a church.
Just a little church, a pretty little church, traditional, with stained glass. A figure in the window above the door. Halo, wings, flaming sword. Could be anybody.
Gabriel went inside.
There were pews, wood carvings, the font inside the door that Gabriel walked straight past. A few people seated, one kneeling at the railing around the altar (the altar, the altar) and beyond it, the lifting symbolic glory of God, the high, vaulted space of his presence, and with his eyes closed, his eyes closed tight, please, please, Gabriel could almost see it, not colour, not redbluegreenyellowpurpleorange just white
and then there was someone at his elbow, someone off to his right, someone saying, "I'm sorry, sir," standing behind his shoulder where his wings weren't any more. "I'm sorry, you can't approach the altar."
Gabriel already knew that, and there were tears in his eyes again. Sorry, sorry, everyone was so sorry, everyone but him, everyone but him, everyone with the will to repent, with free will, with the right to err, with the ability to stray. Everyone but him.
When had God turned away from the path Gabriel had been set on?
He stumbled from the church. The world was blurred and incomprehensible behind a veil of tears. But still there. Always there. Always.
And it never gets better.
Mortified by dee
Some of my own theory about angelic consequences. Some taken from the beautiful novel The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox. (If you have an angel fetish, I highly recommend it.)