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The afternoon of the day Zirah received the Antichrist, two men sat in St. James' Park.
One of them held a baby. The other tore bread into little pieces with nervous energy, and glared at the ducks.
"Of course, I knew it was going to happen sooner or later," he was saying. "But I didn't think it would be so soon."
"I thought it was supposed to be unexpected," said the man with the baby. He tickled the baby, who gurgled. "It is nearer than you think, that sort of thing."
"Well, yes, but--" Caphriel rolled the bread crumbs between his fingers, and glanced hesitantly at Zirah. He was dandling the child on his knees, looking perfectly happy.
Dandling was definitely the word. He even had the fond old retainer expression down. Passers-by threw him affectionate looks, their days brightened by the sight of this nice man playing with his baby.
Like all things to do with Zirah, Caphriel reflected, the scene was much less pleasant when you knew what lurked under the surface.
"Armageddon," Caphriel said. "The end of the world. You do know what that means, don't you?"
"Yes?" Zirah looked up. Caphriel felt the familiar painful jolt of complicated feeling at the bright blankness of those eyes. He looked away and hunched down in his seat.
"You don't seem very pleased about it," said Zirah. He sounded hurt, although being Zirah, he was trying to be polite about it. "I thought you'd be happy. Isn't it what we've been working for?"
Six thousand years working on this Earth, this amazing, wonderful, insane place. Six thousand years, trying to make sense of humanity, and failing, but loving it anyway. And now it was all ending. All that work, all that effort, up in flames, just because Heaven and Hell thought it would be a good idea to have some stupid bloody fight over something that had happened so long ago there hadn't even been time back then.
Ineffable, Caphriel tried to tell himself, but he could feel an enormous desperate rage rising up in him.
It was all so stupid. They said it was to punish the wicked and reward the good, but that wasn't true, not really. Caphriel knew. His fellow angels were practically raring to go, and it wasn't because they wanted to uphold the righteous and vanquish the evils of the world. It was because they they were restless after staying in Heaven for uncounted years, because they were bored, because they hated the other side with a bottomless, unimaginable hatred; and as for Earth and its inhabitants, they couldn't care less. They wanted to fight because they knew nothing about anything.
And of course they all said Heaven was going to win, because they were the good side, but that was just propaganda. Why have a war at all if they already knew who was going to win?
Caphriel tried to imagine the world if Heaven won. Every human dead, because they sure as heck weren't going to care about civilian casualties. All that horrible sterile holiness everywhere. Celestial choruses. Everyone wandering around in a haze of goodness and light. No pets allowed, because angels didn't like any creature who couldn't sit still adoring the Lord for more than five minutes. Nothing human ever again.
It was terrifying.
The idea of Hell winning wasn't too appealing, either. Nothing was appealing.
This surely couldn't have been God's purpose, thought Caphriel. To go to all the trouble of creating this in six of the busiest days ever, and then to destroy it after a miserable six thousand years. Everything wiped out. A clean slate.
What was the point?
He asked Zirah this.
"Must there always be a point?" Zirah said serenely. "Most of my people are just in it for the bloodshed. And the triumph of Satan over the kingdoms of the world, of course, but mostly for the bloodshed."
"So are mine," said Caphriel. "Michael, now. I just know the bugger's champing at the bit. He's wanted to settle that little business of the possessed sixteen-year-old with Dagon for the past four millenia now."
"So unpleasant, one feels," said Zirah. "You'd think we could work out a more civilised solution. We're all sensible people, after all." He watched with scientific interest as a duck bobbed up and down in the water, its terrified quacks smothered every time it was submerged.
"Stop that," said Caphriel.
The duck surfaced and took to flight, probably traumatised for life. Caphriel watched it gloomily.
It was always the same. You'd start off having a perfectly normal conversation with Zirah, everything would be going smoothly, you started wondering why he was a demon anyway, and then he went and did something so horrifically, darkly unpleasant that you stopped wondering why he wasn't in Heaven and started wondering why he was in Hell. You really thought they'd create some whole new level for him to operate from.
It was his mind, of course. It wasn't so much the way it worked as the way it didn't.
He glanced at Zirah and the baby.
"He's not very Satanic, is he?" he said.
"Well, you'd expect--" Caphriel waved a hand vaguely. "Horns. A vestigial tail. A gleam of red in the depths of his pure blue eyes. That sort of thing." He looked critically at the infant. "He's just sort of . . . normal, really."
"That's a fine way to talk about our Antichrist," said Zirah indignantly. "He's the perfect baby."
"Yes. That's probably the point." Caphriel fell silent.
He was having strange thoughts. Thoughts that would probably get him kicked out of Heaven if anyone found out about them, although maybe they wouldn't, because it took a lot to get kicked out of Heaven nowadays. It was nothing like the old days, when the wrong twitch of an eyelid could damn your soul. Things had been getting slack, which was probably by Gabriel and all those wankers back in Heaven were spoiling for a fight. They probably thought it would make things better.
A war between Heaven and Hell wouldn't make things better. It would just make things not. At all. Nothing left but a burning ball of rock.
"We should stop it," Caphriel said slowly.
"Armageddon. It shouldn't happen." Caphriel's mind was fizzling. You could only be pushed so far before something broke, and this time that small sharp noise was of Caphriel's patience snapping. "We should stop it."
Zirah had stopped cooing to the baby. He stared at Caphriel in frank astonishment.
"Stop the end of the world?" he said. "What for?"
"Because it's wrong!" Caphriel had gone beyond thinking. He could feel a persistent pressure on the back of his eyeballs. "Because there is a world, and it shouldn't end just because thousands of years ago someone thought it would be a good idea to make something to break it in the end!"
"The someone who had the idea was God," Zirah pointed out politely, but Caphriel ignored him.
"Because you've got this world, all right, you've got these people with their prime-time telly and their neuroses and their history and, and their sushi; you've got six thousand bloody years of human life, and it's going to be destroyed, just like that! For no reason! It's stupid! You can't just do that, you can't make something and then throw it all away, it's like breaking a promi--"
And then he shut up, because it was hard to keep shouting when Zirah was kissing him.
Caphriel closed his eyes and leaned into the kiss, the light touch of Zirah's fingers on his cheek. He dug his fingers into Zirah's shoulderblades, hanging on to him with the desperation of a drowning man catching hold of a shark.
He remembered initiating the first kiss with painful clarity. It had been outside a tavern somewhere warm, with the sun hot on his neck and Zirah's solemn eyes bright in the shade. Both of them drunk and a little sleepy, and for once nothing horrible had been happening, and Caphriel had caught Zirah around the neck and kissed him lightly, chastely, with an immense love for the world and everything in it surging in his chest.
It was supposed to be pure, a brotherly gesture of affection, but then Zirah tilted his head and opened his mouth and suddenly it was something else entirely, something wet and obscene and utterly exquisite. Something Caphriel had no defence against.
That was the first kiss, but there were more later. There were nights spent tangled up in each other; awkward, groping, infinitely precious minutes in the darkness; mornings when he woke up with Zirah drinking whatever refined and vaguely poofy beverage he'd decided to patronise for the era. They almost made up for the mornings when he woke up alone in a ravaged bed, guilt and loneliness fighting for the upper hand in his soul.
Sometimes they stumbled into each other accidentally-on-purpose and did nothing more than share a meal at some marvellous little restaurant nobody else had ever heard of. Sometimes they met on the job and ended up spending days in bed, mapping each other's bodies and exploring the far more dangerous territory of each other's minds. Sometimes in the middle of the night, Zirah wrapped cold, cold fingers around Caphriel's arm and sobbed brokenly against his shoulder, because he'd never meant to fall, the wrong thought in the wrong place at the wrong bloody time, could anyone blame him? Could they?
Those were the bad times.
Caphriel had first kissed Zirah because Zirah's madness was an unbearable itch in his mind. He'd thought he could somehow make it better, thought his love could seal the cracks in Zirah's sanity, because his love for Zirah was desperate and overwhelming and it felt like a force greater than himself, and in those first few heady centuries he'd thought he could do anything.
Then he'd found that no amount of love would ever heal the permanent dislocation of Zirah's mind, but he kept kissing Zirah because . . . because . . . because he did. Because he couldn't seem to stop. Because it was, apparently, something he needed.
It was still a force greater than himself.
Zirah pulled away, and Caphriel forced himself to let go of him. The Antichrist was still cradled in Zirah's arms, the infant's blue eyes wide and uncomprehending.
"Bad day?" said Zirah gently. He smiled slowly.
"Every day is," said Caphriel. He smiled back. "But this one's getting better."
He took another kiss, and tried to ignore the fact that the day was also getting worse. Because his relationship with Zirah was about as healthy as a bucket of carcinogen, and he'd promised himself he wouldn't do this anymore. He always promised himself he wouldn't do this anymore. It didn't seem to work.
But for now there was warmth and sweetness and God, Zirah was a fantastic kisser. When he released him Caphriel pressed his forehead against Zirah's and let himself sink into the perfection of the moment, because any minute now . . . .
"We could kill him," murmured Zirah.
Yes, right on cue. Caphriel opened his eyes and pulled back.
"The Antichrist," said Zirah helpfully, holding up the baby, as though it wasn't perfectly obvious whom he was talking about. "We could kill him. That would stop the end of the world."
"Zirah, he's a baby."
"He's the spawn of Satan."
"Yes. But. He's a baby!"
"So?" Zirah's expression was faintly puzzled. Caphriel leaned back and stared at the sky and sighed.
"They'd find out, wouldn't they?" he said. "He'd get sent back to Hell, and then the whole thing would start over again. And you'd be in deep shit."
Although, Caphriel added mentally, you probably wouldn't give a damn about that, now would you? You mad bloody bugger.
Caphriel said things like that to himself often. He presented the situation to himself in the most harshly realistic terms possible. He tried his best to get through to himself that not only was Zirah insane and homicidal, he was insane and homicidal and a very bad being to love, and anyway there was no reason to love him, now was there? Even if he had been sane, the affable kindness in his voice real, his love for the quaint and ornate and absolutely useless accompanied by an actual moral sense, his startlingly wry sense of humour not interspersed by inexplicable bouts of violence, really, what was there to love about him?
Such arguments, Caphriel found, were generally self-defeating.
"It wouldn't work?" said Zirah.
"It wouldn't work."
Zirah settled back and kissed the baby on the forehead absently. He seemed to be thinking.
"But I don't see why you're so troubled about all this," he said. "You don't even like Earth."
"Yes, I do."
"No, you don't. It makes you depressed."
"Well -- all right, yes. But at least I'm allowed to get depressed. I get to have an opinion. You think I'd ever get to have a bad day if Heaven won?" He brushed the bits of bread off his hands. "For that matter, do you think I'd ever get to see the silver lining if Hell won? I don't think so."
On the one side, Zirah stared at him with the intent, befuddled expression of an archaeologist unearthing Sumerian artifacts in Oklahoma. In front of him, a duck gazed with hurt beady eyes, reproaching the unnecessary waste of bread crumbs. The noises of the city going about its business on this day, this day like any other day, rose up around him. A few yards away, a couple started shouting at each other. Ain't life wonderful, though? Caphriel thought abruptly, and he started laughing. Hard. He threw his arm over his forehead and flopped down on the bench, shaking with laughter.
The duck scuttled away over the water. The couple stopped yelling to stare at him. The Antichrist gurgled, and Zirah looked at Caphriel with indulgent fondness.
"You're lunatic," said Zirah.
Caphriel gulped and pushed up his sunglasses to wipe his eyes.
"You're a fine one to talk," he said finally, still hiccuping. "Jesus." It wasn't an oath. It was a prayer, as heartfelt as any Caphriel had ever made.
"What are you supposed to do with him?" he said, nodding at the baby.
Zirah told him.
"Really? Well, that's very clever, isn't it. Well-planned. Every detail taken care of." At the moment, nothing could shake Caphriel's equilibrium. "So you've got until tonight?"
"Yes," said Zirah.
It was hopeless. Caphriel's psychopathic true love held the Antichrist in his arms; the Apocalypse was more imminent than it had ever been before, with no remotely feasible way of stopping it; he, an angel, had just scared off one of God's small feathered creatures; and that wasn't even the half of it. It was so fucked up you had to laugh.
But he was alive, and for the moment the Beast was an innocent blue-eyed baby and Zirah wasn't stalking anyone with an unabridged dictionary and a nasty gleam in his eyes, and the world . . . the world was amazing.
Sometimes he wondered why life was worth living. Sometimes, like now, he knew.
What the heck.
"Then you've got a few hours yet," he said. He stood up, feeling dizzy, mostly from the change in altitude, but partly because he'd just had an epiphany. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
"Let's go to mine," said the angel Caphriel.
Zirah's smile was lazy; secretive and sweet.
"All right," he said.