A/N: Sorry about taking so long to update.
There were people staring him.
White really wasn't sure why.
The first few, a man in overalls and two orange-tanned women in cleaner's tabards, had put their curious heads around the door shortly after he'd started on the wall, lightly marking out a rough background. They'd stared in opened mouthed fascination at the way the vivid, toxic colours seeped from his finger tips on the white plaster, occasionally making some noise of surprise. He hadn't paid much attention to them, just carried on caressing the canvas, images and ideas now flowing freely through his mind. He was aware of the gasps and the mutterings and the arrival of new humans, all of whom proceeded to stand and watch in amazement as the artist worked.
He remembered that they had stared at him at the party too, when he'd sketched Sable on the wall. This time though there was none of the ribaldry, shouts or noisy cheer, just a quiet, reverential sort of gawping. It was, he thought, strange that they should stare at him in the act of creation now when their eyes had passed over him so readily during Three Mile Island and the Braer Disaster; but then he supposed that that was because he'd been in sync with their minds at the time, a proxy for all of the greedy, dirty and wasteful impulses they tended not to think about until it was too late. Right now though he was something different; something that they didn't want to ignore.
Though initially unsettling it wasn't unpleasant. It was almost as though he was being appreciated. Aside from Sable nobody had really, truly seemed to appreciate his creations until he'd started drawing on walls and park benches. Oh, Carmine had sometimes told him how much she appreciated his work, but it had been an appreciation of the side-effects of his work rather than the actual results. She'd relished the chaos he'd created, the seeds of discord that his works had sewn. However, she'd never looked upon his beautiful disasters themselves with anything other than a detached sort of professional respect, and even that had been the respect of a senior partner for the work junior partner. He had no delusions that that was how she saw him: how she and Sable both saw him. He was the upstart kid who'd arisen to replace their old and much revered comrade. As for Gelb himself, on the occasions that they'd come into contact he'd got the sense that the personification of pestilence felt a certain fondness towards him; but then again Gelb seemed to be fond of a lot of entities. Unsurprising really, given that he was the progenitor of all the world's 'social diseases'.
As he continued to paint with his fingertips, allowing the images of frenzy and erotic yearning in his mind to project themselves out into the world, he noticed that few of the watchers were starting to sniffle and sneeze. It was not an intrusive sound, but it did strike him as a little odd. The substances flowing through him and onto the plaster were highly toxic if consumed orally, but they weren't supposed to cause any irritation of the respiratory tract. If they did then he'd have never managed to convince the toy companies that they were safe to paint items for one to four year olds with.
He carried on painting as the frequency of the sneezes increased, pausing only when one of the spectators – a pale girl dressed in black – broke into an interesting sounding cough. Watching her give and apologetic shrug, before scurrying away, hand clutching at her mouth, he briefly mused on how he'd once managed to get two thousand people to simultaneously do that. He'd been in U.S.S.R at the time, working in an unobtrusive clerical position some state owned coal mine, but the chance to pay a visit to that fertiliser plant had just been too good to resist. The sight of so many simultaneously struggling for air had given him the most pleasant sense of well being. Synchronicity was not usually his thing, but in that instance it had had a certain soothing quality.
A few minutes later, most of the assembled onlookers had disappeared, some coughing, some retching and a few others furiously itching. It was an event strange enough to draw his focus from the creation blossoming under his fingertips and look around.
As the last four stragglers, who seemed to have only succumbed to mild sneezing took this as their cue to leave, White became palpably aware of a very old yet very... invigorated presence in the vicinity and drawing nearer. Surely it couldn't be...
There was the sound of a hacking cough, followed by cheerful, gurgling laugh and – rather peculiarly – the sound of a duck honking; and White watched as a familiar form ambled on in.
"Gelb?" Had he been working with paintbrushes as oppose to his fingers he would have doubtless dropped them in surprise. As it was he merely gaped, stared and then burst into hysterical laughter. Not so much because the personification of pestilence's sudden appearance was in any way funny, but because his corporeal form seemed to find it to be the best way of expressing his surprise.
Gelb's lips cracked and wept blood as the old Horseman broke into a delighted grin.
"White, my boy, good to see you."
Not bothered by the fact that White was covered in toxic paint, the personification of Pestilence embraced him.
Dagon looked around him and fought the urge to hunch in on himself. He was the Master or Madness, Lord of the Files, Under Duke of the Seventh Torment, Developer of the Eight Point Imp Appraisal Scheme and he was blessed if he was about to start cowering in the face of a scent wielding perfume counter assistant.
The trouble was that right now there wasn't so much 'a' scent wielding perfume counter assistant as a whole herd of them, each seemingly determined to anoint him with some wretched, overpowering, concoction that bore no resemblance to his usual, understated choice of 'soot with a hint of molten gold'. The awful creatures didn't seem perturbed by his cold glares and threats to dispatch them to the Malebolge, clearly determined to cover him with the stench of various 'pour hommes'.
He really hadn't wanted to enter the department store, with its disorganised crowds, nonsensical floor plan and inefficient escalator system. However, his search for Pestilence had compelled him to embark upon a systematic search of the central Manchester area. If he concentrated he could sense the tendrils of decay that were emanating out from the old Horseman, who had, of late, returned to the (both real and metaphorical) saddle; yet he was unable ascertain his precise location.
It was utterly maddening, yet at the same time perfectly understandable. On the earthly plane the Horsepersons had more sway than any infernal creature other than the Prince of Darkness himself, and even then Lucifer held no direct dominion over them. The Horsepersons could not be exactly located by ordinary diabolical and divine devices unless they wanted to be. This was the mortal realm and those who represented the mortal condition held sway here. Hence, while it was possible to pick up on the trail of virulence and decay Pestilence was leaving in his wake, it wasn't possible for the Under Duke to simply scry out for him.
Dagon had not anticipated that his task would be easy. However, neither had he anticipated that it would involve quite so many bottle wielding humans.
"Endeavour: For Him?" a determined looking brunette said, holding aloft an oddly shaped vial that put him in mind of the bottles on rack of potions Duke Belphegor kept in his lair. Dagon only just managed to avoid coming into contact with the overpoweringly herbal smelling spray that did, in fact, bear a remarkable resemblance to Belphegor's preferred musk.
Espying an escalator some fifty feet away, he made a dash (or rather a brisk yet reasonably dignified walk) towards it. He wasn't quite sure whether it would represent an escape or a route to greater peril, but he was willing to take the chance. The level he arrived upon was, to his relief, ladieswear, and the roaming sales assistants clearly saw no need to pursue what they assumed to be a misplaced male. One of them was forward enough to helpfully point to the other side of floor and declare it to be the menswear section, but thankfully this was as far as the interaction went.
Unlike the perfume market downstairs, Dagon could not sense the residue of Pestilence here. It seemed that the personification had not ascended past the ground floor of the building.
Gritting his teeth in frustration, the Under Duke of the Seventh Torment headed towards a door marked Emergency Exit Only. To his relief, the door led to an empty stairway (which he descended with great haste), which in turn led to a door opening out into a rather nondescript alleyway.
As he paused to catch his breath and purge the wretched, cloying perfumes from his assumed form, Dagon once again sensed the wake of Pestilence's presence. Far stronger here than it had been inside. He was getting close. Very close.
Crowley knew from the moment he stepped into the library that something had changed. It wasn't so much that the place had been altered in any physical sense (though it did seem that many of the more badly damaged books had been removed from public view); rather that a completely different atmosphere seemed to be permeating the area.
Looking around him, he noted that, while there were a fair number of patrons about, they were being remarkably quiet and timid. He also couldn't help but notice that rather than standing around looking as though they were school children waiting to be released for a particularly long and boring physics lesson, the library assistants were bustling about, performing what he could only assume were their designated jobs. Well, all of the library assistants apart from Leon Waters, that was. The young man was slouched, IPod playing, in his usual position at the front desk.
Leon gave a nod and a smile of acknowledgement as he saw Crowley, who returned the smile.
"All change at the library?" he said, gesturing around him.
Taking the earphones out, Leon gave a snort. "You could say that. That Fell bloke's been stirring things up. I'm not sure how he does it, but he's been getting Isobel and Howard to start telling people what to do. You know, actually ordering them to be quiet and stuff. Howard even told me to get a move on with the stacking this morning."
"And did you?"
Leon shrugged. "For a while. He tried it with Jenny too, thought that he could demand that she change a few of the IT policies to make certain applications more accessible." He smirked. "That went well for him."
"Why, what did she say?"
"Pointed out that she could walk out of here right now and straight into a job paying twice as much at her brother-in-laws place, but that they'd struggle to find a half-way competent IT specialist who'd be willing to put up with this place for the peanuts they pay her." He suddenly frowned. "I saw this spreadsheet in Isobel's office once and I know for a fact that she gets more a year than anybody else here, so I don't know where she gets off on saying its peanuts."
Crowley couldn't help but smile at the tang of envy that suddenly hung in the air. He hadn't even had to do any prodding.
"Well, when you're rich and infamous I'm sure that her forty-five thousand pounds per annum will sound like peanuts."
Leon gaped. "Forty-five? I thought it was thirty-five."
Crowley, deciding that he could definitely push this one further, considered whether jealousy would be upped more by a reference to the revenue that the Head of IT was receiving from the holiday chalets she rented out or by a mention of how much her Google shares had grown since she first acquired them. His deliberations were, however, interrupted by the sound of a quiet, yet somehow very audible, cough.
The demon turned to see his angelic counterpart staring disapprovingly at him.
"I hope, dear fellow, that you're not distracting this young gentlemen from his work."
Crowley looked back at Leon and made a show of rolling his eyes. "Wouldn't dream of it," he said, gesturing for his mark to move on. Leon, clearly believing himself to be in on something, grinned and returned the eye-roll, before shuffling towards the horror shelves.
"I do wish that you wouldn't do that," said Aziraphale, with what Crowley felt to be a rather too exaggerated sigh.
"Hello. Demon here."
"Yes, but he's so young and impressionable."
"Exactly," agreed Crowley. "Hungry for fame and fortune and all the rest of it."
Aziraphale eyed him disapprovingly.
"Look, I'm a reasonable sort of demon, leave me to corrupt Waters and I'll let you have a crack at converting the Head of IT. You've met her, I think: scrawny, redheaded thing, abnormally protective of the computers."
"Dear boy, there are some humans upon whom neither your demonic wiles nor my heavenly entreaties have any lasting effect. I'm starting suspect that Mrs. Lowry may be one of them. Young Master Waters on the other hand is–"
"Definitely mine. I saw him first. Anyway, fair's fair, you've been trying to guide to Peybury towards the light, so to speak."
The angel sighed, seeming to concede the battle, if not the war. "You're here to discuss Mr. Goode, I assume."
Crowley nodded. "Any luck?"
"Still rather reluctant to leave Devonshire, I'm afraid. Although, he does seem quite enthusiastic about Henry Peybury's new plan to found a charitable foundation in the capital. Mr. Peybury's a man with a great many good intentions"
"A great many intentions to deflower Goode."
Aziraphale tsked. "I thought we had an agreement about dreadful puns."
"I said I wouldn't actively pursue them. You handed that one to me on a plate. And besides, we all know the route Downstairs is paved with good intentions."
"Yes, but they don't invariably lead there."
"Well, we'll have to hope that they lead to London. I'm not sure how much more of this bucolic backwater I can take."
"Oh, come along, it's not as bad as all that. This library's rather interesting... and there's a fascinating little antique shop in the centre."
"Would you really want to spend the remainder of Howard Goode's natural life here?"
For a moment the angel seemed to consider the prospect. The slight blanching of his face that then occurred was all the response that Crowley needed.
"Exactly. It might be an interesting place to visit, but nobody in their right mind would actually want to live here. The level of twee is almost toxic." As the last of these words left his mouth he involuntarily winced at the sudden reminder of White. He'd been trying to put the Horseperson out of his mind. To concentrate on the temptations at hand. But it didn't take much to redirect his thoughts in that direction.
"Any news?" Aziraphale asked, clearly sensing the direction his demonic counterpart's thoughts were heading in.
Crowley shook his head. "Nothing."
The angel gave him a comforting pat on the arm. "I'm sure things will all work out for the best."
Unconvinced, Crowley snorted, but he suppressed the urge to deliver a sarcastic retort. The angel might be spouting hopelessly optimistic platitudinous nonsense. But it was hopelessly optimistic platitudinous nonsense that came from centuries of fellowship and mutual understanding.
"So, this library reorganisation of yours...?" he said, quickly changing the subject.
Aziraphale beamed. "Oh, it's going wonderfully well."
"... what I don't understand is, why. I retired because I was on the wane. Couldn't keep up with the rest of the pack. But you... you've got the world at your feet." There was no condemnation in Gelb's voice, only a great deal of perplexity.
White quirked his head and chewed thoughtfully on arsenic-laced finger nail as he tried to formulate a suitably elegant response. When none were forthcoming, he settled for simplicity.
"I got bored."
"Bored." Gelb repeated the word as if it was a fiendishly difficult riddle. Then after about twenty seconds a look of comprehension dawned. "Yes... yes, I see how that might come about."
"You do?" White felt a faint stirring of something that he suspected might be hope.
"It's rather obvious when you think about it. Me, Carmine and Sable might have arisen in a world of tumult, but it was a staid sort of tumult: Famine, War, Pestilence. Cyclical and just a little predictable. You on the other hand came about in an age of flux: unpredictable, ever changing. You're part of the zeitgeist. More flexible. More restless. Not as set in your ways."
The duck, who had been introduced to White as Avian Flu Ernest gave a loud honk, clearly eager to make a conversational contribution.
"Well, that too," said Gelb. "Though I'm not sure how abstract aesthetic appreciation plays into it."
Ernest honked again and made several emphatic wing flapping gestures.
"Ephemeral qualities? I suppose you might be onto something." He looked at White and grinned. "You wouldn't think he spent his formative years in a five metre by six lily pond, would you?"
White, puzzled yet somehow charmed by Gelb's acquisition of a familiar, merely laughed as the duck eyed his mural and gave a few amused quacks.
Gelb, directing his full attention towards the mural for the first time gaped as the symbolic significance of the half-painted figures began to dawn. Then after a prolonged period of startlement that lasted for just over two minute he began to give a low, rasping and thoroughly delighted chuckle.
"Do you like it?" White asked, surprised at how apprehensive he felt as the words emerged from his lips.
With a wheezy splutter and a cracked-lipped grin, Gelb clapped him on the back. "White, my boy, it's a masterpiece. A true masterpiece." The personification of Pestilence lapsed into a fit of appreciative coughing as he once again scrutinised the frieze taking shape on the nightclub wall. "Though I'm not sure what Sable and Carmine would make of it."
White opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by the sound of a booming voice ringing out somewhere outside.
"Dagon, thou shalt rue the day thou crossed paths with the Scribe of Fifth Sphere."
"Scribe. Hah. I've heard about your department Upstairs. You couldn't file an invoice if you halo depended on it."
"Recant thine words thou fishy worn."
Ernest looked from White to Gelb and gave an enquiring quack.
"Yes, I suppose I ought to do something," said Gelb, before giving an exaggerated sigh. Then he turned his gaze back to White. "I'll be back in a few moments. This shouldn't take long."
And with that Gelb strode purposefully out of the nightclub.
For a while the angel and demon continued to exchange verbal barbs. Then there was lull as a rasping, wheezing Gelb spoke in tones too low for White to catch exactly what was being said. This was followed by a resumption of yelling by the two protagonists, each threatening to do exceedingly violently things to both Gelb and one another unless their demands were met with immediate effect.
Ernest honked and ruffled his feathers, clearly concerned for Gelb's wellbeing.
White however merely gave a sigh and a heavy lidded smile. "Angels and demons and creatures not of this world," he murmured. "They really don't know what they're doing."
As Amitiel and Dagon's increasingly elaborate threats seemed poised reach a crescendo their voices cut out and a sudden dead silence settled. Then, after ten very long and tense seconds, a new sound filled the air: a cacophony of coughing and retching, more loud, horrible and out-and-out disgusting than anything ever emitted by a human.
Ernest gave a quack of delight.
"I told you," said White.
Two minutes later Gelb ambled back into view, a look of cheerful accomplishment on his face.
"Well, my young friends, that ought to keep them laid low for a while."