To Hear The Angels Sing
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Rating: For anyone
Summary: It’s all in the title.
It was the winter solstice and, instead of trying to decipher what archaic signs and portents might this year accompany such an astrologically important date, Giles had decided on the equally old tradition of carol singing. After all, evil no longer seemed to have quite the sway it once had had. They could all afford to relax, just a little.
He’d brought Buffy to the carol service at the small church of St Michael and All Angels. There was something about Christmas for her. Behind the brightly brittle seasonal gaiety he always saw a stark melancholy that she wouldn’t admit to. Giles knew what had happened on that first Christmas after Angel had returned from Hell. It was, after all, very difficult not to notice a fall of snow in Southern California, and so he’d asked the right questions of her. Angel had told him the rest.
He cast a covert glance at her, as they all stood for the next carol. That Christmas was long past them, and a lot of water had frozen under the bridge since then. Her lips smiled, but her eyes didn’t. Generally, he believed, a cheery sing-song was good for whatever ailed you. What ailed her, of course, was still Angel. Or rather, the lack of him.
Angel was gone, his loss contemporaneous with the reduction in the evil quotient, and Giles had to admit that the two things must somehow be connected. He knew that Buffy believed them to be, too, but that didn’t help ease her pain at his passing.
So, these days, Giles made sure that Buffy had no space for brooding during what should be the festive season. Tonight, it was carol singing. It was just unfortunate that so many carols involved angels. He’d forgotten that. Take the one they were currently singing…
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!"
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
At least he was relatively certain that Angel had steadfastly refused to sing anything, and the man – the vampire, Giles corrected himself – never mentioned harps of gold. Maybe Buffy wouldn’t notice. His voice joined with hers, as they sang about angels singing.
In a deep and dark pit, the man hung from a thick iron pillar, his feet barely touching the ground. Tall as he was, the pillar was much taller. His wrists were fettered together, and the chains were fixed to the top of the shaft. It was a long time since he’d last sat down and, considering what had happened then, on the whole he preferred to be where he was. That wasn’t saying much.
His naked body was bloody and bruised, and he was weary beyond telling. And he was as sure as he could be that they hadn’t even finished the warm-up yet, that they were merely playing with him. He’d tormented enough people to understand the game. The serious stuff was still to come.
He’d risen against them, fought them for possession of his tiny part of the Earth, and he had hurt them badly. He’d done more damage to them than he’d imagined he could, he and his friends. When they managed to catch him, they told him that they would make him very, very sorry. He couldn’t say that he was sorry, because he wasn’t, but whatever he was, they’d got the very, very part right.
He tugged hard at the shackles, but there wasn’t the least amount of give in them. He hadn’t expected that there would be, any more than he had expected it all of the times he’d tried before. He was here to stay, at least until they tired of this game and decided to play another one. In a world where miracles might still happen, he ought to have found that the iron links of the fetters couldn’t withstand his vampire strength, but miracles, it seemed, had been put out of his reach forever.
He leaned against the pole. It was painful, but he needed to take some of the weight off his wrists. It hurt because the pillar wasn’t just a pillar. It was a column of writhing, twisting figures that baffled the eye. The figures stood out in high relief, a frieze of monsters that wrapped it around from bottom to top. Beasts or demons or souls, he’d no idea, but they were embedded into the iron, enduing it with a sort of life in which they could move, but never break free.
They did more than move, though. When he touched the metal, the frieze sprang into action, and whatever was in contact with his body was free to use their natural weapons on him. He could do nothing to stop them. Every now and then, he was given a really close and personal relationship with the monstrous hordes, as they did the bidding of whatever power controlled them. Now, he leaned his shoulder against the hot iron, as small a point of contact as he could manage, trying to ignore the stings and burns, the vicious nips and cuts as the fiendish miscreations passed beneath his flesh. Soon, he would have to move, when the pain became too great.
He tried not to think about it by thinking about Buffy instead. He wondered what she was doing now. He still had all his senses intact, including his sense of the passage of time. Wherever she might be, he knew exactly when it was. It was three days before Christmas. It was also the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. The night for her would still be young. The night for him was old, old and set in its ways. Here, there would never be a spring or a summer. Here it was only ever winter, despite the heat…
At first, the sound was meaningless, lost as he’d been in his incipient brooding. And it was just another noise. The pit might be deep, but it wasn’t silent. He was surrounded by cacophony, by the thunderous hubbub of hell, hurting his ears and paining his every nerve, striking down them as a physical sensation, laced through as it was by the screams of the damned.
Then the sound came again.
“Pssst! You, there! Vampire!”
He looked up. Far above him, a tiny face, pale in the reddened blackness, looked anxiously down. He didn’t say anything.
“Yes! You! You want to get out of here?”
“Why do you care what I want?”
“Because if you get out, you’ll remember me, and maybe that will be enough. As long as people remember you, there’s hope, isn’t there? So, you’ll remember and get me out, too, won’t you? Next year?”
“I don’t know what you mean. Do you see any prospect of me getting out… whoever you are?”
“Listen, man, some of us only get the one name, the one we’re given at birth. We’re not like vampires. And yes, I think you can get out. But you have to sing, or they won’t know where you are, or even that you’re here, maybe.”
“There’s no time! Just sing. As loud as you can. They’ll hear you.”
He thought that he was hallucinating. He was certainly light-headed. Pain and starvation will do that to you. He’d been starved before, but this had been for so much longer, and so much worse. He tugged again at the shackles, wondering whether he might hallucinate something useful. Perhaps he’d wake up and find that Drusilla had tethered him to a bedpost with her delicate embroidery thread in a neat little chain stitch. Anything would make more sense than a demon telling him to sing… Yeah. Right. A green face swam into his mind’s eye. He tried to pull himself together.
“What for, Poxi? Who might hear?”
Apart from the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, that was. Those three might well take singing as some form of defiance. He couldn’t help grinning at the thought, as he looked up again.
“And sing what?”
The demon replied, its voice a harsh whisper.
“Anything, damn it! Just sin…”
There was a dry, breaking sound, and a small body plummeted down into the pit with a sigh of feathers. The head followed, bouncing once as it landed. A larger clot of dark shadow peered down from the lip of the pit. A sudden gash in it revealed glistening white fangs the length of a man’s arm. Then it was gone.
Sing, Poxi had said, and it had died for it. What more could they do to him? Okay, he acknowledged to himself, they could do plenty. But they were going to do plenty anyway, so where was the loss?
He straightened up, bracing himself on the balls of his feet with his back against the pillar, trying to stop the pull on his arms from immobilising his chest. He ignored the sudden frenzy in the iron frieze as it tore into his flesh, and he sifted through his memories to find a suitable song. He’d missed out on the whole Punk and Heavy Metal things and somehow Mandy just didn’t seem to cut it. Something more… warlike, maybe? The Battle Hymn of the Republic? No – all that mouldering of bodies and graves was too much just now. It was hard to think down here, and so he went with something traditional. Let the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart make what they would of it.
His voice was cracked and hoarse, but he sang as loudly as he could, and hoped that whoever – or whatever – he was singing for didn’t need it to be tuneful. By the time he’d got to the bit about Hell’s foundations quivering, several dark shadows leaned over the edge of the pit, snarling. Reprisals were imminent. He sang louder, more defiantly, until he reached the last verse.
…This through countless ages men and angels sing.
Still nothing had come down to stop him. As he started the final refrain, a new resonance crept into the clamorous din above him.
It started as a sound so low that, even with his vampire senses, he almost couldn’t hear it, except in his bones. His breastbone thrummed to it. And then it rose, the register higher and higher, until it became a wild paean, a fugue of a million parts. It was a battle song, a victory song, and it drowned out the din around him.
It swept over his skin like a fever, and a wildfire of ecstasy burned though his veins, like the first mouthful of Sire’s blood, of Slayer’s blood, revivifying him in terrible ways, the breath of awful new life.
He sang louder, but around him was a melody that his voice – any humanoid voice – could never carry. He closed his eyes, and concentrated on his own song, allowing it to stand in counterpoint to the wild music. Finished with the hymn, he started a carol that he and Darla had enjoyed as they ate the carol singers. It seemed appropriate.
It came upon the midnight clear,
The shadowy creatures above him drew back from the edge of the pit. He didn’t know where they had gone, but gone they were. Ignoring the added pain, he pressed back harder against the living pillar, trying to get more leverage to take the weight from his arms so that he could open his lungs better, and sing louder. By the time he’d reached the end of the verse, the triumphal music had woven itself into his words, and carried them out of the pit, making him part of that unearthly choir.
…To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
A man in a grey suit walked into this plane of existence, with not even a stumble to mark the boundary. He was tall, and muscular, and handsome in a rangy sort of way. But, the remarkable thing about him was his eyes, dark and unfathomable, eyes that the Universe could drown in. And his hair, so bright a gold that it almost seemed to glow. The paean in the heavens seemed to wrap around him, the power of it shielding him from the stench and the screams and the heat.
He nodded to the being that waited for him, as he took his seat at a table of living, quivering flesh, but there were no other preliminaries. He pulled a piece of paper from his breast pocket and unfolded it, handing it to his host.
“Here are the names of the twenty-one souls that we claim as your tribute to us this winter solstice. You will have them brought here.” His voice matched his eyes, deep and resonant.
The creature took the list, its claws bloody against the creamy-white paper. As it scanned the names, it started to frown. By the time it had reached the end, those claws had shredded the paper into rags. It didn’t matter. They both had perfect recall. It glared at the man, and made no move to fulfil his command.
“Do I have to remind you of the provisions of the Third Treaty of Meggido?” he asked, mildly. “The one made after we comprehensively whipped your asses, you and all the others allied to Him? Each and every winter solstice you will surrender to us the twenty-one dead that we deem most appropriate.”
The battle music rang out above him, wilder and more powerful than ever.
The creature stood up, and the man did likewise. With a look of contempt, it summoned a tall, thin demon, thin to the point of skeletal, as black as the night that surrounded it, and whispered the twenty-one names, then gestured for its servant to go.
“They will be brought,” it told the man in the suit, as the demon scuttled off. “What do you want with those? They don’t seem to be your usual sort.”
“That’s my business. There will be one other. Angel.” The creature opposite stared at him. “The vampire,” he added, for clarification. “We’ve been looking for him.”
“You’ve had your tribute. You don’t get any more.”
The man stuck his hands in his pockets, and looked down at his hand-made shoes.
“Well, do you know, I really think that we do.” Suddenly, he was toe to toe with the creature, his features harsh, his fingers gripping a handful of its scarlet robe. “Bring him. Now.”
“He’s not here,” it hissed at him.
The man tilted his head, listening. Then, “Liar. I can hear his voice.”
“He’s not dead. You can’t claim him. The Treaty specifies dead souls.”
“If he’s not dead he shouldn’t be here, now should he?” The man’s voice was patient, reasonable, but his eyes said something different. “Do you want to find out what it’s like to be chained in a pit of darkness and only released back onto the Earth for a little space every thousand years? Like the One you’ve allied yourself with? I can do that, you know.”
“You agreed in that Treaty that you wouldn’t interfere with humanity! You’d leave them to find their own destiny…”
“I’m not interfering with humanity. I’ve no wish to do that. I’m just taking a vampire away from here. You aren’t saying he’s human, are you?”
The creature glowered at him and pulled away from his grip. “Why do you want him? He’s just a vampire!”
The man smiled, a savage thing. “To piss you off, mainly. Do I need another reason? Now, that pit of darkness…?”
Defeated, the creature summoned another servant, and the man let him go.
“We’ll get him back, you know,” the creature blustered. “We’ll always be able to get him back.”
The man said nothing.
“And when the next Armageddon comes, I’ll have you in my sights. You can count on it. You won’t come out on top next time. Then we’ll see who’s chained in a pit.”
Something shimmered, occupying the same space as the man in the grey suit, something old and eternal, and the battle song rose up around him once more. “Watch it,” said Michael, Warlord of the Celestial Congregation. Then he walked back out of this plane of existence to the pealing song of his warrior host.
O ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
Buffy had tried so hard to become immune to the word ‘angel’, even without the capital letter. She’d tried to hate him, but it was impossible, of course. Now, she stood in the back row of this beautiful little church, singing about angels. There was no getting away from him, from the memory of him.
She glanced across at Giles, who tried so hard every Christmas to keep her busy, keep her occupied, so she wouldn’t have time to think of this particular loss. He was on a loser for sure, but he still tried.
She’d got so many powerful Angel-moments to mark. The night she killed him and gave the world back to Angelus. The night she killed him again, and gave him to Acathla’s world. And the night she, and the Powers, saved him for this world. Most of their big moments had started bad and ended worse. Christmas was special. It was the only one that had ended in true hope. Christmas was when she missed him most.
The congregation was in full voice, toiling along the climbing way, when she faltered a little in the carol as she saw the words to come.
… Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
If only. If only things had been different. She prayed for him then, that he’d found the forgiveness that he’d craved, and that, in curbing the evils of the world, his soul had been granted a safe haven. Silently, she asked the Powers to make it so, even as she sang about those glad and golden hours.
Her throat closed up with the thought of him, and she swallowed, hard. There was a sound in her ears, a high, rushing sound, and she blew her nose to clear her head, but the sound grew louder. Then it stopped, only to be replaced by a wilder music than that of the carol service, music that was far distant, that crept through her bones rather than her ears, low and deep, almost too profound for her to hear.
As the volume swelled, the notes grew higher, voices in a canon of infinite parts, braiding themselves into ethereal melodies, stitching together the Universe. The singing flowed through her, ice and fire, and she thought that she might fall down in an ecstasy, a new St Teresa pierced by the seraph’s lance. Or by the vampire’s fangs.
Her heart raced as the song poured through her, and then there was a new voice, behind her, where there were no more pews, singing just a beat later than everyone else.
A new voice. An old voice. A voice she could never forget.
Her back stiffened, as a thrill walked up her spine. Slowly, she turned to see. Giles turned with her.
Angel stood behind her, the fingers of one hand clenched around the back of the pew, hard enough that pale splinters showed against the ancient, dark wood as testament that this was no hallucination. His eyes were tightly closed, and he wore an expensive grey suit, but he looked wild and ragged. Feral. His face was bloody and bruised. A burn on his cheek, fading as she watched, had the shape of some octopoid creature, and his wrists spilled blood down onto his hands. There was a whiff of something sulphurous in the air.
In his free hand, he held a bundle that she later recalled as some sort of bird, as large as a gull, with the same mad eyes but perhaps less beak, grey, with a collar of red feathers. By the time she remembered, though, it had flown.
Unbelieving, she needed the confirmation of touch. Her hand reached out to his, but Giles grasped her wrist, to stop her. With an effort, she forced herself to look away from Angel, to look at Giles. His eyes were filled with worry. She put her hand over his and gave it a squeeze of reassurance, then turned her attention back to her lover.
Angel seemed oblivious to his surroundings, and he was still singing. He’d caught up now with the rest of the congregation, but he hadn’t yet opened his eyes. She wondered whether he knew where he was, and whether he’d been carried here by the supernal fugue. Even as she examined that thought, the music lifted in one more rolling rhythm, and then faded, like a retreating thunderstorm.
She shook Giles off, yet she was reassured that someone else could see what she did. No one else in the church had paid them any attention. She almost touched Angel’s cheek, but her hand fell slowly away when she took in the extent of the burns and bruises. Anger, hot and acrid, spurted though her. She was going to kill him for leaving her alone, for going away and not telling her what he was doing. For letting himself get hurt. And she was definitely going to kill whoever had hurt him.
If the anger was quick to rise, it was also swift to fall, but she still promised herself that she would find out where he had come from, where he had been. And what his plans were now. There would be no silent treatment from him.
She gently placed her hand over her lover’s. His eyes flew open, and as he looked at her, the words died in his throat.
… And hear the angels...
Heedless of everything, she leapt over the back of the pew as he slowly and silently sank to the floor, tears on his cheeks. Giles hastened to join them, to get him back home, where he could be cleaned up and cared for. And where amends could be made for the past.
Unseeing, buoyed up by the unrecognised memory of the music of the heavens, the earthly congregation carolled on, never knowing that they’d heard the angels sing.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
1 You can hear the carol, around which this story is based, here:
2 St Teresa of Avila
Bernini sculpted a statue of her, brought to ecstasy by the angel and his fiery lance, which the Pope of the time considered to be rather too sexually explicit. It featured in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. You can see it here:
And you can find out more about St Teresa, and her holy raptures, here: