Heaven wants them back - but so does Lucifer...
Author's Note: I'm mentally casting Michael
Shanks as Ben and Chris Judge as Rio.
It was not a cold day in Hell. It was, however, on the tepid side of roasting in the dark corner - a fraternal concession - where two figures were sitting on the gritty floor. There was nothing much to see from the dim fiery light that flickered around the corner - nothing the pair wanted to see either. The roar of the boilers almost drowned out the screams of the damned. Almost. Not quite.
The poet Benedictus of the soft wavy hair and angelic blue eyes, and the musician Riordanius of the deep chocolate skin and angelic smile (in better times) were not happy. Their heavenly raiment was so smutty that its original colour was indiscernible. It stuck to their sweaty skin making it itch. This was less irritating than the ache in their arms, their wrists being manacled to rings set into the sooty wall above them.
"I still can't believe they did this to us..." Riordan whined.
"Despite the evidence of your own eyes, Rio?" Benedictus snapped, rattling his chains. "Not forgetting the exquisite PAIN!"
"Heck, it was only a small party, Ben. So we weren't exactly singing hymns of praise..."
"I think 'Bat Out of Hell' might have been a pushing it a bit..."
"Yeah maybe..." Rio conceded.
"Not to mention the entire Jimi Hendrix repertoire."
"Even so, there was no need for Big G. to throw quite such a hissy fit about it! Whatever happened to the 'unconditional love' bit?"
"I think The Son got a bit carried away on that one," Ben said drily. " Whoa!"
The pair flinched away from a brilliant blue-white light that filled the area. It emanated from a sudden Manifestation. The visitor was tall and powerfully built with flowing golden hair. He was wearing white biker leathers with 'heavenly blue' piping and 'I AM THE CHAMPION' spelt out in gold studs on the back. ( Heaven has never really got to grips with the concept of 'tacky'...)
He was also resting his hands on a large golden sword. The two miscreants looked up into the stern visage of the Archangel Michael and blenched.
"Armageddon?!" Ben squeaked. "Already?!!"
"Actually no. The Lord Thy God hath had a rethink. Heaven wants you back..."
The pair gave a delighted cheer.
"For the record, I voted against," Michael stated in blighting tones.
"Hey, whatever happened to forgiving your brother seventy times seven times?"
"You passed that point in 1357, Benedictus," Michael scowled.
"Yadda, yadda. Now how about smiting these things off?" Rio interrupted, indicating his manacles.
"Not so fast. While you're chained up, there's a better chance you'll pay attention to what I have to say."
"Uh-oh, here comes the lecture..." Rio groaned.
"First off, this is not unconditional "
"Why are we not surprised?" Ben muttered sotto voce.
"Listen up, Damned Ones, The Lord Thy God hath had to make a number of concessions to Lucifer," Michael warned, evoking pained intakes of breath from them both, "and is not in the best of moods right now."
"Pissed off, huh?"
"That will cost thee three Hail Mary's, Rio. "
"But not in here, Brother..."
Another tall figure appeared in a fiery glow behind Michael. He had almost white blonde hair and was dressed in black biker leathers with scarlet piping and 'HELL'S ANGEL' picked out in silver studs on the back. (Heaven doesn't have a monopoly on tacky.)
"I wish it wasn't so noisy in here Brother," Michael grated. "I can hardly hear myself think."
Lucifer shrugged and gave a negligent wave. The noise dropped to a comfortable background level.
"You've got that on a tape loop, haven't you?" Michael demanded suspiciously.
"So sue me," Lucifer grinned, "but bear in mind that I have all the best legal brains here..."
"Ah - what did you get for us, Luce?" Ben interrupted.
"That is between The Lord Thy God and The Son of the Morning," Michael said repressively.
Lucifer ignored him. "Let's just say I didn't get a particularly good deal for you two, considering how much I lurve the entertainment you provide, but then I don't expect you'll be gone too long..." he remarked with a smug devilish grin.
"Uh-oh, knew there had to be a catch," Rio grunted.
"Well, perhaps now you'll listen to the deal. The Lord Thy God is prepared to grant forgiveness to you two fallen angels after you have rescued or redeemed 999 endangered or lost souls "
"What?!" Ben exclaimed.
"So He doesn't want to see us any time soon then?" Rio said grimly.
"and any further backsliding will have you right back here. Oh, and if you ever do make it back to Heaven, The Lord Thy God hath said He will give thee a new instrument to replace the one He - um - broke. Just don't ask for a Stratocaster this time."
The musician opened his mouth.
"Not even in Sonic Blue, Rio!" Michael snapped, wielding his sword in a glittering arc.
Suddenly the three of them were in a seedy alley somewhere - kind of like a canyon between the six-storied tenements. There were dumpsters either side of the alley keeping company with piles of black garbage bags. Ben and Rio found they'd swapped their grubby rags for jeans and T-shirts.
"And who?" Ben concluded, looking with interest at an attractive blonde woman with a clip board. She was wearing a smart business suit and a rather severe expression.
"This is Millicent from the Accounts Department," Michael said, with a warm smile in her direction.
Millicent gave him a doe-eyed look, then hastily returned her attention to her clipboard.
"Accounts Department?" Rio squawked in disbelief. "Isn't that Luce's territory?"
Michael sighed and gave a despairing look heavenward. "You've obviously been corrupted more than we thought," he said. "We're talking about souls here, Riordan, not filthy lucre. As to the what and the where, I'll leave Millicent to explain that."
There was a small 'pop' of air filling a sudden vacuum as he de-Manifested into a small incandescent blue star, then shot off upwards. The blonde seraph watched his departure with a definite look of longing.
"So?" Ben asked, turning his attention to Millicent with an insouciant grin.
The doe-eyes snapped into flinty severity. "This is not a holiday," she said sharply. "You are here to work. Any lapses from the straight and narrow, and you'll be right back in Hell. ...Where you both belong," she added sotto voce.
"What?" Rio asked, thinking he must have misheard.
"Hey, who's to know?" Ben asked simultaneously.
"Apart from me, the Host of Heaven and the Lord Thy God...?"
The two exchanged rueful looks. "Guess we're no longer below the heavenly radar, huh?"
Millicent permitted herself a superior smirk. "Now to business. This is San Francisco"
"Aw, not L.A.? City of the Angels? It would be sooo much more appropriate," Rio pleaded.
"Quit whining! This is the city of Saint Francis - as in poverty, chastity and obedience."
"Obedience?" they concluded as one, exchanging horrified looks.
"Yes. Your cover story is that you're mature students at the University of San Francisco Institute of Humanities. You're registered on the historical theology course - so that shouldn't be too much of a strain, even for you two."
"Do we get our powers back?" Ben asked, more in hope than expectation.
"Great!" came the chorus, Ben rubbing his hands together in satisfaction.
"What?!" they exclaimed as Millicent looked smug.
"Benedictus, you may use your phase-shifting ability again. Riordan, you may shape-shift"
"That's it?" Rio exclaimed.
Millicent gave him her best 'do-not-interrupt-me' glare. "You may also use telekinesis, and Benedictus, you're allowed suggestion, but all these powers are subject to limitations."
"Limitations? What sort of limitations?" Ben wanted to know. Millicent's eyes narrowed. "Guess we just have to suck it and see, then?" he guessed.
"If you must use such vulgar expressions..." she agreed in acid tones.
"Do we get our 'wings' back?" Rio asked hopefully.
Millicent gave a tinkling laugh. "Oh dear me no. You're both grounded."
"It isn't up to me," she said primly and with a deceptively sweet smile. "If it was..."
"You still be grounded!" she snapped. There was a slight pause. "Any more inane questions?"
"Do we have anywhere to live?" Ben asked with a hint of sarcasm.
"Of course," she said, looking up to the top of the tall brownstone tenement block. "There. The rent is paid up for the first six months and you both get a - small - weekly allowance for food, clothing, books and other necessities."
"Joy, joy," Rio said glumly.
"One final thing," Millicent said, ignoring the interruption, "you'll have a helper. His name is Jerome and he's a soulseer. He won't be able to read who you are, but he can tell you which souls are in danger."
"Oh? Where is he?" Ben asked.
"Down there," she replied, pointing to a rumpled heap of clothes draped over one of the heaps of garbage bags. "There's no need to wake him right now. Like you, he's working on a penance which is none of your business! Clear?"
"Right. Here are the keys to your lodgings. Number 601. That's it for now. Don't forget I'll be keeping an eye one you and monitoring your progress."
With a 'pop', she contracted into a small, brilliantly glowing, pink star and shot off skywards.
The two fallen angels - or more accurately, suspended angels - looked around. According to the sign on the end of the building, the name of the alley in which they were standing was Grey Street. It was a dead end. They wondered if this was significant and concluded that, probably, it was. It also turned off Mission Street...
"Okay, let's go inspect our new palatial residence," Ben said leading the way into the dim and dusty interior of the building.
As the elevator was out of order - and the decrepitude of the hand written cardboard sign suggested that it had been out of order for a long time - they were stuck with the long trek up five flights of narrow, uncarpeted stairs.
"Looks like they're not plannin' on makin' it easy for us," Rio muttered as they reached the small landing on the top floor.
"Suppose this is Millicent's idea of a joke," Ben panted.
"Nearer my God to Thee?"
"Oh. You reckon she's got a sense of humor then?" Rio asked.
"Ah. Good point. Just 'nearer my God to Thee', then" Ben sighed.
The accommodation was a little better than they'd expected, given the general signs of dilapidation and neglect in the area. It was a studio apartment with windows at opposite ends, looking east and west. They had roller blinds which had a picture of sky and clouds printed on them.
"Wonder if they're trying to make us feel homesick," Rio commented, letting the blind roll up again.
"Don't knock it. At least it works," Ben responded, looking out of the west window, "and I claim this end."
The bare floorboards had been stained and polished. There were a couple of rugs besides the beds which were positioned below the windows. In the middle of the room was a large table and four upright chairs of functional Shaker design. On the table were packs of information about the course that was to act as their cover story, along with stationery and writing equipment.
There were closets for clothes and a large bookcase stocked with improving reading. As it was at the end of the block, the kitchen and bathroom had windows overlooking Grey Street to the south.
Ben and Rio were impressed by the bathroom which had a large enamel bath and a shower. They exchanged significant looks.
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness," they parroted in unison, then laughed.
"The Powers That Be seem keen on making their point," Ben said wryly.
"Yeah," Rio agreed. "That's one thing I didn't miss in Hell. Whatever else you can say about Luce, he doesn't come over all 'holier-than-thou'."
"Oh well, with 999 souls to save, we won't be going back to Heaven any too soon," Ben grinned. "Y'know, Rio, this could be fun. No pain from Luce "
"And no earache from the heavenly host!"
"Speaking of which, better check in sooner rather than later," Ben said. "No point in getting off on the wrong foot."
The wayward pair sank to their knees. In the absence of any other instrument, Rio provided a vocal accompaniment in his rich fruity bass as Ben began to chant.
A sonorous Voice filled the room.
~ Not one of your best, Benedictus ~
"Um, sorry, Lord. I'm - er - rather out of practice. Luce had a bit of down on prayer."
"Except of the 'Aaarrgghhh! No! Stop, please stop!' variety," Rio added.
~ Did it work? ~
"Oh, please, Lord, this is Lucifer we're talking about," Ben moaned.
~ I'll take that as a 'no' then. ~
"Which is why, O Lord, we are so very grateful that Thou didst have a change of heart," Rio said.
"Don't overdo it," Ben warned as the all-compassing Voice went on around them,
~ I didn't. It was merely the path of least resistence. ~
"I'm sorry, Lord?"
~ So you should be, Benedictus. I've
had no peace from that -