“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” --C.S. Lewis, "The Screwtape Letters"
There was a new spectrum of light in the sky. Its meaning was not clear to any of the small number of animals currently stumbling their way out into the world again, in search of their natural habitats, nor was it immediately clear to the humans who were beginning the process of rebuilding homes from the dismantled wood of a very large ship, but it was clear to the angel Aziraphale.
He pointed it out to the demon Crowley, who was sopping wet and shivering, having been (through no fault of Aziraphale’s own) caught in the storm.
“What is that supposed to be?” Crowley said.
Aziraphale smiled. “It’s a promise,” he said. “It means He is pleased with Noah’s offerings, and He’s not going to do it again.” Crowley raised an eyebrow at this, so Aziraphale continued. “The destruction of humanity, I mean.”
“Oh!” Crowley’s tone was shot through with unpleasant sarcasm. “Oh, he isn’t going to do it again? Well, that’s good then, isn’t it? I was starting to think I was closing in on a victory, but then your side had to go and wipe out all of my points! Not really a fair game, angel.”
He said “angel” in a sneering tone that Aziraphale did not care for. But there was a sneaking suspicion in the back of his mind that Crowley, who was still attempting to shake the water out of his wings and scowling, might have a point about it being a bit unfair.
This was the kind of thought he was trying not to have. He had been on shaky territory, giving away his sword. It wasn’t too long after that when other angels had been cast out of Heaven for cavorting with human women, creating hybrid creatures they called nephilim that were nowhere in the plan. Aziraphale would never have done something like that — but you had to make sure you were sticking to the plan.
Good was the default for angels, but it wasn’t the only option. You only had to look at Crowley, with his strange snake-like eyes and his smirk, a distortion of a created being, to see that.
“Well,” said Aziraphale, fixing his eyes on the rainbow, “He’s not going to do it again.”
A jaguar ran past them, chasing after a wobbly, very confused penguin. It caught up shortly afterwards, and Aziraphale winced.
“I suppose I should sort out the animal kingdom,” he said.
“You do that,” Crowley said. He had his eyes fixed on the heavens as well.
There were only eight people on Earth. Aziraphale would have to keep a close eye on the score.
Humans were fruitful and multiplied, as humans tended to do. It had been many years since Crowley had seen the angel Aziraphale, until Crowley found himself sulking at the fringes of a party being thrown by a man named Job. He turned, and abruptly Aziraphale was there next to him, smiling smugly.
“You see,” Aziraphale said, “how the faithful are rewarded for their patience?”
“Alright, yes, congratulations,” Crowley said. He snatched a glass of wine from a nearby serving tray and drank deeply. “What is it with him and finding these single great men to obsess over?”
Making bets with the Adversary over the faith of humans… it was tacky, Crowley thought. Oh, he expected it from his people, but from Heaven? He’d have thought they’d have a bit more self-restraint.
He wouldn’t have made a bet about some human’s faith with Aziraphale, the smug bastard. Crowley believed in free will and in being up front with humans who were interested in selling their souls.
“Well,” said Aziraphale, “it’s meant to teach them a lesson, to show them that you can’t understand the will of the divine, you know. All kinds of suffering are part of the will of the divine.”
“I’ve heard,” Crowley said flatly. It was this sort of discussion which had led to his, almost accidentally, becoming a demon in the first place.
Aziraphale wasn’t the type of angel who could fall. He oozed sincerity and innocence and holy righteousness. He didn’t have an actual halo at the moment, but he still looked like he did; he had that sort of glow.
It made Crowley a little nauseous.
“You know,” said Aziraphale, “if you ever did think about changing your mind—“
“No, I don’t think so,” Crowley said curtly. He set fire to the tablecloths on Job’s estate on his way out, just to put a little doubt into the man’s mind.
Aziraphale was there when David slew Goliath, a metaphor which would remain powerful for all of subsequent human history.
He liked David more than most human rulers. He was anointed, of course, a great man of history and a descendant and father of kings, but he was also simply a nicer person than most of them.
Angels watched over David’s family line, had for generations, although the reason why was not yet clear to them. It would all be revealed eventually.
Aziraphale tried to protect Jonathan as well, because he was important to David. He tried, but he failed.
Afterwards, David was inconsolable. Aziraphale stood on the muddy battlefield amidst the soldiers waiting for their king’s next command and felt strange, lost.
There were all sorts of human love, and each one was beautiful in its own way, Aziraphale thought, if all quite distant from him. The love for a parent of a child, the love between brothers, between a man and his wife. But to love someone to whom no blood or social law linked you, someone whose love would not draw you nearer to community and family approval but drive you further away — this all seemed especially strange, especially divergent from what an angel would ever feel, and perhaps for that, especially lovely.
He wished he could have done more. He wished he could have given them their improbable happiness.
They were supposed to have been rivals for the crown, he would think to himself sometimes, later, when he thought of David and Jonathan. They were supposed to have been enemies, but instead they had loved each other. Against all reason, selfishly, in that most human way.
Sodom was a perfectly nice city, at the end of the day. It wasn’t any more sinful than anywhere else, and Crowley would know. He kept track.
“I thought the whole bit with the pillar of salt was particularly unpleasant,” he said to Aziraphale, conversationally. “I mean — it’s punitive. Only human to look back, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Aziraphale. “Only human.”
He looked different, which must have been a decision. His hair was shorter, and he’d softened the curve of his face. His eyes had less of the blazing light of heaven in them, unless you knew what to look for. He still looked to Crowley (there was no other term for it) radiant.
“Doesn’t it worry you,” Crowley said, “when he’s cruel?”
Aziraphale looked at him sharply, eyes wide and mouth set into a hard line. He didn’t say anything.
“At least with Lucifer you know where you stand,” Crowley continued. He couldn’t stop himself.
“I know where I stand,” Aziraphale said. His voice was cold and his eyes had started to glow more prominently, with a faint, disconcerting light.
Crowley didn’t know what it was about Aziraphale that made him keep pressing, made him want to draw out a satisfying answer from a being whose only job was to accept the lack of answers. It wasn’t that he was trying to sway Aziraphale from the righteous path. He wasn’t at all like Lucifer or the other rebels cast out of Heaven, but there was something that differentiated him from the higher ups of the holy firmament as well. He had given away that flaming sword.
“So there was only one righteous man in the whole city?” he pressed. “And the rest of them, they weren’t just mediocre or sort of alright, they really deserved it?”
There would be lot of talk later, from some of the most irritating sorts of humans, about the sins of Sodom. Crowley would never be entirely clear on what the sins of Sodom had been, though he didn’t think they were the ones associated with the popular etymologically-related term. That was the sort of thing Heaven didn’t forcefully condemn because it would have required them to admit they knew what it was — and anyway it was hardly limited to just one city.
But still, there was something about Aziraphale’s eyes at that moment that Crowley would always remember when the topic was raised. “Yes,” Aziraphale said. “They deserved it.”
Aziraphale wasn’t fond of appearing to humans in his true, angelic form under the best of circumstances, but appearing to a young, unmarried woman and telling her she was set to give birth to humanity’s savior was particularly awkward. She took it well, considering.
When Crowley heard about it, he spent the next nine months carefully orchestrating a series of hotel bookings out of spite.
Young Yeshua spent a lot of time at the local temple, where he was lectured by one teacher on the importance of self-sacrifice and doing what was best for the greatest number of people and on the importance of following your heart and doing what was best for yourself by another. They both found his wide-eyed, quiet demeanor a little disturbing.
“Do you really think he’ll go through with it?” one of them said to the other while the child was out of earshot.
“He has to,” the other replied. “It’s in the plan.”
Yeshua grew up. He learned to turn water into wine, he learned to walk on water. He learned to organize large groups of people into a mass working for a single cause.
Neither side had much to do with it, really. Apart from the wandering in the desert. The rest of it, the thirty pieces of silver, the execution — all of that may have been in a way predetermined, but it was still human, still chosen. That was a distinction you had to understand.
Aziraphale thought the whole thing was rather unfair to the boy’s poor mother. Crowley thought the whole thing was rather unfair to Judas.
Aziraphale wasn’t exactly sure what it would mean if he went through with it until it happened. Afterwards, after three days of waiting, he felt the first change to the Grand Purpose shared by all of Earth’s angels since Eve had walked away with that sword.
“You don’t mean the whole of the law?” Crowley said later, disbelieving. “I mean — you’re keeping some of the basics.”
“Yes, yes,” Aziraphale said. “We’ll be compiling some of his followers’ writings. That should be a guide for people on how to live, nothing too complex. It’ll be... accessible.”
Crowley looked thoughtful, and Aziraphale wondered if he’d said too much. But it didn’t matter much anyway, he thought. This was a new world, a new era, and people here on earth were going to start coming around to Heaven’s way of thinking. Crowley’s side wouldn’t be relevant for much longer.
“What about covetousness?” said Crowley. “Is that still a sin?”
Aziraphale scoffed. “Yes.”
Crowley nodded slowly. “Gluttony?” he said, sounding genuinely confused. “Where do we stand on that?”
“You’ll just have to read the book,” Aziraphale snapped.
“Right,” Crowley said, looking dazed and wrongfooted, and Aziraphale suddenly felt something like pity for him. It couldn’t be easy, this severe a defeat.
“I’ve got a new assignment,” he said, more softly. “Britannia. Maybe I’ll… see you around there, sometimes.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow and smiled half a smile. “Maybe you will,” he said.
It wasn’t long after that when Aziraphale started receiving the first apocalyptic manuscripts. It was typical, he thought, with disappointment that he tried to repress as he stared at a particularly vague passage about the mark of the beast. There always had to be something to look forward to. Something to keep them coming back every week.
It was all probably a long way off, anyhow.
Heaven and Hell both underwent some major policy changes in what you could call the “post-Christ” era.
It was gradually understood that there was now going to be a general policy of subtlety. There were to be no more obvious miracles and no more heads spinning around 360 degrees with fire shooting out of the ears. Times had changed, and they would play a different kind of game now.
That meant sly temptations inserted into dreams, it meant corrupting decent souls through the use of money and power, it meant showing humans how to make each other and themselves miserable in dozens of small ways, not that they often needed help. Crowley was very good at it.
He also got into seductions, a field which was increasingly popular for demons at the time, and received a number of letters congratulating him on his contributions to “unnatural desires” among human men. Something about that was offputting, so he carried on doing the seductions but stopped reporting them.
It was on the battlefield of some godawful unholy war that it happened — Crowley could never quite remember which one, in retrospect. They all ran together eventually. But it was back in the times when he’d still be asked to fight the battles in person, a foot soldier in every sense.
He remembered the piercing pain of the sword between his ribs, remembered collapsing in an instant and suddenly hearing nothing but ringing in his ears and seeing nothing but sky.
He’d died, in the corporeal sense, a few times before that, but never in such a painful way. Never in a way that was so slow, blood leaving his body and soaking into the ground around him at what felt like a pace slower than the turn of the Earth. He closed his eyes and silently implored Satan to just let him get it over with.
He had no idea how long he lay there among the corpses — maybe hours, though it felt like days — but the first thing that pierced through the haze was a voice that said, incredulously, “Crowley?”
It was Aziraphale, of course, on a bloodstained white horse looking like a sign from Heaven, which was exactly what he was. Some vaguely conscious part of Crowley’s mind wondered who was playing this long, painful trick on him.
“Angel,” he said, without quite meaning to, voice a harsh rasp.
Aziraphale jumped down from the horse and was kneeling in the bloody grass beside him before Crowley could process what he was doing or why. “You’re hurt,” he said.
No , Crowley thought, I’m dying, now go away and leave me to it . That was too many syllables to say, though. He heard himself cough sharply, alarmingly.
“Let me—“ Aziraphale said, and instead of continuing he clumsily covered the wound in Crowley’s abdomen with his hand, which hurt terribly for a moment before there was a bright flash of warmth and then it didn’t hurt at all anymore.
“There you are,” said Aziraphale gently. “Nothing permanent.”
Crowley shoved himself up onto his elbows and spit a mouthful of blood onto the ground. “I would have been fine,” he said. “Why don’t you go and heal someone who needs it?”
Aziraphale looked guilty. “I can’t do anything for them,” he said. “It’s against Policy. And anyway, they’re martyrs. They’ll go to heaven.”
Crowley scowled at him, and Aziraphale added, as if he couldn’t resist it, “There was no reason for you to be in pain.”
“Never met a good deed you didn’t like,” Crowley said. His resentment was beginning to ebb, slightly. It had been very painful. Aziraphale has blood smeared across his cheek and in his hair, and it looked strange on him.
“What side were you fighting on, anyway?” he asked.
Aziraphale told him, and Crowley threw his head back and laughed.
“So was I, angel,” he said. “I think that makes us comrades-in-arms.”
Angels had not been created in the image of God. They generally adopted the human form, afterwards, because it was less threatening and because it was easier to draw, and many angels who would not have admitted it really liked to see themselves in frescos.
Gabriel had been created in the image of a perpetually spinning wheel with wings and a thousand eyes, and he kept the form, because he was pretentious.
Aziraphale sat in his humanoid form across from Gabriel, who had probably imagined the desk and the chair into existence for Aziraphale’s comfort. Nothing about it was comforting.
“Angel of the Eastern Gate,” said Gabriel, in a voice that echoed.
“You had a question for me.”
Aziraphale looked down at his hands. He was already regretting this; the performance reviews every quarter-millennium were bad enough, but the question had been plaguing him to the point that it had to be worth being coldly stared at by Gabriel to get an answer.
“Well,” he said, “I was only wondering… is it possible for angels to sin?”
Gabriel’s thousand eyes did not look surprised. “If you had,” he said, “you’d know it.”
Aziraphale felt an immediate wave of relief wash over him. “Oh, good,” he said. “That’s what I thought, I mean, it’s not in our nature , I really just wanted to be sure—“
“That does not mean there is no need for caution,” Gabriel said. “No one can say what exactly causes some to sever from our Great Purpose. But an angel who becomes an individual is at great risk.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said. “Of course.”
He wondered if he felt like an individual — whether he would know if he did. He was part of the heavenly host, of course, but wasn’t he also Aziraphale , who had been in Eden and watched over the flood and witnessed the judgment of the cities of the plain?
He did not say that to Gabriel. Even voicing it could be an indication, if he was wrong to think it.
“We are part of the design, Aziraphale,” Gabriel said. “We are nothing but carved pieces of the heavens, shining for His glory alone. Whatever you do is through Him and of Him. Take care to remember that.”
“I will,” the Angel of the Eastern Gate said, and lowered his eyes again.
Later, Aziraphale would wonder if it were the trait of an angel who had become an individual to feel such distaste for another, especially a superior like Gabriel — to think they were, well, creepy .
It wasn’t ideal, at least, he decided, and he resolved to love all of God’s creatures just a little more, impersonally.
Screwtape rifled through the stack of papers he had set in front of them with disinterest. “You’ve done okay for yourself, Crawly,” he said.
“Crowley,” Crowley said, in vain. “It’s pronounced differently.”
The other demon did not so much as spare him a glance. Crowley hated these visits to Hell, hated the performance reviews and the paperwork and the scent of sulfur. He hated Screwtape, who had been full of himself as an angel and was no less irritating for having fallen.
Screwtape just continued to flip through his papers. “Your performance this century has been… respectable,” he said. He made the word sound distasteful.
“Thankss,” Crowley said, ending on a bit of a hiss.
“Let’s look over your metrics in the cardinal sins… pride and sloth up from last quarter, I see, holding around steady in gluttony, and you’ve had a good few years in wrath…” Screwtape looked up with a frown. “Not very impressive on lust, Crawly, I’m afraid.”
Crowley had to hold back a scoff. “I do fine,” he said. “Persssonally.”
Screwtape gave him a severe look. “You’re not getting paid for your own sins,” he said. “You used to do quite impressively with inspiring lust.”
The trouble with Hell, Crowley thought sometimes — he had diagnosed at least a dozen things as the trouble with Hell, but this was one — was that they looked down on sinners at least as much as Heaven did. Maybe moreso, because while an angel would condescend to you about how there was hope for your soul yet, many demons would stick you with a pitchfork as soon as look at you if they heard you’d committed a bit of covetousness. And what you came to understand from spending so much time on Earth was that there was a kind of beauty in many sins; in the envy of a child pressing their nose to a shop window, in the wrath of a peasant screaming in the street at a petty local tyrant. In lust.
“Well,” said Crowley, “it’s hardly a proper sin half the time, is it?”
Screwtape’s eyes widened slightly. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
“Well, it all depends on the lust,” said Crowley, who was halfway regretting it but felt that he should press on. “Certainly it can be bad , but, well, if you’re inspiring some young man to, sort of, embrace those buried, um, urges…”
“...Well, it doesn’t feel properly sinful ,” Crowley continued lamely. “After all, with lust there’s always a chance of it inspiring love , and we don’t want that, do we? That’s, well, the other side’s all for it.”
“Not in every case,” Screwtape said. “Crawly, it is not in your job description to make moral decisions. The categorization of sin is not for us. It is for Heaven, and they have made it quite clear.”
Crowley thought of what Aziraphale had said a few centuries before, about the sacrifice and the whole of the law. He had never had it clearly explained to him what that meant, but he supposed Screwtape would know. It was clear that lust was still on the list.
Maybe he ought to ask Aziraphale about it, but he knew, somehow, that was a conversation he didn’t want to have.
“Got it,” Crowley said. “Won’t happen again.”
Aziraphale couldn’t stop running into Crowley.
He knew it must be part of the divine plan, but he also resented it quite a bit. Running into Crowley was inconvenient. You could get so much more done in the work of enlightening human beings to God’s works all around them if you weren’t also preventing a demon from enlightening them about his new get-rich-quick scheme.
And besides that, Crowley never wanted to stick to the script. At the moment, he was protesting to Aziraphale as they walked through the streets of Rome that the candidate Aziraphale had been sent to ensure was elected at the latest papal conclave was too evil .
“I was hoping,” Aziraphale said, “that the cardinal I suggested would be a compromise candidate.”
“No, no,” Crowley said. He gestured wildly with the pastry he was holding. “You don’t understand. It’s like — I got this letter once, this bloody annoying senior demon who’s always saying abstinence is as bad as devouring. Do you know what I mean?”
Aziraphale took a bite of cannoli, and then felt vaguely guilty about it. “No,” he said.
“His theory,” Crowley said, “is that if you’re avoiding the sin of gluttony by subsisting only on bread and water, and showing off to everyone how little you need, you’re actually still committing gluttony. Because your mind is on low, earthy matters instead of on the glories of — well, you get the idea. Screwtape’s a bastard, but that’s the kind of thinking we need more of in Hell. A real understanding of how people work .”
Aziraphale pondered this as he finished the rest of his pastry. He had to admit that his mind did often stray to the glories of human cuisine and not the glories of Heaven, but if it were equally sinful to abstain, well, it was probably alright.
“And what’s that got to do with my candidate?” he said.
“He’s that type. The type to encourage abstention for abstention’s sake.” Crowley’s voice sounded darkly serious. “He’ll have people convinced they’re saved just because they’re not enjoying life as much as their neighbors.”
“But isn’t that good for you?”
Crowley rolled his eyes behind the strange new smoky glass implements he was wearing. “It’s easy, is what it is. If I set expectations too high, my supervisors will expect clerics of this caliber for the next four hundred years. If we go with someone moderate, we both keep making incremental progress, we have things to report, the eternal struggle continues. My man, he’s the compromise candidate.”
Aziraphale stared at him.
Crowley had executed some fairly clever maneuvers over the years, but to lie to Aziraphale’s face like this — to expect that he could persuade an angel to go along with his trickery, to make some kind of agreement? That was bold, even for him.
“You’re trying to trick me,” he said. “Really, Crowley, did you think I’d fall for that little gambit?”
“I’m not—“ Crowley sighed in evident, if certainly feigned, frustration. “I’m being serious, Aziraphale!”
Aziraphale looked at him, appraisingly. He couldn’t see Crowley’s eyes through the dark glasses he wore. He remembered Eve, shivering in the cold.
“No,” he said. “I don’t believe you.”
He turned and walked away, leaving Crowley behind him muttering something with the words “insufferable bastard” in it.
Aziraphale’s choice for the papacy was elected, though the next few decades proved so exhausting that he did wonder, sometimes.
“D’you want anything to drink?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale blinked at him. Certainly the establishment they were in served alcohol, but Aziraphale had suggested it as a neutral meeting place rather than for its services. They were supposed to be talking about the war, about the invasion of the Danes, and it was plain that Crowley hadn’t heard a word he’d said.
“Are you trying to undermine Aethelred?” Aziraphale said.
“Crowley! The king!”
“Oh, have we got a new one?” Crowley said nonchalantly. “I was just getting used to the old chap.” He gave Aziraphale a strange look, almost amused. “So, do you want a drink?”
“No,” Aziraphale said, aiming for stern but sounding even to his own ear more in the neighborhood of “prissy.” “Thank you.”
“It would do wonders for your attitude,” Crowley said sourly, sipping from his own tankard.
“I don’t expect it would,” Aziraphale said. “Angels can’t get drunk.”
Crowley looked alarmed. “What do you mean you can’t get drunk? I can.”
“Well, you’re a demon.”
“Same substance,” Crowley said airily. He waved a hand over the flagon he’d been drinking from and refilled it, sliding it over to Aziraphale. “You just have to let yourself experience it. Give it a try.”
Aziraphale scoffed. “Why would I…”
“An understanding of the nature of the sin, of course,” Crowley said smoothly. “Shouldn’t you try all of them at least once? So you know what you’re up against?”
Aziraphale laughed, then, without meaning to, at the guileless smile on Crowley’s face. You could almost believe he was entirely sincere. “Oh, alright,” he said, reaching for the glass.
When they left the tavern an hour later, Aziraphale was very, very drunk.
“This is your fault,” he said, hearing his voice slurring. He was leaning slightly against Crowley, and he wasn’t sure how that had happened. “Too many — too many refills.”
Crowley laughed. The sound was startling to Aziraphale because it wasn’t sly or mocking — just sincere. He nearly tripped over his own feet. “You’re just a lightweight, angel,” Crowley said.
“No,” Aziraphale protested, “you’re lighter than me,” and Crowley laughed again.
“Where are you staying?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale looked at him. Crowley’s glasses had slipped down a bit, and Aziraphale could see his bright yellow eyes. They were uncanny, but they suited his face as well, his pointed cheekbones and the thin curve of his lips.
“I like your eyes,” he said, stupidly, and then thought that he shouldn’t have said it, and couldn’t remember why. Crowley frowned and pushed his glasses back up his nose, hiding them.
“You really are drunk,” he said lightly. “You should sober up; it’s not difficult if you concentrate.”
They had more or less stopped in the middle of the street, and Aziraphale could feel himself swaying gently. He felt an odd sensation of floating, and it wasn’t unpleasant. “I don’t want to,” he said.
Some distant corner of his mind thought, it was common human wisdom that you were less responsible for your actions if you were intoxicated, and this seemed appealing. Aziraphale was always responsible.
Crowley laughed again, but a little more mockingly now. “Do you remember where you were staying?”
Aziraphale didn’t. Crowley had looped Aziraphale’s arm around his shoulders to keep him steady, and he was oddly warm, not like a cold-blooded reptile at all.
“I guess not,” Crowley said, and Aziraphale realized he hadn’t answered. “We’ll go to my boarding house, I suppose.” He began walking again, pulling Aziraphale with him. “I’ll remember this, you know,” he said smugly. “You won’t be lording any angelic superiority over me anymore.”
“I don’t do that,” Aziraphale mumbled. “You’re the superior one. Serpent,” and Crowley just pulled him tighter to his side and kept walking.
Aziraphale hardly recalled how they made it back to Crowley’s rooms and up the stairs. He remembered Crowley letting go of him and collapsing onto the single bed in the room. He blinked up at Crowley. “Silly of me to do this, really,” he said thickly. “Thank you for your assistance, my good man.”
Crowley groaned and stalked over to a wooden chair in the corner of the room. “How can you talk like that when you’re so drunk?” he said, and added without waiting for an answer, “And don’t call me that.”
“Oh, of course,” Aziraphale said absently. He felt very strange even now that he was lying down. There was a peculiar type of warmth that had suffused through his whole body, and a buzzing sensation under his skin. He felt as though he could levitate — which of course he could, but not without trying. “Crowley?” he said.
“Mmm?” said Crowley, who had kicked off his shoes, removed his glasses, and closed his eyes.
“D’you think I’m an ind — indig — individual?”
Crowley opened his eyes to look at him, and Aziraphale thought again of how no one else had eyes like Crowley, and no one else looked at him with that searching, piercing gaze.
“I don’t have any idea what you mean,” Crowley said. “Go to sleep, angel.”
And Aziraphale did.
In the morning, Aziraphale had a splitting headache, and it took him several tries to will it away. There was a scrawled note on the rough wooden table beside him.
You couldn’t help being an individual if you wanted to. Hope you’re not too embarrassed about last night. Heaven will forgive. Got to go and see a man about undermining a king.
P.S. Drop off payment with proprietor if you don’t mind. I’ll pay you back next time.
Crowley wasn’t enjoying the Dark Ages — they weren’t called that at the time, but if anyone had suggested the name Crowley would have sourly agreed with it. For whole stretches of decades, nothing was happening in his assigned territory that wasn’t disease, drudgery and monarchy.
He’d gotten orders to go and tarnish the soul of a young monk who might otherwise become a great saint, but he was bored. Future saints were always boring — placid, self-effacing and unambitious.
At the moment, he was maintaining his cover by copying down a section of the Gospel of Mark, which was painful even before his hand started to cramp.
“Psst,” he hissed. “Aziraphale.”
Across the table, Aziraphale glared at him. He was drawing a very careful illustration of a snail in the margin of a scroll.
“What?” he hissed back. He hadn’t been speaking to Crowley very much since he’d arrived to try and protect the soul of the future saint.
“Well,” said Crowley plaintively, and Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “I was only thinking… we don’t really both need to be here, do we?”
Aziraphale frowned. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Crowley leaned closer to him across the table. “I mean that if you have both an angelic and demonic influence, that cancels out, doesn’t it? To neutral. So neither of us needs to actually do anything. We could just not and say we did.”
It was a suggestion he had made a few times in the distant past and that Aziraphale had always brushed off as nonsense. But for a moment he looked hesitant.
“I do get tired of monasteries,” he said.
“So do I,” said Crowley, nodding. “Dreadful atmosphere.”
“And i could be doing much more good somewhere else,” Aziraphale said. It sounded a little like he was trying to convince himself. “If I weren’t looking after the souls of future saints… and I wouldn’t have to, of course, if you weren’t threatening them.”
Aziraphale nodded, slowly. He tapped the nib of his quill thoughtfully against his chin, leaving a small black smudge. “Only for the small things, you understand. Nothing significant. And we’d have to keep in touch.”
“We would?” Crowley said, surprised.
“Yes,” Aziraphale said sternly. “I’ll need to know what you’re up to.”
“Alright. I’ll agree to that.” Crowley extended a hand across the table to shake on it. He was already feeling elated about getting out of what would surely have been years of subtle monastery work.
Aziraphale paused. “This isn’t a deal with a devil, is it?” he said hesitantly. “In the… traditional sense.”
Crowley resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Angel,” he said, “how often do you tell your superiors what you’ve been doing and they actually understand it?”
“Oh… hardly ever.”
“And how often do you complain that they’re pulled out too many of the field agents and left you with too large a territory to cover on your own?”
“All the time.”
“Then it only stands to reason that if you’re skirting the rules, it’s to accomplish more in the long term.” Crowley gestured at his copy of the Bible. “He’d understand.”
“I suppose so,” Aziraphale said, and put his hand out to shake.
For a moment before their hands touched Crowley wondered if the direct contact might burn him, the way crosses or holy water did. But it didn’t — they were made of the same substance after all, he reasoned. Aziraphale’s handshake was firm, despite his soft and uncalloused hand.
“Excellent,” Crowley said. “Let’s get out of here.”
It was frighteningly easy, once you started justifying things to yourself, to go on justifying them.
Aziraphale could feel himself making excuses, feel the inflexibility he had shielded himself with beginning to crumble.
It was so much easier, once he and Crowley had come to what Aziraphale had started privately thinking of as their Arrangement. So much less time wasted on the parts of his work that Aziraphale had always resented — tracking down spies the other side had planted in high places, appearing to ordinary people in the middle of the night to tell them to please disregard the previous mysterious vision they’d received. He could do real work. At this rate he’d have made a dent in Europe’s stubborn resistance to medical knowledge and all the attendant suffering by the end of the century.
Maybe he’d shown Crowley how to perform a few miracles, but that Crowley had taken to them so well was surely a sign that he wasn’t all bad. And maybe Aziraphale had let himself be called upon to perform a few temptations, but that was just testing the will of the faithful if you looked at it from a different angle.
He wouldn’t have needed to resort to these techniques, he told himself, if Heaven hadn’t recalled so many of their other agents over the years, if humans with their sins and their saintliness hadn’t multiplied quite so quickly, if someone had explained to him precisely his position in the Plan. But they hadn’t, and he had to get along somehow.
And anyway, if it were really so bad someone surely would have told him to stop doing it.
Aziraphale would spend long stretches of years pretending to be a priest; well, it was only pretending on the technicality that he hadn’t exactly been ordained, but surely he could consecrate bread and minister to the faithful as well as anyone else. It was a simple enough way of excusing his presence in rural England as a man without a wife or any apparent family who was, he had to admit, always a bit out of step with the times.
Crowley would occasionally turn up wearing a priest’s collar as well, though Aziraphale felt that his reasons must have been more menacing. More disturbingly, he kept turning up.
At the moment, he was throwing rocks at the window of Aziraphale’s study.
“One moment!” Aziraphale called down to him from the second floor window. Crowley smirked and waved jauntily at him, and Aziraphale tried not to scowl back.
“What are you doing here?” he asked Crowley cautiously when he arrived at the entrance of the slightly shabby, run-down church. Crowley couldn’t cross the threshold, of course. It was holy ground.
“Visiting,” Crowley said. “Thought you might want to hear about how your assignment in Poland had gone.”
“Oh, yes.” Aziraphale felt another flicker of guilt. “Was it alright?”
“It went well, all things considered. All the right people remain un-assassinated. Even gave an artist a bit of divine inspiration while I was there. Not really so different from what I normally do.” Crowley smiled widely, looking pleased with himself.
“Ah,” Aziraphale said. “Well, that is good to know.”
“Buy me a drink as a thank you?” Crowley said, half a request and half not. “Or would it be too scandalous for you to be seen with a handsome stranger?”
Aziraphale attempted a glare, and Crowley returned it with a blithe smile. “Oh, alright then,” Aziraphale said.
“You’ve got to come back to London,” Crowley told him later, on his third drink. “The Plague’s been over for years now. You won’t recognize it. I don’t understand how you can stand to live in the middle of nowhere like this.”
Aziraphale looked at him for a long moment. He was wearing his odd glasses, and he appeared to be quite at home perched on a stool at the local tavern, rambling to Aziraphale about the politics of the Jagiellonian dynasty.
“I don’t understand,” Aziraphale said. “What are you getting out of this, exactly?”
Crowley looked taken aback. “I have to be getting something out of it?”
“Well, yes . It’s what you do.”
Crowley looked at him for a long moment. “Did it ever occur to you,” he said, “that I enjoy spending time with you?”
It hadn’t. Aziraphale felt a little shocked by the very idea, and maybe, deep down, a little pleased. “You do?” he said.
“Sure.” Crowley waved a hand dismissively at nothing in particular. “I mean… do these people understand what it’s like doing my job? No. Does anyone Down There understand what it’s like being assigned to Earth for thousands of bloody years? No. But you get it.” He looked at Aziraphale, expression unreadable behind those glasses. “Don’t you?”
Aziraphale didn’t answer for a moment. He hoped he was successful avoiding Crowley’s eyes. Then he said, “I’m not sure I can go back. Not after the Plague.”
He felt embarrassed as soon as he’d said it. Crowley nodded, though, looking a little distant.
“I understand,” he said. “I didn’t… couldn’t stand watching it myself.” He drummed his fingers against the top of the bar a little restlessly. “It’s different now, though. They rebuilt. They always come back.” He smiled. “Resilient little bastards.”
Aziraphale smiled back, in spite of himself. “There’s just something so… cruel, about the way they all died.”
“Part of the design, though, eh?” Crowley said, after a moment of awkward silence. “The treatments are worse than the diseases half the time.”
Aziraphale thought of the research and experiments squirreled away in his study — much of it cribbed from human thinkers, of course, but it was difficult sometimes for them to trace it across the centuries and kept track of what they’d already accomplished. It feel meaningful in a way that other work rarely did, more meaningful than ministering to the faithful or even performing minor, hidden miracles.
“I have some ideas,” Aziraphale said. “About exposure to disease in small doses, and the prevention of future infection—“ and that meant that he didn’t understand God’s creation in its full extent, not if there were things left to discover, and it meant that he might be encouraging humans to meddle in affairs where they didn’t belong, but Crowley didn’t point out any of that.
“You could tell me about it,” he offered instead. “I should keep up with the latest work of the enemy, after all.”
Aziraphale hid a smile behind a sip of mead. “Yes, alright,” he said.
Aziraphale’s desk was covered in papers, scribbled letters and proofs for pages to be mass-produced via the printing press technology invented a few years before. Crowley slammed down the letter he had received with enough force that they all lifted off the surface before slowly fluttering back down.
“Did you have anything to do with this?” he demanded.
Crowley could hear his voice shaking slightly. Aziraphale looked at him with slightly raised eyebrows.
“Hello to you too,” he said, picking up the letter gingerly. “What’s this all about?”
Crowley gritted his teeth. “It’s… have you been to Spain lately?”
“What? No, not this century.” Aziraphale scanned the letter, and an expression of dismay gradually dawned on his face. “Oh — this is—“
“I didn’t do any of it,” Crowley interrupted, before Aziraphale could accuse him of anything. “I wasn’t involved, I just got this and I don’t—“ He waved a hand in a vague, frustrated motion.
“I wouldn’t have thought you had,” Aziraphale said. He set the commendation Crowley had received down on his desk again and sighed, closing his eyes and shaking his head.
Crowley crossed his arms across his chest. “So were any of your people—“
“ No,” Aziraphale said. “No, we don’t — this isn’t really our line…”
“Oh, don’t give me that,” Crowley said sourly. “I know what you get up to. I remember the Crusades.”
Aziraphale waved a hand and a chair slid over from a corner of the room to where Crowley was standing. A bottle of wine and two slightly dusty glasses materialized from a shelf somewhere, and Aziraphale poured them each a glass.
“Well, we weren’t involved this time,” he said gently.
Crowley could feel the anger slowly draining out of him, and he knew it would be replaced by sadness and wasn’t willing to let it go. “They’re all your people, though, aren’t they?” he said bitterly. “The devout.”
Aziraphale pursed his lips. “Sit down, Crowley, won’t you?”
Reluctantly, Crowley did. “Heaven could make more of an effort, that’s all,” he said. “To prevent people from, from tearing each other apart like this, for his sake.”
“Are you making a moral argument, my dear?” Aziraphale said lightly.
The condescending tone of that made Crowley furious again. “I would never,” he said. “I simply don’t know how you’re not ashamed of what’s done in your name.”
Aziraphale ran a hand through his hair and looked unhappily into the distance. “They don’t explain the Plan to me, you know,” he said. “Not anymore than they explain it to you.”
Crowley could hear the uncertainty in Aziraphale’s voice, and it made him feel softer. It was a terrible thing, he thought, to be trapped in Heaven’s way of thinking, and Aziraphale was intelligent enough to feel the contradictions, was more empathetic than most angels for all the good that would do him. But he’d never be able to break away from Heaven.
Crowley couldn’t really blame him, when the only alternative was Hell.
He reached over and took a sip of the wine set in front of him, while Aziraphale awkwardly reshuffled the papers on his desk. “Right,” he said. “Difficult to… to know what’s part of the grand design. Ants cannot comprehend the intentions of a man, and all that.”
“We’re hardly ants,” Aziraphale said, without much enthusiasm.
“Worse than that. We have to see the design and not know what it means. Like reading almost all of a book, but they take it away from you before you’re allowed to see the last chapter.”
Aziraphale smiled at him, that sad half-smile he had sometimes that looked faintly wistful and made Crowley’s chest feel strangely tight. “You know, my dear,” he said, and there was that term again, when had he started calling Crowley that? Was that how humans spoke to each other now, in Aziraphale’s circles? “You really do have a bit of a good heart, deep down.”
“I do not,” Crowley snapped. “Just think you’re all hypocritesss, that’ss all.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Not unreasonable,” he said. “Not at all.”
Aziraphale had been keeping an eye on London’s newest favorite playwright. He’d developed quite a sense over the years for spotting which literary crazes were just fads and which were something more, and this was much more. If he were able to get his hands on some first folios — long after the live theatre performances he faded from living memory, people would still want to read those.
He went to see one of the man’s plays, which involved two young lovers from rival families sacrificing reputation and good sense to be together. An old story, but one he enjoyed, and the use of language was extraordinary.
He was quite swept up in it until he saw the actor playing the suitor Romeo’s hotheaded young friend.
He hadn’t known beforehand that Crowley had taken up acting.
Crowley wasn’t half bad either; he had his own dramatic death scene, and he played it to the hilt, screaming “A plague! On both your houses!” with great relish as he swooned to the ground, a victim of a prop sword.
Aziraphale was eager enough to tell him about the coincidence of their both being present that he abused his powers of charm a little to sneak backstage afterwards, weaving in amongst the cast and looking around for Crowley or for the playwright whose work he’d performed.
He spotted them, suddenly, together, standing quite close to one another in a corner half-hidden behind a costume rack. They were speaking with their faces very close together and Crowley had a hand on the other man’s forearm that looked… well, affectionate.
“Antonio,” said the playwright quietly, “you were wonderful as always,” and Crowley was laughing and leaning in closer to him and Aziraphale had to say something before he saw anything else.
“Crowley!” he called loudly. “What an interesting show!”
“Aziraphale!” Crowley said, turning around and grinning, and then his face fell when he saw the look on Aziraphale’s face. “What are you, um, doing here?”
“I have to talk to you,” Aziraphale said grimly.
Crowley gave an apologetic look to the playwright, who merely nodded (fondly?) at him, and slid over to join Aziraphale. He looked shiftily from side to side. “Um, alright,” he said, and quickly ushered Aziraphale into a small, cramped space that must have been his dressing room. “What’s wrong?”
Aziraphale couldn’t think where to start. “Antonio?” he said. “Are you pretending to be Italian now?”
Crowley sighed in irritation. “Not any more than I’m usually pretending to be English,” he said. “I’m not any of it. Anyway, we’ve spent enough time in Rome.”
He had a point — every interaction they had with humans was, by its nature, dishonest — but there was something that rankled him about Crowley going around calling himself Antonio, leaning over into the playwright’s personal space and whispering things to him and putting a hand affectionately on his arm —
Oh. Well, that was another matter entirely.
“If you’re trying something with him, you should have told me,” Aziraphale said indignantly. “It’s part of the Arrangement. And I never thought you got involved so, so personally. It seems a bit tawdry, if I’m being honest. Anthony.”
Crowley lowered his dark glasses momentarily so Aziraphale could see him rolling his eyes.
“Oh, don’t be childish,” Aziraphale huffed.
“Childish?” Crowley snapped. “You’re the one who’s suddenly decided to follow me around and stick your nose into my private affairs.”
The gall of this was almost shocking to Aziraphale — demons didn’t have private affairs, demons tempted . Demons entangled their prey in idolatry, entrapped mortals into wickedness.
It was just that he had never envisioned Crowley doing any of that, not this way.
“So you are having an affair with him,” he said.
Crowley’s eyes blazed with anger. “Are you serious? You’re upset about that? What are you going to do, report me to the archdeacon?”
“Well, I would have liked to have had a chance to intervene!” Aziraphale said helplessly. “It’s very poor form of you to go around tempting great figures into sin without even giving me a chance!”
Crowley burst into laughter. He went on laughing for what felt like a full minute, which Aziraphale stood there and glared at him, feeling furious in a way he couldn’t entirely explain to himself. He thought that he would have liked to knock the glasses off of Crowley’s face, and then immediately felt ashamed of himself for thinking something so violent.
“Angel,” Crowley said slowly, as though he were explaining something to a very small child, or a bishop, “I’m not tempting anyone into anything. Not professionally . We’re simply spending some time together. Recreationally.”
Aziraphale simply flailed for words for a moment.
“You can do that?” he said eventually, meaning And you never told me?
“Sure,” said Crowley. He looked cautious and reserved, and, Aziraphale realized, almost self-conscious. “I’m not, you know, incapable of— I have my own. Interests.”
“Do you,” said Aziraphale, wonderingly. And you never told me . “This is something you’ve done… before?”
Crowley sighed. “I mean, you have been to Rome...? Not that this is any of your concern,” he added, voice edging back to anger. “I do not need your judgment, and by the way, I think this is pretty narrow-minded of you. To start staring at me like a scandalized nun over this of all sins.”
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said, and tried to collect himself and the startling new thoughts all rattling around inside of his head. “I don’t mean to sound judgmental, really, I just thought it was—“
“You thought it was business,” Crowley said, leaning against the doorframe in a way that affected leisure. “What’s Heaven’s stance on the sin of Sodom these days, anyway? I can hardly keep track.”
“That’s not the sin of Sodom,” Aziraphale said instinctively, and tried very hard not to visualize anything.
Heaven’s stance could be influenced by the church’s as well, was the thing, not just the other way around. It was generally thought that anything which distracted the mind from God was a negative on the celestial ledger, and the more disapproval something met with, the more it tended to distract.
Aziraphale wouldn’t have said he agreed with it, but it was Policy.
“It’s not a high priority,” he said. “But it’s not… encouraged.”
“Hmm.” Crowley looked distant for a moment, and then added, “I happen to like him, by the way. I’m not in the habit of memorizing iambic pentameter for just any man.”
“You like him.”
“Right,” Crowley said. His mouth was a hard line, almost a challenge.
He couldn’t mean it in the way a human would have, of course. He meant it was an amusement for him, a distraction, like botany or that century he’d learned how to weave tapestries.
“Right,” Aziraphale echoed.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley said, “haven’t you ever…” but he must have seen the expression on Aziraphale’s face, because he trailed off.”
“ No , I haven’t. I’m an angel.”
Which didn’t mean much, because of course angels had . But Aziraphale hadn’t. Couldn’t.
“Right,” said Crowley again, his mouth twisted into an odd frown.
“Well. I’m sorry to have bothered you,” Aziraphale said, and he maneuvered around Crowley as quickly and gracefully as he could in the small space and left.
Aziraphale couldn’t say why it bothered him so much that the matter kept returning to his mind in the subsequent weeks and months. He had always had a very liberal attitude toward love in all of its forms; more liberal than Heaven’s, at many points. He had tried to protect more than a few pairs of lovers cast aside by their families and communities. But to think of Crowley in that context —
Well, it was because he was a demon, of course. Crowley was a pleasant person to have around, but he was at the end of the day unholy, and he couldn’t, fundamentally, feel things in that human way. It wasn’t really fair of him, Aziraphale decided, to go around leading on that playwright and whatever other mortal men there had been, letting them think he was the same sort of being they were, probably letting them imagine he might really care for them.
Yes, Aziraphale decided, that was what really bothered him about it. How terrible to love someone so different from yourself, someone who could never love you in return.
Crowley sent Aziraphale the letter asking him to meet in Vienna with the best intentions in the world.
Certain expressions about good intentions did have a bit of truth to them.
He’d thought it was quite a nice gesture, getting them tickets to see one of the greatest working musicians today. He knew music was among the pleasures of the senses Aziraphale wouldn’t admit to enjoying, but it wasn’t any kind of temptation . They’d had such a strange interaction at the Globe, Aziraphale acting displeased with him in a way that he hadn’t in years, and Crowley didn’t like that. He’d hung around the London theater scene for a few years afterward, but it had started to get dreadfully political, and he thought it was time to patch things up.
Crowley wouldn’t have admitted it, not to him anyway, but Aziraphale was probably his best friend. Maybe his only friend, if you took the long view of things. He could be moralistic and pedantic and old-fashioned, but Crowley didn’t get bored with him the way he did nearly everyone else, and Aziraphale had been around a lot longer than everyone else.
Instead of appreciating the gesture, though, Aziraphale had spent the entire dinner after the show trying to talk about work, and then eyeing Crowley with suspicion when he hadn’t responded and attempting to needle Crowley about the violinist.
“Is your interest… professional?” Aziraphale asked. “He’s very devout, you know.”
Crowley rolled his eyes. Aziraphale could be so dreadfully serious, so narrow in his worldview. Crowley considered himself a high achiever, but everyone needed time off. Everyone needed to have hobbies.
“It’s not professional,” he said. “And it’s not personal either. It’s just music, Aziraphale, it’s not sinful or holy, just… art.”
Aziraphale’s eyes narrowed. “Well,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s true.”
Crowley twirled a flute of champagne in his fingers and leaned across the table toward him. “Did you really think about the mind of you-know-who while you were listening to that concert? Do you think about his blessings while you’re eating sachertorte, or is that allowed to exist for its own sake?”
Aziraphale shook his head slightly. “Now, Crowley, I didn’t want to argue about philosophy today.”
Crowley fell silent for a moment, but only for a moment, because he couldn’t resist speaking up again. “You know we haven’t been involved in everything ,” he said. “There are all kinds of things on Earth neither of us created or even interfered with. We’re not the only ones with free will.”
“We barely have that, I’d say,” Aziraphale said mildly. “Now, my dear, if you don’t mind, I would just like to talk about music.”
Crowley couldn’t help feeling fondness for him, that was the difficult thing. There had always been something about Aziraphale, something different about him, and Crowley often thought he might be able to change, really change, in a way other angels just didn’t. He had changed, at least, from the guardian of the gate Crowley had known back in Eden. But every time they got close to the essential question, the one that had caused the rebellion, Aziraphale drew back.
So Crowley would let it go.
They did talk about music, and about food, and Aziraphale talked excitedly about movable type and Crowley complained about how one-note Italian art had gotten lately.
When they left the restaurant, Aziraphale linked his arm through Crowley’s as they walked, and this was a perfectly normal and human thing to do, and Crowley suddenly couldn’t look him in the eye.
“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale said abruptly, as though he had just remembered something. “Do you remember — well, it was a while ago, the first time I, ah, had a bit too much to drink?”
Crowley laughed. “How could I forget?”
Aziraphale clicked his tongue at him scoldingly. “In any case, I asked you if you thought I was an individual?”
“Yes?” said Crowley, who had never known the reason behind that.
“Well, I wanted you to know I’ve decided I am,” Aziraphale said. “And I’ve decided not to let it trouble me too much. It might even be a benefit in the long term.”
He smiled, looking pleased with himself, and Crowley found that he was pleased with it too, that it felt like a sign of progress toward some goal he hadn’t quite defined.
“Glad to hear it,” he said, and they continued walking together, arm in arm.
Aziraphale was a warm and solid presence next to him, and Crowley looked at him out of the corner of his eye when he knew Aziraphale wasn’t looking, just to check, as though the way he looked would change, as though it ever did.
He was still radiant.
“Do you know what I think?” Crowley said over lunch in Paris. “I think it’s all perfectly fine.”
“Oh, do you?” Aziraphale said, and he couldn’t help feeling slightly amused. Crowley’s expression was determined and haughty in a way that might have been convincing to someone else but that Aziraphale could see through well enough. He didn’t think it was perfectly fine. That was thing about Crowley, despite all of the time he spent pretending otherwise. He was an idealist.
It wasn’t called the Reign of Terror yet, but the name was fairly apropos. Like so many movements, it had started out well and it had spiraled out of control. Aziraphale had enlisted Crowley to come with him to try and calm things down a bit, and Crowley had, but he was objecting on principle to the mission.
“Yes, I do ,” Crowley insisted. He delicately maneuvered a dessert fork over to Aziraphale’s plate to steal a bite of his creme brûlée, ignoring Aziraphale’s noise of protest. “It’s the cost of doing business. If you have to kill a few people to create a brave new world, I’m all for it.”
“Committed to the cause of the proletariat, are you?” Aziraphale said drily. “Your sympathies lie entirely with the working man?”
“Yes,” Crowley said, and took a sip of his absurdly expensive burgundy wine.
Aziraphale looked at him, and kept looking, and then suddenly there was a knot in his throat and a strangely panicked feeling in his chest.
Crowley hadn’t done anything especially different from what he was always doing, acting in that maddening and endearing way that made Aziraphale want to be around him more than he ever wanted to be around anyone else. And maybe it was simply the weight of the years and the frantic quality of Paris and Crowley’s smile.
He couldn’t say what it was, precisely. But he knew he was on the precipice of a revelation which would not be easily stored away in a dusty corner of his mind.
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” Aziraphale said. “I think you’re dreadfully bourgeois, my dear.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows. “I am not !” he said. “I’m the author of disobedience! The inventor of rebellion!”
Aziraphale laughed. “Who told you that?”
“People have .”
He was smiling, despite his offended tone. He rested his chin on one hand and leaned forward, looking at Aziraphale intently. “And I suppose you’d be perfectly happy living in some agrarian paradise, hmm? I can just imagine you as a goat farmer.”
“There’d be less wickedness to worry about, anyway.”
“Oh, less wickedness? Hopefully not so little that we’d both be out of a job.” Crowley took another sip of wine and sighed. “You know, I quite liked the ideas they were discussing in the beginning. Liberty, equality, all that. Secularism.”
“Oh, please. It all seemed preferable to what we’ve got now, anyway, all over the continent. But they couldn’t stick to it, could they? It always ends up in the same place, and it’s petty and cruel and small-minded. Just like the first rebellion,” he added, and his voice was quiet and sincere.
That was a strange thought, and it occurred to Aziraphale that he’d never once asked Crowley why, exactly, he had fallen.
“You always have another option, you know,” he said, instead of asking.
Crowley laughed. “I don’t think I do,” he said. “Not really. But shouldn’t we get to trying to calm things down now? I’ll get the check.”
Aziraphale wasn’t English, not technically, in the sense that he wasn’t from England. The Garden of Eden was not in England — it was in Missouri. Moroni would later tell his prophet the truth about that, although he’d be demoted very permanently for playing that little trick.
But you didn’t have to be born in England to be English. People from all over the world became English all the time. If you lived somewhere long enough, you became a part of it, and it became a part of you.
And Aziraphale had certainly lived there long enough, had been assigned to the rainy, harmless-seeming little island long before it became so awfully dangerous to the rest of the world. He felt a British sense of pride for the nation’s successes and shame for its sins. He was deeply attached to the way his own country made tea. He had strong negative opinions on the royals, but he still went to all of the weddings.
So in another and perhaps more real sense, he was English.
He came to think of his affinity for humans, and for certain types of humans, in similar terms. What he had started out as wasn’t the same as what they were. But it settled on you over a period of time, like dust, or like a heavy blanket. If you were going to be a person, you had to be a sort of person, and Aziraphale hadn’t exactly chosen what sort to become. He had been getting little nods of understanding and heavy glares of suspicion since before any of that business with Sodom and Gomorrah. He had had offers, over the years, from young men with the potential to be great bishops or poets who were for the moment more concerned with sins of the flesh. He hadn’t ever said yes, but certainly sometimes he’d wanted to.
Of course, angels were naturally no gender in particular, but this was the form he’d worn for thousands of years. Attempting to be anything else would have felt unnatural, and surely no angel should deny his essential nature, so he hadn’t.
On any hierarchy of sins it ought to have been fairly low, what he was guilty of, but the problem was that it rated all, when you were meant to be a being of pure righteousness. That was not compatible with even a small sin, and an angel who was an individual was in great danger indeed.
He had never asked Crowley how he thought about it. Of course it was different if you’d actually done something, rather than simply thinking it. Some among the faithful would say that there wasn’t a difference, but it should have been obvious to anyone with a real understanding of living in the world that there was, there always was.
And maybe, Aziraphale would think, he was a coward for allowing that part of himself to live only in thoughts, when so many others, who were only human, had risked life and exile and stared down their own beliefs about their eternal souls.
When he was with Crowley — when he looked at him and saw his own face reflected in his sunglasses, when Crowley smiled at him with just one corner of his mouth quirked upwards or bit his lip with teeth slightly too pointed to be human or sprawled halfway across Aziraphale reaching for a bottle of wine — he was certain he was a coward.
“So,” said Aziraphale, “what do you think?”
Crowley looked the door of the shop, which was imposingly middle-class and officious. He tried to imagine what sort of person would be coming in here to purchase books, and concluded quickly that he would find them very boring.
“A.Z. Fell and Co.,” he read from the neat little sign Aziraphale had hung in the window. “Who’s the ‘and Co.?’”
“Oh, it’s only me. I just thought it sounded more official.”’ He beamed, looking deeply proud of himself, and held the door open for Crowley. “Go on, come in.”
Aziraphale had spent much of the time since the invention of written language translating fragments of poetry into other languages or painstakingly illustrating the Gospels or, more recently, hovering around newspaper offices trying to sneak some truth into London’s broadsheets.
But Crowley hadn’t had any idea how vast the volume of material he’d collected over the years was. The bookshelves in the store stretched to the ceiling, with no clear signs of being organized, although Crowley was certain they were meticulously ordered according to a system only Aziraphale understood. Occasionally scattered in amongst the tumbling heaps of books was a Mesopotamian vase or ancient Chinese statuette. Perched in a place of prominence was a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works Crowley had given him years ago; he’d had no idea Aziraphale had kept it.
“I thought it was be nice to have somewhere a bit more permanent to live,” Aziraphale said. “It does got tiresome having to change flats every decade or so when the neighbors start to notice you’re not aging, but, well, an antiques bookseller who stays under the radar and keeps careful hours, that could be safer.”
Crowley shook his head and laughed. “You’re mad,” he said. “You’ll never keep people out of here.”
Aziraphale looked distressed. “Oh… do you think so?”
“Yes! Every historian and lonely old woman who goes antiquing is going to find this place within a week.” He couldn’t help smirking a little at Aziraphale’s disappointed expression. “You’ll have to use some really shady miracles to keep them away.”
“Is that your way of saying you like it?”
He did. The place was exactly like a physical manifestation of Aziraphale’s, well, essence. It was disheveled and eclectic and filled with the accumulation of thousands of years of words and warm in that way that had nothing to do with actual temperature. If Crowley had been honest he would have said that he loved it.
“Interesting choice of names,” he said instead. “A.Z. Fell. Because, I mean. You haven’t.”
Aziraphale’s eyes flickered away from him, an expression of guilt crossing his face. “I didn’t mean anything by it, dear boy,” he said. “I can’t very well go by my real name.”
Crowley wandered over to the shelf where it sat and picked picked up the Shakespeare collection. “Nice to see you appreciating Will,” he said.
“He has his moments. ‘Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.’”
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings,” Crowley rejoined, and Aziraphale’s smile faltered.
Crowley allowed the book to fall open to Twelfth Night, one of the plays it which he had originated a role. Aziraphale had underlined all of Antonio’s lines.
“You wanted to ask me,” Crowley said abruptly, tactlessly. “When we were in Paris. You wanted to ask me why I fell.”
He’d been thinking of it for months, of the way Aziraphale had looked at him across that table, because he hated it when Aziraphale looked at him that way. It was laced with pity and suspicion and it reminded him that they could never be equals, that Aziraphale would always look at him and see, at least partially, an Adversary.
“You don’t have to say…” Aziraphale started.
“I never meant to,” Crowley said. “But you know what it’s like there. You go along, you sing in the Heavenly choir, and then at some point it starts to suffocate you and you think, this can’t be all that there is. And then someone comes along telling you it can be different and you can be something else and you believe him, I guess. I
believed him.” He laughed hollowly. “I thought he was the most brilliant one of the whole lot, you know. The Lightbringer. And he told me it’d be different. And then — I fell when he did, I guess.”
Aziraphale stared at him.
“I was his proper right-hand man for a while, before Eden,” Crowley added.
“But you don’t even like Satan,” Aziraphale said.
“No. I thought I did. But Hell’s not better . It’s just the other side. He didn’t want to change anything, he just wanted to be the one sitting on the throne.” It seemed necessary at this point to just get the whole thing out, for Aziraphale to understand, so he continued. “And then Adam and Eve came along and I started to think I’d done the right thing, with the apple. That if I’d wanted a choice between Good and Evil at least I could give it to them.”
Aziraphale was looking at him very intently, but his expression was unreadable. “So you stayed,” he said.
“Yes. If I had a choice in the matter I’d just be… I don’t know. I’d just be human, I suppose.”
He hoped to Someone that the expression in Aziraphale’s eyes wasn’t pity, but it probably was, it almost certainly was.
“It changes you,” Aziraphale said hesitantly. “Earth. Even me.”
Maybe his expression wasn’t pity, Crowley thought suddenly. Maybe it was something else.
Before he could reach the end of the train of thought, Aziraphale had reached across the short distance between them and taken one of Crowley’s hands in both of his. Crowley’s heartbeat, which he usually didn’t bother with, thudded to life involuntarily and painfully in his chest.
“Angel,“ he started to say, and couldn’t think of what to say next.
“My dear Crowley,” Aziraphale answered, barely above a whisper, and he kissed him.
He kissed like someone who hadn’t done it before, soft and careful and with dry, closed lips and Crowley felt like something inside of him was breaking open, shattering.
He didn’t mean to respond at first, but then Aziraphale drew back and looked at him with these frightened, questioning eyes, and there was nothing for it except to grab ahold of the front of his jacket and kiss him back, for a small eternity, until he had absolutely forgotten that he didn’t need his heart to keep beating and he didn’t need to breathe, and he was dizzy enough to have to learn against one of the bookshelves for a moment.
Aziraphale was breathing heavily too, and the way he looked at him was definitely not pitying, and he smiled like the sun. There was, Crowley realized, the actual glow of a faint halo around his head, and Crowley looked at him and never wanted to stop looking, because Aziraphale was the brightest thing in all of Heaven or Earth, and that was exactly why this couldn’t be happening.
“You can’t just do that,” Crowley said. “You really, really can’t.”
“I thought about it,” Aziraphale said, and his tone was quiet and hushed and almost, maybe, reverent. “About whether this is a sin. And I don’t know if it is — I should know if it is — but I don’t know if I can care as much as I should, because I think I—“
Without thinking about, Crowley clapped a hand over his mouth to prevent him from saying it. He didn’t know why, but he was suddenly certain the words would burn him as badly as any holy oath.
“Don’t,” he hissed, “don’t sssay that,” and even though they were completely alone, even though there couldn’t have been anyone else lurking amongst the bookshelves, he was absolutely certain someone would hear.
Aziraphale blinked at him, and Crowley took his hand away and stuffed both of them into his pockets, shrinking back against the books.
His train of thought was slowly catching up with the sensation of creeping dread in his stomach, and it went like this: Angels were made to obey. They were agents of Heaven and nothing more or less. It was one thing to make a few deals with a demon, to trade favors and have lunch sometimes, but there was no way they would stand for the kind of betrayal Aziraphale was talking about.
And if you didn’t cut it as an angel, there was only one other option.
Aziraphale would be an absolutely miserable demon. He’d hate it, he’d hate the thought of working to corrupt anyone’s soul, he’d hate Hell even more. And in time he’d hate Crowley too, because how could he not, if Crowley allowed that to happen?
No. He wouldn’t do that to Aziraphale, wouldn’t let Aziraphale do that to himself.
Crowley made his heart stop beating in that awful human way, because he couldn’t stand it anymore.
My stars shine darkly over me; the malignancy of my fate might, perhaps, distemper yours; therefore I shall crave of you your leave that I may bear my evils alone , he thought. He still remembered all of the lines. It were a bad recompense for your love to lay any of them on you.
“Angel,” he said slowly, trying to get the tone right — he thought he remembered it, from thousands of years ago. “Did you really think just because I told you a sad story about the rebellion that I could, what? Love you?”
He injected as much venom into it as possible. Aziraphale looked at him as though he’d been slapped.
“I’m a demon , Aziraphale,” Crowley said, carefully condescending. “ That changes you. You’re mistaking self-pity for something you want to see.”
“I don’t believe you,” Aziraphale said stubbornly after a moment, but Crowley could see that it wasn’t quite true. “You don’t mean that.”
“Come on,” he said. “I like having you around, but it’s not any different from Shakespeare or da Vinci or all the rest of them. It’s just been longer. I thought you knew that.”
Aziraphale’s expression flickered with doubt, but he took a half-step closer to Crowley. “I think it is different,” he said, voice low and maybe, little angry.
“You’re right,” said Crowley, “because you’d Fall.”
Aziraphale flinched visibly at that, and Crowley thought that he had been right, that he’d known that was the line that couldn’t be crossed, not without doing permanent damage.
“If you think it’s worth it, then go ahead,” he said. “Kiss me again. If you’d give up Heaven for it.”
He could hardly stand to keep looking at Aziraphale’s horribly wounded eyes, but he did, he had to, until Aziraphale finally stopped looking at him and took a deep, shaky breathe.
“I suppose I ought to know better,” he said ruefully. “I’ve always known I shouldn’t trust you.”
There were tears starting to sting at Crowley’s eyes then, and he was certain he couldn’t force out another word without breaking completely, so he turned and walked out without giving Aziraphale another glance, the chime of the bell of the shop’s door ringing horribly behind him.
It was the right thing. It was what you did if you loved someone, he thought; you sacrificed yourself, you kept them safe. It felt worse than any form of torture Hell had ever devised.
He waited until he was safely back in his flat, alone, and then he screamed, cursing God and Satan and the world and everything else. He tore off his sunglasses and flung them aside, where they shattered on the cold marble floor, and this at least was satisfying, so he pulled all of his wine glasses out of the cabinets and flung them, one by one, at the opposite wall, and when that was over he knocked over a series of houseplants in nearly-priceless Italian vases, and when that was over he stood in the middle of his ruined kitchen and felt nothing at all.
You’ll be sorry about this in the morning, the scattered glasses and soil seemed to say to him in a voice that sounded suspiciously familiar.
Crowley decided he didn’t give a damn about seeing the morning at all, and he went to bed and stayed there for nearly a hundred years.
Afterwards, Aziraphale had simply thought they would see each other again eventually. They always did.
He was angry at first; of course he was angry. But not so much that he hadn’t wanted to see Crowley, to speak to him again and say — he didn’t know what, exactly. Some magic set of words, he supposed, that would make him realize he hadn’t meant it at all and fall into Aziraphale’s arms and decide he’d been wrong all along and they really both belonged on Heaven’s side, together.
But what were weeks at first had turned into months and then slowly into years and Aziraphale had not heard from Crowley. And it was — it was not, Aziraphale found, less painful with time. It occupied as much of his time as ever, a persistent ache in the back of his mind, a part of him that had been pulled away from him to wherever Crowley was now.
Aziraphale wrote letters, at first simply the useful sort, relating recent anecdotes and commenting on the balance of power between their employers. But as time wore on they became something else, something a little desperate.
I am sorry, you must know that , he wrote, and if you would just give me the chance I’m certain I could help you, and I think of you so often I feel as though I must be going mad and if the years we’ve known one another have meant anything to you the least you could do is give me the courtesy of replying.
After a few years, the letters began returning unopened. There was no answer at what had previously been Crowley’s London flat; it was, by all appearances, unoccupied.
He even tried a summoning circle, chalking occult symbols on the floor of the bookshop one night. It produced no effect, and Aziraphale wondered if the ritual was inaccurate or if summoning a demon simply wasn’t something an angel could do.
There were worse possibilities, of course. There was every chance Crowley had not been in touch not because he didn’t want to be, but because he had been recalled to Hell. Or had been punished for some indiscretion, for something his buried good heart had led him to do that Hell had disapproved of.
Aziraphale sighed and tossed away his chalk. He took out an old copy of one of Dante’s poems he’d been translating, but it didn’t hold his attention for long.
He thought of Crowley leaning over his shoulder while he was reading, gently mocking whatever was on the page, of Crowley turning up to announce he needed Aziraphale’s help with some new vaguely villainous, mostly pointless scheme, of Crowley insisting he come along to some new restaurant or theatrical production or art show that always sounded unbearably modern but turned out to at least be interesting.
Aziraphale felt something he’d never felt in well over five thousand years of existence, and it was almost worse than sadness or grief or the kind of sharp yearning that he couldn’t shake when he thought of Crowley. It was boredom .
Time should have been different, he thought, for someone who had lived through so much of it, someone with eternity stretching before them. But the days had begun to drag on more slowly than they had before. He looked out at eternity in front of him and he thought, perhaps, that he didn’t want it.
There was a presence in Aziraphale’s shop, and it wasn’t human.
It was a demonic presence, and a demonic presence hadn’t crossed the threshold of the bookshop in quite a few years, even though Aziraphale had, out of some kind of vain hope, never consecrated the place.
But the presence wasn’t Crowley, either. It wore the shape of a boy of about sixteen years old, with greasy dark hair and spots, and it was perusing a copy of Augustine’s Confessions.
Aziraphale coughed politely as he stepped out from behind a bookshelf, and the boy dropped the book and looked up at him in surprise.
“Hello there,” Aziraphale said pointedly. “Could I help you with something?”
The young demon smiled. He had very sharp teeth, and too many of them. “Just the person I was looking for!” he said. “Mr. Fell.”
He was putting on an air of being intimidating, and even took a few steps toward Aziraphale in what he probably thought was an impressive stalk.
Aziraphale felt a little insulted that Hell hadn’t sent someone more experienced. Heaven had never had any need for reproduction, but their demonic counterparts had put it to use, and now there were whole generations who had been born into it — never been angels, never fallen. The one in his bookshop couldn’t have been a day over three hundred years old.
“Augustine was one of my great triumphs, you know,” Aziraphale said conversationally. “Crowley had such a head start, but I caught up eventually. I don’t think he ever got over that one.”
The young demon narrowed his eyes. “Well, Crowley isn’t here,” he said. “And my uncle says he’s not a very good tempter, anyway.”
“Do you know where he is?” Aziraphale said, and heard the shift in his tone of voice to something much more urgent, and turned his face away in the hope of avoiding the boy’s gaze.
“No,” the demon said ruefully. “Somewhere on Earth. He hasn’t filed any reports in ages. That’s why they sent me.”
And that was a relief, in a way, but mostly overwhelmingly disappointing
Aziraphale took in the boy’s defensive posture and shabby coat. He didn’t look like he had much experience on Earth at all; demons who had were generally very well-dressed. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Um — it’s Wormwood.”
“Wormwood. Would you like a cup of tea?”
The young demon looked nonplussed. “ No , I wouldn’t like a cup of tea ,” he said mockingly. “I’d like you to stop interfering with my patient.”
Aziraphale frowned. “Patient?”
“The woman I’m working on,” Wormwood explained haughtily, as if Aziraphale were painfully slow. “Saoirse McClanahan? In Ireland?”
Aziraphale had never heard the name before, and said so. Wormwood glared at him, his mouth set in a hard, angry line.
“Don’t lie to me, Fell,” he sneered. “You’re the only enemy agent in the whole British isles, and I know you’re interfering.”
“What exactly is this Saoirse McClanahan doing?” Aziraphale inquired.
Wormwood stood up to his full height, clearly about to begin a recitation he was proud of. “Saoirse turned against the church when she was thirteen and found the local priest amorously engaged with a married woman,” he recited. “Since then she has been rebellious and has in her early twenties turned to drinks and dancing and cavorting with unsuitable men.”
“Congratulations,” Aziraphale said drily. Demons, he thought, ordinary demons, could be so pious .
“But,” Wormwood continued, “she has lately developed a contradictory interest in medicine and midwifery, and now intends to make something of herself rather than frittering away her life as she should ! And I know you have something to do with it,” he concluded, and wagged a finger at Aziraphale almost sternly.
Aziraphale couldn’t help laughing. “You believe it requires angelic interference for a rebellious young woman to develop an interest in helping other women through childbirth and suffering? One practically follows the other, young man.”
Wormwood blinked. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean,” Aziraphale said, “that there are worse kinds of sin than you’re imagining. You limit yourself to the temptations of pleasure, which are no match for the temptations of hatred and zeal for leading a soul astray. In the right measure, they can even lead a soul to a better understanding of good.”
Crowley had said that to him once. Perhaps he was the source of too much of Aziraphale’s thinking about sin, but then he had always seemed to be correct. Dancing and drinking and unsuitable men had inspired as much greatness as they’d prevented, though none of the three had generally worked out well, Aziraphale thought, for himself.
Wormwood looked taken aback. “But — selfishness is demonic. It’s wicked to disappoint your family and the people you’ve grown up with, surely?”
“No,” said Aziraphale, “that’s human.” He walked over to the table where Wormwood’s discarded copy of the Confessions was lying. “Why don’t you take this? Free of charge. I have an earlier edition, signed by the author.”
Hesitantly, Wormwood took the book. “Then you have nothing to do with Saoirse?” he said.
“No. Though I’ll have to keep an eye on her now,” Aziraphale said, the latter mostly to himself and in mild annoyance.
The young demon frowned, looking distant and confused. “Then what do you do ?” he asked, and Aziraphale couldn’t help laughing again.
It was almost nice, he thought, to have some sort of adversary in Britain again. He crossed over to the another shelf and took down a few volume of moral philosophy. “Here,” he said, handing them to Wormwood, “you could try reading these as well. But I’ll want the Abélard back, if you please.”
Wormwood accepted the books, looking a bit scandalized. “I — I suppose I’ll read them,” he said, and then added, “To see the enemy’s point of view, of course.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Do let me know what you think.”
Looking around nervously, as though someone or something might be watching from inside the walls, Wormwood stuffed the books into his shoulder bag and practically scampered out.
He never did come back to the bookshop, although Aziraphale did receive the Abélard by mail a few years later, with no return address.
Aziraphale had always tried to be as helpful as he could, from a distance. He had written letters to courts pleadingly the cases of those arrested for unspeakable crimes as though he were an old friend; he had occasionally manipulated a judge’s thoughts in the correct direction. He would steer the hands of lost-looking young men and young women who entered the bookshop to potentially helpful volumes, which he would actually allow them to purchase. He tried to keep an eye on the fortunes of lovers like David and Jonathan, though the powers of an angel are often little enough help.
It was different, though, what he was doing now. This was purely selfish.
He had been spending time, in a bit of irony, with the local Hellfire Club. Officially he was monitoring any chances of the emergence of real Satanism.
He had engaged a young man from the club in a conversation about philosophy and religion, in the interest of gathering intelligence and it ended up being quite an interesting conversation. And Aziraphale always appreciated an interesting conversation, with someone who would challenge your point of view. They’d come back to the bookshop together, and he was perched on the edge of Aziraphale’s desk, looking comfortable in a way that made Aziraphale distinctly uncomfortable — but almost pleasantly so.
“And what do you think of sin?” the man, whose name was James, asked him sincerely. He was trailing a long cigarette holder through the air in a vague gesture. “Do you really believe in a god who’s watching us at every moment, judging everything we do?”
Aziraphale smiled. “I know He is always watching,” he said. “I do not know how severe His judgments might be, but…”
James leaned forward and kissed him.
For a moment, he didn’t know how to respond, and then, quite impulsively, he kissed back. He put a hand on the shoulder of this man that he hardly knew and pulled him closer and closed his eyes, kept them closed, and it felt —
He pulled away and looked at James, who was smiling at him in an eager, if slightly shy, way.
Aziraphale looked at him, and he was —- he was undeniably handsome, of course, in that way that involved dark hair and good cheekbones and didn’t bear thinking about. But he seemed so unbearably young, with the uncertain slump of his shoulders and his slightly parted lips. Aziraphale felt terribly old.
“I don’t… I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t think I can take this any further,” he said.
“Is it because you’re religious?” James said earnestly, and Aziraphale wanted to laugh.
“Not entirely,” he said, “although it is… partially that.”
“What else is it?” He sounded genuinely concerned.
Aziraphale thought it would be better not to say anything, to cut this off before it got any more personal than it already had, but the fact was that he had never spoken about this; not to anyone, not at all.
“There was someone,” he said. “Someone I… cared for, and I suppose I haven’t really moved on.”
James nodded understandingly. “That’s alright,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be anything serious…”
Aziraphale winced. “I don’t think I’m that sort of person, I’m afraid.”
James looked a little confused by that, and a little disappointed. “What was his name?”
That was surprising, to be asked. He suddenly remembered the time he’d spent as a priest, listening as parishioners gave their confessions and occasionally prompting with a well-placed question, and pictured himself in the opposite role. “Anthony,” he said, and that was a name he hadn’t said aloud recently. “It just didn’t… we didn’t want the same things.”
James’ eyes were wide with sympathy. “I understand completely,” he said. “We’ve all had our ill-fated love affairs.”
“It’s been a long time,” Aziraphale said, adjusting the lapels of his jacket nervously. “I don’t know why it hasn’t… stopped.”
James patted him on the shoulder, and Aziraphale felt absurd, being comforted by this man who couldn’t have been more than 25.
“It will,” he said with the confidence of the very young. “You’ll see, time heals all wounds eventually, as they say.”
Aziraphale couldn’t help laughing then. “I hope you’re right.”
There was an awkward silence, and eventually James stepped lightly done from the desk. He patted Aziraphale lightly on the shoulder again, seemingly just for something to do with his hands. “Well, if you ever need to talk about it,” he said, “I expect we’ll see each other again soon, Mr. Fell.”
Aziraphale smiled. “I do appreciate that.”
When he was gone, Aziraphale stared into the darkness of the shop and wished for a moment he had asked him to stay.
It hadn’t been like that with Crowley. It had been better, and at the same time so much worse. Even if he had wanted to feel that way about someone else — and what kind of angel would he be, if he wanted that? — how could he, with someone who would only ever be a brief moment compared to thousands of years?
Aziraphale decided he would do his best to ensure that young James met someone suitable for him, someone who would appreciate his smile and his earnestness and perhaps he could find something like a life with.
It would only be a minor miracle. He could keep it off the books.
When Crowley woke up, he went back to the bookshop. He wasn’t surprised to find it still there; when Aziraphale wanted to do something, he really committed.
He imagined Aziraphale’s first response would be shouting or at the very least cold, steely orders to leave at once. He slunk through the doorframe of the shop without any idea of what he was going to say, so he didn’t say anything at all, and instead just awkwardly cleared his throat and waited until Aziraphale looked up at him.
“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale said, and Crowley watched with hopeless fondness as the corners of his eyes were crinkled by a smile. “It is good to see you.”
Crowley had half-hoped that a century spent apart would have dulled his feelings, even though he’d spent most of it asleep. It was clear, though, by the time Aziraphale had brought him a cup of tea and started attempting to fill him in on the events of the past hundred years as quickly as possible, that it hadn’t worked.
Aziraphale stacked up mountains of books in front of him, rambling about the literary movements Crowley had missed.
“You have to read Wilde,” he said. “I knew him, a little, I’ll have to tell you about him sometime. I think you’ll appreciate his style. You would have liked him, if you’d met him.”
He gave Crowley a sharp look. “You’ve missed a great deal, you know.”
“I know,” Crowley mumbled. “I didn’t mean to, exactly, it just sort of… happened.
“I understand,” Aziraphale said. “I… I appreciate that you’ve come back, Crowley.”
Crowley looked down, avoiding his eyes, and he heard Aziraphale’s footsteps retreat back to the stockroom.
He opened the topmost of the books written by Oscar Wilde and read the inscription in the front.
A.Z. — in thanks for your friendship and counsel, despite all of my hysterics. From your favorite of the moral degenerates — Oscar
Crowley felt a sudden surge of annoyance that bordered on undeserved jealousy. He slammed the front cover of the volume back down.
“Oh, you’ll like this one,” Aziraphale said, returning from the back room and depositing a thick tome with a French title on the counter in front of him. “It’s about a French rebellion… they’ve had a few, since you’ve been gone. The author’s a bit Catholic, but don’t let it put you off.”
Crowley leafed through the pages of the volume; there were more than enough of them. “Thanks. Should only take me about another century to get through this one.”
He looked over at Aziraphale, who was now busy sorting through an archive of yellowed newspaper clippings, clearly plotting which ones to pawn off onto him. “Aziraphale,” he said, “aren’t you… aren’t you upset with me?”
Aziraphale looked up at him with an expression that was almost resigned. “Yes,” he said frankly. “I’ve been upset with you for decades, and I had no idea if something dreadful had happened to you or if you had simply decided not to see me. And now you’re back, and you’ve done something terribly selfish, and I am still happy to see you, my dear. I missed you.”
Demons shouldn’t have been able to feel the amount of shame that Crowley felt with Aziraphale looking at him like that, with that sad smile.
“A hundred years is a long time,” he said. “Even for us.”
“Yes, it is,” Aziraphale said. “But it’s only time. I haven’t changed.”
Their eyes met, and Aziraphale’s were not angry; they were hardly even sad. They were soft with affection, and Crowley wanted nothing more than to push aside the piles of books and paper and just kiss him. Nothing had changed, then. Which was why he couldn’t. Nothing had changed.
“And there’s no need to talk about anything else,” Aziraphale added a moment later. “Anything that — happened. I don’t blame you. It’s in your nature.”
Crowley didn’t know how to respond to that, so he looked away from him, opened the weighty novel and began looking for something else to talk about.
“Did I miss the Battle of Waterloo?” he said.
“Oh, yes,” Aziraphale said, and returned to his newspaper clippings. Then there was only the peaceful silence of the bookshop for a while, and it was as though nothing had ever happened between them, as though he had never left.
There was a hundred years’ more gathered dust in the bookshop, and the few things that had been new when Crowley had last been here had become antiques; most everything has had been replaced by something that was already battered again.
Aziraphale still dressed more or less the same way. He had a quill pen on his desk and he stole a glance at Crowley out of the corner of his eye when he couldn’t tell, because of the glasses, that Crowley was looking back.
It was the right decision, which was probably why it felt so wrong.
“‘Citizens, the 19th century is great, but the 20th century will be happy,’” Crowley read a few minutes later. “That sounds pretty good, angel.”
“I couldn’t stop it,” Aziraphale said.
He was sitting across from Crowley in the cafeteria of the facility, with dark circles under his eyes, wearing a name tag bearing the improbable name of Zephyr Hale. Aziraphale still hadn’t figured out phone calls, but he’d sent Crowley a message summoning him to New Mexico. He looked exhausted.
“I’m sure you did all you could,” Crowley said hesitantly.
He hadn’t received any instructions to intervene in the development of the atomic bomb. Aziraphale had, and he’d held it off as long as he could.
“I just don’t understand the science behind it,” Aziraphale muttered. “I didn’t know how to delay the process any further, not without anyone catching on… I couldn’t…”
Crowley felt a sharp pang of guilt, an emotion that now wasn’t nearly as unfamiliar as he would have liked it to be. “Well… He said he wouldn’t do it again,” he said, emphasizing the words in a way he knew would bring to mind a flooded planet and the first arc of a rainbow across the sky.
Aziraphale shook his head. “It wouldn’t be Him, though. Do you know what Oppenheimer said?” His hands were shaking slightly, clenched around a cup of tea that he wasn’t drinking. “I have become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
Crowley drummed his fingers nervously against the table at that. “Dramatic,” he muttered under his breath. “Wants to think he’s done something special. Humans have been finding new ways to kill each other since, well, always.”
He half-meant it, half-didn’t. There were always new kinds of cruelty, new kinds of death, but this was different. He’d read the prophets. This could be final.
“What do you suppose would happen to us if it were all over?” Aziraphale said, quietly.
To buy himself a little time, Crowley lit a cigarette with a snap of his fingers, handed it across the table to Aziraphale, and then lit another. Aziraphale accepted it with a hand that slightly shook.
“You worry too much, angel,” he said with false bravado. “It just isn’t their style. Instant vaporization? They’d go for something more narratively fulfilling.”
Aziraphale smiled a tight, reluctant smile. “I suppose they would,” he said. “All in the plan, isn’t it?”
Crowley returned his smile, nodded slightly. “All in the plan.”
Humans liked to believe that each of their wars was fought with a noble purpose, that each war was intended to end wars. You learned, eventually, that no war was ever noble, that few deaths were ever just, and that most of the soldiers on each side of every conflict were barely more than children and were driven by no greater purpose than fear, or misplaced hate, or wet socks.
This didn’t feel the same as any other war. It felt like a war to end war in the sense that it might end everything, or might change the nature of war itself into something more twisted and frightening than anything yet imagined.
Somewhere a woman with red hair threw her head back and laughed a hideous, inhuman laugh. A thing called Famine and a thing that was still, for the moment, called Pestilence walked the halls of power together and were welcomed everywhere they went. A thing called Death did what it had always done, everywhere, and all at once.
And then it was over, and the treaties were signed, but not before the bombs fell, those instruments of war that could end all wars.
All of Europe made Aziraphale’s head hurt, and then all of the world did as well.
He managed to stay away from London for months before Crowley came looking for him. When he found the shabby flat where Aziraphale had been staying, Crowley walked in (the door had been locked before, but it wasn’t now), kicked aside the pile of books on Christian apologetics lying on the floor, and threw Aziraphale’s last bottle of laudanum violently into the wall.
That was all before he had said a word, and Aziraphale flinched away from him, expecting shouting or even blows.
“What are you trying to do to yourself?” he demanded instead, voice shaking with an emotion that didn’t sound much like anger.
Aziraphale didn’t know. All of the things a human might have done, he couldn’t do, except for try and blot out the world with last century’s drugs.
“Can’t do it anymore,” he said instead, hoarsely, and he watched as Crowley half-collapsed next to him, against the wall where he’d been sitting surrounded by books for he didn’t remember how long.
Crowley exhaled, long and shaky and sad. “I understand,” he said. “I do.”
The silence that followed was long and unbearably tense. “Crowley,” Aziraphale said, in a voice he could barely hear. “I don’t… I don’t know…”
Crowley sat beside him silently, waiting for him to find the words.
“I don’t know if there’s been any point to anything I’ve tried to do at all,” Aziraphale mumbled. “They tell me it’s all sorted out on the other side, that there are rewards for the good and punishments for the wicked, but I don’t know if that’s enough, Crowley, I don’t know…”
“I know,” Crowley said softly. His hand was on Aziraphale’s shoulder, just enough touch to be comforting.
“And where is God,” Aziraphale said, pressing the palm of his hand to his eyes to try and stop the flow of tears. “He doesn’t exactly — get in touch, you know, it’s only me…”
“That’s something,” Crowley said sharply. “ You’re something. And there’s no giving up on what you are.”
Aziraphale was tired, more tired than he had ever been, and he felt himself slump over slightly until his head was resting on Crowley’s shoulder. “It isn’t fair ,” he said, hating the whining tone of his voice, hating himself for not having accepted unfairness by now, hating the world.
Crowley’s hand had migrated from his shoulder, was slowly stroking the back of his hair, and that at least felt real.
“No. But you have to keep trying, angel,” he heard Crowley say, “because I can’t.”
The thing was that, by mutual consensus, they did not talk about it.
Aziraphale thought it was about self-preservation, not bringing it up. If he never mentioned what had happened back before the turn of the last century, it was almost as though it hadn’t happened at all. There wasn’t any need for change, and they could go on the way they were, as friends who shouldn’t have been friends but undeniably were, as long as they never discussed it.
Because it might have been true, what Crowley had said, and it might not have been, and either way it would only end badly. He understand in a way he hadn’t before that Crowley would never grovel for Heaven’s forgiveness and ask for his halo back, and Aziraphale could never ask him to.
He didn’t know Crowley’s reasons for not mentioning it, but he was grateful.
In the 1950s, Crowley told Aziraphale, apparently out of the blue, that he’d read all of the Oscar Wilde books Aziraphale had given him all those decades ago, and Aziraphale said, “Oh? What did you think?”
“He was good,” Crowley said. He was perched on the second rung of a ladder in the bookshop, and had been for most of the day, doing nothing in particular. “Not really what I expected. Didn’t you say you knew him?”
“I did.” Aziraphale paused and considered, carefully, how honest to be. “It was — an unfortunate period in literary circles, when he died.”
“Literary circles,” Crowley said.
“Oh, you know what I mean. It was a difficult time. His friends tried to preserve as much of his writing as possible, and stop any tasteless forgeries from being published in his name, and I helped, of course. It’s important to preserve the record, for future generations.”
Crowley looked at him until Aziraphale had to look away and return to the manuscript he was restoring. After a few more moments, Crowley said, “That wasn’t why you were upset, though.”
Aziraphale did not like to think of the late 1800s. There had been many worst periods in human history, and it was perhaps selfish to rank this one so low in his own estimation, but it had been bleak in a way he had rarely felt before or since.
“No,” he said.
“Were you —“
Another moment of silence. “Sorry,” Crowley said, and he sounded it. “Didn’t mean to assume.”
“It’s alright, dear boy,” Aziraphale said with forced lightness. “I’m not offended. It simply wasn’t like that.”
Crowley bit his lip with one of those too-sharp teeth. “I could find out for you, if you’d like,” he said. “Where he is now.”
Aziraphale shuddered. “Oh, I really prefer not to know,” he said. “It always just seems so — final.”
In the 1960s, Crowley walked into the bookshop one morning with his sunglasses pushed up onto his forehead, like a challenge, so that Aziraphale could see his black eye.
“Oh, Crowley.” Aziraphale immediately abandoned what he was doing and came around to the other side of the counter. “What did you do?”
Crowley was scowling. “Why do you assume I did something?”
Aziraphale’s brow furrowed. “I only meant — you’re hurt.”
“Yes,” Crowley said, and he slid his sunglasses back into place. “I’m here to talk about the American elections,” he said. “Figured we’d go with the usual terms of non-interference, but I wanted to ask if you wouldn’t mind me doing a few campaign adverts.”
He had blatantly not come to talk about campaign adverts, not with the way he’d deliberately let Aziraphale see his injury, and Aziraphale eyed him suspiciously.
“Will you please tell me what happened,” he said, putting just a bit of heavenly authority into his voice.
Crowley slumped against the nearest bookshelf resentfully. “It was just a fight outside of a club,” he said. “The kind of thing you’d tell me to ignore. But there were all these young kids there and I wouldn’t be setting any kind of example letting this bloody idiot getting away with shouting whatever he wanted. So I shouted back.” He shrugged, still looking embarrassed. “I should’ve just turned him into a tortoise or something when no one was looking, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. Anyway it wasn’t too bad. He broke my glasses, and they generally tend to run when they see the eyes.”
Aziraphale stared at him.
“You were worried about the kind of example you were setting?”
Crowley scowled even more deeply. “Of wrath,” he said. “If you’re going to live in a world that hates what you are, you’d damn well better learn to fight back.”
Aziraphale opened his mouth, but Crowley cut him off before he could start. “And don’t you give me that ‘turn the other cheek’ ssspeech. You know as well as I do that’s never done anything for people who were sssuffering.”
There was nothing he could say, no good refutation for that, for the neutrality he’d had to adopt for so much of history and the times he’d told himself Heaven was correct when it said suffering created goodness, that humans needed struggle in order to thrive.
He didn’t know if he believed that. He wasn’t supposed to believe anything, because being an angel wasn’t something you believed in. It just was .
“Would you let me heal it?” he said instead.
“No,” said Crowley. “I think it’s a bit of a badge of honor.”
Ask anyone in Hell and they’d tell you: Crowley was a victim of his own success.
He should have been ranked much higher among the host of demons; he was, after all, the serpent of Eden, who had given humanity free will and self-knowledge and all those other things Satanists liked to say. But that was the problem; the Satanists didn’t know they were talking about him , they assumed it was all the work of Lucifer Himself, even though there was nothing in the Book that said so explicitly.
And that made Lucifer upset, because He was the jealous type, and He didn’t like hearing anyone else’s accomplishments praised so highly in his name. He’d always been petty; Crowley should have been able to see that during the rebellion, that when Lucifer was so displeased with Creation it was because He couldn’t stand the thought of not being the favorite.
So Crowley didn’t get much in the way of credit from Hell. That was alright, though. He’d rather serve on Earth than spend his eternity at Satan’s right hand.
It would have been nice to have something in the way of status over Hastur and Ligur, though.
“We congratulate you on your alliance with Mrs. Thatcher,” Hastur said. “Quite a coup for the Cause. That… was you, wasn’t it?”
They’d met up in a diner where every surface was sticky and all of the patrons were hungover, because the two dukes of Hell could no sooner have appreciated fine dining than a rat scrounging through a garbage bin could appreciate finding a Julia Child cookbook. Ligur was drinking the maple syrup.
“I haven’t ever spoken to Thatcher,” Crowley said, peevishly. There were some accusations you couldn’t take, not even for the sake of getting credit from Hell.
Hastur didn’t look surprised, though. “We thought as much.
A familiar opening chord drifted through the tinny speakers of the jukebox, and Crowley groaned.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “I’ve told you it’s not...”
Hastur smirked at him, and Ligur leered. It was hard to say which was more unpleasant.
“ Misssster Crowley,” the voice on the jukebox hissed. Crowley stared down at his untouched silverware and thought about stabbing Hastur with his fork. “ What went down in your head? Mister Crowley…”
He couldn’t stand Aleistier and his cheap imitation Satanism. There was nothing rebellious about being the sort of human to build a whole religion to excuse being, in a word, irritating. And the name had led to a considerable amount of mockery at the last few office parties, especially after the younger demons had discovered rock and roll.
“Why are you asking me about Thatcher?” Crowley said. “Don’t you think there’s enough sin in England at the moment? Aren’t I meeting my quotas?”
“There’s plenty of sin,” Hastur said. “Trouble is you’re involved in little enough of it.”
“ Mister charming, did you think you were pure? Mister alarming…”
Crowley snapped his fingers and changed the song on the jukebox to the Rolling Stones.
“I do my job,” he snapped. “You may not understand my methods, but I do . You have no idea that amount of human suffering I’ve caused over the years while the two of you hang around in Hell sticking needles into Roman adulterers. The amount of time I’ve spent on the Macintosh alone…”
This was met with two looks of blank unrecognition.
“Apple Computers?” he said optimistically. “Nothing, really? The reference isn’t subtle.”
“You’ve been doing good , Mr. Crowley,” Hastur said. “You’ve been working against the system.”
Crowley took a nervous sip of his neglected, bitter coffee. He usually drank it with cream and sugar, but as unfamiliar as Hastur and Ligur were with human customs, he was convinced they would know this as a sign of weakness.
“Isn’t that what we do? Try to bring down the system?”
The truth was, he had been doing a lot of that. Some of it was his own work, some of it was Aziraphale’s, traded for little favors that spared Crowley from having to visit places like Utah and the Vatican.
“Not this system,” Ligur said. “Times have changed. We’ve in power now. We’re into power.”
Crowley thought about saying that they weren’t the ones who had to live with the Tories, thank you very much. They weren’t the ones dealing with the strikes, the ones whose favorite bars had all turned to the scenes of hushed, terrified whispers of something that echoed an ancient plague. They weren’t the ones who lived with a crushing sense of London’s miseries.
He thought of saying that when he’d joined up, the good old cause had been about liberation.
“Fine,” Crowley said. “I’ll step it up. Switch sides in some conflicts, make a few calls. Sorry.”
“And stop seeing so much of that angel,” Hastur said. “He’s a good influence on you.”
“He’s useful,” Crowley muttered, and then, when Hastur glared, “Fine. Fine,” he said, with no intention of following through.
“Good,” said Hastur, and the two of them were standing up, leaving behind piles of their gnawed-on raw strips of bacon. “Hail Satan. Do keep in touch, Mr. Crowley.”
“Hail Satan,” Crowley offered, but they already had their backs turned to him. He watched Hastur whisper something to Ligur, who laughed, and tapped the jukebox on their way out.
The song that began to play was “Angel Eyes” by ABBA.
Crowley groaned. “Prejudice,” he mumbled to himself. “That’s what that is”
Out of spite, he left a very generous tip.
The apocalypse had not seemed real to Aziraphale when he had read the first doomsday prophecies, and it did not seem much more real now that it had an appointed time and date and a clear cause.
He had read nearly everything humans had written on the subject of God’s plan for the world, from the highest philosophy to the lowest memoirs by Americans who thought they had been to Heaven and back. He had been through a stack of academic papers on the abomination of desolation and found nothing comforting. He hated to say it, but none of it had ever convinced him it would be better for humanity to suffer the tortures of the final war than to simply go on living.
He had wandered into the St. Paul’s Cathedral not because he felt the presence of God any more strongly in churches than anywhere else — their powers to ward off demons did not work in reverse — but because it was beautiful, and it had been in London nearly as long as he had.
“Do you know how many previous St. Paul’s cathedrals there were?” he asked a passing tourist, a young woman whose hair was dyed bright green.
She stared at him, clearly unsure whether he was a tour guide and whether the question was rhetorical. “Um… no?”
“There were four,” Aziraphale said, “and every time one was destroyed, we rebuilt it. Isn’t that lovely, the things humans do to preserve what’s been lost?”
The tourist girl gave him a surprised smile. “That’s really nice, actually,” she said, and wandered away.
Aziraphale looked up at the ceiling of the church and thought of the amount of time humans had spent rebuilding and preserving and trying to understand the past, and of the books he’d saved from the library of Alexandria and the fires of dictators. He hoped desperately this would not be the last St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Crowley was waiting for Aziraphale outside the establishment where they’d planned their latest rendezvous to talk about the development of the Antichrist, and he was in a bad mood. For one, he resented that most cafes no longer allowed smoking. He’d put so much work into the lobbying industry over the years, and the tobacco companies couldn’t even repay him with a victory on that little issue.
For another thing, Warlock, the son of Satan Himself, Harbinger of the Apocalypse and Destroyer of Peace, had told his tutor recently that he thought he might like to be an accountant.
“You should try to cut back on the smoking, my dear,” a familiar voice said, and Crowley turned to see Aziraphale already standing beside him. “Those things will kill you.”
“Not me .”
“Well, someone, then.” Aziraphale held out a cigarette of his own, and Crowley lit it without the aid of a lighter. “How is your work with our young charge progressing?”
Crowley slumped against the brick wall behind him, feeling profoundly tired. “Oh, inscrutable as ever,” he said. “I’ve tried chaos magick, thelema, Ayn Rand. Nothing sticks.”
“Hmm.” Aziraphale took a long drag of his cigarette. “No interest in the lives of the saints or environmental science, either, I’m afraid.”
“Too normal,” Crowley said, quietly. “It isn’t right.”
Aziraphale didn’t respond. The cigarette burned Crowley’s throat less than they used to; they didn’t make them the same way anymore.
His eyes fell on the window of the bar across the street, in which a brightly colored rainbow flag was flying, and he suddenly felt bitterly angry.
“You told me,” Crowley said, “that it was a promise.”
“Hmm?” Aziraphale looked at him in surprise, and Crowley jabbed his cigarette in the direction of the flag.
“You said… the first rainbow. That it meant he wouldn’t do it again, destroy all of humanity. For all those years before Ye— before Ch— before his son was born, I thought they were…” He sighed before finishing his sentence. “I thought they were safe.”
“So did I,” Aziraphale said softly. Crowley looked over at his companion and realized Aziraphale looked as tired as he felt, dark circles under his eyes and his tie uncharacteristically askew.
“I always thought it was a good symbol,” Aziraphale added after a moment. “A symbol of forgiveness, mercy — the light after the rain.”
“Damn the light after,” Crowley said, with venom. “There wasn’t any need for rain at all.”
“No,” Aziraphale muttered, “I suppose not.”
“And now they’ll never even have a chance,” Crowley said. “Just when they were starting to win. And it’s like that all over, all these people fighting and scraping and trying like Hell, and they don’t know it’s all going to end, it’ll never get better than this.”
“Don’t be pessimistic,” Aziraphale said, without conviction. “It might be…it might be alright.”
The silence that fell between them was crushingly uncomfortable. Crowley hated the silence, but he thought he’d sooner bite off his own tongue than say any of the things he felt.
“Do you still want to get lunch,” he said, flatly, after a while.
Aziraphale was still looking across the street. “I think I’d rather prefer a drink.”
There was a group of young socialists wearing mostly denim jackets in the bar, talking fervently amongst themselves, and there were a handful of people sitting alone and gazing warily, appraisingly, at them as they walked in. Crowley felt deep solidarity with both their causes.
They say in a back corner and ordered a round of drinks, then a few more rounds.
“Alcohol used to be my only vice, you know,” Aziraphale said mournfully. “Before you got me started on cigarettes, anyway.”
“I thought you had gotten me started on cigarettes,” Crowley protested. He couldn’t quite remember when or where it was, but he was certain he remembered Aziraphale holding out a light to him, asking if he’d tried it.
“No smoking in Heaven,” Aziraphale mumbled. His eyes were closed.
“No. Nor in Hell.”
The sound system in the bar was playing “Like a Prayer.” Crowley tried vaguely to realign the sound waves to play something, anything, else, but his brain was a bit fuzzy and it came out as Leonard Cohen.
“ I did my best, but it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch…”
The young man behind the bar frowned and fiddled with the speaker until the Madonna came back on.
“What would you miss most?” Aziraphale said abruptly. “If it happened.”
Crowley meant to say something about plants, or the Bentley, or music, but he didn’t. He opened his mouth and what he said instead was, “You.”
He watched as Aziraphale’s face instantly fell, and felt immediately guilty when Aziraphale looked away from him, away from everything, flinching in on himself and pressing a hand to his forehead, a gesture of shame. “Don’t say that to me,” Aziraphale said hoarsely, “you can’t say that to me, Crowley, it’s cruel .”
“But I’m serious,” Crowley said, and he was reaching for Aziraphale’s hand. “Angel, I always, you know I always…”
“No, I don’t know,” Aziraphale said sharply, but he was allowing Crowley to hold onto his hand.
“I didn’t mean it,” Crowley said helplessly, the words spilling out of him without any thought on his part of where they were coming from or in what order he would say them. “I didn’t want to, to tempt you but I’ve loved you since I don’t even know when, Aziraphale, if you —“
Aziraphale looked at him with that cold light of Heaven in his eyes, and Crowley found that he couldn’t go on.
Abruptly, Aziraphale reached out a hand and pressed it to Crowley’s cheek, and Crowley made himself resist the immediate learned response to pull away, to run. Slowly, Aziraphale removed Crowley’s sunglasses, and Crowley kept his eyes open.
No one in the bar was looking at them, because they did not to want to be looked at. Aziraphale leaned over and, with painful gentleness, kissed him, just briefly but long enough that Crowley felt tears begin to well in his eyes, and forcefully willed them away.
When Aziraphale broke away, Crowley took a deep, shuddering breath and just stared at him. He was radiant, with his dark circles and his uneven tie and terrible sweatervest, and the distant thought of an eternity spent apart made Crowley want to scream.
“I’ve been an awful coward,” Aziraphale said softly. “And a fool.”
“No,” Crowley protested, feeling something between joyful and despairing, his heart beating painfully in his chest. “You’re not. I’m the one who said all of those, all of those things, because I couldn’t deal with it—“
“It doesn’t matter,” Aziraphale insisted. “We both have regrets, I’m sure. But now — now the world is ending. Crowley, my dear. Come home with me.”
“Yeah,” Crowley said weakly, feeling slightly dizzy. “Yeah, okay.”
They took the Bentley, and for the first time Aziraphale could remembered since the things were invented, Crowley didn’t turn on the cassette player.
Aziraphale was a little surprised when the car pulled up in front of Crowley’s flat, but he decided it was a gesture of vulnerability. They had hardly ever met here, on Crowley’s territory, and now —
Now, Crowley led him into the foyer with its blank white walls and seized the front of Aziraphale’s coat, pressed him into one of those walls, and sealed their mouths together like he was sealing a pact.
Crowley kissed frantically, desperately, throwing his whole body into it and running his hands everywhere at once. You could get lost in kissing like that, and Aziraphale held on to a fistful of Crowley’s hair to anchor himself, held on maybe a bit too tightly, but that only made Crowley shiver against him and transfer his kisses to Aziraphale’s neck, and oh God , no wonder lust was so high on the list of sins, no wonder empires had fallen and great men crumbled for desires surely insignificant compared to what he felt right then.
“I do love you, you know,” he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “I will always, always, no matter what happens —“
“Stop,” Crowley insisted, and the next kiss had a bit of bite in it, a bit of too-sharp teeth. “Don’t talk about it. Not tonight.”
And Aziraphale didn’t, not until the next morning.
He awoke curled around Crowley in a way that felt protective, and that he thought was called “spooning.” It was really less than ideal for sleeping, he decided, and he extricated one of his arms that was now nothing but pins and needles.
“Good morning, angel,” Crowley said, voice still vague with sleep. “You haven’t been smited, have you?”
“No,” Aziraphale said, and felt faintly surprised by it. “Everything seems to be… just the same.”
“Kind of them,” Crowley muttered, “forgiving.” He made no moves to get out of bed, so Aziraphale didn’t either.
“Do you ever wish we’d been… ordinary?” Crowley said after a few moments, voice unexpectedly small. “Human.”
“No,” Aziraphale said, honestly. “What are odds we’d have even met? And if we had, we most likely would have been born in some village in the middle of God-knows-where back during feudalism, and we never could have—“
“Aziraphale,” Crowley said, “shut up.”
Aziraphale did, and Crowley turned to look at him with an expression Aziraphale realized was a little frightened. There was a worried furrow in his brow, and Aziraphale pressed his lips to it until it evened out.
“We could’ve been happy,” Crowley said quietly, and maybe as much to himself as anything. “We would’ve found somewhere… we could have been, I don’t know. Goat farmers.”
Aziraphale remembered Paris, remembered Crowley’s disappointment at yet another failed rebellion.
“ When all this Antichrist business is over,” he said determinedly, “I’m going to hold you to that. We’ll buy a farm and we’ll buy goats and you’ll have to get out of bed every morning before noon to feed them.”
“Your cruelty knows no bounds, angel,” Crowley said drily, and Aziraphale smiled and kissed his forehead again.
“They may have more choices than we do, humans,” he said. “But they have so little time. And I’m grateful for all the time we’ve had, my dear, really. No matter how it ends.”
Crowley’s eyes flickered uncomfortably, and he pressed his face into Aziraphale’s shoulder to hide them. “Yeah,” he said, slightly muffled. “Me too.”
When the world didn’t end, Crowley kept searching the sky for a sign of a rainbow. Surely there would be some sign, if the man upstairs approved of what they’d done, if it were all really over.
Nothing appeared. The last thing a demon would ever do was pray , but it probably didn’t count if it was a threat, so Crowley sent a mental message in the direction of his Creator that if anything were to happen now, to the Earth or to its local angel, Crowley would find a way to make Him sorry.
They found the bookshop and the Bentley unburnt, put back how Adam thought they should be, and Crowley frowned unhappily at his new CD player when they drove back from lunch at the Ritz.
“So,” Aziraphale said when they arrived outside of the bookshop,” here we are.”
Crowley hadn’t quite thought his way through to how he would handle this moment. Certainly their hands had brushed against each other a few times at lunch, certainly Aziraphale had called him “you old serpent” in that tone of voice that would have made Crowley, if he were human, blush horribly. But that didn’t necessarily mean — they couldn’t be certain—
“Oh, do come inside, Crowley,” Aziraphale said impatiently. “We don’t have to dance around it anymore, do we?” and Crowley grinned with relief.
As soon as they were through the door Aziraphale took his hand. He raised it to his lips and kissed the palm of it in a way that felt as old-fashioned and deliberate as if he learned it out of an eighteenth-century novel, which, Crowley supposed, he probably had.
It felt impossible, Crowley thought, impossible that he could have this without the imminent threat of the apocalypse, without the ground beneath their feet opening up and swallowing them both. Aziraphale was looking at him, with a hand placed very gently on the back of his neck, eyes impossibly fond.
“Are you sure?” Crowley had hesitantly. “We don’t really know where — where Heaven stands on all of this, I wouldn’t want you to—“
“I don’t give a damn what Heaven thinks of me,” Aziraphale said with relish, “or of you.”
Crowley felt light-headed, seized by the romantic madness that made people do things like write sonnets and build cathedrals. He thought wildly that if he could he would tell the whole of London, of the world, that the Principality Aziraphale loved him and they had faced down Heaven and Hell together and they were still breathing, and Aziraphale loved him.
“Oh, good,” he said, and a gramophone that had sat idle on a shelf of the shop for decades switched itself on. “Well, since that’s settled. Will you dance with me?”
Aziraphale’s eyes widened. “I really only know the gavotte,” he said.
“Unacceptable,” Crowley said, and shifted the atoms of several bookshelves in different directions so that there was space for him to pull Aziraphale into the middle of the floor. “I’ll teach you how to waltz.”
He placed Aziraphale’s hands on his waist and looped his arms around Aziraphale’s neck. “It’s not difficult, once you get the hang of the sliding step,” he said. “Just follow my lead.” He hoped he was smiling in a way that was slightly suggestive and slightly demonic, but was probably more like “smitten” and “sappy.”
They swayed slightly in something that was almost, but not quite, a waltz. Aziraphale clearly didn’t know what he was doing, and Crowley honestly didn’t have much of a sense of rhythm, but they managed the actual intended purpose of the dance steps well enough.
“Quite a scandalous dance when it was invented,” Aziraphale said. “Very inappropriate for partners to cling to each other so.”
“You should see what the kids today are getting up to.” The music on the gramophone changed, to something Aziraphale certainly didn’t have in his collection, and Crowley smirked at him as the lyrics kicked in.
Aziraphale laughed into the side of Crowley’s neck. “Oh, would you stop ,” he said. “You and your modern music…”
“It’s from 1954!” Crowley protested. “And it’s appropriate, hmm?” He sang a bit of the song, slightly off-key. “ Please be mine, my darling dear—“
He suspected that Aziraphale was kissing him mostly to shut him up, but it didn’t bother him much.
“I’m just a fool, a fool in love with you,” the gramophone sang in the background, but both of them hardly heard it.
A few months after the averted Apocalypse, Anathema Device came into the bookshop with a stack of folders held in her arms. “So,” she said, “you’re a real angel.”
There was no one else in the shop, so Aziraphale said, resignedly, “Er. Yes.”
Anathema shook her head, looking disappointed. “I always sort of hoped Agnes was talking in metaphor,” she said. “I mean, no offense, but of all the mythologies to turn out to be true, I wouldn’t have chosen Christianity. I mean, that whole thing with the forbidden fruit…”
“Well, many other mythologies are also true in their own ways,” Aziraphale said. “In whole or in part. And as for the Garden, I don’t understand it exactly, but I can tell you Crowley does feel bad about offering it to the woman first.”
Anathema’s eyebrows shot up. “That was him ? Doesn’t look like the type.” She set her pile of folders down on the counter imposingly. “Anyway, I wanted to talk to you. I know this is a bit above my station, but I was thinking, well, if there are these powerful entities walking around on Earth, it seems like you should be doing a bit more .”
She opened one of the folders and began handing documents over to him — Aziraphale scanned them briefly and saw that they were filled with carefully outlined bulletin points, with several different colors of highlighter applied, outlining the world’s environmental problems and what Anathema thought ought to be done about them. He nearly laughed, but then he realized that the expression on her face was quite serious, and two of the other folders were labeled “Poverty” and “Gender Inequality.”
“My dear girl,” Aziraphale said, straightening his reading glasses on the end of his nose and preparing for a serious lecture, “we can’t simply go around reshaping the world into what we might prefer it to be. I was told so in no uncertain terms by our young friend Adam. The world’s got to exist without our influence now."
Anathema clearly wasn’t the type to give up that easily. “But there must be some things you can do,” she said. “Little tweaks in the right direction… maybe removing oil from the oceans, that kind of thing? I’m certain Adam wouldn’t disapprove of that.” She looked at him sharply, as though she were getting ready to lecture him . “Every member of society has responsibilities, and I think someone who can perform miracles has a little more responsibility than most.”
Aziraphale didn’t mention that the most recent miracle he had performed was preventing Crowley from setting his flat on fire while making risotto, and it had been a close thing. (He had taken up cooking recently, claiming they couldn’t go out every night, and he was abysmally bad at it. Aziraphale thought it was quite romantic of him to try, although Crowley scowled when he said that.)
“What if Adam grows up in a world that’s spiraling toward a totally man-made apocalypse?” Anathema said. “He’s got so much faith in people now. I don’t like thinking that he might lose it.”
Stop messing people about , Adam had said, and frankly, he’d been right. But maybe it was different to change things just a little, gradually, in a way that gave everyone a fair chance.
Maybe she was right.
“It could always do more harm than good, you know,” he told Anathema sternly. “That’s always a risk. I calculate for it. A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo—“
“And you save a baby who grows up to be Hitler, right,” she interrupted. “But people have to try , Mr. Fell. Isn’t that how you’d get into Heaven, anyway, trying to be a good person?”
Her eyes were so earnest that Aziraphale couldn’t help being at least somewhat persuaded. It wasn’t how you got into Heaven — there were few points given out for effort — but somehow he thought she’d be better off not knowing that.
“I’ll take it into consideration, Ms. Device,” he said, and gathered up any of her folders, stacking them neatly. “Thank you. Really.”
Anathema hesitated. “There is something else I have to tell you,” she said.
“There’s another book. By Agnes. A second volume, I mean.” She shook her head in clear disapproval of her ancestor. “I’m not going to read it. But you can, if you like. If you think it would help to know what might happen next.”
Aziraphale thought about it. But not for as long as he would have thought he would need to.
“No,” he said. “Thank you. But I think I’m finished with knowing how things ought to turn out. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yes,” said Anathema, with a final ominous glance toward the folders. “Free will. Self-determination.” She grinned. “I’ll see you around, Mr. Fell.”
Crowley was trying not to be paranoid about the whole thing. He had been practicing minor miracles every morning, and checking his hair every day for signs that it was greying, which surely would have been the first signal of impending mortality. He checked for signs of change in Aziraphale’s face too, but the lines around his eyes and the faint greying at his temples were only there because he wanted them to be, and no personalized Mark of Cain appeared to symbolize a permanent pink slip from the ranks of Heaven.
Crowley wasn’t sure Hell had the ability to just strip away his powers or his eternal life, but he thought it was likely that if they could, they would get around to it. Or worse, they’d send him off to do desk duty the moment Adam turned his head. And that simply wasn’t going to work, because Crowley had thought he’d known about all the wonders the world had to offer, but that was before he’d found out about how Aziraphale looked at him when Crowley took his hand in the wine aisle at Sainsbury’s.
Aziraphale told him about his conversation with Anathema, and Crowley drummed his fingers nervously against the kitchen counter.
“We can’t do anything like that,” he said. “We’ve got to keep as low a profile as possible, or Someone will make sure we’re punished for it, no matter what the Antichrist says.”
“Oh, Crowley, nothing like that’s going to happen,” Aziraphale said.
“How do you know that?”
“Because I won’t let it,” Aziraphale said simply, which shouldn’t have been as comforting as it was. When Aziraphale said things like that, you just believed him.
“Still. Adam doesn’t want us interfering. No more miracles, not big ones.”
“This wouldn’t have to be like that. There are all sorts of ways of changing the world.” Aziraphale gestured at the pile of materials he’d gotten from Anathema, which certainly contained a lot of ideas about how you could change the world.
It was a nice thought, of actually doing something that would make the world more pleasant to live in. Not in that individual moment of divine inspiration way, but in a way that mattered. And if they could actually play to their strengths, and stay away from areas like supervising children… they could get so much more done…
“Welllll.” Crowley hesitated. “I do have a few things I’ve been saving for a rainy day. I’ve got back doors into some of the really big corporate computer systems. It wouldn’t be too hard to plant a virus in most of them.”
Aziraphale, who certainly still thought of viruses only as something you were inoculated against, looked at him blankly.
“Viruses are useful for low-grade evil, but if you wanted to use them for something… good… you could shut down certain functions, or pull information out of a system…” He was starting to come up with some really interesting ideas now. “If you wanted to interfere with, well, bad actors. That could be something.”
“And I’ve got connections,” Aziraphale said. “Half of the journalists and politicians in Europe owe me favors, and the other half — I’d know their sins.”
Crowley grinned. “You’re talking about blackmail? Oh, angel, don’t tempt me.”
“For a good cause!” Aziraphale took a step closer to him, and there was a gleam in his eyes that Crowley had never been able to resist. “Wouldn’t it be nice to be on the same side?”
It would be, of course. Crowley doesn’t want to read any more books of prophecy, either, but if he were to guess how the two of them were supposed to be, it wouldn’t be working at cross-purposes or as a delicate balancing act; it would be together, with all of their triumphs and mistakes belonging to both of them. Forget Heaven and Hell; he’d swear allegiance to that.
And that was a kind of belief, wasn’t it? A belief not in a higher or lower power but in an equal one that echoed back belief just as strong, strong enough, maybe, to sustain miracles.
“As long as we don’t spend all our time doing good deeds,” Crowley said. “You can’t expect me to be entirely selfless.” And the way Aziraphale smiled at him was — there was still no other word for it — radiant.