The whole thing was, strictly speaking, Gawain’s fault. After all, it hadn’t been Aziraphale, who, when a strange knight had burst into Camelot yelling about honour and courage and a Christmas jest, had stood up from the Round Table and volunteered himself for what anyone should have seen was a suicidal trap. He’d just...become involved, as was his (unfortunate) wont.
They’d been enjoying the New Year’s feast, talking of quests and singing songs about quests and telling jokes about quests (knights, Aziraphale was coming to realize, had a remarkably quest-centric worldview), when a knock had come at the door. All but the drunkest knights abruptly ceased their conversations and turned to stare at the door, and there was a moment or two of near-silence, broken only by a hiccup from Sir Kay.
The knock came again. Arthur nodded at a nearby pageboy, who scampered to the door and dragged it open. In strode a man, his face obscured by a helm, his body covered in armour, an ax hanging at his side. None of this would have been remotely remarkable if every visible inch of him hadn’t been green. And it was an unearthly green, too, which was to say that the armour clearly hadn’t been painted green. It just was.
“I bid you welcome, Sir Knight,” Arthur said, and gestured to an open seat. “Will you not remove your helm and sup with us in celebration of the New Year?”
“No,” said the knight—at least, Aziraphale assumed it was “no.” He couldn’t be quite sure—the helm had an unfortunate muffling effect on the knight’s words. “I have come to issue a challenge to any man of this court brave enough to accept it.”
“You will find no braver knights than those around this table,” Arthur said. Aziraphale barely managed to keep his eyes from rolling. Can’t you see he’s baiting you, you idiot?
“Is that so?” the Green Knight replied. “Because from where I’m standing, all I see are a lot of soft, spoiled fools.”
Aziraphale saw Arthur’s knuckles clench, and took it upon himself to intervene before the king said something he’d regret.
“What is your challenge, Sir Knight?”
The Green Knight turned to face Aziraphale. The helm hid his face completely, the slits too thin for Aziraphale to get even a glimpse of his eyes, but nevertheless he felt—exposed, somehow. Seen. As though he were the sole subject of the knight’s attention.
“My challenge is a Christmas jest,” the knight said, after what felt like several minutes but in reality had probably only been a few seconds. “A wager, of sorts. I challenge any man here to wield this ax and strike me a blow. But you must agree that come next New Year, I may take my ax and strike you a blow.”
Silence reigned, as all of the knights began very pointedly ignoring each other’s gazes.
“Right,” said the Green Knight after a minute, “so you’re all cowards then. Good to know. Expect I should be on my way then, thanks ever so much for proving me right—”
“I will do it!” Gawain leapt to his feet, sloshing a glass of mead across Aziraphale’s tunic in the process. “Give me your ax. I will strike the blow.”
Aziraphale sighed. He liked Gawain. Technically speaking, he was only supposed to be here to keep an eye on Lancelot—Upstairs had some plans involving the Holy Grail and were a trifle concerned about his chivalric bona fides—but he’d quickly grown much fonder of Gawain, who was generally far more polite and shared Aziraphale’s appreciation for a good riddle. Not, of course, that Aziraphale would have been happy about any of the knights taking this patently stupid bargain. (Well, all right, maybe not Agravain.) But it made it a great deal worse that it happened to be one of the ones he’d taken a shine to.
“Are you certain this is wise?” he hissed under his breath, but Gawain ignored him, instead striding forward towards the Green Knight. Aziraphale still couldn’t see his face, but something in the set of his shoulders made him look...disappointed, almost. Though surely that couldn’t be right.
“What’s your name, knight boy?” the Green Knight asked.
“I am Sir Gawain, nephew to King Arthur, and I will strike you a blow with this ax, and say that you may strike me with it, or any weapon you will, come next New Year’s.”
“Right, better get on with it then,” the Green Knight said, sounding bizarrely cheerful, now. “Come on, take the ax, strike me where you will.” He handed the ax off to Gawain, who buckled a bit under its weight, and bent over, exposing the gap at his neck between his helm and his armour. Gawain hesitated for a second, then hoisted the ax and brought it down in a sharp stroke, neatly severing the Green Knight’s head from his body.
Aziraphale tutted to himself. There was really no possible way this could end well. He watched as Gawain, panting slightly from the effort of the blow, lowered the ax to the ground and turned to smile at Arthur. Behind him, the decapitated Green Knight reached down, picked up his still-helmeted head, and replaced it on his body, cracking his neck as though he’d suffered no worse inconvenience than a cramp.
A gasp rose from the assembled knights—although not from Aziraphale, who had been expecting something of the sort—and Gawain turned to look, his eyes growing wide at the sight of the recapitated knight, the flush of victory fading from his cheeks. He released the ax from his hand, and it barely missed his feet as it clanged to the floor.
“I’ll be taking that, then,” the Green Knight said, hoisting the ax. “And I don’t think I will be staying for dinner, though really, thanks so much for the invitation, means a lot. Pleasure’s been all mine. Well, Gawain, I’ll see you at the Green Castle next New Year’s, I suppose. Until then.”
Aziraphale still couldn’t see the knight’s face, or hear his voice particularly clearly, but he knew—he just knew —that he was smiling underneath his helm. The Green Knight raised an armoured arm in farewell and strode out the door, leaving a shocked silence behind him.
Gawain stumbled back to his seat, and after a moment the other knights resumed conversation, though the general tone was a great deal more subdued than it had been before.
Aziraphale put a hand on Gawain’s shoulder. “Are you all right, my dear boy?”
Gawain shook his head. “What am I going to do?”
“Right now?” said Aziraphale. “Right now, you’re going to have some of this cake.”
“What am I going to do in a year?”
“Well,” said Aziraphale, “unless you think you can learn how to survive beheading before next New Year’s, there’s really not much you can do, is there?”
“Isn’t there?” Gawain asked.
Aziraphale sighed. This was what came of getting fond of humans.
“I may have an idea,” he said, and was rewarded with the hint of a smile on Gawain’s pale face. “But we can talk about that later. Eat up.”
Nearly one year later
The simplest thing, Aziraphale had decided, was just to go in Gawain’s place. There had been mutterings of unrest among some of the knights, lately, and Arthur could ill afford to lose Gawain’s support at this juncture. Worst-case scenario, of course, was discorporation, which would be damnably inconvenient but not nearly as disastrous for him as it would be for Gawain. And besides, it seemed quite likely that what awaited him at the Green Castle wasn’t anything so straightforward as a beheading. He’d gotten a feeling about the Green Knight. There was more up his (presumably green) sleeve. (If Greensleeves had been written yet, Aziraphale would probably have started humming it at this point. As it was, he merely noted the assonance.)
So there he was, knocking on the door of the Green Castle with a feeling of trepidation but also a slight buzzing of excitement. This might well turn out to be an adventure.
The door to the castle swung open, and a slightly stupid-looking page stared at Aziraphale.
“Ah. Yes. Good day to you, lad. I’ve come to see the Green Knight. I think he’s expecting me. If you would be so kind…”
The page nodded and conducted Aziraphale into a spacious room off the main hall. The room itself wasn’t green, but it was stuffed so full of (remarkably healthy) plants that the overall effect was a very verdant one all the same. Aziraphale glanced around, looking for any clues as to the knight’s identity. His eye fell on a platter embossed with the heraldic device of a serpent sinister, and he felt a pang of suspicion in his gut. Surely the Green Knight couldn’t be—
Crowley strolled into the room, and Aziraphale sighed.
“I should have known this was your doing,” he said, shaking his head. “I mean, really, the Green Knight —”
“Oh, do you mean you didn’t know?” said Crowley, apparently not remotely surprised to find Aziraphale in his castle. “I thought you’d twigged it right off.”
“No,” Aziraphale admitted, “I didn’t put it together until just now.” He replaced the platter on the table. Crowley glanced at it and smiled.
“I mean, it’s not subtle, but it does the trick, yeah?” He gestured for Aziraphale to sit down, settling himself into a chair in a half-supine position that Aziraphale was certain couldn’t be at all comfortable.
“So,” Crowley drawled, “how come it’s you and not young whatsisname darkening my door?”
“I don’t darken doors,” Aziraphale said with dignity. “If anything I’d say I illume them.”
“You would say that, angel,” Crowley said. “No one else would. Anyhow. Why you?”
“I thought you’d twig it right off,” Aziraphale said, doing his best Crowley impression. “I’m supposed to be looking after Arthur’s court, Gawain’s a member of Arthur’s court, ergo here I am, looking after Gawain. To take the blow in his place. Although I expect that won’t be happening now that it turns out it’s you after all.”
“What do you mean by that?” Crowley asked, and for the first time Aziraphale detected something other than affability in his tone. “A bargain’s a bargain, angel. What, you think now that you’re here, I’m just going to say ‘oh well, there goes that particular bit of evil, off out the window, s’pose I’d better be off to think up something else?’"
“Well, yes,” Aziraphale said. “I mean, what are you going to do, behead me?”
“‘Course not,” said Crowley, offended. “Did you think that was the plan? That I’d just kill someone? Where’s the fun in that?”
“I really wouldn’t know,” said Aziraphale. “What were you going to do, then?”
“Oh, I’m still going to do it,” Crowley said. “Expect it won’t be as effective, will it, you being an incorruptibly incorrupt angel and all that, but it’d be a shame to waste the preparations. I’m quite proud of this one, really.”
“Proud of what?”
“Well, it was going to be—what’s his name?—Gawain’s temptation, wasn’t it, but now it’ll have to be yours.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Aziraphale, “you can’t tempt me—”
“No! And furthermore, why should you want to? And why should I let you?”
The smile that had been lingering around Crowley’s lips faded. “Look—” he leaned in closer to Aziraphale, his body still superficially relaxed but with a pulsing undercurrent of tension, of worry. “Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure Hell is investigating me.”
“I thought they didn’t go to the trouble.”
“They don’t. As a rule. I’m not sure what it is I’ve done to make them all intrigued all of a sudden, but that’s the reason for all of this.” He waved an arm around, indicating the castle. “I mean, this whole production really isn’t my style, you know? Baiting a trap, waiting a year, all that—it’s an awful lot of work. If they asked me—which, as it happens, they rarely do—I’d have said the best way to corrupt King Arthur’s court would be to slowly increase the size of the Round Table and its chairs until the whole lot were convinced they were shrinking. That’d set them on each other quick enough. But this is what they wanted, this whole drawn-out production, so that’s what we’ve got.”
“But surely we—you—don’t have to go through with it? Now that I’m here? I mean, if you’d like me to stay for a bit and pretend I’m being tempted, I expect I could oblige, but no one will actually know if you don’t—”
Crowley shook his head. “I’ve got a partner on this one. Another demon. She’s going to report back. And as far as she’s concerned, you’re Sir Gawain, a perfectly ordinary human, and you’ve got no idea that I’m the Green Knight, you think I’m just lord of this castle who’s happened to invite you to stay for a few days before you go off to your beheading, and you very much don’t know that I’m a demon. Got it?”
“Not really,” said Aziraphale, but what he’d heard would have to do, because at that moment, Crowley’s…associate walked in.
“Ah!” said Crowley, jumping up to greet her. Aziraphale rose too, of course. She might be a demon, but she was still a lady, or something like it, and chivalry was by no means dead. (In fact, at this point, chivalry wasn’t even out of diapers.)
“Sir Gawain, my lovely wife, Lady Bertilak. Darling, this is Sir Gawain. He’s got a rendezvous with that Green Knight we hear so much about, and I’ve just invited him to stay with us until the New Year. You don’t have any objection to that, do you, darling?”
“None in the least,” said Lady Bertilak, and her eyes ranged over Aziraphale with what he knew was feigned interest but which made him quite uncomfortable all the same. “I hear, Sir Gawain, that they call you the Maidens’ Knight.”
“Ah. Yes, that’s me. Just...knighting those maidens. So many maidens. Nothing makes me happier than to—”
“Sir Gawain, do you care for hunting?” Crowley broke in, and Aziraphale sent him a look saying thank you followed by one that said what do you want me to say here, and luckily it seemed that Crowley understood both, because he both smiled slightly and shook his head in a movement so small as to be imperceptible to the human eye. Or the demon eye. Or the angel eye, if that eye hadn’t been solely fixated on Crowley’s head movements.
“No, I’m afraid not,” said Aziraphale, and then, improvising: “and my appointment with the Green Knight in three days’ time does leave me with little taste for blood-sport.”
“And I expect you’re tired,” Lady Bertilak cooed, “if you journeyed all the way from Camelot? And here my husband’s been simply talking your ear off. You’re to rest, these next days, here at our home. I’ll keep you company.”
“Yes, off to bed with you,” said Crowley, who had most certainly seen that squirm, “but first, I propose a bargain. Tomorrow I go hunting. When I return, I will present to you the spoils of my day’s labour, and you will give me the fruits of yours.”
“What fruits do you—” Aziraphale started to say, but was cut off by a nod from Crowley, and managed to turn the rest of his question into a yawn. (Rather than into the pointed comment on fruit that it had been heading towards.) “Never mind. I’m tired. Yes, I consent. To your covenant. Bargain. What have you.”
“Excellent!” said Crowley with what Aziraphale guessed was all the false joviality he could muster. “Off to bed with you, then.”
“I'll show Sir Gawain to bed,” Lady Bertilak said, shooting Crowley what she probably thought was a subtly conspiratorial glance.
“Goodnight, then, Sir Gawain,” said Crowley, shooting Aziraphale an actually subtle conspiratorial glance.
Lady Bertilak led Aziraphale upstairs and to a bedchamber, where—mercifully—she left him after only a few protestations of tiredness on his part. Left to his own devices, Aziraphale looked around and sighed. He didn’t much fancy sleeping, but there wasn’t really anything else to occupy him in this room, and he couldn’t be sure that miracling up a book or two wouldn’t catch the lady's attention. So he removed his boots, climbed into bed, and stared blankly up at the ceiling. It had been quite a while since he’d last slept, and he was a bit out of practice. Counting things was supposed to help, wasn’t it?
“Right,” he muttered to himself, “First in the catalog of ships were the Boeotians, led by Penelaos—”
A knock came at the door, followed by a very sibilant “Psst!”
Aziraphale padded over and opened the door to reveal Crowley, who was wearing an impatient look and a very short robe.
“What sort of outfit do you call that?”
“Don’t you like it? It’s silk,” Crowley said. “Got it in China. Come on, now, let me in, before anyone hears—”
“Right. Yes. Of course.” Aziraphale stepped aside to let Crowley in, then shut the door.
“Settled in all right, have you?” Crowley asked, nodding to the rumpled bed.
“Ah, yes, it’s very comfortable, thank you.”
“I thought angels weren’t supposed to lie,” said Crowley, grinning. “Can’t sleep, can you? Forgotten how?”
“Well, yes,” Aziraphale admitted.
“Thought you might’ve,” said Crowley, “so I brought these.” He reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a few small volumes.
“Oh, thank you,” said Aziraphale, smiling widely and taking the books from Crowley, “thank you so much—” He began leafing through the pages, pausing after a moment to look up and smile again at Crowley, who was looking at him with the oddest expression—as though Aziraphale’s face were a puzzle he was trying to solve. “Is everything quite all right?”
Crowley shook his head. “Course it’s all right. Just glad you won’t be grumpy tomorrow, that’s all.”
“Ah. That’s good, then.”
“Although I didn’t just come by to bring you those, you know.”
“No,” said Crowley, in what he probably thought was a scornful tone. “We’ve got to talk.”
“Go on, then,” said Aziraphale, reluctantly closing the book.
“My partner’s going to try to tempt you.”
“Yes, I’d gathered that, thank you.”
“Well, you’ve got to act a bit more tempted, then, haven’t you?”
“Oh, heavens, Crowley,” said Aziraphale with mounting horror. “You don’t actually expect me to—”
“No, you halfwit, I don’t expect. You don’t have to do anything remotely...un-angelic. But right now you don’t so much resemble a knight too full of chivalric virtue to give into his lusts as you do a startled rabbit.”
“I was just taken aback, that’s all. You could’ve warned me.”
“And robbed myself of the most entertaining five minutes of the last century? I don’t think so. Did you know,” Crowley added, conversationally, “you go all pink when you’re flustered?”
“Is there anything else I should know?” Aziraphale asked, pointedly ignoring Crowley’s last comment. Really, it didn’t merit a response.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to give too much away, would I? You’re not the best actor. We can’t have my wife thinking we’re in cahoots—which reminds me. I’d better get back to her.” Crowley grimaced.
“Right,” said Aziraphale, “of course, can’t have her thinking we’re in cahoots.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Crowley said, and sloped out of the room. Aziraphale sighed, and was just settling down to open one of the books when he heard a loud “ FUCK! ” from the hallway.
He rushed outside to see Crowley hopping around on one foot and cradling the other in his hands. “What’s happened?”
“Isssn’t it obvious?” Crowley snarled. “I’ve ssstubbed my fucking toe!”
“Watch your language,” Aziraphale said mildly, “and also, your volume, unless you want everyone in this castle coming to see what the fuss is about.”
“Thanks so much for the sympathy, angel, really appreciate it,” Crowley hissed.
“Mmm, glad to oblige,” said Aziraphale, who really did feel rather sorry for Crowley but had no intention of showing it. He also had no intention of pointing out to Crowley that all of the hopping was causing his robe to expose even more of his thigh than it had previously. Given that apparently they weren’t warning each other about things.
Crowley stuck his tongue out.
“Well, if we’re lowering things to that level of discourse,” said Aziraphale haughtily, and returned to his bedchamber, closing the door softly but firmly behind him.
It occurred to him only once he was deep into a volume of Catullus that there was really no good reason for him to have agreed to help Crowley deceive his partner. Nor, in fact, did he remember having ever actually agreed. It had just...happened, somehow, as things had a tendency to happen when Crowley was around. Well, he reasoned, it probably was in Heaven’s best interest for him to stay here and pretend to be tempted. After all, better it happen to him than to a human who might actually fall. And besides, surely working to deceive a demon was a good thing. Even if he was working with another demon to do it.
Satisfied, Aziraphale returned to Catullus, and remained safely ensconced there for the next twelve hours.
It was past noon by the time Aziraphale ventured downstairs. “Is my lord in?” he asked the first pageboy he spotted, catching himself before asking for Crowley by his real name.
The page shook his head. “No, sir, he left at dawn with his huntsmen. He said you wouldn’t be joining them.”
“Quite right,” said Aziraphale, nodding at the page to leave. What was it Crowley had said, last night? I will present to you the spoils of my day’s labour, and you will give me the fruits of yours. Well, he certainly didn’t intend to do any labour. Though a piece of fruit didn’t sound half bad, just now. He hadn’t eaten in a week or so—he’d been travelling, and the food you got on the road was simply not up to standard—and was beginning to miss it. And if he was pretending to be a human, he would have to eat, wouldn’t he?
“Sir Gawain! Up at last, are you?” Lady Bertilak rounded the corner, and if Aziraphale had thought Crowley’s outfit last night left little to the imagination (not that he’d been imagining), hers was even worse.
“Ah. Yes. I am. In fact, not to impose, but I am quite hungry, if there might be anything…”
“Oh, of course, how very rude of me not to have said anything earlier! We were planning to dine a little later, but if you come with me to the kitchens I’m certain we can find you something to tide you over.”
“Thanks very much,” Aziraphale said warily, and followed behind her all the way to the kitchen, trying desperately to change his facial expression from polite disinterest to barely concealed lust. Without meaning to, he thought of last night, and Crowley hopping around on one foot, and the way the back of his robe had bunched up, and just how very pale the skin underneath had been, like it’d never seen the sun, which it probably hadn’t, and—
They reached the kitchen, and Lady Bertilak turned around to look at him, and she gave him the most self-satisfied smile he’d ever seen (and he worked with Gabriel) , and Aziraphale assumed that he’d managed to do a passable job of schooling his features into something resembling desire.
“Now,” she said, leaning against the table, “what do you fancy?”
It was clearly not the answer she’d been looking for, but the lady cut him a slice anyway, and Aziraphale bit into it, sighing softly as he did so, because it really was quite good bread, all crusty with a soft middle.
Lady Bertilak, unfortunately, seemed to interpret the sigh very differently. “You know, Sir Gawain,” she purred, “my husband won’t be home for quite some time.”
“Is that so?”
“I have heard so much about you. About your courteousness, and your kindness, and about all the maidens who dream that you might be their lord.”
“Do they now?”
“And here I am, lucky me, all alone with the famous Sir Gawain. I’d imagine so many other ladies would be terribly jealous if they knew.”
“Mmmh,” said Aziraphale around a mouthful of bread. “You, uh, you flatter me.” He swallowed the last of the bread. “Thank you so much for the food, dear lady, I really do appreciate it. I have to, uh, be getting back to, mmm…” He searched in vain for a plausible lie. “I wonder if there is a courtyard? Of any sort? That I might walk in? I can’t go without my daily exercise, you know.”
“Of course,” said Lady Bertilak. “We’ve got a lovely courtyard. I’ll show you the way. But, Sir Gawain, are you certain you wouldn’t rather stay here with me?” She inched closer to him.
“I can think of nothing more appealing,” said Aziraphale in what he hoped was a gallant tone. “But I think I must go.” In a moment of inspiration, he added, “You are just so very ...tempting, Lady Bertilak.”
The lady smiled widely. “Well, before you go, Sir Knight, let me leave you with this favor.” She leaned in and kissed Aziraphale on the mouth.
Mercifully —mercifully— it was an entirely chaste kiss, lasting only a second, and Aziraphale was able to resist the overwhelming urge to pull away.
“Ah. Aha,” he said, nonsensically. “Naughty.”
Lady Bertilak pouted. “I suppose I’m not the only one who’s tempting, then, am I?”
“You flatter me, dear lady,” Aziraphale said. “Perhaps it would be best, then, if I were to—”
“To go for your walk?”
Crowley and the others didn’t return from the hunt until nearly sundown. They arrived in a pack, laughing and carrying their prey on their shoulders, two men to a deer, their faces flushed with excitement and victory and bloodlust, so painfully human . Aziraphale felt anaemic next to them, pale and cold as marble. Until—until he caught sight of Crowley, at the rear of the crowd, his mail splattered with mud, the top of his hair flat from his helmet, sweaty curls pressing against his neck—and then Aziraphale felt suddenly altogether too alive, in the way that he’d tried a thousand times to explain to the other angels and had a thousand times fallen short of explaining.
He made to look away, but Crowley caught sight of him then, and, shoving the bugle he was carrying into the hands of a nearby page, strode directly towards Aziraphale.
“Sir Gawain!” he exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder. “You see before you the spoils that I have collected during my day’s labour. So. Now. What’ve you got for me?”
Aziraphale looked blankly at Crowley. What did he want ? This was Gawain’s test, was it? His temptation? To see whether he would lie? But he hadn’t earned anything that day, so what—
He caught sight of Lady Bertilak, lingering on the threshold of the great hall, and realized.
“Ah. Yes. My day’s spoils. Well. Here you are, then.”
Trying with every ounce of miraculous and mundane strength in his body not to think about what he was doing, Aziraphale reached up, clasped his hands around Crowley’s neck, and kissed his mouth.
Crowley tasted like sweat, and stale beer, and like every question Aziraphale had locked inside himself for five thousand years. And he felt as though the answers were there, too, in Crowley’s lips or his tongue or the scratch of his beard against Aziraphale’s throat, if he could only stay there long enough to reach them.
But Crowley yanked away from him, jumped backward, as though he were scalded by Aziraphale’s touch, and yelped . “What—you—Az—Ang—gah! I! Hrnnnngh!”
From the doorway, Lady Bertilak laughed, and Crowley whirled to face her. “I can attest that Sir Gawain did indeed return to you the fruits of his day’s labour,” she said, sending Aziraphale a sidelong glance. “He has kept your bargain.”
“Right,” said Crowley, like he’d forgotten what they’d been talking about in the first place. “Uh. Sir Gawain. Thank you for, er, keeping your bargain.”
“Of course,” said Aziraphale. He didn’t think his voice sounded as ragged as Crowley’s did—the demon’s voice had been so strained that Aziraphale had been expecting it to crack every other word—but he’d never been the best judge of his own acting ability, had he?
Truth be told, though, Aziraphale wasn’t even certain what emotion he was currently feeling—something at the crossroads of relief and disappointment and fear and anger and annoyance and amusement, which was to say, something completely unclassifiable—let alone what emotions he was supposed to be presenting to Crowley and Lady Bertilak. So acting possibly didn’t enter into it, at the moment. But he smiled, because that seemed like a safe choice, and said, “I look forward to seeing what spoils you bring me tomorrow.”
Crowley just gaped at him. Really, Aziraphale thought, aren’t demons supposed to be skilled at deception?
“I’ll see you at supper, then,” Aziraphale said to Lady Bertilak, who nodded back at him, and took his leave.
Supper passed, for the most part, unremarkably. (Well, the venison was remarkably good, but that was about it.) Aziraphale pointedly looked everywhere except at Crowley, and did his best to avoid Lady Bertilak’s gaze as well, and Crowley sat at the head of the table, wearing a ridiculously ornate overrobe, a snake-shaped brooch, and a sour expression.
Some of the hunting party decamped into a side room for another cup of wine and a bawdy story or two, but Aziraphale made his excuses—still tired from his journey! still dreading facing the Green Knight in two days!—and managed to escape.
He noticed that Crowley, too, forbore from joining the others. Which was good. They needed to talk.
So then why—since it would inarguably be a good idea for Crowley to visit him—did Aziraphale feel so very...keyed-up by the prospect? Sitting alone in his room, he looked down at his hands. They were shaking. Shaking! This was ridiculous. He’d done nothing wrong. Of course, it seemed there had been a miscommunication somewhere along the line. So they would have a chat and sort it out! Really, he was the one doing Crowley the favor here, entirely against his better judgement, so it made no sense that he should be the slightest bit concerned about the demon being angry—
Unlike last night, Crowley didn’t bother to knock.
“Really,” Aziraphale said, rising to his feet, “I could have been indecent.”
Crowley flopped into the nearest chair. “What,” he asked, without preamble, “was that?”
“Ah. Yes. Well. So glad you brought it up. It seems there was a bit of a misunderstanding—”
“It seems so, yeah,” Crowley said, sounding, Aziraphale was relieved to hear, more exasperated than angry.
“I really did think that because your wife... threw herself at me, and because that was the only possible fruit of my day’s labour, that the only thing I could do was to…”
“Right. So. Then. Let me be perfectly clear, angel, so that we don’t have any more misunderstandings. I did not intend for you to kiss me. I thought you’d, I don’t know, give me a flower you’d picked in the garden or something!”
“Well, I’m very sorry to have distressed you,” Aziraphale said stiffly, “and I can assure you that it won’t happen again.”
Crowley let out a strangled sound. “You halfwit. It’ll have to happen again.”
“What?” It was trepidation that was causing Aziraphale’s heart to pound, surely, trepidation and worry and guilt, and certainly not excitement or anticipation or anything half so inappropriate. “Why?”
“Because you’ve set a precedent, haven’t you? If my wife—” he managed to make it sound like a curse—“kisses you again, you’ve got to return those kisses back to me. You can’t default on the bargain. Not yet. Not till…” He trailed off.
“But she won’t kiss me again, surely? I mean, I certainly have no intention of encouraging her in any way—”
Crowley exhaled violently. “You have to. Do you want her to find out you’re an angel? You can’t suddenly act all un-tempted now. So if she tries to kiss you again you’d better let her.”
“Very well,” said Aziraphale, “but you’d better not act so repulsed next time, then. I understand it’s not a pleasant demonic sensation, being kissed by an angel, and I will admit to being a few hundred years out of practice, but it’s really very unflattering to have someone just...leap away from you like that.”
Crowley just stared at him.
“What?” Aziraphale asked. “I’m just saying, you don’t have to act like you enjoy it, but if you could at least pretend it’s a neutral experience for you…”
“Yeah. Sure. Right,” Crowley said, throwing up his hands. “I’ll pretend it’s a neutral experience.”
“So that’s settled, then,” said Aziraphale, relieved. “And may I remind you that we’re only in this situation in the first place because you refused to tell me what was going on.”
“Oh, it’s my fault now, is it?” said Crowley, casting his eyes Hell-ward. “Wonderful.”
“So,” Aziraphale continued, ignoring him, “if there’s anything else you’d like to tell me before tomorrow, such as, I don’t know, whether you actually intend to behead me on New Year’s, now would be a splendid opportunity.”
Crowley looked at him for a long moment. “I think,” he said at last, “that you’ll just have to trust me.”
“I don’t trust demons,” Aziraphale snapped without thinking.
Crowley vaulted himself up out of the chair. “Course you don’t,” he said, and if Aziraphale hadn’t known better, he’d have said he sounded disappointed.
“There’s no need to take it personally—” he began, but Crowley was already out the door.
Aziraphale sank into the chair that Crowley had vacated. It was, he noticed, still warm. He burrowed in a bit deeper. Really, it was quite cozy. He could almost…
“Sir Gawain!” Aziraphale jolted awake to find Lady Bertilak standing over him, a cat-who-got-the-canary smile playing around her lips. “Why, you must be tired, to have fallen asleep in a chair like this.”
“I suppose I must,” said Aziraphale. One of the smaller but still invaluable advantages to being an angel was the utter lack of any grogginess upon awakening. Nevertheless, he thought it prudent to feign a yawn. “I fear you have me at a disadvantage.”
“Oh, not at all,” Lady Bertilak replied, running her eyes over Aziraphale. “I merely wished to see how you were faring. We missed your company at dinner.”
“My apologies,” Aziraphale said faintly.
“Not at all,” Lady Bertilak cooed in response. “And I must say...if I’m being completely honest, Sir Gawain, I just couldn’t keep myself away. From you.”
Aziraphale blanched. “How...kind.”
Lady Bertilak inched closer to him. “Everyone else is at the hunt,” she whispered. “We’re all alone now.”
Act tempted. How? Aziraphale racked his brains for ideas, landing altogether too quickly on his conversation with Crowley that first night. Did you know you go all pink when you’re flustered?
Something must have worked, because Lady Bertilak smiled widely and leaned in.
Aziraphale found this kiss easier to tolerate than yesterday’s. Perhaps he was becoming inured to the practice (having now given or received three kisses in two days), or perhaps Lady Bertilak was more sure of herself now and thus less pushy, but at any rate this kiss seemed to be over almost before it began.
“I really don’t know that you should make a habit of that,” he said.
“Well,” said Lady Bertilak, “I suppose not. As apparently you’re going to have to return each kiss to my husband at the day’s end.”
“I don’t see why that should stop you,” Aziraphale said, and—for no other reason than to shore up the impression that he was sexually interested in Lady Bertilak, certainly not because he was thinking ahead to tonight—kissed her again.
“Sir Gawain,” she said, breaking away after a second. “How forward.”
“I beg your pardon,” Aziraphale said stiffly, “if I have in any way given offense—”
“Not at all,” said Lady Bertilak.
“Perhaps you’d better go,” Aziraphale said. “To avoid, ahem. Further forwardness.”
“If you insist, Sir Gawain,” she replied, and swayed out of the room.
Really, Aziraphale thought, she didn’t seem to be trying very hard to seduce him at all. If he’d had her job—not, of course, that he ever would, given his very un-Fallen state—he’d have taken much greater advantage of the opening he’d given her. Although he supposed he should be grateful that she hadn’t.
The rest of the day passed quickly enough—Aziraphale amused himself by getting rid of the castle’s mouse problem, not so much for the benefit of the current demonic inhabitants as for whoever would eventually replace them—and almost before he knew it, sundown had come again, and Crowley was striding into the great hall, followed by two men shouldering the carcass of a wild boar.
Yesterday, he’d been grinning widely, delighted with himself, bloodthirsty and vibrant and alive. Until, of course, Aziraphale had ruined the whole thing by kissing him. Today, Crowley entered the hall with a graver expression, still flushed from the hunt but without the fey spirit that had seemed to possess him before. No doubt, thought Aziraphale grimly, he was dreading what was to come. Well, it was as much his fault as Aziraphale’s that they were in this mess, really, he’d only been trying to help out, and there was really no call for Crowley to act like kissing Aziraphale was some sort of ordeal. Aziraphale was quite good at kissing. He’d received commendations.
So it was with more than a little wounded pride, and a healthy sense of anger, that Aziraphale approached the demon. “My lord,” he said, “I see you have brought back the spoils of your hunt.”
“I have,” said Crowley, warily. “And I trust you are ready to...fulfill your end of the bargain.”
“I am,” Aziraphale said, and delivered the first of his kisses. It was hardly more than a peck, really, a quick smack of lips against lips, and when Aziraphale pulled back to look at Crowley he was heartily offended by the look of relief on his face.
Well, really, the angel thought to himself. If he thinks that’s all I’ve got in me…
“Thank you for keeping the bargain,” Crowley began, but Aziraphale cut him off.
“I haven’t yet returned to you all my spoils, my lord.”
Crowley’s eyes yellowed. “What do you—”
Aziraphale leaned in and kissed Crowley again—this time with a great deal more vigor. He felt Crowley’s body tense up immediately, presumably from surprise, but he persisted, refusing to cede an inch, and after a moment he could sense Crowley relaxing into the kiss, even parting his lips slightly against Aziraphale’s. Seizing his advantage, he threaded his fingers into Crowley’s hair, moving in close enough that he could hear the demon’s heart thudding in time with his own. And then this noise came out of Crowley, from low in his throat, his gut, something deep and buried and almost primal, and this time it was Aziraphale who stepped back in shock.
He looked at the ground, at the wall, at the wild boar carcass, anywhere but at Crowley. The demon, thankfully, seemed just as keen to avoid eye contact with Aziraphale. “Thank you for fulfilling our bargain,” he croaked, apparently very intrigued by a curlicue in the stonework. “I look forward to the, uh, the conclusion. Tomorrow.”
Aziraphale didn’t even glance at Lady Bertilak as he made his way upstairs to his chamber. He had a very strong suspicion that Crowley’s...grunt? moan? whatever it had been, had given the game away.
The game, he thought bitterly, settling back into the chair he’d slept in the night before. Is that what this is? He screwed up his courage and tried to face facts. The first kiss, yesterday—that was a fluke, a misunderstanding, quite a funny one, really. The first one today, too, the peck—that had been for good reason, too. They’d basically agreed on it. But today’s second kiss? That had been different. For one thing, he admitted to himself—he had to admit to himself—he’d wanted it. There had been no need for him to kiss Lady Bertilak that second time, earlier today. No good reason to do it except for the opening it had given him for that second kiss with Crowley.
A horrible knot of guilt wormed its way into Aziraphale’s stomach. He’d been terribly unfair to Crowley, he realized. Practically leaping on him like that today, without any warning, and in such a wanton manner. He’d let his pride, and his ego, and, all right, yes, the desires of his human body, take control. As little as he’d expected that groan, subconsciously, he’d wanted it. He’d worked for it. But Crowley was playing with Hellfire here, and this certainly wasn’t the time nor the place for some sexually charged power struggle.
Well. Hopefully Crowley would understand, when he came by. Not that Aziraphale had any intention of mentioning the more lustful aspects of his wrongdoing, but assuredly he could confess to having been insulted and annoyed. Crowley ought to understand that. And anyway, he told himself comfortably, he hadn’t been the one to vocalize. So it would be awfully stupid of Crowley to go down that particular line of accusation.
Satisfied, Aziraphale sat back in his chair to wait for Crowley.
But the demon didn’t come. After an hour or so of boredom, Aziraphale picked up the volume of Catullus, flipping open to a random poem.
Da mi basia mille, deinde centum…
He slammed the book shut. Perhaps not the best choice of reading material.
Dawn had broken before he realized that Crowley wasn’t coming.
Despite the fact that Aziraphale had very seldom felt further from God than he did now, he nevertheless sent up a quick prayer to Her in thanks for the fact that Lady Bertilak refrained from surprising him in his chamber the next morning. In his present state, he really didn’t think he could deal with her clumsy seduction tactics.
Even though he suspected that Lady Bertilak now knew perfectly well that he had no interest in her virtue, Aziraphale still sought her out when he came downstairs. After all, she did, hopefully, still think he was Sir Gawain. Surely she couldn’t possibly suspect he was an angel, particularly not after last night’s extremely un-angelic behavior.
So he wound his way through the halls of the castle until he came upon her, in the courtyard, embroidering a small piece of green cloth.
“My lady,” he said, making a courtesy.
“Sir Gawain!” she said, and simpered. “I do apologize for my husband’s rudeness last night. I feel sure he was merely taken aback, and did not mean to offend.”
“No offense was taken,” Aziraphale said, with as much gallantry as he could muster. “I rather feel I ought to be apologizing to him.”
“Oh, no,” Lady Bertilak said, putting down her embroidery and motioning for him to join her on the bench. “I’m certain he suffered no pain from the encounter.”
He knew what she was implying—that Crowley had taken pleasure from kissing Aziraphale, that he’d enjoyed it. Yesterday, Aziraphale would have laughed at the idea. Today, the memory of that sound fresh in his mind, he found it hard to reject completely. And yet, of course, he had also to think that Lady Bertilak was completely wrong. Because if Crowley had taken any pleasure from their kiss, surely he had also taken pain from Aziraphale’s breaking it off, from the way that he had so casually assumed that Crowley’s surprise, that first day, could have been anything other than shock and a bit of disgust. Aziraphale had wanted to kiss Crowley again; he hadn’t realized that Crowley might want it just as much.
He sat down next to Lady Bertilak, realizing with some relief that this would likely be the last day he spent in her company. He was due to face the Green Knight—Crowley, again—tomorrow, and all of this...whatever it was, would be over.
“Are you nervous? About tomorrow?”
Honestly, at this point, no, Aziraphale wanted to say. Crowley was apparently going to behead him, since they hadn’t talked about any alternatives, and they seemed hardly likely to have that conversation now. And Aziraphale was starting to feel as though he deserved discorporation, for the complete mess he’d made of this whole temptation situation.
However, as far as Lady Bertilak knew, he was going to his death the next day, so instead he said, “Yes.”
“Well,” said Lady Bertilak, “I may be able to help with that.”
“How—” She handed him the piece of fabric she’d been embroidering.
“With this. There’s magic knit into it.”
Aziraphale started to protest— there’s no such thing as magic —although of course he knew perfectly well that there was. But Lady Bertilak hushed him.
“Do you trust me, Sir Gawain?”
Aziraphale was borne back, momentarily, to two nights ago, and Crowley in his room. I think that you’ll just have to trust me. And his own response, snapped out so thoughtlessly: I don’t trust demons. Well. Not so long ago, he’d have said he didn’t kiss them, either. And yet.
“Of course,” he said to Lady Bertilak.
“Then take it,” she said, pressing it into his hand, then leaning in close and kissing him quickly. “If you wish to survive tomorrow’s encounter, take it.”
Aziraphale smiled at her, hoping it didn’t look as forced as it felt. “My very great thanks to you.”
She kissed him again, the lightest breeze of lips against lips. “Remember me, Sir Gawain. Remember the lady who gave you this gift, when you face your foe tomorrow.”
“How could I forget?” How, indeed.
She kissed him a third time and rose from the bench. “Goodbye, Sir Gawain.”
“Goodbye, my lady.”
Aziraphale watched her go, holding the fabric in his hands, running his fingers over the weave of it. A magical cloth, one that could protect the bearer from death? He’d seen stranger things. He’d done stranger things.
All the same. He remained there on the bench for another hour, or maybe two, thinking. About magic, and demons, and Crowley in particular, and what was to come tomorrow. And about the small square of cloth he held in his hands.
Tonight, Crowley’s spoils consisted only of a lone fox, which he carried in himself, without the entourage of knights and yeomen that had accompanied him the previous nights.
“Where is everyone?” Aziraphale asked.
“Don’t really need them for this, do I?” Crowley heaved the fox off of his shoulders and threw it to the floor in front of Aziraphale. “So. Now. Bargain.”
“Today,” said Aziraphale nervously, “I received three kisses, which I will now return to you.” He’d decided this was the best way, the only way, to avoid any possible confusion or misconstruing of motives or unexpected noises. To set expectations upfront.
Crowley nodded. “Very well, then.”
Aziraphale leaned in and kissed him, as swiftly as he could, once, twice, three times. Crowley stood as still as a statue, seemingly totally unaffected, his eyes almost dull.
“All right, then,” he said, when Aziraphale stepped back. “We’re done.”
“Not quite,” Aziraphale said, and pulled the square of cloth that Lady Bertilak had given him out of his pocket. “I also received this, and, under the terms of our bargain, I return it to you.”
Now, Crowley’s eyes could not remotely have been described as dull. They went wide, with an expression Aziraphale had seen only once before, in the Garden of Eden, when he’d told Crowley he’d given away his sword. The look on his face—it was astonishment, and joy, and something like hope.
Crowley reached forward and took the cloth from Aziraphale. “Then you have kept our bargain to the full,” he said, as though he were reciting something from memory, and as he spoke the last word a wail went up from the next room, a voice he recognized as Lady Bertilak’s, but rawer, more unfiltered. Her true voice, he supposed.
Aziraphale sniffed the air. “Brimstone?”
Crowley broke into a grin, and Aziraphale almost fainted with relief—he hadn’t ruined everything, then, hadn’t alienated Crowley beyond recovery. Which was very, very good, because he simply didn’t know if he could have gone the rest of his eternal life without seeing that grin again.
“Well, haven’t you gone and mucked the whole thing up,” Crowley said proudly. “Knew you could do it if anyone could.”
“Yes, well, thank you,” said Aziraphale, not entirely sure if that had been a compliment. “It’s just, ah, what exactly did I do?”
“You’ve resisted the temptation, of course,” Crowley said, his smile growing even wider. “Now, I will say, certainly it was a bit easier for you as an angel than it would’ve been for the real Sir Gawain, I would imagine, given that you weren’t actually in danger of dying, but discorporation’s no picnic and I did worry that you might’ve fallen for it.”
“The cloth,” said Aziraphale. “Of course.”
“You kept the bargain,” Crowley said, “all the way through, even at the risk of death. Or, you know. Close enough.”
“So your temptation failed,” Aziraphale said, trying to understand, “but you’re happy about it.”
“Well,” Crowley said, still smiling. “Yeah. Shows Hell I don’t need their interference, doesn’t it? That everyone’s much better off leaving me to my own devices. Particularly her.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of what had been Lady Bertilak.
“That’s good, then,” said Aziraphale, letting a smile creep onto his own face.
“Can I just ask one thing?”
“Why did you give back the cloth? It would’ve saved you from discorporation. I know you didn’t want to be beheaded. Why hand it over?”
Aziraphale looked at Crowley, at the hopeful twist of his lips on the last words. “I suppose,” he said, slowly, “I decided to trust you.”
He hadn’t thought it possible for Crowley’s smile to grow any wider, but—for what felt like the millionth time in the past three days—Aziraphale was proved wrong.