Portland Place, 1895
Aziraphale became conscious of the hour only when he felt Robbie shiver in his arms and noted that the fire had burnt itself to a scant few embers. The false dawn would have only just begun, the greying light hovering over the horizon as if to threaten if we don’t watch how we go, the sun may not rise after all. The dim, surreal sky stretching the minutes endlessly until that first giddy ray strikes dew-dappled leaves, the bird song changes, and the danger passes, forgotten, day after day, only to reemerge the next time someone dares to observe the sacred passage of time.
He rose nude from the bed, gently disengaging from the young man, and went to stoke the coals into something approaching usefulness. Robbie sighed and turned into the warmth left behind, and Aziraphale was overcome with melancholic fondness as he returned to bed. Such a good soul, and so few days upon the earth, he thought, not for the first time. Oscar must truly be blind.
"Love makes fools of us all," Robbie replied, blinking sleepily up at his bedfellow, his brown curls falling coquettishly around his face.
Aziraphale blushed. "Forgive me, did I speak aloud?"
Robbie pushed himself up upon his elbow, extending a hand to caress Aziraphale’s shoulder. “It’s early.”
“So it is. Though I really ought to be returning home.”
A theatrical groan as Robbie collapsed back onto the bed. “You shouldn’t have let me fall asleep last night.”
“The case is taking its toll on us all.”
“Which is precisely why we should have made the most of it.”
“My dear, you can’t think me unsatisfied.”
“No? I’ve been a dreadful bore, demanding your presence and bending your ear for hours—”
“—In all fairness, had I been in a solicitor’s office with the both of them, I’d have likely wrung down the curtains and strangled Bosie with the cord.”
Robbie laughed. “Rather a good job it was me then, and not you. But in the spirit of fair play, I do believe I owe you for last night.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Aziraphale dismissed.
"Then in the spirit of complete selfishness I demand another go at you."
Aziraphale laughed. “I really ought to be getting back to the shop.”
“Why will you never ask for what you want?”
“I am content with what I have. Oh, now,” he said as Robbie pouted, “don’t look at me like that. As I said, I’m not unsatisfied. If I objected to our congress, or a lack thereof, I would tell you.”
“You’ve been entirely too good to me, you know,” Robbie said, twisting the bedclothes in his hands. “There have been times the longing became so unbearable I thought I might scream, or at least make a public spectacle of myself confessing my secrets in so uncompromising a manner I lose all the society of those I care for. Somehow, when I’m with you, you make me feel loved as I know I’ve never been or ever will be. You won’t say, and I won’t ask any further, but please know, whoever it is you’re embracing when you hold me, whichever of the touches that you give me that belong to them, the loss is entirely theirs.”
Aziraphale paled and looked away. “Thank you, my dear.”
“So,” said Robbie coyly, trailing a finger up Aziraphale’s chest and curling around a tuft of white blond hair, “How may I return the favor? We’ve nowhere to be presently and no urgent business, unless I’m much mistaken.”
“You are not,” he rasped, desire already beginning to steal his breath as he allowed Robbie to bear him down onto the bed.
“Close your eyes, darling. Picture him in your mind, and let me have you.”
"Yes," Aziraphale sighed.
Red hair cascading over his hands, fingers twisting in curls of crimson. A profane mouth trailing kisses across his chest, stomach, oh God!
“Please, yes, anything!” Red hot shame coloured his face, his eyes screwed tight as he found his climax under Robbie’s ministrations and cried out another name entirely.
It was not the first time.
Aziraphale was weeping. He didn’t know when he began, but he was being hushed softly and petted as he registered the cooling sweat on his body. His eyes stayed closed. Just a moment longer. Let me pretend, just a moment longer.
Robbie knew better than to speak until Aziraphale opened his eyes. The rules of this engagement had been laid down some time ago.
With a shuddering breath, Aziraphale’s damp eyelashes fluttered open to a vision of brown hair and kind brown eyes.
“Thank you, dear,” he whispered, drawing the dear head to his chest as he recovered. “Thank you.”
The door of the townhouse latched heavily behind him. The morning was bracingly bright and he donned his hat and gloves against it, still feeling the morning’s activities beneath his evening dress.
It was pathetic, he thought. Angels didn’t feel lonely. They had a direct connection to the Almighty and the entire Heavenly Host. He strongly suspected Crowley was to blame for his state, only Crowley had only absented himself twenty years prior. They’d gone centuries without speaking, a mere two decades should not have carved something raw and aching into the core of Aziraphale’s being.
At first he’d turned to his work, even deigning to attend to customers when the isolation became unbearable. Perhaps he’d been a bit overly solicitous of some of the gentlemen in his shop, but the club invitation from one such young man was still unexpected if not entirely unwelcome.
Once he brought himself to accept the invitation to Portland Place he’d been somewhat taken aback by how many of his clientele he recognized. And others, of course. Wilde he knew by reputation, and Bosie through Wilde, but Robbie, that gentle and stalwart soul, had been a surprise.
His second ever friend instigated the second illicit arrangement of his long existence and it had become nearly as revelatory as the first. Even as he acknowledged his own cowardice, his utter failure by every measure of his kind, he could not deny himself this small kindness Robbie offered and return it in full.
Inside the security of his own shop once more, he returned his attire to something befitting the hour and the industry and set about his day in the manner to which he’d become accustomed.
There was no room for self-pity in the existence of an angel, he resolved, and with genuine happiness set about ordering his books as he liked. He had an occupation that suited him down to the ground, a delightful circle of acquaintances, and a very good friend. And, perhaps, a wily adversary, should he deign to return. How could he have ever imagined himself unhappy? He was learning the gavotte!
The shop bell rang. Aziraphale grimaced. “One moment please!”
Certainly there was no reason to feel the pressure of tears behind his eyes. Aziraphale’s handkerchief swiped angrily at his cheeks as he took a shuddering breath.
Everything was just tickety-boo.
Soho, Present Day.
It was a beautiful afternoon. All the afternoons, in Aziraphale’s opinion, had been beautiful since the world failed to end. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and he’d yet to tire of the sense of general contentment. Watching the dust motes dance in the sun as he shelved and reshelved his beloved first editions, restoring the well-loved bindings as needed, and reflecting on his singular good fortune was his chief occupation and he executed it to the fullest measure of his ability.
Aziraphale was admittedly a bit wistful, stroking a rather tattered edition of Dorian Gray, and removing it to his back room where he could lovingly repair the ragged bits of it.
He’d only just removed the binding when the shop bell rang. With a sigh he removed his gloves and went to see who had wandered in off the street.
“Package delivery for the Principality Aziraphale, Guardian of the Eastern Gate!”
Aziraphale quickened his steps. There were three large boxes on a dolly and a smile broadened his face. “Oh, good! I was wondering when those would arrive.” With cheerful anticipation Aziraphale miracled the top of the first box open and rifled excitedly through the contents. “Well these seem to all be in order.”
“Your signature then,” the man prompted.
Aziraphale quickly signed. “I’m so pleased you were available after that unpleasant business.”
The delivery man chuckled. “Me too, quite honestly. Anyway, delivering packages is what I do. Couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Farther into the shop a head popped up over the back of a worn, overstuffed sofa. “My love to Maud,” called Crowley.
“Well best be off. The next delivery should be tomorrow or so. You need help finding space for these?”
Aziraphale shook his head, already half absorbed in a copy of his newly acquired biography of Robert Baldwin Ross. “I’m sure I’ll manage. Thank you.”
As the bell announced the delivery man's exit, Crowley appeared over his shoulder. “S’a bit more modern than your usual, yeah?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes. Well, he was a friend, you remember.”
Crowley nodded. "I remember."
There was always a meal. After Rome, whenever they met along their journey, it was the unspoken expectation that an invitation to dine would be offered and accepted, and the time spent catching up on their decades apart.
In all, eighty years was hardly the longest span to have gone without speaking, but Aziraphale thought perhaps it might have seemed longer for all that had happened before and during their separation.
Over fry-ups in possibly the last cafe standing, he finally unburdened himself. “I don’t expect you’ve had much time to catch up on everything so, I’ll...oh, I don’t know where to begin!”
“It’s all right, angel. It’s been a while. I know how these things go.”
Aziraphale twisted the napkin in his lap. “Oh, if only it were that simple. I suppose it would suffice to say I became rather involved with several humans around the turn of the century.”
Crowley’s jaw dropped and a slow leer spread across his face. “Involved?”
“Not like that, or, well...oh dear, I’m not explaining myself well at all.”
Crowley grinned. “Take your time, I’m not going anywhere until I hear this.”
Properly aggravated, Aziraphale found the words came more easily. “If you must know I attended the salon of a rather famous writer and his friends. They invited me to join their club. I learned to dance, in fact. They taught me the gavotte! Oh, it was such fun—”
“The juicy bits, angel,” Crowley interrupted, tapping the tabletop with his fork. “Skip to the good part.”
“Oh really, Crowley,” Aziraphale huffed. “Well, at any rate, I became quite close with one of the writer’s friends. And then...and then there was a bit of a tragedy.” Aziraphale took a bracing sip of his tea and attempted to smile. “He...the writer, that is, took up with a very pretty but spoilt and selfish boy whose father was a Marquess. There was a rather ill-advised lawsuit and well, the writer ended up in gaol for indecency. It was barbaric.” Aziraphale looked down at the tomatoes he was absentmindedly turning into ketchup and set his fork down with a little sigh of frustration. “The thing of it was, he had a dear friend who was very much in love with him. Not like the fickle little gentleman who all but abandoned him, but a true and kind friend.” It was hard to see Crowley’s eyes through his dark glasses, but he endeavored to meet them all the same. “He...took care of him. Never asked for anything for himself. Just...got on with it, as it were. He was devoted to him his whole life, and Wilde, the writer, for all that he was a brilliant man, he seemed completely oblivious to his constancy.”
Crowley appeared to swallow something difficult. His voice, when he spoke was a bit hoarse. “You can’t help who you fall in love with...humans, that is. I’ve heard, I mean, I wouldn’t know...”
Aziraphale took pity on him. “No, they really can’t, can they? At any rate, I’ve only rarely been privileged to see that sort of unselfish love in humans...or anywhere, really...and I suppose...I suppose I wanted to encourage him, if I could.”
“You comforted him.” Crowley confirmed. Aziraphale nodded. He smiled. “Good. And the little bastard who led your writer friend into ruin?”
Aziraphale huffed in annoyance. “Tried to ruin my friend as well, can you believe the nerve? None of his slander came to anything, I made sure of that, but well.” Aziraphale swallowed. “Poor Oscar didn’t live very long once he was released from prison. Robbie, my friend, took care of his arrangements, served as his literary executor. Made an honest go with another friend of ours for a while. But he was never quite the same after. Not even two decades after Wilde died, Robbie came round one night. He was meant to be leaving for Australia on a tour promoting Wilde’s writing. He really did a marvelous job as his executor, too, only, he was ill, you see. He didn’t know it, but he would have died, painfully, in a matter of weeks.”
Crowley sat up. “Oh, Aziraphale.”
“I...I thought of healing him, but well, I wasn’t sure if it would have been a mercy, having loved Oscar for so long as he had. I...I helped him pass that night. He...he thanked me, do you know? He thanked me for it.” Aziraphale broke off, surprised to find he was struggling to breathe a bit. Crowley refilled his tea with a snap and pushed it toward him. Aziraphale took a sip and continued. “Thank you, my dear. Anyway, it was dreadfully lonely without him, I found.”
“Always is when we let ourselves get attached.”
“And yet I can’t bring myself to regret it.”
Crowley smiled. “You shouldn’t. I’ll tell you what I regret—not being there to see you dancing.”
Aziraphale laughed. “You would have been an absolute menace in that club. Anyway, there was a Great War, which took up a good deal of my time. Quite a bit of poverty and suffering to be getting on with after, and now this mess. I still check up on Wilde’s son from time to time. He’s doing quite well. Lost his brother and his wife during the first war, but he’s keeping his chin up.”
“And that fop? Gave him a rollicking case of syphilis I hope?”
“Bosie? Oh, dear, I wish. No, he got something much worse.”
Crowley shuddered. “Don’t tell me he became a sanctimonious convert?” Aziraphale nodded. “That’s evil, that is.”
“And an antisemite, as well. Spent the better part of the 1920’s writing pamphlets.”
Crowley's jaw dropped. “He did not!”
“What a piece of work!”
“Oh you’ve no idea. Do you know he actually instigated fisticuffs with Robbie at the graveside service? I won’t tell you I didn’t feel any remorse whatsoever about dropping his behind in a mud puddle.” Crowley laughed uproariously. “All duty-bound love and goodwill aside, I’m rather content he’ll be one of yours soon enough.”
“He’s still alive?!”
“As far as I know.”
Aziraphale was rather focused on his black pudding, appetite returned with the lightening of his load, and failed to notice the rather diabolical look on Crowley’s face. In his defense, it was an excellent fry-up which reheated well by miracle, and Crowley very quickly began an enchanting narrative of his most memorable dreams from his nearly seventy-year slumber.
Soho, present day
Aziraphale smiled. “I never did thank you for taking care of that deplorable little man for me.”
Crowley’s eyes widened behind his sunglasses. “You knew about that?”
Aziraphale smiled. “Well you did arrange for his interment at the Friary Church of St Francis and St Anthony in Crawley.”
Crowley made a great show of nonchalance, shoving his hands in his pockets and swinging his hips back and forth. “His mother was already there, buried ten years.”
“Of course she was.”
“Anyway, it was quality workmanship,” Crowley began to gesture broadly. Don’t think I spent more time on anything until the M25. Gave him a right good taste of what he had to look forward to in the hereafter. Had to leave a signature, didn’t I?”
“Naturally,” Aziraphale agreed amiably. “Though I’m surprised you didn’t realize when I chose the moniker of Francis for myself.”
"Is that where that came from?" Crowely seemed taken aback. “Are you about done doing...whatever it is you’re doing here? I’m taking you to dinner.”
Aziraphale looked back toward his desk. The binding would keep. The glue wouldn’t dare crack in his absence. “That sounds lovely. I did have something I wished to discuss with you. What are you thinking?”
“Sushi?” offered Crowley.
“Mmm. That was lunch yesterday I’m afraid. How about the Savoy?”
“Ehhh. Can’t be fussed, honestly.”
Aziraphale brightened. “Tapas?”
Crowley grinned. “How about Peruvian? Haven’t had a good pisco in an age.”
Aziraphale was well and truly tempted. “Lead the way, my dear.”
“I’ve decided it’s time to make some changes,” said Aziraphale at last, his ceviche finally having given up it’s hold on his attention.
Crowley took a measured sip of his pisco. “Is this going to be like the Morris dancing?”
Aziraphale glared. "It was a dark time. And that’s rather rich coming from you. I don’t recall having seen you with a vapor cigarette in hand recently. What was it you told me when I asked you not to use it in my shop? This is who I am now Aziraphale, you can’t change me. Forgive me, was that you or some other insufferable demon having an identity crisis?"
“They loved my fat clouds on YouTube. Those people understood me.”
“Those people were morons.”
“Said the angel who wore jingle bells for a solid month.”
"Anyway, the idea to go On Line with my business—"
"That was my idea, I’ll thank you to remember."
“—was rather inspired, as it turns out.”
“Just imagine, a bookseller actually selling books. What is the world coming to?”
Aziraphale’s mouth hardened. “You know very well why there are some I will never part with.”
Crowley made a conciliatory gesture. “I do. Just never understood the need to maintain the fiction you weren’t particularly attached to any of them.”
"Really. You can’t think of a single reason I mightn’t wish to let on a personal attachment to material objects created by humans I cared for outside the scope of my role as a principality?"
“Fair enough. No risk of that now, is there?”
“Very little that I can see, no. Which is why I intend to modernize the shop. I’ll keep my own private collection for myself and devote myself to promoting the works I truly love. In later, less valuable editions.”
“Of course I’ll still keep my hand in appraisal and restoration. One never knows when something truly extraordinary might come my way.”
“I’d expect nothing else.”
“Which is why I think it’s time we moved in together.”
Crowly spit his pisco across the table. “Excuse me?”
Aziraphale waved the mess away absently. “I’m going to need the upstairs apartment’s space for inventory. Your flat has more than enough room for two.”
“You want to live with me?”
“Yes. Do keep up, my dear.”
Crowley appeared to be thinking very hard. “Like roommates?”
With a soft sigh, Aziraphale took his hand. “Rather as though we’re an item, I thought.”
“Is that all right, my dear?”
“We need to go now,” said Crowley throwing a handful of bills on the table.
“What, this minute? Why?”
Crowley leaned over the table. “Because the first time I kiss you is not going to be in the middle of a bloody chain restaurant, that’s why!”
“Oh!” replied Aziraphale, intelligently, as his hand was taken.
The remains of their meal sat undisturbed while outside the windows of the restaurant, a demon gently bestowed a first kiss upon a celestial being on a balcony illuminated by fairy lights in the heart of Carnaby Street.
Heaven’s main office was redesigned in the early 2000’s after Gabriel took a brief sojourn to America and found himself in an Apple store. Coincidentally, Heaven began using mobile phones for communication shortly thereafter. But like most corporate campuses, there were the spaces designed to be seen and utilized by guests, visitors, and the upper echelons, and then there were the spaces meant for work.
In this regard, Heaven looked much like any other office building. As the public spaces and private offices were renewed, the old chairs and desks and sofas and coffee machines trickled down to the next level of management and so forth, so that while the offices of the first sphere were respectably contemporary, by the third sphere things were rather a mishmash of Art Deco desks, rococo lamps and mid-century chairs.
And then there was Haniel’s nest.
Haniel adored Marie Kondo. Haniel was the Archangel of Joy and Pleasure, so any practice which focused on tuning into a sense of joy gave her a special little thrill of delight. But where KonMari was designed to streamline a living space, Haniel, perennially incapable of finding anything lacking in a spark of joy, found herself absorbing an increasing amount of clutter into her office.
There were overstuffed chintz sofas and velvet upholstered thrones, enormous medieval tapestries and corduroy beanbags. Her Louis Quatorze desk was buried under a collection of plastic dashboard hula dancers and Blessed Virgins, and in one memorable case, a hula-dancing Blessed Virgin that was discovered at a truck stop in Reno, Nevada. China dogs lined the mantle of her antique fireplace.
In all, the asthetic of the room could be described as both demented and cozy.
It was still missing something, Haniel thought, and that something was probably the enormous cement elephant she was currently carrying off the elevator.
"What is that?"
Haniel grinned and turned a full circle to address Sandalphon. “It’s an elephant!” She announced with great satisfaction.
"I can see that," said Sandalphon. “What’s it doing in Heaven?”
“It’s going in my office.”
“With the rest of the junk you have in there? Where will you put it?”
Haniel set the elephant down with a reverberating thud. "I was thinking between the Poäng and the papasan."
Sandalphon’s smile was not a kind one. “Greed is a sin, Haniel.”
“It’s not greed, it’s KonMari.”
“Thought that was the squid Aziraphale eats.”
A door opened and a commanding voice called behind her, “Sandalphon! There you are. Gabriel wants to see us right away.” Michael emerged from the conference room looking terribly important and terribly busy, as always.
“Oh! Does he need me there too?” asked Haniel.
Michael looked down their elegant nose. “For what would he need you, exactly?”
Haniel shuffled her feet. “I...I don’t know. I mean, we’re all Archangels, Michael.”
“Well I’m sure if anyone needs any warm, fuzzy feelings, they’ll give you a call. Otherwise, I think it’s just grownups this time.”
Haniel wilted under Michael’s smirk until she felt an arm around her shoulders. Raphael’s warm brown eyes winked down at her. “I’m sorry, I must have missed the memo. What are we grownups doing this afternoon?”
Michael visibly qualed. “Nothing to concern you personally, Raphael. Just tying up some loose ends.”
“End of the world loose ends? Or are the four of you just going to sit around and think up new ways to embarrass yourselves?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Raphael. But you’ve made your position perfectly clear regarding the traitor Aziraphale—”
“If you mean that he did you all a favor—”
“So I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear we’re planning to reinstate him very soon.”
“You are?” squealed Haniel with glee.
Raphael placed a gentling hand on her overexcited arm. “What are you up to, Michael? You all agreed to leave him alone.”
“And so we will. Completely. Utterly. Alone. Good day, Ladies.”
Raphael watched Michael go as Haniel struggled briefly to get her arms around the elephant. “I don’t like this,” she said.
“I need to find a spot for my elephant,” Haniel said, knowing Raphael was already planning something.
Raphael smiled. “Yeah, let’s do that. And let’s invite the others as well.”
Jophiel was passionately typing a strongly worded memo to Gabriel when Haniel burst through the door of her office.
“I got a new elephant!”
With a single raised finger she indicated for Haniel to wait, and Haniel did, visibly bouncing in place while she finished. Since Gabriel had long ago decided he no longer needed council from the Archangel of Wisdom, the emails he permitted her to send him were all she had. “Okay,” she said, hitting send and turning her attention to the small whirlwind in the doorway. “What kind of elephant are we talking about here?”
“Small! Oh, not real this time. You were right, that was a bad idea. I found this one at a market in Stoke-on-Trent! Raphael thinks it’s very dignified.”
Jophiel couldn’t help the grin that sprang forth. “Well if Raphael thinks so, it must be an extraordinary elephant indeed.”
“She wanted everyone to come to see it right away!”
Jophiel paused. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Heaven’s Archangels weren’t seeing eye-to-eye these days. By mutual, unspoken agreement there had been no outright rebellion. Absolutely no one wanted another war. Well, almost no one, they amended. But it was becoming common practice to gather in Haniel’s nest under the auspices of a new acquisition to her collection and discuss business. It wasn’t outright sedition, but Jophiel questioned the wisdom of these meetings if no action was to be taken. It seemed an invitation to accusations of treason, and given how Aziraphale’s defection was handled, hushed up, and subsequently spread through the ranks of the angels, Jophiel didn’t see a clear way forward for anyone questioning Gabriel’s leadership that didn’t end in a spectacular mess.
“Who’s everyone, Hani?”
“Raphael, obviously, you, and Zadkiel. You know. Just friends.”
"I see." Jophiel sighed deeply. If Zaphkiel, God’s personal eye-in-the-sky, wasn’t coming and Zadkiel, his twin brother, was, she didn’t like their chances of flying this under the radar. There was going to be trouble. But if Raphael had made up her mind, there was nothing Jophiel could do to dissuade her. They would just have to cross that bridge when they came to it. "Okay. Let me see this amazing, wonderful elephant of yours."
Raphael had claimed the comfy throne for herself by the time they got there. Zadkiel beamed up at the two of them from the beanbag. Jophiel opted to take a perch near the door for when trouble inevitably arrived. Raphael might not be afraid of Gabriel and Michael, but Jophiel didn’t want to risk anyone getting hurt.
“Here it is! Isn’t it great?”
Jophiel looked to where Haniel was pointing. She wasn't sure what she expected. It was a concrete elephant that had obviously spent many happy years in somebody’s garden. The paint was faded, the trunk was chipped and it gave off such an absurd aura of love, she could only imagine several generations of children must have adopted it before it made its way to market. It was perfect, and it was completely Haniel. “It’s perfect. It’s just what this place needed.”
“See! I told you!” Haniel pointed at Zadkiel.
He put up his hands in defeat. “I bow to Jophiel’s superior wisdom, as always. It’s a superb specimen.”
“He said it was ugly,” Haniel stage-whispered to Jophiel.
“Raphael, what are we doing here?” Jophiel asked. “Fantastic as that elephant is, Gabriel isn’t buying this for a second.”
Raphael sat forward as Haniel took a perch at her feet and extended her wings for grooming. Raphael combed through the secondaries absently. “I ran into Michael earlier. The braintrust is having a meeting about Aziraphale. They plan to bring him back into the fold.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” said Jophiel.
“No. It isn’t.”
“They said they were going to leave him alone. Isn’t that what he wanted?” asked Haniel.
Raphael scritched a particularly good spot and Haniel melted against her knees. “They did say that. But it's awfully hard to be left alone and come back to Heaven, isn’t it?”
“What exactly did Michael say?” asked Jophiel.
“They were going to leave Aziraphale completely, utterly alone.”
Zadkiel buried his face in his hands. “They’re going after Crowley.”
Jophiel shook their head. “No, that wouldn’t make sense. Attack either of them, they’ll just close ranks.”
“They’re definitely planning some way to separate them. Has Zaphkiel said anything?” Raphael asked Zadkiel.
“Does he ever? I think we’re all pretty beneath his notice these days. Even Gabriel has trouble getting answers out of him.”
“But he’s been meeting with Gabriel?”
“And Metatron, but yeah. Think he’ll tell us if he knows something?”
“I think finding out is worth a shot,” said Jophiel. “But more importantly, we need to decide what exactly it is we’re doing here, because any minute Gabriel is going to walk through that door.”
There was a knock on Haniel’s door. “Come in!” she called.
Gabriel entered, smiling nowhere near his eyes. “Ah. You’re all here. Convenient.”
“Gabriel,” greeted Raphael. “What can we do for you?”
“Well for starters, you can stop meeting behind my back. It doesn’t look good and some of the lower ranking angels are starting to talk.”
“They just came to see my new elephant,” defended Haniel.
“Ah, yes! Sandalphon told me. Your reprimand will be forthcoming.”
Haniel’s noise of distress was drowned out by other exclamations of outrage. “You can’t do that!” Protested Zadkiel. “She hasn’t done anything wrong!”
“Greed! Covetousness is a sin, and we’re angels. Ties to material objects are just tacky. And look where it got Aziraphale.”
“The way I heard it he spit Hellfire at you and still didn’t fall. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it,” needled Raphael.
Gabriel glared. “Well. We’ll see about that. Henceforth, all private meetings between Archangels, apart from leadership, are banned.”
“You can’t do that!” said Jophiel. “You don’t have the authority to make that call.”
“Hey, I’m just the Messenger,” said Gabriel, grinning smugly at his own joke. “Take it up with Michael if you want, but I don’t think they’ll be swayed. We need to present a united front to the other angels. We can’t afford a civil war right now.”
“Jophiel is right,” said Raphael. “You don’t have that authority. None of you do.”
"Excuse me, the Almighty left me in charge—"
"She left us in charge. The First Four. And I don’t agree with this."
“You’ll be voted down. Like always. Too bad Lucifer isn’t still here. He usually voted with you, didn’t he?”
Raphael charged forward, coming up just beneath his prominent chin. She spoke softly but with a distinct chill. “Do not test me, Gabriel. I was your medic in the first war. I may not be in the next.”
Gabriel’s expression was cold, but he took a step back. “Fine. Keep your little coffee klatch. But don’t think you won’t be punished for any action you take against us. I may not have the authority to cast you down, but I very much doubt you’re all immune to Hellfire.” With that, Gabriel turned and left.
Haniel was ashen and trembling as Zadkiel rubbed her back. “Well that answers that question,” Zadkiel said.
“What’s that?” asked Raphael, rubbing a hand across her brow and instantly curing the migraine that Gabriel always gave her.
“They’re still working with Hell,” replied Zadkiel. “The Hellfire jab. It wasn’t a one-time thing. Zaphkiel said something about Beelzebub yesterday. I think that back channel is open again.”
Raphael sat and steepled her fingers in front of her mouth. “Maybe we should get our own.”
“Excuse me?” asked Zadkiel "Look, I’m having enough trouble keeping Raguel from storming down to Earth for his pound of flesh every time Zaphkiel says something about Aziraphale miracling pastries from France. If you give him another target, he’s going to come after you."
“Please, that flying bicep with hair doesn’t frighten me.”
Jophiel shook her head. “Raphael, don’t be arrogant. You may be strong, but—”
“But nothing. We need help. We can’t sit idly by until Gabriel and Michael finally do something so horrific war becomes inevitable.”
“She’s right,” added Zadkiel. “The Almighty showed Her hand in Aziraphale’s trial. Her favor is with him. Heaven knows it, and the cover-up maintains it, but if they drag Aziraphale back up here there’s going to be trouble. Angels are going to faction off again.”
Haniel’s voice was so small. "Why won’t She just do something?"
Zadkiel squeezed her shoulder. “I don’t know.”
Jophiel’s gaze was focused somewhere in the middle distance where algorithms and statistics danced with prophecies. “We can do it. It’s risky, but it could work. Who do you want to loop in? Has anyone been in contact since the War?”
“I want my team back.” said Raphael. Zadkiel turned an expression of surprised gratitude to his general. “I still check on Remiel and Saraquel from time to time,” she explained.
“Raziel then,” added Jophiel. “We could use them for sure. Hani, what do you think?”
“The goat guy?”
“Yep. The goats are cute.”
Raphael and Jophiel shared a look. A look that said we are doing this only because we adore you, but this is definitely a terrible idea. “Okay, Azazel. Bold choice. You want to reach out to him Haniel?”
Haniel nodded, pulled her phone from her robe, and began texting.
“You have his number?” Asked Zadkiel.
“He says he’ll do it.”
Zadkiel pulled at his hair in frustration. “We haven’t said what we’re doing yet!”
“I know. I don’t think it matters. I think he just likes to be included. Nobody sends him goats anymore. He gets bored.”
Her words were met with shared looks of horror around the room. “Okay then. I don’t suppose he has Raziel’s number?” asked Jophiel.
Haniel was already texting. “He does.”
In some ways, Aziraphale thought Crowley seemed much less high strung since moving in together.
“Another episode, angel?”
Rather than the customary teasing and nagging that had accompanied his every attempt to bring Aziraphale into the current era, it was a simple request to cuddle on his sofa and watch television together that managed to persuade Aziraphale that there might be something redeeming in an afternoon of Netflix and chill, as the young people said. It was simply delightful to wrap his arm around Crowley and feel his lithe frame pressed to his side. And if he were being quite honest, Crowley did have a knack for choosing programmes.
“No, I’m quite cross with that Hollywood fellow. Those pastries were perfectly fine and he had no call to be so critical.”
Crowley chuckled and Aziraphale felt inordinately pleased with himself. "He’s a judge, angel, critical is in the job description."
“The vol-au-vents looked perfectly delightful to me.”
“Queer Eye it is then.”
Aziraphale wiggled happily as the series queued. He grew thoughtful as he watched the young men work to better the lives of others.
As if reading his mind, Crowley spoke. “You don’t need their permission, you know.”
“Permission for what?”
“Blessing people. Do-gooding.”
Aziraphale shook off his reverie. “Of course I don’t.” Crowley was silent in a way that distinctly conveyed his doubt in Aziraphale’s self confidence. He sighed. “It was all I ever wanted, you understand. To serve Her. I tried so hard to be a good angel.”
“I know. You were. You are. It’s not you that went bad. It’s them. They lost their way a long time ago.”
Aziraphale smiled and pressed a kiss into Crowley’s hair. “I know we’ve never really, but, um, would you like me to groom you?”
Crowley whipped his head around. “Yeah?”
“Get your wings out, my dear, I’ll look after them for you.”
A fluff of black feathers sliding into the physical plane later and Aziraphale had his hands in Crowley’s coverts. Crowley moaned in pleasure. “It’s been an age since anyone but me has done this. Hope it’s not too bad back there.”
Aziraphale was momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer physical presence of so much of Crowley. "Not...not at all," he stuttered, stroking and settling the iridescent black feathers. His down was so incredibly soft. All angels’ were, supposedly (he wouldn’t know from personal experience of anyone’s but his own) but he had a hard time reckoning such softness coexisting with all of Crowley’s sharp angles.
Well. It was rather like Crowley himself, wasn’t it?
Aziraphale was thoroughly enjoying this. He’d never been permitted to groom another angel before, and only Gabriel had ever given him a very perfunctory going-over when Aziraphale still spent any time in Heaven. He very much looked forward to the feel of Crowley’s hands in his own wings. On impulse he leaned forward and kissed along the length of Crowley’s neck, stretched up in pleasure. Crowley shuddered and flinched.
“Sorry, ticklish,” he explained flatly.
In some ways, unfortunately, Crowley seemed to be more high-strung than ever.
Trying to gentle him with a stroke of his back, he observed Crowley shiver and pulled away only for Crowley to bolt to his feet. “Just remembered I have a schefflera getting ideas above its station.”
Aziraphale shook his head in confusion. “I thought we were watching this?”
Crowley was already walking away. “You go ahead.”
Stunned by the sudden change in plans he could only stutter out, “All...all right.”
Bewildered and a bit hurt, Aziraphale turned back to the Fab Five but his attention was on Crowley’s odd behavior. Things had been perfectly lovely until they’d begun to talk of his desire to do good in the world. What was all that business about resuming his Heavenly duties out of their employ? Aziraphale could admit that while the break from his responsibilities had been enjoyable, a part of him craved work. And he so loved this world. The desire to protect and care for humanity had never left him, no matter how much the rest of the Host despised him at any given moment.
Perhaps he was too much underfoot. Crowley was used to a more solitary existence. Perhaps he was simply struggling to ask for time apart.
Aziraphale turned off the TV. “I’m going out for awhile,” he announced in the direction of Crowley’s plant room. There was no answer but he hardly expected one. He retrieved his coat from beside the door with a glance toward the bedroom and the two single beds he knew to be there. For a moment he considered the possibility that he was no longer the angel Crowley fell in love with. Was his connection to the Host the basis of his appeal? His forbidden nature? His access to God? His negligible cache as a Principality? Was Crowley’s encouragement to bless others in some way an expression of his own desires? More to the point, if Aziraphale was a better angel, would Crowley then desire him?
Aziraphale dismissed the idea as absurd. Crowley didn’t have an angelic kink, for Heaven’s sake.
And yet, though they’d established their amorous feelings for one another months ago, Crowley an otherwise upstanding demon in all aspects, wouldn’t even hint at any sort of carnal desire, demonic, human, or otherwise. It only served to make Aziraphale acutely aware of how un-angelic his own desire for intimacy must be.
There were times he thought if Crowley wouldn’t touch him he would run mad.
Aziraphale walked the rain slicked pavement in no particular direction until he found his feet had directed him to a church. It happened, from time to time, when he had no particular destination in mind.
It wasn’t a church of any special significance. But their lights were on, and their doors opened without any interference on his part.
He sat in the back, eyes on the priest as he performed his office and considered praying.
A continued lack of response would probably break him, Aziraphale thought, and he rather disliked the idea of causing a public scene.
He took a bulletin from the basket by the door on the way out. There were service opportunities at the church, apparently. It was exactly a divine calling, but, he thought, a freelance angel had to start somewhere.
On Sundays, the church served a soup luncheon to the homeless. On Mondays, Aziraphale volunteered at the adjacent shelter. Tuesdays, he opened the shop. Now a proper shop, there were, for once, a steady flow of customers to contend with—something Aziraphale no longer discouraged. In fact, he began to organize weekly book clubs, and on Wednesdays he occasionally hosted the odd reading. Thursdays, he read to children at noon. Fridays, he returned to the shelter and provided clothing and toiletries to the guests.
On Saturdays, Aziraphale rested.
On Sundays, the church served a soup luncheon to the homeless. On Mondays, Aziraphale volunteered at the adjacent shelter. Tuesdays, he opened the shop. Now a proper shop, there were, for once, a steady flow of customers to contend with—something Aziraphale no longer discouraged. In fact, he began to organize weekly book clubs, and on Wednesdays he occasionally hosted the odd reading. Thursdays, he read to children at noon. Fridays, he returned to the shelter and provided clothing and toiletries to the guests.
On Saturdays, Aziraphale rested.
That day of rest was more often than not spent with Crowley, though Crowley had grown increasingly skittish around him if he initiated so much as a kiss when they were together.
In his more confident moments, Aziraphale chalked it up to Crowley’s fear of moving too fast for him, and made a special effort to welcome openly whatever affection Crowley felt comfortable initiating. Those occasions became fewer and fewer, however, and Aziraphale had to concede he likely came on too strongly for Crowley’s comfort.
Increasingly often, however, when sleeping in separate beds was no longer distance enough for Crowley and he had to virtually chase him through the flat for an audience, rose the fear that Crowley had lost interest in him entirely—that having was not so pleasing a thing as wanting. It was a sobering thought that Aziraphale somehow hadn’t managed to live up to six millennia of Crowley’s expectations.
In his darker moments Aziraphale thought of Michael’s cold explanation to the ranks of infantry that demons couldn’t feel love.
It was utter rubbish, of course, but fears did not become less frightening for a want of rationality.
Aziraphale let himself into their flat. “Crowley? Are you in, my dear?”
“Out in a sec, angel!” came the echoed reply from the direction of the greenery.
Aziraphale placed the bag with the wine bottles and accoutrement in the kitchen. From the cupboard he removed the two wine glasses that now resided there and the corkscrew.
“What’s this then?”
Aziraphale smiled. “Bordeaux. Rather nice one I found back at the shop yesterday morning.”
Crowley took a closer look at the bottle and his mouth gaped a little. “Rather nice is a bit of an understatement. You forgot you had an ‘82 Lafite Rothschild in your cellar?”
“I never did. This was one of Adam’s additions. Have a case of it now actually.”
Crowley let out a helpless laugh. “Kid has taste.”
Aziraphale hummed appreciatively. “I don’t know if the Lafite was specifically intended or if he just meant for there to be something excellent and extortionately expensive, but either way, I thought we deserved a treat.”
“What’s the occasion? Not that Saturday isn’t as good a reason as any,” he asked.
Aziraphale poured a glass and handed it to Crowley. “Well, my dear, it’s been a year for us.”
Crowley let out a breath. “Oh.” He was silent, his face inscrutable.
“And I suppose, I thought that was something worth celebrating.”
Crowley nodded. “Of course, yeah, of course it is.”
Smiling, Aziraphale touched his glass to Crowley’s. “Well then, my dear, happy anniversary.”
Crowley returned the toast solemnly. “Happy anniversary.” He received Aziraphale’s kiss rather stoically.
Aziraphale took a sip of his wine. “Anyway, I know we haven’t really discussed it much, but I wondered if you had any interest in—”
“Caviar? Special occasion, fancy wine, sort of calls for nibbles doesn’t it? I think we have some foie gras left in the pantry...”
“Crowley, what on earth are you on about? Would you calm down?” Crowley did not calm down. He practically vibrated where he stood. “What has gotten into you?”
Crowley took a long gulp of his wine. “Oh that’s really good. Say, what do you think about packing this up and going for a picnic?”
“Yeah, why not? Be romantic wouldn’t it?”
“Crowley, it’s February. Look, we don’t have to talk about it. If you’re not interested, or...or if it’s me—”
“It’s not you.”
“Very well. I know this isn’t something we’ve discussed, but if you don’t want a more physical relationship—”
“I thought you said we don’t have to talk about it?”
Aziraphale glared. “Crowley. What is your issue? I’ve never known you to be so squeamish.”
“Not squeamish, just don’t want to talk about it, is all.”
Aziraphale sighed. “Fine. What would you like to do this evening that isn’t,” he amended, “a picnic when it’s four degrees out and pouring rain.”
Crowley sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t see why we need to do anything in particular. Just another day, really.”
Aziraphale felt as if he’d been slapped. “I’m sorry?”
“Anyway, don’t you have something at that church of yours tonight?”
Wrongfooted, Aziraphale replied, “Not...not as such, I don’t volunteer on Saturdays, Crowley, I...I thought you knew.”
“Hm? Oh, well, yeah, it’s just I had plans, you know how it is. Probably healthy us both having our own interests, don’t you think? Keeps things from getting stale. Don’t want me clinging on, right?”
“Clinging. Right. Well,” Aziraphale thought fast, trying to salvage the tatters of his dignity. “Of course if you’re sure, the shelter could always use more hands.”
“I’m sure. Go do your thing. Tell you what, you finish up there around eleven, right? How about I meet you over at the shop after, bring the bottles with me.”
With a shaky smile, he nodded. “I’d like that. I’ll see you then.” Crowley turned his head as Aziraphale went to kiss him. He pecked his cheek instead and tried not to feel as hurt as he was. They were fine, after all. He loved Crowley, and Crowley loved him. That was what truly mattered.
After his fourth dropped bowl in twenty minutes, Aziraphale exiled himself to washing dishes, surreptitiously replacing the volume in the soup pot so no one would feel it’s loss on his account.
“What’s going on with you, Ezra? You seem distracted.”
Simon was a young man in his early thirties, tall, broad shouldered and blessed with the kind of boyish good looks that made him tremendously popular with the volunteers and guests alike. Aziraphale wasn’t unaffected by his warm eyes and thick, wavy hair, but he had something much better waiting at home, he knew, and he was content to admire Simon’s aesthetic appeal and leave it at that.
Which was for the best, really, because since he began volunteering at the church, Simon had been working alongside him nearly every shift.
“Hmm? Oh, nothing, dear boy. Just lost in thought I suppose.”
“It’s the books, isn’t it?”
“From the church library? Don’t tell me you didn’t remember offering to repair them?”
“Oh!” Aziraphale absolutely had forgotten his offer to the vicar. “I suppose I did.”
Simon laughed and it was a delightful sound. He clapped Aziraphale on the shoulder and he nearly shivered at the contact. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you get them back to the shop after we’re done here.”
“Oh, would you? That would be ever so kind.”
“It’s the least I can do for our best dishwasher.”
If Aziraphale flushed it was easily attributed to the steam rising from the sinks.
Simon stumbled a bit with the boxes at the doorway, but righted himself easily enough with a small grimace of pain.
“Mind how you go. I couldn’t quite bring myself to install fluorescent lighting in the refit so the lamps will have to do.” Aziraphale checked his watch. Crowley would be there soon. If he timed it correctly, he might get a repair or two done before he arrived.
“I’ll manage. I don’t think anyone particularly likes it, but it’s bright.”
“I suppose that’s true, though I doubt I’ll ever accustom myself to it.” He felt warm at the thought of Crowley and he, drinking in the back room like old times. Maybe Crowley had the right of it after all and this was a far more fitting celebration of their anniversary.
Simon laughed. “You must have lived a charmed life to have avoided it for so long.”
Aziraphale huffed. “Not hardly. Where I come from, it was rather like living under a spotlight.”
Simon placed the boxes on the floor beside Aziraphale’s desk. “Sounds like torture.”
Aziraphale cleared space on his desk and began pensively setting out the first volumes for repair. “I don’t suppose any of us thought of it that way, but it was certainly unpleasant in hindsight. The first time I saw true darkness, the way you do away from the city lights, so thick and black you can’t see your hand in front of your face, I was terrified! But then, after feeling my way around buildings and trees for a while, I began to welcome it. It felt...safe. Peaceful. Gentle and forgiving. I could breathe and be myself in the darkness, knowing no one else was watching. Or it felt that way, at least.”
“Must have been exhausting, living like that,” Simon added, perceptively.
“Quite.” Aziraphale began examining the first book. The boards were in lamentable condition.
“You know the church doesn’t care anymore, right?”
“I’m sorry?” Aziraphale fished in his drawer for the hemp cord.
“About being gay. Nobody cares anymore.”
Aziraphale took notice that Simon was still attempting a conversation and did his utmost to follow the thread of it while tending to the binding. “Yes! That’s true. But my family...my position...it wasn’t quite as simple as all that.”
“Were you a vicar or something?”
Aziraphale chuckled. “Something like that.” What time was it anyway? Aziraphale looked at his watch. It was gone half eleven. Crowley should have been there by now. Why wasn’t he there yet?
“Is someone waiting for you?”
“Only, you keep looking at your watch.”
“I’m sorry. Habit,” Aziraphale deflected and failed to notice that Simon had moved much closer.
“Ezra…” He warned before leaning in and kissing him. The roll of cord fell to the floor.
Several thoughts occurred to Aziraphale at once. First was shock and surprise. It was always a surprise to Aziraphale when someone took an interest. Then was the realization he was enjoying the kiss very much indeed, then guilt that it wasn’t Crowley he was kissing, the subsequent observation that he’d not been kissed like this by Crowley in nearly three months, a pang of hurt and upset, followed by a resolution to end the kiss quite quickly as he was not a free angel, but perhaps in just a moment as it was so very nice.
It was unfortunate for Aziraphale that his thoughts were loud enough to drown out the sound of the shop bell. The sound of shattering glass was what finally alerted him to the other presence in the room.
“What is this?” Crowley hissed.
Simon withdrew with the calm assurance of his own safety that most men of a certain build and stature carry with them. Aziraphale was not nearly so placid.
“Is this how it is, then? All those nights serving your fellow man, but it was just the one man in particular, is that it?”
“Crowley, that is not—”
“—Save your breath, angel. I know the score here. Can’t say I blame you, he’s certainly fit.”
“Ezra, who is this?” Simon asked at the worst possible moment.
Aziraphale thought Crowley had looked betrayed before, but that was nothing to devastation those words left in their wake. “Nobody. I’m nobody to him. I’ll let you two get back to your evening, shall I?” With a wave of his hand the shattered bottle and its contents disappeared from the shop floor.
“Crowley, please let me explain,” Aziraphale begged.
Crowley stopped without turning and raised his hand with a click of his fingers. “Happy anniversary, angel.”
The shop bell rang loudly as he left, the tyres of the Bentley squealing as it peeled away from the shop.
Aziraphale didn’t remember falling, but he was on his knees when he began choking for breath in between sobs. At some point Simon left. Many long hours later when Aziraphale finally pulled himself from the floor, he was alone and all his belongings were miraculously returned to the shop.
Aziraphale was alone.
Earth observation was as close to the concept of purgatory as Heaven could conceive, although it was mostly the domain of the lowest ranking and least popular angels rather than unbaptized infants and the marginally naughty. For this reason, the crippling boredom of the job and it’s dead-end nature with no room for advancement, there was little or no incentive to make reports on their observations. And also, because if there was anything to report, it was usually the only exciting thing to happen in the department, and reporting it was a surefire way to make it stop.
They learned that lesson the hard way when someone reported that Eve had eaten from the tree of Knowledge. Sure, there were commendations, but then Adam and Eve were cast out, the garden closed, and then it was a lot of very sandy humans wandering about for an age.
By the time God decided to flood everything, they decided the less said about what Aziraphale and Crowley got up to down there the better. Watching Crowley fly around and pick children up out of the water like a particularly efficient cormorant and drop them into Aziraphale’s waiting arms on the deck of the ark was possibly the most entertainment they’d had since the beginning of recorded time.
So it was...unfortunate...that Michael had decided to avail themself of the records room when Aziraphale stopped Armageddon.
Fortunately, Michael didn’t see everything. Archangels don’t have that kind of time. And also, everyone was so furious with Aziraphale, there wasn’t nearly enough righteous anger to spare for the angels in charge of observation, and what little there was was easily diverted back onto Aziraphale, however craven it felt to do so.
Perhaps it was lingering guilt over that diversion and the resulting execution attempt that drove Hadriel to speak up when he saw Crowley drive away from the bookshop like he wished for a fiery death.
“Um, guys, does anyone have eyes on the bookshop?”
Anauel spoke up. “Oh dear.” Immediately an entire choir of angels was perched around Anauel’s monitor, some hovering just above, to get a glimpse of Aziraphale devastated and sobbing on the floor of the bookshop.
“What happened?” asked Hadriel.
“I think they broke up,” Anauel replied. “There was someone else there briefly. He kissed Aziraphale, then Crowley came in, got mad, and left. Then Aziraphale started crying and the other man left.”
“Do we need to report this?” asked one of the younger angels.
“NO,” answered a chorus of angelic voices.
“No,” repeated Hadriel. “We’re under a strict policy of non-interference unless there’s a clear and present threat to Heaven.”
“Besides,” added Anauel, “they’re the only thing worth watching. To whom did we report their fight two centuries ago?”
Hadriel thought for a moment. “Haniel, wasn’t it? Aziraphale seemed to despair and I believe the consensus was that Haniel would be the best candidate to help him.”
“Well he doesn’t look especially joyful at the moment,” one of the others quipped.
Anauel looked at Hadriel. Hadriel nodded. “It...could be a threat to Heaven.”
“It’s ineffable,” Anauel agreed.
“I’ll make the call.”
Zadkiel was merciful. Zadkiel was the Archangel of Mercy. Zadkiel had compassion and understanding for everyone and everything.
Zadkiel had a little trouble remembering that as Haniel sobbed into his tunic front.
“What the Hell is going on?” he demanded into Haniel’s phone.
“Um, sir, I’m sorry, sir. Is she going to be okay?”
Haniel sobbed harder. “She’ll be fine. What did you say to her?”
“Well, um, don’t be mad, but it looks like the demon Crowley broke up with Aziraphale? And well, the last time they had that big fight Haniel took care of making sure Aziraphale didn’t despair, so we thought—”
“Shit,” Zadkiel responded, feelingly. “I’ll deal with it,” he told the angel, closing the connection. This was bad. “Hani? Hani I need you to calm down honey.”
“I know,” he crooned, rubbing her back. “But we don’t know everything. I need you to calm down a little so I can go find out more information.”
“You’ll...you’ll talk to Zaphkiel?”
Zadkiel cringed. “Yeah. If he’ll talk to me.” Haniel seemed to calm herself then, and Zadkiel left her curled up in a squashy chintz armchair with a YouTube playlist of puppies and babies.
When the door closed, her eyes cleared and she dialed her phone. “Azazel, it’s me. Yeah, it happened, you were right. No, I don’t want them to worry. Was the guy one of yours? Yes, I know he wasn’t yours yours, you know what I meant. Uh huh. Uh huh. No, I have Zadkiel looking into it. Of course I didn’t, you know how sensitive he is! Alright, talk later. Bye!”
Haniel was used to not being taken seriously. It was okay. It didn’t bother her. She knew the others meant well. It wasn’t their fault they had no idea what she did in the war. If they had, they would look at her differently.
Quite honestly, she liked being underestimated. It was the best diversion she could think of to keep her secrets safely hidden.
Zaphkiel was alone for once and Zadkiel sent up a quick prayer that Gabriel would stay away. “Brother, do you have a minute?”
“I foresaw your coming. Gabriel will not disturb us.”
“Right. Great, I’m glad. Well, not glad. He’s in charge and I respect that so I’m not glad glad—”
For a moment it looked like Zaphkiel might actually crack a smile. “Speak your mind, Brother.”
“You see what happened with Aziraphale?”
“You’ll need to be more specific.”
How had Zadkiel ever forgotten how infuriating his brother could be? “Big breakup scene at the bookshop ring a bell?”
“Ah yes. All will be well.”
“That’s not what I asked. I need to know about the guy that was there.”
Zaphkiel suddenly went somewhere else behind his eyes. He was quiet, his irises were suddenly pale as milk. Zadkiel waited as patiently as he could knowing his brother was being shown something. With what counted as surprise on his usually expressionless face, he returned to awareness. “It’s time. Go to the first courtyard.”
“What? Just like that?”
“The answer you seek is there. You must go quickly.”
Zadkiel didn’t wait to be told a third time. He bolted from the room and ran to the open courtyard near the elevators.
He was there. Gabriel and the man from the bookshop. Only in Heaven he looked significantly less like a handsome young man and significantly more like the demon Sargamil, a fairly notorious incubus.
“Well shit,” said Zadkiel.
The type of bars that attracted demons on earth were about what one would expect. Dark, dirty, seedy establishments that catered to the criminal classes. Crowley rarely went anywhere near them, and Aziraphale knew that. So naturally one such dive was precisely where Crowley headed when he wanted very much to be left the fuck alone with a bottle and his own broken heart.
Down a narrow set of steps off a piss-soaked alleyway, Crowley banged on a solid metal door. It opened a crack and Crowley shouldered past the bouncer who indignantly sputtered a request for a password.
“Get me a fucking bottle of whiskey and I won’t disembowel you.”
The large, demonic bouncer nodded. “That’ll do.”
The barkeep handed over the bottle in exchange for the roll of bills Crowley passed to them while Crowley took stock of the room. It wasn’t terribly busy yet. Sitting at the bar would pass the time. Eventually someone would pick a fight and discorporating something sounded terribly appealing at the moment. But he wasn’t protected by Hell anymore. He didn’t even have Aziraphale to patch him up if he got in a bad way. He’d be discorporated and summarily destroyed before he even got a good buzz going.
Defeated, Crowley sought out an empty booth that looked marginally less disgusting and laid his claim.
An hour later and two bottles deep into a depressive drunk, he blearily noted someone standing over the table.
“The fuck happened to you?”
Crowley made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Take a wild fucking guess,” he prompted his ex-boss, would-be-executioner and all-around pain in Crowley’s ass.
Beelzebub turned around and yelled. “Maura! I need another bottle of whatever he’s drinking!”
A bottle flew over Crowley’s head and broke against the wall in a shower of glass and strong spirits. “Jesus fuck!” he bellowed, shielding himself from the torrent and mostly failing.
Beelzebub looked irritated. “A whole one, on this table, for drinking you fuckwit.”
With a growl, the barkeeper brought over another bottle by hand. “Anything else, your Lordship?”
Maura fucked off and Crowley watched as Beelzebub sat, uncapped the bottle with a demonic flick of their fingers and drank the entire bottle in one breath.
“That was a sixty year old Macallen.” He wasn’t sure if he was horrified or impressed.
Beelzebub shrugged. “So the angel dumped you then?”
Crowley looked anywhere but at Beelzebub. “Something like that. Come here to offer your condolences, have you?”
Beelzebub smiled a smile full of razorblades. “Something like that. Wondered how long it would take for you to finally figure out what the rest of us have known since the war.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that? All angels are self-righteous, hypocritical, heartless pricks?”
“Obviously, but no. That it’s all a fucking lie. The goodness, the mercy, the virtues, they’re all bullshit. Not real. That this is all some grand fucking social experiment of the Great Wanker, to see how many gullible dupes they can get to buy into their bullshit. None of it’s real. Not like pain and suffering and misery and boredom. Those things last. Those things don’t go anywhere so we’re all better calling it like it is and trying to make the best of things rather than aspiring to some higher purpose which is nothing more than a convenient pecking order for smarter angels to get the drop on the idiots so they can live a less miserable existence and make some other poor sap do the work.”
“Religion is the opium of the people, is that it?”
Beelzebub looked startled and pleasantly surprised. “Well...yeah! Glad to see you’re getting the picture.”
Crowley snorted. “Only one problem with that, Beelzebub. We’re fucking fallen angels. Kind of hard to buy into atheism when you’ve had a personal tete-a-tete with the Almighty.”
“Hence the rebellion, dipshit. Honestly, how did you even fall? Did you even listen to a single word Lucifer said?”
“I caught the gist. Might have nodded off a few times…”
“But you’ve never been a believer. Not really.”
Crowley shrugged. “Wasn’t enough to keep me in Heaven, though, was it? Mind, I’m not saying you might not have a point.”
“I do have a point. My point is that you thought you loved that angel and he turned out to be the same as all the rest of those bastards. Love isn’t real. You were kicked out of Heaven, got your ass drowned in a pool of sulphur and imprinted like a fucking duck on the first person you saw that wasn’t actively trying to crush you to better their standing. Didn’t make him a good angel. You were just pathetic.”
Crowley was ashamed to be tearing up. He angrily pulled the glasses off his face to swipe a sleeve across his eyes. “Fuck you.”
“You know I’m right. The sooner you accept what and who you are, the better off you’ll be. Look, Crowley, most of us aren’t still having an existential crisis over falling. Aren’t you tired of it? Isn’t it exhausting? Wouldn’t it be nice to lay that burden down and just be yourself for a change?”
“And how do you propose doing that, when apparently I don’t know who the fuck I am?”
“You’re a demon, Crowley. Maybe it’s time to start acting like one. Who knows,” Beelzebub added with a thoughtful swirl of the bottle’s dregs before upending it and catching the last of the Macallan on their tongue. “You might like it.”
“Tempting me now, are you? Thought that was my game.”
Beelzebub leaned across the table. “Is it working?”
Crowley didn’t want to admit that it was. “What do you want?”
Beelzebub pulled a grimy manilla file folder from the ether and slid it across the table. “I want to see what you can do when you’re not holding yourself back. No angel leading you around by your wings this time. Just a task, and that famous imagination of yours.”
Crowley looked at the folder. Inside was just a grainy, black and white image. The toner had run out toward the bottom of the paper, but he could still read the Mapquest logo.
“This is just a map of Iraq.”
“Yep. Thought you’d appreciate the symmetry. It’s where you got your start after all.”
“You want me to fuck up an entire country?”
“For starters? What the Hell are you planning?”
“Tell you what,” said Beelzebub. “You prove yourself a proper demon in Iraq, and we might just think about telling you.”
It was absurd. An entire country, well, of course Crowley had ideas. Things he’d thought about in the hypothetical for years. Idle thoughts about what he’d do if he had to bring down an entire nation before the humans beat him to it for once. And it wasn’t as if the place was a bastion of stability at the moment. It would hardly take any time at all, really. A chance to properly show Hell what he could really do.”
“And Crowley? I want the humans to suffer. Really suffer. None of that sparing widows and orphans bullshit you do.”
“Barbeque the widows and orphans, check.”
Crowley glared at Beelzebub and fidgeted with a grimy beer mat. He’d never been comfortable killing children, it was true. It seemed unsporting at best. Pointless, really, if their innocent souls just floated right up to Heaven after, it wasn’t much of a victory for Hell.
If Beelzebub was right though, if love wasn’t real, if goodness, and mercy and all that garbage was exactly that, then maybe they weren’t so innocent. Maybe innocence wasn’t real. And if it wasn’t real, then there was no virtue in saving them. It was a thought that made him feel as if he were in one of Hell’s elevators descending much too quickly for comfort.
Fuck it. Fuck this world and everyone in it. Maybe it took him too long to realize his own relative worthlessness, but he was working up a good, demonic head of self-loathing now and a bit of mayhem and chaos seemed just the thing for it.
“I’ll do it.”
Time had gone a bit squiffy around the edges for Aziraphale. The shop remained closed, he didn’t venture out, and day and night passed in a dim blur whenever it felt like it. Aziraphale moved from the floor to the sofa, to his flat-turned stockroom-turned flat, puttering around without engaging any of his senses in his activity. He didn’t taste the tea he made, he didn’t see the words on the pages he turned in the books he couldn’t feel in his hands and he didn’t hear the concerned shouts of Simon from outside the shop door. He didn’t feel Crowley’s loss like a severed limb, like both his wings had been ripped from his body. He moved about his space like an automaton, vaguely wondering if this was what going mad felt like.
On the heels of such a thought, Aziraphale thought perhaps he was indeed going mad to be hearing angelic voices in his shop. He turned around, and squinted in the dim twilight, unwilling to expend the effort of turning on a lamp. The figure certainly looked like Gabriel. Perhaps he was now seeing things, too.
“Gabriel?” Aziraphale’s voice was hoarse with disuse.
Gabriel, if that was indeed who he was, gave him a beatific smile, and opened his arms. “Come here,” he commanded.
Automatically, as if compelled by muscle memory alone, Aziraphale went. Gabriel’s arms enfolded him and with vaguely mounting horror, he heard himself begin to sob into the Archangel’s cashmere coat.
“There, there,” he soothed. “It’s all right, Aziraphale. This was bound to happen eventually. You had to know that.”
It was humiliating, but the embrace was familiar and in that moment felt so very good. Aziraphale shivered and Gabriel’s arms tightened around him. “You know I’m the only one who ever really understood. Who could give you what you needed.”
Aziraphale’s face heated. “Gabriel, it wasn’t like that.”
“Shh, Sunshine. I know. But you wanted it to be like that, didn’t you?”
If it was possible, Aziraphale blushed harder.
“Hey, it’s okay,” reassured Gabriel. “You didn’t fall, so it can’t be that bad, right? No one else needs to know. We can go back to how it was. You come to me when you need it, and I’ll give it to you. We’re angel’s after all. Comfort is what we do.”
Aziraphale felt a glimmer of confusion begin to press through the grey fog. “But...I thought it was...wrong, what I wanted? Didn’t you tell me it was perverse for angels to seek physical touch?”
Gabriel looked down at Aziraphale in his arms and brushed a tear from his cheek. Aziraphale shuddered. “Like I said, nobody needs to know. I’ll keep your secret. As far as I’m concerned no one else needs to know there’s anything unusual about you. Well, I mean beyond the obvious.”
Aziraphale felt his words like Sandalphon’s punch to the gut. “I’m...sorry.”
“All is forgiven. You’ve been down here a long time. You got confused. It’s understandable.”
“You tried to execute me.”
“Oh, but you were just confused, weren’t you? You thought that demon loved you.”
Aziraphale’s lip wobbled. “He…”
“Didn’t. Couldn’t. Isn’t capable. He obviously proved that, didn’t he? And now you know. You know, don’t you Aziraphale?”
“You know that you can only trust your family. You’re an angel, Aziraphale. Not a human. You need your own kind. Don’t you miss it? Being home? With the rest of the Host?”
Aziraphale had never once associated the word “home” with Heaven, not after taking his post on Earth. Certainly not since falling in love with Crowley. But, he reflected, that was all over now. 6000 years thinking he had grown to understand anything at all about the demon. Certainly no other angel would have been so foolish. Aziraphale shook his head.
“I understand,” said Gabriel. “We haven’t always been there for you, have we? But don’t you think we deserve a second chance? I must say, your rejection has been rather hurtful.”
“Of course! We were only so hard on you because we cared. Because we didn’t want to see you fall. You understand that, right?”
“I...suppose.” It didn’t sound exactly right, Aziraphale thought, but he was so tired, and everything hurt and Gabriel’s arms were warm and he’d not realized how cold he’d been.
“But here I am, going on and you’re...well...you’re in rough shape, buddy. I gotta say, this isn’t a good look. I know I told you to lose the gut, but this is a bit much.”
Aziraphale stepped back, realizing how grubby he likely appeared. “I’m sorry, I suppose I haven’t been maintaining my corporation.”
Gabriel waved off his concerns. “Tell you what. Why don’t you head on upstairs, clean yourself up a bit and I’ll take care of you for a while?”
Aziraphale wanted to press but he couldn’t quite remember why he shouldn’t trust Gabriel and honestly, he was tired of fighting. Eons of conditioning made responding simpler, and simple sounded very nice indeed just then. He nodded and made for the stairs.
“Oh, and Aziraphale?” he added. “Leave your corporation on for now. You know I like to watch that part.”
There was exactly one living plant in Hell, and Crowley left it there, more or less deliberately, as a particularly vicious punishment for several brown leaf tips. In truth, he’d planned to take it back to Earth with him after his check-in, but got distracted, leaving the plant on a desk in the file room. The plant, which was a natal mahogany, did not know this. It had eventually come to grips with the knowledge that it was a particularly wicked plant and even developed a sort of pride that it had distinguished itself as the only plant deserving of an eternity of torment in Hell.
The effect of a plant on the overall environment of Hell was minimal, but it was there. That particular corner of the file room felt distinctly less uncomfortable than the rest of the dingy cubicle farm. It acquired admirers. A mildewed water cooler was placed beside it as a sort of break area. Of course, there were no breaks in Hell but everyone agreed the overall effect was not unpleasant. Upper management began to plan meetings near the plant. For some reason, no one ever thought to move the plant. It stayed where it was placed, haphazardly near the end of an uneven formica table beside a stack of half-filled requisition orders from the 1750s, 1930s, and two from 3011BCE. Unlike the plant, no one ever seemed to notice them.
Remiel, former Archangel of Hope and Hell’s chief neurotic, flicked a drooping leaf as she tossed her mane of brown curls from one shoulder to the other. “It’s wilting.”
“Oh, it is not, would you focus please? You always say that and it’s never actually wilting. Look,” complained Azazel, sticking a finger into the pot. “The soil is perfectly moist. Not too wet. Not too dry.” Azazel, admittedly, knew far less about plant care than animal husbandry. He would never, however, admit that to Remiel who he felt obligated to contradict on general principle.
Remiel batted away the finger that he shoved into her face. “It needs fertilizer.”
“You fertilized it last week,” said Saraquel scratching himself and absently looking at the Plant Care Clipboard. Hair was Saraquel’s defining feature. He had a lot of it, rather like a cloud surrounding two darkly circled eyes and a prominent nose, and looking at him made one vaguely itchy. “You fertilized it, the slime demon from accounting watered it Tuesday and looks like Dagon ate some aphids off the leaves yesterday. The plant is fine.”
“It’s distinctly not fine, I’m telling you!” shouted Remiel, her curls shaking violently. “It’s a plant. In Hell. There’s no natural light down here, if we want to keep this thing alive we need a grow light. Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?”
“I’m sorry, what’s going on? I wasn’t listening,” said Raziel, looking up from the file in their lap. Raziel always had the kind of carefree disaffection that said once upon a time this person cared Very Much Indeed. They were rather rangy in appearance with short grey hair, and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a quilted vest and turtleneck on the sidelines of a youth football match.
“Arrrrgh!” yelled Remiel as she threw herself into a horrible plastic chair. “I hate you all so much.”
“No you don’t,” said Azazel. A small bleat alerted them to the presence of a goat. “Not now, Betsy,” he chided, picking up the kid and placing it in his lap. “So Haniel texted. I assume you all got similar messages?”
“Yeah,” said Raziel. “And since when are we texting buddies with Archangels?”
Remiel raised an eyebrow unimpressed. “Since we were...them?”
“Raphael calls every week,” added Saraquel happily. “She’s the best.”
“She’s the best, but you’re sitting in Hell’s file room and she isn’t, how does that work?” Remiel snarked.
Remiel leveled Raziel with a frank look. “You were in Intelligence, you know damn well why. Are you upset Jophiel hasn’t reached out until now?”
Raziel flicked a spitball at Remiel. “Maybe.”
“Well are you going to get over it?” asked Azazel, scratching Betsy’s ears. “It sounds like things are going very badly up there.”
Raziel threw up their arms. “Oh boo hoo! We’re in HELL! How much worse could things get for us?”
Saraquel looked surprised and began rattling off an itemized list. “Electrocution. The Drowning Chamber. Oh! The one torture where they let those little beetle things nibble your soft tissues—”
“I always liked that one,” said Azazel wistfully. “They tickle.”
“Raphael says there are more back channels open now than ever,” Remiel added in a hushed voice.
“You don’t say?” drawled Raziel waving their phone in the air.
Remiel sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “I mean they’re coordinating. And I don’t like the timing with Crowley and Aziraphale’s break-up.”
“Wait, what? They broke up? When did this happen?” demanded Raziel, suddenly very much invested in the conversation.
Saraquel looked confused. “You didn’t know? I thought everyone knew. Crowley caught the angel in a clinch with some human. It broke his heart.”
Raziel looked disturbed. “Okay, that’s not good.”
Remiel nodded. “This is what we’ve been trying to tell you. They stopped the bloody war. We have an actual shot at carving out an existence that isn’t completely fucking miserable because of them. I’m tired of watching idiots push boulders up mountains every day and I’d very much like to see what other options are out there before the end of the next millennia but none of that is going to happen if the two beings standing between us and war end up launching us into another one so soon.”
“Crowley’s a good egg. Well, bad egg. He’s some kind of egg, anyway. I can’t see him doing anything that’s going to start a war. Usually we’re the ones forging paperwork to cover his ass for saving puppies from burning buildings,” argued Raziel.
“I don’t think we need to forge anything this time,” added Saraquel, somberly. He held up his phone with a video from a twenty-four hour news network. An orphanage had been mistakenly targeted by missile fire in Iraq.”
“Fuck,” Raziel said feelingly. “This was him?”
“He’s been getting his orders from Beelzebub directly, I hear,” said Azazel, cradling his goat closer to his chest. “They got to him somehow.”
Raziel had worked in Heaven’s intelligence during the first war, monitoring communications, keeping an ear to the ground but mostly learning how the other half thought to better predict their movements as Lucifer gained traction.
It was how they fell, Raziel figured. So much time learning to think like the enemy, it wasn’t long before what they heard began making a whole lot of sense. And yeah, they missed their Grace. Their family. Their friends. But the freedom?
Well, truth be told, it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Especially when you served Gabriel.
“I need to talk to Jophiel. Get me any surveillance of Crowley you can find from the last two days and everything you can find from that bookshop. Saraquel, I want eyes and ears on the angel three days ago,” ordered Raziel.
Saraquel gave a jaunty salute. “Sir, yes sir!”
“Remiel, I know Crowley was one of yours. We’ll get him back. Well, not back. Satan’s tits, that’d be awful. I mean, you know what I mean.”
Remiel smirked. “I know what you mean. Thank you.”
Raziel shivered. “Don’t thank me, please. You know how I hate that.”
“Yes, I do,” she chirped.
“Yes?” he replied.
“Baaaaaaa?” said the goat.
Raziel looked at both of them with a barely contained sense of bewilderment. “Just...keep doing whatever the Hell it is you do.”
Harrod’s during the lunch hour was just Hellish enough to satisfy Beelzebub and upscale enough to pacify Gabriel, making it an ideal location for a clandestine meeting.
“Is everything going to plan?” Gabriel asked with all the subtlety of the gilt shop display he was perusing.
Beelzebub fingered one of the silk scarves disdainfully. “Blew up an orphanage didn’t he?”
“That’s not enough,” said Gabriel. “We need a war. A real geo-political gordian knot. This can’t be something Aziraphale can wander into and undo with a sunny smile and a bat of his pretty eyelashes.”
“No one’s that pretty.”
Gabriel scoffed. “You must not have had a really good look at him.”
“You must not have had a really good look at those dead babies. I’m telling you, it’s done. It’d take nothing short of a—well—something a lot bigger than a miracle to smooth that over,” Beelzebub deadpanned, donning a scarf with a rather garish red and gold motif.
“Stunning,” commented Gabriel. Beelzebub felt nearly pleased when they looked in the mirror. They almost cracked a smile. “It’s remarkable,” said Gabriel. “Who’d have thought allowing them to go off on their own would have resulted in their total recommitment to the cause?”
Beelzebub hummed thoughtfully. “Could probably try again with a new Antichrist in a few years with no opposition. Of course,” they added, “if Crowley finds out we played them he’ll probably turn you into a grease stain in an expensive suit.”
“You make sure that doesn’t happen and we’re fine. Aziraphale isn’t smart enough to figure it out. The guy is as dumb as a box of hair. Can you imagine? Becoming infatuated with a demon?” He laughed.
Beelzebub’s brow creased. “You know we couldn’t have banked on Crowley’s self-loathing driving them apart if he didn’t love Aziraphale enough to push him away. He didn’t want the idiot to fall for loving him. He’s always had a tendency toward self-sacrifice, no matter how much corrective torture he underwent.”
“Demon’s aren’t capable of love,” Gabriel dismissed, trying on a blue cashmere scarf, not seeing the extremely measuring look Beelzebub turned on him.
“Nor some angels, I’d wager.”
“This is pretty much the color of his eyes, right? If we’re going to be seen together, it wouldn’t do to clash with his corporation. What am I saying, how would you know what color his eyes are? It doesn’t matter. I doubt anyone has noticed. Honestly, would it kill him to stop eating? NO!” He laughed at his own joke. “It wouldn’t. Because he’s not actually human. Honestly, I’m wasted on you.”
Beelzebub rolled their eyes. “So you keep telling me.”
Heaven wasn’t measurably different than the last time Aziraphale had been.
He puttered around Gabriel’s office the same way he’d done during the war. It was as sterile and bright as he remembered, and there was little to break up the monotony of the decor save for a few chairs and Gabriel’s desk. Time didn’t have a lot of meaning in Heaven. There was no day or night, nobody slept or ate or smoked or took lavatory breaks, so there was really only work to occupy yourself, and absent that, well—
“Hey, Sunshine, I’m back!”
Aziraphale thought his smile might have better resembled a grimace, but Gabriel didn’t seem to notice.
“You know, Gabriel, when you said upstairs—”
He waved off Aziraphale’s concerns. “I know, I know, but really, how am I going to look after you in that musty old bookshop?”
He’d felt utterly numb since Crowley left, and yet he couldn’t help protesting, “That bookshop is my home.”
Gabriel’s eyebrows drew together. “Heaven is your home, Aziraphale. You’re an angel. You’re not...confused again, are you?”
“No, no, I’m not confused, only I don’t see why you had to bring me here.”
“Because it’s what you wanted, of course. It’s what you always wanted. I know I haven’t always been very...attentive, but you remember don’t you? How good it felt?” Gabriel caressed Aziraphale’s shoulder through his coat, thumb lingering over the stitches on the shoulder seam. “You remember this, right?” His voice was softer now, and his fingers trailed over Aziraphale’s lapel. “No one ever knew what to make of you, did they? So many questions all the time. But I took care of that, didn’t I? I made sure you were never written up. No chance of falling if there’s no sin, is there?”
“Gabriel, please,” Aziraphale whispered, and didn’t know if he was asking for him to stop or continue. His heart felt like an empty barrel rattling around loudly in his chest and he was desperate for anything to fill the yawning cavern of his despair.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He and Crowley were going to have a lovely evening. Their first anniversary as...as a couple. He’d found the wine, and he could have romanced Crowley. Crowley had always been so good at that part, the restaurants and plays and tokens of affection, and Aziraphale just wanted to make him feel special, but everything fell apart so quickly. How had he lost everything so quickly?
“Why are you crying?” asked Gabriel. “It’s a little rude, honestly. I’m doing this for your sake, you know, the least you could do is show a little appreciation.”
Aziraphale’s breath stuttered in his chest. When had his jacket come off?
“Ugh, nevermind. You know what? Enough foreplay. Let’s just skip to the main event.”
Aziraphale blinked. “Sorry?”
Gabriels mouth became a hard line. “Your corporation. Take it off. Do I need to speak slower for you to understand?”
Aziraphale blushed. “Oh, right, sorry, I’ll, just...um...yes.” This part was at least familiar though it had been six thousand odd years. “Shall I keep a human appearance or would you prefer—”
“Why would I want to look at your human body if I didn’t have to? I said take it off and I meant it. You know what I like, stop stalling.”
“Right.” Aziraphale sat in one of the chairs and slipped out of his corporation, careful not to jostle it. He didn’t want it tumbling to the floor.
“Now that’s more like it,” said Gabriel.
Aziraphale’s true form was unfathomable by human understanding, but perhaps the closest approximation would have been a sea scallop, if sea scallops could be formed from a magnesium flare, which is to say he had many blue eyes and he was on fire.
The last time they’d done this was the night before he was posted to Earth. Aziraphale started by subsuming Gabriel’s corporation’s hands. He could feel Gabriel’s true form dimly, in echoes as if from far away, which he knew was how Gabriel preferred things to be. He didn’t feel mingling his essential self with a subordinate was strictly appropriate. So he let Gabriel experience the fullness of his own being and contented himself with the awareness of Gabriel’s pleasure. It wasn’t quite mingling (not that he’d had any experience of that to compare it to) but Gabriel seemed to think it was close enough.
Gabriel let out a low moan. “Oh, that’s good. More,” he demanded.
Aziraphale drifted forward and Gabriel gasped and lurched upward, tensed in a rictus of divine ecstasy. Gabriel cried out and Aziraphale did his best to envelope him entirely.
Some time later, they separated, Gabriel looking slightly rumpled and Aziraphale slipped back into his body. It was cold after so long, and not particularly pleasant. He shivered.
“All right. You earned it. Come here,” said Gabriel, arms open.
And this was it. Gabriel alone in all of Heaven indulged Aziraphale’s vice and was good enough not to tell anyone about it. He folded into the Archangel’s lap and Gabriel held him, chafing warmth back into Aziraphale’s stiff limbs. For a long moment, he just breathed, shaking slightly as his physical body soaked up Gabriel’s touch. “Get your wings out,” Gabriel commanded.
It was always over too soon.
Aziraphale slid to the floor at Gabriel’s feet and did as he was told. Without preamble, Gabriel began grooming him, and Aziraphale shuddered, flinching when his hands pulled too roughly at the bent feathers. This was how it began so long ago. When none of the members of his platoon could stand him, Gabriel offered to groom his wings for him.
No one else had touched them in 6000 years.
“These are disgusting, Aziraphale. It’s one thing not to take care of your corporation but this is just disgraceful.”
Aziraphale winced as feathers were roughly pulled and others tugged into place. “I did my best.”
Gabriel laughed. “Hey! It’s okay,” he said. “That’s why you have me. I’ll take care of you. That’s all I ever wanted, you know that.”
Aziraphale didn’t trust his voice just then, feeling unaccountably close to tears. Gabriel wasn’t Crowley. But maybe that was better. If Aziraphale had the wrong of things for so long, perhaps his judgment wasn’t to be trusted. Gabriel obviously had God’s favor, that much was indisputable, at least, if you asked him. If Gabriel was right, though, and Aziraphale wanted to be a good angel, then listening to Gabriel was undoubtedly in his best interest.
“There you are! All finished,” said Gabriel. “Listen, I have to meet with the other Archangels soon, but I want to talk to you about something. You’ve given us all a lot to think about with the Great Plan and the Ineffable Plan, and I think you’re going to like what we’ve come up with. I know our policy of non-interference has always bothered you so what would you say if I told you you’re going to get your big shot, after all? How does that sound?”
Aziraphale goggled. “Oh, do you really mean it?”
Gabriel winked. “You didn’t hear it from me, but that’s what I want. And you know I pretty much always get what I want. Come on! I’ll walk you out.”
Aziraphale followed Gabriel back into the main building, past the other offices, past the conference rooms and into the main courtyard.
“Oh! There’s Raphael, hang on for just a sec, would you? Raphael!” Before Aziraphale could say anything, he was off across the courtyard flagging down the Archangel. Aziraphale sighed and made his way to a bench near the fountain. A few other angels nearby looked at him with barely concealed disdain.
“Hello!” he greeted, waving cheerfully. With audible scoffs the other angels got up and moved off away from him. He bit his lip. It was understandable, he thought. He’d only thwarted the Apocalypse a year ago. People were bound to be tetchy. But if what Gabriel said was true, he’d have a chance to do good soon, something truly impressive. Maybe even something that would earn him the love and respect of his fellows at last. He just had to be patient, and diligent that he didn’t falter one step when he received his assignment. It was one thing when he had Crowley. He could afford to be cavalier about his relationships in Heaven when he thought there was something else for him on Earth. Their own side, he thought wistfully. But there was only Heaven for him now, and there would be no room for mistakes this time.
Raphael fought the groan that she wanted desperately to voice when she heard Gabriel call her. “Yes, Gabriel. What can I do for you?”
“Did you see?”
Gabriel rocked forward into her space. “He’s back.”
Raphael shook her head in surprise. “Where? Now?”
“Just over there. Look,” Gabriel commanded, pointed toward the fountain. Aziraphale stood, fidgeting with his hands and looking very much like he was waiting for the first bus out of Heaven.
“What did you do?”
Gabriel’s jaw clenched. “What did I do? I took care of one of our own in his hour of need. I showed mercy to an angel who should have fallen years ago. I brought him back to the fold, Raphael, so I’ll thank you to show me a little respect.”
Raphael took a step back. “I think I’ll go talk to him.”
Before she could step around Gabriel, he stopped her with a hand on her chest. “You will not. I forbid it.”
Raphael’s eyes widened. “You forbid it? You don’t actually have the authority to tell me who I can and can’t speak with.”
Gabriel hummed. “Maybe not, but what are you going to tell him? That I’m up to no good? That he can’t trust me? I mean, the guy just had his heart broken, what do you think that would do to him?”
“Gabriel this is not going to end well for you. You have to know that.”
“What I know,” he bit off, “is that there is a natural order to things that some people don’t seem to respect anymore. There is good and there is evil, and if you do good things you stay an angel and if you do bad things, you do not. It’s not that fucking complicated. I am trying to do my fucking job here, so if everyone could get off my back, I would really appreciate it.” Gabriel turned on his heel and marched back to where Aziraphale was apparently counting the tiles in the fountain.
“But he’s not falling, you moron. What are you doing?” she asked helplessly of his retreating form.
“What’s going on?” Jophiel asked, emerging from a conference room with Zadkiel and Haniel.
“That,” she indicated the pair now headed for the main elevator.
“Is that Aziraphale?” asked Jophiel in a strangled whisper.
“Yes, it is. Gabriel claims he’s brought him back to the fold. There’s more than that, though. He had Aziraphale in his office all morning. There’s something going on.”
Jophiel’s face froze. “Oh,” said Jophiel knowingly.
“Oh? What’s oh?” asked Raphael.
“Just, you know.”
“No, I don’t know, so perhaps you’d better enlighten me.”
Jophiel shrugged. “Gabriel has always had his favorites.”
The others stared at her in horror. “Come on, don’t tell me you didn’t know. Everyone knows!”
“Jophiel, I think you need to explain what you mean right now,” said Raphael.
Jophiel blinked. “Right. Well, um, so you know I worked under Gabriel in the war, right? And, well, not me! I mean, I never, but you know, he would take an interest in certain angels from time to time, and, well, I mean, you know.”
“So you think he and Aziraphale are you knowing?” clarified Raphael.
Jophiel nodded. “Well, I’m pretty sure. They certainly did during the war after Raziel fell.”
“Raziel? Gabriel you knowed with Raziel?” Raphael struggled not to shout.
“You’re sure you didn’t know any of this? After they fell it was all anyone ever talked about. Half the angels believed it was because they you knowed.”
“Okay, can we stop with the stupid euphamisms, please? They fucked. We get it,” said Zadkiel.
“Mmm, no, I don’t think that was it actually,” said Jophiel.
Zadkiel rolled his eyes. “Well, what the Hell are we talking about then, because Raziel sure as Hell didn’t fall for a grooming session.”
“Well that’s just it, he doesn’t like to ‘fraternize’ with subordinates. At least that’s what he told Raziel. So like, she’d—” Jophiel elaborately mimed stripping off her body “—and then she’d just—” and here Jophiel did a kind of rockstep with sparkle fingers “—which is apparently almost as good as actual lovemaking, I guess?”
“I very much doubt that,” said Haniel wisely.
Raphael looked extremely disturbed. “Raziel couldn’t have fallen for that, though I wouldn’t blame them a bit if it made them want to take a running leap into damnation to get away. How could he do that to someone? Angelic mingling is a gift, not a favor you request from your interns with your coffee and newspaper. And it’s never one sided.”
Jophiel shrugged. “Someone should probably tell Aziraphale that, don’t you think?”
“Oh my God, Aziraphale, what are we going to do?” asked Raphael.
Zadkiel cleared his throat. “There’s more. I spoke to Zaphkiel.”
“Are you crazy? He’s completely loyal to Gabriel!” hissed Jophiel.
Zadkiel put a hand up to stall the lecture. “It’s fine. He sent me over here actually. I saw Gabriel talking to a demon just over there,” he gestured to the courtyard. “It was Sargamil, one of the incubi. And damned if he didn’t bear a striking resemblance to the guy Crowley caught kissing Aziraphale.”
There was a moment of silence. “You’re certain who it was and who he was talking to?” said Raphael.
Haniel put a hand on Zadkiel’s elbow. “It was him, Raphael. Azazel confirmed it. He’d received the order from Beelzebub a month ago to ingratiate himself to Aziraphale and lure him into a compromising position.”
“The backchannel,” Raphael muttered. “Gabriel and Beelzebub are working together. Gabriel wants Aziraphale. Why does Gabriel want Aziraphale?”
“Revenge, just off the top of my head? Stopping Armaggeddon was a pretty public humiliation. If you’re looking for more strategic reasons, you could ask Aziraphale’s commanding officers maybe.” Zadkiel rocked on his heels and looked up at the firmament. “I mean, Sandalphon was his captain, but I’d get it if you didn’t want to talk to him. You could talk to Kahmael though. He was Brigadier General.”
“Ugh,” opined Jophiel.
Raphael glared at her. “Bring him in. We need information. Look, I’ll be honest with you,” she said in lowered tones, “this goes way beyond a simple difference in philosophies. You guys need to understand that when the four of us, Michael, Lucifer, Gabriel and myself, were given charge of Heaven, we had a lot of leeway and very few guidelines. None of us saw the war coming, or the fall, or anything that followed. And for whatever reason that’s how She wanted it. But I can’t keep the peace here if Gabriel is acting solely on his own authority. We’re no longer representing Heaven if we’re conspiring with Hell against our own. Whatever comes of this it isn’t going to be pretty and I can’t promise you a happy ending. We’ll be going directly against Divine mandate but I can’t in good conscience let this continue. If you want to walk away now, I promise I won’t think less of you.”
The other three archangels shared a look. Haniel took out her phone and dialed. “Kahmael, it’s Haniel. Would you please come to conference room two?”
Zadkiel shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged with a boyish smile. Jophiel grinned.
“All right then,” said Raphael with a toss of her brown curls. “Let’s see if we can’t rescue a principality.”
Crowley shredded the file to bits on the dingy table. It didn’t matter. He knew what it said. True to their word, Beelzebub had filled him in on the Grand Plan.
It was the total annihilation of humanity.
Crowley shredded the file to bits on the dingy table. It didn’t matter. He knew what it said. True to their word, Beelzebub had filled him in on the Grand Plan.
It was the total annihilation of humanity.
Honestly, he wasn’t sure what he expected. Of course it would be. Of course it would be his own hand undoing the only good thing he’d ever done.
Crowley regretted a lot of things, but agreeing to help Beelzebub in a fit of drunken despair had to rank fairly high on his list of Shitty Things I’ve Been Party To.
Baghdad was, if not exactly a thriving city, certainly rebounding as cities tend to do. A handful of men plot the destruction of a regime and the people get on with the business of living their human lives once the smoke clears. Brilliant, resourceful, indefatigable humanity.
The missile he’d redirected off it’s course was meant for a terrorist stronghold, bound to cause a significant retaliatory act. He’d never been good with numbers, though, and for some reason, his imagination wasn’t up to its usual standard. He kept thinking of what Beelzebub had said. He’d been too preoccupied with the idea of killing orphans until, well.
He went to the site as soon as he’d realized what he’d done.
There were screams ringing in his ears, so much smoke and fire and the horrid scent of death upon the rubble. Men hauled away cement beams and pulled small bodies from the wreckage. Crowley joined them after a moment, hoping against hope the destruction had not been as total as it appeared, but he couldn’t shape this reality to his liking. His confidence shattered, he could only numbly move stones while braver men confronted the horror he’d forged.
When he’d seen enough, he crawled into the nearest bottle and had not yet found a compelling reason to crawl back out.
Beelzebub appeared personally to deliver his commendation, and to give him the file he was currently reducing to its component molecules.
Crowley growled at the pile of shredded paper.
“Easy there, Tiger.”
Crowley’s eyes blinked wildly behind his glasses. That was a voice he’d not heard in ages.
“Remiel? The Hell are you doing here?”
Like many of the fallen Archangels, Lucifer most notably, Remiel had opted not to change her name. Crowley wondered if it was odd to her, to address him as Crowley when she’d once commanded him under a different name.
“Oh, this and that, you know. I like to keep track of what everyone from my division gets up to.”
“Former division, and since when?”
“How long ago did you fall?” Crowley made an incomprehensible noise. “I’ve really been quite proud of you, you know. Forging your own path, going your own way, sticking it to the man—which is why I find it so fascinating that you’ve decided to piss all that away.”
Crowley sputtered. “And what’s it to you, eh? I’m a demon as everyone is so fond of reminding me lately, isn’t this my job?”
“Wow. Careful not to choke on that boot. If I thought for one second you actually believed that I wouldn’t be here.”
“Well do tell, oh wise and glorious leader, what it is I supposedly believe, because there’s been quite a lot of debate on the subject recently.”
“I’m not sure, actually. Why don’t you tell me what happened with Aziraphale?”
“Leave him out of this.”
“Mmm, no, I don’t think I will. I lost a pretty big pool when you dumped him.”
“Me? He was the one who betrayed me!”
“Did he, though? The way Sargamil’s been telling it, he couldn’t quite close the deal.”
Crowley stilled. “You’re telling me that was a demon snogging Aziraphale?”
“And you had your head too far up your ass to notice? Yep. That’s pretty much what I’m telling you.”
Crowley groaned and scrubbed his face. “Well, it’s too late now. I’ve cocked everything up exactly the way I always do and since there’s no going back, I might as well get on with this.”
“Bit fatalistic don’t you think?”
“Was never going to last anyway.”
“The Earth or your relationship?”
“Both. Either. Doesn’t matter.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear it. Here. You have a contact to meet in London. Turns out Aziraphale is working for Heaven again and they have big plans for him.”
Crowley’s blood chilled suddenly. “What kind of plans? Thought they wanted him dead?”
“Well, it seems he rejoined the flock about the same time you did. He’s bringing about world peace, apparently. Bit of a step up, eh?”
“And how the fuck does he figure on doing that? Anything he does is just going to give me twice as much ammunition to destroy everything.”
Remiel shrugged. “Couldn’t say what the plan is, exactly. But your contact should have more information. Best get going. Wouldn’t want to keep them waiting. Hear they’re rather a stickler for punctuality.”
The Archangel of Strength and Courage had deltoids like pomegranates. Most angels, even the ones who’d taken to more human attire, didn’t wear t-shirts.
Most angels weren’t built like Kahmael.
He grinned knowingly and Haniel quickly retracted the finger that was moving toward his arm of its own volition. The muscle in question flexed hypnotically under the thin, grey fabric and she realized no one had spoken in some time.
“What can I do for you?” His tone was clipped and accustomed to answering commands. “It’s leg day and I’d like to get back to training.” Hanael took a seat beside Zadkiel at the long conference table and Jophiel gestured for Kahmael to join them.
“We just have a few questions,” said Raphael. “About the principality Aziraphale.”
Kahmael rolled his eyes with an insincere grin. “Thought you fired that guy.”
“We didn’t. Gabriel and Michael did,” she replied.
Kahmael looked genuinely surprised by that. “Gabriel fired his toyboy? Oh, man that’s funny, I wish I could have seen that.”
“His...toyboy?” asked Raphael. “Meaning…”
“His slam piece?” When that gained nothing but blank looks of incomprehension, Kahmael laughed at their obliviousness. “You ever see him train?” he asked. The others looked around, with varying degrees of confusion. “No, you haven’t, because every time Sandalphon tried to put him through his paces, Gabriel showed up and dragged him off.”
Raphael asked, “How long ago was this?”
Kahmael made a dismissive noise. “After the war? Pretty much until his posting at Eden. Everyone knew about it. Sandalphon thought Gabriel was training him personally. The rest of us just figured Gabriel liked what he saw when Aziraphale ran sword drills and wanted a little private time with him.”
Zadkiel looked confused. “We’re talking about Aziraphale, right? Fussy, white haired, into books guy?”
Kahmael looked around at the other archangels in confusion. “Well, yeah, but not when he trained. Or not always, anyway. Not everyone likes to fight with their corporation on. I think it’s beneficial to know how to do both,” he added, winking at a furiously blushing Haniel.
“But Aziraphale didn’t?”
Kamael shrugged. “He’d run drills incorporated, and he did well enough to keep up. But nobody could match him in his true form. And everyone wanted a piece of that.”
Raphael didn’t think her eyebrows could climb any higher. “Sounds like he was pretty popular.”
“Not really. He didn’t like fighting, so the fact that he made it look so easy pissed a lot of soldiers off, including most of command. Uriel couldn’t stand him. And no one else could get close to him the rest of the time because Gabriel was always pulling him off the training grounds. Can’t blame him, really. The guy’s a total smoke show.”
Zadkiel seemed to choke on his tongue for a moment. “Seriously? He’s just a principality! How good can it be?”
Lechery wasn’t a good look on an angel, but Kahmael’s expression told them everything they needed to know, even without him adding, “He may be a third sphere angel, but he’s got a first class aspect. He’s got the light of God as bright as Lucifer ever did, a sword wreathed in holy fire that will literally put the fear of Her into anyone or anything, and so many eyes, so bright and so blue you know he can see right through you and will love and protect you anyway. Nobody thought it was a mistake when he was sent to relieve that cherubim on the wall. We all figured it made sense. If you wanted something guarded of course you’d put Aziraphale on it. It wasn’t until after he fucked everything up that everyone remembered that form isn’t everything. I mean, obviously, look at Lucifer.”
A nagging voice in the back of Raphael’s head reminded her that Gabriel had always been very open in his admiration for Lucifer’s form. She didn’t know if they ever formally mingled but it wouldn’t have surprised her in the slightest.
“Thank you, Kahmael. I think you’ve told us all we needed to know.”
With a sardonic salute, Kahmael left the room and Raphael turned to the others. “Thoughts?”
Zadkiel scrubbed his face with his hands. “I can’t believe I’m saying this but it sounds like Gabriel is fully into Aziraphale. Is it still lust if there’s no body involved? I feel like we never really covered this.”
Jophiel nodded absently. “I know how you feel. Could Gabriel really have orchestrated all this just to get a piece of...aspect? It’s weird, right? Tell me this is as weird as it sounds.”
“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” concurred Raphael. “Especially since Gabriel hasn’t openly mingled with anyone since the fall and he’s being anything but discreet about this.”
“But what about Raziel?” asked Haniel.
“Open secret,” said Jophiel. “Never confirmed or denied, just whispered about in break rooms until one day, about half way through the war, Raziel fell and that was that.”
They all let that sink in for a moment.
“I don’t want him to fall,” said Haniel. Zadkiel took her hand.
Raphael sighed. God, why me, she prayed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Back in his shop, Aziraphale sat at his desk, a topographical map of the Middle East laid out before him. His hand reached for a mug of cocoa that wasn’t there. It closed around empty air for a moment and startled him, disrupting his attention to his task.
“Here you go,” said a warm, mellifluous voice. Aziraphale’s head whipped around. Raphael was standing in his back room, extending his mug of cocoa. “I took the liberty of warming it for you. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh! Oh, no, thank you. That’s very kind. Um, to what, may I ask, do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
Raphael smiled. “May I sit?”
Aziraphale burst from his seat and began shuffling piles of books and papers from the settee. “Please! Forgive me, I wasn’t expecting guests.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind. As it happens I’m here about your mission.”
Aziraphale sat heavily in his chair. “My mission. Yes. What about it?”
“Well, it’s very ambitious. I hope you’ll forgive me saying, it’s not the sort of job one can do without assistance.”
Aziraphale’s shoulders relaxed somewhat. “You’re here to help me?”
“As a matter of fact, I am. Why don’t you tell me a bit about your strategy?”
“Hm? Oh, yes, well, you see I fully anticipate Crowley will rely on chain reactions. He does that, you know. Expends very little effort, but once the wheels are in motion, the results can be catastrophic, often beyond his own imaginings. I thought perhaps the best way to upset any wheels already in motion would be by disrupting the road, so to speak. I’m going to intervene at various points of tension, alleviate the trigger points and thereby mitigate the damage he causes.”
Raphael paused. “You’ve given this quite a bit of thought.”
“Yes, well we’ve been at odds for six-thousand years. It does give one some insights. And I confess, I’ve been hoping for an opportunity to work on a larger scale for some time.”
“I can certainly tell. And I hope you don’t mind, I’ve taken the liberty of assigning someone to assist, someone with experience in the region.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale seemed disappointed. “I hope you don’t think me rude, but I would prefer to work alone.”
Raphael fought a smirk. “Then a consultant, if you prefer. All I ask is you hear them out, and if you still want to go forward alone, you have my blessing, and I’ll help in any way I can.”
Aziraphale knew when he was beaten. “Very well. When shall I expect them?”
“Oh, they won’t be coming here. We thought it best not to draw attention. You have a phone?”
Aziraphale glared at the slim glass contraption on his desk. “Regrettably.”
She laughed. “I’ll send you directions. I hear the place does an excellent fry-up.”
He blushed and smiled. “I’ll take it on advisement.”
“Please do. And Aziraphale?”
The cafe was popular with the late-night crowd. Uni students, drunks, and those working late hours. From the street, it appeared to be miraculously empty. Aziraphale opened the door and froze.
He wasn’t daft enough to think it mere coincidence that Crowley was here in the location Raphael gave him. Was this some kind of test? He considered the possibility that there was no contact for him to meet, but in the spirit of due diligence decided to wait in the event one should appear.
Aziraphale put steel in his spine and did not look at Crowley as he passed his booth.
“You’re not going to win, you know,” said Crowley.
Aziraphale stopped but couldn’t bear turning to meet those eyes. “Did you run out of pence to affix to the pavement? I’m sure I can find you a roll if you’ll take it and fuck off.”
Crowley laughed, but it was a joyless sound. “And you kiss your incubus with that mouth?” Aziraphale stopped breathing and clenched his fists. “Hit a nerve there, did I?” He grew cold and still and hardly noticed he’d put a hand into the liminal space where his sword was sheathed. Hadn’t even realized he’d drawn it until Crowley said, “What do you think you’re going to do with that? You haven’t used that thing in—” The sword sung through the air as Aziraphale deftly sliced through the coffee cup in front of Crowley to rest the point under his chin. Crowley was struck speechless, rendering the cafe silent save for the sound of coffee now dripping onto the floor.
Aziraphale’s voice was quiet, but filled with command. “Leave. Now.”
Crowley swallowed, his swagger abandoned. “This isn’t like you, Aziraphale. You’re only going to help me destroy the world faster at this rate. Don’t you care at all about everything you risked your eternity to save?”
“How dare you judge me!” Aziraphale roared, digging the point of his sword dug further into Crowley’s throat. “You, who has all the backbone of the worm you are! How soon after you imagined yourself my victim did you throw yourself at the mercy of Hell?”
“It wasn’t as if I had another compelling reason to fight them.” Crowley raised his hands in surrender and said very calmly, “You think this is going to be your M25? Going to bring peace to the Middle East and tell me to jog on in the same breath? Did you learn nothing from my mistakes?”
“Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction.”
“Oh come off it! You’ll get your great victory for Heaven that will open up a power vaccum somewhere else for me to exploit and round and round we’ll go until we manage to kick off the end of the fucking world.” He then added much less calmly, “Why are you doing this?”
His sword shook. “I’m serving my Divine purpose.”
Crowley shook his head. “That’s Gabriel talking. You actually cared about them.”
“Like you?” Aziraphale scoffed. “Exploded any children lately?”
Crowley seemed to fold in on himself, the defensive roll of his shoulders betraying a new emaciation of his frame. “That was an accident,” he said, looking for all the world as if a stiff breeze might discorporate him. “I’m so tired, angel. I don’t want to do this anymore. Any of this.” His voice was barely more than a whisper and his hand shook as he repaired the cup. The coffee remained where it was. He met Aziraphale’s eyes. “It’s going to end one way or the other. But if you’re going to destroy me, I’d rather you do it personally now than drag this out for another six months. I can’t go on like this.”
Aziraphale watchfully lowered his sword, and sat carefully in the booth. “You’ve been working against me quite handily since you left me on the floor of my shop, why the sudden nihilism?”
“Because it’s possible you’re not the only one who let themselves get carried away with work because they were hurting. Because no matter how badly you hurt me I can’t bring myself to fight you the way they want me to.” Crowley’s laugh was joyless and at his own expense. “Still loyal to our side, I guess.”
A better angel might have perceived his vulnerability and run the demon through. They might have seen those unshed tears and hollow cheeks as a sure sign of weakness and used the advantage to smite him where he sat. It was a pity Heaven hadn’t sent a better angel, because despite his broken heart, Aziraphale only wanted to offer comfort and dignity. He couldn’t even look Crowley in the eye as he confessed, “I just wanted to do something right for once.”
Crowley sighed. “That giant flaming Odegra destroyed my fucking car.”
“You got a commendation for it.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t stop Hell trying to baptize me.”
“At least they noticed. I’ve never done anything for Heaven worthy of mention.”
“And their approval is worth that much to you?”
“It wasn’t always,” he admitted, daring to look up. “But do you know, it’s rather a lonely feeling never being good enough, being cut cold by every one of your kind for all eternity. This could have the potential to gain me Heaven’s admiration at last.”
“And what’s Her opinion?”
Aziraphale was pained to admit, “I have no idea. I’m not sure it matters anymore. She’s not said, and those she left in charge seem pleased enough.”
“That was never good enough for you before. You can still feel Her grace, can’t you?”
Aziraphale whimpered. “Yes.”
“And what does it tell you?”
He slammed a hand on the table. “It doesn’t matter! I can’t do this! I can’t keep going on alone! I’m not strong enough for that.”
“You told off the combined forces of Heaven and Hell not six months ago!”
“But I wasn’t alone then.”
Crowley looked as if Aziraphale had struck him. “You’re going to blame me for this?”
Aziraphale shifted and dared. “Should I not?”
Crowley looked nearly apoplectic. “It wasn’t me making time with eager incubi, Aziraphale!”
Eyes narrowed. “You keep saying that, but I had no idea he was anything but human! We met in a church! Besides which, everything I own smells like you, feels like you, I assume every whiff of sulfur is a comforting sign of your presence! And another thing, you had one foot out the door from the moment we embarked on a relationship! I was pining for you, you clod, and worse, I nominally had you, only to find you more distant than if we’d never confessed our feelings at all! I was...” He was ashamed to hear his voice break, “I was desperately lonely and you wouldn’t even touch me!”
Aziraphale broke off, choking back tears as he continued. “There was a time not so very long ago when I found myself longing for more than I was prepared to ask of you, or thought you prepared to give, and I found solace in the arms of a friend who understood. I told you I offered Robbie comfort, but the solace given was reciprocal as neither of us were able to be with the ones we loved. A poor substitute for you, or so I thought—until I had the real thing before me and you were apparently so repelled by my desire you couldn’t stand to be in the same room as me!”
Crowley appeared horrified. “Is that what you thought? That I didn’t desire you? That it didn’t take every ounce of willpower I possessed not to despoil you?”
“I didn’t want you to fall, you idiot! I love...loved…love you.”
“And you thought, what, that if loving you wasn’t enough to separate me from the Grace of God, then surely buggering me would be?”
Crowley pointed, “Well that was before I knew you weren’t exactly saving yourself for marriage, wasn’t it!”
Aziraphale glared. “I bloody told you about Robbie! I told you we were involved, you knew I offered him comfort, what did you think that meant? You’re hardly one to make moral judgements. I never asked about your prior assignations.” Crowley silently trailed a finger through the sugar that dusted the table. Aziraphale had a sudden, horrible revelation. “Oh, no.”
“Don’t. Just, don’t.”
Aziraphale stopped. All that time. All those nights feeling his skin crawl, the ache in his heart, and the stirrings that drove him to Gabriel and Robbie. The unbearable longing he could only half conceal at the best of times, and his pathetic, desperate need for someone to hold him, and Crowley had not only waited for him, but apparently done so chastely.
Aziraphale had never felt as disgusted with himself as he did at that moment.
“Angel, whatever you’re thinking right now, stop.”
If there was a column of Hellfire available, he thought he might gladly step into it. “I can’t breathe,” he realized.
“You’re hyperventilating. Aziraphale, listen to me. Come on. Here, put your head between your knees, you’re going to do yourself a mischief if you faint in here.”
Aziraphale mindlessly allowed Crowley to move him like a rag doll. The pain in his chest was unbearable.
“You’re all right, it’s all right. Look, I don’t blame you, all right? Nothing wrong with sex, you know that. I just thought if we ever...well, boom, y’know? Angels and demons, seemed like a thing that could happen. ‘Course I don’t blame you for being lonely. I was afraid. I was afraid I couldn’t be what you wanted and the longer we went on the more sure I was just going to damn you in the effort. It was a pisspoor way for me to handle it. I’m sorry, angel. Please, stop crying, you need to breathe.”
Crying? Aziraphale heard keening and realized it was coming from him, registered the pressure of Crowley’s shirt buttons against his cheek. When had he moved? Crowley’s bony arms were wrapped tightly around his shoulders.
Gradually, his breathing returned to normal. Aziraphale felt hollowed out and unnaturally calm. He pulled away and mechanically rose to his feet. “I should go.”
“What? Go, angel—”
He tried to smile at Crowley and thought maybe it didn’t work right. “I’m sorry I hurt you. You truly are a better person than I am.” He thought he might choke on his despair.
“Okay, first of all, that’s just insulting. Second, you look about a second away from discorporation, would you please just sit down?” Shattered and unequipped to argue, he returned to the booth. “Thank you. Look, I know this is a complete disaster, but I’m trying to understand here. I fucked up, I didn’t tell you what I was afraid of. I didn’t...expect that you’d want anything physical, honestly. Don’t know why, I probably should have, you’re hardly a bloody ascetic—and there’s nothing wrong with that. S’a large part of why I love you, y’know? Anyway, I kept denying you, didn’t want to tell you why, in case you decided being with a demon was too much bloody work after all, and that felt like absolute shit. You were aching to do something good, so when you started over at the church, I think, maybe he’s found something to put himself into, and then I find you and Muscles in a clinch and assume it’s him.”
“Nothing actually happened,” Aziraphale clarified. “He kissed me. I didn’t realize he was interested until shortly before you walked in. I’m not proud of it, but you should know, I wasn’t maintaining an affair. I truly was working, those times we were apart.”
Crowley nodded. “I should have believed you the first time you told me. I’ve been pretty up in my head about the whole demon...angel...thing. What it meant for me and you, and such. Not an excuse...just...wanted you to know.”
Aziraphale reached out to cover Crowley’s hand on the table with his own. “I understand. We had a lot to confront in a short span of time. Saving the world, embarking on a romantic relationship. Perhaps we would have benefited from taking more time to get our footings apart from our respective offices.”
Crowley nodded. “Could be. You feel like it’s hard to know what you are anymore?”
“Where did the work end and I begin?”
“Of course. All the human indulgences I was denied were amusing to revel in for a while, but, well, they denied me miracles too. The ability to intervene positively in the lives of humans. And I thought, if I’m made for love and compassion, if I’ve a purpose in the Ineffable Plan, surely it’s to act on the compulsion to do good in the world?”
Crowley sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “But you saw how my bigger plans worked out. Cell towers failing when I needed to bloody call you, the M25 bursting into flame at the worst possible moment—”
“Yes, but it was so brilliant, don’t you see? You were so clever to think of it. I never had your imagination. Your vision. There were times I’d have given anything to be told to go down there and do something as you were.”
“Angel, it’s not like that.”
“Our whole arrangement was predicated on the knowledge that nothing we did mattered so long as we were both here working against one another. I didn’t matter. Don’t interfere, Aziraphale, don’t heal, don’t help, don’t lift a finger! Just sit, and watch, all that death, all that suffering, all that pain, and don’t do a single, solitary thing to alleviate it unless the almighty Herself decides to intervene, and maybe you haven’t noticed, but She’s keeping Herself to Herself these days! Everything and everyone I ever dared care for is either dead, decayed, or disappeared, leaving me behind for all eternity with nothing but the cold comfort of a silent God and a Host of Heaven that hates me. So I hide from the world in my shop and protect and guard the immortality and legacy of the people I swore to protect instead of the people themselves because after 6000 years of loss, anything else is simply too painful. And then there’s you. You who against all odds I can’t help but love, and there’s never been a damned thing I could do about it. Not a thousand years ago, not ten weeks ago! My entire existence has been encased in amber!”
Aziraphale panted, breathless and tired from his rant. “And it’s revolting, I know, for an angel to want physical touch. If I could cut the desire for it from my corporation I would have stuck that sword through my own heart an eon ago. I wish I’d fallen. That would make sense at least.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that,” Crowley’s voice shook.
“I honestly don’t know why I didn’t fall. Gabriel always said I should have,” he noted, absently. Aziraphale gave a cold laugh filled with self hatred. “All those questions. Always questions! Why can’t I help? Why this way and not that way? And do you know,” Aziraphale confided, “I saw the report on his desk the very first time he pulled me into his office. Really it was very generous of him to show such mercy to me. Of course, he never missed an opportunity to remind me it was only his enjoyment of me that kept him from reporting my insubordination to Michael.”
Crowley looked horrified, but Aziraphale couldn’t stop. “It would have been inappropriate for us to make love, he said, him being my better and all. So I satisfied him with my essential form while he kept his corporation on. So dirty, he said. So wicked. So perverted. So lucky it was him and not anyone else. Mustn’t let anyone else touch my naked spirit or they’ll know the truth of me. So in a way, you were right about me. I might not have been intimate with that demon from the shelter, but what does it matter? I traded my soul for a few soft touches and Gabriel’s silence. So why didn’t I fall?”
“Aziraphale,” Crowley’s voice was broken. “You’re not going to fall.”
“Oh no? Still not wicked enough? After everything I’ve said—”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I was made wrong! All you did was hang around a few rebellious angels.”
“That wasn’t all I did.”
“That wasn’t all I did. It—it wouldn’t have been enough. I know that’s what I’ve said, and maybe that’s how I justify it to myself but...that’s not how it works, angel. Nobody falls accidentally.” Crowley removed his glasses and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.
“I doubted, you see? And then I disobeyed. There was a muster, right? All of us were meant to go look upon the newly created earth as She created man. Told us we’d love him. Them. All of them to come, as we loved Her. But I’d built the stars, you know? Whole galaxies full of them. Pink and blue and yellow and green and bright white, swirling things—did you see the Horsehead Nebula? That’s an impressive bloody nebula, and well, I loved them, but not as much as I loved Her. They were cold. Pretty, but distant. And She was there, and now She was telling me to wait and see about this other thing and it wasn’t about how she built us all from Her own love, set us apart from one another and would spend eternity with us all together. It was about them. Humanity. How they were the best thing She’d ever made. How wonderful they were.”
Crowley looked out the window for a moment, seemingly composing himself. “I was in medical at the time in Remiel’s division. None of us knew what an injury was, what pain felt like, but they were very serious about us knowing how to heal it. Not just in ourselves mind, but also in them, humans. Didn’t make sense. Wasn’t She planning to give them Paradise? Keep them safe from harm? I thought, what sort of rubbish busywork was this?”
Crowley shredded the paper serviette in his hands to bits as he continued.
“I caught Lucifer rolling eyes at one of Gabriel’s seemingly never ending series of lectures on the Great Plan. We made eye contact. I thought, Hey, maybe I’m not the only one who doesn’t get this. So most of the time, I kept my head down and learned to heal, but there were more and more who were discontent with the Almighty’s single-minded focus on humanity and I couldn’t say I didn’t agree with them.
“When She called us all together to come see her birth Adam into being, I wasn’t there. I was among the stars. My stars. Thinking about how clever I was. The thing is,” Crowley swallowed back tears. “The thing is, he was so beautiful. If I’d just gone, If I’d just trusted She knew what She was doing—and I could have been a Healer! I could have been a midwife to Eve! I could have loved every single one of them and it wouldn’t have been anything like a hardship!
“But I didn’t. I was prideful and arrogant. And when I returned, the war was already underway. It was—well, you know what it was. I wasn’t a brave rebel. I was terrified. I’d never seen anything like it. I saw wounds for the first time. I felt pain for the first time. I started trying to heal whatever I could. I didn’t know what side anyone was on. I barely knew what side I was on. It was our family and our friends and they were dying.
“I was—so—angry about that. At the humans. At God. So many dead over what?
When the others started falling, I hardly noticed what was happening. I was so consumed by my anger and disappointment and confusion. It never really went away.” Crowley took a swallow of the now cold coffee that remained in his repaired cup and made a face.
“I’m not proud of what I did. It was bloody idiotic and I hate myself for it. But I never, never meant for you to doubt your own goodness. Not once.”
Aziraphale shook his head, denying it. “I’m a minor principality who had the misfortune of relieving a far more competent cherubim of their duty upon the wall and subsequently bollocksed up creation with my negligence. If not for my spectacular failures, cowardice and perversion, I would be completely inconsequential. I don’t matter. This matters.”
Crowley looked as if he wanted to shake him. “You matter, Aziraphale! You matter to me so bloody much. Look,” he said, “none of my big plans really worked out in the end, and yeah, I blamed you or I blamed Heaven but in all honesty, I think there’s a natural balance to things, yeah? We might be able to move the needle a bit one way or the other, but in the end, I think it all balances out. I don’t think the big stuff is achievable. Not without an equal measure of good or evil to even the scales.”
Aziraphale listened and finally considered it. “If that were so, you and I would be far more powerful working together as we’ve always done.”
Crowley suddenly stilled. “Say that again?”
Aziraphale blinked. “Equal measures of good and evil, yes? If we can’t move the balance one way or the other, we can still do great works that are both, or neither…”
“Sort of seems like the kind of thing the head offices would want to avoid, doesn’t it? Us having more power than them to affect the course of humanity?”
He was right. Of course he was right. “Separately we were bringing about Armageddon—”
“Exactly as they’d intended before Adam put paid to their plans. Equal and opposite reaction. Boom.”
“—Boom. Oh, I’ve been a fool.”
Crowley turned his hand to squeeze Aziraphale’s fingers. “Not a fool. You’re good. You wanted to help, s’all. They took advantage.”
“Of both of us, my dear.”
Crowley looked away. “Yeah. Yeah, they did.”
“I’m so very sorry I ever doubted you. Can you forgive me?”
“Nothing to forgive.”
“Then will you touch me?” Aziraphale was surprised by his own words, but carried on regardless. “Only I’d very much like you to be holding me right now. Does that disgust you?”
“NO. No. I was afraid. I didn’t want to cause you to fall. I didn’t want to corrupt you.” Aziraphale made a dismissive sound, but Crowley persisted. “I’m still a demon, and all that entails. I didn’t know what it would do to you if we made love.”
“We’ve exchanged corporations.”
“Exchanged. We didn’t merge souls. Risk of explosion, remember? Unless you wanted to stick to doing it the human way?”
“If Gabriel is to be believed, there’s very little you could do to blacken my soul further.”
“Gabriel could give Hell lessons in cruelty. You’re the purest soul I’ve ever known. Which is why I wouldn’t risk you. Not falling, not exploding, not a bloody papercut if it was in my power to prevent it.”
“But you’d break my heart?”
“No Crowley, you listen to me. I’m not some empty-headed maiden being led down the primrose path by your wiles. I chose you, for better or worse, and all that goes with it. If I fall, I fall. If I discorporate, I discorporate. But I’ll not have you deny me the dignity of my choice in the matter. Besides which I doubt very much if it would come to either of those things if it hasn’t already.”
“Even knowing what I am? What I’ve done? You’d still want me?”
Aziraphale shook his head. “You say that as if I ever stopped.” Aziraphale gave Crowley a moment to compose himself then stood finally and offered his hand. “Let’s go home.”
Crowley took it. “Home, then.”
Gabriel smoothed his hands over his desk. Aziraphale would be back any moment now.
Any moment now.
His phone rang. “What?”
Beelzebub’s voice echoed down the line. “Crowley didn’t show.”
Gabriel clenched his fist. “Maybe he’s just late.”
“Or maybe someone is working against us. He’s not coming. You got Aziraphale up there yet?”
Gabriel looked around his sterile and empty office. His voice shook with rage. “Recall him. Now.”
“He’s not going to come.”
“Then you make him come.”
“And if he’s got holy water?”
“Send someone you won’t miss! Ugh. Forget it. I’m done. I’m sending in Raguel. He can deal with both of them.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone for a long moment. “You really don’t care about him at all, do you.”
“What? What are you talking about? What does that have to do with anything?”
“I thought you were doing this because you loved the angel.”
Gabriel swatted the thought away like a fly. “Of course I love him. I’m an angel, I love everyone. That’s not the point.”
“You wouldn’t seriously send Raguel to administer justice to someone you love.”
Gabriel’s jaw tightened. “If that person was pissing me off by upsetting the Divine Plan repeatedly, challenging my God-given authority in Heaven and fucking demons, then I think the most loving thing I could do would be to put them out of their misery.”
“Wow,” said Beelzebub after a moment. “I’ll recall Crowley. Tell Raguel not to destroy him.”
“Goodbye, Gabriel. Don’t ever call me again.”
“Wait, what? Beelzebub? Hello?” Gabriel slammed his phone on the desk. He didn’t bother with celestial technology to summon Raguel. Anger and intent were typically sufficient to summon the Archangel.
He didn’t knock. “About fucking time,” he said, cracking his knuckles. “He’s been flaunting God’s mercy long enough. You want me to bring Sandalphon?”
Gabriel took in the hulking figure in his doorway and smiled. “No need. I know you’ve been wanting this for a long time. Just try not to leave too large a crater.”
Raguel smiled. “Sure thing, boss.”
“You’re not scared of Hellfire?”
Raguel turned his head, showed the scarring from the last war to his boss. An ear on his corporation nearly melted off from the application of Hellfire. “Should I be?”
“That’s the spirit. Sadly I won’t be able to watch you work. I have other things to attend to. But do let me know how it goes.”
Raguel left the room, and Gabriel grit his teeth for a moment before smiling and picking up his phone. “Haniel. Would you come to my office please?”
Crowley drove rather single-mindedly toward his flat.
Aziraphale clenched and unclenched his hands on his knees nervously.
“It’s yours, you know. The flat. If you want it. To come back, I mean. Oh, bugger it.” Crowley swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid a pothole.
Aziraphale couldn’t even bother to be terrified. “Are you certain you want me back so soon?”
Crowley sighed. “Angel, I’ve never wanted you anywhere but with me.”
Aziraphale ducked his head and smiled. “Well, if you’re absolutely sure—”
Crossing the threshold of the flat, however, Crowley went immediately to his liquor cabinet and poured himself a large scotch, his hand shaking so severely the decanter rung the crystal tumbler like tinkling bells.
Aziraphale stopped worrying the hem of his waistcoat to observe, “My dear, you’re shaking.”
Crowley laughed darkly. “Am I? Imagine that.”
Aziraphale crossed the room and took Crowley by the elbow gently. “What is it?”
Crowley swallowed and looked toward the window. “Suppose it’s just occurred to me how close we came. You with your sword. Don’t much like thinking about it, but I can’t seem to stop.”
Aziraphale thought of his anger and pain in the cafe, the surety of purpose the combination of heartbreak and Gabriel had somehow wrought within him. He could have run Crowley through and thought it to be a righteous act. 6000 years gone, just like that. His dearest friend, dead, by his hand.
“Pour me one of those, would you?”
Crowley did, and Aziraphale knocked it back in one gulp. “I’m sorry, angel.”
“No, you’re right. They knew exactly how to turn us upon one another. So much for our side,” Aziraphale added with a touch of self-loathing. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t…”
“If you hadn’t. Aziraphale, you stopped.”
“You didn’t defend yourself.”
“I never intended to,” Crowley confessed.
“Oh, Crowley.” Aziraphale was shaking apart.
Crowley took his tumbler and set it on the cabinet before guiding Aziraphale into his arms. “What do you need, angel? I'll give you anything you need.”
“I just need to be close to you.”
Crowely held him tighter and pressed a kiss into his hair.
“Closer,” Aziraphale said into Crowley’s chest.
Crowley smiled. “Told you I’ve never done it the human way. Afraid I’d probably bungle the whole thing right now. Could...you know...mingle, though, if you want. Have you ever?”
Aziraphale pulled back at that and looked up at Crowley in confusion. “You know I did. I told you.”
Crowley shook his head, brow furrowed. “You told me about Gabriel, yeah, but it sounded like you just gave him the St. Theresa Special.”
Aziraphale laughed weakly. “Never heard it called that before.”
“Am I wrong?”
Aziraphale shook his head minutely. “No, you’re not. I’m...Gabriel always said that there was something wrong with me, so I’m not sure what it will be like. if you don’t like it, or me, or want to stop, I’ll not be offended.”
Crowley stilled perfectly. “Angel, do you trust me?”
“With all that I am.”
Crowley held out his hand. “Then let’s go to bed.”
As Crowley led them down the hall Aziraphale noted where two beds once stood, there was now only one. Crowley released his hand and crossed to the bed, fiddling with wires and a dial that seemed to be protruding from beneath the blankets.
“Electric blanket,” he explained. “Haven’t done this since they started handing out bodies, but I don’t think I want mine getting chilled while I’m out.”
“Oh, how clever!” he exclaimed. “Yes, you’re right, it is rather unpleasant.”
Crowley tried not to think about the callous implications of that statement as he turned back to Aziraphale and pulled down the covers with a flourish. “After you, angel.”
Aziraphale snapped his fingers and his shoes and jacket found themselves in the wardrobe. He laid down in the bed with great care and extended his hand to Crowley. Crowley knelt and lay down beside him, pulling Aziraphale into his arms as he pulled the covers up around their shoulders.
“I love you, Aziraphale,” he said simply.
Overwhelmed, he could only reply, “Oh, Crowley. I love you so much.”
Within the confines of their embrace, they slipped their earthly bodies entirely.
“Ah! Haniel. Please, come in.”
Haniel wasn’t exactly surprised to receive Gabriel’s call, but she was extremely wary about going to his office alone.
“Are you sure you only wanted to see me? I’m not sure you’ve ever needed to speak to just me before.”
Gabriel’s smile strained. “Please, sit down, won’t you?”
Haniel saw no immediate way around it and joined him on the modern looking sofa he manifested.
“I understand you like Earth things.”
Haniel nodded. “I do, yes. Is that what this is about? Because I’ve explained I don’t think it’s covetous—”
Gabriel laughed. “Relax, Haniel, you’re not in trouble. I mean, not right now, anyway. It’s okay that you like Earth stuff. I’m pretty fond of the clothes, myself.”
“Oh,” she said, “That’s nice.”
“But you see, the others probably won’t see it that way. Uriel. Michael. Ooof,” he added, “I wouldn’t want to get on their bad side. Not that Michael has a bad side, you understand.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Like I said, I like the clothes. Humans have such a fascinating way with material things, don’t they?
Haniel bit her lip. “Well, they put love into them. You can still feel it sometimes.”
Gabriel looked surprised. “Really? Ew. Doesn’t that bother you? All those feelings that aren’t yours?”
“Not really, no. It makes me feel connected to them and to God’s love through them.”
Gabriel looked concerned. “Haniel we can’t connect with humans. Not intimately. You know that.”
Haniel looked shocked. “What do you mean? I’m only talking about residual feelings.”
Gabriel hummed. “I don’t know. Seems like a technicality to me. And using them as an intermediary—Haniel that’s blasphemous.”
“Calm down, Haniel, don’t get overexcited. I wouldn’t want to have to write you up for emotional instability. Anyway, I think I have a solution.”
Haniel swallowed. “What is it?”
“How about if we indulge together? Nobody else needs to know. We can visit Earth together, go shopping, visit my tailor, you can pick up whatever absurd things you like, and nobody needs to know it was anything other than an authorized reconnaissance visit.”
For a moment, Haniel thought it sounded as if, “Gabriel, do you want to spend time with me?”
Gabriel barked an ugly laugh. “With you? No. Come on. I’m your boss, not your friend. I’m trying to do you a favor. Keep you on the side of the Light.”
Haniel sighed. “I see.”
“I thought you would. And in return I thought maybe you might like to show your appreciation?”
Haniel feigned confusion. “Appreciation? How could I do that?”
Gabriel leaned forward and placed a hand on her knee. “Tell me Haniel, have you ever mingled with the other angels?”
Haniel glared angrily at Gabriel and in a powerful, otherworldly voice, commanded, “STOP.”
Time stopped. Haniel slipped out from Gabriel’s frozen hand and stood, brushing herself down with an irritated sigh.
“Oh, Gabriel. What am I going to do with you,” said a voice over Haniel’s shoulder.
Haniel whipped around and grinned, running to the figure in the doorway. “You’re back!”
God smiled at Haniel and pulled her into a hug. “And how’s my favorite aide-de-camp?”
Haniel grinned into God’s shoulder. “Terrible. Everyone is fighting, they want another war, and the only ones with any sense keep getting kicked out.”
God sighed deeply. “Sounds tense.”
“It really is.”
God looked around the office. “Not exactly a welcoming space, is it? Here,” She offered, materializing a couple of high-backed armchairs for them. God perched on the edge of Her seat and gestured for Haniel to do the same. “That’s much better. How is Azazel?”
Haniel beamed. “Good. He’s doing really well in Hell, I think. He could use more goats though.”
God nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll see what I can do.” God looked back at the frozen Gabriel sadly. “So much fear in that one.”
“He wouldn’t have to be afraid if you just told him the truth.”
God smiled sadly. “If I told him, it wouldn’t be the truth anymore. I’m counting on you Hani.”
Her face fell. “For how much longer, Lord?” she asked.
God leaned forward to kiss her forehead and stroked a hand through her hair, tucking it behind her ear. “As long as it takes. I’m not leaving anyone behind. Not even Gabriel.”
Haniel looked back at him. “Could make him bald though,” she suggested.
God laughed. “Every corporation he gets?” Haniel nodded eagerly. God laughed harder. “I don’t think his poor ego could take it, but I’ll take it into consideration if things don’t improve.”
“It’s hard not telling them. I want to comfort them, and I can’t.”
“I know. You and Azazel were so clever to figure it out right away, but I did warn you it would be lonely knowing for so long without anyone else to tell. Do you want me to take the knowledge from you?”
“But who will help the others? Aziraphale and Crowley are so close to the truth, and they’ve already been cut off—”
“Oh, my sweet child. I knew you were right for this job from the start.”
Haniel ducked her head, blushing. “I miss you.”
“I’m never far, sweetheart. The humans need me right now. They’re so full of questions, it wouldn’t surprise me if they all catch on before the rest of you.”
“I think a few already have.”
God put Her hand on Her forehead and groaned. “They have, and they’re a handful.” Haniel laughed. “Be brave, my darling. Once Aziraphale and Crowley figure it out, the rest will come. Trust me, please.”
Haniel took Her hand. “Always.”
“What should I do with him?” God asked, nodding to Gabriel.
Haniel considered. “I think I’ll just drop him off at his tailor’s for now. That should get him out of my hair for a while.”
God nodded, pleased. “Allow me,” She said, and Gabriel was no longer in his office. “You need to find Zadkiel and Raphael. Gabriel sent Raguel to smite Aziraphale.”
Haniel paled. “Oh, dear.”
“You’ll sort it out.” God punctuated this thought by manifesting a pitcher of margaritas and a salt-rimmed glass onto Gabriel’s desk. She poured Herself a drink and settled into her chair for what looked like a very pleasant evening.
Haniel stood and made for the door, turning back to add, “Thank you. For everything.”
God sipped Her margarita. “Any time.”
Aziraphale had seen other angels in their incorporeal forms. No two were alike, even among those of the same choir. He’d never given more than a passing thought to the forms of demons, but if he had, he could not have imagined Crowley in his fondest dreams.
Occasionally human prophets were blessed with visions of the Host in their true forms, though very often their limited minds processed the information differently than other celestial beings experienced them. What Aziraphale observed in another angel as the concept of wisdom and higher thinking, humans somehow interpreted as large predatory birds. Courage became lions, strength oxen and the presence of humility and obedience within the aspect of an angel had humans believing in great flocks of sheep populating Heaven. Their minds were quite preoccupied with animal metaphors. Ezekiel, however, saw wheels, and John, in one feverish night in Patmos, saw a great deal more and was never quite the same after.
Aziraphale didn’t know what a human would have made of Crowely. He was love, perseverance, hope, and laughter. There was protection and determination tempered with wisdom and intelligence. He truly contained multitudes. The light of God was missing, but in its absence, there was a beautiful dark afterimage, like the rays of ultraviolet light that form a corona around a black hole. Aziraphale wept and laughed at the beauty of him, and was overwhelmed. Crowley surrounded him, flowed through him, merged with him. He could feel everything Crowley felt, and knew Crowley could feel the same. He felt Crowley’s exultant joy over Aziraphale’s form. They might have danced together in the ether for hours or minutes, time was fairly meaningless in this state. And when their forms merged! He only thought he knew bliss. Human orgasms were lovely, when all was said and done, but nothing could compare to this. His very soul was on fire with both his and Crowley’s pleasure.
There were no human words to describe it.
Their separation was a soft, gentle thing as they relaxed back into their earthly vessels, a tight fit, but familiar like well worn shoes. They breathed deeply and stretched their limbs and digits, blinked eyes open and reaccustomed to human senses. They were warm in bed, and Aziraphale’s first sight upon return was Crowely’s face.
“I never knew,” he said, reaching out a hand to caress Crowely’s face. “I never knew.”
Crowley gathered Aziraphale into his arms and held him tightly. “I’m so sorry I didn’t know what he’d done to you.”
Some distant part of Aziraphale only now realized how Gabriel had exploited him. “I didn’t either,” said Aziraphale. His body and mind were quiet. Sated. “It...doesn’t feel as though it matters very much right now.”
Crowley hummed into Aziraphale’s shoulder. “Wish we’d done this years ago.”
“I think it’s better I didn’t know. If I’d known, and let him anyway…”
Crowely propped himself on an elbow and looked down at Aziraphale. “You didn’t let him do anything. There was nothing you could do.”
Aziraphale thought about arguing the point, but there was no use. Crowley had seen. He’d experienced all that he was and not found him wanting. “I’m glad it was you.”
“He lied to you,” said Crowley. “There was nothing wrong with you at all. You were lonely and he kept you that way because it let him control you. I may be biased, but you...you are one of the loveliest angels I’ve ever seen. I imagine Gabriel just wanted you for himself.”
“Covetousness,” Aziraphale mulled. Were the rules that much different for humans than angels? “Lust. Wrath. Bearing false witness…”
Crowely hummed in agreement. “Pride. So much pride.”
“Crowley, please forgive me if this is insensitive, but, your fall—”
“You fell for pride, you...questioned the great plan, believed your works greater than God’s, but when did you fall?”
“During the war, I guess? I’d been trained as a medic, one second I was working on some angel or another, thinking about how badly I misjudged the situation, the next I was falling.”
Aziraphale sat up in bed. “What was the thing you said to me, on the wall. I’d given the sword away. I was working myself into a very anxious state—”
“I said, you’re an angel, I don’t think you can do the wrong thing.”
Aziraphale looked at Crowley. “But...obviously that isn’t true. I didn’t register your sarcasm back then, but then, I believed you. Utterly.”
“I know. You even lied to God’s face and you still believed me.”
“Crowley, I know this is a terrible time for it, but I think I’ve rather had an epiphany.” Crowley’s brow furrowed. “The tree, in the garden...Eve fell because she gained knowledge of good and evil. Just the knowledge of it. When did we gain it?”
“We’re not meant to have free will, that’s what everyone says. Angels do good and demons do bad, but clearly it’s not that simple and we’re capable of choice.”
Crowley’s expression cleared. “Oh, I don’t know if I like this.”
“Every time I expressed a hint of remorse, what did you tell me?”
“That you did the right thing. The just thing.”
“And I believed it. Believed you.”
Crowley folded himself over his knees and started picking nervously at the blankets. “But there’s no way you should have fallen. You’re good, angel. Better than the rest of that lot.”
“Yes, I might very well be. Particularly if the prerequisite for falling is the assumption of one’s incontrovertible guilt. Once one is capable of perceiving their own moral failings, it might follow the only angels not to fall would be the ones who are either capable of morally relativistic thinking—”
“Or complete psychopaths.”
“I was going to say those lacking the ability to experience empathy, but your point is taken.” A loud knock on the door interrupted their conversation. “Were you expecting anyone?”
Crowley bared his teeth and hissed. “No. Stay here. I’ll deal with it.”
“Crowley, are you sure…” but he’d already miracled his shoes and glasses on and strode confidently from the bedroom. Aziraphale flopped back down onto the pillow, confident in his lover’s ability to deal with the interruption.
Zadkiel flew. It was considered bad taste to bring your wings out in the halls, but flying was faster than running, and God forgive him, he had to do something. Raguel was gone, unleashed on Aziraphale. He reached the first courtyard and found Haniel tugging at Raphael’s sleeve.
“I just want to check. You can’t believe everything Gabriel says.”
Haniel made a frustrated noise. “Okay, maybe I didn’t hear it from Gabriel exactly. But please, I need you to trust me. He sent Raguel to smite Aziraphale.”
Zadkiel drew his wings in and came to a stop inches from Raphael, who startled and clutched her chest. Haniel gave a little shriek. “I believe you. He’s gone. We have to go down there.”
Raphael looked genuinely frightened. “Aziraphale can’t take Raguel on alone.”
Jophiel emerged from her office texting furiously on her phone. Without looking up she said, “Which is why you’ll rendezvous with Azazel, Saraquel and Remiel outside the bookshop. Raziel and I will run interference while you get wards up around the place.”
Haniel leapt forward and threw her arms around Jophiel’s neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Jophiel bobbled her phone for a moment than hugged her back. “It’s fine. Just go! We don’t have much time.”
Remiel and Saraquel were already drawing sigils on the skylight when they arrived. Azazel was staring off into the distance at the edge of the roof. Haniel joined him as the others began drawing their own angelic protections over the bookshop.
“I don’t think they’re here,” he said.
Haniel looked at him in alarm. “What do you mean?”
Azazel shrugged. “We’d know by now. Raguel would be here, wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t something be razed? On fire? Screaming?”
Haniel blinked. “If they aren’t here, then—”
“Aaaaaahhhhhh! Guys, you need to see this!” screamed Remiel, holding her phone like a holy object as far from her as she could.
The rest gathered around the tiny screen where a tiny Crowley was bound in holy chains and being paraded through Hell. “Oh, shit,” said Saraquel, feelingly. “Where’s Aziraphale?”
There are several voices seared into the memory of every celestial being. God is one of them, quite obviously, having spoken them all into being. Another was the angel Raguel, Archangel of Justice.
There are several voices seared into the memory of every celestial being. God is one of them, quite obviously, having spoken them all into being. Another was the angel Raguel, Archangel of Justice.
In the war his voice was omnipresent, calling down judgement and wrath on the fallen and dispensing obliteration and holy vengeance to all challengers. He was enormous. His corporeal form was large, muscular and hardened by war. He wore his infernal scars like medals of honor.
When Raguel was sent to administer Justice, some fought, and lost. Others simply accepted their fate. But none challenged Raguel and expected to win.
The door was kicked in as Crowley answered it, sending him sprawling, cradling a broken nose and hissing furiously.
Raguel stepped into the flat, flexing a chain which he began swinging menacingly.
“Demon Crowley, consider yourself remanded to the custody of Hell for the duration of eternity or until your existence is terminated.”
Crowley pulled himself to his feet. “Don’t think Heaven has much authority over demons, even if it’s impossible to tell you all apart these days.”
Raguel grinned, showing all his perfect teeth. “Just following orders. Now we’re going to put these on, and you’re going to get in the fucking hole.”
“What hole?” Crowley asked.
A bolt of lightning struck the floor of the apartment with a report like cannon fire. Steam and smoke rose and swirled in a cyclonic miasma around the site of the strike, delineating a void not dissimilar to a black hole and with a similar gravitational pull. Crowley scrabbled against the wall for purchase as Raguel, unaffected, strode forward, chain in hand.
Aziraphale blinked drowsily.
Crowley had been gone an awfully long time to have merely sent on their way whatever misguided soul had thought to call upon him.
What was also concerning, was the silence. The normal sounds of shivering foliage, the hum of the appliances, even Crowley’s footsteps, had all gone suspiciously silent.
Unnerved and unable to bear it, Aziraphale rose and donned his coat and made it to the end of the hallway before he reached a barrier. He could hear nothing beyond it, but he could see.
Raguel must not have liked his chances in taking on the two of them at once.
Crowley looked at him, desperation in his face as he silently screamed Aziraphale’s name. Raguel, as terrible as he’d ever been, looked toward the passage and laughed as Aziraphael pounded fruitlessly against the barrier. With horror, he watched as Crowley was bound in chains that burned him, feeling Crowley’s screams as surely as if he’d heard them. As sure as if they’d issued from Aziraphale’s own throat.
Aziraphale was screaming as Raguel kicked Crowley into the void.
What happened after that was a bit of a blur.
The barrier falling only confirmed who Raguel had considered the true threat, and with Crowley gone, Raguel evidently felt confident enough to uncage Aziraphale. Noise had rushed in as the void closed over Crowley, but Aziraphale didn’t hear a thing. In fact, Aziraphale didn’t remember leaving his corporation, but he remembered the incandescent rage blinding every one of his multitudes of eyes.
Nor could he precisely recall what Raguel said, what charges he leveled against Aziraphale as he withdrew his fabled instrument of angelic demise—A flaming sword. A great deal more impressive than his own, Aziraphale thought, but it hardly mattered when one couldn’t wield it through an overly bulky corporation.
No, Aziraphale couldn’t even remember what the expression on Raguel face looked like before Aziraphale swiftly cleaved his head from his body, but he did remember thinking it was an awful lot of blood that someone would have to clean up before Crowley got home, and wasn’t it clever of him to keep the entryway free of carpets for just such a reason as this. After all, Ligur’s cleanup had been rather a doddle. Certainly Raguel’s beheaded corpse couldn’t prove much more of a challenge than a melted demon.
Aziraphale didn’t really remember returning to his corporation, either, but he remembered vomiting when he did.
He lay on the floor in the hall, feeling the new bruises that his sudden departure had left on his corporation. He waived the sickness and the blood away. He didn’t glance at Raguel’s body as he left the flat. Let the dead bury their dead, he thought uncharitably.
He made it as far as the pavement before the others found him.
Crowley remembered his fall. In the beginning, there was cold. Silence. Pain. An endless void of nothingness that went on for a seeming eternity in which all he had were his own thoughts. He screamed, or would have if his voice could have sounded in the vacuum. His tears froze on his face. Feathers froze and broke as he fell. His wings no longer bore any weight. He was alone. His prayers went unanswered for the first time in memory. There was no distant awareness of the Almighty. He was nothing. He was nowhere.
Then, suddenly, heat that felt as if it would incinerate his bones. It could have been no more than a tepid pool of water, but as cold as he’d been for a seeming eternity, it would have felt the same.
Awareness of somewhere gradually returned. Dim, grey-green light. A scent like sulfur. A sound like dripping water.
Someone began to hit him. He hissed. He’d never done that before. He tried to raise an arm to defend himself and found he had none. He struck out and was grasped firmly and dragged from the pool and kicked against a wall. He became unconscious.
When he woke, he tasted the air with the forked tip of his tongue. He hurt. He was cold and felt
sluggish. Footsteps echoed by his head and he reared back protectively.
“And who is this creepy-crawly, mm?”
He didn’t think they wanted the name She gave him. It was a Holy name. It hardly felt right to speak it any longer.
“All right, Crawly. Move it along. Naptime is over. We’ve all got work to do, and you’re no exception.”
He was nudged into a file room with twenty or so other creatures, at the head of which was Hastur, Duke of Hell.
“Welcome to Hell, you’ve joined the infernal forces of evil for the destruction of all that is Holy and good. Please line up along the wall there, MIND THE FILES, and receive your assignment.”
Crawly did so. Several demons stepped on him and he hissed and sank fangs into their ankles. They kicked at him and disturbed the files. They were destroyed summarily and Crawly moved forward in line. When he reached the front a file folder was removed from a pile on a rickety wooden chair.
“Oh. You,” said the Duke Hastur. “Can you speak?”
Crawly tried. “Yesssss.”
“Mm. Very well. That your only form?”
Crawly gave Hastur a look that approximated a shrug as well as one could when one had no shoulders.
Hastur flipped through a couple of files before tossing them aside. “Just—go up there and make trouble.”
Crawly nodded and slithered away, vaguely wondering where up-there was.
Up there, as it turned out, was a lovely, clever place, full of lovely, clever humans and an even lovelier, and much more clever angel.
An angel he couldn’t protect from divine retribution after all.
Crowley gasped in pain as he was kicked by one of the onlookers of his grim little parade through Hell. The holy chains tightened around his shoulders and he bit off a scream as they seared into his muscle and sinews. He limped, as well as he was able, past the smelly, teeming throngs of demons gathered to watch him brought low at last. Hastur giggled with maniacal glee, holding the ends of the chains by carefully gloved hands as he repeatedly tightened the chains around Crowley’s neck, air restricted until he couldn’t make a sound, then brutalizing him and allowing his screams to ring freely.
It mostly distracted from the humiliation as he was stripped, spat on and cut by everyone he passed. By the time they reached their destination, he was completely bare, filthy, panting raggedly, and covered in blood.
Rather than the spectacle of the trial Aziraphale described, however, there was no gallery, no witnesses. Just a bare cell and Beelzebub.
“Hastur, leave us.”
“As you wish, my lord,” Hastur replied, sketching a suitably sycophantic bow before slamming the cell shut on the both of them.
“You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?”
Crowley raised his head. “Never could.”
Beelzebub smirked. “No, I suppose not. I’m not taking those things off you,” they said.
Crowley coughed up blood. “Wouldn’t dream of asking.”
“Right. Well. It’s for the best. Mixing with angels doesn’t end well for anyone. You’re getting a couple decades in the freezer. Then we’ll reevaluate.”
Beelzebub opened the door and immediately the cell began to freeze. Crowley shrieked as his soft tissues came in contact with the frozen floor. “Never bloody stopped you and Gabriel, did it?”
Beelzebub stopped in the doorway, turned abruptly and backhanded Crowley halfway across the room. Crowley thought his jaw might be shattered.
“Like I said. It doesn’t end well.”
“I’m guessing Aziraphale wasn’t the first angel he fucked over.”
Beelzebub grinned and it was horrible, full of pain and self-loathing. “And Aziraphale won’t be the last. The only angel Gabriel truly loved created our happy home here. No one else could ever measure up. And when stupid little Adoel tried to be what he wanted, to be just like Lucifer? They were just a little too good at it, and ended up following him straight down.”
Crowley wheezed in pained silence.
“Enjoy your stay,” echoed the parting shot as the door slammed shut.
Aziraphale drew his sword and wings from the ethereal plane at the sight of multiple angels converging on him.
“Peace! Aziraphale, peace! We’re here to help!” announced Raphael.
“Hey, guys, um, where’s Raguel?” asked Zadkiel.
Aziraphale shivered. “Dead.”
All turned to look at Aziraphale as one, taking in his battered and shaken demeanor. “Dead?” Zadkiel clarified. “Big guy, face half melted, terrifying—”
Aziraphale looked him in the eye. “I removed his head from his shoulders with my flaming sword, I trust the meaning of dead isn’t lost on you? I could procure you a dictionary from my shop if you like.”
Remiel snorted. Zadkiel looked at her. “What? He’s so bitchy, I adore it.”
“Okay, you killed the Archangel of Justice. That’s a thing,” said Zadkiel as if it very much shouldn’t be a thing and it was going to take him some time to come to terms with it being a thing. “I guess you didn’t need us to rescue you after all.”
“Rescue me?” Aziraphale thought maybe his corporation wasn’t quite at it’s best. The street seemed much too bright, and he was having trouble regulating his breathing. Worst of all, he never saw the angel sneak up behind him to take his sword arm.
“Can I have this please? For just a moment? I’ll give it back, I promise,” said Haniel, taking Aziraphale by the elbow and leading him to a bench that hadn’t been there a moment before. “Try and take deep breaths. I think you’re having a panic attack.”
Aziraphale thought that seemed like an accurate assessment as he clenched and unclenched his hands on his knees, trying to return blood to his tingling fingertips. “He’s gone,” he said, mostly to himself. He noticed not every person gathered was strictly angelic. He turned to them. “Do you know where he is?”
Remiel and Saraquel looked at each other uncomfortably. “He’s in Hell, sweetheart,” said Remiel, sympathetically.
“Is he still alive?”
“He is, actually,” answered Azazel. “Not sure for how long, though. Some of the torturers are a bit keen.”
“Azazel!” everyone shouted.
Aziraphale covered his ears. “Please, I need to get him back. What must I do? I’ll do anything at all!”
Haniel put her arm around Aziraphale’s shoulders. “All will be well.”
“Please,” he begged. “You don’t understand. I need him! He’s...he’s my person, do you understand? He’s my best friend, and he’s gone. When, when something bad would happen, or I would have a bad day, or a failed blessing, or a plague or a war, there was only ever him. He would save me, or just...sometimes just listen, and tell me I wasn’t a bad angel, and I need him. Who am I going to tell about my day? Who am I going to complain about customers to? Who will take me to eat and encourage me to gluttony, and oh,” Aziraphale’s voice shook with tears, “Who will I read beside at night and bring coffee in the morning, and who is going to drink with me and love me and hold me if it can’t be Crowley? Please, help me. Please. He’s all I have. I can’t do this without him.”
Aziraphale wept, bitterly. He keened in grief, and suddenly he felt arms around him. Embracing him. He looked up and saw the angels and demons gathered close, wrapping him in their arms and shielding him from view.
“We would,” said Raphael. “We should have been there for you all along. If you never get Crowley back, you have my word we will not abandon you. Not again. Not ever.”
“But you are getting him back,” assured Remiel. “Hell is deadly dull without you two up here.”
“Amen,” said Saraquel, giving her a high five. “Look, he’s probably in one of the torture chambers. They won’t bother attempting an execution again, he’s not worth the resources and you throwing over Gabriel like that probably put a chill on the higher-up’s relationship with Heaven.”
Aziraphale froze. “You know about that?”
Saraquel stared back stupidly. “Which part?”
Remiel slapped him across the back of the head. “Shut up,” she said. Haniel began playing with Aziraphale’s hair and Remiel took the seat to his other side. “You weren’t the first. Raziel worked under him during the war. He did it to them too.”
“And me,” said Haniel.
“What?!” Both Raphael and Zadkiel looked murderously angry.
Haniel took his hand. “I stopped him. But he tried.”
“That piece of shit,” opined Saraquel.
“We’re getting off track,” redirected Raphael. “Aziraphale, not everyone in Heaven and Hell agrees with the way things are done. You’re not alone. We do have a slight power imbalance thanks to the war, but things change. You, and Crowley, changed them just by being who you are. We need you. Both of you.”
Aziraphale frowned. “I’m not working for Heaven anymore. I...can’t.”
Raphael shook her head. “I would never ask you to. I wouldn’t do that to you. But you don’t have to, to be a force for good. You already are.”
Aziraphale sniffled miserably. “But Crowley—”
“You’re going to have to get him out of Hell. Don’t fear your strength. Some anger can be righteous.” Raphael reminded him.
“Not that it should be any trouble for you,” added Zadkiel, clearly still processing the idea that the very unassuming form of Aziraphale somehow decapitated Heaven’s fiercest warrior.
A throat cleared behind them. Aziraphale turned to see the International Delivery Man standing rather purposefully behind the Host of Heaven. “Delivery for Aziraphale, Principality and Guardian of the Eastern Gate.” Aziraphale nodded and made a weak attempt at a smile as he accepted the envelope. “There’s a message as well. Go get your man. Well, that bit’s from me. But She also wanted you to know that She’s with you. Both of you, always.”
Aziraphale steeled himself and opened the envelope, read the contents, then closed it again and tucked it inside his jacket pocket.
“Well, it’s been truly lovely meeting you all. I really should be going.”
“Someone will meet you down there,” said Remiel. “Any idea where you’re going in?”
“None whatsoever,” said Aziraphale blithely.
“Excellent,” said Saraquel.
“Try Tadfield,” suggested Azazel.
“Tadfield? That far?”
“The main entrance is barred to you both,” explained Haniel.
That stung, Aziraphale thought. He never wanted to return to Heaven and yet the idea that the door was locked to him hurt terribly. “Very well. Tadfield it is.”
“Good luck!” called Azazel.
Time was of the essence. He could fly, he supposed, it would certainly get him there quickly, but he’d never been the fastest flyer in this form. If only Madam Tracy and her electric motor scooter were nearby.
And then Aziraphale saw the Bentley. He gave a little wiggle and tugged at his waistcoat. As he slid into the driver’s seat, he attempted to reason with the machine, smoothing a hand over the dash as if it were a nervous horse.
“Now, I know I’m not your usual driver, but I am in a bit of a hurry to rescue him from Hell, so if you’d be so kind as to convey me to Tadfied, that would be splendid.”
The engine turned over as the vehicle slid itself into gear and pulled into traffic. Startled, Aziraphale gripped the steering wheel for dear life and tried to make sense of the pedals. “Is it this one?” he wondered aloud as he abruptly braked. Tyres squealed in his wake. “Sorry!” he called out to the other drivers. “No, that most definitely isn’t it.” He didn’t notice the Bentley removing the clutch for its own wellbeing and gently tucking the accelerator under his foot, but he did coo with surprise as the radio began to play the overture to Candide. Aziraphale settled back into the seat and let the Bentley direct them.
It was hard to say how fast they traveled, as Aziraphale had never familiarized himself with all the dials on motorcars, but he thought it was a good bit faster than Crowley normally drove, as they arrived at Jasmine Cottage just as the overture concluded. “Well that was well timed,” he commented, patting the car fondly as it shuddered to a halt, steam rising from the engine.
Anathema and Adam were halfway down the path to meet him before he reached the gate.
“Adam just got here, said something about Crowley being kidnapped?”
Adam shuddered. “Your friends were whispering in my ear like just before you all tried to end the world. It was creepy.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Sorry about that. They mean well, but Crowley’s been taken to Hell, and I’m sure you understand I need to retrieve him.”
“Of course,” said Adam, simply. “You’re not going to want to go like that, though.”
“Like…” Aziraphale patted down his clothing.
“No,” said Adam. “Your body. It’ll just slow you down. Anathema will look after it for you if you want.”
“I’m sorry, what?” said Anathema.
“Oh dear, I suppose you’re quite right. My dear girl, would you mind terribly? Only I’ve had this corporation nearly 6000 years and I’m quite attached, well, not this corporation you understand, but in principle—”
She waved off his explanation. “Yes, sure, fine. Let’s get inside.”
Anathema led them upstairs to the bedroom where she directed Aziraphale to the bed. “I’m not kicking you out of your bed!”
“Well I’m not stashing you in the coat closet so this will have to do,” she argued.
“You should probably stay up here and close your eyes for a bit,” suggested Adam. “You’re not really supposed to see him without his body on.”
Anathema laughed. “Sounds very unseemly.”
“No,” explained Aziraphale, “It’s more that when we do appear to humans in our true forms they tend to either go quite mad or begin prophesying. And I would like to avoid either fate for you, my dear.”
“Oh, God, yeah, of course. I’ll just be over here and cover my eyes.”
“Thanks Anathema,” said Adam. “You’re the best. I’ll open the portal in the back garden and yell when it’s clear.”
Aziraphale nodded in approval. Convinced Anathema’s eyes were sufficiently covered, Aziraphale lay on the bed and slipped out of his corporation.
He followed Adam to the garden and hovered while he chanted something rather dark and the swirling vortex from Crowley’s flat appeared beside the hedgerow.
“This will take you as close to him as I could get you. Good luck,” said Adam.
Aziraphale did his best to convey gratitude in this form, but he wasn’t sure if it was successful. He waived a wing, and dove into the hole.
The vortex was cold.
He remembered he had friends in Hell now, which was the only thing which kept him from annihilating the first demons he saw on sight. He arrived in a crowded and dimly lit corridor which could have been anywhere in Hell from his own limited observations. The demons cringed away from his form as it was, the holy light blinding them. “I’m looking for the demon Crowley,” he explained.
Several arms pointed down the hall. “Thank you,” he replied.
“Beelzebub locked him up,” said one of the demons. “Don’t reckon they’ll let him go without a fight.”
Aziraphale shone with barely contained menace. “Good.”
He found the throne room at the end of the hall. Beelzebub, looking eternally bored sat on their throne surrounded by the buzzing of flies. “I believe you have something which belongs to me,” he announced, sword blazing.
Beelzebub scrambled off the dais. “Thought Gabriel planned to smite you,” they said.
Aziraphale’s form brightened. “He tried.”
Beelzebub glowered. “Guards!”
Demons poured into the amphitheater from all sides. Aziraphale saw them all, and parried every attack. All the while he watched Beelzebub inch closer to a door. He followed effortlessly, carving a path through the demons who continually offered themself up for slaughter. “Is he in there?” he asked.
Beelzelbub called a halt to the stream of willing sacrifices. “Just take him and get out of my sight,” they told him, pushing open the door.
Crowley lay on the floor of the cell unmoving, bare and blue with cold. Sparks of rage flew incandescently from his form. “You did this to him?”
Beelzebub, to their credit, didn’t back down. “Wasn’t the first time.”
Aziraphale exploded in a riot of sound and color and Beelzebub was blasted back into the amphitheater.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale murmured, as gently as he was able.
Crowley’s eyes blinked open. His tears had crystalized on his eyelids and cheeks. “Aziraphale? What’re you doin’ here? S’cold…” he slurred, teeth chattering. “S’it snowing in here?”
Aziraphale hadn’t noticed he’d been crying. His tears from his many eyes had frozen and fell like snowflakes around Crowley. “Oh, my goodness. Forgive me.”
Crowley made a noise that might have been a laugh if it hadn’t immediately been followed by a wince and groan of pain. “S’all right, angel. It’s cold though. Think we could go home now?”
Aziraphale reached out to Crowley and saw him shiver as his aspect passed into his corporation. With a bit of thought, he was able to twine himself around his lover’s true form. “I think I’ve got you. Can you hold tight to your corporation for me?”
“Think it might be frozen to the floor.”
“Oh dear,” he said, sending a burst of warmth out through his form. Crowely shuddered and twitched as his muscles seized with the sudden temperature change. “Is that enough to be getting on with? I can work on the rest at home, but I’d really rather not stay here any longer than necessary.”
Crowley tried his arms and found he could pull them from the floor, if weakly. “Yeah, angel, that’ll do. Let’s get out of here.”
With a pulse of strength, Crowley rose from the floor, enveloped almost entirely by Aziraphale. “Your sword is warm,” Crowley said, dozily, before passing out.
Aziraphale beat his wings furiously and blew the cell door open. Beelzebub was arguing with someone in the amphitheater.
“Oh good, you made it,” said Raziel. “Fastest way back to Tadfield would be through the second portal on the left just past the kennels. Azazel will show you out,” they added.
“You’re helping them?” shouted Beelzebub.
“Oh, get a grip, already,” said Raziel, sharply. “You’re not the only one down here because of that purple-eyed, dickhead. He’s ruined enough lives, he doesn’t need your help.”
Beelzebub looked close to tears. “I loved him.”
Raziel rolled their eyes and put an arm around Beelzebub’s shoulders. “I know. Maybe some day he’ll realize he shouldn’t have been chasing after Lucifer when you were there waiting for him all along. Or maybe he’ll fall! Hope springs eternal. Some quality time with a few disgruntled demons with pitchforks might be just what he needs to see what he was missing.”
“You really think so?”
Raziel waved Aziraphale and Crowley out of the room. “Sure,” said Raziel while shaking their head no.
Azazel was waiting for them outside the room with a half dozen goats.
“Oh my,” said Aziraphale.
“I know,” said Azazel. “Seem a bit skittish don’t they? Not every goat takes to Hell as well as my Betsy, but they’ll learn. It’s not such a bad place when you get used to it,” he crooned to one of the kids. It responded by chewing on a strand of his black hair.
“I’m sure,” replied Aziraphale. “I’m afraid we really do need to be going, however.”
Azazel nodded. “Right, everyone. This way,” he directed.
Up a flight of stairs and down another leaky, oozing corridor, past several doors concealing something growling in a menacing tone, he stopped at an industrial looking metal door. “It’ll be up these stairs. I trust you can find your way back to London?’
Azazel opened the door and Aziraphale found himself emerging into Hogback Wood, rather near the encampment of the Them. Adam was waiting for them.
“That looks bad,” he said.
“I won’t know for certain until I get him home, but I don’t believe the damage is irreversible.”
Adam hesitated. “You want any help?”
Aziraphale wanted to say no, thank you, he was quite capable of managing recorporation, and driving himself and Crowley back to London, but, “Frankly, I’m knackered. Do you suppose you could get me back in my body and get us back to Crowley’s flat?”
Adam grinned. “Done,” he said easily.
“Thank you, dear boy,” said Aziraphale. A moment later he was incorporated and standing in the living room with Crowley in his arms. “Oh, the car!” he exclaimed, remembering. There was nothing for it, Adam was back in Tadfield. When they were rested and well they’d have to return for the Bentley.
Aziraphale looked down at Crowley in his arms and carried him to the bath where the tub had obligingly filled itself. Another miracle hung his clothing neatly within the wardrobe so that he was able to cradle Crowley against himself as he stepped into the tub.
Crowley stirred slightly as the warm water rose around their shoulders, nuzzling gently into Aziraphale’s chest as Aziraphale reached for a flannel and found one conveniently in his hand. He began tenderly bathing the muck and blood from Crowley’s torso, healing the injuries he found as he went. Crowley let out a small sigh, body relaxing and going boneless against him. His yellow eyes blinked open eventually, watching Aziraphale tend to his corporation with complete trust. Aziraphale said nothing, not wishing to disturb the moment. He toweled Crowley dry, using a miracle for himself, and clothed them both in their pyjamas.
“Bed, my dear? Do you suppose you can walk?”
Crowley nodded and took Aziraphale’s hand, following him through the flat to the bedroom.
Crowley fell asleep almost instantly in Aziraphale’s arms, who held him tightly, whispering into his hair.
“Thank you for his life. Thank you for my life. Thank you for him. For everything. Thank you, thank you, thank you…”
Aziraphale fell truly, deeply asleep, his litany trailing off into nothing.
They woke to a knock on the door.
Aziraphale placed a hand on Crowley’s chest, noting their position had reversed in the night. “Not this time, my dear. I believe I will see who is at the door.”
Crowley glared and propped himself up on his elbow. “Together, or not at all,” he countered.
Aziraphale frowned. “Are you sure you’re quite well enough to—” he let the thought trail off as he took in Crowley’s withering glare.
The knock repeated.
“Yes, fine,” said Aziraphale, putting on his dressing gown and slippers. “We’ll both go.”
Aziraphale opened the door.
Gabriel stood there, grinning menacingly. “Can I come in?”
Not waiting for a response he pushed his way into the flat.
“So here’s the thing. We had a good thing going, Aziraphale, and you blew it for that piece of demon filth. You chose it, over me.” Gabriel advanced on Crowley.
“Hey!” shouted Crowley, backing away.
“Don’t touch him,” Aziraphale warned.
Gabriel laughed. “Don’t touch him,” he mocked. Gabriel put on a burst of speed and grabbed a still weakened Crowley, twisting his arm behind his back. Crowley kicked out in vain but couldn’t get leverage to break free. “I’ll touch whatever I please.”
Aziraphale had heard enough.
He despised violence, particularly fighting in his corporeal form. It was so limited and sluggish, in comparison, he could never match his speed unencumbered.
Which wasn’t to say he couldn’t fight when provoked.
Gabriel’s knee buckled sideways where Aziraphale’s foot had swiftly brought every ounce of his Angelic strength to bear upon it. He screamed, dropping Crowley, who staggered away. Aziraphale then picked up the whimpering archangel and slammed him against the concrete wall.
“Please listen to me, Gabriel,” he said, calmly as he was able, his fists clenched in Gabriel’s collar. “It’s been a very long few days and my patience is worn extremely thin. You’re going to leave now and never darken my doorway again. You’re going to go back to Heaven and write your memos and call your meetings and do all the officious little tasks you enjoy. And you’re going to keep mine and Crowley’s names out of your mouth while you do it. And if I hear you’ve been exploiting anyone else for your perverse pleasure, I will make you fall.”
Gabriel hissed through his clenched teeth as he strained under Aziraphale’s grip. “You have no power to do that.”
Aziraphale cocked his head and let Gabriel fall to the floor. From the breast of his dressing gown he pulled a divinely addressed envelope. He waved it in the air. “Oh, but I can, you see. Because I know the truth, Gabriel.”
Gabriel’s eyes widened in surprise and pain. With a shaking hand he snapped his fingers and disappeared.
Crowley growled in frustration. “How do they keep finding us? This isn’t a listed flat!”
Aziraphale turned and pulled Crowley into his arms. “My dear, I very much doubt we’ll have to worry about him any longer.”
Crowley sniffed. “That’s what we thought after their little Hellfire and holy water stunt.”
Aziraphale hummed into Crowley’s shoulder. “Yes but that was before this,” he said, waving the letter under Crowley’s nose.
“Yes, and what is that anyway? Thought Gabriel was going to piss himself when you brought that out.”
“Letter from the Almighty, as it happens.”
Crowley took a step back and regarded the letter as if it might bite him. It could have burned him at the very least.
“What’s it say?”
Aziraphale smiled. “See for yourself.” He unfolded the letter and held it out for Crowley to read. Crowley removed his glasses and squinted, mouthing the words.
You were right.
“That’s it? You were right about what?” asked Crowley.
Aziraphale folded up the note and tucked it back in his dressing gown pocket. “Do you recall what we discussed the other night?”
“I remember you asking a lot of questions about my fall as your idea of afterglow.”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “Yes. But rather, the more salient point would have been when you fell. You fell when you perceived your own sin, not when you committed it. When you felt guilt, not when you initially acted out in pride.”
Crowley processed that for a moment. “Right. Which is why Heaven is full of wankers.”
“Yes, but also a few allies who haven’t managed to fall despite not adhering to the strictest letter of the law. Crowley, this means we are the masters of our own fates. And as long as Gabriel believes he cannot fall unless his sins become common knowledge, I think we can rely upon his sense of self-preservation to stay out of our way.”
Crowley’s shock seemed genuine. “You’re saying all I need to be redeemed is to forgive myself?”
Aziraphale shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure it matters anymore. Whatever we are, we’re on our own side. We have our own moral code. She seems content to let things be, and I’m not particularly inclined to change it. Do you want to be redeemed?”
“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully.
Aziraphale stroked Crowley’s cheek. “Know that whatever you are, you will always be perfect to me.”
“Then if it’s all the same to you, can we please get back to our morning in bed?”
Aziraphale laughed. “Certainly. I daresay if we never have another celestial intrusion into our lives it will be too soon.”
Their next celestial intrusion was a worried series of text messages, driving Aziraphale to pick up his phone and call Raphael to stem the onslaught. “How about brunch?” Aziraphale offered down the phone line. “There’s a charming place on Carnaby street,” he tempted. Fortunately, it was a plan everyone could get behind.
And the combined forces of the less obnoxious elements of Heaven and Hell were true to their word, checking in frequently, stopping by the shop and generally insinuating themselves into their lives as if they’d always been there. They met with Crowley and Aziraphale once a week for drinks, or, occasionally, brunch. It was an opportunity to catch up on gossip, set the world to rights, and commiserate over the vagaries of existence.
In short, Crowley and Aziriraphale had found a family.
And, as promised, things changed.
Raphael began meeting with Michael, Uriel and Gabriel again, which left Sandalphon to find other means of occupying his time. She wasn’t shut out of votes. Occasionally, she was even able to affect policy.
The Earth Observation Department, in particular, were extremely pleased by the addition of something called “Bagel Fridays.”
Sandalphon took up making salt lamps. Haniel had one in pride of place on her desk beside the dancing Virgin.
To Remiel’s smug satisfaction, Crowley donated a grow light to Hell for the use of it’s sole plant. It flourished.
Eventually, Aziraphale and Crowley bought a cottage.
They weren’t ready to leave London permanently. Aziraphale’s shop was doing a brisk business and he quite enjoyed the book clubs he’d started. But he thought perhaps someday soon, he might consider handing the keys to another angel in need of a change of pace. Haniel, he thought, might appreciate it properly.
Crowley casually suggested he might give it to one of their demonic friends, but Aziraphale was stricken by sudden, hysterical deafness and didn’t hear a word he said.
One day, on one of their customary walks, they found their usual bench at St. James was occupied when they arrived, despite all the usual deterrents.
“It’s very peaceful here, isn’t it?”
God didn’t look measurably different from the last time Crowley had seen Her, despite bearing the outward appearance of a middle-aged woman and there being far less fire and blinding light.
“My Lord!” cried Aziraphale, dithering between full prostration, a curtsey and running away entirely and mostly looking like he needed the loo.
“Please, sit down, both of you,” She indicated, patting the seat beside her.
“Is this about the letter?” Crowley asked.
God raised her eyebrow at his directness. “Yes and no. You both figured out a piece of the Ineffable Plan of the universe. And I’m going to make you the same offer I made Haniel and Azazel when they first figured it out.”
“Wait, those two?” asked Aziraphale, confusion pushing aside his terror for the moment.
“Explains a lot, you have to admit,” said Crowley.
“Yes, I suppose it would,” Aziraphale conceded.
“You have a choice. I can make you both forget what you know, have you go along as you were while everyone else spends however long they need catching up, or you can keep the knowledge you have, but not share it with anyone who doesn’t already know.”
“How is that fair?” asked Crowley. “Your big plan is a secret rollout of knowledge that completely alters the fabric of reality, but only if you’re clever enough to work it out on your own?”
God sighed and pinched the bridge of Her nose. “Look, all anyone in Heaven ever wanted to talk about was the Grand Design, the Big Plan and whether it was fair or not, whether it was any good, and honestly, it’s tiring. So I made the Earth. Little microcosm of the Plan. Billions of people living their little lives and I said, hey, watch these guys. I hoped you’d learn something from that. Both of you did. Whether anyone else will remains to be seen. Sometimes I think the humans start to figure it out and then they end up in another war, so who knows.
“My point is you have a choice. All of you do. All the time, every day, always. You’ve never not had a choice, but the problem with choices is choices require options. If you can choose to do good but don’t have the option of doing the wrong thing, it’s not much of a choice is it? I can hand down edicts on good behavior from on high and everyone can agree ‘yes, those are good things to do, and we should all do them,’ but if you’ve never faced the choice to do the opposite, how virtuous is your rule-following?”
“And that’s what you want?” cried Crowely. “A bunch of rule-following automatons?”
“Of course not. I didn’t create a bunch of robots, Crowley. I created life. What makes my plan perfect, is that if any one of you doesn’t like it? You can choose to do something different. Everyone can make it better if they want. Don’t like the file system in Hell? Change it. Don’t like the building layout? Change it. Don’t like the administration? Change it.”
“Don’t like being fallen…” said Crowley.
“Don’t like being separated?” asked Aziraphale.
“Change it. I didn’t cast anyone out. I never had to. Not a single angel. Not even Lucifer, and watching him break his own heart over his opposition to everything I said, twisting himself in knots to try and find flaws in a plan that was never meant to be so rigid, and then to offer up complete rejection as a solution was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch.”
“So why didn’t you stop him?” asked Aziraphale.
“Because I love him. I don’t want to force him to be with me if that isn’t where he wants to be. That’s not love.”
“You could have told him, though. You could have told him it’s about choice,” argued Crowley.
“And what’s choice to someone who has no concept of an alternative? If it hadn’t been Lucifer it would have been someone else. Someone else who needed to throw themselves at the walls to find the boundaries. There was no sin, no guilt and no fall in the plan until Lucifer decided it should be so. He created Hell, created his own torment to punish his rejection of me. And the rest, well…”
“I couldn’t bear the guilt,” confessed Crowley.
“Is that why everyone left in Heaven has no empathy?” asked Aziraphale.
She laughed. “It seems that way at times, doesn’t it? No. What most of them have is fear. Fear of falling, of separation. They came to their own conclusions about why angels fall, and they follow the rules they think keep them from falling. So they have a barrier, you could say, against guilt. They can tell themselves, ‘As long as I don’t do this, I can’t be that bad.’ But they have the same questions. The same frustrations. The same heartbreak. A good number of them have developed convictions, good ones, which is lovely to see. You went and found your own moral compass without any help from me, and tell me right now, if I told you that Gabriel was the best angel in Heaven, the pinnacle of Righteousness, would you agree without question because I said it, or would your own hard-won sense of right and wrong be what you trusted?”
Aziraphale looked shocked.
“There you go. That’s all I wanted.” God turned to Crowley. “You told them eating the apple would make them like me. You just didn’t tell them that knowledge of good and evil made the rest of you like me as well. You probably didn’t know. But the humans tend to figure it out more often than not. This is our universe. I gave you the power to shape it alongside me. You don’t always have to agree with me, what kind of relationship would that be? But I never wanted you to feel helpless. That’s why you always have a choice.”
Angel and demon sat in stunned silence for a moment.
“Now, I can’t have you telling the others right now. You know why, we just went over this.”
“Not even Gabriel?” asked Aziraphale.
“Especially not Gabriel. But don’t worry, I won’t let him harm anyone else. I don’t like interfering in anyone’s choices directly, but sometimes people aren’t aware of all the repercussions of their actions and take too many choices away from others.”
“Beelzebub and Raziel,” agreed Crowley, tightening his arm around Aziraphale.
God smiled. “Do you know how proud I am of the both of you?”
“Will we remember this?” asked Crowley.
“Is that your choice?”
They looked at each other.
“I’d like to, yes. I think so,” said Aziraphale.
“There you are then.”
In a blink, She was gone as if She’d never been.
By mutual agreement, Crowley and Aziraphale continued their ramble around the park in the extremely English tradition of carrying on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The mood had changed, though, and Aziraphale was helpless not to comment on it after a while.
“You’re awfully quiet. Are you thinking about what She said?”
Crowley hummed and scuffed his shoe along the path. “With great power comes great responsibility,” he quoted acerbically. “Knowing we can shape the world as we like, it’s quite a thought. Have you given any thought to what sort of changes you’d like to make? Governments toppled? Mountains moved a bit to the left?”
Aziraphale took Crowley’s arm in his, sensing an oncoming strop, and patted his elbow fondly. “I’m afraid that’s much too large a decision for anyone to make on an empty stomach. Have you given any thought to lunch? The pub ‘round the corner from the shop is under new management.”
Crowley grinned ruefully. “Lunch it is then.”
“Thank you, my dear. And then do you suppose we ought to reconsider moving to that cottage in the South Downs? Only it seems London has grown awfully crowded lately,” he understated.
“Oh God, yes.”
Artwork for Flight Plan
From Chapter 3: The sword sung through the air as Aziraphale deftly sliced through the coffee cup in front of Crowley to rest the point under his chin. Crowley was struck speechless, rendering the cafe silent save for the sound of coffee now dripping onto the floor.
Aziraphale’s voice was quiet, but filled with command. “Leave. Now.”
Artwork by the immensely talented Spickerzocker.