Crowley hadn’t exactly planned on taking a sabbatical.
When it came down to it, he rarely planned things at all. Things just sort of happened at him, like cars driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street, and he dealt with them, and usually they turned out all right. But this was a whole new level of unplanned-ness. He hadn’t planned on another recession coming along so soon after the first, and he hadn’t planned on going to bloody Paris of all places, and he certainly hadn’t planned on going away with Aziraphale, who was like all of TripAdvisor’s worst nightmares wrapped up in a neat little sweater-vested package.
But it couldn’t be helped. The economy in London was crashing like nobody's business, resulting in approximately 7,000,000 miserable, stressed, financially unstable citizens, and there was so little that either of them could do to improve (or in Crowley's case, exacerbate) the situation that they'd decided the best solution would be to get away for a bit. It was only sense. And besides, if you couldn't enjoy a decent bottle of Chardonnay in Paris, you couldn't enjoy it anywhere.
The checked cloth in front of them was piled with the remains of a late lunch.
“So,” Crowley said. “The sun is shining, it's a beautiful day, and we've a cityful of people to, as somebody very wise once put it, ‘mess around’. Where would you like to start?”
“Notre Dame is quite close to here,” Aziraphale said, in a tone of studied nonchalance.
Crowley wasn't fooled in the least. “We've been to Notre Dame, angel. We've been to every bloody cathedral in Paris. They all start to look the same after a while.”
“Well, I'd hardly expect you to understand –” began Aziraphale. And then he stopped, quite suddenly.
It was a nice day, Crowley thought. The sun poured down, warm and constant, bleaching the uneven stones of the piazza to a dusty white. A few feet away, a cyclist swerved out of the way of an oncoming car and skidded across the path of another, narrowly avoiding a collision and prompting an orchestra of honks. Crowley wondered distantly if he'd caused that, and if he had, whether it had been on purpose.
“I'm sorry, I shouldn't,” Aziraphale started to say.
“Fine,” said Crowley. “It's fine.” He drained the last of his mojito, licked a stray scrap of mint leaf from his lower lip, and smiled. It was a good smile. It had teeth in it. To the casual observer – a phrase which encompassed pretty much the entire world population save for one – it might even have looked genuine.
“Well,” said Aziraphale, faltering. “If you're sure.”
Aziraphale had been right - they were close, not much more than a fifteen-minute walk along the shaded bank of the Seine. London was Crowley's city, had been for the last hundred years at least, but Paris was Aziraphale's, and he knew the geography of it like he knew his scripture, which was to say very well indeed. This had less to do (so Crowley privately thought) with the city's rich strata of history and culture, and more to do with the abundance of small, quirky patisseries, many of which were happy to slip an extra macaron into the bag if they took to a customer. And somehow people always did take to Aziraphale.
“There's a service on,” said Crowley as they approached, nodding towards the sign. “You'll be lucky to get in.”
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, distractedly, “they won't mind me, I'm sure. And besides, I shan't be long. Are you coming?”
“Ah – no, I'll just wait here,” Crowley said. He pointed towards the courtyard. “Someone over there's trying to pass privet off as holy palm leaves. If I'm lucky I can probably goad a few idiots into wasting their money on it. Besides, places like this always make me itch.”
Aziraphale gave him a complicated look that was, on the surface, faintly disapproving, and underneath that sympathetic, and underneath that something else entirely that Crowley couldn't quite manage to read. “As you will, my dear. I'll be as quick as I can,” he said, and wandered over to join the scant few people milling around the entrance.
Left alone, Crowley stepped into the cool blue shadow of the cathedral and squinted upwards. The tower...towered. That really was the only word that fitted. It was like a gigantic, ornate finger pointing accusingly up at the heavens, blocking out the sun. He scowled at it.
“Excuse me?” said a voice from behind him. “Excuse me. Please. You are in my picture.”
Crowley sighed and stepped away from the wall, making an offhand gesture over his shoulder as he went that instantly reduced all the film in the tourist's expensive camera to a canister of melted plastic. Then he went over and watched the privet-seller plying his trade for a while, but found he couldn't really get invested. He didn't even have to do anything, for G – Someone's sake – people were buying the stuff quite happily, even for the exorbitant price of three euros per branch. It was as he'd always thought: give people a famous landmark and a stall of cheap tat, and your wallet would be bulging by lunchtime.
Overhead, the bells of Notre-Dame started to ring, echoing around the plaza. He glanced at his watch. It had been twenty-two minutes.
“Do you know what time the service in there finishes?” he said to the privet-seller.
The privet-seller explained, in rapid and impatient French, that the service had only just begun, and was likely to go on for quite a while yet, and would Crowley mind going to chat with someone else, please, because this was prime time and he couldn't afford to lose any customers. “Sure,” said Crowley. “Absolutely. Hey, mind if I buy one of those before I go?” He dropped a couple of euros on to the table without waiting for a response, swept up a particularly verdant branch of privet, and headed off in the general direction of the cathedral door.
He hadn't been lying when he told Aziraphale that cathedrals (or strictly speaking, any religious buildings) made him itch. It just wasn't the same kind of itch that one got from, say, touching a blessed object, or walking a bit too close to a wall-mounted crucifix. There was nothing in the air that was particularly damaging to demonic entities, unless you counted the incense, which was a bit much for even the staunchest religious believers. No, this was a different kind of itch – far deeper, and far more difficult to excuse or explain.
Steeling himself, Crowley pushed open the door and crossed the threshold.
It was cooler inside, and very dark. Against his better judgment he pushed his shades up and glanced about, trying not to breathe in the heavy scent of incense and musk. Someone, down at the far end of the cathedral, was singing. Latin, he realised; the sound rose into the air and hung there, sustained by the arched roof and spinning like a coin. Crowley gave it a few more seconds, then began to pick his way slowly down the aisle towards the front. He found that he was hunching his shoulders without quite meaning to, and forced himself to straighten, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of the angel.
And there he was.
He stood beneath the Rose Window, to the left of the choir. He was so still that at first Crowley mistook him for a statue, but no statue would be seen dead wearing socks with sandals, especially not in one of the most stylish cities in the world. Through the stained glass windows the midday sun fell on to him, around him, turning the tiles red and blue and gold. It would have made rather a nice painting. Crowley opened his mouth to call out to him - and stopped.
It was ridiculous, of course. Cathedrals were what you made of them, and nowadays what most people made of them was a photo opportunity. There was nothing inherently special about a religious building; you could pray just as easily in your bedroom as you could in a vestry. And yet, in some indefinable way, Aziraphale looked like he belonged. He was part of the tableau. You could no longer remove him from it than you could the pillars or the glass.
Around him, the singing reached a crescendo. Aziraphale still had not moved. There was something strange growing in Crowley's throat, making it feel hot and tight, like a piece of food had gone down the wrong way. He coughed quietly, trying to get rid of it, and Aziraphale's head turned.
For an instant he looked totally, frighteningly alien, as though his mind had wandered somewhere far afield of his body, leaving behind nothing but a slightly shabby corporation in second-hand clothes. Then his gaze sharpened and became familiar, contrite. “Crowley! My dear, I'm so sorry – I must have completely lost track of time – ”
“Don't worry about it,” said Crowley. He stuck his hands in his pockets, feeling powerfully awkward. “Anyhow, it's not affecting me as much as usual. Must be the tourist industry.”
“Still, I daresay it's been long enough,” Aziraphale said. “It's past noon – we should really make the most of this weather.”
They strolled back down the aisle, past racks of guttering candles and carved wooden statues of saints suffering innumerable creative agonies. As they reached the door, Crowley suddenly remembered the privet. He shoved it at Aziraphale. “Here. Got you a present.”
“Ah. Very thoughtful,” said Aziraphale, doubtfully. “And what exactly am I supposed to do with this?”
“Think of it as an olive branch,” said Crowley. He gave Aziraphale a sharp smile and opened the door, letting in a triangle of blinding sunlight. Then he remembered his sunglasses and hastily drew them down again, a dark and blurry visor through which to view the world.
Four years past the turn of the century, and the city was ablaze.
The crusaders had scaled the wall towers during the night, and now they roamed the streets like wild dogs and cut down anyone who crossed their path – even their own men. Everywhere was the flash of swords, bright in the sun; everywhere the bodies of the dead lay strewn, flies already beginning to gather in droves.
Eager to avoid the brunt of what was quickly becoming a massacre, Crowley pushed past the fleeing citizens, searching vainly for cover. Something soft was crushed beneath his foot. He didn’t look down. He knew enough not to look down. Overhead the sky was a sullen grey, dark with ashes. He could see a plume of smoke – no, more than one – rising from the distant buildings, mushrooming out into a ghostly haze.
Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a dark alleyway, relatively free from the chaos of pushing, shoving bodies, and fought his way towards it. A hand clutched his sleeve, a child’s hand; he tore himself away and kept moving. Upon reaching the alley he ducked down and slipped into it, keeping a hand against the rough brick for balance. He was oddly unsteady; every step he took threatened to pitch him over, as though he was standing on a ship’s deck during a storm.
Then he looked over, and realised there was someone else in the alley with him. Little more than a dark shape, but Crowley knew him instantly. “You – !” he began, torn between astonishment and relief, but before he could finish Aziraphale moved towards him in one swift step like a snake striking, and dealt him a single backhanded blow across the right side of the face.
It was easy, dealing with Aziraphale day to day (or year to year, or century to century) that he had once had the honour of being classed as a cherubim, for a given value of honour; people looked at him and saw someone soft and easily taken advantage of, rarely perceiving the steel that lay beneath. Crowley was guilty of it himself, although by this point they’d mostly been around one another long enough to understand that neither of them were quite what they seemed. Regardless, the blow was powerful enough to knock him back several feet and send him sprawling, head cracking against the stone hard enough to make greenish sparks flare behind his eyes.
“What,” he gasped, when he’d finally got enough breath back in his lungs to speak, “the hell was that for?”
“You know what,” snarled Aziraphale. He had approached Crowley and now stood over him, a dark and inhuman shadow. Crowley stared up at him, feeling a totally unaccustomed jolt of terror. Aziraphale had put a sword through him more than once, back in the burgeoning days of their friendship, but he’d thought (perhaps foolishly) that they were past all that. Evidently, they still had some way to go.
“This is your doing,” Aziraphale said. There was a faint sort of crackle around him, something to be felt rather than seen. “Don’t try and pretend otherwise.”
“I live here,” Crowley said. “What would I stand to gain from inviting a load of fundamentalists to come and set it all on fire?”
Aziraphale faltered for a second. Whatever differences they’d had in the past, Crowley had rarely lied to him – although admittedly this was less to do with a solid foundation of trust and more to do with the fact that he was just a monumentally bad liar. Whatever the reason, he could see the dark energy around Aziraphale beginning to die down. “Who else could it have been?” he said, uncertainly. “There aren’t any other agents from your side for miles around.”
“I’ve told you before,” said Crowley, suddenly feeling bone-weary. He let his head fall back against the ground; it vibrated with the thuds of thousands of running feet, boots heavy and frantic on the stone. “They do it all to themselves.”
“But – ” Aziraphale broke off, looking torn.
Crowley almost felt sorry for him. He said flatly, “This isn’t some stupid philosophical war between the forces of good and evil, angel. It’s just war. It’ll only finish when there’s no one left to fight it.”
“I see you’re as cynical as ever,” said Aziraphale.
“Goes with the job description. Would you mind lending me a hand, here?”
Aziraphale pulled him to his feet. They faced each other in the dark alleyway, their silence broken only by the far-off shouts, the clash of swords. “I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said finally, “for hitting you.”
Crowley put a hand to the back of his head, and found his hair damp and tacky. He healed it, brought his hand back to examined the reddened fingers. “Apology accepted. Why did you think it was me?”
“It just…seemed like something you would do,” said Aziraphale. He sounded genuinely apologetic, for a wonder.
“They’re doing it in your name,” Crowley pointed out, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Aziraphale’s face looked as though it couldn’t decide which way to collapse. Crowley slid sideways, out of range of receiving another blow – it seemed unlikely, but better safe than sorry. “When did you get here?” he asked.
“A few days before the siege started,” Aziraphale said. “My people sent me word that there was some sort of trouble, and after all that nonsense in Chrysopolis last year I thought it prudent to investigate, but I didn’t expect…” He stopped again, and said, “They’re trying to destroy the library.” His voice had a rawness to it that Crowley had never heard before, and hoped never to hear again. “We have to get there – have to stop them – ”
Crowley shook his head. “There’s too many.”
“All the same, we should try.”
“What we should do,” said Crowley, “is get out. The siege is over, for what it’s worth. There’s open countryside to the west. Or we could find a boat, leave the city…”
But even as he spoke he knew it was useless. Aziraphale’s expression was set, hard and resolute in spite of the ash that covered it and the thin streak of blood that trailed down from his nose. “As you’ve so perspicaciously said, this is being done in our name,” he said, sounding even more exhausted than Crowley felt. “Who would I be if I didn’t at least attempt to stop it?”
Part of Crowley wished that he still had that level of blind altruism. The other part, which was primarily concerned with self-preservation, thanked the universe on bended knee that he’d managed to get past it. “It’s your funeral,” he said, flatly. “Come on.”
Aziraphale glanced at him, face shadowed and confused. “I didn’t ask you to come with me.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Crowley. “Listen – I saw the cavalry heading towards the city centre less than twenty minutes ago. If we want to head them off we’d better make it quick.”
They made their way through the narrow streets, staying close to the walls to avoid the crush of bodies struggling to reach the outskirts. Not that it would do them any good, thought Crowley. This was a pot of water that had been simmering on high heat, hovering just below boiling point; now it had finally bubbled over, and there was no power left on earth that could stop it.
There was a commotion nearby. A group of fleeing women had been cut off by one of the troops, outfitted in armour that might once have been bright but was now dull with streaks and smears of brownish blood. Aziraphale caught at Crowley’s arm to stop him from going any further. “Angel, we have to go –” Crowley said, struggling to free himself, but Aziraphale was already rounding on the soldiers.
“Leave them alone,” he said, voice so thick with anger as to be almost unrecognisable.
“We do God’s will,” one of the crusaders said, and gave Aziraphale a yellowed smile. Oh dear, Crowley thought in the brief window of time before anything happened, you probably shouldn’t have said that, and then the men dropped as one as though their legs had been cut out from under them. The women were cowering together like a herd of spooked cattle, the youngest of them weeping quietly. “Go,” Aziraphale told them, “get out of the city if you can,” and they did, scattering into the fleeing crowd. Crowley stared down at the men. The one who had spoken was still grinning; there was blood between his teeth. His eyes looked at the ashy sky without seeing it.
“This – this is –” said Aziraphale.
“Yeah,” said Crowley, grimly. “It is.” He took the angel’s sleeve and began to move again, cutting down a side street in the direction of the main square.
When they emerged, blinking in the sticky sunlight, they found themselves being borne along towards one of the main streets towards a lofty cathedral, its bevelled sides ornate with carvings of dragons and gargoyles and saints with their eyes turned upwards in martyred sorrow. As they drew nearer, Crowley saw that the carvings had been defaced – many of the saints were missing hands and heads, and the crucifix atop the door had been broken in two. One of the doors hung rakishly off its hinges.
Involuntarily, Crowley took a step towards the entrance. In the dark gap left by the broken door, he could see dark shapes strewn across the floor, and darker puddles beneath them, spreading. They’d hacked the pews to splinters, desecrated the altar and defaced the murals. Aziraphale was looking, too; Crowley almost told him to stop, but he realised it was no use. “I’m sorry,” he said. It felt hopelessly inadequate.
“It’s not your fault,” said Aziraphale, almost dreamily, and he stepped into the cool shadow of the ruined church. Helpless, Crowley followed him.
The body of the priest lay in front of the altar. His throat had been cut from ear to ear, and the slit grinned bloodily up at them. He wasn’t the only one there, not by a long shot. They’d killed the nuns as well. Crowley had never been a big fan of nuns, but you had to possess a very particular kind of depravity to actually want to kill one. The air smelt metallic and soupy. Crowley realised he was very close to throwing up, and swallowed several times, attempting to regain control over his digestive tract.
Aziraphale knelt, and closed the priest’s eyes so that he was no longer staring up at the dark arch of the ceiling. Then he stood again. “We should go,” he said, voice utterly toneless.
“Go as in…?”
“You were right,” Aziraphale said. “There’s nothing in this city worth saving.”
Although he had been trying to convince Aziraphale of precisely this fact ever since they’d met up, Crowley felt uneasy to hear him actually say it. It wasn’t right, somehow. He wasn’t sure how to phrase that without doing a complete about-face, but he had his best stab at it. “I mean,” he said, “it, it’s not really their fault, is it? The people here? They didn’t ask for it. It’s not –”
“What are you trying to say?” Aziraphale interrupted, still in that horrible flat voice.
“If you want to stay, then stay,” Crowley said. “You might still be able to help.”
Aziraphale shook his head. “It’s no good. None of it.”
Great, thought Crowley. He was stuck in the middle of a city that was rapidly becoming a war zone, surrounded by lots of general horribleness, and the only other person who might be able to sort some of it out was busy having a crisis of faith. Without thinking, he took Aziraphale by the shoulders and shook him. “Hey! Stay with me, here. I can’t have you falling to pieces.”
Aziraphale looked helplessly back at him. Crowley suddenly became uncomfortably aware of their proximity, and let go. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go and get ourselves killed.” It wasn’t the most enticing offer, but for the moment it was all he had.
It wasn’t enough. Aziraphale stayed where he was, although he had begun to worry at his lower lip in the way he always did when he wasn’t sure how to bring up a sensitive topic, or what exactly he wanted to say. Crowley gave him a look, tapping his fingers against his leg in a way that he hoped communicated his desire to get moving. Sooner rather than later, if possible. “You must have lived here a while,” Aziraphale said finally, looking away.
Crowley felt himself tense, and forced his shoulders to loosen up, turning the movement into a shrug. “A few years, a few decades, what does it matter?”
“So the people here – they know you. Knew you.”
“Some of them.” It was getting harder and harder to breathe; the smoke, he thought, it was almost certainly the smoke, that ashy choke-damp that got into your lungs and turned your phlegm black. “Why are we talking about this, again?”
“Did they think you were human?” said Aziraphale.
“Not exactly,” said Crowley. He shivered, suddenly, and wondered how it was that he felt cold, here of all places, caught in a miasma of stench and heat and death. “They thought I was good.”
A distant boom. The trebuchets were firing again, trying to bring down what was left of the walls. They sat on the floor of the ruined cathedral and listened to the explosions shudder out across the city, shaking the buildings right down to their foundations. Right down, Crowley thought, to the bones. “I’m going to check outside,” he said, and stood. “Don’t go anywhere, all right?”
From behind him, he heard Aziraphale say faintly, “I won’t.”
It was hard to tell without seeing his face, but Crowley thought it sounded like a promise.
“She fancies you, you know,” said Aziraphale.
Crowley started. He’d almost forgotten Aziraphale was there. But of course he would be – he never seemed to leave this blasted place. He couldn’t think why; it wasn’t a particularly nice church, although if you were a demon, none of them were. “No, she doesn’t,” he said firmly. “She’s just curious, that’s all.”
“I’m sure I don’t need to remind you,” said Aziraphale, voice dropping suddenly into a more serious register, “that you shouldn’t act on it.” The last of the students filed out through the doors, chattering and laughing, their footsteps echoing on the wood.
Crowley started in horror. “Act on – what is she, sixteen? Give me some credit.”
"My dear boy, I do,” said Aziraphale. “But I have certain responsibilities, you know.” He patted the seat next to him. Feeling rather ill-at-ease, Crowley sat.
“How did you find the service?” said Aziraphale.
“Paltry,” Crowley said. “Couldn’t you have picked any better hymns?”
“I pick the ones I think they’ll know. Tell me: what are you really doing here?”
It was a reasonable question, but Crowley found himself at a loss for how to answer. Italy had been lovely, true enough; he’d managed to find himself a nice villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by olive groves, located just two miles from a town that had been significantly more uninhibited and decadent by the time he’d left than it had been when he’d first found it. All the same, something had been missing. Perhaps it was the wine. Italians were unaccountably fond of their Amaro, and Crowley had never really developed a taste for it.
“Where better to spread temptation than here?” he asked in an attempt at deflection, and spread his hands. “An entire school full of repressed Catholic schoolgirls who’ve never seen an adult man other than old Father Coram with his double chin and underarm sweat? It’s like a dream come true.”
Aziraphale gave him a look that hovered somewhere between fondness and disapproval. “Didn’t you just say you had no designs on her? Or was that a lie?”
“They don’t have to act on it,” Crowley pointed out. “It’s the thought that counts.” This was true, on the whole. Hell was rather nebulous on the whole idea of sinning; whilst contemplating murder, say, was not quite on the same level of actually committing it, in terms of the purity of the human soul it still left a tarnish.
“Oh, come now. You’ve been here nearly four months now and the most I’ve seen you do is trip the nuns up on the way to class,” Aziraphale said. “Just own up to it. You missed England too much.”
He smiled at Crowley, who felt his mouth going unaccountably dry. “Perhaps you’re right,” he admitted. “But there’s no harm mixing business and pleasure, is there?”
“Certainly not,” Aziraphale said. Then he added, a touch primly, “I do hope you know that if I see you stepping out of line I’ll have to thwart you. With extreme prejudice, of course.”
Crowley laughed. The sound bounced off the polished stone. “Come on,” he said, getting to his feet. “Lunch? I’m paying.”
Without waiting for Aziraphale to answer he headed off down the aisle towards the open doors. The rain had stopped, and the air smelt damp and new and clean.
And then there was the time it snowed.
Not much, of course, but it was the first time since 1999 that London had had anything approaching a white Christmas. Even a stopped clock, thought Crowley, was right twice a day – although if the stopped clock was a metaphor for Bing Crosby, that still wasn’t a particularly good track record. The snow fell in flakes the size of moths, turned ghostly by the glow from the arched church windows.
The holly and the ivy, when they were both full grown, sang the choir.
It was nearly one o’clock in the morning. Crowley glanced around, spotted a bench overlooking the cemetery, its slats heaped with fallen snow, and headed towards it. That would be a good enough place to wait. Amidst the chorus he heard one familiar voice, raised high above the rest, and did his best not to listen to it. He was drunker than he’d thought, he realised – his coordination was off, and the lighted windows blurred when he looked at them. He vanished the alcohol from his system, and shuddered involuntarily as the cold night air made itself known, insinuating itself in the space between neck and scarf. O the rising of the sun and the running of the deer…
The crux of it, he decided, was that demons were not supposed to want.
Or – well, that wasn't strictly true. Certain things, such as material wealth and the corruption of innocents and the eventual triumph of Hell over Heaven, and possibly Earth as well, were perfectly all right. The fact that Crowley didn't particularly care about any of these things just served to add a little extra salt to the wound.
It wasn't a question of wanting. It was a question of wanting the wrong things.
The song finished, and he heard the slightly off-key twang of the organ begin, heralding the end of the service. The double doors opened, letting out a stream of churchgoers, many of them clearly still merry from the evening’s celebrations. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve was one of the few times you could go to a church service and find over half of the population drunk as a skunk.
He made his way over and entered, weaving around the stragglers and scanning them for one familiar face. After a moment or two he found it, engaged in conversation with an elderly lady that Crowley vaguely recognised from last year’s service. A widow, he thought, although you wouldn’t know it from her smile. He waited till Aziraphale had waved farewell to her, then stepped up behind him. “Surprise,” he said.
Aziraphale turned round, and his startled expression changed to one of delight. “Crowley! I didn’t think you planned on coming this year. You never have before.”
He shrugged. “Times change.” The pews had emptied out now. He found one and sat. This was going to be the tricky part. Things between them had been…odd, since that whole business with the Apocawasn’t or Armageddon’t or whatever other pithy title you wanted to assign it. It wasn’t the elephant in the room so much as the enormous Mesozoic fossil in the room that had lain half-buried for years and had only recently been dug up by an eager young palaeontologist, causing everyone present to rub their eyes and wonder how the hell they’d never noticed it before.
“I’m afraid you’ve missed the service,” Aziraphale said, watching him uncertainly.
“Nah, I didn’t. I was outside. Caught most of it, although I have to say I didn’t think much of the sermon. Do you think the vicar had been at the Communion wine? He didn’t seem quite with it, if you know what I mean.”
Aziraphale choked back a laugh, sitting down beside him. “Very possibly.” He sent him a quick, penetrating glance. “You look unusually pensive. Penny for them?”
“You’ll need more than a penny,” said Crowley.
Aziraphale nodded, slowly. “So there is something. I thought so.” He thought for a moment. “You were outside the whole time, then? Why didn't you come in?”
“I thought it might be better to wait,” Crowley said, and looked intently at his knees, hoping against hope that Aziraphale would put two and two together so he wouldn’t have to say anything himself.
As luck would have it, he did.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, very softly. “Oh, my dear.”
The church was silent now, although outside he could hear the faint sounds of people beginning to make their way home for the night. Almost out of nowhere, Crowley recalled other churches – so many that they began to blur into one, a palimpsest of stained glass and oak pews, stone floors warmed through by sunshine. Aziraphale, always. Late to a service, his shoes slapping on the floor as he ran, black robes whipping around his calves. Once behind the grille of a confessional, half in shadow, half not. So many places. And so many opportunities left untaken.
Beside him, Aziraphale was silent. Crowley felt a sudden urge to put a hand to his face to see if it was as hot as it felt. He resisted it, and went into damage control. “Look, there's no need to make a big deal of it, all right? We can just forget about –”
Aziraphale kissed him as though it didn’t even mean anything, as though they were doing something as ordinary as shaking hands. It was brief, closed-mouthed. There were no fireworks; the earth did not move, aside from its usual stately orbit through the infinite vastness of space. What there was instead was a stillness, a quietness, as though someone had dropped a stone into a pond and the ripples were just now beginning to flatten out.
He didn't even notice he'd shut his eyes until Aziraphale pulled back and gave him a questioning look. 'Was that all right?'
“This feels,” Crowley said, “just a little bit sacrilegious.”
Aziraphale frowned at him. “I don’t see why. After all, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Well, it – us. And Leviticus. You know.”
“I told you it was a mistake to let him put those verses in,” said Aziraphale.
“For the last time, it wasn’t my idea –”
“Let’s not split hairs over it,” and Aziraphale leaned in again, slower this time, one hand lifting to cup the side of his face. Crowley melted into it, letting his mouth open under Aziraphale's, and felt the other make a quiet sound against his lips. They kissed for a while, just fluid movements into one another, until they heard a door shut upstairs. The organist was departing for the night.
Crowley buried his face in the juncture between Aziraphale's neck and shoulder, feeling – if he were forced at gunpoint to describe it – as though something nameless and long absent, so long absent that he’d almost forgotten it had been there in the first place, had finally come home to roost. “Time to go, I think,” he said.
Aziraphale’s fingers were on the back of his neck, stroking his hair. “There’s mulled wine back at the bookshop,” he said.
“Got our priorities straight, have we?”
“Always.” Aziraphale unfolded himself from the pew, offering Crowley a hand up. Crowley took it, and thought that there was probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but he was too dizzy to think about it particularly hard.
They made their way back up the path side by side. Crowley’s hand was caught inside Aziraphale’s coat pocket, where it was warm and thankfully free from scrunched-up sweet papers and tissues, and their breath made twin clouds in the frosty air. When they got to the gate Aziraphale turned and kissed him again quickly. “You’re like ice,” he said, almost in wonderment.
“Cold-blooded,” said Crowley. He was finding it rather hard to breathe suddenly. “That, and it’s fucking freezing.”
Aziraphale nodded, and held open the gate for him. They passed through, pausing only so that Aziraphale could drop some change into the donation pail that stood at a quaint angle atop the fence-post. Some things never changed.
“Do you remember Constantinople?” Aziraphale said, as they drew near the main street.
Crowley stiffened. “Which part,” he said, but it wasn’t really a question. He knew precisely which part. He just didn’t know why Aziraphale was bringing it up now, of all times. Crowley had a sort of mental cellar, and every so often – whenever certain things happened that he just didn’t feel equipped to deal with – he’d drop them inside, shut the door, and pull the locks across. And there they stayed, mouldering away quietly in the dark, like that really horrible china set that was a present from your mother-in-law six years ago and was covered in tacky watercolour paintings of peonies. That, he thought, was how you did it. No mess, no fuss. Except that Aziraphale had an irritating habit of opening up the cellar and pulling things out without so much as a by-your-leave, which meant all that energy that had gone into the whole process was just wasted. He glared down at his feet, making the freshly fallen snow melt into a nasty grey slush.
Aziraphale was talking again, and he didn’t want to listen, but somehow he couldn’t help himself. It seemed to be mostly stammering, anyway. “I just wanted to say – I’ve meant to say, for a while – but it never seemed –” There was a lull in the traffic, and they crossed, Crowley keeping his eyes determinedly down. “You are, you know,” Aziraphale said, the words tripping off his tongue all at once as if he couldn’t hold them back.
And Aziraphale’s arm went around his shoulders, pulling him in and turning his sudden speechlessness into a silence that curled up between them like a cat, warm and alive.
After a moment Crowley mirrored him, and they went up the street like that, huddled close. The snow was falling fast enough to suffocate them.
Paris in the springtime is, as any poet will tell you, a horribly trite cliché. Like all horribly trite clichés, you really had to experience it before you understood why it had become a cliché in the first place. It might have been around for several hundred years, but the city felt as though it was just waking up; there was a crisp smell in the air, like the first bite of an apple, and green shoots were beginning to tentatively push their way out of the earth towards daylight.
“Seems to be coming earlier every year,” Aziraphale mused, squinting up at the boughs of the trees overhead, which were weighted down with a foam of cherry blossom.
“Global warming,” suggested Crowley around a mouthful of brioche.
“I'm afraid you may be right.” Aziraphale looked gloomy for a moment. Then he looked up at the trees again and brightened. “It is rather lovely, though.”
“If you like that sort of thing,” said Crowley, who secretly did.
At around noon they made their way along the banks of the Seine, which were considerably more populated and noisy than Crowley remembered them being, although no less attractive for it. He was about to ask the time when the bells of Notre Dame pre-empted him, tolling the hour in a register that was audible even from two kilometres away.
“It's been a while, hasn't it?” Aziraphale looked around, squinting slightly as the sun emerged from behind a veil of cloud. “Not relatively speaking, of course, but you know what I mean.”
“Ten years,” Crowley said. “Nice round number. We should celebrate.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, “I'm sure I'll think of something.” He gave Crowley a look that, on anyone else, might have been described as mischievous. Crowley suddenly found the toes of his shoes very interesting and regarded them for the next minute or so, all the while hoping that the sudden flush in his cheeks could be passed off as a result of the heat.
They passed the Pont de l'Archevêché, its metal railings studded as usual with several hundred thousand padlocks. A moustachioed young man purveyed a stall near the front of the bridge. The dusty cloth was spread with more padlocks, as well as various pens and pieces of engraving equipment. Crowley glanced over at Aziraphale, saw his expression, and said, “No.”
“Weren’t you just saying we should celebrate?”
“That’s not really the sort of celebration I had in mind,” Crowley said rather mournfully.
“We’re immortal,” Aziraphale said, with a very Gallic shrug. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t immortalise ourselves through the form of art.”
There were about twenty things wrong with that statement, and Crowley was still trying to pick out his favourite one when Aziraphale grabbed his arm and towed him over to the table, whereupon he engaged in a spirited argument with the stallholder that seemed to consist of a lot of gesturing and pointing and noises of outrage. After some minutes of this the man threw his hands up in resignation, and Aziraphale dropped some coins on the table and turned back to Crowley, beaming.
“Are you quite finished?” Crowley said.
“I think so. My, his prices were extortionate,” said Aziraphale. “I thought I’d never be able to talk him down.” He frowned down at the padlock, which was weighty and painted a dull rust-red. “At least he remembered to give me a key.” One turn, another, and the lock clicked open.
“Angel,” said Crowley, “if you were any more cheesy they'd be putting you on a board and trying to sell you in Androuet.”
Aziraphale looked affronted.
“I’m just saying,” Crowley said. “It’s. Well. It’s cliched.”
“So is Paris,” said Aziraphale. “Especially in the springtime. Anyway, since when were you concerned about being cliched?” And he gave Crowley a very meaningful look.
Crowley could tell he was on the verge of saying something about churches, and Christmas, and kissing, and the combination of those three things, and said hastily, “Yes. Fine. Where do you want it to go?” He made sure to sound as ungracious as he could. This might be happening, but that was no reason to pretend to be pleased about it.
They found a space, close to the far end of the bridge, and clicked the padlock neatly on. Aziraphale took a permanent marker from his top pocket, then hesitated. He looked at Crowley, who said, faux-casual, “I’ll do it, if you like.”
Aziraphale’s eyes brightened alarmingly, and Crowley added, “Your writing’s bloody awful. I’ve seen your tax returns, remember?”
The angel looked downcast. “I could never get used to pens.”
Crowley took the marker off him. “When did quills go out of style, again? 1830s, if memory serves me right. Don’t you think it’s time to update your preferences?”
“Oh, just do it if you’re going to,” said Aziraphale.
Crowley uncapped the pen. And paused, struck by an unexpected dilemma.
What was he supposed to write? A message was traditional, some trite promise or declaration, but all that seemed so unnecessary. So false. They’d been knocking around for millennia, watching civilisations rise and fall like candles burning down to their stumps, being friends and then enemies and then friends again and then something else entirely. How were you meant to sum all that up with some trite mediation on the nature of love? Anything that could have been said had been said – anything that might have been known was known. And whatever the future held was arbitrary anyway, an open parenthesis. He stood still, hand poised over the padlock, like a judge’s gavel waiting to fall.
“I suppose just our names would be enough,” said Aziraphale. He was watching Crowley, carefully. He understood. He got it. Somehow that was very comforting.
“Nah,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “Too long,” and he scribbled, in a quick and decisive cursive, two letters. An A and a C. Above the A was a small oval, that might, if you squinted, have been a halo; the C was accentuated with two lines that could have been horns, and could equally have been nicks in the metal. There was a lot to be said for classic symbolism. “You can do the honours,” he said, and put the key into Aziraphale’s hand.
Aziraphale held out his hand, opened it. They watched the key splash into the Seine below and sink without trace.
“Well, that was relatively painless,” said Crowley.
Aziraphale made a faint noise of agreement, one hand playing with the sleeve of Crowley’s jacket, and Crowley thought once again about wanting. What did it mean, really? It wasn’t just about people, although that was bad enough. It was about everything. Wanting things you couldn’t have, and then being audacious enough to try and actually keep them once you’d got them. Wanting to be different. To be made different, in a way that wasn’t about taking-away but about adding-on. It was a complicated business. Then again, wasn’t everything?
You are, you know, Aziraphale had said that night, as they made their way back home under the guttering street-lamps, the snow white and fluttering like moths. Good.
He wanted, very badly, for it to be true.
“I wonder how many are down there,” said the angel, eyes abstractedly following the current.
“Thousands, probably. Hundreds of thousands.”
“It can’t be good for the fish,” Aziraphale said doubtfully.
“Well, if you want to go and get it out again, be my guest,” said Crowley. He reached out and slipped one hand into Aziraphale’s, curling their fingers together tightly. “Come on. Let's do the Louvre."