You could stay at my place. If you like.
The bus ride to
Oxford London is long enough to – well. Not to quite give Aziraphale second thoughts, but to feel as if he should be feeling guilty for not having second thoughts. And subsequently feeling guilty for not actually feeling guilty about that. He feels like he‘d need a flowchart to explain that to anyone but himself, and wonders if anyone else in creation had ever had such an incredibly roundabout problem.* But what was he going to do? Not only was the bookshop gone, but he was increasingly certain that Heaven would want nothing more to do with him in the morning. Rather more alarming was the dawning realization that he wanted nothing more to do with Heaven. Or, again, it should have been alarming. In fact the penny had dropped a while ago on that one. True, it had only crystalized a few hours ago, but it was born from millennia of doubt.
*It might have been encouraging to him to find out that humans frequently did. Or then again, it might not have.
Besides, letting Crowley out of his sight right now is, well. Out of the question.
The bus crawls to a hat in front of Crowley‘s block of flats. Crowley stirs next to him, the warmth of his shoulder against Aziraphale‘s gone so suddenly that he did not notice it until it ended, which was probably on some level of “ironically appropriate.”
‘Come on, angel, shake a leg. Unless you want to camp out on public transit for the evening.’
Quite possibly anything in the world is more appealing than a bus after midnight, with its florescent lights and sticky floors and psychedelic upholstery and bewildering, alarming smells. They get off, the bus rumbling away behind them.*
*The bus river would come to his senses somewhere in the outer city, and put it down to working too much overtime. But he didn’t get in any trouble with his boss, who was busy trying to forget how four different buses had been swallowed up by a ring of fire on the M25.
It was not that he had never been to Crowley’s flat, he reflected as they ascended the stairs.* But that had been socially, for drinks and some good takeout, and coveting Crowley’s original Leonardo sketch and resolutely ignoring and definitely not blushing at that Infernal statue. Not for... sanctuary. Certainly there was yet another ironic remark to be made about an angel seeking sanctuary with a demon, but Aziraphale found himself pre-emptively annoyed just by imagining them.
*The elevator was broken, despite or possibly because of being in a building inhabited by a demon.
Anyway, Crowley was Crowley.
The being in question unlocked and opened the door to his flat with a flick of his wrist, and it closed again behind them with barely a click. Crowley pulls off his sunglasses, and blinks slowly. It is such a rare event that it nearly requires noting on the calendar. He must be really quite tired.
‘Hel – dam – fuck, I’m exhausted,’ he says, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Aziraphale finds his mouth quirking into a smile. ‘Long day, after all.’
Crowley’s own mouth quirks, not quite as humorously. ‘Long six thousand years, more like.’
‘I think this calls for a drink,’ says Aziraphale, unable to respond to that.
Crowley grunts. ‘Cupboard in the kitchen.Left of the fridge.’ Then he slithers into the living room, towards the balcony door, through which Aziraphale can glimpse and unparalleled view of the city skyline, and throws himself into one of a pair of stylishly uncomfortable armchairs.
There’s wine in the cupboard – an army’s ration of it, and the cupboard correspondingly deep. But the occasion calls for the scotch sitting in the back, even though Aziraphale has to reach until nearly his whole upper body is inside the cupboard, for his fingers just to graze the bottle.
He sits in the opposing chair, and pours two glasses. Crowley takes the one handed to him and downs it. Then he takes Aziraphale’s from his hand as well, and downs that, too.
He tsks. ‘Really, my dear.’
‘Yeah, yeah.’ He returns the glass, but holds out his own for a refill, and Aziraphale obliges him. Then Crowley kicks his shoes off and pulls his legs up into the chair, and stares out the balcony windows at the never-quite-dark city, glass dangling forgotten from one hand.
Aziraphale sips his drink, to savour it along with the realization that he might never have tasted anything so fine ever again.* But the exhaustion is setting in and he finishes it quickly before reaching for the bottle again.
*Or anything at all, really.
‘How long do you think we’ve got?’
‘Before they come for us,’ says Crowley, and tears himself away from the view to glance at him. ‘Don’t try to tell me you haven’t been thinking it. Someone has to take the fall for this – ‘ He winces at his own wording – ‘And it might as well be us. I imagine nobody is happy with us right now.’
Aziraphale wants to say that surely Heaven would do no such thing, but knows it’s a lie. A faction that would destroy the world just to make a point wouldn’t shrink from a little bit of collateral cleanup damage. Not to mention that Hell would definitely be coming for Crowley, and saving only himself simply wasn’t an option.
‘Not long, I imagine,’ he says. ‘Depends on how busy they will be calling everyone to order. Within the week, certainly.’
‘Mm.’ Crowley takes another sip of the scotch, yellow eyes staring unblinking at the city lights. ‘’s funny, really.Surviving Armageddon’t only to be murdered by our own superiors.’ It may be the scotch, or the tiredness, or the late hour, or all these things are conspiring against him. But there’s an undercurrent of total bleakness in Crowley’s tone that makes Aziraphale want to shake it out of him.
‘You really think so? I didn’t just disobey orders, although I fancy that would be more than enough for them anyway. I killed another demon with holy water. Demons discorporate each other all the time, but even they shrink from erasing each other from existence.’ There’s so much cynicism in that one sentence that it nearly frosts the air.
‘Yes, but that doesn’t mean we simply sit back and let them!’ He responds harshly. ‘I don’t know about you, but now that we have the time to live in this world, I rather intend to enjoy it!’
‘Not sure how enjoyable it would be,’ says Crowley. ‘How long can we keep running before they catch us up? How far?’
‘We’ll figure something out!’ Says Aziraphale desperately. He leans forward in his seat as far as he can, until he can put his hand on Crowley’s, on the arm of the chair. ‘Even if it’s as far as Alpha Centauri, I would sooner abandon Earth to its fate now, than you. Anyway, it’s quite clear at this point that humanity is doing just fine without us.’
Crowley doesn’t answer, but stares at their hands together, until Aziraphale awkwardly pulls away.
It’s dark in the living room, even with the streetlights outside shining in. It makes everything feel closer, somehow, and every word is spoken like a secret.
‘I thought they’d killed you,’ murmurs Crowley, a dark shape in the shadow of his chair. ‘I thought you’d never let the shop burn down like that if you were still alive. I thought it must be hellfire.’
‘Oh,’ breathes Aziraphale. It’s wholly inadequate in the face of it all, but even though he technically does not need oxygen to live, he still feels the air leave his lungs all at once. ‘And you didn’t...’
‘Leave? ‘course not.’
He didn’t go by himself to Alpha Centauri, or wherever. And he’d stopped trying to avert the Apocalypse. That’s, well. It makes Aziraphale feel the same terror as when Crowley first asked for holy water. He swallows, even though he doesn’t need to do that, either. The body has its own ideas of what is necessary, sometimes. ‘Well. There must be something, in Agnes’s prophecy.’
‘I ‘unno.’ Crowley’s voice is barely audible in the dark. ‘This is the only face I’ve got.’
One that has remained the same ever since Aziraphale first saw it; a single constant in a universe of changes. He can see it perfectly in his mind’s eye, even if his physical ones cannot, in this light.
There’s a small snore, and he realizes that the demon has fallen asleep in his chair, knees pulled up to his chest, glass balancing precariously on the chair arm. Carefully, Aziraphale moves it to the floor, and miracles a blanket over his friend. Then he sits for the remainder of the night, as he never got into the habit of sleeping, and watches sunlight blossom by degrees over the roofs of London. He considers the familiar figure in front of him, gangly and all sharp edges, at least in this light. In bare feet and rolled-up sleeves it’s hard to miss the scattered scales, which Crowley’s never entirely free of regardless of form. It’s funny how he’s had to hide more of is telltale inhuman features as the centuries wore on. Humanity, supposedly more accepting in this age than any other, never used to make such a fuss about yellow eyes and snakeskin, closer to the Beginning. Come to think of it, often it was the red hair that tended to trip them up, until that too became a common feature among them.
It’s all so terribly familiar, and yet he can’t help but feel the cresting wave of anxiety telling him he’s in danger of never seeing it ever again.
Perhaps that is why he figures it out. Or perhaps he just needed some time off for that famous immortal intelligence to do its work. Either way, around six-thirty, Crowley (who is eerily still when he sleeps, as if he’s gone into hibernation) twists in his seat and makes a noise like ‘Wstfgl.’ Then he finally wakes up. He’s done more blinking in the last twenty-four hours than in the last few years put together, it feels like, and does more of it now as he tries to make sense of his surroundings. ‘Angel?’ He says groggily.
‘Is this tartan?’ He says with disgust, even as pulls the blanket closer around himself against the morning chill.
‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. Crowley, I think I’ve figured it out.’
Crowley’s eyebrows climb steadily as Aziraphale explains, and then stay up. ‘Are you sure?’ He says, almost anxiously.
‘It’s the only interpretation I’ve been able to come up with that’s helpful,’ Aziraphale replies. ‘But yes, I’m sure.’
‘Would it – would it even work? I mean, you said it yourself – you’d probably explode!’
He huffs a laugh. ‘If being in your company for six millennia didn’t do anything I don’t think merely swapping bodies is going to be the disaster you’re expecting.’
‘Wouldn’t say it ‘didn’t do anything’,’ mutters Crowley, sitting up properly* in his chair and running his hand through his hair.
*Or as much as a preternatural sloucher can.
He looks so agitated that Aziraphale hesitates. ‘Do you think it’s a bad idea?’
‘No! I mean, no, just, just gimme a second – ‘ Crowley’s eyes dart back and forth, and he nervously summons a pair of sunglasses, and slides them onto his face. ‘Alright. Okay – yeah. We should probably do that now, because I don’t think it’ll take them the entire week to go after us.’
Aziraphale nods and holds out a hand. Crowley looks aghast and hisses, ‘Not here!’ and looks around as if somebody might see them, in this otherwise deserted flat. Then, he takes Aziraphale’s wrist and pulls him from his seat, and through the half-open bedroom door in the hallway, closing it decisively behind them, and letting go of him.
Aziraphale, who had in fact spent most of the night convincing himself this was a Clever Plan and not in fact an absolutely terrifyingly intimate suggestion, finds his nervousness return with a vengeance, but before he can say anything, Crowley reaches out his hand, and nods. With a slightly shaky breath, Aziraphale gives his own nod, and takes it.
It is perhaps worth noting that there is more going on here than the special effects could tell you. On the physical level, it merely looks like two bodies blending into each other like a watercolour, until the two seem to have switched places on the carpet. On the metaphysical level, the swapping of bodies cannot take place without exposing the soul, and requires those taking part to expose their very essences. This is not without danger. In fact, it may be the most dangerous thing two ethereal beings can possibly do. Crowley could easily reach into Aziraphale’s ribcage and stop his heart. Aziraphale, for his part, could with the force of his Grace and a mere flick of a thought extinguish everything that made Crowley, just as efficiently as any bucket of holy water, only without so much mess. This is to say nothing of the act of peeling back everything that hides and masks their cores, and letting them pass perilously close to each other, like ships passing, or black holes skirting each other’s event horizon.
It is, in fact, the very first time such an event has taken place since the beginning of Creation. Between ethereal beings, at least. Humans do it all the time, and they do not even have the benefit of getting metaphysical about it.
When it’s over, Crowley shudders, and runs his tongue over his teeth, because the feeling is oddly similar to a hangover. Except they’re Aziraphale’s teeth, really, and the face staring back at him is his own. Crowley hurriedly lets go of his own hand.
‘Oh, this is upsetting,’ his own voice says to him. ‘I think I’m going to be seasick.’
‘How are you this short?’ Says Crowley, from a vantage point a few inches further down than he’s gotten used to. It’s even weirder to say that in Aziraphale’s voice, but with his own accent.
‘Oh, shut up, I know you wear heels,’ says Aziraphale, shifting from side to side in Crowley’s boots.
Crowley suddenly needs to very much not look at himself without the benefit of a mirror. ‘Let’s check up on things,’ he says. ‘Meet back at St. James’. I’ll go to the bookshop,’ he says, when Aziraphale nods. ‘It’s wouldn’t look right if you did.’
Aziraphale looks crestfallen, and Crowley doesn’t like that look on his own face any better than when the angel’s own body wears it. ‘There will be time, afterwards,’ he says.
Aziraphale nods with Crowley’s head. ‘Afterwards,’ he says.
Switching back is an odd feeling – like going back to your house after a vacation to find someone has stopped by in your absence. Thankfully, nothing has been stolen, but the windows have been left open to air the place out, and maybe the potted palm in the corner has been optimistically watered. Crowley lets the metaphor go just as it’s about to get away from him, along with Aziraphale’s hand. Flexing his own, he asks on their way to the Ritz, ‘D’you think they suspected anything?’
‘Not a thing,’ says Aziraphale, blessedly in his own voice. ‘I do think I imitated you quite well, my dear, and even if I hadn’t... I do not think they have the imagination to even guess at the truth.’
This startles another laugh out of Crowley. As much as he feels sickened by the mere idea of Aziraphale in Hell, he wishes he could have seen the look on everyone’s faces. He’d had his fun with Gabriel and his lot. Although not nearly as much as he’d have liked to, too determined to not raise suspicion to actually go for the punch the smug bastard so richly deserved.
But it’s easy enough to let go, for now, as somewhere in the distance, a nightingale is singing.
Two important things happened in Heaven and Hell after they were let go*. Actually, a lot of important things happened, but only two of them will directly impact the course of this story, and so we shall stick with just these.
*Or more accurately, “vacated the premises”, because it wasn’t as if anyone would have tried to stop them.
The first one was that immediately after “Crowley” left, the demon Hastur had hysterics in the bathroom* for a full twelve minutes.
*Hell, of course, did not need bathrooms, but whoever was behind the interior design of the place would never pass up a chance to make it even more unpleasant, and so of course it did. Much like the worst bathrooms found on Earth, the floor is always, for some mysterious and ghastly reason, wet.
‘He pointed the thing right at me! Right! At! Me!’ Came the screaming from behind the stall door. Under the flickering florescent lights, Lord Beelzebub leaned against the* sink, and rolled their eyes at Dagon, who sneers. ‘Yeah, you said.’
*Broken, perpetually dripping.
‘I thought he was bluffing! I saw the water run right over his finger and he didn’t even twitch!’
‘Lucky you, eh?’ Drawled Dagon, inspecting the green mould growing on the wall.
‘I could have gone the same way as that bastard sent Ligur!’
‘Oh, get over it already,’ says Beelzebub, as if they had not been thoroughly rattled as well. You see a lot of horrifying things in Hell, but probably no-one could have predicted that watching a demon fail to be dissolved like a tab of alka-seltzer in a glass of water would be so close to the top of the list.
There was another prolonged shriek. The unfamiliar might think that a demon would never show such obvious weakness in front of another, but that belief fails to account for the fact that absolutely no demon worth their salt would pass up the chance to be Dramatic. Likewise, no demon would pass up the opportunity to watch the show. Hell could get pretty boring after the first few millennia, and you had to find entertainment wherever it presented itself. It was rather like putting up with your annoying co-worker because although you disliked each other, at least you both hated that one bastard in R&D even more.
The door to the stall slammed open and hit the wall, Hastur striding out. At least he tried to stride; the door rebounded off the wall and hit him in the face. Dagon sniggered.
‘I want him to pay!’ Hastur growled, trying to regain his dignity.*
*A difficult feat, since he had never had much to spare to begin with.
‘I don’t know if you noticed,’ drawled Beelzebub. ‘But we don’t have the means to make him pay for shit! He’s ran off and left us with the tab, because he’s immune to holy water!’
‘And now the bloody receipt has half the troops gearing up to riot!’ Said Dagon, anxious to keep the metaphor going.
Beelzebub frowned. ‘What?’
‘Oh, please,’ scoffs Hastur. ‘I could take him on, no holy water necessary.’
‘Sorry, are we talking about the same demon who discorporated you twice in one day?’ Said Beelzebub, the flies that crowded them all the time buzzing in harmony with their master. The lights flickered rapidly overhead, and something that looked like blood started dripping from the faucet.*
*That interior designer again, we’re afraid.
‘I – ‘ Began Hastur, but was cut off on account of an obstruction to his windpipe; namely, Beelzebub picking him up by the throat.
‘No one is to have anything to do with that – that Thing!’ They buzzed. ‘We have had enough trouble already! What if he’zzzz contaigeouzzzz?!’
The two of them left Hastur behind in the bathroom, and went to try to contain the uproar sure to follow once word got out about the events carefully not being mentioned.
Hastur remained there, glaring at the puddles on the floor until some of them started to cautiously edge away from his feet. What was going through his head was not, in the traditional sense, rational thought. But it had the same general shape, and so he listened to it. It went: Demons used to be angels. A demon who is invulnerable to holy water is not a demon any longer. But the only other thing he could be is some other flavour of ethereal.
Therefore, a demon who is not a demon anymore must have Risen.
And an angel, as everyone knows,* is vulnerable to just one thing...
*Or at least anyone who knows anything about angels.
The second important thing to happen was after “Aziraphale” left Heaven, and it was the archangels doing the celestial equivalent of standing around the water cooler at work after something has gone really wrong in the office and the boss is off somewhere doing damage control.*
*At least that was what Gabriel had claimed. The rest of them were secretly betting he was off in some pocket dimension of reality, screaming and throwing things until he felt better. Well. Screaming and throwing things, anyway.
Michael had returned from Downstairs, clearly rattled – so much so that electricity kept sparking off their corporation and earthing itself in the fittings of the enormous glass windows. Those looked out on a stellar view of every architectural marvel devised by humanity which Heaven had taken credit for,* like a collector’s pinned specimens in a glass cabinet.
*In fact, they had not had a hand in the creation of a single one, except in the case of 20 Fenchurch Street in London, more commonly known as the Shard.
‘He was just splashing around in it!’ Came the hiss. ‘He asked me for a towel!’
‘We know,’ said Uriel wearily. ‘Likely whatever happened to him is the same thing that happened to... the other one.’
‘Should have known, really,’ mused Sandalphon, narrowly dodging another nervous spark from Michael. ‘That he had Fallen. I could smell the Evil in that “shop” of his.’ He inserted quotation marks around the word as if he found it untrustworthy.
But Uriel shook her head. ‘He was not Fallen. You may not have been paying attention at the time,’ the words came with a frown that was just south of a real glare. ‘But the Fall of an angel is not something you miss.’
‘Well, what else could it possibly have been?’ Said Michael. ‘If he just stood there in the fire as if he were enjoying it –‘
‘Something we have not seen before,’ said Uriel. ‘And now it is out of our hands. Part of the Plan, no doubt.’
‘But they interfered with the Ineffible –‘
‘They interfered with the Great Plan,’ said Uriel stoically. ‘This interference, however, may have been part of the Ineffible Plan.’*
*Compared to the average angel, Uriel had a rather more flexible mind than most. Of course, she was just as good at lying to herself as the rest of them, which rather tended to hamper things.
‘You can’t possibly believe that!’
‘It is the only acceptable explanation.’ Uriel narrowed her eyes at her two associates, who were looking rather more thoughtful than was probably good for them. ‘And as it happens, Gabriel did say that no-one was to interfere with them any further, until we have resolved the current situation. If you recall.’
‘He did,’ nodded Sandalphon virtuously.
‘Right,’ said Uriel doubtfully, and left to probably talk Gabriel down from a tantrum so they could all get on with it.
‘We can’t just leave them walking around down there,’ said Michael, still glancing about in case anyone was listening, despite their bone-deep* conviction that this was not a treasonous statement. ‘They will cause dissent among the troops.’
*Or soul-deep, since few angels pay much attention to their bones, even when in the possession of a body.
‘Yes,’ said Sandalphon thoughtfully. ‘I do not like leaving such loose ends.’
‘Imprisoning them would be worse, though,’ said Michael. ‘It would draw unwanted attention.’ They did not say what they really meant which was: They are an abomination to both the domains of Heaven and Hell and the Lord who created them. Abominations must be wiped out.*
*Angels have more hang-ups about capital-P Perfection than an entire troop of runway models.
Sandalphon, however, heard the unspoken words and said, ‘Then we will let the punishment serve the crime.’
‘How? You saw as well as I did what happened. They were immune!’
‘Oh yes – to holy water and hellfire respectively.’ He smiled widely, exposing gilded teeth. ‘But why panic when we simply had it the wrong way around?’
Michael was quick to grasp what he meant. ‘It might not work,’ they warned.
‘Well, in which case, we simply have to make sure they are in no shape to bother us in the near future,’ he said, waving a hand dismissively. ‘But if it does, we can – what was that phrase the humans like? Ah, yes – kill two flies with one stone.’ The grin stayed. It was no secret among the angels that Sandalphon felt that the general lack of smiting in the last few millennia was a real shame. Michael, generally, preferred to leave Earth up to its own devices as long as it still made for a decent battlefield for the Apocalypse. But that shoe had failed to drop, and anyway, much like a certain demon, they could not fathom the existence of someone they could not understand. Therefore, the solution must be to end said existence.
‘Let me make a call,’ they said, and an Agreement was made.
To say that they had been avoiding any discussion of The Switch* would be exaggeration. Avoidance was out of the question, in fact. It would imply there was something of note that required avoiding. So they merely Did Not Talk About It, instead. The difference may seem imaginary at best, but why talk about something so utterly unnoteworthy? Besides, they had an entire world to enjoy now that there was time, beginning with every single restaurant in London worthy of their attention.**
*Which certainly did not deserve its capitalization.
** For all that they liked dining at the Ritz and enjoying the finest and most expensive alcohol available, true hedonism did not concern itself with monetary value or status. They were just as likely to go for cheap and everyday food as they were for food behind the gate of class and a triple digit market value. Both of them drew the line at most fast food chains, though.
‘I don’t understand why you order, sometimes,’ says Aziraphale, finishing up his katsudon at the little donburi place on the corner from Crowley’s flat. They’d always meant to visit, but never quite had the time, what with one thing and another. ‘You hardly ever finish it.’
‘It’s not like I need to, when going to lunch with you,’ Crowley replies, pushing his own bowl of eel-and-rice across the table. ‘Anyway, eating as much as them,’ he nods towards the presumably human customer base at nearby tables, ‘Just makes me sleepy.’
‘All that time and yet you still have a reptile’s metabolism,’ muses Aziraphale. ‘Well, form informs function, I suppose.’ As if to prove this, he helps himself to Crowley’s food. Not that Crowley minds. He enjoys watching Aziraphale eat almost as much as the angel himself enjoys eating.
Attempting to distract from that thought, he snorts. ‘Not nearly as much as you’d think. That lot Down There walking around with animal hats just do it ‘cause they think it makes them look cool.’ Neither of them needed to point out that Crowley was the general exception to this rule. Presumably, Hell had wanted bragging rights on the one who had caused Adam and Eve to be kicked out of the Garden.* Or perhaps the Almighty wanted to warn humanity of the approach of the one who made them Fall.
*Not that Aziraphale had kicked them out per se. He’d been really rather polite about it, considering the circumstances.
Now, Crowley liked to take pride in his work, but he always thought the “made” was a bit of an exaggeration. He never forced Eve to take the apple. Temptation is temptation not for forcing people to do what they don’t want to, but because it gets people to do what they secretly want to but know they really shouldn’t.
Across the table, Aziraphale pushed the plates away with a soft sigh, and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. ‘What are you in the mood for next?’ There was a grain of rice, still, at the corner of his mouth. Crowley’s fingers twitched.
‘There’s a band playing at a little place on the Strand we could check out,’ he offers, half-heartedly turning the check into one of those terrible slips of paper that look like real money but instead had some smug Bible verses printed on the other side about the True Worth of Faith, or whatever.* Then he felt that was a little far, even for a demon, and paid the bill.**
*Guaranteed to instantly tarnish the soul of service workers everywhere.
**In truth, they took turns paying every time they went out together, and no funny business. It was a sub-sub-sub clause of the Arrangement, possibly predating the business of doing miracles and temptations for each other by several centuries.***
***Crowley always left a good tip, ostensibly for some flimsy reason as that it would promote spite between servers, but in reality it was just that even a demon could get disgusted by the minimum wage.
‘Soul music, you said. I don’t know, sounds rather modern –‘
‘Angel, we are bringing your musical taste into this century before it ends, so help me. Actually, even the last century would be an improvement.’
‘Oh, alright. Uh, still early, I know, but if you’d like to have drinks afterwards –‘
‘Funny you should mention it, it just so happens that I have a couple of bottles that aged in...’
Active enjoyment of the world and its many amenities is off to a pretty good start, it feels like.
‘It’s not technically murder, I don’t think...’
‘Oh, be serious.’ Crowley rolls his eyes and gestures with the wine glass. It’s only their third, it’s a slow evening. The band was pretty decent, and they’ve slowed down on the drinking some, compared to the last eleven years. It’s not out of stress and desperation and worry that everything they’re working for will come to nothing. It’s just... an excuse to extend the evening, if he’s being completely honest with himself. Which he’s had to be with distressing frequency, lately.
They’re in his flat, again. He feels a little odd about that, if he’s honest. Normally they always went to the bookshop, and he’d only offered last time because the bookshop had been burned down at the time. And because he would rather have wrestled any three Dukes of Hell you cared to name, than let the angel out of his sight, just then.
‘I always am – It’s just that, well, everyone’s gotten very, y’know, technical about the definition since that first one.’ Aziraphale’s nose is, as is frequently the case around this stage of drunkenness, red. Crowley wonders idly if he’s warmer than usual. Not that he’s really curious per se. It’s just a little cold in his flat tonight, is all. The old snake instincts, and all that. Yeah.
Much like has been the case for the last six thousand or so years, he is unsuccessful in fooling himself.
‘Cain!’ He crows, for something to distract. ‘Now there’s a fella I hadn’t thought about in a grip.’
Aziraphale attempts a stern look at him, but mostly just looks gormless. ‘He was the first murderer, Crowley. In fact I rather thought you’d had a hand in it.’
‘Pfft. Didn’t need to. Those two invented the original filial argument!’ Crowley is currently lying on the sofa,* with his legs dangling over the arm. He squints at the ceiling. ‘That “marked with red hair” was a bunch of propaganda, too. D’you know how many times I got into trouble because of that? Anyway, sure, he was the first murderer, but Abel was also the first person to die, which must have been a trip! Don’t tell me that twist didn’t throw you for a loop!’
*New, delivered exactly 24 hours after it was certain they’d be sticking around on Earth and it became clear to Crowley that while he’d put up with a lot for the sake of stylishness, uncomfortable armchairs went above and beyond the call of duty.
Aziraphale squirms in his seat. He had, in fact, taken one of the uncomfortable armchairs. ‘Death had existed before,’ he objects. ‘Animals had died, anyway.’
Crowley scoffed. ‘That’s not the same thing and you know it. Who of us thought that they – the ones made in Her image – could just, just kick the bucket like that?’
‘Bowl,’ says Aziraphale.
‘Bowl. Or possibly basket. They hadn’t invented the bucket yet. Distinctly remember that.’
‘Whatever. M’ point still stands. It must have been a weird day for them, too. It’s not as if they knew they could die.’
‘Poor Eve,’ murmurs Aziraphale. ‘Always felt a bit bad for her. She had to live out all her days knowing her son had committed fratricide.’
‘Mm.’ Crowley tries to ignore the downer this conversation is sneaking up on them.* ‘I mean, it’s not as if he knew. Probably thought it would just make a great prank, next thing he knows the poor bugger’s not moving, and everything’s gone to He- gone arse-up.’ He manages to take a sip of his drink lying down, and only avoids pouring it all up his nose with the help of a small miracle. ‘Although you have to hand it to him. Can’t think of a killer before or since that managed to wipe out 25% of the human race all at once. Well. Not a human one, anyway.’ This line of thought is turning depressing. ‘Anyway, what were we talking about?’
*”Sneaking” only the same way as a brass band falling down the stairs is “sneaky”.
‘Execution versus murder,’ says Aziraphale brightly.
‘Right! Anyway, you’re wrong.’
‘Oh, I didn’t say they weren’t the same thing,’ says Aziraphale placidly. Before Crowley can say that he did in fact say that, he adds, ‘It’s just that Heaven is able to justify it by one word, and not the other.’
Crowley feels a shiver up his spine. Even though he had spent far too much time trying to get his friend to openly acknowledge their superiors’ hypocrisy*, he still half-expected Gabriel or someone just as annoying to manifest whenever he does, and smite him for it. He suddenly feels far too sober, that or he had passed on to the bleak stage of drunkenness.
*At first in a half-assed attempt to have him fall and then because he just wanted someone, anyone to have the same endless doubts and questions as he did.
‘Hah. They sure can, the bastards.’ On cue, his glass refills itself, but Crowley just stares darkly at the ceiling through his sunglasses and feels the sickening anger fill his every cell. ‘D’you know, when they brought me up there – I mean, I was you, of course –‘ He swallows, even though he feels for the first time in a long time that he could spit venom, no fangs necessary. ‘They... expected you to walk into the fire by your own choice.’
‘I see,’ says Aziraphale. ‘It does rather seem Gabriel’s style.’
‘As if erasing you from existence wasn’t enough of an atrocity. No, they wanted you to choose it, because then it meant it would be all right and just, and their hands would be clean.’ He’s not hissing. Possibly it’s because he’s too angry to.
He doesn’t notice the sofa dip next to his head, but he notices Aziraphale’s voice suddenly closer. ‘Reminds me of old Socrates,’ his friend says. ‘Poor chap. Not a good way to go.’
Crowley laughs, because it’s either that or scream, but startles when a hand pulls the glasses off his nose.
‘They had a trial for you in Hell, you know. Unexpectedly democratic, I thought. Of course, they never meant to acquit you, you did not even get a defendant.’ His voice is curiously calm, in the way it is when the angel really is not calm at all.
‘The tyranny of the majority,’ says Crowley, even though he can’t manage to break eye contact. Aziraphale’s eyes are no angelic blue, but they always had a certain light that seems like it could burn away any shadow. All angels have an unsettling gaze, but Crowley has long since realized that this one belongs to just this one, and has a human kindness not found anywhere in the chilly halls of Heaven.
Now they blaze in anger. ‘They sacrificed some poor demon who just happened to be in the wrong place, to make sure the holy water was real. At least so they said. I imagine in was to further torture you before they killed you.’
‘Sounds about right.’
‘I’m afraid I put quite a lot of effort into terrorizing them,’ says Aziraphale, hand perched on the seat, perilously close to Crowley’s hair. ‘I did not want them to get any ideas about bringing you back to that awful place.’
Crowley could not say any of what he really, truly means just then, but he manages a ‘Likewise,’ hoarse as it is.
Somehow, they make it back to safer topics. Sooner or later, Crowley falls asleep on the sofa. When he wakes up, Aziraphale is gone.
But his glasses are still off, and the tartan blanket is back. He blinks, and then turns over, and goes back to sleep.
He likes where he is just fine.
He startles awake when someone slaps him. Starting point is confusion, morphing into blurred memory, mingled with the persistent itching question of why are the soles of my feet burning?
Oh. Someone waiting outside his flat had got him over the head with something heavy. The who is answered quickly enough once he manages to make sense of what his eyes are seeing, namely the gold-bedecked teeth grinning at him.
He groans. ‘Really, guys? I thought were through with this whole circus act.’
‘Adversary,’ says Michael coldly, from their spot near the wall.
‘Cheers. What’s this about? I thought I’d made an impression, last time. None of that stuff will do you much good.’ He nods at the font of holy water in the corner, because as it turns out, he’s sitting tied to a chair in a thrice-damned church. He can’t tell which one from the inside; he doesn’t exactly frequent them if he can help it. Surreptitiously, hoping the grinning angel in front of him won’t notice, he tries to raise his feet off the floor.
‘Oh, that’s not for you,’ says Michael. ‘In fact, we’ve dispensed with that. Much too unreliable, when it comes down to it. No, you’re rather a bonus. We thought you might make excellent bait, you see. Our associate will take care of you afterwards.’
‘Oh? Can’t say I’ve ever liked fishing much,’ says Crowley conversationally while internally swearing up a storm. He is at the top of the aisle, just below the altar, and he’s getting a headache from being this close to so many holy objects, on top of the whole consecrated ground thing. It’s a neogothic church, not terribly big, which narrows the possibilities somewhat, but really he doesn’t particularly care which house of worship he’s been abducted to. There’s a few wooden chairs scattered around the place, likely picked as the more comfortable equivalent to the pews by some Bible study group, or whatever, which have yet to be put away. It’s not as if Crowley really knows what people do in churches these days.
‘Not to worry, you won’t be alive long enough to have an opinion,’ says Sandalphon cheerfully. Crowley remembers him from Sodom and Gomorrah. One of those who had been rather too into all the smiting. Bastard. Seems like he hasn’t changed one bit.
‘Let me guess?’ Says Crowley. ‘One kidnapping wasn’t enough, so you want to have another go at roasting the ang – Aziraphale?’ He shakes his head sadly, subtly trying to move his hands, which are tied to the chair with much the same stuff as they’d used up in Heaven. ‘I have to say, not hugely original. The humans have a saying about it being the definition of madness to repeatedly try the same thing while expecting different results, you know.’
Michael sighs. ‘Just stop talking, will you? No wonder your own side was eager to work with us again if you’re always this annoying.’
‘Again?’ Echoes Crowley. ‘Who was – no, I don’t even have to guess, do I?’ It’s that idiot Hastur, isn’t it.’ He glances about. ‘Don’t see him around. Not a big fan of consecrated ground, I take it?’
‘We’ll hand you over to him in case this does not work,’ says Sandalphon, not sounding especially worried. ‘After all, no-one’s ever heard of a demon Rising, but an angel Falling? There we have all the precedent we need.’
‘Again, folks, we’ve been through this already – the old hellfire/holy water game isn’t going to do it,’ says Crowley, sternly telling his body not to start sweating. Because in fact it would work very well and their whole entire plan had depended on no-one having a second go at it!
‘They will,’ says Michael. ‘Just not in the order you’re thinking.’
Crowley takes a second to realize what they mean, and then wants to laugh, because the idiots are about to unknowingly re-enact the exact scenario that fooled them in the first place. He opens his mouth to keep annoying them – and then notices the chalk marks around his chair. His jaw drops. Michael’s smile is smug and self-satisfied. ‘Finally run out of words, demon?’
The circle is a, well. It’s a relative of the one Aziraphale used to keep under the rug in the bookshop. But only in the same sense that one of your second cousins who is in prison for the third time on violent assault charges and/or murder attempt would be considered your “relative”.
*Well, really it’s a heptadecagon.
The actual substances of holy water and hellfire are jealously controlled by their respective producers, much like how human governments are not too keen on selling nuclear weapons to their enemies.* Any demon can get their hands on hellfire, and any angel can bless some water to make it holy, regardless of their individual power. But they are tricky to transport safely, and cannot be replicated by the other side. It was the reason why Crowley had gone to such absurd lengths procuring it himself.** But they’re easier to use than just flinging holy or infernal energy at someone in high enough concentrations to not only discorporate them, but to erase them from the fabric of the universe. Power like that needs a conduit.
*Well, not unless someone pays you a lot of money for them, of course.
**Alright, maybe also because he would have taken any excuse to orchestrate the heist of his dreams.
Sigils like this one are the other option. Of course, they’re a much greater hassle to use. If entire battlefields could be landmined with infernal or holy energy, the struggle between the two sides would long since have ended. Probably they’d see it as “spoiling the fun,” Crowley thinks bitterly. But they could be made – they just didn’t have enough range or longevity to catch more than one or two angels or demons at a time. And so they were considered old-fashioned and impractical, compared to their more commonly used counterparts.
Never before, though, could Crowley imagine that the two types had been overlaid on one another, infernal and ethereal energy all tied up in a few non-Euclidean strokes of chalk.
‘You know,’ he says distantly, staring at this abomination of a circle surrounding his chair. ‘Every time I think Heavenly hypocrisy has reached its zenith, it turns out you’re just getting started.’
Sandalphon slaps him again. Crowley yelps. ‘Seriously?! You get on our asses about – about fraternizing and then you turn around and pull shit like this? No wonder the Great Plan rolled right over you! You’re as self-aware as lichen!’
‘Be silent,’ Michael orders. ‘In fact, I’m not certain it will work on you. I have no idea what you’ve become.’ They regard him as if he’s some kind of unsettling mutant. ‘But in that case, you will simply be discorporated, returned to Hell and, most importantly, no longer be our problem. The traitor of the Eastern Gate, however? I find it very unlikely he’ll be walking out of this building.’
‘There’s no way he’d be stupid enough to fall for an obvious trap like that,’ drawls Crowley, fully aware that Aziraphale has fallen for all sorts of things, notably once before in a church much like this one.
‘Perhaps,’ say Michael. ‘But he will not hesitate to Fall for you.’
Outside, there is the sound of, perhaps, someone being hit over the head with a heavy ornate gold candlestick, and a thud as someone crumples to the floor.
‘Right on time,’ says Sandalphon with a greasy grin. Crowley immediately decides that on the unlikely event that he gets out of here alive, he’s turning the bastard into a ficus and introducing him to the nearest woodchipper.
The doors swing open, and Aziraphale enters, stepping over Hastur lying face-down on the floor. Crowley winces a bit. That’s gonna leave a nasty rash once he wakes up. Hopefully he’ll be stuck with it for the rest of existence, the vengeful asshole.
The angel has a curiously blank look on his face. ‘Michael,’ he nods. ‘And Sandalphon. And here I thought I’d finally seen the last of you. Alright there, Crowley?’
‘Hullo, angel, how’s it hanging?’ He tests his bonds again, but no luck. Their chances aren’t great, right now. Aziraphale might have taken care of Hastur for now, but he is definitely outnumbered, by angels who have a much more ready approach to violence than he has. If he makes any sudden movements, miraculous or otherwise, they’re likely to activate the circle, which will be it for Crowley, and he knows the angel won’t take that kind of risk. He considers discorporating himself if that’s what it takes, because there is no way in Hell that he is letting Aziraphale step into the circle. Even if it means Crowley will never be stepping out of it.
‘Principality,’ says Sandalphon. ‘As you can see, we have your co-conspirator right where we want him –‘
‘Oh, do shut up,’ says Aziraphale blandly. ‘You’ve never said anything worth listening to and I doubt you’ll start now. Right, you two, I’ll give you ten seconds to release him and leave this place, or –‘
‘Or what? Sneers Michael. Crowley can tell they’re genuinely upset by the sight of him – by both of them. The Heavenly Host* are not at home with Doubt. It was what made them so goddamn annoying, in Crowley’s opinion, the way they never questioned anything. Unfortunately, Michael’s first response to Doubt was fear, and a fearful angel is a danger to everyone around them.
*And their infernal counterparts.
They got no reply, because Aziraphale has spotted and correctly identified the circle Crowley is stuck in. The look on his face as he realizes that either way, one of the forces involved will disintegrate Crowley on the spot is one that Crowley never wants to see on his face again. Fury and fear are also a dangerous combination in an angel.
He takes a step forward.
‘Don’t even think about it!’ Both Crowley and Michael shout, then glare at each other.
‘Either you both stand in that circle and let yourself be exterminated as you should, or we let him go in exchange for you,’ says Michael. It’s a stupid, shit plan, but that’s perfectly in line with Heaven’s track record in these matters, so Crowley can’t be too surprised.
‘Aziraphale, take one more step and I swear to G- to someone, you will regret it!’
Aziraphale does not look at him, and speaks instead to Michael, leaning on one of the chairs by the podium as if his knees might give out. ‘Even a serpent does not deserve this kind of fate!’ Only... There’s something in the way he says it, all deliberate, as if he’s saying it at Crowley.
Behind his sunglasses, Crowley blinks. Oh. It’s a risk, but...
‘That’s not – ‘ Michael begins, irate, but in a split second, there is no longer a man-shaped being tied to the chair. Can’t be tied up by the hands if you don’t have hands, thinks Crowley smugly, somewhat closer to the floor than usual.
To angels, corporeal forms of any sort are just Things, but even so, bodies come with a lot of pre-programmed features. The two angels making such a nuisance of themselves still jerk away at the very sudden appearance of a very, very large black snake in the middle of the circle. Aziraphale takes advantage of this and belts Sandalphon with the chair he had been leaning on, which he had gotten a nice grip on. He’d certainly be outmatched in a regular fight, especially without relying on miracles, but angels are not at home with improvised weapons, and Aziraphale is very angry, and very desperate. That chair hits him hard. Then he starts towards Crowley, who is himself rushing to get clear of the circle –
Then Michael shouts a word like thunder, and the chalk of the circle blazes in gold and silver and colours only visible to ethereal beings* - and all at once, hellfire and holy water, only without their earthly mediums, light up the circle. Which Crowley still has not cleared.
*An certain species of Mantis shrimp.
He does not think about Falling much these days. Sure, he hasn’t forgotten, but there’s so much else to occupy his thoughts on Earth, and anyway, if he runs out, he’ll bloody well find something else to think about so he can avoid it.
This is different – similar. The pain is certainly familiar, but this is another kind of pain entirely. Falling from the stratosphere until your wings catch fire and char black and bloody leaves an impression, but the feeling of every molecule of your physical form attempting to disassemble while the same thing happens to your immortal soul isn’t anything like an improvement. The serpent of Eden writhes and burns, glitching from one form to another – snake – human – winged creature – all colliding with and passing through one another.
Someone collides with him. Aziraphale wraps his arms around him as the torrent consumes him, too. His human body flickers like a torch, wings appearing and disappearing, corporation glitching out to reveal a being of far too many eyes and who knows how many heads and fire, too, composed entirely of hard light. Crowley, or whatever he is now under this endless barrage of pain, holds onto him for dear life as they continue to shift and change, one form following another like a snake eating its own tail inside the circle.
The two angels watching back away in horror as they watch the writing shapes, clutching uselessly at their ears against the unearthly shriek that sounds not only on the physical plane. It sounds through the church until the copper bells in the chantry hum with it; it causes dogs all across the city to whine and wish they’d invested in opposable thumbs to cover their ears; birds in St. James Park take flight in panic; radio and TV shorts out for almost four miles around. In the middle of a séance, Madame Tracy startles terribly and jostles her crystal ball,* which shatters on the floor. Out on a grocery run and muttering darkly about single-use plastics, the witch known as Anathema Device suddenly finds herself with a splitting headache.
*Well, fishing float.
On his forest throne made of bicycle parts and other debris, Adam Young sits up, alarmed. ‘Oh no,’ he says, drawing the puzzled attention of his friends. ‘Someone’s done something very stupid.’
It’s nothing but blinding light and oppressive dark and sound so loud that it’s nearly silence, and of course pain, now. But Crowley cracks open eyes that belong to him regardless of shape, and finds Aziraphale’s face in the maelstrom. There are cracks running through it, like broken ceramic, light shining through it like gold. There’s a lot to see in that one gaze – fear, regret, apology, but strongest is the one feeling that Crowley tries to communicate himself. I couldn’t leave you by yourself. Here, or in a cathedral seventy years ago, or in the Bastille, or in Rome, or at the Arc, or in Eden, or in Soho, or at the end of the world.
They could not possibly speak now, nor hear if they did, but their eyes meet and both of them know what they are going to do next.
It is not the switching of bodies that they dabbled in before, but its roots are in the same place. They are already falling apart, both physically and metaphysically, and so do not have to peel back their layers to each other, one at a time. Instead, Crowley takes Aziraphale’s crumbling face in his disintegrating hands, and Aziraphale holds Crowley’s face in his hands, and they press forehead to forehead. And, one atom at a time, they put the other back together. Not even their architect might know them so completely as to attempt this without risk of error. Without it being the last possible reprieve, they would never have dared it themselves. A single misstep, and it would all be over.
As the angels watch in terror, the two beings in the circle’s hurricane of energy no longer warp and twist around themselves. Behind them, in the atrium, Hastur woke up, got to his feet groggily, saw the spectacle, and promptly screamed.
Now, there were two approximately human-shaped beings, slowly collapsing from a cloud of particles back to their previous bodies. They had their arms, tight, around each other, and their clothes were rather wrinkled and their hair in disarray, but otherwise, they appeared quite unharmed.
‘How the f̡̥͙͓͙̯͇̘̦͂̿͗̆̋͝ű͚͚͈̩͍̝̘̠̮̂͟c̶̬͛ͫ̔̅̉k̪̱̺̿͝͠* are they still alive!’ Wheezed Michael. The force of the scream had taken its toll on every being of angelic stock for miles around, and most psychic and/or religious folks in the area would have a headache for days afterwards. ‘How are they just standing there if the circle is still active?!’
*Celestial cussing is in fact rather a lot like its earthly equivalent, but has a tendency to give humans a migraine when heard.
‘It has to be a trick,’ says Sandalphon, nonplussed. ‘They must have done something –‘
He steps too close to the circle – not even inside it – and his left arm, extended in curiosity, disintegrates from the backlash. A second later he’s discorporated from sheer proximity.* The torrent in the circle starts to slowly wind down as it runs out of energy, until it is again just a collection of mostly-harmless chalk marks.
*He did not get caught up so badly as to be actually destroyed. When some of his co-workers later heard of the whole thing, they felt really rather cheated on that front. Knowing someone for thousands of years sometimes just means you would be especially glad to have to never see them again.
The two cling to each other a little longer, breathing for the luxury of it if not the necessity, enjoying the privilege of oxygen for the first time in several minutes.
Then Aziraphale raises his head from Crowley’s shoulder, and looks at Michael with such terrible Wrath that the archangel flees this reality without a second thought.
‘And don’t come back!’
At his shoulder, Crowley laughs weakly. ‘That’ll show ‘em...’
Aziraphale breathes deep. ‘Oh, dear... And here I thought this was it for both of us...’
‘Don’t look at me, I’m as surprised as you are.’ They hear a sudden shriek, and see Hastur turn on his heel and run. Before he can get very far, Crowley snaps his fingers and one of the chandeliers in the atrium falls from the ceiling, hitting the escaping demon squarely on the head. He goes down like a sack of bricks.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ says Aziraphale. ‘Before somebody decides we’re, I don’t know, trespassing.
‘Good idea,’ says Crowley, who is finally in good enough shape to feel what earlier wasn’t even worthy of note; namely the infernal tingling of his feet and the generally uncomfortable feeling* of being on consecrated ground.
*Not unlike someone walking over your grave.
They let go, gingerly, worried that they might both crumble without being held together. Aziraphale glares at the chalk marks on the floor, until they’re smudged into incoherency out of sheer embarrassment. Crowley hisses softly as they walk down the aisle, trying not to become an impromptu tapdancing champion on the way. They cross the threshold and it becomes slightly more bearable, but Hastur is still there, albeit out cold.
‘Just let me find a sink somewhere,’ says Aziraphale. ‘I’ll whip up some holy water and –‘
‘As much as I like that idea, I think we should just send him back,’ says Crowley. ‘I can’t imagine Down Below will be happy about such a fuck-up on his behalf.’ Besides, now that he’s tried it himself, he can’t properly wish that experience on anyone else.
‘Doesn’t mean we can’t have a bit of fun with it, though. Hang on, let me find a pen...’
A number of lesser demons were startled to see a Duke of Hell essentially drop from the ceiling after his body on Earth was discorporated. Pinned to his jacket, they found a note that said “I consort with angels and give up infernal weapons for funsies! Please take me to Idiot Jail!”
He was subsequently put on sub-cellar desk duty in that department of Hell which reviewed the guidelines, rules and bylaws on which humans should be damned to an eternity of torment, and to which circle of torment. This would sound like a fun spot of torturing for the average demon, but since since those rules were somehow both incredibly archaic and yet changed regularly at the drop of a hat, it was mostly him that was being tortured. It would be a very long millennium for Duke Hastur.
It was a bit of a shame about the rash, too, everyone agreed.
Once Hastur has been dealt with, they eagerly leave the church as far behind as possible. The sun is going down on London town, and for the want of a car and not eager to subject themselves to public transport just then, they find themselves on a deserted rooftop, passing a very cheap bottle of red between them.
‘Well.’ Says Crowley, legs dangling over the parapet, the angle sitting by his side. ‘I should probably be losing my shit right about now, but I don’t think I can work up the energy.’ He thought longingly of his bed, or sofa, or the couch in Aziraphale’s back room, or even just a sunny rock somewhere.
‘Yes, it really was rather taxing, wasn’t it,’ says Aziraphale with a shaky smile.
Crowley snorts at that towering understatement. ‘How did you know where to find me, anyway?’
‘Oh, they left a ransom note.’ He passes the bottle to Crowley, the heels of his shoes tapping gently against the side of the roof. ‘It was all very theatrical. Makes me wonder if they paid more attention to humans than I thought.’
‘Doubt it,’ says Crowley. ‘They just can’t help being clichéd about it. That’s what a total lack of imagination does to you.’
‘Still,’ says Aziraphale, and it’s a solid sort of word, that re-orients an entire conversation around itself. ‘I suppose we inadvertently proved them right, regardless of how stupid the conclusion they came to was.’
Crowley’s silent for a bit. He takes a sip to prolong the silence even further. ‘Well. Not for the reason they thought. You haven’t Fallen.’
‘And you did not Rise.’
Aziraphale grins. ‘And a good thing, too!’
Crowley grins back. His sunglasses had joined a long line of their brethren fallen in the line of duty, and he still hadn’t gotten around to miracling new ones. ‘Yeah?’
‘I quite like you as you are, dear,’ says Aziraphale matter-of-factly. ‘I don’t see any call for changing you.’
We have nothing whatsoever in common, I don’t even like you!
Crowley swallows, and whatever’s on his mind must show up on his face, because Aziraphale says, ‘Listen –‘
‘You don’t have to say it,’ says Crowley urgently. He’s waited a solid six millennia, he can probably wait longer, if that’s what it takes. Oh, who is he kidding? Certainly not himself, and by the look on Aziraphale’s face he’s not convinced either.
‘No, I suppose I don’t,’ he says, and for a second, Crowley feels both crushing relief and disappointment. ‘But we both know it, so I think I would rather not commit the harm of ignoring it any longer.’ The sky is red and orange, and the streetlights are turning on in those places more shadowed than others, and still it is warm.
Aziraphale takes a deep and unnecessary breath, then says, ‘You are my best friend. And we have more in common with each other than we don’t. Whatever souls are made of, yours and mine are the same.’
Crowley laughs. ‘Really, angel? Brontë at a time like this?’
‘Well, she put it so well. Do you disagree?’
Crowley could give a list of reasons as to why comparing anyone to Heathcliff and Cathy was just asking for trouble, but that would require admitting that he’s read books. Besides, that kind of pedantry was so not the point right now. ‘Course not. And I did not need to put your soul together from scratch to know it, either.’ It should come out bitter, after all this time, but under this turning sky, it’s just a statement of fact.
‘I shouldn’t have, either,’ sighs Aziraphale. ‘I’m sorry I did. But I suppose I’ve always been a champion at denial.
‘Well, I guess that makes two of us. Anyway, what makes a soul so special? If you ask me, anything that’s fun starts with the body.’ It should sound flippant, but he really believes it. The sunlight on scales or skin; the taste of crepes, the smoothness of scotch; to stretch after hours of sleep and then sleep again; to look upon the face of another and talk about absolute nonsense at absolutely all hours of the day. To know someone else’s silhouette as well as you knew your own. It was what they had tried to save the world for, after all.
Aziraphale laughed, full of joy and not a scrap of guilt left over. ‘I suppose I am a hopeless heretic, to agree with you.’
‘I like those things about you,’ says Crowley. ‘The stuff that has nothing to do with souls. The things that make you you and not just another angel.’
It’s anyone’s guess who moves first, but perhaps it doesn’t matter, when you’re this familiar. But it turns out there is always something new to learn about people, even when you’ve known them since the literal beginning of Creation. They both taste like cheap wine, as of course they must; it is clumsy and imperfect and not at all ineffable. Crowley understands perfectly well that he would like to keep his hand in Aziraphale’s hair as long as it takes for the universe to get this message of ‘You can’t have this one! Mine!’ Aziraphale understand perfectly well that here is a novel branch of hedonism he cannot wait to become an expert in. Both of them understand the rankling fact that they could have been doing this for centuries, if not for a lot of extenuating circumstances and a whole lot of denial.
‘There is more,’ says Crowley, a good while later. ‘To talk about, I mean.’
‘There will be time,’ says Aziraphale. ‘Afterwards.’
‘Afterwards,’ says Crowley, and leans in to kiss him again.
On his forest throne, Adam Young leans back in his chair, relaxing. ‘Oh well. That’s alright, then.’ He glances Upwards, and adds sternly, ‘And no more messing about! I meant it the first time.’
There is no answer, but as many theologians would argue, that is its own kind of reply.