In the winter of 1918, on the Eastern Front, Crowley spent days searching for Aziraphale in the blood-thickened snow. Something had gone terribly wrong; there were scattered traces of divinity all around, but otherwise only the rust and stink of war. Crowley remembers it like it was yesterday – because it was, taken against all the millennia of the world – but he can bring to mind every tilt-shift detail: every scattered feather, every shadow of a presence that he could not, unaccountably, find. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Aziraphale turned up in London via occupied France with his pockets full of forged visas. Crowley was confused and impossibly relieved and then just exasperated at Aziraphale’s inability not to glow through blackout curtains. It was fine.
Everything is fine. Crowley is definitely not having a breakdown in Waitrose.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, by the self-service checkouts. “You were supposed to get an avocado pear.”
“Damn your avocado, angel,” Crowley says, trying not be actively diabolical in all directions. The next customer is buying strawberries, whipped cream and WD-40 – it’s a Friday night – and Crowley can make out the scent of unhappy dairy. Everything’s fine. He’s definitely not having a breakdown. Much more of this and there’s going to be an unexpected fire in the bagging area.
“Crowley,” Aziraphale says again. “What is it?”
“You weren’t there,” Crowley says, sounding more j’accuse! than he meant to. “I turned around and you weren’t there.”
“I’m right here,” Aziraphale says, holding a packet of linguine like a question mark.
“But you weren’t!” Crowley says. “You were supposed to—be there, and… look, let’s not do this here.”
Aziraphale looks confused as to what, exactly, they’re doing here, other than having a tiff over their weekly shop. People are clucking. Crowley lets out an exasperated sigh, helps Aziraphale with the rest of the shopping and doesn’t comment when Aziraphale pointedly acquires a corner shop avocado on their way home. They get in, put the bags on the kitchen table and suffer a minor fridge collision when they independently decide to put away a different vegetable. Crowley sits down at the table and returns to the breakdown he’s not having.
“Something,” he tells Aziraphale, “is wrong. With you.”
“Nothing’s wrong with me!” Aziraphale says. He looks down at himself, is visibly struck by doubt. “All right, what’s wrong with me?”
“You.” Crowley gestures with both hands. “You’re… in the wrong place. Not where you ought to be.”
“I’m right here, Crowley,” Aziraphale says again. “Are you all right, my dear? Do you need…”
He trails off, apparently not sure what refreshment one offers in a case of epistemological uncertainty. Crowley shuts his eyes and listens to Aziraphale making a salad. That is what he has chosen to do in this time of crisis. He’s shredding lettuce and chopping the avocado with millennial gusto.
“Do you remember, back in the first big human war,” Crowley says. “You got trigger-happy and some people at Mons got very overexcited.”
“That wasn’t me,” Aziraphale says, just as outraged about it as he was a hundred years earlier. “There never was an angel of Mons. I tried telling Gabriel and he just gave me a commendation for heartening the troops. I’m a principality, not a soldier.”
Technically, Aziraphale outranks Gabriel. He led a battalion in the war before the earth was made. He’s just never been interested in management roles.
“And then you went missing,” Crowley says. “I knew you were there, somewhere, but I couldn’t find you.”
“I came back to London,” Aziraphale says. “We went for lunch, remember. I was terribly tired of borscht.”
“But,” Crowley says, and gives up. He can’t make the connection between the two, Aziraphale missing in a war zone and Aziraphale right there in front of him consumed by lettuce, without sounding like a lunatic. Anyway, he shouldn’t distract Aziraphale into a sub-perfect linguine. He goes to fetch some glasses out of a cupboard and turns around just as Aziraphale drops the knife.
It sticks in the floor, quivering. They both stare at it. It was an ordinary kitchen knife once, before it spent a decade in the cutlery drawer of the heavenly host. You could use it to cut day into morning.
“You should have,” Aziraphale says. He’s shaking. “You were going to. You should have taken it from me.”
Crowley replays the moment in his mind, of Aziraphale turning away from the salad bowl, not even looking at what he was doing, passing the knife to a hand he trusted was there.
“Right,” he says. “We’re getting drunk.”
They don’t get drunk, they get profoundly ratarsed. They do it with passion and efficiency. Eventually, they figure it out.
“We are,” Aziraphale says. “Physically connected. Not physically. Not like superglue. The other one.”
“Psychically,” Crowley says, pleased. “That. You and me.”
“Me and you,” Aziraphale agrees. He’s holding himself back from falling out of his chair. “Have we always? We’ve always.”
“We’re always,” Crowley agrees, absently. A horrible thought occurs. “Can you read my mind?”
“Well.” Aziraphale inclines his head like a cat that’s taken a philosophy class and now has ontological concerns. “No. I don’t think so. Can’t thwart wiles if you know what they are in advance. Bit like cheating at cribbage.”
Crowley assumes cribbage is something you can cheat at and not a comestible or a sexual practice. “But we know… where the other one is. And where they’re going to be. Kind of.”
“We did,” Aziraphale says. “We used to. Before… the things.”
He waves a hand, to indicate the apocalypse and the four riders thereof and how neither of them get messages from head office any more. “Is it because of the thwarting? That we don’t. Thwart.”
“Thwart,” Crowley repeats, because it’s a funny word, then lets out a combined sigh-hiss. ”How am I supposed to know where you are if I don’t know where you are? You never answer your phone. You don’t know what any of the buttons do. You run off to the Eastern Front, for, oh, a couple of minor miracles, he says, and then you don’t come back for six months. You smelled like beetroot,” he adds, which is clearly the key element of this story. “We could have used you to kill flies.”
“About that,” Aziraphale says, suddenly. “Was that… this? Why couldn’t you find me then?”
“Snow,” Crowley says. He thinks, through the haze of single malt and vinho do Porto and Aziraphale’s upstairs neighbour practising the tuba, that that’s important. “I couldn’t sense anything through it. At least… not occult things.”
“Ethereal,” Aziraphale says automatically, and pauses, light dawning on his face. Crowley’s never been sure if Aziraphale’s natural expressiveness is just his personality or the disarming grace of God. Either way it’s a lot when you’re drunk. “There’s something about snow. I went to the Dead Sea once. I remember it being quite muffling. ‘
“Salt,” Crowley says, understanding. Summoning circles, even the occult-in-a-box ones troubled teenagers get off the internet, tend to contain salt. It dampens down their sort of power. “That does it too.”
“S was nice though. Very conditioning,” Aziraphale goes on, dreamily falling off his chair. “Gets right into the fiddly bits between the feathers. Didn’t need to brush them out for months.”
“I’m happy for you, angel.”
“I had an odd sort of dinner once, back in the fifteenth century,” Aziraphale says. Crowley is too busy trying not to join Aziraphale on the floor to stop this whisky free association. “Gosh, what was the chap’s name? Can’t have been Caesar. Sounds like Caesar. But Caesar didn’t go in for orgies, did he? I got so disorientated, I remember, and I hadn’t had a thing to drink. They were a funny family that way. Best to take your own refreshments.”
Crowley is lying flat, staring at the ceiling. A little blood returns to his head. After a second, he says, “You had an orgy with Cesare Borgia?”
“Only a very little one,” Aziraphale says tranquilly. “He was a dreadful man. Though it wasn’t true about him and his sister. I wasn’t… myself. Something in the air.”
“Salt,” Crowley says again, wondering how you would follow Aziraphale’s train of thought without six thousand years of practice. “Sweat.”
“So this could be like that,” Aziraphale says brightly. “We’re usually connected. We’re just sometimes… not.”
Crowley has a brief vision of Aziraphale enmeshed in writhing Borgias and is glad he’s already lying down. He’s not convinced. It isn’t as though someone has salted and burned the bookshop, Adam notwithstanding, and as far as snow is concerned it’s the middle of July. The point is, they’re made of the same basic stock. They should be able to feel each other.
“Are you sure it’s that, and not, well, you know, the apocalypse,” he says. “So we’re not connected. Psychically.”
“Why do you keep pronouncing the P in ‘psychically’?” Aziraphale asks.
“Because, angel, I am exceedingly inebriated.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale says. He looks down at himself, at Crowley, up at the ceiling. “Bugger this for a game of soldiers. I’m going to sober us both up.”
He manages it for himself, reaches out for Crowley and misses. It’s the sideboard that learns the value of abstinence. They both look at it in silence.
“You know a psychic,” Crowley offers at last, with the P. He makes an effort. The liquid in the bottles returns to its previous level. “Didn’t you share a body with her once?”
“Madame Tracy,” Aziraphale says. “You think she could help us?”
Crowley’s brain misses the whisky. He feels itchy and overwhelmed. “Worth a try. ”
Madame Tracy remembers them, of course, in that faintly abstracted way of distant great-aunts; she asks how they are, inspects their ring fingers for additions, offers them tea and a Garibaldi. Crowley lets Aziraphale take one and dip it in his tea and eat it and drink the tea and ask Madame Tracy how she is and how Sergeant Shadwell is and how the nuptial preparations are going before he loses his patience.
“Yes, yes, jolly good, lovely day for it, gosh, the price of sequins nowadays,” he says. “We have a problem.”
Aziraphale and Madame Tracy exchange glances. More in tune than he and Aziraphale are, Crowley thinks sourly, and feels like throwing vegetables again.
“We,” he says, looking across to Aziraphale, “are not what we used to be.”
He’s not sure how else to put it. Not, I, the demon Crowley, and the angel with whom I have for some reason shared my existence for the last six thousand years, used to be something, and now we’re not any more. For a moment, Crowley misses how things used to be. He likes getting to the end of “Hotel California” without demonic interruption but he misses the certainty of Hell. You know where you are with boiling sulphur.
“Which is, exactly?” Madame Tracy asks.
“An angel and a demon,” Crowley says flatly, not in the mood to spare her limited capacity for knowledge. “He’s the angel. I need you to understand that upfront.”
“Right, yes,” Madame Tracy says, as this information enters her brain, thanks her neurons for a lovely time and promises to come back soon.
“We have a particular bond,” Aziraphale says blandly, cutting off anything Crowley might want to add. “It’s been a bit, er, buggered up by recent events.”
That sounds like they need marriage counselling. Crowley thinks about humans in sensible shoes, holding out boxes of tissues. A lake of boiling sulphur is starting to sound quite refreshing.
But Madame Tracy brightens up. “A particular bond, you say? An intimate bond?”
“A psychic bond,” Crowley says, pronouncing the P. Aziraphale glares at him.
“Oh, well, you should’ve said,” Madame Tracy says. “There’s lots we can do about that.”
She smiles at them and takes her time thinking it over. Crowley distrusts the gleam in her eye.
“Yes?” Aziraphale asks, after a few minutes have passed, punctuated only by the much of biscuits.
“Well, it’s rather outside my expertise,” Madame Tracy says at last. “But not to worry, it’s in my other expertise.”
She fetches out books from under cushions and from inside plant pots, marks up some pages with official Witchfinder Army post-its (we burn them so you don’t have to! is, to Crowley’s disappointment, not part of the official branding) and loads Aziraphale up with them. Then she hustles him and Crowley out the door in advance of her next appointment. Crowley steps past the nervous young man on the step, whose purpose there is uncertain – his expression could indicate one or both of pre-séance nerves or unusual undergarments – and waits for Aziraphale to start reading out the relevant passages before they’ve even got to the car.
But Aziraphale is just standing on the pavement, looking at the first marked page with an increasingly alarmed expression.
“Angel,” Crowley says, after a moment, looking up and down the street. They’re about to impede the passage of two men and a lemon sofa. “What is it?”
Aziraphale turns around the book to show him. Crowley peers at the illustration of two figures entwined inside a ring of Enochian symbols, and the caption: Sex Magick: Opening Legs And Opening Portals.
Even the sofa men are startled. “Oh, dear,” Aziraphale says, and trips over the edge of the kerb. Crowley realises too late that he was meant to catch him.
They try it. They scatter salt in a circle on the floor, toss cushions in the middle and dim the electric lights. Aziraphale is about to place lit candles round the edges, out of habit, but Crowley pins him bodily to a bookcase rather than let him set down the first one. “Do you want,” he says, hissing, “to be summoned up to Heaven, while doing… what we’ll be doing.”
“Goodness, I quite forgot,” Aziraphale says. “Mind the incunabula.”
Crowley minds the incunabula. He pulls Aziraphale down with him so he lands on his knees on a cushion, hands up for balance. His fingers come together in a clasp. Part of Crowley – a part deep down in the ventricles, that’s still fighting a long-ago war – is darkly stirred by the sight, by what he’s about to do to a kneeling angel of the Lord. But Aziraphale laughs at how awkwardly they’ve come to rest, a tangle of limbs and decorative sofa tassels. Crowley loves him. He submits as Aziraphale pulls him close and kisses him, pushes his jacket over his shoulders while clucking about what a ridiculous mid-existence crisis of a garment it is, Crowley, really, and traces a route with both fingers along the edge of Crowley’s ribs and around the curve of his hips. It’s something they’ve done many times before, sometimes when tipsy, sometimes just a loving thing for a long afternoon. It’s been a while, but they’re not out of practice.
Afterwards they stay where they are for a while, surrounded by debris and smudged occult symbols. The sound of a baby crying drifts down from upstairs; Aziraphale’s other neighbour is still practising the tuba.
“Did it work?” Crowley asks, at length.
“I don’t know.” Aziraphale sits up, using his hands to balance as he did before, and accidentally smacks Crowley in the face. “Oh, no.”
“Damn,” Crowley says, eyes watering. “Stop flailing, angel. Damn it.”
He can feel it, or rather, not feel it: nothing’s changed. Aziraphale is there, soul and body, and if nothing else Crowley ought to believe that. He can feel the warmth and weight of him, unmistakable material flesh. But there’s still something in Crowley’s head that’s dreadfully, unaccountably missing.
“It’s all right,” Aziraphale says, gently. “We’ll try something else.”
Something else occurs to Crowley mid-sneeze a couple of weeks later. They’ve spent the time doing what they do, more or less. Aziraphale has sold a couple of books. Crowley has bought a yucca. No messages from Above or Below, so nothing needs to be done by Arrangement. It’s odd, that they have to think of reasons to meet.
And when they do, it tends to go wrong. They lose track of each other in supermarkets; they reach out to hold hands and miss. They arrange to meet at Waterloo station and wind up at opposite ends. Before, they’d have run into each other by chance under the clock, or by the Starbucks where Crowley used to put pinholes in the cups.
It’s inconvenient. It’s existentially troubling. It makes Crowley feel itchy, heavy, like he’s viewing the world through a pane of dirty glass. He’s misting a plant in annoyance when it occurs to him that Madame Tracey never told them explicitly what they should do.
“Intimate bond,” he says to Aziraphale on the doorstep, without greeting. Aziraphale blinks, gestures him in and shuts the bookshop door. “As well as psychic.”
“If you pronounce it like that one more time, I’m going to do something violent,” Aziraphale says. Crowley is startled before he realises Aziraphale, too, is getting tetchy at the constant absence of something. “What do you mean, intimate?”
“This,” Crowley says, puts both hands over Aziraphale’s heart and wills an unfolding. Aziraphale’s wings spread across the room, their tips touching the roof.
“You’re supposed to ask before doing that,” Aziraphale says, cross and breathless: it is, as Crowley said, a devastatingly intimate thing. He looks up. “Oh, my goodness.”
His wings are an unholy mess. The edges are filthy, the long primary feathers bent out of shape, with ragged gaps where there should be a smooth lift surface. They look unkempt, uncared for in a way that Crowley has never seen in an angel in good standing, not even the guardian of the Eastern gate, the angel Aziraphale who lost a flaming sword.
Crowley stares, trying to make sense of the patterns of grime. “Have you been dragging them along the floor?”
“I suppose I must have,” Aziraphale says, wringing his hands. “Oh, no. She wouldn’t like it.”
That’s the first time Aziraphale has invoked God since everything that happened. Crowley files that away for later consideration.
“I thought,” he says. “Well. If it wasn’t sex, and there are other things we – you and me – can do, for each other.”
He’s not expressing himself well. But something soft passes across Aziraphale’s face, that speaks of things long gone. “Well,” he says. “Come here.”
Crowley sits beside him. They have to stay on the floor, because otherwise their wingtips will hit the ceiling. His own, when they appear, are in better shape than Aziraphale’s, glossy black and crisp. More wear and tear than usual, though, because in the old way of things, Crowley and Aziraphale’s awareness of each other extended to those parts that no one else could see. The wings were there, even when they weren’t, and they kept each other’s in order: a stroke of invisible pinions here, a minor rearrangement of secondaries there. Humans around them likely thought they were picking lint off each other or awkwardly expressing affection, both of which were true.
But it’s been weeks, months, since they’ve had that awareness: it’s visible in the dirt. Crowley realises that this is where some of the itch has been coming from. “Would you, angel,” he says, not needing to finish that sentence, but needing to start it.
“Yes, my dear,” Aziraphale says. “Lean forwards.”
They have done this before, too. Even sometimes on long lazy afternoons. But not without this weight and moment.
And this weight and moment is still with them, Crowley thinks dazedly, as Aziraphale’s fingers begin to comb through his feathers, preening, straightening, smoothing. It’s been such a long time that a couple of the long secondaries are moulting. Aziraphale puts them aside with tender fastidiousness, and goes back to it. Pin; semiplume; pennaceous; down. The rhythm of it, the set sequence of movements, is sensuous, which makes it demonic, and loving, which makes it holy. Crowley turns and gives Aziraphale the other wing without really noticing himself do it. When that’s done he’s not sure how much time has passed.
“There,” Aziraphale says, satisfied. Crowley reaches over and kisses him.
“On your back, angel,” he whispers, lascivious on purpose. Aziraphale clucks and does as bidden, lying flat so his great spread mess of wings take up most of the available floor in the bookshop. Crowley has an idea that this is going to take so much work that Aziraphale may as well not have to be sitting up for all of it.
But Aziraphale sits up anyway and says, “Not this way.”
He doesn’t like it, and neither does Crowley. Spreadeagled like that with his wings unfolded, Aziraphale looks as though there should be an angel-shaped hole in the roof. As though he were lying where he had fallen.
“No,” Crowley says quickly. “Come here, then.”
Aziraphale shuffles over obediently and dips his head, lowering his wings so they’re within Crowley’s reach. Crowley runs his hands along both outer edges, the chief primaries that power and orient flight. They’re ragged-edged, fundamental. Like birds’ feathers, angel feathers are rooted in the bone.
They break off in Crowley’s hands. Aziraphale shrieks in pain and shock. He looks up at Crowley, his breathing harsh.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley says, “I’m sorry – I don’t know why, that shouldn’t have – I’m sorry.”
Aziraphale doesn’t speak. He knows it shouldn’t happen. He’s looking up at the ceiling, to the sky that they can’t see.
Again, it’s only inconvenient. It’s not as though either of them flies everywhere, or even anywhere, these days. The Bentley and the Tube are perfectly serviceable. Aziraphale sweeps up the mess of his shed down, complains about Mrs Srivastava upstairs’ endless tuba-playing and the baby that never stops crying. He doesn’t talk about wings or angels at all.
But then things get worse.
This time it starts when a woman collapses on the street outside the bookshop. Crowley happens to be walking past with a bottle of milk Aziraphale asked him to get. Passers-by help the woman sit up and someone calls an ambulance, while Crowley leans against a wall and watches what’s going on with practically human curiosity. In less than ten minutes a paramedic has arrived, sugary tea has been provided, small talk has been made, and so have apologies for causing a fuss. Crowley is rather fond of humans on the whole. He’s only vaguely listening as the woman tells the paramedic that it was so unlike her, to come over funny, and she had the strangest dream as well, fancy that.
“What about, love?” the paramedic asks indulgently, while another passer-by tries to feed him a biscuit.
The woman looks up and says, “Falling.”
Crowley drops the milk and sprints into the bookshop. He leaves the smashed bottle behind him, ignores the crazed jangling of the bell, and slams into the back room.
Aziraphale wakes up from a doze on the sofa at the sound of footsteps. “Crowley, are you all—“
“No, and neither are you,” Crowley interrupts. “What are you dreaming about?”
He knows this can happen, theoretically: ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’, and dreams are a traditional means of divine revelation. He looks at Aziraphale and wonders if either of them are susceptible to it any more.
“Nothing,” Aziraphale says, irritably. He goes out to fetch another bottle of milk. When he gets back they have an argument about whose turn it is to put the bin out. The baby upstairs yells and the rain batters the bookshop windows. That night, the entire street has another dream. In human minds, it’s fine. A little odd, a little surreal, but blurred by human limitation, to be forgotten by morning. Crowley sees every detail: the snip-snip of scissors, the blood, the cutting away of wings.
“Aziraphale, I have to ask,” he says, once he’s woken Aziraphale up, put a cup of tea in his hand and made him curl up on the sofa under a blanket. Aziraphale is pale, but not as shaken as Crowley is. That slightly dead look is scaring Crowley more than anything else could. “You really saw that, didn’t you? When?”
“Long time ago, dear boy,” Aziraphale says distantly. “After the war.”
Crowley nods, understanding. Not the First World War with the borscht and the cordite, not the second one with the book-thieving Nazis; not the Crimea or the Peloponnese or the plain of Kurukshetra. The only war that matters, for an angel and demon: the one before the dawn of the world.
“There were some who were… captured,” Aziraphale says. “Who would not yield.”
Even in his mind, the memory has blurred – Crowley is pretty sure Gabriel and Uriel didn’t do it with Ikea kitchen scissors – but the emotion is sharp and crystalline. It hurts, not like hell, but three times worse and over: that Aziraphale should have seen it, that he should remember through millennia, that Crowley should see it through him and for the first time.
“You haven’t Fallen,” he says. He’d have to be an idiot not to understand what Aziraphale is afraid of. Bit by bit, he’s losing the trappings of what he is, what he always was, despite everything. He and Crowley can’t feel each other, even though they were both angelic stock. Neither of them hears from Heaven or Hell. Aziraphale’s wings are a mess of broken edges and pain.
But still: Crowley would know. Even now, he would know. He has experience of darkness where once was light.
“No,” Aziraphale says. “Perhaps She just doesn’t care.”
They sit with that for what’s left of the night.
Aziraphale doesn’t get out of bed for a few days after that. Crowley can’t think what to do except make cocoa and threaten bookshop customers with disembowelling. When that doesn’t work, he tries getting places that deliver cake to deliver cake and some places that don’t deliver cake to deliver cake. Aziraphale stares at the wall and ignores him. After that Crowley decides that annoying him into getting up is the best approach and plays Queen and Metallica very loudly from outside the door, regrets it and replaces them with Bach’s Mass in B Minor, remembers it was a composition in praise of angels, regrets that, goes back to Queen. Mrs Srivastava upstairs doubles down on the tuba playing and the baby shrieks in a high falsetto. Just when Crowley is ready to snap, drag Aziraphale out of bed by force and rematerialise them both at the top of a mountain, the doorbell rings.
“We’re closed!” Crowley yells through the blinds, and then, as this occurs to him: “It’s midnight! Go and have a drink or some sex!”
“It’s the girl from upstairs,” Aziraphale says, from behind him. Crowley doesn’t ask how he knows. He hangs back in the shadows as Aziraphale opens the door.
“I need your help,” the girl says, holding out the screaming baby, and bursts into tears.
“Oh, dear,” Aziraphale says. He gestures them in, shuts the door and takes the baby from the girl’s arms.
Five minutes later, he’s learned that her name is Frankie, that the baby is Jack, that she’s sorry about all the screaming but he won’t stop crying and what the hell is that noise.
“It’s a tuba,” Crowley says helpfully, emerging from behind a bookcase. The girl jumps. Aziraphale glares.
“Crowley is my, ah, partner,” he says, not at all as he’s spend the last five days ignoring Crowley thoroughly, even when bearing marshmallows the size of coconuts. “He’s just putting the kettle on, aren’t you, Crowley?”
Crowley, much to his chagrin, finds himself doing just that. When he emerges with a tray of mugs, it’s just as the girl – Frankie – is explaining that she needs to go out and get a prescription but she’s on her own and there’s no one to watch the baby and she’s desperate, and she heard the footsteps from below and she thought they must be awake and she’s really sorry.
“Not at all, it’s perfectly all right,” Aziraphale says. He tucks the baby in the crook of one arm and escorts her to the door with the other, in the manner of an entity who lived through the nineteenth century, and gestures her down the road to an all-night pharmacy that didn’t used to be there. “Take your time, we’ll be here.”
Most people would not leave their baby with a near-stranger, and probably Frankie upstairs is one of them, but Aziraphale has that effect on people. And she was so tired even Crowley was starting to sense it, sleeplessness turning to delirium being a torment of the first circle of hell.
“Will we,” he grouses, over the howling. “It would’ve been easier to smite Mrs Srivastava.”
“Crowley, we are not smiting Mrs Srivastava.”
“There could’ve been entrails. I love a good entrail.”
“The poor dear, all on her own like that,” Aziraphale says, rocking the baby, which is still screaming like it’s on the rack. “And it is my fault, after all.”
He means the dreams he’s still periodically broadcasting to the neighbourhood, but Crowley thinks privately that the tiny hellspawn would wail with or without visions from before the dawn of man. He sticks his tongue out at it and hisses. It screams back. Crowley reaches to take off his sunglasses and thinks better of it when Aziraphale’s gaze lands on him.
“Crowley, must you,” he says. “Could you pass me that, please?”
“What, this?” Crowley says. It’s one of Aziraphale’s discarded down feathers, missed when they swept up. (The broken primaries, Crowley put somewhere on top of a bookcase and hopes never to have to look at again.) “What for?”
“Something to amuse her with,” Aziraphale says. He takes it from Crowley’s hand and waves it in front of the baby. It splits the light. “Sparkly! See.”
“You’re… using an angelic feather as a kid’s toy,” Crowley says. The kid will grow up to be a saint. Or one of those people who psychoanalyse themselves at parties.
“Well, it’s definitely non-toxic,” Aziraphale says. “Such a good girl! That’s right. And besides, I may not be an angel any more.”
“You are,” Crowley says, after a moment. The baby, entranced by the rainbow patterns, now seems to be drifting towards contentment. The mother’s exhaustion is clearing from Crowley’s consciousness. He suspects that when she gets back, they’ll both sleep soundly till lunchtime. “Isn’t it lovely and quiet?”
Aziraphale, bless him and damn him in equal proportions, is not an idiot. “Crowley! What have you done to Mrs Srivastava?”
“I killed her and ate her.”
“Did you really,” Aziraphale says, kissing the top of the baby’s head. “Will you listen to the silly demon. Isn’t he funny.”
“She joined a book club,” Crowley says wretchedly. “The meeting’s tomorrow and she hadn’t read the book.”
“She’s joined a book club at” – Aziraphale tries to look at his watch and fails – “quarter to one in the morning?”
“Retroactively,” Crowley says. “She joined it last week. She’s discovering hobbies other than music.”
He read a book once in 1974. He didn’t like it. He hopes Aziraphale won’t ask what book the book club are reading.
“What book are the book club reading?” Aziraphale asks.
“Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue by the High Prince James &c,” Crowley says – it must be a good book, he’s in it – and charges on. “Have we adopted the human spawn now? Do we need to buy it horns and a little halo?”
“Can you say, vade retro satanas,” Aziraphale asks the baby, but the bookshop bell rings before Crowley can respond to that. He opens the door to Frankie, looking better for even a few minutes of fresh air. When she sees that the baby is asleep in Aziraphale’s arms, the relief on her face is luminous.
“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you so much, I just, thank you.”
“Let us know if you need us again,” Aziraphale says, glancing over at Crowley before he hands back the spawn. “My partner and I will be happy to help.”
Frankie is too tired to ask why they’re both awake and fully-dressed at one in the morning, or why Crowley is wearing sunglasses indoors. She wanders through to the back stairs with her eyes on the baby. Aziraphale put his down feather into its itty bitty fist, so it carries its rainbow along with it.
“Happy to help,” Crowley repeats, outraged, and then: “Aziraphale. Are you all right?”
“I don’t know.” Aziraphale flumps into a chair, then stands up again, paces fretfully up and down the room. The little interlude is over and the space between them is laden again. “I suppose we should… get on with things.”
Crowley’s not sure what things they could be getting on with. Angels and demons don’t actually need to sleep and so can’t be sleep-deprived. But they can be exhausted, and grieved, and wish for rest. Aziraphale sways slightly as he crosses the room, stumbles on the edge of the carpet, and Crowley catches him.
They freeze in place, mid-dip like ballroom dancers. Can it be this simple, Crowley thinks, as dazed as when Aziraphale was carding through his wings. Not snow or salt or divine displeasure.
“Aziraphale,” he says, sinking to the floor and taking his angel with him. “Back in 1917, when you went missing on the Eastern Front. What were you doing there?”
He’s not sure why it took him a hundred years to ask this question, or why it’s intensely crucial that he ask it now. He could call it a flash of divine revelation. Stranger things have happened.
Aziraphale hugs his knees and wriggles uncomfortably. “At first I was supposed to hearten the troops,” he says. “But it was all so messy. I never knew which side was which and which one I was supposed to be on. Gabriel said I’d know, but I didn’t. And he couldn’t get to me either – he couldn’t sense me through all the snow, just like you couldn’t. So I went a little… off-script.”
“You?” Crowley murmurs. “Never.”
“People liked it when their boots were dry,” Aziraphale says, the words tumbling over each other. “They liked it when they had their friends around them at the end. They were calling out for help, the poor things, and I didn’t like them to think no one was listening.”
“You were listening,” Crowley says.
Aziraphale knew the girl was at the door. He came down to let her in before Crowley had realised she was there.
“Well, yes,” Aziraphale says, embarrassed. “I’m supposed to carry messages back, as well. To Her.”
“You haven’t been,” Crowley says.
“I haven’t been ordered to,” Aziraphale says, and sighs. “I know, I know. I never followed orders before.”
This is typical of the infuriating divine, Crowley thinks, irritated. Take his wings and peace of mind and ability to sense other angels, rather than just tell him to go freelance.
But he can feel revelation pass through Aziraphale like a breaking wave. In the first great human war, the Lord needed an angel who didn’t know what side he was on. In these altered times, She still does.
They’ve been having this conversation where they landed, Aziraphale still in Crowley’s arms, halfway between something and something else. Aziraphale lifts his head and kisses Crowley on the mouth. “Perhaps you’re right,” he says.
“You’re not supposed to be able to read my mind,” Crowley complains. He reaches down to ruffle Aziraphale’s wings, and finds he knows precisely where they are.
“It’s like you say,” Crowley says, looking out at London spread beneath them, a cityscape in constellation. They had a nice dinner at a restaurant in one of these very modern skyscrapers named after vegetables, and afterwards the staff didn’t seem to notice as two of their guests vanished out to the unfenced roof. “It’s ineffable. Unable to be effed.”
“Not wholly unknowable,” Aziraphale argues. “Just ineff—ooh, that stings.”
“Hold still, angel,” Crowley says. Aziraphale’s wings pass through Crowley’s hands, feathers coming together with a sound like a pack of cards being riffled. “You’re all right, you’re doing fine.”
“Mmmm,” Aziraphale says, slightly buzzed from the touch. He is all right, for certain values thereof. He’s babysitting for Frankie upstairs. He’s suggesting books to Mrs Srivastava. The sun shines in Soho, often, these days. Local fundraising appeals go oddly viral and the birds sing. There’s an old lady across the road, on the top floor, who refused to stay in hospital for the end. One day soon, an angel will sing her to her rest. “Are you?”
“Of course I am, I have you as putty in my hands,” Crowley announces, and feels Aziraphale’s huff of annoyance. “I’m perfectly all right.”
It’s both easier and more complicated for him: he doesn’t have the problem that Aziraphale has, of being defined by obedience to authority. Demons don’t typically go in for obedience or authority. So he’s not taking up good works – Mrs Srivastava’s tuba finally fell out of a window and got squashed by the London Borough of Camden’s experimental recycling collector – but he’s keeping humanity antic. He’s enjoying drones and Extinction Rebellion. Next week he might reverse a one-way system or unleash 99 red balloons. “I keep them on their toes, don’t I?”
He means the humans, but Aziraphale rises to the tips of his toes anyway, then drops. It completely ruins the line of feathers Crowley was rearranging. He hisses and nips at the back of Aziraphale’s neck.
“Did you,” Aziraphale says, “bite me.”
“No,” Crowley says. Demons don’t go in for truthfulness either. “I’m going to put the new ones in, angel. Are you ready?”
Up until now he’s just been cleaning up the mess. Whether it’s existential uncertainty or plain old depression that got Aziraphale’s wings so mucky, he doesn’t know. But the minor damage doesn’t seem to be permanent, and a couple of hours’ effort in the cool night air has got rid of the worst of it. Aziraphale shakes his wings out of Crowley’s grasp and lets the breeze ruffle the pinion feathers.
“I think so,” he says.
Crowley nods to himself. There is, he’s aware, a human expression concerning where angels fear to tread. It doesn’t have the rhetorical force that they think it does; angels as a whole are not enterprising creatures and for most of human history there has only been one angel on Earth. A deep den of iniquity would, indeed, be somewhere angels fear to tread; but similarly, so would a den of two DJs on a Saturday night or Hampstead Heath Mixed Pond or the Pepsi Max at Blackpool. (Not the Waltzer, oddly. Aziraphale quite enjoyed being spun around in circles.)
Still. This is something new.
Aziraphale sits down on the flat surface of the roof and leans back. Crowley parts Aziraphale’s primary feathers, gently, though not without provoking a hiss of pain. “Easy,” he says, to no effect; Aziraphale’s entire body is tense against him.
“This shouldn’t hurt,” he says, knowing that’s not the point. He pulls Aziraphale’s own kitchen scissors out of his pocket – ten years in the drawer has made them sharp enough for this – and uses them to snip off the broken edges. Aziraphale shouldn’t be able to feel it, but he jerks away anyway. Crowley pauses.
“Yes,” Aziraphale says. “Do it.”
Two long spikes, like knitting needles, flaking red. Crowley soaked them in brine overnight. He could do it with glue, but it’s more occult to do it this way, with iron, rust and salt.
“You’re doing fine,” Crowley says again. He feels Aziraphale nod.
He inserts the needles into the broken feather shafts. First one, then the other, the full sweep of Aziraphale’s wings in his grasp. Then he reaches beside him for the moult feathers, that Aziraphale put away for him, when they were trying to stick themselves intimately back together.
(It’s what they’re still doing. Just without fear of Falling or sex diagrams.)
Crowley’s secondary feathers are as large as Aziraphale’s primaries. Just because his wings are bigger; just because that’s how She made him. He snips off the tips, pushes them over the needles and holds both down at the root. In the heat of his hands, they seal. Aziraphale shivers. That, he can feel; that’s the moment they become part of him.
“Can’t do anything about the colour,” Crowley warns, not for the first time.
“Well,” Aziraphale says, “we can’t do anything about a lot of things.”
He gets up and out of Crowley’s hold. Crowley inhales sharply. The black edges of Aziraphale’s wings are stark with beauty. He looks like an angel cut out from desolation.
“How does it feel?” Crowley asks, mouth dry.
“Proof of the pudding’s in the eating, dear boy,” Aziraphale says, and leaps off the edge of the roof.
It’s an act of faith: both in Crowley, and in God’s plan. Crowley’s heart rises and falls with Aziraphale’s chiaroscuro form. “You,” he says through gritted teeth, as Aziraphale comes back to the level of the rooftop, “you, you, you bloody—“
Aziraphale isn’t listening. He does something calligraphic and fancy with both wing tips, a backwards somersault, another downwards swoop, and ends up on his back with arms folded behind his head, held level by steady wingbeats.
“I’m disgracefully out of practice,” he says. “Should be able to do the whole routine without breaking a sweat. I had my formation-flying badge. Hurry up, Crowley, we haven’t got all night.”
“I hate you,” Crowley says, despairingly. His own wings have manifested in sheer irritation. “I really, really do.”
“It’s just, I do want to pick up a few things before the shops close,” Aziraphale says earnestly. “We haven’t got any croissants in.”
“Bugger your croissants,” Crowley says. Aziraphale holds out a hand to him. In black and white shadows, they come down from the sky.