how can I explain it?
having been seen
what would that mean?
— hop along - the fox in motion
“Right, yeah,” Crowley is muttering, as he walks. “That’s just fine. All good. For sure. ”
He doesn’t know where he’s walking to, he only knows what he’s walking from, and that’s the bandstand at St. James’ Park where he left Aziraphale just a few minutes ago.
He needed to get as far away as possible, as fast as possible, but he couldn’t bear getting back in the Bentley to drive back to his flat, not when it was more than liable to start blasting “Love Of My Life” like the cheeky bastard it is, so: he’s walking. Letting his long legs carry him through the streets, taking turns at random, trying to run his body down to exhaustion, as if any level of tiredness would be able to calm the cruel words caught in his mind like fish in a net, struggling, trapped: I don’t even like you. There is no “our side.” It’s over.
Wordless groans of self-excoriation mix in with pointed insults under his breath. “‘ Have a nice doomsday?’ Really, that’s the best I could do?” he says, resisting the urge to physically slap himself in the face. He settles for digging his fingernails into his palms, hands in fists of frustration at his sides.
The light is fading around him, London draping itself in a beautiful blanket of August evening, gentle and honest as if Armageddon isn’t bearing down on all of them at that very moment. The mundane calm of it all is deeply offensive to Crowley. How dare the sun just set like that? Doesn’t it know he’s got a broken heart? Doesn’t it know the night will only make it worse?
He’s not looking where he’s going, he never does. This city learned long ago to simply rearrange itself around him as he travels through it, sparing him the inconveniences of waiting for crosswalk lights or dodging baby carriages. It knows better.
So it’s highly unusual, what happens next: Crowley collides with a woman holding a bin bag, crossing from a cafe storefront to the bin at the curb, causing the bag to split and send its contents spilling across the sidewalk.
“Hey, excuse me!” she yelps, as Crowley stumbles to a halt, coming back down to Earth.
The woman is tall and thin, wearing a striped t-shirt, giving off an air of committed desperation that marks her out as a London business owner. She’s looking sadly down at the mess he’s just made of her bin bag.
Crowley opens his mouth to say something rude, maybe along the lines of Fuck off, I’m not in the mood, but is as surprised as anyone to hear himself mumble, “’M sorry. Wasn’t looking.”
She scowls at him, and crouches wordlessly to start picking up the rubbish.
Then, Crowley further surprises himself by kneeling to help. His brain must have been irreparably scrambled by the scene at the bandstand, because there he is, a commended demon of the seventh circle, agent of Satan and one of the Fallen, willingly helping a strange woman pick up garbage off a dirty London pavement.
(She flicks her eyes up at him, noticing the broad shoulders, handsome cheekbones, thick auburn hair. To you, she says: Ooh. Who’s this, then? )
“Thanks,” she says to him.
Crowley nods, shoving dirty paper towels and banana peels back into the ripped bag. They pick up the bag together and lift it into the bin, and he notices a stain on her shirt, from when the bag exploded. A quick twist of his lips and it dissipates into the air; she never even noticed it was there.
“This your cafe, then?” he asks, as they step back onto the sidewalk. “It’s… it’s nice.”
“Yeah.” She gives him a slow once-over, wiping her hands on her pants. “D’you wanna come in?”
“I– Aren’t you closing?”
“I guess. But you could help me do the dishes.”
He follows her into the cafe like a lost puppy, wondering what the hell he’s playing at.
(To you, she says: What the hell am I playing at? )
The inside is painted a rude shade of teal, and the walls are decorated with bookshelves and knick-knacks and framed pictures of guinea pigs. The chairs are stacked up on the tables, but she takes one down, sets it on the ground, and points to it.
“I’m not actually going to make you do the dishes,” she says. “Sit down. Tea?”
“Got anything stronger?”
“Wow, you’re in a mood.” She walks around to the sink behind the counter, starts scrubbing away at the pile of dirty mugs and plates.
“Well, the world is ending, for one.”
Now she laughs. “You too, huh?”
He wants to say, no, not like that, it’s all actually going to end tomorrow, you’ll be blown to bits, and so will your cafe, and so will whatever or whoever is making you so bitter and empty and upset, I can feel it radiating off you like a heat lamp, so that’s some small comfort, then?
But instead he buries his head in his hands, and lets out a low groan.
She places a dish down in the rack, and turns back around to look at him, draped dramatically over the chair and table like a sordid bolt of slinky black velvet.
(To you: Oh, he’s definitely gay. Hm. Probably for the best. )
Picking up the next dish, she asks, casually as anything: “What’d he do?”
Crowley looks up with a start. How did she—?
“Come on. Out with it.”
He shakes his head. He isn’t going to spill his guts to this woman surrounded by guinea pig merchandise, he absolutely is not— but then he remembers the world is ending tomorrow, so, what the hell.
“I just want him to choose me,” Crowley says. “For once, I want him to fucking choose me, over… over…” His mind reaches frantically for a human-appropriate metaphor to couch his whole impossible situation in, and eventually finds one.
She stops scrubbing, and turns to stare at Crowley,
“Oh, you’re kidding me,” she says. “Do you want to fuck a priest as well?”
If she’d have bothered to actually serve him tea, Crowley would have spat it out right then. Lucky thing she didn’t; the guinea pig portrait on the wall in front of him stays safe and dry.
He chokes down the remainder of his ghost spit-take and manages to say, “I— wh— do you? ”
She puts another dish into the rack, leans back against the counter, and tilts her head up, as though willing sudden tears to drain back down into her eyes.
“The whole thing is awful,” she says, and starts to explain.
He listens intently, instinctually interested. Tempting a priest— that’s the sort of thing his side goes in for, generally. A stone cold classic, one might say. If he’d met her, say, last month, this conversation might be taking a turn about now; he’d be slipping automatically into sibilant tones, speaking some simple words of encouragement that would push her gently towards this poor man of the cloth, towards a choice that would lead to his damnation.
Not today, though. Today he wants to tell her to run, run far away; he wants to make her promise she’ll save her love and her time for someone with the capacity and the willingness to return it at all, if ever; he wants to get in her face and sob and scream and say it’s not worth it, he’ll never choose you, he’ll know you badly you want him to but he never, ever will, and that’ll be the worst part, it really will be.
But, of course, he won’t tell her that, because he may be a demon but he’s not a hypocrite.
He compromises by staying silent, and just listening.
“And I’m sitting there with him, on this park bench,” she’s saying, “and he’s telling me he doesn’t want me. With his mouth, his words, he’s saying he can’t have me.” She glares balefully off into the middle distance, her hands wringing out a dishcloth with intense energy. “But with his everything else, he’s saying something different. Something totally different.”
“And what’s that?” says Crowley.
She doesn’t answer his question. “God, what is it about sitting on a bench with someone?” she says instead, her voice cracking. “With a foot of air between, you know?”
Crowley does know.
“There’s something just so— inherently erotic about it, don’t you think?”
“Ngk,” says Crowley, “I. Guess so.”
She’s scrubbing down the counter now, with much more vigor than perhaps is entirely necessary.
“He’s so… he’s almost there, I can tell he’s almost there!”
Crowley laughs darkly. “You just keep on believing, yeah,” he says. “I’ve been thinking like that for years, never made any difference in the end.”
She blinks over at him. “Wait. How long has this been going on for you? I’ve only known this guy for a few weeks.”
“Oh. Um. You know. A really, really, long time,” Crowley says, suddenly viciously embarrassed.
She shakes her head. “We’re so stupid,” she says. “Why are we so stupid? ”
He could tell her all about lust, and greed, and the human tendency towards self-destruction; he could tell her about the Tree of Knowledge and he could tell her about sin; he could reel off a list of the crimes of the human soul, with all the ones he invented neatly highlighted— but he doesn’t.
Instead, he says, “Made that way, I guess.”
She nods. “And this— this therapist I saw the other day, she told me I didn’t want to fuck the priest, I wanted to fuck God, which is ridiculous, right? Like, well, yes, fuck God, but just— in the abstract, yeah?”
“Yeah,” agrees Crowley.
She rolls her eyes. “I mean, you don’t believe in God, do you?”
She cringes, realizing she might have said the wrong thing. “Sorry, sorry, sorry, I know that’s a personal question—”
But he just starts to laugh, loudly and with abandon. A great, cathartic guffaw of astonishment at the absurdity, the impossibility of it all.
Then she joins in, she’s laughing too, they’re both laughing, freely and gloriously, just laughing , as though it’s all the funniest thing in the universe. And they’re just two broken-hearted Londoners in a closed cafe, laughing in the face of the end of the world, laughing in the face of the Almighty, laughing in the face of what they want and can’t have, lonely, yes, but for this moment, just for this one small moment, not alone.
Abruptly, as though a timer’s run out, they both stop. The laughter drains away.
“No,” Crowley says, finally, firmly. “I don’t believe in God.”
He looks at her, and he can see how scared she is, and he dearly wishes he couldn’t tell that she can see how scared he is— but she absolutely can, and isn’t that the biggest joke of them all?
She breaks his gaze, looks around. Rubbish out, dishes clean, surfaces scrubbed. Chairs all up on the tables, except for the one Crowley’s sitting in. She comes back around the counter, grabs her coat from the rack by the window, and shrugs it on.
“Well,” she says, breathing deeply, “that’s me done.”
Crowley takes the hint. He stands, puts the chair back, and follows her back outside. She locks up. They walk over to the sidewalk in front of the cafe, and stand in the same spot where they’d collided.
“Gotta go,” she says.
“Where to?” he asks, even though he thinks he knows the answer already.
And she sighs, resigned. The smallest of wistful smiles lifts one side of her mouth. He’s seen that smile before, in his mirror.
“To him,” she says, helpless. “Where else is there?”
Nowhere, Crowley thinks. There is nowhere else. There is no one else.
She takes out a cigarette, holds it in her mouth, pats down her jacket for a lighter; Crowley hesitates for barely a moment before lifting his hands, cupping them carefully so she can’t see how he sparks up the tip of his finger to light for her.
She nods gratefully, takes a drag. “Thanks.”
(To you, she says: Weird. I didn’t even see him reach into his pocket for it. But that was sweet. )
She’s about to turn away to go, but there’s something he remembers, at the very last second. He asks her the name of the church, the one her priest works at, and she tells him.
Of course. Of course it’s that fucking church. Rebuilt, of course. But the same one. The very same blessed one.
(And he’s been paying attention to her, this whole time. He knows how it’s done now. To you, he says: Fucking ineffable. )
She surprises him, then, by leaning forward and wrapping him in a tight hug. He doesn’t even put up a fight. She smells like lipstick and tobacco and grief and hope.
“Good luck with everything,” she says into his ear, “good luck with him,” and then she’s gone, into the dusk.
Night falls fully, over the next little while, and Crowley’s still walking. Trying to take it all in. The last night this wretched, wonderful world will ever see.
He lets the inevitable happen— his feet carry him to Soho, and Aziraphale’s bookshop looms out of the bright false-darkness of the city. He stands across the road, staring up at it. The light is on upstairs. The angel is in.
There are plenty of people out on the street, but Crowley is the only one who seems to notice movement, low to the ground, on the sidewalk in front of the shop.
It’s a fox.
It stops in front of the door. It looks up at the lighted window, towards the angel. And then it looks at Crowley, and a shiver runs down his spine.
What do you want from him? he thinks at it.
In response, it runs off down the street, disappearing underneath a car.
Crowley swallows, hard.
He’s imagining the woman from earlier, heading into that church, into the darkness, towards a figure at the altar.
(Maybe her feet hurt, from walking around in heels all day. Actually, she might not have been wearing heels, now that he thinks about it, but just let him have this.)
He doesn’t know what the place looks like now, so he’s imagining what it looked like back then, before the bomb dropped. And he doesn’t know what her priest looks like, so he’s imagining someone a few inches shorter than her, hair sticking up a bit, all soft where she’s sharp, with big round eyes and well-kept clothes and a brilliant smile, and all that unbearable, beautiful holiness surrounding him like a cloud of light.
And she’s there, with him, and she’s going to get what she wants, or at least move closer towards it. She’s going to keep trying until she can’t anymore, she’s going to keep asking, because in her own way, she’s brave. After all, it’s not the end of the world, to want something, is it?
Well, it might be, tonight.
But even so.
It might not.