Members of His faction have frequently admitted that if ever we came to understand what He means by Love, the war would be over and we should re-enter Heaven.
– Screwtape Letters
The Captain had not expected to meet his friend when he took them out to the village inn. He did it for them; he did not even drink himself, although he seemed to be enjoying himself, listening to them converse with the locals as they sat on the wooden benches in front of the inn in the exceptionally sunny April afternoon. It was a rare peaceful moment, one they were very grateful to the Captain for – he seemed to have a knack for this sort of thing, to know where to get better drink than the canteen could offer them, how to steal some rare moments of quiet pleasure for themselves. Officers were not to be trusted as a rule, but Captain Crowley was a rule unto itself. If some stuck up military type had told him he was undisciplining the men, he would not give a damn. He was undisciplining himself with them most of the time. And they would have told anyone who would pry their noses into the matter that the Captain took great care of the way they behaved and would not stand for any sort of nonsense, thank you very much for asking.
So when Captain A. J. Crowley got the unexpected pleasure of meeting his friend – Mr Azra Fell was the name – in return for his efforts for his men, they were all glad for him.
Of course, what with the captain being a bit of a college toff and his friend most probably as well, their meeting was not exactly what you would have expected. They greeted each other seemingly coldly, and went on to speak about some old books or other such subject and argue about it in a lofty manner. But you could see in their eyes that they were both extremely glad to see each other.
Later, they listened to their conversation, to Greg Jameson’s stories of his family (he had a treasury of those) and the village stories the locals countered with, and exclaimed their awe, or amusement, or thrill in the proper places just like any other men. This was what they liked about their Captain. He did not think himself above them. Sometimes, they got the feeling that he thought himself below them.
A man – the local churchwarden – limped slowly past them, greeting the locals and then heading to the church, opening the door and disappearing inside.
“Old Sheppard won’t let it go,” one of the locals laughed. “He barely walks, but he won’t let the church go to ruin.”
“That’s not a bad thing, is it?” the Captain asked. “Perseverance is something we have badly needed so far.”
“Crowley, let’s go to the church,” the Captain’s friend said suddenly and gripped his arm. “I’d like to have a quiet talk.”
“Why does it have to be in the church?“ Captain Crowley objected as Mr Fell dragged him, gently but relentlessly, towards the stone building in the centre of the village. They both disappeared inside all the same, and remained there for some time.
Captain Crowley came back first. There was something determined in his eyes; as it turned out, he had the very firm intention of buying a drink for each of them.
“I need to talk to you somewhere inconspicuous,” Aziraphale told Crowley when they were out of earshot of all the people gathered round the inn where they had met.
“Inconspicuous my foot,” Crowley murmured, but he struggled much less than he could have.
The church was open but empty – there was only the churchwarden fixing something around the altar, and he was practically deaf, Aziraphale assured Crowley. He had actually made sure that the deafness would be more pronounced during their time inside, but that, he told himself, was only for the old man’s good. With all the things going on in recent years, he did not need to be bothered with an angel and a demon discussing matters of life and death on top of all that. An RAF officer and his friend coming in for a few moments of quiet was more like it.
They chose the farthest pew, part because of the warden and part in deference to Crowley’s obvious unease at their surroundings; and indeed they sat in quiet for a while, Crowley waiting for what Aziraphale wanted to tell him and Aziraphale wondering how exactly to go about it.
“Well?” Crowley could not wait any longer.
“You’re going to do it again,” Aziraphale blurted out. “You’re starting to care about them all, and then you’ll arrive at a point of no return and go out in blazes of glory.”
Crowley only stared, and it was a very disconcerting stare, even more than his usual yellow one. Why on earth did it have to be blue? Aziraphale thought.
“What made you say that?” Crowley said finally.
“Oh come on, it’s obvious!” Aziraphale cried – squeaked – out. “You even go and praise a faithful old churchwarden! You’re so deep in it.”
“He’s also a grumpy old churchwarden overly concerned with the material side of things,” Crowley tried to counter, but it was a very weak attempt.
“You saw they liked him, and you only supported them,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley nodded gravely.
“You’re so deep in it, you don’t even care anymore what happens to you,” Aziraphale continued. “It’s just like last time. Your hands are shaking all the time; do you think I did not notice that you did not drink? You can’t, you’d spill your drink.”
“I would not. Why are you telling me all this?”
“Crowley, stop for a moment! Let it go! You’re ruining yourself.”
Crowley looked at him with what almost seemed like contempt.
“Angel, you’re tempting me.”
“I really hope I’m not. It’s just that you’re so awfully stubborn, someone has to take care of you when you forget to do it yourself...”
Crowley rose abruptly.
“I did not want to offend you,” Aziraphale said quickly. “You can take care of yourself. It’s just that...”
“No,” Crowley said. “I cannot, not quite, not in this situation. You had to tell me, of course, being you. And you’re right.”
Aziraphale blinked in surprise.
“I am going to do it,” Crowley said, grimly. “What do you think; I have been doing it all these five years, have I not? We already had this conversation at the beginning of the war, did we not?”
Aziraphale preferred not to remember that conversation in detail. He had actually sworn back then, quite badly, and swearing was not something he liked to associate with himself.
“I am going to do it,” Crowley repeated. “They want to bring Hell on Earth, and I don’t bloody stand for that sort of thing!”
And with that he went out of the church, before Aziraphale could ask him what then, for crying out loud, had he been doing on Earth all these millennia? But even if he had not gone away, Aziraphale might not have asked him in the end. There was something in those blue eyes of Crowley’s that made him shy away from that question.
He hoped fervently that there would be no more wars in the 20th century. Wars did terrible things to his associate.
He left the church to the sight of his associate paying for a round of drinks for his squadron and accidentally – or perhaps not accidentally at all – including several locals in the round as well.
Just a few days ago, they had been sitting in the sun peacefully and sharing stories, jokes and drinks. Now they were in the heat again and what had been two days seemed like years.
Gregory Jameson bit his lips in order not to cry out in desperation. He was an old hand; it should not be affecting him so. He had survived the Blitz and that had been much worse, he should not be feeling slighted by fate. Besides, if the lads knew he was falling apart, they’d be a real ruin. If the Captain could keep it up, so could he.
But it was a bad operation, dangerous to them and dangerous to the people they were here to save. They were under fire from the ground and they had no real way of knowing if the prisoners below were safe.
Suddenly Crowley’s plane swivelled in the air. Then came the Captain’s voice over the radio, accompanied by the hiss of static:
“I’m hit,” he said matter-of-factly. “Not jusst the plane; me. I’m going to take the gunsss down there withth me. Jamesson, keep them out and keep an eye on them. Make ssure they get out ssafe and ssound. All of them prissonerss and all of you. Don’t do anything sstupid. Hear me, boyss? No sstupid sstuntss. Jusst do your job. Crowley out.”
Then the Captain’s plane headed straight into the barrage, pointing down to where most of it was coming from, and as it flew – fell – it took so many hits it was a wonder it did not fall apart midair.
This time Gregory Jameson could not stop the cry. It was inarticulate, just a sound of the extreme pain of something squeezing around his heart.
“Don’t, Jamesson,” was the last he heard. “Jusst... don’t.”
Gregory saw the plane finally fall apart in the rumble and explosion below, and then he could see no more.
When Aziraphale read the newspaper two weeks after his conversation with Crowley in the village church, he swore rather heavily again. Crowley had done it, old stubborn fool.
They met for a dinner in the Ritz some time after the war ended. Crowley was still rather disgruntled from the change of “equipment” and the bureaucratic complications that arose about his conduct during the war (as if he couldn’t have seen those coming). He had somehow managed to finally convince his superiors that his only intentions had been keeping people alive well into old age and making them enjoy the Earth a tad too much for their own good. They actually seemed to have swallowed the idea. He knew it was a lie. But they did not need to know that his most evil act in the whole business was lying to them. Now he was sporting his sunglasses again and felt much more comfortable than he had in the last six years or so of constant vigilance over his appearance. He was still vigilant over his appearance – he always was – but this time it had more to do with the cut of his suit and less with the colour of his eyes. That felt good in a familiar way.
“I told you, you know,” Aziraphale said stubbornly, still getting over the war experience.
“Yes, and I told you too,” Crowley countered. “Let’s just say dinner’s on me, fine?”
Aziraphale did not protest. Keeping a demon from getting himself hurt really badly in service to a good cause and with unpredictable consequences for himself from his own superiors (or was it inferiors in Hell?) was one thing; furthering some manners and common decency in said demon was something he felt was his duty to do. Of course, Crowley deliberately avoided fulfilling his promise later that evening. (“I never said I would pay for it!”)
Something was still off, though.
“Have you by any chance met this C. S. Lewis fellow?” Crowley asked during the dinner.
“Why?” Aziraphale gulped, recalling the “fellow” perfectly and fearing the worst from Crowley’s side. After all, that book of fictional letters had definitely cut very close, and Crowley was, as many people had already found out to their misfortune, probably the only demon in existence with a sense of humour. Which made him all the more dangerous. “I hope you will not try to win him over to your side. He’s a very decent sort.”
“Oh, no,” Crowley said distractedly. “I just met him several times during the war. He was teaching my squadron, you know. Some clever things he’s written.”
It was hard to read him with his glasses on, but Aziraphale had had millennia of practice in the Reading Crowley department. And the only thing he could read was some sort of wistfulness.
He wished, for the second time in not so very long, that there would be no more wars in this century.
Of course, as was the case with most of his purely personal wishes (1), this one was not granted either.
He dimly recalled all that, later, when he faced a War to End All Wars with only a demon at his side, a demon who very deliberately did not stand up for Hell on Earth but rather against it. The demon was doing it again, arriving at a point of no return and about to go out in blazes of – probably not glory this time. This time, Aziraphale was doing it alongside the demon.
Then it all went very quickly and he could never quite remember what exactly had happened. He remembered Crowley had been hissing something about “wrong bloody kid” and the kid had stopped him from saying more. When they stood there, facing what had to come and did not come, he did not have time to think of much more than the fact Crowley was not as bad as he made himself out to be. Crowley, being Crowley, told him he was not as good as he made himself out to be, and he had to admit he was right. All in all, neither of them was much good; but that did not really matter now, because they were going to go out in blazes of disgrace, and the kid would most probably go with them, which made him feel extremely sorry.
Then they did not. And even though it was him who talked their way out of it, it was really all because of the kid.
It was only then that he understood what Crowley, being Crowley, had noticed much earlier. Funny thing, that. That Crowley, who had missed out on the most important thing in the beginning, would be so much more perceptive to it in the end. But then, that was probably the reason why he was not all bad. He could learn from his mistakes.
Aziraphale was determined to do the same now. Learn from his mistakes. Never do those stupid things he had done anymore. Before the boy ran away with his friends, he smiled at the two of them as if knowing everything. Which, of course, He did.
It left them both rather perplexed. It did not make sense; the only sense they could make out of it was the fact that it had happened, however unlikely that seemed. The quiet after the storm also left them both feeling a bit let down, unsure where to direct all that built up energy and resolve now. It just seeped out of them at the moment, unused; if immaterial things like energy and resolve could speak, they would probably now be complaining in high and gruff voices about the misuse.
Nothing had happened; but it was not exactly without consequences. Crowley had lost his beloved car. He, Crowley told him, had lost his beloved bookshop. Those two had gone out in blazes of glory. The two of them that had not were now sitting on a grassy patch with a bottle of wine between them, mourning the things they had had to give up for this unexpected peace and quiet, and finding out that they could not anymore deny that they were friends and brothers in arms. They stood on the same side now. Aziraphale was extremely pleased that Crowley was no more on the side of Hell, but he had to admit to himself it was nothing he could congratulate himself on. He had done nothing to contribute to that.
Which goes to show that some resolutions made in the heat of a crisis actually do survive the calm. And that, when all was said and done, Aziraphale was actually a very humble angel.
A car pulled up then and a delivery man came out of it to collect several items left behind after the Event That Wasn’t. Aziraphale found out he had been sitting on the sword all that time without realising it. Must be the wine getting into his head.
Crowley was unusually quiet most of the time, so Aziraphale assumed he needed some time off, so to say, to figure things out. He decided to leave him alone for the time being, but then, as he had walked several steps away from the Jeep, he suddenly remembered the things wars did to Crowley again and rushed back to make sure Crowley was all right. It seemed he was. More or less.
He slept in the charred shambles of his bookshop and only when he woke up next morning did he realise he had been sleeping. Perhaps because what he saw around himself was more unexpected than any of the dreams that he had dreamt that night.
His bookshop was back.
His bookshop was back, including the cobwebs in the corners. (2)
He reached for the phone.
The walk in the park and the dinner they had taken the day after the Event were a bit confused in his memory, much like the Event itself. Aziraphale only recalled that Crowley had, for the first time since the Ritz had been established, actually paid for the dinner. They had both definitely been drunk, but that had nothing to do with it. They had been drunk before. No; something had changed in Crowley, in a very unobtrusive manner. It was as if Crowley suddenly was more of himself than ever before, not needing to prove himself in front of him over trifles. At least that was the vague idea Aziraphale had now that the act was over and he was sober again.
The new day promised to shape up into something beautiful and so he went out, strolling through the mostly empty streets in the general direction of Crowley’s Mayfair dwelling. He found out that in spite of walking dirty London streets, he felt more at Home than he had had in a long time. Well, of course. It all had to do with the proper perspective. But he did not give it much thought; he was too happy for that. He stopped at the duck pond and fed the ducks, dimly recalling someone having fed the ducks the day before. Then, because the day was shaping out into something beautiful, he went on, singing, which he had not done for ages either. It was not the sort of song he had sung a long time ago, because his earthly experience was taking over him and supplying him with the works of Verdi instead, but it seemed strangely appropriate.
As he came up to Crowley’s apartment building, he noticed his friend standing at the open window. Crowley shouted something down at him cheerfully – something inconsequential and factually incorrect – and he beamed back at him, dropping the singing for now. Crowley tossed his black jacket over his shirt and trousers, crumpled from having been slept in, and ran away from the window, down the stairs to meet him outside. When he emerged out of the house, his shirt and trousers were still crumpled, and remained so for a good part of the morning until Aziraphale took pity on him and straightened them. In turn, he found that Crowley had refilled his paper bag, this time not with old bread for the ducks but some sweet pastries. The day was still beautiful, even though a slight drizzle started around eleven.
And as unlikely as it still seemed, they were both alive. They had both come out of it all alive and well, better than they had been since Eden. Probably longer for Crowley.
They ended up sitting at the duck pond again, looking at the concentric circles the drizzle was pressing on the water surface: it started small and spread so quickly you could hardly see how.
“What did happen yesterday?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley seemed to be racking his head for the answer; then, he blurted out:
“Somebody said ‘ineffable’.”
“So I was thinking,” Aziraphale said, bemusedly, and offered him the last pastry. Crowley accepted it with murmured thanks. “But just what exactly that means?”
Crowley munched on the pastry for a while and then he said:
“I’m not sure. I’m still not sure what exactly happened. But I think I can be fairly sure of what I did, and it seems I ended up being where He wanted me to be.”
“Oh,” Aziraphale said. “Do you think it was all for your sake, then?”
“Probably not just mine; there had to be other things at stake,” Crowley said thoughtfully. “But – yes. In that sense, it was ineffable.”
“That’s – – – oh, but please don’t go getting ideas!” he exclaimed suddenly.
Crowley grinned a grin that managed to be both feral and sheepish at the same time.
“It’s humbling more than anything, really,” he said. “And it gives more credence to what He’d said about lost sheep than I thought possible.” Then he mumbled under his breath, but loud enough for Aziraphale to hear: “Figures.”
“So what did you do?” Aziraphale asked. “If you don’t mind telling me.” Crowley shrugged.
“I just decided that I hated the way Hell treated me, and that I didn’t want anyone to be treated that way. And then I saw the kid standing there – before it dawned on me who it was, you know – and – well, I felt sorry for him. I felt sorry that I’d messed things up so horribly and that he got dragged into it, even though it was all my fault and he did not really have anything to do with it. Because as much as I like to convince myself otherwise, it was me who started it all.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Aziraphale said. “Not all...”
“Don’t convince me otherwise,” Crowely interrupted him sternly. “I may not have started the War, but I sure as – well, whatever – I started all the trouble here, and I started all the trouble with the kid – even though I did not want to. I did it anyway. I did lots of things I did not exactly want to do, and somewhere along the way I stopped caring. Just because I was telling myself that sort of thing – that it was not my fault, that others made the decisions. But it was my decision all the way down. I may have just sauntered downwards, not fallen – whatever, I still went down. And that’s it.”
Then his expression mellowed and he said:
“But thanks anyway.”
Aziraphale blushed and said it was nothing, and could he please continue telling his story? So Crowley did.
“There isn’t much more to say, even though this is the best part,” he said. “Just when I stopped feeling sorry for myself and felt sorry for someone else and what I’d done, I realised He was there – I bet there’s some kind of morale in there. Anyway, He was there, and I felt – I felt like I was Crawly again and had my legs taken from me, and I felt that I deserved everything that would come. But it did not come, and I was given wings instead.”
“Oh, dear boy!” Aziraphale exclaimed and squeezed his hand in an awkward, but ultimately comforting and comfortable gesture. Crowley squeezed back.
“And that’s about it,” he said. “It did not go so quickly – I think I only just realised the last part today – but really, that’s about it.” He smiled and looked Aziraphale in the eyes, blue against blue – soft yet sharp grey against Aziraphale’s clear baby-blue. (“And when exactly did that happen?” Aziraphale wondered.)
“For the record, the name’s Kanaphiel,” the dark-haired angel said.
Aziraphale found himself blushing again.
“I’m afraid I’m already too used to Crowley to be able to switch smoothly,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I don’t mind at all. I don’t think it matters all that much. I just wanted you to know.”
“No, thank you.”
They sat in companionable silence for a while, enjoying everything – even the light drizzle that made their sitting on the bench like that slightly awkward.
Then, Aziraphale was struck by another thought, one that left him feeling light around the stomach in a not entirely comfortable way. To tell the truth, not comfortable at all.
“Oh, Crowley, but this all means the Agreement is off. And – please, don’t get me wrong, I’m so very happy for you – and myself, frankly – you more, because this is so completely amazing – but – but – it means you’ve switched sides, and now your – I mean, now Down Below will be sending someone else, and that only means trouble and – oh, Crowley, they’ll send someone after you! What if-“
Crowley rose from the bench and stopped this tirade by gently pressing two fingers over Aziraphale’s mouth.
“Don’t give me that,” he said. “I know all that already. I knew it when I knew I was switching sides. I know it comes with a price, for me at least. But I don’t care. He won’t let us down. We’ve survived the Apocalypse; we’ll survive this.”
(1) With the exception of wishes partaking to old books, particularly rare first editions. There seemed to be some sort of loophole there. It was this loophole that, later in the century, landed the last surviving copy of Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch in the back seat of Crowley’s Bentley. In all ineffability, even loopholes have their purpose.
(2) In spite of appearances – in spite of Aziraphale appearing to be a reckless antique book seller who did not really want to sell and therefore kept the shop in a state of neglect to put off potential customers – the cobwebs did have a place in the shop. Spiders had to live somewhere, and Aziraphale found them to be quite engaging companions on those days when Crowley sulked or was otherwise out of reach.