Aziraphale was listening to The Archers on Radio 4 while cataloguing books* and contemplating the merits of a nice cup of tea and perhaps, if he were feeling naughty, a digestive biscuit, when blinding white light suddenly flooded the entire room, and all his carefully stacked little index cards went exploding up into the air and fluttering wildly around like a startled murder of crows. As he rose to his feet, Aziraphale hastily consulted his conscience, but for the life of him he couldn't think of anything out of the ordinary that might have provoked a visit from any of his superiors. He was, admittedly, a little tardy when it came to checking office memos, but everything seemed to be business as usual on the mortal plane, as far as he was aware, and Crowley hadn't dragged him into any fresh trouble recently, so he was rather at a loss to account for the sudden visitation.
When the light resolved itself into a form too bright for human eyes to endure, Aziraphale stood up a little straighter, and tried not to let his nervousness show.
“Anael,” he said, swallowing hard and then trying to smile. “Fancy seeing you here!”
The archangel Anael, also known as Haniel, also known as The Angel of Pleasure, also known as That Wretched Strumpet Who Fell To Earth, also known as Anna, flexed her firey wings and cast a thoroughly worrying smile in his direction. “Aziraphale,” she said, in a voice strong enough to draw blood from human eardrums and so irresistible as to cause roses to burst into bloom in the middle of a frigid winter. “I need your help.”
This being an emergency, Aziraphale had opened a packet of chocolate Hobnobs to accompany his cup of tea, and now he was sitting at his kitchen table, chewing his bottom lip and trying not to stare. It wasn't polite, of course; it was hardly Anael's fault if she found herself temporarily in a state of dishabille, and the gentlemanly thing to do was, of course, to pretend that her angelic form was still decently clothed in flesh. Of course, in Heaven everyone went around in their natural forms, and one never gave it a second thought – much as humans wandered around unselfconsciously in swimsuits and speedos on the beach**, but would be thoroughly disconcerted to find their boss show up at work the next day wearing nothing but a thong bikini. There was a time and a place for such things, and Aziraphale was finding the presence in his kitchen of a naked angel – a naked archangel - was playing havoc with his powers of concentration. That she was the archangel associated with love, passion and sexuality probably didn't do a very great deal to help spare his blushes. That she was also top of Heaven's Most Wanted list right now, and had been for a couple of decades, definitely didn't do much to help his composure either. He was harbouring a known criminal, a naked known criminal, and he had a feeling that things were only going to get more complicated.
He fortified himself with a mouthful of tea, and then drew a deep breath. “So, what seems to be the problem?”
Anael just looked at him for a moment, and then burst out laughing. “You're kidding, right?”
Aziraphale felt himself beginning to blush. “Well, I – that is to say, I can see that you've had your grace restored – congratulations, by the way – although, um, you do rather seem to have misplaced your, er, that is...” Yes, he was definitely growing red. “You're a little under-dressed,” he said at last, and then took another large gulp of tea and started to fiddle with the packet of Hobnobs. “Um. Would you care for a biscuit?”
“A little tricky to eat cookies without having any actual, you know, mouth,” she said, with a definite edge of irritation.
“Ah. Yes. Fair point. So, um – to what do I owe, er, the pleasure of your company?” asked Aziraphale, trying hard to sound businesslike and unflappable and dismally certain that he was achieving neither.
“I couldn't think where else to go,” she said simply, with the rustle of dazzling pinions that was the angelic equivalent of a shrug. “Uriel's on my ass, and the rest of them too, and I don't think their phasers are set to stun, you know?” Aziraphale blinked at her. This sounded like the kind of thing Crowley might say, and he was embarrassed to admit that he hadn't the faintest notion what she meant, so he nodded wisely. “But I thought – hey, they're all concentrating on the New World right now, so why not visit Old London Town? I mean, I've never been here before, so it's not the first place they're going to look. Probably.”
“Um,” said Aziraphale. “So – I gather that you're still persona non grata with senior management?”
“Does the Pope shit in the woods?”
Aziraphale blinked, and gave this question careful consideration. “Not to the best of my knowledge,” he said, warily.
Anael snorted. “No, I just meant – oh, never mind.” She studied him for a long moment, her expression quizzical. “Wow. You really have gone native, haven't you? I mean, Aziraphale – you're almost painfully British. Tea and scones and bad teeth and pip pip and all that stuff.”
Aziraphale drew himself up to his full height, feeling defensive and vaguely insulted. “There is nothing wrong with my teeth,” he said, baring them in an expression that wasn't actually a snarl, honestly, but definitely wasn't a smile.
“No, no, they're fine, sorry – but you know what I mean? You've really embraced the cliché.”
“I don't know what you mean,” he said stiffly. “I am an angel of the Lord. I am above petty allegiances with human nations. They are all God's children.”
“Yeah, but you're not telling me that you don't watch cricket. Or that you don't cheer for England.”
“That's nothing to do with the point at hand!” he protested. “Cricket is one of the great achievements of human civilization."
“Ha,” said Anael. “See? Told you.” She shook her head. “How long have you been down here?”
“Well – as long as there's been a here here to be,” said Aziraphale with a little shrug. “But you know that.”
“I know that. Yes. You were left to dwell among them, visible, audible, interacting with the mortals on the physical plane while the rest of us watched them from the aether and did battle with the forces of Hell. You were supposed to live as a human.” Her voice grew fierce. “That's all I did, you know. I just wanted to be able to touch, and to be touched. To speak and be heard. I just wanted to be able to taste the damned cookies for once, instead of wondering what they were like. And I don't regret it!” she added, with a sudden flare of defiance.
Aziraphale looked down at his tea and biscuits with a sudden surge of guilt. “Um,” he said awkwardly. “Right – sorry. Tactless of me.” With a quick flicker of thought, the tea and the biscuits both vanished, and Aziraphale blinked across at his guest. “But – you know, it wasn't precisely that that got you in trouble,” he said, apologetically. “It was the disobeying part. Um.”
Anael gave him a very level look. “I have two words for you, Aziraphale,” she said. “Flaming. Sword.”
Aziraphale looked down at the kitchen table and found himself suddenly fascinated by the pattern of the wood grain. “Ah,” he said. “Well. Yes. Um. I see your point.”
“You owe me, Aziraphale,” she said, and this time her voice had taken on a wheedling tone that would have seduced a nun into robbing a bank. “You know you do.”
Aziraphale was still staring at her wide-eyed, with a familiar sense of impending doom that he normally associated with conversations with Crowley, when the sudden chime of bells announced the arrival of a customer in the bookshop.
“Hold that thought,” he said, and scurried out into the shop, frowning in puzzlement, because he could have sworn that he'd locked the door. Aziraphale stopped short at the thoroughly unwelcome sight of Crowley pacing towards him, and had he been given to the use of expletives, this would certainly have been the occasion to break out one of the big ones.
“Bother,” he said instead, but he said it with feeling.
“Have you heard? Have you bloody heard?” the demon demanded, looking very much less composed than usual. His dark glasses were pushed up into his hair, his tie was askew, and nervous energy was pouring off him in waves. “They're only having another bleeding shot at causing the Apocalypse, aren't they? Can you believe these people?”
If anyone had asked him, Aziraphale would have said that nothing could be more worrying than the presence in his kitchen of a naked fallen angel on the run from the authorities, but as it turned out he would have been mistaken.
“What?” he said, intelligently. “They – who – what?”
“Your side, my side – the whole blasted lot of them! It's Game On! Apparently Azazel went and set up some kind of big sneaky plot for world domination or who knows what – went around America in the 80s feeding blood to babies, which is frankly unpleasant, however much one might dislike babies, and when they grew up he had some sort of ridiculous Pop-Idol-meets-Battle-Royale*** voting process to choose the leader of his demonic army. I mean – what? Seriously?”
Aziraphale wasn't at all sure about the pop culture references, but that was par for the course with conversations with Crowley, so he just latched on to the key points. “Demonic army? Really? And – isn't Azazel dead?”
“Yes he is – but apparently his stupid plan is still alive and kicking! That's the problem - Azazel's dead and nobody knows what his cunning plan was! But this Sam Winchester person is definitely... something. And then – oh, it gets better, you're going to love this – and then his brother went and sacrificed his own soul to save this Sam character, which meant the brother ended up in Hell. A righteous man. In Hell. Can you see where this one is going?”
“Oh dear,” said Aziraphale, and began to wonder how long it was since he'd checked any of his memos.
“Yes! Exactly!” Crowley was pacing back and forth, waving his hands in the air, and Aziraphale couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the demon look so worked up. “They gave him to Alastair, and after a few decades of being flayed and eviscerated and forced to eat his own eyeballs every day, he broke. Unsurprisingly. So now – End of Days! Again!” He kicked a shelf, and then winced. “Do they learn nothing?” he demanded, staring wild-eyed at Aziraphale.
“Um. Apparently not?”
“We have to do something!”
“Oh, well – I don't know about that,” protested Aziraphale, nervously. “I mean – you know, America is an awfully long way away, and they do things differently there, and surely – I mean – I – oh, stop looking at me like that.”
“Aziraphale, are you a man or a mouse?”
“Fine. Are you an angel or a chicken?”
Aziraphale crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Now you're just being rude.”
“Angel – End of the World! Again! For real, this time – Lilith's out there cracking open seals like they're walnuts, and we're going to have...” he looked around, suddenly nervous, and dropped his voice. “You-know-who walking the earth again. The Light-bringer. Walking the earth.”
Aziraphale blanched. “That's...that's not good.”
“You do have a skill for underestatement, don't you?”
“Why are we only just hearing about this now?” asked Aziraphale, frowning.
Crowley lifted his eyebrows. “Oh, I don't know – maybe because of how we, you know, successfully averted Armageddon once already? Do you suppose that might have something to do with why these gung-ho, warmongering pillocks are keeping us both out of the loop this time around?”
“Ah,” said Aziraphale. “Right. No, I see your point. But – but, goodness, this is dreadful!”
“Thank you! Yes! Exactly! So – what are we going to do about it?”
Aziraphale knew the exact moment that Anna stepped into the room behind him, because not only was everything suddenly bathed in painfully white light, but Crowley's eyes promptly stopped looking even remotely human, and he hissed as he stepped back and raised his hands – and for a horrible moment Aziraphale was afraid that the two of them were actually going to start fighting right there in the middle of the shop.
“Well,” said Anael, mildly, “You guys could try helping me get my body back, so I don't stick out like a nun in a whorehouse, and then I'll go back and see what I can do about it all.”
“Thanks, Adam! ....Yes, yes, we'll be there. Give Pepper my love. Oh – look, there you are, it's taken already. 'Bye now! Well, that was – surprisingly easy,” said Aziraphale, replacing the telephone handset and blinking at the attractive young woman with hair an improbable shade of red who was suddenly sitting on one of his kitchen chairs. She followed his gaze, and then jumped off the chair and punched the air.
“Yes! Damn, that's more like it!”
Aziraphale watched her little victory dance with an expression of moderate embarassment. “Although, er – perhaps you should slip into something a little less comfortable?”
Anael grinned down at her bare skin, and nodded. “Good point.” And an instant later Aziraphale was looking at a pretty young woman with a smile as wide as the ocean, who was now wearing jeans and boots and a modest cream-coloured sweater. “Better?”
“Less likely to get you locked up for indecent exposure,” agreed Aziraphale.
“Although I think I liked the other look more,” said Crowley, with a letcherous wiggle of his eyebrows. “You've got a gorgeous pair of wings on you,” he clarified, as Aziraphale blinked at him.
“Hey – look, it's a while since I've seen a naked angel. Don't look at me like that! Hello - demon, lest you forget? Temptation's in my job spec, I'll have you know!”
“I can't take you anywhere,” grumbled Aziraphale, but he was relieved to see that Anael didn't seem offended. She was, when all was said and done, still an archangel, and it was never wise to piss off an archangel. On the other hand, she was also, if not a demon, still technically fallen – so perhaps it was unsurprising that she didn't seem offended. “So you don't think it's a good idea to get Adam to intervene?” he asked again.
“No,” said Anael, firmly. “Not yet. Maybe later, but – look, he's happy where he is, right? But he is, technically, the antichrist. There's no knowing which side he'd help, if it came right down to it.”
“I think you're wrong,” said Aziraphale. “He loves the earth. He wouldn't tolerate the Apocalypse.”
“Well...he's our Plan B,” said Anael. “Worst case scenario, you guys are the cavalry. But I think I can get through to Castiel. He's a good little soldier, but he's been spending a lot of time with the Winchesters. With Dean Winchester, in particular. And I know he's not happy with how things are going. Uriel – Uriel's another matter. I'm going to stay the hell away from him. But I've got some hope for Cas and Dean. They don't want the Apocalypse, and neither does Sam.” She frowned. “I'm not so sure about Ruby. But – I think we can do this.”
“Okay,” said Aziraphale, feeling very much out of his depth. “Right. Good?”
“Thanks for this,” Anael said, looking from Aziraphale to Crowley and back again. and nodding.
“Um. Would you like a Chocolate Hobnob for the road?” said Aziraphale, holding out the packet and offering her an uncertain smile.
Her face lit up. “Now that's what I'm talking about.” She took the packet, snagged one of the biscuits and shoved the whole thing in her mouth. “Mmph!” she said, delightedly, her eyes fluttering closed for one blissful moment. “Really, noncorporeal existence sucks!” she said around a mouthful of biscuit. “Sex and food is where it's at. And baseball. I like baseball.”
“Oh!” said Aziraphale, feeling himself entirely unequal to the task of making any sensible comment on the topic of either sex or baseball. “Um. Right. Jolly good. Well – you, er, you keep the lot, why don't you?”
“Thanks again! Right, well – I'll be going. Wish me luck!”
“Well – um, good luck?” said Aziraphale.
“Yeah – break a leg,” agreed Crowley, smiling a little too broadly. “Have fun with the sex and food and baseball.”
And then she was finally gone. Aziraphale sat down abruptly, and his cup of tea reappeared on the table. “Well, thank goodness that's over and done with,” he said, with feeling, and took another swig of tea. It was a little cool now, but he fixed that in a jiffy.
Crowley was watching him, he realised after a moment. He looked up. “Yes? What?”
“Do you think she can do it?” the demon asked, his face unexpectedly serious.
Aziraphale licked his lips. “Well – she is an archangel,” he pointed out. “She's a lot more powerful than you or me.”
“Yeah,” agreed Crowley, but he didn't sound terribly convinced. “She's quite impressive. But – seriously, Angel, this looks bad. Really bad.”
Aziraphale's brows drew together. “I know,” he said glumly. “I know. Well – we might find ourselves heading over to the New World with Adam, if she doesn't manage to pull it off.”
Crowley nodded. He still looked rather grave. “I have a very bad feeling about all this,” he said, and for a long moment they both sat there silently, and tried not to worry. At last Crowley looked up again, and his mouth curved into a smile that Aziraphale really should have known better than to trust for a moment. “Hey – fancy a real drink?”
Aziraphale looked down at his teacup, and considered. Oh, what the heck. It had been a very trying morning. “Yes,” he said, and a moment later a bottle of claret appeared on the table between them, along with two glasses.
“Cool,” said Crowley, and he poured them each a generous glass of wine, and then took a seat. There was a definite glint in his eye as they clinked glasses. "To life on Earth," he said, watching Aziraphale.
"Life on Earth," Aziraphale said, and took a mouthful of wine. It was delicious, and he could feel himself starting to relax already.
Crowley leaned a little closer, and Aziraphale had absolutely no idea how to interpret the intensity in his eyes as he licked his lips. “So, Angel – what are your thoughts on, ah, baseball?”
Aziraphale blinked. He had the definite sense that the question Crowley was asking was not the question he was hearing. "I prefer cricket?" he ventured.
"Hmm," said Crowley, smiling a very disconcerting smile. "Have another drink."
*there was, of course, no NEED for the angel to catalogue manually, but he found it soothing)
**not, admittedly, on Britain's beaches, or at least – only in the summer, and even then they usually had a brolly rolled up in their bags, and a nice warm cardigan, just in case
***Crowley suspected that he was, indirectly, responsible for Pop Idol, since he had certainly been responsible for the genre of Docusoaps and 'Reality Television' which begat Pop Idol. He was quite fond of Simon Cowell.