Crowley wasn't sure what the angel had in mind, being here. It wasn't as if Berlin didn't need angels. It wasn't as if Berlin didn't already have angels: Crowley looked up, and the impassive face of Victory looked down.
"Show off," he grumbled, turning the collar of his coat up against the dismal chill insinuating itself around him with the insistence of an unwanted guest. Not that vicissitudes of temperature bothered him, per se, but some indefinable element of Berlin-- even in the Western sector-- left him physically as well as metaphysically cold, and the gilded superiority of the angel on the Brandenburg Gate didn't help.
Aziraphale had swanned off to parts unknown, in search of something. Or someone; he hadn't said which. In fact, Crowley noted, he hadn't said much at all; he'd been pensive to the point of maudlin ever since they had arrived, leaving Crowley with the distinct impression that it was a somewho, and not a somewhat that had whipped him into such a state. A friend? Crowley couldn't quite get his mouth around the word without his lips curling, as if he'd just smelled some milk that had gone off. Perhaps he was even secretly a little bit jealous. Angels and demons didn't, as a rule, have friends. But Crowley did have Aziraphale, and Aziraphale had Crowley, and as the Arrangement was as close to a friendship as Crowley had ever known, he wasn't keen on sharing it with some feather-headed Deutsches do-gooder who might exert undue influence and tip the scales they'd managed, over thousands of years, to balance. It just wasn't on.
But Crowley couldn't stop him. Or, rather, he didn't stop him, because he knew that if he had wanted to go searching for something-- or someone-- on the bleak streets of Berlin, the angel wouldn't have stopped him. All the same, standing by himself on the Pariser Platz with the colorless city spreading out before him like a frame from a film noir, he was bloody well bored.
And, well...he was also a bit... lonely.
Aziraphale would come back eventually. He always did. He'd probably just succumbed to the lure of a first edition Thomas Mann in some musty bookshop, and as well-meaning as he was, he was temporally challenged under the best of circumstances. Crowley had resigned himself to loitering, but he'd learned the hard way that if you stood around in one spot for long enough, people got antsy. It was one thing to be suspected of impropriety when one actually had evil intentions, but quite another to have people assume the worst when all you were actually doing was just standing around for a really, really, really long time. In this case, the hairy eyeball came from a man with beady, piggish eyes and a mustache like a disgruntled toilet brush. He had been sitting on a nearby bench nearly as long as Crowley had been standing there, giving suspicious and disapproving looks at passers-by, the sort of fellow who preemptively offered up his neighbors' names to the Stasi, just in case.
Crowley conjured up a 50DM note out of thin air and directed a brisk breeze to blow it past the man's face. It caught the current of the air and swirled tantalizingly just below the man's nose. the man immediately lost interest in surveying Crowley, snatching at the note as it blew past. He missed. Repeatedly. Crowley spent the better part of the next half-hour watching the man stalk his literal and figurative windfall, sometimes even letting him just barely catch the note in his fingers for a moment before invoking another gust of wind to blow it just out of reach, the two-dimensional face of Hans Urmiller impassively surveying his unsuccessful and increasingly desperate exertions. Once he turned the corner in a flurry of flailing arms and ungainly lunges, Crowley made the note disappear from the air and appear in his own wallet.
Perhaps it would be better to wait somewhere else. After all, he now had 50DM burning a hole in his pocket, so he might as well spend it. He had passed a crumbling old movie palace as he'd wandered about, the sort of place the angel would have loved fifty years ago and still might as long as it served drinks. Crowley hoped it did.
He had oriented himself toward the Friedrichstraße when something-- someone-- caught his attention. After a millennium or two, the novelty of running into unexpected people in unusual places had nearly worn off, but that was only because in a millennium or two he'd never run into Columbo in the middle of Berlin. He'd only ever run into Columbo on BBC2 at half-four in the morning, and yet here he was, shuffling across the Pariser Platz and directly toward Crowley with his hands punched deep in the pockets of his overcoat.
Crowley gave him a wave. "Pardon me but are you, by any chance, Columbo?" Best to be certain.
"Only in syndication," Columbo replied. "Please, call me Peter." One eye glinted with the sort of mirth that came with being the only one in the room to get a joke; the other one was glass. "I'd think your kind would be over there." He canted his head toward the East.
Oh, Crowley was fairly certain his people had put their stamp all over the Soviet Sector. They were definitely responsible for the wall, and for all that oppressively austere concrete construction, but for his part, it made him itchy. Block upon block of grey, bullet-ridden cement didn't seem nefarious; it just seemed morose. He opened his mouth to answer, then did a double take. "What do you mean 'my kind'?" When Columbo-- Peter-- gave him a pointed look, the answer began to dawn on him. "You must be joking! You're an--"
"--Was," Columbo--Peter, he corrected himself-- deflected, holding up a hand. "Now I'm just a man."
It took a moment for Crowley to process that. The Was part, as well as the Just A Man part. How did that work, exactly? You didn't make your miracle quota one month and they bucked you down to mortal? That hardly seemed sporting. Wasn't the Presence supposed to be all about forgiving and turning cheeks and whatnot? Down There, they only foisted a lot of tedious paperwork onto those who got behind in their evildoing, unless you were seriously skiving off, in which case they sent you through a remedial training course where there was a lot of skin-flaying and boiling-in-oil (and worse: team building exercises) and a sign on the wall that said "The Beatinges Wille Continue Untille Morale Improofes."* He'd had more than one opportunity to familiarize himself with the florid script and the antiquated spelling.
"You still haven't explained why you're in Berlin." The man's eyes were keen, and unnaturally perceptive. No wonder he'd made such a good detective. On the telly, Crowley amended.
"I'm here with a..." he hesitated for a moment. "With a friend."
Colombo-- Peter-- cocked an eyebrow. "From Down There?"
"Erm, no. From your side. That is, your ex-side." He frowned, took a breath, and added somewhat haltingly, "Were you really an--"
"--I was." Pride and sorrow alighted on his smile all at once.
Anxiety swirled around the pit of Crowley's stomach like dishwater circling a drain.
"But now you're not."
The man shook his head. "No, now I'm not. I got tired of watching.
I wanted to be in the game."
"That sounds suspiciously like Free Will."
"Ineffability, my friend. It's not my place to second-guess it. I can only imagine that if it wasn't supposed to happen, it wouldn't have."
"And that's all it takes? One day, you wake up, shower, thwart a few wiles, then go native?" He wondered if it hurt when the wings came off.
"Was it like Falling?"
Peter shrugged. "I wouldn't know." He pulled a wry face. "That's more your department. But I don't think so. It was more like I..." He shrugged, and made an ambiguous gesture with his hands.
"...Sauntered Vaguely Downward?" Crowley offered.
The man laughed and clapped his hands together with a loud pop. "That's a good one! Yes, that's about the long and short of it. And no, in case you're wondering, it didn't hurt." He pinned Crowley with his perspicacious eye. "Now about you and your friend..."
"For someone no longer in the business of thwarting wiles," Crowley bristled, "you seem awfully interested in me."
Peter shrugged, his fuzzy brows arching above his eyes like acrobatic caterpillars. "Old habits die hard." He didn't press, but his silence held the subtle tenacity of someone who knew what it meant to be extremely patient, for an extremely long time.
Crowley sighed. "He's is looking for someone, I think. He didn't say much more than that, and I didn't want to pry. One of yours-- er,
-- I suspect."
"Ah. Gotcha." Peter nodded knowingly. "Then it's probably the new guy. Damiel."
"Like you said, one of ours. One like me."
Crowley snorted to play off his discomfort. Just how many ex-angels were there wandering around Berlin? Or wandering around anywhere else? "I would have thought they'd have a better retention rate Up There. All that pension-and-gold-watch and exulting-in-the-Presence folderol."
Colombo's-- Peter's-- shoulders crept up, and he tilted his head from side to side equivocally. "This way... well, let's just say it's frowned upon. It doesn't look good, I suppose. The guys Upstairs, they're not too keen on it-- not that they'd do anything about it, though. Strictly non-interventionist."
"Where are you headed?"
Crowley pointed in the general direction of the Friedrichstraße.
"C'mon," Peter said, "I'll walk you there."
Increasingly smaller streets crossed the broad thoroughfare of linden trees and the grandeur of the Gate gave way to a more human scale with buildings still bearing the scars of an old war. Crowley barely noticed; he was too busy trying to imagine Aziraphale as a human. It wasn't as much of a stretch as he had thought. He pictured him in tartan trousers, happily ensconced in his bookshop, chatting up equally unfashionable men with a penchant for Earl Grey and Oscar Wilde and regency silver snuff boxes...of course, if he were mortal, he'd actually have to sell a book now and then to make ends meet, and that seemed implausible.
He thought about the angel growing old, his gold hair greying, liver spots and veins showing on the backs of his perfectly manicured hands.
He thought of the angel dying.
It hurt. It was an affront. It wasn't part of the Arrangement.
"Well, here we are."
Crowley shook off the morbid train of his thoughts and realized that he was standing beneath the marquee of the movie palace, despite having never explicitly mentioned that he had intended to go there. Damn angels. Even the ex-pats were just a little too smug.
"I hope your friend finds what he's looking for." Columbo-- Peter-- absently patted down his coat, then fished through one of the pockets and pulled out a cigarette. "Do me a favor and stay out of trouble." The laugh lines around his eyes deepened as one side of his mouth arched up in a grin. He put his cigarette to his lips. "I may be off the clock, but I've still got connections."
While he patted himself down a second time in search of matches, Crowley snapped his fingers, and the tip of the cigarette flared brightly, then settled into a steady orange glow. The man took a long drag and blew it out in a plume. "Thanks. I gotta say, that's one trick I miss." He took another long, slow draw, treasuring the smoke and the pleasant rush of nicotine as if was the first cigarette he'd ever had. He smoked like a man who knew that one day, he wouldn't be around to have another one. "Well," he saluted Crowley, "adios, compañero." He took a few steps, looked down, then looked up again, smiling into Crowley's bemused face. "Nice shoes, by the way."
# # #
Beneath the arching canopy of Unter den Linden, Aziraphale wandered aimlessly, his mind reeling. After quite a bit of searching, he had finally found Damiel, but Damiel had no longer been himself. So to speak. He still called himself Damiel, of course, but he'd been...different. He'd been human.
Aziraphale had tried to be pleased for him as he'd prattled on blithely about falling in love with a mortal and opening a pizza shop-- because apparently Berlin needed good stromboli more than it needed angels-- but when he had gotten to the part about selling his angelic armor, Aziraphale could no longer restrain himself.
"You sold the armor?"
If he had been wearing pearls, he would have clutched them. Though really, it was a little unfair for him act aghast. After all, he'd given away his flaming sword for free because Adam and Eve looked cold and naked and miserable when they had been cast out of Paradise, and he had felt sorry for them.
But none of this altered the fact that Damiel was no longer an angel, simply because he no longer wanted to be one. Aziraphale hadn't known that was an option; he hadn't known he had a choice. Angels having Free Will and shirking their seraphic duties to run off with winsome trapeze artists wasn't part of the Ineffable Plan, as far as he knew; but that's what made the Plan so Ineffable, wasn't it? That one could hang about for thousands of years operating under the assumption that one had been placed on permanent retainer only to discover that one had alternatives. One could simply opt out altogether.
"But he did it for love," Aziraphale murmured, chewing on his bottom lip. He careened into a linden tree, apologized to it, and continued his unhappy perambulation without missing a beat. "If he did it for love, then it must be all right. Right?"
Aziraphale understood love. That was a fundamental tenet of the Presence. He loved humans, of course-- but in an ecumenical sort of way. He loved them conceptually, not specifically. That's not to say that there hadn't been some delightful humans of whom he had been particularly fond, but none of them had engendered in him a love strong enough to consider what he hadn't even known was a possibility until today. There was certainly no one for whom he'd willingly give up--
--well...that wasn't strictly true. There was someone. But he wasn't exactly human, and that didn't really bear thinking about, did it? There was Unimaginable, and then there was Beyond The Pale. In his head, he heard Crowley snigger a little bit at that.
Speaking of which, he'd left Crowley at the Brandenburg Gate, but he'd rather lost track of time, and he didn't imagine that Crowley would have had the patience to wait. He'd probably sniffed out some unseemly cabaret where unsavory people did unsavory things in exchange for small sums of money or the elusive status Crowley referred to as "street cred." Distracted by the effort required to dislodge that unseemly (if intriguing) image from his mind, he swerved into a dark-haired gentleman walking the other direction, which led to a moment of awkward maneuvering, first one way and then another, as they attempted to disentangle themselves.
The man cocked an eyebrow. "Shall we dance?"
Unlike Crowley, Aziraphale didn't have a television; he wouldn't have known Peter Falk from Peter Sellers (nor Colombo from Clouseau, for that matter). But his partner in this poorly-executed pas-de-deux wore the disarming and inquisitive expression Aziraphale might have imagined a fictional detective ought to have, the sort which made hardened criminals do a sudden volta-face and admit to their crimes in stunning detail before submitting meekly to the long arm of the law. He also had the same residual glow that Damiel had: the look of an angel who wasn't. The earth swayed beneath Aziraphale's feet as he was swept away by a vertiginous wave of deja vu. "Pardon," he piped, affecting a poor approximation of a smile. His toes curled in his highly-polished wingtips as if to grip the reeling planet tighter beneath his feet. "So sorry. Head in the clouds."
The man chuckled, not unkindly. "I've been there."
"Have you?" Aziraphale asked him, eyes narrowing pointedly.
"Yes, I have."
"But... not anymore?" He heard his voice quaver adolescently.
"No," the man confirmed. "But I still remember it." His hand shot out of his coat sleeve. "Name's Peter, by the way."
"Aziriphale," he said, the word as limp as his handshake. He blinked a few times, and then ventured, "I don't suppose you know Damiel, do you?"
"He was a good angel," the man said gently, "and now he's a good man. I hear he wants to open a pizza joint. Good for him! This town needs some good stromboli!"
"Oh," Aziraphale said. Because there really wasn't anything else he could say.
"Where are you headed?" the man prompted, and it occurred to Aziraphale that he really had no idea. "C'mon." He took Aziraphale's arm and gestured toward the Friedrichstraße, his enthusiasm undimmed by Aziraphale's utter lack of initiative, "I'll walk you there."
Could demons choose to stop being demons, he wondered. Did they have the same exit clause, written in infinitesimally small print on the back side of the very last page of the contract? He found he didn't want to think of it, not at all.
Fortunately, he didn't have to.
"Well, here we are."
They were standing beneath the crumbling marquee of an old movie palace. Aziraphale wasn't entirely sure why Peter had brought him there, but it had a certain promise, a resilient dignity beneath the deteriorating veneer. He hoped it served drinks.
"Thank you," he said, hoping the man knew that he wasn't just referring to the escort.
"Not a problem," Peter said, inclining his head. "And don't worry," he added as he began to turn away, "I'll keep an eye on Damiel for you."
I'm glad someone will, Aziraphale thought ruefully. It must be quite an adjustment to go from watching over the people to becoming one of the people who needed watching over. "So this is farewell, I suppose." He wasn't much good at permanent goodbyes; he didn't often need to make them, and they seemed so...final.
But Peter only smiled a knowing smile; he must have become inured to goodbyes by now. "Adios, compañero," he said, then he turned away, leaving Aziraphale standing alone beneath the fluorescent corona of the marquee.
The movie house-cum-down-in-the-heels-nightclub had the requisite poor lighting and sticky floors, with neon beer signs and a low-hanging curtain of smoke passing for ambiance. It was the kind of place where no one looked at you funny for keeping your sunglasses on indoors, or for wearing unfashionable clothing, because everyone in it was too preoccupied with their own restlessness and general dissatisfaction to take much notice of anyone else. A PA system blasted loud, nihilistic music, and disaffected youths threw themselves around in a desultory fashion, as if they couldn't be bothered to maintain any particular rhythm.
It shouldn't have surprised him to see Crowley at the bar, wearing, inexplicably, a pair of headphones and talking to a tall, gaunt, specter of a man with bulging eyes and a hairdo that looked as if blown fuses and alternating current had been involved-- and yet it did surprise him, and it made him feel warm inside, as if there was one thing in the universe that was solid and knowable and--- well, if not exactly good, at least reliable.
Crowley had spotted him, and was waving his arms wildly over his head. His image was reflected in the mirror behind the bar, creating the effect of a multiple-armed deity, like the one he had met in Calcutta back in the 600's, who had enjoyed brandishing weapons and dancing on corpses. But she'd also liked babies, and made an impressively spicy vindaloo, though she hadn't shared the recipe. Crowley had been with him then. Crowley had been with him since the beginning. That wouldn't possibly change. Would it?
# # #
Crowley winced, and held the cheap, spongy headphones away from his ears. "Collapsing New Buildings, was it?"
"It sounds better in German." The man had a voice like a rusty fork and hair that didn't merely defy gravity, but gave it the finger.
"Couldn't possibly sound any worse," Crowley muttered. "So...Do you record the sounds of the buildings as they're collapsing?" If that was the opener, he wasn't sure he wanted to know what they did for an encore. They probably lost a lot of microphones along the way.
The man shrugged. "We play on jackhammers, mostly."
"I see," Crowley said, though he didn't. He was all for making buildings-- new or otherwise-- collapse in general terms, but he wasn't quite sure what was playing on the Walkman qualified as music-- and he thought he had fairly lax guidelines about what constituted music. He tried to imagine a chorus of garden hoses and sheet rock, and failed. "Have you ever considered trying something a bit more..." He searched for a diplomatic word. "...Approachable?"
The young man-- Blixa, he had called himself (because why wouldn't someone call himself after a felt pen?) -- made the kind of disparaging noise that Disaffected Youth has made at its elders since the dawn of time. "Approachable music is about as interesting as reading home improvement catalogues."
For a man who used jackhammers as musical instruments, Crowley thought reading home improvement catalogues seemed like a obvious, and perhaps even satisfying, pastime.** "I hope you don't plan on collapsing this building. At least, not tonight."
"No, tonight I play with my other band."
"What do you call that one?" Crowley asked skeptically, "Bulldozing Council Estates?"
"The Bad Seeds," Blixa replied in a tone utterly free from irony. "I like playing here. It's better than my old job," he added casually. "Though the hours are shite, and the money is even worse shite."
"What was your old job?" Crowley had a feeling that he already knew, and that it probably involved more than just crimes against architecture.
perpetrating pernicious acts of
demonic malfeasance with a little telemarketing on the side?"
Blixa looked at him knowingly, and Crowley saw that he wasn't nearly as young as he looked. "Something like that," he answered obliquely.
The back of Crowley's neck began to prickle with unease. It should have occurred to him that if an angel could walk off the job, so could a demon. "How's it work, then? I don't remember ever seeing any redundancy notices from the Home Office."
"I just stopped showing up."
"I didn't know we had that option," he said quietly.
"No one ever reads read the fine print."
For once, Crowley was actually speechless. His boss was Evil incarnate (literally), and as far as middle management went, Hastur and Ligur had probably violated every conceivable occupational health and safety statute, as well as some statues not yet conceived, but it was all he knew, and there was a lot to be said for predictability. "What made you choose?"
Blixa looked toward stage. Just a warped little riser standing a few inches off the floor, really, but everyone had to start somewhere. Another gaunt young man with colossal hair was fussing about with an arthritic-looking upright piano.
"We've known each other a long time." A sly grin hovered at the corners of his mouth. "He came from the other side, though. You know, Upstairs. He told Them he wanted to be a musician, so They gave him a harp. He traded it in for an electric guitar. They gave him a lecture. He wrote songs about sex and bats, and stayed out all night, and went to work drunk a lot."
My kind of guy, Crowley thought.
"Eventually They issued an ultimatum. I turned in my resignation a few days after."
He stood up and reclaimed his Walkman with its sonic approximations of urban decay.
"It would have been very dull without him, and I thought I should keep things in balance; after all, we'd had this Arrangement..."
"Oh, I know all about Arrangements." Crowley laughed bitterly into his drink.
Through the edge of the glass, he saw that Aziraphale had materialized in the middle of the dance floor, looking even more out of place than usual: a beacon of tweed and earnestness in an sea of denim and ennui. He waved his arms over his head, then watched as the angel maneuvered through the dourly flopping throng and arranged himself on the stool vacated by Blixa. He wiped down the bar in the immediate area around his person with some serviettes and ordered a gin fizz, patently ignoring Crowley when he made a face like he was gagging.
They didn't speak for some time, each preferring to feign interest in the lads from the band as they scurried across the little stage carrying cables and guitars.
When the silence became so stilted Crowley could no longer stand it, he asked, "Did you find Damiel?"
Aziraphale looked up in surprise. “How did you…? Never mind. Yes, I found him."
"Did he Fall?"
"No, he didn't fall. He just...chose differently."
"Oh." Crowley thought about Columbo--Peter--and Blixa, and the other fellow in the band. He thought about Damiel, and about Aziraphale, too. He still could not understand how or why anyone would 'choose differently.' And the fact that he couldn't understand it frightened him, because for all he knew, Aziraphale was already considering it, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. "Why?" He looked at the stage, at the brooding singer hanging off the microphone stand like a demented scarecrow. "Don't tell me he wanted to become a musician or something."
Aziraphale shook his head. "For love, he said." He said it softly, and very nearly reverently. "Who would ever have thought…?"
"Well, I wouldn't have thought, but…"
Pained silence swelled between them again, and Crowley was relieved when it was shattered by a shriek of feedback from the microphone. The singer roared and growled, and Crowley couldn't help but wonder how on earth he had come from Up There with a voice like that. Perhaps even the Celestial Choir had a pew reserved for those who had been asked, for heaven's sake (no, really!), to just mouth the words.
He turned back toward the angel, expecting to find a mutinous look. Aziraphale had never quite adjusted to 20th century music, save for mopey epics by a vegetarian freak from Manchester which the man had clearly written with one hand stapled to his forehead-- but Aziraphale wasn't looking at him at all. He was staring out at the red lights of the nightclub with a look that was growing increasingly more resolved.
A smart-arsed dismissal poised itself on Crowley's tongue, some anodyne against the uncomfortable pangs of genuine emotion he was afraid he was starting to feel, but he was spared by a plaintive chord from the dilapidated piano.
Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down.
As it turned out, the ratty-haired ex-angel had quite a nice baritone when he wasn't trying to peel the paint from the walls.
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around.
"I can't imagine choosing..." he began, then, seeing the angel's face go pale, he faltered. "I mean, would you--"
Aziraphale's mouth opened and closed mutely. "--Well..."
"--That is to say, there isn't anyone who I--"
"--No, no, of course not."
We talk about it all night long
We define our moral ground.
Inexplicably disappointed, Crowley forced a blunt laugh, but it got lost somewhere between the piano and the hovering haze. "I was worried... thought maybe you'd...never mind."
"Me? Oh... oh, I couldn't possibly--"
"--I didn't really think so, but--"
But when I crawl into your arms
Everything comes tumbling down.
"--Heaven forfend! It's ridiculous--"
"--Absolutely ridiculousss." He clasped his hands in front of him, and then behind his back. He jammed them in his pockets, then took them out again. He slipped his dark glasses down his nose, wanting to look at the angel, to actually see him. But that was silly, wasn't it? He slipped them back up over his eyes. "Well. Good. I'm... I'm glad to hear it."
And he was.
Your face has fallen sad now
For you know the time is nigh
And there, in the dingy nightclub, in the dreaming city that would not wake, a demon stepped a little closer to an angel, and a friend stood a little closer to a friend. The man on the stage crooned over the piano, the wild pompadour of his hair cresting behind him like inky feathers.
When I must remove your wings
And you, you must try to fly.
Crowley's eyes pricked just a little, and if he got a little misty, well, the room was dark, and he could always blame it on the smoke.
Deep down, though, he knew the angel would know. He'd know, but he'd never say a word.
You are a little mystery to me
Every time you come around.
*In the 1970's, someone had added a poster of a kitten hanging from a branch by one paw that said Hang In There, Baby, which was supplanted in the early 1990's by one with a stock photo of a bald eagle in flight that said DARE TO SOAR: Your Attitude Will Always Determine Your Altitude, which only goes to show that Hell is not immune to irony.
**And as it turned out, reading home improvement catalogues proved to be not only obvious and satisfying, but profitable!