He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
Aziraphale closed the book and sighed. Something was tickling at the back of his brain, something he had to do. Water. Yes, he hadn’t had anything to drink in—well, since before he’d started reading, and perhaps it was best not to think about how long that had been. A pile of books he had since finished sat on the edge of the desk. He gently set aside Anna Karenina and went to the kitchen.
After rehydrating himself, while he was up he thought he might as well take care of whatever else needed doing that had built up over the past days. He watered the few plants he had and went to get the mail. He shuffled through the letters and ads while he walked back to his desk. Nothing but junk, advertisements, a few magazines, more advertisements, a summons to serve as a witness in court—
He paused and flipped back to that one. His brow wrinkled. How could that be? What could he have witnessed? He hardly went anywhere.
He looked again, and that was when he noticed what was odd about the envelope: it wasn’t from Earth. It was from Heaven.
He wasn’t sure what the dress code was Up Above these days. Humans seemed to think that angels ought to be going about in robes and that sort of thing, but the opinion of the other angels on this was divided. Aziraphale settled on going in clothes that would be appropriate in a human court, as he could always use the fact that he’d been stationed on Earth for so long as an excuse if anyone questioned him about it. Heaven had sent him his summons by human mail, after all. Maybe they were finally getting the hang of things.
He could never remember where anything was in Heaven anymore. The last time he’d been there for longer than a few minutes, ‘location’ was a concept that hadn’t existed yet. He had to look around a while before he found the court room that had summoned him. He was relieved to find, when he entered it, that most of the other angels were dressed like humans, also, though, of course, from all around the world. Most of them looked like they were wearing the mere concept of clothes*, or what they had gathered it was through reports, but at least they were decent enough that Aziraphale wasn’t embarrassed.
*To be fair, Aziraphale, to other humans, may have looked like this also, but at least his clothes were fully substantial.
He was ushered to sit with the other witnesses, and then the accused was brought it. It was an angel named Ruth. Her head hung low and she looked almost hopeless, until she saw Aziraphale in the stands. She stared at him with wide, imploring eyes.
“You’ve got to prove it to them,” she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper, but carrying all the way to him, nonetheless. “Tell them it’s real!”
Aziraphale watched in dismay as the other angels lead her away, toward her place. He had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
“This is a bit awkward,” he whispered to the other angels around him, “but do you happen to know what I’m doing here? I mean, I don’t believe I know that young lady. Why have I been called to serve as a witness? And am I supposed to be speaking for her, or against?”
“That’s up to you,” a man in a tweed coat said. “You’re here as a witness of the practices of Earth.”
“You mean as a field agent?” Aziraphale said. “Is her crime related to Earth?”
“Yes, and her plea,” said a woman wearing formalwear from twelfth-century China. “She was a field agent, too. She claims that what she did isn’t counted as a crime on Earth. You’re here as a cultural expert.”
Aziraphale felt the blood drain from his face as he turned towards the front of the room. He was no expert on law. He tried to remember every court case he’d witnessed on Earth—he was coming up empty.
“Welcome, members of the heavenly court,” said the judge. He belonged to the group of angels in favor of wearing robes. “We are gathered today to discuss the case of Ruth, Principality, who has been stationed on Earth some several centuries. She stands accused of betraying Heaven by refusing to follow orders regarding a human. Ruth, you were commanded to cease communication with the human in question. You refused to do so. What is your defense?”
“I did disobey the order,” Ruth said quietly. “But I didn’t mean to betray Heaven. I didn’t stay with him for any sinister purpose.” She took a deep breath, and her voice rose as she said, “I did it because I love him!”
Normally, after such a dramatic declaration, there would be some astonished gasps. Aziraphale held back his own surprise to be polite. The other angels, however, did not reel in dismay, ‘aw’ in understanding, or scoff in disgust. They mostly looked confused. Some of them coughed.
“That is no defense,” the judge said, waving a hand through the air dismissively. “The divine love of an angel towards the inhabitants of the Earth has never prevented them from disobeying orders before.”
Aziraphale was glad that he didn’t have to speak yet. He wasn’t sure he could have kept a straight face. Instead, Ruth interrupted the judge.
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. She blushed. “I mean, I do love all humans, of course. But what I feel for Rajesh is something other than that. It’s—romantic love.”
This time, the other angels broke into murmuring, some scornful, others simply baffled. One lady said something along the lines of ‘tish’. There was a lot of awkward shuffling. Aziraphale was not sure what their reactions meant. The judge silenced the court.
“Romantic,” he repeated. “Do you mean, like Latin?”
“No,” Ruth said, “I mean like, you know. Soulmates.”
“Soul—” the judge paused for what seemed like an eternity, “—mates?”
Ruth gave an exasperated sigh. One angel rushed forward and whispered politely into the judge’s ear. When they backed away, his eyes had grown very round.
“My goodness,” he said.
“You see, I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m in love with him, and I didn’t want to leave him. There was no harm in staying with him.”
“’In love’,” the judge said scathingly. “There is no such thing.”
“This is her only defense,” said the angel who had spoken to him earlier. “She is willing to swear that this kind of love exists, and that it proves that she didn’t disobey orders as an attempt at rebellion. She seems to be telling the truth, but we don’t see how this could be. How could one human mean so much to her?”
The other angels seemed to agree.
“It’s love,” Ruth cried. “It’s real! Aziraphale, tell them I’m telling the truth!”
Aziraphale nearly fainted as all eyes turned on him. He gripped the table in front of him for support, melting under the expectation of everyone around him.
“B-but,” he stammered. “I don’t understand—why me?”
“Because you’ve been on Earth,” Ruth said. She was looking at him with that pleading expression again. “You must have seen it. Humans feel it all the time. You must know what I’m talking about.”
So many eyes were turned on him, some mortified or revolted at the realization of what she was saying. Some, fortunately, only looked curious. His palms were sweating so much that his hand slipped off the table.
“Um,” he said. “Surely there are other Principalities here who could speak on her behalf?”
“You have been on Earth the longest,” the judge said. “You are considered to be the highest authority on the subject. Besides—” he passed a hand over his brow in frustration, “all of the others on Earth claimed that the forces of evil would run rampant if they weren’t there to keep them at bay.”
Fiddlesticks. That had been an option? He should have called Crowley. He was sure he wouldn’t have minded running rampant for a bit to get him out of his civic duty. Besides, he was hardly the right person for the case. ‘Highest authority’, indeed. What did they think he’d been doing on Earth, interviewing humans about their romantic encounters? His eyes swiveled back to Ruth, and he saw that she was still staring at him. That was when the truth hit him. He was the only person for the case. He would have to be. He was the only one who had shown up at all, and he was this poor girl’s only hope.
Aziraphale had read about love. He’d always wondered if it wasn’t really real. It seemed so extreme, so exaggerated. Oh, it had its allures. He’d heard about it in songs, and seen it depicted in art and ballets and in movies and at the theater, but it had always been love’s depiction in literature that had intrigued him. The words people used to describe it—they seemed like too much, like they couldn’t be true. How could such emotions, such turmoil and joy, be real? And not helped by any miracle, either, or by bewitchment or beguilement from the Other Side. Humans claimed to love this way, and it could only have occurred naturally, because Heaven and Hell had certainly not had anything to do with it.
He sometimes wondered if they hadn’t simply invented it for fun. Romantic love and courtship were always surrounded by rituals, and perhaps that was simply all they were. He had even considered that it all might be nothing more than an excuse for lust. Much of the time, it certainly sounded more like an obsession than other forms of love.
“I am certain this is no valid excuse,” the judge was saying. “However, I will listen to the opinion of someone who has been among humans for much longer than I. Perhaps if it exists there, an angel could suffer from it as well. Perhaps it is—contagious. Aziraphale, what is your opinion? Could she be telling the truth?”
“Um,” Aziraphale said. “I—er—that is—”
Humans wrote about a lot of things that weren’t real. But they wrote about love a lot.
They wrote about it so beautifully, he hardly felt it could be a lie. It all seemed too good to be true—or, perhaps, too incredible to have been made up. Secretly, he had always wanted to believe. He went about acting as though he did, because he had known humans who had claimed to have fallen in love or who had chosen other humans to spend their lives with because of how much they meant to each other. He’d assumed they must have done so for a reason. Romantic love was mentioned throughout history, even in religious texts—although that wouldn’t necessarily convince the other angels.*
*Aziraphale was actually unique in having studied human religious texts. Most angels felt that ‘since they were there’ they didn’t need to see how humans had interpreted things. Aziraphale had argued that this wasn’t the point, but to no avail.
Humans certainly believed in it. And they wrote about it so vividly. It was all so—wonderful. The most beautiful words he had ever read had been about it.
“Yes,” he said.
The room stayed quiet. Only Ruth looked like she believed what she had heard. Aziraphale watched as every single other angel in the room tried to remember what exactly the judge had asked him. He decided that he needed to clarify.
“Yes,” he said, then, clearing his throat, “erm, I believe she is telling the truth.”
There was another moment’s silence before the judge tottered and stared at him with bulging eyes.
“You mean there is such a thing?”
“I believe so, yes.”
Many of the angels agreed with him, and started chattering. The judge did not bother to silence them.
“Surely this love is no more than human exaggeration.”
Aziraphale closed his eyes. Words he had read before rang in his ears.
To the dull angry world let’s prove
There’s a Religion in our Love….
For though we were design’d t’ agree,
That Fate no liberty destroyes,
But our Election is as free
As Angels, who with greedy choice
Are yet determin’d to their joyes.
Aziraphale felt his certainty rising. “No,” he said. “I believe it to be real.” He looked around the court proudly. It felt good to take a stand. This must be what faith was like, he thought. Believing in something in spite of doubts. Putting faith in it.
Just when he had been feeling good about himself, he felt a chill run down his back. “Why?” he repeated.
“Yes,” the judge said, eying him. “Why do you believe this?”
“Erm.” Aziraphale pulled at his coat sleeves. “I have heard accounts—”
“I have heard accounts,” said the angel in the tweed jacket. “And I don’t believe them.”
“You have only heard one account, just now,” said the angel in the Chinese clothes. “Aziraphale says he has heard from multiple sources.”
“That’s right,” Aziraphale said. “Many reliable sources.”
“I’m a reliable source,” Ruth cried out. “I have served Heaven faithfully for eternity before now. I would never turn my back on you. Why would I do this unless I knew it was right?”
That lessened some of the disapproving glares, although some people still looked dubious. The judge was still peering at Aziraphale.
“Have you ever felt it?”
“Erm, come again?” Aziraphale murmured.
“Have you ever ‘been in love’?”
Aziraphale felt his ears go red. He opened and closed his mouth several times. “What?”
“How do you know it’s real if you’ve never felt it yourself?” The judge crossed his arms, satisfied.
Aziraphale huffed. “Well, excuse me,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was meant to be falling in love with humans these past six millennia. Pardon me for not knowing it was part of my job description to go wooing people left and right.”
“It isn’t,” the judge said darkly, turning to Ruth, who was looking more frustrated than ever.
“I didn’t woo him,” she said. Her voice became softer as she went on. “Rajesh fell in love with me first. I was only trying to help him. He was going through a dark time in his life. He said he loved me, and I cared about him so much, that I didn’t want to leave him—then, it just—sort of happened.”
“You see,” Aziraphale said. “It doesn’t just happen to us angels unless we put ourselves in very specific circumstances, which Ruth did without meaning any harm. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“So you’ve never attempted anything similar?”
“No. I’ve, er—I’ve never had a reason to do so.”
“But you’re saying it could happen to any of us if we were to make ourselves more open to the possibility?”
“I suppose so,” Aziraphale said, getting nervous. “Yes.”
“All right then,” the judge said decisively. “Show us.”
Aziraphale’s voice came out very small. “Pardon?”
“You may demonstrate to us that this kind of love is real by experiencing it yourself and reporting the effects back to us. This will determine whether or not Ruth’s plea is valid.”
Aziraphale’s voice had become miniscule. “Oh.”
“We will give you one moon cycle to experience love. You will then report to us with your findings. All right?”
“You want me to fall in love.”
“You’re free to decide that for yourself,” said the judge.
“So,” Aziraphale said, “you want me to, that is, make the effort?”
“You have been given permission,” the judge replied. “Do you think you can do this?”
Aziraphale swallowed and looked around the courtroom, where people were watching him with expressions ranging from fascinated to amused. He saw Ruth. He saw the fear in her eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “At any rate, I promise you that I will make the best effort I can.”
“Thank you,” Ruth said to him.
The judge nodded.
“Very well,” he said. “Then we will return to this room after the time allotted to finish the trial.”
I know I do not love thee! yet, alas!
Others will scarcely trust my candid heart;
And oft I catch them smiling as they pass,
Because they see me gazing where thou art.
Right then. Time to fall in love.
Aziraphale didn’t really know what ‘making the effort’ was. He thought it might be simply opening himself up to the idea that he might one day, some day very soon, hopefully, start to feel immense emotions about one particular person. This person might become very important to him, and he might feel unreasonably strong waves of longing and affection for them. He had to accustom himself to the idea that these emotions might seem overblown or silly to an onlooker, but he was reassuring himself that they probably wouldn’t seem so to him. That was what love was, after all. Supposedly.
He let himself consider people, and himself, and himself in terms of other people, or one other person, and he tried to imagine imagining a future with someone.
And he did, in fact, feel a change in the way he reacted to other people. He did feel more open to them. He now felt very different whenever he was around anyone else.
For one thing, he felt absolutely mortified.
“Excuse me, my dear,” he said after bumping into a woman in the crowded Underground. He blushed. What if she thought he was flirting with her? Did bumping into people count as flirting? Maybe he should be flirting. That was why he had gone out, after all. It turned out that his strategies at keeping people away from his bookstore worked better than he had thought. He was headed out to meet people, and it would do no good for him to avoid flirting with them just because it made him nervous. He looked for the woman again. She was gone.
Oh well. Better luck next time. Of course, there were still hundreds of people swarming all around him, but none of them would have the nice conversation starter of him having bumped into them. He was sure another chance would come around. He wanted things to start off right.
The tube was extraordinarily crowded. He should have asked Crowley for a ride, but he certainly hadn’t wanted to tell him what he was doing. He made himself as small as he could as two people sat on either side of him. He had decided that bumping into people counted more as harassment than flirting, and if he was trying to fall in love, that sort of thing would not do at all.
No, coming on the tube to meet people had definitely not been a bright idea. There were people, certainly, but none who wanted to do any meeting of any sort. Plus, given his current mission, being around people had never been so perilous. He had never missed sitting in the comparatively spacious seat of the Bentley as it tore hazardously down the road more than he did now. Being afraid of crashing was nothing compared to this. A man far too young for him to consider ‘flirting with’ had been stepping on his feet the whole ride. Aziraphale made a mental note to walk home.
He knew that people went ‘out’ to try to find people, but he had no idea where. Come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure if people went ‘out’ before or after they had met someone they wanted to be in love with. There was such a process to it. It all seemed rather convoluted.
He had to believe, though. If he didn’t, Ruth would be punished. He had to believe for his own sake, for his own view of the world, too. It would be fine if romantic love wasn’t real. Humans loved each other in so many different ways, and it was all wonderful. But they had spoken and sang and written about romantic love throughout the ages, as though they had faith in it. He wanted to believe them, too. That was what they did, humans, coming up with beautiful things that may or may not have been true at all, and putting so much faith into them that they made them so.
It was one thing to like humans as a group, though, and a far different thing to pick one to obsess over, or whatever it was he was supposed to be doing. Aziraphale walked through Regent’s Park, looking around at the crowd, hoping someone would catch his eye. He’d wanted to meet someone new, but also someone who might have similar interests as his own. He liked parks. He hadn’t wanted to go to St. James, though. It felt too close to home, although he suspected he might be missing the point, but still. Regent’s Park had plenty of people.
Far, far too many.
There was nothing else to it. He was simply going to have to pick one and start it off.
He gazed around the park. Families strolled past, some with strollers, others with teenagers taking pictures of the scenery on their phones, others with dogs sniffing and wagging their tails. Several people too young for him walked by. Technically, no one was too old for him, but he didn’t think the old man grumbling to himself as he passed wanted to be bothered. Aziraphale walked a little further along.
He tried to remember what he had read about the falling part. Most accounts suggested he should be minding his own business when all of a sudden someone should drift past and their beauty would assault his eyes and ensnare him, or something along those lines. He looked around and waited to be captivated.
Nothing happened. It seemed, in his case, it was going to require more effort.
The next thing he knew, from stories of a different type, was that the best romantic relationships tended to occur when the people involved had something in common. Perhaps he should look for someone with a shared interest. He considered looking for someone who was reading, but when he imagined how he would react if someone tried to interrupt his reading just to fall in love with him, he decided against it. He looked around for something else.
He spotted a woman feeding the pigeons. He wandered over to her.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” she said, sweetly enough.
They stood, the woman feeding the pigeons, Aziraphale with his hands in his pockets. He tried to remember what people normally talked about.
“Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. Lovely.”
A pigeon glared at him suspiciously.
“Um. It’s very nice of you to feed the birds.”
“Oh, yes. I love them,” the woman said, smiling, but not looking at him. “Little dears.”
“Quite!” Aziraphale said. You were supposed to compliment someone when courting them, weren’t you? “Er, I always thought caring for small creatures showed a very kind spirit. A great generosity and, erm, heart.”
“Erm,” the woman said.
One of the pigeons had approached Aziraphale and was pecking him on the foot. When he did not feed it, it looked up at him reproachfully.
“And, er, a capacity for goodness.” It occurred to him that this was how he spoke to people whose souls he was trying to influence. It might not be best for those he wanted to take to dinner. He stopped talking. The woman looked relieved. She hadn’t looked at him once. The reproachful pigeon had abandoned him as a lost cause.
Aziraphale decided to do the same. “Well, good day to you,” he said brightly, and then walked away rather quickly.
Most of his interactions in the next few hours were much the same. He managed not to mention anyone else’s capacity for goodness, but he did tell one person he had a benevolent aura. Another man had burst into tears when he told him he seemed sweet, and Aziraphale had ended up counseling him and assuring him that he could be a good person if he wanted to, and that ‘oftentimes we are more critical of ourselves than we deserve’. The man had seemed comforted, but Aziraphale didn’t think tears should be involved in any way in the first stages of courtship, so he had left him alone thereafter. He’d thought things had been going well with a woman for a while, as they had been having an interesting conversation about the nature of the world, but then she had handed him a pamphlet on Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It turned out that she had been trying to get him to join a church, and they had parted, both feeling rather embarrassed.
He ended up going to the zoo. He had a nice chat with a lady who was then joined by her girlfriend. Then he had a horrible conversation with a nasty man who had said something awful about one of his favorite books. Then he sat in awkward silence permeated by the occasional ‘um’ with another woman. Then he had a nice chat with a man who was then joined by someone whom he claimed was only his friend but who obviously wanted to be more and who had glared at Aziraphale terrifyingly. He excused himself, claiming that he’d needed to use the water closet.
The day ended with him trying to talk with a woman in the Tiger Territory exhibit who had ended up, somehow, trying to sell him insurance. He’d had to sneak out through the Reptile house. He figured it was time to call it quits. He would just have to try again another day.