It had taken Crowley a while to fully understand what the purpose of “denial” was for human beings. As far as he could initially tell, there was no real advantage to it. All denial seemed to do was make human beings even easier to trick and much, much easier to tempt. Huge design flaw, there.
Human beings had so many flaws that Crowley might have just written it off as another quirk of God’s Favorite Ape and Their Amazing Hallucination Machine (better known as: The Human Brain), except that Aziraphale was astoundingly good at denial. Fantastic at it, really. If denial had been an Olympic sport, if forced to compete, the angel might have disqualified himself in a sickening show of giving someone else a chance to win for a change.
The purpose of denial in human and heavenly beings had seemed obvious after Aziraphale (and every dull, smite-on-sight, far less fascinating angel who had annoyingly popped up and interrupted over the millenia). Without denial conveniently shuffled in front of the inconvenient truth, especially when one was an angel whose presence burned the inescapable truth out of things and still quibbled over little white lies, there was no way anyone could fool themselves into thinking that the Boss Upstairs had any real idea what She was doing.
Without denial propped up in front of the horrifying chaos that was Free Will, there was no way for any reasonable, seeing, hearing human or angel to tell themselves that there was not only an Ineffable Great Plan, but that it was somehow happening as scheduled.
Without denial to cower behind when True Evil reared its ugly head, everyone would have to face the fact that humans frankly didn’t need demons like Crowley to make the world the way it was. Humans got on just fine with frighteningly creative wicked deeds without any prompting. Demons were just convenient when someone needed to point the finger and pass along the piping hot potato of blame.
Denial was why Aziraphale was still an angel and Crowley was not.
Crowley made the mistake of saying as much to Aziraphale over dinner one century - for the life of him he couldn’t remember which one, but he could still remember the surprised look on the angel’s face. Aziraphale had thoughtfully dabbed at his face with a napkin, a bemused twist to his lips.
“My dear Crowley,” Aziraphale said finally. “I cannot believe that you are not, in fact, intimately acquainted with denial.”
Crowley, aggressively slouching in his seat, looked over the top of his wine glass with disdain at the angel’s growing amusement. “I’m a demon because I lie to other people, not because I lie to myself. That’d be your sort, angel.”
“I do not lie to myself,” Aziraphale lied primly.
Denial, Crowley thought, was how honest people lied. He’d wondered how honest people managed to get by without a little dishonesty here and there, and it turned out they just conveniently tweaked reality in their heads so that they didn’t know they were lying. It was a rather neat little trick.
Crowley wasn’t interested in now listing off every specific instance of doubt the angel had ever had about the Ineffable Great Plan, though he very well could have done it again. He’d been there for a great many moments of Aziraphale’s anxious shuffling over some especially brutal bit of divine wrath or human wickedness. Reciting his observations of the occasions felt mean and, at some point, being simply mean had stopped feeling good with Aziraphale.
Besides, being simply mean for the sake of it was never really clever. With humans being such outrageously good competition, Crowley couldn’t bear to be so dull.
“Tell me, angel,” Crowley said instead, leaning daringly across their table. “Tell me honestly: what’s the point of denial? What possible advantage does lying to yourself about the state of the world have, if not to keep the choir and the sheep in line? What magnificent purpose does that little quirk serve to make it a feature and not a flaw?”
“Denial is not about lying to oneself,” Aziraphale answered.
“No?” Crowley raised his eyebrows. “That’s not how the humans describe ‘being in denial’. With human beings convincing themselves that every humdrum bit of ordinary badness isn’t all that important in the long run, I barely have to do any work at all. They take themselves to temptation.”
“Conveniently placed nearby and with your encouragement, I’m sure.”
“Oh, please. You’ve seen them deny the neighbors they were tasked by your lot to love. You’ve seen them deny every chance to be a halfway decent person in the name of moral righteousness and just desserts. You’ve seen them commit atrocities by the thousands that my side couldn’t dream up in a hundred committee meetings all in the name of ‘divine right’. Explain that. ”
Aziraphale looked hurt and, mn, it looked like Crowley had managed to be cruel anyway. Well, Crowley was a demon. He’d looked at the world and he hadn’t lied to himself about it. Unlike all the hypocrites on the up escalator.
“That is a perversion of denial, not its purpose,” Aziraphale said fiercely.
“What is its purpose, angel? Enlighten me.”
“Denial is the very core of free will! It is the disavowal of humdrum bits of badness as ordinary. It is the refusal of the supposed divine right of the wicked to commit atrocities. To achieve true holiness, temptation must be offered and denied .”
The angel glared a little at this last statement, in the way of a heavenly being who had not forgotten and would never forget Crowley’s role in the Original Sin.
Crowley sighed, feeling like he should have known this sort of conversation could only ever be had at cross-purposes. They were an angel and a demon; seeing eye-to-eye was not something that happened naturally for them. Aziraphale balked at stepping down to level with each other and Crowley skated away from climbing up for it at every opportunity.
“That’s not the sort of denial I’m talking about.”
“I beg to differ. It is not different at all.”
“No, I’m talking about the sort of denial that convinces all these billions of hypocritical human beings that every single one of them matters! The sort that has you all believing that there’s some great meaning to their little, awful lives! That in the cold, endless expanse of the universe, this backwater planet has any lasting importance, that anything in this world has any real worth, and that in every end, everything will turn out alright. ”
Aziraphale stared at him, while the background conversation of the restaurant went on perfectly uninterrupted around them. No one was paying them any attention. Crowley’s tirade had not risen to a shout; no, his voice had of course lowered to a hiss.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said finally, softly.
Crowley sat back and licked his forked tongue back into his mouth.
“Oh, my dear Crowley.”
“Shut up,” Crowley said, reflexively.
Aziraphale took a polite drink from his own wine glass, but he kept looking excruciatingly sympathetically over the edge of it and that sip was apparently as long as the angel could keep quiet. Aziraphale set the glass neatly down again, then sat up a little straighter, cleared his throat, and spoke delicately:
“I could go on a rather long and bumbling explanation of the purpose of denial, but I don’t think I could explain it any better than you yourself have just said it. I will maintain, however, that it is no different at all.”
“What, the denial of reality?” Crowley said, slouching aggressively again.
“The denial of a reality,” Aziraphale corrected, carefully picking up a menu again. “I think that if all of humanity had given up because the odds were against them or because of a lack of statistical significance, I rather doubt we would be sitting in this lovely restaurant now enjoying delightful meal together. How do you feel about dessert?”
“Wretched,” Crowley answered moodily, and flagged down the waiter.
“Because I noticed that they have a rather tempting plate for two and I do think I’ll order it for us. Do you think you could get the waiter’s attention-? Ah, oh, thank you! Yes, hello, sir. Oh, the meal was absolutely delicious, thank you. Could we trouble you for some dessert?”
Crowley focused on his wine glass while Aziraphale made unnecessary conversation with the waiter who had spent most of their meal glaring at Crowley’s aggressive slouching. The only thing Aziraphale delighted in as much as fine dining was people’s stories. He wouldn’t have his bookshop if he didn’t love them beyond reason. It wasn’t enough for the angel that any human being had ended up where they were, he had to know how.
As though it mattered how in the long run.
Crowley had not fallen from heaven. He had... sauntered vaguely downwards. But, when it came down to it, Crowley was down here now and it didn’t really matter how he’d gotten here. He’d as good as fallen. He'd fallen in with the wrong crowd. He couldn’t climb back up and didn’t want to climb back up anyway, and that was that.
When their dessert arrived, Aziraphale tucked in and Crowley refused all the angel’s arguments that it was a plate for two. Unlike the angel, Crowley could not convince himself that a quick nibble would make the miserable world seem like a better place.
“I suppose it is rather the prerogative of demons to be preoccupied with the failings of humankind,” Aziraphale said finally, still wearing the expression of someone who had very regretfully eaten both shares of dessert and found Crowley’s abstinence from pudding today a tragedy . “It would be difficult to present temptation and misery as undeniable if you didn’t believe in it.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows.
“I can’t say that I understand it, really, coming at it from the opposite side of things. It takes great fortitude to deny the temptation to believe that one is insignificant or that one’s life is meaningless. Once one has sinned, I understand some find it difficult to believe in forgiveness and redemption without any encouragement. If all one has known is misery, then it can take great strength of character to find peace and happiness-”
“Is this the long and bumbling explanation?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale had the grace to look embarrassed about his preaching. “Denial of hopelessness is important in the face of adversity,” he managed.
Crowley peered at him suspiciously. “...So it’s hope.”
Aziraphale brightened. “Precisely!” he exclaimed, before he coughed and looked embarrassed again. “Well, essentially. When it is not being perverted by those looking to deny a reality for their own selfish gains, that is. All virtues in scarcity or excess become sins, you know.”
Crowley replaced denial with hope in his mind and thought about it. The hope of an alcoholic that this next glass of alcohol would really be the last one. The hope of a thief or a con-artist that this next crime would set them up for life. The hope of an uncertain consumer that someone else down the line was taking care of the ethics. The hope of a lifelong, ordinary sinner who was doing their best that God would be forgiving in the end.
It made them so much easier to trick and to tempt.
There were also still plenty of people who had given up on hope and enjoyed hurting other people. Crowley could not forget those who perverted this supposed virtue of denial. There were plenty of people who had convinced themselves that the suffering of others was wholly deserved and that the denial of their neighbors was the morally righteous course of action, or even that the punishment of their neighbors was the morally righteous course of action. Crowley could not forget the sneering human beings who found it their place to deny other human beings entrance to heaven.
Denial was why Aziraphale was still an angel and Crowley was not.
“Hmm,” Crowley said.
Even that much of an admission was a mistake. Aziraphale beamed like Crowley had announced that he’d recently taking up bestowing random acts of charity on orphans, widows, and stray kittens. Though it was very tempting, Crowley did not high-handedly declare yet again to the angel that the belief in easy happy endings and righteous denial could do half a demon’s work for them.
He had, in his line of work, come across a person or two who had remained remarkably steadfast in the face of temptation. Who had denied evil and found a better life for it. It happened sometimes. They existed: those people who could resist temptation. There were even those who could pick themselves up out of the ditch or the drainpipe and properly repent for their sins.
And Crowley could suppose that, without their impressive powers of denial, every human being might go quite mad with the horrifying, infinite chaos of the universe and the Ineffable Great Plan. Denial was probably quite crucial to going about their finite days without screaming their heads off about the absolute state of things. Human beings had to go about believing that things would turn out in the end, that they could come back from inevitable mistakes, and that their entire world wasn't essentially on fire around them. Because if they all just gave up then they’d never survive long enough to beat the odds and live happily ever after for the rest of their days.
Aziraphale reached for his wine glass and smugly raised it in a toast. Crowley didn’t lift his glass off the table, waiting to hear what the angel thought they ought to toast to today.
“To hope,” Aziraphale declared, smiling.
Crowley smirked and raised his glass to clink them together. “To denial,” he agreed.
And they drank.