Chapter 1: The Bus Stop
“We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” —GKC, Illustrated London News
Chapter Rating: Teen and Up
Many thanks to my beautiful beta reader, shenhai!
You can stay at my place, if you like.
The gentle words sounded through the haze of fatigue, shock, wine, and worry that pressed on Aziraphale’s senses. His bookshop—home—was gone (It burned down, remember?), and a hollow regret yawned within him where the bright sense of purpose and direction used to be. Of course he would go with Crowley. His dearest, most constant friend was once again offering a steady hand, an escape from exterior pressures and internal conflict. As instinctively as reaching for a life line in a stormy sea, Aziraphale grasped at his anchoring presence. He opened his mouth to accept the invitation.
But in a sudden flash of memory he felt his back hit a wall. Contempt and hostility surrounded him, and he heard Uriel taunting. Don’t think your boyfriend in the dark glasses will get you special treatment in Hell. Aziraphale’s mind recoiled at remembered fear and shame, and he shook himself back to the present. Crowley was smiling just a little, tentative and perhaps...hopeful? Aziraphale’s face fell.
“I don’t think my side would like that,” he managed, over the churning in his stomach.
Crowley was not defeated (somehow, he never was), but neither did he press Aziraphale with the frustration or urgency of their recent arguments. Perhaps a kind of peace had fallen. Perhaps he understood the feebleness of Aziraphale’s refusal. Or perhaps he was simply as stunned from the day’s events and as hazy from the wine as Aziraphale himself at the moment. “You don’t have a side anymore,” he said gently. “Neither of us do. We’re on our own side.”
The words echoed in Aziraphale’s heart from their meeting at the bandstand yesterday (dear Lord, only yesterday?), and his stomach turned at the memory. Crowley’s snarling insistence (We’re on our side!) had sliced through his pretenses, called his bluff, and left him exposed and floundering. He could not honestly claim to be Heaven’s man, not under the harsh light Crowley had thrown on the significance of their association. Not knowing whether he feared more the retribution of Heaven or the shattering of his own dangerously fractured sense of identity, Aziraphale had flown into a panic when Crowley had prowled forward as if to claim him.
Now, however, he was constrained to admit the truth of Crowley’s words. No panic, no parroted allegiance, no desperate rejection of his patient friend would mollify his superiors after today’s events. No hemming and hawing and little white lies could cover the open defiance with which he had flouted Heaven’s authority. They would have him exiled, maybe killed; or if he were allowed to rejoin ranks, he’d be marked forever as a traitor, never trusted. Only one place offered shelter in the tempest. By Crowley’s side, at least, he knew where he stood.
But what would become of them now? Hell would be no more lenient with Crowley than Heaven would be with him; Beelzebub had made that perfectly clear. An idea began to flutter around the edges of Aziraphale’s thoughts, but he was weary, frayed with fear.
“Like Agnes said,” Crowley continued, “we’re going to have to choose our faces wisely.”
Aziraphale could not grasp in the moment what Crowley was suggesting, but there was no mistaking the tone of encouragement that warmed him through. They might survive. And even if they didn’t, Aziraphale could live this night, at least one night, in the peace of finally having made a decision. The last strains of resistance slipped from his heart. After six thousand years of half-doubts, excuses, and trying to have it both ways, tonight he would have it one way, be on one side, and be only himself, whole.
Crowley offered him the bottle as the bus pulled up. Aziraphale steadied himself on the touch of their fingers (Crowley’s were cool), his friend’s familiar scent (warm and spicy, like a hearthfire, or scotch), and silently accepted. As Crowley rose from the bench, Aziraphale pressed the bottle to his lips, indulging (not for the first time) in the sweetness of the indirect kiss.
Aziraphale hadn’t answered him. That wasn’t a no, but Crowley hardly let himself hope that his friend would come, would save him from the night of desperate anxiety and feverish scheming that awaited him otherwise. The back of his neck ached where his chains had pulled him to the ground, unbearably heavy at the thundering approach of the Lord Below. The world might be off the hook for a while, but all of Hell’s frustrated malice would be trained now on Crowley himself.
He took his seat on the bus, idly wondering over the hum of wine and exhaustion what Aziraphale’s decision would be. There had been some changes in the angel today. He had seemed more decisive, quicker to act—even had a go at Adam, not that anything would’ve come of that, Crowley supposed. Well, it didn’t matter anyway. Whether or not Aziraphale came back to his flat, Crowley could surely convince him to go along with the little plan that was currently taking shape in his strained imagination. And if they could carry it off, they might just survive—or even do a bit better.
Beneath Crowley’s encouraging inner monologue, however, ran a current of sick tension, an almost choking sense of despair. He gazed out the window, unfocused, and tried to school his breathing as memories—of fire, liquor, loss, terror, the Voice, the staggering earth, fluttering charred pages, the wings of Death—broke on him indiscriminately. If anything were to go wrong…
He was vaguely aware, from the encroaching scents of summer rain and vanilla, that Aziraphale had finished fumbling with coins and pleasantries for the driver, and was coming to sit down. Crowley’s breathing calmed as the warm pressure settled next to his thigh, but he did not look up until, with a start, he felt Aziraphale’s hand slip confidently into his own.
“Our own side it is, then,” said the angel, quiet but unwavering.
Crowley was flabbergasted. He hardly dared to move, lest the whole scene shatter before his eyes. Composing his features with effort, he turned slowly to look at his friend, tilting his head quizzically.
“I presume you have a plan,” Aziraphale said. He was slightly flushed, but did not look away.
As the bus trundled off toward London, Crowley sketched out the idea that had come to him when he read the last prophecy. They talked in hushed whispers, occasionally growing more animated (“But won’t hellfire discorporate you?” “It didn’t on the M25!”), but both, it seemed, clinging to the practicality of the matter at hand to avoid addressing the strange intimacy of Aziraphale’s gesture.
Crowley steadfastly avoided looking down at his lap, where their clasped hands rested on his thigh. No force in Heaven or on Earth could have made him ask what Aziraphale meant by it. Millennia of longing had taught him not to expect, and after the events of today he was content simply to have the angel back in the world, for however long they had left.
Still, as the conversation lulled and Crowley’s mind wandered, the heat from their hands began to curl around his heart and awaken his senses. He could not help wondering, what if? He wasn’t blind, he had seen a certain shine in Aziraphale’s eyes, a light in his smile, sometimes when he looked at the demon. There had been times (Paris? The air strip?) when Aziraphale had called his name in breathless surprise, and Crowley could have sworn he heard underneath it something from his own dreams—dreams from which he had so often spasmed awake, panting at swimming visions of the angel on top of him. Was it possible Aziraphale had dreams like that? What if he did—meant—wanted—he had never done this before...what if?
It must be nothing, it was probably nothing. Comfort, reassurance—that was enough. It was enough to be on the same side. Crowley shook his head hard, willed his pulse to slow and his palms not to sweat. Aziraphale spoke again. “If you want to sleep, I can get us to London.”
“I’m fine,” Crowley muttered. “Long day is all.”
“Quite,” said Aziraphale with a tired smile, and gave Crowley’s hand a reassuring squeeze.
They rode on in silence, Crowley quietly burning despite what he kept telling himself, until the bus pulled up to the corner in front of his building. Aziraphale withdrew his hand, pulled himself out of the seat, and turned to Crowley with an encouraging smile. “Right,” he said, “Let’s get to work.” Ah well, never mind. It was enough. They had tonight at least, to do whatever they could to save themselves. Tonight, for the first time, Aziraphale was finally, openly, on his side. No hedging, no denial, no get thee behind me. None of the little half-hearted barbs and jabs that Crowley had long since accepted as the price of their relationship. Really, outside of a restaurant he had never seen Aziraphale so singular of purpose. Smiling a little, he got up and followed his friend into the night.
Chapter 2: The Flat
"'For I had weighed the mountains in a balance, / And the skies in a scale, / I come to sell the stars—old lamps for new— / Old stars for sale.'" —GKC, Femina Contra Mundum
Chapter Rating: Teen and Up
Beta by shenhai.
Aziraphale had never come to Crowley’s home before. He couldn’t have said what he had expected, but somehow he didn’t find himself at all surprised. The simplicity—not to say the austerity—of the place seemed to him perfectly consonant with what he thought of as Crowley’s purity of heart (though Crowley would have had some choice words for him at the suggestion). For all his dizzying versatility, the thousands of little changes over the years to his outward presentation (like a snake shedding its skin, one could not help but think), the demon kept at his core a diamond-like conviction that was more than mere independence or individualism. It was Personality, acknowledged and accepted, whether fully understood or not. Crowley, Aziraphale recognized, knew who he was.
This was the great mystery of his friend that had puzzled and enchanted Aziraphale from their first meeting. At the center of Aziraphale’s own heart there had always been a small fracture—some uncertainty, doubt, a question. Am I doing the right thing? He depended on external consistency to buttress his interior fragility. Crowley had struck him from the start as an earthquake threatening to topple it all. The angel, always unstable and unsure of himself, tried so hard to cling to a solid concept of what he ought to be (Heaven’s concept—one to which he had always felt himself inadequate). Crowley, on the other hand, was forever in motion, at ease in change and flux. He swept around Aziraphale like the roll of the ocean, or spinning stars in a reeling firmament. It had always been too much, too fast.
And yet...despite the threat of vertigo, Aziraphale had always been drawn to Crowley first, and terrified second. (Oh, you’re an angel, I don’t think you can do the wrong thing, he had said once. Aziraphale had never forgotten the sudden overwhelming comfort—he would almost say mercy—he had felt at the words.) Their whole history could be reckoned in moments when fear had caught him already reaching for the demon’s outstretched hand. Some instinct in Aziraphale trusted Crowley as he never trusted his Heavenly colleagues, and cried out for him as for a still harbor in the storm.
The same instinct made him feel paradoxically at home now in Crowley’s stark surroundings, no matter how different they were from his own comfortable clutter. He explored at his leisure while Crowley shambled to the kitchen to open another bottle.
Lush greenery caught Aziraphale’s eye, and he found himself stepping with delight into a small room as verdant and rich with life as the first days of creation. But was that a hint of...fear? Turning about, he peered through a half-open door to what must have been an office, to see an elaborate (and surely uncomfortable) chair pulled back from the desk, brooding over the indoor garden like the Throne of God. Well, that was at least as pointed as it was poetic. Here was the Earth, and terror and awe reigned over it. Perhaps Crowley was not always so much at ease as he seemed. Did he look for the meaning in a garden, still? In some corner of Crowley’s heart, beneath the swaggering indifference to his own damnation, was he wrestling beyond his understanding with himself, or his Fall, or Her judgement, or simply with Her?
Aziraphale felt that he had trespassed on something too private to be seen without permission. Withdrawing into the corridor, his gaze fell on an exquisite little sculpture. Two angelic figures, delicate wings splayed upward and outward, were locked in what must have been combat (judging by the strained arm of the contestant who was getting the worst of it). The struggle was vivid, but did not look entirely...unfriendly; and the longer Aziraphale gazed at it, the shallower his breathing became. Catching himself just when his imagination began grafting the features of Crowley and himself onto the grappling figures, he turned abruptly and gasped, as a different kind of warmth bloomed in his chest.
At the other end of the corridor stood a larger and much rougher sculpture of a dove emerging from pentecostal flames. Aziraphale recognized it immediately from the sanctuary of a small church in London in 1941. A little demonic miracle of my own, Crowley had said, handing him the case of treasured books. What that gesture had meant to him! He had thought he might burst with the longing to show his gratitude and affection in that moment. Was it possible that Crowley had noticed? Had he gone back to retrieve the sculpture as a kind of souvenir of their reconciliation?
A souvenir! That was it. Crowley had said it himself in the bar earlier today, holding up Agnes Nutter’s singed book and drunkenly pointing at it. He had kept it as a remembrance of Aziraphale. Here was the key to Crowley’s extravagant asceticism, his wild changes and unshakable core. Unlike Aziraphale, the demon loved very few things; but he loved nothing idly or lightly. Possessions were either meaningless to him or they held all the brightest jewels of his earthly experience. His car, his few pieces of art, the little Eden he had grown for himself—these were not indulgences, but treasures of the heart.
Aziraphale recalled some snippets of a poem about treating the world and all its wonders as so much chaff in the face of something really worth having, and a quiet admiration for his friend settled on him. Constant to what was worth it, changeable to everything else. This was a side he would not regret choosing.
“Angel!” cried Crowley from an uncomfortable-looking sofa in the other room. “Come have a drink, we’ve got work to do.” Aziraphale smiled, and did as he was bidden.
“It’s Lord of the Files, not Lord of the Flies, that’s a book! There is no Lord of the—look, Beelzebub’s covered in flies, Dagon keeps the files. Got it?” Wine was sloshing out of Crowley’s glass as he punctuated this information with demonstrative gestures. Aziraphale nodded emphatically, pouring another glass for himself.
“Alright, your turn,” Aziraphale declared peremptorily. “Balding chap, piggy eyes, ‘slow of tongue’, as the Good Book says?”
“Sandalphon,” answered Crowley without hesitation. “And Uriel’s got the prickly temper and gold on the face, I remember.” He waved one hand dismissively as his wine teetered dangerously in the other.
“I say,” cried Aziraphale, eyes suddenly wide, “what if I should meet your boss?”
“What—” said Crowley, “you mean Satan? Nah, once he gives the order he won’t be bothered to show up. I’m not worth it to him you know.” He shrugged exaggeratedly, but Aziraphale saw his face a little paler, its lines more drawn than before.
“Well,” he ventured, “I suppose there’s nothing else for it but to swap and try it out. Perhaps we ought to sober up a bit first.”
“Right!” Crowley visibly brightened. “Ss’gonna work. Ss’a good plan. The Nutter woman said so.” Aziraphale answered with another earnest nod.
As they purged the wine from their systems, Aziraphale felt a fluttering of nerves return. A simple illusion would not do; they would have to inhabit each other’s officially issued bodies, to have any hope of going undetected. He recalled his brief sojourn in Madame Tracy, and the look she had cast him when Adam had finally separated them. The uncomfortably physical intimacy of the experience was undeniable, even with a person for whom (though he wished her well) Aziraphale had no notable affinity.
For Crowley he had rather too much of an affinity. In a moment of wild irrationality, Aziraphale wondered if his body would react to Crowley’s presence in it as pointedly as it reacted to his presence outside of it. Pull yourself together, he scolded. A far more pressing problem was the likelihood that they might harm each other in the transfer. The theory that they’d “probably explode” had been a poetical license on Aziraphale’s part, but if their true natures were really antithetical, then they were, as Agnes said, “playing with fyre.”
Crowley seemed to be thinking along similar lines. He suggested moving the bodies themselves rather than trying to manoeuver around each other within them. As they clasped hands for the second time that night, Aziraphale found himself smiling shyly up at his friend, who quirked an inquisitive eyebrow at him. No time for that now. He collected himself and marshalled his concentration.
It didn’t hurt. It didn’t feel like much of anything at first, except a heat and pressure at their clasped hands as billions of molecules slid past each other more closely than they were accustomed. As they progressed, though, Aziraphale grew breathless and lightheaded with the chaotic friction and motion of it, and he was relieved when Crowley released his hand. He opened his eyes to see his own face blinking back at him.
“Oh, well done!” he exclaimed, beaming, and Crowley made a face.
“That kind of language has got to go, angel.”
“Well, and so does that expression. You’re going to have to practice a smile, my dear.”
Crowley squinted, wrinkled his nose, and pursed Aziraphale’s lips grotesquely. “Like this?”
Aziraphale rolled his eyes.
“Oh, think it’s so easy, do you?” Crowley retorted. “Right then. Let’s see you walk.”
Twenty minutes later Crowley was shouting at Aziraphale to relax, and Aziraphale was discoursing vehemently on the appropriate range of motion for a human pelvis.
Chapter 3: The Bedroom
“The way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost.” —GKC, The Advantages of Having One Leg
Chapter Rating: Mature
Beta by the incomparable shenhai.
Shoutout to the great Sappho for the world's best horny metaphors.
The searing pressure at their hands eased quickly, but Crowley had to endure several moments of tingling hypersensitivity before his own body settled comfortably around him once more. His nerves were rattled by Aziraphale’s close proximity and coy half-smile as he shuddered in the aftermath. It made Crowley feel confused and a little short of breath. He was never so much at sea as when the angel betrayed hints of sensuality—some of the noises he made over dessert had supplied a rich background to Crowley’s private daydreams through the years. He suspected that Aziraphale might sometimes have been a bit purposely theatrical with his little sighs and moans, but any attempt to quip on Crowley’s part would have come too close to exposing his own secret hopes. So he would cower behind his sunglasses until such moments passed, and store the memories in his heart for later.
He flexed his hands and forearms, and rolled his neck from side to side as his nerves hummed. “Looks like it’s gonna work,” he said noncommittally.
Aziraphale sighed contentedly, eyelashes fluttering. “We didn’t explode after all.” His eyes twinkled up at Crowley, who felt that he was quickly losing control of the situation.
“More wine?” he asked a little too loudly, and strode off toward the kitchen. Grasping at practicalities on which to regain his footing, he called over his shoulder, “We can swap again at dawn, should probably be seen going about our business and all.”
“Jolly good,” called Aziraphale. “In the meantime, shouldn’t you like to get some sleep?”
Despite his exhaustion, nothing at the moment appealed to Crowley less than sleep. He knew what awaited him in the dark and quiet. In all the long aeons since his Fall, the demon had never once escaped an encounter with him, however brief, that did not pursue him for weeks with wracking nightmares. The bruising weight of his chains, the sulfurous stench, the sinister caress of the Voice, like poisoned silk, that called him darling even as it rent and tortured, and beyond it all the endless, black, merciless cold, would press and squeeze and strangle until enough time or alcohol had passed for the wound to scab.
Crowley let his breath out slowly and composed his features into an easy carelessness. “Might do, after a bit,” he said, returning to the other room with a bottle and two glasses. Aziraphale sat primly on the edge of the sofa, an expression of mild concern on his face. Crowley shrugged. “To be honest I’m a bit preoccupied for sleep at the moment.” He sprawled into an armchair and gestured to the wine, inviting the angel to help himself.
“Well that’s certainly understandable,” said Aziraphale kindly, handing him a generous glass. “I am sorry about the Bentley, dear boy,” he added almost as an afterthought, his eyes wide and earnest. Crowley took the glass and looked away, resting his chin on his knuckles.
Normally, Aziraphale’s presence at a time like this was a salve, a kind of medicinal sting that could cauterize or disinfect when Hell left him torn. The hopeless longing was a lesser pain that somehow dulled the greater. Now, however, there was an intolerable admixture of possibility that kept all of Crowley’s senses feeling raw and open. The angel had introduced it when he had taken his hand on the bus. It had been a gesture totally unlike the unconscious tactile communication that Crowley was used to receiving from his friend. Aziraphale was naturally affectionate and naturally physical, and little protective touches on the arm or comforting pats on the knee flowed from him spontaneously whenever he let his guard down. There had been nothing spontaneous or unconscious in the way his thumb had stroked the back of Crowley’s hand through the whole ride back to London. The declaration of loyalty, the steady closeness (as if it had always been like that!), the curious familiarity with which the angel had made himself at home in Crowley’s flat—in Crowley’s body—all pushed on him insistently that hopelessness was no longer on the table. For many centuries, it’ll never happen had been a safe certainty in which to hide and nurse his sores. But now…
He shrugged again and grunted vaguely to acknowledge Aziraphale’s condolences. Words seemed dangerous ground. The nightmares were just nightmares, and trying though they were, Crowley knew the difference between them and reality; he knew where his strength lay (he had chosen the Earth a thousand times and would choose her every time). His car was a real loss, though, and he wasn’t prepared to face it in his current state, off-balance and fearing for his life and the life of his friend.
“Well,” he said, raising his glass, “here’s to not dying tomorrow.” He attempted a debonair smirk, but managed only a sickly grimace. His throat was tight as he swallowed the wine, and there was a hot pressure behind his eyes.
They drank in silence for a while, Aziraphale looking down at his knees and Crowley gazing off at nothing. A thought seemed to occur to the angel all of a sudden, and he raised his head and cleared his throat.
“How shall we find each other, when...after it’s all over?”
Crowley scowled. “Nothing about this will take more than a day. Let’s meet at Berkeley Square garden, it’s just down the road.”
“What if one of us is delayed?”
“There’s no delay in this situation, angel. We’ll be back before tea-time or we won’t be back at all. If I haven’t arrived by sundown, the flat is yours, obviously, for as long as you like. There’s a sculpture down the corridor you might like to have, I don’t know if you remember that church during the Blitz—” Crowley's voice broke, and he could not continue.
Aziraphale, who had been listening with an increasingly horrified expression, cried out as if in pain, and leapt to his feet. In two steps he was by the demon’s side. Crowley had slumped forward with his head in his hands, and was drawing deep, shuddering breaths. He had dropped his wine glass, and his sunglasses had fallen to the floor amid the shards and the spreading stain. Aziraphale knelt beside the armchair and gathered Crowley into an embrace, cradling his head on his shoulder and stroking his arm. Crowley grew still, but did not resist. Bewilderment stopped his turmoil in its tracks, as it had before on the bus. Fearful of any action that might break the spell, he remained motionless as Aziraphale soothed him.
He had never been so close to the angel’s neck before. Close enough to kiss—stop it—not to kiss, but slowly, secretly to inhale the scent of warm, sweet rain. Aziraphale’s arm wrapped firmly about his shoulders; Aziraphale’s hand pressed softly up and down his arm. Crowley’s eyes fell shut and he sighed. He could not, however, bring himself to relax into the embrace (let alone to return it). He wondered how long it would last.
“Come, let me take you to bed,” said the angel. He drew Crowley gently from the chair and glanced about for the door to the bedroom. Crowley nodded mutely in the right direction, and wobbled a bit as he stood. Aziraphale circled one arm around his waist and guided him through the door. A wild, unutterable hope was beating like wings inside the demon’s chest. Jacket, shoes, and belt discarded, he allowed his friend to ease him down to sit on the broad, soft bed. But Crowley was distracted, trying to stay calm, and when Aziraphale reached to remove his chains, he started and pulled back, stiffening.
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry,” Aziraphale said, jumping away and wringing his hands. “I just assumed—”
“Ss’alright,” said Crowley, embarrassed. “I’ll do it.” He snapped his fingers and the chains disappeared from view, but the damage was done. The angel stood away, clearly unsure whether his presence was really wanted. Crowley cursed himself inwardly, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Afraid to look up, he sat staring at the floor, his stomach writhing with dashed hopes.
He could hear Aziraphale beginning to edge toward the door. “Ought to clean up a bit in the other room,” he was saying sheepishly. “Broken glass…”
Broken glass—he was going to leave— Crowley’s memory flashed with a blaze of fire, and he felt again the bullet-like force of the jet spray that had hit him in the chest. “Don’t go!” he called out. Aziraphale stopped moving. Crowley summoned his strength and looked the angel in the eyes, praying that his own did not show all of what he felt. “Please don’t go,” he repeated. “This could all end tomorrow, we can’t know what they’re going to do to us, and I just don’t—can’t—just please don’t go yet.” He lowered his gaze and gripped the edges of the bed, embarrassed and shuddering.
Aziraphale was at his side in an instant, pouring out comfort and reassurance. “Oh my dear, it’s going to be alright, we’re going to survive, don’t cry now,” he kept saying over and over, and he took Crowley’s hand and squeezed it, and kissed it, and squeezed his shoulder, and stroked his cheek, and kissed his forehead and his temple and his lips, and his forehead again, and his lips again, and again, and again.
And Crowley began to return his kisses, swept up as his shock turned to desperate realization. Holding onto the angel’s shoulders, he lifted his face and opened his lips, breathless, receiving kiss after shivering kiss as Aziraphale moved closer and continued to whisper of life and hope. Crowley clung to him and said that he knew, that he believed, that they would always be together. He didn’t know what he was saying, but he meant it all. He was burning again at Aziraphale's touch. Fire was coursing under his skin, and he was falling backwards, burning and falling, but with a strange feeling of having finally come right side up.
When his head hit the pillows, and Aziraphale’s body pressed on him, not a stitch of clothing separated them—who had done it?—and they began to move on each other without missing a beat. Neither could have said how long they lay like that, limbs interlocked, hands grasping, aware of nothing but the aching wet heat where their hips drove together. They whispered nonsense to each other between ragged sighs and kisses (—We’re going to live —Stay with me), and held tighter, and pressed closer, and moved harder, and cried out for one another.
And suddenly every barrier between them broke, as violent as death. Aziraphale buried his face in Crowley’s neck with a sob, and Crowley’s body bucked and shook, and he pulled the angel into a long, fervent kiss and held him until he stopped trembling.
They didn’t really speak afterward. Crowley drew the blankets over them, and they lay side by side and hand in hand, gazing up at nothing. They didn’t sleep. Crowley would not have slept for anything in the world. He was determined to feel Aziraphale next to him, hear his breathing, touch his fingers, for as long as he had any reasonable certainty of doing so.
They got up just before dawn and left the bedroom. Clothing themselves in the grey light, they repeated their plans and promises to meet in the garden when it was all over. Aziraphale kept up a brave face, and Crowley loved him helplessly for it. But it was in grim silence that they clasped hands and put on each other’s faces once again, and as a weak sun was breaking over London, they parted.
Chapter 4: Berkeley Square Garden
“This shall not end for the world's end / And though the sullen engines swing, / Be you not much afraid, my friend.” —GKC, To Belloc
Crowley was late. Not late, Aziraphale reminded himself again, just delayed. No, not delayed, he corrected, remembering Crowley’s words the night before (There’s no delay in this situation, angel. We’ll be back before tea-time or we won’t be back at all). It was still late morning—not yet lunch time. It’s not a delay, it’s a...bureaucratic process. Of course Heaven would do things slightly differently—one would hope, entirely differently—from their infernal counterparts.
Aziraphale had been flapping about in this vein since he had arrived in Berkeley Square forty minutes ago to find that Crowley was not waiting for him in the central garden. Not wishing to draw undue attention to himself, having already paced the circuit of the garden several times, he had sat down upon a bench, folded his hands in his lap, and given himself over to silent worry.
Hell had surprised him—not by its unpleasantness, which was rather to be expected, but by its transparency. The trial of Crowley had contained neither justice nor mercy, but it was done quite openly, before a throng of observers. Somehow Aziraphale’s experience with celestial bureaucracy had not prepared him for that. In a way, it had made his job easier. With all the host of Hell having borne witness to his theatrics—and his threats—it was unlikely that Crowley should ever be pursued by lesser demons seeking to climb (or descend?) the ladder.
No more than its transparency had Aziraphale expected Hell’s efficiency. The entire ordeal had taken just over an hour. He supposed that his long association with Crowley had given him the impression that demons were on the whole rather a chaotic lot. They were certainly untidy, and he now understood a bit better Crowley’s preference for open spaces and bare walls, but really the environment had been quite orderly. No one had even spoken out of turn.
The real test of Aziraphale’s endurance had been the emptiness. Everywhere else he had ever been was filled with a certain Presence, a fine aether of care throughout, that was like light except that it remained even in darkness. Heaven was saturated with it, and had indeed always felt a little too bright, a little too sharp for Aziraphale (well, ever since he had come to Earth, at any rate—or perhaps since he had told a very little white lie in a moment of panic outside the Eastern Gate). On Earth the feeling was pleasantly muted, as if behind a curtain, but it filled everything up, nevertheless.
But the background of Hell was Absence, and Aziraphale had felt it sucking at the edges of his spirit, like being pulled apart in a vacuum. Perhaps that was why its inhabitants crowded so closely together. One sought out what presence one could, he supposed. Pity they all seemed to hate each other.
But Crowley—Crowley—Aziraphale could not bear to think of him in such a place. He knew that his experience of Hell had been brief, that he must be miles from understanding it all, but even if what he’d seen were all there was, he would face an army of demons before letting Crowley set foot there again. He knew enough of his friend’s heart to know that it was not made to endure emptiness. Crowley loved company—wine and comedy and being among people. He loved the world, and he belonged there. And so did Aziraphale, and he would give Crowley the world, would give him anything, if he would only come back.
The angel hung his head and looked at his hands. They were Crowley’s hands. Hands that mere hours ago had clutched at him with such profound acceptance that he would have called it need, if it didn’t seem presumptuous to do so. Fear gnawed within him, and a little sob escaped his throat. In the wide cosmos, from his superiors, to his colleagues, even to himself, Aziraphale had never quite felt that he met expectations. Only Crowley had ever found him acceptable. What if he did not come back?
Aziraphale told himself that the process would take longer in Heaven, of course it would. Everything moved more slowly there. The archangels would not simply send Crowley away, for there would be no crowd to appease, as when Beelzebub had ordered Aziraphale’s immediate removal. No, Crowley would stand alone before two or three of the Heavenly authorities, and if he succeeded, they would withdraw to committee before taking any action.
On the other hand, the Angel of Death had appeared to them in St. James’s Park just before Crowley was taken. Could he have known? Surely not. He was not omniscient, and though he was not an agent of Heaven or of Hell, he was of the same stock as other angels, with no special powers outside of a very specific job. Their disguises ought to have deceived him.
It didn’t matter what Aziraphale told himself. His reason was far outstripped by his imagination, to which clawing anxiety was lending an unusual force. If Crowley were destroyed, Aziraphale would spend the rest of his existence in this body, the only remnant of his beloved friend. His own face would be a daily reminder of what had been taken from him. He would never dare to change his appearance—a single missing hair would be an infinite loss. The angel’s drowning mind flung about scraps from his reading—The sun was black with judgement—For Love is as stern as Death—Father, let this cup pass from my lips—and he wrung his hands, and looked feverishly about him for any sign of Crowley.
For the hundredth time in the past hour, Aziraphale’s eyes swam with images of the night before. He understood almost nothing of what had passed between them (not in its full significance, anyway), but the memories made his heart ache and burn, as his throat and fingertips and body had ached and burned in his friend’s embrace.
How had it happened? He had rushed instinctively to comfort Crowley when he saw his distress. He had overflowed with concern and affection when Crowley had asked him to stay. He had held his friend and kissed him once or twice just to reassure him that he was there, but then his lips were sweet, and open, and Aziraphale had found that he could not stop. He hadn’t meant to. He had meant only to calm and soothe, to protect—but no, he caught himself. That was a lie.
It was an ancient lie, one he had been telling himself for thousands of years now; one he had first told himself on the wall above the Eastern Gate of Eden, standing beside Crowley in the very first rain. He had been instantly drawn to the demon’s mild cordiality, reassuring words, and gentle laughter—and just as instantly frightened at how easily the tentative friendship had blossomed. Something open in Crowley’s demeanor had made it feel safe for Aziraphale to confess the secret that was plaguing him (one he later found himself unable to confess to God, though the Almighty did not rebuke him any more than Crowley had). There had been a softness in the demon’s strange eyes, a gentleness despite his sharp features, and something almost affectionate in his cry of surprise when Aziraphale told him what he had done. And the angel’s heart had thrilled with a sudden longing—for what? To look at those eyes deeply, forever? To let his hand whisper through the deep, delicate curls of his hair?
Aziraphale’s mind, ever fearful of itself, had clamped shut against those feelings before he could even name them. But when the first drops of rain began to strike, Crowley instinctively drew closer to him with two timid, faltering steps, and the tenderness that broke from Aziraphale then could have flooded the Earth. He had extended a wing over his strange companion to shield him from the storm (how could he not?), and Crowley had wordlessly accepted. As they stood in silence looking out at the desert, the angel had reasoned with himself that this, at least, he could do in good (or at least not bad) conscience. Was it not his job to show kindness to all living things? To care for all creatures disinterestedly and indiscriminately, as the Almighty claimed to do? The thought had made him feel relieved, easing just enough of the pressure around his heart to make it bearable.
Metaphorically speaking, he’d been extending his wing over Crowley ever since—a self-appointed guardian angel. By now it was almost unconscious on his part. As long as Aziraphale was on Earth, Crowley never came to any grievous bodily harm. He did not know whether the demon was aware of it. He hoped not. But through the centuries Crowley had never seemed far away; and whenever they were together, he was leaning, circling, tending toward Aziraphale, always shifting closer, in ways that made the angel weak with unnamed yearning. The protection Aziraphale secretly extended had been the only channel for his helpless frustration, the only crack in the wall of guilt and expectation that had always hemmed him in, one more little white lie that could slip under what Aziraphale imagined as the stern and terrible gaze of Heaven, with which he was constantly examining himself.
In the raw clarity of his current fears, Aziraphale could no longer evade the knowledge of his own dishonesty. His love for Crowley, which he had only allowed himself to name some paltry decades ago in a little church, had never truly been either disinterested or indiscriminate. He protected Crowley to keep him for himself. He took refuge in Crowley’s acceptance, glowed in his company, wanted his touch. He was not accustomed to sleep, but many nights his mind, wandering from a book in the quiet hours, would be suddenly seized with dreams of his friend’s form straining beneath him in the dark. He would imagine Crowley’s face contorted with feeling, hear his voice panting and pleading, and would double over, gasping as if from a blow to the chest, wrapping his arms around himself to make it stop.
He had never admitted any of it to himself. He would put it all violently out of his mind and throw himself into some small task, muttering about the ill effects of brandy or the modern novel. He had never faced facts long enough to wonder whether Crowley might harbor any similar sentiments about him. Until now, he thought frantically, bitterly, when it might be too late. How had he not thought to ask last night? Everything had happened amid a flood of dread for the future. He could not say now whether dread had been the cause or merely the catalyst. Crowley had gone still in his arms at the first embrace; he had stiffened and retreated when Aziraphale had moved to help undress him. Had he not wanted—but he had responded so ardently—how had it happened like this?
It had now been over an hour since Aziraphale had arrived in the garden. Surely even the ponderous wheels of the Heavenly hierarchy could not turn so slowly as this, when a matter of treason was concerned. Something was wrong, and Aziraphale could stand it no longer. He must find Crowley. He would storm the very gates of Heaven and smite down Gabriel himself if he had to. He leapt to his feet, breathing hard.
“Ah, heard me coming, did you?” said a voice behind him.
Aziraphale froze. Turning, he saw his own face, though wearing an expression that was distinctly Crowley’s: something between exasperation and amusement at a secret joke. Relief flooded him, and he sat down straight-backed and glowing, drawing deep, grateful breaths, as Crowley slouched onto the bench beside him. Not knowing who was watching or how his friend was feeling, Aziraphale nevertheless could not resist reaching over to grasp his wrist for a moment, just to feel him, to know that he was there.
“Been waiting long?” Crowley asked, when Aziraphale had withdrawn his hand.
“Not so long, really,” he replied.
“Tell me something,” the demon said, as though making idle conversation over cocktails, “do all your lot talk that much?”
Stay tuned for Chapter 5, in which Crowley knows many things, but *what's going on* is not one of them.
Chapter 5: The Ritz
"'There was no star that I forgot to fear / With love and wonder. / The birds have loved me'; but no answer came— / Only the thunder." —GKC, Femina Contra Mundum
They were laughing. Aziraphale’s voice had risen in hilarity as he recounted his audacity at the trial, and Crowley, to his surprise and delight, heard not a shred of the furtive guilt that usually attended the angel’s confessions of mischief. He broke into laughter himself, as much at Aziraphale’s conspiratorial glimmer as at the image of Michael holding out a bath towel in horror. This was what it would be like from now on—being on the same side. The sense of freedom made the air feel crisp and thin and invigorating, like at the top of a mountain. Crowley felt a lightness in his chest, and took a long, deep breath.
“Ah, they’ll leave us alone,” he said, “for a bit. If you ask me, both sides are gonna use this as breathing space, before the big one.” As they sat together in Berkeley Square, reporting the outcomes of their respective trials for treason, Crowley had found himself feeling philosophical, and was voicing now the perverse idea that had occurred to him.
“I thought that was the big one,” Aziraphale said. His voice sank a bit, and he looked puzzled.
“Nah,” said Crowley, intrigued by the strange fancy that had taken him, “for my money the really big one is all of us against all of them.”
Yesterday, in the timeless quiet to which Crowley had transported them, Aziraphale had told Adam that he was something better than Heaven or Hell—he was human. He had said it to Adam, but as he did, he had looked at Crowley. Today, between his expansive mood and the thorough enjoyment he had taken in hissing hellfire at Gabriel’s astonished face, Crowley felt unusually prepared to take up the banner of humankind against the celestial powers.
“What? Heaven and Hell against...humanity?” Aziraphale’s sober reply deflated Crowley’s spirits somewhat. By us, Crowley had meant humanity—everyone on the side of the Earth—and by them, he’d meant Heaven and Hell. Why had Aziraphale reversed the order? They were free agents now, weren’t they? Did he still think of Heaven and Hell as their people, after all this?
Maybe not. He might not have meant anything by it. Crowley might be over-thinking, it wouldn’t be the first time. But he felt less sure now, and a little wrong-footed, so he started again down a safer track.
“Right. Time to leave the garden. Let me...tempt you to a spot of lunch?” His voice was high with uncertainty, but he felt an irrational need to test his friend’s reactions. He braced himself for the angel to clamp shut like an oyster at his loaded word choice.
But Aziraphale surprised him again. Instead of retreating he joined in the joke, openly pleased. “Temptation accomplished,” he returned with a twinkling smile. Feeling much better, Crowley got up and fell into step as they walked side by side out of Berkeley Square garden.
As they settled in at their accustomed table at the Ritz, Crowley was experimenting with a tentative contentment. Neither of them had mentioned what had happened last night, nor had they so much as brushed fingers since returning to their proper bodies. But Aziraphale did not seem perturbed or uneasy; he was all golden smiles, beaming at everyone and everything. Champagne seemed in order under the circumstances. The awful tension of the past few days was finally loosening, and a breath of peace ghosted over Crowley as Aziraphale raised his glass.
“I like to think none of this would’ve worked out,” the angel said fondly, “if you weren’t at heart, just a little bit, a good person.”
The words plucked a painful nerve—one that ran deep into Crowley’s past, to a question that had haunted many a brooding afternoon of talking to himself (not to Her) and snarling at his houseplants. But Aziraphale did not know that. How could he? He meant only to compliment, and to gently tease. Crowley took up his own glass.
“And if you weren’t,” he said, responding in kind, “deep down, just enough of a bastard to be worth knowing.” He kept his tone very soft, not wanting to poke too hard at his friend’s fledgling comfort with moral ambiguity. “Cheers,” he continued. “To the world.” He was rewarded with a glowing smile.
“To the world.”
As they continued their meal, Aziraphale sparkled with conviviality. He rhapsodised about the food and poured out kindness on the waitstaff. Leaning across the table with animated features, he interrogated Crowley minutely on the state of his shop. Not content with a blanket “It’s all there,” he wanted to know about every treasured edition, the desk in the back room, the paint on the walls, even his ancient computer. Crowley patiently gave an account of every one. It had been many years since he had ceased to think of this as Aziraphale’s triviality. There was nothing trivial about it. Aziraphale loved little things, but not, as some men do, because he had a little mind. It was the opposite. Aziraphale loved because he had a great mind, and a piercing heart, that saw clearly what was loveable in everything that was. His mind was large enough to truly comprehend the worth of every leaf and feather—realities that lesser minds had to ignore in order to keep from breaking. Deep down, Crowley admired him for it.
It was why he had never felt very discouraged when Aziraphale would call him a fiend, or a snake, or accuse him of treachery, or insist that they were enemies. It all stung, of course, but the words were never reflected in Aziraphale’s behavior toward him—they only served to soothe the angel’s jittery conscience. His courtesy was where he showed himself, extending a sword, a wing, a hand, an invitation, to creatures who had freely chosen to defy everything he believed in. His real foundation was not any rhetoric about right and wrong, but was simply care. It was a side Crowley was secretly proud to have chosen.
They drank their champagne, and Aziraphale ate sandwiches and other little delicate things. But despite his evident pleasure, and the warmth he was emanating, he still made no mention of last night (though Crowley supposed there was plenty of time yet—not exactly conversation for the table, was it?), nor any move to touch him. Crowley tried to avoid feeling petulant at that. After all, the angel had an old-fashioned sense of propriety, and was never overly demonstrative in public. But before, there had always been a few little moments of unconscious contact when his natural enthusiasm overflowed. Now, though, Crowley could not escape the impression that Aziraphale was purposefully restraining those instincts.
He did not like the thought. He realized that, in the feverish confusion last night as Aziraphale’s gentle kisses had ignited into something far less gentle, they had never established whether they were coming together intentionally, or had just fallen into a distraction to ward off the feeling of doom. It hadn’t seemed important at the time. The only thing had been to take whatever Aziraphale would give him. He had seen the chance to know the fulfillment of so many agonizing wishes, centuries of aching dreams come true, and it might have been his last chance. What should he have done, push the angel’s tongue out of his mouth and have a long conversation about where they saw this going?
During the small early hours, as he had lain beside his friend in companionable silence, Crowley’s imagination had projected a future in which, if they survived, Aziraphale would become a constant fixture in his daily comings and goings. He had envisioned the angel puttering about in his kitchen, drinking his liquor, sharing his bed. He’d never admit how much the thought had bolstered him, had stayed his tongue in the face of Gabriel’s insolence (despite the towering vengeance he had felt at seeing his angel so disregarded), and had made him determined more than ever to live, and to live free.
Only, now that the bookshop was restored, Aziraphale had no further reason to stay with him. Maybe he intended just to go back to the way things were, and was trying to re-establish a respectable distance between them. Well, and why shouldn’t he? Crowley thought fretfully. It’s not like the flat has space for a library.
By the time the conversation wound around to the events that had transpired during their brief...separation on Saturday, Crowley was feeling distinctly disconsolate. Revisiting the hours after the bookshop had gone up in flames, and a bruising jet spray to the chest had knocked him flat and laid on him the mysterious but absolute certainty that his beloved friend was no longer on Earth, did not improve the demon’s mood.
“And I decided then and there,” Aziraphale was saying, “that there was no more time to theorize, and I should have to make it up as I go. Really, old boy, you were the inspiration for that—I’d never have dared anything so impudent before. So I came back to Earth, followed the feeling of being pulled somewhere, as if by a string at the back of my chest you know, and I found myself somehow in front of you, though I couldn’t quite see where. It was all sort of glassy and distorted, like trying to see underwater.”
“I remember,” said Crowley. “Good job that Tracy woman was feeling receptive.” He could not quite keep the sniping edge out of his voice, and Aziraphale looked up from his cake, a little taken aback.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “quite.” Aziraphale peered at him curiously over a teacup, then seemed to shrug a little and make up his mind. “Well,” he said brightly, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin, “what would you say to a drink at my place? I’m eager to have a look at Adam’s, erm, improvements.”
Crowley felt a bit sorry for his waspishness and doubled his usual tip, knowing that Aziraphale would notice and be pleased. But as they walked to the corner to hail a cab for Soho, the angel kept his distance, and it was clear that he had no intention of taking Crowley’s arm (not that he had ever done such a thing before, but the demon was in no mood to face his disappointment rationally). They rode off toward the bookshop, Aziraphale cheerfully rattling on about the impracticality of the Heavenly army’s battle kilts.
Thank you all as always for the beautiful comments, they give me so much joy! I treasure every keysmash.
Stay tuned for Chapter 6, in which Aziraphale makes a Decision.
Chapter 6: The Bookshop
“...they believed themselves rich with an irrevocable benediction which set them above the stars; and immediately they discovered humility.” —GKC, The Defendant
The conversation had trailed off as Aziraphale noticed that Crowley was no longer responding, or indeed seeming to pay much attention at all. They had fallen to silently gazing out opposite windows in the back seat of the little cab.
Aziraphale was distressed. He had allowed himself, during their meal, to be as unguarded as good manners in public would permit. He had not hidden a single flush of warmth in his cheeks or tremor in his voice. He had glowed with affection (positively burned with it, he felt), and had forced himself not to be coy. But for all his leaning openly across the table (a posture which, when Crowley adopted it, had always made the angel’s pulse pound in his throat), his friend had showed nothing but quiet contentment and a certain pensiveness. Aziraphale had even dared, through the fluttering of his nerves, to lay his hand upon the table between them. But to his great disappointment, Crowley had made not a flicker of movement to reciprocate.
As the meal went on, Aziraphale had sensed with crushing embarrassment Crowley’s gradual retreat into a darkening mood. He had hoped that his friend would be amused by his defiance of the Quartermaster, and perhaps touched that, in his first leap of really blind faith, Aziraphale’s own soul had directed him straight to Crowley like a compass finding north. Instead, he was met with a jab about Madame Tracy. It had brought him up short. He had had to raise a teacup to his lips to conceal their trembling as a sudden lump rose in his throat.
Taking a moment to collect himself, Aziraphale had decided that what the situation required was privacy and a good deal more wine. He was encouraged when Crowley accepted his invitation, even more so when he noticed the generous tip he left (the demon had a habit of tacitly apologizing through small, somewhat irrelevant gestures). Still, Aziraphale kept a wary distance as they walked to the cab. He tried to put on a breezy demeanor, not wanting to further strain Crowley’s mood by pressing for physical closeness.
He could not understand why Crowley should be suddenly so out of sorts. Had his own behavior at the restaurant been too expressive? Too demanding? In the past, Aziraphale had always been the more guarded of the pair. But something in his heart had begun clicking into place during that frightful audience with the Voice of God—as though a system of gears, built into him from the beginning but long dormant, had started to tick. Decisions had come easier, with defiance on their heels, until the question of what he ought to do no longer obliterated the question of what he wanted. And he wanted Crowley.
But Aziraphale had to admit that he was more than a little inexperienced in knowing his own mind. Perhaps he had run when he should have walked. Perhaps Crowley had felt imposed upon by his urgency last night and his eagerness today. What a dreadful irony if, after six thousand years of caution and resistance, Aziraphale should be the one to go too fast! He glanced over at his friend, but Crowley was still turned away, intent on the passing streets. The angel fretted, and unfolded his hands, and folded them again, and hoped that it would all work out.
Despite his confusion, the sight of the bookshop heartily revived Aziraphale’s spirits, and temporarily drove other worries out of his mind. The idea of the old place all fallen to ash and rubble had weighed on him and made him feel disoriented in the world. He very nearly leapt from the cab as it pulled up, leaving Crowley to pay the driver and follow him inside.
Crowley headed silently to the back room, presumably to collect a bottle of something, while Aziraphale thoroughly and lovingly examined the place, taking inventory, caressing the spines of old favorites, frowning a little at unexpected new additions. When he was satisfied that everything was in its proper place (such as it was), he squared his shoulders and went to join Crowley in the back room. Time to face the music. The demon was slumped in a chair, toying with a bit of foil. Aziraphale accepted the wine he was offered and took a seat across from his friend at the little table.
“Everything seems in order,” he said, weakly attempting a smile.
“Mm, yeah, conscientious boy, the Antichrist.” Crowley continued wrapping and unwrapping the foil over one finger, and did not look up.
Aziraphale drank deeply, to fortify himself, and tried to think of a way to approach the subject of last night. He opened his mouth to ask—what? What could he ask? ‘Do you feel that I took advantage? Are you angry with me? Did it mean anything to you? Do you love me?’ He shut his mouth again. He could not honestly imagine Crowley engaging in any such conversation, particularly as he was now, sullen and mostly sober. Perhaps things would come clear if he just let the evening run its course. He took another drink, and began again.
“Do you know, you haven’t yet told me what you got up to after we parted ways yesterday morning.” Aziraphale wished the drink would kick in. Crowley looked up, then away again.
“Oh, well, you know,” he said. “Annihilated a Duke of Hell with holy water, trapped another in the ansaphone tape. Came back here to find the shop up in flames and you gone. Figured at that point, I might as well bugger off and drink till the end of the world. Bit of a shit day, really.”
“Dear me, it sounds like a very shit day. And it only got worse from there, didn’t it?” Aziraphale sighed.
“Turned out alright in the end, though.” Crowley was not facing him, and Aziraphale could not see his eyes through the dark glasses. But the demon’s expression had softened somewhat, and he might have been casting an inquisitive, sidelong glance.
“I daresay it did.” Aziraphale smiled a little more bravely this time. Crowley smiled back—at last—and reached across to refill their glasses.
“You know, I meant to ask,” he said, swiveling around to face Aziraphale fully, “how in the nine blessed choirs do you know that idiot Shadwell?” Aziraphale gaped at him in utter disbelief.
“How do you?”
They were laughing again, faces flushed and shining a little from the wine. Long, afternoon sunlight was slanting through the front room, and the back was lit only by lamplight. The discussion had turned to the defeat of the Horsepersons by Adam’s band of unlikely crusaders. Crowley’s sunglasses lay on the table beside the bit of foil.
“And that little spindly one—the one who wanted lunch,” he was saying. “He had a time of it, didn’t he? Had to get the dog to help him!”
“Well, I expect Famine is harder to defeat than the others,” Aziraphale said expansively, feeling most generous and understanding. “He’s more of an absence, after all, you know. Closer to Death.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. And what are friends for, ay?” Crowley shrugged good-naturedly as he contemplated his empty glass. Aziraphale moved to refill it, but the bottle was empty too. He got up to find another. Rifling through the cabinets, he called back over his shoulder.
“That reminds me! You mentioned yesterday that you had lost a dear friend. You ought to look him up, you know. It seems that Adam undid most every damage connected to the apocalyptic goings-on. Your friend might have been restored.”
If Aziraphale had been perfectly honest with himself, he would have admitted that he was baiting Crowley a little with that speech. Part of him had hoped (and even suspected) that it had been he himself that the demon was mourning in the pub. The thought that Crowley might consider him his best friend, that he might be dear enough to Crowley for his loss to bring tears, had made Aziraphale feel as though a rich treasure were just within his grasp. But if he were wrong, what a despicable presumption! And when he had rung Crowley before Shadwell burst in, the demon had hung up abruptly, saying that he couldn’t talk because an old friend was with him. A more important friend, maybe.
Aziraphale hadn’t the courage to ask outright what Crowley had meant, but under the pleasant warmth of the wine, in the comfortable surroundings of the bookshop, he had fallen back on his habitual and almost unconscious instinct for mild deceptiveness and manipulation—tools on which he had depended all his life for the smoothing over of rocky conversations. He returned to the table, absently dusting off a bottle, curious to see how Crowley would respond. What he saw made his stomach drop. Crowley had put his glasses back on, and all traces of humor had left his face.
“That’s how it’s going to be, then?” he said grimly. Aziraphale froze, clutching the bottle to his chest in dismay.
“I don’t know what you m—”
“Oh, bollocks to that!” Crowley growled and spat out the retort, pushing himself up from the table chaotically. “You knew exactly what I meant then, angel. You’ve always, always known what I meant, and you bloody well know what I mean now.”
“Crowley, I really—”
“Just shut it, Aziraphale. We nearly bloody died today and you’re still dithering about, one leg over the bleeding pearly gate!”
“Now see here, I think I’ve been pretty clear about my decision and my loyalties, and it’s quite unfair of you to expect that—”
“That what? That after everything you might just ask me what you wanted to know? Instead of wheedling and suggesting and making sad eyes? Yes, totally unfair. Must be my irredeemable demonic selfishness. Well everything’s back to normal, now. You can go back to your Biblical misprints and moral imperatives. I’m leaving.” Crowley put his glass down hard on the table and strode out of the bookshop in a wave of anger, slamming the door behind him with a snap of his fingers.
Aziraphale sank into a chair, the bottle still cradled against his chest.
It was a miserable thing, drinking alone. He had never done it before, and he hoped he never would again. But now, Aziraphale wanted to think; and he needed to think without pain.
He had not been able to remain blind to the justice in Crowley’s accusations for more than a few minutes. He had looked back with painful clarity and still more painful shame on thousands of little manipulations, to which his patient companion had always succumbed. But worse than that was the knowledge that he had justified himself through the conceit of inherent moral superiority. He had dwelt on the dangers of consorting with a demon, so that he might not have to think of what he owed to his friend. Shame be upon you, he rebuked himself, swigging directly from the bottle. Even as you loved him!
Memories were crowding on him now, all vivid, each with a different sting. He saw in rapid flashes all of Crowley’s little favors and services, his rescues, their shared meals. He saw his own deplorable mistrust of the request for holy water—so worried Crowley might rat him out to Heaven that he failed to even consider the risks the demon had taken in becoming his friend at all. He knew them now; he had seen how Hell mistreated its own (he was still horrified at the fate of the little Usher). For all the harshness of Heaven, his friendship with Crowley had never put him in personal danger until they crossed the line into treason. Crowley had been in danger from the start. He had tried to tell him once. My lot do not send rude notes. Aziraphale hung his head beneath a fresh wave of shame.
He recognized now the panic Crowley must have been feeling when he had asked Aziraphale to run away. The forces of Hell have figured out it was my fault. Crowley had known what was facing him—maybe he knew it firsthand. Aziraphale felt ill. He saw Crowley at the airfield, broken and terrified, dragged to the heaving earth as if the chains he wore had pulled him down (perhaps they had). He saw him summon his every frayed and battered power to plunge them with sheer force of will into the ethereal realms outside of time, so that Adam might have a chance to save the world—the greatest act of strength Aziraphale had ever witnessed, and he had threatened Crowley into it, manipulated him again. Aziraphale remembered his own bliss at the sudden peace and Presence in that eternal moment, but he remembered also the grim look on Crowley’s face as he took out his glasses and covered his eyes. There was no peace for the demon there. And he had never thanked him.
Throughout it all, Aziraphale heard himself say over and over that they were an angel and a demon, enemies, on opposite sides. Always a slight, always a rejection (the hypocrisy of it!), always the implication that he tolerated, rather than welcomed (let alone yearned for) Crowley’s presence. We’re not friends, he had said, just two days ago. There is no ‘our’ side!
Aziraphale’s chest was heaving now, and his eyes were swimming. He thought he might be sick, and hurriedly willed himself sober. He sat for several long minutes with his head in his hands, praying that the churning guilt he felt would inspire him to some effective action. Slowly out of the darkness inside him rose an idea, an embarrassingly simple idea, totally inadequate to right the wrong. That was probably the right track, then. At least it was a start.
He got up and walked to his desk, picked up the telephone receiver, and dialed by the dim rays of the waning sunset. For a few tense moments he thought the call might go to the machine, but then he heard Crowley’s voice on the other end.
“What do you want, Aziraphale?” He sounded weary. Aziraphale swallowed.
“Please, meet me in half an hour at the third alternative rendezvous.” His throat felt very dry. “I’m afraid I must insist.”
He heard a small click, and the dial tone sounded. Aziraphale put down the receiver, picked up his coat, and stepped out of the bookshop into the gathering twilight.
Stay tuned for Chapter 7, in which Crowley is mildly surprised.
Thank you all as always for your kindness! No author has ever had such lovely readers!
Chapter 7: The Bandstand
"Love is drawn to truth by the unerring magnetism of agony." —GKC, The Defendant
Street lamps flickered alight and flew past the windows as the Bentley sped toward Battersea Park. Crowley was as sober as a priest, but his mind was a flurry of anxiety, and his driving was erratic. Aziraphale’s voice had been deadly serious. He had not cajoled or waffled about, as he usually did when he wanted to smooth over a tiff. Something was wrong. If Heaven had discovered their ruse… Crowley could not think about it. He gripped the wheel and slammed on the accelerator.
He left the car haphazardly on the side of the road and rushed with long steps toward the little bandstand, where he could already spy Aziraphale standing, pale and upright, hands clasped in front of him, and (Crowley noticed gratefully) alone.
“Angel, what’s happened?” he called, when he was close enough to be sure that the place was otherwise deserted. “What’s wrong? Did your people get wind of…?” He gestured vaguely between them.
“What? No!” said Aziraphale, as though the idea hadn’t occurred to him. “No, I just needed to speak with you, and this seemed the most appropriate place, given...everything.” Crowley looked at him, incredulous, and felt his temper start to rise again.
“What, all the way out here? Now? After the day we’ve had, and nearly getting smote to death by the celestial hierarchies?” he nearly shouted. “Aziraphale, for the love of—”
“Crowley, please do shut up for a moment.” Aziraphale snapped his fingers, and a small lantern suspended near the ceiling illuminated the space between them. In the warm, soft light, Crowley saw the angel stop himself from clasping his hands in front of him again. Instead, he let them fall to his sides, palms turned slightly forward.
Crowley shut his mouth and jammed his own hands into his pockets. He didn’t know what to expect from this; fear and surprise had made him unsteady. He waited for Aziraphale to speak, but the angel seemed to be struggling with himself—clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. When he finally stopped fidgeting, he sighed deeply, but still did not speak. Crowley blew out his breath, and looked away in exasperation.
“Forgive me,” Aziraphale burst out, just as Crowley was about to give up. He turned to face the angel again, rolling his eyes behind his shades, annoyance mingling with relief.
“Ugh, angel is that all?” he said. “You could’ve just bought me lunch next week, you didn’t have to drag me out here to—”
“Not for this afternoon,” Aziraphale interjected. “At least not only.” He shut his eyes and frowned, but kept his hands open at his sides.
“Crowley, I’ve wronged you,” he continued, opening his eyes and looking at the demon very seriously. “Not just today or yesterday, or every day this week. In thousands of ways over the years, I have failed as your friend. I asked you here in particular to withdraw everything I said on Friday and to reproach my own behavior then. If you will hear me, I wish to tell you some things that I feel are very important. I will ask you to forgive me, but I will not demand it, nor will I demand that you stay if you want to leave.” Aziraphale paused for a moment, searching Crowley’s face, then asked, “Will you hear me out?”
Crowley had never felt more uncomfortable. He could not remember a single gesture or facial expression that seemed natural to him. He briefly considered fleeing for his life, but Aziraphale’s searching eyes and open posture seemed to draw him in. He remained rooted to the spot, hands in his pockets, and in the end could only nod mutely for Aziraphale to continue.
“I am dreadfully sorry,” the angel began, trembling slightly, “for my cowardice. I am sorry for my preoccupation with my own correctness. I continued to cast you as my enemy long after you had become my dearest friend, for fear of how our association would look—not to my superiors, really, but to my own self-seeking conscience. You have always laid before me exactly who you are. It is I who was duplicitous, even to myself. A demon you may be, but you are not now nor have you ever been my inferior. I have been shamefully unjust to you.”
Something akin to panic was gripping Crowley now. He had not prepared for this. He wanted to say something to make it stop, to let them laugh it all off and go back to convivial bickering, but his mind was a vast white blank. And Aziraphale was speaking again.
“You were truly magnificent yesterday at the airbase, you know. I’ve never seen such strength. And after everything you’d suffered and lost.” His eyes shone. “I shall never forget what you looked like when you stood up under the weight. Those chains”—he gestured to Crowley’s neck—“are not merely for show, are they?”
The demon, nearly paralyzed with terror, very slowly shook his head no.
“They grow heavier when he is near?” It was not really a question. Crowley nodded almost imperceptibly. Something flickered darkly in Aziraphale’s eyes, and he looked away for a moment. Crowley felt a sick shame burning his face and twisting his stomach. But when Aziraphale looked back at him, his expression was gentle, and showed neither pity, nor disgust.
“I’d never have raised a hand against you,” he said sincerely. “The sword, I mean. You needn’t have feared, I hope you can believe me. It was a desperate moment, but I didn’t intend to threaten you, and I...well, I’m truly sorry for that, too.”
Crowley shook his head with a shrug and a little “nah,” which he hoped would communicate that he felt quite nonchalant about the whole situation. Regardless of his results, Aziraphale smiled at him gratefully.
“You’ve taken an immense risk through the years, offering me your friendship,” the angel continued, “and your company has become the chief joy of my life. I will never be able to thank you adequately for what you have given me. But I promise you now that I shall never, ever denounce you again. Ah, and I shall try,” he added hurriedly, “to be more direct and less deceitful in our future conversation.”
Crowley was at a loss. Everything in him stung, as though the heart of him had been sunburnt. His mind fumbled, trying simultaneously to process what Aziraphale was saying and to compose some kind of reasonable reply. But underneath his confusion, there was a spreading warmth of pleasure and surprise. He felt revived, somehow. Aziraphale’s apology was having somewhat the same effect as hot coffee and brilliant sunlight in the morning. He felt that he was starting to wake up. He needed to speak.
“It never really bothered me, you calling me fiend and all,” he tried, but immediately felt the lie. Aziraphale clearly perceived it too, and his face fell with a look of pained regret.
“You don’t have to do that, my dear.”
Crowley shrugged again, his throat suddenly constricted. Aziraphale took a tentative step toward him.
“I'd like to ask your forgiveness, if I may.” He stepped forward again, and when Crowley didn’t object or back away, Aziraphale began to approach him steadily. Crowley’s heartbeat leapt to his throat. The angel was studying him carefully, looking for signs that his approach was unwelcome. It wasn't unwelcome, but it was equally unnerving and thrilling, and Crowley didn't know how to act. He hadn't prepared. He didn't expect—
“Oh dear,” said Aziraphale with a sigh. “I’m afraid you’re going to hate me for this.” They were less than a foot apart, close enough to whisper, close enough that if he reached—what was he doing? Was he going to do this here? Now? Crowley could feel Aziraphale’s warmth and smell the fine trace of vanilla. Whatever was happening now, he wanted it. He wanted to put his hands on the light that Aziraphale was pouring like a fragrant balm into innumerable old wounds. He wanted to touch; his blood was rushing. He wanted to touch like last night, with nothing between them, and to let himself be touched. But he could not move. Really, he could barely breathe.
Aziraphale raised his right hand toward Crowley’s face. Crowley stared at him from behind the safety of his sunglasses, brows knit, frowning in consternation. He felt the angel’s fingertips brush behind his ear, and he closed his eyes, unable to control the little shudder that took him. When he looked again, Aziraphale was withdrawing his hand, and between his fingers was a single, tiny blossom of purple hyacinth.
“I am sorry,” he said again, and held out the flower toward Crowley’s chest. “And for this as well,” he added sheepishly, “I know you detest magic.”
The ear trick? Crowley feared that if he tried to respond he would punch Aziraphale in the nose, or start weeping or laughing, he knew not which. He imagined making any number of uncomplimentary remarks. But the angel held steady, not pressing or coaxing. Simply offering, apparently willing to be refused. After a long pause Crowley relented, rolled his eyes, and finally exhaled. He reached up and took his friend’s hand, and squeezed it reassuringly. Aziraphale’s eyes lit up, and he smiled.
“Do I have your forgiveness, then?” he asked. “Or at least the beginnings of it?”
“Sure, angel,” said Crowley. “All of it, if you like. It’s yours.”
“That’s a great honor,” Aziraphale said, his smile glowing. “Thank you.”
Crowley let go of his hand. He felt unsure about what was supposed to happen next, so he gestured to the footpath, toward where his car was parked beyond the trees. “Lift home?” he said, as casually as he could manage.
“That’s very kind of you,” said Aziraphale. “I accept. I think we could both use some rest and peace after the last few days.”
Crowley nodded. “Agreed,” he said, and stepped aside, inviting Aziraphale to follow. The angel fell in beside him and, with the slightest hesitation, slipped his left arm through Crowley’s right, looking sidelong for any objections, meeting none. As they left the bandstand, Aziraphale paused and snapped his fingers, and the little lantern near the ceiling went out.
As if waking from a hypnosis, Crowley felt waves of realization hit him as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. What had Aziraphale just done? Forgiveness? He had asked forgiveness of the unforgivable. He had! He had called Crowley’s friendship his joy. Acknowledged his suffering. Praised his strength. And he had promised—what had he promised?—he had offered acceptance. How many centuries had Crowley been standing in that doorway? Aziraphale had opened it now, invited him in, apologized for not doing it sooner. Nor have you ever been my inferior, he had said. Crowley could never have predicted the effect those words were having on him now. He felt painfully lit up from the inside. He kept his hands in his pockets, but pressed Aziraphale’s arm with his own.
For a while they walked in a charged silence. Crowley’s nerves had not really calmed, and now Aziraphale was very near, arm in arm with him, and warm. Maybe he could take a long route back to the bookshop. Maybe he could reach out his hand in the dark as they drove, and lay it on Aziraphale’s knee. Maybe the angel would take his wrist, and stroke it with his thumb, and guide Crowley’s hand up his thigh, and maybe—
“You know,” Aziraphale’s voice broke abruptly into his train of thought, “in the interest of directness, I should tell you that I feel there is a good deal more that we perhaps ought to talk about. If you’re willing, of course.”
Crowley’s breathing went a little shallow. He wasn't sure he could take much more uncertainty. But they were going to have to talk about it sometime, he supposed. And it occurred to him now that there was more than one way the conversation might end. Aziraphale was in an honest mood, at least. One way or another, he might finally find out...
“That’d be fine, I suppose,” he said, his voice cracking a bit. They had arrived at the Bentley, and Crowley withdrew his arm and walked around to the driver’s side. They looked at each other across the roof of the car.
“Splendid,” said Aziraphale, leaning with one hand on the open door. “In that case, care to join me for a nightcap?” Crowley, not wanting to seem overly eager, cocked his head to the side as though he needed to give the idea some thought. When he felt that enough time had passed to preserve his dignity, he shrugged affirmatively, and got in the car.
Stay tuned for Chapter 8, in which Aziraphale continues to express himself.
I love and appreciate every like and comment. You all make this so much fun!
Chapter 8: The Upper Room
Before the grass grew over me, / I knew one good man through and through, / And knew a soul and body joined / Are stronger than the heavens are blue. —GKC, E.C.B.
Aziraphale noticed with a rush of affection that Crowley was driving at the speed limit. At this rate it would take some time to reach the bookshop, but Aziraphale was pleased to sit quietly in the dark and contemplate the silhouette of his friend’s face against the passing street lights.
The angel felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. His mind was humming with happiness. Crowley had heard his apology and forgiven him, without reproach, most graciously. And he had agreed to return and continue the evening together. Walking arm in arm to the car, Aziraphale had felt that in that moment he might show any part of himself to his friend—any failure, any imperfection—and Crowley would accept it. He was impatient to pursue the enjoyments promised by this new reconciliation.
On the heels of his gratitude came a kindling hope that last night might not be the only night they would share. Aziraphale had watched his friend very closely, drawing near him to offer the hyacinth, and it had not escaped him that Crowley had shivered at his touch. He wanted to touch him again. He wanted to know everything that lay behind that shiver. Now, Crowley was driving with one hand on the wheel, and the other hand resting in his lap. Aziraphale longed to reach for it, but he felt that he had already asked a great deal of the demon tonight. Instead, he leaned toward him and laid his own hand on the seat between them.
“Crowley,” he said quietly, “thank you for coming to meet me.”
Crowley kept his eyes on the road, but after a moment of fidgeting, his left hand slid from his lap and came to rest over Aziraphale’s.
“Thanks,” he said a little roughly, “for what you said back there. It really—you know—meant...” He trailed off, but left his hand where it was. Aziraphale took it in his own and stroked over the knuckles with his thumb. He noticed a small smile play at the corner of Crowley’s mouth. Affection washed over him again. He could not resist raising the slender fingers to his lips. As he let a kiss linger there, Crowley’s breathing changed—almost imperceptibly, but the effect was electrifying. Aziraphale wanted more. Very gently, he turned the hand over, lowered his head, and pressed his lips to the upturned palm—once, and once more, listening with delight as his friend’s breath quickened. A third kiss, and Aziraphale let his tongue slip forward to taste the salt of the delicate skin. He felt a jolt through Crowley’s arm and heard a strangled gasp. Aziraphale flinched and withdrew abruptly, remembering that he had not asked for permission.
“I beg your pardon,” he said softly.
Crowley sputtered for a moment, making various halting gestures and choking noises, and finally fell silent with a shake of his head. He put both hands on the wheel and returned his attention to driving. Aziraphale noticed the speedometer needle creep skyward.
Night had fully fallen when they returned to the bookshop, and Aziraphale held the door open for Crowley with a thrill of apprehension. This conversation would be difficult—it would be painful to admit what he wanted without being assured of acceptance. He led the demon up a small stairwell off the back room, to the plain but comfortably furnished living space that he kept primarily to avoid having neighbors. Gesturing for Crowley to make himself comfortable, Aziraphale hung up his coat and went to the kitchen to retrieve two tumblers and a bottle of scotch. He poured the liquor, picked up his glass, and sat down next to his friend on the sofa, trying not to betray his discomfiture.
“So,” said Crowley, his face an enigma behind his shades, “what else did you want to talk about?”
Aziraphale did not know where to begin. He remembered his promise to be direct, but he could not seem to find a direct way into talking about their intimacy last night. His body was tense and his mind was buzzing. He wanted to say something that would make things feel comfortable, so that Crowley would give him reassurance, and maybe later, permission. But he had given his word. He took a long sip of his drink, put the glass down on the low table, and turned to face the demon.
“Well,” he began, trying hard to look Crowley in the eyes, “I fear that last night—erm, that is—you were very distressed, and perhaps I ought—or rather, if you felt that I had imposed on—or, that is, got carried away—well, I thought perhaps I ought to apologize, but that’s not to imply that—well—ought I?”
“Uh, angel, you’ve lost me.” Crowley was looking at him very hard, but there was a slight tilt of amusement at his lips. Aziraphale took another drink, and tried again.
“What I mean to say is, that—last night meant a great deal to me. That you allowed me to...approach you...in that way, well, it was a tremendous gift. Erm, but I never actually asked, you see, and I suppose I’ve just been wondering if everything was...alright? Or rather—” Aziraphale realized that he was fishing for reassurance again, and course-corrected, “I want you to know that I’m dreadfully sorry if I crossed a line, or did anything unwelcome, and that you needn’t respond to any of this if you don’t want to. You shall have my friendship and loyalty forever, regardless of anything to do with last night, and—well, ah, that’s...all.”
Aziraphale had done his best, he supposed. He had tried to convey what he was feeling (or a sketch of it, at least) without putting an obligation on his friend. Crowley, meanwhile, was actually smiling a little by now, swirling his drink idly, no doubt enjoying watching Aziraphale flounder. Or perhaps he was deep in thought. Presently his face grew more serious. He turned away and sat forward with his elbows on his knees, looking down into his whisky.
“We did cross a line, angel. The line’s been there for six thousand years, obviously we crossed it. What I want to know is why.”
This was not exactly the response that Aziraphale had been hoping for. He felt very much at a disadvantage, and wished that Crowley would remove his sunglasses. How could he explain what he had felt—how he had wanted? We crossed the line because—we crossed it because—we…
“We?” Aziraphale said out loud, before he could stop himself. A warmth in his heart was rising to his cheeks. Crowley had always favored inclusive language for the two of them, despite the angel’s best attempts at keeping his distance in the past. Now, he felt the full force of his friend’s implied claim on him—the persistent invitation to togetherness. Aziraphale smiled openly, and Crowley, for the first time, looked markedly disconcerted.
“Well, yeah—” he stuttered and flailed a bit, collected himself, then shifted and turned to face Aziraphale. “You did notice I was there, right? I mean I didn’t exactly shove you off of me, did I?”
“No, you did not, my dear.” Aziraphale’s body was singing with warmth, and he felt suddenly bold. He moved closer to Crowley on the sofa. “And I’m very grateful that you didn’t. You’ve never pushed me away, you know. You have only ever invited. Always accepted, never demanded.” He was leaning forward now, their faces very close together. Crowley had gone stark still again, his lips parted in confusion, and his brow furrowed in...fear? Maybe hope? Aziraphale continued, “I got quite carried away last night, in the strain and terror of everything, but you gave me something that I had wanted for a very, very long time, and I’ll always be grateful for it. Thank you, Crowley.”
He leaned in and placed a kiss on his friend’s cheek. Crowley’s whole body tightened, but he returned the kiss, just above the angel’s jawline. Aziraphale lost his breath. He could not let it stop there, he thought wildly. His hand flew to the back of Crowley’s neck, holding him before he could back away. Aziraphale turned so that his lips were brushing the corner of Crowley’s mouth. His throat and chest felt tense and jittery. Neither of them moved.
“Will you allow me?” Aziraphale whispered.
Crowley swallowed, his breathing unsteady. His head jerked slightly in what might have been a nod, or might have been a nervous twitch. Aziraphale waited, trying to be patient. His heartbeat was rapid, and his fingertips were trembling in the warm hair at the back of Crowley’s neck. He was so close, so close to what he wanted.
“Yes,” Crowley breathed hoarsely, at last. The sound of it shocked through Aziraphale like a live wire. He surged forward with something like a sob, and took Crowley's lips in a kiss.
It felt as though a tether had snapped. It was all Aziraphale could do to keep his head in the dizzy rush of liberty—to kiss, and to kiss more deeply; to stroke the pulse under Crowley’s jaw with his thumb; to push his fingers into the warm, soft hair—how he had hungered for it!—to dip his tongue into his friend’s sweet mouth and hear the tight cry of want—and again!—and beautiful, cool hands fluttered to his neck and pulled him close. Aziraphale sighed and whimpered, drowning in desire and the blessed defeat of admitting it.
Their clothing began to disappear, piece by piece. There was pleasure in the rustle of fabric, the building heat of the slow unveiling, the negotiation of limbs to allow him closer, the anticipation of skin on skin. But suddenly Aziraphale felt cold metal against his chest. He stopped, and looked down, and felt a pang as he realized it was the demon’s chains. They disappeared with a snap of Crowley’s fingers, but Aziraphale knew, with an intuitive certainty, that they were only hidden—not truly gone. A protective and vengeful jealousy rose within him, choking like bile, and he clutched at his friend with a bruising embrace. His fingers dug into Crowley’s back and shoulders. He buried his hips between Crowley’s legs, and drove forward, pitching them down so that his friend’s whole body was crushed beneath him on the sofa. Crowley's arms and legs wrapped around him. Grasping and pushing against him, Aziraphale took his mouth fiercely, almost growling, and dragged his teeth over the dip in Crowley's throat, and the delicate skin below his ear, and at his collarbone, biting and sucking as if he could extract the Hell from the demon's blood like venom.
Crowley began to pant and cry out roughly, and suddenly there was no more clothing on either of them. Aziraphale came back to himself all at once, at the feeling of his friend’s need and nakedness. He stopped and opened his eyes, fearful of having gone too far. What were they doing, really, and why? He knew what he wanted, but Crowley... Crowley was looking up at him, sunglasses long since flung away, and his eyes were dark and hungry; strangely vulnerable, strangely tender. Aziraphale needed to know the truth of it, before things went any further. He pushed himself up and sat back on his knees. He laid one hand on Crowley’s hip, to communicate that he needn’t move, and took Crowley’s hand with the other.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked, when he had gotten control of his breathing.
Crowley shook his head, closing his eyes and gulping for breath. “No,” he rasped, his body wet and twitching where Aziraphale’s hips were still pressed between his legs. “You don’t have to stop, angel.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said apologetically, “I know this isn’t the time for a long conversation.” He gathered his courage; he had to do this. “But, I’m going to ask you once more to allow me to approach you, and I need you to understand what I mean. If you will have me now, I offer myself to you forever, with my whole heart. You are my dearest, most beloved friend. Do you understand what I am asking you?”
The demon nodded slowly, his eyes half-lidded but clear.
“Then, may I have you?” Aziraphale’s throat tightened with fear at the frank audacity of his question. There was everything laid out bare, for Crowley to do with as he pleased. You might just ask me what you wanted to know, Crowley had lashed at him earlier. Well, he was asking now. If Crowley didn't accept him, he could not take the question back. Aziraphale trembled, praying that it wasn’t all about to end.
“Aziraphale...you can have everything.” Crowley was speaking deliberately, but very, very softly. “It’s already yours; always has been. Understand?”
So it was true—he hadn't imagined it—he wanted him, it wasn't merely... Aziraphale had always half-believed, half-hoped... And he did! The little jewel of possibility, secretly treasured for so long, was not an illusion after all. All the flickers of warmth, the smiles and touches, the leaning and circling, the dreams that had made so many of the angel’s nights wretched with longing—they had all been real, there for the taking, waiting for him to finally ask what was really a very simple question. Aziraphale felt a rush of life in him like suddenly waking up.
No more words were necessary. He fell upon Crowley eagerly, and Crowley reached up to receive his kiss, and abandoned himself to Aziraphale's touch. When he was ready, Aziraphale pressed forward, hands steadying Crowley’s hips. Everything between them was wet and hot, and their bodies were trembling, and hoarse cries escaped them as Aziraphale kept pressing, little by little, and Crowley clung on and urged him forward. As slowly and gently as he could, Aziraphale sank into him, and stilled.
He could not move. He would die if he tried to move. It was too hot, too tight, his own wetness slick around him. Crowley’s chest was heaving beneath him, hands clenched in Aziraphale’s hair. He felt the keening strain in Crowley’s throat as he tried to keep still. He had to move. He would die if he did not move.
“Are you alright?” he panted in a whisper. Crowley only nodded, apparently unable to draw breath. Feeling that his body might fly apart about him, Aziraphale pushed forward with his hips. A rough moan ripped from Crowley’s throat, and he bucked up against Aziraphale. Aziraphale moved again, and then again, beginning to rock gently, and then to thrust. Everything squeezed, and ached, and he tried to be careful, but he needed more. A feeling of losing control was gathering in him, and he clung desperately to Crowley, trying to hold on.
Crowley’s breath was coming in short, high whimpers, pleading incoherently, and Aziraphale loved him—how he loved him! He reached a hand behind Crowley’s neck and kissed his lips deeply, and stroked the other hand down his tender side, and reached between them, and gripped, and kissed him again. I love you! Had he said it out loud? It didn’t matter. Crowley was coming apart beneath him. His whimpers had become long, harsh cries, his legs were shaking violently, and his fingers in Aziraphale’s hair pulled and twisted. Aziraphale could hold on no longer, and he broke, crying out, plummeting in ecstasy, and falling finally onto Crowley’s shuddering chest.
After they separated, Aziraphale laid his head on Crowley’s shoulder, and let the demon gently stroke his hair. They drifted into sleep together, saying nothing, but Aziraphale trusted that all was understood. Just as sleep was about to take him, he heard Crowley’s muffled whisper, “Love you too, angel,” and, somewhere in the aether near the demon’s heart, there was a small, metallic crack.
Stay tuned for Chapter 9, in which we leave the Lovers to their Peace, and drop in on a clandestine meeting.
My warmest thanks to everyone who has left kind words and kudos.
Chapter 9: Interlude at an Airport Lounge
That night the whole world mingled, / The souls were babes at play, / And angel danced with devil. / And God cried, 'Holiday!' —GKC, A Certain Evening
At eleven-thirty on Monday morning, a tall figure in a crisp, grey suit stood at the gleaming bar in the Terminal 3 Executive Lounge of Heathrow Airport, waiting. He did not touch the perfectly prepared martini in front of him, but he enjoyed leaning his elbow next to it, pleased by the visual effect.
A short, dark figure marched into the lounge at 11:34. At her approach, the tall man turned, grinning broadly, and spread his hands in greeting.
“Beez!” he boomed congenially, “Long time no see! Hey—can I call you Beez?”
“No,” said the shorter one.
The man appeared unfazed. “Lord Beelzebub it is then! How are the troops? Hell of a couple days, huh?” He chortled heartily and elbowed his companion in the ribs.
“What’s this about, Gabriel?”
“Why the rush? If you can’t be on time to a confidential meeting, you can at least let me buy you a drink! What’ll you have?”
A vein twitched near Beelzebub’s temple. “Tonic water.”
“Excellent choice!” Gabriel grinned again, and ordered.
When they had settled onto bar stools (Beelzebub’s legs dangling far from the floor), Gabriel leaned forward conspiratorially. “Between you and me, yesterday was a bit of a kerfuffle.”
Beelzebub looked at him blankly, waiting in vain for him to make a substantive addition to this blindingly obvious disclosure. Gabriel simply raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
“Yes,” Beelzebub said, giving up.
Gabriel seemed satisfied that they were on the same page. “Well,” he continued, “the paperwork we filed yesterday—on that slight apocalyptic treason incident—you remember the one?”
Beelzebub stared at him in disbelief. “Yes,” she said again.
“Good! Good.” He smiled encouragingly. “Well, the paperwork was processed early this morning, and there seems to have been, um...an administrative mishap on our end.”
With a weary groan, Beelzebub rubbed one hand over her eyes. “What happened?”
“It appears that the Principality in question—who’s been listed with Angelic Resources as a field agent of ours for six millennia now—was actually supposed to have been terminated in 4004 B.C.” Gabriel looked sheepish. “Unfortunately, due to a clerical error in Payroll, he stayed on the books and has been reporting to my office by mistake.”
Beelzebub squinted at him. “You mean he’s supposed to have been one of ours?” she asked suspiciously.
“No! That’s the thing!” Gabriel said quickly. “When AR pulled his file they found an unforwarded memo from Head Office, reassigning him to terrestrial field work as an independent contractor. Totally unprecedented! Something about a post-assignment interview at the Eastern Gate of Eden.”
“Well if he’s not meant to be transferred Downstairs,” Beelzebub began, the vein twitching dangerously, “then why are we discussing your personnel problems?”
“Oh come on, Beezy, we have diplomatic interests to protect!” Gabriel flashed a winning smile and leaned artfully next to his martini. “In spite of the error, the fact is that Aziraphale wasn’t technically an acting agent of Heaven at the time of his and your man’s interference.”
Realization crept over Beelzebub’s face. She took a long sip of tonic water. “So what you’re telling me,” she said slowly, “is that Heaven is denying responsibility for the failure of Armageddon.”
“Can’t argue with the facts, Beezle,” said Gabriel, waggling his eyebrows. “The angel wasn’t under our authority—we can’t be held accountable for his actions. Aziraphale was a free agent! At least it explains what happened at the trial yesterday—I assume you heard?”
Beelzebub nodded, mournfully envisioning the staff meetings that would follow this piece of news. Heaven had got itself off the hook again.
“Boy, that was unexpected, let me tell you! Just stood there in the hellfire! I heard from Michael that you had a similar problem with your man—Crowley, isn’t it?” Gabriel continued conversationally.
“Some of my people are saying he’s gone native—after so many centuries above ground.” Beelzebub massaged the vein in her temple and took another sip of her drink. “A demon immune to holy water! I’m already seeing a spike in requests for reassignment from desk duty to long-term field work.”
“Mmm, that’s a tough one,” said Gabriel with real sympathy. “Gotta keep the troops happy, but it takes a full staff to keep things running at the best of times, and well...I’m sure you’d agree these haven’t been the best of times. Have you considered making an example of this demon?”
“How?” cried Beelzebub. “Holy water didn’t do it—if we tried anything else and he survived…” She threw up her hands in frustration.
“Well, he’s clearly a liability...what about termination?” Gabriel suggested helpfully. “Banish him groundside, and morale will level out eventually. Plus, if he’s not under contract, then anything else he does won’t be your problem anymore!”
Beelzebub grimaced. “I’d like to see you run that by the Prince of Darkness. Hell doesn’t just let people go, you know. It’s not like your lot, chucking out perfectly good underlings for any little bit of insubordination, just to keep up appearances. The Lord Below keeps what’s his.” She scowled more darkly. “If Crowley wants out of his chains, he’s going to need something more destructive than a little holy water.”
Gabriel shrugged cheerfully. “Well, I won’t tell you how to handle your own. But if you ask me, between employing a rogue demon and producing a pretty disappointing Antichrist, Hell’s got itself a bit of a PR problem to worry about.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Beelzebub sighed. They sat in silence for a while, Gabriel smiling pleasantly, Beelzebub absently sipping her tonic.
At 11:44, Gabriel looked at his watch. “Well,” he said, standing up and buttoning his jacket, “I have to be getting back in a minute. But be sure you tell your field agents—Crowley included, if you’re keeping him on—that the angel Aziraphale doesn’t report to us anymore. Anything your people do to him goes directly Upstairs. You understand what I’m getting at?”
Beelzebub nodded, waving one hand dismissively. Gabriel took a few steps toward the exit, then stopped and turned around.
“This was fun, Beezle,” he grinned affably, and punched her arm lightly, his violet eyes twinkling. She looked up at him with an incredulity bordering on outrage. “We should do it again some time. Good luck with that PR fallout!” He nodded, turned away, and strolled out of lounge, leaving Beelzebub staring after him, a lone dark figure sitting at the clean, white bar.
Stay tuned for Chapter 10, in which Crowley receives a visit from an old friend.
Thank you all for being the loveliest readers in the world!
Chapter 10: The Other Bedroom
O long light hands and curled brown hair, / And eyes where sits a naked soul; / Dare I even then draw near and burn / My fingers in the aureole? —GKC, Joseph
Crowley floated gradually into consciousness, with no awareness of the time or his surroundings. His eyes were too heavy to open yet. His body was relaxed, his legs and hips pleasantly sore, a slightly sharper ache just above his collarbone. Comfortably enveloped in the warm darkness, he began to catch drifting scraps of memory as his mind wandered back to itself. A little flower the color of twilight—the smell of leather and growl of the engine—the warm sting of scotch on his tongue—a firm hand in his hair, and Aziraphale’s voice—Aziraphale!
Crowley’s eyes flew open, searching wildly, blinded momentarily by the halo of mid-morning sunlight that was streaming from the edges of a small curtained window behind his head. His breathing stilled as he caught the illuminated profile of Aziraphale’s face beside him on a pillow. Memories surfaced; at some point during the night they had untangled themselves from the sofa, stumbled half-asleep into the narrow room, and collapsed side by side on the small double bed.
Aziraphale’s breathing was deep and even, and his body was sprawled in unaccustomed disarray. One arm lay across his stomach, the other flung behind his head. Beneath the sheet his legs were splayed, left knee drawn up and pressing against Crowley’s right thigh. Silently, with the utmost care not to wake his sleeping friend, Crowley turned onto his right side and propped his head on his arm, to look his fill.
He liked the sight of the angel in this unguarded state: unclad, untroubled, open and at peace. It touched him with a sense of privilege, as though he’d been entrusted with a secret. The sheet was light, and clung to contours, and Crowley noticed with quickening pulse a stirring in the dip between Aziraphale’s legs. The angel sighed in his sleep, but his eyes remained closed and his breathing steady. He hardened gradually with every heartbeat. Then there was a sudden twitch beneath the sheet, and Crowley started guiltily, as if his friend’s body had caught him looking. He glanced at Aziraphale’s face. The angel slept on, but his lips had parted slightly, and his next sigh was almost vocalized—almost a whimper.
Was Aziraphale dreaming—one of those dreams? Crowley had known his fair share of torment from those dreams. His subconscious imagination was vividly capable of fabricating a feeling of his friend’s mouth around him, sucking and tonguing him; he would wake up gasping and tight in his own fist, already on the edge of completion, but horribly alone. He had never imagined that he might one day see Aziraphale in a similar state. Maybe dreaming of him...did he dare to hope it? Aziraphale’s body twitched again. He was breathing a little harder, and the hand on his stomach drifted down to cover himself.
Crowley worried he was intruding on what should be his friend’s privacy, but he could not look away. His own body was already straining and wet at the sight. He wanted to shift closer, to press himself against Aziraphale’s thigh, to cover the angel’s straying hand with his own, but something held him back. Aziraphale as he was now, glowing in the pale light—frank, wanton, and innocent in his sleep—he seemed too holy for a demon to touch. Crowley imagined that he could feel the stink of sulfur on himself—that if he kissed the angel’s soft throat, he would see a black mark where his lips pressed the skin. He would not reach out for that—would not approach, as Aziraphale had called it. But he would watch, hungrily, as the angel’s hand pressed lower, fingers curling, and then was suddenly still.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale murmured, and Crowley jumped away, startled and ashamed. The angel was looking at him, blue eyes deep and drowsy, and Crowley suddenly felt very exposed. He wanted his clothes and his sunglasses.
“Um, hi,” he said lamely. “It’s morning.” He fixed his eyes on the pillow under Aziraphale’s head.
“Yes, I can see that,” said the angel, smiling up at him. “Good morning.” He rolled onto his side and wound an arm behind Crowley’s neck, drawing him down for a kiss. Crowley tried to imagine growing accustomed to this sort of thing. What would it be like if they greeted each other this way every morning? He couldn’t quite picture it. He supposed he didn’t have to.
“Oh dear,” Aziraphale said, when he had drawn away. He was looking at Crowley’s collarbone. “I’m afraid I left bruises.” He lifted a hand toward Crowley’s neck. “Would you like me to…?”
“No!” Crowley said quickly, catching Aziraphale’s hand. “No, leave them. I mean—” he felt a flush of embarrassment rise in his cheeks. “They’ll be gone in a day or two. No reason to waste a miracle.”
“I don’t believe anyone’s counting these days,” Aziraphale said with a knowing smile. “But as you wish.” He lowered his hand, let it circle around to rest on Crowley’s back between his shoulders, and pulled him close, dipping to kiss the bruises, one by one. Crowley let his head fall back, exposing his neck, his already heightened senses throwing sparks wherever the angel’s lips touched his skin.
Aziraphale rolled on top of him and laid him back against the pillows, settling himself between his legs. The friction sent jolts of heat up Crowley's spine. He squeezed his eyes shut, and tried to breathe steadily. But he could not help thrusting up against his friend’s hips, and Aziraphale gasped and bit down on his neck.
It would be alright, Crowley thought, going on like this. He wouldn’t have to approach the angel. Aziraphale would come to him. He had said so. Forever.
Crowley felt a small surge of grateful relief. He could never have started this himself; it had to be Aziraphale. Deep down, the difference between them mattered. Crowley might not be the most malicious of demons, but he brought the ash and darkness with him everywhere he stepped. He’d have circled, and leaned, and gone to lunch for all eternity, but he’d never have reached out for Aziraphale, only to mar him with the stain of Hell. Aziraphale could reach for him, though. The angel was never contaminated by what he laid his hands on. He brought the light, and darkness fled before it. Everything he touched was beautified, healed, ennobled—even a demon. His bruises were benedictions. And Aziraphale was reaching for him. Crowley had only to allow it.
Aziraphale was moving inside him now, and as the feeling crested and his senses began to shatter, Crowley’s mind flashed with a line of poetry, or maybe prayer (he hoped not). I ardently desire to have him as my saviour, whom I am unable to withstand as my judge. He had glimpsed the words once in one of the old volumes lying around the bookshop, and his heart had always secretly associated them with his feelings for the angel. Crowley gritted his teeth and tried to push the thought away, but it echoed in his ears beneath Aziraphale’s rising cries, and he felt the angel’s fingers around him burn like purifying fire.
After, as they lay spent and panting, staring up at the ceiling hand in hand and side by side, Aziraphale turned his head and looked at Crowley with a shy smile.
“You know, when I awoke this morning, I’d been having the loveliest dream,” he said. “But I think I should tell you that you are far superior in reality.”
Having dressed and breakfasted and reflected a little on the state of things, they had both decided that they’d more or less earned a day off. Aziraphale suggested a picnic, and Crowley couldn’t really think of anything better to do. It sounded restful enough. Aziraphale’s little kitchen supplied them with wine, bread, cheese, and apples, and they set off just after noon to visit the ducks in St. James’s Park.
It was a fine day, clear and breezy. Strolling through the park, they let themselves enjoy the sight of well-known, ordinary places—the duck pond, accustomed benches, the little ice cream stand—in the knowledge that it all might have been lost a couple of days ago. Something about the familiarity of the setting made its preservation seem somehow more miraculous. Crowley liked familiar things, though he’d be the last person to admit it. It seemed to him that thoroughly knowing something in its fundamentals made it more interesting, in the end. Familiar things wore the changes around them more strikingly than strange ones.
He felt the same way about Aziraphale. Age does not wither, nor custom stale his infinite variety, Crowley had once said in praise of a young actor. He’d been talking about Aziraphale, of course, not that the angel ever seemed to notice. Unlike himself, Aziraphale felt almost no need to change or to adapt. His habits, manners, and appearance had not altered in six thousand years, beyond a few superficial details. And yet, Crowley had seen the changes of the world mirrored more profoundly in his face than in anything he could tell you about technological marvels or cultural shifts. It was a mesmerizing play, and to this day he had never grown tired of it.
They found a spot in the shade of a low tree, and idled away an hour or so watching the people drift by. Crowley lay back in a patch of sunlight, enjoying the scent of the grass and the buzzing of worldly activity. Aziraphale opened a book, and occasionally leaned over to show him passages that he thought Crowley would like. The whole setting felt full—there was space to breathe, and quiet, and miles of air above them, but the world was full of something even in the spaces. Not like Hell, always somehow too crowded and too empty. They had an odd boy in Tadfield to thank that all of this was still here. Crowley rolled over and lifted his head.
“Angel,” he said, “do you think we ought to drop in on the Antichrist once in a while? Just to make sure that everything stays put?”
Aziraphale frowned in thought. “I don’t think he’ll be capable of putting anything really out of place by now,” he said. With one finger, he flicked away a little white grub that was wriggling in the grass near where he’d set his book down. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a look-in, but frankly, Crowley, I’d say the world has had enough of our influence for a while. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I certainly would,” a sinister voice rasped behind them. Aziraphale yelped and started, jumping away at the sudden intrusion. Crowley recognized the voice and leapt to his feet. He snarled and moved instinctively in front of the angel as Duke Hastur stepped out from behind the tree, sneering.
“Hello again, Crowley.” Hastur leered at him. His eyes slid suspiciously from Crowley to Aziraphale, and back again. “What’s all this about, then?” he asked, nodding his head at the remains of the picnic. “Plotting another treason?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Crowley tried to keep his manners cool. “What brings you groundside, Hastur? Since our meeting yesterday, I assumed we’d be parting ways for a while.”
“Oh, we are.” Hastur’s eyes glinted malevolently. “I’ve got a message for you.”
Before Crowley could react, brisk footsteps approached from the other direction, and Aziraphale squeaked again in surprise. Turning, Crowley saw the Archangel Gabriel towering over the group, and smiling. Hastur shrank back a pace or two. Crowley narrowed his eyes and set his jaw. Aziraphale brought his hand to Crowley’s arm, palm open, signaling restraint.
“Aziraphale!” Gabriel said jovially, as though they had run into each other by chance in a supermarket. “Just the man I wanted to see! Figuratively speaking, of course. Well, maybe less so than you’d think. We have some paperwork to go over,” he announced cheerily.
“Gabriel,” said Aziraphale, stammering a bit. “What an unexpected...surprise.”
“Well, it would hardly be a surprise if it were expected!” Gabriel grinned encouragingly, as if waiting for Aziraphale to laugh. After a moment, he seemed to notice the rest of the group. He examined Hastur appraisingly, then shuddered a bit; then his gaze fell on Crowley, and he squinted. Turning back to Aziraphale, he clapped his hands abruptly. “Well, why don’t you introduce me to your...friends?”
Chapter 11: St. James's Park
"'Nay, I am vile...but when for all to see, / You stand there, pure and painless—death of life! / Let the stars fall—I say you slander me!" —GKC, A Man and His Image
Gabriel’s question hung in the air for a long moment as Aziraphale struggled with himself. There was nothing he could do—he knew it—but his instincts were frenetic, looking for a way out. He wanted to grip Crowley’s hand and run, but the obvious futility of the idea gradually lowered him into resignation. He straightened his shoulders and drew deeply on long-ingrained habits of deference and good manners.
“Of course,” he said, much more calmly than he felt. Clearing his throat, he gestured toward Hastur, still looming in the shadow of the tree. “Archangel Gabriel, allow me to present Duke Hastur of Hell, who has just arrived to deliver a message.” Hastur grimaced and snarled a bit. Gabriel nodded politely, but coldly. “And,” Aziraphale continued quickly, “I believe you’ve met the demon Crowley, my...erstwhile adversary.” He felt Crowley stiffen slightly beside him.
“We haven’t been formally introduced,” said Gabriel. He took two steps toward Crowley, but did not extend his hand. “I’m familiar with your work, of course.” He smiled in a way that Aziraphale recognized painfully; no voiced condemnation could have transmitted more contempt.
“Charmed,” Crowley said smoothly. Aziraphale glanced at him with a rush of admiration; the demon seemed for all the world at ease. He had tilted his head back slightly and was looking down his nose at Gabriel, features relaxed, a picture of casual defiance. Something proud and possessive flickered in Aziraphale’s heart.
Gabriel returned Crowley’s gaze with steady scrutiny, and Aziraphale’s pride in his friend quickly turned to panic. The bruises! Two of them were visible on Crowley’s neck, one below his ear and one just above his collar. Gabriel’s eyes dropped to the picnic basket, then slid back to Crowley, and then to Aziraphale himself. Aziraphale’s stomach writhed and his palms were clammy, but he forced his face to remain expressionless.
“Well, Aziraphale,” said Gabriel, turning back to him abruptly, “there’s no accounting for the company you keep, but I guess that’s not my department anymore. Now about this paperwork—”
“Hey!” barked Hastur, finally finding his tongue. “This is official business you’re barging in on. I’m here on direct orders from Lord Beelzebub, and—”
“Ah, how is the Prince of Hell these days?” Gabriel cut in with sudden interest. “She didn’t come herself?” He looked around briefly as Hastur stared, blank with incomprehension.
“I’m not here to chat with do-gooders,” Hastur said at last. He leaned forward menacingly. “My business is with the traitor Crowley.”
“By all means,” said Gabriel, returning to brisk courtesy. He gestured to the tree, inviting Hastur and Crowley to withdraw, then looked again at Aziraphale. “As I was saying,” Gabriel continued, “I need you to sign some paperwork.” He beckoned for Aziraphale to come with him down toward the footpath. Aziraphale did not dare to exchange more than a worried glance with Crowley as they moved apart to follow their respective superiors.
When Gabriel reached the bottom of the little hill, he turned to Aziraphale and pulled a thin file from his jacket. “Your request for a change of status was approved,” he said coolly, in a way that made Aziraphale suspect that he was choosing his words carefully. He opened the file, revealing a packet of documents, the topmost of which appeared to be a contract printed in very small letters. “Sign here.” He held out the file. Aziraphale saw the words “transfer,” “independent,” and his own name in several places.
“I beg your pardon,” said Aziraphale in bewilderment, “but I don’t recall ever having made such a request.” His mind was racing. Crowley had debriefed him thoroughly on the trial in Heaven, and would surely have told him about something like this. Surely.
“Ah yes,” said Gabriel, looking the slightest bit less comfortable, “well it appears the request was made about six thousand and twenty-three years ago, at your interview following the Eden assignment.” The flicker of embarrassment vanished as swiftly as it had come, and he was all business again. “But as I said, it’s been approved. Sign here.”
Aziraphale stared at him blankly. “My...interview?” he asked. Annoyance flashed on Gabriel’s face, and Aziraphale flinched and rapidly searched his memories, trying to recall any meeting with the Heavenly authorities that would fit this description. He could not think of a single one. Unless—
“According to the report,” Gabriel was saying reprovingly, indicating another of the papers, “the interview was seen to by Head Office personally.”
Aziraphale gaped at him in astonishment. He must be referring to the frightful moment when the Almighty had asked Aziraphale about the whereabouts of his sword. There was nothing else it could have been. But Aziraphale hadn’t requested anything at the time! His only thought had been to try to evade the question. He opened his mouth to object again, but Gabriel was looking past him with a grimace of exasperation. Aziraphale understood why when he turned and saw that Crowley was sauntering brazenly toward them, his own meeting apparently concluded. He was holding a small roll of parchment that disappeared from view as he crossed his arms and smirked impudently up at Gabriel.
“This is a private meeting,” Gabriel said shortly, shooting Crowley a dismissive smile. Crowley raised his eyebrows in mock surprise and began to take a step back, but Aziraphale caught his arm and held him in place. He needed Crowley’s steadying presence.
“I’m sure my friend can hear whatever it is you’ve got to say.” Aziraphale was shocked at his own boldness, but Crowley’s composure shored him up. Gabriel raised his eyebrows. Aziraphale kept his grip on Crowley’s arm. Crowley stood a little taller.
“As I was about to say,” Aziraphale continued determinedly, “I never made any kind of transfer request. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible. There must be some mistake.”
Gabriel was clearly running out of patience for the conversation. “The report,” he said with a condescending smile, “was filled out by the personal secretary to the Metatron. You don’t get that job making mistakes.” He waved his hand as if to erase the whole idea. “Anyway, you indicated that your primary interest was in Earth and not Heaven, so you’ve been reassigned as an independent Warden of the sublunary sphere. It’s the same kind of contract that Azrael took up back at the beginning; the details are all in the form. Duties will be slightly different, of course, but you don’t report to us anymore. Unlike some administrations”—he looked pointedly at Crowley—“we don’t keep agents who don’t want to stay.”
Aziraphale’s mind was reeling. He would topple over but for his hand clutching Crowley’s sleeve. The same kind of contract that Azrael—you don’t report to us anymore—agents who don’t want to stay—
“Am I—” he started, sick to his stomach. “Have I...Fallen?” His voice was very small.
Crowley perversely chose this moment to finally pipe up. “Oh, I think you’d notice if that’s what was happening,” he murmured, just audibly. Aziraphale did not find that particularly reassuring.
“He’s right, you know,” Gabriel said, looking at Aziraphale meaningfully. “This is a change of status. You’re not a Heavenly agent anymore, but Hell has nothing to do with it. Earth is your base of operations now, in accordance with your request—”
“But I didn’t request it!” Aziraphale insisted, almost hysterically. He felt he must be going mad. But Gabriel remained unruffled.
“It’s out of my jurisdiction,” he said cheerfully. “My job is to certify the paperwork as your former supervisor. If you want to file another request, you’ll have to take it Upstairs.” He held the papers forward again. “Sign here.”
Aziraphale did not know what else to do. He looked over at Crowley in despair, pleading for guidance. Crowley shrugged helplessly, clearly understanding no more than Aziraphale himself.
Turning back to Gabriel, Aziraphale asked hopelessly, “What exactly is my assignment?”
Gabriel pointed to a line in the contract. “Judicious granting of remedial dispensations,” he recited. Aziraphale scanned the passage, then the rest of the contract, as quickly as he could. When he thought he had grasped the fundamentals, and decided through a haze of profound shock that he’d likely be no worse off than before (if his inkling were correct, he might be a good sight better off), he finally raised his finger to the paper, and signed his celestial name. As soon as the pale blue light had faded, Gabriel inspected his signature, nodded, tucked the contract into his jacket, and handed the packet of documents to Aziraphale.
“Here’s your copy, and some material on the details of the job.” Gabriel paused, his gaze shifting from Aziraphale to Crowley and back again. He seemed to be thinking hard. Aziraphale’s stomach was in knots again. At last Gabriel shrugged, making a face that showed that he found all this beneath him, and nodded a dismissal to Aziraphale. Aziraphale glanced furtively at Crowley, who seemed to be lost in thought himself. When he looked back, Gabriel had gone.
“Sublunary Warden? That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?” Crowley said, looking up from the contract. “What are you a warden of, exactly?”
They had returned to the bookshop by hasty, unspoken agreement as soon as Gabriel had disappeared. Crowley seemed to understand Aziraphale’s shock, and hadn’t begun to question him until they were comfortably ensconced, Aziraphale at his desk and Crowley on the sofa, and were furnished with a large bottle of brandy. Aziraphale, thus somewhat revived and fortified, had handed over the papers for Crowley to peruse.
“Remedial dispensation,” Aziraphale said wearily, one hand over his eyes. “Fourth paragraph. It’s a kind of moral advocacy—minor miracles that dispel some of the consequences of human action.”
“Isn’t that what you do already?” Crowley squinted at the tiny letters.
“I suppose it’s not far off, though with a different scope and allegiance. As an operative of Heaven, one’s actions are meant to promote the Heavenly agenda—winning souls and thwarting you, primarily. But this…” Aziraphale took a long draught of brandy. “This is on behalf of Earth alone.”
“Well that doesn’t sound so bad, really,” said Crowley carefully. “Still not entirely clear on the point.”
“If you ask me, the point is to exculpate Heaven from my actions on Saturday,” Aziraphale huffed. “You’ll notice the contract is backdated. But really, dear boy, I should think you’d recognize the idea; you’ve complained of it before yourself. The world is designed to be an integrated community—all the parts affect one another. Put free will into a place like that, and soon everyone is bearing consequences they had no part in creating. In this new position, I shall have the authority to somewhat...ease matters, here and there. To lighten the load of living with each other’s sins, as it were.”
“Seems uncharacteristically soft of the Almighty, doesn’t it?” Crowley said with a sidelong glance. He brightened suddenly. “Appropriate, though, when you think about it. It’s the same kind of thing you did at the beginning—the humans got chucked out, listening to me and all, and you sort of came along and...well, made things easier on them.”
“I suppose you may be right,” Aziraphale said thoughtfully, sitting up from his dejected slouch. “God did ask me about the sword, you know. I didn’t precisely answer, and we haven’t actually spoken since. I’d been worried all this time that the question was a rebuke—it didn’t occur to me that it might be no more than an inquiry about job preference.”
“And at least Gabriel’s not your boss anymore, ay?” Crowley continued encouragingly. “Gotta say, angel, I don’t see much in here to worry about, in the end.” He handed the contract back to Aziraphale.
“No, perhaps not, after all,” Aziraphale tentatively replied. “I’ll be remaining on Earth, at least. And so long as I remain neutral in the conflict between Heaven and Hell, there’s nothing here to prohibit our association.”
“Well that’s alright then,” Crowley said with a pleased little smile. Aziraphale flushed and smiled back, beginning to be ashamed of his earlier agitation. Suddenly, a realization dawned on him.
“Oh my dear fellow!” he exclaimed. “I haven’t asked you a thing about Hastur! Are you alright? What did he say?” Aziraphale leaned toward Crowley, extending a hand solicitously.
“Fine, fine,” Crowley assured him. His expression slid into a rueful smirk. “I’ve been banished.” He drew the little roll of parchment from his jacket and handed it to Aziraphale. On it, a brief proclamation was scrawled in spidery black ink.
Office of Infernal Disciplinary Action to Mr. Anthony J. Crowley, Demon:
By decree of Lord Beelzebub, Prince of Hell, and the authority of this Office, you are forthwith stripped of all commendations and dishonorably discharged from active service. Upon receipt of this order you are banished to the terrestrial plane, and are not to enter the infernal realms or come within fifty feet of an entrance thereto without the written permission of Lord Beelzebub or an appropriately authorized emissary. In the event of Armageddon or other apocalyptic occurrences, Hell retains all final rights to your person and immortal soul.
Lord Beelzebub, Prince of Hell
Witnessed and Certified: Dagon, Lord of the Files
Aziraphale looked up from the parchment and blew out his breath. “Final rights,” he said quietly. It was neither a question nor an objection, merely a sad acknowledgement of fact.
Crowley did not seem distressed by the phrase. He flourished his snifter with extravagant nonchalance. “Well, that’s just the same as it’s always been. The point is, they’ve thrown me into the briar patch. Stay on Earth, no work to do, don’t even have to report Downstairs! Not exactly excruciating, is it?”
“It seems diplomatic considerations have worked in our favor,” Aziraphale sighed, smiling a little sadly still.
“Cheers to that,” said Crowley, raising his glass.
Aziraphale was not much comforted by his friend’s aplomb. Crowley might be disinclined to consider the ultimate future, fully content to take what happiness was afforded in the present (and who could blame him, really?); but Aziraphale’s heart was childlike in its simplicity. What he loved, he wanted forever. It galled him to envision a future in which Crowley would eventually be taken from him, in which all that they had loved and suffered and created together would one day wink into nothingness. He could not bear it. No, he would not bear it. He did not know how, but in that moment he swore by the Mercy of God that he would stand athwart Heaven and Hell, and would pull the very pillars of the cosmos down about their heads, before he would allow Hell to claim its “final rights.”
Getting up from his seat, Aziraphale came to where Crowley was perched on the arm of the sofa, and stood between his knees. He clasped his arm and pulled him forward into a fierce embrace. When he did not let go for some moments, Crowley reached a hand up into his hair to cradle his head.
“It’s going to be alright, angel,” he said softly, his breath warm at Aziraphale’s ear.
“Yes,” replied Aziraphale frankly. “It will be.”
The response to this fic has been so unexpected and lovely! I'm very grateful to you all.
Stay tuned for Chapter 12, in which Crowley adjusts to exile.
Chapter 12: Soho Vignettes
“Deep in my life lies buried one love unhealed, unshriven, / One hunger still shall haunt me—yea, in the streets of heaven;” —GKC, The Pessimist
He looked up into a halo of palest gold, and light was pouring into him. Behind and beyond spread the endless, living darkness. Galaxies breathed around them, whispering and pulsing in praise, and there was a flash of blue. Don’t cry now. Then fire was coursing under his skin, and he was flying, burning and rising up. But he felt an icy finger at his cheek, sharp with a blackening cold. Come with me, darling. Dare he look aside? You unremarkable creature, why do I desire you? He looked, and the stars went out, and the cold swallowed him. He was falling, freezing and falling, until the cold became a searing flame. Sulfur and ashes filled his nostrils, flame and ashes shimmered about him, charred scraps of paper danced on the gusts of heat. Aziraphale! Aziraphale, where the Heaven are you, you idiot? I can’t find you! Aziraphale!
Crowley! The voice was very far away, above the fire that engulfed him. His body twisted and choked, and his skin blistered. What did it mean? A name? It was not his name.
Crowley, it’s alright! The voice came again, a little louder, a little closer. He knew it. What did it mean? His eyes were streaming from the smoke. He wanted Aziraphale.
“I’m here, Crowley, please wake up, I’m here.” The voice was in his ear now—Aziraphale’s voice—and a warm hand on his heart. His lungs opened, the roar of the fire receded. He opened his eyes, and looked up into a halo of palest gold. No, not that. No, it was Aziraphale’s hair, his face. Crowley was breathing hard and fast, and his forehead and neck were damp with sweat. Aziraphale sighed with relief.
“It was just a dream, you’re alright now, it’s safe here,” he said, and he stroked Crowley’s hair, and kissed his forehead, and kept the other hand heavy and warm over Crowley’s heart. When his breathing had slowed and the fear subsided, Crowley pushed himself onto his elbows and gradually sat up.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and ran his hands through his hair. He had known this would happen eventually, if he and Aziraphale continued to share a bed. He rubbed his eyes and looked around the narrow room, trying to judge the light. “How long was I out?”
“A few hours,” Aziraphale replied, concerned and hovering. “It’s not long after dawn. Are you sure you’re alright? Would you care for a little warm milk? Or some cocoa?”
“Coffee,” said Crowley decisively. “And no need to worry, angel. It happens sometimes, doesn’t mean anything.” He rubbed the back of his neck, where he always felt bruised after dreams like this. What could he tell Aziraphale that would make a difference? The nightmares would always be with him, why trouble the angel’s mind with something that couldn’t be fixed? Besides, he told himself sharply, it’s all memories, just thoughts and images. And he didn’t have to go back there (at least, pending a second Apocalypse). He swung his legs out of bed and hauled himself up to go look for a coffee maker.
Having no work of his own to do, Crowley had accompanied Aziraphale on one of his new errands. The angel was starting slow in his capacity as a Sublunary Warden of Remedial Dispensation, and so far had preferred to bestow individual gifts of comfort and help on persons who were suffering unjustly. Crowley had suggested, instead, that they flummox the computer system of an exploitative financial institution, in such a way as to restore the losses of most of its victims.
“Crowley, I’m supposed to be dispensing minor miracles,” Aziraphale had objected. “I can’t just go around restructuring the world economy.”
“It is a minor miracle, that’s the beauty of it!” Crowley had insisted. “It’s the upside of this business about all the parts affecting each other. One little system hitch, and loads of people benefit. The only ones who lose’ll be the ones at the top, and the worst they’ll suffer is the experience of the middle class—in this life, at least.”
In the end, Aziraphale had agreed to give it a try, and Crowley had gone along to help. But the angel, it appeared, was getting cold feet. He fretted and fidgeted as they sat in the idling car outside the imposing grey building.
“I just don’t know about this, Crowley,” he burst out finally. “Computers and money are complicated—there could be unforeseen effects!”
A strange frustration took hold of Crowley then, and he threw up his hands. “So what if there are?” he almost shouted. “Is it gonna be worse than Armageddon? The plagues of Egypt? The Flood? Your lot have been tossing around effects on this planet since the beginning! But now that you’ve got a little freedom, you’re all in a flap about the precious status quo.”
“They’re not my lot anymore,” Aziraphale said quietly. He seemed chastened by Crowley’s outburst. “And you’re right, of course. But I’m simply not used to this kind of responsibility. Please, Crowley, it’s barely been a week. I’m asking you to let me come to this at my own pace.”
Crowley was immediately remorseful. He reached for Aziraphale’s hand, then thought better of it and stopped himself halfway there. “Look, angel, I didn’t mean to rush you. The unemployment’s getting to me. No evil to foment, y’know, and I’m not much good for anything else.” He paused, the feeble jibe at himself falling flat. Aziraphale was looking at him curiously. He realized that his hand was still outstretched, and brought it back to rest on the steering wheel. “Let’s have some lunch,” he tried again. “Sushi okay? My treat.”
Aziraphale, with the same curious expression, reached out slowly and took Crowley’s hand off the wheel.
He had to stop this. Aziraphale was getting dangerously close to a line Crowley hadn’t known was there. The angel’s hands were feathering up and down Crowley’s sides, and his kisses were hot and wet just above his navel. Crowley was splayed on the sofa in Aziraphale’s upper room. His head was thrown back and his hands lay helpless on Aziraphale’s shoulders. Their tea sat abandoned on the low table, growing cold.
He had grown anxious when Aziraphale’s lips first trailed to his chest, and he’d begun to suspect his friend’s intentions. When the angel had slid from Crowley’s lap onto the floor between his knees, his nerves had gathered into full-blown panic. He had dreamt of this vividly, feverishly, as often as he could; but faced with the reality, he found himself gripped with the fear of some terrible, unnamed consequence. He could not stand the idea of feeling what he would feel, knowing that he could do nothing in that moment to secure Aziraphale’s pleasure. He could not lie helpless and watch the angel serve him, kneel before him, as he looked down from above. It was too wrong. It was blasphemy. The very stars would strike him down for allowing it. Aziraphale lowered his mouth to Crowley’s hip, humming a little, and his hands tightened at Crowley’s waist.
“No!” Crowley gasped without thinking, and his hands at Aziraphale’s shoulders pushed away. Aziraphale looked up at him in surprise.
“I’m so sorry,” he said quickly, full of concern, “have I done something wrong? I suppose I should have asked before I—”
“No,” Crowley said again, more gently this time. “No, nothing like that, it’s perfect. You’re perfect. It’s just—” His mind cast about for some rational explanation. “There’s...no need for that. You don’t need to.” He took Aziraphale’s arm and tried to guide him back upwards, but the angel sat back on his heels, looking at Crowley with a quirk of amusement.
“What an odd thing to say.” He smiled as though Crowley had just presented him with an interesting philosophical paradox. “I wasn’t under the impression that any of this was done out of necessity.”
“No, right, I know, um, I just mean that, uh,” Crowley floundered for a moment, then reached for Aziraphale’s arm again. “I just don’t want to wait. Come on.” He tried to pull the angel toward him, but Aziraphale laughed and stayed where he was.
“Patience is a virtue, dear,” he said playfully, his eyes twinkling.
“Don’t have any virtues,” Crowley quipped. “Filthy, pernicious demon, remember?”
Aziraphale sobered instantly. “I don’t like that kind of talk, Crowley. How can you say such a thing about yourself?”
“It was just a joke, angel,” Crowley muttered, looking away. He was feeling very lost.
“But it isn’t, is it?” Aziraphale pressed. “This is not the first time you’ve accused yourself to me. Do you think it doesn’t hurt me to hear? And is that your judgement of me, that I love a creature of filth?”
Crowley was wretched. Everything felt wrong. Something close to his heart was whispering inside him. Let it come close and destroy it, or lose it when you push it away. Either way, darling, you’re damned. Crowley clenched his eyes shut and shook his head. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said desperately to Aziraphale. “I’m sorry, I was just trying to…” He trailed off, spreading his hands in confusion, not knowing how to continue.
Aziraphale looked at him long and hard. Finally, he sighed and returned to the sofa, and laid his head upon Crowley’s shoulder. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, you know,” he said softly. Crowley was so relieved, he hadn’t the heart to insist that that wasn’t the point.
“I don’t see why you have to terrorize them so,” Aziraphale complained over his tea cake. They were sitting in a little coffee house in Soho, where the angel had brought them to bestow a minor dispensation (in the form of improved health and paid leave) on an overworked young woman behind the bar. Earlier that day, Aziraphale had come to collect Crowley at the flat, and had walked in on him berating his houseplants. They had been arguing on and off about the incident since.
“They know the rules,” Crowley maintained, unrelenting. “They know exactly what’s expected of them. If they fall down on the job, that’s not on me.”
“But surely they would benefit from a little compassion and encouragement,” Aziraphale pleaded. “You might even see an improvement, with a few kind words here and there. Honestly, Crowley, the fear in that room is palpable.”
“They’re just plants, angel, no need to mollycoddle.” Crowley crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “If they want compassion, they’re going to have to earn it.”
“Oh,” said Aziraphale, quiet again. “I see.”
“You see what?” asked Crowley, suddenly feeling belligerent. “There’s nothing to see here, angel. It’s a simple arrangement. They do as I say, or they go.”
“Yes,” Aziraphale said, looking a little defeated. “Yes, I believe I understand.”
“Well, that’s good, then,” Crowley said, although he did not quite feel that the conversation had gone his way. He huffed, and glowered into his coffee. Aziraphale returned his attention to his tea cake.
Later, by way of apology (for what, he was not entirely certain), Crowley brought a small potted fern by the bookshop. “You can talk to it any way you like,” he told Aziraphale. “But I won’t be held accountable for the kind of results you get.”
The gesture seemed to smooth things over. Aziraphale placed the fern in a shady spot near a window, and cooed over it while Crowley rolled his eyes. He was smiling fondly when he finally got up and returned to where Crowley was standing.
“Thank you,” he said, and he took Crowley’s hand, and kissed it. “I’m sorry I pushed you before.”
“Nah,” said Crowley, feeling a little foolish. “They’re just plants, after all. Got anything to drink?” Aziraphale smiled and headed toward the back room, with Crowley in tow by the hand.
It had been nearly four days since Aziraphale had last taken him to bed, and Crowley was in an agony of worry. What had he done? The angel could not possibly think he wasn’t willing—eager—dying for another touch. They had dined together every day, and drunk, and laughed, and sat in the bookshop talking of ethics and dispensations. And Crowley had leaned, and returned Aziraphale’s smiles, and watched with longing as the angel paced around and leafed through his books, working out the potential repercussions of this or that small miracle. But while Aziraphale did not seem angry, and would occasionally squeeze Crowley’s hand and briefly kiss his lips or his cheek, nothing further had come of it.
Evening was falling, and Crowley did not think he could face another night wondering why the angel kept his distance. He had to do something. Even if he could not ask Aziraphale to come to him, he could at least try to find out why he stayed away. Crowley glanced up from his place on the sofa, to the desk where Aziraphale sat poring over yet another volume of moral philosophy.
“D’you have a minute?” he asked, before he could stop himself. Aziraphale jumped a little in surprise, but then closed his book and turned to Crowley, smiling.
“I have several minutes, I’m happy to say. Probably the rest of the evening. I don’t think I’m going to find much of value in here.” He gestured ruefully to the book. “The nineteenth century was not kind to European thought, I’m afraid.”
“Right,” said Crowley, not certain how to proceed from there. He decided, though his stomach protested violently, on a direct course. “Look, just checking, but is everything alright?”
A slight flush crept up the angel’s cheeks. “Everything is alright, but I think I understand why you’re asking. I’ve been meaning to ask you about it myself.”
“Ask me?” Crowley was mystified. “Why?” Aziraphale gave him a puzzled look.
“Well to be honest, my dear, I’ve been wondering why you haven’t—er, that is, I was worried I might’ve been a bit demanding of late, and I thought it would be best if I...sort of...let you set the pace of things, for a while.” Aziraphale was looking everywhere but Crowley’s face, and his hands were clasped tightly in his lap. “I don’t want you ever to feel obliged, in that regard, and—”
“Aziraphale, I was waiting on you,” Crowley blurted out. He had a momentary premonition of ill to come, but his mouth was running away with him. “That’s not how this works, I don’t set anything. You come to me when you want, and I’ll be here.”
“But Crowley, that’s not fair!” Aziraphale seemed genuinely taken aback. “It can’t all run one way. It isn’t fair to either of us. And how am I to know what you want from me, if you never—”
“I told you before,” Crowley nearly growled. His jaw was tight and his eyes were narrow behind his sunglasses. He felt all the little frustrations of the last few weeks boiling inside him and spilling over into recklessness. Either way you’re damned. “Everything you want from me is already yours. You can take it. But I’m not going to ask you for anything, angel.” He spat the last word out. His temper was rising, the whisper inside him fueling a kind of outrage, or a kind of despair. “What did you think—that I’d put my hands on you? That I could make any kind of demand? I belong to Hell, Aziraphale.” Crowley grabbed at his chains with one hand and yanked them forward as a reminder. “Your delicate feelings aren’t going to change that. And you can come in and touch, and move things around, and take what you want to, but I’m not putting this”—he gestured at himself—“on you.”
Crowley turned and stormed toward the exit. He could not stand Aziraphale’s broken expression. His insides twisted in revulsion and helpless anger. Snapping his fingers, he fled out into the gathering dark, and slammed the door behind him.
All my readers are wonderful, and their comments are a delight to my heart!
Stay tuned for Chapter 13, in which Aziraphale studies and learns.
Chapter 13: Mayfair Vignettes
“But He is all too beautiful / For us who only know of stars and flowers. / The thing within is all too pure and fair,” —GKC, The Wild Knight
The light in the kitchen was pale and cold, the worktop and cupboards too sleek and colorless. It was the one room of Crowley’s flat in which Aziraphale could find nothing to appreciate. As soon as the kettle had boiled and the tea was made, he hastily sought the warm lamplight at the armchair, returning to his book and his view into the bedroom, where Crowley slept restlessly.
Since his change of employment, Aziraphale’s reading had turned sharply toward moral philosophy, which he found deeply tedious. He was taking it in rough chronological order, and had just crossed into the third century—a dismal epoch by any account, not least for the rise of neo-Platonism. Crowley did not quite seem to understand Aziraphale’s wish to proceed with caution and study in his role as a Warden. The demon had lashed out some days ago at his reluctance to take on a larger, more creative project.
It was unsurprising that Crowley—ever dynamic and quick to embrace change—should be more comfortable with the new job than Aziraphale was himself. But natural inflexibility was not all that made Aziraphale cautious. Too many times over the centuries, and most notably in the last eleven years, the angel had felt the damage that celestial interference could inflict, even with the best of intentions. His own first act of Remedial Dispensation was now the weapon of War herself. He could once perhaps have perceived this assignment as a light undertaking, but no longer; the responsibility weighed heavily on him.
Crowley’s encouragement and faith in him had so lightened the burden; Aziraphale wondered if he knew. His beloved friend always seemed to think more highly of him than he knew he deserved. But then, perhaps anything could be judged high by one who felt lowly even in Hell. Aziraphale sighed, and peered through the bedroom doorway. Crowley was sleeping poorly, tangling himself in the sheets as he tossed. The nightmares had eased since that first alarming morning in the rooms above the bookshop, but Aziraphale had come to suspect that certain memories would haunt Crowley always.
He set down his book and went to stand by the bedside. With a little negotiation, he was able to smooth the covers without disturbing his sleeping friend. Aziraphale laid a hand over Crowley’s heart to calm him. It had already become an accustomed gesture, and the demon did not wake. Sinking down gently to sit on the bed, Aziraphale let his hand linger until Crowley’s breathing was slow and steady. His gaze lingered, too. In the soft light from the other room, despite feeling somewhat of an intruder, Aziraphale could not resist the opportunity to study his mercurial friend in a rare moment of stillness.
Crowley’s face was striking in sleep—ageless and delicate, with a terrible beauty. Peace rendered graceful what was so often sharp and restless. It was a face to write poems about. Aziraphale still could scarcely believe that he was permitted to touch it, but he could easily believe that it once spoke the stars.
As luminous in the night as his beauty was Crowley’s strange purity of heart. It was somehow written on his features that all of his vast and varied experience of suffering had not succeeded in breaking him. He said, and maybe believed, that he had no virtues. But Aziraphale could see one great and powerful virtue upon him, beneath which other graces gathered and flourished. His humor, and mercy, and breathtaking courage all lived in the light of that virtue. A sensible person would call it optimism, but Aziraphale was not sensible now. He was a mystic in rapture before a vision of love, and he saw Crowley’s virtue with perfect clarity; and called it Hope.
Aziraphale found that he could feel neither pity nor even possessiveness toward his friend in that moment. Everything was overwhelmed by praise. He bent to place a reverent kiss at Crowley’s temple, and could not help whispering softly in his ear, praying not to wake him. “You extraordinary creature, I hope you know how I love you.”
The play was good, but Aziraphale was not paying attention. Distractions were gnawing at him on all sides—particularly the side next to him on which Crowley sat, easy and elegant in black silk. Mindful of etiquette, Aziraphale stole another raking glance, but kept his hands to himself. Later, he thought. Then he thought about it some more.
The rest of his mind was less enjoyably occupied. Since yesterday, he’d been dwelling on their conversation in the coffee house regarding the upkeep of Crowley’s plants. It had deeply distressed Aziraphale to find his suspicions about the green room confirmed, but he felt powerless to intervene. If cruelty to houseplants was Crowley’s means of coping, Aziraphale could not begrudge him. He could never unmake Crowley’s Fall, nor did he know how to soothe the ache of feeling summarily discarded. But it troubled his mind more immediately that he did not know how to communicate compassion to one who felt that it must be earned.
Aziraphale had tried, before the business at Tadfield, to return to Crowley some of the mercy that he felt the demon had always shown him. No small part of him had vainly hoped that he could release Crowley from Hell through his own forgiveness, but he had been sharply rebuffed both times. I won't be forgiven. Not ever. Part of a demon's job description. Unforgivable, that's what I am. It had broken Aziraphale’s heart to hear, but he found himself returning to the memory again and again, as though to an unsolved puzzle.
It was clear to Aziraphale by now that he could not give the demon his freedom any more than Crowley could break Hell’s bonds with his own two hands. But something in the way he received Aziraphale’s love—the achingly sweet acceptance, open heart, eyes wide, rising to meet him—made the angel wonder if there might not be another way. His mind turned over and over, but what he sought was whispering beyond his grasp, and he kept hearing Crowley’s voice: Unforgivable, that’s what I am.
In his frustration, Aziraphale grew angry with Crowley, remembering his breezy reaction to the decree of exile. How could he have been so cavalier about Hell retaining its claim on him? He was not even trying to find a way out. Did he not know what they stood to lose? What he had given Aziraphale only to let it be torn away in the end? Did he not care?
The play was drawing to a close. Aziraphale did not even feel guilty at his sense of relief when Prospero began the epilogue. He had hardly paid attention at all. Only the last few lines broke unpleasantly into the angel’s clouded consciousness. And my ending is despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer, / Which pierces so that it assaults / Mercy itself and frees all faults. Aziraphale grimaced in distaste. The answer was not there either. Glancing over at Crowley during the final round of applause, he was surprised to see as deep a scowl on the demon’s face as he felt on his own. Somehow, it made Aziraphale feel a little better.
With a firm grasp at his hips, Aziraphale rolled Crowley over on top of him, pleased by the little laugh of surprise. The angel’s mood had lightened since the play. He had behaved himself in the theater, and was now ready to claim a greater reward than a midnight scotch in Crowley’s flat. If the sofa was not destined to be comfortable, he decided, they would enjoy it in other ways.
Aziraphale’s first inclination was to divest himself of his clothing immediately, but to keep the demon in his silk trousers and see what he could do to muss them. He hesitated, however, even as Crowley settled on his knees. After a few of their recent encounters, Aziraphale was no longer confident in his instinct for playfulness. He contented himself with reaching up for a kiss and letting his hands roam appreciatively.
To his delight, his friend seemed to have read his mind. Crowley shifted closer in his lap, and Aziraphale’s breath hitched at the unexpected slither of silk against his skin. He jumped a bit at the shock, and Crowley slid against him with a hiss of surprise—then, with a touch of mischief, he did it again on purpose, and then kept doing it. Aziraphale began to shiver and gasp, and Crowley looked slightly smug. Emboldened to join the game, Aziraphale tightened his hands on Crowley’s hips and pulled them flush to his own, so that the demon could only squirm, off-balance and clinging to the back of the sofa, unable to control the contact. He began to pant and struggle as Aziraphale held him firm, and the angel's gasps turned to moans.
When his hands were shaking too much to hold his grip, Aziraphale whisked the rest of the clothing away with a thought, and released his friend for a moment to lean back and look at him. He was a sight to behold—wet, dishevelled, and beautiful with want. The threat of loss struck Aziraphale again like a bullet, and everything within him clenched in pain. He reached a hand up and sadly traced the line around Crowley’s neck where the chains hung when he was dressed.
“I know they’re there,” he said, and immediately regretted it. Crowley looked mortified, and turned his head away.
“It’s just part of the deal, angel,” he muttered. “You’ve got your contract, I’ve got mine.”
“But my contract is a type of freedom,” Aziraphale said softly. “I would wish the same for you.”
Crowley looked down at him then. “Are you going to stay?” he asked, a flicker of fear in his eyes.
Aziraphale felt a rush of remorse, and flung his arms around him. “Forever,” he said. “I told you, forever.” He wanted to put the awful moment behind them; he wanted to touch. He looked up at Crowley for permission and took him by the hips again. “May I?” he asked, trying to smile, and his friend’s face brightened with relief. At the answering nod, Aziraphale lifted and eased Crowley down onto him, impossibly hoping that such things would make him understand.
Crowley sighed and rested his face in Aziraphale’s hair, his lips warm on his ear. “That’s enough then,” he said encouragingly, shuddering as Aziraphale held still. “That’s everything.” Though he disagreed painfully, Aziraphale could say nothing more. He turned his heart away from the future and back to his friend who was here, now. He began to move, and he felt Crowley grin against his ear and whisper: “All corners else of the Earth let liberty make use of; space enough have I in such a prison.” And he kissed Aziraphale’s temple, and held on tight.
Aziraphale lay awake, stewing in an uncomfortable realization. Crowley was asleep somewhere in the absurdly vast bed. He had drifted off, sated and smiling, nearly an hour ago. And the angel, relaxed and reflecting idly on the past few weeks, had felt a touch of dissatisfaction. Poking at it, he had realized that he wanted something from Crowley that he was not getting.
From the start, he had instinctively taken the part of the lover; and Crowley had accepted him fervently. But Aziraphale also wanted to be loved, wanted to put himself into trusted hands; and his friend had not shown the slightest inclination to approach him in that way. As he wondered about it, it dawned on him that Crowley had not initiated a single one of their encounters so far. He almost didn’t believe it—given what he had understood to be their generous enthusiasm for each other, it was difficult to acknowledge that all the impetus had been on his side.
The next day, Aziraphale tested his theory. They spent the morning strolling aimlessly around the shops, but he ultimately found little work for himself in Mayfair (a community epitomizing the old warning: they have received their reward). He and Crowley dined, sat talking in Berkeley Square, and returned to Crowley’s flat in the evening. Aziraphale settled himself with a cup of tea and one of his books, and waited to see what Crowley would do. He did nothing. When he eventually went to bed, Aziraphale stayed up reading, feeling rejected and bereft.
By the third day of waiting, the angel was in genuine and constant dismay. Despite keeping daily company, Crowley had not sought him out once. He had not so much as offered a kiss—only received a few kisses from Aziraphale, when the angel could no longer fully contain himself. Nothing further had come of it.
Aziraphale did not understand. Had he been imposing on his friend all this time? Crowley had never approached him, true, but he had also never refused him anything. Did he feel that he could not refuse? Surely not—Aziraphale had made it clear that nothing was obligatory (hadn’t he?), two weeks ago at the shop. Crowley had indicated that some demonstrations of affection were not to his preference, and Aziraphale had studiously avoided them since. But perhaps his own ardour had blinded him to other signs? Love had made him bold where he might be reverent, run playful where he might tread lightly. And Crowley had always been endlessly patient with him...
On the fourth day, Aziraphale sat at his desk, miserably reading a miserable philosopher who thought that kindness was a form of domination. He was thrilled when Crowley asked if he had a minute, especially since the tone of his voice suggested that they were about to have the conversation that Aziraphale had been hoping for.
He closed his book and turned smiling toward his friend. “I have several minutes, I’m happy to say. Probably the rest of the evening.”
The door of the bookshop slammed shut, and Aziraphale stood staring at it in shock. For nearly a minute, nothing came to his mind but a vague awareness of the noises of traffic and chatter outside. Then, haltingly, one thing came to his mind. Crowley wasn’t there. He had left. He was gone. It was enough to spur Aziraphale to action. He rushed out of the shop and hailed a cab for Mayfair. He would work out what had happened on the way.
It was clear at least, Aziraphale thought, leaning forward in the back seat as though this would make the cabbie drive faster, that the problem between them was not a disparity of want. A small comfort—the problem was much worse. Crowley could allow Aziraphale to love him—he had said so—but he could not go the other direction. He could not put himself on Aziraphale, as he had called it. The way he had said it—did he think himself too base to be a lover? Crowley’s endless self-deprecating comments came back to Aziraphale with a horrible significance. Unforgivable—filthy, pernicious demon—I’m not much good for anything else.
Aziraphale had long known that Crowley’s tendency to sneer at himself sprang from a fear of being found unremarkable. He wanted approval, even from Hell, and dreaded to find himself disposable; his banishment had stung, in spite of himself. Aziraphale had always sympathized—he harbored a similar fear of inadequacy and failure, that had haunted his work for Heaven and now made him hesitant in his work for Earth. Crowley’s insecurity was darker, and ran deeper (Aziraphale hated to guess its origin), but his optimism had always buoyed him up. Had it failed in this one instance? Was that all that stood between them now?
Something was not right. Aziraphale was missing something. Other memories were pressing on his mind. You’ve got your contract, I’ve got mine—Hell retains all final rights— A picture was starting to crystallize. He replayed their conversation in his head, willing himself to understand. I belong to Hell, Crowley had said. And suddenly, finally, Aziraphale had it.
The problem was not merely self-loathing. Crowley might despise himself in weaker moments, and might worry immoderately about exposing Aziraphale to the realities of his Fallen state. But these things could be overcome, if he willed it. He did not will it. He could not will it. That was the problem. He belonged to Hell, and this ultimate fact lay at the root of Crowley’s inability to approach, to actively give himself. He could not give what he did not own.
Aziraphale burst into the flat without knocking. He heard Crowley’s voice down the corridor—of course he would be in the green room—but he heard something else as well, and quickened his pace. As he rounded the corner, he saw the floor at his feet strewn with tattered leaves, and saw Crowley, with his back turned, brandishing a pruning knife.
“All you had to do was sit there and live,” Crowley was snarling. “I do everything else around here. Couldn’t even get that right, you worthless parasites.” He punctuated his rebukes with slashes of the knife.
As Aziraphale watched, his distress and anxiety left him. He became angry, but not his usual anger, that was a mixture of plaintive indignation and misdirected fear. A profound calm had descended upon him, and the anger he felt now was pure, and powerful. It shared the nature of the Anger that had blackened the sky at Golgotha. It was almost ecstasy; almost joy.
The time had come to act. Aziraphale spoke, and he could feel his own voice like a peal of thunder. Everything else fell silent.
“Crowley,” he said. “Be still.”
With affection and thanks to my beautiful readers! I love your comments, and I try to answer them all.
Stay tuned for Chapter 14, in which Crowley makes a Choice.
Chapter 14: The Green Room
“Last night I held all evil in my hand / Closed: and behold it was a little thing.” —GKC, The End of Fear
You were not patient, you did not trust. You did well. For you knew that it would be lost to you.
Crowley hacked off another leaf, growling, as the Voice continued close to his heart.
You took it in your own hands and killed it. That is your virtue, darling, that is your nature.
“All you had to do was sit there and live.” The slice of the pruning knife cut through the whispers.
You do not let destruction fall upon you. That is your strength. You choose your doom.
“I do everything else around here.” He slashed off a young shoot.
That is why I desire you. She does not want your mediocrity, and nor does he. But I delight in you because you take in your own hands and kill what would be lost to you.
“Couldn’t even get that right—”
You are mine, do not forget it.
“—you worthless parasites.”
“Crowley.” A different voice sounded behind him, and all at once the air was silence. Even the whispering stopped. Aziraphale’s voice? Yes, it must be, he recognized the sound of his name. Crowley turned, but when he saw, he lurched back in terror, cowering before the figure in the doorway as it spoke again. “Be still.”
It was Aziraphale; Crowley could see him. There were his hands, his lips, his favorite coat. But his eyes were brilliant blue, too bright to look at, and his presence burned Crowley’s skin from across the room. He was towering, impossible, beautiful, terrible, and he was angry. He was vast with a dreadful anger. Crowley had not felt anger like that since—not since—
Aziraphale moved into the room. Whirling around him, blue and crackling in the aether, were eyes—thousands—and hovering wings, and water and light, splintering the air with heat and sharpness. Crowley shrank back, wanting to flee, but his limbs were heavy with fear, and his mind was numb with awe.
“Crowley, come to me,” Aziraphale said. “Do not be afraid. Come.” His voice was different, deep, eternal and terrifying. But it was an invitation, not a command.
Crowley took two steps forward. The light from the angel burned brighter with each step, and it hurt him. He could not go on. The whispering returned, and he stopped, listening.
Do not be a fool, it will kill you if you go. Consume you like holy water. Wait.
His two steps seemed to have been enough for Aziraphale, however. The angel came to meet him, stood before him, and Crowley’s eyes and fingertips were scorched by the heat. It was coming in waves off the host of beating wings, and unblinking eyes were stabbing at him on every side. He could not breathe. The very air was squeezing the life from him.
“Aziraphale, stop it!” Crowley choked through the pressure. “You’re hurting me, stop!”
“Silence,” said Aziraphale with a swell of anger. “Do not ask it of me again. It is time for you to leave Hell, Crowley. You will be absolved from this bondage tonight. But if you ask me again, I will stop.”
Crowley did not understand. He tried to see through the whirling light. The pain was searing, and he could not draw breath.
He cannot release you, hissed the Voice. You chose me, and your choice is binding.
Aziraphale’s body was ablaze with light. He lifted his left hand, and the air around the two of them snapped and glittered. “I will break them if you will it,” he said, and he grasped the chains on Crowley’s neck in his fist. The light from his hand flowed into the metal like water, and Crowley could see for the first time that the chains were laced throughout with little cracks and fractures—how? A flare of hope rose in him. Could they shatter? Aziraphale was powerful; he was dazzling with power. But the Voice was at Crowley’s heart again, coiling and dragging and pulling down.
Mercy cannot save you, nor pity, nor love. You are damned. You are mine because you chose it. You came to me. I did not ravish you.
He had to stop this before the pressure overwhelmed him. “I’m a demon, Aziraphale, you can’t break that,” Crowley ground out, struggling to think over the whispers. “They’ll hold in the end. You can’t just break them!”
“No, I cannot,” said Aziraphale. “I have not the authority. And nor can you. You have not the strength. But I will give you the strength, if you will give me the authority. We shall break them, if you will join me in choosing it.”
Crowley could not think. All his senses were burning. He was sick and dizzy from the heat; the thunder of wings and the rush of flowing light hammered in his ears. He would not survive this.
Aziraphale’s right hand reached down to where the pruning knife was still hanging uselessly from Crowley’s fingers. He took it and held it next to the chains. Crowley’s eyes widened in fear.
“Will you allow me?” Aziraphale asked.
Darling, do not destroy yourself. He will kill you if he kills me. I am your own self, and I love you. Do not let your doom fall upon you.
“Please don’t kill me,” Crowley rasped. His throat and mouth were parched. “You don’t understand, this will kill me.”
“This I will kill,” answered Aziraphale, nodding at the chains, his anger shimmering in the air. “Do you give me the authority?”
Crowley looked down. The light from Aziraphale’s right hand was a tongue of flame around the blade of the knife, and his left hand now grasped not a length of chain, but the neck of a lithe black serpent coiled about Crowley’s shoulders. The serpent thrashed and hissed again within his heart.
You cannot do it, you know that you are expendable to all but me. Do not forget this. If he kills me you will lose him still. You will gain nothing and will lose everything! He will kill me and will leave you empty, belonging to no one, an exile alone in long eternity, not even a vulture to gnaw your liver on the mountainside!
“Will you protect me?” Crowley pleaded. “I can’t go back to Heaven. I’ll have nothing but Earth, and that won’t last. Tell me that I’ll have you at least, when everything else is gone.”
“I cannot make promises now,” said Aziraphale. “Not here, not against this choice. You may choose an action, not a result.” He held the fiery knife to the neck of the serpent. “May I kill it?”
The light choked and suffocated him, and Crowley knew that he was going to die. His ears were ringing with the rush of wings, and Aziraphale’s eyes pierced him like swords. He saw that everything the serpent had said was true. He had already made his choice. He would end alone. The coils tightened around his neck, and Aziraphale would not protect him. He was abandoned.
I hate you, Crowley thought wretchedly at the serpent. I hate you, why do you have to be me? Why do I have to be this?
And then, from somewhere in the depths of his misery, something stirred in Crowley’s heart. It was not courage, nor wisdom, nor any good or powerful principle. At best it could be called flippancy. It was the same impatient, cocksure impertinence that balked at every authority and sneered at every threat.
And fuck you too, he though savagely as the serpent lashed its tail on his chest. Bloody festering worm. Why shouldn’t I let him kill you, after all?
You chose me yourself, the whisper returned. Your name is written in my book. My brand is upon your face. Your word has bound you.
And bollocks to that, answered Crowley. What are you gonna do, kill me?
SHE will kill you! Now, through him, in agony, or over a thousand aeons in the empty blackness. You cannot live without me.
If the alternative is living with you, old friend, then frankly, I’d rather die. Happy to take one rank bastard down with me. Crowley felt reckless, almost exhilarated. It might not work, but maybe it would. He might die now, but what if he didn’t? And what would be worse, anyway?
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said again. “It is time to choose.”
Crowley threw his head back, and let Aziraphale’s eyes burn and blind him. “Go on, then,” he cried, over the whirling and rushing about him. “Do what you want! I’m giving myself to you now. Kill it! I give you permission!”
Light sliced across his gaze in an instant, and the head of the serpent hit the floor. Aziraphale had not uttered a word. He had not even brandished the knife. The serpent’s body went limp, and slid slowly from Crowley’s shoulders to drop to the floor with a heavy thud. All of Crowley’s nerves went slack, and he crumpled in a heap before the scaly carcass.
“Pick it up,” said Aziraphale, his voice less angry now. Crowley was numb. Aziraphale’s presence no longer seared and blinded him, but his whole body felt burned, and he could hardly see. He felt light. He thought, if it were possible, that he might feel free. He gathered up the head and body of the serpent and held them coiled in his hands, then looked up at Aziraphale, bemused.
“Now release it,” said the angel gently. “It is done.” Crowley looked back down, and nestled in his hands was a white bird, deathly still. It reminded him of one he had held before. He felt a little strength pour into him, and he used it, and the dove stirred and trilled softly. He lifted and released it, and it fluttered up to the ceiling and through the open skylight, and disappeared into the evening air.
Crowley’s eyes were still burning and half-blind, but he could see around him that his houseplants seemed to have been restored as well. That was alright, then. He looked back at Aziraphale, and the angel had returned to his familiar self. The air around him was calm. He knelt on the floor and took Crowley’s face in his hands, gazing and gazing as though he’d never seen him before.
“Oh,” said Aziraphale wonderingly. “Crowley, it’s you.”
Crowley did not understand what he meant. He had no more strength left, and darkness was closing around the edges of his consciousness. He felt that he was dying after all, for he could not move his arms or legs. He could not even speak. Everything was dark except for the last sight of Aziraphale’s face at the center of his vision. He did not want to die, he thought sadly. He would lose Aziraphale’s face. He tried to look as long and hard as he could into the sweet, clear eyes that were staring at him lovingly. But in the end he could not hold on, and the blackness closed.
A nightingale was singing in the darkness. And there was the sound of wind and the rustle of leaves. Far away in the distance was the slow rush of vast waters.
Then the air was rich with fragrance. There was the smell of the Earth, damp soil and growing things. And the smell of warm, sweet rain. And nearer by, strong tea. And then vanilla.
A warm hand pressed on his brow. A strong hand, firm and steady. A low voice was humming gently above him, and he wanted to see. He tried to open his eyes.
Light flooded him, and split his senses, and he gasped in pain. The hand drew back from his brow. No! He had to see before it slipped away. He tried again to see, slowly, blinking through the pain, and finally shapes and colors were distinguished. Nothing was familiar. Where was he? With all his strength, he lifted a heavy arm, and the warm hand caught it.
He looked and looked, and willed himself to see. Gradually the images focused, and he saw what he was looking for. There was the face, clear and sweet and full of love. He breathed a sigh of relief that was almost a cry of joy. And his mind began to come back to itself.
“Aziraphale,” he said in wonder, clutching at the hand that was holding his arm. “You’re here.”
“Yes, my dear,” said his friend with a twitch of amusement. “You’ve been out for some time. Welcome back to the land of the living.”
With fond gratitude to all my readers. Thank you as always for the kind words.
And with grateful respect to C.S. Lewis, whose very strange book The Great Divorce contains the inspiration for this scene.
Stay tuned for Chapter 15, in which recoveries are made.
Chapter 15: The World
"To me, like sudden laughter, / The stars are fresh and gay; / The world is a daring fancy, / And finished yesterday." —GKC, A Novelty
Humming softly to himself, Aziraphale returned from the kitchen with a cup of tea, and settled into the armchair he had positioned by Crowley’s bedside. Crowley slept on; there was still no change. But Aziraphale was not anxious. He knew that all was well.
He picked up his book with real pleasure. Since Crowley had fallen into this sleep, Aziraphale had abandoned moral philosophy and had taken up a much more profitable genre—children’s literature. His current novel told the story of a child who learned about Love by growing things in a garden; it contained more practical philosophical insight than any book written for adults. On the bedside table behind his tea lay a small roll of parchment, partially open; next to it, a thin folder containing a small stack of documents.
Crowley stirred, and his breathing changed a little—the first change he had shown since Aziraphale had gathered him up from the floor of the green room and tucked him into bed. Standing up eagerly to lean over the bedside, Aziraphale examined him. Crowley’s face was twitching, and his brow was furrowed slightly. His breathing was not as slow or deep as before.
Aziraphale had waited with patient contentment for his friend to recover, but now his heart turned to a thrumming anticipation. He might be on the edge of wakefulness. But easy now, he told himself, it might be only a nightmare; although...he had shown no other signs of nightmares since falling asleep. Aziraphale laid one hand over Crowley’s heart, just in case. With the other he stroked his friend’s forehead, to soothe the twitching and to communicate care to whatever in Crowley might be able to receive it. Please wake up, he thought. I’ve missed you so.
He felt eyelashes flutter against his palm, and his heart leapt. He was waking! Aziraphale withdrew his hand from Crowley’s forehead, breathless for the moment to come. Would he be the same? Would Aziraphale see what he had seen that night? Crowley was breathing in little gasps and struggling to open his eyes—the light must be painful. Aziraphale turned off the reading lamp and extended his hand to shade his friend’s face from the ambient daylight.
And then, there they were. Crowley had opened his eyes. There was no discernment in them yet, but they were his—golden amber, deep and warm and luminous. No longer shallow and reptilian, but human and profoundly expressive; exactly as he had seen them that night in the green room. And just as on that night, recognition clove through Aziraphale’s breast like a thunderclap. He saw his friend’s whole soul within those eyes. He saw the vast reserves of hope and strength; the dazzling will of a co-author of creation; the love that had stood to plead the case of the world against destruction. He had never known it, but in that moment if he dared, Aziraphale could have spoken Crowley’s eternal Name.
Through the daze of his awe, Aziraphale realized that Crowley had raised an arm and was reaching for him, still unseeing. He grasped his wrist and tried to make his touch feel reassuring. Finally—finally—the eyes came into focus and found his face. But the look of surprise that Crowley gave him was incongruous in its childlike confusion, and the angel nearly burst into laughter when Crowley said with innocent bewilderment, “Aziraphale—you’re here.”
“Yes, my dear,” he answered, the corner of his mouth twitching. “You’ve been out for some time. Welcome back to the land of the living. Can you tell me how you feel? Are you in any pain?”
“Bit of a headache,” answered Crowley, squinting a little. He seemed to be thinking hard. “Did I die?”
Aziraphale almost laughed again. He was giddy with relief and happiness. “No, Crowley,” he said, “you didn’t die. We are in your flat. You’ve slept for nearly three days.”
Crowley nodded cautiously, apparently absorbing this new information.
“Is there anything I can get you?” Aziraphale asked. “Would you like some tea, or coffee? Something to eat?”
Crowley thought for another moment. “Water?” he asked. Aziraphale nodded and turned to go to the kitchen, but Crowley clutched at his arm with fear on his face. “Wait,” he cried indignantly, “don’t go!” Aziraphale broke with tenderness even as he started to laugh. He sat on the bed and gathered his friend in an embrace, telling him that everything would be alright, that it was safe, that he would stay. He summoned a glass of water to the bedside table and offered it to Crowley when he was less disoriented.
After a while, Aziraphale gave up on returning to the armchair, or procuring food, or puttering about in general solicitude. What Crowley wanted was his presence. He removed his clothing and slipped under the covers next to his friend, who turned on his side to look at him.
“What happened the other night?” Crowley asked a little drowsily. His eyelids were starting to sink again.
“We got you out of your contract,” said Aziraphale in a soothing tone. “Don’t worry about it now. Get some rest. We’ll talk more about it when you wake again.”
Crowley dropped his head onto Aziraphale’s shoulder and was asleep in seconds, breathing softly into the angel’s neck. With a rueful glance at his abandoned tea, Aziraphale reached to the armchair and retrieved his book. He settled back to read, humming quietly, and waited for Crowley to wake again.
“What exactly did you do to me?” Crowley asked suspiciously. It was evening, and they were sitting up in bed, warm, unclad, and very cozy in the lamplight. Crowley seemed much more like himself for the extra few hours of sleep. After a cup of strong coffee, he had set to questioning Aziraphale about the events of the night in the green room.
“I don’t know that I did anything to you, precisely,” Aziraphale answered carefully. “But with your assistance I believe I granted rather a hefty dispensation. One normally beyond my ability, I daresay, but it appears that Hell’s hold on you had been weakening for some time. And of course you helped yourself a great deal.”
“A dispensation?” Crowley looked puzzled, and furrowed his brow. “But your dispensations are only for Earth. Hell’s not part of the sublunary sphere.”
“Ah,” said Aziraphale, “yes...well, I believe we might have benefitted from a—from a bureaucratic technicality, let us say.” He reached to the bedside table and handed Crowley the roll of parchment, smiling a little ironically. “When the good Beelzebub discharged you from service, she banished you to the terrestrial plane—placing you, inadvertently I am sure, within the realm of my jurisdiction.”
Crowley unrolled the parchment, staring at him in disbelief. The last clause of the decree had been burned out, leaving nothing but charred edges in place of the words that had once read: In the event of Armageddon or other apocalyptic occurrences, Hell retains all final rights to your person and immortal soul.
“So that’s it?” Crowley said, his voice uncertain. “I’m just free? Just like that? So what am I, an angel again? That can’t be right, I didn’t un-Fall. I don’t exactly feel like a demon, but...” He trailed off, contemplating.
Aziraphale considered his next words carefully. “I think,” he began slowly, “that those distinctions are becoming a bit hazy these days. You needn’t worry about any of this now, but if you’re feeling up to it, you did have a delivery from Head Office two days ago.”
“That fathead Gabriel came here?”
“No,” said Aziraphale, his lips twitching again with mirth. “They outsource that sort of thing.” He picked up the thin folder and passed it to Crowley. “There’s a job offer for you, if you’re interested.”
“I’m not working for those pricks,” said Crowley with a look of disgust.
“It isn’t from Heaven, Head Office sent it directly. It’s an unaffiliated position, like mine.” Aziraphale waited as Crowley opened the folder and perused the contract inside.
“Another independent sublunary agent?” Crowley asked sardonically. “How much help does this planet need?”
“Well I don’t think the two of us are in danger of overrunning the place,” said Aziraphale primly. “If you take the job, that is. Like me, you’d be a sort of advocate for the Earth, only in an existential rather than an ethical capacity.”
“Huh?” asked Crowley blankly. He returned his gaze to the documents in his lap, and read out the words, “We offer you in perpetuity the position of Advocate for the Protection and Promotion of Life on Earth. Should you choose to accept this position...” He trailed off and looked up at Aziraphale incredulously.
“Let me put it this way,” said Aziraphale with a fond, and slightly wry, smile. “Your tendency to act the mother hen will have an outlet. You can defend existence here against undue destruction. Grow plants, heal animals, protect children. Make life flourish. It seems a good fit, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
Crowley looked dubious. He closed the folder slowly and handed it back to Aziraphale. “I’ll have to think about it,” he said.
“Of course,” Aziraphale reassured him. “I imagine the thought of any contract doesn’t particularly appeal just now. No rush whatsoever. Only know that there is a place for you, here, with me, if you want it. Entirely free from both Heaven and Hell.”
Crowley hummed noncommittally, and then looked at Aziraphale for a long moment, as if studying him. His mood seemed to flicker and refocus. Finally he sighed, smiled, stretched languorously, and sprawled back onto the pillows, the bedsheets draped very low about his hips. “So what’re you in the mood for now?” he asked with a sidelong glance. “I know you’ve been sitting in that chair for three days straight. You’ve earned a change of scenery.”
“I’ve been perfectly comfortable here, Crowley,” said Aziraphale, blushing a little. He felt a stirring in his blood at his friend’s suggestive posture. “And watching you sleep is no chore.”
The answering flush in Crowley’s cheeks disarmed Aziraphale further. He needed to redirect to a less distracting line of conversation, lest he ruin his friend’s recovery completely. “I want you to get as much rest as you need. What would you say to some wine, and something from the kitchen?” He began to edge out of bed, eager to retreat temporarily to the safety of another room.
“I’d say it sounds delightful,” Crowley answered with a smirk. He yawned and stretched again, arching his back off the bed, and the covers fell a little lower. Aziraphale turned and fled to the kitchen.
Several hours later, they were laughing. Night had fully fallen, two empty wine bottles sat on the bedside table, and Crowley was pouring from a third into Aziraphale’s glass over the small tray of cheese and grapes that sat on the bed between them. Aziraphale’s cheeks were warm, and he was sitting snug among the pillows, cross-legged under the covers. He did not even remember what they were laughing about—only that they both seemed to feel as though they had narrowly escaped eternal ruination, and it was somehow the punchline of an enormous joke.
As their laughter subsided and Crowley refilled his own glass, Aziraphale saw his expression change. He did not become serious exactly, but something sincere and purposeful entered into his levity. He looked at the angel intently over his wine.
“Thank you,” he said, all of a sudden, “for saving me. Should’ve said that before. Thanks.”
“I didn’t save you, Crowley,” said Aziraphale, pained at the suggestion. But Crowley only smiled and plucked a grape from the tray.
“Thank you for dispensing me then.” He was teasing, but gently. “Really. I owe you one.” He sounded sincere, but his smile betrayed a hint of mischief. He held out the grape toward Aziraphale.
“Well, it was my honor.” Aziraphale smiled at him uncertainly. “And having you back with me is more than reward enough.” He reached up awkwardly to take the grape, but, to his deep consternation, Crowley leaned past his outstretched hand and lifted the fruit to his lips, offering.
“No it isn’t,” he said in a very low voice. His fiery eyes locked on Aziraphale’s, and the angel did not know what to do. There was a frightful fluttering in his chest, like fear, only he wanted it to continue. Dreadfully embarrassed, unable to look away, Aziraphale opened his mouth and received the grape from Crowley’s fingers. It burst, cool and sweet on his tongue when he bit—an innocent pleasure, certainly. But the way his friend watched him in the taking of it made him feel frightened, exhilarated, vulnerable and exposed.
Crowley smiled encouragingly. He looked pleased with himself at ruffling the angel’s composure, but his primary interest, Aziraphale could tell, was not in making him uncomfortable. “I also need to apologize,” he said, and plucked another grape.
“Apologize—for what?” Aziraphale asked, eyeing Crowley’s hand warily.
“For the way things have been the past few weeks.” Crowley spoke casually, conversationally, looking at the grape as he rolled it delicately between his fingers.
Aziraphale tried to swallow. He realized that he was on the receiving end of a very deliberate seduction, for which he had not prepared at all. He tried to regain his footing. “Crowley, you have nothing to apologize for,” he said a little hysterically, “and you’re still recovering at the moment, so I think it would be best if—”
“I’m perfectly recovered, angel,” Crowley cut in. He was leaning forward, earnest even in his amusement. “You’ve taken good care of me. For weeks—forever, if intuition serves. I haven’t been taking care of you in return lately, and I’m sorry. I want to. Start now?” He raised the grape to Aziraphale’s lips again.
Aziraphale forced himself to think over the heat in his blood, and he considered Crowley: he seemed well and lively, lips flushed, eyes bright, hands steady. He said he was recovered. Perhaps Aziraphale should trust him to do as he pleased? The angel had longed for his friend to make such an advance, and Crowley was turning out to have even more of a flair for it than he had envisioned.
Summoning his courage, Aziraphale looked him directly in the eyes, leaned forward, took the grape and the tips of Crowley’s fingers into his mouth, and sucked. And so many small pleasures assailed him at once—the sweet pop of the fruit, the salt of fingertips, the thrill of his own brazenness, the surprise in his friend’s carnal little moan—that Aziraphale became a bit dizzy with the rush of them. He did not try to hide it. He let his eyes flutter and hummed in the back of his throat. If this was to be Crowley’s offer to him, he would receive it, and let him see the effect.
“Do you understand,” asked Crowley, his eyes and voice dark with intent, “why I didn’t do this ages ago?” As he spoke, he pushed the tray and the bedsheets away and shifted across to where Aziraphale was sitting. With a gentle grasp at his ankles, Crowley unfolded Aziraphale’s legs and slid between them, kneeling over him.
“I do,” said Aziraphale, gazing up at him with wide eyes. His blood was rushing, and his chest felt hollow. Crowley raised his right hand to Aziraphale’s neck, and stroked his jawline with his thumb.
“Forgive me?” Crowley’s left hand fell to Aziraphale’s knee, and began to move slowly, firmly, upward.
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Aziraphale could barely whisper. “But if you wish it, then of course, you are forgiven with all my heart.”
Long fingers curled around the back of his neck, and tilted his head back gently. Crowley’s other hand was at the angel’s hip now, his thumb pressing just above the top of his thigh, too close. Aziraphale wanted to squirm, to twist into the hand, but his friend’s glowing eyes held him pinned against the headboard, and Crowley’s mouth was close enough to kiss.
“Thank you,” Crowley said again, and smiled. His left hand was sliding inward, closer, but it stopped when Aziraphale moved to try to meet it, and it pressed down, holding him still. They were both breathing shallowly now, and when Crowley spoke again, his voice was a little unsteady. “I’m going to love you, angel, if you’ll have me. Say the word.”
Aziraphale’s eyes were very wide. He felt power radiating from his friend, and passion, and cool hands on his heated skin. He wanted it all, and everything that would come after it. “Oh, yes,” he breathed, heedless of his dignity. “Yes, please do.”
Crowley dove to kiss him, and guided him down with firm hands to lie beneath him, easing Aziraphale’s head onto the pillows and covering his body with his own. He drove their hips together and plunged his tongue into their kiss, and Aziraphale cried out into his mouth and clung to his shoulders. He had known before now that he wanted Crowley’s touch, but he had not understood just how much his friend had been restraining himself. He felt thoroughly invaded by this new embrace, overwhelmed and overcome.
Crowley’s mouth fell to his neck, and Aziraphale began to tremble under the press of his hips and the gentle, sucking kisses at his throat. He never wanted it to end, but when Crowley started to move lower, his stomach and then his chest sliding between Aziraphale’s legs, a sense of alarm broke into the angel’s fever.
“Wait,” he cried, realizing what was the matter. “Stop it!” Crowley stopped immediately, and looked up through his lashes from where his head was pillowed on Aziraphale’s stomach.
“Stop what?” he asked innocently.
“You know very well what,” Aziraphale chided, breathless. “I won’t have you doing anything you don’t care for.”
“Who says I don’t care for it?”
Aziraphale was confounded. “But—but you said...back at the shop, three weeks ago—you didn’t—” he stuttered and trailed off, waving his hands vaguely. Crowley looked a bit sheepish.
“Yeah,” he said slowly. “Sorry about that. It wasn’t for lack of inclination, y’know, it was just—sort of—a lot to take at the time, with...everything.”
“Oh,” said Aziraphale weakly. He was distraught at the awareness of opportunities lost to fear and silence, and desperately sorry for what Crowley had suffered, and simply desperate in general. “Well, in that case, er, by all means, do what you will, but…” He looked down at his friend helplessly, giving up. “We shall have to discuss it later, at length.”
Crowley grinned up at him impertinently. “I look forward to it.” And he slid his hands to Aziraphale’s hips and took him in his mouth without further ceremony.
Aziraphale’s head fell back, and his hands shook where they rested over Crowley’s wrists. He was visited again by the feeling that he’d never been touched before in all his earthly existence. It was too soft. It was torment. He cried out for more, but Crowley held his hips in place and continued slow and steady. When Aziraphale thought he could bear the feeling no longer, it was suddenly gone. Crowley was hovering over him again, his stomach just a breath away from Aziraphale’s straining body. The angel, despite his panting want, found that he felt more joy and relief at the sight of his friend’s face than dismay at the loss of his touch.
“I missed you,” he said bemusedly.
Crowley’s blazing eyes softened with fondness, and darted to the side with a flicker of uncertainty. “I was gonna ask if I could—I mean, it’s whatever you want, obviously, but I thought—if you didn’t—”
“Yes,” Aziraphale cut in with conviction. “Yes, that is what I want.” He pulled his friend’s body down to him, and kissed and embraced him. “Please come to me, Crowley,” he whispered in his ear. “Please love me.”
Crowley’s breath rushed past his ear in a heavy sigh that was almost a sob. He told Aziraphale that he did love him, that he always had, that he was sorry, and grateful, and the angel was beautiful, and he would take care of him forever. Aziraphale returned it all in kind. They knit their recently broken world back together with whispered nonsense, and when Crowley pressed into him, Aziraphale felt as though the great wheel of creation had finally come right again.
At first, neither of them moved. It had become a kind of ritual between them before, this silent pause at the first moment of unity, and Crowley observed it in his turn. He trembled in Aziraphale’s arms, and Aziraphale’s body fluttered and strained. They shared a kiss, and with some trepidation, Crowley rocked forward.
It was too much. Aziraphale thought that he would surely lose consciousness. It felt like being split in two. But Crowley was gentle, and slow, and soon it was not enough. He wanted more, and he began to urge his friend forward, deeper, crying out, legs splayed, flushed and perspiring. He needed to be touched, and tried to reach between them, but Crowley caught his hand and held it behind his head.
“Allow me,” he whispered at the angel’s moan of protest, and Aziraphale felt long fingers close around him delicately, and pull. He knew he could not bear it for long. He began to come apart almost immediately, and when Crowley twitched and shuddered within him, he broke, and bucked up into his hand, and cried out indecently as Crowley spasmed and bit his lip.
After a long while they separated, and Aziraphale gathered Crowley to his chest and held him cradled there, soothingly murmuring gratitude and praise. They became peaceful, then drowsy. Aziraphale began to drift off.
“It’s just that there’s no space for a proper library here,” Crowley said spontaneously, as though they’d been in the middle of a conversation.
“My dear, what in the world are you talking about?” Aziraphale mumbled sleepily.
“I was just thinking,” Crowley yawned. “What if we got a place of our own? Together I mean. With space for a library.”
“Mmm,” said Aziraphale vaguely. “And maybe a garden. Which reminds me, you ought to apologize to the houseplants. They suffered quite an ordeal the other evening.”
“Mmph,” said Crowley, and fell asleep.
This was a longer chapter, thanks everyone for being patient! And for your incredible comments!
Check out this fanart of Chapter 14 by the AMAZING MissUnderstanding!
This chapter has been remixed from Crowley's POV, you can read it here if you like.
Stay tuned for Chapter 16, in which important words are spoken.
Chapter 16: The South Downs
“What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.” —GKC, The Everlasting Man
Crowley stood up and brushed the soil from the knees of his trousers. It would be some years before the sapling at his feet would bear any fruit, but the waiting was the point of it, really—a little promise of the future. He turned away and wandered unhurriedly toward the cottage, pausing to poke his head briefly into the greenhouse on the way.
He found Aziraphale standing over the kitchen sink with his sleeves rolled up, washing the plates from lunch as he waited for the kettle. He turned and smiled as Crowley entered the room.
“Just in time for a cup of something, if you like,” he said pleasantly, drying his hands on the tea towel slung over his shoulder. “What can I get you?”
“Whatever you’re brewing is fine,” Crowley answered, sprawling into a chair at the small breakfast table. “All settled in upstairs then?”
“Yes,” said Aziraphale, setting down cups and a teapot. “I’ve been downstairs in the library most of the afternoon. It’s nearly half unpacked.” He sat across from Crowley and began to straighten his sleeves. “So, how grows the garden?”
Crowley shrugged. “It’s coming along. Greenhouse is more or less under control.”
“Reigning with an iron fist, I presume.”
“Oh yes. Let them call upon your mercy in their affliction.” Crowley made a face at him. “Nah, I promised a softer touch, and I’m a demon of my word. Or whatever.”
Aziraphale smiled. “Yes, about that,” he said. “Have you given any more thought to the job offer? Only you haven’t really mentioned it since that evening.”
“It’s been a busy couple of weeks, angel. The Almighty can wait.”
“Of course, I didn’t—that is, I don’t mean to rush you, only to offer to talk about it. Help sort some things out. You can refuse to take the job, you know. You could just stay here, and...live.”
“Well I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice to have something to do,” Crowley said. “It’s not a bad offer, I’ll give Her that. It’s just, we haven’t exactly been on terms lately.”
“No, I understand,” Aziraphale said kindly, his eyes a little sad. An idea seemed to occur to him. “For what it’s worth, I’ve not found Her to be terribly involved—as a boss, that is. I haven’t received a single communication about my work, apart from the contract itself. As regards our independence, I believe we can take the Almighty at Her word.”
“Mmm.” Crowley chewed on the situation as Aziraphale poured the tea. Something was bothering him that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Protection…, he thought. That’s alright...life on Earth...alright… He knew he would always choose the Earth. What was it, then, that was stopping him?
“This—advocacy business,” he started slowly, as a notion began to form.
“Yes?” said Aziraphale encouragingly.
“Well an Advocate is sort of like a lawyer, isn’t it? Part of the job is asking questions, making arguments.”
“Oh—yes, I believe I see what you mean.”
“Sort of what got me thrown out in the first place,” Crowley said a little bitterly. “Seems a bit left-handed to make a gig of it, after all that.”
Aziraphale thought for a moment. “Well I don’t know, Crowley,” he mused. “Have you considered that it mightn’t have been the questions themselves that led to your Fall? There were rumors, after the War—of course, one never knows what to believe of such things, but—some said that when Lucifer tempted, it was always with Pride.”
Aziraphale’s voice was gentle, but Crowley’s heart retreated from his words as if from an attack. He withdrew into his own thoughts, scowling. Was it true? He had told himself a thousand things about his Fall; a thousand versions of the story smoldered in his memory. He had never heard Her version of it. But he had heard the serpent's. Whatever else he told himself, he could not rewrite what Lucifer had said to him. One version, at least, was immutable. You unremarkable creature—You choose your doom—She does not want your mediocrity. Those were the strings that the Voice had chosen to pluck; not doubt, nor indignation, nor the natural recalcitrance against authority that had, in the end, been Crowley’s salvation. No, his weapon had been the fear of being found wanting, and the temptation for Crowley to strike a preemptive blow against it—to reject himself, as it were. Was that, after all, a type of Pride?
Crowley rubbed his eyes with a heavy sigh, and dragged his hands through his hair. Aziraphale was watching him uncertainly, maybe wondering if he’d gone too far. Crowley reached out and took his hand to reassure him.
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “We’ll figure it out. I just need a little more time.”
“Of course, take all the time you need.” Aziraphale sounded relieved. “I’ll be here whenever you wish to discuss it further. In the meantime,”—his smile changed, and a hint of a wheedle crept into his voice; Crowley groaned—“what would you say to helping me in the library?”
The lamplight was warm against the evening as Crowley fitted the last few books onto a high corner shelf. Aziraphale returned to the library with two glasses and a bottle of scotch. He set them on the low table between the sofa and the hearth, and looked around to survey their accomplishment.
“Thank you very much for the assistance,” he said warmly. “Care for a drink?”
“I’d say we’ve earned it.” Crowley took the offered glass with a casual nod of acknowledgement, but he was already on alert, watching the angel out of the corner of his eye. Aziraphale generally favored scotch when he was bracing himself for something he was afraid of, or when he was feeling frolicsome, or both. Crowley kept his manners easy, and joined his friend on the sofa, leaning back with an air of studied indifference.
Aziraphale’s hand was on his thigh almost immediately, and Crowley was flattered, and a little relieved. Frolicsome it was, then. He hoped that that was all it was. He’d been dodging more than one conversation for the past two weeks, and Aziraphale had pressed for the other this afternoon. Crowley took a sip of his drink, slung his arm over the back of the sofa behind Aziraphale’s shoulders, and gave his attention to the business at hand.
The angel was taking his time about it tonight, stroking firmly and slowly up and down his thigh; Crowley was happy to let him set the pace for a while, but he saw no harm in pushing one or two of his friend’s buttons.
“So,” he said conversationally, “any plans for the next work trip?” He trailed one fingernail underneath Aziraphale’s collar and up the back of his neck to his ear, enjoying the angel’s little shiver at his touch.
“I thought I’d wait until we were quite settled here,” answered Aziraphale. He held Crowley’s gaze meaningfully, and slid his hand further upward. “The place wants breaking in.” His fingers tightened around Crowley’s hip.
Crowley smiled; if it was to be a stand-off, two could play. Without breaking eye contact, he took Aziraphale’s free hand and raised it upturned to his lips, flicking his tongue over the open palm and then the delicate skin at his wrist. Aziraphale’s eyes darkened and his lips parted slightly. Crowley seized the opportunity and swooped in for a kiss.
Aziraphale was breathless when they parted, but apparently he was not to be deterred from taking charge of the evening’s activities. He extracted himself from their embrace, and began slowly and methodically to remove Crowley’s clothing. He allowed no interference, but pressed warm and sweet kisses to Crowley’s forehead, cheeks, and lips, and Crowley was reminded with a sting of their first night in the Mayfair flat, when Aziraphale had broken through the first of the barriers between them. Crowley suspected that he was now trying to break through the last. He wondered if he was prepared to let him.
Finally, Aziraphale stood over him, and on the pretext of unbuttoning Crowley’s trousers, knelt between his knees. Crowley felt the sick rush of nerves that beset him every time his friend made this kind of advance. He dove for the buttons of Aziraphale’s shirt, hoping to redirect matters, but the angel batted his hands away.
“Crowley,” said Aziraphale gently, sighing and placing a kiss on his stomach, “can’t you please tell me what is the matter?”
“Nothing,” Crowley lied. “Nothing’s wrong, just—y’know, devil finds work for idle hands.”
“Dear, please don’t be irrelevant,” Aziraphale said with a great show of patience. “You agreed to talk with me about this—enthusiastically agreed, if I recall. And you assured me that it wasn’t a question of disinclination.”
“Yeah, it’s not—obviously.” Crowley gestured. He tried to give himself some time to think. “Look, can you come up from there, if we’re going to talk?”
“No,” said Aziraphale cheerfully. “I’m very happy here, thank you.” And he rested his hands at Crowley’s hips, and looked up at him expectantly.
“Right,” Crowley sighed. The angel was clearly determined. What could he say that was honest, and made sense? “So—it’s—there’s...nothing for me to do.” It was a start.
Aziraphale seemed skeptical. “There’s at least one thing for you to do,” he said, “if you’d ever let me get down to business.”
Crowley blushed. “No,” he tried again. “I mean, if you’re doing that—there’s nothing for me to do for you.” That was better, more accurate. Surely the angel couldn’t argue with that.
He could. He pointed out, with the exaggerated rationality that he usually reserved for their philosophical debates, that the same could be said of preparing tea, or washing the plates, or any other small act of care in the moment when it was given. Some things could only run one way at a time. “And besides,” Aziraphale said, as though this decided the matter, “you’ve been quite tenaciously insistent about doing it to me.”
“That’s different,” Crowley said, knowing full well that he was talking himself into a corner. “There’s a certain order, you’re—you kneeling on the floor, y’know, it’s—I mean it’s alright for me down there, I’m—”
“A demon?” Aziraphale cut him off with a stern look. “But you’re not a demon, Crowley, and you are too intelligent for this.”
Crowley blushed again, but with a heat of temper this time. “Wave around the technicalities all you like, Aziraphale, but you didn’t Fall. And I’ve still got this.” He gestured to the brand of the serpent on the side of his face.
Aziraphale blinked, then smiled. “We are in the same place,” he said, “and have been offered the same status. If there is any meaningful distinction between us now, it is that you have traveled farther upward than I have ever dreamed of.”
“Farther downward, too.” Crowley said sullenly.
“You were always an adventuresome type. But we’re both here, now. And as for that,”—Aziraphale pointed at the brand—“it’s just a mark. It doesn’t mean anything, it only goes as deep as your skin. I can remove it right now, if you like.”
He raised his hand toward Crowley’s face, but Crowley caught it and held it. “Maybe later.” He kissed Aziraphale’s palm again. “I’m sorry, angel, this”—he gestured at Aziraphale sitting on his knees on the floor—“just feels wrong.”
The look the angel gave him was one of long and steady appraisal. Finally, he said, “Do you know, my dear, I believe you have a tendency to refuse what you are afraid of not deserving.”
Crowley became very still. He heard the echoes in his memory. You take in your own hands and kill what would be lost to you—That is your virtue, darling, that is your nature. He felt pinned down, like a bug under a microscope. He remembered Aziraphale’s defeated expression when he had said once of the houseplants, If they want compassion, they’re going to have to earn it. Was that all it came down to, in the end? His great Downfall? Aziraphale was watching him, but his expression was not disappointed, or critical, or pitying; it was hopeful. Crowley covered his face with his hands, exasperated and at a loss.
Aziraphale rose up on his knees, gently pulled his hands away, and wrapped his arms around Crowley’s neck. “I’ll not insist, you know, tonight or ever,” he murmured in Crowley’s ear. “You have my word. I understand that what I am asking of you is difficult—a humility that cannot be got by thinking meanly of yourself. But you’ve always trusted me before, Crowley. You’ve accepted me in every other way. Will you try?”
As he spoke, Aziraphale slid one of his hands down Crowley’s chest to his hip, and his thumb was now stroking a sensitive spot just above the open button of his trousers, coaxing. Then the angel’s mouth was at his throat. Crowley felt a flicker of fond annoyance even as his heart began to race, and the kisses moved lower. He could not deny that he wanted it. Dishonesty and cowardice were the only escape routes the angel had left him, and he no longer had much of a taste for either. He tried to steel his nerves, but Aziraphale’s lips were now low on his stomach, and he found it impossible to concentrate over the rising heat in his blood.
“Fine—fine, blast you,” he said through gritted teeth, shivering as Aziraphale’s hand ghosted over the front of his trousers. “Do what you like.”
Aziraphale raised his head and looked at him seriously, questioning. Crowley sighed, and nodded more sincerely. “I want you to,” he said.
The angel made a pleased sound, and settled back onto the floor between his legs. The rest of Crowley’s clothing vanished as Aziraphale guided him forward to the edge of the sofa and nuzzled the inside of his thigh.
“Hey, don’t you want to…” He plucked at Aziraphale’s collar. Something thrilled him about the sight of his friend fully dressed and composed against his own nakedness and mental disarray, and he was afraid of it, as he was of all of this.
“No,” said Aziraphale, and Crowley could feel the heat of his breath, too close. “I want to tend to you. And if I haven’t asked too much of you already, I’d like you to watch me. May I continue?”
Crowley nodded and tried to swallow. He choked on his breath when Aziraphale’s tongue pressed low against him. He hoped he could get through this. His body was aching with nerves, and feverish with want, and every throb of his pulse blurred the line between fear and exhilaration.
Aziraphale’s mouth trailed upward, kissed, and finally took him. An obscene sound escaped Crowley’s throat. Everything was very hot, and wet, and he was trembling everywhere. What should he do with his hands? They were holding on desperately to Aziraphale’s shoulders. Crowley raised his eyes to the ceiling, ashamed, not knowing what to do, or what he would feel next. The angel’s tongue slid over him unpredictably, not giving him time to get used to any one thing. And then there was a hand, firm around the base of him, gripping, and the pressure was almost too much. He closed his eyes and fought for breath. Noises were spilling from him now, helpless and pleading. Another hand pushed lower, further; a slick finger curled, pressing inside him, and he gasped and strained; but he was held steady by the strong hands, and suddenly, every movement stopped.
Crowley thought he would black out at the sudden stillness. He was teetering just below the edge. How could it stop now? Oh—oh no—Aziraphale had asked him to watch. He must be waiting for him. No, he could not do this, how could he stand the shame? To see himself wrecked with lust, and look into the eyes that had saved him, while the angel knelt and served? How could he do it? Crowley struggled, and longed, and trembled, and suffered, while Aziraphale waited, his lips hovering and hot. Was this humility? It was, at least, humiliating. In the end, he had nothing to give his friend but what he had asked for. With all his strength, Crowley lowered his head and opened his eyes.
Aziraphale’s face lit up when he caught his gaze—he had, clearly, been waiting—and he smiled, glowing encouragement, then dipped his head once more. All the movement started again, and Crowley tried to hold on, tried to wait, but the angel’s touch was stroking him everywhere, inside and out, and the terrible thrill of seeing it began to unstring him. He tried to let Aziraphale know, but his friend only hummed in acknowledgement, looked him in the eyes, and curled the finger inside him. He could do nothing but cling on and let the tremors seize him. He cried and shook, but the angel held him through it, and would not let him look away.
Finally it was over. Aziraphale sat back on his heels with a self-satisfied little smile, and primly righted his collar, which Crowley’s hands had tugged askew. Crowley let his head fall back on the sofa, panting and exhausted, and thoroughly embarrassed.
“Will you please come back up here now?” he moaned, flinging his arm over his face to cover his eyes.
“Certainly,” said Aziraphale, entirely unperturbed. Crowley felt him settle on the sofa next to him. Peeking sidelong from under his arm, he saw the angel placidly sipping his scotch. A few seconds later, he felt a comforting hand slip behind him and wrap about his shoulder.
“Are you alright?” Aziraphale asked. Crowley dropped his arm from his face and let himself be drawn close. He laid his head on Aziraphale’s shoulder, boneless and pliant despite his annoyance at the angel’s smug tranquility.
“Fine,” he said sulkily. He could feel, rather than see, Aziraphale’s smile.
“Would you like some water?”
“Perhaps some sal volatile?”
Aziraphale squeezed him close and chuckled merrily. “Well, what would you like to do now?” he asked. “The night, the world, and we two, are very, very young.”
Crowley sat at the breakfast table in the deep grey before dawn, sipping his coffee and staring absently at the kitchen sink. The folder lay open on the table before him. Behind him, he heard Aziraphale’s footsteps shuffling into the kitchen. Warm arms wrapped affectionately around him, and a drowsy kiss was placed on the top of his head.
“I thought I might find you here.” Aziraphale’s voice was thick with sleep.
“Care to witness?” Crowley asked without turning around.
“It’ll be an honor.” Aziraphale yawned. “We’ll be godfathers, you know. Only for the whole world, this time.”
“Then here’s to a better job of it,” Crowley said, raising his coffee.
He set down the cup, and placed his finger at the bottom of the contract. A warm, golden light shone and slowly faded as he signed his celestial name. Aziraphale appended his own signature beneath it. Crowley closed the folder.
“Have a seat,” he said, drawing the angel around from behind him. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
They sat in peace and silence for about ten minutes, watching the sky outside gradually lighten. Presently there came a mild knocking at the front door. Crowley went to answer it, and Aziraphale picked up the folder and followed him. At the door stood a familiar middle-aged man with a kindly face, wearing a uniform of the International Express delivery service.
“Morning, gents,” he said genially. “I was told you’d be wanting a file delivered.”
Aziraphale reached around Crowley and handed the man the signed contract. The man slipped it into an envelope, sealed it, and held it out to Crowley with a pen.
“Sign here, sir,” he said, indicating a dotted line near the top of the envelope. Crowley signed, bemused, and the man took the envelope and tucked the pen back into his shirt pocket.
“Good luck, then,” said the man, nodding at each of them; he turned and strolled back to his truck.
When he had gone, Crowley closed the door and breathed a deep sigh. Aziraphale took his arm, and led him quietly past the kitchen and out into the back garden. They stood facing east, watching as the dawn began to wash pale and pink over the chalk hills in the distance. The air was thick with life, wet with dew, and cool with the promise of the coming autumn. The sounds and smells of the sea crept over them from the south. And as they stood arm in arm, the birdsong fell silent, and a soft voice descended on the garden. Neither of them had heard it for many thousands of years. She said, When you pass through the waters I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned; because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.
Aziraphale beamed at Crowley, eyes radiant and a little misty. Crowley rolled his eyes, but gently smiled back. They exchanged a kiss, breathed Peace from mouth to mouth. The voice departed, and the birds began to trill again. They walked back toward the cottage, Aziraphale enthusiastically proposing breakfast, and Crowley counter-proposing a return to bed, and they closed the door behind them as the sun broke over the eastern horizon.
An amazing little community of readers/friends has sprung up in my life because of this fic. I'm so grateful to you all.
Stay tuned for Chapter 17 (the Epilogue), in which a new order seems to be taking shape.
Chapter 17: Epilogue at a Hotel Bar
“Beyond all ends to all men given / Our race is far and fell, / We shall but wash our feet in heaven, / And warm our hands in hell.” —GKC, A Marriage Song
At eleven-thirty on a Friday evening, Gabriel stood in the opulent (and uncharacteristically empty) lounge adjoining the London Marriott in Grosvenor’s Square. An elegant martini and a highball of tonic water were placed on the black marble bar in front of him. He took them and went to sit and wait on a dark leather sofa set back in a small enclave.
Beelzebub strode in at 11:34, conspicuous against the pristine white walls and upholstery. Gabriel raised a hand in greeting, and she wound her way over and joined him on the sofa.
“Evening, Beezle,” Gabriel said pleasantly. “Tough week?”
Beelzebub only grunted in acknowledgement, and reached for the tonic water.
“How’s morale?” he asked sympathetically, as if he knew what to expect.
She flashed him a look of annoyance. “Terrible,” she said, “and not in the way you’d hope down there. The business with Crowley and your man has made the rounds by now. There’s real mutiny in the grapevine.” She sighed wearily and sipped her drink.
“He’s not our man anymore!” Gabriel reminded her cheerfully. “Not for some time.” His face fell a little. “But I’ll admit,” he conceded, “I’ve been hearing similar whispers.”
“The Lord Below was not happy when Crowley’s thread was cut,” said Beelzebub with a slightly haunted look. “Pit of a week, and who gets flayed for it? Maintenance of course. Highest on the inverted ladder. You should see the state of the place.”
“It’s always the little guy who gets it,” said Gabriel knowingly. “By the way, did you know that the two of them are…” He made several awkward but descriptive gestures with his hands.
Beelzebub stared at him in astonishment. “Yes,” she said as though talking to an idiot. “It was all over him at the trial. D’you mean you didn’t?”
“We do not pry into such base matters in Heaven,” Gabriel intoned sanctimoniously. “But your man was at the meeting when I dropped off the paperwork. You should have seen the condition he was in.” Gabriel shot her a meaningful look and pointed at his own neck, below the ear and just above the collar.
“Not our man now,” Beelzebub said with a grimace. “I heard your boss offered him a job.”
“And I’ve heard grumbles about that, let me tell you!” Gabriel huffed. “Of all kinds! One minute it’s ‘send him back Downstairs, what does unforgivable even mean anymore’, and the next it’s ‘what if a war isn’t even necessary’! How are you supposed to compose a party line for that kind of thing?” He threw up his hands in exasperation.
“Better than my lot,” she countered peevishly. “Half of them think it’s weak leadership—they’re circling management positions like vultures—and the other half think if they bonk an angel it’s an eternity of paid vacation groundside.”
“To the everlasting woes of administration,” Gabriel said bracingly. He lifted his martini in salute, happy to have an opportunity to show it off.
“Ugh,” said Beelzebub, and clinked his glass with her own. He moved to put down the martini, but she stopped him with a light catch of fingers at his wrist. “You have to drink,” she said lazily, without looking at him.
“Oh,” he began condescendingly, “I don’t—”
“You can’t propose a toast and not drink,” she drawled impatiently. “Even drudes have better manners than that.”
Not one to be caught out on matters of decorum, Gabriel considered his options. Deciding that what his subordinates didn’t know couldn’t hurt him as much as compromising his reputation with the Enemy, he gingerly raised the martini to his lips, and took a sip.
“That’s disgusting,” he said genially, making a face, and took another sip.
“I’ll be very surprised,” Beelzebub complained, “if we get out of this one without some long-term structural changes. First a botched Apocalypse and now this!”
“Well, it might not be all bad,” said Gabriel encouragingly. A strange mood was starting to take him. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all. He sipped his martini again. “Gotta trust in the Divine Plan, right?”
“Hmph,” she said disconsolately. “Show me where this one is written.”
He gave her a sidelong glance, then yawned theatrically, stretching his arms over his head. “You never know,” he mused, casually draping his left arm over the sofa behind her shoulders. “Maybe there’s more than one way to settle a dispute.” He glanced at her again, and proceeded cautiously. “Maybe one day it’ll be someone else’s turn.”
“Hmph,” Beelzebub said again, but she took another sip of her tonic water, leaning ever so slightly toward him.
I have been on the verge of tears all day because this fic is ending. I'm so grateful to you all. I am also fairly certain that, after the experience of writing for this community, Land of the Living will not be the last you'll see of me. I hope it's not the last I see of you all either!
With love and thanks,
P.S. I've had a suggestion for further Ineffable Bureaucracy scenes from this fic, so I thought I'd include a note: if there are other scenes/oneshots that you'd like to see (missing scenes, alternate POV, etc.), let me know in the comments! I can't promise to meet all requests, but I'd love to get ideas.