Angel: if there were a place we know nothing of, and there,
on some unsayable carpet, lovers revealed
what here they could never master, their high daring
figures of heart’s flight,
their towers of desire, their ladders,
long since standing where there was no ground, leaning,
trembling, on each other – and mastered them,
in front of the circle of watchers, the countless, soundless dead:
Would these not fling their last, ever-saved,
ever-hidden, unknown to us, eternal
coins of happiness in front of the finally
smiling pair on the silent
Humans, at their fundamental level, are made from stars.
It’s not really as exciting as it sounds. Any scientist worth their salt could tell you how it all works. The universe (they’d explain, probably while gesturing excitedly with a laser pointer) was born from a singularity: a dot, in layman’s terms, smaller than an atom and swollen with possibility. When the singularity exploded, everything became. And when I say “everything”, I mean everything.
Time. Space. Carbon. Nitrogen. Oxygen. Ducks. Sushi. Snuffboxes. Books. Dust. Dusty books. And once made, all of it got recycled over and over again, ad infinitum. Consider: right now, you are breathing atoms which were once breathed by Einstein, and Mozart, and Picasso, and Elvis Presley. Which means that part of you once sang Jailhouse Rock, and possibly went on to work in a local burger joint, if you believe what it says in the National World Weekly. But try not to get too hung up on that. After all, it is only a very, very small part.
Angels are also made from stars. Not in quite the same way as humans are, though. Try thinking in terms of waves and particles. The particles – all that messy physical nonsense, all those elements that make up blood and bones and gristle – became people. The waves – by which I mean light, and more specifically starlight – became angels. An angel, at its fundamental level, is light. A demon, at its fundamental level, is the absence of light.
With me so far?
It’s tempting to think of angels as members of a group, much as humans belong to the genus homo sapiens, or sparrows to the Passeridae family. This is incorrect. No two angels are alike. Each one is individually shaped, like blown glass; they are creatures essentially and entirely their own.
Demons are shaped, too. Or perhaps shaped is the wrong word for what is done to them. A better one might be transformed, or transmuted.
“You never talk about it,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley, drowsing on the sofa with an open book covering his eyes, didn’t answer for a moment. Then he took the book off his face and said, “Talk about what?”
But he knew. It was in his voice, clear as anything.
Aziraphale hesitated, trying to figure out if there was a way of saying it without actually saying it. There wasn’t. “The Fall,” he said at length. “And… before.”
Silence wove itself between them like a web.
“You don’t have to,” Aziraphale added quickly. “I was just…” Curious was the wrong word. It made him sound morbid, gawking at Crowley’s origins like he was some kind of fairground attraction. “I know everything else about you,” was what he settled on, anxiously twisting his fingers together. “Or almost everything. But not this.”
“Yeah,” said Crowley.
And then he didn’t say anything else.
Aziraphale looked over at him. He hadn’t moved, still lying on his back with his feet pressed up against the arm of the sofa. To anybody else he’d look perfectly relaxed. Aziraphale, who wasn’t anybody else, saw the too-rapid rise and fall of his chest, and the way his left hand was picking at a loose thread on the sofa. His eyes were fixed, unblinking, on a crack in the ceiling.
“Oh,” Aziraphale said, more breath than word. “I’ve upset you.”
“Nah. You haven’t. Just don’t really feel like talking about it, ‘s all.”
Aziraphale nodded slowly, feeling at a loss. “Well. As I’ve said, dear boy, you’ve no obligation to tell me; I’m sure it’s none of my business. But if you ever change your mind…”
“I’ll let you know,” Crowley said. And replaced the book.
It might interest you to know that you could see angels everywhere, if the cones and rods in your eyes were just a tad more advanced. Angels work within different electromagnetic energy frequencies, whilst demons prefer to inhabit the spaces between those frequencies.
Simply put: there’s a whole lot more light than you think there is. What you see around you is visible light, which makes up only a tiny fraction of all the light that actually exists in the known universe. If we could see microwaves, for example, the sky above us would not look black. Instead it would blaze with white heat, the lingering remnants of the explosion that gave birth to the world. If we could see every possible kind of wave, from radio waves to gamma rays, then…
Well. It would be an interesting sort of world, wouldn’t it?
You may also be wondering how it is that beings made from light and shadow can inhabit the physical world so easily. How they can eat, sleep, touch things, drink good wine. The answer is that they don’t. Their bodies – commissioned and manufactured to precise specifications – do all that for them. You can do amazing things with skin textures these days.
Aziraphale, as Earth’s primary field agent, had a body specifically designed to blend in with humans. Angels who visited Earth only occasionally took a while to get the hang of the whole business. (Aziraphale was never quite sure whether Gabriel consciously designed his corporeal form as a mirror of his ethereal one or whether it was simply an oversight, but policies tightened after he sent six women into hysterical screaming fits by appearing as a blazing interdimensional wheel covered in lidless eyes, asking – in a voice that made their eardrums bleed – if they could tell him the quickest way to Galilee.) These days, there’s training. If angels want to walk among humans, they have to learn everything from scratch: how to walk, how to breathe and smile without too many teeth showing, how to talk without speaking in tongues. How to play the role and say the lines.
The imitation is never perfect, of course. There are always cracks. But for the most part angels can walk among us looking like anyone else, and the signs are easy to miss if you aren’t looking for them.
As I’ve mentioned, each angel is its own type of creature. They are designed, optimised, to fulfil their individual duties as efficiently as possible. The fact that Aziraphale felt different was not a problem. The problem was that he hadn’t always felt that way, and now that he had started, he didn’t know quite how to stop.
He was still an angel. Still loyal to Heaven, still eager to help people however and whenever he could. But since the Apocalypse-that-wasn’t, things had changed. There was a flaw running through him. He felt like a puzzle with a piece missing from it – or not missing, exactly, but wrong, forced in sideways and upside down, a piece of sky where there should have been a tree or a church.
The missing piece had a name. It was called ‘doubt’, but he didn’t like to say the word, even in the privacy of his own head.
Aziraphale knew what happened to flawed angels. Had seen it with his own eyes. And he knew, too, that he was far closer to the precipice than most; it was only by sheer luck that he’d managed to pass himself off as normal. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d looked at Crowley and realised, with a combination of wonder and fear, how thin the line was that separated them. How easily it could have been him.
“Just enough of a bastard to be worth liking,” as Crowley had put it. He always had seen more clearly than Aziraphale gave him credit for.
After the whole flaming sword debacle (and he hadn’t thought about the consequences of that, not really; he’d known, on an objective level, that it went against his orders, but the tug in his chest that had said They need help, so help them! had been too strong to ignore), he’d grown more careful than ever. Overcompensated. Actions, he decided, mattered. If you did the right thing, then what you thought didn’t matter, right? Right?
The first time he kissed Crowley, Crowley had kissed back for a full ten seconds before tensing up, and Aziraphale had felt the alcohol leave his friend’s bloodstream all at once as he wrenched away. “Stop,” he’d said. Voice tight, thrumming with tension. “Angel. You know as well as I do that this can’t happen.”
“Why not?” Aziraphale said. He was still drunk. The chocolate liquor they’d been drinking lingered on his tongue, and he’d tasted it in Crowley’s mouth, too: dark and sweet, tempting in the realest sense of the word.
“You know why.” He turned away, hand going unconsciously to his face, like he could wipe away the memory of Aziraphale’s lips on his. “You’ll Fall.”
“So?” said Aziraphale.
He didn’t mean it. Not really. He just wanted to see what Crowley would do. And what he did, as it turned out, was whirl on him and snarl into his face, “Don’t you dare.” There was something vicious in his voice. Aziraphale had never heard him sound like that before, and for an instant he felt a jolt of genuine fear. “Are you out of your bloody mind? You can’t just – ”
“Why not?” Aziraphale demanded again, slurring the words. He should sober up. He knew he should sober up, knew he was making a terrible mistake, but his mouth just kept on talking without his consent. Because. Because the thing was. It was so unfair, was the thing. Why couldn’t he just have this? Why did he have to feel guilty all the time? Why did he always have to choose between two different kinds of love, and why did the choice get harder every time he made it? Why did it matter so much to everyone? “I don’t care,” he said, with a sort of hopeless defiance. “I don’t. They don’t like me Up There, anyway, I don’t think they ever have, so perhaps it might be better for everyone if I stopped trying and just – ”
“Aziraphale,” said Crowley.
Not knowing why, Aziraphale went quiet. Something about the way Crowley had said his name felt very final, like the full stop at the end of a sentence. The hairs stood up on his arms.
“What?” he said, rather feebly.
Crowley seemed to be preparing himself for something. His jaw worked. Then he said, in a voice that was carefully toneless, “Look, angel. I like you. You’re all right, on the whole. But if you ever say anything like that to me again, this relationship – partnership – thing – it stops. Done. Finished. Capisce?”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Crowley said. He stood up and began to pace. “I can’t even believe – You, in Hell? You? They’d eat you alive. Figuratively and literally.”
“You’re… worried about me,” Aziraphale said, realising. He raked his eyes over Crowley, re-evaluating. Perhaps he had been insensitive, after all.
Crowley put his hands into his hair and tugged at it, like he was trying to pull it out at the roots. “Not everything,” he said through gritted teeth, “is about you.”
The words were scalding. Aziraphale rallied himself, and challenged, “Then why, if I might ask, are you behaving like this?”
Crowley breathed in sharply. “Let me ask you one question. If you Fell, and it was because of me, how exactly do you think that would make me feel?”
Aziraphale was silent. Something squirmed uncomfortably in his belly.
“You think I’d feel good about that?” Crowley said. “Seeing that, seeing you like that, and knowing it was my fault…”
“It wouldn’t be your fault,” Aziraphale argued, but even to him, even in his drunken state, it sounded weak. “It would be my choice.”
“Not all of us,” Crowley hissed, “had a choice.”
It was the closest he’d ever come to talking about why he’d Fallen, and they both knew it. Aziraphale saw him physically bite back the rest. The walls went up; the doors locked. No one was getting in or out. “Seeing it,” Crowley got out, half-choking on the words, “and having to live with – the shame, the fucking guilt of that – Just so I know, Aziraphale, do you ever think about anyone other than yourself? Ever consider that maybe, maybe you aren’t the centre of the fucking universe?”
Aziraphale could feel stupid tears pricking at his eyes. He blinked rapidly, trying to figure out what to say to stop the tirade, but Crowley was on a roll now. “You have no idea – no idea – what it’s like,” he snarled. “You think it’s some kind of slick low-budget version of Upstairs where everyone just lounges around and does whatever the fuck they want? It’s Hell. I’ve lived there for six thousand years and even I don’t like going back there. And you think it’d be a nice little change, not having to be ordered around, getting to eat an extra helping of pudding without feeling bad about it – ”
“You’re not being fair.” He was going to cry. He could feel it coming, like a storm cloud.
“Neither are you,” Crowley said.
But the anger had died a little from his voice. He eyed Aziraphale from behind his glasses, taking in the way his face was twisting in an attempt to keep back the tears, and Aziraphale saw him soften. “Oh, for – come on,” he said. “None of that. I’m sorry, all right?”
“I didn’t mean it seriously, you know,” Aziraphale said wretchedly, avoiding his gaze. “I was only speculating.”
“That makes it worse.”
“I think,” said Aziraphale, “that I ought to sober up.”
“Probably a good idea, yeah.”
Aziraphale concentrated. The liquor vanished from his bloodstream, leaving him cold and abruptly, horribly lucid. He replayed the conversation in his head and felt dull horror creeping up on him. “Er – I ought to be on my way,” he said. “It’s getting rather late.” It was just past six o’clock, but he was too frazzled to think of a better excuse. “Thank you for the liquor,” he added.
“You’re welcome,” Crowley said. “Should probably make a move myself.” He didn’t even bother to invent a reason.
They got their coats on in silence, keeping their backs to one another. Aziraphale felt sick. He did up the buttons on his waistcoat, ignoring the way his hands shook as he did so. “Well,” he said. “I’ll be seeing you soon, I expect.”
“Mind how you go,” said Aziraphale.
“Mm. You too.”
It would be ten months before they saw one another again. When they did, their paths crossing outside a protest march in Trafalgar Square, the conversation was much the same as ever. Perhaps a little more strained than usual. They exchanged pleasantries and caught up on recent events, skimming carefully over what had (and hadn’t) been said, as if they were standing on a layer of brittle new ice.
It’s said that angels burn when they Fall. This is not quite true.
It might have looked like burning, certainly. But what it really was was light – light streaming off the bodies of the Fallen, leaving behind nothing but a negative imprint, a black hole in the fabric of the world. A nothing so potent that it became something. It hurts, losing all that light at once. What hurts more is becoming something else, every cell (not that angels have cells) and particle (not that angels have particles) ripped apart and put back together in new ways. Not quite a birth, and not quite a death. Something in between.
As the shadows fell, they coagulated and made themselves into peculiar shapes: horns, scales, spines, teeth, claws, things that wriggled and things that writhed. It happened all at once, like evolution put on fast-forward. Beryllium skin rusted. Blue eyes turned black as squid ink, or white as bone. Gold, in some cases. There was no real rhyme or reason to it.
Strange, you might say. Frightening. But true angelic forms – to human eyes, at least – are also strange, also frightening. The only real difference is the type of fear that they inspire. You might think that there’s no difference between fear of the unknown and fear of the unknowable, but that is also incorrect. They are not the same at all.
It was coming on for half-three, and the world was soft around the edges, rosy with Sunday-afternoon-ness. If it had been up to him, Aziraphale would have been up and about at least four hours ago. However, the fact that Crowley was currently wrapped around him in a distinctly snake-like way and showed no immediate signs of wanting to move rather took the choice out of his hands.
He supposed this was probably an example of Sloth. Or Lust. Or both. He’d stopped counting at this point. Nobody else was – Heaven had all but stopped checking in on him after the failed execution – and besides, if one was to rank the Seven Deadly Sins in terms of seriousness, he’d always thought of those two as being fairly far down on the list.
Crowley’s head was burrowed into the side of his neck, one leg thrown over his hip, one hand curled against Aziraphale’s ribcage. His breathing was slow and measured. Aziraphale stroked his hair abstractedly, fingers scratching against his scalp, and frowned up at the ceiling. He was thinking. He had been thinking for quite some time, and during that time various ideas had begun to occur to him, none of which he felt remotely comfortable saying out loud. Even if Crowley agreed – which he almost certainly wouldn’t – it might not even work. It was completely unprecedented, as far as he knew. It could be dangerous. (It probably wasn’t.) It could be something forbidden, a crime in the eyes of their respective authorities. (It almost certainly was.) The list of cons was lengthy and alarming.
Presently Crowley stirred, waking. Aziraphale felt eyelashes flutter against the skin of his neck, and a bare foot flex against his hip. Then a voice, muzzy: “What are you thinking about, angel?”
Aziraphale carried on stroking his hair. “How do you know I’m thinking about anything?” he said, lightly.
Crowley said around a yawn, “You think very loudly.” He rolled off Aziraphale, albeit rather reluctantly, and on to his back. Aziraphale glanced over, taking in the sleep-mussed hair, the slits of gold showing under his half-closed lids. And his collarbones were showing, narrow and slanted; he wanted to bite them.
Instead, he deflected. “Me? Oh, nothing terribly important. No. I was just wondering.”
“Wondering about what?”
Aziraphale considered. He was probably digging himself a hole here, but feeling rebellious, he asked anyway: “Do you like it? This, I mean – what we do.”
Surprised: “What? Yeah, ‘course. Why? Do you… not like it?”
“Naturally I do, darling, otherwise I would have said something by now.”
Crowley turned over, chin resting on his folded arms. “Then why ask?”
Aziraphale shrugged, unsure how to put it into words, or whether he even should. What would be the point? “No particular reason. As I said, I was only wondering.”
“Since you ask,” Crowley said. “It’s not – ” He chewed his lip for a moment, trying to formulate his thoughts. “It’s as good as anything ever is,” he said eventually. “Better than most things, actually. Definitely in the top three as far as human experiences go, right up there with sleep and sunbathing. But… well, you know what I’m saying, don’t you?”
The thing about being an immaterial spirit piloting a very material body was that there was always something of a disconnect, like going through life wrapped in a layer of cling-film. Nothing was ever completely pure. It was all filtered through this funny suit of armour, armour made from skin rather than metal, so that even supposedly transcendent human experiences – good sex, drinking a glass of ice-water in summer, cracking the surface of a crème brûlée – were always just a little bit off.
“You mean,” he said, “it’s as good as we can reasonably expect it to be, considering… what we are.”
Crowley shifted uncomfortably. “Well, when you say it like that it sounds bad.”
“Not at all. I understand completely.”
“It’s still good. Just, y’know…”
Aziraphale focused. If he tuned out all the trappings of the physical world – if he adjusted the frequency range of his eyes a little – he could see Crowley next to him. Not the body that he was in, but actually Crowley. Some of him, anyway. His aura was wide and expansive, the reddish-black of aeoniums; it spilled over the edges of the bed and drifted languidly against the walls, its edges flickering, clear visual evidence of his relaxed state. When he looked down at himself, he could see his own, too. Pale, quicksilver. The places where it overlapped with Crowley’s were a kind of silky dove-grey shade, playing across the ceiling like the reflected ripples of a swimming pool.
If their auras could touch like that – if even a small part of their true forms could mingle with no adverse effects – then maybe…
But no, no. It wasn’t remotely the same thing. And besides, it was beyond unlikely that Crowley would like the idea even if he did get up the courage to suggest it.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t ask, though.
“Can I…” he said, and paused. Crowley watched him, unblinking. “Can I see,” he said, and cleared his throat; dear Someone, if he didn’t manage to spit it out soon then he never would. “CanIseeyou?” he finally said, all in one go, and so fast that he worried Crowley might not have heard him and he’d have to go through the whole rigmarole again.
Luckily, Crowley had grown adept enough at interpreting Aziraphale’s drunk-speech that this didn’t pose a problem. “See me?” he repeated. “What are you on about, you idiot, you’re seeing me right now. Look. Here I am. In the flesh.”
“That,” said Aziraphale, “is precisely it. In the flesh. I’m seeing your body, your corporeal form. I’m not actually seeing you.”
Crowley kept on looking at him.
“So… I suppose what I was asking was, was actually more along the lines of – ”
“Yeah, no, I got it.”
They lay in slightly embarrassed silence for a few minutes. Or at least, Aziraphale felt slightly embarrassed. Crowley looked more pensive than anything else. He still had his chin propped up on his forearms, and was frowning at the wallpaper like he was trying to memorise its pattern.
“Really,” Aziraphale said, after he thought enough time had elapsed, trying not to sound desperate, “you’ve absolutely no obligation to show me if you’d rather not, in fact I wouldn’t want to see if you’re not comfortable with – that is, I’ll understand completely, it is rather a strange request, after all – ”
“Shut it,” said Crowley, “I’m concentrating.”
Obligingly, Aziraphale shut it.
“Right,” said Crowley. “Okay.” He frowned intensely for a moment more, the edges of his aura flickering.
Then he – unfurled.
That was really the only word for it. The angular body that lay on the bed seemed to unfold itself like a fan, dark wings spreading and liquid eyes blinking open. The room was too small to contain all of it, but that didn’t matter; non-corporeal bodies treated physical boundaries, like walls and ceilings, as recommendations rather than requirements. There, said a voice, somehow still recognisably Crowley’s, although it didn’t emanate from anything resembling a human throat. Satisfied?
“More than,” said Aziraphale.
He gazed, enthralled. Crowley’s true form was still long and lithe, his eyes still golden and slit-pupilled. The snakish body he’d worn in Eden, and which he still sometimes slipped into when the mood took him, was really just a more compact version of his demonic shape. A simplified imitation. This form was bigger, naturally; it was dark, and shimmering, and it moved like smoke. As Aziraphale watched, it seemed to shrink slightly, as if curling in on itself. He could read anxiety in the way its pupils dilated and its fragile edges quivered. Getting a good eyeful in, are we? Crowley said. Take a picture. It’ll last longer.
“I’m just admiring you,” Aziraphale said, rather wounded.
Yeah. Well. Crowley sounded distinctly uncomfortable. I’m not much for being stared at.
“Would it make you feel better,” Aziraphale said, “if I changed, too?”
A pause, then: You don’t have to.
That, Aziraphale thought, said all that it needed to.
“I know,” he said.
He closed his eyes, and let himself slip free.
When he opened them again the room was visible from several angles at once, and with colours that are normally only seen by birds, spiders, and certain species of shrimp. It was like looking down six kaleidoscopes at once. Dizzy with it, he shut his eyes again. Tried to get his bearings.
All right, there? Crowley said. This time Aziraphale didn’t hear it from outside, but from within his own head. They were communicating directly now, without any interfaces. It felt wonderful. A little frightening, too. But mostly, he decided, just wonderful.
Oh, yes. Fine. Thank you, he replied. It’s just been a while. For both of us, I’d say.
Crowley’s gaze was on him, taking it all in, like someone who was starving and had just been offered bread. Wow, he said, sounding awed.
Is that a compliment?
It’s nothing, really. Just… well, you’re just very… bright. Crowley sort of winced. Don’t suppose there’s any chance you could turn that down a notch?
Aziraphale tried, but without success. Apologies, my dear. It seems I don’t come equipped with a dimmer switch.
Hm. Never mind, in that case. I’ll probably get used to it.
Would you like me to change back?
No! Crowley sounded almost panicked. I mean, that’s not – It’s fine. Honestly.
All right, then. Aziraphale sent a wave of wordless affection towards him, and felt the resulting shudder – the same movement, at least in spirit, that Crowley made in his human form whenever Aziraphale kissed his throat or rubbed a warm hand down his spine.
Which reminded him of something. They’d already taken this first step. Could it really hurt to ask how much further Crowley would be willing to go? Now that they were both on the same page, so to speak, Aziraphale felt his confidence returning. I’m going to ask you something, he sent, and please don’t say yes if you’re in any way reluctant. It was going through my mind this morning, but it’s really just an idea.
Ha! I knew you were thinking about something weird.
Yes, you’re very clever. Listen. Aziraphale hesitated, one foot over the cliff-edge. How would you feel if… if I touched you? Like this?
There was silence, at least within the ethereal plane that they were both currently in. The physical world had gone somewhere very far away. Aziraphale felt like he was looking at it from underwater, gazing up at the bright wobbling skin of the surface. Distantly, he heard the muffled sound of a car alarm, and the thump of music from the shop across the street. He ignored all of it. Concentrated on Crowley, and nothing but.
Not sure, Crowley said finally. It might hurt.
It might, yes.
Might also kill me.
There’s an equal chance that it would kill me, Aziraphale answered. And besides, I don’t think that’s terribly likely, do you? After all, our auras can touch, and our wings, and what are those if not an extension of our bodies? The danger is, I believe, quite minimal.
As I said, you’ve no obligation to agree. But if you are amenable to the idea –
Speak now or forever hold my peace? Crowley sounded amused, which was a step up from tense and unsure. Aziraphale sent him another flicker of encouragement, one that he hoped communicated all his feelings as clearly as possible.
Crowley said nothing for a while. His golden eyes shimmered. Aziraphale waited, his heart (metaphorically speaking) in his mouth (ditto). He’d spoken the truth when he said that Crowley was under no obligation to agree. But the mere idea that he might sent a thrill through him that he was having an undue amount of trouble hiding.
Finally, Crowley blinked. He sent something back.
It was not a feeling that could be easily described. There was nervousness in it, and a hint of shame; a prickle of excited curiosity at the question of what, exactly, it would be like; concern, in case Aziraphale was hurt by doing this. And underneath all of that was love, simple love – steady and constant, so bright that it hurt to look at, forming itself into a mercury-coloured spill of yes yes yes yes yes.
Aziraphale took it deep into himself like a breath. He held it there, feeling it expand, warming him from the inside out.
Then he reached out.
Physicists have concluded that it is not possible for light and dark to coexist, for the simple reason that darkness is defined as the absence of something, rather than a thing in its own right.
This theory, broadly speaking, is correct.
That does not mean they cannot interact.
Oh, Aziraphale said. That’s…
Crowley laughed, a little unsteadily.
Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s one word for it.
It was as though every harmonic in existence had been plucked at the same time, sending out waves that – had they been visible to the human eye – would have looked rather like television static. A woman walking her schnauzer outside wondered aloud why it had suddenly hunkered down and begun whimpering, tail firmly between its legs. Two lovers brushed hands and gasped at the electric shock that jumped between their fingers. A middle-aged man engaged in a heated phone call with his sister found that he had suddenly been cut off, without any explanation as to why; when he took the phone from his ear, he was startled at how hot it was, as if he’d left it out in the sun for an hour.
None of this bothered Crowley and Aziraphale. They were somewhere else entirely.
May I? Aziraphale asked. They were already touching all along one side, and the places where their edges overlapped hummed with power. All the same, he phrased it quietly, politely, not wanting to frighten Crowley into retreating.
Go on, then, said Crowley. His voice shook, but there was a steely edge to it, a determination that went right down to the core. Do your worst.
Oh, I intend to, Aziraphale said.
He pressed closer still – and everything fell away.
Opposites attract. It’s practically required for them to do so. After all, space seems far more expansive when there’s something inside it, and darkness – real darkness, profound darkness – simply provides a reason for light to shine. The universe exists in the gap between extremes.
In the end, it’s all about equilibrium.
Hours had passed. How many, exactly, was hard to say. Time had become a bit of an afterthought for both Crowley and Aziraphale, who were currently locked in a state that was difficult to describe in technical terms, not least because it had never actually happened before.
For simplicity’s sake: imagine ink in water. Allow two or three drops to fall into a glass, and watch the way they flower outwards, spreading in a black cloud until the water is grey all the way through. Once combined, everything that is done to the water is done to the ink as well. They are no longer separate. They have become, functionally, a single entity.
How does that feel? said Aziraphale, or perhaps Crowley.
Indescribable, replied Crowley, or it might equally have been Aziraphale.
The air smelt of ozone. Outside, the first drops of rain fell, spattering heavily against the pavement. A woman on her way to a literary festival put up her umbrella, and wondered at how quickly a sunny day could turn dark.
They had created – more or less – a virtuous circle. Every movement that Aziraphale made was echoed by Crowley and everything that Crowley felt was reflected back to Aziraphale, an endless feedback loop of pleasure that built and built until the whole room thrummed with it. Do let me know if it gets too much, said (probably) Aziraphale.
It’s already too much, replied (almost certainly) Crowley.
Oh. Should I stop?
Don’t you dare.
Crowley twisted, wings stretching, and the two of them gasped in unison, sending out energies that made the lights flicker and the windows rattle. The sky was black. Whether or not this was a result of their activities or simply a well-timed natural phenomenon was unclear, but either way a storm was clearly on the way.
Good gracious. I think we might have made it rain.
A quiet, choked sound; then, rather breathlessly, Good. It’s been dry as anything lately. Bit of water’ll be good for the plants.
I cannot believe you are thinking about your plants at a time like this.
What else is there to think about?
They both laughed, half-delirious, and a brilliant flash of lightning transformed the room into a photo negative. Thunder sounded out at its heels. Aziraphale held Crowley as close as he could and felt, underneath the pleasure, something dark and small, like a peach pit. He frowned.
One moment, he said to Crowley. And with the part of him that was still capable of independent action, he sought out that little kernel, reaching for it.
His immaterial fingers had barely touched it when he felt it shrink and draw back. Crowley drew back, too – not separating them, but forcing a gap, so that their thoughts ran parallel again rather than intersecting. Hey, Crowley said sharply. Watch it.
I’m sorry, Aziraphale said.
No, no, it’s fine, just… Warn a guy first, yeah?
Aziraphale sent him a wave of reassurance, and felt him uncurl a little, tenseness relaxing.
Consider this a warning, then, he said. Or… a request, rather. May I?
After a pause that seemed to go on forever, Crowley sent back, You won’t like it.
Doubtful. I like all of you. I hardly think this will be an exception, whatever it is.
Crowley preened. But the uncertainty was still there. His wingtips fluttered, quivering in a non-existent breeze.
It’s all right, Aziraphale said. Really, it is.
Another long silence.
All right, Crowley said eventually, and Aziraphale lit up. The light radiated through both of them and split off into jewel-bright colours, like sun-rays refracted through a prism. All right, yes, fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though. It’s not pretty.
Perhaps not, Aziraphale said. But it’s you.
He reached out again.
This time, Crowley allowed it.
That small kernel of dissatisfaction opened like a flower at his touch, and inside –
Aziraphale paused, trying not to let his feelings show. So this was it. A Pandora’s box. A container for everything secret, everything ugly and twisted and embarrassing. Aziraphale explored it with infinite care, examining what was inside with light, impersonal hands.
Ah. Here was anger – a nonspecific sort of anger, directed at anything and everything, but most of all at Heaven, at Hell, at God, at himself. Here, jealousy – partly at Aziraphale for managing to retain Her favour when he had lost it so completely, for being kind and soft, for having no sharp edges or hidden tumours. Aziraphale was careful not to respond to that, either. He probed further. Here, self-disgust; then guilt, a close cousin; and beneath that a potent mix of loneliness and bitterness and spite, spiny as a sea urchin.
There. Told you, Crowley said flatly, feeling his silence. You shouldn’t’ve looked.
Hold still, Aziraphale said.
He traced his fingers over the thorny mess of it all, soothing it, and felt the resulting shiver in every part of himself. Please tell me what you’re thinking, Crowley said. He sounded defeated, hopeless. I can’t – please, just –
His voice cut out as Aziraphale stroked him gently. He let the touch convey everything that he was feeling: compassion, understanding, love, enough that Crowley went utterly limp under it. That was a very brave thing for you to do, Aziraphale said. It can’t have been easy. I’m so proud of you, my darling.
Crowley’s only response was a quiet, broken little sound. He pushed into the touch, wanting more.
It seems, Aziraphale said thoughtfully, that I ought to return the favour.
He guided Crowley’s hand, directing it towards his core. And let him see.
All of it. Doubt. Cowardice. Lack of faith. Dishonesty. Anger. Pettiness. Self-absorption. Insecurity. All of those feelings that he’d taken such pains to conceal, pushing them viciously down whenever they dared to surface. Now he understood why Crowley had been so reluctant. It was terrifying, this; perhaps the most terrifying thing he’d ever done. He laid himself bare, and waited – naked, raw – for the response.
Crowley received it all, and what Aziraphale felt in response was a shockwave of overwhelming relief; you? it seemed to say, with a kind of astonished wonder. You feel this way, too? It wasn’t simply the relief that came with confession. It was the relief of somebody who had thought they were completely alone, had thought so for time immemorial, and had just found out that someone else was in it with them. That they were not simply tolerated, but understood. The wave crashed over them both, flooding their senses until all they could do was cling to one another, waiting for it to pass.
Love you, Crowley was gasping, the words spilling out almost uncontrollably, love you, love you, love you, love you –
Aziraphale held him as tightly as he was able, and felt this… whatever it was… building instead of easing, heading at speed towards a wholly unfamiliar resolution. Mingled terror and excitement swept over him. It’s all right, he sent, it’s all right, just hold on. I love you, too. It’s going to be fine. The strange feeling was intensifying. It felt like the moment before the clock chimes midnight on New Year’s Eve. Sounded like the murmur of crowds below, waiting for the first firework to go off. And yet at the same time it was utterly instinctual, like hearing an old song playing on a radio, and realising that you still knew all the words. Just hold on to me, that’s right, don’t let go…
The boundary between the two blurred further. Hands found each other and gripped tight. They were rushing upwards now, towards the surface.
Do you feel that
I think it’s happening
The drop yawned below them.
Sacred, thought one of them, and afterwards they were never quite clear on who it had been.
They fell, both convulsing at the exact same time – and every light in the street went dark.
A power cut, the council said later, but that was no explanation for the way the wires in the surrounding houses had been fried so completely that they were still spitting sparks for hours afterwards. Streetlamps exploded. Everyone at the literary festival down the street cried out as the lamp over their table blew its bulb, glass flying, miraculously harming nobody. In the house opposite, an elderly woman dancing a shaky, giggly waltz with her husband stumbled to a confused halt as the radio crackled, popped and went dead.
Through it all, the rain continued to pound against windows, pavements, the roofs of houses. It was properly dark, now – the dark of night-time, rather than storm-clouds. The digital clock read 00:00. It, too, had been knocked out by the power surge, and it would be several weeks before anyone remembered to reset it.
At the epicentre of said surge, two figures lay still and quiet. After a few minutes, one of them stirred. Its chest rose once, a gasping breath – then fell again. The other flexed its left hand cautiously.
They were returning to themselves slowly, and with great trepidation. Their separation did not hurt – not in the physical sense, at least. But there was a sense of loss, an ache that only eased when Crowley (now once again human-shaped) crawled weakly over to Aziraphale and collapsed half on top of him.
“Ow,” said Aziraphale, more to make a point than anything else.
Crowley said, “Shut up. I’m having an afterglow.” He sounded exhausted.
Aziraphale glanced out of the window, and spotted the unlit houses opposite. “Oh, dear,” he said, fretting. “I do hope that we haven’t inconvenienced too many people.”
“Nah. ‘S just a power cut. They’ll get over it.”
“You think so?” Aziraphale said. He shifted, trying to get a better look, and yelped – for real this time – as something sharp dug into his midsection. “Ah. Ow. Why are you made of elbows?”
“Can’t help it.”
“Bits of you are digging into me. Can you move?”
“Nn. Too tired.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Aziraphale said. He took him by the shoulders and shifted him into a more compromising position. Crowley, heavy and unresponsive, didn’t protest. By the end of it he was lying curled up on his side, and Aziraphale was pressed up behind him with an arm over his ribs. The rain didn’t sound like it was letting up any time soon.
“That was good,” he said to Crowley, voice slightly blurred. Sleep was creeping up little by little, making his limbs feel warm and heavy. “Wasn’t it?”
Crowley didn’t answer. He just sighed, long and tired and content, and Aziraphale felt a cool hand curl around his wrist, thumb resting loosely against his pulse.
Somewhere there’s a church – doesn’t matter where, or which one. We’re talking hypotheticals. But just to help you picture it, I’ll set the scene. There are paintings. There are usually paintings. Paintings of wings and paintings of saints, with their white robes and their long clever hands. A wooden carving of Jesus suffering on the cross. My lord, my lord, why have you forsaken me? The carving is not a particularly good one, but that’s all right, because it’s too dark to make it out anyway. The only light comes from candles in small glass jars. People come here and light the candles for their dead, sometimes saying a prayer, sometimes simply standing there and breathing in the wax-smoke smell. There’s love in this place, or could be. The brassy pipes of the church organ go up and up into the shadows. Outside, the sky is black and starless.
Somewhere else, there’s a room. The room is in a flat, which is above a shop, which is on an ordinary London street somewhere south of the river. There’s also a bed. On the bed two figures are twined together like rope, and if your eyes were better you might see wings trailing off the bed and on to the dusty floor, dark and light mingled together. There’s love here, too. It’s a different kind of love, but it comes from the same place, and it’s the same sort of colour: dove-grey, silk-grey, like spiders’ webs. The rain is coming down hard. It's not quite Biblical-flood levels, but it’s getting there. Much more of this and you’d have a drowned city. Atlantis, a house encrusted with shells. But don’t worry, that won’t happen. By the next morning the rain will have stopped and the sky will be clear again, the world washed clean.
You can have both of these things, if you want. You don’t have to let one of them go.
Late morning, creeping towards noon. The sky was wide and bright. It looked like something newly purchased from a shop, made from blue plastic, the price tag still dangling off it. The eggs at this place, Aziraphale thought, left much to be desired. Not enough salt. He made a mental note not to come here again.
“Parakeets,” Crowley said, as one of them hopped on to a neighbouring table to steal a flake of croissant. “They’re everywhere. Why are they everywhere? They didn’t use to be everywhere. Feels like I’m in the bloody tropics.” The parakeet took off again and fled into a nearby tree. Aziraphale craned his neck, looking for it, but it was lost in a blur of green.
“I think they’re nice,” he said.
“You think everything’s nice,” Crowley said, uncharitably. “Anyway. You had a question.”
“It’s nothing important, really,” Aziraphale hedged. “But I’ve been thinking a fair bit, recently, about what you said. The – the whole sauntering-downwards thing.” Crowley’s eyebrows went up, and he hastened to clarify: “I’m not prying! Truly. I’ve simply been wondering whether… well, whether I’d know.”
“Know what?” Crowley said.
“If,” he said, and his nails dug into his palms underneath the table, “if I’d – ”
Unable to say it outright, he pointedly looked up, then directed his gaze down again to the warm flagstones beneath their feet.
It took Crowley a moment, and then he sighed. “You won’t,” he said.
This wasn’t reassuring. “But if I did, hypothetically speaking, would I know about it?”
Flatly: “You’d know. It would hurt.”
“Oh,” said Aziraphale.
Not knowing exactly how to respond – Crowley didn’t take well to sympathy, even when it was honestly meant – he simply reached out and covered the demon’s hand with his own. Crowley let him, although he didn’t look very happy about it.
“You know,” Aziraphale said, “you can – if you want to, I mean – ”
“I don’t. Want to talk, that is.”
Aziraphale subsided, abashed. “Right. Of course. I shan’t trouble you any more about it, then.”
“You aren’t troubling me, it’s just – ” His mouth made a funny shape, and he shook his head, frustrated. “There’s just not much to say. That’s not who I am any more. It’s done, it’s over, it’s in the past.”
“But,” Aziraphale said. It felt rather as if he was barking up the wrong tree, but he wasn’t sure what the right tree was, or how to even find it. He was wandering through a dense forest of bewilderment and miscommunication. “But you were an angel. Once. And it’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, think about it: we might have run into each other back then. We might even have been friends. Surely you can’t blame me for being a little curious.”
“Yeah. I get it,” Crowley said. “I do. But you have to understand that – well. I was someone else then, you know? Maybe that person was someone you could have got on with. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re gone. They got burned up, and here’s what’s left. Just me.” He gestured at himself, awkwardly. “This? What you see is what you get. If that’s not good enough, then I’m sorry, but it’s all there is.”
Aziraphale was shaking his head before Crowley had even finished speaking. “No! No, no, absolutely not. That wasn’t what I meant at all. I don’t care who you used to be. What you are now is enough. More than enough, in fact.” Feeling that this wasn’t quite sufficient, he reached out and took Crowley’s hands in his, gazing earnestly at him. “Please don’t ever think that I’m asking because of that,” he said. “My dear, I simply want to understand. There’s… It seems there’s a great deal that I don’t know, and I’d like to know it – if you’ll let me.”
“Ack. Oh, come on, don’t give me the eyes,” Crowley said, cringing. “That’s foul play and you know it.” He resisted for a little longer, then gave in, scrubbing a hand across his face. “Fine. What do you want to know?”
Startled by the unexpected surrender, Aziraphale found himself momentarily tongue-tied. After a second he found his voice again and asked, rather timidly, “What was it like?”
Crowley shrugged. “Bit shit, really.”
Aziraphale gave him a Look. He relented. When he next spoke, his voice sounded dreamy and far away. “It was… well, about what you’re imagining, probably. Lots of people on fire, or sort of, lots of screaming, lots of confusion. Painful. Unexpected.”
“Mm. You’d think there’d have been a probation period, but nope – no pink slips, no formal cautions. Just white clouds one minute, and then the next…” He walked his fingers over the arm of the chair and made them jump off with a whistling sound. “Don’t worry about that part, though,” he added hastily, seeing Aziraphale’s expression. “They don’t go in for that sort of thing nowadays, not without a warning. Too worried about understaffing.”
“It sounds horrible,” said Aziraphale.
“No more horrible than half the things I’ve seen down here. It was six thousand years ago, angel, I’ve had time to adjust.”
“And do you remember anything from before?”
Crowley shook his head.
“Nothing at all?”
“Er… no, not really. Flashes, I suppose. Dreams – you know about those, you’ve seen ‘em happen often enough. But nothing detailed. Nothing, you know, concrete.” He fidgeted. “There. That covers Falling, anyway. What else did you want to know?”
Aziraphale looked at him.
Here’s what’s left. Just me. It occurred to him how selfish he’d been to want any more than that. He had Crowley now, just like this, and wouldn’t change him for the world. What sense was there in trying to lay a claim to his past self, too? “No,” he said. “I do believe that you’ve covered everything. Thank you.”
“Wha – really?”
Crowley darted a glance at him, suspicious. Aziraphale returned his gaze with an innocent one. “By the way,” he said, “you’ve got something on your – here, let me,” and he licked his finger, reaching over to rub the tiny spot of cappuccino foam from Crowley’s bottom lip.
“Oh, for – don’t do that,” Crowley said, horrified. “What are you, my maiden aunt?” But he had the look of somebody who, had he been able to blush, would have been very pink around the ears. “Come on,” he said. The saucer rattled, now containing a pile of loose change that hadn’t been there before. “I’ll drive us home.”
They left the sub-par café and passed down a side street, heading towards the road where Crowley had parked his car. A cat was washing itself in the sun. When Crowley passed by it stopped washing and put its ears back, hissing at him with a wide pink mouth full of needles. Crowley hissed back. The cat leapt up on to a wall and slunk away, fur on end. “That poor creature,” Aziraphale scolded. “Really, do you have to terrorise them like that?”
“Me? I terrorise them? If anything it’s the other way around.” He threw a glare at the retreating animal.
“Maybe we should get a cat,” Aziraphale mused. “They’re good companions, cats. Not as high-maintenance as dogs. And you never know – it might get used to you, if you spent enough time with it. Might even get to like you.”
“You think so?”
“Why not? I did,” Aziraphale said, and was rewarded with a smile. It was small, and tentative, and he only saw it for a brief moment before Crowley coughed self-consciously and turned his head away. But he saw it, all the same.