Aziraphale sighed, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to relax.
It was a quiet Monday morning at the New Eden Spa and Wellness Centre, and everything was just as it should be. He was alone in Sauna Room 2, and he was confident that he would be for a while. This was because all the other guests in the spa had, miraculously, just found themselves conducting extraordinarily fascinating conversations with whoever they happened to be nearest to at that moment – incidentally meaning that none of them would think to come and try out the sauna for at least the next twenty minutes. (Not that he needed the space to stretch out, exactly; but the privacy was delightful.)
Besides this, a new shipment of Egyptian cotton towels had, miraculously, just been delivered to the spa yesterday. This meant that the towels being handed out to the guests, naturally including Aziraphale, were even more deliciously soft and feathery than usual. Soon there would be the shoulder massage he had booked himself in for; and the one masseuse who tended to press a little too hard on his vertebrae had, miraculously, decided to take that Monday as her day off. Later on, very possibly, there would be calling his good friend to see if they might arrange a not-so-clandestine meeting involving a cup of mulled cider and a bonfire night display. In other words, the day was going exactly according to plan.
(He didn’t necessarily like to tell Crowley about the spa days, but he did like to try and see him afterwards. Aziraphale could tell that he noticed the relaxed, cleanly glow of wellbeing, and that it rubbed off on him. He assumed it was probably the closest he could get to actually bringing the demon for a nice restorative session of his own.)
Nothing was left to put in place, so there was no reason not to let his mind drift off. Aziraphale began, vaguely, wondering whether he should open the shop that afternoon or if he might as well concentrate on finishing the fourth volume of that Carlyle he was re-reading. He was just starting to reach that sweet spot of temperature adjustment, where you’ve completely stopped wanting to fidget against the burning-hot wood and almost started wanting to climb up to the hotter tiers, when he heard a curious noise. Something along the lines of: clink-clink-clink.
Aziraphale opened one eye and cast a look around, but nobody had come in. He frowned. The noise was gone; nothing looked amiss. He closed the eye again.
Then it restarted: a distinct tremor, as of antique ceramics set wobbling by a minor seismic event. He opened both eyes, and this time he caught it: one of the floor tiles near the door seemed to have come loose from its crumbling grouting, and was wobbling from side to side.
How odd. Was there a mouse living beneath the sauna floor, or a rat? If so, perhaps he should persuade it to move home. The staff would find out eventually.
He wiped a little sweat from his brow and stood up, peering suspiciously down at the loose tile. Abruptly, as he watched, a hairline fracture opened up down the middle of the square. Then the tile caved slowly inwards until the two pieces fell away completely, and disappeared into what seemed to be a deep hole.
‘Oh!’ murmured Aziraphale in surprise. Was it subsidence? He stepped gingerly forward, and saw that the tiles either side of it were drooping down now too, until four or five of them suddenly fell away into that same hole. He leaned over it, trying to see how deep it was, but all he could see was a profound and inky black that made him feel slightly dizzy. A hard-to-look-away-from black. Then the heat rising from it hit his face: hotter than the sauna, hotter than a burning bookshop, as hot as – well –
Another couple of tiles dropped away, leaving a gaping opening about forty centimetres wide, just in front of the sauna door. Aziraphale straightened up abruptly, trying to fix his gaze on the room beyond the glass and recollect his thoughts very quickly indeed.
‘No, thank you,’ he said firmly, and hastened towards the exit, pulling his towel slightly tighter around his waist. But just as he was extending a hand to pull open the door, another, larger section of tiling gave away so fast that he had to scuttle backwards to avoid going with it.
He climbed backwards onto the pine bench and surveyed the situation in front of him. The sinkhole sat there in front of the door with the distinct impression of guarding it. It measured at least two metres in all directions. In other words, there was no longer any question of leaving the sauna room in the normal manner, on foot.
Now sweating quite profusely, Aziraphale shut his eyes and willed himself to be elsewhere, but nothing happened. He willed the tiles to suddenly reappear, for the floor to reform itself and let him escape. No miracles. He wasn’t exactly surprised; he could feel the sinkhole siphoning them away, drinking them in like it tried to drink his thoughts every time he glanced at it.
Perhaps he could jump? But the door was shut, and opened inward. If only there was somebody to hold it open, then maybe – ?
He peered through the frosted glass to see if it was any good him calling out. But before he could distinguish whether the vague shadow out there was a human or a houseplant, the sinkhole started expanding once more. Two seconds later it had doubled in size, bringing it more or less squarely into the technical category of gaping maw.
‘Oh dear,’ said Aziraphale, with feeling. Starting to come over dizzy again, he turned his back on the maw and began climbing up to the next tier of seating. ‘I’m sorry!’ he called up in the direction of the ceiling. ‘I’m really sorry! Whatever I did, I won’t do it again! I’ll – er – oh dear…’
He winced to himself. It certainly didn’t sound very good.
The problem was, he was running out of ideas, and at the bottom of his barrel of ideas was always the same thought. Force of mental habit is very hard to resist – especially when that habit has been in place for some several hundred years already. You see, most people who find themselves in a spot of urgent bother find that their immediate instinct is to shout ‘help!’. Aziraphale, however, was an immortal being of divine power with the right to wield a flaming sword; obviously, he did not do things like shouting ‘help!’. If he was going to shout anything, it was going to be: ‘Do something, Crowley!’
He probably wasn’t going to turn up this time, though, was he? Probably not.
Aziraphale caught a whiff of burning pine, and chanced a glance back over his shoulder. Oh yes, the bottom of the wooden seating was starting to catch fire now. That was really good news.
Now, it’s hardly the moment for sarcasm, he told himself firmly as he tried to start looking more carefully for possible escape routes. The trouble was, he couldn’t quite decide what it was the moment for. All the options in front of him seemed rather inadequate. Maybe this was the sort of thing he should have been thinking about from time to time, just in case. Like writing a will, or planning your last words.
With a slight shiver of alarm, Aziraphale felt that he was beginning to unfurl his wings, despite himself. He started pressing with both hands on random sections of the panelled ceiling in case, by some miracle, any of them were loose.
None of them were.
Debbie Harper did not like her accountant. Oh, he knew his stuff, that was for sure. He knew lots and lots and lots about counting up money. What he didn’t seem to know, and what he never believed could be worth knowing, was the first thing about running an independent spa in the current London trading environment. Leaving a meeting with him always made her want to go straight to an anger room and start taking a few things out on inanimate objects. That was why she was in full thunder-faced marching mode, on her way back to her office, when she turned a corner and came across their most junior cleaner, Jake, craning his head around the door of Sauna 2. The corridor was empty, and his vacuum cleaner was leaning forgotten against a wall.
Well, if this isn’t the next bit of nonsense I need on a Monday morning, she thought grimly to herself.
‘Everything alright there, Jake?’ she asked in her best managerial I-am-very-suspicious-of-you voice.
He shut the door quickly and guiltily.
‘Um, yeah, sorry. I just thought…’
He didn’t finish, and Debbie folded her arms. Managerially.
‘You just thought…?’
‘Well. I thought I heard someone shouting in there, but there’s nobody inside, so.’
‘Shouting?’ repeated Debbie, potential-legal-liability alarm quickly drowning out managerial suspicion. She went over to where Jake was standing, and noticed that he had a distinctly wigged-out look in his eyes. ‘Like… in pain shouting? Or what?’
‘No, not really… It sounded like somebody’s name. I dunno.’
She opened the door and looked carefully around the sauna room. It was, indeed, empty, and nothing seemed to be out of place. Except… she sniffed.
‘What’s that horrible smell?’
‘Dunno,’ he said again. ‘It’s like rotten eggs or something.’
‘Okay, I’m going to call maintenance. Will you pop an out-of-order sign on it for now?’
‘Yeah…’ said Jake, worriedly.
‘The noise probably came from the pipes malfunctioning,’ she said firmly. When he looked sceptical, she continued: ‘Or someone messing around. The sound travels really weirdly in this building sometimes.’
Jake nodded, but he had the air of a man who not only is not reassured, but does not expect to feel reassured by anything for the rest of the day.
‘You can go check the other rooms on the floor if you like. And then maybe, um, take five in the break room?’
‘Alright… Will do,’ he said, and hurried off.
With that smell still in her nose, Debbie found she was feeling a little bit wigged out herself. Once Jake was out of sight, she couldn’t help slipping her shoes off and going inside the sauna, just to double check. But there was no doubt about it: the room was empty. Not a spa guest in sight.
‘Pull yourself together, Debbie,’ she said.
Then she called the maintenance team, and went on with her day.
Oh, so here we go then... Disclaimer: I binged the show immediately after finishing the book and literally woke up thinking about this the next morning, then had to vigorously avoid all existing demon!Aziraphale fics simply because I would wear myself down with self-doubt. So yeah, it's just one possible take and any coincidences are coincidental!
Sorry for tagging both versions - where things diverge, it follows show canon and characterisation, but the book is important here too.
Thanks to: my friend Eve for beta-reading, pesto/pasta for the fortitude, and discreetly zoning out in the office for making it possible.
Please address all complaints to Michael Sheen.
Chapter 2: Closed Indefinitely
It came out of nowhere, and it started inconspicuously.
One day it felt like they’d just had lunch recently, and then the day crept up when Crowley realised he was planning to say ‘there you are!’ on bumping into Aziraphale next. ‘You’ve been up to something, angel,’ he started to decide it would be, ‘it must be weeks since I saw you.’ Then it was semi-intentionally hanging around the sorts of places he was supposed to bump into Aziraphale; and then, after a few phone calls went unanswered, very intentionally hanging around them.
Eventually he went over to the shop. He would have done it sooner, but he couldn’t think of a good pretext. This didn’t really make sense, but the more nervous he felt, the less he wanted to come around without a really cast-iron excuse. Who, me, worried you don’t want to talk to me any more? Pah!
Probably, also, there was the thought that when he did go, Aziraphale might not be there. And if he wasn’t there, then there was no comforting sense that everything was most likely fine, and this was an irrational paranoia which Crowley could dispel at any time he liked by simply going over to the shop.
Aziraphale wasn’t there. There was a sign in the window which said: ‘CLOSED INDEFINITELY – OWNER TRAVELLING.’
‘Travelling where?’ snarled Crowley, drawing worried glances from passers-by. He went in anyway, to make sure. It was even dustier than usual. That sickly angelic smell had faded off slightly, replaced by the ordinary musty smells of an empty antique bookshop. Although this was objectively an improvement, Crowley didn’t like it. He left a note on the bureau saying – ‘Call me the SECOND you get back! URGENT PROBLEMS. A. J. C.’ Hopefully he’d have thought up some kind of impending disaster by the time the angel actually came home.
When he went back another couple of weeks later, the note was still there. Irritably, he burned it up with a snap of the fingers and wrote another one:
‘YES, I’ve noticed you running off to have fun without me – expecting a LENGTHY dinner and full explanation the minute you are home.’
He also put Aziraphale’s post in an untidy pile on the side of a bureau, and went through a few drawers in the back room. There was nothing suspicious in them whatsoever, but there was his little phone book with the names of other dealers. He took that away with him, not that he was going to actually do anything with it. Obviously, the angel was his own entity, and perfectly welcome to go travelling whenever he liked without accidentally starting a missing persons investigation.
But the thing about rushing off on your own was – he imagined himself telling Aziraphale this sternly when he got home – anything could happen. Things were different now. An inconvenient discorporation was no longer just inconvenient. Hell and Heaven provided the bodies, and now that they were officially turning a blind eye towards the two of them, who knew if they would be able to get any replacements?
‘You do realise you wouldn’t be able to co-inhabit with Madame Tracy forever?’ he said to the wall in his flat.
The wall didn’t say anything back.
He called Madame Tracy, who’d heard nothing from the angel – in a séance, over the phone or otherwise. Nor had Anathema and Newt, not that he really expected much. They all promised to give Crowley a call the moment they did hear from him (apart from Shadwell, who mumbled something vague about an overdue payment). Still, no calls came through to him with news, not from any of them. He started going through the pilfered phonebook, with a dignified lack of hurry: phoning just one bookseller every day.
It took a week to get any of them to pick up. This was a certain Mr Andrew Dearley, of Edinburgh.
‘I have reason to believe you’ve done business with a friend of mine,’ said Crowley, after he’d gotten over the shock of hearing something other than an answerphone message. ‘One Mr Fell, from London?’
‘I don’t get involved in anyone else’s disputes,’ was the blunt reply. ‘Is that all?’
‘But you know who I’m talking about?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Well, have you had any contact with him… recently?’
‘Hmmm,’ said the dealer, with interest. ‘Something up, is there?’
‘Answer the question, Mr Dearley.’
‘Is this the police?’
Crowley rolled his eyes. ‘Yes. Yes, it is the police. Now tell me everything you know.’
‘Well, I did buy a book from him about three weeks ago. But not a word since, the bloody bugger.’
He sat up straighter. ‘He was in Edinburgh three weeks ago?’
‘No, I don’t know where he was. We arranged it all over the phone. Frankly, the whole thing was weird, I don’t mind telling you.’ There was a pause, the pause of a man who is about to go off on a rant if you don’t try and stop him. Crowley did not stop him. ‘See, he calls me up telling me he’s finally got that Russian first edition I’ve been asking around for, but he won’t do it the normal way, coming up in person for a meeting the way we’ve done every time. He wants to put it in the post. Well, I’m not having that, I only make an outlay like this every ten years and I’m not about to hear it’s gone off the back of a lorry. But it’s not just that he won’t get off his arse and come to see me, oh no! He won’t have me come to London either. So he sends a special courier, pompous git. Well, now I know why he didn’t want to look me in the eyes, that’s for sure.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s not a clean copy, is it? I don’t mind taking something with some pencil marks if it’s that or nothing. But fancy that, this one just so happens to have passed through the hands of some lah-de-dah murderer who just so happened to write down some very personal notes in the back. So then your lot turn up, not even five days after I received it, saying apparently it’s evidence to be used in court, and no I can’t refuse to hand it over and no I won’t be getting it back. Down the pan, every penny! And don’t you tell me Fell didn’t know about it… my wife’s going to have to come out of retirement, do you know, and her knees –’
‘Don’t tell me a word about her knees,’ interrupted Crowley. ‘Tell me a number. Did he leave you a phone number?’
‘Of course not, number withheld the whole way. No-one’s been getting any answer on the usual one either. You don’t leave a business card when you’ve shit the bed, my friend.’
‘Sounds like a case of sore bad luck to me, Mr Dearley. Thank you for not being helpful at all.’
‘Well, I answered you, didn’t I? And what do the police want with him, anyway?’
‘Parking offences,’ snapped Crowley, and hung up.
He had to go and really lay into an aspidistra after that. (‘The easiest fucking job in the world, being an aspidistra, and you can’t even do that right!’) Still, it had been helpful, hadn’t it? As of three weeks ago, Aziraphale had been neither dead nor (presumably) detained – at the very least, in a normal enough state of health to be able to sell a book over the phone. But where was he, and why all the cloak and daggers? The information should have made Crowley happier to believe this was just an impromptu trip in search of a rare antique, perhaps a sojourn to see some other dealer abroad. But for some reason, he didn’t rest any easier.
He went back to the bookshop to see if there were any signs of life. The only change was a steaming pile of chunder left on the doorstep, probably by someone on their way home from a night out. Crowley could picture the expression of miserable horror on Aziraphale’s face so clearly that for a moment, it felt like he was there with him; so he flicked his hand and the mess disappeared. Then he found himself glancing around at the other shops on the street, at their pointedly blinking CCTV cameras and burglar alarms. And back at the sign in the window: ‘OWNER TRAVELLING.’ Like a nice hand-written invitation, left there ever so thoughtfully by the biggest idiot in London.
Except he wasn’t that big of an idiot, was he? Not when it came to the shop.
Shit, thought Crowley.
Well, now he knew the angel had been trading books. That meant he’d be back here sooner or later. Crowley just had to be there when it happened.
For the first week or two he was as jumpy as a little kid. Every minor sound in the deserted shop set him off, jumping from his chair and prowling around for signs of – occult beings? Ethereal ones? He didn’t really know. One night he even thought he heard a demonic yowling from the street, but when he went to the window it was just a pair of tomcats squaring off, backs arched and tails whipping side to side. He sent them packing anyway, flinging a paperweight down onto the paving stones to make them scatter. It felt satisfying for a moment, and then it felt pathetic.
After three weeks of more-or-less undisturbed peace and quiet, though, he started to feel it wasn’t much use in him being there. For all he knew, Aziraphale had left it defended somehow, some kind of deflecting miracle. On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be much point in being anywhere else: every time he tried to think of somewhere he wanted to go, he simply drew a blank. It wasn’t like there were assignments and missions coming through on his radio any more. He didn’t have a job on Earth. He was just sort of… there. Of course, that had been the case for two years now, and he’d never exactly missed the work before; so what had he been doing, all that time?
Travelling to all the coolest places and drinking in all the coolest bars, naturally, as he’d been longing to be left in peace to do for thousands of years. If anybody had asked him how things were going since the apocalypse didn’t happen, that would have been his answer: living it up, baby! Making the most!
The thing was, nobody had ever actually asked him how things were going since thwarting the apocalypse. Who would have cared? Only Aziraphale, who didn’t generally bother to ask that sort of question since they’d seen each other just the other day. And who would probably have responded to the suggestion that Crowley had been enjoying the boozy road-trip of a celestial lifetime with a slight frown and the words: ‘Really? When?’
So he’d been in London, fine. Even still, it wasn’t like he and Aziraphale had been doing everything together. Aziraphale had his own interests, could swan off to pursue them at a moment’s notice, so did Crowley. He enjoyed his own company, always had.
He tried to think back on all his best memories of solitary amusements, so that he could go and enjoy them again, but it was sort of like trying to find a pair of black trainer socks in a drawer filled mostly with pairs of ordinary black socks. (‘Didn’t I have a memorably good time at that secret bar where they put the cocktails in things that aren’t glasses? No, that was with Aziraphale, they would have gotten boring after the first one if he didn’t keep getting so excited… But it was just me who went to the marathon Men in Black screening at that tiny cinema, right? Oh no, of course he had to insist on coming along, and then he just sat there asking all those obtuse questions and rustling the bloody pick and mix bag... although the gummy snakes were nice. Didn’t know a movie could be improved quite so much by gummy snakes.’)
Still, the driving had always been better on his own. Without anybody to jab a finger at the speedometer. What had that absolutely fantastic drive been again, down on the coast where he had thrown the Bentley around those hairpin corners? Dorset, somewhere? Now that was an idea; he left the bookshop double-deadbolted and raced his way down motorways and A-roads until he finally hit that same winding cliffside road, just as a gorgeous sunset started to settle over the ocean.
‘That’s more like it,’ he told himself, turning up the volume on his sound system. ‘That’s the glory of life on Earth, right there. And no backseat drivers, either.’
Several more farmers than usual probably found themselves dealing with lost sheep the next morning, as they scattered in alarm at the sound of the Bentley’s engine roaring past them. The humans in the area fared rather better – Crowley half-consciously thought ahead, and most of them found themselves having other ideas about which route to take, or what time to set out home. After all, nothing ruined a good road like road users.
He drove until the album had played itself out, and then he drove in silence, into the deepening dark. Eventually he found himself slowing down, just a little, although he wasn’t certain why. To enjoy the sight of the moon reflected on the water, maybe. Wasn’t this near where he had turned around, last time? Never mind, he could keep going all night, if he wanted. Although, where had he actually stopped and gone back? Now he thought about it, he realised he didn’t remember the end of the drive. He definitely recognised this climb up through a tunnel of windswept trees, and that hotel on the cliff there – oh, right.
He remembered now, of course. An early evening phone call, just when he was settling down to watch a few episodes of Come Dine With Me.
‘Oh, hello, Crowley. Yes, it’s me. Listen, I know it’s terribly naughty of me to ask but I’m calling you from a hotel in Dorset – we’ve just had a rather interesting conference about some rare manuscripts, but it’s really starting to look like the bus service around here has left me high and dry… Oh, would you?’
Crowley hit the brakes so hard he nearly gave himself whiplash, and then pulled over. For fuck’s sake. He felt the need to take it out on something, and didn’t want to do anything hasty to the car, so he got out and kicked some rocks off the side of the tarmac and down the cliffside. They bounced several times as they fell, then cracked into pieces as they hit the boulders on the beach.
‘Aziraphale!’ he yelled suddenly, out over the ocean. He was hoping the sound of his voice would miraculously penetrate into a different plane and reach the angel, whom he pictured for some reason playing cards with a group of shady-looking book dealers in a shisha lounge somewhere very far away. ‘Aziraphale! Can you hear me? I’ve had enough now. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but it’s working, you win. Whatever I did wrong – I’m sorry! I’ll buy you ten dinners! Just give me a chance, at least!’
Silence. He kicked another rock off the precipice for good measure, and watched it tumble down to the shore, spinning as it went.
Then he drove back to London.
It was not long after this that he was stopped in his tracks by the scent of angel. He was in John Lewis at the time, on the market for a new pair of sunglasses; but he knew straight away that that smell didn’t come from anything in the perfume department. He dropped the frames he was holding and went sprinting towards the escalators like a lunatic. People moved out of his way nervously.
It was just a faint trace at first, but being an ex-snake was not good for nothing. Crowley followed the scent unerringly out on to the street and hung a right, weaving irritably through the crowds of busy shoppers, towards where the trail got stronger. He turned off the main street onto a side road, ploughing past the distracting olfactory signals from seedy gentlemen’s clubs and urine-saturated corners, until finally it was ringing out as clear as a bell. The source had to be right around that corner there, on that very narrow, tucked-away little street.
I’m going to get to say it, thought Crowley. Except it’s not going to be a pleasantly surprised little ‘there you are!’, oh no. It’s going to be the full-on reprimand. ‘There you are, you BASTARD, WHERE ON EARTH HAVE YOU BEEN ALL THIS TIME?’
He turned the corner. The next thing he knew some kid whose ridiculous goatee did nothing to hide the blandness of his smooth little face had turned around, and was pointing what looked like a bottle of kitchen spray at him.
‘Stay away, Hellspawn. I have holy water and I won’t hesitate to use it.’
For a second Crowley was distracted by an intense visual image of melting back into serpentine form, unhinging his jaw and swallowing the little wanker whole. Or possibly just pushing him in front of the nearest double-decker. Then he pulled himself together, and simply lowered his sunglasses slowly, so that the angel could fully enjoy his reptilian glare.
‘And who, exactly, are you supposed to be?’
‘I am the angel Duncan,’ said the angel Duncan, pulling himself up a little straighter, ‘Principality and –’
‘I don’t care.’
‘But you just asked me!’
‘I just need to know what you’re doing in London.’
Duncan scoffed slightly. ‘What do you think I’m doing? Blessing, guarding, bringing God’s word… miscellaneous angelic deeds…’
‘Alright, very lovely. Haven’t we already got someone for all of that?’ When this was met with a blank silence, he prompted: ‘Aziraphale?’
The angel’s eyebrows shot up. And then he smiled.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you must be Crowley.’
‘I’m your great-aunt Veronica, just tell me where he is.’
‘Well, I don’t see why I should know if you don’t. Not my business, honestly.’ He was stowing the spray-bottle back into his suit in a laid-back way that Crowley didn’t appreciate. He tried to dial up the ‘threatening’ factor in his voice.
‘And yet you’re happy enough to take his job…’
‘Someone has to do it. And no, I will not be co-operating with you in any little freelance schemes or work-shares, demon. That’s all over now.’
Crowley wrinkled his nose. His expression said: if it were possible for a demon to vomit, I’d be doing it.
‘Oh, don’t worry. There is very little risk of me entering into any agreement with the likes of you.’
‘Good, that’s settled.’ Duncan smiled unpleasantly. ‘And I think my superiors will be very happy to hear about this conversation. I’ll be getting on with my job then, shall I?’
He pointed at the premises he had been about to go into, a small tea-room where a flustered commotion could be seen taking place around an elderly lady who had fallen to the floor.
‘Hmmph,’ said Crowley disdainfully, but let him go. Then he hesitated. ‘Wait a minute.’
Duncan stopped abruptly on the doorstep of the tea-room and said witheringly, ‘What now?’
‘You guys have to have some way of communicating, yes? Some fancy inter-angelic hotline. Ethereal mental transmission. No matter where you are. Isn’t that right?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Well, couldn’t you – could you just call him for me?’
Duncan gave him a quizzical look.
‘Very quickly?’ Crowley went on, hopefully.
The angel put his head on one side as if considering the question carefully. Then he straightened up.
He turned around and went on into the tea-room.
‘You’re an unoriginal prick, you know that?’ said Crowley loudly to his back. ‘I don’t know what kind of briefing they gave you upstairs, but the water-mister was my idea.’
Duncan, already kneeling on the floor ready to perform a spot of miracle-charged CPR on the poor old dear, flipped him the bird with such supernatural rapidity that none of the humans noticed a thing.
After returning to the bookshop that evening, Crowley pulled out a bottle from the cabinet in the back. He’d avoided the cupboard so far, since this was technically nicking the angel’s stuff, but never mind that now. He’d replace it at some point. The thing was, something was wrong.
Obviously, it was not surprising that Heaven had sent down a replacement. Aziraphale hadn’t actually been working for them for two years. What was surprising, and distinctly concerning now he thought about it, was that it had taken this long. Not once since the non-Armageddon had he come across another angel in London. Pretty clearly, in fact, Crowley’s little turn up in Heaven had scared them all shitless, and they had told anyone with a permit to visit Earth to give his ‘territory’ a wide berth.
But apparently, they weren’t worried any more.
So what if they knew? If they’d worked out they’d been tricked?
‘They haven’t killed him,’ said Crowley out loud, to his drink. ‘Dearley spoke to him. He was definitely alive in December.’
Everything about that last sentence was disconcerting, so he stopped talking to the drink and started drinking it.
He’d written the note himself. He’d spoken to Dearley. Everything could fit together in a perfectly harmless way: Aziraphale had gone travelling, maybe because he was cross with Crowley for something he didn’t know about yet, maybe just because he had some place to go. Heaven had got wind of the fact he wasn’t around in London, and had taken the opportunity to muscle back in on the scene. Duncan, so meticulously briefed before being sent to work, had said nothing to indicate he believed Aziraphale was dead, had he? Because he wasn’t. He was travelling.
And hopefully, if Crowley drank enough, he would be able to believe that.
About an hour later, with Beethoven winding down to a stop on the gramophone but his thoughts continuing to rotate at the same rapid pace, he decided to change his strategy. If he really drank enough, he wouldn’t be able to actually think about it at all any more.
He was just about to succeed in passing out cold when something stopped him. What if something happened in the night? What if Aziraphale came back and found him like this? If this really did turn out to be a harmless business trip, admitting that he’d felt the need to take up residence in the bookshop was going to be embarrassing enough – being discovered there pissed out of his mind was the last thing he needed.
He sobered up, and clanged headfirst into a sober thought that was about as friendly as an iron rod to the face. Should have stayed drunk, demon, because he’s not coming back tonight. He’s not coming back ever. You sat there listening to Gabriel explain how much Heaven wanted him dead, and then you got back to Earth and spent two years sampling macarons and vacuuming the little nook behind your side table. You didn’t pay attention. You gave them all the time they needed to come up with another plan, while Aziraphale sat there behind a dirty great shop sign with his name on it. Now they’ve gotten rid of him, and all it took to fool you was one note and a voice on the end of a phone call.
Crowley found himself on his feet, craning his neck at the ceiling.
‘Laughing at me, are you?’ he shouted. ‘Think you’ve really got one over on Hell’s most incompetent demon this time, huh? I’ll show you incompetent!’
Suddenly desperate to think of something he could do, he cast his eyes around him and spotted the narrow iron spiral staircase that led up to the dome. He lunged for it and took the steps two at a time.
When he reached the top, he stood there breathing heavily, and staring at the shelves in front of him. Up here were the books that Aziraphale didn’t even let customers pretend to think about buying. Books that were not meant to be much use to a human – or a demon. The kind of books that Crowley really, really hoped would contain some hints on supernatural ways to get the Archangel Gabriel face to face with you very quickly indeed. Or maybe to summon up the pearly gates themselves, so that you could go straight in there and start picking off angels one by one until somebody told you just exactly what they’d done with your –
A gentle, tinkling sound from downstairs interrupted his thoughts. The bell above the door. Crowley froze in position, and a split second later felt a prickling sensation roll over his whole skin.
Evil. He was no longer alone in the shop, and whatever else was there had the unmistakeable, sour whiff of Hell.
For fuck’s sake. Another demon was the last thing he wanted to deal with right now. Actually, another demon was the last thing he wanted to deal with ever again. But wasn’t this the whole point of watching the shop?
Holding his breath in order to avoid being heard, he stood stock still for a few moments and listened. The intruder was very quiet, but audible; soft footsteps on floorboards, the quiet rustle of clothing. Very quiet, but Crowley could be quiet too. He shifted shape and rolled himself out onto the carpet as an average-sized snake. Slowly, he wound his way back down the iron staircase, then followed his tongue across the bookshop floor, towards the source of the unpleasant smell.
Once he could feel that he was only feet away, he changed shape again, returning to human form in order to actually see what was going on. There was someone there, standing at a shelf and running their finger slowly along the spines of some crumbling paperbacks. They were wearing an oversized, knee-length black puffa jacket and a knitted bobble hat that caught the light slightly – the black acrylic ‘wool’ was shot through with some kind of silver, sparkling thread. A thief, thought Crowley. Even worse, a thief with bad taste in hats.
He raised his voice.
‘Stop what you’re doing, demon.’ The thief froze. ‘Maybe you’re unaware, but this shop belongs to the angel Aziraphale, and it’s currently being protected by the traitor Crowley. And if you don’t know what that means, it means big fucking trouble for you. So I suggest you put that book back now, hmm?’
The demon hesitated for a moment, and then bolted for the door. Clutching the book to its chest. Crowley stepped sideways and darted down the other side of the bookcase; he had a clear view of the doorway from there, and scanned rapidly for opportunities to stop the escape. Probably not what the angel would want, but there wasn’t a lot of choice: the bookcase to the left of the door suddenly keeled sideways and crashed to the floor, blocking the exit. Somewhere on the frame of the furniture, wood split with a dreadful squealing sound, and the shelves vomited their contents out onto the floor, the books seemingly all landing pages-first in the most damaging way possible. Crap.
The escaping demon pulled up short and exclaimed: ‘Oh!’
Crowley stepped forward anyway. ‘Didn’t you hear me? I told you to put that book down. It isn’t yours.’
‘Aah,’ came the slow and unexpected reply. ‘Er… yes. Bit of a misunderstanding. But actually it is mine, so, well, thank you kindly for the really exemplary protection and all but. I’ll just be popping off with it now.’
The thief gave a little jog on the spot and pointed hopefully at the door, as if this was going to move the obstacle.
‘Liar,’ Crowley hissed, feeling every muscle in his body coiling and winding tighter. ‘Do you think you can fool me? You stink, demon. I can taste you.’ He parted his lips slightly and drew in breath across his teeth, so the intruder would remember the Serpent of Eden’s tongue, drinking in his air. ‘Turn around and show yourself to me.’
Very slowly, Aziraphale turned around.
Chapter 3: Paperwork
You couldn’t mistake the eyes. It didn’t matter that they were peeping out from under that ridiculous hat, or that they had changed colour, irises faded to an icy near-white blue that would no longer have passed unnoticed in human company. It didn’t matter that they were carrying a look of sheer humiliation that they had never directed at him before. There was only one pair of eyes, anywhere, that could have made Crowley’s stomach drop thirty thousand feet just like that.
He tried to open his mouth to speak, but it seemed that he had decided to choke on his own tongue. This was unfortunate, because he couldn’t actually choke back any of the words he had uttered in the last five minutes, and it therefore seemed very urgent for him to say something else as soon as possible. Something that might cover them up, like air freshener in a misused office bathroom. For example: There you are. I’ve been waiting for you all this time. I’m so relieved, I’ve been worried sick.
‘I’m s– ’ he began, and then got stuck. ‘I’m ssssss– ’
‘No need to say anything!’ said Aziraphale hastily, holding up one hand. ‘It’s alright. I’m leaving right now.’
Somewhere in the swill that was currently standing in for Crowley’s brain, he found a functional word. ‘No.’
Aziraphale’s face twitched with momentary alarm as Crowley moved towards him suddenly – stupid, stupid idiot that he was – but he allowed himself to be seized by the shoulder and steered into the back room of the shop. Crowley sort of deposited him in front of a chair, but then he just stood there, slightly wide-eyed and suspicious, as if unsure of what he was meant to be doing. Crowley, still incapable of forming a single word, gently took the book he was still clutching to his chest and then gave him a little push, so that he would sit down. He sank into the chair, and then looked relieved. Sort of.
Crowley found a lamp and turned it on. Then he went over to the cupboard and brought out two glasses and a bottle of whiskey. From the small gap between the jacket zipped up to his chin and the hat pulled down to his eyebrows, Aziraphale watched him warily. Crowley poured out two generous measures and dumped one on the table next to his friend; then he sat down opposite him, on the couch he had been trying to sleep on just minutes earlier. For a moment, neither of them said a word – then, unexpectedly, an actual, fully-formed sentence emerged spontaneously from Crowley’s throat, although it sounded somewhat strangled.
‘Don’t you want to take that hat off?’
‘Oh. Yes.’ Aziraphale reached up and pulled the woolly hat from his head, revealing his white hair all flattened down by the pressure. Crowley pictured him absent-mindedly fluffing it back up with his fingers, but he didn’t do that. He just put the hat on the table.
They both took a slow sip of whiskey. Then Crowley managed another sentence:
‘Listen. I didn’t realise it was you.’
‘I know, I know. My fault, if I’d known you would be here…’ He looked around him suddenly. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘Er.’ He went back to the drink. ‘A while. That sign on the door… not such a good idea. Might as well say, free bookssss.’ He swallowed. ‘Books.’
‘Oh,’ said Aziraphale. ‘Well, thank you. It’s very kind of you.’
Crowley paused with the glass to his lips and stared at his friend.
It wasn’t a subtle stare, and he saw Aziraphale watching him through those strange new irises, which had a soft luminosity even despite their paleness – like ice floes drifting about under a pallid sun. They turned away after a moment, though, as if to say: go ahead, look at me. It doesn’t matter.
Crowley looked at him. Same face. Same hair. Sitting low down in the chair, in a way he would have only done before if already long into an evening of drinking; but this wasn’t slouching, it was somewhere closer to embarrassed and trying to be smaller. Same suspicious way of peering into his glass before he took a sip. The coat was… whatever that was, clearly a sartorial cry for help. It made him look like a giant, disgruntled black marshmallow. Not Aziraphale. But not… evil.
Could a coat be evil?
They sat in silence until they’d both finished their drinks, and Crowley got up to pour them both another. Having sat back down, and feeling that the peppery heat of the alcohol might have restored him enough to enable sustained conversation, he said:
‘What on Earth did you do?’
Aziraphale sighed heavily. ‘Oh, nothing really. I mean, at first I thought it might be because – ’ He closed his mouth suddenly, looking uncomfortable. ‘Well, never mind, apparently it wasn’t that. I made enquiries. As it turns out, the relevant committee only meets once a year, and somebody missed the deadline for the paperwork first time around, so there you are – two years’ grace, as it were. And then, whoops! You’re quietly enjoying your nice little spa day when this great big hole opens up in the ground in front of you, and down you go! In your towel. I suppose I was asking for it there – an angel sitting in a sauna, not very appropriate, is it? What can you expect?’
This was a lot of words in a row. Crowley put his hands to his face and rubbed it, slowly.
‘You made enquiries,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ said Aziraphale, as if nothing about this statement was questionable at all.
'Yes,' he said again, almost impatiently.
‘And it was the whole… preventing Armageddon thing, was it? After all this time.’
‘Well…’ He was reaching for the bottle to top up his glass. ‘Yes. No. Not exactly. It turns out, they were under the impression I’d somehow gone unnoticed… you know, after they put me, I mean you, in the hellfire, they just assumed that I was already a…’ He made a euphemistic circling gesture with the bottle before putting it back on the table. ‘But. You still have to have it formally recorded. Right papers, right folders, that sort of thing. So they did, and then, well, it had to be true, didn’t it? Retrospectively effective, if you like.’
‘No,’ said Crowley. ‘I do not like. It’s a bloody mistake, is what you’re saying.’
‘Well, the file says I’ve Fallen and here I am, so as far as Heaven is concerned – no, no mistake. Believe me, I’ve asked.’
Crowley did believe him. Aziraphale looked very much like a man who had asked. He also looked like a man who had been given a severe blow to the head, blindfolded, and forced at gunpoint to assemble an outfit as fast as possible in a remote rural charity shop. Also, despite achieving the sort of words-per-minute rate usually only achieved by excited grandmothers at the church fete, quite possibly a man who had not seen daylight in several weeks. Crowley cleared his throat and asked tentatively,
‘And what did they say in Hell?’
‘In Hell?’ repeated Aziraphale, as if this was a rather strange thing to be interested in. ‘Oh, well. You know Hell.’
He wasn’t wrong. Crowley was very familiar with Hell. However, precisely because of this familiarity, he also had questions. Many questions. And this answered none of them.
‘They just… gave you a body? And let you come back here?’
‘Obviously they weren’t too keen on the idea at first. But I persuaded them it was for the best.’
Crowley raised his eyebrows very high in response to this, but Aziraphale just smiled and nodded, and then swallowed the last of his second glass of whiskey. Crowley sensed that this was a topic with a conversational roadblock in front of it, the kind surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers with really, really big machine guns. So he moved on.
‘But you put that sign up ages ago, now. Where on Earth have you been?’
‘Just… in a hotel room, mostly. I thought it was best to lay low for a while. You know. Safer.’
‘Safer?’ repeated Crowley in alarm. ‘Why? Are they looking for you? They did let you come back, didn’t they?’
‘No, no, I didn’t mean it that way. I don’t think they care what I do. It’s just… well… I’m sure it’s going to sound silly, but I had an idea.’ He hesitated, possibly waiting for a prompt to continue, but then when none came he went on anyway: ‘I thought perhaps if I just waited for a little while, then I could try again to explain it was a mistake. I mean, not to let on about the swap, of course. But perhaps this time I could say – look! I’ve been on Earth all this time and I haven’t been doing anything evil. I’m not actually supposed to be… one of them.’
Crowley concentrated very hard on not doing anything with his face. It did, indeed, sound silly. In fact, it was the silliest thing he had ever heard coming out of his friend’s mouth, and he had been listening to things come out of it for more than six thousand years. Heaven: not renowned for admitting their mistakes, changing their minds, or doing favours for people they have previously issued generous invitations to shut their stupid mouths and die already. As Aziraphale knew perfectly fucking well. He was trying to find a way to point this out when Aziraphale said, with the perfectly crestfallen expression of a child who has just presented his parents with inedibly burnt breakfast in bed:
‘You think it’s a terrible plan, don’t you?’
‘Nnnnnnnnn…’ said Crowley.
‘Well, it can’t hurt, can it?’
‘Trying not to cause any harm? Well, by definition, no…’ He swirled the last dregs of whiskey around his glass a couple of times. ‘But shutting yourself up on your own? Possibly.’
‘What do you mean?’
It was not exactly in Crowley’s nature to express tender concern for another’s well-being, in the way that some particularly irritating people like to look at you and say ‘oh, you poor thing, you look like you’ve been really under the weather’. However, he also did not feel it was a good moment to express his actual nature by saying ‘well, at the minute you sort of look like you might be famous from CCTV footage of an unstable individual who shoves bystanders onto Tube tracks’.
Instead he said, matter-of-factly: ‘Well, evil loves misery, doesn’t it?’
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows slightly, digesting this. ‘I suppose you have a point.’
‘You suppose? Of course I have a point. I’ve been doing this for millennia.’ He leaned forward, his voice turning a little more urgent. ‘I’ve been doing this for longer than you’ve been at all.’
‘Yes,’ Aziraphale agreed, cautiously.
‘So why didn’t you come straight to me?’
Aziraphale looked blankly at Crowley, as if this was a total non-sequitur. He did this for such a long few seconds that Crowley started to wonder if he was going to get a reply at all. But he did.
‘I told you,’ he said, rather quietly. ‘I’ve been laying low.’
‘Well.’ Crowley stood up. ‘Lay low with me. I mean. Lay low here. It makes much more sense. You won’t have to sneak around in the night just because you’ve run out of reading material. You won’t have to… live off a minibar, or whatever it is you’ve been living off. I can bring you stuff. I could go and get you something to eat right now.’
Aziraphale had been listening to this with the air of someone who is carefully preparing themselves to say no, but at this last suggestion his resolve weakened visibly.
‘Actually, I haven’t been able to stop thinking all week about that Italian place just on the corner there… You know, where they put the little chunks of dark chocolate in the tiramisu…’
Were those actually tears in his eyes? Crowley glanced at his watch. It was almost two in the morning. ‘Okay, you might need to manage your expectations a bit. The kebab shop will be open. I can get you chips.’
As soon as he got out of sight of the bookshop windows, Crowley stopped and pushed his forehead into a wall.
‘Fuck!’ he said into the brickwork.
He hoped that Aziraphale’s Fall hadn’t done anything to mess with his reliable gullibility. Not that it was a lie about wanting to get him something to eat. But there was also an insistent voice in the back of his head repeating I need to get out of here, a pressing need to be on his own for a minute in the fresh air and think. This was not his normal reaction to being around Aziraphale, and he didn’t think he would be very happy if he noticed it.
It was just that this was a lot to wrap his head around. And none of it made any sense. Not because it was so far outside of the realms of possibility: Crowley knew better than anyone how delicately he had been treading the line all these years. But he had treaded it, that was the thing. He was very good at it, in fact. So for it to happen now, and like this? Why? After the whole Armageddon disaster, they had both tacitly assumed it was a non-issue. If you didn’t get thrown out for that, then what would you get thrown out for?
Paperwork, apparently. It sounded like the punchline to a joke. Or the kind of cock-and-bull story you might tell the very insistent man on the phone just to get him to go away. Or even, possibly, the kind of insidious lie somebody would feed you just to mess with your head – if you still, completely and utterly inexplicably, trusted them enough to actually bloody ask.
He took a deep breath, and made himself start walking, in case the delay to his return got long enough to be noticeable. The main thing is, he told himself, he’s here. In one piece. He’s fine. Ish. We can work everything else out tomorrow.
A mistake. Just an ordinary cock-up. Could that possibly be right? There was something very strange going on, that was for sure. Admittedly, it had been a very long time indeed since Crowley had seen an angel Fall, but he did not remember it like this. Much more… raging and renouncing had been involved. Not that he’d raged much himself, but he’d got on with the job, at least.
And. Well. It wasn’t that Crowley had nothing whatsoever in common with the angel he had once been; it was just that if he met his former self in a dark alley at night, he wouldn’t necessarily be likely to recognise him straight away. Yet here was Aziraphale, still definitely Aziraphale, blowing his own cover just to get something to read and coming over weepy at the very thought of a good dinner. A bit of a bastard, yes, but actually, properly, an agent of evil? The idea was like trying to square a circle. It just didn’t work.
At the same time – that prickle over his skin was unmistakeable.
He was brought up short by a sudden waft of warm air, imbued heavily with the scent of cooking food. The lights were on in the little Italian place on the corner; a large, hand-written sign sellotaped into the window announced NOW OPEN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS!
Well, that will cheer him up, thought Crowley, and stepped inside. The place was almost empty, apart from a large table in the corner taken up by a noisy group of young people evidently on their way home from a heavy one. Currently, they were in hysterics over the fact that one of the men was using a handful of spaghetti to form an extravagant moustache on the face of a pretty young woman. Crowley caught himself diverting a glass of red wine right as it teetered towards the crisp white tablecloth; it lurched and then rolled unnaturally back to an upright position, to the delight of the girl who had inadvertently knocked it with her arm.
He turned to the counter. The one waitress on duty was ignoring them and folding a large pile of napkins carefully into swans, tendrils of her hair falling out from her ponytail and over her eyes.
‘Now, I know this is not a takeaway,’ said Crowley, ‘but I have a great big pocketful of cash here and an emergency situation. I’m thinking surely you can put an order in a doggy bag for a, er, nice gentleman?’
‘That’s fine,’ said the woman indifferently, and took down his order of mushroom ravioli followed by tiramisu. Having passed it on to kitchen, and then gone back a second time with the last-minute addition of a side of garlic bread, she went straight back to the napkin folding.
On the other side of the restaurant, there was a shriek of laughter: one of the drunken youths had fallen off his chair and taken the open bottle of wine with him. Crowley watched the burgundy stain spreading out on the carpet with interest. He said to the waitress,
‘Bit of a change of pace for a family restaurant, isn’t it?’
Crowley gestured to sign in the window, and then to the hysterical students.
‘The new opening hours. Got to be brutal. How long have you been doing this for?’
There was a long pause, and then the waitress said, ‘I couldn’t really say, sir.’ He turned sharply at the sound of her voice, which was languid all of a sudden, lifeless. She was looking in his direction, but with unfocused eyes. Well, that was an expression he’d seen before.
Somewhere in the back, a bell rang, and she went off to collect the food from the kitchen. Crowley slid a fifty-pound note over the counter before he left.
Aziraphale seemed to grow by about three inches when he saw what was inside the bag. ‘Oh, really? Oh, this is wonderful!’
He peered into the package with the garlic bread in it, and then held it out to Crowley, who looked searchingly at him as he took it. But Aziraphale was not interested in noticing any suspicious expressions. He clicked his fingers; there was a clattering noise from the kitchenette in the back.
Crowley stepped hastily out of the path of the knife and fork that came catapulting towards them through the air. Aziraphale caught them deftly, and said in a scandalised voice:
‘They don’t use nearly enough pepper in the hotel kitchens.’
After that was silence again, for a while. Sitting back down in his chair, Crowley picked at the garlic bread and watched him eat. Aziraphale showed no sign whatsoever of harbouring any curiosity about how this box of fresh and perfectly-seasoned pasta had been obtained in the middle of the night. Crowley was on the verge of bringing it up several times, but each time he fell short, for some reason. Eventually he did ask something, though.
‘In your towel?’
Aziraphale nodded vigorously, without looking up.
When he was finished, Crowley took the plastic boxes and cutlery to the sink and washed them all, even though either of them could easily have done it faster with a wave of the hand. Then he went through to where Aziraphale was now fussing over some of the damaged books from the fallen bookcase, and leaned casually against a pillar.
‘Oh,’ he said, as if it had only just occurred to him, ‘I almost forgot. Someone was looking for you. Another bookseller, lives in Edinburgh. What was his name? Darling? Dearest?’
‘Dearley,’ Aziraphale replied immediately, his face pinching just slightly. ‘Dear, oh dear, indeed. What did he want?’
‘Not in your good books, then?’
‘He sold me a book with a forged signature in it last year. Should have inspected it more carefully, really, but what can you do?’
‘What can you do?’ mused Crowley. ‘He didn’t sound thrilled with you either. Said that Russian book you sold him was seized by the police.’
Aziraphale stopped dead at that, lowering the book he was holding.
‘The police! Whatever for?’
‘A murder investigation. Crucial evidence written in the back.’
Aziraphale considered this. ‘That’s very strange. I remember some markings. But that was somebody’s gooseberry crumble recipe, I believe.’
‘Must have been a very incriminating gooseberry crumble.’
His friend didn’t seem to be listening. He had ambled over to the desk and started moving some of the papers around aimlessly. ‘Odd…’ he murmured to himself. ‘Very odd.’
‘Well, it’s good to get your own back, isn’t it?’
That caught his attention. ‘Hmm? I don’t know what you mean. I must say, I think perhaps I should start reading all this correspondence. There might be something important.’
Crowley recognised this scene immediately. He knew his lines. But he didn’t really want to say them.
‘Okay. I’ll be in the other room if you need me.’
Aziraphale immediately looked concerned. ‘Oh, no, you’ve done enough already. Surely you’re anxious to get home?’
‘I don’t mind,’ said Crowley, who had never in his life been anxious to get home.
‘But I insist.’
Crowley knew he had to give up then. He was not inexperienced when it came to Aziraphale’s insistence. Still, he found himself hovering in the doorway, not quite sure about leaving. Aziraphale had ended the conversation, but there was something niggling at him – an odd sense that they had never got to the point, that there was something left to say, something missing. That he might be able to find it still, as a parting shot.
I was scared you were dead, he experimented in his head. It’s good to have you back.
Aziraphale was now reading one of the letters intently. Still standing there. Still wearing his outdoor coat.
‘Hey,’ said Crowley. He looked up. ‘Take it easy, okay?’
Chapter 4: Last Known Good Configuration
Using a phone hotspot to post this from a half-empty house because I'm moving this week and completely forgot my internet connection was going to be switched off at the end of the month... literally got cut dead in the middle of streaming sad music at midnight, rude. If I had any sense I'd just get on with packing but I decided to polish off this chapter instead!
Thank you to people who have subscribed/bookmarked/commented/left kudos! It really does mean the world :)
Crowley woke up late in the day and confused, surrounded by the lingering fragments of a bad dream he hadn’t had in quite some time. Scattered half-images were waiting for him on the other side of the bed each time he rolled over: a pair of enormous dark wings unfolding and towering over him, shrieks of mocking laughter echoing around the sweaty corridors of Hell, fingers pointing and voices ringing out. The traitor Crowley, the embarrassment. Look who’s in charge of you now. A pair of burning, crimson eyes looking down on him from on high, searing every inch of him. That particular picture wavered now, alternating this time, for the first time, with eyes that were ice-blue, livid, paralysing. He remembered needing to call the angel first thing in the morning, sometimes, after a dream like that.
He got up, got dressed, wandered around the flat a few times to make sure nothing had changed in his absence. Brushing the dust off a sculpture here, re-examining a tiny scuff on the wall there. It wasn’t the old flat – he had moved, since the day Armageddon hadn’t happened. Partly for safety; partly simply because he had already been there too long. Crowley had never had a place that didn’t eventually accumulate memories he wanted to leave behind, and the ones in that last flat were worse than most. This one was smaller, subtler, plainer. Still on the river, but in a quieter part of town.
He made a very strong coffee, watered the plants in pensive silence. Finally, he stepped out onto the balcony, with the coffee in one hand and his iPhone in the other.
He took a sip and navigated to Aziraphale’s contact page, and then let his finger hover over the ‘call’ icon. What if it actually had been a dream – all of it? If he dialled, and everything was back to how it was yesterday – the phone ringing on and on, Aziraphale gone?
It was a bright, clean winter day. Below him, the Thames gleamed. A couple ran laughing over the bridge in front of his building, stopping halfway to capture a beaming selfie of themselves against the sunny winter backdrop, in their brightly striped hats and scarves.
He hit ‘call’. It did not ring for long.
‘Is that you, Crowley?’
‘Course it’s me. What’s up?’
‘Up? Oh, not very much. Nothing interesting at all in the letters. But do you know, I think you were right about staying here – I feel better already! Actually, I finally realised what it is about the Philosophy section that’s been bothering me for years. I’ve been rearranging by school of thought and it’s –’
‘Great stuff, but did you take the other part of my advice, by any chance?’
‘The other part?’
‘You know. Take it easy. Get some rest.’
‘Oh, yes. Well, of course. It was just a quick sort-out, then you have to wind down, you know, but I suppose I could get some sleep in a minute.’
Crowley took the phone away from his face in order to double check the time. ‘At midday?’
‘At – what do you mean, at midday?’
‘You do realise it was after three in the morning when I left? Over eight hours ago, now?’
There was a very long pause. ‘Of course I realise that.’
‘Well. Here’s what you’re going to do. First, you’re going to open the curtains, all of them. Then you’re going to find whatever you want to eat for breakfast, go wild, have crêpes, anything that takes your fancy. Then you’re going to meet me at the park for a little stroll.’
This was met with another extended pause, and then Aziraphale said in a slightly tragic tone: ‘Oh, I really don’t know about that.’
‘Of course you do, it’s all nice and sunny and stuff. Just a walk. You’ll feel better.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. What’s going to happen? I’ll be there.’
Aziraphale was waiting on the pavement when he arrived, under a row of old plane trees. Pulling up in the Bentley, Crowley could almost have believed nothing whatsoever had happened: he was standing in the just the same way as ever with his hands behind his back and a lost-in-thought expression. As if it was just a normal meeting between the two of them, except that for some reason he had decided to turn up in the worst coat ever. Then Crowley opened the door and got the smell. I’ll get used to it, he told himself firmly, I’ll get used to it, I’ll get used to it…
‘Good morning!’ said Aziraphale cheerfully as he climbed out of the car.
‘Morning,’ replied Crowley, since this seemed less awkward than correcting him again. ‘Get here okay? No, sorry, stupid question. Obviously you’re here. Look at you.’
Aziraphale responded to this with a puzzled look.
‘Never mind. Come on then.’
They left the dusty, tree-lined pavement and went through the great gate into the park. The bright blue winter sky opened up above them, and everything seemed vibrant suddenly, the pale gravel on the wide path throwing the sunlight back up from below. A group of laughing children flashed past them in their primary-coloured winter coats.
‘Go see the ducks?’ Crowley proposed.
Aziraphale, raising one hand to protect his eyes from the glare, squinted down the main thoroughfare, as if trying to see the pond at the other end of it.
‘Looks a bit busy today,’ he said cautiously. ‘Let’s go to the rose garden instead.’
They took a right, setting off along a quiet, wood-chipped path that wound its way through the trees. They walked in silence. There wasn’t anything especially worrying about this at first, because they often kept quiet around one another. But then time went on, stretching out, the path taking them closer and closer to the rose garden, and Crowley became aware of a certain ambient discomfort. Aziraphale was hoping that Crowley was going to think of something to say. Crowley was hoping the same thing of him. It became increasingly obvious that this was awkward silence.
Topics of conversation, thought Crowley. Topics. Conversation. Talk. Things to say to each other. Interesting opening gambits that are not just saying, again but louder, ‘in your TOWEL?!’
Then, out of nowhere, Aziraphale asked:
‘Did you ever finish watching Game of Thrones?’
It took a few moments for Crowley to grasp this. When he did, his mouth opened slightly. ‘Are you telling me that you did finish it?’
‘I didn’t understand the ending at all,’ said Aziraphale, with an expression of vague consternation. ‘I mean, they’ve obviously never seen proper castle-based warfare in their lives, and there was absolutely no reason why that Daenerys woman would go mad after – ’
‘Sssstop!’ interrupted Crowley. ‘No, I didn’t finish watching it! I was emergency house-sitting for someone who refuses to buy a TV for his shop!’
‘Oh. Ah. Don’t worry, that’s not the only thing that happens.’
‘Seriously? You have got to be pulling my leg. You were watching telly? My telly? You complained throughout every single episode, and then you went and finished it yourself while I was waiting around thinking you were dead?’
‘Well, there wasn’t a great deal else to do,’ he said mildly. Then: ‘Did you? Think I was dead?’
Crowley looked down at the wood chippings under his feet. ‘Er… it crossed my mind.’
‘But I put a note in the door.’
Crowley sincerely tried to reconstruct a possible line of reasoning between ‘I have put an ominous note in the door of the shop’ and ‘all aspects of this problem are now resolved, and I need take no further action’. He concluded very quickly that there was none, and also that there was probably no point discussing this with an individual who was anywhere near believing that there might be. Instead he said:
‘See anything else good?’
Aziraphale looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘There’s this one about a female assassin,’ he said, and this got them all the way to the rose garden without having to touch such topics as ‘do they still do the sulphurous pits?’ or ‘you never said anything about spa days??’ with a ten-foot pole.
It turned out that the rose garden was busy, too. Crowley kept looking for a bench, but none seemed to be empty. So they kept walking on through it. The path got more and more charged with people as they went, and Crowley started to get nervous, feeling over-exposed without the cover of trees. He thought he could feel a certain flightiness starting to build up next to him, too, but when he glanced surreptitiously across to read Aziraphale’s expression it was impassive enough. In fact, his whole frantic pace of being had slowed down considerably now that they were outdoors, although Crowley wouldn’t have described it as calmer so much as more guarded. And he couldn’t help noticing that in the full light of day, that soft blue gleam in the eyes was less in evidence; the almost-white seemed flatter, more drained.
‘It’s not the season for them really,’ observed Aziraphale.
Crowley looked around. This was true. Most of the bushes were bare of any blooms.
‘It’s a shame you can’t grow them in your flat, isn’t it? Not indoor plants at all.’
‘No, it isn’t.’
‘Because I don’t do flowers,’ said Crowley, whose nose really had a thing against pollen. ‘I have to live there, remember. I’d be able to smell them.’
‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…’ Aziraphale began to murmur in a sing-song hum.
‘Yes, and that’s the other thing, I’d have to go and bloody ask somebody to sell them to me. Have you heard what they name those things? Am I going to stand there in front of a shopkeeper and ask him to hand me a pot of Gentle Hermione or Little White Pet, and still call myself a respectable – ?’
Crowley stopped, because he could tell by the ‘listening intently’ expression on Aziraphale’s face that he was not listening to him at all. He followed the line of his side-eye to what he realised was the reason for all the crowding on the path: a slight gathering had accumulated around a young man in a cheap and badly-fitting suit, who was standing on the wall, declaiming loudly and brandishing a pale blue leaflet in the air. Crowley immediately knew exactly what was going through Aziraphale’s mind.
‘And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, do not be afraid!’ the preacher was saying. ‘Do not be afraid to shed your false beliefs and your illusions, for there can be no pain in truly knowing our glorious God! Fear instead the Final Judgement! I urge you, fear the eternity of damnation, the fires of Hell, the great – bargh!’
This last was the sound of him receiving a fat globule of seagull shit directly to the face.
‘Oh, foul play!’ exclaimed Aziraphale, as the preacher flailed indignantly, lost his balance and went toppling backwards into a rosebush. ‘It doesn’t count if it’s a miracle!’
They had a long-standing competition over street preachers. Aziraphale had been winning it for many, many years, although the gap had narrowed considerably since Crowley ruled that the same Bible verse must never be quoted more than once. The rules were very simple indeed: whoever was first to get them to shut up for ten seconds straight, earned a point.
Crowley found he was willing to forgo the point today, though.
‘Hmm?’ he said innocently. ‘What was that?’
As usual, Aziraphale allowed himself to be thrown off immediately. ‘Wh… the bird… it was you, wasn’t it?’
‘Little old me?’ Crowley gave a slight pout. ‘I don’t know what you mean. I would never.’
He’d got it; some kind of emotion definitely flitted across Aziraphale’s face at that. But it disappeared too fast for Crowley to catch exactly what it was. Aziraphale looked down at the ground.
‘I don’t think we’re going to find a bench, you know,’ he said.
‘Let’s get out of this bloody garden then.’
‘Fine by me.’
‘Look at that,’ said Crowley as they reached the gate, even though he definitely hadn’t intended to choose a path that would take them back out of the park quite so quickly. ‘A whole stroll. And nothing bad happened. See?’
‘Yes, very enjoyable. I suppose we might as well head back now.’
‘We’ve only been out for about half an hour,’ protested Crowley, and then felt a slight pang of remorse as he turned to meet that uncharacteristically pale face. ‘Tea and cake? What about that one place on Beech Avenue? That’s only five minutes from here.’
Aziraphale looked deeply unconvinced. ‘Is that still open?’
‘Must be. Come on. Remember the pecan tart?’
Clearly Aziraphale really wanted to go home, because the memory of it did not shift his dissatisfied expression. Crowley started walking quickly, before he could dig his heels in. They followed the pavement past the edge of the park to where it became a commercial high street and kept on going, past shops and restaurants.
And more shops. And more restaurants.
Crowley was looking out for the familiar corner with Beech Avenue, the one with the aquarium shop. He kept thinking he recognised it, and then being disappointed. Five minutes passed, and then ten. Alright, so it was a bit further than he had remembered. Could they have gone past it somehow? Maybe the aquarium shop was gone. Who was buying tropical fish these days, anyway? If he didn’t say anything, maybe his reluctant companion wouldn’t notice.
But Aziraphale’s unhappy frown was becoming more and more set.
‘Crowley,’ he said eventually. ‘Beech Avenue isn’t along here.’
‘Then where is it, Mr Navigation?’
‘Well, I don’t know, I just know it’s not here. Don’t you have an A-to-Z stored on your Youphone?’
Aziraphale pointed accusingly at the general area of Crowley’s jacket pocket.
‘Really? Really? iPhone. It’s called an iPhone. And it’s been called that for more than a decade.’
‘You, I, it hardly makes any difference. Just have a look.’
Crowley made a very grumpy face. ‘I left it in the car.’
‘Oh, wonderful. Well, you’ll have to ask someone then, won’t you?’
‘No, I won’t. Because I know where it is. I’ve been living in this city since before these buildings were even a twinkle in an architect’s – ’
‘Yes, and that’s exactly why you don’t know where any of them are.’
‘I don’t need directions.’
‘Fine, then, I’ll ask.’ Aziraphale turned to a kindly-looking woman passing by, holding a small child by the hand. ‘Excuse me, madam,’ he said politely. ‘Do you think you could point us towards – ?’
Crowley had spent thousands of years observing humans reacting to demons. On average, he would say, a solid 60% seemed to notice that something was up; which didn’t correspond exactly to the more intelligent half of the population, but certainly had something to do with it. Of this slender majority, whose responses might range anywhere from subtle defensiveness to outright aggression, only an occasional few would actually be able to attribute their sudden sense of unease to anything specific about the person-shaped being in front of them. Like a bad smell, for example, or an utterly inexplicable fashion decision. Or, perhaps, a pair of really, really disconcerting eyes.
The passing mother looked up from her feet at the sound of Aziraphale’s voice, straight into his almost-white irises. She jumped as if from an electric shock, yanked her daughter closer to her by the arm, and hurried on past without a word.
Aziraphale stopped mid-sentence and turned to watch them go. ‘Oh,’ he said.
Crowley tried to sound offhand. ‘Finally. You get to experience London like the rest of us do.’
‘But I was going to ask her a question.’
‘Don’t take it personally. Come on, let’s keep going.’
‘But – ’
‘Seriously. Stop thinking about it.’ He glanced to his left at the shop they were passing, and had an idea. ‘In here,’ he said, taking Aziraphale’s arm lightly and steering him inside.
On the other side of the door, Aziraphale seemed to take several moments to work out where he was, blinking in adjustment to the sudden dimness of the shop compared to the street.
‘But this is Superdrug. I don’t think they serve tea in here at all.’
‘Very astute of you.’ Crowley was busy casting around for what he wanted. ‘Now, obviously it will all be rubbish in here, but in a pinch…’
He had found his mark and was walking towards it briskly.
‘Oh, hang on, I spoke too soon. Nothing wrong with Ray-Bans.’
He picked up a pair with mirrored lenses, and began turning around.
There was a gentle whoomph sound, similar to the gas finally catching on a hob that’s taken too long to spark, and the glasses in his hand disappeared in a ball of blue flame.
‘Okay. Point taken. No thanks would have been fine.’ He looked up from the burning frames and felt the half-smile melt from his face when he met Aziraphale’s expression. ‘Oh, no. I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘Is it really that bad?’
‘That’s not how I meant it.’
‘But it is how she meant it. And you know that’s true, or you wouldn’t have told me to stop thinking about it.’
Crowley made a sort of creaking noise with his throat, and threw his hands around pointlessly, waving the flaming glasses about like some kind of circus performer as he did so. ‘It’s just… different. Humans hate different. You know what they’re like.’
‘But you hate it, too.’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘Yes, you do. I’m not stupid. You hate it every time you look at me; that’s why you can’t even say my name.’
Crowley dropped the glasses.
If he had been laying accusations like that at someone’s feet, he would have been hopping with rage already; he would have been beside himself. Aziraphale didn’t need to do that, especially not for Crowley. He just said the words, one after another, soft and disappointed.
‘I d – ? No, that’s not… I don’t think I – ’ He forced himself to stop and regroup. ‘It’s not that,’ he said after a long few moments, and was then deeply alarmed to hear that he had now decided to say: ‘It’s just. You know. Back in the day…’
He trailed to a stop.
‘Back in the day what?’ Aziraphale prompted icily.
He had narrowed his eyes. Crowley met them and said, very slowly: ‘Um. I don’t know.’
‘Crowley. I’m not keeping anything from you. Obviously I would have told you right away if you needed to use a different name.’
‘Mm. Yeah. Now you point it out, yeah. Obviously… don’t know what I was thinking.’
But Aziraphale was already not listening. He had turned around and started looking at the door.
‘I don’t like this,’ he said. ‘I’m going to go back to the shop.’
‘Wait a minute – ’
Crowley tried to keep up with him as he barrelled towards the exit, but found his path blocked by a slightly startled-looking cashier pointing in the direction they had just come from.
‘Sorry, is everything alright over there?’ she asked. ‘It smells like there’s a fire.’
‘Um. No fire currently. Bit of a mess on the floor, but it’s not major,’ Crowley said, at exactly the same time as the smoke alarms were triggered. The shop was immediately filled with a piercing electronic wail, and a shower of very cold, very forceful water from the sprinklers. He exchanged a defeated look with the young woman, and then said, ‘Got to go, sorry.’
He ducked slightly to the left to avoid the worst of the spray, and finally made it to the door. Aziraphale was already out on the street, standing on the edge of the pavement and looking intently up and down the street at the passing traffic.
As Crowley came up behind him, he caught sight of what he wanted: a black cab passing down the other side of the road. Aziraphale had a way with taxis which was astounding to most Londoners – they would come to pick him up at the most perfunctory half-raised hand, sometimes to the irritation of passengers already inside. For once, though, even he seemed anxious that he might be passed by; he threw an arm in the air and waved desperately at the car.
‘Excuse me!’ he called. ‘Over here!’
The driver of the cab did not, as they normally did, catch sight of Aziraphale, slow to a crawl, and turn on his indicator as he looked for an opportunity to pull across to the opposite kerb. Instead, he heard a demon’s urgent summons, sat bolt upright with both hands on the wheel, and immediately swerved into oncoming traffic towards him.
The driver of a red Nissan Micra heading southwards discovered that he and a taxi were both attempting to drive into the same specific corner of space-time, and slammed hard on the brakes. This quick-thinking meant that the bonnet-to-bonnet contact between the two vehicles was actually fairly minimal, although the crunch was certainly very loud. The young woman cycling behind the Nissan, however, seemed not to have the presence of mind to do anything except yelp and sail straight into the back of the car.
‘Aah,’ said Aziraphale, as he and Crowley watched her come unseated and arc gracefully through the air above the Nissan.
‘That’s gonna hurt,’ observed Crowley, as she bounced off the side of the car and slid down towards the kerb. Then he realised that Aziraphale hadn’t heard him, because he’d vanished; Crowley looked over his shoulder in surprise and just about caught a hurrying figure disappearing into a narrow passageway that happened to be next to the Superdrug.
Crowley hovered for a moment to assess the situation. The two drivers, now involved in a heated exchange of invective, were completely ignoring the cyclist, but a couple of bystanders had rushed over to help. And the woman was already lifting herself up on her hands, although she was also sobbing in shock. Good enough for him – no time to stand around worrying about non-life-threatening injuries. The ambulance would be along in a minute.
He went into the alley. ‘Look, she’s fine,’ he called out, plunged suddenly into cool darkness. ‘She’s completely fine! … what on Earth are you doing?’
Aziraphale had reversed into a corner behind a large glass-recycling bin, and seemed to be attempting to press himself as far back into the wall as possible.
‘I can’t go anywhere,’ he was saying frantically. ‘I can’t go anywhere. I can’t go anywhere!’
Oh, thought Crowley. There it is. He wasn't sure what it was, exactly; he just knew he'd been expecting it.
‘Of course you can go places,’ he said. ‘You just need to keep calm. Come here.’
He held out a hand. Aziraphale gave it the wide-eyed, terrified look that cornered dogs do, just before ripping it off your wrist. He retracted it quickly.
‘Just come out of there, will you?’
‘Aziraphale,’ said Crowley, as gently as he possibly could. ‘Please?’
Aziraphale closed his mouth and gave Crowley a slightly oblique look, an expression that was difficult to interpret. He didn’t move away from the wall, but he put a hand to his own chest and drew in breath, very slowly, as if trying to reconstitute himself. Then he said, in something more like his usual I’m-cross-with-you voice:
‘Now will you let me go home?’
‘Where else do you think I’m trying to take you?’
Crowley put the hand out again. This time, Aziraphale took it, and allowed himself to be led out from behind the bin.
When they got back to the main road, the two drivers were still arguing with one another, but the girl and her bicycle had disappeared into an ambulance now parked on the side of the road. There was another vehicle there too: Crowley’s Bentley. Definitely not where he had parked it. Somebody must have miracled it there, but Crowley was so rattled that he honestly couldn’t tell whether it had been him or not.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘Car.’
They got in. Crowley slammed the door on the driver’s side and found that he wanted to laugh, for some reason. He grinned maniacally as Aziraphale pulled his seatbelt across and clicked it into place.
‘Well, that went well!’
‘Just go,’ replied Aziraphale humourlessly, unzipping the collar of his coat by a few centimetres as if suffocating in the cold January afternoon.
Crowley pulled away from the kerb and started heading back the way they had come. The traffic was hardly thick, but he found himself crawling tentatively along, as if the road ahead of him was an obstacle course scattered with lost ducklings and baby rabbits. If Aziraphale noticed, he didn’t comment; but Crowley, watching him from the corner of his eye, seriously doubted that he had noticed. His frowning gaze was fixed firmly on the middle distance.
Very nicely done, Crowley. You really cacked that one up, didn’t you? Come on out for a walk, you said. It’ll be nice, you said.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Aziraphale abruptly, into the silence.
‘I’m sorry. For losing my head. I shouldn’t have lost my head.’
Crowley frowned out at the road, unsure of how to take this.
‘Nothing to be sorry about.’
‘The thing is, you’re right. I just need to… pull myself together. You know. Buck up.’
‘Is that what I said?’
‘I’ll be fine. I’ll draw a bath when I get home, everyone feels better after a bath. And we can do something nice tomorrow, can’t we? We can go out for dinner.’
‘Er,’ said Crowley, pulling over. ‘If you’re sure.’
‘Of course I’m sure!’ He looked down in surprise at the sound of Crowley pulling up the handbrake. ‘You’ve stopped. Why have you stopped?’
He started slightly, turned to the window, stared out at the front door of A.Z. Fell & Co.
‘Oh! That’s good.’
‘Can I come in?’
‘What? Oh, no. You go home. See you tomorrow, then! Cheerio!’
Crowley did not go home. When Aziraphale had disappeared into the door of the shop, he drove off down the street, and then he just kept driving. It wasn’t long before he had left London behind completely.
He knew where he was going. But he didn’t formulate the thought explicitly until he was halfway there, and suddenly realised that the corners he was swinging around were not just chosen at random; they were familiar. Old habit. It had been years, but the place was still there, waiting for him to go to it.
He arrived at the front gate of the church just as night was falling, because of course he did. Somehow, without knowing it, he had been anticipating this all day. That was how it always worked. He wondered how long they’d been waiting for him to come knocking.
He climbed out of the Bentley and strolled through the graveyard until he reached the cover of trees. Then he leaned against a trunk and breathed very deeply for a minute, trying to summon the person who knew how to handle this kind of conversation back out of retirement. He faltered, almost went back to the car, then remembered the alleyway and the bin. He had to do something.
Finally he said, simply: ‘Hastur.’
The ground erupted immediately, and the Duke of Hell rose slowly to his full height, soil tumbling from his white wig. He had a particularly disgruntled expression on his face, as if someone had shoved a sharp stick a long way up where they shouldn’t. Crowley wondered who had put it there, and couldn’t help wishing he had been the one to do the honours.
‘Crowley,’ replied Hastur, with loathing. ‘You have some nerve showing your face here.’
‘Hey, I’ll have a little more respect from you, thanks. Haven’t you heard?’ Crowley spread his arms wide, and bowed as if accepting a standing ovation.
‘Heard, you smug little shit?’ Hastur’s voice became slightly pained. ‘I’m the one who had to try and make him use the sodding photocopier!’
Crowley bit his lip.
‘So… I’m assuming my thank-you card got lost in the post?’
Hastur growled slightly.
‘Oh, still think you’re very funny, I see. Well, that demon’s got to be your biggest joke yet. Thank you? For that pathetic idiot? I don’t bloody think so.’
A very tempting fantasy occurred to Crowley in this moment, which involved strangling Hastur extremely slowly and rather painfully with his own filthy tartan scarf. However, he forced himself to put it aside, and concentrate on finding a response which involved actual reasoning and words.
‘You know, it’s possible we’re actually on the same page here, Hastur. You don’t want Aziraphale, he certainly doesn’t want you – there must be a way out of that problem. Couldn’t you just… refuse to have him? Delivery not accepted, please return to sender, something like that?’
‘What are you talking about, you moron?’ demanded Hastur. ‘Return him to Heaven? He’s Fallen. And he must have landed on his head, if you ask me. Face it, Crowley, your friend is finished. The party’s over.’
‘Not to me, it isn’t.’
To Crowley’s surprise, Hastur gave a wheezing laugh.
‘I don’t understand this at all. Obviously, you came here because you know you have the power to bargain. And then you go and ask for something so utterly pointless.’
Crowley processed this for several seconds. ‘I did?’
‘It’s nothing to do with us what happens to Aziraphale now.’ He stopped, and pulled a face. Crowley suspected that he might have been rolling his eyes, not that it was possible to tell. ‘Aziraphale. The demon Aziraphale. Doesn’t it sound ridiculous? He’s no use to you any more, Crowley. Tell me where Beelzebub is, and I can give you anything.’
‘Anything, eh?’ said Crowley, very carefully indeed. Doing his utmost to sound like a villain toying knowingly with his adversary, he went on: ‘And, er… what makes you so sure I know where to find our esteemed Lord and Prince?’
‘You and your little pal have been sharing classified information since Eden, and you expect me to believe he hasn’t told you what he did with them?’ Hastur chuckled. ‘It’s a good thing I’m not as stupid as you. Come on, Crowley. Tell me where Aziraphale sent Beelzebub, and we can make sure no-one ever finds them again. You’ll get the position of your choice, when I’m Prince of Hell.’
Crowley tilted his head to one side and frowned at Hastur. Then he tilted it to the other, but it didn’t help. He turned away from the other demon for a moment, walked around the other side of a tree and mouthed ‘WHAT?!’ silently to himself. Then he walked back. Hastur was waiting.
‘I thought I was a traitor,’ Crowley said. ‘Unforgivable. Sentenced to death.’
‘For the right price… that situation could change. Stranger things have happened. You’re the demon who survived his own execution, after all.’
Crowley nodded. He raised a finger. ‘Alright. Prove your goodwill to me, and I will think about accepting your offer.’
‘Send me… a case of vintage whiskey stolen directly from the cellars at Sandringham. Whichever case would annoy the Duke of Edinburgh most specifically to lose. And oh, a box of those little cinnamon pastries that they used to make everywhere in Paris before the Revolution. I don’t know what they’re called but they have some kind of cream filling. And nobody seems to sell them any more. Just… find the one person on Earth who does.’
‘Is that all?’
‘It will be arranged.’
‘Great,’ said Crowley hastily. ‘Brilliant. Pleasure doing business with you. I’ll be in touch very shortly. Once the proof has arrived.’
He turned on his heel and tried to get to the Bentley as fast as possible without making it completely obvious that he was running away.
He had to throw several glances over his shoulder to convince himself that Hastur really was definitely gone before firing up the engine. Then he skidded away with a sharp lurch of over-acceleration; not that it did him much good, because he stalled just seconds later, abusing third gear as he tried to pull out of the churchyard. For a dreadful few moments he was fumbling over the controls, as if he didn’t know what order to do things in, as if he couldn’t just drive the stupid thing by occult power anyway. He turned the key and the engine just shivered futilely.
‘Come on,’ he shouted, over the uncomfortable sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, and tried the key again. Nothing happened. He banged his fist frantically on the dashboard. ‘Wake up! I need you. Come on!’
The car woke up. He lurched forward again from the churchyard, put pedal to the metal, and tore down the road back to London as fast as was humanly possible. Demonically possible. Possible. Fuck.
Chapter 5: Table Manners
Hello all! I'm hungover today, hope your weekends have also started well! Sorry I didn't update last weekend - the chapter was nearly done but I had to drive across the country and back. However, I did swerve my car across the road while trying to put on sunglasses one-handed, so that counts as getting into character, right?
Aziraphale was late. Crowley had been sitting at a small table in a recessed corner for about twenty minutes, and was working on his second aperitif, by the time he came slowly across the restaurant, looking solemn and slightly processional. Clearly the extra time had been dedicated to Pulling Himself Together; he was wearing his own clothes again, although nothing Crowley had seen for the last fifty years. The effect was very nearly successful.
‘Wotcher,’ said Crowley, as Aziraphale pulled out a chair. ‘Nice suit.’
Aziraphale smiled such a sudden, genuine smile that Crowley almost wished he hadn’t said it.
‘Oh, do you think so?’ he asked, looking down at it and tugging at a pale grey lapel slightly. ‘It took me ages to dig out something suitable… I never was sure about this one…’
‘Well, anything works for me, as long as it’s not that bloody ski jacket.’ Crowley decided not to ask what had happened to his favourite coat. ‘Feeling any better?’
Aziraphale pondered this for a moment or two, with the worried expression of one who doesn’t want to give the wrong answer to a trick question. ‘Yes, I think so.’
They sat quietly for a moment as Aziraphale examined the menu. Crowley examined a dead fly that was squashed into the wall near his head and wondered how on Earth he was going to bring up the topic of… well.
He looked at the suit again. There really was something odd about it. Technically, the fact that it belonged recognisably to the twentieth century made it the most modern thing he had worn for quite a long time; but since it had disappeared into an unknown wardrobe for so long, it looked much more dated and unfamiliar than the fussy waistcoat. Crowley found himself remembering the days when Aziraphale dressed like any other angel. Lots of those days, there had been: all the latest fashions and the newest fads, gleaming and fresh and perfectly tailored, stitched tightly together with gold and silver thread. Keeping up with the Kardashians. As if it had been exciting to wear a ruff and go see the latest thing from that hot young playwright.
There must have been a day when he decided to dig his heels in, start gathering dust. But Crowley realised that he couldn’t work out when it was. It had something to do with opening the shop, he knew that. Part of the confession implicit in acquiring floor space: this is where I stop. I can’t keep moving; I’ve too much to carry.
Their waiter approached with a notebook in his hand and an ingratiating smile.
‘Something to start, gentlemen?’
Crowley looked back across at Aziraphale to see if he had made a decision, and nearly jumped out of his skin. His eyes were back: gentle, pebble-coloured, human-pleasing.
‘Ah, yes. I’ll have the toast and pâté, I think,’ he said, flashing an ingratiating smile right back. ‘Thank you.’
‘Certainly. And for you?’
‘Er…’ said Crowley, who hadn’t looked at the menu. ‘How about soup?’
‘Our soup of the day is spiced parsnip. Would you like to order that?’
‘Sure thing. Why not?’ He handed back the unopened menu. ‘And some wine?’
‘Yes, you know. The alcohol. Made from grapes.’
‘Bring us a bottle of the 2016 Merlot,’ interrupted Aziraphale. ‘That should do nicely.’
‘Very good. I’ll go and get that for you straight away.’
The waiter finished scribbling his notes, smiled again at the pair of them and went away in the direction of the bar. There was a quiet, sharp intake of breath that Crowley could tell he wasn’t meant to have heard, and the pigment drained back out of Aziraphale’s irises.
He glanced across at Crowley’s expression and shifted slightly awkwardly in his seat.
‘Still getting the hang of it,’ he said, with forced lightness.
I wish you wouldn’t, Crowley wanted to say. But he didn’t. Instead, he just removed his sunglasses, and laid them down next to him on the table.
‘You must have had a terrible time finding parking round here,’ said Aziraphale, clearly keen to move the conversation onwards.
Crowley squinted at him. ‘No. Would you have any interest in hearing about it if I did?’
‘Of course I would.’ Crowley left the disbelieving expression in place. ‘I’m just being polite.’
‘Yes, but if I wanted somebody to politely listen to me complain about parking, I’d be having dinner with a Geography teacher, not you. Surely something must have happened to you in the last three months that is interesting enough to tell me about?’
Aziraphale’s face lit up a little. ‘Well, I have been wanting to tell you about this wonderfully inaccurate historical novel I’ve been reading – ’
Crowley made very little effort to pretend he was listening to the ensuing anecdote, but apparently his slightly wide-eyed stare was satisfying enough evidence for Aziraphale that the story was welcome and should continue. When the waiter came back with the wine, Aziraphale suddenly stopped speaking mid-flow, and did the trick with the eyes again. Crowley tried to look elsewhere.
After diligently showing them the label, the waiter did some deft work with a corkscrew, and began pouring. He filled Aziraphale’s glass first, and then Crowley’s.
‘Little bit more?’ said Crowley. ‘Keep going, keep going… Stop!’
The waiter gave Crowley a poorly-concealed look of judgement and left the bottle on the table. Aziraphale had raised his eyebrows, but only in a gently amused kind of way.
‘Well, since you’re obviously in the mood to toast. Any suggestions?’
‘To not being in Hell!’ said Crowley, raising his glass.
Aziraphale nodded wordlessly to that. They touched glasses briefly, and then both took a sip.
‘Hmm. That’s rather nice. 2016, that was quite a summer, wasn’t it? I was actually in France when I heard what had happened with the vote, you know – shame you weren’t there, it was a very good time to be near a vineyard – and…’ Aziraphale came slowly to a stop, watching Crowley finish the last mouthful of his wine and place the empty glass back on the table. ‘Crowley, is something wrong?’
‘Wrong?’ he repeated. ‘What could possibly be wrong? It’s all peachy. Tell me, who could look at this situation and say that anything was less than normal about it?’
Aziraphale put his own, barely-touched glass back down on the table. ‘I think we’re still allowed to have dinner, aren’t we?’
‘Oh, yes. No, don’t mind me. Do go ahead. Tell your story.’
‘Well, obviously there’s something you want to say more than you want to hear it. So. Out with it.’
Crowley refilled the glass, took another healthy gulp. Tried to think of a sensitive way to proceed.
‘Not me, actually,’ he said after a moment. ‘You. You need to talk, Aziraphale.’
‘I thought that’s what I was doing.’
‘Not about wines and Brexit, banana-brain. About what happened while you were in Hell.’
‘Oh,’ said Aziraphale, his face falling suddenly. ‘Really? Over dinner?’
‘Aziraphale. You told me you persuaded them. I thought you meant you said I was going to come and douse the lot of them with holy water unless they let you go, or something like that.’
The woeful look stopped dead in its tracks.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve been talking to Hastur, alright?’
‘Because we need help, that’s why.’
‘Yes. From upstairs.’ Aziraphale pointed meaningfully at the ceiling.
‘From wherever we can get it,’ snapped Crowley, although this was far from the first answer that had popped into his head. ‘And that’s not the point. The point is, you need to tell me what you did with Beelzebub.’
Aziraphale suddenly discovered that there was a loose thread on the cuff of his jacket, and that this issue required his full attention.
Crowley leaned forward and said, in his most demonic growl: ‘Right. Now.’
‘Well, I don’t know, do I?’ he confessed, in an undertone. ‘They were going to keep me down there forever and I had to do something. So I just… sent them away.’
‘You sent them away.’ Crowley leaned back in his chair and stared at his friend. So help me, he thought, I am a hated fugitive from Hell and now it turns out the guy driving my getaway vehicle has no clue what the fuck he’s doing any more. ‘You sent them away? And you don’t even know where? That is the literal Prince of Hell we are talking about. You cannot just do things like that.’
‘It wasn’t exactly a premeditated decision.’
‘Yes, that is fairly obvious, but could you not have meditated a little bit after the fact?’ Crowley could hear the pitch and pace of his own voice rising rapidly; cool it, said a warning tone somewhere far in the back of his head, but he couldn’t seem to pause for long enough to digest the idea. ‘Did you not once stop and think, oh, perhaps Crowley would like to know that our boss is currently on an enforced vacation somewhere, coming up with detailed plans to hang, draw, and quarter the pair of us?’
Aziraphale spent a moment considering this suggestion.
‘You can’t hang a demon,’ he said, with a little frown of annoyance.
Crowley nearly flung a bread roll at him.
‘You told me you weren’t keeping anything from me!’
‘I was being specific.’
‘Right, of course. Anything, that famously specific term. So just to be clear, in a very general sense, is there anything else I need to know? Anyone else that you dispatched while you were down there, for example?’
Aziraphale tutted. ‘I didn’t dispatch anyone, thank you. Beelzebub is perfectly alright somewhere or other. I think. And there might have been one or two… sore heads… for a little while, but nothing worse than that.’
It might have been something to do with the wine, but Crowley had started to feel that he was being spun around very fast on a roundabout that nobody would let him get off.
‘Oh, good. Very reassuring. No lasting injuries, I bet that will really correct the balance on your celestial scorecard.’
‘It’s Hell,’ he protested. ‘They’re demons. I hardly think it counts.’
‘Aziraphale,’ Crowley burst out, as if saying it loudly enough would somehow put him through to the person he needed to speak to. ‘Listen to yourself! What do you think they get up to down there, making daisy chains and friendship bracelets? You think taking a few pot-shots before you go proves you’re better than them, is that it? Demons are not exactly supposed to like each other!’
‘I see.’ Aziraphale unrolled the napkin from around his knife and fork; but instead of tucking it into his front, he simply laid it on the tabletop and started smoothing it out with his fingers. ‘How lucky I am to be enlightened by you, Crowley.’
‘Come on. Are you really going to tell me you did it from the loving-kindness of your heart?’
Aziraphale closed his eyes. ‘I suppose not.’
‘And it’s not like it ends there, is it? Mr Dearley’s book, your little Italian place, that poor woman on her bike. And that’s just the times I’ve caught you. Are you seriously going to keep pretending none of that happened? Or do you think you’re going to explain it all away to some archangel? Oh, I wasn’t supposed to switch sides, you can tell because I’ve only been effecting the occasional minor self-centred evil?’
‘Yes, alright. I think you’ve made your point.’ He hesitated, glanced up from the table at Crowley for just a fraction of a moment. ‘You want me to give up.’
They both fell silent as the waiter came up to their table again, with a shallow bowl in one hand and a plate in the other. Aziraphale decidedly did not remember to do anything about his eyes.
‘Here we are. One foie gras pâté, and one parsnip soup.’
Neither so much as looked at the other as their respective starters were placed in front of them, and the waiter took what seemed an excruciatingly long time to pour out two large glasses of water.
At last he placed the carafe back on the table with a polite flourish and moved away from them again. Only then did Crowley say quietly,
‘No, that is the last thing I want. It’s just…’ He groped helplessly for the things he’d been planning to say on this subject, the ones that sounded considered and understanding. ‘Whatever’s going to help… it isn’t this.’
‘Fine,’ replied Aziraphale abruptly, as if in response to a completely different conversation about how to redecorate their living room. ‘Yes, fine. Far be it from me to disagree with you, the expert. Now, shall we get on with our meal?’
He picked up his knife and fork and began tackling the toast and pâté with uncharacteristic briskness.
Understanding that it was useless to try and continue with the conversation, Crowley poured himself another glass of wine and drank it. Then he picked up a spoon and applied it to his bowl of parsnip soup, although admittedly not in the manner of a grown adult for whom the presence of a spoon in soup is nothing more than a momentary and extremely uninteresting prelude to the presence of soup in his mouth. He swirled the liquid around the bowl once or twice, as if mixing in an imaginary dollop of crème fraîche. Eventually he lifted a spoonful out, but only in order to pour it back in. Then he refilled the spoon very slowly, watching the soup rush in over the sides.
After repeating this process a couple of times, he became aware that Aziraphale had stopped eating his pâté and was watching him with a frostily irritated glare.
‘Sorry,’ he muttered, and quickly took a large mouthful of soup.
And even more quickly regretted it.
Fire tore its way through his mouth and up his nose. Involuntarily, he made a ‘hnnnrrggh!’ sound and spat the soup out over the tablecloth, but it didn’t do much to help: his tongue, rather over-sensitive at the best of times, had been unexpectedly bombed with an acrid substance and was not going to get over it quickly. He chucked the spoon onto the table and brought his hand up to cover his mouth as he spluttered for air.
Clocking the fact that one of his esteemed guests had just started trying to cough his lungs out, their waiter came sprinting back to the table. He stood nervously over Crowley, waving his hands in confusing ways that seemed to indicate a powerful urge to either pat him on the back or rub him on the shoulder, quickly stifled by the requirements of professional decorum.
‘Sir, is something wrong? Are you choking?’ Eyes streaming, Crowley shook his head. ‘Allergic reaction?’ Crowley shook his head again.
‘Too much – mustard,’ he spluttered, pointing at the parsnip soup.
The waiter frowned down at the bowl. Then he dipped the end of his little finger into the liquid and gingerly brought it to his mouth. The last remnants of professional composure disappeared.
‘Christ!’ he said, seized the bowl and ran off.
Crowley got to his feet and picked up the water jug. ‘Need some air,’ he croaked – presumably for Aziraphale’s benefit, although he found he was decidedly not looking at him – and made a beeline for the front door. Other diners glanced nervously up at him as he passed.
He had processed about half the jug, taking great swigs to gargle them and spit them back out in the gutter, when Aziraphale finally came out. He did have the grace to look very ashamed.
‘Are you alright?’
‘You petty bastard!’
‘Oh dear. I am sorry. I think I must have lost my temper.’
‘Hmm,’ said Crowley. ‘Yeah. It’s possible, isn’t it? Just possible that you did.’
The doors to the restaurant opened again, and their waiter appeared there, looking around with an air of barely-contained panic.
‘Piss off, I’m nearly done with it,’ said Crowley, waving the carafe.
‘No, I just wanted to inform you. I’m so sorry about the mistake. I’ve spoken to the chef, and it was one of our apprentices who knocked the jar in and didn’t report it. She’s been dismissed immediately. And we would be honoured to welcome you back for a meal on the house, any time you like, sir.’
‘Nah, you’re alright,’ said Crowley. ‘Go on, have it back.’
He tossed the carafe at the waiter, who displayed some fairly impressive reflexes in managing to catch it, although he couldn’t stop the water from sloshing out and over the front of his apron. For a moment he looked like he was considering apologising again, but then he clearly decided against it and ran back into the restaurant without a word.
Crowley checked his watch and then turned to Aziraphale, who was looking slightly seasick. ‘Well, look at that! It’s not too late.’
‘You go down now, you’ll be in time for Deeds of the Day. Oh, they’ll love that one. I humiliated the traitor Crowley in public and deprived an innocent young woman of her livelihood. Soon she will give up on her vocation completely and within a year, we shall have her –’
‘Stop it, would you?’
‘What do you mean? It’s perfect. It’s exactly the kind of stupid shit they were always telling me to do. Small-minded, cruel – ’
‘I said stop it!’
Crowley was telling himself to stop it, too, actually: specifically, to stop bashing at things with the making-it-worse stick. He was just having a very hard time figuring out how.
‘Okay, I’m a git. I know, I’m a git. But so are you.’
‘I really didn’t mean to do it.’
‘But you did do it.’
‘And I said I was sorry, alright? I’m sorry, Crowley!’
Crowley groaned, and rubbed his hands over the top half of his face. ‘Do you wanna know what else Hastur told me?’
‘He said he thinks you’re finished. Done for. That’s why they let you go, Aziraphale! That’s the only reason they haven’t destroyed you for whatever it was you did down there. They think they don’t have to. Because you’re going to do it yourself.’
Aziraphale looked down at his feet.
‘Well?’ said Crowley desperately. ‘Is he right?’
‘Of course not.’
‘So will you please find a way to prove it? Because let me tell you, you cannot afford to just check out from reality like this. If you don’t snap out of it, you are going to end up sleepwalking over a cliff-edge. And that is something I can’t watch.’
Silence. Aziraphale lifted his gaze and stared at Crowley. His expression was no longer nauseous or tearful; just serious. Unreadable. Under the sodium-orange of the street lighting his irises were glinting, very slightly.
‘Do you want to call it a night?’ asked Crowley.
‘I think that’s for the best.’
‘Any interest in a lift?’
‘I’ll get the bus. And I suggest you walk.’
‘Huh,’ said Crowley, a noise somewhere between irritation and laughter. ‘Of course. Wouldn’t want to cause any accidents.’
He did something with his mouth that absolutely wasn’t a smile, but had some superficial resemblance to one.
‘Sleep well, Crowley.’
Then he was walking away in the other direction.
Crowley did go off on foot, in the direction of his flat. But once around the first corner, he lost the will to keep walking; actually, he very nearly lost the will to stay upright. The rush of panic had worn off, and his energy had gone with it, draining away like someone had pulled the plug on him. He found himself leaning his head against a wall once again. Anger? he asked himself, furiously. Really? Anger? That’s what you decided to fucking go for, you IDIOT demon?
He conked his forehead against the wall a few times, for good measure.
Then he pushed himself back to a standing position with one hand, and carried on.
He’d managed to keep going for nearly five minutes when realised he was passing the front door of a pub he’d always liked the look of, bright and warm and cheery with a shelf of board games, and slowed to an almost-stop. It wasn’t even late, yet. Might as well stop for one, before going home. Watch the humans having a nice time. He didn’t feel any hurry to be sitting alone in the flat.
It was busy; he had to prop up the bar for a few minutes before he got any service. He kept turning around when he was jostled from behind, half-thinking that someone was trying to get his attention. Fancy seeing you here, Crawley – Crowley – whatever your name is now. Still a demon, then? Yes, you silly nitwit, always and fucking forever. Why would you make me say it?
Eventually the young hipster manning the bar came over and shouted ‘What can I get you?’ over the top of the beer taps.
‘Bottle of house red.’
‘Sure. How many glasses?’
‘Just the one.’
‘Cool. Give me two secs.’
The bartender gave him slightly too long a look when he returned with the drink, and Crowley’s hands went automatically to where his glasses should have been, in his pocket. But they weren’t there. He spent several moments patting himself down and rummaging in random places before he realised that he’d left them on the table in the restaurant. That stupid fawning waiter had probably cleared them away by now, along with the unfinished merlot and the plate of pâté.
He sighed, picked up the bottle, and went over to a table in the window. There he sat, sipping slowly, and watching humans make their way down the street. It was early enough in the evening that most of them looked like they were on their way somewhere, instead of on their way home: dresses and shirts and eyeliner were all still crisp and correct. Some of them looked excited about whatever was ahead of them that evening; a few looked upset or nervous; most were just inscrutable, preoccupied, indifferent. But none of them – he thought – looked bothered by the idea that they might belong anywhere except here, on the firm ground of soil and concrete and London paving stones. On God’s green Earth.
 Nothing, in fact – the legend of the man who had vanished leaving all his clothes in a locker would be passed fondly down by the staff at the New Eden for a good few years to come. Although eventually most dismissed it as apocryphal, due to some too-obviously embellished details, like the velvet waistcoat.
Chapter 6: Demonic Arts (and Crafts)
I just realised I forgot my cup of tea and it's gone cold! Devastating! Anyway, happy Sunday, here's a new chapter.
‘Committees,’ Crowley muttered to himself in his shower the next morning, trying to prise the soap off the wall-mounted dish. ‘Formalities. Paperwork. It doesn’t make sense.’
The soap came unstuck all at once and shot through the air, straight into his face. ‘Shit,’ he exclaimed, attempting to catch it, but it just bounced chaotically around his wet arms and chest before ending up at his feet anyway. He dived to pick it up, slipped on a trail of lather, and cracked his forehead straight into the tiled wall. ‘FUCK it!’
Once he was washed, dried and dressed, he stopped in front of the bathroom mirror and ran his fingers over the slight, reddened lump. He could swear this body got damaged more easily than it used to. Hopefully it wouldn’t bruise. Or he’d have to tell people he got into a fight, or something.
His fingers left the lump, fussed over the arrangement of his hair briefly. Then he stopped, hands falling to rest on the rim of the sink, and simply peered into his own yellow eyes.
Shut your stupid mouth and die already. Oh, to have that face in front of him again so that he could not make the mistake of stopping short with the ball of flame. It may be worse than we thought.
He pulled away from the mirror, found himself pacing back and forth around the flat. What would this have looked like, if it had happened back then? They might have been ready. Still flushed from the exhilaration of risking it all, still ready to renegotiate everything about their relationship to Heaven and Hell, whatever that might mean. It would have seemed justified, at least: defy Heaven, get kicked out. Neat. Comprehensible.
As it was, they’d had plenty of time to get used to the idea that they could have their cake and eat it too. To fall back into old habits. To get lazy. Pull the comfortable rug from under them, and there they went, reeling like a pair of drunken idiots: you couldn’t have designed a better way to incapacitate a dangerous pair of renegades. If Crowley didn’t know any better, he would have said that somebody very cunning had done it on purpose.
But there was not one angel in Heaven capable of that kind of imagination. Right?
He came to a halt in front of the Mona Lisa and addressed her.
‘Aziraphale. Can you not see that we’ve been had?’
No; that was too harsh. He needed to sound… he wasn’t sure yet how he needed to sound, but definitely not like he had yesterday. No accusations.
He faltered slightly, hearing the familiar sound of the name fill up the silent apartment. He would have told Crowley right away. Wouldn’t he? For there not to be a new one seemed… implausible. But so did turning up to Hell in a bath towel, launching Beelzebub into the next dimension, and being allowed to come home in one piece. Things, evidently, were not what they were.
He went in for another attempt.
‘Aziraphale. Listen. I don’t understand what’s happened here any more than you do. Obviously, Gabriel wanted you out. But there’s a reason he didn’t know whether you’d Fallen or not, isn’t there? I don’t think he can actually... make it happen. And whatever this story with the paperwork is – that’s not how it happens either. Somebody decides. And I’m pretty sure they don’t get it mixed up.’
The problem was, the Mona Lisa never looked upset. She just looked the same, always. Aziraphale, when he was listening to this, would not be smiling serenely into the distance. And why would he? Whichever way you spun it, Crowley was trying to talk him into believing something much bleaker than what he wanted to believe. Something miserable, in fact.
Crowley closed his eyes and spoke again; but it wasn’t Aziraphale he imagined in front of him this time. ‘And to think, for a second there, I really thought you might not be on their side. Thanks for clearing that one up.’
Giving up for the time being, he went into the other room and started watering the plants. It had to be said that they were looking even more radiant than usual. Still, he automatically began surveying them for imperfections, leaf by leaf and inch by inch, almost hoping to find an aphid or a wilting corner. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. After a while he found that he was just sitting there, feeling the glossy surface of a cheeseplant leaf between his fingers. Not because there was anything wrong with it, but because the texture was nice.
‘We’re on our own side,’ he told it. ‘Remember? You know there’s nothing for you up there. They think they’re going to get the better of us like this. Don’t let them. Angel, demon, it doesn’t have to matter. It’s just a – formality…’
He tailed off. Formalities. That was one of Aziraphale’s Heaven words, creeping into his explanation; one of Hell’s, too, actually. A lying sort of word. They both knew it wasn’t a technicality, a file that could be easily slipped from one folder to another and back again without much consequence. Aziraphale knew it, or he wouldn’t be going to such desperate lengths to convince himself that it was; Crowley knew it, and had done a better job than anyone of finding ways to prove it.
He let go of the leaf.
Aziraphale seemed vaguely surprised to see him when he got to the shop in the late afternoon. He was just crossing the room in a preoccupied sort of way as Crowley came in the door; when he realised who it was, he stopped in his tracks.
‘Hello,’ he said, in an odd, half-questioning tone of voice.
He was wearing that nice, soft grey housecoat, and his reading glasses. Crowley found all this a great deal more reassuring than the dinner jacket, although he still looked slightly like something you might find down the back of the sofa when rearranging the furniture for the first time in years.
‘Nice to see this place open again,’ said Crowley. ‘Thought we should probably talk.’
‘Oh. Yes.’ He frowned slightly, inspecting Crowley’s face. Crowley thought he might be about to ask where his sunglasses were, but then he said: ‘What happened to your head?’
Crowley put a hand to the lump awkwardly. So it had bruised, then; this thing was definitely getting worn out.
‘Tripped over,’ he said sheepishly. In the cold light of day I fought off an armed robber had to be discarded rapidly, and he rejected I fell in the shower even faster. ‘Dodgy paving stone.’
Aziraphale, he could tell, was unconvinced. ‘I do hope you weren’t doing anything silly.’
‘I don’t know. You always find something.’
Aziraphale tapped his finger to his own forehead once or twice. Crowley was mystified by this gesture until he felt an easing sensation, as a slight pain above his eyebrow that he hadn’t even been noticing disappeared for good.
‘Thanks for that. Not a bad time, is it?’
‘Actually, I was just in the middle of something… but you might be able to help me out.’
Aziraphale beckoned, but when Crowley got within a few feet he turned away and pointed him on towards the back of the shop.
‘In there – go on, let me just find what I was looking for and I’ll be through in a moment.’
Crowley went on in, and found himself confronted by a back room that was even more strewn with random items than normal. A trestle table had been laid out in the middle of it, taking up most of the narrow space. It was cluttered with what looked like the equipment for some kind of madcap craft session: sheets of cardboard and fabric, pots of glue, paint brushes, craft knives, various stacks of yellowed paper and disconcertingly unidentifiable scruffy shavings. Most concerningly, there was also a large object that looked like a peculiar wooden torture vice.
‘What’s all this?’
‘Just a bit of rebinding,’ said Aziraphale, coming to stand at his shoulder. ‘I got started this morning.’
It dawned on Crowley that the forlorn little bundles of paper in the centre of the chaos were actually books, strangely unrecognisable with their broken covers removed and stacked in pieces next to them. He was about to ask where they came from, when he remembered what had happened to the bookcase by the door on a certain unmentionable evening.
‘Oh,’ he said.
‘Well.’ Aziraphale shrugged. ‘No use crying over spilt milk.’
‘I did have good intentions…’
‘There’s a saying about that, isn’t there?’
Crowley turned to give him A Look in return for that one, but he was already gone, edging his way round to the far end of the trestle table and placing down the small pile of mildewy-looking books he was holding in his hands.
‘Anyway, I’m fairly confident it’s all fixable. Won’t be worth half what I bought them for, of course, but it’s not like I was keeping them for the money.’
Crowley approached the table too, and picked up the dismantled cover on the top of the pile, examining the fraying edge down one side of the spine and the spot where a corner had been bent back by impact. ‘You know, you could always just… snap your fingers over them.’
‘Oh, right you are!’ Aziraphale clapped a hand to his forehead dramatically. ‘Silly me. Whatever am I doing with this shop full of tatty old books? I should just miracle them all as good as new. Maybe then I’d finally get bought out by Waterstones.’
Crowley dropped the cover back onto the pile. ‘Come on, you know I’m not talking about the whole shop. It’s only a few books. It wouldn’t kill you.’
‘The point is, Crowley, this way I won’t look at them and think about how they got broken. I’ll think about how they got repaired.’
Aziraphale took a seat at the other end of the table, and began gathering bits and bobs towards himself. Crowley cleared his throat.
‘So what is it you need me to do, exactly?’
‘Well, you could start by cutting out the new boards,’ said Aziraphale. He picked up a large sheet of thick cardboard and held it out to Crowley. ‘Three for each book. One for the front, one for the back, one for the spine. And you’ll need to make sure the sizes match exactly.’
Crowley took it from him and sat down. He picked up the innards of a book and looked at it, then looked at the piece of board. He lifted them both into the air and held one up against the other.
Two white-blue eyes were watching nervously. ‘I would suggest cutting it roughly down to size first. Then you can measure the exact dimensions out with a ruler.’
Crowley picked up a pair of scissors.
A faint whistling sound emanated from the kitchenette behind them. Aziraphale’s face brightened suddenly, with the simple excitement of an ageless supernatural force who had completely forgotten he already put the kettle on.
‘Cup of tea?’ he said, rising from his chair.
‘Go on. No sugar.’ Crowley paused briefly, deciding if he was feeling lucky. Then: ‘No horseradish sauce either.’
He turned on the threshold of the kitchenette, looked wounded. ‘I already said sorry, didn’t I?’
‘I know. Just provoking you.’
By the time Aziraphale came back and placed a tartan-patterned mug on the table next to him, Crowley felt he was making progress. He had some manageable-sized pieces of board next to him. He had a ruler in his hands, which was an unfamiliar sensation but not a bad one. He had also located a pencil, and he was about to work out a way of combining the two tools to productive effect.
He stopped, though, because after Aziraphale had sat down again with his own cup of tea, he had gone on to pick up a sharp knife and start slicing books open with it.
Obviously, step one of putting a new cover on a book was to take off the old one. But there was still something disconcerting about the sight of it, and Crowley was slightly transfixed by his concentrated little frown as he scored precisely down four seams, then cracked the cover back and off the interior with a practised motion. He wanted to be reassured by the careful, competent hands – he realised just how long it had been since last October, since last seeing Aziraphale at home in his own skin – but instead he simply felt a sort of heaviness make its home beneath his sternum.
Eventually he forced himself to look away and back at what he was meant to be doing.
He picked up the book again, and started measuring the length and width of the pages with the ruler, trying to commit millimetre measurements to memory. Once he was finished, he paused before putting the book aside, noticing the slight texture left behind on the paper by the printing press. He ran his finger across the lettering on the title page, feeling how it had been stamped in place.
‘Lourdes,’ he read aloud. ‘Zola. One of your French bastards. Any good?’
‘Not at his most riveting in that one.’
‘Ah. So, catastrophically boring, if that’s your verdict...’ He let his index finger linger over the author’s name again. ‘What does the Z stand for, by the way?’
Aziraphale glanced up from his work, put his head on one side slightly. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘A. Z. Fell. Never really figured that one out.’
He frowned across at Crowley for a few moments. ‘Well. Nothing.’ Then he smiled a little. ‘It’s just a Z, really.’
Crowley smiled a little back.
‘Of course, technically it’s the A that doesn’t make sense,’ he went on. ‘Since A is not a name, on its own. A – Zira – Fell…’
‘I wouldn’t overthink it. One has to put something on the sign.’
‘Yyyes,’ said Crowley. ‘Keeping up appearances, right?’
No reply to that, just the gentle sound of the knife scraping at the glue.
Crowley, who had drawn himself a cutting guideline on one of the pieces of board, finished checking and double-checking the dimensions and put his hand back in the scissors. It wasn’t very comfortable; the board was almost too thick for them to get through, and his fingers immediately remembered that this plastic prison had been rather painful during the last round of cutting. He did his best to ignore the stiffness, and got on with cutting along the lines.
It didn’t go very well. It was quickly apparent that the edges of the piece were going to be rough and wavering, rather than straight and tidy. Crowley became increasingly annoyed at the distance between the elegant oblong of cardboard he had been going to create in his mind, and the rudimentary-looking thing he was hacking out in reality. The next thing he knew, the scissors had sheered unexpectedly to the left and bit down the very middle of the rectangle he had painstakingly drawn out.
‘Agh! Bugger!’ He struggled heroically for a moment to get the scissors out of the cardboard and his fingers out of the scissors, then finally succeeded and chucked them both onto the table in a futile rage. As he did so, a loose elbow connected with the tartan mug. There was an ominous clunk, and then tea was pooling over his corner of the table, soaking into the bits of board. ‘RrrrRRRR! Shit! Stupid fiddly shit! You know I’m useless with this kind of thing, ang– ’
He stopped himself.
Aziraphale didn’t answer for a while. When Crowley finally dared to look up at him, he was surveying the lake of tea and soggy cardboard with an expression of wearied irritation.
‘You’re not paying attention, that’s all,’ he said, and then picked up another sheet of board from the stack next to him on the table. ‘Here. Start again. But go slowly this time, please. I haven’t got that many spares.’
I shouldn’t have stopped myself, thought Crowley, taking the board and vanishing the tea with a flick of the finger. Then he thought, no, I should. Someone should have come up to me, back in the Beginning, when I was a freshly-made angel getting ready to open my mouth and speak for the first time ever, and said: don’t do it, pal. It’s much more trouble than it’s worth.
They carried on working in silence.
After several minutes, Aziraphale said:
‘Oh, I meant to tell you. I tried to follow your theory again.’
‘The eight-hour one. I’m still not sure.’
‘It isn’t my theory, it’s biology. Should be in the user guide.’
‘I’m not disputing that it’s very nice. I’ve always liked a good sleep, here and there. I just don’t think it makes any difference. In that way.’
Crowley looked at the dark circles under Aziraphale’s eyes, which were still unusually pronounced even by his standards, and felt that this was probably the opinion of a being who had never experienced genuine well-restedness in his life.
‘You can’t just do it once, you have to start the habit. It’s all about consistency. Effects over time.’
‘But that’s rather a lot of time asleep.’
‘Those guys aren’t complaining.’ Crowley jerked a thumb over his shoulder as if there might be a human standing right there. ‘And they have a lot less time to spare than you do.’
‘Well, that’s true,’ said Aziraphale doubtfully. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve found any way of not having dreams?’
‘Why would you – ’ Crowley stopped himself. ‘No. No way round that, as far as I know. Part and parcel, I think.’
‘Use the craft knife to follow the line, not the scissors. With a ruler. You’ll only run into the same problem again.’
‘I knew that,’ said Crowley, going for the knife.
He kept half an eye on Aziraphale as he started cutting. I do know a way, he wanted to say, I’ve figured it out. You don’t have to dream about anything except really good cocoa and entertaining typesetter errors. You can just lock up the shop, draw the blinds, close your eyes and forget about it all. What happened in Hell, what’s happened on Earth; the whole thing. Forget it. The world’s not that shit really. Somebody’s got their eye on it, they’re going to sort it out.
‘Feels unfair, doesn’t it?’ he said.
‘I said – feels unfair. It just feels… harsh. Random. Like you can never quite put your finger on exactly where you went wrong.’
When he spoke, his tone of voice had changed. Closed down. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Okay.’ He hesitated. ‘Just… let me know when you do.’
‘Crowley. You don’t need to give me your speech. I’ve heard it plenty of times.’
‘Right,’ Crowley said, realising he had never really appreciated before how those sticky toys must feel when you chuck them against a window and watch them slide down it.
He finished cutting his piece of board. He held it up to the spine of the book it was meant to fit. Somehow, inexplicably, outrageously, it was about an inch too short.
Crowley tossed the board aside, rifled through the crap all over the table for the original, battered cover, and folded the remnants of it around the pages. Then he laid everything down on the table, and placed a hand on top. The rips and tears stitched themselves back together, and the yellowed glue and paper brightened to fresh white. Suddenly the title stood out like new: sparkling gilt embossed into glossy maroon leather.
‘Here’s your book,’ he said, and got up from his seat.
Aziraphale caught up with him just as he made it to the front door.
‘Is that it? You’re just going to leave now?’
‘Well, why would I stay? You don’t need to hear anything from me. You’ve got it all sussed out, obviously. Can’t think why you’d want my help.’
‘I do. I do. I said I did. You’re not listening to me.’
‘No. You don’t want me to help, you want me to lie to you. And I’m not going to do that. You can lie to me if you want, but I’m not going to do it.’
He could see that one hit, right in the chest.
‘I’m not lying to you.’
‘Of course not. You just won’t tell me the whole truth.’
‘What do you think happened? It’s exactly what it sounds like. I had to do something. Did you really expect me to sit around in Hell waiting for you to come along and rescue me? With whose holy water, Crowley?’
‘I expect you not to put us in danger without telling me about it!’
‘But we’re not in danger, because like you said, I’m too useless like this to be anyone’s concern. Oh, and as for sleepwalking over cliff-edges, Crowley, don’t you think it’s a little too late for you to start – ’
They both turned around. Crowley spent several seconds trying desperately to work out why a young woman in a knit dress would have been standing around the corner of a bookcase, until he remembered that this was actually a functioning shop, in the middle of the day, which was strictly speaking open to customers.
Aziraphale’s baffled expression suggested he had not yet remembered this fact.
‘Sorry to bother,’ the student said in a slightly drawling voice. ‘But do you have any sheet music?’
‘Do I have any sheet music?’ Aziraphale echoed, in frank astonishment.
‘There’s plenty around and about,’ said Crowley. ‘Try the drawers next to the German language books.’
‘Er. Thanks.’ She was looking around uncertainly.
‘Very back wall,’ Crowley hinted.
The girl nodded and went hesitantly off towards the back of the shop.
Crowley turned back to Aziraphale, who had gone very quiet. He was looking faintly perplexed, as if trying to recover a lost train of thought.
‘Aziraphale – ’
‘I think you’d better go,’ he said.
‘I need to keep an eye on the customers. Go on.’ He waved a hand distractedly at Crowley, as if shooing a pigeon. ‘Come back tomorrow.’
Then he turned his back and walked off, following the woman.
 He’d lost a humiliating amount of time circling the streets around his flat in increasing stress, before remembering the car was still parked outside the restaurant.
Chapter 7: Minibreak
Tuesday, what a concept! I've had a bit of a Busy Week so I probably should wait until I'm less tired to proofread and post this, but I'm not going to.
This chapter and the next have been the hardest for me to nail down, but after that, we're really getting towards the bits I'm excited about so bear with meeee... In general though, I haven't enjoyed writing this much in years and I don't think I've ever shared this much of my work before, so thank you to all of you who are reading along and interacting. That kudos genuinely does make my day!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Turn around, said a voice in Crowley’s head as he walked down the street away from the bookshop. Turn around right now. Don’t leave in the middle of an argument. Never do that. You’ve done it twice now. Come on, turn around, you useless demon.
Except that he wasn’t entirely sure this was the voice of conscience. It was sort of hard to separate from the incensed and unreasonable voice that was going: go back there and tell him to say it. Go on, then, if you have something to say to me then say it. Say it say it say it –
He kept walking home. Aziraphale had said come back tomorrow, and Crowley was pretty sure he had meant it. There was no point in pissing him off again.
Tomorrow came and went.
Crowley spent it mooching in the garden centre, seeding some starter trays (sansevieria), and waiting for the hard knot in his chest to soften slightly. It didn’t. He wanted to pick up the phone, but every time his hand got near it he was knocked back by the certainty that within five minutes his mouth would be saying the things it wanted to again, not the ones he really meant.
And another certainty, which was that he just couldn’t get through another argument.
Call me, he thought to himself when it got to evening, glancing over at the phone every few minutes as he loafed around channel-hopping. Go on, telephone me, you old prick. Just take it out of my hands, will you?
Aziraphale didn’t call, and Crowley never found anything he wanted to watch.
The next day, he spent considering whether he might be able to get his feelings across better in Mandarin, or Latin, or Ancient Sumerian. It didn’t seem likely. Although carving them into a tablet and burying them in the ground for a few thousand years didn’t sound like a terrible way forward, all things considered.
It had been dark for several hours already when Crowley heard his ringtone from the living room. He jerked out of his doze, scrambled to get the radio turned off, and went bungling through to the other room. It wasn’t Aziraphale. Instead, the caller ID told him, it was Roy Sheppey, a money launderer and black-market antiques dealer he had liaised with a few times back in the day, on various items of demonic business. That is, exactly the kind of phone call he would have been grateful to receive a couple of weeks ago, when he was rolling around Aziraphale’s empty bookshop like a lost coin in a washing machine. He shouldn’t take it now, though.
‘Anthony Crowley, is that you?’
‘You did dial my number, Roy.’
‘I know, but I didn’t expect you to pick up. Seems like every time I hear your name these days, it’s someone saying you’ve dropped off their radar. We all thought you had gone into retirement!’
Roy had an unctuous voice, like the fat you can never quite keep out of a good gravy. He always, somehow, sounded satisfied with himself.
‘Yeah... Been keeping my head below the parapet.’
‘Oh dear. Don’t tell me you’re tainted goods now; I could really do with your help.’
‘Nope. At least, not when it comes to anyone you need to worry about.’
‘That’s what I like to hear.’ Crowley took a seat behind his desk as the dealer continued. ‘The story’s this: somebody I thought I could rely on let me down at the last second, and now I need another pair of hands, fast. But nobody seems to be available. What I need is a man who can just about pull off the impossible. You used to be top of that list.’
Crowley fiddled with the bottom of his pyjama top. ‘I might be about to disappoint you, Roy.’
‘Come on! This one is right up your street. I’ve got a forged painting on my hands, access to a billionaire’s converted castle in Scotland. All a little bit James Bond.’
I can’t, said a very clear voice in Crowley’s head. Need to stay in London just now. I’m looking after a friend.
‘How long would it take?’ he asked.
‘I want someone there at the pickup, five a.m. tomorrow. We need to be at the property by nine in the evening for our in. Then we’ll have to wait – our opportunity to make the switch is on Sunday. And we shouldn’t hit the road until Monday morning.’
That was too long. Crowley lifted his wrist and stared at his watch, trying to miracle more hours into the day, so that he’d have time not to rush any important conversations and drive to Scotland through the night. (He’d be awake, still, if he popped round now. The bastard.)
‘Look, I can’t make the pickup. But I could catch you up tomorrow afternoon.’
‘Are you kidding? I don’t plan these things for no reason, I’m not making fucking scrambled eggs. If you’re not on board, tell me right now so I can call the next guy.’
I can’t get my head clear, thought Crowley. If I just have enough time to get my head clear, I’ll figure out how to stop getting it wrong.
‘Tell me where to meet you,’ he said.
The first thing that Roy did, approaching through the mizzle in a dreary carpark just south of Stirling, was give Crowley a look of deep dismay.
‘Nice contacts,’ he said in a tone that suggested he considered them anything but. ‘Will you take them out before we meet the courier? I’m not hoping to make that much of an impression.’
‘Obvs,’ replied Crowley diffidently.
Then Roy turned to the Bentley. This, he’d seen before, but he didn’t look any happier to make its acquaintance again. ‘You’d better leave that here too. Truly, Mr Crowley, sometimes you make me worry about who’s got your back.’
‘Satan himself,’ said Crowley. ‘Well, after a fashion. We’re not on great terms currently.’
Roy rolled his eyes. ‘You’d better not be in this mood all week. Ah, and phones. Can we leave both in your car?’
Crowley shuffled on the spot briefly. ‘Mmmm… I’d rather bring mine with me.’
‘Good Lord. Have you spent the last three years with your head in a microwave?’
Roy held out his Samsung. Crowley took it, got back in the car and opened the glove compartment. He put both phones inside. Then he spent several seconds looking down at them. Eventually he took his own back out, and composed a text.
Had to take a quick trip – no signal for a few days. Back soon. Get some sleep!!
He pressed send, and then sat waiting for the bounce message. This carrier does not support text to landline.
Roy tapped on the window impatiently. Crowley dropped the phone back into the glove compartment. Then he took out a pair of sunglasses, slipped them on, and followed Roy over to his nondescript silver Golf.
It all went tits-up at the castle gate. Roy had been informed that the part-time security assistant would be on duty that evening, a distractible young man only hired for the virtue of being someone’s nephew. But as they pulled off the main road, they saw that the figure waiting in the kiosk was no spotty youth but a stony-looking character of about fifty.
‘Are any of your contacts on this job reliable?’ grumbled Crowley, whose nerves were suffering dreadfully from the discovery that Roy Sheppey genuinely liked bebop, and liked it at full volume. Even after several hours.
‘You’ll have to answer that yourself,’ replied Roy with equal animosity. He pulled up and rolled down his window, as the guard climbed out of the kiosk and came towards them, brandishing a clipboard. ‘Good evening! We’re from Paul Cavanagh Designs. We’re here to, ah, assess the space? For the new… decoration project?’
Crowley made great efforts not to put his head in his hands, and instead to look like a slightly more credible interior designer than Roy.
The security guard ran his eyes up and down the pair of them, with a sceptical air. ‘Yeah,’ he said slowly. ‘You’re in the book, alright. Sign yourselves in.’ He handed them the clipboard and a biro, and then reached into his trouser pocket to fish out a chunky smartphone. ‘And I’ll take a quick picture of you both, if you don’t mind.’
‘Ah,’ said Roy hastily. ‘Actually, we do mind. I mean, we can’t consent to that.’
The security guard’s facial expression was more or less unfriendly by default. But at this protest, it hardened into something that was really, powerfully not friendly.
‘Personal data, you see,’ Roy went on. ‘Sorry to be difficult, but I can’t guarantee the security of your device, and you know, under GDPR you do have to – ’
‘I know,’ said the guard, bluntly. He put the phone back in his pocket, and watched carefully as they both signed generic false names under Paul Cavanagh Designs Ltd. Roy handed the clipboard back, and without a word he went off to stow it away in his kiosk.
‘GDPR?’ hissed Crowley, as they watched him rummage for the key to the gate.
‘I don’t usually do this part of the operation,’ Roy said defensively. ‘Like I said, I got let down.’
‘You could have sent me on my own, then.’
‘You and your Rolls-Royce, you mean?’
‘It’s a Bentley!’
He realised too late that Roy had only said it to annoy him, and had won.
Meanwhile, the security guard had found a large key, but he was trudging back towards the Golf with it, not towards the imposing wrought-iron gate. ‘Shit,’ said Roy, before reopening the window as the guard leaned down to speak to them.
‘Mind if I have a look at your luggage?’
They both stared at him like rabbits in headlights. The painting was in a suitcase in the back of the car. Fucking goon, thought Crowley. We can’t consent.
‘Of course,’ he cut in fast, before Roy could open his fat mouth. ‘All in the boot.’
Roy turned and glared at Crowley as he reached for the boot-pop button under the steering wheel. Hoping that his co-conspirator’s furious facial expression wasn’t going to be reflected back to the guard in any windows or mirrors, Crowley tried his best to ignore him, and concentrate on imagining an elegant solution to the predicament they were now in.
The boot popped.
‘Thanks,’ said the guard, and started walking around to the back of the car.
Roy was a problem, now, since he’d have questions about anything too unexplainable. If it was just him and Aziraphale, the guard would have been able to simply open the suitcase and find it full of underwear, or interior decoration books, or something. But obviously it wasn’t him and Aziraphale; Aziraphale would clap Crowley round the head with a copy of Mrs Beeton’s sooner than come along on this kind of –
The guard was now opening the boot. Out of time. Out of time?
Crowley snapped his fingers, and the others both froze in position. He was alone, in perfect silence.
Think think think, he said to himself. Can’t do this for long, really can’t do this for long. Don’t want Hell on my back, not now Aziraphale –
He twisted around, looked at the boot, the suitcase, the security guard. Then cast his net wider, glancing around at the surroundings. Not much to work with, on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere. Just rain and trees and gravel and… Trees. Great tall pines, which had been creaking a little in the brisk, wet Scottish wind, before Crowley hit pause on it. A bit crude, but hopefully effective.
He thought carefully about angles and distances, selected one that seemed to be in about the right spot, and very deliberately imagined an enormous crack opening up down the grain of the trunk. Then he faced forward, as if he’d never turned around in the first place, and snapped his fingers again. Time restarted.
Roy began jostling in his seat uncomfortably, looking very much like he wanted to say something, but had no idea what it should be. He glanced apprehensively over his shoulder at the guard, who was now picking over a plastic bag full of jazz discs which Roy kept in the back.
Crowley glanced over at the tree, which showed no signs of going down yet. The guard pushed the bag of CDs aside and began pulling the case towards him, and for an awful moment he was sure he had flubbed it. But then there was a noise: an almighty rending, squealing noise.
For a second, Crowley was back in a bookshop in the dark, watching furniture crash to the ground. But Roy and the guard were both very much in Scotland, starting at the dreadful sound and then gazing in horror as they saw that the tree was about to topple, and that the little kiosk lay directly in its path. It hit home with a bang. The metal frame of the small structure buckled on every side, and the glass windows burst loudly into smithereens.
There was a moment’s shocked silence. Then the guard said, despondently:
He stood there motionless, staring at the wreck.
‘Here,’ Roy jumped in, ‘let us drive you down to the main building and you can call for help.’
He shook his head. ‘Thanks, but no. Can’t leave my post. They told you how to get in the front door?’
‘You go down, then. I’ll have to sort this mess out here.’
He slammed the boot and went about unlocking the gates, still shaking his head in morose disbelief. They drove straight on through as he stood aside. Roy was beaming.
‘Saved by an act of God! You know, Mr Crowley, I always did say you were something of a good luck charm.’
Crowley looked down at his hands, which felt weird; the skin on his palms was sort of throbbing, as if he’d just rubbed them all over a bed of nettles. Not an unfamiliar sensation, but not one he’d had so strongly in quite some time. Oh dear, he thought; bit noticeable. It had been a while since he’d intervened with reality quite that drastically, not being very keen to find out how far Hell’s tolerance of his continued existence would stretch.
Well, no taking it back. He’d just have to be very careful for a while, probably.
At least, he thought, if it comes to it, I can always tell them I came up with GDPR. Bet you they’d love to take the credit. If it comes to that.
‘Funny ideas, the rich have,’ mused Roy, as they crossed the triple-height entrance hall under the baleful gaze of several stuffed hunting trophies. ‘Not only does this guy think his castle needs redecorating, he thinks it’s needed enough to put up a couple of strangers like hotel guests so they can identify the aesthetic chakras of the space, or whatever. As if they’re not just going to recommend all the most expensive suppliers they have back-door agreements with, anyway. Might as well ask to be unburdened of a few possessions.’
‘I don’t know who’s stupider,’ said Crowley, ‘you or him. Paul Cavanagh a real interior designer?’
‘And he doesn’t mind you botching his reputation?’
‘We’ve a mutually beneficial arrangement,’ said Roy euphemistically, glancing down at the crumpled floorplan in his hands. ‘I’m sending him photos. The designs and the quote will seem plausible, but they won’t be quite to taste. May I show you to your room?’
‘Lead the way.’
They ascended the main staircase, and Roy started taking him down a long corridor decorated with various Hepworth-lite sculptures on plinths. It was unclear what concept of 'taste', exactly, Paul Cavanagh would be able to avoid pleasing; the decision to replace any and all furniture with ruinously-expensive-looking, futuristic monstrosities did not seem exactly consistent with the decision to keep those taxidermy beasts in the foyer.
Halfway down the corridor, they passed a sideboard with a sleek landline handset docked on it. Crowley imagined picking it up and wailing: ‘I’m so sorry, I’ve done such a stupid thing, I’m stuck in the rainiest place in the country and I’ve had to listen to so much bebop – ’
‘I can see you looking at that phone,’ said Roy, ‘and I’m not sure if you have some new lover you’re longing to flirt with or what, but I need you to know that if you make a single call from this property I’ll have your shrivelled testicles on my keyring by next week. Got it?’
‘Got it,’ said Crowley.
They stopped in front of an old oak door. Roy opened it and gestured for Crowley to enter; he did, and found himself in a bedroom that could have belonged to a modern hotel anywhere, apart from the arch-shaped windows. Most of the space was taken up by an enormous queen-sized bed, thick monogrammed towels folded neatly on the end of it. He spotted a wrapped chocolate on the pillow and walked over to it immediately; it wasn’t until he had it in his mouth that he remembered he wasn’t the one who would have enjoyed it.
‘So,’ said Roy, who was still leaning on the doorframe. ‘Our cover story doesn’t get us into the library – that’s where the painting is, along with the rest of the real valuables. But I know a way to override the locks. Only thing is, there’s no way we can do it without setting off the alarm – which means we’re going to have to go in at precisely 5 p.m. Sunday, when it runs its weekly automated test. That way, they’ll assume it’s routine when it pings the system. I’ll brief you closer to the time on what we need to do exactly. Sound good?’
‘Marvellous.’ Crowley went over to the window, drew the curtains. Then he turned and looked around him at the uninspiringly minimalist furnishings. ‘What do we do until then?’
‘Do?’ repeated Roy, with a smile. ‘Keys to the wine cellar are in the cupboard behind the grandfather clock. The attic’s been converted into a surround-sound home cinema. Bit cold for outdoor swimming, but there’s a sauna and a steam room in the pool outhouse. Do whatever you like, Mr Crowley; just don’t make a mess.’
Roy disappeared, clunking the heavy door shut behind him.
Crowley took a shower, lay face down on the bed and went into a dead sleep.
By Friday morning he was sick of waking up in the same place. Sick of jolting out of the same dreams, to the sight of the same ceiling. Let me be somewhere else, he thought.
On Saturday morning he knew he had to get out, because he didn’t wake from any of the usual recurring dreams but from one of Heaven. Not the cold, plate-glass Heaven where he’d gone into the hellfire for Aziraphale. The Heaven from back then, sights and sounds and scents he’d long forgotten about forgetting, suddenly so sharp and real that he didn’t suspect he was dreaming until he was awake, shivering slightly under his luxury duvet. Half-convinced he’d heard an angry voice somewhere in the castle shouting out a name.
Only he couldn’t have, because nobody knew that name any more, and the person who'd worn it was long gone.
Claustrophobia, he thought to himself after half-crawling to the ensuite bathroom in a daze, and drinking several glasses of water in quick succession. Doing something odd to me. Need to get out of this building.
He decided to sit down on the tiled floor while he waited for the images to drift out of reach again, so that he could return to the twenty-first century. He focused his eye on a bit of grouting and repeated it to himself: Anthony J. Crowley, demon, of London, Earth. Currently situated on a slightly damp bathmat in Scotland. Survived Hell, survived Heaven twice. More than a match for Roy Sheppey and his bad planning and his infernal jazz obsession.
Roy had been very firm about not leaving the premises, but it had become apparent by day two that he was far too involved in playing Call of Duty on a cinema-sized screen to give much of a toss about what Crowley actually got up to. So, later that morning, he went out for a ‘walk in the grounds’, which turned into a scramble in the undergrowth, and finally an ungainly vault over the fence.
About fifteen minutes down the road was a small village; barely a village, really, just a scattering of houses and a green. Church, pub, post office, Spar. And, improbably, a tiny second-hand bookshop.
He exchanged 75p for a tatty Douglas Adams paperback and took it to the village green, which was unfortunately more interested in hosting an undersized playground than any non-rotten benches. So he perched on one of the wet plastic seats of the seesaw, and started to read.
(The story was an old friend, and between paragraphs he found himself pausing, dwelling on that dream again. Wonder if they’re still enjoying it up there, those other old friends. Wonder if they ever wonder about me. Doesn’t matter. The friends that Fell with me are better, he’d told himself once upon a time; they hadn’t been. Didn’t take long for them to let the bitterness rot them away, until he was left with nothing but another pack of bullies.)
‘Excuse me,’ said a voice, after he’d been there about twenty minutes. He looked up. There was a kid standing there, looking wistfully at the seesaw.
‘Sorry,’ he said, moving to stand up, but the boy said:
‘Can I play on that with you?’
‘Er…’ said Crowley. ‘We’re not really the same size.’
‘My cousin’s nine years older than me, and she just pretends it’s bouncing by itself.’
Crowley expected him to sit down immediately, but instead he took his backpack off his back, reached in and produced a chequered tea-towel. He balled it up and rubbed the rainwater off the other plastic seat.
Suddenly aware of his own uncomfortably wet arse, Crowley said:
‘Did your mum give you that?’
‘No. My cousin.’
‘Sounds like a smart woman. Do all your family live round here?’
‘That’s more than thirty seconds now.’
‘I’m not actually allowed to talk to strangers. But I’ve decided that if it’s less than thirty seconds, it’s probably okay.’
He gave a thumbs-up, and the boy sat down. Crowley picked the book back up, and went on reading, this time pushing his feet against the ground periodically so that the seesaw would teeter up and down.
‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘I thought we’d hit the thirty-second limit.’
‘It’s been long enough to start again now.’
‘Alright. Fire away.’
‘Why are you sitting on a seesaw to read?’
‘Bench won’t take my weight,’ said Crowley.
‘But it’s quite cold.’
‘Hmm. Yes. Sometimes you just need the fresh air.’
‘That’s what my cousin said as well,’ said the boy dejectedly.
For the first time in several days, Crowley found an involuntary smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. ‘Let me guess. You’d rather be watching TV?’
‘Thirty seconds,’ the boy replied, in a slightly miffed tone.
He nodded and went back to the book, but went on smiling. I know someone else with deflection strategies as subtle as that.
A minute or two later, as he expected, the boy found he had another burning question.
‘What are you reading?’
Crowley flipped it round to examine the cover, and tried to come up with a brief description.
‘It’s a book about the Earth being destroyed,’ he said after a moment.
‘Man, that sounds really depressing. Why would you want to read about that?’
‘It’s quite funny, actually.’
‘That’s just weird,’ said the boy, with the kind of total disdain that only a child can really master. Obviously he was beginning to change his mind about whether this stranger was harmless or not, because he began awkwardly trying to get off the other seat, and said: ‘I’m going to go play on the swings now. Bye!’
‘Hang on,’ said Crowley. He closed the book and held it out. ‘Why don’t you take it? You can give it to your cousin if you don’t like it. She definitely will.’
The boy looked very suspicious. But he took it.
‘Thanks,’ he said, sceptically.
Then he hopped off the seesaw, grabbed his backpack and ran off. Without the counterbalance, Crowley’s seat thudded abruptly down to the ground.
He investigated the possibility of a phone box, before he walked back to the castle. There was one, or rather what had been one, the door taped up and the battered receiver hanging listlessly on its cord. He thought, I can make it work. But then he felt the memory of that pulsing sensation in his palms, and thought – better not.
For once, the advice Roy had been given was good, and they made it into the library without a hitch. No wonder it wasn’t slated for redecorating; it was the first room in the castle to make Crowley feel he was in a place with any dignity, put together by a human who had chosen these things because they cared about them and not just to send a message about their bank balance. He wondered if it was a spouse who had taken charge of the space, or if there had been tricky stipulations left behind in someone’s will to navigate.
Roy obviously liked the room too, but for different reasons. He lingered over a mahogany side table with golden inlays, an illuminated manuscript behind glass, light fingers twitching and eyes shining brightly.
‘Such a shame we’re only here for the one treasure, a man could really keep himself comfortable for decades with this lot. Ah, well…’ He walked over to a beautiful period fireplace that formed the centrepiece of the room, stopped in front of it, and laid the suitcase down on the floor. ‘This is the one.’
Crowley hadn’t bothered to ask anything about the piece they were replacing. He stopped in his tracks when he looked up and saw the painting. It was familiar.
Roy unzipped the case, drew out a velvet bag, and ever-so-carefully removed the forgery. Then he leaned it on the mantelpiece below the original, apparently for the sole purpose of allowing them both to enjoy the quality of the imitation.
Crowley looked from one to the other. It was in the National Portrait Gallery that he’d seen it, on loan to the museum for a temporary exhibition. He didn’t particularly care to recall what tedious assignment he’d been trying to offload at the time; didn’t particularly want to remember the name of the artist who had painted the eyes and hands with such tender attentiveness, who had brought the struggling young actress to his studio for the sitting. But like a persistent ghost, Aziraphale stepped out from behind a pillar to hover behind him, and told him anyway.
‘Well, fancy seeing it in a gallery after all these years! I’m so pleased, I always did think he was underrated. What was that you were saying about – ? Oh, yes, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it… I met her too, you know, such a charming young couple, I do hope it all worked out in the end. That’s what really makes the portrait, don’t you think? You can just feel that he was painting it with real – ’
‘You like it?’ asked Roy, who clearly wanted to start taking it off the wall, but felt some inhibition over doing so while Crowley was still gazing at it so intently.
‘I have a friend who’s very fond of it,’ said Crowley. ‘The fake is good. I wouldn’t have been able to tell.’
‘Well, let’s just hope our host is no more of an art critic than you are.’
When he had safely removed it from its fixings, Roy put the painting in Crowley’s hands.
‘Who are you selling it to?’ he asked suddenly.
‘Well. Obviously I don’t know more than I need to, and half of what I do know I can’t tell you. But it’s going overseas, and we’re talking about big money. I would have said arms dealing. Oh, Mr Crowley,’ he said in sudden amusement, even though Crowley hadn’t said a word, ‘always so disapproving. Do you think a man gets to own this kind of house by being a saint? It’s one pair of dirty hands to another, as usual.’
‘I’m not commenting,’ said Crowley, evenly. He stood back and looked at the original one last time, before it disappeared into the black case forever. ‘I wonder who he lends his moral weight to.’
‘I’m sorry, what was that?’
He was in a driving stupor by the time he got off the M25 and started dawdling through darkened, deserted London streets. Radio 4 was buzzing away on the speakers, almost as soporific as the endless miles of motorway tarmac between Perthshire and home. Even the news items barely registered with him as he stared absently out at road paint passing by. That is, until:
‘Finally, a break-in has been reported on the Royal Estate at Sandringham…’
Crowley sat bolt upright. He’d practically forgotten his little request to Hastur. It had been a joke, right? Get rid of the guy with the unachievable? He wouldn’t have actually done it. He would have gone away and thought about it, and taken the hint.
He pressed down on the accelerator a little more, feeling a sudden urge to get to the flat.
The first thing he noticed was a cigarette butt dropped on the welcome mat outside his door. So much for his safer location, then. He really, really shouldn’t have stopped time. Not for Roy bloody Sheppey. Far more anxious than he had been at any point during the heist, he unlocked the door as fast as he could and went inside.
It took only moments to find what he was looking for: two boxes left waiting on his desk. One was a large, battered-looking wooden crate with various numbers scribbled on the side of it in black marker. The other was small and cardboard and glossy cream, labelled with the names of a baker and a small town that could only have originated somewhere very deep in the middle of nowhere in France. Somebody had torn a page from one his coffee-table books and written a note across it in red biro:
I’m not playing games, Crowley. Are you?
‘Bloody He–’ Crowley caught himself, bit down on his tongue. ‘Shit. He actually did it.’
I got stuck in congestion on the M25 last weekend, and it was after this incident that I decided Crowley would have to be subjected to bebop in this chapter. It's no less than he deserves.
Chapter 8: Bad Habits
Happy weekend all! Sorry for another slow-ish update: I had a lot of life stuff going on, and also needed to let this one sit for a while/get some extra feedback on it from helpful readers.
I should probably flag that this is the angstiest chapter in the fic, in case anyone is not in the mood to read about total interpersonal disaster involving these two. (But hey, would you be here for demon!Aziraphale if you didn't expect things to get a BIT spicy before they were resolved? Don't answer that. Or kill me. Please don't kill me. Okay.)
(They really SHOULD get around to watching The Good Place some time...)
Crowley stood in front of the door for almost half a minute.
All the blinds were drawn shut. The effect was not inviting, even if the sign did suggest the shop was open for business. Equally uninviting was the unusual quality to the air he’d started picking up on about halfway down the street; an odd, malign tang. The sort of aura that might make an astute human turn to their friend and say: ‘hey, this place feels spooky.’
He slightly wished he’d called before setting out. He more than slightly wished he hadn’t gone to Scotland. He definitely wished he’d been able to sleep at least a little bit since Friday night, so that he could come into this interaction without the vague sensation that somebody was operating a pneumatic drill in the basement of his brain.
There was, however, no miracle that would let him go back to last week and try again.
He pushed the door open, the little bell pealing out his arrival. Inside, it was dim, quiet, and close; not a customer in sight, much less a bookseller. That whiff of Hell was pervasive now, as if the odour had worked its way into the very paper.
Crowley knew better than to imagine that there could be any doubt over who had just walked in the door, but after a few minutes had gone by, he put down the hardcover Brontë that he was pretending to examine and cleared his throat anyway.
‘Aziraphale?’ he said loudly. ‘Are you here? It’s me.’
He appeared suddenly, from an unexpected corner. Crowley took one look at him and thought: oh, right. He’s a demon now.
‘My goodness. Crowley. So kind of you to take time out of your busy schedule and stop by.’
‘Yeah, alright, I needed some space. Is that okay?’
An affected shrug. He was still wearing the grey housecoat, but wearing it in a way that strongly suggested he might not have taken it off at any point since they last met. His hair had found some excuse to stand straight on end, like he’d made contact with live electrical equipment.
Crowley tried to meet his gaze with a look of concern, but couldn’t find a way to manage it. The near-white eyes just wandered off in another direction.
‘Well, I didn’t come here to pick another fight.’ Crowley held out the cream-coloured box he’d carried with him from the flat, opened up the lid to show what was inside. ‘I came to bring you these.’
His eyes widened. ‘Are those – ?’
‘I haven’t seen one for hundreds of years.’
‘Where on Earth did you find them?’
‘I made use of my unsavoury connections.’ Crowley tried out a reassuring grin. ‘See, being unscrupulous does have its perks. Occasionally.’
He was wavering now, dithering; you could see it in his hand, which moved cautiously towards the box and then withdrew again. Take it, or tell him to get out?
‘Come see what I bought,’ he said, unexpectedly.
Crowley followed him to the very back section of the shop floor, watching how his fingers went trailing absent-mindedly across the dusty shelves as they passed through. Then they got round a corner, and Crowley’s mouth dropped open.
He’d bought a TV: quite a nice one, a good thirty-eight inches, now positioned directly opposite one of the sofas that customers sometimes committed the error of thinking were provided for them to sit on. It looked like a small spaceship had landed on the premises.
Crowley thought, this is how you know traditional TV is dying.
‘You’re kidding me?’ he said.
‘Well, you complained.’ A pause. ‘Thought for a moment it might have been a waste of money.’
‘Aziraphale.’ Seeking again to catch his eye; meeting again only with a distracted glance in a different direction. ‘I know. I should have given you a call. That was very, very stupid of me. But I’m always going to come back. You know that, yes?’
Another shrug. Trying to gauge whether this was assent, indifference, anger, Crowley held out the little box of goodies again. Shook it, invitingly.
He took it.
‘So.’ Crowley flopped down on the sofa and patted the space next to him. ‘Now everyone’s here. What do you want to watch?’
He took a seat, as far away as possible from Crowley, and gently opened the box. Giving no sign of having heard the question just asked of him, he inspected the pastries intently for a few moments, then selected one and put it in his mouth. Crowley waited expectantly for the little sigh of satisfaction, but was not rewarded.
‘Good as you remember?’ he prompted, hopefully.
‘Not quite as fresh as they should be,’ was the grudgingly given verdict, but he undercut himself slightly by reaching for another one.
‘Personally,’ said Crowley, choosing to ignore the fact he had been ignored, ‘I could go for a comedy. Something light.’
‘Whatever you like, Crowley.’
In truth, what Crowley would have liked was to bundle him up in a coat and force him out the front door. But he had read the situation in front of him, and felt that ‘engaging with outside world’ might be a goal to work up to, carefully and slowly.
‘Well, we still haven’t ever got around to watching The Good Place. Ridiculously off-base human depictions of Heaven – that’ll cheer you up.’
‘Will it?’ he enquired primly, picking up another two of the pastries.
Crowley found he was beginning to want to pull an irritated face. He did his best to overcome the urge.
‘Fiiiine. Doesn’t have to be that. Maybe I can tempt you into a bit of reality TV, for once? I’ve been getting really into this one where people secretly design tattoos for their significant others, very compelling insights into mankind’s evil…’
‘Goodness.’ He injected the word with a truly impressive concentration of contempt.
‘You’d rather something highbrow, then? Documentary? Classic film?’ Crowley faltered at this point, feeling slightly perturbed. ‘Aziraphale, do you maybe want to pace yourself a bit? There are really no more boxes where that one came from.’
And there, at last, was the eye contact: Crowley found himself staring down the barrel of an if-looks-could-kill glare.
‘Oh, I’m afraid they won’t be worth eating tomorrow,’ he replied, and popped the last one in his mouth.
‘Alright,’ said Crowley, watching him drop the empty box indifferently on the floor next to the sofa. ‘Okay. So you really don’t mind what we watch.’
‘As I said. If you’re happy, I’m happy.’
Then stop working so hard to piss me off. ‘The Good Place it is, then. I’ll do us tea?’
Without waiting for an answer, he hopped off the sofa and went through to the kitchenette, in the hope of getting time to do some calming breathing exercises.
Things in the kitchenette were not as they should be. Firstly, Crowley had to fish two dirty mugs from the sink, which amounted to a fairly extraordinary level of neglect for someone who could have had them clean in half a second if he simply imagined it. Secondly, when he opened the little fridge to get the milk out, he discovered that it contained food. Aziraphale was not, on the whole, one to be caught dead preparing his own meals. But here he was, hoarding himself such baffling items as pork pies, Tesco’s own custard tarts, and coleslaw.
In the door, the ever-present two pints of semi-skimmed were crowded by a couple of half-full bottles of white wine. He picked up the milk bottle, which was almost empty, and shook it slightly, concerned that the dynamics of the white liquid were not quite as expected. He unscrewed the lid, took a sniff. Yes. Off.
‘You’re out of milk,’ he called out, in slight disbelief.
‘Oh, really?’ said a voice immediately at his shoulder. Crowley started slightly; he’d been sure he was alone in the kitchen.
His friend peered into the fridge for a few moments as if to confirm that Crowley was telling the truth, and then raised a hand. Realising he was about to summon up another two pints from Satan-knows-where-in-the-world, Crowley caught his wrist hastily and said:
He stared at the hand around his wrist, and then at Crowley.
‘Not just now. I’m feeling… watched.’
‘Hastur’s been leaving me notes, and, er, I may have gone a bit overboard with things last week. I mean, first time I’ve paused time, or anything like that, since the swap. Bit attention-grabbing. Nothing to panic about, but I thought we should let things cool off.’
The stare went on. He seemed to have forgotten to do the ill-tempered glare; this expression was artless, strangely lost. Crowley thought he was going to pick up on his contact with Hastur again, or get more curious about the explanation for Crowley’s absence. But when he spoke, after several seconds, it wasn’t about either of those things.
‘I didn’t know you were still worried about that.’
‘Obviously.’ Crowley did not like that confused expression at all. Singularly troubled, considering this was a familiar conversation, a caution they’d expressed around each other countless times before throughout the ages. He watched it for a few moments and then said slowly: ‘Why? Aren’t you?’
‘Well… my lot never really seemed to be paying attention. Don’t you think there would have been trouble straight away, if there was going to be any?’
Crowley instantly made a yikes face, and not just because of the ‘my lot’. ‘No. I don’t think that at all. I think I’m a wanted man who’s never going to be able to stop being careful.’
There was a silence. In a sprightlier frame of mind, Crowley suspected, it wouldn’t have been long before his friend found a few things to say about this. As it was, he just worked visibly over it for a few moments, and then shrugged once more. And smiled, for the first time since Crowley had arrived.
It wasn’t convincing.
‘Well, better safe than sorry. So it’s no tea. Unless you want to go to the shop?’
‘Not really,’ said Crowley. He shut the fridge.
They settled on the sofa, and after a few false starts Crowley discovered a safely non-demonic way to stream the programme from his phone to the screen. They sat and watched the opening scenes in silence. (Crowley tried not to wait for a reassuringly barbed comment about the premise, or the acting, from his companion.)
But it wasn’t right. He’d passed on too quickly, too easily, from that moment of total standstill. Something had really worried him, for a second there, and now he was pretending it hadn’t happened; as he always did, when things started to cut a little too close to the bone.
‘Aziraphale,’ Crowley hissed finally, about halfway through the episode. ‘When you say you stopped worrying about it. How much did you stop worrying?’
He didn’t look away from the screen. But his face compressed itself a little: irritated, uncertain. Crowley had often wondered how he got through six thousand years on this planet, illustrating every thought that passed through his head like that.
‘Obviously, not that much. I didn’t take any more risks than before, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
Crowley was on the verge of accepting this. Then he said:
‘You say before as if you’re not referring to a period when you got more than one reprimand for performing too many miracles.’
The irritation on his face increased, just slightly.
‘You seem very concerned about this all of a sudden.’
No, you do, thought Crowley. ‘Just reassure me, will you?’
‘About what? Fine, yes, I kept on doing small things. So did you, I saw you.’
‘You know what small is. Getting a book off a high shelf, making sure the right masseuse was in the spa, slipping somebody a winning lottery ticket… that sort of thing.’
‘That second example,’ said Crowley, ‘is interesting.’
‘Shhhh now. I can’t hear what they’re saying.’
Crowley did as he was told, and fell silent, but found it was now completely impossible to pay any attention to the TV. He felt, for some reason, as if he had just downed about four espressos, even though he hadn’t had any coffee at all. He tried not to fidget any more than usual, but it was difficult.
Doesn’t make sense, he was thinking, watching Kristen Bell say words on the screen and not hearing what a single one of them was. Doesn’t make sense, doesn’t make sense, doesn’t make –
‘Y’know what,’ he said after a minute or two, ‘I think I will go out to the shop.’
Once he was out on the street, it became clear that something was very wrong with him. He wondered if somebody down in Hell had taken remote control of his corporation and rearranged all of its essential organs. That would explain why they no longer seemed to be functioning in the normal way, and instead felt like they were gearing up to shoot out through his eyeballs. Which, if true, might also explain why those eyes had abandoned their duty to perceive anything whatsoever about their surroundings.
‘The right masseuse,’ he repeated to himself, dazed. ‘For your nice little spa day.’
Eventually, he found that he was standing in the milk aisle in Sainsbury’s, without defined memories of how he came to be there. Clearly, choosing the milk was a very simple decision, but he simply stood there for minutes and minutes, staring at the rows of white bottles. It was as if a thick fog had rolled in around him: the harder he tried to look, the less he was able to really see them. The labels said ‘semi-skimmed organic British milk’, but his mind took that in and came out with: it was you, wasn’t it? It wasn’t Armageddon. We got away with Armageddon. And then you got sloppy.
Frivolous miracles. Is that it? After all of that, that’s fucking it?
He picked up a bottle, and tried to force his brain to make a judgement call on whether it was the milk he wanted or not. His brain did not want to.
‘You utter, utter idiot,’ he said aloud to it, instead. ‘How could you be so stupid? You assumed there would have been trouble straight away? You knew you were going to get yourself in hot water. What were you thinking? That it was never going to happen to you? You bastard! You just threw it away!’
‘What was that?’
Crowley almost spontaneously discorporated. Noticed too late that the air in the supermarket was prickling slightly, in that way it does when a demon walks in. He jerked around and met a silent, dishevelled figure with a piercing, inhuman stare.
‘Please stop sneaking up on me like that.’
‘My apologies,’ said Aziraphale, coolly. ‘What was it? That you were saying?’
The thing about crossing the line is: it might take you six thousand strides to get to the edge, but it only takes one tiny misstep to go over it. And at that point, it doesn’t really matter if you’re watching your feet. You only need to forget to look once.
Crowley looked at the facial expression in front of him, which was like a closed shop door with a courteous notice: absolutely devoid of any emotion apart from an icily polite smile. And knew immediately he’d not just fucking crossed the line, but brought several armies and a marching band over it with him.
The other demon waited, unblinking.
‘Just talking to myself,’ Crowley said, in a very small voice.
‘Oh.’ He pouted disapprovingly for a moment. ‘Terribly bad habit. Well, I just came to say, do get four pints this time. It’ll last longer. See you back at the shop, then.’
And he vanished into thin air.
Crowley stood motionless, feeling his heart beat hard. At some point, without noticing, he had pressed the bottle of milk to his chest in a vaguely defensive gesture. Now he just stood there with it, wondering if he should still buy it and take it back.
Well, it would be worse not to, wouldn’t it? Would it?
He paid for it, and somehow managed to persuade his legs to walk him back down the road. (He’d never exactly been a fan of instant relocation, himself. Only worked over small enough distances to be useless. Left you feeling like some of your brain cells got left behind. Best reserved for moments of absolute necessity, really.)
Part of him expected the door to be locked and bolted. It wasn’t. He went in. No obvious sign of anyone. He was there, somewhere; Crowley was almost sure of it. But now that the demonic smell was more diffuse, it was nearly impossible to get a precise trail to follow.
‘Aziraphale?’ he called out. No response.
He left the milk on the nearest table and went through to the sofa in the back; nobody there. The TV was silent and dark, the discarded pastry box still on the floor. He put his head round the door of the back room, of the kitchen. Empty.
‘Aziraphale?’ Crowley called again, slightly helplessly; his own voice sounded horribly plaintive in his ears. ‘I can’t find you.’
The creak of feet on an iron framework. He was coming down the stairs, a large volume tucked under his arm.
‘I suddenly remembered. I need to get this one ready for an appointment I have tomorrow. So I’ll be quite busy for the rest of the afternoon. You should go – ’
‘No,’ said Crowley. ‘No, I’m not going home.’
He walked right past Crowley without looking at him. Then he sat down at the bureau with the book. Crowley came and hovered behind him as he started leafing randomly through pages.
‘Aziraphale,’ he said, feeling like an invisible spirit trying desperately to communicate with the living. ‘Aziraphale. Hey. I didn’t mean it like – ’
‘Oh, please,’ was the sudden reply, sharp as the crack of a whip. ‘You know exactly how you meant it.’
He still hadn’t looked up from the book he was pretending to examine. Crowley just stood there stricken, as the hope of pacifying him faded away.
‘Well, then?’ he pleaded. ‘Don’t you have anything to say? Or are you just going to pretend I don’t exist, instead?’
‘Let me see. You’ve leapt to the conclusion that I Fell simply because I was a little careless about miracles.’
‘And your reply is…?’
‘I don’t think it deserves a reply. It’s perfectly ridiculous.’
‘It is. I asked, remember? And I’ve told you what they said.’
‘What you believed, you mean?’
Sick of the back of his head, Crowley leaned over and physically pulled the book from his hands.
‘Aziraphale. Think about it for a second, come on. That story never made any sense. How are they supposed to believe you’re a demon already if they’ve got your name down next to fifty fucking miracles a day?’
‘There’s really no need to exaggerate.’
‘The right masseuse, Aziraphale? For your spa day? Of course somebody was paying attention!’
He was shaking his head, like a schoolteacher listening to a miscreant pupil explain what happened to his homework. Still refusing to look directly at Crowley, instead of at the table in front of him.
Don’t be cold, Crowley wanted to shout. Help me!
‘So I was supposed to be looking over my shoulder every ten seconds, was I?’ he asked, after a moment. ‘Wondering when Gabriel was going to come up behind me? Worrying about whether I was stepping on anyone’s toes? Because that doesn’t sound very different to what I had before.’
‘You were supposed to be careful! I thought you had it under control!’
‘And I thought we were safe, Crowley! I told them to leave you alone!’
‘What does that have to do with it? Aziraphale, why will you still not admit it? Gabriel and the others didn't do this to you. I can’t get you freedom from responsibility, can I?’
‘But I would never ask you for that. Freedom from responsibility? We’re talking about a few harmless tricks. It’s trivial.’
‘So what? Why shouldn’t it be trivial? What do you think happens? You think you wake up one morning and say to yourself, well, I’ve really decided I hate God so I’ll do something unforgivably terrible and get myself sent to Hell today?’
‘Obviously not, but – ’
‘You think there’s someone following you around with a tally chart going, hey, might want to watch yourself this week, three more cheeky moves and you’re out?'
‘Well, there was certainly nobody lecturing me six months ago about how many miracles he thought I should or shouldn’t be performing.’
‘No!’ cried Crowley, incensed. ‘That’s not my job! It wasn’t my job to stop you doing this!’
He turned fully around at last, raised his eyebrows as high as they could go, and looked at Crowley.
Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding! Anthony J. Crowley, you have given the wrong answer, and you will be going home with nothing!
It wasn’t until he saw the incredulity replaced by a worried expression, directed at something behind him, that he realised the ringing bell was not imaginary, but the sound of somebody coming into the shop.
Crowley turned around, and saw a middle-aged father leading a daughter half his height by the hand. They were both giggling, probably over whatever they had been talking about just before coming in. But the dad stopped uncertainly when he realised that the shop was deserted, apart from a pair of emotional-looking men who had obviously just been interrupted from eyeballing each other.
‘Oh, sorry. I thought the sign said open.’
‘It is open. But I’m afraid it’s not a children’s bookshop.’ (As if very sorry to have to say it.)
‘That’s alright – I mean, if it’s alright with you. She loves history, she just wants to have a look.’
The eyes went narrow, the lips went thin. Crowley had seen the ‘Bookseller’s Glare’ enough times to know this was the full display; it had to be said that the furious occult gleam in the eyes, and the overall state of unkemptness, set it off rather nicely. ‘Fine. But don’t touch anything, please.’
Obviously these humans were not the type to pick up on obvious social cues, let alone spot a pair of demons in the wild, because the dad just smiled nervously and patted his daughter on the back in a gesture of encouragement.
Encouraged, she made her way over to a large colour atlas that was propped up on display, and started gazing at it.
Oh, leave us alone, Crowley wanted to tell the pair of them. Can’t you see this is a bad time? Can’t you just go away?
He put the book he’d confiscated back on the bureau in front of its owner, who gave him a dirty look in return, and then went to lean against a bookcase on the other side of the room. And concentrate on keeping himself together until they left.
‘How old is this one?’ asked the little girl.
Her father went over and gently picked up the book she was pointing at, under the watchful eye of a demon who had just twisted all the way around in his chair to observe proceedings.
‘It’s from 1916,’ he said, reading off the imprint page.
Eyes round with delight: ‘More than a hundred years old!’
‘And it was published during the First World War! That’s so cool.’
He put it down again, and she continued her meander, in another direction. Her hands were fidgeting excitedly at her sides, Crowley noticed, as if she might be one of those children who hates having to keep them off things – especially things they’ve been told not to touch.
She stopped suddenly, and chuckled.
‘Why’s there a bottle of milk on that book?’
‘That belongs to my friend here. You’ll go and put in the fridge, won’t you, Crowley?’
Crowley went over to pick it up. He had half a mind to glare or hiss at the kid, in the hope that she might be more easily spooked than her father and that it would get them left in peace. But then he got close, and she said to him with a slightly wonky-toothed grin:
‘I thought it was a bit funny to sell milk in a bookshop!’
He just smiled thinly at her, grabbed the milk and went off to put it away.
Once he’d shut the fridge door, he shut the door to the kitchenette, too. Then he took off his sunglasses, put them down on the side of the sink, and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes until all he could see were eddies of stars.
I should leave, he thought to himself. Just go. What’s the point? It’s not like I can fix it. We both know that. Do we really have to go there? Can’t we just pretend it happened already, and move on?
He must have been standing there like that for a handful of minutes when, from beyond the door, he heard a small voice shouting: ‘Oww!’
He threw the door open and rushed back out to the shop floor. There, he found the middle-aged man kneeling and looking closely at his daughter’s hand, which he had cupped in both of his own. The kid looked up as Crowley approached, her face tear-streaked but stoic.
‘What the fu – sorry - what’s going on?’
‘Oh – it’s okay, don’t worry. Just an accident, she dropped her gloves under the table and when she went to get them there was a mousetrap. Caught her fingers a bit.’
‘No,’ said Crowley, aghast. The dad gave him a funny look. Then glanced over at the bureau, which had nobody sitting at it.
‘Where’s your friend?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Crowley, truthfully. ‘I’m really. Um. I’m really sorry about that.’
‘Just an accident,’ he said again. ‘Must be a nightmare keeping the mice out of this place. Alright, come on, love, let’s go get you a hot chocolate.’
He put an arm around her shoulder and they left.
Crowley made his way very slowly through to the back room.
He was simply standing in the middle of it, wringing his hands slightly, as if waiting to be found there. His demeanour had changed; he didn’t look like he was about to poke Crowley in the eye any more. He looked pale and uneasy.
‘Was that necessary?’ Crowley enquired.
‘It was an accident.’
‘Are you lying to me?’
‘No,’ he said fretfully. ‘I mean my accident. I just –’
‘Got carried away, is that it?’ Some fissure in Crowley’s chest opened up without warning, and all that came out of it was incandescent rage. Suddenly he had fistfuls of collar in his hands and a wide-eyed demon pinned against a dresser. ‘Well, then, you need to get a grip, don’t you?’
‘That’s what I’m trying –’
‘You’re not trying. You’re lying. It isn’t cute. You can’t just walk into another room and cover your eyes up and pretend it’s someone else’s problem. I know what you are.’
‘Crowley, let go of me or I’ll – ’
‘Did you hear me? Enough!’ Crowley pulled him forward slightly, and then shoved him back again. Every precarious item on the dresser trembled. ‘It wouldn’t happen if you didn’t want it to. Enough lying, demon.’
For a moment, Crowley couldn’t work out why his hands weren’t gripping at fabric any more. Then he realised it was because he didn’t have any hands.
‘Any better?’ came a voice, booming into his reptilian ears. ‘How's this for not trying?’
He squirmed frantically, alarmed to find himself suspended in mid-air, and thrashed the whole length of his tail from side to side; but the fist that had a grip around his middle didn’t let go.
‘How’s this for demon, hmm?’
The warm pressure of the hand disappeared abruptly, and then he was falling for what felt like miles. He hit the floorboards hard, and instantly scuttled under the dresser. Stupid move, since he couldn’t transform back into his human shape in a confined space. But his tiny serpent brain was very insistent on this point: small dark space means safe and good. He coiled up tightly.
Aziraphale’s trembling voice seemed to emanate from everywhere.
‘No, I didn't think so. I didn't think so, Crowley.’
 https://youtu.be/oI5z5817eyM for some post-chapter light viewing perhaps? Content note for British culture, immaturity about tampons, and drawings of blood.