Take my hand, I'm a stranger in paradise
It was not a beautiful night, the night that Crowley fell in love. There was no music, there were no flowers except maybe a few clinging defiantly to trampled bushes in the countryside. The air stank of gunpowder and blood, the sky was full of smoke, and the screaming of the terrified and dying drowned out every other noise near the village of Mons.
Crowley had been drawn to Europe in 1914, following orders—demons could find a lot of evil to do in the middle of a war—but he made the journey to Mons on the night of August 23 because he sensed something fairly unusual, some build-up of angelic power massing in the skies over Belgium. Certainly if the angels were trying to end the war, Crowley would be expected to oppose them. Really, though, he only wandered in the direction of all that divine essence in the hope that he might run into the one angel—the one being—with whom he could probably find some respite from all the useless, ugly work. Someone who would smile at him and lighten the atmosphere for a few minutes just by being his own ridiculous, foppishly dressed, nattering self. It would be a relief to discuss crepes and books instead of the grind of war.
When he got to the Front, despite the power he’d felt approaching, Crowley was still startled to see an entire host of angels descending from Heaven through the clouds and gunsmoke. Without meaning to, Crowley formed some vague, stupid hope that the battle—maybe even the war—might actually be ending, that Heaven was going to live up to its own advertising for once and spread peace, or some such bullshit. Of course, Heaven was really there to pick sides, the angels had swords in their hands, and the battle of Mons raged on even more violently, as the outnumbered British gained confidence and the Germans lost it.
Aziraphale wouldn’t be with those bastards who flew into the trenches, of course. There was no way whatsoever that the gentle, white-haired angel with the pure blue eyes would ever raise a hand in violence against anyone, especially humans. But Crowley did feel Aziraphale’s presence somewhere nearby, very strongly. The demon picked his way through the fields behind the Front and into the city of Mons itself, dodging soldiers and vehicles and overworked doctors, walking through a mixture of mud and blood. As soon as he saw the level of suffering in the town, it was clear that this was a place to which Aziraphale would be drawn, and indeed, he felt his friend’s aura very clearly now. Once again, however, Crowley was not expecting the magnitude of the angelic power he would find that night in the darkness of Mons.
He came around a corner and discovered that what he’d thought were searchlights or armored car lights were nothing of earthly origin. There, in an open square, nearly a hundred casualties were lying, they were bleeding, and they were dying, but there was no screaming here. There was only a beautiful, almost overpowering (at least to a demon) angelic glow. There on the ground by a low stone wall sat an angel with a terribly wounded young man in his arms. Other men lay near him, quietly, gazing fondly skyward at the two gloriously beautiful white wings that were spread out over the square, blocking the sight of airplanes and smoke and fire. The angel’s pale robes were soaked with the stains of the horrors all around him, but those wings were shining pure white above it all. Crowley could feel what Aziraphale was telling the soldiers. You are loved. Above this Hell on Earth there is happiness, there is forgiveness, there is no pain. That old standard that angels were supposed to spout and so rarely did: Do not be afraid.
While a few miles away other angels splattered themselves in the blood of German soldiers, Aziraphale alone was promising paradise, and to all—German captives and British troops dying together in the square, with Aziraphale shielding them from the last few minutes of terror that should have been their due.
Crowley was used to seeing Aziraphale bring comfort to those who were suffering. Aziraphale had been created as the Angel of Compassion, after all. Crowley had seen his best friend heal, and weep, and surround broken people with his angelic aura, wiping away fear like dirt from a window. But Crowley had seldom witnessed Aziraphale showing his power to this extent, even in war, his aura so strong and bright that it was almost touchable. And after nearly 6000 years fraternizing with the angel, Crowley knew why it was different tonight. He could feel it. Aziraphale was angry.
Aziraphale still felt the Great Flood, Crowley knew, the angel had internalized it somewhere, thousands of men, women, and children drowned on a whim of God. Deep inside, the angel held an anger against himself for not helping during the Flood, for following orders, which was no doubt why the angel had defied his orders tonight, absenting himself from the Front to minister to the ones who had already been stricken from the rolls as if they no longer mattered. Beyond the Flood, there had fallen countless others in countless wars and disasters, and Aziraphale mourned them all, down to those he watched over tonight.
The Angel of Compassion possessed twin powers—a heavenly aura to comfort the soul, and a physical magic to heal the body. But the second power went only so far—although he could remove all of the pain, Aziraphale could not heal wounds of this magnitude, not wounds that were grave enough to kill. The Angel of Compassion might be stronger than fear but he was not stronger than Death. He couldn’t fix everything. He couldn’t fix this. And he was very angry about it. Angry at himself, angry at his fellow angels who were out there creating more broken bodies who would end up dying tonight beneath Aziraphale’s wings.
What was most painful to Aziraphale though, was that somewhere in the depths of that angelic soul, hidden as well as Aziraphale could hide it, there burned an almost Hellfire-hot wrath against God Herself for allowing or even causing all the suffering. It was the exquisite torture of a righteous anger without the possibility of its being righteous, not for an angel.
But right now, in the way that only he could, Aziraphale was turning all the power of his anger into love, transforming the rage and hurt into something that burned just as hotly, but instead pushed away the darkness and pain of dying men and left behind room to breathe, room to trust.
Whether the angel could feel any of that peace himself, Crowley did not know.
That, of course, was the moment that Crowley fell in love, there in the mud of the square, and the noise and the suffering, as far away as he could go from that brilliant heavenly light and still be able to gaze at his best friend Aziraphale, Guard of the Eastern Gate of Eden, showing his true nature. Or maybe it was just the moment that Crowley realized he was in love, and had been, must have been, all those years ago, standing beside the angel on the Garden wall. Listening to Aziraphale admit that in hopes of protecting humanity he’d given them the flaming sword meant to threaten them. Watching the first rainstorm approach Eden, both of them a little afraid, ill at ease, and Crowley instinctively stepping toward Aziraphale until he stood under the protection of those white wings himself.
It was ludicrous, of course. A demon in love with an angel, a damned creature offering what—what could he offer?—to a celestial being who embodied love itself. Who certainly loved him, Crowley was sure of this, but the Angel of Compassion quite literally loved everyone. Sheltering Crowley from the rain was in Aziraphale’s job description, it was Crowley who was drawn to the angel in a way that transcended what a demon’s feelings ought to be, not the other way around.
And it was more than ludicrous, it was dangerous, for both of them. Their respective sides would bring punishment down on them if they knew they’d cultivated a friendship, and if it ever moved beyond that—for Crowley, it would just be pain, but for Aziraphale, it could be Falling. And if this angel Fell—who would protect the people of the earth? What other angel would possibly show compassion to humanity?
Crowley eventually stepped back, out of the square, occupying himself with what low-level mischief might look good to Hell, knocking over some crates near the entrance to town, in case angels might be on their way, not that the bastards couldn’t just fly over the mess he was making. He came upon a group of civilians, shivering and crying, and there was nothing Crowley could give them, of course, serpent’s eyes and shaken faith were not going to calm anyone. He managed to miracle up some food for them, with token nods to Hell—the bread was a day old, the fish overcooked.
And then he flew into the night, a Fallen angel on wings burned black, up in the air amidst all the smoke and screaming. He left Mons, and the Angel of Compassion, behind.
Two weeks after the Almostpocalypse
The bookshop was in its usual state of disarray when Crowley stepped through the door. It was early afternoon, around one, and Crowley had just rolled out of bed about thirty minutes earlier. He’d thrown on some clothes—jeans, t-shirt, blazer, all in black today—miracled up some coffee, and headed to the bookshop where he fully intended to finish wasting the day on Aziraphale’s couch, watching the angel putter about and listening to him prattle on about whatever it was that he might wish to prattle on about: food, books...well, food and books, probably. Now that Heaven and Hell had sacked them, Crowley felt almost as if he could call himself retired. Not that he’d been terribly active when he was on the clock, but now there wasn’t much pretending to do anymore.
Aziraphale, of course, had failed to get the retirement memo. Today, not only was his shop all in a tangle, but its shopkeeper as well. Aziraphale had his coat and vest off and his sleeves rolled up, his glasses were askew, and strangest of all—his tartan bow tie was crooked. Crowley watched Aziraphale flitting from bookcase to bookcase, all dusty and looking very ill at ease. The demon wasn’t even sure Aziraphale had noticed him come in.
“Angel, are you all right?”
Aziraphale must have been aware that he was standing there, because he didn’t jump when Crowley spoke. Still, he spared his visitor not a glance. “I can’t find a book.”
“Well—not the first time that’s happened.”
“This one’s important.”
“Where did you have it last?”
The angel looked at him now with a mix of annoyance and worry on his face. “I don’t even know if I had it last!”
Crowley put his coffee down on a nearby shelf. “Okay—whatever that means—look, you’re all flustered, let’s get some lunch and then you’ll—”
“We don’t have time for lunch!” Aziraphale cried, delving into another bookcase.
At this point, Crowley took his sunglasses off and regarded the angel intently. “You. Don’t want to go to lunch. What book could you possibly have lost that’s more important than lunch at the Ritz? We could get a table—”
Aziraphale stopped his nervous movements and turned to face Crowley. The demon recognized the expression on the angel’s face, eyebrows raised, a little hopeful, a little pleading, a little bit (no doubt unconsciously) adorable. The angel tended to use this particular expression to silently ask for Crowley’s help, and the demon was not good at fighting the urge to do whatever Aziraphale asked when he wore this look. Actually, Crowley wasn’t very much good at not doing whatever Aziraphale asked him for anyway, but they both pretended that those instances were limited to ones in which Aziraphale made this particular face. This time, though, it almost looked as if those blue eyes held unshed tears.
“What book is it, angel?” Crowley asked softly.
Aziraphale shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Crowley took a seat on Aziraphale’s couch, briefly tugging on the angel’s sleeve to guide him to sit down as well. In the sunlight, Crowley could see little dust motes floating out of the soft white curls of the angel’s hair. Aziraphale would no doubt label himself unkempt at the moment, but to Crowley he looked as enchanting as ever.
What was a little harder for Crowley to deal with was the fact that with his coat off and his sleeves rolled up, Aziraphale had revealed more of his body than Crowley had seen in a very long time, since fashions had gotten more conservative and the angel had gladly embraced the trend. This afternoon, Crowley could see the pale peach skin of the angel’s forearms, covered with delicate white hairs that sparkled in the sunlight. Crowley was never sure whether Aziraphale’s beauty came naturally to the corporeal form he had taken or if it was the angelic essence shining through, making his appearance just a touch more alluring than was really fair.
Crowley focused on Aziraphale’s face, not that that was much better, but at least it was a sight Crowley was more used to. “Okay, angel. Let’s have it from the beginning.”
Aziraphale looked down and noticed that his tie was crooked, and began to fuss with it. “Around five o’clock this morning I had this feeling like I had to find a book. A desperate feeling. It’s not exactly like I’ve lost it, more like I’m—missing something? But I don’t know what book it is or why—”
“We’ll figure it out, okay? We’ll figure it out.” Crowley put a hand on Aziraphale’s shoulder— not his bare arm—anxious to somehow pull his angel out of the agitation he’d fallen into. As always, Aziraphale’s body temperature was far warmer than Crowley’s, and the part of Crowley that was still essentially serpentine soaked up the heat.
Back at the beginning, it had been common for Crowley and Aziraphale to go long stretches of years without seeing each other. Gradually, though, those stretches had gotten shorter, and then one day they’d both found themselves in London, and started seeing each other more often—monthly, weekly, and when they’d worked together to raise Warlock, it had been daily. Now it was every day still, and Crowley didn’t know how he’d ever gone so long without being so near to Aziraphale, to the cleverest, kindest, strongest, most beautiful person he knew. The Angel of Compassion had been created to love, and not just living things. Aziraphale loved all the delights of Earth, he loved wine and music and poetry and dessert and every beautiful thing that he ever came across, and it was—well, it was Heavenly just to be in his company. Despite how torturous it was for Crowley to be close to Aziraphale and still so far away.
The angel regarded him with worry in his sky-blue eyes. “Crowley, something about this feels...dangerous.”
“You mean like the book is dangerous or like something else will be dangerous unless we find the book?”
“I just think that we really need to find it.”
“Yes, of course we do.” Crowley withdrew his hand and smacked his own leg. “Can’t have more than a few weeks off from saving the world, can we? No retirement for us!” He gave Aziraphale a smile to soften his complaining. “Can you tell where the feeling is coming from? Heaven? Hell? Earth?”
Aziraphale frowned, concentrating. “Not—not Heaven. I still feel them a little and I don’t think they’re mixed up in this.”
Crowley made a noise that meant That remains to be seen but Aziraphale didn’t acknowledge it.
“I don’t think it’s Hell, either, it doesn’t feel infernal...I guess it must be Earth. Somewhere…”
Suddenly Aziraphale did something that he did not often do. He touched Crowley.
The Angel of Compassion was not exactly reluctant to touch people—well, to touch humans. He touched them to heal or comfort them, to take their pain and fear away. But he very rarely touched Crowley. And Crowley knew why. They’d spent 6000 years attempting to hide the fact that they weren’t the enemies they were supposed to be, that they had never fit very well into the role of adversaries. They had both feared Heaven or Hell finding that out, so even if Aziraphale and Crowley were fraternizing , they didn’t touch. But behind that fear, Crowley knew, was something even stronger. Aziraphale was an angel, through and through, and becoming physically close to a demon was most likely simply not something that he could allow himself to do. If Crowley needed healing or compassion, yes. But for any other reason—well, there was no other reason for Aziraphale.
But now Aziraphale had taken Crowley’s hand, and Crowley wished suddenly that he could reach his coffee because his mouth felt a little dry. The angel’s skin was warm against Crowley’s and soft as flower petals.
Aziraphale looked at Crowley with a determined expression. “I need your help.”
Crowley managed to say, “Yeah, okay.”
“We need to search out where this is coming from. I can’t quite narrow it down, but maybe if you help me—”
“Okay, yeah, sure.” Crowley’s voice faded as Aziraphale reached out and took his other hand as well.
Aziraphale closed his eyes. “Do you feel it?”
Crowley let his mind reach out around the twists and turns of the bookshop, over the couch, behind the bookcases, across the dusty, sunlit floor. Aziraphale was right, there was something amiss, an unease in the air. It was faint, but it definitely didn’t belong in the comfortable, warm, slightly stuffy atmosphere of the bookshop. “I feel it,” Crowley said, and then the demon and the angel stretched their minds out together, following the worrisome trace of the intruder out the door and into the street.
Taking an astral walk through London with Aziraphale was almost like taking a regular walk through London with Aziraphale, except that the angel and demon existed only as their natural energies. Of course, without any corporeal boundaries, Aziraphale was just a little too exuberant to ever entirely keep to himself, and his pretty golden-blue angelic aura would flit about the street, winding its way around flowers and songbirds and food carts.
Crowley would focus his own deep red demonic aura on anything other than watching Aziraphale’s true form dance itself about. The demon could feel the people around them and their petty complaints and hunger and impatience. He wondered if Aziraphale sensed only the pleasant emotions of the people they passed. And then they were up higher, moving faster, as the track got stronger. A moment more and—
“Oh, of course it’s a church,” Crowley grumbled, taking in the gray walls rising from the crowded street, the glare of sunlight through stained glass. Try as he might, he couldn’t sense anything greatly amiss with the church itself, but whatever was causing all the fuss seemed to exist within the darkened space inside.
Back in the bookshop, they opened their eyes and Aziraphale smiled at him, that beautiful smile that Crowley only saw at those rare times when Aziraphale wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he loved Crowley deeply. As only the Angel of Compassion could do, of course, there was no more to the emotion than that. Why Aziraphale thought he needed to hide it, Crowley did not know, and he also wasn’t sure if the angel was aware he was never remotely successful at it. Aziraphale quite literally radiated love at all times, he could no more conceal that than he could the fact that his eyes were blue and his fashion sense unfailingly anachronistic. Perhaps Aziraphale worried that being overly demonstrative would make Crowley uncomfortable. Which, of course, it did, but at the same time, somehow, it didn’t.
But Crowley couldn’t tell him that, he couldn’t express to the angel what it felt like to be held by him right now, the warmth of his skin, the gentle pressure against his fingers, the peace it gave Crowley. It would embarrass the angel—well, it would embarrass them both. They were friends. There wasn’t anything else they could be. They might have retired from their jobs (with different levels of success), but the rest had somehow remained the same. Between them, at least, it appeared that there was still a great deal of pretending to do.
The angel withdrew his hands, his gaze wandering over the shop again, restlessly. “It’s like the book is the answer, but I don’t know the question.”
Crowley stood up and miracled his coffee hot again so that it could warm the fingers that were rapidly growing colder without Aziraphale’s touch. “Well, then, angel, I guess we’re off to church.”
It was a Catholic church, and looked it—statues of saints, stained glass depictions of silver plates and chalices and more saints, dark wooden pews and kneelers, dim lanterns suspended from the ceiling. Incense floated thickly in the air.
Aziraphale felt quite comfortable in churches, of course. There was usually a sense of openness there, like the building was somehow larger than it really was. Oftentimes churches felt peaceful. Sometimes they didn’t, and Aziraphale would always try to miracle them into doing so, driving away whatever unpleasantness seemed to have come up between Earth and Heaven. As much as he could, anyway.
There was no peace in this church. Rather than open, this place felt close and claustrophobic, although the sanctuary was deserted except for them. But Aziraphale could hardly miracle away the unease if he wanted to find its source. The angel squinted in the dim light, trying to follow something he could not see. He was so intent on his quest that he’d completely forgotten that no church could ever be peaceful for Crowley.
Aziraphale heard the demon come up behind him, shuffling his feet oddly. “Ow, fuck . Consecrated ground.”
Aziraphale felt a stab of sudden sympathy, irritated with himself for forgetting. “Oh, yes, sorry.” He snapped his fingers.
Behind him, Crowley’s feet stopped their uncoordinated tap dance as Aziraphale started checking pews for suspicious books.
Crowley’s voice interrupted him. “What did you just do?”
“Oh, I turned off the effects on you,” Aziraphale answered absently.
“Turned off the—you can’t do that, this is consecrated ground, even an angel can’t turn off consecrated ground.”
“Crowley, I should think I would be well aware of what I can and cannot do.” Aziraphale picked up a hymnal and tried to feel its essence. This particular book was full of modern hymns with almost no Latin other than one verse of Adeste fideles . Of course, Aziraphale had to admit, it wouldn’t really do nowadays to try to call the fideles —the faithful—to O come into church in a language they didn’t understand. So lamentable, maybe, but not exactly evil, and certainly not the book’s fault.
“I am the Angel of Compassion,” he reminded the demon, turning to give him a look. “I can turn off anyone’s pain.” The word mostly was a whispered aside to the unfortunate hymnal.
Crowley’s eyebrows were raised above his sunglasses. His fire-red hair looked very dark in the shadowy space, but light from the stained glass windows was illuminating his face with shades of blue and green and purple. Even here, in a place antithetical to his nature, Crowley was achingly beautiful. Aziraphale stopped looking at him.
“Well if you can do that,” the demon asked, “why didn’t you turn it off in that church with the Nazis? 1941, why didn’t you turn it off then?”
1941...the rescued books… Aziraphale pushed back against that powerfully bittersweet memory as he started searching another pew. “Well, back then, you know, if Heaven had seen, well... So I just hid that little miracle inside the big one, the one that saved us being discorporated. I mean, you don’t think blowing up a church building un-consecrates ground, do you?”
“Well of course it—doesn’t?” Crowley sounded bewildered, and Aziraphale had to focus on not letting the demon realize Aziraphale was laughing into a prayer book.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Crowley demanded.
“I assumed you knew.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Aziraphale gave up on the pews with an irritated sigh. None of these books felt quite right—well, quite wrong . “It’s not the first time I’ve healed you, Crowley. And you know angels aren’t supposed to be able to do that.”
Crowley’s voice rose into a higher register. “Aren’t supposed—why not?”
“The divine essence can kill demons, it’s not meant for healing them, only fighting them.”
“But you can—”
“Angel. Of. Compassion. It wouldn’t be much good to have a healing power that harms other creatures, now would it?” Aziraphale gave him a warm smile, letting a little of his true feelings for Crowley—friendship, admiration, love—stretch out across the church and envelop the demon in a bit of a protected space, especially seeing as he was behind enemy lines at the moment. If Crowley felt it, he didn’t react, other than maybe shuffling his feet again a little bit. Aziraphale became aware of some flowers in a vase by the altar growing new blooms, and he toned down his enthusiasm a little.
Aziraphale started wandering the church, trying to pick up on the trace of the whatever-it-was. It seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. In the church, but somehow not in a particular place in the church.
As the angel ran his hand along the edge of a pew, he suddenly felt a sharp pain. The angel made a quick little hissing sound—probably very Crowley-esque—and looked down at his hand curiously. Blood was starting to seep out of a little cut on his palm.
Crowley came up behind him. “You all right, angel? Did you cut yourself?”
“Yes. Not sure how, though.” Aziraphale bent his head over the pew, but he could see nothing sharp.
Crowley’s voice was soft and dark. “Guess I’m not supposed to be able to heal you, either. Done it before, though, haven’t I?”
Aziraphale glanced up at him and smiled. “Yes, you have.” Aziraphale didn’t need Crowley to heal him, of course, but it was a lovely feeling to have his friend make a bit of a fuss over him. Also, if the angel was being completely honest, which was an extremely, terribly bad idea in this case, the feeling of a little demonic healing burned with a searing pleasure that that no spicy food could ever reach.
Crowley gently slipped his hand underneath Aziraphale’s injured hand. But Aziraphale immediately made them both jump by saying, “No!” in a very loud voice. He grabbed Crowley’s wrist with his other hand and pushed it away.
Crowley went still. Aziraphale instantly realized what he’d done. “Oh, no. That’s not what I meant. It’s—the cut’s infected already. I don’t want you to get close to it.” Aziraphale’s body was protected by the healing aura of the Angel of Compassion. Aziraphale couldn’t get sick. But Crowley’s body could.
Crowley said, “Oh,” and Aziraphale was not sure if Crowley believed him. It was the truth, though. Aziraphale could feel the infection starting to climb up from the wound. Awfully fast for something like that. What had he cut his hand on? He concentrated until the infection burned away and the wound closed. Then he realized he was still holding Crowley’s wrist and let go of it. “Thank you,” he offered.
Crowley said nothing, just moving away down the aisle. Aziraphale wasn’t sure what to do. He tipped his head back to look up at the domed ceiling. There was no answer there, so he started looking for another stack of books somewhere. Maybe in the sacristy. He looked around for the little room. 1
Crowley’s voice startled him out of his searching. “Angel. Come here.” Aziraphale looked up to see the demon standing near the back of the sanctuary looking pleased with himself. “Come here,” he repeated, sounding irritated, as if Aziraphale were a misbehaving puppy. Aziraphale gave him an eye roll as he acquiesced.
“Angel, it’s not a book. Or rather, the whole thing’s the book.”
“Look at this.” A small flame of Hellfire came to life in the demon’s palm with a soft whoosh and he held it up to the stone wall in front of them.
With the better lighting, Aziraphale started to be able to make out letters carved into the wall. “It’s the church itself,” Crowley informed him, in a very self-satisfied voice.
“Oh, my…” Aziraphale started to touch the stone, feeling the words, the spaces in between them. It was difficult to make out every single letter, but Crowley was right, this was the text they had been looking for, Aziraphale could feel it. Not a book—an entire, not to mention consecrated, building. “You know,” Aziraphale remarked, “this is probably not a good sign.”
Crowley answered with a noise that made it sound like he wasn’t particularly troubled by anything at the moment, but Aziraphale didn’t believe him.
“I just can’t quite read the—” the angel started, and then Crowley touched his hand to the wall. The flame in his palm became a river of fire, spreading out along the wall and flowing into every letter, until the words burned clearly against the dark stone. The flickering light cast a red glow onto Crowley’s face, giving his pale skin a radiance and turning those black glasses into dark, expressionless hollows.
“Oh, thank you,” Aziraphale told him, a little breathlessly, forcing himself to look away from Crowley’s face for the second time in about ten minutes. “Well, let’s see,” he said, in a wavering voice. “It’s Hebrew.” Crowley, who either couldn’t read the writing or was too lazy to bother, snapped out the flame in his hand and moved off into the sanctuary. Aziraphale started translating the blazing letters. “ Four thousand years ...well, what’s today, let’s see, it’s Tuesday…” After some mental calculations, he called out, “You know, Crowley, I’m afraid that whatever’s happening is going to happen soon.”
When Crowley didn’t answer, Aziraphale turned around to see the demon standing in the front of the church, looking up at the black boards that announced the hymn numbers for the week. As Aziraphale watched, the white plastic letters and numbers lifted off the boards and started spinning slowly in the air. “What are you doing?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley gave him a delighted smile. “I’ve never gotten to mess around in a church before. Of course, I did blow up the last one I was in, so that has to count for something.”
The letters coalesced back onto the boards, spelling a new message, and it wasn’t Hebrew, and it certainly wasn’t church-appropriate. “Oh for Heaven’s sake,” Aziraphale complained.
“Nope,” Crowley replied, shaking his head. “That’s not a very good curse, angel, especially in here. You’re going to have to do better than that.”
Aziraphale turned his back quickly. “I’m not seeing this. All right, there’s the date, and then what, Horsepeople, I guess... Death ...well, he certainly is one of them. Not my favorite, I’ll admit.”
“So can you turn off the harm from holy water, too?”
Aziraphale whirled back around to see Crowley approaching the font in front of the altar. “No!” the angel cried, quite loudly. “Holy water is much too strong, and you know I can’t save the dying—”
Crowley stopped short of reaching the font and gave Aziraphale a mischievous grin, because they both knew very well that holy water was terribly dangerous, they’d even switched places to avoid Crowley coming into contact with it in Hell. Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “Damn it, Crowley.”
“Now there’s a good curse!” Crowley exclaimed, raising his arms in a cheer. “For an angel, anyway. Still, got to use that one.” He went back to the announcement boards. Aziraphale tried to translate more quickly, anxious to be able to shoo the demon back off of the holy ground onto which Aziraphale had so regrettably invited him.
“ Death , yes, suffering , of course, why not?” He tried a little Crowley-style flippancy. “Not like we expected it to be a prophecy of a day at the beach, did we? And it ends—” Aziraphale looked up. There was more writing up near the ceiling, but he couldn’t make it out, even with the letters blazing. The angel took off his suit coat and laid it gently over a pew, and then allowed his wings to manifest, careful to miracle temporary holes in his shirt and vest so that the fabric wouldn’t tear. It felt good, as always, to stretch his wings out after they’d been hidden a while. The colored light from the stained-glass windows played over them, making a rainbowed mosaic of what was normally pure white 2. Aziraphale flapped his wings gently and rose up toward the ceiling.
What was written up there was easier to read, probably because people hadn’t been running their fingers over the letters for the last few centuries, but Aziraphale rather wished that it wasn’t. His translation finished, he gazed down over the sanctuary to find that Crowley was now standing in front of a stained glass depiction of the angel Gabriel. The window-Gabriel had lost his halo and sported beautifully crafted demon horns and a mustache. But Crowley had stopped his desecration and was just staring up at Aziraphale.
“What?” Aziraphale asked.
The demon’s expression quickly became one of amusement, hiding whatever had been there before. “Nothing. It’s just you, in front of the stained glass, with the wings, and the fire—well, you look very...smite-y.”
“Then I suppose you’d better start behaving in here.”
“What, with this idiot?” The stained glass window’s label Gabriel changed before Aziraphale’s eyes to Wanker.
Aziraphale couldn’t really fault him there.
Crowley smiled, just a little, one of those mild expressions that suited his sharp, stark features so well. “Just come down from there, angel. If someone walks in off the street and sees you like that, the Vatican is going to certify this place as a site of angelic visitation. And watch your wings, I don’t want the car smelling of burnt feathers.”
Aziraphale landed quickly and folded his wings back into invisibility.
“I guess technically now it is a site of angelic visitation,” Crowley mused. “Demonic too, come to think of it. Yeah, best not to let anyone know.” He snapped his fingers and the blazing letters went dark again, smoke rising hazily through the air. Crowley handed Aziraphale his suit coat. “So what did it say up there?”
“It isn’t good, I’m afraid.” Aziraphale told him, slipping the coat on.
“Never is, this sort of thing.”
“No, I suppose not.” Aziraphale started ushering the demon down the aisle toward the doors. 3
Crowley gave him a smile. “Well, we’ve faced down Lucifer himself, now, haven’t we?”
“I rather think Adam did that, actually. And anyway, this is something new.”
“I thought you said it was a Horseperson.”
“There are only four, Aziraphale, and we faced them all.”
“Actually, there are five. One retired, remember? And I’m afraid it’s that one that this writing mentions.”
Crowley took a last look at the sanctuary before they stepped back out into the brighter sunshine of the street, and Aziraphale pretended very hard that he didn’t see Gabriel’s white robe disappear entirely from the window. “Oh, wonderful,” said the demon, quite as if he hadn’t just left a stained glass archangel in a very crude state. “We get to have another plague in London.”
Crowley was driving the Bentley back to the bookshop in his usual manner, so Aziraphale had one hand on the door and one on the seat beside him as the car careened about the streets, trying hard to hold his body still, as if that might help somehow.
“Crowley, will you please watch out for the bus?”
Crowley paid the angel’s warning no attention, as usual, passing the bus with an inch or so to spare. “So why the Hell—Heav—why even is there an angel who’s allowed to heal demons?” he asked. “Can’t imagine your lot would be very happy about that, like how does that even work, how is that a thing?”
“I don’t know. It just is.”
“And did Heaven never notice, in 6000 years they’ve never said, ‘Hey, Aziraphale, we can sense in your heavenly aura that you can bring succor to the damned’?”
“Succ—” Aziraphale started that sentence over. “Well, I don’t think it’s ever occurred to them to check. It’s not exactly a situation that one expects to come up, is it? It’s never been written about anywhere I’ve seen. Crowley, this is actually a one-way—”
The Bentley spun around a corner, solving the one-way street situation, at least. But then Crowley stopped watching the road to study the angel. “Hang on a second, if it’s not written about, how did you know you could do it? How did you know it wouldn’t hurt me the first time you healed me?”
Aziraphale tried to look as if that weren’t actually an excellent question. “Well, I hoped—”
“You hoped? So you could have killed me—”
“You’re going to kill yourself if you don’t watch the road, Crowley.” Aziraphale waited until the demon had reluctantly put his attention back where it needed to be. “Because you don’t burst into flames when we touch, I assumed that healing would—”
“You can’t touch me?!”
“No, of course I can.”
“Not you!” Crowley took his hand off the wheel to gesture wildly in the air. “Angels—angels can’t touch demons?”
“Oh, no. Or else someone starts on fire. One of them does—depends on who’s stronger. And I happen to be quite a bit stronger than you. You know, I am a Principality.” He tried to give Crowley a noble look and the demon looked back at him as if Aziraphale had claimed that the angel could do something completely ridiculous, like beat the demon at croquet. And actually, he couldn’t even do that. Deflated a little, Aziraphale went on. “Anyway, you had already touched me on the hand, in the early 3500’s BC, and no bursting into flames! I did think you were rather brave to try it.”
“Well I didn’t know I was supposed to end up perishing in the flames of Heavenfire just to touch you on the hand.”
“Does Hell really not teach their demons these things?”
Crowley made one of his vague, effortlessly graceful gestures. “Well, you know, Hell’s not very...organized.”
“I guess demons don’t make a habit of touching angels. Except—well, except us.”
“Oh, yeah,” Crowely agreed absently.
Aziraphale debated saying what he wanted to—it was hard sometimes to decide how exactly to show compassion, whether it would be kinder to say a particular thing or to keep silent. And things were extra touchy with Crowley, because although the demon seemed to like feeling the warmth of Aziraphale’s angelic aura at times, it still seemed to make him quite uncomfortable.
Holding hands in the bookshop—clearly that situation had put Crowley ill at ease. Of course, for Aziraphale, it had been the wonderfully calming touch that he’d needed in his state of near-panic. He was truly grateful that Crowley hadn’t pulled away.
It was just possible that Crowley could tell—Oh, Hell, Aziraphale knew he could tell, the angel was well aware that he had no kind of poker face—Crowley had to know that Aziraphale was in love with him. But the demon didn’t love him, of that Aziraphale was sure. There might have been a chance for it once, on one snowy night—but Azriaphale had let it slip through his fingers. Or maybe there never had been a chance. Crowley probably couldn’t even imagine himself loving an angel, never mind a pudgy, soft, mild-mannered angel who talked too much and dressed in a much too old-fashioned manner, and was simply too kind and naive for the world.
Crowley was sharp and cynical and distrustful, and the thing was that he was right. He’d been right about Heaven simply wanting a war, he’d been right that God would not intervene to stop Armageddon, and though it had broken Aziraphale’s heart, he had come to try to accept the truths that Crowley had made him see two weeks earlier when the whole world had almost disappeared into an all-consuming war.
Aziraphale had always trusted Crowley. The two had shared a companionship for so long that somehow the angel had made the difficult and unexpected journey from trusting Heaven to trusting only his best friend. And no one else but Crowley could have possibly made the angel feel better after the near-ending of the world had brought Aziraphale’s status with Heaven down in flames of Hellfire.
They were friends. That had never been a temptation or a surrender, it was simply a fact.
They were just friends.
If the demon had wanted to be loved—dear God, Aziraphale could have loved him to Alpha Centauri and back with a love brighter than Heaven had ever dreamt of. But of course, Crowley didn’t want that, and Aziraphale had to work very hard to keep himself from showing too much of his love. It was hard enough for Aziraphale to control that level of feeling when he was keeping it inside himself.
So compassion was really the only thing that Aziraphale had to give. It wasn’t much, it wasn’t spectacular, but sometimes the demon would accept it, and because of that, Aziraphale simply could not stop offering it.
“Did you know, it’s why you don’t have nightmares at the bookshop?”
The demon glanced at him. “What?”
“When you stay over at the bookshop, you know, in the room upstairs. Or—or that night in your flat after the shop had burned.” You could come home with me , Crowley had said, offering the disillusioned, grieving angel some compassion of his own, and Aziraphale had grasped onto it with both hands. Spending the night simply watching over Crowley’s sleep in Crowley’s own flat had been one of the most pleasurable of the angel’s life.
“I make sure your dreams are pleasant,” the angel said.
Crowley’s voice darkened and for once, he began looking intently at the road. “You’ve been altering my dreams?”
“Well, not exactly. I don’t look at them or anything,” Aziraphale hastened to assure him. “I don’t know what you dream.” Heavens, how he wished he did. Did Crowley ever see Aziraphale’s face in dreams? In the nice ones or in the nightmares? Or in both? But the angel had never had the courage to look.
“It’s just that when you sleep I can feel if there’s negative energy coming from you and I—heal it. Make it nicer. Anyway. I just wanted you to know. That’s another thing an angel’s not supposed to be able to do for a demon, but I do it for you. Crowley, the traffic light—well, I guess it wasn’t completely red. More like pink.”
Crowley was silent for a second and then said, “Well, that’s—that’s very kind of you, Aziraphale.”
Crowley still wouldn’t look at him, but Aziraphale’s heart lifted and he gave the demon a smile that he couldn’t see. “You’re welcome.”
The Bentley whirled around a corner and Aziraphale slid against the door. There was another moment of silence, and then Crowley went back to his chattering as if Aziraphale had said nothing. The angel was not surprised.
“You know, there was going to be a war on, they still don’t tell us these things. Hey, soldiers of Hell, by the way, make sure when you’re fighting the angels, you don’t bloody touch them! How do you know who’s more powerful, before the touching? Like do you have to compare resumes?”
Aziraphale was still smiling. “I think you’re making this far more complicated than it is.”
“War’s always complicated, angel.”
“Mmm.” Aziraphale watched Crowley’s profile for a moment, letting his eyes travel over the sharp lines of his face, the soft fall of his hair. And then down, across the broad shoulders, the long fingers curled against the steering wheel.
The thing about Crowley was that his demonic power was deceptive, because although Crowley had been created a fairly minor demon, the truth was that he did not actually need any great strength of power to do anything. Crowley was the Serpent of the Garden, the tempter of Eve, and that was not a talent that worked by force. So although Aziraphale was technically much more powerful than Crowley, that didn’t really mean a damn thing when it came to the angel attempting not to metaphorically burst into flames from sitting next to the demon in a car.
You shouldn’t have touched him, Aziraphale told himself. This is exactly why you don’t touch him because then you spend the rest of the day staring at his—
“Weren’t you at Mons?” Aziraphale asked suddenly, with only a little bit of a squeak to his voice. “There were some demons who showed up there to oppose the angels. I heard there was some bursting into flames.”
“Oh, I wasn’t at Mons,” Crowley said, still focusing on his driving for once.
“Really? I could have sworn I felt you there, the night that—”
“Nope, never at Mons. Not my scene, all those angels descending. No, I’d be nowhere near there.”
“Oh. My mistake then.”
“Yeah. Look, we’re here.” The Bentley screeched to a stop at the curb outside the bookshop, and Aziraphale gingerly relaxed his hands where they were still gripping the car.
“So we are.”
Crowley gave him a smile, although it was a weary one. “All right, angel. World needs saving. Again.”
2 Yes, I am saying that he is gay as fuck. (back)
3 Yes, they walked down the aisle together, but backwards. This might possibly mean that in my particular headcanon, they are already married. (back)