The sky was clear and the moon full, its light, a reflection of the sun, reflecting further in the line of blood that led down the hall of Crowley’s flat.
It was not a great deal of blood. Only scattered droplets, like breadcrumbs through a wood in a fairy tale, marking the path down which Crowley had gone. Dark blood against dark floors; without the moon’s cool glow, Aziraphale might not have seen it at all, though of course he knew it was there.
Still shaking in the silence, he did not follow it.
Crowley lived in the penthouse, of course, behind a severe door with a serpentine bell. Aziraphale had never been inside this particular flat before. It was only right that he should be here now, on the night he’d shown his cards to Heaven, thrown out the last of his plausible deniability where his association with Crowley was concerned. The day he’d damned himself.
“This reminds me of your last place,” Aziraphale said, keeping his voice light. “Where was it—Old Compton Street? Do you still have—” He froze. “Dear God, what is that?!”
They’d arrived at what Aziraphale took to be Crowley’s office—desk, chair, telephone—and there on the floor in an adjacent doorway was a puddle of putrefaction, black as tar and far fouler.
Crowley ignored the bait, Aziraphale’s inadvertent invocation of their absentee creator. He dropped his keys onto the desk with a small clatter.
“Ah, that’s Ligur,” he said, unbothered. “Well—what’s left of him at least.”
Aziraphale could not stop looking at it. “That’s—my goodness, what happened to him?”
“I did.” Crowley perked up for the first time since the airbase. “Or rather, we did.”
“You, me, and that bit of holy water from 1967. Told you I needed insurance.”
Aziraphale stared in horror at the liquefied remains. “You mean he’s been…”
“Melted,” Crowley confirmed. “Like the Wicked Witch of the West.” Aziraphale did not react. “Oh, come on—you can’t tell me you’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz.”
“Of course I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz,” snapped Aziraphale. “Do you mean to tell me—but how?”
“Bucket atop the door. Dropped right on him as he came in. It was self-defence, angel. Don’t look so scandalised.”
“Then this,” Aziraphale gestured at the mess, “is holy water?”
Crowley moved in the corner of his vision. Aziraphale’s arm shot out without his meaning it to, as if to hold Crowley away from the puddle.
“Stay back! Stand clear of it! I’ll—oh dear. I don’t suppose you’ve got a mop?”
“Just miracle it away,” Crowley suggested.
“I can’t! I can’t miracle it away—if I did, they would know, and they’d know I’m here, and—”
Aziraphale’s agitation ran its course and came to its inevitable, logical conclusion, which Crowley then verbalised.
“They already know,” the demon said. “More than enough. You can’t make things worse than they already are.”
Crowley was wearing his glasses. His face was tired. Aziraphale held the demon’s gaze, then huffed and snapped his fingers. What was left of Ligur vanished.
“Rest in puddles, old pal.” Crowley gave the now-clean spot in his doorway a very rude two-fingered salute.
“Please tell me you’ve got something in with a very, very high alcohol content,” Aziraphale sighed.
“You know me better than that,” Crowley said, leading Aziraphale to the liquor cabinet, which he saw was indeed very well stocked. “You pour. I need a bath. I smell like petrol and burnt rubber.”
“Why not just miracle it away?” Aziraphale asked snidely.
“Bath’s more pleasant.”
Crowley looked at Aziraphale, and Aziraphale looked at Crowley. The angel knew they were both remembering Rome, some two thousand years earlier, when they’d met by chance in a tavern, and Aziraphale had asked the demon to dinner, appalled that in all his time on earth he’d never had an oyster. There had been a bath just a ways down from the restaurant, and after dining they had retired there, full of good food, good drink, and good cheer. All in all, a memorably pleasant evening.
After that it had been some half a century before he saw the demon again.
Nobody before or since had done baths as well as the Romans. Though a quick soak now would not be unwelcome, Aziraphale considered, after the day they’d had.
“Look,” said Crowley, “the tub’s in the master. You take it. I’ll shower in the guest suite.”
“Oh, I don’t want to put you out—”
“Take the bath, angel,” Crowley said, with a wry smile, and slinked away down a long corridor.
It was very like Crowley to anticipate his desires. Aziraphale stared at the door Crowley had indicated held the master bath, hesitant. But it was just as Crowley had said. What was one more miracle, one more temptation, one more earthly indulgence? He could hardly get more…more whatever he was now.
Damned, doomed, and done-for.
The room he entered held a massive four-poster bed with a deep red bedspread. Luxurious, if one took an interest in such things. There was another door, which led to an ostentatious en-suite with a similarly gargantuan tub. Aziraphale started the bath, and as it filled, he delicately removed his clothes and took stock. They were the same things he’d been wearing at the time of his unexpected discorporation. The clothes were tidy, in excellent condition, which he supposed made sense, given they’d come into existence only a few hours before at the guileless behest of an 11-year-old boy. The body beneath was also the same as ever: ordinary of size and shape, all standard parts accounted for. It had all been very convenient, very neatly done.
What if the Almighty planned it like that all along?
The cavernous tub took ages to fill, and in the end the bath he took was more expedient than relaxing. Nor could the pleasure of having physical form again, especially a physical form in warm water, overcome his need to…
It had been terribly disorienting, his unwanted ascension, returning to roam London as a spectral shadow, unable to see Crowley and only barely able to hear him. Sharing a strange body with a human soul—a kind soul, to be sure, but nevertheless. Very disorienting indeed.
In Heaven he had dared to disobey, had gone to the globe and touched his finger to the familiar shape of the land that had been his home for so many years—the best years—and slipped through time, space, and Who-knew-what-else with a singular mission. He’d hardly even had to try to reach Crowley, as if his ethereal form already knew exactly which metaphorical numbers to metaphorically dial to get through.
He knew Crowley was just in the other room, not far at all, but sitting in the half-filled tub with the water starting to cool and only himself for company, a mad thought crossed his mind: that perhaps he wasn’t really here, that perhaps he’d never regained his old body, that perhaps they hadn’t stopped Armageddon and the world had ended and this—this bath, this flat, everything—was the dream of a dying angel, fallen in battle or condemned as a traitor, cast out of Heaven.
“How’s the corporeal form?” Crowley stood at the liquor cabinet, pouring two generous glasses of Macallan, when Aziraphale emerged, clean and re-clothed. Crowley himself was wearing a black silk robe over yet-blacker silk pyjamas. His hair was wet and unstyled. He still wore his sunglasses. “Everything still where it ought to be?”
“Quite so,” Aziraphale said, tugging at his waistcoat. “Remarkable trick, that. Remarkable boy.”
“Well, he was the Antichrist.”
Aziraphale acknowledged the fact with a nod and accepted the glass Crowley offered.
He followed Crowley to a fashionably stark sitting room, where the demon dropped onto a long leather sofa, arms and legs spread wide.
“Well,” Crowley said, raising his glass. “To Adam Young, former Antichrist, of Tadfield, Oxfordshire.”
“To Adam,” said Aziraphale, raising his own. “To humanity.”
They drank. They were quiet for a spell. Crowley made a show of trying to sit up and make room for Aziraphale on the couch. There had already been plenty of room, but Aziraphale took the gesture for the invitation it was and sat. As soon as he did, the enormity of the past 24 hours hit him like the blast of heat from the exploding Bentley. He was exhausted—by what had happened, and by what was still to come.
And if he was exhausted, Crowley must have been half comatose. Aziraphale wondered when the last time the demon had slept was. Strictly speaking, they did not need sleep, but Crowley had grown used to it over the centuries, had that enormous bed, and Aziraphale knew that for him the familiarity bordered on dependence.
What a sorry pair they made. And just when they needed their wits about them. They had meddled in the affairs of Heaven and Hell, and Heaven and Hell would exact their retribution. Agnes Nutter had known it hundreds of years ago. Choose your faces wisely, for soon enough you will be playing with fire.
He withdrew the fragile scrap of paper from his inside breast pocket and, setting his glass a safe distance away, unfolded it gingerly on the coffee table. He wished he had his gloves, handling such an artefact, but—
It burned down. Remember?
Suppressing a wave of grief, he asked, “Do you think it’s meant to be about the book shop? Perhaps we received it too late.”
“What are the odds that a single piece of parchment, containing a single prophecy, would fall out of a thousand-page book and directly into your hands, only a few hours too late for you to do anything about it?”
“No,” said Aziraphale, “I suppose that isn’t Ms. Nutter’s style. She is rather literal, though. In her way.”
“Witches,” Crowley scoffed. “So we’re to choose our faces, are we? Fat lot of help you are, Aggie.”
“Perhaps we’re meant to disguise ourselves,” Aziraphale suggested. “Change our appearances, go into hiding.”
“What, from Satan himself and all the archangels in Heaven? How long do you suppose that would last? A week?”
Aziraphale clenched his fists on his knees. “Then perhaps we’re meant to…choose other bodies to inhabit. Like I did, with Madame Tracy.”
Even as he said it, he knew it was absurd. Madame Tracy had been a jolly good sport, but they had been in dire circumstances. And besides, it wouldn’t be enough. Heaven and Hell would never stop looking for them. Not until they found them and brought them to heel. The two of them could not stop it. God would not stop it—if She was even still around.
How can someone so clever be so stupid?
“You were right,” Aziraphale murmured, looking down at his knees, a knot in his throat. “You were right all along. I was so foolish.”
Crowley shifted, coming to his defence. “I wasn’t right. How was I right?”
“You said that no one was listening. That there was no one who would understand, no one who would try to stop it. I should have listened to you.”
“If you’d listened to me,” Crowley said wearily, “we’d be halfway to Alpha Centauri by now and this bloody rock would be in worse shape than old Ligur.”
Aziraphale swallowed and, greatly daring, said, “It’s not too late.”
At Crowley’s unresponsive stare, he added, “To leave.”
Crowley stared longer. Then he turned his face up to the ceiling, appearing to concentrate.
“You feel it?” he asked a moment later. “It’s shut down. They’ve closed off the exosphere. Walled up tighter than the M25 tonight. Nothing in or out.”
“You got through the M25,” Aziraphale pointed out.
“That was fire, angel. This is a holy celestial roadblock. I’m surprised you can’t feel it yourself.”
Aziraphale closed his eyes and concentrated, up, up into the farthest reaches of the borders of Heaven’s domain—and there he felt it, as real as an armoured and guarded fence. “We’re on house arrest.”
“Nowhere to run,” Crowley agreed. “Reach out.”
Aziraphale frowned, puzzled…and then he understood. He closed his eyes again and sent the same inquiring energy not up, but out, out to the edges of London, where he ran into a barrier that, for all it was ethereal, was utterly impenetrable to any beings of their kind. He bit his lip. “Indeed.”
When Aziraphale opened his eyes, he found Crowley was watching him, the corners of his mouth curving down, dark glasses covering his eyes.
I should have gone with you. I should have let you take me away. But Crowley was right. As small a part as they’d played, who knew what would have become of things had they not been there to, at long last, finally steer the right boy in the right direction?
Aziraphale valued his life. And Crowley’s—dear, dear Crowley. But they were just two beings among billions on earth, centillions who had never deserved to suffer. And they were among them, were more a part of them than they were of Heaven or Hell. They belonged to the earth, and the earth to them, more than it ever belonged to Heaven or Hell or—for a very long time—even the Almighty Herself.
Perhaps She could drown the world and put up a rainbow, perhaps Heaven could lay waste to it in the name of glorious victory, and none of them so much as shed a tear. He and Crowley could not.
“I opened a summoning circle,” Aziraphale confessed, “to speak to Her. It’s the last thing I did before I was discorporated.”
Crowley’s mouth hung open. “God discorporated you?”
“Oh, no, not at all, in fact I…well, I wasn’t able to speak to the Almighty, exactly.”
“Who’d you speak to, then?”
Aziraphale met Crowley’s gaze for a moment before averting his eyes. “Well. An…agent of the Lord.”
“You talked to God’s secretary,” said Crowley, with understanding.
“More of an answering service,” Aziraphale said miserably.
In his shame at his naïveté, he could hardly bring himself to look at Crowley. But when he did, he found Crowley with the same expression he’d worn on the bench earlier, at the bus stop. There Crowley had invited him in, offered his hospitality and his kindness, the kindness he refused to admit was as much a part of him as anything. Crowley had asked him to come, so quietly—if you like—allowing Aziraphale the option of refusing. As if he expected it. Two celestial beings at an earthly bus stop, caught in between Heaven and Hell, alone in the entire universe. Two orphans. Two exiles. Our own side.
His eyes welled up and spilled over. Crowley sat up straight as a rod, as if Aziraphale’s tears had triggered an alarm. “Hey—”
“The things I said to you,” Aziraphale managed. “I said horrible, cruel things to you. And they weren’t true. I knew they weren’t true even as I said them, but I said them anyway.”
“Forget about it,” Crowley said. “It was the end of the world, tempers were high, we—we all said things we wish we hadn’t said.”
“They were going to destroy you,” Aziraphale insisted. “You asked me to go with you and I—”
“Forget it,” Crowley said with urgency. “It was stupid, I was off my head, just—please forget it—”
“I believed—ah, it was so stupid of me to believe. It’s just like you said—”
“I didn’t mean—”
“I believed in Heaven. I believed in the mission, that we were bound to serve Her, and to serve the humans, and to do good. Has it always been this way, and I just never noticed?”
“You’re an angel,” said Crowley. “You see good in everything.”
“I see good in the wrong things. I put my faith in them, my trust in them, until it’s too late.”
“But it wasn’t too late. Everything’s all right now.”
“For the world,” Aziraphale said quietly. He looked at Crowley. “When do you think they’ll come for us?”
Crowley took a moment.
“They’ll leave it overnight,” he finally said. “Give us time to stew. But my lot, at least—they’ll be quite eager. Love a good execution. Hastur especially. Probably sharpening knives as we speak.” He looked at Aziraphale. “They’ll be working together, of course—Hell and Heaven. Have to get their jollies somehow, now we’ve stopped their war.”
Aziraphale retrieved his handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. “I never expected to see Gabriel and the Prince of Hell working together.”
“Nice to see them put aside their differences, though, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps that was how She planned it all along,” Aziraphale said. “Two opposing forces brought together in harmony for the common cause of smiting us.”
“Wouldn’t put it past her,” Crowley echoed.
“How much time,” Aziraphale ventured with a deep breath, “to ‘stew’?”
Crowley’s eyes were unreadable behind his glasses. “I wouldn’t expect to see teatime tomorrow.”
Aziraphale nodded shakily. Well. That was that, then. After all this time and immortality, the unexpected end had finally arrived. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about what would become of his books.
“Angel,” Crowley said. “Falling, it’s—it’s bad, really bad, I won’t lie to you, but—you can survive it. You’ll be alive after. And at least you won’t have to answer to them anymore.” He jerked his chin up at the ceiling.
Aziraphale appreciated the encouraging words, but they were unnecessary. “Oh, I don’t think I’m going to fall.”
“Well, it’s not like there isn’t precedent,” Crowley said. “Case in point.”
“Yes, of course you’re right, but…as you said, that was a long time ago. Under…different management. No, I’m quite certain now that they—”
Certainty did not make it any easier to say the words.
Crowley’s forehead creased in a frown. Aziraphale dropped his eyes. “What?”
“They think Falling is…too good for me. Possibly they even think I want to fall; they already think—well, our association, yours and mine, had raised some eyebrows upstairs. No.” Aziraphale pushed past the lump that threatened to choke the words, “No, they’ll not settle for anything less than complete destruction this time.”
“Why not? You said it yourself, they have to get their ‘jollies’ somewhere. And Gabriel’s been out for my blood for centuries—so to speak.”
“He’s a bastard, don’t get me wrong, but—”
“I think I know Gabriel rather better than you do after all these years.”
When Aziraphale looked again, Crowley’s mouth was parted in horror, though he sensed Crowley still didn’t really believe him. Aziraphale, for his part, felt quite calm about the whole business. He expected it would be over with quickly, the way all his meetings with Gabriel were over with quickly—the Archangel had never spared much time for him. One swift death blow, then. The way one swats an irritating insect. A summary execution.
He was less sanguine about Crowley. He had pictured Crowley’s destruction countless times, had the dread and horror down to an art form. Every time they’d met over the years, Crowley was risking his life, something Aziraphale reminded him of over and over again. Aziraphale did not sleep, but he did not need to sleep to have nightmares about Crowley being found out, being dragged below or even killed right in front of Aziraphale whilst he could do nothing but watch.
“And you?” he asked, knowing the answer and fearing it all the same. “What will Hell do with you?”
“Oh, slow and torturous death, of course.” Crowley shrugged. “Eyes gouged out, fingernails ripped off, sodomised with a red-hot poker, that sort of thing. Grand finale, a bucket of holy water over the head. Not too creative, most demons.”
Aziraphale felt his gorge rise, went ice cold and clammy. “We have to think of something,” he said, almost frantic. “Choose your faces wisely—what does she want us to do?”
“You’re the expert. You pieced together Tadfield, Adam Young, all that.”
“Yes, and it took me all night to do it. And that was with the entire book. All we have now is one line of vague prophecy and, if you’re right, some six to eighteen hours in which to decipher it.”
“All night?” Crowley frowned. “What night?”
“Oh, I—” Crowley had forgiven him, or at least dismissed, the unkind and untrue things he’d said earlier. His forgiveness was a gift, but Aziraphale’s guilt was not assuaged. More than once had he treated the demon poorly, with cruel barbs and falsehoods. It would not happen again, not with whatever time they had left. He owed Crowley that much, at least.
“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said. “The night the young lady left her book in your car—well, I brought it in and spent the next several hours poring over it, and, well, in the morning, I found out where the boy lived. It was very cheekily done. You see, the ‘number of the beast’—”
“You figured out how to find the boy this morning?”
Oh, dear. He’d really stepped in it now. “Well, yes.”
The frown between Crowley’s brows deepened. “I rang you this morning,” he said. “You were in a strop over something, couldn’t wait to get me off the line. You knew then?”
Aziraphale let his silence answer for him.
“And at the bandstand later?”
“I should have told you,” Aziraphale hastened to say. “I know that. But I still thought at the time there was something I could do, something Heaven could do, to stop it. I thought if I could only explain it properly, tell them where the boy was, then—then things would all work out. I didn’t mean to keep you in the dark.”
“You lied,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale went quiet. He licked his bottom lip. There was a chill in the flat he had not noticed before.
Crowley brought his hand to his face, reaching up under his sunglasses with thumb and forefinger to rub at his eyes. He let his head fall onto the sofa’s back, face to the ceiling. He looked so terribly tired.
“If I could do it over again,” Aziraphale began, but Crowley cut him off, rolling to his feet with serpentine grace. Glass still in hand, he made his way back to the liquor cabinet. Aziraphale remained on the sofa. Crowley took an awfully long time refilling his drink.
“Look,” said Aziraphale, feeling reasonable, “I know I should have told you straight away, but would it really have changed anything? If we’d got to Tadfield earlier?”
Crowley returned with a glass filled almost to the brim. When he sat, the glass rocked, and a small amount of liquor spilled over the rim onto his long fingers. He did not seem to notice.
“Heaven and Hell already knew we’d been…colluding,” Aziraphale continued.
“Right,” Crowley agreed. There was a forced lightness to the way he spoke that made Aziraphale’s heart sink. “Doesn’t make a difference. Armageddon stopped, Antichrist de-fanged, you don’t trust me—everything’s back to normal.”
Aziraphale wished he was sober, and he simultaneously wished he was far, far drunker. “I really am sorry.”
Crowley had not been turned towards him in the first place, but now he turned even further away from Aziraphale, mouth twisting bitterly. “Don’t be,” he said. “It’s not like I didn’t know where I stand with you. You’ve always made that abundantly clear. And it doesn’t matter—especially since I’ll likely be wiped out of existence in the next 24 hours anyway. Cheers.” He raised his glass, then downed a significant amount of its contents without waiting for Aziraphale to raise his own, or to respond.
“Oh, for—what do you want from me?” Crowley pleaded. “Do you want me to say I forgive you? Fine, I forgive you.”
He made the words sound mocking, and Aziraphale remembered—how could he forget?—speaking the same nonsense to Crowley on the pavement hours earlier, in the bandstand before that, doling out forgiveness by rote, like so many communion wafers, uniform, dry, and tasteless.
“You’ve no cause to feel grief over me, angel,” Crowley went on. “It’s like you’ve always said—we’re enemies. Angel, demon, opposite sides. You can’t betray me because there was never anything to betray. Don’t tear yourself up over whatever you think I’m feeling, because I don’t have feelings—I’m a demon, I’m from Hell, I’m evil incarnate—”
“You’re not,” Aziraphale protested.
Crowley heaved himself off the sofa, still holding his drink, as if he couldn’t stand Aziraphale’s proximity.
“What did you think would happen?” he demanded. “If you told me? Finding the boy and stopping Armageddon was my idea from the beginning. You had to be talked into it! What did you think I was going to do if you told me you’d found him?”
“I don’t know!” Aziraphale cried. “You were very keen on killing him—perhaps I thought you would make me do it.”
“When,” Crowley said, “in the entire course of history, have I ever been able to make you do anything?”
Aziraphale winced. “I wasn’t thinking like that!”
“Right, no, you were just thinking, Crowley, that rotter? Can’t trust him for anything. Better keep this one under my halo. Better tell Gabriel,” he spat, “like a good little angel of the Lord.”
Aziraphale sat up straighter. “I am an angel of the Lord! I—was an angel of the Lord, at least.”
“And I’m your sworn nemesis,” Crowley said, “never mind the six years I spent playing nanny to a small boy—”
“The wrong boy.” Sometimes Aziraphale really couldn’t help himself.
“—which, again, was my idea, not to mention the six thousand years before that, when I—fuck.”
Crowley pulled at his own hair, making it stand on end. His face was wretched behind the glasses. Aziraphale realised he had never actually seen Crowley this agitated before, bar once, perhaps—earlier that evening, at the airbase, when Aziraphale, in desperate terror, had raised his long-lost gladius, only to lower it and shout: or I’ll never talk to you again!
“Fuck,” Crowley swore again. “I told you I was leaving for another star system. I asked you to go with me. I knew you had a low opinion of me, but you’d think, at the end of everything, that just one time you might—”
“It’s not that—”
“I’d have done ANYTHING for you!”
Aziraphale knew, rationally, that Crowley had performed no miracles, had exercised none of his power. He was therefore at a loss to explain why he felt as if he’d been punched. Breathing was a struggle, and his kind didn’t even need to breathe.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, my—you must know, you must, how dear you are to me. Of all the beings on—”
There was a sickening crunch, and Aziraphale recoiled at the sight of Crowley’s bloodied fist, clutching shards of what had been his whisky glass as more jagged pieces fell to the floor at his feet.
He looked at Crowley’s face, and was certain that the demon would strike him, grab him by the collar and shove him against a wall the way he had in Tadfield, wrap that bloody hand around Aziraphale’s neck and do to his throat what he’d done to the glass.
But Crowley didn’t touch him, didn’t hit him or throttle him, didn’t even move.
“Fuck you, Aziraphale,” he said.
Then he was gone—not with supernatural speed, but with speed nonetheless, down the hall, where he disappeared.
Seconds later, a door slammed with a crash so violent the vase nearest Aziraphale trembled on its pedestal.