Aziraphale picked through the streets. Like most people he had a cloth pressed to his face, balled up for some protection against the stench. It lay over the city like a blanket, a real physical object that seemed to seep into the skin. It was so cloying that he and many others had foregone the bare-chested fashion in favour of wrapping a linen shawl around his shoulders, as if they might never get the smell out of their skin again without some protection.
People were putting on a brave face. A brave, confused face, begging Pharaoh for answers, but in the meantime sweeping the piles of rotting frogs from their homes. Slaves carried them by the basketful to join the rotting fish in the Nile. No fresh water for more than a week, no reprieve from the smell. The fish, the frogs, the blood, the unwashed masses. People were getting on with it the best they could.
No one had died yet.
Aziraphale did his best, offering miracle pockets of sweet air to those looking the most downtrodden, particularly exhausted slaves finding their baskets a little lighter to carry. He walked the narrow, crowded streets, doing what he could, when he could. He couldn’t do much. Couldn’t be seen to be interfering with a seraph.
It was when he was on the verge of passing out, his posey pressed so hard against his face he bruised his lips, that he heard the familiar voice.
“ This is actually the worst place I’ve ever been. And I once visited the sixth circle on a dare.” Crawly was striding toward him, in one hand a ceramic jug of beer, a black kilt marking him as royalty, skin shining bronze under the high sun. People around him shrunk away at the sight of his eyes.
“ Crawly,” Aziraphale greeted.
Crawly glanced at a pile of decaying frog meat as he walked past it and gagged. “Oh, lovely. I heard the Nile had turned to blood and thought that’d be a sight to see but I wasn’t expecting all this. One of yours or one of ours?”
Aziraphale tugged at his fingers nervously, trying to find a strong, confident voice to answer with.
“ Ours.” Close. Stronger than he felt. “Ours, I think. Not… not my department.” He winced at hearing Gabriel’s words come out of his mouth. “It’s all very above board. It’s to convince the Egyptians to free their slaves and prove the Almighty’s power on Earth. Very… very righteous work.”
“ Smelly work.” Crawly place a hand on the wall behind him, leaning in a little too close. Probably just to watch him squirm, he assumed and tried to pretend it wasn’t working. He took a long swig of his beer. “Not you, is it? Too flashy for you.”
Aziraphale looked at his sandals and pressed the posey back against his mouth. “No. One of the seraphim.”
“ Sounds about right.” He pushed off the wall and turned to saunter away. “Wonder what kind of rainbow we’ll get this time.”
“ Nobody has died!” Aziraphale called after him.
Crawly raised his jug in the air and slunk off into the crowds and the stench and the rot, one word following him. “Yet.”
Crowley was beautiful, Aziraphale had decided. Beautiful in motion and repose, all the long smooth lines that charcoal artists loved to sketch. Beautiful slouched on his couch in the bookshop with a glass of wine, beautiful wielding a tire iron and facing down Lucifer himself.
Most beautiful by far with eyes blown wide, a hideous yellow scarf wrapped around his neck, mouth twisted into a strange line as it tried to change from disdain to surprise. Aziraphale had wanted to laugh for the joy of it. His lovely serpent struck dumb in a church yard in Sandford, surrounded by pensioners and farmers in front of a knitted goods stall. He had done that. That was his work.
Ever since the Apocalypse hadn’t happened, Crowley had been leading him forward to some unknown destination. It wasn’t the most comfortable trip and reminded him of riding an elephant down a slope – a series of lurches that seemed to drop the ground out from under him, only to immediately be buoyed back to stability. Lurch! Romantic dinners. That was alright, he enjoyed those. Barely different from what they’d done before. Lurch! Keeping company almost every day. Nerve-wracking but Gabriel was done with his surprise visits, it was safe enough. Lurch! A weekend getaway to the countryside. He was still waiting for that one to settle.
After every gut-dropping step he held his breath, expecting to keep falling. His insides trembled and so did his hands but the elephant didn’t toss him clear. Each time he allowed himself to relax again and moved one step closer to Crowley. Each time he relaxed a little quicker. And he refused to think about the bottom of this slope. It was just too big a step and the elephant would throw him clear off.
This flower show really had been such a good idea, though. He’d had to be a little bit stubborn to get his way on this one but it had been worth it. When he’d warmed to the idea Crowley had pursued it quite single-mindedly. It was all so… so… he couldn’t put his finger on what he was feeling. It made him bold enough for the quick one-two lurch of gifting Crowley a scarf and taking his arm to walk beside him.
He clung to that arm and his heart trembled and it wasn’t so terrible to wait for the upswing to buoy him again.
Not that it got a chance before Crowley rested one firm hand over his and all of a sudden they were walking arm-in-arm like lovers. It was a lot to process. It wasn’t that he didn’t like it, or that it didn’t make his chest bloom with light and his stomach do strange flip-flops. It was just that his heart didn’t like to listen to logic.
Logically heaven had been wrong, about their own sanctity and Crowley’s profanity and everything in between. When the archangels had scoffed at his ideas and his plans (and everything else about him) they had all been so terribly wrong and been humbled back into their place by an eleven-year-old on a defunct airbase in Tadfield. Aziraphale’s instincts had been right, down to the last. It should have vindicated him beyond his wildest dreams, he ought to have been a pillar of confidence. Testing the boundaries of this relationship was fun . With Crowley he was safe and accepted . But his heart wasn’t listening to that, instead getting itself tangled in ever-present fear that squeezed it to bursting with each lurch.
Aziraphale kept himself calm for Crowley. This thing, this whatever-it-was that kept him looking over his shoulder, it was wrong. He had been free of heaven for months now and it was time to be better.
It felt good. More than good. That’s all he needed to know.
So he kept his shoulders relaxed and let anxiety lose its battle with happiness. They had come to a beautiful place, full of the prettiest blossoms and the proud smiles of the people who grew them. He smiled for Crowley and walked with him among the flowers.
His heart didn’t have time to settle itself down before Crowley jerked away from him. It was amazing how quickly a demon could move, two long strides suddenly between them before he could blink. The cool spring air stripped his lingering body heat from Aziraphale’s hands before he could even figure out what had startled Crowley.
The cold fear gripped him again, searching for the danger.
Crowley’s eyes were fixed on the makeshift stage where a perfectly ordinary looking woman was talking to some reporters. True, she looked a little shabbier than some of the other gardeners but nothing about her set him on edge. Maybe… maybe Crowley just knew her and didn’t want to be seen so close to a fusty old angel.
Idiot , he scolded himself for letting the anxiety rise again. That wasn’t how it was. Crowley only knew one kind of person.
Crowley met his eye and took his shoulder in one hand. Something dangerous lurked in his expression, something determined. He wasn’t going to let anything hurt them. “Be back.”
And like that he was gone. The twin beasts of happiness and tension warred again but by now, even in this uncertainty Aziraphale knew which would win. He clasped his hands to keep from fidgeting. Nothing was going to happen to them. They’d fought, they’d won. He didn’t need to watch the meeting like a hawk. Maybe he should have let Crowley alone and gone back to browsing flowers but he didn’t. Couldn’t, perhaps.
The demon sauntered up to the woman and there was some animated body language, carefully casual postures, laughter, cocksure smiles. A demon at a flower show. Well, two demons at a flower show. It was hardly more bizarre than the original conceit of an angel and a demon attending together on a quiet weekend away.
And it was fine. It was a bit of swaggering showmanship going on between the two but no danger present. Aziraphale knew Crowley’s posturing in all its infinite variety and this was showing off in front of a classmate, not intimidating an enemy. It was fine.
Aziraphale stood at his spot, twisting his hands together until Crowley left the other demon with a half a wave and made his way back through the crowds.
“You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin,” Crowley said as he approached.
“Yes, well.” Aziraphale nodded in acknowledgement, choosing not to hear the slightly mocking note. “Was that… was she..?”
“Just a friend, nothing to worry about.” Crowley shrugged.
Aziraphale scoffed. “What friend? You don’t have friends.”
Crowley’s mouth formed an outraged ‘O’ and he spluttered before answering. “ I have friends, angel. Loads of friends. Ol’ Friends McGee, that’s what they call me downstairs. And one of those friends was about to get himself treated to lunch before he decided to be rude.”
“I never knew they called you-”
“They don’t .”
“Are you still treating me?” Aziraphale might have quirked his eyebrow just a little too solicitously.
The little smile he won gave him another jolt of pleasure and fear. Playing at frustration but unable to hide amusement was always the loveliest on Crowley’s face. He held out for a moment longer before giving an exaggerated sigh. “Fine, yes. Let’s go. I need to talk to you about… all that.”
“I should hope so.”
Crowley really did seem relaxed about the demon on the dais so Aziraphale didn’t question him further. Talking over lunch sounded nice. Normal.
He could reach out and take his arm again, if he wanted to. The anxiety of doing the thing wasn’t anything compared to the frazzled nervous mess he felt wondering if he was allowed to do it again. He wasn’t ready to test it. Their pace had picked up, the moment had gone and so he folded his hands together behind his back and didn’t touch anymore.
They walked as friends do, out of the church grounds and along the path lined with bright blue wolfsbane swaying in the wind. The flowers grew along the paths and edged the grounds, spreading out along the nature strips of the village like lit paths for pedestrians to follow. This was such a charming place. Aziraphale had sometimes thought of moving out of London to a little village just like this. A pity they had managed to attract a demon among them. Another demon, that is to say.
There were only three options for eating in the town and all close enough that they left the Bentley where it was and followed the wolfsbane trails on foot. Aziraphale searched for something to say other than the ask about the demon. This was usually so easy. This was his best friend of six thousand years, they’d never had an awkward silence between them. Except, apparently, when every time Aziraphale looked at Crowley he could think of nothing but linking their hands together as they walked. He wanted and feared and wanted and small talk just wasn’t on the cards.
They found a little cafe that seemed inviting and Crowley pulled out a chair for him at one of the tables. Before he had a chance to say anything Crowley was at the counter ordering for both of them. He supposed after six thousand years his tastes were getting predictable. There were only so many things he would order at a charming little village cafe.
When he returned to the table Crowley slung himself into the low chair, long slender fingers finding the table to drum at its glass surface. He glanced out of the window and back at Aziraphale.
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow. “So, are you going to tell me who she was or am I supposed to tease it out of you?”
Crowley opened his mouth, apparently considering being cheeky for a long second, but thought better of it. “Her name is Mephistopheles.”
It’s worth noting that heaven and hell are both large places. Before the Fall heaven had been twenty million angels strong. Crowley and Aziraphale hadn’t met in the Before for the same reason two randomly chosen Tokyo residents probably haven’t met – they were lost in the crowd. Unless they worked at the same company or favoured the same coffee shop or were at the same speed dating night the chances of any two people meeting were vanishingly small. Both Aziraphale and Crowley knew Mephistopheles for the same reason those two Tokyo residents would be able to name whichever politician was involved in the latest sex scandal – it’s good to know important people by sight but it’s impossible to avoid them once they’ve screwed up.
Mephistopheles was not a small name in any room, but in a little village cafe it was almost physically pushing them against the walls.
“Right,” Aziraphale said on an exhale. “Right, so… so your friend there is… is a fallen seraph.”
“Yeah. She’s alright though. We’ve worked together a few times. You know, I do the tempting, she draws up the contract.”
“And it doesn’t concern you that someone of such a high station is on Earth at all? That this might be a portent of something larger?”
“Naaaah,” Crowley drew out the word. “Probably just after someone who likes flowers or something.”
“We should do something to protect these people.”
“No.” Crowley transformed in an instant, his tone serious, stabbing one long finger against the table to make his point. “No, angel, we’re not getting involved.”
“ No . She’s fine. If someone has got her attention I guarantee you they’re already one foot downstairs anyway. She’s not a tempter, she just seals the deal. We don’t have an Antichrist to protect us this time and I’m not losing you over whatever prick she has her sights on.”
A waitress broke the moment to set a cup of tea and a plate of fish and chips in front of him, giving him a disinterested smile. She set down another cup in front of Crowley.
Aziraphale tried to thank her but his breath had been stolen from him and it came out as nothing more than a murmur. He didn’t mean to get emotional, it was just difficult to have Crowley treating him this way all at once. It was exactly what he would have ordered, the best a little place like this would offer. His favourite, here at the lunch Crowley was treating him to after he’d driven all this way just so Aziraphale could see this flower show.
I’m not losing you.
As though he didn’t know, didn’t realise who Aziraphale was. The reject not good enough for heaven but whose sins were so clumsy and unintentional he couldn’t even Fall. Crowley spoke as though he knew but cared anyway.
Aziraphale’s eyes stung. “I feel the same way.”
“Good.” Crowley snagged one of his chips, refusing to look directly at him. “Settled then. Let’s just enjoy the flower show.”
Aziraphale squeezed his quarter lemon over his fish and waited for whatever Crowley was holding back. He used the excuse of eating to catch his breath. One bite, then another, Crowley’s hand resting tense on the table, eyes boring into him. It wasn’t bad food. If nothing else the kind of greasy, salty, warm comfort he needed at this moment.
Crowley drummed his fingers again, glancing back and forth at the other diners. Both of them expected their conversation to be incomprehensible to the humans around them and so they picked up no eavesdroppers.
Aziraphale was halfway through his fish when his patience was rewarded.
“So I’m ducking out tonight. Just for a bit.”
“Just...” Crowley still wouldn’t look at him. “Just for a bit.”
“Mmm,” Aziraphale hummed around a mouthful, sounding as innocuous as possible. “Of course, my dear. I have no follow up questions about that at all.”
That earned him a glare, which was substantially softened by the bright yellow scarf Crowley was still wearing. Aziraphale said nothing, continuing his meal, watching Crowley’s thought process work its way through his posture. He slouched a little more determinedly, rolled his neck, shifted his weight. The words were percolating, it wouldn’t be long before he couldn’t keep them in. He had always been an exceptional liar but had the fatal flaw of wanting to show off how clever he had been.
“I’m meeting her for a beer,” Crowley said.
“And I take it you think you’ll be doing this alone.”
“I know I will be.”
“Out of the question.”
“I’m not letting you near her.”
Aziraphale set his fork down with a clink of finality. “And I am not letting you go alone. She could very well be luring you somewhere to hand you over to hell again. We know our respective head offices won’t leave us alone forever. If she thinks she has the upper hand… I can’t believe you’re even considering this.”
Crowley growled. “She’s the prince of the fourth circle of hell, you can’t just invite yourself round to her place.”
“And yet, I have.”
“No, no, angel, look, she’s not like me. You wouldn’t be safe.”
“Neither are you. We decided, remember? You’re not part of her side anymore, just like me. You shouldn’t be socialising at all.”
Crowley looked away, eyes flitting to his coffee, to the window, to the waitress. “She can help us.”
The food sat abandoned between them. “Help us? With what?”
Crowley glanced meaningfully at the ground, then the ceiling. “They’re not going to leave us alone forever. Unless we do something about it.”
Aziraphale had seen enough public fits of hysteria to not want any part of them. He breathed through his nose, knowing if he opened his mouth no matter what he said it would come out like the shrill wail of a teakettle. Of all the absurd, dangerous, foolhardy things. Crowley couldn’t possibly be thinking of making a deal with the proverbial devil.
I’m not losing you.
There was no point in shrieking his concerns to the cafe at large. A calm, measured discussion of the risks and benefits would be appropriate. Clear and open communication was the key to peace and harmony in any relationship.
“Demon, that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard,” Aziraphale trilled, sounding only slightly like a teakettle. “I will not stand for it!”
Crowley reached over the table and seized his hand in a strong, hot grasp. The shock of it stopped his outrage in its tracks. Crowley took off his sunglasses and placed them on the table in front of him, making eye contact at last. Somehow their hands were moving, fingers intertwining. Aziraphale’s cheeks were on fire, his body overheating at the anchoring physical contact.
The touch felt like more than it was. The cafe seemed to melt away, all his attention turned to the hand in his, skin against skin. Crowley understood. He let the fear and anger bleed away in the intimacy of holding each other this way. He wasn’t reckless in this, he was brilliant, smarter and more imaginative than any other demon, even the princes. This wasn’t a swing in the dark. It was a strategy.
“What if she wants your soul?” Aziraphale asked, voice weak.
“We’re not human, our souls are spoken for. I know how she works, alright?” Crowley’s tone was achingly gentle. He squeezed Aziraphale’s hand. “I can hear what she has to say and if I don’t like it, I can say no. She can’t force me.”
Aziraphale was pinned to his chair. Crowley’s gaze lanced through him, the sweetness in his tone turning his knees to jelly, his thumb rubbed over the back of Aziraphale’s hand. The elephant lurched forward another terrifying step.
“ We can hear what she has to say.”
“I won’t budge on this, I’m sorry, my dear.”
Crowley held his gaze, considering, then eased his hand back. Aziraphale’s stomach fell. Crowley reached into his pocket and withdrew his cellular telephone, making it work with some gesture at the screen.
“What are you doing?” Aziraphale asked.
“Since it’s the 21 st century and I’m not an animal, I’m texting our hostess the change of plans. I can get you one of these, you know. Or will you only use things more than fifty years out of date?”
The elephant buoyed him up again.
“Don’t those things explode?”
“We’re really going for drinks with Mephistopheles tonight?”
“Mel. She’s going by Mel. And yes. All your wildest fantasies at your fingertips for the low, low price of a pound of flesh.”
Aziraphale couldn’t stop the blood rushing to his face when Crowley brought up the notion of wild fantasies. The sort that he was most determinedly not thinking about until he’d settled into the idea of holding hands. He didn’t think Mephistopheles could help him with those. Or could she? Could he wish away his fears as surely as humans wished away the spectres of poverty, of obscurity, of ill health?
Maybe wishing away heaven’s scrutiny was as good as the same thing. After that, surely, the nerves that haunted him would melt and he could just tumble into this, all joy and no fear.
He pulled the rest of his food back toward him, appetite returned. He had practised ignoring heaven’s propaganda about demons. They weren’t all monsters, some of them were just rebellious or offbeat, he had living proof of that sitting across from him. Even one of the princes of hell wasn’t by necessity dangerous, at least not in the context of sharing a drink.
They would have to turn down whatever deal was offered, he was sure of it. Whatever payment she wanted for interfering with both heaven and hell would be severe. But Crowley thought it was worth hearing and he trusted his serpent, so he let his stresses ease a little and kept at his food.
When he’d finished the last bite Crowley nodded to the door. “Let’s get on. They have a travelling sewing machine museum.”
“That sounds ghastly.”
“Doesn’t it?” Crowley stood and extended his hand.
Aziraphale regarded the hand for a moment, preparing himself for the shock, then took it. He let Crowley help him to his feet, twist their hands together and lead him back toward the church grounds.