The alehouse yard filled up with workingmen as the long, hot afternoon drew to a close. The widow’s youngest daughter brought them pickled walnuts with a conspiratorial smile. Crowley signaled her for another round. He had the too-casual edge that came of thinking too much and saying too little, today; and he was being petulant about the possibility of following the Queen when she withdrew to Windsor, even though he clearly needed a change of scene.
“You don’t have to ride a horse,” said Aziraphale. “You could curl up in a baggage cart as a snake.”
“You know I don’t like doing that, anymore.”
“You’re the most accomplished shapeshifter in the world. You are not going to get stuck in snake form!”
Crowley’d been worried about that since Patrick, not that he would to admit the weakness. “Stuck? Naw. I just don’t want to spoil the only present you ever gave me.”
“I’ve never given you anything. They’re your own feet, only I arranged the bones properly. If you can’t figure out how to put them back I can help you.”
“Not if I’m at Windsor and you’re here.”
“I could draw you an anatomical guide.”
“Besides, Windsor’ll be a yawn. No masques, no parties, all intrigue and politics. Blech.” The daughter brought fresh tankards and her smile, eyes sliding from one to the other as she accepted payment and whisked the empties away. “You should go see Dee. I know you miss him. And I bet he could use cheering up.”
He shouldn’t allow the change of subject, but Aziraphale’s conscience twinged. He had heard that Dr. John Dee and his family were having a hard time since they got back from Poland, and though he could hardly blame himself for the whole angel-watching mess (Dee had as much right to exercise his free will on trusting a con man as any lesser mind), he would never forgive himself for failing to bless the library while they’d been gone. The biggest, best library in Britain, among the best in Europe, and it had been vandalized on his watch! But the encouragement of the arts and sciences was his own side project. Guardianship was his primary job, and he had too much to do here in town. “I wish I could! But the plague -“
“Has been dragging on forever and there’s no end in sight! You need a break, angel! It’s not like you’re allowed do anything substantial for them.”
“Just because progress is slow doesn’t mean there’s no progress! The doctors have started getting some, some very basic notions of disease transmission.”
“Which means they put on masks that make them look like eldritch horrors. Very comforting to the patients, that.” Aziraphale tried not to look distressed, but from the way Crowley’s tone changed, he failed. “It’s not your fault. Raphael made germs too hard, that’s all. Just like you told her she was doing.”
“If I hadn’t given them the head start with fire, or at least had ‘fessed up to it, she wouldn’t have overestimated -“
“Nope, shut it, I don’t have to listen to this. It’s not your fault. And you know as well as I do, the world’s hammered it home by now, you can’t relieve all the suffering. You do the best you can and then you stop like a sensible angel and go visit a man you can argue about math with in his big library. This isn’t even a real epidemic. Not by plague standards.”
“It’s close enough to one for the Queen to move the court.”
“Do you want to be completely burned out when Azrael starts getting down to business, then? Hm? A week, two weeks, do you all the good in the world. Mortlake’s not that far. Something arises that needs your attention here you can be back in two shakes.”
Aziraphale fiddled with the handle of his tankard. Crowley was Tempting him, yes; but they’d had similar conversations many times since he re-established social contact in Rome, and he’d come to recognize certain suites of feelings and stages of argument. When Crowley went on about Aziraphale’s welfare, and Aziraphale’s stubbornness pushed back with the assertions that he could feel rising in his throat right now, that I’m fine my dear and what does it matter if I’m a little tired when my charges are suffering, I can carry on awhile longer, that Any day might be the day that all those hints and inspirations I’ve been dropping take root and somebody only needs a push to have an epiphany about public hygiene even though he couldn’t name any individual human who gave him positive glimmers of hope; when Crowley looked at him like that and he kept picking at things like this splinter on the table when he hadn’t even been aware of moving his hands - those were the times when he should stop actively resisting this particular demon’s particular temptations.
Which wasn’t the same as following his suggestions to the letter. That Crowley had his best interests at heart had gradually become one of the central certainties of Aziraphale’s earthly existence; that Crowley knew what Aziraphale’s best interests actually were had to be taken on a case-by-case basis. “All right, perhaps a little time in the country would be prudent. But I can’t just drop in on Dee! I haven’t been invited.”
“Oh, I bet you have.”
“Crowley! What’ve you done?”
The demon held up his hands in his most sincere gesture of innocence, which meant exactly nothing. “Nothing bad, I promise! I dropped him a line, talked astronomy a bit, mentioned you.”
“You asked him to invite me? Oh, that is - you barely know the man! How am I supposed to look him in the face -?”
“Of course I didn’t ask him straight out, what kind of amateur do you think you’re dealing with? If he takes the bait -“
“Which he will, you Serpent!”
“If you say so.” Crowley smirked. He loved it when Aziraphale hate-complimented his demonic skills. “He’ll think it’s all his own idea. The temptation won’t work on him unless he truly wants to see you.”
Since easing free will past the obstacles to an individual’s own desires had been Crowley’s hallmark since Eden, Aziraphale had no reason to doubt this; and it wasn’t as if inviting an old friend who happened to be an angel into his home would put Dr. Dee’s soul in danger. In fact, Crowley was coming far too close to tempting the man onto a course that would do his soul good. Aziraphale side-eyed him, aware of dangerous ground underfoot. “Well. If I receive an invitation, I will seriously consider accepting it. Does that satisfy you?”
“Perfectly.” Crowley drank, and pushed the dish of nuts over.
Aziraphale ate a couple. A troop of dusty workmen took over a nearby table and started shouting for beer. “If I go, and you don’t go to Windsor, what will you be doing?”
Crowley shrugged. “Nothing I wouldn’t do if you were here.”
“The theaters and public gatherings are closed. It’s too hot for you to nap. All the musicians and good hosts who haven’t already retreated to the country will be doing so when the court moves. You’ll be bored out of your mind.”
“You know me, I can always find something to do.”
“That’s why I’m concerned.”
Crowley drummed his hands on the table. “Just. Stuff. You know. Nothing big, nothing to hurt your precious plague victims or anything. I’m well ahead on the tempting, got no orders.”
“So, bored. Like that time in Cologne, when I came back to find a full-on werewolf panic.”
“That wasn’t my fault!”
“Of course not. It never is.”
“I wasn’t even mucking around with dogs! I just wanted to see how many rats I could control at a time. Humans can’t see what they’re looking at, that’s the problem.”
“Yes, because a wererat panic would have been so much better. And then there was the boggart incident.”
“Which worked out fine for everybody, I would point out.”
“Crowley. What experiments do you have in mind that you need me out of town for?”
“I don’t need you out of town for them! I’ll do them whether you’re here or not! I’d do them if I went to Windsor, only I don’t want to go to Windsor.”
“If you aren’t trying to hide them from me, why won’t you tell me about them?”
Crowley peered into his mug and muttered: “It’s a surprise.”
Aziraphale ate a handful of walnuts, drank deeply, and said in a carefully modulated voice: “I hate surprises.”
“No. Truly. If it works, you’ll like this one.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“I’ll - feel stupid. And won’t want to tell you about it.”
“I think we’re past that point, don’t you?”
Crowley groaned. “Can’t you let it go?”
“No. In fact, if I were to visit Dee without knowing what bee is currently buzzing around in your bonnet, I would be fretting about it the entire time.”
Aziraphale held steady as Crowley fidgeted, trying not to do The Thing with his eyes. He didn’t know what The Thing looked like from Crowley’s point of view, but he knew it was unfair, because Crowley always caved to it. Always. Aziraphale was almost sure that if he asked Crowley to jump into an active volcano and did The Thing, Crowley would jump. No being should have that much influence on another. And it shouldn’t feel so good, to know that he had that kind of influence on Crowley, who should absolutely never under any circumstances jump into a volcano or even a small geyser and who when you came right down to it was cleverer than Aziraphale, and better at his job, and in his heart of hearts was a good person; and who had so much to lose if his masters found out he’d been doing things to please an angel, even if it was just conveying personal information to a low-ranking angel whose only particular distinction was persistence in a single form. There might, after all, be a perfectly good reason, something to do with survival, why Crowley was withholding this particular bit of information. Given their respective positions, and how hard it had gotten for Aziraphale to say no to Crowley and make it stick, this raised all sorts of other questions and possibilities and terrors and Aziraphale was acutely conscious of walking a tightrope over a flaming pit every time they met and yet -
“Stop it,” said Crowley.
“Stop what, my dear?”
“Whatever mountain you’re building up out of this molehill. It was supposed to be a nice surprise and you’re spoiling it.”
“I don’t mean to, but when you go all cryptic -“
“Yes, yes, I should know better.” The corner of Crowley’s mouth twitched as his eyes darted around the yard. “I wanted more time to practice, and was planning a whole - thing - but it’s all right, this is fine. You remember that book human we had the discussion with, a few weeks ago? The one that thought he knew what angels and demons could do?”
Not a direction Aziraphale’d expected to go in, but he’d had too many conversations with Crowley to be nonplused by a swerve into apparent irrelevance. “Yes, a clever fellow, though why he couldn’t come up with a more useful subject on which to exercise his brain than counting angels on a pin is beyond me.”
“Well, he made one good point, I thought, can’t get it out of my head. Angels and demons, we’re the same thing, when you come right down to it.”
Aziraphale opened his mouth to protest, but Crowley held up a hand to cut him off, Aziraphale allowed it, and Crowley continued.
“One horse may be better suited to pulling a plow than carrying a kid, but there’s no fundamental reason why it can’t do both. This last Henry was dead set on getting a son to rule after him, but now his daughter’s doing a bang-up job and he went to a lot of trouble and made a mess of a lot of lives, trying to get what he didn’t need, because he got confused about who can do what. You’re with me so far, right?”
“Certainly, but angels and demons are hardly analogous to human men and women!”
Crowley’s voice lowered and he leaned in. “No, because we’re more alike! The only difference between us is - not individual differences, because you are unique among angels and demons, you have to know that - the only fundamental difference between us is, that I Fell and you didn’t. And that’s only a matter of experience.”
“Yes, yes, but what does that actually let you do that I can’t? Hey? If I had a flaming sword, couldn’t I smite with it?”
“Only yourself! Even when you were the Black Knight, you never became much of a swordsman.”
“Hey! I beat that bastard Gaheris, didn’t I?”
“You confused the life out of him doing things that no sane man would do while holding a broadsword and moving in ways that shouldn’t be possible in armor, and ultimately defeated him, as I recall, with his own cloak. It was impressive, in its way, but it was not swordsmanship.” Crowley smirked, and Aziraphale heard himself add: “If you had a flaming quarterstaff, now, I suppose you could smite with that.”
“So you agree, if we could get our hands on the right equipment, demons could smite.”
“I will grant the possibility for the sake of discussion.”
“So, for the sake of discussion - anything you can do I should be able to do, too. And vice versa. I mean, you can tempt like anything.”
“I most certainly can not!”
“Sure you can! You do it all the damn time! Tempting people to do good, to be better, to get a taste of whatever dish you’re enjoying so much, to be more polite, to give you a hand when you’re in something a little over your head -“
“Temptation, encouragement, different words for the same thing. Am I tempting Dee to invite you to stay with him because I’m a demon trying to get you out from underfoot, or am I encouraging him because it’ll be a good thing for both of you? I mean, I know how I’d spin it to head office, but which am I actually doing? Beelzebub can’t tell. Nor could Gabriel. And you didn’t encourage me to oysters in Rome.”
“That was a joke. Anyway, there’s no power involved. Not ethereal or occult power. When we do it. Other people can get a bit heavy-handed and throw power in, but at base, those things are only words. Not like blessing or cursing.”
“So now we get to it. I taught you to break stuff down, you taught me to mend stuff. That’s halfway to blessing and cursing right there, and we’ve been doing them for millenia.”
“And very useful that’s been, but - Crowley. Please.” Aziraphale’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You don’t seriously think you can perform a blessing? Why, if you even try -“
“I don’t think so. I know. I’ve done it.” Crowley’s voice was barely audible, and he appeared, to a casual viewer, to be looking straight ahead; but Aziraphale, seated next to him, could see the nearer eye focused sideways at him behind the smoked lenses, aglow with pride and eager for praise. “I want practice, but I can show you proof of concept. Right now.”
Aziraphale looked up; looked down; looked all around the yard and out to the street; stretched his awareness to its breaking point. No holy radiance, no infernal fire, only their own carefully muted auras, scuffed and worn and comfortable from millennia of rubbing up against the mundane earth. He ducked his chin.
Crowley reached into the dish of walnuts, picked one up, closed it in his fingers, and dropped it back in. Aziraphale felt the effect take. He picked up the nut along with a handful of its withered briny brethren, which he ate, leaving only the demon-blessed one, plump and fresh and barely beginning to sprout.
It felt like love, cupped in his hand.
Someday, Aziraphale thought, when the Great Plan is complete and Heaven has defeated Hell, and I have Crowley safely tucked away somewhere, maybe furious, maybe hating me, but safe, I will go to the Akashic Records and I will call up this conversation, this moment, in every recordable track, sight and sound and emotion and smell and taste and aura, and I will play it for all the hosts of Heaven and they will see, and they will understand, he will set them all on their ears and my precious adversary will live. On what terms, in what circumstances, it’ll be a new Heaven and a new Earth, I can’t know, maybe I’ll never see him again, maybe he’ll never forgive me for what I have to do to reach that point, but he will live. But only if he survives that long. Only if Hell doesn’t see and understand and destroy him, first.
Aziraphale ate the walnut, crunched it up in two bites, and swallowed it. It tasted like love.
“Hey!” protested Crowley.
“Are you out of your mind?” Aziraphale demanded in a whisper, smiling at the needlewoman who came in every evening at about this time to fetch a can home for her father, lingering always to talk to the widow’s youngest daughter for far longer than it took to draw a can of ale. She smiled back, blushing, and Aziraphale blessed her. It was high time those two found a way to be together and be happy, and the sooner the sense of blessing from the walnut was swamped in a larger one, the better.
“What?” Crowley demanded in turn. “What do you think I’ve done wrong now?”
“Did it hurt?”
“First one or two I tried did. Hardly at all now.”
“I use my Grace for blessings. What did you use?” He knew this answer. Did Crowley?
Crowley shifted uncomfortably. “Dunno, whatever came handy. It worked, that’s what matters. Give me a couple weeks, I’ll be able to bless sapient things without side effects. I know I can. I only need the practice.”
“What do you think Hell will do if they catch you doing, doing that?”
“They won’t catch me!”
As if he could make it so by saying it. Aziraphale wished he had two Crowleys, so he could knock their heads together. “Why do you even want to do it? Just to prove you can?”
“Well, there’s that, of course. Once I started wondering, I had to know. C’mon, angel, aren’t you dying to know whether you can curse or not?”
“No! No, absolutely not, why would I want to curse anything?”
“All right, fine, you don’t want to curse. Nobody can make you.” He sounded hurt and puzzled, his lovely surprise wrecked and rejected. Aziraphale’s gut curdled guiltily. “But think. Stop panicking and think.”
“I’m not - “ Aziraphale heard his voice slide into an upper register, and stopped until he had it under control again, until his hands were able to release their grip on each other and rest calmly, one on the handle of his tankard, the other on his knee. “I am not panicking. I am rationally contemplating your reckless behavior and being appalled at the risk you’re running with this. And for what? What possible use can it be to you?”
At the next table, the workingmen started singing about John Barleycorn. Inside the alehouse, the needlewoman laughed, and the widow’s youngest daughter laughed with her.
“But think about what it means!” Crowley went into Full Persuasion Mode. “How many times have we both been sent to the same place to do different things? Complete waste of effort! Okay, fine, both jobs need to be done if they’re not mutually canceling. Divine infernal plans and all that rot. Never mind that head office sends us rubbish jobs and we do better work on our own. Still got to do the rubbish jobs. One of us goes, does both jobs, other one stays home, takes care of whatever projects either of us has going on. Say you’re about to visit Dr. Dee, get a notice to bless some lepers. You go on your visit, I take care of the lepers, nobody knows any different. You go to Dover to bless some boats, swing by Gravesend and tempt some apprentice to rebellion; meanwhile I’m picking up your books at the binder, feeding some plague victims, and having a little fun on my own. Not often, just - once in awhile. When it’s convenient.”
“Convenience, yes, that’s worth getting peeled to nothing!”
“It won’t come to that! I can spin it! Help me get good enough and if they ever catch me I can wring a commendation out of them. Or at least confuse them till they don’t know what they’re accusing me of and let it drop.”
“This is all a big leap from making a pickled walnut sprout.”
“Early days. That’s why I wanted more practice before I told you.” He drank, put the tankard down next to Aziraphale’s hand. “I thought you’d be happy. Because. You know. Nobody ever told me not to heal - things.”
Aziraphale’s mouth was suddenly as dry as if he’d drunk nothing but salt water for a week. “What?”
“Or not to bless a random tankard at a random alehouse so that no one who drank out of it ever got sick.”
“I mean, must be evil, right? Healing the sick? Otherwise why would Raphael be so strict with you about it? Messing with their normal development. Retarding the progress of medicine. Which as far as I can tell isn’t progressing a bit anyway, but eh, no business of mine.”
The sun was setting, brilliant yellow and orange behind the silhouettes of London’s crowded roofs, dusk settling over the alehouse yard. Aziraphale took a shaky breath, unable tell whether the vistas opening in his mind shone with hellfire or with stars. “That’s - If you - I’m sorry, I should go. People to feed. I’ll let you know if I, if I decide to visit Dr. Dee. It may be some time before we meet again. But we’ll talk about this in depth. Then. When I’ve, when I know - when I’ve had time to think. Please be sensible, till then. Please.” Why does he have to keep blindsiding me? Why does he have to be so dazzling?
“S’all right. I’ll talk whenever you like.”
He did not turn his head to watch Aziraphale leave. Aziraphale did not look back, picking his way between the tables, his heart trembling in fear, and swelling with pride, and weeping with shame, because in no way was he fit to walk this tightrope and bring this astonishing wonderful frustrating heedless demon safe to whatever harbor must surely await him, somewhere, someday. God had been silent a long time now, but She was Justice and Love and Mercy, She would not abandon Crowley, She could not, and still be those things. Ultimately. Ineffably.
And if Aziraphale was the only one available to safeguard him till then, he would do it. He just needed time to adjust. To see the next step before he put his weight on it. He would not spoil a sacred charge with hasty errors.
No, let all his errors be carefully weighed and long-considered.
Crowley would wait for him. He always did.
Aziraphale made the rounds of the bakeshops and greengrocers, poulterers and piemakers, with whom he had arrangements, collecting raw resources that had gone unsold and delivering them to be prepared for the next day, picking up the viands made from what he’d dropped off last night, and took those around to as many families as he could feed with them, speaking through the shuttered windows, tallying the dead, encouraging the living. He encountered humans on similar errands, and blessed them, since he couldn't bless the sick. It was full dark when he picked his way home, evading street filth and loose cobbles by angelic instinct; but his landlady was waiting up for him with a candle, his dinner hot on the hob, and a message delivered during the day.
The message had Dee’s seal; of course it did. Aziraphale cracked it open and read it over a succulent dish of chops. (He chose his landladies after cross-referencing their need for income, their capacity for discretion, and their skill in the kitchen.) Oh. Oh, this was delightful! Madam Dee was complaining about her husband glooming about the house, he needed help getting his library back in order, and wouldn’t it be nice for Mr. Fell to get out of the hot infectious city? He had recently been in touch with Mr. Crowley and was inviting him, too, please persuade him to accept and they could have a little astronomy party during the peak nights for falling stars.
His spirits, depressed by Crowley’s disappointment, his own fear, and the constant dragging malaise of having to watch Pestilence go about his hideous work again, bounced up like an acrobat in the middle of a routine. There was no prospect of getting anyone to run with messages at this hour, but as soon as he finished dinner and bade Mistress Hopkins good night he sat down to write his acceptance to Dee and a note to Crowley, the first in his most clerkly hand and the second in the less regular script that the demon’s peculiar eyes found easier to read:
Dear C, Have accepted Dee’s invitation and trust you do the same. Usual terms of engagement invoked etc. I need a day to put my own business in order. Meet at the Bridge at dawn after? We can discuss that unresolved matter along the way. Yr. Obt. A.
That should do. It annoyed Aziraphale that he and Crowley couldn’t carry on a proper correspondence. Most of Hell was illiterate still, but Crowley’s masters were not; and Heaven ran on paperwork these days, so all notes needed to be short, cryptic, impersonal, and stripped of as much celestial and infernal aura as possible. Crowley would understand, and either one of them could spin these words to satisfy either side if they were intercepted. He had no idea what Crowley told Hell about him, but Heaven knew, if it did not like, that Aziraphale’s unorthodox methods were the only ones that worked on Crowley. Sandalphon might sneer and Uriel might glower and Gabriel might shake his head and make uncomprehending faces, but it was several centuries since they’d actively interfered with his management in this area, and he had explanations to cover this particular situation all polished up and ready to go.
Now, about the plague. Food service mustn’t be interrupted, and it would take several people to deal with that, since he couldn’t expect a human to be able to carry as much as he could. He had better see to removing today’s and tomorrow’s dead personally. All the doctors would need blessings. He made lists, figured expenses, allowed himself a few moments to sit and tear up over how easy it would be to halt further spreading with a simple miracle in one particular intersection, and then allowed himself some restorative light reading. His room was beginning to feel a bit crowded from all the books (he bought new publications in multiples, so as to have them to give away), though they were a deal more convenient than the handcopied codices and scrolls to which he also clung. Someday he hoped to find a suitable combination of person, place, time, and situation to “discover” his complete Sappho, but right now he had none, and a good bit of work to do, so as soon as he heard the other members of the household stirring he got up and about.
Aziraphale passed a busy day, receiving Crowley’s insolent answer (Serve you right if I went down ahead of you. Bring your best rhetoric. You know I’m right.) when he came home for supper, and spent the night preparing a bundle of clothes, books as presents for Dee, and the light snack Mistress Hopkins had prepared for him to breakfast on the road. At almost the last possible minute he decided to leave a note with Mistress Hopkins, against the possibility of the fulfillment of his request for additional personnel and/or dispensation for more miracles to deal with the plague; though why Gabriel would approve such a thing now when he never had before was not apparent. Still, water does wear away stone, eventually; and he himself was proof that, given enough time to think and observe and experience, an angel could change his mind. It would be a great shame to be caught out in the event of that happening with Gabriel.
He set out while the stars still shone, walking through the narrow streets of London as dawn crept after him. No hour was ever truly quiet, here; but his way did not at first lie along the streets down which the produce of the countryside was carted or driven in to the markets, and the human activity was not sufficiently loud and distracting to prevent him from spotting the anomalies. The ivy that, having forced its way through the paving of a yard, would now spread, relentlessly, regardless of anything anyone thought to do to it; the misaligned paving stone on which no one would ever again stub a toe; the doorway where a pair of homeless children curled, which would give anyone who slept there good rest and pleasant dreams; the unnaturally vigorous rat -! By the time Aziraphale dodged through the stream of incoming traffic and joined Crowley, leaning against the wall by the entrance to the Bridge, the laughter in his belly burbled out before his greeting could. Crowley grinned over a quick handclasp and waited for him to be capable of coherent speech.
The clatter of traffic - hooves, lowing cattle, rattling wheels, and general human noisiness - removed all danger of their being accidentally overheard. “The rest of it I understand, but the paving stone?”
“Stubbed my toe on it. Don’t want to do it again.”
“I see. There’s now a cat and a dog who will dedicate their lives to hunting down that rat, by the way.”
“Two against one is hardly fair.”
“You do remember how plague reservoirs work, yes?”
He looked puzzled, then stricken. “Angel -“
“Don’t worry about it. It didn’t hold still long enough for me to be sure, but there’s a strong possibility that the blessing will repel fleas, so that particular rat may be less of a problem now, not more. Its incredible number of future offspring, however - you see my point of view in the matter.”
“I’ll make it a talking point if I ever have to defend myself.” They slipped onto the Bridge between two carts, where there shouldn’t have been room for them to walk side by side with their bundles, and yet, there was. The buildings on either side blocked most of the dawn light. “I’m not as reckless as you think I am.”
“You’re not as careful as you think you are, either. Those blessings have a distinctive signature.”
“So we’ll work on it. I can bring my aura almost down to nothing, how hard can a signature be?”
The case for caution had been lost when Crowley made Aziraphale laugh, and they both knew it. “I suppose we’ll find out.”
“What’s so distinctive about it?”
“Well, it’s, you see, I use my Grace and you use - the closest analog in your possession.” He watched Crowley’s face and saw the exact moment at which he realized he’d left a trail of “Crowley loves Aziraphale” messages from Aziraphale’s door to the Bridge.
He mouthed an oath, walked three more steps with knitted brows and a frown, then asked: “And it’s visible? That it’s -“ He gestured; from me, toward you.
“It is to me,” said Aziraphale. “Whether anyone without, er, my specialist knowledge could tell, I’m not sure, and frankly would prefer not to find out.” The mortification on the demon’s face was unbearable, and his only tool to relieve it was brisk good cheer. “However, if we ever have occasion to fill in for each other as you have suggested, this may prove an advantage, as it should make it easier for you to make a blessing appear to be one of mine. As good as you are at subtlety, I’m sure the problem is soluble. If you want to pursue the matter.”
“Why wouldn’t I? I might need to, someday. And you should learn to curse.”
“Crowley -“ Couldn’t this demon ever win a point and leave it be?
“I know you don’t want to. Hell, I don’t want you to! But you should know how. Just - in case.”
“I don’t even know if it’s possible! What powers a curse, anyhow?”
“Well. There we are, then. I don’t have any.”
Crowley Looked over his spectacles at him.
Aziraphale felt his mouth wobble, as if he had told a lie, and his eyes darted from Crowley to the paling sky, where gulls soared and mewed; to the filth-spattered pavement; to the shuttered buildings and streams of mortality hemming them in on all sides. No gleefully cruel demons; no hearty archangels with judgmental eyes. “Will, will fear do?”
“Fear makes a curse that any demon worth its salt can break,” said Crowley, so gently he shouldn’t have been audible in the din of the Bridge. “A curse any angel could ignore. Rage is what sticks. If you’re in a position where you need to curse, you need to make it stick. I’ll do it for you if I can, but you and I, we don’t always get choices, do we?”
“I, I understand that, but I can’t use what I don’t have.”
One long finger almost, but not quite, poked Aziraphale low in his side, behind the roil of uneasiness in his stomach. “You keep it right there. I know, you never look at it, you never touch it, you don’t want it, but I’ve seen you stuff it in and pack it down and shut the lid on it. Every time your miracle budget gets cut again. Every time you’re called onto the carpet in Heaven for another lecture on how to do a job your boss couldn’t do if his existence depended on it. Every time you watch a human die of a disease the Archangel of Healing created and won’t let you cure. Every time you get yanked away from a place where you’re comfortable and have a dozen projects ticking along, and put down somewhere else where you have to start all over.”
Every time he accidentally thought of Crowley Falling, of Adam and Eve turned away naked and helpless, of children drowning in guilt and brown flood waters - Aziraphale shook his head.
“It’s yours.” Crowley’s voice pressed; a gentle pressure, firm enough to keep a wound from bleeding out. “You have a right to it. And you have a right to use it, if you need to.”
Humans had rights. Aziraphale had duties. “I can’t put a curse out there where it might harm the humans. And we can hardly summon up demons for me to practice on.”
“All right, fair enough. We’ll have to be creative, eh? Cursing germs. Cursing fleas. Something like that? It’ll be fun thinking of ways to turn curses back on themselves till they’re almost blessings, won’t it?” Crowley smiled at him. A reassuring smile. The smile of someone deeply concerned for one he loved.
Aziraphale felt the tightrope shift beneath him, and reminded himself: This is the price. If, in the final accounting, Crowley is saved for blessing and I am lost for cursing, that’s acceptable. Humanity, and Crowley. Those are my charges. Worth more than my personal purity. Worth anything I have to give. If God opened the Abyss of Hell in front of me right now and told me that jumping in would save Crowley, would I hesitate? I don’t think so. I hope not. So what’s a risk, really? Only a risk. A risk for a chance. Fair trade. “I suppose so,” he said. “But let’s work on your blessings first, shall we?”
“Whatever you say, angel,” said Crowley.