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When Aziraphale Interfered

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Where there are schedules, there will be scheduling glitches.  The Almighty may be exempt from this law.  Heaven certainly is not.  Thus it came to pass that the training schedules the Archangel Michael had assigned to each angel of the warrior castes combined in such a way as to leave only three Cherubim available to guard the four gates of Eden.

Michael delegated the problem to Gabriel and flew off to oversee the training exercises.  Gabriel seized on the nearest Principality who didn’t seem to be doing anything critical.

“You – Azariah, isn’t it?  You can handle a sword, right?”

“Aziraphale and yes, of course, we all learned how during the War, but since then I haven’t…”

“You’ll pick it up again in no time!  I’ve got a special assignment for you, you’re going to love it.  How’d you like to guard the Eastern Gate of Eden?”

“Well, actually, I…”

“Great!  That’s the spirit we like to see!  Report to the Quartermaster, get a sword and head out for the Gate.”

“Are there any, er, instructions?”

“Instructions?”

“On how best to guard the Gate?”

“It’s a Gate.  You guard it.  Nothing comes in, nothing goes out.  You’ve got this, Azariah.”  Gabriel administered an encouraging punch on the Principality’s shoulder and, assured of obedience, flew off to find something else to look busy doing.

Aziraphale, who had been on his way to assist at the Library and had been looking forward to doing so, sighed and changed direction.  He saw the Quartermaster as directed, was issued a sword and given the regulation 75 seconds of instruction in how to activate the new FLAME 3.1 technology.  Then he flew down to Eden.  He assumed (correctly) that the Eastern Gate was the one currently without a guard.  It was also the one with the dreariest view, looking out on a vast expanse of desert.  He suspected that stopping things from coming in was not going to be a problem.  Anything that wanted to come in this gate was going to have to cross that desert first.

Now as it happened, the Principality Aziraphale had almost infinite amounts of patience for combing through sources of information.  It was such a lovely, lovely feeling when he’d been following a trail of disparate bits of information and then found that one more bit that tied all the previous bits together, like a wave of Her Love sweeping through his whole being.  At such moments, Aziraphale believed he had found his True Purpose as an angel.

The amount of patience he had for standing in one place without any intellectual stimulation?  Not so much.

The only saving grace of this assignment, and it was definitely a grace that merited only an uncapitalized “g”, was that Gabriel had not specified which direction Aziraphale was to face as he stood in the Gate.  He therefore spent most of his time with his back to the desert, studying the Garden itself and fascinating diversity of lifeforms within it.  So many different plants, so many different animals.  He liked the animals the best because even though he couldn’t see them from where he stood, he could hear them.  The lions roared, the lambs bleated and the humans, the humans made the most fascinating noises of all.  They had actually developed a system of speech flexible enough to hold conversations on abstract topics.  “What would happen if…” was one of their favourites.

There were only two humans, Eve and Adam, so Aziraphale came to know their voices well.  He was therefore immediately alert when, one day, he heard a third voice, a rasping, hissing voice that seemed to be conversing with Eve.  Whose voice was that?  Either one of the other lifeforms had suddenly adopted human speech – which seemed unlikely – or Something Had Got In.

It was this latter possibility that caused Aziraphale to abandon his post, rushing forward through the foliage towards the voices.  He burst into a clearing, sword flaming, and discovered Eve conversing with a large and handsome serpent who scales gleamed black with red accents.

“Eve, move away from that Serpent!”

Eve looked puzzled.  “But we were just talking.”

“He’s an Intruder who means you harm!”

Eve still seemed puzzled but a flaming sword has its own sort of authority, so she went off to find Adam and talk to him instead.

“Nissse one,” sneered the serpent.  “Ssshe’sss right – we were jussst talking.”

“Begone, slithering snake!” cried Aziraphale, getting into the spirit of the thing.  Looking unimpressed, the Serpent duly slithered away.  Aziraphale headed back towards the Gate feeling quite proud of himself.

This feeling lasted until he arrived at the Gate and discovered Michael waiting for him.

“Principality Aziraphale, why were you away from your post?” she demanded.

“Er, there was an Intruder.  In the Garden.  A Serpent, talking to Eve.”

Michael glared.  “Aziraphale, what were your instructions?”

“To guard the Gate.”

“And?”

“Nothing comes in, nothing goes out.”

“Did you see anything coming in?”

“No, but…”

“Anything going out?”

“No, but there was…”

“No buts!  You were ordered to guard the Gate, not to traipse all over the Garden looking for distractions!  Now stay here and follow your orders.  And hope you haven’t screwed anything up too badly, because if you have, there will be consequences.”

With that Michel flew off, leaving a disconsolate Aziraphale standing at his post.

***

After a few dull days, Aziraphale was greatly cheered one morning to realize that not only could he hear Eve and Adam but that the humans seemed to be coming closer.  Indeed, a few moments later they appeared in the clearing beside the Gate.  At first glance, they appeared to be dancing or playing with a crowd the small colourful winged creatures whom Adam had named butterflies.  Such a charming sight, thought Aziraphale.

Then he looked more closely and realized with horror that what the humans were actually doing was capturing the butterflies, pulling their wings off and letting the wingless bodies fall to the ground.  Unable to die, for there was no Death in Eden, the poor creatures crawled away as best they could – unless they got stepped on by one of the heedless humans, after which they could not even crawl but could only lie there.

“Stop!” Aziraphale cried.  Eve and Adam looked at him curiously.  “Why are you doing that?”

“Oh, their wings are so pretty!” replied Eve.  “We wanted to wear butterflies in our hair, but they wouldn’t hold still.  So we figured we could pull off the wings and put the wings in our hair instead.”  And indeed, she and Adam did each have several butterfly wings in their hair.

“You can’t pull other living creatures apart like that!”

The humans looked at him curiously.  “Why not?” Eve wanted to know.  “We pull fruit off the bushes and trees all the time.  Well not, you know, The Tree.  And even that one, I wonder sometimes…”

“Honey, we’ve talked about this,” interjected Adam.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, but if we’re not supposed to eat from it why’s it in the middle where we’re practically walking into it all the time?”

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Aziraphale realized.  Eve and Adam had obediently not eaten from it.  They could not tell Good from Evil.  They were sinless, immortal beings who could not tell the difference between pulling a piece of fruit off a tree and pulling wings off a butterfly.  What other distinctions were they blind to?

“Hey, your sword’s pretty too!  I like the flames.  Can I hold it?” asked Eve.

“What?  No!” Aziraphale exclaimed in horror.

“Aw, come on, just for a minute?” she wheedled.  Adam looked interested and more than a bit hopeful.

“Absolutely not!” Aziraphale said firmly.  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m On Duty.”  He adopted a pose he remembered from training during the War, the one that instructors seemed to favour in recruits.  Shoulders back, gut sucked in, sword held upright.  He thought he pulled it off well enough.

Eve and Adam snickered and retreated further into the Garden.

***

It was only the following day that Eve approached him again.  She was alone this time, her mate nowhere in sight.  Aziraphale greeted her rather stiffly, holding his sword aflame and at the ready.  He knew he hadn’t imagined those snickers.  Eve, however, seemed to have come on a mission of reconciliation.

“Look, I just wanted to apologize for yesterday,” she began diffidently. “You were right – we shouldn’t have been doing that to the butterflies.”

Aziraphale wasn’t inclined to forgive her that easily.  “But do you understand why you shouldn’t?”

“Because they’re living things and they’re not like the trees and bushes because, uh, because…  They move!  By themselves, not just when the wind blows.  We shouldn’t pull pieces off living things that can move by themselves.”

She smiled, gazing up at him through her eyelashes.  It was shy and charming and Aziraphale found himself smiling back without really meaning to.

“And you were right about not letting us borrow your sword and we’re sorry for laughing at…  Oh!  Look at that!”

Eve pointed off to one side, and Aziraphale turned to look.  Too late he caught the flash of motion from his other side, the side where he held his sword.  He spun around to discover Adam darting away, one hand protectively cupping the end of a stick that flamed with fire stolen from Aziraphale’s sword.  Aziraphale turned back to Eve, angry words in his mouth, only to see that she too was running off into the underbrush.

The humans had tricked him.  They’d stolen fire from him. And if they weren’t careful, they were going to…  Grey clouds billowed from deeper within the Garden.  Aziraphale sniffed and smelled smoke.

The humans had set fire to the Garden.

There was only one thing to do, and Aziraphale did it.  Clasping his hands together in front of him and bowing his head in the traditional communication pose, he concentrated as hard as he could and sent, “Gabriel!  Michael!  FIRE!!!  HELP!!!

***

It took two sections of Cherubim to get the fire completely out.  A platoon of Principalities arrived to assist with clean-up operations.  This did not include Aziraphale, who was being grilled – so to speak – by Michael and Gabriel.

“Principality Aziraphale, I will ask you one last time.” Michael’s tone was icy enough to freeze nitrogen.  “Did you allow the humans to steal your sword?”

Aziraphale looked her right in the eyes and answered with complete conviction, “No, sir, I did not.”  It was the wrong question.  She’d asked it three times so far.  He hoped she’d keep on asking it because as long as she was asking that question, she wasn’t asking the right one.

But this time Michael looked disgusted and turned to Gabriel.  “I don’t have time for this, I have competent soldiers to supervise.  Explain things to him.”  She strode away into the depths of the smoky, soggy, reeking remains of the Garden where nothing could die, no matter how severely burnt.

Gabriel sighed.  “Military temperament.”  He cocked an eyebrown in Aziraphale’s direction, as if inviting Aziraphale to share his assessment of Michael.  He seemed almost… sympathetic.  “Look, Aziraphale, there was a plan.”

“The ineffable plan,” replied Aziraphale guardedly.

“Right, that one.  And at some point – and I’m not saying this was the fault of any one individual in particular – the plan went off the rails.  Someone needs to get it back on.”

“The rails, you mean.”

“Right, I knew you’d pick it right up!  You’ve always been clever.  So you’ll understand me when I say that the being who went ahead and got the plan back on the rails, that being would be doing a Good Thing.  Good enough to merit forgiveness for anything else that being might have done that was, well, not Bad, really, but perhaps not as completely Good as getting the plan back on the rails.  You get the picture, right?”

“Er, right.”  Aziraphale was beginning to wonder if an angel’s mind could be damaged by smoke inhalation.  Not that they needed to breathe, but one did occasionally, often without really thinking about it, and if Gabriel had done so while in the midst of the conflagration, that would explain a lot about what he’d just said.  Or was it Gabriel who was making sense and Aziraphale himself who’d inhaled too much smoke?

“Great!  I knew I could count on you.”  Gabriel punched him playfully in the shoulder.  “See me when all this is over, we’ll work something out.”

Aziraphale watched him fly off, wondered what exactly needed to be worked out. Engrossed in thought, he was startled by the raspy voice that hissed, “They’re sssetting you up to take the fall.”

Aziraphale brought his sword up sharply.  “Begone, Serpent!  No one is Falling today.”

The Serpent backed off a bit, but didn’t seem particular afraid.  “Not like that!  Take the sssmall-eff fall.  Take the rap.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Have to ssspell it out, do I?  There’sss sssomething they want done that they can’t do themssselvesss or even admit to wanting done.  Ssso they want you to do it.  After you’ve done it…”

“Who says I’m going to?”

If you do it, they’ll disssclaim all knowledge and leave you hung out to dry.”

“I’m going to be wet?”  The Serpent was almost as confusing as Gabriel.

“It’sss an expressssion, angel!  They’re going to leave you to sssuffer the consssequencesss while they get off ssscot-free.  The real quessstion isss, what do they want done?”

“No, the real question is, why would I do such a thing, knowing that will be the result?”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Know.”

“You just said…”

“But I’m a demon.  Lie all the time.  Comesss with the territory.”

The Serpent had a point.  “Do you truly?” asked Aziraphale cautiously.  “Lie all the time?”

“Would you believe me if I sssaid no?”

Aziraphale thought it through.  “Yes, I would.  Because if you truly lie all the time, then you would say no and it would be a lie and the real answer would be yes.”

“You’re sssmarter than the one with the ssshouldersss, aren’t you?”

“If you mean Gabriel, he said I was clever.  But I don’t feel clever.  I feel as if I’m in the middle of a maze.  Something’s gone wrong and Gabriel seems to be relying me to fix it even though I don’t know what it is.”

“Think back.  When wasss the firssst time sssomething went wrong?”

“When I got assigned here in the first place.  I was meant to be in the Library,” Aziraphale replied glumly.

“Hmmm, don’t think ssso.  Nexsst time after that.”

The next time after that would be…  “You know when the next time after that is!” Aziraphale said with some indignation.  “It was when I stopped you from tempting Eve…”

“Whoa, I wasssn’t!  We’d jussst ssstarted talking when you ssshowed up with your sssword all in flamesss!”

“Well, I’m sure you were going to.  That’s what demons do, isn’t it?  ‘Comes with the territory.’”

“Maybe I wasss, maybe I wasssn’t.  Hadn’t desssided yet.  I’d jussst got here, I wasss ssstill ssscoping thingsss out.  Not like my ordersss were ssspecific, were they?  ‘Get up there and make ssssome trouble,’ leavesss a lot of room for interpretation.”

“Say that again.”

“Leavesss a lot of room for interpretation.”

“No, before that.  Get…”

“Get up there and make ssssome trouble.”

“Get up there.  You came straight up through the earth, didn’t you?  You didn’t pass any of the Gates.”

“The Gatesss were guarded.  Angelsss with flaming ssswordsss and all.  ‘M not a fool!”

“No, but I think I might be.  I was never supposed to stop you in the first place, was I?”

“Not looking like it,” conceded the Serpent.

“Well, that’s all right, then.  I’ll just stay here at the Gate and you go do whatever nefarious thing you were going to do and that should sort it out.”  Aziraphale felt considerably cheered at this prospect.

The Serpent had other ideas. “You think I’m getting anywhere near thossse maniacsss?  Eve sssaid my ssskin was pretty!”

“I’d call it handsome myself, but surely that’s not a disadvantage?”

“Are you kidding?  Ssshe thought the butterfliesss’s wingsss were pretty, too!”

“Oh.  Oh!  I’ve fixed that, you see.  She promised me that she and Adam understood that they shouldn’t pull pieces off living things that could move by themselves, so you should be all right.”

“Firssst off, I wasss eavesssdropping and ssshe never usssed the word ‘promissssss.’  Sssecond, ssshe was just sssaying whatever ssshe thought would dissstract you long enough for Adam to sssteal sssome fire.  And third, ssshe never sssaid anything about underssstanding that they ssshouldn’t basssh living thingsss with rocksss.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Oh, dear,” mimicked the Serpent.  “Angel, you can’t underessstimate how ingeniousss humansss can be when it comesss to hurting other living thingsss.”

“Well, at least they’re not hurting each other.”

“Yet.  Wait ‘til there’sss more than two of them.”

“I hardly think the Almighty will be creating any more of them, considering recent incidents.”

“The Almighty doesssn’t have to.  Haven’t you notisssed that Eve’sss getting ssswollen around the middle?”

Aziraphale felt ill.  “You’re not saying…”

“Ssshe’sss with child.  Ssshe’ll be popping out a baby sssoon, easssy and painlessssss asss you pleassse.  And sssince ssshe and Adam don’t have ssseasssonsss like the other animalsss, ssshe’ll be with child again sssoon after.  And there isss no Death in the Garden.  It’ll be overrun with maniacsss before you can say population exssplosssion.”

“That settles it, then.  You have to do this.  I’ll…  I’ll stand by and keep guard in case she tries to harm you.”

“You already barged in onssse when ssshe and I were talking.  Ssshe’sss not going to let me get anywhere near her if ssshe ssseesss you hanging around.  That sssword’sss not exactly sssubtle…  Hey!  Why don’t you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Whatever it wasss that I wasss sssupposssed to do.  Which I’m thinking wasss tempt Eve into doing sssomething ssshe wasssn’t sssupposssed to do.”

“Which would be…?”

“Dunno.”  The Serpent thought about it.  “Usssually the easssiessst thing to tempt sssomeone to do isss sssomething they already want to do.  Like, it would hard to tempt Adam to ssset hisss own hair on fire.  Probably Eve’sss hair too.  What doesss Eve want to do that ssshe hasssn’t already done?”

And Aziraphale knew, as clearly as if the Almighty had spoken.  “Eat an apple.  From the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  I heard her and Adam talking about it, even arguing a bit.”

“Well, there you go!  Tempt her to eat an apple from the Tree and you’re done!”

“But, but – I’m an angel!  I’m not very tempting!”  The Serpent stared and Aziraphale felt his face grow warm.  “I mean, I don’t know anything about tempting!”

“Go back to the firssst thing you sssaid, about not being very tempting.”

“I misspoke,” said Aziraphale stiffly.

“Go back to it anyway,” the Serpent suggested.  “C’mon, I’m jussst curiousss.”

“Well, it’s silly, but…  I don’t have shoulders.  I mean, I do, but not like Gabriel.  Or even Adam.  And they’re taller than I am and…  Oh, dear, I’m indulging in vanity, aren’t I?”

“Not at all,” the Serpent assured him.  “You’re jussst… taking ssstock.  Except you’re missssssing things.  Like how fluffy your hair isss and how your eyesss are the colour of the sssky.  And you look like you’d be warm and comfy to wrap around.  Ssshouldersss aren’t everything.”

“You’re only saying that because you’re cold-blooded,” Aziraphale sniffed.  “Anything warm and comfy to wrap around looks good to you.  Eve’s a mammal.”

“Yeah, notisssed that.  But lotsss of mammalsss cuddle, haven’t you notisssed?  Anyway, half the battle with temptation is getting the other party to lisssten to you in the firssst place.  And you’ve got that.  You’re all approachable and fluffy and cuddly.”

“And so incompetent as to be harmless, apparently,” said Aziraphale bitterly.

“I’ll grant you harmlessssss, and harmlessssss will get you where you want to go.  It will, trussst me.  Look, you go sssit under the Tree.  Leave your sssword…  No, bring the sssword but keep it quenched, that’ll be a nissse touch.  I’ll make noisssesss in the underbrusssh and lead Eve on until sssshe findsss you.”

***

Aziraphale sat glumly under the Tree, waiting for Eve’s arrival.  At least the Tree had been spared the worst of the flames, although the fruit on its lower branches was rather charred.  Despite the Serpent’s hasty tutorial, Aziraphale felt completely unprepared for the job of tempting Eve.  Even worse, he had no idea as to whether or not it was the right thing to do.  It felt like the wrong thing, but everything he’d done until now had felt like the right thing and yet had turned out to be wrong.  It was all so confusing and, he feared, rather beyond him to sort out.

“Hey there, why so sad?”

Aziraphale looked up to find Eve standing in front of him.  The Serpent had been right.  She was noticeably swollen around the middle.

“Are you sad about the fire?  ‘Cause Adam and I already said we were sorry for that.  And anyway things are already growing back.  Look, there.  And there, and there!”

Aziraphale looked where she pointed and saw that it was so.  Life, marvelously resilient, was already renewing itself among the ashes and charred wood.  He also saw that Eve was sincere in her apology or rather, as sincere as she could be without the Knowledge of Good and Evil to guide her.  She had learned that one specific set of actions had had an unintended and unpleasant result.  She would not repeat that set of actions.  But she might quite innocently undertake many other actions that led to destructive results.  She and Adam were sentenced by their very nature to learn each lesson painfully one by one.

“Life is indeed a wonder, dear lady.”  Aziraphale tried to smile despite his confusion and sorrow.

“Awww,” said Eve.  And she sat down next to him and hugged him.  After a startled moment, Aziraphale tentatively hugged her back.  This seemed to be the correct response because after a moment more, she gave his shoulder a little pat and then disengaged.

What had the Serpent said?  Get her talking.  Find out what she wants.

“I’m afraid I may have made a terrible mistake,” Aziraphale confessed.

“Yeah?”

“You were holding a harmless conversation with the Serpent, and I… barged in, as it were.  Quite rudely, too.”

“Yeah, it kind of was!”  Eve grinned.  “But no big deal, we weren’t talking about anything important.  He was mostly just asking about how I like life in the Garden.”

Aha!  Aziraphale put everything he had into what he hoped was a winning smile.  “And how do you like life in the Garden?”

“Well – this is just between you and me, right?”

Aziraphale nodded solemnly.

“It’s nice, really nice, but sometimes all that ‘nice’ gets a bit boring after a while.  And some things don’t make any sense.”

“Mm?”

“Like the Tree.  If we’re not supposed to eat from it, how come it’s smack out in the middle instead of tucked away in a corner hidden by other trees?  That would make a lot more sense.”

“Indeed,” Aziraphale nodded.

“Anyhow, I guess I missed my chance on that one.”

Aziraphale looked at the Tree, puzzled.  The upper branches of the Tree were still generously hung with red, glossy fruit.

Eve laughed at him, not unkindly.  “Watch.”  She jumped to her feet, considered the Tree a moment, then went to stand beneath the lowest-hanging apple.  She stretched one arm up – but failed to reach the fruit.  Even when she stood on her toes, even when she gave a little jump, there was still a gap of a few inches.

“You see the problem?  Adam, he’s taller than me, but he will not touch this Tree.  He’s up for trying most things, but not this.  I figure if I had an apple that was already off the Tree, he’d be quick enough to share it, but he won’t help me get it down.  I tried knocking one down off a stick, but by the time I got it down, it was all bruised and nasty.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Aziraphale observed.

Eve shrugged.  “Like I said, it gets boring around here.”  She looked up at the apple and sighed.

Aziraphale was not considered tall for an angel.  He was certainly shorter than Gabriel.  He was, in fact, shorter than Adam.  But he was taller than Eve, and in that moment, he knew what he had to do.

He went to stand next to Eve underneath the apple.  He reached up, stood on his toes, gave a little jump and grabbed the end of the branch the apple was hanging from, pulling it down within Eve’s reach.

Eve reached up and plucked the apple.  The branch rustled as Aziraphale released it, allowing it to spring back into place.  Then silence fell across the Garden as Eve raised the apple to her mouth and… crunch!

“Wow!” she exclaimed, juice running down her chin.  “This is amazing!  You want a bite?”  She waved the apple at Aziraphale.

He stepped away hastily, then covered with a smile and a little bow.  “Dear lady, the gift is meant for you.”

“Awww, you’re sweet!  Thanks!”  Eve wandered off, still holding the partially eaten apple.  “Adam?  Hey, Adam!  Get over here and check this out!”

Aziraphale watched her go, turned to go back to his station at the Gate – and almost tripped over the Serpent.

“Watch your back, angel.  They’re going to throw you to the wolvesss.”

“Is that another of your strange expressions?  I’ve met the wolves, you should know.  They’re perfectly nice, and so loyal to each other!”

“Too bad angelsss aren’t wolvesss.”

The Serpent slithered off before Aziraphale could reply – in, Aziraphale noted, the exact opposite of the direction Eve had taken. 

***

The next time Aziraphale saw Eve, it was clear that she no longer thought he was sweet.

“You!” she snarled as he directed her and Adam towards the last remaining gap in the Wall where the Eastern Gate had once stood.

Aziraphale, who’d been about to hand her his sword in an attempt to make amends, froze.  Suddenly it seemed quite likely that handed a sword, Eve would run him through with it.

Adam broke the impasse, pushing in between Aziraphale and Eve and holding out one hand.  “Thanks,” he said once Aziraphale had handed the sword over.  “Now fuck off.  You’ve done enough damage.”

And Eve and Adam made their way into the wilderness east of Eden.

Left behind, Aziraphale finished sealing the Gate.  He had just set the last stone in place when Michael and Gabriel appeared, their angelic glory set to the max and Michael in full armour.  A highly official visit, then.

“Interesting turn of events,” said Michael flatly.

Her tone gave no clue as to what might constitute an appropriate response.  Yes, the humans finally understand the difference between Good and Evil, how wonderful!  Oh, the humans have broken the one rule given to them by God, how terrible!  Both statements were true.

“Hmmm,” replied Aziraphale.  Hauling stones around in the sun had given his corporation a headache, which turned out to be much the same thing as having a headache himself.  The glare off the archangels’ wings and Michael’s armour was making it worse.

“What’s especially interesting,” Michael continued, “Is that the Cherub guarding the Northern Gate distinctly heard the Woman tell the Man that ‘that nice fellow from over east’ had helped her get the Apple.  Don’t you think that’s interesting, Principality Aziraphale?”

“Er, well, yes, the humans say all sorts of interesting things, don’t they?  Why just the other day…”

“Aziraphale,” said Michael.

Aziraphale glanced leftwards at Gabriel, hoping for clues or at least sympathy.  Gabriel looked away.

“Aziraphale,” Michael repeated.  “Look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t tempt Eve into eating an Apple from the Tree.”

But he hadn’t tempted Eve, not really.  All he’d done was to assist her in something she’d already decided she wanted to do.  No temptation involved at all.  Aziraphale was thus fairly sure he could manage a convincing “no.”  He was just working up to actually opening his mouth and doing so when…

“Aw, c’mon!  Look at him!  He couldn’t tempt a hungry lamb to eat fresh grass!”

Aziraphale whirled around.  A few yards away, a man-shaped being had stepped out from the trees.  Aziraphale was quite sure he hadn’t seen this being before.  He would have remembered the tall, lean corporation, the flaming red curls, the absolutely gorgeous golden eyes…

Aha.  Golden slit-pupiled eyes.

“He’s such a good little angel, following orders, not a thought in his halo’ed head – just like the rest of you.”

Michael had one hand on the hilt of her sword.  “And you are…?” she bit out angrily.

“Crawly, Serpent of Eden and…”  He grinned with a flash of fang.  “Temptation Incarnate, you suckers!”  He stuck his forked tongue out and waggled it obscenely.

Three things happened in very short order.

Michael drew her sword.

Aziraphale pointed past her, away from the Serpent, yelling, “Look!  Over there!”

And Gabriel ducked to avoid being decapitated as Michael spun around, sword in hand.

“What?!” barked Michael, scanning the trees for signs of danger.

“Over there!  Do you see?  It’s…  Oh, it’s gone now.  Scared away, I should think.  Pity, it was quite, er, uh, that is, it looked quite…”  Aziraphale knew he was babbling, but he also knew he was helping cover any sounds of rustling in the shrubbery behind him.

“Michael, do you think you could be more careful with that thing?” Gabriel grumbled.

“I told you not to stand to my right!  What is it with you Signals Corps types?  Now whatever Aziraphale thinks he saw is gone and” – she pointed behind Aziraphale with her sword – “that snake demon is also gone!”         

“Oh, was that a demon?” asked Aziraphale, trying to sound innocent.  The two archangels stared at him.  “It’s just that I’ve never seen a being that looked quite like that before.  Rather memorable, really.  I’ll be sure to recognize him – it? them? – the next time.  Dull day when one doesn’t learn anything new, don’t you…”

“Aziraphale,” said Michael.  “Shut.  Up.”  She turned to Gabriel.  “I suppose that answers the question of who tempted the Woman.  I’ll leave you to give Aziraphale his new assignment and see you at Choir practice later.”  Without waiting for Gabriel’s response, she vanished, leaving Gabriel glaring at the space where she had been.       

After a moment of silence, Aziraphale ventured, “Bit bossy, isn’t she?  I mean, you’re both the same rank and…”

“Some of these combat soldier types think the War’s still on,” muttered Gabriel.  Then he smiled brightly.  Falsely.  “Anyway, I bet you’re eager to find out your new assignment, huh?”

“I’m not going back to the Library, am I?” Aziraphale replied glumly.  The hope had always been a slender one, but oh, so carefully nurtured in his heart.

“I’m afraid not.  I did what I could but…  Well, really, management feels that the Library would be a waste of the potential you’ve demonstrated.  You’ve had more more experience dealing with humans face-to-face than any other angel!”

“But, but – what about the Cherubim who’ve done Gate duty?”

“That’s just it!  The Cherubim were ordered to guard the Gates and that’s all they ever did.  They never interacted with the humans, never even thought of it.  But you, you’ve got a real knack for interaction.  It would be completely wasted in that dusty old Library, don’t you agree?”

“The Library’s not dusty,” Aziraphale said faintly.  “And not all that old, either.”

“Look, Aziraphale, this decision is not up for discussion.”

“I’m being sentenced to Earth and there’s not a thing I can do about it.”

“It’s not a sentence, it’s an opportunity to prove yourself.  And you can do it, I know you can!  Thwart some Evil, encourage some Good, rack up a few good performance reviews.  In a few millennia, we can discuss reassignment.  It’s not forever!  You know the saying – ‘Nothing’s eternal except eternity!’”

Under the weight of Gabriel’s beaming smile, Aziraphale felt completely defeated.  “Right.  Well then.  I suppose I’ll just…”  He looked around, thinking vaguely that there ought to be one last task to be done, something to pack or tidy up.

“Before you go,” advised Gabriel, “Remember to hand in your…  Oh, you’ve already done that, haven’t you?  That’s what I like about you, Aziraphale, always a step ahead!  Good luck on the new assignment.  I’m sure you can handle it!”

***

Aziraphale peered down into the dark depths of his pottery goblet and considered whether or not to take another sip.  The purplish liquid wasn’t bad.  Not as sweet as the grape juice it was made from, with a bit of something extra that tingled pleasantly.  And yet…  It was harsh, that’s what it was.  Drinkable but harsh, as if it needed –

Aziraphale’s contemplation of his drink was interrupted when something outside the drink shop caught his eye.  There and gone again, but he was sure he’d seen, if just for a moment, a flash of red curls a head above among humans who were mostly dark-haired and shorter in stature.  A true, deep black robe, when the best the local dyers could do quickly faded to dark grey or brown.  A swaying stride, as if to accommodate a not-quite-human set of joints.

Goblet forgotten, Aziraphale was out on the street in seconds, just in time to see the black robe and red curls vanishing around a corner.  He bustled forward through the crowds, apologizing to people as he went because he didn’t want to be rude but still bustling because even more, he wanted to be in time. This was hardly the first time he’d followed elusive glimpses of Crawly, but Crawly was a snake at heart and if he didn’t want to be found, he wouldn’t be.  Aziraphale could only hope that if he was at least close enough, Crawly might pause for a moment and listen, if only out of curiosity.

In his haste, Aziraphale turned the corner into an alley – and ran smack into a slender, long-fingered hand at the end of an outstretched arm.  He would have fallen backwards if the hand hadn’t attached itself to the front of his robe.

He and Crawly stared at each other.  Crawly was the first to speak.  “They make you leave the sword Upstairs?”

Aziraphale was flummoxed.  “Sorry, what?”

“You had a flaming sword.  It was flaming like anything!  Did they make you leave it Upstairs when they sent you down to Earth?”

“Er, ah, well – no.”

“No.”

“I gave it away.”

“You what?” Crawly, starting to grin, let go of Aziraphale’s robe, folded his arms and cocked one hip.

“To Adam.  They were being forced out of the Garden into the desert and she was with child and, well…  It seemed like the right thing to do.”

Crawly snorted.  “Right.  Did your bosses agree?”

“Er, no.”

“So they sent you down here – to find it again?”

“Not specifically.  More as… general surveillance.  Encourage humans towards the good, thwart temptations, that sort of thing.”

“And your idea of thwarting temptation is chatting it up in an alley?”

Aziraphale felt his face heat.  “Well, you’re not tempting humans while you’re talking with me, are you?”

“You don’t know that.  I could be multi-tasking.”

“Multi…  That’s not a real word!”

“Not yet,” shrugged Crawly.

Aziraphale drew himself up.  “If you must know, I wanted to thank you!”

Crawly frowned.  “Thank me?”

“Yes!”

“You’ve been chasing me around for centuries because you wanted to thank the demon who tempted you into tempting Eve?”

Aziraphale frowned.  “That’s not how I remember it.”

“Pray tell, o wise Principality, how do you remember it?”

“What I remember is that Eve and Adam were destroying the Garden because they didn’t know right from wrong and that something needed to be done and that you advised me on how to do it!”

Advised you?”

“Yes!  And then when Michael and Gabriel showed up, you risked your own life to take the blame!  That’s what I wanted to thank you for!”  Aziraphale was all but shouting now.  This was not how he’d pictured this going.

Crawly stared at him, unblinking.  Then, just as Aziraphale was starting to squirm, the demon said in a surprisingly gentle tone, “Angel, I didn’t take the blame.  I took the credit.”

“I…  I don’t follow.”

“Downstairs told me to get up to Earth and make some trouble.  When I went back down and told them I’d tempted an angel into making the trouble for me, I got a commendation and I got assigned to Earth as a reward.”

“A reward.”

“Yeah. You’ve never been to Hell, or you’d understand.  Being assigned to Earth may be a punishment for you, but it’s a reward for me.  If you’ve been thinking we could bond over our shared misery and be best friends forever, forget it.  No tears here.  I don’t need a shoulder to cry on.”

“Neither do I,” sniffed Aziraphale.  “And of course we’re not going to be friends.  You’re a demon, I’m an angel.  We’re hereditary enemies.  I just felt that I should thank you.”

“Fine.”  Crawley straightened up.  “Now that we’ve got that over with…”  He gestured towards the mouth of the alley.  “Places to be, humans to do.”

“Wait!”

Crawly raised one eyebrow but waited.  Aziraphale scrambled for something to say to keep the conversation going.  He didn’t dare think too hard about his motives for doing so.

“Why did you keep running?”

The other eyebrow went up.  “I dunno.  Why would anyone keep running from a being with a flaming sword…”

“I don’t have a flaming sword, not any longer!”

“From a being they thought had a flaming sword and whom they knew had a reason to take revenge.”

“I never thought of it like that,” said Aziraphale quietly.  “As something that needed to be revenged.”

The golden eyes were wary.  “No, I don’t suppose you would.  A demon would.”

“I’m not a demon.”

“That angel who tried to skewer me would.”

“I’m not Michael, either.  But if you thought that… why’d you stop running?”

“Oh, you’re just full of questions, aren’t you?”

“I’m sorry, that was forward of me.  But what was different today?”

Crawly shrugged.  “Nothing, really.  I was bored, I guess.”

“Bored enough to risk a confrontation with a being with a flaming sword and a reason to take revenge?”

Crawly barked a laugh.  “Yeah.  Know anyone on Earth like that?”

“No one at all, I’m afraid.  Come have a drink with me instead.”

“A drink,” Crawly repeated.  “I guess I owe you one for not letting Michael skewer me, but I thought we weren’t friends?”

“We aren’t, but there’s this new beverage that’s being shipped down from up north in the mountains and, I, ah.  I want your opinion on it!  It’s sort of like beer, except made with grapes instead of grain...”

Crawly made a face.  “Nah, I think I’ll pass…”

“And with a higher alcohol content.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” said Crawly, falling in by Aziraphale’s side as they left the alley together, shortening in his longer strides to accommodate Aziraphale’s shorter ones.

“It’s not bad now,” Aziraphale explained, “But it tastes as if it could be more somehow.”

“More?”

“Less harsh, to start with…”

“That’s less, not more.”

“Maybe fuller?  Richer?  I’m not sure. Maybe it just needs more time?”

“What it’s called?”

“Wine,” said Aziraphale.