2003-8-13, Daegaer wrote:
Bright With His Splendour
And there was war in Heaven.
The streets of the City rang with screams and the clash of weapons. Friend fought against friend, soldiers turned on their officers, breaking their wings and flinging them down from the heights. The alabaster pavements were slippery with silvery angel blood.
The dark haired angel hiding in a doorway looked out at the carnage with wide, shocked eyes. He had never imagined such a thing, never thought it was possible. Across the street his friends were fighting, their swords slicing down on one of the enemy messengers. The angel didn’t look at what they left behind. Could angels die? he thought dazedly. That angel wasn’t dead, was he?
“What’s wrong with you, Kanaphiel? Come on!” one of his friends yelled. “Pull yourself together!”
They grabbed the dispatch and flew off. He carefully didn’t look at the messenger lying in the road, and flew after them.
* * *
“Form up! Form up!” Malkiel screamed.
The rebel angels rearranged themselves, wings drooping with exhaustion. It had been a long day of battles, and it was hard to see how they could manage another foray. The enemy were coming in over the plain for another attack. They would have to find the energy somewhere.
Kanaphiel stood with his friends. He was so very tired and scared. He didn’t see how anyone could possibly expect this to have a good outcome. Caspiel, his closest friend, put an arm around his waist, drawing him near.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “We’ll make things better.”
Things were all right, Kanaphiel thought. I thought this was all just talk.
He leaned into Caspiel’s arm, wishing they could just leave. He wanted to go, he didn’t want to be here, with an impatient cherub suddenly landing before them and asking where his weapon was.
“I don’t have one,” he said.
“What are you trained in?” the cherub asked irritably.
“Sword. Spear,” he said.
Dagiel, that was the cherub’s name. Dagiel. He gave a shrill whistle and a couple of angels rushed over, hovering over him.
“Give this fellow a spear,” Dagiel said.
After a moment a spear was dropped down. Dagiel caught it and handed it to him.
“You’ve got to fight,” he said, quite kindly. “Do you think they’ll show mercy if they find you weaponless?”
“Can we win, sir?” he asked.
Dagiel gave an unpleasant smile.
“We have right on our side, have you forgotten? Just fight. Leave the thinking to us.”
He leapt into the air and was gone. The enemy was very close now, their weapons clearly visible.
“Up!” Malkiel screamed, in a voice that carried across the entire army.
The angels flung themselves into the air and the fighting began again.
* * *
He had blood in his hair. He could feel it even if he couldn’t see it. He had fought — horribly and poorly, but he had fought. He couldn’t quite remember sticking the spear into the enemy angel; all he could remember was the violent jerk he’d had to give to free it again. Blood had splashed on his face and in his hair, and the other angel had looked so surprised. Then his eyes closed and his wings went limp and he fell, tumbling over and over down through the battle. As he watched the angel fall, he stopped thinking. The only thing left in his mind was the need to get the blood out of his hair.
The enemy forces were larger, but his side had managed to win a breathing space, and were resting. He began to be able to think again. His side. He wondered when it had become that in his mind. He still thought it was a mistake, that he should flee and surrender himself to the enemy’s mercy, but he found in himself a small amount of pride and admiration for his comrades. They were brave, good fighters; no one could deny that. They were fighting for something they believed in, although he wasn’t sure what that was. The commanders knew; that was enough for the moment. He wrapped his wings tight around himself and tried to rest.
When the order to form up came again the angels wearily arranged themselves into ranks. Kanaphiel could barely lift his spear, and wished he could just leave it behind. The officers chivvied them along. While they had rested everyone had heard the commanders laughing and joking. Perhaps, the angel thought, it will end soon. They will find a way for us all to stop.
“Keep in close formation,” Dagiel ordered. “You will be ordered to drop down. Do so immediately. Do not stop to think.”
They nodded and were urged to march.
As they approached the enemy, Kanaphiel looked back over his shoulder. There was a noise he couldn’t identify, like something huge and heavy making its way across the ground. All he could see were other angels, some of them sneaking looks back as well. Close overhead more angels flew in an awkward, close ranked crowd. They stopped across from the enemy ranks, and a lone and splendid figure flew out, landing neatly between the armies.
“Michael!” Lucifer called. “Well fought yesterday! A trifle unimaginative, but a good example of the military mind.”
Michael, clearly visible among his commanders, did not answer.
“My friend, I’m hurt you do not come to greet me!” Lucifer called mockingly. “See how many of my friends have turned up, but you stay aloof. Truly, I’m saddened by your disdain. We come to parlay, Michael. Let us open our hearts to one another. Come, Michael, I am unarmed as you plainly see.”
There was silence. The enemy commanders flocked round Michael, clearly begging him to speak. Raphael was gesturing frantically, Gabriel was shaking Michael’s arm. They hate this too, Kanaphiel thought. He felt much better suddenly. If the officers on both sides wanted to stop this, everybody would be able to go home.
Michael nodded abruptly, handed his silver sword and his sword belt to Raphael and strode forward. Lucifer waited, hands held out harmlessly by his side. The enemy forces shifted into the stand easy, and Michael stopped in front of Lucifer.
“Well?” he said.
“Surprise,” Lucifer said in a vicious tone.
He sprang into the air, and all the officers were yelling.
“Down!” Dagiel screamed.
The standing angels flung themselves flat and the airborne units shot higher. Pressed to the ground, Kanaphiel heard a noise so vast it seemed to be pushing down on him, flattening his wings against his back. There had never been a sound like it before in all the timeless aeons. When it stopped he could hear nothing at all. Hands pulled him roughly to his feet and he looked into Caspiel’s face. He was screaming, but making no noise. Kanaphiel smelled something burning, and rubbed a hand through his hair. Tiny fragments of hot metal shook loose. He brought a wing round quickly, distressed to see soot-blackened and scorched feathers. He could feel that the skin on his back and legs was scorched too, wherever his wings had not covered him. Caspiel grabbed his shoulders and turned him to face the enemy. They were gone. They were simply — gone. His eyes gradually told him he was seeing huddled, crushed bodies and terrible, terrible wounds. Sound began to return and he started to shake. Caspiel had stopped screaming and started laughing.
“They won’t underestimate us again!” he said.
Kanaphiel didn’t answer, turning dazedly to look at the huge and smoking tube-shaped weapons their units had hidden from view. The commanders were cheering and laughing with glee. He saw Lucifer clap Malkiel on the back, and turned away. He had to get out of here. There had to be a way.
* * *
On the morning of the third day he looked across the ranks of the army to where the commanders perched on an outcropping of rock, surveying the enemy. Seraphs and cherubs, all shining brightly, the light of power and conviction gleaming from their perfect limbs. Seated highest amongst them, Lucifer was holding court like the prince he claimed to be. Kanaphiel didn’t think it seemed as good a title as ‘Seraph’, but it was Lucifer’s business, not his. Malkiel was sprawled beside him, only slightly lower, a slender arm thrown casually across Lucifer’s pale thighs. They all still seemed buoyed up by the events of the previous day. As he watched he saw the commanders all stand up, and Lucifer pat Malkiel’s shoulder and point into the distance. He strained his eyes in the direction the commanders were looking but could see nothing. Then they all launched themselves into the air in a blaze of wings and he could hear the familiar yells as they approached.
“Form up! The enemy comes!”
His heart failed within him as he saw the enemy draw near. Their army seemed to get bigger every time he saw it, and he wished the commanders hadn’t decided on pitched battle. High above the army, Lucifer and Malkiel hovered.
There was silence as the armies faced each other. He could see angels he knew opposite him and cursed his luck that he had been with the wrong group of friends when the fighting started.
“Stand firm,” Caspiel said beside him. “We’ll teach them a lesson they won’t soon forget.”
He said nothing. They were all going to die. He had long since accepted that they could.
Opposite, a lone figure came out from the enemy lines and slowly flew to the mid-way point. It was Michael, he saw, uninjured despite the terrible events of the previous day, shining with power and glory and looking supremely confident. More than one pair of eyes looked up at Malkiel, who had always loved Michael dearly. His face was calm and set as he watched his former friend draw near.
“Lucifer!” Michael called. “Your angels are weary and outnumbered. If you insist on fighting you will earn only corpses, not victory.”
Lucifer did not reply, just gave the signal to stand ready.
“Come now, let us make a wager,” Michael called, “You can fight against the Hosts of Heaven —”
There was some indignant stirring in the ranks. What were they, if not part of the Hosts?
“—and you can be defeated and paraded through the streets of the City in chains of adamantine. Or,” he smiled, “you can face me in single combat. Only one of us need die, and you will save those angels you claim to love.”
Both armies shifted nervously. Kanaphiel looked up hopefully at Lucifer. Do it, he thought. I won’t have to hurt my friends. I won’t have to die. All around him he could see the same thought on other’s faces; Lucifer had to feel their desires, had to know they wanted him to prove himself someone worth loving, worth rebelling for.
“Do you take me for a fool?” Lucifer shouted. “What battle is won in such a manner with the Hosts already arrayed? This is a trick of yours, Michael, it is not something for which you have sought the permission of the Throne.”
The angels sighed in disappointment. Lucifer’s fiery gaze swept over them in fury.
“Ready your weapons!” he screamed.
Wearily, swords and spears were brought up yet again and the angels half spread their wings and crouched, ready to spring into the air.
Very quietly, in a voice that was yet heard by every angel present, Michael spoke.
“I always knew you were a coward,” he said.
Every angel’s eyes were drawn up to where Lucifer had frozen in mid-air, his beautiful face empty in slack amazement.
“What did you call me?” he said in a low, dangerous voice.
Michael shook his head and chuckled in amusement, and deliberately turned his back. Lucifer looked down at the army of upturned faces and screamed in rage, folding his wings and dropping out of the sky like a streak of terrible light. Michael dropped out of the way, leaving shining, opalescent feathers drifting down from Lucifer’s attempt to seize his wings. Then they were darting about each other, silvery swords flickering.
The army cried out in dismay as Lucifer’s sword broke. He flung himself on Michael, changing his form and becoming an immense serpent coiling round and round the other seraph. The angels began to cheer and call out as the high cries of lament rose from the enemy army. Kanaphiel stared entranced at the way the light glinted off Lucifer’s many coloured scales. How beautiful, he thought, how beautiful. It was going to be all right. When Lucifer won they could all go home and no one would have to fight or die any more. He gazed up to see Michael doing his best to choke Lucifer as the coils constricted tighter and tighter. Then the air brightened unbearably beyond anything he had thought possible, in a way that could only mean one thing. Lucifer was right. This was a trick; it was not a fair fight. All around him angels were casting their gaze down and flinging their wings in front of their eyes in awe and horror. No one could look directly at the brightness, and they turned away and fled from before It, with the enemy forces coming at them and driving back any who tried to escape off to the side. He saw the great wall that bounded Heaven, and was driven up against it with his friends. The wall melted before them in the brightness like ice. There was only darkness outside. The angels clung to each other in terror and heard suddenly the sounds of battle again. They looked up and saw Lucifer and Michael, Lucifer no longer crushing his enemy but trying to flee him instead. Michael lifted the huge serpent in his arms and flung him at the gap in the wall.
“Be cast down, Bright and Morning Star,” he cried sternly, “and all your hosts with you!”
The ground beneath the angels’ feet wavered and became insubstantial and they tumbled down screaming, their wings hanging limp and useless. Looking up as Heaven shrank in his sight, Kanaphiel saw a form in the Brightness regarding them with great sadness and pity. Before he could reach out in supplication the Darkness took him and he was gone.
* * *
He came to himself in agony, lying on a dark lake of flame. His friends — his lying, troublemaking friends — were around him, moaning in pain and shock. With a start he saw Shamarel, whom he had seen cut down, slowly opening his eyes with the others.
I thought you were killed, he said. How did you get here?
I dont know, Shamarel said. I can’t remember anything before waking here with you all. Where are we?
None of them knew. They gathered themselves miserably and flew to a sharp outcropping of rock knifing up from the horrible lake. They had to fight off other angels who wanted to land, and finally gained enough space to perch. The dark haired angel kept sneaking looks at the friend he had seen cut down. If he was alive — He bit at a nail anxiously. Maybe everyone was still alive somehow. Maybe he was not a murderer after all. He chewed his nails ragged, barely noticing as more fellows arrived and squabbled for space. The black rock was white with angels before any of their commanders found them.
Come! the cherub who first found them cried. The Prince and the High Command are this way!
He flew away swiftly. As they had nowhere else to go they followed him. They came to a much larger peak of rock. At the summit, the high command could be seen arguing amongst themselves, some of the seraphs coming to blows. Lucifer made no move to stop them. The lower ranked officers hurriedly gathered the angels into companies and gave them the order to explore this new territory. Company after company flew away, leaving room for the newcomers to land. They would be given time to rest before they too were sent out exploring, the officers promised. Kanaphiel shivered as he strained to see through the blackness. This was a terrible place, he thought, so dark and quiet and hot. He did not know where the Throne was, he realised. He had always known before, but it was gone. It was like a hole in his mind.
Im scared, he muttered.
Caspiel heard and put his arms round him consolingly, scratching his fingers along the roots of his wings. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate only on the mindless comfort.
This is a terrible place, he whispered. I want to go home.
Shhh. Well get out of here, Caspiel said, plucking away a little feather to make him jump, we have to.
* * *
Much later, when they stood in the great palace of Pandaemonium cheering Lucifers speech about freedom from oppression and making their own new Heaven, Crawly — for that was the name he had picked when the order to renounce their angelic names came down — knew none of them would ever be free again. He laughed and cheered with the rest of them, seeing how angels looked sidelong at each other and whispered to the officers. He had no wish to be disciplined. Hed already seen it happen to others, and was deeply afraid of how the officers imaginations grew twisted and strange. He could feel it in himself, when he laughed at others’ misfortune. At first he’d done it not to stand out from the crowd, to fit in. Now he found the most awful things genuinely amusing. He hated it. He hated this place.
He found it hard to turn on his friends, to report their private speech, although he was not so naïve as to think they were similarly sentimental, and was very careful of what he said in their company. He was just no good at politics, he thought. It was rather a surprise when his old friend Caspiel — now Kashkesheth, and working for Dagon — came to see him, grimacing at his unimpressive adornments. People wore so much now, loading themselves down with jewellery and robes, making themselves as splendid to the eye as possible. Having lost the beauties of Heaven, they rejoiced in the beauties of decoration.
I have a task for you, Kashkesheth said. He had become important, and had not spoken to any of his old friends for aeons. This is your chance to make something of yourself, he said in disdainful tones, dont embarrass me.
Crawly understood that this was not a visit for old times sake. Someone had remembered that he existed, and that he was a potential embarrassment for a rising bureaucrat. This was not for his benefit. He was being shunted aside.
What must I do? he asked.
You must have heard the rumours; Creation is in full swing. We want you to get up there and make some mischief.
Ill go immediately, he said. If he was willing to please it had to be worth something, he thought.
Come to my office. Youll need a material body — Ill make sure your application gets priority. Take good care of the body; its assigned equipment, not a gift.
He nodded politely, barely hearing the rest of the instructions in his well-disguised excitement. He was going to be able to leave this place, if only for a short while. He would be able to pretend he was free.
* * * * * * *
He slid along the ground, humming to himself. It was a beautiful day. Every day was. The air was clean, the water was fresh, and best of all it was light. Even when the sun went down, the darkness was lovely and gentle, and not at all like the horrors of darkness in Hell. Hed been in darkness for so long that hed wanted to cry when he first saw sunlight gleaming off what he quickly learned were leaves. Hed been surprised that the body hed been given seemed incapable of crying, and had felt cheated by remaining dry eyed. He felt more like himself than he had since the War, and felt like he was smiling continually, even if the body he had wasnt too good at that either.
It was a garden, a huge well-tended garden filled with trees and plants, and animals. There were also what he at first had taken for wingless angels, but had come to realise were humans. There were only two humans, and they seemed affable, if rather dim. He had felt terribly sorry for them at first, but they didnt seem to know they were missing limbs. There was no real challenge in playing tricks on them. They would look surprised and then would smile and forget whatever hed done. It would look better on his report, he thought, if he could embarrass angels. There were a number of them hanging about; it amused him no end that the humans couldnt see them, although all the other creatures in the garden could. Each of the gates was guarded by an angel with an impressive fiery sword — high ranked fellows, too. None of them would talk to him. They just sneered and tried to step on him if he got too close.
He was getting tired of the sneers when he approached the final angel. The eastern gate like all the others was hugely impressive and very beautiful. He slithered up to a good vantage point and watched the angel march up and down for a while. Crawly sighed quietly. All hed get here were more sneers and another attempt to stand on his head. He wondered what would happen if he bit an angels foot. He rather fancied the image of a blessed angel hopping round, cursing. He eyed his targets soft-looking bare feet and decided the heel was probably the place to go for. Then the angel surprised him. He looked around very cautiously, left and right and up in the air, then sat down on the grass, his sword beside him. He put his right foot up on his left knee and rubbed at it tiredly. That was different, Crawly thought. After a bit longer of foot rubbing the angel flopped down full length in the grass and propped his chin on his hands, his feet up in the air and crossed at the ankles, his wings casually spread out on the ground. Crawly sneaked closer for a better look. The other angels were spotless and shining, from their gleaming hair to their delicate white toes. This fellow had dust on the soles of his feet and a splash of mud on one calf, as if hed jumped in a puddle. He also seemed to be going cross-eyed. What was he looking at? Ah. A ladybird creeping up a blade of grass in front of his nose. How peculiar.
Crawly cleared his throat.
Hello, he said politely.
Hello, the angel said with a wide, friendly smile. My, but youre a fine, big fellow.
He stopped looking at the ladybird and gave Crawly his full attention.
And what lovely markings. Very handsome.
He reached out a soft, pink hand. Crawly looked at him in astonishment, and resolved to get a good bite at his fingers. Just a bit closer, he thought. The hand stopped in mid air.
Oh dear, the angel said. Youre not really a snake, are you?
Not as such, no, Crawly said.
He felt unreasonably disappointed that hed been spotted. He wished the angel had caught on just a few seconds later.
Youre one of — them? the angel said.
Its all right, you can say the word. I wont be offended, Crawly said. Im a demon.
Ive never met a demon, the angel said. Whats your name?
Er. Crawly, Crawly said, feeling this was getting a bit out of hand. People didnt engage him in conversations, especially not angels.
They stared at each other curiously. Crawly suddenly thought that he wouldnt have bitten the angels hand. It had been a very long time since anyone had wanted to touch him without evil intent, let alone complimented him on his looks. What an odd sort this angel was, he thought as the angel picked a dandelion clock and blew the seeds into the air, then rolled over on his back and looked at him upside down.
Arent you supposed to be on duty? he asked.
Yes, the angel said a trifle defensively, rolling onto his front again, fluttering his wings back into a semblance of order.
I only ask because Raphael is headed this way, Crawly said.
The angel shot to his feet and grabbed the flaming sword from the ground.
Thanks, he whispered as Crawly slithered off.
Behind him he could hear the angel explaining hed just been having a quick word with a snake in the grass.
* * *
He left it a few days before going back to the eastern gate. At least the odd angel had talked to him; he might be easier for Crawly to wreak a little mischief on than the other stuck-up angels.
Hello. I hope you didnt get into trouble.
No, not at all, the angel said cheerfully. Rahemiel said he chased a demon away from the Tree of Life — was that you?
Crawly smiled ruefully and gave the impression that hed have shrugged if he had shoulders.
I just wanted to see the view from the top.
The angel nodded, as if it were a reasonable explanation.
My names Aziraphale, the angel said.
I know, Crawly said. Hed overheard some of the other angels laughing behind Aziraphales back and wondering whom hed been cosying up to for his rank.
Why are you a snake? Aziraphale asked.
Crawly gave the impression of shrugging again.
Why is Raphael here? he countered.
He likes to have dinner with the humans, Aziraphale said.
Crawly grinned. Angels. Who could understand them?
The day after that he tried causing a little dissension in the ranks.
Do you ever have dinner with the humans?
No, Aziraphale said. It might make them self-conscious. They think Raphaels the only angel around, you see. They might get alarmed if they saw all the rest of us.
Crawly made a vague noise designed to show sympathy that the high-ranking officers got all the fun. He wasnt sure if this intelligence was worth anything, but it was nice to have something to report.
What do you really look like? Show me? Aziraphale said.
Er. No. This is what I was given and I dont want to damage it. How come you dont lie down in the grass anymore? Im getting a crick in my neck talking to you. Lie down.
Aziraphale looked shamefaced.
I dont want to get caught, he said. It was a close call last time.
Ah. Well, if the angel wont come to the demon -
Crawly poured himself up the startled angels leg, threw a loop around his hips to support his own weight, slithered up his back between the wings, draped himself over his shoulder and smiled into his surprised face. For an allegedly ethereal creature, he thought as he slid across the angel’s skin, Aziraphale felt very solid. He wondered what would happen if he squeezed as hard as he could, and tightened his muscles in preparation to find out.
I like your eyes, Aziraphale said in delight.
Crawly loosened his grip in surprise and was even more surprised when the angel dropped his sword and held him up.
Careful, you were about to fall.
Huh, Crawly thought. Odd fellows, angels. He felt strangely bad about wanting to play tricks on Aziraphale after that, and resolved to go and pay more attention to the humans instead.
* * *
Aziraphale didnt seem too annoyed with him after the incident with the apple. Of course, the angel hadnt come out of that with flying colours either. It was quite some time before they saw each other again. Crawly never got recalled, which suited him fine. Eventually he received word that he was Hells field agent. That sounded exciting. It was even better to get orders to go and mess up the plans of Heavens field agent and to discover it was his old acquaintance.
Hi, he said casually when he found Aziraphale sitting on a low wall, one sandal off, and rubbing a foot like he had done in the Garden.
Hello — oh. Youre that demon fellow, Crawly.
Crawly grinned cheerfully. It felt good to be in a shape that could do so effectively.
I see youve got yourself a material body, he said. How are you adjusting to it?
These sandals are giving me blisters, Aziraphale said glumly. Im not quite sure what the point of clothing is — its hot and itchy and rubs in all the wrong places.
Crawly sniggered. He just imagined that his clothes were a perfect fit and supremely comfortable, and they were. The angel hadnt worked that out yet, it seemed.
You get used to it, he said. Besides, youd hardly be inconspicuous if you were wandering round in the altogether, now would you? We’re not in the Garden now, you know.
I suppose not, Aziraphale said. Silly human convention, though. Still, at least I dont fall over as often anymore.
Crawly looked at him quizzically.
I had the hardest time trying to balance without my wings, at first, Aziraphale said. I must have looked terribly odd, staggering round the place. However do they manage?
I did that at first too, Crawly laughed. Running was the worst. I dont know how many humans’ memories I had to alter when I forgot to keep the wings hidden.
Your eyes are the same, Aziraphale said. Did you get tired of being a snake?
Missed having hands. And again, theres the matter of fitting in — talking snakes get noticed round these parts. Listen. Er. You do know what Im doing here, right?
Aziraphale sighed heavily.
Yes. How do you want to do this? Single combat, work through human intermediaries, vast interference in natural phenomena?
Crawly sat on the wall beside him. It was a nice day and he was enjoying the chat, and he decided he didnt want the angel to shift from being an acquaintance to being an enemy just yet.
Tell you what, he said. Lets leave that till tomorrow.
* * * * * * *
They were enemies, then friends, then enemies again. Sometimes they were both at once. Crowley — he had decided Crawly didnt really fit a fellow who walked on two legs — felt contemptuous and jealous and sorry for the angel, and did his best to go drinking with him as often as possible. They treated their work with deadly seriousness and as an enormously stupid game. He enjoyed laughing at the angel for his deep streak of snobbish vanity — hed decided what was good about clothing quickly enough and wore the best quality he could find. Crowley sulked when the bastard pointed out his vanity and the way he stubbornly refused to appear as anything other than young. They laughed together over successful ploys, or stormed off in a huff if the mood took them, one or the other having just lost an argument, a soul or a country. A year or a decade or a century later they would march back when the perfect rejoinder had finally sprung to mind. It was an odd set-up, but Crowley thought it worked just fine.
He thought Aziraphale enjoyed the fighting. It was so satisfying to land a decent blow on someone, to break bones and tear flesh and to know it ultimately didn’t matter, that he was damaging a piece of equipment, not a person. Of course some of the fun wore off the first time he didn’t manage to repair the damage to his body quickly enough and found himself incorporeal and chilly. It was months before he managed to contact Hell, months of whispering instructions in dreams to a magician, months of watching the idiot struggle and fail to remember in the morning. He found the long elaborate explanations he was required to give to the bureaucrats tedious in the extreme and was overjoyed when a new material body was grudgingly approved. He took better care of the new one and managed nearly a full two centuries before giving in to the temptation of a knock down, drag out fight with the angel.
On balance, he thought he preferred the times when he and Aziraphale had one of their friendly truces. It made his life easier and gave him someone to get plastered with. He loved alcohol, loved the dizzy feeling in his head, loved the fun of staggering round and really loved the nonsense it made him say. Physical life was growing on him. He didn’t think of his body as equipment any more; more and more it was simply him. He found it easier and easier to forget he’d ever been anywhere but on earth.
He was dozing in a tavern over a rather nice little concoction the barmaid had thought up when the summons came. A madman begging outside suddenly stiffened like a dog that had caught a scent and came slinking in to him.
“Push off!” the barmaid said.
The madman stuck a hand under her skirt and cackled as she ran off, shrieking.
“There you are,” he said.
“Piss off,” Crowley said.
“We’ve been looking for you, Crowley,” the madman said. “Why don’t you submit a list of all the pubs on Earth? It’ll make you easier to find, you malingering little snake.”
Crowley sat up straighter. Bugger. Of all the times to get a possess-o-gram. He’d fancied a rest.
“There’s trouble on the mainland, Crowley,” the madman said. “Go sort it out.”
“Sure. Which mainland?” Crowley said. “This island’s equidistant from Europe, Africa and the Levant.”
The mad beggar dropped into a crazy hunched pose, and the glow died away from his eyes. He held out a hand.
“Alms?” he said hopefully.
“Shit,” Crowley muttered.
He shoved what was left of his lunch at the beggar and walked out the door.
It took over a year, and by that time the trouble was so big he didn’t need a hint. Walking through the Levantine country villages he heard story after story of miraculous healings, the dead raised and — what really annoyed him — demons being cast out left, right and centre. Bloody angel. This wasn’t like him — far too active. He must have been at the spicy food again. What did he think he was playing at? Crowley was going to have to give him a stern talking-to. This was totally out of character; he’d either gone mad, or — Crowley paused. Or it wasn’t the angel. Those persistent rumours and prophecies. . . shit. ‘Trouble’ was not exactly what he’d have called it.
This — if he was right — could really ruin his life. And life, in all its glorious messy vitality, was something he didn’t want ruined. This could be the beginning of the end. Life had people, noise, entertainment — fun. He wanted fun and that’s what he was having. But he was working for people who didn’t know what fun was, or at least who had their own highly specialised definitions. Crowley shuddered. It had been a very long time since he allowed himself to think about his superiors’ ideas about fun. He wondered what it was they did with the souls of the damned, and decided he was better off not knowing. He was very grateful he’d got up to Earth before any humans showed up Downstairs. When he thought of some of the things he’d seen done to other demons and then thought of the huge hunger Hell had for human souls —
He had to face it, he supposed. He liked humans, truly he did. They were funny, quick thinking creatures, attractive in their bright mortality. Like butterflies, he thought. Here one minute, gone the next, but pretty while they lasted. For all he liked humans, however, his work involved sending them to a very bad place. In fact, the more he liked them, the more likely it was they’d end up there. He was not, he thought, a prime example of a good friend. That was worrying, and every step he took through this blasted country made the thought overshadow his mind more. He shouldn’t hang around with humans, he thought. Or he should at least stop liking them so much. If the bastards would just stop writing amusing plays and playing pleasant music and doing all the other things that made humans fun to be around his life would be so much easier. Of course, if they stopped doing all that they mightn’t be so attractive to his bosses or the angel’s bosses, and he could find himself out of a job and chained to a desk for all eternity. He ran through a possible list of desks to be chained to and decided he didn’t like any of them. He bet the angel didn’t worry about this sort of thing. Send them off to a better place, their eternal home, that’s what would be going through Aziraphale’s mind if a human dropped dead just because a fellow forgot they didn’t have indestructible livers. Aziraphale wouldn’t be looking round guiltily, wondering if getting pissed with a demon was a damnable offence if you didn’t know that’s what he was. Of course, thinking that then made him think that drinking with a demon on a semi-regular basis when you were perfectly aware of what he was probably was a damnable offence. He just wasn’t going to worry about that, though. Not now. He didn’t have the time. The angel could take care of himself. He wished the angel was around. He could really do with someone to discuss this with.
He tracked the Trouble down to the capital city by the trail of happy, healthy, non-possessed people. That was Hell for you, he mused, trouble was defined as the absence of pain. Of course, this really was Trouble, and he didn’t want to think about it too closely. It might make for pain-free humans, but he’d had a continual headache since he set foot inside the country. Everywhere he looked he saw things he remembered, or thought he should remember. He kept catching glimpses of white out of the corners of his eyes and could feel angels all over the place. No one had challenged him yet, but he was on edge. He wished he were armed.
The capital city was crowded with pilgrims and revolutionaries and soldiers and tourists and assassins, all piling in for the big festival. Not to mention the locals all intent on fleecing the visitors while complaining about all the bloody foreigners hanging round gawping at the sights. Normally Crowley wouldn’t have been found dead in the place, mainly because of his fear he’d be found dead. He looked nervously up the hill with its immense temple. He could feel the thing pulsing away, and always knew just where he was in relation to it. It was something he hadn’t felt for a very long time. He couldn’t be lost in this city if he tried. He saw other, minor demons. They peered out of the faces of the mad and the sick, and looked like they were running scared. As well they might, he thought; he was running scared. He could feel the temple and he could feel the path he was following. They were similar; but the path led to an individual while the temple led to — his mind shied away. He was better with individuals.
He slipped along the narrow, crowded streets, never seen by the jostling mass of humans. At one point he swayed, dizzy and faint and looked down to see long dried spots of blood in the dust. He knelt, one hand hovering over the spot, but wasn’t so stupid as to touch it. He straightened up and quickened his pace, now physically pushing the humans aside. The path led him out of the city again, off to a slight rise. He shook his head over the fact that he could just have walked round the walls. People were milling about, murmuring in disappointment or loudly proclaiming that they’d never been taken in for a minute. Crowley’s gaze was drawn slowly to the top of the rise and he stood there entranced. For a moment he felt vertigo, and heard the wind rushing upwards past him, saw the light receding. He — he knew this man. He stood there and swallowed heavily, remembering the brightness and the long fall into the dark. He looked around, feeling light-headed and dazed. All around there were demons, looking up, yearning and creeping a little closer, then backing off fearfully. He wasn’t imagining it, then. He had to get up there. He had to make sure. He had to do something, although he wasn’t sure what. He took a few hesitant steps forward and something hit him hard. He sat down in the dust in surprise.
“Get away from here,” a voice said, so thick with fury that it took him a minute to recognise it as Aziraphale.
He looked up to see the angel standing over him with balled fists, looking decidedly righteous. He held a hand up in surrender and slowly got to his feet.
“I don’t mean any harm,” he said.
“No harm?” Aziraphale said scornfully. “Your people have plagued him all this time and now — this.”
He waved a hand at the scene behind him.
“Exactly how does this count as ‘no harm’, Serpent?”
“You don’t understand, Aziraphale,” Crowley said. “None of that was me. Come on, it’s me you’re talking to. I just — want to be here. I need to go up there, I need to —”
Aziraphale punched him in the mouth and followed it with a blow to the stomach as he staggered back and fell over.
“Filthy — lying — snake,” Aziraphale said, accompanying each word with a kick.
“Please —,” Crowley said.
They’d been on good terms for years. He couldn’t believe Aziraphale would turn on him now, not when the angel knew Hell never told him anything important. He hadn’t known about this, he’d had nothing to do with this. And it was so unfair of Aziraphale to think he did, let alone to be hitting him when he felt so weak and sick. He hadn’t seen the angel since they’d parted amicably in Rome a decade previously, and this wasn’t exactly the most pleasant of greetings. He felt tears start up in his eyes at the unfairness of it all. The angel stopped kicking him and glared down with a look of anger and intense hurt.
“Please,” Crowley said again, holding up a hand.
Aziraphale frowned, and began to reach down to take his hand. There was a sound like a huge peal of thunder. The angel whipped round to stare uphill with a desolate cry as the sky went pitch black and Crowley felt the temple behind him give a massive pulse. He shot to his feet.
“Aziraphale!” he screamed as the wind rose.
A mighty wind roiled around him and then he and the angel were rolling head over heels down the slope, past the humans who remarked to one another that the breeze seemed to be getting up a bit. The temple exploded, metaphysically speaking. Crowley could feel it in every part of him and he shrieked in fear as he felt What was coming. A hand suddenly clamped across his mouth and something heavy crawled on top of him.
“Quiet!” Aziraphale yelled in his ear.
Crowley nodded frantically and Aziraphale took his hand away and wrapped his arms around Crowley’s head. Crowley screwed his eyes shut and buried his face in the angel’s shoulder, wrapping his arms tight around him. All about him he could feel the Presence, vast and silent. Please, he thought, desperately clinging on to Aziraphale, pleaseohpleaseohplease. Dimly, as if from far away, he could hear Aziraphale whispering the same thing. He felt the weight of eternity pressing down on them, holding them immobile, and then the sensation faded away and he began to hear mortal sounds and felt the sharp stones pressing into his back. He could see the light come back even though his tightly shut eyelids, but it was several moments before he could persuade his hands to unclench their death grip on the angel’s tunic. He opened his eyes and looked up past Aziraphale at the bright and colourless sky, feeling both their hearts hammering. Aziraphale propped himself up and stared down at him with an expression of deepest shock and relief, then knelt back and looked up the hill, his hands pressed to his own mouth. Crowley struggled up beside him and looked up in misery. There was no one up there any more. There was only dead meat.
They sat together silent and unnoticed in the dust. All around them humans went about their business, giving thanks that the unseasonable weather had cleared up so quickly.
* * *
Sitting in Constantinople a thousand years later, in his pleasant apartment with its fine view of the sea, Crowley wondered if humans ever managed to design clothing that was fashionable, beautiful and comfortable all at once. The imperial eunuch he was currently tempting looked like he was boiling alive in his heavy, jewelled robe. Crowley nibbled at a section of pomegranate and wondered why he was even bothering to corrupt the fellow. Everyone at the court was already corrupt, you practically had to bribe people before they’d so much as say ‘good morning’. He waved the bureaucrat away irritably the moment he’d got the silly fellow’s signature. They always wanted to sign in blood. So melodramatic, humans. He hoped the fellow enjoyed having the facility to screw the girl he’d become infatuated with. Of course, if it was discovered he wasn’t really a eunuch he’d lose his cushy court job, and the girl would probably run off to find a new rich protector. Ah well, Crowley thought, such is life. He resolved to start spreading rumours about his visitor in a few weeks. He took his drink and went to lean against a window frame, admiring the way the sun was sparkling off the water and the bright ships. Someone cleared their throat behind him, and he turned to see a fellow even more richly dressed than his recent guest.
“How lovely to run into you here, Crowley,” Aziraphale said.
“Why don’t you sell that and support a few deserving urchins off the proceeds?” Crowley said, waving his goblet at the embroidered monstrosity Aziraphale was swaddled in.
“Oh, no. I need it for my work. They do expect one to be well-dressed around here, you know. Haven’t you seen their pictures of angels?”
Crowley snorted, strolling over to pour wine into the second goblet that had appeared meaningfully close to the jug. He handed it over, cut another pomegranate into pieces, and handed that to Aziraphale as well.
“Before you say anything,” he said, “that guy came looking for me, not vice versa. He’s already a lost cause so don’t waste your time trying to show him the error of his ways.”
“Oh, dear me yes,” Aziraphale said. “He’s been embezzling from his department for months to pay for some floozy.”
“Charitable as ever, I see.”
“She’s two-timing him of course, with a handsome, penniless — but well-endowed, one assumes — gardener.”
“Terrible people, these floozies.”
“The gardener meanwhile, has a boyfriend he’s really awfully fond of but he thinks what the poor fellow doesn’t know won’t hurt him. However, the boyfriend — who had originally been studying for the priesthood until he fell head-over-heels in love and ran away from the seminary — has of late been plagued with guilt and is visited in his dreams by what he’s perfectly sure is the devil, who tells him he’s going to burn for his horrible sins and must be useless in bed anyway seeing as his one true love is off messing around with girls every chance he gets, and it really looks like this unfortunate fellow is going to snap one of these fine days and chop his friend up with the axe that a little voice told him to go and buy yesterday. Stop me when this starts getting too familiar, won’t you, dear?”
“Oh,” Crowley said. “That gardener.”
He gave the angel a feral grin and drained his goblet.
“Mmm. That gardener,” Aziraphale said, refilling Crowley’s drink.
They drank in silence for a moment. Aziraphale watched Crowley steadily over the rim of his goblet.
“I have a proposal for you,” he said.
“Get down on one knee,” Crowley said, “I want this done properly.”
“Aren’t we just a natural comedian these days? Do you enjoy being commended for your work when you pull off something big?”
“Well, of course.”
“How about when I pull off something big? Your people understand that you can’t win all the time, don’t they?”
“I have to explain in minute detail how I could have possibly let you get away with anything. My paperwork more than trebles.”
“How interesting. That’s more or less what happens with my people. And the only way to avoid the unpleasantness is to work even harder to thwart you, and of course, you have to work even harder to thwart me, and we end up in a spiral of piece-work that takes up every available moment and we achieve less and less, and end up relieving stress by creating little tangles like your current amusement.”
“So?” Crowley said.
Aziraphale smiled cheerfully and cut the last pomegranate in half, passing one piece to Crowley.
“I propose we stop.”
“It’s really quite simple — we stop interfering in each other’s work. So we both get things done, without constantly looking over our shoulders to see where the trouble is going to come from.”
“Sorry?” Crowley repeated. “You’re an angel. Are you seriously telling me you’re going to give me a free hand to further Hell’s schemes?”
“And you’ll give me a free hand to further Heaven’s schemes.”
“You’re mad. It won’t work. Suppose you reported me?”
“Suppose you reported me? See? It’s reciprocal. Now — we’d have to keep each other apprised of anything big. Otherwise there’d be questions about why the relevant one of us didn’t thwart in time. I’ll be honest, Crowley —”
“We’ll probably both end up with fewer pats on the back overall, but we’ll also have fewer smacks on the wrist. And we’ll be able to actually do our work - and take time off too, if we want.”
Crowley shook his head in amazement. The angel couldn’t be serious. It would never work. But — maybe he could pretend he’d been convinced. He could play the angel along, and keep records and turn them all over in a century or two. He sipped his wine. Of course, the bastard probably expected him to do just that, so he’d be keeping records as well. It’s all be down to which of them could turn the records in first. One would get a commendation — if it could be played right — and one would most likely be recalled. Hmmm. He didn’t want to be recalled. And he didn’t really want the angel recalled either, not if he was the sort of angel who came up with suggestions like this. You could work with a fellow like that. Crowley realised he was talking himself into this stupid arrangement.
“All right,” he said. “I’m game if you are.”
“Play fair, now,” Aziraphale said.
“I always play fair!” Crowley said, stung. “I only give people what they want. I don’t cheat.”
“Prove it,” Aziraphale said.
“Watch me,” Crowley snapped.
Aziraphale held out a hand. After a moment Crowley shook it firmly. It wasn’t all that demonic to be working with an angel, but he quite fancied the idea of time off.
“What about the revenue commissioner, the floozy, her gardener and his lover?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale heaved a sigh as if the mere thought was exhausting.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll flip you for them.”
The coin spun up into the air, turning over and over, waiting for one of them to break concentration.
* * * * * * *
Crowley lit a cigarette with shaking fingers. Overhead the guns roared on and on. The other officers in the crowded dugout stared at their out-of-date newspapers or their hands of cards with grim determination. As he watched them Crowley wanted to shriek, break their fragile calm and ask if they realised they were all dead men. He drew the smoke down into his lungs and held it, then exhaled very slowly. He wasn’t going to be shown up by a bunch of humans. He wasn’t going to be the first one to scream.
“Times, Crowley?” Murcheson asked, holding out the week-old paper.
“No. Thank you. I want to go and check on the men.”
“Rest, man. They’ll be fine.”
He stubbed his cigarette out and climbed up to the door. Behind him he could hear the whispers start.
“Shh. Didn’t you hear what he did? Came out of No-Man’s-Land with —”
He went through the curtain, and closed the door firmly behind him. The air wasn’t much fresher in the trench although it was colder. From the sound of it the guns were aimed at each other tonight. It would be an unlucky shell that landed down here. Keeping the firm picture of an unshelled trench in his mind he walked along, quietly stepping past sleeping bodies, acknowledging the quiet murmurs of the sentries. It began to rain again, a persistent light drizzle. He hadn’t been properly warm or dry since he came out to France. Just warm enough for the lice, he thought irritably, the thought making him scratch. He’d more than once contemplated wishing all the little buggers from his body and hair, but he had to look like a real soldier. He had to fit in. And it wouldn’t be fair either — if he got rid of his he should really get rid of his men’s and where would it stop? He wasn’t running a bloody grooming service. Anyway, being as filthy and lousy and as racked with coughs as the men was useful. They liked to see their superiors suffering along with them, it made the officers more trusted. He came to the right bays and silently counted his men in their shallow dugouts scooped into the walls of the trench. All present, all alive. He scratched again absentmindedly. The men had been overtly friendly since he’d taken up their invitation to have his hair gone over with a fine-toothed comb. He hadn’t stayed to hunt for body lice; that would have been pushing it. The sooner he damned this lot and got out of here the better, he thought. Rumour said the German trenches were immaculate and dry. Maybe he should go pay Fritz a visit.
He never quite got around to it. He was enjoying himself, in a perverse way, seeing how little it took to cast the men into elation or despondency. A couple of times he pretended he’d got a parcel from home, and shared things out among the men. It made him look good, and it was quite something to see a grown man bite back tears because he’d got a slab of fruit cake. Not that he blamed the poor bastards — he couldn’t have brought himself to choke down the rancid horsemeat and hard biscuit of their rations. At least the officers usually got enough to eat and it was reasonably edible. The men all had hollow eyes and hollow stomachs. Poor bastards. To enhance his reputation he took to bringing them part of his rations, enjoying their protests that he shouldn’t short himself and the guilt they felt at eating his food.
Once he really did get a parcel. He sat looking at it for almost an hour before being goaded into opening it.
“Go on, C-c-crowley. Open it,” Jamieson said, looking at the label on the side. “A. Ziraph-f-f-ale? What sort of name is that?”
“Uh. French,” Crowley said. “A distant relative.”
He opened it and looked at the neat tins of food, the little luxuries that Aziraphale thought he needed. He’d have to share it with the officers, he realised, now that he’d opened it in front of them. He took out some of the tins of lobster and the most expensive jams. The tobacco he tucked away for the men — the officers already had plenty. He sniggered over the silly, impractical things the angel had sent as he lifted out a terrine of duck from Harrods.
“My God, is that f-f-fresh b-b-bread?” Jamieson asked. “How can it be f-f-fresh?”
“Think of it as a miracle,” Crowley said dryly, tearing the loaf in half. “Here.”
He made himself a huge sandwich filled with an unlikely combination of foodstuffs. Aziraphale would be horrified, he thought as he bit into it and rummaged round some more. A single, perfect red apple. He laughed commonly through a full mouth and put it away safely, settling down to read the letter. As he started it the guns opened up again. He forced himself to hear Aziraphale’s voice, and slowly, slowly read the news from home. Details of London life; the hardships of rationing — Crowley snorted, looking at the box - a careful and full list of Aziraphale’s activities, keeping him up to date on the Arrangement. Sharp toned commentary on political developments. A final plea for him to take care and not risk himself overmuch; bureaucracy being as it was, who could say when he’d be assigned new ‘equipment’? Then the beautiful flowing signature. Crowley read the letter twice over and folded it carefully into his breast pocket. He’d read it again later. He took out the cans of soup — looking round he saw no one was paying him particular attention, so he created several more — and took them and the tobacco out to the men.
* * *
The trenches were shelled during an officers’ briefing one evening. The dugout shook and clods of earth showered down, bringing down one of the roof beams as well. The lights went out and there was uproar in the blackness. Crowley took advantage of the officers’ blindness to push over and lift the beam away from Murcheson, leaving him with no more than a mild concussion. He ran for the ladder, wishing the fallen earth away, and hearing a shout behind him.
“W-w-wait! If they have our range those won’t be the only ones!”
Damn them, he thought. Damn their briefing. He’d been paying attention to it, he’d forgotten to concentrate on keeping the trench safe. One of the batmen was huddled at the top of the ladder. He had been neatly sliced in two by the shrapnel. Crowley ran. He leapt over the wounded and dying, he shoved dazed men aside. His bays were further down, much further down. Dying men stared at him in shock, but he no longer cared what they saw. He slowed as he reached his men. The first thing he saw was Hughes retching and thought it must have been gas. Then he saw what lay beyond and knew it was horror making the man sick. Another shell had come down, barely missing landing in the trench itself; there was shrapnel all around.
“Out of my way!” he hissed, pushing Hughes aside.
Franklin lay twisted at the side of the trench. Half his face was gone. Beside him Jones was screaming. Crowley could see the path the shrapnel had taken, scouring along the wall of the trench, killing Franklin instantly and burying itself in Jones’ thigh as he stood on the step to look over the top through the periscope. There was blood everywhere. Jones’ leg was half severed and a chunk of shell casing was embedded in his groin. The poor bastard had been castrated. Bile rose in Crowley’s throat and he fell forward, straightening Jones’ leg.
“Jones,” he muttered. “It’s all right.”
Hands pulled him back and voices were yelling in his ear. The men were all around him, shouting for him not to look, there was nothing to be done.
“Let me go!” he cried. “I can save him!”
They wrestled him down to the ground and held him there. Jones kept screaming mindlessly.
“For Christ’s sake, get him to the MOs!” Byrne yelled over his shoulder. To Crowley he said, “There’s nothing you can do, Sir, nothing. The doctors will save him if they can.”
The screams faded down the trench as a couple of the men ran with Jones on a plank between them. Franklin was carried away more slowly. Crowley stopped struggling, all the fight leaving him at once. Byrne sat back, letting him up.
“Sorry, Captain,” he said.
Crowley nodded. He didn’t want to look at the man. He couldn’t bear the worry and sympathy in his face.
“I could have saved him,” he said dully.
“Jesus, Captain. God couldn’t have saved him,” Hughes said behind him.
Crowley held up a hand.
“Don’t. Don’t blaspheme around me.”
“Sorry, Sir,” Hughes said.
Crowley stood up, leaning against the wall for support.
“Why hadn’t they taken shelter?” he asked.
Byrne and Hughes looked at each other, obviously wishing they hadn’t been the first ones to grab him. None of the others volunteered to speak.
“Jones was taking a look, Sir,” Byrne said finally. “And Franklin was covering him. Sergeant’s orders, Sir.”
“During a shell attack? Where,” Crowley said icily, “is the sergeant?”
Both men looked back up the trench in the direction he’d come. Crowley saw another still form. He couldn’t remember jumping over it, although he supposed he must have. No one seemed to be in a hurry to carry it.
“Dead, Sir,” Hughes said.
“Lucky for him,” Crowley said viciously.
His hands were red with Jones’ blood, he saw. What had he been thinking? Heal the man and breathe life back into Franklin in front of a crowd of witnesses? He hadn’t even given a thought to changing their memories. Stupid, stupid and sentimental. He wished they hadn’t held him back. He thought of the way Franklin’s face had lit up when he’d given him a handful of the tobacco Aziraphale had sent. The man had looked like he was handed a great prize, and Crowley had laughed to himself at how easily humans were pleased and distracted from their mean little lives. And then a piece of blisteringly hot sharp metal had sheared its way through Franklin’s skull and he’d never look at Crowley happily again. And Jones with his picture of his sweetheart that he mooned over every chance he got. No chance of children for Jones, now. No chance of life either, now that he’d been consigned to the overworked and understaffed hospital tents. Crowley knew he was shaking, but couldn’t seem to stop. He’d laughed at these men. He’d planned out their damnation. He’d thought about filling quotas. He wouldn’t put it past Hell’s bureaucrats to have sent these shells as a reminder to get a move on. He was the cause of this, and now the survivors were worried about him. He looked at the tired, filthy faces around him and was ashamed.
“I’ve had enough of their damned quotas,” he said. “You’re my men and I won’t have this interference.”
They looked at him uncomprehendingly. Hands patted his arm tentatively.
“Have a rest, Sir,” Byrne said. “Just for a while.”
“All right, Corporal,” he said.
They urged him into one of their own dugouts. Crowley wearily obeyed. Not much like the officers had, he thought. Just a shelf cut into the side of the trench. He closed his eyes. He listened to them finally make preparations to carry the sergeant’s body away and tried very hard not to listen to them discussing whether their captain had lost his sanity or not. When he woke it was early morning and the rations were being brought round. Hughes offered him a cup of liquid. He sipped and grimaced.
“What the hell is this?”
“Best cold turnip soup in France, Sir.”
Crowley was surprised into laughter, and saw how the faces brightened and he was surrounded with smiles.
“Sir,” Hughes said, clearing his throat. “Your holster catch must be faulty. Your revolver fell out while you were asleep.”
Crowley took the revolver and snapped it securely into its holster. Hughes was a liar and a pickpocket, which Crowley approved of, and he’d taken the revolver out of concern, which Crowley forgave.
“Thank you, Private Hughes,” he said. “Nothing’s as well made as it was before the war, is it?”
He looked at them closely, fixing every detail in his memory. They were his men and he was going to get them the hell out of here.
* * *
He thought he should start with the one he’d be able to get out legitimately, and called Wilkins over to him later that day. The boy did his best to stand at attention given that he was laden down with heavy and water-sodden gear. Crowley ignored the expression in the shining eyes fixed avidly on his face.
“Wilkins,” he said. “Listen to me carefully. Sooner or later you know we’ll be ordered over, don’t you?”
“Yes, Sir,” the boy said.
“Well, when that time comes I’m going to be very busy, and even if any man has a legitimate reason to come to me about something important, I won’t be able to help him. Not at that late stage.”
“Good lad. So what I want you to do, Wilkins, I want you to tell me now exactly how old you are and I’ll get you sent home, all right?”
“Sir?” the boy said, a look of panic beginning to grow on his face.
“I’m not angry with you, not at all. Come on, Wilkins, just say Captain Crowley, I’m sixteen and it’ll all be over. Or fifteen, or whatever you are. You know you can trust me, don’t you?”
“Yes, Sir,” Wilkins said. “Captain Crowley. I’m nineteen.”
Crowley looked down at the boy in despair. All the men were shorter than him, the legacy of impoverishment and childhood illnesses, but with Wilkins it was ridiculous. He knew the story of the patrol gone wrong and him carrying Wilkins out to safety had grown to stupid, heroic proportions when the truth was that any of the men could have picked up this child and run with him. He patted the boy’s shoulder and turned away from the adoration in his eyes. Stupid, stupid boy.
He next thought of trench foot. It wasn’t as common as at the start of the war, though, and there would be questions if all the men came down with it. Not terribly practical, not to mention that they’d have to have most of their feet rotted off before getting a medical discharge given the rumours of the big push that was coming. Anyway, the thought sickened him.
Discharges for shell-shock were out of the question. Officers got shell-shocked. Ordinary soldiers got charged with malingering and cowardice and flung back into the lines. Or shot, if they were unluckier than most. Anyway, Crowley thought a little hysterically, so many men were shell-shocked it was the ones who weren’t who stood out as abnormal nowadays. His own hands hadn’t been steady for weeks, which he was ignoring as best he could. He thought he was doing pretty well, considering. All the other officers he regularly saw stuttered or twitched as well as having shaking hands. He was fine. Tiredness, that’s all that was wrong with him. He turned over in his bunk, pretending the noise he heard was a thunderstorm. Just thunder.
When the orders finally came through, Crowley knew in a sudden flash of clarity how he was going to do it. He closed his eyes and saw the bullets causing damage, but not killing. He saw the frustrated officials, forced to discharge men back to civilian life instead of feeding them to the guns. He saw poor little Wilkins dying old in bed surrounded by weeping grandchildren. He saw his own escape — memories of a grenade, he thought, for the men. Something that would explain the lack of an identifiable body. He turned his laugh into a cough and ignored the looks he got, brushing off the clumsy attempts Jamieson made afterwards to ask if he were all right. Who had time to wait until the man got a sentence out, anyway? He just walked off with his good, warm, edible officer’s meal and took it out to the sentries. He couldn’t quite remember when he’d last had any of his own rations, but it wasn’t important as long as he had cigarettes and coffee. He strode down the trench, his heart light, to spend the remaining time with his men.
They were shaken when he told them, but that was to be expected. He looked meaningfully at Wilkins, but the boy looked stubbornly back and shook his head. Fine. Didn’t matter. Not now.
“Now,” Crowley said in a light, cheerful voice, “our orders are quite simple. As it gets nice and light we climb up there and walk at a dignified pace towards the enemy. When we get close enough to their trenches we charge, and bayonet them. Any questions?”
There was silence. Then:
“We walk, Captain? Everyone says when it’s done that way no one gets more than a few feet from the ladders.”
“Well, the generals are old and fat and can barely waddle,” Crowley said calmly. “Seeing as we’re young and thin, I suggest we run, and make ourselves at least a little harder to hit. Stick close to me — no matter what anyone says, I order you to run.”
He smiled at them. He wasn’t sure how many things he could effect at once, and wanted them in a nice identifiable bunch close to him. He pulled bars of chocolate out of his belt pouch. They were too highly strung to wonder how he’d got so many, or how he’d fit them all in the pouch. This was the hard part, and it was one he hadn’t wanted, but he knew he had to do it. There would be questions if they all survived, something might be suspected, someone might investigate. What’s more, the human authorities might notice as well. He had thought about this carefully and chosen. He smiled as he handed chocolate to Byrne, capable Corporal Byrne who worried about his Captain and privately thought he took too much on himself. Corporal Byrne who was mistaken about his cough being caused by the cold and damp and who had an inoperable clot of darkness growing in his lungs. Private Saunders who’d been putting the ache in his gut down to bad food, and whose appendix was ready to burst and spew its poison throughout his body. Private Carter, whose cancer was in his bowels and would have him shitting blood continually within five years until he haemorrhaged to death in an undignified stinking mess. Fast. Painless, Crowley promised as he passed out the chocolate. If it was down to him he’d cure them and just get them all out, but better a few dead than all dead.
Finally Crowley sat down on the step and took the last thing out of his belt pouch. A beautiful, shining red apple, as fresh as the day it had arrived. He closed his eyes and smelled it, thinking of beautiful gardens and a kind face. He took a bite. It was perfect.
* * *
Afterwards, he spent a great deal of time in the hospital tents, keeping the men quiet and happy. He didn’t particularly care if anyone else was there or not. If they got a reputation for being mad as well as wounded, so much the better. It could only get them home quicker. He waited until the doctors had noted that each and every one of them was unfit for duty and should be invalided out. Then he went round a final time and firmly instructed all their wounds that they were to heal completely within a year of the men becoming civilians once more.
And then he went, leaving only rumours and ghost stories behind. He was very tired.
* * * * * * *
Crowley walked hesitantly through Soho. He didn’t want to go where he was going, but he needed someone who knew him, not Captain A. J. Crowley. As he walked along Wardour Street a truck backfired beside him. He found himself flattened in a doorway, breathing hard. A prosperous looking middle-aged man frowned at him, shaking his head in disapproval. Blank rage surged through Crowley, but he was distracted from murder by the sight of a young man clambering to his feet from where he’d thrown himself behind a post box. He met Crowley’s eyes and both looked aside, ashamed. Crowley picked up his bag and walked quickly until he came to the turning for Aziraphale’s bookshop.
It was open, for a wonder. He slipped inside and found the angel sitting behind the counter, reading a newspaper.
“Hello,” Crowley said.
He dropped his kit bag and looked around so he wouldn’t have to look Aziraphale in the face just yet.
“Still dusty in here, I see.”
“Crowley! You look — tired.”
He looked over and did his best to ignore the concern in Aziraphale’s face and voice. The angel looked exactly as Crowley remembered. The shop was the same too. There was still something the War hadn’t touched, hadn’t destroyed. He did his best to give a carefree smile and hid his dismay as Aziraphale winced.
“How about a nice cup of tea?” Aziraphale said quietly. “Come on, let’s get you comfy.”
He followed Aziraphale into the back room and sat in one of the armchairs. Well. Those were different. It was odd to think of the angel going out furniture shopping. Aziraphale patted his shoulder and bustled out to the scullery. Crowley heard the gas ring light with a whoosh and closed his eyes. He opened them a second later and found a cup of tea being held out. He smiled at the thought that Aziraphale had been too impatient to wait for the kettle to boil naturally. He spooned sugar into the cup. He hadn’t used it before he had gone away, but had found it comforting in France. It was only when he saw how low the sugar was in the bowl that he realised he was using far more than his fair share.
“Sorry,” he muttered, pushing the bowl away.
“Oh no, I’ve given it up — bad for the figure,” Aziraphale said unconvincingly, and pushed the bowl back. “Go on.”
Crowley slowly drank the tea, poured himself another cup and drank that too. He felt lost and alone.
“I don’t want to impose,” he said, “but I was wondering if I could stay here tonight. I’ll find rooms tomorrow.”
He saw indecision and doubt in Aziraphale’s face. It didn’t do to shelter the enemy, he thought. You’d be shot for that.
“I don’t have any —,” Aziraphale’s voice trailed off. “Yes, of course,” he said decisively.
“I’d go to a hotel, but I can’t stand to be around people,” Crowley said.
“I wouldn’t hear of it. I — saw your name in the casualty lists,” Aziraphale said carefully. “I expected you every day after that. I — it’s not that I don’t want you here, it’s just I thought you must not want to see me. I was just surprised you turned up. I’m really very glad to see you, Crowley.”
“I had something to do,” Crowley said. “I needed to take care of one or two things.”
“Oh. What would you like for dinner?” Aziraphale said.
“Anything. I just want to lie down, to be honest. And have a bath, if I could.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale said, “of course. You finish up the tea and I’ll get things ready.”
He ran out of the room. Crowley heard him rush up the stairs and then odd noises drifted down. It sounded, Crowley thought, rather like furniture suddenly appearing a fraction of an inch above floor level, and settling down. By the time he’d emptied the teapot Aziraphale had come down again.
“Now. Let me take your bag. No, no, it’s no trouble. Up this way.”
He was led to a bright, pleasant room with a comfortable looking bed piled high with pillows. The gas light made it look very warm. Everything in the room was brand new, he saw. He wondered how many books Aziraphale had had to move. The angel put the kit bag carefully by a chair.
“I’ve run the bath for you — I hope the water isn’t too hot. I think I may have overestimated it.”
“It won’t be too hot,” Crowley said.
Aziraphale showed him to the bathroom. Steam rose in great clouds from the water. A pile of sparklingly white towels were neatly heaped on a straight backed chair by the bath.
“Soap,” Aziraphale said, “flannels, towels. If there’s anything else you need, just call. I’ll go and see what we can have for dinner.”
Crowley shut the door on him, glad of the quiet. It wasn’t fair to be tired of Aziraphale so quickly, he knew. It was just exhaustion. He’d be better after a bath and some food. It was such a relief to be back in England, to be away — he very deliberately stopped thinking, and undressed.
The water was scalding hot as he sank back into the bath. Perfect. He submerged himself for a long, long moment, then sat up and rubbed soap through his hair. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was having dirty hair. As he splashed the soap out of his eyes he saw his fingernails were grubby, and reached for the nailbrush. Even after a few minutes work, he didn’t seem to have made a difference. With a shock he realised he had decaying flesh caught under his nails. He began to shake as he looked at himself. His forearms were streaked with thick, stinking mud. He’d seen wounded men out on a battlefield, both German and British, screaming in fear as the British tanks came closer and closer. The mud had been red for yards around. There was a heavy smell of shit and rot in the room and he couldn’t get his nails clean. He frantically scrubbed the hard bristles under his nails and along his arms, and watched as the mud turned red. High pitched boys’ voices crying out in German and English were drowned out by the roar of machinery.
The door flew open.
He looked up, slowly. Aziraphale was white and shaking.
“I’m trying,” Crowley said, “to have a bath, here.”
“You didn’t answer. I’ve been calling and calling and knocking on the door. You were up here so long, and I thought — I thought . . .,” Aziraphale said in a rush.
The water had somehow gone cold, Crowley realised. And red. He closed his eyes and pretended he didn’t hear the screams.
“Oh dear,” Aziraphale said softly. Then, in a brisk, light voice he said, “dear me, the water’s cold. That can’t be very comfortable. Let’s just rinse the soap from your hair.”
Warm water suddenly trickled over Crowley’s head and the soap was carefully rinsed away. He heard the plug being pulled and the water started to drain away.
“Stand up, there’s a good chap.”
He obeyed, opening his eyes to see Aziraphale spread one of the towels on the floor. He caught a flicker of pain in the angel’s eyes as he looked at him, but then Aziraphale was calm and mildly cheerful again.
“Now. Out we get — careful — don’t slip.”
He took the hand Aziraphale held out and stepped out onto the towel where he had another one neatly wrapped round his waist. Looking down he saw that water was dripping onto the angel’s expensive shoes. He hoped he wouldn’t mind too much. He let himself be gently sat down on the edge of the bath so that Aziraphale could dry his hair. His hands and arms were hurting, but he didn’t want to look at them, not yet. Soft hands touched his forearms lightly and the pain stopped.
“Would you like to lie down before eating something?” Aziraphale asked.
“Well, then. We can’t have you going to bed with wet hair. You’d catch pneumonia.”
His hair was no longer clinging damply to his scalp. He sat there quietly as the angel finished drying him with light, impersonal hands, and then wrapped a dry towel around him to keep him warm on the few short steps back to the bedroom. A pair of pyjamas had appeared. He let himself be helped into them, then climbed into the bed and hugged the hot water bottle to him. There was another one for his feet.
“You’re so thin,” Aziraphale said. “You haven’t been looking after yourself. You rest. I’ll bring you up some beef tea in a while.”
He put a hand on Crowley’s forehead and then quietly left the room.
* * *
He stayed for weeks. For the first fortnight he couldn’t find the interest to even get out of bed. He ate what he was brought and slept. It was clear he wasn’t going to make it down the stairs to the toilet in the yard, and he was grateful for the chamber pot that tactfully appeared by the bed. The only thing that got him up eventually was the prospect of bathing.
Aziraphale stayed by his side. At night he would wake from horrors to see the angel reading in a chair, a faint blue light hovering over the pages. He would patiently put his book aside and come over to plump up the pillows, or just sit silently on the edge of the bed while Crowley gripped his hand painfully. After Crowley had hurt himself again in the bathroom, Aziraphale didn’t let him be alone there either, and would sit politely looking at the far wall until Crowley was done.
Although he didn’t want to, Crowley gradually got tired of the room. Three days after he had flung a tray of food into Aziraphale’s face in a sudden fury and turned his face stubbornly to the wall, he decided he should get up for at least an hour. He dressed and went off to see where Aziraphale had got himself to. He found him in the kitchen, preparing a tray with a pot of tea and some light golden toast. Crowley marched over to the table and sullenly took the cup he was offered.
“Thanks,” he said, with as ill grace as he could manage.
“Remembered how to talk, have we?” Aziraphale said, amused.
“Can I read your books? I’m bored.”
“Of course. Something classic? Something modern? I’ve got quite a decent collection of Anglo-Irish literature from the last twenty-odd years.”
“It’s not religious, is it?” Crowley asked suspiciously.
“Not really,” Aziraphale said, smiling. “I’ll get you a selection of things. Do you think you’d like to stay up for dinner?”
Crowley thought about it. He felt oddly exposed sitting at the table. He longed for the safety of the cosy little bedroom and the warm blankets. He wanted to go right back and pull them up over his head.
“Yes,” he said firmly. “I’ll stay up.”
* * *
After that it was easier to stay up, easier to be in a different room. It wasn’t any easier to talk. He wished Aziraphale would let him stay silent.
“What happened?” Aziraphale asked, late one night.
What do you think? Crowley thought. Everything. Nothing. People killing each other, same as always. He knew Aziraphale didn’t mean it like that. The angel had seen enough bloodshed over the years to know what humans were capable of doing. He knew Aziraphale meant what had happened to him. He felt his chest constrict and panic begin to rise. He had to distract the angel, somehow, anyhow. He could not speak.
“It’s all right. I’m sorry,” Aziraphale said, very quietly. “Here, let me -”
Crowley felt his hands gently being pulled away from his face. He hadn’t even realised he’d hidden his face. He was hunched over. He uncurled himself and looked over at the clock. Only fifteen minutes lost this time. That was something, at least.
“I’m fine. I wasn’t wounded,” he said angrily.
“I’ve seen worse,” he spat. “I’ve seen Hell.”
It’s in France.
Aziraphale said nothing, but just held his hands lightly until Crowley pulled away and stood up.
“That business in Le Mons,” he said. “Was that you?”
“No,” Aziraphale said. “I suppose it was someone out for a bit of fun. I tried to make enquiries, but I never got an answer.”
“I thought it might have been you. Bloody silly thing to do, really. Had ‘Heaven’ stamped all over it. Hell thought it was your people.”
“I was told to take a hands off approach. What about you?”
Crowley took deep even breaths and stared at a spot on the floor. He could talk about plans. He could talk about bureaucratic stupidity. He hoped every single one of the generals ended up roasting.
“Once your lot was seen to be involved my people wanted in on the act. I was supposed to shift round from place to place, getting the men to renounce God before dying. I ended up in one command the entire time, with one group of men. Got almost all of them home, too.”
“Will you get into trouble?” Aziraphale said.
“I’m sure more than enough of them on both sides died cursing God without me adding to it. I couldn’t do it to my men, not when they believed,” he said.
“They had very strong faith?” Aziraphale said.
“They believed,” Crowley said sadly, “in me.”
Aziraphale patted his hand. Crowley hissed in irritation, realising in disgust that he had come off as sounding noble. He snatched his hand back.
“They were my men, Aziraphale! Mine! I decided what happened to them, not some pen-pusher off at a desk! And I decided that Hell couldn’t have them!”
The angel looked rather taken aback, but said nothing. Crowley stood still, feeling very tired.
“I’m going to have a bath and go to bed,” he said.
He paused and managed to get the rest of the words out.
“I won’t hurt myself this time.”
Aziraphale looked at him calmly and nodded. Crowley went off, alone.
* * *
He decided the only thing to do was get out of England, and went to work persuading Aziraphale that they should take a break. The angel gave in with very little pretence that he was busy. Crowley knew he was being humoured, but didn’t much care. For weeks he lay in the sun while Aziraphale did improving things like look at the landscape. He could pinpoint the exact moment when the trip turned into a holiday in Aziraphale’s mind, rather than a convalescent trip. On the third day the angel caught a fish — probably quite by accident, Crowley thought — and made such a fuss that youd have thought hed invented fire or something. They cooked it and ate it even though it was mostly bones. Grinning to himself at the memory of a slightly sunburnt, over-excited Aziraphale fairly bouncing with glee, Crowley thought hed never had a better meal in his life. So far away from everything, he began to feel more like himself, and indulged in some shameless showing off. There was no point in showing off to humans, who could never hope to compete or understand what he could do, but Aziraphale made for the perfect audience. The angel was a bit clumsy, and made the most amusing splashes when he hit the water, but Crowley could dive in leaving only the barest ripples behind. It was restful to lie on the sand at night, hands behind his head and listening to Aziraphales meandering description of his day. Or to hear Aziraphale protest yet again that he always stayed awake, just before he fell into an exhausted sleep. It was a wrench to finally suggest they had to leave and go back to their work. Aziraphale was surprisingly resistant to the idea, arguing for just another week or two. Crowley agreed, in the name of encouraging sloth and negligence in the opposition, but couldn’t be persuaded past the one extension. He didn’t seriously think anyone would bother to come looking for them, but it was too blessed easy to stay. He nagged Aziraphale back into respectable London clothes and spent a considerable time laughing at how silly respectable London clothes looked with such a deep tan and sun-bleached hair.
London was cool and grey and familiar. Crowley opened the shop door as Aziraphale paid the cabbie, finding everything as they’d left it except slightly dustier, if that was possible.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley smiled and ran up the stairs, remembering suddenly that he’d left one of the angel’s books open face downwards for weeks. Aziraphale would throw a tantrum if he found that out. He skidded into his room and grabbed the book, quickly repairing the cracked spine. He stood there, the book hanging loosely in his hand as he realised what he was thinking. He turned in a circle, taking in the bed with its soft pillows and thick, colourful blankets, the chair with its cushions, the neat bedside table and the narrow wardrobe where Aziraphale had carefully hung up his uniform. This wasn’t his room. This was a room he’d borrowed from, from a — a business acquaintance. He should leave. He had to leave, unless he wanted to admit he was a pathetic excuse for embodied evil who couldn’t even manage to sleep through a night without a blessed angel to tuck him in. And he was being an imposition, he thought. If he outstayed his welcome Aziraphale would become resentful. He really had to go, and the pang he felt at the thought showed it was past time he went. But not today, he thought, not when we’ve just come back.
A couple of days later he left for America. Aziraphale was relieved to see him go, he knew, even if he had hidden it under regret and anxious assurances that Crowley was always welcome to stay. The ship was boring, not being designed for passengers. He amused himself by keeping an eye out for U-Boats and icebergs, and was heartily pleased every day he didn’t see either.
America got his mind off things. He kept company with raconteurs — who were amusing — and gangsters — who were amusing and exciting — and politicians — who were neither, but he supposed he couldn’t have fun every day of the week. In November, while people danced for joy in the streets, he drank himself insensible in case he would start to remember again. By the New Year he was back in London.
For most of the rest of the twentieth century he convinced himself he was having a high old time.
* * * * * * *
And the Hosts of Heaven and Hell came out arrayed for war.
Storm clouds massed on the very edges of the sky, framing the field of battle. The firmament of Heaven was silent and shining with the glint of light on weapons.
On Earth, War and Pollution and Famine rode, and Death rode with them.
Crowley really didn’t want to be there. He was frightened and angry, but he had discovered something he believed in firmly, and it was very simple. He’d had enough. No one, not even him, deserved to be treated the way Hell acted towards everything. For a shining, brief moment he’d thought everything was going to be all right, when the pint-sized Antichrist refused to play. Then he realised no one got two infinite armies ready to fight and put them back in their boxes unused.
“They’re going to do it,” he said dully, cutting off the angel’s excited opinion that everything would be all right, they wouldn’t have to fight, they could all go home. It hadn’t worked like that before, why should it be any different this time? Pity he’d never get to hear the story behind Aziraphale’s cross-dressing, he thought.
The beautiful and more than slightly grubby centre of the world turned and looked hard at Crowley. He shook with fear, feeling stripped bare. He desperately wanted to find a rock to slither under, but didn’t think there’d be any this kid couldn’t turn over. He looked miserably back at the boy and knew he deserved whatever was coming to him. Sorry, he thought, I’m sorry I messed this up like everything else. I’m sorry you don’t get to be a kid anymore. The boy’s hard expression turned to deep pity and the setting sun flared behind his head giving the illusion of a deep gold halo. Squinting against the brightness in rather the manner that rabbits tended to squint when he had them lined up in the Bentley’s headlights, Crowley froze in shock and recognition. He’d seen this person before. He heard wind rushing up past his head, he felt a desperate yearning and homesickness. For the first time in six thousand years he thought, without any conscious irony, Oh, dear God. The child grinned.
The wind started to rise and the clouds rushed in, lightning running along their undersides like a huge and futuristic weapon charging up. Heaven wasn’t going to be caught out again, he thought with a small and dazed part of his mind. With the larger and more frightened part of his mind he thought, It’s the wrong kid. Bloody Aziraphale, that sneaky, cheating bastard — He turned in indignation to the unlikely body the angel was using.
“It’s the wrong bloody kid!” he hissed agitatedly.
“Pardon?” Aziraphale said.
“You shush,” the boy said sternly.
Crowley shut his mouth quickly and the boy smiled, putting a dirty finger up to his lips.
“Why’re you lookin’ at me like that?” the boy said. “Thought you were lookin’ for me, before. Thought you’d be pleased to catch up with me.”
He looked over at Aziraphale’s new appearance and shook his head. The angel was suddenly sitting on the ground beside the rather startled lady, looking down at himself in surprise. The boy began to turn towards his friends, then winked back at Crowley.
“All that baby switchin’,” he said. “Must’ve got complicated. Don’t you look so scared — I know all about you.”
Crowley didn’t find that terribly comforting, but he was too busy over the next several minutes to think about it. He was even too busy to be more than terrified. Frightened out of his wits, yes, convinced he was going to die horribly, certainly. But not incapacitated with fear. The thing that went through his mind as he looked at Aziraphale ask awkward questions that sent the angelic and demonic generals scurrying off to look for answers; the thought that occurred as he watched Aziraphale pick up the sword, as his soft, perfectly manicured hand closed round its hilt like he was a — well, a member of the Heavenly Hosts — was that at least he had picked a better class of friend to hang round with this time. Not that he was going to say that to Aziraphale, of course. No point in letting the bastard die smug.
It was on the drive back to London in the stolen Jeep that the depression really began to set in. It had all been so anti-climactic, he thought. Get a fellow prepared to fight the good fight, get him ready to bloody well lay down his life for his friends and you should at least let him have a chance to throw one punch. The kid had gone off without even a backward glance, and Crowley was deeper in the shit than before. Now there’d be Hell to pay. He was in for an infinity of suffering, and his one chance of redemption had cycled off into the sunset.
“Why don’t you come to my place?” he said to the gloomy angel. “At least I still have a flat.”
“No, no,” Aziraphale said heavily. “I wouldn’t want to impose. I — I think I’ll just walk for a while.”
Crowley pulled over to let him out.
“Come later, if you want,” he said, casual and laid back.
He drove off. Blessed angel. What was the use of being an angel if you couldn’t at least hang round to try and cheer a fellow up? He heard shouts behind him and screeched to a halt.
“Crowley! Crowley!” Aziraphale yelled, running up, breathing hard.
“What?” Crowley said, looking at the unlikely sight of the angel hanging on to the Jeep’s door and struggling to catch his breath. “Are you trying to give yourself a heart attack?”
“Crowley — Are, are you going to be all right?” Aziraphale said, putting a hand on his wrist. “I’ll come with you after all, shall I? I don’t want you to — that is, I —oh, please tell me you’ll be all right, Crowley.”
Crowley looked at him, taking in the shaken expression and how pale he was as his breathing returned to normal. Ah. He tried for a sardonic chuckle, but Aziraphale didn’t seem too convinced.
“I’ll be fine. Stop being melodramatic. I’ll see you tomorrow, all right?”
“Promise. Promise me, Crowley.”
Crowley looked at the scared face and didn’t roll his eyes.
“I promise,” he said quietly.
Aziraphale nodded, gave a little squeeze of his hand and stepped back. Crowley drove home and drank almost enough whisky to kill himself. Not quite enough, though. He was a demon of his word after all.
He woke face down on the settee with a terrible ringing in his ears. After a long moment he identified it as the phone and staggered up to answer it.
“Crowley! This is the third time I’ve rung you! You weren’t answering!”
“Sorry,” Crowley muttered and decided to stagger round the sitting room, seeing as standing still didn’t seem to be working for him. He ended up by the window, and rested his head on the cool glass. The angel sounded awfully excited and happy, but it was hard to work out what he was saying.
“Crowley? Are you listening, Crowley? Oh, Crowley, you won’t believe what’s happened!”
Crowley’s gaze began to focus on what was parked outside the building. As he took in the gleaming black paint-work, the shining metal and the spotless leather he felt his breathing shorten, and all the alcohol leave his body in a rush.
“Try me,” he said.
* * *
On the third day, Crowley woke early. He remembered very little of the previous day, although he was fairly sure he’d ended up in the Ritz with the angel. He must have been sensible and sobered up before bed, he thought. He hadn’t the slightest trace of a hangover.
Light was filtering in through the curtains, and the birds were singing. Normally this was a cue for him to pull a pillow over his head and sink back into dreams, but today he was feeling wide awake and cheerful. He bounced out of bed and across the floor, pulling the curtains open. Sunlight washed over him and he opened the window, feeling a sudden desire for fresh air. Everything was quiet, much quieter than he expected. Must be really early, he thought, leaning out of the window so that he could peer down at the trees in the park. It was shaping up to be a very pleasant day with the slightest of cool breezes.
Coming up from the park he could see a solitary figure strolling along, and heard snatches of opera sung quietly. He grinned cheerfully. It looked like Aziraphale had been getting some duck feeding in before the rush started. If you were going to stay up all night you’d have plenty of time for things like that. He resolved to tease Aziraphale about actually walking somewhere for once, instead of begging for lifts.
“Oi, Pavarotti!” he called, laughing.
Aziraphale stopped under his window, beaming up at him with an absurdly sunny smile. Grinning down at the angel, Crowley let a wave of good humoured fellow feeling wash over him. It felt great.
It felt like the first day of the rest of his life.