Thorns Also and Thistles
Part One: Thou My Shade
"Thou my shade
Inseparable must with mee along:
For Death from Sin no power can separate."
When one was spending such an inordinate time dinking about - to coin a phrase - on earth, one had to tone down the glow a bit more than usual. The golden rays of light, the golden tinge to one's skin, the gold on the thighs and in the eyes and the hair, and so on and so forth, was just a little bit much for a mortal realm. Sure, if you looked too closely at him, if you really squinted and really cared, you'd see a little piece of eternity nestled safely in his gaze. But it was the winter, and all the solidity, the beautiful corporeality, of the human world was bundled in scarves and the gray cold, was focused therefore far more on warding off the chill than they were on inspecting the average blonde that they might pass on the street. Time seemed to work well for him that way. In fact, the world was in that comfortable slump too far after Christmas and too far before spring, so that everything was cheap in the stores, the cocoa or the coffee or the tea - depending on what sort of a mood he was in - warmed you through and through, and the snow was a mysterious, otherworldly phenomenon.
Raphael readjusted the Stetson on his head and shrugged his scarf up closer to his chin. One couldn't do much about the cold that bit one's nose with a vengeance, and still maintain one's dignity (of course there were nose warmers, but those were positively ridiculous) so one learned to deal with it, so long as there was a good café to return to after the numbness kicked in. All one needed was a good winter coat and some nice wool gloves and a very long scarf, and one could drink in the beauty of the gray streets for as long as one wished.
My, but it was so very different than Heaven, this time of year.
Well, the upshot of the previous evening was: you couldn't have a real theological discussion with anyone from Down There, when you were of the Upwards orientation. So to speak. It was just a terrible idea. Not that it wouldn't be an intellectually stimulating discussion, rather, it would be positively electrifying; in fact, a bit overly so. Aziraphale knew this first hand, because discussing Milton turned almost immediately into discussing God, and discussing God was always a taboo between the two of them. It was all a part of the Agreement. Crème Brulee they could talk about, but religion was a proverbial no-no.
And besides, reading Milton's masterpiece was a ordeal for Aziraphale, a sacred event, one which the angel couldn't hope to make sacred to Crowley. It was not even something Aziraphale wished he could make sacred to Crowley. It was just trying, discussing such a personal work under an circumstances; with a demon, it reminded Aziraphale of past almost-transgressions, as he liked to refer to them. No doubt it was blasphemous, exchanging points of view on what had happened back in that famous garden, but Aziraphale had long since given p on figuring out what was and wasn't so. The simple truth happened to be, on earth, unless you indulged in one of the Deadlies, nobody noticed.
But telling Crowley that was simply not an option, either; that is, it wasn't, if Aziraphale was perfectly satisfied where he was. And, looking back on the old days, Aziraphale simply didn't want to go anywhere else, thank you very much.
When the bridge across Chaos, from Hell to Eden, was built by its first crossing, the pinpricks of angel lights all throughout Heaven were saddened but not dimmed. Well, all but two, that was. The shimmer of sunlight fading over Eden just beneath them, Raphael and Aziraphale too pause together, bowing golden heads. A great chill moved through them, and in that chill another chill came: the chill of knowing they had both been far too attached, Raphael to the reality, and Aziraphale to the concept.
"Is that it, then?" Aziraphale asked, muted, but not mutable. Raphael settled his ruffled wing feathers, smoothed over his pale complexion with its usual gold brilliance.
"Well, it would seem so, wouldn't it," he replied, frowning thoughtfully. "We knew it would happen, in any case. We all of us did."
"They didn't," Aziraphale murmured pointedly, toying with his hair, which always felt cool and smooth to the touch. It was a displacement reaction of course. Knowing Aziraphale as well as he did, Raphael wouldn't have been surprised if the other angel had started making clumsy little braids, next.
"I warned them," Raphael pointed out bluntly. "I'll miss them, anyway. That's all, I suppose. It was a nice place - had you ever been?"
"Oh, once," Aziraphale answered vaguely, shrugging with a shimmer of lucid color. "In the very beginning. Anyway, didn't it - doesn't it - seem a little bit silly to you? Saying all those things you said to them, knowing it wouldn't make a difference, in the end." Raphael's eyes sharpened, expression hardening at the question.
"You should not say such things," the angel warned, upset fading into worry. "Stay close to Him, to all of us, today," Raphael added, as an afterthought, one that made Aziraphale shiver again. Naturally, with his clear, bright eyes, Raphael noticed, and rested one hand in that smooth hair, thumb on Aziraphale's cheek. "There is a bitterness in the air, Aziraphale. I am sure you too can feel it. He is angry, and The Son is weary, and our Enemy knows we are yet weak." Closing his eyes, the lesser angel leaned into the touch. For a moment, love soothed the air's emptiness, until Raphael pulled his hand away, all Golden before Aziraphale's blue eyes. "I must go," Raphael said finally. "So much must be seen to." Aziraphale nodded, stepped backwards, let Raphael lift off the ground like a sun's ray into the sky.
"Everything feels wrong," Aziraphale said to himself. Alone. Beneath him, far beneath him but closer than it seemed, leaves stirred in a sudden, Autumnal breeze.
It was a rather nice area, if you looked at it sideways. Somewhere else, only just upwind from a nearby stream, all of mankind was being doomed, but it was such a beautiful place, though it was no longer green and young. The leaves had in a day turned the color of a particularly vivid sunset, the breeze now perhaps too chill for nudity. The grass beneath Aziraphale's feet had grown brittle; in the morning, he noted with some amount of sadness, it would be brown. This Eden would die: that was the most devastating realization of all. Such nature, all of it lost to the future, destroyed. Resting one slim, pale hand on the bark of the nearest tree, Aziraphale bowed his head, and began, silently, to cry.
He did not hear the demon approach, though his cold tears made no sound at all in the lingering twilight.
"Issss thissss the tree, Angel?" a half-familiar, sibilant voice asked. Slowly, Aziraphale lifted his head.
The creature before him held himself up with the fluid limblessness of a serpent, his gold, narrow eyes fixed on Aziraphale's face as if the angel was entirely translucent in such lighting. It looked as if he'd just stopped being a snake, or perhaps as if he was about to begin. He was just as pale, surprisingly, as Aziraphale was, though he had dark hair and a dark, but curious, demeanor. Upon first glance, Aziraphale knew what he was, and upon second, Aziraphale knew whom.
"I don't know." Snatching his hand nervously from the tree, the angel stepped back, looking up to the top branches. There was no fruit amongst the leaves.
"Nothing'ssss left," the demon whispered. "Ssssoon, not even the leavessss. It issss the tree, issssn't it. It musssst be. It'ssss sssso ssssimple." Aziraphale swallowed thickly. Raphael's words caught in his ears, foreboding and rough. "I do not think it sssshould be feared," the demon continued, as he took a few slow steps closer. "Itssss power issss all losssst, now. It cannot hurt you, to look upon it." Aziraphale clenched his fists. There were a lot of vagaries in Divine Law, but Aziraphale was pretty sure where to draw the line about this particular predicament.
"Come now," the demon soothed, his eyes hypnotic, "you can't ssssay you aren't jusssst the leasssst bit interessssted. We all of ussss are, you know; your kind, and mine, assss well."
"I touched it, " Aziraphale said bleakly, a little hopeless.
"It doessssn't mean you're going to fall," the demon pointed out. "Unlike ssssome of ussss, you didn't know."
"But shouldn't I have?" Aziraphale relaxed. "It should be one of those - one of those instinctive things. You should know, and all that, without having to be told.
"Look at it thissss way," the demon replied, "you weren't forewarned. There'ssss alwayssss an out option, and it doessssn't look to me assss if you're the ssssort not to take it." Aziraphale swallowed.
"Oh," he said, and then, "whatever has happened to your voice?" The demon winced.
"Don't assssk about it," he said, "we've all gotten to calling each other horrendoussss nicknamessss now. Mine sssseemssss to be Crawly. Rather undignified for ssssomeone who'ssss been sssso key in all of thissss." Aziraphale looked troubled.
"How is everything? Down There. Not that I want to know for any grander reasons, I just should think - well, you are celebrating, aren't you?"
"What makessss you think it wassss our victory, Angel?" Crawly crossed the final few feet between himself and the Tree and touched it's bark with one half-clawed hand. Azirphale sidled fretfully, putting distance between the two of them, as much as was polite, under the circumstances.
"Well," Aziraphale said, huffing slightly, "you've won this round, now haven't you?"
"You mean to ssssay He didn't know all about thissss little plan all along?" Crawly lifted one slim, skeptical eyebrow. It caused the angel to pause for a moment, and to think.
"Well," Aziraphale said, "he did, but he's in rather a state over everything, as you can imagine. Such a loss," he added afterwards, eyes misting over for a moment. Pursing his lips together, Crawly made a condescending hissing sound.
"I've jusssst been sssspitting out assshessss, and you're telling me you think we've won thissss one? How quaint." He ran one claw over the bark, not cutting into it really, but making his mark with a little sizzle of burning wood. "He'ssss in charge wherever we go, after all; thissss wassss petty busssinessss, when you really think about it."
"Yes, yes, I suppose, but it all seems such a waste, don't you think? After Raphael worked so hard to warn the two, after we all worked so hard on this place - I did rather like it, very much, in fact; everyone did - so I should think it is a setback, and such a disappointing one. Very daunting to the spirits."
"We've both ssssidessss lossst," Crawly said, then stiffened.
"What is it?"
"Sssssshhh," Crawly whispered. "It'ssss Ssssin and Death. They've come." Aziraphale froze.
"What do you mean, they've come?" he asked. He was an angel, of course, perhaps not the most dignified, and one prone to panic, but he carried his sudden despair at the vile taste of the air very well, Crawly thought as he abandoned his inspection of the tree, moving over to the angel's side. It was a terrible thing, to be confronted with an enemy you had only ever heard about, but had never seen.
"To the victor, go the sssspoilssss, I presssume," Crawly replied. Before them were bushes; behind them, the tree and the clearing. Crawly could feel Sin slither past them, perhaps just in front of them, with only browning nature separating themselves and Death. Aziraphale shrunk away, close to the demon's side, and Crawly snaked an arm around Aziraphale's shoulders, covering blue eyes with one chill hand. "It'ssss theirssss, now," Crawly murmured against the angelic ear by his lips, "it'ssss all of it theirssss. Sssso sssself-defeating. They will devour all of it before it givessss them pleassssure. There issss no fruit left, even upon the Tree itsssself." Gold hair brushed over Crawly's shoulder. There was the faint sound of a horse as it whinnied - Crawly knew that pale horse, knew its rider. "Inssscessstuoussss," he hissed, but it was lighter than innocence, and was lost to the sudden howl of the wind.
"I'd best be leaving, Crawly," Aziraphale said hurriedly, jerking away, and the demon dropped both his arms.
"Yessss," he agreed, "thissss issss no longer yourssss." Wrestling down the darkness that clutched at his heart, the angel stumbled backwards and, without looking back, pushed forth into the air, wings beating his retreat.
Crawly, however, stayed. He inspected the place, once Sin and Death had moved on; he felt the leaves crumble at his fingertips, the earth shake beneath his feet. It only felt half-delicious. He would have liked to eat of the now-impotent Tree, would have liked to maim the earth himself, or not at all. Sin really was best when you were doing her yourself; but after the massacres, the Deathly victories, after the doing had been done, you were left with this wasteland of filth and muck and chill, everything rotting, or rotten already. It wasn't pleasant. But here he wa,s thinking like Aziraphale and downplaying the importance of things because of just how threatening that importance was.
When he left the garden, slunk back in a Downward Direction, he left a little something, a little piece of his own, behind him. Might as well, really.
The tree, before it fell, before it returned to the dirt it once had been, swallowed up by earth and worms, bore upon it a badge of post-lapsarian pride, reading:
CRAWLY + AZIRAPHALE WERE HERE.