Fire. Fire, fire, fire, everywhere there are flames. Burn the books? Smoke in his face—how could he have missed this? He should have seen—but falling now, every shelf falling, every dogeared page crackling and crisping, never to be read again. Where, where, where, where? The idiot, idiot, idiot—stupid. Can't be, would never let—
Smoke, smoke in his face, in his hair, he's pale and covered in soot and alone. Empty and gone. All gone.
Flames lick his leg. The air is thick and hot, and Az—
Crowley woke with a start.
He glanced around, realizing he was on the couch, and stared at the ceiling. There was a crack in it. How had that gotten there? He didn't allow cracks in his ceiling. It was completely out of character for the type of human he was supposed to be to have cracks in the ceiling. Also, this crack was shaped like a rabbit. He hated rabbits, especially in stews.
He squinted at the ceiling.
Nothing happened. He had meant for something to happen, but nothing had happened.
Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit—
He sat up and realized absently that he was shaking. He stared up at the ceiling again, squinted hard—nothing.
Then he felt something moving through his (sort of) veins. It was familiar, and fuzzy, and . . . ah, yes. He blinked, and the headache he hadn't realized he'd had vanished along with the sluggish alcohol in his system.
He squinted at the ceiling again, then grinned triumphantly(13) as the crack mended itself. Nothing to worry about. Just an alcoholic demon, right? No problems there.
No reason to worry, of course. He'd said that there wouldn't be any changes made, just . . . no communication. This was naturally somewhat disconcerting, not having someone telling one what to do and so forth, but on the positive side, Crowley might now be able to get through an entire thirty-minute programme without having a voice of eldritch command break in to tell him to get off his arse and go damn some souls. He brightened up. This would be most excellent. At last he could indulge in the infamous human habit of watching a television show to the end and then relating it in incoherent fragments to a friend, finishing by looking at them as if they're totally mad for not comprehending the hilarity of it all. He'd refrained from tormenting Aziraphale with this up until now, but given their situation and the fact that Aziraphale was in essence the only entity he actually knew and did not hate, he might as well—
Aziraphale. Where was Aziraphale?
Panic flooded through him again(14). All right, all right, he'd—he'd found the angel Below, he'd nearly got him out . . . yes, and then there was Adam. But then what? He'd obviously consumed vast quantities of alcohol, but had Aziraphale as well? Was he in Soho, or here, or on the bottom of a river somewhere, or—
The sensible bit of Crowley's brain told him that Aziraphale could take care of himself. He told it to shut up, and then stood up and began to run from one end of the flat to the other, checking behind lamps, in dressers, under cushions, and in the toilet, on the basis that he might as well be thorough. Shockingly, the angel was not to be found in any of those places.
Crowley squinted fretfully into the television's VCR slot, then withdrew, in the process managing to simultaneously get his finger stuck in the little door and bang his head on the roof of the cabinet in which it was housed. He swore and kicked it. It didn't improve the situation much, and now his foot hurt.
He sat down on the couch again. "Okay, Crowley, okay," he said aloud, pulling at his lower lip nervously. "If you were a bloody dense Principality with a book fetish who'd just been sort of fired but not really, exactly, strictly speaking, where would you go? Um."
He shook his head. No. That would definitely not work. His imagination could only stretch so far.
He could always just check the regular places. The bookshop, St. James, the Ritz. . . . But really, did Aziraphale ever go out except with him? The angel out on the town? It was difficult to imagine, not to mention potentially embarrassing. Still, he hadn't any better ideas.
Crowley stood up and had already snapped a pair of sunglasses into existence, prepared to slink out the door, when he noticed something out of place. The door to his bedroom was ajar. He always kept it closed; it seemed almost like a private space, considering that it was the only place in the apartment that he ever actually used. He walked over to it suspiciously and pushed it all the way open.
Ah. He sagged with something like relief. One mystery solved.
There, on the opulent, rich burgundy sheets that Crowley occasionally felt nearly self-conscious about, lay Aziraphale: legs splayed wide, hands tucked under his cheek, golden hair sticking up and flattened down in places in a less than angelic way. He was still fully clothed, except for his tie, which he had probably decided might choke him in his sleep and was hanging half-on, half-off the bed. There was an empty wine bottle standing on the floor next to the bed, and another one that had fallen over. Crowley bent over to look at the labels; to his not-very-great surprise, they were excellent vintages and slightly dusty in a pleasant way.
He sat down on the floor, leaning against the wall, as there was no furniture in the room other than the bed and a lamp. So they'd come back from . . . well, just about everywhere imaginable, actually . . . and gotten completely blitzed. That was becoming a habit. It was a good thing neither of them used their livers. And then he'd, what, told Aziraphale to stay? Apparently. He couldn't imagine why, but that's how it seemed.
Oh, honestly. Yes, he very well could imagine why, actually. That was bloody terrifying. How many times in a month did the stupid angel have to go and get himself discorporated or etherealised or trapped in Hell or what have you? He'd really thought Aziraphale was going to get himself permanently taken out of commission Downstairs. It would have been horribly selfish of him. What could Crowley possibly do without someone to reprimand him all the time? It had an odd attraction, once he'd gotten used to it. And, yes, the angel was pretty good company, if a bit—all right, extremely—stuffy. Existence would be quite boring without him. Plus he'd have to get drunk alone, which is infinitely less entertaining.
So he'd thought Aziraphale would be, for want of a better word, killed, and—he realized now with a wince—he'd gone back Down There in a horrifically chivalrous fashion and nearly saved his semi-divine arse. He'd failed in the end, of course, but it was the effort that counted, as Aziraphale said far too often. Oh, he would never live this down. That thrice-blessed spark of goodness! It completely ruined his infernal cred.
. . . Although technically he didn't have one now, except with Aziraphale, who would of course smile at him in an irritatingly benevolent fashion for a good long while as a result of yesterday's exploits. But really, what was he supposed to do? It wasn't the angel's fault he'd fallen in; they'd put the portals too close together. And there was no way that Crowley . . .
. . . would lose him again.
Oh, fuck. The bookshop on fire . . . on fire! How could he possibly be afraid of fire? But he had been. He'd been through the actual gates of actual Hell, but the burning, crumbling doorway of the bookshop had been far more terrifying to pass through. He'd nearly lost it right there, which didn't make much sense, considering how he acted later on—still mostly calm, mostly in control, driving in a damn flaming car through the English countryside, nearly facing down Himself . . . but in the bookshop, with stupid firemen running about even though it was obviously useless, and no sign of the angel anywhere, and clouds and clouds of black smoke, he'd nearly gone mad with fear. Things were just easier and better when Aziraphale was behind the counter, or drinking hot cocoa, or burying his nose in some ancient tome and waving Crowley away frustratedly. Even when doing something impossibly dangerous, he felt more comfortable in Aziraphale's presence.
Crowley looked at the angel on his bed for a moment. It was very odd to see someone else in his bed, particularly Aziraphale, who, he noticed, clashed horribly with the sheets. Aziraphale was not meant for burgundy. Perhaps a soft blue would work better.
Crowley blinked, and it was so. Aziraphale was tucked under an extremely fluffy down comforter in an ocean blue. Crowley glared at the visible corner of the angel's sleeve, which had become, oh no, a tartan nightshirt. He shook his head. Absolutely incorrigible. Even in his sleep, Aziraphale offended his sensibilities. He deserved to be subjected to terrible hellish unpleasantness.
Crowley hit him with a pillow. That would have to do for the moment.
"Wsfgl?" said Aziraphale from underneath the pillow.
Crowley lifted it up. "Morning, sunshine," he said cheerfully. "You're in my bed. And we aren't dead! Isn't that lovely? Shall I make some tea?"
"I repeat: wsfgl?" moaned Aziraphale, hiding under the blankets. "Oh, my head . . . "
"Alcohol. Sober up. Do you want that tea or not?"
"What is it about 'wsfgl' that you do not understand, demon?"
Crowley grinned and poked at the angel. "Hot chocolate, then?"
Aziraphale glared balefully out at him from inside his cocoon of blankets. "You are not nice," he proclaimed. "Are you always this cheerful in the morning? I shall never sleep again. Waking up is horrible."
"Not if you're sober." Crowley yanked the covers off, eliciting a shriek from the angel, who tried to curl up into a ball and disappear. "This is embarrassing, Aziraphale. Get up or I'll . . . I'll sing a song."
"Just . . . just get up, all right?"
"I hate you." Aziraphale stood up. He noticed the nightshirt and glared again. "Oh, ha ha, Crowley. Mocking my fashion sense while I'm asleep, very mature."
"I didn't mean to, believe me. It's something to do with your aura. You exude tartan rays like a snail exudes slime. Or something like that. Hup hup, get out of here, you're infecting my room with goodness." Crowley prodded Aziraphale in the small of the back. "March!"
Aziraphale grumbled his way into the stark and stylish kitchen. The cabinets and appliances were built into the wall, so that instead of having shelves and things sticking out this way and that, there was a flat wall with handles in it. It was something like being in a spaceship, or so it was assumed.
"Where's my bloody cocoa?" said Aziraphale.
"You are not a morning person, are you?" said Crowley, turning around to set some water up to boil in his stark and stylish countertop kettle.
"Thank you so much for that dose of refreshing insight, Mister Obviousman." There was a thunk from behind Crowley as Aziraphale flopped his head onto the table. "Ow."
"Watch it, you'll dent my furniture," the demon drawled, stirring a proportionally enormous amount of chocolate powder (which had not been in his cabinets yesterday and would not be there tomorrow) into the water.
"Don't make me hurt you," said Aziraphale, looking up. "It would not look good on your recor—um." His eyes glazed over. "Um," he said again. "Uhh. . . . "
"Yes, yes, and yes," said Crowley pleasantly. "Both of us said some rather rude things to our supervisors, and to the other's supervisors, and then it all went to Hell, and we had to be rescued by the boy—again—and he wasn't awfully pleased about it, and basically we're on our own. And that was yesterday. Have some cocoa." He sat down and plunked the cup in front of Aziraphale, purposefully splashing a bit onto his hand.
"Ow." Aziraphale wiped the chocolate off his hand. He took a small sip. Then he blinked. "That was a truly horrific pun, Crowley."
"What?" Crowley stared at him.
"You know. 'It all went to Hell'? When in fact we did go to Hell? I know that you have to do these things to keep up appearances, but please, next time, spare me."
Crowley gave him a long, hard look. He wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. After a moment he said, "Aziraphale, I would really, really appreciate it if you would shut up and drink your fucking hot chocolate before I go stark raving mad all over my expensive appliances."
The angel glowered at him and took a larger sip, then another. His face loosened up a bit, Crowley saw with no little relief.
Gazing around, Crowley suddenly noticed which cup he'd given Aziraphale. He'd gotten it with a commendation he'd received in the early nineteen-eighties and had hated it on sight. It was cheerfully festooned with depictions of shredded organs and unidentifiable bodily fluids, and it read, in large, blocky black letters:
YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE AN EVIL BASTARD TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS AND IF YOU'RE NOT WE MAKE YOU INTO HIDEOUS CHIPPED CERAMICS
Crowley stared at it. Then he smoothly switched it to a pleasant if nauseating teddy bear motif.
He didn't see the corners of the angel's mouth twitch.
A thick silence grew out of the table between them. It seemed to sprout from the steam of Aziraphale's cocoa, spreading thinner and wider, but no less potent. It was choking.
Aziraphale clutched his hands around his cup. "I am finding it rather difficult to believe," he said, "that we did what I remember us doing. And that we got out of it relatively unscathed. And that it was my idea."
Crowley shrugged. "We didn't really do anything," he said blandly.
The angel regarded him solemnly for a moment. "Perhaps not," he murmured. "But how many angels have been to Hell and come back?"
"You didn't come back to Heaven, though. Anyway, what difference does it make?"
Aziraphale hesitated, looking at the tabletop. "I think I might . . . understand it better now," he said.
"How you think. What you feel." He put a hand on Crowley's and patted it lightly.
Crowley pulled his hand away. "No." He crossed his arms. "No, you don't."
Running his fingers over the handle, Aziraphale gazed at him, a slight crease between his brows. It was an odd look to be subjected to; it made Crowley feel a bit like a defective mechanism and a bit like a goldfish.
"What did you see Up There, Crowley?" Aziraphale asked.
"It was . . . cold," Crowley said.
Aziraphale closed his eyes. A flicker of pain passed over his face.
"What happened to them, Aziraphale?"
"Well." Aziraphale smiled weakly. "They forgot, my dear."
The angel sighed. "A few have faint memories, perhaps. Misplaced, though. Confused."
"But He remembers," Crowley said. Bits of yesterday were still sneaking into his mind, giving him sheepish looks, and that particular memory was jumping up and down and waving at him.
Aziraphale pursed his lips. "Perhaps He does," he said, the corners of his mouth twitching.
"Don't say the word," Crowley warned.
"You were going to. I can tell, you know."
"What do you think about death, Crowley?"
"You—what?" Crowley stared at him. "That's something of a non sequitor, isn't it? Are you serious?"
"Yes. I usually am."
"Well, I don't. We don't die."
"We can," Aziraphale said. "I thought I was going to."
Crowley laughed uneasily. "I can't imagine you'd stand for being dead. You don't usually put up with that sort of thing." He stood up. "More cocoa?"
"No, thank you. Crowley—"
"Tea? Coffee? Water?" He started flinging through the cabinets in search of the coffee pot.
"Hastur wanted to kill me, Crowley—"
"I know that, I was there," Crowley snapped. A Rubbermaid container that he certainly did not own bounced off his head and clattered onto the floor.
"—because he'd missed you when you came," Aziraphale finished calmly over the rattling.
Crowley, currently leaning over to retrieve the container from the spotless floor, wobbled a bit on his feet. "Um," he said.
"He didn't think you'd come back for me," Aziraphale continued, watching him closely.
"Er. . . ."
"Crowley, why did you come back for me?"
Crowley rolled his eyes. "Didn't really have a choice, did I? The doors and all."
"Why did you hit Hastur?"
"Bodily instinct, I suppose." Crowley shrugged.
"You were very matter-of-fact about the whole thing."
"I was terrified," Crowley heard himself say.
"Oh?" The angel was regarding him sceptically.
"I was!" Crowley said, and wondered why he was emphasizing something he hadn't meant to say in the first place.
Aziraphale stood and stretched luxuriously. "If you say so, my dear." He took his cup over to the painfully clean sink and rinsed it out.
"Why is it so difficult for you to comprehend the possibility that I might experience fear on occasion?" Crowley said, beginning to get annoyed.
"I never said it was impossible, Crowley," Aziraphale replied, peering into the mug. "I don't often experience fear, so perhaps I don't recognise the signs, but I've never seen you act particularly afraid of anything."
"You must be blind, then."
"Oh, you can be quite the coward. But cowardice and fear are two very different things."
Crowley screwed up his face. "No-o," he said after a moment. "No, they really aren't."
"Regardless." Aziraphale frowned and miracled up a bottle of soap and a sponge.
Nothing else seemed to be forthcoming, so Crowley said, "I suppose you don't see most of the things that frighten me."
"Of course. In any case, you would pretend it didn't bother you if you thought I knew."
Crowley smirked. "Naturally. I—" He started, staring at the opposite wall with a glazed look on his face.
"Are you quite all right, dear boy?" Aziraphale inquired, scrubbing away resolutely.
"Hmm?" Crowley blinked. "What? Oh. Yes. I'm all right. I was just remembering when the shop burned down. I think I—"
"My shop? You were there when it happened?" Aziraphale looked up, surprised.
"Looking for you, yeah. Quite honestly, angel, I wasn't expecting the inferno."
Aziraphale sighed. "It must have been terrible. All those books. . . ."
"You. . . ." He was unbelievable. He was completely unbelievable. "That wasn't my biggest concern at the time, Aziraphale," Crowley managed.
"Well, naturally not," said the angel, rinsing the mug again and breathing it dry. "We were all rather tense, what with the End Times and so forth." He handed it to Crowley with a gentle smile. "There you are, my dear."
"Why didn't you just wish the stupid thing clean?" Crowley said, taking it carelessly by the handle. "It's far easier. You probably kill more germs that way, too."
Aziraphale waved an arm vaguely. "Sensory experiences," he said. "I find them to be quite enjoyable."
Since he couldn't think of a proper answer to that statement, Crowley put the cup away. As he shut the cabinet door with a snap, relaxing the kitchen back into its perfect lines, he caught a glimpse of red and black.
"Is that what you meant by fear, Crowley?" Aziraphale asked, leaning back against the counter slightly. "Being afraid for the world? That seems more like common sense than pain, particularly in the situation in question."
Crowley shook his head. "That isn't it," he said. "Not really. Of course I was afraid for the world, it was about to bloody end. But just then it was more than that, it was the fire and the shop gone and—"
"You feared for your own safety?" Aziraphale frowned. "You didn't go in, did you?"
"You weren't outside, and the shop was on fire," Crowley snapped. "What choice did I have, exactly?"
Aziraphale opened and shut his mouth a few times. He looked like a fish, but it was Crowley who felt like he was under glass. Or perhaps—perhaps walking on glass. Thin glass. Over a canyon with spikes at the bottom. Poisoned spikes with horrible little microbes on the ends. And any second now, something would snap.
"You didn't need to have gone inside, Crowley," Aziraphale protested weakly. "You couldn't have helped me—"
"How was I supposed to know—?" He bit his tongue.
"I understand your fears, and I am very sorry I was not able to help you dispose of Hastur, but—"
"Bless it, Aziraphale!" Crowley shouted. "Don't you get it yet? I was scared for you! Not for me! And not because I know you! Because I—"
He stopped, teeth clenched, eyes hidden. Then he extended a fist, turned around, and punched the wall. Bits of plaster fell from the hole he made there. Half a cockroach gave him a surprised look.
"Go home, Aziraphale," Crowley said, not looking at the angel. "Go home." He turned around slowly and went into the living room. Aziraphale heard the television switch on.
The angel cocked his head for a moment. Then he gave a tiny, nervous smile. He got up and went into the entrance hall of the flat, which was unseasonably chilly. There were potted plants here and there. Aziraphale felt as if they were scrutinizing him. He reached for his coat, searched in a pocket—and—yes, it was still there—extracted a small volume from inside. Then he padded into the living room.
He sat down next to Crowley, close but not touching.
"I thought I told you to go home," Crowley said dully, staring through the television. Aziraphale glanced at it. Apparently someone was having troubles in love, but in a humorous way, at least in the opinion of whoever controlled the laugh track. He would never understand television.
Aziraphale opened the book and passed it wordlessly to Crowley, who looked at him incredulously.
"Really?" he said.
Aziraphale nodded. Crowley shrugged and turned his eyes back to the page.
"Great are the myths . . . . I too delight in them,
Great are Adam and Eve"—Crowley flinched here—". . . . I too look back and accept them;
Great the risen and fallen nations, and their poets, women, sages,
inventors, rulers, warriors, and priests. . . .
"Great is today, and beautiful,
It is good to live in this age . . . . there never was any better. . . .
"Great are yourself and myself,
We are just as good and bad as the oldest and youngest
What the best and worst did we could do,
What they felt . . do not we feel it in ourselves?
What they wished . . do we not wish the same? . . .
"Great is the earth, and the way it became what it is,
Do you imagine it is stopped at this? . . . . and the increase abandoned? . . .
"Great is goodness;
I do not know what it is any more than I know what health is . . . .
but I know it is great.
"Great is wickedness . . . . I find I often admire it just as much as I
Do you call that a paradox? It certainly is a paradox.
"The eternal equilibrium of things is great, and the eternal
overthrow of things is great,
And there is another paradox."(15)
Aziraphale retrieved the book, stuck his thumb in it to mark the place, and looked at Crowley expectantly.
The demon was staring at him with a mix of horror and amusement. "Er. Having another Whitman month, I take it?" he said, at a loss.
"Indeed. What did you think?"
"What do I—what? What is my response supposed to be?" Crowley asked. "'Oh my paws and whiskers, I never thought of it that way, let's skip with glee through the fields of marigolds?'"
"No. You're just supposed to think about it."
"Fine. Can I think about it while watching television?"
"If you like," said Aziraphale, slightly miffed.
They watched the show. After a while, Aziraphale said, "So, let me see if I've got this . . . his wife is homosexual—but he isn't—and he's been cheating on her with this woman, and she's been cheating on him with the same woman, who doesn't know they're married and who owns a cat who constantly wants to be fed during key moments of intercourse. Have I got that right?"
"Yup," said Crowley, entranced.
"I honestly do not know what to make of that, my dear," said Aziraphale weakly.
"That's part of the point."
"What's the other part?"
"Oh, to reduce people to drooling automatons incapable of doing anything but sitting in front of the television all day, of course," said Crowley airily.
"Right." Aziraphale looked at Crowley, who looked at a woman on-screen (she may have been the lesbian wife, but Aziraphale was unsure). He sighed. "Crowley?"
"Did you hear any of what I just said?"
"Did you think about it?"
"I am not a schoolmarm, Crowley, and you know I hate it when you act like I am."
"Dun' hit me with the yardstick, Aziraphale, please, miss."
Aziraphale slapped him on the back of the head. "I mean it."
"Aziraphale," said Crowley in a strained voice, "I hate it when you literate at me. You read something to me and expect me to understand what you're trying to say. I don't. I'm not you. Give me a clue, would you?"
The angel shook his head and smiled. "I think you underestimate yourself, Crowley," he said. "But I can spell it out for you. I just find Whitman to be significantly more elegant in expression than I am, even on my best day."
"Plus, by quoting you avoid having to actually say it yourself," Crowley pointed out.
"There is that," Aziraphale agreed.
"Not sure I like that idea."
"Neither am I. Now turn off that eternally damned device and pay attention."
Crowley retrieved the remote from its hideout amongst the cushions and switched off the television. There was a snap of static as the screen went black. He looked at Aziraphale expectantly.
"Er." Aziraphale fidgeted with his fingers. "My dear . . . we have been on this earth for longer than any other beings, haven't we? We've 'gone native', as they say." (Crowley could hear the quotation marks slot into place.) "And we can't go back Up or Down at this point, not after yesterday. So we are essentially human, just . . . indefinitely so. I haven't Fallen, and you haven't un-Fallen; we've more accurately . . . " He snapped his fingers(16), searching for the words.
"Acclimatized?" suggested Crowley.
"I suppose, yes," said Aziraphale. "But it has seemed to me for many years that we are less like either side than we are like the middle."
"Humans, I meant."
"But humans aren't the middle," Crowley argued. "They're . . . they're . . . " He waved a hand forcefully, nearly concussing the angel. "The rest of it. The people with sense. Except when they misplace it, of course. It needs a beeper."
Crowley sighed. "Never mind. My point is, you really can't compare humans with Hastur, Aziraphale. Or Gabriel or Michael or whoever. They're on completely different planes of existence."
"True. But my point still stands. We've changed a lot since the Garden."
"So has everything," Crowley pointed out.
"We've changed with it, though," said Aziraphale. "I don't think that was the original intention."
"But it was worth it," said Crowley. "Don't you think?"
"Actually, I do," said the angel. "It doesn't really matter if I say it now, so yes, I do. Heaven is nothing compared to Earth. It isn't just that, though. I think . . . we're not affiliated anymore, are we?"
"I think I can declare the answer to that question an emphatic 'no'."
"I feel that it's time we started living, for lack of a better word, for ourselves." Aziraphale covered Crowley's mouth with one hand with a speed that could only be described as superhuman. "No, don't say anything. Listen. Can you honestly say that you've done more than the occasional experiment into humanity?" He removed his hand.
"Of course I ha—" Crowley snapped, and then stopped and actually thought about the question. "No," he said slowly. "No, I don't think I have. It's mostly been blending-in things. Togas, doublets, cravats, and suits, but nothing particularly interesting, excepting the Bentley." He grimaced. "After all, demons don't have free will."
Aziraphale snorted. "Naturally not."
"Bloody hell," breathed Crowley. "Bloody hell. Here I thought I was an expert on humanity. I don't know a damn thing."
"You know more than I do."
"That really isn't saying much, angel."
"Do you want to learn?"
Crowley rubbed his forehead. "Learn in general, or learn something specific?" he said. "I'm not terribly interested in poetry and whatnot."
"In general," said Aziraphale. "We have eternity, after all."
"Well, yes. I do. But we haven't any free will. Just because we've been relieved of our duties—"
"Well, we can damn well create some free will!" Aziraphale exploded. "It's been six thousand years, Crowley, and we've spent the whole time just . . . just messin' about! It's a waste! There is no time but the present!"
Crowley blinked. "Isn't that some Zen thing?" he managed.
Aziraphale growled and buried his hands in his hair. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know. We deserve to know. People like Gabriel, like the Metatron, they can't imagine what it's like—there's nothing to know in Heaven. It all just . . . just is. But down here you never stop learning. And we haven't even started." He exhaled slowly. "Six. Thousand. Years. Oh . . . sugar."
Crowley scuffed his feet on the carpet. "It is pretty frustrating, now you mention it," he said. "I mean . . . everything there is, we've been part of it, right from the Start. I was the Serpent, and you gave her your sword, and they probably wouldn't have lasted a week without it. If it's all ineffable, then we did a bloody good job."
"Yes," said Aziraphale. He sounded tired. "That's exactly it."
There was silence for a few moments, comfortable, contemplative silence. They were sitting just close enough together that the edges of their auras intermingled. It was like the very beginnings of a sneeze: an itch at the back of the nose of the soul.
Outside there was a screech. Some car doors slammed, and lo, there was shouting.
The itch got itchier.
"You know," said Aziraphale after a while, "being down here all this time, I think, has made me appreciate the little things more(17)."
"Like a good book?"
"Very funny. No, I mean . . . sitting next to someone. Body warmth. It's a very human comfort." Aziraphale frowned, half-raising one hand from the arm of the couch. "You should know. . . ." He looked right at Crowley, in the same way he had yesterday afternoon in St. James', his gaze gentle but unwavering and peering directly into the demon's soul, and he gave the world's most genuine smile.
And Crowley got it.
To his great annoyance, he found himself flushing. "Should have left you down there," he muttered. He didn't look away.
Aziraphale laughed, once, gently, and didn't say anything.
Crowley sighed and looked at his hands. They were long and tapered, part of the graceful, romantic unreality that a part of everyone secretly wishes they were. There was a gash on the palm of his left hand from where he'd hit Hastur. It was clean: he must have still had the self-possession after getting back to curse the germs away, or use hydrogen peroxide, or something.
A pale hand rested itself on his open palm. Crowley watched as the perfectly manicured fingers fretted their way up and down the tiny wound, searching for any vestiges of contamination and pain and miracling them away in half a heartbeat. At last they ceased this activity and came to rest at the very centre of his palm, touching lightly.
Feeling quite drunk for the nth time in the last twenty-four hours, Crowley looked up from the slightly pudgy fingers to the slightly pudgy face, and wondered distantly what the Hell was going on.
"It doesn't matter," he heard himself say aloud.
Aziraphale looked puzzled. "What doesn't?" he said.
"Oh . . . nothing," said Crowley, with feeling.
"Do you mean," Aziraphale began, "that nothing matters, or that nothing doesn't matter?"
Crowley grinned and shook his head. "Yes."
Aziraphale gave him a Look. "That statement was either very wise," he said, "or insultingly flippant. How should I interpret it?"
"Oh, as wise, of course," Crowley said airily.
There was an air of sniggeritude in the air. Crowley scowled at the crown of thorns, which had the decency to look mildly abashed.
"I'm going to have to shred these plants, you know," he said to Aziraphale.
The angel looked shocked. "Whatever for?"
"Think about it. You've been here for hours and I haven't threatened you with leafy death yet. They'll go soft." Crowley stood up. "Unless, of course, you want to go somewhere else," he said casually.
Aziraphale shook his head. "My dear," he said solemnly, standing up as well and putting a hand on Crowley's shoulder, "you are about as opaque as glass. Get your coat."
They ended up at St. James's. It had rained overnight, and there was a sense of dew in the air, although it was past noon and quite dry.
Crowley and Aziraphale walked, not quite touching, meandering down a familiar path. Neither of them said anything; they didn't need to.
Eventually, Crowley stopped and glanced at Aziraphale, who nodded and began to poke through the bushes. Crowley stood just behind him, scanning the trees over his shoulder.
"There." They said it at the same time.
It looked about the same—lusher, perhaps; more verdant. Scufflings in the bushes indicated a thriving rodent community. One of them stepped on an anthill. There was the occasional unromantic plop of birdshit on leaves.
And there was a long scorch mark in the grass.
Crowley inspected it for a moment. "Huh," was all he said.
He looked up at Aziraphale, waiting for a reaction, but the angel was—was smelling. He was sniffing the air, a faint frown creasing his forehead.
"Aziraphale?" Crowley waved a hand in his face. "Did I slip something in that cocoa by accident?"
"Can't you smell it?" Aziraphale's voice was far off.
"Smell what?" Crowley glared at the angel suspiciously, but sniffed a few times anyway, quickly.
"It smells like. . . ."
"Eden," Crowley said wonderingly. He closed his eyes and nearly choked on the animal musk and the memories. Without meaning to, he flicked his tongue rapidly, tasting the air.
"Do you ever miss it?"
Crowley opened his eyes. Aziraphale was looking right at him, his gaze direct and open. Crowley thought a moment before answering, but what he said was, "No."
They regarded each other across the stillness for a long moment, until Crowley grinned and Aziraphale ducked his head, and they walked out without a backwards glance.
After a moment, Crowley grabbed the angel by the shoulder. When Aziraphale looked back, surprised, Crowley enfolded him in an awkward, one-armed hug, tighter than he meant.
Aziraphale gave him a smile, although it was slightly pained because his ribs were being compressed, and leaned his head in close.
They mingled, the air between them purple and full of promise.
This was the first day of the rest of their lives.
13. If you've never seen someone squint and grin triumphantly at the same time, you have so far in your life been deprived of a fantastically hilarious experience. Pay someone to do it in front of you. It's worth it.
14. It was very fortunate for Crowley that the adrenal glands do not burst from overexcitement.
15. "Great Are the Myths," Whitman, Leaves of Grass, first edition.
16. But not very well.
17. Not that there really are any little things in Heaven.