Aziraphale stared at the paper in his hand, which shook slightly. He gulped down the last of his drink and set the glass on the table. It promptly refilled itself to the brim.
A knock came at the door, causing the angel to start. "Er, yes? Who is it?" he called out, just distracted enough not to know. His eyes were dragged back to the paper even as the door opened.
"What do you mean, 'who is it?'" Crowley said as he entered, looking peeved. "You were supposed to meet me for Indian."
"Yes. You're late."
"By six hours and…" the demon glanced at his watch, ignoring the too late bit, apt as it was, since most restaurants were closing by now. "Fifteen minutes. Bit of a record for you, isn't it? I could have got up to all kinds of trouble without you there to thwart. It's not like you to stand a chap up. Rude," he added meaningfully.
"Oh. Gosh, I'm ever so sorry, dear boy, but I'm afraid I've received some rather…um… disquieting news, and I got a bit distracted."
"Really?" Crowley perked up a bit. Disquieting news was his forte. He wondered if it had to do with the new roaming charges he'd instigated in the mobile phone companies, or the ridiculously time-consuming legislation he'd galvanized opposing them. It was one of his better wheezes.
"Yes," Aziraphale said. He looked worried. "I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid I can't do dinner tonight. I have to…er, pop up and speak to a few people."
Crowley raised his eyebrows. "All right then. Maybe next week? Lunch at the Ritz?"
"Yes…maybe," the angel said lamely, still looking distracted. "It is getting late, isn't it? I've a lot to do…"
Crowley took the hint, but even as he climbed into the Bentley, he realized he was just a bit worried himself. Aziraphale had missed their dinner, which was a first since the start of The Arrangement, and Crowley didn't think it had anything to do with mobile phone companies or bad legislation. It seemed, from the context, to suggest something was going on up there, which was rather vexing. Aziraphale hadn't even risen to his taunts about not doing his job.
In other words, the angel was in trouble, and it was personal.
As Crowley drove slowly away, he couldn't get rid of an uncomfortable feeling that something was about to happen. Historically, Aziraphale was just as likely to pop in for an unplanned meeting with his superiors as Crowley was—which was to say, never.
Crowley wished he could be a fly on the wall—er, cloud—for that meeting.
Crowley watched the minute hand creep around the clock. Ordinarily, as a demon he found that time moved fairly quickly, except during congressional hearings and most of the fourteenth century, but tonight it was crawling by.
The angel was late again. Only by three hours so far, but still, for Aziraphale—punctual, prim, and pious—it was completely out of character.
Crowley was trying very hard not to admit he was worried.
The man at the next table discovered that the crunchy bits in his Niçoise Salad were cockroaches. The waitress dumped Ceylon Orange Pekoe all over the Duchess of Hampshire, got shouted at, and left in tears. Crowley watched as a waiter brought an en flambé dish to a happy couple, and it somehow caught the curtains, taking several minutes before the wait staff could get it under control.
It was terribly unrewarding, and Crowley had to give up and leave. Evil wasn't cheering him up—not that it generally did, but at least it sort of spread things around—and there was nothing for it but to go and see what was wrong with that deuced angel.
And after all, it couldn't be too bad, could it? Heaven was filled with messages of peace and goodwill and mercy and whatnot, even if most of it was unsubstantiated propaganda from a bunch of spiteful buggers who would smite you as soon as look at you.
Aziraphale's eyes were red, and his nose was running. This alone was enough to trouble Crowley who, despite the numerous bodies he'd seen the angel in over the millennia, had never seen him using his tear ducts, for a start. Crowley hadn't even been aware angels had tear ducts. He was pretty sure demons didn't. It'd be like giving a fish a bicycle, for one thing.
"What happened?" he croaked. He'd found the angel at the table in the back room of his shop, clutching a piece of paper and a large bottle of gin. He suspected that Aziraphale had been through multiple bottles, but since it just refilled itself and didn't get tossed aside, it was difficult to tell.
"Oh, Crowley," the angel said, grabbing onto the demon and snuffling loudly. "I've been laid off."
The angel gave a hiccup and showed Crowley the now wrinkled and rather tear-stained bit of paper he'd been holding onto for the past several days. "They say that since Armageddon didn't go through after all, my position's become a bit surplus, since things have quieted down. And then they offered me a pension and a gold watch," he added miserably. The watch was his own damn fault, Crowley reflected. Try to think up something nice for humans to do for one another, and look where it gets you.
"But…what will happen to you? Do you have to go back?" He felt unaccountably nervous about this. After all, you sort of got used to the same face you'd been looking at more or less continuously for the past couple thousand years, and the thought of losing that was…unpleasant, in some undefineable way.
"No," the angel said. "That's the worst bit. They don't need me up there, either, and they say that I haven't acquired any useful job skills down here, so…"
"They're having me become human."
"Well, it's not worse than a fall, is it? I mean, I suppose it is, one way or another, but I don't know, I mean, you try to do good, you give someone the best years of your existence, and this is how they repay you, really, and what's the use in anything?" He took another big swig of his drink.
Crowley was stunned. "Here, pass that over; I need a good shot of something strong." Aziraphale did, and Crowley frowned. "This isn't strong. This is port, angel. What's it doing in a gin bottle?"
"But I like port," the angel replied. "And soon I won't be able to manifest any more of it."
Crowley gulped greedily at the port, surreptitiously turning it to cognac. It helped, but not by much. "How long have you got?" he asked, as though to a man condemned.
"Twenty-four hours," the angel replied sadly. "Just long enough for me to put my things in order and get ready for the change."
"Well. Shit," the demon swore, taking another drink.
"What'll you do?"
"I don't know. Sell books?" Aziraphale said hopefully.
Crowley looked doubtful. "Last week you started the Apocalypsis Revelata bleeding when some bugger tried to walk off with it. Gave the bloke quite a fright."
Aziraphale looked prim. "But I couldn't help myself. I do miracles—it's my job. Was, anyway. It was a heavenly sign, and it wasn't my fault that the gentleman fainted at the sight of a little blood."
"It was a heavenly sign saying Aziraphale doesn't let his books go without a tussle, is what it was a sign of," Crowley told him shrewdly.
"Well, what else am I good for?" the angel asked despairingly.
The two of them sank into deep thought, passing the bottle back and forth. "You could try the priesthood," the demon eventually suggested.
Aziraphale looked scandalized. "I couldn't. All that standing on ceremony? That's not for me. Besides, you've gotten to most of them."
Crowley had to admit it was true. Priests were far easier to tempt than men in less salubrious professions. Nothing bred sin like strict adherence to scripture. You couldn't avoid it, really.
But Aziraphale looked so forlorn that Crowley couldn't bring himself to agree that the angel was useless, even though he was. Really, Crowley had no idea what Aziraphale was good for, apart from feeding the ducks, helping old ladies cross the street, and looking disappointed whenever he caught Crowley doing something bad.
"Well, cheer up," was all the demon could think to say. "I'm sure we'll come up with something."
Aziraphale brightened, obviously encouraged by the pep talk. "Gosh, do you really think so?"
"Sure." The demon gave a careless shrug. "You know me—I'm full of brilliant ideas. Hey! Get off me! You'll wrinkle the suit!" He frowned, and his five thousand pound Armani uncreased itself.
"I'm sorry," the angel replied sheepishly. They'd never been in the habit of hugging. "But it's awfully nice of you to help."
"That's great; just what I need to hear," Crowley grumbled.
Aziraphale knew the moment it happened. He'd made Crowley leave, because he really did want to be alone, and he felt it was something shameful, losing his divinity, and not something he particularly wanted witnessed. The demon had left only reluctantly, and insisted that Aziraphale write down his mobile number, just in case. It was sweet of Crowley to be so concerned, and Aziraphale had to wonder why.
Was Crowley remembering his own fall?
But it wasn't a fall; it turned out to be more of a shift, really. It was as though he'd been wearing his humanity all along—and he supposed he rather had, one way or another—for all these years, and Aziraphale simply became aware of it.
A shift. A paradigm shift. A shift in perspective. A nearly continental shift, for the earthquake it caused in Aziraphale's consciousness.
He felt cold, first. He'd thought it was some great frightening thing, but then he realized he just had the thermostat turned down, and went and ratcheted it up a few degrees. He also put on a sweater. It felt warm and soft against his skin. The tag at the back rather itched, though.
That was new. Aziraphale had never felt anything particularly itchy before. Not like this. He squirmed in his seat for awhile, before giving up and getting some scissors out, snipping the offending tag off.
There. He'd encountered his first problem, and he'd solved it. This being human thing, it wasn't so bad. Why, he'd dealt with the whole thing rather well, he felt. He smiled, getting out a book and going to make himself a cup of tea.
This was independence, was it?
It wasn't half bad.
"I still say a priest or something might be best," Crowley argued. They'd met in a little coffee shop in Soho, and the demon had arrived dressed up—wasn't he? Didn't he always wear that jacket? Hadn't Aziraphale ever really noticed?—and it was doing strange things to Aziraphale's newly human body.
Aziraphale chewed a nail doubtfully, trying to pay attention to the conversation. "Do you really think so? With all those silly outfits and whatnot? I mean…have you seen their hats? And you and I both know none of that's really necessary…why can't they just go about in cardigans like sensible people?"
Crowley gave the former angel a glare. "Look, it's the best solution in a number of ways. One: the bible is the only book—outside of improbable fiction with scads of ridiculous prophecies—that you know cover to cover without having to think. If they ask you any questions, you'll already know the answers."
"This is true."
"Two: priests live more or less virtuous lives, so you won't be called to do anything too out of character. And anything they tell you to do that you don't like…well, how different would it be than working for a heaven that demands Armageddon?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way," Aziraphale admitted.
"And three: there is the…the—the sex factor. Okay?" Aziraphale watched Crowley closely. He appeared to be blushing ever so slightly, looking extremely uncomfortable.
"Priests don't have sex," Aziraphale responded, confused.
"That's the whole point."
"Oh. Oh! I see…well, you've thought this through, and no mistake. Well. Goodness." Aziraphale looked down at his pastry, flushed to the hairline. He'd actually wondered a bit about the sex thing—some small, guilty part of him had even looked forward to trying it—but of course he couldn't tell Crowley that. Imagine, an almost-angel, telling a demon he'd always wondered what the big deal was about lust.
"It'll be good for you. Get you out of the house and so on. You need to keep busy," Crowley advised.
"Rather! And…and if I see any of the other priests doing the things you read about in the tabloids, well, I can thwart them, can't I? Won't that be jolly?"
"If you like," Crowley said generously. "But remember that it's not your job, anymore. You don't owe them anything."
"No, but…I expect it's a bit of a habit, by now." His pastry was stale. The ends were hard as rock. Sighing, he picked up a knife and tried sawing at it—this wretched human body got so hungry if he didn't remember to put something in it!
"Why is that girl gazing at you like some sort of love-struck mule?" the demon suddenly growled.
Shocked, Aziraphale's hand slipped. "Ouch!" For want of something better to do with it, he put the bleeding finger in his mouth, while his other hand rooted in his lap for his napkin. "I'll just…apply pressure to it, shall I?" he asked hopelessly. He glanced over his shoulder at the girl, who did indeed look rather moony. She gave him an apologetic smile as he sucked his finger.
"Stop that," Crowley hissed. He took Aziraphale's hand, holding it tightly as he healed the cut.
Aziraphale, still looking at the girl, noted the disappointment on her face. "Um…thank you?" he said to Crowley.
The demon looked peeved. "Well, if you wanted her working her wiles on you your first day as a man, you only had to say," he said snidely. "They're worse than demons, women are. Nothing but trouble."
Aziraphale was hurt. "I did express appreciation," he pointed out.
"Yes, well, you didn't sound as though you meant it," Crowley replied huffily, but he let go of Aziraphale's hand all the same.
"It just isn't working out," Aziraphale confided glumly.
They were walking round outside St. Patrick's, since Crowley couldn't very well go in. Apart from bursting into flames and whatever other horrible afflictions suffered by any demon stupid enough to try walking on holy ground, Crowley couldn't bear the thought of what it would do to his reputation.
"I thought you liked the place," he said diffidently. "Stopped that bomb going off, back in the war," he pointed out. "And it's conveniently located."
"I do like it," Aziraphale protested. "It's just…there's a lot of resentment, since I shot up the ladder so quickly. I feel like a lot of people are upset that they've been passed over."
Crowley shrugged. "Tell them to stuff it. You got there on your own merits. If they can't stand the heat, they ought to stay out of the…parish," he finished lamely.
"And I did get here on my own merits," Aziraphale said, just the hint of question in his voice.
"Of course you bloody well did! I can't go corrupting there."
"It's just… I feel out of place. It's strange, but it feels like it did…up there. It's a bureaucracy, for starters. I always did better out on my own. Maybe I should look into being a missionary?" he said hopefully. "It sounds like the sort of thing that would suit me."
Crowley flashed onto jungles and militias and diseases that spread rampantly throughout villages and of Aziraphale's vulnerable new body and he swallowed. "No. No, that's a lousy idea, trust me."
"Do you really think so?"
"Oh, yes. There are scads of bugs and whatnot, when you're doing missionary work. Remember how you hate bugs."
"Oh…that's true enough," Aziraphale admitted. "Well, do you have any better suggestions?"
"Maybe you just need a hobby. You know, volunteering, style of thing?"
"But how would I live? I need money for food and rent. At least here, if I do become completely accepted, I wouldn't have to worry about such things, and could sell the bookstore," he said with a certain lack of enthusiasm.
Crowley waved a hand dismissively. "You don't need any of that. What's the point of having a demon for a friend, then? I can stock up your refrigerator as much as you like, and your landlord won't ever remember to collect the rent."
Aziraphale gave him a reproachful glance. "He has to make a living too, you know."
"Oh, fine. So he'll miraculously get a lot of money elsewhere. He won't need any from you. And it's not as though your toilet will ever leak or anything." He didn't mention that the landlord already made a perfectly good living by selling illicit pharmaceuticals from the boot of his car on weekends.
"I…I…Crowley, that's such a very nice offer, but I really want to be able to take care of myself. This is the first time I've ever had any freedom, you know. I don't want to come to depend on you."
The demon shrugged. "Suit yourself, but mind that every time I pop in I'm going to check your icebox and make sure your water heater is working, so I don't know what difference it makes."
Aziraphale beamed at him, that same glorious smile that Crowley had once thought the result of divine grace. Apparently, it wasn't—his teeth were just made that way. "Thank you, dear boy," he said earnestly.
Crowley turned away to hide the heat creeping up his face. Really, if this kept up, he was going lose his pitchfork, so to speak. "Don't mention it," he said quite sincerely.
He proceeded to tempt Aziraphale to an inordinately expensive cup of coffee, started a minor argument between two choirboys that would burgeon to drive their parents mad later, and, on his way home, gave a double-decker a flat tyre.
All in all, he hoped he'd balanced it all out.
"A pet store?"
"I thought I'd find my own niche."
"Well, yes, but…a pet store?"
"I like animals. There are a lot of cuddly sorts of kittens and things. Very therapeutic, for one who's just been sacked from Heaven."
"Well, yes, I can see that," Crowley said. "But don't they sell more exotic things, too? Scorpions and lizards and such?"
Aziraphale made a face. "There are drawbacks to all jobs, you know."
"Tell me about it."
"You're welcome to drop in and see me there. Anytime. You could get yourself a dog. Wouldn't that be nice?"
"I'm not really a 'dog person,'" Crowley said in a bemused voice. "Nor a cat person, either, really." Animals, as a rule, weren't terribly fond of him. He was good with plants, but only because plants responded so well to terrorism. Try telling a kitten to be cuter or you'll do something dreadful to it. Crowley had found that the incipient guilt was not to be borne.
"A goldfish, perhaps?" the angel—former angel—suggested with a hint of desperation. Crowley wondered if they needed sales.
He shrugged. "Perhaps," he replied noncommittally.
"I quite like it there. There are a lot of nice people."
"Hmm," responded Crowley. He wasn't keen on nice people. Sinners, he'd found, were much more fun. All he needed was to be seen hanging about with a bunch of vegans, discussing free-range chickens or something. Still, there was always a chance at steering the conversation round to a bit of eco-terrorism. He brightened. "All right."
The pet shop was rather large and, to Crowley, dreadfully dull, although passing by a woman with a schnauzer and a man with a bull terrier provided a couple of moments of amusement, as well as growls and shouts and an escalated argument between the owners.
"Really, my dear," Aziraphale said, sounding torn between amusement and worry. "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't. I can't thwart, you know."
"Why should you want to?" Crowley replied.
"Hey, Az," a young man said, smiling and waving them over.
"Oh, hello," Aziraphale responded, somewhat more enthusiastically than Crowley would have liked. "This is my co-worker, Ridge. Ridge, this is a friend of mine. He's thinking of buying a fish."
"That's great," the man responded with a movie-star smile. He lifted a bag of dog food and hoisted it over his shoulder casually, muscles rippling on top of muscles. "You're that friend Az mentioned, aren't you—Wrigley or something?"
It was instant hatred. "Crowley," the demon managed through gritted teeth. "Ssso nice to meet you."
"Uh-huh. Nice glasses. Very eighties," Ridge told him. "So, Az, I have to clean out the parrot cages, but I was thinking maybe we could get together after that. Have a couple of drinks, perhaps?"
Nearby, a pitbull got loose and mauled a perfect stranger's leg. The shrieks of pain completely distracted from the conversation, although it did earn Crowley a nasty look. "It didn't even break skin," he protested in an undertone.
Aziraphale shook his head. "It was good to chat with you, but Crowley and I ought to be going. Some other time?"
On the way out, Crowley made sure to pass by the parrots. Ridge was certainly going to be surprised with their new vocabulary. He was going to be especially upset about the phrase concerning his grandmother—he'd been sure no one would ever find out about that.
"That wasn't very nice," Aziraphale complained as they walked away. "Imagine if some poor old dear were to buy one that now sounds like a sailor fresh into port."
"Expand her vocabulary," Crowley said breezily. He felt much better.
"Or she could end up having a heart attack, or giving the bird back. You've made it much harder to sell them."
"I've just made their language more colourful," Crowley insisted. "And anyway, what's the big deal? It's just a parrot."
"We're all God's creatures," Aziraphale noted.
Crowley threw him a dirty look.
"Er. Well, broadly speaking, anyway," Aziraphale added apologetically.
Crowley left with a giant saltwater tank, rocks, pumps, little scuba divers (one of which was soon sporting a nasty case of exophthalmos, courtesy of Crowley's morbid sense of humour) a number of interesting species of seaweed, and some rather flat-looking and colourful exotic fish. Crowley liked the scuba diver best, admiring his handiwork in the eye protruding from a bloody socket, and the seaweed he expected to do quite well, but he knew, just knew that the fish would all have gone by the end of the week, flushed to fishy heaven, or more likely, fishy hell.
It was all ridiculously expensive, and totally unnecessary. And somehow worth it, to see Aziraphale buck up and give him that same strangely proud smile, as if Crowley were a five-year-old that had just been taught to share his sandwich with the boy sitting next to him. If Crowley ever did do something like that, it would only be because it was teeming with germs, but try telling Aziraphale that.
"Thank you for coming along, dear boy," the former angel had said, smiling with near-holy benevolence.
"Whatever," the demon had muttered. "Just look out for yourself, all right?"
For some reason, this had only made Aziraphale smile more glowingly at him. It was irritating, it really was.
On the way home, he set two fires and stopped to watch a rather elaborate bank robbery—one which surprised even the robber, who'd walked in carrying a deposit slip and not much else, and walked out with several bags of cash, an automatic weapon, a rubber chicken, a detailed map of the London Underground, and a sudden knowledge of where to go until the heat was off.
Crowley sighed. It was all very unsatisfying. He wondered when things would get back to normal.
Aziraphale was curled up under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate and a few biscotti when he heard the door ring open. "We're closed," he sang out, not looking up. He went right back to being absorbed in his book. "My, this Hogue person knows his business, and no mistake," he muttered.
Something poked him in the back of the head, and he looked up, astonished to find Crowley frowning at him. "You oughtn't leave your door unlocked after hours," he admonished. "What good does the state of the art security system I got you do, if you can't be buggered to lock the door? And why isn't the system set?"
Aziraphale squirmed unhappily. "But Crowley, it wants me to push in all these numbers, and if I don't get it right it rings the police, and if I don't do it in time it rings the police, and then they come down and lecture me on wasting their time."
"Serves 'em right," Crowley said, dropping into a chair across from Aziraphale. "Whose coffee?" he nodded to the extra cup.
Aziraphale blushed. "Well, Ridge stopped by this afternoon and brought biscotti, and we talked for awhile and…"
Crowley looked annoyed. "I don't like that Ridge fellow. All brawn, no brains, that one. And he's a terrible person. I'm a good judge, you know."
"Oh, you say that about everyone."
"There, you see?" the demon said triumphantly.
Aziraphale rolled his eyes. "He's always perfectly nice to me. He helped me carry groceries in the other day."
"Probably has an ulterior motive," Crowley grunted. "He'll probably rob you at some point, or tie you up and torture you and perform satanic rituals on you. He looks the type."
"He's perfectly nice," Aziraphale insisted. "He wants me to go out with him."
"Out?" Crowley looked rather pale.
"You know—out—music and people and…dancing and such," Aziraphale trailed off uncertainly. Ridge wanted to go to a club, and Aziraphale didn't actually know much about clubs, other than they were probably dens of vice and depravity. And he could do with a bit of vice and depravity, too. Living for a living really took it out of one.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Crowley said.
The former angel laughed. "Lighten up," he cajoled. "I'm looking to have some fun. I deserve some fun! I've even been practicing my gavotte."
"You do realize no one's danced that for several hundred years."
Aziraphale sniffed. "Perhaps I'll bring it back into style, then."
"Yes. Well. Enjoy your idiotic cavorting," Crowley told him coldly. "In the meanwhile, some of us have work to do." He rose and stalked out the door, Aziraphale staring after him in bewilderment.
Aziraphale was mildly appalled. "You're sure this is what everyone else will be wearing?" he managed.
"Everyone," Ridge affirmed, giving him a smile so confident it could have convinced Hitler to convert to Judaism. "You'll look right out of place if you don't put it on."
"Well…all right," said Aziraphale reluctantly. "It's just—I sort of expected there to be—to be…more of it." The trousers were too tight. Ridge told him that was the point. The shirt was hardly more than a silk hanky strategically showcasing bits of Aziraphale he'd rather not have showcased, thanks very much.
"It looks good on you," Ridge told him with a hungry smile.
"Oh. Thank you," Aziraphale said weakly.
His new friend laughed. "Don't worry; once you've got a couple of drinks in you, you'll forget all about what you're wearing or not wearing."
Aziraphale brightened. Free drinks? Maybe it would be a good time, after all.
Crowley was mildly annoyed. He hadn't seen Aziraphale in two weeks. He hadn't wanted to, and purposely hadn't been calling, because he had nothing to say, and it wasn't as though they hadn't gone centuries without speaking before, anyway, but… Aziraphale hadn't called him, either. And while that meant no emergencies, which was all well and good, it was bloody annoying, too.
And all the fish had died. Crowley had flushed them, but it was disheartening.
On top of that, he'd been wielding some of the evilest evilness of his career, and it wasn't getting him anywhere. Brangelina reports plastered everywhere, public transportation strikes, bomb scares…it was all so sodding unfulfilling. He'd rather hoped Aziraphale might call to complain, but of course he didn't, and in fact had recently told Crowley that he didn't even turn the telly on anymore, as it was so full of bad news.
Where was the fun in being evil if no one was around to appreciate it? Why should he bother working his wiles if there was no one there to thwart?
Eventually, he decided to cheer himself up with a circuit of the nastier clubs. It would be good to get out and get a breath of fresh air, meet some new people, inflict some low-grade suffering on them, maybe get a drink…
And with luck, he'd get his mind off of that blasted Aziraphale.
Aziraphale couldn't remember the last time he'd had so much fun. Of course, he couldn't remember yesterday, or most of the last century for that matter, but that was what made it fun. He was having a night on the town. He was spending time with a jolly good friend. He was gyrating to loud music in a way that would have given his former superiors heart attacks, he'd met a good manyvery friendly new chaps, and he'd had several drinks named after erotic acts.
And Ridge had his hand on the small of Aziraphale's back, and it felt shockingly good. His other hand, on the other hand, was wandering, and it was making Aziraphale blush. It wasn't where he was being touched, because it was all above-board, at least so far, but it was how he was being touched.
Even the touch seemed part of the dance—skimming fingertips, a rubbing palm, all stroking to the beat and sending heady signals to Aziraphale's newly appreciative anatomy.
It felt wicked good, and Aziraphale had to wonder if Crowley knew about it. Crowley didn't tend to socialize with humans anymore than Aziraphale had, if only because they really didn't last all that long, and it got depressing after a while.
These thoughts were slowly draining the former angel of his enthusiasm. Crowley wasn't speaking to him. Hadn't spoken to him since Aziraphale mentioned going out with Ridge, although Aziraphale still wasn't certain why that was. Talk about depressing. What if Crowley forgot all about him? It could happen. Crowley hadn't been in touch for the entire fourteenth century, and if he took it into his head to do that again, Aziraphale might well be dead before the demon came round again.
An entire life without Crowley. Not without evil, necessarily, because Aziraphale realized as well as his devilish counterpart that humans did that well enough on their own, but without…without…his best friend.
Aziraphale had gotten so used to Crowley that he didn't even think of him as being evil anymore. Not particularly evil, anyway. A nuisance, perhaps, but not seriously evil. Actually Aziraphale had come to sort of picture Crowley as the Dennis the Menace of hell with better fashion sense—that is to say, you knew he was getting into something, and you'd eventually get after him for it, but then he'd grin at you and it would be forgotten. After you'd fixed it or thwarted him, of course. On the whole, he was rather endearing.
And Aziraphale missed him.
He turned to look blearily up at Ridge, who was smirking and moving his hips in a fashion that left little to the imagination. "I think I'd better go," Aziraphale told him.
The smirk didn't leave, but it did somehow become tinged with anger. "Leave? You can't leave! We hardly got here!"
"Well, I know, but I'm not feeling well, and…"
"Bollocks. We're all friends, right? We're all having a good time. I'm having a good time. You feel what a good time I'm having?" the man asked, rubbing up against Aziraphale in such a way that made it obvious.
Aziraphale blinked. "My, you are enjoying yourself," he said weakly. "But you see, I'm not, and I'd like to go now."
"I'd like to leave," he said firmly.
Ridge's eyes narrowed. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
"You're still too uptight. We need to find something to take the edge off."
Crowley generally enjoyed The Red Devil. It was a bubbling cauldron of all forms of nastiness, mostly due to the white powder that was being sold from people who smelled of cat urine. This, too, Crowley approved of. The ridiculously easy to dispense drug gave rise to a billion minor evils, and generally drove 'decent' people quite mad with frustration. It was cheap, dangerous, and on the rise, with more people getting hooked by it every day, at least in America.
Crowley started six labs last week in London, and now there were fifty more. Numbers like that were hard to argue with.
He swaggered through the door, past the bouncer who nodded politely to him as a stylish bastard who always has an in. He wandered over to the bar, got himself a drink, and sat back to watch the pulse and sizzle of humans, sex, and drugs, and their inevitable sum, which always equalled a little more evil. He felt something close to satisfied.
And then he spotted Aziraphale.
"I don't want any," the former angel said primly. "I've watched enough public information films to know all about this sort of thing. The next thing you know I'll be lying in an alley and my purse will be gone and I'll wish that I'd stayed friends with that nice Katie, and not run off with such a wild group of kids."
"Look, it's not going to hurt you. You'll like it after you've tried it. You'll be crazy for it, I promise."
"If you aren't running for the exit in .005 seconds, I'm going to give you nightmares for the rest of your sodding life," a cold voice growled.
Aziraphale turned, and gave Crowley a feeble smile, but Ridge merely sniffed, drawing himself up to his full height, which was something over a head taller than Crowley. "Is that right, little man?"
It was the wrong thing to say, Aziraphale reflected. To a man-shaped creature who can make children run screaming by changing just two words in any given nursery rhyme (and draw a few of the stranger ones on, they were rum little creatures, really) and who, with the careful rearrangement of just a handful of orange cones, could have traffic going backwards on any given highway, size really doesn't matter. Or at least it shouldn't. To someone like Crowley, to someone evil, to someone whom packaging is everything, it meant a great deal.
Particularly when they started out as, for lack of a more detailed genus, a garden snake.
Crowley drew himself up to his full height. It had horns. And tentacles. And, for a bit of élan, six inch fangs dripping with gore. Aziraphale winced. Ridge took off running so fast that he bounced off the corner of the bar, nearly breaking three ribs.
"Really, my dear," Aziraphale muttered. "You needn't be so showy."
"Says you," Crowley replied irritably. "Considering I can see your nipples, I don't think you've a leg to stand on."
Aziraphale flushed, pulling his hanky around himself more tightly.
Crowley snorted. "Here, take my jacket."
Aziraphale did, gratefully. "You know, I'm awfully glad I'm drunk," he remarked as Crowley led him away. "I'd hate to have to face you right now sober."
Crowley assisted him into the Bentley, and drove him home. He didn't say much, and he seemed very wan. Of course, skin always seemed paler minus the scales and blood, but he really seemed to have something on his mind. "You didn't…" the demon swallowed, trailing off. "You didn't try any of that stuff, did you?"
Aziraphale was affronted. "Don't be ridiculous! I'm not a fool, you know."
"I know, I know. It's just this…this being human thing. Seems to be going to your head a bit."
Aziraphale shifted uncomfortably in his too-tight trousers. He knew his face was red. "Er…perhaps I have gone a little overboard," he admitted. Crowley parked the car, and Aziraphale looked at him hopefully. "Coming in for a nightcap?"
The demon gave him a stern frown. "You've had enough."
"You haven't had any. It's a fine state when I'm the one going out and having a rip-roaring good time, and you're making faces like a sour aunt at me. Come up for a drink."
Crowley sighed. "I'm supposed to be the one tempting, remember?"
Aziraphale snorted. "Not in that rumpled shirt and wrinkled trousers, you aren't."
Crowley coughed, but followed Aziraphale into the bookstore, and allowed the former angel to pour him a brandy. "What'll you do now? About Rock or Bluff or whoever the deuce he was?"
Aziraphale seemed to give this some deep thought, though after that many drinks, it took him as much concentration to remember what he was supposed to be thinking about as anything. "I don't know. That's the end of the pet shop. I can't go back. Would…would your people consider letting me fill out an application, sort of thing?"
Crowley swished his drink around in the glass with a frown. "Probably not a good idea."
It wasn't exactly that he didn't want to ask his superiors about Aziraphale defecting; he just didn't think it would work out. Crowley was good at his job. He took a bit of pride in it, and after doing it for so many years, felt evil was second nature to him. He strongly doubted it would ever be second nature to Aziraphale. He could see Aziraphale trying it out, in that earnest and endearing way of his…
But Aziraphale was 'good' in the same inoffensive way that some grandmothers were good—not by dint of any particular effort, but through force of habit or absent-minded sweet-naturedness that they sort of dumped on anyone they met. He certainly didn't put much work into it. He just was, and Crowley had always rather liked him that way. It made Crowley's job easier, for one thing.
Aziraphale as a demon was something Crowley could picture. He just couldn't picture it lasting for very long. And hell was down on failures. Hell was down on everyone, really, but failing would get you noticed in a bad way when a lot of other things might not.
Crowley did not want Aziraphale noticed. Even back when he'd had the flaming sword, Aziraphale, Crowley felt, was probably not a match for someone like Ligur, who would undoubtedly take 'hazing' to the next level should Aziraphale want to join up. No, no; it was not to be borne. They'd just have to think up something else.
The only problem was that he'd been trying for nigh on a month now, and wasn't getting anywhere. Aziraphale really wasn't very good at anything, except for reading old books, eating and drinking, and being harmlessly nice at people. None of these were what you could call particularly useful job skills. Eating and drinking were things everyone did, and no one much cared about reading, and although being harmlessly nice was much lamented as being so very rare, all it really did was ensure you finished last.
"Let's go up on the balcony," Aziraphale suggested.
Crowley looked blank. "You don't have a balcony." Aziraphale raised an expectant eyebrow. "Oh. Oh. Yeah, all right, I can do that. Though it isn't particularly evil." He made it outside the former angel's bedroom, and gave it a couple of urns decorated with skulls, just to appease his conscience. Crowley sat with his back against the railing and drank studiously while Aziraphale waxed maudlin.
"I used to have faith," Aziraphale said softly, "in a God that loved everyone, and showed it in a million small, but significant ways. Everyone. Everything. Nothing could pass without being blessed by him."
Crowley found himself beginning to get angry. He didn't often, but when he did, it always ratcheted up the old speech impediment. "That's ssssstupid," he insisted. "A god that loves everything. He doessssn't. That's the whole point. That'ssss why there was a battle. That's what hell issss. The absence of his ssssupposedly all-encompassing 'love.' I'm a demon. I'm cut off from—all of that. He doesssn't love me."
Aziraphale swallowed hard a couple of times, and Crowley could see his eyes glistening. "That's not true. I always thought that was because he didn't have to," the former angel protested. "Because I already did, so he was loving you through me. Don't you understand? How else could an angel feel that way, if not through God's grace?"
Crowley was shocked, and looked away.
The former angel settled his head in his hands glumly. "I always thought that was enough. You turned away from God, but he never gave up—he didn't forsake you. He just—he just—put me there, as a sort of conduit for his love."
"Ssss-ssstupid," Crowley muttered, shaken.
"I guess it was," Aziraphale replied sadly. "I thought it was working out splendidly. I loved, and you tempted, and the world—worked. All according to his ineffable plan. But it looks as though I was wrong, or they wouldn't have taken away my wings."
And that was worse. The thought that Aziraphale was being punished for loving him was much, much worse than Aziraphale grappling with Heaven's act of senseless bureaucracy.
"You're daft," Crowley mumbled.
"What's that? Crowley, don't mumble. You're slouching, too," Aziraphale added. Even in the midst of a crisis, drunk and disheartened, the angel—no, former angel, Crowley corrected himself, had the gall to lecture about posture.
"You're a bloody imbecile," the demon roared. "How could you be so patently stupid? Didn't you ever once stop to think that maybe letting Rippling-Muscles the dog-sitter dress you in leather and get you smashed might not be the brightest idea you ever had?"
"I was just enjoying myself," Aziraphale protested. "Now that I know I have a limited amount of time here, I wanted to...you know, make the most of what I'd got."
"You oughtn't hang around people like that, though," Crowley told him sternly. "Don't you know you can catch things now? Like horrible diseases?" Crowley knew all about horrible diseases. He'd cultured some and let them loose himself, mostly in a passive-aggressive way of getting back at them all for enjoying themselves at doing things he wasn't allowed to do. Hell was all for humans having a good time—for a price. It wasn't so big on demons getting in on the fun.
"Diseases? Gosh, I hadn't thought about that. Come to think of it, I have been feeling a bit run down. D'you suppose I've caught something?"
The demon tried not to panic. "You might have!" he said excitedly. "Are you feverish? Nauseous? You could have caught something. You could have caught anything. You could be coming down with something really awful, like AIDS or the Avian Flu. Now that you're human, you never know what it'll be."
Aziraphale gave him a weak smile. "I don't really mind," he insisted. "It's all temporary. Human condition, and all that. I mean, look on the bright side; even if I am really sick, the pain won't last forever."
The demon kept his head averted, his dark glasses obscuring his eyes. He muttered something.
"What was that, dear boy? You're mumbling again."
"I said, it will for me," Crowley snarled.
The angel was taken aback before tentatively putting a hand on Crowley's shoulder. "Oh. I am sorry. I hadn't thought it through."
Crowley slumped. "My job is suffering because I worry too much about you," he said angrily.
"No. Not really," the demon confessed. "I'm up to fifteen transgressions against God per day, and that's bloody impressive. My billables are through the roof. I'm just not…you know, enjoying it anymore. It's getting boring."
"Yes," sighed the former angel. "Well, you just try spending your days surrounded by widdling puppies and cursing parrots. Call that job satisfaction? 'Cause I don't."
"At least you don't have to be good anymore," Crowley said bitterly. "You can be whatever you want. You can be yourself. I still have to be bad."
Aziraphale leaned against Crowley's shoulder, looking up at him speculatively. He said something under his breath.
"I see what you mean about the muttering being annoying," Crowley responded. "Speak up, would you?"
Aziraphale swallowed hard, his face flaming. "I said, I could try making being bad more fun," he offered.
Crowley looked at him uncomprehendingly. "Huh?"
And then Aziraphale kissed him.
Crowley pushed him away, leaping to his feet. "What are you doing?"
Aziraphale looked uncertain. "Well, what am I going to catch from you? Evilness? And I don't think it's against Hell's rules to seduce a former angel…"
"I'm not exactly the one doing the seducing," Crowley pointed out, running a hand nervously through his hair.
"I won't tell if you won't."
Aziraphale was looking hopefully up at him, his eyes bluer than a springtime sky. He looked sort of delicate and rumpled sitting with his back to the flat, the light in the bedroom touching the tips of his hair with gold, making him appear to be wearing a halo.
He looked, in fact, like an angel.
Then he smiled mischievously, and Crowley's heart thudded up against his ribs. Aziraphale looked human, too. He looked tipsy and unkempt, and he had dirt beneath his usually immaculate fingernails, and the tip of his nose was red.
Crowley knelt down and kissed that nose tip, watching Aziraphale go nearly cross-eyed. He pulled away, and the former angel's cheeks were flushed rose, and he was wearing a crooked smile. "Jesus loves me, eh?" Crowley questioned, trying to sound cavalier.
"I love you," Aziraphale responded resolutely, yanking Crowley forward again.
Aziraphale had always been braver about certain things. Crowley often thought of it as mere naivety, but it wasn't—not always. Aziraphale had been around a long time. He knew what being around the block meant, even if he hadn't necessarily been there himself.
And he could kiss. By the man upstairs with the big beard and enigmatic smile, Aziraphale could kiss. His tongue was doing things to Crowley's palate that a 1945 vintage Bordeaux couldn't do. Crowley shivered, and Aziraphale's hands came up, his arms encircling the demon's shoulders.
They broke apart for air—for Aziraphale—and a moment to pull it together and stop whimpering and trying to rut against Aziraphale's leg—for Crowley. They stared at each other, the cool air caressing overheated faces. "Should we—inside?" Aziraphale managed.
Crowley nodded. Aziraphale got unsteadily to his feet, turned and opened the door to his bedroom and started inside.
Crowley, despite a brief internal struggle regarding the dignity of doing such a thing, tackled him. They landed on the bed, more or less, with Crowley frantically trying to undo Aziraphale's fly, and Aziraphale giggling like a useless sod, at least until Crowley nipped him on the nape of the neck.
"No fangs," Aziraphale cautioned. "And no blood."
Crowley rolled his eyes. "You know, I may be a demon, but I'm not a deviant."
Aziraphale looked down to where Crowley's hand was wriggling into his trousers, and then back to where Crowley was, quite unashamedly, pressing up against his bum. "I see," he said dryly.
"Shut up, you."
Aziraphale smiled lazily, reaching up to cup Crowley's face. "Make me."
And then it was Aziraphale's lips again, hot and slick and tender, and then there weren't any clothes in the way, because Crowley remembered how to do that, and there wasn't any need of lubricant or tedious stretching, because Crowley could do that instantly, too, and it was a good thing, because he wasn't keen on self-denial for any length of time.
And everything was hot and slick and tender, and Aziraphale's breath came out in a funny, whispery gasp and was warm and shivery against the side of Crowley's face, and his hands were graceful and light, tracing the contours and planes of Crowley's body, tickling like feathers.
Then Aziraphale pressed back, and it was all Crowley could do not to lose control right there. "Jesus Chrissst," he hissed. "Three thousand odd years is a pretty good track record, you know, for not succumbing to premature ejaculation. So let's not break the streak, eh?"
Aziraphale gave a muffled groan, the side of his face pressed against a pillow. "Don't—ah—blaspheme," he scolded. "Oh, Go—I—goodness," he grunted.
Crowley laughed a little. He tilted his hips and angled about until he could find that place—and yes, there it was—and the look on Aziraphale's face was something just this side of heaven.
"Oh, wow," the former angel gasped, his eyes squeezing tight as felt this good for the first time in a millennia.
It was too much for Crowley's overexcited libido. "Oh, yes," he cried, falling forward and nearly flattening the former angel. Aziraphale pushed feebly at the demon as Crowley muttered.
Aziraphale smiled a sleepy, rather smug smile, carding his fingers through Crowley's dark hair, then slipped the dear boy's dark glasses off and set them on the bedside table. "I love you, too," he said quietly, as yellow eyes blinked groggily at him. "'Night."
"Uh-huh," Crowley replied, his head slipping down to Aziraphale's shoulder once more. He only got up twice during the night. Once to use the loo, and once to have a smoke out on the balcony and cause a minor traffic accident on the street below.
Crowley smiled in satisfaction as the frustrated drivers flipped unpleasant, nearly diabolically delicious hand gestures toward each other. This was how things were supposed to be. God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world.
So to speak, anyway.
The next morning, Aziraphale woke with something tickling his nose. He tried to brush it away, but it stubbornly came back. "Crowley, be a good chap and winch in your wings, would you? They're even getting in my mouth."
Crowley responded with a light snore. Sleeping, Aziraphale was learning, was something Crowley did with a lot of determination. He poked the demon, who grumbled a bit. "Don't have wings," he insisted.
"Yes, you have. Unless you've been molesting my feather pillows in the night. Do something about it. Damn you, Crowley!"
"Too late," the demon replied in a muffled voice, a pillow separating him from Aziraphale.
Aziraphale rolled over and sat up peevishly. "Crowley, it's all well and good to have a bit of play in our lovemaking, but don't you go tickling me for no—oh. Oooooh."
"Crowley," the angel said in a hushed voice.
Crowley, apparently deciding that only Aziraphale with his knickers in a twist could possibly be entertaining enough to wake up for, peeked out from beneath his pillow. "Oh. I say. What the devil is going on?" He gazed at Aziraphale's snowy new wings, astonished.
Aziraphale reached for his reading glasses and found a note on the bedside table. He unfolded it.
Due to a marked increase in recent occult occurrences on Earth in the area currently designated London (specifically, the southern sections) certain difficulties in handling these distant disturbances have forced us to rethink our position regarding your retirement. Also, said occult occurrences have led to a problematic accumulation of paperwork which we request that you sort out.
Please be informed that your reinstatement is effective immediately.
We expect you back on duty and thwarting forthwith.
Aziraphale beamed. "Gosh, look! I've been reinstated!"
Crowley looked rather sour. "Fabulous."
"Oh, don't be such a grump. It only complains about occult occurrences, anyway. I'm sure if they didn't like the shagging, they would have mentioned."
The demon brightened. "Yeah?"
"Well, obviously. I mean, you were right here when they dropped the note." The look on Crowley's face suggested he didn't really enjoy the idea of a bunch of heavenly voyeurs all that much, but Aziraphale patted his arm gently. "I really have to thank you for helping get my job back."
Crowley shrugged it off. "Don't mention it. Say, how about we celebrate tonight at the Ritz?"
Aziraphale sighed happily, pulling the covers back up over them both. "Sounds wonderful," he said.
Crowley ran his fingers through the angel's feathers. "Everything turned out pretty good after all, didn't it? Huh. Who knew?"
The angel turned his face to steal a quick kiss and give the demon a wink. "That's a silly question. Ineffability, I always say."
Crowley hummed in contentment. "Yeah. Ineffability."