This story is sort of the red-headed stepcousin of mercuriosity's Clocks, which you really should read if you like this sort of thing.
Much love and gratitude to Carmarthen for the encouragement and helpful comments, and to mercuriosity for dissecting the story in the kindest way possible, and giving me an egregiously punny title to go with it. All mistakes belong to
The lyrics quoted are from Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head.
* * *
* * *
Honey, all the movements you're starting to make
* * *
In the beginning, the telephone rang.
Right in Crowley's left ear.
He picked it up when it became evident that the phone was determined to burst his eardrums or die trying, and shouted,
". . . Crowley?"
"Aziraphale?" Crowley rolled over onto his stomach and squinted at the clock. What he saw did not please him. "Fuck, angel, why the hell are you calling me at this hour? It's 3 a.m.!"
"Crowley," said Aziraphale, "could you come over?"
Crowley blinked at the clock. The little green numbers were still there, damning proof that Aziraphale had gone out of his fucking mind.
"Why the hell would I do that?" said Crowley, in the tone he usually reserved for mental patients and children. (It was one of thinly disguised contempt and fury, with an undertone of "I'm going to close my eyes and count to five, and if you're not gone when I open them, you're going to be very sorry I was ever born.")
For a moment Crowley could only hear Aziraphale's quiet breathing on the other end of the line. A thought stirred in his sleep-blurred mind, but it vanished when Aziraphale said,
"Were you sleeping?"
"No, I was plotting evil alone in my flat at three o'clock in the morning," said Crowley. "Of course I was sleeping."
"I thought you only slept occasionally," said Aziraphale.
"Right. Occasionally. Only once every night," said Crowley. He flopped on his back and stared up at the ceiling. "What, don't you?"
"Of course no--" Aziraphale began with immense dignity, but he broke off abruptly in mid-sentence.
There was a crack in the far left corner of the ceiling. Crowley smoothed it out, and rubbed his eyes.
"What is it, Aziraphale?" he said wearily. "Can't it wait till sunrise -- or better yet, sunset?"
"Crowley, do me a favour," said Aziraphale. Crowley sat up. There was something wrong with Aziraphale's voice. It was too even. "Get out of your bed and come over to my flat now. Please."
"Aziraphale, are -- is everything . . . okay?"
There was a pause, more quiet breathing. Crowley thought of the almost-but-not-quite Apocalypse. A suspicion pranced out of the murkiest depths of his mind and slid down his spine, whooping. He was out of bed and dragging his clothes on before Aziraphale even answered.
"For a given value of okay, yes."
"I'll be there in five minutes," said Crowley.
"Thank you," said Aziraphale, in that horrible even voice, and Crowley hung up.
* * *
He was at Aziraphale's flat in less than five minutes, as it turned out. Traffic was never a problem for Crowley, and even less so at this hour, when people were generally too drunk or too sleepy to notice their tyres spontaneously puncturing as he drove by. They only realised and raised a cry after he'd passed by. Crowley liked leaving a noisy trail of devastation in his wake; it made him feel productive.
He got out of the Bentley and closed the door. He wondered why Aziraphale had asked him to go to his flat, instead of his bookshop. As far as Crowley knew, Aziraphale lived in his bookshop most days; his flat was for the infrequent occasions when business slacked in Intimate Books next door and the woman who kept it dropped by and asked leading questions about his age and his background and whether he ever went home to his wife and children -- oh, wasn't he married? At which point Aziraphale invariably made his desperately polite excuses and fled to his flat, where he waited for a couple of nerve-wracking days before returning to his shop.
Crowley had watched them enact the scene once. He'd been laughing for days afterwards, but he only knew the end of the story because Aziraphale had told him. He'd never seen Aziraphale's flat.
Come to think of it, Aziraphale had never seen his current abode, either. It had never seemed that important. Crowley usually tried to arrange their meetings on neutral ground, anyway. It wouldn't feel right, really, inviting a member of the opposition over for a nice cup of tea and a biscuit while discussing their respective bosses' flaws.
Crowley shrugged and raised his hand to knock on the door, but it swung open before he touched it.
"Come in," said Aziraphale.
Crowley eyed him with suspicion, but he looked much the same as ever. Aziraphale always looked the same, but at least there were no signs of blood or impressive weaponry. If, for example, Aziraphale had been wearing a night-gown, sandals and a grim expression while swinging a bloody great sword, Crowley would have been worried. As it was, he felt he could relax. He looked around.
"There's mould on your carpet," he said.
Aziraphale shut the door, locking it, and came over to look.
"That's not mould; that's carpet."
There was a brief silence. Aziraphale closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.
"You bought this thing?" said Crowley.
Aziraphale's eyes snapped open.
"It came with the flat, actually," he said coldly.
Crowley made a doubtful noise and looked up, running a critical eye over the rest of the flat.
"You've never invited me to your flat before," he remarked.
"No," said Aziraphale, and there was definitely something odd in his voice now. It sounded a lot like rage.
Crowley turned his head, meeting Aziraphale's eyes, and the next flippant comment dried up on his tongue.
"Aziraphale," he said. Dread churned in his gut, and yes, he could tell it now, there was something off here, something like -- like -- "What's happened?"
"I'm human," said Aziraphale.
-- like the absence of something so familiar it had gone unnoticed for six thousand years.
For the second time that morning, Crowley said:
* * *
They'd told him, quite calmly and kindly, what he'd done and why he had to pay for it. They'd explained that the punishment wasn't that bad, all things considered, and he ought to be jolly grateful. They'd suggested that he should view the opportunity in the spirit of scientific interest; he'd get to learn a lot, after all. They'd pointed out that the best of them had gone through it, and look where He'd ended up.
Aziraphale had thought about where He'd ended up, in detail, and had had to use the small toilet in his flat for the first time since he'd started renting it. That had been quite unpleasant, besides tasting absolutely awful. It turned out that even good wine and pasta were less than palatable on their way up.
Aziraphale was not looking forward to more of humanity. He wasn't looking forward to telling Crowley about it, either, but who else in the world did he have to tell?
He was alone. They'd made it quite clear that he was on his own from now on. They'd -- they'd abandoned him . . . .
"Aziraphale?" said Crowley.
"I got a call from -- my people," said Aziraphale slowly. His voice was quite steady. "They wanted to talk to me about that little business with the eschaton."
Crowley exhaled. It was all right for him, Aziraphale thought, with a bitterness that surprised himself. He didn't have to do it regularly -- just a well-calculated breath once in a while, for dramatic effect. Aziraphale had to breathe all the time now.
It was really beginning to irritate him. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale -- it nagged at him, like the ticking of a clock that hung on the edges of hearing, just loud enough to annoy. And it wouldn't end, apparently, until he was dead.
His mortality hung over him like smog. It made him edgy. How long had he sat here after they'd told him, with his hands folded as if in prayer, too terrified to get up lest he literally fall apart? He feared the edges of tables, ringworm, splinters, airborne bacteria; he was afraid of the entire world. He tried to avoid thinking about it, like most humans seemed to do, but six thousand years of watching people live and die had rendered it rather difficult for him to forget that that was what he was going to do now.
Live. And die.
He hadn't even started thinking about what would come after. If he let himself think about that, he really would crumble to pieces.
Crowley was waiting.
"They said I had to be corrected," said Aziraphale. Evenness, that was the key. As long as he was calm, as long as he had control -- "They told me to see it as an opportunity, not a problem."
-- but he didn't have control, did he? He was going to die, and he itched all over, except where he was too cold or too warm or just too there. He'd never realised how . . . confining his body was, until he was trapped in it. He'd worn his body like a comfortable coat for the past six millennia; now it was him, inescapable and terribly unpleasant.
There was a vague, formless ache behind his temples and his palms kept sweating and his nose was freezing. The heater in his flat had broken down years ago, and he hadn't fixed it. There seemed no need to, at the time. Now this seemed incredible folly. He kept putting on and taking off innumerable jumpers, but he didn't seem able to strike a balance that would keep him warm instead of too-hot or too-cold. His back had cracked painfully when he'd tried reaching for a box of clothes on top of his wardrobe, and apparently every pair of trousers he'd owned for the last several decades were too tight. He'd never even noticed, until now.
How did humans endure this constant discomfort? He could almost feel the blood coursing through his veins -- not that it hadn't done that before, but not like this, not in such an essential way. The sensation was distinctly uncomfortable, but he would, he remembered, die if it stopped. He shuddered.
His feet hurt, and he still couldn't breathe through his nose. He'd had to use the lavatory earlier, and afterwards he'd stumbled out and cried until his eyes and throat ached and his nose clogged up and he'd had to blow it. It was horrible. Aziraphale had never realised humans were so squishy.
"Aziraphale," Crowley said quietly, and Aziraphale started to tremble.
Involuntary physical reactions. He was growing to really hate those.
"I don't know what to do," he said, and his voice cracked.
He sensed Crowley coming closer, but he couldn't look at him. He stared at his hands instead.
He'd have to cut his fingernails. They'd started growing.
* * *
Aziraphale bought new books, cleaned up his bookshop, and started working regular hours.
Crowley couldn't see the point of it, and said so several times, but Aziraphale only replied, with immense dignity,
"I have to earn my living somehow. I'm not on Heaven's pay-roll anymore, you know."
He was getting better. At first he hadn't even been able to say the word; now he could mention Heaven with barely a crack in his voice. Eventually, thought Crowley, Aziraphale'd work his way up to actually telling him what the Hell had happened between him and his former superiors.
Crowley was dogged by an inexplicable feeling of, well, concern nowadays. He kept thinking about Aziraphale. Not just thinking -- loath as Crowley was to admit it, he was worrying about Aziraphale. He'd be in the middle of a beautiful little job on some unfortunate country's stock market, and the thought would just wander into his mind, like a German tourist whose guidebook had forgotten to mention that you really weren't allowed in there:
"I hope Aziraphale hasn't forgotten his lunch again."
And that would just be the start of it. Other thoughts would come, a hail of thoughts, all about wrapping up warm and eating well and did Aziraphale really know how to operate a gas stove without incurring mild burns?
He disgusted himself. He sounded like someone's mother, for -- somebody's sake. But -- but --
Anything could happen to Aziraphale. He could walk across the street in the middle of rush hour, forgetting that the cars wouldn't automatically avoid him anymore. He could forget his liver wasn't what it used to be, i. e. invulnerable, and drink too much to drown his woes and die of alcohol poisoning. He could try to fiddle with the lighting in his bookshop and get electrocuted. He could forget his lunch.
And even though Crowley argued with his own anxiety, even though he pointed out that Aziraphale had lived in something very much like a human body for the last few millennia and he knew better than to kill himself while opening a wine bottle -- Heaven was no more free with new bodies than Hell was, which was not at all -- even though he kept reminding himself that he was a demon, after all, and worrying was just not him, he kept right on doing it, in defiance of his own better judgement.
It was annoying. It was also persistent. Eventually he would be forced to leave the stock market to recover, and drop by wherever Aziraphale happened to be at the moment, pretending that he was just there because he had nothing worse to do at the moment than keep an eye on an ex-angel. Which was a flaming lie, but Crowley comforted himself with the thought that that, at least, was a sin.
Now he said, stretching in an entirely fallacious impression of nonchalance,
"You could come into a legacy from a dead uncle in Australia."
He watched Aziraphale out of the corner of his eyes. Aziraphale was facing away from Crowley, shelving new stock, but then he went still. It was some time before he spoke. Crowley tried not to squirm in the silence.
"That's very clever," Aziraphale said dryly, "but I don't think so."
"Fine, not Australia, then," said Crowley. He'd thought it rather witty himself, but if Aziraphale disapproved . . . . "Somewhere else. France. South Africa. I don't give a--"
"It's not that," said Aziraphale. He was staring resolutely at an illustrated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, but his back looked distinctly embarrassed. Crowley slumped back -- why were all the chairs in Aziraphale's shop so uncomfortable? -- and groaned.
"It wouldn't be right to live off someone else's money," Aziraphale persisted, in a tone that said he meant to see this conversation to its bitter end. "In my position, I have an obligation to support myself--"
"What position?" said Crowley. "You haven't got a bloody position." Aziraphale's back remained unmoved. "For fuck's sake, you wouldn't even be hurting anyone else."
"Where would you get the money from?" Aziraphale countered. "You can't create money out of thin air."
Crowley could -- and had done once in 1862, just to screw with the City's bankers' minds -- but he forbore to mention this. He had a feeling it wouldn't win him any points with Aziraphale.
"Who the Hell cares?" he said. "You don't have to give a damn about anybody else now. It's not like you're an angel anymore."
"Whatever gave you that idea?" said Aziraphale stiffly.
Crowley's eyes narrowed.
"What the hell are you on about?"
"Just because I'm human now doesn't mean I'm any less an angel," said Aziraphale to The Canterbury Tales.
Crowley stared at Aziraphale. His neck was going pink, but there was an air of determined defiance about his back. Crowley opened his mouth, but he could find no words sufficient to describe this -- this --
"You're insane," he said. "You're lunatic. You've finally gone round the bend."
"Crowley . . ."
"It's the sushi, isn't it? All that raw fish. I knew it'd go to your head eventually."
"Crowley . . ."
"You can't be two things at once. Stands to reason. You're either an angel or you're a human, and they've made you hand in your halo, so guess which one you are now!"
"Crowley!" Aziraphale rubbed the back of his neck and sighed.
"That doesn't make a difference," he said firmly. "I don't need a halo to be an angel, any more than an artist needs an easel to be an artist. Who you are has got nothing to do with what you are.
"At least," he added, "it doesn't have to. It usually does, I admit; effect of nature over nurture and all that sort of--"
"You're still as annoying as you were when you were an angel, I grant you that," said Crowley. "Look, I know you aren't too happy about your being, well, kicked out of Heaven, but you've got to be reasonable. Angelic status isn't something you can choose; you're either one thing or the other. It doesn't make any sense any other way. You might as well say I'm still an angel, just because I used to hang out in Heaven before the whole blow-up with the--"
"Could be," Aziraphale corrected.
"Could be," Aziraphale repeated. His neck really was positively glowing by now, Crowley noticed. "It's not in what you are or even what you do. It's in who you are. That doesn't change, even if some -- minor details of existence on a physical plane are altered."
Crowley thought about this. Aziraphale picked up a crate of books and walked out into the front of the shop, with the purposeful stride of a man who was not really as certain as he seemed, but was determined to put up a good show anyway.
"Nah," said Crowley, when Aziraphale returned. "Sounds like a lot of drivel to me."
"Right," said Aziraphale, with determined politeness. He picked up another crate and went out again.
"But look," said Crowley, turning in his seat and raising his voice, "how do you know who you are if it doesn't even depend on what you--"
There was a thud and a yelp. Crowley froze. Then he sprang up and ran to the next room.
Aziraphale stood in the middle of the room, books scattered at his feet, the crate collapsed on the floor. He was staring at his left foot when Crowley skidded in.
"I hurt my toe, I think," Aziraphale said. "Nothing to worry about."
Crowley tried to regain his composure.
"Well, if that's all--" he said, when Aziraphale looked up and right through him.
"Aziraphale?" he said.
"You do realise that I am going to die, don't you," said Aziraphale. His eyes were distant; his voice unemotional, almost casual.
Crowley could find nothing to say.
"They gave me my old body, mostly unchanged," said Aziraphale slowly, thoughtfully. "If I'm lucky, I have thirty, maybe forty years left. If I'm not lucky -- and I'm probably not, God knows what sort of liver they've seen fit to leave me with -- less than that. I have less than five decades of life left. Then -- I'll die. I, Aziraphale, will die." He mulled over this.
"The end of Aziraphale," he tried. "No more Aziraphale."
There was more wonder than anything else in his voice. Crowley's throat hurt.
"Oh, come off it," he managed to get out. His voice was scratchy. He cleared his throat, and tried again. "You're just being melodramatic. You get a celestial afterlife after that, don't you?"
"Do I?" said Aziraphale. Crowley's certainty faltered at the look on his face, but he persevered.
"That's Christianity's big thing, isn't it?" he argued. "An eternity of fluffy white clouds and harps. I'd've thought it would be exactly your sort of thing."
"We don't play harps," said Aziraphale dully.
"I was speaking figuratively," said Crowley, waving a hand expansively. "So, as I was saying. You've got nothing to worry ab--"
"Do you actually remember any human souls wandering around Heaven, Crowley?" said Aziraphale.
"Well, no," he said. A note of uncertainty crept into his voice. "As I recollect, though, He hadn't created any humans yet, much less their immortal souls. He got around to that later, after the rebellion."
"I've seen them before," said Aziraphale. He'd gone back to staring at his foot; there seemed to be an irresistible fascination in it for him. The angel never looked him in the face anymore, Crowley thought, with a sudden spark of irritation. "Just sort of -- milling at the edges of everything. There isn't really any space for humans in Heaven, you know. It's a place for angels. And they can't always be bothered with mortals, even when they're immortal mortals. Everyone's always preparing for the next big Apocalypse."
"Lots of flaming swords and military drills, not so much with the pearly streets and fields full of flowers?" said Crowley.
"Sort of," said Aziraphale. "There are sunny fields full of flowers. But humans aren't allowed to walk on the grass."
He massaged his forehead. He looked tired. Crowley wondered if he'd been getting enough sleep, and then wondered if a self-lobotomy would stop all this bloody concern.
"I don't even know what they are," Aziraphale said. "We -- we never asked, you see. Do they remember their lives on Earth? Are they people at all, in any sense of the word? I don't even know if I'll -- if I will--" He buried his head in his hands, and was silent.
Accidents, Crowley thought wretchedly. Lots of accidents. People dying in horrible pain, or at least extreme discomfort. Tangled telephone lines. Sudden electronic death. Rains of slugs. Petty larceny. The sudden shutdown of every restaurant in the country . . . .
He'd engineer them all, he promised himself. Tomorrow.
He sidled surreptitiously towards Aziraphale, simply because making a show of stealth made him feel a little better.
He'd thought this over the night before, after his worry made him cut a hideously boring, utterly pointless committee meeting short, allowing fifteen mortals to go home unburdened by petty grudges over trivial issues. He'd thought up several ways of phrasing the offer, but the two hours spent with a thesaurus, lots of paper and a ball-point pen that had been nearly gnawed through by the end turned out to be in vain, because the actual question he blurted out now was,
"Listen, do you want to move in with me?"
He supposed it was worth the crushing embarrassment to see Aziraphale's remarkably convincing impression of an asphyxiating goldfish.
"You can't stay at that sad excuse for a flat," he rushed on desperately. "The heater is as good as a walking tour of the Arctic for warmth, and the landlady's beginning to remember that you've paid the same amount of rent every year since 1912. And now that you're, well, human, you've got to . . . well, it might help with . . . I mean, I could do with the company. You could look after my plants.
"We could split the rent," he ended lamely.
He didn't like the look in Aziraphale's eyes. It smacked of the usual smug "I always knew there was some good in you" spiel Aziraphale always tossed at him whenever he did something he knew he was going to regret before it was finished. Aziraphale always seemed to think what he was saying was comforting.
But he didn't say that now -- just looked at Crowley with quiet eyes until the desire to fidget or squirm or at least snap his fingers in Aziraphale's face became overwhelming. Then Aziraphale said,
"You don't pay any rent."
"That's my point," said Crowley. He thought Aziraphale might fight, but he smiled instead, an effortful smile that did not banish the strain in his eyes.
Crowley cursed himself, and Aziraphale, and Heaven and Hell both for driving him to it, but he went ahead and said the next thing anyway.
"You know, you may be right," he said, looking away.
"About what?" said Aziraphale wearily. He didn't seem very interested.
"You're still a blessed angel," said Crowley. It wasn't a compliment, but Aziraphale beamed anyway, with no shadow in his eyes. The tension in Crowley's chest eased.
"I still don't know how you know who you are if it doesn't even depend on what you do, though," he added.
"You just know," said Aziraphale.
"Ah. One of those things," said Crowley.
"Yes," said Aziraphale, and he smiled.
* * *
Crowley still didn't know why he was doing all this, though.
Helping Aziraphale. His hide would only be the first thing Hell would flay if they heard about it. Crowley couldn't even explain it to himself -- he wasn't getting anything out of this. Why did he bother?
Sure, Aziraphale cooked a mean filet mignon, and now that he was human, most of his smug righteousness had left him. He lost his temper a lot faster. He snapped when interrupted while busy with his books, and he was beginning to swear quite a bit. This all amused Crowley, and was a big improvement, in his somewhat biased opinion, but it still didn't explain why he was laying his continued undamaged state on the line for Aziraphale's sake.
He didn't even like Aziraphale, not really. He'd rather hang out with the ex-angel than a demon any day, but that wasn't saying much since Crowley would rather hang out with pond scum than with any of his colleagues. For one thing, the conversation would probably be better.
But there were four billion people on Earth, and every one of them would probably make better company than Aziraphale, even the new improved irritable Aziraphale. Crowley didn't understand himself.
It was a secret evil plot, he told himself. Definitely a secret evil plot, so secret that even he didn't know it. Any moment now his true demonic nature would spring out and do something really spectacularly unpleasant, like shave Aziraphale's head while he was napping, or switch the salt and the sugar right before afternoon tea. Right.
Eventually Crowley just stopped talking to himself.
At least it was quieter in his head.
* * *
It was hard being human.
Once Aziraphale managed to forget his mortality enough not to have to spend half an hour shivering every time he broke a fingernail, there was a whole bundle of other issues to deal with. At least he hadn't depended on his supernatural powers to smooth life's path as Crowley did; he was used to dealing with the bills and sweeping the floor and all the other mundane daily chores involved in keeping things in some simulation of order. But everything else . . . .
Bathing, for instance. It wasn't that he forgot to bathe, as he'd still sometimes forget to eat and sleep. He bathed too often. He did it compulsively, until he realised he was spending more time in the bathroom than out of it. Then he tried to stop, but it was difficult.
It was the sweat that got to him, really. He couldn't seem to get away from it, and it maddened him to have to put up with it. He supposed he'd just ignored his sweat ducts for the last few millennia, but now that he couldn't . . . . Humans, he realised, were sticky and smelly as well as squishy.
It was all very unpleasant.
In the end, it was the sweat that got to Crowley, too.
It certainly wasn't his fault, Aziraphale told himself later. He'd just been sitting there on Crowley's posh white sofa, minding his own business, wondering if it was worth the effort to get up and actually do something, when Crowley had come up and --
* * *
"--the hell?" said Aziraphale.
"Yes?" Crowley's voice was muffled.
It was Sunday afternoon, and Aziraphale was in possibly the strangest compromising position one could be in while still clothed.
He tried to make his voice as steady and even as possible.
"Why have you got your nose in my collar?"
Crowley -- burrowed, pushed his nose deeper, making a bizarre cross between a moan and a sigh. Then he pulled away, brushing himself off, looking as if sniffing Aziraphale was something he did every day, and a perfectly reasonable thing to do, at that.
"You smell," he said, sounding surprised.
Aziraphale felt an uncomfortable prickling warmth at the back of his neck. He was conscious that parts of his body were reacting in unfamiliar if not exactly unpleasant ways, and it annoyed him. And Crowley just stood there, looking unaccountably annoyed and befuddled and -- just as if --
"Well, yes, thank you very much for that," Aziraphale said, trying to quell the abrupt surge of resentment. "I just took a bath this morning, but I'm afraid a certain amount of body odour is unavoidable under the--"
"You're sweating," said Crowley, as if he'd just realised that such a thing was possible.
Aziraphale blinked, suddenly terrified.
"I am not!"
"You are," said Crowley. An unfamiliar light was in his face. It was, Aziraphale realised, the light of fascination.
Crowley sat down on the sofa beside him, gingerly, taking off his sunglasses to better goggle at Aziraphale. He did not take his eyes off Aziraphale.
It was really making him rather jumpy.
"Do you have to do that?" he said irritably.
"You're sweating," Crowley said. "All the time. Like a human."
He looked like he couldn't decide if that was revolting or --
"Fuck off," said Aziraphale.
Crowley didn't blink much, on the whole. He blinked now, an exaggerated sweep of lashes that made Aziraphale's knuckles itch for contact.
"I'm sorry?" he said.
"No, you aren't. But you should be," said Aziraphale. He clenched his hands and thought, I'm an angel. I'm still an angel. It would not be angelic to punch him in the face.
"You may not have noticed it, but I am human, in the most basic physical sense of the word," he said tightly. "I do sweat. I have, well, ducts that do that sort of thing. I don't like it any more than you do, but--"
"Who says I don't like it?" said Crowley.
"--I'm afraid you're going to have to deal with -- what?"
Crowley's eyes glinted yellow.
He looked like he'd definitely decided if it was revolting or not.
Pure terror whipped through Aziraphale, but he couldn't run, couldn't even move because Crowley was coming closer and closer and his knees had just turned into jelly. He wondered if that was going to happen often. He hoped not. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation, but exceedingly peculiar, and one to which he was not accustomed -- oh.
"Got it," whispered Crowley against his lips, and he kissed him again.
* * *
That was it, of course. The thought moved slowly in the sleepy haze that was Crowley's mind. Carnal gratification and lubricious pleasures beyond the dreams of lechery. That was the reason why.
Of course, carnal gratification and lubricious pleasures beyond the dreams of lechery probably didn't apply to the part where Crowley had knocked over a potted plant on his way to the bed and Aziraphale had insisted on stopping to clean the mess up, or the part where Aziraphale had elbowed him painfully in the stomach while trying to get his shirt off, but the other parts . . . oh yeah.
And, all right, so Crowley hadn't been aware at the time that his purpose in luring Aziraphale into his home was so he could tempt him to indulge in the pleasures of the flesh, or at any rate he hadn't been aware until he'd suddenly realised that Aziraphale was human now, and touchable. Those were just minor details. He wouldn't have to tell Hell the minor details, if it ever slunk around wanting to know why he was hosting someone with an El in his name in a flat that didn't even contain any torture devices if you didn't count the ansaphone.
After all, what you really needed was a good story.
* * *
Aziraphale eyed the new cappuccino machine with distrust.
It was shiny. It was black. It looked like it could fly, if you pulled the right lever.
He backed out of the kitchen slowly, and went back to the bedroom.
An unmoving form was outlined under the white bedsheets. Aziraphale's back twinged as he bent over it.
"Crowley," he said. "Wake up."
"Mmfgh," said Crowley. Then,
"Just a minute of your attention, dear boy," said Aziraphale, before a pillow plastered him in the face.
Six athletic seconds later, Crowley fell out of the bed in a tangle of bedsheets and outrage.
"That bloody hurt!" He glared over the edge of the bed at Aziraphale. "What the Hell do you want?"
"Coffee," said Aziraphale.
Crowley dragged himself off the floor and onto the bed again, making little puffing snorts like an irritated toy train.
"Don't you know how to make coffee?" he said.
"Not with that thing in the kitchen," said Aziraphale, with delicate distaste. "Where did the old machine go?"
"Replaced it," said Crowley.
"What on Earth for?"
"Dunno," said Crowley. "It just seemed like the sort of thing the human I'm supposed to be would have."
"I don't like it," said Aziraphale. He sat down on the bed beside Crowley. "I don't see why you had to replace the old one. It worked perfectly well."
"Got to keep up with the times," said Crowley. He yawned. "What's biting you?"
"You're always changing everything," said Aziraphale. "What was wrong with the old telly we used to have? I can't touch the new remote control for fear of activating a nuclear bomb. We have a new computer every day, and neither of us can use any of them. The modern ergonomic chairs tip me on the floor whenever I try to sit on them, and I keep mistaking the new telephone for a large beetle, and . . ." He gestured helplessly.
"You're always changing everything," he repeated.
"I've got to keep up appearances," said Crowley. He peered at Aziraphale, seeming to see something that concerned him. "You've never complained before."
"Maybe I'm getting old," he said.
He tried to laugh, but it wasn't really funny. Threescore and ten. He'd passed threescore now; the end of the next decade loomed perilously close.
Crowley looked as if the concept had never even entered his mind, which was probably the case. When Aziraphale had first turned human, Crowley hadn't been able to stop worrying about him; he'd nearly had to pry the demon off him every time he left for work. But as the years passed and Aziraphale stayed alive despite uncounted paper cuts and stubbed toes, Crowley had stopped worrying. Now Aziraphale doubted if he even realised Aziraphale was getting older with the passage of time.
Aziraphale never forgot. As it turned out, the liver Heaven had given him worked fine, but his heart was a completely different matter.
He hadn't told Crowley. He would -- soon -- but not yet.
"You're over six thousand years old," Crowley said. "You can't be getting old, you were there already."
"I meant in a human sense," said Aziraphale.
Crowley rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, yeah," he said. He did that, every time Aziraphale reminded him of his humanity -- acted as if Aziraphale had gone and got himself made into a human just on purpose to annoy him.
He glanced at the clock, and then at Aziraphale.
"You're not going away any time soon, are you," he said, without much hope.
"Yes," said Aziraphale gravely.
Crowley sighed and threw off the sheets.
"Fine," he said, "I'll look at the blessed machine."
Aziraphale read the newspaper while Crowley pressed buttons at random and swore.
He wondered if Crowley understood that nobody would be coming for him before the end. There would be no reprieve at the eleventh hour, no Sariel or Jerahmeel or Uriel showing up to say, "All right, old chap, that's quite enough. Welcome back to the fold, here's your wings, don't do it again."
Heaven's punishments were final. There would be no salvation for Aziraphale. He knew that.
He wondered if Crowley did.
Twenty years now he'd lived with Crowley. Crowley had spent most of that time objecting to everything Aziraphale did, from the way he arranged his hair, to the way he arranged the furniture. Maybe he wouldn't miss Aziraphale when he was gone.
Don't be maudlin, old boy, Aziraphale told himself sternly. Stiff upper lip and all that.
A shadow fell on Aziraphale's newspaper. He looked up.
"I thought you liked tea better," said Crowley. He held up a tea-bag.
"Can't you get the machine to work?" Aziraphale said maliciously.
"It's broken," said Crowley, "or cursed. Look, I could just make it make coffee if you'd only let me--"
"No," said Aziraphale, with absolute certainty.
Crowley threw up his hands.
"It would be so much easier if you'd just let me--"
"I know," said Aziraphale. He got up.
"I'll try again," he said.
He stalked past Crowley, ignoring his muttered abuse. He poked at the cappuccino machine tentatively.
Crowley didn't understand why Aziraphale wouldn't let him use his occult powers to ease his life. Aziraphale wasn't sure he understood why either, except that it had something to do with not letting the old side down, even when the old side had fucked you over and abandoned you. Especially when the old side had fucked you over and abandoned you. Something about sometimes needing to be quixotic instead of practical.
Crowley said it was just Aziraphale trying to be more of an angel than he'd ever been when he'd actually been an angel, but --
That did it. Aziraphale grinned in smug triumph as the machine made a noise like a dying robot and came to life, and the smell of coffee wafted out. He turned to tell Crowley. Nothing so obvious as I told you so, of course; just a demurely virtuous word would do --
-- and suddenly there was a burst of pain or light, Aziraphale couldn't tell which, and for a moment he thought it was them, finally returning to him; forgiveness unexpected after so long --
And then he knew it wasn't. His first guess had been correct, after all.
Agony bloomed in his chest, and he knocked the machine over. He thought, Crowley won't be pleased --
* * *
All stories have an end.
The end of his story, his and Aziraphale's, Crowley saw coming on a Sunday afternoon, in a moment of enlightenment like a flash of lightning that briefly illuminates a darkened landscape, and is gone. In a moment Crowley saw his future.
It consisted of long stretches of dragging, unexceptional misery, with brief intervals of gory excitement. When he later realised that this, minus the brief intervals of gory excitement, described most humans' entire lives, he had to go and lie down for a while.
He hadn't known. How was he supposed to know? Nobody had ever told him.
New things Crowley learnt about being human: life doesn't accept excuses.
The end of the world can come in the middle of the comics page.
It's really hard to get coffee-coloured footsteps out of a white carpet.
But what really hurt was that he hadn't caught Aziraphale in time. Aziraphale had fallen, and Crowley had just frozen. The world had crumbled to dust and ashes, and Crowley had done nothing.
Story of his life.
* * *
So this was how it ended: in antiseptic silence, with Crowley in a hideously uncomfortable chair beside a white bed.
Crowley counted off the seconds and did not think about anything at all, especially how easy it would be to reach out and say, "Live."
He could do it. Technically, he could do it.
Technically, he could also writhe in Heaven's burning light for eternity, while blank-eyed angels poked at him with white-hot swords and reminded him that Aziraphale was still lost forever; see what came of trying to defy God's will?
Crowley remembered the rebellion. It was not a good memory.
You could do it, whispered a voice in his head. You wouldn't have to heal him completely, just . . . tweak things a little. Fix them. Give him a little more time.
We had so little time . . . .
Crowley shook, engulfed by terror -- of Heaven, of Hell, of loss and futility.
Aziraphale would have done it for you, said the voice. Even if he thought it was futile.
His problem was that he'd always had hope. He'd always believed that everything would turn out more or less all right in the end, if only because it had always done so before. Sure, he'd messed up in the Beginning, but all that had happened was that he'd fallen, which wasn't so bad once you got used to it. Sure, the fourteenth century had felt like a horrible eternity, but it hadn't been, had it; the fifteenth century had come right after. Sure, he'd almost brought about the end of the world, albeit unwillingly, but even that had worked out, or at least it hadn't, which was the point.
The thing was, the thing was, everything had always turned out for the reasonably okay, if not for the best. Crowley had never had cause to complain before.
He'd just never expected this. An end, and such an end. No crashing down in flames, just silence, chemicals in the air and death in the all-too-close future.
It had to be a joke. Any minute now, Crowley thought, light would burst through the clouds and a Voice would say,
"All right, I think you've got our point; you can stop dying now, Aziraphale."
Any minute now.
Any minute now.
Any . . . .
And then there was presence. A sudden new thereness.
Crowley raised his eyes, hardly daring to hope --
As it turned out, there was no reason to.
Crowley's face froze.
"No," he said flatly. His lips felt numb.
Death looked back at him across the white hospital bed.
"No," he repeated, his voice rising. "You can't take him. Not now. The, the moment, the crisis, it's over! The doctors said -- they said he was all right for now, they said -- he's all right! He can't die now!"
I BEG TO DIFFER, said Death.
"Fuck you," hissed Crowley. It is difficult to hiss words without a single 's', but Crowley managed it. "You can't do this. Not--"
Tears of pure rage stung his eyes. He hadn't even known he had tear ducts before he'd heard the dull thud in the kitchen. Now, it seemed, he was making up for lost time.
A dull ache somewhere in the outlying regions of his body recalled Crowley to himself. He looked down: he was clutching fistfuls of blanket in a death-grip. His knuckles were white from the strain. In a silence as thick as a stunned sheep, he unwound the cloth, wincing when he stretched his fingers.
"Please," he said, not looking up. The plea stuck in his throat, dry with the knowledge that it was useless.
Death watched him imperturbably, although skulls do not in any case have a great range of expression. Death would have been hard put to it not to look imperturbable.
I'M JUST DOING MY JOB, he said. WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? YOURS WASN'T THE ONLY ARRANGEMENT AROUND.
Crowley's thoughts were moving with the speed of a swimmer in a pool of treacle, but Death's words were like a door opening in his head.
"Wait," he said slowly. "What did you say?"
I DON'T CHOOSE WHO DIES AND WHO DOESN'T, said Death. I DO NOT JUDGE. OTHERS . . . DO.
He gave Crowley a look that might have been significant, but it was hard to tell from his eye-sockets.
Things were moving in the depths of Crowley's mind, dark things that squelched. Above them sharp, clean thoughts whirred and clicked into place, very precisely. Shining steel over a dark, hideous rage.
"Why are you telling me this?" he said. He did not take his eyes off the bed, and he who lay in it.
HE NAMED ME AZRAEL, said Death. I AM NOBODY'S GOON. A beat.
Crowley did not answer.
He watched unblinking as Death swung his scythe, and the life left the body on the bed. There didn't seem to be any difference. He wondered if this was because Aziraphale still looked alive despite being dead, or if it was because he had looked more dead than alive when he'd been alive. Crowley couldn't tell.
He stood aside to let the nurses pass into the room, and then he walked away without looking back.
* * *
The doctor told him Mr. Fell had suffered a cardiac arrest, and looked at him oddly when he said,
The doctor added that it was unlikely that Mr. Fell had felt any pain. Crowley said grimly,
He stood in the middle of the waiting room and dialled the number of a funeral home on his mobile phone, and felt the world stretch out around him in silence. Something seemed to have dampened sound. Humans milled about him, talking, but their voices came from very far away.
He was alone in the world. He played with the words as the dial tone purred in his ear. Alone in the world. It sounded like a bad pop album.
Technically, he'd always been alone, of course. The thought did not comfort him.
A soft female voice -- a voice made of black crepe and white flowers -- answered the phone. He got up to arranging the funeral wreaths when the absurdity of the situation struck him like a candlestick to the back of the head, and he broke off and started laughing. The soothing voice asked him, concerned, if there was anything wrong, and he threw the phone at the wall.
He quietened and went away before the receptionist could call the security guards, but sick giggles kept bursting out of him at intervals. He couldn't control them.
Fucking funeral home. He might as well have just dragged Aziraphale's body out of the morgue and dumped it in the Thames. It wasn't like it mattered anymore.
It never had. Crowley had forgotten.
He laughed all the way home.
* * *
Crowley acquired a phonebook, and set it on the coffee table. Alone in his dark flat, he sat on the sofa across the book and lost himself in dreams of the past.
What had he ever done, after all? What had he ever done?
He'd fallen from Heaven, yes, but it wasn't like he'd done it on purpose. He'd just been caught hanging out with some unsavoury types, and he hadn't had the time or inclination to explain that he hadn't actually done anything evil so far, and in fact he had nothing against God, they hadn't talked much but He seemed like a decent guy, before all Hell had literally broken loose. Finally he'd decided to fight on Lucifer's side, or rather slink around and hide behind the taller fallen angels when Michael got a bit too energetic with his fiery sword, simply because it seemed easier, especially when everyone was so righteously convinced he was on Hell's side.
He'd figured, what the Hell, it couldn't be more boring than Heaven. He was right, as it turned out, but the problem was that it had set a trend.
For the last few millennia Crowley had just been going along with things, because everything was easier that way. He enjoyed tempting, he was good at tempting, but he didn't do it because he was particularly evil or because he enjoyed it any more than he enjoyed a good wine or a bad movie. He did it because it was his job, and it was a hell of a lot easier doing his work than getting worked over by a couple of his nastier colleagues.
The only thing he'd really put any effort, any -- well, he might as well admit it; it wasn't like Aziraphale could tease him about it now -- any heart into doing, was stopping the end of the world. Which would be praiseworthy if he were anyone else, yes, but he wasn't. He was, unfortunately, wholly himself -- Crowley, an incompetent excuse for a demon who didn't even go by his real name.
Who did he think he was fooling? He'd never have admitted it to Aziraphale, but he'd always secretly hoped it made a difference. Changing his name, learning to like nice cars and flash clothes, learning to like humans, learning to like angels -- he wasn't trying not to be a demon, he liked being a demon, and anyway they were just all names anyway; everyone was more or less human, even when they weren't. Everyone, demons and angels and especially humans, they were all more human than not.
He wasn't, he told himself, trying to escape who he was. He was trying to make himself someone who, well, who wasn't complete and total scum. It was one thing to be a bastard -- Crowley was an absolute bastard, and proud of it -- but it was another to be a complete wanker.
Crowley was evil, but he wasn't bad.
He hoped not, at least.
He'd never told Aziraphale. The angel had probably known anyway.
That insufferably smug look on his face when he looked at me, Crowley thought, and the memory of it stabbed him in the gut. For a moment he had to press his fist against his mouth to keep from screaming.
He breathed through his nose until the moment passed, and the pressure receded.
Who did he think he was fooling, indeed. Crowley stared at the phonebook with burning eyes.
Not the only Arrangement around.
He'd always known that Heaven and Hell communicated more than they liked people to think, but he'd never thought -- he'd never expected --
He should've known, really. Their superiors weren't completely stupid. They were, in fact, extremely good at devising tortures, for humans and for erring subordinates. Especially for erring subordinates.
He'd never done anything. When Aziraphale had told him, wide-eyed and shaking and so terribly, fatally mortal, he'd just patted him on the back and asked him if he wanted coffee. So stupid. What had he been thinking? Had he really thought humanity was some sort of allergy that would pass in time if he just waited?
Well, he knew better now, didn't he.
The end of Aziraphale. No more Aziraphale. Aziraphale had warned him.
He hadn't said it would hurt so much.
Heaven and Hell sure knew how to pick their punishments.
Crowley felt something dark and ugly and terribly comforting uncoil in his head and take over, blasting through his numbness and memories and pain, and burning them all to ashes.
It was time he did something for a change.
The phonebook flipped open on the coffee table, and the pages fluttered in an invisible wind. Crowley watched them intently.
In the darkness, there was something strangely reptilian about his face.
The pages stilled. Crowley looked at the book, got up, moving awkwardly, and picked up the phone. It took a couple of tries. The darkness in Crowley's head wasn't used to hands.
Crowley dialled a number, and waited. There was, he thought, something tremendously freeing about the absence of thou --
"Hello?" said a familiar voice. It had been a long time, but the world would have to end several times over before Crowley could forget that voice. Every bone in his body twanged to it.
It shook him back to himself, and to the unceasing voices in his head. He listened to his thoughts for a while, but they all said exactly the same thing as the darkness had meant.
"I have a proposition for you," he said slowly, taking care not to hiss.
There was silence. Then --
"I thought you'd call," said Adam Young.
* * *
So I'm gonna buy a gun and start a war