In the long run, there’s not much of a difference.
Crowley had expected relief, with the Apocalypse averted and peace restored and the world safe and, of course, his Bentley saved. Instead he was dogged by a lingering cloud of unease. Hell had been silent on the matter of his—disobedience—and he was just beginning to entertain the hope that maybe, just maybe, he’d get away with it. He brought the matter up with Aziraphale, and they agreed that probably their superiors were too embarrassed by the whole affair to punish them.
Still, their voices had shook a little at the very thought of all the other options available. There were many other possibilities, and Crowley couldn’t think of a single one that was pleasant. His adrenaline high had lasted for a few woozy hours after the Almost End Of It All, and left him high and dry on the beaches of depression and abject terror. He’d doused Ligur in holy water. He’d disobeyed Hell’s express orders. He’d been a bad demon.
He kept hearing the voices in his head. AS LONG AS ONE DEMON LIVES . . .
Crowley spent a great deal of time at Aziraphale’s bookshop, getting miserably drunk and and pretending that he wasn’t hiding. It wasn’t as if the books could help, anyway (though he suspected some of the longer words would terrify simpler types like Hastur). And Aziraphale hadn’t had a flaming sword for centuries. Still, there is something about bookshops that speaks of sanctuary, and Crowley badly needed even an illusion of safety.
He was there when a blue light burst from the ceiling, and when from it spoke a heavenly voice that sounded surprisingly similar to the voices on airplanes that tell you to buckle your seatbelt and not to smoke please and to turn off the little lights and lift your trays.
“Aziraphale,” it cooed. It was wreathed in dancing white-blue flames.
Crowley and Aziraphale shot one another wordless looks of fear.
“Er, hello,” said Aziraphale. He swallowed visibly. “I was, ah, I mean, that is . . .”
“Yes, Aziraphale. This is the Metatron.”
The voice shimmered with love and affection. Crowley looked at it, or tried to, hopefully. Things couldn’t be that bad if the voice sounded so friendly. Heaven was supposed to be Good, after all. And Good meant nice, didn’t it?
Aziraphale seemed to disagree. “Metatron,” he said in a small voice. “Is something the matter?”
“Should there be?”
“No, of course not.” The angel swallowed again and glanced nervously around; Crowley saw his eyes alight momentarily on the fire extinguisher.
“We have received some . . . interesting . . . reports, Aziraphale.”
“Have you?” asked Aziraphale.
“Yes, we have. We expect you would like to explain, wouldn’t you, Aziraphale? Very good. We’ll bring you up in a moment.”
Be quiet, Aziraphale mouthed to Crowley, who had begun to sidle toward the fire extinguisher when it became apparent that the angel had discarded it. “All right,” he said aloud to the voice.
“Hold on a moment—these newfangled contraptions are really very annoying—ah, there. Come along, now.”
And without so much as buckling his seatbelt or putting up his tray, Aziraphale vanished. Crowley made a small, anxious noise.
The flames flickered, the light vanished, and the room was suddenly very empty. Unwillingly, Crowley remembered that no, Good did not mean nice. Good was morality, not kindness. Good was like Evil, only different.
He wondered what was happening to Aziraphale. It couldn’t be as bad as Hell. Good didn’t mean nice, but Good had standards, didn’t it? There was no way torture or murder could be Good. Crowley noticed that he was pacing.
The bookshop didn’t feel reassuring anymore.
He wandered back the next day, saw the bookshop cold and empty, and went off to get drunk. It wasn’t the same, alone. He took a week to screw up the courage to return, and when he saw the lights on through the glass windows Crowley could have wept with joy. He didn’t, of course. Instead he walked very quickly to the door and stepped inside. Aziraphale was sitting behind the counter, quietly examining a pile of books.
“Aziraphale!” Crowley exclaimed, trying to regain his composure. Heaven had been merciful. Maybe there was hope for him. Maybe he could—
He looked more closely at Aziraphale, and froze.
The kindly lines were gone from Aziraphale’s face along with the irritable creases. The angel behind the counter was unmistakably Aziraphale, but a horribly changed Aziraphale. His face was smooth and beautiful and cold as marble; instead of comfortably solid he was slim and fit and graceful. Crowley stared, transfixed with horror.
“Aziraphale?” he said again.
The angel who was apparently Aziraphale looked up at him coolly and arched an elegant eyebrow. After a moment of thinking he rose from his seat and said, “Avaunt, demon.”
Crowley didn’t move. “What—happened—”
“If you don’t leave now I shall have to smite you,” said Aziraphale. He smiled gently and coldly. It was a beautiful smile, but it gave Crowley the screaming willies. “Please. I am in the middle of something important.”
“What are you doing?” Crowley asked numbly.
“Drawing up an inventory,” said the angel happily. “This bookshop has been absorbing far too much of my energy. It will have to go. Idol worship is sinful, of course, and my obsession with my books was interfering with my worship of the Lord.” He gave Crowley a stern look. “Now, please leave. I’m too busy to deal with you.”
Crowley found himself breathless; he remembered having the wind knocked out of him once, and the feeling was not dissimilar. He felt cold. “What did they do to you?” he asked helplessly. “Are you even Aziraphale?”
“Of course I am.” The angel stood. “If you insist . . .”
It drew a flaming sword.
Crowley wanted to run and hide, but there was nowhere and certainly no one to run to. He flashed through the thought that suddenly he was alone for the first time, that Hell was after him and Aziraphale— and then his mind short-circuited. He stood frozen in the bookshop, watching the angel walk closer. It smiled lovingly at him and lifted the sword.
“Aziraphale,” Crowley said. His heart hammered.
“You’re evil,” said the angel, brightly. “You are traitorous scum, a blight on the glory of God’s creation. You must be destroyed.” The sword hummed and crackled with flames.
Crowley could only stare at him.
The angel’s hand gripped his shoulder, and he yelped as the sword’s fire breathed against his neck. A voice that was not Aziraphale’s said, “You seem to have a knack for disobeying your superiors as well, Crowley. It is not advisable.” Then Aziraphale’s voice again, saying, “What have they done to me? They’ve fixed me, of course; my previous behavior was appalling. And really,” it added, “why should you care?”
The scorn stung as much as the superficial burns on his neck that for some reason wouldn’t heal. “Why should I care?” Crowley repeated. “Why should I care? I'm the only fucking friend you've got—”
It laughed. “Friend? You, a demon? Aren’t you the funny one.”
Crowley had known irritation and frustration and anger and dislike and terror quite intimately for much of his life; now he knew hatred. Not the kind of raw inspiring hatred that people write poems about, but the miserable helpless loathing that leaves other people babbling their lives away in locked rooms. “You’re not Aziraphale,” he muttered stupidly, and winced as the words jarred his throat.
“Yes, I am.” Shining wings burst from the angel’s shoulders, and a golden radiance enveloped it. Aziraphale appeared suddenly very holy, holier than Crowley could ever remember seeing him, as though he leaked hosannas from his pores. He looked like a Greek statue, beautiful and brilliant and noble and utterly inhuman. “Hm, how shall I put this? Sometimes the ‘program,’ shall we say, gets corrupted. I was an aberration. A simple flaw in the design, nothing more. These things do happen. You, along with your fellow fallen, are a prime example.”
The voice softened and seemed to smile. “But now that’s all been fixed. There’s no need to grieve, Crowley. I’m better now. And because God is merciful I will not destroy you; I’ll merely kill your human body and allow Hell to discipline its own.”
Crowley whimpered. He wanted desperately to say something, but he didn’t know what and his throat throbbed with pain. The angel’s wings arched. Feathers rustled all around him, and Crowley felt the sword brush his jugular once more.
Aziraphale said, “All better,” in a pleasant sing-song, and tilted the blade. Crowley closed his eyes.
A few moments later he opened them, puzzled, and saw the angel staring patiently at its desk, which was snaked with creeping flames. "Oh dear," said Aziraphale. "I really must be careful with this thing." Preoccupied, it turned to the desk, and Crowley backed unsteadily away, hearing his sunglasses shatter on the floor.
He ran out the door, and ignored the passers-by who stopped to stare at the dishevelled young man with the raw red neck and the wild eyes. There was nowhere to go, but he ran anyway.
Behind him, he heard a sweet voice break out in song. "Hallelujah," it sang, and the pure notes mingled exquisitely with the sound of a fire extinguisher. "Hallelujah."
There was nowhere to run. Crowley ran.