Summary: Angelic intelligence may be broader, and have thousands of years of practice, but sometimes a human still needs to give it a nudge in the right direction.
Fandom: Good Omens
Pairings: Aziraphale/Crowley, Aziraphale/Historical Male Character
Disclaimer: It all belongs to Gaiman and Pratchett, save Shelley, who presumably belongs to himself.
Original Story: Messenger of Sympathies by vulgarweed
Notes: I apologize for any incorrectness in Shelley's character, or views, or biographical details, which may be ascribed to weakness in my research, and also for my anachronistic use of the word 'banal'. Some lines borrowed from the original fic, some from Good Omens. Title, cut tag and all quoted poetry from Shelley's own works. Thanks to my amazing beta!
"All things that we love and cherish, like ourselves must fade and perish. Such is our rude mortal lot—love itself would, did they not." Percy concluded his recitation and paused, more nervous than was his custom. "What do you think?"
NOT BAD. I LIKED THE FIRST FEW LINES BEST.
"'Death is here and death is there, death is busy everywhere, all around, within, beneath, above is death—and we are death,'" Percy repeated. "Really? You preferred that stanza?"
INDEED. IT IS TRUE.
"You didn't find it too pat—you wouldn't call it 'banal', perchance?"
WHAT IS MORE BANAL THAN DEATH?
"A very good point!" Percy cried. "Perhaps banality, on this subject, is a virtue indeed. I say, you are quite the insightful critic. Are you perhaps a connoisseur of poesy?"
NO. POETRY IS OF THE LIVING. BUT I KNOW DEATH.
Percy nodded. "Quite right, quite right. Now if only I were not dead myself, so that I could rebut dear Ezra's arguments on the triteness of those lines."
I AM SURPRISED THAT YOUR MR. FELL DID NOT RECOGNIZE THE TRUTH IN THEM.
For the first time in their exchange (despite the fact that it was taking place between himself as a now disembodied spirit and a skeletal figure entirely in keeping with popular images of Death, whilst the both of them hovered in air over the stormy seas that had just swallowed his drowned corpse), Percy found himself entirely bewildered. "My Mr. Fell? You mean to say you are acquainted with the gentleman?"
"A very great pleasure to meet you, Mr. Fell." This one is rather an odd duck, he thought as he looked his fellow Englishman over, noting the curiously old-fashioned clothes and hairstyle. Ezra Fell did not look like the usual type drawn to one of England's most notorious expatriate modern poets.
"The pleasure, Mr. Shelley, is all mine, I assure you."
"Please, call me Percy. I can't abide formality; after all, are not all men brothers, and do not all poets share a friendship bound by their art?"
"Call me Ezra, then. Though I should hardly flatter myself by calling myself a poet."
Percy gave Ezra a genuine smile. Men who had made accurate assessments of their own talents were far too rare, especially in intellectual circles. "Well then, Ezra, what would you call yourself? I am ever curious to know how man defines himself."
Ezra smiled back, an act which lit his whole countenance in almost unearthly fashion, and drew Percy's attention to his startlingly blue eyes. "In point of fact, I have called myself many things over the years, but since you ask me today, I should say that I am a bookseller."
Percy started back from him in feigned shock. "Are you in truth then a bookseller? For I have met many who have claimed to be such a creature, but none who had true claim to the title; for such men all seem to be incapable of parting with a single volume by way of sale. If you are indeed a seller of books, you would be the rarest of acquaintances."
Ezra, who had been momentarily dumbstruck, seemed to perceive that Percy was in jest, for he replied "Indeed, you have seen through my pretense with little delay. However, since, as you say, the preponderance of those going under the name of 'booksellers' are of my type, is it not an easier thing to call oneself than 'voracious bibliophile, universal amateur of the literary arts, and untidy recluse?"
Percy let out a hearty roar of laughter, startling his new friend. "A bookseller with a sense of humour? You are a true rarity indeed. Come, will you walk with me, Ezra?"
EZRA FELL (Funny how Death pronounced this as 'Aziraphale', thought Percy) IS KNOWN TO ME. WE ARE COLLEAGUES, FROM A CERTAIN POINT OF VIEW.
Percy did not find this at all enlightening. "You mean to say you frequent his bookshop?"
ON OCCASION. I GET EVERYWHERE.
"Right." He wondered how it was possible for a spirit to feel dizzy. "Excuse me, it's simply—I believed myself to be speaking with Death, and now I find we have a mutual acquaintance in an unfashionable London bookseller." Percy cast about for the proper words to describe the strangeness of the whole scenario. "I wish I could sit down."
YOU MAY IF YOU WISH, BUT I DOUBT IT WILL HELP.
Percy chose to pace instead, and to talk. Enough words, and perhaps this could all be made to make sense. "Just the other day, I was speaking with Ezra on ordinary topics. I felt I had finally convinced him to act upon his feelings for Crowley. And today I am here, dead, and discovering my lovesick friend knows the personification of that state. I would conjecture I am hallucinating, save that I am quite certain I am dead, and the dead are unlikely to experience such visions."
MANY OF THE DEAD ARE CONFUSED—WAIT, WHAT WAS THE PART ABOUT CROWLEY?
"What, is the mysterious Crowley an associate of yours as well? Forsooth, nothing you say should surprise me any longer. In the course of our acquaintance, I became convinced Ezra had feelings for this Crowley, a love far above the ordinary type, but he stubbornly refused to acknowledge them in any way. It was only this week past that I confronted him more urgently and plainly on the matter, and the last I saw of him, he had promised to me he would return to England and confess all."
NOW THAT, I HAVE TO SEE.
"My dear, I still will not be persuaded to your position." Ezra reached for the bottle of wine. "Men never were good enough to hold to it, you can trust my word on that."
"And you are an expert in man's goodness, and lack there of, I know." Percy had had just enough of the excellent Chianti to be merry, though Ezra was drinking at a pace Percy had categorized as 'alarming' when he first encountered it several months ago.
"It's a lousy job, that," Ezra slurred. "But I've no choice."
"If you're in need of other employment, you could always sell some of your books, my friend," Percy said in feigned innocence.
Ezra spilled rather a lot of wine on the rug. "You," he intoned, with a jab of a finger. "You're as bad as—as bad as, well, someone bad."
"And is that not, then, my human nature?"
"You're not—men are not all bad; that's not what I mean at all." Ezra shook his head, as if to clear it, and did seem to recover himself somewhat. "I should not drink so much during these discussions, I know," he said apologetically. "It detracts from the clarity of my thought. But I forget, sometimes, that you're—" He took another hasty sip of wine.
What Percy was, he did not then discover, for Ezra returned to his original point. "I do not say that mankind is all bad; that is the farthest thing from what I should like to say. I have known people to do many good things in their lives—acts that rival the goodness of angels." He sighed; it was a very sad and somehow old sound. "But never all the time. Men are capable of divine grace and diabolical vice; that is what makes them men."
"Men also are capable of love," Percy countered, shifting their dialogue towards a topic of endless fascination to him, and one on which he had never been able to press Ezra fully. "In which category would you place the emotion?"
Suddenly, Ezra looked tired. His face went slack and took on an almost inhuman aspect. "Angels too can love," he said quietly. "Is it not then of the heavenly portion?"
"You sound unconvinced, my friend."
Ezra had another sip of wine. They sat in silence for a long moment, and Percy felt they were poised as if upon a fence, and wondered if Ezra would continue or draw back.
He seemed to choose the latter. "Lust," he said after a moment, pursing his lips as though the word did not belong in his mouth. "Angels are not meant to be capable of lust, but men are, and it is, I think, right that they should be. When the divine quality of love joins with the diabolical energy of lust, it produces that most human of emotions—eros, as the Greeks called it." Here he seemed, with an effort, to return to himself, and once more Ezra the bookseller was sitting across from him, half-smiling. "Which all just goes to prove my earlier contention, my dear, that man is distinguished by his mixture of good and bad, and unsuited to your utopia."
Percy was reluctant to relinquish the point. "Have you never, then, felt eros yourself?"
Ezra met his eyes, then, and Percy had to turn away, for the piercing quality of Ezra's gaze frightened him. "For all my scorn of idealism, I fear I must confess that I do try to achieve goodness in myself. Though I often fall short, more so each year, it seems. Eros … I shouldn't."
Percy looked then at his companion, and saw a man who was in the grips of just that sentiment they were discussing, and deeply unsettled by it. It was a man he recognized; a man like himself. "'We are not happy, sweet,'" Percy said then, quoting from memory. "'Our state is strange and full of doubt and fear.'"
"You wrote those lines for your wife, Mary," Ezra said.
"So I did, and meant them truly. Love is not a comfortable feeling always, Ezra, but that does not mean we should deny it."
Ezra made no sign he'd heard him, but after a moment's pause began to recite, to himself, as though he were quite alone.
"'We are not happy, sweet! Our state
is strange and full of doubt and fear;
more need of words that ills abate.
Reserve or censure come not near
our sacred friendship, lest there be
no solace left for thee and me.
Nor can I live if thou appear
aught but thyself, or turn thine heart
away from me, or stoop to wear
the mask of scorn, although it be
to hide the love thou feel'st for me.'"
Percy noted that he'd skipped 'gentle and good and mild thou art', but he kept any conclusions he drew to himself.
"Where, precisely, are we going?" Percy asked nervously. A confirmed atheist, until his death he'd given precious little thought to an afterlife. On the one hand, the fact he was engaged in conversation with an anthropomorphic representation of Death seemed to point at the afterlife as being much more like traditional conceptions than Percy had ever thought; on the other hand, Death was also a stranger being by far than he would've expected, and it seemed they even had an acquaintance in common, so perhaps it would all work out fine.
I HAVE WORK TO DO. YOU MAY COME WITH ME, IF YOU WISH TO SEE YOUR 'EZRA' WITH HIS CROWLEY. I WOULD NOT MIND HEARING MORE POETRY ON THE WAY.
"Won't they be missing me, somewhere?"
YOUR DEATH WAS PREMATURE. THEY CAN WAIT.
Well, that put off the question of the afterlife and he was quite interested to see Ezra's Crowley. "It would be my pleasure to accompany you, then. Have you any preferences in theme for the reading?"
DO YOU HAVE ANY MORE POEMS ABOUT ME?
THAT WILL DO. YOU WILL NEED TO TAKE MY HAND. AND I WOULD CLOSE MY EYES IF I WERE YOU.
Percy obediently closed his eyes, gripped a hand that was colder than anything mortal could be, and began.
"'How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother, Sleep!'"
Percy rolled over, yawned, and immediately wished he hadn't done either. His head felt like it belonged to someone else, someone who had spent the night being beaten with a sturdy stick. He lay as still as possible, trying to gather the energy to sit up.
Next to him, Ezra was whuffling, an endearing little half-noise with every exhaled breath. Ezra. The reason his head felt so miserable, he and his impossible tolerance for wine. And in a minute he would be making Percy's head feel even worse, because he would have to think about what they had done last night.
Percy was not a man who lived a life of romantic regrets. Most of his scandalous reputation across Europe was based upon this fact, coupled with his well-publicized atheism. He was not, however, in any sense a heartless rogue; if he must have a reputation, it should rather be in the opposite direction: Percy believed, whole-heartedly, that love, freely shared, was a good thing, and he shared as often as he could.
He would not deny that he had always found Ezra beautiful, though there was a curious quality about him. Sometimes, his beauty was writ so sharp upon him he seemed well nigh ethereal; at yet others, one saw only his ordinariness, unkempt hair and unflattering clothes and a slight chubbiness. His eyes never lost their beauty, but the rest of him was as changeable as the heavens.
Love, freely shared; but could such be deemed "freely" when one party to it was so clearly pining for another? Love should admit of no deception, in Percy's view, and while Ezra hadn't deceived him in the slightest, with his careful evasions and pregnant silences, he did seem to be deceiving himself.
Since the cryptic success Percy had achieved in prompting Ezra to self-revelation the evening he'd recited those lines to Mary, his every attempt to broach the topic had been met with denials. Ezra refused to speak another word on the topic. In the face of innumerable subtle hints, Ezra maintained that he, confirmed bachelor that he was, loved no one and nothing but his books.
But still, Percy caught him looking at him as though he were seeing someone else in Percy's place, as they debated and drank wine and (eventually) passed out. In his cups, some nights, Ezra was yet again another being, prone to calling Percy "my dear" and confronting Percy's attempts at playing the Devil's advocate with what seemed suspiciously like fond exasperation.
And after last night, Percy had no doubt Ezra's thoughts dwelt on another. In the midst of all the lovely (if rather clumsily drink-addled) things they'd done together, he'd caught the ghost of one word on Ezra's lips. "Crowley"; Ezra's love now had a name.
Reluctantly, Percy now forced himself to sit up, and wondered what to say when Ezra woke. This wasn't a conversation he had often, especially with such a resistant interlocutor.
It seemed, though, that the shift of his weight had awakened Ezra, who sat up as well. "Good morning," he said, showing every evidence of good cheer. Percy responded with a bleary look.
"Oh, how foolish of me," Ezra said, quieter this time. "You must feel wretched." He laid a comforting hand upon the small of Percy's back, and suddenly Percy did feel much better, almost as though he'd not drunk at all the night before. He fought not to relax into the touch.
"I had a delightful time, last night. Did you not also?" Ezra asked once the silence had become awkward.
"Who is Crowley?" Percy asked by way of reply.
Ezra looked stunned, then abashed. "Did I—how embarrassing."
"You did not cry out the name, but I heard it pass your lips nevertheless. Tell me about him."
Ezra did not immediately reply, but instead busied himself with dressing in silence. Percy watched him calmly, confident that patience would win him at least some response.
"He also has dark hair," Ezra finally offered, coming to stand by the bed. "And he—I fear I cannot tell you about him; he is too complex and I am not sure I know him for the telling. But your hair is quite like his and—sometimes, in a certain light, with a certain phrase, after a certain smile—you remind me of him."
"If you love him, then it is he you should be sharing this morning with."
Percy reached out a hand to brush his lips and silence him. "Do not lie to me, do not lie to yourself. Such dishonesty is why this was a mistake, though I too found it a delightful one."
"I seem to be making a great deal of mistakes lately."
"If you were to ask me, I would say it could never be a mistake to tell this Crowley of your feelings," Percy ventured.
Ezra drew back. "It would be a mistake for reasons you could not even fathom," he said resignedly. "He is incapable of returning my sentiments, sentiments which I should not even have, and I will not give him the satisfaction. I know you mean well, Percy, but I wish you would cease your meddling."
Percy heard the finality in his friend's voice, but tried once more. "All men love, and no man can help where he loves, my friend. Unless your Crowley is some unnatural fiend, but no good man like yourself could love such a one—"
"You've just proven my point." Ezra walked to the door of the bedchamber. "I'm sorry, my dear. I must go; there are journeys for me to undertake, no doubt. I've been neglecting my work for far too long. I will visit you upon my return to Italy, and all this shall be as water under a bridge, no doubt."
"No doubt," Percy echoed. "Safe travels, my friend."
"'Majestic spirit, be it thine the flame to seize, the veil to rend, where the vast snake Eternity in charmed sleep doth ever lie—'"
WE ARE HERE.
We are where, Percy wondered. He opened his eyes, and was met with the sight of a room dustier than he'd ever imagined possible. He was glad he did not have to breathe the no doubt stale air. At the center of the room was a large bed; the room appeared deserted.
"Shall I finish my poem?" he asked.
THERE IS NO NEED. I HAD NOT REALIZED POEMS WERE SO LONG.
"I was scarcely a hundred lines in!"
TIME PASSES DIFFERENTLY IN DEATH. A DAY PASSED WITH EACH LINE OF YOUR POEM.
"A day!" Percy exclaimed. "Then three months have passed us by."
YES. WE HAVE REACHED THE DAY AND PLACE. NOW WE WAIT.
The day and place? Ah, for Ezra and Crowley's meeting. Though why they would choose this particular place—Ezra had joked about the untidiness of his bookshop, but surely his home was not this untidy, even after an extended absence.
Just then, the very bookseller in question thrust open the door. The dust swirled wildly and Ezra began to cough.
"Can he see us?" Percy asked Death quietly.
NO. THEY SHOULD BE ABLE TO SEE ME, BUT THEY BOTH HAVE BECOME AS SKILLED AS ANY HUMAN AT NOT SEEING WHAT THEY DO NOT WISH TO SEE.
"Bugger," Ezra swore as the coughing fit ended. "I hope he's still in here. Honestly, can't even be bothered to wake up and vanish his own dust."
He made his way over to the bed, and as he watched Percy realized that what he had taken for an untidy pile of covers was in fact an untidy pile of covers with a man underneath them. Crowley, then, asleep?
Ezra stood by the bed for a moment, contemplating its contents. He seemed pleased by what he saw, but Percy could also see that he was on edge, and trying to hide it.
"'Wake the serpent not, lest he should not know the way to go,'" he whispered. "I hope Percy was right about this."
"That was a quote from one of my poems," Percy told Death. "The first bit, that is."
Ezra knelt by the edge of the bed and gave its occupant a shake. "Crowley? Crowley, my dear, would you please wake up?"
"I thought you were in Italy," were the first words of that rumpled personage, as he stretched sleepily.
"How did you know?" Ezra asked, but Crowley had sat up, and Percy lost the thread of their conversation as he took his first good look at the man, now only partially obscured by his tangle of blankets.
He was attractive, certainly, with deep black hair and a pale, flawless complexion. His chest was muscled and even moments after awakening he had a certain air about him that drew one in, so that Percy wanted to trust him almost immediately. And then Percy noticed his eyes.
"What's wrong with him?" he asked Death.
NOTHING. OR EVERYTHING. IT DEPENDS ON YOUR POINT OF VIEW.
THE EYES ARE THE MIRRORS OF THE SOUL.
"I thought you didn't usually go for poetry," Percy muttered, completely unenlightened by his companion's replies. He hoped not all of death would be so cryptic.
"He drowned, actually," Ezra was saying.
"You know perfectly well mortals do that all the time," Crowley replied, and with every word he uttered Percy grew less certain he had advised Ezra well. "Not drowning specifically, I mean – there is a seemingly infinite number of ways they can snuff it. The mortal coil is designed to be shuffled off, that’s why they call it that. They’re so brief and fragile, that rather seems to be the point of them. I don’t know why you keep—"
"He's not very compassionate, is he?" Percy remarked.
HE CAN ONLY BE WHAT HE IS.
"A unique snowflake?" Crowley, who was obviously a being of extreme sarcasm, was asking Ezra.
"Yes! And here for so little time, and sometimes they burn so, so terribly bright, as if they know how little time there is. Sometimes they have whole worlds inside them they’re trying to get out, to convey…"
"So did you carpe this Shelley's diem then?" Crowley asked Ezra, leering ridiculously, and Percy loathed him in that moment even before he saw the look on Ezra's face.
Ezra's reply grew heated. "Once, and it was completely lovely, but I don’t know what you’d understand about that. If I know you, you’re probably just going to smirk about adultery."
I KNEW I HAD TO SEE THIS. MOST AMUSING, ISN'T IT?
Percy shook his head, frustrated. "How can you be so callous? How can he?" He gestured at Crowley.
I AM DEATH. I AM NEITHER CALLOUS NOR COMPASSIONATE. I SIMPLY AM.
"Well, what's his excuse, then? Is he an inhuman devil?" Percy muttered.
GOT IT IN ONE.
"You're jesting, surely."
DEATH DOES NOT JEST.
"Well, next you be telling me Ezra is one of God's blessed angels!"
CORRECT AGAIN. YOU ARE MOST PERCEPTIVE, FOR A MORTAL.
"I do not believe this," Percy said, mostly to himself. He was now beginning to believe that his insistence that Ezra, or whatever he was really called, tell Crowley had been foolish at best and dangerously under-informed to boot.
Ezra—Aziraphale, was that what Death had called him?—was in the midst of quoting Percy himself. "—And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone, Love itself shall slumber on."
"That's … nice," Crowley said with a rather loaded pause, and Percy tried not to be softened by the demon's apparent good taste.
Don't bother with him, Ezra, Percy silently urged. You were right, I was wrong, and as I now know you're an angel in love with a demon—
It was at that point that it fully hit Percy that he'd been quite thoroughly and expertly buggered by one of the heavenly host, and he dissolved into uncontrollable laughter. Perhaps he could get used to these new metaphysics, after all.
SEE? Death said, obviously thinking him struck by the humor of the awkward scene before them.
"You are very beautiful," Aziraphale told Crowley, and though his tone was far from loving Percy cringed. He couldn't possibly be forging on, in the face of that reception, could he?
"What a startling revelation that is,” the demon answered, and while his tone was cold, to Percy's ears it seemed softened from earlier exchanges. "Vanity, you know. It’s expected of me. What’s your excuse?" Well, so much for softening, as it seemed all things Crowley did could be explained by sin. How trite.
And then Crowley kissed the angel, certainly not in a comforting way so he was still a bastard but it gave Percy some pretty clear ideas on why Ezra had associated lust with diabolical energy; the air in the room seemed muzzy with it, and for a moment Percy recanted his position yet again, was about to silently urge Aziraphale now to go for it, demon and angel or no.
Then it all fell apart. The angel drew back and the demon grew wary and then Aziraphale spoke words that might as well have been designed to provoke, flattering though they were to Percy himself.
"How do I know that you aren’t just…trying to erase him somehow?" he asked, and then those blues eyes grew wide even before Crowley reacted, as if he knew he'd gone too far.
And the room filled with fury the likes of which Percy had never experienced, though he was not himself in the habit of antagonizing demons, or angels.
Crowley launched into a diatribe worthy of his diabolical origins. "Do you really think I’m such a twisted little shite I’m not even capable of honest lust? That I can’t even want you without some infernal ulterior motive? No, you’re sort of right in some horrifically wrong way. I have wretched timing. You’re in mourning. You should be in black crepe and a veil. Go lay yourself down under the twilight beneath some melancholy willow tree and pine."
Percy couldn't help but feel that, infernal status aside, Crowley made an excellent point; his use of sarcasm was also most deft.
"I’m going to go back to sleep. Don’t wake me up again unless you really want my company. Or maybe not even then," Crowley concluded, and ordered Aziraphale "OUT", locking the door behind him. Once alone in the musty room, he seemed almost to drop a mask of sorts. His anger was dissolving, and what Percy saw writ, unguarded, on his countenance was misery.
"I want to make you feel better, angel. I just can’t manage it," he whispered, so low he almost wasn't speaking aloud, then collapsed back on the bed.
Percy waited dumbstruck for whatever Death had planned next. That had been a fiasco indeed, and all ascribable to his cursed idealism, what Ezra had always chided him about.
YOU ARE NOT READY TO LEAVE, Death noted.
"I feel that I have done my friend a disservice," Percy admitted. "I am loathe to depart this earth with such a legacy, yet I doubt now, knowing what I do, that any words from me can bring together such opposites, nor heal the damage done today."
THOSE TWO HAVE BEEN AT THIS FOR MILLENNIA, FRANKLY. IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT.
"Perhaps not, yet still I yearn for a happy conclusion for them both."
IT'S TIME TO GO.
A HAPPY ENDING FOR AN ANGEL AND A DEMON WOULD BE … INEFFABLE.
"So there's still hope, then."
"I hear you intend to visit Byron?" Ezra asked.
"I certainly do," Percy replied, favoring his friend with a warm smile. He was pleased they were reconciled, now that Ezra had returned. "The weather could not be more fit for sailing."
"So you will sail, then? I thought Mary felt the boat was quite unsound." Ezra sounded worried, but his tone was reasonable.
"Mary is a good judge of many things, but seaworthiness, I fear, is not one of them."
"Will you sail with any companions?" At first Percy thought Ezra disinterested—he knew well the man was no sailor—but realized that he sounded resigned, as though he had tried his best to prevent some accident but now was reconciled to its inevitability. Curious.
"With Williams, I think. Edward, you remember? He is quite a keen sailor, like myself, these days."
"Is that so?"
"It is, and it is also so that I am composing a few verses, dedicated to him which I think will find favour with your ear. Listen, here is the latest stanza:
'Therefore, if I see you seldomer,
Dear friends, dear friend! Know that I only fly
Your looks, because they stir
Griefs that should sleep, and hopes that cannot die.
The very comfort which they minister
I scarce can bear; yet I,
(So deeply is the arrow gone)
Should quickly perish if it were withdrawn.'"
Ezra smiled. "A very fine stanza, my dear. I shall have to remember it, for the right occasion."