Ineffabilis Opus

AD 79

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining with the pleasant glow of the early fall, merchants bustled in the streets, and children played on every corner. The sound of construction was ever-present, but it was a cheerful sound: industry. Hope for the future. Business was booming.

Aziraphale was miserable.

He puttered through the door of the tavern, noting that the building housing the establishment was under construction. “Afternoon,” he muttered to the stonemason in the doorway. “It looks just fine, don’t you think?” He couldn’t stop himself from saying. “Is… all this really necessary?”

The stonemason just stared at him, which was completely understandable, because you don’t just leave buildings that were damaged by earthquakes to crumble.

“Oh,” pouted Crowley at him the moment he sat down, “Oh, angel. Don’t look like that. It’s alright.” Crowley pushed a second tumbler of watered-down wine across the table, and Aziraphale buried his face in his hands. “It is not. They’re all still here. I did another one last week, just a small one, and I lost an entire day sleeping after that, of all things, that’s how much it took out of me– and then I woke up and they’re all still here!

“Well.” Crowley stared into his own wine, lips pursed. “Humans will do that. They’re rather good at ignoring warnings. I mean, think about it. You can warn ‘em all you like about the dangers of evil, but one quick temptation–” he snapped his fingers, grinning ruefully, “and we’ve got them.”

“Oh, thank you.” Aziraphale tried not to sound petulant, but it was a little bit difficult faced with– this. “Remind me all about how easy it is for your side. That’ll cheer me right up.”

“Mmm.” Crowley’s hand reached under the table, palm brushing over Aziraphale’s knee soothingly, and the angel fought off the urge to push him away. One shouldn’t accept comfort from demons, but he’d accepted a lot of things from Crowley that were not strictly permitted.

Like advice. Advice on how to minimize the impact of your own Higher Power’s destruction orders was definitely in the class of things that angels were not supposed to accept from demons. Not favours, either; but despite that, Aziraphale was still desperately grateful for Crowley’s offer to Tempt some rich degenerates into hosting some sort of revel– the details of which were not fit for an angel’s delicate ears– which would doubtless draw many young Pompeiians who could afford to make the trip to a private villa to the north of the mountain, on the appointed day. Where they would be safe.

That would account for a few of the richer and more feckless citizens. The majority, though, had to be evacuated some other way. Some way that convinced them to leave Pompeii before the 23rd of November, and didn’t call the attention of the Almighty to Aziraphale.

The earthquakes had been Aziraphale’s idea. Crowley had pointed out that even small quakes would doubtless still kill people, but Aziraphale put that out of his mind and forged on. After all, it would be worth it if, in the time between him receiving the order to destroy the city, and the date that it must be done, a propensity towards earthquakes convinced the humans that Pompeii was no longer a safe place to live.

Only, it hadn’t worked. And now, with little over a month left until the day, Aziraphale was despondent in a Pompeiian tavern that was destined to become a pile of crispy human flesh and accumulated ash.

“They just keep rebuilding,” he muttered. “Indefatigable, these humans. Where are they even getting the money for all this? I must’ve knocked these things down dozens of times by now.”

“Yes, it’s one of their better qualities, I always thought,” said Crowley, and then added “And damn them to Hell for it,” which Aziraphale was grateful for, since it approximated what he wanted to say himself. He stared despondently through the open door at the workers on the other side of the street, restoring a facade.

“Bankers,” said Crowley eventually.


“Bankers,” the demon repeated. He waved his hand around. “You asked how they were paying for all this. The answer is debt– I can smell it.” Aziraphale grimaced. The invention of debt had been a major triumph for Crowley. “They need to rebuild– this place runs on tourism, can’t have it looking mangy. I’m sure the brothels are paying princely sums to the stonemason’s guild to be first in line every time. Presumably why your lot wanted it gone in the first place.”

Aziraphale swallowed. He hadn’t asked why he had to destroy Pompeii. It was ineffable, and that was that.

“Oh,” he said. “So– I should pay some bankers a visit, then.”

Crowley’s eyebrows shot into his hairline, and he actually sounded rather impressed as he said, “You’re going to rough up a banker, angel? Do you need me to help? ”

Aziraphale found that even just the thought of a new angle to attempt cheered him up enough to shoot Crowley his most prim, holier-than-thou-not-that-that’s-a-high-bar-to-clear glare. “I’m going to talk to a banker,” he returned. “And if I were going to rough him up, I wouldn’t need your help.”


Admittedly, if Aziraphale had been intending to physically threaten Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, the slave who greeted him in the entrance hall of the house would probably have made him reconsider. He was holding a large knife and cursing a blue streak as he yanked an entire fish out of the mouth of the dog that was attempting to make a break for it out the front door as Aziraphale entered.

The cook took in Aziraphale in one glance, and gestured with his knife towards the back of the house. “Caecilius est in horto,” he muttered, and went back to chastising the dog.

Aziraphale headed in through the atrium and study, a few slaves nodding at him but otherwise unremarked-upon. This banker had been the most common name turned up by Crowley’s discreet enquiries into the financement of earthquake repair in town, so it wasn’t surprising that the household was used to patrons coming and going even outside of his normal receiving hours. They probably assumed that Aziraphale was yet another proprietor of a brothel, or tavern, or even a relatively reputable business, coming to beg for a loan to rebuild.

Which meant it was going exactly according to plan, because that is what Aziraphale was intending to be.

The rumours about Caecilius, as filtered through Crowley, had been fairly damning, even without Aziraphale’s particular brand of foreknowledge. Everyone who walked into his villa walked out with a loan, whether or not they could reasonably afford to pay it back. The man would own most of the city in a decade, if there were going to be any city to own. Aziraphale would be playing one of those.

The banker was sitting at a small table in the garden, having obviously brought his business here from the study some time in the afternoon. He was staring at a wooden tablet, with enough tablets stacked around him to practically obscure him from view. He frowned wearily and rubbed at his forehead.

When he saw Aziraphale, Caecilius motioned wordlessly for him to sit on a small bench across from him. The garden was lovely, really; he had expected ostentatious flowers and imposing fountains, but in truth most of it was occupied with vegetables. Unusual for someone so wealthy.

Finally, Caecilius put aside the tablet he had been looking at, where it teetered precariously on a stack of its fellows. “What do you need, my friend?” he asked.

Aziraphale startled. He hadn’t expected the question to be so… direct. “Well, I own a small fullonica, which I live on top of,” he started. “I only wash the garments of the humble people in the flats surrounding me, but–”

Caecilius nodded, wearily but cheerfully, and pulled a fresh tablet towards him. “I am also in that business,” he said. “How much do you need to rebuild, and how long do you require to pay back that sum, and no more?”


“That’s… that’s it?” Aziraphale stammered.

Caecilius put the tablet down again. “Is there something else you need?”

“No– I just– don’t you need to know more about my business? If I repay you only the sum you lend me, how are you to profit? And how do you know that I will repay you at all?”

Caecilius sighed. “I don’t,” he admitted. “But the gods seem determined to see our city in ruins. They will knock it down as quickly as we can build it back up. What am I to do? Let it crumble? Allow the people of Pompeii to despair?”

Aziraphale’s mouth was suddenly dry, which felt much too human for comfort when he rasped, “So you would go against– them? The gods?” The minor blasphemy of the plural itched on his tongue.

Caecilius spread his hands, a helpless gesture. “For as long as I am capable of doing so, I will help my fellow citizens. Now– what do you require?”

The bench creaked slightly on the stone and nearly fell over as Aziraphale stood up unsteadily. “I think– in point of fact– well– that’s all, thank you. This has been– most illuminating,” Aziraphale stuttered.

Caecilius just shrugged. “All the best to you, then,” he said, and he seemed to truly mean it.

Which was precisely the problem.


They hovered halfway in between Herculaneum and Neapolis to watch it happen. Treading air is easy enough with a well-developed wing musculature, so there was really no need for Aziraphale to miracle them hanging in the air– but the angel was faintly glowing with excess power, and practically jumping out of his skin. They could have been invisible as well, or at least overlookable, but they hardly needed to be. In times of obvious peril, the human mind has a tendency to filter out everything that isn’t a direct threat. And at the moment, every human on the ground only had eyes for the enormous cloud of ash and stone that was shortly going to kill them.

Crowley had waited for him, trying to disguise his involuntary cowering as Aziraphale manifested in a pyrotechnic display of angelic power. It had been practically too easy, as a major miracle. The mountain needed only a nudge to tip it over into disaster.

The demon might usually spend his days asking questions Aziraphale didn’t want to answer, and his nights providing his own answers that Aziraphale didn’t want to think about too hard. But Crowley never needled him when Aziraphale had to do something ineffable. Not since that first time, when he’d had to cast them out of Paradise.

Well, maybe cast out wasn’t exactly the end result. More of a gentle shooing motion, and with a parting gift, to boot.

This was not gentle. The enormous cloud of black ash was spreading farther than seemed possible, acrid-smelling and grim. They were far enough back that they could tread air with no difficulty, but the air in front of them still roiled with wave upon wave of diffuse heat. Eventually, those hot gases would surge downwards and kill anyone left in their path instantaneously. At least that was a blessing, or so Aziraphale tried to convince himself.

Crowley’s warm hand settled on his back, snaking underneath his wing to rub soothingly up his spine, and that was definitely a blessing. “Come on, angel,” he murmured. “Let’s go. It’s okay; you don’t have to watch.”

Aziraphale let himself be turned around. Perhaps the demon was right, and Aziraphale didn’t have to watch what he’d done. What he hadn’t wanted to do. Aziraphale knew Right from Wrong, after all, but sometimes he thought tremulously that Crowly might know more about the lowercase-letter versions of the concepts. Like whether or not one is required to bear witness to Ineffability, or merely act as its agent.

Somewhere in the city below, he knew, a man was dying who would have defied his gods just to rebuild a laundromat. Aziraphale turned his back on Vesuvius, and set off to the north.


AD 1969

“This is brilliant,” said Crowley. “We couldn’t have done a better job of it ourselves.”

Aziraphale was sitting in the muddy grass, a brave smile plastered onto his face that could not possibly have been less convincing. He was wistfully staring at a journalist perched on top of a small hill, alternately looking around with wide eyes and scribbling in a notebook. At least he had something to occupy himself with.

“Ah– what do you mean, we couldn’t have done a better job? We cover for each other, Crowley, we don’t collaborate. And certainly not on”– he waved his hand around at the mass of scantily-clad bodies– “music festivals.”

“That’s what’m saying.” Crowley didn’t, as a general rule, take psychedelics– drugs that help the user see alternate dimensions tend to be pretty underwhelming for beings who came from one. He’d still bought one of everything he’d been offered on a quick pass around the festival site, and spread it all out in front of him like a museum. “We didn’t need to, and we’ll both be able to write glowing reports back to head office. Peace and love, hundreds of thousands of people successfully co-habitating on a humble dairy farm, oh, well done, Aziraphale. But of course, half a million gyrating fleshy bodies, out of their minds and bursting at the seams with sin, not enough toilets, musicians taking the stage in the middle of the night– it’s practically Hell itself. The kind of thing your lot used to ineffably smite whole villages for indulging in.” He executed as flashy a bow as he could accomplish while sitting cross-legged in the muck. “And neither of us had to lift a finger.”

Aziraphale leaned forward slightly, pulling a tuft of grass, chin in his other hand. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

“Oh,” said Crowley, sweeping the collection of pills away carelessly into the mud, where they would one day grow into some of the stranger trees known to man. “Oh, angel. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” murmured Aziraphale. “They did go in for that sort of thing rather a lot, for the first few thousand years.”

They sat for a moment in companionable silence, watching some sort of extremely uncoordinated wrestling match take shape. The journalist stood and watched the tangle of bodies for a moment, before coming to stand in front of Aziraphale and Crowley. “Can I get a quote from one of you?” He asked, peering at Crowley’s glasses and completely misinterpreting their purpose.

Crowley pulled them down his nose just enough to shoot the man a look. “I’m having the time of my life,” he said deliberately, and the man scuttled off.

Aziraphale cracked a smile at that, and was trying to contain it when Crowley continued, “Still– been a while, hasn’t it? Since you had to go out on smiting duty? Upstairs seems to have figured out that humans smite themselves just fine.”

“In only a decade, it’ll be a thousand years,” said Aziraphale softly.

“I’ll take you for dinner,” offered Crowley. “Commemorate the occasion.”

In the distance, the journalist was furtively glancing back in their direction and scribbling madly. No editor would believe the poor man, of course, not when simple hallucination was so much more likely. Still, the version of Crowley and Aziraphale in the man’s notebook would live there forever. Not that they needed that particular kind of immortality.

There were others who deserved it, though.

“Crowley,” said Aziraphale, “I have a better idea. The Department for Education back home is still yours, right?”

“‘Course. Wouldn’t give that one up.”

In an instant, the angel had a sheaf of foolscap in his lap, and was tapping a pen against his front teeth. “I shall write a book,” he announced delightedly.

“Alright,” said Crowley indulgently, “Then I’ll make sure every child in Great Britain reads it. What’s it about?”

“I think,” said Aziraphale, “It will begin in the garden.”