"Don't think your boyfriend in the dark glasses will get you special treatment in Hell," sneers Uriel, and Aziraphale is about to ask what she means by that when he's grabbed from behind, unable to utter so much as a shout as he's dragged below the concrete, towards the fiery pits.
The last thing he sees before the Earth swallows him whole is Michael, watching him flail with something akin to satisfaction. With a sinking note of despair, Aziraphale realizes that Crowley was right, after all; there will be no heavenly intervention on his behalf.
"I suppose that settles that," Uriel declares. "Hell deals with our traitor and theirs. What's the mortal phrase?"
"Play with fire, you're bound to get burned," Sandalphon says smugly.
"No, it was something about birds or stones. Although that's quite good–"
"Yes, yes, come along," Michael ushers in a tone bordering on impatience. "There is a war to be won."
Hell has remained nothing if not consistent for six thousand years, which, most of the time, works in Crowley's favor. Unlike the humans, demons have yet to evolve beyond their origins, sticking to the same ol' strategies of kill, maim, burn. Unimaginative to a fault.
It means that Crowley has always known what’s in store for him if they find out what he's done (or rather, what he hasn't done) with the Antichrist, and while it's not pleasant by any stretch of the word, it won't come as any surprise. Bastards can flay him alive in vat of holy water if they want, but Crowley will be ready and waiting with a secret weapon of his own.
So when he gets the call, shortly after once again trying and failing to convince Aziraphale to leave with him, it isn’t exactly a shock. It’s why he insisted they leave. The call is unexpected in that he figured they would just show up at his flat and knock in the door.
For as livid as he must be, Hastur sounds calm over the phone. Calm for him, anyway. "Hello, Crowley," he spits the name like a detriment. "Haven’t run off yet, have we?”
"Me? Psst, no," he says breezily. "What reason would I have to run?"
"Don't bother." And that's Ligur, snarling at him now. "You expect the truth from a traitor?"
Crowley frowns. "That’s a bit harsh, guys. And not very nice."
"Nice isn't the word for what you've got coming," Ligur adds with no small amount of menace. "And you're going to stay right where you are 'till we collect you."
"And why should I?" he snorts. They can't honestly expect him to wait patiently for his own demise.
"We have something of yours."
That gives Crowley pause, though only for a moment. "I didn’t want to mention it, what with how backed-up Demon Resources is, but last month’s pay was a bit short."
Much to his dismay, Hastur laughs. It isn't a lovely, bell-chiming sort of sound. More of a corpse being dragged along a gravel road at dusk sound.
"Always with the jokes," he chuckles. "Won’t be so funny when we torch your little angel friend."
Time halts with the shriek of a record scratch. Except it doesn't, actually. Crowley has frozen time before, put the world on hold, let the minutes tick by uninterrupted. He did it in the Bastille, quite literally to save Aziraphale’s neck.
Now he would give anything to stop this, whatever this is, the icy clutch of dread wrapped like wire around his heart. When he finally manages to reply, it's almost too low to make out. "Excuse me?"
"No excuse that’ll get you off this time." There’s an almost childish note of giddiness in Ligur's voice. "Heaven already delivered the traitor in its midst to us and you're next on the list."
Crowley swallows the denial that threatens to burst from his mouth; there's no point in it now. He can scarcely breathe around the panic constricting his throat, but it takes a backseat to the rage curling up like smoke. "What have you done to him?!"
"Really, who better to deal with a demon-fraternizer than demons? Seems a fitting contrapposto."
Through gritted teeth, Crowley snaps, "Contrapasso, you half-wit!"
"Shut up!" Hastur growls. "No amount of talking's going to help you. It's over, Crowley. And if you ever want to see your little co-conspirator again, you'll do as we say. Understand?"
Obviously, Crowley knows never to trust a fellow demon at their word. He also knows how dim the lot of them are, so he says, "Yes, I've got it" with the full confidence that despite not trusting him, and telling him this at every opportunity, they'll take him at his word.
As soon as they've hung up, Crowley rushes for his safe, grabs the thermos, and teleports to Hell. He can't risk the front door, not if he's already branded Public Enemy Number One. He slips through one of the more discreet entries with caution that isn't strictly necessary. Nobody's eager to break into Hell – more of the opposite – so there was never much energy put into fortifying its walls.
He inhales the acrid scent of sulfur, searching for that distinct hint of aged paper, English Breakfast blend, and goodness among the brimstone and mildew. It should be a cinch to spot, but it is not, and he can't stop to think about that too long, what it might mean. Instead he opts to scour the place, all nine rotting fucking layers if he has to, Crowley has to find the angel in one piece or he'll– he'll– Heaven knows what.
Even a search fueled by blind optimism is better than giving up on Aziraphale.
"Where are you, angel?" Desperation gnaws at his throat, and Crowley doesn't care, cares for nothing except the chasm of silence that answers. "C'mon, where–"
There. A spark of light among the dreary vacuum of Hell, practically socking him in the gut. It reeks of Aziraphale’s goodness here. No wonder the hall was deserted – most demons can’t handle that much concentrated cheer without a bit of vomit in their mouths. Crowley hasn't felt so much as a twinge of angelic-induced nausea since the Great Flood.
After six thousand years, I'd know the feeling of you anywhere.
Kicking open the door, Crowley rushes in like a madman, none of his usual swagger. "Aziraphale!"
The angel's neck snaps towards the familiar voice. "Crowley?" he whispers, voice dreadfully low, as if he can't believe what he's seeing. Crowley stumbles into the room, so overwhelmingly relieved he can't summon a quip.
"Oh, thank Go–" Crowley chokes angrily on the sentiment. Satan forbid She ever lend a hand.
Sweat catches in the furrows of Aziraphale's brow, perspiring under the ring of fire they've circled around his chair. Hellfire, that is; the only foolproof way to detain an angel.
Crowley douses it with a wave of his wrist, sweeping through ash in his haste. "I'm not too late," he sighs, under his breath.
Aziraphale begins to fret at him as soon as it's out. "What the hell are you doing?!"
"What I always do," Crowley grunts distractedly, disappearing the restraints around his wrists. Immediately he’s got his hands on the angel, searching for injury, immeasurably soft when he asks, "They hurt you, angel?"
"Not really," he breathes, staring at Crowley in wonder.
Only he's lying, Crowley can see that, see the spots of blood peeking out from under his sleeve, where the restraints bit into skin. With trembling fingertips, he traces a crude cut right above his eye, probably from being cracked across the face, because angel or no, he would’ve fought his captors, and they would’ve retaliated.
His blood begins to simmer in a way that has nothing to do with the heat.
"Who was it, Hastur? Ligur? Those bloody fucking bastardsss–"
"Crowley, I'm fine!" The urgency cuts through his rage like scissors to a cloth. "Now we have to get out of here. What they're after is–"
"Me. I know." He can’t help it, smiling at how the prospect of his imminent demise makes Aziraphale blanch. Who else, he thinks, would spare such a sentiment for a demon of all things? Demons didn’t mourn their own, that’s for sure.
The smile slips from his face just as quickly. "I'm sorry," he says, this time with absolute sincerity.
Aziraphale gapes. "What are you sorry for?"
"Because I–" Because I care about you. Because I was selfish, and I pursued you, convinced you to be a part of this, but it was okay, I knew it would be okay, as long as I could protect us. Protect you.
Hell was never that imaginative in punishing its own. Demons, by virtue of being demons, cared for nothing except themselves. For thousands of years, execution by holy water was by far the worst they’d have in store for him. Until Crowley heard the words "torch" and "angel" uttered in the same sentence and realized that for him, there were plenty worse things than death.
"They'll burn you," he mutters, hoarse at the mere thought. "They've used you to get to me."
Something solidifies in Aziraphale's gaze, something that's not quite fear. Nothing could've prepared him for the angel saying, "Then you should run before they get the chance!"
Now it’s Crowley’s turn to gawk. Aziraphale hurries on, "You said it yourself, there's no reason to stay–"
Crowley grabs him by his shirt and yanks him forward, so close his breath stutters over Aziraphale’s stunned expression.
"Like I'm going to leave you behind, you bloody idiot!"
Silence seeps into the scant centimeters separating their faces. At this distance, he notices the dried smear of blood on Aziraphale’s lower lip. In a moment of madness, Crowley wipes it clean with his thumb, briefly stroking the softness of lips that have gone chapped in the blistering heat.
Aziraphale lets out a tremulous sigh. They’re hovering over the edge of a precipice, the precipice, waiting, always waiting for one to take the plunge. Somehow, Aziraphale seems to work up the nerve, opening his mouth to speak – and then they hear the footsteps.
Crowley jolts, swerving towards the door, Aziraphale tucked behind him. It’s Hastur and Ligur no doubt. Here to finish the job.
"Angel," Crowley whispers without turning around. "Do you trust me?"
It isn’t fair to ask that now, when time is of the essence and the choice is either trust Crowley or die by hellfire. It is Crowley, after all, who always goes too fast, leans on impulse, trusts his gut.
"For better or worse," Azirapahle answers, only a bit rueful, and Crowley's heart swells. "I do."
"Right," he chokes, exhaling a huge breath. He holds up the nearly-forgotten thermos, pleased when Aziraphale gets the gist. "I'll get us out of here. Both of us."
Slipping out the door, Crowley spots Hastur and Ligur stalking his way. They don't look happy.
That makes three of us. The corners of his mouth tighten with anger that isn't pretend or forced.
"What are you idiots doing?" he barks. "You nearly blew my cover!"
"Your what?" Hastur demands.
"Shh, shh!" Crowley gestures at the door. "Quiet, or you'll undo all my attempts to fix this blunder of yours. Lucky I got here before the Dark Council got wind of this."
"Dark Council?" Ligur repeats. "What the hell're you on about?"
"My mission," says Crowley, affecting an air of superiority. "To tempt an angel."
"Sure, yeah, an' I'm shacking up with Gabriel."
"To each their own, I s'ppose." Crowley shrugs. "I'm serious, guys. Look, why would I've spent the past six millennia getting close to him, fooling him into thinking I'm good at heart? Because I go in for that sort of thing? Puh-lease."
Ligur frowns. "Took you 6,000 years?"
"It's an angel," Crowley hisses. "You think, what, they fall into bed with the first demon they meet? Noo. You have to earn that trust."
"So you've done it then?" Hastur narrows his black, beady eyes in something like … curiosity. "Bedded a celestial being?"
"You bet I have," he brags. Very aware of how near this conversation his thoroughly unbedded angel is, Crowley coughs. "L-Loads of times."
"Anyway," he recovers, before he loses the audience. “Long-con like this requires finesse, duplicity. But the results? We would’ve had a spy on the inside, completely at my beck and call. Hence why the Dark Council entrusted me with this very important, very secret mission.”
Hastur considers, not quite convinced. "Why would they choose you for this?"
”Because I’m the best liar,” Crowley asserts. “And I’ve got the best hair.”
"What's that got to do with it?"
"The seduction!" He throws his hands in the air. "For fuck's sake, it's that sort of amateur mindset that's kept you two in the dark!"
It's a toss-up on whether they'll actually believe it or not. Fortunately, these are demons he's dealing with, and believing him isn't the crucial bit. Ambition gets the better of Hastur's judgement, which should be to toss Crowley into the nearest pit. "I'll have to verify that with the Dark Council, won’t I,” he grunts.
"And I'll keep an eye on the traitor." Ligur flicks his eyes towards a grinning Crowley.
"Still don't trust me?" he wheedles. Ligur scowls.
"Probably a good call," Crowley concedes. He waits until Hastur's gone to wave the remaining demon over. "Which reminds me, I never showed you the most heinous part of the plan. Once I seduced the angel, see, it was only a matter of time before I had access to all sorts of contraband."
"Contraband?" Ligur asks, reluctantly interested.
"I’ll show you," Crowley offers, unscrewing the cap. His heart hammers against his chest, half in fear, half in anticipation. "On one condition."
Ligur leans forward to peer at its contents, and in one swift movement, dumps it over the demon's head. "Don't any of you ever threaten my angel again," Crowley snarls, though it's almost entirely drowned out by the ear-splitting shrieks.
Crowley's never exited Hell so fast the room actually spun when he returned, but in this very extreme case, it was dizzying ride from the pits of Hell to earth, and only for Aziraphale to instantly miracle them to his bookshop. He heaves in a ragged breath, exchanging the air of misery and smoke for that of and cocoa and dust.
"Ugh," Aziraphale huffs with a full-bodied tremor, scrubbing uselessly at his ash-stained coat. "That place was – awful! The smell, the cramped spaces. It is entirely inhumane!"
"Reckon that's the point," Crowley mutters, and like flipping a switch, Aziraphale whirls around, eyes meeting Crowley's for a too-long moment. A surge of relief races through Crowley at the exact minute he realizes what they've done.
"Ha!" Crowley crows, and, without any input from his brain, lunges for an embrace, burying his nose in Aziraphale's shoulder. Faint traces of sulfur cling to the fabric, but it all feels like a bad memory. "You're safe, angel."
Aziraphale twitches in his hold. "I– Crowley, you–"
Frowning, Crowley pulls back far enough to get a glimpse of his pale expression. "You sure you're alright?" he asks, running his hands down the angel's arms. "Nothing singed, nothing speared?"
"I’m sorry," Aziraphale cries with a fervor that rocks Crowley back on his heels. "I’m sorry, this is all– all my fault, I’m afraid– Oh, my dear, can you ever forgive me?"
"What the hell are you on about?" he exclaims. "Forgive you for what?"
"For almost getting you killed!" He exhales slowly, deflating more with each word. "You were right. I never had a chance to make the call. Michael and the others intercepted me and they... well, they must’ve had some sort of agreement, because suddenly your side was there, and they dragged me down before I could so much as miracle away."
"They sold you out?" He can't – well, he knows what Heaven's capable of, and it isn't all rainbows after a Great Flood. But to think, they'd hand over one of their own, toss them to the mercies of Hell, and for what? Trying, against all reason and logic, to do the right thing?
"Others, you said," he says abruptly. Names, he needed names. "What others, which ones–"
"What does it matter," Aziraphale snaps. "Don't you understand? It was Michael who tipped off your lot. They found out about us because of me. Me, I damned us, not Heaven or Hell! I wasn't careful enough– that is, I must've made it so obvious, my feelings for–"
Crowley stares. He can't have heard that right. What the angel's implying. And the cost of misinterpretation is too high–
Realizing what he's almost admitted, Aziraphale flushes. "Well, uh, after it became clear that Heaven sold me out, as you said..."
Except they were all going to burn up in the end, weren't they? Everything and anything. If there was ever a time to be careless, surely it would be now.
"I couldn't be certain anyone was coming," he stammers, at which Crowley looks up, utterly at a loss. "You were so adamant about leaving, and I can’t blame you, especially in light of everything, and I was scared, but also relieved, because at least – at least you would be safe, somewhere in the stars."
He stops, only because Crowley's gripped him by the shoulders. "For someone so clever, you're so stupid," he complains, shaking him a little. "Of course I'd come back. I'd never leave you behind!"
A world without his angel, Crowley thinks as he clumsily crushes their lips together. He couldn't imagine, and he was the most imaginative demon alive.
With a sigh of relief, Aziraphale clutches at his shirt, tenderly digging his fingers into the fabric. Crowley groans at the touch, and fueled by a sudden, desperate urge to reassure himself of this, of them, he deepens the kiss. Instead of fleeing, as Crowley half-expects him to, Aziraphale opens more still, essentially bearing his neck. It's telling that all Crowley does is melt further into him.
Finally, they part for air, a single gasp mingling between their lips as both of them attempt to speak at once.
"Angel, I lo–"
"I know where the Antichrist is."
Crowley quickly sucks in the rest his sentence, red-faced and mortified. Aziraphale blinks a little dazedly.
"You know where he is?!" Crowley shouts, perhaps louder than necessary.
Sheepishly, Aziraphale nods. "Tadfield. Uh, the airbase. If we hurry, maybe we can... Save the world?"
Reaching down, Crowley takes his hand and wraps it in his own. "As long as we do it together," he says, and Aziraphale smiles.
"Together," he agrees, and come Hell, Heaven, Armageddon or worse, Crowley will ensure they're never separated again.