It started around the time of the Flood.
Aziraphale could see Crawley’s point about the whole killing children thing. Not that he would admit it to anyone. But it wasn’t like Aziraphale could stop it, no that would be interfering in the Ineffable Plan and interfering in any sort of Divine Plan was an absolutely terrible idea that Aziraphale wanted precisely no part of. None whatsoever. In fact, he was rather happy to put the whole idea behind him and just let it happen.
Simple. Don’t look too hard at the humans and certainly don’t look over behind you where Crawley is building a boat. Interfering was absolutely the opposite of what he was going to do. Which meant he didn’t watch Crawley fill the boat with children, with innocents. He didn’t watch Crawley swaddle infants in the torn fabric of his robes.
He didn’t watch Crawley shake out his raven-wings and shield them from the rain, water rolling down his body as the line of his shoulders held firm and his wire-laced jaw set in stone and his hellfire eyes stared, unblinking, up to the Heavens — as if demanding She Herself answer for what She’s done.
Aziraphale didn’t look because he was an awful liar and when Gabriel demanded answers he didn’t think anyone would mind if he hadn’t been looking. Wily snake that Crawley. Built a whole boat while his back was turned. And if disease did not spread, and food supplies did not run short — as if by miracle — Aziraphale’s back was turned for that too.
The next time earned him quite the stern talking-to.
The next time being around 2054 BC.
Crawley had stopped speaking to Aziraphale sometime around 2067, for what reason Aziraphale wasn’t entirely certain but it wasn’t a bother to him. Less to be concerned about, out of sight out of mind he thought.
It was much easier to do unadulterated good when there wasn’t someone there to adulturate it. Though, he would later think, standing in front of a rather irate Gabriel, perhaps keeping an eye on the demon — from afar — would be in his better interest.
“Aziraphale,” Gabriel said, in that sort of short snipping tone that Aziraphale rather did not like his name being said in. “Did we send you to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son?”
Well, yes, they did. And Aziraphale did it, emphasizing frequently during it that he should do it quickly and painlessly. For Isaac’s sake. “I did, and I even stuck around to be sure he, er, bound him up.” He couldn’t watch the gory bit. Not really his scene.
Gabriel hummed, the click of his heel echoing on the emptiness of the room as he stepped forward. “Then why is Isaac still alive?”
Well. That wasn’t good now, is it? “Ah. Well,” Aziraphale scratched the back of his neck. “Maybe he hasn’t done it yet?”
“Uh-huh. We have a source that says a representative from God told him to sacrifice a ram instead.”
Oh, now that, that was very bad. “It wasn’t me, Gabriel,” Aziraphale insisted, hand pressed to his chest. “I wouldn’t mis-represent myself as an agent of Heaven, nor would I—nor would I go against direct orders from.” He pointed up, a gesture that served as much of an explanation as to what or who he would not disobey.
Gabriel stepped forward again, crowing Aziraphale back towards the wall behind him. “Fix it,” he ordered.
Aziraphale wrung his hands together over that one for a while before deciding — well, to “fix it” could really have a much more ambiguous meaning than go get Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
For instance, Aziraphale chose to define “fix it” more in terms of find the source of whoever is pretending to be a voice of God and tell them quite politely (but firmly) to stop it.
It wasn’t a hard task. Abraham, now a bit of a tottering old man, went on for a bit in his story. Aziraphale politely listened to as much of it as he could, attempting to steer him ever-so-gently towards describing what the representative looked like. “Strange, for an angel,” Abraham said, scratching his white-grey beard. “Not at all what I thought one’d look like.”
“How did it look?” Aziraphale asked, feeling more than a touch desperate.
“Tall. Black wings, hair like a burning bush.” Oh dear. “Eyes like gold.”
Of course. Of course. Wouldn’t be a century if Crawley wasn’t about, mucking things up. Feeling more than a touch testy, Aziraphale sat through a bit more of Abraham’s tales before politely thinking of a reason to excuse himself.
The next step was to find Crawley, a task that, admittedly, wasn’t difficult. Aziraphale liked to at least know generally where Crawley was. It was part of thwarting him, to know that he was say, in Italy, or Babylon, or at a little place not that far from where Aziraphale was — drinking and staring off into a space in the distance, eyes curiously blank.
This was, of course, where Aziraphale found him. Sliding into the spot beside him, he cleared his throat, waiting for Crowley to acknowledge his presence.
“Do you know how old Isaac is,” Crawly asked, after a long silence lead to Aziraphale pointedly clearing his throat again. “Twelve. A child.”
“Twelve is not a child, Crawley. And She wouldn’t,” his voice pitched down low as he leaned closer. “She wouldn’t have let Abraham...go through with it.”
“You don’t know that,” Crawley hissed back, scowling as he took another mouthful of the drink before turning that mournful gaze back into his cups. “He was going to kill the kid, Aziraphale. I was nearby, figured I’d stop it.”
“You said you were a representative of God. Head Office didn’t take too kindly to that nonsense I might tell you.” He sat, straight-backed and proper. “Got a mighty talking-to about that.”
Crawley didn’t even apologize — not that Aziraphale thought he would. Just grunted, dragging his eyes over the people bustling about. “They’re all children,” he said, voice thick and heavy with something that Aziraphale couldn’t identify, “besides, ‘M not talking to you.”
“And why is that! You will run around behind my back and...fuss with what I’m doing, but you don’t even have the decency to tell me why you’re upset with me. Really, Crawley, I expected more from you.”
“Sodom.” He said, nails tapping against the metal of his cup. “Gomorrah. There were ten virtuous men. There were fifteen, twenty, forty five, fifty. There were more than virtuous men, there were...they were cities, Aziraphale.”
Ah. “I had no hand in that,” he replied, feeling that he should rather be firm with this. He should’ve been strong, kept his voice hard and unyielding. It came out soft, instead, hand reaching of its own volition towards Crawley’s shoulder.
It stopped, an aborted gesture that went unnoticed by the serpent. “It was Sandalphon.”
“Could’ve stopped it.” Crawley’s eyes, normally boiling with liquid fire but now painfully, agonizingly, frozen, turned towards him. “You didn’t. I couldn’t. I sat there and I—” Aziraphale watched as his throat bobbed, swallowing around his grief. “I watched.”
“Ah,” was all Aziraphale could reply with. He wasn’t—he didn’t have the stomach to watch. Not to watch Abraham and Isaac, not to watch the floods come in, not to watch Sodom and Gomorrah turn to dust and salt. “I won’t apologize, Crawley, you know that.”
“I don’t want you to, angel. I want you to do something.”
Crawley stood, his robes pulled tight around himself as he left Aziraphale there alone with his thoughts. A rather unpleasant position to be in.
He wouldn’t talk to Crawley for some time, but he’d see him. When the famine began, he saw him handing out bread wrapped in cloth that sprung from nothing, he saw him in Egypt when the Pharaoh ordered the Firstborns killed. It took an embarrassingly long while before Aziraphale realized what Crawley was doing.
Once Crawley became Crowley and the time-keeping changed over from BC to AD and the humans went on to build new things and destroy new things. Aziraphale watched. He watched the most beautiful and horrible things live and die, he watched unimaginable kindness and breathtaking horrors, he watched and helped in all the places he could and clung to himself in the places he couldn’t. He loved and he lost.
And, more frequently than not, Crowley was there. Picking his way through villages that had been pillaged and burned, sitting on the ground in the rubble, his legs crossed with a child in his lap as he carefully healed broken skin and whispered things that Aziraphale couldn’t hear. He watched him fix broken toys, broken hearts, watched him reign down nightmares on parents unfit for the role.
That it took him so long to realize, really was mortifying.
Aziraphale’s shop had only been open for a few years when he was informed just where the spot of tenderness in that old snake’s underbelly was.
The bell above the door clanged in acknowledgement, drawing a frown across Aziraphale’s features.
It was past three, meaning the shop had been closed. “Excuse me,” he said as he emerged from the back room, nose pointed up at the ceiling and frown deep in place. “We are quite certainly closed for the—oh! Crowley. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Not that he ever expected Crowley. But there he was, standing in his doorway, something bundled against his chest. He cradled it in one hand, his other clutching his stovepipe hat. “Angel.” His voice was terse, clipped, “I, eh, I needed someplace out of the sun.”
Aziraphale’s brow pinched. “What have you got? Not another one of those plants, is it? The last one you brought here died of fright on me.”
The bundle started to fuss and then wail and Aziraphale realized in quite the same moment that it was, in fact, not a plant. Crowley made a soft noise, like some sort of low croon, and bounced the bundle — which Aziraphale was beginning to believe might have been an infant.
His suspicions only deepened when Crowley cast his eyes about for a place to sit and then promptly did just that, looking up at Aziraphale. “I found it.” He said, as if that were the only explanation needed.
Aziraphale blinked, watching Crowley carefully fold the cloth away from a tiny, reddened, face. Fists balled up and waved, in obvious distress, as Crowley set aside his hat and rubbed the little creatures chest instead. “Well don’t just stand there,” he hissed, “bring me something to feed it.”
“Feed it — what does it eat?” He asked, taking a half-step closer. Aziraphale had, on a few occasions somewhere around 3000 BC served as a midwife in some troubled towns.
As a was quite well-versed in the nature of children, but his expertise tended to wane a bit when there was no mother nearby. “Neither of us are exactly built for wet-nursing.”
Well, if they thought much on it, they could become shaped as a wet nurse but the actual production of milk was an entirely different issue. Bodies, far too complicated for that.
“Milk of any sort?” Crowley offered, stroking down the infant's cheek before turning his hand palm-up, letting it grab hold of his pinky and drag it into its mouth. Aziraphale blinked once, hard, at the sight. Crowley letting this child suckle on his finger and using his other long, deft fingers to brush away the anguished tears. “Pap?”
The crying had stopped, which only made Aziraphale more flustered. “Is he alright?” He asked, leaning over a bit to look down at where the infant contentedly suckled.
“Calm for now,” Crowley sighed, adjusting his grip a little.
Aziraphale watched with a sort of curiosity. “Where did you learn that?” He asked, after a few moments of watching the infant happily drool over Crowley’s hand.
Shaded eyes flicker back up to him, then back down at the child. “The Flood. Lots of children, lots of crying. Not a whole lot of parents left after your lot got through with them. Learned to be crafty.”
Right. Aziraphale hadn’t forgotten but, he’d sort of forgotten. Well not forgotten more like he...chose not to think about it. Because when he did, it sort of sat like steel in the bottom of his stomach.
“Where are his parents? Surely he must have some.”
Crowley’s lips press tight together, the fingers not currently pacifying the child flexing against his back. “Alone when I found him.”
Giving up, for a moment, Aziraphale popped back into his kitchenette thumbing through some recipe books to find what he presumed would be the best option for pap before mixing up a batch and miracling up a boat. He returned with the two combined into one, handing the vessel over the Crowley, who adjusts his grip on the baby to start carefully feeding him the mixture.
“Well what are you planning on doing with him?” Aziraphale asked, once the child had taken his fill and was back to waving his fists about.
“Don’t know,” Crowley said, blinking up at Aziraphale behind his sunglasses. “I heard him crying from the street, he must’ve been alone up there for hours. Wasn’t thinking about after. Probably take him somewhere. Orphanage.”
“Could leave him at a church,” Aziraphale offered, sitting near beside him. “Never took you as one for children.”
A furrow appeared between Crowley’s brows, a distinct little frown that he kept pointed at the now-cooing infant. He brought him up to his shoulder, patting his back softly to encourage a burp. “Children haven’t done anything wrong,” Crowley said, voice stiff.
“Right. Which is why it’s strange you care for this one.” Aziraphale stood, picking up the pap boat and bringing it back to the kitchenette. He returned with a cloth for Crowley, on the inevitability that the child will puke on him. “They’ve done nothing wrong, no point in you getting mixed up in it. Unless...oh Crowley.” The affronted gasp left Aziraphale as soon as the idea struck him. The confused response from the man on the sofa was but a brow raised.
Crowley wasn’t wearing his glasses anymore, instead they were caught up in the tight-fisted grip of an infant. “What?”
“If you’re going to corrupt youths to evil ways, at least wait until they are old enough to make decisions.”
The rage that sparked in liquid-gold eyes set Aziraphale back a step, even before Crowley snapped, “That is not what I’m doing, angel. Children haven’t done anything wrong, they don’t deserve to wither away abandoned. They don’t deserve to be sacrificed, or swept away, they don’t deserve to be casualties to whatever grudge God has against anyone. They’ve done nothing wrong. They don’t dessserve to die.” The catch of Crowley’s tongue over his s’s left Aziraphale wincing.
Crowley had told him once before that he hadn’t meant to fall. They’d been drunk, and Aziraphale had some something and Crowley had responded with the sort of cutting remark that should’ve been sobering if Aziraphale had been sober enough to properly digest it. He’d said he asked questions, he wanted to know why, wanted answers that God refused to give him. The sort of rebellion that wasn’t a rebellion, he wasn’t demanding God love him more than he loved the fledgling humans, he wasn’t demanding anything from Her but reasons. Knowledge.
The very thing Crowley would later gift Eve in the gardens.
It was funny that he should recall it now, with a torrent of thoughts and emotions swarming around his head, making it hard to pick any one out of the mob. He landed on that one, thinking about the pain in Crowley’s eyes that he tried to mask with an empty all-teeth smile and another bottle of Malbec.
Crowley brought a knee up, shifting back into the corner between the arm and the back of the sofa, half-hunching over the infant as he continued to fuss over him.
For a moment, Aziraphale heard thunder on an otherwise cloudless day. For a moment he could feel the cool rain soaking into robes he wasn’t wearing, mingling with the hot saltwater down his cheeks as he watched the sweeping floods claim everything in its path.
For a moment, he could see the iron-set wings stretched over innocent children, the raw power of what he only ever thought was Crowley’s wrath, his anger, his rage. The power of his rebellion, to spit in the face of the Divine Plan and contradict whatever it was She decided only for the sake of contradiction. Vengeance against his exile.
I didn’t mean to Fall.
Aziraphale couldn’t have been more wrong.
His chest constricted. Terrible to think a being so wholly connected to the concept of love would miss when its strength was enough to stop a flood.
“I’ll make up a bed for him,” Aziraphale said, his voice and low and tender as he could make it. “We’ll find him somewhere safe.”
Crowley looked back up at him, trepidation mixed with relief to form some cocktail of comfortable unsureness.
From that moment on, it was much easier to see.
Crowley would occasionally arrive at the shop with another child, stay for a day or three until some arrangement could be figured, always fussing, always refusing to leave the child's side no matter what. Aziraphale tried to blend into the background in those moments, to simply watch as some frightened girl wrapped her limbs around herself, fear bubbling under her skin at the world around her.
She asked Crowley to stay, and he did. Azirphale watched as he spread a wing—invisible to her eye, but not to his—over her, protecting her from whatever dangers she faced out in the world. He stayed like that all night, stroking through the knotted hair that spread out on the pillow beneath her head.
Something sat, warm under his thoughts, as he watched Crowley clean up once she’s left — tucking away blankets and pushing the sofa away from the fireplace.
“She was lovely,” Aziraphale told him. “I’m glad she’s found a home.”
“You’re the one who sent word to her cousin,” Crowley reminded him, sitting on the recently-moved furniture with a sigh. “I’m thinking of getting a second flat. Somewhere a bit more,” he gestured, vague, around him, “comfortable than my own. That way I can stop bothering you for a place a bit more child-friendly.”
It had been well over a century since the infant, and yet Aziraphale couldn’t stop being a touch surprised every time Crowley turned up wielding a new lost soul. “I don’t mind,” he admitted, which was, well, not entirely true. The children were welcome distractions, but every time he saw Crowley there his chest did something uncomfortable all he could see was a terrified Isaac bound on an alter.
And his chest did something different. Worse. When Crowley refrained from giving a real answer, Aziraphale fiddled with some books, made himself a note to go over his accounts, and to call his tailor about a stray thread on his jacket.
They sat in silence for the rest of the night, Crowley making a note in a century-old notebook. A name and a location. The book was filled with those.
The longest they kept one was over a month. A six-year old who refused to tear himself from Crowley’s leg, clinging and whimpering whenever Aziraphale came close. Crowley had healed bruises and burns and held him through the night. He wouldn’t speak his name, wouldn’t tell them a thing. He only spoke to Crowley in soft whispers, only when his glasses were off.
Aziraphale returned from a trip out to collect a new tea set when he nearly dropped the thing in shock. Crowley sat in the middle of a cleared-out space in the shop, his wings perfect visible on the human plane and carefully wrapped around the child.
“What are you—” he nearly snipped, before remembering their wounded company. He cleared his throat. “Crowley, may I have a word?”
A shock of red hair appeared over the top of his raven-black wings, golden, un-shaded, eyes following soon after. “Not at the moment, angel.”
“I think now is the most appropriate time.”
A heavy put-upon sigh escaped Crowley and Aziraphale tried his very best not to be annoyed. They both secreted away to the back room, leaving the boy sitting back on the chair. “What do you think you’re doing,” he asked, watching as Crowley’s wings folded carefully back against his back. “Humans don’t—-what if he tells someone?”
“He won’t,” Crowley insisted, the exposure of his wings and eyes making him all the more readable to the angel. They twitch, the dark feathers behind him. “Besides, he likes them. It makes him feel safe, Aziraphale, I won’t deny him that.”
Safe? A frown appeared between his brows. “Are you certain about that?” He leaned over, peering around Crowley. His wings were a dark, inky sort of black. Like a moonless night, or a quiet void, or any other litany of poetic ways to describe a deep, rich, beautifully unending darkness.
“Just because you don’t, doesn’t mean no one else does.” Crowley stepped around him. Aziraphale couldn’t tell him he was wrong. He could only hover in the doorway, watching as the boy reached out and stroked the wing that draped around him, pressing into the feathered embrace.
It was the first time Aziraphale could remember, that he smiled. If he listened carefully, he could hear the soft whispers of their conversation.
“You think so?” The boy asked, blinking wide, expressive, eyes up at Crowley.
“‘Course. Well, I wouldn’t say I think so. More that I know so.”
“‘M scared, Anthony.”
“Don’t be,” Crowley replied, apparently not at all bothered by the use of his name — it only struck Aziraphale belatedly that he must’ve told the child to call him it. "I won't let anything hurt you ever again."
He watched them until the skies went dark, until he was forced to retreat to the pantry for the sake of doing something, anything, in order to feel more useful. Dinner, he thought, he could do that. It was for a brief moment, as he was stirring a pot, staring over at an ornate and now long-out-of-use pap bowl that he wondered if Crowley had ever been to Padua.
There were plenty of things that Aziraphale and Crowley did not talk about, the children were one of them. Once they had been placed in their respective new homes, places of safety and comfort, they did not discuss them any further. Aziraphale did not ask and Crowley did not tell him, but he knew that Crowley kept up. That occasionally, he’d pop over and watch from the edges of the street, he’d attend weddings, graduations, birthdays from a quiet distance.
Just making sure. Just keeping an eye. They didn’t talk about how Aziraphale did not get rid of the things they decided they needed. A crib, more blankets, bottles, formula, a pantry filled with sweets, clothes. There was a closet, a room, filled with them — with whatever it was they were lacking in the moment that Crowley had sent Aziraphale to fetch.
The more time went on, the less he needed to do that, finding them well-stocked for nearly any sort of trouble they found themselves in. They didn’t talk about how Crowley stopped leaving once the children had moved on, how he stuck more to sticking around after the world was supposed to end.
They didn’t talk about what it meant to be an us instead of you and me when lost children stumbled, guided by unseen needs and urges, towards a bookshop that was always unlocked and open if only for them.
Crowley did much more of the talking to them, Aziraphale was never sure what they talked about, but he soothed them, like a balm to their wounded sounds.
As the years passed, they collected things besides just the warm memories of faces breaking into gap-toothed smiles and restful dreams placed into the restless minds of wayward souls. Cards, from those who remembered, letters and thank-yous and pictures and updates. They sat in a locked box in the back office, a place that Aziraphale often finds his demon. They collected signs, things to subtly stick to the window above the shop door to assure those who seek space under Crowley’s wing that they will never oust them for who they are or who they love.
It wasn’t until much later, sitting beside him in St. James’ Park, watching Crowley keep a watchful eye on a scrappy-looking child as he tried to determine their status, that he said it.
“I think I’ve decided,” Aziraphale declared, as the child heads for a trash can. He’ll find something untouched and warm inside, and Aziraphale can feel Crowley tense beside him, readying himself to stand and stride over to make some wrong right.
“And what’s that you’ve decided,” Crowley asked, already pulling himself up to stand.
“It suits you,” Aziraphale replied, doing the same. There had been a bedroom now, fashioned in the second floor of the shop. Had been for a short while. Crowley’s brow raised over the top of his sunglasses, his hands in his pockets as he tried to seem cool. Approachable.
“Anthony. I think it suits you.”
Crowley didn't respond, just started off again, but Aziraphale caught the soft curl of a smile at the edge of his lips.