The night he’s discorporated by a frightened Irish Catholic boy, the sky is black and wicked and churning with thick clouds that block out the stars. Of course, some of that might be Crowley’s fault, an unfortunate side-effect of his growing irritation with the omnipresent ache between his shoulderblades. It’s like that one stupid question about the chicken and the egg that humans find so fascinating, except this one goes more like ‘which comes first, the soul-sucking pain that storm fronts bring him or the storm fronts he brings because everything bloody hurts and he’s feeling vindictive?’
Not that it matters, really. What matters is that he’s forgotten his sunglasses and his snake eyes glow golden in the night without explanation. What matters is that a boy stands before him, wide-eyed and innocent and blocking his escape as he brandishes blessings and a cross with a shaking voice, stepping closer and closer, pushing Crowley toward the edge of the cliff and the waiting waters below.
What matters is, Crowley takes a step too far and the ground disappears beneath him. What matters is, he falls.
If even a few hours later someone had asked him what he’d been doing on a boat beneath a cliff in Ireland in the dead of night, Aziraphale doesn’t think he would know the answer. All he knows is that he happens, by some miracle, to look up just in time to watch as a figure takes one step and then another and then plummets backwards off the cliff to the icy depths below.
Aziraphale gapes for a moment, too stunned to react. Then he drops the Dickens he’s been reading in favour of throwing out a hand, fingers spread wide in an attempt to slow the figure’s descent. With his other hand he fumbles for an oar and begins to row.
It’s cold. Scratch that, it’s bloody freezing. Crowley hits the water with enough force to almost black out then and there, except that he doesn’t because he’s not that lucky. Instead, he’s wide awake as pins and needles jab into every inch of his body and force the air out of his lungs, replacing it with the cold clutch of the lake. The water burns in his eyes and his throat, thick and brackish as he starts to sink. He’s turned around by the impact, can’t tell which way is up, and the darkness hides away any hint of the moon but the fact is that he’s conscious and so he has to swim, has to try.
So he does. Crowley claws his way through the icy waters the way he once crawled out of hell, messy and desperate and using every ounce of his strength. His body aches, every muscle screaming for air or release or both. The moonlight glimmers through the water for an instant, just out of reach –
Then a hand breaks the surface and reaches down to save him.
The first thing that Aziraphale notices about the stranger he pulls out of the lake is that their hair is red, gloating in the water like a sopping wet flame. The second is that they are dressed in a manner utterly inappropriate for a late night swim in a half-frozen lake. The third thing he realises as he watches the figure sputter and wipe the water from a pair of brilliant gold eyes is that they aren’t really a stranger after all.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale is too shocked to hide his surprise and so the word drips with it instead, much the same way Crowley is dripping on the bottom of the boat where the Dickens had been resting only moments before. Rather than responding, Crowley turns and retches over the side of the boat. The way he coughs reminds Aziraphale of plague victims, and he half-expects to see blood on Crowley’s lips when he finally, finally starts to breathe again.
Strands of vomit and salive hang from his mouth. Crowley spits over the side and wipes the remnants away with the back of a hand. Then he slumps against the side of the boat like an exhausted puppet and closes his eyes. “Hello angel,” he rasps. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale repeats, a bit dumbly. “What on Earth are you doing jumping off a cliff?”
Crowley makes a non-committal noise. “Wrong place, wrong time. Old habits die hard. You know.” Aziraphale’s just about to say that no, he doesn’t know, because Crowley’s making about as much sense as that whole manifest destiny business Americans got into a century back when he sees the demon shudder, pulling into himself and gripping his arms. His clothes are sopping wet and pasted to his skin, hugging the sharp angles of his body as he shivers and mutters something obscene.
Of course, Aziraphale thinks, mentally kicking himself. Snakes are cold-blooded. Crowley must be freezing. The thought’s barely crossed his mind when Crowley snaps his fingers and the water dissolves from what he’s wearing, leaving him visibly drier but still shivering, swearing under his breath.
Aziraphale flinches. It’s not the language that bothers him. It’s the look on Crowley’s face – pained and irritated and guarded to an almost entirely imperceptible degree. Aziraphale doesn’t quite recall the last time he’s looked like this, but he knows Crowley well enough to assume that the expression means he’s had a well and truly terrible night.
(On the other hand, he’s not entirely certain he has any right to make assumptions, not after London. He thinks of the Bentley peeling off into the bombed out night and swallows hard, pushing down the familiar and faint churn of guilt in his stomach.)
Where his hands have instinctively moved to take off his jacket and offer it to the figure shivering across from him, the fear of rejection makes them still, fingers fluttering like unhappy butterflies as Aziraphale lets them fall to his lap. Instead of offering anything, he clears his throat and attempts to sound authoritative. “If you don’t wish to answer my questions, then I insist you at least warm yourself up,” he says primly, and reaches for the oars again.
Evidently, Aziraphale’s idea of someplace warm is a tiny cottage not far from the lake shore where he says he’s staying, though Crowley can’t even begin to guess why he would be there, of all places. Not that he’s particularly trying, really. He’s too busy being cold and miserable and frankly a bit perplexed by the way the evening’s progressed to give too much thought to Aziraphale’s motivations. So long as he doesn’t end up on the receiving end of another attempted exorcism, this will be an improvement on the rest of the day.
He can only get away with silence for so long though. It’s one thing when they’re in a boat or walking or otherwise preoccupied, and quite another thing when they’re sitting still, mugs of tea in both their hands while the fire blazing in the hearth makes light dance across Aziraphale’s face, highlighting his poor attempts at studying Crowley subtly from across the room.
The angel clears his throat. “So. Are you around these parts for vacation or temptation?”
“Passing through,” Crowley says, and doesn’t meet his eyes. It’s hard, looking at Aziraphale without the sunglasses. After so many centuries, they’ve become a sort of safety net for him, a means of avoiding inconvenient encounters with crosses while also keeping him from revealing anything, from having to see his own damnation reflected back at him in the angel’s eyes.
He realises, perhaps belatedly, that this is the first time they’ve been in the same room since the whole debacle with the Germans in 1941. Back then, Crowley had driven Aziraphale home in a mostly awkward silence, tipped his hat in farewell at the door and disappeared into the Blitz without another word. He hadn’t known what to say then, and he still doesn’t know now. Fifteen years is practically a blink at their age, but in this moment it feels like millenia.
“So,” they both say, at the exact same time. Crowley gestures for Aziraphale to continue, making a face when they do that in sync too.
Aziraphale’s expression distorts into a delicate sort of embarrassment. “We seem to be rather on the same weight lane, I’m afraid,” he says, somewhat sheepish as Crowley clamps his jaw shut. “Would you like to speak first?”
Crowley closes his eyes for a moment and rests his head against the back of chair. Satan, give me strength. “It’s ‘same wavelength’, angel,” he mutters. “Honestly.” A wave of fondness surges in his chest at the mangled idiom, but he shoves it down before it can surface. “In any case, last I’d heard we have nothing in common. I’m fallen, remember?” Nearly a century has passed since St. James, and Crowley knows it’s a low blow to bring it up in the first place but he still can’t quite stop himself, can’t keep the bitterness entirely out of his voice.
Aziraphale flinches, though to his credit he makes no effort to excuse himself. Instead, he looks at his hands and studies them guiltily. “That was a rather callous thing for me to say, wasn’t it? It’s not as if you would have forgotten or… I don’t know, become an aardvark.” There is a nervous edge to the way the corners of his mouth quirk up with a quiver slight as a ladybug’s wings. When Crowley looks at him, their eyes meet only for a moment before Aziraphale blinks and returns to studying his hands with a truly inordinate degree of dedication. “I suppose I should, ah. Amend that statement. Apologise, perhaps.”
All at once, the anger that’s been boiling in Crowley’s veins all night falls away to a low, pathetic simmer. “Don’t worry about it. It was a long time ago, and it’s not like you’re wrong.” Just that you’re the last person I expected to remind me, he adds mentally, though he’d never say it aloud. Probably for the best, anyway, leaving the conversation where it is. He’s not the type to grant anyone absolution.
The silence stretches between them, languid and threatening, a snake sizing them up and preparing to swallow them whole. There is an elephant in the room almost ninety years in the making and they both refuse to shoot it, even if they both know that ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Crowley breaks first. “So. Dickens in the dark. New hobby of yours?”
“Fortuitous accident, really. I was reading and rather lost track of time, I’m afraid.” Aziraphale smiles, a bit shyly. “Quite lucky in hindsight, don’t you agree?”
“Quite,” Crowley echoes, with the distinct sensation that he’s swallowing his own tongue. “Will heaven be upset that you…?” He waves a hand in vague indication to his very obviously not-drowned self and their current situation. “You know.”
“I should think not,” Aziraphale says, his smile just a bit too quick. “It’s not as if they would have any reason to suspect I’d specifically saved you. I didn’t expect it myself, after all.” He quiets, his smile dimming somewhat as his eyes settle once more on Crowley’s face, searching. “Why were you plummeting off a cliff, exactly? If I may ask.”
Crowley shrugs. “New hobby I thought I’d try. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Too late, he remembers Aziraphale’s accusation of the holy water suicide pill and he realises what he sounds like, wincing. “Not like a staggeringly good idea. I’ve definitely had better ones this century. Can’t all be winners.”
“I would hardly consider atomic bombs to be winners.”
“You don’t actually think I made those, do you?” Crowley looks at Aziraphale’s face and catches a flash of guilt and suddenly the annoyance is back in full force. “You know, you could actually give me some credit now and then.”
“Well, how am I to know? You take credit for everything. It’s been fifteen years. People talk.” Aziraphale huffs, adjusting his suit jacket impatiently. “You can’t blame me for logical assumptions.”
“Logical assumptions? Of course.” Crowley glares, his muscles tensing as he bites down on a bitter laugh in favour of an even more bitter smile. “Why would you ever assume anything but the worst out of me?” Outside the window, rain has started to pour down and Crowley’s only just started to get warm but he stands anyway. A snappy retort hangs off the tip of his tongue, thanks loads for the rescue, see you in a century when you’ve finished cleaning your hands of me, and he opens his mouth to say just that.
Then Aziraphale stops him. “Crowley, wait,” he says, rising to his feet as well. “Please. I didn’t mean to insinuate – I’m sorry.” The apology stutters off his tongue like it’s tripping and Crowley looks at Aziraphale and curses himself for it a moment later. The expression on the angel’s face is the most horribly, frustratingly genuine thing Crowley’s ever seen. That’s the trouble with Aziraphale. It always has been. The only thing that’s ever been able to rival the scope of his brilliance and capacity for kindness is his immense talent for putting his foot in his mouth. In the worst, most horrible way, Crowley has to admit he can relate.
He sits back down, settles himself on the chair again. After nearly a minute of awkward silence, Aziraphale clears his throat, delicate, and tries again. “I didn’t mean to insult you. Quite the opposite, in fact.” He pauses a moment as if contemplating his next words very carefully. “What I meant to say is – well, you really are terribly clever, Crowley. I simply don’t understand why you didn’t use your wings.”
In the silence that follows, the rain lashes the window with a sudden, angry force. A bolt of lightning splits the night and Crowley doesn’t see it flash, doesn’t hear the thunder. For a single, horrible moment, he is not there anymore. He is in a different cramped space, and there are several people on each arm holding him down and a gag in his mouth that tastes like rot and mold and ash, and there is a horrible wet sensation and a pain not entirely unlike the lightning, flashing white and sharp against his eyelids as he screams and-
“Crowley?” He blinks, and Aziraphale is staring at him quizzically.
Shit. Perhaps a bit too obviously, he shakes himself free of the memory and smiles, quick and sharp. “Oh, you know,” he says smoothly, “I just don’t think it occurred to me. I mean, I was a little surprised at the whole exorcism bit, mostly. Can you believe people still do that? Been centuries since the last one. A century, I suppose. Century and a half? Right, that reminds me – you wouldn’t have a spare pair of glasses around that I could borrow? I’d like to avoid redoing all this.”
He’s rambling. More importantly, he’s deflecting, and he’s doing it far less smoothly than he usually does and far less subtly than he would like to. He sees Aziraphale frown and feels his fingers twitch nervously at his side. “I’m afraid I haven’t much need for sunglasses,” the angel says, studying him.
Feeling pinned, Crowley resists the urge to squirm, screwing his face up with disappointment. “Right. Too bad then.” He stretches out, his arms bending at night quite natural angles, then stands again, his heart suddenly racing. He needs to leave now, before the questions start. Before the problems begin. “I ought to get going. Hate to get between you and your Dickens.” He says it with the exact sort of mocking tone that he knows drives Aziraphale up the wall, hoping to get a rise out of him, to manipulate him into agreeance.
Instead, Aziraphale sputters indignantly. “Get in the way of-? Crowley, you nearly drowned! And that lake was –it was practically freezing. There is absolutely no way that you’ve fully warmed yourself.”
“Part snake, remember? I adjust fast.” The lie rolls easily off his tongue, and Crowley shoots off a quicksilver grin, sticking his hands in his pockets to hide the way they’re shaking like an addict’s. He starts to walk, ready to leave with or without Aziraphale’s blessing.
Then there’s a hand on his wrist, holding him in place. Crowley looks down, and Aziraphale is there, bright blue eyes blazing with determination. It’s been years since their eyes have met without the buffer of sunglasses, and Crowley isn’t quite prepared for it. He forgets sometimes, how beautiful Aziraphale’s eyes are, like a cloudless sky with everywhere to go and nothing to stand in the way.
He wants, more than almost anything, to stay. But he’s always been good at denying himself what he wants.
Crowley pulls his arm free. “Aziraphale, don’t.”
Aziraphale’s face twists with an almost comedic determination. “I know when I’m being lied to, and I would very much like you to know that I don’t appreciate it.”
Crowley snorts. “You almost got killed by a bunch of Nazis over a mutual interest in books, angel. You’re not what I’d call a divine lie detector.”
“I am when it comes to you,” Aziraphale retorts, and oh, there it is, the inevitable moment when he says something that hits Crowley like a knife stabbed deep into his guts. He does it so casually, Crowley wonders sometimes if he even knows that it’s happening, if he knows that it means something when he says things like that and it is not the sort of thing one can drop into a conversation without expecting it to blow up like a poorly timed atom bomb right in their face. Crowley looks, and Aziraphale is staring at him, his shoulders straightened in an obvious attempt at authority. “Now then. I must insist you tell me why you didn’t use your wings. Truthfully, this time. Please.”
Crowley can’t help it. “Or what? You’ll put me back the way you found me?”
“Put you back-? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Then what exactly are you going to hold against me?” The smart move, Crowley knows, would be to stop while he’s ahead before he says one too many smart remarks and they really don’t ever speak to each other again from now until the end of time. This whole conversation is a mess of foreign waters and he has no idea where he’s going or what he’ll do when he gets there, only that he’ll drown if he isn’t careful and Aziraphale won’t even know he’s the one holding him under.
Aziraphale’s shoulders fall, defeated. “I don’t intend to hold anything against you,” he says softly. “I had hoped you trusted me enough that I wouldn’t have to.”
Forget foreign waters. Forget drowning, forget swimming, forget all of it. Crowley looks at Aziraphale’s face, and he knows he’s already in too deep. This isn’t a story he wants to tell, isn’t the way he wanted this to come out. He hadn’t wanted it to come out at all, but if he doesn’t say it now he never will and if he doesn’t ever say it, he’s not sure Aziraphale will ever quite trust him again, and that thought hurts more than heaven or hell would ever get him to admit.
He wins this round.
Crowley lets the tension drain from his shoulders. In his pockets, his fingers still. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, angel,” he says, and waves a hand.
Aziraphale’s expression as his wings are summoned forth from the ether in which they normally rest is almost comedic. He squeaks like a startled mouse, wings shooting out to either side and nearly colliding with the furnishings. He immediately tucks them back in to a more reasonable position, then narrows his eyes at Crowley. “I know very well what my wings look like, thank you,” he huffs, waving a hand to dismiss them. “Why didn’t you summon yours? You’re the one in question.”
“That’s it, though. I did.” Crowley smiles, bitter and flat, and the fire crackles in the silence between them. He turns his back to Aziraphale and waits.
In the six thousand years of Aziraphale’s life time, the world has stopped moving on exactly three occasions. The first was in 48 BC, when he’d watched the library of Alexandria burn while nobody could even try to stop it. The second was in the 14th century, when he’d stood over a plague pit lined with bodies while a rainbow stretched overhead and the world drowned in grief instead of water. The third time is now, when Crowley turns away and understanding hits Aziraphale like a slap to the face as he finally sees Crowley’s wings.
There’s little left of them. Calling them wings feels generous, but Aziraphale can’t quite bring himself to refer to them as the stumps they are. The scapulae are little more than jagged edges of bone pierced through angry, infected skin. Tiny black feathers are speckled like ash around the base of the bones where a thick, ugly scar has started to form. Crowley shifts, and the skin of his back stretches nearly to the point of tearing, and it is all Aziraphale can do to hold in his nausea as he stares, and stares, and stares.
“’S not pretty, is it?” Crowley turns to face him with a strange, not-quite smile that does nothing to erase the memory of gore now emblazoned in Aziraphale’s mind.
A moment too late, Aziraphale snaps his jaw closed, blinking. He struggles briefly for an appropriate response, only to eventually settle on a somewhat inappropriate one as his eyes scan Crowley’s face like he’ll find an answer there. “What the hell happened to you?’
Crowley shrugs and barely hides a wince. “Hell, obviously. Who else do you think’s got handiwork like that? I’m not important enough for Gabriel to visit.”
“But how? Why? When?”
“Are you just going to work your way through all the question words?”
“This isn’t funny, Crowley.” Aziraphale takes a step forward and reaches out as if to touch him, stopping just short of contact with a sudden wariness. Maybe touching him will make things worse, and the last thing he wants to do is scare him away now. “Were they like this in the church?” The thought that they might have been and he was too wrapped up in himself to notice is almost sickening.
Crowley’s mouth curves, the expression lightless. “Nah. This was after.”
“How long after?”
“Oh, ages. Few years at least.”
“Four months,” Crowley admits. “Maybe five. Wasn’t really keeping track.”
Four months. Four months after he’d saved Aziraphale from a Nazi spy ring and a spared a collection of books from utter annihilation, something – someone – had sawed or ripped or burnt Crowley’s wings right off his back. It’s been fifteen years since the last time they spoke, and the wounds still look fresh. “I’ve always been under the impression that they were fond of you down there,” he says uselessly.
“They are. They were very impressed by all my hard work bombing churches, inspiring people to make camps for working and starving and gassing anyone they don’t like to death.” His voice is cynical, sharp and bitter like he’s chewing on a block of arsenic. “Thought they’d give me a special commendation to commemorate how far I’d fallen.”
“Surely you didn’t tell them you had-?”
“Of course not.”
“They just assumed you were responsible?”
“We’re demons. Assuming the worst is half the job.” Crowley reaches out with an entirely too casual grimace and pats Aziraphale twice on the side of his face, gently. “Chin up, angel. Could’ve been a lot worse if they’d had two brain cells to rub together and figured out I was slacking.”
Aziraphale catches his wrist and holds it in place. “Or if they’d figured out you were helping an angel.” His eyes lock onto Crowley’s, daring him to dissent.
Crowley’s smile vanishes. He clenches his jaw, saying nothing.
“That’s what I thought.” Aziraphale makes the decision in an instant and squares his shoulders. “Turn around.” The demon opens his mouth to protest and Aziraphale cuts him off before he can utter a sound. “Turn around, Crowley.”
For a moment, he stares like an astonished fish. Then, slowly, he does as he’s been told.
Aziraphale steps forward and closes the gap between them. He catches his breath at the sudden proximity and stretches his fingers. “Now hold still. I’m sorry, but…this may sting a little.” Then he presses his hands flat against Crowley’s back and closes his eyes to focus.
There’s always something a bit cold about demonically created wounds, like a strange occult sludge that hangs about the site of the injury. Aziraphale feels it now, icy against his hands where the sensation has pooled at the junction between Crowley’s shoulderblades and his ruined wings. As if he’s engaged in a particularly complicated stitching project, Aziraphale envisions his own energy as a sort of golden thread and weaves it over the wounds like a warm blanket wrapping around the ice. He murmurs something under his breath (not a prayer, because he knows better than to pray for Crowley), but a request. Heal his pain, he begs, and hopes with all his might that She will hear him and listen.
He’s not sure how long he sits there, his hands pressed to his best friend’s back. All he knows is that when he opens his eyes, Crowley is relaxed and comfortably still beneath his touch, and his wings…
His wings are not recovered, and it’s as much a disappointment as it is a foregone conclusion. An angel’s wings are not unlike a badge of honour, and their loss is not meant to be easily undone. Though Crowley’s the only demon Aziraphale’s ever seen who possesses wings, he suspects they exist under similar restrictions. That doesn’t stop the surge of joy that pulses through him when he sees what progress has been made. The once-jagged edges of his bones are smooth now, the skin around them a faint pink instead of the enraged inferno of infection it had been before. What scarring had begun is cleaner now, less like mountainous ghosts of old wounds and more like a memory. Best of all are the feathers. Small and black, they cover the base of the bones with a soft, downy fuzz, like they’re ready to grow again.
There is silence. Aziraphale does not dare to move his hands for fear that all the work will be undone. For his part, Crowley remains still, breathing even and almost peaceful.
When he speaks, his voice is laced with a confused, hesitant wonder that makes Aziraphale wish more than anything that they were sitting in front of some reflective substance so he could see Crowley’s face. “Angel,” he says, the words reverberating warmly through his back and into Aziraphale’s hands, “what did you do?”
The least I could, Aziraphale doesn’t say. “Nothing much,” he says instead, letting his shoulders sink. His hands fall away from Crowley almost reluctantly, fingers trailing behind until they can’t anymore. “I think I mostly made it so you at least have a chance to heal.”
Crowley turns at that. Their eyes meet and without warning, Aziraphale finds himself captured, pinned in place by golden light. Crowley’s eyes may be the primary feature which marks him as a demon, but Aziraphale has always found them beautiful – the way they’d glinted in the light where they stood on Eden’s wall, flashing like lightning in the wake of the flood, always filled with feeling when he thought nobody was looking. Aziraphale can’t remember when he started looking, but he’s staring now, and he thinks it’s a bit like staring at the sun. Doing it too long will only lead to disaster, but that doesn’t make it any easier to look away.
“Won’t your side frown on you miracling a demon’s wings back on?” Crowley asks, slow and careful.
“No more than yours would question you miracling a collection of prophecy books out of extinction.” Aziraphale reaches out to straighten Crowley’s collar and tells himself it’s only by coincidence that his hand lingers. “We can consider ourselves even on the risk-taking front.”
Crowley’s mouth opens and shuts, his face adopting the wonderful, hilarious contortions it always performs when he’s not quite sure what to say before eventually, finally, he manages a nod. “Yeah, of course. Even score. Nothing owed anywhere.”
“Good. Then we’re settled.” Aziraphale lets his hands fall and smiles, more genuinely than he has in the entire month preceding. There are things he could say, things he knows he likely should say, but he cannot yet say them to himself and he cannot say them tonight. What he says instead is, “How do you fancy a nice drink?”
What Crowley says is, “I’m always in a drinking mood,” and Aziraphale goes for the glasses.