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A Blaze of Light

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I. The Beginning

It begins, as it will end, with a Fall.

This is not the Fall that history will remember; it is not the Fall written of in Books, spoken about in hushed tones. It is not Samael, not Lucifer the Morningstar, burning bright, brighter, brightest, tearing the Heavens apart and bringing half his brethren down with him in his fury.

This is a smaller Fall, a quieter one perhaps, but no less significant. It comes some time after the first, greater Fall.

The Hosts of Heaven are licking their wounds, trying to reconcile themselves with the sudden, stark absence of half their number — and of God, who has locked Herself away, who no longer speaks to any of them. It is because of grief, some cry; it is because we are unworthy, others weep; it is all part of the Great Plan, yet more clamor. And it is these latter ones who slowly, slowly win the others over to their side.

Ah, but there is one. One who goes to his God’s door every day, quietly. The door is shut, but still he goes. He doesn’t cry; he doesn’t weep; he doesn’t clamor. He only asks, softly. Why?

Heaven rebuilds; then Heaven builds. The Archangels take charge; the Archangels set the great machinery of Heaven in motion to work on Heaven’s Great Plan. And Heaven builds, and builds.

Ah, but there is one.

Every day, he goes to his God, and one day, he finds the door not only shut, but locked. Finds an angel there, one he doesn’t think he’s ever seen before, one who calls himself the Metatron, one who now claims his position as the Voice of God. One who, to the soft question, implacably replies: it is all part of the Great Plan.

He is turned away, and so he turns away.

Softly, softly, softly, he closes the door of Heaven behind himself.

Without clamor, without weeping, without a single cry, Raphael Falls.

Chapter Text

II. The Garden

It begins, again, with a Garden.

It has been, so far, a nice day; all the days have been nice. It has been the kind of day that you might wish would last, and last, and last, forever, unchanging; the kind of day that might make you think all is right with the world.

The kind of day that lies.

As he watches the first storm clouds creep into the sky, Aziraphale, Angel of the Eastern Gate, thinks of how he watched the Serpent creep out of the ground, and onto the tree; and how the Serpent hissed softly, softly into Eve’s ear. How it all went from there. How he might have stopped all this, might’ve changed things, had he not been forbidden to leave his post.

There is a long, conversational hiss to his left, and he almost startles. Almost, because he is a Principality, thank you very much, and he has dignity. But it has been a long day, and it will be longer still before it is done; and so, instead of ignoring the hiss as he knows he should have, he takes refuge in courtesy and good manners, and asks, politely: “I’m sorry, what was that?”

And then he chances a look to his left, where the hiss came from, and then he does startle, because the Serpent is flowing upwards and into — oh good God, Aziraphale finds himself thinking, did nobody tell him that bones don’t work that way — into —

The Fallen angel shakes his dark, dark wings out behind himself and tilts his head towards Aziraphale, the bright burnished copper of his hair and the sparking gold of his eyes burning, burning in the remaining shreds of sunlight, a slight smirk playing on his lips. “I said, well, that went down like a lead balloon.”

“Yes, yes, it did, rather” Aziraphale replies automatically, his good manners still driving the rest of him. Then his brain catches up, and he wishes he could kick himself, or failing that, at the very least stop talking. There is no Heavenly Handbook for Dealing With Fallen Angels — demons, the righteous part of his brain supplies, they have lost the right to be called angels — quite yet, but he knows if there were, the protocol would likely include a fair bit less talking and a good amount more smiting. But it seems like it would be rude, now, to smite, after engaging in the conversation; and so he simply stares off into the distance, into the roiling storm clouds, hoping the demon will get the hint.

The demon does not, in fact, get the hint. “Bit of an overreaction, if you ask me. First offence and everything.”

Well, thinks Aziraphale charitably, perhaps he is simply no longer used to the standards of polite conversation. Probably not a whole lot of that Down Below. He makes a polite ‘mmhm’ noise, automatically, and then his brain catches up again, and he turns his head to glare at the demon, horrified.

The demon laughs in his face. “Relax, angel. We’re alone here. I won’t tell on you, I promise.”

Aziraphale draws himself up primly, offended. “The Children of God are never alone.”

All the amusement drops off the demon’s features, wiped clean like a slate, and his mouth twists. “Ah, yes, I remember the party line. No, angel, nobody’s looking. Nobody here but us. Believe me.”

Aziraphale feels, all of a sudden, wrongfooted, like the wall he is standing on might crumble under him any moment; and oddly guilty. Still, he soldiers on. “Why should I? You’re a demon. And you Tempted those poor people.”

“All I did was sssssuggest. And I can’t see what’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil, anyway.”

If Aziraphale didn’t know better, he might even think the demon’s wondering genuine. But he does know better. He knows. “Well, it must be bad. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have Tempted them into it.”

The demon shrugs his narrow shoulders. “Oh, they just said, ‘get up there and make some trouble’, and I needed a change of scene. And it’s not very subtle of the Almighty, anyway, is it? Fruit tree in the middle of a garden, with a ‘don’t touch’ sign. I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain? Or on the moon? Makes you wonder what God’s really planning.”

It shouldn’t. It doesn’t. Aziraphale knows what to say. “Best not to speculate. It’s all part of the Great Plan. It’s not for us to understand.”

The demon’s mouth twists again. “Ah, yes. The Great Plan.” He nods, as if he, too, knows exactly what Aziraphale is talking about. “Ineffable, is it?”

Aziraphale brightens. “Exactly! It is beyond understanding and incapable of being put into words.”

“Of course it is.” The demon rolls his eyes at Aziraphale, falling silent.

Finally, thinks Aziraphale. Just a few minutes of silence, and then I can get him to leave. Tell him I have to go patrolling the wall or—

“Didn’t you have a flaming sword?”

Aziraphale freezes. “Er.”

“You did, it was flaming like anything! What happened to it?”

“Uh.” It would be better, Aziraphale thinks, if the demon looked gleeful, or mocking, or vicious. But there is nothing but open, genuine curiosity on his face, and Aziraphale blurts out, despite himself, “Igaveitaway.”

“You what?”

And oh, the sunlight is fading, and the storm clouds are rolling in, but the demon’s eyes are glowing as a smile dawns on his face, brighter than any sunrise, and Aziraphale feels suddenly seen, suddenly understood. “I gave it away! It’s going to be cold out there, and there are vicious animals, and she’s expecting already! And so I said, here you go, flaming sword, don’t thank me, just — oh —” Aziraphale flinches as a terrible thought occurs to him. “I do hope I didn’t do the wrong thing.”

The demon laughs at him again, but his eyes are oddly soft, the smirk on his face oddly fond. “Relax. You’re an angel. I don’t think you can do the wrong thing.”

Aziraphale doesn’t think it is physically possible for him to relax, at this stage, but still, he tries. “Oh, thank you. It’s been bothering me.” It hadn’t been, not really. He’d been so sure that it was the right thing to do. But he can’t tell the demon that.

Thunder rumbles out overhead as Aziraphale and the demon watch Adam and Eve walk away from the Garden, in a soft, companionable sort of silence. Aziraphale holds up a wing to shelter the demon from the first drops of rain; the demon moves closer to Aziraphale as the thunder rumbles out again. It feels as natural as breathing.

It is going to be a dark and stormy night.

Chapter Text

III. Mesopotamia, 3004 BC

“Hello, angel.”

Aziraphale can’t help but scowl. Of course the demon would find him again today of all days. “Demon.”

The demon sidles up to him. “So, giving the mortals a flaming sword. How did that work out for you?”

Aziraphale doesn’t look at him, cannot look at him. Does he know? Does he know the Almighty had asked, and Aziraphale had lied, and — does he know? “The Almighty has never actually mentioned it again.”

The demon huffs softly, and Aziraphale knows, even without looking, that he is smiling that half-smile again. “Probably for the best.”

“Mm.” Aziraphale fidgets, searches for something to say, a change of subject. Turns to look at him. Takes refuge in politeness, once again. “Do you know, I don’t think I ever got your name?”

The demon opens his mouth. Stiffens. Shuts it with a clack. Hisses. Then: “Crowley.”

And isn’t that an odd name. Aziraphale had been expecting — he doesn’t know what he had been expecting, not quite. Something other than that. Something more suitably demonic, perhaps. “Aziraphale.” He is about to say something more, some inane pleasantry such as it is lovely to make your acquaintance perhaps, but there is a flash of dark, dark wings in front of his face, catching his eyes, and he loses his train of thought. For a moment, irrationally, he thinks it the demon’s wings, but no, it’s only birds, one more pair heading towards Noah and his ark. When he turns back towards the demon — towards Crowley — he finds him looking distant, following the birds with his gaze, some odd shadow passing over his eyes.

A moment passes, another, and then Crowley visibly shakes himself. “What’s all this about, then? Build a big boat and fill it with a traveling zoo?”

And there is the subject Aziraphale had been desperately trying to avoid, and how does Crowley know? And oh, he shouldn’t say anything, he shouldn’t, Crowley is a demon, but it has been bothering him — “From what I hear” he says, trying to keep his tone casual, “God’s a bit tetchy. Wiping out the human race. Big storm. Big flood.”

Crowley jerks. Stares at him, eyes wide. “All of them?”

Crowley looks, Aziraphale thinks, exactly how Aziraphale felt when he first learned about all this. Still, it wouldn’t do for an Angel of the Lord to doubt, would it? “Just — just the locals. I don’t believe the Almighty’s upset with — anyone else.”

Crowley snorts, softly. “Yet.” It sounds like mockery, almost, almost, but like his heart is not in it.

Aziraphale rather knows the feeling. “And — and God’s not actually going to wipe out all the locals. That’s what the boat is for, you see. Noah, up there? His family, and his sons, and their wives? They’re all going to be fine.”

Crowley is still staring at him. “But they’re — drowning everybody else?”

Aziraphale has to look away, cannot face the emotions that are showing up raw in Crowley’s eyes anymore. They are too like his. A group of children passes in front of them, laughing, chasing the animals, and Aziraphale takes a deep, steadying breath, and nods.

“Not the kids. You can’t kill kids.”

Aziraphale is an Angel of the Lord. It wouldn’t do, it wouldn’t do to doubt. He cannot. This is why the demon is who he is, he tells himself. This is how he tempts. He knows exactly what to say to inspire doubt. Be steadfast. And so he presses his lips together to avoid saying anything further. Steals another look at Crowley, and immediately has to look away again, because he looks — he looks — betrayed, his brain supplies.

“That is” Crowley is saying, softly, softly, “more like the kind of thing you’d expect — Below — to do.” There is a bitter twist to his voice.

I didn’t get any say, Aziraphale thinks, irrationally. Almost says but doesn’t. “Yes. Uh. But when it’s done, the Almighty is going to put up a new thing, called a ‘rain bow’, as a promise not to drown everyone again.”

Crowley says nothing.

Thunder rumbles out overhead, and it is answered by a whinny, as one of the unicorns Noah’s sons were leading to the ark spooks and bolts. Aziraphale turns to watch it go.

The first drops of rain begin to fall. Aziraphale turns back, and Crowley is gone.

* * *

He finds Crowley again on the night of the fourth day.

The rain keeps falling; the river has broken out of its bounds. Noah’s ark sits on the hill it was built upon, its doors long since shut and locked, waiting, waiting.

In the plain, the water is up to people’s waists, dragging them down with churning, sucking mud. A few have tried to seek refuge on higher ground, or on the small boats they used to fish on the river before this all started; but they know it is hopeless, and Aziraphale can see it in their eyes, and cannot stand it, and turns away.

Instead, he is following the unicorn, the one that bolted. He doesn’t know why, but he feels the desperate need to do something; has a vague thought of, once he catches up to the beast, miracling it into its spot on the ark. The night is dark, and the rain is making it worse, but Aziraphale has never before needed light to actually see and it doesn’t occur to him to start needing it now; and so he follows the unicorn, first through the flooded plain and then up, up a thickly forested hill that he hadn’t even known was there before he stumbled on the sudden incline.

Up, up the unicorn leads him, and up, up Aziraphale follows, until they reach the top and come out of the trees and into a clearing, and Aziraphale finds himself standing in a circle of torchlight, in front of — of —

The unicorn keeps going, disappears again into the trees, the rain and the night, but Aziraphale stops, stunned. There is a boat in front of him, an ark, smaller than Noah’s and only half-built, reaching out towards the sky with uncovered ribs. And Crowley steps out of the shadows, his dark, dark wings plainly visible behind him, his copper-bright hair and fathomless golden eyes burning, burning in the guttering torchlight.

Aziraphale stares. “What —”

Crowley sneers. “What does it look like to you, angel?” He gestures widely, at the rain, at the ark, at the small lean-to shelter that is just on the edge of the circle of torches, that Aziraphale hadn’t noticed before, where —

— where a group of children are sleeping.

Aziraphale suddenly feels like his heart is trying to leap out of his throat. Oh, he thinks. Oh. “Attempting to thwart God’s will, are you?” he says, trying to keep his tone light.

“Naturally.” They are standing in the pouring rain, but Crowley’s voice is as dry as the desert wind. “I’m a demon, after all. That’s what I do.”

There is a long pause. Aziraphale cannot stop staring, and it is Crowley who eventually turns away, silently, to begin hoisting another plank in its place on the ark.

The ark that is half-built, nowhere near ready to brave the swirling waters that are creeping ever closer up the hill. The ark that Crowley must have spent the last four days working on. And the ark is much smaller than Noah’s, much less ambitious, but —

— it had taken years upon years, Aziraphale dimly remembers, for Noah and his sons to build their ark. And Crowley is a demon, and a powerful one at that, but —

Crowley’s eyes had looked almost normal four days ago, Aziraphale recalls, for all that they were still serpentine and slitted; but they look entirely other now, gold from side to side as they had been in the Garden. And now that he has turned away, Aziraphale can see the lines of bone-deep exhaustion in the droop of his wings, in the slump of his shoulders, in the way his hands shake as he holds the plank up. In the fact that he is completely drenched with the rain, while Aziraphale is dry.

Crowley cannot, Aziraphale suddenly realises, finish building this ark in time. And he must know, he must know this. It is impossible he doesn’t know.

But still he builds.

Aziraphale opens his mouth to say something suitably angelic, quite possibly something along the lines of evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction, but what comes out instead is, “Let me help.”

Crowley drops the plank and whirls around, fast as a striking snake. “What?” His eyes are wide in the torchlight for a moment, wider than Aziraphale has ever seen them, and then they narrow. “I must have misheard that, angel.”

Crowley is giving him an out, Aziraphale knows. And he knows he should take it. But he also knows, knows that this is the right thing to do, knows it for certain like he’s never known anything before except perhaps when he gave away his sword a thousand years ago. “Let me help.” He flounders for an explanation, a justification, an anything that might serve as a valid reason for this. In case he is asked, after. “The children are innocents now, but you — you’re a demon, you — you cannot be left alone with them. You might Tempt them.”

Crowley hisses softly, eyes still narrowed. Then: “Get your wings out.”

“What?”

“Your wingsssss, angel. You want to help, let me see your wings.”

Aziraphale doesn’t understand, has no idea why Crowley might want to see his wings, but he does want to help, and so he shakes out his wings, tries not to flinch as the demon paces around him in a tight half-circle, pausing behind him, out of his line of sight. Crowley makes a small, thoughtful noise, and then there are hands on Aziraphale’s wings, fingers running over his feathers, and then he does flinch, and jerks forward, and turns around in a huff. There is an odd, shivering feeling coursing through his wings for a moment, where Crowley’s hands just were, but he barely has time to acknowledge it and it’s gone.

Crowley, naturally, laughs at him. “Relax, angel. Some of your secondaries were kinked. I thought I may as well fix that, while I was there.”

Aziraphale goggles at him, rendered almost speechless. “You— what—” Wings are private, he wants to sputter, you used to be an angel, how do you not know this?

Crowley laughs again, and finishes his circuit of Aziraphale, stepping back towards the ark. As Aziraphale turns around again, he pauses, and looks over his shoulder. “Alright, then. Come help. Have you ever built a boat?”

Chapter Text

IV. Golgotha, 33 AD

Crowley has already been standing there, watching, for a long while, when he feels Aziraphale walk up beside him. And he had thought he would be beyond anger by now, beyond grief, comfortably settled into numbness; but the hammer comes down, and Yeshua cries out, and the angel, standing next to him, lets out a soft, sympathetic gasp; and Crowley cannot help himself. “Come to smirk at the poor bugger, have you?”

“Smirk? Me?” The angel has the sheer gall to sound hurt.

“Well, your lot put him on there.” Crowley does not look at Aziraphale, cannot, must not look away from Yeshua on his cross with his crown of thorns.

“I’m not consulted on policy decisions, Crowley” Aziraphale says, unsteadily; and the hammer comes down, and Yeshua cries out, and the angel is stood near enough to him that Crowley can feel his full-body flinch. “That looks like it hurts a great deal.”

“I imagine it does.” It would hurt more if I let it. Yeshua is gasping his way through his words of forgiveness, and Crowley cannot look away.

“Did you… did you ever meet him?”

Crowley clenches his fists; smothers another wave of anger; does his best to project nonchalance, although he is not quite sure he manages it. “Yes. Seemed a very bright young man. I showed him all the kingdoms of the world.”

The hammer comes down again; Aziraphale flinches, gasps, and then on the exhale, asks softly, “Why?”

Because I could. Because I had to. Because I wanted to, I wanted to know him, to know, to know… “Well, he’s a carpenter from Galilee. His travel opportunities are limited.” And he knew me, and he put his hand over my head, and he said, he said…

Crowley closes his eyes for a moment, pulled under by a fresh wave of grief. The hammer comes down; Yeshua cries out, louder, ragged. Crowley gets a hold of himself, forces his eyes open again. It is almost over, he knows. “What was it he said that got everyone so upset?”

The angel takes in a shuddering breath, and when he answers, his voice cracks. “Be kind to each other.”

The hammering is done; the cross is hoisted up. Crowley cannot look away.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yeshua cries out eventually, desperate. Crowley's soul cries out with him.

He cannot look away.

The angel remains by his side until it is finished.

Chapter Text

V. Rome, 41 AD

Aziraphale has been trying to find Crowley for years now. He knows the demon is in Rome, he’s heard mention of him several times, but Rome is a very large city, and Crowley is, Aziraphale is starting to suspect, very adept at hiding when he does not want to be found.

And so there Aziraphale is, in a dingy tavern, playing terni lapilli against himself for a distraction, for something to do.

“Give me whatever you think is drinkable,” he hears someone says to the bartender behind him, and startles, and drops the pebble he was holding, because that’s Crowley’s voice. He turns, and sure enough, it’s Crowley, scowling into his cup like it’s personally wronged him, with a large jug of wine in front of him. He is wearing dark spectacles, something Aziraphale has never seen on him before. They don’t fully cover his eyes, but Aziraphale thinks that they would suffice to make him pass for human at first glance.

Hurriedly, before he can talk himself out of it, Aziraphale stands up and walks over to him. “Crowley! Fancy running into you here.”

Crowley looks up at him, grimaces, and looks away. It’s clear he wants to be left alone, honestly — Aziraphale is not ignorant of social norms, unlike some other angels he could name — but Aziraphale has been trying to find him for years, and he does pride himself on his persistence. So he takes the unoccupied seat right next to Crowley, and asks, just for something to say, “Still a demon, then?”

And that was clearly the wrongest possible thing he could’ve said, because Crowley snarls and slams his cup down on the counter so hard Aziraphale could swear the wood now has several cracks it didn’t have before. “What kind of an idiotic question is that? ‘Still a demon, then?’ What else am I going to be, an aardvark?”

“Just — just trying to make conversation.”

“Well, don’t” Crowley mutters, still scowling into his cup, still not looking at Aziraphale, still radiating leave me alone.

Well, that simply won’t do. Aziraphale miracles himself a cup, fills it with wine from Crowley’s jug, pastes on his brightest smile and holds the cup out to Crowley. “Salutaria.

Crowley rolls his eyes and sighs, but he does clink his cup against Aziraphale’s, which Aziraphale counts as a victory, because it is.

He’s still not making conversation, though, and so Aziraphale breaks the silence again. “In Rome long?”

Crowley rolls his eyes again, a more exaggerated gesture this time. “Just nipped in for a quick temptation.”

Aziraphale knows he’s lying, but he also has the distinct feeling it would be extremely unwise to point it out. “Anyone special?”

Crowley drains his cup, pours himself another, and drains it again, looking for all the world like he’s trying to come up with a name. “Emperor Caligula” he finally answers. “Who, frankly, doesn’t actually need any tempting to be completely appalling. He manages that all on his own. You? What are you up to in Rome?”

Looking for you. “Oh, I thought I’d try Petronius’ new restaurant. I hear he does remarkable things to oysters.”

Crowley refills his cup, and drains it. “I’ve never eaten an oyster.” Refills, drains. Refills, drains. Refills.

Is that what he’s been doing here, all these years? Drinking himself to oblivion? Why? “Well, let me tempt you to —”

Crowley pauses in the middle of his next cup of wine. Sets his cup down. Stares.

Oh, no. Did I say something wrong again? “— no, that’s — that’s your job, isn’t it?”

Crowley’s eyes narrow behind his spectacles; and then he sighs, once again, and very deliberately levers himself up, bearing his weight on the counter to stand, and starts making his way towards the exit.

Aziraphale watches him go, taken aback, not quite sure what to say anymore. Perhaps I should just let him be. It’s clear that’s what he wants.

And then Crowley pauses at the door, and turns to look at him. “Well? Come on. Petronius, you said? I think I know where that is.”

Aziraphale smiles, and goes to join him.

Chapter Text

VI. Pompeii, 79 AD

It is not long after midday, but the sky is dark over Pompeii, and Aziraphale cannot breathe.

He doesn’t need to breathe, technically, but he has rather gotten into the habit of it over the last handful of centuries, influenced by the fact that humans tend to react quite badly to the presence of anything that seems unnatural.

(On one particularly memorable occasion, he’d been halfway through his then-standard speech of do not fear when the first stone had been thrown; and then Crowley had been there, stopping the stone in mid-air with a gesture and dragging Aziraphale bodily away from the stilled crowd. Crowley had been properly incensed after the fact, ranting on at great length about how for Heaven’s sake, angel, you can pass for human entirely, just do it, it won’t kill you to breathe, but it might just discorporate you if you do not. Aziraphale had shouted at him in return before storming off in a huff; but later, in private, he had felt rather guilty, thinking about how Crowley, with his golden, serpentine eyes, would never have the luxury of blending in entirely.)

He doesn’t need to breathe, but the humans do, and the air is choked with ash and soot and cinders and it almost burns to inhale. All around him, he knows, they are screaming, though the voices are hard to make out over the thuds of rocks hitting the ground, the rumble of buildings collapsing.

The city had been so beautiful.

He is leading a group of people, trying to project calm, calm, calm, trying to be a beacon of safety amidst all this destruction. There are children clustered around him, and his wings are out, and he is shielding them from the burning cinders as best he can, uncaring of what they think of him anymore, of how alien he might seem to them.

He rushes through the forum, where the temple of Jupiter is half in ruin already, down the road that he knows will lead them to the sea, the shore, where, God willing, there are still boats waiting.

He feels like he could weep, but he cannot spare the energy.

Down the road, past the sanctuary of Apollo, out through the gate, past the baths, almost, almost —

They are upon the shore.

There are no boats.

The unforgiving sea is churning, churning, and Aziraphale can see fragments of wood caught in the eddies, all that remains of the boats that have long since been smashed to pieces upon the shore.

All around him, people start wailing, terror sinking in at last. Aziraphale stares at the sea, eyes wide, trying to think, trying to come up with a way to save at least the children

The sky is burning, and so are his wings. He cannot breathe.

On the shore, among the people he could not save, Aziraphale falls to his knees. He closes his eyes, and pitches forward, and knows no more.

* * *

He comes back to wakefulness all at once, shuddering himself awake with a great gasp. His eyes won’t open, and his wings, he can’t feel his wings

Then there are hands, gentle and cool on his forehead, his shoulder, his hair, coaxing him to lie back down. There is a soft, comforting shushing sound. There is a cloth, damp with water, wiping the crusted ash from his face, from his eyes.

“Aziraphale?”

He knows that voice.

He cracks open one eye, then the other. The light hurts, and he has to shut his eyes again almost immediately, but he manages to catch a glimpse of Crowley, looking down at him.

He opens his mouth, but his throat is too dry, and the words won’t come. Then there is a hand behind his shoulders, supporting him, and a cup at his lips, and he drinks gratefully, the water sweeter than any wine. He swallows the last sip, and manages to rasp out, “…the people…?”

“I couldn’t, Aziraphale, I couldn’t, I’m so sorry. They were gone by the time I got there. I could only barely get you out.”

There is grief in Crowley’s voice, Aziraphale thinks wonderingly, as Crowley sets down the cup and returns his free hand to Aziraphale’s hair, gently stroking. “Oh.”

And then he is weeping, weeping like he never has before, clutching at Crowley desperately and sobbing into his chest, and Crowley lets him, holds him through it, saying nothing but rubbing soothing circles into his back.

When he has finally sobbed himself dry of his tears, his grief, he feels like he could sleep for a century. Crowley must sense this, because he gently tips Aziraphale back down. The demon’s hands release him, and Aziraphale feels suddenly bereft, but it is only a moment, and then the damp cloth returns, stroking softly down his shoulders and arms.

“Aziraphale?”

“Hm?”

“May I touch your wings?”

What…? “…didn’t ask before,” Aziraphale manages to get out.

The cloth’s movement doesn’t pause, but Crowley huffs softly. “Before was before. Now is now. May I?”

Aziraphale makes a noise that he hopes will be taken for an assent.

Crowley clearly understands, because the damp cloth leaves, and then Crowley’s hands are on Aziraphale’s wings, and there is a jolt of sudden, burning pain

— Aziraphale thinks he might’ve screamed —

— and then there is nothing but gentle, comforting warmth, and Aziraphale is falling, down

down

down.

* * *

The next time Aziraphale wakes, he can feel his wings again. His body is still smudged with ash and soot, but his wings are pristine, shining a brilliant white, every feather perfect.

Crowley is gone.

Chapter Text

VII. Ostia, 410 AD

They had given him a commendation.

A commendation.

Crowley drains the last of the wine, snarls, and flings the empty bottle at the wall, where it shatters. The shards fall to join the remains of the previous five bottles.

He’d thought he’d made it perfectly clear, when he had left Hell, that he did not wish to be in any way involved with anything. That he would do the one thing — one thing — kickstart the whole temptation business — and then he would be left alone. He’d thought the four discorporated lesser demons, not to mention Dagon very narrowly escaping the same fate, had made his point rather well.

But no, clearly not.

Well done, Crowley. Thank you for doing your job, Crowley. Excellent work with the destruction and pillaging and raping and murder —

He miracles the last bottle he’d flung whole again, back to his hand, just for the satisfaction of shattering it against the wall once more.

It doesn’t make it any better that he hadn’t actually had any part in it. That he’d been nowhere near — in the area, yes, but nowhere near. If anything, it makes it worse.

He has half a mind to pay a visit Below, and make his point again. See how they enjoy wanton destruction when they’re the ones on the receiving end of it.

Maybe after he sobers up.

For now, his only plans are to drink his body weight twice over in alcohol — lovely human invention, that — and forget, like he’d done in Rome a few centuries back.

He has almost reached the bottom of the seventh bottle when he hears someone walk into the tavern through the door behind him, and isn’t that just perfect. He’d terrified everyone who had been there when he arrived into leaving — taking his spectacles off and glaring had served very well for that; and immediately after, he had, he thought, warded the door against anyone else coming in. He must’ve not done it right. But hey, another thing for him to have royally fucked up.

“Crowley?”

And of course it’s the angel. As if the day hadn’t been horrible enough already; as if he weren’t still feeling much too raw to deal with the angel’s well-meaning, but ultimately thoughtless, concern.

Crowley growls, drains the bottle and flings it behind himself, without looking, hearing it shatter. “Get out.” A yelp from the angel lets him know he’s hit his mark — not the angel himself, of course not, but the door jamb right next to his face.

Of course, the angel doesn’t leave. Instead, he makes his way across the tavern, coming to stand beside him. “Crowley — my dear fellow — er — are you alright?”

Do I look like I’m alright?” Crowley snarls.

The building shakes. Every single item that Crowley isn’t currently touching explodes, including the tables and chairs.

Shit.

To his credit, the angel doesn’t back away, although his eyes are very wide.

Crowley buries his face in his hands. Excellent work almost discorporating a Principality, Crowley, says a little mocking voice in the back of his head, you’re doing so well!

“...sorry,” he finally mutters, without looking up. “It’s probably best if you leave.”

And then Aziraphale’s hand is on his shoulder. “No, I don’t think that would be good” the angel says. “Would you tell me what’s wrong?”

Crowley stiffens. He is not drunk enough for this. Not sober enough for this. Either. Both. Does the fool angel not have even a single shred of self-preservation? Does he not realise what just almost happened?

But Aziraphale shows no intention of leaving, and Crowley, once again, finds himself crumbling in the face of the angel’s gentle persistence. “Got a commendation from Below” he says, quietly. “For —” He gestures vaguely in what he thinks is the correct direction. He can’t look up at the angel, can’t look him in the eyes. Doesn’t know what he would find there, but knows he can’t face it.

“Oh” says Aziraphale. “Oh. Of course, that’s why I’ve been sent here, but...” He trails off, in thought. And then: “That’s why you’re so angry, isn’t it? It wasn’t you.”

Crowley slumps even further into his seat, still not looking up. “Of course it wasn’t me. I’m hardly the rape-and-murder type. The humans did it all themselves. I couldn’t even —”

Couldn’t even stop it. Not even if he’d tried, which he hadn’t because he hadn’t known it was going to be that bad until it happened. But he couldn’t have stopped it, anyway. And what does that make him?

Not letting go of Crowley’s shoulder, Aziraphale miracles himself a chair and sits. “Crowley. Look at me.”

Crowley does.

There is no judgement in the angel’s eyes. They are kind, and soft, and understanding.

Letting himself be tipped forward into the angel’s chest, Crowley weeps.

Chapter Text

VIII. The Kingdom of Wessex, 537 AD

Aziraphale is exhausted, and sore, and damp in places he hadn’t even known it was possible to be damp, thanks to the ever-present fog and drizzle. He would miracle himself dry, miracle his full suit of armour weightless, but when he was made a Knight of the Table Round, he was assigned a squire, and the youth would surely notice.

(Also, he thinks would feel guilty if he eased matters for himself but not for his squire. And so he doesn’t.)

His endeavour — a search for the Black Knight — has proven fruitless; he has spent several miserable days trudging around in the miserable damp, trying to see through the miserable fog, for absolutely no result. Privately, Aziraphale isn’t sure the Black Knight even exists; had he been asked for his opinion, he might’ve said that a handful of reports of a black-armoured knight mean little when one can’t see more than a foot in front of one’s nose, and that unless more concrete reports showed up — reports of actual evil-doing — they may as well wait until the summer, when the fog would be gone, to investigate.

But Aziraphale is a Knight of the Table Round, and Arthur had commanded him to go; and Arthur was doing so much good for the land and its people; and so Aziraphale had gone, and gone — well, maybe not entirely gladly, but willingly, at least.

Still, he would be lying if he said he isn’t looking forward to a warm meal and an equally warm bed.

Aziraphale leaves his horse and his armour with his squire, stops by his rooms to change into something less damp and more comfortable, and then walks to the king’s great hall and pushes open the doors. “My king! I have returned.”

“Ah, Sir Aziraphale! Glad we are of your return. It brings further brightness to an already joyous day!” Arthur exclaims. “Look! Our Merlin has returned to us!”

Aziraphale looks. At Arthur’s right hand, looking entirely too smug, sits Crowley.

* * *

After, Aziraphale corners Crowley in one of the castle’s many corridors, using a minor miracle to ensure they will be overlooked. “What are you doing here?”

Crowley grins, insouciant. “I’m here spreading foment.”

“Is that a kind of porridge?” It’s not. Aziraphale knows what Crowley means — he is a learned angel, thank you very much. But he has just spent one of the most uncomfortable dinners of his extremely long life watching Crowley speak softly with the king, hearing the court sing his praises, watching his uncovered eyes — no dark spectacles needed for the Merlin, evidently — glow like twin stars in the light of the great hearth; and he is feeling unaccountably resentful.

Crowley hisses. “No! I’m, you know, fomenting dissent and discord. Arthur’s doing a little too good a job at spreading peace and tranquillity throughout the land. Gotta balance it out somehow. So I’m here, you know.” He gives another toothy grin. “Fomenting.”

Aziraphale scowls at him. “And I’m meant to be fomenting peace. Whatever you’re planning, it won’t work.” Then Aziraphale pauses, frowning, something nagging at the back of his brain. “Wait.”

Crowley tilts his head. “What?”

“You’re Merlin.” Aziraphale has no doubts about that. The entire court knows Crowley as Merlin, he could tell that much. It would be almost impossible for a demon, no matter how powerful — and Aziraphale rather thinks he has a pretty good handle on Crowley’s level of power, after all these centuries — to influence that many people that thoroughly.

“...yes?”

“No. You’re Merlin. You’ve been at Arthur’s side from the very first. You made him king. And he has told me tales of how greatly you aided him in his quest to — how was it you put it? Spread peace and tranquillity throughout the land?”

The demon has the good grace to squirm and look down. “Yessssssss, well. Would you believe me if I said I was playing the long game?”

“The long game?”

Crowley looks up, his golden eyes glittering oddly in the light of the nearby torch. “The better things are now, the worse they will be later. When Arthur dies. When his kingdom is torn apart by his kinsmen scrabbling for the pieces of his rule.”

Aziraphale stares at him. He is lying, he suddenly finds himself thinking, but he cannot pin down which part of what the demon’s said is the lie; and eventually he shrugs. They have not really spoken in more than a century — not since Ostia, not truly, although they’ve met briefly on occasion; and he is, he’s starting to dimly realise, lonely. Lonely for the company of another being who knows exactly who and what he is, and who shares his interest in humanity. He’s spoken with other angels, naturally, the few times he’s visited Heaven for one reason or the other, but they don’t understand him. Not like Crowley does. “Well then. Would you care to join me in my rooms? I have a bottle of rather good wine we can share. And you can tell me all about what you’ve been up to, other than playing kingmaker.”

Chapter Text

IX. Bernburg, 1020

When Aziraphale finds him this time, it’s snowing. Crowley is sitting in a garden in front of a church, leaning back against a tree, giving the consecrated ground a wide berth. He’s not tried walking on it, but he has a feeling it would hurt.

There is nobody else around; it’s too early for that, not yet dawn, everybody in the town still soundly asleep after attending mass on Christmas Eve.

“No Satan-induced dancing sickness, then?” The angel sounds amused, and when Crowley looks up at him, there is a smile on his face.

Crowley huffs out a laugh. “Nah. Just stupidity. Young man by the name of Petrus fell deeply in love with the parson’s daughter. The parson disagreed, said it was sinful. Said he wouldn’t let him attend mass again until he confessed and repented and, of course, vowed to never even look at the girl ever again. So, naturally, Petrus the fool had the brilliant idea to enlist the help of eleven of his idiot friends, and they all stood outside the church as the parson was trying to get mass started yesterday evening, dancing and stomping and singing the bawdiest tavern song I have ever heard at the top of their lungs.” Despite himself, Crowley had been rather impressed. It had taken the parson’s daughter shouting at her father, then stomping up to her young man and kissing him full on the lips to shut him up, to dissolve the chaos. Ah, love. Forever making people do wild, foolish things. Not that he would know. “Your lot actually sent you here to check up on it?”

Aziraphale shakes his head, ruefully. “Yes. I tried telling them it was unlikely to be anything dangerous, but they insisted I come immediately. Sandalphon said you can never be too careful.”

Crowley snorts. Of course it would’ve been Sandalphon. Built like a brick wall and about as smart as one, too. “Well, sorry to disappoint. Nothing demonic here other than me.” He is expecting an immediate rejoinder — he knows how their usual conversations go, by now, has a map for them — but instead Aziraphale is silent. “What?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

Crowley can’t resist. “Uh oh.”

Aziraphale laughs. “Hush. You’re still the only one permanently assigned to Earth, aren’t you?”

“I am. Why?” He is. He’d made sure of it. Had taken a secret trip Below, unnoticed by most, not long after what he privately referred to as the Ostia Incident; and he had obtained certain concessions, largely by virtue of having a good long shouting match with his eldest brother and, somehow, coming out on top. He would perform the occasional small temptation — nothing huge, nothing too beyond the generalised nastiness humans were fully capable of coming up with on their own, and entirely up to him in terms of when and where — and act as he wished otherwise; and he would accept, without necessarily investigating the details, the occasional commendation, whether he’d actually done anything or not. And in return, of course, he would be nothing but the extremely average demon Crowley to the denizens of Hell at large; if anything big was planned, he would immediately be informed; and no other demon would be assigned to Earth permanently, nor visit for longer than a week.

It isn’t a bad deal, although he’d have preferred to not need it. And it does have one rather pleasant consequence. He could, by choosing his temptations very carefully, engineer more frequent meetings with Aziraphale. Of course, if someone had asked him — not that anyone would — he would have said that it was simply a matter of convenience; that clashing repeatedly with an angel, and thwarting his blessings and miracles on occasion, made him look much better, much more effective in the eyes of Hell.

Of course, the real reason — not that he would admit it to himself very often — is much simpler. He likes spending time with Aziraphale. The angel does not know him fully, but he does know him better than anyone else; and sometimes, when Aziraphale looks at him, Crowley feels that if he told the angel everything — everything — the angel might understand.

Perhaps someday, Crowley will.

“Well, I am the only one on my side, also,” the angel is saying. “And I was thinking it might be much easier on both of us if we were to agree to — not necessarily help each other out, but discuss things beforehand. I do my thing, you do yours, but we keep it even. Stop cancelling each other out so often. Not give either your side or mine a reason to recall us and replace us with someone more —” Aziraphale gestures vaguely “— you know.”

Crowley sits up, startled, then flows fluidly to his feet and crowds right up into the angel’s personal space, shoving him backwards until his shoulders hit the tree trunk. “I can’t be hearing this right. You, an angel, are suggesting you would make a deal with me, a demon? You would listen to me describing all the dessssssspicable things I plan on doing, and agree not to interfere?” Not that he plans on ever doing anything truly despicable; not that he ever interferes with Aziraphale if there’s even a chance it might tip the world into being worse than it already is. But the angel doesn’t know that.

Aziraphale looks at him steadily, not moving. “I trust you.”

Crowley hisses, gives the angel a good shake, and pins him properly against the tree with his full body, lifting him up a bit so he’s forced to be on the tips of his toes. “Trussssssssst me, do you?” And then he looks, properly, focusing his attention beyond the immediately physical.

He’s not supposed to be able to see Aziraphale’s wings when they’re hidden; but he’s never been particularly good at sticking with what he’s supposed to, and he knows there’s a certain kind of wing damage that can serve as a symptom of deeper issues. And why would an angel be looking to make a deal with a demon, if not because —

If his presence is harming Aziraphale, he will never forgive himself.

But nothing is wrong. Aziraphale’s wings are pristine.

Aziraphale, for his part, is just letting himself be manhandled, his body completely relaxed. “Yes. We’ve known each other for so long, and I’ve never known you to be anything but —”

“If you say the words ‘nice’ or ‘good’, angel,” Crowley interrupts immediately, “I will rip out your guts, strangle you with them, and then dry them out and use them for garters.” He’s not worried about himself or his reputation, not really. The majority of Hell has no reason to come after him; the very small minority aware of him beyond the superficial wouldn’t dare. But he does have appearances to maintain.

Aziraphale has the sheer, unmitigated gall to smile placidly at him. “As you say. It’s not a bad idea, though, is it?”

It’s a terrible idea, Crowley wants to say. It’s dangerous, and foolhardy, and it doesn’t matter that it would mean they’d meet even more regularly, that he wants that to happen. He’s not worried about himself; but if Heaven found out… well. God may be merciful, but Heaven is not.

But at the same time… at the same time, it’s really not a bad idea, he has to admit, when he looks at it from a strictly rational, no-feelings-whatsoever perspective. It’s dangerous, of course it’s dangerous, but not really much more so than all the interactions they’ve already had through the years. And with an agreement, they would meet regularly; they would share information; they would not waste time and energy working small blessings and temptations against each other, cancelling each other out. In cases where the end result would be identical to the original status quo, they could just… not do, and say they did. They would be better able to work on what really mattered.

“Gah. Fine.” Oh, but he hates it when he can’t reason himself out of doing what his extremely inconvenient feelings demand he do. He drops the angel and backs up a few steps. “Wings out, then. If we’re doing this, we’re doing it the right and proper way.”

Aziraphale pauses in the act of smoothing out his clothes, blinking. “What?”

“You heard me. You remember the old forms, surely?” He spreads his awareness outwards briefly, to make absolutely certain everyone in town remains asleep a while longer, then shakes out his wings and pointedly splays one out, displaying the razor-sharp edge of his primary feathers. Not all angels were created with bladed wings, of course; but he was, and he’s seen Aziraphale’s wings, knows the angel was too. Both built for war before war ever existed, for all that they both loathe it. And so they can have a Pact.

“Oh.” Aziraphale also shakes out his wings, hesitantly. “Yes, but I’ve never…”

Crowley rolls his eyes, holding out his hand, palm up. “Here. I’ll go first. You know what to do, surely?”

Aziraphale nods and brings his wing forward, then down, slashing at Crowley’s palm. There is no pain.

Crowley’s blood wells out from the wound, and Aziraphale startles back and stares. “Crowley…”

What, angel?”

“Your — your blood is golden.”

“Yeah?”

“Is that the same for all demons? I would’ve thought —”

“You and your blessed curiosity. I wouldn’t know. I’ve not seen any bleed.” He’s lying; he has. They bleed black, most of them. He is, as he has ever been, an exception. “Can we get on with this?” He gestures with his bleeding hand for Aziraphale to bring his wing closer again, impatiently. There’s a little of his blood on the edge of the feather that made the cut, but not a whole lot. Not nearly enough.

Aziraphale moves his wing forward again, and Crowley strokes his palm down the largest primary, smearing his blood all over it. “Right.” Then: “With my blood as my witness,” he begins, and Aziraphale startles again, and Crowley smirks. He’s switched to the language all beings of angel stock spoke, before. It’s not strictly necessary, but it feels like the right thing to do. “I, Crowley,I, Raphael, he thinks into the pause, very deliberately, not knowing whether it’ll work but hoping, hoping, “do hereby enter into an Agreement with the Principality Aziraphale. From this day onwards, I pledge to inform him of my plans concerning temptations, so that we may discuss and agree on the best course of action; to never again knowingly interfere with his blessings without prior agreement; and to aid him, as best I can, should he be in peril.” That last, he knows, he probably shouldn’t have added; but he wants, he wants with his whole being to protect this fragile thing he’s been building with Aziraphale over the centuries, whatever it is; and he remembers Pompeii, and he had already sworn to himself, back then, that he would never let anything like that happen again. This is just saying it out loud. “Thus I swear, and thus it shall be.

The cut on his palm heals; his blood glows on Aziraphale’s wing and then sinks in, leaving the feather once again pristine. Aziraphale is staring, mouth agape, his eyes very wide; Crowley rolls his shoulders as he feels the Pact settle into him, and idly wonders if the angel realises that the wording he’s used is one that does not imply or require reciprocation. He is bound, even if the angel gets cold feet now.

And then Aziraphale closes his mouth, and takes a few quick steps forward, closing the distance; and runs his palm along the bladed edge of Crowley’s wing, slicing it open; and strokes his bleeding hand all down Crowley’s largest primary feather, smearing it with his blood. Crowley knows Aziraphale’s blood is golden, too. He’s seen it before. “With my blood as my witness,” he says, very firmly, “I, Aziraphale, do hereby enter into an Agreement with Crowley.

He’s omitted ‘demon’, Crowley realises wonderingly; and then, in the pause, the universe sings back at him Raphael, Raphael, Raphael, and he has to close his eyes for a moment against the sweetness of it.

From this day onwards,” Aziraphale is continuing, “I pledge to inform him of my plans concerning blessings, so that we may discuss and agree on the best course of action; to never again knowingly interfere with his temptations without prior agreement; and to aid him, as best I can, should he be in peril. Thus I swear, and thus it shall be.

The cut on Aziraphale’s palm heals, and Crowley knows, without looking, that the angel’s blood is glowing and then sinking into his wing.

And then Aziraphale is reaching forward and grabbing his hand, smiling, and Crowley finds himself smiling back, wide and helpless and foolish. Oh, but he loves this angel.

And all around them, through the gently falling snow, dawn breaks.

Chapter Text

X. Camposampiero, 1231

He had only meant it as a small temptation. Pretend to be a novice, spend some time following a friar from town to town as he preaches, discuss theology. Eventually disappear with the friar’s psalter. See whether the man’s faith holds, or not.

Only a small temptation, one that even Aziraphale had had no objection to, saying he trusted Crowley not to go too far.

Only, he’d felt guilty, and ended up returning the psalter two days later. The friar had looked steadily at him then, saying nothing, and Crowley had felt uncomfortably seen, and had fled.

Only, he’d ran into the friar again one year later, entirely by chance; and the friar had smiled, and greeted him like an old friend, and casually struck up a theological discussion as if nothing had happened.

The next meeting had been deliberate, and the next one, and the next one. Almost a decade of meetings, they’d had, the friar never asking why Crowley, even though he’d supposedly been a novice, only ever showed up outside of consecrated ground.

And now Crowley stands in a little monastic cell built under the branches of a walnut tree, and watches his friend sleep, and knows he is about to die.

The friar’s eyes open; he smiles at Crowley, tiredly, and sits up on his cot. “Corvino. I was hoping you would find me today.”

Crowley inclines his head. “Antonio.” He doesn’t know what else to say. His grief is stuck in his throat, choking him; the words won’t come.

Antonio just looks at him for a long moment, his eyes as piercing as they’d been the first time they’d met. They remind Crowley of another set of knowing eyes, almost twelve centuries gone now, and he feels rooted in place, pinned down and stripped open by that too-sharp stare. “I have never asked, old friend, but I am asking now. Tell me: who are you?”

Crowley freezes. “Don’t ask me that,” he manages to say, his voice ragged. “I can’t.” You will never forgive me, not this, never this.

“Oh, my friend. Let us have truth, here, at the end. I am dying; let us have truth. Who are you?” Antonio reaches out a hand, beseeching.

It is early summer; the sun is shining brightly outside, and the cicadas are singing in the hedges; but it is dark and quiet in the little cell; and Antonio is about to die, he is so young still, he is so young and he is about to die; and Crowley takes a step forward, and takes the outstretched hand in his. “If I could heal you —”

“I would ask that you do not,” Antonio says, kindly but firmly. “It is my time. You know this as well as I do. Who are you? I would know you now, before I go.”

Crowley closes his eyes, all too aware of the tears tracking their way down his cheeks, and nods. Eyes still closed, he lets go of Antonio’s hand and moves backward one step, then another.

It is dark and quiet in the little cell, dark like a heartbeat, quiet like a secret; and Crowley takes off his spectacles, and shakes out his wings, and opens his eyes.

Ah.” Antonio smiles, brightly, beatifically. “What is your name, then, my friend?”

“I —” Crowley chokes on tears, swallows, starts again. “Raphael. I was Raphael. Raffaele, you would say.”

“‘It is God who heals,’” Antonio says, understanding. “You could, then.”

“I could,” Crowley says, shakily. “But you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t. It is my time.” Antonio is looking at him, steadily, and Crowley trembles under the weight of that regard. “Would you bless me, instead?”

“Would I — don’t you know what I am?” How can he, how can he —

“I see what you are, yes; but I know who you are.” Antonio closes his eyes, falling back on his cot, his energy apparently spent. “Please, my friend.”

It is a bright, bright summer day outside, and the cicadas are singing in the hedges. Crowley’s hands are shaking, but his dark, dark wing is steady as he softly, softly brushes it over Antonio’s closed eyes.

And in the dark, quiet little cell, Crowley closes his eyes, and prays.

Chapter Text

XI. Florence, 1432–1514

1432

“I’m planning to interfere in city politics next year.”

“You can’t just leave it at that, and you know it.” Aziraphale takes a sip of his wine, and smiles. “Oh, this is lovely, lovely wine. Almost tastes like cherry. Explain?”

Crowley grins at him across the table. “There’s this banker family, y’see. Head of the family is this man named Cosimo. Very, very clever. Bit ruthless. The family’s expanding their influence, and there’s people, other families who would also like a bigger slice of the influence pie, who’re not very happy about that. They want him gone, but they haven’t worked out a way to do it yet. I was planning on… sssssssuggesting.”

Aziraphale considers. There must be more to this — there always is with Crowley. “And why would you want that? Very clever, bit ruthless, that sounds like a you type of person.”

Crowley shrugs. “I’m told he could do great things for the city. Really flesh it out. Probably fund the construction of some monasteries, some churches, you know how it is.” He pushes a plate towards Aziraphale. “Try the ham, it’s excellent.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Aziraphale spears a slice of ham, brings it to his mouth, and chews, slowly, savouring it. Crowley’s right, it’s excellent. Goes very well with the flavours of the wine. “How would they get rid of this Cosimo, then?”

“Well, they’d get him arrested on a pretext. And then, of course, have him… meet some accident, while imprisoned. Poison, or somesuch.”

Aziraphale, who’d been taking another sip of wine, almost chokes and sets his cup down with a clatter. “Absolutely not. He sounds like someone my side would want kept alive. You want him gone, fine, but nothing permanent.” He pats at his lips with a napkin, thinking. “How would you feel about exile?”

1437

“I’m still angry at you about Cosimo.”

Aziraphale smiles, placid. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” Oh, but he does enjoy needling the demon. “You got him out of Florence, as you wished. I had him stay alive, as I wished. Everything else — his return, his rise to power — neither of us had a hand in, and you know that.”

Crowley hisses, looking aggrieved. “I know. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.”

“As you say.”

They walk in silence for a few minutes, Crowley slightly ahead of Aziraphale. They’re taking an apparently random path through the city, but Aziraphale doesn’t mind, enjoys the occasional wander. Crowley, though, is acting odd, walking with even more of a slouch than normal. He might be scowling, Aziraphale thinks, but it’s hard to see his expression behind the dark spectacles. He hardly ever takes them off anymore.

(Aziraphale understands why, but wishes he got to see Crowley’s eyes more often.)

“Crowley?”

“Hm?”

“Why am I here? You asked me to come, but — you’ve not told me why.”

“I know.” The demon smirks briefly, and keeps walking.

Aziraphale stops dead, feeling unaccountably offended. “Crowley.

The demon stops, too, and half-turns, looking at Aziraphale over his shoulder, his face inscrutable. “Trust me a little, angel, will you? You know I’m not planning anything untoward. I’d have to tell you if I were. Come on.” And then he starts walking again, apparently trusting Aziraphale to follow.

Aziraphale does follow, because Crowley is up to something, he’s certain of it now, and if he doesn’t follow, he’s never going to find out what. The demon is so infuriating, Aziraphale doesn’t know what to do with himself sometimes.

Crowley leading, Aziraphale following, they make a few more turns, and then come out into a wide square, and Aziraphale stops dead again, because —

Oh.

He knows the church; he’s seen it before; but the dome —

The dome is new.

“They completed it last year. It’s missing the lantern on top, but other than that, it’s done.” While Aziraphale was staring, Crowley must’ve ambled back to him, because he’s now standing by his side. “They were already working on it when you were here last, but we were in a different part of the city. You didn’t see it. I thought —”

He thought I might like it, Aziraphale thinks, dazed. That’s why he asked me here. “Crowley…”

“You had better not even be thinking the word ‘nice’, angel, I swear.” Crowley’s voice is soft, entirely without venom.

“Hush,” Aziraphale says, distractedly but fondly, craning his neck to admire the dome. It is an impressive sight, showing stark against the blue, blue sky, the white marble ribs contrasting with the terracotta of the tiles; and it makes the church as a whole even more beautiful, makes it seem alive, almost — yearning, reaching out towards the sky with outstretched hands. The humans often build their churches like this, he knows — he’s made it a habit to seek out at least one place of worship wherever he goes, last he’d been in Florence it had been San Miniato — but this is on a grander scale than any he’s seen so far. “Crowley?”

“Yes, angel?” Crowley is smiling, Aziraphale knows even without looking, with the familiarity of thousands of years of acquaintance.

“Thank you.”

1514

“I’m going to interfere with the works on the dome.”

They’re in Florence once again, standing in front of Santa Maria Del Fiore, and Aziraphale can’t believe his ears. “You’re what?

“Going to interfere with the works on the dome,” Crowley repeats, steadily. His face is completely expressionless; Aziraphale cannot read him. “Permanently. They won’t be finished.”

“But — you can’t! They’ve barely started this last bit.” He gestures towards the church, where the humans are working on building a gallery at the base of the dome.

Crowley sets his jaw. “I’m not asking you for permission. I am telling you, because I have to, because I can’t accomplish this without being what I am. But I will do this whether you like it or not.”

“You most certainly will not! I cannot believe you, Crowley, I cannot believe you would do this.” Aziraphale is suddenly, brilliantly angry. Did the demon really show him this beautiful dome, that long-ago day in Florence, just so he could spoil it now? “It will forever be unfinished, forever look incomplete if they stop now.”

“And so it will. Better than the alternative.”

“Better than — it’s just a decoration, Crowley! You’re being ridiculous!” Aziraphale is almost shouting now, he is aware, but he is so angry, and he can’t stop.

Just a decoration,” Crowley mocks, low and savage. “Because you know so much about architecture.”

“Certainly more than you,” Aziraphale snipes back. “At least I read!”

“Ah, yes, of courssssse. You read architecture treatises. You know all about how this dome was built.”

“As a matter of fact —” Aziraphale begins, heatedly, and then cuts himself off. There is something nagging at him, something about the dome. He had read about it, not long after Crowley had shown it to him, curious about how it all worked; and although he didn’t really understand all of it, architecture not being his forte, he remembers something about weight distribution.

And just like that, his anger dissipates, as he starts following the line of thought to its natural conclusion.

“Aziraphale, I —” Aziraphale holds up a hand to silence him, and Crowley subsides. Aziraphale turns to look at the dome again.

The exterior of the dome is connected to, and supported by, another, smaller dome on the inside, Aziraphale knows from having visited it, having slipped into the church one quiet night when the humans were asleep.

It had to be built that way, Aziraphale had read in the treatise; otherwise it would be too heavy for the supports.

And now the humans are adding — oh.

But how does Crowley know about this? Surely he can’t have — no, he must’ve simply researched it, knowing Aziraphale liked it. It’s a church. He couldn’t have. But either way…

“Well, alright, I suppose I can let you have this one. You don’t have to explain. But you’ll owe me a favour, in return.”

Angel,” Crowley breathes.

Aziraphale turns to look at him, and can’t quite read the expression on his face, not with the dark spectacles in the way; but he thinks it’s a mixture of relief and — something else, something he can’t quite name, can’t quite answer. And so, instead, he raises an eyebrow and says, as steadily as he can, “It’s a fairly bad design for a gallery, anyway. Rather reminds me of a cage for crickets.”

“A cage for —” And Crowley is shaking his head and laughing. “Oh, that’s brilliant. I’ll have to remember that one.”

Chapter Text

XII. London, 1601

Dangerous, is Crowley’s immediate thought as he opens the wooden gate and steps into the Globe theatre. Something is very dangerous here.

It’s only a feeling, not anything concrete; but it’s strong enough that it makes him stiffen, makes him shift his stance into something more tense, more grounded than his usual slouch-and-saunter.

It’s only a feeling; but if there’s anything he’s learned, in this long, wretched life of his, is that when a feeling is strong enough to provoke such an immediate, visceral reaction in him, it would be very, very unwise to ignore it.

And so he stops right at the gate, and slips himself into the hidden space between one breath and the next.

He’s always been easy to overlook. You wouldn’t think so, not with his flame-bright hair, his attention-grabbing saunter, his voice that carries; but at the very first, he was soft-stepped, soft-spoken, like a whisper that’s gone before you even realise you’ve heard anything.

Sometimes, he wonders if anyone in Heaven even noticed he Fell; if anyone even remembers him.

The real trick to it, though, he’d only worked out a few centuries before, in Venice.

He’d been driving himself to exhaustion day after day, trying to heal as many people as he could, trying to halt the merciless march of what would later be called the Black Death. Deep down, he’d known his efforts would mean nothing on the greater scale, that for one person he saved dozens more would die anyway, that it would be one more disaster he could do nothing about. He’d known, but he’d had to at least try.

The thing was, people were rightly paranoid; and to encounter someone who looked like he did, moving untouched amongst the dead and the dying… well. He’d had a few near misses. And then there’d been a child dying alone, and too many people between her and him; and he’d wanted, and between one breath and the next, he had been moving unseen.

That first time had been accidental, but after that, he’d known what to do. For months he’d moved through Venice like a wraith, leaving no trace other than the lives he’d saved. He’d only left when he’d known he couldn’t continue any longer; that to do anything more would destroy him.

Later, much later, he’d experimented a bit. When he does this, he’s functionally invisible, at least as far as humans are concerned. Humans, indeed, forget about him entirely, even if he’s standing right in their line of sight, even if he’s just spoken to them. When he reappears, they react as if he’d just arrived. Angels and demons, however, are another matter. If they’ve seen him, they won’t forget he’s there; and as soon as he interacts with one — touches them, or speaks to them, or in any other way makes them realise he’s there — he’s once again conspicuous to everyone, including humans.

It’s not a perfect trick, but it is useful.

And so he stops, and he watches, trying to work out what exactly it is that’s unsettling him.

The theatre is mostly empty. Other than Aziraphale, there’s the food seller the angel is currently buying grapes from; the actor monologuing on stage; Shakespeare the playwright, who is looking extremely depressed; and less than a dozen people scattered around, most looking extremely bored. The only two that don’t look bored to tears are, in fact, actually asleep.

All of them are human. None of them are a threat.

The angel in the shadowed corner of the second floor gallery — the angel who is staring, unblinking, at Aziraphale — is, on the other hand, very much a threat.

Fortunately for him and Aziraphale, and unfortunately for the spying angel, this is something Crowley can fix.

It’s a really boring play, after all. And Aziraphale is just munching on his grapes as he watches the performance with rapt attention. There is absolutely nothing happening that is remotely interesting. And that corner is so shadowed, that seat so comfortable. Nobody could blame the poor, tired angel for falling asleep.

Well, maybe that’s not quite accurate. Whoever it was who sent the angel here — Crowley’s money is on Michael; Gabriel may be an arsehole but he’s a direct one, it’s Michael who is the underhanded one — will doubtlessly be quite put out; the angel is going to be polishing the glittering floors of Heaven for eternity after this.

The problem is…

The problem is, he can’t do this forever.

Well, he could. He is certainly powerful enough to neutralise just about anyone Heaven might send, except perhaps the Archangels themselves; and even them he might have a chance against, if he can manage to take them by surprise.

But the problem is, the Archangels aren’t stupid. Well — Sandalphon’s an idiot; but he’s the exception. Uriel is smart, Gabriel is clever, and Michael is outright devious. If one angel falls asleep while watching Aziraphale, well, that can be explained as a failing in the angel. If every single angel sent to watch Aziraphale — and he has no doubt more will be sent, after one has been sent and failed — falls asleep, or wanders off, or gets distracted… that is going to be noticeably suspicious.

He can’t do this forever.

He isn’t safe for Aziraphale anymore.

And how is he meant to do this? He has to leave, it’s the only way to keep Aziraphale safe; but he also knows he can’t keep away, knows that if his angel calls — and when did he start thinking of Aziraphale as his angel? — he will always, always come running.

He can’t hurt Aziraphale, either. He could — he’s known him long enough to know exactly what buttons he might push if he wanted to break his heart, shatter their relationship beyond repair — but he can’t. Aziraphale shines, Aziraphale is the one bright spot in Crowley’s miserable life, and Crowley would never forgive himself.

He can’t even tell Aziraphale that Heaven is watching him. Aziraphale believes. Aziraphale still thinks Heaven is not only Good, but also good, and while Crowley could very easily disabuse him of that notion… that, too, would break them both.

That, too, would be unforgivable.

He has to leave, though. He has to leave, and ensure Aziraphale won’t call him back.

He takes a deep, deliberate breath, and just like that, he’s walking in the world again.

Aziraphale notices him immediately. “Ah, Crowley! There you are!” The angel is sounding as cheerful as usual as he beckons Crowley over, and Crowley goes to join him.

He is entirely too conscious of the position he takes. A half-step behind Aziraphale, a half step to the side; feet planted, shoulders hunched, his right shoulder behind Aziraphale’s left. He knows what position his wings are in, too, in that other plane where they are currently tucked away.

How is he meant to do this?

“I thought you said we’d be inconspicuous here — blend in with the crowds,” he says. I thought I could keep you safe, he doesn’t say. I was wrong, I was wrong.

“Well.” Aziraphale purses his lips. “That was the idea.”

“It’s the play,” Crowley says. “If you ask me, Shakespeare should stick to comedies. Nobody likes the gloomy ones.” He’d meant it to sound teasing — he knows Aziraphale likes them — but it just comes out flat. Thankfully, Aziraphale doesn’t seem to notice.

“To be, or not to be,” the actor on stage is declaiming, “that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler —” And he’s cut off by a loud snore, which is, Crowley is pretty sure, coming from the angel he’s put to sleep.

One of the men standing at the back guffaws. The actor shuts his mouth without finishing the sentence, looking deeply offended. Shakespeare sighs in frustration. “Good master Burbage, please —”

“I am wasting my time up here,” the actor remonstrates.

“No!” Aziraphale exclaims, because of course he does. “No, you’re very good! I love all the — the talking.”

Crowley rolls his eyes behind his spectacles. Aziraphale’s boundless enthusiasm is endearing as ever, but he’s in no mood for any of this.

“And what does your friend think?”

Aziraphale turns his head to look at Crowley, pretending surprise, then looks back towards the stage. “He’s not my friend. We’ve never met before. We don’t know each other.”

“Oh,” says the actor. “Only he’s standing right next to you, and weren’t you just —”

“I think” Crowley cuts right across him in a growl “you should get on with the play.” He bares his teeth, and has the satisfaction of watching the actor stumble back a step.

As the play resumes, Aziraphale turns to look at Crowley. “Really, my dear. That was unnecessary.”

Crowley shrugs, trying to release the tension from his shoulders. “It worked, didn’t it?”

Aziraphale just keeps looking at him, saying nothing, and Crowley eventually gives in, as he always does. “Sorry,” he mutters. And then he doesn’t know what else to say.

How, how is he meant to do this?

“Well, then,” Aziraphale says, after a time. “What do you want?”

What I can’t have. Always, always what I can’t have. Crowley gives in to instinct and begins pacing — stalking, really — around Aziraphale in a tight circle. If Aziraphale has any idea why he’s doing it, he gives no indication. “Whyever would you insinuate that I might possibly want something?”

“Well, the meeting was your idea.”

It had been. “Just wanted to check on your plans for the next few years,” he says, truthfully. Of course, that is not all he’d wanted. He’d wanted — he’d hoped that they might go for drinks, or for dinner, after, like they’d already done a handful of times. He’d been a fool. “Lots of good deeds?”

Aziraphale shrugs. “Nothing big. Truthfully though, if you hadn’t asked to meet, I would have. I’ve been told I have to be in Edinburgh by the end of next week. Couple of blessings to do, minor miracle to perform. And I have to get there the human way, on horseback.”

“Oh dear,” says Crowley, absently, still pacing, still thinking. Aziraphale is mostly a free agent, at this point, able to pick and choose where to apply his blessings and miracles; but he does get the occasional direct order from Heaven, and such an order, is Aziraphale’s steadfast opinion, cannot be refused. “When was the last time you rode? Wessex, in Arthur’s time?”

Aziraphale nods mournfully.

“That’s going to hurt.” And that, Crowley would guess, is rather the point. A test and a punishment all wrapped in one, tied with a nice bow. Not that Aziraphale would ever see it that way, unless it was pointed out to him. And Crowley can’t help, can’t protect him, can only let him leave. Can only disappear. “Leaving tomorrow, then?”

Aziraphale nods again.

Crowley stops pacing once he’s back at Aziraphale’s side, his decision made. “You’re welcome to it. I’ve nothing to do in Edinburgh. My lot are sending me to Asia.” They aren’t, but Aziraphale doesn’t know that. “I’ll be away a while. Years. Decades, probably. I was thinking we might put the Arrangement on hold.”

Aziraphale turns to stare at him. “Put the Arrangement on hold?”

Crowley nods, firmly. “It’s about not interfering with each other, no? If I’m in Asia and you’re here, we’ll likely balance each other out in the grand scheme of things, but there’s no need for us to check in whenever we need to do something. There’ll be no interfering.”

Aziraphale nods, slowly. “I see your point. And when you’re back?”

“When I’m back and I intend to perform a temptation that might interfere with one of your plans, I will tell you immediately.” If I return. I probably won’t.

“That seems fair, then. Should we, er —” Aziraphale makes an illustrative slashing motion with his hand, near where one of Crowley’s wings would be if it were corporeal.

“Nah. We’ve agreed, and the Pact works on intent.” Otherwise they would’ve had issues long before now. Aziraphale does rather a lot of unthinking good. It’s one of the reasons Crowley lo— likes him so much. “As long as you’re not deliberately looking to perform a blessing or miracle you know will impede my plans or upset me, it’s fine.”

“…upset you? What has upsetting you got to do with it?”

“It’s the same as thwarting, as far as the intent is concerned.” Crowley smiles, despite himself. It feels like a dirge. “Remember the church in Florence? The cage for crickets? It took a temptation to get it sorted, and I knew it would upset you. ‘S why I had to tell you.”

“Ah.” Aziraphale hums thoughtfully under his breath, turning back towards the stage. “Perhaps when you’re back from Asia, we can visit Florence again.”

“Perhaps, angel, perhaps. I’ll be in touch.” He turns and moves to leave, passing behind Aziraphale, placing a hand on his shoulder in what he dearly hopes will be read as just a companionable gesture, rather than the farewell it is. “Enjoy the rest of the play.”

Aziraphale startles briefly at the touch, and then quickly reaches up, grabbing Crowley’s hand in his own. “Crowley?”

“What, angel?” It’s a miracle his voice isn’t shaking.

“Be safe.”

“You, too,” Crowley manages to say past the lump in his throat.

And he gently extricates his hand from Aziraphale’s grip, and goes.

Chapter Text

XIII. Paris, 1793

The sun is setting blood-red over Paris by the time Aziraphale and Crowley leave the café.

Crowley had spent the meal sipping red wine — which they’d definitely not ordered, and which Aziraphale is honestly not sure the café even sold — and cheerfully recounting some of his escapades from the almost two centuries he’d recently spent in Asia; but he is silent now, staring off into the distance as they walk along the Seine. Aziraphale, too, is silent, nibbling on one last crêpe, a folded one filled with raspberry conserve which he’d decided to grab for the road.

“Angel?”

“Mm?” It’s rude to speak with one’s mouth full, after all, so Aziraphale can only make an inquiring noise.

“Did you really get reprimanded for —”

Aziraphale swallows and nods. “Too many frivolous miracles, yes. You should’ve seen the note Gabriel sent. Very strongly-worded.”

“Frivolous — that’s bollocks, angel. It’s your power. Ought to be up to you what you use it on.”

Aziraphale shrugs, uncomfortable. “Yes, well. They explained it to me a century or so ago, when they put in the new rules. It’s all for the greater good.” He takes another bite, chews, swallows. It’s a very good crêpe. “Gabriel said — you remember Lindisfarne? You weren’t there, but you must have heard.”

“793?” Crowley’s voice is, all of a sudden, so soft Aziraphale almost doesn’t hear it.

“Yes.” Aziraphale eats the last bite of his crêpe. “I was staying with the monks there, for a while. Gabriel said, if I hadn’t been — squandering my power on — on stupid things like making the food better, and the robes less scratchy, and keeping warm, I might’ve been able to save more of them.”

Crowley stops dead in his tracks, a few steps ahead of Aziraphale, very still and very quiet. “He said what,” he finally manages, his voice gone entirely flat.

“He has the right of it,” says Aziraphale, unsure why this is getting such a reaction out of Crowley. It’s such an ordinary thing, isn’t it? “I had been —”

No, Aziraphale, he doesn’t,” Crowley interrupts, whirling around, and Aziraphale notices, now, how the demon’s hands are shaking, clenched into fists. “You couldn’t have. Hastur was there.”

“Hastur?” The name doesn’t ring any bells.

“Duke of Hell?” Aziraphale must still look blank, because Crowley takes a step towards him and waves a hand — still shaking — in his face. “Fallen Dominion, Aziraphale. He was leading the raiding party. It’s a wonder you managed to save anyone at all.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh,’ angel. That should have gotten you a commendation, not been saved up as ammunition to be used against you a thousand years later.”

Aziraphale shakes his head. “Maybe Gabriel didn’t know that. And anyway, there have been other times —”

“Aziraphale, no.” Crowley pulls off his spectacles with one hand; grabs Aziraphale’s shoulder with the other, gives him a slight shake. Even looking at his eyes, Aziraphale can’t place his mood. Anger, certainly, but also… pleading? “Follow Gabriel’s stupid rules if you want, but don’t torment yourself thinking about all the people you couldn’t save. Please. Take it from me. I learned it the hard way. You can’t save everyone.”

“Maybe you can’t. You’re a demon, what would you know of saving people?” Crowley flinches like he’s been slapped and takes a step back, hurt obvious on his face; Aziraphale flinches, too. He hadn’t meant it to come out so harshly. “Oh, Crowley, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. You know I didn’t.”

“How’d you mean it, then?” Crowley’s voice is steady, and still soft, but Aziraphale could swear there’s pain hiding behind it, some enormity of depthless grief that he cannot begin to fathom.

“I only meant…” Aziraphale swallows, tries to keep his voice steady. “You’re a demon. You’re not — not meant to save people. So your ability to save people might — be limited.”

Crowley’s face crumples in around a breathless sob, and that’s bad enough; and then, a moment later, it’s worse, because a moment later he smiles, heartbroken and terrible, haloed in the burning light of the setting sun. “Ah. Yes, that’s what I thought you meant.”

He looks lost, Aziraphale thinks. Like he took a wrong turn somewhere, and he’s lost sight of the path, and he can no longer find his way home, and he knows it. And then the realisation hits him, all at once. “Oh, Crowley.”

“Don’t, Aziraphale,” Crowley says, softly, softly, that awful heart-shattered smile still on his face. “Whatever you’re thinking of saying — don’t, please.” His voice cracks on the last word.

“But…” But you’re kind, Aziraphale wants to say. You’re good. You shine so brightly when you forget that you shouldn’t. “It’s not fair,” he manages finally. Crowley’s face twists, and Aziraphale has to turn away, cannot look at Crowley’s expression anymore.

“Oh, angel,” Aziraphale hears Crowley sigh. “It’s the universe. Nobody said it was going to be fair.”

And then Crowley is gone, and Aziraphale is left alone on the bank of the Seine.

It’s only then he realises he’s weeping.

Chapter Text

XIV. London, 1800 (1)

Gabriel and Sandalphon are in Aziraphale’s bookshop.

Gabriel and Sandalphon are in Aziraphale’s bookshop, and the only thing keeping Crowley’s burgeoning panic at bay is the knowledge that whatever this is, it’s not an immediate threat.

It’s not an immediate threat, because Gabriel is standing in front, and Sandalphon a half-step behind and a half-step to the side in a guard position; because if this were an immediate threat, Sandalphon would be the one standing in front, and Gabriel would be standing back, watching, not getting his hands dirty.

Aziraphale doesn’t look happy, though.

Crowley is moving forward before he’s even consciously thought about it, and then he turns the motion into that slip sideways that makes him entirely unnoticeable. Well, he hopes. He’s never had the chance to test the trick on Archangels before.

As he steps up behind the two Archangels, still a reasonable distance away but now within earshot, he catches the end of a sentence.

“— to come home,” Gabriel is saying. “You have been here for almost six thousand years, after all, and we applaud your dedication to duty.” Gabriel holds out a hand, and Sandalphon dutifully hands him a box.

A box which Gabriel opens to reveal a medal.

Oh, what the fuck, thinks Crowley.

“I don’t want a medal,” Aziraphale is saying, unsteadily.

“That’s very noble of you,” Gabriel replies, approvingly. “You will be a real asset back at head office.”

They’re promoting him, Crowley realises. They’re promoting him back Upstairs.

“But only I can properly thwart the wiles of the demon Crowley,” Aziraphale says, almost desperately.

Gabriel gives him a good-natured clap on the shoulder, one that looks like it hurts a great deal. “I do not doubt that whoever replaces you will be as good an enemy to Crowley as you are. It might even be Michael. She’s been saying she would like to spend some time here.”

“Oh,” says Aziraphale, in a very small voice. “We’re going straight back now, then?”

“Well, you have a few hours to set your affairs in order,” Gabriel says, magnanimously. “We’re just going to head down to Cork Street to see my tailor.”

Crowley turns on his heel and leaves. He’s heard enough.

* * *

Crowley is lurking in the alley behind Schweitzer and Davidson, directly under the window he knows belongs to the changing nook. If one were to look out of the window, he knows, they could just barely see the back of his head, given where he’s standing.

He’s waiting for Gabriel.

He’s not being selfish. Not really. Aziraphale would be safe in Heaven, certainly, for some definition of the word; but Aziraphale would also be desperately unhappy there, and that is near enough to “not safe” for Crowley to want to take action.

Besides, Gabriel is, as ever, very evidently determined to squash out any sort of individuality present in his underlings; and Crowley does not want Aziraphale to be under Gabriel’s thumb any more than he already is.

And so he waits.

Finally, finally, Gabriel arrives. Crowley waits through Gabriel’s discussion with the tailor, through the sound of the changing nook curtain pulling open and then closed again, and a few more minutes besides.

Then, making sure his voice carries: “I am at your service, as ever, Lord Satan.”

If his eldest brother were here, Crowley thinks, he would be laughing his ass off.

He pitches his voice an octave lower, adds a little bit of a growl for good measure. “Ah, Crowley, my most loyal servant. We have great news for you, news that will certainly bring joy to you and all the powers of Hell besides.”

Above him, Crowley hears the scrape of a stool, and the tell-tale creak of the window being pulled a little more open. Excellent. He pitches his voice back up. “News, my Lord?”

And back down. “Yes, Crowley. They do say as how the Principality Aziraphale, your great nemesis, is being sent back to Heaven.”

And back up. “Truly excellent news, my Lord. I was in such despair over being thwarted by the Principality Aziraphale once again, I was almost ready to drink holy water. Truly, it is only this angel who knows my ways well enough to thwart me.”

And back down. “Rejoice, then, my most loyal servant. Soon enough, there shall be no end to the spread of Evil on Earth, thanks to Heaven’s foolishness.”

And then, for good measure, he miracles up a flash of light, a crack of thunder, and the stench of sulfur, and ducks entirely out of view of the window.

The things he does for his angel.

Chapter Text

XV. London, 1800 (2)

Crowley

Two hours later, Crowley knocks on the door of Aziraphale’s bookshop. The door’s locked, which he wasn’t expecting — Aziraphale knows he’s visiting today. But maybe he got spooked by Gabriel’s visit. “Angel?”

It takes some knocking, but Aziraphale eventually comes to open the door. “What are you doing here?” His mouth is set in a flat, unsmiling line, and Crowley feels suddenly wrongfooted.

“I… brought chocolates? For the opening of the bookshop?”

Aziraphale’s eyes narrow, but he steps to the side of the doorway, letting Crowley in.

“Nice bookshop,” Crowley attempts, handing Aziraphale the box of chocolates. “You should be proud.”

Aziraphale merely nods tightly.

Crowley sighs. “Alright, angel, I’ll bite. What’s wrong? You’re not still upset about Paris? I know I shouldn’t have left that way —”

“Gabriel and Sandalphon dropped by earlier,” Aziraphale interrupts, setting the box of chocolates down on top of a stack of books without giving it a second glance. “Gabriel had a few interesting things to say.”

Crowley stiffens. “Oh?” he manages, doing his best to sound casual. Why is Aziraphale telling him this?

“Yes. I was given a medal, for all my efforts in furthering the cause of Heaven these last six thousand years; and I was told I would be promoted, transferred back Upstairs, effective immediately. Gabriel left to visit his tailor, and I got to setting my affairs in order. But then when Gabriel came back, he said there’d been a change of plans. Said I was needed here, after all.”

“That’s… a good thing, surely? You like Earth?”

Aziraphale continues as if Crowley hadn’t spoken, his tone clipped. “Gabriel said, ‘I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t warn you.’ He told me he’d overheard you speaking with Satan, in an alley behind the tailor’s shop.”

Crowley stares at Aziraphale in disbelief. “So you reckon I was having a nice chat with Lucifer in the middle of bloody Mayfair? Because Gabriel told you so?”

“The Archangel Gabriel,” Aziraphale says stiffly, “would not lie to me.”

“Oh, for —” Crowley throws his hands up in frustration. “He told you what he believed was true, but no, angel, I wasn’t talking to Lucifer. If Lucifer walked the Earth, you’d notice, believe me. Even the humans would notice. He is not subtle.”

“Gabriel said as much. Said it was likely just a messenger, a — a Voice of Satan, like the Metatron is the Voice of God.”

Crowley opens his mouth. Closes it again. “You must think I’m an idiot,” he says, finally. “You must, because only an idiot would have a secret demonic meeting where he knows he’ll be overheard.” Aziraphale opens his mouth to respond, and Crowley cuts right across him, continues, “Yes, I knew he was there — he’s the Archangel fucking Gabriel, he’s hard to miss. He heard exactly what I wanted him to hear.”

Aziraphale frowns. “So you… wanted him to hear that you would be happy if I left?”

“Yes, angel, keep up. We have a Pact. A Pact that automatically makes you the most effective at thwarting me, bar none. I cannot lose against you but neither can I win. If I wanted to win, I would do better with literally any other angel here instead of you.”

Aziraphale’s frown deepens. “Even Michael?”

“I could take Michael,” Crowley says, without thinking, and curses himself for the slip a moment later.

But, “Michael’s an Archangel,” Aziraphale sputters, indignant; and Crowley’s so glad to see an unmasked reaction that his lips quirk up in a small smile, unbidden.

“Even so. The point is, angel, I could’ve done nothing. Could’ve made sure Gabriel didn’t hear.” Could’ve not faked a secret demonic meeting at all; but at this point, he’s sure that if he told Aziraphale the meeting wasn’t real, he wouldn’t be believed.

“And instead you did the opposite,” Aziraphale says, slowly, “so I would stay.”

“Well, yes.” Crowley shrugs. “I hadn’t planned on you finding out, but… yes. You love Earth. You’d not be as happy in Heaven.”

Aziraphale is staring at him. “But if Hell found out — they — they do not send rude notes, you said in Paris.”

He had said that, when rescuing Aziraphale from the prison. Normally, he’d have accepted the angel’s gratitude without a second thought, but Hell’s attention had been very focused on France at that point in time. Even though he could take just about anything Hell might throw at him, he’d thought it better not to risk it. “Yes. They send Hastur, usually. Or Ligur — that’s another Duke.”

Aziraphale’s eyes are wide. “Crowley. They would destroy you.”

“Eh.” Crowley shrugs again. I’d love to see them try. “I’ll be fine. They’ve no idea. You worry about your side, angel, I’ll worry about mine.”

Aziraphale

“I’ll be fine. They’ve no idea. You worry about your side, angel, I’ll worry about mine.”

Be wary of the demon, Gabriel’s warning echoes in Aziraphale’s mind. He must be desperate by now to be rid of you, to escape the wrath Hell would visit upon him for his failures. I know his kind, Lucifer’s lot, deceivers and oathbreakers one and all. He means you ill. Be on your guard.

And yet here is Crowley, readily admitting to having deceived an Archangel into allowing Aziraphale to keep his position on Earth. Calmly accepting the possibility of consequences for his actions.

The thing is, Aziraphale has, if he must be honest with himself, always had doubts. Doubts about the goodness of some parts of the Great Plan. Doubts that seem stronger when Crowley is around.

Crowley, who seems so kind. Crowley, who does things for seemingly no other reason than to make Aziraphale smile. Crowley, who seems to shine so brightly, brighter than some angels Aziraphale has met.

Crowley, who is Fallen.

Lucifer’s lot.

Crowley, who had tried, in Paris, to get Aziraphale to disobey Heaven’s orders.

Deceivers and oathbreakers one and all.

Crowley, who has no reason to be kind.

He means you ill.

Crowley, whose hand is on Aziraphale’s shoulder now, shaking him gently. “Angel? You’ve gone quiet, what’s wrong?”

Aziraphale feels sick.

He wrenches himself away from the demon, taking several steps back. “What’s — what are you doing?”

“I… what do you mean, angel, what am I doing?” The demon seems to be nothing but bewildered, and perhaps a little hurt.

Be on your guard.

“I don’t know what to think of you anymore,” Aziraphale blurts out. “You disappear off to Asia for almost two centuries — two centuries and not a word from you — and then I hear you’re back in Europe, but for years afterwards you did not contact me, and I missed you, every day I missed you —”

The demon makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat and takes a step forward, towards Aziraphale.

He means you ill.

Aziraphale takes another step back. “— and — and then you come to me in Paris and we go for lunch and everything seems normal again — but then you’re trying to get me to go against Gabriel — and then you disappear — and then today —”

Aziraphale —”

“— are you trying to Tempt me, demon? Are you trying to make me Fall?”

The bookshop falls into silence in the wake of Aziraphale’s outburst.

The demon goes very, very still. His face is chalk-white; for a moment, Aziraphale almost thinks he looks devastated, but no — he just looks blank. Empty.

“You don’t mean that,” the demon says, his voice very low.

“You’re one of Lucifer’s —”

“I was never” the demon snarls “one of Lucifer’s.” He turns on his heel, stalks to the door, and yanks it open. “Enjoy your bookshop, angel.” And then he’s gone, slamming the door closed behind himself.

Distantly, Aziraphale knows he ought to feel relieved.

He doesn’t.

Chapter Text

XVI. Liège, 1848

Aziraphale hasn’t seen Crowley since that day in the bookshop.

And Crowley has not just been avoiding him; Crowley has been avoiding, it seems, the entire world.

A few years after that day in the bookshop, when it had become clear to him that Crowley did not plan on reappearing anytime soon, Aziraphale had begun making discreet inquiries. Then, when those turned up nothing, he had gone himself, checking all of Crowley’s hiding places that he knew of, all over the world.

All had been dusty and empty — all except for Crowley’s flat in Mayfair. Aziraphale had checked that last, not expecting Crowley to have remained in London; it had been locked up tight, warded so strongly and thoroughly that Aziraphale had found himself unable to get any closer to it than a block away.

Aziraphale had gone back to his bookshop, intending to do nothing more than respect Crowley’s very clear wishes and leave him alone; and had found himself hating the very sight of the building. He had left the very next morning, leaving behind all his books and a sign reading closed until further notice.

He had taken to travelling — for a distraction, for something to do. Oh, he still scattered blessings and performed miracles wherever he went, of course; it was his duty, after all. It just felt empty.

A decade later, Crowley was still gone.

Aziraphale drove himself to exhaustion every day with miracles and blessings, and when that wasn’t enough, he filled the empty spaces with alcohol until he couldn’t think anymore.

One night, bone-tired and maudlin and more than a little drunk, feeling Crowley’s absence like a starving animal coiled up and furious between his ribs, Aziraphale had written Crowley a letter, all but begging for forgiveness.

He’d mailed off the letter the next morning, before he could talk himself out of it.

And Crowley was still gone.

A reply to Aziraphale’s letter had, eventually, arrived, two decades later, somehow managing to reach him even though he’d been staying in a tiny, no-name inn in a tiny, no-name town at the time.

It had said, in an angular, untidy scrawl that was quintessentially Crowley: Maybe in a few more decades we can resume our Arrangement, but don’t ask me more than that. I can’t, angel. I’m sorry.

Aziraphale had hated every word of that letter; had wanted to rip it to shreds and then burn the pieces until there was nothing left of it but ash.

He carries it with him everywhere he goes.

It has been sixteen years since that letter, and Crowley is still gone.

Aziraphale travels.

He’s been in Belgium for a month. It’s old land, for all that it’s a relatively new country; it has a lot of interesting places for Aziraphale to visit. Most importantly, it fits his one criterion for deciding where to go: he has never been here with Crowley.

He still seeks out places of worship wherever he goes. They’re a comfort; a cold comfort, but one nevertheless. He never prays, though. He knows he can’t trust himself not to ask for the wrong things.

He’s in a cathedral now, idly wandering around. St Paul’s, he thinks this one is called; not a patch on the one in London, of course, but beautiful nevertheless, graceful arches of yellow stone framing a vaulted ceiling exquisitely painted with twining scrollwork.

He rounds the pulpit and freezes.

There is a statue at the base of the pulpit, between the two sets of stairs.

It’s meant to depict Satan, obviously. Broken crown, broken sceptre, and, of course, the bat wings — humans so very rarely get the wings right, not understanding that there is no difference between angel and demon in that respect. The First Fallen sits on a rock, chained hand and foot, curled up on himself and almost hiding beneath his wings and his upraised arm. It’s a beautiful statue.

But it’s the expression on the statue’s face that stuns the breath out of Aziraphale.

It’s grief.

It’s grief, and despair, and loss, the statue’s lips parted on a silent sob, a tear escaping from one eye; and it reminds Aziraphale so starkly of Crowley that he reaches out a shaking hand to touch the statue’s face. The statue looks nothing like Crowley, of course, but the expression — Aziraphale has seen the same expression on Crowley’s face uncountable times.

And will never see it again.

He will never see it again, nor will he see Crowley’s easy smiles, nor hear his gentle laughter; because he knows, with a bone-deep certainty, that even if Crowley returns, even if they resume their Arrangement, Crowley will never allow himself to trust him again.

Because Aziraphale has taken the trust he’d been given, and has used it to shatter the friendship they’d had, and then burned the ruins of it to the ground.

Deceiver and oathbreaker, indeed.

Aziraphale snatches his hand away from the statue like he’s been burned and hurries out of the cathedral, without looking back.

And Crowley is still gone.

Chapter Text

XVII. St James’s Park, 1862

They resumed their Arrangement five years ago, and Aziraphale has hated every last second of it. He’s known Crowley for almost six thousand years, now; but the Crowley he’s seen these past five years is one Aziraphale had never known existed.

No longer easily sauntering through the world, but stalking, with great intent and an economy of movement Aziraphale has never before seen.

Pale, unsmiling always, a set of dark spectacles pushed up to the bridge of his nose, with side panels that ensure his eyes are hidden from all angles.

Standing too still, too silent, like a statue carved in obsidian and marble by some unkind sculptor with sharp hammer blows and a harsh, uncaring chisel.

Cold. Forbidding. Closed off.

Inhuman. And not in the general “we are an angel and a demon, of course we are not human” way; in that threatening, dangerous way that even the dimmest human recognises, that calls out beware, beware; here there be monsters; here is something lethal; run, run and don’t look back.

Aziraphale never initiates a meeting, but when Crowley calls, Aziraphale goes. After each and every one of them, Aziraphale swears to himself that it’ll have been the last time.

And then Crowley calls, and Aziraphale goes.

Aziraphale goes, because he’s selfish; because even though he can’t bear seeing Crowley like this, even though he may never get his friend back, the thought of never seeing Crowley again is intolerable and monstrous.

Aziraphale goes, because he cares for Crowley, with a depth of feeling that he’s never stopped to truly consider because it terrifies him. They are meant to be on opposite sides, after all.

They are meant to be on opposite sides; and if it came down to it, if he had to choose between Heaven and Crowley, Aziraphale knows he would choose Heaven. He knows, he knows, that to choose anything over Heaven is to Fall.

He will choose Heaven, if he must; but until then, he is selfish, and he keeps what he can.

There is no greeting when he walks up to Crowley; there never is anymore. There is only silence as he doffs his hat and miracles up some breadcrumbs to toss to the ducks. He expects nothing different, but still it hurts.

“I need a favour,” Crowley says, eventually.

This is not the usual opening to their brief meetings. “We already have the Arrangement, Crowley. Stay out of each other’s way. Lend a hand when needed.”

“No. I’ve been thinking. What if it all goes wrong? We have a lot in common, you and me.”

Aziraphale might’ve argued with that, once. Might’ve agreed with that, once. But now, all he can think is how could it possibly go more wrong than it already has?, and so he takes refuge in what Crowley might’ve, once upon a time, called ‘the party line’. “I don’t know. We may have both started out as angels, but you are Fallen.” Too late, he realises how that might be taken, and wishes he could take the words back.

Crowley does not flinch, does not turn to look at Aziraphale. He never does anymore. “I didn’t really Fall,” he says, softly. “I just — sauntered vaguely downwards.” Then, more firmly: “I want insurance.”

“What?” Aziraphale has no idea where this is going, and it scares him.

“Here. I wrote it down. Never know who might be listening.” Crowley holds up a folded piece of paper.

A piece of paper which, when Aziraphale takes and unfolds it, bears two words, in Crowley’s familiar scrawl: holy water. And the bottom drops out of his world.

Do you know, Aziraphale suddenly remembers Gabriel saying, I heard the demon say he was almost ready to drink holy water in his despair over you. Keep up the good work, maybe you can get him to actually do that.

No. No, no, no, no — “Out of the question,” he manages, through his rising panic, staring wide-eyed at Crowley.

Crowley actually turns his head to look at him briefly at that, then looks away again, very deliberately. “Why not?”

“It would destroy you. I can’t — you can’t ask me this. I’m not bringing you a suicide pill, Crowley.” Don’t leave me, he wants to say; but Crowley has, after all, already left him, never really returned from that day he walked out of the bookshop, and it’s Aziraphale’s own fault.

“That’s not what I want it for” Crowley says, in a terribly flat, even voice. “Just insurance.”

I don’t believe you, Aziraphale wants to say, but can’t, can’t. “I’m not an idiot, Crowley,” he says, instead. “I know what trouble we’d get into if they knew we’d been —” he grapples for a word “— fraternising. But — no, it’s completely out of the question. I can’t — I won’t —”

And he finds himself trailing off, because Crowley has turned his head and —

Aziraphale can’t see his eyes, but he knows, somehow, that Crowley is glaring at him; feels himself buckling under the force of it.

“Fraternising?” Crowley asks, mildly. The tone of his voice gives the impression of a blade being drawn from a sheath, whisper-soft.

“Whatever you wish to call it,” Aziraphale manages, trying to not sound unsettled and failing. “I do not think there is any point in discussing this further.”

“I have lots of other people to fraternise with, angel.” Other than the emphasis on the one word, Crowley’s voice is still flat; but the barb hits home, and hurts.

“Of course you do,” Aziraphale spits back, wounded. Of course Crowley would; Aziraphale has never expected otherwise, never expected to be anything special to Crowley; but to hear it —

“I don’t need you,” Crowley grits out.

Aziraphale stumbles back a step, feeling like he’s been pushed. But I need you, he wants to say. Doesn’t say. Can’t say.

Five years he’s been waiting for something other than that terrible blankness, and it’s this. Of course it’s this.

He should have known. He’d done this, after all. He’d shattered their friendship; he has no right to expect the pieces not to be sharp.

“I’m sorry,” he says, instead.

“Are you.” Crowley’s voice has gone flat again, but there is a tightness in it that Aziraphale can’t place; and Aziraphale stumbles back another step, and feels his hackles rise, and the sudden, irrational urge to run.

He ignores it. “I am.”

Crowley makes an inarticulate noise in the back of his throat, and then he moves, so fast that even to Aziraphale’s eyes he’s just a blur; and puts his hands on Aziraphale’s shoulders; and physically shoves him backwards, so hard that Aziraphale almost falls. “Take the fucking hint, Aziraphale,” he snarls. “Run.

There is a tang of ozone in the air, like a thunderstorm is on the way, but the sky is clear; and — there are no humans around, Aziraphale realises suddenly. There had been, when he and Crowley had begun their conversation.

Here there be monsters; run.

“I’m sorry,” Aziraphale says again, and turns, and runs.

Behind him, there is a wrenching, wretched sound that he thinks might be a sob; and the universe shudders.

Aziraphale doesn’t look back.

Chapter Text

XVIII. London, 1941 (1)

Crowley hasn’t spoken with Aziraphale in almost a century; not since that almost-disastrous meeting at St James’s Park.

It’s not that he couldn’t, if he wanted to. Once they’d resumed their Arrangement, every time he’d asked for a meeting, Aziraphale had come. And they’re not even being watched anymore, not really; he’s been keeping track of angelic presences around Aziraphale, and they seem to have decided to leave him alone for the time being.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to, either. Oh, he wants, with a burning that consumes him all the more now that he’s stopped trying to ignore it, stopped pretending he hasn’t been desperately in love since the moment his bright-hearted fool of an angel had blurted out that he’d given his sword away.

It’s only…

After that day in the bookshop, all he’d wanted to do was curl up somewhere safe and forget. And so he’d gone back to his flat, and had warded it as tightly and thoroughly as he knew how; and then he’d drunk, and drunk, and drunk, until the numbness had settled in, until he’d passed into unconsciousness.

And he’d slept.

He’d first woken up three decades after he’d gone to sleep, disoriented and unsettled. There’d been a letter waiting for him, slipped under his door by, he guessed, some human postman who’d not been affected by his wards.

A letter from Aziraphale.

He’d read it, then read it again; and then he’d crumpled it into a ball and thrown it into a corner, and he’d cried and screamed and raged. He’d wanted to destroy, then, like he’d never wanted before in all of his very long life; he’d wanted to tear the universe apart until it, too, knew what it was like to be shattered.

But there’d also been that other want, the one that ran deeper, softer; the one that said I want to see Aziraphale again, I don’t want this to have been the last time.

And so he’d picked himself up, and retrieved Aziraphale’s letter from where he’d thrown it; and he’d sat at his desk, and he’d smoothed out the creases, carefully, his fingers lingering on every word.

And he’d taken pen and paper, and had scratched out a reply.

There had been no return address on Aziraphale’s letter, but he’d wanted, and that had been enough for the letter to find its way.

And then, numb and worn down in a way that had nothing to do with alcohol, he’d dragged himself back to his bed, and had gone back to sleep.

He’d woken up again two decades later, feeling unaccountably refreshed, his power thrumming under his skin in a way it hadn’t for thousands of years. He hadn’t realised how drained he’d been, and for how long, until he no longer was.

And he’d known, he’d known it was dangerous; but he’d wanted to see Aziraphale again. And so he’d coiled his power down tightly within himself, and his emotions also, knowing that the former often responded to the latter; and he had sent Aziraphale a note, asking for a meeting.

As bright ideas went, it had been one of his stupidest.

It had worked, for five years it had worked, although it hadn’t been enough, although time and time again he’d caught hurt on Aziraphale’s face.

And then —

He shouldn’t have asked for holy water, he supposes. That had been the precipitating factor. But some relatively high-ranking demons were starting to get too curious about him; and he’d wanted to have a way of getting rid of them permanently without showing his hand entirely, in case it ever became necessary to do so. An unfortunate holy water accident might do the trick, he’d thought.

He hadn’t thought Aziraphale would say no.

And then —

Fraternising, Aziraphale had said; and it had been too near to what he wanted so badly, but twisted wrong, wrong, wrong —

And his control had slipped.

He’d only barely managed to get Aziraphale to leave before he lost his grip entirely.

In the wake of that day, he’d written to Aziraphale again. I’m sorry, that letter had said. I can’t. I need more time.

Aziraphale’s response had arrived the next day. All it had said was, I understand.

And he’d known Aziraphale didn’t understand, not really.

But he’d also known that if he was to go back to his angel — to go back, and take whatever he was given, and not ask for more, and not break when it inevitably wasn’t what he so badly wanted — he needed to not be dangerous to be around.

And so he’s spent the past several decades relearning the control he had forgotten how to use in all the thousands of years he’d not needed it. It has been slow, frustrating work.

He is almost ready.

* * *

The Pact is tugging at Crowley harshly, in that pointed way that he knows indicates impending angelic discorporation. Normally, he’d already be in the building that’s in front of him, the building where he knows Aziraphale is facing down a trio of Nazi spies; except —

Except the building is a church.

Crowley still has never set foot on consecrated ground, but he knows, now, what it does to demons. Hell had experimented with it, back in the 15th century, with the plan of occasionally replacing priests with demons in order to more effectively influence humans; Crowley had watched, unseen, curious.

They’d tried it with lesser demons, first; and those had immediately discorporated. Demons higher in ranks hadn’t fared any better — although they’d survived, the pain had sent them fleeing out of the church before they’d made it even a fifth of the way down the nave.

The one to make it the furthest had been Hastur, who had given up, swearing furiously, some ten metres from the altar. He had entirely lost his human seeming, his wings and demonic-corrupted form on full display; he’d also completely lost access to his demonic powers.

Crowley knows he’ll likely lose access to his, too.

But Aziraphale is inside, and the Nazis probably have him at gunpoint by now; and Crowley knows him, knows he would rather let himself be discorporated than cause, even indirectly, the death of a human — no matter how evil that human may be.

And the only plan Crowley has is to redirect a bomb so it’ll fall on the church, and then walk in and distract the Nazis, and hope that Aziraphale has the presence of mind to miracle the both of them to safety when the bomb hits.

Like as not, they’ll both get discorporated.

But he can’t not go. Even if the Pact weren’t tugging at him — even then, there would be no choice for him but to go. There never has been.

He yanks the church door open, just in time to hear the angel exclaim, “You can’t kill me! There’ll be paperwork!”

Well, that’s as good an entrance cue as any, he thinks, striding determinedly inside.

He makes it three steps before the pain hits.

Chapter Text

XIX. London, 1941 (2)

“You can’t kill me! There’ll be paperwork!”

Aziraphale knows he is about to be discorporated, but he can’t muster up more than a token protest, doesn’t really see what options he might possibly have to avoid it. Any other angel, he knows, would’ve already snapped their fingers and gotten rid of the humans, would not have hesitated even for a second. But he doesn’t want to make that choice, doesn’t want to be the one to cut lives short. He’s never liked doing that.

He supposes that makes him weak.

He is entirely too aware that he’s only managed to keep his originally-assigned body intact for all this time thanks to Crowley’s help. But Crowley is gone, Crowley has been gone for almost eighty years now. And even if he were here…

Aziraphale doesn’t know, exactly, what consecrated ground does to demons; but he’s noticed, in the past, how carefully Crowley avoided it. And he remembers the wording of their Pact: to aid him, as best I can, should he be in peril. There’s a condition there — “as best I can”, not “at any cost”. The Pact wouldn’t demand a demon walk on consecrated ground, surely.

No, he’s on his own.

The church door slams. The woman holding Aziraphale at gunpoint — Greta — startles and turns, pointing the gun down the nave.

There is the sound of a few steps, and then a loud, indrawn hiss, and then —

Aziraphale can’t help but stare, his heart suddenly in his throat.

It’s Crowley.

Crowley, making his way down the nave extremely gingerly, all but hopping from one foot to the other, swallowing back whimpers of pain. “Sorry,” he manages, between one gasp and the next. “Consecrated ground. Like being at the beach in bare feet. Hello, angel.”

He is more animated than Aziraphale has seen him in centuries, and Aziraphale finds himself taking a few steps towards him, as if pulled by a magnet. “What are you doing here?”

“Stopping you getting into trouble,” Crowley responds, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. And perhaps it is, but —

“These people are not working for you, then?”

Crowley huffs out a laugh that turns into another pained hiss. “No, they’re a bunch of half-witted Nazi spies, running around London blackmailing and murdering people. I just didn’t want to see you embarrassed.”

Crowley’s knees buckle, and Aziraphale automatically reaches out an arm to steady him. Then he thinks better of it, but Crowley’s already leaning on him, taking one foot off the ground entirely. And there are a million questions Aziraphale wants to ask, but —

“Mr Anthony J. Crowley,” Glozier says, self-importantly. “Your fame precedes you.”

— there is still the little problem of the Nazis with the gun. But… “Anthony?”

Crowley tilts his head and raises an eyebrow, and Aziraphale would swear there’s the ghost of a smirk on his lips. “You don’t like it?”

“No, no. I didn’t say that. I’ll get used to it.” Stay, he means. Don’t leave again. He doesn’t know what this is — and he is afraid it is, after all, just the Pact compelling Crowley here, but — God, he would put himself in deathly peril every day if it meant he would get his friend back.

“The famous Mr Crowley,” Greta says. “That’s such a pity you must both die.”

Crowley actually shifts his weight away from Aziraphale, onto his other foot, just so he can sarcastically doff his hat at the woman, and it’s such a Crowley thing to do that Aziraphale feels his heart clench. It’s probably just the Pact, he tells himself — Crowley had, after all, made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with Aziraphale anymore — but…

“What does the J stand for?”

That earns Aziraphale another raised eyebrow. “It’s just a J, really. Now —” Crowley turns his attention towards the Nazis, hands spread in a theatrical gesture, although the effect is perhaps a little spoiled by the fact that he keeps hopping from foot to foot every few seconds. “In about a minute, a German bomber will release a bomb that will land right here. If you all run away very, very fast, you might not die. You won’t enjoy dying —” and then he gives the most malevolent smile Aziraphale has ever seen “— definitely won’t enjoy what comes after.”

“You expect us to believe that?” Glozier asks, scowling. “The bombs tonight will fall on the East End.”

Crowley’s smile widens. “Yes. It would take a last-minute demonic intervention to throw them off course, yes.”

Aziraphale startles. Crowley can’t have possibly —

“And if, in thirty seconds, a bomb does land here —” Crowley nods at him, very pointedly raising both eyebrows “— it would take a real miracle for my friend and I to survive it.”

“A — a real miracle,” Aziraphale repeats, faintly.

Crowley has walked into a church towards which he’s redirected a bomb, on consecrated ground that is very clearly hurting him and, Aziraphale suddenly realises, must be sapping his demonic powers.

He has made himself helpless to save Aziraphale.

“Kill them,” Aziraphale hears Harmony say, behind him. “They are very irritating.”

There is the sound of plane engines above them, and the distant noise of bombs exploding. The very faint whistle of air displaced by a falling bomb.

Aziraphale gathers his power —

The bomb falls.

* * *

As the dust settles, Aziraphale’s million questions coalesce into just one. Was it the Pact?, he wants to ask. You sent me away the last time we saw each other, you’ve been gone for almost a century; are you here unwillingly? Were you forced to risk your life for me?

But Crowley’s eyes — the eyes Aziraphale has not seen properly in almost a hundred and fifty years — are golden and guttering in the dim light, reflecting the flames that are scattered here and there across the rubble; and Aziraphale loses his nerve. “That was very kind of you,” he says, instead.

“Shut up,” Crowley says, entirely without heat, as he finishes cleaning the dust from his dark glasses and perches them back on his nose.

Aziraphale wishes he hadn’t. He’s missed his eyes. “Well, it was. Oh —” he draws in a breath as something occurs to him, something he’s forgotten. “The books. I forgot all the books!” He’d been focused only on protecting Crowley, when the bomb hit, and it’s such a stupid thing, to be worried about books — but they were rare books, first editions, and he’d spent so much time tracking them down, and they’d been a comfort while Crowley was gone —

And then Crowley is there, pulling something out of the rubble with a grunt and offering it to Aziraphale. It’s the leather satchel in which Harmony had placed the books. “Little demonic miracle of my own,” Crowley smirks, as their hands briefly touch on the handle of the satchel. “Lift home?”

Crowley begins picking his way out through the rubble, limping slightly, and Aziraphale can only stare at him.

It hadn’t been the Pact. Can’t have been, because —

Crowley had made himself helpless to save Aziraphale, had trusted him to understand and to get them both out of danger; and he’d spent what little power standing on consecrated ground hadn’t taken away from him to save the books — because he’d known, somehow, he’d known that they matter to Aziraphale.

Because he cares.

“Coming, angel?” Crowley calls from where he’s standing near a fancy-looking, sleek black car.

Aziraphale startles, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process. “I — yes. Sorry.”

Crowley responds with a motion Aziraphale is intimately familiar with — one that is wide, exasperated, and makes it obvious that Crowley is rolling his eyes despite the sunglasses. “I swear, Aziraphale, if you manage to discorporate yourself by tripping and breaking your fool neck, you deserve the mountain of paperwork.”

Only Crowley, Aziraphale finds himself thinking fondly, rolls his eyes with his entire body.

Something eases in his chest, uncurls, a knot of tension and loneliness that has been there for the better part of two centuries vanishing like the nighttime mist in the face of the dawn.

And suddenly, breathless and pulled under by a riptide of feeling, Aziraphale knows exactly what it is he feels for Crowley, what it is that he’s been too afraid to identify.

It’s love.

Chapter Text

XX. Soho, 1967

They’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm, of sorts. Not as close as they’d been, but not as far, either. They’re friends; it’s enough.

They don’t go for lunch or dinner together. They meet in public places — parks, squares, art galleries, theatres. They talk business — blessings and temptations and miracles. Sometimes, afterwards, they end up in Aziraphale’s bookshop, sharing a bottle of wine; but it only happens rarely, and it never lasts long.

They’re friends; it’s enough.

Aziraphale never initiates their meetings anymore; it’s always Crowley who calls, more often than not making up some small temptation just for the sake of having an opening, an excuse.

It’s always Crowley who calls; which is why he is so surprised when he climbs into his empty Bentley only to find Aziraphale sitting in the passenger seat. “What are you doing here?”

“I needed a word with you.” Aziraphale looks tense, unsettled; and Crowley has to smother the desire to reach over and put a hand on his shoulder, soothe him. They don’t touch much; they never have, really, but they do even less now, the space between them an impassable wall.

“What?”

Aziraphale takes in a soft, shuddery breath, then says, firmly, “I work in Soho. I hear things. I hear that you’re setting up a — caper to rob a church.”

Crowley has to look away. He’d hoped Aziraphale wouldn’t find out; had known he would be upset, when he found out.

“Crowley, it’s too dangerous,” Aziraphale is continuing, all in a rush, voice gone soft and trembling. “Holy water won’t just kill your body. It will destroy you completely.”

That’s not what I want it for, Crowley swallows back. This is, he knows, where Aziraphale is going to tell him to stop, is going to shore up the wall between them even more. Aziraphale hasn’t believed him before; there is no reason he’d believe him now. So he turns back towards Aziraphale, trying to forestall the inevitable. “You told me what you think a hundred and five years ago —”

“And I haven’t changed my mind,” Aziraphale interrupts. “But I can’t have you risking your life. Not even for something dangerous.” His eyes are wide and earnest, something very like heartbreak on his face, in his voice; and Crowley finds himself once more unable to hold his gaze.

And then Aziraphale shudders in another breath. “So…” And he holds up a thermos, a simple tartan-covered thing, the movement catching Crowley’s attention in the stillness. “You can call off the robbery.” Holds it out between the two of them, his hands shaking, his voice, too. “Don’t go unscrewing the cap.”

Crowley is left staring, open-mouthed, breathless, reaching out for the thermos with hands that are only not shaking because he is very firmly willing them not to. “It’s the real thing?” It is; he can feel it thrumming under his fingertips as soon as he touches the container. It’s not just human-blessed holy water, not what he would’ve gotten from a church robbery, it’s —

“The holiest,” Aziraphale confirms.

From Heaven. “After everything you said?”

And now it’s Aziraphale who looks away, who just nods tightly, taking in quick, trembling breaths.

He thinks I might use this on myself, Crowley remembers. He thinks — and he still —

He’d be lying if he said he’s never had the thought. He has, in some of his darkest days. Recently, even. And holy water is certainly the only thing that would be effective.

But —

Don’t go unscrewing the cap, Aziraphale said. Pleaded. It hangs there, in the space between them: don’t do it, don’t, be safe, stay, stay.

I’m here, I won’t leave, I won’t, Crowley wants to say. Can’t. “Should I say thank you?” he asks, instead, hoping the meaning gets through anyway.

Aziraphale swallows, a muscle twitching in his jaw. “Better not.”

“Well, can I drop you anywhere?” Familiar conversational ground, but also: stay. He’s aware he’s stammering, but his control only extends so far.

“No. Thank you.” The smile on Aziraphale’s face looks like it’s tried to hit polite, and failed; it just looks heartbroken. “Don’t look so disappointed. Perhaps one day we could… I don’t know. Go for a picnic. Dine at the Ritz.”

And there is such naked longing in Aziraphale’s voice that Crowley almost chokes on the desperate, gnawing hope rising in his chest. “I’ll give you a lift. Anywhere you want to go.” Stay. Stay with me. Let us live, as that poet once said; let us love.

Aziraphale just looks at him for a long moment. “You go too fast for me, Crowley,” he says, eventually. Takes another breath, looking like he wants to say something more; swallows it back; turns to open the car door; and then he’s gone, shutting the door again behind himself.

Crowley wants nothing more than to run after him. Can’t. Doesn’t. Watches him go, instead, clenching his hands around the thermos of holy water.

Then, with an effort of will, he uncurls his fingers and carefully, carefully sets the thermos on the passenger seat, the empty seat where Aziraphale now isn’t.

Sets his hands, white-knuckled, on the wheel of the Bentley.

And drives away.

Chapter Text

XXI. Somewhere in Oxfordshire, 11 years ago

The Antichrist is in a basket in his back seat.

Crowley is hurtling through a dark, damp, empty country road with complete disregard for the posted speed limit, the less-than-soothing sounds of Vivaldi’s “Hammer to Fall” blaring from the CD player, and the fucking Antichrist is in his back seat.

And Crowley doesn’t have even the tiniest shred of a plan. He’d just showed up in the graveyard where Hastur and Ligur had just finished popping out of the ground like particularly revolting, malevolent mushrooms; had leaned hard on their minds, until they’d believed it was his job, not theirs, to make the delivery; had grabbed the basket and all but fled, in the diametrically opposite direction to that Hastur had been compelled to give him.

For a moment, he wonders what would happen if he just stopped the car here, on this dark and damp and empty road, and took the basket and swung it round and round and let go and…

It couldn’t be that easy.

It comes to you as to us all,” Freddie Mercury is singing, “we’re just what do you think you’re doing, brother?

Shit. “Stopping the end of the world?” It comes out as more of a question than he intends it to. He really hadn’t thought this through; he’d just acted.

You can’t. It’s the Great Plan. It is written.

Crowley chokes back a hysterical laugh. The Great Plan, indeed. He wonders whether Lucifer realises how much he sounds like Gabriel; which of the two sides came up with the thing first. “Not written anywhere I’ve ever seen,” he spits out, somehow managing to hiss the entire sentence despite the almost complete lack of sibilants, pressing down on the accelerator. “Could stop it.” Again, he thinks of the child in his back seat, of how easy it would be to — and maybe it wouldn’t stop the process permanently, but it might buy him time to come up with a better solution —

Certainly, you could kill my child,” Lucifer intones, and since when is his brother a fucking mind reader? “But he would just be reborn. You would have to do it again, and again, and again. And what would that do to you, Raphael?

“Nothing that hasn’t already been done,” Crowley grits out. He’s never been one for killing children, certainly; and he is loath to cause death in general; but his soul is already black enough, and to save everything — “And that is not my name. Not anymore.”

You will not interfere. You have been given a lot of freedom, Raphael, because you are my brother, but my goodwill has limits. Know this: if you harm one hair on the head of my child, if he is not at the convent tonight as he is intended to be, I will set all the legions of Hell upon you. You have survived much, but you will not survive this.

He wouldn’t. He knows he wouldn’t. He’s strong; but he knows the full extent of his power, and it wouldn’t be enough. Not against all of Hell. And then the world would end anyway. “Samael, you can’t want —”

You have one hour.” And the song cuts back in, as if nothing had happened. “Ah, just surrender and it won’t hurt at all…”

Swearing profusely, the steering wheel creaking under his white-knuckled grip, Crowley turns the Bentley around.

You just got time to say your prayers, while you’re waiting for the hammer to fall.

Chapter Text

XXII. London, 11 years ago (1)

It occurs to Aziraphale, as he is walking to the appointed meeting spot, that he and Crowley haven’t used this particular one for almost a century and a half.

Of course, London is such a large, sprawling city, with rather a lot of inconspicuous meeting spots; and they haven’t really had very many meetings since — well, since.

But in their brief exchange on the phone, last night, Crowley had said — right after we need to talk, and right before Armageddonmeet me at St. James’s Park tomorrow morning.

Aziraphale hadn’t raised any objection, hadn’t even thought about it, floundering as he was, as he still is, in the face of only eleven years left.

It’s the Great Plan; it can’t be stopped. It’s what Heaven has been working for, all these millennia. Heaven will win, and Hell will be — Crowley will be —

He can’t bear thinking about it. Can’t stop thinking about it. And he is selfish, and he will keep what he can for as long as he can.

And so he goes.

He goes, but he can’t help but wonder who he’ll find, waiting for him. Whether he’ll find the Crowley he’s known all these millennia, the one who moves through the world with easy grace, the one he loves; or the terrible, pale spectre he’d seen for five too-long years.

When he reaches the meeting spot, Crowley is already there, sprawled out on a bench in that boneless way of his that makes him look like he may fall off any moment. To a casual observer, it might even look like he’s asleep, but Aziraphale knows better; and besides, the sunglasses Crowley has favoured these past several years are not entirely opaque, and Aziraphale can, if he focuses, easily see his friend’s eyes.

No, Crowley is not asleep, but he does look exhausted.

“So, the Antichrist,” Aziraphale says, sitting primly at the opposite end of the bench, looking at Crowley out of the corner of his eye. “You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. I delivered the baby. Well —” Crowley’s mouth twists. “Handed him over. Didn’t your lot tell you about it?”

“Well, Gabriel wasn’t exactly — clear about it. He just said, ‘things are afoot’. Said Hastur and Ligur may be involved.”

Crowley pulls a face. “Nah. Just me. Deliverer of Armageddon, me.” He sounds deeply disgusted, although with what, Aziraphale can’t tell.

“You must be very proud,” Aziraphale says, mildly, prodding for a reaction. There must be a reason Crowley has insisted on a face-to-face conversation; a simple courtesy notice about the upcoming Armageddon could’ve just been done over the phone.

Crowley gives a sharp bark of humourless laughter. “Yeah, proud is… not exactly the word I’d use, angel.”

“No?”

“No. I was — actually rather hoping you might be interested in helping me stop it.”

Aziraphale doesn’t know what he’d been expecting Crowley to say, not really, but it definitely isn’t this. Shocked, he turns to stare at Crowley, forgetting subtlety entirely. “What? No.” He wants to, but he can’t, he can’t.

Crowley raises an eyebrow at him. “Why not?”

Trust Crowley to immediately give voice to the question Aziraphale has been trying not to ask himself since finding out about what’s coming. He is an angel; it wouldn’t do to doubt. “It’s the Great Plan, Crowley. The final triumph of Heaven over Hell.”

“You really believe that?”

“Obviously,” says Aziraphale, very deliberately picking one meaning out of Crowley’s question and discarding the potential other. “Heaven’s final victory. It’s all going to be rather lovely, afterwards.”

“Right, right,” Crowley says, levering himself out of the bench. “If you’ve made up your mind, I guess that’s that.” He takes a few steps away and then turns to look back at Aziraphale. “Although, out of curiosity… how many first-class composers do your lot have in Heaven, again?”

“Crowley —”

“Because Beethoven’s one of Hell’s,” Crowley says, smoothly, smirking. “And Mozart. Brahms. All of the Bachs. I guess that chap from Broadheath’s one of yours? You know, the one who wrote the thing that goes,” and he hums a short stretch of music that Aziraphale is, sadly, painfully familiar with, what with Uriel having very enthusiastically taught it to one of the heavenly choirs. There’d been nothing else in Heaven for decades. “But that’s the only one I can think of. Oh! And that Clementi fellow.”

Aziraphale smothers a groan. Crowley knows him too well. “All of the composers you named,” he says instead, primly, pushing himself to his feet, “have already written their music.”

“And you’ll never hear it again,” Crowley says, with great relish, starting off down the path that leads out of the park. “Just celestial harmonies, all eternal day long.”

Aziraphale knows he should let him leave. Instead, reluctantly, he follows. He is selfish. “Didn’t know you cared about music.”

“I’m full of surprises,” Crowley says, dry as dust. “No more Albert Hall, no more Glyndebourne. No more fascinating little restaurants where they know you, either. No gravlax in dill sauce. No sushi. No more old bookshops, yours or otherwise. That what you want?”

“No!”

“Then —”

“You know what I meant, Crowley,” Aziraphale interrupts. “No, I’m not helping you.”

“So eager for the world to end? Tired of helping humans, are you? Looking forward to retiring?”

That one hurts, but Aziraphale does his best not to let it show. “It’s the Great Plan, Crowley. It is written.”

“Sure is. We’ve only got eleven years, and then it’s all over.”

No, Crowley.” Aziraphale wishes Crowley would stop pushing. He’ll be forced to choose immediately if Crowley doesn’t, and he will have to choose Heaven, and then they won’t see each other again before the world ends. He doesn’t think he could bear that. He is selfish, selfish, and wants to hold onto Crowley until the very last moment, until he can’t any longer.

“It’s the end of the world we’re talking about! We have to work together.”

“No!”

They’ve made it to Crowley’s Bentley. The wheels are clamped, and there’s a traffic warden industriously scribbling something into an electronic notebook; Crowley ignores him, and instead just waves a hand at the car, unlocking the doors. “We can do something about it. We can work out how to stop it.”

“No! I am not interested,” Aziraphale snaps, turning to leave. He can’t.

There is a sharp, indrawn breath behind him, and then Crowley says, all in a rush, “Well, let’s have lunch, hmm? I still owe you one from —”

Aziraphale turns back again, and can’t help but soften at the look on Crowley’s face. “Paris. 1793.” It had been the last time they had lunch together, the last time before everything went wrong; and he knows why Crowley trailed off rather than state the year, and it’s not because he doesn’t remember.

If the look on his face is any indication, he remembers too well.

Aziraphale knows how that feels.

And so he walks over to the Bentley, and very deliberately puts a hand on the passenger door handle, and looks at Crowley evenly, and waits for him to collect himself.

“Ah, yes, the Reign of Terror,” Crowley eventually manages, after a long pause, sauntering over to the driver’s side. “Which side was that, again?” His voice is too high and a bit desperate, but Aziraphale doesn’t call him out on it.

“Can’t recall,” he says, instead, climbing into the car. “Shall we do the Ritz?”

Crowley stares at him for a beat, then nods and swings the car out into traffic.

And if Aziraphale takes a little too much satisfaction in making the traffic warden’s electronic notebook explode in a shower of sparks, well, no harm in that.

No harm in lunch, either. It’s the end of the world, after all.

Chapter Text

XXIII. London, 11 years ago (2)

They’d had lunch; Crowley had eaten little, had said even less, and had drunk quite a lot.

They’d moved to the cocktail bar, had indulged in several rather nice cocktails, and the moment Aziraphale had started feeling tipsy, Crowley had immediately resumed his attempts to convince him, as if that was what he’d been waiting for.

And now they’re in Aziraphale’s bookshop, a graveyard of bottles littering every surface around them, six hours into it and finally, finally well and truly soused. And Crowley must be drunker than Aziraphale, he’d started that much earlier; but he’s kept up the attempts at convincing throughout, although it’s no longer entirely coherent.

Crowley lost his sunglasses somewhere around hour two. He is sprawled on Aziraphale’s sofa, now, and his eyes are shining earnestly, in the lamplight, as he stumbles his way through some story about some bird flying its way to the end of the universe to sharpen its beak on a mountain, which Aziraphale is pretty sure is intended to be a metaphor for eternity.

Crowley is gesturing widely with the hand that’s not holding his glass of wine, and there is a note of desperate pleading in his voice; and Aziraphale can no longer bear this, is not sure how he’s managed to make it through the past six hours.

“Why do you even care?”

Crowley frowns, stutters to a halt, looking entirely thrown by the question. “Wh…?”

“Why,” Aziraphale enunciates, carefully, “do you care?  You’re a demon. Your lot don’t usually do — y’know. The caring thing.”

Crowley pulls himself up, sitting straight, and stares at him, unblinking, with eyes that are far too sharp and clear. “Neither do your lot,” he says, gently.

Aziraphale wants to argue, wants to contradict him; but he remembers, with a clarity that is only brought on by extreme inebriation, how Gabriel had smiled, like a shark with too many teeth, when discussing the Crusades. The Black Death. The Spanish Inquisition. The World Wars. The AIDS epidemic. He feels suddenly very small and very guilty, knowing that he shouldn’t have asked the question; that it should’ve been enough to know that Crowley does care.

Crowley looks at him silently for another moment, and then his lips curve into a half-smile. “I just do,” he says. “Always have. Don’t really know how to stop. ‘S just how I was made, I guess.”

There’s something more there, Aziraphale finds himself thinking — the answer to a different question, one that has never been asked; but he’s too drunk to follow the thought to any sort of conclusion, logical or otherwise. That seems like a perfectly good reason to sober up, and so he does; but the thought doesn’t get any clearer once he’s done so.

He does realise there’s something important he should say, though, something that he’s not said so far. “It’s not that I don’t care, Crowley. I just… I’m an angel. I can’t go against the Great Plan.”

“Of course you can’t.” Crowley sighs, and pulls a face as he, too, sobers up the rest of the way. Then he pauses, a thoughtful look crossing his face. “What about demonic plans, though?”

Aziraphale frowns, puzzled. “I’m not sure I catch your meaning.”

“Well, if I —” Crowley cuts himself off, flinching; shakes his head. “No. That would — I might — no. Forget I said anything.”

“What?”

No.

It’s enough of a reversal of their earlier conversation that Aziraphale finds himself leaning forward, across the space between them, and putting a hand on Crowley’s. “Tell me.”

Crowley stiffens at the touch; swallows, a muscle twitching in his jaw. “If I were to — hypothetically, if I were to be working to tempt the Antichrist child towards evil, to influence him to be cruel, and thoughtless, and to want to grasp his power and destroy the world with it… you would be in a position to thwart me,” he says, carefully. “It would mean you could work to directly counter my influence. To push the child towards good, instead. Towards — towards not wanting to destroy the world.”

“And Heaven couldn’t object if I was doing it to thwart you,” Aziraphale says, slowly. It’s not actually a bad idea.

Crowley nods, tightly. “It would work as an excuse, on your end. But — on my end, I’d have to — I was told, very specifically, to leave the child alone, you see. So I would have to actively, truly work against you. Couldn’t just pretend to; it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. And it would not quite work with the Pact, so we’d need to make an exception for it. You’d need to let me entirely off the leash. And I don’t think —” Crowley cuts himself off, again. Looks down at Aziraphale’s hand on his, his hair falling forward to hide most of his face. Swallows, again.

“You don’t think I could thwart you properly, if you were really trying?” Aziraphale says, mildly. He’s sure that’s not it; but he doesn’t know what has Crowley suddenly so tense.

Crowley laughs, a little hysterically. “Oh, no, angel. You could probably talk even Sam— Satan into loving the world, if he were inclined to listen. Which he isn’t. But you see, you have no idea what I am.” Almost idly, Crowley twists his wrist, turns their hands around so it’s his hand on top of Aziraphale’s.

Aziraphale doesn’t know where the conversation is going, but he can tell this is his cue to say something. So: “I know you care.”

“Of course I care,” Crowley says, evenly. “I care about children. I care about the world. And what do you expect might happen, Aziraphale, when one care is set against the other? Which one do you think might win out? Do you not think I might feel compelled to simply — break the child, so I can better twist him towards evil, so you can then better twist him towards good? So he has no will to fight either of us? What do you imagine might be left, if I were to do that?”

“I don’t think you would —”

“Oh, you don’t think I would,” Crowley interrupts, whisper-soft, a blade being pulled from a sheath. Aziraphale feels his hackles rise. “As I said: you have no idea what I am.”

Crowley lifts his head. Aziraphale freezes.

Crowley’s eyes are gold from side to side and burning, burning, burning; and Aziraphale would swear, in that moment, that they are sucking the light out of the room, throwing shadows everywhere, casting all of Crowley’s sharpness into too-stark relief. And Crowley is, all of a sudden, very, very still. Too still.

Coiled.

Forbidding.

Inhuman.

“I am the Serpent of Eden,” Crowley says, softly, softly, softly. “I am the monster at the beginning of the map, and at the end, too. I am the danger mothers whisper about to their children, deep in the night, that they may be convinced not to stray from the road. And here I am, proposing that you might take me off the leash, and set me on an innocent child, and hope that I don’t do too much damage. Hope that you might be able to, somehow, keep me in check. Hope, when I am nothing but the lack of it.”

Crowley’s voice is cold and sharp, like a naked blade; but his hand is soft and warm on Aziraphale’s. And Aziraphale doesn’t know what this is, exactly, cannot fathom the depths of it, cannot even begin to understand, but —

But he knows Crowley. Trusts Crowley. Loves Crowley.

And while he knows he cannot give words to the love, not even here, now, at the beginning of the end of the world —

He hopes.

“I know who you are, Crowley,” he says, gently. Puts his free hand to Crowley’s cheek, runs two of his fingers lightly over the sharp cheekbone. “And you are not this.”

And Crowley gasps in a shuddering breath; closes his eyes; leans fractionally into the touch, for a moment, before turning his face away. Another moment later, he blinks his eyes back open, and there is warmth in them again, and softness. “Oh, angel. You don’t know me. You can’t. But I will tell you everything, after. If — if the world doesn’t end.”

Aziraphale nods, and pulls back. “Well, then,” he says, primly. “We’d best get to planning.”

And if Crowley’s answering laugh is a little fragile, a little broken around the edges, neither of them mentions it.

They talk deep into the night, after that. First, of course, they plan, working out how to best put Crowley’s idea into action; and then they get drunk again, devolving, this time, into rambling commentary about humans, and theatre, and music, and books, and everything else that makes the world good. That makes the world worth saving.

And Aziraphale hopes.

Chapter Text

XXIV. The Dowling Residence, London, 6 years ago

Crowley (a dark and moonless night)

A gardener.

The fool angel had chosen to be a gardener. And it makes a certain amount of sense, Crowley has to admit, a gardener instilling the love of the world and all living things into a child.

It makes sense — it does — except for the tiny, little, almost negligible detail that Aziraphale does not know the first thing about gardening.

Aziraphale, Principality, who was assigned as Guardian to the Garden of Eden and still somehow managed to completely avoid picking up even the slightest idea of how to care for growing things.

Aziraphale, who had managed to fake an ability to garden for five months by using miracles, before it caught up to him. Before Crowley overheard him, one night, quietly pleading with the honeysuckle and the wisteria and the azaleas to please, please grow, please bloom, I got another note from Gabriel reprimanding me for frivolous miracles, I can’t keep doing this, please.

And that makes this whole thing even more infuriating, because for all that Crowley quite frankly hates her overbearing, sanctimonious, controlling prat of a younger brother, and is perfectly happy to go on a lengthy rant about how it should be Aziraphale’s choice where to spend his power —

Armageddon is coming.

Armageddon is coming, and if Aziraphale keeps using his power for bloody gardening, he may not have enough left in him when it really counts.

It doesn’t help that Aziraphale refuses to sleep. Virtue is ever vigilant, the angel had ended up saying, primly, the last time they’d discussed the subject; and although Crowley is trying to be subtle, and would prefer to avoid the questions that would undoubtedly follow a thorough explanation, she is this close to simply blurting out just take a fucking nap, angel, your power comes back faster when you do that.

The heel of one of Crowley’s shoes sinks into the soft turf, very nearly making her lose her balance; she swears and glowers, and a patch of petunias near her promptly wilts. Hissing, she yanks off the offending footwear, and her stockings for good measure, and marches her way, bare-footed, to the very centre of the garden.

She really hopes she still remembers how to do this.

Closing her eyes, she digs her toes into the soil and spreads out her awareness, questing gently for — ah. There. There’s the wisteria, and the honeysuckle, and the azaleas, and the jasmine and the petunias and the tulips and the roses, and everything else that’s green and growing, all around the garden.

Grow, she breathes out, without words. Grow and bloom. You know how.

And all around the garden, she feels the plants responding.

It is a frivolous waste of power, of course. But unlike Aziraphale’s too-specific miracles, it’ll keep working; and better she spends her power than Aziraphale spends his. She’s got more to go around. And anyway, Warlock is with his parents this weekend, visiting some other important diplomat’s family, so she has the next several days off — and she fully intends to spend every last second of them sleeping. By Monday, she’ll be no worse off. Better, probably, in fact. She’s noticed that the more regularly she sleeps, the more swiftly her power replenishes when she does.

Even if it didn’t, she reflects as she walks back through the garden and to the house, heels dangling from one hand — well. It’s just a small miracle. And it would still be worth it, just for the way she knows Aziraphale will smile when the flowers bloom.

Aziraphale (three months later)

It is a dark and stormy night.

Which is to say, there is a fierce thunderstorm raging outside, and it’s well past midnight. Aziraphale is sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and reading a book. The house is quiet; the entire household is asleep, likely including Crowley.

When they’d decided to be, respectively, gardener and nanny for the Dowling household, Aziraphale had rather hoped he might get to spend more time with Crowley — at least at night, when they were both off duty; after all, neither of them had any need to sleep.

But Crowley does sleep, almost every night, and Aziraphale can’t understand why. When he’d asked, Crowley had shrugged her narrow shoulders and said, it’s incredibly refreshing; you should try it.

It’s not that he’s not tired. The steady stream of miracles he’d needed to keep the garden going for the first five months of his employment had drained him so badly that even now, three more months down the line, his grip on his power is shaky and sluggish. It had been almost a relief to get the note from Gabriel that informed him in no uncertain terms to stop squandering his strength on gardening.

Of course, the note had also mentioned that, if he felt the need to keep up the gardener masquerade, a much better way to do it would be to simply let the plants die and the garden go to weeds, and make the humans believe everything was fine; and he could see a certain sense in it, but — but the plants were living things, and it hadn’t been their fault that Aziraphale was so inept, and —

He’d resolved to ask for Crowley’s help, but it hadn’t been necessary, after all. Slowly, slowly, the garden had perked up, eventually turning into a riot of greenery and flowers that barely needed any minding.

There is a loud rumble of thunder, and the noise of the rain hitting the window increases. Oh, he hopes the storm won’t damage the garden too badly.

Another crack of thunder — louder, closer — is immediately followed by a high, terrified wail; and Aziraphale is out of his chair, book and tea abandoned, and halfway up the stairs to Warlock’s room before he even realises he’s moved. He’s grown incredibly fond of Warlock, and he knows from sad experience that nobody in the household really cares about the boy, not even his parents; that there is nobody who is willing to soothe the boy’s hurts or fears, except for himself and Crowley. And Crowley may be asleep, may not have heard the boy crying out.

By the time Aziraphale makes it to Warlock’s door, there’s a light on inside the room, and the boy’s wailing has subsided into quieter sobbing.

Aziraphale angles himself so he can see into the room through the half-open door, and yes — Crowley is there, sitting with her back to the door, holding the boy gently as he cries into her shoulder, making soft shushing noises. Between sobs, the boy is whimpering out something about the storm and monsters and nightmares.

Crowley adjusts her hold, one hand going to card through Warlock’s hair instead. “Just a storm,” she says, softly, softly. “No need to be afraid.”

“Don’t go, don’t go.” The boy hiccups. “Sing to me?”

“Of course. Lie back down, hm? Close your eyes.” Crowley leans forward, settling Warlock back down on the bed, and tucks the blanket around him with one hand, the other still gently stroking his hair. And then she starts humming, softly.

And the thing is —

Over the past eight months, Aziraphale has heard, he’d thought, every single lullaby Crowley has in her extremely vast repertoire. They all follow more or less the same lines, talking about pain and destruction, and heaps of dead bodies, and crushing all the nations of the world, and so on and so forth. Aziraphale knows the words, by now, and knows the melodies; and what Crowley is humming is not a melody Aziraphale has ever heard.

And the other thing is —

Through their long, long acquaintance, Aziraphale has heard Crowley sing or hum many times. Whatever form Crowley’s body takes, she usually has a singing voice that is best described as “serviceable”, or perhaps, if one were to be feeling rather charitable, “nice”. She can carry a tune, and it will be recognisable, but that is the extent of it.

Crowley’s voice now, however, is something entirely else.

It’s gentle, soft, not really more than a whisper, and yet somehow perfectly audible over the sound of the rain pounding harshly on the windowpanes. It’s clear as a bell, and pitch perfect, and it rings out with echoes that call to acoustics the small room definitely doesn’t have, almost as if Crowley is singing her own accompaniment along with the melody.

It’s beautiful.

Crowley hums through the melody once, and then puts words to it on the repeat. It’s a proper lullaby, one that echoes her words from a few minutes earlier. Crowley sings about how thunderstorms are not something to fear, and how they help make the world more beautiful; and Aziraphale is suddenly, vividly reminded of that very first storm, the one they’d witnessed together, standing on the wall of the Garden of Eden, and of how the desert had bloomed into new life, afterwards.

Aziraphale has heard all of Crowley’s lullabies, so far; he doesn’t think he was meant to hear this one.

Slowly, noiselessly, he backs away from the door and heads back downstairs, to the kitchen, to his cold tea and abandoned book.

In a few hours, morning will come; the storm will be gone, and the sun will be shining; and Warlock will, Aziraphale knows, have no memory of this night. It is not something Crowley would allow the child to remember; not the kind of influence a demon is meant to have.

Aziraphale eyes his mug and sighs. Normally he wouldn’t think twice about miracling the tea hot again, frivolous miracle or not, but he is so tired he can’t seem to muster up the energy. So he sets the still-full mug by the sink and puts on the kettle, instead, and goes back to his book while he waits for it to boil.

A few minutes later, a long-fingered hand sets his mug — once again steaming with heat — by his elbow. Aziraphale does not startle and knock it to the floor, but it’s a very near thing. How Crowley can move so silently in heels, he’ll never know.

He sets the book aside, pulls the mug to him and looks up, as Crowley, holding her own mug, sinks into the chair opposite him, her face unreadable, eyes completely hidden behind her dark glasses. He feels like he should say something, but he doesn’t quite know what. “That was kind of you,” he finally offers, across the table. An opening, if Crowley chooses to take it.

Crowley’s lips twitch above the rim of her mug. “It’s just tea, angel.”

Ah. That would be a no, then. He takes a sip of his tea, trying not to feel disappointed.

Crowley looks at him for a long moment, then sighs. “Heaven’s sake, Aziraphale. I can almost hear you thinking.” She sets her mug down, then pulls off her glasses, placing them on the table; looks at him steadily. “You can ask, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.”

Aziraphale considers and discards several possible questions, finally settling on, “I — didn’t know you could sing like that. Can all demons…?”

“Of course not. You fought in the war, didn’t you? You remember the Fall.”

Aziraphale flinches. “I — wasn’t at the front lines, when it happened.” He’d been wounded, after hesitating to strike at one on the opposite side. He’d fled. But he remembers — “The screaming,” he says, slowly.

Crowley nods. “Tends to do a number on your throat, yes. Leaves it quite damaged. Some might’ve chosen to heal it, after, but most had other things to think about, and that kind of damage settles, if you leave it long enough unhealed.”

“You?”

Crowley visibly hesitates. “I did not scream,” she says, eventually, “so I never lost the ability. I don’t use it very much, though. It tends to — make people wonder.”

It feels like there might be another answer, there, in the same sentence, an answer to a different question; a question Aziraphale cannot quite formulate, an answer he cannot quite grasp. But there is also a warning, in Crowley’s voice, not to push any further. And so he says, instead: “But Warlock needed comfort.”

Crowley’s lips twitch, again. It’s not a smile. “He needed to get back to sleep. I didn’t think doom and darkness, blood and brains would’ve quite cut it, in this particular case.”

“And so young master Warlock remains unbroken.”

The glare Crowley levels at him is impressive, the kind that you’d expect might wilt flowers or curdle fresh milk. “For now.”

“Mm.” Aziraphale is unmoved. “As I said —” he raises his mug of tea to Crowley in an approximation of a toast “— kind.”

Crowley sighs, reaching for her own mug. “As you said.” There’s no conviction in her voice; it sounds like she’s just echoing him to end the conversation. Like she truly doesn’t believe she has it in her to be kind.

Aziraphale lets it go.

But he thinks about something Warlock had said, a few weeks earlier. The boy’s mother had wanted to spend a day with her child, and had given Crowley the day off; but she’d very quickly tired of paying attention to him as he ran around in the garden. When Warlock had fallen, and skinned his knee, and burst into tears, Mrs Dowling had been on the phone, and had merely shushed him when he’d sought consolation; and so it had been Aziraphale who’d patched him up.

Brother Francis, the boy had sobbed, clinging to Aziraphale, why doesn’t mum love me?

It was a question Aziraphale had been entirely unprepared for. Now, now, young master Warlock, he’d soothed, sticking a plaster on the boy’s knee and resisting the urge to simply miracle it better. She’s your mum. Of course she loves you.

She doesn’t, Warlock had insisted, tearfully. Not like Nanny does.

Aziraphale hadn’t been able to think of anything to say in response.

Years earlier, when they were discussing this mad plan to stop Armageddon, Crowley had done his level best to convince Aziraphale that he may present a real danger to the child; that he may, indeed, be evil.

Aziraphale hadn’t been worried, even back then; he’s even less worried now.

Demons can’t love, Aziraphale has always known. Some of them might seem like they care, might have retained a spark of their old nature, but the difference between that and truly loving is the difference between a match and a forest fire.

Well; that’s what he’s always been told, at any rate. He knows better now.

Nobody in the household truly cares for Warlock, except for Aziraphale and Crowley; and Aziraphale has seen how Crowley is with the boy, and he rather has the feeling that in this particular case, contrary to the common thought about their respective natures, he is the match, and Crowley the forest fire.

Warlock believes Crowley loves him; and Aziraphale may not be able to feel any love coming from Crowley, but he knows that Warlock has the right of it.

Crowley loves. Gloriously, brilliantly, fiercely, Crowley loves.

And Aziraphale hopes.

Chapter Text

XXV. Heaven and Hell, 4 years ago

Crowley doesn’t report to Hell. They know he’s working on Warlock, of course, but the details of it? No. If his brother really wants to know what’s going on with the boy, he can do his own damn research — not that there’d be anything much to find, Crowley’s been careful enough that he is certain of that. The rest of Hell can rot.

It would, however, make Aziraphale suspicious if Crowley never went to report; and so, he simply drops by Hell whenever the angel is called to report to Heaven, and just lurks in the lobby for an hour or two.

That’s where Hastur and Ligur find him. He’s been expecting it; he couldn’t have escaped their notice forever, not with regular visits.

“Hello, snake,” Hastur says gleefully, crowding him into a corner with the assistance of Ligur.

“Lord Hastur. Lord Ligur.” Crowley nods in greeting, making sure his face shows nothing but boredom, keeping his contempt buried deep. He’s had a lot of practice.

“Tell us about the boy,” Ligur demands, with a wide, vicious smile. He’s likely trying to be threatening, but since he’s not actually putting any of his power in it, Crowley doesn’t have to pretend to feel threatened. “You’ve been keeping an eye on him, have you not?”

“A remarkable child. Fantastically evil. Threatened the cook with death and destruction just the other day, for forgetting to bake his favourite pastries.” Warlock had done nothing of the sort, of course. He’d only asked, very politely, for an extra biscuit.

“But has he killed anyone yet?”

“Or tortured?” Hastur chimes in. “Or maimed?”

Hastur and Ligur and their one-track minds. “Of course not,” he drawls in response. “That would be conspicuous. The humans may decide to get rid of him, and then where would we be?”

Hastur scoffs and punches Crowley in the stomach, hard; Crowley obligingly folds forward, crumpling in on himself, pretending to be in pain. He’s been expecting this; he’s taken precautions. Ligur grabs Crowley by the throat, squeezing tightly, and lifts him clear off the floor, pinning him against the wall; Crowley reminds his body that it doesn’t need to breathe, and bares his teeth. “Come on, guys. There’s no need to be like this.” Not that he expects them to listen.

His low opinion of himself aside, Crowley would, if asked, be the first one to acknowledge that a lot of the Fallen aren’t actually all that evil; or, at the very least, have some redeeming qualities. Some hadn’t even agreed with Lucifer, really; they’d just listened to a couple of his lectures, but had, nevertheless, been dragged down with him when he Fell. They are evil, yes, but in much the same way as a petty, overzealous human bureaucrat; it’s just a job, mostly. And then, of course, there are those among the Fallen who had been evil even before they Fell, and who have wholly embraced it now, with no restraint; Hastur and Ligur are chief among them. To them, evil is not a means to an end, but rather the end itself.

If they manage to force Crowley’s hand to the point where he has to destroy them, he’ll be doing the universe a favour.

Hastur punches him again. “You are up to something, snake. And when we find out what it is —”

“Releaszzzzzze him.”

There is enough threat in the buzzing voice that Ligur drops Crowley immediately, and Hastur goes even paler than he normally is. “Lord Beelzebub —”

“Get out.”

Hastur and Ligur scramble to obey, tripping over themselves; the room is left empty, but for Crowley and Beelzebub.

He pulls himself up from the floor and casually runs a hand over himself, healing what damage he couldn’t prevent before bruises can even form. She’s his brother’s right hand; she knows exactly who he is. She is one of the very few who do. There’s respect, of a sort, between them. “Thanks for the save,” he says, smirking.

Beelzebub gives him a flat, unamused look. “You didn’t need it. I don’t know what game you’re playing —”

“My own. Always my own. You know that.” He lets his smirk widen into something less casual — not quite threatening, but on the very edge of it. “You can tell Sssssamael that. I haven’t done anything he’s told me not to do. That’s all his threats will get him. He wants more, he’s going to have to ask nicely.”

Beelzebub scowls momentarily, then sighs. “I don’t understand what you hope to accomplish. Armageddon will happen. The Great Plan —”

“Is written, I know, I know.” He turns to leave, with a sarcastic wave. “Keep fighting the evil fight.”

He will stop Armageddon, even if it’s the very last thing he does. Even if he has to destroy himself to do it.

* * *

Heaven makes Aziraphale uncomfortable. It’s too bright, too cold, too sterile. The worst part is, he still remembers how it felt, before. The warmth, the comfort. The love that permeated every corner.

The love, and a myriad other emotions besides, had still been there when he’d been assigned as Guardian to the Garden of Eden, and had left. A thousand years later, when he’d been called back for his first in-person report, his first meeting with Gabriel and the other Archangels, Heaven had felt so empty, only shreds left of the love he’d been so used to, that he’d barely been able to concentrate on what he was being told; and by his next visit, another thousand years later, the love had been entirely gone.

The war, he supposes, might have been the moment of change. The war and the Fall. That would’ve been what had started it.

It does make some amount of sense, from a certain perspective, this new version of Heaven. Good means to root out Evil once and for all; Heaven’s Light illuminates, purifies, and leaves no place for Evil to hide.

Aziraphale thinks, sometimes, about how he has seen acts of evil done in broad daylight, and acts of good in the deepest shadows. He is just a Principality, though; the Archangels must know better. It wouldn’t do to doubt. There is no room for doubt in Heaven.

It makes sense. It does. Heaven no longer feels like home, but perhaps that is for the best.

So he ignores the doubts, and the discomfort, and very firmly does not think about how desperately unhappy he will be, if Armageddon happens, after Heaven wins; and he obediently reports to Heaven whenever he is called.

The Archangels radiate belief, and only belief. It is the only thing he can sense in them, the only thing left in Heaven: belief, and duty. They listen to his reports about how he is influencing the Antichrist child towards goodness; they applaud politely; and then they tell him, with infinite gentleness, how understanding they will be when he fails. How Armageddon is inevitable. How wars are to be won, and not avoided.

Aziraphale listens, and nods at all the right points; and hides all his doubts and his unhappiness and his discomfort deep within his heart, building up a wall all around it; and thinks of Crowley, and of love; and tries to keep the tiny, desperate flame of his faltering hope alive.

Chapter Text

XXVI. Crystal Palace Dinosaur Park, London, Monday

It’s two days before Warlock’s eleventh birthday, and Crowley is troubled.

Warlock is — he’s just a boy. A normal boy, if extremely spoiled; a sad boy with absentee parents, raised mostly by the household staff; a boy who loves comics and baseball and, despite Aziraphale’s valiant efforts, is not particularly fond of snails or slugs. There is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary with him, and by now, there should be. There should be at least some twisting of reality; if Warlock thinks something should happen, it should happen. But there is none of that, at least not that Crowley has been able to detect.

Even now, as Crowley and Aziraphale watch from a bench, Warlock is complaining to his mother, asking why he can’t have his birthday party in an escape room. If that’s what he truly wants, reality should just — readjust itself, and the party would be held in an escape room.

Something is wrong.

“He’s too normal,” Crowley tells Aziraphale, quietly.

Aziraphale’s response is prompt. “My good influence, surely?”

“Nah.” Crowley shakes his head. “Good influence or not, at this point there should be some manifestation of his power. Like there is of ours, you know.”

“Of ours?” Aziraphale looks confused, and Crowley wants to groan. The angel is not stupid; it’s just that if something’s always worked a certain way, it tends to never occur to him to question the reasons.

“Like how you can always find a specific book in that disorganised mess you call a bookshop, even though the books are not in any particular order and half of them aren’t even on the shelves. Or how there’s always a table free at a restaurant when you feel like eating there.”

“My bookshop isn’t disorganised,” Aziraphale protests. “I always know where — oh. Oh.

The angel’s face when the penny drops is a picture, and Crowley can’t help but laugh at him. “Yes. It’s why sleeping helps. Not doing any reality adjustment while you’re asleep.”

About a year after they’d both started working for the Dowling household, it had become clear that Aziraphale was so drained that his power was unlikely to return to a usable level anytime soon. And so Crowley had given up on hinting, and had pulled the angel aside for a moment in the garden, and told him directly about the benefits of sleeping.

Aziraphale had stared, and blinked a few times in what looked like utter bafflement, and said nothing; had nodded, returning to pruning the hydrangeas in silence; and had gone to his bed that night, and slept. The morning after, he’d asked no questions; had only said, I imagine Hell does not know about this. And when Crowley had confirmed that, Aziraphale had said, well then, neither should Heaven.

Blessed, clever angel.

“Well. Maybe he’ll come into his power after his birthday?” Aziraphale is saying, frowning.

“Maybe.” Crowley is unconvinced. “Either way, the hell-hound will be the key.”

“…right,” Aziraphale says, after a startled pause. “You’ve never actually mentioned a hell-hound before.”

He’s right. Crowley hasn’t. That would be because Crowley himself hadn’t known about it until a few days earlier, when Dagon had sent word. “Oh, yeah. They’re sending him a hell-hound, to pad by his side and guard him from all harm. Biggest one they’ve got. It’s meant to show up at three o’clock on Wednesday, at his birthday party.”

“Won’t, er — won’t people remark about the sudden appearance of a huge black dog?”

“They’re not all black,” Crowley says, distractedly. “Some look like your friendly neighbourhood golden retriever. Well, except for the size. And the glowing red eyes. And the fangs. And it’s reality, you know? As we just discussed a few minutes ago? He can do with it whatever he likes. Nobody will notice anything.”

“Oh. Right,” Aziraphale says, faintly, looking a bit green around the edges. “And what is he meant to do with this hell-hound?”

“Name it, of course. Names have power. If we’ve done our job right, he’ll just send it away unnamed. If he names it — well. He’ll have all his powers, and the four horsemen will ride, and a few days later, the world will end.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, again. “Well, then, we should be there. We could stop the dog.”

There’s an idea. Not that Crowley’s ever gone toe-to-toe with a hell-hound, of course, let alone one intent on getting to its master, but it might —

“In fact,” Aziraphale continues, before Crowley can say anything, “I could entertain.”

“Oh, no.” Unfortunately, Crowley knows exactly what idea he’s just had. There is only one interest of Aziraphale’s that could count as ‘entertaining’. “No, no, no. Please no. Don’t do your magic act.”

Aziraphale wriggles his fingers meaningfully and fishes a coin out of the pocket of his waistcoat. “I just need to get back into practice.”

“Practice — you did this for barely a year back in 1877 and you kept fumbling the tricks even then — just because you took one class with bloody Maskelyne doesn’t mean —”

“I have read extensively since then, of course. And I have practiced. I corresponded with Bobo for a bit, and he was kind enough to send me a copy of his book, which I found particularly helpful. I assure you, my skills are quite up to date.” Aziraphale flourishes the coin at Crowley, grinning; then he attempts to palm it, making a daft whooshing noise with his mouth, and promptly drops it.

Crowley groans. “You have no idea how demeaning that is. Please. I’m actually begging you.”

Still grinning, Aziraphale bends to pick the coin up, then stands, and pretends to pull it out of Crowley’s ear. Drops it again, naturally.

Crowley rolls his eyes. “It was between your fingers.”

“No, it was in your ear,” Aziraphale insists, picking it up again.

“It was in your pocket, then —”

“It was — close to your ear.”

This should not be as disgustingly endearing as it actually is, Crowley thinks. “Never anywhere near my ear,” he insists.

“You’re no fun,” Aziraphale mutters, as he sits back on the bench.

Fun?” They’re facing the end of the world, and Aziraphale is doing silly stage-magic tricks, and Crowley doesn’t know whether he wants to hit him or kiss him. Probably both.

“Yes!” Aziraphale flourishes the coin again. Manages to palm it without dropping it, this time.

“It’s humiliating! You can do proper magic. You can make things actually disappear!”

“But it’s not as fun,” Aziraphale says, moving to pull the coin out of Crowley’s ear again.

“I’ll make you disappear,” Crowley grouses. And then he deliberately shifts his position, bumps into Aziraphale’s arm and makes the angel drop the coin again — right into his outstretched hand, from where it promptly vanishes.

Aziraphale sputters. “Crowley!”

Crowley laughs and flicks his wrist, making the coin reappear, balanced on the tip of Aziraphale’s nose. “Best practice more, angel.”

Aziraphale grabs and pockets the coin. “I have practiced, I told you,” he begins primly — and then pauses. Blinks. Stares at Crowley, his eyes widening. “You — mentioned Maskelyne.”

“What of him?”

“How do you — that was — it was after —” Aziraphale is tripping over his words, can’t seem to get a full sentence out. “You were gone.

Oh. “I was watching,” he says, because it’s too late for a lie. “Not — not all the time. And only after —” after I almost killed you “— 1862. Don’t give me too much credit.”

“You were —” Aziraphale is still staring. “Why?”

Because I missed you, Crowley doesn’t say. Because if I couldn’t be with you, I at least wanted to be near you. “You have absolutely no sense of self-preservation,” he says, instead, his voice rougher than he intends it to be. “Have to watch out for you, since you won’t do it yourself.”

“Don’t jest,” Aziraphale says, in a wounded tone.

“I’m not. I — wanted you to be safe.” And that had meant staying away, then; but, he had successfully argued with himself, there was no harm in occasionally watching from a distance.

“You mean that.” Aziraphale is frowning, now, twin lines between his eyebrows that make Crowley want to reach over and smooth them out with a thumb.

“Of course I do.”

“But — I hurt you. You left. And then you came back, and I — hurt you again. And you left again. You hated me.”

And that last statement is so preposterous that Crowley cannot contain himself anymore. “I could never hate you, you idiot,” he snaps, trying for sharp and somehow managing to land on fond. “Yes, I was hurt, and angry, and I spent several weeks drinking myself into oblivion and then several decades sleeping it off, and —” Aziraphale opens his mouth to interrupt, and Crowley raises a hand to hold him off, “— I’m not finished — and I am sorry for that, alright? For that, and for what happened in St. James’s Park, and for everything after. I am as much to blame for it as you are, probably more. And — no, Aziraphale, don’t argue. We hurt each other, and you never hated me for it, did you?”

Aziraphale shakes his head, mutely.

“So how could I hate you?”

Aziraphale shrugs, looks down. “I figured I deserved it,” he says, very quietly.

Crowley very deliberately does not stop to consider the implications of that sentence, because if he did, he’d have to start thinking about who else might’ve made Aziraphale feel that way, made him feel like he deserves to be hurt and hated, and — that way lies all-consuming wrath, really, and he definitely doesn’t have the time for that right now. So, instead, doing his best to sound exasperated and knowing full well he’s failing: “Well, you figured wrong.”

Aziraphale looks up again at that, a small smile on his lips. “Really?”

“Really.” Crowley returns the smile. “Although those magic tricks of yours…”

Aziraphale’s smile broadens. “You love them, you old serpent.”

I love you. “Eh.” He makes a face. “Love’s a strong word. Tolerate? Tolerate sounds about right.”

And Aziraphale laughs, and for at least that brief moment, all is right with the world.

Chapter Text

XXVII. London, Wednesday

Aziraphale distinctly remembers thinking, after he’d fumbled the third magic trick in a row, this couldn’t possibly be going worse.

Of course, that was before the gun belonging to one of the security guards had been accidentally yanked from its holster and sent splashing into a bowl of jelly.

Before Warlock had gleefully grabbed it, and pointed it at the assembled partygoers.

Before one of the other children had flung a handful of jelly at Warlock, and Warlock had, reflexively, pulled the trigger.

Nothing bad had happened, obviously — Aziraphale had managed to turn all the guns into water guns just in time — but that had been when the party had devolved into a food-and-water-guns fight. Before he’d managed to get out of the way, Aziraphale himself had been hit with several lumps of cream cake.

By that point, it had been five minutes past three o’clock; it is ten past, now. There is no sign of the hell-hound.

He is guiltily trying to extricate a limp, and likely quite dead, dove from his magician’s coat when Crowley finds him. The demon has shed his waiter’s outfit and is back in his normal clothes; he looks aggrieved and more than a little worried, but reaches with a deft, long-fingered hand to pull the bird out of Aziraphale’s sleeve.

The dove is very definitely dead, the neck bent at an unnatural angle. Crowley sighs and strokes a finger down its back, gently; it flutters back to life, coos, and flies off. “No dog,” he says, softly.

“Maybe — maybe it was delayed?” Aziraphale hazards. It’s a better thought than the alternative.

“I don’t think that would happen,” Crowley replies. “They’re very precise about this sort of thing. No, it —” and he cuts himself off and stiffens, as if he’s listening for something. “The hell-hound has found its master,” he says, finally, looking pained. “We had the wrong boy.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, faintly. “You’re certain?”

“Sadly, yes. I felt it, when it happened.” Crowley yanks the driver’s side door of the Bentley open and collapses into the seat, leaning his forehead on the steering wheel. “Welcome to the end times,” he mutters, almost indistinctly.

We will be most understanding when you fail, Aziraphale remembers Michael saying, not unkindly. Wars are to be won, after all. Not avoided. “No. There must be something we can do.”

Crowley raises his head, his forehead scrunching in the way that Aziraphale knows means he’s frowning. “If you have any ideas…”

Aziraphale miracles himself a handkerchief and wipes the remnants of cream cake off his face, to give himself a moment to think. “Well, something must’ve gone wrong somewhere. What happened when you delivered the Antichrist?”

Crowley shrugs. “Went to the hospital. Handed the baby over to the nuns. Got out of there. Called you.”

Nuns?” Aziraphale asks, appalled, as he miracles himself into his normal clothes and climbs into the car. “I would have thought those would be automatically on Heaven’s side.”

“Satanic nuns,” Crowley says. “Had a convent with a birthing hospital attached. Didn’t particularly strike me as entirely competent, but — wait.

Aziraphale waits.

“There was this man,” Crowley says slowly. “Looked like he didn’t belong. Had an air of the expectant father about him. Said something about his wife —”

“There was another baby,” Aziraphale says, coming to the same conclusion Crowley must’ve reached.

Crowley swears, profusely and at great length. Aziraphale politely waits for him to be finished. “Do you remember where the hospital was?” he asks, when Crowley has finally run himself out of steam.

“Yes.” Crowley starts the Bentley and pulls out of the parking space. “I’m guessing that’s where you think we should be going. Will take a bit to get there.”

The Bentley leaps forward, and Aziraphale feels the acceleration forcing him back into the seat. Crowley drives like a madman even on the best of days, and today has been a rather spectacularly bad day no matter how you look at it. “Yes. We go to the hospital, we look through their files, we find the birth records —”

“And then what?”

“And then we find the child.”

“And then what?”

Aziraphale opens his mouth to answer, even though, truthfully, he’s not quite sure, but then Crowley swerves sharply, and Aziraphale has to yelp, instead. “Watch out for that pedestrian!”

“She’s on the street,” Crowley exclaims, turning to look at Aziraphale, “she knows the risk she’s taking!”

“Just watch the — watch the road!” He takes a deep breath, and tries not to whimper. He hates Crowley’s driving. “Where is this hospital, anyway?”

“A village called Tadfield — get off the road, you clown! — near Oxford.”

The car accelerates further, and Aziraphale does whimper, then. “Crowley, you can’t do ninety miles an hour in central London!”

Crowley shrugs widely, taking his hands off the wheel entirely to better remonstrate. “Why not?”

Put your hands back on the wheel — you’ll get us killed! Well — inconveniently discorporated.”

Crowley huffs. “Relax, angel. You’re safe with me. I promise.”

That’s sweet, Aziraphale thinks fleetingly, before Crowley spoils the moment entirely by laying on the horn and yelling incoherent profanities at an old lady on a scooter. He does feel safe with Crowley, he does, but his driving — “Right! Music! Why don’t I put on some music?” Something calming might help, he thinks, pulling a small pile of CDs from underneath the seat. The one at the top of the stack is not an artist he’s ever heard of. “What’s a Velvet Underground?”

“You wouldn’t like it,” Crowley says, immediately.

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, mildly. “Be-bop.”

“Aziraphale, I swear —” Crowley cuts himself off to shout at another driver. “— and the ridiculous tiny car you rode in on, you pillock!”

Aziraphale very carefully does not smirk. “Here we go. Tchaikovsky.”

Crowley briefly looks over. “You’re not going to like that one, either. It’s been in the car for more than a fortnight.”

Indeed, what comes out of the CD player is not the gentle orchestral music Aziraphale was expecting, but, rather, a heavy, thumping bass line. “What is this?”

“‘Another One Bites the Dust’,” Crowley sighs.

And the Bentley moves even faster.

Chapter Text

XXVIII. Tadfield Manor, Wednesday

“Are you sure this is the place?” Aziraphale asks, staring at the building. “It doesn’t really look like a hospital. Or a convent.”

“Definitely the place.” Though Aziraphale does have a point; it looks completely different from how it was when Crowley had last seen it.

“But — it doesn’t feel evil. It actually feels — I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s flashes. It comes and goes.”

“I don’t feel anything.” Of course it wouldn’t feel evil. Most people who worship Satan aren’t actually evil, much like most people who worship God aren’t actually good; for most, it’s habit, not belief. They say the words, they go through the motions, and then they carry on being human — neither brilliantly good nor appallingly evil, just a mix of both. “Come on, angel, we’re on a strict schedule, here.” Crowley’s mood has only grown worse on the drive from London to here, worry and despair and anger mashing together and boiling over into what can only be described as wretched, black, blind fury — at himself, at the Great Plan, at the universe as a whole, at whatever might present a convenient target at any given moment.

Aziraphale takes one more step, then stops, and gasps, and actually puts a hand to his heart, like some fainting Victorian maiden. “Oh! I should’ve thought about it, you can’t sense it, of course — I’m so sorry. It’s love. This place feels loved.”

“Loved,” Crowley repeats, flatly. “Right.”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Fallen can neither feel nor sense love, that purest of all emotions having been entirely ripped away from them along with their Grace. It is a truth universally acknowledged; and, of course, one of the basest lies in the entire universe.

In fairness, Crowley isn’t certain he could sense love even if he tried; or any other emotion, for that matter. It’s because of who he once was, though, not what he now is. He’d walled himself off from sensing emotions before he’d even Fallen. It had been too much, had left him almost entirely unable to function — especially when he was called upon to heal, especially after the war. And now — well. He’s not particularly interested in finding out whether he’s lost the ability entirely.

But as far as feeling love goes —

You can’t miss what you don’t know; you can’t grieve for what the Fall took away from you, can’t feel the echoing absence of God’s Love gnawing like a starving animal on the shreds of your soul, if you don’t know what love is. Demons love; of course they love. It’s only that most demons choose to pretend, choose to do their utmost to smother love with hate. It’s easier to exist that way.

And so the lie hurts.

If anyone else had said to him what Aziraphale just has, it would probably have made him even angrier than he already is. He wouldn’t have thought that a way existed to make hearing you’re a demon, love is something entirely alien to you anything but painful.

But the way Aziraphale’s said it — it doesn’t sound like that.

Aziraphale has said nothing about feeling love, only sensing; and the wistfulness in his voice has made the words into this is something wonderful, and I wish we could share it, and I’m sorry that we can’t. It actually manages to soothe him, just a little bit, although he still feels entirely too tense, like a string pulled too tight.

“You can stay there and enjoy the warm fuzzy feelings if you want; I’m going to go talk to some nuns.” He stalks off, trusting Aziraphale to follow; clenches his hands into fists and resists the urge to punch the archway as he passes under it.

And then there are two muffled cracks, and Crowley feels a sharp, stinging pain blooming in the middle of his chest. Behind him, Aziraphale yelps.

Despite the pain, and the wetness now trickling its way down its chest, he knows immediately that what has hit him isn’t a real bullet. He’s been shot a few times in the past; he can tell the difference. He wipes at his chest, sniffs the liquid, and turns to look at Aziraphale, who has a blue splatter on his shoulder. “It’s paint.”

“Hey! You’ve both been hit!” It’s a human, a middle-aged managerial type, wearing some approximation of a combat uniform. “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at —”

Crowley snarls, wordless, and lets a bit of his power bleed through. He doesn’t know what he looks like, but it must be suitably terrifying, because the human whimpers, goes white as a sheet and promptly faints. It makes him feel a little better; but it takes more effort than it should to rein himself back in. “Well, that was fun,” he says, smirking to cover his unease.

“Fun for you, maybe,” Aziraphale grouses, looking aggrieved. “Just look at the state of this coat. I’ve kept it in tip-top condition for over a hundred and eighty years. I’ll never get this stain out.”

“Buy a new one, then.” If it were his own coat, he’d just make himself a new one, pull it into being from raw firmament like he does with almost everything he owns; but he knows Aziraphale prefers to buy his clothes.

“Buy a — they don’t sell coats like this anymore!”

“And where would we be if you actually started wearing clothes made in the current century,” Crowley mutters, resentfully. Taking his foul mood out on Aziraphale is not making him feel any better. “You could miracle it away?”

Aziraphale purses his lips. “Yes, but — I would always know the stain was there, if I did that. Underneath, I mean.”

The angel looks genuinely upset at the thought, and despite his fury, despite everything, Crowley can’t help himself. He never can. So he leans forward, and breathes out, and vanishes the paint from Aziraphale’s coat — and from his own chest, for good measure.

“Oh!” Aziraphale smiles, brilliantly. “Thank you.”

Crowley rolls his eyes and makes a face. Stupid, endearing angel. He would swear the world had seemed brighter, there, for a second, when Aziraphale smiled; more hopeful. Like everything would be alright. He really hates it, sometimes, how much he loves Aziraphale, how it overrides everything else.

Aziraphale, meanwhile, has picked up the gun the human dropped, and is examining it. “It’s not a proper one at all,” he finally exclaims, “it just shoots paintballs!”

Crowley plucks the gun out of Aziraphale’s hands; adjusts his grip, pretends to aim it; taps at Aziraphale’s chest with the barrel. “I thought your lot disapproved of guns?” It’s an old, familiar dance; he knows what the answer is going to be. Aziraphale very much isn’t fond of guns, of course, having actually lived through entirely too many human wars; but the rest of Heaven has no qualms about them, and that’s the sentiment Aziraphale is likely to echo if asked.

“Unless they’re in the right hands,” Aziraphale says, predictably, delicately nudging the barrel of the gun to the side. “Then they give weight to a moral argument. I think.”

“A moral argument? Really?” Crowley has to laugh, although it comes out harsher than he intended it to. That sounds like a direct quote. Michael, probably. “Come on.” He drops the gun on the ground and goes to walk off, but Aziraphale grabs his arm, stopping him. “What?”

“You’re in a mood.”

“I’m in a — of course I’m in a bloody mood — Armageddon is days away and we’ve lost the bloody Antichrist —”

“No,” Aziraphale interrupts, firmly. “You’re in a mood.

Crowley opens his mouth to ask what on Earth he could possibly mean, but Aziraphale lifts his other hand and drags a finger up Crowley’s wrist, very deliberately — and there’s a tiny spark of his power there — and Crowley’s own power surges up in reaction, entirely unbidden, to push the angel’s away.

Now that Aziraphale has drawn attention to it, Crowley can feel where his control is fraying at the edges, under the spur of his black mood. He shores it back up — it’s easier, now that he’s aware of where the issue lies — and stares at Aziraphale. “How the fuck,” he demands, “did you know that?”

Aziraphale has the gall to shrug. “Long acquaintance?”

“Long acquaintance. Really.”

“Um.” The angel seems embarrassed, suddenly; uncertain. “It took me a while to figure out it was you, because you don’t always — most of the time it doesn’t really smell like anything, even when you use your power, but — like I said. Long acquaintance. Your power smells like thunderstorms. And burning, a little, but mostly thunderstorms. I could smell it when you —” Aziraphale waves his free hand at the unconscious human, still holding onto Crowley’s arm with the other “— and it didn’t fully go away, after. It has now. And the last time I could smell it when you weren’t actually deliberately doing anything was —”

“St. James’s Park,” Crowley says, dazedly.

“Yes. I worked out what that meant a few days ago, after we talked.”

And normally Crowley would, at this point, demand what on Earth made Aziraphale think it was a good idea to deliberately trigger a reaction, knowing that; but he’s still stuck on — “Thunderstorms, you said?”

“And a little burning, yes.” Aziraphale frowns. “Why?”

Crowley doesn’t answer. Thunderstorms, and burning. Not quite that, of course, what with him having existed before thunderstorms; and not really what the humans would call ozone either; but he knows the smell Aziraphale is describing. Star-stuff, his siblings had called it, laughing. Sort of like Samael’s, but he’s all dark burning; you’re bright. He couldn’t smell it on himself, none of them could, but they’d shared it with each other, mind to mind; and so he knows.

He’d expected that he would smell differently, now; Samael certainly does. He doesn’t know what it means that he doesn’t.

“Crowley?” Aziraphale tugs on his arm, gently, dragging him from his thoughts.

“Yeah. I‘m alright. Let’s go, before anyone else has the bright idea to try shooting at us.”

They go.

The place is obviously neither a convent nor a hospital anymore, the nuns long gone; the brochure Crowley picks up from the reception desk says a lot about paintball, and conferences, and management training, and a private gym and spa, and absolutely nothing about what the building used to be or where the nuns might’ve ended up.

Crowley is still in a foul mood, of course, and despite his rebuilt control, it still feels like there’s too much of his power skittering under his skin; and so, when a woman in desert camouflage runs past them, cheerfully asking who’s winning, he can’t resist. “You’re all going to lose,” he says, and snaps his fingers, and rearranges the universe a tiny bit.

There is a burst of gunfire — real gunfire — coming from outside.

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, immediately, reproachfully.

Crowley smirks. “What? They wanted real guns, so I gave them what they wanted.” He ambles down a corridor, pausing to kick a door open just because he can.

Aziraphale follows him. “Crowley,” he says, again.

Aziraphale,” Crowley returns, mockingly. He knows the angel’s not really worried. Crowley’s bound by the Pact, in this particular case, so there’s nothing to worry about. “It lends weight to their moral argument, doesn’t it? Think of it as a microcosm of the universe. Everyone has free will, including the right to murder.”

“But they’re not really murdering each other,” Aziraphale says.

“Of course they aren’t. They’re all having miraculous escapes. Bullets pinging off of buckles, going through all but the very last credit card in a wallet, that sort of thing. It wouldn’t be any fun, otherwise.”

Aziraphale smiles. “Of course. You know, you really are quite a nice —”

Crowley’s frayed temper snaps; he grabs the angel by the lapels of his coat and pins him bodily against the nearest wall. “I’m a demon; I’m not nice. Just because I’m bound by the Pact —”

“I know you,” Aziraphale interrupts, still smiling, fully relaxed in Crowley’s grasp. “You were nice before the Pact. And you know I’m not afraid of you.”

“You should be.” It’s unfortunate that Crowley knows himself better than Aziraphale knows him. Aziraphale sees only his actions; doesn’t know every dark thought that runs through his head. Doesn’t know how good it makes him feel to take out his black moods on others, how tightly he must control himself, how often he’s run right up against the boundaries of what the Pact might allow, all the times he’s wanted — “I was never nice,” he snarls, low. “I have wanted, sssssssso many times, to do horrifying things. Things that would make your skin crawl. Things that would make you look at me and wonder how you ever thought I could be anything but a monster. I have wanted to break the world into pieces, to tear the universe apart, to —”

“You think I haven’t?” There’s no smile on Aziraphale’s face anymore, only an odd intensity, and Crowley pauses, thrown, feeling like the conversation has taken a turn into uncharted territory.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he manages, finally. “You don’t —”

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” a female voice calls out. “Sorry to interrupt an intimate moment. Can I help you?”

Crowley knows that voice, and, indeed, can immediately place the face, when he turns to look. “You.” It’s the nun from eleven years ago, the one to whom he’d handed the baby. Only no longer a nun.

The woman clearly recognises him, too. “Saints and demons preserve us,” she says, taking a step back, her tone rising sharply into almost-panicked notes, “It’s —”

Crowley lets go of Aziraphale and snaps his fingers; she freezes, her face going blank.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Aziraphale says, neatening his mussed clothing. “You could’ve just asked her.”

“Right, no, of course. She seemed very amenable to answering questions, what with the backing away as soon as she recognised me and all. But tell you what, you try. ‘Good evening, ma’am, we’re a pair of supernatural entities, just looking for the notorious Son of Satan. Wonder if you might help us with our enquiries?’ I’ll wake her up, and you can say that. See how well that works out.”

Aziraphale shoots him a withering look, straightening his bow tie.

“You know I’m right. Easier this way.”

Aziraphale’s lips twitch. “You may have a point. Listen, before we were interrupted —”

“I can only hold her for so long before it wears off.” He’s not even lying, not really. Just neglecting to specify that he could probably hold the woman for years, and letting Aziraphale assume it’s more a matter of minutes. But he is entirely disinclined to continue the conversation here and now. “Let’s stop Armageddon first, yeah? If we fail, it won’t matter, anyway. If we succeed, we’ll have time. We’ll talk then.” And he’ll tell Aziraphale everything; and the angel will truly know how far he’s Fallen, will see the ruin he has made of himself. Even just imagining the horrified expression on Aziraphale’s face makes him want to weep; but he owes him the truth. “I promise.”

Aziraphale studies him for a long moment, eyes narrowed, then nods and turns to the frozen ex-nun. “You weren’t, by any chance, a nun here at this convent eleven years ago, were you?”

“I was.”

“Luck of the devil,” Aziraphale mutters, just barely loud enough for Crowley to catch it.

Crowley turns his head to stare at him, disbelieving, and Aziraphale shoots him a sideways look, the tiniest smirk playing on his lips. He knows what the angel’s doing, of course. He’s redirecting, deliberately fishing for a reaction, chipping away at Crowley’s foul mood one pointed comment at a time. It helps, a tiny bit; it’s just that Crowley’s too wound up for it to be truly effective.

He sets his jaw and turns back to the woman. “What happened to the baby I gave you?”

“I swapped him with the son of the American ambassador,” she says, immediately, sounding extremely proud of herself. “Such a nice man. He used to be ambassador to Swindon.”

And isn’t that just his luck, Crowley thinks dimly through his rising-once-again fury, that he would’ve found the one nun with zero functioning brain cells to hand the Antichrist to, all those years ago.

Crowley,” Aziraphale says, quietly but urgently.

Crowley hears the sharp sound of the windowpane behind him cracking; grits his teeth; shores up his control again. “This American ambassador — what was his name, where did he come from, and what did he do with the baby?”

“I don’t know.”

“There must have been records,” Aziraphale says, calmly, although his voice is trembling a little; and he puts a hand on the small of Crowley’s back; and once again there’s a spark of his power there.

Instead of pushing the angel’s power away with his own, Crowley relaxes into the touch, entirely on instinct. Aziraphale startles, but keeps the hand there; keeps the trickle of power flowing steadily; and, thankfully, doesn’t ask for an explanation. Thankfully, because Crowley isn’t sure how he even would explain this; explain that Aziraphale’s hand is sitting where wings once were, and that the trickle of his power feels almost like fingers carding through feathers that no longer exist, that haven’t existed for millennia.

How swiftly, under Aziraphale’s gentle touch, Crowley’s fury dissipates, like winter frost melting into the first sunlight of spring.

“Did you have records?” he asks, pointedly; and then, at Aziraphale’s confused look: “She won’t respond to statements, just direct questions.”

“Oh yes,” the woman answers promptly. “There were lots of records. We were very good at keeping records. But they were lost.”

“Lost?” Aziraphale asks, frowning.

“Burned in the fire. When our order was dissolved.”

Crowley groans. “That was likely Hastur. It’s exactly his style.” At this point, Crowley is really hoping he’ll get an excuse to obliterate the bastard. If not permanently, at least a discorporation or five.

“Well, is there anything you remember about the baby?” Aziraphale asks.

“He had lovely little toesie-woesies,” the woman says, wistfully. “And he was very sweet.”

“Useless.” Crowley rolls his eyes and steps to the side, deliberately breaking contact with Aziraphale’s hand. “Let’s go. She’ll wake up in five minutes.”

Aziraphale lags behind, because of course he does. “You will wake,” he tells the woman, “having had a lovely dream about whatever you like best.”

“Oi! Hurry up, angel.”

When they step outside the building again, they are met with utter chaos. Humans are shooting at each other with wild abandon — none of the bullets actually hitting their intended target, of course — and several police vans have pulled into the courtyard and are disgorging armed policemen. This may not, Crowley thinks as he hurriedly returns all the paintball guns to their original form, have been one of his best ideas.

Especially since two of the policemen have noticed them, and are heading straight for them, bringing their guns to bear.

Crowley feels Aziraphale freeze next to him, attempting to make them both inconspicuous with a minor miracle the usual way; but Crowley knows it’s not going to work, not with how focused the humans are on them, and — it’s instinct.

It’s instinct that has him grab his angel by the elbow and pull him a step to the side.

A step to the side, and a step sideways, and the humans promptly change their trajectory, having completely forgotten Aziraphale and Crowley are there.

He hadn’t known he could do that.

Aziraphale is staring at him, wide-eyed, but lets himself be steered through the courtyard. It’s chaos, but they move fluidly through it, the humans unconsciously making space for them.

It’s — not unlike what happens when he drives the Bentley, actually, the universe automatically rearranging itself to ensure that nobody is in the way and nobody notices him. He keeps that thought firmly in his mind as he opens the passenger side door and guides Aziraphale to sit; and places his free hand on the car’s roof before letting go of Aziraphale’s elbow and closing the door.

He keeps his hand in contact with the car throughout as he walks around it, opens the driver side door, and gets in.

They drive away. Nobody notices.

Chapter Text

XXIX. Wednesday night

The moment they’re a reasonable distance from the manor, Aziraphale turns to him. “How in the world did you do that?”

“Truthfully? I have no idea.” He’s been expecting the question; has been pondering how to answer it. The unvarnished truth, for once, seems appropriate.

“What?”

Crowley shrugs. “Did your power come with an instruction manual? Because mine didn’t. I’ve been figuring it out as I go. That I could hide myself like that, and move and act unseen by humans, I learned a few centuries back. That I could take you along? I’d no idea I could before I actually did it.”

Aziraphale frowns. “But you could’ve just — stopped time. Got us out that way. You have before.”

“I didn’t really think about it, though.” Crowley shrugs again; turns it into a full shoulder roll, cracks the tension out of his spine. “I just wanted. That’s how it usually works. I want something to happen, and it happens. I wanted to pull you away from the humans’ notice, and so I did. Not that different from — wanting a pair of tickets to be available for an opera that has been sold out for months, say.” Except more than a little different. This was, he knows, no ambient miracle; not something any being of angel stock might’ve managed to come up with unprompted, although it likely can be taught. No, this was all him, him and his perpetual inability to remain within drawn lines, to be held down within the bounds of what was already known to be possible. You’ve always had an imagination, he’d been told more than once, back in Heaven. Mostly fondly, sometimes scornfully.

“Do you suppose,” Aziraphale says, thoughtfully, “something like that might be what’s keeping us from sensing the Antichrist?”

“It might. Some sort of protective camouflage keeping him hidden from prying occult forces.”

“And ethereal ones,” Aziraphale says.

Crowley raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Angels aren’t occult. We’re ethereal.”

“Right.” Crowley’s other eyebrow joins the first. “And having made that extremely important distinction of semantics, shall we go back to attempting to prevent Armageddon?”

“Right.” Aziraphale looks suitably abashed. “Is there some other way of locating him, then, do you think?”

“How would I know?” It’s gotten dark, but Crowley doesn’t bother flicking on the Bentley’s headlights. He doesn’t need them to see, and it’s late enough that the countryside roads they’re driving through are deserted. “Armageddon only happens once. You don’t get to go around until you get it right.” He punctuates the sentence by pressing down on the accelerator until Aziraphale yelps.

“Would you slow down?” Aziraphale pleads. “There’s no reason to go this fast!”

“No reason not to, either. Nobody else around this time of night.” He does let up on the accelerator and slow down a bit, though.

Just in time, as it turns out, because there is a thud, a scream and another thud as someone hits the car from one side, is flipped over the bonnet and lands heavily on the other side.

Crowley brakes sharply, a moment too late. The Bentley immediately stops.

“You hit someone,” Aziraphale says, tautly.

“I didn’t. Someone hit me.” He’s already out of the car, assessing the situation. A wrecked bicycle in the ditch near the road; a hurt, semi-conscious woman near it. No damage to the Bentley, of course; it is his firm belief that the car would come out of such a minor collision unscathed, and so it did.

“Let there be light,” Aziraphale says, and snaps his fingers. A cool blue light fills the area.

“How the hell did you do that?” the woman asks, immediately, blinking groggily up at them.

“Er,” Aziraphale says, guiltily; and Crowley rolls his eyes, and waves his hand, and makes the light vanish.

“I think I hit my head,” the woman whimpers.

Aziraphale is already halfway down the ditch, and reaches her before Crowley can, pulling her up gently. “That’s it. Up you get, young lady. No bones broken,” the angel says, meaningfully; and Crowley can feel the frisson that indicates a healing miracle being performed nearby, accompanied by the smell of —

Oh.

Long acquaintance, Aziraphale had said, easily, as if it explained everything; and it did, it does, Crowley is realising, because while he’s never actually consciously thought about it — if someone were to ask him what Aziraphale’s power smells like, he’d answer without even blinking. He’s known for millennia, now. Petrichor, sweet grass and clover; the Garden after the rain.

“You didn’t have any lights,” the woman says to him, accusingly, as Aziraphale helps her out of the ditch and leads her to stand next to the car.

“Nor did you,” Crowley says, stiffly. He’s aware the accident is technically his fault; but if she’d had lights, he’d have seen her coming.

“They don’t work,” she replies. “Some little wire pulled off, I think. Oh, but my bike, it must be completely —”

“Amazingly resilient, these old machines,” Aziraphale says brightly, pulling a perfectly intact bicycle out of the ditch; and Crowley has to firmly quell the urge to cover his face with his hand. Another healing miracle, that had been — aimed at the bicycle. Never mind that using a healing miracle to mend an inanimate object is like using a sledgehammer to push in a sewing pin — it might work, but why would you? Finesse is apparently not a thing angels possess anymore.

“We’d give you a lift, of course,” he says quickly, hoping to distract the woman from what Aziraphale has just done, “but there’s nowhere to put the bike.”

“Except for the bike rack,” Aziraphale says, pointedly; and Crowley can smell his power rising again; and he turns to look, and wishes he hadn’t.

Aziraphale should count himself incredibly lucky that Crowley loves him, because if anyone else had dared to miracle an extremely tartan — offensively tartan — bike rack onto the Bentley, there’d have been nothing left of them except for a singed, faintly smoking spot on the asphalt.

“Do get in, my dear,” the lucky angel in question says, solicitously, helping the woman into the car.

Out of the woman’s line of sight, Crowley makes an exaggerated grimace at Aziraphale. The angel, of course, only smiles placidly in return, collecting the various items that had spilled out of the bike’s basket and dropping them onto the back seat.

Crowley glowers at the bike. It obligingly lifts itself up and ties itself to the bike rack. “Where are we taking you?” he asks, getting into the car.

“Back to the village. I’ll give you directions.” She sounds wary. Crowley can’t blame her. “Look. I have a knife, I know how to use it —”

Aziraphale stiffens at the implication. “Madam, I assure you —”

“— oh, so your car does have lights,” she changes tack, as Crowley flicks on the Bentley’s headlights and puts the car into gear. “Thought it might be too old to.”

Crowley smothers a laugh. He likes this one.

“Make a left here,” she directs. Then continues: “My bike. It didn’t have gears. I know it didn’t have gears.”

“Oh Lord,” Crowley mutters under his breath, “heal this bike.”

Aziraphale goes pink. “I got carried away.”

Crowley smirks, and says nothing.

“You can drop me off here,” the woman says, after a few more minutes.

Aziraphale is, naturally, out of the car as soon as it stops, solicitously helping the woman out just as he’d helped her in. The bike has obligingly removed itself from the bike rack, and is now leaning on the nearby fence. The smell of Aziraphale’s power rises briefly again, and, “Oh look,” Aziraphale says, beaming. “No gears.” Though the bike now has a pump and, hidden at the back of the saddle, a little puncture repair kit. And working lights.

The woman scowls suspiciously, glancing between the bike and Aziraphale, but doesn’t seem to notice the additions. As she turns and bends over to collect her items from the car, Crowley notices her wincing; so he runs a healing miracle the entire length of her body, just to make sure. Yes, she has — or rather, had — a cracked rib and collarbone. Subtle injuries, not nearly as obvious as the shattered wrist that Aziraphale had, quite competently, fixed. Easy to miss, if one is not — well. A Healer. Which, in spite of everything, he still is.

Aziraphale is still beaming at the woman as she dumps her items into the bike’s basket and starts wheeling it towards what must be the gate to her garden, and Crowley groans. “Can we get on?” he calls out, deliberately letting irritation bleed into his voice. “Good night, miss. Get in, angel.”

Aziraphale startles. “Oh! Yes. Apologies. Good night, miss.”

They drive away. As soon as he can be reasonably sure nobody’s watching, Crowley waves a hand, and the bike rack disappears from the Bentley.

“Really, my dear,” Aziraphale says, mildly. “You could’ve left it. It was a perfectly nice bike rack.”

“It was tartan.”

“Tartan is stylish!”

Crowley scowls and presses down on the accelerator, vindictively. The Bentley leaps forward; Aziraphale yelps.

They drive in silence for a bit. Eventually, somewhere in the middle of the Chilterns, Aziraphale says, thoughtfully: “I might have an idea.”

“What?”

“Well. The child is partly human, yes? Even if his powers have awoken?”

“Yes. He’s partly demonic, of course, and probably partly angelic, but definitely partly human as well. Would’ve been immediately noticeable as not human, otherwise. Would likely have had wings, for one.”

“…partly angelic?” Aziraphale sounds offended, almost. “He’s Satan’s son! You’re surely not implying an angel could’ve —”

“Of course not. He’s Lucifer’s son, and only Lucifer’s son. I have no idea how the begetting worked — I wasn’t particularly in a position to ask — but Fallen or not, angel stock is angel stock. The child will have been corrupted into being demonic, of course, but he was angelic to start with; Lucifer was an angel once, after all. In the child, some of the angelic nature might’ve stuck.” Crowley shrugs. “The human part would’ve been through a process similar to what happens when we’re given a body, although he’d have settled into it easier, what with his powers being dormant.”

“That — makes sense, actually,” Aziraphale says, slowly. “You’ve thought a lot about this.”

“Mm.” He hadn’t, truth be told. He’s a Healer — the Healer; this is pertinent to his Domain, so he just knows. He’d probably know how the begetting had worked, also, if he particularly wanted to examine the question — which he very much does not. “Why were you asking?”

“It occurred to me that we might be able to get a human to find him. Humans are good at finding other humans, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years — and they might be able to spot things we wouldn’t think of.”

“I don’t know,” Crowley says, dubiously, thinking of how easily humans can be made to forget he’s there. “Even to humans, he might be entirely unnoticeable. Suspicion will slide off him like — whatever it is water slides off of. Ducks, or whatever.”

“Got any better ideas?” Aziraphale asks, eyebrows raised. “Or one, single, better idea?”

“No,” Crowley acknowledges, morosely.

“Right, then. It could work. We’ve nothing to lose. I have a — network of human agents, spread across the country. I could set them searching for the boy.”

“You do? I actually have something similar.” He doesn’t, really. What he has is one idiot pretending to be an entire Witchfinder Army, whom he’s been paying off for decades, largely because he feels sorry for the man. But he’s not about to tell Aziraphale that.

“We’d better alert them, then. Do you think they ought to work together?”

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea. My lot are not very —” smart, really “— sophisticated, politically speaking.”

“Neither are mine, truthfully. Then we’ll each contact our own operatives, and see what they can manage.”

“Worth a try, I suppose.” Although if Witchfinder Idiot-In-Chief actually manages to track down the Antichrist, Crowley will eat his shoe.

They lapse into silence for another while, and then Aziraphale speaks up again, quietly. “Crowley?”

“Mm?”

“I’ve been thinking. If we can’t stop this — when Heaven wins —”

If Heaven wins, you mean.” It’s the more likely outcome, he thinks, but still.

Aziraphale continues as if Crowley hadn’t interrupted. “I could… I would be in a very good position to — to make a case on your behalf. For — forgiveness. Or safety, at least.”

Crowley startles so badly his hands jerk on the steering wheel, and he almost drives into the central reservation. He gets the Bentley back under control, then turns to stare at Aziraphale. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.”

Crowley keeps staring, for a long moment, his heart clenching; then he averts his eyes, looks back at the road. “Oh, angel. You know it wouldn’t work.”

“I could make a case,” Aziraphale repeats. “You’ve done so much good in the world, as much as I have —”

“And I could be a saint, and it still wouldn’t matter.” Crowley sighs. “I closed the door of Heaven behind me a long time ago, and it’s not the kind of door that opens again. I am Fallen. They would not let me back in; they would not even spare me. The most they would do is put me out of my misery quickly instead of dragging it out.”

“You can’t be certain of that.”

“Can’t I?” he asks, very gently. “When was the last time there was mercy in Heaven?”

Aziraphale sets his jaw and shakes his head, but says nothing.

“I’m sorry,” Crowley offers, quietly, after a few minutes of silence.

“Whatever for?” Aziraphale’s voice is hoarse. “You’re probably right. I just…”

“You hope.” Crowley smiles, sadly. “I never mean to take that away. But I am what I’ve made myself, and for that, I am sorry.”

Aziraphale makes a quiet, choked noise, and once again, says nothing; when Crowley looks over, the angel is turned away entirely, staring out into the darkness.

Crowley turns back to the road ahead, staring blankly at it, his hands clenching and unclenching on the steering wheel. He hates himself as a matter of course; but there are times it almost fades into the background, and then there are times where he really, truly loathes himself and what he has become. Those tend to be the times when, by the mere fact of his continued existence, he manages to dim Aziraphale’s brightness. Times such as now.

But — Aziraphale had meant it, had meant his offer to look to Heaven and plead for mercy for Crowley. And Crowley cannot let him do this.

There is no mercy left in Heaven.

Whether his siblings recognised him or not, they would take one look at him and decide, ah, yes, here is something foul, something that must not be permitted to walk the universe any longer. Something that must be destroyed.

He might even let them, might even welcome that end for himself, were he certain that it would stop there; except —

There is no mercy left in Heaven.

Heaven would look at his kind, bright angel, who was created a warrior and yet chose to give away his weapon and meet the world with open arms, who looked an enemy in the face and called him a friend —

They would look at his strength, and call it weakness; would look at his hope, and call it hesitation; would look at his steadfastness, and call it betrayal.

Would look at his mercy, and see only a reason to destroy him.

And Crowley cannot let that happen.

They will stop Armageddon.

And if they cannot —

He will make absolutely certain Aziraphale does not plead to Heaven for his safety, or compromise himself in any other way.

And if he cannot —

Well.

He is not, has never been a warrior; but he is the First Healer. Hand in hand with the knowledge of how to Heal comes the knowledge of how to Harm; how to truly, irrevocably destroy another being, to be as holy water to demons, as hellfire to angels. He has never reached for it, would prefer to never have to; but it is there, coiled in the whorls of his fingerprints, threaded through the blood in his veins, set deep into the marrow of his bones.

And if he must, he will reach for it. He will tear anyone who dares to stand in his way asunder, to keep his angel safe.

Chapter Text

XXX. A. Z. Fell and Co.

“Mind how you go!”

As he shuts the door of the bookshop behind him, a small part of Aziraphale is, very distantly, aware that he has, in essence, just abandoned Crowley; shut him out, where he should’ve brought him in.

He is aware; but the greater part of him is wholly captivated by the book.

The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter.

Aziraphale has a vast, vast collection of books of prophecy — all first editions, of course, and every one of them signed; but this one had ever escaped him. He hadn’t known any copies of it yet existed; and now he is holding one in his hands, dropped into his lap by the grace of — well, of Crowley’s reckless driving, truthfully, so not quite divine intervention, but close enough.

Carefully, reverently, he sets the book down on his desk; and then he goes to make himself a cup of cocoa, and take several deep breaths, and hopefully get his hands to stop shaking.

Everything he has ever heard concerning the witch Agnes Nutter points to her being that extremely rare creature — a true prophet, one who could actually see into the future.

It is perhaps, at this late stage, foolish to hope; but if the prophecies contained in the book are truly Nice and Accurate — there may be something in them that he can use. A way to find the Antichrist, maybe. Or even just a way to keep Crowley safe.

Almost absentmindedly, he wards the bookshop tightly, as he has not done in centuries. He sets his cocoa down on the desk, adjusts the lamp so the light shines directly onto the book, and puts on a pair of white cotton gloves. Then he gently, carefully opens the book — and has to pull his hands away, because they’re still shaking, and he’s almost crumpled the front endpaper.

He takes one more deep breath, wills himself to be calm, and opens the book to a random page, and reads.

3008. When that the angel readeth these words of mine, in his shoppe of other menne’s books, then the final days are certes upon us. Open thine eyes to understand. Open thine eyes and rede, I do say, foolish principalitee, for thy cocoa doth grow cold.

Aziraphale turns his head to look at his mug of cocoa, slowly. It’s no longer steaming.

The book is real; the prophecies are true.

Aziraphale turns back to the book; turns back to the very first page; and reads.

* * *

The phone rings, and rings, and rings. He ignores it; it stops.

He reads.

He doesn’t know what time it is; he only knows it is no longer dark outside.

The phone rings, and rings, and rings. He ignores it; it stops.

He reads.

* * *

There is a thumping at the door. He reinforces his wards with a thought; it stops.

He reads.

The phone rings, and rings, and rings. He ignores it; it stops.

He reads.

* * *

There is a growing stack of notecards by his side; the book bristles with torn strips of paper he’s used as bookmarks.

He reads.

* * *

It is growing dark outside again.

He is done with the book; he has spread the notecards all over his desk. Written upon them are all the prophecies that he believes may be about Armageddon.

1002. He is not that which He says He is.

2315. Sum say It cometh in London Town, or New Yorke, butte they be Wronge, for the plase is Taddes Fild, Stronge inne hys powr, he cometh like a knight inne the fief, he divideth the Worlde into 4 partes, he bringeth the storme.

2301. He who walketh in Night and Flame shall find his Ende in the Dawn.

4009. Where the Hogge’s back ends the Young beast will take the world and Adams’s line will end in Fire and Darkness.

The phone rings, and rings, and rings, and continues to, even though he ignores it; when the ringing doesn’t stop, he answers it, just to get rid of the distraction. It’s Crowley.

A small part of Aziraphale recognises, very distantly, that his friend sounds worried; manages some sort of reassurance; confirms that no, he has no news as pertaining to the Antichrist.

It’s not even a lie; he is close, so close, nearly there, but not quite yet.

He places the receiver back on the cradle.

He goes back to the notecards.

* * *

He is so close.

1997. Ice and Death shall despoil Manne’s ambition, and a heartbroken Song shall rise.

3535. A street of light will screem, the black chariot of the Serpente will flayme, and a Queene wille sing quicksilveres songes no moar.

3345. Thrice shall thine Apple fall, and thine Cries go unheard. Thrice shalt thou dearly pay to have it Mended.

3017. I see Four Riding, bringing the Ende, and the Angells of Hell ride with them, and Three shall Rise. And Four and Four Together be Four, an the Dark Angel sharl Own Defeat, Yette the Manne sharl claim his Own.

A small part of him, very distantly, remembers that there was something he’d meant to do, before all this.

Oh, yes. That’s right.

He is so close to working it all out, it’s likely unnecessary; but it can’t do any harm.

He picks up the phone; calls his main human contact; gives him what details he’s gleaned so far, and asks him to keep watch, and to spread word to the others.

He places the receiver back on the cradle.

He goes back to the notecards.

* * *

His wastebasket is a graveyard of balled up paper and discarded notes. He has filled an entire notebook, and started on a second.

It is light outside again.

4040. When a Manne of Metal ariseth, Vengeance sharl be met, and it sharl Herald an aweful Worlde; many will follow, and half will disappere.

3506. Good and Evil sharl be as One, and Lyfe and Death do battle; the Greate Serpente sharl tread thee Sky and seize the Herald.

3817. The Number of the Beast is in the Revelayting of Sainte John, call hym in Taddes field. And ye will know hym by this sign, that when ye do call to hym, the Lesser Beaste will walk upon his hinde legs like unto a Dancing Bear.

He pauses, and reads the last notecard again.

He reaches for the Book of Revelation, slowly.

He reads.

Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

It can’t be that simple.

He picks up the phone. He dials.

The phone rings, and rings; then a man answers. “Tadfield, oh four six triple six? Arthur Young speaking.”

And in the background, a younger voice, a child’s: “Dad, look! I got Dog to walk on his hind legs!”

Aziraphale’s hands start to shake again.

“Hello?” says the man. “Hello?”

“Sorry,” Aziraphale manages. “Right number.”

He slams the receiver down onto the cradle.

* * *

Aziraphale paces around his bookshop.

He needs to tell Crowley.

No — he wants to tell Crowley. He needs to tell Heaven. He needs to tell Heaven, and Heaven will —

Wars are to be won. Not avoided.

He is an Angel of the Lord. It wouldn’t do to doubt. He needs to tell Heaven, and then —

When your cause is just, you do not hesitate to smite the foe.

And then —

The Earth isn’t going to just end itself, you know.

Aziraphale screws his eyes shut, covers his ears with his clenched fists, and gives in to the urge to scream, just for a moment.

Heaven wants Armageddon to happen.

Heaven wants this new war.

And Aziraphale — doesn’t.

Telling Heaven will do nothing. He needs to tell Crowley.

He makes it two steps towards the phone; and then he feels his wards vanish entirely, like dust in the wind, as if they had never been there.

That’s all the warning he gets before three Archangels appear in the bookshop.

“Oh! Michael. Sandalphon. Uriel. Um.” Aziraphale clasps his hands behind his back; wills them not to shake, wills himself not to panic. “How may I help you?”

“Hello, Aziraphale,” Michael says, not unkindly. “We’ve just been learning some disturbing things about you. You’ve been a bit of a Fallen angel, haven’t you? Consorting with the enemy?”

“Oh, I — I haven’t been — consorting. I just —” The Archangels are converging in on him, slowly but inexorably, Michael and Uriel in front, Sandalphon a step behind. He backs away, trying to look like he isn’t; finds himself with his back to a wall.

“Do you know,” Sandalphon asks, mildly, “what we do to traitors in wartime?”

“I’m not a —”

“Don’t think your boyfriend in the dark glasses will help you,” Uriel interrupts, gently. “He cares only for himself. He will be the first to get what he deserves. Maybe, if you start acting like an angel again, we will be kind and destroy him in front of you, so you can get some closure.”

When was the last time there was mercy in Heaven? “I don’t —”

“Aziraphale,” Michael says. “It’s time to choose sides.”

“I’ve — actually been giving that a lot of thought,” Aziraphale stammers. “I think —”

“You think too much,” Uriel says. And smiles, brightly. Steps back.

“You’ve been down here too long.” Michael smiles, too; nods at Sandalphon; steps back.

Sandalphon steps forward, grinning.

Aziraphale knows what is about to happen.

…and to aid him, as best I can, should he be in peril…

He cannot let Crowley sense this, know of this. Crowley would come to his aid, and — he cannot let Crowley be here. The Archangels, they would — he cannot. Crowley is bright, and kind, and good, and the universe would be poorer for not having him in it, and the Archangels would just —

He steels himself. I am fine. I am not in danger. He closes his eyes.

Sandalphon punches him, hard; once, twice, three times. He tastes blood in the back of his mouth.

I am fine. I am not in danger.

Sandalphon punches him again; Aziraphale crumples to the ground. Sandalphon switches to kicking.

I am fine. I am not in danger.

Eventually, after what feels like hours, the Archangels leave.

Curled up on the floor of his bookshop, struggling to breathe around the pain, Aziraphale weeps.

* * *

Consciousness slips away from him.

* * *

It is dark outside again.

Aziraphale drags himself up from the floor; wipes the blood from his mouth; runs a healing miracle over himself, mending the worst of the hurt. It is the best he can do without using too much of his limited power.

The phone rings; he answers.

It’s Crowley. “Meet me at the third alternative rendezvous.”

“Is — is that the old bandstand, the number 19 bus, or the British Museum café?” He should know this; but he can’t quite focus.

“The bandstand! It’s too late for the others. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Without another word, Crowley hangs up.

Aziraphale stares at the receiver for a moment, then carefully places it back on the cradle.

He knows what he needs to do.

Chapter Text

XXXI. Battersea Park, Friday night

When Aziraphale reaches the bandstand, Crowley is already there, pacing back and forth in tight circles, like a trapped animal. “Well?” he calls out. “Any news?”

“Um.” Aziraphale clasps his hands in front of himself. His entire body aches, with brighter points of pain all down his left side where Sandalphon landed the most blows and he could not heal himself fully; but he will not let it show. “What — what kind of news would that be?” He knows what Crowley’s asking; but he cannot give him the answer.

Crowley tosses his head in evident frustration. “I don’t know — what kind of news do you think? What have you been doing, all of yesterday, all of today? Do you have the missing Antichrist’s name, address and shoe size yet, by any chance?”

He’s known Crowley for six thousand years; he knows how to deflect the questions in a way his friend will accept. “Shoe size? Why — why would I have his shoe size?”

Crowley looks at him blankly. “It’s a joke. I’ve got nothing either.”

“It’s — the Great Plan, Crowley.” Aziraphale spreads his hands in a helpless gesture.

Crowley bares his teeth. “Yeah? For the record —” and he throws his head back, his voice rising into something that is almost a howl “— great pustulent mangled bollocks to the Great blasted Plan!”

Aziraphale can’t help but wince. He doesn’t really disagree with his friend’s feelings about the Great Plan, not anymore; but it’s still unwise to express them out loud, especially in such a manner. “May you be forgiven,” he says, almost automatically.

“This again? I won’t be forgiven. Not ever! I am a demon. Part of my job description, unforgivable. That’s what I am.” Crowley pauses, his jaw set, almost daring Aziraphale to argue. Then: “We find the boy. Our agents can do it.”

“And then what? We eliminate him?” It’s the one solid idea Aziraphale has been able to come up with, at this late stage; it’s what he will do, if he must — if reaching out directly to God, as he intends, does not work. One life, to save the entire world. He will not hesitate.

But Crowley has always had a soft spot for children. “I’m — not personally up for killing kids —”

“You’ve thought about it, though. It would work, wouldn’t it?” Aziraphale fights to keep his expression severe, his heartbreak buried deep. He doesn’t want to hurt Crowley, especially not like this, not using his friend’s steadfast kindness against him, but he must, he must. “And you had him, eleven years ago. You delivered him. You could have killed him then. What stayed your hand? Not mercy, surely; you’re a demon, as you just said. You’ve no moral scruples. Cowardice, then?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Crowley says, low.

“Don’t I? If the boy dies, the whole process stops. You may have had your orders from Hell, but all this time you have flouted Hell’s wishes, claimed to be unafraid of any consequences there may be. And yet the one time it really, truly mattered, the one time it would have made a real difference, you failed to act. Cowardly, and selfish, unwilling to risk yourself for the good of the world.” Aziraphale holds up his hands in a weighing gesture, willing them to be steady. “One demonic life, against the whole world. It appears to be a simple choice, and yet you failed to make it. I shouldn’t be surprised, but then, I have long thought better of you than I should have.”

Crowley makes a soft, stricken noise.

“You should’ve killed him then; you’re to blame for the mess we find ourselves in now. If the Antichrist is found — you should be the one to kill him. That would atone for your past failure. You kill him, the world gets a reprieve, and —” Aziraphale swallows, compulsively “— and Heaven — does not have blood on its hands.”

Crowley understands the implication immediately, and it seems to tip him from hurt into anger; in two long strides, he moves right into Aziraphale’s space. “Oh, Heaven does not have blood on its hands? You don’t mean Heaven.” His voice is still low, but it’s taken on a biting, bitter tone. “You mean yourself. You don’t want blood on your hands. That’s a bit holier-than-thou, isn’t it?”

Aziraphale draws himself up, primly; clenches his hands together, one on the other, so tightly he feels the bones grinding against each other. “I am a great deal holier than thou. That’s the whole point.”

“You should kill the boy yoursssself,” Crowley hisses. “Holi-ly. He’s the Antichrist. Prime target for sssssmiting.”

“I am not killing anybody!” Aziraphale has to force out the words past the knot in his throat. “This is on you.”

Crowley’s mouth twists. “This is ridiculous. You are ridiculous. I don’t even know why I’m still talking to you.”

“Quite frankly, neither do I.”

“Enough. I’m leaving.” Crowley turns, and stalks away; and it’s what Aziraphale is after, only —

It’s not final enough. Crowley would seek him out again, and soon; Aziraphale is certain of it.

All their long, long lives they’ve spun and danced around each other — sometimes close, sometimes unbearably far, but always caught in each other’s orbit, pulled back towards each other like twin stars.

But Crowley needs to be far, far away when the end comes, whether Armageddon actually happens or not. Far enough away that his lack of involvement will be obvious, and Hell will not come for him; far enough away that he will not be caught in the crossfire, when Heaven inevitably comes for Aziraphale.

They need to be broken apart.

“You can’t leave, Crowley,” he calls out, once Crowley’s gotten a few steps away from the bandstand. “There isn’t anywhere to go. Even a coward like you can see that, surely.”

Crowley turns back; spreads his arms wide. Above him, countless stars are shining, more than Aziraphale remembers ever seeing in a London sky before. “It’s a big universe. Even if this all ends up in a puddle of burning goo, we can go off together.”

“Go off together?” Aziraphale is aware of how his voice breaks on that last word; and oh, God, how he wants. For a moment, he lets himself imagine it. Lets himself dream, and hope. But he knows it’s impossible. There is no hope left. “What — listen to yourself.”

“I can keep you safe. Nobody will ever find us.” There is a note of desperate pleading in Crowley’s voice. “How long have we been friends? Six thousand years!”

Aziraphale can’t bear to look at him; can’t bear to look away. He wishes Crowley wasn’t wearing his sunglasses, wishes he could see his friend’s eyes one last time. “Friends? We’re not friends! We have never been friends.” His heart hurts; his soul hurts. He will never be forgiven for this, he knows; but it will have been worth it, to have Crowley safe. He just has to get through it. “We are an angel and a demon. We’re on opposite sides!”

“We’re on our side.” And that is faith in Crowley’s voice; and Aziraphale has never hated himself more than now.

“There is no ‘our side’, Crowley. Not any more. There never should have been. For six thousand years, you have been trying to pull me into darkness, and I should have seen it sooner. Were you ever in real danger from Hell, for fraternising with me? Did you even truly want to stop Armageddon? Or were those lies you told me so I might trust you, so you might more easily lead me to my own downfall? For six thousand years I have been blind; but now I see clearly. I choose Heaven; you will not Tempt me away. You will not make me Fall. I renounce you; renounce us. It’s over.

There is a bright, searing pain in his wings, so sharp his vision whites out for a moment; and he feels the Pact splinter between them, and vanish.

Crowley has gone very pale and very, very still. Aziraphale can smell his power rising, now — thunderstorms and burning, bright and sharp all around them, under the limitless night sky.

If Crowley strikes him down now, destroys him and then flees — it will have been deserved, Aziraphale thinks; and it will still have been worth it, to have him safe.

Then Crowley takes a deep, slow breath; and the stillness breaks, like shattered glass; and his power recedes. “Right. Well, then.” His voice is entirely flat; his face entirely expressionless. “Have a nice Doomsday. Give my regards to Gabriel and the rest.” And he turns, and he walks away.

Above him, one by one, the stars disappear from view.

Chapter Text

XXXII. London, Saturday morning

He keeps replaying the conversation in his mind.

Friends? We’re not friends! We have never been friends.

He’d thought —

He should have known it would end like this. Truthfully, he had known. But for a while, a very long while, he’d let himself get complacent; let himself get comfortable.

Let himself hope.

For six thousand years I have been blind; but now I see clearly. I choose Heaven.

At least he can be certain, now, that Aziraphale will be safe; that’s a small consolation. Aziraphale has chosen Heaven; there is no reason for the Archangels to move against him, now, not anymore. He may even get to keep his position on Earth, if Crowley manages to avert the Apocalypse. If not…

I renounce you; renounce us. It’s over. The Pact shattering between them.

Well. None of his concern, now. Aziraphale has chosen for both of them.

You can’t leave, Crowley. There isn’t anywhere to go.

“Watch me,” he mutters, under his breath. Run far enough, and you don’t have to hide. Just run far enough, and then —

Even a coward like you can see that, surely.

And maybe he is a coward; but even if Earth does not, in fact, get melted into slag by the second Great Celestial War, there is nothing left here for him. Nothing left anywhere for him.

Not without Aziraphale.

So he may as well find his end among the stars.

The jeweled globe he keeps on his desk is tiny; when pulled from its holder, it fits between his cupped hands with room to spare. It is an accurate representation of Earth, of course — including Atlantis, which only recently started existing — but that is not the point of it.

Holding it in the palm of one hand, he raises it to the height of his eyes; and when he pulls his hand away, it hangs there. All the light drops out of the room; a moment later, it is filled with stars.

Where to go, where to go…

Earth is out, of course; the Moon is out. The entire solar system, for that matter, is out. All too near, whether Armageddon happens or not; he would be found too soon.

He should head somewhere he’d made; it would be fitting, to find his end in something he’d begun. Star-making was never his assigned task, of course; it had been Samael’s. But there had been no real need for a Healer yet, not then, and so he’d helped his brother, gladly.

He remembers how it had felt, to hold the stuff of creation warm in his hands, to know he was filling the universe with light; the joy it had brought him. How it had felt to realise, after he’d Fallen, that this was something that would forever be beyond him. Something he’d lost. No warmth, no light for him anymore.

Oh, God —

“I only ever wanted to know,” he says, softly, softly, softly, staring blankly at his roomful of a universe. “I only asked why. Great Plan? Show me the Great Plan, if it’s truly yours. I know you can hear me. I know you’re still there. Show me how it fits together. I know you’re testing them — you said you were going to be testing them — to see if they were made right. But you shouldn’t test them to destruction. Not to the end of the world. Please, please, just — show me. Show me why, and I will subside. I will obey, I swear. I will do your will. Please.”

As ever, there is no answer to be found in the silence. The universe is dark and cold, and he is alone.

* * *

He alters the wards on his flat before he leaves.

His normal wards would, of course, keep almost anyone from entering uninvited; but that’s not what he’s after, not anymore. He does not intend to ever return, after all.

Instead, he sets up the kind of wards that would be expected from the kind of demon most of Hell thinks he is: weak, perfunctory, more of a claiming of territory than anything else.

The kind of wards that look like that at first glance, anyway.

The first, outermost layer of wards is as inoffensive as it looks. A territorial claim; a metaphorical “do not enter” sign; and an advance warning that someone’s coming should the wards be breached, this last being included only because of the expectation it would be, because it would raise suspicion otherwise. He won’t be inside the wards when they’re triggered, so he doesn’t really need the warning.

The second layer is a threat — another “do not enter” sign, paired with a very overt “turn back now, or you will be destroyed” message. There is no ambiguity in it.

He knows full well it will be ignored.

The third and innermost layer takes him hours to set up, working extremely carefully. It is laced with holy water.

It would’ve gone faster if he had been able to wear rubber gloves, for safety; but he’d tried it that way thrice, and every time the working had slipped away from him and unraveled. Bare-handed, he has better control; but it’s slow work, the holiness in the liquid fighting him every step of the way. When it’s done, he’s used up the majority of the holy water that had been contained in Aziraphale’s thermos, keeping only a small vial for himself.

Any demon who shows up uninvited will be taking the shortest, most painful shower of their entire life; and he knows it’s not a question of if any demon will try to come after him, but rather a question of when. He’s hoping the trap will catch both Hastur and Ligur, though it’s more likely only one of them will be in the impact zone when the wards are triggered.

Taking nothing but the holy water vial, softly closing the door of his flat behind himself for the last time, he goes.

* * *

He climbs into the Bentley, leans back into the seat and closes his eyes. The car obligingly starts itself and pulls out into the traffic.

He needs to get to Tadfield.

All he has are suspicions, of course; like as not, even if the end of the world does start there, he won’t be able to do anything about it. But the least he can do is try.

He is so tired. There’s no point anymore, not when —

The Bentley’s sound system switches itself on. “Bring it back, bring it back, don’t take it away —”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” he snarls. The song cuts off into silence.

He sighs, opens his eyes, and puts one hand on the wheel and the other on the gearstick. Manual driving it is, then.

The Bentley isn’t sentient, of course it isn’t; but he’s had it long enough that he can drive it with his will rather than his hands, can feed it a little of his power and a destination and know that he will get there without having to pay attention. The problem is, it works by reacting to what he wants, and it doesn’t particularly discriminate.

He still wants to be near Aziraphale, of course; there is no hope left, but that doesn’t stop him from wanting. It’s instinct, by now, ingrained into him by six thousand years of spinning out his wretched life around the angel, a barren rock orbiting a brilliant star.

It’s instinct, and it’s habit.

And it’s the sheer force of habit that leads him to turning the car down the street that leads to Aziraphale’s bookshop, without even thinking about it.

Right, then. He’s just going to drive past the building without stopping. Aziraphale’s likely gone by now, anyway; no reason for him to linger here on Earth when he can be back in Heaven.

But Aziraphale is there, on the pavement, making his way back to the bookshop.

He looks terrible. He’s white as paper, pale and washed out and looking brittle around the edges; his face is pinched, and he’s hunched over; and he’s walking very slowly, as if every step costs him something.

Crowley’s stopped the car and moved to intercept him before he’s even consciously thought about it. “Aziraphale!”

Whatever the expression is that crosses Aziraphale’s face, it’s gone too fast for Crowley to identify it, melting swiftly into a scowl. “Demon. I thought I made it clear where I stand.”

“No, look, listen —” All his instincts are screaming at him. Something is wrong, something is very badly wrong. “Whatever I said, whatever I did, I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Look, I’ll grovel if you want, I’ll do anything, just work with me here, I’m apologising, yes? Get in the car.”

“What? No.” And that’s a little better, that sounds a little more like the Aziraphale he knows, but — wrong, wrong, wrong — something must’ve happened, after they met in Battersea Park or maybe even before —

“We can still stop Armageddon, we can get to Tadfield and —” he’s aware he’s rambling; he’s not really thinking through what he’s saying, most of his attention on trying to figure out where the feeling of wrongness stems from, “— and just — do something, and if we can’t, we can still run away together — lots of spare planets up there, nobody would even notice us —”

Is that desperation on Aziraphale’s face? “Leave, demon, before you drive me to do something you will regret.”

“You don’t mean that, I know you don’t — and anyway you couldn’t, but I know you don’t mean it — Aziraphale —” he grabs for Aziraphale’s arm, and manages a brief, fleeting skin-to-skin touch before Aziraphale wrenches his arm away, and that tells him — “You’re hurt,” he breathes, horrified. “What — here, just let me —” He reaches out again, gentler, not with his hand but with his power; and he is met by defensive walls. Walls Aziraphale has never, ever had up against him; never before.

He could take them apart, very easily; but he knows himself well enough to know that he could not, right now, do it gently; and so he would only hurt Aziraphale worse.

“Don’t pretend to care; I will be deceived no longer.” Aziraphale’s voice is steady enough, but — is that fear?

And suddenly he knows. “It was Sandalphon, wasn’t it.” He doesn’t even bother trying to make it into a question.

Aziraphale flinches, his face crumpling for a moment before he regains control of himself. “It is none of your concern; it’s Heaven’s business. I will raise a formal complaint, and —”

“A formal complaint, really, as if that will do anything —”

“— and if I can just — reach the right people, it will all be sorted out.”

“The right people, what — there aren’t any right people! There’s nobody above the Archangels. There’s just God, moving in mysterious ways and not talking to any of us!”

“And that is why I’m going to have a word with the Almighty,” Aziraphale says, steadily, “and the Almighty will fix it.”

He sounds like me, Crowley realises, with slow, dawning horror. All that faith. He sounds like me before — “That won’t happen,” he manages. “You’re so clever! How can somebody as clever as you be so stupid?”

Aziraphale just looks at him for a long moment. “I forgive you,” he finally says.

Crowley growls. That hurts, and all he wants to do is turn on his heel and leave, and yet — “Great. Fantastic. Hooray for me. Tickety-fucking-boo. You want to talk to God? Fine. Let’s go talk to God.” He’s not leaving Aziraphale alone with this.

“What —” Aziraphale gapes at him. “No! You’re a demon, you can’t — it would —”

“Burn me to a crisp? Nah,” he says, with a glibness he doesn’t feel. “That would count as an answer, and She doesn’t really answer me anymore.”

Aziraphale is still staring. “But the ritual —”

“Oh, right, the ritual. Nah, angelic thing, that. I just shout.”

“You shout. At God.” There is a tiny, helpless smile dawning on Aziraphale’s face; and it makes Crowley’s heart hurt, fills it with something that feels dangerously like hope.

“Sure do. ‘S the demon-appropriate thing, right?”

“Right.” Aziraphale shakes his head. “But Crowley, you can’t. This is something I have to do alone. You must leave.”

“No. You do your ritual thing, I’ll hide in the back and just listen. But I’m not leaving.” I will not let you walk this road alone. I’ll stop you before you get to the end of it, if I can. He has no idea what he could possibly do; but he is not leaving Aziraphale alone. Not now. Not in the face of this. “‘Leave, before you drive me to do something I’ll regret’, Hell. Six thousand years you’ve known me, and you’re not an idiot. You don’t know exactly what I am, but you know I was not a Principality before I Fell; you know I ranked higher than that. I’m stronger than you. You cannot threaten me into leaving.”

Aziraphale closes his eyes for a brief moment, looking pained. “If we do this, you will leave, after?”

“If you want me to.”

“And — you will not go after Sandalphon, or any of the other Archangels?”

“I cannot promise that. They hurt you, Aziraphale, they don’t deserve your protection —”

“I’m not protecting them.”

“They don’t deserve your loyalty, either —”

“I’ve given you my conditions.” Aziraphale raises his eyebrows, pointedly. “We can just stand here and argue until Armageddon happens, if you prefer. Or you can just leave now, and let me do this alone.”

“Fucking — fine.” Crowley throws his hands in the air. “I swear I will not visit retribution upon the Archangels for the harm that they have done you. But you’ll let me heal you.”

“Very well. Inside.”

* * *

Three broken ribs, a cracked hip bone that looked like it had been outright broken and only partially healed, and uncountable bruises. And, of course, all the places he could tell had held more, worse injuries, that Aziraphale must’ve healed himself.

He really wishes he hadn’t promised.

The worst part is, he knows the reasoning behind the beating; knows what his siblings would say. Knows they would only see it as a mild punishment, if that; more than likely, it was just intended as a corrective action, a way to get their message across. It’s just a body, after all, isn’t it? It’s not like we actually damaged him. We could’ve done much worse. If the thing breaks down entirely, and we still need him back on Earth, we’ll just assign him a new one.

They would, of course, only consider a body to be the same thing as a piece of clothing; something you might shed or change as the mood strikes you. Which truthfully, it sort of is, in a way, for angel-stock beings, given that they exist whether they are currently inhabiting a physical, approximately-human body or not. But when you have the same body for some time, especially for as long as Aziraphale and Crowley have had theirs, you get used to it. It becomes a part of you, as much yourself as your true angelic — or demonic — form.

His siblings would call that unnecessary attachment, and may even go as far as decry it as blasphemy; and that would make them hypocrites. Even before the Fall, long before humans even existed, angels wore human-like forms more often than not; and Crowley would stake his wings on the fact that there’s still not a whole lot of wheels upon wheels, or multitudinous eyes, or hundredfold mouths up in Heaven. Having hands is convenient; and he does not for one second believe his siblings don’t enjoy their polished, perfect, human-like forms.

“Are you nearly done?” he calls out, leaning back against the bookshelf that stands between him and the center of Aziraphale’s shop. “Armageddon won’t wait, you know.”

“Ah, very nearly. Just lighting the last candle now. Had to redraw a bit of the circle. It had rubbed out, you know how it is.”

There is the hiss of another struck match, and then the smell of — “Is that incense, Aziraphale? You know you don’t need that.”

“It makes the place smell nice.”

“It makes my nose itch!”

“Ah. My apologies.”

Crowley can hear the smirk in Aziraphale’s voice, and it’s more than a little surreal. Not even a full day earlier, Aziraphale had curtly but firmly informed him that he wanted nothing to do with him anymore; had shattered the Pact. And now — now they’re bantering as they always have; now the angel is back to gently needling him, as easy as that. God, please. I know I don’t deserve him, but let me keep him. Let this be real. “Just get on with it.”

“Right.” There is a pause; and then, when Aziraphale speaks again, it’s Words of Angelic Ritual. Words Crowley can’t understand, not anymore; Words that —

Huh.

He had expected that they would burn him, when he heard them. They don’t.

He knows when the ritual is successful, even though he can’t see. He can feel the holiness at his back, an uncomfortable, tingling almost-pressure.

“Speak,” a pompous voice intones. A voice Crowley knows.

“Er,” Aziraphale says, politely. “Am I speaking to God?”

“You are speaking to the Metatron. I am the Voice of the Almighty; to speak to me is to speak to God.”

Six thousand years. Six thousand years, since he last heard that voice; and he hadn’t been angry then, just heartbroken, but oh, he is furious now. It’s only the knowledge that interfering with the ritual might cost him Aziraphale forever that keeps him from storming out of his hiding place and demanding a reckoning.

“Well, yes, but — you see, I actually need to speak directly to God. It really is quite frightfully important.”

“What is said to me is said to the Almighty. I hope you did not intend to waste my time, Principality.”

“I — no, of course not.” Aziraphale sounds abashed. “I want to complain about the conduct of a few angels. But the — the important thing is the Antichrist. I —”

Aziraphale falls silent; there is a long pause.

“Yes?”

“I know who he is,” Aziraphale says, very quietly. “I know where he is.”

Crowley freezes. Aziraphale knows, clearly has known for a while, likely since the day before; and had decided not to tell him. It had been foolish to hope.

And yet…

If Aziraphale had wanted to keep the Antichrist’s identity secret from him — why tell Heaven now? Why not simply raise the complaint, and then ask him to leave, and only afterwards get in touch with Heaven again and pass on the information?

“So you see, there needn’t be a war,” Aziraphale is pleading. “We can save everyone. I could — I could take care of him, and then we could avoid —”

“The point is not to avoid the war,” the Metatron interrupts, firmly. “The point is to win it.”

Oh. Bright, foolish angel, full of hope and faith. In the long pause that follows, Crowley would swear he can hear Aziraphale’s heart breaking; hates the Metatron all the more for it.

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, softly, softly, softly. “I see.”

“You also wished to complain about the poor conduct of some angels?”

“Not really much point, now.” Aziraphale sounds bitter; disillusioned. Crowley knows exactly the feeling.

“The battle commences, Aziraphale. Join us.”

“In a jiffy. Two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Just a — a couple of things left to tie up. Then I will, ah, retrieve my flaming sword and take my place amongst the Hosts of Heaven.”

Lying straight to the Metatron’s face. Crowley would be proud, if he weren’t frightened of what this might mean for Aziraphale.

“We will leave the gateway open for you, then. Do not dawdle.”

“Yes. Jolly… jolly good.”

The feeling of oppressive holiness lessens, but does not entirely disappear. When Crowley steps out from behind the bookshelf, Aziraphale is looking down at the ritual circle, his fists clenched at his sides.

Slowly, deliberately, Aziraphale kicks over one of the candles and steps on it, extinguishing it; then smudges some of the drawn lines with his foot. The remaining candles blow out; the magic in the circle dissipates entirely.

Aziraphale lifts his head and looks at Crowley — through Crowley, his eyes unfocused, a bleak, lost expression on his face.

Then he sways; and his eyes roll back in his head; and he falls.

Chapter Text

XXXIII. A. Z. Fell and Co., Saturday

Everything hurts.

Everything hurts, every part of him, from the tips of his toes to the beds of his fingernails, from the roots of his hair to the bones of his wings.

He tries to move, tries to speak, tries to open his eyes, but cannot; his body won’t obey him.

There is only darkness, and the all-consuming pain, and a horrible, gnawing emptiness inside of him.

Time passes: a minute, a month, a millennium, he cannot tell. He is lost; he cannot find the way back to himself.

And then there is a spark of light.

It blazes, in the darkness inside of him; it burns, like a flame, like a star.

It calls to him.

He reaches for it; it pulls away.

Helpless, he follows. If he can just grasp it —

Someone is above him, bright and burning and terrible, looking down upon him as if in judgment; gold in their hair like a crown of flame, roiling infinity in their eyes, an endlessness of stars in the velvet darkness behind their shoulders.

He flinches away with a soundless cry.

He falls; he is caught.

The darkness fades into light; the pain fades into warmth; the emptiness recedes.

There is a warm hand, splayed on his back, tucked under all the layers of his clothes and touching bare skin, where the base of his wings would be if they were corporeal; there is the comforting smell of thunderstorms and burning; there is a current of power flowing steadily into him, anchoring him to reality.

“You” Crowley says, naked relief in his voice, “are a blessed idiot. All those times I called you smart? I was wrong. I was lying. I will never make that mistake again.” He is not wearing his sunglasses; he is scowling, and there is a tense set to his shoulders, but his eyes are as gentle as his hands. He is kneeling on the floor next to Aziraphale, cradling him in a half-sitting position.

“Mnrgh,” Aziraphale manages. “What —”

And then he remembers, and the enormity of what he’s done crashes into him.

The darkness, the pain, the emptiness — they may be gone for now, but —

They will return, and it will be so much worse. It was just a preview. He understands, now.

He’s forsaken Heaven; he will suffer the consequences.

“Will it — hurt very much?” he asks, trying to keep his voice steady.

“Will what hurt?”

“Falling,” Aziraphale whispers, turning his face into Crowley’s shoulder, helplessly. “Will — will it hurt when I Fall?”

Crowley goes very still. “Oh, angel, no,” he says, very gently, after a long moment. “You are not going to Fall.”

“But —”

“How’s your power doing? Coming any easier?”

“What…?” It’s an incredibly strange question, a complete non sequitur; but even as he thinks that, Aziraphale finds himself reaching for his power so he can answer it. It comes easily, eagerly even; far more easily than it has in days. He feels like he’s just slept for a week. “Much better.”

“Good. Sit up, will you?” The flow of power stops; Crowley’s hand pulls away. It returns a moment later; only, now, it’s lying on top of Aziraphale’s clothes, rather than underneath, gently encouraging him to sit up straight.

When he does, Crowley shifts positions, moving to kneel directly behind him; and places both hands just below his neck, and drags them down his entire back, in a firm, purposeful gesture.

Aziraphale has a moment to wonder about the point of it; and then there is an odd, shivering feeling coursing through his incorporeal wings; and they shake out of him, brought to corporeality, entirely unbidden.

“You are not going to Fall,” Crowley repeats, very gently, running a hand lightly up the curve of a wing, encouraging Aziraphale to bring it forward until he can see it. “Here. Look.” He stands, fluidly; and walks the length of Aziraphale’s wing, and crouches near the tip of it. “If you were Falling, your feathers —” he puts one hand under the very tip of the wing, mindful of the bladed edges; and presses down with the flat of his other hand at the very base of the primaries, making them bend slightly. When he moves his hands away, the feathers spring back readily. “They would splinter, when I do this; or bend and not straighten back out. It starts in the primaries.”

“But…”

“The first thing Falling takes away from you is your ability to fly,” Crowley continues, evenly, detachedly, as if Aziraphale had not interrupted. “If you can fly, the floor of Heaven vanishing out from underneath you won’t make a difference; but brittle wings won’t hold you.” He shrugs. “There’s more to it than that, of course — eventually, you’ll Fall regardless of whether you’re actually in Heaven or not — but it always starts in the wings. And I’ve been keeping an eye out — there’s nothing wrong with your wings. You’re fine. I can check all your feathers for you again, though, if you want. If it’ll make you feel better.”

“Please.” Aziraphale hates himself for how his voice cracks on the word; hates how he’s taking advantage of Crowley’s kindness. He doesn’t deserve it, not after everything.

“Alright.” Crowley gets back to his feet and, after a moment’s hesitation, offers Aziraphale a hand. “Feel up to standing, yet? You don’t have to; only, it’ll be easier if I don’t have to keep bending down.”

Aziraphale nods, and takes the proffered hand; and lets Crowley pull him up. It shocks him, how steady, how refreshed he feels.

Crowley slants a half-smile at him and walks behind him; and then his gentle hands are back on Aziraphale’s right wing. Slowly, methodically, he works his way through, checking every feather; it’s almost a grooming, as he smooths out barbs and straightens crooked feathers when he finds any.

Little by little, Aziraphale relaxes.

“You burned yourself out,” Crowley says, softly, when he’s done checking the right wing. “Breaking the ritual circle — it took more power than you had to give. That’s why you collapsed.”

“Oh.” Aziraphale frowns. “But… I’m fine now.”

“Mm.” Crowley starts on Aziraphale’s left wing.

“How long was I out? And how did you…?”

“About fifteen minutes, I’d say. Wasn’t really counting.” Crowley sighs. “And I — well. You’re probably not going to like this; I’m sorry, for what it’s worth. It was the only way.” He straightens three of Aziraphale’s coverts, then takes his hands off the wing entirely. “I gave you some of my power.”

Aziraphale startles; is immediately glad that Crowley’s hands weren’t on his wing just then, as otherwise some feathers might’ve been yanked out. “You did what?”

“Power burnout is not something I’d ever dealt with. It’s not something that used to happen when — well. Before.” Crowley’s voice is detached, almost clinical; his hands are steady as he skims them down the next section of Aziraphale’s wing, a questioning, barely-there touch, giving him the chance to pull away. Aziraphale leans into the touch; Crowley resumes his checking. “You weren’t waking up. I could tell you were in pain, so that’s what I went for first; I sought to heal you. And you — you reached for my power. Reached for me.” Crowley’s voice cracks, and he takes in a shuddering breath; but his hands on Aziraphale’s wing remain steady, and gentle, and thorough. “As if you trusted me. And then I found — I knew how to do it.”

“I do trust you,” Aziraphale says, a little unsteadily; and feels his friend’s hands still, briefly, before continuing.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Crowley drawls, his voice catching a little. “Turning your back to a demon who has been trying to corrupt you for six thousand years? Letting him put his hands to your wings? Seems like lack of self-preservation to me.”

“Don’t jest, Crowley, please — you have to know I didn’t —” Aziraphale starts; and then the bookshop door violently crashes open, the bell falling to the floor with a discordant chime.

“How sweet,” a low, guttural voice calls out, gleefully. “Looks like the little snake’s found himself a feathered toy.”

Aziraphale whirls around. There is a demon standing in the doorway, grinning nastily.

And Crowley —

Crowley has his back to the doorway, still. His face flicks through several expressions, too fast for Aziraphale to pinpoint any of them; and then it goes blank, and he turns, very slowly, radiating unconcern. “Duke Hastur! How lovely to see you. I take it Duke Ligur is indisposed?”

Hastur. Fallen Dominion, Aziraphale remembers. Dangerous. Not someone he could win a fight against. But Crowley appears to be unafraid, Crowley is taunting him —

“You know he’s dead, you complete bastard,” Hastur spits. “You set up a trap, a trap with holy water —”

“He breached my wards,” Crowley says, mildly. “He chose to ignore the warning. He got what was coming to him. You weren’t there, by any chance? You might’ve stopped him.”

Hastur snarls. “I had to watch him burn. You will pay for that.”

“Right, of course. You know, I don’t believe you’ve quite thought this through,” Crowley says, still mild. “This is your one warning. Leave now, and you get to keep your fetid soul intact.”

“Oh no no no, little snake, I don’t think I will.” Hastur raises a hand, smirking. “You see, I know you’re bluffing. You’re a nobody, and your little feathered pet won’t be much help either.”

And then he gestures, and the bookshop is engulfed by hellfire; and then —

The stench of swamp water and rotting leaves rises in the air; and Hastur —

Solid-black eyes; a too-wide grin set with splintered teeth; rotten wings, bone showing stark white, the flesh half-falling off, crawling with maggots —

Aziraphale can’t look anymore, can’t think, can do nothing except curl up in a ball and shield himself with his wings and scream, the oppressive weight of Hastur’s power pinning him down.

“I will drag you back to Hell along with your little angel, and there’s nothing you can do about that.” Hastur is laughing, high and manic. “I will take him apart piece by piece in front of you, very slowly, and you won’t be able to do anything but watch, and beg. And then after a few centuries, when I’m tired of that, I will throw what is left of him to the hell-hounds and —”

Breathe, Aziraphale. I have you.” Crowley’s quiet voice cuts through Aziraphale’s terror. Hastur is still laughing, still ranting, but the sound is muted, somehow.

Crowley is crouching in front of him. His eyes are gold from side to side; his hands are on Aziraphale’s shoulders; and his dark, dark wings are mantled over him, shielding him; and Aziraphale is, somehow, no longer afraid. Instead, he just feels safe.

“Alright?” Crowley asks, gently.

Aziraphale nods, shakily. “But he —”

“Let me worry about him. If there’s anything you want to save in here, wait until I’ve gotten his attention and grab it, yeah? There’s too much hellfire. I can’t get rid of all of it, I can’t save the bookshop. I’m sorry.”

“Alright.” The book, Aziraphale thinks. Agnes Nutter’s book. If they can make it out of this alive — and Crowley seems to believe they will — they’ll likely need it, to stop Armageddon.

Crowley gives Aziraphale’s shoulders a gentle squeeze; and then stands, smoothly — uncoils, Aziraphale’s mind supplies, because there is something incredibly threatening in the simple movement — and turns back to Hastur.

“I warned you,” he says, softly, softly, softly.

His power rises, sharply, the smell of thunderstorms and burning stronger than Aziraphale has ever felt it before. The room dims at the edges, all the light somehow being pulled inwards, towards him.

Hastur abruptly stops ranting; and then, a moment later, just as abruptly, starts screaming, high and terrified. “What the fuck, what the fuck are you —”

Aziraphale struggles to his feet and rushes past Crowley, moving towards his desk — but there’s hellfire in his way — but no, there isn’t; there’s a clear path he can follow; it’s a matter of moments to get to the desk and grab the book. When he turns back —

Crowley is standing very straight and very, very still; his fathomless golden eyes are burning, burning, burning, and there is a fierce focus etched in every line of his face. Darkness and light are swirling around him in frothing eddies, catching in his copper-bright hair, highlighting the way the midnight black of his wings shades into midnight blue at the trailing edge. Power is rippling off him, visibly, like a heat wave, making it hard to look right at him for longer than a moment or two.

Hastur is still screaming, incoherent now. Aziraphale swipes at his watering eyes with a sleeve, cursing the acrid hellfire smoke; he would swear that the demon is blurring at the edges, unraveling, almost.

He rushes back to Crowley’s side, clutching the book. His friend doesn’t turn to look at him, only nods tightly, and —

In the very next breath, they are both standing outside the bookshop.

Crowley lifts a hand; clenches it into a fist; and twists his wrist — a sharp, final motion; a tearing, a severing.

Hastur stops screaming.

With a mighty crash and a shower of sparks, the bookshop roof collapses.

Chapter Text

XXXIV. One hour and 32 minutes to the end of the world

Crowley groans and staggers, all the stillness bleeding out of him. “Car,” he says, urgently. “Too many humans around, I can’t —”

Aziraphale wraps his free arm around his friend, supporting him as they make their way to the Bentley; it’s only when they’ve both collapsed into the seats and shut the doors between themselves and the rest of the world that he realises they both still have their wings out. And that should be a physical impossibility, or at the very least incredibly uncomfortable, and yet…

His surprise must be showing plain on his face, because Crowley huffs out a laugh. “‘S my car, angel. She does what I want her to. All it took was —” and then Crowley chokes on whatever he was going to say next, with a strangled, pained noise.

Aziraphale looks over to him, alarmed; and finds him staring into nothingness, his eyes wide and glassy, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Crowley, what —”

Ngk — consequence,” Crowley forces out; and then, through gritted teeth, “Tadfield?”

“What — yes, the airbase, but — Crowley —”

“— be fine — not long —” Crowley manages; and then he shudders, and sinks back into the car seat, covering his face with his hands; and goes entirely still.

The Bentley pulls away from the kerb and into the London traffic.

Aziraphale busies himself with looking through the book again, and triple-checking whether he interpreted everything correctly. It’s better than worrying helplessly about Crowley; and it keeps his mind from unravelling, from spinning out a thousand questions that he knows his friend will not answer.

Five minutes later, he’s given up all pretense of reading, and is staring at Crowley, hands clenched into fists in his lap. He has no idea what this is; wouldn’t even know where to begin trying to help. All he has to go by is his friend’s broken reassurance.

The Bentley is steadfastly obeying all traffic laws and keeping to the posted speed limit, and that’s perhaps the most worrying thing; he’s never been in a car with Crowley that wasn’t going too fast for comfort. It’s as if his friend isn’t really here anymore.

Countless times, he reaches out towards Crowley, only to stop himself and pull back just before touching. He’d pray, if he believed anyone might answer; he wonders, with mounting anger, if shouting might make him feel better, instead. It probably wouldn’t; but he understands a little better now, he thinks, how Crowley feels.

By the ten-minute mark, he’s ready to beg — God, or anyone else who might be inclined to listen. Please, I know I don’t deserve him, but if I can only have him back

Crowley groans, dragging the heels of his hands over his eyes. “Ugh. Should’ve known. How long?”

For a moment, Aziraphale is too breathless with relief to answer.

Crowley cracks his eyes open, and whatever he sees on Aziraphale’s face makes him raise his eyebrows. “That long?”

“No,” Aziraphale admits. “Only about ten minutes.”

“Ah.” Crowley leans forward, rolls his shoulders, and hides his wings away. With a start, Aziraphale realises that his are still out, as well, and follows suit. “I’m sorry about your bookshop,” Crowley says, quietly.

Aziraphale shakes his head. He’d be lying if he said he won’t miss it, won’t miss all the books he’s spent centuries collecting, but — “It’s alright. You got us out.”

“Us,” Crowley echoes, barely audible over the sound of the engine. The Bentley speeds up, and starts cutting and weaving through the increasing traffic; but it’s still nowhere near Crowley’s usual driving speed. Crowley’s forehead creases in a pained expression for a moment, and then smooths out; and he sighs. “You know you’re safe with me, right?” he asks, very softly.

Aziraphale frowns. “Of course.” This is not the direction he would’ve expected Crowley to take the conversation in.

“You know I would die before I see you hurt?”

“What —”

There is an odd intensity to Crowley’s eyes, an odd set to his mouth. He’s staring at the road ahead, but his hands are clenched into fists at his sides. “I would die,” he repeats, low, vicious, “before I see you hurt. You’re safe with me.”

“I don’t —”

“And when you want out, all you have to do is say. I’ll stop the car, and you can leave, go wherever you want. I’ll take care of stopping Armageddon. And I’ll never darken your door again. Or — there’s a vial of holy water, in the glove box. If you prefer.”

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, helplessly, “I don’t understand.”

“I know.” Crowley’s mouth twists, briefly, into a sad smile. “You have questions. Ask them.”

“But you’ve never —” Aziraphale pauses. “You would answer. No matter what I asked.”

“Yes.” Another sad smile. “As someone once said to me — let us have truth, here, at the end. You deserve to know. Ask.”

“Right.” Aziraphale takes a breath; tries to put his thoughts in some semblance of order.

All the time he’s known Crowley, there have been things that didn’t add up. Little things, big things, puzzle pieces scattered through the millennia, all coming together to form a picture he cannot quite see yet, like trying to read a book with the sun in your eyes.

And now, he could just ask; he could ask, and Crowley would answer. But —

When you want out, all you have to do is say.

When.

Not if.

There’s a vial of holy water, in the glove box.

What can Crowley possibly have been hiding, all these years, that would warrant that?

Right. Simple questions first. “In the bookshop, you — how did you pull my wings out of me?”

Crowley frowns slightly, as if he’s puzzled by the question being asked. “Ah. You remember the Flood? When I asked you to show me your wings?”

“And you so rudely put your hands on them, yes —” The odd shivering feeling. “You did something.”

Crowley nods. “I — it’s hard to explain. You offered to help me, then; and I’m a demon. I was worried it might have — consequences. So I gave myself a way to check. Being able to pull your wings out was an incidental result of that. I should’ve asked, but you — I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”

“You’ve been keeping an eye out, you said,” Aziraphale says, stunned. “That’s what you meant.”

Crowley makes an affirmative noise, still not looking away from the road.

Keeping an eye out — even then, even when they’d only known each other from one brief meeting in the Garden. Then, and for five thousand years after; always watchful, always, always kind. Keeping an eye out, keeping Aziraphale safe; and not even remotely for his own benefit, because Crowley had never before mentioned this, not even when Aziraphale had outright accused him of the opposite.

Whatever he is hiding, whatever is making him believe he’s a monster, Aziraphale thinks, I don’t want to know. I don’t care. He is wrong.

“Holy water in the glove box, you said?” he asks, trying to keep his voice steady. “That will be helpful if Hastur tries to come for us again.”

“He’s not coming back,” Crowley says, flatly. “No point in being deliberately obtuse; you know what I meant.”

“You can’t be certain he isn’t. I know you discorporated him, but Hell might rush him a new body and —”

“I destroyed him, Aziraphale. Nobody gets to come back from what I did to him.”

Destroying a demon — destroying a Duke of Hell — without holy water, or a holy weapon. “You — how?”

Crowley visibly hesitates. “Swear to me that you will not use this, if I tell you. You’re clever enough to work out how to actually do it, and while you couldn’t take it to the point I did —” He swallows. “Just — swear. Please.”

“I swear.”

“Right.” Crowley drums his fingers on the steering wheel, in thought. Then he digs his sunglasses out of a pocket, snaps them in half, and drags the resulting sharp edge over the palm of one hand; and holds it out to Aziraphale, sluggishly bleeding now from a long, shallow scratch. “Heal that. Tell me what it feels like to do it.”

Confused, Aziraphale does, running a finger over the wound, willing it to close. “I just — put it back together how it was intended to be.”

“Yes. What I did to Hastur is the opposite of what you just did, on a larger scale.” Crowley shrugs, a jerky motion that radiates unease. “When you know how life is put together, you know how to pull it apart, also.”

A puzzle piece clicks into place. “You’re a Healer,” Aziraphale breathes. “Of course you are. I should have seen that.”

Crowley pauses, looking thrown. “I — yes, but — that’s what you get out of that? That’s what you focus on? Not that I —”

“— that you destroyed someone who was doing his level best to destroy us —”

“That I enjoyed it,” Crowley snarls. “That I liked tearing him apart until nothing was left of him. That even though I just had to sit through the worst power backlash I’ve ever experienced — because I have never used that much all at once before — I would do it again in a heartbeat. That I’ve been looking forward to doing it for centuries.”

Oh, Aziraphale thinks, understanding dawning at last. Of course.

His heart in his throat, he reaches for the glove box; carefully hunts around in it until he finds the holy water vial.

Crowley turns to watch him do it; he looks expectant, and resigned, and entirely unsurprised. “Just let me pull over,” he says, softly, “and you can do whatever you want. Wouldn’t do you any good to get in a car crash.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Aziraphale weighs his options and settles on the most expedient. Turning away from Crowley, he miracles the glass away from the door on his side of the car, throws the holy water vial out, and miracles the glass back in place. When he turns back to Crowley, his friend’s eyes are very wide.

“Do you know,” Aziraphale says, mildly, “if I hadn’t known for certain that it was a battle I was definitely not going to win, I might’ve sought Hastur out and killed him myself, after you told me he’d been at Lindisfarne?”

Crowley goes very, very still, the kind of shocked, disbelieving stillness that Aziraphale knows means nothing more than that he’s entirely forgotten to breathe.

“And even then, I spent quite a few months trying to figure out if there might be a way I could find out where he was, take him by surprise, and douse him with holy water,” Aziraphale continues, still mild. “I only didn’t ask you about it because we’d last parted on a sour note, and I knew you’d say no. I even considered asking other angels for help, but Gabriel had already made it very clear he didn’t really care, and I don’t really know anyone in the higher spheres well enough —”

Aziraphale,” Crowley bites out, looking pained.

“— but I think I would have quite enjoyed destroying him, if I could’ve found a way to do it. Do you think that makes me evil?”

“You’re an angel.” Crowley sounds almost offended. “Of course you aren’t evil —”

“Of course. Would you like to hear the various interesting ways I’ve imagined I might get rid of particularly loathsome humans? Do you know how angry it makes me, sometimes, that the universe can be so dark, and unfair, and that nothing I can do will make enough of a difference? How sometimes I think it might be easier to just take it all apart and start over? How many times I’ve broken things in the bookshop, just taking out my feelings on whatever was to hand at the time? Does that make me evil, do you think? Monstrous?”

Crowley makes a strangled noise.

“I’ll take that as a no.” Aziraphale smiles, gently, to soften the blow a little. “So why would you think the same thing makes you a monster?”

“I’m a demon.”

“You are an angel. A Fallen one, but an angel nevertheless. I rather think the distinction matters. Hastur was a demon, but you — you are not that. Couldn’t ever be that. You have helped me, given me hope, saved me countless times; and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one you’ve helped, that countless humans have owed you their lives; and I will not stand for this anymore. I know who you are. You are kind, and you are good, and there is nothing that could convince me to leave your side; not anymore. If you want to tell me who you were before I knew you, I will listen — after we stop Armageddon — but it will not change anything. As for now, I only have one question —”

“Ask,” Crowley rasps out. He looks stunned, breathless, like a drowning man who has suddenly, against all odds, found himself on dry land.

“Might you, someday, forgive me for what I said to you last night, at the bandstand? For what I did? I didn’t — I wasn’t — I only —” Aziraphale finds himself stammering, hesitating, now that his focus is once again on his own very real misdeeds rather than Crowley’s imagined ones.

Crowley stares at him for a long moment, and then smiles, slowly, softly, like dawn breaking after the longest night, his golden eyes glittering. “After all that has happened since last night, after that long speech you just gave me — you ask me that? Don’t be daft, angel. There’s nothing to forgive.”

“The things I said to you —”

“Something tells me you didn’t mean them,” Crowley interrupts, gently.

“— no, of course not, but — the Pact. I…” Aziraphale looks down, trailing off. Somehow, it feels like a bigger betrayal than refusing to be what Heaven expects of him.

“Ah.” If not for the purr of the Bentley’s engine, you could hear a pin drop in the pause that follows. “Yes, you did almost break it.”

Aziraphale looks back up, startled. “Almost? I — felt it shatter.”

“I, also; and I thought it gone. But — what was your intent? When you renounced me?”

“I wanted to keep you safe from — oh.” Aziraphale feels his eyes pricking with tears as the realisation sinks in. “Intent.”

“Intent,” Crowley agrees, his eyes bright. “It meant you couldn’t break it, no matter what. It just went dormant, instead. When I sought to heal you, after you collapsed, it was there; when you reached for me, it renewed. Good thing, too. Would’ve been a lot harder to share my power with you, without an existing connection; might’ve even been impossible. Although…” His eyes narrow, in thought. “I’ll admit I am very curious about how you managed to keep me from realising Sandalphon was beating you halfway to discorporation.”

“It wasn’t so bad as that —”

“— you don’t get to argue with me about the extent of it, Aziraphale, I saw the markers where you healed yourself when I dealt with the rest of it —”

“— but the intent was the same, really. It wasn’t just Sandalphon — Michael and Uriel were also there. If you had known I was being hurt, you would have come; and if you had come, they would have destroyed you.”

“They probably would have, at that,” Crowley says, slowly. “I would have been too angry to think clearly. I would have simply run in, and got you out; and I would have been left with a fight I couldn’t win.” He shakes his head, ruefully. “That was very, very clever, setting the Pact against itself like that. Very clever, and very stupid. Don’t ever do that again. I can keep you safe.”

The implication is clear; Crowley believes that with the correct setup, he would have at least a chance in a fight against three Archangels. And part of Aziraphale does still wonder; but he meant what he said. Knowing would not make any difference. “Big universe?”

Crowley nods. “I know places they will never find. But — one thing at a time, yeah?” He slants a smile at Aziraphale. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

Cross that bridge, surely —”

“As you say.” The smile curls into a smirk. The Bentley leaps forward.

And the sudden acceleration pressing him back into the seat feels like safety. Feels like home.

Chapter Text

XXXV. 50 minutes to the end of the world

—king news: motorists are advised not to attempt to travel in or out of London at the current time. Latest reports indicate a large traffic jam within the city, possibly the largest in England’s history, due to a recent incident on the M25. More updates on the situation —

“A recent incident”, Crowley mutters, switching the radio to a different frequency. “Could be more specific…”

— being advised to avoid the M25 London orbital motorway, because, in the words of a Transportation Department spokesman, ‘it’s on fire or something’. What does that even —

“Oh, dear,” Aziraphale says, faintly, as Crowley turns the radio off. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“Quite,” Crowley agrees, squeezing the Bentley into too-small gaps between one car and another in the stand-still traffic and crossing over multiple lanes to pull onto the hard shoulder. “Whatever this is, I suspect it’s related to Armageddon, and we definitely don’t have time to wait it out. One way or another, we do need to get past the M25.”

The first thing he notices, as they approach the flyover, is the screaming. It’s one singular voice and at the same time a thousand, a discordant symphony of men, women and children, car horns, engines and sirens, radios and mobiles and music players, all woven together into one chant. Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds. Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds. Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds…

The second thing, as they come closer, is the wall of fire. It’s not quite fire, of course; it’s the dread sigil Odegra, hot and cold and dark and light all at the same time. And it stands between them and Tadfield.

There is a police roadblock right in front of the flyover, but Crowley rather suspects they’re just there to make themselves feel useful. Nobody would be insane enough to attempt crossing.

Nobody except them, that is; because, somehow, they have to make it through.

“If I’m not wrong,” Aziraphale says, very mildly, “you had something to do with the layout of the M25, did you not? Back in the seventies?”

“Shut up,” Crowley hisses. He’d had a lot to do with the layout of the M25; he’d thought it an excellent idea at the time. “It got Hell off my back for decades. And as I recall, I ran the plan by you, and you had no complaints. You said you’d done your research, and the possibility of the sigil activating was practically nil, because it would take the occult equivalent of a worldwide earthquake. ‘Completely harmless, my dear, feel free,’ I believe you said.”

Aziraphale’s lips twitch. “Yes, well. I cannot be blamed for failing to anticipate the coming of Armageddon.”

“Of course not. I don’t suppose anything would have come up in your research, indicating a way to get past this?”

“No, unfortunately. All the literature was purely theoretical, when it came to the effects of it. For one, it didn’t mention the, ah —” Aziraphale gestures, vaguely.

“Screaming?”

“Just so. You’re certain it’s not something you can cross? Even leaving me behind? It is at least partly occult fire. Aren’t you immune?”

“Only to hellfire proper, sadly. What about that book of yours, the one you grabbed from the bookshop? What is it, anyway?”

“‘The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter’,” Aziraphale says, already opening the book and leafing through it.

Crowley’s eyebrows go up. He’s heard of the book and its author before; hard not to, especially considering Aziraphale’s relentless bibliophilia. The angel collects books of prophecy; of course Crowley knows who Agnes Nutter is. “That explains a lot. Real prophecies, I take it, then?”

“Very much so,” Aziraphale says, distractedly, most of his focus obviously on the book. “There was one that I wasn’t certain was pertinent — ah, here we are. ‘A street of light will screem, the black chariot of the Serpente will flayme, and a Queene wille sing quicksilveres songes no moar.’”

Crowley pauses, parsing out the meaning of the prophecy in his head. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” he says, slowly, “but it seems to me that it’s saying we ought to just — drive through it.”

Aziraphale frowns. “I think you’re right, but — how? It’s definitely deadly. Probably wouldn’t be for us, but we’d get discorporated. That would be a problem.”

A problem. Leave it to Aziraphale to understate things, as usual. “The black chariot of the Serpent will flame,” Crowley mutters, thinking. That’s the Bentley, of course. The Bentley, which he’s had for so long it’s become almost an extension of him, capable of surviving collisions unscathed, of moving unimpeded through bumper-to-bumper traffic; capable of a whole host of impossible things, simply because of his will and belief.

If he believes the Bentley will get him through this, it will.

Aziraphale, though…

That he wants to keep Aziraphale safe is not even remotely in question; thus, the Bentley should be able to carry the angel, too, safely through the fire.

The problem is, he can’t shake the feeling that it couldn’t be that easy; that there’s something more to it, something else he needs to do.

“You can just leave me behind,” Aziraphale says, gently. “I can tell you’ve worked out how to get yourself through.”

“Absolutely not,” Crowley replies, almost automatically, still thinking. “I’m taking you with me or —”

Hang on.

He hadn’t thought he could hide anyone the way he hides himself; but he’d managed to take Aziraphale with him, by grabbing him by the arm and just moving.

He hadn’t thought he could heal power burnout, especially not by sharing his power with someone else; but he’d managed it with Aziraphale, by taking advantage of the connection between them created by their Pact.

A physical connection, and a magical one.

That would work; especially if the two were entwined. “You trust me, yeah?”

“Of course.” There is no hesitation, no question in Aziraphale’s answer; and Crowley has to swallow back the sudden knot in his throat.

When he’d said our side, at the bandstand, it had been little more than a desperate attempt at persuasion. He’d hoped, he’d done his best to have faith, but he’d known, deep down, that Aziraphale would choose Heaven. But against all odds, Aziraphale has made a different choice; and while Crowley doesn’t dare hope that means the angel has chosen him… for the first time, bolstered by Aziraphale’s trust, he truly feels like he might be able to make peace, someday, between who he used to be and who he is now.

“Give me your hand, please?”

Once again, Aziraphale doesn’t hesitate; and the moment Crowley takes the angel’s hand in his, the Pact thrums between them, and a cut opens on Aziraphale’s palm. Or, rather, reopens, because Crowley knows, with utter certainty, that it’s the cut made by his own wing a thousand years earlier, the cut that sealed the Pact between them.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, softly, wonderingly.

“Quite,” Crowley agrees. He definitely has the right idea, then.

He lets go of Aziraphale’s hand; leans forward, against the steering wheel, and untucks his shirt from his belt; and lifts all his clothing out of the way, to bare his lower back.

Aziraphale startles, and stares. “You — scales?”

“Yup.” Most of his back is scaled, these days, a single patch of fine, blue-black scales that starts near the base of his one remaining pair of wings and stretches all the way down to his hips. It’s entirely deliberate, of course. Four individual scars would lead to questions, as would four individual patches of scales; taking advantage of his serpent aspect leads people to assume it’s something he can’t control, like his eyes. He wonders if Aziraphale will ask about them. “Put your hand there, in the middle, and try a little trickle of power. Like you did at the manor.”

If it doesn’t work, if the connection isn’t solid enough, they will have to do it the straightforward way, cut palm to cut palm; but he would rather have both hands free to drive, and keep as much of his will as possible focused on keeping them safe through the fire. He’s certainly bled enough where his wings used to be, more than he has anywhere else; so it should work.

And so it does. The moment Aziraphale’s hand touches Crowley’s back, the moment his power trickles in, Crowley’s power kicks back, unbidden; and they are connected. It’s not the strongest of bonds, only allowing a basic awareness of each other’s presence, and surface-level feelings, and little else; and it will, by design, break the moment they are no longer touching; but it will be enough.

Slowly, carefully, maintaining the contact, Crowley straightens. “No matter what, keep your hand there.”

Aziraphale nods. “I trust you,” he says, again; and it echoes down the bond, nestles warm in Crowley’s heart. No questions; just trust.

“Right. Here goes nothing.” And he pulls the car into gear, and guns the accelerator.

They burst through the police roadblock unscathed, and a moment later, they’re inside Odegra.

Immediately, he feels the Bentley burst into flame. Aziraphale yelps as fire surrounds them, both outside and inside the car; but there is no fear coming through the bond. There is still, and only, trust.

“No,” Crowley snarls. “No. You are my car; I’ve had you from new. You are not going to burn. You are going to carry us safely to Tadfield.”

The strain on his power is immediate and enormous, and he has to grit his teeth against it; but the flames inside the car die down. It only takes them a minute to come out on the other side of it, but it’s the longest minute of Crowley’s life.

As soon as they’re out, the tug on his power diminishes, turns into a slow, steady drain. They’re alright, they’re safe, they’re unscathed; but the Bentley is —

The Bentley is fine, he thinks firmly. The Bentley will get them to Tadfield.

He presses the accelerator down as far as it will go, pushing the car to its limit. Were this a normal situation, he could push it even further; but he doesn’t believe he can spare the attention.

In the passenger seat next to him, Aziraphale frowns, thinking, and nods to himself; and places his free hand on the dashboard; and — Crowley can feel him do it, through the bond — pushes with his power.

The Bentley leaps forward so readily that Crowley is startled into a yelp. Aziraphale’s expression doesn’t change, but through the bond, Crowley can feel the smugness radiating from him.

As they hurtle down the M40 towards Oxfordshire in flagrant disregard of both the posted speed limit and the laws of physics, Crowley allows himself to hope.

Chapter Text

XXXVI. Tadfield, 30 minutes to the end of the world

They’ve made it to Tadfield in record time; but now, they are quite hopelessly lost and, against both of their better judgments, driving into the village proper to ask for directions.

The village is mostly deserted, which comes as no surprise given the signs they’ve seen of a recent, violent storm; it takes them a few minutes to spot an officious-looking man walking his dog. Crowley pulls the Bentley up next to him.

Aziraphale rolls down the window. “Excuse me,” he begins, politely, intensely aware that he’s covered in soot and ash and sitting in a car that, despite Crowley’s best efforts, is very much still on fire. “I’m afraid we’ve managed to get slightly lost. Tadfield Airbase?”

The man turns, and his eyes go very wide. He looks at Aziraphale; at Crowley, who is also soot-stained, eyes bare and gold from side to side; at the flaming Bentley; and then back at Aziraphale. His mouth moves soundlessly for a moment, as if he’s trying to find the right words; and then he smiles the most brittle smile Aziraphale thinks he’s ever seen. ”Ah. You might’ve taken a wrong turn. Understandable, really, the signpost blew down. The storm, you see. So, you go back down the road you came from for half a mile, then first left, then you take the second right, only it’s not exactly right, it’s on the left but you’ll find it bends round towards the right eventually…”

What follows is a truly monstrous set of directions, rendered in excruciating, almost migraine-inducing detail.

“Er,” Aziraphale says, when the man has finally run himself out of steam. “I’m not sure —”

“I got it,” Crowley says. “Much obliged.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, with some relief. “Thank you very much.” He begins to roll up the window again; only the man is, apparently, not done.

“Excuse me, young man?”

Aziraphale stiffens. “Yes?” Why, he hasn’t been called young man in —

Crowley smothers a laugh — Aziraphale can feel his back twitching under his hand — and a frisson of amusement comes down the bond; Aziraphale firmly suppresses the urge to roll his eyes.

“Funny weather we’re having, isn’t it?” the man says, all unctuous politeness. “Very unusual for this time of the year.”

“I’m afraid I hadn’t noticed,” Aziraphale says flatly, rolling the window up all the way as Crowley reverses back down the road.

Behind them, as they drive off, he can hear the man shout, in an aggrieved tone, “That’s probably because your stupid car is on fire!”

Aziraphale could honestly not say which of the two of them starts laughing helplessly first.

* * *

They stop a few metres away from the airbase’s main gate.

“See if you can talk the guard into letting us in,” Crowley says, quietly. “I’ll join you in a moment.”

“Alright.” Aziraphale pulls his hand away from Crowley’s back, breaking their connection, immediately feeling the loss. The cut on his palm doesn’t heal; but then, he doesn’t really want it to. What he wants, what he has to force himself not to do, is to reach out for Crowley again, to restore the bond.

Crowley doesn’t move, but there’s a ghost of a touch on Aziraphale’s palm, mending the cut; a healing, but also, somehow, a wordless reassurance. I understand, it says. Still here.

“Alright,” Aziraphale says, again, quieter; and climbs out of the car, taking the book with him.

The moment he’s out of the car, the guard notices him; and hurries out of his post, hefting his gun with clear intent. “Sir? This is U.S. military property. I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the area.”

“Good afternoon, young man,” Aziraphale says evenly, doing his best to project authority. “I am hoping you might be able to assist us. It is of vital importance that you open the gate and let me and my friend in.” Normally he’d ask to speak to whoever is in charge; but they don’t have time to navigate the bureaucracy of access.

“Nobody may be allowed in without prior approval from base command.''

Aziraphale winces. “Ah, yes, I was afraid you’d say that. You see, the fate of the world —”

There is a click and a whirr as the gate opens; and then the chime of a bell, as four children on bikes zoom by, pedaling madly.

“Did you do that?” the guard asks, bewildered. Then, rushing for the alarm button in his guard post: “Those kids are in big trouble. And so are you!”

“That was him,” Crowley says, very quietly, walking up by Aziraphale’s side. “One of those kids that just went by.” There is a bit of residual stiffness in his posture; as Aziraphale turns to look at him, it bleeds out of him, slowly, and he sighs, and closes his eyes.

Behind them, the Bentley explodes.

Inside the base, an alarm klaxon starts blaring; the guard rushes back out of his post and brings the gun to bear. “I am authorised to treat any explosion near the base as a terrorist attack. I’m giving you all five seconds to vacate this area, and then I will shoot!”

Aziraphale doesn’t even stop to think about it; he simply snaps his fingers, and the guard is gone.

Crowley makes a soft, startled noise. “You didn’t need to do that. I could’ve —”

“You just let go of the Bentley,” Aziraphale interrupts, gently. “I thought you might need a moment. Although — I do hope I didn’t send him somewhere unpleasant.”

“Yeah. Well.” Crowley’s voice is a little shaky, but fond. “You’re an angel. I don’t think you can send people somewhere unpleasant.”

Trust Crowley to be thinking about their beginning, here at what hopefully isn’t their end. “Oh, thank you,” he says, quite unable to help himself. “It hasn’t really been bothering me, though. He was going to shoot us, so he probably would have deserved it.”

Crowley chokes out a laugh. “You,” he says, slowly, wonderingly, amusement threaded through his voice, “are a menace. C’mon, angel. Let’s go see about saving the world.”

They go.

* * *

One hastily silenced alarm and a commandeered military jeep later, they find the children again, standing in a row outside of a building signposted as the communications centre. There can be no doubt which of them is the Antichrist; the curly-haired boy is standing slightly ahead of the others, in a leadership position, and reality is — not bending around him, not quite, but expectant, waiting to be twisted. To Aziraphale’s otherworldly senses, he reads as simultaneously human, angelic and demonic.

The demonic part is the strongest, strong enough that Aziraphale could simply smite the child, or conjure some holy water to throw at him, and be done with all this; but —

The child is facing down the Horsemen, along with his three friends. The one girl among them is brandishing a sword made from a long and a short stick, tied together with string; one boy is holding a set of scales, made from more string, a twig and some bark; and the other boy is wearing a paper crown. All three are simply, entirely human.

That is enough to give Aziraphale pause; and so he turns to Crowley.

Crowley, for his part, is looking between the children and the Horsemen, frowning, his gaze eventually settling on the Antichrist. “Oi. You. Curly. D’you want to end the world?”

“My name’s Adam Young,” the boy says, a trifle testily. “And I don’t, really. I didn’t ask for this to begin.”

“Good enough for me,” Crowley says, quietly; and stays exactly where he is; and looks back to the Horsemen.

YOU DID NOT HAVE TO ASK, Death says, all the echoes of the grave and beyond in his voice. YOUR VERY EXISTENCE DEMANDS THE ENDING OF THE WORLD. IT IS WRITTEN.

Crowley scoffs, loud in the silence that follows.

Death turns his skull’s face to look at him, slowly. Aziraphale can’t help but quail under the eyeless gaze; but Crowley sets his jaw and scowls.

Just as slowly, Death turns back to Adam. YOU CAN MAKE THE WORLD ANEW. NO ONE WILL DISOBEY YOU.

“I don’t think so,” Adam says, firmly. “I don’t want the world to end. So you can all just — go away. Go back where you came from.” Then, looking at each of his friends in turn, speaking only to them: “The thing is, they’re not actually real. They’re just like nightmares, really. So…” He turns back to glare at the Horsemen. “Get them,” he says, his voice suddenly echoing with power.

War steps forward, laughing mockingly, hefting a flaming sword that Aziraphale suddenly recognises as the one he’d given away, six thousand years earlier. “Oh, you want to fight? Little boys with your toys. I am War. You were made to serve me, to live in me and to die in me.”

“I’m not a boy,” the girl says firmly, stepping forward.

“Oh, a little girl!” War says, sounding delighted. “Run home and play with your dolls, little girl.” And she rushes forward.

The girl snarls, and ducks under War’s first, wide swing; kicks hard at War’s ankle; pulls back; and steps away from the second swing, standing her ground, stick-sword held at the ready. “We’re Adam’s real friends,” she says, fiercely. “Not you lot. You’re a joke.”

“Just say what you believe,” Adam says, not taking his eyes away from Death.

“I believe in peace, bitch,” the girl says; and rears back, and swings her stick-sword at War.

War parries; there is a bright flash as the two swords connect, and a faint, wailing scream; and when Aziraphale can see again, War is gone, her sword dropping to the ground.

The boy with the paper crown steps forward. “I believe in a clean world,” he says, glaring at Pollution; and takes the crown from his head, and flings it at the Horseman. Another flash; a choked gurgle; and Pollution is gone, an oily-looking crown clattering to the ground.

“And I believe in food and a healthy lunch,” the second boy says; and whirls his twig-and-bark scales around his head, and swings at Famine. Another flash; a rasping shout; and Famine is gone, a set of gleaming copper scales crashing to the ground.

“Death. It all has to stop now,” Adam says, firmly. “You’ve got to do what I say, at least for now, and I say it has to stop.”

IT HAS STOPPED, Death says. THEY ARE BACK WHERE THEY BELONG, BACK IN THE MINDS OF MAN; AND WITHOUT THEM, ARMAGEDDON CANNOT PROCEED. NORMAL ENTROPY TRIUMPHS. BUT THEY WILL BE BACK. THEY ARE NEVER FAR AWAY.

“I could destroy you,” Adam says. “Then it would never begin again.” The air between him and Death is blurring, as if with heat; a quiet power contest.

“You cannot,” Crowley says, quietly. “Let it go, kid.”

YOU CANNOT, Death echoes. I AM NOT LIKE THEM. I AM CREATION’S SHADOW; DESTROYING ME WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD.

Adam’s eyes narrow. The blurring in the air between him and Death holds a moment longer; then dissipates.

Death bows to him; then turns to Aziraphale and Crowley, and inclines his skull-head in a nod. GOOD DAY, GENTLEMEN.

And then —

There are wings, breaking out of Death’s back; something like angel wings, something that may have been angel wings, once. They are wounds, almost, shapes cut into the matter of creation to reveal the darkness underneath. In that darkness, distant lights glimmer; they could be stars, or they could be something entirely else.

The wings beat, once, with a sound like a thunderclap; and Death vanishes.

Chapter Text

XXXVII. Tadfield Airbase, one minute after the world didn’t end

That should be it, really; Armageddon’s over. World’s safe. They’re safe. Except — “It’s not over. Nothing’s over.” Crowley sighs. “You. Kid. Adam, was it?”

Adam nods.

“Well done on getting your friends together and saving the world,” Crowley says. He means it, he does. The kid managed to turn out alright, in spite of — or perhaps thanks to — his entirely human upbringing; and three wholly human children who are brave enough to take on the Horsemen, who remain unflinching when faced with the terrifying supernatural, are definitely something special. The problem is — “It won’t make any difference. Both Heaven and Hell still want their war. They’ll try to get it started again.”

He’s about to continue, but he is interrupted.

“You!” a female voice calls out; and the woman from the bicycle accident marches up to them, scowling, a confused-looking man trailing after her like a lost puppy. “You’re the men from the car! You stole my book!”

“Ah! Yes. Terribly sorry about that,” Aziraphale says, sheepishly, speaking before Crowley can. “It was extremely helpful, though, my dear. You have my thanks.”

Crowley notices how Aziraphale is clutching the book, very obviously unwilling to relinquish it, and rolls his eyes. “Give it here, angel,” he says, pulling the book out of the angel’s hands. “Not yours. Oi, book girl, catch!” And he tosses the book at the woman, carelessly.

The woman yelps and runs to catch it; a bit of charred paper flutters out of it while it’s in the air. Aziraphale catches it and looks down at it.

“What is going on out here?” the woman demands.

“Long story, no time,” Crowley says, grinning at her.

She returns his grin with a scowl. “Try me,” she says, firmly.

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, pocketing the paper. “Alright. So. In the Beginning, there was a — well, he was a wily old serpent, and I —”

“Oh, for — hush. Don’t need to go into that much detail,” Crowley interrupts. Then, pointing at Aziraphale, at himself, and at Adam in turn: “Angel; Fallen; Antichrist.” He’s not quite ready yet to claim himself as a Fallen angel, is not sure he ever will be, but — the distinction matters, Aziraphale had said; and Crowley is finding himself wanting to believe it.

Adam waves, with a cheeky grin. “Hi, Anathema. You just stopped them from blowing up the world, didn’t you?”

“Er,” the woman — Anathema — says, looking more than a little bewildered. Crowley rather suspects it’s the ‘angel’ and ‘Fallen’ parts that are the sticking point; with that name, and with the fact that she had the book in her possession, she can’t be anyone other than one of Agnes Nutter’s descendants, meaning Armageddon and the Antichrist should come as no surprise. “I guess. My boyfriend here did the tricky bit.”

The man standing next to her gives a little self-deprecating shrug, then freezes, looking thrown. “Boyfriend?”

Anathema smiles at the man, and opens her mouth to respond; but then there is a crash of thunder, followed by a bolt of lightning; and the humans cry out and cover their eyes.

Ah. That would be one of his siblings.

At his side, Aziraphale stiffens, and turns; Crowley sighs, and does the same.

A figure of pure light is standing where the lightning struck, looking as smug and insufferable as it is possible for something that technically lacks a face to look. The light fades, and it’s Gabriel — of course it’s Gabriel, smoothing down his already perfect hair and brushing nonexistent dust from his utterly pristine suit.

Crowley takes Aziraphale by the elbow, wordless, because he knows what’s coming next; when the ground lurches, he’s holding the angel steady, and, unlike the humans, neither of them stumbles.

The ground cracks to Gabriel’s left; from the crack emerges Beelzebub. For a split second, she looks the way she usually does in Hell; and then, so quickly the humans likely don’t even notice the change, her body smooths out into one that nobody would look twice at, entirely human-looking — albeit with a large, fly-shaped hat that he would absolutely mock to her face if this were a less fraught situation.

Gabriel and Beelzebub glare at each other; then, with identical scowls, stalk towards him and Aziraphale, stopping directly in front of them.

Aziraphale inclines his head in the smallest, barest, only nominally polite nod. Gabriel glowers. Neither says anything.

Crowley, for his part, dips into the lowest, most formal and most sarcastic bow he’s ever given anyone. “Lord Beelzebub.” When he lifts his head, he has to fight not to laugh at the extremely unimpressed look on her face.

“Crowley. Playing your own game?”

He smirks briefly, straightening up. “As always.”

Her scowl deepens, and she purses her lips. “We shall have wordzzzzz later. Where’zzzz the boy?”

Crowley shrugs widely, arms spread, and nods in Adam’s direction.

Gabriel and Beelzebub turn to look; Gabriel’s scowl is replaced by a wide, fake, shark-like smile. “Ah! That one. Adam Young.”

“That’s me,” Adam says, scowling, unimpressed. Good kid.

“Armageddon must restart, right now, young man,” Gabriel says. Crowley would bet his brother thinks he sounds friendly and persuasive. He doesn’t; he’s missed by a country mile and landed square on ‘condescending prat’. “A temporary inconvenience cannot get in the way of the Greater Good.”

“As to what it standz in the way of, that has yet to be decided,” Beelzebub interjects, sounding aggrieved. “But the battle must be decided now, boy. That is your dezzzztiny. It is written. Now start the war.”

“I won’t, and you can’t make me,” Adam says. “I just don’t see why it has to happen. You both want to end the world, just to see whose gang is best. But even if you win, even if you beat the other side, you won’t really beat them, because you don’t really want to. Not for good. You want there to be another gang you can fight against. You’ll just start all over again, messing people around. And it’s hard enough being people as it is, without you trying to treat it like — like it’s just a game you can win. We’re people, not game pieces. Even them.” He waves a hand towards Aziraphale and Crowley.

Honestly, Crowley rather wants to hug the kid. Maybe he will, after this is all over.

Aziraphale looks thoughtful; Beelzebub looks concerned; and Gabriel — Gabriel just looks baffled. “But that’s the whole point, obviously. It’s the Great Plan. The entire point of the creation of the Earth —”

“I’ve got this,” Beelzebub interrupts, frown melting into what Crowley is certain is intended to be a friendly, conspiratorial smile. It widely misses the mark, of course, and condescension is no better a look on her than it was on Gabriel. “Adam, once this is over, you’re going to get to rule the world. Don’t you want to rule the world?”

“Nah,” Adam says, promptly. “I thought about it, and I don’t really want to. I mean, there’s some things that could use being changed, but I don’t really know enough to fix it all up right. And then I reckon people would keep coming up to me and trying to get me to sort things out for them, and it’d be like — having to tidy up people’s bedrooms for them. That’s no fun.”

“Yeah,” the girl in Adam’s group interjects, gleefully. “You don’t ever tidy up even your own bedroom.”

“I never said anything about my bedroom,” Adam says, scowling briefly. “Just general bedrooms. Other people’s. Anyway, it’s hard enough having to think of things for Pepper and Wensley and Brian to do all the time so they don’t get bored. I’ve got all the world I want.”

“But you can’t just refuse to be who you are!” Gabriel exclaims, with the pinched look of someone who does not know what’s happening, but knows he does not like it. “Your birth, your destiny — they’re part of the Great Plan!”

“Ah.” Aziraphale clears his throat, and goes to stand behind Adam. “Yes. Excuse me. About that. You keep talking about the Great Plan.”

“Aziraphale,” Gabriel says, firmly, patronisingly. “Maybe you should just keep your mouth shut.”

Crowley stares. What on Earth is the angel trying to accomplish?

“One thing I’m not clear on,” Aziraphale continues, as if Gabriel hadn’t said anything. “Is that the Ineffable Plan?”

“The Great Plan,” Beelzebub all but shouts. “It is written! There shall be a world, and it shall last for six thousand years and end in fire and flame.”

“Yes, yes, that sounds like the Great Plan.” Aziraphale’s tone is mild, polite, and respectful, and the look on his face is one Crowley has seen a thousand times. It’s the one the angel usually wears when informing a potential customer that the bookshop is unfortunately closing early that day, and they will have to return another time to make a purchase, so could they please put the book down and leave, there’s a good chap, thank you ever so kindly. “Just wondering, is that God’s Ineffable Plan as well?”

There is a long pause.

“Well, they’re the same thing,” Gabriel says, eventually, his voice high and completely bewildered.

Oh. Clever, clever angel. Doubts and questions, questions and doubts. They’re not as certain as they wish they were. He can feel the beginnings of a daft grin on his lips; manages to smother it and, as he walks to stand behind Adam, at Aziraphale’s side, turn it into something that more closely resembles the sort of polite smile he’s seen customer service workers use when what they really want to do is throttle the person they’re talking to. “Well, it’d be a pity if you thought you were doing what the Great Plan said, but you were actually going directly against God’s Ineffable Plan,” he says, very carefully keeping his tone mild and even. “I mean, everyone knows the Great Plan, yeah?”

There is a chorus of yeses from the children behind him; and Anathema is also nodding. Her young man starts shaking his head, and hurriedly turns it into a nod when she elbows him in the side. They very clearly have no idea what he’s talking about, but the fact that he and Aziraphale have openly stated their allegiance by positioning themselves behind Adam appears to be enough for them. Bless them all.

“But,” he continues, “God’s Ineffable Plan is — well, it’s ineffable, isn’t it? By definition, we can’t know it.”

“But it iszz… written,” Beelzebub says slowly, the frown back on her face.

“God does not play games with the universe,” Gabriel adds, obviously trying to sound reproachful and only coming across as very worried.

Crowley has to laugh at that, bitterly. “Where have you been?”

Gabriel promptly scowls. “Shut your mouth, demon filth. You have forsaken God; you’ve no right to speak of Her.”

“Make me,” Crowley responds, low, enough threat in his tone that Beelzebub fractionally flinches backwards. He’s aware Aziraphale is looking at him worriedly; and he is very, very aware that he is almost entirely drained, and likely would not last long in any sort of fight; but he has reached the end of his tether. “You don’t know what She wants any more than I do. If She objects to anything I say, She’s welcome to strike me down for it. But She’s not doing that, is She?”

Gabriel looks set to respond, but Beelzebub turns to him and nudges him. “Can we just —?” She gestures towards the spot where she originally arrived, urgently; and the two walk off to have a more private conversation.

“Thanks,” Adam says, quietly, turning to them. “They were starting to get to me. It’s hard to… part of me still wants to do what they say I should.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says, understanding. “Don’t thank us yet, kid. Don’t know whether it worked.”

They wait, and wait, the tension palpable in the air. And then, suddenly, Beelzebub is shouting. “Gabriel, you cannot! We can’t be certain anymore — we have to go back and ask!”

And Gabriel is stalking back towards them, a thunderous frown on his face, pulling back his hand as if to —

Six thousand years of distance between them or not, Crowley still knows his brother, still knows the way he thinks; and so he sees what’s coming a moment before it happens.

A gleaming glass jug, shining from within as if filled with sunlight, appears in Gabriel’s hand; and he swings his arm in a wide arc, flinging the jug’s contents — holy water — directly towards them.

Crowley grits his teeth, and reaches for what little remains of his power, and stops time.

He knows immediately that this is not something he can sustain for very long. It’s not just normal holy water that Gabriel has flung; it’s the holiest, straight from Heaven — and what’s worse, it’s infused with, and directed by, Gabriel’s own power. It’s only because he’s had recent practice, because he’s handled the same kind of holy water when setting up his wards, that he can affect it at all; but it’s fighting his control and winning, moving forward in its deadly arc millimetre by millimetre even though everything and everyone else other than him is frozen in time.

And it’s aimed straight at Adam.

The boy is demonic enough, now that his powers have awakened, that being hit with holy water will kill him. And if the Antichrist dies here and now, with everything still undecided, another will be born; and there is little chance that they would get lucky a second time, that a second Antichrist would also feel inclined to save the world rather than destroy it.

Crowley can’t stop the holy water, not with Gabriel’s power driving it. He can tell that his brother has expected that someone might try to interfere, might try to protect Adam; and so, even if the boy were protected by something or someone, the holy water would make its way to him, and destroy him. Crowley’s seen it happen before, once, to a demon unfortunate enough to trigger a trap set up by Michael near a cathedral. The demon had had enough time to try to burrow underneath the ground for safety, and the holy water had outright eaten through rock to get to him.

No, the holy water will find its target, no matter what; Crowley cannot stop it.

He cannot stop it; but he can redirect it. His brother hasn’t recognised him, hasn’t thought or expected that there might be someone here with power comparable to his, strong enough to alter the holy water’s course; and so that avenue, at least, remains open.

The holy water is seeking a demonic target. That leaves two alternative options — Beelzebub, and him.

And he cannot use Beelzebub.

He cannot, because Beelzebub is a Lord of Hell; and were she destroyed by holy water flung by an Archangel, Hell would be entirely within their rights to retaliate.

And the war would begin anyway.

But he — he is not of Hell. He is not even remotely affiliated with Hell. He has made that very clear, repeatedly, to his brother Samael, to Beelzebub, to Dagon; and what’s more, by utterly destroying both Hastur and Ligur, he has very much made himself persona non grata to Hell as a whole.

If the holy water destroys him, Hell will not retaliate.

There might still be a war — but might is better than will.

He cannot think of any other solution; it’s the only way.

I’m sorry, Aziraphale, he thinks, even though he knows the angel can’t hear him. You’ll have to finish this for me.

It’s funny, what comes to your mind when you know you’re facing your end. In his case, it’s not a prayer, not a curse, not a wish or a cry for more time; it’s poetry. He doesn’t recall where he’d first encountered the poem, and most of it had been honestly quite forgettable; but two of the lines had struck him, stuck with him, and he thinks of them now.

Though my soul may set in darkness

Well. There will be no rising for him — when celestial beings reach their end, it’s a true end — but it’s a nice thought, anyway.

He doesn’t want to die; but it’s the only way.

Stepping in front of Adam, he relaxes his hold on the flow of time, allowing it to resume at a fraction of its normal speed, while keeping himself outside of it; and shoves the boy back, very firmly, starting a motion that will make him go tumbling straight into Anathema’s arms.

He wonders if he’s going to see his brother, when he goes; he’s never asked. For all he knows, he only takes humans. Either way, he will die as himself.

He pulls his wings into corporeality, and spreads them; and he turns back to face the holy water, giving it a sharp, deliberate pull with his power. I am the Fallen Archangel Raphael; I am a far more worthy target. Here I stand; come get me.

Then he closes his eyes, and relinquishes his grasp on time entirely, returning it to its normal flow.

The holy water hits him a moment later.

Chapter Text

XXXVIII. Tadfield Airbase, 30 minutes after the world didn’t end

Aziraphale sees it a moment too late. The gleaming jug in Gabriel’s hands; the holy water flung towards Adam; and Crowley, Crowley suddenly appearing in front of the boy, shoving him backwards, spreading his wings into corporeality and closing his eyes, making himself a target instead.

No

The holy water hits.

There is a pause, like the universe holding its breath.

Crowley shudders sharply, once, and then falls entirely still, unmoving, unbreathing.

And then —

The afternoon sunlight dances on the drops of holy water that are caught in Crowley’s hair. They shimmer, once, twice, thrice; and the light settles, stays, gold-bright in his flame-bright hair, resplendent; a crown, almost. And a liquid edge of light forms there, starts flowing down, following the path of the holy water.

Down, down it goes, clearing the ash and soot from Crowley’s face, pulling away the resolve and the fear and the desperation, and the exhaustion also, until his face is blank and slack.

Down his shoulders, down his outstretched wings. Crowley’s wings are midnight black at the top, shading down into midnight blue at the very edge — and that doesn’t change; but the holy water gathered like tiny pearls in the barbs of his feathers catches rainbow fragments of the light and keeps them there, thousands of pinpricks of light that look like stars.

Down, down, down the light flows — drips off the edge of the wings —

— and another pair of wings bleeds into existence beneath the first, dark blue into bright blue into purple into red. And then another pair, red into orange into bright, pure gold.

Crowley has six wings, and his wings are a sunrise.

He opens his eyes, and there are roiling galaxies in them, burning, burning, burning; and then they settle, and they’re just gold —

— but the pupils are round.

Gabriel’s eyes go wide. He makes a strangled, shocked noise, one that almost sounds like a name; takes a step backwards; and then, with a sound halfway between a crack and a flutter of feathers, he’s gone.

Crowley closes his eyes, opens them again, a long, slow blink; focuses, eyes narrowed, on the spot where Gabriel just was. Cocks his head, as if he’s listening to something. Then: “No,” he says, low. His wings beat, once, and then he, too, is gone.

Chapter Text

XXXIX. Somewhere above Earth

It ends, as it began, with a Fall.

The Archangel Gabriel is, for the first time in his extremely long life, panicking.

He has to get back to Heaven, he has to speak with the Almighty directly — he doesn’t understand what happened, he needs to —

He should’ve just miracled himself back Upstairs; but he hadn’t thought. He’d just taken flight. And now the buffeting air currents are tearing his wings apart, and he cannot, because it’s taking all the power he has left just to keep himself flying steady, heading for the nearest gateway to Heaven.

Gabriel has been striving towards accomplishing the Great Plan for six thousand years. Everything he’s done, everything he’s sacrificed, has been for the cause of Good.

But —

Just wondering, Aziraphale had said. Is that the Ineffable Plan as well?

Is it what God wants?

Gabriel can’t stop asking himself that. He’d thought, he’d thought it was — he’d thought he knew, he’d been so sure, but —

Aziraphale. The inconsequential, incomprehensible, rebellious Principality Aziraphale, and the demon Crowley, standing side by side as defenders of humanity.

And the demon Crowley —

You don’t know what She wants any more than I do.

A demon Gabriel had seen many times, but never once truly recognised.

A demon who, alongside Aziraphale, had fought against the Great Plan, and succeeded.

A demon who had stepped in the way of holy water — redirected it towards himself, Gabriel is certain of that, it must have been a deliberate act — and he must’ve known, must’ve known he was going to die — and still he’d done it —

And instead of dying, he has Risen; and Gabriel knows him, now.

Raphael. Archangel, Starmaker, First Healer. His brother. His kind, compassionate, gentle, bright brother. Not just lost, but Fallen, rent from the light and love of God for six thousand years.

And whose fault had that been? Not Samael’s.

Gabriel remembers the war; remembers Raphael, steadfastly refusing to choose a side, speaking with both Michael and Samael, trying to talk them down. Remembers the moments of enforced truce, Raphael moving like a ghost through the battlefield, healing friend and foe indiscriminately, until he could delay the inevitable no longer.

Remembers the end of the war, the last great battle, the Fall. Remembers Raphael after, subdued, grieving, healing the remaining wounded but refusing to speak to anyone.

Remembers the beginning of the Great Plan.

Remembers Raphael every day at God’s door, every day; and every day the same question. Why?

Remembers Michael suggesting that something needed to be done; that whether God was still in Heaven, behind that closed door, or not — the Great Plan was Her Will, and they must ensure everyone would continue working towards the same goal. Remembers agreeing; remembers their other siblings agreeing, as well; remembers the installation of the Metatron as the Voice of God.

Shortly after that, Raphael had disappeared.

Off in the stars somewhere, had been the general consensus. Lost, certainly never to return; but then, Gabriel had thought, Raphael had always been weak, lacking the stomach to do what needed to be done.

And Gabriel had put his brother out of his mind, and continued working on the Great Plan.

He’d found the first splintered primary in one of his wings a week later. It was nothing, the healer he’d checked with had said, just something that happens sometimes; and so he’d discarded it as inconsequential, had just fixed it with one from an old moult. He’d kept on doing the same with every other damaged feather he’d found; and if his wings were looking a little haggard, the coverts more sparse than usual, well, as long as his flight feathers were fixed he could still use his wings when needed, so it didn’t matter.

But now — now that his wings are burning with the effort of carrying him — now, he thinks he understands.

If the blame is to be laid at anyone’s feet, it is his own; he sees, now, all the ways in which he has been wrong.

Six thousand years his brother has been in the dark; and he still shines as brightly as ever before. Brighter, even, for the contrast; because there is only one thing Gabriel is sure of, anymore, only one certainty among all his sudden doubts, and it’s that his brother has never been anything but good.

He must speak to the Almighty, he must know, he must

His grip on his power falters and slips; he tries to reach for it again, and finds he has nothing left.

Darkness rises up to claim him; he cannot fight it.

His power entirely drained, his wings in tatters, reaching out desperately for the cold, distant light of Heaven, Gabriel Falls.

Chapter Text

XL. Tadfield Airbase, 35 minutes after the world didn’t end

“What the fuck,” Beelzebub says, faintly. “I didn’t know that was possible.”

“What exactly just happened?” Anathema demands. “Did he just — he had wings, how did he have wings?”

“Actually, that was really cool,” one of Adam’s friends — Wensley, Aziraphale thinks his name is — exclaims. “Was he really an angel?”

“Course he’s an angel,” Adam begins, “both of them helping us are —”

The ground lurches, like it did when Beelzebub showed up; only it’s stronger, this time, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping. On instinct, Aziraphale shakes out his wings and spreads them, to steady himself.

Right, then.

He looks at the sword War dropped, the sword that used to be his; and he only has to think of it in his hand, and it’s there, burning with holy flame, just the same as it had been when he had first wielded it. Once you’ve learned how to do it, you never forget.

“Children, you’d better come stand behind me,” he says, moving in front of Anathema and Adam in a guard position. The children scramble to obey.

Beelzebub gives him an appraising look, one eyebrow raised, then, very deliberately, turns her back to him.

The ground stops shaking; a figure appears in front of them.

Beelzebub bows deeply. “My Lord.”

Lucifer’s wings are opal white, every feather tipped and freckled with pure silver; but the middle pair is ragged and charred at the trailing edge, fading into ash and smoke and nothingness, and the bottom pair flickers in and out of view, a mere memory of wings that once were. His hair is dark; his eyes are dark, too, and smoldering red with hellfire. “Where is my brother?” he demands, wide-eyed, wild-eyed, something very like fear in his voice.

“Which one?” Beelzebub asks, straightening up from her bow.

Wait, what does she mean ‘which one’

Gabriel,” Lucifer rasps out, as if the answer were obvious. “Do you mean to say —”

A crack of thunder; a flash of lightning; and Michael, Uriel and Sandalphon are standing there, each carrying a sword, the expression on their faces vacillating madly between furious and frightened. Their wings are out and spread in a threatening position; and there is something wrong with them, Aziraphale thinks, something off about the feathers; but he cannot put his finger on exactly what. “Where,” Michael demands, steel and fury in her voice, bringing the shining silver sword in her hand to bear, “is Gabriel? What have you done to him, Samael?”

“I have done nothing, Michael,” Lucifer replies, anger mixing with the fear in his voice. A dark sword materialises in his right hand, an almost-twin of the one Michael wields; and he raises it in a defensive position, although, Aziraphale notes, his hand is shaking slightly.

“You lie,” Michael snarls in response. “You have already betrayed us all once; why should we believe you?”

“Maybe we should say something,” Pepper says, quietly, behind Aziraphale. “They’re going to start fighting if we don’t.”

Aziraphale rather agrees with her — only, he’s not quite sure where he would begin. He’s only a Principality, he lacks the authority to interfere; and even Beelzebub, a Lord of Hell, is keeping a very wary distance from the Archangels and Lucifer, slowly creeping backwards and closer to Aziraphale and the humans he’s protecting.

And then Crowley reappears, between one moment and the next, between the Archangels and Lucifer.

There’s gold in his hair still, but that’s all that’s visibly marking him as changed; his wings are still corporeal, but they are folded back in such a manner that it isn’t immediately obvious he now has six.

In his arms, he is cradling Gabriel — or what remains of him.

The Archangel is pale as dust and still as the grave, and his wings are a ruin. The bottom two pairs are little more than tendon and scorched bone; the top pair only has the muscle and skin left, and a scant handful of feathers.

Lucifer chokes out a shocked, horrified gasp; his sword slips out of his hand and clatters to the ground.

On the opposite side, Michael has the opposite reaction; with an inarticulate scream of rage, she rushes towards Crowley and swings her sword in a wide arc, with clear intent.

But Crowley resettles Gabriel’s weight so he’s carrying him one-armed; snaps open his wings, and holds out his free hand; and in his hand is —

A staff.

It looks like it’s made of wood, a rich, dark red wood with gold flecks threaded through it; but the sound that rings out as Michael’s sword strikes it, clear as a bell, speaks of metal against metal. It is intricately carved, the lines suggesting there is a serpent inside it, wrapped around it, covering the entire length of it, with the head emerging at the very top.

Aziraphale knows that staff, remembers that staff, even though he’s only ever seen it a few times, and only from a distance. It had been during the war, in a few too-brief times of truce; and then after the war, while the wound he’d sustained in the last battle was being mended by one of the healers working under — under —

Raphael,” Uriel breathes out, faint and shocked.

“Lay down your weapons,” Crowley says, firmly. There is a threat implicit in the sentence, a very clear or else; but there’s something else there as well, and Aziraphale has heard that exact, judgmental tone of voice a thousand times.

Lay down your weapons, you idiots, or else, Aziraphale completes the sentence, mentally; and cannot quite suppress a tiny, half-hysterical laugh. The Archangel Raphael, his friend is the Archangel Raphael — and that should change everything, and yet it changes nothing.

It changes nothing, because how could it? Aziraphale has already made his decision. He knows Crowley, and this is still Crowley, not at all changed even with gold in his hair and galaxies in his eyes and a sunrise in his wings; Crowley, shooting Aziraphale a lightning-quick, sardonic look, eyebrows raised and a smirk curled on his lips, before schooling his features back into neutrality.

Lucifer vanishes his sword with a gesture, still not taking his eyes from Gabriel; Michael, gone pale and wide-eyed, stumbles back a few steps and vanishes hers, also. Uriel and Sandalphon follow suit.

Aziraphale keeps his sword and his position, although he relaxes his stance. He knows what this is, of course — a truce enforced by the authority of the First Healer, as truces during the war had been; and he knows he should set aside his own weapon; but he also knows, somehow, that the command did not include him.

“The Principality is still armed,” Sandalphon says sharply, peevishly.

“Aziraphale gets to keep his sword,” Crowley says, almost absently, “because I trust him not to misuse it.” He moves his staff to the crook of his elbow and gracefully sinks to his knees, settling Gabriel carefully in his lap.

“Who cares about Aziraphale,” Uriel blurts out, “what about Gabriel? Can you help him? What happened to him?”

“He Fell,” Lucifer answers, quietly; and there is clear grief in the Morningstar’s voice.

“He was Falling,” Crowley contradicts; runs a hand gently over the curve of one of Gabriel’s wings, not quite touching, his lips pursing in thought. “I caught him first.”

“You can’t catch someone out of Falling,” Beelzebub exclaims, apparently having reached the limit of what she’s willing to accept. “That’s not possible.”

Crowley arches an eyebrow, with a wry smile. “Never been good with ‘can’t’. You know that well enough. He was on the way to Falling, but it would’ve taken a while longer still. But he was trying to fly to Heaven, and his wings must’ve started giving out, and he used his power to compensate for it. If he hadn’t, he probably would’ve just made the flight; but he did, and he burned himself out.”

“So… he just needs to rest, and he will eventually wake up and be fine?” Sandalphon asks, frowning.

“He’s not going to wake up,” Anathema says, suddenly, stepping up to stand at Aziraphale’s side. “Is he?”

Sandalphon scoffs; but Crowley shakes his head, slowly. “He isn’t, no. How did you know?”

“I can see auras. Well — I can’t see yours, or his, or hers —” she jabs a thumb towards Aziraphale and Beelzebub “or theirs —” she waves a hand to cover the Archangels and Lucifer both “but I can see his. Just barely. It keeps flickering in and out. That doesn’t seem right.”

“You’re correct, it’s not.” Crowley sighs. “He’s still unconsciously trying to fix his wings, so the burnout is still ongoing. It’s a vicious cycle. He’s not getting out of it unless I can fix either his wings, or the burnout. I should be able to, I’m just trying to work out a way —”

YOU CAN’T. HE IS DYING.

Aziraphale startles at the sound of Death’s voice; but then, he can be forgiven for that, he thinks, because so does everyone else — except for Crowley.

Crowley, instead, looks directly at Death, scowls, and says, “Fuck off.”

There’s the thud of a body hitting the ground behind Aziraphale. “Uh, Anathema?” Brian says. “Your boyfriend just fainted.” Anathema sighs, and moves back to help her young man.

“Did he just tell Death to fuck off?” Pepper asks in a loud whisper, admiringly. “Cool.”

Aziraphale can’t help but feel he’s missing something; the Archangels and Lucifer, too, appear to be taken aback. Who speaks to Death with such familiarity?

Death sighs. YOU CAN’T SAVE HIM. YOU KNOW THAT.

“Do I? Still not good with ‘can’t’, and you know that better than anyone.” Crowley touches one of Gabriel’s wings with a fingertip; there is a spark, and he pulls his finger back, hissing. “Right. Not that way, then.”

“Raphael,” Michael calls out. “Perhaps you should just let him go. I know you love him, we all do, but if Death has come to claim him, he must be beyond help.” She is still pale, and her voice is gentle; but her eyes have gone calculating. “Let him go, and come back to Heaven with us. We shall mourn him, and celebrate your return.”

Crowley’s face goes blank, in a way that Aziraphale has previously seen exactly once — earlier that same day, in the bookshop; his voice, when he speaks again, is carefully even, tight with restrained anger. “You know nothing about me anymore, Michael; that is, if you ever did, which I have my doubts about. I don’t belong in Heaven, any more than I belong in Hell; I figured that out the day I left. You may have him back, if I succeed, but you will not have me.”

“Raphael,” Michael tries again, “surely —”

You will not have me,” Crowley snaps, his voice resonant with layered echoes; and Michael subsides.

There is a pause, and then Crowley continues, almost conversationally: “I hate him, you know. And the rest of you. For many, many reasons, all of which are altogether excellent and valid. But none of that —” he touches Gabriel’s wing again; there is another spark, and he pulls his hand back once again “— that stings — none of that changes the fact that he is my brother. And he wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for me.”

HE WOULD HAVE FALLEN ANYWAY, EVENTUALLY, Death says.

“Probably. But he wouldn’t have died. I feel rather responsible, you know. And besides —” another touch; another spark “— fuck! — he has to be alive for me to hate him, yeah?”

“I don’t like my little sister very much,” chimes in Pepper, who, Aziraphale privately thinks, seems to be taking all of this a little too much in stride, “but I’d be very sad if she died.”

“The kid gets it.” Crowley nods in her general direction. “Or, you know, let’s take a look at Samael. Spends six thousand years plotting and planning a great big bloody revenge war with Heaven, still comes running when he feels his brother on the verge of death. Or Michael, with her grand ideas of sacrificing Gabriel on the altar of a greater purpose. She’d grieve in private, and think herself weak for it, but she’d grieve.” Almost idly, he runs a fingertip along the length of Gabriel’s wing, touching now, as much of it as he can reach. “And how’d you figure that glorious fight between the two of you that you were planning was going to end, exactly? In joyful triumph? Or in heartbreak?”

Aziraphale flinches, a knot of unease nestled in the pit of his stomach. Crowley knows what he’s doing, he tells himself. Yes, he’s antagonising both sides and taking a very cavalier attitude to the presence of Death, but if anyone gets to do that, it’s the Archangel Raphael, surely.

“You’ve no right to judge,” Lucifer snaps. “You’re no better than the rest of us. Your hands aren’t clean, either.”

Crowley’s mouth twists. “I’m a Healer. My hands have been drenched in blood from the very first. Not much difference between killing someone and being unable to save them, in the end,” he says, steadily, his careful hand running gently along Gabriel’s wing. “So no, I’m not judging. I’m only asking questions, and doing what I think is right. I don’t profess to be the Voice of God; I’ve no idea what She’s really planning.” He pauses, then shrugs, with a quick, wry smile. “As a matter of fact, I’m quite certain She thinks I’m an idiot.”

LIKELY, Death says, dry as bone.

“Always so kind,” Crowley mutters in response, equally as dry. “All I’m saying is, you can’t be certain. The Great Plan is your plan; God’s Ineffable Plan could easily be something else entirely, and it’s not written anywhere that I’ve seen.”

The sense of unease is growing, tugging at Aziraphale. There is no room for doubt in Heaven, no room for questions; and he remembers what Crowley had said, once, very early on in their acquaintance — quiet, broken-hearted, in the middle of one of his drunken rants. I only ever asked questions. But Aziraphale himself has doubted, has asked questions, and has not Fallen; and Crowley, who has never stopped questioning, has Risen. Neither of them has any faith left in Heaven, but they both still have faith in God. He can have faith in Crowley.

There is silence, for a moment; Aziraphale risks a look behind him, to check on the humans. The children are all looking at Crowley, with varying degrees of curiosity, admiration and intensity, the last being chiefly Adam; Anathema is sitting cross-legged on the tarmac, her unconscious young man’s head in her lap, staring at Crowley with a focus that rivals Adam’s.

Ah,” Crowley breathes. “Would you look at that.”

Aziraphale turns back, and looks.

There is a little colour in Gabriel’s cheeks; and there are new pin feathers on the wing Crowley is touching.

It all happens very quickly, after that.

Crowley sets his jaw, his mouth a flat, determined line; and his power rises, so sharply that Aziraphale can not only smell it, but almost feel it, echoing deep in his bones.

RAPHAEL, Death says, sharply, “brother, don’t!”

The sudden change in Death’s voice is stark enough that Aziraphale looks to him; and finds himself staring, astonished.

The foreboding, skull-headed figure is gone; in his place stands an angel. His wings are the same as before, a single pair of enormous wings, cutting into reality and making it blur and bleed in a way that implies infinity. His hair is so black it’s nearly blue, and his eyes are silver; and if it weren’t for his colouring, he could be Crowley’s twin.

Crowley grins, humourless, a sharp thing that cuts like a knife. “I told you I could work it out.”

“You cannot,” Death says, urgently. “You cannot! Let him go. Let him go, or I will have you both rather than just him.”

“You will not have him, Azrael,” Crowley says, through gritted teeth, “and you will not have me.” And then he tips his head backwards, and closes his eyes, and falls entirely still.

Azrael. Death is an angel — an Archangel, and very obviously not merely Crowley’s sibling, but Crowley’s almost-twin, created at the same time, like Michael and Lucifer — and what does that make Crowley?

The tugging unease turns into outright pain. It’s the Pact, Aziraphale suddenly realises, the Pact demanding that he help Crowley; and there is nothing for him to do but drop his sword and rush to his friend’s side. The cut on his palm reopens; he slices the other palm open on a bladed primary, also, and puts his bleeding hands on his friend’s wings.

The connection is deeper, now, than it was before, and goes deeper still as he closes his eyes and gives himself over to it; and for the very first time, he gets a very good look at the enormity of Crowley’s power. His friend is an endless, fathomless ocean; and he, himself, little more than a narrow river.

And Crowley’s power is flowing out of him much too quickly, Aziraphale sees; Azrael may well be right that Crowley will kill himself doing this.

I’ll thank you not to think that in my head, comes Crowley’s voice, small, strained. This is difficult enough already.

I’ll think whatever I want, Aziraphale responds, tartly, before he can stop himself. How can I help?

I don’t think you can. You’re not strong enough for me to pull anything from you; I would destroy you in the process. There is regret in Crowley’s voice, and the beginnings of exhaustion buried deep under it. It’s probably best if you just let go.

Never, Aziraphale thinks, firmly. I said I would stand by your side, and that’s what I intend to do.

Crowley doesn’t answer; and a moment later, Aziraphale feels him slipping, and, instinctively, reaches — and, somehow, manages to grab a hold of him.

What the fuck did you just do? Crowley sounds as shaken as Aziraphale feels. That shouldn’t — you shouldn’t have been able to — actually, you know what? Never mind. I don’t care how it works. Keep me grounded. Keep me here.

There is no reason why Aziraphale should know what that means, should know how to do it; but he does.

If his first, instinctive grasp at Crowley was the equivalent of grabbing him by the arm to keep him from falling, what he does now is far more careful and deliberate. It’s taking his friend by the hand and threading their fingers together, it’s pulling him into a tight embrace, it’s holding on and not letting go.

With an effort of will, he opens his eyes. On a physical level, his hands are still bleeding on Crowley’s wings; on another plane, he is wrapped around Crowley, holding firm, the Pact and the six thousand years between them letting him be the anchor that Crowley needs to fight against the inexorable pull of the tide of power that he is pouring into Gabriel, to not be swept along and away; and he cannot, will not let go.

Azrael is looking at him thoughtfully, eyes narrowed; and Aziraphale cannot hold his gaze, has to look away from the frank, appraising stare of the Archangel of Death. Instead, he looks over at the humans: the children, wide-eyed and awed, Adam, slouched and unblinking, and Anathema and her unconscious young man whose name he still doesn’t know, but would like the chance to learn. Humans. So short-lived, but bright, wonderful, worth protecting. And Earth, this stupid, marvelous planet. Home. And Crowley, always Crowley, since the very beginning. Us. It’s always been us. Don’t let go.

Sudden movement catches his eye. Adam has straightened up from his slouch, and the air is trembling with power in front of him; his eyes are narrowed, and his hand moves in a deliberate, purposeful gesture.

Then Adam’s power slams into him, and everything goes white.

Chapter Text

XLI. Tadfield Airbase, one hour after the world didn’t end

Everything hurts.

Everything hurts, every part of him; and ugh, he really hopes he has not burned himself out, because passing out now, while everything is still unresolved, would be astonishingly inconvenient.

Eyes still closed, he takes stock of the situation. He is, without a doubt, exhausted, and once again almost completely drained; he only has a sliver of power left.

In his arms, Gabriel is alive. Alive, and stable; not Falling, nor draining himself to death. Alive — but not an Archangel anymore, just a normal, bog-standard angel. He’s not quite sure how he managed that; but then, he’s not quite sure how he managed the healing at all. Azrael had been right: it shouldn’t have been possible. He’d very nearly killed himself doing it.

He’d poured power and healing both into Gabriel, and for a very brief while it had actually worked as he’d intended it to; and then it had suddenly been like trying to fix a broken jar by pouring water into it, and he’d found himself unable to stop. His grip on his power had faltered, and with it, his grip on his sense of self; and he would’ve slipped away — but Aziraphale had been there, and had, somehow, caught him.

Aziraphale, still at his back, a warm, solid, grounding presence, the connection between them now deeper than he’d ever have thought possible. The Pact is the Pact; this is something entirely else, something he is almost afraid to examine closely; though he knows he needs to.

There will, hopefully, be time for it afterwards. First, though, he needs to deal with his siblings.

It is more than a little strange to have every single one of them here, for the first time in millennia. One unconscious ex-Archangel; three Archangels; one self-proclaimed Great Adversary, Supreme Lord of Hell; one Shadow of Creation, better known as Death.

And then, of course, there’s him — whatever he currently is. Because the thing is, he’s not quite sure.

In all the ways that count, he is the Archangel Raphael again. He is whole, in a way he has not been since before his Fall. His Grace is returned to him, that too-empty, forever aching part of him finally filled; and he can once again wield his staff — his God-given staff, and the authority that goes with it. His lost wings are returned to him, too, and from the changes he can feel in his body, he expects he now looks like he used to before he Fell, all the way back at the beginning.

If he asked any of his siblings, or even Aziraphale, to define what happened to him, they would probably say he has Risen; and they may even be correct, but if this is a Rising, it is certainly not an undoing of his Fall.

Yes, he is whole; but he is not unbroken, not returned to how he used to be all those millennia ago. Rather, he is mended.

Mended, and whole, and the Archangel Raphael again; but still, also, what he’s become, what he’s made of himself. He can still call hellfire, for one; and has the immunity that goes with it.

Plus, he’s defied Death; and because he’d been created as his brother’s almost-twin, almost-opposite, he knows, he knows it should’ve been an impossibility. He’d been reckless, and foolish; he should not have succeeded.

And what does that make him? He feels like he’s been trying to put himself back together for six thousand years, only to find at the very last that several pieces have been replaced with something entirely different.

Crowley? Aziraphale’s tentative, worried voice pulls him from his thoughts.

I’m fine, he answers, gently. It’s done. You can let go.

Aziraphale’s first reaction to that is to cling more tightly; and oh, Crowley really, really does not want his angel to let go. But let go they must, if for no other reason than that he absolutely does not want his siblings to enquire about the nature of his relationship with Aziraphale — especially considering he is not, at this point, entirely certain what their relationship is, anymore.

It’s alright, Aziraphale, I promise. I’ll still be here. Let go.

He feels Aziraphale’s reluctant assent; and as soon as Aziraphale’s hands stop touching his wings, the connection dissipates.

He cautiously spreads out his awareness, very carefully using only the bare minimum power needed; and tells himself he is not only doing it to follow Aziraphale, to watch him as he walks back to the humans, picks up his sword, and settles back into a guard position, by — oh, that’s interesting. Beelzebub has not moved. He would’ve thought she would end up at Samael’s side, as she always has; instead, she’s still standing with the humans.

The humans, for their part, all appear to be doing well. Four children, one woman, and one unconscious man he can’t help but nudge closer to consciousness, the wicked side of him wondering if the man might faint again upon seeing —

Hang on. Four children? Four human children?

He narrows his focus and expends a little more power to look deeper. Three entirely human children, and one almost entirely human, only very slightly demonic Antichrist.

Something has happened while he was healing Gabriel, something has changed; and he doesn’t know what it is, and he does not like not knowing. At least Armageddon hasn’t restarted; whatever has happened, the world is still safe, for now. Maybe forever, since Adam is still the Antichrist — if nothing else changes, if he can talk his siblings out of their idiotic war.

Right. Reinforce authority, make them listen, make them leave. He can do this. Probably.

He takes a deep, deliberate breath, breaking the stillness that he knows has taken over him, and rolls his shoulders, and opens his eyes.

Everyone’s staring at him, but he only truly cares about a few of them. Aziraphale looks worried, still; Adam, somehow both knowing and innocent, so much so that Crowley knows immediately he will get no answers from him about what happened; and Azrael… well. His brother’s managed to mostly school his face into neutrality, but Crowley knows relief when he sees it. Crowley nods to him; in return, Azrael bows, and silently vanishes.

Right. No answers from that quarter either, then.

Carefully, he stands, resettling Gabriel’s weight into a one-armed carry and taking hold of his staff again with his free hand; and he walks over to Uriel, and unceremoniously drops Gabriel into her arms. “Here you go. One mostly-intact brother.” And then, very deliberately, he turns his back to Uriel and the rest and moves to stand with Aziraphale.

He’s barely made it two steps away when Michael grabs him by the arm, forcing him to stop and turn around. “Raphael —”

“Take your hand off me, Michael,” he interrupts, letting threat bleed into his voice, “or I will take it off you.”

Michael blinks, shock writ plain on her face, and lets go, taking a step backwards. “Of course, brother, I only wanted —” She shakes her head, frowning. “I’m doing this all wrong. Come back to Heaven with us, brother. You belong with us.”

“Do I,” he says, flatly. It’s not a question. If it was Aziraphale he was speaking to, or even Beelzebub, this is where alarm bells would start ringing for them; but Michael doesn’t know him, so she doesn’t realise. He doesn’t exactly mind. “Should I refuse a third time?”

“You belong with us,” Michael insists. “What you did to Gabriel — he’s no longer an Archangel.”

“I saved his life. Would you prefer he were still an Archangel? He would be dead.”

“Of course not. But — he led us. His change leaves an empty spot behind. You could — we would be glad to have you lead us, instead.”

He gives the offer a moment’s consideration, which is, frankly, more than it deserves. Had it come six thousand years earlier, before his Fall, he might not have seen it for what it was, and might have thus accepted it; but now — he is many things, but he is not a fool. Not any longer. “I wasn’t aware you had resigned your leadership, Michael.”

It’s a bit of a gamble — if she had, he would not have heard about it — but a successful one; because Michael flinches. “I —”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. He didn’t really lead you, and neither would I, if I took the offer. You don’t want me; you want my power, and you want what I represent, all neatly pinned under your thumb. I say again: you will not have me.” He drops all the threat he’s capable of into the last sentence, very aware of how his voice resonates; and spreads his wings to further his point; and has the distinct pleasure of watching all three of his Archangel siblings scramble backwards several steps, away from him, in outright panic.

They have only ever known him to be kind, and gentle, and soft-spoken; firm in his beliefs, yes, but easy to corral into silence, easy to turn away. They do not expect him to have changed; and Heaven brooks no dissent, no disobedience, no doubt. They are ill-equipped to deal with him as he is now.

Still, Michael doesn’t give up. “No, brother, of course not. I care about you, we all do.”

He scoffs. “Not two hours ago, you would have killed me without hesitation. You’ll have to excuse my disbelief.”

Michael pauses, thrown; and by the time she might’ve mustered up a response, he’s already changing.

He keeps his staff, because there’s no sense in giving anyone the mistaken impression that he may be backing down; but he folds away his wings, and hides the gold from his hair, and, for good measure — because he cannot change his eyes any more than he could when they were serpentine — he pulls a pair of sunglasses out of the air, and dons them.

Michael chokes on the insincere reassurance she was doubtlessly about to give; and he would be lying if he said he does not enjoy the tense, stricken silence that follows.

He waits it out for effect, a minute, two, and then lets a bitter smile twist his lips. “I don’t look so different, do I?” he says, softly, evenly. “No gold in my hair, and my eyes are hidden, but other than that, I haven’t changed a bit. And I know you’ve seen me; you’ve been keeping tabs on Aziraphale. You just weren’t looking. You saw a demon, and did not bother to look further. Although — even if you had, it wouldn’t have made any difference, would it?”

More silence.

“You Fell?” Uriel manages, eventually, in a very small voice.

“I Fell.” Crowley shrugs, and vanishes the sunglasses, and shakes out his wings again, and puts the gold back in his hair. “So go on.” He bares his teeth. “Tell me how much you value me. Lie to me.”

“Oh, brother.” Michael, again, with infinite gentleness; and it had always rubbed him the wrong way, when she used that tone with him, even before — but now, now that he knows what it hides, it’s like a blade scraping his very last nerve raw. “We didn’t know. But now that you are returned to us —”

Enough.” His voice is soft, still, but he lets his power echo in it again; and Michael falls silent, and, once again, all three Archangels take several steps back.

Without another word, he turns on his heel again; this time, nobody stops him as he walks back to Aziraphale and the humans he’s protecting.

As he approaches, Beelzebub gives him a long, appraising look; and dips into a formal, perfectly correct and utterly sincere bow, before straightening up and moving past him to go stand at his brother’s side at last.

And isn’t that something. Beelzebub may be simply hedging her bets, of course, making sure he remains disinclined to take her apart; but a bow like that, especially in this situation and with the history they have between them, goes so far beyond respect it could easily be taken as an open declaration of allegiance.

His siblings realise that, too, he can see it in their faces when he turns around to look at them again. Samael’s frowning; Sandalphon, Uriel and Michael are staring, mouth open, eyes wide.

Michael recovers quickest; and eyes Crowley’s new position, lips pursed. “You’re standing with the humans?” she asks, coolly. “You would make yourself an enemy of Heaven, then?”

Make myself an enemy of Heaven?” Crowley arches an eyebrow. “I was under the impression I’d been one for the past six thousand years.”

“When the war starts —”

“Ah. Yes. Slight problem there.” He spreads his arms, and smirks. “The Antichrist has declined to act. Armageddon’s stopped. There will be no war.”

“We could kill the Antichrist and start the whole process over again,” Michael says.

Crowley pauses, and pretends to consider. Killing Adam would not do anything, at this point; he knows that for certain. Whatever happened, whatever the boy did, it counted as an end to the whole process; Armageddon is over, permanently. He’s not going to point that out, though, because —

“You would have to go through us, first,” Aziraphale says.

“That would be easily done,” Sandalphon says, with a smirk. “You folded over very nicely last night.”

Aziraphale only smiles calmly, pleasantly, and adjusts his stance. “Try me,” he says; and Crowley has to smother a smile of his own, because he can tell Aziraphale knows exactly what he’s doing, and he will not deny his angel the satisfaction.

The bait works; Sandalphon starts forward, and calls his sword to his hand — only to drop it a moment later, with a pained shout, his right hand red and blistered all the way to the wrist.

“The truce holds,” Crowley says, very softly, “and is enforced, until I decide otherwise. Forgot that, did you?”

Sandalphon scowls. “You can’t hold this forever.”

Actually, there’s a thought. “Can’t I? It holds until I’m drained; and I have no intention of reaching that point.” He’d been a fool during the first war — he’d repeatedly drained himself healing others, unable to stand seeing anyone in pain, and he’d let the truce drop, believing his siblings could be persuaded to see reason. He will not make the same mistake this time. He knows better, now. “You cannot force me to break the truce. There will be no war on Earth.”

“You would go against the will of the Almighty?” Uriel asks, frowning. “The Great Plan —”

“— was never Her will in the first place,” Aziraphale interrupts. “Or we would not have been able to stop it.”

“You will Fall, Principality,” Michael says, with the tone of someone making a dire, final proclamation.

“If such is Her judgment, I will accept it,” Aziraphale says, serenely. “Until then, I will follow my conscience.”

It looks like his siblings might object again, but Crowley has had quite enough. “It is not for you to judge,” he says, softly. “Seems like you’ve forgotten that, as well.” He doesn’t need to look at his siblings’ wings; he knows what he’s going to find there. “There’s a charming human saying that has to do with stones and glass houses. You’re probably unaware of it, so I’ll just — clarify it for you, shall I?”

He is the First Healer, and he is whole again; it only takes the smallest trickle of his power to rifle through his siblings’ wings, and undo the six millennia of feather repairs that are disguising their sorry state. “You are Falling, just like Gabriel was. So — you might want to reconsider your actions, before you reach the point of no return.” He shrugs, with all the nonchalance he doesn’t actually feel. “Or don’t. It’s all the same to me. But I frankly wouldn’t recommend it. Nasty bit of business, Falling.”

Brother,” Uriel whispers, stricken.

He ignores her. “Here’s what is going to happen. You will return to Heaven, and you will tell everyone exactly what happened; you will tell them that the Great Plan is over. If anyone in Heaven still wants to fight, after this, they are welcome to it; but anyone who does not want to be involved will not be involved, and it will not be on Earth. Find some empty rock to fight on, if you wish, somewhere far away from here; I care not where.”

“How are we meant to get ten million angels to stand down from their war footing?” Sandalphon asks, petulantly. “We’ve been working towards this for —”

“Not my problem. Oh, and — get rid of the Metatron, will you?”

“The Metatron,” Michael begins, primly, “is the Voice of God, and —”

“The Metatron is as much the Voice of God as the stray cat that lives behind Aziraphale’s bookshop is, and you know that as well as I do,” Crowley interrupts, firmly. “God hasn’t spoken to anyone since before the last war; it’s time you stop pretending you know what She wants.”

“But —”

Enough, Michael,” he snaps. “Do not test me on this; I swear to God Herself, I will make you regret it if you do.”

Michael sets her jaw and raises her chin in defiance. “Threats are all well and good, but you’re bound by the truce the same way we are. Even your pet Principality couldn’t do much; he could strike first, since you’ve let him keep his weapon, but then we would be free to retaliate, and I don’t think either of you would enjoy the result.”

Your pet Principality — as if Aziraphale were nothing but a tool to be used. He cannot quite manage to smother the wave of anger rising in him at that, and at the almost explicit threat; and on the heels of the anger, he feels his power rise, unbidden, and —

He knows his limits, he knows he is almost drained, he is certain of it; but somehow, there is an infinity of power there for the taking, an enormous, endless wellspring, right at his fingertips; and he pulls, and pulls, and yet more comes, so much he is brimming with it, overfull, spilling over, almost.

He doesn’t know where the power is coming from, but he knows — he can feel — that it is his to use; and so he uses it, sending out a veritable tidal wave of menace as he stalks forward purposefully towards Michael. Uriel and Sandalphon nearly fall in their rush to move away from him; Michael stands her ground, but she is staring, speechless, her eyes very wide.

Slowly, carefully, making sure she can feel him do it, he reaches out for Michael with his power; and slices open a wound in her cheek, shallow enough to be easily mended but still deep enough to hurt.

Michael goes so pale as to look entirely bloodless, her hand flying up to her cheek to cover the wound.

“Did that break the truce, do you think?” he asks, softly, softly, softly, pouring all the threat he is capable of into his voice, making sure it echoes with power. It’s a rhetorical question; he knows it hasn’t, and so does she. It’s a loophole he has always known existed, but never thought he would have cause to actually use. As the Healer who enforced the truce, he is free to do anything he wants without breaking it, as long as it pertains to his Domain; and that includes making use of his ability to Harm. “I hope I’ve made my point. Or do I need to repeat myself?”

Michael shakes her head mutely.

“I thought so. Go.

She stares at him a moment longer; and then she disappears, Uriel and Sandalphon following suit and taking the still unconscious Gabriel with them also.

Wordlessly, Crowley turns to Samael, and arches an eyebrow.

His brother immediately raises his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Peace, Raphael. I was already convinced. I will get Hell to stand down.”

“Good.” Crowley loosens his grip on the power; it flows away from him, and — huh. He is drained, almost completely, as he’d thought he was; but the moment he reaches for the power again, it comes, immediately, eagerly. One more thing to examine later.

Beelzebub bows to him again, and disappears; Samael remains. “Brother?”

Crowley just barely manages to smother a frustrated groan. He just wants this to be over. “What?”

Samael walks forward, and puts a hand on Crowley’s shoulder, and smiles — a wistful, half-sad sort of smile, but entirely genuine, the only genuine smile Crowley has seen from his brother since before the Fall. “I’m happy for you. You never did belong in the dark.” And then he, too, is gone.

Chapter Text

XLII. Tadfield, Saturday evening (1)

Adam’s voice breaks the silence. “Can I thank you now?”

Crowley sighs, all the tension leaving him in a rush, the exhaustion making itself known again. “Yeah, kid. It’s over. Although — ack!” One of Adam’s friends — Brian, he thinks this one is called, the taller of the two boys — has flung himself at him and all but tackled him into a hug. “Hey, no, kid, watch the — mind the wings, I just got them back, I’d like to keep them — God’s sake, how can you be so grimy —”

In fairness, he likes children, terrifying, unpredictable agents of chaos and destruction that they are. He’s just complaining for the sake of complaining. Aziraphale, however… Aziraphale likes children in the sense that he likes the idea of children, when they’re kept at a respectable distance from him; the reality of them, not so much. The only child he’d ever more than tolerated had been Warlock; and now, he has Adam’s two other friends firmly latched onto him, and is protesting far more vigorously and earnestly than Crowley. “Excuse me, please, I would prefer if you would — young lady, please, I am holding a burning sword, it’s quite dangerous, if you could — no, stop trying to grab it — I say, young man, are your hands sticky? If you would keep them off my coat —”

Crowley can’t help but laugh at him. “Oh, let them be, angel. Your coat’s a write-off, anyway. We’ll fix it later, or we’ll find you a new one.” And then, to Adam, who is ambling towards him, grinning, at a much more sedate pace: “Alright, kid, c’mere.” He vanishes his staff, and pulls Adam into the hug, also. “You do know you did most of the work, right? If you hadn’t decided to stand against the Horsemen, it would have all already been decided by the time we got here. So, really, we ought to be thanking you. You should all be very proud of yourselves.”

“You helped after, though,” Wensley says, from where he’s still very firmly clinging to an aggrieved-looking Aziraphale. “So thank you, Mr Raphael, Mr — Az-ee…?”

“His name’s Aziraphale,” Crowley says, quickly, before the angel can try to get them to call him ‘Mr Fell’, “and he really loves hugs. And please — just call me Crowley. No ‘Mr’, no ‘Raphael’, just Crowley.”

Aziraphale shoots him an impressive withering look, although the effect is spoiled a little by how stiffly and awkwardly he’s holding himself, one arm raised high above his head to keep Pepper from getting at his sword, the other hovering ineffectually around Wensley’s shoulders as if he can’t decide whether to pull the boy closer or push him away entirely.

Crowley grins, and takes pity on him. “Right, kids. I think you should be heading back home. Isn’t it about dinner time? Your parents will be wondering where you are.”

Adam lets go of Crowley and grins up at him, as if he knows exactly what he’s doing — which, to be fair, he probably does, he comes across as too smart for his own good; and shudders expressively. “You’re right,” he says. “We’d probably be grounded for ever. Come on, let’s go.”

The children immediately release him and Aziraphale, and pick up their abandoned bikes; and then they’re off, waving goodbye and shouting thank yous as they go. It occurs to Crowley, a little belatedly, that he probably should’ve given Adam his phone number, just in case anything else happens that might prove dangerous to the world’s general structural integrity; but then again, the kid’s still the Antichrist, still a little demonic, so he’d probably find a way to get in touch, if needed.

“Er,” Anathema says. “My — Newt is still unconscious. Is he — will he be alright?”

He shouldn’t mock, he really shouldn’t; he barely knows the woman. It’s only that he really doesn’t like the way she’s looking at him, with a little curiosity mixed with an uncomfortably large amount of wonder. Adoration is not something he’s ever been after; he would much prefer she go back to threatening to stab him with a knife, as she had during their previous meeting.

And so: “Your newt?” he asks, very deliberately misunderstanding. “Taking the witch thing a little far, aren’t we, book girl? I didn’t realise familiars were still a thing. And what about your unconscious young man?”

She immediately gives him an impressively thunderous scowl. “My name is Anathema, book thief.”

Oh, good. “I know,” he drawls. Her scowl deepens, and he grins in response, walking over to her, folding his wings away again. “Alright, alright, I know what you meant. Your man is fine. I can look again, though; might even be able to nudge him closer to waking up, although I’m not making any promises.”

“That’d be nice. I doubt I can manage to carry him out of here.”

“Oh, that’s alright. Worst case, we can get Aziraphale to help with the carrying,” he says, crouching down by the unconscious man and running a hand over him. It’s just for effect, of course. He doesn’t really need to touch for something as trivial as this, nor even to be physically close; but the less powerful, distant and inhuman he seems, the better, in this case.

“Must I?” Aziraphale says, long-suffering, moving closer. He’s put away his wings as well, but he’s still holding his sword, although it’s no longer flaming.

“Might have to,” Crowley says, knowing that Aziraphale, protesting or not, will gladly carry the man if necessary. He’s kind that way. “He’s going to be unconscious for another ten minutes or so. He’s fine; he just got overwhelmed. This kind of thing can be a little much for some people to deal with. You’re taking it well.”

“I grew up being told that the Antichrist would be born and Armageddon would happen in my lifetime, and I was going to be directly involved,” Anathema says. “Kinda comes with the territory. But — look, I’m sorry for asking, you said to call you Crowley, but — Raphael? Like the Archangel?”

Crowley raises an eyebrow. “You know about the Antichrist, and Armageddon, like you just said — and you’re actually asking me that? Yes, exactly like the Archangel. Be not afraid, etcetera, but perhaps, for your next question, pick a less silly one.”

Aziraphale snorts, in that way Crowley knows means he’s smothering a laugh; which is encouraging. Of course, he’d been taking it in stride all along, had even continued to call him Crowley rather than Raphael, but — part of him can’t help but worry that the angel will change his mind, once he’s had time to properly think about it.

Anathema, for her part, blinks, then smiles. “That’s a fair point. I have — so many questions, though. Some of them are bound to be silly.” She sounds like she’s surprised that he’s implied he might answer.

Crowley grins, again, and stands. “Find us a way to get back to London that doesn’t involve me having to drive, and you might even get answers.”

“Anything to keep you off the road.” Her smile turns into a smirk. “You might run over other innocent cyclists. I’ll be doing a public service.”

“Bite your tongue, witch,” he says, with mock severity; and she actually laughs at him. He really does like her. Then something occurs to him. “Out of curiosity — what colour are my eyes, would you say?” He knows they’re gold, as they always have been; but if they don’t seem unnatural to a human, he might be able to finally stop wearing the damned sunglasses, since they’re no longer serpentine.

“Um. Sort of a light honey colour? Amber, maybe?” She frowns, briefly. “Wait — I didn’t get a good look at you earlier, but weren’t they all — snakey before? Was that the reason for the sunglasses?”

“Yup. Tended to freak people out.” And he’d hated them; hated catching sight of himself in reflective surfaces, hated the constant reminder of how far he’d Fallen. But — he is whole again, now.

“Makes sense. No, they’re fine. Striking, but people won’t think they’re weird. Honestly, your hair is a bigger problem than your eyes. It’s beautiful, but it’s going to attract attention, there’s no way that would —” she stumbles, mid-sentence, as he hides the gold from his hair again. “— ever look normal. Right. Gone now. How do you do that?”

“Magic,” he says, easily. “I have some degree of control over the way I look.”

Anathema nods, considering. “How much control, exactly?”

“Ah-ah. Transportation first; answers after.”

“Fine. We got here in Newt’s car; it’s parked off to the side, since we got in through a gap in the fence. Can’t take you all the way to London, since Newt is staying here with me —”

“Oh, staying, is he?” Crowley interjects, unable to resist. “The man was surprised when you referred to him as your boyfriend, but somehow, in the middle of Armageddon, before that, you had time to agree that he’s staying?”

Anathema blushes; but it’s Aziraphale who answers, also looking rather pink. “There was — um. In the book. Prophecy 3067, it was, if I recall correctly. It said that they would — come to know each other. So I expect they would be inclined to stay together, now, since they… well.”

Between the way Anathema stiffened when the prophecy number was mentioned, and the deliberate emphasis Aziraphale put on the word know, Crowley gets the gist. “Well,” he drawls, grinning toothily. “My congratulations.”

Anathema scowls fiercely at him. “Keep that up, and I’ll leave you to work out how to get back to London by yourself.”

“Except you want answers,” he reminds her, cheerfully. He’d answer her questions anyway, but she doesn’t know that.

“Except I want answers,” she agrees. “We can get you to the nearest bus stop. Will that work?”

Ugh, buses. Crowded, and slow, and generally obnoxious. He hates public transportation. He was hoping that wouldn’t be the only option; but it’s still preferable to driving back in something that isn’t his Bentley. The only problem is, he’s almost certain there’s no direct bus to London from here; they’d have to take one into Oxford first.

Eh. He’ll just redirect whatever bus arrives first to London, instead. It won’t even be the first time he’s corralled a bus driver into doing something other than what they’d intended; it had been necessary, sometimes, when using buses as a meeting spot with a certain angel who could get so absorbed in reading that he lost track of time.

“Yeah, that’ll do. Aziraphale, could you…?” He waves a hand to indicate Newt, hoping to get his point across. He could, of course, carry the man himself; but he’s rather hoping to use this opportunity to get a few minutes to himself. There’s a conversation he needs to have, if he can.

“Of course,” Aziraphale says; and hands Crowley the sword, and stoops to pick up Newt. “Where to?”

Anathema stands, gracefully, and starts walking off, apparently trusting them to follow. Aziraphale does; Crowley doesn’t. Noticing this, Aziraphale turns, and raises his eyebrows in a silent question.

“I’ll meet you at the front gate,” Crowley says. “Can’t leave the Horsemen’s armaments just lying around, and I also want to — we passed quite a few unconscious humans, on the way here. I’d like to check that they’ve suffered no ill effects.”

Aziraphale knows him well enough to guess there’s something he’s not saying; but whatever the angel sees in Crowley’s face seems to satisfy him, because he simply nods. “Alright.”

The first thing Crowley does is, indeed, pick up the Horsemen’s armaments, and collect them in a miracled-up cardboard box. They feel strange, to his senses — entirely inert, but at the same time teeming with power, ready to set off the end of the world should it be called for again. He would destroy them, if he could, but doing so is outside of his capabilities.

Anathema and Aziraphale are out of view, now, having rounded a corner and disappeared behind a building. Just in case, he starts walking towards the front gate of the complex, putting even more distance between himself and them, and calls out, very, very softly: “Aziraphale? Can you hear me?”

No response.

Well, then; that’s far enough.

He’s going to feel extremely foolish if his brother doesn’t answer, though. “Azrael?”

“Raphael.” His brother falls into step beside him. “Or should I call you Crowley, now?”

Crowley makes a face. “Eh. You’ve called me Raphael for six thousand years. Would feel a bit weird if you changed now.” He pauses, trying to work out how to best put his feelings into words. “Thing is — I’m Crowley like you’re Death. We are what we’ve made of ourselves. Just about anyone else calling me Raphael feels like they’re trying to fit me into a box that’s entirely the wrong shape — who I used to be, or what they’ve heard about me, or their idea of how I ought to be. Like they don’t really see me. But you always have.”

Azrael’s lips twitch up in a smile. “Likewise, brother.”

They walk quietly for a little while, a peaceful, companionable sort of silence. They pass by a cluster of unconscious humans; without stopping, Crowley brushes his power over them, ensuring that they will wake up without memory of what happened.

Eventually, he clears his throat. “So.”

“So,” Azrael echoes.

“I — what changed? What happened? I feel — different.” It’s not a particularly clear way to put the question, but he trusts his brother will understand.

Azrael looks at him for a long moment. “I can’t say.”

“Can’t, or won’t?” As Death, his brother is a force of nature, tied into the very fabric of the universe; but he is also bound by those same ties, more tightly than the rest of his siblings. There are calls he cannot ignore, actions he can’t not take, and things he cannot even speak of, let alone express his honest opinion about. It’s a tradeoff for being what he is.

“Can’t, of course. Although…” Azrael trails off, thinking.

Crowley waits. Azrael is bound; but over the millennia, he’s worked out a very precise knowledge of exactly where the boundaries lie, and how he might make himself understood without crossing them. There are always loopholes.

“You know that you can never again do what you did for Gabriel,” Azrael says, slowly. “It will kill you if you try. It remains outside the scope of your power, as it was before, as it has always been. Regardless of Aziraphale’s support, regardless of — anything else that happened… you could not have managed that.”

Azrael can’t say it; but Crowley understands. “Not without divine help.”

“Yes.” Azrael is free to confirm it, now that Crowley’s worked it out for himself. Loopholes upon loopholes. “For you; not for Gabriel.”

“Right.” He doesn’t quite know whether he wants to laugh or cry. Six thousand years of empty, echoing nothing, and now — twice in a single day. Still not talking to him, or anyone else that he knows of; but it’s hard to mistake that warmth he’d felt just after the holy water hit him, that very distinct sense of amused, fond exasperation. He’d meant it, when he’d said he was pretty sure She thought he was an idiot.

“As for what changed,” Azrael continues, “I really can’t say. All I can tell you is you’re a little closer, now, to being my true opposite, in a good way. The details, you’ll need to figure out yourself.”

“Right,” Crowley says, again. If his brother hadn’t specified in a good way, he’d be panicking, right about now. He has no desire to become Azrael’s true opposite; he likes his free will right where it is, thank you ever so much. “Good to know.”

They walk in silence for a little longer. He’s not going to get anything else out of his brother, he knows; and they’re nearing the front gate. “Drinks next week? It’s been centuries.” It’s the same offer he always makes at the end of their conversations; it’s been centuries, of course, because Azrael almost always declines. He’ll decline this time, as well, and —

“I’ll let you know a day and time,” Azrael says. “Oh — bring your angel. I’d like to meet him properly.”

“Not my angel,” Crowley says, automatically — that particular question of terminology is well-trod conversational ground — and then his brain catches up with the rest of the sentence. “Wait, hang on —”

But Azrael is already gone.

And isn’t that going to be a fantastic conversation to have with Aziraphale; there’s really no good way to put it. Hey, angel? You know my brother, Death? The one you last saw when we were trying to stop the end of the world? Yeah, he’s the only one of my siblings I actually like. I’m having drinks with him next week, he said you should come. That’ll go so well.

“Crowley?” And speak of the angel.

“Yeah. Found the car, I take it?”

“Er, yes. About that.” Aziraphale looks shifty, like he’s trying to work out the right way to phrase something. “I know you have very strong opinions about cars —”

“Well, I wouldn’t go as far as that —”

“— a solid half of the insults you yell at people when you’re driving is about their choice of vehicle, Crowley.”

Okay, so maybe he does have strong opinions about cars. It’s not his fault most modern cars are so terribly lacking in the way of aesthetics. “What’s your point?”

Aziraphale outright wrings his hands. “Only — they’re lovely people, and they were quite helpful with the whole Armageddon situation, so I’m hoping you can set your opinions aside and — just be nice.”

“Aziraphale, honestly, I have no earthly clue what you —”

And then they’re out of the gate, and he understands very clearly what Aziraphale means to say, because now he can see the — no, he absolutely refuses to give that — abomination — undeserved dignity by calling it a car. It has three wheels, to start with, and that colour

He makes a strangled noise; Aziraphale shoots him a very meaningful look.

Right. Nice. He can — nope. He absolutely can’t. There is nothing nice he can say about the thing. In fact, he’s quite certain that if he even tried to thank the man for giving them a lift, the very next thing out of his mouth would be but for the love of all that’s good, please get yourself a real car.

Thankfully, the moment they climb into the thing, Anathema picks the conversation back up, smoothly, half-turning in her seat so she can see him. “Newt, Crowley. Crowley, Newt,” she says, cheerfully rushing through the introductions. And then, in the tone of someone who has a very long list of questions, is aware she has only a short period of time to ask them in, and intends to get through as many of them as possible: “So, you have control over the way you look, you said?”

“All angels and demons do, though I have more control than most.” He pauses, briefly, considering what to say and how to say it. “The first, extremely basic thing anyone can do is hiding our somewhat inhuman features, the ones that are essentially spillover of our true nature, like the gold in my hair.”

“Or the wings?”

“Or the wings, although those are not so much hidden as tucked away on a different plane of existence, so they’re incorporeal as well as invisible. Bit hard to fit through doorways with a full wingspan, you know how it is.”

That makes her laugh, as he’d intended. “But you said you can do more than most?”

“A lot more. Most of us are restricted to…” he looks to Aziraphale for help. It’s hard to explain limitations that don’t apply to you.

“We can look however we want in our ethereal forms, of course,” Aziraphale picks up the thread of conversation, “but to be on Earth, we require a physical body. We can choose what it looks like, but once it’s assigned to us, we’re limited in how we can manipulate it. We can change what gender it is, of course, but —”

“— wait,” Newt blurts out, startled, “you can do what?”

Crowley winces. That might’ve been put a little more diplomatically, but he can’t blame Aziraphale for taking the concept as a matter of fact; it is, for them. “We don’t have a gender. It’s a human concept; it doesn’t really apply to celestial beings. We can choose how we present when we’re in a body, and most of us typically just pick a presentation we’re comfortable with and then just never change it; but the option to change it is always there, should we need or want to.”

“I see,” Newt says, in the tone of someone who does not, in fact, see, but is willing to suspend disbelief, just because it’s easier.

Anathema just nods. “And that’s all you can do?”

“Well, there’s little things, like —” Crowley shrugs, and runs a hand through his hair, and pulls on it with his power; it obediently grows longer, tumbling down in loose curls that reach just below his shoulders “— this, that anyone can do. But that’s just accelerating a normal human process. If Aziraphale wanted, say, to change the colour of his hair, he’d have to use dye, like you would; he couldn’t change it permanently, himself. He’d have to get a Healer to do it for him, or just outright get a new body.”

“And such a trivial request wouldn’t be even considered,” Aziraphale adds. “Healers are few, and actually crafting a body is, I’m told, very complicated. Even getting a new one assigned if you lose yours can take a while.”

“Not so much complicated as very time-consuming, but yes.” Hell has it even worse. Only one Healer had Fallen, other than him, which had been why his threats to keep discorporating demons unless he was left alone had worked so well. Dagon did so hate to have her workload needlessly increased. “But I’m a Healer, so I can do just about anything I want for myself, without much issue. The only thing I can’t do anything about are my eyes. I can change absolutely everything about myself, can even turn into a big bloody snake, but the eyes stick.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. “You can still do that? I thought —”

“Always could, even before everything. Serpent aspect.”

Anathema startles, her eyes going wide. “Wait. Hold on. Earlier, when I asked what was going on, he said — in the Beginning, you were a wily old serpent. You’re telling me you’re the Serpent of Eden?”

Clever woman. “Yup. Gave humanity knowledge, got them kicked out of the Garden. Worked out alright in the end, didn’t it?”

“I guess,” she says, reluctantly. “So the Bible’s accurate, then? Everything in it is true?”

“Oh, Heaven no,” Aziraphale blurts out, before Crowley can answer; and Crowley smothers a laugh. Aziraphale has very strong opinions about the Bible. “Not remotely. It was written by humans, after all, and you got so many things wrong. And then the translation mistakes! And people just adding in things whenever they feel like, just because they want to claim God said something She never actually said —”

“Genesis 3, verses 25 to 27,” Crowley says, in an undertone, grinning. “‘And the Lord spake unto the angel that guarded the Eastern Gate, saying —’”

“That’s different,” Aziraphale says, with great dignity. “That actually happened. I was there.”

“Of course, of course,” Crowley says.

“So,” Anathema says, slowly, “if I asked you to sit down with me and a Bible and tell me which parts are accurate and which aren’t…”

Aziraphale smiles. “It would be my pleasure, dear girl. Although, you will have to keep in mind that I wasn’t always there.”

“And not tonight,” Crowley says, firmly. “It’s been a long day.”

“Of course,” Anathema says — quickly and smoothly enough, but Crowley catches how her face falls, for a moment. She doesn’t expect she’ll see either of them ever again. “Just to go back to — you said the concept of gender doesn’t apply to you. What about God? You kept saying She — is God a woman, then?”

They are pulling into Tadfield proper, now; it won’t be long before they reach the bus stop. “God is God,” Crowley says. “You kept hearing She. We weren’t using a human language, not exactly, although you understood everything we were saying. What you heard is how you see Her; someone else might have heard He, or They.”

“Oh,” Anathema says. “Oh. But… you were there, at the beginning of everything, weren’t you? You saw God? You know what She looks like?”

“What She looked like to me,” Crowley says, “is not what She looked like to Aziraphale; and it’s not what She would look like to you. It’s probably not even what She would look like to me, if I saw her now. God is God; what you hear, what you would see, is your interpretation of Her. I’ve changed; I would see Her differently.”

“But —”

“Stop,” Crowley says, gently. “It’s too big a concept. It’s ineffable. You can’t pin it down any further. Neither can I, and I’ve had actual conversations with Her. You’ll just go in circles if you try.”

“Um,” Newt says, stopping the vehicle. “Sorry to interrupt. We’re here. Well — we’re at the cottage. I don’t remember where the bus stop is.”

Anathema sighs. “It’s just two streets over. You may as well get out here, and walk the rest of the way.”

They all climb out; Crowley holds his hand out to Anathema. “Phone, please.”

She’s so distracted, clearly still thinking about his answer to her last question, that she just hands it to him without comment or complaint.

Quickly, he adds his number to the list of contacts, and hands the phone back to her. “There you go. Send me a message in a day or two — we can work out a day to meet in London, or Aziraphale and I can come back here. You can spend some time going through the Bible with him like you wanted, and I can answer any other questions you might have. In the meantime, stop thinking yourself into metaphorical knots, will you?”

She stares at him. “You would —”

“I gave humanity knowledge, Anathema,” he says, softly, “and not because I thought it was the evil thing to do, regardless of what the Bible or anyone else might tell you. Of course I would.”

“Of course you would,” she says, mostly to herself, a little disbelievingly. “You didn’t really need a lift, did you?”

He smiles. “No, we didn’t. Well — I was honestly hoping we wouldn’t have to take the bloody bus. But we could’ve gotten to the bus stop on our own. Borrowed a jeep or something.”

She huffs. “Well, it’s good that you didn’t. Probably would’ve ran over some innocent —”

“The road was deserted the entire way,” he points out, grinning.

“— wildlife, innocent wildlife, that still counts. And — look, I’m sorry for asking this, but — are you alright? You look like you’ve been run over by a truck, and — you know I can see auras, and I can see yours now. Means it’s smaller than it was before. That doesn’t seem good.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it, I’ll be fine. Just — really exhausted.” He shrugs. “It’s been a very long — week, really, trying to stop the end of the world. Almost didn’t think we were going to manage, some moments.”

“Right. You know what — stay here. I’ll be right back.” She all but runs into her cottage; and returns a few minutes later, holding a bottle of wine, which she presses into his hands. “Here. Something to celebrate the world’s continued existence with. It’s not great wine, I bought it to cook with it, but you look like you might need the alcohol, so I figure it’s better than nothing. I’d offer you a place to stay for the night — cottage’s got a pair of guest rooms — but you wouldn’t take it, would you.”

“Nah, ‘s fine,” he says, honestly feeling a little bowled over but mostly managing to cover for it. “Wouldn’t want to intrude on the honeymoon period. You kids have fun.”

She grins. “Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say. Have a good night.” And she goes, pulling her blushing man along.

Chapter Text

XLIII. Tadfield, Saturday evening (2)

“So,” Aziraphale says, shooting Crowley a sidelong glance. “The Archangel Raphael. First Among the Healers, Starshaper, Hand of Mercy, Third in Her Eyes. Should I bow?”

He means it as a joke; but Crowley sprawls back on the bench, and it’s a smooth, dramatic gesture that doesn’t quite manage to cover his flinch, and Aziraphale regrets it instantly.

“I swear, Aziraphale, I will clobber you with this wine bottle if you do,” Crowley says. The words are light, but the tone of his voice speaks of worry and tension, and Aziraphale can read between the lines, can understand the real meaning — don’t let this come between us, please, please.

Aziraphale doesn’t intend to, of course he doesn’t; but it’s a conversation they very obviously need to have, for all that he doesn’t know how to start it. “Heaven forbid,” he says, sitting down primly on the bench. “That would be a waste of perfectly good wine.”

“I doubt it. No good wine ever came in a bottle with a screw cap.” Crowley opens the bottle and takes a sip; and makes such a disgusted face that Aziraphale can’t help but laugh. “Eurgh,” Crowley says, with great feeling. “This is vile.”

“Ah, it can’t be that bad,” Aziraphale says, holding out his hand. “Give it here.”

“Whatever you’re expecting, I promise you, it’s worse,” Crowley says, lugubriously; and wipes the top of the bottle, and passes it over.

Aziraphale grabs it, and takes a cautious sip; and Crowley was right in this, at least, because it’s absolutely terrible. “Good Lord. This is execrable, even for —” Aziraphale squints at the bottle label “— Tesco Finest Montepulciano d’Abruzzo? There is nothing finest about this.”

Crowley smirks at him. “Told you so.”

“Yes, well.” Aziraphale gives the bottle a meaningful scowl. When he takes the next sip, the wine has found it in itself to become a perfectly acceptable, if rather surprised, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He wipes the top of the bottle, and hands it back over to Crowley. “Here. Now it’d be a waste.”

Crowley takes a long pull of wine and leans back, somehow sinking even further into the bench, the bottle dangling from one long-fingered hand. “Ah, yes. Much better.”

Aziraphale sighs, soundlessly. He wishes he could sit closer to Crowley, now that there is no more need to hide; but the box with the Horsemen’s armaments is in the middle of the bench, between them. The end of the world, still, between them.

The wind picks up, making the box flaps rustle and tugging at Crowley’s hair, too. He looks strange, like this, hair long and loose, eyes unguarded — strange and new, but old and achingly familiar at the same time. It puts Aziraphale in mind of times long gone by, of Eden and the Flood and Golgotha, before Crowley had first cut his hair and started hiding his eyes from the world.

Crowley makes a disgruntled noise as his hair is blown into his eyes, and sets the bottle down on the bench. “Forgot it does that.” With a deftness born of long practice, he reaches up with both hands, pulling back the strands on either side of his face and braiding them together at the back of his head.

Aziraphale watches him do it; and as Crowley ties off the braid with a miracled-up hair tie and moves his hands away from his face, he realises —

“Your mark is gone.”

Crowley pauses in the act of picking the wine bottle back up. “Hm?”

“Your, er — snake mark. Tattoo? Sigil? I’m not actually sure what it was, I don’t think I ever asked you…”

“Ah, that. It’s not gone; it’s moved.” Crowley pulls up his right sleeve; not by a lot — that would be difficult, given how narrow his jacket’s sleeves are — but enough to bare his wrist.

There’s what looks like a tattoo, there — a large snake, a rich, dark red in colour, with gold edging on some of the individual scales. The head is resting on the inside of Crowley’s wrist, the body curling around the forearm and disappearing out of view; given the size of it, Aziraphale guesses it goes all the way up to Crowley’s shoulder, at the very least.

“It’s my staff,” Crowley says, letting the sleeve drop. He grabs the bottle again, and takes a long pull. “It was — sealed, I guess that’s the word you could use. I couldn’t call it any longer, after I Fell.” His lips twist into a sad half-smile. “You were right, in Paris; I was — limited.”

“Oh.” Aziraphale doesn’t know what to say to that; and so he looks away from Crowley, and down at his hands. What he wants to do, truly, is to reach out to Crowley; but despite all that has happened between them, the habit of centuries spent barely ever touching has him tuck a hand in his coat pocket instead, and pull out the scrap of prophecy he’d caught earlier, and fiddle with it, just for a distraction.

“What’s that?” Crowley asks, curious.

Aziraphale hands it over. “It fell out of Agnes Nutter’s book.”

“‘Wenn the Ende hath coom’,” Crowley reads, slowly, “‘two Powers sharl stand upon the watchéd Earth, Fyre and Water of their Domaine, for the wheel of Fate ever turneth.’ Well, that’s clear as coal. It was the last one in the book?”

“Yes. The last she ever wrote, as far as I know.”

“Mm.” Crowley hands Aziraphale the scrap of paper back, then takes another swig from the bottle, humming thoughtfully. “‘The watched earth, fire and water’. Any idea what that could possibly mean?”

“None whatsoever. Honestly, I feel like I’m almost too tired to think straight.”

“I know what you mean.” Crowley sighs. “We can work it out tomorrow, I’m sure.”

A small van pulls up next to them; a smiling delivery man gets out. “Excuse me, gents. I’m meant to pick up the, uh…?” He’s human, as far as Aziraphale can tell; but it’s hard to focus on his features.

“Right here,” Aziraphale says. “Should be all in the box.”

“Oh, good. All present and correct. I need someone to sign for it?”

Aziraphale hesitates, and looks to Crowley. His friend is staring intently at the delivery man; but he tilts his head in the universal ‘go on’ gesture, so Aziraphale takes the proffered clipboard and pen and signs. The paper lists off the armaments, as well as where they are going to be delivered; but when he tries to read the address, it blurs in front of his eyes.

“Do you know,” the delivery man says, taking the clipboard and pen back and stowing them away in his van, along with the box, “if I was to tell my wife what happened to me today, she wouldn’t believe me. And I wouldn’t blame her. Have a good night, gents.” And he climbs into his van, and drives off.

“Wouldn’t blame her either,” Crowley says, quietly. “I don’t know the details — can’t — but that man was dead, and now he isn’t. And he’s human, but he’s in charge of delivering the Horsemen’s armaments. It’s all so…”

“Ineffable?” Aziraphale suggests.

“Yeah.” Crowley makes a face, and takes a long drink from the bottle; and hands it over to Aziraphale again.

There is silence, for a while; Aziraphale looks down at the bottle, and fiddles with the metal ring around its neck. “That was a kind thing you did, earlier, with Anathema,” he says, finally.

“Ah, nah.” Crowley waves a hand in a vague gesture. “She had questions. Was the right thing to do, to answer them. The fair thing. Kindness had nothing to do with it.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“No?” Crowley waves his hand again; makes a grasping motion. “If you’re not going to drink, hand over the bottle. C’mon.”

“No. I meant the way you put her at ease. You invited her to make fun of you, you wouldn’t let her —”

“Yeah.” Crowley reaches over, across the bench; pulls the bottle out of Aziraphale’s hands and takes a long swig. “‘M not my siblings.”

“I should hope not. Although…”

“Mm?” Crowley puts the bottle to his lips again.

“Although, I rather liked Azrael, I must say. Seemed to be quite the decent sort, I thought.”

Crowley only manages to swallow the wine, instead of spitting it out, through what looks like an extreme effort of will, combined with the fact that he doesn’t actually need to breathe. “You did that on purpose,” he accuses, shaking the bottle in Aziraphale’s direction.

Aziraphale relieves him of the bottle and hides his smile by taking a drink. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course you don’t, you menace.” Crowley scowls at him — or tries to; there’s a wondering smile pulling at his lips. “You really don’t care, do you? About the whole — Archangel thing.”

Aziraphale shakes his head. “I really don’t. I’ve told you — I know who you are now. Nothing else matters. Our own side. Alright?”

Crowley’s smile widens, turns soft; his eyes are soft, as well. “Alright, angel.”

“Good.” Aziraphale takes another drink, and hands the bottle over again. “Oh, there’s the bus,” he says, seeing it coming down the road towards them. “It says Oxford on the front.”

“Yeah, but he’ll drive to London anyway.” Crowley takes a drink, finishing off the bottle. “He just won’t know why.”

Aziraphale raises his eyebrows at Crowley, meaningfully.

“And he will be feeling incredibly well-rested when he finally gets back home,” Crowley says, rolling his eyes — with his whole body still, despite the lack of sunglasses, Aziraphale realises with a burst of fondness and love. “Who do you take me for?”

The kindest person I know, Aziraphale doesn’t say. “I suppose I’ll need to find a room at a hotel,” he says, instead. “Since my bookshop… well. Maybe we should have just taken Anathema’s offer.”

“You can stay at my place, if you like,” Crowley offers, softly, after a moment’s hesitation.

Aziraphale smiles. “I’d like that.”

The smile Crowley gives him in return is almost shy. “Yeah? That’s good. Would’ve felt wrong, leaving you alone to find a hotel room after everything that’s happened today.”

They climb aboard the bus; they don’t pay a fare. There’s a handful of other passengers, but it suddenly occurs to them that this bus is headed to London, not to Oxford as they had previously thought; and so they all decide to alight and wait for the next bus, which will miraculously arrive in only a few minutes.

“I was going to do that,” Crowley mutters.

“You don’t have to do everything, my dear,” Aziraphale says. “You took care of the driver; it makes sense for me to sort out the passengers.”

“I guess.” Crowley grabs onto a handrail and all but swings himself into a window seat, collapsing bonelessly into it. The seat next to him is empty; and it occurs to Aziraphale that they have never, not once, sat side by side on public transport. Always one in front, one behind; to do otherwise would have been too risky, he’d thought.

Well. Their own side, now.

Crowley looks up when Aziraphale sinks into the seat next to him, his expression soft and unguarded; and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, stopping Aziraphale from putting his hand on Crowley’s, in the gap between the two seats.

Crowley smiles, again, then yawns widely. “Think I’m going to take a nap,” he says. “Wake me when we get to London?”

“Of course,” Aziraphale says.

A few minutes later, Crowley is already deeply asleep; a bump in the road makes the bus rattle, and Crowley shifts, his head coming to rest on Aziraphale’s shoulder.

They stay like that all the way to London.

Chapter Text

XLIV. Crowley’s flat, Saturday night

“Ah — hold on. Demon puddle.”

Aziraphale peers around Crowley’s shoulder into the doorway. “My word. That looks unpleasant.” It does — a large puddle of black, tar-like sludge, with what appears to be the remnants of a tattered coat in the middle of it. “However did you manage that? A trap?”

“Holy water ward.” Crowley waves a hand to dispose of the demon remains and steps into the flat.

Aziraphale frowns. “But wouldn’t that have made the flat unsafe for you? Holy water will have gone everywhere. What would you have done when you came back?”

Crowley winces. “Wasn’t planning to,” he says, quietly.

“What do you mean?”

Crowley sighs. “I was going to head to Tadfield, and see if I could do anything about stopping Armageddon; and then, regardless of the outcome, I was going to take myself off to the stars, along with that little vial of holy water I had left, and — well.”

“You would’ve —” Aziraphale can’t continue, too choked by the horror of what he almost pushed Crowley into doing. He hadn’t stopped to think about it, about what might’ve been Crowley’s plan, why he might’ve been carrying holy water; he hadn’t realised. If Crowley hadn’t found him outside the bookshop —

“Hey.” Crowley’s hand is gentle on his shoulder. “Don’t, Aziraphale. Don’t dwell.” And then Aziraphale is being pulled into a hug, and Crowley is warm and solid and there. “It’s over; it’s done. I’m not going anywhere, I promise you. Alright?”

Aziraphale clings to Crowley and nods into his shoulder, breathing deeply. Crowley smells of ash and soot, burnt metal and rubber — but then, Aziraphale rather suspects they both do, after their trip to Tadfield in the burning Bentley; and underneath it all, a remnant of the smoky cologne Crowley favours, and the faint smell of thunderstorms and burning.

Crowley smells like safety, like home, Aziraphale thinks; and then immediately chides himself for being a besotted fool. He loves Crowley, but that doesn’t mean his feelings are returned. They’re friends, and they don’t have to pretend they aren’t, not anymore; that can be enough.

“C’mon, angel,” Crowley says after a while, gently disentangling himself from the hug. “Let’s not stand in the hallway, yeah? It’s been a long day. There’s a bed calling my name.”

Aziraphale nods again, and lets go. Sleep does sound like a wonderful idea, at this point; and he’s nowhere near as tired as Crowley must be, having done very little in comparison to his friend.

The door closes and locks by itself behind them; a moment later, Aziraphale feels wards go up around the flat.

“You think someone might come after us?”

Crowley is already moving down the corridor. “Hm?”

“You put up wards,” Aziraphale says, following.

“Oh, right. Honestly? That was just habit,” Crowley says, with a shrug. “They won’t come after us. Truce holds; there’s nothing they can do.” He pushes open a door and walks into the room beyond. “Come on in.”

Aziraphale steps into the room as well, and can’t help but stop and stare.

He doesn’t know what he’d expected from Crowley’s flat, but it’s certainly not this. It’s cold, and stark, and empty; every sound they make echoes faintly off the tall walls and distant ceilings. If it weren’t for the fact that it's grey, rather than white, and that there’s barely any light, the room wouldn’t look out of place in Heaven.

There’s an ornate desk, an imposing-looking throne, and a smaller chair; a large statue of two angelic beings that he thinks are wrestling, but doesn’t plan on examining any more closely, in case he turns out to be wrong; a few smaller statues and vases; a television; a framed drawing of the Mona Lisa that might just be the original cartoon for the painting; and nothing else. Other than the door they just came through, there’s only a dark corridor he can’t really see the end of.

And to top it all off, the atmosphere is — he wouldn’t go as far as to call it outright hostile, but he rather suspects that’s only because he’s here at Crowley’s direct invitation. Still, he cannot imagine ever feeling at ease in this room.

“This is, um — nice?” he says, dubiously.

Crowley laughs at him. “Your face is a picture. This is just for the sake of appearance, so people I don’t want around are disinclined to linger. Come on; through here.” He pushes open what Aziraphale had thought to be a wall, and — oh.

The floor, walls and ceiling are still grey; but the difference between the room they’ve just left and this new part of the flat is like night and day. The new area is bright, and warm, and instantly welcoming.

The first room past the doorway is full of plants — luxurious, verdant and beautiful, and, Aziraphale would swear, actively leaning towards him and Crowley, clamouring for attention. The room right after that is a lounge, with a sleek but comfortable-looking sofa, a coffee table, two armchairs, and a very large open fireplace in a style that looks so incongruous with the way the flat is set up that Aziraphale knows it must’ve been miracled into existence. And, and —

Books. The entire room, almost, is covered in bookshelves, overflowing with books. Only a fraction of what he’d had in his bookshop, of course, but definitely on the level in terms of age and quality, although there are a few shelves with books that look to be relatively new. There’s also, he discovers as he walks further into the room, a shorter set of shelves in the middle of the room, butted up against the back of the sofa, though he can't see its contents from where he's standing; and a wicker basket to the side of the sofa, containing a dark red, knitted throw that looks to be extremely soft.

He feels tension leave him that he hadn’t even realised he was still carrying; he feels at home, here, somehow, in a way that he’s only ever felt in his bookshop.

Crowley smiles knowingly. “I’m going to hop into the shower. I know I could just miracle myself clean, but…” he shrugs, and Aziraphale understands. Sometimes, doing things the human way just feels better. “Feel free to keep exploring, if you can pry yourself away from the books. If you need anything, just shout — I’ll hear.” Without waiting for an answer, he wanders off down a corridor, in what must be the direction of the bathroom.

Aziraphale watches him go. Crowley knows him well; the temptation to remain here and explore his friend’s book collection is almost irresistible. Almost, because he’s never been to Crowley’s flat before; he is incredibly curious, and he’s been given carte blanche to indulge his curiosity.

Other than the corridor Crowley left through, and the doorway that leads back to the plant room, there is one other door; it leads into a long corridor whose walls are decorated with framed artwork — mostly drawings and sketches, although there are a few completed paintings. Most of them are signed, and many include a dedication; the subject matter is wide and varied, from landscapes and still lifes to mythological scenes. There are even a few portraits of Crowley.

At the end of the corridor is a statue that tugs at him with familiarity. It takes him a moment to place when and where he’d last seen it — 1941, St Dunstan-in-the-East. It had been in the church, when Crowley had saved him from discorporation; Crowley must’ve gone back to fetch it later, although for what reason, Aziraphale can’t begin to guess. Perhaps he simply liked the look of it.

There’s a warmth to it, in it, the same warmth that permeates the rest of the flat; and though no part of the corridor is dark, the area around the statue is brighter, somehow, almost glowing with refracted light. It’s a curious effect, and he can’t tell how it’s been done; there’s only one light shining directly on the statue, a small spotlight set into the ceiling. The wonders of modern lighting, he supposes.

Near the statue, close enough to be lit by the same refracted light, is a fairly ornate wooden lectern, bearing a small book. Though the leather cover is well-worn, the book was obviously carefully kept. It’s a psalter, a relatively simple one; the decorated initials are beautifully rendered, though Aziraphale, leafing through it, notes that there aren’t any full-page miniatures. Curious, that this is kept here, not in the lounge with the rest of the books; but he’s sure Crowley has his reasons. He might ask about it, later.

There are three doors off this corridor, all closed; Aziraphale opens the one closest to him and peers into the new room. It’s a wine cellar, and he can tell it’s been thoroughly miracled to ensure ideal storage conditions for each and every bottle. Crowley’s collection of wines and spirits is extensive; even just looking in from the doorway, Aziraphale can spot several of Crowley’s favourites, as well as multiple bottles of vintages that run more to his own tastes, including some he remembers Crowley expressing a dislike for. He wonders why Crowley keeps those.

The next door opens onto what must be the largest room in the flat; and there must’ve been some miracling involved, because he can’t see how such a space would’ve otherwise fit within the layout of the building and the rest of the flat. There’s more artwork displayed on the walls, but the most striking feature of the room is the concert grand piano sitting in the middle of it; it shines as if a spotlight were pointed at it, though the illumination in the room comes from a series of sconces set on the walls. The keys look well-worn; a tall bookshelf butted up against a nearby wall is crammed near to overflowing with sheet music, some old and yellowed, some newer. There are other instruments in the room, as well; during his slow, exploratory circuit of it, he finds a violin and several different types of guitars. The acoustics here must be perfect; Aziraphale has no doubts about that.

Didn’t know you cared about music, he remembers saying to Crowley, eleven years ago; and he’d thought it true. For all that his friend had always been happy to accompany him to concerts, had always cheerfully discussed the merits of this or that composer, this or that performer, it had all been done in such a cavalier, offhand manner that Aziraphale had really, truly thought it was nothing but an idle pastime, a way to stave off boredom.

He wonders, now, what other things he’s missed or mistaken about his friend; what other depths he may still hide.

He thinks — he hopes — he might get to find out.

As he turns to leave, he spots one more item of furniture, tucked away in a dark corner that had not been visible from the doorway — a large, old writing desk, with several drawers and pigeonholes, most of which are full of papers and letters. The small lamp set on it doesn’t look large enough to illuminate it properly, but it manages, making it almost glow.

A tiny jeweled globe is standing on a corner of the desk; there’s what looks to be a letter lying near it, fraying at the creases in that way that means it’s been unfolded and refolded countless times. Aziraphale reaches for it, curious, then stops himself. He’s been invited to explore, but reading his friend’s papers seems like too much of an intrusion, still.

Instead, he returns to the corridor and continues his exploration. The third and last door turns out to lead to a kitchen so sleek and modern it looks like it was pulled straight out of the pages of a design magazine. There is very little of Crowley in here, which makes sense, given his friend is by no means an epicure; a quick peek through the fridge and cupboards, though, reveals a variety of gourmet food, including some he knows Crowley appreciates, as well as a good stock of different types of tea and cocoa, including his own favourites.

There is a framed picture on one of the counters, gleaming in a diffuse sort of light that must be coming from a hidden lamp or skylight; Aziraphale picks it up, and immediately almost drops it, bowled over by the sheer depth of feeling emanating from it. It’s one of Warlock’s drawings, three scribbled crayon figures holding hands — a nanny, a gardener, and a boy. And it feels —

It feels like the statue in the corridor did, Aziraphale realises, understanding dawning slowly. Like the statue, like the psalter, like the piano, like the letters on the writing desk; like almost every item in Crowley’s flat does, to varying degrees.

It feels loved.

He sets the picture back on the counter with a clatter, pulling his hand back as if it’d burned him.

He can sense Crowley’s love, now. Could he, maybe —

He’d never have dared, before. Even if he could have reached out and found that it was not only friendship after all, that his feelings were reciprocated — it would not have changed anything. He wouldn’t have thought he could act on it. It would have been too dangerous.

But now, now — he could find out, and if Crowley — he could — they could —

But — it would be an intrusion, wouldn’t it? It’s simply not the done thing; it would be even worse a violation of privacy than reading Crowley’s letters. And Crowley loves so — so brilliantly, so fiercely, that even simple things in his flat are outright glowing from it. If Crowley loves him, Aziraphale is certain, it will spill out; he will feel it, he will know it, without needing to seek it out.

And so he takes himself and his realisation back to the lounge. One of the shelves behind the sofa, he discovers, holds a sleek sound system that looks like it can play anything under the sun; and indeed, the rest of that set of shelves hold Crowley’s extensive music collection, in a variety of formats, from vinyl records to cassette tapes and CDs. He wouldn’t mind some music — something calm and soothing, hopefully, rather than whatever it is that Crowley usually had playing in the Bentley; but the sound system is so far removed from the gramophone he has — had, he thinks with a pang of loss — in the shop that he can’t figure out the controls. He jabs at it half-heartedly a few times; to his surprise, it whirrs to life, and soft, flowing piano music fills the room.

Well, then; he has music — now to find himself a book. He walks a first, slow circuit of the room, idly running his fingers along book spines; on the second circuit, he stops and pulls a book out, mostly at random. It’s poetry — Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere, in the original Italian.

With some reluctance — his clothes are, after all, still stained with soot and ash — he sinks into the sofa. The book is a lovely printed edition with hand-drawn illumination; the spine must be damaged, though, because the book naturally falls open partway through. He might offer to fix it for Crowley, he thinks, leafing back to the first page; he’s gotten quite good at book repair, over the centuries.

The poetry is beautiful, but his Italian is quite rusty and the reading is slow going, and he can feel himself inching ever closer to falling asleep where he sits. And so, eventually, he closes the book and returns it to his place on the shelf, prods at the sound system until it stops playing music, and heads to the part of the flat he’s not explored yet.

There’s light spilling out from the sliver of a gap under the first door he encounters; it must be the bathroom, because he can hear Crowley moving about, humming under his breath. The last door, then, must be the bedroom.

At the threshold, he hesitates, briefly. He’s never seen bedrooms as particularly private spaces, seeing as how until a scant few years earlier, he’d been entirely uninterested in sleeping; Crowley might feel differently. But — feel free to keep exploring, Crowley had said; and had not added but keep out of the bedroom, please. And so Aziraphale pulls the door open, and walks in.

The bedroom is almost as large as the music room, and it is dominated by an enormous bed. The duvet is black and red in a snake-scale pattern, because of course it is; and there is a truly obscene number of pillows. It’s the most comfortable-looking bed Aziraphale has ever seen.

“Good Lord,” he murmurs, under his breath. “Do they even sell beds this large in shops?”

“They don’t,” Crowley says, warm and amused, from behind him. “I got it made special.”

Aziraphale startles, and Crowley laughs, walking past him to go sit on the bed, the indefinite scent of something citrusy — shampoo or shower gel, Aziraphale supposes — hanging in the air for a moment after he’s passed by. He looks softer than Aziraphale’s ever seen him, hair still damp from the shower, barefooted, wearing only a dark grey t-shirt and black joggers. “The mattress and bedclothes I miracled, though. Didn’t feel like arguing with humans every time I wanted something new.”

Aziraphale frowns. “But — why do you need a bed this large?”

“Eh. Technically there’s no need for it, but…” Crowley shrugs and flops backwards onto the bed, sprawling out right in the centre of it. “Sometimes you just want to relax,” he says, rolling over onto his stomach; and then he shakes out his wings, and spreads them. Fully extended, they take up the entire bed, reaching just shy of the edges.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, very firmly suppressing the urge to reach forward and touch Crowley’s wings. He’d done it earlier, of course, but — different situation. “I see your point.”

“Thought you might,” Crowley says with a smile, hiding his wings away again and rolling back over. “If you want to take a shower, the bathroom’s all yours.”

Aziraphale considers, and shakes his head. “All I need is a spare pillow, and I’ll get out of your hair.”

Crowley sits up, looking startled. “You’re not thinking of sleeping on the sofa? Don’t be ridiculous.”

Aziraphale hesitates. “I wouldn’t want to impose —”

“Wouldn’t have invited you if I felt you might impose.” Crowley shrugs. “Bed’s more than large enough for two; it won’t bother me. But if it bothers you, I could — I don’t know, miracle the sofa into a bed, I guess. Whatever makes you more comfortable.”

Crowley’s holding himself a touch too stiffly, as if bracing for a refusal; and that, more than anything else, makes Aziraphale’s decision for him. Whatever this is that they have, whatever it will become — friendship, or something more — he does not want to make Crowley feel like he’s pulling away, ever again. “I’ll stay, then. If you’re sure I won’t be a bother.”

Crowley instantly relaxes. “Whoa there, be careful with the enthusiasm,” he drawls, dryly. “I might start thinking you have designs on my virtue.”

Aziraphale raises an eyebrow, pursing his lips to hide a smile. “What virtue?”

Crowley laughs, warm and fond, making the whole room seem brighter. “Precisely.” He rolls over to the left side of the bed, leaving the right free, and tucks himself under the duvet in a single motion, one so fluid and graceful that it would’ve been entirely impossible for a human. “Come on, then.”

Aziraphale looks down at himself and sighs. He doesn’t like creating his clothes out of nothing, but needs must. With the wave of a hand, he’s clean and dressed in sensible, tartan-patterned pyjamas; his dirty clothes end up in a heap in a corner, near a chest of drawers, but he’s too tired to sort them out.

“You and tartan,” Crowley comments, with a theatrical groan. “I don’t want to see how badly you’ll clash with my bedsheets. You have five seconds, then I’m turning off the light.”

Aziraphale can hear the smile in his voice, and so he doesn’t bother dignifying the jibe with a response. “Good night, Crowley,” he says instead, climbing into bed as Crowley, true to his word, switches the light off.

“Night, angel.”

Aziraphale is asleep the moment his head hits the pillow.

Chapter Text

XLV. London, Sunday morning

When Aziraphale wakes, the flat is quiet, and dark, and cold; and he knows that Crowley is gone.

He fumbles by the side of the bed for the light switch, but can’t find it; so he just gives up, and conjures a little globe of light.

There’s a note stuck to the headboard, on the left side of the bed. It says, in Crowley’s untidy scrawl: Went out to test a theory. Come find me.

Well. And how, precisely, is he meant to do that? London is big; and Crowley has left no indication of where he might have gone, not even the tiniest hint — nothing but the note.

No, he’s going to make himself a nice mug of cocoa, and then he’s going to sit in the lounge and read a book, and wait for Crowley to return. That’s the sensible thing to do.

He gets out of bed and sets his little conjured light on a chest of drawers, then he starts getting dressed, taking his nice, clean clothes from where they’re hanging on the valet stand in the corner of the room. He wants to go find Crowley, though, is the thing; he does. He just doesn’t know how he could.

The flat is dark, but he doesn’t bother switching on any lamps yet; the little globe of light he’s conjured up is enough to see by. He fully intends to head to the kitchen, but he’s still distractedly thinking of where Crowley might be, and by the time he realises he’s turned in the wrong direction, he’s standing in the plant room, instead.

The balcony doors are wide open.

Crowley must’ve flown out of the flat, then. That’s strange; it’s something they never, ever do, and with good reason — this is London, after all, and London never sleeps. Even in the dead of night, there are people awake. They might be seen.

But London is silent now, silent and still; looking down from the balcony, Aziraphale can see no movement, no passing cars or pedestrians. He spreads out his awareness, as far as it will go; and finds that every human in London is, somehow, asleep, and dreaming peacefully.

And he also finds — not Crowley, not quite; but a trace of his passage, like a golden ribbon flowing out from the balcony and into the night.

Well, then. Nothing for him to do but spread his wings, and follow.

Crowley’s trail arcs downwards immediately after leaving the balcony, a sharp, vertical dive the entire height of the building; as he pulls out of the dive to land on the street, Aziraphale can see why. The Bentley is there; and there is no doubt that this is the Bentley, Crowley’s Bentley, because it is positively glowing with the feeling of Crowley’s love.

And if the Bentley is back, maybe, maybe his bookshop could also —

Aziraphale takes to the air again; he has no need to choose between following Crowley’s trail and checking on his bookshop, because he can feel the golden ribbon turning in the direction of Soho, his friend clearly having had the same thought.

It only takes him a few minutes to reach his street; and this time he very nearly stumbles on the landing, catching himself at the last moment, because his bookshop is there, too, as if nothing had ever happened to it.

The doors swing open for him as he approaches. Inside, too, the bookshop is pristine; all his books are there, and some new additions, as well — he is absolutely certain he had not previously owned a full set of the Just William books, after all. And here in the bookshop, too, he can feel Crowley’s love. It ebbs and flows like the pull of the tide, stronger in some places and weaker in others, but it’s everywhere still.

Leaving the bookshop behind, he takes off again, following Crowley’s trail in an ever-widening spiral path through London. St James’s Park is awash with Crowley’s love; the bandstand at Battersea Park, too, somehow, and that disconcerts him enough that he lands on top of it, trying to make sense of it.

The bandstand is one of their emergency meeting spots, chosen specifically because it is not a location either of them would ever visit under normal circumstances; thus, he knows for certain that Crowley has only ever been here the once, one night ago, for that one, horrible meeting Aziraphale very badly wishes he could forget.

And so how can Crowley love it?

Don’t dwell, Crowley had said earlier; but here, now, standing heartsick and alone above the bandstand, inexplicably surrounded by Crowley’s love, he can do nothing but.

He’d known, for a long time, that Crowley was hurting, although his friend hid it well; he isn’t stupid, nor blind, after all. He’d even tried to help soothe the hurt, in what little, limited ways he could; but he had never known, could never have guessed, the true depths of his friend’s pain.

But now everything is revealed; and now he sees, at last, how every hurt he’s ever visited upon Crowley has compounded that pain — like pressing down on a bruise, or scratching at a scabbed-over wound until it’s open again. And he knows, too, that what little joy he might’ve managed to bring pales in the face of the depthless hurt he’s inflicted.

And so how could Crowley love him?

He couldn’t; of course he couldn’t. It’s a wonder that Crowley still cares for him, is still willing to be his friend; it’s only natural, no surprise at all, if that is where it ends.

But here is the bandstand, glowing with the tracery of Crowley’s love when it has no reason to.

And so maybe, maybe…

Or maybe it’s just friendship. That’s the more likely explanation. Friendship is, after all, a kind of love.

But maybe…

Come find me, Crowley’s note had said; and that’s what he’s going to do, Aziraphale thinks, taking flight again. He will find Crowley, and he will —

Can he ask? Put his heart on the line, like humans do? He doesn’t know. Perhaps it is better to continue doing as he always has; to keep his love close to his heart, and keep Crowley’s friendship, and be satisfied with that.

But they’re safe, now. Nobody will be coming after them. They could — and he wants.

Can he? Should he? What would happen, if he did?

He doesn’t know.

On, and on, and on he flies through London — their London, because it is mostly places that they have visited together that Crowley’s trail touches upon, restaurants and galleries and concert halls and theatres. There are, too, a handful of places where Aziraphale has never been, that Crowley clearly must’ve frequented alone, such as a tiny pub tucked away in a side street near the Royal Albert Hall; but they are the overwhelming minority.

There’s the Dowling residence, and here, Crowley’s love glows like a furnace; he feels it strongest near the window he knows to be the one in Warlock’s room, but also in the gardens, and by the tiny groundskeeper’s cottage where Aziraphale had lived. They must go back to visit Warlock sometime soon, now that everything’s over, now that the world is safe.

There’s the British Museum, where they had a few meetings; and St Dunstan-in-the-East, where Crowley came back to him to save him; and of course the Globe, where they left each other after that first, disastrous performance of Hamlet, where Aziraphale returned alone to find the play a tremendous success and Crowley still gone…

And then there’s a tiny postage stamp of a garden, one of the myriad private gardens dotted around London; and Crowley is there, sitting cross-legged on the damp grass, his hands full of light.

He looks up when he hears Aziraphale approach, and smiles; and Aziraphale would swear that the light grows brighter and warmer when he does. “Hey.”

“You might’ve woken me before leaving,” Aziraphale says, landing neatly in front of him, trying for reproachful but unable to stop himself from smiling in return. “Testing a theory?”

“Yeah.” Crowley pats the grass next to him. “Sit down.”

“You do know there’s a bench right over there?”

“Yup.” The smile spreads into a grin. “Sit.”

Aziraphale sighs, and does. “If I get grass stains on my trousers, on your head be it.”

“I’ll fix them, don’t you worry. Hold this for me a moment, would you?”

Aziraphale has no description for what Crowley does with his hands then, except that the gesture is so smooth and practiced that it looks like he might’ve done the same thing a million times before. The end result is that where before there was a single sphere of light, glowing softly golden, now there’s an entire cluster, a dozen or so lights, ranging in colour from silvery blue to a burnt red-orange. Almost unceremoniously, he drops all of them in Aziraphale’s hands.

“What are these?” Aziraphale asks, fascinated. The lights are warm and pulsing in his hands, although some feel colder than others; they’re spinning and twining gently around each other. They smell very faintly of thunderstorms and burning, like an echo of Crowley’s power; which makes sense, seeing as how they’re his creation.

“Did you see your bookshop?” Crowley asks.

“Oh! Yes, I did. And your Bentley. Did you do that?”

“Nah, couldn’t have,” Crowley says, with an easy shrug. “I’m guessing it was Adam, especially having seen those new books in your shop. Hard to think of anyone else who might’ve reset reality like that and likes children’s books. Pass me that silver one?”

It takes Aziraphale a few tries, but he manages to get a hold of the light Crowley is pointing at and gently separate it from the cluster. “You went in, then?” he asks, handing the light over.

“Of course I did. Wanted to check everything was — what it is you always say? Tickety-boo?” Crowley rolls the light idly around his fingers, like a magician might do with a coin; then, with another gesture Aziraphale can’t quite describe, makes it vanish. “The two red ones, please, and the larger gold?”

It’s easier, this time, to pick out the lights and hand them over. “Was I meant to go on a big spiral flight around London, or should I have known to come here directly?”

“That worked?” Crowley sounds faintly surprised. “That’s good; I wasn’t certain it would. What’d it look like?”

He knows what Crowley’s referring to; it’s still there, at the edge of his awareness. “It makes me think of a golden ribbon. How did you do that?”

Crowley cups his hands together; when he spreads them again, he’s holding a single light once more. “I sort of — unspooled a little bit of my power, while I was flying. Was thinking more like a trail of breadcrumbs than an unbroken ribbon, but it’s hardly an exact science.”

Oh. That makes sense. “And if it hadn’t worked?”

“You’d have found me anyway.”

“Would I have?”

“Mm.” Crowley smiles, soft and slow like a secret, his eyes alight with something Aziraphale can’t quite place.

Crowley’s amused certainty should irk him; instead, it warms him through. He thinks back to earlier, in the flat; he’d been thinking how he wanted to find Crowley, and he’d ended up moving in the correct direction, on instinct. “I would have, at that.”

Crowley’s smile curls into a smirk. “Told you so.”

“Oh, hush. You might’ve explained. Left a longer note.”

“Where’s the fun in that, though? You’re clever; I love watching you puzzle things out. For instance — what is it that you’re holding, do you think?”

Aziraphale frowns. “Light?” Even as he says it, he knows that’s not the correct answer; but he cannot think of anything else it could be.

“Ah, no, not quite. Who am I? Name me.”

“Crowley,” Aziraphale begins; and the quick, bright smile Crowley gives him for that could light up the darkest of nights, “Archangel, First Healer…”

Crowley waves a hand for him to continue.

“Starshaper —” No, surely not. “Stars?”

“Yup. Not proper ones, mind, that wouldn’t be safe — just miniatures, really. But still stars.”

Enchanted, he spreads his hands, watching the stars twirl and weave around his fingers. He’d always wondered, looking at the night sky from Earth, what it might’ve been like, felt like, to hold a star in his hands; he would never have dreamt he would actually get to do it. It makes sense, then, that they would smell of Crowley’s power; of the two of them, he’s the Archangel, the starshaper, the one with enough power to hold them.

“They’re latched onto your power, not mine, incidentally,” Crowley says, cheerfully. “I’m not doing anything; it’s all you.”

Aziraphale startles, and nearly drops the stars. “But — I’m only a Principality. I shouldn’t be able to…” Now that he’s paying attention, he can feel the steady pull on his power; and he knows where his limits are. Holding stars is consuming more power than he, in theory, possesses. He should be drained; he isn’t. “How?”

“Did you ever wonder why Heaven wouldn’t simply attack Hell directly, if they wanted a war so badly?” Crowley reaches over and pulls the remaining stars out of Aziraphale’s hands; arranges them all into a constellation, briefly, before making them vanish. “Why the war had to be on Earth?”

He hadn’t; but now that he thinks about it, it is strange. “Hell would have a terrain advantage, if the war were fought in their own realm?”

“Of a sort, yes, but not in the way you mean. When Samael created Hell, he set himself as its guardian; as long as he remains in Hell, he can pull power from it, so he never runs out. Doesn’t make him invincible, not quite; but it gets him close enough that Heaven wouldn’t risk it.”

The connection is not hard to make. “So what you’re saying is…”

“We have become Earth’s guardians, yes. Adam’s doing, I imagine. I should’ve worked it out sooner, really, but — it’s been quite a while. I didn’t recognise what was happening.” Crowley shrugs, a wistful expression on his face. “The last time I had this kind of power at my fingertips was before I Fell. Creation takes a lot; if we hadn’t had God’s blessing, we would’ve burned ourselves out very quickly, Samael and I, setting the stars in the sky. That’s probably where Samael got the idea for how he set himself up in Hell, actually.”

“How did you figure it out, then?”

“Agnes Nutter’s last prophecy.” Crowley smiles. “‘When the end has come, two powers’ — that’s us — ‘shall stand upon the watched Earth’. What she meant was, ‘shall stand as guardians of the Earth’; she didn’t quite have the knowledge to describe it properly.”

“What about fire and water, then?” Aziraphale asks, remembering how the prophecy continued.

“Worked that out, too. Do you trust me?”

“I thought we’d established that, by now.”

“Yeah, well. Given what I’m about to ask you to do, you’ll forgive me the question.” Crowley holds out a hand, and in his palm —

“That’s hellfire,” Aziraphale says, startled. “But you’re not — you haven’t —”

“I haven’t Fallen again, no. Don’t worry.”

Aziraphale breathes a relieved sigh. “Then how…?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it? Put your hand in it.”

He can see, of course, why Crowley asked about trust; but truthfully, it doesn’t even occur to him to hesitate. He knows, like he knows his own name, that his friend wouldn’t do anything to endanger him. His trust in Crowley is blind, depthless, absolute; once upon a time, before he knew better, he might have called it reckless and foolish. It’s the kind of trust that brooks no reservation; the kind of trust that, really, is not trust anymore. It’s faith.

Sure enough, the hellfire doesn’t burn, doesn’t hurt him; it’s just a gentle, pleasant warmth.

Crowley curls his fingers into a fist, extinguishing the hellfire; when he uncurls them again, there, cupped in his palm, pure and glowing, is holy water. Gently, almost like a benediction, he lifts his hand and turns it over, letting the holy water spill over Aziraphale’s outstretched hand; it’s cool and soothing where it touches his skin, as it has always been.

“She didn’t have the words for this, either,” Crowley says, softly. “‘Fire and water of their domain’; meaning we can call both hellfire and holy water, and neither hurts us.”

“‘For the wheel of fate ever turns’?” Aziraphale quotes the last part of the prophecy.

“Something like ‘because, believe it or not, things do change’? That would be my guess, anyway.” Crowley’s voice is threaded with warmth and humour; and it hits Aziraphale, all at once, what this all means.

They’re not just safe; they are free.

He can’t help but laugh for the sheer joy of it; and in doing so, he somehow manages to unbalance himself, ending up halfway in Crowley’s lap.

“I know I’m funny, angel, but I didn’t think I was that funny.” Crowley sounds fond and vaguely puzzled; his arms have come up around Aziraphale, supporting him in a loose embrace.

“No, no, I just —” Aziraphale manages to get a hold of himself; wraps his arms around Crowley, returning the embrace. “I’m just happy.”

“Oh, so I’m not funny? I see how it is.” Crowley huffs, in mock affront; but he pulls Aziraphale closer.

Aziraphale hums, leaning his head against Crowley’s shoulder. “Our own side.”

“Our own side,” Crowley echoes, softly, almost wistfully.

Aziraphale closes his eyes. He feels safe and warm, in Crowley’s arms; he always has. Crowley holds him gently, carefully, as if — as if he’s something precious; and he never wants this to end. “Oh,” he breathes, unthinking. “I do love you.”

Chapter Text

XLVI. A London garden, Sunday morning

“Oh, I do love you.”

Crowley freezes. He can’t have heard that right. “Say that again,” he demands, painfully aware of how his voice is trembling.

Aziraphale goes still in his arms, still and quiet. “I — oh. I said that out loud, didn’t I?” he whispers, almost to himself. Then, louder: “Nothing has to change. I — it’s alright. I understand.”

Aziraphale is pushing at his chest, a clear signal that he wants out of the hug; and so Crowley lets him go, and tries not to feel bereft. “That makes one of us. What exactly is it you think you understand?”

Aziraphale sighs. “I can sense your love now, Crowley. There’s traces of it everywhere. In your flat, and all over London.”

“Right,” Crowley says, slowly. So now Aziraphale knows. But he’s just said — “Still no closer to understanding, I’m afraid. Where’s the problem? You — love me, you said,” and isn’t that something; he’s having to restrain the urge to pinch himself, to make sure he’s not still asleep, “and —”

“And it doesn’t seem like any part of your love is for me. And I understand, truly, I do —”

“Not for — wh— I — th— but — that — that’s preposterous,” he finally manages to choke out. “Aziraphale. Of course it’s for you. It has always been for you. Always. I —” God, but he never thought he’d get to say this, not in his wildest dreams, “I have loved you from the very first.”

Aziraphale’s eyes are wide; he manages, somehow, to look both disbelieving and hopeful. “But…”

“But what, angel?” Crowley gives in to temptation; reaches out to gently cup Aziraphale’s cheek with a hand.

Aziraphale shivers, and leans fractionally into the touch. “You — why do you keep calling me angel? You’re not — we’re the same, now.”

Habit, Crowley could say, and it would be the truth; but there’s another, truer answer. “It stopped being purely descriptive a few millennia in.”

Oh,” Aziraphale breathes, more a whimper than a whisper.

Crowley itches to pull Aziraphale close again; but the tense way Aziraphale is holding himself makes him cautious, and so he limits himself to softly stroking his cheekbone with his thumb. “You don’t think I love you?” he asks, very gently.

“I don’t know how you could,” Aziraphale says, voice cracking all the way through the sentence. “You oughtn’t. Not with the way I’ve hurt you so badly. Not when all you’ve had out of me is grief. I don’t —”

Deserve it, Crowley mentally completes the sentence; and takes a deep, steadying breath, trying to remind himself of all the reasons why storming Heaven and having a reckoning with his siblings is a terrible idea. “We seem to have very different perspectives on these past six thousand years,” he says, doing his best to keep his tone as mild as possible.

Aziraphale blinks, relaxing further into the touch. “Do we?”

“Mm. First thing first, though —” he moves his hand to the nape of Aziraphale’s neck and tugs him forward a little, gently. “Would you get back here? I was enjoying that hug.”

Aziraphale makes a wordless noise and all but collapses back into Crowley’s arms, burying his face in the crook of his neck.

“Thank you.” Crowley smiles; and, quite unable to help himself, presses a kiss into Aziraphale’s hair. “Now. If you really think you can’t sense my love for you, might I suggest you look again?” He can’t blame Aziraphale for this; he would, after all, likely be having the same issue. When you think you don’t deserve any love, you might have hope for some small amount of it, but you wouldn’t be looking for anything big. “Try a little larger than you’d expect, maybe.”

“Larger?” Aziraphale asks, unsteadily.

“Yeah. I have a feeling you might be looking at trees and not realising there’s a forest.”

Aziraphale nods against his shoulder, and takes a long, slow breath; then a second; and then chokes on the third, and clutches at him. “Crowley.”

“There you go.” He’s honestly not trying to sound smug; though he has the suspicion that it does bleed through, a little bit.

“But I —”

“You never actually meant to hurt me,” he interrupts, keeping his tone gentle. “You didn’t know. We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we? Recently? You might recall how I said that of the two of us, I am the one who is more to blame.”

Aziraphale makes a muffled noise, halfway between protest and assent.

“I meant that, more than you knew at the time. I am entirely to blame. Six thousand years I’ve been keeping secrets from you; you could hardly avoid pitfalls you didn’t know were there. Say I was asking you to fetch water, and pointed you at a bunch of pots you could use. And some of the pots are cracked, and you don’t know that; and you use one of those, and it breaks in your hands, and now there’s water all over the floor. Be unfair if I yelled at you for it, no?”

“You’re hardly a cracked pot,” Aziraphale murmurs.

“It’s an analogy, angel. Surely you’ve come across the concept before, in all your book reading.”

As Crowley had been hoping he would, Aziraphale laughs, a little wetly. “You might’ve come up with a better one. You’re well-read enough; I’ve seen your library.”

“Well-read enough, maybe. Well-rested enough, though? I’d need at least four more hours of sleep. Not to mention coffee.”

Aziraphale’s answering laugh is brighter this time, warmer; and he could leave it at that, probably should leave it at that, but he is, as ever, entirely incapable of leaving well enough alone.

“It’s not — an entirely inapt comparison, anyway,” he says, with a sigh. “I Fell; I broke. You don’t — you have no idea what it was like. You pulled me out of the dark; you set me on the road to putting myself back together.”

“I don’t see how,” Aziraphale says, quietly. “You have always been kind.”

“Kind,” Crowley echoes. “You remember the day we met?”

“Mm.” Aziraphale turns in his arms, cants his head up to smile at him. There are tear tracks on his cheeks; Crowley reaches, gently, to wipe them away. “You were kind. Strange, and prickly, and actually rather impolite —” Crowley can’t help but laugh wryly, at that; impolite, indeed. What an understatement. “— but kind.”

“Kind,” Crowley says again, the word taking a bitter twist. “You know, it wasn’t a lie, what I told Anathema about the reason I Tempted Eve to take the apple. I knew it wasn’t the evil thing to do. It was probably even the right thing to do, seeing how it all turned out. But it wasn’t good, and it certainly wasn’t kind. And I have always, always wondered — if I’d been —” Stronger. Better. Unbroken. “If things might’ve been different.”

“I think you did the best you could have done under the circumstances.” Aziraphale arches up to — oh — press a kiss to the corner of his jaw; and he feels his eyes burning with unshed tears. Who was comforting whom, again? They’ve gotten turned around in the conversation; and he knows it was his doing, but part of him desperately wants out, because part of him is terrified, still, even now, that if Aziraphale truly sees him —

But he trusts Aziraphale; and he doesn’t want to be afraid anymore. “You have no idea what it was like,” he says, quietly. “But I can show you.”

“You don’t have to. I’ve told you, I don’t care; and you know I — you can sense how I love you, now, can’t you?”

Crowley startles. That actually — hadn’t occurred to him. Six thousand years of not sensing anything, too afraid to even check whether he’d lost the ability after Falling; but even if he had, it would’ve been returned to him, now. “I can’t sense it,” he says, slowly, “but I could.”

Aziraphale frowns, in evident confusion. “What?”

“After the war, but before I Fell, I put up a wall,” he says, half-distractedly, already focused inwards and beginning to pick the barrier apart. “I couldn’t — I could sense everything, and I…”

“It was too much,” Aziraphale says, understanding. “You couldn’t cope. I would’ve done the same.” Crowley wants to kiss him for that. Might do, later.

“Yeah. Everyone else’s asleep right now, though, and — it‘s been six thousand years. I’ve learned a few things, have a bit more control.” Understatement of the millennia, that. “Can probably live without it.” Or work out how to put up a partial barrier, if that’s what it takes. Either way, he doesn’t expect he’d be able to give up sensing Aziraphale’s love, once he starts.

The barrier falls; carefully, Crowley reaches out.

He starts out looking small — of course he does; he might understand, from a logical point of view, but he’s spent so many centuries thinking he’d never have this, knowing he’d never deserve it —

Aziraphale must see something of his thoughts in his face, because he wriggles enough to dig an elbow into Crowley’s side, pointedly.

“Ow,” Crowley mutters, more on reflex than anything else; and stretches out his senses wider, and —

Oh.

He’s always thought of love like a flame. Bright and warm, but burning and consuming, also; just as likely to destroy you as to light your way home.

Aziraphale’s love for him is not like that.

Aziraphale’s love is like the hills. Ancient and strong like a mountain, unflinching and rock-solid at its core, vast, all-encompassing; but also gentle, and soft, and welcoming. You can make a home, here, it calls; you can grow things. You can put down roots, and thrive, and be safe.

“There you go,” Aziraphale says, warm and smug like a cat curled up on someone’s favourite armchair in front of the fireplace.

“Hngh,” Crowley says eloquently, closing his eyes and trying to regain his metaphorical footing. It’s surprisingly easy, after the first shock of realisation. “Tell me I didn’t sound that smug.”

Aziraphale just laughs at him, and Crowley huffs. “Yeah, that’s fair. I deserve that.”

There’s a fresh burst of love coming from Aziraphale. “Well —”

Crowley cracks his eyes open and tries for a baleful glare, perfectly aware that the foolish smile he’s failing to suppress rather ruins the effect. “You’d better not be about to say something terrifyingly mushy like ‘you deserve all the love in the world’, angel.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, dearest,” Aziraphale says, a little too innocently and earnestly for it to be entirely true.

“Right, of course.” Dearest. That’s new. If his angel — his angel! — is going to start using pet names, it might take him a bit to acclimate.

Aziraphale shivers. “Oh. This is going to take some getting used to,” he says, a little breathlessly.

Crowley hums, and pulls him closer. He’s not sure he even wants to get used to the presence of Aziraphale’s love, truth be told — not anytime soon; he has six thousand years to make up for. And — “I still want to show you,” he says, quietly. “How I was then. I know I don’t have to; I know you don’t care, and I know — I know you won’t love me any less. I trust you. Even if I’d still been unable to sense your love, I would’ve trusted you on this. That’s not why.”

“Then…”

“I have spent six thousand years hiding things from you. And I know it’s irrational, but I can’t help but feel if I don’t show you this, you won’t truly know me; I’ll still be hiding. And that just — feels like courting disaster. I don’t want to hide anything; you deserve to know all of me.”

“I already do,” Aziraphale says, another wave of love washing over Crowley. “In all the ways that matter, I know you. But I will never deny you anything you need, not if it’s in my power to give it. So, if you need me to see… show me.”

“Right,” Crowley manages, hoarsely. “Uh.” Perhaps a little getting used to this wouldn’t go amiss, after all. Losing the ability to formulate complete sentences every time Aziraphale feels particularly loving would be rather inconvenient. “Well. You’ve been in my head already, and there are functionally no limits to our power anymore, so it should be easy enough.”

Just a matter of skin contact and wanting, in fact. He uncurls an arm from the hug and offers his hand to Aziraphale, who takes it; and their bond snaps back to life between them.

Alright, angel?

Yes, Aziraphale answers. Whenever you’re ready.

Crowley takes a deep breath; and closes his eyes; and drags them both down into the memory.

Chapter Text

XLVII. The Garden

There is an angel standing on top of the eastern wall of Eden, and Raphael hates him.

Not that it’s much of a surprise, really; he hates absolutely everything and everyone, these days. It’s all he can do. There is no light, no joy, no hope, no love left in him; nothing but hate. This angel, though, he hates very specifically; it’s a hatred that comes second only to that he feels for himself.

The humans are leaving the Garden, and the angel is just watching them go. Probably gloating, even. See, see, this is what happens to those who defy the will of the Almighty; they are cast out, ripped apart, abandoned, left in the cold and dark to die.

He’d thought —

He would have done anything, to get out of Hell. Said anything. Agreed to anything. The dark was clawing at him, breaking him apart; he had — he needed to — he couldn’t —

Tempt the humans, his brother had said. The method, I leave up to you. Only do this for me, and you need never return to Hell. You will be left alone.

He would have done anything, to get out of Hell. It had seemed like such a small thing. He’d agreed.

The Garden is beautiful beyond description. It had almost dazed him, when he’d first emerged in it, all that warmth and beauty and colour after the cold, grey dimness of Hell. He doesn’t need to breathe, but he feels like he could, here, freely. And that first night, looking up at the stars, his stars —

He’d cried. He hadn’t known he still could.

For days upon days he’d skulked around, trying to figure out what to do. He’d stayed, almost always, in his serpent form; he’d kept himself hidden, mostly, but the humans had stumbled upon him a few times.

Eve had called him beautiful; he’d hissed at her, for that. She’d only laughed, and stroked his head, and said it again. Beautiful.

She’s gone, now; so is Adam. Both of them, thrown out of the Garden because of something he’d done.

He’d known that was going to happen. He is a fool in many ways, but not this; he’d known that, regardless of the form his Temptation would take, it would end in misery.

So he’d thought, long and hard; he’d spun out all the possibilities. He’d found what he thought was the only option, the only good choice — Tempt them to eat from the tree that would give them knowledge. It would still end in misery in the short term; but in the long term, it would be good.

He wonders, now, if he was only fooling himself. He is Fallen; the dark has him. Nothing coming from him can be good.

And Eve had thanked him.

He’d gone to her after it was done, shamefaced and wretched, in his own skin; he’d done his best to explain, haltingly. She’d listened; she’d taken his hand in hers, and said she understood; she’d thanked him.

Thanked him, as if he’d done her a kindness.

He’d told her to call on him for help, if she ever needed it. She’d said she would. He doesn’t expect she ever will.

And then he’d heard the sound of wings, and he’d known what it meant, because no earthly creature sounded like that in flight; and he’d dropped back into his serpent form, and hidden among the foliage.

And now he watches the angel on the wall, as the angel watches Adam and Eve walk into the desert away from the Garden; and he hates him, but he hates himself most of all.

Perhaps the universe would be better off, truly, without him in it.

Maybe the angel can make himself useful and smite him out of existence. The angel’s just a Principality, of course, not really a match for an Archangel; but between the flaming sword the angel wields, and the fact that he wouldn’t fight back, it might just be enough.

It is that thought, as much as any other, which drives him to slither up the wall.

Ssssssssssso, he hisses, conversationally, once he’s at the top. That went down like a lead balloon. He knows the angel can’t understand him; but he rather hopes he’ll startle, and lose some of that blessed, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious poise he exudes from every pore.

The angel, of course, barely twitches. Bastard. “I’m sorry,” he asks, politeness dripping from every word, “what was that?”

Well, then.

No matter what form he’s wearing, Raphael knows his body intimately, inside and out; and he can drop in and out of his serpent form in the blink of an eye. Now, though, he changes slowly and leisurely, very deliberately taking his sweet time, so the angel can get a good long look. He even makes sure he ends up with a few more vertebrae than strictly necessary, and rolls his shoulders and stretches his back while shaking out his wings, to really show them off.

To his great satisfaction, the angel startles so badly he almost falls off the wall.

Raphael bites back a smirk. “I said, well, that went down like a lead balloon.”

“Yes, yes it did, rather,” the angel replies, vaguely; and then drops into silence, looking everywhere but at him.

Uncomfortable, is he? Wants out of the conversation? Well. We all want things we can’t have. “Bit of an overreaction, if you ask me. First offence and everything.”

The angel makes a polite noise of agreement, very clearly still distracted; and then, evidently, his brain catches up with what he’s just done, because he turns and stares, with such a blankly horrified look that Raphael is shocked into a laugh — an actual, genuine laugh, if more than a little bitter.

“Relax, angel. We’re alone here. I won’t tell on you, I promise.”

The angel draws himself up so primly he looks as if someone had just wedged a stick up his arse. “The Children of God are never alone.”

Of course. Good angel, nice angel, so faithful and obedient. Don’t you worry about anything, little angel, God is always with you, always watching, so just do your part for the Great Plan and don’t think about anything else. And where exactly was She, when he needed answers? Where was She, when he cried out for Her, in the echoing emptiness of this burnt-out ruin he’s made of himself? Is he not one of Her children, too? Then why, why has he been left alone? “Ah, yes, I remember the party line. No, angel, nobody’s looking. Nobody here but us. Believe me.”

The angel winces, and what Raphael could swear is a guilty look briefly crosses his face; then he sets his jaw. “Why should I? You’re a demon. And you Tempted those poor people.”

Those poor people, he says, as if he cares about them. Probably doesn’t even know their names; and he’s just standing here, watching them go. Yes, pity the abandoned, the forsaken, but do it at a distance; they chose their fate, they dug their grave with their own two hands. “All I did was sssssuggest. And I can’t see what’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil, anyway.”

Knowledge; he’d given them knowledge, and the ability to make their own choices. And it would hurt, for a while; but it would all be worth it, in the end. It had been the right thing to do, the good thing to do, the only good choice he’d had. Hadn’t it?

“Well, it must be bad,” the angel says, staunchly, stiffly. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have Tempted them into it.”

So easy for him to say, so easy for him to judge. Heaven’s brave, shiny little soldier, knowing nothing.

But what if he’s right?

Raphael swallows back the anger and the fear; and shrugs, affecting a casualness he doesn’t feel. “Oh, they just said, ‘get up there and make some trouble’, and I needed a change of scene.” Understatement of the millennia, that. He would’ve done anything, anything to get out of Hell; even though, as he’s slowly starting to realise, there may not be an out for him. The dark has him; it will not so easily let him go. Perhaps not ever. “And it’s not very subtle of the Almighty, anyway, is it? Fruit tree in the middle of a garden, with a ‘don’t touch’ sign. I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain? Or on the moon? Makes you wonder what God’s really planning.”

How could this be what She wants? For all his anger, all his hatred, he doesn’t want to think about what it might mean, if this is truly all happening according to Her plan. He cannot. If there are truly no good choices, if there are no options that won’t end in misery — how could She not only allow, but want this to happen? How, how could She — and why? He cannot reconcile the God he’d known — the God he’d thought he knew — with all of this.

“Best not to speculate,” the angel says, as if in answer. “It’s all part of the Great Plan. It’s not for us to understand.”

“Ah, yes. The Great Plan.” He nods, understanding all too well. Heaven forbid anyone might think for themselves; Heaven will brook no doubt, no disobedience. “Ineffable, is it?”

The angel brightens, bless his clueless heart. “Exactly! It is beyond understanding and incapable of being put into words.”

“Of course it is.” He rolls his eyes. Brave, proud little soldier, doing precisely as he is bidden, no more, no less; standing on the wall with his flaming sword —

Hang on. Where’s the sword?

He knows the angel had it. They wouldn’t have let anyone guard Eden unarmed, not even someone strong like a Cherub, never mind a bloody Principality — and besides, he’d seen the angel patrolling the wall with it. But now, all the angel has is a conspicuous lack of a weapon.

Blast it all, he’s curious. “Didn’t you have a flaming sword?”

The angel freezes. “Er.”

Well. He probably just put it down somewhere, and is feeling uncomfortable that a Fallen gets to call him out on dereliction of duty. “You did, it was flaming like anything! What happened to it?”

“Uh.” The angel squirms, looking incredibly, impossibly guilty. “Igaveitaway.”

He — “You what?” That’s absurd. You don’t just give away your angelic weapon. Once it’s yours, it’s yours. He’s kept his, even though he’s Fallen; he’s kept it, for all that it’s sealed away and he can’t call it anymore. And for a Principality, made to be a warrior and nothing else, to give away his sword… even just setting it aside would’ve been rebellion enough; but to give it away

And to whom, anyway? Some other angel?

The sunlight is fading, and the storm clouds are rolling in; and a flash of brightness in the distance catches his attention. Adam — Adam is wielding the flaming sword; and Raphael finds himself smiling, wide and bright and foolish, for what feels like the first time in an eternity. This stupid, fussy, impossible, kind, good angel —

“I gave it away! It’s going to be cold out there,” the angel is explaining, “and there are vicious animals, and she’s expecting already! And so I said, here you go, flaming sword, don’t thank me, just — oh —” He flinches, and looks down. “I do hope I didn’t do the wrong thing.”

Raphael laughs, clear and true, unable to help himself, unable to smother the sudden burst of fondness for this angel whose name he doesn’t even know. “Relax. You’re an angel. I don’t think you can do the wrong thing.”

The angel — does not relax, not quite; but he does, at the very least, manage to look a little less flustered. “Oh, thank you. It’s been bothering me.”

Thunder rumbles out overhead as Raphael and the angel watch Adam and Eve walk away from the Garden, in a strange, companionable sort of silence. The sky is dark, but Raphael feels unaccountably light as the angel holds up a wing to shelter him from the first drops of rain.

Strange, how little it takes to not feel alone.

It won’t last, he knows it won’t; but for now, at least, he feels at peace.

Chapter Text

XLVIII. The very first morning of the rest of their lives

Crowley comes back to the present first, as he’d known he would. It’s his own memory; he has no need or desire to linger. As he waits for Aziraphale to emerge, he finds himself wondering, once again, if God might have planned it all to happen this way, all along; if every choice he’s ever made was ever a choice at all. Whether he’s just a pawn among pawns, one more game piece on an invisible board that spans the entire universe.

It had been easy, in his earliest, darkest days, to think so. Easy to think that he had only ever been a tool, neither loved nor worthy of ever being so, discarded when he’d reached the end of his usefulness; easy to believe that all his suffering was preordained at the hands of a callous, uncaring God; easy to just give himself over to the misery.

It had been easy; and then it had started making him angry.

He doesn’t really know when his perspective changed; couldn’t point at the first time he’d thought I am where my choices have led me, found himself hissing fuck you, this may be a game to you but I don’t like it, so I’m not playing. There had been, of course, plenty of misery and wallowing to be had in oh, God, what have I made of myself?; and there had always, always been fear, that what he’d become would keep him trapped, make him forever unable to be who he wanted to be; but there had also been comfort. He’d made right and wrong choices, but they had all been his own; his path was his to choose.

And he’d never been alone — not since that very first day on the wall. Even before he’d met Aziraphale again in Mesopotamia, he’d sometimes found himself thinking, when trying to make a decision, what would the angel do, here?

And now…

He’d always found it infuriating, back when She was still there, still talking to him, how She would rarely ever give a straight answer to one of his questions. Most of the time, She would just smile, as if She knew something he didn’t. He sees those days in a different light, now; he rather thinks the smiles were less you don’t deserve to know the answer and more you’re clever, go and find out.

He still has more questions than answers, of course. He doesn’t know what God’s plan is; he cannot. It is, after all — and for all that he hates both the word and the concept — ineffable. But while God may be playing a mysterious game of Her own devising, She does not hold all the cards; She doesn’t, otherwise She’d not have had to step in to save him from his own recklessness. Twice, at that.

God is running Her ineffable game, but he is a player in it, not a pawn; he is what he’s made of himself, and he stands where the road of his choices has led him. And while the journey is long, still, ahead of him, for him to be truly able to say he does not hate himself — he knows he is neither unlovable nor unloved.

And that is enough.

“I would like to revise my opinion of how you were the day we met,” Aziraphale says, solemnly, pulling him from his thoughts.

“Oh?”

“Yes.” Aziraphale brings a hand up to cup Crowley’s cheek, gently. “You were strange, and sad, and hurt. Not broken.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one,” Crowley mutters, turning his head to kiss Aziraphale’s palm. “Not sure your judgment is entirely unbiased.”

Aziraphale makes the kind of polite, noncommittal-sounding sort of noise that would probably fool anyone else into thinking he’s fine with that statement. Unfortunately, Crowley knows, from long experience, that it means exactly the opposite: his angel will not budge on this. He may even be right; and either way, it warms Crowley through that Aziraphale would think so well of him — but right now, he would still rather the conversation take a different direction. “Anything else?”

Aziraphale’s lips twitch, as if he’s suppressing a smile. “Mm. More than a little prickly, of course, and incredibly rude. And…”

“And?”

The smile breaks on Aziraphale’s face like the dawn, brighter than the morning after that very first storm had been. “And kind. Kind to Eve, and kind to me, when you had no reason to be.”

“I was hoping I could get you to fall off the wall,” Crowley points out, not unreasonably, doing his best to keep from smiling foolishly in return. “How’s that kind?”

“Kind,” Aziraphale insists, laughing; and pulls him close, and kisses him, finally, finally closing the distance of six thousand years. It’s awkward and clumsy and perfect, and over entirely too soon.

“Call me whatever you like, then,” Crowley says, laughing and breathless, leaning his forehead against Aziraphale’s, “as long as you kiss me again, after.”

Love,” Aziraphale calls him then, making him tremble with the feeling behind it; and moves forward into another too-short kiss. “I could feel it, there, at the end of the memory. You loved me then.”

“I did say.” Crowley grins, a little bashfully. “Though I’ll admit, it took me a while to realise. I started to figure it out in Rome, I think, when you invited me to Petronius’. I was thoroughly miserable and trying to forget, and you wouldn’t take the hint and leave; and all I should’ve wanted to do was clobber you with the wine jug and go back to drinking myself stupid, but somehow I wasn’t miserable anymore.”

“Just vaguely grumpy?”

“Hush,” Crowley says, fondly. “For the record, the oysters were disgusting. All slimy and — just — eurgh.”

“You’ve no taste,” Aziraphale says, as primly as he can, around the laughter he can’t hold back. “I can’t take you anywhere.”

“Oh, you love me.”

“I do,” Aziraphale says, suddenly serious again, without a hint of teasing. “Though it took me too long to realise it. But — oh, this is probably going to sound foolish —”

“But?”

“You have always — well, I didn’t know you well enough yet after Eden, but — since the Flood, anyway, which is close enough to always, you have been the voice of my conscience. Whenever I was unsure, I would ask myself what you’d do. I trusted you to make the right choice, the good choice, more than I trusted myself.”

Angel,” Crowley chokes out; and cannot find any more words, and settles for pulling Aziraphale in for another kiss, and hoping the meaning gets through anyway; and they end up lost in each other for a while.

Around them, the city is waking; the first tendrils of dawn are creeping across the sky, and Crowley can hear, now, the occasional sound of cars passing in the streets outside the garden.

Reluctantly, he pulls out of the kiss. “We should probably go, before the people whose garden this is wake up to find us still snogging.”

“Oh, dear me,” Aziraphale says, going a bit pink. “Yes, that would probably be best. Where to?”

Crowley stands and offers a hand to Aziraphale, smiling. “There’s a place near here that does a good breakfast. Should be opening soon, I believe.”

“That sounds lovely,” Aziraphale says, taking the proffered hand and pulling himself to his feet. “And after? Back to yours?”

“Or the bookshop, if you prefer. Anywhere you want to go.” Crowley waves his free hand, unlocking the garden gate and also, surreptitiously, removing the grass stains from Aziraphale’s trousers; the smile he gets for that tells him his angel knows exactly what he’s just done.

Hand in hand, side by side, now and always, they go.

It begins, anew, in a garden.

It’s going to be a beautiful day.