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A Metaphor Of Some Kind

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Agnes Nutter was a woman of great foresight. She also had a sense of humor of the sort that would not be seen again until the neo-dadaist meme culture of the twenty-first century. And, given she wouldn't be around for the rest of human history to face any consequences, she was fond of the odd prank on her descendants and their friends.

She knew, of course, which prophecy would be the last the world would see. When she was writing her manuscript, she left a space for it. When it finally came to her, she raised her pen --

And then paused.

And then looked a little further into possible futures after the end of the world.

And then Agnes cackled, and instead of any nonsense about faces and fire, she simply wrote,

Thys spayse left Yntentiunilly Blanc, for lo thys profecie ye needeth nott.

When the little scrap of paper fluttered past, Aziraphale caught it out of the air. He read it, frowning, and then tucked it in a pocket. Later, before they left Tadfield, he pressed it into Anathema's hands.

"I imagine it's a metaphor of some kind," he said. "About...not always looking to the past to solve the future."

"Agnes was a mad old bird sometimes," Anathema told him. "She might just have forgotten it and not wanted to admit it."

Aziraphale smiled. "Well, either way, best keep it safe."

"I suppose I knew the prophecies would end, but it's strange to hold the last one," she said. "I'm not sure what to do now."

"Make your way as everyone does, I suppose," he answered, and then paused. "If I could offer a...favor, in exchange for your help saving the world...?"

She frowned. "What sort of favor?"

"Well. Angels, blessings, you know," he said awkwardly. He'd never been good at bestowing blessings as if they were riches and not, occasionally, just unwanted personal attention.

"Oh! Oh, of course," she said, and when he raised his hand she bowed her head slightly. It had been a long time since he'd formally blessed anyone, and never a witch, but it felt right to do.

"Bless you, my dear," he murmured, resting his hand on her head briefly.

"Curse you too, just in case!" Crowley called from about fifteen feet away, rather ruining the moment. Aziraphale lifted his hand and gave her a smile.

"I imagine that will ensure a very interesting life for you," Aziraphale said. "Off you go now. We'll find our own way home."

Heaven and Hell came for them quickly.

They'd stayed up most of the night trying to come up with a plan for what to do, but neither of them had any idea what punishments would be on offer or how they were meant to dodge them.

"I suppose trusting in the Almighty doesn't appeal," Aziraphale had said, and Crowley had just laughed.

In the end, all they could offer was each other -- Aziraphale said, "I'll come fetch you, you know, from Hell, if I'm able," and Crowley said, "I would happily bomb Heaven back to the firmament if it gets you out of there," and that was that.

They drank a toast and walked outside; Crowley found his Bentley waiting for him, and Aziraphale found the bookshop miraculously unburnt --

But the angels took Aziraphale ten seconds before the demons got Crowley, so the point seemed rather moot.

When they sentenced Crowley to holy water, he closed his eyes briefly, and he asked himself if it was worth it. And to his complete surprise, the answer was Yes.

Yes, he thought, as they forced him to undress, stripping away what little dignity he might have retained. But he gathered the shreds of that thought around him like fig leaves and stood straight.

It was worth it, he thought, as Michael poured out the holy water. What a sanctimonious brotherhood they made, Beelzebub and Michael.

And when two demons entirely covered in latex took his arms and dragged him backwards towards the bathtub, unresisting, he thought, But the humans are safe, all billions and billions of them, at least from that. And I'm not sorry.

And when a third demon picked up his legs, and all three dropped him into the water, he thought, I'm not sorry at all. It was right what we did.

A latex-clad hand pushed his head under and he sputtered and thrashed as the water boiled around him, hissing and spitting --

And then the hand pulled back, and Crowley broke the surface.

The water was calm, calmer than it should have been given he was still thrashing his way upwards. But he wasn't melting, and he wasn't screaming, and the execution chamber was silent.

He pushed his hair out of his eyes, slicking it back, then got his feet under him and stood up. Holy water sluiced away, leaving him dry, if a little cold.

Beelzebub looked terrified. Dagon was weeping.

"What's happened," Hastur whispered.

Crowley spread his wings. For effect, he made them extra-big. They were so pale they glowed in the gloom. His eyes could have been mistaken for black in the dimly-lit chamber, but they could not have been mistaken for snake's eyes any longer.

"You fools," he said, and reached up to touch his face with his thumb. The snake brand on his temple, the one he'd carried for thousands of years, rubbed away like watercolor paint. "You martyred me. You've baptized me."

Even Beezebub's flies were silent.

"Run," Crowley said, in a voice that had built nebulae, a voice with the sound of triumphant heavenly horns beneath it, and the demons fled the room.

When Michael returned, carrying the empty pitcher with which to collect the holy water, Crowley was alone. He was sitting on the rim of the tub, still naked as could be -- somehow more naked than could be, considering his clothes were piled in the corner and he could have put them back on.

"Michael," he said, with a friendly smile. Michael froze.

"Crowl -- " they began, and then choked on the word. "What have you -- Crow -- "

They choked again, and Crowley smiled.

"I have a new name," he said. "I'll teach it to you. My colleague," he added, only a little drily, and rose to clap them on the shoulders. Even though he disliked Michael it felt good to see them, pleasant in an absent sort of way. "We don't have to have bad will between us, and I need your help. I'm going to need..." He searched for the most pretentious word possible, just for fun, "...raiment. Something appropriately angelic. And a lift out of here, I think."

Michael looked like they didn't believe he was being honest, which was quite sad, actually.

"Please take me to Aziraphale," he said kindly.

They gaped at him, genuinely frightened now.

He paused.

"What have you done with Aziraphale?" he asked, and this time the horns behind his voice were the sort that heralded war.

Aziraphale fought every inch of the way to Heaven and through it. He struggled and scratched, kicking back against every blow they dealt him trying to subdue him, until finally they threw him, panting, on the floor at Gabriel's feet. By then he could barely stand, let alone fight, but he tried to push himself up, groaning. Eventually Uriel and Sandalphon lifted him by his elbows, throwing him into a chair. The bindings on his wrists were hardly necessary, but he appreciated the compliment, he supposed.

How had he never seen what a bully Gabriel was, what bad angels they all were? Whatever Her plan was, this was the most ineffable part: that Her anointed agents were such towering arseholes.

Gabriel pronounced sentence, and Aziraphale spat on the floor of Heaven. He was oddly pleased there was blood in it.

Still, an idea was taking form in his mind, a terrible idea, probably the worst he'd had in a long life full of marginally bad ideas. Because if Heaven was throwing him to the hellfire, then he knew what Hell was going to do with Crowley. And if he could get out of here and into Hell fast enough --

They untied his wrists once the fire was going. He pushed their hands away, standing unsteadily on his own.

"I imagine this is the last we'll see of each other," he said, straightening his waistcoat.

"Shut your stupid mouth and die already," Gabriel told him.

Aziraphale gave him a nod and a smile, and then he closed his eyes and Fell.

It wasn't at all unpleasant or dramatic; barely a shiver of sensation, and he could tell the others hadn't even noticed. Which spoke to their moral character, he supposed.

He limped forward into the hellfire with his eyes still closed, and it welcomed him. Oh, this was good -- it felt like freedom, like the secret thrill of speed he felt even when he was yelling at Crowley to drive slower. He could feel bruises fading, broken limbs healing.

He opened his eyes and spread his wings, and the others stepped back involuntarily. When he looked over his shoulder he could see the white burning away, turning black and sooty.

When he walked out of the hellfire, he dusted a few motes of ash off his jacket -- they clung, smearing, spotting it with black -- and undid his tie, tucking it in his pocket.

"I'll see myself out, shall I?" he asked.

Gabriel nodded silently.

"Before I go," he said, holding up a finger, and Uriel and Sandalphon both flinched. "I feel you ought to know, Gabriel, that I've always thought you were a prick."

He could have dropped straight through the floor of Heaven, burned a hole in it down to Earth if not all the way to Hell, but he hadn't made a truly dramatic exit in his whole entire life. The sound of his shoes clacking across the polished floor, leaving spots of ash in his wake, was just so delightful.

He took the stairs down to the first floor, shedding ash and soot everywhere; when he brushed it off his jacket it just kept staining it, so he eventually took off his jacket and waistcoat and left them in a heap in the first floor stairwell. His shirt was starting to stain black too, but he had the sense that was fashionable. Once he'd entered Hell and pulled Crowley out, somehow, he'd have to find a mirror and see.

He tucked his wings away as he boarded the escalator back to Earth, and wished just a little for his sword. He'd need it in Hell.

He reached the Earth's lobby -- "ground" floor, he'd never appreciated that joke before -- and was about to see if he could negotiate the escalator down to Hell when an angel came bursting upwards from it, almost tumbling head-over-heels if not for the counterbalance of his oversized wings. He slammed into Aziraphale, nearly bowling him over as well, then caught him by the arm, his wings fluttering to keep them both upright.

"Aziraphale!" he gasped.

"Do I know y -- " Aziraphale began, distracted by the size of the angel's wings, and then he broke off as he looked at the angel's face.

It was Crowley -- same auburn hair, same hawk nose and high cheekbones, same long-limbed, almost gawkish frame. But his eyes were a dark human brown, and his wings were white, and he was wearing --

"Are those angelic skinny jeans?" Aziraphale managed.

Crowley let go of his arm.

"That's really the first thing you have to say to me?" he demanded. "I am a redeemed angel and skinny jeans is really what you're going to -- do you see the wings? Do you?"

Aziraphale nodded at him. "They're, uh. Large."

Crowley looked behind him, an almost comical double-take, and the wings snapped down about three sizes.

"Sorry, I was trying to impress Hell," he said.

Aziraphale felt an uncanny grin curve his lips. "Color me impressed," he said.

Crowley looked him up and down, understanding dawning, and sadness rose in his face -- genuine sadness, the kind Aziraphale hadn't often seen in Crowley. "Oh, angel."

"Not anymore, I'm afraid. It was this or destruction, and I thought, well...." Aziraphale spread his hands. "At least if I Fell I might get to you before they executed you."

"I'm so sorry," Crowley said.

"Honestly?" Aziraphale said. "I was pretty well done with Heaven -- oh," he said, reaching out to touch Crowley's face. Crowley didn't move as Aziraphale patted the empty skin where the little snake used to curl. "You've lost your mark. I always rather liked it. Do you suppose I've got one, now?"

"Well, you look mostly normal, other than..." Crowley pointed to his own face.

"Other than what?" Aziraphale asked.

Crowley looked around, almost furtively, and then miracled a pair of sunglasses, putting them on Aziraphale's face. Aziraphale hoped he looked cool in them.*

* He did not.

"Let's leave this place," Crowley told him, steering him towards the door.

"Tuck your wings in," Aziraphale told him.

"Right," Crowley folded his wings down to nothing as they stepped outside. "Bookshop?"

"Bookshop," Aziraphale agreed.

"Did you give them a good scare, at least?" Crowley asked, as they hurried through London. Aziraphale wasn't sure which one was causing it, perhaps both of them, but people parted to let them through even more quickly than normal.

"I told Gabriel I've always thought he was a prick," Aziraphale said. Crowley let out a single loud laugh, then looked penitent.

"I shouldn't," he said. "I'm on-side now."

"But he is."

"Oh, just the biggest," Crowley agreed.

"And then I walked out. You'd have enjoyed it. Well, presumably," Aziraphale added.

"I'm sure I would have. My appreciation for a good moment of public theatre appears pretty intact," Crowley said.

"What about you? What's all this about?" Aziraphale asked, tugging on the sleeve of Crowley's cream-colored v-neck sweater. Aziraphale was still shedding the odd mote of soot, but the stains slid off Crowley's clothing effortlessly. He hoped the whole ash and soot thing wouldn't be permanent.

"I made Michael get them for me," Crowley said. "What do you think?"

"I mean...white skinny jeans..." Aziraphale gave him a look. "We'll fix it."

"You're going to tell me how to dress," Crowley replied, unimpressed.

"Just until you get the hang of it. It's hard to wear white," Aziraphale said. "It's not like black. You can't just head-to-toe it."

"Tell Michael that. They dressed me. On the fly while I was trying to get to you before the hellfire did, I might add."

"And did Michael have a vested interest in not making you look like a prat?" Aziraphale asked. Crowley considered this.

"I was fairly terrible to them," he said thoughtfully.

"What did you do?"

"Well, for a start, I made them choke every time they said my name, and I wouldn't let them stop until they called me by my new one."

"Your new one?"

"Got a new name, I have," Crowley said buoyantly.

"Another fucking rebrand, Crowley, really?"

"The mouth on you," Crowley said, and Aziraphale honestly couldn't tell whether he was scandalized or approving. "I mean, the new name's not for you, obviously."

"Not for me?"

"I'm still Crowley. I've been Crowley for ages, I will always be Crowley. Crowley to my friends. But that's no good as an angelic name, so I made Michael call me by my new angel name. I'm going to make them all do it, provided any of them can ever look me in the face again."

"Fine, let's have it," Aziraphale said, stopping in front of the bookshop. "Angel name, go on."

"It's Zoekel now," Crowley told him, drawing himself up proudly. "Zoekel the Virtue."

Aziraphale mouthed it wordlessly for a moment, and then cracked up laughing.

"He Screams At G-d?" he asked, through tears of mirth. "Oh, my dear, that's so -- that's so you."

"I thought it was rather good," Crowley told him, beaming.

"It's wonderful. Zoekel. I bet Michael really hated that. Come here," Aziraphale said, and pulled him into a hug. "Now. We have a lot of drinking and things to do. Inside."

"Do I need to take a new name too?" Aziraphale asked, calling over his shoulder as he went straight for the wine in the back room of the shop. Crowley locked the front door securely and peered out, just to make sure they hadn't been followed.

"It's traditional to choose a demonic name, but it's a formality," he said. "I don't think you have to if you'd rather not. Most demons find angelic names a bit pretentious, is all."

"Well, maybe I'm an extremely pretentious demon," Aziraphale said, emerging briefly from the back. "I suppose I'll find out. Red or white?"

"Brown," Crowley suggested.

"Oh, brilliant, yes," Aziraphale disappeared again. Crowley made his way to the back room just as Aziraphale was pouring out a very nice bourbon. He touched Aziraphale on the shoulder, getting his full attention.

"I want you to drink that," he said, "and then sit down for me."

"Why?" Aziraphale asked, which was just so...demonic. He could hear an echo of his own agonized voice: I only ever asked questions.

And he'd been right to do so. Even redemption couldn't change that. If he had to fall again, he could, after all.

"I'd like to show you your eyes. You should probably be sitting for that, angel."

"Not an angel anymore," Aziraphale reminded him, but he lifted the glass and drank.

"It's been a perfectly good pet name for six thousand years, and I refuse to revoke it now," Crowley told him. "It's ironic now, that's all."

Aziraphale sank back onto the sofa, and Crowley's habitual demonic approval of his slouch warred with a new angelic anxiety: for the love of Her, angel, consider your lower back!

He reached out, carefully waiting for a nod from Aziraphale before pulling the sunglasses off his face. Then he miracled a hand mirror into existence and held it up, waiting for a reaction.

It wasn't revulsion or grief, as he expected. Instead, Aziraphale sat forward curiously.

"What makes them do like that, do you suppose?" he asked, studying his eyes in the mirror. They were still human-shaped, with a pupil and an iris. They were even still blue, technically, but now a bright electric blue. In the blue, shadows swirled and streaked. The effect, Crowley felt, was lovely, but he knew a human would find it deeply unsettling.

"Occult energies," Crowley said confidently.

"So you don't know either?" Aziraphale asked.

Crowley deflated slightly. "Not a clue," he said.

"See a mark anywhere?" Aziraphale asked, twisting this way and that, looking at his temples in the mirror, the sides of his neck. "Behind the ear, maybe."

"Not that I saw." Crowley sat on the table in front of the sofa. "Lean forward, let me look."

He tilted Aziraphale's head forward, left and right, checking anywhere the demon himself couldn't, then pulled his head down to study the nape of his neck. Nothing there either, and nothing on his collarbones when he raised his head again --

But there was something, a shadow under his shirt, barely visible through the fabric. Something on his arm.

"You'd better take your shirt off," he said.

"Do you know, I think I've waited six thousand years to hear someone say that?" Aziraphale said, unbuttoning his shirt.

"Just 'someone'?" Crowley asked, amused.

"Well, you, if you must know. Though I don't suppose it was that much of a secr -- "

At any other time, it might have been the shock of hearing him admit it that struck them both silent, but it passed them by completely when Aziraphale looked down. He'd shrugged his right arm out of his shirt and was working on the left when they both saw it -- a riot of green and gold was peeking over the edge of his left shoulder, still mostly hidden by his sleeve. Aziraphale stared at it in amazement.

When he didn't move, Crowley took the edge of the shirt gently out of his grip and pulled it down. And down, and down, until he pulled the sleeve off over his hand.

The tattoo -- his Hellish brand -- was enormous, easily the biggest Crowley had ever seen. It began just above his wrist and barely left any skin visible up to his shoulder. Coil upon coil of foliage wrapped around his arm, dotted all over with angular leaves and broad-petaled gold flowers.

Aziraphale twisted his arm, fascinated. There were animals, too: frogs peeped out from within the flowers, bees sat fat and satisfied on others, and tiny brown-winged moths fluttered around his forearm.

Then he twisted his arm the other way, and Crowley caught his breath.

"What, what is it?" Aziraphale asked, contorting in order to look at the back of his own arm.

Lying along one of the thicker branches of the plant up near Aziraphale's shoulder, sinuously draped and clearly basking in the dappled sunlight, was a thick-bodied, iridescent black snake. Wherever the light hit it, red scales shone through.

"Oh my," Aziraphale managed.

"What is this?" Crowley asked, fingers finding a fat red fruit among the leaves, and then another. "These. Are they -- "

"Apples. The first apples," Aziraphale said. "It's Eden, Crowley. I'm marked with Eden."

"Very peculiar," Crowley murmured, touching the head of the snake, the petals of a flower with a little frog inside it. "I've never seen a mark like it. Any pain?"

"No," Aziraphale said. "Feels nice, actually."

Crowley held Aziraphale's wrist in one hand, touching a bee just on the inside of his elbow with the other, and saw him shiver. And then saw that Aziraphale had wanted him to see. Well, he knew demons weren't subtle.

"Do you know why I'm like this now? What they did to me?" Crowley asked casually, following various branches along Aziraphale's skin with his fingertips, turning his arm with the hand on Aziraphale's wrist, then turning it back.

"What?" Aziraphale asked breathlessly.

"They put me in a kangaroo court, a fake trial," Crowley told him, spreading his whole palm over a verdant cluster of leaves. "Sentenced me to death by holy water. But they wanted me humiliated first, so they stripped me."

Aziraphale grunted softly as Crowley pressed a knuckle into one of the apples.

"But something happened in the water, something went wrong -- well, wrong for them. Good for me, I suppose. Anyway, I came up suddenly redeemed, miraculously saved," Crowley continued, drawing his finger up the inside of his forearm, and then further up over his bicep. "And I stood up from the bath naked as Creation and spread those great big bugger-off white wings and I told them to run."

He dug his fingernails into the snake.

"You must have looked like a Renaissance painting," Aziraphale said, gasping. "Like a Michaelangelo."

Crowley leaned forward, lips to his ear. "Like Le Genie Du Mal," he said. "But with the chain off."

"Crowley -- "

"Easy," Crowley said, leaning back, letting go of his arm. "I'm fairly sure my first act as a newly minted angel can't be to seduce a demon."

"Yes, but -- " Aziraphale looked bereft in a way that Crowley really shouldn't enjoy, as an angel. Except that of course angels should enjoy tricking demons, he supposed.

"Mind you, I'm now a being of complete love and forgiveness, so of course I forgive you for Falling, and I suppose we can still associate," Crowley told him. "Lunch at the Ritz and so on. I imagine Heaven will leave you alone for a while. Hell will certainly not bother me. And vice versa," he added.

"I don't know if I'd be satisfied with lunch at the Ritz," Aziraphale said. "Not anymore."

"Somewhere in your recent past, your angelic form just clutched his chest in horror and doesn't know why," Crowley told him. "Anyway. Eventually, once I've got more of a hang on focusing on the angelic miracles instead of the demonic, we can probably come to some sort of arrangement. A few hundred years, do you think?"

Aziraphale opened his mouth and then closed it, narrowing his eyes.

"This is revenge, isn't it? I recognize it -- I can smell it," he said, pointing at Crowley. "This is -- "

"You go too fast for me," Crowley said primly.

"You complete and utter bastard," Aziraphale cried. "You torturous, self-righteous, petty -- "

Crowley leaned in and kissed him. As a former demon he suspected he'd had a lot more experience with all of this than a former angel had, but he really did just mean it affectionately for the moment. No point in rushing, even if they could go fast now.

Then Aziraphale grabbed Crowley's shirt, shoved his tongue in Crowley's mouth, and pulled him into his lap. Crowley tasted fire. And apples.

When he leaned back, there were whole tsunamis in Aziraphale's eyes. His wings, deep black and glossy, were spread behind him. Crowley unfolded his own wings and beamed.

"Oh, angel," he said to the demon already starting to pull at his clothes. "What fun we're going to have."