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but still there was no rest for me

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“The sun was setting in the west and the birds were singing on every tree.

All nature seemed inclined to rest, but still there was no rest for me.

Farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast. Let your mountains dark and dreary be.

For when I am far away on the briny ocean tossed, will you ever heave a sigh or a wish for me?”

 

~*~ 

            “No, the humans thought it up themselves,” Crowley had assured Aziraphale even as the sound of the falling guillotine cut through the air outside the walls of the Bastille. “S’nothing to do with me.” By 1793, the excuse came easily from Crowley’s mouth, well-worn and comfortable like a shoe that’d long been broken in. It didn’t mean he entirely believed it.

            Of course, Crowley had almost never purposely caused the atrocities he’d received commendations for over the millennia. It just wasn’t his style. Aziraphale would say he was too good, yet every time – when blood began to spill and smoke choked the air – Crowley could still feel the angel’s questioning gaze on the back of his neck. The familiar words would come, unprompted.  It wasn’t me, angel. There isn’t a thing I can do to them that they don’t do themselves already, but with a nastier imagination.

            That didn’t mean he wasn’t responsible.

            Regardless of their actions, as ethereal and occult beings respectively, angels and demons did tend to have a certain aura to them that seeped into the world around them. Crowley himself had observed, in his many run-ins with Aziraphale over the years, the sickening sight of spontaneous joy erupting around the angel regularly. People would smile easily, greet each other on the street, and even, on one memorable occasion, break into a highly choreographed song and dance routine in the middle of Saint James’ Park.

            Being of the same stock, Crowley reasoned he must also have some effect on the humans caught in his shadow. He just wasn’t sure how much. Crowley thought it was safe to assume that humans were right bastards even when he couldn’t see them, but he couldn’t exactly observe humans when he wasn’t there. It didn’t help that he always seemed to find himself wrapped up in the worst of human suffering – floods, earthquakes, fires, explosions, and war after war after war. Would any human, if given the chance to live as long as Crowley had, see so many horrors in their lifetime? Or was Crowley simply the centre of a storm raging across the earth for the last six thousand years? No matter how much Crowley drank, the images and the guilt still lingered, clinging to his skin like the smell of smoke, smoke from yet another human civilization razed from the earth before his eyes.

            But there wasn’t much a demon could do about an action he hadn’t intended and that he wasn’t even sure he was responsible for, especially when his superiors seemed rather pleased with his work. So, he pushed it to the back of his mind, downed a few too many bottles of wine, and carried on.

            Still, in 1917, as Crowley opened the Infernal Times to learn of the newest horrors of the war – the war to end all wars, the war that was supposed to have ended within a year yet was still carving up the entire European landscape, a war for which he’d received a commendation that lay discarded on his coffee table, the war – he found himself letting out a rather undemonic, bone-deep sigh. Aziraphale peered over the paper at the sound, dabbing at the evidence of their shared lunch at the corners of his mouth.

            “Really, my dear,” the angel chided, rearranging himself primly in his chair “I seem to recall you being in Bosnia when –”

            “Don’t.” Crowley hissed, raising the paper higher between them to block the angel from view. Despite this, Crowley could still feel Aziraphale bristle at the other end of the table.

            “I didn’t mean to insinuate anything,” said Aziraphale, while still very much insinuating something “the whole thing just seemed rather, well, devilishly complicated, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

            Crowley didn’t respond, simply turning the page of his newspaper with a deliberate, sharp sound.

            The very next morning, Crowley found himself aboard a navy ship heading to resupply across the Atlantic.

 

~*~ 

            Halifax was much like London, for which Crowley was privately grateful. As much as Crowley endeavored to follow the latest in human trends, he was still a creature of habit much in the way that Aziraphale was. London still felt the most like home, even with all the places he’d lived over the millennia. The grey skies and steady drizzle of rain were comforting in their familiarity, even as he braced himself against the unfamiliar chill that seeped through the wool of his jacket. He had heard one of the soldiers in the fort saying that winter wouldn’t really set in for another month yet, and Crowley almost wished with his entire cold-blooded existence that his fears would be realized, and the war would end in Europe before the first snowfall.

            Crowley had settled himself on Georges Island, a small island near the mouth of the harbour that only housed a small fort with a flag mast for relaying messages, a lighthouse, and a confusing amount of garter snakes. The demon watched as they slithered out the way of his feet as he ambled through the dying grass and thought of a time when all life in the world could’ve been contained in the space of this tiny island. An Eden in the middle of the ocean, if Eden had been a frostbitten rock that smelled vaguely of salted fish.

            Still fighting a chill, Crowley continued his lazy morning stroll around the perimeter of the island, giving the lighthouse keeper a lazy salute as he passed his quarters. He had told the man he was stationed at the fort as an artist, commissioned to do sketches for the War Memorials Fund to be sent back to London. He had told the soldiers in the fort that he was the lighthouse keeper’s nephew, sent to help with the wartime workload. Crowley wondered how long these lies could coexist, balanced on the head of a pin. He quietly assumed to war would end too quickly without him to find out, and wrapped his jacket more tightly around him.

            As he emerged on the south side of the island, Crowley lowered his sunglasses to make out the jagged line of the submarine net in the distance, stretched over the mouth of the harbour just beyond the next island. He could barely see the glint of metal among the steel-grey waves. Without any news on the island besides the gossip of bored soldiers, Crowley checked the netting every morning. The war was still on.

            To the west, on the mainland shore, Crowley could make out the distant movement of the city coming to life. It was still morning, though the lingering fog made it hard to tell, and the residents of Halifax were starting their day. From this distance, the city was indistinguishable from a nest of bees, a tightly organized frenzy of movement winding around the buildings on the shore. In the harbour, boats were coming to life, too, itching to slip through the netting when it was finally lifted for the morning, off to their next port. Back to the front.

            Crowley had come through that netting barely a week ago. Lacking papers or a way to miracle some into existence without revealing his location, Crowley had swum to the island from the ship. He still hadn’t shaken the chill.

            Lacking anything better to do, Crowley perched on the damp grass on the steep slope of the southern bank, letting his limbs sprawl just enough to preserve a cool exterior while also staying warm. He heard the faint rustle of disturbed snakes retreating through the blades and longed to join them. The snakes were sluggish as they moved through the stiff grass – it was nearly time for hibernation, the frost starting to settle in. Crowley briefly entertained the idea of slithering to their den and sleeping the war away until the celebrations woke him. Only the meager warmth of human clothes kept him in this form.

            Watching the ships begin to choke the mouth of the harbour, a kaleidoscope of anti-submarine paint that nearly hurt the eyes to linger, Crowley wondering what the port would look like once – not if – word got out that the war had ended. One of the busiest ports in the world, full of rejoicing officers, harbour finally reopened to the world beyond – Crowley imagined finally walking among the city streets, snaking his way through dense crowds. A port town in New Scotland probably meant beer and bagpipes, but Crowley could overlook his disdain for both for the occasion.

            How long after his arrival would the war have to end for him to convince himself it wasn’t his fault? Weeks? Months? Years? How long before he would be able to celebrate amongst the humans, certain that no one above or below would be paying attention to a port on the other side of the world?

            Crowley wondered how Aziraphale would celebrate, back in London. Aziraphale, as much as he loved the world of humans as Crowley did, most likely wouldn’t be found among the people filling the streets. Would he quietly go into his back room, select the best vintage from his private stock that he usually saved for Crowley’s visits, toasting by himself? Would he just sit in his bookshop, ignoring the shouts of joy from outside? The fireworks? The –

The whole world seemed to suddenly lurch under Crowley.

An explosive shockwave tore through the air and ground, bending Crowley double where he sat, head between his knees and long fingers clutching at the dying grass to keep from being pushed into the harbour. As the force ripped through the island the pressure dropped, slamming Crowley back into the steep bank like a bug caught on fly paper. Turning his head, Crowley watched as the ensuing tidal wave crashed on the opposite side of the island, dousing him in ice cold water as it burst from the sides and above, the hill taking the brunt of the impact.

Crowley didn’t know how long he sat there. He was too in shock to even register the ringing pain in his ears, let alone think of fixing the damage with a simple wave of his hand. He simply watched as the seas roiled with the aftershocks of an incredible explosion, water still licking at his wool coat as the waves crashed against the bank. Crowley dimly registered how still the city had become on the mainland, no longer bustling with morning traffic. It wouldn’t stay like that for long – this was just the breath before the scream.

 

~*~

Crowley made it to the mainland eventually, as the water started to calm and the soldiers manning the fort managed to drag a boat down to the dock. No one questioned his presence when he joined them. The trip to shore was a flurry of nervous chatter, yet somehow nobody said anything. To be able to say something, the mind must first come to terms with the enormity of what had just happened. Crowley still hadn’t, so mortal lives didn’t stand a chance.

Crowley still couldn’t understand as he stood in where the North End of the city once stood. The explosion seemed to have blown the fog from the city like a candle being snuffed out, making the devastation all too clear. He tried to not look too closely at the charred remains of buildings, jutting from the ground like sharp, black teeth, for fear of what he might see inside. He instead let his eyes follow the ash starting to drift through the air like snow, settling in the fire of his hair, and was abruptly reminded of a similar scene nearly two millennia ago. He’d been in Pompeii, too. Another city wiped out from underneath his feet. More ash settled on the shoulders of his wool coat, but it carried the weight of civilizations’ worth of guilt.

“Crowley?” came a familiar voice, distant and confused.

Crowley turned to find Aziraphale standing amongst the debris, a bright spot of white left untouched in a world of black and soot. Though Crowley was always aware of the fact that Aziraphale was an angel – oh Go- Sat- somebody was he aware of the distance between them at all times – never had it been more clear to him than in that moment. He was beautiful yet detached from the tragedy around him, pristine and unaffected.

Wrapped in a black wool coat – heavy with seawater, soot, and guilt – Crowley had never felt so vulnerable in the presence of his friend.

Crowley had so much he wanted to say, but instead of saying any of it he asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, the usual,” Aziraphale said in a carefully neutral tone, as if discussing the weather “A few miracles here and there. A few unexpected lie-ins, a baby tucked away in an ashpan.” Aziraphale allowed himself a small smile, though it couldn’t seem to stick on his face. “I even reported the burning ship to train dispatch so they could stop the train before it… well, before it –”

“It wasn’t me, angel,” Crowley said reflexively, sounding more like a plea than an assurance. His voice cracked along with the fires starting to settle into the bones of the city around them, along with the people beginning to fill the streets around them, hoarsely calling after their loved ones.

All at once, Aziraphale’s face softened. “Oh, Crowley, dear,” he said softly, sadly “I know.”

Crowley hadn’t known how much he’d needed to hear that until he felt the force of the words knock the wind out of his lungs. He let out a whine – involuntary, desperate, needy – as he sank to his knees in the dirt, in what might’ve been a street or a building or a person just this morning.

Suddenly, Aziraphale was a lot closer than he had been before, closing the distance between them in one miraculous instant. Crowley’s arms snaked around his middle, pressing his face into the softness of the angel's stomach. After a moment, Crowley felt short fingers begin carding clumsily through his hair and keened, his own hands leaving trails of smudged grey where they grasped at Aziraphale’s white suit.

Aziraphale’s fingers finally settled against Crowley’s nape, cradling his head. Crowley looked up in askance, watching as ash began to dust the angel’s curls.

“It’s not your fault,” Aziraphale said again.

And, despite everything, Crowley believed him.