It was hard to leave Crowley, even just for a few hours, but Crowley insisted, clearly embarrassed - maybe even a little humiliated - by the state he'd been in the day before. He'd slept for ten hours overnight, with Aziraphale lying quietly by his side, ensuring that he didn't dream at all. This morning he almost looked back to normal, except for the hesitant way his eyes kept sliding to Aziraphale, as if he was afraid to blink and find him gone.
Those glances rang through Aziraphale like a cracked bell, like an accusation. He should have known - should have understood the moment he returned and saw Crowley again that he hadn't been careful enough - that he'd left his fingerprints too deep even in that short time. Should have seen how much hurt he'd dealt, should have realised sooner how it had twisted Crowley up with fear. Should have kissed him weeks ago - maybe months - instead of waiting for him to make the first move like he always had before.
The bookshop was still in chaos, books of prophecy and magic scattered everywhere, and what did he have to show for three days of research? Nothing except more questions, and the memory of Crowley falling apart in his arms. Three days without a word. Nothing, to an angel. Nothing, to Crowley, once. To a human? Insufferable. Unfair. Cruel.
It wouldn't happen again.
Aziraphale snapped his fingers. The books returned themselves to the hidden room behind the hinged shelf, his notes and journals to their secret boxes. If he was going to find any answers, it wouldn't be here, not in these words he'd already read so many times over the past few centuries. His books had failed him before; why had he thought they would succeed this time?
Perhaps, he thought with a stark honesty that didn't often come to him, he had just wanted to shut out the world until the anguish of understanding had passed. The shock of realising that somehow, Crowley retained some memories of his past lives, and of knowing all too well what horrors lurked there. Of fearing that it was his fault, that it was his presence in Crowley's life that was triggering these dreams. Of feeling torn apart, tugged one way by the desperate hope that Crowley would remember more, and the silent prayer that he never did.
There was a door in the back wall of the bookshop that currently led to a broom closet. Aziraphale couldn't remember if he'd ever opened it when Crowley was present. He hoped not. He took a deep breath, and thought about Crowley's flat above the flower shop. When he opened the door, there were stairs leading up to a set of rooms that hadn't existed a moment ago.
He fussed over the space for a long time, trying to make it look lived-in, trying to remember what things humans kept around. He'd made a list while Crowley slept through the night, slipped away to itemise the contents of his bathroom and kitchen. All the implements for cooking (and they mustn't seem too new and unused), the clever modern appliances for heating and cooling and mixing and cleaning, the razor he'd have to get into the habit of pretending to use, the toothbrush with the strange little rubber nubs on the back of it.
The flat was a bit small for two people. He expanded it, made sure there was enough space in the sitting room for Crowley to go off in a corner, the way he used to do in their apartment when they'd first moved to London at the start of the nineteenth century. Grief washed through him; he pushed it aside. He'd already spent too long sacrificing the here and now on the altar of the past. They had so little time.
He made the bath deep and luxurious. There had been a time when he'd enjoyed bathing, back when it was still done by candlelight, with servants hauling hot water from the kitchen. It was so much easier now. Everything was so much easier now; they were so clever, the humans, so marvellously inventive and endlessly imaginative.
(Why would anyone want to end it when they were just getting started? There was so much more, still so much more to come. It was a waste. It was a crime. It was... it was the Grand Plan, and there was nothing he could do about it.)
He made the bed the way he remembered that Crowley had liked it, broad and high and with a mattress that was neither too firm nor too soft. No-one had four-posters anymore, did they? A pity, he'd always liked the way closing the curtains had felt like being swathed in warm wings.
He spent the whole day on it, going room to room, working through the details: necessities, conveniences, luxuries. Things for Crowley, which he then immediately realised would be inappropriate to already have on hand, and waved away with a sigh. He could bring them back later. He tried a television, but he couldn't work out what to do with the wires, so substituted it for a radio set. Crowley already thought him old-fashioned, and he'd always rather preferred listening over watching.
By the time he was done, Aziraphale was tired in a way he hadn't been in years, but there was a soft hum of pleasure under it, the weariness of hard work for a worthy reward. He didn't often create things out of whole cloth like this, couldn't remember the last time he'd put so much effort and care into anything but his books, but when he thought about being able to invite Crowley up here, of making sure he understood that this was where he belonged, it still didn't seem like enough.
He glanced at the coffee table in the middle of the sitting room. With a thought, a cut-crystal vase appeared. Aziraphale looked at it for a long time. Then he went down to the shop and picked up the phone.
Crowley answered on the second ring, as if he'd grabbed his mobile the second he saw Aziraphale's name. Aziraphale took a careful breath.
"When you come over tonight," he said, proud that his voice didn't waver, "would you bring flowers?"
Crowley made a startled noise that metamorphosed into a laugh.
"I think I can manage that." Aziraphale could hear his smile. "Anything in particular?"
Aziraphale closed his eyes.
"Roses," he said.
"Thought we could go out somewhere tomorrow night," Crowley said, in that too-casual tone that Aziraphale would have recognised immediately, if he hadn't been absorbed in a lovely little book of poetry he'd found on a market stall. "Watch a play. Get dinner somewhere nice."
"If you like," Aziraphale replied absently, tilting the page towards the light so he could catch the barest traces of pencil letters in the margin. Someone had tried their hand at writing a love poem of their own, given up in despair, rubbed the graphite off the page but left the indentations of their heartfelt words. "Anything you want to see in particular?"
The hesitation was just enough to get his attention. Crowley was sprawled over the far end of the sofa the way he usually did, feet not quite in Aziraphale's lap but ready to inch into his space at the slightest invitation. He was staring at the ceiling with a studied nonchalance that meant he was actually quite nervous, and Aziraphale abruptly lost interest in the book.
"They're doing Much Ado again," Crowley said. "Thought we might— well, it's, you know, it's been a year—"
Aziraphale thought he felt his heart stop as he scrambled desperately to line up dates and times and the ridiculous speed of it all. Crowley finally risked a glance at his face, and whatever he saw there brought that awful guilty look into his eyes. He sat up suddenly, turning to put his feet back on the ground and (completely coincidentally, of course) hide his face by checking his phone.
"Never mind, it's a weird thing to want to celebrate—"
"No, it's not," Aziraphale said, setting aside the book and willing the tremor out of his fingers. "It just— caught me by surprise. It's really been a whole year?"
He slid along the sofa, pressed his hand to the small of Crowley's back, felt the tension ease. How long was it going to take before these wounds Aziraphale had left on him healed? Would they ever? Or was it more than just his mistakes in this lifetime? Did Crowley somehow bear the scars of every other time Aziraphale had hurt him so terribly?
Crowley still dreamed. Once or twice he'd had terrible nightmares, but Aziraphale put a stop to that; as long as he was at Crowley's side, he wouldn't suffer like that again. He couldn't do much on the nights that they didn't share a bed, but those were few and far between now, and though Aziraphale had always felt like sleeping was a waste of time, he treasured every moment he could lie quiet with Crowley in his arms, could pretend it had always been like this and always would be.
He still didn't know what it meant, that these fragments of Crowley's past lives came back to him in his dreams. His human lives: he never seemed to dream of anything from before. No recollection of his true form, nothing of wings or scales or his own slit-pupil eyes, of all the times they'd met, of all the times they'd parted. He never dreamed of the Globe, never of Rome, never of the Garden.
The only exception was the tattoo on his cheek. It had never been there in any previous life; Aziraphale had hardly dared to ask about it. When he did, Crowley had been reluctant to answer, but finally he'd sighed with the resignation of someone who had tried to explain this before and never succeeded.
"Saw it somewhere, when I was seventeen. And I just thought... it was just right. Needed to be right here." He'd tapped the coiled snake fondly. "Sounds crazy, I know."
"It is right," Aziraphale had replied, tracing his forefinger over the ink, and Crowley had caught his breath, and stared at him in wonder and relief. "It's exactly right."
He leaned in now and put his lips to it, heard Crowley sigh, the last traces of anxiety melting out of him.
"I take it you have tickets?" Aziraphale asked, smiling at the way Crowley blushed just a bit. "And a dinner reservation, probably."
"Only if you want to—"
"I do want to." Aziraphale leaned in and kissed him properly, pressed love and reassurance against his lips, held onto the moment, tried not to think past it. "Of course I do."
He couldn't quite push it away, though, the remorseless whisper in the back of his mind: one year down. Ten to go.
Aziraphale was surprised by how reluctant Crowley was to drive the Bentley. He'd assumed he'd just be able to hand it over, give the car back to its rightful owner, but he'd reckoned without the delicate balance of human sensibilities surrounding monetary value. It wasn't that Crowley didn't want to take the wheel - Aziraphale could practically see his fingers twitch every time they drove anywhere - but he was equally worried about damaging such a valuable car, and Aziraphale couldn't exactly explain that it was literally under divine protection.
He finally coaxed Crowley into the driver's seat by pleading a headache on the day they were going to look over his parents' old house. Crowley eased them out of central London with such nervous care that even Aziraphale had to bite back the urge to suggest he go a little bit faster, but once they were on the motorway, he started to relax, melting into the seat as if it had been made for him.
(Aziraphale wondered if it had. He never did get the full story, back in 1941, and now he never would.)
"It's going to be a mess," Crowley said as he smoothly overtook a caravan that had been dawdling in the middle lane. "Just warning you. Less charming country cottage and more one of the really bad episodes of Hoarders."
"I'm sure I've seen worse."
Crowley made a disgruntled noise. Aziraphale would have liked to ask a lot of questions about his childhood, his parents, but he didn't dare. Crowley might start asking questions of his own, and so far Aziraphale had managed to avoid that particular ordeal. As long as they both treated family as a topic that was off-limits, he didn't have to lie.
"You really haven't been back since—"
"Since the funeral. Nope. Didn't feel like it."
Aziraphale bit his lip, looked out of the window at the scenery. It was nice not to be driving. He'd never much enjoyed it, but he'd felt a sense of duty to keep the Bentley running. A large silhouette wheeled against the sky; he craned his neck and caught sight of rust-red wings swooping over the verge.
"It's so lovely to see them here again," he murmured.
"The red kites. They used to be everywhere, you know, particularly in the cities. They're scavengers, for the most part. Helped keep the streets clean of carrion and so on. But people treated them like pests, and then one day there weren't any left. Until the reintroduction programme."
Crowley laughed, shooting Aziraphale a fond look.
"You always make it sound like a personal anecdote when you talk about that sort of thing," he teased.
Aziraphale made a noncommittal noise, hurriedly running the conversation back through his mind to check for anything egregious. It was so hard to keep track of what he should and shouldn't remember, what had happened a decade ago and what had passed more than a century since. He remembered the kites squabbling over refuse in the filthy cities. For that matter, he remembered when there had still been wolves in the woods.
The longer Crowley drove, the more confident and at ease he seemed, and Aziraphale watched him, openly at times and covertly at others, smiling at the way he would stroke parts of the car absentmindedly, like it was a beloved pet. Aziraphale would fake as many headaches as it took to make this a permanent arrangement.
Their destination was surprisingly picturesque; from Crowley's antipathy, Aziraphale had thought it would be a bit of a slum, but the village of Tadfield was lovely in the summer sun, as perfect as a postcard.
"So this is where you grew up?" he asked before he could stop himself.
Crowley made a sour expression as he navigated them through the village centre.
"Lord, no," he muttered. "Can you imagine me running around this place with the local kids like the Famous Five? No, I grew up on a housing estate in Swindon. My parents moved here after I left home. You know, when I wasn't holding them back any more from the kind of life they wanted."
The bitterness could have turned milk, and Aziraphale ached for him. It was another pattern, he'd come to realise: in all Crowley's lifetimes (the ones he'd seen up close, at least) he didn't think Crowley had ever had loving parents. He wondered if it meant anything, or if it was just the luck of the draw.
(He'd taken the time to do a different kind of research, in the last year or so. Searching through birth records and family trees, online archives, reading old censuses. He'd confirmed what he'd long suspected; that every time Crowley had died in the past, he'd been reborn within a year, apparently a normal human baby with normal human parents. It hurt, to see the dates laid out, how short so many of his lives had ended up. Copenhagen had been the longest, in the end. Aziraphale wished he'd gone back just once, in all those decades after he'd left. He wished he could change a lot of things, now.)
"Here we are," Crowley said, pulling the Bentley up to a rusty gate that had been rather overtaken by the nearby hedge. "Ugh. That's not a good start."
He fished out a set of keys and got out of the car to unlock the gate, while Aziraphale looked at the cottage beyond. It might not be in the best of repair, but it could be lovely, with some work. He watched Crowley wrestle the gate open, losing a battle with the hedge in the process, and smothered a laugh.
Crowley swung back into the driver's seat. There was a bit of privet stuck in his hair and he had the look of a man who was contemplating mass herbicide.
"Should've brought my secateurs," he muttered, putting the Bentley in gear and edging forward through the overgrown gate. "Or a flamethrower."
"I'm sure you could whip it into shape in no time." Aziraphale frowned. "Do you have a flamethrower?"
"No, but don't tell the hedge that."
The car rolled to a stop on weedy gravel drive. When Aziraphale got out, he was struck by how quiet everything was, no hum of traffic or murmur of voices, how clean the air seemed, how perfect a June day it really was here.
"It's nice," Aziraphale blurted out, and he didn't really mean the cottage itself, which definitely needed a good deal of work. He meant the place, the village and its surrounding countryside. It felt loved, with a soft and simple love like a child wrapping chubby arms around a favourite toy. "It feels like a nice place to be."
Crowley was looking around, the frown he'd been wearing since they arrived starting to ease away.
"Yeah," he said, tilting his face upwards to examine the ivy that had climbed onto the cottage roof, closing his eyes for a moment and letting the sun bathe his face. "It's... better than I remembered."
Crowley wanted to clear the whole place out and sell it. Aziraphale suddenly wondered if he could persuade him to keep it instead. He thought he'd like to come back. Spend summer weekends here with Crowley, maybe. Get away from the city for a bit.
"All right, here we go." Crowley found the front door key and unlocked it. "Brace yourself."
"I really think you're—" The door swung halfway open and immediately struck a pile of something in the hallway just beyond. "Oh dear."
"Yes, all right." Aziraphale peered past him at the rickety side tables piled high with knick-knacks, the heaps of folded clothes on every step of the staircase, the stacks of magazines arranged neatly but covered in dust. "This may take a while."
Crowley was eyeing the wooden beams that crisscrossed the ceiling, the patch of golden sunlight falling through the nearest window.
"Still," he said slowly, "it could be all right, couldn't it? I remembered it being... I dunno... darker. Colder. Narrower. But with a bit of redecorating..."
Aziraphale smiled, took Crowley's arm in his own and rested his cheek on his shoulder for a moment.
"I was just thinking the same thing, dearest."
When Gabriel and Sandalphon walked into the bookshop, Aziraphale experienced a flashback so powerful he found himself rooted to the spot, unable even to force his face into a smile or mouth words of greeting. Without even meaning to, he glanced at the velvet-swathed piano - but Crowley wasn't here this time, Crowley wasn't here to see it end.
In an instant, his heart turned to stone, and then in the very next breath he felt it shatter into shards of a cold anger he'd never known in all his existence. No. Not again. Not this time. He curled his hands into fists and plastered on a bland and hopefully welcoming expression.
"Aziraphale!" Gabriel had his jovial expression on, throwing out his arms as if to initiate a hug, though he'd never dream of doing such a thing. "Good to see you!"
"Gabriel," Aziraphale replied cordially. "Sandalphon. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Business, I'm afraid, not pleasure," Gabriel said with a conspiratorial grimace. He glanced around the shop. "Perhaps we could go—"
"There's no-one else here at present." Aziraphale waved a hand, and the door locked itself, the sign turning to closed. He could hear the ice in his own voice; he prayed that Gabriel couldn't. "You can speak freely."
"Excellent." Gabriel paused to examine a set of cookery books, then cast a critical eye over the rest of the shop. "You seem to have more books than last time, Aziraphale."
"It's an unfortunate necessity of doing business," Aziraphale replied, fighting to keep the sarcasm out of the words. "It becomes harder to sell books if one doesn't have any. It's a human thing."
"Humans," muttered Sandalphon with the comfortable disdain of someone who'd only seen them from a distance, and thoughtlessly squashed them like ants.
"Anyway," Gabriel said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them like he was trying to start a fire. "We didn't come to chit-chat. We've received some information on the whereabouts of the Antichrist."
Aziraphale swallowed against a wave of dread.
"Yes, it seems that Hell has arranged to have him adopted by the American Ambassador, right here in London. And you know what that means?"
That I could kill him and put a stop to all this? The thought flashed through Aziraphale's mind in an instant, shook him with its simplicity and its cold, sharp-edged logic. Take the child out of play, and the whole thing falls apart, doesn't it?
He had to take a steadying breath, horrified with himself, unable to unthink it.
"What does it mean, Gabriel?"
"It means you're perfectly positioned to keep an eye on things, Aziraphale. Hell already has agents within the family, of course, making sure he grows up evil and so on. Now, that's their right, can't say it isn't, but we don't want any of those agents to get out of hand in the meantime, do we? Got to keep our hand in, no excuse to slack off on the thwarting just because the world's ending, is there?"
"No," Aziraphale said distantly. "I suppose not."
"Excellent!" Gabriel clapped him on the shoulder. Aziraphale tried not to flinch. "So you're to keep them under surveillance, make sure they don't get too comfortable, keep us up to date on the boy's progress. He shouldn't be any trouble until his eleventh birthday. Got all that?"
"We'll let you know if you're needed for anything else." Gabriel turned to leave. "Make sure you get your reports in on time, we're on a schedule here."
"Of course," Aziraphale replied. "I wouldn't dream of anything else."
He unlocked the door for them with a wave, watched them depart. He stood there for a long time, so long that before he knew it, Crowley was arriving, grumbling to himself as he juggled two bags of shopping and a sickly-looking aloe vera that was probably about to join the other rescued houseplants that had taken up residence in Aziraphale's flat.
Aziraphale was moving before he gave any conscious command to his feet. He wrapped his arms so tightly around Crowley that he heard a gasp of surprise, buried his face in Crowley's neck and closed his eyes, breathing him in, feeling his heart beat in his chest.
"Aziraphale? What's wrong?" The bags hit the floor, there was a scraping sound as if the aloe vera had been shoved onto the nearest shelf. Crowley's arms went around him and cradled him close. "What happened?"
They will not take you from me again.
"A couple of... acquaintances decided to drop by," Aziraphale said, breathing deeply, letting the familiar scent calm him. "I'm not overly fond of them. They've left me a little upset."
Crowley kissed his hair, ran soothing hands down his back.
"You need me to beat them up for you?"
Aziraphale snorted ungracefully into his collar.
"You should see what these elbows can do in a fight."
Aziraphale laughed, raised his head enough to press his lips to Crowley's cheek.
"It wouldn't help," he sighed. "But I appreciate the offer."
Warlock Dowling was more than a bit of a brat, in Aziraphale's opinion, but then, he was also not-yet-four-years-old, and at least he wasn't in the habit of summoning hellfire when he had a tantrum.
In fact, he seemed terribly ordinary, even under the influence of the strange Satanic nun who served as his nanny, and the uncouth demon who acted as a bodyguard. Aziraphale didn't dare enter the house, but he watched the boy play in the gardens, followed him discreetly when his mother took him out on trips.
Another year had passed. Aziraphale still hadn't made up his mind what to do.
He's the Antichrist, Aziraphale would think, staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, running his fingers softly through Crowley's hair. Killing him would be an act of goodness, surely. To protect the world and all the people in it.
(But he wasn't thinking of the world, he was thinking of kissing Crowley awake in the morning, of the way he'd start smiling before he even opened his eyes.)
And then he'd go to the house and watch the child shrieking with delight as his mother chased him around the garden, the way she'd snatch him up and snuggle him as he squealed and laughed. The way the nanny, for all her eccentricities and tendency to greet people with "Hail Satan!", treated him with kindness and affection. Even the boy's father, barely present in their lives if truth be told, did try to spend time with his son when he could, and Warlock clearly adored and idolised him, at least at this stage of his life.
Aziraphale had thought about doing it today. They were going on a trip to the zoo; it wouldn't be hard to arrange a traffic accident. He watched the boy climb excitedly into the car, babbling about the monkeys and the parrots and the penguins, clutching his stuffed bear with the inverted pentagram on its forehead.
He felt sick, felt cold and forsaken down to his very soul. He turned away. Not today, then. Not now, when the child was so happy, when it would rip his mother's heart out to lose him so cruelly and suddenly.
(Would it ever not?)
Aziraphale was barely aware of heading back to the bookshop. He'd told Crowley not to expect him until later; he supposed he could go somewhere else, sit in a dark corner and dwell on his own guilt and cowardice, but he found he just wanted to go home. Find Crowley in the flat that might as well be called theirs now, maybe cooking dinner or watching that television show with all the clothes, push the choice away for another night.
He slowed as he reached the door. He could hear music; piano music. His heart caught and shuddered. He stopped to listen for a minute, then another. It was familiar, but he couldn't place it. With an unsteady hand, he opened the door.
Crowley stopped mid-bar, swinging around with surprise and guilt on his face.
"I— thought you weren't going to be back—"
"Do you do this often?" Aziraphale asked. Crowley studied his face anxiously; Aziraphale didn't know what his expression was doing or how much of the chaos in his heart was reflected in it. "Play, I mean?"
"Not— not often." Crowley glanced awkwardly at the keys. "I've been— um. I've been taking lessons, actually. Was— going to surprise you. Maybe. Hadn't made up my mind, to be honest, wasn't sure if you'd like it."
"Well, I'm surprised."
Aziraphale found himself drawn across the space between them. Crowley had unearthed the stool that had come with the piano. There was a carved snake peeping out from just behind his knee, and it made tears come to Aziraphale's eyes, how familiar he looked there, and how different. It hurt, and it felt good, as well, like something settling back into place, like something he'd missed. When he reached Crowley's side, he bent and kissed him, just like he used to when the piano was new. He felt the nervousness bleed out of Crowley at his touch. It was seldom there, these days, except in the moments like these, where the ghosts of the past thronged thick between them.
"I do like it," Aziraphale said. "What was that you were playing, anyway?"
"Only you would have to ask."
"Should I know it?"
Crowley shifted on the stool, making room for Aziraphale to join him, then started playing the same thing again. He was good at it, Aziraphale saw, his hands moving easily, no missed notes or hesitations. He must have been having lessons for some time, quietly relearning the skill he'd half-remembered in his dreams. A sudden intense swell of love filled him, left him shaken. He slipped his arm around Crowley's waist and watched his fingers dance across the keys.
"Ringing any bells?" Crowley murmured. Aziraphale shook his head. "Honestly, one day I'm going to sit you down and force you to listen to every volume of Now That's What I Call Music until you catch up with the rest of the century."
"It is familiar," he admitted. "I expect I've heard you listen to it."
Crowley turned his head for a second to kiss the corner of Aziraphale's mouth, missed a note, made a face, and returned his attention to the piano.
"Here," Crowley said, and played the melody line a bit louder as he sang, "I would do anything for love, Oh I would do anything for love, but I won't do that—"
And the world spun, and Aziraphale drew in a sharp breath, and for the thousandth time asked himself if he could possibly understand God's ineffable plan and its consequences in the ripples of the world.
Crowley stopped playing, half-turning on the stool to touch Aziraphale's cheek with a frown.
"Are you okay?"
Aziraphale looked into his eyes, honey-gold and worried and full of love. Not the kids, he remembered: the horror in Crowley's voice, the disbelief. You can't kill kids.
"I love you," Aziraphale whispered, burying his face in Crowley's shoulder to hide his tears, relief and despair shocking through him like water sloshing in a tub as he knew all at once that there was only one correct choice.
Oh, that little half-gasp Crowley always made at the words, like he couldn't quite believe them, like he didn't dare hope they were for him.
"Love you too," he murmured against Aziraphale's hair. "You want me to play something else?"
"I want you to play me absolutely everything you've learned," Aziraphale replied fervently. "And practice in here whenever you like."
"It's not much so far," Crowley admitted, kissing his ear and then letting him go. "I've been staying away from the classical stuff, to be honest. But I did have a go at this..."
He reached for the keys again and started to play. He wasn't as confident as he had been with the other piece, but Aziraphale recognised it within a few bars, and smiled.
"What was that about catching up with this century?"
"Hush, I know you like this one."
Aziraphale leaned his head against Crowley's shoulder, closed his eyes, and listened to the gentle lilt of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
He thought about Warlock Dowling coming back tired and thrilled from his visit to the zoo. Thought of his nanny getting him ready for bed, his mother coming in to say goodnight, his childish dreams of superheroes and dinosaurs. Thought about the years slipping away, the world spinning unawares towards its final destination. No matter how tightly he held onto Crowley at the end, he would be torn away.
But I can't do it. I won't do it. Not even for you. I'm sorry, my love. I'm sorry I even considered it.
Sicily was heavenly in the late summer, the fierce heat of August ebbing away into gentle breezes and cool nights.
He watched Crowley, searched for any signs of recognition, but all he saw was delight in the lovely villa they'd rented, pleasure in the wine and the food and the scented air, and love, always love, lapping at Aziraphale like the warm sea that rose and fell on the pebbly beach below the cliffs.
Would they ever have come to this, he wondered, if Crowley hadn't been plunged into these repeating human lives? Oh, it wasn't as though he hadn't felt the deep affection Crowley held for him, before, the bond that had formed between them over five and a half millennia. It wasn't as though he hadn't known, deep down, that he cared rather more for Crowley than he did for anyone or anything else in creation. It wasn't as though he hadn't known it in his soul for what it was, and spent years, centuries trying to understand how there could be love between an angel and a demon.
But it had never been safe to acknowledge its true name, never been safe to spend more than a few hours in each other's company, never been safe to drop their careful facade of allies of convenience. It perhaps wasn't safe now, had never been safe for Aziraphale to reach out and touch Crowley's mortal existence, not when humans were so fragile, and Heaven was so ruthless, but it was too late now for second thoughts, too late to do anything but hold on fast against the coming storm.
He wondered. Wondered if he would ever have known the delight of kissing Crowley, the joy of holding him close, the fierce pleasure and helpless abandon of making love. The simple things that came from spending the days together, the wordless understanding and the soft shaping of a shared life. Wondered what it meant for his soul, that he didn't want to give this up, that if you gave him the choice of going back and preventing whatever had happened all those centuries ago, he'd hesitate.
But then sometimes he'd watch Crowley across the room, and the longing would seize him, choking and sharp-edged in his throat, for Crowley to look up, and for his eyes to be serpent-sulphur and wicked and knowing. To hear him say, angel, with all those centuries behind it. To hear him say, I missed you too.
Crowley did look up, and if his eyes were too human, they at least held a certain promise of mischief, and the gentle glow of the five years he'd spent at Aziraphale's side.
"Sun's setting," Crowley said, unfolding himself from the chair he'd been slouching in, coming to wind lazy arms around Aziraphale's shoulders and pluck the book from his hands. "We could go for a twilight swim."
"That sounds lovely. I'll just find my bathing suit—"
"Oh, not sure you need that," Crowley murmured, kissing his neck with enough intent to make Aziraphale catch his breath. "It's a very private spot, after all."
"Are you trying to tempt me into some sort of risque open-air dalliance?"
"Is it working?"
His lips were right by Aziraphale's ear, his teeth grazing gently over the line of his jaw. Aziraphale shuddered and closed his eyes and laughed breathlessly.
"Yes, my darling, it rather is."
Tadfield would have been a lovely place to spend Christmas under any circumstances, but the fact that it seemed to have some strange microclimate that ensured crisp, clear winter days and a perfect blanket of snow made it the only place Aziraphale wanted to be at this time of year. That, and the way the village made him feel, the warm and welcoming protective aura, the sense of coming back to a place of love. He didn't understand quite what gave it such potency, such depth, but being here soothed his heart when it ached to breaking point, eased his grief when he found himself counting off the days until the end of the world.
The cottage was a wholly different place, wholly theirs now, from the garden where Crowley had decided to transplant his apple trees before they grew too big to be moved, to the book-lined study with Aziraphale's favourite worn-leather armchair, to the kitchen where they had set the turkey on fire the first time they'd tried to cook a proper Christmas dinner. The tree that they'd selected from the nearby garden centre (and which had, as ever, not looked quite so big when surrounded by its fellows as it did when they tried to wrestle it through the door) was glimmering with coloured lights and gold tinsel. To Aziraphale's relief, Crowley had never tried to put an angel on the top; they had a delicate, three-dimensional silver star instead, something Crowley had found in unopened packaging while he was clearing out his parents' things, and decided to keep.
The knock on the door on Christmas Eve was traditional by now; Aziraphale already had the mugs of hot chocolate ready to go. Crowley always made faces about how twee it all was, but he was still always at the door before the second knock, and Aziraphale saw how fondly he grinned at the collection of bobble hats on the doorstep.
"Oh, no, are you lot back?" Crowley groaned, leaning on the door jamb with an exaggerated grimace. "Did you remember all the words to Away in a Manger this year?"
"We've got books," Wensleydale exclaimed proudly. Aziraphale thought his glasses were even bigger and rounder than they had been the last time they'd seen him. "Cuz we're big enuff to unnerstand the words now!"
"Some of 'em," Brian muttered, casting a doubtful look at his carol book, which was already discoloured and slightly ragged around the ages, much like something that had had a fizzy drink spilled on it. "My mum still won't tell me what a virgin is."
Mr Young - who had apparently drawn the short straw this year as Accompanying Adult - coughed hastily.
"Um," said Pepper with a scowl so fierce it had in the past given even Aziraphale pause. "Excuse me."
"Sorry, sorry... I meant, now, children, you're supposed to be singing, not talking Mr Crowley's ear off."
Aziraphale arrived at the door with the tray of mugs and set them on the side table that Crowley (not that he'd ever admit it) had positioned in the hallway a couple of years ago for exactly that purpose. Aziraphale usually handed them out after the fourth carol, on the basis that they needed time to cool down, although in truth he had no compunctions about ensuring that the cocoa would be the perfect temperature as soon as it passed into eager little hands.
"We've been looking forward to it all week," Aziraphale said encouragingly (and truthfully: he'd heard better renditions of the music of Christmas than four piping voices that kept falling out of time with each other, but none that brought him quite so much delight). "Go on, what's first?"
Three of the children looked at the fourth. Adam Young wasn't tall, for a six-year-old, and his round face and curls were hardly imposing, but somehow, it was always him that the others looked to for instructions.
"While Shepherds Watched," Adam said firmly. "But wiv' the proper words, okay, ev'rybody?"
"What, no sock-washing?" Crowley said, winking at Brian. "Shame."
They had a bit of a false start, and Aziraphale was almost certain he heard some non-standard lyrics in there, but that could just be Pepper, who occasionally had strong opinions on the pronunciation of words and was unswayed when the rest of the world disagreed.
(Aziraphale always struggled not to laugh at this one, not least because he knew how much Gabriel hated it. The birth of Christ had really not gone down at all the way humans had been telling it for two millennia, and a surefire way to get under Gabriel's skin was to enquire innocently about the difference between Bethlehem and Babylon.)
Away in a Manger was next, sung with perhaps more enthusiastic belting out of the gentle tune than strictly necessary, then Jingle Bells, then Ding Dong Merrily On High, which suffered a slight hitch in that none of them quite knew when to stop singing the gloria part. Crowley was shaking with suppressed laughter by the time Mr Young intervened.
Aziraphale handed out the hot chocolate, complete with mini marshmallows and a peppermint candy cane in each mug. There was a round of mumbled thank yous and then appreciative slurping. Crowley pulled out a bottle of whiskey from somewhere and held it up while the children were distracted; Mr Young gratefully accepted the addition to his own mug.
(He was younger than Crowley, but somehow it was hard to think of him as Arthur. He was a man who'd been born to be a Mr.)
It was perfect and it was so terribly fragile and fleeting and in the midst of all this simple joy, of secretly watching the gentle way Crowley teased the children, the way they laughed at him and tugged on his sleeves to get his attention, Aziraphale felt a pain like an icy hand gripping his heart.
Five years left. How has so much time passed already?
He realised Adam was looking at him with a frown, hurriedly smoothed his expression away from whatever might have been leaking through.
"What are you hoping to get for Christmas, then?" he asked, an easy distraction for a six-year-old.
Adam's eyes lit up and he took a deep breath.
"I want," he began, "a dinosaur that really roars an' a lamp that makes stars on the ceiling an' a laser sword an' rollerskates an' a puppy an' a—"
"I want never gets, Adam," Mr Young admonished him with a sigh and a grimace. "Now, remember, we talked about realistic expectations..."
Adam turned big, hopeful eyes on his father, the picture of a child who had never met a realistic expectation he couldn't improve with a little imagination.
Crowley caught Aziraphale's eyes, looking far too pleased with himself, and Aziraphale mock-glared, because all right, he had questioned buying the pack of glow-in-the-dark stars, and Crowley had insisted they would be the perfect gift for Adam.
"Now that reminds me," Aziraphale said, putting down his mug and heading towards the tree in the sitting room. "I do believe we have a little something here for each of you..."
In all his years on Earth, he'd brought countless blessings to the needy and hope to the desperate, but Aziraphale was fairly certain he had never brought such joy to anyone as he did by handing a group of excited six-year-olds a present each on Christmas Eve.
Well, perhaps that wasn't entirely true. After they'd gone and the door was safely closed, Crowley took his face in both hands and kissed him.
"I swear, every year when we do this, you almost shine," he murmured. "Proper little Christmas angel, aren't you?"
Aziraphale's heart clenched painfully. He managed a laugh, though it sounded forced to his own ears.
"I'm not much of an angel."
It slipped out: too honest, too tired, too raw. Crowley started to frown; Aziraphale pulled him in and kissed him until he went pliant and eager in his arms.
Outside, it started to snow.
Aziraphale was beginning to think it had been a mistake, coming to Rome. He'd wanted to see it again, wanted to see it with Crowley at his side, but he'd reckoned without the sheer number of memories he had wound up with the place. Rome had been the city for so long, at least in this part of the world, and both Heaven and Hell had been so preoccupied with its religious dominance, that he and Crowley had run into each other with more frequency than at any other time in their long history. They'd eaten oysters, more than once (Crowley had developed a taste for them, to Aziraphale's delight); they'd drunk wine, visited the baths, watched with a kind of morbid fascination as the once-great Empire shook itself apart.
He'd thought he'd enjoy taking Crowley to their old haunts, introducing him to all of it over again, but without that shared pool of memory, the sights seemed diminished, the city a weary shadow of what it once had been. Modern Rome had its own charms, of course, but Aziraphale had come here to walk the bones of Old Rome, to trace the veins that had once carried the lifeblood of an Empire, and now he found himself looking at a corpse.
Crowley seemed content enough, but Aziraphale had to watch every word, and felt a dull grey sadness creeping in on him with every day that passed. He tried not to let it show, but he found himself looking at the ruins and the fading remnants, thinking about how all the cities of the world would be like this before very long.
He'd thought of a mad plan lately, something he kept coming back to over and over even though he knew it was futile. Could he take Crowley away somewhere, before the end? There'd be no place on Earth that would truly escape Armageddon, but the planet itself would survive, though a wretched husk. Could Aziraphale hide them in some deep, secret cave, create a sort of sanctuary where the war between Heaven and Hell would not find them, where the Antichrist in his new rule of Earth would never look?
(But what then? Crowley would still die, eventually. What would happen to his soul, if he survived past the final reckoning? Would he even want to live like that, cowering in the dark, never to see the stars again?)
"Hey." Crowley touched his hand lightly; Aziraphale jerked guiltily back into the moment. "Everything all right in there?"
Aziraphale bit his lip, looked out over the piazza at the early-evening crowds.
"I'm not having as much fun as I thought I would," he finally admitted.
Crowley snorted gently. "Yeah, I'd noticed."
"I'm sorry, dearest—"
"How about we leave, then?" Crowley leaned back in his chair, picked up his wineglass, smiling but serious. "Just pack up and finish off the holiday somewhere else?"
"I thought you were enjoying yourself."
"It's fine. The wine's nice. The company's better, though, and I can take that with me."
Aziraphale started to protest that they couldn't, then stopped. Why not? Why shouldn't they just go wherever they wanted? Why shouldn't they leave behind these grey ghosts and long-lost nights?
"Did you have anywhere in mind?" he found himself asking.
"I dunno, you're the well-travelled one. Venice? Venice is supposed to be nice, isn't it?"
"Yes." Aziraphale felt like a sudden weight had lifted off him. "It is, actually. It's very nice."
(And it was somewhere they'd never been together, though he'd once, in the midst of a sixteenth-century Carnival, daydreamed wistfully of running into a black-clad figure in a serpent mask whom he couldn't possibly be expected to recognise or avoid talking to.)
"Come on, then." Crowley drained the rest of his wine, stood up, held out his hand. "Let's go back to the hotel and make some arrangements, shall we?"
Aziraphale didn't need help getting out of his seat, but he took Crowley's hand anyway, and let him lead them both wherever he chose.
Crowley was nervous, and nervous enough that he kept avoiding Aziraphale's eyes and losing the thread of conversations. It had been a long time now since anything had made Crowley so jumpy around him, so long that Aziraphale had almost begun to believe that it would never happen again. He didn't like it, and fretted endlessly over what could have caused it, but he came up blank when he tried to think back over the last few weeks. Crowley hadn't dreamed any more than usual, and they hadn't talked about anything that touched on the places Aziraphale dared not tread.
He tried to find out subtly, but Crowley either missed the question or dodged it, Aziraphale couldn't even tell which. He was just starting to think he might need to resort to desperate measures, like asking Crowley what was wrong, when Crowley finally screwed his courage to the sticking point (aided by several glasses of wine).
"I was just wondering," Crowley said, apropos of nothing, halfway through a conversation about the latest exhibition at the Tate, "and, look, it's just, I mean, just wondering, okay, it's not—"
He seemed to tangle himself up with his own tongue. Aziraphale tried not to hold his breath, ran his eyes along the length of him where he had twisted himself sideways into an armchair, eyes fixed resolutely on the ceiling. Tried not guess what Crowley could have been wondering about. Had it been long enough for him to notice that Aziraphale didn't age? Had Aziraphale finally said something so unequivocally impossible that he'd started to pull on the threads of it? Had Crowley somehow found Aziraphale's latest set of orders from Heaven, which he'd been so sure he'd hidden quickly enough when they appeared on the kitchen table?
Crowley took a large gulp of wine and then looked at his glass in betrayal when he discovered he had emptied it. Not for the first time, Aziraphale wished for the convenience of snapping his fingers to refill it. Just now he didn't dare move towards the bottle, in case it broke the moment and sent Crowley running for cover again.
"I just thought— maybe you'd been thinking about it too, you know, and maybe I should— it's not like it really has to mean anything, I suppose, but it might be— it would be— I'd like—"
He tripped over his words again and made a noise of pure frustration.
"Please tell me you know where I'm going with this," he said finally, shooting Aziraphale a desperate glance.
Aziraphale shook his head, utterly at a loss. Crowley's mouth tightened, and he suddenly rocketed upright and grabbed the half-empty wine bottle. Aziraphale watched as he refilled his glass and drank deeply from it.
"I was wondering," Crowley managed, staring at the carpet so intently he seemed to be planning to memorise it, "if you'd thought. At all. About. Marriage?"
God, Aziraphale wished he had better control of his face, was better able to hide his shock, wasn't so transparent to Crowley now after all these years. Crowley took one look at him and flinched away, scrambling out of the chair and almost spilling his wine, putting distance between them, pretending he was for some reason very interested in checking on the plants on the windowsill.
"Right, okay, that's a no then, it's fine, like I said, just wondering, doesn't matter really—"
"Uh, just a sec, I think I heard my phone—"
Crowley fled into the kitchen. Aziraphale sat very still until he could breathe again and pull himself out of the whirlwind that had seized his mind. He thought about marriage.
He thought: it would be blasphemy, surely, an angel and a human - who was once a demon! - asking God to join them together for eternity.
(More blasphemous than what they already shared? Didn't God see everything, know everything, anticipate everything?)
He thought: it wouldn't be fair, when he doesn't know the truth, when I'd be making mortal vows that don't even apply to me.
(More unfair than living with Crowley as he did now? Than pretending to be human and hiding Crowley's past lives from him?)
He thought: it would be dishonest to promise a lifetime when I know we have only three years left.
(More dishonest than lying every day, as he did by omission if nothing else? Than hiding the incontrovertible fact of the Apocalypse from Crowley?)
He thought: it would put him in danger.
(More danger than Crowley was already in, when Gabriel could drop in at any moment? Than he would face when the skies grew dark and the seas began to boil?)
He thought: I can't.
It was something humans did. Not demons. Not angels. It didn't work like that for them.
(I wonder, has anyone ever tried?)
Marriage was a human thing, really, in the end. Oh, they might ask the Almighty to bless their unions, but they had a hundred ways of entreating divine favour, who knew what God really thought of any pair (or more) of humans who bound their lives together? Some of them didn't even bring God into it at all. Some of them just trusted that whatever the road ahead brought, they'd rather face it hand in hand.
(So clever, humans. So clever, so creative, so compassionate, when they wanted to be. Reaching out to each other, over and over, even if it burned them. Reaching out, holding on. For whatever portion of forever they were allotted.)
I'd marry you, you know. If it were permitted for men like us.
Aziraphale got to his feet and went into the kitchen. Crowley was standing by the counter, drinking a glass of water with the grim determination of someone who intended to consume a lot more alcohol in the near future and was doing his best to mitigate the inevitable hangover. His phone was in his back pocket, where Aziraphale was fairly sure it had been all along.
"I didn't say no."
Crowley froze, gripping the glass so tightly Aziraphale could see his knuckles whiten.
"But you hadn't thought about it," he mumbled. He'd been running his hands through his hair; it was a wild tumble across his shoulders. "Had you?"
Aziraphale crossed the room, took the glass gently out of Crowley's hand, laced their fingers together. With his other hand he began smoothing Crowley's ruffled hair back into place.
"No," he admitted, "but then, you know I can be a little... slow to catch up with you, dearest."
Crowley huffed a laugh.
"Well anyway," Crowley said, pulling Aziraphale in and hugging him tightly, the beginnings of relief in his voice. "Like I said, I was just wondering. Not asking. Just, you know. Starting a conversation."
Aziraphale wondered if it would ever not take his breath away, to hear that depth of love and patience, to know that no matter how long he took to get somewhere, Crowley would always be waiting.
A swift intake of breath, Crowley's hands curling into the back of his shirt.
"Yes," Aziraphale whispered. And then, not quite a laugh, not quite a sob, "But not in a church, I think."
It took Crowley a while to notice, which was understandable since it turned out one's wedding day was a surprisingly busy affair with innumerable small details to attend to. He spotted it as they were stealing a moment away from the small reception in the cottage garden, frowned at Aziraphale's hands.
"Where's your ring?"
Aziraphale held up his left hand, where the new gold band sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Crowley's expression softened briefly into something that might be called positively dewy-eyed, before he reached for Aziraphale's right hand, touched his bare pinky finger.
"The other one, I meant."
Aziraphale looked at the space where his signet ring had rested for so long. He had worn it since the Beginning, since the first moment he arrived on Earth. It hadn't been given to him like the sword, assigned to him like his body. No-one had made him wear it as a token of his allegiance to Heaven. He'd chosen it himself, chosen the weight and the shine of it, chosen to mark his side, to bear it as an oath of loyalty. He had never taken it off, until this morning.
"It was... something I wanted to leave behind," he said, curling his fingers into Crowley's, drinking in the sight of him, a little bit flushed, a little bit stunned, a little bit head over heels in love. "This seemed like as good a time as any."
"You sure? You've always worn it, as long as I've known you. You know you're allowed to wear more than one ring, right?"
Teasing, laughing, just a touch of concern, of wanting to be sure that Aziraphale wasn't making some unnecessary sacrifice. Aziraphale kissed him, partly to shut him up, but mostly because he couldn't help himself.
Later, after the sun had gone down (but the evening stayed miraculously warm and pleasant, for tempermental April), there was dancing, which Aziraphale participated in for the strict minimum time necessary and then fled from with all due speed. Crowley had no such dignity and had been responsible for the playlist, so Aziraphale resigned himself to sitting quietly alone for the first time that day. He didn't mind it. It was a beautiful night, and the people here were kind, and happy for them, and for a little while he could almost pretend he was truly human, and that there were decades stretching ahead to enjoy.
There was a shuffle at his elbow, and a mop of curls appeared over the top of the table as Adam Young clambered into the seat next to him.
"Bit past your bedtime, isn't it?" Aziraphale asked, smiling.
"Special treat," Adam replied with a grin. Then his face grew serious. "Why are you sad?"
Aziraphale choked on nothing, quickly looked away.
"I'm not sad. Why would you think that?"
"You're always sad," Adam said bluntly. "Even when you're happy, a little bit of you is sad. I thought maybe today would be different, but it's not."
Aziraphale caught his breath, stared at Adam for a long moment. Eight years old, with that coltish grace that came from spending his time running around in the woods and fields, and that fierce intelligence that drove him to read and imagine and question.
"It's not something I can explain," Aziraphale said finally. "If I could change it, I would, but since I can't..."
He looked for Crowley, found him in the middle of what seemed to be some sort of group dance that involved a lot of flailing arms and waggling hips. He smiled despite himself, felt the simultaneous tug of sorrow in his chest. Adam was far too perceptive, for a child his age.
On impulse, he went on, "Adam, can I ask you something?"
Adam shrugged. "Sure."
"Is he happy?"
He looked back to Crowley, found him looking around in turn. Their eyes met across the garden, and Crowley smiled like there was no-one else in the world but them.
"Yeah," Adam said. "He is."
"Then that's enough," Aziraphale replied, as Crowley started towards him. "That's enough for me."
It was only a minor accident. It could have been so much worse. Aziraphale knew exactly how much worse, because he'd been the one to arrange things so that it wasn't, and he didn't think his heart had returned to a normal rate in all the hours since.
"I'm okay," Crowley said for the hundredth time.
He really was. Nothing broken, just some scrapes and bruises, a sprained wrist. If he'd come off the bike half a dozen other ways, if the reckless asshole in the Prius hadn't swerved just far enough after clipping him, if the van coming in the other direction had had slightly less efficient brakes or its driver worse reflexes...
If it had happened anywhere but right in front of the bookshop, while Aziraphale was looking out of the window...
"Aziraphale." Crowley sighed and got up with a wince from his chair. "You're supposed to put the water in."
Aziraphale realised he was, indeed, staring at the perfectly dry teabag in its cup. He didn't know when the kettle had boiled, but it wasn't steaming anymore.
Crowley hugged him from behind, rested his chin on Aziraphale's shoulder.
"Think it might be time I got rid of the bike," Crowley said gently. "Yeah?"
Aziraphale closed his eyes and nodded. Crowley barely used the motorbike anymore, preferring the Bentley, which was now his in all but name. He'd even gone to the great effort and expense of having a music player installed without damaging the vintage dashboard. Crowley could do something clever with his phone that made him able to play whatever they liked at the touch of a button. He'd made special playlists for Aziraphale, and the fact that they were all labelled things like "Old Music", "Really Old Music" and "Music So Old It Isn't On iTunes So I Had To Rip It Specially" just made him smile.
Crowley barely used the bike anymore, but it had just been a quick errand, he hadn't wanted the hassle of trying to park...
It could have been over so quickly.
Aziraphale didn't realise he was crying until Crowley told him not to, turned him around on the spot and held him close, soothed a hand down his back like Aziraphale was the one who'd been hurt.
"It's okay. I'm okay. And if I spot that wanker with the custom numberplate coming down our street again—"
"Oh, don't worry, he's already thinking better of his actions," Aziraphale mumbled with vicious certainty. "I'm sure he'll never drive above the speed limit again. And start campaigning for better road safety measures."
Crowley snorted a laugh against Aziraphale's hair. He was shaken too, but he'd pushed it aside, the way humans did, that moment's intimacy with Death, that cold whisper on the back of the neck. Aziraphale wished he could do that. Wished he could stop imagining what would have happened - a second either way - or if he hadn't been paying attention...
He shuddered. Crowley's arms tightened around him.
"Glad you haven't lost your faith in people's better nature," Crowley said. "Personally I tend to think people like that don't change."
They often didn't, unfortunately, but they did when they found themselves dreaming of the wrath of angels and the judgement of God for the next several weeks. Maybe it was petty. Maybe it was unangelic behaviour. Or who knew? Maybe Aziraphale was saving the man from a lifetime of grubby little selfish sins and oblivious steps towards damnation.
Except it wouldn't be a lifetime, would it? It was barely a year now. What would it even have mattered, if Crowley had died out there today? It wasn't like they had enough time left.
It mattered. Aziraphale found the tears were too strong to choke back, found himself all but sobbing into Crowley's shoulder.
"Hey." Crowley sounded concerned now, maybe even a little alarmed. "Come on. It's okay. Aziraphale. It didn't happen. You can't get caught up worrying about things that didn't happen."
He couldn't explain, of course. Couldn't explain that it wasn't the things that didn't happen that were tearing him apart as they stood here in the quiet of their own kitchen, holding each other like they had so many times before. Couldn't explain that it was the certainty of the things that would happen, the deadline inexorably approaching, and the agony of waiting for it helplessly like a deer in the headlights.
There had to be something. Something he hadn't thought of. Something else he could try...
He fought his own breathing under control, willed away the tears.
"I suppose you're right," he managed hoarsely. "But yes, I think you should get rid of the bike."
Crowley laughed a little shakily, kissed his temple.
"I'll never complain about parking again."
It wasn't enough. It could never be enough. There just wasn't enough time. For months now, Aziraphale had waited until Crowley was asleep, then crept downstairs to the bookshop, pulled out his secret notes and private books, spent hours poring over them, searching for some clue that he'd missed, some hint as to the reason for Crowley's human lives.
He studied the Apocalypse, re-reading Revelation, puzzling through prophecies. He used the internet now that Crowley had shown him how, though most of what he found was garbage, humans telling stories for other humans, fiction and fact blurred beyond recognition. He ordered more texts, and stayed up late skimming through them, and hurried to hide them when he saw dawn creeping around the window blinds.
It wasn't enough.
But there had to be something. There had to be something. How could God do this, throw out a world so full of life and potential, destroy so many lives, so many loves? What about the children? What about the whales? What about Crowley, who'd been torn so violently from what he should have been (not once, but twice; whyever had he been permitted to Fall?), thrust into a riddle that Aziraphale had not been clever enough to solve?
Prayer, for an angel, was a different sort of affair than for a human. There was no delusion that one was speaking directly to God; there was a chain of command, a pecking order. When Aziraphale prayed, he knelt by his circle and lit his candles; it was the equivalent of dialing a number and waiting for someone to take his call.
Or it had been, up until now. Now he found himself praying in a way he never had before, in a way that was all too human. Sometimes silent, sometimes aloud. Sometimes angry, sometimes pleading, sometimes weeping.
Why? Why? Why?
He knew where those sorts of questions could lead. He didn't care anymore. Falling couldn't be worse than losing Crowley, than losing everything. And if Falling was the punishment for demanding some compassion, some accountability... perhaps Lucifer had had the right of it all along.
(He didn't Fall, as far as he could tell. He was almost disappointed. He was almost angry. But mostly, he was afraid, a terror deep and dreadful that swelled with every passing hour.)
He left it too late one morning as the end times loomed, had to rush to hide the books and shove the hinged bookcase back into place as he heard Crowley moving around upstairs. He hurried back up to the kitchen and tried to pass it off as an early morning desire to find a particular book, but Crowley caught his hands, stilled his over-eager explanations.
"I'm worried about you," Crowley said, searching Aziraphale's eyes, running his thumbs over the back of Aziraphale's hands. "You'd tell me if anything's wrong, wouldn't you?"
"Nothing's wrong," Aziraphale replied, and the lie stuck in his throat so that it almost choked him. Every moment now was anguish and terror, waiting for the axe to fall. "I just..."
Crowley looked like he didn't believe him, but he pulled him into his arms all the same, held him close for longer than either of them could pretend was just a casual morning embrace.
"I've some errands to run," Aziraphale said, making up his mind all in a rush. "I'll be out for the morning, I think."
"On a Sunday?" They always spent Sundays together. "Do you want me to come with you?"
"No, not today."
"All right." Crowley kissed his cheek, the corner of his mouth, pressed their lips together for just a moment. "I'll see you at lunch time, then."
Aziraphale fled as fast as he could without worrying Crowley further. He took the tube to the Dowlings' grand house, bent reality around himself so he could slip past the human security and the bodyguard demon, seeking out the child who would destroy the world in just under a week.
Warlock Dowling would be eleven years old in three days and seemed glued to his mobile phone, playing some sort of game that flashed and popped in his hands. There was a sulkiness in his face that came from getting his own way too often and the slow beginnings of understanding that the world was a lot more complicated than he had been led to believe. The toys he'd loved so much had been put away - taken away? - and his room was full of untouched books and complicated construction kits which had immediately lost several small but important pieces on being opened. They wanted him to be a specific kind of clever, to use his brain in a particular way. He just wanted to make some friends who liked him and not his father's money.
Please don't do it, Aziraphale had come here to say. Surely you know who you are by now. Surely you can feel it coming. Please don't do it, don't tear it all down. Don't you want to find out what happens next?
But Warlock was scowling at his phone and in his mind was the roil and rebellion of a pre-teen who felt betrayed by the people he'd trusted but had yet to put words around the feeling, and so lost himself in apathy. Find out what happened next? What could possibly be interesting enough to bother?
Aziraphale left without revealing himself, so heartsick he could hardly walk, so terrified he could hardly breathe. There was nothing particularly hellish about Warlock Dowling, but in a way, that made it worse: he was human, at least in his own mind, with all the flaws and failings of humanity, with every spiteful impulse and desperate desire. Was there grace in him? Perhaps, but Aziraphale no longer had faith that it could counterbalance the weight of the world that had spun for six thousand years with all of Eve's children upon its back.
His heavy feet took him home unbidden. He unlocked the door, and stepped inside, longing for forgetfulness, knowing that he couldn't escape his own thoughts this time.
The hinged bookcase that formed the door to his secret room was swung wide open, some of its books of prophecy fallen to the floor. The reason was clear enough: Crowley stood in the middle of the space, his back to Aziraphale, staring at what was inside.
A terrible ringing sound filled Aziraphale's ears, a cold and a heat flushing through him intertwined, a feeling like falling.
Crowley jerked, swung around. He was chalk-pale and wide-eyed, something like horror in the hunch of his shoulders, something like fear in the way he looked at Aziraphale.
"What— what is this?" he choked, one flailing hand gesturing at the room behind him. "Aziraphale, what the hell is all of this?"
He could take the memories away, Aziraphale thought distantly, he could reach right into Crowley's head and steal away everything he'd seen behind that hidden door. He could take him back upstairs and pretend nothing had ever happened and wash away that wild disbelief in Crowley's eyes.
He could... he could...
He could do nothing, in the end. He could do nothing. There had never been anything he could do. He'd followed the same old road to ruin, he'd given in to selfish need, he'd struggled like a fly in tar, like an angel who dared to question. It was over, one way or another. He'd lose everything, whether it was in this moment or a week from now. He'd lose Crowley, as he'd already lost him so many times, as he'd known all along that he would again. He'd lose everything. Everything.
The world had gone dim, the ringing in his ears now a roar, the end times arriving ahead of schedule—
"Aziraphale." Crowley's hands on his shoulders, then his back. His voice taut with confusion and questions, but his hands so gentle, pulling Aziraphale in close. "Breathe, sweetheart, it's all right, it'll be all right—"
He used endearments like that so rarely, while Aziraphale scattered them freely (my dearest, my darling). Why was Crowley the one comforting him? Why was Crowley still here, still holding him tight when the shards of lies and betrayal were falling all around them?
In the absence of any answers, he did as Crowley told him: breathed. Breathed in the scent of him. Felt the tension thrumming through him like a wire, but also that patience, that endless willingness to wait, that wellspring of love and trust.
"I'm sorry," Aziraphale whispered, hearing his own voice break. Over Crowley's shoulder, he looked at the secrets exposed to the light of day. "I—"
"Just tell me," Crowley replied, shaky and desperate. "Please. Tell me what's going on. Why you have— how you have all, all this— what it means—"
Aziraphale held him tight for one more moment, then gently pushed him away. With a thought, he locked the bookshop door and drew down the blinds. Then he took a deep breath, and unfurled his wings. They glowed in the dim light, wrought of divinity, so laden with the truth of what he was that no words were needed to explain.
Crowley jerked back, eyes wide and stunned, staring open-mouthed. Aziraphale tried not to flinch from his shock, stood still and quiet, let him look, let him understand. He kept his gaze fixed on the floor, unable to bear seeing either fear or awe come into Crowley's face, of reverent wonder taking the place of familiarity and affection.
There was a long pause.
"Are— are they supposed to be like that?"
Aziraphale blinked, looked up despite himself. Crowley was regarding his wings with the faintest hint of a frown.
"Messy? The feathers are all—"
The world tilted under Aziraphale and realigned with a shudder and a shock.
"Messy?" he repeated, voice rising in pitch. "I'm showing you my wings and that's the first thing you say?"
Crowley shrugged helplessly, eyes still roving above Aziraphale's shoulders, the faintest, tiniest curve of amusement at the corner of his mouth.
"I dunno, do you, like, brush them or something? Is there such a thing as a wing comb? I just thought— not that I think about angels on a regular basis, you know— but I would've thought they'd be sort of sleek and shiny—"
"Just because some of us don't spend hours preening—"
Crowley's eyes snapped to his. The twitch of his lips became a smile. He started to laugh. And Aziraphale felt as though he had seen the truth of the universe revealed, as if it had been Crowley who had finally unveiled his true nature. He made a choked noise, stepped forward. Crowley caught him, cupped his face and kissed him, and Aziraphale shuddered under it, and didn't try to hold back the tears that spilled down his cheeks.
"Okay," Crowley said, leaning their foreheads together. "I have questions. A lot of questions."
Aziraphale laughed shakily.
"Of course you do," he murmured. "You always do. I'm not sure I have answers. But I'll do my best."
On all her breezes borne
Earth yields no scents like those;
But he, that dares not grasp the thorn
Should never crave the rose.
- The Narrow Way, Anne Bronte