"The girls shouldn't be over there all the time," grumbled Ted, without looking up from his paper.
"Oh, don't fuss," Lily scolded him, as she set a mug of tea on the table next to his armchair. "They like to think they're getting away with something. And Mr Fell doesn't mind. He's a dear old thing, wouldn't hurt a fly. I mean, I think he literally wouldn't hurt a fly. Just last week I overheard him telling them all about the good things that worms and insects do in a garden."
"What? That's not true."
"It is, about the worms. And some of the insects. I do believe he must have done some gardening in his past—"
Ted lifted his head from his paper at last. "Thought you said he ran a shop in the city. Bookshop, you said."
"He did," Lily replied. "Maybe he did the gardening prior. Or maybe it was just a hobby of his. They did bring quite a number of potted plants when they moved in. Tropicals, some of them."
"In any case, I've never seen such lovely flowers last so late in the year, in anyone's garden. I should ask him how he does it. I expect he's got some old Victorian secrets tucked away in that fussy head of his. Heaven knows Mr Crowley doesn't seem the type to care for flowers."
"Probably just waiting for the old man to die, so he can take his money and go back to the city."
“That’s a terrible thing to say!"
"Just being practical."
"It isn't practical, it's cynical. And Mr Crowley is not a cynical man."
"What makes you say that?"
"You'd just have to talk to him. He's such a positive person. Very hopeful. And he's so good with the girls—"
"It's just not proper for two grown men to entertain someone else's children."
"The girls play in the garden, Ted. That's all. Mr Fell sits out in the shade reading and sometimes Mr Crowley sits with him, when he's not off to the city. There's nothing improper going on."
He sighed. "I just think it's odd."
"I doubt Mr Fell would want them playing indoors in any case," Lily went on. "The place is full of antiques and fussy little knick-knacks. And Mr Fell's books, of course. Everywhere. I don't know how the two of them don't trip over things every day."
Ted twisted around to look up at her. "When did you ever see the inside?"
Lily raised an eyebrow. "Sometimes neighbours visit one another, you know."
"You shouldn't be going without me," he complained.
"You were invited too," she informed him, "and you declined. That's on you, dear." She patted his head, turned and headed into the kitchen to fetch her own mug.
“Good afternoon. Quietly, now,” Aziraphale said softly. “Mr Crowley is sleeping.”
"Why is he sleeping?"
"Because he likes to have a nap in the afternoons. And it is a lovely day for that, isn't it?"
It was, too, Crowley mused. Nothing better than his head in his angel's lap, sprawled over their custom-built swing chair. Nothing but the sounds of leaves and grass, of Aziraphale turning pages quietly, of birds and insects and the breeze.
"Is he tired?"
And, of course, the little neighbour girls, Sophie and Emma. They loved crawling into the garden through the little gap in the hedge that Aziraphale had thoughtfully provided, loved to ask a million questions and listen to the answers. So full of hope and potential, children were, so much of it dashed against parental and societal expectations.
"Just a little sleepy. We really ought not to wake him."
"Would he be angry?"
"Oh, no, he wouldn't be angry," Aziraphale assured them. "But nobody really likes to be jostled awake from a nice nap, do they?" He shifted slightly and Crowley heard his book close. "So. What's it to be this afternoon, girls?"
"Do you have any biscuits?"
"Mum said we're not to ask for biscuits!"
"Oh, I forgot."
"Well," Aziraphale said, "what about a game? And after the game, we can all have tea, and no one needs to know you asked for anything at all." The children exclaimed in delight. "Splendid," Aziraphale went on. "Bring me five different leaves from five different trees. Each of you, now," he said with mock sternness. "That's ten leaves in total. Can you count to ten?"
"Yes," they said in baleful unison. Crowley bit down on a laugh.
"One never can tell. Ten different leaves, now. Run along, and fetch them, and I'll teach you all about them, and then we'll have tea."
Happy chattering voices scampered away, and the garden was quiet once more. Crowley stretched a little, lifted a hand and pulled down his sunglasses just enough to be able to see Aziraphale clearly over the frames. "Nicely done, Angel," he murmured. "One would never suspect you used to chase kids out of your shop with foul looks and the stench of spoilt fish."
"These children aren't trying to make off with my books," Aziraphale said loftily. He curved his hand along Crowley's cheek, caressed it affectionately with his thumb. He smiled and Crowley's chest tightened. Six thousand years, and he was not likely to get over it any time soon. "It'll take them a while to find all those leaves, you know," Aziraphale continued. "If you'd like to go back to sleep, that is. I've made sure of it."
Crowley chuckled, let his sunglasses slip back into place. "I blame you for this—this lethargy, you know that, right?" He rubbed his belly. "I don't think I've eaten so much at one go in—centuries."
"It really was a marvellous supper," Aziraphale said wistfully. "A perfect way to celebrate an anniversary, don't you think? Sometimes it's good to indulge."
"Mm. Better still to sleep for a few weeks after."
"Oh, no, you are not going to sleep for weeks, my dear, nor even days. We have tickets to see Shakespeare at the weekend."
"I won't promise not to doze off. And that's your fault, not me disliking Hamlet."
"We're not going to see Hamlet," Aziraphale reminded him with gentle exasperation. "We're going to see A Midsummer Night's Dream. You've always enjoyed the comedies."
"I do like happy endings," Crowley agreed, and reached up to touch Aziraphale's cheek with the back of his hand. Aziraphale turned his head and kissed Crowley's fingers.
"Why don't I go and fetch the things for tea," he suggested. "Then I can come back and read, and you can go back to sleep, and I won't have to wake you when the girls return."
"Good plan," Crowley agreed, but did not move.
"At least feign an attempt to let me stand, dear."
"You could just miracle everything out here," he sighed. Before Aziraphale could tell him—not for the first time—why that wasn't an option, Crowley reluctantly raised his head. Aziraphale stood and turned, tucked a cushion into his place, and made his way into the cottage. The garden was quiet. The cushion was, of course, no substitute for his angel's warm and welcoming lap. It wasn't fair, really, that Aziraphale wouldn't do even one tiny miracle, just to keep him comfortable. He would have to eke out a suitable compensation, later. He rather looked forward to it.
A rustle from the gap in the hedge made Crowley turn his head to look and he eyed the twins sleepily from behind his sunglasses. "That was fast," he said. "Did you get all ten?"
"Emma says that one leaf with ten leafs on it is ten leafs."
"There are big words for what you're saying," Crowley replied, "but one leaf made up of ten small leaves, is still one leaf. And they're supposed to be ten different leaves, as I understand it, so even if that was ten leaves, it's ten of the same."
"Oh." Emma looked disappointed.
Sophie shot her sister a look. "Told you."
"Oh, that's not nice," Crowley said. "Come on, now, girls. You've both just learned something today, right?"
"Right," they chorused.
"So that's something to be happy about. Go on, get the other nine leaves, and come back for your tea." He shifted to make himself comfortable again, folded his hands over his middle, and closed his eyes. The hedge rustled again.
The garden fell silent.
Crowley frowned. No insects, no birds, no breeze—
"Oh," he murmured. "Shit."
It was a voice he hadn't heard in a long time, had hoped never to hear again.
"So this is where you and your pet angel have been hiding out."
Aziraphale slipped into the cottage, headed for the kitchen, then paused; certain wording in the book he was currently reading had triggered a memory of another he had read years before, and he wanted to compare phrasing between the two. He turned and entered the library—a room that, had it been observed from inside by anyone with a sense of space, was far, far too large to possibly exist within the cottage walls. This had been his solution, since Crowley was adamant about refusing to allow him to convert the guest bedroom into additional storage for his books, even though they'd never actually had a guest over.
"We might," was all Crowley ever said about it, and then he would calmly refuse to listen to even the most cogent of arguments, and ultimately the two of them would end up in bed, sweating and breathless, and the subject would be dropped.
Aziraphale never was quite sure how that happened. Not that he minded, not in the least. But it really was unfair of Crowley to tempt him like that, with sweet slow kisses and his sharp teeth on Aziraphale's throat—
He sighed, paused in front of a bookshelf. What was it he'd come in for? A book, naturally, but which one?
He looked down at the one in his hand, opened it to the spot he'd been reading, and stood for a good ten minutes reading more, until he encountered another phrase that reminded him of the second book he'd come to find. Another ten minutes' searching located the book, and he headed back outside, where he'd left Crowley dozing in the shade.
The swing chair was empty and still, and there was a hint of brimstone in the air. Aziraphale's skin prickled with heat. Movement in the corner of his eye brought him to full alert and he turned; the twins were on their knees next to the hedge, their faces pale and tear-streaked.
"Emma," he said, and forced his tone to be calm and reassuring. "Sophie. Are you hurt?" They shook their heads in unison, and a cold thread of relief passed through his chest. "Good. That's good. Did you see where Mr Crowley went?" They pointed to the grass, silent.
Aziraphale pursed his lips, set his books down on the swing chair, hurried to crouch before the girls. He put his palms on their foreheads and closed his eyes and watched and listened—
They could see only glimpses from here, where they were hidden by the hedge. A tall, thin man in a long coat stood facing Mr Crowley, and he was in the way so AziraphaleEmmaSophie could not see the swing chair.
“So this is where you and your pet angel have been hiding,” said the man.
Mr Crowley did not move. “Living, yes, not hiding. How's it going?”
“For me, just fine. For you, not so much.”
“Aw, doo caster, I thought we had all that sorted out.”
“Not likely. You're being ree cold, as it were.”
“Oh, I don't think so.” The swing chair creaked, and Mr Crowley’s feet touched the grass as he sat up. AziraphaleEmmaSophie still could not see the rest of him, could not see the tall man's face.
“Doesn't matter what you think.” The tall man pulled one hand from his pocket and showed something to Mr Crowley.
Mr Crowley made a sound like he was choking and then there was a noise like the silverware drawer. The air was hot like when the oven door is opened, and it smelled really bad, and there was all of a sudden a big hole in the garden, and the tall man fell down into it, and Mr Crowley was gone too.
As he released the girls' minds, something tightened in Aziraphale's gut, pulled every nerve and muscle in his body taut, made him feel hot and cold, turned the world a peculiar shade of red. Of all the human emotions he'd inadvertently encountered while inhabiting this body over the millennia, this was one he'd never experienced.
He didn't like it.
He had a notion Hell wasn't going to be overly fond of it either.
He spoke softly to the girls, miracled away the tears on their faces; they turned to head home with handsful of leaves and matching memories of having had a delightful afternoon of learning about foliage, followed by a light tea. When they had gone, Aziraphale straightened, made a sharp gesture with his right hand, and his sword appeared in it. Holy fire hissed softly along its length.
"We made a deal," he said quietly to the sword. "They were to leave him alone, and they have violated that agreement." The flames burned slightly hotter. Aziraphale's wings stretched outward and then curled around his body; with one hand on the hilt and one on the pommel of his sword, he drove the blade into the ground, and sank down with it, beneath the Earth.
The garden was quiet again. Birds cautiously returned to the trees, resumed singing. Somewhere on the downs a sheep bleated softly and waited for an answering call.
Hell hadn't changed a bit since the last time Crowley had been down. It was still crowded and dark and damp and smelled of things that hadn't been alive for a very, very long time.
But Hastur led the way past all the offices and narrow, reeking halls, through a broad, stone-walled tunnel with a dirt floor; the whole place smelled of fresh soil and magic, and Crowley did not recognise where they were going. He walked slowly behind Hastur, followed in turn by three large and unpleasant-looking guards. The guards each held a massive chain, and each chain was linked to the broad metal collar that was clasped most uncomfortably around Crowley's neck. The collar was magical, kept him from thinking clearly, from miracling anything—he supposed that was only practical. They thought him more powerful than he really was, after all.
He just couldn't remember how the collar had gotten on him in the first place. He'd sat up on the swing chair, and then Hastur had opened his hand toward him and then—then they were here, and he was probably going to die this time.
And his sunglasses were gone.
Aziraphale was going to be right pissed off at him.
"I thought it was all over with, anyway," he spoke up, doing his best to keep his voice steady. "I mean—"
"Shut it," Hastur snapped. "Holy water may not do to you what it does to us," he went on. "But we have other ways."
"Look, if this is about the Armageddon thing—"
"That don't matter," Hastur informed him. "That's Lord Beelzebub's worry, not mine. You really thought I brought you here for that?" He paused and turned to glare in the dim lights that lined the tunnel.
Crowley pulled up short, shook his head, shrugged. "Well, yeah. What else would it be?" he wondered.
"You murdered Ligur," Hastur growled, and thrust a filthy finger toward Crowley's chest. "Cold-blooded. You still haven't answered for that. And you deliberately discorporated me."
"That was just a side effect," Crowley said. "I needed to get somewhere." He glanced around at the guards, then back at Hastur. "This is—sanctioned, then?"
"Lord Beelzebub has no issue with it moving forward, if that's what you're asking." Hastur grinned viciously. "Long's it's handled discreetly."
"Mm. Very discreet, that, snatching me down off Earth in front of two humans. I'm sure Lord Beelzebub will be pleased."
Hastur hesitated, frowned. "No one was there." Crowley drew himself up to his full height, raised an eyebrow and regarded Hastur with the most baleful expression he could muster. Hastur opened his mouth, closed it, and for a moment his icy gaze grew distant. "Doesn't matter," he said at last, and shook his head. "They'll not know what it was they saw."
Crowley shrugged one shoulder, which caused the chains to rattle ominously. "All the same to me," he said. It wasn’t, of course, but no good ever came of showing fear in Hell. At least Hastur hadn’t seen the girls; they would be safe. Crowley hoped beyond hope that Aziraphale would make sure they weren’t traumatised before sending them home.
"If it isn't," Hastur interrupted his train of thought, "it soon will be." He tilted his head at the guards, turned and continued down the dim tunnel. One of the guards gave Crowley a shove and he stumbled onward.
"So," he said, when he had caught up to Hastur once more. "What's it to be, then? The rack? The pit? Another lukewarm bath?" He was still trying to keep his tone light, but was finding it increasingly difficult.
"Can't give me an idea of it? Let me prepare?"
"You can't prepare for this.”
"This whole area is new," Crowley said, and looked around again. "Don’t remember it being here before."
"All for you, Crowley. Take a good long look. You'll never see it again."
Hastur stopped before a large metal door set into the stone wall of the tunnel; he glanced back at Crowley, then at the guards. The guards stepped forward; two held Crowley's shoulders while the third removed the collar.
"Thanks, guys," Crowley said, and reached up to rub his neck where the collar had chafed him. "Drinks later?" His head began to clear almost immediately.
Hastur opened the door a crack, gingerly. "Don't get drawn in," he warned the guards, then stepped backward to swing the door all the way open. The two holding Crowley's shoulders pushed him over the threshold. Hastur slammed and locked the door behind him.
Crowley stumbled, caught himself, straightened and adjusted his jacket, reached up to smooth his hair, began to take in his surroundings.
He stood in a circular room—unusual in Hell's blocky, maze-like landscape—with no windows, and only one door. Opposite the door, a demon knelt on the floor, carefully drawing something, and next to him an angel stood perfectly still and silent.
Crowley tilted his head, took a few steps forward. The demon was familiar to him. He wore heavy work clothes and boots; the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt revealed strong, tattooed forearms. The demon's face was hidden by his thick and curly hair. "Malphas? That you?"
"Yep." Malphas continued drawing. "Been a while, Crowley."
"The collar's your work, then?" Crowley wondered. Malphas always had been good at building intricate things, like traps and contracts. Good at breaking them, too.
Malphas paused in his work, sat back on his heels and looked back at him with a serious expression. "Yeah. Made it just for you, by request. Nice, huh?" He glanced up at the angel, then back at Crowley, and finally bent over his work again.
"Very effective," Crowley admitted. Malphas nodded, silent.
At last Crowley looked at the angel. He didn’t recognise her, but she wore a trim suit in the same dove-grey as the archangels'. Her hair was long and wound smoothly atop her head, and she watched him with a serene smile.
Crowley nodded to her, tucked his fingers into his pockets, tried to seem at ease. "And you are—?"
"My name is Zahariel," she said with a voice that was even and soothing, like that of an air hostess. "But that doesn't matter as you'll not need to use it." She held out her hand in a gesture toward Crowley's feet. "Thank you for co-operating. I'm told this won't hurt a bit."
"What won't hurt?" Crowley said, and then looked down as his feet grew suddenly cold. "Oh, shit," he exclaimed as he realised too late that several green sigils on the floor had begun to glow. They rose up in a circle around him, stopped at the height of his knees. Crowley took a step forward—rather, he tried to, but his foot struck an invisible barrier. He swore and turned rapidly, tapped all around him, seeking a way out, finding none.
Beyond the barrier, the room began to rotate, slowly, until Crowley was trapped opposite the door he'd just entered. Unfazed by the movement, now kneeling in front of the door, Malphas continued drawing; Zahariel clasped her hands in front of her and kept smiling, smiling.
Unbidden, Crowley's wings shot out, struck the barrier, and he winced. "Malphas, why—" he began, but he suddenly could not hear his own voice, could not hear his own breaths, could not hear his own heartbeat.
The room beyond the barrier grew dark, and though he could see in the dark, there was nothing to see, nothing but emptiness, all around.
He raised a fist to strike the barrier but his hand came up against nothing. He could not even feel his fingers against his palm.
Darkness and silence, and nothing.
Crowley tried to scream.
"It won't work," Beelzebub said grimly.
"You're only saying that because the last thing we tried didn't work."
"No, I'm saying it won't work because he izzn't a normal angel. Like Crowley'zz not a normal demon, not anymore. Holy water didn't hurt him even a little." She wished she knew how he'd done it. If it could be replicated, it could be of great benefit to all the armies of hell.
"But look at him in there," Gabriel pointed out. "He literally walked into a trap. One he can never get out of. Don't you consider that a success?"
Beelzebub shook her head slowly as she watched the staticky video feed from the trap room. Crowley had collapsed on the floor, still within the confines of the intricately-drawn trap; his wings covered most of his body, but his face was still visible—his eyes were wide and glassy, his lips slightly parted. Malphas had assured her that what Crowley would experience within the trap's magic would be worse than any physical torture.
"Not until the angel izz caught," she said at last, and looked up.
"Are you afraid Aziraphale will realise it's a trap, and not come? Don't be ridiculous." Gabriel smiled down at her, almost kindly. She resisted the urge to uppercut him. "He's not smart enough for that. He'll panic and do one of two things." Beelzebub raised an eyebrow and waited for him to continue. Gabriel held up his index finger. "One, he'll run straight to Heaven for help, and Uriel and Sandalphon are waiting for him there. Or two—" He held up his middle finger as well. "—he'll come here and try to rescue his boyfriend, and he'll be caught in the other trap." He grimaced. "Ugh. Terrible word. Terrible thing." He shuddered. "Boyfriend."
She turned to face him, arms still folded, searched his jewel-toned eyes to see if he was mocking her, decided he was not. This time. "Understanding the enemy izz the path to defeating the enemy," she informed him. "I wonder if you understand your Prinzipality."
"He's not my enemy," Gabriel retorted. "He's an angel. Just not a very good one. And however he managed to change himself so he's impervious to hellfire—and we will figure that out—my people maintain that his feelings for the demon Crowley will be his downfall today." He pressed his lips together, widened his eyes, and nodded as though awaiting her agreement. Or perhaps he was simply trying to convince himself that it was truth.
Beelzebub grunted non-committally and returned her gaze to the screen. The image began to flicker, and she scowled. "Stop that," she commanded. The image cleared.
In the trap room, Malphas stood up from his work, tucked his markers into his tool belt, and dusted his hands off. Zahariel spoke to him and Malphas nodded, gestured toward Crowley. Zahariel crossed the room and crouched, a careful distance from the outer edge of Crowley's trap, and peered at him. Behind her, Malphas crossed the centre of the room, giving both traps a wide berth, and leaned against the wall, where he began to examine his nails with a thoughtful expression. Zahariel stood, straightened her jacket and shot her cuffs, turned and spoke to Malphas again. Malphas shrugged, did not look up.
"My people," Gabriel went on, "did a great deal of research into it, you know. We've seen that Aziraphale has been demonstrating very human-like reactions, which I'm told are extremely predictable, and all our calculations have come to the same conclusion."
"What's that?" Beelzebub responded, uninterested.
"Well, I've already told you. Aziraphale will either come here to find Crowley, or he'll head upstairs, looking for help to find Crowley. Either way, we'll have him."
"Arrogance suits you, Gabriel," she mused.
"Why, thank you."
"It's not a compliment."
"I choose to accept it as such."
She rolled her eyes and sighed. Angels were really so unimaginative, bound by rules that had been laid down so long ago they were meaningless now. And the Almighty—she winced internally, even at the thought of the word—hadn't spoken directly to anyone in millennia, according to her sources. Not even to the Metatron. She couldn't understand how the angels continued to justify their faith in Their perfection.
She glanced back at Gabriel, who looked down at her and smiled again. Such a condescending bastard. He'd have made a fantastic Duke—maybe even a King. Too full of himself to realise it, though. Too bloody angelic.
Nice enough to look at, though.
"He'zz taking hizz time," she noted.
Gabriel shrugged. "If he's coming here," he reminded her. "Might have gone upstairs, after all."
"I doubt he would have," she said, with another glance at the screen. "You tried to kill him there."
"We’re still trying to kill him," said Gabriel. "Just in a different way, this time."
The floor shook a little and Beelzebub focused on the screen; Malphas pushed himself away from the wall and stared intently at the ceiling of the trap room. Zahariel spoke to him; Malphas merely flashed sharp teeth in a grin and vanished. Zahariel looked impatiently around as though searching for something.
"What's happening?" Gabriel demanded.
"Your angel'zz on hizz way here," Beelzebub told him. "And he'zz not taking the elevator." She reached toward the viewscreen, pressed a button on its side, hesitated, glanced back at Gabriel. He raised his eyebrows and smiled his irritating beautiful smile. Beelzebub took a deep breath and spoke loudly and clearly into the intercom.
"Azz previously instructed, do not interfere with the angel Azziraphale. Allow him to proceed. Everything izz under control."
The floor shook violently, and from habit Beelzebub shifted her weight to keep her balance. Gabriel stumbled, reached out and braced himself with a hand on Beelzebub’s shoulder. She shot him a foul look and he withdrew his hand.
“Sorry,” he said, without apology. “Does that happen often down here?”
“We don’t have the privilege of inhabiting the Almighty’zz penthouse."
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Take it how you want, Gabriel. When your angel izz caught, I assume you will be taking him and leaving?”
“Taking him? Why would I take him? I was hoping I could just leave him here. You can do with him what you want, once he’s neutralised from our point of view.” He spread his hands magnanimously. "Make him one of yours, if you like. He certainly isn't doing us any good."
“Nothing can be done with either of them,” Beelzebub informed him coldly. “The traps are not limited to one captive, and will ensnare everyone stupid enough to step into them.” Gabriel chuckled. "What's so funny?"
"Oh, I just had an image," he said. "Of demon after demon stepping in, getting trapped, and at the end of the day, just a huge pile of them lying there." He held out his arms to demonstrate, and chuckled again.
Beelzebub stared at him. Perhaps he had some limited imagination after all. He wasn't altogether that bright—but then, angels didn't need to be. They just needed to be obedient.
"That izz amusing," she admitted. "But once Azziraphale izz caught, we will be sealing off the room and moving it elsewhere, to avoid that risk."
"Aw." Gabriel clasped his hands once more in front of himself, watched her a moment.
"What are you looking at?" Beelzebub snapped, and shifted her weight as the floor began to rock again. Her phone buzzed, and she slipped it out of her trousers pocket. Hastur. She tapped the screen. "What izz it?" she demanded, and listened, looked up at Gabriel. "No, don't try to stop him," she said. "Azz long as he'zz going in the right direction. We’ll take care of that afterwardzz." She stuffed the phone back into her pocket, caught Gabriel still staring. "What?"
"That's new," he noted, and pointed with both index fingers at her pocket. "I'm surprised you get a signal down here."
"It's weak," she admitted. "But it works."
"Great." He whipped out his own crystal-clear device. "What's your number?"
"None of your fucking buziness."
He landed, at last, kept his wings about him to shield him from the debris that had followed him all the way down. Once there was silence around him, Aziraphale stood, slowly, shook his wings clear of dirt and rocks and chunks of plaster and corroded metal pipes. He drew his sword from where it had been driven into the floor, examined it for damage. There was none, and the flame burned brightly.
He looked around at the filthy, untidy office, at the startled demons who had stopped their work and stared at him in unabashed confusion.
"Back to it, then," he said sharply. "I've better things to do than deal with the lot of you." He raised his sword in a warning, and the demons all flinched away. None of them seemed inclined to attack. Aziraphale waited a moment, in case one of them did try something; not one of them moved, and he turned a slow circle in the centre of the room, searching. His eyes grew distant as he focused beyond the room, further and further, until he caught sight of his target: a tiny pinprick of light, shining in a far-off space beyond walls and, no doubt, hordes of demons. He stopped, eyed the rows of overstuffed filing cabinets and the damp and dripping wall behind them.
He held up his sword again and spoke a single ancient word as he swept the blade in a wide arc in front of him; the wall crumbled and the filing cabinets were flung to the side as though they weighed nothing. Aziraphale ignored the cries and crashes behind him as he marched in a straight line toward Crowley.
The angel wasn't following the plan. Of course it wasn't.
Hastur peered at the little flat device that Beelzebub had given him. It was to be used, he'd been told, to track the angel's progress. Like all the useless garbage Heaven produced, it served no real purpose. Hastur could just keep his eyes open and see where the angel was. Rather, he could see where it had been. He hadn't yet been close enough to lay eyes on it for more than a few seconds. Right through walls and any demons stupid enough to have ignored Beelzebub's warning to stay out of its way, the angel was leaving a trail of holy fire behind it, and of course Hastur and his men could not follow in that.
It wasn't acting the way it did on Earth, the way he'd seen in the videos Zahariel had brought down for him to study. It didn't even look the way it did on Earth, he'd noted when he'd finally caught a glimpse of it. In place of its soft and slightly nervous human form, it wore brilliant blue-white light and razor-sharp wings and flame. Hastur wouldn't have been sure that this was even the right angel, except that it was inexorably carving a path through Hell that was leading directly to the room where Crowley was being detained.
He and his men wove their way through the close-packed corridors, taking the shortest way toward the trap room without encountering the angel directly, or tripping over its spreading blue flame.
Something buzzed on his chest, and instinctively he smacked it with one hand, before remembering the other device he'd been given. He pulled from his breast pocket a small phone like the one Crowley used Upstairs. Not as slick, of course, but it worked the same, without wires. The screen showed him Zahariel's precious little face. Hastur grimaced, answered the call.
"What is it?" he snapped.
"What's going on?" she asked. "He's not here yet, and Malphas has gone—"
Zahariel sighed. “Look, I’m just trying to do my job and get back upstairs where I belong."
"I want to know when you expect him to be here."
"Look, princess," Hastur growled, "you'll bloody well know when it gets there." He disconnected the call, balanced as the floor rocked suddenly. In the distance faint screams could be heard. More fools getting in the angel's way, he supposed. Hastur cleared his throat, sent an instruction via hand signal, and he and his men continued their push forward.
The legions of Hell did not appear to be trying to stop him. The few demons who had made the attempt, had been easily dispatched.
They were clearly using Crowley as bait, Aziraphale had quickly realised, to lure him here for—what? Capture? Death? But Crowley's light was beginning to fade, which meant that they were also killing him, and Aziraphale did not have a lot of time to ponder it. They thought so little of Aziraphale that they couldn't even come for him directly, but had to attempt to trick him this way. Irritated, he swung his sword out to one side and sliced through a wall and several electrical panels. An entire block of lights flickered out; this did not impede his progress.
But was it Hell's agents who had set this up, or was it Heaven's? The last time he'd been here, Dagon had said that the two were co-operating. Were they working together on this, too? Hell had no interest in him, as far as he knew, and Heaven had no reason to want Crowley. Not that he had ever been part of Heaven's great inner circle, to know what they truly wanted.
An image of Gabriel's complacent face flashed through his mind, and it fueled his anger. Aziraphale ground his teeth, snarled an ancient curse, and the fire surrounding him gained strength, tempered his wings further. His primaries had begun to change colour where they had slashed through hapless demons and dripping walls. It didn't matter; he would clean them when this was done, and if they remained stained—what of it? Crowley wouldn't care.
Provided Crowley lived long enough to see them.
Aziraphale shouted down another wall that was in his path, continued on through the dust and rubble that remained.
"He's really making a mess of the place, isn't he," Gabriel said thoughtfully.
Beelzebub slouched in a chair with one heel on the seat, the other stretched out in front of her. She used a small remote control to change the view on the screen, so they could watch Aziraphale's progress. She shot Gabriel a look that would have cowed a lesser being. "What did you think would happen?"
"I assumed he would just walk through the halls," he admitted. "He's never been the type to break rules."
Beelzebub rolled her eyes, shook her head. "Izzn't it becauze he doezzn't follow the rulezz, that you want him dead?"
"Oh, no," Gabriel said cheerfully. "He doesn't follow orders, and that's why I want him dead. I mean, he ruined six thousand years of preparation. You should want him dead yourself, you know."
"Not many could have done what he did, even with a demon'zz help," Beelzebub pointed out.
“He didn’t do anything. The boy did it all.”
“With influence from both Crowley and the angel. I would think you’d want to keep him azz an ally, just for that.”
"Not at all," Gabriel said, and wrinkled his nose. "A soldier who can't follow orders? Come on, now."
"I don't think that he can't," Beelzebub noted. "I think that he doezzn't, and that's what grates on you, izzn't it? That he thinks differently to you. Questionzz the rulezz." She raised an eyebrow.
Gabriel watched her a long moment. "Questions orders," he said at last, firmly.
"What's the difference?" She shrugged, gestured broadly with the remote. "It's why we're all down here, izzn't it? We questioned."
"You rebelled," Gabriel said. "You tried to overthrow the Almighty."
"Izz that what She tellzz you?" Beelzebub asked, pointedly. "Or izz it what you've told yourself so often that you believe it?"
Gabriel turned slightly to face her, clasped his hands together, and smiled benignly. "How does your side tell it?"
"I don't need it told, Gabriel. I waz there. We questioned. None of us wanted power. We wanted knowledge. And for that—" She shrugged, watched Aziraphale walk through another wall. It was really quite impressive, she was forced to admit to herself, the light and the flame, and the ease with which he was making his way forward. Such rage, such power that accompanied it—Heaven's loss, she supposed. Surely the angel would Fall after this. It would be interesting to see if he would—
She lifted her head suddenly. Gabriel inhaled, but Beelzebub raised a hand to silence him. "They are physically intimate, yes? Crowley and your angel."
“Ew.” The expression of disgust and horror that crossed Gabriel's face was almost worth dealing with his extended presence. "I don't know," he said. "The way humans do, you mean? Can they do that? I mean—gross."
"That might be the answer," she told him sharply.
"Answer to what?" he asked, his face still screwed up.
"To how they are immune to holy water and hellfire. They may have exzchanged something, changed each other."
Gabriel stared at her in horror. "You mean—in their flesh bodies—?" He shuddered. "Ugh."
"Get over yourself, Gabriel. It izz a perfectly natural thing."
"Messy," he countered. "Gross."
"That izz not the point. It may be how they accomplished it." She looked at the screen again. "We need to capture him—"
"Should be soon." Gabriel looked at his watch. "He's almost to the trap."
"Not in the trap," Beelzebub snapped. "We need to be able to study him. Find out how he'zz changed."
"Oh," Gabriel said, intrigued. "You mean, like, vivisection?" He looked thoughtful. "That would be a good punishment, but he would heal too quickly for you to get any useful information."
"It doezzn't matter how," she said, and quickly withdrew her phone, rang Hastur. "Hastur," she spoke quickly when he answered. "Stop him. Delay him and do not let him reach the trap room. Yes, I—" She paused and bared her teeth. "Are you questioning me? " she snarled, and her buzzing words echoed out from the room and into the corridors. "Right." She ended the call.
"So, now what?" Gabriel wondered. "How are you going to catch him without using the trap?"
"I am in command of legionzz," she reminded him with a sigh, as she swung her feet to the floor and stood, dropped the remote on the table. "He izz only one angel. It will not be difficult."
Gabriel clucked his tongue. "Then why didn't you just do that in the first place?" he wondered. "I mean, it would have saved a lot of time and effort—"
Beelzebub wheeled on him, stabbed at his chest with her fingertip. "This wazz your plan, Gabriel, and do not forget that. You wanted the angel neutralized, and it wazz your idea to uze Crowley azz a lure and Malphas' magic to trap them. I only negotiated the termzz. Do not accuze me of capriciousness when I have been more than generous and patient with you and yourzz."
Gabriel caught her finger in his hand, warm and strong and surprisingly gentle. She tried to yank it away but Gabriel held it firmly. "Now," he said, in his kind voice, "let's not argue over who did or said what—" He raised the other hand and trapped her entire hand between both of his, and he held tightly to it as he smiled his perfect smile. "As long as Aziraphale is dealt with and out of our hair, it doesn't matter to me—"
Beelzebub threw her whole weight into the swing to ensure her other fist connected with the side of his head.
Malphas watched from a safe position as Hastur's soldiers arranged themselves in the tunnel outside the trap room. They were well-trained and well-armed, and there were a hundred of them, but Malphas was not sure they were truly prepared for what was to come.
Most angels' thoughts were only of the glory of the Almighty, and that was why they were generally fairly easy to avoid and easier to kill—they believed themselves just pawns in the Almighty's great game, and if they needed to be sacrificed, so be it. They were all ready to die, on any given day.
But this angel was different. Different even from demons, whose investment was largely in themselves and in their own survival. This one was utterly focused on Crowley, on Crowley's survival, and he was very, very angry.
Malphas was a big fan of Wrath, though it wasn't his own bailiwick. Wrath could accomplish a lot of things, if properly channelled.
He popped a liquorice sweet into his mouth, reached up to tie his hair back, and waited.
"That really hurt," Gabriel complained, and rubbed the side of his head.
"It wazz meant to," spat Beelzebub, and thrust a finger into his face. "Do not ever, ever, ever touch me again without permission, or you'll get worse than that."
"All right," he said. "Jeez. But, come on, you were poking me. That's rude." She clenched her fists and Gabriel held up his hands, palms forward. "All right," he said again. "I'm sorry I held your hand. Most people consider it a nice gesture."
"Fucking angel," she muttered, and wheeled away from him, out of the boardroom, and slammed the door shut behind her. She knew damn well that angels did not touch one another. Not anymore, not like that. Not the way they had in the beginning. He had been mocking her again, and she was not in the mood for it.
She straightened her jacket, shot her cuffs, turned to Dagon, who stood outside the boardroom awaiting orders. "The angel izz nearly to the trap room," Beelzebub told her rapidly. "Hastur izz leading hizz men to slow him down. We need to stop him, keep him from getting trapped. Find Malphas, wherever he is."
"Yes, Lord Beelzebub," Dagon said, though she was plainly confused.
"We may have determined how Crowley wazz able to survive the holy water," Beelzebub explained. "And how the angel survived hellfire. We need him available, so we can figure it out."
"I'll put in a call to Malphas, and gather soldiers immediately." Dagon sped away.
At least someone down here had a lick of sense and two brain cells to rub together. Beelzebub shot a look back at the boardroom door, then stalked away down the hall.
At last the angel burst through the final wall and into the tunnel, his wings wine-red at the tips with blood and filth, his sword blazing with holy fire that was entirely outshone by his own blue-white radiance. He spoke ancient words, terrifying powerful ones, and as the demons swarmed him with their weapons ready they were all, to the last, mercifully slain, and their bodies dispersed into the aether.
Malphas tapped once more into the angel's thoughts, and was fascinated to learn that he felt no satisfaction in the slaughter, despite the fact that he'd killed over a hundred demons in the span of—Malphas glanced at his watch—four-and-a-half minutes. It had been simply a means to an end, and that end was Crowley.
The angel moved toward the trap room door and Malphas made a decision. He dropped lightly down from his vantage point, a safe distance from the angel and his words—and his sword—and held up his hands in a peaceful gesture. The angel spun to face him, his blue eyes sharply focused, but he did not attack.
"My name is Malphas. I'm not here to stop you," Malphas spoke calmly. "I just want to warn you that there's a trap on the other side of the door, designed to hold you for eternity."
"Why did you do this?" the angel demanded, his voice ethereal. The words echoed eerily in the empty hall.
"I got paid for it," Malphas told him. "That's how I operate. But listen. Crowley's always been a stand-up demon, gets me things that I want that I can't always get down here, never asks for too much in return. I like him, and I don't like what they're doing to him. And I really don't like Gabriel." At the sound of that name, the angel's holy light flared outward and Malphas held up his hands again. "I just want to help you and Crowley get out of here—"
"I do not need your help."
"Without my help, you'll be trapped, and you won't be able to save Crowley."
That got the angel's attention. "Why do you care?"
"I have reasons that won’t matter to you," Malphas told him. "But quite simply, Gabriel and his people—" He made air quotes with his fingers. "—gave me something to get this job done."
"What did they give you?"
"That part's not important," said Malphas. "What's important is that it wasn't something I asked for."
"And?" The angel was growing impatient.
"And you have no idea who I am, or what my deal is," Malphas said with a sigh. "Look, you're running out of time. Beelzebub's coming with a small army. When you get Crowley wherever you're going to take him, and once he's lucid again, just ask him. All right?" The angel stared in silence, and Malphas suddenly felt uncomfortable. "All right, then. There's only one way to break the traps, and I made them so that it can't be done once you're caught inside. But you seem reasonably clear-headed, so may I assume you can follow instructions?"
By the time Beelzebub arrived in the tunnel, she found it empty and silent, and the trap room door stood open. Hastur and his soldiers were nowhere to be seen. She raised a warning hand and the demons behind her halted immediately. From the midst of them Dagon pushed her way forward and looked at Beelzebub, questioning.
Beelzebub indicated the open door, the light shining within the trap room. It seemed to be moving freely about.
"Is he caught?" Dagon wondered, under her breath.
Beelzebub shook her head. "No."
"Get out," the angel's voice shook the walls, knocked dust and small rocks from the ceiling. "Get out and never let me see you again."
Zahariel yelped, and scampered out of the trap room, skidded to a halt when she spotted Beelzebub and Dagon and a tunnel full of angry demonic soldiers. "Oh, Lord," she murmured.
"That's a start," Beelzebub said grimly. She gestured to Dagon to handle the situation, then stalked to the trap room door. Behind her the demons surged forward.
Inside the room she slipped in something wet, caught her balance and swore; there was blood on the floor, and the sweet sharp scent of it indicated it was not demonic blood. Too late she realised that she would have been caught by the second trap in the room, had the blood not already dissolved its magic. She swore softly to herself again.
The angel had his back to her as he crossed the room. Blood dripped from the tips of the fingers of his left hand, marked a trail behind him. He stopped next to Crowley, turned and looked up at Beelzebub. "Good of you to come," he said in an unnervingly pleasant tone, and a pulse of holy energy surged in all directions from his shining body. As it passed through Beelzebub the resultant pain nearly brought her to her knees. From the tunnel she heard myriad shouts and groans as the energy struck the demons out there; she swallowed nausea. "I would apologise for killing your soldiers," the angel went on, "but I am not sorry for that. They did attack me first, after all."
Hastur, she realised, as a trickle of cold sweat graced her temple. He had killed Hastur and all of his men, and other than a bleeding hand he did not appear to be injured, nor even out of breath. She gritted her teeth. What was this angel, for whom Gabriel had such utter contempt? Why was Gabriel so determined to be rid of him?
"I do have a question," the angel continued, and tilted his head to one side. "Why two traps, when one would have done for both of us?" He released another pulse of light and Beelzebub was forced to put her hand on the door frame just to remain upright. "I assume, naturally, to ensure we were kept apart," he continued, "even if we were unable to move or speak or recognise whether or not we were together, thus affording you the satisfaction of winning whatever game is being played. Eternal solitude would be a terrible punishment, indeed, don't misunderstand me. But that sort of spiteful cruelty does not strike me as Hellish. I suspect it was Gabriel's suggestion." Beelzebub stared at him, swallowed another wave of nausea. The pain continued to drill slowly into her head and limbs and her whole body shook uncontrollably
The angel returned his attention to Crowley, lifted his bleeding hand high and flung it forward, scattered droplets across Crowley's body and the floor. He did it again, and again, and each time he did another glowing sigil was doused, and the lines on the floor beneath Crowley began to sizzle and vanish. When the last sigil was gone the angel crouched, slid his bloody arm beneath Crowley's limp form and stood, held Crowley easily against himself. "You will not follow," he told Beelzebub as he leveled his sword at her. "You will not attempt to contact us, or harm us again."
Beelzebub shook her head. "This wazz their plan, not ourzz," she noted through clenched teeth.
"I don't care," he informed her. "I would bid you farewell, but you no doubt understand why I do not wish that for you." He lowered the sword, wrapped his wings around himself and Crowley, and Beelzebub watched as he levitated slowly, just a little, and then vanished.
"Fuck," she said, closed her eyes and leaned against the door frame.
Aziraphale landed in the lounge; he pulled in his wings, let the sword return to wherever it was being kept until needed, and healed the slash he'd made across his palm with the last bit of energy that he could muster. He scooped Crowley into both arms and carried him to the bedroom, lay him down on the bed, and sat there beside him, his shoulders uncharacteristically drooped. In sustaining such emotion as long as he had, he had used rather more energy than an angel at his level generally had access to use, and it would take him a moment or two—or three—to replenish it.
They were home and they were safe—for now. Aziraphale stood with an effort, removed his cardigan and unfastened his tie, lay them both over a chair, then turned back to the bed. Crowley lay perfectly still, though his eyes were closed now; his wings were badly askew beneath him.
"Why are your wings out?" Aziraphale murmured. Crowley would not want them out in Hell, where their glossy beauty would be inevitably marred. Aziraphale stepped out of his shoes and climbed on the bed, lifted Crowley to sit. Gently he ran his fingers along the length of each of Crowley's wings, tenderly pressed along the muscles and joints to search for damage. It did not take long to determine that the wings were uninjured save some light bruising which Aziraphale healed with ease.
He had not been harmed physically, at least, but the light and energy that signified Crowley was terribly distant. Whatever had happened to him inside Malphas' trap had been devastating, and it was just possible that Crowley was still, somehow, trying to hide from it. Aziraphale undressed him with a quick miracle, then conjured a large basin of warm water and a flannel.
Very gently he washed Crowley from head to toe, removed the foul scent of brimstone and decay from his skin, his hair, his wings. The water warmed Crowley's body a little, though he remained unresponsive. With a soft towel Aziraphale dried him; he combed Crowley's hair, and then sat behind him to preen his wings. He hummed quietly as he worked, careful not to miss a single pinfeather.
When he had finished he folded Crowley's wings close to his shoulders and lay him back in the soft bedding. "You rest as long as you need to, darling," he murmured as he tucked the covers around Crowley's too-still form. "I will just be in the bath for a bit."
He moved slowly to the bathroom, undressed and filled the tub with steaming water, sat in its depths and extended his wings. The water turned brackish as the blood and muck that had coated his feathers leached out. He soaked for as long as he could stand it, then emptied the tub with a snap of his fingers and refilled it with clean water. Aziraphale pulled his wings forward and washed them thoroughly, but was mortified to find they would not come white, even when he scrubbed the tips with soap. He attempted to miracle away the stains, but even this did not work. He debated praying, but he decided at the last not to do so; he had no interest in being censured yet again. The Almighty knew all; if she wished to fling him into the depths of Hell for his sins, there was nothing he could do to stop her. At least Crowley was home and safe.
Aziraphale sighed, rinsed all the soap out of his feathers, and stood out of the bath. In a moment of selfish annoyance he miracled all the water out of the tub, himself dry and his wings perfectly groomed. He pulled his wings in and returned to the bedroom, dressed in his favourite pyjamas and climbed up on the bed beside Crowley.
Settled with his back comfortably against the headboard, Aziraphale conjured a mug of hot cocoa and the two books he'd left on the swing chair. He set the cocoa on the bedside table, opened both books and searched for the phrasing he'd noted earlier in the afternoon.
"This should prove interesting," he said aside to Crowley, who had not moved. "I'm not sure if it's a matter of plagiarism, or unconscious mimicry. Or it could simply be coincidence. It's a mystery, and I find those are always a little bit fun." He picked up his cocoa and sipped it, set the mug aside once more and began to read.
"Mr Fell knows a lot about trees," Sophie said sleepily.
"Does he?" Lily smiled. "And how do you know that?"
"We got ten different leafs and he told us what they were."
"What a nice thing to do," Lily said, and kissed Sophie's forehead. She stood and crossed the room to Emma's bed. "I hope you thanked Mr Fell for taking the time to teach you."
Emma nodded. "Mr Crowley told us that one leaf with ten leaves is still one leaf."
"Is that so. What a clever man Mr Crowley is."
"He likes to sleep," Emma added.
"Don't we all?" Lily chuckled. She kissed Emma's forehead, stood and tiptoed out of the room, where Ted was waiting in the hall.
"What's this they're talking about?" he said quietly.
"Oh, just what they were doing next door this afternoon," Lily said, and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm, pulled him toward the lounge. "Apparently they got a botany lesson from Mr Fell. Smart man had them running around looking for different leaves to identify. Tuckered them out."
"Nice quiet evening for us, then," Ted noted.
Ted cleared his throat, as they sat together on the couch. "Maybe," he said, "we could have the pair of them over for supper of an evening. In the interest of, er, getting to know our neighbours better."
"I think that's a marvellous idea," Lily said, and squeezed his arm.
The first sensation to return was sound: the rustling of fabric, soft footsteps, the clink of china—and through it all, Aziraphale softly talking to all the inanimate objects in the cottage as he puttered about. If his angel was going about his day as usual, then all was well with the world.
"Aren't you growing well? Indeed, I think that's another new leaf. And so perfectly formed! How lovely. Crowley will be absolutely tickled that you're coming along so nicely."
Without him around to counter it, that sort of praise was going to spoil the shit out of his plants. Once he got up, he would have to put things back to rights, let them know that they were not to be any less vigilant about their appearance. Aziraphale meant well, of course, but he really wasn't strict enough with them.
"Good morning, darling," Aziraphale said, suddenly very close to him. "I hope you're feeling a little better. The sun is shining outside, though it's supposed to be a touch cooler this afternoon. Autumn is on its way."
He hated autumn, because it meant that winter was coming right behind it. And he detested winter because who liked to be cold? Nobody.
Aziraphale was singing. It was no angelic hymn, nor a psalm, not even Schubert—this was something upbeat, much more modern than his usual taste in music. It was familiar, but Crowley couldn't place it. He would have to ask, when he got up.
"Well, my dear, I've marked the garden with the same sigils we used on the cottage, though I really do believe they'll all think twice about trying anything else. I'm sure they'll be rebuilding walls down there for some time." Aziraphale sounded menacingly pleased about that.
What walls? he wanted to ask.
He was probably going to have to kill Hastur, Crowley realised. He hadn't especially wanted to kill Ligur in the first place, to be honest. Extraordinary circumstances, that was all. Hastur was taking it all personally. Maybe because it could just as easily have been him.
"Crowley, dear, I've watered and fed all your plants for you this afternoon, and cleaned their leaves. Whenever did you last feed them? They seem to be growing like mad today. I can fairly hear all of them putting forth new sprouts."
He was going to have to do a lot of work to get his plants back under control. When he finally got up. Why, he wondered, was he sleeping so long?
A flash of memory shot behind his eyes, of solitude and darkness and nothing around him, nothing to feel, nothing to hear, nothing to see, nothing nothing nothing —
Pain arched his back and all six limbs stiffened with agonising spasm. Everything hurt, everything burned—he couldn’t breathe—
Sudden weight on his hips was unyielding, prevented him from twisting; strong hands grasped his wrists and crossed his arms over his chest, held his fists tight to his shoulders and pushed him back to the bed. The pain began to subside, replaced by warmth as angelic healing flooded nerves that had not had to work for what might have been a thousand years.
Crowley worked one eye open, then the other, and took several seconds to focus on Aziraphale's worried face.
"Angel," he croaked at last. His throat was raw.
Aziraphale smiled at him, relieved, his eyes misty. "Oh, my darling boy," he said, a slight crack in his voice. He sat back on Crowley's thighs, clutched Crowley's hands tightly to his chest. "I'm so glad you've come back to me. I am sorry I had to pin you like that. I was afraid you would hurt yourself, or damage your wings. Are you in pain?"
Crowley lifted his shoulders, winched in his aching wings, shook his head and lay back down. "Tired," he said, truthfully; everything in him was exhausted. Aziraphale lifted his hands and kissed the backs of them, each in turn. "Better, now," Crowley said, and managed half a smile. Aziraphale beamed, and the light and warmth of his affection was suddenly overwhelming. Crowley closed his eyes again. The ache in his back, the pain in his throat, faded. Aziraphale shifted his weight and, alarmed, Crowley stiffened and inhaled. "Stay."
"I'm not going anywhere," Aziraphale assured him. "I'm just going to move aside so you can get comfortable." He shifted to recline next to Crowley. "There. All right?"
"Yes. Sorry, Angel."
"No need to apologise, my darling. Is there anything I can get for you, or do for you?"
He shook his head, or tried to. "Just stay with me."
Aziraphale let go his hands, slid one arm under Crowley's head and the other around his waist, and held him close. "I promise I will," he said softly, and safe and warm in his angel's arms, Crowley slept.
When next he woke Aziraphale was beside him, propped against the headboard, reading a book. Crowley squirmed closer, snaked an arm over his lap and tucked his fingers beneath Aziraphale's bottom, and sighed. "I'm sorry, Angel," he murmured.
"About what, darling?" Aziraphale lifted a hand and stroked his hair.
"Everything. Missing the show."
"Midsummer," Crowley said, and yawned.
"That's not until the weekend," Aziraphale told him. "But if you're not feeling up to going, of course we can get tickets to go another time."
Crowley opened his eyes, puzzled. "The weekend," he said. "How long was I gone?"
"I'm not sure exactly. Three hours, perhaps?"
"Three—what?" He tried to think.
"Well, it was at least a quarter of an hour before I realised you were gone at all. I'll never forgive myself for that. And then it took me the better part of an hour to get down there—"
Crowley scrambled to his knees to face him. "Angel," he said, alarmed. "You didn't—go into Hell, did you?"
"Of course I did. That was where they took you, after all."
“You—you brought me back,” he said with dawning realisation.
“Yes, darling, how else did you think you managed to get home?”
Crowley covered his face with both hands, dug the heels of his palms into his eyes as he tried to recall details. His memories were full of a thick haze. "Hastur," he muttered. "He—had some sort of collar. There was an angel there, too. Don't know her. Caught me in a trap. Felt like—a hundred years. Thousand, maybe. I don't know—I don't remember anything else." He looked up at Aziraphale again and nearly choked on a sudden lump in his throat. "Oh, fuck," he said. "I'm still there, aren't I? And this is just part of it, isn't it? So they can take you away from me. They're making me think I got back home, so it'll be worse when they take it all away again."
Aziraphale raised one eyebrow. He carefully closed his book, set it atop a stack that was already precariously balanced on the bedside table, removed and folded his glasses and set them atop the book, then turned slightly to face him. "Really, darling, you did get all the imagination when the Almighty was handing it out, didn't you?" He smiled tenderly, and the loving shine behind his eyes tore through Crowley's fear. "It took me about an hour to get down there," he went on. "And probably another thirty minutes to reach you. And your—" He pursed his lips a moment. "I won't dare call him a friend, but your acquaintance Malphas told me how to disarm the traps. So—"
Crowley reached up, ran a hand through his hair. "W-wait, traps? Plural?"
"One for you, and one for me."
Fuck. Of course it wasn't just about Ligur. He groaned. "You shouldn't have gone, Angel. What if you'd been caught?"
"The fact is that I was not. Your Malphas made sure of it."
"Why did he do that, I wonder?"
"He told me," Aziraphale said drily, "that you're a 'stand-up demon', and get him things he likes."
"I don't believe it. I get him liquorice sweets from the shop," Crowley told him. "And cigars. And sometimes a nice curry from that place we both like. Stupid things like that."
"Well, apparently he appreciates it." Aziraphale told him. "But he also said I should ask you what his deal is."
"He said you would know. That Gabriel had given him something that he hadn't asked for, in order to convince him to help." Aziraphale watched him, expectant.
Crowley's eyes widened and he could not suppress a manic grin. "Oh," he said. "Oh."
He laughed softly, sat back on his heels and tension bled away from his jaw and neck and shoulders; he realised he'd been gripping the bedclothes in both fists, and released them. "Malphas," he said at last, "makes things. In the old days it was just buildings, fortifications and the like, to protect a client from their enemies. But he's a little like me, likes to move forward, so these days he makes other things. Whatever's needed. He'll tell you his price, and if you give him what he asks, he'll do what you want him to do." He squirmed closer to Aziraphale, pressed up to his side. Aziraphale wrapped a warm arm snugly around him. "If you give him anything else, anything more than he's asked, he considers that a bribe, and Malphas hates that. Devalues his work, he says." Crowley pulled the blankets up to cocoon himself in Aziraphale’s warmth. "So if you bribe him, he's going to—ah—let's say he'll turn things around on you. Unpleasantly."
He rested his cheek on Aziraphale's shoulder. "I bet Gabriel's right pissed."
"Possibly. I didn't see him. Haven't heard from him, since, either."
He sobered. "Angel, you shouldn't have gone down there. It's dangerous."
"I'm well aware."
"You might've been killed."
Aziraphale kissed his hair. "As might you have been, my dear, and I couldn't bear the thought of that. They had promised not to come after you again, and they broke their word, and that left me with no choice."
"It's Hastur. He's angry at me for—something I did."
"Well, you needn't worry about him anymore."
"He's not going to give up," Crowley said gloomily.
"That will be difficult, since he's dead," Aziraphale told him. "Would you like a cup of tea, darling? And toast? Something light is indicated, I should think."
Crowley lifted his head. "Wait, Hastur's dead?"
Crowley considered a moment, searched Aziraphale's calm face. "How d'you know?"
"I killed him."
His blood turned icy and Crowley grew quite still. "Aziraphale, he's a Duke of Hell. He's very powerful. He might get discorporated, but it would take a great deal to kill him." He hesitated. "You—didn't take holy water down there with you, did you?"
"I didn't have time to think of it, to be honest."
"So, how—did it happen?" He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer, but he needed to know.
"He and some soldiers surrounded me," Aziraphale said, "and I killed them. I'll go put the kettle on." He swung his legs out of the bed, but Crowley caught him about the waist.
"Not so fast, Angel."
Aziraphale sighed heavily. "I really don't want to talk about it," he said. "You know it's distressing for me to—to kill. Anyone. Even a demon."
"I have to know, Angel. If you just discorporated him, he'll be back, and I need to prepare."
Aziraphale twisted and leveled a look on him that made a cold stone drop to the bottom of Crowley's stomach. "I know when I have killed someone, Crowley," he said, his voice even. "Your Duke was not simply discorporated. Nor were the demons he led against me. Every single one of them died by my hand on Tuesday afternoon. It is now Thursday morning and they are still dead, and they will still be dead next Thursday." He took a deep breath, exhaled. "Now, if you wish, I can drag you ignominiously with me into the kitchen whilst I make tea, or you can lie here and stay comfortable and warm and I will bring it to you when it's done."
"I won't be comfortable and warm if you're gone," Crowley grumbled, but he released him all the same. "You could just miracle some tea, you know."
Aziraphale stood and straightened his cardigan, "I could miracle a lot of things, darling, but that is not how we do things in this household." He leaned down and pushed Crowley to lie in the bed, covered him once more and kissed his forehead. "Stay right here. I'll be back in no time." He stepped into his slippers and padded softly out of the bedroom.
Crowley lay a moment, savoured the warmth Aziraphale had left in his wake.
If Hastur was dead—no, he should say since Hastur was dead—Hell might really leave him alone now. Might.
Would Heaven do the same for Aziraphale? He'd done his best to terrify the archangels, to convince them that Aziraphale simply wanted to be left to his own devices. But then, Aziraphale had done the same for him in Hell, and it hadn't stopped them from coming after Crowley again. Then again, if Gabriel had been involved this time—
It was too much, right now; his mind was still foggy. He needed to think about other things.
His phone vibrated. Crowley sighed and turned his head to locate it, wriggled across to his side of the bed and grabbed it from its spot on the bedside table. It was a Hellish number, but one he didn't recognise. Hesitantly, he answered.
"Hello, Crowley," Malphas said cheerfully into his ear. "I see you made it home safe. How's every little thing?"
"What the fuck, Malphas," Crowley hissed. "What is going on? Why did you do all that?"
Malphas snorted rudely. "When Lord Beelzebub makes a request of a humble demon like myself—"
"Oh, shut it."
"—one does not refuse."
"You aren't afraid of her."
"I didn't say I was afraid, I simply respect her authority."
"Don't even start, Malphas. You could have warned me."
"Circumstances, my dear Crowley, were not fortuitous. The opposition was involved, if you know what I mean."
"What part—" Crowley shot a look at the bedroom door; Aziraphale was still in the kitchen. “What part did Gabriel play in it?” he asked in a low voice.
"The plan was his, as I understand it, or at least it came from Heaven. Easiest way to catch an angel is by using his boyfriend as bait."
"I'm not—" Crowley made an irritated noise deep in his throat. "Look, I need to ask you a few things. Where can I meet you?"
"I'll drop by, shall I? Are you still in London?"
"No," he snapped. "And—"
"Not in London? Never thought I'd see the day. Always wondered what you saw in that place, but knowing what I know now, I suppose it was your angel kept you there. Am I right? No matter, I can find you.”
"Don't drop by—"
"See you in a few."
The line was dead.
Crowley lowered the phone and stared at it a moment.
"Shit," he grumbled.
"Who were you talking to?"
Crowley almost gave himself whiplash as he looked up. Aziraphale stood in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back, and watched him with an unnervingly serene expression.
"Ah," Crowley said. "Wrong number."
Outside a rumble like distant thunder sounded. Aziraphale tilted his head slightly. "I'll just go and see who's arrived in the garden, shall I?" he said, and turned on his heel.
Crowley scrambled to get up out of bed and follow, found himself tangled in the bedding, and promptly planted himself face-down on the floor. He swore and jumped to his feet, dressed with a snap of his fingers and reached up to slip on a new pair of sunglasses as he sped toward the back door.
Out in the garden Aziraphale stood beneath one of the chestnut trees, gesturing vehemently as he spoke to Malphas. Malphas stood with his back up against the broad trunk of the tree, and he looked down at Aziraphale with obvious apprehension.
"—will not have your people simply appearing in my garden without an invitation," Aziraphale was saying by the time Crowley managed to catch up to him. "This is absolutely unacceptable. Do you understand what danger your mere presence could draw here? We have already—"
"Angel," Crowley interrupted him, gently touched Aziraphale's shoulder with his own. Aziraphale shifted his weight slightly, turned to keep himself between Crowley and Malphas.
"Call him off, Crowley," Malphas said, uneasy. "I've seen what he can do, and I don't really want him doing it to me."
"You may speak to me directly," Aziraphale informed him icily. "Why have you come here?"
Malphas did not take his eyes off Aziraphale. "Crowley?"
"Angel," Crowley repeated, and pulled Aziraphale about to face him. Aziraphale looked sharply up at him; the glittering sheen of his eyes was startling, and a flush rose suddenly over Crowley's chest.
He had never seen Aziraphale angry before. Irritated, yes; frustrated, plenty; he had never seen him angry.
He took a deep breath. "Angel," he said, softer, "I'm sorry. I told him not to come, but he—" He shrugged, helpless. "Let me talk to him, all right?" He reached up and squeezed Aziraphale's shoulders.
Aziraphale grasped the lapels of his jacket. "I will not leave you alone with him, Crowley," he said through clenched teeth. "I simply will not." He was actually shaking a little.
"I'm not asking you to," Crowley told him, soothing. He reached up and gently straightened Aziraphale's tie, smoothed the shoulders of his cardigan. "He's just here to talk. So why don't we all go inside, and talk."
"Don't try your flavour of distraction with me at a time like this," Aziraphale scolded, but the fire behind his eyes had faded somewhat. He still held Crowley's lapels in his fists.
"I just need you to understand that Malphas is not an enemy."
"He is a demon, Crowley, and he had a part in this—this attack on you."
Crowley sighed. "Please, Angel. Let's go inside, where we can talk in private." He indicated the neighbours with raised eyebrows and an arcing motion of his head.
"I don't want him in our home." Aziraphale pressed his lips tightly together, released Crowley's lapels and smoothed them anxiously.
"Just in the kitchen," Crowley said. "We can all sit at the table and he won't do a thing. I think he's more afraid of you than you are of him."
"That's true," Malphas spoke up helpfully.
"Shut it," Crowley snapped over his shoulder.
Aziraphale looked up at him, searched his face. "I will not let him do anything more to you, Crowley," he said, softly. "I don't care if you consider him a friend. I will kill him."
"If he tries anything," Crowley said, "we can kill him together." At last Aziraphale relaxed visibly, flashed a hint of his smile, and Crowley's heart skipped. He glanced back at Malphas. "Aziraphale, this is Malphas. Malphas, meet Aziraphale." Malphas lifted a hand in greeting. "Come on in," Crowley said. "I'll fix you a tea, shall I?"
"Nothing stronger?" Malphas wondered, and pushed away from the tree, though he kept his eyes on Aziraphale. "I might need it."
"We'll see." Crowley slid an arm about Aziraphale's waist and led him back to the cottage. "Outside in your slippers, Angel, really," he teased.
"I didn't have time to think about shoes," Aziraphale sighed. "It's been a dreadful couple of days, you know."
"I do know."
The cottage was entirely unlike Crowley's London flat, which was all flash and presentation without substance. The moment he stepped over the threshold into the cottage, Malphas felt—for lack of a better way to describe it—welcome.
He supposed that was the angel's influence, even if he himself wasn’t particularly welcome right now. He wasn't at all surprised that Crowley felt at home here; Aziraphale obviously had deep feelings for him. What surprised Malphas was that he felt it as well. But then, buildings had their own characters, as he well knew, and perhaps it was the cottage itself that favoured his presence.
He sat where Crowley pointed, on a hard chair at the foot of the kitchen table. He took a moment to look around the room: the appliances were new, but the rest of the place was old. Very well-built, though, solid and well-maintained, and immaculately clean.
Crowley held a chair for Aziraphale at the head of the table, gently pushed it in for him, then busied himself at the stove, put the kettle on. He was relaxed, Malphas noted, and familiar with the movements; this was not a front for Malphas' benefit, nor even just to appease his angel.
At last Crowley dragged a chair to sit at Aziraphale's left, slouched down and lazily draped an arm over the back of Aziraphale's chair. His long legs stretched out beneath the table. "So," he said. "I told you not to drop by."
"You're not my superior," Malphas reminded him. "I just wanted to check up on you." He hazarded a glance at Aziraphale, who stared at him with an unreadable expression. He nearly reached out to listen to the angel's thoughts, but reconsidered after a microsecond. He might not, he reasoned, like what he heard at all.
"I'm fine," Crowley told him.
"You're not," Malphas retorted. "But I expect you will be soon. Which is good. Look, Crowley, this was absolutely nothing personal on my part."
"You could have declined," Aziraphale informed him crisply.
"If I had, someone else would have done it. Not as well, mind you, but someone who didn't have a vested interest in assisting you." Malphas inclined his head toward him.
"And what is your vested interest?"
"He's my friend," Malphas said, with a gesture in Crowley's direction. "I didn't want him trapped like that."
"Then why did you do it at all?" Aziraphale's eyes were suddenly fierce again.
Malphas barely suppressed a wince. Fuck, how did Crowley manage it? He'd be terrified all the time. But Crowley remained easily where he was, entirely unbothered. Malphas took a deep breath, sat back on his chair and folded his arms. "Beelzebub came to me with a request, and she accepted my terms."
"Which were what?"
"Angel," Crowley said quietly, and turned his head to look at him. "Some things shouldn't be asked."
Aziraphale looked back. "I would like to know how much it takes for a—a demon—to turn on someone he continues to insist is a friend."
"Malphas doesn't do things like the rest of us," Crowley said. "It's dangerous to ask his terms, all right?" He curled his fingers, caressed the back of the angel's neck with his knuckles.
Malphas grinned. "I'll forgive it this once."
"Good of you," Aziraphale said drily.
"See? We can all talk like civilised people," Crowley said. "Go on, then," he said to Malphas. The kettle whistled and Crowley untangled his arms and legs and made his way to the stove to make tea.
"Where was I?"
"Beelzebub, and your terms," said Aziraphale.
"Ah, yes. Beelzebub's request was for me to assist Gabriel and his people with their request. Their request was that I provide a means of capturing Crowley that would subdue his power and keep him alive."
"Subdue my power," Crowley muttered. "That collar, Malphas, really messed up my head." He returned to the table with a tray bearing a marvellous antique tea service. He poured the tea with surprising grace, filled Aziraphale's cup first, then Malphas', then his own, and slouched back on his chair. "Still not thinking straight."
"That's not the collar," Malphas explained. "The collar was just to make sure they got you down there without a fight. Didn't want you starting anything."
"What was I going to do?" Crowley demanded. "Fight all of Hell?"
"They were afraid you might," Malphas told him, and took a sip of his tea. "This is brilliant," he said, and looked up at Aziraphale. "Where'd you get it?"
"The tea, or the cup?"
"Both, really, but the tea."
"The service was a gift, from—I can't even recall," Aziraphale shook his head sadly. "It's been a while, and everything really rather blurs together. But the tea is from China. I had the good fortune to discover it some years back."
"Mm. Might have to add this to the list, Crowley."
"Get on with it, Malphas."
"Right, you need to rest, and I've overstayed my welcome."
Crowley took a large gulp of his tea and glared.
"Right. Well, apparently Heaven wants rid of you—" He inclined his head to Aziraphale. "—and used getting rid of Crowley at the same time to sweeten the deal for Beelzebub. She liked the suggestion, and that's why she negotiated terms with me to work with Gabriel's people."
Crowley wrinkled his nose. "She's still angry with me, huh?"
"She's always angry, Crowley," Malphas told him. "The only difference day to day is to what degree and at whom." He sipped his tea again. "As I said, she agreed to my terms, and paid me. Then I worked with Gabriel's people to design the traps, and you know the rest."
"I don't," Crowley snapped.
"He hasn't told you, then?" Malphas raised his eyebrows, looked questioningly at Aziraphale.
The angel cleared his throat. "He does in fact know," he said, "that I went down to fetch him back, and that in the course of doing so, I was required to—" He pressed his lips together a moment and sighed. "To kill several demons."
"Several?" Malphas retorted. "You killed Hastur and his whole company in under five minutes. I counted. And may I assume, then, you also neglected to tell him the part about shouting down all the walls between you and him, and leaving holy fire the entire length of Hell?" He set down his cup, sat forward. "Crowley, this was no romantic 'knight rescues his demon in distress' bedtime story. He fucked up Hell but good. I'll be fixing shit for decades. We're still trying to get the fires out without losing more lives. And the worst he got was bloody wings—"
Crowley's head snapped around to look at Aziraphale.
"Not my blood," Aziraphale murmured, but he didn't look Crowley in the eyes.
"No, not his blood," Malphas agreed. "Have you ever seen an angel in full battle mode, Crowley? I don’t think you have. His wings cut through everything in their path, living or otherwise. Anyone stupid enough to get close to him got sliced into bits." He grinned. "It was fucking magnificent."
"Really," Crowley said, still watching Aziraphale.
"It really wasn't anything like that," Aziraphale said apologetically, still not meeting Crowley's gaze. "He's exaggerating."
"I haven't seen Wrath like that for a very, very long time, Crowley. And you and I have seen our share of Wrath."
"It wasn't nearly as dramatic as he’s telling it," Aziraphale insisted.
"Mm-hm." Crowley dropped his arm around Aziraphale's shoulders again.
"But to get back to it, Gabriel gave me more than I asked for," Malphas went on, pleased. He sat back in his chair, picked up his cup and saucer. "So while I was watching this shiny little ball of destruction walk from one end of Hell to the other to find you, I figured out how best to fuck him over. I took a risk and told your angel how to break the traps. He did everything else himself." He sipped his tea, savoured the rich smoky flavour of it. He was definitely going to have to ask for some of this. Malphas looked into his cup, then soberly up at Crowley. "I am glad you came out of it, Crowley. Most demons wouldn't have been able to survive that."
"He very nearly didn't," Aziraphale informed him severely.
"Most demons wouldn't have had an avenging angel come looking for them either, mind," Malphas replied, and finished his tea, set the cup and saucer back on the table. "Thanks for the hospitality. Walk me out, Crowley?" He stood.
Crowley gulped down the last of his own tea, and as he stood he leaned in close and murmured something softly into Aziraphale's ear. He circled the table and gestured to the door, allowed Malphas to precede him.
Once more in the garden, Malphas turned and looked at him. "You should have seen him,” he said quietly, with a furtive glance at the door.
"Show me." Crowley held out a hand. Malphas hesitated, then gripped Crowley's forearm tightly, closed his eyes and shared his memories—including the few moments he'd dared speak with Aziraphale, outside the trap room. When he opened his eyes Crowley's face was paler than usual, but he was steady on his feet, and Malphas released him.
“That,” Crowley said, and swallowed. “That—I never realised he could—“ He made a helpless gesture with his hands, and sighed.
"I told you," Malphas said quietly. "He seems rather unhappy about it, though."
"You've seen him here," Crowley said, and tilted his head toward the cottage. "He's domestic, after a fashion. Doesn’t like to remember that he was made for war.”
“Ah, he’s one of the young ones, is he?”
“Yeah.” Crowley stuffed his fingers into his pockets, slouched where he stood. “He wasn’t made until after we Fell.”
“Oh, really young, then.”
“Made to guard Eden, actually.” Crowley flashed a wry smile. “It’s where I met him.”
“So this has been going on for that long?”
“No,” Crowley shook his head. “We were friends, first, for a long time.”
“Best way to do it, I understand.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow. “What do you know of it?”
“Only what I hear.” Malphas grinned. “So, I have a question.”
“This place—“ He nodded to the cottage. “None of it seems like you.”
“I have my space,” Crowley assured him.
“And you’re comfortable here.”
Crowley shrugged. “Why not? I can go to the city anytime I like, do whatever needs to be done. He gets to putter around the place and read, pretend to do a little gardening now and again. Makes him happy. Loves nothing more than his books and his food and his flowers.”
"He loves you more."
Crowley scowled. "Shut it."
"And you love him," Malphas noted, "which is good, because someone like him deserves to be appreciated. You're a lucky demon, Crowley."
"Shut up about it."
Malphas didn't need to hear Crowley's thoughts. The red at the tips of his ears told him all he needed to know. "I'm going," he said. "Be back soon, though. I want more of that tea. And I like your cottage. It's well-built. I assume he picked it out? Doesn't seem your usual flash style."
"Get out of my garden," Crowley grumbled, and waved him away.
Malphas chuckled and let himself sink down beneath the Earth, back to his work and all the walls that Aziraphale had turned to dust.
Aziraphale had cleared away the tea, and the kitchen was empty. Crowley prowled about the cottage in search of his angel, found him at last in the library. Aziraphale stood between the stacks, examining the pages of a dusty old book.
Crowley slid his arms around Aziraphale's waist, rested his chin on his shoulder. "What are you looking for?" he wondered.
"Looking up Malphas in the demonic records," Aziraphale told him absently. "Crow's wings," he noted. "Like yours."
"Mm. What of it?"
"Just an interesting fact. And apparently his 'deal' is to betray anyone who makes an unrequested offering."
"That's what I told you."
Aziraphale closed the book and sighed, slid it back into place on the shelf. Crowley kept hold of him and swayed gently. "Please be careful about him," Aziraphale said after a few moments of this. "I really couldn't bear the thought of anything happening to you, Crowley." He wrapped his arms around himself, caught Crowley's hands and laced their fingers together.
Crowley walked with Aziraphale toward the couch that had once been in the dusty back room of Aziraphale's shop, now nestled in a sunny reading nook that did not exist on the exterior of the cottage. He fell backward on the couch, one leg extended its length and the other foot on the floor, and held Aziraphale tightly when he yelped in protest. "Nothing is going to happen."
"Something already did happen." Aziraphale squirmed out of his arms to kneel beside the couch, facing him.
Crowley propped his head up with one hand and used the other to play with Aziraphale's curly hair. "Not because of Malphas. Not directly."
"Show me your wings, Angel," he said softly.
"What? Whatever for?"
"I want to see them, that's what for."
"I feel like preening, then, is that a good enough reason?"
"Not in the least." Aziraphale reached up and touched his forehead, his cheek. "You need to rest a little longer. You haven't got your energy levels back, yet."
"Don't need a lot of energy for preening, Angel." Crowley sat up, swung a leg around so Aziraphale was between his knees, leaned down to look him in the eyes. Aziraphale looked up, unhappy. "Please."
"If it's that important to you," Aziraphale said with a sigh. He lowered his head and his wings spread impressively behind him, shook slightly and settled to either side.
Crowley leaned forward, slid his right arm around Aziraphale's shoulders to pull him forward, and with his left hand stroked along the outer edge of Aziraphale's right wing. Aziraphale shivered and the wing extended involuntarily. The primaries were stained nearly purple at the tips, which faded upward into a dark red that in turn became a rusty colour before transitioning finally into pure white.
"It won't wash out," Aziraphale said, and ducked his head.
"I can see they're clean," Crowley agreed. "Just stained." He switched sides, examined the left wing, which had been coloured the same deep shades of blood. "Can you miracle it out?"
"I've tried," Aziraphale told him gloomily. He kept his forehead against Crowley's chest. "I suppose it's—fitting. Considering what I’ve done."
"You think this is somehow a punishment for what—killing demons?" Crowley leaned back, tucked his fist under Aziraphale's chin and lifted his head.
Aziraphale kept his eyes averted. "Murder is murder, Crowley. I can't imagine why else they won't come clean."
"Blood stains things," Crowley told him. "It's not a punishment, Angel. If the Almighty was going to punish you, she'd do more than dip your wings in demon blood." He slid down from the couch, stretched out his legs, nudged Aziraphale to get him to turn around. "They might just come white again over time. As your feathers grow."
"Maybe," Aziraphale said dispiritedly, as he turned, still kneeling, to present his back, and thus his wings.
Crowley started on the right wing, worked his fingers gently into the down to stroke each soft feather from base to tip. "In any case, I didn't marry you for your wings."
"You didn't marry me at all, my dear."
"Let's rectify that, shall we?"
Aziraphale chuckled, sighed, began to relax under Crowley's ministrations. The afternoon passed quietly as Crowley made sure every feather on Aziraphale's wings was perfectly groomed; they swapped positions and Aziraphale did the same for him.
"You know, Angel," Crowley said at last, when they had finished and drawn their wings back in. "Malphas showed me." He turned to face Aziraphale, sober, took his hands and laced their fingers together.
"Showed you what, dear?"
"You. What you did."
Aziraphale frowned. "Oh, I do wish he hadn't."
"I'm glad he did. I’d love to have been there to see it myself."
"Rubbish. Anger is not becoming of an angel."
Crowley laughed. "Rubbish yourself, it was absolutely stunning."
"You are out of your mind."
"You didn't see yourself. Where did you learn to do that? With the words."
"I don't remember learning them. I just knew them when I needed them."
Crowley squeezed his hands gently. "Angel," he said. "Let's go to bed."
"You are an absolute scoundrel," Aziraphale scolded him.
"No, Angel, I want to sleep."
"Oh. In that case, let's."
They rose and shuffled to the bedroom and dressed for bed. Aziraphale drew the heavy drapes to keep out the last of the evening light. Crowley curled up beneath the covers and Aziraphale spooned behind him; thoroughly warmed, Crowley closed his eyes.
It was astounding, Beelzebub mused, what humans imagined Heaven and Hell were like. Heaven was definitely not clouds and sunshine and rainbows—rainbows were invented much, much later, and solely for the benefit of the Earth—and though there was a great deal of light up there, it wasn't warm and pleasant sunshine. Not anymore, not like it used to be. It was glaring and cold and opened you up so everyone could see inside. And Hell was much more horrific than most of them suspected. It wasn't all gruesome torture and screaming souls. It was mostly mind-numbing and dull, and everything was damp.
She flicked a hand and changed the channel. Much better, this: a programme about serial killers. She liked serial killers. By the time they made it to Hell, most of them adapted quickly, got down to their work and did it well.
Her phone rang and Beelzebub stared at the screen, which displayed a Heavenly number. She reached for the phone and held it another moment before she answered. "What?" she snapped.
"Hey, it's me, I—"
The hair on the backs of her arms rose. "How did you get this number?"
"I have my sources, come on. Listen, I—"
"Why are you calling me?"
"I just wanted to ask you—you said I should take Aziraphale with me when I left. But if I'd tried doing that I would have gotten caught in the trap. Were you trying to get me caught in the trap?"
She rolled her eyes hard enough to hurt. "No, not at all," she said flatly. "Izz that why you called me?"
"Well, yes, that, and I wanted to know if you're free tomorrow night. I think we should talk—”
She disconnected, and scowled at the television screen.
Crowley woke sweating and shaking, his throat sore and his wings extended and cramped beneath him. Aziraphale was there, surrounded him with strong arms and protective wings and soft light and gentle healing that chased away the pain of muscle spasms. “Maybe,” Crowley ventured after several minutes had passed, “I should just give up sleeping altogether.” He wrenched his wings back in, annoyed. He didn’t like his body doing things without his consent.
“Nonsense, darling.” Aziraphale smoothed his hair, kissed his forehead. “You ought never to give up something that gives you so much pleasure.”
But it hadn’t given him any pleasure for the last several nights. Almost as soon as he closed his eyes, it seemed, he was there again, suspended in endless nothingness, for eternity.
“That said,” Aziraphale went on, “perhaps you might partake a little less, for a while. You’ve only been back home for less than a week, and you said it felt like you were there for much longer.” He cradled Crowley gently against his body, and rocked him.
“Felt like millennia,” he murmured against Aziraphale’s neck. “All I could think about was getting back to you.”
“And here you are, back with me.”
Crowley relaxed a little and sighed. “Well,” he said. “If I don't sleep, what will I do with my nights?”
“You could read,” Aziraphale suggested. “Or watch the television. Take up knitting, which I understand is very calming. Or we could do something together, just the two of us.”
“And you think I’m the scoundrel,” Crowley said wryly.
“I wasn’t thinking of that, you fiend,” Aziraphale said with affection. “But you know, we’ve never travelled anywhere together. I mean, really travelled together.”
Crowley perked up at that. It was true; all the time they’d known one another, they’d simply met up at agreed-upon places. And in the year since Armageddon had been averted, they hadn’t gone anywhere, really, other than between home and London.
Here, where he was, in Aziraphale’s arms, this was home. The cottage was a base for them both, and it would be here when they got back, wherever they went. But Aziraphale made it home.
“That’s a fantastic idea, Angel,” he said. “Where would you like to go?”
“Oh, no,” Aziraphale said. “This is for you. You tell me where you want to go.”
“Wherever you are,” Crowley said, “is where I want to go.”
“What's this? Sentimentality from a vicious demon?” Aziraphale leaned down and touched Crowley’s forehead with his own, and his eyes sparkled. “Whatever is this world coming to?”
“Any more unbelievable than a soft angel who prefers books to blessings and has all of Hell afraid of his temper?” Crowley wondered.
“Let’s go somewhere warm,” Aziraphale said. “Somewhere that’s warm even at night.”
“Did my mention of Hell bring that to mind?”
“Hell isn’t particularly warm,” Aziraphale pointed out.
“It is in spots. Few more spots, since you were there.”
Aziraphale shook his head. “No, darling. I just know that you dislike the cold.” He smiled, and Crowley hid suddenly flushed cheeks against Aziraphale’s neck. “And warm places will have more things to do, day and night, so you needn’t be bored or worry about sleeping.”
Malphas was right, Crowley decided; he was a very, very lucky demon.
“I might know a place,” he said at last. “On a private beach, but it’s walking distance to a nice little town. And it’s very warm.”
“Then let’s make all the arrangements,” Aziraphale said, and he could not hide the excitement in his voice.
Beelzebub had refused to take any of his calls and had finally blocked his number. She had refused to speak with any of his emissaries and had sent the last one back up with some festering disease that had required the destruction of an otherwise perfectly functional body.
It was frustrating. He was used to getting things his way, which was of course the right way, and Beelzebub was herself being a million flies in the ointment.
There was, of course, only one pair in all of Creation who had managed this kind of thing, but Gabriel was not about to drop in on Aziraphale to ask him how he'd courted the affection of the Serpent. He had his pride.
Gabriel straightened his already straight spine and frowned.
Pride was a sin, and he mustn't fall prey to it.
But he did have standards, and he could not be seen to lower himself to the level of a mere Principality. A Principality, he reminded himself, who had grinned viciously at him from within a column of deadly hellfire. The memory still made him feel a little uneasy. He didn't like that sensation.
Gabriel walked around the perimeter of the room, his hands clasped behind his back, and regarded all the wonders of the world. He himself was millennia older than any of it. Aziraphale was merely a child in comparison. How was it that such an angel had managed what he, an archangel, could not?
Aziraphale had been on Earth, living among humans almost since humans had been created. Perhaps it had something to do with that. The first humans had managed it without any trouble, after all, and without any instruction. Surely the Archangel Gabriel was smarter than a human?
Gabriel bared his teeth. Humans. Little more than talking animals, really. Batteries housing energy that had been intended for use in the war. What were they to do with all those souls that had been won over? He made a mental note to contact the Metatron and find out what the Almighty had to say about it. He supposed She would just listen to his message and ignore it, as She had all the others. Even so, he needed to perform his due diligence.
He pulled out his mobile and looked at it, not for the first time in the last hour or so. He scrolled through all his contacts, paused to delete the entry for Aziraphale's old number, which was no longer in service. It was a surprise even to himself that he hadn't done it previously. He wondered how anyone was to reach Aziraphale now, if anyone wanted to. He was still, technically, a Principality and still, technically, in active service.
Gabriel made another mental note to have someone find out if Aziraphale had a new number in his new domicile. He slid his phone back into his jacket pocket, clasped his hands behind his back and resumed pacing.
As he passed the Eiffel Tower he had an idea, and he withdrew his mobile again.
"Once more, love," Crowley said.
"Oh, no, no," Aziraphale gasped. "I don't think—I'm not sure I can—" He was flushed and sweating, his skin marked all over with a wealth of colour, and Crowley had never seen anything quite so appealing.
He stroked Aziraphale's erection with his fingertips, eliciting a soft whimper. "I'll use my mouth again, shall I?" Crowley slid down the bed and thrilled at Aziraphale's resultant moan. He pushed Aziraphale's bruised thighs apart, took the head of his cock into his mouth, and with the tip of his tongue traced arcane patterns on taut skin. Aziraphale's fingers wound tightly into his hair and he thrust up into Crowley's mouth. Crowley closed his eyes and happily let Aziraphale take control, swallowed every precious drop when Aziraphale came, and slithered back up to lie beside him again when he had finished.
"Oh, my darling," Aziraphale whispered, breathless. "I don't think I'll ever be able to walk again."
"That's all right," Crowley told him, smoothed back his sweat-soaked curls. "I'll just carry you everywhere, like a princess." He kissed Aziraphale's mouth, tucked an arm under his shoulders and lifted him to sit up. He conjured a glass of water. "Here, drink," he said. "Don't want your body to dehydrate."
"If it did, it would be entirely your fault," Aziraphale told him weakly, but he drank in small sips as Crowley held the glass to his mouth. When he had finished the water, Crowley conjured a cool cloth in place of the glass, and tenderly washed Aziraphale's face and neck; he refreshed the cloth and did the same for the rest of his body, then lay him back down.
"How are you feeling, Angel? Not hurting anywhere?"
"Absolutely splendid, my love, and nothing hurts. You've had water yourself? You've been an absolute beast all night."
"I've been drinking," Crowley assured him truthfully.
Aziraphale reached up a still-trembling hand and cupped Crowley's cheek. "Oh, I do adore you," he murmured.
"As you should." Crowley turned to kiss his palm, miracled away the damp in the sheets.
"Hey," Crowley protested gently. "I put a lot of work into getting you to notice me. Not every demon's going show up every time his angel makes a less than stellar decision and gets himself in trouble."
"What does that mean?" Aziraphale pretended to pout.
"Oh, tripping into the French Revolution for crepes, for one."
"I had a craving," Aziraphale sighed, rueful.
He smiled, indulgent. "I know, Angel. It's part of why I love you."
"What's the other part?"
"I know we're eternal and all, but I really don't have time to list everything, you know."
Aziraphale laughed softly and with a fingertip traced the snake-mark above Crowley's jaw. "Thank you," he said.
"For loving me despite my less than stellar decisions."
"Yes, well, one can't help what the heart wants."
"And for—well, for not going above the collar."
"I did promise," Crowley reminded him, and regarded the results of his work with pleasure: little love marks and bites and bruises all over his angel's body, proof of everywhere he'd been that night. Nothing where anyone could see once he was dressed; that was his only concession to Aziraphale's own vanity, and in return Aziraphale had promised not to heal them all away.
Aziraphale watched him now with eyes half-lidded. "I do believe I'm actually sleepy," he murmured. "I'm so sorry, darling, but I think—I think I may nod off."
"You do just that," Crowley said softly. "I'll be nearby when you wake." He drew the sheets up over Aziraphale and lay with him until his breath grew even. Then he slipped away without a sound, shut himself into the bathroom, and twisted to see his back and shoulders in the mirror. He fairly wriggled with delight at the deep bites and scratches Aziraphale had left there. He debated making them scar while healing, a permanent testament to his angel's passion.
Yes, he decided, that would be perfect.
He heard the familiar buzz of his mobile and made a face in the mirror. Hell couldn't reach him through normal channels while he was here; there was no television and no radio. So of course they were finally using the cellular system.
He was going to have to explain roaming charges to them. That ought to take another thousand years to sink in, he thought unkindly.
Crowley slipped out of the bathroom, located his phone in the pile of discarded clothes near the bed, and was about to answer when he realised he had never seen that particular exchange before. He glanced at Aziraphale, who was still sleeping—not for long, if experience had taught him anything—snatched up Aziraphale's white silk robe and tied it loosely around his hips, and slipped out the door of the cabin to take the call outside.
"This is Anthony Crowley," he answered quietly. The pre-dawn air was cool and he suppressed a shiver, dug his toes into the white sand.
"Demon Crowley," said an all-too-familiar voice. "Thank you for taking my call."
Crowley stared into middle distance, stunned. "Why are you calling me?"
"Aziraphale has neglected to leave a new contact number with us," Gabriel said. "I assume you have it?"
"He's never touched a telephone newer than the nineteen-thirties," Crowley said. "And there isn't a line at the cottage. What do you actually want from him?"
"Contact information," Gabriel said pleasantly. "He's still in active service down there, and it's a requirement. It's either that, or we have to go down there and he has to come up here, to get any reports filed, and that is time-consuming and unnecessary."
Crowley shook his head. "Look, he hasn't got a mobile and as I said, there's no telephone at the cottage. So, there's your answer. No contact information."
"Where are you, exactly?"
"I'll be there shortly."
Crowley's eyes widened and he glanced back at the cabin. "Uh, that's not a good idea—" First Malphas, and now Gabriel? Aziraphale was never pleased by surprise visits, and this one would be, if possible, even less welcome than Malphas' had been.
And of course Gabriel couldn't just show up without fanfare, Crowley thought bitterly as he clenched his teeth; he had to do it in a crash of lightning that startled all the dozing seabirds and animals in the area. Above the angry avian screeches he listened for movement within the cabin, and was momentarily relieved to hear none. He turned to stare at Gabriel, held out his hands in a questioning manner.
Gabriel smoothed down his perfectly white linen suit, straightened the collar of his crisp lilac shirt, smiled benignly. "Well, where is he?" he asked, and cast a dubious look up and down at Crowley.
"Sleeping," Crowley hissed. "What are you doing here?"
"Sleeping," Gabriel repeated, and grimaced. "He really is embracing the whole 'fitting in with the humans' routine." He emphasised his words with a gesture. "Well, let's wake him up."
Crowley slid his mobile into the pocket of Aziraphale's robe, heedless of the fact that its weight left him dangerously close to flashing the archangel. "I'm not going to wake him," he said flatly. "He'll wake on his own. You didn't come down here for contact information, so spit it out." He folded his arms.
Gabriel clasped his hands in front of himself, smiled again. "I don't suppose you'd know what I need to know, so I'll just—" He leaned to one side and shouted in the direction of the cabin. "—wait for Aziraphale to wake up!" He resumed smiling at Crowley.
"You're an utter arsehole, Gabriel," Crowley informed him sharply.
"Harsh words from someone who's Fallen."
"I may have Fallen," Crowley agreed, "but at least I can exercise my free will."
"Free will is an illusion," Gabriel informed him. "All things are pre-ordained by the Almighty."
"Interesting you think that, when—"
There was a rumble a little like thunder and the cabin door was flung open. Crowley had no time to react before Aziraphale, fully dressed, planted himself between Crowley and Gabriel, his arms protectively out to either side. He looked a little like a mother hen defending her chicks, and Crowley's belly warmed with sudden affection.
"What are you doing here?" Aziraphale demanded, and his voice was dangerously quiet.
"Aziraphale. Good, ah, morning? I've come to get contact information from you," Gabriel said, unperturbed. "Since you've moved from your previous domicile, you've not submitted anything."
Aziraphale stared up at him. "There is nothing to submit. We haven't a telephone at the cottage."
Gabriel inhaled, sighed, smiled again. "So I've been informed. You'll need to get one installed, as soon as possible, Aziraphale. You are still in active service, after all."
"You didn't come down here yourself to tell me to have a telephone installed at home."
"Angel," Crowley began, and rested his hands on Aziraphale's shoulders. He tried to stand next to him but Aziraphale pushed him firmly back and stepped in front of him again. Surprised, Crowley stayed where he was.
"Your question has been addressed, Gabriel," Aziraphale snapped. "Please leave."
Gabriel stared down at him, thoughtful. "To be brutally honest," he said, "that was not my only purpose in coming here."
Crowley felt Aziraphale tense, felt the air begin to crackle a bit. "Angel," he murmured again. "The locals?"
"Aziraphale," Gabriel said, his voice still calm. "I have come here to ask you about your courtship of this—demon."
Aziraphale started, finally let his arms fall to his sides. The electricity in the air faded, and Crowley realised he'd been holding his breath. "My what?" Aziraphale exclaimed.
"Courtship, he said," Crowley mused, and looked down at Aziraphale. "Angel, have you been courting me when I wasn't looking?"
"Apparently when I wasn't looking, as well," Aziraphale said ironically.
Gabriel looked balefully from Crowley to Aziraphale. "I assume it happened a very long time ago, since our earliest surveillance photos indicate you've had a relationship for centuries at least."
"Why," Crowley wondered, "do you think there's been any courtship at all?"
"And why do you assume that I was the one doing it?"
Gabriel blinked, frowned up at Crowley, directed his attention to Aziraphale. "You are romantically involved, aren't you? Physically intimate with one another?"
"Several times a night, when I'm lucky," Crowley said with a smug grin. He grunted as Aziraphale's elbow connected with his ribs.
"Whether or not we are," Aziraphale informed Gabriel coolly, "is none of anyone's business."
"Aziraphale," Gabriel sighed, and rolled his eyes Heavenward, "please have your demon cover himself." Crowley glanced down, realised Aziraphale's elbow and his mobile had at last dragged the robe too far open for modesty. Aziraphale cast him a reproving look and Crowley swiftly pulled the robe closed again with an apologetic shrug.
Aziraphale turned back to Gabriel. "What are you asking for, exactly, Gabriel?"
"I am curious," Gabriel said as he looked cautiously down once more, "about the method you used to—hm. How shall I say it? The method you used to attract his interest." He spread his hands demonstratively, clasped them in front of himself once more.
"Oh, that," Crowley said. "He just had to exist."
Gabriel pressed his lips together, closed his eyes a moment; when he opened them again, he was still focused on Aziraphale.
"Well," Aziraphale said, "I really can't answer that for him." He looked at Crowley. "What attracted your interest, dear?"
Crowley snorted. "I saw you there on the wall, chatted you up, found out you gave away your flaming sword—"
"I'm sorry, he what?" Gabriel interrupted.
"—you smiled at me, and that was it. I was yours."
"Really," Aziraphale said. "Then?"
"Then why were you so unhappy the next few times we met up?"
"Well, they weren't happy meetings, Angel," Crowley reminded him. "People being rather brutally killed, and all."
Aziraphale nodded slowly. "You were unhappy in Rome, too," he pointed out. "No one was dying then."
"Oh, I was just lonely and cross-tempered that day. Not feeling the joy of temptation, and all." He shrugged.
Aziraphale turned his back to Gabriel and looked up at Crowley. "I actually thought you were angry with me," he said, sober.
"No, Angel, you've never made me angry."
Aziraphale smiled sunshine on him, and Crowley could not help but smile back. "We had oysters that day, I recall," Aziraphale said softly. "You said you had never eaten one."
"Never had, before then. And you made that stupid joke about temptation—"
"Hold up," Gabriel snapped. "You—" He pointed at Crowley. "So, he didn't actually do anything?"
Crowley shrugged again. "He was—" He looked down at Aziraphale, caught his chin between his thumb and his first knuckle. "He was beautiful. And he was good to me. Even though he knew I was a demon. He put lip service to the difference between us, but he didn't treat me that way."
Gabriel raised his hand to stop him. "And you, Aziraphale," he said. "Same deal?"
"Oh, yes," Aziraphale said, and his cheeks turned pink as he looked up at Crowley. "I was really quite enamoured of him. Even though he made jokes that I didn't understand at all."
"Still doesn't get them," Crowley said, aside.
"But it was during the Blitz, really, when I realised that he—" Aziraphale's eyes grew distant. "That despite our differences, despite our disagreements, I wanted nothing more than to keep him safe and to make him happy."
"The Blitz," Crowley said, disbelieving. "It took you that long?"
"Only to acknowledge to myself how I felt, dear," Aziraphale said, and searched his face. "You have always gone much faster than I." He caught Crowley's hand in his and lifted it to his lips, his blue eyes shining with affection. Crowley leaned down and kissed his mouth, slid an arm around his waist and pulled him close.
"Stop that," Gabriel snapped. "Both of you." Aziraphale turned and Crowley kept both arms around his middle. "Jokes and oysters?" he said. "That's it?"
"Who is it you're trying to seduce, Gabe?" Crowley wondered. "Because not everyone falls for the same thing."
"My name is Gabriel," he was informed with an admonishing finger. "Not Gabe. And that's none of your business."
"It's Beelzebub," Aziraphale said mildly, and everything suddenly grew still and quiet.
Crowley peered down at him. "What?"
Gabriel stared at Aziraphale in disbelief. "Wh-what? No, it's not."
"It was at Tadfield," Aziraphale went on calmly. "Your exaggerated dismissal of everything she did or said, your pulling her aside for a moment together, under the guise of a discussion of how to proceed. Entirely unnecessary." He leaned back against Crowley. "Then, your working together to attempt to punish me and Crowley for our apparent betrayals. That she agreed to the co-operative effort speaks volumes on her part as well, by the way."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Gabriel informed him with a weak attempt at a smile.
"I think you do," Crowley said with a very real grin.
"And this most recent attempt," Aziraphale continued. "Again, entirely unnecessary. You had already agreed not to interfere with me, and Beelzebub had agreed not to interfere with Crowley. We had proven ourselves immune to the usual punishments. Ordinarily one would expect that you both would simply write us off as losses, and move forward. Yet you put a great deal of time and energy and thought into finding another reason to work with her toward a mutual goal. Beelzebub told me herself that the idea of it was yours. You brought it to her, no doubt did your best to make sure that it permitted you to spend as much time as possible with her."
"This is ridiculous," Gabriel said sharply.
"Why else would you come to me asking about my seduction of a demon?" Aziraphale flashed a half-smile. "Only because you need that information in order to seduce one yourself."
"Just buy her a coffee," Crowley said sternly. "Talk to her about things you have in common. Wearing clothes, keeping underlings in line, failing to execute Armageddon—" He grunted again as Aziraphale's elbow reconnected.
"Coffee," Gabriel said with a frown.
"It's a human drink," Aziraphale told him gently. "You might like it."
"Just make sure hers is really sweet," Crowley added. "Really sweet."
"Sweet," Gabriel repeated.
"Really sweet," Crowley emphasised.
Gabriel straightened his suit again, glared at them both. "This conversation never happened," he said, and vanished.
Aziraphale turned within the circle of his arms to face Crowley. "Are we never to spend time alone, even on holiday, without someone just popping by for a visit?"
"Come on, Angel," Crowley said. "Maybe the pop-ins are the Almighty's way of punishing us for the whole Armageddon thing. If that's the worst we get, I'll accept it."
"You really do just—accept things," Aziraphale sighed. "Like me, standing atop that wall, desperately wondering if I'd done the right thing."
"Do you remember that it rained that day? First time, ever."
Aziraphale considered a moment. "Yes, I do."
"You held your wing out over me to keep it off me."
"I didn't know what it was," Aziraphale admitted. "For all I knew, it was the Almighty's way of punishing you for your temptation of the humans."
"Neither of us knew what it was. But you weren't afraid of it. You just lifted a wing and let me hide there. How would I not fall in love with you right then?" He patted Aziraphale's bottom.
"You are an old romantic," Aziraphale told him, and leaned up for a kiss.
Crowley obliged. "Shall we get back to it?" he wondered, with a nod to the cabin.
"Absolutely not," Aziraphale said. "The sun is coming up and we are going to have breakfast."
"Good enough, Angel. I'll take a rain cheque."
"You assume I'm offering a rain cheque," Aziraphale retorted.
Crowley leaned down and dragged his teeth slowly across Aziraphale's neck, above the collar, and Aziraphale made a soft sound. He kissed Aziraphale's throat, drew his tongue across his pulse point; Aziraphale melted slightly against him. "There's a rain cheque," Crowley said into his ear, and turned to lead him back to the cabin. "But I need to get dressed before we head out for breakfast."
"There's a festival on, later today," Aziraphale told him, his cheeks flushed. "There'll be dancing."
"Ah?" Crowley replied, and let Aziraphale precede him inside.
"I thought we might take it in." Aziraphale stepped out of his shoes at the door. "I've always liked learning the local rituals." He continued to the cabin's tiny lounge and sat in an overstuffed chair, and Crowley followed. "Tell me, dear, why you are wearing my robe, and not your own?" His hands rested comfortably on the chair's arms, and he looked nothing less than a king on his throne.
"It was nearest," Crowley said.
"They were hanging side by side."
He sighed. "I took yours because I like the way you smell."
"You could always just use my cologne," Aziraphale pointed out.
"It's not your cologne, Angel," Crowley said. "I've told you that before. It's you. I like the way you smell. I was hoping you'd take mine and wear it a bit and then it would smell like you." He stood with his hands on his hips and watched Aziraphale, imagined a thousand scenarios that involved getting him naked all over again, shifted his weight to disguise his growing discomfort.
"Come here, Crowley," Aziraphale said and, pulled by an invisible chain, Crowley obeyed. "Take off my robe." Crowley unfastened it and let it slide to the floor. Aziraphale took a moment to admire him from head to toe, then sat forward and gently grasped his hips and took Crowley's cock into his mouth. Crowley closed his eyes and braced himself with his hands on Aziraphale's shoulders.
They missed breakfast that morning, and were late to lunch. After a brisk walk through the town they joined in the afternoon's festival activities; when all the locals had retired, one by one, for the night, Crowley and Aziraphale stayed out under the stars, dancing to music only they could hear.
There was a great deal of noise and fuss outside the throne room, and Beelzebub scowled. It was Sunday morning, and she had a number of items on her to-do list, including several executions. She didn't like being interrupted on Sunday mornings. "What's going on?" she demanded.
"I'll take a look," Dagon said, already halfway to the broad double doors. Before she reached them, they swung inward and Gabriel breezed in. He wore his usual neat suit and his hair was immaculate. In each hand he held a clear plastic cup filled with some kind of liquid, and from each cup extended a large straw. Dagon turned and stared at him as he approached Beelzebub's throne.
"Lord Beelzebub," he said pleasantly as he stopped just out of arms' reach of her and gave her a perfunctory bow. "I've brought you something." He held out one of the cups. "This is called an 'iced maple latte'." He waggled it back and forth in invitation. "When you're done with it, the plastics don't break down. They pollute the Earth for hundreds of years. Maybe more. So it's a two for one."
Beelzebub sat gingerly forward, took the cup from his hand. It was cold to the touch. "What izz it for?" She sniffed at it, and something atavistic in her grew suddenly alert.
"It's for drinking," Gabriel said. "I thought you might like it." He took a sip from the other cup, and smiled, encouraging.
Beelzebub stared at him, then glanced at Dagon. "Leave us a moment," she said. Dagon spun to obey, and shut the double doors behind her. "What izz your ulterior motive?" Beelzebub demanded.
"No ulterior motive," Gabriel assured her. "Don't want anything in return. Just thought you might like an iced maple latte." He took another sip of his own.
"You know poizon will not work on me."
"Why would I poison you?" Gabriel said with a shrug. "That would do nobody any good."
Beelzebub looked at the drink again. Condensation dripped from the exterior of the cup. She looked up at him, back down at the cup, and finally pulled the straw toward her lips. She sipped slowly, just until the icy liquid touched her tongue, and her entire body thrilled a little; it was a sensation she had never before experienced. She swallowed, hoped he could not see blood rush to her cheeks. "Where did you get this?" she snapped.
"Coffee shop," Gabriel told her. "It was recommended to me. Do you like it?"
"It izz...sweet," she admitted, and took another small sip.
"Ah, good," he said. "Well, that's all I wanted. Enjoy!" He turned and with a jaunty wave, headed for the doors.
Instinctively Beelzebub half-rose from her throne, but thought better of it, and sat back to watch him leave. When he was gone, Dagon slipped back in. She asked no questions, though Beelzebub was sure she wanted to.
Beelzebub sipped her drink again, thoughtful.
Iced maple latte.
She had to admit that she liked it. A lot.
"Bring in the first prizzoner," she called out, and Dagon obediently opened the door for the guards to drag in the first of the many people Beelzebub planned to execute that day.
Crowley prowled about the cottage and checked all his plants. Not a single brown leaf; not a single spot; all the pots had been perfectly watered. One plant had actually produced a rather lovely bright orange flower while he and Aziraphale had been gone.
"Good work," he informed it grudgingly. "Keep it up."
At last, satisfied that all was well in the cottage, he headed in search of Aziraphale. He found him, not in the library as he had expected, but at the kitchen table, sorting through envelopes. "I picked up the post from next door," Aziraphale murmured as he read and sorted. "How are your plants?"
"All good." Crowley dropped down in a chair and stretched out his legs, rubbed Aziraphale's feet with his own.
"Mm-hm. In fact, six weeks of your not shouting at them has done them no harm, has it?"
"They need to be monitored, Angel," Crowley explained. "Can't let them get away with anything."
"Right," Aziraphale said, amused. "Here. The neighbours have invited us to supper, once we've settled back in." He tossed the note across the table for Crowley to read. Crowley skimmed it, set it down. Aziraphale would keep track of it, he knew. He rested his cheek on one hand and watched him work.
"Missed seeing the girls," said Crowley, honestly.
"Indeed," Aziraphale agreed. "It will be lovely to catch up with them." He paused and unfolded a colourful pamphlet. "Ah," he said. "Advertisement for cruises."
"Never been on a cruise," Crowley said.
Aziraphale looked up at him and smiled. "Dear boy," he said. "Are you dropping a hint?"
"Just making conversation, Angel."
"I've never been on a cruise before, either. Here." He handed the pamphlet over. "See if there's anything you like in there."
"But we just got back," Crowley pointed out. "Six weeks away."
"And we had a wonderful time, didn't we?" Aziraphale rested his cheeks on both hands and smiled wistfully.
"We did," Crowley said, and wished he could paint, so he could capture Aziraphale in the moment. He settled for snapping a surreptitious portrait on his phone. "Are you sure?"
"Why ever not? It's not as though we have any really outstanding obligations." Aziraphale straightened and folded his hands on the table. "It would be nice to see some of the other bits of Earth that we've not seen together. It's not as though we need to go tomorrow, either. We can potter around here as we like, for as long as we like, and leave whenever we like."
Crowley's ears grew warm. "You're really all right with it?" he wondered, hopeful. "I don't want you to be missing home."
"Home isn't going anywhere," Aziraphale reminded him. "It will always be here. Well, as long as we take proper care of it, it will. And of course we will."
Crowley unfolded the pamphlet, skimmed its contents. "Here's one," he noted. "Whale-watching."
"You do like whales. And dolphins, as I recall."
"Big brains," Crowley agreed. "But it doesn't say you can get into the water with them."
"When have the rules ever stopped you, my dear?"
Crowley looked up at him through his lashes and grinned. "You want to do it?"
"Anything you like, yes, of course."
He returned his attention to the pamphlet, stuck his tongue into the corner of his mouth as he pondered. At last he folded up the pamphlet. "This is only one of many," he said decisively. "Let's take the time to find one we both really want to do." He sat up, reached across the table to take Aziraphale's hand. Aziraphale squeezed his fingers and smiled. "Dance with me, Angel," Crowley said, unfolded himself and pulled Aziraphale up against him. He snapped his fingers and the stereo system he'd brought from London began to play a slow piece. He swayed gently with Aziraphale in his arms, savoured the warmth of him, the scent of him, the love that he had come to recognise as reserved for only him.
"Angel," he murmured.
"I want to try sleeping tonight."
"All right, dear," Aziraphale replied. "Would you like a nice bath first?"
"Only if you join me. Need you to scrub my back."
Aziraphale chuckled. "Of course."
Crowley danced him into the bath room, filled the tub to the brim with hot water and relaxing bath salts and gleefully hopped in; Aziraphale stepped in rather more reservedly, but with no less pleasure. He did, as promised, scrub Crowley's back for him, and they lay together and soaked until the water began to cool.
Dried and dressed, they climbed into bed together. Aziraphale spooned behind him and kissed the back of Crowley's neck and before he knew it, Crowley had drifted to sleep.
He did not wake until dawn.