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Siren's Song

Chapter Text


And these fingertips
Will never run through your skin
And those bright blue eyes
Can only meet mine across the room
filled with people that are less important than you


 

            Wind blows in from the east and waves lap at his feet and the sun sets somewhere behind him as he watches the ship crawl along the horizon. It is a tall ship, with billowing sails and a deep hull and a crew that does something which might be called singing if Crowley were kinder... but he is not. Though sails match the color the clouds have been all day, they do not blend with the sky the way they are meant to, not with the red painted upon them.

            Crowley has seen this vessel before. He remembers the violet-eyed human who sat at her prow and slipped through his fingers because some humans have no heart to answer his song. The first application of the winged sigil on this ship’s sails had been done in blood.

            He folds his ebon wings out of sight and moves to where he knows his voice will carry. The ship is heading his way, toward the sun as it sinks beyond the horizon. By the time they see the rocks, he intends for it to be too late. They will be in his thrall. They will sleep at the helm until their ship is dashed upon the reef, and its bones will litter the seafloor for decades, for centuries.

            When he knows they are in range, he sings.

            The trick, he has learned, is that it does not particularly matter what he sings. Unlike other magics, the spell is not in the words, but in the tune. When he casts his voice out over the waves, it carries with it the words each sailor most wants to hear. One will hear of his homeland, another of the family he left behind. Some will hear the promise of a beautiful lover, or riches and boons, or fame and honor. Humans have myriad wants. Crowley believes he knows them all.

            In the end, it doesn’t matter what they hear. They will relax into the promise of their most desired vice until their eyes close and their fingers slip from their tasks and their knees give. They will fall prey to the spell and their ship will be claimed by the sea, their lives claimed by Crowley.

            The ship approaches slowly, brought to him by the wind and the sea and the spell. He is used to seeing ships with no crew standing, seemingly piloted by the ghosts it will soon have, but as this one nears, he can see a single human at the rail. His pale hair and clothing stand out against the dark wood of the ship, and as he comes nearer, Crowley finds his voice dies in his throat, cut off by wonder.

            Crowley has never seen such a breathtaking human. The man doesn’t look like the other sailors Crowley has seen. His hair is short and curled and well-kept and his face is as soft as the rest of him looks. He has his hands wrapped over the rail of the ship and he’s leaning so far over that Crowley can see the strange color of his eyes- not quite blue and not quite not, filled to the brim with concern instead of fear.

            This human should be asleep, and yet as the spell wanes and the ship ceases her forward cruise, he calls down to Crowley with a voice like a siren, himself- a celestial one, perhaps.

            “Are you alright?” the man asks. “Have you lost your ship in the reef? Are you injured?”

            Crowley can do nothing but stare up at him. The ship is intact. This is not the crew that last lived aboard it, and that is certainly not the captain who last commanded her. The word mutiny crosses his mind, and in passing he thinks he might understand why someone would follow the creature above him into that kind of ruinous situation.

            He hears shuffling and muttering as the man scoots farther up the bow and raises his voice louder, as though he thinks Crowley must not have heard. “Are there other survivors we should look for? My crew seems to have lost their wits, but I’m sure they’ll… well. Would you like to come aboard? It’s safe and warm, and we have plenty of food and drink for you. Can you hear me? Can you understand me?”

            Surely, Crowley thinks, the human must see something other than what is before him. Sometimes, on rare occasion, Crowley’s song dazzles the waking mind into hallucinations instead of sleep. He stares up at the beautiful newcomer and spreads his wings wide, knowing it will break the illusion as long as he does not sing.

            The human makes a noise of surprise, but there is no fear in the gesture. “Oh!” he exclaims, and he sounds… pleased. Excited, almost. “Oh, you’re a siren, then. Well. It seems you won’t need a rope to come up here. You’re still welcome to, if you’d like!”

            Confused, Crowley stares up at the odd human, trying to decide what to do. Although he has boarded many a seafaring vessel, he has never been invited aboard one willingly. He has never been greeted warmly. He has been greeted with heat, but never this gentle warmth. Never with anything gentle.

            He spreads his wings, and the human backs away from the edge as Crowley flies up to him, alighting delicately atop the rail. He perches there, wings mantled high and claws splintering the wood, aiming for intimidation. The human stares at him with open admiration, and Crowley cannot help himself.

            “Are you not frightened of me?” he asks, trying not to sound exasperated.

            “Oh,” says the human, standing a little straighter. “Should I be? Are you going to hurt me-…?”

            “Crowley,” Crowley answers, an automatic response that has never, ever been automatic. He has never given anyone any part of his name, never been willing to give them any sort of power over him.

            “Ah,” the human says, as if he has divined something from the single word. “Because of the…?” He gestures to Crowley’s sleek, dark wings.

            “No,” Crowley says, although he can feel a little bit of heat in his cheeks for not considering that implication. “I chose it because I liked it.”

            The human, against everything that should be, smiles, and Crowley’s heart makes its existence known by flopping over in his chest and starting a riot of butterflies in his belly. “I like it, too. My name is Aziraphale.”

            “That’s not a very common name,” Crowley tells him, not sure he likes this new feeling. He has never been vulnerable. But he’s not sure he doesn’t like it, either, so he doesn’t want to give it up yet.

            “I’m not a very common person,” Aziraphale tells him, a bit primly. “In fact, there’s only one of me.”

            A laugh startles out of Crowley, quickly swallowed back down as his eyes widen. He has laughed before. He has delighted in the feel of his talons in flesh. He has loved the wind beneath his wings and the brush of water all over his skin and the chill of the deep. But he has never heard a human joke. There is a small chance, a very small one, that he will let this vessel leave unscathed for that reason alone.

            Aziraphale seems pleased at Crowley’s laughter. “Won’t you come down from there?” he says, so softly it barely reaches over the sound of the waves on the hull. “I won’t hurt you, either.”

            “I never said I wouldn’t,” Crowley says, but he’s got one foot upon the deck already and instead of claws on the tips of it, his toes are soft and scaled. “I called you here to wreck your ship upon my reef and destroy you and your crew. I have eaten your kind for centuries.” His second foot joins his first, and his wings fold up behind him.

            “That sounds terrible,” Aziraphale tells him, turning partly away, revealing his back in a way he desperately should not do to a predator of Crowley’s ilk. “I can’t imagine eating the same thing all the time. Would you like to come inside? We’ve just found ourselves in possession of some truly delicious apples.”

            Crowley stares at him in bewilderment. This is not how this is supposed to go, or rather, it has never gone like this. He can sense the crew waking as his unfinished spell wears thin, and a part of him wonders if he’s flown right into a trap, but he can feel no malice from the human before him. In fact, he seems completely genuine in his desire to share a meal with Crowley, and Crowley’s curiosity is rapidly winning the battle against his good sense- which is extremely unfair of his curiosity, considering how it has teamed up with his traitorous heart.

            Yet as he takes one step, and then another, and another, following Aziraphale below the deck of the ship, he can’t help but think that perhaps this is how it is supposed to go, after all.

Chapter Text

 

            To his surprise, although perhaps it should not be, Aziraphale keeps true to his word and makes no move to harm him. He takes Crowley below the deck, to a very straightforward – if a little untidy – bedroom and offers him a mug of something lukewarm but deliciously scented, and passes him an apple with ruddy skin. Crowley holds them, one in each hand, and wonders what the dangers of eating mortal foods might be for him. Certainly the fae tend to keep partakers in their realm, but Crowley is here by choice and humans don’t have magic, so he takes a bite.

            It is nothing special, by his estimation, but it is also not nothing. The high seas are not a place for apples, though he has tasted them before. The excess juice from this one dribbles down over his palm and he licks it up while watching Aziraphale tidy bits of the room, trading one sort of chaos for another.

            “What will you tell your crew?” he asks, when Aziraphale begins to shelve the previously-scattered books back into a cabinet. The doors have handles made of bone, carved delicately into curved feathers.

            Aziraphale hesitates, fingers upon a well-worn spine. “I don’t know,” he says slowly. “I suppose that depends on what you want to do, doesn’t it? We can stay, if you only want to visit, but you’re welcome to come with us. If you want.”

            Crowley’s teeth aren’t meant to chew apples, but he takes another bite to buy time. Stalling does not make Aziraphale anxious, which means his answer is likely in good faith. He does want to know if Crowley will stay or go, and it really is a choice. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that anyone else might have a different opinion.

            Crowley swallows and says: “I meant, what are you going to tell them about me? You’ve let a monster aboard your ship.”

            “Are you?” Aziraphale asks, setting his last book upon the shelf. “You’re a siren, certainly. But a monster?”

            “That’s what sirens are. We wreck ships and eat their human crews,” Crowley points out. He feels that, as a human, Aziraphale should have a low opinion about that.

            Instead, Aziraphale says: “You haven’t wrecked ours. And you’re eating an apple. That’s hardly monstrous.”

            There is nothing Crowley can do to argue that logic. He takes another bite and watches Aziraphale shelve a few more books before he notices that space is being cleared on a chair, presumably for Crowley to sit. He folds his wings away entirely and lets the feathers begin to fade from his skin until he looks nearly human, at least enough to sit in a chair made for them. It is a big enough change that when Aziraphale turns back around, he jumps.

            “Oh! You didn’t have to do that,” he says quickly. Crowley begins to doubt his grasp on human facial expressions, because he swears Aziraphale seems disappointed. “You haven’t got to change yourself.”

            They’re well past that, Crowley thinks. He had changed the moment he'd laid eyes upon Aziraphale. Somehow it doesn’t seem like a very good idea to say that just now.

            “Your crew is waking,” he says instead. He can feel them struggling to throw off the remnants of his spell and get to their feet. They won’t remember how they got here. They don’t even know where here is, but the stars will be out soon to guide them. “They’ll want answers, and I don’t think they’ll see it the same way you do.”

            “They haven’t got to,” Aziraphale says. “I’m their captain. I’ll just-”

            He trails off at the heavy thump of footsteps outside the door, and the thunderous pounding of a fist. “Captain? You in there?”

            “One moment!” Aziraphale calls, shooting Crowley a worried look. “I’ll just go explain to them, shall I? Then you can decide if you want to stay or go.”

            The woman at the door looks exactly like the sailors Crowley is used to seeing- no finely tailored clothing, no polished fingertips, no softly curled hair. She’s got scars over one side of her face that look like burns, and she squints at Crowley with fierce suspicion as soon as she lays eyes upon him. Crowley bares sharp teeth in a smile just to watch her pale, but she doesn’t. She holds his gaze as though she thinks she can cross the threshold and best him if only given a chance.

            Aziraphale closes the door between them before she can try, and that’s just as well. Hers is the sort of reaction he had expected. He may have put away his wings and feathers, but he had kept his claws and teeth. No human on this vessel can keep him here against his will, especially not the scrap of a sailor he’d just seen.

            As soon as he is alone, Crowley sets down the drink and the apple both, and begins to snoop. He has been in dozens of ships like this, though usually only once they have sunk beneath the waves. The books he has seen are usually waterlogged and fish-eaten, the ink dissolved from their pages, their words lost to the hunger of the deep. He knows that books contain written language, but the symbols inside the one he picks up now are all nonsense.

            He places it on the shelf with the others and runs his fingers over their spines. They feel different when they are dry. Most are bound in animal skins. He wonders if that is why Aziraphale does not fear him; Aziraphale, the human whose quarters are decorated in skin and bone. He wonders if Aziraphale even knows, or if they are remnants of the last occupant.

            “- a bloody siren into our home!”

            Crowley looks over at the raised voice in the hall. He takes a few steps closer to hear Aziraphale’s reply, lower and calmer and yet somehow more threatening. Crowley supposes humans don’t become the captains of large pirate ships by being kind, despite Aziraphale’s outward appearances. Perhaps that is why he doesn’t consider Crowley to be a monster. Perhaps he is using himself as a measuring device.

            “-a guest aboard my ship, and I will thank you to keep your voice down, Ms. Device.” Crowley hears mumbling, until he practically puts his ear to the door itself. “-hurt anyone.”

            “Just because it hasn’t hurt anyone, doesn’t mean it won’t.” The woman’s voice is hot with anger but, curiously, not fear. What a strange bunch of humans, indeed. Crowley is close enough to hear her sigh. “Fine. I’ll tell the others what you’ve said. But they won’t like it.”

            “I’ll look forward to the mutiny, shall I?” Aziraphale asks. Crowley doesn’t know why he sounds pleased about that. There had to have been a mutiny aboard this ship before, and Aziraphale had to have seen it, to be in charge now. There is a good chance he’d led it, and a better chance that it had not been clean.

            “They won’t mutiny,” she says, exasperated.

            “No, they won’t,” Aziraphale agrees, and then the handle on the door rattles and dips, and Crowley takes a few soft, silent steps backward, claws at the ready just in case. “Thank you, dear. Please see about getting us back on course for now.”

            Crowley catches the woman’s glare as soon as the door opens, but Aziraphale closes it between them again as he returns to the room. He smiles, but it isn’t the sort from earlier, not the sort that made Crowley’s heart do things it shouldn’t. This one is tight and a little regretful and makes Crowley want to wet his claws in blood until he’s killed whatever put it there.

            “That was my first mate,” Aziraphale says, as if that should explain something deeper to Crowley, but it does not.

            “Is she no longer your mate?” he asks. Humans have a lot of traditions he’s never bothered to learn. They have never mattered before. They shouldn’t matter now, except that he thinks they are about to.

            “Oh, no!” Aziraphale says quickly. “Not- she’s not- she’s never been a mate mate.” He must see that this clears up exactly nothing, because he presses onward. “I’m the captain, the commander of this ship. She’s my second in command. We call that a first mate.”

            Crowley stares for a moment, and then arches a brow. “Is there a second mate?” he asks, and he’s only half serious. “And a third and a fourth? Do you number all your mates?”

            “Certainly not, that would be- oh, I see.” The warmth returns to Aziraphale’s eyes and Crowley relaxes. He thinks he might like this joke business, if it can make Aziraphale smile like that. “Aren’t you a clever one, playing with words. Do your people have mates of any kind? Considering the lack of...”

            Aziraphale’s gestures are so vague it takes Crowley a few seconds to realize what he’s indicating. “That’s not... how sirens are made.”

            “Quite,” Aziraphale agrees. “Well, if you’re going to stay- oh. Are you going to stay? Oh dear, I’ve told them to take us back out to sea, I’m afraid-”

            “Do you want me to stay?” Crowley asks, stopping him short.

            Aziraphale swallows, searching for something in Crowley's face. He must find it, because he nods. “I do. Very much.”

            Crowley’s teeth dull and his claws retreat to give him soft, human-like fingertips. “Then I’ll stay.” His heart does that silly little flippy thing again, and he knows he’ll have to have words with it later, but for now all he sees is the way Aziraphale’s face lights up, as though he has been given some kind of joyous gift. Crowley can’t help but add, “As long as you like.”

            “At least a while,” Aziraphale tells him, heading across the room, right past Crowley. He reaches into a seemingly random pile of books, toppling some of them to get at one in the middle. When he turns, he holds it out for Crowley to see. “I have so many questions to ask you.”

            The symbols on the book’s cover are gibberish to him, but the image is not. A woman sits astride the wreckage of a ship, her badly-etched wings held high. Her fingers number too few and too clawed to be human, and her mouthful of sharp teeth gapes wide. There are symbols beside her head that Crowley does not recognize, but they make her look as though she speaks. Or, he thinks, perhaps sings.

            That solves how Aziraphale knew of his kind.

            Crowley cannot help but wonder what he has gotten himself into here.

            However, when he meets Aziraphale’s eyes, there is nothing but genuine warmth waiting for him. “I should get you some pants to wear, at least,” Aziraphale says softly. “And then we’ll go see about dinner. I’m sure the others will want to meet you, too.”

            “I doubt that,” Crowley says, but he already knows that he will wear what Aziraphale asks him to, and do what Aziraphale requests of him, and perhaps along the way he will discover what it is, exactly, that makes his heart beat too fast and hard in his chest.

Chapter Text

 

            Pants, as it turns out, are nowhere near as comfortable as feathers and scales. They hang loose around Crowley’s legs, shifting and rough, and do not go far enough down to cover his feet. They do not cover his ankles either, and they do not look on him the way they look on Aziraphale, who hides his smile behind his hand and tells him they’ll have to find a tailor at the next port.

            Crowley does not know the word tailor, but whatever sort of clothing it is, he hopes he likes it better than pants.

            Aziraphale cannot convince him of a shirt, however, and stops trying immediately after Crowley admits he doesn’t want his wings pinned. He folds them away to take up less space, putting them just outside of this dimension, but wearing a shirt will hinder his ability to bring them back. He doesn’t admit that the thought makes him nervous. He doesn’t understand anxiety, as it has never happened to him before, but he can’t say he likes it much.

            Instead, Aziraphale holds out one hand to him, and Crowley stares at it, not sure what he is supposed to give to Aziraphale, right up until Aziraphale takes a step closer and claims his hand as he says: “Come along.”

            Crowley’s eyes pin involuntarily at the contact, slimming down to hair-thin slits. Aziraphale’s hand is warm and soft and Crowley somehow manages to keep from seizing it up in both talons to keep it for himself, but it is a close thing. The urge sends a tremble through him, fingertip to spine, and he finds himself staring at where they connect, pupils blowing and pinning as he tries to make sense of it.

            “Are you alright?” Aziraphale asks as he realizes they aren’t going anywhere. His grip loosens, and Crowley finds himself holding fast.

            “I’m fine,” Crowley says quickly. He is, or at least he will be. He wants to be fine with this.

            “You don’t look fine,” Aziraphale tells him, but he doesn’t move to let go again. “Is something- have I done something wrong?”

            Crowley swallows and drags his gaze up to Aziraphale’s. He can’t imagine it’s wrong, it’s just- “No one’s ever...” He casts around for something to say, something that will explain what he means, but he hasn’t had enough conversations to have the right words.

            “Held your hand?” Aziraphale suggests, but gently, and that is perhaps the greater problem. Through the years, humans have been a lot of things to Crowley. Gentle has never been one of them, to the point where Crowley has kept to himself for a very long time, avoiding any contact not in the pursuit of a meal. Given how nice it feels to have his hand in Aziraphale’s, avoiding humans altogether seems like a very silly thing to have done.

            “Touched me gently,” Crowley rasps.

            “Oh...” It sounds sad, but the admission makes Aziraphale’s fingers twist to twine into his, and that’s both worse and so much better. “Perhaps it’s about time someone started to, then.”

            Crowley is not sure he wants just anyone touching him, but he nods anyway. Aziraphale gives him another moment to collect himself, and then gives a tug to his hand and starts to walk away again. This time, Crowley follows, allowing himself to be led back out onto the deck.

            There is activity above, but not chaos. Not fear. He is given sidelong glances as Aziraphale takes him from one end of the ship to the other, but no one approaches them. Crowley has made short work of crews twice this size, three times this size. He passes by them all with barely a glance, his eyes trained on what lies beyond them. His rocks, his reef, his home is still there to the port side, but they are beginning to move away. When he slows to look at them, Aziraphale slows as well.

            “You could go, still,” he says, just loud enough for Crowley to hear over the commotion of the crew and the creak of the ship as she obeys orders. “No one will stop you.”

            Crowley thinks about the warmth of Aziraphale’s hand in his, and the book with a siren on the cover, and the strange taste of an apple from very far away. He thinks about hearts beating too fast, and about never seeing Aziraphale smile again, and he shakes his head. “There’s nothing there for me.” At least, he adds silently, nothing worth more than his curiosity over what’s here.

            Aziraphale nods in understanding, even though Crowley is certain he doesn’t truly understand, and then motions toward another set of stairs. “There’s food and company down there,” he says. “We'll let the crew get us under way. They’ll join us when we’re clear of the reef. Well, I expect Newt won’t, or Anathema, but she’s a bit put out at the moment anyway. Probably best if she cools off before coming to dinner.”

            “Dinner?” Crowley asks, following Aziraphale down the steps. They walk along a hallway and into a cramped room with a table and a short wall that separates a cooking area from the dining area. The two occupants, a man and a woman, freeze where they stand, and stare.

            “It’s a meal,” Aziraphale explains, releasing his hand now that they have apparently arrived. Crowley is a creature of the cold, clear skies and the endless, frigid deep and the chill spray of wave against stone; he has never missed warmth until his hand drops empty to his side once more. “The one in the evening. Hello Madam Tracy, Mr. Shadwell. We’ve taken on a guest.”

            “Well, aren’t you a bit of a stick,” the woman says as she regains her wits, looking Crowley up and down once. “Turn sideways and you’d disappear. Come get a bite.”

            Crowley’s eyes widen and he looks between Aziraphale and the woman, unsure what to make of that. He is fairly certain he’s not supposed to bite anyone here, but he doesn’t actually know the rules. Aziraphale had been awfully flippant about Crowley eating humans. Maybe she really does want Crowley to take a bite. He doesn’t want to find out the hard way which one is wrong.

            “I-” he begins, until he sees the dented metal plate she’s placing on the wall, and the warm slice of cheese laid atop a coarse slice of bread, and realizes she’s talking about human food rather than humans as food. “Oh.”

            “Thank you,” Aziraphale says for him, and Crowley repeats it as he takes the plate before it can topple. The wall isn’t thick enough to hold it, which seems like a bit of a flaw in the design.

            “Dinner will be ready soon,” she says pleasantly. “Mr. Shadwell, pop up and send the others down? There’s a love.”

            The man, older and well-worn, has not stopped eyeing Crowley since they had arrived, and he doesn’t stop now. Crowley puts half the slice of bread into his mouth before he realizes he probably ought to take human-appropriate bites, and then decides to shove the entire piece in while staring directly back. The man’s face screws up in anger, his mouth opening to reveal a set of teeth that likely aren’t capable of chewing much of anything at this point, but before he can say a word, Aziraphale interferes.

            “Mr. Shadwell, I believe you were given an order?” Finally, the man’s shrewd attention turns away from Crowley and toward Aziraphale, and Crowley finds it difficult to chew as his teeth sharpen. Aziraphale just smiles politely, and the man’s gaze drops.

            “Sir,” he says, but it doesn’t sound like an argument or a question. It’s an acknowledgment. It’s acquiescence. The man sets his broom in the corner and disappears from the room, not even bumping Crowley on his way past.

            Crowley swallows without chewing further, and stares warily at Aziraphale. He wants to ask why the others act as they do around him, why they curb their anger, why they obey him whether or not they seem to agree with him. The man, Shadwell, had wanted a fight- Crowley had smelled it on him, the acrid twinge of fear and anger and the sort of human idiocy that looks at a dragon and thinks it can win with just its bare hands. Yet he’d been stopped with a few words and a smile that held no threat Crowley could see. Aziraphale had not even bared his teeth, as blunt as they were.

            Before he can ask about it, however, footsteps thunder toward them, and Crowley whirls, his soft fingernails turning sharp, ready for the fight that should have happened well before now. What he finds in the doorway, however, are children. Not young ones, he realizes, but not adults. Adolescents, near maturation and still growing. They are scrawny and bright-eyed and smell of sea-salt and excitement, and the pair nearly trip over themselves to stop in the doorway and stare.

            “Is it true?” one of them asks. His pale, wavy hair is bound like a tail behind his head and he wears clothing that, like Crowley’s pants, are too big for him. “Are you really a siren?”

            “Yes,” Crowley answers, though it seems like a very obvious answer, all things considered.

            The other, a girl with tightly-curled hair that springs like a halo around her head, gives him a blatant once-over. “You don’t look like a siren,” she says. “Sirens have wings.”

            Crowley glances to Aziraphale, uncertain, but receives only a small shrug. It is up to him, then, to decide what to do. He pulls his wings back into this dimension, shimmering and black as a crow’s, and spreads them wide to the gasps of both adolescents. The first of them begins to bound forward, but Aziraphale holds up one hand to stop him.

            “We don’t touch without permission,” he says sternly, and the boy takes a step back toward his companion. “There will be plenty of time to ask questions when everyone else is here because…?”

            “We don’t repeat ourselves,” the duo chimes, as if they have heard the phrase enough times to bore them, which seems extremely ironic given the nature of the phrase.

            They both retreat to one of the low, slim tables, taking seats on the small stools there. Crowley folds his wings, but keeps them visible, and can’t help but feel a little pride at the way the two young humans stare so openly at them, clearly fascinated. Crowley has never been fascinating. He has been terrifying and dangerous, alluring at times, beautiful even to those under the right spell, but no humans have ever seen him long enough for him to be fascinating. He has never been gentle enough to be fascinating.

            It doesn’t take long for the room to crowd. Again he is given wary looks, but no one comments as they take seats. The older man from before returns with just as dour an expression, and helps the woman behind the wall distribute plates which hold cooked meat and a pile of sour-smelling vegetation and more of the bread. Some of the plates have cheese, but some have eggs instead. Crowley cannot tell what criteria cause which people to receive one or the other, but no one complains about their option.

            Overall, the crew seems small for a ship this size. They all take their seats and quietly face Aziraphale, mumbling among themselves but clearly waiting to hear what is going on. Crowley can see the ache in the way they move, in the way they slouch now that they have a chance to rest. They have fresh food and nice clothes and there are so few of them that they must be doing extra work to survive here. They’ve barely got enough bodies to run the ship they’re on, much less pirate another.

            Aziraphale glances over the gathered and seems satisfied with what he sees. He clears his throat and the low murmur of motion ceases, plunging them into near silence. “I’m sure Anathema has already told some of you, but we have run aground of a siren. He called us here, as they do, with a song that I’m sure all of you remember fondly, if with a bit of embarrassment now.” A chuckle winds through the crowd like a snake, and Aziraphale smiles. “For those of you who do not know, sirens normally call men to their destruction. We ought to have lost our ship, and our lives, and yet we sail.”

            “If you expect us to be grateful to a monster for not eatin’ us-” begins the older man, the one still spoiling for a fight.

            “I do not,” Aziraphale says over him, cowing or perhaps just confusing him. “And in any case, Crowley hasn't agreed not to eat you. He has, however, come aboard, and we are currently moving away from his home, which makes him a guest on my vessel. As such, I expect that unless he brings harm, none shall come to him. Do I make myself understood?”

            “And what’s he want with coming aboard like this?” comes a voice from the doorway. Crowley recognizes it from before, and turns his head to see the first mate leaning against the doorframe, steady eyes fixed upon him despite that she’d addressed Aziraphale.

            He pays her the kindness of answering her, himself, instead. “I have my reasons.”

            “And when they change?” she asks. “When you decide you’re done playing nice and want to go back to dragging folks to the deep?”

            He bares sharp teeth in a smile, heedless of the gasps scattered through the room. “You’ll be the first to know, I promise.”

            She snorts, but he doesn’t miss the slim hand she places upon the sword at her belt. To her credit, it remains sheathed and she turns her attention to Aziraphale. “Newt’s got her back on course, Cap’n. We’ll only be a day off our plans, at worst.”

            “Not the worst we’ve ever been,” Aziraphale says, moving to allow her past so she can pick up two plates of food. “Thank you, dear.”

            She doesn’t even look at Aziraphale as she leaves.

            “She’s...” Crowley says, not sure where to go with it after that.

            “Yes, she is,” Aziraphale agrees. He picks up and passes Crowley a new plate to replace his now-empty one, and then takes one for himself, and Crowley notices no one else has begun to eat yet. He realizes why when Aziraphale faces them, raises his plate, and says: “Enjoy your meals,” and everyone tucks in immediately.

            Aziraphale offers Crowley a soft, fond look that Crowley doesn’t believe he’s earned at all, and indicates the exit with a tip of his head. Crowley, not wanting to be among all of these humans a moment longer than necessary, follows him back out, to the deck. He peers around as they emerge into the dark of night, his eyes adjusting quickly. Aside from the man at the helm and the first mate beside him, they are the only souls up here.

            “Thank you,” Aziraphale tells him as they walk to the same rail Crowley had first alighted upon not long ago. He sets his plate down on the thick wood. “They can be a bit much, but it was best to have them see you now, and understand the situation.”

            Crowley sets his plate down as well and leans to watch the water rush past below them. They are traveling at a good clip, faster than he can swim, and slower than he can fly. “They listen to you...”

            “Is that a question?” Aziraphale says, although it sounds amused instead of offended.

            Shifting his attention from the water to Aziraphale, Crowley tries to determine what he wants to know. “You… don’t seem… I’ve encountered many humans. The one who sailed this ship before you was… dangerous.”

            “Ah.” He seems to understand, so Crowley stops trying to explain. “And you’re wondering why I’m here, and he’s not.”

            “Yes,” Crowley agrees softly.

            “And if I tell you, will you leave?” Aziraphale asks.

            Crowley does him the courtesy of thinking about it. Part of the reason he had stopped singing in the first place, before he had seen Aziraphale up close, is because he had wondered where the former captain had gone. He is certain some of his curiosity is about that, but not all. Not anymore.

            “No,” he says, finally, when he is sure it is the truth.

            “Then finish your dinner,” Aziraphale tells him. “And when we get back to my quarters, I’ll tell you.”

            That seems a fair enough trade, considering that Crowley is still hungry despite the bread and cheese. So he turns to his food and together they stand at the rail and watch the ocean speed by below and the stars begin to twinkle above, the wind plays over them all the while. He eats, and he watches, and he wonders what sort of story might make a man like a monster.

Chapter Text

            Aziraphale stalls.

            Crowley watches him putter around the room, cleaning off space on the thick wooden bench, putting away books and rearranging clutter, and he knows that Aziraphale is trying to trade actions for time, but Crowley has nowhere better to be. So he watches and he waits and when Aziraphale sets cushions on the bench and pats the space beside him, Crowley perches on the edge of the far side.

            “Right,” Aziraphale says, when he’s finally seated as well, his hands on his knees and his spine so straight it looks uncomfortable. “You want to know about Gabriel.”

            Crowley isn’t sure what to say. He’d never known the name of the human who captained the only ship that had ever sailed away from him. “Was this his ship?”

            Aziraphale nods, and then sighs and folds his hands in his lap to stare at them. “It wasn’t my ship, though,” he says quietly. “I wasn’t- I didn’t start out as a pirate, you see. I worked aboard a well-armed merchant ship named Eden’s Dove. We were her first crew, on her maiden voyage, crossing open waters when Gabriel caught us up. They disabled the Dove and boarded us while we were trying to scuttle her. They meant to take her, and we meant them not to.”

            “You killed him,” Crowley guesses. “When he came aboard.”

            It would be unusual, a pirate crew boarding a populated vessel, but then merchant vessels do not normally fight back. They definitely do not scuttle themselves in the middle of the ocean to spite the pirates trying to take them. More often than not, vessels would take their warning shot with wounded pride and surrender, allowing the pirates to take goods instead of lives. However, Crowley finds it hard to believe any crew that contained Aziraphale’s first mate would simply surrender.

            “He did deserve it, you know,” Aziraphale says, a little hotly, and that isn’t quite an answer. “He’d killed a lot of people by then. Not just on the Dove, but all over the sea.”

            “Would he have done the same to you?” Crowley asks. He is fairly certain he knows the answer, but he is not the one that needs to hear it. “Killed you, too?”

            Aziraphale’s hands wring themselves in his lap. “I don’t know,” he says, to Crowley’s surprise. “I’d like to think he wouldn’t have done to me. He did hesitate when he saw me, after all.”

            Crowley nearly asks why, but then... he had hesitated too. He wonders if Gabriel’s reasons match- if he had seen a beautiful creature and wanted to get a closer look. Gabriel had not had enough of a heart to come to Crowley’s song, but perhaps it had beat upon seeing Aziraphale.

            “I don’t think he expected to see me again,” Aziraphale continues, before Crowley can have any more thoughts about it. “Not at sea, not after the fuss I made when he left to go sailing. I knew he was out here, of course, but the ocean is a very big place. I didn’t honestly think I’d see Gabriel again, either, even taking on with the Dove. And then he was right there aboard my ship, trying to take it away.”

            “And you didn’t let him,” Crowley says.

            “I didn’t,” Aziraphale agrees, staring at his now very-still hands. “He hesitated, and I used the opportunity to kill him. My own brother.”

            Crowley stares at the human before him, certain that there is an appropriate reaction to have to those words, but unable to determine what it is. He thinks he understands the word brother. Humans come from other humans, and those that share an origin pair believe it matters. So many of them believe that shared blood matters more than choices and actions. Sirens don’t. Only the very new even have allegiances at all, and those last only until their songs are strong enough to hold the hearts of a full crew on their own.

            “He left you,” Crowley finally says. He leaves his perch but only just, only to kneel upon the cushion beside Aziraphale, who very carefully does not look at him. “That’s what you said. He left, and he did not come back, and he killed people. You were just people to him by the time he saw you again. Humans can only sail the deep so long before it reaches their heart. I don’t have to have met him to know he would have killed you.”

            “Yes, I do believe you’re right,” Aziraphale agrees. It doesn’t seem to make him feel any better; in fact, it seems to have the opposite effect. “Surely he’d have attacked once the surprise wore off. I just… struck first.”

            “You were right to slay him.” Sharp had not been his intention, but that is how the words feel cutting out of his mouth. His blood feels too hot in his hands at the idea of Gabriel striking Aziraphale down instead, but his claws cannot rend through thought. He can only endure it.

            “I had no choice,” Aziraphale says. It sounds like he is asking for something, but Crowley does not know what. Absolution maybe. Understanding. He’s done nothing, in Crowley’s estimation, that requires either. “That doesn’t make it right. At any rate-” he waves a hand dismissively, “it is what happened. Once he fell, his crew stopped fighting as if they’d had their strings cut. They had no love for him; most of them had been stolen from their own vessels and made to work for Gabriel. Only his first mate resisted.”

            “What happened to her?” Crowley asks.

            Something akin to pain flickers across Aziraphale’s features then. “Anathema gave Sandalphon a choice. He could stand down or she could make him. He chose the latter, and she killed him. Then she asked if anyone else wanted to remain under Sandalphon’s command. No one did.”

            That doesn’t surprise Crowley at all. He had already assumed Anathema is not aboard the ship as decoration; she looks and acts as though she is here to fight the gods themselves. “What did you do with them?”

            “The only thing we could,” Aziraphale says with a little shrug. “Both ships' captains and first mates laid slain. We each had half a crew left. Anathema pulled me aside and told me that the Dove would sink before we got her to a port – we’d done too much damage trying to prevent her from being commandeered – but that we might take the Archangel instead. She- she told me that since I had killed Gabriel, I might be the only one who could take his place. I mean, the only one both crews would let do so.”

            Ah, Crowley thinks. That, at least, makes sense. A siren can kill another siren to take their reef. Humans can, it seems, do the same with ships, and perhaps even other humans. How very odd to have that in common. “So you did.”

            Aziraphale nods and shoots him a glance that swiftly drops. “You must understand, we only intended to sail her back to port and get everything sorted out. But...”

            “But your ship...”

            “Quite,” Aziraphale agrees miserably, slumping. “We were attacked upon sight and forced to flee or be sunk. Newt came to me that eve and explained that no legal port would take us; the Archangel was too well known. We spent a week or two trying anyway. Probably undid a lot of Gabriel’s reputation, running away like that. I asked Anathema if it wouldn’t be better to beach the ship in the shoals off a coast, and just walk home again, but we’d lost the Dove so badly and been sporting pirate colors and… well. Even if they sympathized with our situation, I’d not be allowed to sail again. None of us would. Michael might even have jailed us all for abandoning ship or sparing the lives of pirates. Even if she would have let me and the others from the Dove back... the Archangel's crew would have been put to death. There weren't enough of them to sail this ship alone.”

            Leaning out a little, Crowley tips his head in a successful bid to draw Aziraphale’s attention for real. As soon as he has it, he blinks slowly, trustingly. “So you embraced the ship you had taken, and began a new life here?”

            The corner of Aziraphale’s mouth twitches, almost a smile. “I suppose you could put it like that,” he says. “We haven’t been at it long. We’ve only taken two ships, and only when we had to. We don’t want to hurt anyone, but we’re in too deep now. We’re… circumstantial pirates.”

            Crowley stares a moment longer, thinking. He believes he understands a little better now, why the others follow this human, and why Aziraphale has no fear of them turning upon him. He had broken an important bond in order to save them. He had given up something Crowley understands to be irreplaceable, with no promise of a return, and then he had stood by them to ensure they remained safe, despite that it had endangered him. Perhaps more importantly, and more comprehensible to Crowley, Aziraphale had done whatever he had to do, without hesitation, to get what he wanted. That kind of person is not the sort of person one crosses, no matter how docile they seem the rest of the time. Ruthless, some might call it. Pragmatic. Clever.

            It seems... lonely, to Crowley. Sirens, being solitary creatures, would not mind that sort of isolation, but humans need companionship. They are social creatures, used to gathering in groups and relying upon one another. They take crews into the deep because they cannot face it alone. As long as Aziraphale must maintain control of this vessel, he must remain apart from the others. If they are to respect him, they must believe he is the same person who put a sword through his own brother; they must believe he had hesitated less than the most ruthless pirate in the sea. Aziraphale cannot gently hold another human's hand, for fear that they will mistake it for weakness.

            There are things Crowley needs to say about that. Offers he needs to make. But before he can decide where to start, Aziraphale looks away and lets out a loud breath.

            “I’m sorry, if that’s a disappointment,” he says, dejected. “I know that’s probably not what you were expecting to hear. I don’t know why you came aboard, but if you thought we were… stronger, or that we might-”

            “What if you didn’t have to hurt anyone?”

            Aziraphale stops, mouth still open. “I’m- I’m not sure I understand.”

            Crowley swallows down nothing – except perhaps apprehension – and repeats himself. “What if you did not have to hurt anyone, to raid ships? Would it- would you… like that?”

            “I would,” Aziraphale says, very quietly, staring at Crowley in a way that makes him feel raw and exposed, flayed in a way claws cannot do. He knows then that he would feel no shame in surrendering to the softness of Aziraphale’s hope. “But I don’t see how-”

            “I brought your ship to me, completely unharmed,” Crowley explains. Then, to ensure he is not misunderstood: “I could sing for you. I could bring another ship right to you, with no fight at all.”

            Crowley would sing to a hundred ships, a thousand, just for Aziraphale to look at him again the way he does now. “You would do that? For us?”

            “For you,” Crowley says. “If you asked. If you wanted me to.”

            “I do,” Aziraphale tells him. “I would like that very much. Oh, but… you’d have to stay with us, wouldn’t you?”

            He had thought that Aziraphale meant to keep him here, at least for a while. They had sailed away from the reef, but maybe he had thought Crowley would fly off after they spoke, once he knew the truth. Suddenly unsure of his welcome, Crowley asks: “Do you want me gone?”

            Aziraphale sits up straight and turns toward him so fast it startles Crowley. “No!” Aziraphale cries, and then composes himself. “No, certainly not. I just thought… you surely have places to be, haven’t you?”

            “No,” Crowley says simply. There is nowhere a siren must be, not in the entire world. His reef may be overtaken by another without him there to guard it, but there are other reefs. There are other rocks. As Aziraphale had pointed out earlier, there is only one Aziraphale, and he will be as fleeting as any mortal thing ever is. Crowley would be a fool to leave without knowing him. Crowley can already tell it will be worth the rest.

            Aziraphale nods, and the smile that has been threatening finally breaks through. “Then I suppose I should say welcome to the crew.”

 

Chapter Text

 

            In the morning, they are miles and miles from Crowley’s reef, even though he can feel it still. Aziraphale spends the night in a bed, and Crowley perches on the bench and watches over him until he wakes, groggy but smiling. Generally speaking, sirens don’t sleep. They can close their eyes, and they can shut off their other senses almost entirely, but this only puts them into a sort of stasis, to pass lengths of time below the sea. Should anything approach, they can return to full function in a matter of seconds.

            It takes Aziraphale several minutes to keep his eyes all the way open, and he makes a lot of fussy noises about it, and when he speaks, his voice sounds scratchy and rough. When he says good morning, Crowley, Crowley thinks perhaps he understands why humans follow a siren’s song right to their own ruin.

            A half an hour passes before Aziraphale has put on the outside layers of clothing he’d removed to go to bed. He dons his shoes but leaves his sword, and leads Crowley back to the room with the food. The woman – and Crowley supposes he should actually learn her name if he’s staying – gives them tubes of meat and a boiled egg each to eat. Aziraphale takes an extra egg for Crowley, and a mug of something that smells bitter and stringent, the way driftwood does after it has sunk. He calls it tea, and Crowley declines to try it.

            When they have finished – and Crowley learns humans do not eat the shells of eggs, which seems like a waste to him – Aziraphale takes him up to the deck and asks him to wait while he speaks to one of the crew members. Crowley doesn’t mind. He stands where he is, opening his wings and turning his face up to the sun to let it warm him. The passage of water beneath the hull trembles the deck below his bare feet, filling his ears with the same vast, wild sound that echoes inside of seashells.

            Aziraphale clears his throat from a few feet away, and Crowley’s eyes open, his nictitating membranes slower to comply than his eyelids. He blinks once to clear them, and catches sight of Aziraphale staring in fascination. Behind him, the man Aziraphale had spoken to disappears belowdecks.

            “I thought we might have a meeting,” Aziraphale tells him, gesturing vaguely around them. Crowley assumes he means with the crew, and not the elements. “I’d like if you could… well, I’m sure that the crew will have questions, about what you’d like to do. They’ll want to know how it will work.”

            Crowley nods, not sure what to say to that. He’s never done this, either. He doesn't know how it will work. “Where?”

            “Oh, just up there, with Newt and Dagon,” Aziraphale says, pointing to the upper level.

            Crowley follows the line of his finger to where a pair of young adult humans stare back from behind a spoked wheel. He does not know which is Newt and which is Dagon, and decides he doesn’t really care. “Now?”

            “If that’s alright.” Aziraphale offers a tentative smile. “They’ll be wrapping up breakfast downstairs, and I thought I’d catch everyone before they got to work.”

            “It’s alright,” Crowley says, rather than ask why the crew must be caught. There’s nowhere to go, and they don’t seem inclined to run off anyway.

            Aziraphale gives him a relieved smile, and together they climb to where the two humans await them. The one whose hands rest on the wheel gives him a skeptical once over and then promptly ignores him, and so Crowley returns the favor. The other stares at him with wide eyes, spine stiff, leaving Crowley to wonder if he’ll bolt. Maybe that is why the crew must be caught.

            “Good morning Newt,” Aziraphale says. The stiff man stammers out a response that does not seem particularly coherent, and Aziraphale adds: “Buck up, dear, you’re in no danger from Crowley.”

            “Don’t lie to the children,” says the human at the wheel. They don’t take their eyes from the wide-open sea. “He can see the beast you’re treating with.”

            “He’s not a beast, Dagon,” Aziraphale says sternly, a note of warning in his tone.

            “He’s not a man.” It doesn’t come off as an argument, and it doesn’t feel like a challenge. Crowley decides he likes Dagon.

            “Neither are you,” Crowley says, and that earns him a hard look. “Neither is Anathema. There are more things in the world than men and beasts.”

            “Like monsters?” They must surely mean it as a taunt, but Crowley knows what he is and cannot be offended by being named so.

            “And gods,” he says, resisting the urge to raise his wings. He doesn’t think it will make his point, and even Crowley will not needlessly offend the gods of this world, not just to win an argument against a human. “It doesn’t matter which we are. We’ve agreed to the same rules.”

            Dagon stares at him a moment longer, and then shrugs and turns back to the ocean. The conversation seems to be over, so Crowley glances to Aziraphale to see how he’d done. Aziraphale smiles and nods, then his eyes tick to where they’d come from just as Crowley hears footsteps heading their way. He turns to see some of the other crew members approaching. Even from a distance they give him apprehensive looks, but they do not turn back.

            The children, the adolescent ones, burst from belowdecks, and there are six of them now instead of four, and they head straight for him. Although he has left the bones of hundreds of men at the bottom of the ocean, bones of his own making, he takes a step back from the six of them. Beside him, Aziraphale shifts and then Crowley feels the warm pressure of Aziraphale’s hand at the small of his back, steadying him.

            “Are you really staying?” one of the children asks. It is not the boy from before. This one has long dark hair and spots on his face and looks like the sort of human that makes unpleasant sounds until accommodated.

            “For now,” Aziraphale answers. “Did Anathema say she’d be along?”

            “She said she’s going to finish her breakfast,” says the smallest of the children. He wears round pieces of glass on his face, held together with metal wire. If Crowley had known what betting was, he would have put coin on the boy being of merchant blood, which meant he was probably part of Aziraphale’s original crew.

            Aziraphale frowns a little, but doesn’t compound the issue any with lectures. Crowley glances at him, but it seems as though he really does have nothing else to say, and so Crowley draws in a slow breath and then leans toward the children a little. “Have you got names yet?”

            Sirens don’t choose their names until after they have taken their first ship on their own, but he’s pretty certain humans give their offspring names upon birth, or shortly thereafter. He’s not sure how long it takes them to reach the size of the ones before him; not many ships carry children of any age.

            “Of course we’ve got names,” huffed the boy from the day before. He stands up straight and tall and proud, and says: “My name’s Adam. And that’s Pepper, and Brian, and Wensleydale, and Warlock, and Greasy Johnson.”

            Crowley is absolutely certain he won’t remember any of that, except perhaps that for some reason, the last child has two names instead of one, the first of which seems to be a descriptor, and one of the children shares a name with a vegetable. Thankfully he is saved from having to discuss any of their names by the appearance of Anathema, rising from below and already in a huff.

            “Aziraphale!” she calls, the sound hackling what feathers Crowley still has. “You told me a few days.”

            “I did,” Aziraphale agrees, not moving at all as she weaves through the rest of the crew that have gathered. “And then things happened.”

            Anathema makes a face, one that tells Crowley she’s come to her own incorrect conclusion about what constitutes things, but she continues anyway until she is right in front of him. Her voice drops to a level which suggests that whatever she has to say, it’s not appropriate for the rest of the crew, even though Newt and Dagon are both close enough to hear. “Just because he followed you home, doesn’t mean you get to keep him.”

            “Crowley, are you being kept?” Aziraphale asks, without looking at him at all.

            There are politics at play here, Crowley is sure of it, and usually he would have no reason to care about the laws of human social niceties, but in this instance he thinks he ought to. Nothing Anathema can do can oust him from the ship if he doesn’t want to go, but there is a good chance she has the ability to make Aziraphale unhappy. He won’t have that.

            “Not against my will,” Crowley answers, eyes still on Anathema as well. He can practically feel Aziraphale’s smile, and a little pleasurable thrill goes through him knowing he must have answered correctly.

            “That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Anathema says. “What are you going to do with the monster, Captain, when we have to make port? You think Adder’s Cove will give us berth, once they know? Clew Bay?” Her gaze shifts minutely to settle upon Crowley, and he feels it like ballast upon his chest. “Can you sing a whole harbor to sleep, siren? Because that’s what it will take for any of us to step foot on land while you’re here.”

            “Is that what you want?” Crowley asks, staring back. At the way her eyes narrow, he continues. “I was under the impression that humans don’t sail on boats if they want their feet upon land.”

            “Please, both of you,” Aziraphale says firmly, ending whatever argument they might have started. He raises his voice with his next words, so that all can hear. “As you know, we’ve been joined by the siren Crowley. Last night, after hearing our story, Crowley made me an offer I believe we should all take into consideration. Rather than hunt other vessels with cannon and steel, risking injury and death for both sides, Crowley has proposed he sing for us, to draw other vessels to us peacefully.”

            Murmurs race through the small crew, and Crowley sees more than one apprehensive look before Anathema, who has not moved a muscle, speaks loud enough for the others to hear, too. “Conveniently, we’ll be under his spell as well. He could kill us all.”

            Crowley bares all of his sharp teeth in a leer. “I could do that anyway.”

            “What do you want to help us for?” comes a voice from the crowd and after another second or two of stare-down with Anathema, Crowley shifts his focus to behind her, to the human man that had spoken.

            “I don’t,” Crowley says. “I care nothing for any of you, beyond which of you would taste best. But I...” He fumbles, not sure how to explain it exactly. He wants to make Aziraphale happy. He wants to feel his heart beat too fast when Aziraphale smiles. “I wish to stay aboard your vessel for a time, with your captain. His terms for doing so are that I do no harm to you, and I will abide by those terms. It doesn’t matter to me if you believe it or not.”

            He catches the way Anathema looks between him and Aziraphale, and sees the flicker of something he doesn’t recognize in her expression. “Alright,” she says evenly. “So how’s it going to work? How are you going to keep from doing us harm while you call another ship to her death?”

            Crowley regards her for a long moment, until he sees her fidget uncomfortably. “Do you intend to kill the humans I call?” he asks. “Because I don’t.”

            Her brow furrows. “They won’t let us just take their things.”

            “They will if they’re asleep,” Crowley says.

            “We woke up from your song very quickly,” Anathema counters, too smug for Crowley's liking. "We'd never clean a prize in time to get away safely."

            He snorts. “I didn’t finish my spell on you. Perhaps you’d like a demonstration of a full song now?”

            Though she pales a little at the offer, she doesn’t shrink away from him like he had expected. Instead she gestures broadly to the group. “Go ahead. I think the captain should see what you want to get us into.”

            Crowley looks to Aziraphale for confirmation, but Aziraphale gestures the same way. When Crowley turns back to the gathered, he realizes very swiftly that he’s never had to sing for an audience before- at least, not one that was conscious. His victims have never been close enough for him to watch them fall to his song. Never has he had to wonder what they might think of it before the spell captures them, or whether they will like it or not. He finds it makes him a little bit uncomfortable and an anxious sort of energy shifts him in place.

            “Fine,” he says, a little testily.

            And then he takes a breath, opens his mouth, and begins to sing.

            She keeps her eyes upon him the entire time, and he thinks for a moment that perhaps his song will not work this close to a human, or perhaps won’t work a second time. He has never tried to sing to a crew after boarding their ship. But when she blinks, it is slow and lazy with sleep, and he can feel the way her heart responds, wrapped up in his melody. As he watches her fall prey to it with clear, open eyes, he wonders what she sees. A lover, perhaps. A home. She doesn’t seem the type to dream of riches, but one never really knows when it comes to deepest desires. Though he knows she won’t ever answer, he finds he wants to ask.

            The others behind her sway where they stand, bumping and leaning into one another as the spell sinks them deep into itself. Crowley glances to Aziraphale, who is merely watching him with a small smile brightening his features. Strangely, Crowley can feel the spell working on him as well, yet Aziraphale shows no sign of sleep. Crowley twists to see the navigator and helmsman, only to find Dagon already asleep against the wheel and Newt not far behind.

            At the first thump of knees against the ground, Crowley turns back just in time to see the crowd begin to fall. Not all of them will. Sometimes humans fall into true sleep, and some merely a waking dream. Most of these ones find themselves slumped to the deck, though a few simply sway where they stand, eyes ticking as they watch visions of things which do not exist.

            When he has them all, when he can feel each heart on the ship entwined in his song, Crowley closes the spell properly. No one moves, and no one will for hours unless he breaks the spell.

            “That really is quite impressive,” Aziraphale says softly.

            Crowley looks over at him again. The spell has worked, Crowley knows it has- he can feel it. On some level he knows he should be concerned that Aziraphale appears unaffected. He knows he should find out why, so he can prevent it from happening in another crew, but he finds he doesn’t want to know why Aziraphale is the exception. He wants Aziraphale to be special.

            “Can you- are you able to break it?” Aziraphale asks, when Crowley doesn’t respond.

            “Yes,” he says. He doesn’t say he usually breaks it by spilling blood. He doesn’t say he’s only ever broken it by bringing a human close to death. He’s sure he can break it another way. He even has a good idea how.

            “Will you show me?”

            He’d known that was coming. He nods, and closes the two steps between himself and Anathema. She happens to be closest, but he also wants her to see. He wants her to know how easy it is, to take her entire crew under. To hold them in thrall. How easy it would be for him to kill them all, and for her to respect the fact that he has not. She only blinks slowly at him, unseeing.

            Gently, he raises a hand and draws the back of one claw over her jaw. She makes no move to resist or acknowledge the touch. At the curve below her ear, his finger straightens, the pad of it resting against the pulse that beats beneath her skin. One flick of his claw here would end her life. He stares into her blank eyes.

            “Crowley,” says Aziraphale from behind him, almost a warning.

            Had he the anatomy for it, he would merely have flicked an ear back in acknowledgment. As it is, he doesn’t move at all, doesn’t speak to answer. Anathema blinks slowly again, chest rising and falling with her breath, her heartbeat under his touch. He would have killed her first, if he had actually taken this vessel. He would have eaten her heart.

            His finger drops, trailing the path her blood takes, to the crook of her neck. A little farther, and it settles upon the rise of her collarbone, and the very tip of his claw pricks her skin, drawing blood.

            She flinches, eyes rapidly blinking once, but the spell holds. He pulls away and steps back, giving himself the space to drop one wing under his arm, to where he can reach the feathers. He plucks one, a small black covert that still has blood at the very base of it. A drop wells in the wake of its leaving, and Crowley draws the feather through it before folding his wing again.

            Anathema hasn’t moved. He steps closer and smears a now-soft fingertip through the blood that has beaded on the surface of her skin, not enough to drip. It carries the tang of metal and life, and Crowley feels his eyes yellow out with the desire to taste it. Instead of indulging, he wipes her blood atop his own on the feather. A piece of himself, freely given. Their blood mixed to run together. He hums a few soft notes to charm, to tie it to his song, and then looks up at her.

            “Give me your hand.”

            She holds it out without hesitation, and he hears a gasp from Aziraphale. He cannot help his smile. Apparently he still had some secrets from the well-read captain. He cups her hand in his, and gently drops the feather into it.

            As soon as it touches her skin, she yanks her hand away from his, fingers closing reflexively on the feather as her other hand flies to her collarbone. He remains where he is as she glares at him, but as she looks around her and realizes the full extent of the situation, her gaze settles back on him with caution more than fury.

            “You drew blood,” she says, fingers coming away from her skin sticky with red.

            “I believe you’ll survive the injury,” Crowley tells her dryly. “More importantly, I believe you’ll be protected from my song until the blood dries.”

            “That won’t be long,” she points out.

            A small huff escapes him, not quite laughter. “Best keep it wet then.” His eyes slip to her bloodied fingers, and her own eyes follow and then zip back to his when she realizes what he means. “It won’t work forever, though.”

            “Long enough for you to finish your spell?” she asks. He nods. “You won’t have time to make them for the whole crew.”

            “No,” Crowley agrees. “Four or five, maybe six if you’re ready. But I doubt you’ll need more than that. You’ll find no resistance on the other side.”

            “I’d like to try it,” Aziraphale says from behind him, drawing both their attentions. “Anathema, can you help me choose who goes?”

            Her eyes flicker over him, looking for something, but although she frowns, she doesn’t comment on what she finds or doesn’t. “Fine." She looks back to Crowley. "How long until the others wake?”

            Crowley feels out along the spell, but nothing has changed. “A couple of hours. I can wake anyone you need now.”

            Aziraphale asks him to wake Dagon first, and then Newt. Crowley chooses feathers from the same wing, and tries not to think about how plucked he will look if he does this for the whole crew every time. If he has any sense, he will start to collect those feathers he sheds, or preen out old ones to use, and just draw blood from elsewhere when the time comes.

            “Can you wake Beelzebub and Uriel, please?” Aziraphale asks as Newt blinks blearily back to consciousness. “I’ll get these two sorted out.”

            Crowley doesn’t want to leave him there, but he also doesn’t want to disobey, so he turns to Anathema. She nods, understanding, and leads him down the deck to the back of the gathered crew to indicate which two of the fallen Aziraphale had meant.

            “You didn’t wake the captain,” she says, before he can kneel to begin.

            He looks over to find her staring back. For the first time, she doesn’t sound angry. He doesn’t know what to make of that. “No, I didn’t.”

            “Then did you not cast your spell upon him?” she demands.

            “I did,” Crowley tells her.

            “Then why was he still aware?” she asks. “He wasn’t affected.”

            “I don’t know,” Crowley admits, turning to look across the deck to where Aziraphale is deep in discussion with Dagon and Newt. Even now, he can feel the spell wrapped around Aziraphale. It’s working. It holds him as surely as any of the others. “He’s affected but… I don’t know.” He doesn’t want to tell her he is afraid to ask why Aziraphale sees him for what he is. “He’s different.”

            She stares at him a moment longer before shaking her head, gaze dropping down to the bodies at their feet. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. It is what it is,” she finally says, dismissing the concern. “And I suppose that I… I owe you a… thank you, at least. For not killing us.”

            Crowley thinks to say ‘yet’ but manages to keep it to himself. Instead, he kneels beside the first of the crew at their feet, and begins to break the spell.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley’s fingers slide gently through his soft coverts, the tips of his claws blunted just enough they do not cut his skin as he seeks points of connection. It is not time for a moult, but even out of season there are usually a few feathers sitting loose atop their replacements. He’ll need ten for their first raid, despite that he’d told them fewer; Aziraphale had asked him to free other crew after the raiding party skipped over to loot. Someone, Aziraphale had explained patiently, would have to help them back over, and up onto the ship again. Crowley might have called that not-his-problem, except that Aziraphale had insisted he would cross over to the prey ship with his crew.

            So, Crowley has retreated to the captain’s cabin by himself to preen out what feathers he can without having to pluck any. He will if he has to, but he doesn’t know how often the humans will need to renew resources and he’s not keen on being plucked. He’s exceptionally not keen on risking his ability to fly, should he need to. But... a few loose feathers, like the one he finds nestled in the crook of his wing now, won’t be missed, and will have a replacement soon enough.

            He sets the feather down with the other three he has found, and returns to sifting through his feathers. They are not in disrepair in the least; Crowley actually spends most of his free time making sure they are pristine- a trait which is not helping him any now. He wonders, as he zips gentle fingers down the length of a secondary to smooth out the barbs, if the crew would object to returning to his reef. He could recover his entire nest from there, hundreds of feathers just sitting around waiting to be collected.

            The shuffle of feet and the murmur of voices that are failing to be very quiet draw his attention to the doorway. He had not closed the door behind him, so it stands half open. Behind it, Crowley can see flickers of movement.

            “What’s he doing?” ask several voices at once, voices that probably believe they are being subtle.

            A small scuffle occurs by the sound of it, and then: “I can’t see if you’re all going to crowd in at the same time.”

            The children, Crowley realizes, recognizing the leader’s voice. He lets his wing slack to the ground so he doesn’t have to hold it up, and then waits, staring at the opening in the door. There is more movement, and then a face appears in the darkness beyond, followed almost immediately by a sharp gasp and more urgent shuffling.

            “He saw me!”

            “We shouldn’t be down here!”

            “If we all get eaten, it’s going to be your fault.”

            Crowley snorts, recognizing the girl. He places one hand over the feathers on the floor to keep them from going anywhere, and then calls out: “You’re not very good at sneaking, so you may as well come in.”

            Dead silence follows the command, and if Crowley could not still see them standing just beyond the door, he would think they’d left. Slowly, the door creaks open, and reveals the entire group. They are fidgeting and wary, here without the protection of the adults, but they do not bolt. Crowley can respect that sort of bravery.

            “What are you doing?” the leader asks.

            “Preening,” says the one with the glass pieces. “Birds do it to keep their feathers clean. I had a bird once, you know.”

            “I’m not a bird,” Crowley says.

            “You’re preening,” says the girl. “And birds preen.”

            “So every animal that ever does something the same as another animal is the same thing?” asks the biggest of the kids, the only one with two names. It doesn’t sound like he’s really asking. Crowley looks back at the girl, waiting to see what she’ll do.

            “That’s not what I said, Greasy.” She gives him such an unimpressed look that Crowley finds he actually feels a little concerned for anyone that incurs her wrath.

            “Are you collecting feathers?” interrupts the boy with the glass pieces. Crowley should have paid better attention to their names. “I heard that you could wake people up if you gave them a bloody feather.”

            Crowley stares for a moment, assessing them all. “Something like that,” he finally agrees, lifting his hand from the feathers on the floor. “What’s your name?”

            “Wensleydale,” the child answers immediately.

            “How come everyone’s so afraid of sirens,” the girl asks, “if you can just have a bloody feather and they can’t make you sleep? You’re just one person, and there’s lots of us.”

            “Yeah? And where are they going to get the feathers from?” Crowley asks. “By the time you’re close enough to get one, you’re already asleep.”

            The girl’s eyes narrow. “If it were my ship, I’d go find a siren, and just plug my ears so I couldn’t hear them sing, and then I’d take as many feathers as I wanted.”

            Of all the reactions he could possibly have to such a bold claim, Crowley finds himself smiling at the sheer audacity of it. “You really think so?” he asks, amused and just sharp enough to be intimidating. “Do you want to try it now, see how far it gets you?”

            She looks immediately less brazen, but she doesn’t step back.

            “I thought not,” Crowley says, and it feels… kinder this time. They are, he tells himself, only children. He's allowed to be a little soft around such harmless creatures. “Plugging your ears doesn’t work against a siren’s song. Do you know why?” All of the children shake their heads. “Because we don’t sing to your ears. We sing to your hearts, and you can’t hide those from us.” He considers them a moment longer, and then picks up his wing again, settling it back under his arm so he can continue preening. “Sit, if you like.”

            To his surprise, they hurry to do so, sitting as close as they are brave enough to get, and one of them even reaches out a hand to touch a finger to the very tip of Crowley’s longest primary, as if he won’t notice. Crowley twitches his wing just to watch the boy jump and his eyes go wide with fear.

            “Sorry!” the boy squeaks.

            “Which one are you?” Crowley asks.

            “Warlock,” the boy replies.

            “What does your captain say about touching people without their permission?” Crowley asks.

            He might have let the child touch, but Aziraphale had seemed quite stern about this, and he isn’t sure how communally-raised children are supposed to be taught. And Crowley assumes that they must be so, for surely they can’t have parents aboard if they’re running around sneaking up on monsters. Sirens don’t breed like humans do, but he thinks that if he had offspring, he’d watch over them until they were mature. It can’t possibly take humans very long to do so, as they populate areas so swiftly. Unattended children, he guesses, must not have anyone to attend them.

            “Not to,” Warlock answers, but he doesn’t look very apologetic about it, and Crowley guesses he just didn't like getting caught.

            “Then I suggest you ask, before you do something that might get you bitten,” Crowley tells him.

            The kids all look mildly horrified by that for only a second before they process the first part of the sentence, and the leader of the group says: “Can we?”

            Crowley blinks, considering. He had not thought they would actually ask, but this had clearly been an underestimation on his part. He also isn’t sure he wants a bunch of humans touching his wings; for one, their oil is different than his. However, having something to actually clean off his feathers might make this feather-finding endeavor feel a little less tedious and a little more bearable, so he nods once and then jerks his wing away when they all reach at once.

            “One at a time,” he says, sharply enough that they shrink away again. “And don’t… pet them backward. You’ll mess them up.”

            The word leaves a terrible taste in his mouth. Pet. He isn’t a pet, he tells himself, even as the lead boy lays a gentle hand upon his coverts and strokes down toward his secondaries. It gets harder to believe when his eyes close at the contact. The boy strokes his wing just once more before scooting so Wensleydale can reach next. Crowley holds his breath and tells himself he absolutely does not enjoy being pet like he has been domesticated.

            It’s undignified, is what it is.

            It is also a lie.

            The children take turns investigating his wings, and the soft pressure leaves behind the same heady sense of warmth as sunning himself on the rocks or the contentedness of drifting on a good deep-water current or the drowsy feel of a large meal. The contact is soothing, more than pleasant enough to bask in. He only opens his eyes again when they stop, and he finds them all staring at him curiously.

            “I thought you fell asleep,” the girl says. Pepper, Crowley remembers through the clinging, sleepy stupor. He feels positively cataleptic still, struggling to come back to himself.

            “I didn’t,” he says, and even though it slurs around the edges, he’s pretty sure it’s true.

            He shakes his head a little and sits up straighter and tries not to think about this little revelation. He doesn’t think any siren in the history of existence has ever let a human pet them before, and he may have just learned why. It’s dangerous. They may as well have been singing to him for how it dulled his senses.

            “You had your eyes closed,” Pepper says.

            “People can close their eyes without sleeping,” Wensleydale informs her.

            “I wasn’t sleeping,” Crowley tries again, and actually manages to sound mostly normal despite the crawling sensation that begins under his skin.

            “We didn’t mess any feathers up,” says the leader, as if that is the problem here. Crowley knows he should remember that one’s name, but nothing comes through the haze.

            “I know,” Crowley practically hisses. He wants them to leave the room. He feels off kilter, made vulnerable by a few strokes from the hands of human younglings. They could have killed him. He’s not sure he would even have noticed if they had.

            Crowley has lived for millennia. He has touched the bottom of the deep and flown to where the air is too thin to breathe. He has faced down monsters and men alike. He has even faced death, on rare occasion, though he slipped through its fingers like water. Every challenge he has ever faced has been bested by him so far.

            But he has never, ever experienced this helpless, overwhelming fear.

            “Get out,” he rasps, and then he coils as if to strike, his voice rising. “Get out of here!”

            The children scramble to obey, and Crowley holds it together long enough to slam the door shut behind them. His hands hit the floor, clawed and slick with scales, and he snarls, pacing around the enclosed space in a whirl, his wings knocking over the books and papers Aziraphale has not cleaned up yet.

            He is trapped here.

            He is trapped and he is in danger.

            Are you being kept?

            Aziraphale had asked him that only hours ago, and he had said no.

            It must still be true. It must. There’s a door, but he had closed it himself. Light shines from beyond the windows, but they are glass and he is less fragile than them. At least, he thinks he is. He should be. Even the wood, even the wood beneath his talons splinters if he presses too hard into it. He could take this vessel apart. He could sink it below the waves and live among its skeletons.

            But he could be felled by a soft touch.

            The stroke of a gentle hand down his wing could end millennia of existence.

            The wooden bench makes a hollow clunk against the wall as he knocks into it, and he freezes, the scent of Aziraphale blooming thick in the air. He dips his face closer, jaws opening to taste it.

            Aziraphale will not hurt him.

            Unless he brings harm, none shall come to him.

            Crowley blinks slowly, inner eyelids fogging his vision longer than usual as he draws in deep, slow breaths, face close to the cushions. The bench is beneath him, or he has clambered half-atop it without noticing, and the material of the cushions is soft beneath his paws. Razor claws flex into it, the sound of tearing fabric loud in the silence of the room.

            Beneath the cushions, his claws meet with wood that is softer than the ship’s. It gives under pressure. He takes it apart methodically, the fabric and padding of the cushions soaking up the splinters until he has made a bowl of them, the outside of it cradled in toppled books. A safe place. A nest.

            He curls up inside of it, barely a whisper of humanity left in his form any longer, and folds his wings protectively around himself. Then he hunkers down to wait.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Some distant part of Crowley’s mind registers the click of the cabin door, but it is not enough to rouse him back to sapience. He stirs just enough to shift his bulk, wings tightening to protect himself. A low, soft thrum vibrates in his chest, a parody of his song, trembling through his crackled nest to the floorboards beneath.

            He has hummed this tune before, hibernated once for an entire century untouched. Sirens know better than to wake another tranced siren. Humans will leave such haunted places alone, unnerved for reasons they cannot explain. Creatures from the deep stay there, when near the nest of a feral siren. Even the boldest of the seabirds, able to take to the sky at the first hint of danger, will not land upon a reef like that. All of them, without knowing how, understand that disturbing a siren in stupor is a deadly affair.

            Because of this, he has never heard a footstep while in this state.

            He hears one now, and then another, and then the soft words of a living thing. An intruder. A trespasser.

            “Oh, Crowley...”

            Boots clunk heavy on the wood below him, and he bristles at being approached. Crowley’s thrum increases in volume, thick and eerie. A warning, and one any other creature might have obeyed on the merit of primal instinct alone. It should cause any being intent on living to flee.

            These boots take two steps closer before falling still.

            “You’ve certainly made a mess of my room, haven’t you?”

            Aziraphale, his muzzy brain tells him, stretching like an eel toward the light of clear thought.

            Crowley shifts, rubbing his elongated jaw along the pile of splinters and stuffing below him to get closer, forked tongue flickering out to taste the air. Definitely Aziraphale. Crowley’s eyes slide open, his nictitating lids still closed protectively even though he is not underwater. He can barely make out the creature that has come for him, but it doesn’t stand in any threatening way.

            “That’s okay,” continues the soothing voice. “It’ll clean up. Perhaps you can help me find a better seat. That bench was not the most comfortable. We’ll get you a softer one.”

            Crowley opens his wings a crack to better peer at the pale, blurry form standing nearby, and his thrumming lessens to almost nothing. He still doesn’t have words, but he begins to feel less wild, less like he should destroy anything which dares to get too close. Slowly, his inner lids slide open, giving him a clearer view of Aziraphale, who smiles.

            “There you are.” A little shiver travels down Crowley’s spine at the gentleness in his tone. It makes him want to come closer. “The children said you attacked them, but not one of them had a scratch to prove it. I think you just scared them.”

            Crowley stares up at him, blinking slowly. He’d meant to scare them. He’d wanted them gone, because it hadn’t been safe for them to stay. But somehow, the way Aziraphale says it, Crowley feels… uncomfortable. Like he’s done something he should not have done. Like he must explain himself. But that requires words, and Crowley doesn’t have any at the moment.

            Aziraphale kneels beside him then, making himself smaller, as if he can become less threatening than even his sweet, cajoling voice has implied. Still, Crowley flinches when Aziraphale tentatively reaches for him. Touch had put Crowley here. Touch had made him vulnerable. He lets out a low, warning hiss, or at least he means to, but the threat is missing from it.

            “Oh, come now,” Aziraphale chides softly. “Please let me see you.” He extends his hand once more and this time Crowley lets him slide it along the edge of his dark wing. The pressure he applies is minimal, just enough to nudge, and the motion sets off a chain reaction in Crowley’s instincts, until the wing lies folded to his back once more. “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”

            If it is not better, it is at least not worse. Crowley folds the other as well, for balance, as he slowly works himself upright, into a coiled crouch.

            “Are you alright?” Aziraphale asks.

            He doesn’t move to touch Crowley again, which only serves to frustrate Crowley when he realizes he had expected Aziraphale to. That he wants Aziraphale to touch him, the way the children had, and prove to him that he is safe. Prove that his trust in coming aboard this vessel, in enclosing himself in this space and leaving his reef, in allowing them the means to break his song’s spell, is not unfounded.

            Crowley makes a small, desolate sound at the back of his throat, one taloned hand jerking toward Aziraphale’s where they rest upon his thighs. Before he can touch, he stops, instinct and desire at war. His instincts tell him not to be vulnerable. His instincts want him to be safe. But he rather desperately wants to feel the warm comfort of touch again. Aziraphale had told him no one would harm him, but discovering the truth of that means letting himself become vulnerable.

            He sits, frozen in indecision, staring at what he wants and arguing with his instincts over why he should be allowed to have it.

            In the end, it doesn’t matter.

            Aziraphale lifts his hands, palms up, as if to show Crowley that he holds no weapon, and Crowley seizes one wrist in both hands, instinct and desire in agreement over Aziraphale’s hands. Aziraphale stiffens at the sudden movement, with Crowley’s sharp claws so close to the thin skin of his heart’s highways, but he lets Crowley pull his hand closer. He lets Crowley slide his strange, beak-like snout against his warm palm, soaking up the sensation of soft skin.

            “Oh,” Aziraphale says after only a few seconds, and then his fingers press gently along Crowley’s jaw, his thumb brushing the ridge under Crowley’s eye.

            Slowly, slowly, Crowley feels human features return to him. His wings fold out of mortal sight and his claws soften into nails and his joints shift to give him flat human feet. Under the soothing stroke of Aziraphale’s palm, his face shortens and his teeth dull and his nose turns pink and soft. Aziraphale’s hand slides back a little further, enough to brush his dark, red hair behind his very human ear.

            “What happened?” Aziraphale asks again.

            Crowley presses his cheek against Aziraphale’s palm once more before pulling back and watching Aziraphale’s hand drop. He can’t say he’d been scared, not of children, but he doesn’t know how else to explain. “I… misjudged. How I would react.”

            Aziraphale nods, accepting that. “What did they do?” When Crowley won’t meet his eyes, Aziraphale sighs. “I need to know, Crowley. If you don’t tell me, I can’t tell them not to do it again.”

            Fighting the urge to bristle, Crowley shakes his head. “They didn’t do anything wrong.”

            “It doesn’t need to be wrong to be uncomfortable,” Aziraphale tells him.

            Crowley sits mute for nearly a full minute before his lips pull back from his teeth in a snarl. His voice, when he speaks, is dissonantly soft. “I was preening, and they asked if they could touch my wings. I thought it would be fine. It wasn’t.”

            “Oh dear,” Aziraphale says, sounding disappointed. “I- then I’m very sorry for doing the same a moment ago. I didn’t intend to hurt you.”

            It’s not exactly a growl that rumbles in his chest. “Doesn’t hurt,” he snips, mad at himself for saying so. “Felt… It made my head go… vacant. Like I-” He swallows the next words. He’s had enough of being vulnerable for one day, and done more speaking than he wants, too. “I couldn’t have stopped them from hurting me.”

            “Ah,” Aziraphale says, and this time Crowley thinks he really does understand. “You were scared.”

            Crowley hisses at the word, but Aziraphale only chuckles and begins to get to his feet. With narrowed eyes, Crowley watches him, but he simply begins to pick up the books Crowley had scattered in his panic. Guiltily, Crowley slips out of the wreckage nest he’d made, and begins to tidy books as well. He doesn’t miss the smile Aziraphale sneaks when he sees he has help.

            “It’s… alright to be scared,” Aziraphale says after a few minutes of joint cleaning. “But you do know the children wouldn’t have hurt you, don’t you?”

            “Yes,” Crowley answers.

            “I appreciate that you didn’t hurt them, either,” Aziraphale adds, and Crowley’s hands still at the mention. “You could have, and they wouldn’t have been able to stop you.”

            Crowley’s throat closes, the books sitting heavy as boulders in his trembling hands. He had scared them. He’d made the young humans feel the same way he had felt, after they had listened to him, after they had followed his directions.

            He had caused a lot of pain and suffering in his time, killing humans, wrecking their boats, listening to them scream and howl and beg. But he had never known what caused those things. He had never known what fear felt like to them, and he finds very suddenly indeed that he does not think even prey should have to feel fear. The children are not prey; they had been gentle with him. They had wanted to be kind to him, and he is supposed to be learning how to protect them, not how to cause such an awful feeling in them.

            “What should I do?” he rasps, clutching the books closer so that he does not drop them. He doesn’t know what to ask for, just that he feels he must do something. Sirens have no concept of regret, but he is swiftly learning it now, and he wishes it to stop immediately.

            “Do?” Aziraphale inquires, pausing in his reshelving efforts to twist and see Crowley. “You haven’t got to do anything...”

            Crowley shakes his head. “I want them to know that I wouldn’t- that I won’t. I- I...” He might have wanted to scare them once, even hurt them, but knowing what he knows now, he won’t, and he wants to tell them that. He wants to undo the fear he had caused.

            Aziraphale lifts the rest of his books and somewhat haphazardly shoves them onto the shelf in order to have his hands and attention free. Then he takes the books from Crowley’s arms and repeats the gesture, leaving Crowley with nothing to cling to. Crowley stares at him in bewilderment, not understanding any of the things he is feeling. He’s never had to feel much of anything before, and certainly nothing so bothersome as guilt or regret.

            “Are you familiar with what an apology is?” Aziraphale asks gently. When Crowley shakes his head no again, Aziraphale doesn’t seem surprised. “When a human does something that they didn’t intend to do, and they feel... badly about it, or worried that they’ve hurt someone in some way, they apologize. They go to the person they feel badly about, and they say something like ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologize,’ and the other person… well, usually they say something like ‘I forgive you’ and that’s that. Of course,” he adds sternly, “an apology only means something if the one who apologized improves their behavior the next time, to avoid repeating the mistake. Do you understand?”

            Crowley isn't sure he does, not entirely, but he nods anyway. “Can we… can I…?”

            “Of course,” Aziraphale says warmly. “If you want to. Why don’t you wait here, and I’ll bring them down.”

            Crowley nods a little, and Aziraphale disappears out the door. For a few seconds Crowley fidgets in place, and then he begins scooping up books again and putting them neatly onto the shelves. They are all different sizes, thick and thin, tall and short, with different kinds of papers. Crowley tries to organize them from tallest to smallest, long fingers running down each spine as he goes.

            That same, terrible feeling tingles under his skin when he finds one with a claw mark in the cover. He’d damaged one of them. He had toppled stacks of books, scattering them across the floor, and pulling them into shape to form his nest. He glances behind him at the nest, a circle of books and the ruins of the wooden bench upon which he and Aziraphale had sat together the day he arrived. Words don’t seem like enough to make up for destroying it. He cannot fathom why Aziraphale isn’t angry.

            He sets the books in his hands upon the shelf before he can damage them, and before he can pick up any more he hears footsteps beyond the door. He turns to look and finds Aziraphale leading the children into the cabin. Crowley swallows and clenches his jaw shut and backs up as far as he can get, trying to give them space, but the room just isn’t very big. It’s certainly not big enough for seven humans and a siren to all have enough personal space at once without standing on something Crowley had disrupted, and the thought sends a fresh wave of something terrible through him.

            “See?” Aziraphale says warmly. “He’s alright. Just like I said.”

            Crowley holds very still, staring back at the children who are staring at him. Unlike earlier, Crowley has a lot of words, he just doesn’t know which ones to use. Thankfully, the lead child takes the decision from him by shuffling forward a little.

            “We’re sorry we scared you,” he says hesitantly. “Captain Aziraphale says it’s alright, because we didn’t mean to, but we’re still sorry.”

            “We still want to be friends,” says Wensleydale.

            Crowley hadn’t realized they had wanted to be friends in the first place. He isn’t entirely sure what a friend is. He looks over their heads at Aziraphale, but the captain’s smile tells him he’s on his own. He tries to remember what Aziraphale had told him, about apologies.

            “I forgive you,” he says carefully, the words foreign on his tongue. “I also did not mean to scare you. I’m… sorry, too.”

            The boy stares at him for another moment, then turns to look over his shoulder at the rest of the group. No one protests. He turns back and nods at Crowley. “That’s alright then.”

            “I think,” Aziraphale says, loudly enough to address all of the children, “that Uriel may shortly be bringing supplies up to the galley for Madam Tracy. Ought you to go help?”

            The young all make subdued noises of agreement, and Aziraphale steps aside to let them pass. When Greasy’s heels are free of the doorway, Aziraphale shuts the door and lets out a satisfied hum. “That went well.”

            “I’m sorry.” The apology earns him a curious look from Aziraphale. “I broke your bench. I... damaged your books.”

            “Oh,” Aziraphale says, looking around them as if he’s just now realizing it. “Well, they weren’t all perfect to start with. I’ll just have to see about getting them repaired if we ever make port again.” He smiles, kindly but not quite as happily as he had before, and bends to pick up a few more of the scattered books. “And I suppose they wouldn’t have been damaged, if I hadn’t left them out in the first place. Perhaps you can help me clean them up?”

            Crowley nods, and scoops up books from the toppled pile he’d been working on while Aziraphale was out. Aziraphale brings his books over and Crowley makes room in front of the bookcase for him. For a while they just clean in calm, comfortable silence, and by the time they have replaced all of the books to their shelves and closed the cabinet doors, Crowley has begun to feel just a little better.

            Except, he finds as he stares at it, for the nest.

            At his reef, his nest had been comprised mostly of stone and kelp and feathers. He had splintered some pieces of flotsam down, gathered some jetsam here and there over the ages, and even hauled up lagan from the seafloor if he ever found anything that was still nice after he got bored enough to explore. But it had started with rocks, and it had been still mostly rocks when he left, and the things he had added to that nest hadn’t belonged to anyone anymore, and certainly no one he… liked.

            The word sits funny in his mind as he realizes that is what has him so unsettled. He isn’t just fascinated with Aziraphale. It has only been a couple of days, but he likes the gentle pirate. He likes the way he moves and the way he talks and the way he smiles. He likes that Aziraphale approaches him not from a standpoint of ignoring his fear, but from genuinely not being afraid in the first place. Even other sirens come with a wariness to them.

            Aziraphale… doesn’t.

            Of the thousands of humans Crowley has ever seen, Aziraphale is the first not to smell of fear or anger or hatred. He is the first to have offered aid to Crowley, whether or not Crowley needed it. The first to touch him gently. The first to teach him regret, and the first to teach him of forgiving.

            “There will be other seats,” Aziraphale says, drawing Crowley’s attention. He’s been caught staring, and it must not have been difficult to guess why.

            Crowley lets out a soft breath. It’s not just the seat. “I’ve lived for thousands of years,” he says slowly. “And never felt half the things I have since I called your ship to me. I’ve never… wanted to undo something I’ve done.”

            “That’s called regret,” Aziraphale tells him, his voice light enough to match his smile. This one is new, warm in a different way than usual. It is a smile Crowley could get used to very easily.

            “Well, I don’t like it very much,” he says gruffly, looking back at the wreckage.

            “Nobody likes it very much,” Aziraphale tells him with a chuckle. “But, if you’re very lucky or very clever, you learn the first time not to do something like it again. That’s what it’s for.”

            Crowley snorts, but it lacks venom. “I will destroy other things,” he says. “Other ships. Other seats. It’s... who I am. It’s what I do.”

            Aziraphale regards him for a long, quiet moment, until Crowley – who is very used to long, quiet moments – begins to get uncomfortable with the weight of it, and then he says: “Some people might say that it is an act of destruction to tear down a tree and slice it up into pieces. Other people will say it is an act of creation- part of building a boat, or a wagon, or a home. That bench… it wasn’t even really mine, you know. It belonged to Gabriel. You turned it from a bench into a…”

            “A nest,” Crowley finishes for him.

            “A nest,” Aziraphale agrees. “Is it comfortable? Do you want to keep it?”

            “No,” Crowley says. “It won’t hold without the books. We usually make them out of rocks.”

            “That sounds quite uncomfortable,” Aziraphale says, raising a brow. “You’ve slept just on rocks all this time?”

            Crowley hunches one shoulder in a shrug. “’s all there was.”

            “I didn’t mean- I meant- Oh, do come here.” Aziraphale steps backward, toward the bed he lies in at night. Crowley watches as he walks along the side of it and then stops near the head of it. “Gabriel was… greedy,” Aziraphale explains slowly, as though he doesn’t want to speak ill of the dead; or perhaps doesn’t know which of dozens of bad words to use to do so. “You probably haven’t seen many beds before.”

            It’s true that Crowley hasn’t, so he shakes his head. He has seen them before, twice, but he was much more used to seeing the thick rope nets humans slept in. They were dangerous, underwater. Crowley always shredded them as a first act when he explored a wreck. Sea creatures would have to be stupid to be caught in a net with such thick, visible crosshatching, but sea creatures weren’t often very intelligent in his experience.

            “It’s… a bit like a nest, I imagine,” Aziraphale continues. “More than the hammocks are, at least. We can get you some rocks to make a proper nest with, if that’s what you’d prefer, but… you might give the bed a try until then.”

            Crowley shrinks back a little. “It’s yours,” he argues. No siren would ever enter in the nest of another siren. Even with permission, it’s just… not done. He would be less ill-mannered to take Aziraphale’s skin and wear it.

            “It’s Gabriel’s, if you want to get technical, and I’ve been planning on getting rid of it anyway for exactly that reason,” Aziraphale says, waving a hand to dismiss the argument. “But if it will make you comfortable to have a- a nest, then you should.”

            “It’s… it’s yours,” Crowley says, hoping Aziraphale comes to his senses even as he realizes that he won’t. Humans must enter one another’s beds. He doesn’t know if he can do this.

            Aziraphale studies him for a moment and then asks: “What is the problem with it being mine, if you don’t mind my asking?”

            “Sirens don’t…” He trails off, not sure how to explain. “A nest is… safe.” As soon as he’s said it, he knows why he will climb into Aziraphale’s bed. “It is the only boundary my kind respect without exception, regardless of anything. No siren will ever cross into another siren’s nest.”

            “Ah,” Aziraphale says, meeting his gaze when he looks up. “Then, we shall consider this to be your nest, and I will have a hammock brought in for me.”

            Crowley shakes his head again, and takes a step toward the bed. “You’re not a siren,” he says, as he takes a second step. “And you won’t hurt me.”

            “No,” Aziraphale agrees. “I won’t.”

            Gently, Crowley lays his hands upon the wooden end of the bed and looks down at the mess of furs and cloth. He recognizes the thick, shimmery fur of a seal, but the white fluffy one is unfamiliar and smells of land things. He checks that his fingers are tipped softly and then pulls his wings into view and uses them to balance as he crawls over the board and into the pile, tamping down on the flare of panic that tells him he is doing something deeply against the rules.

            The bed depresses under his weight, and a moment later he kneels upon a cushy, decadent nest. He cannot help the way his tongue flicks out to taste the scent of Aziraphale, as heavy in this place as his own had been in his nest at the reef. There is nothing here that speaks of this being Crowley’s nest, the way his own had. He lowers himself down into the furs and cloth, and finds they warm quickly beneath him.

            He shifts and rolls a little, so that he can see Aziraphale. “It’s soft,” he mumbles. There is not much else he can remark upon- he does not think Aziraphale wants to hear about how it smells.

            “Very soft,” Aziraphale agrees. “Is it too much?”

            Crowley considers this. He had put soft things – at least, semi-soft things – into his nest. This however… it is entirely soft. There is nothing secure about it, nothing to press against to assure himself there is something solid. Nothing to brace himself on. He twists to look over his shoulder, to where the wall is and then wriggles until his back touches it. The sensation relaxes him some.

            “It’s fine,” he concludes aloud, even though he is still trying to assess how he feels about this strange new nest.

            He stares up at Aziraphale, a little restless about the wide openness of the space; his nest had been enclosed fairly tightly. He remembers that Aziraphale sleeps with some of the skins covering him, which seems dangerously restrictive even though Aziraphale doesn’t have wings. He kicks his legs a little until the heavy seal pelt covers just his legs, and then settles again.

            “We’ll get you some rocks,” Aziraphale says, more like an amused reminder than a question.

            Crowley is not sure that will help. The rocks won’t be stable the way they were on the reef, and he’s not keen on a bunch of rocks smashing into him every time the boat pitches or lists. He looks back up at Aziraphale, and something occurs to him. Slowly, he drags his big, black wing out of the way, baring the side of the bed that sits between them. It’s not much space, but it’s too much for Crowley’s senses.

            “Sit?” he asks tentatively.

            Aziraphale hesitates a moment and for the first time Crowley senses anxiety from him, but he sets a hip on the bed and scoots in to sit against the head board. Crowley holds very, very still, until Aziraphale settles in what must be a comfortable position, and then he curls so that the top of his head is pressed against the side of Aziraphale’s thigh. It is not hard like his rocks, but it is solid and makes him feel as though he is safely surrounded, enough that he relaxes for real. He brings his wing up to cover his body, shielding himself the way he would in his nest, only to find the lead edge of it must rest along Aziraphale’s leg to do so.

            He jerks back, remembering suddenly that Aziraphale had been firm about the children asking before touching, and Aziraphale jumps too at the quick motion. “I’m sorry,” Crowley says quickly, and what handy vocabulary that is turning out to be. “I didn’t ask. I- my nest was small and-”

            “It’s okay, Crowley,” Aziraphale interrupts. “I don’t mind.”

            Crowley watches him, trying to determine if that’s true, but the sour tang of anxiety is gone from him now. Crowley nods, curling back up on his side and gingerly lowering his head again. His wing drapes over him and he hesitates before letting its edge sag against Aziraphale’s leg.

            “Do you still not want anyone to touch your wings?” Aziraphale asks, not quite a whisper.

            It takes Crowley a moment to consider it, but it had never been the touch that had spooked him, and he is already as vulnerable as he’s ever been, trespassing in a way that has left him feeling a bit raw. He is lying in another creature’s nest, and that other creature is sitting right there, and they are both still alive. Everything about this feels unprecedented to Crowley.

            “You can,” he says, just as quietly. He has never sounded small, but that is how the words feel now. Small and big and admittedly a little exhilarating.

            The first touch of Aziraphale’s fingers shifting over his feathers is just as heady as when the children had done it. His eyes slip closed as Aziraphale strokes over his wing as far as he can reach without disrupting Crowley’s position. It feels divine, soothing and relaxing, and Crowley makes a tiny, high chirrup of noise that earns a chuckle from Aziraphale.

            “That’s alright then,” Aziraphale murmurs as he repeats the motion, sending Crowley right to the brink of the same pleasant, drifting stupor as earlier.

            If he says anything else, Crowley is too out of it to notice; and feeling too safe for that to scare him.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley perches upon the rail of his ship, watching the sails of another in the distance. Half an hour ago, his comfortable stupor beside Aziraphale had been interrupted with news of an approaching vessel. A hostile one, judging by the shape of it, and one heading directly toward them. They’d run from it, but it had started to catch up, and so they have decided to stand their ground. Crowley has not seen a lot of navy vessels in his lifetime, as they tend to stick near ports or travel in pairs as they escort some other type of ship, but he recognizes the shape of a ship carrying cannons.

            They are being pursued by a war ship, and the Archangel is not ready to fight.

            Half of her crew have never been in battle from the aggressor's side. Pirate ships are usually so dangerous to encounter that most merchant ships will surrender after only having a warning shot fired across their bow. Eden’s Dove had not, and the Archangel had not managed to restock anything afterward. Getting into a fight with an armed battleship would normally only end one way in that set of circumstances.

            Fortunately, nothing about their situation is normal.

            Aziraphale joins him at the rail, eyes trained on the ship. Crowley glances over at him, tracing the lines of tension that straighten his posture. His anxiety is palpable. Crowley swings one wing up behind Aziraphale protectively and turns his attention back to the sea. It won't be long now.

            “This will work, won’t it?” Aziraphale asks him. His hands grip the rail so hard the joints turn even paler than usual.

            “Yes,” Crowley tells him. He doesn’t know if it is true, but if he cannot hold two ships in thrall, he will leave to destroy the other one by himself. He will make sure it doesn’t matter if his song works.

            “Everyone’s ready,” Aziraphale says, with a sidelong look. Crowley pulls his arm close to his body, hiding the blood-sticky feathers there. He had been liberal in his application of his own blood, to prolong the resistance to his song. It will last until they dilute it too much.

            “I’ve never called a ship to a moving target,” Crowley says. Aziraphale’s nerves are catching. “And I’ve never had to care about their landing.”

            “Yes, I imagine that arrivals to your reef were often quite final,” Aziraphale agrees. “I suppose I should hope the same does not hold true now. They’re coming in awfully fast.”

            Crowley tracks over the full sails of the galley, and the oars out the side of it. “They’ll slow,” Crowley says. “The oarsmen will sleep.”

            “Your song won’t stop the wind.” Aziraphale releases the rail. “There will be no one awake to hand the sails.”

            Crowley twists and looks over to where Dagon stands at the helm. Their own sails have been raised almost completely, nearly stilling them in the water. They have dropped one anchor, so they won’t be going anywhere. They’re braced, waiting. He looks back at the galley. It’s nearly within range.

            “They won’t need to,” Crowley says. “Those kind of ships don’t sail well without oars.”

            He folds his wing, turning away from Aziraphale so that he can fly without hitting him, and then launches himself into the air. While the railing is as good a vantage point as any, Crowley knows his voice will carry farther if he’s as high as he can get. The topgallant yard wobbles a little as he lands upon it, far heavier than its normal winged visitors. The enemy ship is well within range now.

            With one more glance downward to see Aziraphale peering up at him, Crowley begins to sing.

            The song is different this time. Crowley has not had to hold two ships in a very, very long time, not since his first attempts to do so. Back then, he had been trying to put every member of both crews into deep sleep, but now he focuses his energy as best as he can at the ship furthest away. He sings for them, specifically, knowing that his own crew will be caught anyway, but that it will be less effective.

            Unlike the last time he sang, no bodies thump to the ground; the humans of this ship have taken seats or laid down in preparation. They have given themselves up willingly to his song, trusting that he will not bring them harm. Crowley has never been trusted before, not like this, not by so many less powerful creatures. On some level he knows that it should not matter. He knows the trust or mistrust of a handful of mortals is meaningless in the grand scale of time and life.

            Somehow, this does not stop it from mattering.

            He suspects it has something to do with the fiercely avaricious nature of sirens. They are able to sing of desire to mortals because it is threaded into their very beings, to take what they want and keep what they have. He has been given their trust, and he’ll be damned before he allows anything to take it away from him.

            So he sings, and the oars fall still and drag in the water, and the ship slows as it approaches. He sings until the spell is complete and the ship is going as slow as it will go with the wind on its side. Below him, the humans he has spared from his spell with his blood and feathers are scattering around, the Archangel rocking as she turns in place against her anchor to put her rear toward the galley bearing down on them.

            With his spell finished, Crowley spreads his wings and falls from the yard, letting the warm ocean air buoy him upward again. The other ship is still half a mile out, easily within flying distance. Faintly, he hears Aziraphale call his name, but he ignores it. Being on the defense like this will lose them valuable time, and Aziraphale had been correct; the ship, with her battering-ram nose, might still move too fast toward the Archangel, and there’s no time to get a human crew aboard her to stop it.

            There is, however, plenty of time for a siren to wreak a bit of havoc.

            The crew on the other ship lie mostly on the deck, blissful smiles on their faces, eyes vacant. Crowley freezes upon the rail, hunger warring with responsibility. There is a feast here. There is a feast that would last for months in the chilly waters of a deep sea locker, and he has already done the first half of that preparation. He fights the sharpening of his teeth and slithers down to the floor, past the sleeping sailors. None move, too lost in their fantasies.

            Belowdecks, he finds the oarsmen in a similar state. He makes short work of the trappings which keep the oars in place and shoves them each through the holes one by one, out into the sea. They clunk hollowly against the hull as they pass, useless and lost now. The ship will make it back to port safely, but not as swiftly. They certainly won’t have time or ability to worry about the escaping Archangel.

            He pauses only long enough to tell himself he can return for a bite if he wants, and then dashes back up to the deck to continue his self-appointed mission. The Archangel is still dead in the water, Aziraphale standing out white against the wood of her aft end, and coming up faster than Crowley would like. He glances up at the galley’s sails, but he knows he can’t close them alone in time. He flap-jumps over to the port side and leans over the edge, scanning the hull for the anchor instead.

            It hangs at the ready, its chain already attached and threaded through the hawsepipe. He wrinkles his nose. He can’t let it loose from here. He might be able to pull it loose, but that would break the bitts, and he isn’t sure the anchor would actually stop the ship if he does that. However, he is out of time to try to find the release belowdecks, so he jumps the rail and scrabbles his way down to the anchor. His weight rattles it against the hull, but doesn’t seem to have much effect otherwise.

            He seizes the chain in both hands, mindful of his claws, braces his feet against the hull, and yanks. The metal bitts screams and, somewhere on the other side of the pipe, wood beings to splinter. He yanks again and is nearly dragged into the sea by his grip on the chain as the bitts comes free of the floor and begins to twist and roll, sloppily losing chain as it is flung around by the weight of the anchor. His feathers skim the water’s surface as he flaps furiously to get back into the air, and the anchor disappears beneath the waves.

            His claws splinter wood beneath them as he grabs onto the hull, twisting to look at his own ship. They’re coming up slow, but the ram on the front of the galley could still do a lot of damage if the anchor doesn’t reach the bottom here. He scrambles up over the rail of the galley and takes the deck in long, loping strides on all fours until he reaches the other side, where he springs up and launches himself from the rail, back toward the Archangel. They may have time to rotate again, or drop the sails to move a little farther away. It will be close.

            Aziraphale is waiting for him when he arrives. “Its anchor caught it,” he says as soon as Crowley’s wings snap shut. “We’re safe.”

            Crowley looks behind him to see that Aziraphale is right- the ship has listed severely to one side, baring its other side to the Archangel. It is still drifting toward them from its previous momentum, but so slowly now that it is not a danger. The enemy crew will have a difficult time getting the anchor up again, and a worse time getting home. But it has stopped the ship for now, and left it within rowing range.

            “You won’t have much time before the spell wears off,” Crowley tells him. “Not as much as you’d have if we were attacking first.”

            “We don’t need much,” Aziraphale says. They’ve already got two boats in the water, two of the crew in each, heading toward the stranded galley. “Munitions, mostly. We’re currently well-stocked with food and fresh water, and ships like that don’t carry much else of use to us anyway.”

            “They’re like me,” Crowley says, carefully not looking at Aziraphale. “Only made to be very good at destroying things.”

            Aziraphale puts a hand over his claws, but doesn’t look at him when he does it. “Plenty of things in this world are made for uses other than those they find,” he says quietly. “And just because you are very good at something, doesn’t mean that’s what you are made for. Do you understand?”

            Crowley pulls his hand from beneath Aziraphale’s and hops down from the rail, folding his wings away out of sight. “No,” he says. “But there’s a lot I don’t understand about your world. Or you.” He snorts. “Or me, it seems.”

            Head tipping, Aziraphale turns to face him more fully. “How do you mean?”

            The phantom taste of blood sits on Crowley’s tongue, but it is only that- the ghost of his past. The time before Aziraphale. “I didn’t kill any of them.” He shakes his head a little, the words not chasing the taste of iron from his tongue. “I didn’t eat any of them.”

            “Are you hungry?” Aziraphale asks. He doesn’t say it quite like a question, but it’s not an offer or an accusation. Crowley isn’t sure what to make of it.

            “It’s not about being hungry,” Crowley tells him.

            Aziraphale looks him over before speaking, his voice guarded almost as if he fears overstepping a boundary. “Do you like it?”

            It’s a loaded question, and they both must know it. Crowley considers. He’s not sure he enjoys killing, exactly. Certainly it is something he does, and the power of tearing through something is heady at worst, but he’s felt the same from disassembling wrecks on the seafloor so he’s not sure that part counts. The rest of it…

            He remembers the warmth of Aziraphale’s hands on his wings, and the bone-deep sense of being actually content. Happy, even. No kill has ever compared.

            “I thought I did,” he says finally. “And then I met you.”

            “Well.” Aziraphale says it like a conclusion, even though it is anything but. He lets out a breath heavy with all sorts of things Crowley doesn’t recognize. “I won’t regret that, Crowley. Meeting you.”

            We’ll see, Crowley thinks but what he says is: “I should go wake the others. We’ll have to leave soon.”

            Aziraphale nods, and makes no move to stop him when he leaves.

 

Chapter Text

 

            In his millennia of existence, Crowley has gotten quite good at sitting still for long periods of time. He can sit upon his reef and watch the ocean dip and swell. He can float upon those comforting, rolling waves and watch the endless night sky. He can sit at the bottom of the ocean and listen to the near absence of noise, the caress of water all around him. He can even curl up in his nest and all but shut his body down for ages just to think and wait.

            But somehow, a week of watching Aziraphale sleep at night leaves him restless. The room is too open and too closed in at once; it is not tight enough to resemble a nesting nook, and it is not open enough to not feel cramped. He cannot be in the bed at the same time as Aziraphale is asleep, either, not when it would mean both of them lose their guard.

            So tonight he waits. He stays still until he hears the beat of Aziraphale’s heart slow into sleep, until he is well and truly under, and then he slips from the room, up to the wide-open deck.

            In some ways, the ship feels like his reef still. It protrudes from the ocean despite not being attached to anything. It has enough openings and irregular shapes that he feels he can hide and explore. The masts stand tall with plenty of places upon which to perch if he wants to look over a distance.

            In other ways, it is nothing at all like his reef. It moves constantly, both forward and in rocking motions even when it is at rest. Tonight they are anchored far off the shore to rest, on their way to an isle where no men go. The ship makes noises his reef never had- it creaks and groans and cups the whisper of human heartbeats within its hull like precious butterflies.

            And it has got humans meandering about it at all hours, it seems.

            Crowley stops at the top of the steps when he sees her standing at the rail, looking out over the sea. She isn’t doing anything in particular, not even moving, and he wonders briefly if she’s taken ill. Some humans do. Some humans are fine by day, but lose their stomachs overnight when the ground doesn’t stay still. Anathema doesn’t particularly strike him as the type; in fact, he thinks she would probably make a good siren.

            A great, wet huff of air catches his attention, and he realizes then what she is doing.

            There are whales off the port side.

            He lets his wings out a little, slinking closer on all fours. The full moon sits high in the sky, the stars in poor competition to outshine her. Even with the sea as calm as it is, the moonlight shatters like broken glass on the smallest of waves. He hops up to the railing nearby to her, and spots the smooth backs of the whales in the distance.

            Anathema doesn’t startle at his arrival, which is only slightly disappointing. He hadn’t really expected her to. Together they stare out at the whales until vapor blooms in pale columns above them again. Crowley smiles. Judging by the spouts, there are two of them- a mother and her calf.

            “They don’t come this close often,” Anathema says, so quietly that Crowley almost does not catch her words above the splash of water against the hull. “They were singing earlier.”

            “They’re sleeping,” Crowley tells her, even though she must know. Most of this part of the world is sleeping at this hour. Most of the world except for them. He just doesn’t know what else to say.

            “I think one of them is a baby,” she says, leaning forward on the rail just a little. Crowley knows she won’t fall over, but he loosens his wings a little anyway.

            “Yes,” he agrees. “And its mother.”

            It has been a long time since he has spoken to any whales. They are one of the few creatures in the ocean intelligent enough to answer back with any degree of coherency. He rises up a little on his haunches and sings a few notes, long and deep, before he is interrupted by Anathema swatting at him with one hand while hissing.

            “You’ll scare them off!”

            He gives her an affronted look. “I won’t,” he argues. “They’re not scared of me.”

            “Everything’s scared of you,” Anathema informs him, even though he is pretty sure she’s not, and they both know Aziraphale isn’t. “Don’t you eat them?”

            Crowley snorts. “Hardly,” he tells her. “Maybe if I found one dead. But they’re… kind, I suppose. Easy to talk to, and they’ve always got stories to tell. They’ve got great big brains to hold everything they know.”

            She regards him with a strange expression on her face, one he hasn’t seen her make yet. “You… you can talk to them?”

            “What did you think I was doing?” Crowley asks, head tipping.

            “I don’t know!” she sputters, gesturing toward the whales in the distance. “You sing to call ships in to kill things.”

            That sends a lance of something unpleasant through him. Aziraphale’s words from a couple of days ago surface. Just because you are very good at something, doesn’t mean that’s what you are made for. He has sung to do a great deal of killing, but those songs are not the only ones he knows. Killing has not been all he has ever done.

            Another far-off puff of air interrupts before he can figure out what to say about that, and the backs of the two whales disappear beneath the waves. Anathema makes a small, distressed noise, and then turns away from the rail. Crowley does not. He stays put, all of his senses cocked toward where the whales had been until he hears a note of answering song.

            Siren.

            “Anathema,” he says. She stops walking away, but she doesn’t turn back to him. “Come see.”

            Although she hesitates and makes an exasperated noise, she does come back to the rail. Nothing happens for a few minutes, the water shimmering and scattering moonlight without disturbance. Just when Crowley begins to think he had actually scared them off somehow, he sees the glimmer of moving bodies under the waves. Anathema gasps when the pair surface close enough to touch the boat with very little effort. Soft, high notes squeak into the air.

            Danger? Stolen from home?

            Crowley cannot help but feel warm for her soft, defensive questions. She thinks the humans have taken him against his will. He sings back carefully, of the ship’s arrival, and of the creature aboard it that had enchanted him, and of their journey so far. She relaxes, drifting peacefully alongside the boat with her calf.

            Safe. Good humans.

            Good humans, he agrees. Have you tales?

            She is quiet for a minute, and Crowley glances over to see Anathema staring openly at him. “She thought you captured me,” Crowley explains in a low voice.

            “What did you tell her?”

            “That I let you,” he says, leaning over to make sure the whale is still there despite her silence.

            Come clean, the whale says.

            Crowley glances back at Anathema. “Find a bucket, and come down.”

            “Down?” she squawks, but he has already opened his wings and hopped from the rail without further explanation.

            He glides down toward the water, looping in a tight circle so that he can alight upon the whale’s back. She is more than large enough to hold him, a tiny island in a vast sea. Her back is pocked and lumped with barnacles, and Crowley delights in knowing what comes next. He’s never met a whale that didn’t appreciate a cleaning. A bucket splashes into the water beside him, and he looks up to see Anathema climbing over the side of the ship to join him.

            She is still wearing boots, and Crowley knows from experience how slippery a whale’s skin is, so when she has come far enough down the rope, he reaches up to steady her until she has her footing. She braces her feet against the tough shells of the barnacles, and looks at him with eyes so wide he can see whites all the way around.

            “Is this really alright?” she asks, her hands out for balance. “We’re standing on a whale! What if she goes under?”

            Crowley takes the bucket from the baby, who has nudged it over to him with her nose. “She won’t. She invited us down to clean. You can’t, but you can come say hello.”

            Anathema stares at him as if he has told her the water will be dry, but she carefully makes her way over to him. The baby stays, watching with liquid eyes from just below the surface, bobbing gently against her mother’s side. She sinks a little when Anathema kneels, but Crowley sings to her of comfort, and she resurfaces within arm’s reach.

            “She’ll let you,” Crowley says. He wonders if it feels the same to whales, to be pet with warm, human hands. He’s never asked.

            Slowly, Anathema extends a hand, palm toward the baby, until it meets the bumpy, slick edge of a lip. The baby bobs up with the swell of the ocean, and Anathema gives a soft exclamation of delight. “Oh, aren’t you sweet… I’ve never touched a whale before.”

            Crowley watches for a moment as Anathema makes fast friends with the now-eager baby, and then turns back to the mother. She finds you both beautiful, he tells her. She’s right. Stories?

            Whites gather deep, sings the whale as Crowley kneels upon her back.

            It’s the right time, he agrees. The great white sharks usually travel alone, but once in a while they gather in huge groups in the deepest parts of the ocean.

            Atlantis blooms beneath, she tells him.

            That at least, is interesting. It has been a long time since Atlantis last saw a green season. The gods of this world were children then, not yet become gods.

            He lays a palm over the nearest barnacle. Its slimy foot writhes for a second, and then the shell begins to wobble as the creature frees itself of the whale’s skin. Normally they are rooted so deeply into the skin that they cannot be pried off without taking flesh, but Crowley had discovered a long time ago that barnacles abhor a siren’s touch. He has never dared ask if the whales do as well and they are too polite to complain, if so.

            The barnacles, on the other hand, make no secret of their disgust, digging themselves out of the whale’s skin in an attempt to escape. Crowley snatches up the first to come free and crunches into it in delight.

            You’ve seen it? he sings, when his mouth is clear again. He begins to grab up the fleeing barnacles to deposit them in the wooden bucket. Atlantis?

            No. The North sings, she tells him, rolling a tiny bit so he can reach more. Gatekeeper sleeps. You go?

            Crowley glances over at Anathema where she still strokes and scrubs at places the baby cannot reach on her own, and then over his shoulder to where Aziraphale sleeps somewhere aboard the ship. He cannot leave now, or at least he doesn’t want to. Time in Atlantis does funny things, and by the time he would make it back, he may not be able to return to this place, or to these people. He may be lucky enough to come out the other side, to before he met them, but that seems unlikely. He turns back to his task.

            There are greater treasures here, he tells her softly. You go?

            Too deep, she says, almost sadly. No air, even for squid hunters.

            Crowley whistles comfort and agreement. The huge, dark hunter whales are rare in the world, and can reach great depths, but even they have to come up for air sometimes. Atlantis is the sort of place anything which needs air will die before reaching. He had known a few who tried anyway. He is glad he won’t have to convince her not to go.

            The surface is better, he tells her. Safer.

            Storms come east, she says. Not safer long.

            We’ll go south, he assures her. He tosses a few more of the barnacles into the bucket. There are others fleeing straight into the water. Back at his reef, he would have just swum to the bottom to collect them later, since they can’t really move. He is sure he won’t have time now, and even if he did, there’s nowhere to put them. He’s fairly certain the humans won’t want to eat them.

            “What do you talk to them about?” Anathema asks. Her feet are in the water now, her boots beside her on the mother’s back. The sea must be cold, but she doesn’t seem to notice, the baby’s snout between her knees.

            Crowley comes close enough to touch the barnacles on the baby’s lips, and they begin to release. Anathema picks one up as it leaves and goes to toss it into the sea, and Crowley grabs her wrist, plucks the small barnacle from her hand, and pops it into his mouth.

            Anathema makes a noise of disgust. “You can’t just eat those!”

            “I believe I just did,” Crowley tells her around his crunchy mouthful. “Have you tried?”

            “Humans can’t eat those,” she corrects, nose still wrinkled. “I didn’t even think they were edible.”

            Crowley hums, and goes back to touching every barnacle he can reach, glad to have had his theory confirmed. This particular whale is fairly clean- perhaps she has found another siren recently. The vacating roots leave myriad tiny holes in the whale’s skin, but the salt in the water will keep them clean until they close. It should only be days.

            “They sing about the things they see and hear,” he says a little while later. Anathema looks over, not following, and Crowley lobs a large barnacle into the bucket. “You asked what I talk to them about.”

            “What did she say?”

            “There are storms coming from the west,” Crowley tells her. Humans don’t know about Atlantis, and they’ve no need to know about the conventions of sharks. “Sea creatures meeting up. The sort of things you’d expect a whale to say, I imagine.”

            “I never expected a whale to say anything.” She leans forward, rubbing her hands over the baby’s lips as far as she can reach, smile wide.

            Crowley looks over at her, hands stilling. He supposes, given the human propensity for doing things first and thinking about them later, that most of them have probably not stopped to consider what whales might have to say. Most of them probably have not stopped to wonder what any sea creature might have to say.

            She notices his silence, and looks over to see what he is doing, only to find him staring. Her gaze drops a little in chagrin, but to her credit she meets his eyes again. “I didn’t expect sirens to have anything to say, either,” she admits. “I thought you were just… sea monsters.”

            “We are sea monsters,” Crowley says.

            Anathema gives a little shrug. “But not just.”

            Crowley cannot help the small huff he gives in response, nor the warm feeling in his chest at her words. He supposes that she’s not the only one with shifting paradigms. “I didn’t expect humans to have anything to say, either.”

            She raises a brow. “And now?”

            “I’m here, aren’t I?” he asks, which isn’t really an answer, but he doesn’t want to tell her that he’s still deciding. That, in itself, is perhaps an answer, but he’s not yet ready to look at it too closely. “You should climb back up if you don’t want to have a swim. I’m going to clean her belly before I come back.”

            Anathema gathers her boots and her socks and uses the rope she came down on to tie them up. She loops the end of the rope around his bucket’s handle, and he puts a last few barnacles into it to fill it before watching her climb all the way back to the deck. She hoists the boots and the sloshing bucket up afterward, and calls a farewell to the whales before she disappears, hopefully to find dry clothing.

            Crowley slips off the edge of the whale beneath him, into the cold, dark waters. The baby appears from below her mother, but she only watches as he lets the water seep into his form. His feathers recede, replaced by scales, and the scar-like lines on his neck open as gills. He holds his legs together until they bond into a proper tail, giving him the ability to maneuver easily under the water. He sets about his task quickly, not sure he wants to be seen like this. As much as humans fear sirens, they hate mermaids, and Crowley is not keen on revealing they are the same creatures in different states.

            Why humans? the whale asks him as he starts in on the worst clusters, those around her throat. Why pirates?

            Her song sounds better underwater, deeper and fuller. His own voice doesn’t change much, made for above and below the same. I don’t know. It is the truth, at least in part. There is one among them… he feels like a song I would like to sing.

            Do sirens love?

            Love.

            Crowley knows the word, if not the experience. Whales sing of it often, ballads beneath the waves that can be heard for miles and miles. Dolphins chitter of it from time to time, although he suspects they don’t know it the same way as whales. More than a few times, Crowley has drifted alongside fishing vessels to listen to the humans sing at night, and often their songs speak of love, but never of what it really means.

            Sirens, though… if they are capable, he has never heard of it. He has never seen one act the way he wants to act. They do not form pairs or groups of mates. Usually they cannot even stand one another’s company. Love seems out of the question.

            But he thinks of the quickening of his heart, and the warmth in his chest when Aziraphale smiles, and how badly he wishes to stay near. He thinks of how protective he feels, and how only a little while ago he had decided he would rather stay with Aziraphale than return to Atlantis’ gardens. And he thinks that perhaps sirens do love, or perhaps they don’t, or perhaps they aren’t supposed to. He’s not even sure if what he feels counts, with nothing to compare it to.

            I don’t know, he answers truthfully.

            She hums as he cleans the last of the barnacles from her chin, and then rolls in the water so that her belly is on the surface and him with it, cradled against her long, wobbly flipper. His gills burn until they switch back to lungs.

            Find out, she tells him.

            His feathers return after another minute or two, and he spreads damp wings as he stands upon fresh legs. Thank you, he sings softly. Safe journey.

            Good luck, she sings in reply as he flies back up to the rail.

            By the time he has landed, she has disappeared beneath the waves. He watches, senses alert, until he sees her breath pierce the night in the distance, and he wonders what she will have to say about him when next she sings. Gently, he picks up the bucket of barnacles and brine Anathema left sitting out, and heads back toward where Aziraphale yet sleeps.

 

Chapter Text

 

            “What are you doing?”

            Crowley freezes, barnacle in hand, and looks over at the sound of Aziraphale’s groggy voice. Aziraphale is sitting up in bed and squinting blearily at him, the golden sunshine suffusing the room turning his rumpled hair into a softly glowing halo of curls. Crowley pops the other half of the barnacle into his mouth and crunches over Aziraphale’s sound of protest.

            “What are you eating?” he demands, more awake now. He is halfway out of the bed faster than he has so far managed to get out of bed on any other day. “Where did you get that bucket?”

            It looks very much like he is about to try to take Crowley’s breakfast away from him. Crowley scoots backward on the ground, using his feet to shove himself and his sloshing bucket away from the bed before Aziraphale can reach it. This earns him a very admonishing look that does absolutely nothing to stop him.

            “Barnacles,” he says around his mouthful. Anathema had said humans don’t eat them, and there are only a couple left anyway. He doesn’t see the problem. “You wouldn’t like them.”

            Aziraphale’s nose wrinkles. “You shouldn’t like them either, where did you get them? You-”

            “Off a whale,” Crowley explains, but the look on Aziraphale’s face tells him that’s not a better location than wherever Aziraphale had guessed he’d gotten them. “I didn’t steal them, if that’s what you’re worried about.” It occurs to him only after he’s said it that perhaps a pirate, even a circumstantial one, may not care all that much theft.

            “That isn’t- won’t they make you… well, I suppose they wouldn’t make you sick, all things considered,” Aziraphale concludes, watching Crowley eat another with a look that precariously straddles a very wobbly fence between horrified and fascinated. “And I suppose humans have eaten our fair share of strange delicacies. Still, you shouldn’t eat in the bedroom. You’ll encourage rats.”

            Crowley tips his head, crunching loudly. He’s seen rats. He wouldn’t mind a few in the room; they’re delicious. “You had an apple in here, day one.”

            “That’s different,” he says, though he doesn’t explain how. “Anyway, next time please take them down to the galley.”

            Next time. Crowley stares up at him, relishing the soft, warm feeling of those words, and the implication behind them. Aziraphale expects there to be a next time, and he doesn’t want Crowley to change his nature, just his habits. There are rules to follow, but not ones that will unmake him.

            “Alright,” he agrees. He shoves the last, small barnacle into his mouth and then swirls a hand around inside the bucket to make sure there really are no more. He looks up when Aziraphale doesn’t say anything else, only to find Aziraphale studying him with a slightly knit brow.

            “Are you…” Aziraphale begins. “It’s just… you’ve been taking food at a human rate, but I hardly think a human could eat an entire bucket of barnacles, even if they wanted to. How much do you need to eat?”

            Crowley’s gaze sweeps down to the bucket and he considers the question. It has never really occurred to him to think about how much he needs to eat. He just does so. Birds fly and fish swim and sirens destroy and consume. “I don’t know,” he says honestly.

            “Because it’s not about being hungry?” The words are Crowley’s own, from just a few days ago. “You will let us know, won’t you? If you need more.”

            “Yes,” Crowley says. He’s not sure it is the truth. Maybe it’s true he will tell Aziraphale, even if he goes to fetch food for himself.

            Aziraphale lets out a heavy breath and nods, as if he has made some sort of decision. “Why don’t you go empty that bucket while I get dressed. I’ve been a bit busy the last few days, but we’ve plans to be moored by midmorning, and I’ve asked to be left alone once we've arrived. I should like to spend some time with you.”

            “Asking questions?” Crowley asks. Aziraphale had said he would, but he hasn’t. Crowley has gotten more and more curious as to the contents of the books on Aziraphale’s shelves, particularly the one with a siren’s image on the front. He suspects Aziraphale’s questions are catching.

            “If you’d be amenable,” Aziraphale says, looking relieved.

            Crowley doesn’t answer him, but he does get to his feet and pick up the bucket full of brine and head for the exit. Aziraphale will take a bit to get ready, and there’s nothing for Crowley to do while that’s going on, so he crosses all the way to the other side of the ship to dump the bucket back into the ocean. The falling water makes an indent in the ship’s wake, there and gone in an instant. He sets the bucket on the deck, up against the rail where it can be found, and drops to all fours to amble toward the bow.

            Dagon doesn’t even look at him as he passes by, focused on steering with both hands firmly on the big wheel. Crowley supposes that’s just as well; he’s happy to ignore Dagon too, considering that not ignoring them had generally led to more snappy words being exchanged. While Crowley enjoys the exchanges – they go a long way toward explaining to him why some creatures seek out social interaction – they mostly serve to infuriate Dagon, and Aziraphale had already asked Crowley to stop once.

            So he passes by the helm without comment. He hasn’t figured out, yet, the rhyme or reason to who gets to hold the wheel which steers the ship, but he has seen Dagon in the morning more often. Newt seems to prefer the evening, or the black of night. Sometimes it’s Aziraphale himself, or Anathema. Crowley hasn’t cared enough to ask why, but he supposes at some point he should, and wonders if they would ever let him do it for a bit. He’s never actually steered a ship the right way before.

            But three steps past Dagon, Crowley hesitates. The whale had told him there was a big storm coming from the west, and the ship is currently heading due North. They might make it far enough to the side to avoid it, but they also might not, and Crowley has no idea what ships do in storms, besides sink.

            He turns back around. “Dagon?” he says, and receives no answer. “There’s a… a very big storm coming from the west.”

            Dagon snorts. “Clear skies in every direction, siren.”

            “Right now,” Crowley says. “But I got word last night it will change.”

            “The ocean telling you her secrets, now?” Dagon asks, with not a little bit of sneer. “I don’t follow orders from you.”

            While Crowley knows that is only conditionally true, he doesn’t think saying so will help, so he does not. “I’ll be sure to remind your storm-made corpse you said so,” he says instead. Judging by the indignant sputtering noise Dagon makes, this had not been a much better response, but he’s already bounding away to the bow.

            There are not, strictly speaking, many places on the ship that offer unimpeded airflow. The deck is usually busy with humans, and the masts and sails change the way air flows behind them. He has spent a little bit of time at the top of the masts, but the yards wiggle and there are too many moving bits around him- ropes and metal pieces and sails again, not to mention that sometimes there are human up there, as well.

            But here, atop the very tip of the bow, Crowley can spread his wings wide and close his eyes and, aside from where his hands and feet touch the ship, it feels like flying. He could, of course, just go flying, but the ship moves quickly and Crowley has not wanted to risk losing it when it is not moored in place. This is nearly as good, with the wind ruffling through his feathers and the sea rushing by below.

            He stays there, lost in sensation, until he hears the clunk of boots on the deck immediately behind him and turns to find Aziraphale awaiting him. Aziraphale smiles, inclining his head in invitation toward the other end of the ship, to his quarters. Rather than climb back down, Crowley tips forward, pitching off the front of the boat and catching the wind to wheel around and glide to the aft end. This is, strictly speaking, not any faster than walking back with Aziraphale would have been, but it is a great deal flashier and, Crowley hopes, at least a little bit impressive.

            Aziraphale does not comment upon it, just leads him back down to his quarters. He pulls a small writing desk away from the wall and begins to open the bookshelf doors, giving each inside a cursory skim. Crowley watches until Aziraphale pulls the first book and hands it to him, and then his attention is absorbed in gently opening the covers. The pages feel less delicate when they are dry, and he flips through several of them until he begins to see drawings of sirens.

            He looks up as Aziraphale sets two more upon the table. “There is not, you understand, very much literature on your people,” he says as he pulls a small chair over to sit at the desk. “I suspect because most people who ever see – or I suppose hear – a siren do not live to tell anyone about the experience. It’s a wonder anyone knows anything at all.”

            “How do they? Know anything.” Crowley asks. Personally, he’s never left anyone alive when he takes a ship, but that doesn't mean no siren ever had. He wonders if there are indeed others like him, ones that had spent time peacefully among humans.

            “Well, I expect… through others like you,” Aziraphale says thoughtfully. “Not sirens, obviously, but you’re not the only creatures in the sea with a voice. Of course, there’s no citations in these, but they were written by gentlemen who lived very far apart and had no reason to agree with one another on anything, and yet they do. Not- not completely, but enough that I do believe they knew some truths.”

            Crowley looks down at the book in his hands. The figures sketched onto the pages do resemble sirens very closely, aside from the strangely placed obstructions on their chests and at the juncture where leg meets hip. He certainly has never seen an actual siren use scallop shells this way.

            “What do the words say?” Crowley asks, setting the open book on the desk in front of Aziraphale.

            Aziraphale pulls the book closer, rotating it right-side-up so he can read. “Oh, this one talks mostly about anatomy, I believe. I’m fairly certain, given the lack of behavioral description, that Mr. Longton found a siren deceased, and, ah, if you’ll excuse the crudeness of it, took her apart to see what she was. His notes are mostly measurements, lengths and weights and the like. Colors, too.”

            “Did he eat her?” Crowley asks. It seems like a waste if he went to all the trouble to take her apart without doing so, but Madam Tracy had told him two days in that humans don’t eat flesh once it starts to decay. That also seems like a waste, but he’d been informed it makes them sick, so he hadn’t pressed the issue.

            “Goodness no,” Aziraphale rushes to assure him, turning a few extra pages out of what appears to be sheer anxiety over the thought. Then he hesitates, and looks up at Crowley, as if remembering. “Would it have been better if he had? Do you eat your own dead?”

            Crowley lifts one shoulder. “We don’t see our own dead. Or our living, usually.”

            “Quite...” Aziraphale says thoughtfully. He looks down and gently shoves the first book out of the way in order to open another. There is nothing on the front of this one. “Barbeau theorized that sirens only gather when they’re very young. He collected two accounts of groups of sirens that appeared to work together, but that did individually not have the power to put the crew to sleep.” His eyes tick over the words on the page. “Ah, yes. One of the ships made it out unscathed, and the other lost a few members of the crew but ultimately returned to port as well.”

            “Is there a question?” Crowley asks.

            “Yes!” Aziraphale exclaims with a little laugh as he sets the open book on the desk. “Do sirens only gather when young, then? Why can you sing two ships to sleep, when a whole group could not?”

            “I’m very old,” Crowley says carefully. “And they were very new. A siren’s song can enthrall more humans the longer they have been a siren.”

            Aziraphale’s brow furrows. “Were you not always a siren?”

            “I was,” Crowley says. He doesn’t know how to explain the others, or if he should, or if he wants to. Humans, he thinks, would not like the explanation very much.

            “I see.” He flips through a few pages and then reads aloud: “Theories abound as to the origin of a siren’s make. They carry no wombs. They have no means by which to propagate. Most say they are born of shipwrecks; that the soul of a ship takes on a form once she has drowned, so that she may continue to roam the sea. I have heard tell that they form when the sea sprays too high above rocks. Others say they are not created at all, that they have always been a part of the sea for as long as it has existed. I cannot believe the last, else why would any be so young as to gather?”

            Crowley shakes his head when Aziraphale looks to him for confirmation.

            “Ah, well,” Aziraphale says, clearly recognizing that Crowley does not want to talk about it. “I’m sure there are plenty of things humans have gotten wrong about your people.” He pauses, head tipping a little. “Are they a people, after all? Do you have a society? I don’t suppose you ever need to see one another, if you have no need of a mate.”

            “No society,” Crowley tells him. “But there are… things which are done and not done.”

            Aziraphale leans forward, eyes lighting up. “Truly?” he asks. “Valdez wrote a lot about the behavior of sirens, but having spent a little time with you, I don’t think he’s all that accurate. Do you know-” he draws out the last syllable, shifting the books around so he can open the last one, “-he thinks you can turn into mermaids? Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.”

            Crowley looks down at the images of a siren wrapping itself in poorly-drawn kelp – or something which vaguely resembles kelp, the way a barracuda might resemble a shark – and another image of a mermaid clawing its way out of it. The drawings look nothing like an actual transformation, and while Crowley cannot read the notations around them, he has to assume the artist had only guessed.

            “We don’t do that,” he says. It’s technically true, but he feels compelled to add: “We don’t use kelp.”

            Aziraphale makes such a noise that Crowley can’t help but smile. “Don’t joke,” Aziraphale squawks. “You really do? What- do you- are they all- do mermaids even exist, then? Are they all just sirens? Why does it happen? Are you going to change, too?”

            “It’s not permanent,” Crowley assures him. “It’s… well, how else are we supposed to get to the ships we sink? Aziraphale, you don’t think we eat the whole crew at once, do you?”

            That draws Aziraphale up short. “Well I… I hadn’t really considered it, you know. Obviously I knew that you… so you really change? And you can swim down to the bottom? How deep?”

            Crowley tips his head. “Can I swim? As deep as I need to.”

            Aziraphale stares at him, and Crowley can nearly hear his thoughts rabbiting around in circles. “What’s down there?”

            “The past,” Crowley says. “And the very lonely. There’s… other shores down there, ones that rim water which kills anything that goes into it. There’s scalding vents in some places. Leviathan.”

            “Leviathan...” Aziraphale breathes. “You must have seen a lot of places. Have you not always had your reef?”

            Crowley hesitates. He remembers a time before his reef, which means there must have been a time before his reef, but he has always had his reef. It is his. “I… have,” he says slowly. “I explored, and I hear stories.”

            Brow furrowing, Aziraphale says: “I thought sirens were solitary… who tells the stories?”

            “Whales,” Crowley tells him. “Dolphins sometimes. Turtles, if you can get them to talk at all. Rays will tell you stories, but they’re all terrible and never have a point to them. Sharks will pass on just about any gossip, but there’s no telling if it’s true or not.”

            “And you can understand all of them?” Aziraphale asks, flabbergasted. “All those sea creatures, and you understand them? Oh I would like to hear their stories, true or not. Imagine the sorts of books they might write...”

            Crowley’s chest goes warm and soft at those words. Of course this silly human, with his shelves and shelves of books, wants to hear all the stories the deep has to tell. Perhaps Crowley will tell them to him, as time goes on. Perhaps he will trade them for what stories are in Aziraphale’s books.

            There is a somewhat urgent knock upon Aziraphale’s door before he can ask any more questions, and Aziraphale calls for the intruder to enter. The door opens to reveal Newt, who darts a quick, nervous look around the room and at them, before saying: “Dagon needs you at the helm. There’s a storm coming quick on the horizon.”

            “I said there would be,” Crowley points out, even though he’s sure it hardly matters at this point. There’s little chance the ship, as fast as she is, will outrun the sort of storm a whale sings of as news.

            “You told Dagon that?” Aziraphale says, his voice carrying an edge that reminds Crowley he is perfectly capable of killing his own kind. “And they didn’t listen?”

            “I don’t think they like me much,” Crowley tells him.

            “I think they had best learn that when a creature of the sea suggests something may be happening, it’s worth at least considering,” Aziraphale says, waving Newt out. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

            Newt nods and disappears out the door, leaving them alone again. Aziraphale makes a rough noise in the back of his throat and hauls himself to his feet. “I’d best go deal with this,” he says softly. “But I will come back as soon as I can. I have a lot more questions to ask.”

            “Do you want help?” Crowley asks. “With the storm?”

            “No, no.” Aziraphale waves his hands dismissively. “It’s going to be a lot of running about getting things ready very quickly and, to be perfectly honest, you might be in the way. Only because you’ve never sailed before, I mean. Unless- you can’t erm… control the storm, can you?”

            “No,” Crowley tells him. He’s never wished to control the weather before – he actually really loves storms – but he wishes so now. He wants, rather desperately, to protect this vessel and her denizens, but even he cannot keep the sea from taking a ship if she wants it. “There are creatures who can, but sirens are not one of them.”

            “Alas,” Aziraphale says with a small smile. “I’ll bring dinner back with me.”

            Crowley snorts. “What happened to no food in the bedroom?”

            “The rule’s already been broken today,” Aziraphale tells him, smile widening into a mischievous grin. “May as well make it worth it, don’t you think?”

            With that he is gone, and a moment later Crowley can hear him shouting above the sound of the traveling ship. Crowley listens until he loses track of Aziraphale’s voice amid the activity, and then turns his attention back to the books lying scattered upon the desk. The last is still open to the image of mermaids, and Crowley runs a finger over one of the ink drawings before shifting the page to turn to the next. There are more drawings of mermaids, detail shots of eyes and teeth and fingers that end in sharp, sickle claws. The page after that is full of smudged drawings of fins, colored with some kind of dry powder that has blurred the lines.

            It is, he thinks, probably not a great idea to have told Aziraphale that they can shift between forms, but he does not think Aziraphale is included on the long list of humans who hate mermaids. He’s certainly not on the list of humans who hate sirens. In fact, he seems fascinated, nearly enamored of them. In that moment, Crowley is certain that if he asks Aziraphale not to tell a soul about the transformation, he won’t, and Crowley is not sure what to make of knowing someone would protect him.

            Another page turn, and Crowley realizes that the book contains more than information about sirens. There is a seal on the next page, with its skin split and peeling to reveal a woman.

            A selkie, he thinks mildly.

            He’s only met two in his life, both very far from home. Where sirens tend to stay out in the deep, just far enough out that humans do not run aground of them often, selkies are a shore species that love to watch human affairs and are often spotted. They live alongside the seals they resemble or, as the stories more often say, among the humans they can become, if they remove their pelt.

            Crowley has never understood why any of them would choose to risk it, and he has never wanted to ask. Here, on the ship, he may act tame, he may spare the lives of the humans on the vessel, but he may choose to leave. A selkie cannot. Once their pelt has been stolen, they cannot return to the sea unless it is returned to them willingly, no matter what hardship they face at the hands of their human master.

            He cannot fathom being kept like that.

            He traces a finger over the drawing of the half-transformed woman, and wonders if that is how the human who wrote the book had known so much of creatures like sirens and mermaids. A selkie would be able to tell him some, but given the lack of real contact between the two species, the information might not be entirely correct. Crowley hopes that she was released, afterward, but somehow he doubts it, and his heart gives a small, sympathetic twinge. No creature ought to be kept against their will.

            The next page, however, causes Crowley’s blood to run cold.

            It is a drawing of two pelts; one an oval blanket with holes where the fins ought to have been, and one a selkie pelt, in soft browns and greys. The latter does not have holes for the fins; it is smooth and long with a tapered tip that ends in a soft, bristled nose.

            Crowley has seen a pelt exactly like that.

            His attention shifts up, over the desk, to land on Aziraphale’s bed.

            From beneath the thick, plush land animal skin, he can see the dark edge of a seal pelt sticking out.

            Not a seal pelt, he corrects.

            A selkie’s skin.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley stares at the pelt, thoughts going so fast they must be standing still. Aziraphale has a selkie pelt. He has a selkie pelt on his bed and has been using it as a blanket, as casually as anything. Lying there, in the open, where anyone can see. Where Crowley can see.

            Maybe he had thought Crowley wouldn't recognize it, or maybe he'd just wanted to see if Crowley would. Maybe Crowley should have. While he has never seen a selkie’s skin off of a selkie before, he has seen seal pelts in sunken ships. He knows what they normally look like, and he should have seen there was a difference.

            But Aziraphale can’t be a selkie. Crowley would definitely have noticed that; he is certain that selkies have tells the same as sirens do. Crowley’s slitted, yellow eyes are how humans can tell what he is, even if he looks exactly like them in every other way. Having only ever met selkies in seal-form, Crowley has no idea what their tells are, but he’s positive that they have them. They must do.

            Eyes with pupils that have consumed the iris. Long, sharp teeth. Webbed fingers, or maybe webbed feet. There must be something, and Crowley has seen none of it on Aziraphale. Not physical tells, not behavioral tells. In fact, the only odd thing about him is the way Crowley’s song does not affect him like it does the others, but his song hadn’t affected Gabriel either, and he is very certain Gabriel had not been a selkie. Or at least... he had been certain.

            Crowley’s thoughts slow and wrap around that thought like a coiling snake. Gabriel had been Aziraphale’s brother. Neither of the times Crowley had met selkies had he sung to them. He has no idea if can affect them or not.

            Except… In Gabriel’s case, Crowley’s song had not worked at all. In Aziraphale’s case, Crowley can feel the spell working, it just has no effect. Surely, he thinks, if they are a family of selkies, it would affect them – or not affect them – the same way. And anyway, he argues to himself, there is no reason it shouldn’t affect selkies; they have hearts, they desire things.

            No, he does not think Aziraphale is a selkie.

            Unfortunately, the alternative is much worse. If Aziraphale is not a selkie, then that means he is keeping a selkie’s pelt away from them. There is a good chance, given the story he'd told Crowley about his past, that the pelt had not been not stolen by him; if the bed had belonged to Gabriel, the pelt may have too. However, Aziraphale had said they’d held the ship for months- more than enough time to return a pelt. There is no way Aziraphale hadn’t recognized it the second he saw it- there are drawings right there in a book he clearly frequents.

            So then, Crowley concludes, even if Aziraphale hadn’t stolen it, he hasn’t given it back, and that thought alone is chilling. Crowley lets out an unsteady breath and skirts around the edge of the desk to approach the bed. Gently, he brushes aside the white pelt atop it, and runs his palm flat over the skin beneath. It is warm to the touch; unlike a seal’s pelt, a selkie’s pelt keeps the same temperature as the selkie to whom it belongs. Crowley should have known by that alone. He should have seen he is in danger, and should have recognized he is not the only one.

            He does not know how he will find the selkie, not without alerting Aziraphale, which he knows now he cannot do. The thought brings about a new fear; if Aziraphale is willing and able to keep one supernatural creature enslaved, then he is willing to keep two, which explains entirely too much. It explains the way he had felt when he saw Aziraphale the first time, and why he had allowed humans to take him away from his reef without a fight. It explains the way his heart quickens, and why he feels such an insatiable need to protect Aziraphale, why he wants to stay near, why a human hand on his wings feels so placating.

            He is under some sort of spell, as well, and he is going to need help if he is to break it.

            If he can find the selkie, and give their pelt back to them willingly, then they should be able to help him in return. Sirens and selkies are not natural allies, but nor are they natural enemies; as creatures of the sea trapped aboard a vessel for creatures of the land, he believes the selkie will want to help him. He has to believe they will get out of this together. At the very least, perhaps the selkie can leave in secret to fetch help.

            He just… has to figure out who it is, first.

            Having decided, Crowley tugs the skin out of the bed and rolls it up, mindful of the soft fins and delicate face. A selkie may not be able to steal their own skin back, but he sure as the tides can steal it for them. Except… he doesn’t have anywhere to put it. Aziraphale has had months longer to explore the ship, and Crowley is fairly certain any of the crew will help Aziraphale look for stolen goods. Even the selkie, bound by the rules of the magic which governs them, will be forced-

            Except, he realizes, perhaps not. Crowley holds the skin now. Aziraphale had told him the bed was his, and perhaps that includes the blankets.

            He looks down at the pelt. “Come to me,” he orders it.

            Nothing in particular happens, and he’s not really sure what he had thought would. He waits several more minutes, until he’s sure it hasn’t worked, before he settles the pelt back upon the bed. If he cannot control the selkie like that, then he will leave the pelt here so as not to arouse suspicion with Aziraphale.

            With as much stealth as a siren can possibly manage while trapped on a vessel full of humans, Crowley steals out of the room and up to the top of the stairs, where he presses himself close to the floor and watches the humans scurry back and forth across the deck. He can smell and taste the storm on the wind now, and knows it will be rough. The ocean has given him cover at an opportune time, it seems. With Aziraphale so distracted, Crowley will be free to investigate all of the other humans, until he finds the one that is not.

            He spends half an hour there, watching for tells that might give away a seal in disguise, but none are forthcoming. The humans behave as humans do, shouting to one another, lifting things which need lifting, moving things which need moving, and tying things which need tying. They have already put the storm to the ship’s rear end and are racing away from it on the winds which precede it. Of course it will catch up eventually, but they are preoccupied with making sure eventually is as far off as possible.

            He watches Anathema for a long while. She is fierce and scarred and unafraid of him. The day of his arrival, she had protested his presence, but even though she had disagreed so loudly and obviously, Aziraphale had been positive that she would not mutiny. Does he have control of her? Is she being kept here against her will? She’d had such an affinity for the whales when he’d brought her down to them.

            But, he thinks, she should have been glad to see him, knowing he could help. She would have said something last night with the whales, told him what she is. She would have asked him for help if he hadn’t offered yet.

            No, it cannot be Anathema.

            He tracks his eyes over Dagon, who had been disdainful of him, and Newt who had been frightened of him. He can see the children ducking around the adults, and thinks that the pelt is too large for any of them. He thinks of the raiders Aziraphale had chosen the day Crowley sang them a battleship to pirate- Beelzebub and Hastur and Ligur who are, at best, indifferent and at worst a bit hostile. He thinks of Shadwell in the galley, ready to fight him, and of Madam Tracy, who-

            Oh, he realizes.

            She’d hardly batted an eye at him, offering him food the second they had met. She smiles at him, and gives him treats every time he visits. She had never outright said she is a selkie, but he is certain of it the moment he thinks it.

            He heaves himself off the steps and prowls across the deck on all fours, low and slinky, until he reaches the opposite stairs down to the galley. Madam Tracy is not behind the counter anymore; she sits at one of the tables across from Shadwell, her hands occupied with some kind of small, sharp weapons. Crowley freezes at the sight, unable to process the awful noise coming from Shadwell, whose back is to him, and the intricate play of Tracy’s weapons as they tangle up strings.

            “Hello there, Mr. Crowley,” Tracy says, before Crowley’s senses can catch up entirely. The twangy sound Shadwell had been producing cuts of with a severe note and he turns to see as well. “If you’re hungry, I’m afraid there won’t be much of anything fresh tonight, what with the storm coming in, but you can help yourself to anything in the larder if you like.”

            “Y’can’t just offer him all the food!” Shadwell protests, twisting in his seat to glare at Crowley. “He’ll go an’ eat it all if he eats a bite. Where’s yer captain, lad?”

            “He’s not my captain,” Crowley manages to say, around the shipwreck of his thoughts. “What are you doing?”

            “Me?” Tracy asks, her hands stilling as she looks at her weapons. Her eyes flick up. “It’s knitting, haven’t you- I suppose you wouldn’t have seen it before, would you? I’m making socks.”

            Crowley knows the word, knows the article of clothing the word means, but he doesn’t understand how she’s using weapons to make them. Maybe Crowley doesn’t understand weapons. He decides none of this is the point of his visit, and tips his head to consider the human before him, searching for any sign of a tell. Her eyes look normal, her hair is a human shade of red, her fingers have no webbing…

            “Tracy, may I see your teeth?” he asks, as politely as he knows how.

            Shadwell hackles, but before he can begin to bluster, Madam Tracy smiles broadly, baring her perfectly human teeth. “Is something the matter, dear?” she asks him, setting down her task.

            There’s only one other thing he can think of that might possibly give away a selkie. “May I see your feet?”

            “Now hold on a minute there, monster-” Shadwell begins.

            “Mr. Shadwell,” Tracy says over the top of him, and then looks at Crowley in a way that makes him feel like she can see right to the core of him. “What’s this about?”

            While he doesn’t particularly want to explain in case he is wrong, if he is not, then he needs her to cooperate so he can save her. He glances uneasily at Shadwell, wondering if the man knows, wondering if he’s gone along with it. Wondering if he, too, knows how to hold a nonhuman creature in thrall. Crowley's blood runs just hot enough at the thought that he hisses: “I want to see if your feet are webbed.”

            “Now see here!” Shadwell practically shouts, halfway to his feet before he finishes the exclamation. Crowley’s claws are already out, but they are both stilled by Madam Tracy getting to her feet as well.

            “That’s enough of that,” she says, without raising her voice at all. “My feet are perfectly normal, Mr. Crowley. Perhaps you’d best take a bit of food and be your way for now.”

            Crowley doesn’t take any food, but he does bare sharp teeth at Shadwell for good measure before whirling out of the galley and back up onto the deck. The first few drops of rain have begun to fall as the storm catches up with them, and Crowley trades feathers for scales over most of his body so that the water slicks right off. His inner lids close as he looks up to the sails. The normal ones have been exchanged for ones much smaller and differently shaped.

            When he looks down, he catches sight of the only thing not moving on the deck- Anathema, paused to stare at him with a knit brow. He stares back for a moment before dropping down to bolt for the cover of Aziraphale’s quarters. He doesn’t actually go down to the room, but flattens himself back into his observational stance on the steps, lying low.

            So he’d been wrong about Tracy. Nothing about her had physically said selkie, and he hadn’t sensed anything inhuman about her. Shadwell either. It is possible, he considers as the rain begins to fall in earnest, that there is no way to tell a selkie from a human while someone else owns their skin. Maybe they look and sound and feel exactly like a human.

            But Crowley is unwilling to give up, not so quickly. There are members of the crew he’s never spoken to, and ones he has that he didn’t take much note of, so preoccupied with Aziraphale as he had been. He may not be able to ask Aziraphale about anyone without getting caught, but there are plenty of humans around. He can ask questions. He can figure this out.

            And he won’t give up until they are both free.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

            There are, Crowley discovers, twenty-seven humans aboard the Archangel and although he has met at least half of them already – or rather, more than half of them have been introduced even if Crowley doesn’t remember their names – the remaining half do not seem keen on his attention. He does give it his best effort, slinking around the deck in the pouring rain trying to catch glimpses of eyes or hands or anything else which might give away a selkie, but he mostly succeeds in getting in the way and unnerving the individuals he investigates.

            The problem, he assesses, is that he doesn’t know what he’s looking for in the first place, and the ship is under-crewed by at least a few good humans. He guesses the latter is what comes from getting into fights with pirates and combining whoever survives it, but their preoccupation with desperately trying not to tip over into the sea despite their lack of hands does not make them amenable to answering distracting questions. It also does not make them very tolerant of pesky sirens getting in their way, which is how Crowley finds himself face-to-face with an Anathema who looks about two seconds from putting her boot to him.

            “You’ve been in the way all day, what are you doing?” she yells at him over the roar of the wind. “Have you noticed there’s a storm on?”

            Obviously he had noticed, so he does not think that’s a question she actually wants answered. “I’m looking for someone,” he snarls back, even thought it’s not particularly any of her business.

            She scowls. “Aziraphale will come back to his quarters as soon as we’re safely out of this. Go wait for him out of the way!”

            “Not him!” Crowley says, and then ducks his head a little as he realizes what he’s admitted to. He’s not shown much interest in anyone else, yet.

            Anathema stumbles a little as the ship pitches down hard over the crest of a sharp wave, and Crowley flings a wing forward to steady her, even though she already has her hand on a rigging. “Who?” she yells, brows knit in accusation.

            Crowley shakes his head a little. How can he tell her? How can he possibly explain? She’s just as human as Aziraphale, or at least, she is as far as he can tell. If he chooses wrong, if he asks the wrong person for aid, he’ll give himself away before he can do anything to help the selkie or himself. He’ll give them both away, and lose whatever hope he currently has of escape.

            In his moment of hesitation, Anathema’s expression softens and she steps closer. “Who’re you looking for, Crowley?”

            “I don’t know,” he says. He doesn’t like the feeling of helplessness that follows in the wake of the admission, nor the vulnerability of waiting even the few seconds until her response.

            “You don’t know?” she says. “How do you-”

            “Please!” he says, over the howling wind. “I need- I need to find someone.”

            She stares at him for a long moment, rain-soaked and blustered by the wind, before finally making an exasperated noise and grabbing his arm near the shoulder. Crowley flinches at the sudden motion, but her hand is soft and she isn’t attacking; she’s moving them both, steering him toward the steps down to the crew quarters. He lets himself be dragged, until they are out of the rain, water running off them both in rivulets.

            “What’s going on?” she asks, as soon as she’s closed the door behind her. Everyone else is abovedecks fighting the storm, leaving the rooms below deserted. She has taken them where they can be alone, even if it is not much quieter. “You’re acting really weird. Well, weirder than usual, I mean.”

            Despite the relative calm, he still finds it difficult to say what he knows he must. He wants to trust her, but it’s too much for him to give her that kind of power over him so readily, with no way to know how she will use it. “What would-” he begins, nerves cutting him off. He swallows. He’s going to have to trust someone, and Anathema has trusted him before, with the whales. “Would you help someone, if they were being kept on this ship against their will?”

            This brings a scowl of concern to her face, and she moves a little closer as if she thinks they will be overheard by the empty room. “Is it you?” she asks. “Crowley, if he-”

            “It’s not me,” Crowley tells her in a rush, already feeling better. Her tone says she absolutely would have helped him, if he'd been the one in danger. Maybe she still will, when he’s ready to admit it’s also him. “I just… I don’t know who it is.”

            “You’re doing a terrible job explaining this, you know, if you-”

            “There’s a selkie,” Crowley interrupts quickly, before she can get too cranky. “I found its pelt in Aziraphale’s bed. And it was Gabriel’s bed first, which means...”

            “It belonged to Gabriel. Or, more likely, to someone on Gabriel’s crew,” she concludes for him, and he nods agreement. “I’m sure Aziraphale knows that, but we- half their crew died by our swords the day we met. If the selkie was still alive, Aziraphale would have given its pelt back to it.”

            “No,” Crowley says, low and sad. “The pelt’s still warm. The selkie’s alive, and Aziraphale hasn’t given it back.”

            “But that- that doesn’t make any sense,” she says, looking stricken. “He… He’s not… he doesn’t...” She quiets then, eyes a little unfocused as she thinks. She straightens. “Okay. What do you want to do about it? I assume you’ve been underfoot all day trying to figure out who it belongs to.”

            “I don’t know how to tell,” Crowley admits miserably. “I’ve only met selkies twice, and they weren’t human-shaped. I thought they might have a tell, like my eyes, but...”

            Anathema lets out a breath and shakes her head, eyes swooping up toward the ceiling as she thinks. “You’re going to have to ask someone from Gabriel’s crew. We only met a couple of months ago, and we’ve been so busy trying to make things work that I haven’t noticed anything either.”

            While this is not what Crowley wants to hear, it is not entirely unexpected, either. “So... who do you trust? From his crew.”

            “Newt,” she says, without hesitation.

            “Newt?” Crowley echoes, unable to keep confusion from his voice. He’d been certain Newt was one of Aziraphale’s original crew. He was so clean, so shy, Crowley had assumed there is no way he could be a proper pirate.

            “Yeah. He knows the other crew pretty well. He’s sailed with them since he was young, and he’s the nicest out of the whole lot, except maybe the kids,” Anathema tells him. “You don’t think it’s one of the kids, do you?”

            “It's too big,” Crowley says honestly, not paying attention anymore as he moves for the door. He pauses and doesn’t quite look back at her. “How old was Newt, do you think?”

            Anathema doesn’t answer until Crowley turns to look at her fully. “He was a kid,” she says quietly, the words almost drowned by the pounding of the rain on the ship. “Most of Gabriel’s crew were stolen from other vessels as kids. He won’t talk about it, but the others have said he was a teenager, a little older than Adam and the others. Fifteen, maybe. You really think it’s him?”

            Crowley doesn’t answer, just turns back and pulls open the door, bounding up into the rain with his nictitating lids closed. Newt is precisely where Crowley expects to find him, standing near Dagon at the helm, calling directions. He freezes when he sees Crowley and unlike the other times they have met, he isn’t quick enough to lower his eyes. They’re no different than a human’s, blue like the ocean’s shallows with small, round, human pupils.

            But Crowley sees himself in them as their eyes meet. He sees the flash of guilt, of shame, and he knows he has guessed right this time.

            “Come with me,” he demands over the howling wind and rain.

            “We’re kind of in the middle of something!” Dagon yells. Newt just continues to stare, mute and captive in Crowley’s gaze.

            “Come with me,” Crowley repeats, and Newt takes a step forward. Crowley can see the question in every line of his body, and he nods, turning away. He does not look behind him as he heads for Aziraphale’s quarters, but he does glance at Anathema as they pass, and sees the way her eyes slide behind him to land on Newt, and he knows he is being followed. He hopes Anathema has the sense to keep Aziraphale away from them until Newt is free.

            Crowley pushes through the door and is across the room before Newt is even all the way inside. The pelt is still warm to the touch as Crowley drags it off the bed, as gently as he is able. He doesn’t know if selkies can feel what is done to their pelts. He hopes not.

            Newt doesn’t seem surprised at all to see it. He stares, still mute and now a little sad, when Crowley holds it out to him. He doesn’t raise his hands to take it.

            “It’s yours, isn’t it?” Crowley asks. He’s sure. He’s certain.

            Newt makes no move to confirm or deny the accusation, just inhales deeply and lets it out slowly. “That isn’t yours to give to anyone,” he says carefully. “The captain has a lot of books. Perhaps one of them has an answer for you.”

            “I can’t read,” Crowley says, frustrated. Of course it cannot be this easy. He should have known he can’t steal the pelt himself. Whether it is because he is not human or because the pelt cannot be stolen outright at all is unclear, but at the moment it doesn’t seem to matter. Newt isn’t even trying to take his own skin back.

            “Then ask him to read to you,” Newt says. “I have to get back to the helm.”

            “Because he’s making you?” Crowley asks. “I can help. I can save you. Just tell me what to do.”

            “I did,” Newt says as he turns away, not waiting for Crowley’s response before disappearing up the stairs and back into the storm. Water runs into the room from outside, draining through the small vent holes along the entrance.

            Crowley snarls in his wake, and chucks the pelt back upon the bed.

            Fine, he thinks. There’s something in the books, in the words he can’t read. If that’s true, then Aziraphale has read them. If that’s true, it means Aziraphale knows better. And now that Crowley knows who the selkie is, there’s no more reason to hold back his fury.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley spends the next half hour prowling around Aziraphale’s room, working himself into a state, listening to the storm howl, feeling it toss the ship about like an orca with a seal. It doesn’t take long before he can no longer pull in his claws, until his teeth are so sharp they can cut bone. Scales have come in everywhere there are not feathers and his face has become a proper snout again, perfect for rending and tearing.

            He is a siren.

            And he is furious.

            Humans have put him under a spell and taken him away from his reef, and he had just let them. He has even used his song to help the very human who had done it, and he is not the only creature being kept.

            Are you being kept?

            The words clatter around his frenzied mind. He hadn’t thought so. He had thought his actions were his own. He had thought he set foot upon this vessel of his own free will. He had thought he could leave.

            But he does not want to leave, even now, even livid and nearly feral with- with… with pain, he realizes, loosing a snarl. He had liked being here. Less than a week and he’s been made weak. Wanting to stay with humans. Wanting to protect them. Wanting to protect one, in particular. He freezes in the center of the room, panting as he tries to wrestle down the sharp clench his heart gives at that thought.

            He had wanted this to be real. He still wants this to be real.

            He cannot wait for the storm to give out. He has no idea how long it will take to reach the southern edge of it to escape, if they can manage it at all. He cannot stand this feeling that long. He’s barely survived it for minutes.

            The door is difficult to open with such long claws, but he manages not to just shred it to get through. The wind nearly does it for him, blasting the door into the room so hard it actually hits him. He leaves it open, bounding up the stairs and onto the deck with his wings pulled tight to his body so he cannot be similarly blustered around.

            The winds blow across the deck at an angle and Crowley can feel the shiver of water against the hull as the wind hauls them through it by the storm sails. They’re heading south west, partially into the oncoming storm if he’s any judge, following the air current but using it to speed them toward the side of the storm to get out from in front of it. Steering into the storm will leave them in it longer, but there’s a better chance the ship will not be torn apart trying to cut straight across the air stream.

            Clever humans.

            Something comes flying at him, carried by a whip of wind, and Crowley ducks, not even sure what it is before it is gone. His fury dampens considerably as he watches the humans desperately trying to keep their ship heading in one direction and intact. Aziraphale is in the thick of it, yelling things that are swallowed up by the wind before they ever reach Crowley. For just a moment, their eyes meet, and Crowley’s heart gives another hard twist, dropping into his belly at the look of concern which crosses Aziraphale’s face. It looks so genuine.

            Then something really does hit him, from the wrong side this time. He whirls around to face his attacker, only to find Anathema glaring at him. She’s got hold of a rigging with one hand and something unidentifiable held in her other like she’s going to throw it next, and she’s close enough that he hears her when she yells: “Help us!”

            For a second he is torn, but only a second before he sweeps up the deck toward her, one wing out to offer to her for safety. She would have helped him. She wants to help him, and Newt, and for that he will not let her die, even if it means saving the rest of the ship. She understands, or if she doesn’t she at least trusts him, sheltering under the bulk of his body as she returns to fighting the storm.

            He helps.

            There is not time to dwell upon anything else while he is in the storm. Crowley has weathered thousands of storms in his long life, but he usually shelters beneath the waves, or holes up in his nest. Storms like this, the sort that travel from the deep ocean into the shore and carry on over it for a time, twisting in a great vortex of water and debris, are not made to be survived at the surface. The Archangel, though, had fled close enough to the edge of it that there is hope.

            It is hours before Crowley stops moving. While he does not need warmth or to be dry, he must fight the urge to hunker down and wait out the storm. He must force himself to keep going, to follow the directions Anathema gives, to travel between the front and the rear of the ship carrying directions or lending strength. Two hours in, a wave crashes over the rails and sweeps three humans off the other side when it leaves. Crowley dives without thinking and pulls two humans from the deep, back to safety. They disappear belowdecks and do not return. Crowley never finds the third.

            There are twenty-six humans on the ship, and that is at least four too few to survive.

            But they do.

            Crowley barely recognizes the sun when it begins to lighten the clouds above. They have sailed the edge of the storm for so long he has forgotten anything else exists. The rain relents just a little, and Crowley so acutely feels its lack he nearly wants it to return. His wings are too soaked to fly and yet he’s surrounded by too much air to shift to his aquatic form, and it is uncomfortable. His discomfort has nothing upon the state of the exhausted humans shambling around the deck, pulling the sails and turning the ship toward the growing sunshine.

            Newt has remained at the helm the entire time. Crowley has watched him, between tasks and as best as he could through the sheeting rain, but the selkie had not left his post for anything. While his attention had stayed mostly on the ship, Crowley had caught Newt staring more than once, and Crowley is desperate to demand why.

            Why had Newt refused to even speak of it? Why had Newt not taken the pelt when Crowley offered? Why had he told him to read the books of men? They should have both been gone by now, taken to the cold, clear waters of the ocean and left this wretched ship behind to make her way without them. The only conclusion Crowley can reach is that Newt cannot take the skin; that Crowley, who is not human, cannot steal the pelt from a human for him. It would explain why humans were ever able to hold the pelt of a selkie against their wishes.

            It takes them another hour more before they are truly out of the storm and into softer waters, but once they have the sails switched back to normal ones, it feels safer. Crowley climbs to a vantage point upon one of the yards to watch the storm recede into the distance, and he stays there until they are far enough to see the shape of the hurricane. It is a massive thing, a column of fierce destruction topped by a wide swath of swirling clouds. They shouldn’t have survived it. At least, the humans shouldn’t have survived it.

            Then again, he supposes, not all of them had.

            A flash of white below catches his eye and he sees one of the humans staring up at him. He stares back, wondering if it can even read his expression when he is in his full true form. There is hardly anything sapient about him anymore; he is more storm and fury than something which speaks to men.

            It calls to him, and Crowley blinks slowly, not recognizing the word for a moment.

            His name.

            Had he really given the humans his name so easily?

            He doesn’t answer. They shouldn’t want him to. They shouldn’t want him near their ship, not if they want it on this side of the surface.

            And yet… he feels no call to sink it.

            He is under a spell.

            “Crowley! Are you alright?”

            He blinks again, slower, and stares out at the receding storm. That is where he belongs, in the heart of a furious storm. Lying beneath the waves, watching it claw uselessly at the ceiling of the ocean, unable to reach him. He is not made to sit upon a ship that yet sails. He is not made to live among humans.

            “Crowley?”

            He is not… made to feel the pained twist of his heart, to hear his name in that tone, spilling from those lips. He should not have a heart at all, but the human below him has given him one. Placed it right into his chest without asking and made it beat for him.

            Aziraphale. He remembers the name, now. His captor.

            He spreads his wings wide and the sunlight behind him warms his dark feathers. He is too sodden to fly, even if he had the freedom to do so.

            Instead, he folds his wings and slithers down the mast. Aziraphale is gone by the time he reaches the floor, but a flick of Crowley’s long tongue tells him the human has retreated to his bedroom. He is heading for the pelt. Crowley’s stiff lips peel back from his teeth, and he dashes forward, across the deck. He bounds down the stairs and through the open door, scrabbling abruptly to a stop.

            The room is in disarray. The floor is soft with soaking and anything that had not been closed into the cabinets lays scattered on the floor. In the middle of the room, Aziraphale is scooping up baubles and instruments with small tutting noises. He has just scooped up one sodden book from the floor when Crowley enters, and Crowley feels a flash of hot anger return.

            “Read!” he snarls, voice full of oil and gravel.

            Aziraphale jumps and turns to look at him. “You stayed!” he exclaims, clutching the book to his chest. “I thought for sure you were going-”

            “Read!” Crowley demands. The sound barely resembles the word, and certainly doesn’t sound human after crackling from his long snout. He is not used to speaking human tongues in his true form.

            “Read?” Aziraphale echoes uncertainly, and is answered only by a low, dangerous hiss from Crowley. He looks down at the book in his hands, and then holds it up. “What, this?”

            “Sssssselkie,” Crowley hisses. He has taken up the entire doorway now. There is nowhere for Aziraphale to go unless he complies.

            Aziraphale gives him a confused look, but he opens the damp book and pages through it until he reaches the illustrations of selkies. “You… know about them?” he asks softly, looking up again. “You recognize these pictures?”

            Crowley hisses again, wings mantling high.

            “Yes, yes,” Aziraphale says quickly, putting a finger to the paper. “It says, ah… selkies are well-known to remove their outer skin in order to walk amongst men. The outer skin resembles that of a seal, though which species varies regionally. The coat of a selkie can be differentiated from that of a true seal in two ways; the pelt of a selkie will not shed hairs and it will be warm to the touch, as though it still ensconces its owner within. Crowley,” he says, looking up again. “What’s this all about? I assume-”

            With a shriek, Crowley springs halfway to him, towering over him in full display. Any other creature might have had the sense to back down, to cower, but Aziraphale just stares back at him, sure in his ability to control Crowley through whatever spell he has used. As sure has he had been of Anathema, as sure as he must be of Newt.

            “READ!” Crowley demands again.

            “I won’t,” Aziraphale tells him stubbornly, snapping the book shut. “And that’s not how you ask someone for help. If you want-”

            “Help?” Crowley snarls, his claws curling into the soft wood beneath his feet. Were it not for the fact that he needs Aziraphale to return the pelt himself, Crowley would strike him down over that insult alone. Or at least, he might try, might fight the tightness in his chest, the way his heart feels as though it will break if he dares to breathe. “I don’t want help. I want to hear that you know the rules. I want to hear that you know you hold a selkie prisoner. That you-”

            “I haven’t got a selkie kept-” begins Aziraphale indignantly.

            Crowley looses a deeply inhuman scream and Aziraphale ducks, covering his head as Crowley leaps over him to land upon the bed with such force the frame creaks and nearly cracks. His claws retract before he snatches the pelt from the pile and tosses it to the floor at Aziraphale’s feet, his teeth bared. “Do not lie to me, human. Did you think I would not know? That I would not find out?” he asks. His voice should sound as furious as he feels, but it cracks down the middle and spills out all the hurt. “Did you think I would let you keep me, as well?”

            But Aziraphale doesn’t appear to be listening. He stares at the pelt in bewilderment, brows drawn. “No, but I… I’m sure I… Crowley, I told you the bed issn’t mine,” he says, dragging his gaze up. “Gabriel- Do you know?” He bends to scoop the pelt from its rumpled pile on the floor with a sort of reverence. “Are you saying you know whose pelt this is? How did you- Whose is it?”

            Crowley’s fury ebbs against his will at the sincerity of Aziraphale’s tone. It is almost as if he truly hadn’t known. “Newt’s,” he answers, before he can stop himself.

            With a curt nod, Aziraphale gathers up the pelt over his arm so that none of it touches the floor, and then gives Crowley a stern look. “We are going to discuss this when I return, because no part of this was the appropriate way to address a problem, but right now there are more pressing matters- like getting this back to its proper owner. Come along if you like.”

            With that, he bustles out of the room, leaving Crowley staring at his retreating back. Crowley’s wings sag until his primaries press uncomfortably against the bedding. This is not, strictly speaking, how he had imagined this encounter would go. Carefully, he slinks over the board at the foot of the bed and trails in Aziraphale’s wake until he reaches the deck, and then he cannot convince himself to go any closer.

            Crowley watches from across the deck as Aziraphale climbs to Newt, who still stands at the helm. Or slouches against it, at any rate, only perking when he sees Aziraphale approaching carrying his skin. Crowley’s heart leaps into his throat with anxiety as Aziraphale speaks words Crowley cannot hear, and then holds out the pelt to Newt.

            He’s giving it back.

            No fuss, no questions, no fight.

            Crowley had revealed the owner and Aziraphale had taken the pelt straight back to him, and this time Newt accepts it without hesitation. He holds it, nearly at arms length, staring at it as though it might bite him, and finally looks up at Aziraphale.

            Crowley expects him to put it on. He expects him to turn back into a seal and flee the ship, to escape into freedom now that it has been given to him, but Newt just clutches the pelt to his chest.

            Then Crowley’s heart stops entirely as Newt attacks Aziraphale.

            Crowley’s wings are open and he is down in a crouch to spring to flight when he realizes that neither of the two have moved. Newt has pinned Aziraphale in place, both arms around him, but Aziraphale has not begun to struggle. Instead, his own arms have slowly come up around Newt, hands patting gently at Newt’s back until Newt releases him.

            Newt’s joyful cry reaches Crowley on the wind, and it sounds like a name more than anything. It sounds like he’s called for Anathema, and he might have done with the way he dashes away from the sea and right belowdecks. Crowley watches in confusion, frustrated and feeling worse by the second.

            He drags his gaze back to Aziraphale, who stands now at the helm, his hands on the wheel that steers the ship. Dagon is nowhere in sight and Newt has abandoned his post, and they still have a long way to go to get to anywhere they can safely moor the ship and rest. Guilt flushes hot and acrid through Crowley as he stares at Aziraphale, still crouched to come to a rescue Aziraphale hadn’t needed.

            The sick feeling twisting his stomach is worse than regret, worse than guilt, worse than being betrayed. He had accused Aziraphale of something awful, something that had clearly had no truth to it; Aziraphale had returned the pelt the moment he had known he could. Aziraphale had not been holding Newt against his will; and if that is true, he may not be holding Crowley either.

            We are going to discuss this when I return.

            Crowley does not want to discuss this. He does not want to be turned away from the ship for his behavior. He has ruined so much, and he does not think he can stand to listen to Aziraphale reprimand him, ask him to leave.

            So he springs from his crouch and up into the air, his wings spreading wide. They are still damp and he must work harder than usual to stay airborne as he passes over the ship. Aziraphale calls his name as though it can call him back, but Crowley ignores it. At least he still has that much will.

            He angles himself toward the raging storm in the distance, and then follows the ship’s wake until it fades away into the ocean. When the sea no longer holds any trace of the ship’s passing, Crowley folds his wings and plunges into it. The water is cold and clear, not yet disturbed by the churning storm, and Crowley keeps going until he hits the sea floor, seeking the numb relief of the deep.

            There, he wraps his sinuous tail around himself, and he sleeps.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

            Something bumps into Crowley.

            He rumbles irritably, and feels the swift-current swirl of a creature fleeing.

            For one long, sleep-sticky moment, Crowley hangs in the balance between sleep and waking, teetering close to falling back in. He can hear the sound of the storm in the distance and the shift of sand under his tail and the rapid, high clicks of chatter from nearby. The deep water is cold against his skin, the current pulling sluggishly at him without actually moving him. He becomes aware of it all bit by bit, right up until he realizes that he’d been unaware.

            He flails, churning up sand, claws lashing at something he cannot touch.

            He had slept.

            Freezing up, Crowley tries to get his senses back in order. He can see the grey and tan forms of dolphins nearby, watching him, and understands that one of them must have tried to wake him; it had braved coming close enough to nudge at him. Slowly, he gulps down long pulls of water, feeling it pass through his gills, the soothing motion calming him. As the minutes pass, the dolphins drift closer, their pod shifting and breaking as they gain and lose members to the need for air.

            “You are hurt?” asks one at the forefront of the pod, as soon as she is close enough.

            Crowley does not know how to answer. He’s certainly not well. “I am uninjured,” he clicks back. Small cetacean had been a difficult language to learn, and he knows he still speaks it terribly slow.

            At least this one appears to know how fast dolphins speak, for she slows her rapid clicking down to answer. “You are hurting. We feel it.”

            “Yes,” he says.

            “Can you swim?” The group is floating around him now, some of them resting upright, their tail flukes on the sand.

            “Yes,” he says, flicking his tail up and moving toward them. They scatter, but return quickly, their chattering clicks too fast for him to understand any of it. “I am lost.”

            This is not, strictly speaking, the truth. He knows approximately where he is, or at least how to find out once he can see the stars. There is no reason at all that he could not navigate back to his reef, return to his solitary life as though he had never seen the Archangel. No reason, he supposes, other than that he does not want to. What he wants, more than anything, is to return to where he is not welcome.

            But even if he would be let aboard, he does not know how to find Aziraphale’s ship, now that it has left his sight. He does not know how long he has slept- not ages, not years. Not months, if the storm is still within hearing range. Days, perhaps. Certainly they had left this place too long ago for him to follow.

            “Where should you be?” asks a different dolphin than the first. She is larger, possibly the leader of the pod.

            He considers giving them the stars for his reef, but he cannot make himself say the words. He does not want to go there, and he cannot go back to the ship, and he just wants to sit here at the bottom and do nothing. Maybe try out that sleeping bit again; a complete lack of sensory or mental input like that seems like such a good idea at the moment.

            Instead he says: “Aboard a man’s vessel.”

            This sends a titter through the pod. “You are hungry?” asks the dolphin before him. “We can bring food.”

            It’s not about being hungry.

            Maybe it is, though. He is not hungry for food, and yet something within him hungers. He wishes to sate it with softly spoken words and the view from the tallest of the yards and the scent of Aziraphale around him in his nest. Once a solitary creature, Crowley has been cursed to desire companionship. Cursed with a beating heart and a need to protect and a warmth that blooms through his skin only for the smile of a human he cannot go near again.

            “I cannot eat,” he says after a time. She has gone up and come back down twice, but dolphins are used to waiting for other species to catch up to them. “I wish to see a human.”

            She tips her head this way and that, her rounded beak stirring the water between them before she darts for the surface again. When she returns she says: “Which vessel?”

            “The Archangel,” he answers. “It left this place days ago, heading south.”

            Lightning-quick clicks fire around the pod for a few seconds before fading to near-silence. “We have seen this vessel. It is no longer ridden by the same human.”

            Crowley’s heart stops. Aziraphale had left? Had he come to try to find Crowley? Had there been a mutiny after all, once Newt was free? Are they stranded? Do they need help?

            “Who sails it?” he asks, throat tight.

            “A white-furred human,” answers the dolphin, nodding her head excitedly. Crowley relaxes, realizing she must have meant Gabriel no longer captains it. “He keeps a selkie aboard without taking his skin. The whales sing of a siren aboard that ship. Do you seek it, the other siren?”

            “I am it,” he says, causing more of a ruckus, complete with squealing and too much swirling of sleek bodies all around him. “Can you find my vessel?”

            The lead dolphin turns and rapidly clicks at her first, who bobs his head excitedly until she stops, and then the pod bursts into a flurry of action. Dolphins scatter toward the south in a fan, heading off in various degrees of direction. A search party, he realizes. The leader turns back to him, and the tiniest flick of her tail brings her close enough he can place his hands upon her, although he does not.

            “I am Beryl,” she says. “Swim with me…?”

            “Crowley,” he supplies, pushing himself away from the sea floor to swim freely. “Lead the way.”

 


 

            It takes them the better part of a week to find the ship, but they do find it moored off of a vacant coast, bobbing gently upon the midnight waves. Crowley peeks his eyes above the water to stare up at the pinpricks of light from the lanterns. Although he can hear the swish of water and the creak of the hull, he hears no voices. The ship sleeps.

            “Thank you,” he tells the dolphins that drift lazily around him when he sinks back beneath the surface.

            They click and squeal and Beryl brushes along the length of him as she passes. “It is true, I think,” she says as she flickers away and returns. “What the whales say of you.”

            “What do they say?” Crowley asks.

            She stares at him, and then her body tips jovially as her mouth drops open. “That you have learned a thing or two from the humans.”

            “I haven’t learned- what do you mean?”

            She clicks, but there are no words in it, only laughter. “You sleep. You give thanks. You are lonely. These are the ways of men, not sirens.”

            “What would a dolphin know of men or sirens?” Crowley asks. He intends for it to sound harsh, but it falls far short. He likes these beasts, as silly as they are, and they have helped him with no promise of reward.

            “We are creatures of song and dance, at heart,” she tells him with a few more amused clicks. “The same as you. The same as men. What more must we know of a thing, than the heart of it?”

            That is, Crowley decides, fair enough. That is all he has ever had to know as well. “Safe travels, Beryl. May we meet again so that I can repay the kindness of your pod.”

            “Tell us the end of your tale, and we will be even,” she says.

            Her sleek form dives beneath his and before he can say a word, the entire pod vanishes into the dark. Crowley watches the horizon until he sees the first puff of air, and then he waits as they recede into the distance. Hopefully they will find somewhere safe to sleep the rest of the night. He wants to see them again.

            When there are no more distractions, no more excuses, Crowley turns himself back toward the ship. He has no reason to expect he will be welcome, but he does not think there is anywhere else he can go, and certainly nowhere else he wants to be. Aziraphale may not have been holding Newt against his will, but he has certainly done something to Crowley to make him feel like this. Miserable. Wanting. It feels as though Aziraphale is the one who has sung a siren’s song, to call him back. Aziraphale may not have a skin to give back this time, but perhaps he can release Crowley anyhow, let him return to his reef and his quiet and his solitude in peace.

            He cannot shift himself into dry wings, so instead he comes to the side of the ship and surfaces, letting his gills return to lungs. He can keep both, if he wants, but it’s nearly impossible to sing with gills, and sing is precisely what he intends to do. Not everyone on the ship sleeps at once, and at least one person should be on watch. In his aquatic form, his song does not carry the same; it can only charm a couple of people, and then only briefly. This is usually enough to lure a single sailor to their death in the water, but Crowley has different plans tonight. Rather than sing someone down to the sea, he intends to get himself up to the deck.

            He opens his mouth to sing, and the tail of a rope splashes into the water beside him before the first note begins.

            Startling back, he peers upward into the night to find Anathema leaning upon the rail, silhouetted by the light of the lamps.

            “You’d best come up before I change my mind,” she says, almost conversationally, not raising her voice.

            “How did you know I was here?” Crowley asks, though he flicks his tail and reaches for the rope without waiting for an answer.

            “You brought a whole squeaking school of dolphins with you,” she says, watching him climb far enough up he can shift into his wings. “You’d be hard to miss even if Aziraphale hadn’t had us keeping watch for you.”

            Crowley’s heart sinks. They had been guarding against his arrival, or at least Aziraphale had ordered them to. He hangs upon the rope, staring up at Anathema and wondering why she is treating him kindly. If she is supposed to sound an alarm, or alert someone of his arrival, she will be in trouble if she does not, and he has already caused so much trouble.

            “Is it… should I have come back?” he asks, flinching internally at how weak that sounds. No siren anywhere has ever doubted their right to be wherever they want with regards to humans. Perhaps the dolphins had been right.

            “It would have been rude not to,” she says. “Are you coming up or not?”

            He snorts, but pulls himself up the rope until he can slither over the rail. It had dried and been smoothed since the hazards of the storm had roughed it. He keeps his claws carefully short, his face carefully human as he steps onto the deck, peering at the flickering shadows and trying not to expect an outright attack. He cannot fly away, yet.

            “It’s just me,” she tells him, pulling up the rope and coiling it over a piece of metal. She looks him over once and then leans a hip against the railing and crosses her arms. “You know, you owe me a dubloon. I bet the captain we’d seen the last of you.”

            “I can’t leave,” he says, head ducking a little. “Not for long, I don’t think.”

            She leans forward a little, her arms loosening and her expression opening into concern. “How do you mean?”

            He wavers for only a moment before he decides that he must trust someone, and she had wanted to help Newt even when she could not. Perhaps she can help him now. “I’m under some sort of spell. A- A compulsion. I’m not free to return to my reef.”

            “Is that why you left?” she asks. “To go home?”

            Home. The word does not taste right. “I tried to leave, but I felt compelled to return,” he explains. “I feel no magic upon me, but there must be, to cause me to feel like this.”

            Though her mouth had become a thin line while he spoke, her eyes are bright in the lamplight. “How’s that? How do you feel?”

            “Like I cannot bear to be away from him!” Crowley spits out, on the verge of a snarl. He drops to all fours but his fingers stay soft, his wings fold as he begins to pace. “I left my reef to be near him, yet when I am, my heart beats too quickly. I wish for things no siren should; I would lie beside him in the same nest. I would sleep, truly sleep, with no defense left against him. I have found myself moving to protect him without thought for myself. I would never- I can’t...”

            He trails off in speech and speed, not sure how to explain to a human what it means to be gentle. For a siren to want to be gentle, how he cannot imagine actually hurting Aziraphale. As angry as he had gotten, he had not laid a claw upon him. However furious he had been, whatever he might have been able to do to him, there is not a single drop of Aziraphale’s blood on his claws and he does not think there ever will be.

            Anathema, however, has other ideas about how the conversation will go, bursting into a quickly-concealed peal of laughter. “You’re not under a spell, Crowley,” she tells him, “you’re just in love.”

            Find out.

            “Love...” he echoes. “Sirens don’t love.”

            “It seems one of them does,” Anathema tells him, but gently as her laughter fades. “It’s not a bad thing. Lots of humans fall in love. But...” It is her turn to trail off, staring at him with slightly pursed lips and some kind of worry in her dark eyes. “Well, you should know… not all of them do.”

            Crowley stares hard at her, understanding where she is heading with this after only a moment. “You mean Aziraphale.”

            She nods confirmation. “Listen, I just- I want to protect him, too, you know. Which means I don’t want you to hurt him by expecting anything from him that he can’t give.”

            “I have no expectations of him,” Crowley says. He does not say that even if he had wanted to expect anything, he does not know where to begin with Aziraphale. He has yet to do anything Crowley could have guessed, and Crowley is fairly certain he never will. “Is it...” He grasps for what he wants to say, still unsure of this new frame for his emotions, or what the rules are supposed to be. “Can I… love him, if he does not love me? Or must he…?”

            “No, no,” Anathema says quickly. “You can love him all you like. You just… shouldn't expect him to feel the same way.”

            Crowley tips his head a little. “No one feels the same way,” he says. “Not as anyone else, not exactly.”

            She smiles. “I suppose you’re right. Go talk to him, then. He’s been upset since you left; he thinks you blame him for what happened with Newt.”

            “I don’t,” Crowley tells her, though he can see where Aziraphale had made the mistake, and a fresh spike of guilt lances through him. He should not have left.

            “Don’t tell me,” she says. “Go tell him.”

            He pauses after two steps and turns halfway back to see she hasn’t moved from where she leans against the rail, watching. “Thank you,” he says. “For looking for me tonight. And… protecting him. And Newt. I owe you a debt.”

            A soft snort escapes her. “You can pay me in gold later, you feathery menace,” she teases, uncrossing her arms to wave them at him, hurrying him along. “Go fix what you broke already.”

            Crowley makes a face, the sort he has seen the children make at one another when they’ve been told what to do, but he turns back around to head for Aziraphale’s bedroom and do exactly that.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley nudges open the door to Aziraphale’s room. It is not locked against him, which is a small comfort, and he sees nothing to suggest Aziraphale has guarded against him in any other way, either. In fact, he appears to be sound asleep in his bed, one arm flung over his eyes as if there is any kind of light to shut out. The air carries the sour taste of damp paper and anxiety, telling Crowley everything he needs to know about how he left things.

            “Azzsssiraphale?” Crowley whispers, the name sliding into sibilance with his hesitation. He doesn’t want to wake him but he doesn’t want to startle him should he be awake already.

            When he receives no response, Crowley slinks into the room around the edge of the door, closing it silently behind him with one foot. Aziraphale does not stir when Crowley climbs atop the board at the foot of the bed, perching there to look him over. Something within Crowley both relaxes and tightens to see him again. So beautiful, so peaceful with none of the stresses of waking to pull at his brow or purse his lips or run lines of tension through his shoulders.

            Crowley emits a small, sad whine. He should not be here, should not have come back. He should go. He has already brought enough trouble to this ship. He has brought too much trouble to this human to have returned with more. He twists and tips toward the floor, human-soft hands making no noise as he lands.

            “Crowley?”

            He freezes, caught.

            “I’m sorry,” he blurts, voice cracking. Then, lest Aziraphale mistake the apology for one about waking him, adds: “I accused you of something terrible, and then I left, without… without apologizing. I’m sorry. For all of it.”

            Aziraphale had struggled upright while Crowley spoke, though he does not get out of the bed. “You came back...” The words are barely above a whisper, their broken edges cutting into him.

            “I shouldn’t have left,” Crowley tells him, shrinking into himself as he realizes that’s the real truth of it. He shouldn’t have come back because he shouldn’t have had to come back. He should have stayed. He’s never had to face consequences like these before, but he should have tried.

            Aziraphale remains silent for too long after, long enough for Crowley’s fear to gnaw through the hope which tethers him, long enough to worry that I’m sorry has another answer than it’s alright. What if he has broken this beyond repair? What if they cannot go back or, worse, cannot go forward now? Aziraphale is still well within his rights to tell Crowley to go, that he is not worth the trouble he has caused, not worth moving past the accusations he has made.

            He listens to Aziraphale take in a deep, slow breath, and let it out just as slowly before he speaks. “You shouldn’t have run away from a problem,” he says. “But Crowley, you are always free to leave. You always have been. Tell me you know that, at least.”

            “I do,” Crowley forces out, turning around but remaining pulled tight to himself in guilt. He can feel his muscles finely trembling from the tension. “I know that now.”

            “Please look at me...”

            Crowley hesitates, heart in his throat, but after everything, he cannot deny Aziraphale this much. He looks up, and then brings his head up as well, to find Aziraphale watching him over the footboard. Somehow, he manages not to cringe away again, doing as Aziraphale had asked and looking back as Aziraphale’s eyes tick over him. There is barely any light, just stars through the window and the soft, golden glow of Crowley’s eyes.

            “Will you allow me to explain?” Aziraphale asks. “About Newt?”

            “Yes,” Crowley says, planting himself where he stands. He would do nearly anything at this point, he thinks. Listening to Aziraphale’s whole story feels like the bare minimum of what he owes.

            Aziraphale nods and relaxes, thinking for only a moment before he begins. “When we first took this vessel, and I was shown to Gabriel’s quarters, of course I recognized a selkie’s pelt that first night. I kept quiet about it for a couple of days, while we were trying to work together after combining our crews, but I could see nothing to differentiate a selkie from a human. None of the books speak of a difference, once their pelt is off. I thought to ask the crew, but humans are… well. They’re not as honest as other animals. I was afraid to have one of them lie, tell me the pelt belonged to them. Had I given it to another human, there would have been nothing I could do to force the pelt to be returned; they cannot be stolen by the selkie, or by another. Only the owner of the pelt can return it or give it away."

            “But you killed the owner,” Crowley says quietly.

            “I did,” Aziraphale agrees with a little wince. “And that might have put Newt in a bit of a tough spot normally, as he couldn’t have just taken the pelt himself. He’d have had to get help to find Gabriel’s next of kin.”

            Oh, Crowley thinks. “But he didn’t need to. Gabriel’s kin was right there.”

            “Indeed,” Aziraphale says. “And as our father had died when we were children, it might have been inherited by our mother, but the whole bloody reason I was out on the sea in the first place was because she’d just passed and I wanted to get away from it all. We had no other siblings, and Gabriel had never fathered children, I suppose, so… it came to me.”

            He sighs and looks down at his hands in his lap, forging forward. “Once I had discovered the pelt, I thought perhaps the selkie would come forward for it, or at least inquire, but no one did. Newt was… soft spoken. Kind. A bit nervous, perhaps, but I thought of all of Gabriel’s crew, he was the least likely to be dishonest to his captain’s killer. Anathema seemed to trust him as well. So I went to him, to ask him if any of his crew mates were selkies.” A small snort. “How foolish I was, in hindsight. He told me none of his crewmates were selkies, and that was the truth. I thought he would tell me right then, if he was, but none of my books told me that selkies cannot speak of their nature or of their pelt, while it is not their own. He could not have told me just as, I assume, he could not have told you, either.”

            Crowley’s heart sinks. It makes sense. That had to have been why Newt was so careful with his words, why he wouldn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – take the pelt from Crowley; because Crowley could not have stolen the pelt from Aziraphale.

            “He stayed, you know,” Aziraphale says, when Crowley leaves the silence between them alone for too long. “Newt. I don’t think there’s really anywhere for him to go.”

            “He could find other selkies,” Crowley says, even though he knows that’s not true. There’s a reason selkies choose to go amongst men and seals; they have even less tolerance for their own kind than sirens do.

            Aziraphale, unfortunately, seems to know this as well. “I think you know that’s not true,” he says. “I had thought, when you first told me, that you might wish to take him away with you, to show him… whatever the ocean has to offer to creatures like yourselves. But... in truth, I suspect he’s stayed to court Anathema. I’m not sure he’d go.”

            Crowley knows the feeling.

            Quiet settles between them, filled only with the creak of the ship against her moors, the splash of water against her hull. Crowley does not know what to do from here. He wants to stay but he still does not know if he is welcome. Aziraphale had only told him he was free to go, not that he was free to stay. He decides that not talking has been the source of most of his problems, and so he shifts uncomfortably and steels himself for the worst.

            “Where do we go from here?”

            Aziraphale looks up, eyes a bit wide. “We?” he asks, tremulous. Crowley hopes the wavering note in the word is hope. “Do you mean you’ll stay?”

            Crowley swallows and nods a little. “If you’ll have me,” he says. “I’ll stay as long as you let me.”

            “Then… perhaps we can figure the rest out in the morning?” Aziraphale says with a relieved smile. “It’s awfully late.”

            “I’m sorry I woke you,” Crowley says, fresh guilt coloring the words.

            “I’m glad you did,” Aziraphale assures him. He glances around himself at the bed and the mussed up furs as if looking for something. “Well. Er… until then, I suppose you’d best come up here for the night.” He pats the blanket beside him and begins to arrange himself at the edge of the bed, where he had sat the first time Crowley had nested down. “As you might have guessed, my warmest blanket is missing now, but I seem to recall you run quite warm, yourself.”

            Crowley takes one step forward before freezing. “I’m sorry,” he says again, because Aziraphale hasn’t answered his apology properly yet. “For… before.”

            Aziraphale looks in his direction, a little confused for a second, and then lets out a soft, amused huff. “It’s alright. We’ll start over in the morning.”

            Finally, Crowley relaxes, relief flooding through him as he clambers over the end of the bed and gingerly sets hands down in the soft furs. Aziraphale has made just enough room for him by the wall that he can lie down as he had done the first time. He does not, stilling at the foot of the bed, his skin prickling. He is close enough to hear Aziraphale’s heartbeat, to feel the heat of his leg beside Crowley’s hand.

            Company is not a thing of sirens, nor is sleep. This desire, thick as magma in his veins, to turn himself soft in order to be near another, has no place in an immortal heart. He should not have soft hands, or skin clear of scales, or wings that long to be stroked. But these things are his, and he is a siren, and he thinks that perhaps that makes them siren things. After all, if anything can make something a siren thing, is it him.

            So he paces forward, mindful of Aziraphale’s hand when he moves it, and sinks down beside him. He arranges himself to touch the wall on one side, and when he tentatively drapes a wing over Aziraphale to keep him warm, he receives a contented hum. Aziraphale lowers his hand, stroking it over Crowley’s damp feathers. They are already mostly dry, warmed by his body, and Crowley remembers Aziraphale’s words about losing the pelt. He screws up the courage to snuggle a little closer, eyes shuttering closed.

            “Thank you,” he says into the soft fur of the blanket that covers Aziraphale. “For letting me come back. For… letting me apologize.”

            Aziraphale hums sleepily, and then gives a great big yawn. “We’re going to talk more in the morning,” he mumbles, voice muzzy. “Make some rules, perhaps. Just so you know.”

            “I know,” Crowley says. He knows there will be talking, and rule making, and learning more about humans than he has any business knowing, but he finds he is alright with it. As long as it means he can stay, it doesn’t matter.

            Aziraphale’s hand strokes down his wing, comfort following in its wake. It falls still along the edge of his primaries, his breath evening out as he drifts off again. Crowley listens to him breathe and tries to relax enough to follow, but he is still new to sleeping, and not entirely sure how he got there the first time. This also doesn’t matter. If he has to, he will lie here, perfectly still, until morning comes.

            And when it does, they will talk about what happened, and maybe it will go well and maybe it will not, but for now… for now he is warm and safe and exactly where he belongs.

 

Chapter Text

 

            In the morning, they form an Arrangement.

            The first rule of the Arrangement is that either of them is allowed to leave it peacefully at any time. This rule makes both of them unhappy, if Crowley is any judge, but he supposes that it is necessary. He knows he will not be the first to leave, but he agrees when Aziraphale says: “Should I decide to end our interactions, and I don’t believe I will, I want to know that you will leave without harming anyone.”

            The second rule of the Arrangement is that if one of them is concerned regarding the actions of the other – or, Aziraphale adds, the action of any crew member – they will speak of it first and act upon it second. Crowley asks a hundred clarifying questions before agreeing to this rule, and only with the understanding that he will act first if someone’s life is in danger of ending.

            The third rule of the Arrangement is that Crowley is to voice to someone – not necessarily Aziraphale – when he needs something, whether or not he knows what that something is yet. Crowley has, by and large, spent his life alone. He has met whatever needs he has had by himself. But he has had the entire ocean to roam as he pleases, without ever having to return to a single space, and now – at least if he wishes to remain aboard the ship – his range has been severely curtailed. This does not, however, mean he must go without the things he needs. Crowley agrees to this pending Aziraphale’s agreement to the fourth rule.

            The fourth rule of the Arrangement is that Aziraphale is to voice to Crowley what his expectations are in any given situation. Aziraphale doesn’t hesitate to agree to this rule, much to Crowley’s relief. It is not, he clarifies to Aziraphale, that Aziraphale has particularly done otherwise, but Crowley has felt off balance since he stepped foot on the Archangel’s rail the very first time. In his dealings with humans in the past, he has never had to be aware of what they want, just that they do, and that has so far gotten him into trouble.

            The fifth rule of the Arrangement is that they may, in the future, add or remove rules as needs be.

            There are, Crowley decides as the days spill over into weeks, extra rules for living among humans, rules he learns the more time he spends around them. They do not take food from one another’s plates without requesting permission first, but they will dump extra food onto someone else’s plate without permission. They desire privacy when they are making waste and will scream if interrupted. Not every raised voice means fear or anger; they raise their voices when they are happy as well. They percuss upon doors or door frames when entering a room that may be occupied, and get very upset when someone does not.

            And at night, when the food is finishing and the sun has gone and they are not quite ready to retreat to their nets for sleep, they gather the lanterns on the open deck and sit about on buckets and barrels and crates, and they sing.

            It is not, in any way, like a siren’s song. The words are boisterous and the tunes messy, but they all seem to enjoy it. The children are less well versed in some of the songs and their pitches are all different, but they add their voices anyway. Crowley is not sure there is such a thing as in tune for these songs, but it seems to be more about volume anyway.

            More importantly, or perhaps less importantly, there is not a single flicker of magic in the words. They sing of the sea, and of love, and of ships and shores, and even of the foul liquids they drink, but no part of their songs is enchanting. Most times, Crowley listens from the lowest yard of the mizzenmast, trying to discern why they do it. They are human. They cannot cast spells. Even if they were to sing these bawdy tunes in perfect pitch, that is all they would be; notes of noise that sound pleasant together.

            “Why do they sing?” Crowley asks Newt one evening, several weeks after his return. The humans are gathering again, readying for a late night of companionship. It has been days since they last gathered like this.

            “Because they like it,” Newt tells him, shrugging one shoulder.

            Crowley watches them shove crates around, working together to create a circle so they may all see one another. “What does it do?”

            “Do?” Newt asks, and then looks over at him curiously. “I don’t suppose it does anything, not like how you mean. It just… makes them happy.”

            Happy. Crowley supposes that isn’t a stretch to imagine. He has sung for his entire life, but not like this. Never like this. Never just for the sheer joy of the act. He wonders, rather intensely, what it would be like to sing without a purpose. To sing for singing’s sake. He has, since coming aboard the ship, begun to learn about happiness, and if the crew are anything to go by, singing must surely be a part of it.

            “Do you ever sing with them?” he asks.

            Newt chuckles. “Me? Have you ever heard a selkie sing? We’re rubbish at it.”

            “So are they,” Crowley tells him. “But that doesn’t seem to stop them.”

            “I’ll pass,” Newt says, still smiling. “But you- … oh. Can you sing like that? Without putting everyone to sleep?”

            “I don’t know,” Crowley says, but he desperately wants to find out now that Newt has asked. “I’ve never tried.”

            “You should talk to the captain then,” Newt suggests gently. “I’m sure everyone would let you try to sing with them, if they knew they might… you know.” He places his palms together and rests his cheek upon them with closed eyes, mimicking sleep- or at least, Crowley supposes from context that that is what he means. Newt has learned a lot of the humans’ gesture language.

            Crowley supposes he ought to. It is rule number three, even though he doesn’t think this technically qualifies as a need. Maybe he will ask to amend the Arrangement, to include wants.

            “Newt,” he says, in the manner which suggests he has a question. Newt looks over but doesn’t prompt him, so Crowley tries to piece together his words. “How can you be sure?” He looks back, meeting Newt’s gaze. “You say you are sure they will let me.”

            “Well… yeah,” Newt says, scratching at his chin and turning his attention to the gathering humans. “They’re just like that, I guess. Humans aren’t… alright, look at it like this- there’s a whole big huge ocean out here right? And they didn’t come from it, they can barely swim, and there’s all sorts of people out here that would eat them up as soon as look at them.”

            “People like me,” Crowley says.

            “Right, exactly,” Newt agrees. “And they haven’t got to come out here, have they? If they fall off the ship, the sea herself might swallow them up.”

            “They hunt fish,” Crowley says. “They move things around in their ships.”

            “But they haven’t got to,” Newt says. “I’ve been on land before. They’ve got big animals to move stuff around in carts. They grow other animals in big…” he gestures, searching for a word, “-pens, cages, for food, or eat plants they grow in huge fields. They could live their entire lives on land without ever coming into the ocean. But they do.”

            Crowley’s brow furrows. He has never stepped foot on real land, not near enough to humans to know how their societies there work. He knows that humans spend most of their lives on land, that most of them live there, but he had assumed they must come to the ocean. At least some of them must, or else why would they go someplace so dangerous? Which is exactly what he asks.

            “It’s because they… like it, I suppose,” Newt tells him with a little shrug. “They’re curious. They’re only scared when they don’t know something. Did you know, they tell themselves scary stories about how other humans have died, just for fun? Sometimes the stories aren’t even real, they just make them up so they can be scared.”

            A soft hiss escapes Crowley, under his breath. He has heard tales of creatures dying, but they are always a warning. He cannot imagine any creature wanting to be scared on purpose. “Why?”

            Newt gives another shrug. “Beats me,” he says slowly, and then adds: “I think it helps them, though. To be less afraid of the world, even though they’re so fragile. Or maybe not less afraid but... more immune to fear.”

            Crowley has not heard that word before. “Immune?”

            “Yeah, like it can’t affect them anymore,” Newt says. “They just… I don’t know. Get used to it, I suppose. They’re good at that- getting used to terrible things. It’s why they do stuff like have wars.”

            Crowley has already admitted to not knowing a lot of things tonight, so he does not ask what wars are, but Newt’s tone says they are something one should not want to have. Humans, even from what little he has seen of them, are very good at wanting things that are bad for them. They are even better at acquiring those things. Not for the first time, he wonders what exactly Aziraphale hears in his song.

            “Do you think they could become… immune to my song?” he asks, just under the noise of the humans as they begin to sing something cheerful and rowdy.

            For a while Newt doesn’t answer, and Crowley supposes perhaps there isn’t an answer. Sirens do not sing to humans twice, or perhaps it’s more that humans don’t live to hear a second song, much less a third or a fourth or a tenth. This crew has heard his song several times, and the only one who remains aware through it is still Aziraphale. Maybe that’s the answer.

            “Maybe if they heard it enough,” Newt says, when the song ends in a smattering of laughter and cheers. The crew has got cups of something that smells awful, drawn from squat glass bottles they’ve passed about the circle, and it is making them louder.

            “Like if I sang with them?” Crowley suggests. Newt laughs, and Crowley finds himself surprisingly pleased at the reaction.

            “Yeah, like if you sang with them. Go on, go ask.” He waves his hands in a way that says he means for Crowley to vacate the area.

            Although Crowley is under no obligation to obey, he does so, walking carefully so that the humans see his approach. They seem to prefer when they can see him coming, which Crowley supposes is fair enough- if he were prey, he would want to notice a predator approaching, too. The children, who’ve had none of the foul-smelling drink, spot him first, and nudge one another until the adults catch them at it, and then everyone’s attention falls to Crowley as he steps into the lamp light.

            “Finally joining us?” Beelzebub shouts, too loudly for the silence that has descended. “The rum catch your attention?”

            Crowley hesitates, suppressing the urge to answer as sharply as he does in daylight hours. He wants something from them. “No,” he says. “I’d like… I’d like to sing with you.”

            Though the crew had been quiet before, something else descends upon them now, muffled and tense and void of even movement. Greasy Johnson's father, Thaddeus, speaks up first. “You’ll put us all to sleep.”

            His mate smacks his arm, and Thaddeus winces and rubs at it, staring at her as if she’s done something he does not deserve. Crowley doesn’t agree. She smiles up at Crowley, the strange sort of smile that says she has to rather than that she wants to; the sort reminiscent of an animal baring its teeth, except her lips stay closed. “I’m sure Crowley knows other songs, don’t you?”

            Crowley flinches his wing away from a sudden touch, and realizes a second later that Newt’s come over to join them. “I suggested he try to sing human songs,” Newt explains. “I thought… maybe if he did a little every night, we might become immune to it.”

            “Like a poison,” Ligur hisses. Even though he sounds offended, he’s smiling. Crowley is fairly certain he understands what poison is, but is much less certain that Ligur does. “Yeah, sure. Bring it on, siren. Sing us your song!”

            “I… I don’t want to sing my songs,” Crowley says hesitantly.

            “We could teach you one of ours!” Adam says. “Then we can sing with you.”

            An empty crate is kicked closer to him, and Crowley stares at it for a moment before realizing that he is being offered a place at the gathering. Newt smiles when he looks over at him in question, and so Crowley crouches and tentatively takes a seat on the edge of the crate. He does not particularly like this position – it is very slow to get out of compared to standing or crouching – but if he has learned nothing else it is that humans have strange social etiquettes that involve making themselves vulnerable around those they trust.

            “I would like that,” he says. It may be a lie to say so with such confidence, but he believes it will prove true. He likes singing, even if he is unaccustomed to singing human songs.

            Despite the best intentions of the crew, Crowley does not learn an entire song that night. For some reason the adults allow Adam to teach him the first few lines of a song Crowley has heard them sing several times, but before Crowley can sing them all at once or in order, a fight breaks out over the actual words. Crowley doesn’t see how it merits the yelling, or the brawl that follows between Hastur and Uriel, but none of the humans seem distressed by it. If anything, they choose sides and trade coins and by the time they have cleared the deck and put everything to rights, nothing much has been accomplished.

            “I’ll teach you a song tomorrow,” Adam tells him after a very big yawn. “Everyone’ll sleep in late on account of their heads hurting, so we’ll have the galley to ourselves for breakfast.”

            Crowley nods, and then he is nearly alone on the deck. Even Newt is gone, having retreated before the fight broke out. Anathema hadn’t joined the evening, which Crowley knew meant she had the early watch shift, to relieve Dagon from where they sat upon the bow of the ship, watching out to sea for trouble.

            Crowley had offered, upon his return, to watch overnight. He has no need of sleep and can stay alert high up on one of the yards to observe the sea. His vision is better at night than a human's, and he would be more than capable of handling most attacks. It made sense to him.

            It had not, however, sat well with the humans at the time. Aziraphale had explained to him, very gently, that humans needed to trust someone before they leave them to guard their back. On some level, Crowley understands trust, but it is not the same level of trust as the humans have for one another. He trusts them not to try to harm him because he knows that they mostly cannot. Aziraphale had not seemed to believe that is the same thing.

            “Trust is… knowing someone can hurt you, but knowing that they will not,” Aziraphale had told him. “It’s… complicated.”

            “Do you trust me?”

            Aziraphale had stared at him, a small smile playing upon his lips. “I do.”

            Crowley had wanted to say that he trusts Aziraphale too, but the conversation had been riding the heels of Crowley’s return from doing exactly the opposite. He hadn’t wanted to seem disingenuous. Part of trust, as he understands it, involves telling the truth in ways that seem believable, and he wants Aziraphale to trust him.

            He also wants the crew to trust him, and so he has spent more than a few nights up on the deck anyway, prowling the edges of it or perched as high as he can get. Hastur generally prefers to stay in the crow’s nest, which means Crowley gives the crow’s nest a wide berth; Hastur had made it very clear early on that they will not ever be getting along, and Aziraphale had made it very clear Crowley is not to eat him for it.

            Tonight, Crowley does not want to stay away from Aziraphale for long, so he makes a quick loop of the deck to ease his mind, and then retreats down to Aziraphale’s room. The lights are off but the door is unlocked, and Aziraphale already lies sleeping in the bed. Crowley waits in the doorway a moment, standing tall enough to see him over the foot board. He looks… peaceful. Loose-limbed and face slack, relaxed in a way he is never quite able to do when there are other humans around.

            The first night the humans had gathered on the deck to sing and drink and bond, Crowley had learned that Aziraphale had never joined in. Not once. The other humans had various theories as to why, but the prevailing one had seemed to be that Aziraphale thinks he can't do so without losing face. Crowley had asked, to much laughter he didn’t understand at the time, why no one else’s face got lost doing the exact same thing, and Anathema had explained that it meant Aziraphale is afraid of appearing weak. Or at least, Dagon had added, not in control.

            “He’s never been a captain before,” Anathema had told him, voice warm with amusement and… fondness, Crowley thinks. “He was barely a sailor when Gabriel…well, I think he’ll come around, when he’s comfortable.”

            Crowley had accepted that at the time, but he knows now how happy the gatherings make the other humans. He wants that for Aziraphale, too, but he understands Anathema’s words, and he knows a thing or two about not doing something before its time.

            He pulls the door shut behind him with a small snick, and doesn’t lock it. Aziraphale doesn’t stir at the sound, nor at his passage across the room, or even when he climbs on top of the board. For another few seconds, Crowley watches the comforting rise and fall of his chest, listens to the steady beat of his heart, and he feels… peace, he thinks.

            It feels the way a clear summer day on his reef used to feel, with the ocean swelling and dipping around his feet, a gentle breeze ruffling through his feathers, and the sun warming his skin.

            It feels like home.

            With a soft snort, he places a palm upon the bed, and Aziraphale finally stirs, just a little. Just enough to shift, and make a bit more room for Crowley beside him, almost on reflex now. He doesn’t even open his eyes. Crowley accepts the invitation, slithering down into the space between Aziraphale and the ship’s wall, right where it is coziest, and curls up atop the blanket.

            He drapes a wing protectively over Aziraphale, and sleeps.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Morning creeps up on Crowley while he sleeps, filtering dawn in through the windows and laying golden fingers of light over Aziraphale’s bed. Aziraphale is awake before him, but - as usual when given a choice - he does not disturb Crowley’s sleep by getting up. Instead, he lies beside Crowley, a book held aloft over his face, and he reads silently to himself.

            Crowley, on the other hand, grumbles.

            He squints balefully at the rising sun and burrows his face into Aziraphale’s side and drags a dark wing up to block out the light. When he gives a hiss of malcontent, it brings Aziraphale’s hand to his wing, stroking gently. A flood of pleasant sensation follows, soothing him.

            “Good morning,” Aziraphale tells him sweetly. “You haven’t got to wake up if you don’t want to. We’re fresh on supplies thanks to you- we can stay moored here quite a while with that haul.”

            Crowley makes an unintelligible noise in response and allows another long, slow stroke of Aziraphale’s palm before he moves his wing again. “Then it’s unfortunate I agreed to meet the children for breakfast,” he says. He only makes it halfway to rising before he sinks down, sprawled over Aziraphale’s warm legs. He sighs. “They want to teach me to sing.”

            “Do they,” Aziraphale says, mild amusement warming the words. “It seems like it might be a better lesson if it were the other way around.”

            With a snort, Crowley slithers down onto the floor on hands and feet. He doesn’t like to leave their nest, not while Aziraphale is still in it. He has gotten used to the warmth of it, and the comfort of another being he trusts. The life he had once lived, in the cold and the dark, curled in a nest of stone surrounded only by dead men’s things, seems so far away.

            “They think I can sing without magic,” he says from where he has sunk to the floor.

            Aziraphale leans over to see him. “Can you?”

            For a long moment, he doesn’t move, and then: “I don’t know. Newt thinks so.” He takes a deep breath and wrangles his motivation into some semblance of order, enough to at least get to his feet. “Or at least, he thinks the others will get so used to it that it won’t affect them anymore.”

            “Like getting used to a poison,” Aziraphale says, unwittingly echoing Ligur from the night before. “It’s an interesting idea, for sure.”

            Crowley hesitates, and turns some of the way back to Aziraphale, not quite sure he wants to face him entirely. “Have you… did you ever hear another siren? Before me?”

            “No,” Aziraphale says. “I had wanted to. Though I suppose I had wanted to the way a person wants to see a lion or a wolf; from a safe enough distance that it won’t be the last thing they see.”

            In that moment, Crowley very badly wants to ask what Aziraphale hears when Crowley sings, but he knows that if he asks, Aziraphale will tell him, and he is not ready to hear what mortal desire sits deepest in Aziraphale’s heart. He cannot begin to fathom what it might be, and he is afraid of the disappointment it will bring to learn. He likes where they are now. He won’t disrupt what they have for something unknown.

            “I can’t promise I won’t be,” he says. It is an empty threat; he knows he will never lay tooth or claw to Aziraphale. He is much more likely to use them to keep him alive.

            Aziraphale smiles. “I’m not sure I’d mind, anymore.” The book he had folded closed as Crowley had been slinking out of bed, he now places on the table beside him. “You should hurry along, though. The children must be waiting for you by now. They’re up with the sun after drinking nights, you know. Squeezing in as much mischief as possible, I assume, while the adults are under the weather.”

            Crowley squints, but does not ask how one could be over the weather without wings. Instead he does as suggested, and exits the room. The dark gradient above is fading as the sun sets fire to the horizon. It takes him a little longer to cross the deck on two feet instead of four, but he’s been working on learning human things better. He still keeps his wings slightly open for balance when he walks; he’s not sure how humans put up with this constant state of almost-falling as a mechanism for movement.

            The galley is nearly deserted. It is the first time he has seen the galley without Madam Tracy in it. Only three of the children are up, sequestered at the table farthest from the entryway. Adam lifts his head when Crowley arrives, and Pepper and Wensleydale turn to see him. They make room for him at the table, Wensleydale slipping around to sit beside Adam instead of Pepper.

            “Wasn’t sure you’d come,” Adam says as soon as he’s seated. “Thought the captain might’ve gotten you busy.”

            “I was sleeping,” Crowley tells him. He cannot imagine how that phrase has become so normal-sounding. He thinks sleeping will be one of the hardest things to unlearn, when this crew is long gone from the world.

            Wensleydale nudges his glasses up the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “I didn’t think sirens could sleep,” he says, “on account of them not falling asleep to their own songs.”

            “Singing wouldn’t be a very effective hunting tactic if we did,” Crowley tells him.

            “Can you?” Pepper says, which seems unconnected until she adds: “be put to sleep by another siren, I mean?”

            “No,” Crowley says. He doesn’t know if that’s true of all sirens – it’s certainly not true of the newest of sirens – but he knows no others could sing to him.

            “Because you haven’t got a heart?” Wensleydale asks.

            The question gives Crowley pause. He has got a heart. It beats and beats these days. It reminds him it exists every time Aziraphale smiles at him. He can feel it in his fingertips and hear it thumping late at night in tandem with Aziraphale’s.

            On his own, at his reef and in the deep, Crowley had never truly wanted. He had existed. He had taken what he needed. He had enjoyed the moment he was in, certainly, but he’d never pined for the past or looked forward to a future. Immortality is like that by necessity- nearly everything around an immortal is fleeting. Crowley has never learned how to let go. He hasn’t needed to- he had never learned to hang on in the first place.

            “He has too got a heart,” Adam says, with an air of finality that appears to cow both of the others. “Otherwise he’d have eaten us up straight away.”

            Unfortunately, Crowley suspects Adam may be correct, and he does not at all like what that implies. “Don’t you have a song to teach me?” he says, hoping to redirect.

            “Right,” Adam says, straightening up. “You’re right, we do. I thought we ought to teach you a short one first.”

            “You thought?” Pepper says, affronted. “I said your song puts people to sleep when they’re done hearing it. That’s how it works, isn’t it?”

            Crowley gets the distinct impression that she will find a way to fight him if he disagrees, so it’s fortunate that she is correct. “Yes.”

            “And that’s when I decided we’d do a short song,” Adam concludes.

            “There aren’t very many short songs,” Wensleydale advises him, as though Crowley might have mistakenly thought there were. “But we’ve been talking about it, and we think that Row, Row, Row Your Boat might do the trick.”

            “Right,” Adam says. “What do you think?”

            “I have absolutely no idea what that is,” Crowley says. He has no idea what trick the song is supposed to do, or how he is supposed to tell if it works, and he doesn’t think they’re about to explain. So far the children have mostly been like that; they say a lot of things, and make a lot of plans, and tell a lot of stories, and Crowley only understands about half of it at any given time. Once or twice he has attempted to ask for clarification, but the resulting answers had not made anything easier.

            “Right,” Adam says again. “Just repeat after us, alright?”

            Crowley nods, and the children all arrange themselves on their benches in what he assumes they must believe are the best singing positions, and with a briefly exchanged glance, they begin to sing. Slowly at first, and then together a bit faster as they get comfortable.

            “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream...”

            Crowley clears his throat when they pause, and repeats the notes as he had heard them. It feels just as strange this morning as it did last night, to sing actual words instead of tones and nonsense, but the children look delighted, so he figures it must be good enough.

            “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!”

            Crowley dutifully repeats: “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

            They all stare at him, and for just a moment Crowley is afraid that even though he didn’t feel any magic in the song, he has put them into a trance. Then Adam looks down at his hands, and Pepper says: “You’re not asleep.”

            “You aren’t either,” Adam agrees. “Maybe it worked.”

            “He should sing the whole thing by himself, I think,” Wensleydale suggests. “What if us singing in between broke the spell?”

            “Would that work?” Pepper asks, looking at Crowley. “If humans started singing while you were trying to put them to sleep, would it mess it up?”

            “I don’t know,” Crowley says truthfully. He doesn’t think so, but he’s never even had that theory, much less any opportunity to test it. “I don’t think so.”

            “Well go on, then,” Adam says. “We should test it, to make sure.”

            Crowley looks between them, but they all seem to be waiting for him to sing, and so he clears his throat. When he sings, he does his best to keep his magic tamped down. “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream...”

            It is not, he thinks, a long enough song to put anyone under a spell. The human propensity for resistance and spite runs quite deep, too deep for a few lines of song to reach. Even if it were a shallower well, Crowley’s own magic takes longer to weave. The children’s eyes are a little glassier than when he had started, but it lasts only a few seconds before they begin to smile broadly.

            “It worked!” Adam exclaims. “We’re not asleep!”

            “Something happened still,” Wensleydale says, a bit more distantly than a few minutes ago. “I feel different.”

            “Happy,” Pepper says. She’s got a strange look on her face, thoughtful and a little far away.

            They all sit there for a few seconds in silence, absorbing the thought, and then Adam’s gaze shifts toward the doorway. Crowley turns and sees Lucifer entering, and he looks quite worse for wear. His bloodshot eyes tick over the group, and then he shuffles toward where Madam Tracy has left out food and drink. Crowley watches him stumble a little, but he manages to keep his feet. He looks to be in pain, or perhaps lame with sick.

            “Why do humans drink things that will make them ill?” Crowley asks, still watching Lucifer struggle with a pouring a cup of liquid.

            “Because it makes them happy first,” Adam says. “Grown ups do a lot of things that might hurt them, if they think it’ll make them happy first. Or after.”

            “Does… the drink they had last night make them happier than it will make them hurt?” Crowley asks as Lucifer slumps onto a bench and attempts to scrape himself together over a plate of hard tack and a mug of dark brown liquid that smells nice. Through experience, Crowley had found it is not nice at all; it tastes quite a lot like licking a burnt log from the fire, which he absolutely had not done when no one was awake to see.

            The kids exchange looks, and shrug as Pepper answers. “It has to, or why would they do it?”

            Crowley hums a soft note and keeps his voice low. “It was… different this time. Worse than their other drinks.” While they drink foul-smelling liquids at night, different ones than in the morning, it does not often leave them sleeping so far past sun-up, and has not generally left them ill. “It smells like poison.”

            Wensleydale pushes his glass pieces farther up his nose again and says: “They were drinking rum last night, from the ship you sang to. It’s different from beer.”

            “Grosser,” Adam adds.

            “Not that we’ve had any,” Pepper says. “We’re not allowed.”

            “Not allowed,” Crowley echoes. “How do you know it is different if you are not allowed to have it?”

            “Welllll,” Adam drawls, looking away. “Sometimes we might… do stuff we’re not supposed to, when the adults are asleep like this.”

            Crowley hesitates. “You disobey the captain?”

            “No,” they all say together, and Adam continues alone. “Our parents say we can’t have any until we’re older.”

            Parents, Crowley knows, is the name children give the humans responsible for creating them. What he does not know is how that applies here. As far as he knows, none of the three before him had been created by any of the other humans aboard the vessel. In fact, of their group only two of them had been created by other humans present. He understands that a pair of the humans aboard had raised Adam as though they had created them, but Wensleydale and Pepper were completely without creative figures; they had been taken from their parents by Gabriel, and – if Crowley is right about what had likely happened – they will not be returning to tell Wensleydale or Pepper what they can and cannot do.

            This, however, had been an upsetting topic the first time he had asked them, and so he does not press that particular issue now. Instead, he says: “Will you change, when you are older? Will the rum then smell and taste good to you?” Perhaps this is one of the ways to tell when a human has reached full maturity.

            “I don’t think it will,” Pepper says, so matter-of-factly that Crowley believes her. “Have you tried any yet? You’re older.”

            “I’m not human,” Crowley says. “I don’t think it’s made for non-humans.”

            The kids all consider this, and then Adam shrugs. “Do you want to learn another song?”

            “We ought to teach him to sing the first one in layers,” Pepper says. “That’s why you said we should do that one.” Crowley gets the distinct impression Pepper’s suggestion had been for a different song, and that she was still a bit put out over it.

            “Right,” Adam says with a nod. “I did say that. Crowley, do you remember the song we just taught you?”

            Crowley nods, and recites a little bit of it without singing, until Adam waves a hand to stop him.

            “There’s four lines,” Adam explains, “and four of us. So we’re all gonna sing it, but at different parts, alright? So, I’ll start, and then when I get to-”

            “He should start,” Pepper interrupts. “It’s simpler if he starts it, because we all know what to do already.”

            For a split second, it looks as though Adam is going to protest, perhaps on sheer spite, but the look passes, and he nods with a little purse of his lips. “Yeah, alright. Crowley, you sing the song, and just sing it in order straight through three times, no matter what we’re singing. Do you understand?”

            Crowley nods again and when Adam points to him, he begins to softly sing. When he reaches the end of the first line, Adam joins in, except instead of singing the same words, he begins at the start of the song. Pepper and Wensleydale follow suit, until they are all singing the song at the same time, but one line ahead and behind one another. Crowley had expected it to be a horrible cacophony of sound, but the cadence of the song somehow matches, and the tones all appear to harmonize. He focuses very hard on sticking to his pattern of words, and listens to the song trail off at the end, one line at a time.

            “Brilliant!” Adam exclaims the second the song is over, his eyes bright.

            Crowley’s breath catches. “You’re not sleepy,” he says.

            He twists a little to look at Lucifer, who is staring at his food with a dopey expression on his face, obviously under the influence of his song, even if it only minorly. Crowley turns back to the children, who seem to be coming to the same conclusion as him. Perhaps singing alongside of him – or rather, singing the same song as him – can prevent them from falling prey to it. Either that, or Newt had been right; hearing the same song over and over had given the children some kind of immunity to it.

            “I think our test worked,” Adam says carefully, now staring with wide eyes and a little bit of a smile at the edges of his lips. “You should go talk to the Captain.”

 

Chapter Text

 

            The song, as they find out very quickly, matters a great deal.

            Crowley does go to Aziraphale after singing with the children a few more times. He sings for Aziraphale in his room, and Aziraphale sings the children’s song with him, but even after the first few times, he becomes drowsy and sated and warm. Crowley sings, softly, to the humans whose heads are aching from the drink they’d consumed the night before, and it eases their pain, but none of them are immune to it. Even when they sing along – even after several sing-alongs – they still get a little dazed and confused.

            “It’s the song, not the singing,” Newt says, two days later. “At least, I think so. Your song, the one you usually sing, it’s quite long isn’t it? The ones the children sing are short, so they can remember it all. Maybe you just… need a long one.”

            Crowley considers this, and that evening he comes to the gathering, and he declines the liquor they offer him, and he asks them to teach him the longest song they know. It takes them weeks; not because Crowley cannot remember what they teach him, but rather because they spend most of the time arguing about which lyrics are the real ones and which have been misheard, or misremembered, or altered because someone didn’t like the original. It takes them three days to even decide which song is the best one for the job.

            The song they eventually choose is certainly long, far more a ballad than a shanty, and while it is not exactly haunting, it is not their usual jaunty fare. Crowley listens to the song emerge between the arguments, the tale of a young man who sailed the sea most of his life, and found a home beneath the waves at the end of it.

            “He dies?” Crowley asks, fairly certain that humans cannot live under the water.

            “Everybody dies,” Ligur tells him. “’s th’way of the world.”

            “The human world, anyway,” one of the other men says, waving a bottle in Crowley’s direction. Crowley thinks his name is Lesley. “I expect sirens aren’t that keen on dying.”

            “No one’s keen on dying,” Ligur says, hotly but without ire. “Who ever heard of being keen on dying?”

            “Better than being afraid of it,” Hastur says, drawing more than a few ayes from the gathered. He turns squinted eyes upon Crowley. “Do sirens die?”

            “No,” Crowley tells him. “Not in the way you mean. We can be killed, but we don’t die of age like you do.”

            “Must be nice,” Hastur sneers.

            Crowley doesn’t answer him. Hastur is, even months into Crowley’s residence on the ship, still not very impressed with Crowley’s presence. Crowley makes a point of never being alone in the same place as him. He doesn’t think that Hastur could actually kill him, but he doesn’t want to put himself into a position where he will have to kill Hastur.

            “He dies,” Maude tells him gently, when it seems like the conversation may otherwise end. “But, I like to think that’s what he wanted. Not to die, exactly, but to become a part of the sea.”

            That is not how it works, but Crowley doesn’t correct her. Instead, he asks if they can sing the song tonight, and everyone agrees that practice is a good idea. Even Hastur grumbles along to the tune, although Crowley does not think he means a word of it.

            Not that it matters. When Crowley sings the whole song through, it still leaves the crew in a trance, even though they have sung along with him to varying degrees. It is easily broken by added stimuli; a touch from Crowley, the sound of a loud footstep, a couple of spoken words. This is, to some degree, a good thing. They had wanted a way to rouse the whole crew from the song. But it is meaningless if the other crew can be awoken just as easily. Even if they can manage to board another ship in complete silence, the effects of a human song, even sung alone by Crowley and undisturbed afterward, do not last even an hour.

            “Maybe if we learned your song instead?” Anathema suggests one morning. The drink in her hands has all of Crowley’s attention; it smells better than almost anything else in the ship’s galley. “Crowley.”

            He blinks and looks up to find Anathema smiling at him.

            “Do you want some?” she asks, tipping her stone mug toward him so he can see the dark, swirling liquid.

            “No,” he says, but he lifts his chin and takes a few deeper sniffs. “What is it?” He knows it had come from the last ship they took. His coverts are looking ragged.

            “Coffee,” she tells him, taking a drink. She’s put milk from one of the ship’s goats into it. “It’s a bit like tea. Tastes worse by itself.”

            Crowley’s nose wrinkles. He has learned a lot about what humans will and won’t eat, and he’s found no reason to it. They won’t eat barnacles at all, but they will eat crabs, except not the shells. They will drink fermented plants and boiled leaves, but seawater can kill them. Even Hastur had been nicer to him after the first time Crowley had pulled the salt out of a bucket of water for them. And then they go and do things like burn plant bits and grind them up to soak in water so they can drink it.

            “Yeah,” she agrees with his face, and takes another long sip of the drink.

            “I don’t think you could,” Crowley tells her, once she swallows. He’s learned not to surprise humans while drinking; they cannot dissolve their lungs and remake them to clear them of liquids. He’d known humans can’t form gills – or at least that none of the ones he’d ever drowned had done so, and he has always assumed being dragged to the ocean’s floor would be the time to do it, if ever – but it is like they barely evolved to survive at all.

            “Hm?” she says, eyes flicking back up to him. “Don’t think I could what?”

            “Learn my song,” he tells her, and she tips her head in question. “It doesn’t have words. Not… like human words.”

            She considers this for a long moment, and then sets her cup down on the table. “I heard words.”

            “Everyone hears words,” Crowley says. “That’s the magic. You hear… what you most want to hear. Love, riches, revenge… whatever is deepest in your heart, that’s what the song promises.”

            She hums softly, fingers tracing over the rim of her cup in thought. “Makes you wonder what the captain hears.”

            Crowley swallows and doesn’t agree with the sentiment aloud, despite that he has spent more than a few nights wondering exactly that. “I can’t teach you how to use magic you haven’t got,” he says instead.

            “You haven’t tried.” She stares back when he looks up, and he gives a soft huff of amusement. She’s right.

            So when they reach their mooring cove, away from dangers and off the open sea, Crowley asks Aziraphale to round up the crew. He looks over them, all twenty-seven together at once, and tries to decide how to teach so many a language they’ve never known, one that doesn’t use words. Tries to determine how to teach them to sing when the song will put them to sleep in moments.

            They settle on teaching it backwards, almost. He teaches them the end of it first, or an approximation of the end, until they can sing a few notes in order. It sounds off, without the magic twined into it. They sing the notes, but that’s all they are. Notes, sung by humans. Sung by mortals. He spends a week teaching them in agonizingly slow chunks, watching them go glassy-eyed if he sings too many notes in a row, until they can sing for two full minutes by themselves.

            It has no effect. He climbs to the lowest of the yards and he lets them begin to sing, and then he joins them, and he watches them drop, one by one, until only Aziraphale stands alert.

            “It appears we may have a few more kinks to work out of it,” Aziraphale calls up to him. “Would you like to get dinner while they sleep?”

            Crowley looks over the group, and traces out over the lines of his spell. The crew will sleep for a couple of hours, but something about it feels wrong. He doesn’t know what, but the spell feels off. It feels short, or disturbed, as though it has hit a snag. He watches, and he waits, but when Aziraphale finally calls his name again, he drops down from the yard and lands on the deck beside the captain to follow him down to the galley.

            “Are you alright?” Aziraphale asks him, when they take their seats. "You seem a bit peaky."

            Crowley glances over Aziraphale’s shoulder, to the door, but no one comes through it. Despite that there is no reason for it, he feels as though someone should come through it. He knows they are asleep. He knows they will not wake. Still, the sensation of his spell being shed persists.

            “It didn’t work,” he says, searching for a way to explain better.

            “Obviously,” Aziraphale says, some strange mixture of sad and amused. “They’re all asleep.”

            “No,” Crowley says, rolling his egg around in his hand as he thinks. “Well. That didn’t work either, but my song… something has changed.”

            “Oh?” Aziraphale asks, leaning closer. “Are you saying their singing did have an effect?”

            “It’s not that,” Crowley says. He doesn’t know what it is but he knows what it is not, and it is most definitely not human song affecting the magic. “When I sing to you, the spell works, but you aren’t affected. This feels… kind of like that. But different.”

            “That clarifies things greatly,” Aziraphale tells him, and takes a bite of his dinner.

            Crowley doesn’t bother trying again. He cannot clarify it beyond that, he just knows that something is different, so he pops the egg into his mouth whole and sets about clearing the rest of his plate. The small, lumpy biscuit balanced precariously on the edge, he lifts and sets gently upon the edge of Aziraphale’s instead, and feels the heat of a flush under his skin when Aziraphale smiles and says thank you so softly. Aziraphale treats the action like something worthwhile, even though Crowley has already told him he doesn’t like sweets. Even though he knows that while they are safely moored, Crowley will fish on his own for things he does like.

            Still, it is nice to be smiled at like that. It is nice to see Aziraphale happy.

            They do not give up afterward. Crowley sings to them again that evening, and they try a different configuration of voices. Just the men, and just the women, and just the children once. The crew sleeps soundly that night, and the next, and the one after that.

            The one after that, however, something changes.

            Crowley sits upon the lowest yard singing, and he watches the crew below get drowsier and drowsier, until they begin to nod off. He finishes his song a little sadly, following the lines of the spell out, expecting to find them all securely anchored in sleep; only to find that a few are already unraveling. They are not close to waking, but it won’t be as long as usual. Half, if that.

            He opens pitch wings and glides down to the nearest of the crew, some of the parents to the children. They are held fast. Nearby, Beelzebub and Lucifer, half out of the spell already. The children are deep in it. Shadwell is usually the last to wake, and won’t be an exception today. Beside him…

            Crowley’s eyes narrow as something unsettling twists and turns in his chest as he looks at the vaguely familiar face. The young man beside Shadwell feels like a snag. He feels the way Aziraphale feels, and yet… not. The spell took him, the same as it took any of the others. Crowley can feel magic about him, feel it hooked into his spell as if it is a part of it, but this close, Crowley can feel the difference. The boy’s eyes stare into the middle distance, but they do not move, do not tick with the hallucinations left to those who are no longer lucid.

            “I think I’m going to be sick,” comes a voice from behind him, breaking the moment. Crowley does not miss the way the boy’s eyes tick to him for a split second before becoming unfocused again.

            He turns to face the source of the noise, only to find Madam Tracy swaying on her feet and looking as though she might fall down. Crowley darts the short distance between them to steady her and when he turns back to tell the boy they need to talk, he finds him gone. There isn’t time for concern, when both Ligur and Lesley also shake off his spell and begin to stumble around the deck as if they had imbibed a great deal of drink.

            “Well done,” Aziraphale calls from where he normally sits, already on the move to stop the other two men from toddling off. “What did you do differently?”

            “I didn’t,” Crowley tells him, helping Tracy to sit on a nearby trunk. He glances up and catches Aziraphale’s eye. “But something is… happening. The spell’s… not working like it used to.

            “Like a poison,” Ligur spits out, an echo of weeks and weeks ago when Crowley had first brought up the issue of singing. “Gotta get used to it.”

            Aziraphale’s eyebrows rise, and he looks to Crowley again. “Do you think…?”

            A gradual resistance to the effects of his magic, built over time by repeated exposure… he supposes that this is as often as any human has ever heard a siren sing and live. It is possible that singing to them nightly has caused some sort of reduction in the effect. Allowed them to build some kind of immunity, perhaps.

            “I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”

            The following day, Aziraphale sits the entire crew back on the deck and Crowley puts himself upon the highest yard, and when he hears the whistle from below, he sings. He casts the spell out, the way he would were he to sing to a ship he wanted to take and one by one, he feels the crew beneath him fall to it. They sleep, though for less time than they ought to, and Crowley continues to sing. When they wake, Aziraphale dismisses them to their duties, to cleaning and cooking and checking the ship and her stores.

            And through it, Crowley sings.

            He doesn’t sing to ensorcell them. Instead, he sings of his reef, and of the deep. He sings of the storms he has seen, and the creatures he has met. He sings of Atlantis, cradled in the heart of the world, her gardens overflowing, her walls holding back the sea. He sings of the men he has dragged to the deep, and the treasures hidden away in the wrecks where he used to live. He sings of moonlight shattering over waves, and the rising sun setting fire to the ocean in the morning.

            He sings and he sings and he sings, until the sun begins to set and the humans sleep because they are tired.

            And in the morning, when he sings the first song to them again, the one which should put them under his power, no eyes close. The crew stares up at him in wonder, a little soft, a little vulnerable, but awake. Aware.

            “I think,” Aziraphale tells him when he returns to the deck, “we may have just found a solution.”

            Crowley absolutely does not preen under Aziraphale’s pride, except for the fact that he does, just a little.

 

Chapter Text

 

            The solution to the crew keeping its wits about it while Crowley sings is simple enough that it does not long distract Crowley from his more urgent concerns. He does not need to sing to them all day, or even all night; a single song in the evening, a few minutes of his time every night, and his song affects them no more than it would another siren. Or at least, it does so for most of them.

            Twenty-five of them, to be precise, which is two less than the total, and one less than the number of crew that ought to be on the ship, and that is what is of urgent concern to Crowley.

            Crowley had tried to count them again more than once, but he’d only come up with the right number; twenty-six total.

            The problem was that there had been twenty-seven, when Crowley first landed upon the ship’s rail, until the hurricane had taken one of them as her own and left them with twenty-six. Except, there are twenty-seven now, or there had been the day Crowley’s song had stopped working.

            For days, Crowley has scoured the ship prow to stern and come up empty handed for the last member of the crew. This does not particularly surprise him. Whatever has gotten onto the ship, it has magic enough of its own. Enough to shed Crowley’s spell, and enough finesse to mimic it so Crowley had not noticed before now. Crowley only knows of one creature like that, and he doesn’t expect to find it by trying to hunt it down.

            “There’s a sea sprite on the ship,” he tells Aziraphale in the morning, when he has finally given up the hunt.

            Aziraphale makes a noise that assumes consciousness on his part, but doesn’t make a move to even open his eyes. Crowley waits, his hands on the foot board, wings folded out of sight. He’s spent the entire night searching every nook and cranny, even though he had known from the start what he would find. Or rather, what he wouldn’t. He doesn’t even know if Aziraphale knows what a sea sprite is, despite all of the books around them. The good captain doesn’t seem particularly concerned, given what a sprite is capable of.

            Finally, Aziraphale stirs a little, enough to fling an arm over one eye to block out the sunshine streaming in the windows. “A sea sprite? Mm. We’re still here, so I must assume it’s not too bad. What is it?”

            Crowley tries to find a way to explain that will cause a human to understand the danger here. “Imagine if a bit of the sea came to life,” he says slowly. “But not a good bit. The sort of bit that hauls humans beneath her surface near the shore, or causes great whirlpools that swallow ships whole when there’s no land in any direction. The sort that knows no mercy or fair fortune.”

            “Are you saying they’re evil?” Aziraphale asks, removing his arm from over his face and squinting down his body to where Crowley still stands. “Some would say the same about you, although I suppose it should count for something if a siren finds these sprites to be worrisome.”

            With a small sound of exasperation, Crowley drops to all fours and whirls around the room, pacing. “They’re not evil, but they are often angry, and they don’t step foot upon a vessel unless they intend to cause a problem. This one’s taken the place of a crew member.” He hesitates, swallowing down the little pinch of guilt in his throat. “An ex crew member.”

            That gets Aziraphale’s attention, and he struggles up into a sitting position against the headboard. “It’s killed someone?”

            “...Not exactly,” Crowley admits. “During the storm… three men went overboard under a wave. I pulled up two of them but the third...”

            “But we- we didn’t lose anyone in the storm,” Aziraphale says carefully. “I mean, you left after, but everyone else was accounted for at the first role call.”

            Crowley thinks for a moment before shaking his head. “That must’ve been when it switched, then.” His brow furrows. “If it’s been on the ship that long without a problem, then we have an even bigger problem. A sprite on its own would have sunk this ship within days of stepping foot upon it. A sprite bound to a human, though...”

            “Bound- like a selkie, you mean?”

            Crowley nods, and comes back to the bed, hands on the foot board so he can face Aziraphale fully. “Sprites can be tamed by mortals, though it is very difficult to do. Someone would have had to save its life, which means its life must have first been in danger, and there are very, very few things which can endanger a creature like that. Their forms must first be bound in iron, which means getting close enough to do so. Most humans are dead before that.”

            “And you think someone on this crew did all of that, after the storm?” Aziraphale asks. “Without anyone else noticing? Without you noticing?”

            “I wasn’t here,” Crowley says, the words sour on his tongue. “I wouldn’t have noticed, except sprites can shed a siren’s song by mimicking the magic as it is cast and finishing the spell first. They are excellent mimics. This one had me fooled into thinking it was still under my spell until a few days ago.”

            Aziraphale lets out a heavy breath and rubs his hands over his face before staring up at the ceiling, thinking. “Tell me… is there any chance that… someone on the crew captured the sprite and has merely been too afraid to admit to it, given our relationship with you and with Mr. Pulsifer? That someone perhaps fears punishment for the act?”

            “For months?” Crowley says. “Do you believe they would not even come to you in private?”

            “No, you’re quite right,” Aziraphale admits, sitting forward and beginning to wiggle toward the edge of the bed to get up. “I suppose we’d best go find it, so we can-”

            “No,” Crowley interrupts quickly, putting himself between Aziraphale and the door even though Aziraphale hasn’t even made it out of the bed. “I’ve already looked. It knows I’m onto it, so it will hide until it thinks I’ve given up.”

            There is a beat of silence before Aziraphale, perched on the edge of the bed, says: “Then what are you proposing we do?”

            Crowley tips his head a little to one side and raises his brows, an expression he’s seen the humans use before. “You’re not going to like it.”

 


 

            For the next three days, Crowley does nothing.

            He sits on the prow of the ship and watches the ocean, or perches atop the mizzenmast’s yards. He sings to the crew in the evenings, and fishes for himself in the mornings, and spends a good deal of time following Aziraphale around the deck or lounging with him in their room. He acts, as nearly as anyone can tell, perfectly normal; or at least, as normal as a siren aboard a human pirate ship can act.

            On the fourth day, Madam Tracy announces at lunch that they’re going to need to go hunting again soon. The crew murmurs about it, but they do not sound upset. If anything, they sound eager. They will spill no blood this time, not even the few drops of their own they had done to stay awake. They are immune to a siren’s song, and they will all be able to take what they want from their next target. They are the only crew on the water that is unstoppable.

            Crowley listens to the murmurs, and catches Aziraphale’s eyes from across the table. Aziraphale looks away first.

            They pull anchor that afternoon, and catch a favorable wind heading back toward the mainland. Crowley stays atop his favorite yard, at the front of the ship, watching the horizon. The ocean is very, very big, but there are only so many places upon it that humans will travel, and they do not need to be picky about which ships they approach.

            Pirates, Newt had explained to him once, normally have to judge a lot of things going into a fight. They have to choose a vessel they can beat in a firefight, and preferably by such a margin that there will be no firefight in the first place. They have to know approximately how much of what cargo is aboard the ship, so that they can know if the mark will be worth the risk, and they have to know there will be someplace on land where they can fence the stolen goods afterward.

            The crew of the Archangel does not need to know any of that.

            In millennia of existence, Crowley has only ever lost one ship, and the reason now lies at the bottom of the ocean. The Archangel seeks mostly food and water, and every ship has some of that aboard; anything else that might be useful is a bonus. They have no use for a fence; anything they cannot use, themselves, is left behind. Aziraphale tells him that at some point they’ll have to find a port that will take them, but the thought makes everyone nervous still. Both sides have reason to fear them, to chase them out.

            Being unstoppable comes with a price.

            Although it takes them two days of cruising the coastline, they finally happen upon a merchant vessel late in the evening. She makes a passable attempt at fleeing, but the wind blows the wrong way, and the Archangel is smaller and Crowley’s song reaches them before long. She beaches, a bit roughly, in the shoals offshore and the entire crew of the Archangel cheers until Aziraphale manages to shout over them to get the launches in the water already.

            Crowley watches the boats skim over the shallow waters, and he counts the crew upon them. There are fifteen among the two boats and eight crew on deck. Tracy and Shadwell are in the galley talking, and Uriel and Mr. Tyler are belowdecks still, sorting and making room for what will be brought back.

            Twenty-seven.

            When the boats reach the stranded ship, Crowley waits until the last of them have scaled the ropes to board her, and then he spreads his wings and drops from the yard to follow. He knows that none of the sailors will look for him; they are too intent on their prize, on stepping carefully around the sleeping bodies that litter the deck. They will search the hold, and bring up what they want, what they think is useful. Most of it will be.

            He tips his wings and alights soundlessly on the prow, and the ship is so anchored into the sand that it does not notice his sudden weight. There he stays, watching the crew, until he lays eyes upon the one that is only vaguely familiar. The one who looks nearly the same, with the same kohl-rimmed eyes and the same points to its tightly-curled hair, despite that there is nothing close to human inside of it. The sprite scans the deck, but its eyes do not come as far as the prow before sweeping back. It is looking for humans, not sirens.

            When it turns its back, Crowley slips from the rise, down among the bodies asleep on the deck, among the piles of ropes. Scales pattern over his skin, rising from his flesh and soaking up the sunlight beating down upon them. Looking upon his scales like this will produce an illusion, a shimmer of heat like that on the sand of a desert island’s beach. He can be upon anyone that notices before they understand what they are looking at.

            He slithers closer, pausing when the sprite stops and takes up a guard position near where the others have disappeared into the hold. Whoever has claimed its loyalty, they are on this ship, and they have gone below. Crowley counts the four that have remained above to scavenge ship maintenance supplies; Anathema, he notes with relief, is among them.

            Gently, with great care to not allow it to make noise, Crowley unsheaths the dagger Aziraphale had acquired for him, keeping it close to his body so that it does not glint in the sun. It is iron, through and through, one that Aziraphale had taken off Gabriel’s body before leaving the Dove to sink. Crowley may not have liked Gabriel, but the human certainly seemed to have known his way around non-human creatures. Crowley is beginning to suspect he knows why Gabriel had not been affected by his song, and it may not have had anything to do with his heart.

            One of the men before him shifts in his sleep, and Crowley freezes, only a few yards from the sprite. Its attention turns and Crowley sways back and forth a little like a snake, allowing his scales to play their sunlit illusion. The sprite looks directly at him, and he worries for a moment that this sort of magic cannot work on its kind, but then its gaze drops to the sleeping man, and then away again.

            Crowley strikes.

            The time between when he begins to move and when he has the sprite pinned against the wall, dagger through its ribs and into the doorway behind it is negligible. Not nearly enough time for it to muster a defense, or to flee. It scrabbles at him, trapped in a human form by the iron pinning it, until Crowley drapes his wings around them and shoves his forearm into the sprite’s throat to still it.

            “I know what you are,” he hisses, and eases up a little when the sprite stops struggling. “What are you doing on our ship?”

            “Nothing,” the sprite gurgles, its soft fingers useless against the slick scales of Crowley’s arm. “Let me go!”

            Crowley shoves a little harder, just to hear it panic, just to feel it squirm. The hilt of the dagger is slick, but with seawater, not blood. “Tell me what you want.”

            “I want you to let me go, you overgrown lizard,” it chokes out, trying to bring up a knee to shove space between them. It might as well have tried to move a tree the same way.

            “Stop.” The sprite falls utterly still at the command, wheezing through what airway is left to it, dark eyes wide as they focus on Crowley’s. “No sprite comes aboard a human vessel without intent to cause trouble. Tell me why you are on Aziraphale’s ship.”

            It searches his eyes, but whatever it had hoped to find, it seems it doesn’t. Instead, it deflates, going limp in his grasp. “It wasn’t Aziraphale’s ship, now was it? Gabriel held it first. Held me first.”

            “Gabriel is dead,” Crowley says, and then hesitates. A sprite bound to a human dies when that human does, and this sprite is very much alive. For some definitions of alive, anyway. “He is dead, isn’t he?”

            The sprite gives him a look, and attempts a shrug. “Presumably,” it says, strained. “I wasn’t bound to him when your human ran him through.”

            “Who were you bound to, then?” Crowley demands. “Who binds you now?” It struggles for freedom again, and Crowley twists the dagger, widening the wound until the sprite wheezes and gasps and falls still again.

            “Lucifer,” it says, the word dragged roughly out of it. Crowley hisses and presses upon the dagger again, but the sprite only desperately repeats itself. “Lucifer, Lucifer! I swear it, siren. I serve Lucifer.”

            Crowley releases it, pulling the dagger free and stepping back, holding out a wing to catch it when it staggers forward. The hole the weapon had left remains, but it slowly begins to close. The sprite stands there, sucking in heavy breaths with its hands upon Crowley’s steady wing, and stares at him in complete bewilderment. Crowley waits a beat, and then dips his wing before lifting it, levering the sprite upright when the wound is nearly closed.

            “Why?” the sprite asks. “Why would you let me go?”

            “It’s not your fault a human is trying to use you,” Crowley says simply. “I intend to grant you your freedom, on the condition that once you have it, you will cause no harm or misfortune for Aziraphale or his crew. Or his ship.”

            “Why?” the sprite repeats breathlessly. “Why these ones? Why do you, of all creatures, care about them? I have wondered since the day you arrived.”

            “I don’t know,” Crowley admits, as honestly as he is able. “I’m not sure there is a why. But I do, and I won’t see them harmed, do you understand?”

            “Yes,” it says. “But if Lucifer asks me to-”

            Crowley cuts him off. “He won’t.” His attention flickers to the sound of footsteps from below decks. They are out of time. “The humans return. Find me tonight, on the ship. You will tell me what happened to you, and I will find a way to free you.”

            “Eric,” the sprite says, when Crowley takes a step back. “It’s the name Gabriel gave me.”

            Crowley nods. “It’s going to be alright, Eric,” he promises, and then he is stealing back across the deck, wings unfolding as he prepares to return to the ship where Aziraphale awaits his report.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley touches down a few yards from Aziraphale, who keeps a safe distance from his beating wings until Crowley falls still. “It’s Lucifer,” Crowley calls to him, swirling around and hiding his wings as he leaps nimbly up on top of the rail.

            “Adam’s father?” Aziraphale says, sounding surprised.

            “Lucifer, not Arthur,” Crowley says. He’s certain of this at least; Adam’s family is close knit.

            Aziraphale makes a thoughtful noise. “Arthur adopted Adam from Lucifer, in a sense,” he says carefully. “Lucifer was… not doing well caring for him. They were working on it together, before we were attacked by Gabriel. I admit I’ve had my hands a bit full to be too nosy about personal affairs that, quite frankly, I saw as none of my business.”

            “Perhaps they should have been.” He says it without tone, but Aziraphale gives him a dry look anyway. Crowley doesn’t know why; it’s the truth.

            “It’s a bit late now,” Aziraphale tells him. “What do we do next?”

            Crowley stares out over the water, to where the crew is emerging on the other ship, burdened with crates and barrels. It will take them a while to load it into the launches, and to ferry both cargo and humans back to this ship, and to get it brought up after that. He doesn’t know if Eric will have to tell Lucifer of their conversation. He hopes not, but if it comes down to needing to take action early, he can do what needs done on any time scale. Aziraphale won't like that, though, so Crowley will try to make this go as smoothly as possible.

            “When they return, tell them to go back and fetch whatever they think can be sold,” Crowley says. Finding and ferrying extra cargo should buy them time, and misdirect their attention.

            “Oh?” Aziraphale says, obviously confused. “Buying time, or have you got plans for it?”

            “Both,” Crowley tells him. He knows Aziraphale does not want Lucifer dead, which means they will have to take him somewhere and if they have to go near a port, or even into one, they may as well make the most of it. “They’ll notice the change in routine. They won’t question when you call them to meet. They will assume you want to tell them why you had them do something different. I will take care of Lucifer in front of them.”

            Aziraphale frowns, and turns to face him more fully. “By take care of, I assume you don’t mean you’ll kill him… I’m afraid that would not go over well with the rest of the crew.”

            Crowley glances to him, and is reminded that Aziraphale doesn’t know much about sprites. “I can’t kill him without killing the sprite,” he says. “Not while they’re bound together.”

            “And you have a plan to- to unbind them, then?” Aziraphale asks.

            “Yes,” Crowley says. Across the water, the first of the crates is being lowered carefully into one of the launches.

            “Let me guess,” Aziraphale says, “I’m not going to like that any more than I liked taking the risk of chasing down a ship we didn’t need to.”

            “It does seem unlikely,” Crowley says, but he feels some sort of comfort in the fact that Aziraphale is willing to joke, just a little. He turns to face him again, eyes ticking over his features- over the tight clench of his jaw and the way wrinkles fold into the edges of his eyes when he worries. “Are you alright with this?”

            For a moment, Aziraphale looks as though he’s about to make light of it again, perhaps tell Crowley he doesn’t know what this is, but then he relents with a put-upon sigh. “It must be done,” he says, turning back to look at his crew as they work. “I won’t have people enslaved on my ship, human or not.”

            “They’re not people,” Crowley says. “Not really. Not any more than a wave is a person, or a gust of wind, or a large stone. A sprite is just a bit of the ocean that’s human shaped for a while.”

            Aziraphale gives a little huff, and Crowley can see a smile turning his lips. “If you believe the ocean is not a person,” he says, entirely too fondly, “then you haven’t really met her. She has her whims, and her temper, and her hunger. If she has given a piece of herself a new shape, even just for a little while, we shall endeavor to treat it with the same respect we do the rest of her. To do anything less… it doesn’t bear thinking.”

            Crowley’s heart feels warm and liquid in his chest at the declaration, his heartbeat so heavy he can feel it in his fingertips. In that moment he knows that he would do anything for the creature before him. Fly or swim any distance, take on any danger, give anything he asks for. Stay as long as Aziraphale will have him. Love him-

            Oh, he thinks.

            Once, a whale had asked him if he could love, and the ocean’s sprite has just asked him why he chose this crew, this life, this particular human, and in that moment he realizes that he knows the answer to both of those questions beyond the shadow of a doubt.

            He can, and he does.

            He loves Aziraphale.

 


 

            Crowley watches the crew unload the first batch of crates, and listens to Aziraphale explain that they should look for items which could be fenced. He does not give a reason, only tells them that he will explain when they are back on their way, and none of them question him. None of them even hesitate. They trust him. Even Lucifer gives no indication that he will do anything but obey. In fact, the only one to even spare an upward glance to Crowley is Eric, and even that is fleeting.

            The second run takes long enough that Crowley flies to the prize ship to guard their retreat, to ensure that the sailors aboard it do not wake, and that they cannot pursue the Archangel quickly. He does not damage the ship the way he had the first to chase them, merely unties knots and takes down sails and hides equipment. He is, in essence, causing as much mischief as possible, and he finds that it feels… nice.

            He thinks that this is what humans refer to, when they say the word fun.

            He thinks he might understand why they do things to pursue such a feeling, why they sing and joke and drink. Why they are so vibrant.

            When he has done what he can while the launches are being unloaded and hauled back into their braces, he leaps from the edge of the ship and glides back over to the Archangel. Gently, he catches the edge of his favorite yard and lands there, wings out to balance himself, and he listens to Aziraphale and Anathema directing everyone as to where to store which items. The hold, as it stands, is not as empty as they might have been led to believe, and they will need to be distracted from discovering this until Aziraphale can call them for Crowley to address.

            Thankfully, the added time it had taken to get the loot to the ship makes it reasonable for them to leave crates on the deck and get the ship under way immediately. It also leaves them an excuse to gather once the wind is carrying them safely away from their prey, waiting to find out what exactly Aziraphale is thinking. They haven’t been to a port since the crews merged. They’ve scavenged what they needed, stolen what they could. Every last one of them remembers being shot at and chased from the ports they had tried to approach in the beginning.

            “I understand that you’re concerned about what I am planning,” Aziraphale tells them from up near the wheel, once they are all present. Even Madam Tracy and Mr. Shadwell and Uriel have come up from their posts below decks. “And I will explain it to you, but there is a matter we must address first.”

            He casts his eyes up, and everyone’s gazes follow, up to where Crowley perches. Crowley spreads midnight wings wide and drops from the yard, wings angling to allow him to come rapidly at the crew. They break apart, a space opening in the middle of the group, a hollow made for him. He does not bother to make his landing soft. He has not left much of himself human for this. Even his wings remain out, ensuring that there will be space left around him as he prowls among them like the great, dangerous beast that he is.

            “Allow me to tell you sssomething about the nature of sssea creaturesss,” he says loudly, the words rasping over sharp teeth and his forked tongue, sibilant and low, mixing with the susurration of water against the hull. “There are sseveral kindss of creature. Those who are ssssurvivable, and thossse... who are not.”

            The crew shift nervously around him, and he’s certain that they believe he is about to turn upon them. He won’t disillusion them of that notion, not quite yet. He is doing this to get to Lucifer, but perhaps a good enough threat now will discourage anyone else from following suit in the future. He turns, and begins to pace back the way he’d come.

            “You may enjoy an encounter with benevolent creatures like Pricus or Jasconiussss, or even an asssspidochelone,” he continues. “You may, if you are quick and do not mind losing a limb, sssurvive an encounter with a kelpie. Your shipsss may be ssspared by leviathan of the deep.”

            He pauses again, turning to face them all at the end of his pace. There are hands upon weapons now. Something about that hurts. Aziraphale’s hand is not, however, so he takes a breath and pushes off the floor to shove himself into a standing position, towering over the humans in his terrifying true form. He spreads his wings, blocking the sun behind him so that shadow falls over them.

            “And then there are creatures like me,” he booms, not as pleased as he ought to be, as he would have been a year ago, to see the humans tremble and step back in fear. “Sssirens who consume whole crews, and mermaidsss, who leave no man they touch alive. Ssskolopendra, who risesss only in wrath to drag the corpses of your ships down to build his den. The kraken, whose legend only sssurvives by the talesss immortals tell because it hass never left a mortal sssurvivor.”

            Slowly, his wings fold, and his talons drop back to the floor, and his features soften as he gentles himself, just a little, for them.

            “But there are otherss,” he says, much more softly as he begins to stalk forward again, this time with intent. “Ones your kind has found ways to control, to bind. Ssselkies, like your navigator. The beautiful undine, whose only fault is in loving humanssss that would betray them.” He falls still a step in front of Lucifer, posture hunched, coiled. Ready to strike. “Creaturessss...” he says slowly, “like a sea sssprite, bound to one who saves their life.” He turns his head, fixes golden eyes upon Lucifer. “Or one who spares it.”

            He sees the jolt that goes through Lucifer at the words, and he knows he has hit the mark. He had figured, given what he knows of the initial altercation, and that Lucifer had been on the merchant ship and Eric on Gabriel’s crew, that Lucifer hadn’t saved the sprite from any of his allies. But the debt works in cases of a spared life. The sprite must have protected Gabriel in the fight, and been spared by Lucifer shortly afterward, in order for such a transfer to have taken place. Crowley can think of no other way.

            No one moves until Crowley stands again, smaller this time, more human, but no less dangerous. “I am only going to asssk nicely once, human,” he hisses. “Release him.”

            “No,” Lucifer says, not even bothering to feign ignorance or deny it. “That bond is the only thing keeping you from killing me. We both know you know that you can’t kill me without killing him.”

            Crowley’s lips peel back from sharp teeth. “Is that so?” he says, and then pounces, lashing out with one hand to strike Lucifer in the chest. Were he attacking for real, he’d have ripped Lucifer’s heart from him, but that is not the plan. Not yet, anyway. For now, he settles for hooking his talons around the far side of Lucifer’s ribs as he follows him down, pinning him to the deck with a loud whump.

            The humans around him shout and scatter, weapons drawing, until Aziraphale shouts at them to hold. Nothing else moves as Lucifer writhes and screams in Crowley’s grasp. The scent of blood is nearly overwhelming and Crowley knows the yellows of his irises must be expanding, taking over his eyes as bloodlust rises within him. It has been a long time since he killed a human. It has been a long time since he fed properly.

            “Stop!” calls a voice behind him, the one he had been expecting.

            “I won’t,” he grinds out.

            There is a touch to his shoulder, pulling against it as usefully as one pulls against a reef to move it. “Please,” Eric says. “Spare him. He is right. If you kill him, it will kill me too.”

            “Then bargain with me, sprite,” he says, eyes still locked on his squirming, trembling prey. This one deserves fear. “Your life for his. Swear it to me, and I will let him live. Refuse, and I will see you both dead.”

            He hears the click of Eric’s throat, and the wash of seawater in its veins, and the soft exhale it gives. “I swear it,” it says. “Release him, let him live, and I am yours.”

            For a few seconds, Crowley watches blood well around where his sickle talons are embedded in Lucifer’s chest. The human has fallen still, barely conscious and deeply in shock. Though the wounds are clean, they are deep and there is a chance the human will not survive them no matter what Crowley does. Eric will need to heal him. That will save Lucifer’s life. That will free Eric.

            Carefully, Crowley’s talons relax, slipping wetly out of Lucifer’s chest. Blood rises quickly, and Eric drops down beside him, its skin turning clear and liquid as it presses over the open wounds. Crowley steps aside but does not go far, wings mantling up around them to stop anyone from interrupting. It does not take long, and when Eric’s hands return to their opaque, human state, Lucifer’s clothing is covered in blood, but the skin beneath is unmarred.

            Only when Eric finally stands does Crowley realize that no one else on the crew has taken even one step toward them. None of them have made a move to help Lucifer at all. They do not try to save him now. Crowley turns his attention to them, his chest hot and tight with something unpleasant to see their weapons still drawn. His gaze falls to Aziraphale, who is staring at him like something broken.

            They have not seen him violent before. They have not seen him draw blood.

            They have not seen him ready to kill.

            He raises his voice over the sound of the ocean. “Lucifer betrayed this ship,” he calls, rising to stand up on two legs again as he addresses them. “He betrayed this crew. He knowingly enslaved a dangerous creature, and kept it a secret from all of you, thereby endangering not only your lives, but everything you have worked for since you joined together. If there are any here that would defend him, who were in league with him, you have a choice to make. You may step forward now and be imprisoned but remain unharmed, or you can wait, and find out what happens when you lie to your captain.”

            A soft murmur skitters through the crew, but one of them sheaths his blade, and then another, and another, and not one of them steps forward. Crowley nods, and lowers back down to all fours just as Lucifer struggles to consciousness, a dazed look on his face. He jerks and rears back, hitting his head on the deck again as Crowley crouches near to speak.

            “You are lucky to still have your life,” Crowley snarls, voice low. “I would recommend trying to keep it that way.”

            Lucifer sneers at him, hand on his chest to feel where gaping wounds should have been. “You played your only card,” he snaps back, though his voice wavers. “You couldn’t kill me before, and you can’t kill me now. You'd break your deal.”

            “You're right,” Crowley agrees, “I can’t kill you.” He straightens a little and tips his head to direct Lucifer’s gaze up to where Aziraphale watches, his mouth a thin line and fire in his eyes. “But he can.”

            Crowley rises and begins to move away, and Anathema gives orders for Lucifer to be collected, detained in the belly of the ship. Two humans move past Crowley to seize him, and a moment later Aziraphale calls orders to set a course for Jasmine Bay. Crowley has no idea how far that is, or how long it will take them, or if it will matter. They may be met with a fight there.

            The crew comes to life around them, and Crowley begins to step away to speak to Aziraphale about all of this, perhaps to reassure him that he will not hurt the others, when he is stopped by Eric calling after him.

            "That's it?"

            Crowley glances over his shoulder at the sprite in question.

            “You’re just going to keep me?” Eric demands. “What good has it done, trading one master for another?”

            Crowley stares at it, gaze tracking down and then back up, considering. It is true, he had done this to set Eric free. However… “The ship needs every body it can get in order to make it safely to a port. Gabriel wronged you. Lucifer wronged you. The rest of these humans have not. They are imprisoning the one who captured you as we speak. Do you acknowledge these truths?”

            “Yes,” Eric says, less angry but just as confused.

            “Good.” Crowley turns away from it. “Then I release you from your debt to me. Leave if you wish. Stay if you believe they deserve your aid until they reach the bay. I don’t care which.”

            Silence nips at his heels as he bounds away, leaping up the steps to get to where Aziraphale still stands, waiting. When Crowley turns to look, Eric is gone from where it stood. It is, however, several yards away, helping Hastur with the riggings, and something in Crowley relaxes to know he has made the right choice.

            They are safe, for now. Wounded, but safe.

            “You were right,” Aziraphale says quietly from beside him. Crowley looks over to find Aziraphale’s smile strained and a little sad. “I didn’t like that very much.”

            There is an apology clawing at the back of Crowley’s throat, but he swallows it down. Aziraphale had told him, the very first day he arrived, that he does not need to change himself. He thinks perhaps that applies to his actions today. “I won’t hurt you,” he says instead. “I won’t hurt the others, either.”

            Aziraphale’s smile cracks around the edges. “As difficult as it may be to believe, your actions are not the ones that have hurt us. I had hoped these past few months had proven us to be a family, and yet when we reach port, one of us will have to be cast out for the safety of the others.”

            It is not Crowley’s fault; Lucifer’s actions are not Crowley’s fault. This, he knows. Strange, then, that he feels such an urge to apologize for them. “You’ll heal,” he says instead. It sounds callous, though he knows it for the truth. “In time.”

            “Yes, I suppose we will,” Aziraphale agrees. He glances over at Newt to ascertain something – likely that they are on course and that he can manage alone – and then turns to leave. “Come along,” he calls over his shoulder. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

            Crowley hesitates only a moment, looking down at his blood-covered hands, before following after him.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley keeps his hands off the ground as he walks, so as not to get blood on Aziraphale’s things. Aziraphale doesn’t watch him either way, just lets him in and closes the door behind him. He makes no comment about the blood Crowley drips upon the floor. Instead, he crosses to his wardrobe and withdraws a soft, clean cloth, and then lifts the jug of fresh water from a crate beside the bed, and his wash bowl with it. Crowley watches him uncertainly as Aziraphale returns to stand in front of him with all of the items.

            “Down,” Aziraphale says, and nods downward even as he bends to place the jug and bowl on the floor between them.

            Slowly, Crowley crouches, following Aziraphale down as instructed. Aziraphale kneels before him and uncorks the jug, pouring some of it onto the cloth, over the bowl. He holds out a hand, and it takes Crowley a moment to understand what he is asking.

            With hesitation, Crowley places his bloody hand in Aziraphale’s clean, tidy one, smearing it with red. Aziraphale does not seem to notice, or perhaps he simply does not care. He simply swipes the cloth over the surface of Crowley’s hand, leaving a clean streak in its wake. He does this until the cloth is discolored completely, and then he rinses it with clean water, into the bowl, and resumes his work. The actions are methodical and soothing and Crowley finds himself relaxing into the gentle care.

            “Doesn't it bother you?” Crowley asks quietly, watching Aziraphale’s hands move over his own.

            “Hm?” Aziraphale hums, glancing up for only a second before returning attention to his task. “The blood? Hardly. I’ve seen it before.”

            “That I drew it,” Crowley clarifies. “That it does not bother me.” Aziraphale’s hands slow, finished with Crowley’s first hand, and then fall still, until he is merely holding Crowley’s hand in both of his. Crowley adds: “That I like it.”

            Aziraphale lets out a soft, settling breath. “It ought to,” he finally says. “In truth, it ought to do more than bother me. It ought to scare me. Perhaps disgust me.” Crowley’s belly does a cold flip; he had known enough to worry Aziraphale could be afraid of what he might do, but disgust had never crossed his mind. “But… it doesn’t.”

            Without elaborating, he rinses the cloth and takes it to Crowley’s other hand. Crowley watches for a few seconds, but he cannot let that lie between them unaddressed.

            “Why not?” he asks, not managing to catch Aziraphale’s eyes when he glances up at the question.

            He doesn’t know enough to even begin to guess at an answer, because Aziraphale is right. He ought to be afraid, maybe even disgusted, at the thought of cleaning another man’s blood from a monster's hands. He ought to be terrified that Crowley is willing and able to kill a human so easily, that he might feed upon any carcass he creates, man or beast alike. That he might, someday, do the same to Aziraphale.

            “Do you think I will not hurt you?” he presses when Aziraphale does not answer. “That I could not kill you?”

            The cloth, and Aziraphale’s fingers beneath it, rubs so gently over the delicate web between Crowley’s forefinger and thumb. “On the contrary,” Aziraphale says slowly, “I rather believe you could. But, perhaps what I find more concerning is the thought that I would let you.”

            “...Aziraphale...” He doesn’t know what else to say. He cannot say he would not do that, or that he will not, but he knows he does not want to hear Aziraphale speak of dying. Crowley does not want to think of a world without Aziraphale in it. Such a place seems unbearable.

            “It is not,” Aziraphale continues before Crowley can voice any of his thoughts, “that I want to die. Or even that I do not enjoy living, but… all mortal creatures, great and small, have an end somewhere. Of all the ways I could end, I find myself thinking that the least frightening of them is by your hand.”

            It is then that he looks up, and meets Crowley’s golden gaze. He offers a wan smile, his hands still, now merely holding one of Crowley’s in both of his again. Crowley does not know what to do with the fullness of his chest, nor the emptiness of it, and the conflict between the two states sharing the same space leaves him breathless.

            “Do you think it would not be unpleasant?” Crowley asks, the words clawing out of his closed throat. “To be killed by a siren.”

            “Dying is always unpleasant,” Aziraphale tells him. “But I am given to understand it is a… a comfort, to have a companion nearby at the end.”

            Crowley feels as though he has been told some kind of secret, from the way Aziraphale is staring at him, but he does not know what it is, and he dares not ask. What he does know is that Aziraphale’s big, blue eyes are asking him for something that he can give, and he will do so at whatever the cost. He will stay that long, if that is what Aziraphale wants. He will remain aboard this ship until at least one of them is no longer for this world.

            Still, he knows what kind of sacrifice that will require, and wonders if Aziraphale knows what he has not quite asked for.

            “You would have me stay so long beside you?” Crowley asks him, barely a breath. “That long, and then expect me to go on so much longer without you?”

            Aziraphale drops his gaze, turning his attention back to Crowley’s hand in his, and begins to wipe achingly gently over the blade of his palm. “It is cruel of me to ask, I suppose,” he begins. "Knowing that I cannot-"

            “I will,” Crowley interrupts. “I’ll stay.”

            Aziraphale’s smile cuts, though Crowley is certain it is meant to reassure him. “That’s very kind of you, dear, but-”

            “As long as you live, I have no want to go anywhere else,” Crowley says, as if he will die unless he says the words. “Aziraphale, I...”

            He swallows down what must come next, struggling against Anathema’s cautions from months ago. Gently, he tugs his hand from Aziraphale’s grasp, putting that much space between them. Space he is certain Aziraphale is about to want, space that he is certain he could not stand Aziraphale having to make.

            “Sirens,” he says slowly, carefully, because the words stand to be sharper than he means them if he does not handle them so, “do not love. And yet, I find myself in love with you. I say this with no expectation from you, except that you know it. And perhaps the hope that I be allowed to continue doing so from aboard your ship, rather than from across an ocean.”

            Aziraphale’s gaze burns into him for an unbearable moment, and then he shifts, and lifts the jug of water. Crowley thinks that that will be all, that he will put away his tools and tell Crowley it was out of line to say such things. He’d been warned, he had known better, he-

            He watches Aziraphale pour cool, clean water over the blood-stained rag, and remains transfixed as Aziraphale leans to reclaim Crowley’s unfinished hand. The cloth is soft and wet and Aziraphale is just as gentle with it as he had been before.

            “It would be very difficult,” Aziraphale says, “for you to be my companion from across an ocean. I am… happy, very happy, to hear that you share my wish for you to stay.”

            Crowley feels as though he ought to do something, say something, but he’s said so many things already that he finds himself out of words now. So he just watches Aziraphale clean the last of the stains from his hands and drop the rag into the bowl of soiled water. Aziraphale doesn’t let go afterward, so Crowley waits to move until he finally drags his gaze up to meet Crowley’s again. Slowly, he bows his head, eyes on Aziraphale’s until the last moment, and then he closes them and tucks his chin close to his chest.

            It has, he thinks, been a very long time since he presented such a vulnerability to anyone. It is a gesture of gratitude and trust, one there is no way for Aziraphale to know how to answer, but Crowley feels compelled to offer it anyway- the back of his neck, bare and unscaled. The cord that runs beneath the skin, so close to the surface there, can end a siren’s life if severed. It is one of the few ways to kill a siren.

            Instead of touching his neck, the way another siren might have done, Aziraphale leans forward a little, and gently rests his forehead against Crowley’s. It is only warm against his chill skin, but Crowley feels it like a brand, searing into his memory.

            “Thank you,” Aziraphale murmurs, not yet moving. Crowley would rather die here than move away first. “For protecting the crew today. And me.”

            Crowley wants to tell him he would do it a thousand times over, but before he can begin to form the words, there is a knock on the door. His eyes open, sticky and slow, when Aziraphale pulls away and begins to clean up. As he stands with the jug in one hand and the bowl in the other, he calls for the interruption to enter, and Crowley is unsurprised to see it is Eric.

            “Oh, hello,” Aziraphale says when he sees it. His smile is only half-forced. “Is everything alright?”

            “Yes. But, they’re looking for you above deck,” Eric tells him. “And I said I needed to speak to Crowley anyway.”

            Aziraphale glances between them, and Crowley gives him the barest of nods in affirmation that this is fine. Aziraphale sets the jug back down where it had come from, and takes the bowl with him as he crosses to the exit, most likely to dump it overboard. Eric shuffles out of his way, and they exchange some sort of look that causes Aziraphale to pause and hug the bowl a little closer to his belly.

            “What was done to you is inexcusable,” Aziraphale says softly. “And I ought to have noticed. I ought to have put an end to it myself much sooner.”

            Eric gives him a considering look. “He would have killed you,” it says, simply but not unkindly. “He wanted to anyway. If you had come for him sooner, he would have used it as an excuse. He would have just had me kill you so he could take over the ship.”

            “Mutiny?” Aziraphale says, as if the offense of the situation is what Lucifer would have done with the sprite’s power, and not the idea that Lucifer would have used it at all. “After all the rest, everything we’ve been through?”

            “Everything you’ve been through was the problem for him. He had wanted to lead the day you killed Gabriel,” Eric says, “but no one would listen when he spoke ill of you. Not even Gabriel’s crew. They’d been through too much change to do it again so quickly.” Its gaze darts to Crowley. “And then you found him.”

            Realization dawns on Crowley. “He didn’t know,” Crowley says, and knows he is right even before Eric nods. “He thought you were affected by my song, too. That’s why he didn’t use you to challenge me, before.”

            “When the others started to become immune… I knew you would realize something was wrong,” Eric says. “I would have hidden through the last prize, but he insisted I come to protect him in case anyone woke.”

            “Why did you not ask for help?” Crowley says. He knows sprites can, that they are not bound like selkies to remain silent of their capture. “I understand why not before Newt, but after, when we had freed him...”

            “I thought you would kill me,” Eric tells him, shrugging one shoulder.

            Crowley’s eyes narrow some. “In a fair fight, a sprite could kill a siren,” Crowley says quietly. Surely they both must know that much.

            Eric gives him a dry look. “In a fair fight, says the one who ambushed me and put an iron dagger through my gut.” It shakes its head and drops its gaze. “And I might have been able to take another siren… but not you. Not even in a fair fight.”

            “Why not?” Aziraphale asks curiously, and they both turn to look at him.

            Eric glances at him, and Crowley knows exactly which question is in its eyes, but he doesn’t answer it. Eric turns back to Aziraphale. “He’s… old,” it says, as if that should explain everything. “Humans weaken as they age. Immortals don’t. They grow stronger.”

            “I see,” Aziraphale says, looking between them as though he is sure there must be more to it, but when he receives no further answer, he straightens. “Well, I shall leave you two to talk. Shouldn’t keep the crew waiting.”

            With that, he ducks out, the door closing behind him. Crowley listens to his receding footstep up the stairs, and then shifts his attention to Eric. “I assume,” he says, letting the sibilant slide a little, “that you didn’t come here to talk about Lucifer.”

            “No,” Eric agrees. “I came to warn you about Gabriel.”

            “You’re a bit late on that one,” Crowley tells him. “He’s dead. You said so yourself.”

            “But his ideas aren’t,” Eric says. It takes another step into the room, and then another when Crowley moves out of the way. Crowley watches it trail to a stop in front of the glass-fronted cabinet full of books. “Haven’t you wondered why Gabriel had a selkie and a sprite on the same vessel? Why he had all these books about creatures like me and you?”

            Crowley’s eyes tick to the side, shifting from Eric to the books it is looking at. He had assumed the books belonged to Aziraphale, or at least that the ones about creatures he seemed so enamored of were his. It had not occurred to Crowley, although perhaps it should have, that the literature could have all belonged to Gabriel first.

            Eric glances over its shoulder at Crowley’s silence. “He was hunting us,” it says quietly. “Newt wasn’t strong enough in a fight to beat a siren, but a sprite would have been. He’d planned to use me to come get one. He wanted to do exactly what you’re doing for these humans now, except… instead of singing down ships, it would be others like us.”

            “Hunting us...” Crowley echoes, mind racing over his encounter with Gabriel years ago.

            A man like that, immune to his song, in control of a selkie and a sprite… possibly someday in control of a siren, somehow, some way. Crowley knows of no way for a human to control a siren, but that does not mean no way exists. Humans had been fussing in things they had no business fussing in for centuries, and more than one of them had found themselves stumbling into the sort of power that meant trouble for immortal creatures. They had just tended to stay on land before.

            “I don’t know if he shared with others,” Eric continues. “While I was aboard, he never said anything to the crew that I heard. But he did write letters to someone on shore. I don’t know who, or what they said. I… I may not magically owe you anything anymore, but I am grateful for what you did for me. Warning you that someone else know things seemed like an appropriate way to show it.”

            “It is,” Crowley agrees. He will have to ask Aziraphale about letters, as he assumes Eric does not mean the human alphabet. If there is someone else that knows secrets that can be used to hunt the creatures of the sea, there is nothing Crowley can do about it at the moment, and so he sets it aside for another, more urgent thought. “Does this… gift mean you’ll be going?”

            “No,” Eric says. “I’ll stay until you make port. No longer than that, though; I’ve been separate from the sea for too long not to go back, now that I am free.”

            Crowley nods, accepting that. “Then I thank you for that as well.”

            Eric twitches something that mildly resembles a smile, and then it turns and steps away, heading for the door. Crowley waits a moment, until he is sure it is well out of hearing range, before he slumps down onto all fours and sits heavily upon the floor. Gabriel had been hunting them and he may have told someone else on land. The Archangel is heading straight to a port town where there will be plenty of humans all around and no way to tell if Gabriel had told any of them something dangerous.

            This, he thinks, is about to be a very big problem.

 

Chapter Text

 

            At first, Crowley says nothing about his private conversation with Eric. Aziraphale has enough to worry about with getting the crew organized and ready to see new people; it has been months, after all, since any of them have interacted with someone not aboard the ship. Crowley watches them preen themselves, cutting their hair and washing their faces and hands. They are so restless they even wash their clothing and tidy their living spaces.

            A day out from harbor, Crowley inquires with Aziraphale about the behavior, while Aziraphale is cleaning under his fingernails with a small, bristled tool.

            "Jasmine Bay is a nice town," Aziraphale tells him with a small smile. "Well, nicer, anyhow. It's still a less.... civilized establishment than some of the properly lawful towns, but it has a bit more pomp than ports like Tortuga. And we are trying to make a good impression, particularly since we'll be sailing Gabriel's colors in. We've been chased away from worse places for the same offense. Apparently he was not well liked, even among pirates. But I believe word may have gotten around that he’s dead. We may be allowed to pass."

            Crowley snorts. It does not surprise him in the least that even humans had not liked Gabriel. "So you are... trying to impress the other humans into accepting your presence in his place?"

            "I doubt that will be possible," Aziraphale says, a bit resigned. "Though it may help to be presentable, if they let us in the door in the first place."

            Crowley watches him button buttons for a few seconds before another thought occurs to him. "Won't they object to... me?"

            Aziraphale pauses, and then glances over, and Crowley sees the worry in his eyes before he manages to shutter it. "I wouldn't worry about that," he says, the words a touch too brittle.

            "Why not?" Crowley asks. "You're worried."

            With a sigh, Aziraphale drops his hands and turns to face Crowley, studying him with tightly pursed lips and a brow knit with enough concern to offset it. "If I am worried, it is only for your safety. I know," he adds, holding up a hand when Crowley opens his mouth to protest, "that you could probably destroy the entire harbor. But even if that were our goal, that doesn't mean no one there could hurt you. I know that... we could avoid conflict by keeping you on board the ship, perhaps in this very room, but... oh, but Crowley, I did want to show you the town."

            Crowley's heart gives a little twist at the thought of Aziraphale not getting something Aziraphale wants. "I would like to see it with you," he says quietly, trying to think.

            He does not know what they can do to disguise his golden, slitted eyes. Perhaps he can just keep them closed; his other senses are acute enough he could get by, especially if Aziraphale were to lead him. The rest is fairly easy, at least. He can hide his wings in the ether, and remove the scales and feathers from his skin, and look human enough in shape, if his clothing is loose. With help, he might even tame his hair into looking like a human's tresses.

            That one might need a little help.

            "We could try it," Crowley offers. "I can look mostly human, if no one looks too closely. I can hide my wings and scales. You could... make my hair look more human."

            "I could get you glasses," Aziraphale says, warming to the idea. Crowley tries to remember what glasses are, but the only thing he can think of are the bits of glass Wensleydale wears. They won't hide his eyes, but perhaps humans don't look at eyes if there are things in front of them. "Yes, that might work. Oh, but... your hair... are you sure you want to change it?"

            "It's just hair," Crowley says. "You could cut it all off for all I care."

            "I wouldn't," Aziraphale says, somehow managing to sound scandalized at the very idea of it. "That would be dreadful. No, I think I can fix it, if you are patient with me. I will need to get a few things from Anathema, I think."

            Crowley nods, and Aziraphale quickly finishes the last buttons of his shirt and then practically dashes out the door. Crowley stays put, certain that whatever Aziraphale is fetching will take only a short wait to acquire, and sure enough a few minutes later Aziraphale returns with a bucket full of jars and bottles and implements. It smells intensely of Anathema, although not of Anathema. He stretches his neck to peer more closely at them, and Aziraphale smiles.

            “Brushes,” Aziraphale informs him, holding up a bristled tool that looks a little like the one he had cleaned his nails with, although bigger and rounder. “And soap, and oils. And a comb. I’ll need to wash your hair first, and then I think I can untangle it with some combination of these.”

            It takes a few more minutes for Aziraphale to set up, and then he gently coaxes Crowley to have a seat in the chair he’s put backward against the desk. Crowley complies without question, and Aziraphale carefully gathers his hair, letting it back down into a bowl of fresh water. The angle is a bit awkward, and Crowley thinks he might get stiff sitting this way for a long time, but when the tips of Aziraphale’s fingers begin to massage a sweet-smelling substance into his scalp, he finds himself practically melting into the furniture, a soft, rumbling noise rattling in his chest.

            Aziraphale chuckles. “It does feel quite nice, doesn’t it,” he says.

            Crowley is sure that even if Aziraphale had meant it as a real question, he couldn’t have answered. He doesn’t even remember closing his eyes. His world has narrowed to the sweet, soft caress of Aziraphale’s fingers in his hair and the pleasant buzz that settles into his bones. A thousand years could pass him by just like this and he would want for nothing.

            “The next part won’t be as nice,” Aziraphale tells him, a bit apologetically.

            Crowley is having a hard time imagining anything being as nice, but he doesn’t comment, just lets Aziraphale pour chilly water over his hair, rinsing the soap from it. He uncorks another bottle, and a sickly sweet smell blooms, but one Crowley recognizes. He had eaten almonds before. He does not get a chance to ask what it is for before Aziraphale pours some of it into his hair and plucks a tool from the pile.

            The first few tugs do hurt a little, but not intolerably so, and it does not take Aziraphale long to switch to the tips of his hair instead of the roots. He uses the pointy end of the tool he has chosen to gently work through the tangles in Crowley’s hair. The oil seems to help, letting the wet strands loosen and slide. Crowley keeps his eyes closed through this as well, and even though it tugs and prickles when Aziraphale finds a tough knot, it is still nice enough to be paid such tender attention.

            “I have to admit,” Aziraphale murmurs, his hands not faltering in the least, “that I have wanted to do this for a long time.”

            “I would have let you,” Crowley tells him.

            “I know,” Aziraphale says, a smile evident in his tone. “But I wasn’t brave enough to ask.”

            “Why would you need to be brave?” Crowley asks, brow wrinkling. He is fairly certain that there is nothing dangerous about caring for hair. Even the tool Aziraphale is using does not have that sharp a point on the end; it is made of bone, and while it might be capable of stabbing something, it is so thin as to not be very good at it.

            “I think… I worried you wouldn’t like it,” Aziraphale admits. “You were a bit wild the first time someone touched your wings. I didn’t know if you’d have the same… aversion with your hair.”

            Crowley considers this while Aziraphale continues to gently tease the knots from his hair, creating long, slick locks from them. He had given Aziraphale the opportunity to kill him only days ago, and Aziraphale hadn’t even considered it. He had tipped his head down as well, and while Crowley knows that many parts of human beings are soft enough to end their lives if wounded, it still feels significant to have been given such easy access. To be told, in words, that Aziraphale would allow him to make use of such a vulnerability.

            To be trusted, Crowley thinks, not to do so.

            It is a trust he feels ought to be returned, and that is when the pressure of keeping his secret becomes too much. He has to know.

            “Maybe I would,” he says after a few long minutes, choosing his words carefully, trying to find a way to confess what he has been told, and the conclusions he has drawn. “If it was someone else, maybe I wouldn’t want them to touch me. But the reason I didn’t like having my wings touched was because it made me vulnerable, and I… I don’t mind being vulnerable around you. I don’t think you’re like Gabriel.”

            Aziraphale’s motions falter for the first time, slowing as he looks at Crowley’s face instead of his hair. “I’m not,” he agrees. It sounds like a question and an uncomfortable feeling squirms in Crowley’s gut. He’s just been given an invitation to speak about what the sprite had told him.

            “He was hunting creatures like me,” Crowley says. Maybe it is supposed to be a reminder of what they have seen, but it comes off like a question in return. It comes off as a plea, one which holds all of the fears Crowley has squashed down for days now.

            Tell me you found me by accident.

            Tell me you weren’t hunting me, too.

            “He sought out Newt, and later Eric,” Crowley continues, purposefully slow, not brave enough to search Aziraphale’s face. He doesn’t know what he would do, if he were to see in Aziraphale’s eyes that he knows. “He wanted to use them to hunt others. He wanted to capture a siren, and use them. Have them sing to other creatures, so that they might be caught as well.”

            “Gabriel’s dead now,” Aziraphale says. There is a tremble in his voice that finally draws Crowley’s eyes up to him. “He can’t hunt you anymore.”

            He can’t, Crowley thinks. He can’t, but you can.

            Aziraphale has read Gabriel’s books, lives in his quarters, sleeps in his nest. He had kept a selkie hostage until he had been discovered. Lucifer sat caged but alive, despite his transgressions. When Crowley had asked Anathema what a letter was, she told him that humans write down information on paper and send it to other humans, ones they know, but from whom they are separated. Sailors, she had said, often write home to their families, and Aziraphale had been very, very keen to meet him. Crowley does not want to believe all of it had been on purpose. He wants Aziraphale to tell him he’s wrong, that he had been right to allow himself to be vulnerable.

            “Eric told me he wrote letters to someone on shore,” Crowley says, and he sees it in Aziraphale’s eyes as soon as the words are out. Guilt, clearly scrawled in every line of of his face. “He wrote to you, didn’t he...”

            Aziraphale’s gaze drops and he fiddles with the tool in his hands. “Yes,” he admits, and it sounds like tossing a great, messy burden upon the floor. “He used to, a long time ago.”

            “About creatures like me?” Crowley asks. He wonders which would be more lethal to him; allowing a broken heart to fester, or taking it out himself.

            “Not like I’m sure you’re thinking,” Aziraphale says, setting down the tool and dragging his gaze back to meet Crowley’s. “When we were young, we used to argue about creatures like you. Our father had been taken by a kelpie when we were children. Gabriel blamed the kelpie, believed that all creatures like them were… evil. Monsters, I suppose. Worthy only of being wiped out.”

            “And you?” Crowley says.

            “I... I told him that you don’t blame a cat for eating a mouse,” Aziraphale says, looking miserable for having said it aloud. “You don’t blame a dog for howling, or a goat for using its horns. All creatures act according to their natures, and such a thing is not… it is not the evil that Gabriel prescribed them to be. We argued about it for years, and I’m afraid he got so angry about it one night that he left.”

            “To go sailing,” Crowley concludes. That had been what Aziraphale said, in the first few days. That Gabriel left the family to go sailing. Crowley tries not to let hope seep in, because Aziraphale had still kept the letters a secret. There is still something he believes Crowley should not know.

            “Not at first,” Aziraphale says with a little shake of his head. “I don’t think he planned to stay away, but he was furious that I wouldn’t take his side of things, that I… I refused to blame the kelpie.” He takes a steadying breath that comes out anything but steady. “Perhaps he might have come back, if I had. Or if I had apologized, at least. But I wrote to him, and told him that he was being ridiculous, and that… and that if he couldn’t get over it, then he shouldn’t come home. And then-” Aziraphale stops and swallows, jaw clenching as his expressions trembles. “And then… he didn’t. Come home.”

            He shakes his head and looks away and brushes his fingers over the edge of the desk, fidgeting to avoid looking at Crowley. “So yes, he did write to me after that. He told me that he would find every evil creature out there, and destroy them. And the last time I heard from him, it was… well, over a decade ago now. He’d become a captain, and he was leaving to chase a rumor of a siren. That was the last I heard from him. I had thought him dead until he chased down my ship.”

            “It was my reef,” Crowley admits, not looking away when Aziraphale’s attention snaps sharply to him. “I had seen the Archangel once before, over a decade ago. She sailed away from me untouched. Her captain… he was unaffected by my song, and I had taken a ship too recently to be interested in chasing them. When I saw you approaching, I thought he had come back for me. I would have killed him.”

            “Why didn’t you?” Aziraphale asks. “Why didn’t you kill me then? I admit I have wondered.”

            Crowley looks away then. “You were beautiful. Are beautiful,” he adds, a little too quickly for how tight his chest yet is. Aziraphale had not been hunting him. Aziraphale had condemned Gabriel long before they’d ever met. “And… I had never met a human unafraid of me. Some of them pretend at bravery, but they still reek of fear. You didn’t.”

            “I suspect that might have been different if you hadn’t been singing,” Aziraphale says with a hesitant smile. Once again Crowley finds himself brimming with the desire to know what Aziraphale had heard, and once again he tamps down the feeling. “I’m sorry,” Aziraphale continues, fingers searching out the tool he had been using before. “I should have told you about the letters. It’s just… they were so long ago, I thought-”

            “Over a decade,” Crowley says, brow wrinkling. Eric’s captivity had been shorter than Newt’s, which had only been a few years, less than a decade. If Eric had seen Gabriel writing letters, then they had not been written to Aziraphale. “Who would he have written to, after you?”

            “After me…?” Aziraphale echoes, confused.

            “He stopped writing to you,” Crowley explains. “But Eric saw him writing to someone, recently.”

            Aziraphale’s gaze goes a little unfocused as he thinks, and Crowley remains still, waiting, until Aziraphale shakes his head. “He couldn’t have written to any of our childhood friends, we all mo... ved… oh, dear.” He fumbles the tool as his grip goes slack, and Crowley’s hand darts out to catch it and pass it back. “Thank you. I- he may very well have continued writing to me. But I moved, and… our mother never approved of him leaving like he did. It never occurred to me that she might have prevented his letters reaching me, though.”

            He paces away from the desk a few steps, and then comes back, body taut with sudden stress. “Oh, I… I left her estate intact when I left. She had just died, and I couldn’t… but if she kept those letters, they would still be there, with her belongings.” He glances nervously at Crowley. “If that’s the case, then… if anyone found them-”

            “Can you find them?” Crowley asks. “If they are still there, could you find them?”

            Aziraphale softens some. “I don’t know,” he says. “If they are still there, of course I could find them, but it would take some time to go through all of her things, and we are not close her home. But,” he adds, giving the tool a little, thoughtful shake, “I think I know how I might do it.”

            Crowley opens his mouth to ask how, but the faint call of “Land!” from above draws both their attentions. Crowley glances at Aziraphale, who seems to realize that they’ve only gotten partway through their goal with Crowley’s hair, and gives a small nod toward the door in question

            “Oh, they’ll come down if they need me,” Aziraphale assures him. “And we’ll still be a few hours out. There’s time to get you sorted first. If you still want, that is…?”

            “I do,” Crowley says, settling himself back in the chair and tipping his head toward the desk. He feels worlds better, a tension he had not realized he held now gone from his body and mind.

            This time, when Aziraphale’s fingers find his hair, Crowley doesn’t just relax, he leans into it, pressing back into Aziraphale’s touch. He is glad that, unlike when he had found the pelt, he had chosen to speak to Aziraphale first. That is, he decides as he closes his eyes and feels Aziraphale begin to work through his hair again, a much better arrangement.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley stands upon the deck, fidgeting uncomfortably in the restrictive clothing that has been provided to him. Aziraphale had offered his own clothing, but the rest of the crew had been quick to help Crowley as well, and so he now wears a mix of their clothing. The cacophony of scents is nearly overwhelming, but it is helping to distract him from the fact that he cannot manifest his wings in this condition.

            This condition being the three different shirts, belt cinching his trousers on so tight he cannot slip from them, boots preventing his claws from being able to touch anything, and the three-pointed hat someone had insisted he wear. He had protested the hat; Aziraphale had done such a lovely job cleaning and brushing and plaiting his hair down his back, it seems a shame to hide it. Especially, he thinks, since Aziraphale had gone to the trouble to weave some of his feathers into the ends of the tail as he went.

            However, the humans had all assured him that wearing a hat will make him seem much more human, and even if it does not, he can tip his head down and put a shadow over his eyes. They had told him that his eyes are the only thing about him distinctly inhuman. Crowley is very sure that is not true. For all that he has lived among them for months now, he has given no mind to trying to move like they do. He has learned their words and their songs and their foods, even some of their stories, their habits.

            But humans are creatures of constant motion; even their gait is one of forever leaning forward and catching themselves before they actually fall. When they speak, their hands move along, and a large portion of their language comes from how they move their bodies. Sirens do not move their bodies; if anything, they tend to sit in perfect stillness, like a serpent awaiting prey to ambush. Even now, he rests his hands upon the rail and watches the human port draw near, his body held still as the humans dart around getting ready to dock.

            The Bay looks about the same as any Crowley has ever had cause to come near, which is not saying much. Crowley has always avoided port towns. There are more than enough humans coming out into the water that he has never felt compelled to go on land among them, or even near them. He recognizes the long structures that stick out into the water, and the wooden squares that look like shipwrecks piled up on the shore and carved into homes for the many scurrying humans.

            There are ships of all makes and sizes here, some of them moored offshore, some of them sitting at the docks. The Archangel slows as she approaches one of the wooden lines, and Crowley listens to all of the commands being shouted and repeated. She moves under their care as though she is alive as well, her sails furling like wings, her hull cutting the water as she comes to settle into place with barely a whisper of complaint. The rail shudders gently under Crowley’s palms as the ship falls still.

            “Will you be alright?” comes Aziraphale’s voice from behind him. Crowley doesn’t turn from watching the crew extend a plank of wood down to the dock. “I’ll only be gone a little while, couple of hours at the most.”

            Aziraphale has already explained all of this to him. They are new to the port, not yet on the account, whatever that is. They must give their names and the name of their ship and the list of the cargo they wish to sell. There will be no bargaining this time, not the first time, so it will not take long. Aziraphale will leave Mr. Taylor, the ship’s quartermaster, there to finish the deal, and go to find the last pieces of Crowley’s disguise. That, he had told Crowley, might take the longest; fashion, in this part of the world, is not nearly as important as in other places.

            “I’ll be fine,” Crowley tells him, finally turning his gaze away from where they have begun to unload the cargo. “I won’t leave the ship. You’ll be back soon.”

            “Yes, I will,” Aziraphale says, looking even more miserable about it than the first time he’d said it. Crowley doesn’t understand the worry. If something goes wrong, he is fairly certain he can shred the clothing and fly away still. The danger here is entirely upon Aziraphale’s shoulders, bringing a monster into a human town.

            Aziraphale fiddles with something in his hands, and then seems to resolve himself and turn away. Crowley watches him cross to the plank, make his way down to the dock, and disappear into the throng of humans on the shore. Some of them stand still, pointing up at the Archangel’s furled sails, gawking. They should, Crowley thinks, but not for the reasons they are.

            “He’ll come back,” says Anathema from somewhere behind him. Crowley’s vision shifts, but not enough to actually glance at her before he fixes back on where Aziraphale has disappeared.

            “I know,” Crowley says.

            “You don’t have to worry,” she adds.

            “I’m not worried,” he snaps, only to realize as soon as he’s said it that he is. They have been on the water together for months and while that is not a very long time to a creature who has seen plural millennia, he feels it must be a long time for humans. Some humans, the pirates and the navymen and the merchants, they seek out the water. They desire consort with the deep.

            Aziraphale had boarded a ship to escape.

            Aziraphale had not truly been a merchant or a navyman or a pirate when he first set foot upon a seafaring vessel.

            Aziraphale is circumstantial, and the circumstances have changed.

            For months, Aziraphale has been bound to the Archangel, unable to put her to shore, unable to return to the land in any recognizable way. But they are here now, tethered to the land by a row of planked wood, and there is no pressing need to return to what they have begun on the open ocean. If Aziraphale pleases, he can simply walk away, and it is very unlikely Crowley would ever see him again. He doesn’t know how to search for a human on land. Aziraphale would just be gone, and there would be nothing Crowley could do about it.

            Anathema’s hand on his shoulder startles him, but he does not lash out at her. “It’s okay,” she tells him. She doesn’t say what is okay, but he thinks she does know. “Come get some lunch. You can come back up and worry about him after.”

            Crowley gives a half-hearted growl at her patronizing tone, but she just laughs and takes him by the arm, pulling him gently toward the stairs to the galley. He gives one last glance over the rail, and then lets her lead him away.

 


 

            Anathema keeps him company for the two hours it takes for Aziraphale to return. Crowley spends them frustratingly bipedal, much to Anathema’s apparent amusement, which does not in any way serve to make the experience more tolerable for Crowley. She tells him to sit down and stop worrying six times and six times he sits down and tells her he’s not worrying.

            It is an obvious lie, considering that when Aziraphale clunks down the steps, Crowley barely keeps himself from vaulting the table to come inspect him for damages. Aziraphale raises his arms and laughs and Crowley does not miss the look he shoots to Anathema, nor the amused shrug she gives back. It doesn’t matter. Aziraphale is safe, even if he reeks of a million other wretched human beings.

            “If you’re quite satisfied I’m in one piece,” Aziraphale tells him, holding out his hands, “perhaps you’d like to see what I brought you.”

            Crowley looks down at the delicate glasses sitting on the outstretched palm of Aziraphale’s plump hand. They look as if they might fall apart at any second. The wires are but thin tendrils, the smoked glass dark and thin and somehow staying in place. There are pieces along the sides that Crowley knows will restrict his peripheral vision, even as they hide his eyes. He gives a questioning look to Aziraphale, who lifts his hand encouragingly.

            Gently, Crowley removes the glasses and manages to apply them to his face the way he has seen Wensleydale do, the curled arms of the things resting over his ears. They don’t fit well, but Aziraphale reaches up and fiddles with them, adjusting until they sit properly on his nose and don’t dig into the shells of his ears. Aziraphale stands back to survey his handiwork, and then gives an exclamation as he jumps and begins fishing in a pocket.

            “Oh! I nearly forgot. I thought perhaps you could use this for one of them.” He withdraws a small, black piece of leather from his pocket, with strings dangling from it. “It’s an eyepatch. Some folks wear them to cover up a missing eye. Obviously yours isn’t missing, but… well, most people don’t tend to look an injury in the eye, so to speak. Reminds them too much that it might happen to them, someday.”

            Crowley takes the offered item, but he has no idea what to do with it. “Can you...” he begins, holding it up.

            Aziraphale gets the message, and helps him to remove his hat and his glasses, apply the eyepatch, and put it all back into place. Crowley absolutely hates it. He blinks a few times, but the darkness remains, obscuring his depth perception. He makes a face, teeth bared, and Aziraphale chuckles indulgently.

            “Yes, perhaps you’re right,” he says, reaching up to remove it. His fingers are warm where they rest against Crowley’s jaw as he tugs the patch loose and replaces the glasses. “I think the glasses will do just fine on their own.”

            “Can we please see the town now?” Crowley asks, only a little appalled by the note of pleading in his voice. He has heard the children use the same tone when asking to stay awake with the adults.

            Aziraphale tosses an unreadable look to Anathema, and then smiles, albeit a bit fretfully. “Yes, of course.” He hesitates. “You remember-”

            “No killing, no eating people, no growling, no hissing,” Crowley recites. “No flying or running on four feet instead of two. No taking things that are not mine; which is a ridiculous rule, you know. If I take it, it’s mine, which negates-”

            “I know,” Aziraphale interrupts, smiling quite fondly now. “But those are the rules.”

            Crowley sighs and stretches his arms out as though he intends to drop to all fours before remembering that he cannot do that for now. He draws his arms back in with a low growl, remembers he cannot do that either, and lets Aziraphale put a hand on the small of his back to guide him out of the galley.

            The plank down to the dock moves strangely, and the dock does not move at all. It reminds him of his reef, except that the waves here are small and choppy, not the huge, rolling things that dip and swell in the deep. He wobbles a little at the absence of motion, but by the time they have reached the true shore, the feeling has passed. Aziraphale keeps a hand on him the entire walk, until they stand upon a dusty, hard-packed road.

            It is loud here, so loud that Crowley wishes human forms had the sort of ears that could be flattened to their heads to block out noise. Instead, he tries to shut out the rest in order to hear Aziraphale over it when he says: “I have to make a few stops before we can get lunch, is that alright?”

            Crowley nods, because Anathema had fed him well while they waited, and proceeds to trail behind Aziraphale as he winds through the streets with the sort of purpose that says he’s been here before, despite that this is a town supposedly for pirates. Mostly pirates, Crowley thinks, noticing that some of the humans are much cleaner than others, dressed in more elaborate clothing. None of them pay him any mind, clean or dirty, but he keeps his head tipped down a little anyway, so that the brim of his hat casts his face in shadow.

            Aziraphale pulls him through a doorway and into one of the shipwreck buildings. The lighting is dim and yellow and casts the wooden structures in the room with a dingy glow. Not structures, Crowley thinks as his eyes adjust. Furniture. There are chairs and benches and tables, most of them made from wood, some of them with metal fastenings. He remembers to stay on two feet as he moves to get a closer look at one that is covered in cloth. Behind him, Aziraphale speaks in low tones to the old man behind the counter, and Crowley only catches the word couch.

            He runs the pads of his fingers over the soft fabric and presses down. His hand sinks into the fluffy surface, into the thick padding underneath. It is nothing like the bench that he had destroyed in the early days aboard the Archangel, but nor is it like Aziraphale’s bed, padded with furs and blankets. He does not recognize this material, or its scent. He turns to look at Aziraphale, noticing the absence of conversation.

            “Do you like it?” Aziraphale asks. “I mean to replace Gabriel’s with something more… comfortable, I suppose.”

            “It’s soft,” Crowley says, even though that’s not what Aziraphale had asked. “Squishy.”

            “Is that bad?”

            Crowley considers this, turning back to the furniture. It would be difficult to get out of quickly, but he supposes not moreso than the bed has ever been. It’s thinner, made for sitting… but it is short, shorter than the bed, not long enough for him to lie down on. Not long enough for Aziraphale to lie down on, either. It would have enough space for him to sit beside Aziraphale like a human would, but he hasn’t been particularly keen on sitting in general, and he doesn’t think that’s what Aziraphale wants it for anyway.

            “Are there longer ones?” he asks, instead of answering the question.

            He looks back in time to see Aziraphale make a questioning face at the man behind the counter. The man looks around the shop, scowls in thought, and then shrugs his bony shoulders. “Could be,” he says. “Can make one. Made that one for someone who never came back. You gonna come back?”

            “It would be very silly of me not to, if I’ve paid for it already,” Aziraphale says, pulling a small, clinking bag from somewhere in his clothing and setting it upon the counter. “I assume that’s possible?”

            The man eyes the bag with a bit of suspicion, but barely hesitates before shrugging again. “Sure, mister.”

            “Very good,” Aziraphale says, beaming. “I think one about twice that long should do. As much extra padding as you can reasonably fit, I’d like it to be very soft.”

            “On a ship, sir?” the man asks, dubious at best.

            “Yes, on a ship,” Aziraphale replies, a little tersely.

            The man considers this, looking between Aziraphale and Crowley, before scrunching up his nose. “You don’t want one like that on a ship.”

            “My dear fellow, I assure you-”

            “There’s too much water on a ship, too damp,” the man continues over the top of Aziraphale, and Crowley must remember he’s not allowed to growl, hiss, or kill anyone. He’s fairly certain maim had never been mentioned, but he’s also fairly certain Aziraphale would not approve. “If you want something soft, I can raise it up a bit on sturdy legs, and give you a box frame along the bottom, let you put the cushions inside so they don’t slide about but you can dry them if you need.”

            Aziraphale opens his mouth to have an opinion about that but Crowley beats him to it. “It would be like a nest.”

            The man arches an eyebrow. “Suppose. I can pad the front edge for your legs. Make a backboard with padding. You don’t want the whole thing covered like that one.”

            “What’s inside of it?” Crowley asks.

            Leaning over, the man peers at the couch, and then shrugs. “Horsehair in that one maybe. Made it a while go. You want soft on the sea, I’d go with wool though. It’ll cost you more, but it’s soft and it won’t rot out in the damp. Won’t smell as bad either.”

            Aziraphale nods, and Crowley has no further questions or demands, so they work out the payment details, arrange for a pickup time that is over a week away, and Aziraphale leads him back out of the shop. Crowley stops dead in his tracks as soon as they are clear of the doorway and doesn’t move until Aziraphale turns back to give him a confused look.

            “You exchanged metal to that man, for the nest,” he says, not sure what his question actually is.

            He has, of course, seen small, metal disks like the ones Aziraphale had just given to the shopkeep, but none of the humans aboard the Archangel had ever used them. Crowley had seen hundreds of disks, thousands, in the shipwrecks. Big blocks of the same metals, all of the same shape. He had thought perhaps humans enjoyed collecting shiny objects, but he had not expected that they would be able to trade them for other things.

            Aziraphale’s brow wrinkles, and then he pulls the pouch from where it had been inside of his clothing and offers it to Crowley. “These?”

            Crowley doesn’t take it; he has seen what’s inside and it doesn’t interest him in the least. “Yes.”

            “They’re coins,” Aziraphale explains, bringing the bag back closer to himself. “Different ones have different values. You use them to pay for goods, or for services. We haven’t had much cause to do so, I suppose.”

            “Humans collect these?” Crowley asks. The wrecks around his reef are full of the things, and he’d never thought to bring them to the surface. “They are prized above other items?”

            A small puff of laughter escapes Aziraphale. “I don’t know that I’d say prized, exactly, but yes, humans will trade most things to get these. But once they have them, they use them to trade for other things. Useful things.”

            Crowley hates being on two feet. He wants to prowl around as he thinks, as he learns. “Why?” he says, trying to keep the hiss from his voice. Humans are so obtuse in their dealings. “Why not just trade the useful things for other useful things?”

            Aziraphale shrugs, and seems to think about it for a long few seconds. “I suppose because no one can have everything,” he finally says. “That man made furniture. Furniture is nice, but you cannot trade a chair for a dozen eggs, they’re not worth the same thing. Even if they were, folks need eggs more often than they need furniture. And even if you wanted to trade a chair for the equivalent number of eggs, you still need other things like milk and- and- clothing and all of that. So one person gives him enough coin for the chair, and he can split the coins up to pay for other things he needs. Does that make sense?”

            “Yes,” Crowley lies, just so that Aziraphale will stop explaining. He finds he doesn’t care at all about coins, or trading, and he cares even less the more it is explained. “What now?”

            Aziraphale’s eyes light up. “Now, there is a shop I would dearly love to visit, if you aren’t too hungry yet?”

            Crowley shakes his head. “What shop?”

            The words barely fit past Aziraphale’s smile. “A bookshop.”

 

Chapter Text

 

            Having only been in one other shop in his entire life, and that one only minutes before, Crowley’s expectation of the term bookshop does not remotely resemble what lays beyond the next door they walk through. He had envisioned a shop much more like the couch shop, with a human behind a counter and a room full of books the way Aziraphale’s quarters are full of books. Cabinets, perhaps, or just shelves, or maybe piles and piles of them on the floor, or in chests like the ones some of the crew keep their belongings in. Crowley is not sure how humans store small things when the ground doesn’t move on them.

            What they find is nothing like that. The interior of the shop is cluttered with an array of odds and ends, almost none of which Crowley recognizes. He sees pouches, and some wooden and metal tools that look like the cooking tools Madam Tracy uses, and one of the long viewing tools some of the crew have for looking at things that are far away. Most of the rest are mysteries to him, and he doesn’t bother asking; Aziraphale seems perfectly content to stay near the three shelves of books at the front of the shop, skimming his fingers over the spines as he murmurs under his breath.

            “I thought the books belonged to Gabriel,” Crowley says, staring out over the piles of oddities. There are two other patrons in the shop, both studiously ignoring them in favor of sifting through items. One of them does so with only one hand, her other occupied by a stuffed cloth item that appeared to have seen better days.

            “The ones on the boat used to,” Aziraphale says absently, tipping one of the books out to see the cover. “At least, most of them. I’d brought a few from home on the Dove. But I am an avid collector. I’m afraid Gabriel got started because of me. He used to bring me a book when father took him to market, and mother would read it to us a little at a time in the evenings.”

            Crowley frowns and looks sidelong at Aziraphale. “Sounds boring,” he says. “Makes sense, though.”

            If they had grown up with their mother reading to them from books like the ones Aziraphale had read to Crowley, Gabriel’s interest in capturing non-human creatures makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make sense, he supposes, is why more people are not interested. It does put Gabriel’s letters into a different light, however. If there are books just lying about speaking of sirens and selkies and whatnot, and only one person in the millennia of Crowley’s existence had ever come for him, it seems unlikely to happen again, no matter what Gabriel had ever written.

            “Makes sense?” Aziraphale asks in a high, offended tone, putting the book back to rights. He turns to give Crowley his attention fully. “Books being boring makes sense? You haven’t ever read a book, have you?”

            “I did,” Crowley says, even though that’s not entirely true. “You read me one. Some of one.”

            Aziraphale’s eyes roll up and over in an expression Crowley has seen humans make when they think the other is being obnoxious. “That’s not a book, not a proper book. Or rather, it’s a book, of course, but it’s not a story.”

            Crowley scrunches his face. “You can’t write down a story,” he tells Aziraphale. What a preposterous idea. “How would you know what tones to give it? How would you know the notes to sing? I suppose you could make up a system to mark them, but how would you get the words and the-”

            “Crowley, Crowley no, stop,” Aziraphale says, laughter in his tone now. “Is that- Not all stories are sung, you know. Did you think humans only told stories in song?”

            A hot, unpleasant feeling crawls up the back of Crowley’s neck and curls up in his cheeks. “Don’t they? Your crew sings in the evenings, and those songs are always stories.”

            “Well, yes, but…” Aziraphale trails off uncertainly, expression tight as he thinks. “You remember, don’t you, when you first came to the ship, and I told you about what happened with Gabriel, and the Dove, and the Archangel?”

            “News,” Crowley agrees. “We share news, too.”

            “No, it’s- it’s not...” Aziraphale sighs, and then seems to resolve himself, and pulls a book from the shelf. It is bound in woven material, more like the bags they keep supplies in than the fabric of their clothing. He holds it out, obviously expecting Crowley to take it, and so he does. “Do you know what this is?”

            “A book,” Crowley says, not feeling any better about this.

            “Well yes, obviously, but do you know what is written in it?” When Crowley looks, and finds nothing telling on the cover, Aziraphale reaches over and opens it up so that he can see the words written inside. “This is a story about a young man who sets off sailing on a- a journey to get home to his wife – his ah, his mate – and it takes a very long time to do, and he meets all manner of beings along the way.”

            “Alright,” Crowley says, not sure where this is going. It doesn’t sound any different than the songs the crew sing, about humans and their mates, or their travels upon the sea.

            Aziraphale frowns. “But it-… it’s not real, you see. It didn’t really happen.”

            Crowley stares at him, and then down at the script on the page, and furrows his brow. “It’s… a lie? For what purpose?”

            “Um, it’s not exactly a lie,” Aziraphale hedges, reaching to indicate Crowley can close the book again. “The point of a lie is to deceive someone. But everyone knows the story isn’t true. Sometimes it’s just nice, to imagine a life that is different from your own, even if you can’t live it.”

            Slowly, Crowley closes the book and considers passing it back to Aziraphale, but he hesitates. He doesn’t understand, but it is clearly important to Aziraphale. Maybe he is missing information. Maybe he would understand it, if he listened to one of the lies. “Are there… Did Gabriel have books with those kinds of things in them?”

            “A few, I think. I haven’t been through all of them yet,” Aziraphale tells him, glancing between Crowley and the book as if waiting for something. Crowley thinks he expects the book back.

            “Do you like this book?” Crowley asks. “Not… not the book, but what’s inside? Is it… do you enjoy it, what it says? What you imagine the life in this story to be like?”

            Aziraphale studies him, anxiety clearly written in the lines of his features, and then he nods. “I like that one,” he admits. “I like a lot of them, though.”

            Crowley nods. “Do you like this one enough to read it aloud to me?”

            There is the understanding Crowley has been hoping to see, lighting Aziraphale’s eyes. “Oh, of course I would!” he exclaims, a little too loudly. The other patrons raise their heads, looking over, and Crowley tips his head down and turns his face away a little as Aziraphale lowers his voice. “I would read you anything you’d like. It doesn’t even have to be about an epic adventure on the water, I’m sure you’ve had enough of those. Humans tell all sorts of stories to one another.”

            “But you like this one, yes?” Crowley stresses. “Is there another here, right now, that you like more?”

            Aziraphale glances back to the books on the shelves, as few as they are, and then shakes his head. “I haven’t read the others,” he admits. “I’m sure they’re lovely.”

            On the one hand, Crowley wants to go with something that he knows Aziraphale will like. On the other hand, he does not know if it would be better to experience something new together. But, he supposes that if Aziraphale already knows what is in the book, he can explain anything Crowley doesn’t understand, and he expects there will be a lot of that. He also doesn’t want to ruin it by choosing something unknown that Aziraphale might hate. So he nods again and tucks the book under his arm, remembers he is not supposed to be on more than two feet, and begins to look for a counter like the one from the previous shop.

            There isn’t one, as he had already noted, but a woman approaches him with a curious smile when she notices him looking. She’s wearing something over her clothing, a drape of fabric that hangs from her neck and ties around her middle and has many little pockets on it. “Can I help you?” she asks. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

            “I’m looking for the keeper of this shop,” he says, instead of telling her he hadn’t been looking for anything when he’d come in, so he can’t have found it.

            “You’re in luck,” she says brightly. “That’s me! What have you got there?”

            Crowley shows her the book but does not pass it to her, unsure of the rules here. She seems to be into collecting things, and she might not give it back. “A book,” he says. “I wish to know how many coins I can exchange for this.”

            The smile she gives him is somewhat vacant and she turns to glance at Aziraphale a second as if he might have an explanation, but Aziraphale does not say a word. “I believe I’ve priced all the books at three shillings.”

            “Do you know what’s in them?” Crowley asks, sure that the value of books with lies and books with truths should be different.

            “Not really, sir,” she says with an apologetic smile. “Don’t do much reading, myself. Did you want to buy that one?”

            “Yes,” Crowley says, and then remembers he has none of the metal disks, and even if he did, he’s no idea which ones are shillings. Aziraphale had said they had different values. “Will you protect this one from others for me, until I can bring the… shillings back to you?”

            “Ah, that won’t be necessary,” Aziraphale says, tone warm as he pulls the small pouch from his person again. He extracts a few coins and holds them out to Crowley. “You’re part of the crew, so you have a share of the prizes. I’ll explain that later.” He gives an apologetic smile to the shop keep. “He’s new.”

            Some kind of understanding dawns on her face, and she waits patiently while Crowley takes the metal disks from Aziraphale, and then offers them to her. He manages to keep his claws in despite how much he does not like giving up something of Aziraphale’s to a stranger. As she tucks them away in one of her many pockets, he reminds himself that he has gotten something much more worthwhile. He tucks the book back in close to his body and looks to Aziraphale for approval.

            “Well done,” Aziraphale says, as soon as he realizes. “Come along, then. I believe I promised you dinner.”

 


 

            The tavern, as Aziraphale calls it, is crowded and loud and reeks of humans and smoked meats and pungent drinks. He can smell a fire burning somewhere, and the lamp oil reeks of animal fat worse than usual. Aziraphale leads him to a booth with wooden benches and a wooden table and sits him where he can see the rest of the room and, importantly, the doorway. It goes a long way to help him feel less exposed if he can see the exit.

            He leaves Crowley there for only a minute or two, long enough to fetch a girl dressed nothing like the ones on the ship and speak to her, their heads close together. Crowley cannot hear what they say over the clamor of the gathered humans, but she pats his arm and smiles warmly, and disappears among the others. Aziraphale returns, sliding onto the bench opposite Crowley and leaning back against the wall behind him.

            “She’ll bring food, and drink,” Aziraphale tells him. “Better than what we have on the ship, I’ll wager, but probably not the best. Someday I’ll take you to a proper restaurant, someplace with fancy food.”

            Context tells Crowley that fancy food is different than normal food, which he is not sure he likes, considering that he likes normal food just fine, but he nods anyway and doesn’t balk when one of the humans in elaborate clothing sets two metal mugs upon the table. Aziraphale’s is filled with something that smells astringent but not like tea, and Crowley’s holds only water. Questionably clean water for humans to be drinking, but Crowley drinks some of it anyway.

            “I’ll have to run some more errands tomorrow,” Aziraphale tells him. “As long as we’re here, I’d like to have the ship repaired some. The Dove did not go down without a fight, after all, and though we aren’t in danger of sinking, I’m afraid the Archangel has seen better days. Anathema advised if we’re going to be refitting anyway, we may as well scrape the hull. It seems there’s a lot that goes into ship maintenance that ship captains ought to know about.”

            Crowley is fairly certain scraping the hull involves removing the barnacles, and if that is the case, he’s delighted to hear it. “And the crew?” he asks.

            “Oh, I’m sure they’d like a few days before we set out to find a place to do all that,” Aziraphale says. “It will take me at least that long to organize the materials, if we have enough coin amongst us to do it.”

            “I meant that you should get some more humans,” Crowley says. He assumes that they must be acquired from the humans on land in some manner, and that crews are not just raised from babies. He’d have seen more babies, for one. “The crew is too small. They’re tired.”

            Aziraphale had pulled back a little in surprise at Crowley’s initial suggestion, but his expression is swiftly overtaken by concern. “Yes, I- I had thought of that, but...” He trails off uncertainly, staring at Crowley as if there is an answer there.

            And there is, Crowley realizes. “But I’m here,” Crowley finishes for him. “You’re afraid new humans won’t understand.”

            “I’m afraid they’ll try to hurt you,” Aziraphale says. “Or gain the knowledge to get others to hurt you. It’s bad enough Gabriel was at it, and we don’t know he was writing to me.”

            “I am still a siren, Aziraphale,” Crowley reminds him. “I’ve killed whole ships’ worth of crews. A handful of humans isn’t going to manage to take me.”

            “You’ve always had your song before,” Aziraphale says quietly, looking him in the eyes, “and once they’ve listened long enough, they’ll be immune like the rest of us. Fighting humans that can fight back is a lot different. We don’t tend to be very fair about it.”

            “I don’t need to sing to kill a human,” Crowley says, low and rough, and admittedly a little offended. Has he been so soft? He’d thought his interaction with Lucifer would be a good enough reminder of how sharp he can be, but perhaps not. “Singing is an advantage, but-”

            He stops abruptly, realizing that there is a girl standing at the edge of their table, one he had not seen coming despite her gaudy outfit, and despite the fragrant plates of food in her hands. She sets one before him and one before Aziraphale, and peeks over the rims of their mugs as she does so. Aziraphale thanks her with a warm smile and Crowley expects her to go away again, but she sets herself on one hip and looks between them.

            “You’ve heard the news, then?” she asks.

            “News?” Aziraphale inquires politely.

            “About the singing ship,” she clarifies with a vague gesture over her shoulder. Crowley looks, but there’s no ship in the tavern, and he’s fairly certain she’s talking about their ship anyway. “They say there’s a ghost ship roaming around the seas these last few months. She was called the Archangel, and they say she sunk going after a magistrate’s vessel. They both went down last year, and haven’t been seen in a port since until she turned up here today. Not seen in a port, you mind. But there’s been some folks as say their vessels have been pursued by her, and that the last thing they remember is seeing her bear down upon them, and a beautiful, ghostly voice singing to them. They wake up with no damage to the ship or the cargo, but with only the supplies to make it to the nearest port. Won’t be any merchant or navy ship that does that, and wouldn't be worth it for a pirate ship like the Archangel, don’t you think? And now the Archangel's here in one piece, the town's in a right uproar with tall tales and guesses.”

            “Rather,” Aziraphale says a bit absently. “I’m sorry, but couldn’t a ship that wasn’t a ghost ship avoid a port for that long, if they were taking supplies from other ships?”

            “I’m sure, sir,” she says with a small smile. “But then, what would the men tell stories about at the end of the night?”

            She gives them a wink, and disappears from where she had come, and Crowley looks over at Aziraphale in question. Aziraphale shakes his head, and takes a long drink from his mug, and then lifts a knife from the table. The crew had taught Crowley about silverware, and why it was not a weapon, or not usually a weapon, but he had never had cause to use any among them. Now, he lifts the knife and uses it to separate some of the meat and cooked roots and follows Aziraphale’s example on eating like a human being.

            Partway through the meal, a young boy comes to Aziraphale with a message from Anathema, to say the ship is moored. He hands Aziraphale a small, folded piece of paper, which Aziraphale skims over, and then pockets in favor of putting his bag of coins on the table where the boy can see it.

            “What do they say of the weather?” Aziraphale asks him.

            The boy glances between them before answering. “There’s a storm coming up the coast,” the boy says. “They say it’ll go a few days.”

            “Do you know which ships intend to sail it?” Aziraphale says.

            The boy hesitates, and Crowley assumes giving such information is either something humans pay for up front as Aziraphale had done with the couch, or is information humans are not supposed to share. “None that are still in the bay. Anyone that had a lead left for it. Everyone else is going to wait it out dry.”

            Aziraphale makes a small, thoughtful noise, and then pulls a coin from the bag and sets it on the table, but he does not move his finger from it. By the greedy look the boy gives it, Crowley assumes it must be worth more than some of the others. “Do you know where Forthright’s shop is?”

            The boy nods emphatically.

            “Good,” Aziraphale says. “I want you to take this to him, and purchase a sheaf of paper, a quill, and a small well of ink. Leave them with the tavern master, and you may keep the remains of this coin. Do you understand?”

            The boy nods again and holds out a hand for the coin, which Aziraphale picks up and places on the boy’s palm. The boy glances between them a bit nervously, and them bolts off into the crowd. Crowley snorts.

            “Won’t he run with it?” Crowley asks. “What’s to stop him just taking the coin?”

            “He won’t,” Aziraphale says, drinking the last of what’s in his mug and looking down at his plate. “The boys around here make their money with their reputations, and a ruined one means a lot of trouble that’s not worth the coin he’d get in the process. I may not know them, but I know Anathema wouldn’t have sent him if he couldn’t be trusted to run messages and fetch small items.”

            Crowley decides that humans probably know more about young humans than he does, and goes back to eating. He is slower when utensils are involved, but still a lot faster than Aziraphale, and finishes well before him. Aziraphale asks if he wants more and shrugs when he declines, and Crowley spends the rest of their time at the table fiddling with his drink and watching Aziraphale eat.

            Which is, quite frankly, fascinating. Crowley eats when there is food, or when his body requires it. There are very few things in the world that he has found distasteful to consume, and of course he enjoys the flavor some food more than others, but not enough to seek them out if he has something else at hand. For the most part, he swallows whatever he puts into his mouth whole, if it is not too sharp to do so, and barely tastes it along the way.

            Aziraphale is nothing like that.

            He savors the bites he takes. He often picks through his food, saving the best morsels for last instead of eating them first. Crowley finds this puzzling and… endearing, he supposes, that Aziraphale trusts so much as to leave the best pieces instead of consuming them first to avoid them being taken, or being worried he will not have room in his stomach for them. Crowley finds he enjoys watching Aziraphale eat, enjoys trying to guess which things Aziraphale will leave for last, and, perhaps most of all, waiting alongside of Aziraphale to see his pleased expression at the end, as he takes the last – and presumably best – bites.

            Which is to say that eventually the meal does end, and Aziraphale tells him to leave the plate and the mug if he is done with them, and then leads him to the back of the tavern. There are stairs there, in a tight hall, that lead up to the next level of the building, which is so strangely opposite that of a ship’s design.

            He expects the door Aziraphale opens to lead to an increasingly public space, but instead it leads to a bedroom not entirely unlike Aziraphale’s on the ship, although smaller and lacking in bookshelves. In one corner there is a bed, although it doesn’t look much like Aziraphale’s, and in the other corner there is a large metal bin half-full of steaming water, raised up on feet modeled after siren claws, or perhaps those of a dragon. There is a stool in front of an empty cabinet, and a washbin, also empty, and a small cup beside a dusty, stoppered bottle that Crowley assumes contains drink.

            “I had them draw a bath,” Aziraphale tells him as he begins to remove his coat. “That’s the water in the tub there. It’s not the ocean, but I thought you might like to have some water nearby. Of course, if you’d prefer to go back to the ship, I can send for-”

            “No,” Crowley says, wandering a little closer to the tub and peering into it. There’s nothing but water inside. He has felt hotter deep ocean vents, but the warmth is pleasant enough. “I’d rather stay where you’re staying.”

            Aziraphale smiles the sort of smile that pulls his entire body into it, his shoulders wiggling and his spine straightening and his waist giving a little twist. It is Crowley’s favorite sort of smile. “Well, then. No one will disturb us here, if you’d like to try the bath.”

            Crowley looks dubiously between him and the tub. “What about appearing human?”

            “Oh, there’s no need to do that in here,” Aziraphale tells him.

            Sagging with relief, Crowley pulls off his hat and catches the glasses before they fall on the floor when they catch on the hat’s rim. He wriggles as quickly as he can out of all of the stuffy human clothing and drops it unceremoniously on the floor atop the hat. His wings barely fit in the room when he stretches them out, and he feels Aziraphale gently grasp onto one with a chuckle to keep it from toppling him over. Crowley folds them in and looks to see Aziraphale still smiling at him.

            Carefully, so as not to tip the basin, Crowley climbs into the water and sinks down into it. The water is pleasantly warm, a little above human body temperature, and smells faintly of some kind of plant. It reminds Crowley of soaking in a vat of tea, except that this smells better than the teas Aziraphale drinks. He opens his mouth and tastes a little, but spits it back out again, rubbing his tongue against the top of his mouth to try to rid himself of the flavor.

            “Yes, I don’t advise drinking it,” Aziraphale says. He pours a little of the liquid from the bottle into the cup, and takes a sniff before he sips.

            Crowley raises his nose and sniffs the air at the sweet scent that blooms while Aziraphale is pouring. “What’s that?”

            “Mead,” Aziraphale says, looking up over the rim of the cup. “Do you want some? I thought you didn’t want to try alcohol or I’d have offered before.”

            Wrinkling his nose a little, Crowley shakes his head. “I don’t,” he agrees. “Smells… sweet, though. Not like the others.”

            “It’s made with honey,” Aziraphale says. “I don’t suppose you’ve had honey before. Perhaps we’ll get some with breakfast.”

            Breakfast, Crowley thinks as he wriggles down a little lower into the warm water, sounds like an excellent idea. It is nice here, with Aziraphale nearby and the sounds of the tavern muted by layers of wood. Someone has begun to play music and the notes filter gently through, not loud enough to be disturbing but not quiet enough to be frustrating. He pushes himself up a little bit, one hand on the rim of the tub, and peeks over it.

            “Aziraphale,” he says, waiting until Aziraphale looks over from where he’d been setting things down on the cabinet. “Will you read to me?”

            Aziraphale smiles. “Of course.”

 

Chapter Text

 

            It takes the better part of three days for the lashing rain to ease enough that anyone feels like setting sail. Aziraphale visits a dozen shops and argues with as many shopkeeps over everything from lumber prices to tar. Before they go into the shops, he explains what is inside and why they must be here, and Crowley listens intently both to the explanation and to what he tells the shopkeep, and how the two are different. Aziraphale always lets the keep give him a price, and he always offers far under that amount, and they settle somewhere in the middle.

            Well, they settle somewhere east of middle, closer to Aziraphale’s side... but Crowley counts it as close enough.

            On the last day of the storm, Anathema turns up in person to inform them that she has arranged a place to careen the ship, and gives Aziraphale a set of coordinates that Crowley assume make sense to him, because Aziraphale asks no questions. Instead, he gives Anathema a written list that contains the shop names and all of the purchased items that are currently available, and she disappears with it. Aziraphale spends the next hour writing notes and sending them off with the young boys hovering around the tavern awaiting errands out of the rain, to arrange for the delivery of the goods that have a wait time.

            What time is not spent scurrying around town on business is spent letting Crowley wander the streets in his disguise, Aziraphale at his side. They eat at all three of the places that serve food, and Crowley tries the plant matter at all of them. He finds most of them to be edible, if not particularly palatable, but they are nothing like kelp or even algae. He adds salt from the supply Aziraphale brings from the ship, and eats them before the meat, copying Aziraphale’s habits of saving the best for last.

            When it is finally time to leave, Crowley very nearly whips his wings out and flies back to the ship, sick of being surrounded by so many humans he doesn’t know. He isn’t sure his sense of smell will ever recover, for starters, and his ears ring in the middle of the night with the absence of sound. He’s never missed silence so badly.

            It takes them a day to travel down the coast a ways, to a shallow cove with a wide, sandy beach scattered in thick, old palms and plenty of debris from previous encounters with ships in need of repair. Crowley has seen palm trees before, and knows that there are coconuts this time of year, but he remains on the deck of the boat until she is beached in the shallows of high tide. He helps the crew to unload everything that is not bolted down, and watches with curiosity and not a little bit of awe as they work together to rope the Archangel to the palms and tip her on her side.

            A single human, alone, is nearly a useless thing. Their claws are soft and kept rounded, and their teeth are barely suited for eating, much less any kind of fight. They have no natural armor of any kind – no scales to turn a blade, no feathers or fur to soften a blow – and are generally unstable on two feet instead of four, no matter what they have to say about it. They do not have much bite strength and, though some of them may push their bodies beyond normal abilities, they are not particularly strong of muscle or bone.

            They are, however, social.

            In the ocean, there are fish that school together because it increases their chances of survival. It does not make them stronger or faster or smarter, individually or as a group. They do not work together in any conscious way, instead relying upon the teeming mass of them making it harder to pick out individuals. Ultimately, they make it a game of numbers; one fish in the ocean that encounters a shark is the only target and likely to be eaten. Ten thousand fish in a school means any given fish’s chance of being targeted or eaten is one in ten thousand, which Crowley finds to be much better odds, even if they are purchased at the price of someone else’s life. But as beneficial as this outcome is to nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine of the fish, the school, as a whole, accomplishes very little else together.

            Unlike fish, when humans gather in groups for survival, it does make them smarter and stronger and faster. Not individually, but where a single human could never have pulled an entire ship onto the shore, an entire crew of them can, and does. They beach her like an elder whale, expose her belly, and get her lashed in place with a cheer that startles Crowley so badly his wings appear against his will.

            The first order of business, Aziraphale informs him, is removing the barnacles and other crusted sea creatures that have begun to make the belly of the Archangel their home. Crowley knows his eyes must light up when Aziraphale says it because he laughs, and asks if he’d like them to collect the fallen ones for him. He does, and the crew arranges the barrels and show him how to use the ropes hanging over the rails of the Archangel so that his claws won’t damage the hull climbing on it. He spends the next few hours gleefully watching barnacles extract themselves from the wood and flee in disgust over his presence.

            Below him, the humans begin a game to see how many falling barnacles in a row they can catch before one lands in the sand. They shout the current record to him, and Crowley tries to go slowly enough to give them a chance while still working diligently to do his part. Seagulls scream and bicker over what they can steal, forming a nearby cloud that the children take turns thinning for dinner meat. Shadwell argues loudly with R. P. Tyler over The Books; which are different than just books, as Aziraphale had explained to him before they left for their first day on the town. The Books are used to track how many coins are on the ship, and who has them, and what they should be used for.

            Even that does not ruin the peace of the day. By the time he has finished the entire side of the hull that is exposed, the sun has begun to set. The crew scours the beach for anything left behind, dropping smaller barnacles they missed into the water barrels they had set aside specifically for Crowley’s use. There are several fires starting, some of them for sitting and some of them for cooking, and the air is flush with the scent of sizzling meat.

            Crowley takes a moment, sitting on the aft end of the ship, to stare out over the ocean. From the shore, it looks different. He has, for his entire life, looked out across the horizon from the waves, only seeing land in the distance. Now, the land stretches out along the coast, framing the endless deep, and making it somehow seem more finite. It feels more as though the land cups the ocean inside of it somehow, the shore leading down into the ocean’s floor rather than being separate from it. Connected, in ways he has never bothered to think about previously.

            “Are you coming to dinner?”

            Crowley turns, peering down at where Adam stares up at him. A few months ago, Crowley might have lost himself in the sight of the ocean and her waves, lost himself to his own nature. But Adam is still Adam, and Crowley spreads his wings and hops from the ship, gliding down to the sands to join him. Adam smiles and walks beside him quietly as they head for the others.

            “Crowley!” someone calls from within the throng of crew gathered around the fires. He lifts his head and sees Madam Tracy waving him over. “Mister Crowley, you come on over here now, I’ve got something I’d like you to try.”

            As soon as he is within range, she presents to him a bowl full of barnacles that look as though they have been burnt in the fire, their casings blackened. “What happened to them?”

            “I cooked them!” she says proudly, with a little bit of confusion. “Hastur told us they’re cooked in some places, like Spain, and I thought you might like to try them this way.”

            He eyes them dubiously, but takes one from the bowl with delicate fingers, popping it into his mouth whole before she can say whatever she opens her mouth to tell him. It tastes nice warm, but the taste of charred wood is stronger and far less pleasant. He doesn’t spit it out – he’s been told by the children that spitting out food is rude – but he doesn’t take another.

            “Thank you,” he says carefully. “If they’re cooked, can you eat them too?”

            She looks a little taken aback, but her lips press together and down in thought. “Why, I suppose we could. Would anyone else like to try one?”

            Everyone looks a little uncertain about that, but it is hard to refuse Madam Tracy when she is on a kick, and before long, the bowl is empty and Crowley is safe from having to eat the rest. He smiles when she circles back to him to apologize for forgetting to save any, and he waves her off.

            “Have you considered boiling them instead?” he asks. “Would keep the ash off them.”

            She gives him a knowing look, complete with a very tolerant smile. “You can say you don’t like a thing,” she says, and he ducks his head a little at the admonishment. “I can try boiling them. Texture wasn’t bad, cooked?”

            “Positively edible,” he tells her, and she laughs.

            “I’ll leave them be for you,” she says, patting his shoulder. “You deserve a treat, after the lovely job you did with the ship. Do you know, what you did- that usually takes a crew days, and no one ever has any fun with it. Someone always gets injured, hands always get cut up, everyone’s passed out exhausted by dusk. And look at them now.”

            Crowley follows the gesture of her hand and takes in the crew gathered around the fires. They are roasting birds and fish, passing around dark bottles of bitter-scented liquid. There is song in the air, mixing with the lap of of the waves against the sand, so different than the sounds they make against the ship. Dierdre is sat in Aurthur’s lap, having a cheerful yelling match with Harriet over something that’s got Thaddeus and Beelzebub in stitches. The children are kicking a round, light object around in the sand, shouting directions for the game they’ve made up to pass the evening.

            Everyone looks, to put it simply, happy.

            “That’s on you,” Tracy says quietly, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Every smile out there’s because of you today. You should be very proud of that, I think.”

            Pride. Crowley knows the term, if not the feeling. “I only did half the ship,” he says. “I could have gotten more done, but I went slow so that they could play their game. We could be completely finished.”

            She smiles. “Sometimes it’s not about the end,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just about what you do along the way.”

            Crowley is not sure he understands. The point of a job is to have it done. The point of a journey is to arrive. Still, humans have said a lot of things that do not make sense to him immediately, so he doesn’t contradict her. Perhaps one day he will get the meaning.

            “Have you seen Aziraphale?” he asks. It appears, even now, that Aziraphale does not want to sit with the crew around the fire, but their room on the ship is currently not in use and sitting at an angle anyway. Nearly everything from inside the ship is sitting in a pile on the beach.

            She twists this way and that, peering into the growing darkness around the fires, and then points at one of the cloth structures the crew has erected from combinations of blankets and sails. “That’ll be his tent,” she tells him. “He went on a walk earlier, checking a perimeter I expect, but I think I saw him come back before we started the first fire. Take him some food, he’s not eaten yet.”

            Crowley nods to her and pads over to where the others are roasting meats. They all give cheerful greetings and when he asks for some of the fish, they offer him too many at once. He takes two of them – one for him and one for Aziraphale – and the apple that lands in front of him, lobbed by someone he didn’t see, and slips away from the crew. He bounds on three legs across the sands until he reaches the edge of Aziraphale’s tent and then slows to approach it. There is light within, weak but present, and Crowley nudges his head in to find Aziraphale sitting hunched over a book, a lantern flickering beside him. He looks up at Crowley’s entrance, and smiles warmly.

            “Long day?” Aziraphale asks, lifting the mug sitting beside him and taking a sip. It is less than half full of that sweet smelling alcohol, the sort made from honey. Crowley had liked honey. He had been extremely disappointed to learn it is produced by land crustaceans called insects that need a lot of land plants in order to survive, and not something they can bring on the ship like goats or chickens.

            Crowley spits out the apple he’d been holding in his teeth. “The same length as any other,” he says.

            He rolls the fruit across the blanket Aziraphale is seated on, then he stretches his way to Aziraphale’s side, flopping down beside him. He sets the fish down on the nearest clean surface, where Aziraphale can reach it if he wants some, and puts his nose near the cup. It smells good enough tonight that he nearly sticks his tongue in it.

            “Can I have some of this?”

            Aziraphale’s look of surprise lasts only a second before he removes his hand and gestures at the mug invitingly. “By all means, if you want. Take just a little the first time, it might feel like it’s burning you.”

            That doesn’t seem like a very prudent thing for a drink to do, but Crowley heeds the warning and carefully takes a small sip of the drink. It tingles on his tongue, bursts with a sweet-bitter flavor that has a little bite to it. Aziraphale is right about the burn; it does not hurt in his mouth, but the more delicate tissue in his throat puts up a token protest. Still… it’s good, and it eats away the flavor of burnt wood from the barnacles. He takes another sip, bigger this time, to repeat the experience, and Aziraphale chuckles.

            “There’s plenty of it, if you want your own,” he offers.

            “Can’t I share yours?” Crowley says, looking up. He is not sure he wants enough of it for his own mug.

            “If you’d like,” Aziraphale says, lifting his chin to indicate the mug. “Finish that, and I’ll pour one we can share.”

            Crowley does as he is bid, taking a few more sips to get to the bottom of the mug so he can pass it back to Aziraphale. While Aziraphale pours, Crowley snatches up one of the fish and begins to select pieces from it, mindful of the bones, to give to Aziraphale while he reads. Aziraphale trades him the mug for the meat, and makes appropriately thankful noises as Crowley drinks again.

            “What are you reading?” Crowley says, a little hopefully, setting the once-again half-empty mug down in favor of his own fish skewer. The book doesn’t look like one with a story, but until he learns to read, he can’t know for sure.

            “Nothing particularly interesting,” Aziraphale answers, touching the page with a knuckle to keep his fish-juiced fingertip away from it. “It’s a memoir from Adelais Nicollier. I admit, my French is a bit out of practice. I thought I might brush up on something simple, but it seems she may have been a scientist, and I don’t know half these words.”

            Crowley twists to look up at him, and then down at the page. “But it’s human language. You can’t read it?”

            Aziraphale makes an amused sound and takes another piece of fish as Crowley offers it, speaking around the morsel. “Well, there are lots of different human languages,” he says, voice warm. “We’re speaking English, but there’s French, and Spanish, and German, and Italian… Chinese. Japanese. Arabic. Dozens of others, really.”

            “Don’t like that,” Crowley says, before he can think to stop the words. He feels a little slower, his mind a little foggy, and he shakes his head to clear it, but that only makes everything sort of slosh around a bit. “I haven’t even learned all of this one, and you’re saying there’s dozens more?”

            “You won’t need to know them all,” Aziraphale tells him slowly, watching him shake his head. “Are you alright?”

            “Dizzy,” Crowley manages, understanding in a detached capacity that the word comes out slurred. His stomach roils, as if rejecting the fish, which is ridiculous; Crowley has never gotten sick off fish, no matter how long dead. “Don’t feel good.”

            Aziraphale tsks and removes the mug from where Crowley can reach it. “You did drink a lot of this quickly,” he says as he places it on the other side of himself. “Perhaps you ought to have some water, and eat a bit more. Drinking on an empty stomach makes some people a bit ill.”

            Crowley scrambles up to all fours as his stomach gives half a heave, not enough to do anything but make him feel worse. His vision cants wildly around and he overturns several things between him and the exit before he reaches the sand in front of Aziraphale’s tent. He freezes then, holding very, very still in the hopes that it will make everything stop, but all it does is allow him to feel his entire body trembling uncontrollably.

            “Crowley, what’s going on?” Aziraphale’s voice sounds floaty and far away, and his touch burns when he lays a hand on Crowley’s shoulder in question. “Crowley?”

            He can’t breathe enough to answer. It feels like drowning, which is just as ridiculous and impossible as being sick. A siren cannot drown. He retches, spitting up some kind of thick, black ichor onto the sands between his hands, and then his joints give out entirely.

            He collapses into the sand, and darkness swallows him whole.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Awareness comes back to Crowley in pieces.

            Pain comes first, the ache in his muscles thick and sharp. His throat feels raw; he has never vomited before, had not even been aware he could, and he cannot say he cares for it at all. Taste follows quickly, the flavor of charred wood thick on his tongue as it moves with his attempt to swallow. Somewhere in the distance, he can hear the sound of voices, and the ocean, and of construction, and much closer he can hear the quiet breathing of another. He closes his eyes a little more tightly against the brightness of the day. Even though it is muted enough he assumes he is in the shade, it still makes his head pound.

            “Am I dying?” he grates out, the words scraping burning hot through his throat. His teeth are sharp, and he realizes he must not have had the strength to maintain any semblance of humanity, laid out now in his full siren form.

            The sound of things toppling follows Aziraphale’s startled oh! and then there is a warm hand on his cold snout. “You’re awake!” Aziraphale says, even thought Crowley had thought that obvious. “Erm, no, I- I don’t think that you’re dying. Not anymore.”

            “Anymore?” Crowley asks, cracking an eye to get a glimpse of Aziraphale’s concern, only to find there is more guilt than anything.

            “Ah, well… when you collapsed, we thought at first perhaps alcohol affects sirens particularly quickly, and moreso than it does humans, but Ligur pointed out that alcohol will kill a fish, and we all know better than to give it to pets like birds or lizards, and while you’re not exactly any of those things… it seems I may have poisoned you. I’m terribly sorry, Crowley, I didn’t-”

            “You didn’t poison me,” Crowley says, hoping to cut that line of thinking off before Aziraphale turns himself inside out over it. “I asked for your drink.”

            “And I let you have it!” Aziraphale cries miserably. “I know it’s poison to so many other creatures, even to humans if we have too much of it, and yet I didn’t even think about cautioning you! I gave you a second glass! I’ve just kept thinking, what if we hadn’t been quick enough, or it hadn’t worked? What if you’d had too much? What if you’d-”

            He cuts himself off this time, his hand leaving Crowley, and Crowley cracks his eyes again to see Aziraphale has covered his own mouth with both hands and is just staring at Crowley with eyes so wet they are leaking. It makes something in Crowley’s gut twist unpleasantly. With whatever strength is left at his disposal, Crowley shifts and pulls a trembling wing from where it is wedged uncomfortably beneath him, and rolls enough to bring it up and over Aziraphale.

            “Oh, please,” Aziraphale protests, his voice strained as he places his hands back upon Crowley, trying to stop him from sitting up. “Don’t- you shouldn’t-”

            Crowley is, fortunately, much stronger than Aziraphale, even so damaged, and manages to get his other wing dragged out from under him. He brings that one up as well, forming a mantle around them, and closing out the rest of the world. He has only ever done this once before, while guarding his prey against a sleeper shark that had meandered too close to his reef’s wreckage field, but it feels right to do now. It feels protective, however weak he is.

            “Aziraphale,” he says quietly, and Aziraphale falls still. Speaking makes Crowley's head hurt worse, but he wants – he needs Aziraphale to understand this. “I didn’t die. If anything is your fault, it’s that.”

            Aziraphale gives a little shudder, a small sound escaping him, and then he lurches forward, his hands coming up around Crowley’s middle. Crowley startles a little, wings lifting at the sudden weight pushing against his chest, at Aziraphale’s face buried in his scale-cold neck, but he recognizes the gesture. Newt had done the same thing to Aziraphale when he had had his pelt returned. Perhaps this is a human’s way of showing relief at having something precious returned to them.

            It does not seem like the right time to ask, so instead he carefully places his scaled arms over Aziraphale’s shoulders, mindful of his talons, and brings his wings in closer, wrapping them both up in them. Aziraphale’s body trembles nearly as badly as Crowley’s for a few long moments, but he does relax by degrees and eventually his grip slacks, and Crowley releases him.

            “I’m sorry,” Aziraphale says again, wiping at his eyes and giving Crowley a watery smile. “It’s been a very long two days.”

            The pit drops out of Crowley’s stomach. Two days… He has never been so helpless before. “Thank you for caring for me,” Crowley says quietly. No one has ever done that. No siren would ever have protected another so vulnerable, so useless.

            “I must admit, I had help,” Aziraphale says, a little stronger and much less pained. “In fact, I had trouble getting them to do any work at all. And you ought to thank Harriet for her quick thinking, and I suppose Thaddeus for being a bit of an ass. Apparently he’s poisoned himself twice on drink while she’s known him, and she dealt with it both times. Seems she’s quite good at dealing with things going wrong.”

            Crowley nods, and decides he doesn’t have the ability to remain upright, and sinks back down to where he’d been lying on the ground. His eyes close, and his headache becomes just a little bit better for it. “Do they still need help with the hull? I can help.”

            “You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Aziraphale says firmly. “You could have died. You get to stay in bed for at least a couple of days. The crew will be just fine without you. They’ve been doing other work. The supplies we ordered have started to arrive.”

            Although he considers arguing, he does feel an awful like like death warmed over, and so he just nods again. “Can I at least get something to drink? Water,” he clarifies.

            He can hear the smile in Aziraphale voice. “I think that can be arranged.”

 


 

            Progress, at least on the ship, does exactly as Aziraphale had said it would, and carries on without Crowley the rest of the day. Crowley eats enough to satisfy Aziraphale’s concern, even though it makes his stomach feel as if a school of anchovies has taken up residence in it, and drinks enough water to chase the charcoal taste from his mouth. When he has proven he won’t die as soon as Aziraphale walks away, Aziraphale finally drags himself off to go help with the work.

            Aziraphale’s absence does not, however, mean that Crowley is left alone.

            The children show up first, bringing him shells and rocks and feathers that they had found along the beach while he'd slept. Pepper gives him a skate’s spent egg case. She calls it a mermaid’s purse, and seems very taken with the idea when Crowley asks why a mermaid should need one. He asks them to look for a very specific shell for him, and they all dash off in excitement. He doubts they will find it, but it will give them something to do that is not underfoot of the adults, nor being very loud around his aching head.

            Madam Tracy comes by to check on him a short while later, and brings him more water, as well as a couple of raw eggs. She tells him they will help, though he suspects food in general will help at this point. She also tells him to absolutely not accept anything Shadwell may try to offer to him, which proves an apt piece of advice when Shadwell shortly brings him a mug of something that smells as if it has been scraped off the rotting carcass of a whale and tells him it will cure a hangover. Crowley promises to drink it, and dumps it behind the tent when he is sure Shadwell is not looking.

            Surprisingly, Ligur visits for long enough to give him a mug of something that smells like tea but worse. Crowley attempts to pull the same switch as he had done with Shadwell, but Ligur stands there expectantly until he has taken a few sips of it. It does not taste good, but it also does not appear to be actively harming him. Ligur calls it willow bark tea, and stands there in silence long enough for Crowley to finish the mug and hand it back to him. This happens to also be long enough for Crowley to realize it is actually having a beneficial effect, and that his head already hurts less.

            Crowley falls asleep again shortly after that, and wakes to find Newt sitting nearby eating lunch. He shoves a tin plate toward Crowley and says he’s not allowed to come back until both plates are empty.

            “Sorry I didn’t warn you about the alcohol properly,” Newt says around a mouthful of roasted pig. “You just seemed so appalled by it before, I figured you’d leave it alone.”

            “I did,” Crowley says. And he had, and he might have continued to avoid it forever if he hadn’t been introduce to honey. “Aziraphale’s drink was different. It smelled amazing.”

            “Yeah,” Newt agrees. “Honey wine is quite famously alluring to fae creatures. I’d have said something if I’d realized it would- that you were… related.”

            “I’m not,” Crowley says, nose wrinkling a little in offense. “Sirens aren’t fae.”

            Newt shrugs. “Alright.”

            He says it so unconvincingly that Crowley gives a little growl, but Newt just continues eating. “We’re not fae,” he repeats.

            “You are, a little bit,” Newt says, without looking over. “Maybe the others aren’t, but... you drank the wine. You’re lucky it was Aziraphale holding the mug, and not Gabriel.”

            Crowley looks down at his food, equal parts angry and chagrined. He is lucky. Incredibly so, to have found such a potent weakness in the company of perhaps the only humans in existence that would choose to protect him through it rather than exploit it.

            “I know,” he says quietly.

            “Eat your food.” The words are tired, more of a truce than an order.

            Crowley does as he is bid, and when he is down to the last strip of meat, he asks if there is anything he can do yet. Newt piles their plates together and tells him that they’re not ready to tip the ship again, so he won’t be able to help until tomorrow. Crowley thanks him, for the food and the company, and watches him walk back to where Madam Tracy has set up a spit over one of the fires. She leans back and looks in the direction of Crowley’s tent when she sees Newt returning, and Crowley doesn’t need to hear the conversation to know she’s asking after him.

            He lays back, careful of the wings he has still not been able to pull into the ether, and stares up at the pointed ceiling of the tent. Lucky. He’s never had to be lucky before. He’s never had to depend on someone else for his own welfare. Certainly not when he has not struck a deal for it, when he has made no plans to repay the favor. He wonders what the humans will ask of him, what he will owe them for their kindness.

            “Bird.”

            Crowley startles and sits up partway at the strange, creaky voice. Sitting at the end of his bed is a odd little creature, entirely black of fur, with golden yellow eyes. She stares at him, completely unafraid, her tail wrapped over her dainty paws and her ears cocked forward in a show of interest. Of all of the languages she could possibly have chosen for communication, she has picked a dialect of dolphin.

            “Siren,” he clicks back to correct her, although he supposes the squeaks are easier for her to pronounce than the clicks. “What are you?”

            She gives a soft niaow noise, in a language he’s never spoken, and he assumes there is not a word for what she is in dolphin. It must show on his face, because she blinks slowly and then says: “Rat killer.”

            That he recognizes. He vaguely remembers having found the remains of tiny, predatory mammals on some of the ships, usually hidden somewhere in the wreckage long after the ship has begun to rot out. Dolphins speak of them sometimes, as friends aboard the ships. He has wanted to meet a living one, but they are truly excellent little hiders and he’s never located one in time. He’d have saved one, if he could have.

            “Share food?” she asks, looking down at the strip of meat in his hands.

            He tosses the meat onto the blanket before her, and she crouches down to sniff and then chew at it. She is not particularly graceful or quick about it, but she eats the entire thing and then cleans her face with her paw, licking her whiskers clean at the last. Crowley waits, sure that she has come for a reason.

            When she is satisfied, she returns to staring at him. “Humans care you,” she squeaks. He thinks it might be a question.

            “My humans,” he tells her. “I protect them.”

            Her whiskers twitch. “Good exchange. Also my humans?” The inflection for a question seems difficult for her, and he cannot blame her. Bottlenose is the worst of the small cetacean dialects. “Want home, also. Kill rats. Like touch.”

            He considers the offer. He’s caught a few of the rats on the ship himself, but they seem to be very good at getting into places he cannot fit his hand in any form, and they are quicker than they look. She could get into places he cannot, or at least places he cannot without upending furniture or splintering the ship's structure. She is small enough he doubts she needs much to eat in a day, and they have what amounts to an endless supply of fresh water so that won’t be a problem. There’s very little chance Aziraphale will mind the extra body.

            “Name?” he asks, not sure that she’ll be able to say it in a language he understands, and hoping that he can say it in her language if that is the case.

            She makes a soft, chattering noise, and when he repeats it, she flicks an ear back. She says it again and he repeats it, and they go back and forth a few times until she is satisfied with his pronunciation of it.

          Bentley. It’s a nice name.

            “Crowley,” he says, though he says it in human. She acknowledges the sounds, even though he knows she cannot produce them, and she makes another soft series of noises; his name in her language. Again, he repeats them until she is satisfied.

            “I stay?” she asks.

            “Yes,” he says.

            She stays where she is a moment longer, and then gets to her feet with purpose, picking her away across the blankets until she is within reach.

            “Touch,” she says, a question with the wrong inflection again, and he puts out a hand to run fingers over her incredibly soft, black fur. She leans into it hard, rubbing her face on his hand, and he can smell the chemicals she puts out, feel the gentle, subtle claim she has made upon him.

            And here he’d thought it would be the other way around.

            When she has had enough, she puts a paw on his hand to stop him, and then clambers atop him as if he is furniture. He lies back, only vaguely concerned at the obedience he shows to her unspoken commands, and she becomes a ball of deep void on his chest, no eyes or pink toes in sight.

            “Sleep,” she tells him, her voice beginning to rattle. “I heal.”

            A soft, comforting vibration begins all over her body, one Crowley feels seeping straight into his core, into his lungs and heart and bones. Carefully, he touches her again with his fingertips to confirm it is her and not his imagination, but he can already feel himself losing consciousness again. However, this time he does not feel weak for succumbing to it; he feels comforted. Safe.

            His last thought is that perhaps she really does have an ability to heal.

 

Chapter Text

 

            “What in the world’s going on here? Go on, shoo!”

            Crowley struggles awake, sluggish and warm and comfortable under the weight on his chest. Bentley stirs, lifting her head to look at Aziraphale standing over them, one hand flapping in an attempt to shoo her away from Crowley. She flicks an ear and begins to stretch before Crowley unseats her by sitting up and catching her in both soft, human hands. His wings have folded back into the ether, and his skin has smoothed out, unscaled.

            “I told her she could stay,” he slurs, trying to blink sleep from his eyes as he wonders if this is how humans always feel upon waking up. Aziraphale certainly acts like it most mornings. “Don’t we need someone to hunt rats?”

            “You hunt rats,” Aziraphale tells him with a little frown. “We don’t need a flea-ridden cat causing a mess on the ship.”

            “You don’t like these creatures?” Crowley says, running his hands over her soft fur. She does not seem perturbed at his words, even though they sound like insults.

            “Where did you even find her?” Aziraphale asks, avoiding answering.

            “She found me.” Crowley looks down to find Bentley staring curiously up at Aziraphale. “She offered to kill the rats on the ship, if we let her stay.”

            “Excuse me, she offered?” Aziraphale repeats, and then looks slightly appalled. “Are you suggest- can you talk to her? Well of course you can talk to her- can she talk back?” He looks at Bentley as if she is suddenly some kind of alien creature. “Hello.”

            Bentley meows, and Aziraphale looks at Crowley as though it is personally his fault.

            “I don’t speak her language yet,” Crowley says, when he realizes Aziraphale is waiting for a translation, or an explanation, or something.

            “Are you telling me she speaks your- speaks, you know.” Aziraphale waves a hand vaguely. “Human? Or- or siren, at least? Words?”

            “No,” Crowley says, and Aziraphale looks a little relieved until Crowley adds: “She speaks dolphin. Bottlenose, which is tricky even when you have the throat for it, but common among creatures that live close to land. Bottlenose dolphins are gossips.”

            Aziraphale looks as if he’d very much like to have a seat. “Dolphin,” he echoes faintly. “The cat speaks dolphin?

            “Hello!” Bentley chirps in bottlenose.

            “He doesn’t speak dolphin,” Crowley tells her as Aziraphale drops to his rear on the sand. “Her name is Bentley. Can she stay?”

            “You’ve already told her she can,” Aziraphale says faintly, with an odd tone. It doesn’t quiet sound like anger.

            Crowley looks him over and then gently removes Bentley from his lap and sets her on the blankets. “I’m not the captain,” he says slowly. He may have told Bentley she can stay, but Aziraphale would be within his rights to tell her to go.

            “How many other animals can talk?” Aziraphale says, bringing his gaze up to look at Crowley. “Why didn’t you ever say something?”

            Crowley gives a little shrug, a human gesture he’s found very useful in this sort of situation. “I did,” he says. “I told you about the whales, before that first storm."

            "Yes but those- those are sea creatures, like you!" Aziraphale exclaims. "I thought- I don't know what I thought. It makes sense, if you can talk to one, you can talk to others."

            "Anathema didn’t make me tell you, when she found out,” Crowley offers, not sure it will help. In fact, though he does not say it, she had not even seemed all that surprised, after the whales, and so he had assumed it to be of no particular consequence. Clearly that had been wrong.

            “Anathema knew?” Aziraphale quickly holds up both hands and makes a slight forward gesture with them. “It’s not important. Bentley, you said her name was?” Crowley nods, and Aziraphale turns to look at the cat. “Bentley,” he addresses her, and only looks a little pained when she actually pays attention to him. “First of all, sorry about insulting you. I had no idea you might understand, although I suppose that’s no excuse to be rude. Second, there are rules to joining a ship’s crew as a member.”

            Bentley looks to Crowley, and he nods to her, too, agreeing to translate.

            “Say,” she says, with Crowley echoing in human.

            Aziraphale holds up a hand and sticks out his thumb. “You’ll use a sandbox for waste. I won’t have you dirtying the floors.”

            “Accept,” she says.

            He puts up his first finger. “You’ll kills rats- hang on now, do rats speak as well?” he asks, looking up. “I’m sorry, how are we supposed to go about- do the goats speak? The chickens? And you knew all this time? Didn't it concern you at all, talking to your dinner?”

            Crowley doesn’t know how to answer that; just because something speaks doesn’t mean it can’t be food. “I eat humans.” That seems like a satisfactory answer.

            Aziraphale stares at him for a long moment, his eyes dropping a little out of focus as he thinks. “Yes,” he says, in a way which perfectly encapsulates the look of disgust he isn’t actually making. “Right then. You’ll, ah… You’ll rid the ship of rats. And if there are none left to eat, we’ll feed you until more get aboard.”

            “Accept,” Bentley says.

            Aziraphale puts up another finger. “You stay out from underfoot when we’re trying to move the ship about. I won’t have you tripping anyone for fun, or whatever reason cats dash out in front of people.”

            Bentley’s whiskers twitch forward in a laugh. “Accept.”

            One more finger. "I'll not have you clawing up the ship, or the furniture. We'll bring along something for you to sharpen and clean your claws on instead."

            Bentley dips her head. "Accept. I choose?"

            "She wants to know if she can pick the item," Crowley says. "The one to sharpen her claws on."

            “I don't see why not,” Aziraphale says, to Bentley instead of Crowley. “If there's nothing else...?" Bentley shakes her head in a very human display, and Aziraphale puts his hand down. "That’s that, then.”

            She rises, her tail springing straight up, and trots over to him. He automatically holds out a hand before retracting it, suddenly aware of his attempt to pet a person. Crowley huffs a laugh.

            “That was correct,” he says. He gestures to indicate Aziraphale should hold his hand out again. “She hasn’t got a hand to shake like humans do.”

            Tentatively, Aziraphale stretches out a hand again, and when it is close enough, Bentley leans forward and rubs her cheeks over the tips, scenting him to seal their agreement. Aziraphale holds very still the entire time, as though he is afraid of offending her, only relaxing when she draws away and returns to the blanket where she’d been sitting.

            “Right,” he says, a little uncertainly. “Well. I suppose Crowley ought to introduce you to the others, so no one chases you off. Black cats are usually considered a bit of bad luck on land, you know.”

            “I assume sirens are considered worse luck,” Crowley points out. “And they don’t seem to mind me.”

            “I can’t argue that,” Aziraphale says, wobbling up to his feet in the unsteady sand outside the tent. “So, ah… show her about, and let Tracy know she can give her food, and… well. Welcome aboard. Well not- not exactly aboard aboard, but- oh, you know what I mean. Remind me to have a chat with Anathema when she returns, about telling one’s captain relevant information. I'm going to go get breakfast.”

            With that, he turns on a heel and stomps away, an effect greatly lessened by his feet sliding around in the loose sand of the beach. Crowley watches until Aziraphale disappears into the swath of tents, then turns back to Bentley. She sits on the fluffiest part of the blanket, much the same way as she’d done when she had arrived, tail over her paws.

            One ear flicks back for a second. “I like your mate.”

            “Not my mate,” Crowley clicks back.

            Her whiskers twitch in what looks like amusement, and then she stretches, yawns, and trots to the front of the tent. “Talk humans?”

            He may as well, he thinks, considering how useless he’s been the last two days. Gingerly, he rolls over and up, ducking out of the tent as he does so, and she somehow manages to keep from underfoot exactly as promised. He stretches, not at all enjoying the vague lurch his stomach gives at moving around, and then extends an arm to point in the direction he intends to go.

            However, he finds rather than giving a direction, he acquires a sudden weight on his arm, as she leaps nimbly from the ground and insinuates herself over his shoulders. Cats, he guesses, do not have the same rules about touching that humans are supposed to have. He doesn’t complain; sirens haven’t got rules either. Instead, he makes sure she has solid footing, and begins to walk toward the rest of the camp to make introductions.

 


 

            Three days and a lot of work later, Crowley is startled awake long before morning. Bentley picks up her head from where she has been sleeping on Aziraphale’s chest – sirens, she had haltingly explained, are too cold to be comfortable – but Aziraphale doesn’t stir at all. Crowley blinks and peers around in the darkness, but there is nothing happening. No one in their tent or outside of it, no alarms being called, no sounds of a fight. Just the soothing susurration of the ocean lapping at the shore, and the soft lilt of a song on the wind.

            Fear blooms in him as he recognizes the song, and Crowley curses under his breath, careful not to wake Aziraphale as he scrambles up and dashes out the front of the tent. They had set up camp at the edge of the beach, beneath the trees that hold the ship in place. It is close enough to see the shoreline, close enough that he could call to the figure lurching toward the sea, but if he were to do that, he might wake the others. As long as they sleep, they are safe.

            He hits Shadwell at nearly full speed, spraying up sand and water as he ditches momentum in a spin and shoves him inland. There is a splash and a furious hiss from behind him and he lashes out blindly with one wing to knock aside the attack. It works about as well as he’d imagined it would; he connects, hard, with the other siren, but her talons sift through the small feathers along his patagium and the scent of blood blooms over the scent of brine.

            He whirls about, standing over a bespelled Shadwell, and holds both of his wings high, scaled lips pulled back from sharp teeth. The other siren lies coiled in the shallows, muddied water swirling around where she has landed, her long tail lashing. He has the advantage if she chooses to fight; it will take time for her gills to retreat and her wings to be available for use.

            She does not, however, make that choice.

            She catches one proper look at his wings, at the blood oozing down the starlit patterns across the feathers – the ones visible only to other sirens – and she stands down immediately. Her head ducks and her eyes drop to the sand and she becomes the perfect picture of battle submission.

            “I had not realized this was your wreck,” she says, just loudly enough to be heard over the surf. A year ago, that would not have sufficed; a year ago he did not understand apologies.

            Crowley relaxes, folding his wings to his body but not putting them away entirely. “My ship is no wreck,” he tells her. “And my humans are not fair prey.”

            She glances up at the beach, at where the crew sleep in tents and on packs. “They do not sleep to your song?”

            “They do not,” he confirms. “I have chosen to hunt from their ship’s deck, rather than my reef. They have accepted this arrangement.”

            Her nose wrinkles in disgust. “You hunt in the presence of so much food? Why not just eat them?”

            He hisses, and she ducks her head again, cowed. When he speaks, it is gentler. “Tell me your name.”

            For a moment, he thinks she will deny him, but finally she shakes her head and says: “Ashtoreth.”

            “Ashtoreth.” There is power in a name, in knowing it and having it, and they both know this, if the little flinch she gives is any indication. He can feel her history in the syllables, murky and unclear, and he traces back over her life to where it touches his own. “You had a reef once. Why do you hunt the shore?”

            “They taste better here, fatted from the land,” she answers, without hesitation, although he is not sure it is a truth. It is certainly not the entire truth. “I risk no creature taking my kills from larder.”

            “Can you not defend a fresh wreck?” he asks. She is young, but not the youngest. Old enough he does not remember which wreck he’d taken her from, and powerful enough to feel safe outside of a- “That’s why you’re here. You abandoned you choir before you could sing a ship.” He sees the truth of it in the hunch of her shoulders, the way her lips press tight to keep from baring. “That was very unwise of you.”

            “I didn’t,” she spits, and then shakes her head, not meeting his gaze. He thinks that might be all she is willing to say, but then she lashes her tail in irritation and adds: “I was the last in it.”

            Understanding dawns, and Crowley feels a pinch of something new and painful in his throat and chest. The last one left in a choir of sirens is normally killed by the second to last, ensuring that the weakest of them is culled and providing incentive to strike out alone as soon as possible. He looks down, into the dark, muddied water she has stirred beneath her, and sees the edges of scars. Now that he is looking, he can see them across her front as well, pale lines cut over her throat and chest and arms. She had indeed had a reef, but she had shared it with others, and they had left, until the last had tried to kill her.

            But she had fought back. She had survived.

            “You’re hungry,” he says softly.

            She is here, hunting at the shore because the sirens of the deep would not have let her live. She is here, because the last of a choir is the last because they haven’t yet learned to sing a ship. She must have been relying on single takes whenever sailors got too close to the water at night. He drops whatever is left of his threat display and sits in the sand.

            “You will not sing to these humans,” he says, and she nods. “Now, come ashore. Dry your scales.”

            She gives him a look lost between surprise and apprehension. “I don’t wish to fight you. I won’t touch your humans.”

            “I was not asking,” Crowley says evenly. “Get out of the water.”

            Reluctantly, she propels herself the last few feet into shore and hauls her fins up onto the sand. He is certain she considers running, and is glad to find she’s smarter than that; she would never have outrun him. Crowley nods approval and they sit in utter silence while her gills shift back to lungs and her scales give way to feathers, until she looks mostly the same as he does.

            Crowley looks down at Shadwell, still passed out on the sand, and then scoops him up to carry him along with them. “You will come with me,” he tells her, “and you are not to harm any of the humans.”

            “Understood,” she says, even though she looks very much like she does not understand at all.

            However, when he moves, she trails behind him in silence, across the beach and up to where the tents are staked. Shadwell had likely been on watch tonight, which must be how she’d caught his attention with her song. Crowley shuffles Shadwell onto a blanket serving as a makeshift bed, and then motions to Ashtoreth with a tip of his head. He takes her back toward the ship, to where the barrels full of barnacles are being kept. She gives him a strange look, her tongue flicking out to taste the air when he uncaps one of them.

            “They don’t eat barnacles,” she says, confused.

            “I cleaned them from their ship’s belly, and they collected them for me,” he explains gently, tipping the barrel to spill some of the water out. “Eat what you will of them, but do not leave this spot until I return.”

            “They’re yours,” she says, not moving to take a single barnacle yet.

            He looks her up and down, that strange pang tightening his throat. “The humans call it sharing,” he finally says. “They divide a kill among themselves according to who is in need. I agreed to their rules upon boarding their vessel, and you are in need. Eat.”

            She steps forward as though pulled, and he steps away from the barrel to give her space. Again she hesitates at the lip of the barrel, but when he makes no move to stop her, she plunges a hand in and pulls up a talonfull of the unhappy creatures. He watches her shove the first few into her mouth, and then he drops down to all fours and leaves her there to eat.

            Tracy is not hard to wake, although she seems very confused to see Crowley standing over her. “The what?” she says blearily, squinting through the darkness at him.

            “The carcass,” he repeats. “From the- the-” He gestures uselessly, unable to find the word he needs. “The land dolphin that we ate.”

            She stares slightly to the left of him, trying to parse that, and then wrinkles her face more than usual. “The hog?”

            “The hog!” Crowley agrees. “Where did the rest of the carcass go?”

            Scrubbing at her face, she twists to grab up a real shirt and tugs it on as she gets to her feet. “C’mon, then,” she tells him. “We’ve cut it up to make stock, but I haven’t got to it yet. Feeling it bit peckish, doll?”

            “It’s not for me,” he says, and misses the skeptical look she gives him as he prowls by her side to where she’s got the carcass cut up in pieces and sitting in half a barrel of brine. “May I take some of this?”

            “No one else will eat it,” she tells him. “It’s mostly bone! If you don’t want it right now, I can save it for-”

            “There’s another siren here,” he says, nodding toward where Ashtoreth is sloshing an arm around in the barnacle barrel. Tracy looks as though she’s about to have an opinion on that, so Crowley rushes to continue. “She hasn’t hurt anyone. She needs help. She's hungry.”

            “Oh,” Tracy says, and then softens. “Oh… why yes, Mr. Crowley, you can have as much as you like for her. But just so as you know, you’ll have to discuss with the captain if she wants to stay. She’s not a stray cat.”

            “She’s not staying,” Crowley says, a little sharper than intended as a possessive feeling zings through him.

            Tracy gives him a tight-lipped smile, touches his arm, and then shuffles away toward her tent again. Crowley watches her for a long moment, and then snatches up as much of the disassembled carcass as he can. It is slimy and slippery, but he manages to get a bunch of it in hand and carries it back across the sand to Ashtoreth. When he nears, she hisses, her golden wings appearing to mantle over the barrel before she realizes what she’s doing and ducks herself into a more submissive posture.

            Then she notices what he’s carrying, and sniffs at the air again. “What’s that?”

            “They call it a hog,” he says, dumping the pieces into the barnacle barrel. “When it’s alive anyway. Tastes like humans. Try some.”

            She fishes a piece from the water, and crunches into some of the bone. He smiles when her eyes go wide and she looks at him for an explanation. He suspects that she’s drawn the same wrong conclusion he had; that the two creatures are somehow related, to taste so similar.

            “Not a human,” he assures her. “Not related. Good though.”

            She stops, slowly swallowing what is in her mouth as she regards him uneasily. “Why are you doing this? Why help me?”

            With care, Crowley plants himself in the sand and looks off to the side, considering. “I’ve been a siren my whole life,” he says. “Millennia of existence. I saw the world when it was new, saw the first seedlings push through the soil when Atlantis knew the sun. I’ve watched gods become gods become memories. And in all that time, I had never known love, or regret, or guilt. I had only ever learned to protect myself. I knew only how to take.”

            He glances up to find her staring at him, brows knit and nose a little wrinkled. “And?”

            He smiles, but a part of him aches to hear the tone of her voice. She does not understand. Perhaps she does not have the capacity to. “Do you know what the captain of this ship said to me, the first moment that we met?”

            “Don’t eat me?” she responds dryly.

            “He asked if I needed help.” Her confusion is satisfying this time. “I thought he must have confused me with a human. Maybe he was under my spell. So I let him go, I made sure he could see me for what I truly was.”

            “And then he said don’t eat me?” she asks.

            “He treated me as though I am beautiful,” Crowley says patiently. “And he still asked if I needed help, and offered me food and drink, and a place in his home.”

            “So he tamed you,” she says, a little acidly. “Made you a pet.”

            Crowley sighs. Perhaps he had been wrong to try to show her. The others had not been made the same way as he had, might not have the same capacity for change. Or perhaps, he thinks, he’s not ready to try to teach anyone the way the humans have taught him, and he’s certainly not ready to allow another aboard his ship, even to learn.

            “Eat your food,” he says tiredly, instead of trying to explain further. “Then move on. If you so much as try to lay a single talon upon any of my humans, I will show you how much of a pet I am.”

            She gives him a sullen, but ultimately submissive, “Understood,” and crunches down upon the slick, roasted bone in her hands.

            Crowley settles in to watch and wait.

 


 

            When the other siren has gone, Crowley trudges back to Aziraphale’s tent. Their tent. Bentley is gone, and Aziraphale stirs only mildly when Crowley settles in beside him, budging up against him and draping a warm, dark wing over him like a blanket.

            “Where did you go?” Aziraphale asks, voice muzzy and warm. His fingers wiggle into Crowley’s feathers, seeking the heat of his wing bone’s skin. Crowley is glad he had used his undamaged wing to cover him; Aziraphale would have asked about the tacky, dried blood still on his other. He would need to wake early to clean it off.

            “Nowhere important,” Crowley tells him, tucking his head down against Aziraphale’s arm. “Thought I heard something.”

            Aziraphale hums a noise and mumbles: “Thank you for watching over us.” Crowley feels Aziraphale’s muscles go lax again in sleep almost before he’s finished speaking.

            Crowley lets out a huff of breath, tired and feeling… adrift, like an unmoored ship.

            He has changed.

            Before he met these humans, he wouldn’t have hesitated to unmake a siren so weak. He would not have even given her a chance to tell him she was weak; he would have killed her for daring to come so close to something that was his. He would have felt nothing for it, certainly. No regret. No pain. He would have done it, and never thought of it again. He has only ever had to think of himself.

            Tonight, his only thought had not been for himself.

            Tonight, he had felt the pit drop from his stomach at the thought that one of the humans here would lose their life to a creature like the monster he had been. The monster he would still be, had Aziraphale not sailed so close to his reef. A handful of words, a kind gesture, a moment of concern. Those are the things which stand between Crowley and the siren he’d run off tonight.

            Although, perhaps it is more than that.

            Perhaps he has been different from the start. Another siren would not have let Aziraphale’s ship sail so close. Another siren would not have given Aziraphale a chance to be kind. Another siren would never have taken a bite of the ruddy little apple Aziraphale had given to him, nor agreed to give them an opportunity to sail together.

            Another siren certainly would not have agreed to use his song to call ships for humans to take bloodless prizes.

            Another siren would not have fallen in love with a human.

            He closes his eyes.

            He has changed. He knows this. He has known for a while now.

            Somewhere out there, his reef still sits. He had lorded over it for centuries, for millennia. At her base lays a graveyard of ships to feed her, to give her new spaces to grow into, more places for fish and coral and crustaceans. Despite them, despite the whirl of small ocean life, Crowley had been alone on the reef. He had kept it that way. He had meant to be. It had been all he had known, and it had been comfortable.

            But he knows that if he were to go back to it now, the solitude would ache. The silence would be deafening in its intensity.

            He no longer wishes to be alone.

            He thinks perhaps he is no longer capable of it.

            He curls a little closer to Aziraphale, and eventually falls asleep to the gentle beat of a human heart.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Although it feels strange to sit atop a yard whose mast is at such a strange angle, Crowley keeps watch atop the highest of them, his back to the ocean. The sun is out and shining, the light near-scalding upon his ebon feathers, and it feels so different when it is reflected back from the white sand on the beach. Light may shatter off the surface of the waves, but the warmth is so easily leached by going beneath them that it is hardly worth calling heat. Even sitting upon the parts of his reef that are above water to sun himself, Crowley has never really felt this sort of all-encompassing warmth.

            Which is all to say that while he does not fancy becoming one himself, he can understand why land animals had clambered out of the sea in the first place.

            Between the heat and the brightness and the lapping ocean, the cry of gulls in the distance and the rhythmic scraping of the humans below as they tar the side of the ship Crowley had just cleared the day before, Crowley nearly falls asleep. It is tempting to think of just locking his talons into the wood of the mast and letting the feeling of comfort and safety overtake him. However, he had promised to try to keep from damaging the ship by use of his talons, and Aziraphale had told him that they ought to expect an arrival today, of goods or of people. Crowley had made another promise to look for them.

            So far, this has amounted to a lot of Crowley lounging up as high as he can get and only coming down when Madam Tracy calls out that fresh food is ready in the evenings. The rest of the day, the crew mostly fetch food as they need it, the same way they take breaks in the shade, and down as much fresh water as Crowley can make for them. Bentley has already made a lot of friends among the crew, despite her inability to talk to most of them, and they have been keeping her well fed and more than well pet.

            As much as he keeps one eye on the road, he keeps the other on the ocean behind him. Ashtoreth has not returned, and Crowley does not believe she will, and if she goes to any of the others, she likely will not receive the chance to tell them anything. They already know the only story they need to know about him, and are not the sort to listen to creatures weaker than themselves.

            Still, he watches. Still, he worries.

            Aziraphale had been less than pleased the morning after the encounter, when Crowley had told him about it, but he had dismissed it easily enough. They had run into plenty of creatures lately, one more could hardly hurt. Shadwell has no memory of any of it, and only the bruises left by Crowley knocking him over to show for it, but he seems to believe Madam Tracy when she tells him Crowley saved his life. Crowley is fairly certain that the pile of peeled barnacles sitting in a bowl outside his tent that evening are from Shadwell, as some show of gratitude. Crowley does not tell Shadwell that the crunch is most of the enjoyment, and shares the bowl with Bentley.

            At present, a flicker of motion in the distance draws his attention to the dirt road that winds down to the beach. It is not, Aziraphale had very firmly told him, a very good example of a road. Something about the make of it seems offensive to Aziraphale on a level that had been unclear to Crowley previously. Now, he sees the stir of dust forming a cloud behind the carts heading their way, loudly declaring their position, and he suspects that may be some of the problem.

            “Incoming carts!” he shouts down, and the humans below him all look up. They are on the wrong side of the ship to see, but several of them bolt to get around the bow of the ship and head for camp.

            Crowley, for his part, stays put. Aziraphale had told him not to come down if he sees people coming. A mostly-human shaped creature atop a tall mast in the distance is likely to be ignored in favor of the many humans approaching to greet them, but a siren barreling down from the sky tends to be noticed. Aziraphale wants to introduce himself to the potential recruits before that kind of scare. He thinks it will give them a better reason to stay. Of course, he had assured Crowley, they will need to meet Crowley before they can be a part of the crew, just not in the first few minutes.

            Instead, Crowley watches Thaddeus carry his message to Aziraphale, and watches the carts stir up dust as they arrive. Anathema sits in the front of one of them, though the straps controlling the large land mammals that pull the carts are not in her hands. The carts themselves are open on top, and packed full of more humans. She must have completed her mission to find more crew, but by Crowley’s count, she has brought more than they need. Perhaps she does not think they will all pass Aziraphale’s judgment. Perhaps she thinks they will not all handle Crowley’s existence.

            She is probably correct, on both counts.

            The third cart appears to hold more of the repair supplies and, Crowley notes with a smile, the couch that Aziraphale had ordered. It takes a while to unload, and Aziraphale seems to be addressing the gathered for several long minutes. Crowley assumes he is giving them the general rules of the ship, the same way he had done for Bentley. None of the newcomers leave. Aziraphale turns and shades his eyes with one hand as he looks up to where Crowley perches. All of the new faces turn up to look at him too, as Aziraphale raises an arm and waves.

            Crowley spreads his wings, becoming starkly visible by the motion, and he is delighted to see a couple of the newcomers startle and take steps backward even from such a distance. This is the test Aziraphale had assigned him to give, and he intends to do it well. He springs forward, stooping toward the beach, toward the group, as though coming for prey.

            The ones who attempt to leave are met with drawn swords from the Archangel’s crew. They have surrounded the apparently unarmed newcomers, and will not let them pass. With an ear-splitting shriek, Crowley hits the sand a few yards from the nearest of them, sending up a spray that skitters over the surrounding sand. His momentum carries him forward, across the two bounding leaps between them, and almost all of them shy away from the furious incoming attack.

            Satisfyingly, the nearest – a woman with bright, fiery-red hair – doesn’t even flinch when Crowley stops just inches away from striking her. Aziraphale moves to address her first, and comes to stand before her as Crowley drops to all fours and begins a slow prowl around the edges of the group, driving them tighter together with loud snaps of his snout. She looks away from Crowley to give Aziraphale her full attention, as if not worried at all about the predator now behind her.

            “What is your name?” Aziraphale asks evenly.

            “Carmine,” she says, low and smooth and silky. “Carmine Zuigiber.”

            Aziraphale gives a small tip of his head toward Crowley. “Do you know what that is?”

            “A siren,” she answers.

            Aziraphale raises his brows, obviously a little impressed now. The recruits are not supposed to recognize a siren on sight; very few actually know what they look like, and those folks are normally not the sort to frequent spaces full of criminals. They are the sort that read books and talk about subjects not born of the desperation that comes from not having enough to live by. They are the sorts that never go anywhere near the places they might encounter real sirens.

            “And are you aware of the main food source of sirens?” Aziraphale presses.

            “Humans,” she says. She does not sound at all afraid of him, nor of Crowley. She seems less impressed with Crowley than Aziraphale is with her. If anything, it’s amusement in her bright eyes. She is enjoying this. She smells completely human, but Crowley wonders if such scents can be created by immersion in large enough groups.

            Aziraphale nods slowly. “And yet, you have no fear of one, even as he came to strike you down? Have you a particular wish for death, Carmine?”

            She snorts, not quite laughter, and looks over her shoulder to where Crowley is still in full siren form. “I’ll be scared of one when it’s serious. That one’s clearly guarding your camp... but not against us. We were invited. And as it was not a dinner invitation, I doubt I have cause to be worried.”

            “I see,” Aziraphale says. “And will you have any problem serving aboard my vessel alongside of him?”

            “He abides by the rules you told us?” she asks, and Aziraphale nods. She shrugs. “Then, I’ve sailed with worse company. Count me in.”

            Aziraphale studies her for a second longer and then nods his approval, stepping to the side just as Crowley reaches them again. “Crowley?”

            “Azssssiraphale,” Crowley says, letting the sibilant really have the word, and then standing up again to tower over Carmine. Slowly, he extends a taloned hand, palm vertical the way Aziraphale had shown him. Carmine looks at it, then up at him, and then slides one small, delicate hand into his and grasps it. Crowley closes his claws, covering most of her wrist as well, and gives her hand a single shake – down and then up – before releasing her. “Welcome to the crew, Carmine Zuigiber.”

            “Call me Red,” she says, and then steps around him, turning to face the newcomers as though she is a part of the crew surrounding them instead. Crowley decides he likes her.

            Aziraphale turns back to the recruits, and before he can open his mouth to say another word, one of them steps forward, brushing seafoam-white hair behind their ear. “I’ll sail,” they say.

            “Alongside of a siren?” Aziraphale asks, as if that is still somehow in any way unclear.

            “Better than sailing against one, I imagine,” they say with a little shrug. They turn to Crowley, and stick out a hand first. “My name is Chalky.”

            Crowley takes it, pleased to find it unusually warm. “Welcome to the crew.”

            They don’t smile, but they do cross over to stand beside Red. Crowley glances to Aziraphale, who just raises his shoulders a little and turns back to the group. “Well. Anyone else?”

 


 

            “You didn’t have to frighten them like that,” Anathema tells him that evening. She sits down in the sand behind him, where it is still dry, and digs her toes into the cool edge of where the sand begins to dampen.

            He glances over his shoulder at her, looks her up and down once, and then returns to the bones in his lap. She had brought back with her two more live hogs, two freshly kidded nanny goats, and a dozen red-feathered hens. Now that there will be more, Tracy had given Crowley the well-cooked bones of the first hog after she had finished with them. They’re not quite as good as they are fresh, but they are different, and he finds he likes them well enough.

            “Aziraphale asked me to,” he says, when he can find nothing else to say. He thinks perhaps she is right; he doesn’t actually like frightening people, now that he knows how it feels.

            “Aziraphale wanted to show you off,” Anathema scoffs, but it is so fond that Crowley has a difficult time believing she means it as an insult.

            Insult or not, it is not true. “He said that anyone who was too scared to take my hand now wouldn’t fit later.”

            She lets out a slightly dramatic breath and pops a piece of roasted potato into her mouth. “He’s probably right,” she agrees. “Still, it wasn’t very nice of him.”

            Crowley snorts. He is aware that Aziraphale is perfectly capable of being soft and sweet and caring- and that he is just as capable of being a bit of a bastard when he wants to be. Crowley has seen his sharper edges, the way he can dig the point of a few words into a person’s softest spots if he needs to, if he’s after something. If he thinks it is deserved. Crowley’s claws are blunt compared to that kind of weapon.

            “What do you think of them?” Anathema asks, when Crowley offers no further insight into Aziraphale. “The recruits?”

            Crowley fiddles with a rib bone. “I haven’t thought of them,” he says idly. “They haven’t done anything.”

            “You don’t get a feeling about any of them?” she presses.

            He makes a face and turns to look at her. “What sort of feeling am I meant to get?” he asks, a little worried, and a lot more annoyed. Did humans get feelings, he wondered, about every new person they met? He had too many feelings to deal with already- he certainly didn’t need any more of them.

            “You know!” she exclaims, as if she had meant to keep it quiet and failed quite spectacularly. This does not help Crowley in any way, as he would not have asked if he knew. “Like, do you think any of them are supernatural creatures like you? Or maybe traitors like Lucifer? Do you think they’ll fit in alright? That Red’s a bit… odd.”

            “I like her,” Crowley says, taking a bite and pocketing the splinters in his cheek to add: “Don’t like the other one.”

            “What other one?” Anathema asks.

            She almost sounds eager, and that sets off some kind of alarm bell. Something is definitely going on, and he has no idea what it could be, but this is not just an interrogation for information anymore. The situation is giving him that slightly-off feeling he gets when humans start doing human things that only other humans stand a chance at recognizing. Things other humans would know how to do correctly, like peeling an egg instead of eating it shell and all. He chews on the bone splinters to give himself time, but there is only so long he can stall.

            “Sable,” he says cautiously, then glances at her to see if that is the correct response. She doesn’t seem disappointed. “He says he doesn’t like food.”

            She snorts, and then gives a small cackle that sounds… delighted. “Who doesn’t like food?”

            “Sable,” Crowley repeats, confused now. He’s just told her that.

            “No, yes, I- that was a joke, Crowley, and an agreement,” she says fondly. “It’s very strange to not like food.”

            He stares out at the ocean for another few seconds, and then pops the last piece of bone into his mouth and chews while he turns about. He opens his wings, tenting them to either side of him to brace in the sand, and puts his back to the sea. He fixes his golden gaze upon her. She stares back, her eyes a little wide, but with no fear in them, and he finds he may understand a little of what is going on, after all.

            “You missed me,” he says, not really a question. She is trying to connect to him again. Trying to remind him that they are friends, and have been since before she brought back these new people. He’s very sure of it, and the way she gives him a little scowl says she knows it, too.

            She looks down at her tin plate as though she can find something to say that is not really an answer. “I just wanted to know what you thought. I never had to hire any crew before, and Aziraphale left me to do it by myself. I thought I did a fairly good job, but you never really know til the people are on the ship, how they’re going to be. And then you went and tried to spook them all off, and I thought… well, I didn’t want to have to go back for more of them. Only lost two, though, so that’s not bad.”

            She opens her mouth, as if she is about to say more, but closes it again, out of words. Crowley looks her over and then leans a little, enough to catch her eyes, and make her look up at him.

            “I missed you too.”

            Her shoulders relax from how they had begun to hunch, and she gives him a somewhat relieved smile. “I didn’t think sirens could do that. Miss something. Miss a person.”

            “They’re not supposed to,” Crowley says, working his lips into a smile for her. “But I don’t think either of us have done much of what we’re supposed to do lately.”

            Anathema laughs, genuinely pleased. “I suppose not,” she agrees. She shovels the last of the food on her plate into her mouth and then stares at him with bright, considering eyes as she chews. When she speaks, it is around the last of the mouthful. “You did look pretty scary, flying down off the ship. I don’t think I ever truly appreciated how gently you’ve treated all of us.” She swallows and looks him up and down. “I know sirens kill whole crews, and you’ve said you eat people, but I don’t think I really understood the truth of that until I saw you land and come at Red like that. Even when you dealt with Lucifer, I wasn’t any more scared of you than someone with a weapon.”

            He tips his head a little at the comparison. “Are you scared of me now?”

            She thinks for a moment, and then shakes her head. “You won’t hurt me,” she says quietly. “Nor anyone else you’ve chosen to protect. I think… my own ignorance scared me. I’d been thinking of you like… I don’t know. Like a man with a sword, or at worst, when you first arrived, maybe a dangerous animal. But you’re not those things.”

            “No,” Crowley agrees, “I’m not. There’s a reason humans have different words for beasts and monsters.”

            “You’re not a monster,” she tells him, and continues before he can protest. “Maybe you were, but not anymore.”

            “I’m not a beast,” he says. “I’m not a human. What else is there, if not a monster?”

            “I don’t know,” Anathema says. Then she leans on one hand and twists to get to her feet, taking her plate with her. “Maybe you’re something new.”

            He rocks forward, rising up to all fours and then standing up to follow her. “Like what?”

            She shrugs, and glances back over her shoulder at him. “You’ll have to figure that out, I guess. The good news is, I think you’ll have plenty of help.”

            He follows the line of her nod, to where the old crew is gathered around the bonfires with the new crew. They aren’t singing tonight, but they are not silent, either, now that Crowley is listening for them over the sound of the sea. One of the new ones – though Crowley is not sure if it is Pigbog or Scuzz – is telling a very loud story to the others, one which includes broad gestures and causes raucous laughter every few sentences.

            It is nice, to see them fitting into the empty spaces that had stressed the crew for so long. The new humans had all settled in with his crew quickly, and Crowley is given to understand that pirates are just like that; loyal where the money lies, or the comfort, or the fun. They fit themselves into whatever shapes are needed, to get what they want, and they have many, many wants. He supposes that is why they are so easy to enrapture with song. Folks like this have deep wells of desire, and a longing to find something more for themselves than what the world has given them.

            His eyes at last land upon Aziraphale, standing at the edge of the fire light, a beatific smile upon his face as he listens to the story being woven. And for better or for worse, Crowley thinks, he believes he has started to understand the way a pirate feels about wanting something so much more than what he’d started with in life.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Several people have already explained to Crowley why the repairs to the ship are necessary. They have explained wood rot and salt damage and the danger of tripping over scuffles in the floor and splinters in hands put upon unkempt rails. Crowley understands why the barnacles have to go from the hull, and why the tar has to follow. He understands why they have sanded the deck, and oiled hinges of things and even pried up some wood that was damaged to replace it with new stock.

            This does not, however, make it easier to watch the first marks he had left upon the Archangel’s rails be sanded clean away, leaving no reminder of his arrival. He sits upon the rail a few yards away, watching the marks fade beneath a coarse filing device, and tries not to think too much about how he feels more hurt than anger over it. Those are his marks. He had made them. They are – or were, he supposes as he watches the last of them disappear – evidence of the day he had met Aziraphale.

            The sanding stops, and Crowley’s gaze shifts up to look at Arthur, but the man is looking down and out, toward the road. Crowley follows his line of sight, and spies the dust kicking up in the distance as a caravan approaches.

            “The sails?” Crowley asks.

            “Could be,” Arthur says. “Probably is.”

            Crowley tracks over the carts. One is different than the others, glinting in the sun as if made of metal instead of wood. There is a rider alongside of it, back too straight and clothing too brightly colored, too stylish to be a pirate. He tips his head and watches her travel on her white horse alongside the metal cart. She doesn’t look from side to side. She does not seem to be afraid of attack, which means she is either very brave or very stupid.

            Arthur either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, returning to his work, so Crowley stays perched where he is and just observes the caravan as it reaches the camp. The crew, who had been resting in the shade, swarm the carts and begin to unload them, and Crowley sees that it is mostly white sails, bound in dark ropes. He spies Aziraphale, dressed in his sand-colored clothing, approach the blue rider on the white horse.

            “What do you suppose that’s about?” Crowley asks, without looking away. “The lady in blue.”

            Arthur glances up, but doesn’t give it more than a second of consideration. “Looks like a noble,” he says, a bit flippantly. “Odd she’s out by herself, but not unheard of. Can’t ship everything through legal means, after all.”

            Crowley gives him a doubtful look. “Out here?” he says. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to hire someone at the port?”

            With a sigh, Arthur sets down the sanding device and gives the situation the proper amount of attention. Together they look at the rider, who has still not dismounted from her steed. She waves an arm, and Aziraphale waves back, and Crowley can just barely hear the faint echo of raised voices. Arthur frowns.

            “Not a merchant,” he says, leaning over the rail as if the two feet change in distance will make a difference in his ability to hear them. “She look like navy stock. You know, fighters.”

            Crowley’s lips peel back from his sharpening teeth just as the horse suddenly stamps too close, forcing Aziraphale to take a step back. Sunlight glints off his blade as he pulls it, and Crowley spreads his wings despite the protest Arthur gives to stay. He launches himself from the edge of the ship, wings angled for a shallow stoop.

            He knows that Aziraphale will not appreciate Crowley attacking the woman without knowing the situation. He also knows that if they need her alive for some reason, knocking her off the horse at full speed will not help keep her that way. Rather than risk the lecture, Crowley looses an ear-piercing shriek and dives for the ground, bounding off his excess momentum straight toward the suddenly-terrified horse. It screams back at him, tossing itself up on its hind legs to kick out, desperately trying to ignore the woman’s attempts to keep its head under control.

            Crowley hisses, and coils himself in a curve around Aziraphale, his wings mantled up over them as he takes up a position to defend him. Aziraphale, for his part, remains standing steady where he’d been, his sword out and a look much harder than steel in his eyes.

            The woman stares as she fights for control of the horse, dragging its head first one way and then the other. She allows it the room to dance as it stomps and huffs and spins them in its attempts to bolt from the huge predator with which it is now faced.

            “Thank you,” Aziraphale says, low enough that Crowley knows it is not meant to be heard by the woman or acknowledged by him. He leans a little closer anyway.

            “I see,” the woman says, spinning the tiring horse once more. “So Gabriel was wrong. He’d said you wouldn’t go along with it, but I see you’ve done it. Tamed one for yourself. Was he right? About how?”

            “Crowley,” Aziraphale says, in the same tone as the day Crowley had joined the ship, and Crowley understands now that he is not the one being addressed. “This is Michael, the person Gabriel was writing to about creatures like you. She’s Gabriel’s… business partner.” The way he says it, Crowley assumes that must be something terrible.

            “And wife,” Michael adds as the horse finally gives up and comes to a stand still only partly facing them. The face Aziraphale makes at the word tells Crowley that’s worse than a business partner. “Can it understand you?”

            “Yesss,” Crowley hisses. “It can.”

            She gives him a look, one that prickles at all of his feathers and makes him wish he could have met her before Aziraphale, when he wouldn’t have had any reason to hesitate in estranging her head from her body. “Is this the one that killed him, then? Gabriel.”

            “I did that,” Aziraphale tells her, lifting his chin when she bristles furiously. “I killed him when he tried to take the vessel you sent me out on.”

            “To find him!” Michael snaps, fingers gripping the tethers in her hands so tightly her knuckles turn white. “You foolish brat! Your captain was under express orders to locate the Archangel, not engage in combat with it. Certainly not to sink your own ship and take his!”

            “If you’re expecting an apology, you’ll notice I’m no longer under your command, and I’m afraid pirates are not in the business of apologizing,” Aziraphale tells her, voice even and low. “I wish it had not come to where it did, but Gabriel got exactly what he deserved. Knowing what I know now, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

            She scowls, lips pressed tightly together. “So that’s it, then?” she asks, adjusting as the horse shifts beneath her. “You’ve taken his ship, and tamed a siren, and now you… what, believe you’re a pirate? I know you, Aziraphale. How long to do you think you’ll last out there, even with that monster at your heel? See reason.”

            “Reason?” Aziraphale echoes, appalled. “What sort of reason is that? What did my brother tell you he would do, that I wouldn’t go along with? I’ve known him my whole life, and I can assure you, whatever he told you was a lie. He wished only for the enslavement or destruction of creatures like this.”

            “Of course he did!” Michael practically shouts, startling her horse into tossing its head and causing Crowley to bristle up, ready to spring. “Look at that thing, Aziraphale! It’s a monster! It deserves to be put down, not treated like some kind of overgrown puppy!”

            Crowley hisses and lunges forward, slamming his hands into the sand just to send her horse into hysterics again. She shouts wordlessly, yanking roughly on the tethers as the horse flails out at him. They spin in tight circles, the horse making a horrible mix of grunts and snorts and a high noise of distress. Satisfaction sits warm in Crowley’s belly as he watches her struggle to maintain control over even a mundane beast. There is no way she could hope to kill a supernatural one.

            When the horse finally falls tentatively still, Michael adjusts herself atop it and gives both Crowley and Aziraphale a scathing glance. “Fine,” she spits venomously. “Keep your beast, and whatever you have learned about taming it. I know it can be done now, and I’m sure there are any number of others who would love to hear of it. If you can’t be made to see reason and join me, I’ll find another to pick up where Gabriel left off.”

            “You won’t,” Aziraphale says, in such a convincing voice that Crowley thinks he must know something Crowley does not. “Crowley, I do believe Michael here intends to see you and all of your people killed.”

            Crowley lets out a long, low hiss, and the horse stomps its hooves into the sand nervously. “Can’t have that.”

            Michael looks between them, and Crowley is treated to the realization which dawns in her eyes regarding what is about to happen. “You wouldn’t,” she tells Aziraphale, string-thin tone giving away that she knows Aziraphale absolutely would. He had killed his own brother, after all. “There are others that know. I’ve- I’ve told others. Killing me won’t protect you.”

            “Let’s find out,” Aziraphale says, even as she steps her horse backward, putting distance between them. She is going to bolt. Crowley can see it written in every taut line of her spine, in the way she holds the tethers, ready to steer the horse in a circle on purpose this time. Aziraphale takes a step to the side, away from Crowley, giving him space to move. “Spare the horse, dear.”

            Crowley’s lips pull back from sharp teeth in a grin as Michael wheels her horse about hard and takes off at a dead bolt away from them. He gives her a few seconds head start, more to ensure that Aziraphale has time to change his mind, but Aziraphale gives no counter request to him, just watches her make a run for it. It won’t matter how far she gets. Crowley is faster.

            It has been a long time since he has hunted like this, but he has hardly forgotten the thrill of a chase. He bounds forward with a certain amount of feral glee, and launches himself up into the air in pursuit.

 


 

            Crowley lounges half-buried in the warm sands near to his kill, watching the humans down the beach scurry to and fro. Their ship is beached on the sand like a dying whale. They have stripped all of her sails off, used them to build themselves small homes on land all around her. He can hear her; the creak of her wood as the wind blows, the echo of her adventures upon the sea, her desire to return to it. She has been away from it too long.

            He feels for her; he has been away too long as well. He had nearly forgotten about being a siren. He’d forgotten the impact at the end of a stoop, and the warm feel of claws and teeth in flesh. He’d forgotten what a truly full belly felt like, until he’d let go enough to feast. He cannot fathom how he had forgotten, how he had come to this place where the sea meets the land, or why he is on the wrong side of it.

            He twitches his head and flies rise in a flurry away from where they had been cleaning blood from his feathers and scales. There are some aspects of land life that appeal to him, like the blissful heat of sun-warmed sand. Others, like the insects, are nearly unbearable. They are noisy and disrespectful and tickle at his skin as a constant irritation, and none of them have even got the decency to be big enough to eat.

            Gently, he wiggles his snout into the sand, rubbing it back and forth to scrub off more of the tacky, drying blood, but only succeeds in getting sand stuck to himself. He snorts, shaking his head to no avail, and then lazily begins to scoot himself toward the water, propelling himself through the sand with pushes from his feet. The sea stretches up to greet him and then recedes, and he wiggles himself onto the cool, water-soaked sand and falls still.

            For a while, he just closes his nictitating lids and lets the water lap up to splash over him, gently cleaning his scales and dampening his feathers beyond the point of flight. He spreads them out over the sand to let them gather sun and water alike, and he stays like that for hours.

            Eventually, however, the sounds of the humans down the beach reach him on the wind, and he cannot ignore the small predator sitting primly nearby watching him. She clearly has something to say, so he flops over onto one side and hauls himself at least partway out of the water to face her. He can see the dying sun reflecting in her eyes, flashing the pupils green.

            “What’dyou want,” he slurs, without lifting his jaw from the sand. It has been a long time since he’d eaten enough to torpor like this, and he had been enjoying it. He doesn't want it interrupted or, worse, stopped.

            She sniffs, a bit primly, and says: “Your mate worry.”

            He blinks, inner lids sliding down to get a better look at her. He knows her, knows this little mammal. Bentley. Seeing her clears some fuzzy part of himself. She belongs to the ship that has been calling to him. She belongs to the sharp pain in his ribs, the ache that reminds him that he is missing something.

            Someone. One of the humans.

            Aziraphale, he thinks, and remembers exactly why he has come to this place. He had not forgotten about being a siren, had not lost himself- he had come to want to be something else.

            “Stand,” she orders him, impatient.

            Strangely enough, he does as he is told, pushing himself up so that sand and water cascade off of him. He folds his wings to his back, and it feels awful. He’s a mess. A filthy, wallowing mess. His snout crinkles.

            Bentley doesn’t seem impressed either. “Clean,” she tells him firmly.

            He’s already two steps into the surf by the time she finishes squeaking the word at him. His talons soften so that he may scrub as his shortening face, and he stirs the water with his wings before shifting them into ether where the grime cannot follow. He wishes the rest of him could do the same, but he has not learned that particular trick yet. So he makes himself as smooth as possible and scrubs at his soft skin with sand until he is as clean as he can be, and then he stands and moves back to where Bentley awaits him.

            “Better,” she says, rising as well, ready to to take him where he needs to be. “Come.”

            He hesitates, glancing back over his shoulder to where much of the carcass still lies, and something in his gut squirms. True that Aziraphale had all but ordered Crowley to take Michael’s life, but Crowley had not hesitated to do so. She had threatened Aziraphale. She had threatened Crowley, made it clear that she had been the one communicating with Gabriel in order to enslave sirens, maybe others. Destroy them, even. She had gotten, by his estimation, exactly what she had deserved.

            But it had been Crowley’s claws to take her life and while he feels no remorse about that, he finds himself worried about returning to the crew. He had taken a human life, in front of them. Anathema’s words about knowing he can kill and understanding what that means echo in his ears. He’d gone nearly feral on the instincts involved. Had any of the humans come to fetch him, he might have attacked them, and the thought of it makes him feel ill.

            Soft fur brushes over his ankle, pressed closer by a warm body. Bentley does not look up at him as she weaves around his feet comfortingly. “Come,” she insists.

            “They’ll be scared of me,” he clicks and whistles, distressed. “They’ve never seen me kill.”

            “Kill not important,” she says. “Humans kill.”

            “But they don’t- they don’t… they’re scared of monsters,” he finishes lamely, no idea how to articulate what he feels.

            She makes a small huff, something like the way a human sighs, and comes to stand beside him, staring now at the remains. “Monsters kill,” she says slowly, as if hoping he can keep up even though her language is so limited. “Monsters want be monsters. Humans kill. Humans… return. Some humans, no. Some humans be monsters.” Her ears flick back and she remains quiet for a long moment. “Killing not monster. They know. You learn now. Come home.”

            He stares for a moment longer, but in the end he drops to all fours beside her. She may be right. What he has done, how he has done it… what he had nearly become again, perhaps it doesn’t matter. If he can still return to the ship, perhaps none of it matters. He can choose to be something else, the way Anathema had suggested. Not a human, but not a monster. Something unique. His own creature.

            He follows her back to the camp, to where the humans have all had quite a lot to drink and are standing upon the shore in the surf around the boat. Some of them see him coming, and he realizes that Bentley has vanished only a moment before the first of the humans calls to him. The exclamation ripples through the crew, and Crowley sees the pale colors of Aziraphale’s coat emerge from the line. He looks Crowley over as if he must drink in the sight now or never again.

            “You came back,” he says, when Crowley is near enough.

            “I didn’t go far,” Crowley tells him, but he’s not sure he’s ready for this discussion just now. “What’s all this about?” He’s never seen Aziraphale drink with the others.

            “It’s her name!” Aziraphale says a little too loudly, swaying as he waves his bottle. They’ve all got bottles and the tide’s coming up around their ankles now.

            Aziraphale points up then, to the ship, where the water is swirling around her belly. Crowley follows the line of his arm, and sees that they have gotten the new sails rigged. They are cleaner than the old ones, and instead of the brown-red blood stains of a bird’s wing painted upon them, there are lines and lines of ink, dotted all over in patterns Crowley does not recognize.

            “Her name?” he asks. He’s fairly certain that the markings on the sails are not words. They are not language. They’re certainly not a name.

            “The Archangel was Gabriel’s ship,” Aziraphale tells him somberly, and murmurs of agreement scatter through the other humans. “A pirate ship. A killer’s ship. We’ve asked Poseidon to lay her to rest. We asked-” He stops and squints, a little thoughtfully.

            “The winds?” someone suggests helpfully and Aziraphale waves his bottle again as he shouts agreement.

            “The winds! We’ve asked them to watch over the new one.” He beams, and points again at the ship. “What d’you think?”

            Crowley does not see anything different about the ship. She has a hull and her masts and her sails, her railings and her windows and her rudder. Yet, now that his attention has been called to it, he can feel something has changed. The Archangel had been a vessel, as surely as any other ship upon the sea, but she had been an object. A tool. This one, this ship, he had heard calling to him all day. He can feel her even now, and in some ways knows that she has recognized him as one of her own. She has given some part of herself to him, in order to know him.

            “Is that what her sails say?” Crowley asks, staring up at the lines and dots all over her sails. “Her new name?”

            “In a way,” Aziraphale tells him fondly, with a puff of laughter. “We were going to put another wing on, you know. A black one, like yours. Wouldn’t have changed her though, so we put music on her instead.”

            “Music?” Crowley asks, tearing his gaze away to stare in puzzlement at Aziraphale. “You can write music the way you write words?

            “You could say that, I suppose,” Aziraphale explains with a smile. “Each note has a place on the staves, to tell us how to sing it. The crew has been working on this one since we made port.”

            Crowley looks back up, eyes tracing hungrily over the notations. He wants, rather desperately, to learn how to write this language. “What does it say?” he asks, a little breathlessly.

            Next to him, Aziraphale begins to hum, note by note, and the others join in, all of them a little clumsy with drink. It doesn’t matter. He recognizes the song easily. He would know it anywhere.

            It is his song.

            Crowley can taste his heart at the back of his tongue and knows he would not be able to speak around it, even if he could find the words to do so. He need not have worried, after all. He is welcome here. Wanted. They had trusted he would do exactly as Bentley had said, and return to them.

            Aziraphale trails off, leaving the others to continue, and smiles when Crowley looks back at him. “The Archangel is no more,” he says gently. “After tonight, we shall sail upon the Siren’s Song.”

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley catches the rail of the prize ship to land and keeps his wings up for balance as he leans down, setting Bentley on the deck. She shakes herself and immediately begins to trot toward one of the doors, her crooked tail standing straight up in the air as she goes. Crowley smiles and slinks down after her.

            It had taken him only a month to learn her language, and between her speaking dolphin and cat, and understanding most human, they’d gotten on swimmingly. She had finally, hesitantly, requested to come on a raid with him a while back, to see what all the fuss was about, and perhaps to catch a few rodents along the way; after all, the Siren’s Song had none left within a week of setting sail on her maiden voyage. She had shared her kills with Crowley daily, until there was nothing left and she could spend her days stretched out at Madam Tracy’s hearth and her nights curled up on Aziraphale’s pillow, purring as though her life depends upon it.

            Now, she meows at the door she has reached, and Crowley reaches over her to open it, letting it swing wide. She takes two steps and then stops upon the threshold and he nearly trips trying to keep from running into her. He looks around for what could possibly have stopped her, but when he looks back in question, she has moved into the room and is scouring the edges, her ears up. Completely oblivious to how close she’d come to being kicked.

            “Why do you do that?” he asks as he follows her into the room, scanning the surfaces he can see for any sign of what they’d come for.

            “Do what?” she asks, crouching to stick a paw down into a hole in the wood. It doesn’t appear to go very far, definitely not a rat hole.

            “You stop in every doorway,” he says, kneeling down in front of a locked chest.

            She looks over when he pulls apart the lock with his hands. “It’s a doorway,” she tells him. “You ought to know what’s on the other side of a doorway before you go through it.”

            “You do it in every doorway,” he says, putting his palms to the lip of the chest and heaving the heavy lid upward. “Even ones you’ve been through before.”

            She disappears behind the desk, where he cannot see her anymore, and he hears rustling. “I’ve never gone through the same doorway twice,” comes her muffled voice.

            “You’ve been through my doorway a hundred times,” he says, shoving aside the top layer of clothing to get at whatever important things might be hidden beneath. “Every night for months.”

            “Are you-” There is a thud, followed by an angry squeaking sound. “Are you suggesting that that door leads to the same room, over and over again?”

            Sounds of a scuffle emanate from the corner. Crowley speaks over them. “It is the same room. It’s got the same bed, the same cabinets, the same couch. S’even got the same people, by the time you get there!”

            There is another loud squeal, punctuated by a hiss from Bentley, and when she speaks, it is around her movements. “It’s not - in the same - place,” she tells him, sounding very reasonable. “Nor the same - time. And you move - things.”

            Crowley pauses in sifting through the contents of the chest. She has a point. He dumps a bunch of the clothing onto the floor to get it out of the way, but there’s mostly just more clothing beneath it. There’s a coin purse at the bottom, which he takes, and a few rolled up pieces of thick parchment that he thinks might be maps, tied to the chest’s lid. He takes those too, before letting it close with a thud. He glances over when Bentley hops atop the desk, scattering papers, and drops a dead rat atop them.

            “Find any?” she asks as she sits and begins to clean one paw.

            “No,” he says, a little irritably. They’ve been through two ships together now, not including this one, and it has begun to feel as though Aziraphale is the only pirate who reads. He switches to the nearby set of drawers, digging the locks out of them in splinters of wood.

            “Why are you even looking?” she asks, rubbing a paw over her face. “Can’t you just buy books, when we make port?”

            “It’s- it’s not the same,” he says, pulling out objects and dropping them to the floor. No books. “Aziraphale can buy books, if he wants.”

            She is quiet for a while, until he has gone through the next drawer and continued to find nothing. “You know,” she says idly as he opens the last drawer, “on most ships, there are rats.”

            “I know,” Crowley tells her, distracted. “You’ve just killed one. That’s your job, isn’t it, to get rid of them?”

            “No,” she says, and he hears her begin to paw at the loose papers piled atop the desk. “It's my job to hunt them. No ship’s Cat has ever rid a ship of rats.”

            “You have.” He straightens to look at her. “Didn’t take you a week. Haven’t seen so much as a whisker since.”

            “That is because I know something that other ship’s Cats do not,” she tells him, a glint in her golden eyes when she glances back at him. “A ship’s Cat, a clever one anyhow, will keep the ship’s rats under her paw. She will cull what she must, to be seen doing her job, and leave the rest if they behave.” She shoves some of the papers off the desk and watches them flutter down to the floor like punctuation.

            “Why not kill them all?” Crowley asks. “Then she wouldn’t have to work.”

            “Because she wouldn’t have to work,” Bentley explains. “She believes a ship with no rats, requires no Cat.”

            “Then why did you kill all the rats?”

            Her tail lashes a little and she glances over at him, whiskers twitching. “Because I know the worth of a Cat is almost never in the job she does, but rather the bonds she makes with humans. I could kill every rat that ever steps paw on the ship, or none at all, and the humans would find a reason to keep me because they like me. They like to pet my fur, and hear me purr. They talk to me about things they would never say to someone they believe understands them. The rats were only an excuse to come aboard.”

            He squints at her. “Bit manipulative, that.”

            “I’m a Cat,” she says, as if that is all the explanation needed. Having never met any other cats, he supposes it might be. “What has me confused, since I arrived, is why you think you’re any different.”

            “Than a cat?” Crowley scoffs. Of course he’s different.

            She ignores his indignation. “You get nervous every time you sing to a ship. You’ve let it get to you, what that human on the beach said. You think your voice is why they want you, or why they let you stay,” she says, taking a seat again, her tail wrapping over her paws. “Or because you bring back books or gold or whatever your rat is. But it seems to me that even if you never sing for them again, they will just find another reason for you to stay. They like you, too.”

            Crowley swallows, jaw tight. He can feel his hands trembling, just a little. She’d gone and said exactly what he had feared since he had seen the notes of his song scrawled upon the sails. What if Michael had been right? What if the humans liked him because a tame siren made for an easy life? What if their praise of him, their tolerance of a monster, lay only in his ability to help them?

            He wants to believe that is not true. He does not think Aziraphale, at least, is like that. He can’t be.

            But Crowley has been too afraid of the answer to find out for sure. He’d done everything that had been asked of him. He’d sung ships to sleep, and helped the raiding party find loot, helped carry and move cargo. He’d gone fishing for them when they tired of hard tack and eggs and dried meats. He had been glad to help them, but… he wondered. Every day, he wondered.

            “Tell me, Siren,” Bentley asks quietly. “Do you think we are here looking for books… or excuses?”

            “Books,” he says, without hesitation, because the other answer is unbearable.

            Her whiskers twitch with amusement. “In that case, I’ve found two of them,” she says, and knocks them off of the edge of the desk, onto the floor.

 


 

            “Did you two have fun?” Aziraphale asks that evening, when the new cargo has been stored and they are far enough away from the prize ship to relax.

            Crowley freezes. He had hidden the books they’d found. He will give them to Aziraphale, of course he will, he just… he had wanted to see if Aziraphale would ask him for anything when he returned. He hadn’t, but Crowley finds himself suddenly worried the moment has only been delayed. He glances to where Bentley lies sprawled on the bed, but she makes no move at all to help him, just staring placidly back.

            “Fun?” Crowley asks.

            “Yes,” Aziraphale says, attention on the buttons he is carefully undoing for bedtime. He pauses, looking thoughtful. “You know, I’m not sure what a cat would consider fun. You like getting into things you’re not meant to, and collecting odds and ends. I haven’t asked why Bentley wants to go.”

            “She killed a rat,” Crowley says, nearly automatically.

            “Oh,” Aziraphale says, not moving as he considers this. “I suppose that makes sense. She got all the ones on this ship lickity-split, didn’t she.”

            Bentley shoots Crowley a pointed look, and Crowley steels himself to ask the question he hadn’t really understood how to ask until today. “Aziraphale, what would happen, if I stopped singing to ships for you?”

            Aziraphale tips his head in thought and Crowley holds his breath. “Well,” Aziraphale says, agonizingly slow, “I suppose we’d have to learn to be proper pirates, wouldn’t we?” He returns to the last few buttons of his overcoat. “Go on swashbuckling adventures and such. Learn how to fire a cannon.”

            “You don’t know how to fire a cannon?” Bentley asks incredulously at the same time as Crowley says: “You wouldn’t be angry with me?”

            “Angry with you?” Aziraphale asks, shooting Bentley a look even though Crowley is certain he hadn’t understood what she’d said. “Why in the world would I be angry with you? It’s not like...” He trails off and turns to face Crowley, a strange, aching expression on his face. “Oh, Crowley. I’m not Gabriel. I’m not Michael, either. You’re not a captive, and you weren’t brought here to be forced to do anything.”

            The words are a relief to hear, but anxiety still gnaws upon Crowley’s ribs from the inside. He looks down, torn between feeling bad for doubting Aziraphale and feeling worse that he’s still worried anyhow. Of course Aziraphale would say those things if they are true, but there’s no way to prove he wouldn’t say those things if they are false. Short of Crowley never singing again, there’s no way to find out if Aziraphale truly means it. Crowley wishes he could kill Michael over again, make it last, for what she has done to him with only a handful of words.

            Aziraphale lets out a heavy breath and shrugs out of his coat before draping it gently over the back of the nearest chair. Then he turns to Crowley, giving him his full attention. Crowley has the sudden, intense sensation of being caged, despite the open door behind him.

            “Do you remember the day we met?” Aziraphale asks gently, voice warm. Crowley nods. “Do you remember what I first said?”

            Crowley swallows nervously and clears his throat. “You uh… you thought I was a stranded human. You asked if I needed help.”

            “Precisely,” Aziraphale says happily. “I would have taken you in, siren or not. And do you remember what happened after you came aboard?”

            It is unlikely Crowley will ever forget. “You weren’t frightened of me,” he says quietly. “You asked if I was hungry. You wanted to talk to me.”

            “I wanted to know you,” Aziraphale tells him. His voice just barely cracks and he straightens, lifting his chin up a little. “I have never regretted that for a second, Crowley. I… I do want you to stay, and it’s never had anything to do with your singing. It’s never had anything to do with wanting-… work from you.”

            “I told you so,” Bentley meows from the bed.

            “Shut up,” Crowley meows back.

            “I hope that means she is in agreement?” Aziraphale says.

            Crowley laughs, the sound a bit wetter than he’d meant for it to be, and tries in vain to swallow down the lump in his throat. He wishes, very much, that sirens could cry the way humans do. It seems very cathartic. “She is a menace, is what she is.”

            Aziraphale chuckles and opens his arms. “Do come here,” he says, and Crowley slinks into the hug, burying his face in the warm crook of Aziraphale’s neck. He likes hugs. Aziraphale closes him in, big hands rubbing comfortingly over his flanks and shoulders as he rests his cheek against the side of Crowley’s head. “I’ll tell the crew we’ll be making some changes.”

            “No,” Crowley says quickly, pulling back. “No. I’ll sing. I like to sing for you. And I- I found some books. I’m sorry. I hid them because I- Bentley said I didn’t need to do anything to be welcome here, and I didn’t- I should have believed her.”

            Aziraphale smiles and his hands slip away from Crowley’s waist to find his wrists, and then his hands. He makes sure Crowley is looking at him before he speaks. “It never hurts to be reminded of our worth. I’m sorry I ever left it unclear. You are wanted here, singing or not. I want you to be here. Do you understand?”

            Crowley nods. “Thank you.”

            “Excellent,” Aziraphale says, giving his hands a squeeze before releasing his hold. “Now, you said something about books? Do you suppose they are ones we can read together?”

            “Dunno,” Crowley admits. They could be ships logs for all he knows, although he doesn’t think so. “Can’t read.”

            “Hm...” Aziraphale purses his lips, studying him for a moment, before he gives a little grin that Crowley knows means he’s in the good kind of trouble. “Would you like to learn?”

 


 

            Crowley looks at the lines of the book Aziraphale had given him and weaves his head just enough to keep them visible. He has found, over the past few months of learning, that he has a difficult time seeing letters because they do not move the way living things do. He has an easier time looking at pictures of things, but his vision is mainly based on movement, and the letters do not move on the paper. It had taken them a few extremely frustrating days to discover this, and a few more to come up with a solution that does not involve Aziraphale wiggling the book around as if trying to entice a cat to pounce a toy.

            Even if it works, it’s undignified.

            “In this pla- palace he erected very high walls,” Crowley reads slowly, “supported by stone pillars; and by planting what was called a pensile...” He looks up, in question, not knowing the word.

            “It means… hanging,” Aziraphale tells him from where he sits on the other side of the desk, fiddling with his new sundial cannon. “Though I don’t believe the gardens ever actually did hang, I think that’s always been a mistranslation. How would you hang an entire garden? Why would you hang- it doesn’t matter, keep going.”

            Crowley gives him a dubious look, but turns back to the book. “A pensile paradise, and replenishing it with all sorts of trees, he rendered the prospect an exact resemblance of a mountainous country.” He stops again, brow wrinkling. “Mountainous?”

            “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen a mountain,” Aziraphale muses, leaning forward to place the contraption upon the table. “It’s where the land is sort of… piled up high.”

            “Doesn’t sound impressive,” Crowley says. “Just a pile of dirt?”

            Aziraphale laughs, and Crowley feels the warmth of it bloom under his breastbone. “It’s mostly rocks,” Aziraphale amends. “And it’s piled quite high. Kilometers up, I imagine. Oh, you’ve- well, I remember you told me there are trenches in the ocean, places where it’s much deeper than the rest? Mountains are just… the opposite. Places on land where it’s much higher than the rest.”

            Crowley considers this, and then closes the book and hands it over to Aziraphale, very done with learning about human land nonsense for the day. With a smile, Aziraphale takes it and clambers to his feet, then begins to clear the desk. They have had a quiet day of it, moored off the coast of an island Crowley is sure no one else knows about. There is fresh water inland, and fruit, and most of the crew have chosen to go to ground for a bigger fire. If he focuses, he can hear them singing raucously to one another in the distance. He admires their unparalleled disregard for self-preservation in unknown territory.

            “Were they real?” Crowley asks as Aziraphale shelves the book. Aziraphale had explained that it is only a copy of an old book, but one from Aziraphale’s own collection. He had sent for it while they were docked in Jasmine Bay, and the collection had only arrived at the port a short while ago, along with the coin garnered from selling his home. He’d had precious little brought to him, and paid someone else to sell the rest of it. “The hanging gardens?”

            Aziraphale hums indecisively. “Many believe so,” he says after he locks the book cabinet closed. “Though we haven’t any evidence of it.” He gives a small laugh. “I suppose it’s a bit like Atlantis. No one can prove anything about it, but everyone agrees it existed.”

            Crowley keeps his mouth shut. Some secrets are his to share. Others are not. “Your books… speak of a lot of places on land,” he offers instead. “Have you seen many of them? Are they all real and not real?”

            “Oh, some of them are very real,” Aziraphale tells him. “Most of them, actually, although... I’m afraid I haven’t been to them myself. The land is a very large place, and some of those things are very, very far away from each other, or difficult to get to, at least for those of us without wings.”

            The soft, sad note in Aziraphale’s voice tells Crowley that he wants to go to those places, wants to travel to all the locations he’s only read about in books. “We could go to some of them,” Crowley suggests, letting hope seep into his tone. He would be content to sail the seas with Aziraphale forever, but he knows what the sea does to all men, eventually. They are creatures of the land. “I could travel on land, I think, if I were with you.”

            Aziraphale smiles. “Perhaps someday,” he says. Crowley doesn’t think he means it, or maybe just doesn’t believe it’s actually possible. “Maybe when I am too old to be a pirate anymore. I imagine we’ll have quite a lot of treasure saved by then, and can do as we please.”

            A familiar ache flares in Crowley’s chest at the thought of Aziraphale following the path which all mortal creatures must walk. He knows there is an end, somewhere, but he does not wish to think of it so soon. “Will you read to me?” he asks instead.

            “Of course,” Aziraphale says kindly, and Crowley realizes he has already got a book in his hands.

            Eagerly, Crowley clambers onto the couch and perches on one of the cushions – he still hasn’t gotten the hang of sitting on it like a human, with his feet on the floor, but Aziraphale doesn’t seem to mind – and watches Aziraphale take a seat at one end. With a languid stretch, Crowley eases himself down, arranging his wings so that one sits behind him and one drapes down over the edge of the couch, primaries trailing on the floor. Aziraphale lifts the hand closest to him, and Crowley carefully sets his head down onto Aziraphale’s leg, one hand coming up to rest there as well.

            With the book held up in the air, Aziraphale finds the spot he had marked with one of Crowley’s feathers the day before, and then sets the book’s spine against his knee to read. His other hand settles upon Crowley’s soft locks of hair, the way he does most nights now. 

            Before he can begin, Crowley shifts and turns himself enough to look up at Aziraphale, who waits patiently for him to speak. “How many books are there?” he asks quietly. “In the world?”

            Aziraphale makes a little face, lips turning down as his eyes look up. “Thousands, I expect. Maybe tens of thousands. Certainly more than we’ve collected here. I don’t think they’d all fit on this ship. Might not fit on a dozen ships.”

            “Do you think you’ll ever read them all?” Crowley asks. He thinks he knows the answer, but every time he fetches a new book or two from a prize, he wonders how many are left. Aziraphale has a small pile now of duplicates he plans to trade for books he’s never read.

            “I don’t think I’d want to,” Aziraphale says. He plays with a lock of Crowley’s hair, watching it run through his fingers. Aziraphale has helped Crowley keep better care of it, and most days it sits coiled down his back in a long braid. He’d taken it down tonight for washing, and it is still a bit cool from the damp. “Not all books are very good, you know.”

            “Like the ones you threw overboard and asked Poseidon to burn?” Crowley asks, eyes brightening. “And at no point until afterward did you realize-”

            Aziraphale nudges his shoulder to stop him and frowns down at him. “If you’re going to be like that, I don’t have to read to you.”

            “’m sorry,” Crowley says quickly, though he is sure his grin says otherwise. “Was funny though.” Aziraphale rolls his eyes and Crowley scoots himself back around, settling the way he’d been before, with his head on Aziraphale’s thigh. “Do you think you’ll collect all the ones you like, at least?”

            “I don’t know,” Aziraphale tells him honestly. “I’m not sure how I’d tell that without reading all of them, and I haven’t got the time for that. Even if I did, I haven’t got the space to collect them all here.” He pauses, but it is the sort of pause Crowley knows precedes more, so he waits. “Maybe… maybe someday I can take them all to shore again, and build a library, and gather all the books I can possibly find. Even the bad ones.”

            “Wouldn’t that mean living on land with them?” Crowley asks. “Would you want that?”

            Aziraphale gives him a fond chuckle. “I suppose not.” He pets over Crowley’s hair and Crowley’s eyes slide slowly closed under the attention. He has learned there are other sorts of petting he enjoys just as much as having his wings stroked. “Not in this life, anyway.”

            “Maybe another one, then,” Crowley says, a little drowsily as Aziraphale’s hand glides over his hair again.

            “Another one?” Aziraphale echoes curiously.

            “Another life,” Crowley mumbles. “A different story, like in a book. A story where you live on land, and travel anywhere you like, and you’d have a book house and I- I could go with you. If you like.”

            Aziraphale smiles. “I would like that very much,” he agrees, so softly. And then he settles back, and begins to read aloud.



Chapter Text

 

            Time, as it is wont to do, passes.

            Every night, or nearly every night, Crowley sings to his crew from atop the lowest yard of the mizzenmast. They add metal plating to it during one of the refits, with metal handholds for him to grab so that he does not damage the yard. The masts grow spines as well, that he might climb them without the use of his claws or wings. He finds it comfortable now, to perch up high and hang himself forward just a little, and sing to his heart’s content.

            On good nights, when the crew’s spirits are high and their mugs higher, they sing back to him. Warlock has a voice pretty enough to be a siren himself, and the others help him to write songs about their adventures. Crowley learns to sing the songs alongside the children, who stop being children rather swiftly and start being proper parts of the crew. They teach him two songs about himself. One is chipper and vulgar and involves quite a lot more blood than is typical of Crowley’s real actions over his years with them. The other carries a haunting tune and words that remind Crowley a little too keenly that he is different from the other sirens, and that he will be different long after he has lost cause to be so.

            For the first few years, they mostly stick to home waters, where they can take vessels along routes with which they are familiar. They never have to pursue a vessel far; though she may run, when Crowley mounts the bow of the ship and begins to sing to her, she slows and comes to them in peace. Crowley waits, patiently, for the others to get safely across before he extends an arm and allows Bentley up to his shoulder to ride. They scour the nooks and crannies of prize vessels, and Crowley becomes good at finding small, hidden treasures.

            Oddly, after a few years on the water, he begins to find something he does not understand. In the captain’s quarters, almost always, there lies a book. Sometimes it is more than one, and it is often accompanied by a note addressed to the siren ship's captain. Both of these, Crowley brings to Aziraphale, who breaks the red wax seal on the letters and smiles as he reads.

            Word of their ship has traveled, Aziraphale explains to him. The notes are a thank you, a payment. They had noticed that while their supplies are always diminished, and their cargo usually untouched, there are never books left behind, and they had correctly guessed as to a method of communication. As it turns out, there are a great many things which merchants find it more worthy to claim were stolen by pirates than they were to carry safely to their original destination. Later, these things might be collected at a different port, where the merchants can sell the items themselves once the Siren Song’s crew has delivered them.

            “What’s to stop us just taking their loot?” Crowley asks after the first two notes end in them ferrying goods to a far-off port. He does not think this is a matter like the boys Aziraphale had paid to run errands at Jasmine Bay so long ago. They do not need a reputation to get what they need. “We could just take the loot and the money they gave us.”

            Aziraphale laughs, so fondly. “That’s not how commerce works,” he says, putting the letter away in his desk. “They gave us the coin to do a job, and we accepted the coin, which means we do the job. It's a matter of integrity, you see. And they did stock extra food and liquor for us – the good sort, mind you – and their course could hardly be considered sneaking past us. They wanted to be caught, for just this reason.”

            Crowley thinks it is a bit silly, but it does allow them to safely cruise into harbors that might otherwise have tried to send them running. This is, in a lot of ways, an adventure, and one that is relatively safe. At some point it becomes a game; they get many offers from many captains, and accept only the ones made with books Aziraphale does not yet own. It does not take long for their prizes to understand, and then Aziraphale's locked cabinets fill with books of the rarest sort.

            Over time, as they visit new ports and harbors and even go inland for small stretches, Crowley’s disguise efforts improve, until he can wear a tailored suit and walk upright in a very good impression of a human. He copies Anathema’s accent to keep from hissing, and once holds an entire conversation with a stranger about the merits of different chicken breeds. Crowley doesn’t like the taste of brown eggs, and somehow manages not to explain it is because he eats them with the shell still on.

            There are other human things he learns as the years go on, like what it means when Anathema and Newt get married by Aziraphale a few years into their journey. They moor the ship off the coast of their favorite island, and every single person leaves the ship to come to the ceremony in the sand. The two hold one another’s hands and promise to do all of the things they had already been doing, but for longer. Aziraphale gives them permission to kiss, and they do. Crowley has seen them do so before, and doesn’t understand it any better now than he had the first time.

            He asks Aziraphale about it that night, after their book has been put away and their lamp has been snuffed and Crowley lies draped sideways along the foot of the bed where he can be between Aziraphale and anything which might enter.

            “It feels nice, I suppose,” Aziraphale tells him after a moment of thought, his folded hands resting atop his chest. Crowley can see him staring up at the ceiling and knows it’s too dark for Aziraphale to see. “My apologies, though. I haven’t the faintest what to compare it to for you.”

            Crowley stays where he is, thinking of things which feel nice, until Aziraphale unfolds his hands and props himself up on his elbows to look down the bed at him. There is no way he can see him, except perhaps for the starlight reflecting in Crowley’s pupils. Crowley stares back, waiting for whatever conclusion Aziraphale has reached.

            “Would… well, would you like me to just show you?”

            “No,” Crowley says, and then: “Maybe. Will we have to get married?”

            Aziraphale laughs and shakes his head, and then wiggles upright enough to coax Crowley to him. Crowley levers hesitantly up to meet him, and leans his cheek into Aziraphale’s soft palm. Anathema and Newt had closed their eyes, but Crowley is trying to learn, so he watches when Aziraphale leans in and presses their lips gently together. It is dry and soft and… nice. Aziraphale had been accurate in that respect, and accurate in that there is nothing else quite like it, except perhaps that his heart speeds up the same way it has only ever done for Aziraphale.

            Soft breath tickles at his face as Aziraphale gives a little huff of amusement and withdraws. “Well?” he asks.

            “S’nice,” Crowley agrees. He doesn’t say the rest, just folds himself back down and coils himself back around Aziraphale’s feet. There are better things between them, or at least things he likes more, but it is good to know.

            Only a few months later, Newt announces to the crew that he carries within him a child. Crowley had been surprised to hear the extra heartbeat. He had known selkies were cross-fertile with humans, but the pair had gone so long without producing offspring he had assumed Newt could not carry a child any more than Anathema, despite how he smells of estrous in the summer. Aziraphale’s cheeks flush when Crowley asks him about it, and he tells Crowley not to pry in that sort of business unless invited. He also, very firmly, orders Crowley not to say a word about the heartbeat, and so Crowley has to wait alongside everyone else for the official announcement. Most importantly, he acts as surprised as he can when it finally comes, which is not, Newt tells him later that night, a very convincing performance.

            “I figured you knew,” Newt admits, sitting on the rail of the ship with his feet kicked over the edge. “That you’d smell it or taste it or hear it or something.”

            “I can,” Crowley confesses. “Her heartbeat is very strong.”

            “Then thank you,” Newt says quietly. “For not telling anyone.”

            “I didn’t want Anathema to kill me,” Crowley says, but he is secretly, just a little bit, proud of having kept Newt’s secret from everyone save Aziraphale. It had been worth it, to see how excited everyone on the crew had gotten. Humans, as near as Crowley can tell, love babies, and they all begin to excitedly make preparations to keep her safe and happy aboard the ship.

            Sirens, as it turns out, do not handle incoming babies nearly as well.

            He is fine until the last few weeks of the pregnancy, and then he finds himself pacing around outside of Newt and Anathema’s quarters. He spends all of his free time guarding Newt and being wholly unable to explain why he must, except that he must. The birth is worse; he sits outside of the door and snarls at anyone so much as looking in the direction of the room. Aziraphale keeps the others away, and delivers food and drinks to the room himself, and even that is nearly too much for Crowley.

            They let him in after a time, and he creeps up to the wicker bassinet with all of his senses peaked. He is unsure if, given Newt’s nature, he ought to expect a seal kit, but it is a tiny, red, wrinkled human face that greets him when he peeks over the edge. She sleeps, but her heart beats strong and the scent of thick seal’s milk very nearly covers the scent of blood. She is beautiful.

            “She’s so small,” he breathes, aching to touch but too terrified to do so, lest he injure her.

            “Didn’t bloody feel like it,” Newt grumbles, and Anathema laughs.

            Crowley supposes that is fair. “When she wakes will you show her the ship? How many days will you need to care for her?”

            “Days?” Anathema asks.

            “Until she is like the other children were,” Crowley clarifies. He is greatly looking forward to playing with her. It has been a long time since the children were young and boisterous and playful, and he finds he misses it. They had been fascinating.

            Newt closes his eyes and lays his head back with a smile as Anathema laughs again. “Years, Crowley,” she tells him. “They were thirteen years old when you got here.”

            He doesn’t like that answer at all. He is very tired of feeling like he might rip someone limb from limb for getting too close to the tiny life Newt and Anathema had created, and he is not looking forward to that lasting for years. He resigns himself to the inevitable, and is pleasantly surprised when the intensely protective urges subside after only a few more weeks. The selkie blood in her veins leaves her growing much faster than human babes do, and she is walking and talking within a couple of months.

            Crowley teaches her dolphin, with Bentley’s help. Aziraphale and a few of the others sit in on the lessons, if only so they can talk to Bentley a little. After a few months, they are able to hold simple conversations, although they all have human accents that sound just terrible. The first dolphins to come ride their bow’s moving ridge don’t seem to care at all- they are thrilled to speak to humans, and spend a week following them around chattering up a storm. Even Crowley learns a few new words before they flicker off toward the horizon.

            Not all of the times are happy. Crowley gets his first taste of mortality when, a decade after she had joined the crew, Bentley passes away. She knows it is coming, and curls in his lap to take her rest, rather than hide where she will not be found. He strokes her fur until long after she is gone, and the crew travels all the way back to where they had met her, just to bury her where it will matter most.

            The next time they return to that beach to careen the ship for repairs, there is a small, black kitten lounging in the sands in the shade of a palm, awaiting them. “I’ll run out of time before you do,” Bentley tells Crowley when she has settled upon his shoulder in her rightful place, “but that’s still seven lives away.”

            And life, as it is wont to do, continues on.

            Baby Agnes grows swiftly and learns to live alongside humans without fear of them at all, nor of the great bristly siren who watches over her. Aziraphale teaches Crowley as many languages as he knows, and then they endeavor to learn others together afterward. Crowley brings him books from the prizes they steal, and dives with Newt to collect treasure from wrecks they hunt down. They build small structures upon their island, out of view of the waters, and store the excess within them. Adam explains that pirates are supposed to bury their treasure, but as no one would dare take anything from this island, even if they knew where it was, it had seemed like so much more trouble to be burying and unburying chests like that.

            There comes a time when Madam Tracy and Mr. Shadwell leave the ship. Aziraphale takes them to the port he deems the safest, and they leave inside of a carriage laden with enough of the spoils to live the rest of their lives in peace. R. P. Tyler takes off with them, leaving the ship with no cook and no quartermaster. Fortunately, Wensleydale is eager to step in for the latter, and Brian finds he is quite skilled at the former, and order is restored quickly.

            When they tire of singing down ships and running errands and hopping between the ports with the best prices or the least anger with them, they pull some of the treasure, and they travel. They set courses for places both warm and cold, and circle around the ocean from top to bottom.

            Aziraphale takes him to someplace in the north he has never been, where the land rises sharply from the water in huge, white cliffs. Crowley hangs half-off the railing, practically vibrating, until Aziraphale asks him why he’s not already flying, and he leaps. He has spent a lot of time at the edges of deep ocean trenches, coasting over them to look down into the abyss. It is an entirely new sensation to be able to have his wings out over a similar landscape, and look down upon the water as it sparkles and crashes against the cliffs. Perhaps the most delightful thing is that when he sings, they sing back in a way the trenches never have. The void may call to so many, but it is the cliffs which answer.

            In the south, they do not stop along the jungle coastlines. There are dragons in the waters there, green and blue and as sinuous as snakes, with great arching fins down their backs and sides and they slide into the sea when the Siren’s Song passes. There are no sirens in this part of the world, and dragons are curious things. Although the dragons do not speak the same language as Crowley, he sings to them, and they follow the ship for leagues before sinking beneath the waves without returning. 

            When they chase down a ship for supplies, they seek not to hurt the people they take from. Crowley’s song ensures they are docile, sleeping targets, and the crew takes only what they need. Crowley is not sure how he feels about it in the first few years, but as time passes, he finds himself thinking it is nice. He has spent so many millennia calling ships to their doom, and although it had always felt right, it had never caused him the sort of happiness he finds as he sits upon the bow or yards of the Siren’s Song, and sings.

            And if, as time passes and life goes on, his song begins to sound a little less like what strangers most want, and a lot more like what he has found, no one notices at all. Perhaps, he thinks as he curls up beside Aziraphale at night, it is because he is not the only one who wants to be there, doing exactly what they are doing.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley sits against the headboard of their bed, his fingers carding gently through Aziraphale’s stark, white curls; some of the softness has left them with age, but not all of it. Aziraphale’s heart still beats beneath Crowley’s splayed palm, but Crowley isn’t sure for how much longer. He has stopped sleeping when Aziraphale does, afraid to miss any moment with him, too aware of how few they may have left.

            He had known, even the first day he set foot upon this vessel, that Aziraphale is mortal, and he had stayed anyway. That is the contract he had made, and he had felt it like a knife to his throat for years now, as Aziraphale’s skin had thinned and wrinkled, his bones weakening and a milky haze beginning in his left eye. Aziraphale’s hair had always been pale, but it is stark now, cloud-like, and his hands tremble when he brushes through it on windy days.

            He has stopped promising Crowley that they will travel to the places in their books. In the silences between the turning of a page, Crowley remembers why his kind are not supposed to love mortal creatures.

            And still, he stays, so that he may have this a little longer.

            “They only have one life, you know,” Bentley says from where she lies curled in the space between their legs. She is on her third life with them, and well over halfway through it. “And his will end soon.”

            “I know,” he chatters back softly.

            “What will you do, when he is gone?” she asks. “Will you stay with the ship?”

            His hand falls still, fingers resting so lightly against Aziraphale’s warmth. “I don’t know that I could bear to, without him.” It is a lie, but a small one. He does know. He could never stay here, not where the ghosts of their shared past would haunt him from every corner.

            “I will miss him,” Bentley tells him gently. She shifts and rolls so that she may look up to him, her belly exposed in what he has learned is not an invitation to touch. “I will miss you, too.”

            “Will you stay?” Crowley asks.

            She stares at him a little longer and then the golden shine of her eyes hoods from view. She cannot smile the way the humans do, but Crowley can feel her happiness in the rumble of her body against his leg. “This is my family,” she says. “I chose all of you, and I will stay to watch over the others when you are gone, until the last breath of my last life. Perhaps you will find us again in your next life.”

            “Sirens only have one life,” he says. It may be eternal, but it is still just one. When they are killed, they do not come back from it.

            She cracks one eye to look at him, whiskers twitching, and he is sharply reminded that she is more like him than she is the humans. “Come now,” she says, almost chiding. “We both know better than that. Dying is not the only way to end a life. Do you lead the same life now, as you did at your reef, or the same life as you did before that?”

            “I suppose you’re right,” he admits.

            He has not wanted to consider life after Aziraphale, but it has been there, lurking. Some part of him wishes he were human, or at least mortal, so that they could have come to this point together, the way Anathema and Newt had. Some part of him wishes he were not a siren, which is a different sort of wish, the sort that wants to be able to let go the way other creatures can. The rest of him is rather desperate to do things he should not, to prevent himself from having to go through such a loss.

            “Will you watch him for a moment?” he asks, barely a breath, as he makes a decision.

            Bentley pours herself up the bed, freeing Crowley, who strokes his hand over Aziraphale’s head one last time. Aziraphale stirs when he shifts away, and Bentley is swift to cuddle closer to Aziraphale’s face in Crowley’s stead. Crowley murmurs a reassurance that he will return soon, and Aziraphale settles without question.

            The night air is cool and crisp and clean when he reaches the deck and, as expected, he finds Anathema on watch tonight. She leans against a rail, very much the same way she had done the night she met her first whales. Crowley smiles, walking slowly to her and leaning his arms on the rail beside her. She glances over, and the motion sends glitters of moonlight silvering through her hair.

            “Can’t sleep?” she jokes as she tips to lean against his arm, resting her head upon his shoulder.

            He doesn’t answer, just leans a little closer to her, too, and watches the moonlight scatter around on the waves. “Anathema,” he says after a time.

            “Hm?” She sounds nearly asleep, and he has half a mind to tell her to go to bed and keep watch himself through the night, but that’s not why he’s come.

            “Do you remember when I first arrived?” he murmurs, and feels her nod against him. “I believe that I made you a promise that day.” She stiffens minutely, and he knows that she remembers. “I’m making good on it now.”

            She swallows thickly and nods again, quickly wiping at her eyes with the back of a knuckle, but she doesn’t pull away from him. “What will happen?” she asks. “Will it hurt?”

            He gives a soft, amused huff and rests his cheek against the top of her head. Brave girl. She thinks this is the end, her end, and she is ready to face it without flinching.

            “It might,” he tells her. “I expect you’ll miss me, at least.”

            Then she does pull away, searching his face for the joke, for the lie, but she will not find it. “I thought...”

            “I only promised to tell you first,” he says. “And I intend to tell Aziraphale in the morning, so…” He shrugs a little, and cannot form more than half a smile for her now. He has never had to say goodbye before. Not like this, and he’s not sure he can bear to go through with it like he should. “Goodnight, Anathema.”

            She nods again, jaw clenched so tight she must be unable to answer. He looks her over once, and then he is gone, heading back toward his quarters to spend the rest of the night with Aziraphale and Bentley.

 


 

            The morning comes as morning does, slowly at first with a warming of the darkness, and then all at once in muted, fiery colors. No one comes for them, and that is the real reason he had gone to talk to Anathema the night before. She will give them this. She will let them have one another, for as long as they can. Crowley wishes he could stay with her longer; he thinks that, of all the rest, she has been his favorite friend.

            Aziraphale stirs later than usual, and blinks blearily at the world until his gaze settles upon Crowley and he smiles. “Sleeping in, are we? What’s the occasion?”

            “I… I have a favor to ask of you,” Crowley says hesitantly.

            “Of course,” Aziraphale agrees swiftly. He has never refused Crowley anything reasonable. That does not make this easier.

            “I’d like you to sail the ship back to my reef,” he says, throat tight. He knows what Aziraphale will think of the request, and he sees it reflected in Aziraphale’s one clear eye.

            “Ah,” Aziraphale says, unable to keep the hurt from his voice. “I see.” Like Anathema, he does not pull away, but instead shifts closer. “I suppose that’s fair. You have stayed longer than I ever dared hope, in the beginning.”

            Aziraphale does not now bare his hope for Crowley to change his mind, to stay until the very end, the way he had promised so long ago, but he doesn’t have to. Crowley can feel the weight of it between them, and he cannot ease it. He cannot admit to Aziraphale why he makes this request- because he cannot watch this end. Decades on, and he is still a fiercely avaricious creature, unwilling to let something so precious be taken right out from under him without trying to keep it, somehow.

            They lie together for a while, but it doesn’t feel like basking anymore, and Aziraphale eventually rises to slowly dress himself. Crowley watches, and when Aziraphale leaves the room, he follows only until he reaches the deck as well. Aziraphale crosses over to the wheel, to where Newt waits, and Crowley can pinpoint the second he gives him the new course, because Newt turns to look directly at Crowley. There is a mixture of incredulity and hurt there, but Crowley just stares back until Newt turns away first.

            Crowley’s gaze shifts just slightly, to land upon Aziraphale, who is watching him as well. Crowley cannot hold his gaze for long, and retreats back into their room.

 


 

            It takes them a couple of weeks to find the reef, as it no longer calls to Crowley the way it used to do, but when he sees it upon the horizon, he knows that it is empty. In the decades he has been gone from it – and despite his broken bond to it – no other has dared to take his place. He thinks perhaps no other ever will, that he might be gone from his reef for centuries, eons, for eternity, and it would stand here, as forlorn and empty as it is now.

            Anathema finds him by their rail and leans against it, not touching him this time. He glances sidelong at her, but she only stares out over the approaching barren rocks. In time, she will forgive him, but not yet.

            “Are you ready to be captain?” he asks her, gaze drifting to join hers upon his former home.

            “No one’s ever ready,” she tells him, her chin up but her eyes glassy. “But I can do it.” He nods, accepting that, and this is what breaks her. “Tell me he’ll be okay! Tell me you will- tell me something, Crowley, please … wherever you’re going...”

            Crowley cannot make that promise, will not make that promise, and they both know it. He shuffles to close the step between them, so that they are shoulder to shoulder, and she shakes her head helplessly. She is angry with him, or some part of her is, and perhaps it might always be. Forgiveness, he has learned, does not always mean letting go of one’s anger. Sometimes it only means agreeing to move on despite it.

            “Do sirens even know how to say goodbye?” she asks, her voice twisted up in her throat. “Should I say goodbye?”

            “Will it change anything?” he asks.

            “No,” she says. Finally she sags into him a little, and the glassiness in her eyes spills over onto her cheeks, and Crowley wishes – not for the first time – that he could join her in this. He can stay beside her, though, and he does so until she runs out of tears and pulls away again.

            From the ether, he pulls his wings into view, and plucks a single feather from them. It is small and black and gleaming, and she stands still long enough for him to tuck the shaft of it into the whorl of hair atop her head. He touches his temple to hers and then steps back to smile at her, and when she smiles back he can tell she means it despite everything else.

            He will miss her.

            “There are hundreds of ships around my reef, beneath the surface, with all the riches they have ever carried still inside,” he tells her. Despite her assumptions, this is the reason they have come. He had once pledged to her a debt, and she had asked it be paid in gold. Far more than gold lays below them now. He hopes to leave them with this gift instead of only sorrow. “Ask Newt to fetch them up. Take as much as the Song can carry, and head for shore. When you reach land again, travel it as you have traveled the sea, or settle down richly where you will, but do not let any aboard the ship now sail her beyond that, do you understand?”

            “No,” she says. Her nose wrinkles and he can taste the argument she wants to spit at him, to suggest that she must stop sailing when he does. “We can sail without you.”

            “You can,” he agrees, “but some ships become living things with hearts and souls and desires that may be sung to. As long as her hearts walk upon her deck, she’ll only ever sail back here… and I do not know who I will be or what will happen if she returns to me without him.”

            Though it looks as if doing so might kill her, she nods. “Fine.” She throws the word down like a dead fish. “I promise.”

            Even though she’s just as apt to break it as keep it, he takes her at her word, and then clambers onto the rail, wings spreading. He glances back at her one more time, but she has already turned away. He drops from the rail, out over the water. The air from the sea is warm this time of year, and he rides it up to the bow of the ship to land beside where Aziraphale waits and watches the reef approach. Aziraphale smiles at him, as fond as ever.

            “Brings back memories, doesn’t it?” he asks.

            It does, though not in the way that Aziraphale probably assumes. He does not think of seeing the ship approach, or of the first time he had landed upon the rail, or stepped foot upon the deck. He does not think even of Aziraphale calling down to him, or of an apple, or of a book. Instead, he is reminded only of one thing; a knife-deep feeling under his ribs, one that he has spent all of their time together ignoring, one that says this all ends.

            “Aziraphale,” he says, over the rush of water and creak of wood and whip of the sails in the lively wind. “What did you hear? The first time I sang to you.”

            Aziraphale’s warm smile widens, and he looks away, toward the reef in the distance. They are close enough now that, had Crowley been upon it singing, he would have caught them. “I had wondered if you would ever ask that,” Aziraphale confesses, which is not an answer.

            Crowley does not press the issue. He has spent so long being afraid of the answer that he had never considered Aziraphale might not tell him. It is nearly a relief. Nearly, he thinks, as Aziraphale takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

            “I heard… you, I think. Asking for… well, asking for me,” he finally says. “You promised to be my companion through my life. To… oh what was it you said… that you were- you were one in whose heart I would find a home. I knew sirens were not supposed to keep the promises their songs made, but when I saw you there… I thought perhaps you had told the truth. You did seem lonely- as lonely as I felt that day, trying to be something I was not. And I thought then that maybe some promises could go both ways. Perhaps I could be your companion, too.”

            Crowley’s throat closes before Aziraphale is finished and as soon as he falls silent, Crowley steps down the same way as he had the first day, only this time he practically collapses against Aziraphale. He wraps arms and wings around him, gently, and feels his own chest constrict when Aziraphale returns the embrace.

            “Will you trust me?” Crowley asks into the space between Aziraphale’s neck and shoulder. He can face him, or he can ask this, but not both.

            “Of course, dear,” Aziraphale says. “I always have.”

            Crowley tries to swallow to loosen his throat, but it doesn’t work. He pries himself away from Aziraphale instead, so that he can look him in the eyes. “Then anchor at my reef for three days,” he tells him. “Do not leave no matter what happens.”

            “What will you do?” Aziraphale asks.

            “You’ll see.”

            Although Aziraphale sighs, he nods acquiescence. Crowley twitches a smile and hops up to the rail and then over it, wings spreading again. The wind catches under them and he angles to make a loop of his reef, but he knows that it will no longer resonate the way it had done when it was truly his, when it carried the notes of his song in its heart the way the Siren’s Song now does. So, he returns to his ship and alights atop the highest yard of the tallest mast.

            From there, he begins to sing.

 




            Crowley sings for two days straight, not even stopping overnight. This song is not the one he sings to ruin ships, but rather the one used to call to creatures in his waters. Beneath him he can feel his ship’s yard vibrating with the strength of it, and knows that she vibrates to her core, all the way to her soul, and out into the waters beneath her. He knows that the wrecks below them will take up the call, and will send it out along the seabed beneath them, too, all the way down. Were he to sing for long enough, there would be no place in the ocean, nor any of her connected waters, that his song would not reach.

            He also knows that he will not need to sing that long. The one he calls to must be within a few days of his reef, and he is proven correct on the morning of the third day as dawn breaks over the calm waters. Plumes of breath shoot up from the surface along the horizon as they approach, teeming in the water, a larger pod than it had been when last they’d met.

            He falls silent at last, and the sleepy crew below comes to their senses, looking up in question. Instead of explain, or even look at them, he spreads his wings and drops from the yard, gliding out over the waters until he is close enough to dive beneath the surface.

            In seconds he is surrounded by a flurry of dolphins, all of them chattering at top speeds. They are excited to see him, to be so called, and he scans the mass of them, looking for any familiar face, but it has been too long. The ones he had met must have passed on, leaving behind only their names and their stories.

            “I seek Beryl,” he squeaks to them, and the pod organizes itself as one of the biggest females comes forward.

            “I am Beryl,” she says.

            He knows that she is not the Beryl he had met, but dolphins are like that; the leader of the pod shares the name of it, regardless of who they had been before leading. The rest treat her as though she actually is the previous leader, and he will be expected to do the same. It is, he thinks, a strange sort of immortality, but dolphins are like that, too.

            “I am the siren who owes you and your pod a debt, for returning me to the ship I sought,” he tells her, knowing the story will have been passed on. Debts are always remembered by dolphins, and sure enough there is a great flickering of motion all around him at the words.

            When it calms again, she says: “Tell us your story, then, siren. We shall hear the end and keep it all.”

            “I will tell you most of my story,” he says, “but I wish you to see the end of it yourselves. I would ask your help again toward that goal.”

            Beryl considers this, her head tipped to the side and one watery eye glancing over his face. The others hold perfectly still, so tense with anticipation of her decision that when she finally gives a nod, motion explodes around them.

            “Tell us what you may,” she says over the commotion. “And we will help you.”

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley does not say any goodbyes, but he does sit upon the rail of the Siren’s Song and watch as Aziraphale says his. Aziraphale had agreed, after giving it patient, careful thought, to come with Crowley, despite that Crowley has not told him where they are going. The dolphins wait in the sea around the ship, delightedly talking to the first humans that have managed to learn their language. They do not truly understand goodbyes, either.

            Bentley sits upon the rail beside him through it, and watches the humans. She does not speak. She merely keeps him company as the humans trade hugs and tears and gratitudes. Crowley has come to understand the last; he is grateful, in so many ways, to have spent time among these humans, for everything they have taught to him, and for everything they have been willing to learn from him, as well.

            Newt comes to him, while the others drop the launch into the water. There is silver showing in his hair these days, just like Anathema’s. Selkies, for all their magic, are mortal too. Crowley does not know what to say, but words tumble out of his mouth anyway, the ones he’d meant to keep behind his teeth, the ones that expose the soft underbelly of soon-to-be mortal wounds.

            “Do you think it’s worth it?”

            “Love?” Newt says.

            “No, what follows it,” Crowley corrects. He has not reached the point of what follows, and already he can hardly stand it. “What must follow when love goes away.”

            Newt lets out a soft breath. “I don’t know that love ever goes away,” he says after a moment. “But I think they would say yes. I think, if you asked them, they would say the good of loving outweighs the pain of loss.”

            “I didn’t ask them,” Crowley says. “I asked you.”

            “You didn’t,” Newt tells him. “Not really. You want an answer I can’t give you because I don’t know how deep it will cut to lose him, or what scars it will leave on an immortal creature, to have loved at all. Is it possible for a siren to die of a broken heart?”

            “I don’t know,” Crowley says. “I’m afraid it is. I’m afraid I’ll want to.”

            Newt looks him up and down, his lips thinning into a line before he turns to rest a hip against the rail. “You’re not going to find out, are you?” he says carefully. He chews his lip a moment, and then tosses a glance out over the sea, toward the reef. “I came over because I think I know what you’re going to do. I might be the only one who knows, so it falls to me to say… you shouldn’t do it.”

            “He cannot stay,” Crowley says. “I cannot follow where he will go, and I cannot remain here without him. What else is there, but this?”

            “I don’t know,” Newt says with a little shake of his head. “But you can’t undo it, once it’s done. I can’t imagine facing what you’re facing, but I… I don’t know that he deserves that.”

            Crowley has nothing to say to that; he knows Newt is not speaking of Aziraphale’s merit, but of his worth, and Crowley does not entirely disagree. But he has been one thing for millennia. A few decades – as long as they may have seemed to some – cannot change his nature completely. He is still selfish. He still wishes to keep things which have not always belonged to him.

            “Perhaps not,” Crowley agrees. “But it is what I will do.”

            Newt nods, seemingly having expected as much. “Have you told him? The whole truth?”

            “You know I can’t, anymore than you could have told me of your pelt,” Crowley says. His eyes drop past Newt, to where Aziraphale slowly approaches with Agnes’ help. “And even if I could… I cannot give him that hope. I may not know what will happen to him, without a ship, but I know what will happen if he learns the truth.” He looks back, meeting Newt’s gaze in the final seconds before they will be interrupted. “Take care of them, Newt.”

            “Until my last breath,” Newt promises. “You’ll do the same for him, no matter which way it goes.”

            Crowley nods, and then turns his attention to Aziraphale and smiles as if his heart is not already breaking. “You ready?”

            “Hardly,” Aziraphale says, but he smiles a bit sadly. “Though I don’t suppose anyone ever is. Are you really not going to say goodbye?”

            “There’s nothing good about it,” Crowley says, “and it wouldn’t change anything.”

            A part of him understands goodbyes. He knows that humans want one more moment with one another, but he also knows that they will always want one more moment, and one more after that, and one more after that until it’s been forever. That, he understands too well; he does want one more moment with each of them… but he has also come to truly understand that they are not capable of forever, and that the moments he wants most of all are those with Aziraphale.

            “I suppose you’re right,” Aziraphale agrees, and straightens as much as he can these days. “We’d best get on with it.”

            “Captain,” Newt says, before Crowley moves. “I just… want to thank you. For letting me stay, but not making me. For… giving us a home for so long.”

            “I didn’t give you a home,” Aziraphale tells him kindly. “You made it for yourselves. All of you did. But it has been a pleasure to have lived alongside you through all of it.”

            Newt nods, jaw tight, and backs away so that Crowley can step down from the rail. Behind him, Bentley walks along it until she can meep at Newt, who picks her up and cradles her in his arms much the same way as Crowley does for Aziraphale in the next instant. It is nice to feel Aziraphale’s arms come up around his neck, and less nice to feel how the years have stolen most of his softness and strength, and left him fragile.

            Crowley gives one last look to Newt, who nods, and to Bentley, who mewls, and one last look over the rest of the crew, who still stand gathered together upon the deck. Then he lifts his wings, and hops onto the rail again, as carefully as he is able. Aziraphale clings closer, and closer still when Crowley jumps off, angling his glide so that they may land heavily upon the stocked launch. Bursts of damp breath shoot into the air around the small boat as he sets Aziraphale’s feet back down, and steadies him to sit upon the launch’s bench.

            “It’s time?” Beryl asks, from where she bobs beside them.

            He gathers the ropes which the crew had secured to the launch’s bow, and tosses the knotted ends into the water. He would have done the swimming himself, and pulled the launch the entire way to where they need to go, but he had no way to spare Aziraphale from the sun, and desperately does not want to be apart from him that long. He had promised to be with him until the last, and as it stands, he is not sure Aziraphale is even strong enough to make this journey.

            “It’s time,” he tells Beryl. “Don’t stop for anything.”

            She eyes him, and then Aziraphale, and then disappears. A few seconds later, the boat jerks as three dolphins pick up the ropes in their beaks and begin to swim. Crowley takes a seat beside Aziraphale, and brings a wing up over him to shield him from the sun. Aziraphale smiles at him, and leans against his side to await their destination.

 


 

            It takes days, but finally the launch slows and when Crowley looks, the dorsal fins that had sliced through the water ahead of them since the beginning of the journey have disappeared. At the lack of forward motion, Aziraphale stirs from where he had been napping in the shade under Crowley’s wing and blinks up at him. Beside the boat, several ever-smiling faces surface to observe them.

            “Are we there?” Aziraphale says as he sits, peering around him in confusion.

            There is no land in sight, not in any direction. There is no sign of their ship. There is nothing, except the endlessly bright, swelling waves of a breathing ocean. Aziraphale has not asked where they are going, nor made it clear that he wishes to know. Crowley has asked for his trust, and Aziraphale has given it freely. He will need to do so again, if this is to succeed.

            “Sort of,” Crowley answers, leaning over to speak to Beryl when she drifts close, on her side and listening. Beneath him – far, far beneath him – he can hear the thrumming call of eternity. “Thank you.”

            “You owe no debt,” she tells him. She glances at Aziraphale, water sloshing up at her head’s motion, and then she switches to porpoise, which is different enough that it is unlikely Aziraphale will understand. Given the nature of the language, Crowley is surprised anyone understands it. “Down you? Mouth ship carry no?”

            He nods. He hates speaking or listening to porpoise, and sticks to dolphin. “I could not sink her. He would never have forgiven me that. We go alone.”

            Beryl regards him with a stiff sort of sadness he does not think he has ever seen in a dolphin. “You can make a heart beat without a soul,” she tells him, “but you won’t like what it becomes.”

            Crowley whistles an acknowledgment. “He has a soul.”

            Her jaw snaps closed, sloshing water out. “You know better. Men may visit the sea, but their souls aren’t made to stay upon it. They bury their dead in dirt, not water.”

            “Not all of them,” Crowley tells her. “Will you follow?”

            “As deep as we can,” she says. “May your luck be better than your wit, siren.”

            He gives her a dry look as she flickers back beneath the waves, and then he turns to Aziraphale, who has been trying quite hard to look as though he had not been paying attention to their conversation. He seems resolved not to ask questions, which is only a small relief. Crowley wishes he could explain everything, wishes he could explain anything, but they would be thrice doomed if he did. What he wishes to do only works if there is belief, rather than knowledge. He thinks the humans call it faith.

            “Do you still trust me?” Crowley asks, even though the answer is painfully clear.

            “Yes,” Aziraphale says, not uncertain in the least.

            Crowley holds out both hands, and Aziraphale slips his into them. The pad of Crowley’s thumb smooths over his thin skin, feeling the ridges of his bones, and the gnarls worked into them through the years. “Will you come into the water with me?”

            “Into,” Aziraphale asks, “or under?”

            Crowley cannot answer that, but he knows Aziraphale hadn’t really meant him to. Aziraphale nods, and then stands in the wobbly launch and begins to undress. He folds his coat, and his pants, leaving on his underthings, and setting his boots atop the rest, presumably so that they do not blow away. Crowley wonders if he expects to be back for them. He wonders if Aziraphale expects to be back at all.

            The boat pitches unsteadily when Crowley helps Aziraphale into the water, and the dolphins do their best to help steady it before nudging it away from them. Crowley lets his shift take as quickly as possible, save for the gills, to make it easier to stay above water. Aziraphale can swim, or he has before, and he treads water with only a little difficulty now, as he waits for his next instruction.

            Crowley’s heart feels as if it sits on the bottom of the deepest ocean trench, crushed by pressure and going cold with fear that he has made the wrong decision.

            “Crowley?” Aziraphale asks, after a couple of minutes just floating there.

            “I love you,” Crowley blurts, his throat closing up on the words too late to keep them from strangling him. He cannot leave this unsaid, cannot let Aziraphale think that they are here for any other reason. If his plan does not work, he wants Aziraphale to know this much. “You know that, don’t you?”

            “I do,” Aziraphale says, swimming a little closer. “Will you tell me what’s going on? Whatever we’re doing here, we don’t have to, but you should know that I… I think I have an idea what it is. You promised to stay with me until my end. If you must… do this, in order to keep that promise… it’s alright. I came here with my head up, eyes clear. Well, eye,” he jokes weakly. “My dear, please, look at me.”

            Crowley stares up into the clear, blue sky for a moment longer before finally shaking his head and meeting Aziraphale’s gaze. “I love you,” he repeats thickly. It is the only thing he knows for certain, or at least nearly the only thing. “I want more time.”

            “I’m afraid there wouldn’t be much more, even if we went back right now,” Aziraphale tells him softly. He swims a little closer, seeming to find it easier to move in the water. “And I believe I once told you that I would let you do exactly this, and that it would be the least frightening way for me. Nothing’s changed.”

            “Everything’s changed,” Crowley manages. He does not understand how Aziraphale can be so calm, but he thinks maybe it’s part of being mortal. They are born to the concept of ending, and carry it with them their whole lives. Crowley has killed countless people, but he has never been so close to an end. “I’ve changed. I don’t know if I...”

            “Crowley,” Aziraphale says, with such purpose and patience that Crowley knows there is more coming. “It is very cold in this water. If you are going to do or not do something, I suggest you decide before your options narrow considerably.”

            At the words, Crowley looks, actually looks at him, and sees the paleness in his face, the tinge of blue already on his lips. The ocean nearly hides the ripples sent out from his shivering form, and his motions are getting weaker. Aziraphale is right. If Crowley does not act now, the choice may be taken from him, and then he’ll have no chance at all.

            He swallows down every other protest, every excuse to stall, every reason to take just one more moment with Aziraphale. “You said you wanted be my companion,” he says instead. “Do you still?”

            Aziraphale gives him the exact same look he has given him every time he’s said something particularly thick-headed. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

            “Yeah.” Crowley licks his lips and nods. “Yeah, you are. Right then. Take my hands,” he says quietly, voice shaking, and Aziraphale does so immediately. Crowley holds tight and takes a deep, steadying breath. “Don’t let go, no matter what, and don’t turn back. Don’t fight it.”

            Aziraphale nods and when Crowley sinks under the water’s surface, Aziraphale blows out his breath and follows, messily kicking his legs up. Crowley’s heart breaks at the defiant show, at the evidence that not only had Aziraphale spoken the truth about knowing what is to come, he gives himself to Crowley willingly. The dolphins swirl around them, absolutely silent as they accompany the duo toward the depths.

            It does not take long.

            Even a human with lungs full of air lasts only a few minutes given the increasing pressure of the deep. Aziraphale makes it thirty-seven seconds – Crowley counts every one of them while watching him, pulling them ever deeper all the while – before his hands jerk in Crowley’s grasp. He does not mean to pull away, a fact he confirms when he hangs on more tightly in the following seconds. His eyes open and catch on Crowley’s.

            Helplessly, Crowley pulls him in close, wraps him up for the moment he takes his first lungful of cold ocean water, and keeps him there until he can no longer hear the beat of his heart.

            Still, they swim.

            It takes the dolphins longer to reach the point of no return. They stay close, enough that he can feel the swirls of water from their passing, from the beat of their flukes, but eventually they too can no longer hold their breath. One by one they peel away to head for the surface. Beryl is there at the last, halting her dive a few seconds early so that she may witness the end of their story before she leaves, as she had promised to do.

            Still he swims, Aziraphale held tightly to his chest, unmoving now.

            Around him, the song of eternity gets louder, until the void hum of the ocean has been replaced completely. There is no light this deep, but there does not need to be. There is only one thing down here, and only a few who dare come too close. Fewer yet that dare approach it on purpose. But he knows, from a whale’s tale, that the guardian here sleeps, which means the gateway will be open, and that he will pass unmolested.

            He feels the change in the water before he touches the murky bottom with a fin. Gently, he releases Aziraphale just enough to turn him, to carry him as he had done on land, one arm behind his back, one below his knees. Aziraphale can make no move to hold onto him in return, and the sickening realization that he might not ever again if Crowley fails lodges under Crowley's ribs. He resolutely digs his tail into the grime that pretends to be soil, until his fins recede and he can walk upon the bottom the way a human walks upon the land.

            They are only steps away from where he wishes to be, only steps from the solid stone wall they have reached. Crowley shifts to press a palm to it, and the stone shudders and gives, nearly a liquid itself as it peels away to reveal a softly-glowing shimmer. He adjusts his grip on Aziraphale’s body in preparation, and steps across the threshold, holding his breath until his gills shift over and he can breathe the air that is suddenly all around them. Gravity drags at him as water sluices from them both to pool in his footsteps as he walks.

            The city has long since been abandoned, or fallen to ruin, or else it has yet to begin. Time is a little silly in Atlantis, a little meaningless. It is one of the few places left that is truly outside of the proper stream of time, the same way as Crowley. He had called this place home long before he had stepped through the Northern gate into Aziraphale’s world. He had helped to build it, and more importantly what stood at the center of it.

            He strides through the streets, Aziraphale a cold, unmoving weight in his arms, until he reaches the small inner fence’s arching doorway, guarded only by crumbling stone statues. There is no door to keep anything in or out, and so he crosses that threshold too, and steps into the lush, blooming garden of Atlantis. It is so expansive that he cannot see the other side, and so overgrown it can hardly be called a garden. He can only hope the overgrowth has not reached his destination.

            Something shifts from off to his right, and Crowley lets his wings form behind him, ready. The trees themselves uncoil and shift, melting into a slithering, scaled beast with a toothy maw and webbed wings and ruby-colored eyes. It is large enough it would hardly notice if it ate Crowley and Aziraphale both in a single bite. Crowley had assumed the guardian of Atlantis had fallen asleep outside of it, where it belongs. Finding out it had not is an unwelcome surprise.

            “Humans are not allowed in the garden,” Kraken says, voice like the hinges of a rusty chest’s lid. He lowers his head, to get a closer look at the two of them, the bony tip of his snout only a few yards away.

            Crowley spreads his wings to their fullest, knowing that Kraken can see the eyes within them, the markings he bears, and that of all creatures he will know what they signify. Crowley has been here before. He is from here, and this is his garden.

            “Then take him from me,” Crowley demands acerbically.

            Kraken sets his jaw upon the ground in submission. “Welcome home.”

            Slowly, Crowley lowers his wings, and turns away to continue walking. Kraken rises to trail behind him, but Crowley does not spare him additional attention. They make their way through the trees and the flowers and the bushes and the weeds, heading ever toward the garden’s center. He steps a little faster when he sees it at last, a little thrill cresting over the dread so thick in his belly.

            The tree stands untouched where he remembers it, with golden leaves and a trunk which shimmers like a rainbow. Its boughs are laden with shining, golden fruit; Atlantis had bloomed half a century ago, as he had been told. Gently, he lays Aziraphale’s body beneath the tree before rising to pluck one of the fruits. He kneels beside Aziraphale, raising one clawed finger in order to slice it before he hesitates.

            His focus shifts from the apple to the man, his heart thudding so thunderously it might beat right out of its cage. He had done this a hundred times, over the millennia. He had sunk a thousand ships and carved out their souls, taking the hearts of the captains that deserved the same. He had brought both things here to try to forge new sirens from the seeds of this tree, as he intends to do now.

            You can make a heart beat with without a soul, but you won’t like what it becomes.

            Although he has brought Aziraphale’s heart here, he could never have sunk the Siren’s Song, and so he has no ship’s soul with which to forge anything. He does not know what will happen if he does this without the third piece. He has seen creatures with life in their limbs but no soul to light their eyes. He cannot bear the thought of looking into Aziraphale’s eyes and seeing nothing looking back.

            Aziraphale has a soul, or he’d had one not long ago… But it is a human soul, one not made for what Crowley needs to ask of it- one not made to endure eternity. He does not know which would be worse: finding that he cannot do this at all, or finding that he will lose Aziraphale a second time, as his human soul deteriorates.

            He sits frozen with indecision, the apple in one hand and a choice in the other, until he can scarcely breathe for how heavily it all sits upon his chest. He needs time he doesn’t have, to figure this out. Or rather, he thinks, he needs time Aziraphale doesn’t have- Crowley has an infinite amount of time yawning before him in a great chasm of despair. It is the human body and soul that will degrade too quickly.

            He looks at the apple in his hand.

            Time, he thinks slowly, does not really apply in Atlantis, not exactly, and it does not exactly apply to him, either. He is older than Atlantis, older than time. If he could… if he just...

            He swallows thickly, and sets the apple aside, putting his claw instead to Aziraphale’s chest. He draws his name there, the true one that cannot be spoken, the one that binds him outside of time, to the fabric of creation. Inventor, creator, starmaker. The wound does not bleed, until Crowley digs the tip of a talon into his own hand and smears it over the top, covering every inch of the sigil to forge it in his image.

            After a few seconds, the lines close under his touch, taking his blood with them, into Aziraphale.

            Crowley holds his breath, heartbeat in his ears. He does not know if it will work, if a pact like this can be made without the signature of the other, but Aziraphale had said he wants to stay near him, and that must count for something. Crowley has spent the last four decades in love, and he thinks this must surely be no different, to give of himself without expectation.

            Surely what he wishes to forge is a pact to do only as they had always done, but for longer. Humans know how to make that pact.

            Aziraphale’s chest rises and Crowley makes a broken noise of relief as Aziraphale struggles onto his side, coughing up the water he had swallowed into his lungs and stomach. Crowley can do nothing to help, save for be there until Aziraphale lies back again. There is color in his cheeks, and his clouded eye has begun to clear. He tries to say Crowley’s name, but it sends him into fits, and Crowley shakes his head and manages to speak.

            “Don’t,” he says, voice reed thin and unsteady. “Don’t speak.” He snatches up the apple he had dropped, and presses it into Aziraphale’s trembling hands. Crowley has given a part of his own soul to the spell, but the seeds must still complete it. “Eat this.”

            “What-” The single word sets him coughing again, and Crowley presses the fruit more urgently into Aziraphale’s hands.

            “Please,” Crowley tells him. “You offered me an apple once. Let me do the same for you now. Eat.”

            Although Aziraphale gives him a confused look, when he has stopped coughing, he takes a bite of the rich fruit. He doesn’t look to be enjoying it, but he swallows and takes another, and another, even the core when Crowley insists. He wavers after the last of it, and Crowley moves in time to keep him from hitting his head as he rapidly loses consciousness again. Carefully, he levers him down to lie upon the soft grass, and then sets his own back against the trunk of the golden tree, keeping one leg pressed along Aziraphale’s side to feel the warmth of him returning.

            “You shouldn’t have done that,” Kraken tells him. At some point, he had settled curled around the tree in a complete circle, nose to tail tip, guarding it as well as the two of them.

            “Haven’t you got something else to guard?” Crowley asks tiredly. The spell is working. He’s never had to be a part of it before, certainly not like this. He feels himself unspooling into it, and he’s not sure if it can be stopped. “A nap to take perhaps?”

            “You have halved your life,” Kraken says, as if Crowley does not know it, as if he cannot acutely feel the painful draw of the magic working upon him. “He may not even be who you remember, when he wakes. The others had nothing left of themselves, when they woke.”

            Crowley doesn’t answer him. There’s nothing to argue about, except that Aziraphale had recognized him and that half of eternity is just as long as the whole of it. Even if it was not, Crowley would gladly have given half of whatever life he has left, to spend all the rest of it with Aziraphale. Half of a life spent full of happiness, he thinks, is worth infinitely more than an entire life spent without it, and he has already lived more than enough of his considerable lifespan without it.

            He will have Aziraphale now, or they will both end here.

            He has just enough energy to reach down and scoop Aziraphale’s warm hand into his, before he falls into an exhausted sleep.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Crowley wakes to a cacophony of pain in his head, and lets out a long hiss as he clutches at it with both hands. One of them catches on something soft, and he shakes his hand loose before he remembers where he is, and what he has done. Apparently there are consequences to splitting one’s soul in half to share, and they are not pleasant ones. He cracks a golden eye to check on Aziraphale, who still sleeps, and on Kraken, who still lies coiled in a protective loop around them.

            “Oi.” His voice cracks and his eyes close again. It doesn’t particularly help the pain. “How long?”

            “Not long,” Kraken answers. “A few rotations of where you’d come from.”

            Crowley nods and rests his aching head back against the tree, mindful of his wings when he realizes they are out without permission and he cannot seem to put them back. He’s not sure what he had expected, but a few days doesn’t seem so bad. His mouth is dry from dehydration, which probably accounts for whatever discomforts have not resulted from metaphysical damage or sleeping on land.

            He should get up, fetch some kind of water for them both, but he finds himself loathe to leave Aziraphale’s side. He does not want him to wake alone, in this unfamiliar place. And in truth… Crowley harbors the hope that, unlike a siren, Aziraphale might recognize him, might hold on to himself and who he had always been, if he is given no time to get lost in what he has become. Crowley knows that Aziraphale is not a duckling, that he will not imprint the way seabirds do when they first hatch, but if Crowley is the first thing Aziraphale sees when he wakes… perhaps it will be enough to remember something.

            It takes another day, but finally, Aziraphale stirs beside him and his face crumples up in pain the way Crowley’s had, one hand coming to press hard at his temple. Crowley sits upright against the tree, ready to help in whatever way he can, his breath trapped in his chest as he holds onto hope.

            “Oh,” Aziraphale says faintly, a bit of annoyance in his tone. “Dying is rather unpleasant.”

            At that, a laugh startles out of Crowley, which startles Aziraphale in turn and causes him to jerk partly upright and open his eyes. His gaze fixes on Crowley, wide and confused, but clearly full of recognition. It is Aziraphale looking back at Crowley from those sea-grey eyes, and Crowley relaxes a great deal to see it. His plan, despite the changes and the pain, had worked.

            “Gosh, who could have predicted that?” Crowley asks him, a small smile still lingering at the corner of his lips.

            “Crowley!” Aziraphale exclaims in delayed reaction, as though hearing Crowley’s voice has convinced him this is real. He shifts to sit up more, catches sight of the pristine, white wings trapped under him in the process, and freezes. “Oh! What are- how? Are we- am I?”

            “You’re not dead,” Crowley tells him. He stays put, not wanting to startle Aziraphale even more. “Well, you’re not dead anymore. You were a little dead, for a bit.” Some amount of guilt flares within him, knowing he had very directly been the cause of Aziraphale’s death, but no regret follows. “I…” His breath punches out of him before he can finish the thought, and he shifts uncomfortably. Moment of truth. “I changed you.”

            “Into what?” Aziraphale says, extending a wing slowly. It trembles, not strong enough to use yet, and Aziraphale lets it droop back to the ground. “Am I a siren, like you? Why are my wings white?”

            “I didn’t have the right materials to turn you into a siren,” Crowley says softly, as though it is a confession. In a way, it is. An admission that he had failed in some regard, but he thinks that Aziraphale will understand. “I would have had to sink the ship, to take her soul. Unlike a human’s, a ship’s soul is made to be eternal.”

            Aziraphale’s brows draw and he looks down at himself. He is young again, soft where had always been soft, strong where he had always been strong. Time no longer has any effect upon him; he has become the way he sees himself, sees what he believes he will see. Crowley supposes this is startling to a mortal creature who, only days ago, had spent decades subjected to the rigors of time.

            “What are you saying?” Aziraphale asks, sounding stricken. Newt's words echo in their shadow, whispering about how Aziraphale did not deserve to have any of this thrust upon him. “That you’ve… that you remade me with no soul? Crowley, I-”

            “No!” Crowley says quickly. “No, I- I never would have- I couldn’t have…” He swallows, halfway up to his knees without even thinking about it. “No, Aziraphale. I gave you part of mine.”

            There it is, as plain as he can say it, and Aziraphale looks at him as if it might have been the wrong thing to do, as if that is too much too fast for him to cope with. Crowley is not sure he can survive being told no now, being told Aziraphale does not actually want to stay near him, or worse, that he thinks forever is a curse instead of a gift. That he will want Crowley to take it back. But what comes out of Aziraphale’s mouth is not a rejection. It is the same concern as always.

            “How could you do that?” It sounds as if his heart is breaking. “Won’t you… need that?”

            Crowley shakes his head. “Already belonged to you,” he says earnestly. “And what good would it have been, to keep it to myself if it meant I couldn’t get you back? It’s better this way. I have no regrets.”

            “Not even the headache?” Aziraphale says, offering a small, helpless smile in a way that suggests he has discovered he has nothing else to give. “Or does it not hurt you as much as it does me?”

            “It hurt at first,” Crowley agrees with more than a little relief that Aziraphale seems more concerned about this harming Crowley than what has happened to himself. There will be plenty of time to learn everything that has changed, as long as he is willing to stay to learn it. “The magic is still working through you. Should settle soon, though. Then you’ll… be like me. Immortal.”

            Aziraphale makes a small, absent noise of agreement and lifts his wing again, trying to fold it behind him while still sitting, and not having terribly good luck. Wings, Crowley knows, take a while to get used to. When he has recovered, when the magic has settled into place properly for use, Crowley will teach Aziraphale how to slip his wings between realities, and hide them from the material plane. For now, he will have to put up with the nuisance of extra limbs.

            “I have… a lot of questions,” Aziraphale begins slowly as he peers around them, “and I don’t know where to start, but if you don’t mind me asking, where exactly are we? The last thing I remember is… s-swimming. Down. But there’s air here.”

            Crowley shrugs a little. “It goes by different names,” he says. “I believe you know it as Atlantis.”

            “As in The Lost City of?” Aziraphale exclaims incredulously, whipping to look at him. “You- I- I read to you about Atlantis, and you never said a word! Was it real the whole time? Are we really at the bottom of the ocean?”

            “We’re at the bottom of an ocean,” Crowley hedges, making a little face over the technicality. “As long as we go out the way we came in.”

            Aziraphale gives him a shrewd look. “Are there other ways to go out that aren’t into an ocean? Should I be concerned about a- a doorway to the center of the earth?” He pauses to frown.

            Crowley gives a very noncommittal wince of a shrug, and then sits up tall and scans their surroundings, which is mostly Kraken, who had fallen asleep a while ago and now looks like a hill covered in shrubbery. That is, he thinks, probably for the best; Aziraphale can meet the dragon when he’s had a little more time to orient to his new situation. He leans, and gestures north with one hand.

            “Over that way, that’s the Northern Gate,” he explains. “Goes back to your world.”

            “My world?” Aziraphale says, the affront in his voice overpowering the confusion. “Shouldn’t doors in a single place all go to the same world?”

            Crowley opens his mouth, and then smiles at the sharp memory of Bentley explaining doors to him many years ago. Perhaps Bentley had been a little more than just an average cat, or perhaps cats were all just a little less mundane than he’d ever given them credit for.

            “No,” he says, voice warm with fondness. “Doorways don’t work quite the same here. Nothing does, really. There’s a gate that goes back to your world for now, and others that go to other places. Other worlds. Even the Northern Gate won’t always go back to your world.”

            Aziraphale sits back, stricken, his eyes unfocused as he attempts to process that. Crowley does not interrupt- it is a lot of information. Were their situations reversed, he thinks that he would not handle it nearly so well, but he supposes that Aziraphale has experience in taking in strange happenings after a lifetime of dealing with Crowley. They sit in heavy silence for a long time before Aziraphale finally blows out a breath as if he’s come to a decision.

            “So, then, where do the other gates lead?” he asks carefully, looking up at Crowley, and Crowley has seen that look in his eyes before. It is the same hungry look Aziraphale gets when he catches wind of a new story he wishes to read. “Have you been through any of them?”

            That’s a bit of a tricky question. Crowley has been through them, but never to stay. When everyone had fled the dying city, he had looked through the gates and into the worlds that been crafted by the masters beyond them. He had been curious. He had wanted to know the same thing; but most of the gates led to the same sort of emptiness that Aziraphale’s did, even if they did not dump him out underwater. None of that will be useful to lump upon Aziraphale yet, and so he glances north, and then east, and gestures.

            “The Eastern Gate opens into outer space,” he says. It is an offering, if not a full explanation, something for Aziraphale to hold onto while he fidgets through the anxiety of having his world turned upside down. “Like nothing you’ve ever seen. Spits you out right between twin stars.”

            “Stars!” Aziraphale says incredulously again, slumping where he sits a little as he tries to take that in. Crowley gives him time, gives him space, and is unsurprised when he finally says: “This is… a lot. And all things considered about my current situation, I’m not sure I should say this yet, but...” He scrubs both hands over his face, “thank you.” He pulls his hands down enough to peek at Crowley. “For keeping your promise. And for saving me.”

            “They told me not to.” It is a hushed admission, carrying all of the despair he had felt, all of the fear of being truly alone again for eternity. “And I didn’t know. If it would work, if you would want it, if-”

            “Stop,” Aziraphale tells him, holding up his hands for emphasis. “You did, and for now I’m glad for it, and that’s where we’ve gotten. We’ll worry about the rest when we get there. What do we need to worry about currently?”

            Crowley shakes his head. “Nothing,” he says. “There’s nothing here. Atlantis didn’t sink, it wasn’t lost, but it did decay. The others left through gates a long time ago, to the other worlds. We could stay, if you want, or we can go back.”

            Aziraphale gives him a wounded look, as if Crowley has just socked him in the gut. “Go back?” he says softly. “Won’t we have to-” He pauses and makes claws out of his hands, and bares blunt, human teeth with a little fake growl. “You know? I don’t want to eat people.”

            There is nothing, Crowley thinks, in all of the worlds and every bit between them, that matters as much as the warm, pleasant sensation of being in love with Aziraphale.

            “You won’t have to,” Crowley says, too fondly. “I mean, yes. Normally, when you go through a gate, you sort of… get immersed in the world. I’d forgotten about all of this, I think. Not- Not completely, but it felt more like a dream. And… meeting you, it- it woke me up. But going back through the same gate, you still remember the last time you were there.”

            Aziraphale swallows, throat clicking loudly in the silence. “So you think if we… if we went through a different gate, we wouldn’t remember?”

            Crowley nods. “You remember, at first,” he says. “But the longer you stay away from this place, the less you remember it. You can always find your way back, you’ll always feel connected, even called to it, but… everything from before starts to feel like just a dream.”

            “Even you?” Aziraphale asks. “Would I remember you?”

            “I don’t know,” Crowley says honestly. “Maybe. Your mind won’t, at least at first. But… you’ve got a piece of my soul. Even if nothing else is left, I think we’ll always recognize one another.”

            Aziraphale gives him a searching look, and then shakes his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. We have to go back through our own gate. Even if we would remember, it’s not as if sirens can live among the stars.”

            “Sirens can’t,” Crowley says slowly. “But we can.” He’s certain he can, at least, and he’s nearly as certain that whatever the magic has done to them, it will leave Aziraphale capable of surviving in the void as well.

            “Pardon me,” Aziraphale says and the way he bites out each word makes it sound like he’s not actually asking for grace at all, “but that’s twice you’ve implied we’re not sirens, and I understand you couldn’t make me into one, but I’m very certain you are. Rather, you were. …Weren’t you?”

            Crowley’s head weaves a little, as if he can wiggle around the truth. “Eh...” he hedges. “They call me siren in your world, and that’s close enough. We’re sort of alike.” When Aziraphale only continues to stare at him, he shrugs a little. “It’s how we manifest in that world.”

            Aziraphale makes a huffy little noise. “Well…” He glances around, and then gestures toward the east. “Then what about somewhere else? What would we manifest as, in space?”

            Crowley looks in that direction even though he is already aware he won’t see anything. The gate is far out of sight. “Sirens don’t exist in that world, so they’d call us something else. Demons, maybe.”

            “Demons?” Aziraphale says, scandalized. “I’m not a demon.” When Crowley lifts a brow at him, for seeming very sure what he is not even though he does not know what he is, Aziraphale raises his chin and sniffs: “I’m not a demon, Crowley.”

            Unable to help himself, Crowley smiles. “Alright then,” he says indulgently. “They could call you angel. It’s like a demon, but good.”

            Aziraphale considers this, even though Crowley knows the explanation is weak at best. Aziraphale’s world shares the concept of Eden – this very garden – and even of demons in general, but somehow not angels. Even the original name of their ship, the Archangel, had referred only to a type of gull, the largest and meanest sort. Regardless, angel is a beautiful word, and Aziraphale seems to agree when he settles back down, satisfied with that answer even if it has given him a thousand more questions.

            Instead of asking them, Aziraphale resolves himself. “Still, we shouldn’t risk it,” he says, leaving no room to argue even though Crowley wouldn’t have anyway. He’d stay or go anywhere Aziraphale did, if allowed. “We’ll just go back to the ship for now.”

            Crowley winces, something that puts a crestfallen look upon Aziraphale’s face before Crowley even starts to explain. “I doubt they’ve waited for us and even if they did… time doesn’t work the same in Atlantis. It doesn’t really work at all, because it’s… from before there was time.”

            “How can something be from before, if there wasn’t time?” Aziraphale asks, looking thoroughly unconvinced. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

            Aziraphale is not, strictly speaking, entirely wrong.

            “Imagine a pipe,” Crowley says, “with water flowing through it. That’s the way time goes from the start of things to the end of them. But if you toss the pipe in the ocean, that’s how things were, once. Time didn’t go anywhere- it was just everywhere, and going on all at once. And it’s still doing that here. Look, really look.”

            He points out to the city, and Aziraphale follows the gesture. At first he knows that Aziraphale does not understand, does not know what he is looking at, but after a minute, the color fades from his face, and Crowley finally looks too.

            The garden they are in is overgrown, crumbled into ruins, its walls toppled, but they also stand tall and proud and new around a pristine garden whose trees have only just been planted. Beyond the garden wall, the city’s spires reach for a sky that doesn’t really exist, and they are fallen as well, toppled with the ages and lying like the bones of a long-lost civilization. If he looks for long enough, he can feel the echo of its inhabitants, going about their lives, and long since gone, and yet to come settle in the first place. There is rain upon his skin, and snow, and sun, and wind, and utter, unrelenting stillness.

            He blinks, slowly, and the vision clears, and they are alone in a dying garden once more.

            “But… how…?”

            “S’just how it is,” Crowley tells him. “How it’s always been, and it can’t stop. There’s no one left that can take the pipe out of the ocean.”

            For a long time, Aziraphale sits still and looks out over the city. Crowley is not sure how much he understands of it, or what he sees in particular, but he doesn’t dare to interrupt. This has been a lot, for Aziraphale. It has been a lot for Crowley, too. He watches his city for a while as well, heart aching with everything it is and was and will be. The last time he had come, the city had been in full splendor, celebrating something Crowley had not had time to stop for even though he had known he would not be back until a different time.

            “So… we can’t risk going to another world, but we can’t go back to the ship,” Aziraphale says slowly, “because we don’t know… when we are?”

            Crowley nods.

            “But we can go back to the same world, even if it’s not the right time.”

            Crowley nods again, and Aziraphale joins him this time.

            “Alright,” Aziraphale says. “Then that is what we will do. And if we come out sooner than we like, we shall just...” His expression goes soft, and then sad, and Crowley feels the first flicker of regret when he realizes he has taken away Aziraphale’s ability to cry. Aziraphale swallows, and lifts his chin a little. “We never did get to travel around on the shore. There are quite a few places I would like to see with you.”

            It has been a long time since he’s heard that kind of promise from Aziraphale. He had been afraid he might never hear one again. “Anywhere you want to go, Angel. I’ll take you.”

            At Crowley’s use of the new word, Aziraphale finally smiles again. “I would like that. And when we’ve seen it all… or at least, seen everything we want to see? Can we come back here, and perhaps try going through a different gate? I have lived a very full life, and I believe I’m about to lead a second, and there’s a very good chance that at the end of that one, I shall want to lead another.”

            Crowley laughs, then. “Good to know becoming a powerful, immortal creature has not cured you of your love for a good story.”

            “Crowley,” Aziraphale says, nearly chiding.

            “Alright, yes, of course we can,” Crowley relents, voice going soft. “Nothing would make me happier, Aziraphale, than living every single life there is to lead, right beside you. We can go to as many worlds as you want, and I will find you again in all of them so we can come back here together to go to the next one.”

            Aziraphale smiles, giving him a quick, fond glance before he seems unable to keep looking. Instead, he does as he had done the first time they met, and holds out one soft, perfect hand. Crowley smiles, and takes it, and it feels exactly like what his heart has always most desired.

 

Chapter Text

 

            Although they do not leave Atlantis immediately, they do depart the way they had come, precisely as planned. Kraken sees them out, and follows them through the doorway he has no business fitting through. Aziraphale is surprised to see him change, even though he shouldn’t be; just as he and Crowley gain the fins and scales to be merfolk, Kraken’s mossy hide shifts into too many soft, slimy limbs full of suckers. He wraps himself around Atlantis, ready to guard her gates once more.

            Crowley takes Aziraphale to his reef, to where they began, and they each hide their disappointment that the Siren’s Song is not lying in wait. Crowley counts the number of wrecks at the bottom, and notes what is missing from them, and the mess that has been made of his nest. The treasure in the sunken ships is not, he thinks with a warm, fond feeling, the only treasure the crew had taken; there is not a single primary feather left in his lair.

            When they finally do reach the shore, they find that they have missed only a handful of years. The crew has done as Anathema had promised, and left the Siren’s Song in order to strike out upon the land. Warlock has remained behind in a port town, running a pub whose income comes more from the card games than the drinks, and he cries when he sees them both alive. From him, they are able to acquire information on where the ship has gone, and who captains and crews her now.

            With the treasure they pull up from Crowley’s reef, they are able to purchase the ship outright when they find her. They pay the crew to sail her to a secluded shoreline, and to beach her beyond the reach of the tides. When they are alone once more, they pull her beyond even the high-tide line themselves, and then they dig into the earth around her, until her keel rests so firmly within the soil that she appears to be sailing the land. It takes them a couple of years, but they clean her and carve her and turn her into a home. It reminds Crowley, quite sharply, of the first time he had ever been in a port, and had seen the buildings humans make for themselves.

            When they have finished making themselves a place to return to, they leave to travel.

            Crowley finds that he enjoys mountains a great deal. He coaxes Aziraphale into their full forms so that they may race to the tip-top of the ranges and launch themselves out over them. Together they spend days wheeling around in the updrafts between slopes, unbothered by the cold. Aziraphale buries himself in snow up to his eyes and lazes there for three days just because he can. He stays until Crowley returns for him with a report of wild land goats, which sends Aziraphale into a fit of laughter. They’d had goats on the Song, but he finds Crowley had always thought they’d been tamed from the sea.

            Aziraphale takes him to a desert, where vast dunes of sand accumulate like slowly moving waves. There is no water anywhere, but Crowley finds that their aquatic forms can be adapted to slither over the smooth stretches of sand. They leave great, wiggly patterns in their wake that fade within a day or two. Aziraphale’s experiment with swimming beneath the sand as if it were water go less well, but leaves them both laughing.

            They travel among human civilizations as well, with their wings tucked tightly into the space between reality and belief, and their feathers and scales sunk below their skin. Aziraphale takes him to Paris and Rome and on to Moscow and Bangkok and Tokyo so that they can speak the languages they had learned while Aziraphale had still been human. Crowley marvels at all of the ways humans have taught themselves to prepare fish, but they find Aziraphale loves the taste of these preparations much more than Crowley does.

            At every city, at every town, and through the years, Aziraphale sends himself books. They seek out authors who yet live to ask them to pen their names in ink, just inside the covers. Sometimes the authors pen Aziraphale’s as well; to my friend. Aziraphale leaves white feathers upon their grave markers as time continues to pass them by, and keeps their books on a separate shelf.

            When they have had their fill of lifetimes spent on land, they take to the sea once more. Crowley shows him what is at the bottom of the deepest trenches, beyond where mortal things treat. They play in geothermal vents and drop things into lava flows. Aziraphale perches at the edge of a methane lake at the bottom of the ocean for a long time, watching the underwater waves lap at the shore, and the eels that inhabit the borders as they make dives below the surface in search of food. It reminds Crowley of the flamingos they had seen in Africa, living along the edges of a deadly lake there, too.

            There are no books below the surface of the sea, not any with words still upon their pages, but Aziraphale merely turns to collecting trinkets. Pocket watches and snuffboxes and spyglasses are among his favorites, though more than a few elaborate shells make their way into his hands, and he brings them all back to their home for decoration, setting them upon his bookshelves and end tables.

            Around the ship, others have settled. Neighbors, Aziraphale calls them, and when the two of them have had enough of the sea and the land, they settle into a different sort of community than either of them are used to. Crowley turns the deck of their home into a verdant garden, and Aziraphale spends time learning to cook and bake using the kitchen in which Madam Tracy had first offered human foods to Crowley. Though they have no need of money, they sell Aziraphale’s cakes and pasties to locals, and the produce that comes from Crowley’s garden, and spend their evenings sitting in the sand and reading their stories, while the ocean tickles at their toes in tiny, lapping waves, and whispers to them about ancient things.

            And at the end of their tolerance for the world they are in, when they have lived all of the lives they can here, they say goodbye to the home they had made, and to the neighbors whose faces have changed yet again, and they leave. They spread their wings and return to the sea, flying until there is no land in sight, and beyond that still, until eternity vibrates gently against their shared soul. There, they dive. Past where the sun can reach, past where warmth is known, down to a sleeping city which is not so much lost as it is forgotten.

            Hand in hand, they travel the ruined streets. They watch the celebrations of the past, and the crumbling of the future, and they stop to visit the dying, thriving garden at the heart of it. They share an apple, but not the core, and Crowley takes the seeds from the star in the middle of it. When they leave this time, it is to step through the Eastern gate and into the cold, vast emptiness of space, in the bright spot between a pair of binary stars the humans of this world will later name and strive to visit.

            While they do not forget entirely, they do not exactly remember Atlantis either, or the world they had shared before this one, or even one another, except as one remembers a very good dream. Here, they are not called siren, but Angel, and their magic is freed from the bonds of song. They live among others who are similar to them, but not quite the same, and when half the Host is cast down to the soils of Earth, their paths diverge for the first time since they had met.

            But there comes a time later on, when Crowley coils at the base of an apple tree he had planted with seeds from a forgotten city, and looks up, up, up at the Eastern Gate of Eden to where there stands an angel at guard. And when at last Crowley gathers the nerve to slither up the wall to meet him, he finds the angel unarmed and breathtaking; and when the angel smiles at him, something about it is so familiar that it feels like remembering a dream, or like waking up at last.

            It feels like arriving exactly where he ought to have been all along.

            It feels like coming home.

            And that, he thinks, is a very good omen indeed.