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Everything Else Is A Substitute For Your Love

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Crowley was not used to people identifying him so readily, but Adam stared at him as though Crowley's entire life history was pasted inside the back of his skull and he, Adam, was reading it. For an instant he knew real terror. He'd always thought the sort he'd felt before was the genuine article, but that was mere abject fear beside this new sensation. Those Below could make you cease to exist by, well, hurting you in unbearable amounts, but this boy could not only make you cease to exist merely by thinking about it, but probably arrange matters so that you never had existed at all.
Good Omens (Saturday)

+

"You can stay at my place, if you like," said Crowley, who had never met a metaphorical brick wall he wouldn't willingly run into over and over for millennia.

"I don't think my side would like that," Aziraphale said, apologetic and regretful. The apology wasn't new, but the regret was, and Crowley's eternally optimistic heart seized at it even though he'd known he was going to get the same answer he always did.

"You don't have a side anymore," Crowley said, more gently than he'd planned. "Neither of us do. We're on our own side."

He waited. The bus, which thought it was going to Oxford but was really going to London, rolled to a stop, and Crowley boarded it, Aziraphale following. Crowley sat down, expecting Aziraphale to choose a seat behind him or across the aisle, and was surprised when Aziraphale sat down beside him, their shoulders not quite touching. He waited some more.

"About Agnes's prophecy," Aziraphale ventured quietly. "We should make a plan. St. James's tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Crowley agreed. "First thing."

This was the best it was going to get, Crowley told himself, doing his damnedest to crush his useless optimism. They'd have another clandestine meeting, and work something out, and that would be that. Even the almost-end of the world couldn't make Aziraphale admit that it was the two of them against everyone else, and had been for ages. Aziraphale was never going to stop using Heaven as an -- an excuse, or a shield, the thing that would keep him from going away with Crowley.

Not for the first time, Crowley wished that they were on what Aziraphale would think of as the same side. It wasn't even that the idea of managing both an angry Heaven and an angry Hell was twice as daunting as only dealing with one disgruntled employer. It was simply this: if they were on the same side, maybe Aziraphale wouldn't keep him at arm's length forever.

Aziraphale was a lot closer than arm's length now. Crowley could feel the warmth of him seeping through the place their shoulders had pressed together. By slow degrees Crowley relaxed, leaning bonelessly against Aziraphale, and Aziraphale let him. That was something.

There was never enough, but there was always something.

+

Crowley woke Sunday morning to blinding light.

He must have forgotten to close his curtains. Eyes still tightly shut, he materialized a pair of sunglasses and shoved them onto his face. This made absolutely no difference to the quality of the light. Crowley pulled the glasses back off and squinted at them, discovering that he'd somehow accidentally conjured reading glasses, with clear lenses and fussy gold frames. Crowley concentrated, but the glasses refused to transform into anything else.

Very slowly, Crowley looked up.

He wasn't in his flat. He wasn't in London. He wasn't even on Earth. Crowley was in a white room, with a huge window affording him a panoramic view of the City. It had elements of every iconic skyline, towers and bridges and skyscrapers and hanging gardens, and it was absolutely different from the last time Crowley had seen it, and it was wrenchingly familiar.

Crowley's wings came out, from sheer startlement, and they were as white as the room.

Okay, Crowley thought to himself. Don't panic. This was a useless thing to think, since he was already panicking, but with some effort of will he managed to get his wings tucked away again, and he took several deep breaths. He seemed to be wearing basically the same cut of suit as he'd been in yesterday, except this one was in shades of beige and cream, and his shoes were no longer snakeskin. He had the same haircut, a little scruffier at the edges. This was all he could glean without a mirror, but Crowley expected the room to have one, so when he looked around, there it was near the door.

His eyes were still -- well, more amber than pure yellow. Round pupils. Back ... before, the angel who would become Crowley had never bothered to seek out his own reflection, but Crowley was willing to bet good money that he'd looked basically like this.

Which left the question: what the everloving Heavenly fuck was going on?

He wasn't going to get any answers by standing around dithering in an empty room, so Crowley opened the door. On the other side was a white hallway. Crowley walked down it, his footfalls silent, as though the blank walls were absorbing all sound. The ceiling was very bright. It felt impersonal and watchful at the same time, and it made Crowley's skin crawl just as much as the dank crowded dimness of Hell ever had.

He didn't quite remember what Heaven had looked like when he'd last been here -- too damned long ago for memory to fill in the details -- but certainly it had been more abstract. Stood to reason. Hell had been boiling sulfur and lakes of fire back in the beginning, and every doorway had been a devouring maw, and slowly it had built itself up into concentric circles of regimented suffering, everything both shaped by and shaping human imagination. Hell had looked like a lot of other things before it looked like the place where corporate industrialism went to die. Heaven must have too, but now ... it mostly looked like the place the best-paid corporate industrialists went to die. Wasn't that a laugh.

Crowley wondered vaguely whether he was likely to run into a choir of angels gossiping around a water cooler.

The hallway opened up into a much larger room, also white, stretching on into infinity. Too far away to make out the details, Crowley spotted an angel going by on a shining segway. Ridiculous.

He turned and swallowed a yelp. Another angel was standing uncomfortably close to him, watching him intently. The angel looked so familiar, and Crowley's brain scrambled frantically through several names before producing the right one. "Uriel!" he said, much too heartily.

"Nahashel," Uriel replied, inflectionless.

Ah.

Right.

"Right," said Crowley, because that seemed better than screaming, or bursting into tears, or laughing hysterically. That was the first word Crowley had ever heard, that was the Word, that was how he'd been called into being. Long ago, that name had been sloughed off and out of recall, but now here it was: Nahashel, lighting him up with grace. Crowley felt pinned like a specimen to a corkboard, terrified that God was very specifically aware of him, terrified that She knew he was here. Crowley had never so desperately wanted to disappear and to be seen at the same time.

Then it passed. "Right," Crowley said again, "uh, good to see you, I'll just be getting on with it," and strode off in an arbitrary direction, purposefully. Uriel did not follow.

Crowley's head was spinning. Why would Heaven do this? he wondered, and just at the heels of that thought, the realization that this couldn't possibly be part of an elaborate punishment. There was no reason for Heaven to recall Crowley -- no reason for Uriel to call him Nahashel, looking totally uninterested in him -- no reason for Hell not to have rightfully claimed Crowley, to torture him out of existence, if punishment was the goal. And if it wasn't that--

Crowley had wished he and Aziraphale were on the same side.

Yesterday, Adam Young had looked into Crowley's head and seen everything about him in an instant. He could easily have seen that thought, the aimless useless wanting, and somehow --somehow, Adam had reversed Crowley's Fall. Somehow, he must have changed the universe so that it had never happened.

Distantly, Crowley noticed that he was shaking.

This was so much more than being on the same side as Aziraphale. This was the peeling back of every layer of sarcasm and insouciance, tearing through every time Crowley had ever insisted that it was all just names for sides and made no difference. It made all the difference, and that was horrible, because the Word was ringing through him like a chime, Nahashel, a discarded collection of syllables resurrected to embodied meaning, and Crowley hadn't done anything but stand in the path of an impossibly powerful eleven-year-old and want. If Adam could do that -- if Adam could so intrinsically change the universe -- if this was somehow part of the damned ineffable plan--

Aziraphale would know what to do, Crowley thought, clinging to that thought like a rope in a tempestuous sea. He needed Aziraphale. They could sort this together.

+

Crowley took the escalator down to Earth, which was much like the escalator up, but in the other direction, and with subtly different lighting.

He was most of the way to Aziraphale's bookshop when he remembered, as he'd reminded Aziraphale the night before, that it had burned down. But if Crowley was an angel, anything could be different, and he wasn't terribly surprised when he arrived at the bookshop to see it unburnt, windows unbroken, looking just as it had for the past two hundred-ish years.

Inside, it smelled of dust and old paper and binding glue, and faintly of Aziraphale's cologne, and Crowley breathed in deeply, letting the familiarity settle into his lungs. The one other customer glanced briefly up at him before drifting off into the biographies. Crowley wandered deeper into the bookshop, trailing absent fingers over the spines of books, reassuring himself of their physicality, their still-there-ness. Aziraphale wasn't among the stacks, so Crowley stuck his head into the back room.

Aziraphale was sitting at his desk, peering at his clunky outmoded laptop, doing the usual Sunday accounts as though it wasn't the day after the world didn't end.

"Hey, Aziraphale," Crowley said.

Aziraphale jumped, and turned around, and blanched. Since this was more or less what Crowley had done upon seeing himself, he didn't take offence. Aziraphale rose hastily from the chair, and stood twisting his hands in front of him.

"May I help you?" he said.

The bottom dropped out of the universe.

"Aziraphale," Crowley said, helplessly.

"Yes, that's me," Aziraphale said. His hands were going rather white-knuckled. "I realize I missed the appointed, ah, summons, the joining with the Heavenly Host and all that, and it is funny how Armageddon didn't go off, I have no idea what could have gone wrong -- gone right, I suppose, Hell's plans going awry as they tend to -- and I would have thought it was Gabriel who would pay me a visit--" Aziraphale visibly pulled himself together. "May I ask, who are you?"

I'm Crowley, you blessed idiot, come on, Aziraphale, please-- Crowley wanted to say, but when he opened his mouth to say his name, what came out was, "I'm Nahashel." That was true: it had been made true. Crowley suspected that, with a great effort of will, he might have been able to say Crowley instead, but it would have sounded like a lie, or like a quaint local affectation.

Aziraphale's anxious look was turning puzzled. There was still no recognition in his eyes. It was horrible. "I'm, uh," Crowley said. "Don't have a thing to do with Gabriel. With anyone, really."

"Ah," said Aziraphale, more politely perplexed by the moment. "Well."

"Listen," Crowley said, feeling miserable, "do you have any kind of ... wily adversary? Demons you thwart?"

"One does what one can," Aziraphale replied, still looking quite reasonably baffled by an unfamiliar angel turning up in his back room. "Evil does walk abroad in the world, and I thwart it where I find it, but I don't have any kind of adversary."

No one had taken Crowley's place, in this strange rearrangement of the universe. Crowley felt relieved, and then ridiculous. He looked into Aziraphale's politely neutral expression, and thought: you can't build up six thousand years of shared history in a day. And all the other angels were wankers, so why would Aziraphale think Nahashel might be any different?

"Great, good job on that, then," Crowley said. "Not really my business anyway. Just wanted to know what to watch out for in the local scene." Then, abruptly, he couldn't stand the distant look on Aziraphale's face any longer. "Tempt you to lunch?" he said, words worn familiar with time and use, and they still sounded the same, even with the whole universe different around them.

And Aziraphale lit up.

Not literally. But his face transformed, the polite puzzlement chased off by surprise, and delight, and longing. None of these expressions were particularly dramatic, but you couldn't know someone for six thousand years without learning a thing or two about their moods, and what Crowley saw now was an Aziraphale who had been absolutely starving for someone to ask him out to lunch. Which was absurd, because Crowley knew Aziraphale was personable enough that he didn't lack for dining companions when he wanted them.

"Goodness," Aziraphale said, "I didn't know anyone else was interested in -- Have you heard of sushi?"

Something in Crowley's chest felt funny, as thought it had been wrenched loose. "Raw fish and rice and things," he managed. "I hear humans enjoy it."

"Oh, you really must -- would you like to try some?" Aziraphale asked. "If you're, er, down here for the local scene."

"Love to," Crowley said.

+

It was, in some ways, almost exactly like a thousand other lunches they'd had together: Crowley drank his way through a bottle of sake. He watched Aziraphale fastidiously dip rolls in soy sauce and slide them into his mouth, making small pleased noises, eyes closed. Crowley picked at his sushi before nudging his plate across the table so that Aziraphale could absently steal the rest. It was, in other ways, completely different: for a start, Crowley had the sense that if he tried to talk to Aziraphale like they knew one another, it would come off somewhere between bizarre and threatening.

"So, er, Armageddon," Crowley tried, supposing that at least he could attempt to get his bearings in this new version of the world. "It got botched somehow?"

"I'm sure I don't know," Aziraphale said, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. "It seems everything was going according to Plan -- the Four Horsemen riding forth, armies amassing, and so on -- and then the, er, Antichrist just ... didn't bother actually ending the world, so everyone went off back home. All very odd. But it's just as well I didn't respond to the summons in time, given that nothing actually happened."

"I'm not here to tell you off for missing your summons to rejoin Heaven," Crowley said, sensing a specific point of worry on this subject. "I honestly don't give a damn." Aziraphale looked shocked, and Crowley regrouped. "I'm just here to -- to see how the world is getting on, since it didn't end, and everything."

"Oh," Aziraphale said. "Does that mean you're going to be here long?"

He didn't sound pleased with the prospect.

"No idea," Crowley said truthfully. "I've taken up enough of your time," Crowley said, hating himself for saying it. "Thanks for the sushi, then," Crowley said.

He left Aziraphale sitting there, and took another bottle of sake to go.

+

Crowley's flat didn't exist.

Or, well, the building did, and the penthouse did, but the locks weren't the same, and when Crowley strolled into the flat, it was decorated in a totally different style. It looked actually lived-in, for a start. Feeling wrong-footed, Crowley went back down to the concierge and was immediately handed the keys to a different flat in the same building. This one had more or less the same layout, but the square footage was smaller, and it didn't have any of Crowley's furniture or plants or art.

Crowley disconsolately miracled himself a chair, which was a plush powder-blue armchair and remained exactly that color and shape no matter how much Crowley glared. Eventually he gave up and slid down into it. His slouch felt less slouchy, and he had the horrible suspicion that it had less to do with the shape of the armchair and more to do with a reduced fluidity in his spine, like his body had no sense-memory of being a snake. Crowley did his best to drape himself, feeling disgruntled, and assessed the flat.

He couldn't very well replace his da Vinci sketch or the stone eagle from the London church: those had been originals, and no reproduction would be the same. His other piece of statuary would be easier, but Crowley had the nagging feeling that Nahashel's flat shouldn't have art that suggested he supported the victory of Evil, and he'd rather be damned all over again than substitute it for anything remotely Michael-Triumphs-Over-the-Dragon. Maybe he should pop down to the nursery just to the south of the flat, and get restarted on his collection of plants.

Crowley realized abruptly that he was planning this as though it were permanent.

Was it? Aziraphale didn't know him. Uriel did, at least enough to identify him by name and dismiss him. Would Heaven want to know why the angel Nahashel had gone off to Earth and immediately installed himself in a flat just across the river from their other longstanding operative? Probably not, Crowley reasoned: unless he did something to really call attention to himself, he doubted Heaven would care. Hell certainly hadn't, until he'd interfered enough to truly fuck with their plans. And Earth felt safe. In a day that had started in sheer madness and showed no signs of stopping, he could at least count on this lovely planet to keep turning, apocalypse avoided, totally indifferent to whatever small actions Crowley took.

It was also a comfortable distance away from God, exactly the same distance Crowley was used to. Crowley felt mostly shielded from Her gaze, or at least could pretend that She wasn't paying any more attention to what he had been and what he currently was than She ever did.

But the essential problem remained, and the essential problem was: Crowley was a blessed angel, uprooted from his life and more importantly from Aziraphale's mind; he was grateful to be back on Earth in a flat that was almost but not quite entirely unlike the one he was used to, and Aziraphale didn't know him.

Crowley closed his eyes, and took several deep unnecessary breaths, and felt the Word singing through his fundamental being. It wasn't enough to offset the fear and the wrongness he felt, existing in a world where Aziraphale didn't know him, but at least it was, as always, something.

+

He popped down to the nursery, walking next to the Thames in the afternoon sunlight, missing the Bentley with a dull ache. He bought a dozen new houseplants. He set them up around the flat, strategically arranged to get exactly the amount of sunlight they each needed. He watered them with his new plant mister.

He slept, and didn't dream, and got up several days later to water the plants again. He hadn't bothered to threaten them, but every single one had beautiful verdant leaves or spectacular new blossoms. Crowley spent several minutes examining them in puzzlement before it occurred to him that they were simply thriving in his angelic presence. "All right, yes, good job," Crowley muttered, spritzing them, and returned to bed.

On Saturday, he went back to Aziraphale's bookshop.

"Nahashel, was it?" Aziraphale said, upon seeing him. "You're still here?"

"Still here," Crowley said. "Lunch?"

They went to a hole-in-the-wall Italian bistro. The wine was excellent, and Crowley amused himself slurping up pasta while he watched Aziraphale sink fully into a sensory experience and enjoyed it by proxy.

"You're staring," Aziraphale said, with an uncomfortable laugh.

Crowley had forgotten he no longer had the plausible deniability of his sunglasses. "These, er, noodles, you called them? Really slippery. I wanted to see how you were getting on with them."

"Ah." Aziraphale leaned forward. "Try twirling them around your fork."

"Thanks," Crowley said, less sibilant than felt quite comfortable on his tongue. He wished he didn't feel the need to lie. He hadn't much practice at lying to Aziraphale in specific, but he couldn't stand to see Aziraphale react with stiff discomfort under his regard. "So," Crowley said, casting about for a topic, "why do you think the apocalypse didn't go off, anyway?"

"Really not my place to speculate," Aziraphale said.

"But if you had to," Crowley pressed. He didn't have any real reason to pursue this: he had a fairly good idea why the apocalypse hadn't gone off, which was because, even with Crowley out of the equation and a different demon in -- Hastur, maybe, Hastur would have been pleased to make the delivery -- those Satanic nuns might still have bungled the baby swap, and Adam would still have grown up without any influences but human ones, and his choice would have been the same. In the grand scheme of things, neither Aziraphale nor Crowley had much to do with stopping the apocalypse at all. And this version of Aziraphale, it seemed, hadn't even tried to interfere, and had no reason to know anything about it. Still, Crowley wanted Aziraphale's idle speculation, an aimless discussion while they finished the bottle of wine, something, anything.

"Do I have to?" Aziraphale asked, carefully.

"What?" said Crowley.

"I told you, I have no idea what happened," Aziraphale said. "I realize I was the agent closest to the ground, so to speak, but I thought -- it being the Great Plan -- I should just stay in London and await orders."

"Right," said Crowley. "That's -- that's fine. That was fine."

"Good," Aziraphale said. He was sitting up very straight, and wouldn't look directly at Crowley.

"I think," Crowley said, moved by something that was close cousins to both hope and desperation, "that maybe that was the Plan, all along -- it not happening, I mean. Antichrist gets left all alone and decides not to end the world, turns out maybe this whole thing wasn't a test to destruction. What do you think of that?"

"I think," Aziraphale said, on a shaky breath, "that this is all quite beyond me, and also quite beyond you, and I do appreciate the invitation to lunch but I have -- things to do. Minor miracles and, and bookkeeping."

That was fear on Aziraphale's face. It took Crowley a beat too long to place, but by then Aziraphale had already risen, neatly folded napkin tucked under the edge of his plate. He was gone. Crowley stared after him. That conversational gambit had been positively tame, in the grand scheme of their rambling discussions. He'd expected Aziraphale to affably agree to the ineffability of the whole thing, followed by a comfortable musing on human nature over tiramisu. He hadn't expected fear. He hadn't expected Aziraphale to look like -- like he thought Crowley was trying to catch him out. Like Aziraphale was afraid that Crowley was going to think he had doubts.

Like Aziraphale had never had thousands of years of someone else voicing those doubts for him.

In his quietest, most secret heart, Crowley had always suspected that the problem between them really did come down to his basic nature. Whether Aziraphale was using Heaven's approval as an excuse or not, whether they'd defied Heaven and Hell together and really were on their own side, the problem remained: there would always be space between them, because Crowley was a demon. He hadn't thought that his own presence, needling Aziraphale and asking questions, had provided Aziraphale a sort of excuse to do the same.

The idea that he might have been giving Aziraphale something necessary all this time was too much. Instead of considering it for even a moment longer, Crowley retreated to his flat and went straight to bed.

+

The next morning, he returned to the bookstore. He couldn't help himself. Even in a world where Aziraphale didn't trust or remember him, he was the only rock in the turbulent sea of Crowley's thoughts.

"Nahashel," Aziraphale greeted him, a thread of alarm in his voice.

I can't do this, Crowley thought, looking at the wariness on Aziraphale's face, the absolute unrecognition. I can't do this without you.

"It's," Crowley said, and the word stuck in his throat, feeling like a fiction, but he gritted his teeth and forced it out. "It's Crowley, actually."

Aziraphale looked at him, politely uncomprehending.

They were alone in the shop. Crowley resisted the urge to glance into corners, and didn't quite manage to resist cringing a little under the imagined weight of attention from Above. "Before the Beginning," he said, throat dry, "it was Nahashel, but until last week it was Crowley. I was a demon. Six thousand years, mostly right here on Earth. With you, actually. And we were friends. Not quite for six thousand years -- we only managed to work that one out in the last thousand, but by then we'd realized we mostly canceled one another out, morally speaking, and it was a lot easier to just stay home. Or do the miracle and the temptation, save the other one time. Or to go to the theater together. Or lunch."

"Lunch," Aziraphale repeated faintly. He looked as though he couldn't decide whether or not Crowley was mad, and hadn't yet landed on whether to be more concerned for himself or for Crowley, which was fair.

"I know all your favorite restaurants," Crowley pressed. "I know about your first editions of prophetic books, and your misprinted Bible collection, and your Regency snuffboxes. You've been wearing that coat since 1836. You'd rather listen to Sondheim than Rogers and Hammerstein, and you prefer cocoa to tea, and--"

"Stop," said Aziraphale, real anguish in his voice.

Crowley stopped.

"You can't have been a demon," Aziraphale said. "No one used to be a demon. Why would you say that?"

"It's true," Crowley said. It was occurring to him that this might be a mistake. He didn't know what he'd been thinking. He hadn't been thinking. He'd just wanted Aziraphale to look at him like they knew one another, but Aziraphale was still looking at him like he was a stranger, and like he'd finally come to a conclusion about Crowley, which was: Crowley was dangerous.

Aziraphale had never looked at him like that before.

"It can't be true," Aziraphale said, somewhere between pleading and furious. "That would mean -- Nothing would be certain, if that were true! Why would you tell me that? Why would you say I'd been friends with a demon? What do you want?"

Crowley had been so stupid.

Aziraphale wasn't using Heaven's disapproval as an excuse. Aziraphale was terrified of Heaven. He was afraid of having doubt. Nearly all angels were made of absolute certainty, but the only thing in the whole Heavenly business Aziraphale had ever been certain of was God. Without Crowley ... without Crowley, he was so alone, and so afraid.

Funny thing, Crowley thought, feeling dazed. It turned out he would rather be unforgivable than go even a second longer leaving Aziraphale alone like this.

"I want to undo it," Crowley said. "I'm so sorry, Aziraphale."

He turned and bolted for the nearest bus to Oxfordshire.

+

Around midday, Crowley got off the bus in Lower Tadfield, and at once was almost run down by four children on bicycles. They whizzed by close enough to ruffle his hair, and Crowley, spotting an unruly mop of golden curls among them, called out wildly, "Oi, Adam!"

The bikes skidded to a halt. Four curious pairs of eyes looked him over. Adam dragged his bike in front of the others and eyed Crowley, frowning.

"Change it back," Crowley said. "I'm sorry, I'm an absolute idiot, I can't be an angel because he's my angel and I'm his demon and if you change that it all goes to pieces--"

"I didn't know I'd done that," Adam said, looking startled. "You don't belong like that at all."

Something shifted.

"Your car's parked just down the road," Adam added. He steadied his bike and headed off, the other children giving Crowley a few final curious glances before following in his wake.

Crowley took stock. His shoes were snakeskin again, and his clothes were black. He materialized a pair of sunglasses, and slid them onto his face. He felt sinuous, properly in his skin, and when he gave a dark look to a nearby hedgerow, several of its leaves curled backwards in wilting alarm. Crowley felt around inside himself for the name that had been returned to him, but it was gone. He could feel the hollow place where it was supposed to be, but it felt less as though Crowley had lost something, and more as though a space had been cleared out, and was waiting to be filled with what properly belonged there.

His obscenely expensive watch was back on his wrist. The date on its readout was last Sunday.

"Fuck," Crowley hissed, all of last week's problems flooding back to him. If Adam had reversed things, that meant they were back where they'd been, with both Heaven and Hell furious with them, and Agnes's final prophecy their only lead.

He found the Bentley just down the road, right where Adam had said it would be. Crowley trailed loving fingers along its perfect paintwork, murmuring hello. Then he got in and tore off back to London as fast as he could, which was very, very fast.

+

The bookshop was intact again in this version of the world too. Crowley burst in, enveloped by the smell of dust and old paper and binding glue and Aziraphale's cologne. Aziraphale stepped around a stack with a look of disapproval that turned, in a moment, into delight.

Crowley had never seen anything more wonderful than the way Aziraphale was looking at him, like he knew him entirely.

"Crowley!" he said. "I thought we'd arranged to meet in St. James's. This is a bit early in the day, don't you think?"

"I see you got the bookshop back," Crowley said. His eyes were stinging. Something felt wrenched loose in his chest again. "Just as it was, is it?"

"Nearly," said Aziraphale. He peered closer at Crowley's face, his expression shifting to concern. "Crowley, are you quite all right?"

"Yeah, never better," Crowley said. It was true. He could hardly breathe for joy. "And I've figured it out. I know what Agnes thought we should do. We need to literally choose our faces -- swap them out, I mean. Heaven can't kill a demon, so if they put me in hellfire or cast me out it makes no difference. I don't know what Hell's planning, but whatever it is, I expect it'll hurt me much worse than it would hurt you. I'll be the angel today, and you be the demon."

Aziraphale was still looking surprised. "Yes," he said, drawing the word out as though feeling around the idea, "that might work."

"Our side," Crowley found himself adding. "Aziraphale, you have to -- please--"

"My dear, what happened?" Aziraphale asked gently. "We can take a moment before we go around rearranging our forms. You do really look very--"

"I made a mistake," Crowley said. "I thought about sides in front of Adam." He struggled for a moment with really admitting what he'd thought, what Adam had seen, and then sailed blithely past it. "He, er, made me an angel again."

"Oh," Aziraphale said, soft with sympathetic surprise, no expectation or judgment attached to the sound.

"You didn't know me," Crowley went on. He didn't want to tell Aziraphale how tightly wound and distant and afraid that other Aziraphale had been. And, he discovered, he didn't have to: this one, the Aziraphale that was his, the one who wasn't only half a person, was looking at Crowley with quiet dawning horror. Aziraphale could imagine exactly what that meant. "So, yeah," Crowley said, "that wasn't really working for me, and I thought, well, what's even the point of being an angel if you're not around to enjoy the world with me?"

Aziraphale's lips parted. He looked, for a moment, as though he were fighting an internal debate, the same one he always did, over and over for millennia. Crowley waited. If this was the best he was going to get, he knew what some of the alternatives were now, and he wouldn't give this up for anything.

"I often wonder the same thing," Aziraphale said, very carefully. "What the point would be, if you weren't around to enjoy it with me."

Crowley forgot to breathe. It didn't make much difference, except that it allowed him to go very still, more so than a human could manage.

"I don't ... believe it would be the same," Aziraphale said. "You're right, you know. We are on our own side. We have been for quite some time."

"You don't have to," Crowley said, astonished with himself even as the words left his mouth. All that frustration and longing, and now that Aziraphale had admitted it -- "You don't have to say it, angel."

"But obviously I do." Aziraphale stepped closer. Crowley felt pinned. "Every time I deny you, you return to me. You could have been an angel again, Crowley, but you returned to me. This is the least of what I owe you."

"You don't owe me anything," Crowley muttered. He was much too warm, a feeling that skidded right along the pleasant edge of uncomfortable. Aziraphale was still looking at him as though he could see all of him -- not the way Adam had, like he could read everything about Crowley in an instant, but as though he'd built up years and years of observations and had, in the end, come to the conclusion that Crowley was worth looking at with soft, affectionate delight. Crowley drank it in, desperately grateful for the sunglasses hiding the way he was looking in return. "Just -- I don't know, let's go on that picnic you talked about, or to the Ritz, and we'll call it even."

"If that's what you'd like," Aziraphale said. "What do you want, Crowley?"

The other version of Aziraphale had asked him that, like he'd noticed a trap and was waiting for it to be sprung. Aziraphale here, his Aziraphale, was asking it like an invitation. Crowley told himself to wait. Slow down, don't scare him, stop hoping; but none of it was a match for Aziraphale's adoring gaze, and the understanding expectation on his face.

"You," Crowley said.

There was a very specific terror, in falling: the world reduced to the blazing light of friction around your body, the sudden discovery of gravity, and vertigo, and the realization that anything could be below you, that no one was going to be there to catch you at the end. Crowley felt it again, the weightless drop, and the heat, and the terror of abandonment, as though his body was several hours behind schedule and had suddenly realized he wasn't an angel anymore.

"Crowley," Aziraphale said, and caught him.

His arms went around Crowley, and he pressed his forehead gently against Crowley's own, and he said, infinitely tender, "You have me, my dear. However you want."

Caught, Crowley trembled. It was too much. He had no idea what to do with his hands, and he had no idea what was allowed and what would be too far, and this felt so delicate, and so, so important, and Aziraphale couldn't offer that, he couldn't offer all of himself, didn't he understand how Crowley wanted--

"Crowley," Aziraphale said again, steadying. He pulled back to remove Crowley's sunglasses, slowly enough that Crowley could have stopped him. Crowley didn't stop him. Aziraphale folded the sunglasses, setting them on a shelf behind Crowley's head, and turned back to him. Crowley made himself meet Aziraphale's eyes. Aziraphale was still smiling, with so much affection that Crowley wasn't sure he'd be able to withstand it. He leaned forward, slowly enough that Crowley could have stopped him. Crowley didn't stop him.

Aziraphale kissed him.

It was an astonishingly good kiss. Crowley had spent a truly mortifying amount of time, over the years, wondering how Aziraphale would kiss; he'd imagined everything from almost chastely shy and a little fluttering to indulgently enthusiastic, if a bit unpracticed. This kiss was neither shy nor unpracticed. It was thorough. It was a kiss that wanted to know everything about the shape of Crowley's lips, and the taste of his mouth, and what noises Crowley would make if Aziraphale pressed gentle insistent fingers to Crowley's jaw to change and deepen the angle. It was a kiss that understood exactly how much Crowley wanted and was prepared to give it to him. Crowley's knees nearly buckled under the force of it.

When Aziraphale finally drew back, Crowley chased after his mouth, managing to land a hungry press of lips to the corner of Aziraphale's smile. "Don't stop," Crowley said. "Why'd you stop?"

"This is hardly the place for it," Aziraphale told him. "Anyone could come in."

"Don't care," Crowley said. Every single nerve in his body was lit up, including some that hadn't existed a few minutes ago but were now making themselves known in a way that was threatening to become embarrassingly insistent.

"I do," Aziraphale said. "Come upstairs."

"Oh," Crowley said. "Right. Yes. Upstairs."

He couldn't quite remember how legs were supposed to work. He was probably in shock, or having one of his infrequent dreams. Aziraphale laid a hand on his elbow, solid and real and there, and pulled Crowley through the back room, up the dim creaky stairwell, and through Aziraphale's kitchen to a room that Crowley was almost certain had been a cupboard until a minute ago, but was now a bedroom.

"You don't have a bed," Crowley said, in the face of the evidence, which was: one bed, with a carved wooden headboard, invitingly plump pillows, a fluffy checkered quilt, a mattress more than big enough for two.

Aziraphale reasonably ignored this. "What do you want, Crowley?" he asked again, like an invitation, like permission.

I'm going to ruin it, Crowley thought; don't panic, Crowley thought; he knows, Crowley thought, Aziraphale knows and he's still here. He tried to think of what he wanted, what he could possibly ask for, and it was still too much. Even after he fought back the fear that he might demand something impossible, the fact remained that there was no end to what he wanted, no boundaries or edges, and an attempt to quantify or choose felt impossible. "You," Crowley said again. "That's all. Anything you'd like."

"Oh," Aziraphale said, a soft noise of surprise. He cupped Crowley's face in his hands and kissed him again, a swift and fervent kiss, leaving Crowley dizzy. "On the bed, then," Aziraphale said, giving him a gentle push.

Crowley fell, gratefully. Before he could do anything to arrange himself, or even to gather his scattered thoughts and limbs, Aziraphale snapped his fingers, and Crowley's clothes vanished.

"Wings," Aziraphale said, so decisively it was less a request than a command.

It was the easiest thing in the world to obey. Crowley brought them out, every pinion trembling and sensitive against the quilt beneath him. Aziraphale, still standing at the foot of the bed, gave a little sigh of satisfaction, and Crowley felt it like an approving touch of sunlight. He stretched languidly and gazed up at Aziraphale, who looked -- stunned, Aziraphale looked stunned, dazed and happy and disbelieving.

"Come here, angel," Crowley murmured.

"Yes," Aziraphale said, "yes, of course," but he stood there a moment longer, simply looking at Crowley, a bit like he was trying to memorize him, a bit like he was thinking of devouring him.

Crowley tried to preen a little -- to show off, if Aziraphale was going to look at him like that -- but the only thing his body seemed capable of doing was filling up with a brimming heat that started in diffuse pleasure and ended in sharp arousal. Crowley squirmed against the quilt, and shuddered, and said again, "Come here, Aziraphale."

Aziraphale did. His own wings came out, in a flurry of brilliance, and when he bent down to Crowley his feathers created a protective arching canopy over both of them. He seemed to have forgotten about his clothes, and Crowley, foreseeing the fuss if either of them made a mess of Aziraphale's trousers, shakily snapped his own fingers, vanishing the whole lot. "Oh, thank you," Aziraphale said, and then his mouth was on Crowley's and one of his legs pushed between Crowley's thighs for Crowley to rub his cock up against and his hands were on Crowley's wrists, drawing them above his head, lacing their fingers together, and Crowley was moaning into the kiss, all dignity forgotten, nothing in his head except more more more.

He hadn't any idea how Aziraphale had known to hold him down. He hadn't known it himself, but now it felt like the only thing that was keeping him from flying apart was Aziraphale's weight over him, solid and sure, and the clasp of their hands. Aziraphale's skin was soft and hot against his, Aziraphale was kissing him with deep, focused attention, Aziraphale was giving Crowley just enough friction to drive Crowley frantic and it wasn't enough, how could it be enough, there was no end to what he wanted--

He hadn't realized the noises he was making had slid towards distress, but Aziraphale was suddenly peppering small kisses to Crowley's nose and eyelids and forehead, ridiculous places, and murmuring, "I know, Crowley, I know, give me just a moment, I'll make it good--"

--and then Crowley experienced the singularly odd feeling of a miracle being done to him, a minute adjustment of his own body and being, so that what had felt like agonizing directionless need became, very suddenly, focused. The place in Crowley where his name used to be was waiting to be filled with what properly belonged there, and Crowley's legs fell open and he lifted his hips and Aziraphale gathered him close and slid into him, perfectly.

Oh, Crowley thought. That's it. That's what it's been all along.

Aziraphale, lighting him up with grace, singing through him like a chime, and Crowley lost track of what their physical forms were supposed to be doing, exactly. The wings surrounding them were multitudinous, filling the whole bedroom, a pinwheel vortex of feathers with a thousand familiar eyes. Somewhere, several hundred light years away, a bright new star coalesced out of a nebula. Their bodies were only the faintest outlines for two white-hot pillars of fire, entwined. And at the same time Crowley was aware of the lovely, mundane feeling of being stretched and filled and held, of his hips rising to meet Aziraphale's thrusts, of his heart in his throat and Aziraphale's fingers tight in his, of a slowly inevitably building pleasure, terrifying and perfect.

Crowley came screaming hoarsely into Aziraphale's shoulder, unsure where each of them ended or began.

He felt flooded with light, floating on a delighted lassitude that was Aziraphale's as much as his own. There was no need to ask if it had been good for Aziraphale too. There was no need, even, for either of them to ask permission before, as they carefully unentwined themselves, they settled into one another's skin.

Crowley blinked his eyes open to see his own face above him, wearing an expression of dazed adoration more naked than Crowley hoped he'd ever show on purpose. "Exactly as Agnes suggested," Aziraphale said happily, with Crowley's voice and Crowley's mouth.

"Hope she didn't predict it exactly like this," Crowley returned.

"I don't think she saw everything," Aziraphale said primly, which sounded frankly hilarious in Crowley's voice. He leaned down and pressed another kiss to Crowley's mouth, which was weird, but in the best possible way. "What would you say to getting ice cream in the park?"

Wearing Aziraphale's form didn't seem to have conferred any of Aziraphale's more culinary appetites; Crowley felt fairly indifferent to the concept of ice cream. "Sure," he said, and reached up, tracing the contours of his own face in fascination. He could see Aziraphale in there, shining out around the edges. Something about the tilt of the mouth, or the softness of the eyes, ways Crowley had never worn his own face, not even in the week he'd been an angel again, not ever. "Look at you," he settled for. "You make a fine demon."

"And you make a lovely angel," Aziraphale said, "but if it's all the same to you, I'd prefer to get this over with. You're perfect exactly as you are."