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Fall from the Skies

Chapter Text

Crawley wants to talk to the angel.

He’s wanted to for some time. Oh, certainly, he has a mission to accomplish, he was sent up to cause discord and invent strife from amidst the placid peace that wraps the Garden as neatly as the walls do; but it’s not as if one can be always tempting, it would hardly do to seem too desperate. So he has downtime, between muttering -- well, hissing -- suggestions to sleeping ears and waking innocence, and in the absence of anyone else to speak to but the couple who are a bit more interested in each other than either of them is in Crawley his attention draws naturally to the only other creature capable of a coherent conversation, the white-robed figure stationed by the Eastern Gate.

He hasn’t had a chance to approach before now. They both have their work, after all: the angel to guard the gate, armed with a remarkable flaming sword, and Crawley to lead the first humans into temptation as quickly as he can get there. It’s not as if he can just slither up and offer a comment on the absolute perfection of the weather; he would be grateful for a dreary drizzle, or even a few likely-looking clouds, just to spark the possibility of small talk. But it’s only with the conclusion of Crawley’s mission -- a success, by the standards of Hell, which are the only ones he is meant to consider -- that the sky finally gives way to the thunderclouds that Crawley has been wishing for.

Not that he needs an excuse for conversation now, when there’s a far more pressing subject than the weather. That’s God for you, Crawley reflects as he slithers up the sheer interior wall of the Garden to emerge winding across the white stones on which the barefooted angel is standing. Never helpful except when you already had got things all sorted out yourself anyway.

Crawley pulls himself up, lengthening his shape against all the persuasions of gravity urging him back to the ground. The angel’s head turns as Crawley’s scales spread out, as his nose shortens and his mouth narrows. Scales morph, blending into smooth skin and curling hair, until finally Crawley can unfurl his wings to spread out into the thunderstorm-tense heat of the air rising up off the sand below. The angel glances at his wings too, his own white feathers shifting with anxious self-consciousness, but Crawley keeps his gaze on the pair striding out into the sand below them instead of looking sideways. It is important to not appear desperate, after all.

“Well that went down like a lead balloon.”

The angel laughs the painful, polite laugh of someone at a cocktail party who didn’t quite hear all the words of a joke before he stops himself. “Sorry, what was that?”

Crawley tips his head to the side to give the angel the full force of his snake-pupiled eyes. “I said, well that went down like a lead balloon.”

The angel ducks his head to nod, trapped into conversation by his own inherent politeness. “Yes. Yes, it did, rather.”

“Bit of an overreaction, if you ask me.” The angel glances at Crawley. His eyes are wide with a kind of helpless fascination that recalls Crawley vividly of the predatory nature to his smoother, scaled form. “First offense and everything, eh.” Crawley pauses to let this point sink in before he draws a breath for the grand finale. “I can’t see what’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil anyway.”

“W-well,” the angel stammers. “It must be bad…” He pauses, pointedly, and then glances to Crawley to prod with the sharp end.

Crawley smiles at this early victory. “Crawley.”

“Crawley.” The angel beams and nods. Crawley can hear his feathers rustling like the leaves on a very nervous tree. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have tempted them into it.”

“Ahh,” Crawley scoffs. “They just said get up there and make some trouble.”

“Well obviously,” the angel says. “You’re a demon. It’s what you do.” He looks back out at the desert, his mouth set into prim lines of reproach. Crawley tips sideways, considering the angel’s set expression before he takes a breath and circles round for a different approach entirely.

“Not very subtle of the Almighty, though. Fruit tree in the middle of a garden with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign, innit?” Crawley casts his gaze sideways without turning his head. The angel isn’t looking at him, but the pressure of judgment at his mouth is softening towards a frown. “Why not put it on the top of a high mountain? Or on the moon?”

The angel is looking quite concerned, now. Crawley goes on speaking to the crease forming itself between his brows. “Makes you wonder what God’s really planning.”

The angel frowns for a moment; then he draws a breath, visibly recentering himself. “Best not to speculate,” he says, sounding a little concerned. “It’s all part of the great plan. It’s not for us to understand.” He’s warming to this idea, feeding the fire of his own conviction to a comfortable glow. When he tips his head in to the side his tone is low, conspiratorial, as if he’s bequeathing some fragment of invaluable wisdom. “It’s ineffable.”

Crawley frowns. “The great plan’s ineffable?”

“Exactly,” the angel sighs, sounding relieved. “It is beyond understanding, and incapable of being put into words.”

His shoulders are easing, relaxing from the brief tension Crawley brought to them; his gossamer robes are draping gracefully over his arms, spilling from the line of his wings at his back down to his wrists hanging slack at his sides. Crawley tips his head to consider this, rocks back to get a better look at the angel’s far hand, which remains as empty and relaxed as that on his near side. He frowns. “Didn’t you have a flaming sword?”

All the released tension decides at once it actually quite liked its old home and returns in a rush to the angel’s shoulders. He ducks his head, his mouth working in pursuit of speech. “U-uh.”

“You did,” Crawley declares. “It was flaming like anything. What happened to it?”

The angel’s mouth moves to sketch out the outlines of words that are left unfortunately hollow of any sound to fill them. Crawley’s eyebrow raises. “Lost it already, have you?”

The angel’s head turns aside and down. Crawley loses sight of his struggling mouth in exchange for the curl of hair as pale as featherdown. There’s an incoherent noise, a mumble of sound nearly lost to the distant roar of the storm, and then, very softly: “Gave it away.”

All thought of self-restraint evaporates from Crawley’s head like water poured out over the desert sand. He twists to stare at the angel so fast it’s only his wings catching at the air that keeps him on his feet. “You what?”

“I gave it away” the angel wails, turning back to face Crawley properly again. “There are vicious animals. It’s going to be cold out there, and she’s expecting already, and I said ‘here you go, flaming sword, don’t thank me, and don’t let the sun go down on you here.’” The angel turns aside, the brief flurry of his discomposure spent in this confession. Crawley’s mouth is fighting a heated battle with a smile that he is fairly sure he’s losing, but the angel’s forehead is creased on concern and he doesn’t see the laughter threatening to break free of Crawley’s throat. He frowns and wrings his hands. “I do hope I didn’t do the wrong thing.”

Crawley collects himself with an effort. “Oh, you’re an angel,” he drawls. Some of the amusement clings to his throat to stick the words to teasing but he lets it be. He’d hardly be a demon at all if he didn’t take the opportunity to entertain himself at the opposition’s expense now and again. “I don’t think you can do the wrong thing.”

“Oh-oh,” the angel stammers, looking back to Crawley. “Thank y--oh, thank you.” The tension in his face gives way, easing into relief that seems to mold itself into the curve of a sincere smile instead of the other way around. Crawley feels, for the briefest of moments, as if the unmoving stones beneath his feet have veered sideways in an attempt to drop him right off the edge of the wall. The angel beams at him and nods gratefully. “It’s been bothering me.”

Crawley looks out at the expanse of endless desert spread out before them. The vertigo is easier to bear, that way, while he draws himself back together and smoothes his voice to calm. “I’ve been worrying too.” Far out in the distance the human is flailing with the flaming weight of the sword. Crawley reflects that he lacks grace, that the angel really bore the weapon with far more natural elegance; and then he realizes what he is thinking, and tries very hard to pretend he never had any such thoughts at all. “What if I did the right thing with the whole eat the apple bit? A demon can get into a lot of trouble for doing the right thing.”

Out in the desert the human lunges forward, the length of the sword slices through first the air, and then the lion. A roar cuts off rather wetly. The angel’s expression falls.

Crawley angles his head to the side. “Be funny if we both got it wrong, eh?” The angel looks back to him, his eyes wide with sudden alarm. They are very pale, almost the color of the golden sand blowing to drifts in the desert beneath them. Crawley tries on a smile for size and finds it a reasonable fit. “If I did the good thing and you did the bad one.”

The angel stares at Crawley for a moment. Then the corners of his eyes crinkle, his cheeks flush a rosy pink, and when he laughs Crawley feels his stomach drop with the approximate velocity of a stone thrown off the top of a very tall tower, or perhaps more accurately an angel banished from the eternal bliss of Heaven for asking the wrong questions. Crawley stares at the angel laughing, his whole existence caught in thrall, until those gold eyes widen and the angel presses his lips together with an expression of abrupt horror on his face.

“No!” he gasps. “It wouldn’t be funny at all!”

Crawley shrugs and makes some noncommittal sound. It’s best to avoid commitment whenever possible, and he’s already accidentally offered up far more than he at all intended to. He looks out at the stormclouds massing in the sky to blot the clear blue to thick, sodden grey; a crack of thunder tears at the air, followed quite shortly by the weight of fat, heavy raindrops spilling through the air. Crawley flinches at the cold of the wet against his skin and his feet take advantage of his moment of distraction to shuffle him to the side, across the inches of distance between himself and the angel. Crawley grimaces, wondering if he ought to retreat to find some space where he can remain damp instead of drenched, when there’s the rustle of feathers, and a shadow layers itself atop the weight of the clouds in front of the sun.

Crawley looks up. There’s a white wing stretched out over him, curving through the air to interrupt the path of the raindrops seeking purchase at his hair and clothes. He looks sideways. The angel is watching him, his mouth set onto a frown of concern. Crawley stares at him for a moment; then he draws his wings in closer against his back, and shuffles a little closer to the shape of the angel next to him. The wing over him curves a little higher, the better to protect him from the wet of the drops.

They are silent for a moment as the white stone around them soaks to a slightly darker shade of white, with Crawley standing in the middle of a wing outlined by the spreading damp. Then Crawley clears his throat.

“I didn’t catch your name,” he says, and tips his head to look at the other. “Unless they stopped issuing them. Are you the Angel-of-the-Eastern-Gate? He-Who-Once-Had-a-Flaming-Sword?”

The angel’s cheeks flush. “Of course I have a name,” he says. “I’m Aziraphale.”

“Ah,” Crawley says. “Aziraphale.” He nods. “Good to make your acquaintance.”

Aziraphale glances sideways at Crawley and flickers a smile of uncertain sincerity. Crawley gazes at him for another moment, watching the wet soak Aziraphale’s hair to stick to his scalp and drench his lashes, before he looks back out to the desert to breathe a sigh of resignation for no ears but his own.

Whether out of grace or into love, it seems he’s making a habit of falling.

Chapter Text

It’s a wet morning.

Aziraphale hardly knows what else he expected. It’s not as if he didn’t have advance warning of exactly this, with the endlessly overcast skies and the wash of water swallowing what was once dry land, complete with houses and people and occasional trees under which one might have a picnic, if one was interested in such things and not in the midst of important business from the Almighty. And it’s not as if forty days is that long, in the grand scheme of things, and less so to an angel for whom millennia are no more than a way to pass the endless scope of eternity. But the march of time ticking past seems to have suffered the same fate as any parade when confronted with a downpour, scattering seconds and halting minutes while hours steadfastly refuse to move from their fixed positions. Aziraphale’s intention to count the days was given up as a failure before he missed his first lunchtime, and he’s spent the endless span since hunched into what comfort he can find for himself.

He could have left. It’s not as if it’s raining over the entire world, after all; he could take himself off to one of the other areas that still have a speaking relationship with sunlight, and dry ground, and crowds beyond a single extended family locked up in a huge floating box. But he has a task to perform, a responsibility sufficient to keep him on the Earth instead of returning to the celestial comforts Heaven may offer, and he finds he can’t quite stomach the thought of departing at the start of the suffering only to return at the conclusion. It seems unfair, like supporting a sports team only when it’s just won a grand tournament. So Aziraphale stays where he is, waiting through the endless storm with his sense of noble purpose to comfort him.

It’s just a shame it isn’t more waterproof.

Aziraphale isn’t paying much attention to his surroundings. He knows what there is to see: water, falling from the sky and extending to the horizon, a vast, unbroken sheet of dismal gray as far as the eye can see, whether that eye is mortal or otherwise. He’s been alone for weeks, with no company and no more comfort than the one bedraggled tree over him, which early on committed the betrayal of trickling water off its leaves down the back of his neck and has remained resolutely recalcitrant to any effort Aziraphale may have made to persuade it into offering some measure of shelter. It’s certainly given back nothing but a cold shoulder to any of the idle conversation Aziraphale has offered just for the sake of hearing something over the rain, and so he’s quite taken aback when a voice speaks from the texture of the trunk against which he is huddling.

“Terrible weather we’ve been having, isn’t it?”

Aziraphale opens his eyes wide. “What?” he says, from shock rather than as a real question, and twists to look back over his shoulder on the off-chance that the tree has grown as tired of its vigil as he and metamorphosed into something with more personality, or at least better odds of swimming to a different island. The tree is still there, still offering miniature waterfalls designed to get under Aziraphale’s sodden robes with all the intelligence of a truly ineffable plan; but there’s a dark shadow sliding along it to pour off one of the branches and to the tiny circle of solid ground beneath it. Aziraphale blinks in surprise, and in the space between shock and comment the serpentine form reorients itself into the marginally less sinuous shape of the demon Crawley.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. “Crawley.”

“The one and only.” Crawley tips his head to the side to sweep the vivid yellow of his gaze up over Aziraphale next to him. “You’re looking a little bedraggled there, angel.”

Aziraphale huffs. “Yes,” he says. “It’s been a bit wet today.”

Crawley hums. “Not just today. You weren’t kidding about the whole…” He waves his hand to gesture variously at the water, the water, and the water. “Drowning thing.”

“Of course I wasn’t,” Aziraphale says. “Angels don’t lie.”

Crawley angles a smile at Aziraphale so sharp Aziraphale is surprised it doesn’t bite. “Even to demons?”

Aziraphale grimaces. “Well. I try not to, anyway.” Crawley’s grin pulls wide enough that Aziraphale can see the white of his teeth. It’s the brightest thing he’s seen in weeks; when he tries to look away he only succeeds for a moment before his willpower decides it’s had enough of that and gives up to the temptation to look back at Crawley next to him. “Have you been here all this time?”

Crawley wrinkles his nose as he shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “It’s a bit cold for scales. I really prefer the whole basking thing, and that’s a little hard to manage with no sun.”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

“And that boat was huge anyway,” Crawley goes on. “It’s hardly as if they were going to be bothered with a daily inventory. With the mice and the elephants to deal with no one complained about an extra snake in the corner.”

Aziraphale opens his eyes wide. “You--” He turns to give Crawley an accusing look, which Crawley returns with an expression that declares his absolute innocence, complete with a signed statement, a watertight alibi, and three sworn witnesses for the same. “You’ve been on the ark this whole time?”

Crawley shrugs. “It seemed the best place to wait out the storm, all things considered. That’s what it was made for, after all. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity.” He cocks his head to the side as he considers Aziraphale next to him. “Upset you didn’t think of it first, are you?”

“I--” Aziraphale gasps, and turns away again. “No. It’s my responsibility to wait here, not to...to gallivant about a cruise ship.”

“Suit yourself,” Crawley drawls, turning aside towards the water. Aziraphale glances after him, ready to protest the other’s departure as an unfair argumentative tactic, but Crawley only moves to pace around the tiny span of ground at the base of the tree. He doesn’t seem to have entirely refamiliarized himself with his human form; there is something distinctly sinuous to the shift of his weight as he draws around the tree to circle to Aziraphale’s other side. “It seems to me that you only really need to be here for the last bit now, though. You could have spent, what, a month tucked away safe and dry instead of standing out here in the rain.”

Aziraphale feels a distinct temptation to hunch his shoulders at this reminder of the clinging wet of the robes sticking to his skin, and it’s only a deliberate application of heavenly purpose that prevents him from giving in. “It’s not that bad,” he says staunchly, and even manages to meet Crawley’s disbelieving gaze for a moment before he looks away to the water. “It’s...it’s calming. Meditative.”

“Uh huh,” Crawley says. He takes another step closer to stand just at Aziraphale’s shoulder. “Well. I’m sure you wouldn’t have liked it anyway. After the first few days there was nothing to eat but cheese and olives.” Aziraphale looks over at him as Crawley shrugs. “This last week they even ran out of wine. At least we had the last of it, though. I don’t suppose there’ll be much chance for more of that for, oh, a century or so. Have to work out grape cultivation all over again.”

“Oh dear,” Aziraphale says. “Do you really think it’ll be that long?”

“Possibly,” Crawley says. “Depends on how into agriculture your chosen family happens to be.” He cocks his head to the side and frowns out into the uninterrupted gray of the sky. “D’you see something moving out there?”

Aziraphale blinks, struggling to free himself from the weight of depression Crawley’s words brought with them. “What?”

“Out there,” Crawley says, ducking his chin. “Near the horizon. I swear there’s something out there.”

Aziraphale looks. There is quite a lot to see, and very little variation in any part of it. “What, the water?”

Crawley rolls his eyes. “No, angel, not the water. Look.” He lifts a hand to point and leans in closer against Aziraphale next to him. “Way out in the distance. It looks like…”

“A bird,” Aziraphale gasps. “Finally.” He looks to Crawley’s creased-brow confusion, too full of enthusiasm to bear the thought of hoarding it to himself. Crawley raises an eyebrow in answer to Aziraphale’s beaming smile and a laugh bubbles up Aziraphale’s throat before he looks back out to lift a hand and wave to the distant speck of white in the midst of the gray around them. “Here, over here!”

“I don’t think it can possibly hear you at this distance,” Crawley drawls. “And I’m certain its listening comprehension for English is quite dreadful.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Aziraphale tells him, lowering his hand to clasp in front of him instead of waving through the air, though his smile clings to his mouth with irrepressible enthusiasm. He hardly even minds the rain anymore. “It’s all happening just as it should.”

“Ah yes,” Crawley says. “The Plan.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, and turns his head to beam at Crawley. Crawley’s watching him instead of the bird making its dutiful way across the water towards them; there’s a smile against his lips too, although his is far more bemused than Aziraphale’s own. “It’s all going to be alright now, you’ll see.”

Crawley works his shoulders under the weight of his clothing in a motion that just barely comes down on this side of respectability rather than sensual. “I suppose we will.”

Aziraphale turns back to the bird. It’s easier to see it as it draws closer; he can see it as the dove it is, now, although he hardly needed the clarity of vision to be certain of that when he has the word of the Almighty herself to go on. He looks up to the wet branches overhead as the bird approaches and reaches up to break off a twig at the end. It would be a very elegant gesture indeed if his sleeve was less sodden and perhaps if his hair was less plastered to his scalp.

“That’ll be too big,” Crawley observes as Aziraphale brings the branch down. “They’re small birds, doves, mostly feathers. Hardly enough meat on them to even make for a snack.”

Aziraphale looks at Crawley, aghast. “You didn’t.”

Crawley looks at him sideways for a moment before shrugging his shoulders and heaving a sigh. “No, of course not.” He extends his hand. “Give me the branch.” Aziraphale hands it over and Crawley braces it between his hands to snap it in two before casting aside the larger half and setting to work on the hand-length of leaves he is left with. “It’s hardly a pleasant experience, eating like that. I mean have you ever tried unhinging your jaw?” Aziraphale winces and Crawley glances up at him. “Yeah. You see why I’m not thrilled to give it a try. Besides, it’s not like we need to eat anyway.” He peels off a last leaf before handing the branch back to Aziraphale, stripped bare enough that it would be blushing if trees were granted a sense of self-consciousness. “There.”

Aziraphale takes it and looks back out. The dove is fluttering in close now, fighting against the eddies the wind is making around the tree; he reaches out a hand and the gusts soften for a moment, curling in to urge her forward to land at his palm. He smiles at the bird, lifting his other hand to stroke gently across the top of her white head before he offers the pair of leaves that Crawley’s efforts made of his initial attempt. “There you are. You know what to do with it from here, I imagine?” The bird coos a soft sound and reaches out to brace the leaves in her beak; when Aziraphale lifts his hand to send her back on her way she flutters out and away from the island to return back across the endless distance she has already crossed. The wind stays still for a moment; then it resumes gusting with petulant force that pulls at the thick braid in Crawley’s hair and whips Aziraphale’s wet clothes tight against him.

“It’s a long way back to the ark,” Crawley observes. “Do you think she’ll make it?”

“I hope so,” Aziraphale sighs. “Not much we can do about it now, though.”

“Mm,” Crawley hums. “Suppose not.” He looks up at the sky overhead, squinting against the drizzle still falling down on them. “So. All that standing around waiting, does it make you feel accomplished?”

“It’s not about how I feel,” Aziraphale says sternly. “It’s all part of the plan, of which we are all no more than minor players.”

Crawley lets a cough go free that turns its coat halfway through to become a laugh. “Of course,” he says. “I don’t know why I asked.” They stand in silence for a moment, surrounded by nothing but the endless floodwaters lapping against the fragment of land on which Aziraphale has been marooned; then Crawley tips his head to frown up at the sky. “Rain’s stopping.”

“Is it?” Aziraphale looks up as well, bracing himself reflexively against the onslaught of rain at his face; but all he encounters is a few drops from the tree overhead, and those coming with the embarrassed delay of a latecomer to a party. Even the gray of the sky seems to be easing, loosening its grip on the world as Aziraphale looks up at it; and then the clouds draw wide, splitting straight across the middle of the sky, and Aziraphale blinks hard into the blaze of sunlight that spills free.

“Ah,” Crawley says. “That’s brighter than I remember.”

“Mm,” Aziraphale says. “Yes.” He lifts his hand to shade his eyes so he can squint out into the glassy surface of the water around them, where the waves are smoothing with the end of the storm; and his breath catches in his chest, his hand lifts of its own accord to reach for a hold at the dark sleeve of Crawley’s robe. “Oh, Crawley, look.”

“I’m looking, angel.” Crawley sounds different than Aziraphale has ever heard him on any of their previous meetings; the hiss under his voice is entirely absent, replaced with a stunned softness instead. Aziraphale would like to look at him, to see what kind of expression might choose to step out with that tone of voice, but just at the moment he’s too busy staring up, where radiant colors are forming a vivid arc that spans the whole of the fast-clearing sky overhead. It stretches out over them, curving from one point of the horizon to the other; as the water smoothes Aziraphale can see it reflected across the glass of the surface, too, to make a perfect circle of color from the canvas of gray that is all he has seen for the last weeks.

They stand there in perfect silence for a moment. Aziraphale’s lips are parted, his eyes are wide; he’s even forgotten to be upset about how wet he is. He’s never seen anything like this before, not in all the eternity he’s spent in heaven; and then from alongside him Crawley takes a breath and speaks.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. Aziraphale turns to look at him. Crawley is gazing up at the curve of color over them, his pupils narrowed thin by the sunlight. The yellow of his eyes looks a little bit like gold, in the illumination all around them. “A rainbow, you said it was called?” Aziraphale nods instead of trying to find the breath to speak. Crawley tips his head back down to look at him, gazing for a moment before the corner of his mouth turns up into a smile.

“Well,” he says. “At least we have the sun back.” He casts his gaze to Aziraphale’s shoulders and then, with the kind of casualness that would merit an arrest on probable cause alone, out at the water around them. “And no one else around, it seems.”

Aziraphale frowns. “What are you suggesting, Crawley?”

Crawley looks back at him. “I was just wondering about your wings,” he says. “They can’t be any better than the rest of you, can they?” He leans in over the distance between them and speaks in a murmur clear enough to be heard several feet away. “I recommend some basking, myself.” 

Aziraphale draws back to look at him and -- after he recalls -- to let go of the other’s sleeve. Crawley flashes the white of his teeth at him.

“It’s not like there’s anyone to see,” he says, and turns to step away around the tree at Aziraphale’s back. “I think I’ll be very occupied in admiring all this water, myself. Big fan of water, me, everyone knows. Can’t get enough of it.” He drops to sit at the far side of the tree, leaning back to press his shoulders against the support so he’s facing out and away from Aziraphale. 

Aziraphale looks at him for a long moment. He ought to not; as a rule it’s best to keep his wings contained while he’s on Earthly business, just for propriety’s sake. And of course as a demon everything Crawley says should be considered suspect, just on the principle of the thing. But the world is silent around them, clear from horizon to horizon no matter where Aziraphale looks; and it’s not like Crawley’s wrong, really. He looks out at the rainbow, curving color across the sky where there has been nothing but gray for so long; and then Aziraphale shuts his eyes, and sighs a breath, and lets his wings sweep out to catch the warmth of the sunlight beaming down on the two of them together.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is not particularly comfortable.

He’s never been fond of battlefields. All angels are, of course, meant to exist in a state of constant readiness for the next Great Battle, which will of course arrive in what amounts to no time at all to an eternal existence such as the one Aziraphale himself is graced with. But from a personal perspective Aziraphale has always found himself a little clumsy with the weapons he is meant to be skilled in, and however quickly time may pass in Heaven it bears itself with all the comfortable ease of a leisurely stroll when one is spending a fraction of one’s immortal existence on Earth. There are others who have a knack for this kind of thing, and if Aziraphale always feels a bit of guilt at his willingness to leave the fighting to others he can always comfort himself with the sure knowledge that he was made as he is for a reason, and surely there are other things to which his own tastes may direct his skill. His time on Earth is best spent lying low, fitting in with the crowds of humanity with as much angelic grace as he can muster, that he may seem wholly by chance to arrive at the right place at the right time.

It’s unfortunate that that should be here, today, in the heat of a noonday sun blazing its personal grudge down against the earth below it. The ground was well-trodden to begin with, and the efforts of several hundred feet are doing their best to put down any thought of rebellious softening before it’s well considered. There are only a few sparse trees remaining to shade from the tension straining like a rubber band in the air; even in the dappled shadow Aziraphale feels stunningly like a biscuit forgotten in the oven by a distracted baker.

“Hullo, Aziraphale.” The voice comes from over Aziraphale’s shoulder, near and loud enough that Aziraphale would be worried about a heart attack if his heart bothered to beat at all. As it is he just tenses for a moment of reflexive shock; but recognition heels surprise with the overenthusiasm of a puppy, and by the time Aziraphale is turning to look back to the fragments of shade behind him he’s not at all surprised to find a soldier wearing suspiciously dark clothing lounging against the tree behind him. “Out for a bit of entertainment this fine day?”

“Crawley,” Aziraphale sighs. “I should have expected you. You’re here to stir up tempers and incite rebellion, then?”

Crawley shakes his head. “Nah. No real need, when people are always so ready to go about murdering each other over their own concerns. Sometimes I think we could learn something from them, they’re always so much more inventive than anything Hell can come up with.”

Aziraphale looks back out at the arrayed forces of men bearing sharp edges and heavy weights carefully designed for the express purpose of destroying someone else’s living form until it becomes rather less living. “Yes,” he sighs. “I suppose you’re right about that.”

“Don’t worry,” Crawley says. “I’ll try to not make a habit of it. Head Office will have a thing or two to say to me if I go around being right too often.”

Aziraphale tips his head back to smile acknowledgment of this joke. Crawley’s watching him with one of his usual grins at the corner of his mouth, the ones that look like he’s been polishing them to deploy at this precise moment for maximum effect. His hair is shorter than Aziraphale has ever seen it before, cut around his shoulders instead of falling inches past them. Aziraphale’s attention slides down over armor polished black and smooth enough to bring to mind the scales of Crawley’s less upright form. The corners of his mouth, left to their own devices, give up the ease of a smile and slide towards a frown of consideration instead. “Aren’t you hot in all that black?”

“Oh, well.” Crawley shrugs as if this is a minor concern. “Not like we get much of a choice, do we? A demon can’t go around wearing white like you do, angel. People might mistake one of us for the other and then where would we be?”

Aziraphale frowns at Crawley’s snake-eyed smile. “I hardly think that’s likely.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Crawley says. “I am much better dressed than you.” Aziraphale sucks in a breath, so startled he forgets he doesn’t actually have to breathe as he rounds on Crawley to fight back against this critical blow, only to find Crawley grinning at him as if he has already won a victory just in drawing the other’s attention. “Don’t get your feathers ruffled. I’m just teasing.”

“Oh.” Aziraphale shakes his head to steady himself before he looks away from Crawley leaning against the tree as if he means to melt into a puddle and soak into the ground underfoot. The advancing armies are still short of actual combat, though there is a great deal of vague shouting and weapons being held up to show off the way they glint in the sunlight. Aziraphale frowns again.

“So what are you here for?” Crawley asks from over his shoulder. “You seem a bit underequipped to throw your weight to one side or the other. I could get you a sword, if you wanted one. Probably give the flames a miss, though, under the circumstances.”

“Mm,” Aziraphale hums. “Yes, I think we have enough heat to be getting on with as it is. And I don’t need a weapon anyway. I’m not meant to be fighting in this one.”

“I take it you have some heavenly orders to act on?”

Aziraphale nods. “It’ll be nearly time now,” he says, and lifts a hand to gesture into the seething mass of soldiers before them. “See that boy over there?” Crawley draws up behind him to look where Aziraphale is pointing. “The young one, in the plain tunic instead of armor.” Aziraphale lets his hand fall. “He’s supposed to win this fight for all his people.”

Crawley turns his head to stare at Aziraphale. “What? A shepherd is going to take the field of victory?” Aziraphale ducks his head to nod assent. “Singlehandedly? I thought we were supposed to limit ourselves to minor interventions. Won’t someone notice a kid wading through a whole army himself?”

Aziraphale shakes his head. “It’s not going to go like that. That’s the brilliance of it, you see. There won’t be a battle here today at all.”

Crawley’s eyebrows scale his forehead in a race to be the first to reach the finish line of his hair. “Sorry, what’s that?”

“There’s not going to be a fight,” Aziraphale repeats. “All these men, these armies, they’re just for show.” He clasps his hands in front of himself and looks out at the field before them. “They’re witnesses to the glory of God’s plan.”

“Uh huh.” Crawley does not sound impressed. “Which is what, angel?”

“It’s the boy,” Aziraphale says. “He’s meant to defeat the opponent’s champion in single combat. He’s--” and his voice is lost to the dull roar of sound, a wordless threat spilling from hundreds of throats at once. He and Crawley turn to look out at the far side of the battlefield, where broad shoulders are rising above the sea of heads as an enormous figure straightens to its full height. A heavy head lifts, glaring eyes fix on the wall of humanity facing it down, and the imposing figure takes a step forward into the space rapidly clearing itself for him from amidst the surrounding army.

“Goliath,” Aziraphale says, leaning in so Crawley can hear him over the sound of the low chanting coming from the far side of the field. “He’s their greatest warrior.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Crawley deadpans. Goliath steps forward, out into the space before him; and stops, looking a little unsteady on his feet. His eyes narrow as he peers at the men spread out before him, his mouth sets on uncertainty. He glances back over his shoulder, as if suddenly unsure about his appearance on the stage set for him and considering a precipitous retreat to the wings once more.

Aziraphale frowns. Crawley shifts next to him to speak quietly into the hush of expectation that has fallen. “He doesn’t seem quite as gung-ho as one would expect.”

Aziraphale tips his head to answer in kind without looking away from the battlefield. “I’m sure it’s the knowledge of his own inevitable defeat that has him so hesitant.” Crawley snorts disbelief and Aziraphale’s cheeks take it upon themselves to express their self-consciousness without permission from his mind. “It doesn’t matter in any case. Things will still turn out just the way they’re meant to.”

“Ah yes,” Crawley says. “Your favorite plan.”

“It’s not my plan,” Aziraphale protests, turning back to frown into Crawley’s striking yellow gaze. “I am nothing more than an agent to enact the Almighty’s wishes.”

“Yeah,” Crawley says, and dips his chin to gesture towards the field. “You might want to be doing some agent-ing in just a minute here.” When Aziraphale turns back he finds the shepherd boy picking his way through the crowd on their side; it’s harder going for him than it was for the imposing presence of Goliath, but with no one particularly keen on being the man facing down the giant the army gives way with relief to someone mad enough to take on the challenge. The boy lifts his head, squinting up into the sun bright behind the giant’s head. Goliath’s expression fixes as knots of confusion tighten at the corners of his mouth; it’s only when one of the men alongside him manages to draw his attention to murmur at his ear that he seems to understand. He looks back to the boy, eyes wide and wondering; then he throws his head back and booms a laugh that hits the curve of the sky overhead and echoes back to resonate through the ground at their feet.

“Oh dear,” Crawley grimaces. “I think I might sit this one out, angel, I’m not nearly as fond of child murder as your Almighty.”

Aziraphale shoots him a flat look. “She’s your God too,” he says. “And that’s not the plan, anyway.”

“You sure?” Crawley asks as Goliath strides forward, lifting the weight of a sword so enormous it must serve as well as a club as the bladed weapon it’s masquerading as. “It’d take a miracle for that shepherd boy to win.”

Aziraphale uncrosses his arms so he can drop his hands to his sides. “Why do you think I’m here?” he asks. Crawley glances at him but Aziraphale’s attention is on the field, where the boy is loading a sling and starting to swing it in a careful circle at his side. He keeps his hand low, down in the cover of his clothes, so as the sling flies free the snap of his fingers is hidden from all except for Crawley, who is still watching him with a smile lurking suspiciously at the corners of his mouth. The stone cuts a clean arc through the air, carried forward by the boy’s strength and just a touch of divine intervention to slam right into the middle of the giant’s forehead. Goliath goes still, frowning hard like he’s thinking of voicing protest to this unexpected attack; and then he tips, and falls over backwards like a wall into the crowd behind him. There’s a roar of sound, jubilation and panic blending together from the disparate voices in front of them, and Aziraphale shakes his shoulders out and huffs a breath of relief.

“There,” he says. “That’s done.”

“A free agent once more?” Crawley asks. His smile has graduated from lurking and is curving across his mouth with only a hint of tension to speak to its former shyness. “Or do you have more missions to undertake for the greater good?”

Aziraphale shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I’m done for the day. And not too soon, either,” as he looks up at the sun overhead. “It must be an hour past lunchtime. I’ll be lucky to find anything left back at the camp.”

“I think there might be something,” Crawley allows. “If you know where to look, anyway.”

Aziraphale looks the other over and huffs a breath. “And I suppose you do?”

“As a matter of fact,” Crawley says, and turns back to flash a smile at Aziraphale. “Care for an escort, angel?”

Aziraphale tightens his mouth. He really ought to refuse; Crawley is a demon, and no one knows better than Heaven how treacherous the wiles of Hell can be. But the field is won, his mission played out without the least interference from the demon at his side; and even if he doesn’t need to eat, his stomach doesn’t seem to have checked in with his mind on that fact. Besides, he is an angel, after all. Surely resisting temptation is something integral to his very identity, the same way offering it is essential to Crawley’s.

“Oh, very well,” he says, and turns to leave the field behind him as he lets Crawley lead him towards whatever culinary indulgences he may be able to devise.

Chapter Text

Crawley enjoys Greece. Hell doesn’t go in much for micromanaging; they are interested exclusively in the memos he sends back to report on his undertakings, and from all Crawley can tell even those are valued more for their quantity than any kind of judgment of quality. Crawley realized as much within the first two centuries of his stay on Earth, and with a total absence of a better nature to argue with he immediately gave in to temptation and has spent the last several decades sending enough memos to be used as ever-rotating wallpaper in the infernal offices. Hell sends back notes of terse approval, and the token service award with each century that Crawley remains on Earth, and Crawley is left to get on with developing a taste for all manner of mortal temptations without anyone breathing hellfire down his neck.

He likes the wine best. Crawley has found that whatever taste for alcohol the humans may claim, he has a decent appreciation of his own: for quality, when he can get it, and with a willingness to hand that over in exchange for quantity when he can’t. Athenian wine provides both, and with such easy access Crawley feels like he must be getting away with something; which of course only makes the flavor against his tongue taste the sweeter. He attends the political gatherings occasionally, the better to claim credit for some or another particularly nasty interlude in the wars that seem to be ever-present -- you can always count on Sparta for that -- and otherwise spends the rest of his days appreciating the wine, and the sun, and the art that flourishes within the white walls around him. There is always something to see, some entertainment to which he can fix his attention and let it run itself ragged over the course of an hour or an afternoon, and the next day it all begins again with the rising of the sun and the stirring of the city waking around him.

He took himself to the marketplace this morning. There is always a crowd, no matter how early the hour or how hot the afternoon, a throng that one has to thread through with the dexterity of a master seamstress, but if there’s one thing Crawley prides himself on it’s his ability to manage tight spaces. Snaking through a crowd is no trouble at all for, well, a snake, and the crush of humanity is drawn by the same temptations that Crawley himself is pleased to indulge in. He fits between the people around him, slipping past with mumbled apologies that fall unnoticed to the ground, until he emerges at the open front of a shop along the main path.

It’s somewhat less crowded here. The shopkeeper is an enthusiastic man, ready to shout to anyone who glances in his direction; he appears to be girding himself to chase down a possible customer when Crawley appears in the clear space created by dozens of deliberately averted eyes and shifting footsteps. The shopkeeper turns to Crawley, his fixed attention diverted by the appearance of someone who actually appears to be interested in his wares. In the moment of his distraction the possible customer makes himself invisible and vanishes into the crowd with the lightspeed rapidity of a nonbeliever escaping from an evangelist; Crawley watches him go with a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth before he turns himself to the shopkeeper presently rubbing his hands at him.

“Good sir, welcome, welcome!” The shopkeeper bares all of his teeth in a vivid smile. Crawley squints against the flash of it. “I see you are a man of truly discerning taste, to have picked out my shop from the rabble around us. I will be with you shortly, I must just--” and he turns to the very empty space from which the other customer has just escaped. His forehead creases, his mouth draws to a frown as he considers the crowd; but the escape is good, the man is lost, and after a moment practicality lays claim to the vendor’s disappointment to bring him swinging back around to the possibility presented by Crawley standing in the shade of his awnings.

“My good man!” the shopkeeper exclaims, discarding all pretense to any other customer as a matter of the past. Crawley refrains from correcting this assumption of his basic humanity, contenting himself instead with meeting the man’s gaze with the unshadowed fact of his own reptilian eyes. The man stutters for a moment, his enthusiasm catching its toe against the uneven ground of impossibility; and then rushes forward to catch itself before it falls outright. “You must be a patron of the arts, to have picked out my collection to peruse during your afternoon travels.” He reaches to press a hand to Crawley’s arm, the force of his grip masquerading rather poorly as encouragement instead of insistence. “Come in out of the heat and take a look at the wares we have available!”

Crawley accepts the demand of the hold at his arm without protest beyond a curve of his lips. There is some relief to the shade of the roof overhead, even if the air is still radiant enough that the shopkeeper’s skin is glistening with the sweat that Crawley is spared from, and wandering through the handful of displays around him is as good a way as any to spend an hour. And of course the man could always be the recipient of some kind of temptation, to lure him into greater depravity than what his own mind could invent; then Crawley considers the frantic salesman-smile on the other’s lips, and decides that anything he might come up with in his own mind will surely be worse than all the inventiveness of Hell combined.

“You see the variety that we have here,” the man is saying, maintaining his vice grip on Crawley’s arm as he steers the other through the tables laid with brightly-colored fabric and more brightly-painted statues set atop them. The paint lacks any particular subtlety; the eyes especially are rendered with alarming intensity, until Crawley thinks some of the figures could be modeled on those back at the home office. “Only the highest quality here, and of course available at the very lowest prices! I think sometimes of increasing my profits, just to make my mother and children a little more comfortable, but I’m afraid my dedication to immortal art is just too great for such earthly concerns.”

“Yes,” Crawley says. “What a pity.” The shopkeeper is still steering him through the aisles with such determined force that most of the details of the statuary are lost to a blur of speed as they whisk by them; it’s only at the end of the row that Crawley’s attention sticks, and then more for the unpainted white of the sculpture amid the garish garden around it than anything else. Crawley slows his pace, catching his feet to halt the shopkeeper’s forward motion so he can get a better look at the item at the end of the row, and succeeds in divesting himself of the other’s hold while the man continues on, speaking in the carrying tone of someone so certain of his audience that the actual lack of one hardly matters.

It’s a beautiful piece of work. The rest of the statues are of gods, or heroes, figures of mythic proportions made cartoonish by their presumed history as much as by their paint job; Crawley sometimes thinks the cruelest things humans do to each other is to put one of their own on a pedestal, to be either frozen out of any interaction with the world or to fall to lower than when they began upon the inevitable proof of their very human failings. But this statue, set off-center and nearly forgotten at the back of the shop, is on no more of a pedestal than the figures presented within it, a pair of wrestlers locked close together by the efforts of their combat. The detail is subtle, nearly lost to the white of the stone from which it is carved, so it lures the viewer in to seek out the shadows, to find the details of the physical forms pressing against each other. Crawley tips his head to the side, considering the near-embrace of the figures before him; and illumination flickers over his vision, bright like the sun but without the harsh edges of the noonday light. Crawley narrows his eyes, following the slide of the light playing a game of tag with itself around the form of the statue, and then from behind him:

“Sir!” The shopkeeper is nearly apoplectic with joy at a new arrival. “Welcome, welcome!”

“Ah,” says a voice fluttering as nervously as a startled bird. “Yes. Well, I didn’t actually intend…”

“What a coincidence,” Crawley says, speaking loudly as he turns away from the statue to look back towards the main entrance to the shop. Aziraphale is standing there, draped in a white chiton and with both his hands clasping in front of him; he turns as soon as Crawley speaks, opening his eyes wide on surprise.

“Oh,” he says, sounding as if all his breath has decided to take a vacation at the same time. The sun backlighting him turns the soft of his hair to a halo around his round face. “Crawley. Speak of the devil.”

Crawley sets free the smile protesting its confinement so it can stretch itself across the curve of his mouth. “And here I am,” he says, lifting his hands from his sides. “Out for a bit of light shopping, angel?”

Aziraphale smiles sheepishly. “Not exactly,” he admits. “I was just out on the street and--”

“And you saw the beauty of our offerings,” the shopkeeper cuts in. “I understand, of course, that is how we get the majority of our customers. If you would like to take a look around I would be happy to--”

“Yeah, no, that won’t be necessary,” Crawley says, speaking loudly to startle away the slow-rising panic in Aziraphale’s expression and set himself as the focus of both the men before him. “I think I’ve got the gist of it now, we’ll take it from here ourselves.” He steps forward to reach and claim Aziraphale’s elbow in his hold so he can draw the other away from the overbearing demands of the shopkeeper. Aziraphale blinks wide-eyed at Crawley; the shopkeeper looks torn. Crawley watches irritation and uncertainty chase each other across the other’s face until the former seems in some danger of catching up to the latter, and then he ducks his chin to indicate the main street again. “It’d be a shame for all those people to miss out on this just because you’re occupied.”

The stormcloud of the man’s expression deepens, settling in over his brows, and then decides it actually would prefer to go somewhere else and clears off entirely. “Right you are, sir,” he beams. “Please let me know if there’s anything I can help either of you two gentlemen with!” And he’s returning to the crowd, which parts gracefully around him with all the deliberate disinterest of a stream breaking around a social pariah.

Aziraphale heaves a sigh. “Thank you,” he murmurs as he looks away from the shopkeeper to smile at Crawley next to him. The color of his eyes is softened in the shade to a green as clear as pure water. “I wasn’t sure how to get free of him.”

“You could have tried being rude,” Crawley tells him, and lets go his gentle hold against Aziraphale’s arm. “That always works well enough for me.”

Aziraphale huffs a laugh, as if Crawley is joking. “I couldn’t, of course.”

Crawley’s mouth twists. “Of course.”

Aziraphale doesn’t seem to notice the laughter under Crawley’s voice, or if he does he takes it to be affection rather than teasing; which he’s right about, anyway. “What are you doing here?” he asks, stepping in closer as if there is anyone paying the least attention to them. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“With Socrates, wasn’t it?” Crawley reaches out behind him to test the stability of the display shelf before he angles himself into an artful lean against it. “It has been a few decades, I suppose. I’m just appreciating the culture, you know how it goes. See a few plays, drink a few wines.”

Aziraphale beams. “They do have lovely wine here. And the figs are especially scrumptious.” His cheeks are flushing rosy with remembered enjoyments; Crawley watches him as he lets his own smile slip free of its leash to play across his mouth. “They have these plates you can get, with this soft cheese and a thin cracker that is just...just heavenly.”

In all his millennia of temptation, Crawley doesn’t think he’s ever seen someone look quite as euphoric as Aziraphale does at this precise moment. Then again, Crawley has never met anyone as radiant as Aziraphale, no matter when or how they happen to meet. “Seems appropriate.”

Aziraphale’s self-awareness comes back to himself, at least enough for him to blink at Crawley and dimple another smile at him. “You really must try it sometime, when you have a break from…” A hand lifts as if to sketch out a gesture before determining that some things are better left to the imagination and falling to Aziraphale’s side again. “Work.”

“I’ll take it on advisement.”

“Do,” Aziraphale says. “I think you’ll find it well worth the effort.” He presses a hand to his stomach and grimaces. “I was intending to secure some luncheon for myself, actually, but…” as he glances back over his shoulder to the shopkeeper making a wall of his shoulders to keep his two potential customers contained even as he attempts to lure another in.

“Yeah?” Crawley says. “Maybe I could help with that.” He lifts a hand to touch against Aziraphale’s shoulder; when he ducks his head closer Aziraphale imitates him at once to make a conspiracy of their position. “Keep your eyes open. When he’s distracted…” Crawley flutters his hand in lieu of more explicit explanation. Aziraphale frowns for a moment, his expression tight with concentration; then the point carries, and softens all his face into epiphany.

“Ah,” he says. “Yes. Right. I’ve got it.”

“Good,” Crawley says, and pats against Aziraphale’s shoulder gently as he leans in as if to murmur a secret for the other’s hearing. Then again, given the way Hell is about...everything, perhaps it’s better that it stay between the two of them. “Always good to see you, angel.” Aziraphale glances at him, his eyes catching the light to sparkle sunbright in their own right, and then, in a carrying tone that makes Crawley’s shoulders tense with the guilt he has no real right to feel:

“Anything I can help you with?” The shopkeeper is returning back through the space, drawn inevitably by the murmur of lowered voices. “If you have any questions, I am of course happy to answer them.” Aziraphale grimaces and ducks his head as if to hide from the shopkeeper’s demanding gaze, and Crawley clears his throat sharply before the man can turn his focus on the other.

“Yes,” he says in his most pretentious tone, which after centuries of practice is regal enough to instill the desire to kneel in even the most self-possessed republicans. “I would like to hear about this piece over here.” He gestures wide and turns to follow the lead of his arm; Crawley doesn’t look back to see the shopkeeper following him, or to watch Aziraphale drifting away to the far edge of the shop under cover of Crawley’s speech. “I’ve been looking for something like this for some time, and it’s very nearly what I would like. Did you work on this yourself?”

The man blinks as Crawley gestures towards the unfinished marble at the corner of the shop farthest from the open front. Behind him Aziraphale is slipping away with a studied innocence that is only drawing the eye of half the people walking past, a significant improvement over the last time Crawley saw him attempt any kind of stealth. “This piece?” the shopkeeper asks. “No, that’s my apprentice’s work. Good boy but a little too occupied in watching the Olympic games, if you ask me.”

“I can’t imagine what he gets out of it,” Crawley says. “His skill is clearly demonstrated in this, however. Would you ask him to do something similar? I’d commission him for the work.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “And I’d compensate you for the materials and time as well, of course.”

The shopkeeper’s eyes go so wide Crawley can almost hear the sound of coins jingling against the inside of his skull. “Oh,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Yes, of course, anything for a patron of the arts.” There’s a flicker of sunlight, as if a part of the noonday bright has retreated behind a cloud; when Crawley glances up Aziraphale is gone from sight. “What would you wish to have, then, sir?”

“This same pose,” Crawley says, turning to give the statue his full attention. “But both the figures should have wings. Big ones, so it’s at least as tall again as it is now.”

“Wings,” the shopkeeper says. “Like Icarus?” He glances at Crawley as if he’s gauging his artistic taste for a moment; then greed clears its throat, and his uncertainty melts away into a shrug and a beaming smile. “Of course, sir. I’ll have him start on it right away. Do you have any preference for the painting?”

Crawley glances around the shop, at the statues with their bright clothes and staring eyes, but his attention slides free of his hold to skip to the street, where Aziraphale ducked away and back out into the light. He gazes for a moment, watching the ghost of memory play itself across his vision, before he looks back to the fine lines of the statue and the subtlety of the shadows playing across it.

“No paint,” he says, firmly enough to stop the shopkeeper’s protest before it begins. “Just leave the marble as it is. It’ll look better in white.”

Chapter Text

Crowley is not having a good day. Crowley is, in fact, having a particularly bad day. It’s never a good thing when Hell sends him a specific undertaking; their lack of imagination and direct approach offend his sensibilities on a personal level, and worse half the time he goes out of his way to actually follow through on the temptation he’s meant to be performing he finds his work better than done by the impossible inventiveness of the human mind. He’s complained about this fact to Hell on multiple occasions, has danced as close to the fringes of suggesting that they might as well retire and let humans get on with it themselves as he dares; and has gotten back nothing but blank stares as if he were chanting gibberish, and a slew of assignments, presumably to keep him too busy to bring back any more of these ideas which so upset the dull mundanity that pervades the halls of Hell, the miasma of crushing boredom that has been found to be far greater punishment than mere physical pain.

Crowley feels this all very keenly. It’s the primary reason he’s so hasty to take on the travel assignments that let him linger on Earth; anything is better than Hell, after all. He supposes that’s the point. It ought to be something he’s proud of, insofar as demons are proud of anything. Luckily he can sidestep this particular obligation by sinking himself into a magnificently bad mood, which he found helpfully provided to him by exactly the recipient of the temptation he was meant to be offering. It seems a waste of time to bother sending a demon to murmur suggestions to the present emperor; what else is there for Crowley to do with a man who takes sincere pleasure in watching people be torn to pieces? There’s not even any reason for the violence, none of the self-congratulatory viciousness that even the meanest demon could find. The man is senseless and his actions more so; there’s nothing Crowley could possibly do to make him worse, and he rather thinks any effect he might have will be more of a restraint to the man’s insane inventiveness than anything else. In the end he offered an off-hand suggestion about the man’s horse and the animal’s suitability for a religious position, wrote up his memo to send back to the head office, and took himself off to the nearest restaurant where he can lay hands to a jug of wine that he can bear to drink until he’s too drunk to bother with things like the taste of what he’s swallowing.

It’s just frustrating, Crowley reflects as he steps through the door of the restaurant to make his way to the bar via the clear space that opens up for him due less to a miracle than to the simple effect of a man seething with irritation for the world at large and especially the bits within arm’s reach. The amount of effort that is wasted to follow up on people who will be able to do more damage left to their own devices than anything Hell could create is astonishing. Not that Crowley cares at all about the bureaucracy that grinds painfully away through Hell itself, of course, but his own effort is wasted too, and in pursuit of victory over a soul already determined to damn itself in every known fashion while inventing several new means along the way. The whole is an exercise in futility, enough to leave the taste of failure bitter on Crowley’s tongue, and even though he has no intention of feeling the least guilt for the inventive equivocation in the memo he sent off, he feels the lack of style in his efforts with all the unpleasant weight of an artisan condemned to a position halfway down an endless assembly line.

Well, he’s an employee, after all, if not one with particularly diverse employment options. However unpleasant his work, it is done with, left behind him to fawn excessive affection over a very confused horse, and that means Crowley is free to indulge in that most certain pleasure of unfulfilled workers: happy hour.

“What have you got?” he asks as he throws himself into a chair at the counter of the bar. The bartender glances at him in a token acknowledgment of his presence, which is sufficient given that Crowley’s interest in interaction is limited to an exchange of only token value. “Gimme a jug of whatever you think’s drinkable.”

The bartender refrains from rolling her eyes, and her tongue takes advantage of this inattention to pull her words heavy with resigned disinterest. “Jug of house brown.” She reaches below the counter to lift a jug and set it on the counter in front of Crowley. It lands with a thud of reassuring weight. “Two sesterces.” Crowley reaches for the jug, looping his finger through the handle to draw it towards himself as he makes a show of fumbling in his pocket before lifting his empty hand across the counter. When he loosens his fingers over the bartender’s outstretched palm the weight of the paired coins falls from his hand to hers. She pockets them and reaches to slide a cup across the counter towards Crowley, who immediately turns himself to the task of filling it so he can empty it again as rapidly as possible.

“Crawley--Crowley?”

Crowley’s first reaction is irritation, the kind of sick, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that makes him think about feigning deafness, or claiming to be his own doppelganger, sorry, wrong demon, must be someone else with yellow eyes you’re thinking of. He isn’t in any kind of a mood to talk and less of a one to be friendly; the only thing he wants to do is get drunk, and even in that he begrudges the necessity of actually drinking to get himself there. But there’s only one person who would know his name here, in the middle of a busy restaurant in the center of Rome; and no one else has ever spoken Crowley’s name with such startled happiness, not in all the millennia he’s been existing. Crowley grimaces, torn between the desire to turn to say hello and the equal desire to avoid inflicting his mood on the one person he least wants to chase away, while his neck seizes power from the vacuum left in his thoughts and turns his head to see Aziraphale next to him.

Aziraphale looks lovely. Aziraphale always looks lovely, a fact which Crowley prefers to attribute to his heavenly nature and which he suspects to stem from a far more individual source. At present he looks almost ordinary, dressed in a simple white toga and with his soft hair curling around his head in a style very nearly fashionable, under the circumstances. Crowley thinks he might be able to blend into the crowd for someone who isn’t looking too closely at the bright of his eyes, someone who isn’t watching the radiant glow that seems to emanate from under his skin and curve itself into his smile unless held back by the most firm control; which is all to say someone very definitely not-Crowley.

“Well!” Aziraphale beams at Crowley in a display of perfect obliviousness to the go away and leave me alone that Crowley is speaking in fluent body language. “Fancy running into you here!”

Crowley dignifies this with the response of lifting his cup to his mouth so he can tilt back a long swallow of the promised wine. It passes for drinkable, or at least his throat doesn’t close up in protest as the taste hits his tongue, but then his focus is a little distracted at the moment as his body tries to hunch away while his traitorous attention sidles back to have a clandestine affair with the line of Aziraphale’s neck.

Aziraphale deftly sidesteps the edge of Crowley’s pointed body language by the innovative approach of ignoring it outright. Crowley can feel the soft of Aziraphale’s lingering smile as if it’s a touch skimming across the weight of the wings he has held back so tightly they actually don’t exist at all at the moment; when he speaks his voice is just as delicate on studied politeness. “Still a demon, then?”

Crowley lowers his cup to the bar and grimaces at the row of bottles along the wall, because his temper suggests he’ll have better luck in holding to his bad mood as long as he doesn’t make eye contact with the angel hovering just alongside him. “What kind of a stupid question is that, ‘still a demon’? What else am I going to be, an aardvark?” He glances at Aziraphale next to him with this last, drawn into a false sense of security by the edge of his own words, and has to look away again in a hurry as his chest goes uncomfortably tight under the dark weight of Aziraphale’s eyes on him.

There is silence for a moment. Crowley hears the echo of his own words against the inside of his head, tastes the edge of them lingering against his tongue with bitter frustration. Aziraphale goes on standing next to him, pausing like he’s waiting for the storm of Crowley’s temper to pass, before he reaches out to take a cup from the counter that materializes itself into being as he picks it up to offer to Crowley next to him. “Saluteria.”

Crowley looks back at him. Aziraphale is watching him, his head tipped down so his eyes look darker and his mouth working on a conspiratorial smile. Crowley hesitates; then his petulant impulse to withhold the toast grumbles itself into submission to Aziraphale’s expectant cheer, and he reaches out to tap the edge of his cup against Aziraphale’s before lifting it to his mouth to drink off the majority of what is still inside. At his side Aziraphale ducks over his cup so when he speaks the careful nonchalance on his tone echoes against the dark surface of the wine within. “In Rome long?”

“Just nipped in for a quick temptation,” Crowley says, and then his better judgment gives way to his inherent nature and he tips his head to look to Aziraphale sipping carefully at his cup. He looks like he’s glowing, as if there’s nothing he could possibly want to do more than stand alongside Crowley drinking a frankly mediocre wine while making stilted small talk. Crowley feels himself softening in spite of himself, melting to the warmth that Aziraphale always brings to him, like sunshine coaxing the rigidity from cold butter. “You?”

Aziraphale’s face brightens as if Crowley has given him a gift by this desultory attempt at conversation. Crowley’s heart aches with a hurt like looking too directly into noonday sunlight. “I thought I’d try Petronius’s new restaurant.” He rocks forward, tilting in with a look on his face as if he’s sharing a thrilling piece of information. “I hear he does remarkable things to oysters.”

Crowley judges it safest to keep his gaze on the far side of the bar, wandering over the bottles arrayed there instead of mapping out the details of Aziraphale so close to him, but even so the armor of his irritation is fading fast, draining from his shoulders and loosening the knots in his arms so his movement as he brings his cup towards his mouth again is almost graceful. “I’ve never eaten an oyster.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, his voice low with thrilled excitement. “Oh, well let me tempt you to--” and Crowley’s bad mood packs up and moves out at once, swept aside by the sound of that one word on Aziraphale’s lips. His cup lands at the counter, his elbow braces at the support, and when he turns it’s to throw aside all his defensive hunch into the open invitation of facing Aziraphale before him. His eyebrows raise, his frown evaporates, and by the time he’s meeting Aziraphale’s gaze his whole expression has restructured itself into something Crowley hopes conveys the absolute willingness in him to do whatever composes the latter half of Aziraphale’s unspoken sentence.

Aziraphale is left with his mouth open and his hands upraised, caught in the act of what might have been a reach to touch his fingers to Crowley’s sleeve. “Oh.” He blinks, and closes his mouth, and rearranges his gesture into a point instead. “No. That’s your job, isn’t it?”

Crowley’s mouth struggles valiantly with the smile that is trying to spill itself across his face and ultimately triumphs, although Crowley thinks the battle itself may have lost him the war of subtlety. He doesn’t care. Aziraphale is still watching him, his eyes wide open and bright in spite of his fumbled speech, and Crowley feels himself very thoroughly tempted by no more than the part of the other’s lips as he watches him. He lifts his cup to his mouth to finish off the last of the wine within, more for the flourish he can give to the action than any real need, now, for the intoxication. Aziraphale’s lashes flutter as Crowley draws the cup away from his mouth, his attention trailing the movement of the other’s hand while his own struggle against the air for the traction to restrain themselves to propriety.

“Right,” Crowley says, and reaches to catch at the handle of the wine jug. “I’ll be taking this then, shall I? Great.” The bartender glances at him, her brow creasing on the start of what Crowley is sure will be protest, but Crowley relies on the magic of self-assurance instead of a miracle to resist her as he looks away without waiting for permission. “Temptation accomplished, angel.” Aziraphale flushes rose-pink over the curve of his cheeks, but when Crowley tips his head to grin at him Aziraphale’s answering smile wins out over the self-conscious set of his mouth all the same. Crowley lifts the jug in his hand to gesture towards the door. “Lead the way.” Aziraphale glances at Crowley’s face again, smiling wide enough to print dimples at the corners of his mouth, before he ducks his head to follow the gesture of Crowley’s upraised arm and guide them out of the restaurant.

“Oi,” the bartender says, apparently having retrieved her voice from the brief exile to which it was relegated by Crowley’s confidence. “You can’t take that out with you.”

“Bet I can,” Crowley says, and reaches out without looking to set his empty cup on the counter behind him. “You can keep this, though.” The cup clinks as he sets it down, sounding as if it’s rattling with a handful of sesterces, mostly because that is precisely what is inside it. Crowley leaves the cup with the astonished bartender and takes advantage of her brief moment of stunned silence to wind his way through the restaurant, following Aziraphale as he lifts the jug to his lips to down a swallow of the wine straight from the bottle.

It tastes better than the first cup did, but then intoxication has a way of taking the edge off even the most unpalatable drink, and it’s always easy for Crowley to get tipsy on the sweet of Aziraphale’s smile.

Chapter Text

“It really is a remarkable coincidence,” Aziraphale exclaims. “What are the chances of us being in the same place at the same time yet again?”

Crowley lifts his cup of tea -- black, and without any of the milk or sugar that is sweetening the cup in front of Aziraphale -- to his lips without turning his gaze away from the intent focus he’s giving to the rest of the room around them. “Yeah,” he says. “Incredible, the way things fall out completely by accident.”

Aziraphale reaches to draw his cup in towards himself so he can sip a careful taste from the edge. The tea is steaming hot and rich with flavor; he’s smiling with unthinking pleasure in the taste as he draws the cup away to sigh contentment. “I like to think it’s all a sign of the Almighty’s Plan.”

Crowley snorts. “I don’t.”

Aziraphale deflates slightly. “I suppose you wouldn’t.” Then he takes another sip of his tea and lets the sweet at his lips draw him back to his usual straightforward pleasure in the world. “Well, regardless of the cause, it is pleasant to see you.”

Crowley casts his gaze to the side without turning his head. Aziraphale can see the glint of yellow behind the shadow of the dark glasses the other has taken to wearing since the last few centuries first provided him with the opportunity to add utility to his usual style. “Is that so? I must be falling off my game.”

“I don’t believe your game has anything to do with it,” Aziraphale says staunchly. “It’s just good to have a familiar face around after all these years on Earth.” He meets the yellow of Crowley’s gaze for a minute before the silence fills in with enough self-consciousness to tip his head down and clear his throat with deliberate care. “Even if it is a demonic one.”

Crowley’s grin is sharp enough that Aziraphale finds himself worried the other will cut himself upon it. “How open-minded of you,” he says, and uncoils from the forward lean he’s making into an elbow braced at the table so he can slouch back across the low couch on which they’re sitting. “The feeling is mutual, angel.”

Aziraphale beams. “Oh,” he says. “Thank you.”

Quiet spreads out around them, doubling in weight with each second that passes until Aziraphale reaches to pick up his teacup just to have something to do with his hands. The teacup, of course, determines this to be the best moment to make its presence known by clattering against the dish under it, and the table, and the ring around Aziraphale’s littlest finger, until Aziraphale pins it in place between both hands to stifle it to silence as he brings it to his lips for a sip made rather more self-consciously than it would have done a moment before. He goes on holding it rather than trying to set it back down, and when he clears his throat to speak it’s to the golden-brown liquid in the cup before him. “What do you think of Constantinople, then?”

Crowley shrugs in a way that demonstrates the fluidity of his position via a full-body ripple from his shoulders all the way down to the angle of his sprawled-open knees. “It’s pretty,” he allows. “Good tea. Could do with a better nightlife. It’s no Rome.”

Aziraphale shrugs. “We can hardly expect it to be,” he says. “It’s not as crowded, though. The wait at the new restaurant a few streets down was nothing even on the night they opened.” He shakes his head in disbelief at this latest demonstration of the Almighty’s grace.

“Huh,” Crowley says. “Good food there, then?”

“The best,” Aziraphale sighs. “They have this soft bread with sesame seeds sprinkled over it that you can spread cheese over, and the most fabulous yoghurt to go alongside. And then for dessert--” He cuts himself off for the pressing reason of the approach of a plate of pastry, carried by one of the servers for the shop and winding its way directly towards the pair of them.

Crowley makes some visible effort to collect himself from his sprawl, which succeeds in making him look only languid instead of entirely boneless. “Yes, over here.” Aziraphale turns his head to stare a question at Crowley while the other adopts the premise that he is entirely ignorant of any such means of communication. “That’ll be ours.” The server obeys Crowley’s gesture to approach, hesitating only briefly over where to set the plate, which problem Crowley summarily solves by reaching out to take it entirely.

“Thank you,” Aziraphale says, speaking on the force of autopilot rather than out of any coherent thought. His attention is fully diverted by the plate in Crowley’s hands and the selection of pastries laid out across it. “That isn’t...where did that come from?” He looks up at Crowley, torn between being aghast and delighted. “You didn’t.”

“Don’t get your feathers ruffled,” Crowley tells him. “I didn’t miracle it.” He pauses and shrugs. “Not directly, anyway. And the idea to bring in desserts from another restaurant is a smashing idea, if I say so myself. It took nothing but a suggestion, no demonic influence beyond the quite natural desire to make a profit.”

Aziraphale looks to the dish in Crowley’s hand. “That’s baklava,” he breathes. “They brought it in fresh?”

“Still warm from the oven,” Crowley promises. “Or from the sun, anyway.” He reclines back against the couch behind him, tilting his head into the appearance of perfect calm as he gestures to Aziraphale with the plate. “Give them a try and see if they’ve stood up to the travel.”

Aziraphale stares. Then he decides that he might as well be shocked after accepting the offer of the dessert as well as before, and reaches to take the plate. Crowley leaves it to his keeping so he can let his hand drape heavy over the support of the couch beneath him, and Aziraphale is left holding the plate out in front of him and trying to keep his gaze on Crowley instead of wandering to the desserts in his hold. “You want me to try them?”

“Yep,” Crowley says, pressing his lips together so the sound pops in the air. “You know what they taste like from your jaunt to the restaurant, right?” He tilts his head to the side to meet Aziraphale’s gaze with the dark of the glasses over his eyes. “You’re the resident expert on…” He gestures with the tips of his fingers to flutter towards the dish in Aziraphale’s hold. “That.”

“Baklava,” Aziraphale says automatically. “Don’t you want some?”

“I’ll try it,” Crowley says. “If it meets with your approval.”

Aziraphale hesitates another moment. He really shouldn’t accept a gift from a demon; the fact that he has done exactly that over the millennia with this particular demon doesn’t escape him any more than it changes the facts of the matter. But there can be no wrongdoing in sharing a dessert with one another, and after all they are already sipping on cups of tea. It seems only reasonable to have something to nibble on as well; and besides, Aziraphale can smell the rich sweet of the honey-coated dough rising from the plate in his hands. He can hardly be expected to resist such temptation; so when he moves to set the plate down it is only so he can reach out and pick one of the flaky segments of pastry out from the arrangement into which they have been laid. He brings it to his nose, shutting his eyes as he breathes deeply to bring the buttery-sweet of the dessert onto his tongue; and then he parts his lips so he can follow innuendo with action. The taste of honey bursts onto his tongue, the layers of the pastry crackle and give way to the set of his teeth, and for a moment Aziraphale is entirely, purely absorbed in savoring the experience of the pastry. He keeps his eyes shut as he lets the first bite dissolve on his tongue before following it with a second; in the end he makes the first piece last for four very dainty bites, each unfolding into a microcosm of taste and sensation. It’s only with the last of the honey fading from his tongue that Aziraphale draws a breath to heave into a sigh of satisfaction and opens his eyes to bring himself back to reality.

Crowley is watching him. It can’t have been more than a few minutes since Aziraphale lifted the baklava to his lips, but Crowley looks as utterly relaxed as if he’s been there for all the centuries since they first met and intends to stay there for another several dozen. Aziraphale looks at the dark glass blocking the other’s eyes and lets the sweet on his tongue curve to a smile at his lips.

“Thank you,” he says, with the full measure of sincerity spilling from his throat. “That was blissful.”

“Yeah,” Crowley drawls. “I could tell.”

Aziraphale steels himself with all the virtue at his command and finds it just barely sufficient to let him speak the next words. “You should try one for yourself.”

Crowley wrinkles his nose, grimacing as he shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “Dessert’s not really my thing.”

Aziraphale blinks. “Are you sure?”

“Very sure,” Crowley says, and leans farther into the couch behind him so he can bring his feet up to cross one over the other at the far end. When he tips his head back to look at Aziraphale he does so with a smirk that is probably some kind of temptation all on its own. “Trust me, angel, watching you is way more enjoyable than indulging myself.”

Aziraphale considers this, most notably the wisdom of trusting a creature fundamentally designed for deception. Then he looks back to the plate of baklava before him, and the way the honey glazing is catching the light to a sheen, and he decides that surely he can be forgiven a little indiscretion, when it comes from what is, after all, just another one of the Almighty’s creations.

“Oh, very well,” he says, and reaches for another pastry.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale wasn’t expecting the fog to be quite so thick.

He’s familiar with fog. The last years have placed him solidly in England, with very few opportunities for experiences outside the island and where circumstances have effectively marooned him, but Aziraphale doesn’t have any particular issue with fog, or indeed any kind of weather. Under the right conditions he can find perfect contentment in any manner of rain, or snow, or even, yes, thick-hanging fog. It’s just that those conditions involve thick walls, and a warm fire, and ideally a cup of mulled wine in hand to distract him from whatever storm may be breaking on the outside of what shelter he has claimed. They certainly do not involve trudging up a hill through a bank of mist so thick it might as well be a wall, with the steady thud of hoofbeats from the horse he’s been riding all morning trailing in his wake under the guidance of the silent squire assigned to wait on him. Aziraphale tries his best to be open-minded about Earthly experiences -- it’s a requirement of his job to better understand the people he is meant to influence, after all -- but riding a horse is something he will be happy to set aside and never revisit, just as soon as history comes up with a better solution to the problem of transporting the several dozen pounds of metal currently strapped to his body.

One of those chunks of metal is currently wrapped around Aziraphale’s head, limiting his view to what sights he can pick out of a narrow strip of light approximately a fingernail wide cut into the helmet in front of his eyes. With the present conditions Aziraphale feels as if he’s walking directly into a cloud, unfortunately complete with the wet chill that comes with seeing a cloud at any closer perspective than from a comfortable distance above or below. He certainly has no chance of seeing any attack at all, unless the other comes in with the screaming yell that serves as a warning klaxon for Aziraphale to turn and wrestle the weight of his sword up in front of him. Under the present circumstances Aziraphale thinks he’s in far more danger of falling to an upraised stone underfoot than to a faceward sword-thrust. He continues on for another stride, struggling forward while he contemplates the impossibility of seeing what’s before him and the likelihood of putting his foot into a gopher hole, or striding right off the edge of an invisible cliff; and then he pauses, drawing to a halt to stop his squire-shadow as well as he claims the edge of his helmet so he can raise the metal and finally look around him properly.

It is somewhat less satisfying than he expected. His range of vision is fractionally better, to be sure; which just means that he has the pleasure of seeing several more degrees of curling white fog instead of the narrow strip he was granted before. Aziraphale sighs inwardly and makes an attempt at speaking outwardly.

“Hello?” The fog seems to drink his voice back with hasty satisfaction before setting its cup back down. Aziraphale frowns and takes a careful step forward to return the jangle of his horse to the background of his awareness. “I, Sir Aziraphale of the Table Round, am here to speak to the Black Knight.”

There’s another rustling sound. It’s easier to hear with Aziraphale’s helmet raised, and much easier to place it as coming from directly ahead of him. A shadow rises from the soup of the fog, a form hunching forward with an uncomfortable skittering motion until it can, with some difficulty, be seen to have the ostensible shape of a human, albeit a rather contorted one.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. “Right. Um.” He halts for a moment, considering the figure’s wide eyes and curled-in shoulders, before he summons all his knightly valor to attempt a smile. “Hello.” The shape lifts an arm to wave him on, still without blinking from the fanatical intensity he’s turning on Aziraphale. Aziraphale takes another step forward, wondering if this is the fabled Black Knight, and how he’s meant to be sure if the man is simply going to wave at him and skulk away into the fog. Perhaps he simply alarms all his opponents into departing again from sheer self-conscious discomfort and that is the source of the impressive legends. “I, uh. I-I-I was hoping to…” The figure is moving faster into the fog as if anxious to cloak himself within it. Aziraphale wonders if he ought to try a different language. “To meet with the Black Knight?”

There’s a rattle of metal, the telltale sound of armor clanking heavily against itself, which continues even after Aziraphale has gone still to silence the noise of his own silver plate. A larger shadow emerges, looming from the mist into which the hunched figure vanished; there are other shapes behind it, but Aziraphale is too relieved at seeing a clearly recognizable silhouette to spare much attention for the lurking forms.

“You have sought the Black Knight, foolish one.” The voice is very impressive, coming as it does from behind the polished black armor enveloping the other form. Aziraphale wonders if the fog was done specially too, to help carry the oppressive weight of the resonant tone the speaker is adopting. The armored figure approaches to stand before him before rattling to a halt with a sound like a kitchen being overturned. “But you have found your death.”

Aziraphale stares at the black figure. It’s a little thinner than he imagined, lean in a way that makes a suggestion to the attention of his memory, but his recollection is already receiving a signed testimony from the sound of that voice and he doesn’t need to chase down the prickle of familiarity that the lithe silhouette evokes in him. “Is that you under there, Crawley?”

The figure sighs so deeply that the sound reverberates off the inside of the helmet in the auditory equivalent of the fog around them. “Crowley.” A glistening black gauntlet comes up to shove up the weight of the visor over snake-pupiled yellow eyes as familiar on sight as the sound of the voice from within the gleaming black armor.

Aziraphale refrains from looking back over his shoulder to judge how close his squire is, primarily due to the efficacy of entirely forgetting the boy is there at all. “What the hell are you playing at?”

Crowley swings the weight of his armor around to give the impression of looking over his shoulder to the dark shapes in the fog around him. When he speaks his voice has given up all his threatening resonance for his usual sibilant ease. “It’s all right, lads. I know him. He’s all right.” He pivots himself back around to Aziraphale standing in front of him, grimacing as he clatters himself into a somewhat more comfortable alignment with the heap of metal around him. “I’m here spreading foment.”

Aziraphale frowns at the familiar face in the overbearing armor. “What, is that some kind of porridge?”

“No!” Crowley protests. “I’m...I’m…” His gaze slides off of Aziraphale’s face to ask for some suggestions from the audience around them, which, as it consists of a few trees, a horse, and a great deal of fog, proves utterly disinterested. “Fomenting dissent and discord. King Arthur’s been spreading to much peace and tranquillity in the land so I’m here, you know,” with a shrug that creaks ominously through the fog, “Fomenting.”

Aziraphale blinks. “Well I’m meant to be…” He reaches for a better word, but his memory has its teeth in the present conversation and can’t be persuaded to give up its latest toy. “Fomenting...peace.”

Crowley sighs and slumps into resignation. “So we’re both working very hard in damp places and just cancelling each other out?”

“Right, you could put it like that,” Aziraphale admits. His armor feels twice as heavy as it did with the force of adrenaline to propel him into what he had expected to be a honorable battle for the good of the country. Memory jumps in on the side of discomfort to remind him vividly of the last time he saw Crowley, in a warm pub a decade ago over a shared bottle of mead. There had been a fireplace, and even the unparalleled luxury of a fire. Aziraphale doesn’t know when he last sat on something that wasn’t a fallen tree or the back of a horse. “It is a bit damp.”

Crowley shifts himself a little closer, possibly by accident and probably by intent. “Be easier if we both stayed home,” he murmurs, softly enough that his voice catches to the edge of a hiss around the tricky bits of ease and stay. “Just sent messages back to our head offices saying we’d done everything they asked for, wouldn’t it?”

Aziraphale considers the pieces of this suggestion separately, and then brings them together to come to a conclusion that opens his eyes wide on shock as he turns an appalled stare on Crowley. “But that would be lying!”

Crowley’s gaze slithers away to once again request input from the audience. He squints out into the distance to really put some pressure on the mist before grimacing and tilting his head into a surrender. “Eh, possibly. The result would be the same.” He looks back to Aziraphale, opening his eyes to a pointed invitation. “We cancel each other out.”

Aziraphale hesitates. Crowley is looking at him, his yellow eyes fixed on Aziraphale’s face and his chin tipped down to make a conspiracy of the two of them together; for a breath Aziraphale feels his tongue struggling for words, fighting between what he ought to say and how near he can make himself draw to refusal while he looks into the overt suggestion of that intent gaze. “But my dear fellow…” He reaches, struggles, grabs at the flotsam of threadbare reason. “Well, they’d check! I mean…” as Crowley goes on watching him as if he’s unravelling Aziraphale’s weakening protests by no more than the focus of his attention. “Michael is a bit of a stickler.” Aziraphale’s shoulders rise to meet the downward slant of his chin at the thought of the pristine beauty of Heaven, the polite smiles and cold eyes that wait to accept his reports with enough condescension to make him feel like a fumbling fledgling. “You don’t want to get Gabriel upset with you.”

Crowley wrinkles his nose to push aside this attempted defense. “Oh, our lot have better things to do than verifying compliance reports from Earth.” He’s watching Aziraphale when the other glances back to him, his yellow eyes flickering over Aziraphale’s face like he’s trying to glimpse the contents of a book through the barrier of the cover. “As long as they get the paperwork, eh, they seem happy enough. As long as you’re seen to be doing something.” His voice dips low, his body angles forward. The tilt of his shoulder offers a conspiratorial wink to Aziraphale’s attention. “Every now and again…”

Aziraphale wants to accept. Crowley is watching him, his eyes wide and bright in the drab grey of the setting around them; they remind Aziraphale of the pleasure of a comfortable fire and the crisp of laughter easy in the air. But his armor is heavy on his shoulders, the polished weight of it a keen reminder of Gabriel’s lofty smile and exquisite posture; and Crowley is a demon, however gentle the sound of his voice and however clear the hope in his eyes. He is a figure of temptation, a hand outstretched to lead to a path that slopes ever downward, and Aziraphale summons all his righteousness around him and straightens forcibly to fix Crowley with all the judgment he can call to hand.

“No!” he snaps. “Absolutely not! I am shocked that you would even imply such a thing. We are not having this conversation. Not another word.” Crowley subsides, falling back with a wounded look, and Aziraphale swings the weight of his armor around to turn away as the best defense he can muster against the way Crowley is looking at him.

“Alright.” Crowley’s voice is very soft, without any of the suggestive hiss he offered before. He sounds like nothing so much as disappointed, resigned in a way that turns the victory of his surrender around on Aziraphale to cut to the quick.

“Right,” Aziraphale snaps, twisting to shout the word over his shoulder before continuing back on through the fog and leaving Crowley standing looking after him. He makes it a few dozen feet propelled on the strength of his own self-assurance; then the ache in his chest gets the better of him, and he pauses to look back. But the fog has swept in thicker than ever, weaving an impenetrable wall between himself and Crowley where he left him, and Aziraphale can see no trace of any of the shadowy figures at the height of the hill. He gazes back into the fog for a moment, his throat tight and eyes hot; and then he turns away again, and continues on down the hill alone.

Chapter Text

It’s easy to spot Aziraphale in the shadows of the tavern. The space is busy enough to speak well to the food and drink available, but lacks the press of humanity that descends upon the most popular establishments during the dinner hour. Crowley hardly has to glance over the room to set claim to the white tunic and set expression that marks his companion out as someone waiting, rather uncomfortably, for company; and there’s the additional benefit that the room is rather dim, and Aziraphale always seems to carry a flicker of illumination beneath his skin and sparkling in his eyes. This angelic glow is muted at present by the burden of his clothes and the duck of his head over the cup of wine in front of him, but Crowley can feel the force of the other’s presence with clarity enough that he thinks he could snake his way through a crowd of hundreds to deposit himself precisely alongside the other.

Aziraphale hasn’t seen him yet. He’s leaning back in the smooth wood of the chair in which he’s sitting; his hand is cradling the cup of wine before him but his attention has run away to play hide-and-seek with the lackluster pursuit of his thoughts. Crowley watches him for a minute from the shadows at the entrance to the tavern, applying careful measurements to the set of Aziraphale’s mouth on unthinking weight and the slump of his shoulders as if laboring under some invisible burden; then he collects himself together, and smoothes all his edges into languid grace, and saunters forward into the clear space of the tavern.

“Hey there angel,” he calls, loudly enough that Aziraphale jumps and has to take a moment to recall himself back to Earth. His gaze lifts, the weight on his expression blown away by the first effect of surprise, and Crowley steps in to pull a chair back from the other side of the table and drape himself over it with the elegance of a model posing for a painter. There is no canvas nearby, not even the rough sketch of a sheet of paper and a stick of charcoal; but Aziraphale’s attention trickles down the whole long slide of Crowley’s body, and that is all the appreciation Crowley wants. “Long day of doing the right thing?”

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, pulling his mouth into a prim line before reeling his attention back up to the other’s face and the grin Crowley is providing him. “It’s been a while.”

“Ahh, I suppose,” Crowley says. “No time at all, really, for us, wouldn’t you say?” He drops his gaze from Aziraphale’s face to splash into the wine of the other’s drink as he dips his chin to gesture. “How’s the wine?”

Aziraphale’s attention trails Crowley’s motion to consider the cup in his hand. “Ah,” he says, sounding as startled as if he’s only just realized he was holding anything at all. “Good. It’s…” He shrugs helplessly. “Good.”

“High praise,” Crowley drawls, and tips himself back to lift a hand and gesture in a serving maid without looking away from Aziraphale’s face. “Can I get a cup of whatever my friend here is having?” Aziraphale’s gaze jumps up to Crowley’s face, his cheeks flushing to springtime pink, and Crowley flickers his teeth into a grin as the maid ducks her head in assent and moves away to make her way to the bar.

Crowley,” Aziraphale says, hissing the other’s name so severely that even Crowley is impressed. “You can’t...we are not friends.”

Crowley rolls his eyes heavenward, and then realizes his mistake and drops his attention back to the only representative of Heaven that he has any personal interest in. “What did you want me to say? It’s been over four thousand years, I think we’re a little beyond acquaintances by now.” He lets his gaze wander out into the unexplored territory of Aziraphale’s featherdown hair before returning back to fix itself at its favorite point of green eyes turned dark in the shadows of the room around them. “And you made it quite clear how you feel about being business associates.”

The color in Aziraphale’s cheeks takes issue with this and flounces away, leaving the door to slam shut in its wake. His tunic seems to gain pigment in comparison to the white of his face as he draws his lips to taut pressure. “If all you wanted was to bring that back up--”

No,” Crowley’s mouth blurts for him, at a speed better aligned with Aziraphale’s tension than Crowley’s deliberately assumed comfort. “That wasn’t why I asked you to meet me.” He tries fitting a smile onto the shape of his lips, with middling success. “You already said no once, right?”

Aziraphale eases in his chair somewhat. Crowley can almost hear the rustle of feathers smoothing back into place. “Yes,” he says, though he’s still watching Crowley with visible caution in his eyes. “I wasn’t sure you would listen.”

“I listen,” Crowley says. “There’s no point to tempting someone who doesn’t want to be tempted on some level.”

Aziraphale’s mouth shifts, although Crowley is sure the other would categorically deny the expression at his lips as anything close to the smile it might appear to be to an objective observer. “Though you have no problems with indulging such desires.”

Crowley works his shoulders into a shrug. “I am a demon, after all.” Aziraphale tips his head in allowance of this fact as the serving maid comes back across the floor with Crowley’s cup of wine in hand. Crowley straightens fractionally to accept the cup and hand over coins enough to cover the price before sagging back down into the support of his chair, now with the comfort of the wine in his hand to ease him. He lifts it in a vague gesture of celebration, which startles Aziraphale into setting free the smile that has been begging to break free, and Crowley grins back at him before bringing his cup to his lips to sink himself in a long swallow. Aziraphale follows suit, albeit with somewhat greater restraint; he’s setting his cup at the table as Crowley emerges from his brief sojourn within his own and lifting a hand to touch at his mouth with such studied casualness that it demands all of Crowley’s attention cling to the subject of Aziraphale’s touch over anything else in the room.

“So,” Aziraphale says, and drops his hand to the table as he continues his intent consideration of the half-full cup of wine set before him. “If it wasn’t for... that, then what did you want to meet up for?”

Crowley lifts his eyebrows. “I should have thought that was obvious.” Aziraphale’s attention skips up to his face before losing its nerve and retreating again. “I just wanted some company over a cup of wine.”

Aziraphale huffs skepticism. “Am I truly to believe that you asked to meet up for nothing more than small talk?”

Crowley shrugs. “I could come up with some more sinister reason, if you’d prefer.”

“No.” Aziraphale shakes his head. “No, it’s fine. No need for…” He wrinkles his nose in distaste. Crowley’s glad the other is still looking into his cup and therefore doesn’t see the edges of Crowley’s carefully constructed façade wobble dangerously at this particularly endearing demonstration. “Iniquity.”

Crowley has to laugh. “As you will,” he says, and tilts himself forward to drop an elbow against the table so he can pretend at stability in place of fluid elegance. “So. What have you been getting yourself up to, angel?”

Aziraphale smiles at him. “It’s been quite a productive decade,” he admits. “This new emperor has a taste for liturgical music and has been most receptive to a few suggestions I have made on that count. I think his effect will be appreciated for centuries to come, at the very least.”

“This Charlemagne guy, right?” Crowley finishes off the last of his wine and looks back to lift his cup in a gesture to the maid. “My lot’s all enamored of him too.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, sounding like a man who has suddenly found gravity weighing far harder on him than it did before.

Crowley waves his free hand to unravel the stitches of the crease knitting itself between Aziraphale’s brows. “Not for himself, don’t worry about that,” he says. “Empire-building comes with wars, though. You know how those tend.”

Aziraphale frowns. “But it’s for a good cause,” he protests. “Unifying the countries and spreading culture. That must be for the best. I claimed it as a victory for us on my latest report upstairs.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. “And I’m taking credit for the mess it takes to get there.” The maid is picking her way across the room back to their table; Crowley lowers his cup to the table as he sits up fractionally straighter. “So we’re helping each other out even without meaning to. How’s that for ineffable?”

He turns as the maid draws up alongside them and pushes his cup over the table towards her. “Another cup of wine for me,” he says. “And a refill for my colleague as well.” The maid takes his cup and Crowley turns to fall back against his chair and meet Aziraphale’s gaze with a pointedly raised brow. “You can’t complain about that, can you angel?”

Aziraphale smiles before ducking his head over his cup. “I suppose not.”

“Well that’s something,” Crowley says. “Tell me about this music that has you in such a flutter.”

In actual fact Crowley has never been much of a fan of religious music. It tends a bit much towards the worshipful for his personal tastes, and if the choral arrangements are beautiful they call to mind a bit too keenly the vaulted ceilings and angelic ceremony of the Heaven he left behind. But Aziraphale’s face illuminates when he speaks of it, his lips curve to a smile so warm he forgets to reach for the fresh cup the maid sets off at the table for him, and in truth Crowley would go through a great deal worse for the chance to linger for the span of a evening in the radiance of his angel.

Chapter Text

Angels, whether present or former, are excellent at holding their alcohol. Crowley has never been entirely sure on why this should have been deemed a valuable skill by the Almighty; Heaven eschews alcohol on the basis of it being immoral, and Hell on the grounds that one should never even accidentally come too close to a good time within its firey halls. But there is plenty on Earth, thanks to the glorious inventiveness of humans, and Crowley long since determined that he is able to drink just about any mortal under the table, and then into the ground below that, if they are allowed to continue. It takes multiple bottles of wine before Crowley begins to see the buzz of intoxication start on his mental horizon, and by the time he’s too drunk to keep count of them the quantity of emptied containers is usually beyond what can be easily measured in any case. The same has proven true of Aziraphale, as Crowley has thoroughly tested over several centuries of experimentation; if either of them has the least interest in becoming truly drunk, it is an undertaking of several hours and miraculous quantities of alcohol.

Then again, between them they have twice over eternity to spend as they will, and no shortage of miracles, whether celestial or demonic.

“All ‘m sayin,” Crowley attempts, launching into a statement for what he feels vaguely to be the third time, or perhaps the thirtieth, aided by a wide gesture with the cup he’s been refilling from the bottles littering every available surface without consideration for whether those same are empty or full. “Is just. I’m just.” He looks into the surface of his wine, frowning ponderously at the wobble of his own face reflected back into something with the approximate stability of a heap of jelly. “It’s not very considerate, is all.”

“I know.” Aziraphale has chosen to prioritize coherency of speech over stability of posture, evidently; he tipped over sideways across the bench upon which he initially perched four bottles ago, and has remained sprawling there since, with only occasional efforts to surface sufficiently to top off the sea of wine in which he is drifting. “There’s no thought for our position. I wouldn’t expect better from your side--” with a hiccup that softens the sharp edge with which he usually speaks of Crowley’s infernally incompetent masters, “--But Heaven should. Should be.” He pauses to frown intently at the ceiling, as if seeking to recall the adjective to hand by a glimpse of the headquarters somewhere over their head.

“Good,” Crowley supplies.

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, turning on his makeshift bed to point at Crowley, a gesture rather undermined by the swing of the glass he has forgotten to set down. Crowley takes the opportunity to squint at the liquid within before reaching out to slide a bottle off the table next to him so he can pour another splash into Aziraphale’s nearly-empty cup. Aziraphale steadies himself with visible intent, his mouth offering the support of a frown as he braces his glass to avoid spilling any of the liquid Crowley is pouring for him. Crowley stops somewhat shy of the lip of the glass and pauses to consider his own cup, still more than half-full of wine, before he gives up on propriety outright and lifts the bottle in his hand to his mouth to swallow a draught of it direct. Aziraphale doesn’t protest this, primarily, Crowley thinks, because he is occupied in steering the cup presently held between both palms up to the set of his lips. He sips at the dark wine to lower it somewhat in the cup before some of the tension in his shoulders sees itself out to slump him back to comfort against the bench. “They just don’t see how pointless it all is.”

“You’re telling me,” Crowley says.

Aziraphale tips his head to frown at him. “Telling you what?”

Crowley contemplates this for a moment. “Things,” he says. “Heaven. Pointless. Hell. Pointless-er. I’m listening,” he concludes, waving the empty bottle to Aziraphale to continue. “Listen to you all day. Keep talking, angel.”

“Right,” Aziraphale says. “Yes. What I’m trying to say is simply that they ought to be able to see the real benefit of this. Surely if they really understood the advantages they would want to take the suggestion.” He’s warming to his topic, the heat of his own fervor raising him from the bench nearly to sitting upright, albeit with the support of an arm braced at the edge of the surface beneath him and his elbow locked out so he can lean heavily into the stability of it. “They should be grateful.”

“That’s right,” Crowley says, unwilling to admit he’s entirely lost the thread of Aziraphale’s subject but ever-willing to offer agreement in answer to the other, the more so when Aziraphale’s polite gentility gives way to the haughty self-assurance that lies just beneath that seemingly submissive exterior. It always makes Crowley feel a little hot, like he’s standing at the lip of another great Fall opening up beneath him to beckon him downwards, and he’s never sure he doesn’t want to let himself drop over the ledge just to find out what might be waiting for him in the shadows beneath. He tilts back his cup to his lips, to ease the fire in his throat and to give him a moment to hide his expression in a replacement for the shadow he gave up when he set aside his dark glasses after the first bottle of wine. “Idiots, the lot of them.”

“Perhaps not idiots,” Aziraphale hedges, bound by sincerity to something closer to honesty than Crowley’s exaggeration. “But mistaken, yes. Close-minded, I’m afraid.” His attention lifts, his gaze falling to skim across Crowley slouched into teetering balance in front of him; they gaze at each other for a moment before Aziraphale’s focus retreats into the familiar shape of his cup to hide beneath the dark surface as he works through clearing his throat. “Wouldn’t even give you the time of day, I expect.”

Crowley scoffs. “I wouldn’t ask it of ‘em anyway,” he declares. “Don’t. Don’t need angelic sundials.” He pauses to consider this with all the weight of several bottles of wine behind the force of his attention. “Unless you wanted to be.” He drags at the focus of his gaze to bring it back to Aziraphale’s face, where the other’s head is turned to watch his fingers shift against the curve of the cup in front of him. “Any kind of timepiece, angel. I’m sure you’d be great at...telling time.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, but he looks distracted by the cup he’s sliding across the table and his attention is sticking to the wine at the surface instead of on Crowley. Crowley frowns and tilts his head to swing his hair out of his face as he brings his cup to his lips for another thoughtful swallow while he considers how best to retrieve his lost audience, but he’s still contemplating when Aziraphale speaks again. “Crowley, I’ve been thinking.”

“Mm,” Crowley hums agreement. “In general? ‘M a big fan of thinking, myself.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, and lifts his hand from his cup to touch his littlest finger to the surface of the table in front of him. “And in specific.” He draws a breath that pulls his shoulders up and straightens his posture; Crowley rocks back to slump against his chair in instinctive surrender to the authority Aziraphale is wrapping around himself, and then remembers that he’s a demon and meant to rebel against authority of all kinds, even coming from angels with soft mouths and bright eyes, and retrieves his earlier position. Aziraphale doesn’t seem to notice Crowley’s inner struggle, as his gaze remains clinging to the slide of his fingers at the table.

“I think,” Aziraphale begins, and then falls silent again. Crowley watches him for a long moment, feeling himself wavering very slightly through the slur of time passing while he waits for Aziraphale to say whatever it is he is working towards. Aziraphale’s forehead creases, his mouth tightens; and then he shakes himself, and speaks at once. “I think we could benefit from...comparing notes. Every now and again.”

Crowley blinks at Aziraphale’s features drifting vaguely before his gaze while his ears collect the sound of the other’s words and mail them up to his brain for parsing into words, and connecting to meaning, and stringing together into a full sentence of communication. It takes him a moment -- grammar especially is somewhat difficult to untangle at the present -- and when he comes face-to-face with the final conclusion he is very sure something has gone horribly wrong along the route to get there. He thinks it through again, careful with each step; tips his glass towards himself to frown judgment at the liquid within, which clearly is far stronger stuff than anything humans have been able to make before now, and shouldn’t that come with some kind of a warning before you drink it? Then he looks back to Aziraphale, frowning intently at the other as he leans in over his knees.

“‘M sorry,” Crowley says. “I thought I was listening but I must’ve lost some words in there. I thought you--”

“You thought right,” Aziraphale says, hurrying his words on to a gallop to trample Crowley’s response to silence. “What you think I’m suggesting is...what I’m suggesting.”

Crowley stares at him. “You’re drunk?”

Aziraphale shakes his head. “I was,” he says. “It seemed best to be sober for this bit, though.”

“Ah,” Crowley says. He looks back to bid his cup a regretful farewell. “Suppose I ought to too.” He shuts his eyes and does something very like wringing out a soaked towel, except that it involves the whole effort of his mind and acts on his physical form instead of a strip of cloth. His thoughts clear, his throat dries, and by the time he opens his eyes he’s left with just the bitter remnants of several bottles’ worth of wine stuck to his tongue. He grimaces and works his jaw in an attempt to clear his mouth of the taste, with limited success, before he reaches to set his somewhat fuller cup aside decisively.

“Right,” he says, and looks back to Aziraphale again. “Are you serious, angel?”

Aziraphale doesn’t look away from the truly fascinating work his fingers are doing against the surface of the table in front of him, but he ducks his head into a sharp nod. “Extremely.”

Crowley blinks. “You’ve thought about this.”

Aziraphale draws a careful breath. “For almost five hundred years, yes.”

“But,” Crowley starts, and then realizes that bringing up Aziraphale’s previous refusal is probably not an ideal temptation tactic and says “You mean it?” instead. “You’re willing to work with me?”

“I don’t see any other demon around, do you?” Aziraphale asks rather tartly. He draws himself up, lifting his chin to turn his face up to the light as he folds his hands to careful creases in his lap. “And not working. Just...being selective in the details of my reports.”

“Ah,” Crowley says. “Of course.”

“Not all the time,” Aziraphale says firmly. “Once a century or so. Not often.”

Crowley nods assent. “Right. Yeah.”

“And I’m not going to help you with your...wrongdoing,” Aziraphale says. “Perhaps we can both take a little time off, but only when we happen to be in the same place at the same time.”

“Sure,” Crowley says. “As the occasion arises.”

“Precisely,” Aziraphale says. He huffs a breath that unwinds the tension across his shoulders into a slump before glancing upwards again with all the trepidation of a guilty child. “I do hope this isn’t too wrong of me.”

“It’s not wrong,” Crowley scoffs. “It’s just rational. Efficient, really. Heaven would be proud of you if they understood what things are like down here. Besides, if it were really wrong I wouldn’t have anything to worry about myself.”

Aziraphale glances back at Crowley, his forehead creasing onto a flicker of concern. “And do you?”

Crowley shrugs. “No more than I usually do,” he says. “Don’t worry, angel. I’ll handle myself.” He leans in to brace an elbow against the table so he can reach out and offer his other hand to Aziraphale across from him. “All you have to do is cover for me when the opportunity arises, and I’ll do the same for you. Agreed?”

Aziraphale considers Crowley for a long moment; but his shoulders stay relaxed, and Crowley keeps waiting with perfect certainty of his success, even if his heart is fluttering fast in his chest. Finally Aziraphale unclasps his hands from his lap and reaches out to close his grip firmly around Crowley’s outstretched hand.

“Agreed,” he says. They shake hands before Aziraphale loosens his hold and Crowley retrieves his tingling fingers to tuck into his pocket where they can tremble in safe seclusion.

“Right,” he says, speaking loudly into the stunned quiet of the nonexistent audience around them. “I think this calls for a drink, don’t you?” He reaches to claim the bottle he set down earlier and tips it to fill the last inch in Aziraphale’s cup before turning to his own. 

Aziraphale reaches to steady the cup on his side of the table, although he has a frown working at his mouth. “We’ve just sobered back up,” he points out. “It’ll take hours to get drunk again.”

“Good thing we have the rest of the night ahead of us,” Crowley says, and sets the bottle down with a thud so he can reach for his own cup and offer it over the distance to Aziraphale. “To us.”

Aziraphale looks at the offered glass, and then to Crowley’s face, and then to his own cup; and then he reaches to lift it from the table and meet Crowley’s offer. “To you and I.” Their cups clink together in the middle ground between them, and when Crowley lifts his to his mouth he can see the curve of his own smile echoed in the tension clinging to the corners of Aziraphale’s lips as well.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is waiting just at the edge of the orchard when Crowley arrives. He’s been waiting for some time; the adrenaline of something he would like to call anxiety and suspects to be closer to anticipation brought him to their arranged meeting point nearly a quarter of an hour before the established time, and he’s spent the whole of it running each second ragged and threadbare. He has come to terms with their Arrangement, as Crowley has taken to calling the cease-fire they have established between themselves; and it’s not as if he’s really doing wrong , exactly, in setting aside efforts for good that are doomed to fall to the demon’s opposing influence. Aziraphale can live quite comfortably within the space he has carefully built for himself from logic and precisely phrased arguments in his own head; but he suspects that the intervention of Gabriel, or Michael, or one of his other heavenly cohort, would result in an attention to the details that habit has let him overlook. Aziraphale is in no hurry to have the corners of his comfortable mental home prodded by the gimlet eye the other angels turn on even his carefully polished appearances, and the self-consciousness of what he intends here is enough to keep him on the point of flight at the least unexpected sound.

“Nice place for a conspiracy,” a voice says from just over Aziraphale’s shoulder.

Aziraphale jumps half out of his skin, jerking to stare back over his shoulder before he is able to return his consciousness firmly back to where it habitually resides. Guilt surges over the dam he’s built for it, sweeping in to sink the whole of his mental constructions feet deep; he’s still gaping when his vision picks out flame-red hair and the suggestion of yellow eyes behind dark glasses. A moment later his hearing arrives very late to the party to declare that it knows that voice, that’s Crowley, nothing to be alarmed about, everyone can calm down.

Aziraphale lets his chest empty itself of air for the relief that comes with the sound of the sigh. “Crowley,” he breathes, and lifts a hand to press against his chest, where his heart would be pounding itself to panic if it made a habit of beating in general. “You scared me.”

Crowley tips his chin to make a point of the dragging gaze he casts over Aziraphale. “I can see that,” he drawls. “What’s the matter, angel?” He turns to step in over the few inches Aziraphale’s surprise imposed between them, tilting his shoulders as he goes to swing wide as he paces around the other’s position. “Suffering from a guilty conscience?” He hisses over the sibilance of the last word with such satisfaction that Aziraphale is surprised his tongue doesn’t slide free from behind the taut edge of his grin.

Aziraphale turns to follow Crowley’s idle motion with a frown. “No,” he says, and comforts himself with the fact that at least he’s lying to a demon, that’s very nearly a good deed all in itself. “I didn’t hear you coming, that’s all.”

“My apologies.” Crowley paces around behind Aziraphale, marking out a circle as if he can’t manage to hold himself still. “I’ll bring out the celestial trumpets to announce my arrival next time, shall I?”

“It might be better than sneaking up on me,” Aziraphale says. Crowley just grins wider as he comes back around to draw level with the other. Aziraphale takes a breath and deliberately sets the tension in his hands free to make its own way in the world. “What did you want to meet about, Crowley?”

Crowley undulates himself into a shrug. “Nothing much,” he says, tilting his head to gaze off across the rows of trees like he’s considering the delineation between each variety. “I just came into some information I thought might be of some interest to my...colleague.”

Aziraphale huffs. “You make it sound like we’re a team,” he says. “What is it, then?”

Crowley raises his eyebrows and opens his mouth to collect himself for the effort of speech. “Nothing terrible,” he says, and then tilts his head to the side and shrugs. “Well. Nothing more terrible than you’d expect, under the circumstances.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a folded scrap of paper. It looks like it’s been torn at a diagonal from a greater sheet, and treated with less than perfect kindness since then. One edge is charred black. Another corner has a dark ring from the bottom of a cup staining it. The whole is creased and crumpled, as if it’s been wadded into a ball and tossed across an office to miss a far-off wastebasket, and the words on it are scrawled almost out of legibility.

To the demon Crowley, the note reads. We have heard of your latest undertaking in Europe. Our congratulations on your success and hope for your continued productivity on behalf of Hell. There’s something that might be a signature at the bottom, although it’s formed of smudges grouped together with all the awkward discomfort of a poorly arranged table at a wedding reception; Aziraphale can’t make out any hope of letters from it, and rather suspects he’ll be better off not reading it even if he could.

He offers the letter back with a grimace. “Very encouraging,” he says. “What is it you’ve been doing to earn yourself such notice?”

“Splendid question,” Crowley says, as he spirits the letter back into somewhere at his pocket. “That was my question as well. It took some doing to get the information. I don’t think Hell quite realizes how non-specific Europe is as far as a location. Might as well ask someone to meet you somewhere on the coast of Africa.”

Aziraphale snorts. “I imagine they thought you were already wherever they were looking.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says, and lifts his chin to consider the sky overhead like he’s watching for observers, as if an audience from either of their head offices is likely to be visible before they wish to be. “I figured it out eventually. That’s why I’m here now.” He grimaces and looks back to Aziraphale next to him. “There’s another war in the offing, I’m afraid.”

Aziraphale wrinkles his nose. “Oh dear,” he says. “I do hate wars.”

“Yeah, you and me both,” Crowley says. “I left Hell to get away from the pointy things and the screaming, I don’t want to see much of it up here.” He shivers to throw off the thought like an uncomfortable overcoat and draws himself up again. “Anyway, Hell thinks I was instrumental in getting it underway. It seems they’re very pleased with me.”

“Congratulations,” Aziraphale says with all the moisture of the Sahara Desert on his tone. “And you wanted to show off to me in person?”

Crowley rolls his eyes. “Of course not,” he says. “I wanted to tell you about it before things got underway.” He tips his head to the side to fix Aziraphale with what Aziraphale assumes is a meaningful stare, even if the impact of it is somewhat dampened by the other’s dark glasses. “It’s a religious war, angel.”

Aziraphale blinks. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. “Whole bunch of people getting together, sharpening their swords and polishing their armor and all.” He pauses to give Aziraphale a chance to respond. Aziraphale, unclear on his part, offers the blank stare that is the best he has available at the moment. “Going out to cut through the hoards of unbelievers and claim their lands in the name of religious purification.” Another beat. Aziraphale tries to look interested and questioning at the same time, which seems to work, in that it makes Crowley heave a sigh and continue. “Come on, angel, doesn’t your side go all-in for this kind of righteous violence?”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, and then, as the illumination of epiphany makes its belated entrance with apologetic embarrassment: “Oh.”

“Murder in the name of religion was all the rage with the Almighty a few centuries back, I recall,” Crowley says. “This looks like it’ll be more of the same.”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, and looks aside with a grimace. “I wouldn’t have chosen this path, exactly, as a means of saving souls.”

“You didn’t have to,” Crowley tells him. “The humans chose it for themselves. They always do, at least you can give them that much.”

Aziraphale sighs. “I suppose that’ll be the effect of free will.”

“Suppose so,” Crowley says. There’s a beat; then Crowley’s gaze slithers sideways from behind his glasses to wave hello to Aziraphale before the other clears his throat on intent. “Still. It’ll be happening anyway, you might as well claim some credit for it while you’re down here. Not like it’ll hurt anything for you to say it was your doing.”

“But.” Aziraphale frowns at this. “But haven’t you already claimed it as a victory for your side?”

“Sure,” Crowley says. “So what? They’re not exactly going to compare notes, are they?” He shifts to pace another half-circle around Aziraphale fixed in place before him. “It’ll be something to say you’re doing. Keep Heaven from breathing down your neck for a decade, at least.”

“It would,” Aziraphale admits, his mouth still straining on the weight of his frown. “It would be a relief to have some time to myself. And Gabriel has been getting a bit restive lately that I show some progress for his centennial report.”

“This is just in time then,” Crowley says. “Get you off the hook and free to do something more enjoyable with your time.”

Aziraphale whets his gaze on suspicion before cutting sideways at Crowley drawing up alongside him. “And I suppose you have some suggestion on that front?”

Crowley frowns in a dramatic show of innocence and shakes his head. “Nothing planned,” he says. “I did just hear about this new thing they’re doing over in Italy with very thin dough they cook with seafood.” He works his mouth to shape it for the unfamiliar word to come. “They call it spaghetti.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. He presses his lips together and swallows. “Is...is it very good?”

Crowley shrugs. “Not sure,” he says. “People seem to like it. But I thought I’d get a more...authoritative perspective on it.” He rocks his shoulders to swing around towards Aziraphale. “I have this connection to an angel, you see.”

Aziraphale manages to hold himself together for a span of seconds, which he thinks is a remarkable achievement deserving of at least as much praise as Crowley’s Hellish accolades. Then self-restraint frays too thin for him to sustain, and he lets it go with a sense of relief in spite of his best intentions. “Oh, very well,” he says. “Just let me draft up a note to Heaven and see it well delivered and I’ll be at your disposal for the rest of the afternoon.”

Crowley grins at him. “I knew you could be persuaded,” he purrs. “Pick you up in a half hour?”

“Better make it an hour,” Aziraphale says. “Gabriel tends to drone a bit when he gets going.” He draws himself up and nods to Crowley. “I’ll see you then.” Crowley lifts his hand to a wave, and Aziraphale gives him a smile in exchange, and then they turn away to go their separate ways, if only temporarily.

Chapter Text

There are a lot of pleasures in which Crowley likes to indulge himself during his ever-lengthening stay on Earth. There’s the food, of course, and the clothes, in a variety of colors and styles rather than the ill-fitting ugliness of the bland uniforms that Hell musters up for each new recruit. Alcohol is a great satisfaction, one of those Crowley likes indulging in whenever he has the opportunity. But at those times when he lacks an audience to entertain, or a companion whose presence he wishes to savor, Crowley’s favorite way to pass the time is to lie down on a bed, or a couch, or sometimes even the ceiling, just for spice, and give his physical form over to the pleasures of sleep.

It’s a fascinating prospect. Crowley spent several centuries perplexed by the enthusiasm with which the humans around him cast themselves into unconsciousness; it seems a deliberate weakness, another one of the little jokes that Aziraphale would call ineffable and Crowley just calls ill-natured. What kind of a creator would give her creation a limited lifespan in which to enjoy their existence and then take back such a tax as forced unconsciousness for hours a day? Crowley had frowned, and judged, and shook his head in resignation; and then, one particularly boring decade, he decided to give it a try for himself.

He was asleep for a solid fortnight. By the time he grew interested enough in returning to consciousness to stir himself the keeper of the inn in which he was staying had had four doctors by to decide if Crowley was in fact still alive or not; a determination made significantly more challenging by Crowley’s inattention to little details like breathing and a heartbeat. The only thing that had saved him from waking in the dark space of a coffin was the remarkable resilience of his physical form, which had instead convinced the innkeeper that Crowley was possessed of some infernal spirit. Crowley sitting up in the middle of a hushed conversation the man was having with a priest and asking for a cup of wine had only confirmed all the man’s terrified beliefs, and with his thoughts dizzy with the effect of his extended rest Crowley lacked the inventiveness to muster an actual lie to overcome this fundamentally true conclusion. He had had to leave the country entirely and spend a month in Russia while the worst of the rumors died down, and since then he’s been more careful about when and how he indulges in this particular habit.

He does continue to indulge, of course. Sleep is far from the dark blankness that Crowley had believed it to be; it’s full of color and possibility, like falling into a world painted over by an artist run mad on his own creation and perhaps more cups of strong wine than is good for him. His physical form doesn’t require the rest to continue functioning the way that the humans do -- Crowley could stay awake for all the millennia of existence, if he wished to -- but there is something deeply satisfying about shutting off the demands of the world and retreating into a space unbounded by any considerations beyond what Crowley devises for himself. He has a nightmare, once, following a memo from Hell nasty enough to verge on blasphemy in the implications it makes regarding Crowley’s creator; but upon realizing that he is ultimate arbiter of his own imagination, he simply turned Dagon into a pile of scales and undertook some serious redecorating in the Hell of his unconscious mind. He was almost disappointed to wake that time. He had just begun to really get somewhere with the decor.

Crowley takes to sleeping regularly with all the enthusiasm of a lover in the first flush of romance. He sleeps several times a month; occasionally he’ll let himself pass a whole day in unconsciousness, just for the fun of it. He drops in on the world, ensures everything is running smoothly for his various plans, and those plans he is claiming as his even when they are entirely someone else’s doing, and then return to the arms of his mistress as soon as he can get himself free. He passes weeks, sometimes, and a whole month, on one occasion; but curiosity continues to prod at the back of his mind, wondering how long he could sleep, if he really put his mind to it. It would take the right circumstances, of course, a period dull enough to provide a smooth canvas for the possibility of his unconsciousness; and then the century groans and heaves itself into a turn, and Crowley finds the perfect opportunity.

He doesn’t make any particular plans. His location is distant from humanity, sufficiently isolated that he’s unlikely to be disturbed as he was in his first trial run; and it’s not as if he wants to have anything to do with society in this particular age. He almost thinks it’s worth returning to Hell; a sure sign of his impending madness, if he fails to put some mental distance between himself and the present. Better to play the hermit for a few months, maybe a couple of years, and wait until humanity has turned the page to get to a better part of the story it’s constantly writing for itself.

Crowley’s plan to remain undisturbed works exceedingly well. He stirs a handful of times, drifting perilously close to breaking the surface of his conscious mind on one occasion; but his bed is comfortable, and his body is obedient, and when he sees the light of waking threatening him he just turns around to dive back towards the shadowy depths that he has wrapped around himself as closely as his blankets. He dreams, and sleeps, and dreams some more; and finally, after what feels like one of the shorter varieties of eternity, he finds his eyes open, and his body aware of its position in bed.

He stays still for several minutes. In the time he’s spent asleep he’s dreamed of sleeping more than once; waking up before now has consisted of a kind of playacted consciousness that allowed his body to go on lingering in the concerted laziness that he had been embodying. But his eyes feel grainy, and he can hear the sound of wind against the walls of the isolated house he created for himself, and when he sits up there’s a layer of dust across the blanket that drifts to the floor before creeping away to a long-awaited reunion with the spiderwebs that have formed in the corners of the room. Crowley grimaces at the shadows of the room around him, feeling as if every glint of sunlight is brandishing a knife and threatening his life if he doesn’t hand over all his valuables; and then he heaves a sigh, and swings himself into movement so he can rise from the permanently creased sheets of his bed.

He takes stock and finds himself the owner of a pair of pajamas creased nearly as thoroughly as his skin feels, a pair of eyes that seem to have forgotten how to adjust properly in response to illumination, and hair that...well, and hair, that’s probably about as much as he wants to think about it. Crowley drops his hand from the brief, death-defying exploration it has made of his head, looks down to squint suspiciously as his feet, which seem decidedly insufficient to maintain his balance, perhaps he ought to return himself to the safety of a more horizontal position; and then he groans a sigh, and lifts his hand to snap his fingers.

It feels rather like becoming undrunk, Crowley reflects, even down to the bad taste that lingers at the back of his tongue. He works his jaw back into some measure of fluidity, tries on a few mumbling curses just to make sure his voice remains more-or-less intact; and then he takes his newly reinstated tunic, and the shoulder-length curl he has made of his hair, and departs to find his way in this brave new world.

It’s the color he notices first. Everything is far brighter than he remembers it being, so much so that he begins to wonder if the length of his sleep hasn’t had some effect on the eyes of the physical form which he has worn to such lived-in comfort. The clothes are brighter, almost luminescent in the midday light to which Crowley has emerged; he squints at some of the embroidery, and when passing through a less-populated alleyway emerges with a considered addition to his own tunic, which is fitting better by the second. He softens the curl of his hair, gives it free rein to fall a little past the shoulders of his elegantly embroidered tunic, and watches with satisfaction as gazes slide off him with the unseeing disinterest crowds show to someone reasonably but not remarkably well-dressed.

Crowley’s step has picked up quite a swing for itself by the time he has made it back to the main part of the nearest town. He wanders past the displays in the shops, eyeing the fashions on display and taking stock of the language being spoken around him -- there’s been a shift in the vowels, it seems -- and then his gaze catches at a glimmer of light, and Crowley turns at once in the middle of the path to look back in answer to that murmur of illumination. There’s nothing of note behind him, just a restaurant with a small child standing out front with a dish of what looks like small, misshapen lumps and might be intended as animals, but Crowley trusts the word of his eyes, and he’s moving across the street to the open door without waiting for an invitation.

“Good day, sir,” the child offers, speaking with a studied care that suggests they are reading from an open book, if it is possible they can read at all. “Care for a sample of our wares? We have the best marzipan for miles.”

“Ah,” Crowley says, and bares his teeth into a flash of a smile. “No thanks. No worries though, I’m sure you’ll have something else that suits my tastes.” He reaches to point at one of the sugared forms on the dish. “What’s that, exactly?”

The child looks down. “It’s a snake, sir.”

Crowley tips his head to the side to consider the misshapen candy, which looks approximately as much like a snake as an apple resembles a water buffalo. “Of course it is.” And he steps past the child and into the darkened space of the restaurant past him.

There are a handful of people within. From the angle of the sun Crowley estimates it’s something reasonably close to the noon hour, and any establishment that offers its patron anything of even vaguely alcoholic substance is sure to have a steady flow of customers during even the driest spells. Crowley doesn’t bother searching through the crowd for the individual he’s looking for; it’s easier to let his feet carry him forward in pursuit of that near-magnetic draw of the divine that he once was, before his standing was stripped from him. Aziraphale is sitting at the far corner of the counter, a cup in his hand and a plate of marzipan in front of him; he doesn’t look up, which means that Crowley can almost entirely cross the distance between them before he decides that the element of surprise is overrated and takes a breath so he can drawl out a “Hey there, angel” to cross the last few steps on his behalf.

Aziraphale jolts in his chair, jerking around so quickly he doesn’t even hesitate in giving up his attention to the candy set in front of him. It’s quite a compliment, Crowley thinks, but he doesn’t have much of a chance to savor the sweet of it. Aziraphale’s mouth drops open, he blurts “Crowley,” as if he’s facing a ghost, and the full cup in his hand drops from his grip to topple towards the floor. Crowley reaches out reflexively to catch the cup and it stalls a handspan from the floor before righting itself so it can reunite with the spill of wine returning to its hold, but even then Aziraphale doesn’t look away from Crowley’s face.

“You,” he breathes, sounding gratifyingly starstruck. “You’re--you’re here.”

“That I am,” Crowley says. He lifts his hand to gesture the cup back up to the counter, safely on the far side of Aziraphale’s plate. The man on the far side of the ccounter stares, eyes wide with shock, before calm logic insists that cups can’t simply fly unsupported through the air and the evidence of his eyes slinks away embarrassed.

Crowley looks back to Aziraphale, who is still gaping at him with all the soft of his expression knocked into stumbling shock. “What?” he asks. “You look like you’ve just seen all the assembled armies of Heaven materialize in front of you.”

Aziraphale closes his mouth with some effort, but this only condenses his shock to fit into his wide green eyes. “I thought…” he starts, and fights a brief but heated battle with his throat before he swallows and goes on in a somewhat elevated tone. “I thought you were dead, Crowley.”

Crowley raises his eyebrows. “You what?” he blurts. “That’s a bit melodramatic, don’t you think?” He steps forward over the last feet, since Aziraphale looks to be considering putting down roots in an effort to better ground himself, and his odds of obtaining a drink increase dramatically with proximity to the bartender on the far side of the counter. “I just took a nap, it’s not like it’s the apocalypse or anything.”

“A nap?” Aziraphale’s voice skids so high Crowley thinks it is in some danger of abandoning the other’s corporeal form and ascending directly into Heaven under its own power. He leans in closer over the edge of the counter as Crowley tips himself back to rest his elbows against it. “Crowley, I haven’t seen you in over a century.”

Crowley’s attention swings itself around sharply at that. “You’re joking.” Aziraphale shakes his head. “What year is it?”

“Fourteen hundred and...” Aziraphale frowns and shapes over the count of a few numbers at his lips. “Seven.”

Crowley considers the likelihood that he did, in fact, sleep for a solid hundred and eleven years; and then decides that he clearly needed it, and contents himself with a shrug. “Bit more than a nap, then.”

Aziraphale huffs. “That’s all you have to say for yourself?”

Crowley tips his head to frown at him. “I lost track of time,” he says. “It’s a tricky business to remember when you are. You should know that. Besides, I didn’t think much of the 14th century. Better to give it a miss entirely.” Aziraphale rolls his eyes and turns away with force enough that Crowley thinks it ought to come with the sound of a door slamming in his wake. Crowley knits his eyebrows into the start of frustration, which Aziraphale’s shoulders appreciate less than they should. “What’s got you so tetchy anyway, angel? You’re acting like I stood you up on a date.”

“I am not tetchy,” Aziraphale says, tetchily. Crowley doesn’t deign to answer this aloud; he just fixes his gaze on Aziraphale and waits with all the patience that comes with understanding the inevitability of curiosity. Aziraphale’s shoulders tighten to build a wall between the two of them, while telling Crowley in no uncertain terms that this is all he’s going to get, it will be nothing but icy chill from here on out if he doesn’t offer some apologetic warmth immediately. Crowley watches, and waits until Aziraphale’s head shifts to let the other glance back towards him. Crowley raises an eyebrow into the curve of a question mark and the wall crumbles miraculously to leave Aziraphale flushed with his own surrender as he turns back to face his companion. “You frightened me, Crowley.”

Crowley’s second eyebrow realizes the other has ascended and hurries to follow suit. Aziraphale’s cheeks darken with embarrassment and he ducks his head down to cool some part of his flush in the shadows as he drags a breath and continues. “You vanished for decades, I couldn’t find you anywhere. What was I supposed to think?”

“Come on,” Crowley says. “We’ve gone longer than a century without seeing each other before.”

“Not recently,” Aziraphale says immediately. “Not since…” His lips tighten down over his speech; he ducks in closer to fix his gaze sternly on the plate in front of him, although this control comes at the cost of restraining the slide of his fingertips working at the edge of the counter. “Our agreement.” He draws a breath as if steeling himself for something very unpleasant before lifting his gaze to seek out the reassurance of Crowley’s face. “I thought Hell had found out about you.”

Crowley’s incredulity dissolves as quickly as would Aziraphale’s marzipan candies in a downpour. His stomach, meanwhile, looks down and finds itself with a distinct lack of stable footing, at which point it goes into a free-fall that leaves Crowley feeling more disoriented than when he struggled his way out of his nest of blankets an hour hence. He looks away, self-preservation determining that it will be better to be looking out at the distraction of the crowd rather than attempting to meet the affectionate concern in Aziraphale’s face without proper precautions, but he can still feel his cheeks warming in spite of the coolest thoughts he can pull up for himself. He presses his lips together and tries to swallow as subtly as he can manage, so of course the sound is loud enough that he can almost pick out the echo off the walls of the restaurant. “You were worried about me?”

Yes,” Aziraphale says. “Of course I was worried about you, Crowley. I know Heaven is...unlikely to be enthused about our partnership, but if Hell were to find out…” He pauses delicately, which allows imagination to elbow its way forward and populate the space between them with the impressive array of possibilities of what, exactly, might happen if Hell were to find out. “It could have been the end of everything.”

Crowley keeps his mouth shut for a moment, just because it seems the safest approach, and because he doesn’t have the least idea how to respond to the quaver threading itself into Aziraphale’s voice. There’s a tremor at the other’s mouth, too, a shiver of motion that Crowley sees with as much clarity as if his whole being was created precisely to see that threat of tears in Aziraphale’s face. Maybe he was, he thinks in the distant reaches of his mind. Impossible to say, after all, ineffability being what it is. The possibility that his whole existence has been bringing him to this precise breath of time, here, next to Aziraphale in a dim-lit restaurant somewhere in the middle of Italy, seems more plausible than anything else Crowley has ever considered for himself. He lingers in the thought for a moment, appreciating the clarity of it, the comfort that could come with such a well-defined purpose; and then he shakes his head to return himself to the chaotic illogic of whatever game God may or may not be playing with the universe instead.

“It might have been the end of something,” he says, with as much flippancy as he can provide after several centuries of practice. “Probably not everything, technically speaking. The stars would still be up there--” as he lifts a hand to gesture vaguely towards the heavy beams of the roof overhead. “--somewhere, anyway. People. There’ll always be people, coming up with exciting new delicacies for you to be excessively fond of.”

Aziraphale tips his head to frown at Crowley. “But you--”

“I’m fine,” Crowley says, sitting up from his lean at the counter so he can spread his arms into a demonstration of his presence and present health. “Everything is just fine, angel. We can carry on exactly as we have been, and you don’t need to come up with any awkward explanations for your office after all.” Crowley turns around on his stool with a flourish to sweep the long sleeves of his tunic out around him as he lets his gaze climb over the edge of the counter in pursuit of the man standing on the other side. He offers eye contact and a speaking nod that orders the best variety of wine they have available, and as the man turns away to take his order Crowley clears his throat and speaks without quite looking sideways at Aziraphale next to him. “I am touched.” He tilts his head and pulls his attention along the bar to brush up at least against Aziraphale’s sleeve, since he can’t quite dare the concern in the other’s green eyes. “It was good of you to worry about me.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, sounding a little bit like he’s forgotten to keep track of his breathing and has fallen into the habits of trying to speak without enough of it. “Well. Yes. Of course.”

“I guess it comes naturally to you,” Crowley offers, and risks a glance up to Aziraphale’s flushed cheeks. “The goodness and all, I mean.”

“Ah.” Aziraphale reaches for his cup and brings it to his lips for a swallow. “That’s right. Yes.” He looks sideways to smile at Crowley but can only sustain the contact for a moment before he looks away to his drink again. “It’s just part of being an angel, you know how it is.”

“I don’t,” Crowley drawls, as the man behind the counter returns with a pint glass full of something that looks far more like ale than the wine Crowley could have sworn he ordered. He takes it all the same, sliding it across the counter towards himself so he can secure his grip on the handle. “But I’ll take your word for it.” He turns in to proffer his own full mug; after a moment Aziraphale lifts his half-full cup to meet Crowley’s drink in the space between them.

“To the fifteenth century,” Crowley says. “May it be better than its predecessor.” He brings the pint to his lips to down a swallow of the ale within. It’s darker than he had hoped, and bitter at the back of his tongue, but he doesn’t take the omen to heart. He’s already sure he’s going to have a much better time with the next decades than he did in the last several combined.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is rather fond of Spain. In his role as Heaven’s representative on Earth, he has leeway to linger wherever he sees fit, so long as he meets his Heavenly quotas for miracles and influence. Michael can’t be bothered with trivialities such as determining what location is likely to be the most useful; the last time he made a suggestion it was that the Pacific Ocean was looking rather lean lately, and surely they might be able to improve the conversion rates from the area. Aziraphale had made a half-hearted attempt to explain that among everything that swims upon the Earth very little is willing to listen to his influencing, which had been met with such blank confusion that he had given up simply on the premise that his time could be better spent elsewhere. He had ducked his head in acknowledgment, and said yes, perhaps Michael did have a point, and took himself off to stay in Japan for a decade. He was careful to pay the right attention to the fish available there, usually on the plate in front of him, and since then Aziraphale has been assigned to report to Gabriel and Michael has been left to other, perhaps better duties.

Aziraphale isn’t about to complain. He is a creature of obedience, of course, happy to follow whatever orders he receives from those who serve as connections to the Almighty as far above him as the skies seem to the humans held to the surface of the Earth; but the Almighty is very distant indeed, most days, and far more immediate are the ever-increasing varieties of food and drink that Aziraphale can sample. In the heat of summer there is nothing quite so nice as the shady terrace of a restaurant and the cool of a refreshing drink with which to pass the hours that make the heaviest part of the day languid with the heat that presses down to urge everything to a comfortable slowness.

“Here you are.” The voice taps Aziraphale’s shoulder with recognition and grins to introduce itself; Aziraphale finds himself smiling even before he turns from his view out onto the midday radiance of the street to look up at Crowley standing alongside him. He’s wearing a long vest cut to fit close around the sinuous line of his body, determinedly black in spite of the heat of the day, and his red hair is falling around his shoulders where he has kept it for much of the last century. It’s only the dark glasses he has on that pick him out as anything unusual among the upper-class patrons of the restaurant, and even those, Aziraphale thinks, will occasion less comment than the alternative if he were to not wear them. He’s holding a pair of cups, one in close against himself and the other extended to reach longingly for Aziraphale’s attention. “Something against the heat of the day.”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, and draws himself up to sit straight as he smiles and reaches to take the cup from Crowley’s hands. “Thank you.” Crowley deigns to respond to this by lifting his own cup to his mouth to down a swallow as he steps around the table to pour himself into the waiting support of the chair on the other side; Aziraphale brings his cup to his lips to taste at the sweet of the fruit wine within before sighing pleasure and setting it back down at the table before him. “I do love this variety.”

“I know you do,” Crowley says, in a tone only slightly less liquid than the sprawl he’s making of himself on the far side of the table. “That’s why we meet here so much. I keep telling you, you’re getting stuck in your ways. I could show you a place in Portugal that you would swear had divine intervention when they mixed up their drinks.”

“Mm,” Aziraphale hums into his cup. “Perhaps next time we’ll go there. I’ll be wrapping up my business here shortly.” He sets his cup against the table with self-conscious care and lets himself indulge in just a touch of pride as he goes on. “I’m meant to be providing some divine inspiration of my own to their Majesties directly.”

Crowley’s eyebrows raise and he tips his head to nod appreciation. “That’s not bad,” he says, sounding gratifyingly impressed. “Anything important?”

Aziraphale shrugs. “They’re supposed to offer their support to a sailor who will be coming to ask for funding for a rather lengthy voyage. I don’t see the advantage myself, but Heaven is interested in the outcome of his proposition and wishes to see it a success.” Aziraphale looks around the restaurant to take stock of the other patrons. The nearest is several feet away, and sufficiently occupied with the bottle before him that Aziraphale is sure he wouldn’t hear even a speech directed specifically to him, but he still leans forward all the same, and Crowley humors him by slanting himself over the table and turning his head for Aziraphale to murmur against his ear. “It seems he intends to sail west in an attempt to reach India.”

Crowley draws back to frown at Aziraphale. “What, from Spain?” Aziraphale ducks his head in assent. One of Crowley’s eyebrows lifts to arch itself elegantly over the top edge of his dark glasses. “Is he just going to sail through the entire continent in the way, then?”

Aziraphale coughs. “I don’t believe he is aware of its presence.”

“That’ll be a surprise for him then,” Crowley says. “Why does Heaven care so much about one sailor’s geographical misconceptions, anyway?”

“They haven’t said,” Aziraphale admits. “Perhaps his arrival will be a boon to the native people. Another step closer to peace on Earth, sort of thing.” Crowley’s raised eyebrow professes its skepticism of this particular idealism. Aziraphale clears his throat and reaches for his cup so he can retreat to another swallow of the liquid. “What about you? I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve been staying out of trouble?”

“Nah,” Crowley says, turning aside to gaze out at the street running before them as he drapes one elbow over the back of his chair and slouches down to trust the whole of his weight to the support. “You’d be proud of me, angel, I’ve been very nearly good the last little while.”

Aziraphale’s attention jumps from his cup to Crowley’s face. “Oh dear,” he says. “Not too good, I hope? If Hell grows restive…”

Crowley makes a face and lifts a hand to sweep aside Aziraphale’s concerns. “Don’t worry about that,” he says. “There’s always more than enough to send back in reports if you know where to look for it. Half the time the humans do my work for me anyway, and Hell doesn’t know the difference between a successful temptation and just…” with a grimace and an expressive waggle of fingers, “Human nature.” Crowley pauses for a moment while his hand takes advantage of his distraction to sidle across the table and strike up a flirtation with the cup next to him. “I told them I started the Inquisition.”

Aziraphale chokes on his wine and only saves the pristine of his shirtfront from the colonization of a stain by rocking sharply forward over the support of the table in front of him while he gets himself back under control. Crowley takes a drink off his cup while Aziraphale is straightening out the difference between his throat and his windpipe; by the time Aziraphale is looking back up to fix the other with appalled shock Crowley has painted the very picture of unruffled comfort.

“But my dear fellow,” Aziraphale says. “You were in Norway when the Inquisition began.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. “Could have been. Possibly. But listen, Hell doesn’t know the difference between Antarctica and Africa, they’re not going to have a grasp on the specifics of Europe.”

“You had nothing to do with it.”

“And that’s where you’re wrong,” Crowley says. “I had a nice visit with our friend Torquemada just the other day.” He pauses for another interlude with his drink while Aziraphale waits for the punchline to this particular statement. “I made a few suggestions to him about the color scheme they’ve been using. Black’s so overdone these days, it’d be better to set themselves apart with something a little more eye-catching. I suggested red, but--”

“You,” Aziraphale gasps. “Crowley, you can’t claim credit for the entire Spanish Inquisition just because of a fashion suggestion!”

Crowley tips his head to the side, his attention finally abandoning his cup to fix itself with renewed dedication on Aziraphale’s face. “Want to bet on that, angel?”

Aziraphale stares at Crowley’s easy position, the declaration of comfort being pointedly made by the angle of his shoulders and the set of his knees and the curve of his fingers against his cup; and his own righteous indignation retreats to slink away and leave his shoulders sagging with the admission of defeat. “No.”

“Don’t look so disappointed.” Crowley fits a smile across his mouth; it’s sharp enough to catch the light, until Aziraphale can almost see the glitter of his eyes shining right through the dampening effect of the glass before them. “It was going to happen anyway. You know how people are. And this way we don’t have to worry about Hell getting nosy for, oh, a century at least.” He lifts his cup to his lips, although his smile doesn’t flicker. “That should be enough to cheer you up, angel.”

Aziraphale considers doubling down on his protest, for the principle of the thing if nothing else; then practicality takes the lead, and points out the relative benefit of Crowley doing less rather than more in his efforts to meet what token demands Hell makes of him. It is a comfort to think of Hell distracted from too much attention to what their representative is up to; perhaps Aziraphale can even think of it as his own good influence rubbing off on someone who is, after all, angelic in at least some capacity. With his sense of justice thus placated, it’s easy to relax back against his chair, and return to his appreciation of the moment, present company included.

Chapter Text

 

The play is well underway when Crowley comes through the swinging gate of the Theatre. He’s late by some span of time, so delayed in his coming that most people would have given up the bother of attending at all in favor of some better means by which to pass the time. But it’s not as if there’s a crowd to interrupt. Crowley could count everyone in the space on just his hands, with some fingers left over for the birds that have paused to sit atop the overhang built above the stage, and that’s with the full graciousness of allowing a place for the actor presently on stage, and the playwright pacing nervously in one corner, and the fruit seller more occupied with drowning out the actor with her shouted offerings than with any particular interest in the play itself. Crowley has little interest in being here for himself, and less in the vast majority of the audience; but his gaze is sliding to the side to land on the cream doublet worn by a figure who seems to shine more brightly for the drab surroundings, and that is enough to demand all of Crowley’s not-inconsiderable attention.

He leaves the door swinging in his wake as he comes forward across the ground, beaten to the hardness of rock by thousands of idle feet, albeit very few of those present today. Aziraphale doesn’t turn to see him; his face is turned up to the stage, his features glowing with a pleasure that Crowley estimates to be at least as much for the performance as for the handkerchief of grapes he is holding in his hand. Crowley watches him as he draws closer, lingering over the familiarity of the other’s features, the crinkle of happiness at the corners of his dark eyes, the soft of the unthinking smile curving his lips; and then he pulls infatuation back under control and sits it down for a firm talking-to as he turns his head to make a pointed show of looking out at the echoing expanse of the empty theatre around them.

“I thought you said we’d be inconspicuous here.” Crowley drags his gaze across the empty seats to interrogate them for the possibly of an audience gone unfortunately transparent before he tilts his head to cast his attention back to Aziraphale next to him. “Blend in among the crowds.”

Aziraphale may be a creature of grace, but evidently he doesn’t wish to waste any of that on looking particularly abashed. “Well. That was the idea.”

At the far side of the theatre the dark-haired playwright shouts to the actor cast away in the middle of the empty stage, waving at him to stop in the middle of his soliloquy. Crowley’s mind reviews the words very recently declaimed and comes up with an unfortunate and unfortunately undeniable conclusion. “This isn’t one of Shakespeare’s gloomy ones, is it?” He heaves a groan sufficient to convey his feelings on this matter as he lifts his head to grimace up at Heaven for the particular invention of Elizabethan melodrama. “No wonder nobody’s here.”

“Shh!” Aziraphale hisses, leaning in sharply to whisper as if the conspiratorial tilt of his shoulder won’t be as perfectly clear as the movements of the actor on stage. “It’s him, it’s him, it’s him.” 

It is indeed, if one assumes that by him Aziraphale means the playwright himself. Crowley thinks well enough of Shakespeare as an artist -- the man has an undeniable way with words, even if he is something of a hack -- but his physical presence is somewhat like speaking to five actors at once, all of them fighting for the privilege of who will be permitted to first dine upon the scenery. Unfortunately there is no way to avoid his attention in a theatre as large and presently hollow as this one, and with Aziraphale beside him Crowley suspects he ought to refrain from the most immediate suggestions his mind offers for how to deal with the situation. He contents himself instead with straightening from where he and Aziraphale were tipping in together and fixing the playwright with the most unsettling attention he can materialize from behind the necessary barrier of his dark glasses.

“Prithee, gentles,” Shakespeare declaims as he draws in before them. His gaze finds Aziraphale, wanders to Crowley, and then returns to Aziraphale in more of a hurry than it left. “Uhm, might I request a small favor?” as he gestures with his hands to indicate the exceeding triviality of the request. “Uh, could you, in your role as the audience: give us more to work with.”

Aziraphale brightens up. It’s rather like the sun emerging from behind a cloud, or just deciding that it really has been putting in a weak showing lately and ought to put forth a little real effort on behalf of its constituents. Crowley’s glad of both his dark glasses and the fact that he’s not looking directly at Aziraphale beside him. “You mean, like when the ghost of his father came on, and I said ‘He’s behind you!’?”

Shakespeare lifts a hand, perhaps to shield his eyes from the brilliance of Aziraphale’s enthusiasm. “Just so. That was jolly helpful. Made everyone on stage feel…” He pauses, seeking out a word so rarely called on it has gone feral and resists capture. “Appreciated. A bit more of that.” He skips backwards, hitching himself well towards the stage before he turns to look to the actor set up all alone atop it. “Good, uh, Master Burbage, please. Speak the lines trippingly.”

The actor’s mouth tightens on a laugh that has never so much as made the acquaintance of humor. When he leans in towards the playwright his smile is fixed and his tone is loud enough to easily reach to where Crowley is standing at Aziraphale’s side. “I am wasting my time up here.”

“No!” Aziraphale calls back. “No, you’re very good. I love all the…” He lifts his hand to grasp for the word hanging temptingly just before him. Crowley turns in to watch the bright attention in Aziraphale’s eyes, the part of his lips as he catches a breath as if to pull coherency from the air before him onto his tongue. “Talking.”

The actor appears less than reassured by this impressive effort. His gaze slides from Aziraphale to Crowley at his side without flinching away from the dark-glassed weight of the other’s stare. Crowley is impressed in spite of himself, but then, he supposes it’s likely the man has faced down worse than a demon from an unappreciative public before. No one is as fearless as performers. “And what does your friend think?”

Crowley’s mouth tightens on a smile more sincere than anything the play has brought at that one word. Next to him Aziraphale’s head turns, his ambient radiance flinching back to retreat behind the cloud of sudden alarm. “Oh, he’s not my friend. We’ve never met before.” He glances away to seek for a better denial from the hard-packed earth before retreating to the simplicity of an outright lie. “We don’t know each other.”

Crowley doesn’t turn to look at Aziraphale’s flustered panic. When he smiles he can feel the shape of it stretch leisurely over his lips and glint at the points of his teeth as he grins up at the actor in front of him to answer with complete disregard for Aziraphale’s desperate denial. “I think you should get on with the play.”

“Yes,” Shakespeare says, sounding alarmed and looking more so as he stares at Crowley with the creeping discomfort of a man confronted with something that doesn’t quite fit within his limited expectations of reality. It’s only for a moment; then he turns his head, and memory steps forward with businesslike haste to pack up his brief suspicions and tuck them away to be forgotten in the dust of an attic, preferably someone else’s. “Uh, Burbage, please. From the top!”

The actor resumes his position at the center of the stage to cast his gaze pleadingly out into the empty theatre before him. “To be or not to be -- that is the question.”

To be!” The shout is very bright and very close; Crowley hands back his idle attention to the actor to turn and gaze at Aziraphale next to him, who is sparkling with the illumination of unmitigated delight. “I mean, not to be! Come on, Hamlet!” Aziraphale glances sideways in answer to the outright demand of Crowley’s stare; he’s smiling all over the whole of his face, radiant with the kind of effervescent happiness that seizes the hands of anyone in the audience to pull them bodily to their feet. Crowley hadn’t before this moment believed that it was possible for someone to be so entirely embarrassing and impossibly endearing at one at the same time. “Buck up!”

The actor continues speaking, undeterred by this attempt at encouragement, and Crowley turns to watch him on the premise that he might forget to ever stop gazing at Aziraphale if he doesn’t occasionally take a breather for himself. The text is good, he has to admit, if a little flowery; but the actor is breathing life into the lines, his voice aching with real emotion as he despairs of noble suffering and outrageous fortune. Crowley is caught in spite of himself, drawn in by this too-near echo of his own thoughts, and for a moment he and Aziraphale are silent, standing alongside each other as they gaze at the young man on stage pleading for an answer from a God as absent as his present audience.

Aziraphale leans in towards Crowley to speak in a soft murmur. “He’s very good, isn’t he?”

Crowley doesn’t turn to look at Aziraphale next to him. He doesn’t need to. He’s seeing him in the upwards tilt of the actor’s head, in the desperate debate between submission and rebellion given such clear form as much by the young man’s performance as the playwright’s creativity. He’s adrift in his own thoughts, echoing back the clarity of the performance with the weight of sincerity, and when he speaks some of the poetry catches itself at his lips as he thinks of the downy soft of Aziraphale’s hair and the warmth of a smile unchanged by millennia. “Age does not wither nor custom stale his infinite variety.” Aziraphale and Shakespeare both turn to look at him, eyes wide with the accidental judgment of disbelief, and Crowley shakes his head to shed the thrum of the actor’s words and turns to pace back around Aziraphale, as much to give his expression a moment of privacy as to shake off the temptation to standing right here next to Aziraphale for however long it takes everyone on stage to die via dramatic monologues and in pools of fake blood.

Crowley isn’t the only one looking to resume his usual position, it seems. Aziraphale has tucked his smile away by the time Crowley steps back around the wall of his shoulders, and his voice is even holding to an edge for the few strokes it can manage before blunting. “What do you want?”

Crowley draws a breath and turns on his heel, giving over his attention to the stage so he can offer Aziraphale the bounty of a full share at once. The shift of his body forms the rhythm of his voice, lilting itself into a drawl he thinks ought to more than fit him for a role atop the wooden stage where Hamlet is still pronouncing his lines to the uncaring air. “Why ever would you insinuate that I might possibly want something.”

Aziraphale keeps himself facing forward, his shoulders fixed on the resolution of his resistance, but his gaze deserts the front lines to slip sideways and offer truce to Crowley’s attention. “You are up to no good.”

“Obviously,” Crowley says, sparing a glance to the stage before looking back to Aziraphale. “You’re up to good, I take it?” He sets his teeth together, lets his voice slide free of his throat to hiss dark as it spills over his tongue. His feet shift, sidling him around the armor of Aziraphale’s shoulders to seek out a weak point from a different angle of approach. “Lots of good deeds?”

“No rest for the…” Aziraphale pauses, grimacing as he reads the inevitable conclusion of his self-written script. “Well, good.” His gaze flickers an invitation before turning shy and retreating again; Crowley draws closer, proffering the illusion of truce, and after hardly a breath Aziraphale turns in to answer him in kind. “I have to be in Edinburgh, end of the week.”

Crowley’s attention abandons even Master Burbage’s skill to settle itself wholly on Aziraphale next to him. He turns in, tilting his head to open curiosity as he raises his eyebrows to indicate that this is the single most fascinating statement he has ever heard in the whole of his existence. “Oh.”

“A couple of blessings to do.” Aziraphale looks away again, withdrawing his attention as Crowley offers his own. “A minor miracle to perform.” He pauses, letting the silence go taut with the certainty of rapt attention, before he turns in to reward his audience’s patience with a shared confidence. “Apparently, I have to ride a horse.”

Crowley works his jaw around the most dramatic grimace he can fit into his mouth, which is somewhat more than what someone with a less serpentine history might manage. “Argh, hard on the buttocks, horses. Major design flaw if you ask me.” He pauses before turning to resume his circling, sauntering into a slow stride that suggests that he has all the time in the world, and that every thing he has said or ever will say is nothing but absolute, pristine innocence. “I’m meant to be heading to Edinburgh too this week.” When he turns in to give Aziraphale back the full of his attention the angel glances to meet his eyes before retreating to the pretension of distraction again. Crowley is very certain the actor could begin speaking in limerick and Aziraphale wouldn’t so much as bat an eye for how little attention he is giving the focus of his gaze. Crowley rocks his weight between either foot, falling back into the oldest of habits as his focus wiggles free of his hold to return to its favorite home lingering against the familiar soft of Aziraphale’s features. “Tempting a clan leader to steal some cattle.”

Aziraphale’s lashes flutter. His gaze slips its restraint to drift towards Crowley before he snatches it back to the same careful control taut under his voice. “Doesn’t sound like hard work.”

The stage is set, the scene prepared. Crowley steps forward out of the wings to make his grand entrance. “That was why I thought we should…” He tips his head and softens his mouth; after a moment Aziraphale picks up his cue and turns his head to meet Crowley’s attention. “Well. Bit of a waste of effort.” Aziraphale’s eyes are dark with understanding that his lips are still pressed tight to mute. Crowley lets his lower lip dip a toe into the undercurrent of possibility, edges a little deeper into suggestion. “Both of us going all the way to Scotland.”

Aziraphale’s forehead creases on a somewhat overdone show of shock as he turns to look very hard at the space around Crowley’s elbow. “You cannot actually be suggesting...what I infer…” as his eyes find Crowley’s to speak, briefly but eloquently, to his understanding. “...you’re implying.”

Crowley holds his gaze on Aziraphale’s face as he smoothes the last roughness from the path of their conversation. “Which is?”

“That just one us...goes to Edinburgh. Does both.” Aziraphale’s gaze reaches for Crowley’s to offer a handshake of mutual understanding. His voice is soft, as if he’s confessing to a sin just by responding to Crowley’s implication. “The blessing and the tempting.”

“Well, we’ve done it before,” Crowley says lightly. “Dozens of times now.” He fixes his gaze on the stage so he can angle himself in closer to Aziraphale and lilt almost against the soft of the other’s hair curling around his ear. “The arrangement.”

Aziraphale winces. “Don’t say that.”

Crowley lets the costume of his teasing go and draws a breath to speak in a pointedly normal tone as he glances around at the expanse of absolutely nobody around them. “Our respective head offices don’t actually care how things get done. They just want to know they can cross it off the list.”

Aziraphale turns to give Crowley the full force of his attention, stripped defenseless by simple sincerity as he meets the other’s eyes. “But if Hell finds out, they wouldn’t just be angry.” His gaze lingers on Crowley’s, his voice drops into the soft shadows of worry. “They’ll destroy you.”

It never seems fair to Crowley that Aziraphale can strike so much deeper into him in exchange for giving up his defensive distance. Surely Crowley ought to be able to gain some advantage in these moments when Aziraphale’s eyes are dark with concern and his face is soft with the fear that comes of affection. Instead it’s all Crowley can manage to stay upright as gravity drops away from under him, as he is cast forward into a familiar fall to lose himself in the dark green of soft eyes.

He’s not really going to complain though. He can think of a whole host of things worse than this. If anything it would be a struggle to think of something better. He meets Aziraphale’s gaze, holding the other’s attention while he offers that most familiar of reassurance. “Nobody ever has to know.” He holds up a pair of fingers, and more importantly, the coin pressed between them. “Toss you for Edinburgh.”

Aziraphale frowns. His attention slides from Crowley’s gaze, to the coin, retreating to the stage for a moment to catch its breath; and then finally back, as he shakes his head into surrender. “Fine. Heads.”

Crowley tosses the coin into the air. They both watch it go up, reaching the height of its arc before it recalls gravity and begin to fall. Crowley slides his palm between the falling coin and the earth and brings it over to smack against the back of his hand so they can lean in to confer together over the face displayed.

Unfortunately for Aziraphale, the determination is clear. “Tails I’m afraid.” Crowley slips the coin from his hand to return it to his pocket. “You’re going to Scotland.”

Aziraphale rocks back onto his heels, his mouth drawn down around the shape of his disappointment. Crowley looks at the dip of Aziraphale’s frown and for a brief, alarming moment feels everything demonic about him slip out of his grip on the urge to ease the other’s unhappiness. His mouth opens to offer apology, or worse still to suggest that he go after all, that he loves Scotland actually and had forgotten how enlivening a good horseback ride is, and then Crowley wrestles his jaw shut and looks aside to dodge the temptation Aziraphale’s expression is offering with such generous grace.

His gaze lands on Shakespeare, standing at the far corner of the theatre. He looks no happier than Aziraphale, although Crowley thankfully feels none of that do-good insanity when he sees the playwright’s obvious dissatisfaction. He fixes his attention on the man, pleased to have such an excellent subject while he asks a few friendly questions of this newfound and unasked-for mercy that is making such an alarming appearance. Shakespeare tips in to the woman standing at his side gazing at the stage, and when he speaks his frustration is clear in the fact that his voice only carries clearly across half the theatre instead of reaching out to touch itself to the walls before bouncing back into an echo. 

“It’s been like this every performance, Juliet. A complete dud.” Aziraphale glances back at the sound of the man’s voice but Shakespeare doesn’t appear to appreciate this additional audience. He heaves a sigh and crosses his arms over his chest. “It’d take a miracle to get anyone to come and see Hamlet.”

Crowley doesn’t mean to look back at Aziraphale. He knows the dangers in the other’s face already; it’s that that he was trying to avoid when he set himself to what should have been the safely boring playwright. But Aziraphale turns as if Crowley has shouted his name, and Crowley’s gaze slips on bad footing and jumps back to the magnetism of Aziraphale’s eyes on him. Aziraphale’s disappointment has vanished, chased from his face by the wide-open hope illuminating the other’s eyes and soft at his mouth, and Crowley’s restraint stumbles, suddenly drunk on the plea in Aziraphale’s gaze. Aziraphale cocks his head to the side, his eyebrows lifting as his gaze touches Crowley’s mouth like he’s calling forth the words he wants to hear, and Crowley heaves a sigh and lets all his useless resistance give way to the force of Aziraphale’s silent expectation. “Yes, all right, I’ll do that one. My treat.”

Aziraphale’s entire face illuminates, the breathless tension of hope sighing itself into radiant delight as he beams at Crowley. His smile reaches up to press creases to the corners of his eyes and light up his gaze with a brilliance that seems to capture the whole of Heaven into the expression of a single angel. “Oh, really?”

Crowley remembers meeting Helen of Troy once, centuries long past. Her face may have launched a thousand ships; Crowley would unmake universes for Aziraphale’s smile.

He’d probably rather have the play, though. Crowley shakes his head and turns aside so his feet can play the part of unconcerned observer while he yet feels the affection of Aziraphale’s smile lingering against him. “I still prefer the funny ones,” Crowley declares, as a last desperate effort to retain some composure to himself, before he retreats from the theatre before Aziraphale can talk -- or, well, look -- him into doing anything else.

Chapter Text

“This is not how I pictured this afternoon going,” Aziraphale says as he steps out of the darkened corridors of the Bastille and into the relative brightness of the open air.

“No?” Crowley’s voice is as drawling as ever, as if it’s sprawled itself to such comfort in the sunlight it can’t be bothered to sit up and muster anything like propriety for itself. Aziraphale doesn’t have to look back to be sure the other is bearing the rest of his existence with the same languid indulgence as his voice. The fact that he tips his head to glance over his shoulder at Crowley’s fluid saunter is just to confirm his suspicions remain justified. Crowley is indeed sauntering, with a dangerous sway to his steps that seems to defy all the restrictions of the gravity they are both meant to acknowledge, at least in appearances, and he has his head tipped back so the sunlight catches the white of his teeth as he grins at Aziraphale watching him. “What exactly did you have in mind instead, angel?”

Aziraphale huffs and looks down at the dark colors and heavy fabric of the clothing he’s wearing. “I thought I’d be wearing something different.”

“Ah well,” Crowley says. “You can’t have everything. I’d have thought six thousand years on Earth would have taught you that by now.”

Aziraphale wrinkles his nose and turns away from Crowley’s teasing grin. “I try to avoid the reminder whenever possible, for my own sake.”

“A most noble cause.” Crowley lengthens his stride to draw up alongside Aziraphale’s steady pace. He manages to make his position at the other’s side look almost accidental, as if of all the places on Earth he could be he just happens to be here, right now, completely by chance. Aziraphale tries not to envy demons, as a rule, but there is a part of Crowley’s completely plausible innocence that he sometimes thinks could be more than a little useful. Of course every time he catches these kinds of thoughts he sits them down to read them a long lecture about morality, and honesty, and how much better the path of virtue ultimately is than that of deception and equivocation, which always proves successful exactly until he sees Crowley again, or tries to compose a memo to Heaven, whichever occurs first. Crowley tilts himself sideways, angling his shoulders to twist towards Aziraphale with no apparent difficulty in maintaining his usual sinuous elegance at the same time. “Look, next time we’ll get together at your bookshop and you can wear whatever fancy trappings you want, alright?”

“This isn’t getting together,” Aziraphale corrects him with the careful tone of someone who has measured out the lines he won’t step over down to the millimeter and knows exactly how to balance along the cusp of them. “This is me thanking you for your--” Crowley hisses a low sound of warning and Aziraphale changes out what he was going to say for a delicate cough instead. “Support in the only way you will let me.”

“Right,” Crowley says. “Fine then, the next time I deliberately get myself into a sticky situation so you can do me an angelic favor, I’ll do it somewhere you can wear whatever you want.”

Aziraphale stumbles. “Crowley,” he gasps, drawing to a halt in the middle of the street so he can muster up the full force of shock and outrage to turn on the other. “Is that what you think that was?”

“No,” Crowley says immediately. “That was you being a complete idiot and walking straight into the middle of a revolution in the nicest clothes you own. Well. Did own. I suppose you could still get them back but--” as he tilts his head towards the thud of the guillotine and the screams of the crowd, “--I don’t think you’ll be wanting them in the state they’re in.”

Aziraphale grimaces. “No, I rather think not.” He shakes himself free of the distraction to come back around to the point at hand. “And yes. You’re completely correct. I’m afraid I was simply too distracted to think of the state of my attire. I’ve been so caught up with the bookshop, you know, I haven’t been able to pay as much attention to the political goings-on in other countries as I’d like to.” Crowley is gazing at his face, his focus somewhat softened by the dark glasses over his eyes but his brows lifted high enough to write an entire novel of skepticism by sheer force of will alone. Aziraphale feels himself drifting rather near to babbling in his efforts to weight them back down to belief in the explanation he is attempting to craft. “And these crêpes are truly astonishing, they’d be enough to distract anyone from what they were doing.”

“I’ll look forward to giving them a try,” Crowley drawls in a tone that flushes Aziraphale’s cheeks pink with self-consciousness. Crowley’s eyes are still taking refuge behind the dark of his glasses but Aziraphale feels as if every detail of his expression is being read with all the appreciation of a well-worn novel.

Aziraphale clears his throat. “You’ll see,” he says. His voice pulls loose to jump against the tension in his chest and skip far higher than he meant it to. “I lost my focus, that’s all.”

“Uh huh,” Crowley says. “And that was the only reason. Complete coincidence.”

Aziraphale opens his mouth to say yes, of course, I don’t even know how you could think anything else. Then honesty stages a rebellion of its own to seize control of his throat and close off the lie before he can give it breath enough to be heard and all he can do is press his lips together while he struggles for a slightly less direct reply. Finally he angles his head to the side in a completely non-committal gesture and manages to get out an “Mm-mm,” that might pass as agreement, for someone completely disinterested and somewhat deaf in one ear.

Crowley’s teeth flicker brilliant. “You’re not a very good liar, angel.”

“I’m not a liar at all,” Aziraphale gets out. “It’s...it’s antithetical to my nature.”

“Sure,” Crowley says. He takes a step forward, finally freeing Aziraphale from the focus of his gaze to take the lead in continuing down the street.

Aziraphale frowns after him, searching for some kind of comeback to retrieve the upper hand for himself. His gaze has some very persuasive suggestions about where they ought to start looking for this, namely along the length of the tight-fitting pants that really only barely merit decency with the way they fit over Crowley’s...well, everything. Aziraphale watches Crowley move away, his attention held firmly by its present subject, until it’s only a break in the other’s motion that pulls him back to himself and lifts his gaze just in time to meet Crowley glancing back over his shoulder.

“Aren’t you coming, angel?” Crowley asks. “I thought you were the one ready to die for these promised crêpes.”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, as his entire face takes on the approximate shading of a tomato. “Right. Yes. Uhm. Be right there.” He ducks his head to fuss with his jacket, although there’s not much that can be done to make it more presentable. At least it gives him a point at which to fix his attention as he strides forward to meet Crowley so they can continue moving forward together. Crowley falls into pace alongside Aziraphale with perfect ease and Aziraphale lifts his head to turn his attention down the street and definitely not at all on the lanky figure beside him. They continue on in silence for a moment; then Crowley takes a breath and speaks.

“You know, angel,” he says, so softly the words are almost lost to the sound of their footsteps. “If you want to get together for lunch you could just ask.” Aziraphale glances at Crowley before he can stop himself. Crowley is watching him, his head turned and so much attention behind his gaze it’s a wonder he hasn’t tripped over the paving stones in front of them. “We could take turns. Your treat, mine.” They stare at each other for a moment; then Crowley’s shoulders lift up and he turns away to look out at the city around them as if it’s the most interesting thing in the world. “Or not. It’s your call, really.”

“I,” Aziraphale says, and Crowley glances back to look at him. In profile Aziraphale can see the glint of yellow in his eyes, the saturated gold that gives away his true nature, or at least his nature as not-of-this-Earth. Aziraphale doesn’t need the reminder; he knows what Crowley is, knows it as well as he knows his own identity, as well as he knows the two sides of the eternal, angelic war in which they stand as ostensible opponents. They are meant to be enemies, meant to feel a repulsion to each other like magnets pushed too close together; but the force never seems to run in the right way, in all the years they have known each other. There is a war behind them and a battle before, the conflict as eternal as they are; but it all seems very far away in this moment, with them walking side-by-side down a Parisian street. Aziraphale considers what he ought to do, what everyone in Heaven will assume he will do; and then he lifts his chin, and he lets himself feel the spirit of revolution, however small.

“Okay,” he says. “It’ll be your turn, next time.”

Crowley’s smile spreads out across the whole of his face, stretching with such obvious pleasure that Aziraphale can see the corners of it crinkle at Crowley’s half-hidden eyes. “Yeah,” he says, and turns to look down the street ahead of them again. “Sure thing, angel.”

Aziraphale would swear that Crowley’s walk takes on even more of a sway than it had, until it seems a miracle he’s keeping himself upright at all; but then, Aziraphale’s own steps feel far lighter than they ought to, and he’s not terribly interested in keeping himself grounded either.

Chapter Text

“These really are delicious,” Aziraphale sighs as he finishes the second of the chocolates laid out to await their inevitable fate in regal style. Crowley has no idea why dessert manufacturers are so keen on presenting their wares as if they are crown jewels but it seems to be the way things are done, and he is keen on doing things the way they should be done simply for the style of it. Aziraphale seems to appreciate it, in any case, and that’s quite enough to give Crowley as much satisfaction as his companion is achieving from the chocolates themselves. Crowley glances back over his shoulder from where he’s perusing the titles arrayed on the shelves and, seeing the heavenly bliss glowing across Aziraphale’s features, adjusts his estimate slightly. He’s not sure any creature is capable of reaching the heights of incandescent joy that Aziraphale finds from food. Aziraphale reaches for another chocolate and Crowley looks away to allow a modicum of privacy to their impending tryst.

“Glad you like ‘em,” he says. His fingers are sliding across the spines of the books in front of him as much to savour the texture of the worked leather and tidy bindings as from any real need to focus his attention on this particular shelf of merchandise in a shop rather literally overflowing with it. “I thought this deserved a celebration, after all. Your own bookshop at last.”

“Mm,” Aziraphale hums, in a tone restrained enough that Crowley assumes the happiness to be more closely tied to the subject than his present indulgence. “I know I’ve been speaking about it for decades but I was really beginning to doubt any such thing would ever actually happen.”

Crowley’s brows divorce themselves from gravity and lift arches over his eyes as he tips his head to look back at Aziraphale sitting in the center of the shop. “You were doubting?” he says, drawling the vowels out to sinuous length as they slither up his throat and free of his lips. “You, angel? I thought that’s the kind of thing that runs against your programming.”

Aziraphale lifts his gaze upwards to make a silent but eloquent plea for patience. Crowley considers the futility of looking up for a being who is meant to be omnipresent, after all, surely it should be just as reasonable to look out at the street, or into the shadows of a coat pocket in making a request from the Almighty. Then again the whole prospect of requesting is made rather useless by the very nature of the thing, the thing here being the Plan of which Aziraphale is so fond. Crowley always feels a bit like he’s Falling all over again when he thinks overlong about the logic or lack thereof of faith, so he does what he always does and elbows the thought into a tumble down a flight of stairs where he can ignore it until it has convalesced enough to make its way back up again.

“Of course we are permitted doubt,” Aziraphale says. “Not of the Almighty, of course. To question the ineffable would be absurd.” Crowley bares his teeth into a grin at this unflattering description but his expression goes unacknowledged by so much as a wave as Aziraphale leans forward to peer into his box of chocolates again. “But my more personal goals are hardly set in stone, Crowley.”

“No tablets on the mountain for you?” Crowley asks, abandoning his inattention to the library around him so he can saunter forward and into the golden illumination that seems to pool in every part of the shop except where the products ostensibly for sale are housed. “The Eleventh Commandant, thou shalt allow the Principality Aziraphale a London bookshop.” Crowley turns to pace around the chair where Aziraphale is presently situated. His attention browses through the possible subjects outside the glass before deciding it can do just as well with what it already has and swinging back around to alight at Aziraphale’s features again. “Thou shalt purchase a tome no less than once a month.”

Aziraphale wrinkles his nose in distaste. “Oh, please not so often as that,” he says. “I’d hate to deal with so many customers.”

“Oh, yeah,” Crowley drawls. “Dreadful things, customers. Always interrupting your day and pulling you away from what you’re trying to get done. Might as well do away with them entirely.”

The sarcasm on his tone hits Aziraphale and bounces off to be lost somewhere in the shadows under one of the bookshelves. “Precisely,” Aziraphale says, and reaches out to select another chocolate. “We can only hope for such an outcome.” He brings the chocolate to his mouth with all the reverence of a man lifting aloft a crown; his throat works over anticipation before he parts his lips and shuts his eyes to more entirely give himself over to the indulgence melting against his tongue. Crowley, never one to miss an opportunity, takes the interlude that Aziraphale is having with his chocolate to let his own attention drift along the soft of the other’s rosy cheeks and the feathery shadow of the lashes presently weighting against them. It’s only when Aziraphale swallows, and heaves a sigh of deep satisfaction, that Crowley calls his gaze back to task and turns his head so he is looking deliberately out the window when Aziraphale opens his eyes again.

“Well, at least you did a good job getting rid of your first visitors,” Crowley says. “I didn’t much like the look of them, horrible pompous dandies that they were.”

Aziraphale sighs. “I wasn’t expecting to have a heavenly visitation the same day I opened shop,” he says. “They don’t usually bother with those more than once a century, lately.”

“Bit different, I suppose, when they’re out here to collect you back to your divine reward.” Crowley cuts his gaze sideways without turning his head, but his subterfuge is unnecessary; Aziraphale is gazing at the box in front of him, although the lack of a blissful smile of anticipation on his lips speaks quite clearly to his inattention to what he’s actually seeing. “Were they really going to ship out Michael as your replacement?”

Aziraphale grimaces. “It’s quite a dreadful thought,” he agrees. “Michael never appreciates the details of things.”

“Probably fill the shelves up with all copies of the same book,” Crowley suggests.

Aziraphale shudders. Crowley imagines he can hear a rustling of feathers settling back into place. “Heaven forbid.”

Crowley shrugs. “It seems they did,” he says, and looks back out of the shop window again since he’s not confident in his ability to achieve convincing innocence in both word and look at once. “What a lucky break for you.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says. “It was. Quite inexplicable, really. I don’t think Gabriel had been gone for more than an hour before he came back and said the plans had changed and I wouldn’t be returning to Heaven after all.”

Crowley makes a vague sound that could feasibly be taken as agreement or curiosity and generally invokes his right to remain silent regarding any knowledge of this happening. “Huh.”

“He didn’t offer much of an explanation,” Aziraphale muses. “I can’t think what might have happened to change his mind.”

“Mm,” Crowley hums. “Heaven’s mind, you mean.”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says. “Of course.”

“Not as if Gabriel’s going about making decisions all on his own.”

“Certainly not.”

“Or being talked out of them.” Crowley works his shoulders in an attempt to shrug out of the itch that has perversely settled itself in the dip directly between them. “It’d take a lot more than a bit of demonic persuasion to change an order to return an angel back to his rightful place in heaven, I bet.”

Aziraphale clears his throat. “Crowley.”

Crowley stares out the window of the shop. “Yeah?”

There’s a space of sound, a silence that would be perfectly filled by a deliberate inhale, if either of them needed air to breathe. Crowley thinks about offering one anyway, just for the look of the thing, and then Aziraphale speaks. “Thank you.”

Crowley doesn’t turn around. The street outside has become the single most fascinating prospect he has ever considered and he has no intention of missing a moment of the intrigue provided by strangers walking past the glass windows. “It’s nothing,” he says. “I know how much you’ve been wanting to try those chocolates.” He tips his head back to sketch the general idea of looking back towards Aziraphale over his shoulder. “I’m not about to miss celebrating my friend’s bookstore opening.”

“Ah,” Aziraphale breathes. “Yes, of course.”

There’s another pause. Crowley’s gaze grows restive and wanders away, following the suggestion of his tilted head to edge around the frames of his dark glasses in pursuit of an illicit tryst with Aziraphale’s attention, which is in fact fixed full on him. They look at each other for a moment, all pretensions of distraction given over for a moment of sincerity. Then Crowley feels himself going warmer, the first warning signs of sunburn indulgence in excessive illumination, and he turns aside so he can force his gaze to flicker to a different subject than the clear green of Aziraphale’s attention upon him.

“I hear you got a medal from your visitors,” he says, unfolding with more of a flourish than is necessary so he can come forward to the counter that offers only the thinnest seeming of a commercial enterprise to the space around him, and upon which a heavy medal is lying where Crowley suspects it landed very shortly after being granted to its new owner. He picks it up by the ribbon and lets his eyebrows raise in appreciation. “Heavy thing, isn’t it.”

“Mm,” Aziraphale hums. “I’m afraid so.” He’s shaking his head when Crowley glances back at him, his focus drifting inevitably to the box in front of him once more. “It’s a bit ostentatious.”

Crowley pouts himself into skepticism. “I dunno,” he says, and reels his attention back around to the medal trying to drag his arm towards the floor with the weight of a millstone. “It could look rather dashing, I think. A sort of accessory, you know. Make a splash at parties.”

“Good heavens,” Aziraphale groans. “Put the dreadful thing away and come back to have one of these chocolates. I don’t know what I’m to do with all these to myself.” That’s the most blatant lie Crowley has ever heard from the other -- he thinks no one knows better than Aziraphale what he gets up to with an open box of chocolates -- but his innate rebelliousness is taking a holiday, as it so often is when Aziraphale is concerned, and Crowley indulges in the thrill of obedience in this moment. The medal goes away, pushed to the shadows alongside a register likely to get as much use as the award itself, and Crowley swings himself back around to drape over the far side of the table from Aziraphale and please his own insatiable appetite for Aziraphale’s smile, comfortably confident in their renewed license for their respective indulgences.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is fond of St. James’s Park. It’s true that the offerings for food and drink are somewhat limited, usually restricted to what one can bring with oneself or perhaps persuade free of one of the occasional sellers than wander across the green expanse of the lawn, and that any kind of sandwich must be wrested, sometimes forcibly, free of the ever-demanding gaze of the ducks that paddle along the stream and peck their way up around the feet of visitors. But Aziraphale likes ducks -- they are uncomplicated animals, with a penchant for buttery pastry that he quite respects -- and there is something delightfully daring about meeting in the middle of a park and trusting to the clusters of people around them to disguise the impropriety of the nearly affable meeting of an angel and a demon in the same vicinity.

Crowley is waiting when Aziraphale arrives. He usually is, regardless of which of them asked for the meeting, and it is usually his request in any case. With a tall black hat to cover the firey red of his hair and a long dark coat reaching nearly to his ankles, he looks quite like a shadow grown tired of dragging across the ground and determined to make its way for itself in the world of men. Aziraphale eyes Crowley’s fixed position as he draws up along the path, spares a desultory glance at the handful of wanderers arrayed on the grass around them, and then lifts his glove from his hand and his hat from his head so he can demonstrate his interest in feeding the ducks. There are a handful of breadcrumbs within by the time his fingers are reaching into the interior, the perfect size to be swallowed whole without sticking in a duck throat, and Aziraphale collects a few in his palm to toss out over the water as he draws, quite by accident, alongside the human-shaped shadow looming at the edge of the fence.

The ducks are unfazed by the menace rolling off Crowley’s fashion choices to hang a miasma of danger in the air around the pair of them. They swim up without hesitation, one or two struggling their way onto the bank to peck at the crumbs Aziraphale tosses in their direction. Aziraphale reaches into his hat to find another few pieces of bread miraculously appearing under his fingers and beside him there is the mumble of a very soft voice left orphaned by its owner’s disavowal.

“Look, I’ve been thinking.” Crowley’s not looking at Aziraphale; at least, Aziraphale doesn’t think he is. It’s difficult to be completely sure with the wraparound glasses Crowley has picked up from somewhere. At least his head is turned forward as his lips barely move over his words, the better to pretend at the complete coincidence of the two of them standing close enough together that their elbows are nearly touching. “What if it all goes wrong? We have a lot in common, you and me.”

Aziraphale grimaces and flings the entire handful of crumbs he’s holding to the ducks, who fall upon this extravagance with the enthusiasm of starving wolves. “I don’t know,” he says, frowning at the feathered chaos he has just caused in the middle of the water. “We may have both started out as angels, but you are fallen.”

Crowley doesn’t seem to appreciate Aziraphale’s clarification. He certainly doesn’t turn his head to see the pointed gaze Aziraphale nudges his way. Aziraphale feels strangely bereft at this disregard of his delicate jab. “I didn’t really fall, I just, you know.” He shakes his head to knock the phrase he’s looking for loose from the corners of his mind. “Sauntered vaguely downwards. I need a favour.”

“We already have the agreement, Crowley.” Aziraphale lets his voice dip ever so slightly towards a lecturing tone, just in case that will ruffle Crowley out of the strange reserve in which he has wrapped himself like a second layer to the heavy jacket in which he’s bound, but when he glances sideways to check on the effect of this foray Crowley is still staring out at the pond as if he’s never seen anything as fascinating as the ducks paddling idle circles in the water. “Stay out of each other’s way.” Aziraphale gives up his silent interrogation of Crowley’s profile and retreats to the crumbs in his hat, which have collected into a waiting pile for his fingers when he reaches back into it. There are somewhat fewer this time, to prevent the accidental aquatic cornucopia his inattention provided on his last toss. Aziraphale flicks them out over the water without paying much attention to where they land. “Lend a hand when needed.”

“This is something else,” Crowley says, still in a soft tone that denies all knowledge of the words he’s pushing past his teeth. “For if it all goes pear-shaped.”

Aziraphale pauses to let the ducks collect themselves from the opulence with which they have been blessed, his attention drawn aside by his recollection of breakfast and how many hours have passed since the cup of tea and buttered scone that made up his morning meal. “I like pears.”

“If it all goes wrong.” There’s something of Crowley again on that last word, as emotion breaks free of his shadowy melancholy to impart true force to his voice. There’s a pause as silence clears its throat and apologizes for this lapse. When he speaks again it’s back to that almost inaudible murmur, as if he’s speaking to the trees around them as much as to the angel he has barely glanced at since Aziraphale arrived. “I want insurance.”

Aziraphale takes a breath and lets the lingering thought of pears go free. He watches it flutter away before he gathers himself together to turn his hat over and shake free whatever crumbs might still be hiding in the interior. “What?”

“I wrote it down,” Crowley says, and extends a piece of folded paper to Aziraphale with as much distance from the act as if he’s intending to disavow any knowledge of his hand and what it’s holding between its fingers. “Walls have ears.” Aziraphale takes the note but his attention is still on Crowley more than the innocuous slip of paper in his fingers; Crowley is grimacing and doubling back to make a hasty amendment. “Well, not walls, trees have ears. Ducks have ears.” He pauses to frown at their surroundings as if only seeing them now for the very first time. “Do ducks have ears?” Aziraphale leaves Crowley to his waterfowl-related inquiries as he looks down to the note in his hands so he can slide his thumb under the fold and smooth it out for the light of day. At his side Crowley is still speaking: “Must do. That’s how they hear other ducks,” but for the first moment Aziraphale finds himself rather divorced from his own ears by the effect of shock.

It’s only two words on the paper, dragged out into the pointed scrawl of Crowley’s handwriting, but Aziraphale feels as if the whole thing ought to be burning, ought to have branded the unthinking press of his thumb against the paper just for the touching of it. Holy water, the paper says, clear and unmistakable in the impossible demand it’s making, and Aziraphale has never Fallen but he thinks he might understand the feel of it now, as an impossible chasm seems to open up to send his heart toppling into free-fall. He looks to Crowley next to him, seeking proof that this is a joke, that he doesn’t mean it, that he can’t possibly be thinking what Aziraphale thinks he’s thinking. But Crowley is still looking out at the ducks, his angled glasses hiding his eyes from Aziraphale even in profile, and Aziraphale can find no fingerholds for himself against the sheer cliff he feels himself sliding down. He knows what they are doing is dangerous -- it has been that way since the beginning -- but after six hundred years he had thought them almost safe, had felt like there might be something like stability to what they have crafted between them. To have Crowley asking for something like this: “Out of the question.”

Crowley doesn’t even have the grace to look surprised. Aziraphale supposes expecting such from a demon is a bit rich, but it still stings when Crowley hardly inclines his head in his direction to say “Why not?” before turning away as if to shed the weight of Aziraphale’s attention.

The chasm is opening wider, the pit yawning before Aziraphale’s feet, and he’s forgotten how to use his wings, forgotten he ever had them in the first place. How can Crowley even ask, how can he possibly think, after all this time, that Aziraphale would-- “It would destroy you,” Aziraphale says as his gaze touches at Crowley’s face, the modern sideburns and the trappings of the present laid over the familiarity underneath it all, the essence of Crowley that has become so much a part of Aziraphale’s existence that the thought of being without it sends him into a tailspin. That Crowley would ask for this from him; that Crowley would think he needed something like this, just for a few dinners and the occasional luncheon, is enough to tighten Aziraphale’s throat and pull his words sharper than he intends as he thrusts the note back at Crowley like he’s handing back a lit bomb. “I’m not bringing you a suicide pill, Crowley.”

Crowley rolls his eyes dramatically enough that Aziraphale can see it even past the dark of his glasses, as if Aziraphale is being absurd, as if it’s the 15th century again and he’s only been taking a nap for a hundred years, nothing to worry about, why are you so tight-wound all the time, angel? “That’s not what I want it for,” he says, and turns to finally fix the dark-glassed weight of his attention on Aziraphale. His words slip loose of his tongue to hiss around the brace of his teeth as he continues. “Just insurance.”

Aziraphale lowers his outstretched hand with the note Crowley is patently disregarding still clutched in his fingers. He can’t see Crowley’s eyes behind his glasses; he’s never felt the shadow of the glass as so much of a wall as he does now. “I’m not an idiot, Crowley.” Crowley looks away again, as if dismissing this statement as thoroughly as the rest of what Aziraphale has said. Aziraphale’s throat is tight, his chest clenching around the breath he doesn’t need as if he’s choking on the air around him. “Do you know what trouble I’d get into if...if they knew I’d been…” He struggles for the word, fumbles through a whole array of nouns that fall short of what Crowley is to him, of what he is to Crowley, of what their relationship has been and become, until the tension gripping at his chest forces free the word that he can feel crumbling to insignificance even as he speaks it. “Fraternizing?” Crowley’s head turns, the slow, menacing motion of an avalanche building itself on a mountain, of cavalry lowering weapons for a charge, and Aziraphale takes the coward’s way out and looks aside to retreat to the ducks floating blissfully atop the stream in front of them. “It’s completely out of the question.”

Aziraphale can feel the heat of Crowley’s gaze on him, the scorch of hellfire reaching furious fingers around the edges of those wraparound glasses. When he speaks the consonants throw off venom as if his teeth have taken on the sharp points of the fangs he once had. “Fraternizing?”

“Well, whatever you wish to call it.” Aziraphale looks back to Crowley and immediately wishes he hadn’t. The distraction that has gripped the other’s attention is as absent now as if there is no world around them at all, as if they are back on the battlefield from before time itself existed, back when Crowley’s wings were as white as Aziraphale’s and the line between them was drawn in flame and steam. Aziraphale has often been grateful that he never faced Crowley in that awful fight, that their knowledge of each other came only after the Casting Out that broke all Heaven’s memory into Before and After. The way Crowley is looking at him now is the closest thing Aziraphale has experienced to the horror of that moment since time was created. Aziraphale can only stand to meet the other’s stare for a moment, and when he looks aside it feels like a betrayal of something he hadn’t even realized he had placed his trust in. He draws himself together, pulling back into as much grace as he is master of, and when he speaks the words come from somewhere so far distant he hardly recognizes his own stilted tone. “I do not think there is any point in discussing it further.”

“I have lots of other people to fraternize with, angel,” Crowley hisses. He turns Aziraphale’s stumbling speech into a knife that makes Aziraphale wince almost as much as the vicious bite that lances through the habitual title. He had never realized, before, how soft Crowley has always before made that word sound, never realized how much like an insult it could feel thrown back in his face by someone who has, after all, no further claim to it himself.

It’s the hurt that does it, that reels Aziraphale back onto his heels as if Crowley had lashed out at him with the bared fangs of his reptilian form, and when he speaks it’s too quickly, with the words spilling from his lips like the crumbs he threw carelessly to the ducks splashing in the water before them. “Oh, of course you do.”

Aziraphale turns to walk away, to impose some kind of distance between himself and the unblinking stare of those yellow eyes, and behind him Crowley calls out, loud so the words will carry: “I don’t need you.”

Aziraphale turns before he has a chance to think the better of it, pivoting to huff his own measure of divine frustration in answer to Crowley’s seething rage. “Well, the feeling is mutual,” he spits. “Obviously.” The declaration seems to call for some kind of grand gesture; armed with nothing more dangerous than his hat and gloves, Aziraphale does the next best thing and throws the scrap of paper back in Crowley’s general direction. It would be pleasant if the drama of the moment tended in his favor to land the crumpled note against Crowley’s unshakeable shoulders; unfortunately reality has other ideas, and the half-open paper catches the wind to tumble rather uselessly through the air as it tries to flutter back to Aziraphale’s grasp. Aziraphale has to swat it away before it corrects its path to drop into the water of the stream, and he doesn’t even pause to see to this accidental littering before turning to continue along his path of righteous fury.

He doesn’t pause to replace his glove, and it’s only once he’s returned to the bookshop that he realizes he’s crushed the brim of his hat in the too-tight grip he’s been maintaining on it. The clothing is easily mended, brought back to its original form by the application of a miracle so small even Gabriel can hardly complain, but Aziraphale still stands staring at the hat for a long time before the jangle of the bell at the door announces a visitor. He looks up at once, catching a breath to offer gratitude and benevolent welcome in answer to a forthcoming apology. When he sees a pale green dress instead of a heavy dark coat on the newcomer, his scowl is enough to send the young woman retreating back onto the street without even pausing long enough to offer an apology for the intrusion. Aziraphale glowers at the door for a long moment, just in case the sign hanging there decides to humor him and turn itself over; and then he heaves a sigh, and sets his hat aside, and goes to turn it to Closed himself.

He stays on the ground floor for the rest of the day and well into the night, just in case he should have an expected visitor, but no matter how long he waits, the shop remains as pristinely silent as the expanse of Heaven itself.

Chapter Text

The next century is a long one for Aziraphale.

He’s accustomed to being on his own, of course. It’s not as if he spends every afternoon lingering over a dish of crêpes across from a cup of black coffee and the slouching shadow that accompanies such a beverage in counterpoint to Aziraphale’s own preference for chocolate or much-sweetened tea. He frequently leaves his bookshop with no associate at all, and he’s very certain he has visited St. James’s Park to feed the ducks for no more than his own pleasure at least a handful of times, without any expectation of sidling into company he isn’t anticipating and certainly doesn’t have noted in his datebook. But the removal of a possibility is rather like the lock turning over on a door, and the fact that Aziraphale hardly ever made use of that door in the first place doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel himself rather constrained in the absence of it. There are no casual notes jammed into the corner of his bookshop door, no hissing sibilants over his shoulder as he’s settling down for a meal out; the most inhuman contact Aziraphale has over the next decades is from his quarterly reports, and even then Gabriel calls up a haze on which to project himself rather than bothering with materializing properly. It’s not that Aziraphale really wants to see Gabriel in the flesh -- there is something rather overbearing about the other, as if he is a shaky wall constantly considering the benefits of falling over and simply crushing Aziraphale with the weight of his self-assured righteousness -- but Aziraphale still finds himself struggling to linger in the conversation, to expand upon and very nearly invent details to keep some company for himself. When Gabriel does finally dissipate Aziraphale feels the absence as if he’s abruptly returned to sobriety, with all the aching head and bad aftertaste that leaves in his mouth, and when he retreats to drown it out with real intoxication the process is a dull one of emptying bottles deliberately rather than with the light hand and wandering thoughts that might come with a better conversationalist across the table from him.

He commits himself to his work. There’s plenty to do in England; the political landscape is changing, shuffling itself into groaning action in a way that Aziraphale finds nearly as alarming as he once did the jerky discomfort of attempting to remain astride the horses he occasionally was forced to make use of. There are new technologies, now, making use of steam and electricity; when Aziraphale first hears the rattle of a phone ringing he feels absolutely certain he knows who it was that determined the sound should be so jarring instead of, say, the chirp of birdsong or the splash of a stream over pebbles. But there is no one to ask, no dark glasses over a smirk that promises to know about twice as much as it ever actually does, and Aziraphale is left to go out for the nicest desserts he can find with no one beside him to share the bottle of champagne that is offered alongside them.

The war is almost a relief. Aziraphale isn’t one for violence at the best of times; the closest he has come to such since his arrival on Earth has been by accident, and he has made a point of removing himself to other locations whenever the tide of human affairs has turned to return to the arms of its old, favorite lover. But he has the bookshop to think of, now, and the comfortable existence he has made for himself over the last decades; and the concern, briefly heard and quickly crushed to no more than muffled whimpers, that if he goes elsewhere he will be impossible to find. The idea is absurd, he tells himself, it’s not as if he hasn’t been found before whenever Other Parties might have been interested in a word or a cup of wine or a light meal; and more importantly it’s not as if he’s expecting anyone anyway. He is a strong, independent creature, who has made his own way on Earth with only very middling help from anyone else, and he is not about to be pushed out of his own home by the upheaval of the world. So he stays where he is, helping gardens to flourish and bringing home the occasional missing soldier, and Gabriel smiles in front of his hand and yawns behind it and Aziraphale feels himself almost busy again, very nearly too occupied with the present state of affairs to notice the presence that has been missing for the greater part of his recent history.

By the time war breaks out again, like a renewed fever in a patient believed all but recovered, Aziraphale is ready to involve himself. He could stay in his bookshop, of course; he will be perfectly safe no matter where he goes, and his corner of Soho is as much deserving of protection as anywhere else in beleaguered London. But he feels restless, prone to brooding over war reports and imagining demonic influence in every event that makes the front page of the papers, so when the opportunity for action presents itself Aziraphale lifts his head and comes forward to seize it with both hands, as the Heavenly emissary he is.

He doesn’t go out to the front lines. There is only so far a miracle can stretch, and in the midst of horrors Aziraphale’s persuasion of reality into a somewhat different form will stand out as clearly as a white dove in the middle of a roomful of panthers. He stays in the city itself, where he can insert himself into the greater subtleties of undercover work and still be near enough to home that he can be back in his bookshop at the end of the day. There may be a war on, but in the end Aziraphale has grown quite fond of his creature comforts, and it would take far more than a human war to ruffle him out of the nest he has crafted for himself from first editions and fine wine.

He had fancied himself doing rather well. He made contact with the undercover German spies that have taken up residence in the city, with the lingering edges of their accents to give them away to an ear far less well-trained than Aziraphale’s own. He had even gone so far as to stage a double-cross, a detail of subterfuge that he preened over in his report to Headquarters, since he has no one else to appreciate this particular effort on his part. It went utterly unremarked-upon by Gabriel, who of course has never had appreciation for real artistry anyway, but Aziraphale was still quite set up about it, enough to feel himself entirely the saboteur by the time he walks through the doors of the church with the weight of his tied-together books heavy at his side.

It is perhaps, he reflects now, possible that he ought to have remembered what it is that pride comes before. He is hardly at risk of a Fall on an angelic scale -- he hasn’t wandered that far from his assigned path -- but with the end of a handgun pointed in his face by the woman he had believed on his side, Aziraphale has to admit he is feeling less than entirely clever. Perhaps he should have learned his lesson in Paris, and kept himself farther away from the wrong end of the weapons that humans are always so anxious to murder each other with. But Paris is a line of thinking down which Aziraphale’s thoughts are sternly Not Allowed to wander, and left to his own devices he falls back to that most favored of his defenses, namely a stark refusal to admit that reality should allow something like this to happen to him.

“You can’t kill me!” Aziraphale protests. His words fail to carry quite the angelic weight he might wish them to; they sound more like a wail than a commandment from on high. He wonders if Nazi spies are even of a mind to respond to holy pronouncements, or if they would be more likely to shoot an angelic messenger before they received whatever missive was being borne for them. Aziraphale admits he is not at his most generous facing down the threat of discorporation. “There will be paperwork!”

Rose -- Greta, as Aziraphale supposes he ought to think of her -- frowns at this declaration. Unfortunately the hand holding upright the gun she has firmly pointed at Aziraphale’s face shows none of the wavering confusion flickering across her expression, and neither of the men standing behind her appear at all swayed. Aziraphale scrambles through the dusty archives of his memories, searching for some means to prevent what seems the increasingly likely outcome of this particular interlude, but he has found nothing more substantial than cobwebs when there is a bang from the entrance to the church, and their entire tableau is put on pause as all four of them turn in response.

Aziraphale hears the hissing before he sees the newcomer. There’s a sharp edge to the sound of the other’s breathing, which is coming loudly enough that it echoes off the arched ceiling vaulting above all of them; Aziraphale recognizes the sound of discomfort making itself clearly known before he picks apart the short gasps as the “Ow!”s that they are. The sound is strange after chasing itself back through the heights of the ceiling to echo to where Aziraphale is standing just in front of the altar, and the newcomer is breathless enough on pain that it should be utterly impossible to give a name to their wincing protest; but something in Aziraphale shifts, a stability coming back to him that he had thought lost forever, and when his breath draws in it catches on a hope as bright and brilliant as the sun breaking free from behind stormclouds. It cannot be, surely, not now, not after all this time: and then a figure rounds the far end of the aisle, and Aziraphale’s eyes enter into a heated argument with his rationality about this proof of what he’s seeing.

Aziraphale has entirely forgotten the other three people standing with him at the front of the church. Even the open threat of the gun still aimed at his face has vanished from importance; he thinks if Ro--Greta were to pull the trigger right now the bullet would simply puff into dust from his own inattention to anything other than the figure now all but tiptoeing up the aisle of the church towards them. The other’s suit is fashionably cut, his shoes slick and collecting the shine of light against them even in what limited illumination is offered by a clandestine meeting in a church in the middle of the night; the brim of his hat shadows his face, but not so much that the incongruity of dark glasses in the middle of the night can’t be clearly seen by the moonlight spilling through the stained-glass windows overhead. Still Aziraphale can’t believe, can’t let go a century of defensive resistance, can’t ease his vice grip on loneliness; and then the figure hisses a breath past his teeth and speaks.

“Sorry, consecrated ground!” Another wincing motion, a painful delicacy that runs all the way from his light-stepping toes to the angled lift of his shoulders like he’s thinking of taking flight to lift his feet from the floor beneath them. “Ah! It’s like...being at the beach in bare feet.”

Aziraphale can see him, now: the shift of jaw taut under skin, the grimace of a mouth that always seems a little too wide for the narrow shape of the face holding it, the teeth set sharp around the hiss of a tongue that never did quite give up the seductive whispers it offered in the Garden. Recognition elbows rationality in the ribs, trips it as it goes down with an outstretched foot, and lays claim to control over belief in the span of the time it takes Aziraphale to draw a breath to speak. Aziraphale’s feet carry him forward, moving before he recalls the potential danger of startling the woman holding a gun towards him; the details of the world around him have gone vague and completely inconsequential with the sudden, impossible truth of Crowley coming up the aisle of an abandoned church towards him. “What are you doing here?” 

Aziraphale’s voice comes out more sharply than he intends it to, straining around the pressure that has clenched itself to a fist in his chest, but when Crowley tilts his head towards him there’s none of the spring-coiled tension at his jaw that was there the last time they spoke, just the forward angle of his shoulders and conspiratorial dip of his head like he’s sharing out a secret like a delicious treat between them. “Stopping you getting into trouble.”

Rationality scrambles to its feet, trumpeting a new possibility and staging a comeback for itself. Aziraphale rocks back on his heels, looking back to the trio still standing together in the flickering candlelight before back to Crowley, a demon, after all, where else would he be but here? “I should have known,” Aziraphale says, as Crowley comes forward over the last steps between them. “Of course. These people are working for you.”

Crowley looks past Aziraphale for the first time, as if he’s only just seeing the handful of others in the church besides the two of them. “No!” he exclaims, in a tone of such disgust that even Aziraphale’s distrust gives way before it. “They’re a bunch of...half-witted Nazi spies running ‘round London, blackmailing and murdering people.” This does appear to be entirely congruous with everything Aziraphale has seen, he reflects, conveniently entirely ignoring the implications of his own very recent misjudgment of these same spies. Crowley looks back to Aziraphale, leaning in closer as he hisses in an undertone made tense on discomfort. “I just didn’t want to see you embarrassed.” His footing gives way, his balance teetering with the impulse of pain; Aziraphale actually begins to lift an arm in expectation of the other’s fall before Crowley catches himself and turns to pace in a circle, up on the toes of his shoes like he’s trying to have as little to do with the ground as possible.

“Mr. Anthony J. Crowley,” one of the Germans says. Aziraphale glances back at him, only barely biting back a snappish command to be quiet, can’t he see they’re in the middle of a conversation? “Your fame precedes you.”

Aziraphale frowns and turns back on Crowley. “Anthony?”

Crowley looks to him immediately. When he speaks his voice is soft, almost worried. “You don’t like it?”

“No,” Aziraphale says, instantly. “No, no I didn’t say that.” He turns over the shape of the name in his head, thinks about the fit of the consonants against his tongue. “I’ll get used to it.”

“The famous Mr. Crowley.” The interruption is from Greta this time. She looks rather pink in the face when Aziraphale looks back to her, and sounds approximately as breathless as she looks, although being starstruck has evidently had no influence whatsoever on her willingness to aim the gun in her hands at Crowley, now. “Such a pity you must both die.”

Crowley lifts a hand to touch the brim of his hat in a mocking salute but Aziraphale’s attention has swung back and away from the Germans brandishing weapons at the two of them to more immediately pressing concerns. “What does the J stand for?”

Crowley makes the auditory equivalent of a shrug. “Ahh...nngh...just a J, really.” His attention slides away past Aziraphale’s shoulder to swing back around through the church and pick up a dropped train of thought. “Look at that. A whole fontful of holy water.” His pacing pivots against one toe and begins to bear him back down the aisle, away from the pool of candlelight where Aziraphale and the Germans are standing. “Doesn’t even have guards.”

One of the Germans, already running short of patience, spends the last of it in a roll of his eyes. “Enough babbling, kill them both.” This statement is enough to recall Aziraphale away from the line of Crowley’s shoulders wandering down the aisle and to the less dangerous but more immediate threat of discorporation that is still being pointed at the two of them, although Greta seems to be taking in turns which of them she finds most deserving of the end of her weapon. 

Aziraphale wonders if he ought to say something, or even more drastically actually do something, but before he can find voice for himself Crowley has pivoted and is coming back down the aisle, speaking loudly so his voice catches an updraft and lifts to fill the grand space of the church overhead. “Ah, in about a minute a German bomber will release a bomb that will land right here.” His fingers form an arrow to indicate the square inch of space directly beneath his rapidly shifting feet. “If you all run away very, very fast, you might not die. You won’t enjoy dying, and you definitely won’t enjoy what comes after.”

The most-attentive of their Nazi counterparts, Greta, glances up and begins to frown at the distant whine of approaching sirens. The less clever and most talkative one snorts disbelief. “You expect us to believe that?” He lifts his head and speaks as if declaiming from an extremely effable plan. “The bombs tonight will fall on the East End.”

“Yes,” Crowley says. He has a hand against the end of the pew alongside him and is leaning against it so he can keep one of his feet off the floor entirely and the other balanced on the very edge of the rubber sole. “It would take a last-minute demonic intervention to throw them off course, yes.” He straightens to step back, holding his hands out as he shakes his head with disappointed resignation. “You’re all wasting your valuable running-away time.” He draws a breath and lifts his head as if a thought has just stood up to make itself known from amidst the crowd. “And if, uh, in thirty seconds, a bomb does land here,” as his gaze sidles sideways to nudge Aziraphale with a painfully sharp elbow, “It would take a real miracle for my friend and I to survive it.”

Aziraphale can’t see past Crowley’s glasses to determine if the other is actually winking hard at him, but he doesn’t need the confirmation to pick up on the hint biting itself off to sharp edges against each word Crowley lets past his lips. “A--a real miracle.” He ducks his head into a nod, which Crowley meets with an elegant incline of his head.

The third German heaves a put-upon sigh. “Kill them, they are very irritating.”

Crowley ducks his head down and lifts both hands, pointing to the sky as if he’s offering a cue. Aziraphale’s gaze is drawn up in answer, reaching to the arched ceiling overhead as if he is likely to see the open sky above them. Of course there is nothing for his eyes to do, except admire the architecture that makes up the interior of the church; but his ears are picking up on a sharp whine, so high and piercing it is a moment before he is sure he is hearing it at all. Crowley’s heels hit the floor, his uncomfortable shifting coming to a dead halt, and Aziraphale lifts the hat clutched in his hand to his head as he ducks as if to shield himself from the explosion to come. His other hand comes out, fingers outstretched as if to cross the distance to where Crowley is standing a few feet before him; and the world shatters around them, cracking apart with a BOOM so loud that Aziraphale is certain it would be very bad indeed for the human eardrums in the room, if the humans behind them didn’t have significantly bigger problems, such as the collapse of an entire church atop their heads.

It takes several minutes for the dust to clear. Aziraphale keeps his head down as the last of the rubble crumbles into a more comfortable resting-place and the space immediately around them clears into something composed of more air than the powdered mortar and liquid fire it had briefly become. It’s only as the haze packs up to make space for the shadows of the open night sky to return that he lifts his chin to look up and around them.

The church is absolutely gone. The font of holy water that so briefly compelled Crowley’s attention is vanished, disintegrated beyond even the lingering hope of a puddle; whatever consecration was laid into the floor is as stripped away as the floor itself. There is only rubble now, great chunks of stone that were until recently a wall and heavy timbers of the fallen roof scattered around them; and in the middle of it, untouched by anything except for the dust and smoke drifting through the air, Crowley in his dark suit and Aziraphale in his light one. 

Aziraphale draws his hat off his head so he can clutch it in front of him instead. Crowley leans against a somewhat larger chunk of rubble and turns his attention to wiping the dust from his dark glasses with a handkerchief extricated from the depths of his pocket. Aziraphale considers glancing at the other. Then his memory brings up the last several decades of complete silence and embarrassment brushes the possibility from his mind like the dust from the air so his gaze can drop precipitously to the pile of rubble in front of him instead. His mouth feels very dry for reasons he suspects have very little to do with the dust in the air and everything with the pressure crushing itself against his chest, but the silence demands voice, and Aziraphale is too polite to leave its request unanswered.

“That was very kind of you.” His voice trembles nearly as badly as his fingers are trying to do before he tightens them severely on the brim of his hat.

Crowley’s head shifts. Aziraphale looks to meet his gaze, briefly uncovered to sulfur-yellow as he lifts his newly pristine glasses back to cover his eyes. Crowley’s mouth has a brief, heated battle between a smile and a grimace, the contortion so familiar that Aziraphale feels his eyes heat with the threat of tears just at seeing it again. He hadn’t realized how dim his memories had faded from the immediate reality of Crowley with him over the last century. Finally Crowley gets the corners of his mouth to turn down as he interposes his glasses back between his gaze and Aziraphale’s. His tone even does a reasonable approximation of actual annoyance. “Shut up!”

This is safer ground, Aziraphale feels, as his voice retreats from the edge of emotion and into the stability of simple truth. “Well, it was. No paperwork, for a start.” It is a start, and Aziraphale finds his throat closing around the endless array of middles that he might take to get to the unknown end. Thank you, although Crowley hardly seems in the mood to accept gratitude if he doesn’t want to hear a compliment. It is good to see you again, which it is, although that seems strangely threadbare for the perfect truth it is. I’ve missed you, Crowley; but his throat is too tight, and his eyes are aching, and Aziraphale is dreadfully afraid that last might turn into a sob. He shifts his weight, trying to fit words around the pressure in his chest, as that of a long-carried space suddenly filled to excess; and then his mind stages an intervention, and forces his attention away from himself by the expedience of abrupt horror.

“Oh, the books!” Aziraphale turns to look around him, as if he might be able to summon the priceless texts he brought with him by simply turning quickly enough to startle them from hiding, but all he manages to surprise is another heap of now-shapeless rubble, which reacts to being discovered by doing nothing at all. “Oh! I forgot all the books!” He’s recalling the titles he collected, the weight of the covers under his fingers as he set them into the stack he had intended to carry right back to his bookshop at the end of this night’s escapade, but of course there is nothing to carry back from his inconvenient lapse of attention at the moment of crisis. Crowley straightens from where he’s leaning and steps forward, the rubble cracking and shifting under the weight of his feet as he comes towards Aziraphale. “Oh, they’ll all be blown to…”

Aziraphale’s words trail off as Crowley steps past him and leans down to extend a hand towards the pile of destruction next to him. There is a particularly jagged stack of detritus just over Aziraphale’s shoulder, lit by the smouldering glow of the flames burning out on what remains of the church; and sticking out from a rather dense mound of debris there is a hand, fingers still clutched tight around the handle of a perfectly pristine leather satchel. Aziraphale stares at it, impressed for a moment by the clarity of the hallucination formed by desperate hope, and then Crowley closes his hand around the handle and wrenches it free from the clutch of the disembodied arm with a force that speaks quite firmly to the reality of the situation. Crowley straightens with the bag still in hand and takes a step back so he can offer it towards Aziraphale. Aziraphale reaches to take the handle more from polite instinct than conscious thought; his fingers close against alongside Crowley’s, whose outstretched arm is still bearing far more of the weight than Aziraphale’s doubting grip.

“Little demonic miracle of my own,” Crowley says. He’s standing quite close to Aziraphale amidst the destruction of the bombed church; even in the dark Aziraphale can see the tilt of a smile threatening the corner of Crowley’s mouth, allowed to creep onto the other’s lips without being fought back for once. They are fixed there for a moment, closer than they have been in a century, with the satchel of Aziraphale’s rescued books braced between them, and then Crowley eases his hold, and tilts his head, and turns to saunter away as if he doesn’t see the way Aziraphale is looking at him. When he speaks his voice dips soft and warm at the end. “Lift home.”

Aziraphale stares as Crowley paces away towards the street. For a moment his attention drops to the bag in his hand: to the books that Crowley remembered when Aziraphale did not, that Crowley thought of in the split-second they had to react to the whine of that incoming explosion, that he reached out to save in the first moment they have had together this century. Aziraphale gazes at the books, at the bag that contains what he counted among his greatest treasures not an hour ago; and then his attention rises, reaching to follow the lean shadow picking his careful way out of the dust and destruction around him. A glow starts in his chest, spreading and illuminating as it goes, and Aziraphale is left breathless in the shock wave of an epiphany as cataclysmic for him as the bomb was to the church fragmented around him. He stares at Crowley, his eyes wide and mouth soft and heart aching, and when Crowley glances back to call “Aren’t you coming, angel?” all Aziraphale can do is to step forward to follow where his fall into love leads him.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale’s bookshop hasn’t changed.

Crowley wasn’t expecting it to. The list of people and things he has any faith in is extremely short, and tends to have items crossed off it instead of added, but it has been millennia since he has so much as considered questioning the basic tenets of Aziraphale’s existence. Aziraphale will always be well-dressed, invariably off of really modern style, but only by a few hundred years; he will always be ready to stop off somewhere for a refreshment, whether it’s two in the morning or three in the afternoon; and he will always, always be in the most comfortable location he can find for himself. The bookshop is a technically recent addition, which is to say it has only been open a century and a half by now; but it carries so much of Aziraphale within it that Crowley half-expects to hear the rustle of carefully sheathed wings instead of the jingle of the bell set into place over the door. The bookshop feels eternal, as if perhaps there may be a line in that most ineffable of plans dedicated to guaranteeing its existence in the world, and Crowley can feel his shoulders unclench their fists on self-consciousness and slump into sprawling familiarity as soon as he steps through the front door.

It’s been a hundred years since he was inside these walls. He’s driven past, quickly, so as not to linger long enough to be spotted by an angelic glance out of those book-filled windows, and on one memorable occasion had been persuaded by enough wine to thoroughly inebriate even him to walk past, with his coat turned up around his neck and a dreadful hat that slouched on his head like the various reptilian or damp accessories his infernal counterparts bear. But for the most part Crowley has kept his distance, as restrained by his own bruised feelings as Aziraphale has been by pride, and his certain awareness of where he could find Aziraphale if he wanted to has been all the more reason to not be the first to break.

He was, of course. Crowley knows too much about falling to not give in when the temptation presented itself, and with the golden glow of the bookshop around him now he doesn’t even find he regrets it. He might have been the one to offer the first action against the chill wall that they had built up between them, but he is already more than repaid just by the relief that Aziraphale probably thinks he’s doing a good job of disguising and that is radiating from him like the halo he never brings out except for special occasions. Crowley feels warm, flush with his less-than-evil deed for the day and reflecting back all Aziraphale’s evident happiness with compound interest, and he launches into an exploration of the bookshelves as soon as he is within the shop, strolling forward towards the looming heights straining at their seams with the varied collections they are attempting to contain.

“You’ve picked up some new stuff,” Crowley declares as he paces down one aisle, turning sideways to avoid disturbing a pile of loose papers that have roosted on top of a pair of tomes thick and heavy enough to serve excellently as doorstops. “You didn’t have much foreign work when I was here last.”

“Ah.” That from the door, where Aziraphale has been fussing with the lock to bar the shop from the dangers outside, completely disregarding the agent of Hell already warmly invited to catch up over a cup of tea. “Yes. I’ve been travelling a bit more the last few decades. The best way to polish up on languages is by reading them, you know.”

Crowley’s experience has rather been that speaking is the better way to improve one’s language, and best of all is simply providing a Pentecostal miracle to remove communication barriers outright, but he doesn’t want to push the point and he does want very much to agree with anything Aziraphale says. “Oh, yeah, ‘course.”

“I’ll just put these away and then start the kettle for tea,” Aziraphale says. Crowley drifts back down the aisle to linger at the end where he can let his gaze off the leash enough to wander over the seams of Aziraphale’s coat and the pale hair curling soft against the backs of his ears. There’s a sprinkling of dust against him, the remnants of the consecrated space blown away from under them by the German bomb; Crowley watches it for a minute before he lifts his hand to wave his fingers and sweep it away into nothingness. Aziraphale turns back from setting the books down, glancing back over his shoulder at the motion, and Crowley brings his arm around so he can make a show of smoothing his coat and covering the retreat of his gaze back to the shelf before him. Out of his periphery he can see Aziraphale take a breath to speak, then shake his head and let it go before he makes another run-up. “Would you like something to drink?”

Crowley takes a moment to linger over the books in front of him before he swings around to face Aziraphale’s tight-clasped hands and wide eyes. “Sure,” he says. “What do you have?”

Aziraphale beams. “I was going to make a cup of tea for myself,” he says as he turns away to lead towards the back room of the shop. Crowley’s feet declare their greater loyalty to the angel and move to draw the rest of Crowley along with them, which he makes no real effort to argue against. “I have several excellent vintages in storage as well, if you have the time for a glass of wine as well.”

Crowley refrains from pointing out that he doesn’t actually need sleep, however much he enjoys the indulgence, and further that after a century he’s sincerely considering not leaving Aziraphale’s side for a decade, or at least the greater part of a year. “Whatever you’re up for,” he says. “Shall I go pick one out?”

“Please do,” Aziraphale says with the barest gesture towards turning back around from where he’s procuring a tea kettle. Crowley lingers for a moment, just to watch the way the light kisses illumination at the top of Aziraphale’s head and the easy familiarity in the other’s movement to start a pot of tea, and then he turns aside so he can wander to the next room on, where memories of inebriation firmly believe the greater part of Aziraphale’s wine is collected.

That hasn’t changed either. There are more bottles now than there were when Crowley was last here; Aziraphale has dedicated himself to increasing his collection in the last century, it seems, a particularly impressive undertaking given the present state of England and Europe in general. Crowley browses through the selection, touching fingertips to the fine dust that has collected against the bottles, and it’s only as he’s drawing one free that the alternate possibility for the greater accumulation of wine presents itself, that of a lack of company to share a bottle with. Crowley glances back over the room, considering the smooth dark of the bottles arrayed around him as densely as the books stacked on the shelves in the outer shop, and then he reaches back to free a second bottle from its exile and moves out of the room, tipping his head to gesture the light to shut off as he returns to where Aziraphale is pouring steaming water into a pot.

“You weren’t saving these for anything, I hope,” Crowley says as he holds the bottles out in front of him.

Aziraphale doesn’t even glance up as he shakes his head. “No, of course not. Anything you’d like.” He finishes pouring the last of the hot water into the teapot and sets the lid over the rising steam before setting the kettle aside. “Besides, this is a special occasion in itself.”

Crowley doesn’t bother asking for clarification. Aziraphale’s cheeks are touched to pink from more than the steam of the steeping tea, and his gaze might be cast down but it keeps touching to Crowley’s knees and sometimes hands, like it’s looking to ground itself in the reality of them back in the same room together. Crowley clears his throat instead, loudly to draw Aziraphale’s attention, and makes sure he’s looking elsewhere when the other lifts his head to gaze at him.

“I’ll have to start bringing bottles over every time I visit,” he declares to the trim at the top edge of the ceiling. “Or you’ll run out before the war’s over.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says in a voice as warm as melted chocolate. “I think we can manage.” He steps forward to take the bottles from Crowley, who surrenders them and turns himself to pacing around the perimeter of the room, gazing at everything around him as a means of cleansing his palate for the occasional heady glances he takes of Aziraphale fussing with the wine bottles behind him. The smell of the tea is filling the room, as warm and comfortable as Aziraphale’s existence, and Crowley feels as if he’s back in the walls of the Garden, held in the security of a paradise far simpler and far more satisfying than the one provided by the Almighty for her human creations.

“So,” Crowley says, turning away from Aziraphale’s bowed head to gaze intently at the possibility of dust collecting at the panelling against the wall. Even that seems to shimmer golden in the soft illumination emanating through the shop. “What have you been up to the last decades?” He turns without shifting his feet so he can toss a glance back over his shoulder at Aziraphale. “Other than trying to double-cross Nazi spies.”

Aziraphale’s cheeks darken. “Ah,” he says, and becomes very intensely interested in the tea still steeping in the pot set out before him. “All sorts of things. The bookshop, you know” with a vague flutter of his hand to indicate variously the room around them, the ostensible merchandise stacked in a manner of organization perhaps ineffable and certainly incomprehensible to mortal minds, and also the whole street corner on which they are perched. “It’s no joke running a business, after all.”

Crowley hums. “Especially without selling anything.”

“That’s been most of my time,” Aziraphale says as he draws the tea out of the pot and sets it aside. “It’s only lately that I’ve gotten back into world politics, and that’s as much because of the bombs as anything else. Tea?” Crowley nods and Aziraphale materializes a pair of cups to occupy himself with pouring into as he clears his throat to offer delicate warning of an inquiry to come. “And what about you?”

“Oh, you know me,” Crowley says. “Mayhem, mischief. The usual trouble.” Aziraphale huffs a breath that says he does know and Crowley leans over to pick up one of the cups by the saucer so he can bring it to hold in front of him as he turns to continue pacing behind Aziraphale’s tipped-forward shoulders. “Not that there’s been much need for that lately. Turns out the humans can get themselves into plenty of trouble on their own. I might as well be in Australia as here for all the difference I’m making lately.”

Aziraphale makes a soft sound in the back of his throat. Crowley glances sideways at him but Aziraphale is fully turned away, his head still bowed over the table as he sets the teapot down and spoons sugar into his cup. “But you haven’t been?” He nearly forgets to catch up the end of the words towards a question and does forget to set the sugar spoon back in the dish, instead submerging it into his tea and absently stirring in the excess of sweetener he has just added. “In Australia, I mean.” He sets the spoon back against the table and picks up his cup of tea to blow delicately across the steaming surface. “You’ve been here, the last while.”

“Mm,” Crowley says, and takes a sip of tea so hot he would be glad his physical form is less than entirely human if he even noticed the way it was burning him. “I’ve stuck around, yeah.”

“Funny that we didn’t happen to run into each other,” Aziraphale says around the steam of his tea. “After all those accidental meetings you would think we’d at least have glimpsed each other a few times.”

“Ah,” Crowley says, in lieu of pointing out the obvious fact that it’s rather difficult to accidentally run into one’s particular divine acquaintance when one is not actively trailing in the wake of the miracles he leaves behind him and taking copious notes on his favorite restaurants and particular haunts in any given century. “Just chance, I guess.”

Aziraphale’s gaze lifts towards Crowley’s. A smile flickers across his mouth. “Ineffable as always, I suppose.” Crowley shrugs, a production that is more of a full-body response than just a lift of his shoulders and manages to disavow any knowledge of anything that Aziraphale’s clear eyes might be pointedly nodding towards. Aziraphale’s smile brightens, just for a moment, before he dips his head to look back towards his tea again.

“All the more reason to thank you,” he says. Crowley hisses and tips his head back to repel this latest effort but Aziraphale’s shoulders are straightening, he’s turning in to fix Crowley with his attention, and Crowley can’t actually turn aside from the full focus of Aziraphale’s attention on him any more than he could make himself go farther than a few dozens miles from where the other is, like the center of a circle he trails like a moon in orbit. “No, you cannot refuse it this time, I won’t permit it.” Aziraphale takes a breath, sounding like he’s bracing himself for a plunge, and then lets it go along with the strain in his shoulders. When he looks into Crowley’s face his gaze is clear and his eyes are soft, as if he’s reaching out to touch gentle attention against the line of the other’s jaw.

“Thank you,” he says, sincerity sweet on his tongue and melting in his eyes. “I don’t know what I would have done if you--” He breaks off and shakes his head to push aside the possibility. “Well. You were there, anyway, and I am very glad you were.” His gaze holds Crowley’s for a moment, like a clasp of hands gone on long enough to shiver intimacy across their skin, and when he smiles the glow of it illuminates his eyes to gold. “It is very, very good to see you again, my dear.”

It takes Crowley a moment to realize what the burn aching across his face indicates. He’s not accustomed to blushing under any circumstances; self-consciousness isn’t something he usually allows into his life, and he long ago broke off negotiations with embarrassment. But he is blushing now, coloring all over his cheeks under the glow of Aziraphale’s soft smile and gentle voice, and all he can think to do is to turn his head to cut off the other’s view of him to profile instead of full-front. It’s not likely to do much for his composure, unfortunately, but he can’t make himself twist completely away, because retreating from Aziraphale’s gaze will mean cutting off his own as well, and he can’t figure out how to make himself give up his attention to the soft affection in the other’s expression.

“Yeah,” Crowley says, and finishes the rest of his tea with such haste that for a moment he is in real danger of choking outright before his body figures out what to do with the deluge. “I wasn’t going to leave you in real trouble, angel. I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I did.”

Aziraphale’s smile goes wide enough to touch dimples to the soft of his cheeks. “I suppose that’s true,” he says, and follows Crowley’s example in finishing his tea though not in choking on it before he sets the cup aside. “Shall we pour the wine, then?”

Crowley is grateful to the distraction, and to the divine grace with which it is offered. It’s a relief to have something else to occupy him while his mind lingers over the sound of Aziraphale’s voice, and the shape of his smile, and the ease with which he accepted Crowley’s description of their relationship. Aziraphale’s wine is very good, his bookshop is pleasant, his tea is delicious; but more than all of that, above everything, Crowley is glad to have his friend back.

Chapter Text

It’s good to have Aziraphale back.

Crowley isn’t surprised at how much brighter his life seems with Aziraphale reinstated in his place of pride. He has felt the other’s absence for every trudging minute of the last century alone; there have been moments when he thinks a century without Aziraphale might be even worse than the 14th, which by every account he was wise and clever to give such a wide berth to. There is more to make use of, nowadays -- cars, notably, which Crowley has taken to as easily as humans took to knowledge all those millennia ago -- but every time Hell sent up blandly effusive enthusiasm for Crowley’s presumed meddling Crowley felt the pang of having no one to laugh with him over it, and imagining the tight press of a held-back smile at Aziraphale’s lips has been hardly sufficient to take him through the last decades. It’s been a slog, Crowley thinks, so draggingly dull he has wondered if Hell didn’t catch on to him and construct this as a punishment; but there’s too much subtlety to it, a word which the greater number of Hell’s denizens are likely to think some variety of pastry, and Crowley knows his own fault in this too well to mistake it for anyone else’s. He brought on his isolation himself, in the sparks that he and his angelic companion are doomed to strike occasionally, and the only thing he could do was wait for the opportunity to reinstate himself in the only good graces he has ever really cared about.

It’s like paradise to be back. Crowley hardly remembers Heaven, it’s so distant in his existence and so far from his experience now, but he’s sure it had nothing on leaning on over a café table to watch the way Aziraphale’s lashes flutter as he takes a bite of cake, or savouring the sweet of some wine so expensive it’s a sin to so much as taste it while Aziraphale glows illumination from within the shadows of the bookshop at which Crowley always turns in, now, instead of walking past as he did during the minor eternity of their shared silence. Crowley isn’t sure if it was like this before -- sometimes he thinks there’s a greater weight to Aziraphale’s gaze on him, sometimes he’ll turn and find Aziraphale stopped in the middle of the bookshop with a distant softness on his face, like he’s forgotten to hold his edges quite clear as he watches Crowley from across the room. But if anything has changed it is for the better, so far as Crowley is concerned, and if he’s tempting fate by spending so much time with his angelic partner he is particularly ill-suited to resisting the temptation offered by those feathery curls and that melting-soft smile.

Which all makes for a very major Problem, as far as Crowley can see.

He can see it. It’s not as if he’s blind, even with the sunglasses he has made a permanent part of his fashion choices. Aziraphale hasn’t mentioned it again, hasn’t so much as breathed a gesture towards the danger hanging over them since that one catastrophic negotiation in St. James’s Park. They’ve gone there a handful of times since, for popsicles or as a meeting point or just to stroll across the grass separated by a distance that can be measured by spare inches or in the form of sextillions of atoms, depending on how positive Crowley’s mood is tending that day. But the subject of their conversation is never lifted to offer the least ripple to the easy flow of Aziraphale’s obvious contentment in Crowley’s company, and even Crowley’s innate desire to disrupt elegance seems to grow clumsy and stammering when confronted with Aziraphale’s radiant happiness. So they don’t talk about it, don’t so much as glance at the elephant that continues to expand to press against the corners of the room and put the staircase in real danger of collapse, and Crowley is left to think of it on his own.

His opinion hasn’t changed. He worries about Aziraphale, too -- only Heaven knows what they might do with a rogue angel, but with the burn of his own Fall scorched into his wings and lingering in his veins Crowley can make a very personally educated guess -- but Aziraphale wears his self-assurance like armor, and Crowley knows too well that any of his attempts to break through that will only push them farther away from each other. And he has bigger fish to fry, or rather demons to destroy, should it come to that, because Heaven might be restrictive but Hell is vindictive. They will have no compunctions whatsoever about getting under Crowley’s skin however they can, and Crowley’s imagination is far too good to let him rest easy with that possibility looming like a stormcloud over him.

He needs a way to protect himself, he thinks, late enough one night that he would be glad he doesn’t really need sleep if he had bothered to notice what time it is besides Dark Out. He’s certain Hell hasn’t caught on to him yet, primarily because he retains possession of a corporeal and decidedly unflayed body, and he suspects his life expectancy will be measured in minutes after that particular revelation. But no matter how slow Hell may be to catch on, an eternity is long enough to give them ample opportunity to realize what is actually happening on the upper levels, and after a few dreadful centuries alone Crowley is twice over convinced that he wants nothing to do with a perpetual existence that doesn’t include Aziraphale in it. Being apart is more torture than Crowley has ever inflicted on anyone, and he has zero desire to experience anything like it again, which has only increased the pressure of his need to find a solution, and an divinely aqueous one seems his best bet.

He doesn’t bring it up with Aziraphale. That particular conversation went up in flames, or down in them, depending on your perspective, Crowley supposes, and he’s not about to give up their lunch dates and evenings spent lingering over glasses of wine in posh restaurants in the first few decades that he has got them back. Luckily for Crowley the same reunion that returned him to the side of his angelic companion suggests the answer to his particular Hellish difficulty, if he can figure out how to do it.

He gives it a few decades. Aziraphale seems relieved at their reunion, so glowing with incandescent joy that Crowley sometimes, in his weaker moments, tells himself that Aziraphale is as happy in their renewed friendship as he is. It’s an indulgence, and not one Crowley is at all sure he ought to be allowing himself, but he is of the opinion that one should act first and ask forgiveness later, or not at all, if it can be managed. So he spends afternoons in the bookshop, and evenings in the streets of Soho, and if Aziraphale is less enchanted with Crowley’s car than Crowley might wish he can still be drawn into it by the promise of a rapid transport to a restaurant, or a café, or some other charming venue that Crowley happened to stumble upon in the hours he spends searching for exactly the right temptation to offer to Aziraphale’s sweet tooth. They see each other increasingly often, several times a year and often multiple outings in the same month, and once the humans grow tired of dropping bombs on each other and retire to strained peace again Crowley rents out a flat for himself so he can have a base of operations where Aziraphale can casually drop by, if he ever feels the desire to and if Crowley ever gets the nerve to invite him over.

It’s a nice place. Crowley spends very little time there, except to sleep in the absolute darkness in which he has wrapped the bedroom, but he keeps it well-decorated, according to the latest fashions as much as his own personal preferences. His commissioned statue takes a place of pride, at the end of the hall where Crowley can see it from the room intended as a dining space and which he has made into a sort of lounge in which he can sprawl dramatically over the elaborate chair that is the only piece of furniture in the room. And around the corner from the lounge are the shelves of houseplants, verdant and green as the leaves Crowley remembers on a particular tree from a very, very long time ago.

Crowley doesn’t enjoy gardening, exactly. He is a demon, fundamentally, whose greatest pleasures are meant to be in temptation and corruption, and there’s not a great deal of leverage to be gained in negotiating for the soul of a flourishing peace lily. But it’s soothing, in a way, to arm himself with a watering can and a plant-mister and to pace up and down the space between the expansive greenery as he stares unseeing at glossy leaves and contemplates his most reasonable path forward.

He needs holy water. It’s not for himself, any more now than it was when he first asked it from Aziraphale, just after a possibility of discovery was narrowly thwarted back into the dull disinterest that Crowley is so willing to thrive on from Hell. But the humans found a solution for their strife through an absurd, appalling increase in firepower, and Crowley isn’t above winning his personal arms race as thoroughly. Hell will come for him one day, this century or the next; and when they do he wants to have an answer on hand sufficient to stifle any protest they might want to make regarding his choices.

He could get it from a church. It would barely be a struggle; he can hardly waltz in in the middle of a sermon and splash some of the water into a cup like borrowing a bit of sugar from a neighbor, but churches are not known for being particularly concerned with thieves, and Crowley never met a lock he couldn’t get along with, mostly by willing it summarily out of existence entirely. He has the means, well enough; even the possible uproar that might result from a priest glimpsing a shadowy figure with glowing yellow eyes can be dealt with, if it comes to that.

The biggest problem is in the water itself, and the dangers that it poses to every atom of Crowley’s existence. Crowley wants to get his hands on holy water, preferably sooner rather than too-late-later, but his desires tend strictly in the figurative sense, in this case. In a very immediate way, he would like to keep the stuff as distant from himself as he can manage while still maintaining it between himself and approximately every other denizen of the Hell he ostensibly serves. The possibility of acquiring it himself is a real one, and Crowley can think of an easy dozen ways in which it could go horribly awry without even straining. Aziraphale would be a perfect conduit, someone who understands the danger to Crowley and has the means of conveying the stuff with no risk to himself; and Crowley retrieves the rogue thought, frowns at it hard enough to put the fear of Hell into it, and stuffs it back into the heap of rejects from which it continues to wiggle free. It’s vital that he get his hands on holy water, the sooner the better, but he has no intention of doing so at the cost of exactly that relationship he is trying to protect with these efforts in the first place.

So. Aziraphale is out, however frequently he may drift through Crowley’s pathologically disobedient thoughts. Crowley needs someone else, some other agent that he can persuade to work for him; happily, persuasion is easiest when done with a handful of bills, and Crowley has no shortage at all of those. He sprays the luxurious leaves of the plants in front of him, coating each in a fine dusting of perfectly harmless liquid while he contemplates the mechanics of obtaining the far more deadly substance he requires. It’ll have to be a break-in, late at night when they will be unlikely to run into any churchgoers and be forced to deal with the complications that would cause. He’ll need a team, for style as much as anything else; there’s no point in planning a heist without a solid quartet, obviously, which will require a trio on the ground in addition to his oversight. That’ll be enough to get them through the door, at least; from there they’ll be accomplices, and far easier to persuade into what Crowley wants of them, however unconventional his tastes may appear upon being revealed. They can think whatever they like, so long as they take his money; and Crowley is sure he has enough of that to persuade anyone’s hand to turn up in acceptance of his offer.

His jaw sets itself, his head nods with all the decisiveness of a gavel coming down. It’s a good plan; or, better, a plan he can achieve, which is better than the truly excellent ideas rendered useless by Aziraphale’s unwillingness. Crowley gets his weapon, his compatriots get money, Hell gets an extra layer of tarnish on a handful of souls; and Aziraphale retains the ignorance that keeps his eyes so bright and his smile so soft. Crowley gazes at the glistening water on the leaves of the plant in front of him, feeling his heart ache with an emotion utterly distinct from the satisfaction he ought to be feeling at this resolution, before he turns to carry away the spray bottle and leave his doubts to drag heavy in his wake.

Crowley’s not going to let anything stand between him and his angel, not if he has to face down the massed incompetence of Hell single-handedly. After all, if there’s anything he’s good at, it’s disobedience.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale doesn’t always have company when he goes out into the city. It may be true that Crowley materializes himself along the street running in front of the bookshop with increasing regularity, sometimes not even bothering with the front door at all before simply manifesting in the back room like a messenger bearing...well, not good tidings, probably. Dinner plans, though, he has in abundance, and Aziraphale is always a very willing recipient of those, and more so since their reunion. He tries not to linger too long on his latest epiphany -- angels may be creatures of love, but he rather doubts that demons are the intended recipient of such -- but in the last decades he has rediscovered the singular truth that avoiding thinking about a feeling does not, in fact, cause it to cease to be. So he does his best to occupy himself with other things during the majority of the time, when Crowley isn’t around, and doesn’t look terribly closely at the glow of affection that brings the whole world into such stunning clarity when he is.

Aziraphale is very good at occupying himself, at least. He’s collected several favorite indulgences over the last millenia he has spent on Earth, and while some of those have gone tragically out of style he always has a few he can fall back on. Music is a favorite, as are the piles of books with which he barricades himself against the danger of an actual customer arriving, and when the noon hour bustles its way into his attention he is always very pleased to turn over the sign at the shop to Closed (if he remembered to switch it to Open in the first place) and take himself out into the city in pursuit of some delicious treat.

There are many places he can go. When Crowley is with him they tend to frequent the more upscale establishments, or those that are particularly well-known for some or another human-made miracle they have worked on fundamental foodstuffs to make them into exquisite experiences. Left to his own devices, however, Aziraphale can be just as content with an oven-hot scone from the bakery around the corner as with an artistic confection of syrup and sugar, and when he gets a craving for chips they are often better wrapped in paper than served on the expanse of a white plate. Today he’s thinking about sandwiches, with a particular variety of dark bread that is freshest and sweetest at the café a few blocks away, and he hums a bit of music to himself as he walks with his steps falling in time with the rhythm playing itself out in his head.

The café is busier than it often is, with a line for the front counter that stretches nearly to the entrance to the shop. Aziraphale’s tuneful accompaniment breaks off in the mental equivalent of a record scratch; his smile slips to a crease at his forehead as he considers the people arrayed before him. Perhaps it would be better to return back the way he came to make do at the bakery, or continue farther along the street to investigate the newest restaurant that has opened up and is doing so well. Aziraphale is caught by indecision for a moment, appetite debating with impatience; and then he catches a murmur of scent in the air, the sweet, rich flavor of a loaf of bread just out of the oven, and he decides that he might as well wait it out. The line is likely to be just as bad anywhere else he goes, which is to say anywhere with food worth eating, and besides he’s an immortal being, with all of eternity at his disposal. A few minutes waiting for his lunch is no time at all, hardly worth noting. Aziraphale steps to the side of the café to take up his position at the end of the queue, comforted by his situation into beatific patience as he he waits for his turn at the register.

There is plenty with which to amuse himself. The bread does smell good, tasty enough to be worth savoring all on its own without anything else to hold Aziraphale’s attention, but the café is full of people, a few eating at the small tables along the wall and most waiting in line ahead of Aziraphale. They have various expressions of patience or a rather complete lack thereof; Aziraphale takes the opportunity to provide a bit of heavenly grace to a harried-looking mother with an infant who miraculously ceases crying as soon as he comes in the door, and some assistance to what looks like a student digging through his pockets for loose change to cover his meal. He appears rather surprised when one of his reaching hands comes back heavy with coins as shiny as if newly-minted, but he doesn’t complain about this windfall, and Aziraphale turns his attention farther down the line. No one else appears to be obviously struggling, with currency or children either one, and he lets his attention drift back to the menu printed over the front register while he contemplates the infinite array of options that may see fit to fill the space between two slices of bread.

“I don’t trust ‘im.” The voice is a woman’s, speaking loudly enough that she pulls Aziraphale’s attention to her. She and the man to whom she is speaking are two spots farther along in the line from where he is placed, but her voice cuts clear over the burble of conversation lapping less-than-gently against the walls of the café. “Why’s he got to have a whole team for this anyway?”

The man standing next to her shrugs. He is less snappily put-together than the woman next to him but makes up for his lack of fashion sense with the breadth of his shoulders and a heavy brow that casts his expression into looming threat that Aziraphale would guess serves very well for some professions, namely those that involve a threat of force with the muscle to thoroughly back it up. “Dunno. Doesn’t really matter in any case, does it? So long’s he pays up, I got no problems breaking into a church.”

Aziraphale’s attention, which was before simply doing a comparative study of the relative distraction offered by the various subjects in the room, promptly drops all other possible focal points and remakes itself into an investigator skilled in the art of collecting information via eavesdropping. Aziraphale turns himself in the queue, pivoting to stare with great apparent focus at the wall some inches away from the bulletin board of information posted by the door, while he listens with far keener attention to the conversation happening ahead of him. Luckily neither of the two involved notice his focus, or perhaps are too well-hardened to care who overhears their criminal plans, because they continue speaking without lowering their voices at all.

If he pays up.” That’s the woman again, sounding somewhat petulant and deeply suspicious. “I’m just saying he don’t look like the kind to care much about follow-up.”

“Yeah, but he dresses nice,” the man points out. “He’s got money. And if he’s going to hand it over for something this easy, I’m not going to turn him down.”

“So long as he gives it to us first,” the woman says. There’s a pause at this brief ceasefire in the conversation; then she resumes, in a voice ostensibly lower but that Aziraphale can still pick out clearly, thanks primarily to the hiss of intrigue on the words. “Hey, what d’you think he wants out of there anyway?”

The man makes a sound that speaks eloquently to his lack of interest in the question. “Who cares? He wants us to break into a church, fine. If the money’s good enough I’ll steal the stained glass for him to take home and put up.”

“Yeah,” the woman says, and then after another moment, more warmly: “It all feels a bit wicked, doesn’t it? Breaking into a church in the dead of night. Like we’re making a deal with a devil, or something.”

“Maybe we are,” the man says, sounding remarkably unconcerned about this possibility. “Maybe that’s why he wears those sunglasses, you know. To cover his infernal gaze, or something.”

“Ooo,” the girl breathes. “That’s cool.” Another pause as they both consider this possibility. “Should we be worried?”

“Who cares?” the man says. “He pays up, we get an easy job. It’s all the same to me. Demon, fairy, whatever, so long as his money’s good.”

The woman laughs. “Good enough to spend’s good enough for me,” she says.

“Excuse me.” Aziraphale finds himself rather forcibly returned to the present as much by the ungentle poke of a cane prodding curiously at his ankles as by the voice, this one from behind him instead of ahead. He looks around, blinking hard to return himself to the present, to find himself at the head of a second line, this one some feet back from the trailing end of the one that has continued up towards the register. The couple to whom he has been so intently listening are nearly to the counter and have turned their joint attention from matters of crime to those of lunch; there are a half-dozen people in the queue behind Aziraphale, two of them standing in the held-open doorway and all six of them frowning at him. The nearest, an elderly woman with more strength in the swing of her cane than her frail form would indicate, appears ready to resume her barrage at a moment’s notice. “Are you intending to read the advertisements all day?”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. “Ah. No. Sorry.” He attempts a smile, which is soundly rebuffed by the elderly woman’s deep-set scowl, before turning away to hurry forward over the intervening distance. Behind him the queue comes forward and the door is allowed to swing shut, but Aziraphale hears it no more than he picks up on the barely-muffled grumbling of those trailing in his wake. His attention is fully elsewhere, so far distant that even the drifting scent of the next round of bread baking proves insufficient to lull him from his daze.

He has no idea what he orders when it is his turn at the counter, only that it takes him long enough to invoke another susurrus of irritation from those held up behind him, and that when it arrives it is only the force of habit that enables him to unwrap it instead of attempting to consume the paper wrapper along with the sandwich within. His thoughts are entirely elsewhere, following the pair whose conversation he overheard to such effect as they eat their lunch at a table on the other side of the café before vanishing out into the crowd on the street. They don’t return to their earlier subject, no matter how carefully Aziraphale listens, but he doesn’t require the confirmation anyway. He is certain of their employer’s identity as much from his own intuition as their brief but evocative description; and if they don’t know what they are looking for, Aziraphale knows all too well exactly what Crowley would be taking from a church.

Chapter Text

Crowley’s feeling quite accomplished by the time he’s making his way across the night-dark street to where his Bentley is waiting, darkly shining and as untouched now as he finds it to be no matter where he leaves it. This is due as much to the sheer force of his expectations as anything else, but Crowley isn’t thinking about that; for once, he’s not even thinking about the pleasant purr of the engine waiting for him, or the enjoyment that he will be able to find in speeding through the night-dark streets that lay themselves between his present location and the fashionable, cool emptiness of the flat waiting for him at the other end of this favorite indulgence. His thoughts are entirely occupied by the events of the evening, and his optimism for the future, made rather brighter by the unexpected bonus he received at the end of negotiations.

He would have been happy just with the holy water heist, if he’s honest. Lance-Corporal Shadwell, as he prefers, may prove helpful at some point in the future, and Crowley is never one to turn down a willing offer of support, least of all when it comes completely untethered by the strings of temptation. But even the tantalizingly vague offer of an undercover army set to do his demonic bidding isn’t enough to hold his attention for more than a few steps, and by the time he’s pulling open the door of the car so he can swing himself in he’s thinking of his scheme again, working over the steps he’s polished smooth by repetition against the gravel of his mind. It’s a simple plan, perhaps lacking in some measure of elegance; but under the circumstances Crowley would really prefer predictable to flashy. It’s a deviation from his usual, to be sure, but he’s quite happy with his eternal existence, however much torment he is supposedly meant to be suffering, and he has every intention of keeping himself alive for the foreseeable future, and well beyond that too, if he has his way.

He’s not looking for an interruption, not expecting anyone to be waiting for him. There was certainly no one in the Bentley as he came across the street; Crowley thinks he would have been able to sense such an intrusion like a touch at the back of his neck just from the audacious intimacy of it. But there’s a flicker out of the corner of his eye as he pulls the door of the car shut again behind him, an illumination he can taste at the back of his tongue as well as he can see it, and when the hairs at his skin prickle with adrenaline the imagined fingers against his collar are of a very different variety than a stranger’s would be. Crowley turns, recognition opening its arms wide even before his vision has a chance to catch up; and there Aziraphale is, sitting on the far side of Crowley’s Bentley with his hands folded carefully in his lap and his expression set on such determined reserve that he barely lets his gaze flicker over the shine of Crowley’s jacket before he’s turning to look away at the crowd on the street again.

Crowley never gets tired of seeing Aziraphale in his car. It’s always before been a struggle to get the angel into the passenger seat; Crowley has driven him near to outright rudeness in Aziraphale’s determination to refuse to ever ride in what he refers to as a ‘deathtrap,’ on his more polite days. It’s a pleasure to see him in any case, one that Crowley rather thinks has been burnished to a greater shine by the passing of time rather than dimmed by it; to have him where he is, and with such little fanfare for his appearance, is enough to topple all the walls of Crowley’s practiced self-restraint at a single breath. When he speaks all the carefully-honed edge is gone from his voice and his words have all the threat of a comfortable armchair and a crackling fireplace. “What are you doing here?”

Aziraphale does not appear comforted by the welcome mat Crowley’s voice has decided to lay out for him. He is in fact hardly looking at Crowley at all; he seems fascinated by the crowd outside, although his attention is skipping from person to person with nearly as much nervous energy as his fingers flexing and shifting against each other. “Needed a word with you.”

Crowley waits for this word. When it fails to arrive as scheduled he lifts an eyebrow and musters still greater encouragement. “What?”

Aziraphale’s gaze flickers to Crowley’s face, although he keeps his head fixed firmly forward to provide plausible deniability regarding the subject of his attention. Crowley watches his lashes flutter, watches his shoulders shift with the breath he draws to steady himself. “I work in Soho, I hear things.” He sounds like he’s forcing himself into a practiced recitation, like the words are sticking nervously in his throat and only emerging after a great deal of violent prodding can induce the next cluster to stumble forward. “I hear that you are setting up a...caper…to rob a church.”

Aziraphale turns to look at him. Crowley turns away immediately, before he can think of a better response than outright avoidance of this subject. But he’s not about to run away from Aziraphale, not after the last time this conversation led to such a century-long catastrophe, and Aziraphale is still looking at him. Crowley can feel the soft of the other’s attention on him even without turning his head to meet it full-on. He thinks he might melt on the spot if he were to face Aziraphale directly at the moment, and he has no response to offer but silence that is damning enough all in itself to topple him into another Fall, as if he needs any more of those in his existence.

Aziraphale doesn’t wait for the reply that Crowley has no intention of giving. He leans in, tipping forward as if to add the weight of his physical form to the low intensity in his words. Crowley can feel them like temptation humming directly into his veins, as if every atom in his existence is trying to wrench itself into submission to the pleading in Aziraphale’s tone. “Crowley, it’s too dangerous.” His voice is almost trembling with the force of the words. Crowley grits his teeth and focuses on holding firm against the persuasion Aziraphale wields so casually against him, as if there is anything more dangerous to him and his good sense than what the other offers simply by his existence. “Holy water wouldn’t just kill your body, it will destroy you completely.”

Crowley braces himself for resistance, drawing on every fragment of rebellion that has knitted itself into him to fix his shoulders and harden his voice as he turns to look at Aziraphale’s wide-eyed gaze from behind the minimal protection offered by his dark glasses. “You told me what you think. A hundred and five years ago.”

“And I haven’t changed my mind,” Aziraphale says, the words coming fast as if they are trying to push into a headwind. “But I can’t have you risking your life.”

Crowley looks away out the window again. He doesn’t want to have this fight again, didn’t want to have it in the first place and wants it even less now that he’s experienced the loneliness that followed in the century of separation that resulted from their initial discussion. He can’t give Aziraphale up again; but he can’t stay without this failsafe protection, either, not when the agents of Hell could be upon him at a moment’s notice to call due the debts he’s been accumulating for millenia. He wonders if he has the willpower to lie to Aziraphale about this, wonders if Aziraphale would ever forgive him for doing so; he’s still wondering when Aziraphale takes a breath and goes on speaking.

“So…” He shifts in his seat. In his periphery Crowley can see Aziraphale turning to fuss with something alongside the passenger seat before he turns back. There’s a Thermos flask in his hands, braced perfectly upright by a divinely delicate hold. “You can call off the robbery.”

Crowley’s attention swings around to fix entirely on the flask held so carefully in Aziraphale’s hands. His mind takes in the implication of the other’s words, the tremor in his voice, the faint shiver at the fingers braced to such absolute care against the sides of the Thermos, and leaps ahead to an outrageous, insane, unbelievable conclusion. It can’t be, there is no way, not after all this time -- but Aziraphale is holding the Thermos with the utmost care, and his eyes are cast down to watch the container instead of Crowley’s face, and Crowley knows too well what a guilty conscience looks like to mistake the set of Aziraphale’s tight mouth for anything else.

Aziraphale swallows. Crowley can hear the motion work in his throat. His hands shift very slightly against the Thermos as he keeps it extended over the midpoint of the car. “Don’t go unscrewing the cap.”

Crowley stares. He has spent decades searching for this, longing for it, struggling to find a path to claim the one thing that might, someday, grant him the freedom he has dreamed of ever since he saw an angel’s uncertainty crack into a laugh as bright as sunlight against his scales. And now that same angel is sitting in his car, offering the key to Crowley’s liberation in a tartan Thermos flask. For a moment Crowley’s fingers itch to reach out, to press his hands to the matching pattern at Aziraphale’s tie, to curl his palm into the downy curls of Aziraphale’s hair and cup his mouth against the other’s, to finally taste the temptation that was placed in front of him at the start of everything; but the flask is between them, held aloft like the wall of the Garden, and even Crowley isn’t so desperate as to take any risks at all with what is within. He reaches out for the Thermos instead, skimming the very tips of his fingers against the simple pattern like he’s testing a pan for heat before he tightens his grip to lift it from Aziraphale’s hold. It feels perfectly ordinary, like it could be filled with steaming tea instead of the equivalent of a nuclear bomb to those of a demonic persuasion. Crowley stares at it for a moment, turning the flask against his grip before looking up to Aziraphale, whose attention is locked at the Thermos in Crowley’s hands like he’s willing it into submission. “It’s the real thing?”

Aziraphale’s throat shifts on another swallow before he pulls his gaze back up to meet Crowley’s. His eyes are endless in the shadows. Crowley has never seen him look so serious in all the years they have known each other. When he speaks it’s in the whisper of a man in church. “The holiest.”

Crowley looks back to the Thermos in his hands. He half-expects it to dematerialize on the spot; but it remains firm, solid and heavy with its deadly burden. It must be filled almost entirely to the top. He doesn’t know what to say. He looks back. “After everything you said.”

Aziraphale’s mouth is pressing hard together. He nods, as if to replace the words he can’t or won’t let himself say with the jerky gesture. Crowley gazes at him for a moment, at the familiar details of the other’s profile cast into red and yellow by the neon lights outside, before returning to the impossibility in his hands. He struggles for speech, reaching for something to offer the ringing silence before he falls back to his favorite near-sarcasm to mask some part of the painful sincerity in the words. “Should I say thank you?”

Aziraphale’s eyes flicker over Crowley, coming up from the Thermos in his hands to touch his shoulder, brush at his hair, whisper along his jaw before they lose their nerve and pull free into a retreat again. “Better not.”

Crowley looks out the window. The city is still bustling around them, undeterred by the shadows of the evening that has wrapped itself around London like a blanket. It seems absurd that the world is still turning, that life is still traipsing lightly forward when Crowley’s own has stuttered to such a complete halt. He blinks hard and makes a valiant effort at coaxing the engine of his perpetual existence back into motion. “Can I...drop you anywhere?”

It’s almost an invitation. It would be, if Crowley were a braver creature, if he didn’t have the inertia of six thousand years of hesitation fixing him in place, if he weren’t holding a tartan Thermos full of the single most dangerous substance to his continued existence. But instead it’s no more than a suggestion, a not-quite implication edging into the space of the unspoken treaty between them, and Aziraphale responds before Crowley can think to offer a more persuasive argument.

“No,” he says. His mouth produces a store-bought smile that clashes terribly with the shadows in the gaze with which he is looking at everything just around Crowley’s periphery. “Thank you.” Crowley blinks, more hurt by the forced politeness than by the refusal, and Aziraphale looks back up to him as if he can’t bear to keep away. “Oh, don’t look so disappointed. Perhaps one day we could...I don’t know. Go for a picnic.” His expression softens, his eyes finding the shape of some imagined future for them together before he looks back to smile at Crowley. “Dine at the Ritz.”

Crowley can’t keep looking at Aziraphale next to him. The car is too small, his thoughts are too scattered; after all his centuries of practice he can’t even find a veneer of sarcasm for his words as he looks out the window to struggle for something, anything, to keep Aziraphale next to him for the night, for the decade, forever. “I’ll give you a lift. Anywhere you want to go.” He looks back to Aziraphale, desperate for something to offer to express his gratitude, his affection, his -- but Aziraphale is watching his face, his eyes dark and his mouth soft, and for a moment Crowley can see the pain in his chest mirrored in Aziraphale’s expression, and words die along with his breath.

They are both silent for a moment. Crowley is struck dumb by the look on Aziraphale’s face, by the tremor at his mouth and the want in his eyes, and if he were a better demon he might press the advantage, might seize the opening Aziraphale has left for him. But he’s only himself, the same as he has always been, as Aziraphale has always seen him, and all he can do is stare as Aziraphale struggles himself into words to voice the answer his eyes are already speaking for him with perfect clarity.

“You go too fast for me, Crowley.” His gaze flickers across Crowley’s face, touching to the shape of the other’s mouth as if to stand secondhand for the desire he won’t let himself act on; and then he’s turning to pull open the door of the car and step out into the crowd on the street.

Crowley is left in the Bentley, gazing out as the glow of Aziraphale’s presence flickers and vanishes into the blur of people outside. It’s only when the familiar weight of loneliness has settled itself back over his shoulders that he turns back to the flask in his hands. It’s perfectly smooth, with the lid fastened down on what he is sure is a divinely perfect seal; he makes no effort to try it, doesn’t in fact let his thumbs anywhere near the handle of the cup that is locked into place over the contents. He just shapes his hands around the weight, pressing his palms to the pattern against it and imagining warmth radiating from the tartan under his fingertips.

Chapter Text

The next decades are some of the nicest Crowley has ever had. He likes the 20th century, he decided almost as soon as it broke upon them, the music and the fashion and very, especially, the cars. Getting hands on his Bentley was such a stupendous experience that he half-expected Hell to turn up to confiscate the beautiful sleek thing on principle that demons shouldn’t be supposed to have a good time while they’re doing tempting, it’s right there in the handbook beneath the censored dress code and before the alarm codes that are never used, primarily because no one is ever in a hurry to break into Hell as much as the other way around. But Hell stayed quiet, except for the occasional congratulations on the wars that Crowley claims credit for in spite of maintaining as much of a distance from them as he manage while still keeping tabs on his angelic companion, and after Aziraphale’s gift even his lingering fears of retribution are allayed. The whole of eternity stretches out before him, promising endless asphalt under the tires of his car and the constant invention of human ingenuity for amusement and long, lingering evenings across a table from the most fixed point in all of Crowley’s lengthy existence, and for a time Crowley drifts towards something very nearly like optimism.

He is brought down from these heights as one usually is, instantly and without mercy. He doesn’t look forward to the decreed meeting with Hastur and Ligur and he enjoys it significantly less than he was already expecting not to. For the first hour after receiving his assignment to deliver the Antichrist Crowley is caught in the grip of pure, unfettered panic that gibbers at him to do something, change fate, take action while his body moves on the autopilot that took the place of the grace he Fell from all that eternity ago. The Apocalypse is coming: rather, the Apocalypse is here, whimpering in a basket in the back of a car that has never been nearer to an infant than the dozen feet or so Crowley deems safe. Crowley drives white-knuckled, his panic-blinded gaze fixed out his window with no attention to the various obstacles that present themselves in front of him; when he bothers to think of them he finds himself almost hoping for a collision, for the solution to his present problem that an accident would bring even at the cost of his own discorporation. But his survival instinct is too strong, too well-trained to actually push him into unavoidable danger however much his wandering thoughts may suggest it, and it bears him forward along the road, skidding across the pavement and out of the car to deliver the wailing infant to the waiting hands of the nuns who will see to it that the end times begin, well, on time.

Crowley doesn’t remember to start breathing again until he’s some minutes out from the nunnery, with the darkness of the night wrapping his car almost as deeply as bleak horror has wrapped his thoughts. The Apocalypse is begun, set off by the deposit of a child who will destroy everything that Crowley has been thoroughly enjoying for the last millenia; with the existence of the world now measured in a matter of years, Crowley can feel every second ticking past like a bell tolling in the back of his head. Everywhere he looks there are things to be lost: cars, trees, the flicker of city lights and the hum of music and the comfortable sleek of the clothes he’s wearing against the body that will be taken from him as soon as there is an end to the earthly affairs in which he has been meddling, due to the destruction of the Earth itself. This is worse than the wars, worse than the Flood: this is a complete loss, of the world and of humans and of--

Crowley hisses. It’s been a long time since he gave in to that particular impulse but the blow of the realization hits him too sharply for him to recall his tongue to anything but the serpentine curl it takes on when his attention gives way. Cell phones, red wine, coffee shops, hummingbirds, those Crowley will miss; the thought of losing the Bentley is a greater blow, one he has to grit his teeth to brace himself against. But the war will return him to Hell, will pit him against the forces of the divine, and in the thought of Aziraphale something in Crowley snaps. He can give up the world, can lose all those comforts on which he has come to rely, has learned to take for granted; but there is no reality in which he will let anyone, Heaven or Hell alike, take Aziraphale away from him. The Antichrist might be on Earth, might even now be wailing in his adoptive mother’s arms; but Crowley has never been one for blindly following orders, and he’s damned if he’s going to start now. He tightens his grip on the steering wheel, flexes his jaw on tension, and bites off a command to his car phone.

“Call Aziraphale.”

“Calling Aziraphale,” the carphone replies, with an automated calm that seems completely inappropriate under the circumstances of impending doom. Crowley stares at the road in front of him, frowning into the darkness while he waits for the sound of the phone connecting. He has no solution in mind, no answer to his present predicament; but his mind is churning, turning over possibilities like rocks in the hopes of startling some brilliant idea into motion, and in the meantime he can think of nothing in all the universe that he wants more than to hear Aziraphale’s voice. He’ll be in the bookshop at this hour, probably just coming back from finishing dinner, he’ll--

“Sorry,” the carphone says, and Crowley’s attention jerks up with heat enough that he privately feels the device ought to melt to silence on the spot. It continues, however, its electronic politeness utterly unfazed by his stress. “All lines to London are currently busy.”

Crowley groans at this reminder of his own success earlier in the night. Of course it would be tonight, when he finally managed to implement the project he’s been tinkering with for months. That’s just Hellish, to give him a burst of inspiration just in time to trip himself up when time is more of the essence than it has ever before been in the whole of his existence. He glares at the empty road in front of him as his carphone goes on apologizing, looking for the nearest sign of human habitation and trying to recall when he last saw a phone box this century.

It’s almost an hour later that he is pulling open the door to a bright red box. He had to ask for directions twice, and the knowledge that his snappishness is directly contributing to the general bad mood he has imposed on the city is no comfort to him in the moment at all. He sets out to cause problems, not to get caught up in them, but it seems Murphy’s Law is in full effect on a metaphysical scale tonight, and all Crowley’s accumulated misdeeds are coming ‘round to land on him at once. By the time he sees the phone box it feels like glimpsing an oasis in the desert, such an impossible relief that Crowley isn’t sure until he actually has his hand on the door that it won’t melt away in front of his eyes. It holds itself intact, however, retaining its form as Crowley steps into it and reaches for the phone hanging on the receiver with so much latent expectation that the machine gives up its usual demand for payment as soon as it considers it, and in fact obediently dials the number to the bookshop unprompted by anything more substantial than Crowley’s frown at the keypad.

Crowley leans against the side of the phone box as he listens to the jangle of the phone ringing against his ear. It was late by the time he met up with his ostensible colleagues at the graveyard, and later still after he made his infernal deposit at the nunnery; by now it’s well past any reasonable hour, into the span of the night that is better suited for Crowley’s people than Aziraphale’s. But Aziraphale is always awake, having never taken to sleep with the same verve that Crowley adopted the habit, and Crowley is less surprised than expectant when the phone picks up after no more than a pair of rings on the other end.

Aziraphale’s voice when he answers is pleasant, and polite, and as unflinching as a brick wall. “I’m afraid we’re quite definitely closed.”

He sounds a breath away from returning the phone to its cradle and severing the call, no matter what persuasion may be offered by this absurdly late customer, so Crowley offers the most compelling argument he can in the form of his own voice. “Aziraphale. It’s me.” Aziraphale catches a soft breath against the receiver on his end of the line; Crowley can almost see the polite smile melt away from his lips. He glances out to the shadows around him, rather belatedly thinking of eavesdroppers, but there is no one, nothing but the weight of one of the last few thousand nights the Earth has left. “We need to talk.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, in a tone that says he entirely understands and isn’t terribly pleased with the prospect. “Yes, I rather think we do.” He draws a careful breath. “I assume this is about…”

“Armageddon,” Crowley says, staring out into the tapestry of night. “Yes.” He drops the phone back into the cradle, appreciating the click as he cuts off his statement with dramatic flair and turns back to return to the waiting Bentley.

He makes it perhaps three steps before the phone rings in the box behind him. Crowley pauses, staring at the car while thinking about the phone, and then grimaces in realization and turns around to pick the receiver back up.

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says as soon as Crowley has the phone to his ear. “Where should we--”

“The usual place,” Crowley says. “Tomorrow.” His mind does a quick calculation and offers the first useful suggestion it has mustered since the infant’s arrival. “Just before lunch.”

“Very well,” Aziraphale says. “I’ll see you then. Have a good night.” He pauses. “Well. I mean--”

“I know what you mean,” Crowley tells him. “Night.” Aziraphale huffs a breath so soft and warm that Crowley can see the self-conscious smile that goes with it, and then he hangs up before Crowley’s newfound sense of mortality can suggest that he speak now, that he should make the most of the time he has left, that they might not have many more chances. Crowley stands in the phone box for a moment, staring at the keypad before him and holding the phone to his ear, before he reaches out to hang up decisively enough that the machine clatters protest at this abuse until he glares it into silence.

“It’s not the last chance,” he tells the payphone. “This isn’t the end of it. I won’t let it be the end.” He lifts his hand from the phone, although he goes on glaring for a moment; and then he turns on his heel to return to his car so he can drive unseeing through the roads to take him back to London, and what salvation he can seize for himself.

Chapter Text

Crowley is not doing as well with his persuasion as he was hoping he would.

He gave up any hope of sleep the night before in exchange for several hours spent pacing around his flat with an intensity that would have ruined the night of his downstairs neighbors, if he had anyone residing below him. As it is the only person disrupted is himself, and that more by the thoughts that refuse to focus than his unceasing motion through the space. He makes list after list, scrawling ideas on his desk when he walks past it and engraving them to smolder in the air when he’s in a different room, until he has a whole library of possible temptations hanging around him. He knows what he wants to achieve, has his next step clearly in mind, and is now focused on it with all the attention that comes with having absolutely no idea what he’s going to do after that.

He needs to get Aziraphale to work with him, to break with Heaven’s plan for an all-out war and ally himself with Crowley instead. It’s a far cry from the minor favors they’ve done for each other over the centuries, passed back and forth so many times Crowley is certain they have both lost count, but Crowley thinks if anyone can succeed in this temptation it’s him. He has thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, trivia on every aspect of Aziraphale’s indulgences collected over the span of dozens of centuries, and if this wasn’t exactly the use to which he had intended to put it this is far more vital than the gifts and coincidental meetings that he has been crafting up till now. Crowley knows how temptation works, knows how to lay out an argument with such care that his target can’t see any path forward but the gently sloping road Crowley is paving for them, and Crowley has never cared more about any temptation than he does about this one.

Unfortunately Aziraphale seems to have spent the night building up his resistance to demonic influences, or at least to Crowley’s. Crowley has attempted teasing, threats, and outright flirtation; has suggested the loss of art, of food, of social niceties. He has even gone so far as to draw in Aziraphale’s bookshop, a blow that he would consider low if it weren’t miles above the depths to which he is capable of sinking; and Aziraphale has frowned, and huffed, and remained resolutely determined to resist at every turn.

Crowley is beginning to feel rather desperate. His entire plan hinges on this first point, primarily because he hasn’t yet decided what the second step will be; he can’t see any way to stop the inevitable if he doesn’t have Aziraphale with him, can’t see any point in even making the effort alone. All the cafés and concerts and gardens are nothing without Aziraphale there; Crowley must persuade him, no matter what it takes to achieve it. But his anxiety is spiking higher as they move to leave the park, with Aziraphale frowning resistance in Crowley’s wake, and his arguments are going rather threadbare as he attempts to rally for a second assault.

“We’ve only got eleven years,” he says, speaking over his shoulder so he can keep his attention on the subject at hand instead of getting sidetracked by the crease between Aziraphale’s brows, and the set of his mouth, and the tension working his soft hands to tighten to a knot around each other. “Then it’s all over.” He risks a glance back, which persuades Aziraphale to frown up at him for a moment. Crowley makes a bid to look as pleading as he can, which is simply to say he looks at Aziraphale approximately the same way he always does. “We have to work together.”

Aziraphale turns aside, hissing over a sound that, for a brief moment, Crowley lets himself think might be the beginnings of surrender. Then his head jerks back into a shake, forced into obedience by his nature. “No.”

Crowley rolls his eyes upwards to glare a silent curse at Heaven, just in case the Almighty has some time to spare to notice him. “It’s the end of the world we’re talking about.” He makes another sally, veering into nostalgia this time for what benefit their shared history can grant him against the seemingly impenetrable wall of Aziraphale’s frown. “It’s not some little temptation I’ve asked you to cover for me while you’re up in Edinburgh for the festival, you can’t say no.”

Aziraphale grimaces without looking at Crowley’s face. “No.”

“We can do something,” Crowley pleads. “I have an idea.”

“No,” Aziraphale says, and stops dead in the middle of the sidewalk. “I am not. Interested.” His hands swing down, the gesture fixing him in his physical position as much as his stated opinion. He stands still for a minute, frowning at the edge of the sidewalk instead of looking to see Crowley, pulled up short by the other’s halt; then he turns, leaving Crowley with just the determined set of his shoulders as he begins to walk away.

Crowley feels gravity slip away from under his feet, as if the whole world is tilting sideways to dump him off of it and into the endless void of space itself. He knows how it feels to fall, is better acquainted with the nauseating jerk of support stripped from beneath him than he’d like to be; this feels like he’s on the lip of a truly endless descent, into a hell designed specifically to crush every ounce of pleasure from his life. The world is coming to an end, time is careening towards the Apocalypse with all the energy of a car with no driver at the wheel and a lead weight on the gas, and Aziraphale is walking away to leave Crowley for what could very well be the last time, what will be the last time in the span of a very short sequence of years. Crowley stares after the angel, his mouth dry and chest tight, before he finally reaches to seize on his last desperate effort.

“Well let’s have lunch.” It’s a transparent effort, stripped of all Crowley’s artifice and skill to sound exactly as anxious in his throat as it feels in his chest; but it’s the best he has to offer, a final blow against Aziraphale’s wall of resistance. Aziraphale pauses, hesitating over the possibility of a reprieve, but when he looks back there’s still distance in his eyes, the expectation of some greater persuasion in his gaze. Crowley, having just emptied the last of his reserves just to stop Aziraphale’s motion away, casts about wildly for another piece of flotsam to keep his head above water. “I still owe you one from…” as he turns to his memory to back him up, which of course promptly drops their whole history on the floor to scatter into the dusty corners of Crowley’s mind. Crowley grimaces and struggles to lay claim to specifics, to any single occasion enough to let him finish his sentence before it loses all force at all, but when the reply comes it’s in a gentler tone than his own, although one making a concerted effort towards irritation.

“Paris,” Aziraphale says, sounding nearly put out by his own offering, but his frustration is giving way as quickly as Crowley looks to him, the tension at his jaw softening as his gaze goes distant with nostalgia. “1793.”

Crowley’s smile takes its cue from relief and spreads itself wide across his face as his memory sits up from the floor holding the details called up by Aziraphale’s words. “Yes,” he purrs. Aziraphale turns back towards the car and Crowley moves around the front of it instead of doing what he wants to do, which is stand waiting until he can get a hold of Aziraphale’s hand and keep holding it, preferably for the next eleven years straight through. It won’t do to seem too desperate, though, even if he’s already dropped his hand all over the table between them, so he steps around to the driver-side door as if he’s not counting every step Aziraphale takes towards the other side as a personal victory. “The Reign of Terror.” Crowley looks out across the top of the Bentley to cock his head into an inquiry at Aziraphale. “Was that one of ours or one of yours?”

Aziraphale’s frown is one of consideration, now, as he draws level with Crowley on the other side of the Bentley. “Can’t recall.” His eyes widen, his mouth softens; when he turns to meet Crowley’s gaze it’s with the gift of a beaming smile curving over his lips. “We had crêpes.”

Crowley remembers; which is to say he has no memory whatsoever of the crêpes themselves, but he can call up every detail of Aziraphale’s tilted head as he leaned in for a bite, the dip of his lashes as he closed his eyes in blissful appreciation, the catch of his breath as he sighed satisfaction. If he tries very hard he can even remember a smudge of cream at the corner of the other’s mouth, allowed to linger there for a moment before Aziraphale discovered an enormous handkerchief in the pocket of his revolutionary garb and returned himself to his usual impeccable tidiness.

Crowley grins across the top of the car at Aziraphale. “Bet we can get something as good on this side of the Channel,” he says. “Let’s go to the Ritz, angel.” And he pulls open the door of his car so he can take Aziraphale to lunch.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is very drunk.

This is justified, he feels, by the unusual circumstances. It’s not every day he receives news of the arrival of the Antichrist and the impending Apocalypse he will bring in his wake; in fact, this is the first such experience he has had in all the uncountable span he has existed. He held himself together admirably during the first news of this yesterday -- it would be Gabriel who brought it, Bringer of So-Called Good Tidings himself -- and he feels he deserves some measure of leniency for his present indulgence. It’s only reasonable that he should wish to appreciate the benefits offered by an Earth that will rather shortly cease to exist as anything more than a dividing line for the two sides in the War, and whom he chooses to spend his evening with is, the several dozen empty bottles around him argue, none of Heaven’s business, actually.

Crowley is still on his feet, in spite of several hours’ concerted effort to bring him off them. Aziraphale collapsed into a chair some time ago, deciding that discretion is the better part of valor and that he would rather maintain the illusion of composure since reality has given its own up in favor of spinning in a gentle whirl around him, but Crowley is lurching around the bookshop as if his motion is driven on by the glasses of wine he has splashed alternately into his mouth and over the edge of the cup, depending on how erratic his motions are. Presently he’s called a truce with gravity, which Aziraphale can feel swaying to and fro beneath his chair, and dropped himself to lounge heavily against one of the pillars interspersed with the shelves around them so he can turn his attention to upending one of the nearly-empty bottles over his more-empty wineglass. Aziraphale watches him through the haze that has settled itself over his vision, his attention lingering at the sharp angle of the delicate bones in Crowley’s wrist as he pours the wine into his glass while he tries to balance himself backwards through the last few seconds of conversation.

“So what.” He pauses, blinks, squints to steady some of the sway of the room. “What exactly...is your point?”

Crowley reaches out to set the empty bottle down on the nearest available horizontal surface. It clinks against the several other similarly empty bottles having a gathering there. Aziraphale’s gaze follows the glass, his attention wandering into appreciation of the sweet heaviness lingering on his tongue, before Crowley straightens from the column against which he’s leaning with a flourish that demands the sum total of Aziraphale’s attention be offered to it. “My point is.” His feet shift to brace himself; his hips do something vaguely alarming, probably boneless, and entirely absorbing. Aziraphale brings his cup to his mouth to make a general attempt at replacing the moisture that has dried itself from his tongue with Crowley’s motion. “My point is.” The sibilant gets a bit away from him to hiss against his tongue. Aziraphale adjusts his swallow to down somewhat more of the wine.

“Dolphins,” Crowley says, and leans forward to beam smug satisfaction at Aziraphale. His glasses are somewhat askew and Aziraphale can see the glitter of gold behind the shadow of them. “That’s my point. Big brains.” His feet move out from under him, which produces a wave of motion that unwinds itself up the whole length of his body as he stumbles forward to collapse into the loveseat across from Aziraphale. His knees tip wide, his arm falls to the back of the furniture, and his fingers clutch at his glasses to strip them off entirely. Aziraphale is distantly impressed -- Crowley never takes his sunglasses off, not unless he’s impossibly intoxicated -- but mostly his attention is turned on the gold flame of the other’s eyes as Crowley leans far back to spill himself into a sprawl over Aziraphale’s furniture. “Size of...damn big brains.” He shakes his head. His hair turns to fire in the light. “Not to mention whales. Brain city, whales.”

Aziraphale has rather lost the thread of what they are talking about, now, but this is firmer ground, or firmer waters, anyway. “Kraken,” he declares. “Ooo, great big bugger.” Crowley slants his head to the side as he spills a mouthful of wine past his lips and works it around his tongue. His hand makes a general, unfocused effort to sweep the wave of his hair back from his face. Aziraphale keeps both his hands firmly around his wineglass to keep himself from reaching out to catch the vivid crimson at his fingers and stroke it back behind Crowley’s ear. He recalls himself back to his subject and smiles rather weakly. “Heh. Supposed to rise right to the surface right…” as recollection dampens his voice with regret, “Right up, at the end, when the sea boils.”

“Well,” Crowley says, and swings himself forward over the distance still remaining between them. “That’s my point. Whole sea bubbling, the...dolphins, the whales, every turning into bouillab. Bouillab.” His mouth softens, his lips coming together to claim the word from the air before him. Aziraphale’s mouth draws itself into an imitation of Crowley’s as he attempts to retrieve the word to offer as a gift from the haze of wine drifting around them. “Bouillab. Bouillabilly. Fish stew. Anyway. It’s not their fault.” Aziraphale gives up his futile attempt to fall back into his chair and return to his idle appreciation of Crowley building up a head of steam for himself. “And that’s...same with…” Crowley struggles for a moment, then finds his way again. “Eh, gorillas. They say like whoop, they say, look, the...sky gone red.” Aziraphale reaches to fumble over the clutter spread out over the desk next to him. An obliging bottle offers itself to the reach of his fingers, and by the time he brings it over the edge of his half-empty cup there is wine enough in it to deserve his full attention to the complex process of pouring.

Crowley is less than impressed by this maneuver, or perhaps just too caught up in his own narrative to pause for breath. “It’s a…” His words slur into unintelligibility for a moment, dropping into a sound that pulls Aziraphale’s attention up from his glass and to the shift of the other’s tongue instead. He’s lucky the bottle is as close to empty as it is; by the time he’s looking back to it he’s emptied everything still inside into his cup without noticing. Crowley rallies himself back to coherency by means of a frown and some rather violent gestures of his hands through the air. “Stars crashing down, and what they putting in bananas these days?” This last seems to undo his patience for stillness; he lurches to his feet again, turning to pace back away through the space of the bookshop.

Aziraphale leans back into his chair and cradles his newly-full wineglass between both hands as a comfort for Crowley’s increasing distance. The glow of intoxication is beginning to accumulate into the weight of resignation as the hours pass and his head begins to ache. “All creatures great and small.”

Crowley pivots on a heel to swing back around to him. “And you know what’s worse?” His teeth are bared, his tongue doing indecent things to the consonants before it lets them free. Aziraphale blinks hazily up at him. “When it’s all over. You’ve got to deal with...ETERNITY!” He swings back on this last word, tilting so he nearly shouts it up towards the sky, like he’s trying to call down Heaven’s attention on the two of them.

Aziraphale grimaces and braces himself at the arm of his chair so he can push himself towards a more upright position, just to feel more in control of the rising pressure bearing down against his temples. “Eternity?”

“It won’t be so bad at first,” Crowley declares. “Although,” as he pulls free a songbook from the stack Aziraphale tucked away on an unlabelled shelf to protect it from casual shoppers. “No Stephen Sondheim first night in eternity, I’m afraid.” He casts the book aside and swings around to the other end of the shelf, where Aziraphale has stacked a few more popular offerings to disguise the treasures stored behind them. “Although...I have heard rumors that your boss really loves The Sound of Music!”

The name alone is enough to infect Aziraphale’s intoxicated thoughts with the title song. He grimaces in an effort to fight it off but it’s too late, the swelling octaves and saccharine lyrics have set up shop and are dominating his attention. He shakes his head, trying to break free of them, while Crowley goes on wavering gently where he’s standing between the two bookshelves. “Fancy spending eternity watching that. You could literally climb every mountain over and over and over and over and over.” The book comes down, his glass comes up. “And over and over.”

Aziraphale feels himself rather beset, now, as much by the music stuck firmly in his head as by the distraction Crowley is offering with every liquid movement he makes. He wants to stand up, to lurch to his feet and pull the songbook from Crowley’s hand and the glass from his hold and...but the world is too unsteady, and the vague sense that he Ought Not To is tethering him in place, although he cannot actually recall a specific divine restriction against pushing demons up against one’s bookshelf and kissing the wine off their too-quick tongues, and surely he can do as he likes in his own bookshop, it hardly seems fair otherwise. He frowns and tries to collect himself back to some more stable mental footing, if not physical. “I--I don’t like it any more than you do, but I told you.” He frowns with the effort of reaching to claim what, exactly, it is he has told Crowley, a challenging prospect when he has thousands of years of conversations to work through. “I--I can’t dis…” The word falls out from his grasp and he changes tacks to soldier forward. “Not do what I’m told. ‘M anangel. I…” Crowley is still gazing at him from the other side of the room, his uncovered eyes almost glowing in the dim lighting of the bookshop. Aziraphale’s head is pounding in time with the opening chords of Julie Andrews’s acclaimed performance. The world is coming to an end. He lifts his hand and drags his palm across his face. “I can’t cope with this while I’m drunk,” he declares, not sure if he means the anxiety or the oppressive catchiness of the music or Crowley lounging into languid temptation against his bookshelf. Aziraphale squares himself to resistance and speaks as decisively as he can. “I’m going to sober up.”

Crowley wavers slightly on his feet. “Yeah,” he says. “Me too.” Crowley closes his eyes and Aziraphale draws a breath and follows suit. For a moment the world is spinning gently around him, whirling dizzily behind his closed lids; then he focuses himself, and his whole existence goes white with the effort of forcing his physical form into sobriety. It’s a bit like undoing his existence and reforming his identity into himself again, but with much less intoxication; the difficulty is in holding oneself together while one’s physical form is occupied in wringing out the excess of alcohol that it has absorbed. For a moment Aziraphale is wholly occupied with the effort, and by the time he’s settling back into the familiar confines of his body he has lost the insistent thread of the music, and the immediate desire to act on Crowley’s constant temptation, and the inebriation in his blood.

The looming weight of the Apocalypse, unfortunately, lingers, along with the patina of wine at the back of his tongue. From the other side of the shop Crowley groans and makes a face as he works his mouth around the taste that is coating all of Aziraphale’s too, and far less pleasantly than it did in liquid form. Aziraphale blinks at the stability of the world around him, feeling vaguely vertiginous with the abrupt cessation of movement, and then grimaces and tries with no success at all to clear his mouth somewhat.

“Urgh,” Crowley groans. “Almost enough to make you swear off drinking.” He straightens from his lean, insofar as Crowley ever manages to straighten himself at all. Aziraphale only risks a single discreet glance up the length of Crowley’s legs before he looks back to the books stacked on the desk alongside him.

“As I was saying,” he says. “I don’t know what you expect me to do about it, Crowley. The Plan is underway and the war is coming. I’m hardly going to be able to talk Heaven into a sudden show of mercy.”

“Not what I’m asking for,” Crowley says. “I’m not talking about some pointless show of resistance, angel.” He steps in from the column to lay hand to the back of the loveseat and swing himself around to sprawl over it again. “I’m just saying that we should do something, if we want to keep the Earth, you know, not-exploded. Very difficult to find hidden little cafés for a Sunday brunch in a warzone, angel. We need to work together if we want to keep things a bit more comfortable for us. And the whales. All of Creation.”

Aziraphale throws his hands up. “Look! It’s not that I disagree with you.” His hands lose their strength and fall back to his lap, dragged down by the weight of the resignation that meets him no matter what direction he looks. “But I’m an angel. I’m not allowed to disobey.”

Crowley snorts. “You think I am? My people are only into disobedience in general terms, not when it applies to them.”

Aziraphale flinches at this reminder of Hell’s non-existent patience and how much of a debt, exactly, Crowley has been running up against it over the centuries. At least he has divine grace to protect him; all Crowley has is secrecy, and, failing that, the contents of a tartan Thermos. Aziraphale looks away from Crowley’s face, and from the dark-swelling panic that grips him every time he thinks of this particular subject, and retreats back to firmer ground. “Even if I wanted to help, I couldn’t!” He huffs a breath and lifts his hands to gesture. “I can’t interfere with the divine plan.”

Crowley crosses his arms. Aziraphale can hardly stand to look at him for how vivid his eyes are without the glasses he has vanished somewhere about his person, or perhaps actually vanished outright, considering how tightly his pants fit. “Well, what about diabolical plans?” He tips forward to lean in towards Aziraphale, his gaze fixed with unblinking focus on the other’s face as if to make up for Aziraphale’s distracted attention. “You can’t be certain that thwarting me isn’t part of the divine plan too.” Aziraphale glances up to frown at him. Crowley works speech over his tongue for a moment before he secures the right end of his argument to smooth out into the rather diminished space between them. “You’re supposed to thwart the wiles of the Evil One at every turn, aren’t you?”

Aziraphale doesn’t have a good answer to this line of attack, beyond his angelic sense that says not to trust the agents of Hell on principle, and he’s been ignoring that for centuries too long for it to carry any more weight than a vague suspicion with it. “Well…”

“You see a wile, you thwart.” Crowley’s voice layers the words with a sense of intention that flushes heat under Aziraphale’s skin as if there’s an innuendo he doesn’t quite see slithering past his ear. Then again, that’s Crowley’s general effect on the world around him, in Aziraphale’s experience, or at least on the very specific part of the world that Aziraphale himself occupies. “Am I right?”

Aziraphale can’t lie to him, after all. “Broadly,” he admits. “Actually, I encourage humans to do the actual…” and he leaves the rest unstated, just in case the word should gain that sultry shadow it collects from Crowley’s lips on touching his.

Crowley doesn’t so much as blink at this capitulation. “The Antichrist has been born. But it’s the upbringing that’s important. The influences.” Aziraphale looks back to meet Crowley’s gaze, against his better judgment but perfectly in line with his lower impulses. “The evil influences -- that’s all going to be me.” Crowley tips his head to the side; his shoulders shift to rock him slightly back and forth, as if he’s trying to gauge the distance still remaining between them to judge how best to cross it. “It would be too bad if someone made sure that I failed.”

It’s his tone that catches at the thread of Aziraphale’s wandering thoughts to reel it into line: soft, almost gentle even as he skims elegantly around the impropriety of actually putting words to the obvious connection. It’s like an outstretched hand, a palm turned up and fingers extended to make an overt offer for the other to take, and as Aziraphale turns over the structure in his mind he can see it come into focus, like a photograph lifting into clarity from the protective shadows of a darkroom. The helping, of course, Aziraphale saw that immediately; but it’s the excuse, the perfect plausibility of the deniability rather more aided than injured by the thousands of years they have spent working themselves into reports to their respective head offices that have become increasing fictional as the centuries have passed. It’s as if they have been working towards this all along, as if all this time has been to bring them to this exact point; and Aziraphale can feel his heart pick itself up from its dejected slump and shake itself back into order with this return of structure, of an order and reason to the world that can still guide him to the conclusion he wants.

“If you put it that way…” he says, his voice soft with the illumination of the idea opening before him. “Heaven couldn’t actually object if I was thwarting you…”

Crowley tips his head to the side in acknowledgment without blinking. He speaks softly, almost a whisper, as if they’re creeping up on some sleeping thing and he doesn’t wish to disturb it with a too-hasty motion. “Nah. It’d be a real feather in your wing.”

Aziraphale stares at him for a moment. Crowley is leaning all the way over his knees, tipping in as close to Aziraphale as he can get from his position on the loveseat. Aziraphale isn’t at all sure he’s actually sitting on the cushion behind him for how far forward he has managed to angle himself. His eyes are bright, the vertical pupils clear reminder of his original form, of his role in the Garden offering the forbidden fruit to the humans’ willing hands. He is a demon, designed expressly to tempt into corruption; but Aziraphale is an angel, with as much inherent good as Crowley has evil. I don’t think you can do the wrong thing, Aziraphale remembers a familiar voice saying millenia ago, you’re an angel as he has gone on calling him for all the dozens of centuries since; and Aziraphale sets himself, and reaches out to offer his hand into the space between them.

Crowley’s smile spreads out over his face, curving warm against his lips and bright at his eyes as he leans farther forward to stretch out and clasp his hand tight around Aziraphale’s. His skin is warm, radiant as if there is fire smoldering just under the surface; Aziraphale is sure he’s had occasion to touch Crowley’s bare skin before now, but just at the moment it’s hard to recall for the shiver of adrenaline that sends itself skipping down the length of his back. He feels himself illuminated, like the world has gotten lighter just for the texture of Crowley’s hand closing around his, and then Crowley is pulling away to lounge back into comfort at the loveseat before Aziraphale can figure out which of them loosened his hold first.

“We’d be godfathers,” Crowley says. “Sort of.” His focused tension is gone, melted into the warmth of his pleased smile and the ease of his voice, and Aziraphale feels like he’s fizzing with happiness, as if his own stress is giving way before that brief, certain handshake as readily as Crowley’s has evaporated. Crowley tips his head to the side and lifts his hand into the sweep of a gesture as comfortably fluid as he usually is. “Overseeing his upbringing. If we do it right he won’t be evil. Or good, he’ll just...just be normal.”

Aziraphale can’t push back the smile spreading over his face, caught from the relief in Crowley’s expression and carrying on with force of its own now that he’s claimed it for himself. “It might work.” Crowley is beaming at him when Aziraphale glances at him, his head tipped to the side and his gaze so soft Aziraphale can only meet it for a moment before he looks away with a flush of embarrassed happiness starting over his cheeks. He pictures the child: young, impressionable, in need of guidance. And the two of them looking out for him, guiding his steps forward into the possibilities of the future under their joint influence. Aziraphale has never had occasion, in his role as Heaven’s representative on Earth, to take responsibility over the guiding of a young life. The thought of doing so with Crowley at his side feels like the air in his chest has converted to helium and is trying to lift his corporeal form off the Earth as easily as his angelic one. 

“Godfathers,” he repeats. The word feels warm on his tongue, responsible and tender and loving. He looks back to Crowley smiling at him. The lightness in his chest bubbles up into a laugh like champagne. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Crowley’s smile tugs sharper at the corner. He tips his head to wink at Aziraphale. “It’s not that bad when you get used to it.”

Aziraphale doesn’t have an answer for that; or, at least, not one that he can permit himself to act upon. Still, Crowley is here in his bookshop, slouching over Aziraphale’s furniture and smiling an invitation at him, and if this is what damnation looks like, Aziraphale is rather inclined to take him at his word.

Chapter Text

“So,” Crowley says as he reaches across the restaurant table for the carafe of coffee dawdling just alongside Aziraphale’s elbow. He lifts it, shakes it gently to interrogate the level of the liquid within, and shakes his head into resignation as he tips it to spill another refill into the mug before him. “How do you want to come at this one, then?”

Aziraphale lifts an eyebrow into an inquiry as delicate as the reach he is making for one of the croissants set on a plate deceptively centered on the table, as if the pastries on it will have anything to do with any lips but his own. “Me?” he asks, tearing a bit of the croissant free in a shower of buttery crumbs so he can bring it to his mouth without raining disaster down upon the front of his jacket. “This was your idea in the first place, Crowley.” He punctuates with the bite of pastry, pausing to savor the flaky sweet before he swallows and continues. “I thought you would have some plan in mind.”

“Well yeah,” Crowley says while his shoulders careen into an angle that professes to know nothing at all about what claims his mouth is making, they have nothing to do with it, really they hardly know each other at all and certainly not well enough to exert any control over each other. “Generally speaking. We just need to get ourselves into the kid’s life, right?” He lifts the coffee cup to swallow what appears to be approximately two full mugs’ worth of liquid before he sets it down with force. “It’s not like it can be all that hard.”

Aziraphale hums. “He is the son of a diplomat,” he allows. “I suppose they must maintain rather a large household.”

Crowley gestures across the table at him. “That’s my point,” he says, and falls back to drape himself over the back of the uncertain support of the chair behind him. “Rich kid, busy parents, who’s going to be looking after him during the day? Bet they could do with some divine intervention there.”

“Yes, well.” Aziraphale takes another bite of his croissant by means of considering the question. “Perhaps they could use the assistance of someone to look after the boy. Do you think he’ll be sent to school?”

Crowley makes a sound of incoherent dismissal to shoo this idea away. “Got to be doing a lot of travelling, American diplomat and all that. Be easier to just keep someone on hand. ‘S not like they’ll be put out about the expense.”

Aziraphale dips his head into assent. “A tutor, then?”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. “Eventually. He’s an infant, though. Not going to be learning much geography and rhetoric until he’s a bit older.”

Aziraphale heaves a sigh. “His mother will still be wanting some help,” he says, in a tone more of a command than a guess. “A nanny, then?”

Crowley’s eyebrows lift from behind his dark glasses. “A nanny,” he repeats, and cocks his head to the side. “I like the sound of that.”

“A proper one,” Aziraphale says, voice warming as he rises to the occasion of his audience’s intrigue. “A bit old-fashioned, maybe, but a proper British--” Crowley offers such a loud expression that Aziraphale’s words stumble over themselves and fall flat. “What? You can’t be a nanny without being a bit behind the times.”

Crowley sweeps a hand into dismissal of this and swings himself forward towards the table again. “Not the problem,” he says. “Let’s do Scottish. Spice it up a bit, keep it from being too Mary Poppins.”

Aziraphale rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he says. “Scottish, then.” He considers Crowley, now slouching forward over the elbow he has pressing to the support in front of him. “I suppose you’ll be wanting that one?”

“Oh, yeah,” Crowley says. “Been ages since I wore a dress. And my hair’s better for it, anyway.”

“Mm,” Aziraphale hums, as his attention is drawn to the soft waves sweeping Crowley’s shoulders as he leans forward. “That is true.”

“A proper nanny should wear black, anyway,” Crowley says, as his voice dips into what Aziraphale takes to be an approximation of his own before returning to its usual reckless disregard for clear diction. “That’s one of us handled, then. What about you, angel? Even a diplomat’s son doesn’t need two nannies at once.”

“No,” Aziraphale sighs, “I suppose not.” He frowns at the croissant in front of him and makes further inroads on the pastry while he struggles for an idea as vivid as his first. “Maybe a cook?”

Crowley grimaces dramatically. “You’ll need to be doing miracles with every meal. Heaven will be on your back in a year. Besides, you won’t get your share of influence if you’re going to be tied to the kitchen.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Aziraphale polishes off the last of the croissant and sets to work collecting the last of the flaky crumbs off his plate. “Don’t you have any ideas?”

Crowley grins. “Taking the advice of a demon?” he asks.

“The nanny was my idea,” Aziraphale points out with impeccable accuracy. “And we’ve agreed on the plan together, it’s not as if we aren’t already…” He fumbles over his words, dropping them to scatter at the floor as he looks away from the force of Crowley’s attention lingering on him. He considers the options for a moment, then disregards all of the more accurate descriptions in favor of discreet understatement. “In an understanding.”

“An understanding,” Crowley repeats back, the word stretching taut around the angle of the smile spreading over his lips. Aziraphale glances back up at him, ready to defend himself with protest if Crowley pushes the subject any further, but Crowley appears content with grinning his amusement at Aziraphale instead. He pushes back into his seat, sprawling one arm over the back while he kicks a long leg out well into Aziraphale’s side of the table. “It’s a good thing you’ve got me here, angel.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, with just the faintest tinge of acid against his tongue. “I’m ever so grateful.” He reaches for the last of the croissants without protest from Crowley. “What is your brilliant idea, then?”

Crowley cocks his head to the side and presses his mouth together into a thoughtful frown. Aziraphale watches him for a carefully reasonable length of time, keeping his gaze firmly at the shadow of the other’s glasses instead of straying to the pout of his lips, before looking down to his plate. Crowley takes another moment to watch him, with the weight of his focus touching all Aziraphale’s movements to electric self-consciousness, before he lifts a hand and snaps his fingers.

“I’ve got it,” he says. “The gardener.”

Aziraphale’s work on his croissant halts so he can look up and stare at Crowley instead. “The gardener?”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. “Friendly chap, warm and talkative whenever our young…” He waves a hand through the air beside him, his gesture vague enough to suggest a toddling infant, or perhaps an apocalyptic being to herald the end times, either one. “Charge happens to want to go for a wander on the grounds. Kids are always outside running around and finding trouble for themselves, you’ll see him as much as I will.”

“Hmm,” Aziraphale hums. “Maybe.”

“It’s bound to be a pretty place,” Crowley suggests. “All sorts of corners to have a nice cup of tea, or a picnic, when you’ve got the time for it.” He flashes another brilliant grin at Aziraphale. “I bet the flowers basically look after themselves with almost no influence at all.”

Aziraphale considers this. “Ah,” he says, and begins to smile. “Yes, I think I see what you mean.”

“You’ll have the best part of it,” Crowley says. “Got to be easy to talk about the goodness of the world in a garden.” He turns his head to the side to slant his smile lopsided and sharp. “It’ll be like the old days again.”

Aziraphale snorts. “We’ll see,” he says, and takes another bite of his croissant before reaching for the empty carafe of coffee. His own cup is still half-full where it’s set at the edge of the table; Crowley pushes at the side of his empty mug to urge it closer and save Aziraphale reaching all the way across the span between them. Aziraphale tips the carafe, which is quite startled to find itself quite full of enough steaming coffee to fill Crowley’s cup several times over. “That’s our positions sorted out. I suppose you can see to getting yourself hired?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Crowley says, and reaches for his newly full cup to drink without concern for the steam winding a foggy curl up off the surface. “Most importantly, what do you want to go by? Biblical, I expect. Matthew, Elijah, something like that.”

Aziraphale makes a face. “Not Matthew,” he says. “I never much cared for him, however well he wrote his Gospel. Maybe something a little newer. John?”

They debate the merits of possible names for the rest of the carafe of coffee, and through a fresh order of croissants and, after, one of the apple tarts set out on display at the front counter, but in the end they are successful. By the time they are leaving Aziraphale is shrugging himself into comfort with the name Francis as his new alias, feeling a bit as if he’s trying to adjust to the cut of a fashionable coat. Crowley had insisted on Ashtoreth, with the sharp consonants that he is currently doing his best to hiss into comfort on his tongue; a pursuit Aziraphale suspects to be rather futile before it’s begun. It hardly makes a difference, in any case: they are decided, have taken the first step forward in their joint venture, and Aziraphale finds himself excited to see where it leads them.

If they’re very, very lucky, he thinks together they might just be able to save the world after all.

Chapter Text

“All I am saying,” Crowley declares, turning sharply on his heel to turn the focus of his gaze, or at least the dark of his glasses, on Aziraphale at the other side of the room. “All I am saying is that I’m worried.”

Aziraphale rolls his eyes. “Of course you’re worried. I’m worried. It’s the Apocalypse we’re trying to avert, it was hardly going to be a painless undertaking.”

Crowley shakes his head. “That’s what I’m saying,” he says, and strides forward to pace across the length of the bookshop, presently empty of any customers and likely to stay that way, thanks to the locked front door and Aziraphale turning off the lights in the front window to deter any aggressive book lovers. “It is painless. Hardly been so much as a hiccup. No alarming portents, no creepy questions.” He pushes a hand through his newly shorn hair to ruffle it into stylish disarray. Aziraphale watches the motion of his wrist and the curl of his hair tumbling over itself, and then looks aside again, lifting his hand to his own head to soothe the ache of impulse in his fingers with tousling his own hair instead of Crowley’s. It is impressively ineffectual.

Crowley doesn’t appear to notice Aziraphale’s self-conscious action. “He’s just a kid, angel. Same as any of ‘em.”

Aziraphale draws a deep breath so he can gain force for his sigh. “That’s what I’ve been telling you,” he says, in the patient tones of someone who has explained this several dozen times and is prepared to do so all over again without releasing the chokehold he has attained on patience. “That is what we want. It is working, Crowley, just the way you wanted it to. I would think you’d be happy at being proven right.”

“Yeah, that’s what’s got me worried,” Crowley says, turning back to pace out the distance of the floor again as he continues to wreck havoc on his hair. “I’m not right. I’m never right. Something’s waiting to go wrong all the time. Practically in the job description.”

“Perhaps it’s my influence, then,” Aziraphale tells him. “Saving the world from the Antichrist must be a holy act, after all.”

“Yes, but you’re not supposed to succeed, isn’t that what they keep telling you upstairs? It’s meant to be a noble struggle and your side loves it when those are futile.” Aziraphale frowns the beginnings of protest to this and Crowley grimaces and waves his hand to forestall the response. “I’m just thinking it’s too easy.” He frowns and shakes his head. “I don’t trust it.”

“You don’t trust anything, my dear.” Crowley tips his head to look back to Aziraphale. A flicker of something plays over his mouth, like he’s considering saying something in reply, but he stays quiet and Aziraphale folds his hands in his lap and continues speaking. “Perhaps it’s because you’re doing something nearly good for a change.”

Crowley hisses against the backs of his teeth. “Shut up, do you want to bring Hell’s attention down--well, up -- on us? They’re already wondering why the kid hasn’t killed someone yet.”

“He’s seven.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. “They don’t have a great sense of human lifespan at the office.” He draws up in front of one of the bookshelves and reaches out to skim his fingers against the spines alternately stacked and aligned on the shelf before him. Aziraphale watches Crowley’s fingers draw over the textured spines with offhand elegance and reaches for his cup of tea to bring a bit of moisture back into his mouth. “I have a bad feeling about it.”

“You’re worrying too much,” Aziraphale tells him with as much self-assurance as he can dig out from the back corners of his mind. “We’re doing everything we can. One of us is bound to notice if something changes, and in the meantime young Warlock is growing into a perfectly ordinary human. All we need to do is continue on as we have been until…” He lifts a hand to gesture vaguely before dropping it to his lap again. “Until his eleventh birthday.”

Crowley’s mouth tips itself up at the corner. “Seven down, four to go?”

“Something like that,” Aziraphale says. “Do sit down. Your tea will get cold.”

Crowley snorts but does swing himself around from the bookshelf to saunter over the steps to reclaim his position at the far side of Aziraphale’s table. “Not as if either of us has to worry about that, angel.”

Aziraphale sniffs. “Tea always goes bitter when it’s been miracled,” he says. “It’s hardly worth drinking at all, then.”

“Ah,” Crowley says. “We can’t have that.”

His mouth is still curving towards a smile, a bit wider now than when he was standing at the bookshelf. Aziraphale would wonder if Crowley isn’t teasing him, a bit, except that he’s just glad to have him smiling, and that he doesn’t mind even if he is. Aziraphale slides his saucer in towards himself so he can lift his teacup and extend it over the span of the table towards Crowley slouched at the other side. “To our continued success.”

Crowley lifts his eyebrows, but in the end he contents himself with tipping his head to the side and shrugging agreement. “To success,” he says, and raises his own cup to toast Aziraphale’s.

Aziraphale beams and returns his cup to his lips for a sip of the well-sugared tea within. He can hardly fault Crowley for his uncertainty, under the circumstances; but if a demon can’t manage optimism, Aziraphale thinks an angel ought to be perfectly suited to the task. They will continue as they have been, working alongside each other if very technically not together, and in four years’ time they will find that everything has gone entirely right.

Chapter Text

Everything has gone catastrophically wrong.

Crowley feels on some level he should have expected this. Things were going too smoothly, with one year passing into the next unassaulted by portents of the end times, or Warlock showing an unreasonable interest in the bewitching powers of the occult, or even having much of an inclination towards evil, beyond a sort of general unbearable haughtiness shared, insofar as Crowley can tell, by every human child between the ages of five and approximately seventeen, or seventy, in more extreme cases. Crowley knew it was going too well, he can see now with all the painfully vivid clarity of hindsight to gaze back at the newly-wasted decade. He should have insisted on his intuition, should have forced Aziraphale to truly consider the possibility that murmured in his ear that something was wrong, that this was all too easy, that they were setting themselves up for failure. Instead he had let himself be lulled into a false sense of security, had wiled away the years too comfortably content with the excuse to pass the time in such pleasant company, and now his sins have come back to haunt him like a flock of very determined ghosts.

He can’t escape reality. He would like to, would have liked to simply exit stage right after the horrible realization that came with the very obvious absence of an enormous slavering Hellhound during the pandemonium of the child’s birthday party and wait for all this to blow over. But nothing is going to: left to its own devices the world is careening towards blowing up instead of over, and then there will be nothing left for Crowley to return to but fire and brimstone and the endless, eternal torments of middle management.

Crowley doesn’t know what to do. The child he and Aziraphale have spent years shaping is just another human, absent any of the world-altering powers they attributed to him; which means that there is another boy somewhere in the world who has spent the last eleven years unaffected by any impulses but those that have naturally occurred. They have painfully few days left in the world, enough to fit comfortably on the fingers of the hand Crowley presently has supporting the weight of his head where he’s slumped forward over Aziraphale’s table. Luckily, he’s not alone, and if he has no idea what to do Aziraphale is acting with all the heavenly grace that gives him the composure to cope with the situation in the best possible way.

Currently, he is setting out a pair of glasses on the table to pour them whiskies.

Crowley doesn’t move to reach for the glass Aziraphale is filling. His efforts, he feels, are better turned to draping himself into the picture of resignation to serve as a counterpoint for Aziraphale’s display of deliberate composure in the face of the end times. Crowley would be impressed by this show at other times. Right now, all he can manage is to drag the brutal facts out into the soft light of Aziraphale’s bookshop in a doomed attempt to cast them into a more flattering illumination.

“We’ve been following the wrong boy,” he says, speaking heavily enough that his words thud as they hit the table in front of him. “He’s been growing up on his own for the last eleven years, without any divine influences at all. Armageddon is days away and we’ve lost the Antichrist.” He considers the pattern made by setting these facts out into spoken reality and decides that maybe a direct approach was a mistake after all and he would have been better off with avoidance or denial. “Why did the powers of Hell have to drag me into this anyway?”

“Well,” Aziraphale says. “Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure it’s because of all those memos you kept sending them saying how amazingly well you were doing.” He sets the bottle aside and reaches to extend the comfort of a glass across the table to Crowley to wash down the tart edge on his tone.

Crowley’s melancholy, which had been determined to loom over its dominant position for the entire duration of the time left to existence in general, is summarily ousted by defensiveness. Crowley lifts his head from his position of misery to scowl at Aziraphale. “Is it my fault they never check up? I’m to blame they never check up?” Aziraphale picks up his own cup and Crowley takes advantage of his partially-renewed strength to follow suit and draw his glass in towards himself. “Everyone stretches the truth a bit in memos to head office, you know that.”

Aziraphale settles himself into his chair with such perfect care that the whiskey in his glass hardly shifts against the sides before he lifts his gaze and his eyebrows to direct both in Crowley’s direction. “Yes, but you told them you invented the Spanish Inquisition. And…” as he pauses to rifle back through the millennia of their friendship, “started the Second World War.”

“So the humans beat me to it,” Crowley says, warming to the familiar position of defense against Aziraphale’s haughty judgment. “That’s not my fault.” Aziraphale tips his head to the side, looking patently unconvinced, and for a moment Crowley thinks he will at least have the relief of the bickering that turned into something closer to affection than irritation somewhere in the 13th century. He’s ready to lean into it, to crease Aziraphale’s brow with the confused skepticism that always makes him look even more charmingly flustered than he usually does, when there is a sound that prickles up every hair at the back of Crowley’s neck at once with the warning of something about to tighten like a noose around that same.

It’s not that Crowley hears it, exactly. It is more like feeling it, like the sound is resonating in the marrow of his bones; it’s even more like his demonic self that usually exists with such seamless ease in his corporeal form has been forced sideways by the distance of about an atom, just enough to make him suddenly, abruptly aware of the reality of his physical form and the taste of air at his lips. The light from Aziraphale’s lamp crackles, breaking apart into its component parts that Crowley can see rushing in a wave over the distance to his staring eyes, and there is the smell of something profoundly dark, something that smells like the deepest part of the ocean looks and the way the vacuum of space feels. Crowley lifts his head and breathes in hard through his nose, obedient to the illogical impulse to actively seek out the source of a scent once caught. He smells the heavy dry of old paper, the pervasive weight of sunwarmed leather, the sharp edge of the whiskey and a sweetness that is usually enough to make his mouth water, and he ignores all of them in favor of pinning down the rhythm underneath them all, the reverberation of a fundamental change in the very fabric of the world.

Crowley tips his head, as if he might be able to follow the scent to its source by trailing something that seems to be within his very bones as much as in the air. “Something’s changed.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, in such a soft tone that Crowley’s attention is briefly diverted back across the table to where Aziraphale’s mouth is finding its way into a flattered smile. “It’s a new cologne. My barber suggested…”

“No,” Crowley snaps, exasperated as much by Aziraphale thinking he hadn’t noticed as by this ill-timed reminder of the distracting spice that has been clinging to the most interesting parts of Aziraphale’s wrists and the shadowy dip at the base of his throat. “Not y--I know what you smell like.” He looks back out into the much less distracting room, or rather doesn’t look, since he’s ignoring his vision outright so he can sniff hard at the air. He isn’t sure if it’s even really a smell, or a feeling, or maybe a sound aching at his eardrums, but whatever it is it builds instead of fading, like the whole of existence is crystalizing itself in a different form than what it had before, the same way Crowley’s physical form did. He frowns, frustrated by this unsettling complication, it’s not as if he doesn’t already have enough on his plate with the Antichrist -- and some underutilized sense-memory rises up, a recollection of some event so catastrophic it left its mark backwards as well as forward in his awareness, and Crowley feels his entire existence go briefly, perfectly still.

“The Hellhound has found its master.” It is the only conclusion, the only possible explanation; and Crowley knows it, he can feel the connection of the boy and the dog all the way through the fiber of his demonic existence, like a door to a prison cell thrown wide and gaping.

Aziraphale lowers his glass from the half-finished act of bringing it to his lips. “You sure?”

“I felt it,” Crowley says, still speaking from the distant point of faraway horror that has gripped him; and then, as his awareness musters self-respect enough for some measure of protest to the angel’s doubt: “Would I lie to you?”

Aziraphale’s eyebrows take wing to lift high over his forehead. “Well obviously, you’re a demon, that’s what you do.”

This is too much an objective truth for Crowley to push back against it in any meaningful way, and besides the crushing weight of reality is bearing down against him to snuff out any attention to a fact beyond the most immediate one. “Well I’m not lying. The boy, wherever he is, has the dog.” Crowley hears his own words echo back in his ears. His mouth continues to urge him forward into the horrified fascination that comes with fitting words around a fact that is too close to be any longer avoided, like declaring I’m going to fall or we’re all going to die as a means of dealing with a fact of stunning clarity. “He’s named it. It’s done. He’s coming into his power.” Crowley leans forward so his elbows can clutch at the support of the table beneath him, as if the table and the bookshop and the whole of London aren’t just as affected by this revelation as he is. At least the table is spared the knowledge of its inevitable fate by its lack of a conscious mind. Crowley wonders if maybe he made a mistake in choosing the path he did in life. It must be a more comfortable life, being a table, not having any idea that the remainder of your existence is measured in a span of hours even a human would have no trouble counting. Crowley takes a breath, just to feel the immediate reality of his physical form, and then lets it go in a rush that does nothing but make him feel even more like his blood has been weighted with lead. “We’re doomed.”

Aziraphale tips his head down to gaze into his glass of whiskey. “Well then.” Crowley finds himself gazing at Aziraphale with something like the blind faith that religions are so fond of demanding from their followers. Maybe Aziraphale will have an answer, will be able to see his way to a solution that Crowley’s pessimism is preventing him from claiming; and then Aziraphale’s head lifts, and Crowley sees his own doomed resignation reflected back in the other’s green eyes even before Aziraphale’s mouth twists on a smile with no trace of laughter behind it at all. “Welcome to the end times.” His throat tries on a swallow to clear away the soft horror in his voice, his hand brings the glass in his hold towards his mouth, but his eyes linger on Crowley’s face to share the miserable, shocked truth of their absolute, entire failure.

They gaze at each other for a long moment, Aziraphale’s hand stalled partway to his mouth and his lips pressed together to as much tension as there is dark in his eyes. Crowley stares at familiar features, gazing at Aziraphale’s dark eyes and fear-tight mouth, and some part of his mind always-present and usually-ignored stirs itself to life with the effect of the time Crowley has never noticed before and feels now with brittle clarity. They had eternity, before, an endless span of time stretching out before them like a table ready to be laid with course after course of the long, lingering meal of courtship. Now they have mere days, their time is draining away with a speed Crowley can measure by the sound of his breath in his chest; and Aziraphale is across the table from him, his glass of whiskey stalled en route to his lips and gazing at Crowley with something very nearly anticipation in his eyes.

If there is action to be taken, Crowley thinks, it must be now. There is so little time, a span that will vanish before him in the time he once might have taken to recall his body to a single breath; if they stay here, if they do nothing, this will be the end of everything, of the two of them as much as the world that they have shared out between them for all these millennia. All Crowley has to do is lean forward over the span of the table and lift his hand to reach for the curl of Aziraphale’s downy hair; it’s as easy as pulling a fruit from a tree, as easy as falling. They could have these few days, at least, Crowley could steal for himself the satisfaction of an angelic kiss against his mouth to take with him when there is nowhere left to go but back to where he came from. All he has to do is give up, hand over his vague hopes for the impossible in exchange for what he can be allowed in the present, resign himself to what Heaven he can find on Earth before he is forced out and back into suffering again; and Crowley does what demons do best, and he rebels.

The world may be ending, it’s true. The Antichrist is awakening, his powers manifesting themselves and gaining strength by the moment; the Apocalypse is at hand, or at least coming up the driveway to the front door. But Crowley isn’t one for resignation of any kind, least of all where Aziraphale is concerned, and he’s not going to relinquish his last hope now, even if he doesn’t yet have the least plan for what that will be. He’s waited this long, has spent thousands of years waiting for the right moment, for the perfect chance: he’s not about to give that up for a tragedy here at the end of things. He will find a happy ending for himself, and for Aziraphale too, regardless of Heaven or Hell or anything in between, and when he reaches for his glass to down the whiskey within it’s with renewed certainty in the grip of his fingers against it. He doesn’t have a solution yet, doesn’t see a path forward for himself at the moment; but he has Aziraphale, and they have a bottle of whiskey between them, and Crowley has been on Earth too long to give up hope just because all of it has been lost.

Chapter Text

The last Thursday in existence arrives with less fanfare than Aziraphale thinks it ought to. He is expecting some kind of divine countdown, perhaps, some sense of time passing that he can sense in his very core in the same way Crowley felt the arrival of the hellhound and the subsequent Naming. But there is nothing to interrupt the long span of darkness that stretches itself between dusk and dawn, until it is only when Aziraphale is rather blearily investigating the mostly-empty bottles around him that he catches a glimpse of a clock, and realizes that the end of time has drawn another day closer.

Crowley stays the night. It’s not an unprecedented occurrence, although he usually will force himself to sobriety to return to his Bentley and screech away into the night with an acceleration Aziraphale is quite sure was never meant to be achieved by anything on this Earth. But he makes no motion towards leaving, or anywhere near sobriety, as the hours pass, and when his increasingly loose-limbed movements melt him into a sprawl across Aziraphale’s loveseat Aziraphale just watches with dizzy attention as Crowley shuts his eyes and tips his head to lean into the support of the couch beneath him. His breathing slows, his expression relaxes, and it’s some time later that Aziraphale realizes that Crowley has truly fallen asleep where he deposited himself.

Aziraphale doesn’t need sleep, of course. Technically speaking neither of them need to rest anymore than they require the physical sustenance of food and drink. But Aziraphale is well-versed in his own variety of indulgences, and he is hardly going to begrudge Crowley for this surrender to a far more restrained temptation than what his demonic friend usually deals in. If anything Aziraphale thinks he is grateful to the company, however presently unresponsive it may be, and after the events of the day he is quite content to recline in his seat and amuse his drifting attention with exploring the familiar details of a face that has gone unchanged for thousands of years, however transient the fashions of the world around them.

Crowley has taken his sunglasses off. Those were lost somewhere with the second bottle of wine, or perhaps the third; suffice it to say that he’s not wearing them, that they spent the last hours of increasingly inebriated conversation with the vivid yellow of his striking eyes fixed full on Aziraphale’s own, without the barrier of shadow that usually interposes between them. His eyes are shut now, of course, weighted down over his usual unblinking gaze with the surrender to sleep he offered without putting up so much as a fight. Aziraphale can see the dark of Crowley’s lashes like this, with a clarity usually denied him by the dark of the other’s sunglasses or the distraction of his uncovered gaze. The lines of his face look sharper without the usual mobility of his expression to soften them; his cheekbones are stark under his skin, his mouth dipping towards the creased-in shape of the frown that he uses to express such an infinite variety of emotion depending on the setting in which he finds himself. With his head turned to the side against the cushion beneath him the line of his neck is drawn taut from the dark pattern curling in front of his ear all the way to the loose collar of his shirt, where Aziraphale could seek out the very edge of collarbone if he dared to let his gaze linger against those shadows. His hair is tousled all over his head, tumbled out of order by the fretful hands he’s pushed through it over the last hours and left to find its own way with his collapse into what reprieve he can find in unconsciousness. He looks exhausted, pulled tense by a pressure that Aziraphale has never before seen in him during war or peace or revolution; and he looks like himself, so painfully, perfectly familiar that Aziraphale’s eyes burn with the tears he can’t possibly let himself shed.

Crowley is the Enemy. Absolutely, unequivocally, with no space for avoidance or denial: a demon, an agent of Hell itself, the precise antithesis to everything Aziraphale stands for and has been working for. By all rights, by every part of the Plan that Aziraphale has ever been able to understand, he should feel nothing for the creature sprawling over his furniture but hatred forged cold between the fires of Hell and the starry heights of Heaven. But out of everything Aziraphale has ever felt for Crowley, over all the millennia they have passed around and with each other, hatred is the only thing he can say with complete certainty he has never been able to lay claim to. Irritation, certainly, distrust, often, amusement, more frequently than he would like; and now, more than ever, an affection so achingly bright in his chest that it is spilling tears past his lashes to threaten the front of his jacket before he can will them away. Aziraphale is supposed to hate Crowley, by every rule established by every department of Heaven; and with the Apocalypse on their doorstep and the end of the world looming over them, the only thing he can find is a love so intense it sears his better judgment to ash on his tongue.

They have days. It’s a painfully short time, Aziraphale knows; he has lost weeks to particularly delectable restaurants or remarkably engrossing musical compositions. Hours are something he drops and doesn’t bother to pick up again, and now his currency on Earth is running horrifyingly short. When the Earth is gone -- a safer point to consider than the inevitable War that must follow, that Aziraphale’s tipsy focus skids away from like water against a hot pan -- there will be no more shared bottles of wine, no more tables for two and evenings spent bickering amiably over whether some measure of Evil is necessary to achieve true art. Whatever happens to Heaven and Hell and the Earth itself, Crowley will be gone, the two of them pulled apart as permanently as their inherent natures should have already managed. The only time they have is now, these days and hours and minutes; and Aziraphale’s wandering gaze slides over Crowley’s hair in place of his more obediently still fingers to sink into the curves of interlocking black that mark the soft space just in front of Crowley’s ear and above the faint suggestion of stubble starting along his jaw.

Aziraphale knows the shape of the mark. It’s been there since the beginning, or rather the Beginning, etched into the corporeal form Crowley took on in the Garden like a token of the serpentine past from which he came. Aziraphale has spent centuries gazing idly at the dark of it from across tables, in bars, bright in the sunlight of a flourishing park. He could trace it with his eyes closed, could touch his fingers to the texture of Crowley’s skin to slide against the curving path, could fold to his knees and lower his head and taste the temptation that has been held before him for more years than he can count.

Aziraphale has thought of it before. He is an angel, unsuited for disobedience and restricted to the narrow paths of virtue; but he has also been on Earth for six thousand years, and that has come with a variety of experiences that have rather broadened his mental horizons beyond the narrow confines in which they once were bound. He used to think of Crowley idly, during the early part of the last millennia, skirting around the lip of danger without acknowledging what he was doing; since the second of the Great Wars his imagination has become rather carried away with possibilities upon which Aziraphale has always told himself, quite sternly, that he will of course never act. But now they are alone, together in the retreat that Aziraphale has always felt his bookshop to be, and with never looming in his very near future Aziraphale can feel temptation struggling for purchase at his fingers and throat and gaze. It would be so simple, a remarkably familiar voice in his head hisses, all you have to do is lean forward, all you have to do is reach out, take it, it’s what you want, it’s what he wants, just do this one little thing--

No,” Aziraphale says, rather more loudly than he had intended, and lurches sharply onto his very unsteady feet. Crowley’s forehead tightens on a crease, his mouth drags onto a frown; for a moment Aziraphale thinks he’s about to blink himself back into bleary consciousness. Then Crowley turns his head down against the cushion beneath him to hunt down the sleep that seemed about to break free, and Aziraphale is left standing on his feet with his breath coming hard in his chest and his thoughts swimming in the wave of alcohol in which he has drowned them. He stays still for a moment, staring at Crowley as his breathing tries to push him into an intoxicated mistake, before he sets his attention firmly to the pattern across the back of the loveseat instead of the demon sprawled across it and focuses himself on forcing his way back to sobriety.

It’s not a pleasant process. Aziraphale dislikes this at the best of times, when he’s simply trying to clear his head for more coherent appreciation of a book at the end of a long night spent lingering over an expansive and expensive dinner; right now the loss of inebriation comes with the gaining of a great deal more apocalyptic anxiety than he is at all happy with. But he needs to sober up to resist temptation, and he must resist temptation, it is all but written into the pattern of obedience that makes up his core identity; so Aziraphale tightens his mental grip on his corporeal form, and squeezes until he is quite sure there is not so much as a swallow of alcohol left in him. His mouth is left dry and his tongue lingers in unpleasantly vivid retrospection; but at least, Aziraphale thinks as he sighs an exhale and glances back to Crowley’s face, the temptation will be less.

It is not. Crowley is still just as he was, draped to so much boneless grace that he looks more like he’s been spilled across the cushions than laid down there, and Aziraphale’s portion of their shared libations has been safely returned to the now half-full bottles around them; but even with a head clear of any excuse of intoxication and a mouth bitter with the memory of excess, Aziraphale’s eyes return to their favorite indulgence of that curling pattern before Crowley’s ear, his imagination digs itself back into the tangle of the other’s red hair with relish. Aziraphale aches to cross the distance between them, his hands and lips and in the very core of him, like a fist clenching at the inside of his chest trying to drag him bodily forward to where Crowley is sleeping. They have so little time, there are so few chances still left to them; and Aziraphale stands still, a prisoner to the chains of angelic obedience that bind him far more tightly than the easy habit that has held him to this well-worn body for thousands of years. He would have to rip his soul free from his physical form to cross the few feet between himself and Crowley; even sober, that seems a cost almost worth paying.

It’s a terrifying thought. Aziraphale has known how he felt for nearly a century, now; but it has been easy to let it wait, to let another day go by, a week, a month, a year, with all the vast possibility of eternity before them. Now he can see the end, the inevitable, inescapable, ineffable conclusion coming for them, and for the first time in all his unmeasured existence he can feel the danger of Falling opening up beneath him, can see the stability that has formed his entire angelic existence giving way to dark lashes against good cheekbones and a sharp mouth melted soft on sleep. Aziraphale stands, and looks, and wants; and then he draws a deep breath through his nose, and he turns on his heel so he can occupy himself with replacing the corks in the bottles and returning them to where they belong.

It’s useless work, really. He is hardly likely to drink them all himself in the next four days, and with Heaven and Hell both paying increasing attention to Earth he and Crowley will hardly have the chance to reopen them together. But it keeps him busy, and keeps him moving in a direction that isn’t towards the loveseat where Crowley is sleeping, and in the absence of a greater one Aziraphale finds he must be grateful for small mercies.

Chapter Text

It turns out to be quite a pretty day.

Aziraphale doesn’t think this is entirely fair. Weather seems to be the kind of thing that should turn its effort towards portents and signs of the doom that is impending for everyone and everything presently existing on or within or in the general vicinity of the Earth; with the hours of existence now measured in double digits, he feels roiling black clouds should be gathering themselves overhead to rain down lightning, or hail, or at least a dreary sprinkle or two. But the Almighty’s ineffability strikes again, and instead provides a blue sky and such bright sunlight that Aziraphale feels himself all but obligated to whistle a jaunty tune as he steps out of the front door of his bookshop and towards the shiny black vehicle that lately pulled up outside it with such force that he’s sure it would have left skid marks on the pavement, if Crowley ever allowed any such damage to affect the tires of his beloved car. He refrains from this particular indulgence, and in exchange allows himself the addition of a third party to the latest attempt he and his sometimes-companion are making on the order of saving the world.

“I brought a little something for the journey,” Aziraphale declares as he pulls open the door to the passenger side of the Bentley and carefully folds himself inside, and then steers the tin of shortbread he is carrying safely onto his lap. “In case we get peckish.” He wonders if he ought not to buckle it into safety in the backseat before Crowley accelerates out into traffic; and then the door swings shut without him touching it, and the decision is made for him with the growl of an engine and to the accompaniment of a deafening round of car horns. Aziraphale flinches, closing his eyes with the general premise of seeing no evil, which attempt he immediately gives over as too fundamentally terrifying to be borne for more than a handful of seconds. He fixes his gaze instead on the road ahead of them, with the vague intention of offering what assistance miracles can provide to those in the path of a vehicle moving with the approximate speed of a bullet straight through the middle of London. Aziraphale holds the tin up to gesture before he thinks the better of distracting Crowley from what he’s looking at and turns to deposit it into the relative security of the backseat, where at least it may be spared the alarm brought on by Crowley’s driving.

There is no such reprieve available for him, unfortunately. From his position in the passenger side of the vehicle that Crowley wields like a weapon Aziraphale is left with all the accompanying terror of seeing what is coming towards them, or rather what they are being flung towards, and stripped of any chance at all of acting to avert the near-collisions that they pass up only in favor of speeding towards the next. There is always the application of a timely miracle, of course, if needed; but after decades in Crowley’s possession, Aziraphale has some doubts about the Bentley’s willingness to take an angelic persuasion to heart, even if Crowley weren’t likely to undo any efforts Aziraphale makes towards safety on sheer stubborn principle. All that Aziraphale is left to do is to brace himself against the side of the car with as much subtlety as a white-knuckled grip on the interior can provide, and do his best to distract himself from the present danger by focusing on the far greater one looming a few days out from them, and the car, and everyone they veer around or cut off as Crowley navigates them through the city.

“So,” Aziraphale says, in a tone that makes a weak-kneed attempt at casual grace and manages to make it to only trembling nerves instead of the abject terror in which the rest of his body is locked. At least he’s not nauseated, as his stomach sat down on the curb outside the bookshop and point-blank refused to get inside the space of the Bentley. Aziraphale wonders if maybe it didn’t have the wiser idea than the conclusion his mind talked the rest of his body to. “You’ve lost the boy--”

Crowley angles his head so sharply towards Aziraphale that the car jerks to follow and misses hitting a fire hydrant by the approximate thickness of a butterfly’s wing. “We’ve lost.”

Aziraphale grimaces and flutters his hands to swat away this unfortunately accurate description, or at least to blur the edges of it until it doesn’t hit with quite as much cutting force. “Yy, mm.” He contemplates his options between denial and surrender and chooses his preferred route of equivocation. “A child has been lost.” He retrieves the fragments of optimism briefly knocked aside by Crowley’s retort and soldiers valiantly forward. “But! You still know--”

Crowley tips himself all the way sideways in his seat, this time, as he turns to hiss at Aziraphale. “We know!”

Aziraphale continues forward, undaunted by demonic influences, even if they are technically entirely accurate in their claims. “--His age. His birthday, he’s eleven.”

Crowley rattles a low sound in the back of his throat and goes on glaring at the road in front of them. “You make it sound easy.”

Aziraphale meets this pessimism with a lift of his eyebrows as he folds his hands together in his lap. “Well it can’t be that hard.” His gaze wanders out of the bounds of the car and away from the chaos of the street in front of them as he reflects on the subject of their quest, lost somewhere in the thrill and upheaval and general danger of the world at large. Aziraphale bites his lip and huffs a breath. “I just hope nothing’s happened to him.”

Crowley’s head turns towards him. “Happened--nothing happened to him!” The Bentley surges forward into an intersection without so much as a passing acquaintance with the sign posted at the corner demanding that it stop. There’s the sharp honk of a horn as one of the approaching vehicles swerves to miss the bumper that has just whistled past the front of it. Aziraphale’s fingers flex to almost crack the frame of the car under his hold. “He happens to everything!”

Aziraphale is feeling rather dizzy with the speed with which the city is passing around them. He fixes his gaze out the front window and does his best to ignore the motion in his periphery in favor of focusing himself on the conversation at hand, which will be very important indeed assuming they make it out of the city alive. “So..we...only have to…” He draws a breath to calm himself. It doesn’t help a great deal. “Find his birth records. Go through the...hospital files.”

Crowley pulls at the steering wheel to draw them clear of a truck pulled up alongside a curb without looking to check for oncoming traffic in the lane into which they veer. “And then what?”

Aziraphale turns to beam at Crowley, forgetting his consummate panic for a moment in the satisfaction of having such a direct answer to a simple question. “And then we find the child!”

Crowley’s head turns. Aziraphale can feel the force of a yellow stare fixing on him like a vise even from behind the ostensible cover offered by Crowley’s habitual dark glasses. There’s the stutter of a horn from the far side of the window but neither of them glance towards it. “And then what?

Aziraphale feels a chill sweep over him, as if a brief daydream of summertime has been pushed rudely aside by a thundercloud interposing between himself and the sun. His tongue ties itself to a knot, his thoughts stumble over the pebbles at the edge of the cliff he hasn’t been able to make himself step over, yet, and in the first rush of self-consciousness all he can do is drop his gaze from the force of Crowley’s stare demanding an answer, insisting that he put words to the truth they both know and neither will speak. It’s not that Aziraphale fears Heavenly retribution for harming a child -- Heaven has never had the least compunctions about smiting whomever is due for such, regardless of age or virtue or, even, in many cases, justice. But the force of Crowley’s gaze reminds him of the start of rain pebbling the crowd clustered around an ark, and the taste of ashes on the air over Sodom, and his stomach is too happy to reinstate itself to twist horribly at the thought of taking an active role in such an undertaking. Bad enough to be an observer, to stand aside while the fury of Heaven moved the world the next step forward in the Plan; the idea of actually lifting his own hand in the means to such a necessary end is enough to make Aziraphale rather regret the extended breakfast he took this morning before Crowley’s arrival.

Crowley is still watching him. Aziraphale can feel the weight of the other’s gaze against him, lingering at his features to demand the answer Crowley wants him to give, the promise that Aziraphale will take on the impossible burden of necessity for the sake of the world that they have so long shared together. But Aziraphale’s tongue knots, his throat tightens as if clenched in a fist, and there is no word he can give to relieve the tension building within the space of the car. He feels trapped, like the sides of the Bentley are bearing down on him, like Crowley’s stare is a weight accumulated against the angle of his shoulders; and then there’s a motion in front of the car, and Aziraphale’s attention struggles free of its trap to seize onto a far lesser and far more immediate source of panic. “Watch out for that pedestrian!

Crowley pulls against the steering wheel as he glances to the figure now throwing herself forward towards the sidewalk with a scream. “She’s on the street, she knows the risks she’s taking!”

Aziraphale waves his hand towards the front window as Crowley’s head turns back with the threat of resuming the pressure of his intense focus. “Just--watch the road! Watch the road!” Crowley rolls his eyes so loudly that Aziraphale can hear the disdain and swings back to turn himself to face more-or-less forward again. Aziraphale draws a breath shaky with relief and takes the opportunity to avert the subject. “Where is this hospital, anyway?”

“A village near Oxford.” There’s another car horn as Crowley pulls at the wheel and veers them sharply sideways. “Tadfield.”

This is still rather too close to the point of things, Aziraphale feels, certainly too near for him to relax into the conversation. He casts about for something else to say to offer a better diversion, and the motion of an arrow climbing over a dial steps up to offer divine intervention. Aziraphale stares at the number to which it is pointing, blinks to make sure he’s not hallucinating outright, and then gasps as shock overrides all other less pressing concerns. “Crowley, you can’t do ninety miles per hour in central London!

Crowley swings around from his position as driver, relinquishing his grip on the steering wheel so he can turn to frown at Aziraphale next to him. “Why not?”

“You’ll get us killed!” Aziraphale considers the relative truth of this particular statement and grimaces admission of his own exaggeration. “Well. Inconveniently discorporated.” Crowley appears unfazed by this particular threat, when Aziraphale chances a sideways glance at him. He’s still frowning out the window, his jaw set on tension and his mouth dragging down sharply at the corners and wearing that particular look he gets when he sees Aziraphale trying to dodge a subject that he has no intention of dropping. Aziraphale watches him for a moment; then Crowley swerves around another car, and Aziraphale drops his gaze to wander in search of a better distraction. The jewel cases of several CDs stacked in the storage space in front of him catch the light and his attention, and he falls upon them with the relief of someone who has recalled an untouched topic for small talk in the midst of a failing conversation.

“Music!” he exclaims, and reaches to draw out a handful of CDs to look through. “Why--why don’t I put on...a little music…?” He moves through the stack, dismissing the first artist as one he doesn’t care for and the second for a poorly-designed album cover, before he draws up on the third, caught in spite of himself by the intrigue of the title. “What’s a Velvet Underground?”

Crowley glances at the CD before he grimaces and shakes his head. “You wouldn’t like it.”

“Oh.” Aziraphale nods and looks back to the case with understanding. “Bebop.” Crowley glances at him, then back to the road. There is a roar of protest from the engine, or perhaps encouragement, and the Bentley surges forward as if all its outrageous speed was no more than a leisurely stroll. Aziraphale is left to drop the CDs over his lap and clutch at the edge of his seat in a wholly futile attempt to brace himself against the acceleration so intense he feels as if he needs to be shouting into a headwind just to make himself heard. “Queen, then?” Crowley doesn’t answer this at all, even by so much as a tilt of his head, but Aziraphale is already returning the top cases to their storage and retrieving the familiar disc to feed into the Bentley’s stereo. Crowley doesn’t say anything as the first few notes thrum through the space around them, but as they clear another intersection he lifts a hand from the wheel to reach for the volume knob and dial it up another pair of clicks.

Aziraphale sneaks a sideways glance in the other’s direction. Crowley is still gazing out the window, his mouth still dragging on the frown he has worn almost non-stop for the last two days; but some of the tension against his neck has drifted away to find a more willing audience, and as the lyrics rise to drown out the occasional blaring car horn the tips of his fingers shift to tap against the steering wheel in time with the beat. Aziraphale’s mouth forms to the shape of a smile and he turns away to look out the window before it can spill across the whole of his face; but he’s still smiling, even turned out to watch the blur of London passing them by.

Chapter Text

Crowley’s feeling much better by the time they arrive at the nunnery.

There is something therapeutic about driving, he has always said. The feel of the wheel under his hands, the engine purring in answer to his wishes, the surge of the car leaping forward to slice through the crowds and bustle of the city to carry him where he wishes to go: Crowley thinks it’s the closest thing to real freedom he has felt since he last unfurled his wings, and a Bentley is going to cause far fewer sideways glances than enormous black-feathered pinions, however improbably fast the former may have been persuaded to travel. And there is always a comfort to Aziraphale’s presence, no matter how set up he happens to be about Heaven’s presumed success. Crowley never feels as helpless with Aziraphale at his side as he does alone, and with the days left on Earth rapidly giving themselves over to the steady march of time, anything Crowley can do to avert the end times while spending as much of them as possible with Aziraphale is a win in his book.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Aziraphale asks as Crowley cuts across the grass to fall into step alongside him along the gravel path leading up to the sprawling building. Aziraphale is frowning up at the looming façade as if he means to offer a polite inquiry to the building itself as to its previous use. “This...this doesn’t look like a hospital. And--”

Aziraphale’s words cut off sharply, as if his lungs have lost their grip on the air that he uses to speak, even if he technically doesn’t make much use of it otherwise. His hand comes out, his fingers brush Crowley’s arm, and Crowley stops dead in his tracks to reel around towards the other. Aziraphale has his other hand pressing to his chest and a distant look in his eyes; his hand is still touching against Crowley’s sleeve, his fingers pressing weight like he’s reaching for stability. Crowley thinks, briefly and insanely, of taking advantage of the other’s distraction to catch his outstretched hand and lace their fingers together, before Aziraphale shudders through a breath and into the familiar soft of a smile as he looks up at Crowley. “It--it feels loved.”

In Crowley’s opinion, Aziraphale shouldn’t be allowed to say things like that while smiling at him in the way he is. It makes his unbeating heart feel like it might be about to jumpstart into audible pounding and distracts his best -- well, least-bad -- intentions of saving the world into considerations of what, specifically and selfishly, he most wants to see saved. It takes physical effort to turn his head away from the soft in the gaze Aziraphale is turning on him so he can stare rather blankly at the manor house instead. “No, it’s definitely the place.” He braces himself against Aziraphale’s expression before he turns back to confront the gentle glow radiating from every part of the other’s existence. “What do you mean, loved?”

Aziraphale still has his hand on his chest. When he speaks he sounds breathless in a way that makes Crowley’s thoughts dip their toes into temptation without any more persuasion than the sound alone. “I mean the opposite of when you say, ‘I don’t like this place. It feels spooky.’”

“I don’t ever say that,” Crowley informs him. “I like spooky. Big spooky fan, me.” He is aware, vaguely, of his own incoherence in the face of Aziraphale’s angelic radiance, but judging from the smile still dimpling the corners of Aziraphale’s mouth the loved-ness of their surroundings is providing cover for Crowley’s own distraction. He turns away to fix himself to face the more straightforward prospect of averting the Apocalypse. “Let’s go talk to some nuns.”

They make it about two and a third steps before the bang sounds, followed with impatient haste by an impact slamming against Crowley’s chest. He reels back, knocked off the balance of his feet and sideways by the blow, and next to him Aziraphale stumbles forward in the wake of another loud crack in the air. For the first moment Crowley doesn’t feel the pain at all; there is just the calm, distant analysis that he has been shot, and that Aziraphale has been shot, and that if he is forced into discorporation he is going to come back and murder whoever dared to shoot at Aziraphale right in front of him. While he is reflecting on methods of eternal torture his hand takes the lead of more human instinct and comes up to press against the wound in his chest, at which point Crowley realizes that he isn’t actually in much pain at all, beyond a stinging bruise, and that the wet at his skin is strangely sticky for blood. He lifts his hand in front of him, frowning at the viscous liquid apparently running through his veins, and next to him Aziraphale lifts a hand from his shoulder that comes away quite a different color than Crowley expected to see.

Aziraphale stares at his fingers. “Blue?”

Crowley touches his own fingers together. They stick against each other, held together by the glue of the substance drying against his skin, and he grimaces recognition. “Ah, ‘s paint.”

There’s movement from within the rhododendrons lining the edge of the path. A moment later this is followed by a person, lurching forward in a jerky run made the more awkward by the plastic weapon he is holding up over his camo-covered shoulder. “Hey!” he shouts, lifting a hand to gesture at the pair of them together. “You’ve both been hit!” He scoffs as he strides forward, dropping into the stride of someone who has been granted authority by his payroll position and intends to make use of it as the closest to power he is ever likely to come. “I don’t know what you’re think you’re playing at but--”

Crowley considers the frustration building in him, from the pain of being unexpectedly shot with a small bullet of paint and the irritation of his moment of panic, however brief, compounded by some grand order by the pressing immediacy of his quest to save the world and everything on it, including this man who is so insistent on petty concerns that will utterly cease to matter in a few days if Crowley and Aziraphale fail to achieve their goal. Then he decides that it’s better to express himself than hold it back, and lets the accumulated stress of the last decade and especially the last two days tear itself free to roar fury at the man in front of him from the face that is, perhaps, more accurately Crowley’s than the human mask to which he has become so accustomed.

The man yelps, a brief note of terror too profound to gain any volume, and collapses into a faint. Crowley reels himself back into the comfortable edges of his human existence, feeling intensely better as he grins down at the fallen form before him. “Well, that was fun .”

“Ah yes, fun for you.” Crowley lifts his head to look back at Aziraphale, who is standing in the middle of the path with a crease drawing itself at his forehead and a pout of unhappiness at his lips. “Look at the state of this coat!”

Crowley tips his head and steps forward in obedience to this command. Aziraphale makes this prospect a little more challenging than it needs to be by twisting to frown at Crowley as the other circles around him, but Crowley is still able to appreciate the elegance of the garment in question, however dated the cut and style may be. He decides that it suits Aziraphale very well, however misaligned it may be with the times, but Aziraphale isn’t waiting for a verdict as much as proceeding to sentencing straightaway. “I’ve kept this in tiptop condition for over one hundred and eighty years now. I’ll never get this stain out.”

Crowley returns to where he was standing initially, just alongside the man he terrified right out of his grip on consciousness. Aziraphale is still frowning, looking terribly unhappy and desperately adorable. Crowley wonders with a sort of academic curiosity if this is the angelic approach to temptation, and if perhaps he should revisit his own tactics given how much greater efficacy Aziraphale always seems to achieve, at least with him. He collects himself back to the trouble at hand and musters the most obvious solution he can think of. “Well, you could miracle it away.”

“Hm,” Aziraphale says, frowning with the effort of pretending to be considering Crowley’s suggestion. “Yes, but.” He glances at Crowley before retreating again, letting his gaze drift away while his voice wobbles delicately over the threat of open tears. “I would always know the stain was there.” Crowley softens his lower lip to jut it into an over-dramatic show of sympathy as Aziraphale looks back to claim his attention for the finale of his plea. He shifts to turn half-away, volunteering the blue stain soaking into his light coat as he holds Crowley’s gaze. “Underneath, I mean.” His eyebrows lift, just fractionally, as if to suggest the possibility of hope too fragile for him to put to words.

Crowley takes a moment to admire this display of manipulation, and to play out his own role in pretending that he wouldn’t do anything at all for Aziraphale, and that Aziraphale hasn’t known that same fact for centuries. Then he tips to the side, and purses his lips, and whispers a breath to blow away the color over the shoulder of Aziraphale’s stained coat. He hardly needs the gesture -- the paint soaking into the front of his own shirt disintegrates at the same time with no such motion -- but there’s hardly any point to doing miracles without a little showmanship, and Crowley feels Aziraphale’s efforts deserve at least a response in kind.

Aziraphale cranes his neck over his shoulder, straining to check the full removal of the stain from his coat, before the tension in his shoulders relaxes on relief. “Oh.” He looks back to Crowley. His eyes crinkle at the corners, sparkling with that illumination Aziraphale carries in every part of his existence, and after a moment his mouth follows suit to curve up into a smile so soft Crowley feels the structural integrity of his entire self melting in answer to it. “Thank you.”

They go on gazing at each other for a moment: Aziraphale because he’s still smiling in gratitude, and Crowley because he has briefly forgotten there is anything else in all the world beyond the curve of Aziraphale’s smile and the soft of his eyes. It’s Aziraphale who glances away first, and even then it is only for a moment before his gaze rebels and pulls itself back to tangle with Crowley’s. Aziraphale’s smile is easing to the other’s distraction, softening from his lips as his gaze gains intensity, like he’s trying to convey a full conversation with no more than the force of his attention, before he breaks away to turn and continue down the path with renewed focus.

Crowley pivots to watch him, letting himself be drawn into motion by the impulse to go on gazing affection after Aziraphale, and for a moment he lets himself linger in the reminder of what, and whom, he’s doing all this for. Forget paint removal from an antique coat; for Aziraphale’s smile, Crowley is prepared to stop the end times single-handedly.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale feels far more secure once he and Crowley have stepped over the threshold of the manor house to which the other’s memory has led them. It’s not as if he’s going to take another pellet of paint against his coat, of course -- it was only the element of surprise that got the better of the minor, barely-there miracles that Aziraphale works around himself as a matter of course. But there’s still an awful lot of chaos in the grounds surrounding the main building, and Aziraphale is still savoring the fluttering appreciation of Crowley’s latest favor to him too much to be trying to push his luck into securing another, at least for now.

It’s much quieter inside. Aziraphale can still hear the shouts and occasional splat of a distant paintball knocking out a hapless employee, but the noise is well cushioned by the inches of wall between the exterior and where he and Crowley are currently meandering through the shadows of a hallway. It is true that they aren’t exactly gaining information from their present situation, and further true that time is more of the essence now than it has ever been in the whole of Aziraphale’s eternal existence; but it’s very hard to think of the imminent dangers of the Apocalypse when he is walking down a corridor at Crowley’s side. In fact the greater part of Aziraphale’s thoughts are turned to the space between them, which began as a safe span of inches and has inexplicably evaporated with each fluid swing of Crowley’s hips until Aziraphale’s sleeve is brushing the crisp dark of Crowley’s coat and their fingers are in quite immediate danger of actually touching. Aziraphale is looking around them, of course, doing his part to find some trace of a nunnery in the corporate training ground that has been made of the manor, but there isn’t much to be found on that subject, and he is a divine being, and that gives him more than enough focus to spare to consider the angle of Crowley’s hand edging towards his, and to contemplate what precisely he might do with his own fingers should they find themselves unexpectedly entangled with the other’s.

He is so entirely absorbed in this thought, as it turns out, that the sound of rapid footsteps approaching down the hall behind them startles him just for the proof it provides of some existence in this present beyond himself and his infernal counterpart. The new arrival is neither angel nor demon but a human woman, wrapped firmly in camouflage and bearing a plastic helmet on her head with the visor pushed up to uncover her face and make her speech somewhat easier to hear, if not necessarily to understand.

“Millie in Accounts caught me on the elbow,” she declares, in the tone of someone put out with the world and ready to seize the least opportunity to tell a complete stranger about it. She only barely slows as she approaches them and makes an attempt to refill her supply of breath. “Who’s winning?”

Crowley steps away from Aziraphale to draw around and face the new arrival. Aziraphale has a pang of dismay at this loss of proximity, and then immediately chases that with a flush of self-conscious guilt at even being dismayed in the first place. While he is frowning through a stern inner monologue to himself, Crowley speaks in a low, serious tone to the woman. “You’re all going to lose.” There’s a snap of his fingers, and a burst of sound from outside, and Aziraphale’s attention decides it’s had enough of being scolded and goes darting back to respond to this.

The woman appears to have the same idea. She turns away from Crowley to go running back down the same hallway she just came up, and Aziraphale is left to trail in Crowley’s wake as he cocks his head to parse the much-increased sound from outside. The noise is louder, now, brighter and more piercing even with the buffer of the wall between them, and something in Aziraphale flinches in recognition before he firmly steps on it and shoves it back into the bliss of ignorance for at least another few of a human’s heartbeats.

Aziraphale draws alongside Crowley and lifts a hand to point in the direction of the fight outdoors, aware of the answer he is going to get even as his mouth opens to ask the pointless question. “What the...Hell did you just do?”

Crowley swings around to flash one of his brightest, most manic grins at Aziraphale. “Well,” he chirps, cheerful and brilliant and liquid with malicious innocence. “They wanted real guns, so I gave them what they wanted.”

He pivots on a heel and strides away down the hallway. Aziraphale is left to stare after him, shocked in the particular way that comes of knowing the answer you were going to get but still being surprised by the audacity of actually hearing it, before he lurches into motion to trail in Crowley’s wake to the sound of gunfire pinging off the façade and tearing through the shrubbery outside.

He doesn’t know what to say. It’s not like he doesn’t know Crowley is a demon, of course he is, there’s never any doubt in Aziraphale’s mind about that; but it’s one thing to tie up phone networks and indulge mad emperors and quite another to arm unsuspecting civilians with the real versions of the toy weapons they were playing with. “Wh--” He draws up alongside Crowley, finding his footing and his moral outrage at the same time. “There are people out there shooting at each other.”

“Well,” Crowley drawls. Aziraphale can almost see his tongue hissing over the backs of his teeth. “It...lends weight to their moral argument.” He kicks in a door, which flies open rapidly enough that Aziraphale suspects it wasn’t even locked, but even this display of needless destruction isn’t enough to pull Aziraphale back from the tide of alarm rising with each rat-tat-tat peppering the air. Crowley recovers himself from his brief interrogation of a mostly-empty closet to return to sauntering down the hallway. “Everyone has free will. Including the right to murder, just...think of it as a microcosm of the universe.”

Aziraphale’s thoughts reel back so sharply that his feet stall out in the middle of the floor, locking him in place between the desire to go on following Crowley and horror at what kind of slaughter may be occuring on the far side of the manor walls. “They’re murdering each other?”

Crowley pauses to glance back over his shoulder. Aziraphale is too far away to see past the barrier of his dark glasses and the unreadable tension at his mouth; all he has to go on is the uncaring angle of Crowley’s shoulders and the fluid motion of his hips as he swings back as if to continue down the hallway, with or without Aziraphale following him. He manages the distance of a single step forward; then he heaves a sigh and shakes his head.

“No,” he says, sounding rather disappointed by his own weakness in this admission. “They aren’t, no one’s killing anyone, they’re all…” He grimaces as he works himself into an answer. “Having miraculous escapes.” He glances back over his shoulder towards Aziraphale, just for a moment, before he looks away down the hall again. “Wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.”

All the accumulating stress in Aziraphale’s shoulders melts away in a rush of relief so intense it’s almost worth the alarm just for the pleasure of feeling it disappear. A smile breaks over his face to match the feeling he has of the sun restored to a sky where it has never been absent before, of the world returning to its rightful place and Crowley to the person -- well, demon -- Aziraphale has always known him to be. He comes forward at once, with no reason now to hesitate in resuming his place at Crowley’s side where he can best see these flickers of softness that always make him feel so much like his heart has grown wings of its own to flutter against the inside of his chest.

“You know Crowley,” Aziraphale says, tipping his head to beam into the gaze whose warmth he is sure he can feel, however dark Crowley’s glasses may be around it. “I’ve always said that, deep down, you really are quite a nice--”

Crowley moves like a snake striking. His arms lift, his hands come out, and Aziraphale is being shoved off his feet, his whole weight borne backwards by the fists Crowley’s hands have made on the front of his coat. Instinct throws Aziraphale’s hands back to catch himself against the wall behind him and slow some part of the force with which Crowley runs him up against it, but his shoulders still slam against the surface with breathtaking force, followed very immediately by Crowley lunging into a proximity that would steal all the air from Aziraphale’s lungs if he had any left in them at all. His dark glasses fill Aziraphale’s vision, his nose bumps against the very end of Aziraphale’s, and when he hisses words the heat of them spills across Aziraphale’s mouth with as much force as if he’s crushing them against the other’s lips with the friction of his own.

Shut it!” Crowley growls, and Aziraphale is in free fall, he’s pinned to a wall and Crowley is pressing against him and their mouths are so close he can feel the shape of Crowley’s words tangling shadow against his tongue. “I’m a demon, I’m not nice. I’m never nice.” Crowley’s teeth are set tight together, every word is tearing past the strength of his jaw like it’s breaking free of a prison, and all Aziraphale can do is stare into Crowley’s eyes and feel his body drinking in heat until he thinks he must be glowing with the flare of anticipation coursing a fire beneath his skin. “Nice is a four letter word. I will not h--”

“Excuse me gentlemen.”

Crowley whips his head to the side, jaw still tight on whatever vicious heat temper intended him to pour over Aziraphale’s mouth. Aziraphale takes the opportunity to gaze at him for another moment, to think of leaning in and melting the strain from Crowley’s mouth with the persuasion of his lips, of spilling anger out into the greater space offered by millenia of unvoiced desire; and then he lets the temptation go free, and turns to look at the latest interruption.

The woman is approaching down the hallway, wearing not heavy camouflage but instead a well-tailored jacket and matching skirt, with heels of the height that is both professional and sensible. Her hair is smoothed back, her pace brisk; she appears exactly as flustered as she sounds, which is to say not in the least. “Sorry to break up an intimate moment, can I help you?”

Crowley stares at her. Aziraphale’s gaze, having taken in the woman, wanders back to the other’s profile to linger against the prospect of Crowley’s mouth gone soft on shock as he considers the options available to make the moment somewhat more intimate than it was to begin with. Luckily Crowley is too occupied in gaping at the newcomer to look back and see the outright hunger in Aziraphale’s attention to the line of his jaw. “You!”

“Saints and demons preserve us,” gasps the woman. “It’s Master Crowley!” She takes a step back, her certain footing gone as shaky as if the floor has disintegrated into a swamp in the last breath, and Crowley drops Aziraphale’s heels back to the floor and turns away to snap his fingers at her. Aziraphale lands on his own feet, once again in command of his own body, and feeling rather more petulant about it than otherwise.

Some measure of his temper seeps into his voice as he straightens from the wall and tugs more sharply at the hem of his coat than he intended in his effort to smooth the creases of Crowley’s hands from the front. “You didn’t have to do that!” Crowley swerves back around to look at him. Aziraphale resists the temptation to step forward and see if his hands fit as well against the open V of Crowley’s shirtfront as Crowley’s did against his vintage coat. “You could have just asked her!”

Crowley reels back over his heels, struggling to get a grip on coherency as Aziraphale tugs at his bowtie to bring it back to crisp alignment over his neck, where there is no overfast pulse to give away the tremor running through him, and which would be hidden by the collar of his coat even if there were. “Oh-ng-oh--of course, no, yeah!” Crowley grimaces into a set to his mouth that draws hard against the corner of his lips and pulls Aziraphale’s gaze unavoidably and completely plausibly to linger against the way his tongue moves against his teeth. “‘Excuse me ma’am, we’re two supernatural entities just looking for the notorious Son of Satan, wonder if you might help us with our enquiries?’” His voice veers into shrill imitation on the last word, which Aziraphale deigns to acknowledge only with an exceedingly flat look before he steps forward, his composure restored, to speak to the woman.

Crowley follows immediately, leaning in so close his shoulder bumps Aziraphale’s. Aziraphale feels his composure fraying itself loose on contact.

“Uhm.” He coughs in a futile attempt to clear his throat, and also to regain his grasp on the English language and communication in it. “Look.” He considers his options: and habit takes over, and drops him into the polite tone that serves as his best defense against the need for casual conversation with perfect strangers. “Hello. You weren’t by any chance a nun here at this convent eleven years ago, were you?”

The woman doesn’t even blink. “I was.”

Aziraphale raises his eyebrows and glances at Crowley. “Luck of the devil.” Crowley looks back to meet Aziraphale’s sideways gaze before he takes his cue and swings back in to frown intensely at the woman himself.

“What happened to the baby I gave you?”

“I swapped him with the son of the American Ambassador,” the woman answers immediately. “Such a nice man. He used to be ambassador to Swindon.” Aziraphale blinks, his sense of geography leaping to its feet to issue a protest to this, but the woman is still speaking, and he doesn’t interrupt her. “And then Sister Theresa Garrulous came and took the other baby away.”

“The ‘American Ambassador,’” Crowley says, with the quotations audible on his tongue. “What was his name, where did he come from, and what did he do with the baby?

The woman shows no sign of so much as noticing the hiss of temper on Crowley’s voice. “I don’t know.”

“Records!” Aziraphale exclaims with all the enthusiasm of delivering an epiphany that will prove sufficient to stave off the ending of the world. “There must have been records.”

“Yes,” the woman says, perfectly calmly and with just a hint of nostalgic satisfaction. “There were lots of records. We were very good at keeping records.”

Aziraphale couldn’t have hoped for a better answer. “Well,” he says. “Where are they?”

The woman goes on gazing at a point somewhere a foot or so behind Aziraphale’s head with the same distant, dreamy look she has had since Crowley snapped her out of the present. “Burned in the fire.”

Next to Aziraphale Crowley groans in a range that serves perfectly well as a curse without the bother of putting words to the emotion. “Ohhh, Hastur!

Aziraphale, very privately, seconds the sentiment. Publicly he draws on divine patience and persists in his initial goal. “Well, is there anything you remember about the baby?”

The woman’s face shifts fractionally, her eyes going soft at the corners even as she is held in place by Crowley’s demonic compulsion. When she speaks her voice is gentler too, dreamy with unconscious affection, as in fact all of her reaction must be as she is, at present, somewhat absent consciousness in the classic sense. “He had lovely little toesy-wosies.”

Aziraphale can’t help but smile at this. Crowley is somewhat less impressed, judging from the speed with which he pivots on his heel to stride away down the hall again. “Let’s go.”

Aziraphale has to admit, this pursuit has proven far less fruitful than he had hoped. Still, there’s an order to things, and the woman has provided them with information. It’s hardly her fault that it’s not what either of them had hoped to hear. He turns his attention to the figure still gazing blankly past his head without particular concern for whether there is anything interposing in her line of sight or not. “You will wake having had a lovely dream about whatever you like best--”

There’s a voice from over Aziraphale’s shoulder. “Oi.” Aziraphale glances back to where Crowley is continuing down the hallway without looking back at him, and contents himself with a snap of his fingers to dispel the force in which Crowley has wrapped the former nun. She blinks, some of the focus beginning to return to her eyes, and Aziraphale leaves her to return to the present on her own time so he can hurry after Crowley down the corridor.

“Waste of time,” Crowley growls as Aziraphale falls into step alongside him. “We’re no better off than when we left London.”

“And no worse either,” Aziraphale says, prodding at the bitterness in Crowley’s voice with the pointed end of his tone. “At least we know what we’re dealing with now.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says, in a voice desert-dry enough that Aziraphale can feel a sunburn starting just by proximity to it. “A missing Antichrist with toesy-wosies.”

Aziraphale raises his eyebrows and lifts his shoulders in a shrug. “Well,” he says. “At least we can cross cloven hooves off the list, right?” Crowley’s head swings around to fix him with attention, which Aziraphale answers with a sideways glance and a tension at his lips to restrain the smile that is pleading to break free. Crowley looks at him for a moment, his chin lifted on consideration; then he turns away, rapidly but not so quickly that Aziraphale doesn’t see the sharp lift as the corner of his mouth veers up into the admission of amusement. Aziraphale lets his own smile wander a little farther free, enough to crease itself into the very corners of his mouth, and as they turn the corner to return to the front of the manor they do so with smiles, even if absent anything else.

Chapter Text

They stop at a café on the way back from the nunnery.

This is not Crowley’s idea. Crowley’s idea is to return to London, probably, and then maybe trail Aziraphale across the road and into the familiar confines of the bookshop, and then spend the next few days left on an undestroyed Earth drinking as much alcohol as can feasibly be procured between the two of them. He thinks their odds are quite good, given their doubled options for miracles; Aziraphale can manage the expensive wine, and Crowley can keep them well-stocked in cocktails of dangerous colors and an array of flavors, mostly fruity and always artificial.

Crowley feels this is the best suggestion he has left to him, which is to say he is feeling more pessimistic than the earlier half of the week had already left him, and which is also to say that when Aziraphale suggests stopping for tea and cake Crowley swings the steering wheel to skid them into the parking lot of the first neon-signed diner they pass. It’s not as if his idea is any better, anyway. At least with Aziraphale’s there’s the off-chance the Antichrist might wander into the same room as them by sheer serendipity with far more likelihood than him materializing uninvited in the enclosed space of Aziraphale’s bookshop. Aziraphale takes the lead into the café, walking with the spring in his step that always shows itself when he is considering the possibility of dessert, and Crowley wanders behind him with the sluggish drag to his steps that he consistently displays when the world is a handful of days away from imminent destruction.

Aziraphale orders himself a slice of cake and a cup of tea to go with it. Crowley orders just the tea, and as soon as it arrives sets it in front of him so he can ignore it outright in favor of staring blankly at the table halfway between the two of them in the hopes that the polished surface might be forthcoming with some ideas more novel than those the two of them have been able to muster. The table proves as skilled a conversationalist as inanimate objects usually do, in Crowley’s experience, but he continues his interrogation for lack of anything better to do as Aziraphale works his way through his slice of cake with a satisfaction determined to remain undaunted by anything, even the end of all things.

Crowley is just beginning to think he’s getting somewhere with the table -- it’s looking rather nervous around the edges, for a table anyway -- when the sound of Aziraphale’s voice pulls him from his intent focus on a scratch in the coating over the surface.

“You know.” Aziraphale lifts his napkin to his lips as he gestures in Crowley’s direction with the end of his fork. “We might get another human to find him.”

Crowley lifts his head to meet Aziraphale’s gaze. It takes him a long moment to pull himself away from what he was doing, and then to return to the reality of a conversation with someone with a full range of emotional expression, and in fact any emotional expression at all. “What?”

“Humans are good at finding other humans,” Aziraphale informs him as he leans in over the edge of the table. “They’re been doing it for thousands of years. And the child is...partly human.” This with a tilt of his head to gesture away the remaining parts of the existence in question as immaterial to the point at hand. “Other humans might be able to sense him.”

Crowley will admit -- in his own head, very quietly -- that there is something endearing to Aziraphale’s conspiratorial tone as he leans in to share this particularly brilliant plan with Crowley. Unfortunately Crowley’s appreciation of that in the moment is being rudely undermined by his appreciation of everything else about the situation, which pulls a frown onto his mouth and a sharp edge onto his voice.

“He’s the Antichrist!” he reminds Aziraphale, as the angel’s memory seems to be rather limited on this particular detail. “He’s got an automatic defense...thingie. Suspicion slides off him like…” Crowley’s brief flare of energy is flickering under the weight of well-justified pessimism. He only makes a token effort at recalling the phrase in question before giving it up as a waste of time, which he is deeply occupied in doing nothing at all with instead. “Ah, whatever it is water slides off.”

“Got any better ideas?” Aziraphale asks. His voice is soft in consideration of the crowd around them; coupled with the tilt of his head and the arch of his eyebrow, the question veers into scathing rhetoric as smoothly as Aziraphale’s fork cuts through the slice of cake in front of him. “Got one, single, better idea?” He punctuates this barrage of condescension with lifting a bite of cake deliberately to his mouth while maintaining eye contact sharp enough that Crowley can feel the point of it prodding uncomfortably against his ribs.

Crowley wants to push back against this. He would like to have a burst of brilliance unfold in his mind with an idea so spectacularly well-thought-out and genius that the Antichrist will give up the entire preordained structure of his life and retreat to a monastery just at the thought of facing down such impossible cleverness. More immediately, the curve of Aziraphale’s raised brow and the razor edge on his voice is ruffling all Crowley’s natural instincts towards rebellion, in this case to urge him towards the solution of lunging over the table, grabbing a fistful of Aziraphale’s downy hair, and crushing away that self-satisfaction via the insistent force of his mouth against the prim set of those lips. But Aziraphale is lifting his napkin to dab at his mouth again, and Crowley’s brief revolutionary fervor recalls that it has other things to do, actually, and that maybe overthrowing the powers that be can wait for another day, at least. He contents himself with glaring instead, which Aziraphale responds to by ignoring entirely, before heaving a sigh and throwing a hand up in the air in a show of surrender.

“Fine,” Crowley says, and reaches for his cup of as-yet-untouched tea. “We’ll just start picking people off the street and asking if they’ve seen a child who might reasonably be referred to as the Destroyer of Worlds. Great idea, I’m sure we’ll have no trouble with this one at all.”

Aziraphale tosses his head. “I knew you’d see reason,” he says, having evidently lost all his ability to identify sarcasm layered as thick on Crowley’s tone as the icing on what remains of the slice of cake. Aziraphale looks back to his plate to collect the greater part of said dessert on his fork, but he pauses with the silverware still against the plate and his head ducked down over what he’s doing.

“It’s not over yet, Crowley,” he says, in a far gentler tone than what Crowley has heard from him for hours. “You can’t give up on this.”

Crowley rocks back in his chair. “I--you--I’m not giving up,” he manages to get out. “Same to you, angel. We’re not giving up.”

The corner of Aziraphale’s mouth turns up. “Of course,” he says. “We’re not giving up.” He glances up at Crowley over the table for just a moment. It’s only a flicker of attention, a breath of eye contact before he looks back to his interlude with his cake, but it’s enough for Crowley to feel a glow of warmth radiate out through the whole of his chest even with his cup of steaming tea stalled partway to his mouth. Crowley looks at the top of Aziraphale’s head, aching with an affection that is the ultimate rebellion all in itself, and then Aziraphale lifts his fork, and Crowley lifts his cup, and they both return to less dangerous indulgences.

Chapter Text

The drive back to London is marginally less terrifying than their departure. Aziraphale thinks this is primarily due to the lateness of the hour, which has cleared some measure of potential targets from the straight-line path Crowley cuts through the streets that stand between Tadfield and Aziraphale’s bookshop, and partially because they have already made it through one accident tonight and the thrill of danger has rather lost its edge in consequence. Aziraphale makes it through the drive back with no more than a white-knuckled grip on the side of the car, and almost no yelping at all even as Crowley veers them through intersections and around corners that screech protest at the grip of the tires tearing against them. By the time they are skidding to a halt outside the comfortable glow of the bookshop Aziraphale is veering dangerously close to a sin of well-deserved pride in his own composure as he pushes the passenger door open and gets to his feet over legs that have the approximate structural integrity of jelly.

Crowley does not seem to share any part of Aziraphale’s own weak-kneed reaction to the adrenaline surge that he has been sustaining for something on the order of an hour and a half. Then again, Aziraphale has never been entirely convinced as to the objective fact of his companion owning a normal human skeleton at all, based on the sheer amount of temptation he fits into the act of walking, so perhaps this counts for less than it might with someone else. At any rate, Crowley does the opposite of pouring himself into his seat as he throws his door open; by the time Aziraphale has dragged himself to his feet via the help of the metal frame under his desperate hold, Crowley has melted into a lean over the top of the Bentley and is drawing breath to resume a conversation with the comfortable disregard of hours passed that comes with an eternal existence.

“You know,” he says, in the deliberately casual tone with which one might ask you did remember our anniversary, right? or have you got a minute to chat? “If you lined up everyone in the whole world, and asked them to describe the Velvet Underground, nobody at all would say bebop.”

Aziraphale gives this statement the only reply he feels it deserves, which is a look as flat as a freshly paved strip of roadway that has not yet been subject to the force of thousands of cars rattling across it, as he reaches to pull open the door to the backseat and retrieve his biscuit tin and what remains within, which is to say a handful of crumbs too small to be worth collecting even in the most extreme circumstances of imminent discorporation to which he has been subject for the last hour. For a moment he doesn’t see it at all and has the brief concern that he might have accidentally disintegrated it in one of his more panicked moments; then he catches a glimpse of tartan behind the passenger seat, where the box fell to be half-hidden beneath the dark shape of a heavy tome. “Oh, there’s a book back here.”

“Well it’s not mine, I never read books,” Crowley says from where he’s draped over the top of the car.

Aziraphale has the heavenly grace to refrain from commenting on this particular flaw in Crowley’s character, and as a reward gives in to the impulse to acknowledge another. “It has to belong to the young lady you hit with your car.”

Aziraphale can sense Crowley’s eyeroll even as he’s bending down to reach for the tin and the book instead of at Crowley’s position across the top of the Bentley. “I’m in enough trouble as it is, I’m not going to start returning lost property.” Aziraphale straightens from his successful retrieval to favor Crowley with a frown in answer to this inconsiderate but not unexpected statement of intent. Crowley is still leaning over the top of the car, the door open behind him and his whole body slanting in against the support of the Bentley as if he’s relying on its support, or like he’s trying to cross the intervening distance to where Aziraphale is standing with no particular consideration for the solid objects standing in the way. “That’s what your lot do.” Aziraphale rolls his eyes and looks down at the book in his hands, and it is then that the whole of the world around him becomes utterly and entirely inconsequential. He forgets the car, and his roiling stomach, and the slant of Crowley’s shoulders and the lilt of Crowley’s voice and even the hissing possibility of Crowley’s tongue, because there on the front cover is a name Aziraphale has thought of more than any other human in all of existence: Agnes Nutter.

Aziraphale does not blink. Luckily this isn’t something he needs to do, any more than he really needs the breath which ceased entirely sometime in the white shock of recognition that jolted from his eyes back into his core existence without so much as slowing at the stops for disbelief or rational judgment. The world stammers in its motion, or at least he does, jolted out of the usual route of his day by the appearance of a name he never thought to see here, like this, on the cover of a book that is as unique as the foresight of its author. He is holding the only book of its kind, the single printed copy of the true and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, and for a moment Aziraphale knows something of the religious ecstacy humans feel at what to him has always been more of a lifelong career than anything else.

Aziraphale’s ears are ringing, humming with the afterimage of the celestial chorus that he is sure must have just broken around him. Then he realizes that it’s not trumpets and a choir that he’s hearing but the echoing space of a silence waiting for him to fill it. He looks up at once, guilty self-consciousness lifting his gaze to turn in the general direction of the figure next to him even as his attention remains entirely on the cover of the book he is now angling up towards his chest with all the instinct of a miser leaning in over a hoard.

Crowley is looking at him. His gaze is fixed on Aziraphale’s face, with no attention at all towards the tome Aziraphale is clutching towards his chest, but his mouth is soft with expectation and he’s clearly expecting a reply of some kind. Aziraphale casts back over the last seconds of conversation, finds his memory on the subject to be impressively and absolutely absent, and falls back on the best vague politeness England has to offer.

“Oh,” he says, blinking in a determined imitation of someone who hasn’t just laid hands on the object they have coveted with extremely un-angelic lust for hundreds of years. “Uh-h.” He glances back down. The book is still in the angle of his arm pressing hard to his chest. He remembers Crowley exists and looks back up, hastily. “Jolly good, yes. Rather.”

He looks back down at the top edge of the book clutched to his chest. He has to get out of this conversation, that much is perfectly clear to him. The bookshop is waiting, and the glow of his reading light, and he can hardly read true and accurate prophecies in the middle of the street, obviously he has to take them inside, and put on a pair of gloves, and begin reading them immediately.

Aziraphale turns away from the Bentley, following the guidance of his feet, which have a clear understanding of present priorities and are doing their part to remedy the situation to one more amenable to current necessity. From behind him there is a voice, pitched loud to reach out over the distance in an attempt to tap his shoulder and distract the absolute focus of his attention. “Azi, we’ll both contact our respective human operatives, then.”

It takes Aziraphale a moment to realize these words are directed to him, and even when politeness demands a response his feet go on bearing him forward as he glances back to offer token reply. “...Sorry?”

Crowley’s forehead is creased, his mouth is dipping down at the corners. Aziraphale notices these details, and the surprising soft of his voice, without parsing them together into anything of coherent emotional import. “You all right?”

“Perfectly, yes.” Aziraphale is accelerating as he nears the door to the bookshop, and the illuminated privacy it promises in a voice as tempting as any he has ever heard. He draws up to the door and reaches for the handle, his thoughts leaping ahead of his body and through the door while his mouth makes a valiant effort at controlling the inevitable fallout in the coherency of his conversation. “Tip-top. Absolutely tickety-boo.”

“‘Tickety-boo’?” Crowley calls from across the distance of the quiet street, his voice pitching high on the start of laughter, but Aziraphale barely hears him for the thunder of anticipation pushing him forward and through the doorway with all the insistence of a heavy hand at the small of his back.

He barely manages to slow his forward motion enough to tip back and shout a general “Mind how you go!” before his feet carry him away from the doorway and into the security of the shop. Aziraphale pushes the door shut into its frame and turns the key in the lock decisively. It’s only once the door is shut on the rest of the world outside that he finds the room in his breathless excitement to pause and look down at the book cradled in the crook of his elbow.

It really is the book, or rather The Book, the single text that Aziraphale has desired more than any other. The corners of the cover are slightly worn, the shine of the gilded title a little battered, the edges of the pages worn soft with the press of fingers against them, and all Aziraphale can do is stare in rapt idolatry at this opportunity in his life, within his shop, in his hands. The Apocalypse is forgotten, the Antichrist disregarded; the entirety of Aziraphale’s world has narrowed to the book weighing heavy in his hands. He turns away from the door, walking with the careful reverence of a true believer as he bears the book away to the safety of his back room, where he can properly savor the experience of reading it.

Out on the far side of the street, a black car and its shadowy driver linger over the process of departing, delaying until they are in some danger of tipping fully over into loitering; but Aziraphale doesn’t think of them, and he doesn’t notice when the sound of a car engine growling declares their eventual resigned departure.

Chapter Text

Crowley sleeps through the first few hours of the penultimate day of existence.

He thinks this is a good option. By the time he returns to his flat night has staked such a claim on the more mortal inhabitants of the city that Crowley is sure even the persuasion of several dozen bills will be insufficient to raise his connection to his human agents into even the vague approximation of coherency that is the best Shadwell is ever able to manage, in Crowley’s experience. With his human operatives out of commission due to the inconvenient necessity of sleep, and Aziraphale apparently uninterested in passing the hours of the second-to-last night ever with more interesting company than what he can find in his bookshop, Crowley figures he might as well amuse himself with his favorite pursuit, or at least his favorite non-angelic pursuit. He makes it into bed before Thursday has completed its abrupt transformation into Friday, and in the oblivion of unconsciousness he remains blissfully, if temporarily, unaware of the passing of time sliding away with every breath he doesn’t take.

The sun is well up by the time Crowley rouses from his dreams of a better time, or at least an earlier one, when catastrophes were things to be caused instead of averted and one could always dodge away from the fallout with a minor miracle away from a revolution and into some or another restaurant to spend an evening or a decade lounging in capital-g Good company. He doesn’t see the illumination in his bedroom, of course; the enormous window built into the side of the room is bricked up behind the heaviest blackout curtain Crowley could procure for himself, and the result is a room so dark that it is often difficult for Crowley to determine if he has remembered to open his eyes or not. Unfortunately this uncertainty is answered for him as soon as he opens the door to the hallway and is accosted by the evangelism of sunlight demanding to know if he has welcomed the new day into his soul yet. Crowley greets this with the customary grimace, and an incoherent hiss at the back of his teeth, and turns himself away to stumble down the hallway in the general direction of the rest of the apartment while he steels himself for consciousness.

He pauses in front of his shelves of houseplants, which are all growing with intense focus and dedication to their craft of green leaves and rustling health. Crowley narrows his eyes at them to dare them to make any comment on his present appearance, which warning they all take to heart by responding with absolute silence. He pauses, staring them down and waiting for so much as rustle of a leaf, before heaving a sign of resignation and turning back to face the door to the other room. He works his jaw, and lifts a hand to tumble through the crushed-flat mess his pillow has made of his hair; and then he shakes his head, and takes a determined step through the doorway. His clothes smooth, his stride eases, his shoulders straighten. Against the side of his neck the pattern of sheets pressed into his skin melts away; under his fingers his hair finds new life for itself and returns to the much more stylish dishevelment he wills from it. By the time his foot has landed a second step in the room, Crowley is himself again, graceful and cool and polished and ready to take on the Apocalypse. He saunters across the room, oozing the charisma of confidence with every step, and then he pulls up in front of his desk and the phone set on it.

Crowley takes a moment to consider his options. He knows what he ought to do. His next best step is to call Shadwell; with the lack of any better options, as memory sharpens into the razor edge of Aziraphale’s tongue, any outside help he can get will be an advantage, even if the source is a man who likely required the invention of the word disreputable just to encompass his existence. Crowley will call Shadwell, he can hand off information over a breakfast meeting; but when Crowley lifts his hand it’s to his face instead, to draw his glasses off his face and fold them into his pocket before he reaches for the phone to dial a number far more familiar than the one scrawled onto a slip of greasy paper in the corner of his desk.

He’s being perfectly reasonable, Crowley tells himself as the phone makes the connection and begins to ring. He’ll be wasting Shadwell’s time if Aziraphale has had a breakthrough in the intervening hours since they last saw each other; more importantly, he’ll be wasting his time. Better to check in with Aziraphale, when it’ll hardly take a minute to have a quick phone call, and in exchange for a handful of seconds Crowley can dispense with the creeping anxiety that has caught up with his consciousness and is staging a renewed assault after the ceasefire of the night. Crowley has never seen Aziraphale as distracted as he was last night, not in the face of the richest chocolate or the most exquisite wine, and this deviation from a consistency thousands of years in the making has put such a chill in him that he wants nothing so much as to bask in a sunbeam, or the angelic equivalent thereof.

The ringing cuts off sharply. Crowley, caught off-guard by the sudden demand of silence, forgets to wait for a greeting before “Any news?” topples from his lips with near-frantic haste. He presses his lips together and contorts his face into a scowl of judgment for himself before he resumes speaking in a somewhat more cool and casual tone. “Found the missing Antichrist yet?”

He just wants to hear Aziraphale’s voice. Even over the crackle of a phone line it will be a comfort to have that gentle tone, that studied composure by which he can steady himself. But when the answer comes it is with a bright, manic energy, a familiar record skipping over a scratch that sets Crowley’s teeth on edge and hisses his breath in his throat even as he hears it. “No! No news. Nothing. Nothing at all.” There is a moment for Aziraphale to catch his breath before he lets it go and starts the pursuit all over. “Ah-if I had anything I would tell you. Obviously. Immediately, we’re friends! Why would you even ask?”

Even the pleasure of being granted the title of friend without the usual run-up Crowley needs to make on it isn’t enough to make up for the tight-wound stress so audible in the other’s voice. Crowley works his shoulders without thinking about the effort to loosen some of the tension he’s borrowing from the phone line as he grimaces answer.

“Ah, no news here either.” He squints out into the bright of the light outside, where the sunlight is beaming at him with the sort of determined cheer that sets itself like concrete into the lines of a person’s face and the brittle goodwill behind their eyes. Crowley doesn’t suppose he can blame it, really. It’s not as if he’s feeling any more optimistic about their chances for...well, anything, increasingly. He makes a last-ditch effort to rally himself towards something like hope in the face of all odds and makes it as far as white-knuckled refusal to surrender, which is something, at least. “Call me if you find anything!”

Aziraphale doesn’t even balk at this direct demand. “Absolutely, why would you think I wouldn’t?” Crowley opens his mouth to answer this, not sure if he’ll be landing on irony or if straits are so dire as to produce sincerity from him, and the line clicks itself into silence before he has even taken a breath to speak.

Crowley’s left holding the phone to his ear, his mouth open and reply unspoken while his mind scrabbles over the apparent reality of Aziraphale hanging up on him without so much as a polite good day to see him off. After a moment he returns to sufficient presence of mind to pull the phone away from his ear and stare at it, as if this might be a trick of technology rather than the dismissal it clearly was.

“Well,” Crowley says, speaking to the receiver that has gone entirely inanimate with the loss of anyone to hear him. “I suppose it really is the end times.” He hesitates for another moment; then he moves to set his phone back down on the receiver so he can stare at it there instead.

He really does need to call Shadwell, to follow through on the only idea he still has left to work from, now that Aziraphale has apparently decided he has better things to do with his time than communicate with his friend of six millennia. But Crowley stays where he is for long minutes instead, watching his phone with all the demonic compulsion he can fit into his gaze. It still refuses to give way under this pressure, utterly resisting his efforts to will it to ring with a return call, and finally Crowley scoffs a breath, and drags his glasses from his pocket, and reaches to pick up the phone and make the call that might just save the world.

He tries to have faith in their chances, but that’s always been hard to find on his own.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale has known Crowley a long, long time. Sometimes it seems absurd even to put a measure of time on something that has gone on so long, that stretches so far back into the history that has become theirs, more than something either of them can claim single ownership over. Aziraphale knows he existed before he knew Crowley -- he has always existed, there must have been a time Before -- but it has been so long since he recalled any part of that, so long since he wanted to recall any part of that, that the basic fact of it is of far less use than the feeling he has, that he has always known the other, that there is more to the both of them together than either can manage alone. There is no Earth without Crowley, and it has been a long time since Aziraphale wanted to be anywhere else.

In all that time, all the thousands of years since the moment they met, this is the first Aziraphale hasn’t wanted to see Crowley.

The bandstand is an isolated shadow, spanned by paths that break from it in all four directions like the points of an enormous compass. As far as secrecy goes it is quite useless, thanks to the open sides and long, straight paths that lead directly to it; but for isolation it is perfect, thanks to the complete absence of so much as sightseers around it. Aziraphale suspects some touch of demonic guidance in persuading possible tourists or casual wanderers to take another turning and find another path, but he’s too grateful for the ends to worry about the means. He can see Crowley from a long way away, pacing back and forth within the shadow of the bandstand like the open sides are the walls of a cage closing tight around him, and if he looks back over his shoulder he can see the complete absence of anyone approaching from behind him. Heaven has its attentions elsewhere, Aziraphale suspects on the same subject currently holding all of Hell’s focus; and right now Aziraphale is the sole entity in the whole of Heaven and Hell and Earth together who knows where to look for it.

Crowley slows his vicious pacing as Aziraphale steps onto the lowest of the steps leading up into the bandstand, twisting against the heel of his shoe to fix himself in place as he turns to consider the other’s approach. His glasses are blocking the gold of his eyes; with the sky overhead dark with the imminent promise of rain there’s no chance of seeing anything past the dark glass, but there’s no question that the whole of his anxious energy is fixed on Aziraphale with the intensity of a spotlight Aziraphale can feel hot enough to melt the mask of ignorance he is trying, desperately, to sustain. “Well?”

Aziraphale doesn’t know how to answer Crowley’s question. He’s not sure what the question is, even; after a night and a morning spent absorbing additional knowledge it’s hard to remember what Crowley doesn’t know, hard to keep himself from opening his mouth and blurting the truth that would relieve the pressure across his shoulders and the knot at the inside of his chest. But there is no time, not anymore; and Aziraphale shuts his mouth, and looks away from the demand of Crowley’s expectation. A moment passes; then Crowley shakes his head and presses again, his voice coming sharp, now, with the edge of wholly justified impatience. “Any news?”

Aziraphale draws a breath into his chest and risks opening his mouth. “Um.” He tries to return over the last dozen hours, to pull himself back into the person he was last night, in the moment before he looked down and saw gilt letters spelling out the name of a salvation he isn’t meant to share. He starts to extend his hands into a gesture of innocence and immediately retracts to lock them back to safety before they make an attempt to spill information themselves. “What-what kind of news would that be?”

Crowley’s brows rise over the top edge of his glasses. “Well, have you found the missing Antichrist’s name, address and shoe size yet?”

Self-conscious guilt transfixes Aziraphale where he stands. His hands flex tight around each other. “His shoe size, why...why would I have his shoe size?”

Crowley shakes his head. “It’s a joke,” he says. Aziraphale recalls that the concept of breathing exists, and that it is something he might resume doing if he wishes. “I haven’t got anything either.”

Aziraphale makes some attempt at inhaling. He feels very pale, or perhaps very flushed; very obvious, regardless of the means by which his corporeal form is choosing to convey his guilt. Crowley is still watching him, like he’s expecting something else, and Aziraphale can’t bear to answer even this dim hope with stoic silence. He draws a breath and fumbles his way back into the reassurance that he has spent millennia believing in, that feels threadbare and worn at his lips even as he speaks it. “It’s...it’s the Great Plan, Crowley.”

“Yeah,” Crowley bites off, and takes a step forward as he tips his head up to the roof of the bandstand over their heads and beyond it, to the expanse of dark sky crushing down over them. “For the record: great pustulent mangled bollocks to the Great Blasted Plan!”

Every molecule of Aziraphale’s existence flinches back from this blasphemy as if he’s cringing away from the destructive lick of hellfire. It takes everything he has to keep from turning aside completely, and in the end he thinks it is only the harsh edge of pain in Crowley’s voice, and the fact that it is Crowley’s, that gives him traction enough to give a breathless reply. “May you be forgiven!”

Crowley’s head whips around to look back to Aziraphale. “I won’t be forgiven,” he says, and Aziraphale’s heart aches as if with the stab of a knife forged of brutal, unavoidable Truth. “Not ever.” Crowley’s anxious pacing stills, fixing him in place as if he’s spreading his arms in welcome of a final judgment of damnation. “Part of a demon’s job description.” He cocks his head and hisses against the sharp white wall of his teeth. “Unforgivable, that’s what I am.”

Aziraphale stares at Crowley, dark glasses and quick tongue and tailored clothes, and he feels love rising up his throat, seizing at his chest, a flood ready to do its best to wash away that fact at Crowley’s lips, that truth that seared his wings to black and forced him into an eternal Fall. Crowley is wonderful, warm and bright and tender and nice, and still there is no undoing that judgment, no stripping away his condemnation. It’s too much to accept, too much to bear, and Aziraphale reaches for some kind of salvation, something to offer in the face of Crowley’s bitter resignation. “You were an angel once.”

Crowley jerks his head to the side, a rough gesture to couple to the soft of his voice. “That was a long time ago.” Aziraphale feels possibility drain through his fingers, blown away by the rejection in Crowley’s voice as Crowley circles around the enclosed space of the bandstand to lean in close and conspiracy-intimate.

“We find the boy,” he says. His voice is tight as a fist, strained on the desperation of lost time, of impending catastrophe, like he’s trying to infuse Aziraphale with the same anxiety that they shared yesterday, that only the Book has allowed Aziraphale to leave behind him. “My agents can do it.”

“And then what?” Aziraphale demands, made more harsh than he means to be by the immediate relevance of the question to his current situation. “We eliminate him?”

Crowley ducks his head into something perilously like a nod before he slides sideways and aside from the conclusion. “Someone does, I’m not personally up for killing kids.”

“Well you’re the demon,” Aziraphale shoots back, shoving past equivocation with the simple expedience of counting the number of parties involved in the present conversation and coming to the necessary conclusion. “I’m the nice one, I don’t have to kill children.”

“Uh-uh-uh,” Crowley starts, lifting a finger to demand Aziraphale’s attention, but Aziraphale matches him immediately, leaning in to press his point with all the self-righteousness that creeping guilt brings with it.

“If you kill him, then the world gets a reprieve and Heaven…” Aziraphale’s attention drifts upwards, carried on a conscience that increasingly refuses to be soothed by avoidance. “...does not have blood on its hands.”

Crowley rocks back over his heels as if Aziraphale’s words have reached out to shove hard against his shoulders. “Oh, no blood on your hands?” Crowley scoffs towards the edge of a laugh that has never so much as laid eyes on true amusement. “That’s a bit holier than thou, isn’t it?”

“Well I am,” Aziraphale snaps back. “A great deal holier than thou.” Crowley is still watching his face, Aziraphale can feel the intensity of the other’s stare like the wall of dark glass doesn’t exist at all. He looks into his own reflection, seeing himself cast back in the shine of Crowley’s attention, and flinches to drop his gaze to the set of Crowley’s mouth, where frustration is curving heat against the shape of his lower lip. Aziraphale’s focus sticks, clinging to familiar temptation, and he reaches for an argument that feels exactly as weak to himself as it sounds in offering it to Crowley. “That’s the whole point.”

Crowley angles his shoulders forward to eat away at the space between them as he bares his teeth around the hissing shape of the words. “You should kill the boy yourself.” His tongue shifts to drip temptation over the candied persuasion of his tone. “Holy-ly.”

Aziraphale can’t bear this. In a moment he is going to give up the truth, is going to tell Crowley about the Book and the prophecies and the Antichrist and agree to anything that purring voice asks of him, is going to give in after thousands of years of resisting temptation. He’s going to surrender, will choose to kill for the sake of--

“I’m not,” Aziraphale gasps, and jerks himself back from the edge of temptation and back into himself, steady and secure in the cloak of righteousness. “Killing ...anybody.” He looks at Crowley for a moment, watching the set of his own mouth tighten on determination in the glossy reflection of the other’s glasses, before he turns his head away in rejection.

There is a pause. Crowley is standing in front of Aziraphale, still close enough that Aziraphale could lift his hand to touch him if he weren’t clasping both of his rogue hands into a cage in front of him. Aziraphale wonders if he will have something else to offer, some greater argument he has yet to produce, but when Crowley speaks the slippery temptation is stripped from his words to leave them flat with resignation.

“This is ridiculous--you are ridiculous,” as he shakes his head to brush away the trailing strain of the conversation. “I don’t even know why I’m still talking to you.”

“Well frankly, neither do I,” Aziraphale snaps back, some of the tension of his narrowly-averted temptation whipping free to lance under his tone.

“Enough,” Crowley says, “I’m leaving” and he turns to stride away across the bandstand with the most efficient movement Aziraphale has ever seen from him. Aziraphale looks up at the motion, to see Crowley walking away from him and out into the handful of hours the world has left, and the pressure at his chest squeezes tight to force words from him before he can think of them.

“You can’t leave, Crowley,” as his temper evaporates, melting into an affection that he feels aching pain in the place of his brief flare of anger. “There isn’t anywhere to go.”

Crowley twists against his heel at the edge of the bandstand, stalling himself in place to look back to Aziraphale instead of continuing down onto the path. His head tips back, his arms spread wide. When he speaks his voice is much softer than it was, stripped down to simple truth instead of purring possibility.

“It’s a big universe.” His words hang in the air, acknowledgment of a failure neither of them have admitted to even as it offers the possibility of a solution. Crowley lets the silence ring with the impact of this before he lifts a hand to gesture vaguely towards the shadow-darkened world around them. “Even if this all ends up in a puddle of burning goo, we can…” His hand drops, his head turns. “Go off together.”

Aziraphale’s breath vanishes from the space of his lungs, absenting itself from his possession as immediately as all his carefully collected resistance disintegrates to no more than rubble. He was ready for seduction, was prepared to dig his heels in and fight back against whatever force Crowley might have levelled at him. But there is no force, no push, no subterfuge; Crowley is standing across from him, arms as open as his expression, his offer as clear as his feelings, and Aziraphale has never been so close to giving in.

“‘Go off together’?” His voice is cracking, shattering along all its weak points, and he cannot shore it up. His eyes are welling with tears, an endless wave of them threatening to pull free of his hold and drown him and the world before the Apocalypse ever gets a chance at it. “W--” He waits for a retraction, for a laugh, for anything to indicate Crowley is joking, is teasing, is tempting; but he just stands there, still and steady and surrendering, and Aziraphale can feel his heart ripping itself to shreds between the demands of Heaven above and the offer of Crowley’s open arms. “Listen to yourself.”

Crowley lowers his outstretched arms fractionally, but it is only to speak, in a tone that ventures into a softness so sweet Aziraphale aches just to hear it. “How long have we been friends?” His hands spread again, pleading for him better than any words could possibly do. “Six thousand years.”

“Friends,” Aziraphale sobs. “We’re not friends.” He turns his head away from Crowley’s offer, feeling the effort like it’s ripping his heart free of his chest, and when the tears come the tension knots in his throat to harden his words to the rough edges of weapons. “We are an angel and a demon.” The words are the heat of a desert, the taste of salt, the endless waters of a judgment levelled on a beautiful, doomed world. “We have nothing whatsoever in common.” Aziraphale’s breath is rasping, he can’t even see Crowley for the blur of tears at his eyes. It makes it a little easier to manage the lie he throws free of his lips as if he might rid himself of the pain if he can deny the source. “I don’t even like you.”

He turns, blind and choking on his tears as he tries to stage some kind of retreat, and from behind him Crowley shouts back, drawling taunting over the words, “You dooo!

The truth seizes Aziraphale’s ankle, drags him back from his abortive freedom, and he twists back, gripped by guilt and misery and heartbreak too much to spare him from the truth. “Even if I did know where the Antichrist was, I wouldn’t tell you, we’re on opposite sides.”

Crowley surges forward, hunching closer and hissing insistence against his teeth as he crosses the distance between them. “We’re on our side.”

Honesty spills itself to the force of a slap in Aziraphale’s throat as he shouts back, loud to drown out Crowley’s speech: “There is no ‘our side,’ Crowley.” Crowley pulls back and Aziraphale looks away sharply, before he loses his hold on his stubborn determination. “Not any more.” He sets himself, feet on the ground, hands at his sides, jaw set hard against the pain in his chest, before he lifts his head to meet Crowley’s gaze with all the bared steel of righteousness along his spine. “It’s over.”

Aziraphale can hear the breath Crowley takes, the long inhale of expectation for another persuasive tack. He’s braced for it, against it, ready to hold his ground no matter what may come; and then Crowley looks at him, and lets his breath go in a gust of resignation that takes all the strength in his body with it. His shoulders sag, his jaw softens, his head tips, and Aziraphale makes himself meet Crowley’s gaze, makes himself watch the hurt spread and seep like poison through the whole of the other’s presence.

“Right,” Crowley says, crisp and short so it breaks off before his voice gives way to a quaver. He stands still, all his sinuous motion stifled by Aziraphale’s words, before he shakes his head. “Well then.” There’s another hesitation, like he’s waiting for a reprieve; then he makes a sound of dismissal, and twists to leave the bandstand and pace away down the path. Aziraphale watches him go, his throat working on a helpless sob before he tips his head away to blink back the wall of tears that is burning behind his eyes.

From the path Crowley pivots back, looking over his shoulder even as he goes on moving away. “Have a nice doomsday.” When Aziraphale looks up Crowley is still turned back to watch his reaction; their gazes only meet for a moment before Crowley looks away with a force like a door slamming shut and goes on striding away down the path. Aziraphale watches him go, a shadow diminishing as the distance between them widens; and then his eyes overflow, and he has to duck his head forward into his hands to stifle the hiccuping sobs that lay claim to the lonely silence around him.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Aziraphale leaves the bookshop and goes to meet Gabriel.

He doesn’t particularly want to see his heavenly counterpart. Gabriel is difficult to deal with, loud and cheerful and overwhelming in a way that always leaves Aziraphale feeling as if he’s been attempting conversation with and within a wind tunnel. But Aziraphale is currently the sole owner of information that is vital to the continued existence of the world and everything upon it, and having made a decision for himself he has no real choice left but to see it through. He can’t tell Crowley, can’t make the moral gray space of their relationship stretch into the darkness that would surely come with sharing this information, now, at this time; and that means he has to tell Heaven, and that requires Gabriel.

Aziraphale suggests the meeting place. He could always ask Gabriel to come to his bookshop; it will hardly make a difference to Gabriel where he manifests, and it would save Aziraphale the trouble of walking out to the park under a sky that is holding the threat of rain over the city like a raised fist. But Aziraphale doesn’t like intruders in his bookshop, not when he can bar them with a locked door and a turned-around Open sign, and he feels his recent virtuous self-denial has earned him at least a little self-indulgence. So he asks Gabriel to meet him in the park, and breathes a sigh of relief that his bookshop will remain his own, and tries very hard to not think about that absent presence that has always fit as perfectly within the curve of the walls as the shelves of books and the soft sound of Handel.

The park is less than comfortable, Aziraphale finds as soon as he arrives. The trees are beautiful, of course, branches reaching towards the sky in elegant arches decades in the making, but the air has the tense feel of a storm on the horizon, and all Aziraphale can think about when he looks at the spread of the grass, and the breadth of the trees, and the few clusters of people, is how little time any of them have left in their innumerable existences. The crickets at the edge of the path, the baby gurgling cheerfully in its carriage, the hedges that line the distant roadway: they will all be gone by a quarter after four, if Aziraphale doesn’t figure out a way to save them.

The thought tightens his shoulders with panic and heightens the fervor with which he considers the faces of the few people who have ventured out into the park. There is a father with the child in the carriage, too young and frazzled to be Gabriel; far in the distance there are a pair of women sitting close together on a bench and laughing, but one is wearing a flannel overshirt and the other worn-through tennis shoes, and besides Gabriel has used the same physical form ever since he made himself over following his announcement to the Virgin Mary, claiming that he needed a new look for a new era.

Then again, the end of times surely merits an overhaul to all previous attachments. Perhaps he has remade himself again and is waiting for Aziraphale to see past the unfamiliar features and disguising clothes to the angelic self beneath. Aziraphale considers his options again, frowning in thought as he does so. There is a human statue standing just alongside the path, wearing a halo made of tinsel and wings glinting with a sheen of gold paint. The wings are far too small, obviously insufficient to bear the form to which they are attached, but Aziraphale still pauses to frown consideration at the features covered in a layer of gilt to give them the seeming of stone instead of human flesh. It’s difficult to be sure, with the glitter of the paint to distract his vision from the intent focus he is trying to attain; and then a jogger runs just past Aziraphale’s shoulder, and the glow of angelic presence is so bright that Aziraphale has to blink spots from his eyes as he turns to look. It’s Gabriel, of course, dressed in the gray he generally favors and with all the physical presence of his preferred form, and Aziraphale abandons the angel statue in favor of jogging rapidly after the true heavenly presence other than himself.

It’s difficult to catch him up. Gabriel is setting a brisk pace, although he doesn’t appear to be struggling at all; Aziraphale has to strain to catch up with him, and even once he’s running alongside Gabriel doesn’t so much as glance to acknowledge his presence. Aziraphale pauses for a moment, considering if there might not be an identical twin to Gabriel’s preferred form who just happens to be running through this park at this exact time while Aziraphale is waiting for the angel himself; and then he gives up this particular insanity and leans in to catch the other’s attention with more intentional effort. “It’s me.”

Gabriel answers immediately. He doesn’t even have the grace to sound out-of-breath. “I know it’s you, Aziraphale.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, as he fumbles for one of his practiced speeches and finds it to have stepped out for the moment. “Yes. Right, look, um, uh.” He scrabbles for what crumbs of meaning still remain and presses them together into some kind of coherency around his most pressing concern. “We need to get word upstairs, to the uh...to the...to the Big Boss.” Gabriel doesn’t even glance Aziraphale’s way. Aziraphale reaches for something more to offer. “Uh...there’s...there’s been prophecies.”

Gabriel designs a crease in the middle of his handsome forehead, perfectly placed between dark brows. He lifts his hands from his sides to accentuate the artistic confusion he is displaying across his face. “What’s in human prophecies that matters to us?”

In the absence of worse company and with the increasing pressure to figure out a plan for himself, Aziraphale has done nothing for the last half day but reread every prophecy in Agnes Nutter’s remarkable book. Two minutes ago he would have been able to recite any one of them back instantly. In the moment, his memory has gone on strike and is taking all those well-studied words with them. He fumbles for recollection, an undertaking not aided by the strain beginning to turn to panting in his chest as he goes on matching Gabriel’s easy stride with much less grace and much more difficulty. “Well, uhh. The kraken wakes and rises from the sea floor. So does Atlantis. And the…” Aziraphale reaches wildly for the most extreme in a list of increasingly bizarre circumstances that have descended over the past dozen hours. “And the rain forests return. And that’s just for starters.”

He looks to Gabriel: still running, still comfortable, still profoundly unconcerned. Aziraphale is beginning to wonder if he is speaking aloud at all. He takes a breath to add greater volume to his words, since the impact seems to be falling short of the mark. “Uh--Armageddon is coming and I’m fairly certain it starts today. Just after teatime.”

Gabriel manufactures another frown of perfect confusion. “Exactly, right on schedule. What’s your point?”

Aziraphale is out of breath and out of ideas and entirely out of patience. “Look,” he gasps. “Will you please stop, just for a minute, please?” He doesn’t wait to see if Gabriel has taken note of this plea before he gives up his ill-conceived notion of running so he can lean over and brace both hands on his knees to gasp for breath. His heart would be racing, if it ever did; as it is Aziraphale takes the moment to steady himself and collect his thoughts back to the relevant subjects, and his breath back to the relevant lungs, before he straightens, sweaty and exhausted but at least able to speak to an audience that is holding still to listen to him.

Gabriel is waiting for him, hands on his hips and an expression on his face that speaks, loudly, to exactly how divine the patience he is presently demonstrating is. He looks at Aziraphale as the other straightens, eyebrows raised into expectation that he holds for a deliberate beat before he speaks. “Well?”

Aziraphale takes stock of how much breath he has and decides to favor efficiency over persuasion. “I just...I just thought there was something we could do.”

“There is!” Gabriel says. For a moment Aziraphale’s heart thinks of leaping; then Gabriel continues, and it decides that it might as well save the effort and just stay still after all. “We can fight. And we can win!”

Aziraphale reaches for the last, desperate attempt to convey his point. “But there doesn’t have to be a war.”

Gabriel rocks back, frowning confusion like Aziraphale has just presented him with a riddle. “Of course there does otherwise how would we win it? Hm?” He grins and shakes his head. Aziraphale feels all the strength of hope drain out of his shoulders before the wall of Gabriel’s cheerful bloodlust. “Now look, wrap up whatever you need to wrap up down here. Report back to active service.” He heaves a sigh and looks down, waiting until Aziraphale has looked back up before he meets the other’s gaze and casts another pointed glance downward. “Lose the gut?” His brows draw together, his mouth softens into a pout of assumed sympathy. “Come on. You’re a lean, mean, fighting machine.” He curls his hands into fists to swing as mock punches at the soft of Aziraphale’s waistcoat. Aziraphale flinches back but attains no distance at all as Gabriel leans in to laugh aggressive camaraderie at him. “What are ya?” And he’s turning to dart off again, resuming his jog without waiting for the assumed agreement of Aziraphale’s answer.

“I’m uh…” There is no one to hear Aziraphale’s reply, no expectant audience to hold him to the scripted response he is meant to give as the soldier he was made to be and most certainly is not. His shoulders sag, his chin drops; when he sighs the sound takes all the strength from his body with it. “I’m soft.”

Aziraphale stares at the pavement before him, feeling sad and hopeless and so desperately lonely he can feel the ache for Crowley like a physical pain in his chest. He braces himself against it, trying to steel himself to continue down this path that he has already set himself on, after all, and there’s a pop in the air next to him, the sound of a human-sized amount of air being startled away from where it was, and when Aziraphale jerks up to look Gabriel is back even more rapidly than he left.

“Almost forgot.” Gabriel leans in closer, his hands pressed together in front of him and his wide purple eyes fixed on Aziraphale as if he means to see right through him. Aziraphale can feel his expression falling into the mask of wide-eyed innocence that speaks most loudly of a desperately guilty conscience, as if Gabriel might be able to read the downward slant of his thoughts just from a glance. “According to our records, you were issued a flaming sword?” Gabriel’s brows knit delicately together, his gaze narrows on a squint as he cants his head to the side to echo the upswing of his voice. “You didn’t lose that.”

Aziraphale stares back at Gabriel, his expression locked into blank uncomprehension while his mind scrabbles for a response to this totally unexpected question. “What, like I’d…” He forces the corners of his mouth to turn up. After a moment he huffs into something that approximates a laugh about as well as Gabriel approximates ordinary human behavior. “I’d--I’d just give it away...or something.”

Gabriel beams hugely at him, smiling so wide his eyes crinkle themselves nearly shut as he reaches out to clap both hands at Aziraphale’s shoulders. Then he turns away to take off back down the path again, moving at such a pace that he is almost out of sight by the time Aziraphale has worked his heart out of his throat and back down into his chest where it belongs. He watches Gabriel leave, gazing until he’s quite sure the other is gone, this time, before he looks back to stare blankly across the path. The distant recesses of memory recall the weight of a hilt at his palm, the fit of his fingers around the handle, the glow of flames licking along the blade; and as readily the bright of vivid yellow eyes watching him, a mouth curving onto a disbelieving smile, the rustle of black feathers alongside white.

Be funny if we both got it wrong, Crowley had said. If I did the good thing and you did the bad one.

Aziraphale works his throat on a swallow. “No,” he says, very softly, so he can pretend he doesn’t hear the words himself. “It wouldn’t be funny at all.” He shuts his eyes for a moment, standing alone in the middle of the path; and then he turns away from the route down which Gabriel just departed, and begins the long walk back to the quiet waiting at his bookshop.

Chapter Text

Everything is going very, very badly.

The Apocalypse is impending, forming itself into the frankly overdone symbolism of a storm collecting to enormous dark clouds over what Crowley suspects to be the whole of England and can confirm spans at least the greater part of London. Aziraphale is refusing to pick up Crowley’s calls, or at least Crowley is convinced enough that he won’t that he hasn’t made the attempt since the catastrophe of their last interaction. The Antichrist is still missing, still free to wreck whatever havoc an eleven-year-old boy sees fit to rain down on the world; and worst of all, now Hell knows that too.

Crowley isn’t having a good day. He never really expected the last day on Earth to be what one would call enjoyable, but it’s looking increasingly as if he won’t even have a chance to finish out the planet’s full run, at least not in a form that is recognizably human, or alive. Hell is coming after him, as promised by their own oozing mouths, and Crowley knows too well how thoroughly Hell can follow through on the requirements they set for themselves. He has to return to his flat so he can claim the most extreme of the last resorts he has prepared for himself over the years, and then--well, and then he’ll figure out the rest of it from there. He’ll need to leave eventually; he doesn’t have the firepower, or rather the waterpower, to deal with the entirety of Hell coming after him, and his physical form is going to be no better off in the flames of Armageddon than anyone else’s. He’ll have to make his departure sometime, preferably before suffering grievous bodily harm from any of the ever-increasing volunteers for such; but he skids away from that thought now as quickly as he has every time it has arisen before, dodging free of the implication that would come of leaving alone as smoothly as he steers his car around the obstacles presented by streetlamps, and pedestrians, and other vehicles.

He has one goal at the moment. Hell is after him, they know where he lives and they will be arriving there at any moment; Crowley’s only chance of manifesting a miraculous escape will be found in beating them to the punch so he can claim his secret weapon, kept locked away in absolute isolation for long decades. The streets of London are an obstacle, peppered with people and cars that have the outrageously bad taste to continue inserting themselves in Crowley’s desperate path, and then there is a flicker of illumination from amidst the crowd pacing along the street, and Crowley’s attention jerks away from the road to focus in on the source of such. It can’t possibly be, it’s too much luck to hope for; but the devil is still on his side in this, it seems, because there Aziraphale is, walking down the street with his hands knotted around each other and his soft mouth caught on a frown as he gazes at the pavement ahead of him. Crowley stares at him for a moment, disregarding the motion of a bicyclist and a frantic mother darting across the road in front of him; then he jerks the steering wheel without looking to pull the Bentley into a somewhat parked position. Crowley keeps watching Aziraphale as he pulls on the brake to stop the car, determined to hold the other still on the sidewalk by the intensity of his focus; it’s only as Aziraphale turns to frown recognition at the car that Crowley takes the risk inherent in looking aside for the moment it takes to fling himself out of the vehicle and around to the sidewalk.

“Angel!” Crowley’s voice jumps high on desperation and he lets it fly free of his control as he comes up onto the sidewalk. Aziraphale is turning to watch him, his forehead creasing on surprise more than the rejection that was there when Crowley saw him last. It’s as good as an invitation, as far as Crowley is concerned, and he’s spilling words as quickly as he approaches, scattering them at Aziraphale’s feet as he extends both arms wide to lend strength to his sincerity. “I’m sorry, I apologize, whatever I said, I didn’t mean it.”

Aziraphale’s expression softens, his shoulders ease on a sigh. Crowley’s languishing heart finds unprecedented strength for itself and leaps towards hope. He takes another step forward. “Work with me, I’m apologizing here. Yes?” He leans forward, gauging the surrender at Aziraphale’s mouth, the warmth melting at the corners of his eyes, before the necessity of impatience declares a verdict and pushes him back into haste. “Good!” He swings both his arms to the side to usher Aziraphale’s attention towards the waiting Bentley. “Get in the car.”

Aziraphale’s forehead tightens as he rocks back from Crowley’s insistence. “What? No!”

This is all wrong. Crowley knows how to persuade Aziraphale, has spend thousands of years learning the right tacks to take, the right inducements to earn himself a minute or an hour or a day of the other’s surrender; but there is no time, they have run through it all, and all that he can do now is rely on all those dozens of centuries they have spent together to argue his case for him. “The Forces of Hell of figured out it was my fault,” he says, speaking fast to hurry past this unpleasantly horrifying truth and on to the reassurance of a solution. “But! We can...run away together! Alpha Centauri!” He lifts a hand to the sky without looking away from Aziraphale in front of him. Aziraphale’s gaze follows the motion of his hand like he’s considering the suggestion before he shuts his eyes in resignation. Crowley’s chest tightens to a fist of panic. He waves his arm generally upwards, trying desperately to pull the focus of Aziraphale’s eyes back onto him again. “Lots of spare planets up there, nobody’d even notice us!”

Crowley can see his loss in the crease between Aziraphale’s brows, in the way his mouth crumples onto the same hurt that cracks under his voice and through Crowley’s heart at one and the same time. “Crowley, you’re being…” He pauses, struggles for words. “Ridiculous.” Crowley’s upraised arm questions the value of its efforts and drifts slowly into surrender. Aziraphale looks away from him, turning aside as he gestures as if to lay things out smoothly, as if to make a clear path of what looks like nothing so much as an unmitigated disaster to Crowley’s gaze. “Look, I-I-I’m quite sure if I can just--” He glances at Crowley for a breath before tightening his hands around the reins of his own attention and ducking back into his blind forward striving. “Just reach the right people, then I can get all this sorted out.”

Crowley draws forward, urged nearer by desperation, by affection, by the absolute need to throw out a hand and pull the love of his eternal existence back from the cliff-edge of destruction to which his determined faith is leading him. “There aren’t any right people.” Aziraphale’s shoulders are still angled away but his eyes drift in Crowley’s direction, responding to the other’s approach with an instinct ingrained in the passage of six thousand years, and Crowley stares into that radiant gold and tries, with everything available to him, to make Aziraphale see. “There’s just God. Moving in mysterious ways and not talking to any of us.”

“Well, yes,” Aziraphale agrees, in a tone that says he isn’t really agreeing at all and perhaps has heard nothing at all of what Crowley is trying to say. “And that is why I’m going to have a word with the Almighty and then the Almighty will fix it.”

He’s looking straight at Crowley, his eyes wide and unblinking as he nods approval of this plan cast on the skeleton of a faith that Crowley left behind so long ago he doesn’t know if he ever felt it. Crowley feels like they’re standing before the cross, like they’re on the sand in front of the Ark, like they’re atop a high wall looking down at the first in a long line of what he has never been able to see as anything but victims, with the angel in front of him insisting on a Plan that Crowley has never seen, has never understood, has never believed in. It was a setback, before, an inconvenience of perspective at most; now it’s the end of the world, and Aziraphale’s trust is going to doom the two of them right along with the rest of existence, and Crowley doesn’t know how to save him.

“That...won’t happen!” He rocks forward, tipping nearer as if proximity will get him close enough to break through, as if he might be able to make Aziraphale see if he can just get past the faith so blinding the other’s reason. “You’re so clever, how can somebody as clever as you be so stupid!”

Aziraphale’s eyes soften, his gaze melts. For a moment Crowley has a brief, insane hope that he somehow made it through, that some part of that surrender is persuasion making it before Aziraphale’s attention. Aziraphale’s lips part, he pauses for words, and when he does speak it is very gently, the words as soft as an outstretched hand brushing against Crowley’s jaw. “I forgive you.”

At any other time Crowley would be undone by this. In any other moment, on any other day, in any other century, the kindness of those words in that voice would disintegrate all his focus, would render him as overtly adoring as he has always been, where Aziraphale is concerned. But here, now, as they are, the kindness is a rejection, a refusal to a hope that Crowley has always held in some deep part of himself, has sustained even after their last tumultuous conversation. He stares at Aziraphale for a moment, aching with disappointment and frustration that he can’t even muster anger, that all he can feel is love enough to make a few hours together on Earth seem worth an eternity of existence alone; and then he sets free the air in his lungs in a groan, and turns away to throw himself back towards his car and what future he can still find for himself.

“I’m going home, angel.” Crowley’s voice stumbles over hurt, barely catching itself back from a sob by an application of volume. He can’t find the will to smooth it. He pulls open the door of his Bentley and then, without hesitating, commits the sin of planting his foot at the inside frame so he can push himself up and lean over the top of the car. He is a demon, after all, and it’s not like there will be anything left to show scuff marks by the end of the day. “I’m getting my stuff, and I’m leaving.” He tips himself forward over the top of the Bentley, bracing over the support so he can lift an arm and gesture vaguely towards the gray sky overhead, which he doesn’t so much as glance at for his focus on Aziraphale’s wide-eyed gaze up at him. “And when I’m...off in the stars, I won’t -- even -- think about you!” And he swings himself down and away, retreating before the gratuitous lie can print itself to obvious clarity over his face. He hauls the door shut, slamming it with a show of the intention he doesn’t feel, and when he pulls back from the curb he does so as quickly as if he really means any part of his statement. The Bentley swings out into traffic, reinstating itself into the hum of the London streets with ease, but Crowley’s attention lingers back on the curb behind him, tangled at the soft hurt of Aziraphale’s mouth as Crowley turned away. Crowley thinks about this for a moment, frowning inattention at the street in front of him, and then he grimaces, and shakes his head, and shifts into a higher gear in an attempt to outrun the ache in his chest as much as the sense of disaster lowering over him.

The Bentley proves incapable of doing either, in the end, but Crowley appreciates the attempt, even if it was doomed to fail from the start.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale isn’t paying any attention to where he’s going as he continues down the sidewalk.

It’s a busy street. He had taken the long way back to his bookshop after meeting with Gabriel, as much for the comfort of pacing as out of a desire to put off the stress of the call he needs to make as long as apocalyptically possible. Any other ideas of possible encounters on the street were far distant from his mind, or rather so adept at disguising themselves as aching nostalgia that he hadn’t realized what he was hoping for until a familiar black Bentley had drawn up alongside the sidewalk and he had felt more relief than surprise. Aziraphale had had no real hope of persuading Crowley out of his current escape plan; whatever else he may have become to Aziraphale over the years, he is a demon, and Aziraphale can hardly ask him to muster the same faith that Aziraphale himself is blessed with.

Regardless of his resignation to the final conclusion, Aziraphale hadn’t expected to be as affected by Crowley’s pleas as he is. He had thought the worst of that past by the time he returned to the bookshop yesterday, with his eyes dried by a lengthy walk home and his head lifted into the staunch self-confidence that he will need, if he is to do his duty and solve this on his own. He spent the night reassuring himself as to the righteousness of his decision, the goodness of the position he has adopted; surely such moral certitude should offer some measure of defense against the temptation that Crowley offers with outstretched hands and pleading words and a voice breaking on more emotion than Aziraphale can remember ever seeing in him before.

But Aziraphale still took the long way back to the shop, and still all but expected the screech of tires to pull Crowley’s car in against the curb next to him, and even in the hectic rush of desperation the lift of Crowley’s arm towards the sky had pulled so sharply against Aziraphale’s chest that he had had to shut his eyes just to distance himself enough to say no. The second refusal had been as hard as the first, perhaps harder, with Crowley’s anger of the day before softened to panicked fear, and even with all his expectation Aziraphale had felt words fight to free themselves from the cage of his chest, to say yes to the offer of the one thing he has never let himself admit to wanting. He thinks he might have, if it weren’t for his conversation with Gabriel; but as his remaining options narrow Aziraphale’s faith has a clearer path down which to shine, and however he may feel about his fellow angels he is certain in his trust in the Almighty’s ineffable plan. He will just have to go over Gabriel’s head, and offer his information to the one entity that will listen even if no one else will; and it’s into this presumption of authority that the chime of a voice like a bell sounds.

“Hello, Aziraphale.”

Aziraphale looks up, surprised to hear that voice here, on Earth, in the middle of a storm-clouded street; and then twice over surprised, to find not one but three of his heavenly counterparts standing directly in front of him. They are very near; Aziraphale’s feet have to fall back by a step just to keep from depositing him directly into a collision, and as soon as he steps back they move forward, as if their motions are precisely balanced to his.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. “Michael. Uriel.” His gaze slides away from Uriel’s stoic beauty to brush against the third member of his unexpected audience, and regrets the decision almost immediately. Aziraphale’s smile decides it has had enough of this and slides off his face to find better locales. “Sandalphon.” Aziraphale shifts his weight back over his heels, tilting himself to the side in a retreat he hopes will be minor enough to avoid meriting another advancing step from the trio before him. “Hello. Um.”

Michael beams at him, his smile warm and caring and as gentle as his voice. “We’ve just been learning some rather disturbing things about you.” Aziraphale’s instinct confers with his feet and they collaborate to draw him backwards by another step and almost into the corner of a café that seems to have materialized behind him. Aziraphale glances back at the edge of the building, wondering vaguely if he can subtly maneuver himself around the barrier so he can go on retreating along the sidewalk, but Michael steps in closer, and Aziraphale is left to fall back with the cold comfort of the building pressing against his shoulders. Michael cocks his head to the side to give Aziraphale a look of beneficent concern, the expression of a parent who is only worried about their child’s well-being, who is hoping to hear some perfectly reasonable explanation for all this. “You’ve been a bit of a...fallen angel, haven’t you?” Aziraphale’s skin goes colder than the weather can account for, a shiver of unwanted understanding trickling itself down his spine like ice water. Michael frowns disappointment at him. “Consorting with the enemy…”

Michael trails off to leave Aziraphale with three pairs of eyes gazing condemnation at him. Aziraphale fumbles for an explanation, for an excuse, and finally lands on outright denial. “Oh, I-I-I haven’t been consorting.”

Michael is still glowing with the illusion of sympathy. Uriel, when they speak, is not; their voice is flat, all the angelic lilt of it hardened into the shine of well-polished steel. “Don’t think your boyfriend in the dark glasses will get you special treatment in Hell.”

Aziraphale’s face glows, his blood going so warm with pleasure that his heart thinks very seriously of taking the place of his wings and fluttering with happiness. For a moment the sheer flattered delight of hearing Crowley described as his is brilliant enough to eclipse all of his tension and spill a smile over his lips in spite of his sense of decorum, and his lesser sense that this might not be the ideal moment to react with such visible affection at the mere thought of the demon he is supposed to be opposing. It doesn’t make a difference, though, because Uriel is still speaking, and their next words are enough to dampen all Aziraphale’s brief happiness under the wet blanket panic always carries with it. “He’s in trouble too.”

The words remind Aziraphale of Crowley’s desperate speech on the sidewalk, blurted so quickly he hardly made sense of it in the moment: the Forces of Hell figured out it was my fault, and he forgets to take a breath by which he could measure the span of his reaction. Trouble carries a different weight with it, when it is hissed by a demonic voice instead of lilted in an angelic one; and then the latter claims Aziraphale’s name to demand the return of his attention to the present moment.

“Aziraphale.” Aziraphale looks up to meet Michael’s steady gaze. The other angel arches his perfect eyebrows into the slightest suggestion of terminating patience. “It’s time to choose sides.”

Aziraphale takes a breath. It always comes back to this, with Heaven and Hell and even Crowley, this constant refrain of picking a side, of prioritizing loyalties in a way that Aziraphale has never been able to make sense of. He can’t chose, not with Heaven on one side and Earth and humanity and Crowley on the other; and so he takes a breath, and begins to fumble into the explanation he has been struggling with forming in the quiet of his empty bookshop and the pressure of precious seconds spent to smooth the winding path of his thoughts.

“I-I’ve actually been giving that a lot of thought, the um. Whole choosing sides thing. Um.” Aziraphale risks a glance at Sandalphon and immediately abandons that possibility in favor of returning to Michael as the face most likely to soften with the start of sympathy. “What I think is that there obviously has to be two sides.” The words are coming more easily, now, gaining speed and force as he gets traction on the decision he finally came to, on his own, without the shadow of any demonic influences beyond what his own memory might offer. “That’s the whole point, so people can make choices. That’s-that’s what being human means. Choices.”

Aziraphale looks around at his audience. Uriel’s face is utterly impassive, smoothed to impressive neutrality; Sandalphon is staring at Aziraphale with its mouth slightly open and the glazed look of a predator barely being restrained by the leash around its neck. Aziraphale flinches back to Michael and tries to retrieve the fluidity of his argument. “But-but that’s-that’s for them. Our job as, as angels should be...to keep all this working so they can.” He looks to Uriel and lifts his hand to underscore his point. “Make choices.”

Uriel doesn’t so much as blink. “You think too much,” they say, and there is a blur of motion, accompanied by the abrupt sensation of Aziraphale’s solar plexus compressing sharply as if under a swing of a solid fist into it, which is in fact exactly what has happened. Aziraphale’s breath wheezes out of him, he folds forward over the unhesitating blow that Sandalphon has just thrown into his middle, and Sandalphon steps back, leaving the pain of its blow to swamp all Aziraphale’s attention for a moment. It takes Aziraphale a long span before he can recall how to draw a breath into his chest, and another to begin to straighten to act on it, and no sooner has he begun to move than Uriel takes their cue to step forward. They seize at the lapels of his coat, shoving him hard against the edge of the café, and Aziraphale struggles for breath knocked free as much by shock as by Sandalphon’s punch.

“You--” he starts, and pauses to look down. Uriel has solid fists of his jacket and is pushing hard enough that Aziraphale can feel the strain against his chest pinning him back against the café wall. He looks back up to the blank neutrality of Uriel’s face, pressing towards him with as much threat behind their steady stare as the shine of light off a drawn blade would carry. “You mustn’t! Why would you do this?” Aziraphale looks past Uriel to Michael, still standing a step behind the other angel, still with his expression cast into that perfect mask of patient disappointment. “We’re the good guys.” Sandalphon has returned to its original position as well. There is nothing at all patient in the vicious delight clear across its face. Aziraphale looks back to Uriel, who is watching him with the faintest touch of a smile beginning at the corners of their mouth. There is nothing of pleasure in their gaze at all. Aziraphale reaches for the best defense he can muster for himself. “W--I-I-I have to warn you that I’m going to take this entire interaction up with…” Hesitation catches his words and drags his gaze upwards, flinching from the idea of calling the Almighty down upon fellow angels, before self-righteousness reinstates itself and doubles down. “Up with...a higher authority.”

Uriel’s mouth cracks on a smile that evaporates as immediately as it comes. “You really think upstairs will take your call?” They lean in close, until Aziraphale can feel the cold steel of their gaze pressing ice against his skin. “You’re ridiculous.”

Aziraphale doesn’t know what to say to that. Aziraphale doesn’t know what he’s going to do, or more alarmingly, what the trio in front of him might do or allow to be done to him. Luckily for him, none of them have a chance to remedy their ignorance before there is a sound of trumpets booming from the sky overhead. All four of them look up, their attention drawn aside by the unexpected interruption. Uriel’s hands drop from Aziraphale’s coat as they draw back into the open street by a step.

“Ah,” Uriel says, and unsheathes that smile once again. “This is great.” They tip their chin down to stare at Aziraphale as their expression hardens. “It’s starting.”

Aziraphale looks up to the gray sky, feeling the panic that comes with time slipping through one’s fingers. The three angels in front of him crouch down, steadying themselves for action, and then blur out of existence, vanishing into the sky overhead in a smudge of light that is swallowed at once by the weight of the looming clouds. Aziraphale stares after them and, then, after a moment to remember himself, takes a step forward so he can shout at the now-empty space where they were a breath before.

“You,” he calls, loudly so he can throw his voice to the highest possible point of its arc before it comes falling back down to earth. “You--” His throat works, adrenaline insisting on forcible expression while restraint shouts about the importance of decorum. In the end Aziraphale does what he has so much experience in, and resists the temptation to slip into a curse, however well-deserved. “Bad angels.” There is no response from the sky above, except a flicker of lightning followed by a resonant boom of thunder, which just brings Aziraphale’s attention back to how little time he has left to him. He turns away from the sky, and back to Earth, and when he moves it is to hurry on to his bookshop, and the last hope he has left to save everything he has come to care most about from destruction.

Chapter Text

Crowley has a plan.

Well. That’s not completely true. Crowley has a tactic, a last-ditch maneuver with which he has been gathering dust for the last decades while doing his best to think as little about it as possible. The fact that it has proven necessary now at the end of near enough to everything that matters is a validation for his own determined cynicism that he would be more satisfied with if he were confident that he would have the chance to brag about it to the angel that argued so vehemently against it. But the chances of having that opportunity are slim at best, and as far as Crowley can tell they hinge almost entirely upon the result of the next five minutes, and whether there is anything of him left to feel smug after.

There’s nothing for him to do but wait. The bucket is arranged, the empty Thermos removed as far away from himself as he can get it; the sound of heavy footfalls rattling up the stairs speaks to the arrival of his two unwanted visitors, a declaration significantly aided by the threatening shouts that are being thrown up the hallway like balls bounced off a wall. Crowley knew who would be coming after him -- Hastur is on the short list of people he least wants to see today, and in fact ever, and Ligur would never miss an opportunity to rain down hellfire on those deemed deserving, or at least vulnerable. The only question now, as far as Crowley is concerned, is who is going to come through the door first.

It’s Ligur. Crowley had hoped but not counted on that; he isn’t at all sure the devil’s luck is still on his side, after recent events, and with all Ligur’s savagery he’s clever enough that he might think of using Hastur as a shield for whatever Crowley has planned. But when the door comes open it is Ligur skulking through it, and Crowley has a moment to see bright bronze eyes pinning to his face with brutal expectation in the moment before the bucket tumbles off the top of the door and Ligur’s expression quite literally melts away.

It’s a gruesome sight. Crowley had been braced for it -- certainly more so than Hastur, who begins shrieking as soon as the smoke starts and continues in a high siren of a wail as Ligur disintegrates in front of him -- but it’s still horrifying enough to set his skin to crawling. He doesn’t regret his decision, or the preparation he began over a century ago for exactly this moment, or one close enough to make no difference, but in the first moment of Ligur’s absence and the screeching terror in Hastur’s throat he feels a deep, intense sympathy for Aziraphale’s hesitation in handing him such a deadly tool.

Not that Crowley lets any of that show on his face, of course. Dark glasses are good for blocking a lot more than just light. He keeps his face turned towards Hastur, still panicking on the other side of the doorway, and speaks in a perfectly flat tone. “Hi.”

Hastur does not reply to this. He is somewhat occupied in continuing to shriek at the top of his lungs, in waves punctuated only by his need to refill his body with air and change whether he is pointing at the smoking remains of Ligur’s existence or clutching at his own chest in frantic horror. When he edges through the door he turns sideways so he can sidle himself well clear of even the steam rising from Ligur’s now-empty jacket; a precaution that Crowley assumes to be unnecessary, since he’s considering someone else, but would take as absolutely vital if it were him shaking in Hastur’s shoes.

After he’s through the doorway Hastur finds his way back to some measure of coherency, or at least to sufficient gap in his breathless shrieks to actually communicate the horror painted in lurid colors all across his face. “That’s--that’s--” Well, perhaps some measure of communication. Crowley has never had particularly high expectations of Hastur, even in the best of times, which this is certainly not, at least for Hastur. “That’s holy water!” Hastur rounds on Crowley with this announcement, just to make sure that Crowley is fully aware of what he has just poured over what was recently the demon Ligur and is now nothing at all. “I can’t believe even, even a demon would-would-would-would...holy water. That’s, that’s.” Hastur pivots between Ligur’s empty coat and Crowley lounging with deliberate calm in his ornate chair. “But he hadn’t done nothing to you!”

Crowley’s voice falls with the speed of a dagger slicing into an unprotected back. “Yet.”

He reaches over the desk to curl his fingers carefully, deliberately, around the translucent green plastic of the plant mister. It is a loving gesture, polished to a sheen perfectly designed to draw Hastur’s eyes to watch the slosh of the water splashing threat against the inside of the bottle. Crowley doesn’t bother contaminating this communication with the distraction of words; he just holds the spray bottle up, deliberately swinging it around in front of him to aim the nozzle directly at Hastur. He closes one eye as he does so, not because it will help him aim and not because Hastur will be able to see the gesture, but just for the theatrical flourish of it.

Hastur looks at the plant mister. Looks to Crowley. Looks back at the mister, narrows his eyes, squints back at Crowley. He rattles nonchalance in the back of his throat like he’s shaking coins against the inside of a can. “You...you don’t frighten me.” The quiver in his voice disagrees with this statement quite vehemently, but Hastur holds his ground in the middle of Crowley’s flat, arms outstretched like he’s waiting to bat aside a blow.

This calls for further performance. “Do you know what this is?” Crowley asks, and turns in his chair so he can rise to his feet, still holding the mister outstretched as far from his body as he can get it. “This is a plant mister, cheapest and most efficient on the market today. It can squirt a fine spray of water into the air.” Crowley extends his free hand to his side, spreading his fingers to draw attention before he reaches up to clasp them tight around his upraised arm as if he’s bracing against the bottom of a rocket launcher, which is exactly what he wants Hastur to think he’s doing. “It’s filled with holy water. It can turn you into that.”

Crowley tips his head to the side to invite Hastur’s gaze to land on the steam still floating gently skyward, or at least roofward, from Ligur’s fallen coat. Hastur accepts the invitation with ill grace and only lingers a moment before he returns to Crowley, or more specifically to the green bottle held in Crowley’s outstretched hand. His mouth twists, fumbling through several more familiar expressions before it finally settles onto a smile. It looks to be a rather painful exercise for him. “You’re bluffing.”

“Maybe I am,” Crowley murmurs, soft, dangerous as the darkness of a blade, as the silence of a missed breath. “Maybe I’m not. Ask yourself.” His voice picks up steam, lilting towards flair as he holds the mister out with as much threat as he can give to a small plastic bottle. “Do you feel lucky?”

Hastur hesitates. Crowley can almost see calculations, or at least some basic arithmetic, churning behind the glassy black of the other demon’s eyes. He’s uncertain, off-balance and leery of Crowley, and Hastur has never been very good at coming to conclusions that aren’t written out for him on a Hell-wide memo. If Crowley can get him to pause long enough, can hone enough of an edge onto the raw fear that Ligur’s destruction caused -- and Hastur’s expression clears, and Crowley knows something has gone wrong even before the other speaks.

“Yes,” Hastur says. “Do you?” And he lifts his hand. The mister disintegrates, the plastic vanishing from existence, though unfortunately not taking the utterly ordinary water within with it. That sprays wide, drenching the bottom inch of Crowley’s sleeve and the back of his supporting hand while the rest spatters uselessly on the floor.

Crowley grimaces and lets his wrist go, shaking his hand free of the harmless but uncomfortable impact of the mister exploding from his grip. “Ow.”

“Time to go, Crowley.” Hastur’s voice has recovered from its brief uncertainty and hardened entirely, now.

Crowley is out of options. The holy water did what it was supposed to; better to be down to one demon rather than two at once, and better to have the survivor be Hastur, who has always been more prone to hesitation than Ligur, who tends to murder first so he doesn’t have to bother with asking questions after. But his desperate bluff has been called, and with his mister gone and Aziraphale’s Thermos empty he has no route he can see to a happy ending, or even an ending that doesn’t result in his imminent destruction. He hesitates, mentally rifling through contingency plans and scattering them across the desk of his imagination as useless; and then the phone on the desk rings, and Hastur turns to look at it.

Crowley throws his hand out immediately, in time with the answering machine clicking on with the sound of his prerecorded greeting and his mind closing a white-knuckled grip around a tuft of grass at the edge of the situational cliff. “Don’t move.” Hey, this is Anthony Crowley. You know what to do. Do it with style. “There’s something very important you need to know before you disgrace yourself.”

He turns to the answering machine as it clicks over to the message. From the speaker comes a voice that at any other time would be enough to stop Crowley dead in his tracks. At the moment he is too occupied with remaining alive in those tracks to even hesitate as he reaches for the receiver and breaks off Aziraphale blurting “I know where the Antichrist is,” onto the recording.

Crowley brings the phone to his ear, speaking as quickly as he gets the microphone to his lips. “Yeah it’s not a good time, got an old friend here.” He just catches Aziraphale’s “But--” as he lowers the phone to click back into its cradle and looks back to flare a gigantic, spotlight smile at Hastur on the other side of the room.

“Well!” Crowley spreads both his arms out wide to encompass the grin with which he is attempting to blind Hastur. “You’ve definitely passed the test! You are ready to start playing with the big boys!”

Hastur blinks the eyes of some squirming creature that has been very comfortably living under a rock suddenly confronted with the horrifying reality of a sunrise. “Wh…?” His forehead tightens, his mouth frowns. “You’re mad.”

This doesn’t even slow Crowley down. Hastur never has anything nice to say at even far better times than this, and Crowley knows how showmanship works. He invented game shows, after all. “The Lords of Hell had to make sure you were trustworthy before we gave you command of the Legions of the Damned, in the War ahead. And!” He springs up onto the seat of his chair, flourishing drama that is helpfully aided by a flare of lightning and a boom of accompanying thunder from the storm breaking outside. “Hastur! Duke of Hell! You’ve come through with flying colors!”

Hastur is still struggling with this concept, or perhaps with his core identity. “M-me?”

Crowley pouts hugely. “Nah, I-I wouldn’t expect you to believe me, Duke Hastur” with just a touch of flair on the afforded title. “But.” He extends a hand and, more relevantly, the mobile phone braced between his fingers. “Why don’t we...talk to the Dark Council?” He turns the phone back around to dial with quick movements. “Let’s see if they can convince you.”

Hastur rocks back, blinking hard between the extremes of disbelief and the hope proffered by the most persuasive of lies. “You-you-you’re calling the Dark Council?”

“Yes! I am!” Crowley lifts his phone to his ear as he nods with force. “And they say:” as he leans forward from his perch to shout towards Hastur across the room from him, held at a distance far enough to give Crowley the few seconds’ lead time he needs for safety. “So long, sucker!” Crowley lets himself hiss over the last of this, curling his tongue and the shape of his throat into rasping mockery for a heartbeat before his physical form shifts, particles morphing and shifting as they renegotiate their positions with each other before he slides sideways and into the electric space of the phone line currently open against his ear.

He doesn’t wait to hear the shriek of fury that announces Hastur following him. Pursuit is certain and there’s not much time for Crowley to get to where he needs to be. He throws himself forward down the telephone connection, speeding with an acceleration that nearly matches the velocity his Bentley has attained on particularly dark nights and open highways. Color, sound, static flash past, pouring into Crowley’s awareness and out of it again as quickly as he traverses the space where the information is stored, and Crowley is shouting, whooping with the necessary expression of the adrenaline that would be coursing through him if he had a truly physical form for it at the moment. The illusion of it is more than thrilling enough that he nearly forgets what he’s doing here and what his goal is; a forgetfulness that Hastur is kind enough to remedy by shrieking his name as he trails in the slipstream of data Crowley is tumbling through.

“CROWLEY!” Hastur is grimacing as he comes, his obsidian eyes fixed full on Crowley before him with no regard for the expanse of human interests rushing past them. Crowley would dislike him just for that lack of taste, if he had any attention left to spare for it. He lets the thought take a number for later consideration and sets it aside to be considered at a time when he’s not being pursued down a telephone connection by a screaming demon literally on contract from Hell.

“You can’t escape me!” Hastur informs Crowley at the top of his lungs. “Wherever you come out, I come out too!”

Crowley doesn’t bother with responding to this, partially because he has always found Hastur a spectacularly terrible conversational partner and primarily because he is in the process of reciting back a loop of very familiar recording in the back corner of his head.

“Three,” Crowley shouts, as the tail end of it flickers through his mind. “Two...one!” And he peels himself back out of the telephone line, dropping sideways to fall out of the rush like a car pulling across three lanes of traffic to get to an offramp. His body falls back into reality, his heart certain he’s dead and his lungs convinced he’s sprinting, just as his answering machine recording clicks on the desk behind him to replace his own voice with a growling, furious Hastur.

“Where are you, you little runt?” Hastur hisses. “I heard your voice. You and your best friend Aziraphale, you’re dead meat!” Some of the fury gives way, cracking over the greater swath of alarm beneath. “Where am I? Don’t leave me here.”

Crowley can almost see the expression on Hastur’s face as the realization hits him. It’s a thing of beauty even in his imagination. “Oh no,” Hastur says from the tape in the machine. “Oh no you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t dare,” in an impressive display of denial about who Crowley is and what he has already shown himself willing to do. “You...you SNAKE!”

Hastur’s voice breaks high and shrill on rage with that last and Crowley reaches over to press the off button and cut him off mid-scream. He grins hugely at his empty flat. “Ha ha!” he cackles, bright and radiant with joy at his triumph.

He doesn’t stay to savor the fruit of his labor. Ligur might be permanently out of commission but Hastur’s imprisonment is only a temporary thing, and Crowley doesn’t much fancy being around at the time of release. Hell knows where to find him if he stays here, and they have hordes ready and waiting to fill the positions presently unoccupied by Crowley’s pursuers; and Aziraphale knows, Aziraphale called looking for him. Crowley can’t use his desk phone at the present moment but he’s hardly tied down to a landline. He grabs at his mobile lying at the edge of his desk where he dropped it with his dematerialization, and he’s pressing the speed-dial for Aziraphale’s bookshop as quickly as he bolts for the door of his flat and the Bentley waiting on the street below.

Crowley doesn’t have faith in many things, or in fact in more than one, when it comes down to it. But with he and Aziraphale back on the same side, he’s sure they can stop anything, even the end of the world.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is terrified.

He has no reason to be, he tells himself firmly, as he’s pulling down the blinds at the front door and turning the shop sign over to Closed to deter those shoppers too determined to take the obvious hint of the lowered lights and darkened windows. He is a Heavenly angel, after all, however long it has been since his assignment to Earth; he has as much a right to speak to the Almighty as Sandalphon, or Michael, or even Gabriel. But right or no, it has been a long time since Aziraphale exercised this particular option. The last time he spoke directly to the Almighty was at the outside of the Garden, regarding the location of a certain burning weapon, and he has preferred to leave that topic well in the past, where he can pretend that the Almighty’s omniscence perhaps won’t bother to extend, with all the other things they must be occupied with. It has been enough to speak to Gabriel, or Michael, on occasion, when offering reports about the recent events on Earth, and if Aziraphale is honest with himself he has been grateful for this distance from more mindful oversight. But those to whom he has spent the last millenia reporting have now become the heads over which he has to pass to convey truly vital information, and with every passing minute counting down there is no time to waste in hesitation.

The circle is waiting when Aziraphale draws back the rug from the space he has cleared in the middle of the bookshop. He remembers painting it his first week here, while Crowley prowled through the empty shelves and offered critique of Aziraphale’s paintwork as he put down the curving lines to form the sigil that he has never before had occasion to use. Still, it has been lying waiting, untouched and unneeded for decades until exactly this moment, when Aziraphale is most grateful to the foresight of his centuries-earlier self. Candles are easier to collect, from the various drawers into which they have been tumbled, and Aziraphale occupies himself in setting them into careful symmetry around the edge of the circle before he paces around the perimeter with a match to set alight the waiting wicks. It’s soothing to focus on what he’s doing, instead of what he is about to do, at least until he straightens from the last. Then there’s just the circle ready and waiting, and Aziraphale himself, not at all ready but with no time left to spare in hopes of becoming so.

He shakes the match out, careful to set it on top of the box and away from any of the loose papers stacked on the shelves around him. Then he tugs at his waistcoat to pull it smooth, and straightens the bow of his tie close against his collar, and lifts both of his hands to press his palms before him. A deep breath, slow enough to give him at least the illusion of calm, and then Aziraphale shuts his eyes, and lifts his head, and places himself into God’s hands.

“Hello,” he says. His voice sounds very weak in the quiet of the shop around him, as if the books are swallowing the sound to muffle him to library-quiet. Aziraphale doesn’t open his eyes. “This is the...Principality Aziraphale. I’m looking for...um.” He hesitates in spite of himself, considering the line of propriety is about to flaunt; but he has vital news, information that Gabriel and Michael refused to hear or even to care about. Aziraphale remembers the blank confusion in Gabriel’s purple eyes, the bored gape of Sandalphon’s mouth, the grip of Uriel’s fists crumpling the lapels of his coat, and he draws himself up to press valiantly forward. “A Higher Authority.” He pauses over the aftertaste of this demand before his voice swings forward into plaintive uncertainty. “Is there anybody there?”

There is complete silence for a moment, which is broken by the rap of a knock against the front door of the shop. Aziraphale opens his eyes as he turns to frown at a customer so desperate for books that their own evident illiteracy is no deterrent. “We’re closed!” he shouts, and turns back to the impatient silence of the circle. “This really is frightfully important.” Aziraphale takes a breath and steels himself into as much resolve as he can find scattered in the unused corners of his self. “I’m prepared to take this all the way to the top.”

There is a hum of sound, bright against Aziraphale’s ears with a noise that reminds him of the way vivid white light feels against the backs of his eyes, a recollection aided by the circle filling with the opportunity to have exactly this experience. Aziraphale gasps, shocked in spite of all his hope by this reply, and he takes a half-step back from the edge of the circle now radiating light a few inches before the toes of his shoes. The light brightens, illuminating in a column of pure brilliance up to the roof of the bookshop and, Aziraphale assumes, through it to cut cleanly through the dark weight of the stormclouds overhead. Aziraphale lifts his head to look upwards, where a few motes of particular illumination are drifting down, and speaks into what he hopes is the receiver for this particular means of communication. “I, um. I-I need to speak to the Almighty.”

The answer is immediate, the voice low and weighty with its own resonance. Aziraphale can feel it humming through his physical form, although that might just be the volume, which is sufficient that the shelves shift protest and a pair of novels topple over sideways. “Speak, Aziraphale.”

Aziraphale’s breath has decided this is quite enough to deal with and is attempting to sneak away for a well-earned vacation. Aziraphale has to fight to bring it back, which gives him what he thinks is an appropriately reverent tone as he gazes into the features beginning to coalesce from the light before him. “Am I speaking to, uh...God?”

The same voice replies without hesitation. “You are speaking to the Metatron, Aziraphale.” A face forms to clarity, as tall as Aziraphale stands and floating in the middle of the column of light. It is unusually large, and clearly lacks something of corporeality, but otherwise it looks remarkably human, as much as Gabriel or Michael or Aziraphale himself might when making their Earthly appearances. The head goes on speaking in a voice with all the slow deliberation of an avalanche. “To speak to me...is to speak to God. I am the voice of the Almighty.”

“Well,” Aziraphale says, struggling a bit over the accuracy of this statement. “Yes. But you...are the voice of the Almighty, um, in the same way as, um, a-a presidential spokesman is-is the voice of the president.” He steadies his mental footing to resume his insistence. “I actually need to speak...directly...to God.”

The Metatron fails to appear convinced, or in fact anything other than blandly present. “What is said to me is said to the Almighty.”

Aziraphale has some doubts about this claim. But this is his last means of contacting Heaven, now that he has used up what goodwill he might have once had with his angelic associates, and it is hardly as if he can simply march up to God’s office door and demand to be seen. The Metatron is the only resource still remaining to him; and if he truly does speak for the Almighty, surely Aziraphale can rely on the righteousness of the answers he will receive.

The Metratron raises his ghostly eyebrows. “Well?” His tone is absolutely, pointedly patient. “Aziraphale?”

Aziraphale draws a breath and commits himself. “Well, I want to complain about the conduct of a few angels,” he begins, thinking of the blow still aching distant pain from the middle of his chest before his awareness of the passage of time reinstates itself and insists on more pressing priorities even than the excessive force that was enacted upon him. “But th-the important thing is the Antichrist.” Aziraphale takes a breath, relieved to finally be setting the words free to someone who will listen, someone who can finally help. “I know who he is. I know where he is.”

The Metatron goes on gazing at him. “Good work, well done.”

It’s not exactly the response Aziraphale was hoping for. A token of surprise would be satisfying, perhaps even an impressed lift of eyebrows to acknowledge his remarkable success. There must be a misunderstanding, Aziraphale thinks, or perhaps it is just that the full impact of this revelation has not yet made it through. It’s a good thing, after all, that he’s had the time to think through the consequences of this information over the last several hours he has spent trying to get in touch with someone in Heaven who will do something with it. “So there doesn’t need to be any of that nonsense about, um, a third of the seas turning to blood or anything.” He beams at the Metatron, relieved to have made it in time to head off the Apocalypse, if only just. “There needn’t be a war. We can save everyone.”

The Metatron does not smile, does not blink. When he speaks his voice is as calm as ever, as if a parent explaining a simple concept to a struggling child. “The point is not to avoid the war,” he says. “The point is to win it.”

Aziraphale has never understood, before, how faith is lost. He has seen it in humans, more times than he wishes to count; he has seen it in Crowley, carved into the cynicism that has been a part of the other’s core identity for all the years that Aziraphale has known him. Aziraphale has always wondered, with a kind of horrified fascination, how one could lose their grip on something so absolute, how one could turn one’s back on the one thing that he has always known to be true, the bedrock solid and unchanging beneath his feet.

Now he knows. It is a creeping suspicion, a vertigo that begins in one’s chest and spreads out to chill one’s blood and weaken one’s knees. It is the feeling of solid ground melting into sand, of a cliff face crumbling into a pouring avalanche beneath one’s feet; of wings reaching for the support of air and finding nothing but the icy resistancelessness of a vacuum. Aziraphale stands before the Metatron, gazing into a looming face that speaks with the intent of the Almighty he has always believed in, and he feels himself slip, and stumble, and fall.

He must speak. The Metatron is still watching him, waiting for an answer, for a sign that Aziraphale has understood. Aziraphale parts his lips and lets his surrender find voice in resignation. “Ah.” His throat works. He can feel every reflex of his body coming with deliberate attention, as if his consciousness is staging a retreat to the firmer ground of simple physicality. “Um.” His mind is racing, his thoughts stumbling over themselves in their haste to find solid footing. He can grasp none of them to clarity except one: I have to tell Crowley. He takes a breath and reaches for some fragment of information to make this conversation less than entirely futile. “What sort of initiating event will precipitate the war?”

The Metatron looks distantly pleased. “We thought a multi-nation nuclear exchange would be a nice start.”

Aziraphale’s stomach twists. He looks away from the focus of the Metatron’s eyes. “Very imaginative.”

“The battle commences, Aziraphale,” the Metatron says, responding to Aziraphale’s sarcasm by ignoring it outright, or maybe by not noticing it in the first place. “Join us.”

Aziraphale works his lungs on a breath of air. “In a jiffy.” He has to contact Crowley. “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” There’s a phone at the side of the shop, past the shelf on the far side of the circle. Aziraphale’s gaze reaches longingly for it before he forces himself back to the issue at hand of extricating himself from the present conversation. “Just a-a couple of things left to tie up.”

“We will leave the gateway open for you, then.” The Metatron sounds almost benevolent, at least as much so as someone can mere seconds after casually anticipating nuclear Armageddon. The gigantic head tips towards Aziraphale as the other looks back to offer paternalistic advice. “Do not dawdle.”

The Metratron does not wait for a response before disintegrating back into the floating motes of light that traverse the distance back to Heaven. Aziraphale supposes it doesn’t make a difference whether he replies or not; he is an angel, after all. Heaven has every right to expect his absolute, unquestioning obedience; it’s been built into the very core of his existence from the beginning. Then again, it’s not as if rebellion is precisely unheard-of. After all, Crowley was an angel once too.

Crowley. Aziraphale has to contact him, and as quickly as possible. He looks up at the remnant of illumination still glowing off the column before him. “Yes, jolly, uh. Jolly good.” He attempts a smile, just in case anyone is still watching him, although he feels personally it falls rather flat. Regardless, the light diminishes, although some portion of it still lingers, along with a weird humming note that Aziraphale can feel sliding across his skin and lifting the fine hairs at the back of his neck as if they are electrified. But the Metatron is gone, occupied with more immediate concerns than the demands of a lone angel still holding his position on Earth, and that leaves Aziraphale with what Crowley, and he, too, now, would consider an opportunity. He looks back towards the waiting phone, once more; and then he braces himself as far from the edge of the circle as he can get, and begins the process of sidling carefully around the outside lip of the sigil painted onto the floor.

It feels like an eternity before he is clear of the glow and can turn around the corner of the bookshelf to stride rapidly towards the phone. Aziraphale doesn’t run as he approaches, primarily because he would choose to describe his pace as a hurried walk, and there is no one else to argue the point with him. He feels as if his hands should be shaking as he reaches for the receiver to press it to his ear and dials in the pattern of a familiar number, but his fingers are remarkably steady, and when he pulls the dial around to the last the phone begins to ring without the protesting beep of a missed number.

It seems to ring forever. Aziraphale has the phone clutched to his ear in both hands, pressed close as if he might be able to secure an extra molecule of speed by getting nearer to the speaker, but the phone just rings, and rings, and rings, far longer than he has ever heard it before. Outside the storm is gaining in intensity; Aziraphale hears it rattling against the door, sounding almost like someone struggling with the locked knob. He looks back over his shoulder, frowning at the distraction of the noise and wondering if he ought to check for leaks, but then the phone clicks with connection at last and he forgets everything else in the relief.

“Hello,” Aziraphale blurts, without even waiting for a greeting before he offers up the honesty he has been withholding for a day long enough to feel like a lifetime. “I know where the Antichrist--”

“Hey, this is Anthony Crowley,” Crowley’s voice drawls over Aziraphale’s, without consideration for his interruption. “You know what to do. Do it with style.”

Aziraphale frowns. This is not the response he was hoping for. “I know who you are, you idiot, I telephoned you. Listen, I know where the Antichrist is!”

There’s another click from the phone and then Crowley again, sounding much more breathless than he did before and speaking very quickly so his words elbow in front of each other in their haste to get to the front of the line. “Yeah it’s not a good time, got an old friend here.”

“But--” Aziraphale says, and then, from the far side of the bookshelves:

You foul fiend!”

Aziraphale looks back to the door, startled out of his single-minded focus by this abrupt interruption. He thinks at first it is the circle coming back on; but it retains its soft glow, and the voice that continues speaking is far rougher than any angel Aziraphale has ever heard. “In league with the forces of darkness.”

Aziraphale knows that voice. He steps forward from the desk, the phone falling from his inattentive grip to swing to the end of its cord and fall to the floor. He rounds the corner of the bookshelf and finds what appears to be a very perturbed macintosh trailing water in a path from the now-open door of the bookshop in to the middle of the entryway. Aziraphale draws up, memory flickering at this unique vision. “Sergeant Shadwell?”

Shadwell lurches forward from the door. His eyes are wild underneath the drenched hood squatting on top of his head and his voice is shrill to match. “You monster!” he declares. “Seducing women to do your evil will!”

Whatever else Aziraphale can be accused of, this he is very confident in rebutting. “Oh I think perhaps you’ve got the wrong shop.”

Shadwell remains unfazed by this denial. Aziraphale is not sure he has understood the words at all. “You are possessed by a demon.” He lifts his hand to shake a finger at Aziraphale, or perhaps to point, with the gesture undermined by the horror quavering through his voice. “And I will exorcise you! With bell, book, and candle!”

Shadwell looks as if he’s thinking of flinging himself bodily at Aziraphale on the other side of the bookshop, without consideration for what obstacles of furniture or distance or uncanny glowing light may stand between them. Aziraphale lifts his hands out in front of him. “Yes, uh, fine,” he says, and begins to edge his way back around the wide point of the circle between them. “But please, uh, keep away from the circle. It’s-it’s still powered up.”

Shadwell is not looking at Aziraphale’s hands. He is looking around the shop, his eyes roaming with the frantic energy of a wild animal locked within an enclosed space before they light on the escape they were seeking. “Bell!” He stomps across the bookshop to the unused welcome counter and brings the full force of his hand down upon the small bell set out upon it, which dings agreeably.

Aziraphale frowns. “I’m honestly not a demon!” he exclaims, stepping forward around the far side of the circle now at his back. “I-I don’t know what you think you saw but--”

Shadwell drags at the single surviving copy of the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Aziraphale is too frantic to even flinch at the water damage of Shadwell’s damp hold as he holds it up to waggle threateningly. “Book.”

He begins to return towards Aziraphale. Aziraphale lunges forward to interpose himself between the straight-line path of the man before him and the curving edge of the circle. “Please,” he gasps. “You-you-you must keep away from th-the circle.” Shadwell responds to this warning by doing his best to maneuver around the wall Aziraphale is making of his shoulders. Aziraphale scrambles to keep himself between the other and the portal, offering his best reassuring smile to accompany this act. Finally Shadwell gives up his focus on the circle to gaze exasperation at Aziraphale as he reaches into the pocket of his coat and extricates a battered silver lighter. He flicks the cap open and a wobbling flame presents itself.

“Practically a candle,” he declares.

“Look,” Aziraphale says, as Shadwell begins to mumble words into the collar of the raincoat pulled up to protect him from any risk of accidental coherency as he advances with inexorable determination. “The circle is on, and it would very unwise for you to step into it without the proper precautions.” Aziraphale takes a step backwards, his hands still held up to fend off Shadwell’s approach, but Shadwell keeps coming, still grumbling over the rhythmic words of a rote recitation. “Whatever you think you’ve seen” and he gives up on explanations and politeness at once, dropping his hands to his sides as he falls back, “Just don’t cross the circle, you stupid man!

“--Nae more!” Shadwell finishes triumphantly, and raises his finger to point directly at Aziraphale as he finally draws to a halt. Aziraphale looks down at the other’s hand, his heart lifting in relief at this apparent cessation to the other’s suicidal advance; and then he realizes it’s not just his heart.

He looks down. There’s a thick white line on the floor, marking out the arc of a circle painted onto the floorboards. Shadwell’s boots are puddling on one side of it. On the other Aziraphale’s shoes are beginning to glow with a faint misty light.

Aziraphale looks up into Shadwell’s scowling face and outstretched, pointing arm as the world begins to fade to white around him. “Oh,” he says. “Fuck.” And his body dissolves out of existence, and he’s swept upward to Heaven.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale isn’t answering his phone.

Crowley is driving. He left his apartment with a speed suitable for the hellhounds he feels rather literally nipping at his heels, and by the time he was stepping out of his front door onto the street it’s only a bone-deep respect for the car waiting for him that holds him back from simply miracle-ing himself directly into the driver seat, and maybe directly across the distance that presently stands between him and the last ally he has in the whole of Heaven and Hell and Earth together.

They are allies. Crowley never had any doubt of that, no matter what Aziraphale managed to convince himself of, and their recent extremely brief conversation served to prove him so completely right that he would be preening if there weren’t more important things to worry about at the moment. First among those is that their side knows where the Antichrist is, and therefore still stands a chance on Earth of stopping him, and that means Crowley has to get in touch with his angelic counterpart as soon as demonically possible.

Which brings him back to the phone. Crowley’s mobile phone was dialing the number for the bookshop by the time he reached out to sweep it from the table, urged into obedience by one of Crowley’s expectations that are more demands of reality than suggestions; but it rang through to a prerecorded message telling him to try his call again, as if the connection had died in the handful of seconds it took Crowley to trap a Duke of Hell in his answering machine. Aziraphale can’t possibly have left the bookshop; it takes him at least ten minutes to work himself up to leaving anywhere comfortable, and with the rain now barreling down from the sky overhead Crowley can imagine nothing short of Armageddon that would pull the angel from the comfortable warmth of his bookshop. It is true that the end times are upon them, and it is possible that a crisis beyond Crowley’s imagining has befallen Aziraphale in the last handful of minutes; but Crowley is dealing with that the same way he deals with everything that truly frightens him, by steadfastly refusing to admit the possibility until reality has twisted his arm sufficiently, and given the questionable status of his bones at any time that always takes quite a bit of effort.

He’s been calling since he left. Down the stairs, into the Bentley, accelerating through the streets packed with traffic and pedestrians that Crowley ignores with the same blithe carelessness that he shows to the passage of time while he’s asleep; he steers the car one-handed, his head turned forward but his attention wholly elsewhere as his phone hums and rings unanswered on the seat next to him. Every minute or so it beeps into the prerecorded message that Crowley has heard a dozen times since he left Hastur screaming threats from the tape of the answering machine and he picks it back up to dial again, his attention too fixed to even recall the existence of the car phone. He sets it back on the seat between attempts, looking forward to feign interest in the trucks he’s weaving between and the intersections he’s swerving through with the vague sense of leaving the metaphorical pot unwatched to achieve a quicker boil, but either phones operate on a different premise or his deception lacks enough skill to be persuasive, because it just goes on ringing without breaking off into the greeting Crowley wants.

It’s getting harder to see. The storm that has been settling itself into a hulking crouch over the city all morning has finally gotten comfortable enough to let lightning tear the clouds open to gush enough rain that Crowley is beginning to recall the desert outside Eden with distant fondness. The last time he saw a storm like this was in Mesopotamia, from as great a distance as his wings could take him for the forty days it took to give way; but there will be no sunlight at the end of this downpour unless Crowley can claim it for himself. He wonders distantly what will happen if the Antichrist manages to drown himself before polishing off the world like the last bite of one of Aziraphale’s favorite cakes; and then his phone clicks over to the recording again, and he grimaces and reaches for it once more.

He’s just pressed the Call button again, with frustrated force enough that it is a miracle in itself that the screen doesn’t crack beneath his thumb, when he hears the sirens. They’re quite near, Crowley realizes as he lifts his gaze from his phone to peer out the drenched windshield of his car at the lumbering crimson of the vehicle passing the cross street in front of him; he had ignored them as part of the usual background noise of his particular style of driving, but it seems they have nothing to do with him at all. They’re dealing with a far more mundane emergency than the cataclysm that Crowley is trying to avert; and then Crowley glimpses a flicker of neon through his passenger-side window, the name of the diner to which it is attached almost entirely disguised by the rain, and his attention springs free of his distracted hold to gesture enthusiastic recognition of the shopfront. Crowley knows that diner, just as he knows this street; and his head turns as his instinct flinches, as a sense of foreboding speeds towards him with more force than he has ever been able to draw from his Bentley.

The sky is dark. There are the clouds overhead still, of course, black and thick enough to blot out whatever midday sunlight might have made an effort to be seen; but they are joined by smoke, black and thick as it pours upwards to clear the way for flames bright and vivid enough to seem almost familiar to Crowley. He stares out the window at them, his foot still on the gas as he gazes uncomprehendingly at the fire enveloping the bookstore; and then his mind succumbs to the battle against recognition, blissful ignorance departs at last, and his foot moves to step on the brake with a screech of protest that Crowley doesn’t even flinch at.

The building is on fire. The bookshop is on fire, Aziraphale’s bookshop, flames pouring from the windows and licking up from the roof to reach towards the sky with proof of an apocalypse far more personal than the one for which the world is still holding its breath. The Bentley stops in the middle of the street, the brake crushed to the floor beneath Crowley’s shoe, and from the empty passenger seat beside him comes the recorded voice again, faint and tinny over the distance: “Please hang up your call and try again.” It makes Crowley think of his answering machine, of Hastur sliding around the loop as he screamed threats, as he spit fury: you and your best friend Aziraphale, you’re dead meat; and before him Aziraphale’s bookshop burns, lit up with fires that reflect Hell itself onto Crowley’s glasses.

Chapter Text

There is a crowd around the burning bookshop. Ordinary pedestrians have been chased from the scene by the imminent threat to health and well-being presented by an entire shopfront going up in flames, but they have been replaced instead by a hoard of firefighters, dressed in heavy protective gear that offers enough of an illusion of safety for their self-determination to override the basic human instinct to not walk directly into burning buildings. Ordinarily Crowley would be charmed by this latest demonstration of irrational brilliance from the humans that he has spent millenia appreciating with the fervor of a dedicated fan. But the times are far from ordinary, and his gaze is fixed on the flames pouring from the windows of the familiar bookshop, and he has no attention to spare for anything else.

One of the firefighters shouts to him as he strides away from the Bentley, calling to Crowley’s back from the distance deemed reasonably dangerous instead of immediately and fatally so. “Are you the owner of this establishment?”

Crowley’s thoughts are well ahead of his feet, his focus has already shoved open the doors of the shop and lunged inside to begin its desperate search ahead of the corporeal form he is presently occupying, but his own sense of self-respect balks at the sheer inanity of this question and turns him on his heel to shout back with more teeth against the edges of the words than he would ordinarily show this early in a conversation. “Do I look like I run a bookshop?” Even delivering this retort doesn’t slow his approach; he just walks backwards for the few steps it takes to hiss his reply before swinging back around with the conclusion of the interaction. The firefighter shouts after him, a yelp of warning as Crowley’s direction becomes unavoidably clear to even the most reasonable viewer, but Crowley doesn’t bother with answering at all, this time. His gaze is fixed on the doors of the shop, and his feet are carrying him forward to follow the insistent urging of the worry already pacing anxiously within. Crowley lifts his hand to snap his fingers and throw the doors open as he strides up to and through them, and another snap slams them shut again, to cut off the rising protest of the fireman on the street and the rest of the world made unimportant and trivial by the crisis filling this one corner of it.

Everything is on fire. The air is full of smoke, heavy and so thick that Crowley can feel it tickling a cough into the back of throat even though he hasn’t taken a breath since he first glimpsed the Hellish flames spilling up towards an uncaring Heaven. The shelves have gone up like candles with the heaps of loose papers and scattered books that covered them; there is a heat-warped record struggling on the gramophone, which is spilling as much flame as creaking music into the haze of the air. Crowley can smell ash, and char, and heat enough to dry his clothes and ache at his skin; and nowhere can he detect the faintest trace of the presence he’s looking for.

Aziraphale!” He lunges forward from the doorway into the shop, intending to stage a search; but the familiar clutter has been made into an utterly foreign landscape, or rather a Hellishly recognizable one, as books and music and furnishings alike are heaped into no more than fuel for the flames licking Crowley’s skin like rabid dogs and charring his shoes even as he stumbles forward in search of something he recognizes, anything that might give him another moment of hope to defend against the looming weight of certainty. “Aziraphale, where the heaven are you you idiot, I can’t find you!”

Crowley glances upwards, desperation drawing his gaze in search of a voice that has failed to answer him for as long as there has been any concept of time, but of course there is no more than the silence that has been there since the Beginning, for him. He can see the ring of the second floor above him, the circular balcony overlooking the central space where he’s now standing, but the banisters are blazing and the skylight overhead is glazed black with smoke, and Crowley knows without checking that anything that was once alive up there has shuffled well off the mortal coil.

Which means that Aziraphale must be somewhere on the ground floor, even though Crowley can’t see him, can’t smell him, can’t sense him. He looks back down, gritting his teeth against the pressure building in his chest as he fights it into the shape of frustration instead of the dread gnawing at the fraying edges of his insistent expectation. “Aziraphale, for God’s--” Crowley sputters and rephrases. “For Satan’s--” but the memory of Hastur’s shrill threats closes his throat more effectively than the fire, and he’s left to growl frustration as he swings around to squint into the smoke thickening to a barrier to block the last remaining paths for his hope to follow. “Aargh, for somebody’s sake, where are you?”

There’s a sound against the windows at the front of the shop. Crowley swings around towards them, his desperate imagination hearing the beating of wings against smoke-laden air, forming fluttering pages into the rustling white of angelic feathers. There’s motion in his periphery, he can see it surging into action; and then the muffled sound gives way to the crack of breaking glass, and the jet of a firehose sprays through the shattered window to slam full into Crowley’s chest. The force knocks him off his feet and sends him sprawling backwards through the air to fall heavily to the floor of the bookshop, and as Crowley topples he feels something else in him slide over an edge to begin a fall into an endless, eternal darkness. His shoulders hit the floor, his head slams back to knock his glasses off his face and skidding away across the overheated floor, and Crowley lies on his back in the burning ruins of Aziraphale’s bookshop, and he feels the last hope in his world slide free of his reaching fingers. The shop is burning, the books and the building and the love all smearing into sooty black flames; and Aziraphale is gone, and Crowley is alone.

It’s hard to sit up. Crowley has lost all sense of perspective; up, down, Heaven and Hell, everything is the same, everywhere he looks there is nothing but darkness, a hopelessness more damning than any of the paltry inconveniences Hell could have cooked up for him. It takes effort to realize he’s on the floor, and more to recall the workings of a body that feels twice as heavy as it ever has before. Crowley struggles to push himself upright, to lurch the sudden cage his body has become into motion enough even to sit up over his splayed-open legs, and once he’s there the weight against him seems to sink into his chest, clenching around his throat like a vice so his groan of effort ripples into a wrenching sob.

“You’ve gone.” The air is made of heat, Crowley’s drenched clothes are steaming in the flames, but the burn at his eyes is from tears and not smoke, the tension in his throat is an agony that has nothing at all to do with the fire licking around him. He looks up, hoping against hope that he will be wrong, praying to the only thing he’s ever believed in for an impossible reprieve from this final, unbearable setback; but there is no answer, Aziraphale is as absent as God has ever been, and it’s then that Crowley knows that he’s truly lost. His chest tightens, his body speaking to the anguish ripping his tattered soul to pieces, and when Crowley opens his mouth it’s a scream that tears itself free, a shout of the last defense fury can make before the loss destroys him. “Somebody killed my best friend!” His voice is swallowed by the smoke, by the fire, by the boom and crack of his home crumbling to pieces around him. Crowley swallows and draws another breath of fire into his lungs to scream again. “Bastaaards!” There is no answer, from Heaven or Hell or anyone, anything, on Earth, and Crowley gathers himself for one last helpless rejection. “All of youuu!!

Crowley lets the scream go long, dragging until his lungs are empty of the overheated air he has drawn into them, and when it’s done he falls silent, with nothing left to say and no one left to hear. The fire rages around him, spitting and hissing as it consumes everything that is left of the only world Crowley ever wanted to save, and Crowley sits in the midst of it, heartbroken and alone and finally, entirely, defeated.

He might sit there forever, or at least for the next hour or so, which is about as much forever as is left for anyone presently residing on the Earth. But the sight of the flames licking at the walls is too much to bear, when it makes Crowley think of Ligur disintegrating to the hiss of holy water, and the similar effect on hellfire on a heavenly form, and in an attempt to retreat from the immediate reminder his gaze drops to the floor beneath him.

Crowley just intends to look down, to let gravity have its way with his gaze as well as with his physical form, but his vision trips over an unexpected obstacle lying a few inches away from where Crowley was knocked by the first blast of the firehose. It’s a leather-bound book, thick and solid and impressively unburnt, however charred the edges of the cover may be, and the letters picked out in gilt across the front are as clear as if they fresh from the printer. The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, the cover declares, and Crowley feels his throat tighten with the memory of Aziraphale’s voice softened into the reverent tone reserved for books and dessert, as he spoke about the only book he has never been able to lay hands on.

Aziraphale isn’t here, will never be here again; but Crowley still is, at least for the next hour or so, and it’s not as if he has anything better to do. He lifts his hand to touch to the cover of the book, to press his fingers to the smoke-stained leather and the fire-blackened spine; and then he picks it up, the motion suggested by the initial contact more than following any instruction from his silent thoughts. Crowley holds the book in his hand for a moment, staring at the cover without really reading it; and then he rocks himself forward, and pushes to his feet with a monumental effort.

It takes him a minute to find his glasses, where they have ended up beneath the melted ruins of the telephone. The lenses are cracked, the glass smudged almost black with soot. The plastic of one of the arms is dripping free of the frame. Crowley puts them on anyway. They don’t make him feel any better, but at least they cover his eyes, which gives him strength enough to turn towards the doors now converted into a roaring sheet of flame and step forward to emerge from the fire and into the last storm on Earth.

He doesn’t need to go anywhere else. There is nowhere for him to go, nothing for him to do, no one for him to wait for. But the book can’t survive the inferno of the bookshop, even if Crowley can, and Aziraphale cared about this book. It’s the only thing Crowley has left of his angel, the only thing he can save; so he tucks it under his arm, and carries it with him on his way to wait for the end to find him.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale had forgotten how unpleasant discorporation is.

He considers this a victory, of sorts. Most of his angelic counterparts spend a few minutes at most on their visits to Earth; he has spent the better part of six thousand years in a corporeal state, with only the most necessary trips to report back to Heaven. Aziraphale likes to think of his success in maintaining his physical body as an extension of the same care he shows to his clothing, and to the crumbling edges of the oldest books he has collected, those that are kept far distant from any of the shelves where stray customers might stumble upon them. He has grown quite fond of his body over the millennia, enough that the possible loss of it has been something he has wished to avoid for reasons of nostalgia as much as convenience, and over the last decade he has begun to wonder if he will be able to retain the same body from the Beginning all the way to the inevitable, ineffable End.

The answer to that, it seems, is a no.

He feels the pain, first thing. It hits him like a blow, knocking all the air from his chest and sending his feet stumbling and struggling for traction as the world veers wildly and widely beneath him. His vision is washed out, his sight blinded by the excess of illumination that swallowed him upwards through the open transportation portal, and then Aziraphale blinks and realizes that it’s not that he’s blind so much as that the space around him really is that white and featureless. He stares, familiarity struggling to turn over the switch of recognition in his dizzy thoughts, and then there’s a shout, loud and ringing through the pristine corridor in which Aziraphale is standing.

“You! You’re late!”

Aziraphale jerks himself around, pivoting hard against his heel as surprise sticks a foot out in an attempt to knock his balance out from under him. “Yes!” There is another angel at the end of the corridor, and in fact a minor infinity of angels standing in a perfect row behind them. Aziraphale’s gaze does a quick tally of the situation, and of the matching war kilts all the angels are wearing, and comes to an unpleasant and unavoidable conclusion about where he is.

“Um,” he says, and draws his hands together to fold in front of himself as the best gesture he can make towards composure under the circumstances. “Ah.” The corridor is very long, and the angel standing at the end of it some distance away. Aziraphale thinks about the echo of that booming voice ricocheting off the walls around him and determines that he’d rather be shouted out from closer up, where at least he won’t have to hear the words bounced back to him in stereo after the fact, and collects himself to step forward. “Actually I--” His hip, having decided that surprise has had more than enough time to dominate his thoughts, twinges sharply to remind him of his stumbling efforts to catch himself, which is immediately followed by all the rest of his body parts scrambling to form a queue for complaints about their recent treatment. Aziraphale grimaces and presses against his hip to steady the threat of collapse before he continues down the hallway. “Ooo.”

The angel at the end of the corridor is still watching him, their eyes bright and jaw set like they’re turning over the possibility of issuing another yelp at Aziraphale. Aziraphale collects himself and struggles forward down the corridor, moving as quickly as he can talk his aching body into the necessity of action. “I-I didn’t mean...to be here. Um. Yet.” There is an enormous blue sphere spinning slowly in the expanse of open space to Aziraphale’s right; the familiar shape of it draws his attention, and the gesture of his thumb, as he goes on speaking. “Still…” He fumbles over the truth and settles on vagueness as his best explanation. “Sorting things out.” He thinks of his bookshop, and his phone dangling loose on its line, and of Crowley, still waiting for the information that might be enough to let them save the world. Aziraphale’s gaze pulls itself back to stretch out a longing glance towards the globe turning alongside the corridor. “On Earth.”

Aziraphale gets no answer, or at least none that has anything to do with the subject filling all of his thoughts. Instead the angel at the end of the corridor simply stares at him, frowning as if they are judging the speed of Aziraphale’s faltering steps forward. There is a judgment on their voice, too, when they speak, enough to harden the words to steel even if their insistence has retreated to a firm knock instead of a door-rattling pounding. “Aziraphale. Isn’t it? Principality. Angel of the Eastern Gate.”

Aziraphale flinches at this acknowledgment of a rank he has really preferred to think about as little as possible, which is to say not at all. The other angel disregards the delicacy of this protest and instead reaches to pick up the folds of a fresh uniform set on the front edge of the podium at which they are standing. Aziraphale can see the detail of the military insignias set into the fabric as he limps close enough for the other angel to shove the uniform against his chest. “Your whole platoon is waiting for you.”

Aziraphale doesn’t mean to take the uniform, any more than he means to get into line with the rest of the angels awaiting deployment to the front line of the looming war. But his hands turn traitor and lift to catch the weight shoved against his chest, so he’s left cradling the awkward armful of an angelic uniform against him while the other angel looks back down to frown at the papers laid out on the podium before them.

“Aziraphale.” They frown, their forehead tightens on recognition. Aziraphale wonders how possible it might be to simply shuffle sideways and escape in the moment of the other’s confusion. They look back up to prod Aziraphale with the pointed end of curiosity. “Aziraphale, why is that name so familiar?”

Aziraphale, who can think of several reasons why another angel might have call to remember his name, and not a single one which he wants to acknowledge, opens his eyes wide and shakes his head into the appearance of innocence. He thinks about coupling the motion with a confused shrug, but the other is looking down already, their struggle clearing into the beginnings of recognition.

“Haaang on,” they say, poking a finger against the documents in front of them. “Aziraphale. You were issued with…”

Aziraphale considers a further display of innocence, but he can’t muster the sheer determination required to push past the rising tide of guilt sticking at the back of his tongue, and in the end his impulse towards confession gets the better of him and pulls the admission free of the corner into which it has been stuffed for the last six thousand years. “A flaming sword, I know, it’s not my fault.” He leans in towards the other angel to murmur explanation to soften the blow of truth. “Eh, she was having a very bad day.”

The angel lifts their head to stare straight at Aziraphale with no indication they have heard a single word he has said. “You were issued with a body!” they shout, glaring Aziraphale up and down as if he might have a physical form tucked away into one of the pockets of his jacket. “Where is it!”

Aziraphale looks down, his attention pulled by the gravity of the other’s glare at him. He is standing in the middle of the corridor, his feet on the floor and one arm bracing the weight of the uniform pressed to his aching chest; but the pain radiating through his body retreats as he considers it, as he unthinkingly reaches for the edges of his physical vessel and finds them simply not there. His upturned palm shimmers as he gazes at it, his fingers melting out of existence for a moment as he considers the details of their presence with too much intent, before he blinks and lets habit bring him back into his usual form.

Aziraphale knew he had been discorporated. The pain of it had been too immediate and overwhelming to mistake, and even after six thousand years he was under no illusions about the ability of an unprepared human body to withstand the process of Ascension. But it’s one thing to know the basic fact of the matter, or even to have felt the experience of his body tearing away around him, and another to recognize the absence of something that has become so entirely his over the centuries that he has had it. It feels like losing his wings, as if he had swept them open to lift him upward and found a disorienting absence of anything to catch at the space around him, and as the physical pain packs up and sulks away Aziraphale is left with a far heavier ache that he can feel in the depths of his very soul, as if he has lost some integral part of himself.

“Oh.” For a moment Aziraphale thinks he might be about to cry. He can feel the tears burning behind his eyes and collecting thick in his throat; but of course he has no eyes anymore, and no throat either, beyond what his own sense of self creates for him here. He blinks and lifts his head, pushing away the pain of loss to deal with the more immediate issue of the other angel currently staring at him. “I-I-I’m afraid…” Aziraphale gathers himself together around as much composure as he can still find. “I hadn’t actually prepared to step in to the transportation portal, you see, and the body…” His body, the one he has kept for six thousand years, the one he had when he first met Crowley. Aziraphale shoves the thought back and collects the edges of his trailing speech into an attempt at a smile as he lifts a hand to gesture. “Discorporated.”

“Discorporated,” the angel repeats.

There is no question to the other’s statement, but the silence that follows it rings too loudly for Aziraphale to leave unanswered. “It was six thousand years old.”

The angel stares at Aziraphale for a long moment of silence. Then their expression tightens, their mouth setting and eyes narrowing on anger until the motion of them stepping around the edge of their podium feels like the prelude to the physical attack Aziraphale would have considered unthinkable before his experience of perhaps thirty minutes prior.

“I count them all out,” the angel says, speaking through the tight set of their teeth as they approach. “And I count them all in again. And then you turn up.” Their tone drags the pronoun into a curse as they push it through the locked gate of their teeth. “Late , for Armageddon.” They are glaring at Aziraphale, radiant with righteous fury as they loom forward to urge their words to greater force with the tilt of their shoulders. “No flaming sword. Not even a body you pathetic excuse for an angel!

This last is delivered in a shout, as if Aziraphale might be in some danger of not hearing it if it’s not screamed directly into his ear. Aziraphale sits out the abuse, letting the words crash against him as he stares at the floor instead of meeting the other angel’s eyes. He knows how this works, he remembers this from the more unpleasant of his memories from Before: being verbally berated by one’s military superior is a matter of course, whether deserved or not. And really Aziraphale can’t argue with anything the other angel is saying. Every word is true, from the missing sword to the lost body to the delayed arrival; and Aziraphale is surprised to find that the accusations lose a great deal of their force when he already knows them to be true. He is supposed to be a soldier, ready to join the ranks and march out to await the opening salvo of the war he is supposed to be anxiously anticipating; and if that is what he is meant to do, he thinks, he might prefer to be a failure, given the choice.

And it’s then, in that moment, that he realizes. He might not have been given the choice, might not have had it offered to him the way it was offered to humanity; but that doesn’t say anything at all about taking it for himself.

“Well,” Aziraphale says, speaking in a far softer voice than the other angel, and with a far steadier tone than what he found waiting for him before. “I suppose I am really. I mean.” Aziraphale’s voice quivers, balking at what he is about to say, but he fixes himself into the outline of the form he has had for six thousand years and pushes onward. “I have no intention,” as he reaches out to set his uniform down firmly on the podium where it began, “Of fighting in any war.”

There is movement, the action of heads turning in a long, endless line all down the row of waiting angels. Aziraphale glances at them, looking at the infinite pairs of eyes staring unblinking shock at him, but it’s the angel before him who speaks, spitting their words into the same force that seems to stick itself to everything they say.

“Don’t be a coward.” They glance back, following Aziraphale’s gaze to the row of waiting soldiers now all staring silently at the conversation happening before them, before taking a step forward to where Aziraphale is standing. Aziraphale feels a shiver of something ripple through his incorporeal form, a wave of understanding more instinctive than conscious.

“You get into position right now,” the other angel hisses. Aziraphale looks at them, at the tension of something other than anger in their features, and back to the waiting angels, and he feels the power their attention grants him in the fear flexing at the other’s jaw and taut under their voice. “And I won’t say anything more about the body you discorporated.” They shrug and tip their head into capitulation. “We can take the sword out of your celestial wages.”

Aziraphale hesitates for a moment. The dynamic has shifted, the balance of power has altered; he has altered it, has claimed control for himself with his show of defiance. He rebelled, if only in a small way, if only for a moment; and he feels the rush of it through every molecule of his existence, feels the heady intoxication of freedom coursing through him to illuminate his path, to open up possibilities that have always before been closed to him by someone else’s no. He can do whatever he wants, can act on his own immediate desires; and the thought pulls his attention back around, to fix on the Earth spinning slowly in the middle of the adjourning room.

“I was in the middle of something important,” he says, turning back to the angel still standing next to him. They are still staring at him, all the hard lines of their expression knocked loose on the sheer surprise of meeting with rebellion from a being created for obedience, and Aziraphale steels himself for another burst of self-determination as he lifts a hand to gesture insistently towards the globe. “I demand to be returned!”

The other angel casts their gaze over Aziraphale like a tailor trying to decide why the person before them is refusing to fit into the suit they are offering. “Without a body?” They take a step back to keep well clear of Aziraphale’s latent insanity on the unlikely but dangerous possibility that it might be catching. “That’s ridiculous.”

It’s intended as a dismissal, a brushing aside of an idea too foolish to be contemplated. It’s the second time Aziraphale has heard it in the last hour; this one carries far less of a well-honed edge than the knife Uriel made of their voice as they leaned in to punctuate threat with willingness to enact it. He remembers the poison of the word dripping from their tongue, frozen to the deadly chill of a vacuum as it was offered; and he remembers the taste of it against his own, as he wrenched rejection free from aching want as he faced Crowley on the middle of the sidewalk. You’re being ridiculous Aziraphale had said, had pushed aside the offer of Crowley’s upraised arm and pleading gaze in favor of reaching a Heaven that has never listened to him, has never cared about anything that really matters to him. He should have accepted Crowley’s offer; if the world is to be lost anyway, they might as well have run away to Alpha Centauri after all. It’s not as if either of them really need a physical form, strictly speaking; and an idea stands up from the back row of Aziraphale’s mind.

Aziraphale stares past the other angel’s shoulders as they lean in over their papers once again, gazing into the polished white of a Heavenly corridor and seeing possibilities of color separate and blossom from within the light. “It is?”

“Obviously.” The other angel isn’t even looking at Aziraphale anymore. They’re lifting a pen from their podium, preparing to make some vital annotation to one of the near-identical sheets of documentation in front of them. “What are you going to do? You can’t possess them.”

Aziraphale thinks of yellow eyes, of black wings, of the company of six thousand years that has really never been that different from himself, in the end. His idea is jumping up and down now, flailing its hand from side to side in its effort to attract notice. “Demons can.”

“You’re not a demon, you’re an angel” but Aziraphale isn’t really listening anymore. His head is turning, his focus following the direction of his gaze as his ears ring with the distant thrum of an epiphany rising to the surface, of an idea stirring itself from the dormancy of millennia. Aziraphale can disobey, has disobeyed a direct order; and if he can disobey then there is really no difference at all beyond the choices they make. The angels are collecting in Heaven, the demons are amassing in Hell; and Crowley is on Earth, where Aziraphale wants with every atom of his ethereal form to be. The Earth spins gently, rotating itself past continents, across a vast expanse of blue water, and Aziraphale steps towards it, pulled forwards by an impulse as familiar as a demonic grin, as warm as the glow of yellow eyes.

Aziraphale looks back to the row of angels standing in ranks behind him. “How does one navigate?” There is an infinity of beings behind him, arrayed in a long, single-file row stretching away down the endless corridor. Not one of them moves to so much as open their mouth to answer his question. They just stare at him, eyes wide and disbelieving, even their leader struck dumb by the impossibility of Aziraphale’s actions.

“Oh well,” Aziraphale says, and looks back to the Earth. It’s rotating itself around, turning to offer a familiar outline towards him, and Aziraphale isn’t going to resist the temptation. One of the angels collects themselves enough to shout insistence: “Get away from that thing!” but Aziraphale isn’t listening, and he certainly isn’t obeying.

“I’ll figure it out as I go,” he murmurs, and touches his finger to the craggy outline of the English coast. He doesn’t feel anything for the first moment, even as his outstretched hand fades to hazy white and disintegrates down towards the point to which he pressed his touch; then there’s a strange pull, rather like what water must feel as it is pulled down a drain. When Aziraphale looks down there is nothing but white fog around him, as his feet and legs and body are swept away as if they have been caught in a demanding whirlwind. He looks back towards the row of angels, thinking to give some last statement, some thought to undermine their determination towards the pointless war waiting for them; but his disintegration seems to be hastening, as if anxious to finish what it has started, and before he can find words for himself the illusion of his physical form has utterly vanished, leaving no more than the echo of a shout to fade behind him as he plummets towards the doomed planet he is more determined than ever to save.

Chapter Text

It seems fitting that Crowley should end up in a pub.

It’s not a very good one. There are a whole handful of restaurants in the immediate vicinity of Aziraphale’s bookshop that Crowley has become intimately familiar with, and several at a distance that is made trivial by Crowley’s complete disregard for anything resembling a parking restriction as much as by his ability to simple place himself wherever on the Earth he wishes to be at a given time. The fact that he has only been here a handful of times makes it easy to rate its relative quality, enough that if Crowley had company he would certainly be heading to a better locale, or at least one with a better dessert selection.

But he doesn’t have company. The closest thing to it is the charred book he carried with him out of the bookshop, which is presently lying on the table in front of him between the cradle of his elbows, and since it is partaking of neither the food nor the alcohol Crowley feels confident in his choice to ignore any suggestions it might make. That means the only preference he has to take into account is his own, and since his current goals are to get as drunk as possible as rapidly as possible, all he really needs is a space that will continue handing over bottles of alcohol that he can pour down his throat to hasten the intoxication of his physical form.

“Same again,” he declares, lifting the recently-emptied bottle from his elbow and waving it vaguely through the air. It’s a hard job to get a demonic form drunk but Crowley has thousands of years of experience, and more motivation now than he ever has before. At least he’s not dreading the end anymore. Having already taken away the one thing he most wanted to keep, the worst thing the universe has left to throw at him is continuing his solitary existence for the next hour, and with a third bottle of alcohol kindly on its way to his hand Crowley is confident in his ability to drink his sense of time under the table where he can join it in the intoxicated delirium in which he means to spend the end minutes of the world.

The barman is approaching with Crowley’s demanded bottle. Crowley tips back his glass without checking to see if there is anything left in it before he lets it burn familiar fire down his throat. The glass slams back to the table, carried there by its own weight and Crowley’s inattention to it, and Crowley turns to the bottle the barman has just set down next to him.

“I never asked to be a demon,” he says, looking up at the other. His sense of time is beginning to sway a little in its seat, it seems; the barman has already turned aside to return to his position behind the bar, and he doesn’t turn at Crowley’s declaration. Luckily inebriation saves Crowley from caring particularly, or at all, about this oversight, and he lets himself topple gently sideways into the support of his arm against the table as his gaze wanders upwards to offer itself to the corner of the ceiling, where the smooth surface joins with the wall of the pub. “I was just minding my own business one day and then…’Oh, looky here, it’s Lucifer and the guys!’”

His elbow makes a desperate surge at the table and succeeds in throwing its opponent back with force enough to lurch Crowley in the general direction of upright. Crowley celebrates by lifting his hand to swing out into the open space of the air around him. “Alright, food hadn’t been that good lately. Didn’t have anything on...for the rest of that afternoon.” He grimaces against the anticipation of his own conclusion. “Next thing I was...d...doing a million-light-year...freestyle dive into a…” His voice creaks and stumbles through the sentence, only catching itself through a minor miracle and the relative unimportance of coherency in front of a nonexistent audience. “Pool of boiling sulfur.”

Crowley remembers it clearly. No amount of alcohol has ever been able to soften the blow of this memory; it’s seared into the core of his being, burned as permanently into him as the dark color of his feathers. He’s thought of this before, the possibility insinuating itself in his head as gracefully as he has offered hissing temptation to those around him: what if he hadn’t Fallen, what if he had said no that eternity ago? He could have stayed in Heaven, wandering the white halls as dull in their own way as the cramped, miserable cubicles in which Hell deals. Maybe he would have met Aziraphale as a fellow angel, as comrades both set to the same task instead of to opposite goals. For the last six thousand years Crowley has considered this fantasy and dismissed it, has swept aside the possibility of his own salvation as not worth the small victories, the minor temptations that have added up to millennia of a slow, savouring indulgence the sweeter for the illicit edge it carries. Now, in the shadows of a bar with no more companion for the Apocalypse than a book and a bottle, Crowley thinks he would pray for anything that would bring Aziraphale back.

He can almost see him now, through the sheen of wet at his eyes that he stubbornly refuses to collect to the admission of tears. The soft curl of Aziraphale’s white hair, ever-tousled over the top of his head like feathers that refuse to lie smooth in direct defiance of the rest of his carefully tidy appearance. The edge of the bowtie that he always insisted was the peak of fashion and not the valley of it. The shape of his mouth, the color of his eyes, the lift of his brows: Crowley’s vision is swimming, blurred by misery and intoxication in equal parts, and for a moment he can see the shadow of Aziraphale before him, illuminated by the crack of a lightning bolt into his usual place opposite Crowley.

“Aziraphale,” Crowley breathes, whispering the shape of the other’s name as much as a comfort to himself as to the specter his own heartbreak has concocted for him; and the figure turns its head in answer, its eyes opening wide as it stares straight at Crowley, and Crowley’s imagination balks and declares itself wholly unrelated to this particular event. Crowley lurches forward over the table, squinting hard against the wet blurring his vision and lifting his glasses to get a better view of whatever it is sitting across the table from him. “Are you here ?”

“Good question,” the shape says, and Crowley’s stumbling sense of gravity straightens itself with a start to slam him to a stop from the freefall he has felt himself to be in since he left the bookshop. It is Aziraphale, Crowley knows that expression and that voice and that presence, he can feel it like the stormclouds outside have split open to pour sunlight over long-absent scales. “Not certain...never done this before.” Aziraphale’s forehead creases as he gazes out into a space approximately five centimeters off of Crowley’s shoulder and speaks like he’s calling across a great distance. “Can you hear me?”

This is an absurdity, as if Crowley can spare the least fraction of his current existence for anything other than hanging on Aziraphale’s every word, every motion, every undeniable, impossible proof of his presence. His glasses fall down onto his nose and he doesn’t move to push them back up. “‘Course I can hear you.”

“Afraid I’ve rather made a mess of things,” Aziraphale says. His gaze is still searching through the space before him like outstretched fingers stretching to find a hand in the dark. Crowley would lift his arm to answer if he weren’t terrified of accidentally dissipating whatever form Aziraphale has found for himself, and if his inebriated attention had any focus to spare for anything other than holding back the flood of tears that is shrilly demanding expression now that the cause for it has been removed. Aziraphale’s mouth curves on a smile that rewrites the whole of his face into an apology. “Did you go to Alpha Centauri?”

Crowley rocks back from the reminder of a suggestion so utterly divorced from his present situation that he had forgotten he had ever made it. “Noo,” he says as he shakes his head to throw off this possibility. “Changed my mind.” His fingers go slack on the neck of the bottle he has entirely forgotten exists and he lets his hand fall to the table in front of him as he leans in against the much-needed support of his forearms. “Stuff happened.” For a moment he’s back in the flames of the bookshop, hunched in over his knees with the weight of impossible, unbearable loss crushing him down in an effort to return him to the floor, to keep him where he landed to wait out the last hour of the world in the place that has always been the whole of his. Crowley’s throat knots tight around the things he wants to say, the horror of believing Aziraphale lost, his undeserved salvation in having him back here again, and in the end all he can manage is to struggle himself into a breath to give voice to the simple truth. “I lost my best friend.”

Aziraphale’s lashes dip, his mouth softens. Even in his current translucent state Crowley can see the softness behind his eyes, can see his lips part and gesture towards words that go unvoiced in the eloquence of a silence that has been ringing between them for millennia. Finally Aziraphale finds his way back enough to say “So sorry to hear it,” in a voice so soft that Crowley can feel it like a hand reaching to press comfort to his cheek. Aziraphale hesitates for another moment, turning over possibilities against his lips that Crowley can almost read from the imprint they leave, before he blinks hard and looks aside. “Listen, um.” His expression recollects itself into stability, his voice resumes its certain force. “Back at my bookshop, there’s a book I need you to get.”

The blow hits Crowley all over again. The flames, the fire, the books and shelves and shop going up into smoke to cloud the sky overhead; the destruction is enough on its own, even if the flames weren’t the hellfire Crowley had feared they were. He still has Aziraphale, in spite of everything; but that doesn’t mean the loss is anything less than catastrophic, and Crowley feels the blow of truth like a weapon suddenly dropped into his hands to level at Aziraphale.

“Oooh,” he says, and leans in hard against the support of his hand as the only way he can see to make it through the hurt of the next words. “Your-your bookshop isn’t there anymore.”

Aziraphale’s forehead creases on confusion. “Oh?”

Crowley’s voice is stumbling over itself, behind his dark glasses his eyes are wet enough to fracture Aziraphale’s image into more of a blur than it already was. “I’m really sorry, it burned down.”

Aziraphale’s gaze goes distant, his mouth softens. For a moment he is entirely alone, even with Crowley looking right at him, and there is nothing Crowley can do to undo the isolation of the first shock of loss. He wants to offer comfort, to lessen the hurt in some way, but all he can think about is that day back in 1800, when he first stepped through the door of Aziraphale’s new shop and found the angel beaming delight enough to fill the whole space with golden light. He can see the memories in Aziraphale’s eyes, can watch the loss draw his mouth soft and slack with hurt, and all Crowley can do is stare at him and feel his heart ache as he watches Aziraphale’s break.

Aziraphale’s eyebrows lift, drawing his voice with them as he speaks with the polite, careful tone of someone adrift in an ocean of grief. “All of it?”

Crowley’s tongue twists over the truth, struggling to find a way to soften the absolute blow before it resigns itself to painful honesty. “Yy-nn-yy-mm-yeah.” He collects himself together to offer a change of subject in a tone as delicate as if Aziraphale might disintegrate with a harsher tone. “What-what was the book?” It’s not as if he’s likely to have any knowledge to offer -- Crowley has taken a deliberate stance about not reading books, and all his time in the bookshop was better spent enjoying the company there than investigating the shelves -- but Aziraphale is wearing the pain of his loss in the unfocused line of his gaze, and Crowley is ready to perform a whole host of miracles if it will ease any fragment of the other’s hurt.

Aziraphale blinks and lifts his head, drawing himself together with obvious care for the paper-thin fragility of the composure he is still sustaining. “The one the…young lady with the bicycle left behind.” His gaze goes distant again, without even making an attempt to find Crowley in front of him. “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of--

For a brief, impossible moment, Crowley feels like everything in him is lifting up at once, like he’s falling in reverse into a salvation he has been eternally denied. “Agnes Nutter,” he shouts, finishing Aziraphale’s sentence with such surging enthusiasm that his voice breaks open into something that is a sob as much as joy. “Yes!” He fumbles at the book cradled between his arms and holds it up in front of Aziraphale’s ghostly form as he pokes triumphantly at the gilded letters across the charred cover. “I took it!”

Aziraphale’s careful composure breaks open into wide-eyed, disbelieving happiness. “You have it! Oh! Well!”

“A souvenir!” Crowley declares, still holding the book out to gesture wildly towards the relief illuminating Aziraphale’s face.

“Look inside, I made notes.” Crowley lowers the book before him at once, turning it around to pull the cover open and look inside. The frontispiece is only a little blackened, with the greater part of a crayon drawing across it still intact, and tucked in against the spine are several pieces of folded paper. Crowley fishes the thickest one out and unfolds it from the neat square into which it had been pressed; and there it is, Aziraphale’s elegant handwriting laid into neat lines. For a moment Crowley is knocked back by the surge of affection that hits him, by the simple pleasure of having in his hand physical evidence of Aziraphale’s presence; it takes him a moment before he can read the writing and make sense of the words it forms. Adam Young, the note reads, and 4 Hogback Lane, and Tadfield; and beneath it all a map labelled as the village in question.

“It’s all in there,” Aziraphale says. “The boy’s name, address...everything else.” His voice goes soft, as if he’s speaking from the distance of reminiscence. “I worked it all out.”

It’s everything they need. A name, a location, a boy; all that remains is to get there and stop the end of the world. Crowley stares at the map, at Aziraphale’s notes, at the book, and then he lifts his head and turns his attention to the first priority in his newly-renewed interest in continued existence. “Look wherever you are, I’ll come to you.” He squints at Aziraphale and the nondescript white light surrounding him with an illumination that is very flattering and entirely unspecific. “Where are you?”

Aziraphale glances around, a sheepish smile wandering onto his face to offer an apology on his behalf. “I-I-I-I’m not really anywhere, yet.” He grimaces. “I’ve been discorporated.”

Crowley has to admit that this makes more sense than any other explanation, and that he probably would have figured as much without the joint effects of grief and an untenable amount of alcohol on his attention. “Oh.”

Aziraphale smiles in Crowley’s approximate direction. “You need to get to Tadfield Air Base.”

Crowley looks down at the map in front of him. There is indeed an air base at the edge of the village, labelled in the same careful writing as the rest of the map, and there is a circle drawn around it, just in case the viewer dismisses the totally normal presence of a military base in a small English village. “Wh...why?”

“World ending.” Aziraphale is still smiling when Crowley looks up at him, though it’s less an expression of enthusiasm than one of resignation. “That’s where it’s all going to happen. Quite soon now.” Crowley wonders how soon, exactly, quite soon is. He abandoned his own sense of time as fundamentally useless half a bottle ago and he suspects it will take him at least a few minutes to retrieve it from whatever dusty corner it’s rolled to.

“I’ll...head there too,” Aziraphale says. “I-I just…” He sighs and looks aside as if seeking inspiration for his speech. “Need to find a receptive body. Harder than you’d think.”

Crowley becomes immediately, intensely aware of his own physical form, presently occupied by a single non-human entity but very definitely spacious enough for two. For a breath he considers offering the obvious, inviting Aziraphale join him within the body that has been his own for millennia, and in the same breath the absolute heat that rushes through every molecule of his existence offers an extremely compelling reason why he absolutely ought not to do so if he intends to actually have any attention left to save the world in which that body lives. Crowley would be blushing crimson, if he ever let himself blush; he’s still grateful for the present situation that keeps Aziraphale from seeing the want so desperate Crowley is sure it must be glowing even from behind the disguise of his glasses.

Crowley swallows and shakes his head as he mumbles to himself. “Oh, I’m not gonna go there.”

“I do need a body,” Aziraphale sighs, looking intent on this problem before he lifts his gaze and offers a smile that makes a vague and unconvincing gesture towards amusement. “Pity I can’t inhabit yours.”

Crowley reflects that it is, perhaps, a charming indication of how long they have been friends that Aziraphale can so effortlessly lift the idea foremost in Crowley’s thoughts directly to his lips. Unfortunately he has no real way to express this even if he wanted to, because he is so busy feeling adrenaline shiver attention through every fiber of his body that he has completely lost his already-questionable control over his tongue and has no idea what it might say, left unsupervised. “Mmm.”

“Angel,” Aziraphale says, hurrying over the word like it’s an unwanted customer at his bookshop. “Demon.” He catches a breath he absolutely does not need after offering a grand total of two words and promptly loses it again as he continues in a tone of theatrical casualness. “Probably explode.”

“Blehh,” Crowley doesn’t agree.

“So I’ll-I’ll meet you at Tadfield,” Aziraphale says, having stumbled his way back to somewhat firmer conversational ground. Crowley looks back down to the map in front of him as marginally safer territory than the angel hovering mistily in the space opposite. “But we’re both going to have to get a bit of a wiggle-on.”

Crowley jerks up to stare at the hazy form in front of him. “What?”

Tadfield.” Aziraphale is beginning to fade, the edges of his form taking the lead in disintegrating before the rest gets the hint and follows suit to evaporate from the other side of Crowley’s bar table. When he speaks again his voice sounds distant, as if he’s shouting across an ever-expanding chasm. “Air Base.”

“I heard that, it was the wiggle-on,” Crowley informs him, but there is no answer, or at least none that he can hear. Aziraphale is gone, vanished from view and hearing as readily as he arrived, and Crowley is alone once more with his book and his bottle for company. Crowley goes on staring at the space across from him for a time, just to be sure; then he rocks himself back into his seat and draws a deep breath before he forcibly returns himself to sobriety.

He hadn’t intended to leave this pub, at least until there was no more pub to be in by virtue of there being no more world around it. But Crowley’s plans have changed, his resignation has been entirely upended by the return of a reason to continue, and he has a place to be, just as quickly as he can get himself there.

He’s ready to go anywhere in the world or out of it, so long as he can have Aziraphale there with him.

Chapter Text

The Earth is very different without a body.

Aziraphale would have thought several dozen centuries would have been enough to make him familiar with the general orientation of the world. He’s spent millennia watching the ebb and flow and further flow of human civilization around him, has made at least cursory visits to all the lands thereof and rather lengthier stays at those with any kind of decent restaurants to their name. After the last centuries in his fixed location in the middle of London, he considers himself an expert on the area, and would have expected to find his way blindfolded, in such event as he needed to. But in the first moment of rushing through the nonexistent space and distance between Heaven and Earth Aziraphale finds himself struggling even to maintain the connections between the ethereal particles that make up his sense of self, and by the time he has landed in what he assumes to be somewhere on the surface of the planet he is so disoriented that he can’t even be certain he’s on the right continent.

It’s overwhelming to exist in the physical world without, well, physicality. Aziraphale has always found life to be rather comfortable, an indulgence to which he has only grown more attached as the years have passed, but occupying the same space as he used to without a form to take up that space, or any sense of vision to direct him, is a far more difficult prospect than he had expected it to be. The world is a blur of motion, sound and color and light so bright and blinding that it is all Aziraphale can do to hold himself together against the insistent thrum of activity passing around and by and, unpleasantly, through him. Perhaps it would be easier to bear if he had spent less time incorporated in his familiar physical form, but under the circumstances he is stripped of the senses and the shape he has sustained for six thousand years, and finding it very difficult indeed to adjust.

He doesn’t even know where he is. He had been aiming for England when he pressed his finger into the Earth spinning gently to itself in the Heavenly halls he has just left behind him, but for all Aziraphale can tell he might as well be splashing in the middle of the Channel as on a street in the center of a city. He needs to get to London, if he is to achieve any success at all, and he has no idea how to determine so much as his location, much less the direction that will take him where he needs to go.

Aziraphale tries to turn himself, though the effort is more one of thought than of stepping. All he intended to do was to pivot in place to get a better sense of the blurring shapes and cacophony of sound around him; but he misjudges the force of his action, or the fragility of his sense of location, because he next finds himself in deep darkness, with no sound at all but a dull, incessant roar. Aziraphale tries to hold very still, without even thinking about moving; then something shifts next to him, curving through the midpoint of what habit still thinks of as his body, and Aziraphale jumps and has moved again before he can recognize what is probably some kind of a fish. More light, a burst of sound, a smatter of applause, the taste of cherries; and Aziraphale grimaces with his nonexistent face and tries to think of a better idea.

He has to stabilize himself. He’s moving as quickly as his thoughts, without any of the dampening effect a body has on the immediacy of impulse; his passing whims are taking his whole existence with them, lurching him from place to place without so much as a polite nod to the space traversed between. He needs to fix himself steady, needs to claim something solid enough to hold him still while he gets his bearings; and the obvious answer comes to him at once.

It’s easy to call Crowley to mind. Aziraphale has often felt that some part of the other has taken up residence in the back of his thoughts, for how readily Crowley has always materialized right when Aziraphale thinks of him, which is admittedly often. Crowley is always there when Aziraphale needs him, on the plains of Mesopotamia or in a Parisian prison cell or under the arched ceiling of a London church; and Aziraphale needs him now more than he ever has before. Aziraphale draws himself together, closing his mental eyes to anything but that one thought, that complete faith in the one being who has always been at his side when he needs him most; and the world steadies, the sound fades, and in the distance, so soft it’s almost a whisper, there’s a name: “Aziraphale,” breathed into the sound of a prayer.

Aziraphale turns his head. He doesn’t have a head to turn, exactly; but it’s the same sensation, the sharp motion of recognition tugging insistently at his reflexes. It would have been enough to pull him away if he were somewhere else; but for a moment Aziraphale catches the shine of light off dark glasses, and the surge of relief and love that hits him is enough to bring him forward and into something closer to existence than he has found since he made his exit from Heaven.

“Are you here?” Crowley’s voice asks. Aziraphale can’t see his face, can’t be certain of the other’s physical location any more than he has much of a grasp on the same for himself. He does his best to track the sound and aim himself mostly in the direction from where it seems to be coming.

“Good question,” he admits. “Not certain...never done this before.” A thought creases itself at his forehead as he squints into the fog of a reality that doesn’t quite know how to deal with an incorporeal being. “Can you hear me?”

The answer is immediate. “‘Course I can hear you.” Crowley’s voice sounds strange, strained and raw as it pitches up for emphasis, but it’s close, too, so near Aziraphale has the urge to reach out, as if he has any ability to actually make physical contact in his current state. He takes a breath, just to collect himself back from the wave of affection that is doing its best to overwhelm him, and tries to urge himself back through the tumultuous events of the last hour to when he last saw Crowley, leaning over the top of his Bentley and shouting a goodbye that Aziraphale heard as the plea it was for an offer that he hadn’t let himself accept. Aziraphale can hardly believe how much things have changed, how different the world has become in the span of less than an hour; the memory of his refusal cuts sharply in retrospect, as his throat tightens on the desire to have that suggestion over again, to have the chance to choose, finally, what he has wanted for longer than he let himself realize.

“Afraid I’ve rather made a mess of things,” he says, in place of all the admissions he wants to make and as a summary of the thousands of things for which he ought to apologize. He smiles weakly in what he thinks is Crowley’s general direction. “Did you go to Alpha Centauri?”

There’s a flicker of motion, something that might be the action of a headshake, or maybe a hand sweeping into the gesticulation that tightens Aziraphale’s heart on tender recognition. “Noo,” Crowley’s voice comes through the haze of color that gesture towards dark glasses and vivid hair, if Aziraphale lets the shapes form a suggestion instead of pushing them for clarity. “Changed my mind. Stuff happened.” He falls silent for a moment, as if he’s lost the strength for speech. When he finds it again the struggle is audible in his voice, as his words stumble into a confession that only barely catches itself from an outright sob. “I lost my best friend.”

Aziraphale’s thoughts go still at Crowley’s words, at the sound of open emotion like he’s never heard from the other in all the millennia they have known each other. All the polish is gone, all the sheen of composure and temptation that Crowley wears as easily as a second skin; he sounds hurt, miserable, honest, as if the possibility of losing his best friend -- of losing Aziraphale -- is enough all alone to unravel the whole façade that he has spent so many centuries deliberately maintaining. I won’t even think about you Crowley had said, in the moment before he swept back into his car and away; the thought that he might have actually left is one that Aziraphale hasn’t been able to shake any more than he could make himself really believe it. Crowley wouldn’t leave, he knew, not without him, no matter what he said; but to find him on a doomed Earth, giving up his last hours in grieving for an angel who has never told him anything but no, is enough to strike Aziraphale so deeply he feels the phantom pain of it aching through his chest and bleeding love until he thinks his present form must be glowing with the illumination of it.

He wants to speak. There is so much to say, so many things he has never let himself give voice to: and he may never have the chance again. It’s a miracle that he has this opportunity to retread their last conversation, to rewrite the words that may be the last he has the chance to speak to Crowley; and speech sticks itself on his tongue and knots his throat to silence. There is too much, too many accumulated years of words left unstated, of affection Aziraphale swallowed back into the cage of his chest, for him to spill it all now; and the world is waiting, hoping for a desperate salvation that only they can offer. Aziraphale spent centuries waiting, has let thousands of years go by without ever giving voice to his feelings, and now he is finally out of the one thing he thought he would always have, and there is no time. He cannot speak, he can’t give up on the world they may yet save between them, and so Aziraphale closes his mouth and draws himself tight around the hope that they may yet find a place with room enough for the two of them together.

“So sorry to hear it,” he manages, though the words tremble and fight their way past the emotion aching in his throat, the words of appreciation and adoration and a desperate, helpless love worth Falling for, Aziraphale has only seen now when it may be too late. He works his mouth over that silence, feeling the familiarity of it, forcing himself into a faith in a future he doesn’t know if he can believe in, before he blinks hard and exerts all the force of will he has to bring himself to the immediate point. “Listen, um. Back at my bookshop, there’s a book I need you to get.”

Crowley makes a sound that slides from acknowledgment into pain as it pulls free of his throat. “Oooh.” Aziraphale feels his heart stumble over trepidation even before Crowley’s voice continues forward, shattered and shaking as it is forced into action. “Your-your bookshop isn’t there anymore.”

Aziraphale’s brow knits itself on the defense of confusion. “Oh?”

“I’m really sorry.” Aziraphale doesn’t know if there are tears in Crowley’s eyes, can’t make enough clarity from the white around him to see if there are, but he doesn’t need to see when they are bleeding audibly from the cracks lacing through the familiar voice. “It burned down.”

Aziraphale doesn’t feel the blow, for the first moment. It’s as if his whole existence has retreated back from the illusion of a body he has been forming for himself, pulling away into the comfortable distance offered by complete numbness, where everything is bright and cold and there is nothing of him to touch, no sense of his existence that can be harmed or hurt. In that silence Crowley’s voice rings like a bell heard from too close-up, so loud that Aziraphale’s deafened comprehension can only catch up to it from the reverberations that hang heavy in the air. Burned down, he had said, your bookshop isn’t there; and Aziraphale feels the pang hit home, striking straight through the heart he doesn’t have to crush him under the first wave of unbearable loss. His desperate sense of fast-fading time, the impending end of the world, even the love left unspoken for six thousand years; all are forgotten in the first devastating moment of realization. His shop, his books, his home: all of it gone, every memory that rises to his thoughts a fresh wound as it is ripped away from his hold.

It takes a moment before Aziraphale can bring himself back from the distance to which his loss had knocked him. Even when he finds words they come at a remove, echoing off the wall of grief that has surrounded him like he’s shouting to Crowley at some endless distance. “All of it?”

“Yy-nn-yy-mm-yeah.” Crowley’s voice is very gentle. Aziraphale appreciates the tenderness of his tone, even with the blow this particular reply brings. “What-what was the book?”

It’s difficult for Aziraphale to find breath when it feels as if there is an impossible weight against his chest, the burden of loss growing heavier with every new memory that lands upon it, but this is worst of all, with all his hopes of the last day turned to ash along with the information that could have saved the world. If he could remember -- but he can’t, not all of it, there is too much to recall. The fragments are fading even as he reaches for them, and for the first time in a very, very long while, Aziraphale admits that hope is lost, and there is nothing left that he can do.

“The one the...young lady with the bicycle left behind,” he says, speaking gently so as to keep from knocking himself out of an existence that has never felt as precarious as it does now. “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of--"

Agnes Nutter!” Crowley shouts, his voice breaking enthusiasm open into something that sounds as much pained as joyful. “Yes! I took it!”

Aziraphale’s breath catches, his heart lurches back into place in his chest. “You have it! Oh!”

“A souvenir!” Crowley exclaims. Aziraphale isn’t sure if he is actually seeing the other’s wild gesticulation or just assuming it from the pitch of his voice and long centuries of well-learned familiarity, but in either case he can feel the warmth of it radiating through him as if determined to singlehandedly make up for his lack of a physical form. Even his grief is pushed aside for the moment, urged out of the way by his own enthusiasm leaping forward to clutch at the outstretched hands of Crowley’s.

“Well!” Aziraphale takes a breath. The relief of it spreads out into him, undoing knots and easing his shoulders from the hunch of tension they have found even without a full existence. “Look inside, I made notes. It’s all in there.” Aziraphale’s memory drifts backwards to a golden pool of illumination, so late at night it seemed as if the rest of the world had simply ceased to exist except for him and his mug of cocoa and the words on the page in front of him. It was a blissful moment, a night of perfect peace in the midst of chaos; even the knowledge that all of it is gone, now, isn’t enough to more than shadow the pleasure of the recollection to a bittersweet nostalgia. “The boy’s name, address...everything else.” Aziraphale wants to apologize for holding back this knowledge, for stubbornly clutching it to his chest for the hours that are now lost beyond recovery. Perhaps he would still have a body if he hadn’t; perhaps he would still have a bookshop. The thought softens his tone and dips his words into a murmur more for himself than shouted across the distance to Crowley. “I worked it all out.”

Crowley takes a breath so rough Aziraphale can hear it even across whatever incorporeal distance is between them. When he speaks his voice is just as ragged and anxious on desperation. “Look wherever you are, I’ll come to you. Where are you?”

It’s not that Aziraphale had really expected anything else, any more than he was truly surprised to see Crowley pull up alongside him on the sidewalk after their initial bitter farewell. The fact that he knew as much, that he had been absolutely certain that Crowley would come for him for the asking, still does nothing to dampen the affection that swells in him in answer to the adoring concern desperate on Crowley’s tone. Aziraphale has to struggle for a light tone in his answer, his attention drifting away as if he can see enough of Crowley to get pulled into an untimely confession by the force of the gaze he can feel fixing him in place even if he can’t see it. “I-I-I-I’m not really anywhere, yet.” He grimaces and looks back down. “I’ve been discorporated.”

“Oh,” Crowley breathes.

“You need to get to Tadfield Air Base,” Aziraphale tells him, retreating to the safer ground of the impending Apocalypse.

“Wh...why?”

“World ending,” Aziraphale says. “That’s where it’s all going to happen. Quite soon now.” The words bring to mind the urgency of their situation, recall the insistence of Aziraphale’s heart demanding that he speak now, immediately, while there is still time. “I’ll...head there too,” he manages, keeping his attention on the topmost priority as best as he can while his entire being is formed exclusively of a will to live focused rather intently on the things he still needs to say to Crowley. “I-I just...need to find a receptive body. Harder than you’d think.”

Crowley mumbles something that Aziraphale doesn’t catch across the barrier to communication over which they are working. He’s not listening particularly carefully in any case; his attention is turned to the seemingly insurmountable problem at hand. Perhaps he could just manifest himself at the Air Base; but he can’t see, can hardly interact at all, he will be able to do nothing without a physical form. It’s something of a miracle he is here speaking to Crowley in the first place, even for a being who deals primarily in exactly those.

“I do need a body,” he muses. He lifts his head in what he hopes is Crowley’s general direction and offers the closest thing to a teasing smile he can find while his heart flutters over what he’s about to say. “Pity I can’t inhabit yours.”

Aziraphale was expecting rather immediate refusal, or a quip snapping back fast enough for him to smile and laugh off his suggestion as the joke he is prepared to pretend it was. But the answer Crowley gives is a spectacularly vague hum, utterly impossible for Aziraphale to interpret without a view of the other’s face, and he finds himself teetering precariously on an edge he had no real intention of approaching. For a breath the temptation offers itself in perfect clarity, of reaching out and fitting himself into the familiar length of Crowley’s body, of occupying the same form that he has spent so long admiring; and common sense clears its throat and steps to the forefront to offer damage control in the form of an excuse.

“Angel,” Aziraphale fumbles. “Demon. Probably explode.” Crowley gives the vocal equivalent of a grimace by way of answer and Aziraphale drops the subject for later and hopefully more thorough consideration so he can return to rather calmer subjects, like the impending destruction of everything in or on or vaguely related to the Earth.

“So I’ll-I’ll meet you at Tadfield,” he says, his tone crisp enough to urge him into action instead of lingering here as close to the sound of Crowley’s voice as he can stay. “But we’re both going to have to get a bit of a wiggle-on.”

“What?” Crowley asks, but Aziraphale’s overtaxed focus is beginning to give way from the present moment of reality, and he has to struggle to keep himself within earshot.

Tadfield,” he shouts, projecting as loudly as he can without a body and technically without a voice, either. “Air Base.” He hears Crowley’s voice fading, “I heard that,” trailing into the end of a sentence, but Aziraphale has lost him and is adrift in the haze of a reality that has no space for a discorporated, disobedient angel within it.

He takes a moment to himself. He might as well, given how little he presently has otherwise; and he needs a minute to pull himself together after that. Aziraphale draws himself in close, shutting his eyes and steeling himself against the loss of his bookshop, the desperate relief in Crowley’s voice, the temptation to finally lay claim to what he has craved for as long as he can recall recognizing the sensation of desire for what it was. Then he straightens the idea of his shoulders, and lifts his chin, and takes himself forward in search of the means to stop the Apocalypse, come Heaven or Hell or the Antichrist himself.

Chapter Text

Of all the obstacles Crowley had anticipated encountering on his way to the end of the world, he hadn’t expected that crossing a road would prove the largest among them.

He’s been driving since he left the bar. The confusion of London was hardly worth hesitating for and Crowley certainly didn’t; his foot stayed firmly on the gas pedal flattened to the floor of the Bentley as he accelerated through the trivial inconveniences presented by crowds of people and vehicles alike all conspiring to stand between him and Tadfield Air Base. By the time he was clear of the greater part of the city, Crowley had been feeling something like enthusiasm, as hope inched itself towards expectation with each mile he crossed.

He hadn’t thought much of the backup in traffic. Stop-and-go traffic has always been something Crowley experiences as go-and-go, and when he catches the first glimpse of brake lights in front of him he simply pulls the Bentley over to the shoulder, where he continues driving with a speed that rattles the windows of the vehicles he passes like a thunderclap of his own making. He has places to be, or at least a single, vital place to be, and he’s not going to let something as small as a snaking line of stopped cars keep him from his date with Aziraphale.

The enormous band of fire ringing London might prove a little more effective, though.

Crowley slows as soon as he sees it, which is at an impressive distance from the road itself. The entire M25 is ablaze, a curtain of flame lifting from the pavement to hiss defiance towards the rain still sheeting down from the sky above. There’s some metaphor to be had there, Crowley supposes, a premonition of favorite tactics in the impending war, but he’s too busy confronting the problem of the moment to worry overmuch about the poetry of the scene before him. It’s not a problem of reaching the M25 -- even without the shoulder, Crowley could persuade the Bentley to slither between the cars filling every lane of the road out of London. The problem is the obvious one towering columns of flame as far along the roadway as Crowley can see, and he is unpleasantly certain that it continues the whole way round, a loop of uncrossable fire to trap all of London, and most importantly Crowley himself, away from the rest of the country.

Crowley presses his foot to the brake and comes to a full stop on the shoulder, still some distance away from the flaming barrier before him. He grimaces at the fire, just in case it proves more obliging than it seems and can be shamed into slinking away once more, before he reaches towards the passenger seat where The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter is sitting in place of the angelic presence Crowley is trying to reach.

“Come on, there must be a way across it.” There is nothing about this in Aziraphale’s notes, Crowley knows; he flips past them to rustle through the pages in search of relevant information himself. He might not read books, but desperate times call for desperate measures. “Burning roads, did you predict this, Agnes?” The pages are full of text, the printed prophecies themselves and the cramped scrawls of dozens of different commentaries inserted into the overwide margins; it’s even harder to make sense of the mess than to pick apart meaning from the incomprehensible prophecies in the first place. Crowley grimaces and rifles through the pages with some vague idea of letting necessity guide him conveniently to the right stopping point. “Why isn’t there an index?”

A hand steps forward to push itself between Crowley and the pages of the book fluttering before him. For a moment Crowley is shocked by the impressive physicality of fate reaching out a hand to help; then the fingers close on the frames of his sunglasses, and the dark shadow over Crowley’s world is dragged free of his face while he is still trying to make sense of what’s happening. He looks to follow the glasses with all the shocked focus of someone who has had a limb casually torn off, and then follows the arm holding them up to the unpleasantly immediate reality of Hastur sitting in the passenger seat alongside him.

Hastur lifts his other hand to the glasses in his grip and closes his fingers around the frames before he twists hard. The glasses are abruptly compressed into a far smaller space than the one they usually occupy, and with the same results as most things that suffer such. Crowley grimaces at the sound of breaking glass and the tumble of fragments that rain down onto Hastur’s horrible coat. It looks worse than it did the last time Crowley saw him, as if it might have picked up a fresh batch of epidemic-level pathogens in the span of the last hour. Crowley doesn’t have anything to worry about when it comes to disease -- he’s a demon, he’s never had so much as a sniffle -- but he leans farther away from the figure next to him, just to be on the safe side, and to keep his own clothes well away from the bad influence of Hastur’s.

Hastur doesn’t look at him. He’s gazing out the front windshield, his expression composed into perfect calm that continues to insist on its existence when he speaks aloud without turning to look at Crowley next to him. “You’ll never escape London. Nothing can.”

“Hastur,” Crowley says, still keeping a firm eye on the other in case his coat decides to start creeping across the too-small space between them. “How was your time in voicemail?”

“Funny haha, joke all you like, Crowley, there’s nowhere to run.” Hastur sounds dangerously close to pleased; there’s the hint of what might generously be called a smile at the corner of his mouth. Crowley can feel his skin crawling like it’s ready to abandon the rest of his body and make a run for it on its own just to get farther away from the other’s presence.

Unfortunately for him, and the other people in the traffic jam, and the world, Hastur appears to be right. The ring of fire is showing no signs whatsoever of diminishing when Crowley looks back to it, in spite of all his efforts to will it out of existence. It stretches dozens of meters into the sky; there is no way Crowley can get himself over it until his Bentley decides to take his influence more thoroughly to heart than it yet has and sprout wings of its own, and with the taste of smoke from Aziraphale’s bookshop still tearing at the back of his throat Crowley’s physical body is taking an unflinching stance about the limited merits and nonexistent sanity of throwing himself into another sheet of flame in the same day, or in fact ever again. Crowley is trapped, in London and on the road and in his car, now, with even the sanctity of his favorite haven destroyed by Hastur’s presence. The bookshop is burned, the Apocalypse is coming, and now even the passenger seat of Crowley’s car, where no one but Aziraphale has ever been allowed, is being invaded.

Crowley might give up, if he were something other than what he is. But disobedience runs strong in him, rebellion is shaped into the very core of his identity, and under the greatest pressure he finds his will gaining in strength accordingly. Hell thinks him trapped, Hastur believes him beaten; and Crowley will be damned -- metaphorically speaking -- if he’s going to give up now.

First things first, he’s got to get Hastur out of his car.

Crowley shuts the book in his hands. “Aren’t you meant to be lining up, ready for battle around now?” He turns to toss it into the backseat as casually as he can, as if it’s nothing of importance and not at all worth so much as the turn of Hastur’s head to see what Crowley was holding when the other materialized.

His attempt at distraction works, apparently, or Hastur is just too busy gloating to bother with paying attention to the situation. He goes on gazing out the front window, looking as nearly placid as Crowley has ever seen him. “Hell will not forget.”

Crowley grimaces at this failure of a conversational response and looks back out the front window, determining that maybe he would rather deal with the problem of a towering wall of fire than the slimy unpleasantness of Hastur’s basic existence. “Yy.”

“Hell will not forgive,” Hastur intones. “You know where the real Antichrist is, don’t you?” That’s a bit too close to home for Crowley’s comfort, but Hastur is continuing without pausing for Crowley to concoct the escape of a lie. “You’ll never reach him.” Crowley disagrees with this, privately, because Hastur doesn’t give him a chance to offer any public reply.

“You’re done, Crowley.” Hastur leans fractionally sideways towards the middle divider in an act of unapologetic terrorism. He lifts his hand to point to the roadway stretching away towards the blazing inferno of the M25. “Think you’re gonna get across that? There’s nowhere to go.”

Crowley stares at the flames licking towards the sky. They look brighter without his sunglasses on, the oranges and reds more vivid against the storm-darkened sky. Hastur’s words ring in his ears, echoing back on themselves until they morph into a gentler voice, familiar and tender and aching with hurt: there isn’t anywhere to go, as Aziraphale closed off Crowley’s last attempt at escape with his refusal. Crowley is trapped here, doomed to see the world he shared with Aziraphale crack and shatter and burn before his eyes; and Crowley looks into the wall of flame, and rebellion surges up to slam its fist against the prison door of inevitability.

“Let’s find out,” Crowley says, and reaches for a CD. There’s a stack of them set into the middle divider; the one on top is one of Aziraphale’s selections during the last time Crowley made the trip to Tadfield, a collection of Mozart’s symphonies that Crowley has never actually listened to himself. He feeds the disc into the player, and settles himself into his seat, and shifts his foot from the brake to the gas.

The car begins to roll forward, slowly at first but gaining in speed as the music intensifies from the opening notes. In the seat next to him Crowley can see Hastur’s mouth retreat from its brief foray into a smile and into the familiarity of his usual frown.

“What...what...w-why are you driving?” Hastur shakes his head and shifts in his seat, as if suddenly finding it far less comfortable than it was a moment before. “That’s...what’s...stop this thing.”

“You know,” Crowley says, leaning forward in his seat to add the tilt of his shoulders to support the effort of the Bentley’s engine as it purrs itself to a roar of acceleration bearing them towards the inferno of the M25. “The thing I like best, about time, is that every day it takes us further away from the fourteenth century. I really didn’t like the fourteenth century.” He tips his head in a vague gesture towards Hastur as he goes on speaking past the tightening grit of his teeth against each other. “You would have loved it then.”

Hastur does not seem particularly interested in this conversational topic. “Oh.”

“They didn’t have any cars back in the fourteenth century,” Crowley continues on, undeterred by his audience’s disinterest or obvious and rapidly increasing panic. “Lovely...clever human people, inventing cars and...motorways and...windscreen wipers.” He swings his head to look at Hastur as his car goes on speeding forward unattended. “You’ve got to hand it to them, haven’t you?”

“Yeah,” Hastur says, weakly, and then his willingness to be polite, fragile at the best of times, throws its hands up and gives all this up as a bad job. “Ahh! Stop this!” The fire is illuminating his face to orange, Crowley can see the glow of it off Hastur’s greasy gray skin without even turning his head to watch the wall they are rapidly approaching. Crowley tightens his hands on the wheel and looks forward, gauging his angle of approach as if there is anything but unbroken, absolute heat in front of him. Hastur continues, attempting to offer logic as if that has ever before been more than a mild inconvenience for Crowley. “It’s over. You’re doomed.” His voice picks up an extra octave of strain. “You hear me, Crowley?” Hastur is losing his hold on punctuation beyond exclamation points. “You’re doomed, whatever happens! Doomed!

Crowley looks to Hastur next to him, pale and sweating and terrified, and he indulges himself in a bit of purely malicious glee. “See?” He grins with all his teeth at once. “This day’s already got better.”

He looks forward again. The view out the windshield is uniformly ablaze, now, with some rising smoke off the melting dashboard to add interest. Around them the flames are roaring, a perfect backdrop for the high twang of the electric guitar thrumming under the crescendo of music bursting from the stereo.

Hastur is hyperventilating. Both his hands are clutching for purchase against the softening leather of the car seat. “Stop this! You’ll discorporate us both!”

He begins to scream in short, alarm-siren bursts of sound. Crowley cackles the mad delight of vengeance. “Ha ha!”

This is not funny!” Hastur shrieks.

“Come onn!” Crowley growls, still staring straight ahead at the sea of flames into which the Bentley is surging. The air is blistering. He can feel his eyes expanding from their usual mostly-human restraint as the tension on his physical form drags the threat of scales against the back of his neck and over the knuckles going white on the steering wheel melding itself to his grip. “If you’ve gotta go, then go with style!”

There is an explosion of light from the seat alongside Crowley. He doesn’t have to turn his head to feel the glow of heat from Hastur’s immolation as the other’s body gives up its ever-precarious hold on humanity.

Hastur wails. “I hate you!” And he disappears, temporarily dead or at least vanished.

Crowley laughs, victory straining against the wall of heat that is trying to climb down his throat to explore the soft human bits of his body. He drags a breath past his teeth, cooling it by sheer force of will as he stares unblinking and yellow-eyed into the blaze around him. His car is shaking, rattling in time with the music thudding from the speakers; Crowley tightens his hands against the wheel, and glares out the windshield, and forces speech past his teeth with as much determination as he has ever brought to bear on anything.

“You are my car,” he hisses. “I’ve had you from new, you are not. Going. To burn! Don’t even think of it!”

He lifts a hand to wrench the volume dial louder, to push back the sheets of flame with the crackle of a synthesizer. The music fills his ears, the light fills his eyes, and Crowley drives on, screaming a rebellion all his own against Heaven, and Hell, and whatever Plan might make the mistake of trying to keep him from where he needs to be.

Chapter Text

It’s harder to share a body than Aziraphale expected it would be.

There wasn’t much difficulty in actually achieving possession. That had been his greatest concern, that somewhere in the assumed and nonexistent differences between angels and demons there would be some kind of specific trick to the act of taking control of a human body. But Aziraphale found it easy, relatively speaking, to find a consciousness with space enough to accommodate his own presence alongside its original awareness.

The problem had been one of location. After his brief reunion with Crowley Aziraphale’s focus turned to the necessity of finding a body, and without a physical form of his own to limit or even slow his attempts sheer chance had swept him across the full span of the Earth he is trying to save. He had landed in Brazil first before a quick stop-off in Thailand determined that he was heading in the wrong direction and brought him fumbling back around towards the east. That landed him to America, for an exciting run-in with an accent that Aziraphale hopes devoutly is more for television than naturally occuring, and then, briefly, into the consciousness of a fish very upset indeed by the recent oceanic upheaval before he landed on solid ground again. Europe took another few hops, just to orient himself around the Channel and to get as close to London as he could; by the time he finally finds himself in Madame Tracy it is hard to believe his good luck.

Negotiations are brief and thankfully straightforward. Madame Tracy’s joint professions make her perfectly receptive to sharing both body and spirit with an ethereal being, and her connection to Sergeant Shadwell provides an unexpected but welcome opportunity for armaments. Less than fifteen minutes after taking literal possession of Madame Tracy’s attention Aziraphale is sitting astride an elderly scooter moving at a speed it likely never achieved even in its youth, and at an altitude he sincerely hopes it never dreamed of seeing. It’s not the most subtle approach to where they are bound, but time is of the essence, and Aziraphale figures he will have bigger problems to worry about than too-obvious miracles on an afternoon marked by the rising of the Kraken and the visit of environmentally-conscious aliens.

They aren’t far from Tadfield. The greater part of the distance is covered quite quickly, thanks to the heavenly persuasion Aziraphale makes to the scooter’s decrepit engine; it is only as they sweep towards the boundaries of the city that he turns his attention to the thought of a more understated approach. It seems perhaps ill-advised to approach an American military base from the sky and with the sharp whine of speed to announce their arrival, so Aziraphale lowers the scooter to the pavement and dampens the speed to a somewhat more reasonable pace, if not sufficient to loosen the rib-crushing grip Shadwell has around the plump waist of his present form.

The air base is metallic, and imposing, and guarded. The road leading up to it is clear of trees, perhaps because they have been simply glared out of any will to grow closer than the last half-mile of pavement winding up to the heavy chain-link gate. There is barbed wire looped around the top of it, in case the large red warning signs and looming guard towers were insufficient deterrent. Aziraphale is reminded of the bright coloring of poisonous frogs and venomous snakes offering a stern warning that any engagement will be very unpleasant for all involved, perhaps you had better turn around and give up while you’re still ahead, and also alive. It’s the kind of place Aziraphale has learned to avoid as much as possible during the last six thousand years living among the humans around him; it is exactly the right place for the Apocalypse to begin.

There is a guard station set up alongside the locked weight of the front gate into the base, and a guard within it as well. Aziraphale sees him look up from the book he has open as the scooter putters itself up to the far side of the gate before Madame Tracy brings it to a hiccuping stop so the three of them can untangle their two bodies from the seat. It takes some time to pry each of Shadwell’s fingers free of Madame Tracy’s gauzy top layer, and by the time they have succeeded in bringing their feet firmly back on solid ground the guard has emerged from the safety of his station to approach them with all the self-confidence of a man wearing a uniform and holding a very large gun at his side.

Aziraphale takes the lead, over the body and of the group, as he steps forward to offer a greeting and some variety of explanation, though he’s as yet somewhat unclear on the specifics of what that should be. He’s just lifting a hand and drawing a breath when there is a sound from over his shoulder in a voice that has the approximate resonance and coherency of a wet newspaper splashing into thick mud.

“D’you see this finger, laddie?” When Aziraphale looks back Shadwell is holding up his index finger alongside an impressively self-assured expression for someone who looks like an ambulatory raincoat. “This finger could send you to your maker!”

There is a moment of ringing silence that follows this declaration before Aziraphale reclaims control from disconcerting surprise and lifts his hands to wave this insanity well clear of their immediate surroundings.

“It really is vitally important that we speak to whoever is in charge here,” Aziraphale begins. His hands seem to respond somewhat differently than those of his old body; these are moving with greater force than what he intends to give them as he gestures the shape of his words into the air. He tightens his focus in an attempt to pull them under control, and while he’s occupied there the consciousness lingering over his metaphysical shoulder steps forward to claim their shared mouth and shoulders to shrug as she speaks.

“He’s telling the truth,” Aziraphale hears Madame Tracy say. “I’d know if he wasn’t.”

Aziraphale lets the hands do as they see fit so he can push himself back into control of breath and mouth and speech. “Will you please stop interrupting,” he says, with perhaps more of an edge than he intended to express but exactly as much as he is feeling under the present confluence of events. “I am trying to--” and he is elbowed away from physicality by Madame Tracy before he has even finished his sentence.

“Well, I just thought I’d put in a good word for--”

Aziraphale lurches back like a pendulum tolling the hour. “Yy, I... understand, but would you please--”

“Will you please be quiet?” The voice is so startling it takes Aziraphale a moment to realize it isn’t his own, or rather Madame Tracy taking control of her own body once again. When he looks up the guard is frowning at him, or them, looking confused in a way that strikes Aziraphale as rather worrying from someone with a gun half the size of his body hanging from his shoulder. He doesn’t have it raised, at least, and doesn’t make any motion to do so as he considers the form Aziraphale and Madame Tracy are currently cohabitating. “Both of you.” He pauses and takes another run-up at politeness. “I mean, ma’am.” Aziraphale glances down at the body, reminded again of the aesthetic differences between this form and the familiar one he so recently lost, as the guard carries on, struggling manfully forward in the face of phenomena he can hardly have covered in basic training. “I must...respectfully ask you to…”

There is a chord of music, carrying in the way of very loud sound heard from a very long way off. The guard trails off, his gaze sliding away from Aziraphale and Madame Tracy to a point beyond them, and the two of them together agree absolutely on the curiosity that turns their head to follow the course of his gaze.

There is a fireball speeding towards them along the curve of visible road leading up to Tadfield Air Base. All four of the entities currently in front of the gate watch as it draws nearer, bringing the roar of electric guitars radiating with it. As it approaches a shadow of a shape becomes visible within the flames, which clarifies into the outline of what might be a car. Madame Tracy leans forward, squinting against the impossibility of what she is seeing; and Aziraphale pulls back, rocking away from the surge of hope that crests in him before he can stop it. It cannot be, not here, at the exact moment Aziraphale most needs him; but here is a crisis, and there is the Bentley, on fire more than black but recognizable all the same, and there is a shadow throwing open the door and emerging to stand dramatically silhouetted by the flames roaring around him.

“You wouldn’t get that sort of performance from a modern car,” Crowley declares to the world at large.

Aziraphale’s being expands to fill every corner of Madame Tracy’s form, carried on the radiance of adoration that swells to dominate his borrowed body. His feet carry him a step forward, his hands reach out, his lips part. “Crowley.”

Crowley saunters forward from the blazing car, his hips giving up any pretense of humanity along with the brilliant glow of his yellow eyes freed from their usual dark-glass barrier. “Hey Aziraphale, see you found a ride.” His voice is bright, his tone is lilting; Aziraphale has never heard anything so heavenly as his name against Crowley’s lips. “Nice dress, suits you.”

Aziraphale’s face heats, his lips part. For a moment the urge to reach his hands out and close Madame Tracy’s gloves against the lapels of Crowley’s smoldering jacket, to come up onto his toes and crush his lips against the heat of that familiar mouth, is so keen that he nearly throws himself into Crowley’s arms right where they are. He teeters at the edge of temptation, as the very fabric of his existence aches with the need to give expression to the love resonating within him; and then he recalls Madame Tracy, and the reality of his present situation, and he pulls himself back to restraint with a monumental effort to clasp his hands in front of him instead of flinging them around Crowley’s neck. “Ahh.”

He takes a moment to collect himself, to reel back in the impulse that briefly dominated every part of his attention, and by the time Crowley is in range Aziraphale has himself well in hand and is no longer in quite such imminent danger of using someone else’s body to express six thousand years of unspoken affection. He contents himself instead with tipping his head in towards Crowley as the other draws level with him as he murmurs “Now, this young man...won’t let us in.

Crowley swings himself back, tipping his balance over his heels as he ducks his head to respond almost against the curve of Aziraphale’s -- well, Madame Tracy’s -- ear. “Leave it to me.” His tone is as smoky as his clothes, dripping with sultry promise, and Aziraphale decides that it is for the best that he content himself with nodding while he keeps his lips pressed firmly together as a safety measure against what he might try to do with them otherwise. Crowley straightens with a flourish and steps forward towards the guard, his entire bearing carrying such self-assurance that Aziraphale half expects him to walk straight through the gate uninterrupted.

Aziraphale has no idea what it is Crowley intends to do, much less how he’ll achieve it, but it doesn’t matter. The details aren’t important: what matters is that Crowley is here with him again, and in the course of six thousand years, Crowley has never failed to save him.

Chapter Text

Crowley is on top of the world.

It is true that he has had a truly Hellish drive in from London, complete with roaring flames and such a persistent smell of smoke that it seems to be following him now like an unusually sentient cloud desperate for some kind of recognition. It is true that the amassed forces of Hell are after him, and that likely the only reason they have failed to stake their claim as yet is due to the slightly more pressing demands of the Apocalypse, which is only running a few minutes fashionably late and will be sweeping in to the party at any moment. The closest thing to a home Crowley has ever had on Earth is burned to ashes, and he has absolutely no idea what he’s going to do to head off the imminent destruction of everything else.

But. But he’s in Tadfield, and he has a book of prophecies both nice and accurate and only a very little bit singed, and more than anything, more than everything: he has Aziraphale.

Aziraphale is a little different than he was. He’s shorter, for one thing, and wearing a fetching shade of lipstick that keeps drawing Crowley’s eyes to the shape of his mouth even more frequently than on their usual indulgent trek. And he’s sharing his physical form with another entity, which is only a problem in that general propriety is enforcing a temporary delay on Crowley’s most immediate priority, which is kissing Aziraphale while they both have the bodies to do so. Crowley doesn’t know if the original owner of Aziraphale’s present form would particularly mind the experience, and he is confident enough in his own skill to say that she certainly shouldn’t, but it seems more polite to wait until he can confirm that personally, and she is probably under the misconception that the Apocalypse is a more pressing issue. So Crowley contents himself with drawing close enough to bask in the glowing illumination that Aziraphale’s possession grants his current form, and with giving a thorough once-over to the exciting sartorial choices at work, before he turns himself to his favorite pursuit of playing savior.

“Army human.” There is a guard standing in front of the locked gate to the air base. He is holding a gun at his side with the white-knuckled intensity of someone who is under the pervasive misconception that violence grants power, and that power is the same thing as confidence. Crowley determines that the best thing he can do is to offer a case study in the real thing and draws himself up to his full height as he turns the glint of his eyes down his nose at the human. “My friend and I have come a long way, and--”

Something mechanical and probably important clicks. Crowley lifts his head to look, which action is followed very shortly by the now unlocked gate sliding open with a squeal of protesting metal. The guard pivots to stare shock before deciding the trio before him are the more likely culprits than the gate itself and glaring at them. “Which one of you did that?”

There is the sound of bike bells, shortly followed by both the sound and sight of one small dog and four small children pedaling bikes past Crowley and his company and through the opening gate. Crowley watches them pass with general interest as his memory tries to do some quick calculations regarding human growth, and the approximate size of an eleven-year-old boy, before instinct tosses the lot out and gestures insistently at the obvious answer provided by the situation.

“Okay,” the guard says, looking back at the open gate and sounding rather panicked. “Those kids are in big trouble. And so are you people.” Crowley agrees, though for rather different reasons than he thinks the guard means. The man lifts a hand to point sternly at them. “Don’t move!” And he turns to runs back to the guard station. A moment later the dull whine of an alarm begins to throb protest in the air, followed shortly by the reappearance of the guard as he returns towards them, his hands settling onto his gun with somewhat more commitment than he had before. Clearly things have progressed to a state sufficient for him to see an emergency, or at least close enough for him to justify falling back onto the script for one. Crowley grimaces at the inconvenience and prepares to take more immediately decisive action.

And then his car blows up.

The explosion is deafening, loud enough that it utterly flattens the wail of the siren beneath its weight. Flames roar, ripping space for themselves from the air as they erupt up and outwards to cast a plume of smoke skyward; there is the clatter of metal as a door gives up and falls off, and the tinkle of glass as a headlight shatters. Crowley turns away from the guard and the gate and the Apocalypse to stare as his Bentley -- his car -- collapses into a heap of burning wreckage in the middle of the road leading to the base. Smoke rises, flames smolder, and Crowley’s feet lurch, his body caring him blindly forward as his mind struggles to function around this abrupt, dreadful absence in the world.

It is worse as Crowley approaches. In the first blind shock his mind reaches for familiar comforts, struggling to find a way to remedy the situation, to knit the charred remnants back together like a surgeon holding life within a failing body; but there is nothing left, no miracle Crowley can work to return the soul of his car to the wreckage before him. This is past help, past saving, and beneath the force of that loss Crowley’s legs forget their function, his knees fold as strength abandons them, and he falls heavily to the pavement, still staring at the destruction of the one possession he has let himself care about.

“Ninety years, and not a scratch,” Crowley hears himself say. It says something about the tone of the day that this is only the second most painful loss he has faced in the last hour, when he feels as if something vital in him has shattered along with the windshield of what was until very recently his Bentley. “Now look at you.”

There is the sound of footsteps approaching with a particular scuffing haste that Crowley, in other circumstances, would be able to recognize as Aziraphale’s with his eyes shut, and in fact from the depths of a sound sleep. But he is far from the comfortable oblivion that sleep would offer, and in the sea of grief that has enveloped him he cannot even find the strength to turn his head to see Aziraphale pulling up alongside him with breathless intensity.

“Crowley.” Crowley does not move his head away from the fixed gaze he is turning on the sad remains of his beautiful car. “He’s got a gun.” Aziraphale’s hands flutter to add emphasis to the blank page of the space around him. Crowley doesn’t blink. “He’s pointing it.” Aziraphale makes another frantic gesture. “Do something!”

Crowley makes the monumental effort to turn his head to meet Aziraphale’s expectant gaze. He feels the look on his face ought to write an entire novel on his feelings and capacity for action at the present moment, but he adds the clarity of speech to it just to bring the point home. “I am having a moment here.”

Aziraphale struggles for words before he leans down to draw closer to where Crowley is holding vigil over his loss. “Crowley!” There is real force behind his voice, verging towards an outright anger that Crowley would be impressed by if he weren’t so occupied feeling absolutely, agonizingly bereft. “I am...the nice one!” Crowley rather disagrees with this point, given Aziraphale’s demonstrated willingness to make absurd demands of a man deep in the throes of grief, but he sets his jaw and lets his stoic silence make the point for him as Aziraphale goes on sputtering. “You can’t expect me to do the dirty work.”

Crowley keeps his chin up and his gaze fixed straight ahead, on where he would be able to see his car if Aziraphale weren’t standing directly in his way. There is another moment of tense silence; then the guard shouts from the gate, “Ma’am!” and Aziraphale scoffs on frustration and turns to flounce away with a show of irritation that is greatly aided by his current attire. There’s the sound of his heels clicking against the pavement as the guard continues: “I’m giving you all five seconds to vacate this area.”

Crowley doesn’t turn around at the sound of Aziraphale’s fingers snapping. He is still gazing at his Bentley, still letting the full force of his loss bleed blind pain through him as he feels the scope of the wound and gauges the depth of the hurt. His heart aches, his eyes burn, and Crowley draws himself up to steady himself for the task of continuing on with the burden of his grief heavy on his shoulders.

“Rest in peace,” he murmurs. There is a charred starter handle against the pavement in front of him, where it was thrown by the force of the first explosion. Crowley reaches to pick it up and press a kiss against the metal as he stares at the shell of his car. “You were a good car.” He draws himself together, recontextualizing his physical existence around his loss, before he brings his legs back into order beneath him and rises to his feet. One more moment gazing at the wreck as he turns back towards the gate, and the silence that speaks to the complete removal of the guard standing at it, and Crowley turns his head, and turns his attention back to the task at hand. The book goes under his arm, the starter handle stays in his hand, and he strides back over the distance to the guard station, where Shadwell and Aziraphale are standing looking at the guard-shaped emptiness before them.

It’s difficult for Crowley to muster much emotion for anything other than absolute misery just at the moment, but even under the weight of his grief there is a flicker of surprise at how tidy a job Aziraphale has managed in spite of his protests. He inclines his head towards the angel as he strides past him. “Nice work on the soldier.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, without a trace of the stern command he mustered a moment ago. When Crowley turns back to look at him his forehead is creased into an expression of such fretful concern that Crowley thinks he would recognize the angel immediately, even with the brightly colored hair and heavy false eyelashes curling over his gaze. “I-I do hope I haven’t sent him somewhere unpleasant.”

Crowley considers offering the comfort of truth, namely that it’ll probably be fine, since nowhere is generally not regarded as a particularly painful place to be, especially when one has ceased to have an existence with which to experience it. Luckily the rumble of truck engines pulls his attention back to the open gate before he can give this questionable reassurance, and the fleet of soldiers riding within the several Jeeps answering the siren’s call serves as a persuasion that even Crowley lacks the will to rebel against.

“Oh,” Crowley says. He glances back to Aziraphale, who is still wringing his hands over the potential harm done to a single soldier, and then back to the dozens now approaching. “Yy-okay, I’ll need to get over the...car thing.” He looks back to his car, or what little remains of it, and then firmly away as he pushes the loss aside to be picked up when he is sure he won’t very shortly be following the Bentley to a fiery oblivion of his own. “I’ll deal with them.”

“Never fear laddie,” Sergeant Shadwell says by way of answering the question no one had even considered asking. Crowley is rather curious what his undercover operative is doing here with Aziraphale, but that’ll be something else they sort out later, or ignore completely due to the lack of anyone left to worry about the subject. “I’ve got a finger.”

Crowley ignores this as no more than another one of the incomprehensibilities that seem to knit together the entirety of Shadwell’s existence and begins to stride towards the gate with Shadwell, and Aziraphale, and Aziraphale’s current body, all following behind him. Crowley still has not the faintest idea what he’s going to do to stave off the inevitable, but he figures he’ll sort that out as he goes. He’s lost everything he can bear to lose, but he still has the one thing he needs, and he’ll fight an entire war all by himself if that’s what it takes to keep Aziraphale with him.

Chapter Text

Crowley deals with the soldiers.

This is a relatively straightforward process. Hell might intend to collect his demonic powers back for their keeping, but since their means of achieving this consists entirely of collecting Crowley and removing him from existence, they have yet to succeed. Aziraphale already got things started with his tidy work with the first guard; all Crowley does is follow his lead in clearing the approaching Jeeps of their occupants by means of putting those occupants somewhere Else. The Jeeps lose traction on their motion with the loss of drivers, their wheels set free to explore their own path before coming to the conclusion that actually they would prefer to simply slow to a halt right where they are, and Crowley takes the lead across the tarmac to the nearest vehicle, whose engine is still humming with a warmth that sends a fresh pang of loss through Crowley as he approaches.

They don’t have time for that at the moment, though. Crowley grimaces to push back against this reminder that he no longer has a vehicle, that there will be no sleek black shape waiting for him at the end of all this, and focuses himself more intently on the need to get to the end of all this, ideally with the world still more or less intact. He sets his jaw with force, and tucks his chin down to glare the Jeep into surrender as it slows to a stop in front of them, and strides forward across the pavement at speed.

“Get in,” he says with a jerk of his head towards the other two forms, the one carrying Aziraphale and the other carrying a gun big enough to lend rather substantial weight to any moral argument in which in chooses to engage. Aziraphale doesn’t need the instruction; his heels are already clicking across the pavement to carry him to the far side of the car. He hesitates at finding a steering wheel waiting for him there, his forehead creasing and mouth tightening on confusion as Crowley keeps walking right past the far side of the truck to swing around the back and return to the misplaced driver’s side.

Aziraphale clicks his tongue. “Americans,” he says in the approximate tone of a parent considering a disobedient but occasionally charming child, and struggles to navigate himself into the passenger seat. Shadwell is commencing with his own entry into the truck, a process involving a great deal of flailing and somewhat less actual forward motion; Crowley leaves him to it while he grabs at the edge of the door and pulls himself up into the driver seat. It’s far higher off the ground than it should be, to his mind, and the entire vehicle is built on the general lines of a steel cube, but the pedals have a satisfying resistance when he sets his feet against them, and the engine roars with enthusiasm when offered the temptation of acceleration. Crowley grips the steering wheel with both hands, and sets his foot on the floor by way of the gas pedal, and as Aziraphale reaches up to clutch at the frame of the truck and Shadwell topples backwards over the backseat Crowley wrenches the wheel around to drag a long curve of rubber over the ground and swing them towards the opportunity that is not so much waiting as continuing at speed with or without their presence.

There is a crowd gathered at the far side of the air base. The Horsemen, Crowley expected: he can sense them, in some measure, the way one can feel a migraine coming on or the unpleasant certainty of nausea forming itself with a glance at a particularly greasy plate. And the boy, of course, the Apocalypse can hardly kick itself off without the Antichrist there to fire the starting pistol, at the world itself, if needed. But there are more children than just the one necessity, and all four of them are gathered in a cluster of mud and coats and rain-fogged glasses across from the harbingers of the end times. The dog is with them, too, approximately ankle high and with enough tension in its back legs to speak to its own conviction in a far greater power than what it actually possesses. Crowley frowns at it as they approach, trying and failing to pick out any sense of the Hellhound he knows it must be; and then they’re drawing close enough, and he gives up his attention to the dog. There is a boy at the center of it all, standing a little apart from the other three and with the dog close at his side to guard him from harm, and Crowley knows who he must be without even looking up to see the vortex of the storm that has centered itself precisely over his curly gold head.

Death speaks as Crowley slams the Jeep to a halt and throws himself out of it. His voice is resonant and deep, deep in the way oceans are deep, cold like the farthest vacuum of space, unceasing as the blaze of the sun. YOU COULD FINISH THIS FOR THEM WITH ONE THOUGHT, and Crowley feels the words ache in the marrow of his bones more than he hears them, as if Death is as much an integral part of his own occult existence as of the mortal humans over which he holds absolute sway. YOU CAN MAKE THE WORLD ANEW.

Crowley seizes the charred souvenir of Aziraphale’s bookshop from the truck and swings himself forward towards the confrontation, or perhaps negotiation, happening on the tarmac in front of them. “That’s him,” he shouts, keeping his gaze and an outstretched finger on the small figure of the Antichrist to make sure they don’t misplace him now that he’s finally been chased down. “The curly one. Shoot him, save the world.”

Aziraphale is following in Crowley’s wake, moving with more speed in this form than Crowley has ever seen him attain in his original shape. Behind him Shadwell is stumbling forward, the weight of their weapon in his hands, and Death continues speaking, offering the greatest temptation even Crowley has ever witnessed.

YOU ARE PART OF US, NOT THEM. NO ONE WILL DISOBEY YOU. There is a wind whipping across the empty space, the remnants of the storm now struggling to hold its own against a sunlight so bright it stings Crowley’s uncovered eyes. He can’t remember the last time he saw the sky without his sunglasses to protect him. It makes him feel wounded, as if his accumulated losses have been carved into his physical form to bleed into the yellow in his eyes and the raw edge of his voice.

Aziraphale draws close to Crowley’s side. Crowley doesn’t turn his head to look away from the Antichrist standing stolidly on the pavement before him, but he can feel the glow of the angel’s presence like a touch against his skin, as if the ache of the fire and the bitter of the smoke are pulling away to stage a hissing retreat from the comfort of Aziraphale’s presence. He doesn’t look away, doesn’t turn his head to give up his focus, but when his balance shifts he leans with it to tip his body in towards Aziraphale standing alongside him.

He has almost forgotten the last member of their party until Shadwell gusts a breath of hesitation that chills Crowley’s skin far more effectively than the raking force of the wind. “Wh...he’s just a wee bairn.” Crowley swings around to stare at him, with Aziraphale acting so instantly with him that he’s not sure if his reaction is following or being followed. Shadwell is holding the enormous gun in his arms but it’s pointed down; his shoulders are slumping under the weight of his jacket as if they have lost what limited structural integrity he was previously ostensible master of. “You’re gonna, ehh…”

“Oh for Heaven’s sake,” and Aziraphale steps towards Shadwell with crisp determination. “Give me that.”

Crowley glances back to the end of his pointing finger, and follows its guidance out to the dramatic scene before them and the boy standing framed in the exact center of it. Several of the participants are looking at the four of them now: not Death, of course, or the dog, whose attention is completely rapt by the possibility offered by a full skeleton’s worth of bones directly in front of him, but all three of the children and the one Antichrist. The former look alternately alarmed, and confused, and irritated; the latter is just watching, his expression level with no sign of alarm as Aziraphale returns with the enormous gun braced in his arms. There’s no hesitation in Aziraphale’s expression as he heaves the weapon up to follow the guidance of Crowley’s upraised arm; Crowley has the brief, dizzying thought to wonder if this is what salvation looks like, a plump woman with heavy false eyelashes and a gigantic rusty gun stepping forward to take the action that Crowley can’t bring himself to do to save the world for them all.

IGNORE THIS NONSENSE, Death intones. A WORD FROM YOU AND I WILL END THEIR LIVES.

The flared end of the gun drops down sharply. When Aziraphale speaks it is in a completely different voice, this one shrill with the same horror that stalled Shadwell back by the Jeep, that Crowley has fought with for years without triumph. “You can’t just shoot children.”

Aziraphale swings around to look up at Crowley. His eyes are wide with pleading, his mouth is soft on uncertainty. “Perhaps we should wait.”

Crowley would do anything to give Aziraphale what he wants. If there were any way for him to take this from him he would, would turn aside and avoid the inevitable, awful conclusion. But the fate of the world is at stake, and he has always been too weak to do what is right when it feels so wrong, and the only person who can save him, who has ever been able to save him, is Aziraphale.

“What, until he grows up?” His voice is harsher than he means it to be but there is no time to apologize, no time to do anything except lift his hand to point at the boy standing gazing at them. It’s easier to do if he keeps his eyes on Aziraphale instead of on the child his gesture makes a target. “Shoot him , Aziraphale!”

Aziraphale’s expression tightens and he jerks his head into a nod. Crowley watches him lift the gun, feeling a shiver of pride even knowing what is coming, what he is demanding Aziraphale do. Aziraphale has always been stronger than Crowley, has always been more able to dig his heels in and turn his back on temptations Crowley can’t imagine refusing; and it will be his strength that saves them now, them and the world and all of humanity, less one small boy. The thought pulls Crowley’s gaze unwillingly to land on the Antichrist, still standing watching them with perfect calm even as the barrel of the gun levels at him. He looks very young in his body and very old in his eyes; and then there is a huge, honking explosion, and Crowley jerks back to stumble into a retreat before he realizes it was the gun, and the air instead of the boy. Aziraphale is still holding the weapon in his hands but it’s pointed upwards, now, towards the rising curl of smoke from the shot he fired; or that his body fired, Crowley realizes, as Aziraphale’s expression shifts into the blinking apology of the original owner of his body.

“I’m sorry?” The woman sounds breathless from her struggle to overcome Aziraphale’s possession by force; even in the moment, with the recognition of failure speeding towards his awareness, Crowley is impressed with the determination that cast the shot up instead of out. The woman shakes her head, looking like she’s struggling to keep herself upright, much less the barrel of the gun she’s still grasping. “I...I couldn’t let you do it.”

“Excuse me.” The voice isn’t particularly loud; it doesn’t hum through the very fabric of existence the way Death’s does, doesn’t echo with shrill force as Crowley’s shout did. It simply demands obedience, expects attention with such absolute force that even Crowley, who has made a study of rebellion, finds himself turning to stare at the boy still giving the full of his attention to Aziraphale’s current form. There is the hint of a crease at the Antichrist’s forehead, the start of a frown at his lips. “Why are you two people?”

The woman’s head tips back, her shoulders straighten, and suddenly she’s Aziraphale again, blinking hard under the undeniable command of the question. “Ah,” he says. “Um, long story.” He ducks his head as the weight of the gun slumps itself to the pavement before drawing back up to the full of his current height and taking a breath that Crowley recognizes as the prelude to an extended explanation. “You see, I was in my bookshop--”

“It’s not right.” That’s the boy again, his words so crisp they cut through Aziraphale’s speech with no effort at all. “You should go back to being two separate people again.”

The form standing in the middle of the tarmac shifts immediately. There’s a wail of sound, a protest that might be from a human throat or simply reality itself protesting the pressure placed upon it, and the single outline stretches, pulling apart like Aziraphale’s favorite taffy. There is a spill of radiance as angelic possession sticks and pulls and comes free; and then there are two figures standing side-by-side, and one of them is Aziraphale.

Crowley lurches forward. It’s an instinct, a response so reflexive he is helpless to resist it. Aziraphale has been here in spirit since Crowley’s arrival; now he is here in the flesh as well, tartan bowtie and curling hair and a jacket that Crowley can see still holding the traces of a certain demonic miracle across the shoulder. Crowley’s feet carry him across the pavement, circling behind the figure now lifting a tentative hand to its chest and gusting a breath of relief, and every aspect, every detail is as absolutely familiar as coming home.

“Oh!” the owner of Aziraphale’s recent form chirps. “Made me go all tingly.” She looks up at the exact moment that Aziraphale turns at the sound of her voice. Crowley can see her gaze shift, sliding over Aziraphale from top to toe in a brief, startled sweep, but Crowley doesn’t look back to her, even when she catches a breath and turns to retreat back to where Sergeant Shadwell is standing stock-still some distance away on the pavement. It’s Aziraphale Crowley’s gazing at, glowing and breathless and blinking with surprise, and he isn’t sure even the arrival of all the amassed forces of Heaven and Hell together would be enough to pull his attention aside at the moment. Aziraphale is back, really back, in the form that Crowley has followed and wanted and loved for six thousand unbroken years, and Crowley decides immediately that he’ll take his chances with whatever decision this Antichrist makes. He’s only a kid, after all; and Crowley is ready to stand firmly on the side of anyone who gives him another chance to kiss the smile he’s been pining for since the Garden.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is very glad to have his body back.

He hadn’t let himself really feel the loss. There was no time immediately following the discorporation itself, and less encouragement from the stern frown and clarion voice of the quartermaster angel who had not so much welcomed as berated Aziraphale upon his return to Heaven, and as soon as Aziraphale had stabilized himself to some token attempt at navigation he found himself hit with a loss great enough to swamp the wave of grief for his lost body beneath a veritable tsunami of mourning. There had been no time for that either, of course, and under the circumstances Aziraphale has been very properly grateful for the stability granted to him by Madame Tracy’s generous sharing of her physical form. It’s been enough to linger over the small miracles, of an existence and a body and a Crowley, once the latter caught up to their group of makeshift saviors, and Aziraphale has decided to focus on the gifts available to him in the present, at least while the future remains so uncertain.

Regaining his physical form is the last thing he had expected. The shock of it is disorienting in the first place, of course, as his existence is forcibly stripped from Madame Tracy’s physical form as if being sucked through a particularly broad and demanding straw; but then he feels himself snap into place with a familiarity that steals the breath he doesn’t need, and he knows he’s back before he has even lifted his hands to reassure himself of the fact of it. He’s himself again, his body and limbs and even his clothes returned just exactly as they were when he stumbled backwards into the column of light in his bookshop, and in the first rush of happiness he expresses his gratitude by entirely discarding his previous murderous plan for world salvation.

Unfortunately, that leaves him with no stock at all in the ideas department. He has his body back, and Crowley has drawn up close enough that Aziraphale’s fingers are trembling with the desire to reach out and touch him, but the Horsemen have failed to disintegrate as Aziraphale vaguely hoped they would. They are still there, red and white and black and void, and Aziraphale blinks his newly reinstated eyes and regrets that he may have very little time left to appreciate his renewed physicality.

It is War who steps forward first. She is bloodstained and battle-hardened, her jacket glinting with flecks of metal that reflect the sunlight into blades of illumination that cut as sharply as the sword in her hand. The blade of that needs no assistance towards light; it is aflame, pouring heat from itself without ceasing as War draws into the center of the ring formed on the tarmac and swings the weapon into an elaborate show. Aziraphale flinches on instinct to keep his jacket clear of the risk from the fire, but War doesn’t so much as glance in his direction. Her crimson smile is directed at the children before her, flickering from one to the next as the weapon in her hand slices through the air.

Aziraphale recognizes Adam’s voice as soon as he hears it. It sounds perfectly ordinary, no more than an eleven-year-old boy speaking with particular clarity to be heard over the edge of the wind gusting around them all; but the tone demands attention, grips and holds the hearers by the back of their collar, and Aziraphale finds himself struck dumb by the sheer charisma of that voice claiming center stage and sitting him down forcibly in the audience.

“The thing is.” Adam turns his head to look at the other children around him. His chin is lifted, his gaze is certain. “They’re not actually real. They’re just like nightmares, really.”

War’s head cranes, her sword burns through the air to match the vicious edge of her smile. “Little boys with your toys.”

I’m not a boy.” The voice is from one of the other children, the tone sharp enough to stand opposition against the threat of the sword in War’s hands. Aziraphale glances to the speaker, a small girl with a red raincoat and an intent stare, but War doesn’t spare so much as a glance to this first indication of uprising in the ranks.

“I am War,” she declares, looking from one child to the next with the deliberation of a sword thrust. “You were made to serve me. To live in me and die in me.”

My mum says war is just masculine imperialism executed on a global stage,” the small girl declares, and Aziraphale decides in that exact moment that he quite likes her, and that it speaks highly of the Antichrist’s taste in humanity that he has been able to retain her as a friend.

War answers with a mean laugh. It reminds Aziraphale of the shadows on Uriel’s smile and the uncomfortable brilliance of Sandalphon’s bared teeth. “A little girl.” The sword sketches a spiral into the air centered on the child. “Run home and play with your dollys, little girl.”

The girl’s shoulders go back, her head comes up. There’s no flinching in her gaze at all and Aziraphale is struck, for far from the first and he hopes not the last time, by the courage that humans manifest with such startling ease, for creatures whose existence is tethered entirely to the well-being of a body uncomfortably weak to falls, or blows, or the sharp edges of flaming swords. “I do not. Endorse. Everyday sexism.”

War bares her teeth and swings the sword back around her for a heavy overhand strike. Aziraphale opens his eyes wide, flinching at the impossibility of miracling a solution away from the power of the entity in front of him, but while he remains trapped in place the girl moves with the speed of pure determination. One rainboot plants solidly against the tarmac underfoot, the other swings out to drive unerringly into War’s shin, and whatever protection the Horseman’s gear may offer from bullets and knives proves entirely unequipped to deal with the rubber-soled blow of a small child’s shoe. War’s balance flinches away from her, her footing stumbles backwards, and the sword seizes the opportunity to clatter to the tarmac from her open fingers. It lands hilt-first in front of the little girl, who scrambles forward to seize it and raise it towards War, who is just returning from the obligatory hopping loop of pain that follows getting kicked very hard in the shin.

“We’re Adam’s real friends,” the girl declares. “Not you lot. You’re a joke.”

Adam speaks with perfect calm. “Say what you believe, Pepper.” Pepper glances back at him, her eyes dark with attention to the command declared with such casual ease by the child that holds them all in thrall, and then she looks back to War as the Horseman takes a step forward and reaches to close a gloved hand hard around the blade still pointed at her.

“I believe in peace,” Pepper says, in a tone suitable for an invitation to a duel. “Bitch.” The sword erupts into flames, illumination seething up the blade to swallow War’s red glove in fire, and having taken a taste it promptly heaps its plate with the entirety of War’s physical form. She throws her head back, screaming with a voice made of the sound of machine gun fire and the desperate shouts of soldiers, and then the fire roars to a crescendo and snaps itself back into the shape of the blade Pepper is still holding outstretched at the nothing that is now where War stood a moment before.

“Drop it, Pepper.” That’s Adam again, with the first indication of true concern Aziraphale has heard in his voice since their arrival. “Quick!” Pepper obeys with such speed that Aziraphale wonders if it was the result of the world itself morphing to suit Adam’s demand, and as the sword clatters to the tarmac Pollution stumbles to lunge forward for it. Their hand reaches out, oozing towards the handle of the fallen weapon; but one of the humans gets there first, this one a grubby boy who has clearly cottoned on to the idea and doesn’t hesitate in directing the sword in the direction of the humanoid figure standing in front of him. Pollution reaches to close their hand against the blade, which begins to spread with rust as the flame around it hisses and spits protest, but the boy just stares up at them, his jaw set on a determination as human as anything Aziraphale has ever seen.

“I believe in a clean world,” he declares, with a near-savage intensity, and Pollution’s human shape melts, pooling into a black sludge that spills out over the tarmac with a wet, suffocating scream. There is a strong smell of burning rubber, the spreading fume of gasoline; and then the puddle is gone, its green-blue flames absorbed by the blade of the sword now blazing with the same clear fire it showed before. Aziraphale has a pang of recognition, as if he’s catching a whiff of an old cologne or recalling the taste of a dessert made from a long-extinct fruit, but there is no time for him to place it before the third of the children flanking Adam steps forward to pick up the sword from where it has fallen alongside Pollution’s black-tarnished crown.

This is the smallest of the children, both in height and stature, and his confidence is not particularly aided by the magnification of the thick glasses he has set at the end of his nose; but his voice is firm, even if his grip on the sword is struggling to hold itself against the weight of the weapon crackling alight on the far side of the hilt. “And I believe in food.” He pauses to gauge the weight of these words before shoring them up with greater clarity. “And a healthy lunch.”

The third of the Horseman surges forward with the immediate haste of a starving thing offered a banquet. His hand swings up to clutch at the end of the blade and wrestle the weight loose from that uncertain grip, but the boy hangs on, even with the general resemblance to a fish on a line that this grants him. “Actually, it’s a very good thing.”

Crowley shifts alongside Aziraphale to persuade his balance into an improbable lean towards the other. “Didn’t that used to be your sword?”

He turns his head to give Aziraphale the full focus of his eyes. Aziraphale keeps his attention on the blaze of the too-familiar sword in the middle of the wrestling match before them, not because he has any idea how to help or if he could help at all, but rather because Crowley is very close to him, and with the precaution of his dark glasses gone and Aziraphale only recently returned to his physical body Aziraphale has critically low confidence in his ability to resist the temptation of Crowley’s golden gaze lingering against his face and the considering part the question has left curling onto his lips.

“I do believe it was,” Aziraphale manages. His gaze tries to tug itself free of his control and he brings it firmly down as Crowley turns his head to watch the conflict again. Aziraphale’s attention pleads itself into an indulgence on the premise of good behavior, and he glances sideways through his lashes at Crowley’s face as he feels himself going as warm as the sword presently the centerpiece of a battle.

This is a greater struggle than the ones that came before. Aziraphale doesn’t know if it’s a sign of Famine’s greater power, or if it’s the simple fact that the weapon is too much for a small human to easily bear, however firm his convictions. They are in stalemate for a moment, the jagged-toothed creature and the bespectacled boy; and then the dog sitting on the tarmac decides that their side could do with the application of more teeth as well, and bounds forward to sink a bite into Famine’s knee. Famine stumbles, his balance giving way to the distraction of the dog leaping around him, and the sword flares with proof of victory. Famine’s head turns up, a howl of rage and loss tears from his throat, and as he disintegrates into the burn of the sword a pair of scales falls to rattle against the pavement. The boy’s grip, having proven its skill, loosens, and the sword follows the rest of the items to clatter with impossible weight upon the rain-damp tarmac underfoot.

“Death,” Adam says, in the tone of one speaking to an equal. “This all has to stop now.”

IT HAS STOPPED. Death doesn’t move from his position; he hasn’t moved since the fight began, has simply stood observing the result of the conflict that broke itself over the space directly between his stance and Adam’s. BUT THEY WILL BE BACK. WE ARE NEVER FAR AWAY.

Death does not shift, doesn’t lift his head or move his hands from their resting place within the sleeves of his heavy robe, but Aziraphale has the impression of a chin lifting, of an already-doubtful human seeming shrugged free like an overcoat no longer deemed necessary. I AM CREATION’S SHADOW, and the words are everywhere, formed from the fabric of reality itself, written into the shape of every atom, of every moment. YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME. THAT WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD. Creation hesitates for a moment, pausing over this immutable fact; and then Death’s cowled head comes forward, and he tips into a deliberate bow. It ought to look foolish, the black-cloaked, skeletal figure of Death itself bowing to an eleven-year-old boy. Aziraphale can imagine nothing more appropriate.

Death turns his head to consider the rest of them as he straightens from his bow. He doesn’t look at them -- he has no eyes with which to do so -- but there is a powerful sense of being seen, of a grand, eternal presence sweeping over Aziraphale. GOOD DAY, GENTLEMEN.

“Cheek!” Madame Tracy gasps, echoed immediately by Pepper’s scoffed “Cheek.” Death makes no reply to this, except to unfurl enormous wings of night and stars and nothing. The world flickers, expanding into the endless abyss of uncreation, the end that waits, calm and certain and utterly patient, for everything; and then there is a folding, a collapse back into existence, and Aziraphale draws a breath that tastes sweet as chocolate and feels relief spread to glow through every part of his body.

“There,” he says, tasting the rich weight of satisfaction on his tongue. “You see Crowley?” He turns his head to look up at Crowley. “It’s as I’ve always said--” but Crowley is already turned in to face him, his whole body angled towards Aziraphale with an intensity that steals Aziraphale’s breath and would stifle his words to silence even without the interruption he receives.

“Oh it isn’t over.” Crowley’s eyes are wide and enormous with intensity; the yellow is brighter than Aziraphale has ever seen it, like it’s spilling past the boundaries of Crowley’s irises to make stern demands on all of Aziraphale’s attention at once. “Nothing’s over.” Crowley’s voice is ragged, from smoke or sobs or screaming. Aziraphale can’t find his voice at all. “Both Heaven and Hell still want their war.”

Crowley turns aside, leaving Aziraphale fixed on the spot by the impact of the other’s words and his own breathlessness at the intensity he just faced down. Even after he swings into motion to stride towards the cluster of children it takes Aziraphale’s thoughts a moment to pick themselves back up from the distant reaches to which they have been scattered, and by then Crowley has drawn every eye with the sway of his forward steps. “You. Boy. Antichrist, what was your name again?”

Adam doesn’t so much as blink at the advent of someone with brilliant yellow eyes. Aziraphale supposes he has seen stranger things today. In the grand scheme of the Apocalypse a man with snake eyes is nothing but a passing curiosity. “Adam Young.”

“So.” Crowley’s voice is strained, brittle and harsh with an edge of pain that Aziraphale has heard too often in the last week. “Your friends got together and saved the world, well done. Have a gold star. It won’t make any difference.”

Aziraphale wants to step forward into the gap left by Crowley’s bitter resignation, wants to offer tidings of hope and comfort to all of them but most especially to the demon who has so often saved him from his own obedience. But while he is opening his mouth to find reassurance there is a shout from farther down the tarmac, “You!” in such a sharp tone that Aziraphale finds his body turning to respond before his mind has yet understood the word.

There is a young woman coming across the pavement, taking long strides that kick the heavy blue of her long skirts around her ankles in a wave. She is followed by a man of equivalent age, whose highly ordinary appearance highlights the general occult air draping itself around the woman. Aziraphale blinks, his mind scrambling to place this fresh wave of recognition, and while he is mentally shuffling through his memories the young woman gives him the answer herself. “You’re the men in the car, you stole my book!

“Oh, book girl!” Crowley exclaims, with a little more energy on his voice at this unexpected development. He lifts his hand from his side and Aziraphale sees the charred block of the only extant copy of the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. It looks as if it is considering extinction as a feasible career path; bits crumble off the cover as Crowley swings his arm for a throw. “Catch!”

The book curves into an arc through the air, scattering a trail of ash in its wake. The young woman flings herself forward, both hands outstretched to rescue the much-abused tome from a fatal collision with the ground. Her eyes are on the book, or what remains of the book; it’s Aziraphale who sees a miraculously unsinged page catch in the wind and flutter free. It flies through the air on a rogue gust of wind, blowing back from the rest of the text and towards the rest of the group, and Aziraphale puts his hand up without thinking to catch it. The paper tumbles away from the motion of his hand, waving tantalizingly through the air in front of him, before giving up the chase and landing in the grip of his fingers as he clutches at it and looks down.

It’s just one prophecy, much-charred at the edges but with the text perfectly clear in the center and framed by the damage as if done so deliberately. When all is ſayed and all is done, ye must chooſe your faces wiseley, for soon enouff ye will be playing with fyre. Aziraphale reads the prophecy straight through, fixing the words to memory on instinct, and then the young woman’s voice breaks into his attention and he folds the fragment to tuck safely into his pocket.

“What is going on out here?” She is wearing a tight frown as Aziraphale looks up, although it seems to be for the gathering as a whole more than for any particular prophecy theft that may or may not have just occurred.

Crowley shakes his head. “Long story, no time.”

The woman glares. “Well, try me.”

Crowley tips his head to look back over his shoulder. It’s only when his eyes meet Aziraphale’s that Aziraphale realizes he is asking for help.

“Uh,” he says. “Okay.” He steps forward across the tarmac to take up his position at Crowley’s side. Crowley is turned in towards him entirely, as if he’s magnetized around the pole of Aziraphale’s existence rather than the compass north more commonly taken as a fixed point. Aziraphale does a brief calculation on current priorities, and the likelihood that their audience will understand should he take a moment to capitulate to the temptation of Crowley immediately next to him, and is forced to conclude that he will need to go on waiting a little longer. He pulls his gaze away from Crowley’s with some effort. “So, uh, in the beginning, in the Garden, there was a -- well, he” with a pointing finger to Crowley next to him that draws his own gaze along with everyone else’s, “Was a, um, wily, old serpent.” His attention wanders back to reunite with Crowley’s, which has decided that it will be dedicating itself entirely to Aziraphale’s face from now on. Aziraphale wonders if Crowley realizes how soft his expression is and then, immediately, wonders if this is how Crowley always looks at him from behind the cover of his usual sunglasses. “And I, uh, was technically on apple tree duty…”

Crowley’s grimace cuts off Aziraphale’s rather haphazard explanation even before the other has lifted his hand to gesture him to silence. “Ssh ssh ssh ssh ssh.” He shakes his head and Aziraphale closes his mouth, rather more relieved than otherwise at this reprieve from trying to summarize six millennia together as anything other than the drawn-out pining it has been.

The young woman shakes her head and lets the subject drop in favor of taking a breath and forcing a smile at the collection of young people standing on the wet tarmac. “Hey Adam. Hi, Pepper. Hi, you two.”

“Hello, Anathema,” Adam says with the careful politeness of an eleven-year-old speaking to an adult who has, by some miracle, earned his respect. “You just stopped them blowing up the world, didn’t you?”

“I guess,” Anathema says. “My boyfriend here did the tricky bit.”

A complicated expression slides over the young man’s face, composed of apologetic pleasure and polite demurral in about equal measure before both exit the stage to make room for full-blown shock as he turns to stare at Anathema. “Boyfriend?”

“Another deluded victim of the patriarchy,” announces Pepper in the solemn tones of a doctor declaring a patient past saving. Aziraphale thinks this is a bit extreme -- he, for one, thinks the idea of boyfriends is a splendid one, and something he would like very much to explore in more detail -- but any commentary he might want to make is knocked spectacularly aside by a burst of lightning that lances down to stab at the tarmac behind them. Aziraphale jumps, and his balance lurches in a different direction to send him stumbling forward almost into Crowley, who has spun on his heel to stare wide-eyed behind him. Aziraphale throws a hand out to catch himself against the support of Crowley’s arm so he can turn and follow the line of the other’s attention, but he doesn’t need to see when his skin is prickling with awareness of another angelic presence.

The air is sparking with light, which is rapidly taking on the too-familiar shape of broad shoulders and an expensive suit, and Aziraphale feels his heart sink with recognition of Crowley’s own nice and accurate prediction. Heaven does want its war; as does Hell, it seems, as the tarmac cracks and the earth groans before belching up a somewhat shorter but similarly well-dressed figure from the depths beneath. The demon groans and brushes dirt from the shoulders of their suit; and then they look up to see Aziraphale’s erstwhile boss watching them. They gaze at each other for a minute, Heaven and Hell alike; and then they both turn to face the cluster of humans, and Aziraphale and Crowley, that are the last opposition remaining to them.

Aziraphale stares at them, the demon Beelzebub and the angel Gabriel, advancing in step towards their group; and his hand tightens against Crowley’s arm for a moment before he draws himself up to turn and face them down. He isn’t meant to disobey, isn’t supposed to be able to rebel; but he has the world at his back, and Crowley at his side, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to give them up without a fight.

Chapter Text

Sometimes Crowley really hates being right.

He knew the fight wasn’t over. The Horsemen were just the start of things, just a means to a predetermined end; the fact that the Antichrist and his friends saw fit to face them down in turn is no more salvation than aversion of the nuclear strike by the book girl’s boyfriend. They have stopped the immediate crisis, have put an end to the disaster that was most immediately imminent, but it’s like trying to stem a flood, and it’s only a matter of time before the makeshift dam gives way once more.

It comes in the form of emissaries. Crowley supposes it’s only fair that the two sides involved should send new representatives; it’s been some time since he was actively working towards Hell’s mission statement, and recent circumstances demonstrate that Aziraphale is similarly done with maintaining the pretense of obedience that he has coddled for so many centuries. Besides, current events are rather above both their pay grades, Crowley guesses, judging if nothing else by the identity of the demon now striding purposefully across the tarmac towards their group. They don’t pause to so much as glance at Crowley, any more than the silver-suited angel spares a politic greeting for Aziraphale; both representatives cut straight through the side of the disintegrating circle of onlookers to make a beeline for the children still standing between their fallen bikes and the weapons of Apocalyptic proportions.

Crowley tips himself forward as Beelzebub comes past him and lifts both his hands into a dramatic flourish with an expiration date several centuries prior. It seems appropriate, under the circumstances, which demand a measure of mockery for the tone with which he offers his greeting. “Lord Beelzebub. What an honor.”

Beelzebub turns their head to fix Crowley with the expression one might wear at hearing a voice emanate from something vile beneath one’s foot. “Crowley,” they say, in a tone that brings out the subtler details of revulsion from this expression. “The traitor.”

Crowley grimaces without straightening from his forward lean. “That is not a nice word.”

“All the other words I have for you are worse.” Beelzebub’s face tightens, their eyes pale with icy force. Their voice grates over the resonance of a human throat, fighting towards a force that drags their vocal chords to a staticky buzz. “Where’z the boy?”

Crowley swings his gaze away from the demon in front of him and to the Antichrist, now standing a little distance apart and in front of the other three children he brought with him. He forgoes introductions; between the confident lift of Adam’s chin and the gigantic, multifaceted eyes protruding from the coarse hair of Beelzebub’s head, he thinks everyone is basically on the same page at this particular social gathering.

“That one.” The voice is smoother than Beelzebub’s; it is, in fact, polished to the same mirror sheen as the perfectly white smile that goes with it. “Adam Young.” Crowley straightens as Gabriel strides forward towards the Antichrist, only dialing back the blinding glow of his smile by a few degrees as he leans down to put his beaming face on level with Adam’s. “Hi.” It is only a greeting, and one delivered around a wider smile than any Crowley has ever manifested. He is vaguely impressed by how threatening it seems, even from a distance, and very impressed by Adam’s stoic stare of answer.

“Young man,” Gabriel says. “Armageddon must…” His hand churns the air to action as he lays claim to the word. “Restart.” A laugh, a sound of welcome and inclusion and friendliness as seen from the outside of ice-frosted windows. “Right now. Temporary inconvenience cannot get in the way...of the greater good.”

“As to what it stands in the way of, that has yet to be decided,” Beelzebub interjects smoothly, “but the battle must be decided now, boy. That iz…” They reel back, flinching at the harsh undertones of the words before recontextualizing themselves into the human seeming they have put on as the bottom layer for their handsome suit. “Your destiny. It is written, now start the war.”

Crowley has not been precisely overburdened with experience in dealing with human children over the course of his six thousand years on Earth, but he has enough work experience as a nanny to at least know that this is the entirely wrong way to go about winning obedience. Even with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, he’s reasonably confident in Adam’s response, and when it comes it is more reassuring than Crowley could have dreamed of. “You both want to end the world, just to see whose gang is best?”

The heavenly emissary in front of him appears utterly oblivious to the faint suggestion of disgust on Adam’s words; either that, or he dismisses the implication of judgment as too absurd to even consider. “Obviously,” Gabriel says, and offers that laugh again, with the warmth and comfort and friendship of belonging, if you only behave, if you just do as you’re told. “It’s the Great Plan. It’s...the entire reason for the creation of the Earth.”

“I’ve got this,” Beelzebub says, and they step forward, leaving Gabriel to fall back with an exasperated toss of his head. Crowley wonders if he thinks Adam can’t see the frustration in the gesture or if he just doesn’t care. “Adam.” Beelzebub tips themselves in, insinuating themselves directly into Adam’s personal space until there is nowhere left for him to look but into the glittering red eyes of the fly perched atop their head. “When all this is over, you’re going to get to rule the world. Don’t you want to rule the world?”

This is closer to it. Crowley remembers several informative conversations he had with young Warlock, in his experiments to determine the best means to counterbalance Aziraphale’s efforts; the temptation of power, in particular, was one he had to use exceedingly sparingly to keep from overthrowing the whole thing at one swoop. But what would have lit Warlock’s eyes with the fires of Hell itself falls uselessly to Adam’s feet, and when he speaks there is no surrender in his voice at all.

“It’s hard enough having to think of things for Pepper and Wensley and Brian to do all the time so they don’t get bored.” The edge is clearer, now, rising to the forefront in answer to the condescension in every line of Beelzebub’s form and every flash of the angel’s smile. “I’ve got all the world I want.”

“Well you can’t just refuse to be who you are!” Gabriel exclaims, and Crowley suddenly has a very vivid picture of the kind of thing Aziraphale has been dealing with for the last millenia in place of the dreadful but refreshingly direct torments Hell always has on tap for its visitors. In this exact moment, he can’t decide which is worse. “Your birth, your destiny, the-they’re...part of the Great Plan.”

Crowley is watching Adam, his breath fixed in his chest as he waits for the response to this, to see if humanity will dig its heels in and refuse to move out of sheer stubbornness as much as anything else. He is so caught in terrified anticipation that he doesn’t see the motion at his side, doesn’t register any part of the action next to him until the sound of a voice he has always listened to breaks through his attention to the tableau before him.

“Um.” A polite cough, and Crowley jerks to blink at Aziraphale just as the other steps forward to walk right past him. Aziraphale’s shoulders are back, his hands are clasped in front of him; by the time Crowley realizes he’s moving he’s too far away to be pulled back by a grab, even if Crowley could determine himself to take that action. “Eh. Excuse me.” Aziraphale walks past everyone, straight by the staring humans and directly into the middle of the scene cast by the demon, and the angel, and the Antichrist, and when he draws himself up it’s to stand at Adam’s right shoulder, his position so firm that for a moment Crowley can see the shape of wings forming in the air behind him. “Um. You-you keep talking about the Great Plan.”

“Aziraphale, maybe you should just keep your mouth shut,” Gabriel suggests, and Crowley decides instantly that his policy on killing children in no way extends to angels, and that he would happily destroy this one for that vicious dismissal alone. He would move to act on that immediately, consequences be as damned as he is, but Aziraphale is certainly not shutting his mouth, and the sound of his voice demands the full force of Crowley’s attention as much now as ever.

“One thing I’m not clear on.” Aziraphale’s words are perfectly secure in their balance in spite of his polite phrasing; any self-conscious stumbling is entirely absent from his voice and expression alike as he gazes directly at the representatives for the Heavenly and Hellish war. “Is that the Ineffable Plan?”

Crowley blinks. There is something there, the beginnings of an idea; but before he can grasp at it Beelzebub is reeling around to answer Aziraphale at a volume that implies that Aziraphale is probably deaf and possibly not particularly bright. “The Great Plan, it iz written.” Aziraphale’s gaze sidles sideways to cast a desperate hand in Crowley’s direction; Crowley goes on staring at Aziraphale, trying frantically to piece together the details of this ploy while Beelzebub goes on shouting. “There shall be a world and it shall last for six thousand years and end in fire and flame.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says, as gently as if he’s speaking in the hushed tones of an expensive restaurant rather than shouting across an air base at a Lord of Hell. “Yes, that...that sounds like the Great Plan.” He pauses. “Just wondering.” His head comes back up, his gaze fixes itself unflinchingly on Beelzebub in front of him. “Is that the Ineffable Plan as well?”

Beelzebub lifts their attention from Adam to frown at Aziraphale instead. Their face is a mask of confusion, their brittle self-assurance scattered in the face of Aziraphale’s direct question; and Crowley has a burst of understanding like the dawn breaking, like the world beginning, like toppling into a Fall. It is beyond understanding, and incapable of being put into words, Aziraphale had said all those years ago, when he was an angel instead of the angel to Crowley, before Crowley had handed over his heart and soul and existence to the keeping of a pair of soft hands and heavenly eyes. The answer has been there all this time, from the very beginning; and Aziraphale is finally asking the question to place himself between the world and the line of fire from Heaven and Hell alike.

“Well it’s the same thing!” That’s from Gabriel, who has collapsed his whole face into a show of enormous confusion, like he’s struggling to make sense of the direct statement Aziraphale has just made.

“You don’t know,” Crowley breathes, the sound of epiphany glowing hope against his tongue, and his feet lunge forward to carry him across the tarmac to claim the position waiting for him at Aziraphale’s side. “Yyeah-well-I’m...it’d be a pity if-if you thought you were doing what the Great Plan said, but you were…” Crowley lands himself just behind Adam’s shoulder and just next to Aziraphale, guided by Aziraphale’s gaze following him as he takes up residence where he has always best fit. “Actually going directly against...God’s Ineffable Plan.”

Crowley swings around to consider the audience of humans around them. “Everyone knows the Great Plan? Yeah?” There is a general chorus of nods in answer, swept into agreement by the implication of his words more than the truth of them, and Crowley turns back to the representatives standing before them with the warmth of Aziraphale’s gaze lingering against him. “The-the Ineffable Plan...is, well, it’s ineffable isn’t it? B-by definition.” Crowley shrugs dismissively. “We can’t know it.”

Beelzebub frowns. “But it izz...written.” Their voice dies off at the far end of their sentence, as even their constant swarm of buzzing flies hesitates over uncertainty.

Gabriel lifts a finger to demand attention. “God does not play games with the universe!”

Crowley scoffs. “Where have you been?” He turns his head to look to Aziraphale so they can have a brief but thorough silent conversation about the absurdity of thinking there is anything to the universe but a single, ineffable, cosmic game.

Gabriel turns to Beelzebub. “Can I j--?” And they’re both stepping aside from their audience to speak in hushed voices to each other on the far side of the tarmac. Crowley recognizes a tactical retreat when he sees one; from the harried expressions the two are wearing, they can see the rout coming for them.

“Well,” Gabriel says in a deliberately loud voice as he turns to glare in their direction. “At least we know whose fault it is.”

Aziraphale waves. Crowley bares all of his teeth in what might charitably be called a smile, and less charitably but more accurately be called gloating. Gabriel ignores them both, with the haughty self-assurance of someone who is above all mockery because he doesn’t have a better response, and instead draws forward to turn his attention to the young Antichrist before them.

“Young man,” he says. “You were put on this earth for one reason and one reason only, to end it.” He punctuates this last with his hands coming together, coupled with an expression that implies he would like to have something more substantial than air between the smack of his palms. “You’re a disobedient little brat and I hope someone tells your father.”

“Oh they will,” Beelzebub says, and their voice carries the chill whisper of true danger, a threat so immediate it needs no posturing to sell its own sincerity. They are gazing directly at Adam, without sparing a glance for Crowley or for the angel next to them. “And your father will not be pleazed.”

Crowley’s skin shivers with unpleasant certainty of the truth of that statement. His attention reaches out for comfort from the figure next to him, and as quickly as Crowley turns his head Aziraphale’s gaze is rising to meet his. They look at each other for a moment, gaining what comfort can be found in sharing a moment of deep foreboding, and before them Beelzebub and Gabriel vanish out of existence in a splash of colored sparks.

Worse is coming. Crowley is sure of that, as sure as he is of anything; but they are still alive, through some impossible, ineffable miracle, and whatever path they are on is so far beyond his understanding he figures the best thing to do is to take it as it comes, and hope for a future on the far side of it.

Chapter Text

Everyone is very quiet for the first moment after Gabriel and Beelzebub vanish. Aziraphale’s heart isn’t racing, primarily because his heart doesn’t actually beat, but if it did he thinks he would be able to feel the thunder of it coursing through the whole of his body. He still feels a little distant from the present moment, as if the resistance he made against Gabriel’s staunch self-assurance has detached him from reality, or perhaps as if he’s waiting for the proverbial second shoe to drop to thud against the tarmac underfoot.

“Weren’t they odd?” Madame Tracy says, rather vaguely and without any particular attempt at actually achieving an answer; and then there is a sound, long and low and building to an ache at the back of Aziraphale’s teeth and pressing against his ears, and he knows the fallout is on its way.

“Oh!” And Crowley collapses, his knees folding up under him to drop him towards the rain-damp of the pavement underfoot. Aziraphale turns to look at him, panic closing iron fingers around his throat, but Crowley is too caught in the wave of obvious and terrible pain that has gripped him to so much as glance back in Aziraphale’s direction. He’s lying on the tarmac, as if he has forgotten the use of his human form while he remains trapped within it, and his expression is contorted into a grimace of vivid agony. “Oh! Ohhh, n-n-n-n-n-no!

“What’s happening?” Aziraphale asks, drawing closer to Crowley out of instinct more than any rational idea of what he can do to help. His ears are still ringing as his hearing flings clothes into its luggage in preparation for moving out entirely, but more than that: his whole body feels pressurized, as if his skin is too small for him, or as if the form that has always felt like a home has become a prison built by the well of unspecific terror rising in him. “I can feel something.”

“They did it.” Crowley’s voice is hoarse, as if his breath is doing its best to flatten itself to the tarmac alongside his body and has to be persuaded to slither up his throat and past his lips. “They told his father.”

Aziraphale’s adrenaline had been scattered, the various parts of his existence left to argue among themselves over the best approach to flight, or fight, or some other unspecified response to the unnamed threat looming in his immediate future. The clarity of Crowley’s words interrupts the heated discussion, sweeping aside the various arguments to replace them with the simple fact of sheer, unadulterated horror.

“Oh no,” Aziraphale says, as the only response he can possibly give.

“And his satanic father,” Crowley says, as he persuades an elbow under himself so he can wrench himself loose of the compulsion of gravity enough to sit up. “Is not happy.”

The world yanks itself sideways from under their feet. Aziraphale yelps and staggers with everyone else around him for company. Crowley goes over again, his efforts to stand rendered futile by the overwhelming force that is coming for them from every part of the screaming world around them.

“Perhaps it’s a volcano,” someone suggests, in the desperate tones of someone fumbling for a rational answer to a wholly irrational solution.

“No, there aren’t any volcanoes in England” is the similarly rational but somewhat better-informed reply. The speaker is the young woman previously with the bicycle and now with a book; she is clinging to the arm of the young man who first spoke and wearing an expression with less panic but more horrified understanding than his own. “Ah, it’s really angry, whatever it is, I can feel it.” She lifts her chin to offer the informative update of “It’s getting closer” to her audience.

The earth is still trembling underfoot, shaking with a terror that Aziraphale can sympathize with on a deeply personal level. It jolts again as the woman speaks, lurching away as if it is attempting to stage a forcible retreat from the present situation; hardly something Aziraphale can blame it for, even as it sends him and all the rest of their company stumbling in a desperate effort to keep their feet under them. Crowley isn’t even trying to stand anymore; he’s on his knees, now, his gaze jumping from one point to another with the frantic speed of paranoia.

Sergeant Shadwell screams from the far side of the tarmac, where he is doing his unsteady best to support Madame Tracy as well as himself. “What’s happening?”

“Well,” Aziraphale says. “You can call me an old silly, but it looks like the Devil is coming.” He lifts his eyebrows and cocks his head into a nod. “Satan himself.”

“That’s the way it is, is it?” Shadwell hoists the weight of the Thundergun in front of him, where he has managed to align his own stumbling with the continued tremors of the ground to place himself before Madame Tracy. “Anyone who wants to hurt the Hoor of Babylon is gonna have to get past me!”

“Oh,” coos Madame Tracy, “Mr. Shadwell!”

The ground jerks itself sideways once more, dropping and ducking in an attempt to shake the lot of them free of its surface. Several of the humans are clinging to each other for support and barely remaining on their feet as a result; Aziraphale only manages to remain upright by letting his veering balance carry him forward past Crowley, who has entirely resigned himself to remaining on the tarmac where that first crushing realization threw him and the subsequent quakes have kept him.

“Right,” Crowley says, his voice worn to tatters in his throat. Aziraphale turns to look back at him to find Crowley kneeling behind him, his hands slack with the same resignation flattening the bright of his eyes. “That was that.” Crowley draws a breath as his expression softens into an affection turned bittersweet by the surrender laying itself into his body. “It was nice knowing you.”

Aziraphale stares at Crowley. After all this time, after all their waiting, after all their struggles: to come to this, a few hurried words on a windswept tarmac, feels a greater loss than all the world together. His throat tightens, his chest struggles for the words that will be enough, that will encompass thousands of years in a matter of frenzied seconds; and he shoves aside the impulse, shaking his head with force to dispel the very possibility of failure. He has waited for millenia, has disobeyed his orders and lost his bookshop and rebelled against Gabriel; he will not give up on this one thing that has brought him through it all. “We can’t give up now.”

“This is Satan himself,” Crowley hisses. “It isn’t about Armageddon, this is personal.” His teeth bite down on force and hold it hard as he forces unwilling words past his clenched jaw. “We are fucked!

The earth lurches again, as if to add punctuation to Crowley’s statement. The motion forces Aziraphale away from his fixed attention on Crowley’s face and sends him backwards. He twists as he stumbles, trying to dodge the obstacles scattered across the tarmac, and it’s then that his gaze lands on the details of those obstacles. A scale, rattling like dry bones with the shaking of the earth; a crown, corroded and etched to the black of seeping oil; and a sword, no longer flaming but familiar all the same.

The hilt fits perfectly in Aziraphale’s hand as he seizes at the weapon. The ground is still shaking, the earth still wailing protest to the damage coming towards it, but he tilts his shoulders in and lets the momentum bear him back towards Crowley still kneeling at the tarmac.

“Do something!” Aziraphale shouts, his voice breaking shrill with desperation in his throat. Crowley is still looking at him but there is a flat hopelessness in his eyes, without the sparking heat that Aziraphale has always seen there before. Aziraphale raises the sword at his side. “Or--”

He looks to the weapon. It stays as it was, cool and metallic and utterly lacking the flame that crackled along its length in War’s grip, or in the hands of the human children who faced down the Apocalypse and triumphed. The hilt fits in Aziraphale’s hand, the weight is suited to the strength of his arm; and there is no power in him to wield it, at Crowley or anyone else. Aziraphale looks back to Crowley, still on his knees but looking shocked, now, more than hopeless; and he lowers the weapon, and gives himself up to honesty. “Or I’ll never talk to you again.”

His voice shakes over the simple fact of the words, the absolute accuracy that draws tears to his eyes just to consider. Crowley’s eyes widen, his expression softening at this blow, and for a moment as they stare at each other Aziraphale can feel the full weight of their relationship between them, perfect and profound and infinitely, ineffably precious. It is the last thing Aziraphale has to offer, the only thing he cannot bear to lose; and Crowley blinks, and his eyes brighten with renewed strength. He ducks his head, dragging short, sharp inhales past his set teeth; and then he lurches upward, rising to his feet with a shout as he flings his hands towards the sky as if making a demand of Heaven. The ground jolts, Aziraphale feels himself lifting sharply upwards; and then the world quiets, the air calms, and time goes still around them.

Chapter Text

The first thing Crowley does is fix his suit.

He doesn’t even have to think about it. No sooner has he shoved the weight of reality away from him than his clothes pick up on the unsubtle expectations his subconscious is projecting and politely adjust themselves to conform. The ash vanishes, the taste of smoke fades from the back of his tongue; he doesn’t lift a hand, but he’s certain his hair has returned itself to perfectly styled dishevelment as well. It’s a relief to feel himself again on a level just beyond his fundamental existence; coupled with the sweep of his wings unfurling into the space behind him, Crowley feels more comfortable than he can recall experiencing anytime in the last day, and in fact in the full week that has come before this precise breath.

Aziraphale seems to be having a similar moment, where he’s standing on the golden sand just a few feet from Crowley himself. He is just lowering his own wings, which materialized at full spread as if sweeping out to guard against a storm that has yet to break in this untouched space crafted by Crowley’s memory, and the sword gripped in his hand is flickering with the start of flame once again, as if the setting has recalled its original owner and it is flushing into embarrassed recognition of the well-manicured fingers gripping against its hilt. Aziraphale shuts his eyes, tipping his head to the side like he’s working a knot out of his neck before he groans a sound of such satisfaction that Crowley’s imagination lurches into motion before he can pull back on the leash of the impending Apocalypse and get it to stand down. Crowley figures he will be better off if he has some kind of cover for his gaze, under the circumstances, and as he reaches for his pocket a pair of sunglasses materialize themselves under his expectant fingers. He unfolds them and puts them on. With these immediate concerns dealt with, Crowley collects himself to confronting the imminent danger waiting for them in the rush of time he has briefly halted.

“Adam, listen,” he says, although the boy has done nothing but watch the two of them since they arrived with an expression on his face more of calm acceptance than the alarm or surprise Crowley thinks might be more justified. Then again, the inside of the young Antichrist’s head must be an exciting place indeed, given some of the things that have become real over the course of the last twenty-four hours. Crowley supposes being teleported to an endless desert outside the span of time with a literal angel and demon for company is small change, comparatively.

Unfortunately there is very big change looming over them below, and Crowley can’t hold them here forever, or for very long at all, though time is difficult to measure when it has been forcibly stopped. Better to get on with the point, anyway. “Your father is coming to destroy you. Probably to destroy all of us.”

“My dad?” Adam scoffs. “He wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

“Not your earthly father,” Crowley corrects immediately. “Satan. Your father who is no longer in Heaven.” He is speaking as clearly and quickly as he can, so every word lands with the force of a blow as it escapes his teeth. “He is coming. And he is angry.”

Adam’s forehead creases. “So what do you want me to do about it?” he says, and Crowley is vaguely interested to know that Antichrist or no, the rebellious petulance of eleven-year-old boys seems quite the same. “Fight him?”

Crowley doesn’t have a good answer for that one. “I...don’t think fighting him would do any good.”

He can feel the space around them going taut, like a bubble straining to contain the air inside it. Crowley can taste ozone at the back of his tongue as his demonic powers strain to keep their hold on the moment he has seized out of time for the three of them. Adam can too, it seems; he turns as if he can hear a distant voice calling for him, turning his back on Aziraphale and Crowley both as he gazes off across the distant, horizonless desert around them. Crowley gazes at his back, at the small shoulders that must bear so much, and his chest aches with the sympathy that has always made him rather rubbish as a demon. “You’re going to have to come up with something else.”

“But I’m...just a kid.”

Crowley doesn’t have an answer to give to that, has never found an answer to the great injustices of the reality the Almighty saw fit to create. It is Aziraphale who takes a step forward, falling into place next to Crowley as they both gaze at Adam’s back, and it is Aziraphale who speaks, in a voice gentle and certain at once, as unflinching as Aziraphale always is about the things that really matter.

“But that’s not a bad thing to be, Adam.” Adam turns his head to look back at Aziraphale. Crowley keeps his eyes on the boy, because he is their last hope of salvation, and because even the dark of his glasses won’t save him from doing something incredibly stupid, or at least incredibly ill-timed, if he sees the soft in Aziraphale’s expression directly.

“You know,” Aziraphale continues. “I was scared that you’d be Hell incarnate. I hoped you’d be Heaven incarnate. But you’re not either of those things. You’re much better.” Crowley can hear the smile on Aziraphale’s voice, can feel the radiance of his presence like the warmth of sunlight beaming against his skin. “You’re human incarnate.”

Out of the corner of his eye Crowley can see Aziraphale’s head turn to glance at him. He picks up his cue at once. “Adam.” Adam’s head turns to fix Crowley with the absolute clarity of his gaze. “Reality will listen to you right now. You can change things.”

“And whatever happens,” Aziraphale steps in. “For good or for evil.” He reaches out to claim Adam’s left hand as Crowley takes his right. “We’re beside you.”

Crowley extends his free hand, or rather his hand that is holding to the starter handle he picked up from the Apocalyptic wreckage of his car. “I’m going to start time,” he says. “You won’t have long to do…” His imagination has been well-trained over the centuries but it fails him here. Crowley contents himself with a shake of his head and a sincere hope that Adam’s mind proves more fertile ground for solutions than his own. “Whatever you’re going to do.”

He yanks the starter handle through the air, grimacing at the effort as it catches and sticks at what feels like syrup congealing to amber around them. He tries again, and a third time; and then he catches hold on reality, and the three of them are dragged back into the overwhelming crisis of the moment.

“Do it quickly,” Crowley commands, speaking as he lifts his head to gaze at the empty space before them, which promptly fulfills his expectations by erupting in a gigantic wave, as if the surface of the earth is no more than a pan of cake batter expanding beyond its bounds. The tarmac cracks, heaving itself up through the air in a shower of rubble and destruction, and from the cloud of dust a hand large enough to crush all three of them together tears free of the earth to slam a grip into the shattered pavement. It is red, and enormous, and impossible, and is very immediately followed by a figure with horns and wings to match. The humans standing around them recoil, gasping breaths of disbelief; Crowley just stands still, wishing very much he had the retreat of denial in the face of a devil he knows all too well to be very, very real.

Satan’s wings unfurl from his back, batlike expanses of skin stretched thin over the lines of bone beneath. Crowley feels existence itself tremble with the wind that follows the motion, as if the dust of the world itself might be scattered with a single beat of them.

“Where is my son,” Satan says, speaking in the soft, low tone of a creature who has never needed to shout, whose very presence is enough to melt the knees of any standing before him to the water of submission. His head turns, his gaze rivets itself to the small boy framed by a demon, and by an angel, and gazing up at Satan with a stubborn set to his jaw that is entirely human. Satan’s eyes narrow. “You?! You’re my rebellious son? Come here.”

Crowley lets go of his hold on Adam’s hand but he doesn’t need to make the effort. Adam has already slipped both his hands free and is striding forward, head held high and steps unflinching as he walks into the headwind of a presence that has the whole of existence screaming for mercy around it. Crowley can feel the pressure like electricity at the back of his eyes, like an open wound aching in his teeth; he can’t stay still, he’s pacing across the pavement in a futile attempt to distract himself from the moment. Aziraphale stands with his feet firmly planted and his shoulders facing forward, a soldier determined to face down the enemy no matter the cost. Adam walks like he feels nothing at all, as if there is nothing keeping him from motion but the feeble wind still ruffling his hair.

He stops a few strides away from the form of Satan tearing himself into the world, his legs apart and head turned up to meet the Hellish gaze fixed upon him with no flinching at all. “You’re not my dad,” he says, and he is speaking to Satan but the words seem to ring in the air, clear and bright as a bell. “Dads don’t wait until you’re eleven to say hello. And then turn up to tell you off.”

Satan stares at the creature before him, the small boy who is part Heaven, and part Hell, and entirely Human. “What?”

“If I’m in trouble with my dad,” Adam says, and the world trembles, protesting this confrontation between two insistent wills. The ground heaves beneath their feet. Aziraphale stumbles backwards by a step before catching himself; Crowley cringes from the wave of force that rushes out from the pair before them, the father and the rebellious son. Adam stays staunch, chin lifted and voice unflinching. “Then it won’t be you. It’s gonna be the dad who was there.” His voice rises clarion in the taut air. “You’re not! My! Dad!

Satan rasps a sound made of fire and brimstone and sulfur. “What did you say?”

“You can do it!” Aziraphale calls.

“Say it, Adam,” Crowley forces past the air hardening in his throat, the urge towards obedience trying to crush him to silence. He steps in closer towards Aziraphale’s certain strength and shouts, louder this time. “Say it again!”

Satan’s hands come up, forming to fists before he slams them down upon the tarmac. The world trembles, a glass teetering at the edge of a table. “Come here!

“You’re not my dad,” Adam says again. There is a breath, or rather not-a-breath, as the entirety of existence trembles in anticipation. “You never were.”

Something shifts. Crowley can feel it in the weight of the air, in the strength of his knees, in the shape of his body, even before Satan murmurs “No,” in disbelieving horror. “No, no, no, no, no, no, noooooo!” But he is vanishing, his wings and horns and all of him collapsing into black smoke that rises in a plume away from the tarmac, mending itself to unbroken smooth as quickly as the intrusion to reality gives way. For a moment the air is dark and thick with the afterimage of Satan’s presence; then the smoke thins, evaporating away like a curtain rising over the arrival of a small car trundling over the damp tarmac towards them all.

Crowley doesn’t believe the relief for the first moment. The pressure has given way so immediately and so entirely that for the span of the first breath he doesn’t take he feels like he’s dropping through the thin of unsupported air, bracing for an impact that never comes. Satan is gone, Heaven and Hell have given up, the Apocalypse is averted; and he is still here, still himself, standing on the wet pavement of an American air base with Aziraphale just next to him. The sword Aziraphale has been holding flickers with self-consciousness and quietly puts itself out as the approaching car pulls up to a halt. Crowley twists to look around behind them, to take stock of the world that is impossibly, miraculously still in existence, before he circles back to the angel next to him. Aziraphale is looking at the sword in his hand, now no more than a length of metal sharper on one end than the other, but his gaze jumps up in ready answer to Crowley’s, which promptly loses its nerve and slides away to fix itself on the shape of the car, now stopped to set its stocky middle-aged driver free, as a safer point than the sudden multitude of possibilities opened up by Aziraphale’s reinstated body, and Crowley’s incredible relief, and thousands of years of silence building to anticipation at the tip of his tongue.

The car doesn’t show any indication at all of recognizing Crowley’s minor personal crisis and its driver is similarly intent on his own immediate concern. “Adam!” he shouts, and swings the door shut behind him. “Adam.” He begins to stride forward across the tarmac, his eyes wide with the panicked concern of parents everywhere.

“That’s not really his father,” Aziraphale murmurs from Crowley’s side, as the newcomer who can only be Mr. Young scans the assembly with frantic haste.

“It is,” Crowley says; and then, with equivalent accuracy and slightly greater detail: “It is now. And it always was.” He can feel his mouth start to curve onto a smile as he hears the truth of the words fit themselves to the reality Adam saved for all of them. Crowley turns in, unable to bear the force of his happiness without sharing it at once, and Aziraphale turns his head slowly to meet him with blank disbelief. Crowley’s grin is not at all daunted by the other’s visible uncertainty; he can feel the freedom in the air, can breathe more easily than he has done in the last eleven years together. “He did it!”

Aziraphale stares at Crowley for a moment. There is a focus in his eyes, an intensity too much to fit into a smile to match Crowley’s own incandescent grin; Crowley can see possibility behind the gold of Aziraphale’s gaze, as clearly as if he can feel himself leaning forward to soften the joy of his smile against the curve of Aziraphale’s mouth. For a moment Crowley thinks they actually might, that for a flicker of Aziraphale’s gaze or a tilt of his head they might both lean forward and into the space they have spent so long edging into. And then they both turn away, moving so entirely at the same time they might as well be acting on a cue, and Crowley takes a breath and turns himself towards gratitude for what he does have instead of pining for what he doesn’t, at least not yet.

Chapter Text

It takes some time for Aziraphale to come to grips with what has just happened.

He’s had quite a dramatic day, in his defense. He began the morning with a book, and a bookshop, and a body; and he ends it with neither of the first two, and the last only through a technicality from a child that he made a concerted effort to kill on sight. He has stood up to Gabriel, and faced down Satan with the sword that he gave away some six thousand years ago; and now the Apocalypse is over, with far fewer casualties than Aziraphale had always anticipated, and it’s all a bit more to deal with than he is quite prepared for.

The children are the first to depart. Adam’s father -- his real father -- had quite a lot to say to his son, even with no real idea of the specifics about which he was outraged, and the young Antichrist had taken his scolding with the same calm composure he showed in the face of angels and demons and Satan alike. His friends sympathized with his position in the way of any self-respecting eleven-year-olds by making their getaways as quickly as they can on their respective bicycles, and by the time Mr. Young is bundling his troublesome son back onto his bike with a stern command to get himself and his dog straight home the rest of them have begun the process of disintegrating from a cohesive audience into individuals who would like nothing so much as a cup of tea and a quiet evening to recover. The young woman with her book reinstated, plus some scorch marks and less one rogue prophecy, takes the hand of the wide-eyed young man with her and leads him away across the tarmac without comment, presumably to whatever means of transport they took to get here. With the children gone, and Adam cycling away with his dog in his basket and his father in his wake, there is hardly any of their group left at all, except those of Aziraphale’s immediate circle.

It is Shadwell who breaks the silence echoing over the air base around them. “Well,” he says, in a tone that is already trying to sidle backwards and out of sight even before anyone has turned to look properly at it. “That’s it fer the end times then, is it?”

“I should think so,” Madame Tracy says, blinking in an effort to keep her false lashes under control in the breeze gusting across the open tarmac. Aziraphale believes this to be a lost cause before it is begun, from his recent experience with the same, but he respects the effort too much to disillusion her. “Unless you think we’ll have any more visitors?” This last is coupled with a turn towards Aziraphale, and a blink expansive enough to include Crowley next to him as well.

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, caught off-guard by this address. “Um. Well. No, no I should think not. Not for...no.”

“Bit much, really,” Crowley puts in. “‘S not easy, popping in on Earth. Can’t imagine they’ll have the time to spare for another holiday in the same day, at least.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says. He doesn’t quite look at Crowley next to him, but he can feel every molecule of the other’s presence like temptation personified. His fingers twitch with untapped possibilities of touching, and holding, and wandering, and he clasps both hands firmly together in front of him to keep them where he can see them. “I would think we should be well clear of that for. For a bit, at least.”

“Right,” Shadwell says, looking shifty, although it’s difficult to say if this is directed to the subject of conversation or just his natural state. He clears his throat roughly. “There going to be much more...demonic possession, sort of thing?”

Aziraphale’s cheeks redden. “No,” he says carefully. “No, I should think not.”

“Good,” Shadwell says. He attempts to clear his throat again and succeeds in mowing back some of the overgrowth before he gives up entirely. “Bad enough living across from a Jezebel and a witch without having a...a seeleschial in the house.”

“Oh, Mr. Shadwell,” Madame Tracy says. “Be polite.” Shadwell frowns, perhaps struggling with recalling the definition, and Madame Tracy loops her arm through his quite casually. This opens his eyes wide and brings his attention down to the gloved hand now resting in the crook of his elbow, which Madame Tracy acknowledges by lifting her other hand to rest atop it before she nods her head to Aziraphale and Crowley in turn. “Well. We’ve got something of a drive to get back. You won’t mind if we’re on our way, will you?”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says. “Of course not.” He lifts his hand to wave. “Safe travels!” Madame Tracy waves back, extending the gesture to encompass the both of them together, before she replaces her hold on Shadwell and moves to guide him gently across the tarmac towards the front gate where they came in. Aziraphale watches them go, feeling benevolent and radiant with goodwill for everyone, and beside him Crowley clears his throat and tilts his head to speak.

“Out of curiosity, angel, how are we intending to get back to London?”

The question takes Aziraphale so entirely by surprise that he’s turning to stare at Crowley before he can catch himself back. Crowley’s facing forward, at least as far as his feet are concerned, but his shoulders have given up on any attention to the departing pair in favor of skewing around towards Aziraphale, following the lead of the smile tugging sharply up at one corner of his mouth. It’s a good thing he has reinstated his sunglasses; Aziraphale’s had quite an involved day, and his self-restraint is thin enough that he would rather not test it. So instead of reaching out to clutch at the lapels of Crowley’s jacket and dragging him bodily in over the few inches of space between them Aziraphale just stares into the familiar shine off dark glass until he has worked himself around to sufficient attention to Crowley’s question to actually reply. “What? Can’t we just--” and memory flails its hands to cut off the sentence with the vivid recollection of the smell of burning rubber, and a plume of flame, and the sound of an explosion as a much-loved car finally gave itself up to its eternal reward.

Crowley’s smile drags sharper. “Yeah.”

“Oh, Crowley” and Aziraphale is reaching to touch his fingers against Crowley’s sleeve with no thought behind the motion more than the need to offer comfort. There had been no time to feel the loss before, with the possible destruction of the world hanging over them; now, with reality rededicated to the pursuit of continuing, the loss of the vehicle that has always been as much an extension of Crowley as the bookshop has been of Aziraphale feels like a blow that would be mortal to creatures less ethereal than they. “I’m so sorry.”

Crowley works his shoulders on a shrug that professes to have no need of sympathy with about as much acting ability as a small child in a Nativity play. “We saved the world,” he says. “That was always going to demand some sacrifice.” He cocks his head to the side to fix Aziraphale with the full focus of his dark-glassed gaze. “At least we got to keep what really matters.”

He could be talking about his own existence, or the expansive, beautiful reality of the world around them. But there is no question in Aziraphale’s mind what Crowley means, with the tilt of his head and the slant of his smile going soft against his lips. They gaze at each other for a moment, long enough for Aziraphale to feel his blessedly reinstated body prickling with the airy, breathless sensation of the love that saturates Tadfield condensed and focused into this exact moment between them; and then Aziraphale takes a breath and speaks without looking away. “Is there a bus?”

Crowley rocks back onto his heels. “Running to London from Tadfield?” He swings his head around to gaze off into the distance like he’s turning the question over. “Should be.” He tips his head to the side and shrugs hugely. “Should be a bus through Tadfield, at least. Directions are negotiable.”

“Excellent,” Aziraphale says. “Though I don’t suppose it’ll be coming out here.”

Crowley shakes his head. “Nah,” he says, pulling the word long like it’s melting on his tongue. “Probably make a stop by the nunnery, though. Sorry, the…” He waves a hand vaguely through the air. “Business development...thing. The place with the paint bullets.” He swings his head back around to look to Aziraphale. “Shall we head there?”

“Yes,” Aziraphale says. He glances around the tarmac and grimaces as he sees Pollution’s crown and Famine’s scales still lying on the pavement. “Better take those too. Don’t want anyone else getting caught up with them.”

“Noo,” Crowley drawls. “Can’t have the humans getting their hands on that kind of tool. Who knows what they’d do with them.”

“That’s right,” Aziraphale says, choosing to entirely disregard the teasing lilt of Crowley’s voice in favor of stepping forward to collect the items. The scales are light, as if they have no real substance to them at all; the crown is clean again, the oil and rust vanished as if they were never there. He holds it between two fingers just to be safe, and carefully away from his jacket, as he brings it back to Crowley, who takes the scales in one hand and the crown in the other. The sword Aziraphale keeps, although it has entirely given up its efforts towards flame and is looking quite innocuous, or at least as innocuous as a length of metal designed for killing other people can.

“Right,” Aziraphale says, and nods. “To the nunnery, then?”

Crowley grins with all his teeth. “Get thee hence,” he says, and tucks the scales under his arm to free a hand. “See you there, angel.” And he snaps his fingers, and he’s gone.

Aziraphale takes a moment, and a breath, and looks around him. He’s in the middle of an American air base, alone in a long span of tarmac just beginning to dry from the storm that broke over it through the whole of the afternoon. In the distance he can see the fence surrounding the base, and even farther away the possibility of trees reaching up to interrupt the smooth of the horizon. He is holding a no-longer-flaming sword at his side, the weight heavy in a hand that is more accustomed to holding books and silverware than implements of war, and overhead the sky is glowing red and gold with the last fading traces of the fire that threatened to swallow the world. Aziraphale gazes at existence around him, feeling the wind against his hair, and the earth beneath his feet, and the cool crisp of the air in his lungs; and then he breathes out a sigh, and into a smile, and he steps forward towards the Jeep parked alongside the building where Crowley left it.

The keys are still in the ignition, if Aziraphale wished to take them. He doesn’t bother. He’s sure the trunk will be unlocked; and as soon as his fingers touch the latch, it finds to its surprise that it is indeed, although it has never before been persuaded open for anything less than a demand from the pull alongside the driver’s seat. Just as surprising to the trunk is the discovery Aziraphale makes inside, of a very dusty bottle that had somehow become lost in the space behind the back row of seats; it’s lucky for the Jeep that it lacks the ability to read the label that is revealed when Aziraphale blows the dust away, or it might be in serious danger of expiring from the shock. Aziraphale just smiles beatifically, and glances upwards towards the sunset illuminating the sky overhead; and then he takes his sword, and his bottle, and himself, and takes all three of them to celebrate a very special occasion indeed.

Chapter Text

The wine is very good.

Crowley would be happy with a bottle of just about anything, he thinks. He could even make do with nothing at all, if the occasion demanded it; it certainly wasn’t top of the list of priorities that has become significantly more personal and less global in nature over the span of the last hour. But Aziraphale materialized with a familiar bottle in hand, and it would take a saint to refuse a 1921 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which thankfully Crowley has never been anywhere on the same continent to being.

They’ve been working their joint way through the bottle for the last twenty minutes on the bench in front of the once-nunnery, now-corporate training facility. There will be a bus eventually, Crowley is sure, in the vague way that is the most he needs to be sure of such trivialities as bus schedules and traffic clearances, and in the meantime he is perfectly content to bask in a companionable peace that he had thought this morning he might never have again.

“It’s all worked out for the best, though,” Aziraphale offers, speaking softly from the other side of the bench where he set himself upon his arrival. Crowley could do with less distance, and with the in fact outright removal of the cardboard box of Apocalyptic weapons set between them, but he’s not about to look a gift existence in the mouth. The relief of survival is heavy in his limbs, the shock of success is still ringing dully in his thoughts; and Aziraphale is next to him, the soft curls of his hair gilded to silver by the starlight. Crowley can’t imagine anything more heavenly. “Just imagine how awful it might have been if we’d been at all competent.”

He turns his head to grimace gently at Crowley. Crowley opens his mouth to frame some protest regarding their respective skill and grace in averting the end of the universe and everything in it; and then he considers his present circumstances, and decides to try the novel approach of letting the truth stand unargued. It’s not as if he’s trying to stay on Hell’s less-bad side anymore, after all. “Yy...hh, point taken.”

He breathes out a sigh and looks up to the splash of stars laid out across the sky overhead while the greater part of his attention reaches tentatively over the gap to cling with desperate gratitude to the angel miraculously returned to his own body. Crowley wonders vaguely if he ought to thank God for that one, since it was certainly no part of Hell’s doing, before contenting himself that it was more Adam’s business than anyone else’s. Aziraphale is entirely himself, his brief absence from his usual form notwithstanding; even his habit of fidgeting with whatever he has to hand is back in place, and presently turning itself to the task of worrying a scrap of paper between his fingers. Crowley notices this, in a sort of idle way, before turning his head to make a more dedicated job of it. “What’s that?”

Aziraphale holds the paper out wordlessly. Crowley reaches to take it with the hand not occupied in bracing a bottle of 1921 Châteauneuf-du-Pape against the back of a bus stop bench and holds it up to squint at the text printed across it.

“Fell out of Agnes Nutter’s book,” Aziraphale offers.

Crowley can gather as much, from the singed edges of the paper as much as from the inventive spelling choices made in the few lines of text printed across it. When all is ſayed and all is done, ye must chooſe your faces wiseley…

“‘For soon enough you will be playing with fire,’” he reads. He turns the paper over, just to make sure there’s nothing further hiding unseen on the back of it. ‘So this is the...final one of Agnes’s prophecies?”

Aziraphale lifts his eyebrows and nods. “As far as I know.”

“Hm.” Crowley swings his head to the side to rest against the shoulder of the arm he has outstretched against the top of the bench. “And Adam? Human again?”

Aziraphale nods once more, meeting Crowley’s gaze for a moment before retreating back to looking at the prophecy in the other’s hand. “As far as I can tell, yes.”

There is the rattle of a van approaching down the country lane, pursued very immediately by the van itself, emblazoned with a logo on the side that reads International Express. It catches up to the sound, where they have a brief, grumbling argument before both come to a halt a few paces past Aziraphale and Crowley’s bench. Crowley lifts the weight of the bottle off the bench and to his mouth to lighten the load by a good swallow of the liquid within.

Angel,” he says, and extends the bottle out for Aziraphale to take from him. “What if the Almighty planned it like this? All along?” He swings his head to take in, roughly, the world, and all of time and space, and the two of them, together on a bench in the middle of Tadfield as they were once on a wall built to tower high over a Garden. “From the very beginning?”

Aziraphale arches his eyebrows to allow for the possibility. “Could have,” he says, and cocks his head to the side as he lifts the bottle to his mouth. “I wouldn’t put it past Her.” His lips meet the dark glass and Crowley turns his head rather than watching Aziraphale swallow, because he might be a demon but there are some temptations that are too much for even him to bear.

He gazes out into the distance instead, thinking about plans, and ineffability, and a suddenly reinstated future, as the delivery van sets free its driver to approach them both with the vaguely apologetic efficiency of postmen the world over. “You, uh, got the, um?”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, responding to the language of polite incoherence as a native speaker, and he lifts a hand to touch to the cardboard box that has been playing chaperone between himself and Crowley. The delivery man reaches out to check inside as Aziraphale speaks again, softly enough that Crowley suspects it to be as much for him as for the human. “Didn’t want them falling into the wrong hands.”

The delivery man’s forehead creases on protest, which he supports by an official glance at his his clipboard. “‘Scuse me, gents,” he says. “There’s, uh. There’s meant to be a sword in here.”

Crowley swings around at once to see how this particular statement will land upon his angelic counterpart. Aziraphale turns to meet his attention, eyes wide with so much startled innocence that Crowley would wonder if he hadn’t misplaced the weapon if he didn’t know perfectly well whose responsibility it has always been. Aziraphale turns to look around himself before his breath catches on realization.

“Oh.” He extends the bottle of wine towards Crowley, who promptly returns it to its place at the top of the bench at the range of his outstretched arm, before rising to his feet and retrieving the sword from underneath him. He brings it in to his chest, holding it close against him as he smiles at the delivery man.

“Sitting on it,” he says as his gaze wanders away to share a conspiratorial glance with Crowley’s. He offers the sword to the delivery man, who takes it, and finally looks away only in answer to the man’s huffed laugh.

“Good thing you were here, really,” the delivery man says as he closes the box back over the assorted weapons inside.

Crowley can see Aziraphale’s posture straighten, can see his shoulders tilt back to drop him into the dignity of soothed pride as he tips his head to meet Crowley’s continued attention. “How nice to have someone who recognizes our part in saving the--”

“I need someone to sign for it.”

Both Crowley and Aziraphale look back to the delivery man, who looks expectantly to Aziraphale, briefly to Crowley, who dodges nimbly away, and then back to Aziraphale, who blinks and collects himself.

“Oh right,” he says, in a far more subdued tone, as he accepts the clipboard to sign.

The delivery man takes a breath. “Do you believe in life after death?”

Aziraphale offers the clipboard back. “I suppose I must do.”

“Yeah,” the man laughs weakly. “See, if I was to tell my wife what happened to me today, she wouldn’t believe me.” He tucks his pen back away in his pocket and looks back up to the two of them. “And I wouldn’t blame her.” The clipboard lands atop the box of Apocalyptic weapons, the box is collected by the delivery man, and he carries the lot off with him to be returned to wherever it is that Famine’s scales, and Pollution’s crown, and once-the-angel-of-the-Eastern-Gate’s sword are kept in times other than the end ones.

Aziraphale sits back down on the bench. Crowley looks back along the length of his arm, where it is outstretched into the space now thrilling empty between himself and Aziraphale. As the door to the van closes Aziraphale lets a breath go and looks back to meet Crowley’s gaze. There is a moment between them, silence shifting towards possibility; and then Aziraphale lifts a hand to point as he leans forward to look down the lane again. “Oh! There it is.”

Crowley wonders if this is to be his version of eternal damnation, now that the world has been saved, to keep having his Moments scattered before they have had a chance to form. If he’s honest with himself, spending eternity lounging on a bench with Aziraphale and a bottle of expensive wine for company seems far closer to paradise than anything he recalls of heaven, so he’s not about to complain. He brings the bottle to his mouth to take another swallow as Aziraphale frowns at the bus rumbling itself down the lane towards them. “It says Oxford on the front.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says, and turns his head to give the bus a moment of token concentration. “But he’ll drive to London anyway. He just won’t know why.”

Aziraphale sighs a breath. “I suppose I should get him to drop me off at the bookshop.”

Crowley’s stomach trips over the absence of a step where it was expecting one and plummets into freefall as he looks away from the bus and back to Aziraphale. There’s no realization on the angel’s face, no tension of memory flickering itself into epiphany. Crowley draws himself together, braces himself to break Aziraphale’s heart all over again, and then speaks as gently as he can. “It burned down. ‘Member?”

Aziraphale turns to stare at Crowley. There is a moment of shock, as if he is doubting his understanding of the words; and then his expression softens, his forehead creases on undisguised pain, and his gaze drifts out of focus and into some soft, aching place that only he can be. Crowley watches him, feeling his own heart bleeding with the need to offer comfort, to reach out and give whatever of himself he can to ease even a fraction of Aziraphale’s loss. The last time Aziraphale bore this blow it was on the other side of the table in a dingy bar, in a form Crowley couldn’t have held even if he had made the attempt; and there had been no time, no space for the two of them in the catastrophe bearing down upon them. But the Apocalypse is over, the world is saved even if Aziraphale’s bookshop and Crowley’s Bentley are not; and Crowley draws a breath, and steps out once more into the open air of possibility.

“You can stay at my place.” The words are very soft at his lips, almost a whisper at his tongue as he sets them free. Aziraphale’s eyes widen, his head comes back up to meet Crowley’s gaze, and Crowley meets him straight on, without flinching from the implication of the offer. “If you like.”

Aziraphale looks at Crowley for a long moment. Crowley can see the soft in his eyes glowing clear and warm in the illumination of the stars overhead; he can see impulse trembling at Aziraphale’s lips as an answer tries to find its way to speech. Aziraphale looks away, still looking more shocked than certain, back as he struggles over unvoiced words; and then he tips his head to duck away as his expression falls into a resignation that looks as much like loss as his earlier grief. Crowley knows that expression, has seen it again and again and again, every time he asks for too much, every time he goes too fast; and so he’s not surprised when Aziraphale shakes his head to force himself into the well-practiced answer he is supposed to give.

“I-I don’t think my side would like that.” Aziraphale glances back at Crowley, just for a moment, before he ducks his head into obedient retreat again.

Crowley has offered temptation, has spent thousands of years arguing and pleading and desperately trying to win this one surrender, this single capitulation that he wants more than anything else Heaven could ever offer him. He has spent lifetimes chasing this by every means he knows how, with every persuasion he has had available to him; and now, at the end of everything, he finds he needs nothing more than simple truth to answer.

“You don’t have a side any more.” Aziraphale looks back up to him, his eyes wide, and Crowley gazes right back, still and calm and absolutely, entirely honest. “Neither of us do.” The words rise to his lips; the last time he spoke them they were in a hiss, a temptation harsh and stinging as a slap. This time they are gentle, the caress of a hand waiting outstretched for millennia. “We’re on our own side.”

Aziraphale looks at Crowley as if he’s seeing him for the first time, his forehead creased as his gaze flickers to touch the other’s face like he’s wondering over the details. Crowley gazes back without flinching, even as Aziraphale’s attention finds the soft at his mouth, and the warmth in his eyes, the signs of love that all the dark glasses in the world have never really hidden from his angel’s sight.

“Like Agnes said,” Crowley says. “We’re going to have to choose our faces wisely.” And finally he turns aside, lifting a hand into the headlights of the oncoming bus to hail it to a stop just in front of the bench he and Aziraphale are sharing.

Aziraphale doesn’t speak as the bus comes to a stop, or as the doors open to welcome them inside. From the look on his face he’s long miles distant, lost in the space of thoughts well beyond anything Crowley could hope to span. But when Crowley stands from the bench Aziraphale does the same, and when they step onto the bus they do it together, and in Aziraphale’s silence Crowley hears the murmur of a hope he has held to for millenia.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale is at something of a loss.

He has never thought of himself as being particularly well-suited for crisis situations. In general he prefers life to be quiet, and well-ordered, and ideally well-fed, with a routine to his day that ensures the indulgence of as many delicious meals and extravagant desserts as can be reasonably contained within a twenty-four-hour period. He’s not cut out for war, or heroism, or any of the stockpile of noble goals that he is meant to represent as an Angel of the Almighty; he serves best tucked away in his bookshop, with a bottle of a wine or a cup of cocoa, listening to a record and savoring the small joys the world has to offer.

He has spent the last hours fighting, fighting with more steel than he knew he had been created with, to defend that. In the face of absolute loss Aziraphale found himself granted a determination to defend his favorite indulgences to the bitterest of ends, until he ended on a windswept tarmac facing down first Gabriel and then Satan himself, to emerge with a victory he hadn’t let himself truly believe in since the Antichrist turned out to be a completely different child than the one he and Crowley have been raising for the last eleven years. It’s very startling, like leaning into a sharp headwind that suddenly vanishes as one turns a corner, and in the stumbling forward slant of all his expectations Aziraphale has no idea what he is meant to do.

It had all seemed so simple, before. He had to get the news of the Antichrist’s whereabouts to Crowley; he had to return himself to Earth, body or no, to avert the Apocalypse. He had to get to Tadfield, he had to stop Gabriel, he had to save the world or at least assist with the necessity of it; there was no time for satisfying his personal desires, not so much as a breath of leeway to spend on indulging in the desperate affection that has been brought to such perfect clarity by the prospect of losing it. He had to focus, had to exert himself, had to stand strong; and now the danger is gone, the crisis has passed, and the determination that held Aziraphale to his ground in the face of Armageddon has evaporated at the prospect of breaking open a silent understanding that has remained unspoken for millenia.

It’s a relief when the van pulls up in front of them. Aziraphale is perfectly aware that he is postponing the moment of crisis, that he is putting off the inevitable the same way he has avoided confronting the situation for thousands of years, and that awareness makes him perfectly secure in his demonstrated ability to go on doing exactly that. The delivery man emerges from the van, dressed in uniform shorts and bearing the weight of his office in the form of a clipboard, and Aziraphale turns his attention to the newcomer as a stopgap against the words hanging with increasing weight in the air between himself and Crowley.

The delivery man considers the both of them sitting on the bench and evidently decides that Aziraphale exudes an air of somewhat greater responsibility than the demon slouching himself into languid elegance over the far side of the bench. “You, uh, got the, um?”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, and reaches out to touch the cardboard box set to occupy the space between himself and Crowley instead of the tense weight of possibility. The delivery man leans forward to open the flaps and peer inside as Aziraphale continues. “Didn’t want them falling into the wrong hands.”

Crowley tilts his head towards Aziraphale, which Aziraphale patently lacks the restraint to resist. They look at each other for a moment before the delivery man interrupts the rapidly-forming Moment with the easy grace of someone utterly focused on his job. “‘Scuse me, gents.” They both look up to answer the crease of apologetic confusion on the man’s face. “There’s uh. There’s meant to be a sword in here.”

Crowley swings around to lift his eyebrows pointedly at Aziraphale. Aziraphale, finding himself caught between the delivery man’s expectation and Crowley’s pout, retreats into fumbling uncertainty as he looks around himself. There’s nothing in the box or tilted against the bench, and as Aziraphale leans over to check and see if the sword had somehow vanished itself into the shadows beneath him he realizes it has, in a manner of speaking.

“Oh.” He extends the bottle of wine Crowley-ward, where it is promptly removed to leave Aziraphale’s hands free so he can get to his feet and pick up the sword from the bench beneath him.

“Sitting on it.” Crowley is still watching him with the threat of a smile working itself at the corner of his mouth; Aziraphale gets himself lost somewhere in the shadows of the other’s gaze as his hands obey the expectant patience of the delivery man and hand over the weapon that was originally his, when he was the Angel of the Eastern Gate, before he knew anything about the temptation that might be offered by golden eyes and a curving smile.

The delivery man remains unswayed by Aziraphale’s brief nostalgia. He takes the sword to return it to the confines of the box alongside the other weapons of the end times. “Good thing you were here, really.”

This is a surprise, though Aziraphale supposes it really ought not to be. They deserve some gratitude for their efforts, after all, however misdirected those may have been, and after all they did save the world, at the end of it. He draws himself up, recalling some part of the self-assurance that illuminated his old sword to flame in his grip and held him steady against the rage of Satan himself. “How nice to have someone who recognizes our part in saving the--”

“I need someone to sign for it.”

Aziraphale blinks and deflates slightly. “Oh right.”

The delivery man hands over a clipboard, which Aziraphale accepts along with the associated pen. There is a moment of quiet as Aziraphale signs his name; then the man speaks again. “Do you believe in life after death?”

Aziraphale lifts his eyebrows and hands the clipboard back. “I suppose I must do.”

The man forces a rather shaky laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “See, if I was to tell my wife what happened to me today, she wouldn’t believe me.” Aziraphale’s attention drifts sideways again, lured back to Crowley’s face by the easy domesticity of that word. Crowley is still watching him, as he has been nearly since they sat down; Aziraphale isn’t entirely certain the other is even bothering to blink for the interruption it might induce to the all-in pining he is conveying with every line of his body. Aziraphale’s gaze trails down, skipping from Crowley’s hidden eyes to everything else that he has left absolutely overt: the soft of his mouth, and the open V of his jacket collar, and the weight of his arm sprawling out over the space between them by way of the back of the bench.

The delivery man doesn’t seem to notice that he has utterly lost his audience in their attention to each other. “And I wouldn’t blame her,” he concludes. He sets the clipboard down to hold the top of the box shut and picks the lot up, box and board and crown and sword and scales, to carry back to his waiting van. Aziraphale watches him go, his gaze stalling for time before confronting the way Crowley is still looking at him, until the van starts up and rumbles away down the lane. Aziraphale glances back in Crowley’s direction, mind scrambling desperately over what he might say, what he must say, what he isn’t at all sure he can force past the knot of anxiety in his throat; and another vehicle emerges from the night, this one lit by a glowing marquee to announce the bus they’ve been waiting for.

“Oh!” Aziraphale exclaims, and lifts a hand to point, as if there is any conceivable way to miss the rather sizeable vehicle approaching them down an absolutely deserted lane. “There it is.” Crowley welcomes the oncoming bus by taking a deliberate swallow from the bottle of wine in his hand. Aziraphale resists the temptation to watch his throat work over the motion and dedicates himself to frowning at the glowing display at the front of the bus instead. “It says Oxford on the front.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says as he emerges from the bottle and cants his head to the side to stare hard at the bus. “But he’ll drive to London anyway. He just won’t know why.”

Aziraphale glances at Crowley. The other’s head is turned, his attention fixed on the persuasion he’s presently enacting on the driver of the bus, which is approaching at a far more rapid pace than Aziraphale was prepared for. His chance is narrowing, vanishing before his eyes even as he struggles for breath to speak; and under the pressure of the moment Aziraphale feels his hard-won motivation disintegrate, shying back into the familiar comfort of someday in place of now. There will be time for them, other chances, other nights; and Aziraphale lets his gaze drop, feeling the weight of his own cowardice sink his heart lower in his chest as he retreats to the path of habit over the protests of the courage that so possessed him this afternoon. “I suppose I should get him to drop me off at the bookshop.”

Crowley swings around to look at him. Aziraphale keeps his head ducked down, aware that he’s deliberately avoiding seeing the expression on Crowley’s face but too weak, too soft, to find the strength to confront it. He will go home, he tells himself, will take the night and compose himself rather than making a foolish decision on the spur of the moment; and then Crowley speaks.

“It burned down.” His voice is very gentle, a hand reaching out to press comfort to Aziraphale’s shoulder before the blow has yet been felt. “‘Member?”

Aziraphale’s good intentions and desperate excuses scatter. He does remember, of course; but for a moment he had not, for a breath he had been so lost in familiar hesitation that he had forgotten everything that had come before. They saved the world, it’s true, they faced the Apocalypse and came out alive: but their losses remain, even as Aziraphale feels the presence of his physical form with a sudden, painful gratitude all over again. His bookshop is gone, his work and his life and his home, the accumulation of centuries of comfort burned to ash, and for a moment Aziraphale feels almost that the greater destruction of the world might be easier to bear, if it were everything lost and not such a personal, vivid absence.

“You can stay at my place,” Crowley says. Aziraphale blinks, his focus returning from the distant haze of grief to which it had wandered to narrow into surprise as he looks back up to see the tilt of Crowley’s head, and the fought-back tremor at his mouth, and the pleading that is not at all disguised by the shadow of his sunglasses over his eyes. Crowley’s throat works. Aziraphale watches him lure a breath past his lips where he can form it to words. “If you like.”

Aziraphale stares at Crowley for a long moment. The bus is forgotten, the world is set aside as surely as if time has held its breath for them once more, just for this heartbeat of silent understanding. It has been thousands of years since that day in the Garden, since that first storm broke and Aziraphale extended a wing to offer shelter to the demon next to him; and there have been dozens of times that Crowley has asked, has teased and tempted and pled, and Aziraphale has retreated, has refused, has rejected. They have had all this time, all these years played out in the same way and through the same script; and for a breath that lasts an eternity, Aziraphale thinks about saying yes. He has spent millennia resisting, holding to the letter of obedience while skirting every edge he could find for himself; and now he has faced down Heaven, has rejected the bonds of the Great Plan in order to save the world that he and Crowley have always shared. He confronted Uriel, faced down Gabriel, stood strong in the face of Hell itself; surely he can do this one thing for himself, can accept the offer Crowley has made again, and again, and again. Aziraphale opens his mouth, tasting the yes at his lips, craving it with more fervor than the most luscious dessert; and obedience clears its throat, and seizes his lips to silence, and he ducks his head into the surrender his form demands of him.

“I-I don’t think my side would like that.” He offers a sideways glance, an apology worn so threadbare the want beneath it must shine through as clearly as sunlight through clouds. He can give no other answer, now or ever; he is trapped by his existence, forced to arms-length by the obedience as engrained in his self as Crowley’s rebellion is seared into his.

Aziraphale is expecting hurt. He knows this is the cruelest thing he ever does to Crowley, this refusal of something they both want with such desperation. Under the circumstances he wouldn’t blame him for another hiss of lashing anger like yesterday’s, during a conversation that seems another millenia distant from their present. But Crowley doesn’t flinch, or pout, or grimace; he just gazes, affection and forgiveness and love so clear in his face that Aziraphale can feel them as if Crowley had reached out to press his graceful fingers to Aziraphale’s cheek.

“You don’t have a side any more,” Crowley tells him, and the words are gentle but they hit like a blow, like the sound of a hammer cracking shackles tempered to brittle shrillness by too many years. Aziraphale blinks, and turns to stare at him, and Crowley cocks his head to the side and lifts his eyebrows for emphasis. “Neither of us do.” He takes a breath, like he’s bracing himself, or maybe just to savor the independence of an action free from the stifling obedience that has crushed Aziraphale to resignation. “We’re on our own side.”

Aziraphale stares at Crowley. It is as if the stars have gone brighter, the air clearer, the world sharper. His heart skips with the possibility of freedom, of an existence all his own, of choices to make as he sees fit; and Heaven pulls back, retreating from the cloud it has always cast over his life as if it has been blown away by the simple truth of Crowley’s statement. Heaven is above, and Hell is below: and Aziraphale is here, on Earth, with Crowley at his side and all the ineffable possibility of the world unfolding before him.

“Like Agnes said,” Crowley says. “We’re going to have to choose our faces wisely.” And he turns his head, lifting his hand to hail the bus to a halt in front of them.

It takes Aziraphale a moment to collect himself from the dizzying expanse of freedom. He can go anywhere, do anything; the options are so grand that for the first seconds all he can do is stare straight ahead as his thoughts stumble and trip over the excess of opportunity suddenly granted him. Then there is motion at his side, as Crowley tumbles himself upright from his slouch over the bench, and all Aziraphale’s scattered attention seizes onto the other as he saunters towards the open door of the waiting bus. The world is Aziraphale’s for the taking, his choices his own to make; and in the weightless freedom of that his body lifts itself from the bench, and his feet carry him to follow in Crowley’s wake. There is no thought, no deliberate decision; Aziraphale thinks he has been making this choice for millennia, if he were only free to act upon his own desires, and the accumulated inertia of centuries of want push him forward up the steps of the bus and down the aisle at Crowley’s heels.

He has almost caught up by the time Crowley is turning to fling himself into a window seat. Aziraphale doesn’t know what he will do, doesn’t know what action he means to take, but as Crowley moves Aziraphale’s hand reaches out, his fingers extending over the gap between them. And Crowley’s hand closes around his own, his fingers finding Aziraphale’s and slipping between them as easily as if that had always been his intention. Aziraphale’s breath stops, his knees melt under the rush of warmth that flushes through him, and when Crowley tugs against his hand he drops into the seat next to him with boneless speed. The doors swing shut, the bus jolts into motion, and Aziraphale sits perfectly still in his seat, gazing straight ahead while his entire body prickles with the heated awareness of Crowley’s knee brushing his own, and Crowley’s shoulder a centimeter from his, and Crowley’s fingers wound to clasp close around his hand.

Approximately a century passes in the time it takes the bus to drive through the greater part of the village of Tadfield. Aziraphale has never been so aware of the tension of his fingers, where his grip on Crowley’s hand is trembling with adrenaline he can’t seem to contain. He feels himself glowing with heat, as if he must be throwing off steam even in the warmth of the bus; he can’t recall how to breathe and contemplates simply letting that illusion of humanity go outright until he is in a more composed state. He can’t turn his head, can’t look to see if Crowley is watching him; and then Crowley shifts in his seat, and Aziraphale startles to look at him before he can stop himself.

Crowley isn’t looking at him. Crowley is, in fact, tilting himself in towards the darkened window next to him, as if he is worn out by his efforts to sustain an upright posture and is going to simply give in to the persuasion of gravity for a time. He tips his head against the glass, and turns his head as if he’s looking at the scenery, but around the edge of his sunglasses Aziraphale can see enough distance in his gaze to carry it across the entirety of Europe and well into Asia. His face is red, his cheeks flushed, and even as his mouth sets itself into the appearance of nonchalance his throat undermines this effort entirely by struggling over a visible swallow. Aziraphale stares at Crowley, feeling some of his own self-consciousness easing by this proof of Crowley’s burden of the same, before Crowley’s fingers flex carefully in their hold on his hand. Aziraphale looks down to their hands clasped in the space between them, at the sleeve of his white coat pressing up against the fashionable dark of Crowley’s jacket; and then he starts to smile, bright and warm and helpless. He tightens his hold, settling his fingers closer between Crowley’s and sliding his thumb into a tiny caress across the other’s hand, and next to him Crowley breathes an exhale and melts a little farther against the support of the bus. Aziraphale looks at their hands, the tremor in his fingers and the tension knotted in Crowley’s, and then he sighs a breath, and leans sideways to let his head fall against the support of the other’s shoulder.

It’s a long bus ride from Tadfield to London, but Aziraphale isn’t in any hurry at all.

Chapter Text

Crowley gets to the flat first. He all but sprinted for the stairs upon their arrival, leaving a very bemused Aziraphale to trail him up the winding construction of polished metal, following the shouted directions echoing from above in a way that reminds him unavoidably of the glow of white light linking his bookshop (his lost bookshop) to the Voice of God. But this connection is only a story away, and easy enough to follow via the stairs linking the ground floor to the higher level where Crowley lives, and Aziraphale obeys the instructions tumbling down around him to find himself in front of a large door, so smooth and shining it seems to cringe from the necessity of a handle in the middle of it. It hardly needs it under the circumstances, which are that Crowley has left it standing open in his hurried wake. Aziraphale can hear Crowley moving inside, the sound of his footsteps rushing with frantic haste, and he comes through the door with hesitant care, pausing in the entryway to lift his head and look around him.

The first impression he has of Crowley’s flat is style. The door is sleek, the walls are glossy dark, the floor is clean in the way only a miracle or an utterly absent tenant can achieve, and the whole is expansively, expensively minimal. There is a great deal of open space, and very few pieces of furniture to interrupt the line of sight from one wall to the next, which grants everything within as much importance as a single actor set up on a lonely stage to declaim a monologue.

“Just a minute.” Crowley’s voice stumbles back around the corner to wave a delaying hand. There is a rattle of sound and the thud of machinery latching shut. “Just...need to tidy up a bit.”

Aziraphale can’t guess what there can possibly be to tidy up in an aesthetic as leanly sleek as a greyhound, but he is too intrigued by the prospect of actually being inside the flat to which his imagination has often wandered to complain at being left alone for his first few moments of welcome. He turns to push the front door shut behind him, conscientious about the closing of it so it lays gently into the frame instead of slamming shut, and then he turns back around to continue down the hall and farther into the space in which he finds himself.

He has never been to Crowley’s flat before. Crowley has never offered, and Aziraphale has never asked. There never seemed a reason to do so, not when Crowley has been so pliantly willing to trail Aziraphale back to the comfortable glow of the bookshop; and Aziraphale has felt, vaguely, that it is for the best that he remain on home territory in the constant, delicate dance of temptation and resistance they have been doing for so long. But his bookshop is...is gone, he tells himself firmly, facing the harsh, unforgiving edges of that with determination even as his eyes prickle with heat and his throat knots on tears, and Aziraphale is no longer beholden to anyone in Heaven or Hell. His existence is his own, to guide as he wishes, and the first thing he wants to do is to see the shape of the life Crowley leads on his own.

It’s expensive, there’s no question of that. Aziraphale has accumulated proof of his existence over the span of centuries, in leather book covers worn slick by uncounted fingers and cuffs frayed to gentle warmth against his skin; Crowley has stripped his life to its most basic elements, all of them overengineered into such all-encompassing function that they become pieces of modern art themselves. He has what can only be accorded the respect of being called a throne in front of a desk like a sheet of red marble, or perhaps less like than made of, with a television mounted on the wall so it looks more like it has simply sprung into being from the structure of the building than been installed. When Aziraphale turns he finds a wall tilted off-center from its surroundings, which gives way with soundless grace to the touch of his outstretched fingers to reveal the rest of the apartment, just as sleek and smooth and sexy as everything else. The lighting is dim, behind the revolving wall as much as in the main space, until the edges of walls meeting floor and ceiling seem to smudge into the general shadows around them, but there is a spotlight set up at the far side of this room, the minimally greater illumination enough to pull Aziraphale’s attention to the subject of the light: a statue done in white marble that seems to almost glow in the muted surroundings. 

Aziraphale considers it for a moment, admiring the angle of the shape and the grace of the curves; and then his forehead creases, his mouth tips down into a frown, and recognition clears its throat and takes his hand to lead him forward towards the statue displayed in such state in the middle of Crowley’s apartment. It’s a beautiful piece, with a detail to the forms and a strength in the subjects that catches at the curator’s soul Aziraphale has spent so many centuries honing; but it’s the wings that move his feet to tug him closer. They sweep out from the shoulders of both of the figures, curving into a graceful beauty that rather extends than distracts from the human forms to which they are bound, and Aziraphale stands in front of the pedestal on which the piece is displayed with his skin prickling all over as if it is shivering needlessly in the face of a radiant heat.

The wall shifts behind Aziraphale’s position before the statue. When he glances back Crowley is striding through it, looking very cool and put-together and only a very little bit frantic. Most of that last is in the expression on his face, which is more clear than usual thanks to the absence of the dark glasses he is currently folding to tuck into the pocket of his jacket. “Sorry about that,” he says, swinging himself through the room with enough flare to his progress to imply that perhaps the vast open space is more a necessity than otherwise. “Everything was…” He lifts a hand to sweep through the air as his throat sketches vague incoherence. “Eh-h, bit of a mess.” His hand hovers in midair for a moment before realizing it is the center of attention and slinking back away to hide in the pocket of his pants, which is something of a miracle in itself given how closely they are already clinging to Crowley’s thighs. He curves himself backwards, leaning into an arch while his gaze declares itself firmly attached to Aziraphale for the rest of the night. “Find your way around?”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, as his own hands flutter upward to fill the void left by the restraint of Crowley’s. “Yes. It’s all very…” He pauses, struggling over a somewhat more complimentary word than empty. “Expansive.”

Crowley’s mouth twists, struggling to find a frown before surrendering to a grin. “It’s not exactly your style, angel.”

“No!” Aziraphale says, pushed to greater enthusiasm precisely by the accuracy of Crowley’s statement. “No, it’s lovely.” He glances around the room, seeking desperately for something to comment upon, before his gaze alights on the upraised wings of the statue once more. He lifts a hand to point. “This is very nice.”

“Ah-h,” Crowley says, sounding so uncomfortable that Aziraphale looks back to him in surprise. He’s looking at the statue rather than at Aziraphale and grimacing as if it is an open diary on display rather than a piece of art. “Yy. Mm. Yeah.” He lifts a hand to ruffle absently at the back of his neck; his gaze is still fixed on the statue, so it misses the brief detour Aziraphale’s makes to trail the motion of Crowley’s hand and the twitch of instinctive want that trembles through his fingertips. Crowley clears his throat roughly and lets his hand drop. “You’ve seen it before.”

Aziraphale blinks, his wandering imagination called back from caressing Crowley’s hair by the effect of surprise. “What?” He turns his head to look again. “Have I?”

“Yeah.” Crowley takes a step forward to draw up alongside Aziraphale as he lifts his hand to gesture vaguely towards the illumination on the display pedestal. “‘S a commission.” He swallows and clears his throat. “From Greece.”

Aziraphale blinks at the statue. “I don’t--” he begins, and then he does. “Oh. I remember!” He draws forward, hand outstretched to guide the forward motion of his feet. “The street market, wasn’t it?” Aziraphale laughs. “I never expected to run into you there. I hardly saw you once a century back then.”

“Early days,” Crowley agrees.

“That was some time ago,” Aziraphale says. “Before you changed your name, wasn’t it?” He cocks his head to the side as he considers the statue. “Didn’t they used to paint these?”

“Ahh, yeah,” Crowley says, and his voice is shuffling sideways like a partygoer trying to slip out the door before anyone notices their retreat. “I asked to keep it as it was.” He lifts a hand to gesture again. “The wings looked better white.”

Aziraphale looks back to Crowley. Crowley’s gazing at the statue but his head turns as quickly as Aziraphale’s does, as if he’s feeling the other’s attention like a demand. They stand still for a moment, gazing at each other by the spilled-over illumination of the spotlight shining down on Crowley’s sculpture. Aziraphale feels his chest tighten as he stares at Crowley’s golden eyes, and then further, as his attention loses its grip and falls by a span of inches before catching itself to the traction of Crowley’s mouth. Aziraphale’s hands seek out the support of each other, he takes a breath to speak, or to act, or to fall, and Crowley turns his head and wrenches his hand free of his pocket to gesture at the echoing space around them.

“So you’ve seen the main room,” he says, his voice stumbling over desperate innocence. “Front door. Chair. Desk. Great space, lots of activities. Bedroom’s back there” with a flick of his wrist to cast the direction free of his fingers, “and there’s a sort of study...room...thing at the other side.”

He’s moving as he speaks, striding away back towards the rotating wall as he gestures the architecture of his flat into the air before him, and Aziraphale follows, his feet trailing Crowley as his hands work in an attempt to wring out the adrenaline that is doing its best to freeze him with an excess of options. He’s hardly listening to what Crowley’s saying, is hardly noticing the slick shine of the space around him, when there’s a rustle of motion following the swing of the wall turning under Crowley’s push, and Aziraphale’s attention slides sideways to find a miracle: a garden, leaves lush and green and flourishing over several shelves’ worth of houseplants.

“Oh!” he gasps, and steps forward immediately. The plants are luxurious, overflowing the bounds of their pots to spill rustling green leaves into the space between them. They skim Aziraphale’s shoulders, ghosting against the fabric of his coat as he draws nearer, and when he lifts a hand they seem almost to bend to follow his fingers, as if desperate for the comfort of contact. “You’re beautiful.”

Ah,” comes a yelp from the other side of the rotating wall, followed very rapidly by a Crowley. “Angel, no.”

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, turning back to beam at the other as he lifts a hand to stroke across the wide, spreading smooth of a leaf as broad as his arm. “These are gorgeous.”

“Don’t!” Crowley snaps, lunging forward and reaching to snatch at Aziraphale’s wrist and pull his touch away. “Be quiet, you’ll demotivate them.”

Aziraphale blinks. It’s difficult to make sense of what Crowley is saying, and his rationality is fundamentally a little distracted by the touch clasping around his arm and the sudden proximity of Crowley standing in front of him with the spreading leaves of greenery forming a curtain around them. “What?”

“The plants,” Crowley says, and waves roughly around them with his free hand. “Don’t encourage them. This is a competition and they all had better keep that in mind.” He turns to glare sternly at their floral audience. “You all got that? Don’t get any funny ideas.” He holds to his scowl for another moment as he turns it on each pot in turn; then his shoulders slump, he heaves a sigh, and he looks back to Aziraphale. “Come on, angel, the garden can take care of itself.”

Aziraphale stares at Crowley. His wrist is still caught in the grip of the other’s hold; it’s not quite as intimate as the interlaced fingers they maintained for the whole of the bus ride back from Tadfield, but the heat has lingered, smoldering like it was only waiting for the spark of Crowley’s skin touching to Aziraphale’s once more to surge back through the whole of his body. Crowley’s glasses are off, slipped into the pocket of his pants to leave the yellow of his eyes clear to see; he’s gazing at Aziraphale, his eyes soft even as his mouth twists on exasperation. There’s a familiarity to his expression, an ease at his jaw and a tilt to his head and a lift to his brows that Aziraphale recognizes from dozens, hundreds of other moments, other times long before this one. This is the way Crowley always looks at him, across the span of a restaurant table and over the distance of the back room of his bookshop and along the gap of their bench at St. James’s Park; and his eyes are melting soft with affection, the love radiant in his face laid bare by the removal of the glasses he so often hides behind. Aziraphale feels his heart tighten, feels his own expression ease into answering affection, and from across the centuries, along the millenia, over the thousands of years and months and days of too fast, of not yet, the last knot of tension slips free with sound like a sigh of now.

Aziraphale can see the fought-back smile at Crowley’s mouth soften, can watch realization break over the face well-known and better-loved than the familiarity of his own. Crowley’s hold at Aziraphale’s wrist loosens, his grip falling free to drop the weight of the other’s arm as if he is afraid to go on holding it; but Aziraphale is drawing forward already, is stepping away from the weight of the leaves around them to set himself directly in front of Crowley, both of them staring full into each other’s face. Crowley’s eyes are wide, his mouth soft as if he’s forgotten how to sustain the resilience that he has shown in the face of all Aziraphale’s hesitation, all Aziraphale’s uncertainty; but Aziraphale is certain, now, more sure of himself than he has been since that moment in the Garden when he gave away a weapon and lifted a protective wing instead.

His hands don’t shake as he lifts them, as he reaches out across the distance that always seemed so insurmountable, as if the air might catch alight to flame for him reaching across it. There is no flame, there is no wall, there is no resistance: just motion, fingers reaching to sweep aside the frail barrier of air, and then Aziraphale’s hands pressing to Crowley’s face, his palms coming in to brace gently to the sharp line of the other’s jaw. Crowley’s throat flexes, his lips part, and Aziraphale holds him steady between his hands as Crowley struggles to find speech from the space left between them. Finally Crowley lifts a hand, his fingers trembling their way along the line of Aziraphale’s cuff before they find the other’s wrist, and he abducts a breath of air to hold it for ransom against his speech.

“Angel,” he rasps, and Aziraphale can hear smoke on his voice, can trace the scorch marks of flame and loss down into the shaky core of Crowley’s existence. It is not a question; it is a plea, a prayer as surely as the hand quaking where Crowley has laid it just against the line of Aziraphale’s wrist.

Aziraphale frees a breath from his own lungs, tastes the sweet of anticipation on his lips, feels the certainty of conviction in the strength of his hold gentle and unwavering at Crowley’s face. “My dear,” he says, tender with unbearable, absolute love, and he leans forward, and he meets the surrender of Crowley’s mouth with the soft of his own.

For a moment time seems to stop. It’s not like it was earlier on the air base, when the world held its breath for the two of them to prepare a small boy to face down the end of the world and halt it in its tracks. Existence continues on, cars rattling along the street outside and leaves rustling around them and stars sweeping through grand, silent arcs in the night sky overhead. But for the two of them, just for a span of endless heartbeats: there is just this, now, six thousand years of waiting and wanting collapsing into a single perfect moment of lips meeting, breaths clasping, an angel and a demon and a kiss to bring them together. Aziraphale’s eyes are shut but he doesn’t feel the absence of his sight. His entire existence feels like it’s expanding, spilling beyond the bounds of his comfortable body and into the curving grace of Crowley’s, out through the stylish apartment and into the city, the world, the universe, granted wings grander than any he has ever known. Aziraphale stays still for an endless moment, his hands on Crowley’s face, his lips pressing to Crowley’s mouth; and then he draws back to take a breath that he has forgotten he doesn’t need.

At least he intends to do so. It is a reasonable thought; he is dizzy with the shift in his own gravity, anxious to collect himself from the impossible expanse into which the weight of Crowley’s lips has thrown him. But Crowley follows him as Aziraphale pulls away, his whole body canting forward to form the shape of the sound of desperation in his throat, and Aziraphale’s blood comes alight to a craving for something he has only just found he cannot live without. He is leaning back in as quickly as he withdrew, faster, even, tilting his head to steal another taste from the corner of Crowley’s lips, to give back in to the temptation intoxicating every molecule of his existence. Crowley’s fingers clutch at Aziraphale’s coat, seizing to strain at the delicate line of the lapel, and Aziraphale doesn’t notice for how quickly he’s leaning in, anxious to return the heat of Crowley’s mouth to his own. Crowley’s lips part, offering a temptation Aziraphale falls into at once, and then he catches the taste of Crowley’s mouth on his tongue and Aziraphale is groaning like he’s sampling the richest chocolate, like he’s sipping the headiest wine. Crowley’s tongue slides against his, purring friction as he licks past Aziraphale’s parted lips, and Aziraphale’s whole body is illuminated with such heat he feels sure he must be glowing like the star Crowley begged him to run away to, like the sunrise that will dawn over the world with space for the two of them together.

An eternity passes before they pull away again. The world has been remade, Aziraphale thinks, swept clean and reformed into a paradise by the press of Crowley’s lips, by the taste of Crowley’s mouth. They have their arms around each other; one of Aziraphale’s hands is wound into Crowley’s hair, one of Crowley’s arms is snaking around Aziraphale’s waist, and neither of them is steady enough to stay upright without the counterbalance of the other. Aziraphale is flushed pink, he finds, when he finds his way back into the span of his own body without the distraction of Crowley’s interposing itself; Crowley’s head is tipped forward, his breathing so ragged Aziraphale can feel the heat of it shimmering to a mirage of friction against his mouth. Aziraphale wants to kiss him again, can’t figure out how he ever stopped; but there are priorities, and the right way to do things, and so he musters every scrap of self-restraint he has and speaks.

“Crowley,” he says, as clearly as he can, which is not at all clear as he starts to lean back in for Crowley’s mouth again. Crowley turns his head up at once to encourage this indulgence and Aziraphale has to tighten his hand at the other’s hair just to steady himself enough to resist temptation for perhaps twenty seconds. “Crowley.”

“Mmghm,” Crowley manages.

“We should go,” Aziraphale says. His bracing hold at the back of Crowley’s head has somehow transmuted itself into a caress over the soft tumble of the other’s hair and he isn’t quite sure how to stop himself, or if he should, or why he should want to. He presses his lips together to give them a stern talking-to and swallows to try to find his voice again. “W-we should. Um.” He ducks his head in the general direction of the other side of the room, struggling to find an elegant phrasing before he decides it’s not worth the trouble and gives in to clarity. “The bedroom, Crowley.”

Crowley blinks. Aziraphale can see his gaze fighting its way back through the fog of distraction to reclaim the high ground of focus before he ducks his head into a sharp nod.

“Nnn,” he says. “Yy. Yeah. Yes. Okay.” His hair is rumpled out of all order over his head; Aziraphale reaches up to smooth it back into place only for his fingers to go mad with power and wreck havoc on the tumbled locks. Crowley blinks again and turns his head as a means of spurring his hand to action, which after a moment frees itself from cradling the back of Aziraphale’s neck and reaches to point. “‘S over--right, right there.”

Aziraphale nods. “Yes,” he says. “Good.” He blinks hard and shakes his head to pull himself together. It’s clear that Crowley is past any kind of composure, and that means it falls to Aziraphale to see them to a more proper setting. He’s an angel, after all, in spite of everything; he can make it down a hallway without giving in to the temptation of Crowley’s half-lidded gaze on him.

He can’t, as it turns out, but then, no one’s keeping score anyway.

Chapter Text

Crowley doesn’t recall much of Heaven. Time didn’t exist at the point he was ejected from the pearly gates, never to be welcomed back, and once he learned about the concept of seconds and centuries everything before faded into a kind of hazy backstory too far distant to engender any real regret. On some level Crowley has always been a demon, Fallen as soon as he existed, and what fragmentary recollections he has of Heaven’s white corridors and flowing robes leaves him with the strong impression that he’s not missing out on terribly much. There is only one thing Heaven has ever had to offer any temptation to him: and right now, with Aziraphale’s hands in his hair and knees against his hips, Crowley thinks nothing in all of time could offer more than his own apartment, made into Paradise by the company within it.

They have shed the greater part of their clothes. Crowley was half-dressed by the time they made it through the door to the bedroom, thanks in some measure to his own concerted efforts to will them free and in much greater part to the impressive persuasion offered by Aziraphale’s hands, which win themselves entrance past the front of Crowley’s coat and under the weight of his tie and beneath the hem of his shirt with the kind of polite insistence that is impossible to refuse and Crowley doesn’t even attempt to resist. Even Aziraphale’s coat managed to slip itself free of a button, and by the time they broke apart to gaze at each other framed in the shadows of Crowley’s bedroom his tartan tie was noticeably askew, although Crowley doesn’t know if it was his hand or Aziraphale’s or simply the general awareness of their intentions that effected the change.

“Right,” Aziraphale says, his voice trembling and his eyes brilliant with illumination. Crowley wants to kiss him, and then recalls that he can, and promptly does. Another eternity disintegrates to Aziraphale’s hands gripping at Crowley’s hair, and Crowley’s fingers tracing the soft curve of Aziraphale’s waist, and the friction of lips finding each other with the easy grace of lovers reunited after a long separation. Crowley’s jacket escapes one shoulder to slither its way down his arm and make a break for his wrist, where it is still fumbling with retreat when Aziraphale lets him go again. “Give me just--” His hand flutters through the air and he catches a breath. “A moment.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. His voice has run away with him entirely and is now trying to leave its unwanted escort behind; it frays on heat, melting from his grip even as he tries to secure his hold on it. Aziraphale beams at him, his whole face glowing with affection, and his upraised hand comes out to press gently to Crowley’s cheek. Crowley’s body angles itself sideways to lean into the contact with the whole of his being, and Aziraphale’s eyes crinkle with joy before he draws his lingering touch away and turns his back to Crowley so he can begin the process of unfastening the layers of well-worn and better-cared-for clothes in which he has garbed himself.

Crowley’s coat takes advantage of this moment of distraction to fall off his shoulders entirely and sprint towards the ground. Crowley turns at the sound of it falling, and stares at it on the floor for a moment of dazed inattention before he picks it up so he can fold it into somewhat tidier lines. He struggles with this for almost a minute before his heat-dazed memory recalls that he never folds his clothes, and that in fact he is a demon and has nothing to worry about from wrinkles, and his efforts with the coat are given up in favor of casting the clothing over the heavy footboard at the end of the bed. Crowley tugs free the knot of his tie to slip it loose of his neck, which motion draws his attention to his belt, and then his shoes, and after a brief, heated argument between his legs and his pants he finds himself sitting on the edge of the bed, his fingers distracting themselves with the buttons on his shirt while his gaze is entirely occupied in watching Aziraphale undress at the other side of the room.

It is something of a process. Crowley’s clothes are slick and slim, cut to cling to his body and tumble free at the vaguest thought; Aziraphale’s are like much-loved armor, laid into precise lines and folds to wrap security around him, the sartorial equivalent of the books and music with which he lined the bookshop that was a home for the both of them for so long. The thought of the shop sends a pang of loss through Crowley, an ache of grief redoubled by sympathy to cause as much secondhand pain as what he feels directly; but Aziraphale is drawing his coat off his shoulders, and the hurt of what they have lost tangles with endless gratitude for what they have kept to twist Crowley’s breath into a knot at the inside of his chest. Aziraphale sheds his coat and his vest, unfastens the folds of his bowtie and eases the buttons free of his shirt, and it’s as he is folding his pants into careful creases before setting them atop the rest that he glances back to see Crowley staring at him.

Aziraphale pauses for a moment. For a breath Crowley thinks he is going to say something, can see the dip of Aziraphale’s lashes and the part of his lips over the possibility of words; and then Aziraphale closes his mouth to beam a smile instead and turns away again so he can bend over and unclasp the garters cinched just under his knees.

Crowley’s shirt gives up on waiting for his stalled-still hands and helpfully frees itself from its last trio of buttons without any encouragement at all. Crowley’s hands, having thus been let go from their temporary employment, fall to his lap to revel in their brief freedom from action. Crowley doesn’t notice this indulgence any more than he realizes that it has been some minutes since he last remembered to breathe. He is utterly engrossed in the work of Aziraphale’s fingers, and the shift of dark elastic sliding down a soft calf, and the heat that is searing through him at the sight of so much bare skin. Crowley is accustomed to all kinds of temptations, human and demonic alike, and he has spent the last six thousand years doing his damnedest to become the personification of enough indulgence to finally tempt an angelic hand into reaching out to claim him. He’s absolutely sure, now, he’s been going about his efforts in entirely the wrong way, because he has absolute faith that he will never find anything as impossibly erotic as Aziraphale sliding his loosened garters down his calves and over his feet.

Crowley’s still staring when Aziraphale turns back around, flushed and pink and glowing with illumination. He’s always bright, always seems to draw the light around him to kiss his skin and hum brilliance in the threads of the fabric he wears; with the greater part of his clothes folded in a neat pile behind him, he seems incandescent in the familiar shadows of Crowley’s room. His skin seems to throw off light of its own, a brilliance almost enough to eclipse the uncertainty in his eyes as he looks at Crowley, the self-consciousness that tightens his lips to press together on the effort of silence as he watches the other with a plea clear in his gaze. Crowley stares at him, his voice absent, his whole self turned to the need to drink Aziraphale in with his eyes; and then he works his throat over a swallow, and he lifts a hand from his lap to extend it over the distance between them. Aziraphale’s gaze flickers to Crowley’s hand, his lashes flutter over a blink; and then he lifts his chin, and raises his arm, and steps forward to clasp Crowley’s hand in his own. His fingers press against Crowley’s wrist, his thumb circles to a gentle hold around the other’s arm, and then Aziraphale’s other hand is sliding through Crowley’s hair, and Crowley’s head is offering instant surrender, and as Aziraphale’s hand braces at Crowley’s head his lips press to Crowley’s, and Crowley gives himself up to his angel’s keeping without hesitation.

It’s Aziraphale who climbs onto Crowley’s lap. Crowley is dizzy from the weight of his fingertips against angelic wrist, light-blinded by the glow of illumination spilling from every inch of Aziraphale’s bare skin; the touch of the hand at his hair strips his coherency, the friction of Aziraphale’s mouth against his own clears his thoughts. He could stay like this forever, could spend another six thousand years reveling in this blessing that is more than he has ever deserved, Fallen or not; but then Aziraphale’s hold on his arm tightens, his palm slides to brace around Crowley’s shoulders, and he’s coming forward onto the bed, one knee fitting to the outside of Crowley’s thigh before the rest of him follows with startling speed. Crowley doesn’t have the chance to realize what is happening before it is done, doesn’t have the space to clutch for the gasping inhale that his body demands; he just has Aziraphale against him, knees bracketing Crowley’s hips and undershirt pinned close against Crowley’s bare chest and voice forming to a sigh of such satisfaction that it runs straight through the very core of Crowley’s existence. Crowley reaches out without thinking, clutching for a fixed point in the impossible bliss that his life has become, and he finds his arm catching around Aziraphale’s waist, his reaching fingers pressing to the line of a shoulderblade where Crowley has seen wings spread wide. There are no wings now, not with the both of them firmly committed to their human existences, but Aziraphale shivers in a way that Crowley feels resonate through every fiber of his tight-wound body and slides his palm down by an inch to cradle at the back of Crowley’s neck. His little finger drifts down, wandering into the presumption of intimacy that sits just below the line of Crowley’s open collar, and Crowley’s throat offers up a note of encouragement so intense it tears from him with a sound like a sob.

“Oh,” Aziraphale breathes. The heat of his exhale slides through Crowley’s hair, kisses his skin with heat, dips his lashes with the weight of pleasure. “Crowley.”

Crowley’s hand slides, his fingers tighten to press hard at Aziraphale’s shoulder, an effort to hold the other still made perfectly unnecessary by Aziraphale’s apparent intention to press himself bodily into the same space as Crowley. “Angel,” Crowley rasps, and ducks his head to press to Aziraphale’s shoulder. Aziraphale’s head tips to weight against his, Aziraphale’s hand lifts to stroke through the tangle of Crowley’s hair again, and this time his touch trails farther down, curling against the tension of Crowley’s neck and over the angle of his collarbone to spill over the shadow of hair across his chest and marking out a line over his stomach. His touch prints light in its wake, reflections of brilliance flashing through Crowley’s body to tremble at his spine and quake his knees to water, but he’s sitting on the bed and clutching at Aziraphale’s shoulder and so he stays upright, if only barely, as Aziraphale’s touch quests down his body and towards the waistband of his underwear. Crowley had bought it with an appreciation for the absurd price tag, and a further satisfaction in the way the silky fabric slides like water against his skin; right now he wants nothing more than the friction of the soft hand pressing against his hip to interpose between the expensive cloth and his body. Aziraphale hesitates for a moment, his fingers skimming Crowley’s waistband and his head still tipped in against Crowley’s; and then his touch slips down, his elegant fingers reach, and his palm presses inside Crowley’s underwear and against his length.

Crowley’s voice decides instantly that it is done with verbal communication and throws over the last vestiges of coherence at once. Crowley’s shoulders flex to curve him forward, his fingers tighten against Aziraphale’s shoulder, and sensation pours up his throat to convert itself into a groan as it falls past his lips. His whole body arches upward, disregarding the demand of gravity for the far greater magnetism of Aziraphale pressing against him, until for a moment Crowley thinks he might simply break free of the Earth through a force less of will and more of absolute, unfettered need. He might, too -- he’s not about to impose restrictions on reality when this day has already given him so many impossible things -- but Aziraphale breathes out a sigh of shuddering satisfaction and leans in as easily as Crowley arches up towards him so they meet precisely in the middle.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, and his voice is honey, sweet and spreading as it trickles down Crowley’s spine and into the tight-knotted tension of desperate anticipation in his body. “Crowley, darling.” Crowley wants to answer, wants to set free the love that he has been choking on for centuries, that he has struggled with in a purgatory formed by his own personal savior, but Aziraphale is curling the soft of his palm and the grace of his fingers into a hold around him and all Crowley can do is clutch at Aziraphale’s shoulder for support against the endless, toppling fall into a heat far kinder than the one to which his rebellion condemned him. He doesn’t know how to bear this, doesn’t know how to hold himself together against affection spilled without consideration for his condition; and Aziraphale’s hand cradles the back of his head, and turns Crowley’s face up towards the light, and Crowley shuts his eyes and parts his lips to surrender himself to heaven.

Aziraphale is certain. His hold is gentle, as careful as the weight of his lips pressing to Crowley’s, as delicate as the set of his knees on either side of Crowley’s hips, but when Crowley trembles Aziraphale steadies, holding him still within the loop of his arm and the grip of his fingers and the lingering heat of his mouth as he savors the taste of Crowley’s lips with as much relish as Crowley has ever seen him show to an elaborate dessert. Aziraphale takes his indulgences with hedonistic satisfaction, with an intensity to his appreciation in measure with the temptation offered, and Crowley thinks he would happily give himself up to centuries of the languid, lingering enjoyment Aziraphale is making of him. He presses his arm around Aziraphale’s shoulders, clinging to the support with all the force of dizzy desperation, and when Aziraphale hums pleasure into the line of kisses he is fitting to Crowley’s mouth Crowley can give him nothing but a shudder of answering heat from the depths of his chest.

It is Aziraphale who draws back, rocking onto his heels as he loosens his hold to trail his fingertips in paths of idle heat up over Crowley’s length. Crowley feels like he’s smoldering from the inside out, his body turned to fuel for the flame that Aziraphale never needed in a sword when he held the heat of it ready at the tips of his fingers. It takes him a long moment to remember that there is such a thing as vision, and then to back his way into a realization that his eyes are shut and that’s why he can’t see the way Aziraphale is looking at him. He has a brief argument with his body regarding obedience, and the merits of taking his mind’s advice, and then he manages to get his eyes open enough to fumble their way back to focus on Aziraphale looking down at him.

Aziraphale is flushed, his cheeks and mouth and shoulders all turned to a glowing pink of thrilled arousal that shivers through Crowley’s body all over again just to see. His eyes are darker than Crowley has ever seen them before, the clear gold of his gaze melted down into shadows burnished by the weight of his lashes drawn heavy over his eyes. His attention trails over Crowley’s face, appreciation as clear in his gaze as in the slide of his thumb working idly against the back of Crowley’s head, where his fingers are wound into the utter disarray that heat has made of the other’s hair, before he catches his lower lip with his teeth and creases his forehead on a question.

“Crowley,” Aziraphale says, soft and shadowed and conspiratorial. “Can I…?”

He leaves the last of the sentence to flutter free in the span of unvoiced understanding, but Crowley doesn’t need to hear it to offer an answer. He blinks, struggling to find his way back to speech enough to rasp out a reply.

“Angel,” Crowley says. “You can do anything you want with me.”

Aziraphale’s eyes burst into sparkling joy, followed very shortly by the soft of his lip slipping free from his teeth and into a beaming smile. “Ah,” he says, and he slides his hand free from Crowley’s clothes to frame the other’s face between his hands as he ducks in to press a kiss to Crowley’s mouth. Crowley shuts his eyes, reveling all over again in the epiphany of Aziraphale kissing him, Aziraphale holding him, Aziraphale with him, and then Aziraphale slides himself back to sit at the end of the bed instead of on top of Crowley’s lap.

“Just a moment, please,” he says, as politely as if he’s considering his options in a restaurant, and he tugs at the hem of his undershirt to pull it up and free of his head. Crowley stares at him, heat-struck and dizzy out of all focus; it’s only as Aziraphale ruffles a hand to smooth out his feathery curls and looks down to carefully fold his shirt that Crowley realizes that perhaps it would serve him to follow the angel’s example and divest himself of his remaining clothing. His shirt is already hanging open, all it needs is a gesture in the right direction to go slipping free of his shoulders and down his arms, where Crowley promptly shucks it over the edge of the bed into the general unimportance of the world outside of the space Aziraphale is immediately occupying. He comes up onto his knees, struggling with his balance as he pushes his underwear off his hips and down his thighs; this is a less elegant motion than he might wish, ending as it does with a sort of sideways topple over the sheets that even Crowley can’t pretend into intention, but Aziraphale is fumbling with the last of his own clothing and so Crowley is spared the embarrassment of an audience. He kicks his legs free and lifts a hand to shove his hair into fashionable disarray, and that’s all he has time for before Aziraphale is lifting his head to look back at him. They stare at each other for a moment across the distance of a mattress that Crowley has never before considered might be too large, actually; and then Aziraphale lifts his hands, and Crowley gives up all hope of cool composure in exchange for throwing himself over the distance to melt into the other’s embrace.

Aziraphale’s hands land in his hair, Aziraphale’s lips return with relief to Crowley’s, and Crowley finds himself holding to the other, steadying with a hand at Aziraphale’s hip and the other underneath a soft thigh as Aziraphale returns himself to his position straddling Crowley’s lap. Crowley thinks it is for the best that he doesn’t have an actual need to breathe, partially for how thoroughly Aziraphale is kissing him and primarily because he has forgotten how to do anything at all except his newest, favorite pursuit of clinging to Aziraphale with the full strength of his body. Aziraphale rocks up against him, his knees pressing firmly to Crowley’s hips and the heat of his body radiant against Crowley’s chest; and then he pauses, pulling back from the other’s mouth so Crowley can feel the catch of Aziraphale pulling a breath past his lips.

“Oh dear,” Aziraphale says. “I suppose I ought to…” He frowns consideration, his brows knitting together for a moment before his expression relaxes and he tilts one shoulder up into surrender. “Ah well.” He lifts a hand from Crowley’s hair to give a crisp snap of his fingers, which he follows with a huff of a sigh as he slides himself forward on the bed to better align himself over Crowley’s lap. “That’s better.”

A smile threatens the corner of Crowley’s mouth, and then takes advantage of his distraction to claim as hostage the laugh that breaks free of his throat. “You’ll get yourself a whole post office of reprimands from head office for that, angel.”

“Mmm,” Aziraphale says, and cradles Crowley’s face between his hands as he offers up a smile that is very nearly wicked. “You know, I don’t care.” And then his thighs flex, bracing his weight as he lowers himself onto Crowley’s lap, and Crowley finds himself immediately persuaded into the same by the simple necessity of turning all his attention to the present moment, the present reality, of Aziraphale sliding down onto him with all the grace to which his making entitles him. Crowley’s body tightens, his head tilts back as his lips part on a moan so hot and low that it slips free of the leash of audibility, and over him Aziraphale bows his head, not to kiss but to breathe a sigh of beatific satisfaction over Crowley’s lips as he brings them together.

Oh,” he says, and Crowley knows the sound of pleasure on Aziraphale’s lips but it has never been so sweet as this, when the shiver of appreciation that runs through the angel’s body flares his own to such incandescent, immediate heat. “Oh, Crowley.” Crowley can’t speak, can’t breathe, can’t recall any of the basic modes of existence except that of a want that has brought him here, to a height of bliss that has stripped him dizzy and blind with altitude, but Aziraphale is kissing him like he can’t stand to leave the space between them uncrossed, the soft of his mouth warm and ready against Crowley’s, and Crowley shuts his eyes, and lifts his hand to hold himself steady against the curve of Aziraphale’s jaw, and lets himself be kissed, and taken, and enjoyed.

Aziraphale guides their movement; or rather, he guides his own, which is for the best as Crowley is quite past anything more complex than fitting his fingers around the delicate curve of Aziraphale’s ear and giving the whole of his physical existence up to any and everything Aziraphale wishes to do with or to him. It takes them some time to align themselves, as Aziraphale struggles to find his balance and gain the angle he wants; but then he gets one knee beneath him, and the other leg angled around Crowley’s waist, and when he moves experimentally he moans over a sigh of such pleasure that it flutters his lashes and drops his head back into a brief moment of perfect bliss. Crowley’s chest flexes with what would be a catch of his breath if he hadn’t given up on that pursuit entirely some minutes hence, and in lieu of speech his fingers slip to tighten at the back of Aziraphale’s neck. Aziraphale draws himself forward again, curving in over the play of his hands still wandering through Crowley’s hair, and when he smiles at Crowley there is a lazy, languid satisfaction to the expression that pours heat like syrup through the other’s limbs. Aziraphale kisses him again, like he’s savoring a sip of wine between courses, and then he draws back, canting his head to the side as he looks down at Crowley and begins to move over him.

Crowley doesn’t stand a chance. He never did, he thinks: he thinks this fall was as determined as his first one, written somewhere in a Plan that no one but the Almighty ever understands. But this much he knows, has known from the Beginning: that there is the angel, and there is himself, and he loves, loves with every molecule and every moment of his existence through space and time together. There has never been anywhere for him but here, with Aziraphale, the two of them together; and to finally have this, to finally be here, is something as impossible for Crowley as salvation, as forgiveness. Aziraphale’s hands are wandering through his hair, Aziraphale’s lips keep catching to press to Crowley’s like he’s giving in to the temptation of another sip, another taste, another indulgence, and Crowley wraps his arms around Aziraphale and feels love sweep over him like the unlooked-for shelter of a wing outstretched in a storm.

There is no sense of time. Crowley’s hold on seconds has always been a little fragile and he’s not even making the attempt now; they are already existing in time beyond the end of it, there seems no relevance to holding to the mundanity of minutes or hours in the space they have claimed for themselves, the world they have saved together. It could be a century, could be a minute, could be an hour; it is enough time for Crowley to come apart and back together, for him to lose his hold on himself and find it in the span of Aziraphale’s hands stroking gently against him. His body trembles, tightens, glows radiant with heat, and Aziraphale is there with him, moaning pleasure over Crowley’s mouth as he turns himself to the physical pleasures that have always won such indulgence from him. Aziraphale revels in him, his cheeks flushed and hands wandering and voice spilling over unfettered satisfaction until it’s hard for Crowley to tell the difference between the heat building in his body and that peaking in answer to the want in Aziraphale’s throat, the seduction caught unthinking in the tilt of his head and the curl of his fingers. Crowley stares at Aziraphale over him, his breathing stopped and his attention fixed, until finally Aziraphale’s head angles to the side and he gusts over a sigh of decision. His hand at Crowley’s hair slides free, his fingers trail a shudder down the length of Crowley’s chest, and then he wraps his hand around himself.

Crowley takes a single glance down, just for a stalled-still breath; and then away again, with a speed that pulls a groan of effort from his throat. He can’t watch, can’t bear the indulgence of seeing this, but the image is absolutely clear in his head all the same just from that one moment of seeing Aziraphale sliding his hold over himself with the perfect grace of self-assurance. Crowley fixes his attention out past Aziraphale’s shoulder, staring down the shadows at the corner of the room while he gives his whole body a stern talking-to about what it can and cannot give way to, but his hands are still trembling, his skin is flushing, and he has a strong impression that his efforts will only give him a few minutes’ control over the rebellion rapidly fomenting in the radiant heat flushing through his body.

A hand draws up through his hair, a palm caresses his cheek. “Crowley,” Aziraphale breathes, and Crowley shuts his eyes entirely as he wrestles his building arousal back to the mat. Aziraphale ducks over him; the corner of his mouth trails a glancing blow against the set of Crowley’s lips. “Let me see you.”

Crowley grits his teeth. “Angel,” he struggles free. His fingers drag, catch, flex at Aziraphale’s shoulder. “I’m not--nghh--I can’t--”

“Look at me,” Aziraphale says. Crowley sets himself to refuse, draws deep on everything in his nature pushing him towards rebellion, to refusing a direct command; and then Aziraphale kisses at the corner of his mouth, and says “Please,” and Crowley’s restraint dissolves like it was never there at all. He opens his eyes, and lifts his head, and Aziraphale sighs satisfaction and beams down at him. His eyes sparkle like starlight, like he’s caught all the beauty of the universe in the curve of the smile that Crowley has never been able to so much as consider refusing.

“You have such beautiful eyes, my dear,” Aziraphale says, and Crowley feels his entire being resonate in answer, his existence itself shaping to the form of Aziraphale’s voice. He hisses a breath, pulling sharply at the air to persuade it to his ends, and then the world flares out into white and he expels it all at once, his lips parting and throat opening so the groan of pleasure that hits him falls into a voiceless surrender. There’s a catch of air at Crowley’s lips, a tell for the inhale Aziraphale takes as Crowley breaks, but Crowley can’t answer, can’t speak, can’t see for the light that has enveloped him. There is only radiance, Aziraphale’s presence spreading out and around and through the very core of Crowley’s existence, and Crowley clings to his angel and shudders through the dawn breaking over a world made new.

His vision fades back in gently, a host returning at the conclusion of a party to collect order back into the space. Crowley blinks, recalling the use of his body through experimental motion. He’s still sitting on his bed, a hand clutching at the back of Aziraphale’s neck and his arm wrapping close around the other’s waist; he loosens his grip via individual fingers, fumbling himself back to function from the shattering bliss that swept him so entirely from himself. Aziraphale is still against him, still has his hand at Crowley’s hair and his knee pressing to Crowley’s hip; and it’s then, as Crowley takes deliberate stock of the inventory of his life, that he hears the gasp of Aziraphale’s breathing, and lifts his head to look up to the angel over him.

Aziraphale’s flush has darkened. He was pink before, his cheeks tinged with the warmth of joy and pleasure and arousal, but the color has spread across his face and down to his shoulders, ripening to red at the soft of his lips parted on the panting effort of his breathing. His lashes are heavy over his eyes, his gaze has fallen out-of-focus; all his attention is turned inward, cast into the hedonistic intent that Crowley has seen in Aziraphale over thousands of restaurant tables and in hundreds of concert halls. But he’s never seen Aziraphale like this, with the building pleasure of his body riding high and hot through the tension of his form, and the only thing Crowley can offer is wonder.

Angel,” he rasps, his voice worn ragged by the force of the pleasure still quivering electric through him, and Aziraphale’s head tilts back to curve the column of his throat into a line of ecstatic bliss.

“Ah,” he breathes. “Crowley.” And he shudders, the whole of his body fluttering with the force of the orgasm that ripples through him as if set free by the sound of Crowley’s name on his lips. Crowley’s skin prickles, his chest tightens, and he is sure, with every ounce of certainty he was made with, that he will never hear anything as angelic as Aziraphale coming with the shape of Crowley’s name savoring on his tongue.

Crowley is still staring when Aziraphale sighs free the last tension of orgasm into the relief of afterglow and lifts his head to curve himself back forward. His face is lingering in its exploration into pink, his mouth still soft with the ease of satisfaction. His eyes are heavy-lidded, his focus slow to find Crowley’s, but his smile is immediate, spreading over his face as readily as he lifts his hands to cradle Crowley’s face between his palms.

“My dear,” he says, and leans forward until his forehead bumps just against Crowley’s. “I positively adore you.”

Crowley’s throat works over a sound like a groan and a laugh at once, which comes out somewhere in the vicinity of an incoherent croak as his mouth catches the edge of a smile and his eyes ache with the threat of tears. He clasps his hand at the back of Aziraphale’s head, his fingers sliding through the feathery strands as he tries to steady himself into speech.

“I love you, angel.”

It’s not the way Crowley has imagined this confession. He sounds half-strangled, more like he’s being forced into speech than volunteering for it, and his eyes are welling with tears that blur his vision past sight. But he can still see the smile that Aziraphale sparkles at him, and he can feel the caress of the hand that strokes through his hair, and when Aziraphale speaks he can hear the words with perfect clarity.

“I know,” he says. “I love you too, Crowley.” And Aziraphale’s mouth finds his, and Crowley shuts his eyes, and lets himself be loved.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale has never entirely bought in to the obsession Crowley has with sleeping. He’s tried it once or twice, with the sort of polite consideration with which one might sample an unfamiliar food, but what to Crowley is an irresistible temptation is no more than a way to pass hours to Aziraphale. He would rather spend his time immersed in a book, or adrift on the sound of a record, or savoring some particularly toothsome dessert, and so he has classically left Crowley to his preferred indulgence and amused himself through the nights his companion spends dreaming.

He thinks, now, that perhaps Crowley was onto something. There isn’t much to hold Aziraphale’s attention in the quiet of the night and a lonely bed; but with Crowley in it with him, he thinks he might never be persuaded to leave the tangle of the sheets around them.

They’ve subsided from the initial desperate force with which they first came together, in multiple senses of the phrase. Crowley had dropped back to the bed as if all the strength in his body was spent with the culmination of thousands of years of accumulated desire, and Aziraphale was happy to appreciate the silk-soft of the sheets that suit his love of comfort and Crowley’s love of expense in equal measures. Aziraphale ended up on his back across the mattress, lying as much atop the sheets as beneath them, and Crowley promptly turned himself sideways to pour himself all over Aziraphale’s body as if taking on the personal task of providing the warmth Aziraphale’s absent clothes have stripped away. Aziraphale found himself with one of Crowley’s legs wound around his own, a tangle of crimson hair pillowed against his chest, and a reaching arm sliding under his shoulder to brush idle fingers through his hair. He answered with one arm around Crowley’s waist to hold them together, as if Crowley weren’t offering up all the signs of iron affixing itself to a magnet, and brought his other hand up to satisfy a centuries-old ache by running his touch through the other’s hair. Crowley heaved a sigh against Aziraphale’s shoulder, and melted all the remaining rigidity out of his bones, and Aziraphale was left to smile dreamily up at the ceiling while Crowley took the chance to follow sex with sleep.

Aziraphale’s thoughts are wandering wide. The relief of the stress he has been holding in himself for eleven years, increasing to a crescendo over the span of the last week and peaking in the last day, has evaporated so thoroughly he feels nearly as spent mentally as physically and emotionally. His mind and body alike feel pleasantly hollow, as if he has cleared out an attic and found far more space than he believed he had available, and in the peace of his thoughts his present happiness seems to expand to fill all the newfound room. Aziraphale’s chest aches with joy, with an embodied, entire bliss he can’t recall ever feeling before, until it is flushing hot at his face and burning behind his eyes. Even the thought of his lost bookshop, and Crowley’s lost Bentley, cast no kind of a shadow over his present delight. They have made sacrifices, it is true, earthly and ethereal ones alike; but they have gained each other, in a way Aziraphale could never let himself dream of before, with Heaven’s shadow stretching long and grasping after him.

Some part of his smile slips, at that. There is no regret in him for his decisions; he would make them all again, even without knowing what reward his chosen freedom would grant him. But Heaven will not be happy, is not happy, surely, even now, and Aziraphale knows his supervisors too well to think they will be content to simply turn the other cheek. There will be repercussions, whether in the form of reprimands or blows or worse, and Aziraphale’s hand tightens into Crowley’s hair without deliberate thought to cling closer to what he cannot, will not, stand to lose.

A sound tumbles free of Crowley’s chest and trips its way into inquiry against Aziraphale’s shoulder, where the other’s face is turned down against him. “Nnmhh?”

“Ah,” Aziraphale says, and consciously loosens his fingers to smooth back over Crowley’s hair. “I’m sorry, my dear. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Crowley groans. After a moment he follows this warning with a suggestion of motion, and then the actuality of it, as he lifts his head from Aziraphale’s shoulder to squint in the general direction of the other’s face. “Angel,” he says through the gravel that has accumulated in his throat during his brief foray into unconsciousness, “Are you planning to call me endearments as a rule moving forward? Only I’ll need to start building up a tolerance about, oh, a century ago.”

Aziraphale blinks at him. “Does it bother you?”

“No,” Crowley says at once. “What it does is completely overwhelm anything else I might have been contemplating doing other than…” He lifts a hand to gesture vaguely through the space around Aziraphale before him. “Which is a bit distracting, you understand.”

“Oh.” Aziraphale closes his mouth while he contemplates this. “Anything?”

Crowley works his shoulders into a complex motion that finally settles itself down into a shrug. “Seems that way, yeah.”

“Oh,” Aziraphale says again. He pauses for a moment before lifting his eyebrows. “Well. That changes the situation quite a bit…”

Crowley narrows his eyes. “Don’t--”

“My dear.”

Crowley groans and ducks his head back down while Aziraphale bites his lip in a completely useless effort to stifle his smile into neutrality. This effort is eased by the press of Crowley’s lips against his shoulder, and further aided by the shift of the other sliding up against him to extend the range of his mouth up Aziraphale’s throat and curling into his hair. Aziraphale breathes a ticklish laugh as Crowley kisses the side of his neck, which melts into a sigh as the other’s lips find and pin a curl of hair to the space just behind the curve of his ear. Aziraphale’s hands stroke through Crowley’s hair, down the flex at the other’s shoulders and along the length of his back, and Crowley subsides with his head somewhat closer to the pillow underneath Aziraphale’s and the warmth of his breathing tickling at the other’s hair. Aziraphale tips his head to the side to lean against Crowley, just to savor in the physical contact granted by the motion as he trails his fingers over the sinuous curve of the other’s spine.

“That doesn’t seem quite fair,” he says, contemplatively. “You call me angel all the time.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says to the back of Aziraphale’s ear. “You are one. I’ve called you that from the Beginning.”

“Yes,” Aziraphale allows, “but it’s not only a statement of fact, is it?” He lifts his hand up to press his palm into a gentle caress along Crowley’s bare skin. He can feel Crowley’s body shift beneath his touch, flexing and easing like the other is curving himself up to follow the weight of Aziraphale’s hand against him. “You’ve been telling me all this time.”

Crowley huffs. “As if you didn’t know,” he says. “Angel.”

Aziraphale smiles surrender and lets the truth of that stand uncontested. They fall back into silence for another span, their only movement Aziraphale’s hand stroking Crowley’s back and Crowley’s breathing ruffling Aziraphale’s hair, but Aziraphale has no doubt of Crowley’s consciousness, and when he speaks it is without preamble. “What do you think the prophecy means?”

“Agnes’s?” Crowley asks and Aziraphale nods. “‘Choose your faces wisely’?”

“‘For soon enough you will be playing with fire,’” Aziraphale finishes. “Do you think it was for us?”

“It came out of the book, didn’t it?” Crowley shifts himself against the sheets with a motion that seems to effect no change at all and yet somehow results in a few extra centimeters of his body pressing against Aziraphale’s. “Must be. Wouldn’t be properly ineffable otherwise, would it?”

Aziraphale huffs a laugh. “I suppose not.” He considers the wall of the bedroom without seeing it at all while he secures his hold on his deliberately light tone. “Was it...about the bookshop? Do you think?”

Crowley snorts. “Pretty bad prophecy if you only understand it after the fact.”

Aziraphale lifts his eyebrows in admission. “That is frequently the way of them, I’m afraid.”

“It’s not clear enough either,” Crowley says. “It could just as well have been about my car as your bookshop. There’s been an awful lot of fire in the last day.”

“It was the Apocalypse,” Aziraphale points out. “It wouldn’t have been exactly on-brand without at least a little Hellfire.”

“Yeah,” Crowley says. “The M25 was...unpleasant. Even Hastur couldn’t take it head-on.”

Aziraphale opens his eyes wide and turns his head to look at the top of Crowley’s tousled hair. “You drove through Hellfire?”

Crowley emerges from Aziraphale’s shoulder, blinking like he’s waging the triumphant last stand in a losing war against illumination as he gazes at the other. “Obviously,” he says. “Did you think it was normal fire did that to my car?” He scoffs all the way in the back of his throat. “I could have walked through regular fire barefoot.”

Aziraphale feels his throat tighten with a strange combination of affection and grief. “You did,” he says, speaking gently for his sake, now, as much as for Crowley’s. “To get the book. I left it in the middle of the bookshop, didn’t I?”

Crowley’s expression softens, his mouth going slack as his eyes drift out of focus. He’s still turned in Aziraphale’s direction, still has his leg and arm and second leg wrapping around the other beside him, but for a moment his gaze is seeing something utterly different, carrying him back into the distant past of earlier that afternoon. Aziraphale can see his throat work with effort over a swallow, watches his forehead crease with the blow of the memory in which he is caught.

“Yeah,” he says, just that one word, and Aziraphale stares at him, seeing the roar of flames flickering in Crowley’s memories as the gold of the other’s eyes expands with the force of his recollection. “It was--I was--yyy.” Crowley grimaces sharply and shakes his head like he’s tugging himself free from the reaching hands of memory. His arm around Aziraphale tightens, his head comes down against the other’s shoulder. The position muffles the rasp of the breath he drags, but Aziraphale can feel the effort of it pulling against him all the same. “I couldn’t find you, angel.”

Aziraphale lifts his hand to smooth over Crowley’s hair, the comfort so instinctive his fingers are tangling into the locks before he realizes he has moved. “I would have been fine,” he says, urging back the fear as gently as he can. “Even if I were--as I was--discorporated. I would have found a way back.”

Crowley hisses a breath around the sob Aziraphale can hear gripped tight between his set teeth. “It was Hastur,” he forces free. “I thought he had…”

Crowley’s words give up their subject, throwing their hands up in the air and surrendering rather than pushing the point, but Aziraphale has stumbled himself forward into realization all the same, toppling over into an answer to a question that has been fluttering gently at the back of his mind since he heard Crowley’s voice echoing in his discorporated ears. His eyes widen, his breath catches, and his hand in Crowley’s hair tightens to pull the other closer.

Oh,” he says, feeling as if he’s watching the first dawn break all over again, as if he’s staring out at the expanse of a world cast into sudden clarity by its first romance with illumination. “You thought...Hellfire?”

“I thought you were gone,” Crowley says into Aziraphale’s shoulder. It’s a simple statement, blunt and flat with honesty, the way a cliff edge might lead smoothly to the drop and then plummet away into darkness. Aziraphale feels gravity vanish from beneath him, crumbling away to dust and ash to send him into a freefall; and he catches a breath, wings sweeping out to hold him aloft, and he curls his palm in against the back of Crowley’s neck.

“I wasn’t,” he says. Crowley stirs, lifting his head enough to look up through his lashes at Aziraphale, and Aziraphale lets his mouth soften into a smile bearing all the relief of the day they have survived. “I’m here, my dear.”

Crowley’s lashes flutter, his throat strains. “Angel,” he says, breathless as a prayer, and when he leans in Aziraphale shuts his eyes in anticipation even before Crowley’s lips find his. Crowley’s mouth is gentle at his, as if he’s uncertain of his welcome, or of his own response, but when Aziraphale tightens his grip at the back of Crowley’s neck Crowley’s lips part on a groan that Aziraphale finds himself leaning forward to claim at once. He turns in towards Crowley, following the sweet of the other’s mouth down to press him to the bed, and Crowley drops with perfect ease to let Aziraphale hold him down against the sheets. Aziraphale braces an elbow atop the mattress, tipping his head to the side to reach and claim the farthest parts of Crowley’s mouth for his own. His body is heating, warmth stirring itself towards the glow of open desire with the persuasion of Crowley pliant with surrender beneath him, and Aziraphale’s imagination is just starting to purr itself towards possibility when Crowley hisses an inhale through his nose and braces a hand at Aziraphale’s shoulder to push him back and away.

“Aziraphale,” he gasps. His cheeks are flushed, his breath panting with the friction of Aziraphale’s lips on his, but his eyes are wide with realization more than dreamy with the arousal Aziraphale was drifting towards. “I’ve got it, I know what it’s about.”

This is not a particularly forthcoming statement, least of all when Aziraphale’s attention has been so thoroughly distracted by his present pursuit. He blinks, frowns, shakes his head. “Sorry, what?”

“The--the prophecy,” Crowley blurts, flailing with one hand until he can claim the word from the open air. “I know what Agnes is telling us. You. Us.”

Aziraphale’s frown deepens. “I don’t see…” and his voice trails off along with his focus as his mind leaps over the gap of confusion with the athleticism of epiphany. He stares at nothing for a moment; then he looks down to stare at Crowley instead.

“Oh,” he breathes. “Hellfire.”

Crowley tips his head to the side. “What better way to deal with a troublesome angel?”

Aziraphale creases his forehead on a frown. “But that’s...that’s your side’s thing. The other side. Hell’s side.” He shakes his head and presses on. “Sorry. Old habits. Surely Hell is more concerned with you than with what trouble I caused.”

“‘M sure they are,” Crowley says in a tone as dark as an eclipse. “And I’m just as sure Heaven is looking to deal with you in turn.”

Aziraphale rocks back. “With Hellfire?” he scoffs. “Don’t be absurd, Crowley. They’re the good guys, they’re not going to deal in absolute destruction.”

“Not even to win a moral argument?” Crowley drawls. “Look. I’m just saying. It’s right there in the prophecy, it makes perfect sense.”

Aziraphale frowns. “‘Playing with fire,’” he says, slowly, turning over the words to see the way they catch the light. “I suppose it could be.” He blinks back to look at Crowley. “But how are we supposed to choose our faces?”

Crowley lifts his eyebrows. “You figured that part out yourself,” he drawls. “When you shared that form with your fashionable host.”

“Madame Tracy,” Aziraphale clarifies absently. “But Crowley, it’s not as if she would be any better equipped against Hellfire than…” and then he sees the point rapidly approaching, and his words lose their footing on shock and simply sit down mid-sentence. He stares at Crowley. “You don’t mean.”

Crowley tips his head to the side and offers an extremely persuasive pout. “Some of us don’t have the same problems with fire.”

“You’d--” and Aziraphale has to close his mouth, now, while his cheeks flush with the heat of what Crowley is suggesting. “You’d let me possess your body?”

“If you let me possess yours,” Crowley says, and flickers a grin. “One good turn deserves another, right? Or a bad one, as may be.” His smile weakens, and then melts away entirely, leaving behind just the bright focus of his yellow eyes on Aziraphale’s face and the soft of his mouth. He takes a breath to speak; hesitates; blinks; then pushes onward before he can think the better of it. “I would have let you do it earlier. After the bookshop. When you...if you needed a body.”

Aziraphale has had much occasion, this evening, to be grateful to Adam for his return to a corporeal existence. At the present moment, this is evidenced by the shudder that courses itself along his spine, lighting up all of his body with sudden, intimate awareness of the weight of Crowley’s pressing against him. He imagines fitting himself into the lean length of the other’s body, the span of his legs and the angle of his wrist and the tilt of his head as intimately his as Aziraphale’s own body is now, and the only reply he can hope to provide is an exhale that strains itself into a moan as it breaks free of his chest.

Oh,” Aziraphale says. “Crowley, darling.” And he comes back in to set aside concerns of prophecies and Heavenly repercussion in favor of possessing Crowley in a rather different but similarly satisfying fashion.

Chapter Text

It is very strange to be in possession of Aziraphale’s body.

Crowley can’t get used to it. The idea alone was enough to entirely dispense with any illusions he might have had regarding the likelihood of getting actual sleep the night before, as Aziraphale turned his not-insignificant attention to the prospect of indulging thoroughly in the temptation evidently offered by Crowley’s basic existence. But they had kept their bodies to themselves -- more or less, anyway -- until dawn managed to break itself a crack under Crowley’s bedroom door to promise the arrival of a new day entirely outside any plan at all, except, Crowley supposes, the one Aziraphale always likes to remind him of. Crowley was all for the prospect of spending another century in bed, and with somewhat better company than what he mustered on his last undertaking of such; but Aziraphale had sighed with the resonance of responsibility on his voice, and when he had said, “I suppose we ought to take Agnes’s advice,” Crowley was too intrigued by the possibility to invent any real evidence to the contrary.

After a night spent arguing with the bedsheets over which of them could more closely drape around the warmth of Aziraphale’s flushed skin, Crowley had believed himself to be prepared for the experience of possessing each other’s body. He probably was, too, insofar as it is possible to prepare at all for such an undertaking, which is to say not even a little. Aziraphale’s hand had closed around his, Crowley had curled his fingers against the soft of Aziraphale’s wrist, and then they had started to dissolve, one sliding past and into the other in a way that would steal Crowley’s breath from his lungs if he were presently in possession of those belonging to either of the bodies he is presently lingering between. For a moment they are in perfect balance, Aziraphale and Crowley and their habitual forms blurring into a single unified existence; for a moment there is nothing but warmth, a glowing radiance of affection that echoes back on itself like an image repeating through two facing mirrors. Crowley, or whatever of them can be roughly approximated as Crowley, wonders briefly if they can linger here forever, if they might not be able to simply coexist as a shared entity glowing with a self-generated adoration; but he’s separating even as he thinks it, his existence drawing itself free from the clasp of intimacy with Aziraphale’s, and then Crowley is seizing over a breath that comes out as a gasp as the hold at his hand gives way with a start.

“Oh,” Aziraphale says, except it’s Crowley saying it, yellow eyes wide and mouth soft in a way it should know better than to go. Crowley -- Aziraphale -- blinks, and breathes a laugh, and draws his hand in towards the dark jacket he is now wearing as he flexes his fingers. “Oh, that is odd.”

“Right,” Crowley says in Aziraphale’s voice, with Aziraphale’s body. His skin is prickling all over as if he’s been electrified; he has never been so astonishingly aware of his physical form, even in the early days when scales were as familiar as skin. His lips are soft, his body is warm; he glances down for a moment, and then sharply away, as his brain gets into a very confused debate with his body over whether to be thrilled or horrified by the space it is presently occupying. Crowley grimaces with a mouth that is too shocked by the expression to put up a fight and shakes his head. “Okay, this is weird, I’m leaving.”

“Wait,” Aziraphale says, leaning forward over the bed and reaching out to press a hand against the sleeve of his carefully-kept coat now in Crowley’s care. Crowley’s new body shivers straight through, like the contact is humming flame through a form far less suited to bear it than the one Aziraphale is presently inhabiting. “What if Hell--Heaven comes after you?”

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” Crowley asks. “And they won’t be looking for me. You. They won’t be looking for you here.” He pauses to consider. “I mean they should be. But they probably won’t.” He lifts a hand to ruffle through soft hair, which remains stubbornly unruffled instead of satisfyingly askew, and shakes his head. “I should go somewhere else. Give them a chance to come after me for...vengeance or whatever.”

Aziraphale sighs. “I suppose you’re right,” he says. Crowley gets to his feet, finding the motion to carry somewhat less fluidity than it usually does, and from the bed Aziraphale exclaims “Ah!” and reaches back out to close his hold around Crowley’s wrist. Crowley stalls still, his resistance to Aziraphale’s desires apparently no better in this form than in the other, and Aziraphale leans forward to press his mouth close against Crowley’s. Crowley’s lashes flutter, responding on instinct to the kiss more than to the completely unprecedented experience of being kissed by what has been his own mouth for over six thousand years, and Aziraphale draws back while Crowley’s mind is still trying to pick apart the details of this and come to a conclusion about the relative benefits to and concerns about fully appreciating the experience.

“Alright,” Crowley says. “That’s it. I’m going to...go...somewhere else.” He lifts a hand to wave generally in the air next to him and tries not to get distracted by the soft grace of the gesture. “No more kissing until I...until we are both back in our own bodies.”

It is impossibly strange to see the curve of Aziraphale’s dimpled smile forming itself on Crowley’s lips. “No?” he says, and lifts a hand to touch against his mouth like he’s recalling the friction. “I quite liked it.”

The purr of his voice spurs a response too hard-wired into Crowley’s existence to be disrupted by something so minor as a completely different body. Crowley groans. “Bye , angel.” And he snaps his fingers, and takes himself away.

He doesn’t mean to go to the bookshop. It’s not as if he has forgotten; the trauma of the day before is seared into his soul no matter how thoroughly he wrested the smell of smoke from his clothes or how tightly he wrapped himself around the miraculously returned body he now has the full keeping of. He knows it is gone, that there will be nothing but charred wreckage waiting in place of the home Aziraphale has kept for them over the centuries. It’s just an instinct, a reflexive response like drawing the breath he doesn’t need or closing his eyes to the touch of Aziraphale’s mouth on his, regardless of their corporeal forms, and he sees the error of his choice even as his fingers are sliding apart to crack at the air and whisk him through it. Crowley cringes, flinching against the force of reality that will be waiting for him, as he lands in the middle of the street in front of the absence of a bookshop.

And there is no absence at all.

The bookshop is there, perched at its corner just as it ever is, untouched by fire or smoke or any part of the devastation that the impending Apocalypse rained down over the course of the previous day. For the first shock of realization Crowley forgets the care he intended to take with Aziraphale’s body and goes on standing in the middle of the street, letting the flow of cars and pedestrians break idly around him while he stares up at the façade familiar and whole and unaffected by any evidence of the events of the day before. It is a long time before he can collect himself enough to move, and longer before he can convince his hand to lift and turn the knob to the shop so he can come forward and take stock of the interior.

Everything is perfect. All is just as it was: the books, the playbooks, the records, the rugs. Crowley prowls through the shop, his gaze trailing fingertips over every detail he can find. Even the dust is returned, and the crumbling edges of age on Aziraphale’s most treasured collections; Crowley can find nothing missing, and only a few tasteful additions that seem rather to enhance the effect of the space than detract from it. He goes through the entire shop twice, once to take stock and again to chase away the shadows of a misery that already feels more like a fast-fading dream than reality; and then he goes to the antique phone in the back, and he dials the number to his own flat.

It takes a minute for Aziraphale to answer. Crowley waits, his gaze on the street outside while he listens to his phone click through to voicemail and start playing its familiar recording before his voice is interrupted by itself, though in a far brighter range than he has ever used in all his life. “Yes, hello?”

“Angel,” Crowley says by way of greeting. “It’s back.”

There is a pause long enough to bear suspicion to full term and give birth to a sharp hitching breath on the other end of the line. “All of it?”

“Looks that way,” Crowley says. “Meet me at the park.” And he hangs up so he can put his mind to corralling his steps into the well-kept docility Aziraphale’s have always demonstrated.

He feels he’s getting the hang of it by the time he sees himself emerge from the back seat of a taxi, wearing a dark coat that will pass as his own and a grateful smile that certainly will not. Crowley grimaces, and then remembers that he’s supposed to be Aziraphale and stops. Aziraphale shuts the door of the taxi and turns away to follow the curve of the paved path to where Crowley is waiting, with his stride easing into a closer approximation of Crowley’s own with each step he takes. By the time he draws up alongside the other Crowley has almost been persuaded himself, at least until Aziraphale flickers a smile at him that seems to beam angelic radiance even from behind the dark glasses he has on over Crowley’s own yellow eyes.

“Saw the Bentley at the curb,” Aziraphale says, leaning in close so he’s murmuring almost against Crowley’s ear. Crowley sets his attention on two gentlemen in heavy coats who are doing as good a job of pretending to not-be-spies as he and Aziraphale are doing at pretending to be each other, and keeps it there while the rest of him sags under a relief so intense it is nearly as crushing as the loss it replaces. He draws a breath through his nose, carefully to keep it from escaping his clutches and falling to the sigh it wants to be, before he turns himself back to the charade at hand.

“Excellent,” is what he says, and draws his shoulders up into prim dignity. “Shall we have an ice cream to celebrate?” Aziraphale cocks his head to the side in agreement and swings himself into the lead towards the ice cream stand, even going so far as to remember to cut the corner across the grass as they go. Crowley follows behind him, keeping his hands clasped behind him and his gaze roaming everywhere at once in search of the alternately shadowed or radiant figures that every sense of danger he has is insisting could appear at any moment.

“Strawberry lolly,” Aziraphale says, tipping forward to make some show of resting his elbow against the top of the ice-cream stand. “And a...vanilla with a flake, please.”

Crowley draws in next to him, watching the man behind the stand wrestle open the lid on the ice cream with all the attention he’s pointedly not paying to his perfectly idle question. “How’s the car?”

“Not a scratch on it,” Aziraphale says, swinging back from the stand to give Crowley a look no less knowing for the sunglasses masking it. “How’s the bookshop?”

Crowley lifts his chin. “Not a smudge.” He turns to pace around Aziraphale, his gaze lingering against the other’s hair -- well, his hair -- as Aziraphale turns back to personally oversee the last stages in the ice cream handoff. “Not a book burned.” Crowley’s attention slides out over the park, the running children, the laughing couples, the whole of the world sunlit and beautiful with the salvation he can hardly even recall. “Everything back, just the way it was.”

Aziraphale turns back around with both desserts in hand and extends one towards Crowley. Even looking at his own face, it takes Crowley a moment to recognize that he is meant to be taking the ice cream cone, and another to actually persuade himself to act on their subterfuge sufficiently to accept it before promptly forgetting all about the dessert and looking back out over the park for some sign of occult or ethereal intervention. “You heard from your people yet?”

Aziraphale takes a breath, perhaps wondering whether to clarify whose people, exactly, yours refers to in this circumstance, before determining that the answer is the same in either case. He shakes his head. “Yours?”

Crowley jerks his head in the negative. “Nothing.”

Aziraphale shifts alongside him, turning in to orient himself to Crowley still gazing out at the perfect, uninterrupted calm of the park. “Do you…understand what…” He struggles for a moment with his own coherency before dragging a word free for his purposes. “Happened yesterday?”

Crowley’s mind skips backwards over the span of the several hours immediately following whatever happened at the airbase with immediate and helpful clarity. He lifts his eyebrows and takes a breath before he lets himself run the risk of looking back to Aziraphale. “Well,” he says as his gaze sweeps over the full length of Aziraphale’s present body and his imagination joins forces with memory to glaze his focus with heat. “I understand some of it.” Crowley’s attention finds Aziraphale’s mouth, clinging there for a moment while he revisits the question of kissing himself and whether it wouldn’t be worth it after all, before he recalls himself to the question and retreats to his contemplation of their surroundings. “But some of it. Well...it’s just a little bit too, uh…”

INEFFABLE.

The word resonates through the world, tolling like an enormous bell crafted from the shape of the earth itself and taking speech right out of Crowley’s mouth. Which is for the best, as it turns out, because there is a hand pressing over that same, and a rectangle of heavy tape to add force to the palm stifling Crowley’s voice as Aziraphale turns to look at Death and Crowley is dragged backwards over the pavement by demanding hands. Crowley opens his eyes wide, and turns his head to look at the faces of his captors: the park staff, dressed in immaculate overalls and white shirts and a great deal more angelic radiance than they were showing when his attention first skimmed over them.

Crowley is grateful for the tape covering his mouth, because in the first panic of recognition all thought of deception falls right out of his head with the immediate, pressing need to offer a warning to the figure so recently next to him, and six thousand years of habit call up the wrong name, or rather the right one. “Aziraphale!” he shouts, except he doesn’t: he whimpers instead, any clarity muffled against the press of his mouth held shut by the tape, and then reason flails itself to the forefront of his mind to clap a hand of its own over any more indications of his true identity. In the shock of panic, and rapidly following relief, that melts the strength from his knees, Crowley finds his hands summarily bound together with a length of rope white, and smooth, and pristine, and also pulled a great deal more tightly around his wrists than it needs to be.

His captors haven’t slowed their motion. There are two of them, one gripping each of the arms he now has tied firmly together in front of him, and they are striding away down the path while Aziraphale lingers at the ice cream stand, still blissfully unaware of this interruption. Crowley reorients his voice to the deliberately wrong name and tries to shout a warning, an alert, a plea; but he’s too far away, and the tape clutches the sound of his voice into a fist, and by the time Aziraphale turns his head to look for Crowley the other is several hurried paces away. Crowley can see him twist, pivoting in place to look around him, and he musters a yelp loud enough to be heard even through the gag over his mouth. Aziraphale jerks to look, his lips parted on the force of his shock. Their eyes meet, they have a moment to stare at each other past Crowley’s gag and Aziraphale’s sunglasses; and then Crowley is hurried past two waiting figures, who step in at once to block the path between them.

“Renegade angels all tied up with string,” one of them says, sounding dark and pleased with themselves.

“These are a few of our favorite things,” offers the other, with such savage pleasure that Crowley thinks it ought to merit a Fall all on its own, if there were any justice in Heaven, and then both of the figures turn to stride after Crowley being dragged away.

“Stop!” Aziraphale yelps, reaching out with the ice cream still in his hand to point. “Stop them!” He starts to run forward, showing a burst of speed that Crowley didn’t know he was capable of; and a figure steps out into the path directly in front of him as the seeming of a friendly mother on holiday morphs and melts to Crowley’s gaze. Aziraphale doesn’t see her for his focus on Crowley but Crowley does, her and the heavy crowbar that materializes in her hand to swing around and impact solidly with the back of Aziraphale’s head. Aziraphale goes down hard, collapsing to the pavement with as much force as if he has been knocked fully loose of his possession of Crowley’s body; and then Crowley is thrown backwards through the open doors of a waiting van, and they shut him, and his choices, away.

Chapter Text

Hell is, all things considered, a lot damper than Aziraphale had expected it would be.

He has never before had occasion to visit the unhallowed halls where Crowley’s overseers generally keep themselves, a fact which he is usually quite grateful for and more so now that he is receiving the opportunity to experience them first-hand. Even the protective disguise offered by the borrowed body he is inhabiting is doing very little to cushion the oppressive weight of the walls around and uncomfortably over him, to say nothing of the mold and slime and worse that gives the ill-lit surfaces around him a sense that they might be somewhat more alive than one generally hopes to see from inanimate objects. Aziraphale would hardly enjoy a visit here at the best of times, which he supposes is rather the point; as is his present discomfort, given the array of prosecution and extra-prosecution with which he is presently confronted.

It’s going better than he expected, all things considered. A necessary consequence of swapping bodies was to leave Aziraphale to confront whatever evils the legions of Hell might choose to wreck on the declared traitor Crowley; he had been braced for violence and suffering with the kind of vague determination that is about the best his angelically-proscribed imagination can offer. But after the initial earth-shattering blow to the back of his head it has all been rather orderly, in so far as a mockery of a trial is orderly; and so far as Aziraphale can tell, nothing they are accusing him or at least his body of doing is false. Crowley has been consorting with an angel, rather intimately as of late, and he did betray the trust of Hell in averting the Apocalypse. Aziraphale knows too well where Crowley obtained the murder weapon for his destruction of his fellow demon Ligur, and all of it together is so absolutely accurate that he is forced to agree with the thudding chant of “Guilty!” that is shouted at him by the wall of demons crushed against the far side of the window holding them back from more physical violence than the ache at Aziraphale’s ears.

Beelzebub slouches in their throne, looking approximately as interested as if they are at the tail end of an all-staff meeting that is running long. “Do you have anything to szzay before we take our vengeance on you?”

Aziraphale looks back from the demons shouting on the other side of the window and to those glaring on this side of it. Dagon is smiling but then Dagon is always smiling, or at least exposing their teeth in what is most politely termed a smile. Beelzebub looks bored, the overseeing usher looks intent on his notes; it’s only Hastur who is paying any attention to Aziraphale, though he’s putting enough petty vindictiveness into it to make up for the other three and then some. Aziraphale looks at the expression on Hastur’s face and then decides that actually Beelzebub is easier on the eyes and shifts his attention to them. He works his shoulders into a shrug and shakes his head while he finds Crowley’s voice for his use.

“What’s it to be?” It’s difficult to let the words slur sufficiently to pass for Crowley’s; Aziraphale imagines himself to be teetering at the cusp of intoxication and lets his tone sway accordingly. “An eternity in the deepest pit?”

“No,” Hastur grates, sounding like the newly-raised corpse he resembles. Aziraphale looks back at him in spite of his vision’s better judgment. “We’re going to do something even worse.” Hastur rouses himself from petulant misery towards irritated temper, with a flash of something alarmingly close to vicious satisfaction at the highest point. “Letting the punishment fit the crime.”

There is a ding from the other end of the hall as a rusty lift struggles itself to a halt and wrenches its doors open. A figure in white steps forth, their sleeves dripping studied elegance around their hands, which are gripping firmly at the sides of a glass jug filled with water. Aziraphale blinks, grateful for Crowley’s habitual dark glasses for the cover they give to the first moment of surprised recognition that flickers over his face as the angel turns to make his Graceful way down the murky shadows of the hallway.

“The archangel Michael?” Aziraphale says. The angel -- the other angel -- steps forward to place himself directly next to the waterstained tub that has been set up in a place of state just in front of the glass viewing window. Aziraphale’s borrowed shoulders leap ahead to the implication and tense while his better judgment is still looking for a kinder explanation than the obvious one. He looks back to Beelzebub, still slouching on their throne like a teenager forced on family holiday. “That’s…” Aziraphale looks for a word more accurate than the impossible he wants to declare, in spite of demonstrable evidence to the contrary, and settles on “Unlikely.”

“Cooperation with our old enemies,” Dagon purrs past their mouthful of teeth, sounding as nearly pleased as Aziraphale has seen from any of the demons since his arrival.

Hastur doesn’t bother with such inconveniences as satisfaction, instead choosing to cut straight to antagonistic impatience. “Well wank-wings, you brought the stuff?”

Michael shuts his eyes for a moment of pained acknowledgment before elevating himself to the higher road in this particular conversation. “I did,” he says. “I’ll be back to collect it” and he extends the jug in his hands towards the assembled judge and jury.

Hastur is the only one to recoil visibly but Dagon blinks hard and even Beelzebub’s hand at the arm of their throne tightens. Aziraphale didn’t need the confirmation -- the water is glimmering to his sight, like it’s throwing off the haloed heat wave from a nuclear explosion -- but Hastur’s reaction is clear enough to make the point to a demon far slower on the uptake than the clever one Aziraphale is playing.

“Eh, no,” Hastur stammers. “I think...perhaps you ought to do the honors, it’s uh…” He drags an unwilling breath past his teeth. “I’ve-I’ve seen what that stuff can do.”

Michael submits to this suggestion with such instant grace that Aziraphale has to wonder if he didn’t intend this outcome after all. He lifts one hand to the side, raising it as if to counterbalance the weight of the jug he tips over the empty bathtub, and then he remains there, gazing at the demons before him with a disdain so haughty it doesn’t even bother giving voice to itself from angelic lips. The water pours, and pours, and pours, a waterfall spilling from the neck of a narrow glass jug; Aziraphale watches it fill the tub, hearing every splash of water like an echo of that chanted guilty he confronted minutes ago. Finally the jug begins to empty, giving up the last of its contents to the full tub, and Michael brings it back to upright just as the last drops fall to splash into the pool.

The room is tense with expectation. Aziraphale stares at the bathtub full of water that is harmless to him and deadly to the demon he is pretending to be, and he doesn’t have to try to flatten his tone when he speaks. “That’s holy water.”

“The holiest,” Michael says, calm and regal and untouchable. “Yes.”

Beelzebub takes a breath from their throne. “Eh, it’sz not that we don’t truszt you, Michael, but obviously we don’t truszt you.” They duck their head to Hastur at the side of the room. “Hazstur, test it.”

Michael smiles with pure condescension and turns to bear away the empty jug between his hands. The illumination in the hallway follows him, coming on to spread light down in his path and sweep up what remains behind his heels. On Aziraphale’s other side Hastur lurches into motion to reach out for the much-smaller usher that has held order over the recent proceedings.

“Uh oh,” the usher says as he backs away from approaching Hell. “Cor, d--what the hell d’you think you’re doing?” Hastur’s actions speak quite clearly in gripping the usher’s ankles and lifting him up bodily off the floor. “Oh!” The usher squawks protest, yelping pain and panic in about equal measures as Hastur bears him back across the floor towards the pool of dim illumination over brighter water. Aziraphale stares, his mind sharply protesting the conclusion his eyes insist is obvious, as the large demon carries the small one to the edge of the bathtub, and then over it.

“No,” the usher gasps, as panic completely overrides discomfort and irritation alike. “No no no no no.” His voice peaks towards the wail of an abandoned soul. “What’ve I done!”

“Wrong place,” Hastur says. There is no sign of protest from Beelzebub or Dagon; they are just watching, Beelzebub looking as bored by this display as they were by the mock trial that has just concluded. “Wrong time.” And he lowers the demon into the pool of water over the rising screams of panic tearing themselves free of the other’s throat rather than remaining for whatever is about to happen to his body.

“Please!” the usher wails. “No!” But the water is hissing, flaring into life on contact with the demon’s form, and flames erupt to swallow the usher and his vanishing screams at once.

Aziraphale knew what would happen. He knows what holy water does to demons, knows the inevitable, permanent outcome of contact between something so blessed and something so damned. But in the moment of seeing the small demon go up in flames he sees the goal of this trial, the outcome Hell intended from the moment the crowbar hit the back of his head, and there is no pretending in the clench of horror that grips his chest to stillness. If it were Crowley standing here right now and not himself, if they hadn’t swapped bodies this morning, if Crowley hadn’t seen through the mystery of the prophecy; if Aziraphale hadn’t shown it to him, if the curl of wind that brought it to his fingers yesterday had pulled a different way. A change to any one of a thousand moments and it would be Crowley here, staring down the absolute destruction of his body and soul past any kind of saving. Aziraphale is perfectly safe, has nothing to fear for his own existence from the pool of water hissing and steaming itself to calm once again; but for a moment he sees the averted destruction of everything he loves most, and it is relief keen as a knife that trembles through his breath when he remembers to draw one.

“Demon Crowley.” It takes Aziraphale a long moment to remember this is meant to be himself. When he turns Beelzebub is watching him with enough judgment in their flat expression to crush him beneath the weight of its gavel. “I sentence you to extinction…by holy water.” They raise their eyebrows. “Have you anything to say?”

Aziraphale backs away from the edge of possible loss, retreating until he has the solid ground of reality back under his mental feet again. Then he pulls himself up, and reaches for six thousand years of friendship to guide his voice to the best imitation he can give of his demonic counterpart. “Well yes. Um.” The demons ringing him wait, Dagon actually leaning forward in their enthusiasm for what desperate protest he is about to make. Aziraphale thinks of demonic miracles, and averted crises, and lets the moment fill with anticipation before he draws breath to continue on. “This is a new jacket, and I’d hate to ruin it. D’you mind if I take it off?”

Dagon rocks back, frowning disappointment at this lack of desperation. Beelzebub sags deeper into their throne until they appear in some danger of melting through it. From the other side of the room Hastur scoffs a brittle protest.

“You won’t be able to squirm your way out of this one,” he says. Aziraphale ignores him in favor of turning his attention to sliding his jacket off his shoulders and folding it carefully. He doesn’t bother asking permission to slither out of the pants that hug Crowley’s thighs like a second skin, but no one moves to stop him as he goes on stripping over the increasing shrillness of Hastur’s protest. “All your cool moves won’t mean anything against that” as he points via the process of lifting a hand and then backing the rest of him away from it rather than drawing any closer to the tub of water. Aziraphale slips out of his shoes and tugs the tie free from over the clinging dark of his shirt before pulling that up over his head as well. The sunglasses are last, tugged free and folded to set atop the rest at a distance enough to be safe from any splash of the waiting water. Hastur’s voice is screeching to nails-on-blackboard heights. “Do you hear me, Crowley? This is the end for you!”

Aziraphale pauses to take stock of his remaining clothes, and Hastur’s remaining patience, and determines that he’s removed enough of both to be getting on with. “Right,” he says, and lifts his gaze to meet Beelzebub’s. They are staring at him, their mouth still set on deliberate boredom but their forehead beginning to crease with the first flicker of an uncertainty that has yet to catch Dagon or Hastur in its range. Aziraphale cocks his head to the side and lets his mouth pull wide on a toothy smile. “Let’s get to it, then.” And he turns to saunter forward and to the edge of the bath.

Hastur whines as Aziraphale leans forward to brace his hands at the edge of the bathtub, the sound of a leashed dog choking itself on the forward force of its own temper. Aziraphale lifts his head to look through the smudged grey glass holding back his demonic audience. Their anger has faded to the breathless excitement of horror, their scowls exchanged for mouths open with the wide-eyed thrill of sadistic pleasure. Aziraphale lets his focus shift, lets his eyes adjust their attention, until he’s looking at the faint outline of his own reflection caught in the murky glass. Crowley’s face stares back at him, yellow eyes wide and vivid with strain, hair tousled and jaw set.

Aziraphale gazes at himself for a long moment, lingering in the appreciation of a face as familiar as his own, a form so thoroughly known that he can inhabit it as smoothly as he holds his own. Then he tilts his head, and he lifts his chin, and he smiles at himself, a slow, spreading grin that expands over the whole of the face reflected back at him. The demons on the other side of the glass draw back, flinching from the expression before them, but Aziraphale goes on watching his borrowed face in the reflection as he steps up and into the bath with no fanfare whatsoever.

The room goes so deafeningly silent that the lack of sound aches against Aziraphale’s ears. He doesn’t turn to look at the trio of demons behind him, doesn’t spare another glance at his waiting audience; he just lowers himself back into the bath, easing himself down until the water is splashing at his shoulders and against the back of his neck. He tips his head back against the edge of the tub, relaxing into the support as he heaves a sigh.

“Not bad,” he says. “It could be a little warmer. Something to think about for next time, I suppose.” He lifts his feet up out of the water to set them at the edge of the tub so he can sink a little deeper into it and dip his hands into the water lapping around him. He brings his hand up to watch the droplets slide off his hand and splash into the pool around him before he flicks his wrist to snap them at the sheet of glass next to him. The audience recoils as a single entity, cringing back from the spray of liquid to which they damned one of their own, and when Aziraphale smiles he doesn’t have to feign the devilish pleasure that comes with it.

Chapter Text

Crowley doesn’t get a trial.

He didn’t expect one. His Fall predates time itself, occurring somewhere in the vague Before that defined who he is on a fundamental level beyond any hope of salvation, but he remembers the fact of it all the same, however willing he might be to jettison the memory to the haze of forgetful time. One question, one rebellion, one act of disobedience: that’s enough, for Heaven. No mercy for traitors, no forgiveness for the Fallen; which is exactly what the angels arrayed before him believe him to be, with significantly greater accuracy than they know.

He’s bound to a chair. The ropes that held his wrists together have been reassigned to keeping those same wrists firmly affixed to the arms of the seat beneath him; Uriel was the one who tied them, and who pulled them tight enough that Crowley can feel the protesting ache run all the way up his borrowed forearms. He works his grip idly, flexing to test the tension with the unthinking habit of a creature who was born to cross lines instead of stay within them, but then, he can see his damnation assumed in the trio of steady gazes before him, and Heaven has never been very good at looking at what they don’t want to see.

No one speaks. Crowley has nothing to say to Aziraphale’s superiors, and it seems they have nothing more to say to the form they take for Aziraphale. They have, to an angel, adopted a sternly militaristic stance to form a wall of their aligned shoulders and judgment of their weighty gaze. Crowley looks at them, and spends his tension in the work of his wrists, and they all wait with divine patience for the conclusion that Crowley can recite as if reading it from a script.

The first sound to intrude on the ringing silence is the thud of footsteps. That’s remarkable enough, in a space filled with forms who tend to glide rather than walk, and a moment later further surprise arrives as a figure wrapped in tattered clothing and somewhat singed everything else draws around the back of Crowley’s chair and into view.

“Don’t get this view down in the basement,” the demon declares, speaking with bright and only very slightly brittle cheer. Crowley recognizes him, one of the massed souls who merit no more of a name than they receive a unique face. Sending such a low-ranking demon is a Hellish insult rather estimated than calculated, and one he suspects leaves Heaven’s feathers utterly unruffled due to them simply not noticing it. There’s a charred cast-iron pot in the demon’s hands, the lid closed securely over the radiance within; when Crowley sidles his gaze sideways to seek it out he can see the heat melting ripples into the air around it.

He doesn’t need to be told what it is. He knew before the tape tamped down his voice, before he materialized on a street in Soho to stare at the renewed bookshop through angelic eyes, before Aziraphale’s hand had closed around his to become his own, in more ways than one. Aziraphale protested the conclusion, perhaps is still doubting it through whatever they are doing to him in Hell -- and Crowley doesn’t so much pray as demand that his intuition be right about that as well -- but then Aziraphale has never felt the searing heat of rejection burning his wings black, and Aziraphale still believes in a goodness that Crowley has spent an eternity questioning. Crowley knows what Heaven does to traitors, or those it deems traitors; and he knows what the burn of Hellfire will do to an angel with too much faith to Fall, even now, even after everything.

The demon pulls off the lid of the pot and tilts it forward to cast the contents across the floor. The blazing coals within tumble to the ground, landing miraculously and non-coincidentally precisely within the circle of stones that have been laid out on the smooth-polished floor directly between Crowley’s chair and the three figures before him. The flames roar outward, ripping through the air with the hunger of starving wolves placed before a pen of newborn sheep, and slam hard into the ring laid around them. With nowhere to go but up they spiral around each other, climbing towards the infinite ceiling overhead with greedy hunger until they have formed a gigantic funnel of Hellfire raging against the restraints pressed onto it by its angelic keepers. Crowley looks upward, to where the flames are straining to catch a taste of the ceiling overhead, as the disposable demon retreats from a job badly-done.

“So.” It is Gabriel speaking. He’s positioned himself slightly in front of the two angels on either side of him; Crowley gets the strong impression that it is Gabriel who does most of the speaking in any kind of formal gathering in Heaven. Crowley meets his gaze flatly as the angel continues. “With one act of treason you…” His mouth contorts, dragging itself into a frown that grooves deeply into his features as if to shake a judgmental finger of its own. “Averted the war.”

This doesn’t even require acting to come up with an answer. Crowley knows the structure of Aziraphale’s arguments intimately, and this is one he has heard for centuries and with less cause than it has here. He draws a breath. “Well I think the greater good--”

Gabriel’s voice snaps like a hand smacking across Crowley’s face. “Don’t talk to me about the great good, sunshine, I’m the Archangel fucking Gabriel.” Crowley’s teeth come together, his jaw flexes on a surge of distaste so immediate he can’t even try to stem the tide, but Gabriel is too caught up in his righteous anger to pay attention to the uncharacteristic tension in the face before him. “The greater good was we were finally going to settle things with the Opposition once and for all!”

Crowley was not overly fond of Gabriel to begin with. They were on the coolest of terms before his Fall, and on no terms at all after, which Crowley has generally counted as one of the greater benefits of damnation. After seeing Aziraphale spend anxious centuries fretting over placating his boss Crowley was already tending towards outright dislike; to see his angel’s politeness met with unvarnished contempt is enough for Crowley to commit himself fully to hatred. It is this angel who stands for the Great Plan, who was so desperate for the atrocity and destruction of the Apocalypse that he dirtied his perfect shoes against an Earthly tarmac; and it is this angel whose grand plan has been utterly done away with by the fumbling meddling of an angel, and a demon, and an eleven-year-old human boy. Crowley does not smile, quite; but tension lays itself against the shape of his mouth and thinks very hard about the bitter satisfaction of thwarting a well-laid Plan.

Uriel strides forward from over Gabriel’s shoulder, their movement as crisp and severe as the thrust of a blade. Crowley leans back in his chair, retreating instinctively from the danger carried in the angel’s stern forward motion, but when Uriel reaches out their hands find the ropes knotted around his wrists instead of swinging into a punch or a slap against the body Crowley has the care of. The ropes slide free in answer to Heavenly persuasion and Crowley’s hands come free of the chair.

“Up,” Uriel says, with a total lack of inflection to match the frigid stasis of the expression they have turned on Crowley.

Crowley indulges in the temporary disobedience of remaining seated as he works the press of the rope out of his wrists and smoothes the cuffs of Aziraphale’s beloved coat down before getting to his feet to straighten his hem and, after a moment, the edges of the tartan bowtie knotted securely under his chin. The fire roars before him, demanding fuel for its ceaseless hunger; Crowley stares into the cascade of flames for a long moment before he garbs himself in the bright, hopeful optimism that comes along with the form he is presently wearing as easily as its clothes.

“I don’t suppose I can...persuade you to reconsider?” Crowley curves his mouth on the pleading smile that he, at least, has never been able to refuse. The watching angels gaze on untouched, letting the unbroken silence speak to their intention instead of touching their own lips against the vile word murder. Crowley’s adopted smile slips free and escapes, taking some portion of his put-upon patience with it. “We’re meant to be the good guys, for Heaven’s sake.”

Gabriel lifts perfect eyebrows over a perfectly unmoved expression. “Well, for Heaven’s sake, we are meant to make examples of traitors. So.” He lifts his hand to gesture towards the deadly funnel between them before returning it to the safe hold of his other hand. “Into the flame.”

Crowley chooses to take this direct statement of the expectation that has gone delicately unvoiced as a personal victory, primarily because if he does not he feels sure the dull roar of fury in him will burst free into flames hot enough to match those these divine beings wish his angel to walk into. He breathes out and turns to step forward, right to the edge of the column of heat. He can feel the burn threatening his hair, reaching for his clothes, struggling to claim and consume the angelic form it takes him to be.

If Crowley were acting as himself, he would simply stride directly into the Hellfire, would strip away the chance for gloating anticipation from the watching angels and drop them straight into horrified surprise. But he is Aziraphale, or at least is meant to play that part; and so he does what he would never consider, what Aziraphale has been doing for thousands of years, and he gives Heaven another chance at mercy.

“Right,” he says. “Well.” Crowley draws deep on his memory, on the form of the body around him, on the sound of Aziraphale’s voice on a street in Soho: I forgive you given as a gift more divine than anything these creatures can imagine. The memory softens his tone, and eases his shoulders, and when he speaks it is in Aziraphale’s voice, gentle with all the love that Crowley has ever felt for and from his angel. “It’s lovely knowing you all.” He lifts his eyebrows and melts into a smile. “May we meet on a better occasion.”

Gabriel’s eyebrows jerk upwards in answer to this grace. His voice is as harsh as nails driving through crucified wrists. “Shut your stupid mouth, and die already.” He bares his teeth in a nonexistent smile before snatching it back with jealous haste.

Aziraphale might be able to smile into this abuse, might be able to compose himself to saintly calm in the face of insult before his certain and absolute extinction. But Crowley is a demon, and the surge of hatred that tears through him has all the cleansing force of damnation behind it. For a moment he stares at Gabriel, imagination spooling vivid possibilities of murder that has never seemed as tempting as it does at this moment; and then he curves the corners of his mouth into a smile so insincere it can barely exist for a breath before it falls. Crowley looks at the Hellfire, works his throat on a swallow, glances back to see the hard light of vicious anticipation in the angelic gazes fixed on him; and then he draws himself up, and he steps Aziraphale’s body forward into the flames.

The fire roars as he enters it, cheering its presumed victory as it reaches to drag him into its radiant heart. Hellfire is a creation of hunger, a starving monster ceaseless in its pursuit of food, and there is nothing it lusts for more than divinity. It reaches fingers inside Aziraphale’s coat, breathes deep against the feathery soft of his hair; and then it recoils, whirling away with a shriek of protest as it finds the steel-edged truth waiting to bare teeth more than a match for its own.

Crowley shuts his eyes, savoring the purr of heat licking against his limbs and spilling all-over warmth down his spine, through his blood, glowing radiant through the core of his body. He doesn’t have to feign his groan of satisfaction as he turns his head to crack tension out of his neck; the pleasure runs straight through him, the physical comfort of the Hellfire layering over his absolute, unutterable relief at being the one standing here in Aziraphale’s place.

Then he opens his eyes, and he gains the delight of seeing the look on the angelic faces turned towards him. They are all three staring at him, eyes wide and stern masks crumbled away to dust. Gabriel looks disbelieving, Uriel horrified; Sandalphon appears to be seriously considering an all-out retreat only stalled by the inability of its legs to effect any kind of motion at the moment. Crowley smiles at them, savoring the shock and terror painted so clearly across their faces that he can see them even through the haze of Hellfire licking warmth against the air.

He ought to leave it at that -- Aziraphale would, and he’s meant to be the angel, after all. But he lacks the divine grace that Aziraphale bears with as much well-worn familiarity as his coat, and Crowley feels he should be allowed some indulgence under the present circumstances. Luckily he is beholden to no one but himself, who vehemently agrees with surrendering to the present temptation of drawing Hellfire into his borrowed lungs and breathing it out in a plume of heat towards the angels gaping at him. All three of them retreat with haste, scattering like leaves before a storm, and Crowley bares his teeth in a smile at Aziraphale’s would-be executioners made into the victims they took him to be.

Gabriel holds up a finger, striving for composure that digs out the ground under its own feet via the tremor in his upraised hand. “It may be worse than we thought.”

Uriel is staring at the column of flame, and through it to the angelic seeming within. “What... is he?”

Gabriel shakes his head, too deeply shocked to catch back the admission of ignorance. Sandalphon’s mouth, left ajar by the departure of its self-satisfaction, twists on a grimace. Crowley gifts the three of them with another smile, melted to glowing satisfaction by the purr of the flames around him.