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The Name of the Star is Wormwood

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“Oh, dear,” Aziraphale frets, and his concern might almost seem genuine, if not for the awkward twitch of his lips, his expression caught between the look of someone who is about to fall off a rooftop, and that of someone casually waiting in line at a bank before robbing it. “I suppose I could miracle his sight back, but if only I knew someone who was particularly good at that sort of thing.”

“Well, your lot had one, didn’t you? Got him crucified,” Crowley counters, with an almost-believable impression of a man (1) who has no idea what his husband is hinting at.

“No, I’d meant…” His shoulders twist awkwardly as he looks at the demon sideways, and there is an uncomfortable moment of silence in which Crowley knows perfectly well what Aziraphale had meant and Aziraphale knows that Crowley knows perfectly well what he’d meant, and meanwhile someone needs to miraculously restore this poor human’s eyesight or they’ll all be in a mess.

But, we’d better back up a bit.

 

 

THREE DAYS AFTER THE WORLD DIDN'T END

 

“The posters.” Aziraphale finally exclaims, after a long evening of discussing absolutely anything except for their former head offices. “The one that says.” He frowns, gestures with his hand as though presenting a sign on an invisible wall, “‘Your mother doesn’t live here. You don’t have a mother.’” They have returned to the back room of the bookshop, the night after not being executed, pleasantly champagne-drunk because of a bottle in the restaurant that had miraculously continued to refill itself. A couple empty wine-bottles are now scattered around the table, along with two half-empty glasses.

“The posters!  Angel, you’ve been dragged through the depths of Hell to a courtroom intent on your bodily destruction, and all you can say is – the posters.” Crowley used to amuse himself by turning into a snake to lick the cement alongside the poster that reads, ‘Please Do Not lick the walls’ with his forked tongue. Although the walls were revulsive, Ligur’s rage had been priceless, and he had been able to slither away before anyone could prove his identity. And he can’t imagine that anything Aziraphale might have seen in Hell, could be any worse than the look on Gabrial’s face at his attempted execution.

“I’m afraid the rest of it was rather more than I can articulate.”

“If you must know,” Crowley finds that he is far more uncomfortable with Aziraphale’s criticism than he ever would have admitted to being before the Apocaldidn’t, “That one was mine. Or at least, I set someone else printing them and got the Heaven out of there. It’s meant to be funny, angel. The humans put them over their kitchen sinks: Your mother doesn’t live here. See, it’s a kind of wordplay, ‘cause – ”

“Because your mother is God.” Aziraphale, too, had had a lot more faith in their divine Mother a week ago, but still thinks that this is the least funny joke he’s ever heard.

“‘S true. Your mother knocked you off a cliff into a pool of fire and brimstone, but that’s no reason not to clean up your own mess. Grimy, awful place, Hell.” He scrunches up his nose. “Everything stinks of sulfur and – ”

“ – resounding sorrow.” Aziraphale nods thoughtfully, as though this is what he expects Crowley meant to say, fully aware that it isn’t.

“I would have said rotting meat.”

It occurs to Aziraphale that he has never seen one speck of dust in Crowley’s flat, whose stark walls more closely resemble Heaven than Hell. “Health regulations Down Below leave something to be desired,” he agrees. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have told them you’d invented the American healthcare system (2).”

“Saved a lot of trouble though, didn’t it. Over there it's like... catching fish in a barrel. No, that’s not right. Shooting fish! Shooting fish in a barrel.”

“Why would anyone be shooting fish?”

“Because they’re Americans, how should I know?” Crowley waves his wine glass around in a noncommittal gesture and tries to remember what his point had been. “The point is, it takes no effort at all to tempt anyone over there - robbing a bank to pay the medical bills is already in everyone’s mind. They’re all just desperately waiting for a demon to show up and propose the idea. You’ve hardly had time to sit down and say ‘D’you know that – ?’ and they say ‘ – I could probably pay my child’s hospital bills by putting amateur porn on the internet, yeah,’ and it doesn’t matter what you even intended in the first place.”

Is that what you would have intended?”

“What would have intended? Angel, I – ” he catches himself before he can say I designed, “Wormwood. The annual one.” He takes another drink.

“Yes, what of it?”

“It was designed in the greenhouses of Heaven before the Earth was made, 'n now humans are patenting extracts that are lesss effective than the whole plant, to profit off other human people with malaria.”

“Capitalism, yes. A decidedly human evil,” Aziraphale agrees, refilling both of their glasses.

“And do you know what Michael first sssaid about it, before the sstart of the world? ‘Too weedy,’ they sssaid. ‘Choking out all the tulipss.’” He makes a wild gesture like something being choked between his hands. “Well, I tempted one radical healing group into sspreading wormwood around malaria-endemic areas... barely had to bother. Just tossed some medical research onto the human doctor’s desk, saying that.  Bacteria get tolerance to the isolated molecule and not the whole-plant extract itssself, and then I said, ‘Did you know that a ssingle plant can make hundreds've seedlings in a year?’ Next I knew, whole renegade medical groups're handing out seeds. No effort at all.”

Crowley certainly hadn’t meant to become the (Fallen) angel of students who get kicked out of medical school for asking questions like “but if this drug is less effective than a placebo and causes more side effects that I can name, why are we still using it?” and of doctors on the losing side of a war; and of exhausted underpaid medical staff in underfunded hospitals who are more than willing to turn to Satanism if it results in clean medical supplies and adequate medicine for their patients (3). But sometimes he catches them praying to his old name, too, whether he likes it or not. And they find that miraculously their bosses are arrested for fraud, their medical stores restocked, and their hopelessly ill patients are healed.

“That doesn’t sound particularly demonic.” Aziraphale is politely not mentioning that Crowley has just acknowledged knowing the archangel Michael before the creation of the world, and also trying not to think too hard about Michael bringing the materials for his execution down the elevator to Hell.

“Noxious weed. They’re fond of wormwoods, Below.” Satan takes credit for the Artemisia genus much in the way that he is now credited with being the serpent of Eden and the one who showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. And it’s not that Crowley wants the credit for the bulk of that, but the bit about wormwood springing up where the serpent left the garden – that had been pure spite on his part, aimed at Michael directly, and he is disappointed that his brother had obscured his point.

“It does smell nice, though, doesn’t it.” The angel closes his eyes a little dreamily, as though imagining the plant’s scent, and Crowley, remembering the other’s fondness for incense, immediately resolves to plant some for him at the next opportunity. “Your plants are flourishing,” Aziraphale adds, opening his eyes, realizing he hasn’t mentioned this yet. “They shouldn’t need watering again for a bit, if you wanted to stay. It’s late. I mean,” he corrects himself hurriedly, “I don’t sleep, but - from what I understand, sleeping people do that, spend the night when it’s too late to…”

“You don’t have to be all weird about it, angel, I’ve slept here before.”

“Yes, and I would have invited you, certainly, but on most of those occasions you happened to be a snake, and, you know, already asleep before I could ask.”

“I didn’t want to be too visible then.” He eyes the spot in the rafters, near the pipe of the woodstove, that he had previously used for this purpose. “I don’t think that matters anymore.”

“Well, when you phrase it like that,” says Aziraphale.

 

 

EIGHT YEARS BEFORE THE WORLD DIDN'T END

 

The old texts which proclaim that the archangel Raphael is overcome by sorrow three times every day and night at the sight of Hell aren’t entirely off the mark. Crowley avoids looking Down There on a regular basis, if he can, but he thinks of reporting back to the main office much as humans think of registering their cars or filing their taxes. Periodically, he writes his presentation notes, goes down Below to give his report, maybe curls up in snake-form on a bed of red-hot coals for a bit to let his demonic powers recharge, and then gets the Hell – that is, gets the Heaven out of there before his brother wants to talk.

He had briefly been assigned an office Downstairs, but they’d given it away sometime around 2000 B.C. because he’d avoided setting foot in it for entire centuries at a time. And Hell is, well, Hell. The public hellfire showers are as filthy as any human bathroom, and the electronics are constantly in need of repair, on account of the perpetual current of evil energy crackling through the air like radio static. Crowley might have come up with the concept of the electronic communication system, but like He – like Heaven was he going to be the one to repair demonic television remotes all day in a lightless basement.

He only thinks to mention Hell’s communications system to Aziraphale about three minutes before the angel gets to witness it first-hand. Aziraphale peers apprehensively around the crowded street as he slides into the passenger seat of the Bentley, three blocks away from the Dowlings’ residence. As he’s flipping through the CDs he finds in the car door, trying to distract himself from the fear of being watched, Crowley says: “By the way, sometimes my bosses use the radio to contact me. No warning, they just cut in whenever they like.”

Aziraphale’s hand clenches around the battered case of a Bach CD. “I beg your pardon?”

“Yeah, it’s true. Brilliant, talented humans, creating communication devices that allow you to just not pick up when you don’t want to, intended to prevent people just turning up on the doorstep uninvited, and what does my head office do with this stroke of genius? Take away all personal space. Oh, careful with that, it’s – ”

But the CD that the angel had inserted into the player is already blaring Innuendo by Bach, as performed by Queen. Aziraphale instinctively winces away from the unexpected volume of the music, which he should be accustomed to by now. “How does this keep happening ?” he asks, mostly in exasperation, as they’ve had this conversation at least three times in the past decade.

“Oh, that. Sat in the car for two weeks yesterday. One of my greater accomplishments, I thought, at the time.” He hadn’t actually mentioned that part before.

You are responsible for – ”

“Well, he said he wanted everyone to hear his music. For it to be remembered forever. I didn’t specify how I was going to make that happen.”

“You devil.”

If there's a God or any kind of justice under the sky –

“Superfluous, in the end – would have gotten just as popular without my interference. It might not be entirely coincidental that Hell takes all the best musicians. You’ve got to tempt them somehow. Better chained to a desk in an office in the fifth circle of Hell with some decent music, than up in a plain white room full of heavenly choirs all day.”

“Well, you would think so, you’re a demon.” He pauses, and then adds cautiously, “You were fond of this… Mr Mercury.”

If there's a point, if there's a reason to live or die IS HE AS TERRIBLE AS THE RAGING SEAS WITH A SOUL THAT IS DARKER THAN THE LOWEST DEPTHS OF HELL?

“Who did you mean, Lord?” Crowley does his best to appear bored and irritated, as is his habit when Satan drops an unexpected call, and refuses to let his voice show his panic. Aziraphale has literally stopped breathing, and the emotion that was certainly not jealousy drops away as quickly as the bottom of his stomach as Satan’s voice (vocal still courtesy of Freddie Mercury) bellows through the vehicle.

MY SON, CROWLEY. THE ADVERSARY, DESTROYER OF KINGS, ANGEL OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT, GREAT BEAST THAT IS CALLED DRAGON, PRINCE OF THIS WORLD, FATHER OF LIES AND LORD OF DARKNESS. YOUR NEPHEW. YOUR ASSIGNMENT.

“Yeah - yes. Of course, lord. Absolutely diabolical. Terrible as the raging… seas.” Crowley very much hopes that fatherhood isn’t making Satan care about family again. Because Satan is, well, Satan.

WHAT WAS HIS FIRST WORD?

“Ehm.  Kill. Yeah.”

Aziraphale looks at him sideways without turning his head. He has the look of someone who would be rolling their eyes if they weren’t shaking with fear of drawing the literal wrath of the devil down upon themselves. The child’s first word had been something like in’ff’bel. “Ineffable!” Aziraphale had beamed, thrilled that his influence was paying off.  “Nah, he’s saying you’re insufferable,” Crowley had countered.  “Insf’ble!” proclaimed Warlock, excited by the attention.

DOES HE BEND ALL THOSE AROUND HIM TO HIS WILL?

“Oh! Yeah, yeah, we’re all bent… to his will, absolutely. No free will… here, lord.” Beside him, Aziraphale’s whole spirit is pulled back inside his body like a coiled spring, waiting to miracle himself away from here as quickly as possible at the first sign that his presence has been noted.

DOES HE LOOK LIKE ME?

Crowley winces behind his sunglasses. He would rather face all seven levels of Hell than answer, and he’s quite literally going to if he gives the wrong response. “The resemblance grows stronger every day, lord.”

YOU ARE HIS ONLY FAMILY DOWN THERE, CROWLEY.

He swallows. “Yes, Lord.”

I’M TRUSTING YOU, CROWLEY.

“I won’t let you down, lord.” Crowley has never seen Aziraphale’s face so still and tense, like a stone statue of an angel caught doing something blasphemous.

YOU’LL REGRET IT IF YOU DO, CROWLEY.

“Of course, lord.”

MAKE MY SON WORTHY OF ME, CROWLEY if there's an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask – show yourself – destroy our fears – release the mask –

For a moment, neither of them dares speak. Then: “If He’d known you were here, he’d have said so outright,” Crowley reassures him shortly, while London still flashes by the windows at a speed that human eyes would have difficulty processing. “Subtlety was never Hell’s strong point.”

“Now that I think of it.” Aziraphale gives a short, near-hysterical giggle. “I’d never actually heard your boss’s voice before. Not that it was his, per se.” Angels, as a rule, do not shiver when nervous, but his hands quiver visibly and he presses them white-knuckled against his knees to still them. “Oh no, oh no, this can all go so terribly wrong – ”

Crowley rests his head against the steering wheel for a moment and can’t find the will to dispute this. His sunglasses fall from his nose and clatter to the floor, but he does not retrieve them. The car goes on driving 95 mph, while surrounding vehicles swerve miraculously out of their way to avoid collision.

“Hell, is, ah,” Aziraphale draws his brows together as though trying to figure out a difficult math equation. “One big happy family, then?”

“One happy family,” Crowley repeats dully, lifting his head and steering the car back within the lines of the road. He doesn’t really mean to turn and glare at Aziraphale with his eyes fully yellow and slitted as a snake’s, but at the venom in his tone, the angel becomes very quiet and looks away.

They do not mention this conversation again for a long time.

 

 

SEVEN DAYS AFTER THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

“Crowley, dear?” Aziraphale’s lip is quivering a bit, as it does when he is wondering whether or not to voice a thought aloud. He has been repairing a few loose pages in one of his prized Bible misprint collection - the You’ve Got To Be Joking Bible (4). He could have miracled it back into place, but he likes the tactile feel of performing the painstaking repairs by hand, and the smell of old book in his nostrils. These first days after the world didn’t end, have included a lot more home improvement projects and routine bookshop maintenance than he’d expected to need to do on Earth again, and also quite a lot more than he’d ever expected to do with Crowley by his side.

Crowley has left the bookshop on his own exactly once, to water his plants, and returned an hour later with a whimpering snake plant who had been quite surprised to find itself nestled safely in a sunny corner of the bookshop. After the first night that the demon had curled up in the rafters and fallen asleep in snake form, Aziraphale fretted unnecessarily as to whether this was a subconscious hint or just garden-variety fatigue due to the world almost ending. He dealt with his anxiety over the matter by performed a small miracle after which the houseplant’s thick, variegated leaves now explicitly resemble green-and-yellow snakeskin.

“I admit, I’ve been wondering for… over six thousand years now, actually. I mean, of course, I’ve seen what you can do with maggots when you’re in the mood, and with those little snakes, the ones the humans can’t see - what are they called - ”

“Nematodes?” Crowley has been attempting to repair a vintage record player that he’d found when they’d visited one of Aziraphale’s favourite antique shops in celebration of the apocalypse not happening. The angel had hated seeing electronics sold as antiques until he’d seen how brightly the demon’s eyes had lit up at the shop’s offerings. Every few minutes, Crowley shifts his posture slightly or reaches for a different tool, so that although he started his task several yards away, he is now sitting almost directly against Aziraphale’s desk chair.

“Nematodes, right. But your former co-workers all seem to have gnats, or slime mould, or worms, coming out of them, consistently… I mean… conveniently on hand at all times? And I can’t help but wonder, that is, obviously you’re a snake, but have you also got, well…”

“Have I also got worms, is that what you’re asking?” He sets down the screwdriver amid a heap of other tools, most of them valuable eighteenth-century artefacts because Aziraphale generally doesn’t fix things by hand unless they’re books, and therefore has no need to update the contents of his toolbox.

“I’m sorry, you’re right – it was terribly impolite of me.”

Crowley lifts up his cupped hands, conjuring something small and white between his palms, and holds it out as reverently as if it were an unhatched birds’ egg - which it almost resembles.

With the absolute trust that one can only feel for another person after giving oneself up for execution in their stead, Aziraphale holds out his hands to accept the offering. His arms twitch and he nearly drops the thing in astonishment as it immediately hatches open like an egg and sprouts into a full-sized fly agaric mushroom in his hands “It’s beautiful!” he proclaims before he can stop himself, wondering if Crowley will still take offence at his work being called beautiful now that Hell is mostly out of the picture. The mushroom sits lightly in his hands, its red canopy flecked with white like tiny stars. “Why don’t you do that more often?”

Crowley smiles mysteriously and flicks a hand at the table. Spindly branches of mycelium crack through the wood of its legs, splintering it in places, while a near-perfect ring of buttons burst into mushrooms, crimson-capped and speckled bone-white. It all happens too quickly for his eyes to fully catch, like the humans’ time-lapse videos (5).

“Careful of the bookshelves!”

That’s why I don’t do it more often. The bookshelves. Aside from – you know.”  You know very clearly refers to that infamous day in Eden with the fruitless apple-tree and the ring of bright red mushrooms about its base.

“Well, you hardly put those there.” Aziraphale believes that he has just made a good point, because Crowley is a demon who’d been stationed in the Garden to Cause Some Trouble, presumably due to his convenient ability to transform into a snake and tunnel up from Below.

“Course not,” says Crowley, who had co-created the fly agaric mushroom with the Almighty prior to the Garden’s existence, and later chosen them as an obvious point of temptation on the basis that they were forbidden – more specifically on the basis that something that Crowley had made, that he’d helped design, in order to spread wisdom, was what She had forbidden to the very humans he’d intended them for! He’d been as furious as a medical researcher whose greatest discovery has just been bought out by a corrupt pharmaceutical corporation; the rest, as they say, is history. “A sort of affinity, I dunno.”

True ineffability,” Aziraphale beams, overcome with teary-eyed affection and wonder that for reasons beyond their comprehension, his demon had been intentionally predestined by God to linger near the Tree and its sacred fruits – and, in the back of his mind, a little bit relieved that his beloved has been hiding an affinity for a fairly benign fungus, and not, well, centipedes.

“I started a religion with those,” Crowley ventures, trying to remember if he’d already told Aziraphale about this at the time. There had been a lot going on. “Couple different religions, actually. I told my head office that I was encouraging pagan idolatry, and they seemed impressed.” As he speaks, he goes back to tinkering with the record player.

(Impressed is one way to phrase it. What Satan had actually said was DON’T LET THIS GIVE YOU IDEAS, CRAWLY.)

“Really it was just good fun. I’d borrowed a hellbeast, small one with these great deer antlers - this was before cars, obviously - and as we were flying I’d – ” he waves his arm and a careful fairy-ring of amanita mushrooms circles the table, miraculously not touching any books. “That’s all it really takes, for humans. They get a bit inebriated, catch a glimpse of something unusual, and they’ll believe anything that gets them through the night.” Later, he’d gotten down from the beast and pretended to be a lost traveller eager to join his own cult, so he’d seen this phenomenon first hand. It had been fun - humans were easier to fool, back then - but it had been a relief when the invention of cars had rendered any future hellbeast ventures unnecessary.

“Where was I?”

“That king you liked – what was his name? Alan?”

“Alfred,” Aziraphale corrects absently, gaze still fixated on the bright fairy-rings of perfectly round red mushrooms sprouting from the centuries-old wooden floor of his cherished bookshop. He pouts a bit. “Won’t the – what do the humans call them - mycelium, they’ll break down the wood…”

Crowley raises a rusted pair of plyers that look like they have been sitting in the bookshop for at least two centuries, and the mushrooms fold in on themselves and cease to exist, the wood of the floor and table unharmed. “Your turn.”

“Pardon?”

“Six thousand years, and I have seen not one sign that you are covered in stardust, have beams of many-hued light radiating from your eyes, or solid gold nipples - ”

Aziraphale splutters. “No one has…!” he begins, wondering if the demon knows something he doesn’t. He lets his polite defence of Heaven die in his throat, remembering, as he does about once per hour with a mix of wonder and existential dread, that they aren’t really his people anymore.

Crowley smirks cryptically. “Was a joke, angel.” He’s given up on his tools, as he always eventually does, but the turntable is now fully functional without either repairs or electricity. More specifically, it is spinning wildly without an album inserted into it. Crowley glares at the machine as though it has just rudely interrupted an intimate conversation, and it immediately stills.

“Oh. Right.” As he presses his hand down a bit too hard, book-binding glue smears across the page with a most un-angelic clumsiness. “Your demonic work does not apply to this machine?” he asks, gesturing toward it, glad to change the subject.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he agrees, still holding out his tensed hands as though the record player is a dog who might at any moment run away, indiscreetly not answering. “What will it be?”

“Your – Velvet Underworld,” Aziraphale suggests, intentionally botching the name because of the adorable way that Crowley stutters with indignation and starts to correct him before he sees the corner of the angel’s mouth twitching. The single album he’d bought at the antique store had already been arranged to miraculously become whatever Aziraphale asked for first, though the demon had expected Tchaikovsky. “Who Loves the Sun” fills the bookshop just as Aziraphale peers out the front window of the bookshop, startled, book glue sticking the fingers of his gloves together. He peels them off again and stands up to get a better look. “Those humans out there – I don’t understand, they’re not taking a photograph of the shop, precisely, but they seem to be taking pictures of themselves. With their telephones.”

“Your bookshop is one of the oldest in London.  The oldest, if had never burnt down. They’re commemorating the experience.” Crowley chortles wickedly, showing his pointed teeth. “Human research suggests that it improves their self-esteem.” He barely has time to replace his sunglasses before the door opens. He makes no effort to move from his place at the foot of Aziraphale’s chair.

The befuddled human teenagers glance from the dustless shelves of ancient bibles, immaculate, to the source of the Velvet Underground still playing in the background without the slightest scratch. Crowley kicks the turntable’s still-unplugged cord under a nearby bookshelf at the last moment to avoid awkward questions. When the visitors have finished cooing over the books, which takes just long enough that Aziraphale considers announcing a surprise emergency early closing, they ask to take another selfie with Mr Fell, whose bookshop they had read about in a book of nineteenth-century history.

Aziraphale blushes. “I, uh, you will have to show me how this works. Can’t seem to keep up with kids and their gizmos these days!”

“Gizmos,” Crowley mouths despairingly.

“Your husband, too, if he doesn’t mind!” Whatever the person sees on Aziraphale’s face makes them stumble to correct themself, but Crowley immediately throws his arm around the angel’s shoulders and gestures the humans in close.

Aziraphale has not smiled so brightly since he last danced the gavotte. They could never have done something like this with their respective head offices keeping watch, and Crowley thinks he has never felt so free. As he has the longest arms, the demon is the one to hold the phone, and it’s purely demonic power that keeps his hand from shaking with laughter.

 

 

160 B.C.

 

This is what history has forgotten: that the Book of Tobit was originally, before aught else, the story of how two men ate oysters together in Rome – for the second time in two centuries, no less – and then utterly failed to even consider engaging in intimate relations because they spent the entire night talking about work. It starts when Aziraphale informs Crawley, “I’m meant to travel to Nineveh this week, to cast out a demon called Asmodeus!”

Crawley winces sympathetically, and the angel’s bright facade falls a bit at this reaction. “Oh, come off it, they can’t expect you to – isn’t that more Michael’s thing? Was Gabriel too busy? Are they trying to discorporate you?” He wouldn’t rule it out. Heaven just doesn’t appreciate Aziraphale enough – not that it matters to Crawley. “I mean, you’re not, well – ” This is not protectiveness. He’s definitely not concerned about the prospect of Aziraphale attempting to battle one of the nastiest demons he’s met. It’s because every time they run into each other in the office Asmodeus tries to pull rank on him. Crawley could have been a Lord of Hell, if it weren’t the least appealing job he could think of. That’s the only reason he cares.

“I’m not what?” Aziraphale is deeply insulted that Crawley doesn’t think he is worthy of the job, and also feels his chest unclench in relief that Crawley knows him well enough to agree that this is a terrible idea.

“You don’t – cast out demons, it’s not you.  Poor management on the part of your head office, really. You’re not exactly going to smite anyone, are you?”

“I might! I might smite you.  I’ve read the manual. How difficult can it be?” Aziraphale was made after the Great War: he’s never had to fight a demon per se, but he was created with the Second War in mind. Now that he thinks of it, he’s never actually seen Crawley lift a weapon either, unless one counts his fangs.

“No flaming sword, though. Not even so much as a flaming knife.   What are you going to do, once you’ve cast him out, hmm? Think he’ll just run home to Satan with his tail between his legs?”

“I was not informed that Asmodeus had a tail.”

“I was being rhetorical.”

“Surely, the fear of God’s wrath shall – ”

Crawley snorts. “Asmodeus doesn’t fear Her in the slightest. I saw him fight in the Great War, he’s strong, he’s an asshole, he’s not going to – ” He sees from the look on Aziraphale’s face that he shouldn’t push the matter any further. “Listen, I have to be in Nineveh next week in any case, I’ll take care of it - really, no, I’ll have fun taking care of it - I’ve been looking for an excuse to do something nasty to Asmodeus anyway.”

“You’ll make it look… holy? Nothing too… snakelike?” Aziraphale is trying very hard to pretend he is concerned and not relieved, slurping back another oyster as primly as he can.

“I don’t want to be caught any more than you do, angel! All you’ve got to do is, find… find a bookmonger, tempt them into publishing a scandalous text, anything you like – that’ll do it – listen, I’m in very good standing with my head office, they’re not going to expect anything big again for a while. Your bosses won’t suspect a thing.”

Aziraphale pouts in an unconvincing impression of someone who has begrudgingly been talked out of something they very much wanted to do, and then immediately orders more oysters, which he claims is to make them look less suspicious. The waiter winks at him as he sets the tray down, and Aziraphale winks back (6), launching into a detailed explanation of his heavenly instructions as soon as the human is out of earshot.

 “...But this Tobit fellow, he’s been burying the dead properly and feeding the hungry and so forth, and they want to reward him for that. Eventually. They blinded him with pigeon droppings – ”

“They what?” Crawley twists his face back like a cobra rearing to strike.

“There’s a bit of theatrics involved,” Aziraphale continues, pretending not to notice his companion’s indignation. “It’s incredibly important to my people that there be a fish involved - they’re supposed to be holy.” Aziraphale understands the reasoning behind the holy fish as well as does Crawley, but he ploughs through his instructions as confidently as he can. “Upstairs will be sending the fish themselves, all you need to do is keep it from eating the human - ”

Eating the human.”

“It’s a big fish, dear boy. Heaven-issued. And I’m – well, you’re – meant to encourage him, I mean, instruct him in how to kill the fish, as a test of his strength and proof of your – my – worth as an Angel of the Lord.” His voice is a hissing whisper, and he keeps glancing around uneasily, but no one seems to be paying them any mind.

“Are you sure it isn’t a whale?” asks Crawley, who is almost reconsidering his offer. “Bloody huge fish, to be eating a human.” He picks up another oyster in its shell, stares at it glumly, and then sets it back down on the plate.

“Certain. Great sharp-toothed fish, it’ll rise right up out of the deeps as you’re sailing away from the city. All you’ve got to do is, make sure the human kills it and not the other way around. Cast out the demon from this poor girl he’s been tormenting,” the angel makes a sweeping hand gesture as though Asmodeus were a speck of dirt he means to brush from his jacket, “get them married, get everyone home safely, tell him your name.  My name, that is.”

“But are you seriously telling me it’s your side sending this fish?” asks Crawley, who has grown very accustomed to planning and carrying out his own temptations and demonic miracles on his own terms and timeframe, and is reminded all at once of exactly why he is glad to no longer work for Heaven. Unnecessarily specific theatrics. If Upstairs is pleased that the old man buries his dead (because Hell forbid that their corpses be burned - much too diabolical) why couldn’t they just have sent him money, or food, or restored his health, without an arranged marriage and all this fish business?  That was the sort of practical thing the humans needed. It's all this testing them to destruction business again, and now he is intended to proctor the test.

Aziraphale’s eyes shift uneasily. “My dear – ”

“What if you were late, and the fish had already eaten him? What if he didn’t want you on his boat in the first place?”

“Well, I do hope that won’t be the case, or there will be rather a lot of paperwork.” Aziraphale emphasizes each word, pushing a strange sort of desperate, pleading faith onto him. Crawley is not used to anyone having faith in him.

He assures the angel that it will all go according to plan.

And it almost all goes according to plan: heaven-sent giant piranha ritually slaughtered; demon repelled by the smell of smouldering fish guts and also by Crawley calling Ligur to drop an anonymous tip that Asmodeus had been behaving inappropriately, subsequently getting him whisked off to Hell in a cloud of dust in a timely manner; humans married, demon-free; his improvised speech given, based on the Heaven-sent notes that Aziraphale had passed on and which he’d barely glanced at; and so forth. He plays up the fish symbolism with a quick miracle that renders the creature’s viscera into a cure for the old man’s blindness. If that’s what Heaven wants, he’ll give it to them.

(He won’t even remember until much later that Heaven had not actually given the command to heal Tobit’s eyesight. He’s a little embarrassed that it had never occurred to him not to.)

“For I am the angel Aziraphale!” Crawley proclaims, as he spreads his wings and makes ready to fly off into the darkness, but he stumbles a bit on the name, its syllables separating awkwardly on his forked tongue. It’s uncomfortably similar to how he would once have introduced himself in Heaven.

“The angel Raphael!” exclaims Tobit, who is no longer blind but still a bit deaf. He and his whole family fall to their knees with their foreheads to the earth. They offer prayers of gratitude so reverent that Crawley is worried that the sheer force of these poor humans’ praise of God’s divine wisdom is going to actually set his wings aflame. Not to mention that once the sun comes back up and the man gets more accustomed to having the full use of his eyes, he’s going to notice that said wings are black as soot.

“Peace be to you! Fear not!!” Crawley exclaims in hurried panic. “I musst return to him that sent me.” Well, that’s not technically wrong. “Glory unto God! Sing great praises to Him!” He flees so quickly that he breaks the laws of physics and nearly discorperates, collapsing finally at their meeting-point as his brain chants an unheavenly chorus of idiot, idiot, you idiot.

The logical move would be to explain that there’d been a mix-up. Heaven can hardly fault Aziraphale for stuttering a bit, or for the human’s auditory impairment. Instead, in the manner of a flustered person who’s just made a truly embarrassing mistake and tells the first lie that comes into their mind without thinking it through, Crawley finds himself hissing through his pointed teeth as he explains to Aziraphale that he had been unable to perform any miraclessss or cassst out any demonsss becaussse the archangel had already beaten him to it.

“Oh, that will be no problem at all!” Aziraphale beams at him, as excited by the missing archangel’s reappearance as he is secretly a little glad that Crawley need not face the Asmodeus either. “As long as he does all the paperwork on his end, I should only need to fill out form 38B, you know, miracle performed by higher-ranking angel prior to my arrival, Almighty intervention suspected.  If he doesn't bother with the paperwork,” and now Aziraphale’s face falls a bit, “could make a bit of a mess for me.”

Crawley hadn’t liked stealing Aziraphale’s heavenly paperwork in order to make copies, any more than he’d enjoyed hacking into Heaven’s divine filing system in order to send all relevant scrolls Upwards under his old name - it wasn’t even a lie, and yet it felt a whole lot more deceitful than offering Eve a magic mushroom. But someone Up There must have verified his signature, and Aziraphale’s relief when he finds out he’s been let off the hook makes it worth all the trouble.

 

---

 

(1) Angels don’t have gender, at least not in a manner that can be explained within the confines of human language. Hell was actually responsible for the invention of gendered pronouns, but Crowley refused to participate. Later in this story, Crowley will have a thousand mouths and as many eyes and four wings, and grow so tall that their feet will be on the ground but their head will reach heaven, and then we’ll use gender-neutral pronouns for them because even the most conservative humans would have a hard time gendering someone with that many mouths.

(2) She had, however, invented those child-safe pill bottles that no one who actually needs the medicine inside can ever open. Embarrassingly, although she’d told Hell that he had done this to force people with joint pain to resort to Satanism to get at the bottle’s contents, the invention had actually occurred when Nanny Ashtoreth had miracled a bottle of paracetamol very, very tightly closed in a fit of motherly panic when three-year-old Warlock had somehow gotten it down from the cupboard. She’d been a bit overzealous, so that all pill-bottles within a ten-mile radius were suddenly tightened, later giving the humans Ideas. All humans need is occasional Ideas, really. They do the rest themselves.

(3) And of frustrated pilgrims who’ve walked ten thousand miles and made all the right sacrifices and said all the right prayers and still God refuses to speak with them; of artists whose work has been credited to other people; and of gardeners who have done everything right and still their plants continue to wilt.

(4) The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

And the SERPENT said thus unto the Lord God: “You have got to be joking. Can’t we at least talk about this first? Were you not receiving my memos?”

Crowley denies having had anything to do with this publication.

(5) If the mushrooms in those videos were bursting into their full forms like grenades, that is. Crowley had once tried to get him interested in those sorts of videos on the computer: whole years of fungal growth packed into only a few moments, animal bones picked clean in seconds, flowers blooming and closing and blooming again. At the time, Aziraphale had said something about how lovely it was that human technology was accentuating the proof of God’s divine grace, and Crowley had said something like ngk and turned off the device.

(6) Aziraphale’s answering wink had meant: We are having a very important business meeting and do not wish to be disturbed.  The waiter’s wink is self-explanatory.

Chapter Text

 

SEVEN DAYS AFTER THE WORLD DIDN'T END

 

A handful of envelopes falls though the brass mail-slot in the bookshop door with a click, and Aziraphale wanders over to fetch it. “Letter from Warlock.” He holds it out to Crowley. “Addressed to both of us, that’s odd. How on Earth did he know to send it here? Oh, and this one looks like a wedding invitation… yes, we are invited to celebrate the most holy union of Sargent Shadwell and Madam Tracy – you know, that lovely woman who I, ah, possessed last week.”

“They’ve invited us into a church.” Crowley is sprawled in one of the bookshop’s many overstuffed armchairs, with his thin legs dangling over one arm of the chair, head thrown back against the opposite arm. The letter from Warlock is held together at the back by stickers with images of superheroes and insects, clearly from two different packages, giving the impression that Wonderwoman is engaging in a heated battle with a giant beetle. It is addressed to both Nanny Ashtoreth and Brother Francis.

“They were just being polite, dear boy. I don’t get the impression that they have many other friends to invite. Though, it does seem unnecessarily dangerous. Do you suppose you could sit in a pew if your feet were in the air?” He props the gold-lettered invitation up against a nearby jar full of pens, where it casts a strangely homey energy across the room, a bizarre form of domestic normalcy that neither of them had ever expected to experience.

Crowley slits the letter open with his fingernail and says “Ngk.”

“And how is our godson?” Warlock, of course, should never have gotten mixed up in any of this, and Aziraphale can’t fault the child for not being the antichrist any more than he can blame him for his abhorrent parents.

“Warlock says that he hopes thou art doing well, that he regretteth calling you rubbish, and that he appreciates thy help and guidance.” Crowley had been ordered to teach the boy something of the speech-patterns of Hell, and for a while it had become commonplace for him to slip thee and thou into their discussions of television shows or The Darkness Intrinsicate In The Human Spirit or, ironically, dinosaurs.

Aziraphale realizes that it must have been the demon who gave the boy this address, and apparently also requested that he apologize for his behaviour - though when Crowley would have had the time to do this is a mystery to him. “Oh, Crowley, I hope you weren’t unkind to him.”

“Unkind? Can you imagine the pain in Hastur’s maggot-ridden heart when the child he thought was his precious lord’s son insulted his smell? Nothing I can do will ever reward the poor kid enough. His family has travelled rather suddenly back to America, ehrm - probably while Adam was messing with reality - apparently he was immediately offered forty-two different flavours of ice cream upon his arrival.”

“May I see?” Aziraphale takes the proffered letter. “His new tutor is under the impression that you’ve been teaching him inappropriate renditions of traditional nursery rhymes. Well, They’re not wrong.” The letter also asks if he and Nanny Ashtoreth are going to get married yet. He sets it down very quickly.

“They’re entirely wrong, actually. The original version of the Grand Old Duke of York was written by an order of Satanic nuns in the fourteenth century, in prophecy of the victory of Ashtoreth the Duke of Hell over All The Kingdoms Of The World (1).” A fly has been circling the light-fixture in the centre of the bookshop, buzzing round and round in a manner that grates against his ears and reminds him unpleasantly of Beelzebub. He catches it out of the air in his fist with a quick motion like the flicker of a snake’s tongue.

Crowley had not commented on the Sansevieria trifasciata that now exactly resembles a small cluster of snakes, but while Aziraphale was absorbed in a book he’d done a quick demonic miracle that had caused it to take on carnivorous behaviours. As the demon approaches, one of the plant’s succulent leaves opens a snakelike jaw that had not existed yesterday, and Crowley drops the stunned fly in through its mouth. The pale yellow veins of the plant’s underbelly shiver for a moment, and then it stills.

The bewildered houseplant knows that it has become something of a metaphor for the communication breakdown between the two immortal beings who provide it with water and soil, and now, even more surprisingly, insects. There are certain patterns, like nightly sleep, that help define the process of living together. Aziraphale has been set in his habit of reading through the darkest hours of the night, since the invention of books; the only influence that Crowley’s presence has on this practice is that he makes for a comforting pillow, if a boney one. Crowley naps on all surfaces at odd hours, based on mood rather than time of day; occasional fairy-rings of mushrooms burst out of the wood around him and then fold in on themselves, in sync with his slow, hissing breathing in a way that Aziraphale finds too endearing to worry about bookshelves – especially when he realizes how much effort Crowley must have put into hiding this habit before. Neither of them can imagine ever living apart again. Neither of them mentions it. The snake plant shivers nervously in its clay pot under the window (2).

“Poor thing looks lonely.” Aziraphale cautiously pets the S. trifasciata as though it really were a pet snake. It leans slightly into his touch as though trying to communicate something. “Perhaps you could bring his friends to join him?”

“Can’t.” Crowley shakes his head. For a moment, Aziraphale thinks that the demon is rejecting his unspoken offer of a place to live, but then he realizes that the other is still preoccupied with his houseplants. “If they see him again, they’ll find out. They’ll have no respect for me anymore.”

It takes Aziraphale a couple of seconds to process this. “How terrible for them, to find out they aren’t in danger of being brutally murdered.”

“A little bit of stress is good for them. You’ve got to keep them on the edge of their seats. No. Plants don’t have seats.”

“Keep them on their toes? Oh, I suppose that’s no better.”  

“I mean, I’m not saying that it’s good, it’s not good – they grow thicker stems, that’s all, makes them healthier. I mean, not healthier.  Ungodly strong. No, um, god-fearing plant would dare grow so, uh...”

Infernally luscious,” Aziraphale beams at him fondly. “Send the plant to Warlock,” he suggests. “He never got his dog, after all. And then you can tell the others that it’s been thrown into a woodchipper, or devoured by wild animals, or whatever diabolical thing you like. It’s simply not practical for you to have to travel all the way back to your flat just to water your plants, my dear boy. It would save a great deal of trouble for you to keep them here.”

The entire bookshop goes absolutely silent for several very long seconds. The snake-plant stops its hungry quivering and watches the couple expectantly. The tall grandfather clock in the corner no longer seems to be ticking.

“Okay,” Crowley says at last, with a shrug, just as practical and unassuming when they had made their original Arrangement. He drops another fly into the snake plant’s mouth. The astonished creature very nearly doesn’t catch it. “Don’t think this is any excuse for laziness,” Crowley roars down at the houseplant, which politely turns its leaves away in fear, even though its very xylem and phloem are tingling with excitement at this romantic advancement.

 

 

SIX YEARS BEFORE THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

Both his nanny and his gardener read extensively to Warlock from the Book of Revelation - Crowley on strict orders from Below, and Aziraphale so that he can follow it up with a little talk about how awful it would be if this really happened and how we must all do our utmost to make sure it never does.  

Crowley has wound up the little skeleton music-box that plays an unearthly chorus of demonic chanting at a frequency only barely audible to human ears. Her bosses have absolutely insisted that this be part of her job because they know how much she loathes reading – she’s sure of it. She reads from the bible as theatrically as she can, for the boy’s sake, because she has to do this whether they like it or not, and she’ll be in trouble with her head office if she gives in to his request for Harry Potter another night in a row.

“The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch.”  Crowley gestures toward the dinosaur-shaped lamp by the bedside, making it brighten for a moment, with a streaming ray of light above it like a shooting star. She’s less cautious about showing off those sorts of abilities in front of Warlock, who should be able to do the same himself soon enough. “And it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.”  She snaps her fingers, and the dinosaur lamp dims back to its ordinary light. It stands roaring by his bedside, a deep orange light like smouldering coals, monstrous in its own way - but still Crowley wonders if there shouldn’t be some kind of innate knowledge in the Spawn of Satan, about the whole thing dinosaur thing. When Lucifer had been this child’s age, if age could be quantified before Time, he’d helped create the cosmos. Warlock likes stories about pirates and playing the kazoo that Crowley had given him, at top volume so that it resounds through the stark fields and red brick walls that surround their residence.

“Funny name for a star,” says Warlock. The boy snuggles with a snake plush toy that she had gifted to him for his third birthday, his chin buried in the green sequins of its scales. “Wood with worms in it?”

“It’s the name of a plant, dear.” Crowley can’t tell Warlock anything she doesn’t want him to repeat to Satan when he comes of age, if the worst should happen. But she can tell the truth, as long as it doesn’t contradict His instructions. “It first sprang up behind the Serpent when he victoriously exited the Garden of Eden after liberating Adam and Eve from the bonds of ignorance. The serpent, incidentally, was not Satan, but actually a very clever demon named Crowley - I think it’s very important to the story that you remember that.”

“Yes, Nanny. But what about the jellyfish?” asks Warlock. “The gardener says I must never, ever let the seas turn to poison because it will hurt Brother Jellyfish.”

“Well, wormwood is a kind of medicine. Do you remember what happened when you put cough syrup in the fish tank?” Hell will want evidence that Crowley is raising the boy appropriately - evilly, that is - and so she’s careful to only directly mention the apocalypse in a positive light, but Warlock can push this conversation as far as he likes. She had actually been relieved, on that day, that the boy showed obvious remorse for the consequences of his actions. He clearly doesn’t delight in the destruction of living things. She once caught him lighting ants on fire with a magnifying glass, but he’d cried about it later. It’s another of her growing list of nagging doubts about the child, but she tries to take it as a good sign.

Warlock seems to weigh this in his mind, hugging his stuffed snake and watching his nanny with wide eyes, dark hair falling across his face. “Which angel blows his trumpet?”

Crowley carries her own kazoo with her at all times, though in the previous century it had been a harmonica. “We’ll just have to keep reading and find out, won’t we, darling?”

Warlock nods, mesmerised, and slumps back against his bed as Crowley runs a long, thin finger along the text to relocate her place. With a snap of her fingers, she turns on the little electric night-light, plugged into the wall behind her, that casts ghoulish shadows across the ceiling and makes the paper glow an eerie blue-green as she raises the bible dramatically into the air.  “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit.”

 

 

NINE DAYS AFTER THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

Fully balanced on the narrow windowsill, leaning back against the glass with his spine at an impossible angle, Crowley is doing a fairly skilled impersonation of someone who is reading a book. The volume in question is a heavily-illustrated compilation of Medieval artwork, chosen for the quality of its photography. It’s not that Crowley can’t read, of course, when called upon, but he doesn’t have the mind for it (3). Crowley is all for knowledge, but he prefers the kind you get by being and sensing. His psyche is all doing and action: repotting plants, rewiring old electronics, creating stars. But Aziraphale likes words, and Crowley likes Aziraphale, and Aziraphale positively beams like a ray of sunlight every time holds a book in his lap.

Hung on the wall beside the window is of those wooden signs that humans make with atrociously sentimental adages surrounded by stencilled flowers in pastel paint. It reads, Heaven is a good book on a rainy day.  All at once, Crowley is reminded of his angel’s views on Hell’s motivational posters. Hastily, he tries to miracle a few light rainclouds over the roof as unobtrusively as possible. “Bit blasphemous, that,” he comments casually, nodding toward the sign, gently teasing. Light, silvery rain patters musically against the roof as Aziriphale presses a cup of black coffee into his hands. He takes a flask of something out of his pocket and pours a liberal amount into his drink (4).

Teetering slightly from foot to foot, the angel finally sits himself down in the chair beneath the window with his own cocoa and book. Aziraphale is very aware that Crowley is not genuinely reading, and that he is tampering with the weather, but the fact that his demon has gone to such an effort for him, warms his heart so much that he instinctively plays along. “Oh, I don’t know. There is something heavenly about it, I think. A resounding sense of peace. I find it endearing that the humans can feel it, too.” Aziraphale blows softly on the surface of his cocoa to cool it.

“A resounding sense of – ” Crowley again envisions the disdain in Gabriel’s glowering eyes as he’d told the one he thought was Aziraphale to shut up and die already. He recalls his last memories of Heaven, pounding furiously on the doors of God’s office, long after She’d ceased to answer his questions. The immaculately white door had not shown even the scuff of his angelic boots where he’d finally kicked at it. He’d conjured up a bunch of his newest creation, a vividly red amanita mushroom, and thrown the buttons against Her door, watching them burst into full-fledged fungi as they fell to the ground like a pile of bloodied stones. There had been no response.

“Well, think the humans have it fully right.” Aziraphale sighs contentedly and leans against the back of the chair.

“More or less, yeah.” Crowley lets out a laugh that is more like a hiss as his book turns its own page again. Crowley doesn’t really like thinking about Eden, but he did find immense satisfaction in inspiring the particular art on this page, a thirteenth-century fresco on the wall of a church, depicting Adam and Eve on either side of a great tree-sized amanita mushroom with many branches. It had taken the rearranging of several church officials’ schedules, harmless but urgent family business calling the originally hired artist urgently away, and a minor carriage accident, in order to line up an artist who specialized in a peculiarly fashionable style of artwork in which trees were depicted in the shape of mushrooms, and then to buy him a drink and tell him the true story of the Garden of Eden. A snake pushing its way up into the garden they had built, mycelium cracking up through the ground as the creature burst up through the soil. God snatching up all the knowledge that might have been distributed freely through all the plants of the world, and stashing it away in a ring of mushrooms with a do-not-touch sign.

From the angle at which he is sitting, Aziraphale has to lean his head against Crowley’s legs to see the illustration on the page. He smiles when he recognizes it: it feels almost like the photograph of a first date. “The artwork was your satanic doing as well, I presume,” Aziraphale says affectionately. He sinks back down into his chair too quickly and takes an unnecessarily large gulp of cocoa.

“I hardly needed to tempt, I just told him the true story and he rather liked it.” Crowley stares down at the book, and the page turns itself. He half expects to see the other infamous Amanita muscaria mural, the one in the German church where he’d made some last-minute changes to the original sketch for a painting that spans the ceiling. The panel now depicts Adam and Eve in front of a ginormous mushroom canopy like a blood-red full moon. But instead, the following page holds a painting of Icarus, wings melting away from charred oil-paint flesh.

“Well, my boss is – ” But God isn’t his boss anymore, is she? (Is she?) “ – was a romantic. I guess She prefers the apple story. Or Gabriel does. It would be Gabriel.” Aziraphale hesitates for a moment, and then ventures, heart fluttering: “I find the true tale rather romantic myself, you know. Although the pomegranate idea wasn’t bad, either. I like pomegranates.” Aziraphale opens his mouth to say something more about fruit, catches sight of the look in Crowley’s yellow eyes, looks down at the page for the source of that unnamed emotion, thinks, dear Lord, he’s had sex with Icarus, hasn’t he? and then closes it again. “That one was yours, as well?” Aziraphale had not been in Greece much at the time, and all Crowley ever said of it was that he’d spent most of his days as a snake, wreaking demonic havoc, though when Aziraphale asked what sort of havoc he always changed the subject (5).

“Yeah, uh, the sun is tempting enough on his own, but I helped plant the seed of the thing. He looked absolutely magnificent with wings.”

“I imagine he found yours magnificent as well.” Crowley can see a funny, defensive emotion in Aziraphale’s shifting eyes, which he can’t quite interpret.

“I didn’t mean to tempt him. It was – academic discussion. Asked me if I knew what the stars are made of, and I said, I’ve seen them up close, let me tell you about it. And it had been an awfully long time since I’d gotten a chance to explain the process of star-making… demons don’t much care for that sort of thing. He was such a good listener, very attentive, and so I, well, I mentioned that the sun was the closest star, spread my wings and flew away.”

The split second that their gazes meet, seems to last a lot longer than it is - and it might be, for the sheer force of the regret and apprehension on Crowley’s yellow eyes as they dilate in nervous anger against himself, meeting the golden wave of Aziraphale’s shock, is almost enough to stop Time itself. Up until this moment, Crowley realizes, he had not actually mentioned that he’d helped make the stars - sure, he would have brought it up eventually if they ran away together. He’d been looking forward to showing Aziraphale his favourites. But he had intended to brood for a while longer on how exactly to mention this fact casually to a Principality who’d been brought into being not much more than twenty minutes before Adam and Eve.

“It was a demonic enough act to make my quota for the year, but he had a point, in any case, Icarus.” He’s speaking too quickly and not entirely sure where to go with this. “The feeling of being that close to a star, that might be worth, well.”

“...falling for?”

“There’s a brightness there,” Crowley concludes, because he wants this conversation with Aziraphale more than he ever wanted it with Icarus, and he wants Aziraphale to know that.

“It seems that he fell rather more sharply than you.” The angel leans against Crowley’s knees as he reaches out to trace one of the melting wings in the painting with his finger.

“Well, it’s not like I just happened to trip over the railing of Heaven’s escalator. Never meant to fall, sure, but we did both use our Almighty-given free will to get there.”

Aziraphale is looking up at him in a way that is probably meant to be seen as relaxed, but his body is too still, like a person who has just had a hummingbird land in their hand and is afraid to disturb it. “What is making a star like?” he asks, because it worked for Icarus, and because he would have asked sooner if he’d known that was a subject that Crowley was secretly eager to discuss.

But Crowley only wiggles his eyebrows suggestively, like two squirming snakes.

“No, I’m serious, Crowley. That wasn’t meant as a lead-in to - well. But you don’t have to say.” This is as close as the angel gets to lying. He’s absolutely brought the topic back to the stars because he has been thinking a lot about creation and love, and having some debatably unangelic thoughts about the demon who also apparently helped create the cosmos, which the attentive snake plant in the corner very much wishes he would act on.

“I was serious as well. That is what making a star is like. Like the best sex you’ve ever had. A great burst of light.”

“I suppose you’d have had a lot to compare it to.” It isn’t jealousy, Aziraphale tells himself, because they can hardly consider doing their jobs comparable to the kinds of bonds humans form between each other. Sex is just one of those pleasant but not particularly significant things about being an angel in an earthly body, an occasional necessity, like sharing a meal with a human before performing a miracle for them. He doesn’t suppose Crowley feels differently. “Part of the job description isn’t it. Sins of the flesh, divine ecstasy, however you look at it.”

Crowley shifts on the windowsill. “Suppose it is.”

Aziraphale leans up slightly as Crowley leans down with his neck at an angle that would not be possible in anyone with a normal quantity of vertebrae. There is a second of such intense silence in the bookshop that even the pattering rain on the roof stills.

All at once, Aziraphale feels an awful tingling of evil energy on the air. It’s not the pleasant sort of evil that the archangels had found so abhorrent in his shop but which Aziraphale now finds to be a comforting reminder that Crowley is here with him. This is similar to the feeling of a gasping, invisible black hole opening up in his shop.

“Oh, bloody hell.” As Crowley’s form flickers in and out of being for a few seconds, a clap of thunder rattles the window, and all sunlight seems to have been sapped from the room. But the demon only holds up his hand in a gesture which he hopes Aziraphale will recognize as hold on, I just need to take this call, just a minute.

Then Crowley stands as quickly as a rattlesnake rearing to strike. “Oh, for Ssatan’s sake - I mean, quite literally for the sssake of Satan not wreaking vengeance on uss all - just when you think the humans are the best creatures you’ve ever met, they…” He waves an arm around vaguely. “And just when you think Adam’sss the true saviour of humankind and the cleverest kid in the world, literally outssmarting the devil and all…!”

Aziraphale feels his heart fluttering up into his throat. “But nothing’s happened?”

“Nothing’s happened yet.  Humanss.  Found a spell on the internet.” He tries to look disgusted and annoyed but the worry on his face is visible. “Says it was an accident, he had no idea he was opening a portal to Hell - where they’re still furious with him, right? Glad I was the first one to notice the call. Well. You’d better come along, you’re – nice. You like kids. I told him we’d take the car. No use jumping through a portal like that when we don’t need to.”

You like kids. But you can’t possibly intend to answer his summons?”

Crowley is already headed for the door in one fluid motion like a slithering snake.

 

 

1666 A.D.

 

After a long day of slithering around Plague-ridden London in snake-form and devouring as many flea-infested rats as possible so as to burn the infection out of them inside his demonic body, Crowley finally slithers uninvited through the mail-slot of Aziraphale’s print-shop. Collapsing into humanoid form, for a moment he kneels on the worn floorboards, staring hollowly around and cannot find the will to stand up. He’d been able to avert the last two plagues by catching up to the Horseman Pestilence before they could strike: the first time biting their heel as a snake and sending them discorporated back to whoever had sent them, and the second time trapping them in a pit of Hellfire. They always come back. They are a force beyond his control.

But when he hears footsteps approaching, he immediately pulls himself to his feet and rummages around behind the desk for the extra pair of tinted glasses that he keeps there. Aziraphale has pushed a couple manuscripts in front of it, presumably to avoid notice from any unexpected angelic visitors, but did not dispose of it, which warms Crowley’s reptilian heart more than he cares to admit.

“Hello - hello? Crowley? Are you quite alright?” Aziraphale immediately recognizes from the look on his face that the Plague was almost certainly not caused by the demon before him, whatever story he might have told his superiors. And as much as he ordinarily frowns on unexpected visitors, the disease and despair hanging like fog over the city are impacting him more than he likes to admit. He takes a deep breath. “Oh, I am glad to see you. Come in, come in,” he adds - rather unnecessarily, as the door had never actually been opened – and gestures him toward his own quarters in the back of the shop. “Today I miracled a priest back to health,” Aziraphale provides helpfully, as though he is Hastur offering a report of his daily accomplishments. “When all of this is over, he’ll remember that it was an Angel of the Lord who spared him. They like that sort of thing, Upstairs.”

“Oh, bloody miraculous. A real hero.” Crowley walks slowly and a bit wobbly, still feeling ill from all the rats. He’d tried commanding them to leave, but the rodents ignored his call with such tremendous stubbornness that he suspected the Almighty must have been the one to send them after all. “Didn’t spare his neighbours, though. Or the owner of that restaurant you liked so much.” He coughs a bit, and strains of amanita mycelium scatter across the floor; he frowns at it, and instead of making mushrooms, it falls into dust.

“My dear boy, you know that to miracle this whole plague away, well, first it would discorporate us both, then we’d be in deep trouble with our head offices, they might never let us back down here - well, in your case, up here.” Aziraphale thinks but does not say: and then I’d never see you again. “He was a good man,” he adds, more than a little bit pleadingly, because Crowley has a way of getting under his skin and making the most demonic thoughts seem sensible. “And they gave me a gold star. On my file, you know.”

“A gold - they’ve got real stars up there, whole cosmos full of them, stardust sprinkled all over their smug faces, and they gave you a little glittering thing on a piece of paper?”

“Crowley, I don’t get any kind of commendation usually. You could be happy for me - I mean, not that demons are supposed to be happy for – ”

“I’m happy for you,” he says, a little too quickly and utterly unsure of why he feels so guilty for stepping on Aziraphale’s happiness. Under his glasses, his eyes dart around the room, seeking hidden ears. He could be thrown Dagon’s dungeons in the seventh ring of Hell for making such a statement - or worse, demoted and chained to a desk as Satan’s secretary until the ending of the Earth. But the wrath of the Devil does not seem to be descending upon them, and so he continues, “Ehm. I am. It was… a long day at work.”

“For me as well,” Aziraphale admits uncomfortably, and sighs.

Was this one from your people? But, I don’t suppose it matters. She endorsed it. Ineffable suffering, and all.” He accepts the drink that Aziraphale offers, and downs it in one snakelike gulp, attempting to burn away the stomach-churning after-effects of a thousand disease-ridden rat-corpses inside him, and also the lingering image of humans dying of plague, which stays painted on his eyelids in a way that all of the torments of Hell hadn’t.

Aziraphale immediately refills the demon’s glass. “But that is why God created healing, to show all that She is merciful.”

Unsure of whether to laugh or cry, Crowley instead makes a hissing noise in the back of his throat that causes all the candles to flicker. But she could have just not let this happen in the first place, he wants to say. Crowley’d had a decently large part in the original concept of Healing, too. He’d drawn diagrams, and offered key suggestions on Her prototype models of healing plants! He’d tended Her first healing plants in the greenhouses of Heaven! But he must grin and bear this, because if he and Aziraphale have a row, he’ll have to storm moodily back outside to watch humans die in greater quantities than he could ever hope to heal, and he needs a nap and copious amounts of alcohol before returning to all That. “If your side are trying to show mercy, you ought to put more people on it. Most of my lot have been taking vacations, work is so slow, they hardly feel needed up here.”

“Well, they say that healing was the calling of the archangel Raphael,” Aziraphale offers helpfully, “but no one’s heard from him in millennia.” Crowley immediately considers slithering back out into the worse-than-Hell streets of the city to watch more humans gruesomely succumb to the Plague. “The other archangels aren’t really into this sort of thing, you know. Too… carnal for them.” He sighs. “I do wish he’d show up.”

“Misplaced him, have they? A whole archangel?” Crowley makes a noncommittal noise and consumes his entire second drink in one gulp, in much the same motion he uses to swallow whole rodents, at an angle that would be impossible with a fully human jaw.

“I suppose he must have gone back to waiting. For the apocalypse. He… they say he holds a horn to his lips at all times. Just in case of, you know. The Big Day.”

“Sounds bloody inconvenient. How would he talk?” asks Crowley, who in this century has taken to carrying a small eunuch flute with him at all times; during his brief stint as the Black Knight, it had been a proper war-horn, and before that, an ocarina. The ability to call the troops of Heaven down at a moment’s notice was reassuring to carry in his pocket at all times, as though by not using it to summon the next Great War, maybe he has a bit of a say in preventing that war, too. And though he couldn’t say why he was so sure it would work, why this ability should still be granted to him after his Fall, still, he knew it to be true. When Crowley knows things to be true, they are true. “Not such a bloody great angel of healing, really, if he won’t even turn up for this mess.”

“Oh, my dear boy. He’s a very important angel. I am sure that he has better things to be doing. It’s all in the Plan, you know.”

Crowley drinks again.

“Whyever he left, it was ineffable, as will be his return," the angel continues, his voice painfully earnest.

Crowley drinks.

“For there is only one archangel who forsook the Lord,” Aziraphale concludes with a triumphant flourish.

Crowley drinks.

 

 

--

 

(1) There was no Ashtoreth, Duke of Hell, although this was a name that Crowley also used in ancient Mesopotamia, minus the ‘Nanny.’ Although Satan had been furious when he believed that Crowley had been faking a royal title when the demon had not even bothered to show up in Hell for most mandatory meetings, in fact, Crowley hadn’t had anything to do with the nursery rhyme. One of the nuns had read the name in a history book and thought that it sounded nice and satanic. There hadn’t been a real prophecy, either, but it rhymed.

(2) Not because the plant is remotely afraid of Crowley anymore, but because watching this relationship dynamic play out and being a nonverbal houseplant is incredibly frustrating. Picture it: one day you’re making sunlight into chlorophyll as fast as you can for fear of being scapegoated and fed to a hellbeast, and the next you’ve somehow become the silent emotional centre of a romantic drama in a quiet bookshop, many miles away from any plant you’ve ever known, you have a sudden inexplicable craving for flies after a lifetime of photosynthesis, and you can’t even shout at the people responsible to get on with it already.

(3) He doesn’t have the brain for it either, technically, but since the human brain in his relatively standard-issue humanoid demon body is not actually the source of his mind, this is an example of form following need, and not the other way around.

(4) Another way in which the depictions of the archangel Raphael carrying a flask of medicine with him everywhere he goes, are not strictly wrong - although, in actuality, Crowley had just noticed that the majority of the protagonists of his favourite old spy movies seemed to carry mysterious flasks of alcohol with them at all times, and thought that it would make him look distinguished and worldly. (Aziraphale privately agreed.)

(5) Mostly slithering around the temples of their healer god, miraculously healing fatally ill patients and also insinuating a few pointed moments of divine ecstasy in key political figures in order to get the image of his old staff and his serpent form integrated into their symbol for medicine. It was all tremendously demonic though, of course.

Chapter Text

 

 

EIGHT DAYS AFTER THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

“No, you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t.”

“I beg your pardon?” About half an hour into their journey to Tadfield, Aziraphale had brought up the matter of raising human children and how lovely it is to get to know them from a young age.

“You don’t actually wish you were their parents. The humans are brilliant and all, but you can’t get so attached. Think about it. They live, what, seventy, a hundred years at best?”

The angel makes a noise of uncomfortable agreement in the back of his throat. Oscar Wilde, for example, had only made it to forty-six, and although Aziraphale and Crowley hadn’t been speaking for most of those years, the demon later admitted to taking a quick nap that had spanned thirty of those. A human can live out the span of their whole life, in a period that feels to an angel like an afternoon tea break.

“They’re so small when they’re young - they’re designed to make you feel all protective. And then, no time at all, and they’ve got grey hairs and their bodies are falling apart beneath them and there’s nothing whatsoever you can do about it.” He refrains from saying: and you’ll wonder why you bothered. Crowley knows why he bothers. Crowley is an optimist, but a practical one. Getting over-attached to a human, no matter how clever they may be, feels to him like a human adopting a particularly fascinating mayfly, raising it from a larva, watching every moment of its twenty-four hours of life, mourning, and then doing the same the next day.

“Oh, you’re probably right, I suppose.” Aziraphale carries his memories in books: the personal inscriptions inside front covers, the peculiar choice of formatting that an author had made in the angel’s printing-press days, the fleeting references to his own presence that long-gone friends have made to him in their published texts. He’s known many humans in the past six thousand years; and his book collection is always growing. “But my previous point stands: you do like children (1).”

Other peoples’ children.”

“You’re fond of Adam, I can tell.” Aziraphale smiles affectionately out the window as they speed down ever-narrowing country roads, picturing their last encounter with the eleven-year-old not-son of Satan to avoid having to actually face the view of the world throttling past at an unnatural speed. It had all been a bit too much to take in, at the time, but Aziraphale realizes later than he’d needed the renewed faith in humans that he got from watching Adam stand down the Devil, in the way that he’d needed to ask the archangel Michael to miracle him a bath towel in Hell. It’s an oddly satisfying feeling, like hot tea on a cold day.

“I don’t know about fond,” Crowley counters, as though they aren’t driving an hour out of their way on a moment’s notice for a minor matter that barely requires their assistance. “Personal responsibility thing. He’s sort of family, right?”

“Hell really is one big happy family?”

“Well, I mean. Because of the whole Armageddon not happening.”

“You never actually explained to me what the children were invoking demonic assistance for,” Aziraphale points out. “A young love affair? A new ploy to save the whales.”

“Nah, nothing like that - it was their homework.” Now they are swinging through the village at 95 mph, but the townspeople hardly seem to notice their own miraculous escapes, because everyone knows that no one would dare drive such a speed in the centre of Tadfield.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yeah.” He meets Aziraphale’s eyes for a moment and then looks back to the road. “Only, they combined some sigils they found in a magazine with a spell on the internet, intending to get their school cancelled for tomorrow, unintentionally mimicking an ancient demonic rite and opening a portal straight to Hell.”

“Oh, dear.” Aziraphale is concerned, but also secretly elated at the thought that his ethereal wisdom and guidance is still needed. He wonders if it’s too late to break out his Brother Francis persona again. “The last thing we want is to show up after spending eleven years with the wrong boy and demand that he behave more responsibly, but I would agree that he needs something of a better education in this sort of thing.” He had thrown a few books into a bag on his way out the door, just in case.

They are passing down roads lined with beech and elm trees that they had last seen when hurtling toward the airport.

“Oh!” Aziraphale recognizes the dwelling outside the window. “That was Anathema’s charming little cottage. We had a letter from her today, as well. You remember - the girl with the bicycle? I started to mention it, but you were already halfway out the door - and dear Lord, if you keep driving at this speed and hit her with your car again, it won’t much matter what she had to say, will it?”

Crowley does not answer, but he looks pointedly at the speedometer and begrudgingly and slows to 75 mph as they round a sharp corner.

Aziraphale’s grateful smile lights up the whole car. “Oh, thank you, my dear.” He does not acknowledge aloud that this is the first time that Crowley has slowed down the car for him. He reaches out and touches the demon’s shoulder affectionately, and then lets his hand drop rather quickly back into his lap. “She mentioned some academic questions about the use of demonic sigils in computer technology. She thinks it may be related to her – that is, to Newton’s, you know, the one who breaks computers - to his, well, computer-breaking.”

Crowley lets out a string of swearwords in six different languages, including Sumerian and Akkadian. The car lurches as though with his surprise. “How did she know?”

“Know?”

“Er. The computer thing.” He swerves the Bentley very sharply around a narrow corner of the dirt road. A large old oak tree appears to have miraculously stepped out of their way.

“That was you! I should have known. You wily old serpent.” Aziraphale smiles fondly. He might have been at least mildly upset - as he had been when he’d seen what happened to the M25, Really, my dear, people were burning- but it’s hard to be indignant at any curse, no matter how demonic, which also inadvertently helped to avert the apocalypse.

“Not intentionally! I mean, not intentionally against that particular human.” Between the infernal energy of Hell constantly causing all the electronics to break, and the truly irritating questions Crowley has had to deal with from demonic IT staff who’ve never actually been to Earth or seen a human use a computer, Crowley had been feeling more than a little petty when he had first modified the hardware designs for several key technology companies to incorporate several ancient runes into their computers and phones. This, in turn, manifests a similar wave of diabolical energy that results in the resounding feeling of ungodly frustration that humans experience when their computers break. If Crowley has to deal with this, so do the humans. It could have backfired in the case of this particular man, maybe, if he were born under the wrong sign, or if it were interacting with another curse. “Where did this Newt person even come from? What is he to her?”

“I believe the word she used was boyfriend, though they did not appear overly familiar.”

“Right.” Crowley had been too preoccupied at the time with Beelzebub and Satan and the antichrist’s gang of eleven-year-olds facing down the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to pay much heed to the humans who had switched off the army computers or their relationship to one another at the time. “Why, though,” he mutters rhetorically, speaking more to the car than to Aziraphale. He thinks of how delighted Lucifer had been when he’d first put this in place, and also the recent prevalence of infuriatingly ineffable coincidences in his life.

“Because that’s what humans do, they - divide off into pairs. Usually pairs, at least. “I think it’s all rather poetic. They’re drawn to one another, ineffably. If the humans understood Love - if they could dissect it and explain it the way they do everything else - I don’t suppose their books would be nearly as good.”

Crowley doesn’t correct him. “She’s too good for him.” He glowers at the steering wheel. “I’ve met them once and I can see that.”

“Well,” says Aziraphale fairly, “it’s not only about being good enough, is it?”

A few moments of silence go by, in which the car speeds past a few more cottages and cow-pastures. “Cottages. I’ve been thinking about cottages,” Crowley says at last. “About living in one, I mean.”

Aziraphale starts with surprise. “So have I!” he exclaims delightedly.

“There was one in – ” Then the angel’s words sink in. “Wait - you have?”

“Only in theory, you understand. It would have to be just the right one. Room for your houseplants, for one thing.”

“I would never ask you to leave your bookshop, but – ”

“I could make a new one! In the country. With fewer customers!” Aziraphale is almost literally glowing at the prospect. “You could have a proper garden, outdoors. We could make our own wine, we could - oh, this must be the place?”

Crowley very suddenly slows down and parks by the side of the road, just down the hill from the Them’s lair. He snaps his fingers, and the car turns off. “Are you sure about that?” he asks, climbing out of the car and opening Aziraphale’s door for him with inhuman speed.

“Of course we’re here. Can’t you feel it?” Now that they know Adam, know how his energy feels and that he is the source of the love that exudes from these woods like rays of light from a meditative heart, it’s not so difficult for either the angel or the demon to sense his presence.

“I meant, are you sure about living in a cottage.” He closes the door.

“Well, it will take a while. There is a lot to organize. A lot of books to move. It would have to be just the right location.”

“Someplace that has absolutely nothing to do with either Heaven or Hell. Someplace neither of our former head offices has ever touched. Somewhere that’s just ours.”

“Just ours,” Aziraphale echoes. There are a few seconds of absolute silence, in which neither of them breathes, before Aziraphale says, “Well then,” and Crowley says “Ngk,” and they both turn back toward the children's’ voices echoing from the other side of the hill.

 

 

 

28 A.D.

 

The only instruction that Crawley had been given about Yeshua is that he’s the Son of God and that he will be fasting for forty days in the desert, and that she is to tempt him into aligning with Satan by any means necessary. She is also informed of some key points about his role in the Great Plan that make her bite her tongue to hold back a slew of indignant questions. Subsequently, she’s expecting someone along the lines of Gabriel or Uriel: a holier-than-thou smile, nose upturned, and a bureaucratic approach to godly living. She’s not expecting him to be quite so human.

She finds a low place in the dunes, between two thorny, brittle acacia trees, and waits for him to come to her. She knows that he will: the poor human has been fasting in this barren place for thirty-nine days already, waiting to be tempted, waiting to refuse her temptation. Crawley knows the type. She is his assignment, as much as he is hers.

She has not restrained her physical appearance in the manner that she ordinarily does for the humans: this poor young man has waited over a month for the devil to tempt him, and she had better look the part. Although she hasn’t reverted entirely into her true form, her eyes are fully yellow without a trace of white, areas of snakeskin are visible along her hands and bare feet, and four black feathered wings spread from her back. Her eyes are lined with kohl and her lips painted red; her demonic halo rises behind her black veil with a glow like burning embers, cut through with the thorny shadows of the trees behind her like cracks in the glass of a lamp.

She waits. The Son of God kneels in the sand with his eyes closed, lost in thought or prayer or dehydration. Clusters of saltbush and sagebrush dot the ground around them. But he must have sensed that she is here. Her halo is a beacon, calling to him, like a second sun beneath the one that scorches the human’s skin.

After the first few hours of sitting proud as a statue, Crawley begins to preen her already-impeccable wings nervously, the demonic equivalent of a human chewing their fingernails. The sun slowly slides past noon as she straightens already-straight feathers, and the clusters of sedge and sagebrush that dot the ground around her wilt back from the heat of the day. And still, she waits.

As the Son of God finally struggles toward her like a dry leaf blown in the wind, Crawley straightens herself and spreads her wings, dark and terrible as an oversized carrion-bird. A great burst of fly agaric mushrooms forms in the sand at their feet, against all laws of nature. She had thought she looked hellish and terrifying and had been looking forward to his brave attempts to thwart her diabolical nature.

She certainly hadn’t anticipated that Yeshua would immediately recognize her by her old name, with some Almighty-given intuition that even the archangels don’t seem to be granted, as though he can read her entire existence in a glance. But maybe it’s no wonder, because by this point there seems to be very little left of him on the physical plane at all. His eyes are glassy and his cheekbones poke out like mountain ridges. “The archangel Raphael.” There is no trace of doubt in his voice. He falls to his knees and bows with his forehead to the ground as though she were Michael or Gabriel in all their full glory, though from the way his body seems to crumple beneath him, she wonders whether this is largely fatigue disguised as reverence. “I had expected temptation, but not from you.” 

“It’ss Crawley now,” she corrects him at once, too caught off her guard to remember that she’d meant to use a more grandiose name for this particular venture. “And you shouldn’t go around bowing to demons, no matter who they used to be. Your lot frown on that sort of thing.” She snaps her fingers to switch off her halo, drags most of her snake-scales back under their glamour, and pulls some sclera around the furiously yellow irises of her eyes. The wings she does not conceal, but instead folds them against her back as she crouches down beside him. The sand around them is layered and rippled by old wind-storms and dotted with saltbush and low shrubs of juniper. She also hadn’t expected an immediate surge of pity and empathy for this poor, polite, bedraggled human.

But instead of cowering in fear or making some great pius proclamation, the Son of God goes along with this so respectfully that she’s caught off guard. “But of course. My apologies, Demon Crawley. That was rude of me.”  His ankles wobble beneath him and he grabs at the ground to steady himself as he tries to push himself to his feet. The racing of his heart is audible to her demonic ears, and he sits down again rather heavily. “Crawley, though. It doesn’t suit you at all.” Yeshua frowns and gestures from her wings to the sky as though searching for the words. “It’s a little, well,” he makes a gesture with the palm of his bony hand, like something squirming in a wave across the ground. There is sand in his hair, and caked beneath his long fingernails. “Crawling-at-your-feet-ish, don’t you think?”

“No! You think so?”

Yeshua, unlike Aziraphale, has no trouble with sarcasm. “Names have power.” His voice that had been hoarse with disuse, is beginning to strengthen. “You keep calling yourself Crawley, of course you’re going to end up crawling. And I think you deserve better than that, demon or not.”

Crawley sets a flask of water down beside him. Obviously he’s not intended to take water from demons while fasting in the desert, but his eyes are so bloodshot that she must at least try. And he comes across so terribly polite and well-intentioned, and it’s getting to her, and she suspects that he knows it’s getting to her. C’mon, Crawley, she reminds herself, remember who’s tempting who. “I’m going to end up crawling because that was the Almighty decree. Comes with the job. You, on the other hand…”

Raised up, yeah. I should have known that you would come today.” He does not take the proffered water, but stares down at it with a determined ache in his dark-circled eyes. “At sunrise, I saw a single crow, high up in a tree, preening its own feathers. And now I find you waiting for me, just so.”

“Nervous habit,” says Crawley. “Relatively common to creatures with wings. Some angels are a bit stuck up about it.”

“There was no crow,” says Yeshua. “I saw a crow, but I know there was no crow.”  

Crawley winces. “That’s a great divine holy Sign from Above that you need to eat something.” She is not faking the little bit of pleading that slips into her voice. She knows human bodies well enough to know that he’s not in any immediate danger, but probably feels ill enough that an ordinary human might be convinced to see sense. And the sense of the matter is that this poor human has been starving in the desert for thirty-nine days, and that the Almighty’s eventual reward for his efforts will be still worse. Crawley had spent a roughly equivalent amount of time, before Time existed, kneeling before the door of God’s office, head bowed, in silent vigil demanding answers, until Gabriel had finally demanded: please, get up, get up, you’re embarrassing yourself. The Almighty had not responded to her presence - the next time they’d spoken had been in the Garden, with all that on your belly you shall crawl business. “You’re the Son of God, for Satan’s sake - you could make food from anything. You could make that stone there into a sandwich, right now, no effort at all.”

“We’ve had this conversation before.”  Yeshua draws himself up proudly. “I’ve told you, Demon, I’m not interested in your vile temptations.

She refrains from saying, oh, you poor sweet child, but he looks so young, despite the length of his dishevelled beard. His life so far has been an eyeblink for her, and it’s already nearing its end (2). “We haven’t had this conversation before at all,” Crawley replies, as gently as she can. “That was your nervous system trying to shield you from the unpleasantness of starving to death in a desert.”

“I saw a demon,” Yeshua insists, a little uncertainty slinking back into his voice. “But you’re right, I suppose. It wasn’t you. They had wings like a bat.”

“If you must have visions, it’s a pity you couldn’t have seen something you enjoy.”

“I’ve always wanted to see - ” He stops abruptly.

“Yes?” she prompts, but he does not elaborate. “I can show you the world,” Crawley says, and then when the other raises an eyebrow, she clarifies, “I can literally just show you the world, right now. No strings attached. It will be a great deal more pleasant than whatever your mind has been coming up with, I think.” Hell has granted Crawley some relatively liberal demonic miracle privileges for the sake of the particular assignment; she could do just about anything short of a major ecological change or permanent damage to the laws of physics, but really she just wants this poor human to smile while he still has time. He’s barely human - every cell in his body shining with God’s grace, as resplendent as the cracks of light that shine from beneath the door of Her office in Heaven - and yet his world is so small.

“I think you are meant to show me something. How else am I supposed to deny it?” There is a strange longing in his eyes. Crawley knows that look: it’s the same that she saw in Eve’s, as the first woman of the world lifted a bright red mushroom to her lips.

“Well, best be getting on with it, then.” The acacia tree shakes away a brittle, drying branch in a surprising, fleeting gust of wind, and she catches it out of the air, as Yeshua closes his eyes for a moment to enjoy the breeze. “Right. Hold on,” she says very unnecessarily, as there is nothing to hold onto and she’s energetically holding onto him whether he wants it or not. She raises the tree-branch high into the air.

The whole world tilts sharply and falls away beneath them, while the sand seems to rush upward against the soles of their feet, hardening into stone like a thousand years of geological changes all at once. Yeshua is doing an unconvincing impersonation of someone who is not impressed, but he can barely contain his awe, as a mountain rises where there was no mountain before, and the whole world falls away like a great map beneath them, like smears of paint in green and blue. The mountain comes to a steep pinnacle with a small flat place like an observation tower, great slabs of sturdy granite pieced together like bricks, falling steeply away into nothing. Clusters of rock have risen around the edge of their perch like a railing, even though they had never been so previously, because Crawley had realized a moment before they landed that Yeshua was in no state to be leaning out over precariously steep cliffs, even if his physical body is not here.

“The world. The whole thing.” Crawley reaches out and tugs at the map, spinning it around to bring the human’s home country into full focus. She flicks at the map, and it spins it across the ocean, resting briefly on the great sheets of ice at the south of the planet. Stars whirl overhead, larger and closer and more animated than they ever seem from Earth.

Here, the Son of God looks less hollow, but he shakes his head and presses his lips together as though trying to work out a puzzle. “This is wrong,” he says at once. “The Earth isn’t flat. How can the Earth be flat when the sun and moon are round?” He reaches out and grabs at a nearby rock to pull himself to his feet, but seems to realize as he does so that the weaknesses of his physical body is not as debilitating here. He scrambles up to the edge with a renewed eagerness and leans against the stone as he looks out, seeming to forget himself for a moment in the wonder of it.

“We’re not really here,” Crawley explains. “You’re still dreaming in the desert. The Earth is round, it’s - like a living painting. We’re just watching. It’s still curved at the right angle when you look up close. There are no edges.” She pulls on the map with her fingertips to demonstrate. Crawley had been involved in the original design of Heaven’s omnipotent map, but it had been scrapped in favour of an observation system based on stationary images. Events could be labelled and filed away very neatly, that way, and specific faces analyzed close up - but it didn’t have the wild, messy splendour of watching the whole world spreading out beneath you, like flying invisibly over the whole planet with a spin of your hands.

“I see Jerusalem, and that over there must be Rome, but what is that one?” Yeshua sways a bit as though with vertigo, but his eyes are shining as he peers out across the tall towers of a city in China. “Or that?” He gestures toward a magnificent complex of buildings, with pyramids like great staircases into the heavens, and brightly-painted murals set with jade and gold.

“Chang’an. And that one is Teotihuacan. Can’t say I’ve seen either on up close - my people aren’t particularly concerned with those regions of the world.”

“This is,” Yeshua says, quite unnecessarily, glancing back and forth between Asia and Mesoamerica, “the most exceptionally high mountain I’ve ever seen.”

“Do you know the real reason that the staff with the serpent was first used as a symbol of medical knowledge?” In case Yeshua is unaware that such a symbol exists, Crawley scrolls the map back toward Greece, where some of the asclepieia where she had once acted as a healer in snake-form, are still in use. “It’s because God took away the serpent's feet, remember, after the Garden, and made them crawl. So the serpent uses the staff to stand up, look God in the eyes and demand an explanation.” She finds herself leaning a bit on the acacia branch in her hands, not from weariness, but the unshakable snake instinct that makes her naturally want to rely on other objects to draw herself up taller.

“If that is really how you feel,” Yeshua says pointedly, gazing between all of the kingdoms of the world with a distinctly human sense of wonder, “why on Earth are you still calling yourself Crawley?”

“Not on Earth,” says Crawley, “Not really.”

“Azarias,” Yeshua says, as he paces around their perch on the mountaintop, resting his gaze on each city as intently as though he means to memorize everything about it with each momentary look. “You were calling yourself ‘Azarias’ in Nineveh. Many generations ago. I heard about it.”

“That was a disguise. You know what would happen if I went around Hell calling myself ‘God helps’? Right on par with ‘It iss God who healss,’” she half-hisses. “And equally true. God helps, or God healsss, or He doesn’t. None of us down here can do a damned thing about it. And we all just keep going, in spite of Him, I think, as much as because of him.”

“I don’t think we’re meant to do anything about it, as you say,” says Yeshua thoughtfully. “It’s a matter of trust.”

“But that is my point: all-powerful Father of Us All, you’d think if you were to jump off the roof of that temple over there, He’d catch you.” Crawley nods to the high stone pillars of a great temple in the city before them. She had done that sort of trust fall - or, more accurately, trust Fall - and though she would never admit it aloud, at the time she had genuinely, very deep down, believed that someone would catch her. She’s not sure who she’d expected to do the catching - Uriel? Michael? God Herself? - but it’s the only time in her life that belief was not strong enough to impact reality.

“But I don’t need Him to catch me.  You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” Yeshua quotes smugly. “It is written.”

“No, only He gets to do the testing, right?” Crawley sighs and feels a twinge of guilt for speaking so harshly when the poor Son of God is clearly having a hard enough time as it is.

“Do I really have to do all that with a fish?” asks Yeshua. “I know I’m meant to heal the blind, someday, but I wasn’t given all that much instruction about it.” To his credit, the Son of God does not ask how precisely the demon before him came to be performing divine miracles under a dead name. An otherworldliness pervades his whole demeanour, which might be from his parentage, or just the usual altered state of consciousness that comes with not eating for forty days. In any case, he’s clearly long past the point of finding anything surprising.

“Not necessarily. Your side can be a bit tetchy about getting all the details right. Sometimes they’ll hand out assignments with tremendously obtuse symbolism and then you have to improvise. Like the fish that tried to eat Tobias. Heaven wants a fish, well, alright, you take all that energy you could have put into healing the blind, and you take the extra step to channel it through the fish (3). They’re calling it the Story of the Grateful Dead, now, because it was supposed to be Tobit’s reward for burying his dead properly, but I never even knew much about the humans he had buried - all that symbolism is Heaven’s job, it’s nothing to do with the actual healing(4).”

“Waste of fish, if you ask me,” says Yeshua. “He might have just eaten it. If you’re going to make a miracle out of fish, shouldn’t it at least feed someone?”

“I like how you think.” She does like him quite a lot actually, and it’s making this all very uncomfortable. “You know,” Crawley says at last, “this can’t be the only way. We can find some way out of this, it doesn’t have to - ”

“It is written,” says Yeshua. “The son of God shall be raised up as Moses raised up the snake in the wilderness. And just as the, um, Serpent made the first sin, so shall sin be - erased, was it? Unmade? I can’t remember, they were throwing a lot of information at me at once. In any case, I think it was something like: that which heals is also that which made the wound.” He is no longer looking at the map, but meeting her snake-eyes fearlessly, far too calm for a human describing his own execution.

“That which - ” She hisses between her teeth. “You ssound like Gabrial.”

“Do you mean that as an insult?”

“Listen, kid, Son of God, all that - I admire your spirit, and your kindness, but I hope you realize that whole business about being raised up like a serpent isn’t actually going to be as poetic as it sounds.”

He is still listening very politely, with a little half-smile that scratches at her heart like a rusted nail. Aziraphale gets that same look about him, when he thinks himself cleverer than Crawley’s blasphemous speculations.

“And I’m not saying this only because in this scenario I’m the Serpent - I’m saying it because of the whole demon thing - you know, wings on fire, pools of brimstone and the like. Our Father Who No Longer Comes Out Of His Office In Heaven doesn’t always make His children's health and safety a priority. It might be poetic for Him, that’s ineffable, but I don’t think it will be for you.” Almost despite herself, she reaches out and puts a hand on his arm.

 Yeshua glances between her hand and her eyes. He takes the hand in his, slowly and deliberately, but does not shrug her away. “I know when you are tempting me, serpent.” He draws himself up, proud in his refusal.

“I don’t mean to be.” Crawley’s voice is nearly a whisper. And it’s true. Crawley is having more or less the same reaction that you might have if you one day suddenly find out that you have a little half-brother who likes the same things as you did as a child but hasn’t grown jaded of them yet, and who is planning on majoring in the same thing as you did in university, and still you both know that he’s going to be publicly executed even more brutally than you already have been and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Yeshua smiles like a crooked nail. His lips are so chapped that beads of thin blood are forming at their corners. “I know that as well,” he says. “And I don’t love you any the less for it. Come, show me the rest of the world! You might as well, while we’re here already.”

Crawley shows Yeshua how to gently reel a new location in close, like pulling in a fish on a line, and how to nudge it back into place with the wave of a hand.

He reaches up a hand to test it, cautiously, like a cat touching a pool of water, then scowls at the first city where his motions land him. “Rome,” he mutters disparagingly. “I am so tired of hearing about Rome. Show me somewhere I’ve never heard of.”

Crawley spins the map westward, huge expanses of ocean spinning past like flat blue-grey cloth. “If I were you, I’d feel the same.” She shrugs. “I have, however, occasionally had good times in Rome.”

Whatever Yeshua sees on Crawley’s face makes him smile knowingly. “With someone, in Rome.”

“Er. Just an old friend, an acquaintance really. Bit of a business arrangement.” Crawley zooms the map onto a great old-growth forest, searching for sources of distraction.

“Tell me about your friend.” The human leans back slightly against the stone, and stares out past the trees and across all the kingdoms of the world, a little dreamily, as though imagining of someone of his own.

“He likes life,” Crawley says at last. She cannot say: he’s an angel. This kid is going back Upstairs, in the very near future, and their conversation is not confidential. “He has more goodness in him than the whole of Heaven, and he would pray for my demonic soul if he heard me say so.”

“Well,” says Yeshua, “that is something that Heaven did not tell me. So demons can feel love, after all.” He says it so brazenly that Crawley’s protests die on her lips. But he does not press the matter of identity. “Do you mean to tell me that you haven’t told him?”

“Told him what. How about you?” Crawley asks, hurriedly pushing the subject away. “Does the Son of God have… someone?”

 Yeshua shakes his head and looks away, but the corners of his mouth are turned up slightly in a secretive half-smile.

Crawley does not pry, either. For a while, they pore over the living map of the World together, imbibing knowledge just by looking at it - a feature that Satan had added to the map in more or less the same manner that he drops information straight into Crawley’s brain like a letter into a mail-slot. Here, at least, this function is put to good use. If Time did exist on this plane, it would fall away with the way that Yeshua’s bloodshot eyes light up as he takes in busy city streets and thundering waterfalls and fleets of ships on rivers that his human body will never visit.

Satan’s going to be furious with her, but unsurprised: her failure to secure the Son of God’s soul was already written into Great Plan before she was given the assignment. She’ll have to claim credit for some particularly unpleasant war or plague, sometime soon, to get back into his good books. (Bad books, technically - but the kind that don’t result in punishment.) In the meantime, Crawley is sprawled against the stone of the mountaintop, dropping a comment or two into Yeshua’s awe-struck exclamations, answering his occasional questions with anecdotes about her past four thousand years on Earth.

“And that’s why they say: be as wise as a serpent, and as harmless as a dove,” Crawley concludes. She leans against one of the jagged stones of the mountaintop.

“Do they?” Yeshua asks, frowning.

“Well, if they don’t, they should.” Crawley’s smile shows all of her pointed teeth. “Listen: I know I lost this one before I started. You’re not the succumbing-to-temptation sort. Let me show you one last thing, come here.” She raises her tree-branch and uses it to scroll the map straight up into the cosmos, until they are enclosed in a bubble of stars, the Earth a faint sphere of blue at the base of a mountain that has grown even taller. “You’re going to have to wake up soon,” she reminds him softly, as they stare out across the heavenly bodies wheeling over their heads.

In the starlight, he looks more alive than he ever had on Earth. “I’m glad all that fasting business is over with, in any case. I was hungry. Not only physically.”

“I was always hungry in Heaven,” Crawley admits before she can stop herself. “Er, my body does not require food, and there was no shortage of manna, but it felt like all the manna in the heavens…” She waves her hand vaguely.

“Couldn’t feed your soul? Yeah. I get that too. I hope I see you again someday, Demon Crawley. Isn’t that strange? But it all felt a little less lonely, for a bit.”

“I’d buy you breakfast,” Crawley replies, “but I don’t think you’re meant to break bread with the devil.”

 

 

EIGHT DAYS AFTER THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

“Adam Young! You called?” Crowley gives a mock bow, the sort he might be expected to offer Beelzebub, but his smile is genuine as he straightens. He can’t not be glad to see him, not when this kid has cast a far greater, more vindictive blow to both Heaven and Hell than Crowley ever could have. The Them are poised like a painting, with Adam in his seat, Brian leaning against the arm of the throne, Wensleydale seated to the side with a book balanced on his knees.

“What seems to be the problem?” asks Aziraphale, as angelic and serious as if he genuinely has no idea why they have been so urgently and demonically called away to Tadfield.

Adam steps regally down from his throne in the Them’s lair. A few plastic and ceramic gnomes pilfered from neighbourhood gardens stand guard behind them. One is sitting on a fly agaric mushroom whose paint is flaking away. Adam does not have the decency to look even slightly ashamed of himself, and Crowley very much respects him for it, just as he respects both the throne and the mushroom ornaments. “We were just practising,” he says with a shrug. “I think I drew the symbol wrong.”

Behind his back, Pepper immediately takes her place the vacated throne. As the wind picks up, the bicycle tire in the throne spins on its hub, and the banners hung from the makeshift roof flutter, including a brightly-colored flag shaped like a fish, and a sheet of fabric, probably originally thefted from a doctor’s office, with the Rod of Asclepius printed on one side. “We were trying to overcome an oppressive school system with magical intervention,” she adds helpfully, clutching the makeshift arms of the seat.

“Your teacher has miraculously forgotten that there was ever an assignment,” says Crowley. “And your school has been cancelled for tomorrow because of a problem with the electrical wiring. This is because human schools these days are useless, you understand, and not because you don’t need to learn.” That was just like humans, too: you got them to eat a magical fruit of knowledge, and then they commodify knowledge itself and use it to oppress one another.

“More importantly, this will give you more time to study proper magical etiquette! I’ve brought some reading materials,” Aziraphale adds helpfully, holding out a bag, miraculously light for how many heavy hardcover books are inside: practical grimoires, with appropriately-researched details and cautionary anecdotes - none of this New Age nonsense. “A solid starting point. And we are here to assist you. I do hope you’ll come to us with any questions, instead of looking them up on your...” He glances helplessly over at Crowley.

“Internet,” the demon supplies.

“These are verified sources,” Aziraphale concludes.

“Wicked,” Adam exclaims, accepting the gift and immediately rifling through the volume on top. He throws one book to Pepper, who catches it out of the air without leaving her throne. Aziraphale winces very quietly at this, but refrains from reprimanding.

“Hey, careful with that,” Crowley says at once, and Aziraphale casts him a grateful look. “You’ve been entrusted with priceless artefacts.”

“Containing archaic knowledge,” Aziraphale puts in. “Which is not to be trifled with, I might add.”

Adam looks at the ground in a manner that his human parents probably interpret as remorse.

“I must know, though,” says Crowley. “You could have made your powers into anything you wanted. And you wanted… to be a fully human witch and make it harder for yourself?”

“It’s more fun that way.” Adam has opened a particularly heavy spellbook and leaned up against a nearby beech tree to flip through it. The mid-afternoon sun casts leaf-shaped shadows across the yellowed paper. “Anathema’s been giving me lessons. And I didn’t get rid of all of it. Most of it. I can still change the way the plants grow, and make my bicycle go up hills without pedalling. I never wanted to levitate, anyway.”

“A wise choice,” Aziraphale agrees.

“I don’t see how having all that power would have done any good, saving the polar bears and so forth,” Adam continues. “People will just kill them all over again.” It’s an ongoing internal debate that Crowley’s been having with himself for nearly six thousand years, and this kid has figured it out by the age of eleven.

“Tell me, though. What subject could possibly be so dull that you’d risk the Wrath of Hell to get out of answering some questions on a piece of paper?” Crowley asks.

Adam exclaims “Astronomy, the boring kind,” at exactly the same time that Pepper says Dinosaurs, and Brian says Maths and Wensleydale says, “Actually, this wasn’t my idea at all.”

Boring?  What could be more fascinating than stars?” Crowley demands, furious that the school system has managed to corrupt even the very cosmos to dullness.

“It’s just chemicals, but you don’t even get to see them up close.” Adam is already eagerly flipping through a star chart in one of Aziraphale’s witchcraft books. “It’s just a bunch of words to memorize.”

“There’s all sorts of funny names of chemicals that are hard to spell,” Brian puts in, helpfully. “It’s nothing like real stars at all. We went to the planetarium in London, one time, but it was just lots of little lights on a ceiling. They were all the same color.”

“My mother says that astronomy is a waste of resources that could be put toward improving the quality of life on Earth,” Pepper adds. “They put all this money into sending robots into space and building big telescopes when they could be putting it toward feeding people.”

Crowley stares at the four children, eyebrows raised behind his sunglasses. “Right. Change of plans. Do you kids want to see the actual stars up close? We’re going on a field trip.” He is already pacing around the Them’s lair, looking for the best tools to put his plan into action.

“Only if you desire to!” Aziraphale very gently steps on Crowley’s foot and gives him his best are-you-sure-you-know-what-you’re-doing look.

The other three children are looking at Adam, who nods very seriously. “I reckon we should do it. It’s no good doing magic at all if we’re going to chicken out now.”

“I want a vote,” says Pepper. “We shouldn’t go along with it unless we vote on it first.”

“All in favour of visiting the stars this afternoon?” asks Adam.

Pepper and Brian raise their hands.

“Actually, my mother didn’t give me permission to travel into the stars,” says Wensleydale pointedly.

“Oh! Miraculously, she already did.” Aziraphale pulls what appears to be a permission slip from his pocket. The signature at the bottom is authentic, although Wensleydale’s mother had been as surprised to find herself signing a celestial permission form, as she had been when it vanished into a burst of light.

Wensleydale studies the paper intently but seems to find no fault. “That’s all right then,” he says finally, putting the paper into his pocket, unaware that it will cease to exist after twenty-four hours.

There is a thick branch of a fallen birch tree on the ground nearby. It might be a fallen sapling from the tornadoes that had ravaged the area, their actions mostly undone but for an odd lost sheep still wandering around the distant pasture where it had been blown by the winds, or it might have fallen when lightning struck Tadfield as archangels and demons alike flocked here. Or it may have been an ordinary tree-branch. But of course it’s birch, and solid, because he needs a staff, and he knew that when he needed one he’d be able to find one. Crowley raises his makeshift staff into the air. “Right - you can leave the books here - your feet aren’t actually going to leave the ground in any case, but hold on.”

The mountain rises from the soil of their woods with the same great sweeping motion that it had when he’d first brought God’s son here - but now he raises it up as high as he can, until they are caught in a net of stars spanning to the edges of their vision, the Earth little more than a blue speck swirling with clouds below.

“This is,” Aziraphale gulps. “An exceptionally high mountain, darling.”

“Earth’s flat, angel. You can’t see all its kingdoms from any mountain in the world – that’s the point. How else are we supposed to see all the stars at once? Hey, kid, be careful with that – ” Brian has reached out to the map with one awestruck finger, spinning them off into the Andromeda galaxy. Crowley reaches out and tugs them back a bit closer to Earth.

“How did you do that?” demands Pepper.

“We’re not really here,” Aziraphale explains, when Crowley doesn’t immediately acknowledge the question. “We’re in a sort of metaphysical reality, in which you are not physically here and therefore do not need to breathe, and we can view the stars without the risk of anyone physically falling off of that terribly steep cliff over there.” He is experiencing similar vertigo to that which he’s felt, the few times he’s been in the outer space department of Heaven’s surveillance rooms: it’s not just the physical mountain that makes him dizzy, but rather the jarring reminder of how many humans are on the planet, and how small that planet is, and how infinite the stars.

“Think of it as demonic google maps.” Crowley reaches out and moves the star-map with his left hand to demonstrate. With his right, he is still clutching the tree-branch that he had used to bring them up here.

“Angels have a similar system,” Aziraphale adds.

“You can’t be a real angel, though," Wensleydale informs Aziraphale matter-of-factly, “angels have got a thousand eyes and six wings and they’re huge, because they’re just shapes that are on the inside of your eyes when you see things wrong. They don’t really exist. Just like God,” the child concludes, standing on the same sacred metaphysical mountain where Jesus himself had once been tempted, looking out across the stars that the Almighty and her angels had created before the beginning of the world. Crowley thinks he has never envied anyone so much in his life.

“It’s not real either, is it, dinosaurs?” Adam asks the angel and the demon, indirectly responding to friend’s proclamation. He’s eagerly reaching up for the stars above them and pulling them down closer, like pulling down a tree-branch to reach the fruit there. No matter how close he pulls the heavenly bodies, their brightness cannot overwhelm their eyes from this perch. “I suppose it couldn’t be, if Adam and Eve and the Devil were real and all. No evolution. Well. Maybe a little bit of evolution. There's a lot of different kinds of dog.”

“Snakes did have legs,” Aziraphale points out. “Before the Garden of Eden. That’s almost like evolution.”

“Actually,” says Wensleydale, “the Garden of Eden wasn’t real. Now we have Science, so we know about dinosaurs and evolution and also the internet.”

“Bit stupid, really,” Brian says, “snakes with legs. What’s the point, really?” He pulls Beta Centauri so close that if they were physically here they would have been blinded and instantly incinerated; as it is, the effect is like being surrounded by hellfire and lava on a brightly-lit stage.

Crowley admires the triple star system as it encircles them on all sides like an invisible juggler with three flaming blue torches. He’d missed this. But the children are already wincing away from its sudden brightness with the sort of awe and terror that used to make angels constantly say things like do not be afraid. Only Adam seems unbothered.

“Legs and wings,” Crowley corrects, as he gently tugs the image back to a comfortable distance for human observation.

He had wondered why God had so quickly approved his plans for a snake with batlike wings and sharp talons. Later, he had thought: she was already planning on taking them away. He never voices this thought aloud.

Adam’s face lights up. “There used to be dragons? But hang on, I’ve seen your wings.”

“Not as a snake, though - it’s a one or the other thing. No snakes with wings. No wings on snakes. The ineffable rule.”

Dragons, though.” Adam has laid down on his back with one hand behind his head, as though he were watching the stars from an open field on Earth. “That’s even better than dinosaurs!”

“Actually, snakes can’t be dinosaurs, because snakes lived at the same time as dinosaurs. Snakes came from another family of reptile.” Wensleydale seems utterly unbothered by the theological implications of their current situation but has sat himself down with his back against a large rock, as far as he can get from the edge.

Crowley chokes on his own laughter and hisses with his forked tongue through his lips. Aziraphale remains stoic, but for his eyebrows bent together in apprehensive surprise.

“Did the Almighty never tell you about - ” Crowley frowns, considers this. “But, I guess not, eh.” Dinosaurs had been based on Crowley’s prototype snake models, some of which had been more appealing than others.  You’re getting a bit carried away, aren’t you, Raphael? Uriel had asked.  The trees would have to be as tall as mountains to keep those things alive. What’s it going to be next? They’re ridiculous, Uriel had scoffed.  Well, I think they’re fascinating, Lucifer had stood up for him. God had scattered the leftover bones from his prototype reptiles across the face of the earth in a pattern whose true irony will not be understood for at least another two centuries, if the Earth survives that long.

“I’m not the sort the Almighty consults with on – human scientific error.” There is an unspoken: why in Heaven’s name are you? which the Them do not seem to notice.

“Well, it’s not fair to spoil the punchline before the joke is done.”

“Angels and dragons.” Wensleydale gives the angel and demon a disapproving look. “Next you’ll be saying there’s unicorns.”

Crowley and Aziraphale proceed to answer a slew of questions from four eleven-year-olds spinning the stars around them with increasing speed and confidence. Crowley draws diagrams in fire-writing on the air, connecting the dots to explain the layouts of different star-systems, and accidentally drops several key facts about the composition of stars that human scientists have not figured out yet. Crowley finds himself forgetting most of the humans’ words for the components of a star, but Aziraphale jumps in with anecdotes from various of his favourite works of fiction and the Intro to Celestial Bodies course he’d taken six thousand years ago as part of Principality Training.

“Alpha Serpentis is a red giant already,” Crowley says to Aziraphale, shaking his head in mock despair as he pulls that section of the map toward them in order to take a closer look, and then drags it up over their heads so that they are at the proper angle to make out the shape of Serpens. He squiggles a few more lines onto the air, connecting the stars into a serpent. “I am getting old.”

“Of course that one would be yours.” Aziraphale had been making a point of not asking because Crowley had been so obviously reluctant to expand on the matter. But now he stares, mesmerized, into the star-strewn nebula that rises like a many-armed being of multicoloured smoke behind the demon’s thin form.

“Sometimes they call this one the star queen.” Crowley traces the place where the Eagle Nebula morphs into the larger Ophiuchus constellation with his finger.  

“Oh, I read about that one in one of the New Aquarian magazines,” Adam says. “There was Ascl - , Ascep - , there was a god of doctors, who had a snake. But he was too good at healing people, and he started bringing the dead back, so Zeus hit him down with a big lightning bolt and then put him up in the stars.”

“They didn’t get it altogether wrong,” Crowley allows, still facing away from the others. Before him, Ophiuchus holds up the rest of the stars in Serpens, as magnificent as a god.

“It might have been closer to the other way around,” Aziraphale puts in helpfully, because his brain is spinning as quickly as if the humans were still whirling the stars in circles around the mountaintop. Crowley’s shoulders flinch.

“They only look like a snake because of the angle that we look at them,” says Wensleydale. “Not because of God.”

The angel looks again from the pillars of new-formed stars rising from the middle of the star queen nebula to the fiery outline of a snake still glistening on the air in Crowley’s spidery handwriting. “I don’t see why it can’t be both.”

 

 

32 A.D.

 

“Demon Crawley! It is good to see you.” Yeshua settles down beside her on the steep stone steps of a portico just above the Pool of Bethesda. They are concealed from watchful eyes or Heavenly observation by a series of towering stone pillars and staircases, but still, Crawley pulls her veil farther over her face, for his sake.

Hell had been nosing into some of her snake-based healing practices as of late, and she thought it best to change form and back off a bit before they find out too much. Instead, she’s been putting her healing miracles into the water of the elaborate swimming baths, which are situated in the centre of an asclepion just outside the city walls.

“Son of God,” Crawley greets him gravely, but smiles in spite of herself to see him looking so well after their last meeting. “How did you know it was me?”

“You told me that you used to come to this place in the form of a snake. And there was the bit about stirring the water with a staff.”

“Water is, ah, trendier these days.” It’s been hit-and-run healings only, ever since that minor disaster with Tobit - if she’d known that Yeshua was going to recognize her the first time, she would have told Satan to give the job to someone else (5). “That was kind of you,” she adds at last, gesturing out toward the place where Yeshua had healed a human the day before. It would have been too risky for her to have helped him; she’s been too careless with her healing miracles lately, and if Hell catches on to what she’s been doing, well, there will be Hell to pay.

“Sloppy of you,” he reprimands, but his tone is conversational and not condescending, like running into a colleague who one hasn’t seen in a while. “Just throwing your miracles into the pool and stirring them with a stick like a great simmering soup-pot of healing. It’s exactly like soup when you do that: it goes to whoever’s quickest, and not whoever needs it most.”

Crawley can’t blame him for sounding so put out; the humans have been giving the Son of God and the man he’d healed such a hard time for all that “pick up your mat and walk” business. The poor human had not been able to get up and stretch his legs in decades, and now everyone’s complaining that he chose to do it on the Holy day, even though Crawley strongly suspects that the day had been chosen by a higher authority than Yeshua. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Heaven would do.

“Listen, I see your point,” she sighs, “and you’re not wrong, but I’ve had good reason to not want to bump into certain people lately. And then there’s the issue of the water.”

Would it have burned you? It was a single miracle floating in the water like a piece of driftwood. It didn’t seem to have the same properties as holy water at all. I wouldn’t think you could be burned by something you put there yourself (6).”

“I wouldn’t want to prove you incorrect.”

He makes a noise of agreement. “Anyways, I was going out with a friend tonight, but it seemed wrong not to say hello.”

Crawley feels a delighted twinge in her heart, despite herself, at the audible affection shining through his voice when he says friend. Maybe Yeshua is finding a few genuine moments of love and happiness in his brief lifespan, after all. And she can’t quite find the will to correct him about saying hello to demons - if the Son of God wants to show kindness to everyone, including the servants of Hell, who is she to stop him?

“You should come along with us - you wouldn’t have to introduce yourself. You could bring the friend you mentioned - what did you say his name was?”

“I didn’t.” Crawley squirms uncomfortably against the stone steps. “And he’s back in Rome for the year.”

“Pity. I should like to see you both together someday. Well, come on then,” Yeshua says, “surely I’m allowed to buy you a drink?”

 

--

 

(1) Aziraphale could bring up the Ark, but he regards their unspoken Agreement about never mentioning Noah’s Ark as holy - or something stronger than holy - and so he keeps his thoughts to himself. They do not mention the Ark in their bedtime stories to Warlock, they ignore mentions of it in popular media, and occasionally go to great lengths to reference their own conversations in that time period while pretending not to remember quite where they had been or what was going on at the time. They have kept to this agreement since 3004 B.C. and will stick to this faithfully until at least chapter five of this story.

(2) A literal eyeblink, as Crawley had slept through at least a decade of that time. She’d awoken to the smell of rotting meat and Hastur celebrating what he’d briefly assumed to be her death, as he had never seen a sleeping demon before. The duke of Hell had glowered at her in disappointment as he relayed the details of the assignment, Ligur leering over his shoulder at Crawley’s rumpled clothing in a way that made her wish she’d taken this particular nap as a snake.

(3) Millennia later, when some of the only television shows that Aziaphale actually likes are cooking competitions, Crawley will wonder if this is less because of his love of food, and more because it’s a pattern that his psyche is programmed to understand: you’ve got to make one (1) miracle using a holy pool, a crossword puzzle, a can of baked beans, and exactly two (2) live butterflies.

(4) The Humans refer to this type of legend, in which a human grants the dead a respectful burial and is then rewarded divine repayment, as The Story of the Grateful Dead. Crowley remembers this again in the 1960s, when the humans have replaced her mushrooms with their chemicals (lovely, clever, efficient humans!) and he still can’t help but think they deserve to be a little cursed for it. The premise is similar to that of the Queen CDs: any music at a gathering of humans partaking in certain types of psychedelic substances will irrevocably revert into the Grateful Dead after the first two hours.

(5) This is a lie. She still would have done it. She might have better prepared herself beforehand. But he really did seem a very likeable chap, kind to others, pacifist and so on, and she would have absolutely done it anyway, if only for a chance to spend the day with him.

(6) “I wouldn’t think you could be burned by something that you put there yourself.” Well, Jesus said it, and he knew what he was talking about, Crowley will think to himself, two thousand years later, speeding his car through an infernal ring of fire of his own design, keeping himself embodied by sheer willpower alone. He will never mention to anyone, except possibly Aziraphale and then only if he’s drunk, that he at such a key moment in his life he had immediately thought of Jesus’s words. As a rule, demons are definitely not intended to find any personal strength in any quote from Jesus Christ. But this was really just a comment that an old friend had made in passing, a long time ago. It was something Jesus said, not Something Jesus Said, Crowley repeatedly reminds himself.

Chapter Text

BEFORE TIME

 

“I’m going to put it in Serpens Caput. No, Ophiuchus. It will be like if Artemisia were a star. If you could take all that bitter principle, and make it out of light –” Raphael’s unfinished blueprints and diagrams - including those depicting the proposed star, various methods of medicinal plant extraction, and several herbaceous dicot seedlings - are pinned over the clean grey walls of Heaven’s basements. Rows of windows up near the ceiling to offer a celestial view of the stars stretching away into Eternity, and the rest of the room is filled with spare desks and chairs in the same monochrome silver-white. Sometimes new angel trainings are held down here, and that sort of thing, but Raphael is primarily seeking personal space – everyone is so tense lately, and disapproving looks from other angels are making it difficult to concentrate on their work.

“Which, the Almighty says you can’t.” Lucifer’s smile holds a wrongness for which a word does not yet exist, and darkness is twisting thru his whole aura, as though built-up enmity against the Almighty is making invisible cracks in the gold of his halo. “Is that it?”

“Same concept, right? It's not about the substance. It's the concept. The action. Wormwood, you see. It’s grounding, it’s focused, it pulls scattered energy back the core.” Stars have cores, humans have cores, and neither Lucifer nor any of their other divine siblings seem to understand that you really can make anything out of anything. The cosmos are like paint and clay, right now, waiting to be molded by anyone with the will to do it. (The will and the permission, Gabriel reminds them.) They’d made Alpha Serpentis with a stick fallen from a birch tree in Greenhouse (1) and the angelic hymn that had been stuck in their head at the time, because they’d had an idea, and those were the most conveniently available materials. They held onto the stick – it was useful.

Raphael has made the ink on the pages come alive and move as if the text were one great living snake, and the diagrams of seeds seem to come alive and repeatedly re-sprout new cotyledons and then close again. This isn’t actually normal behavior for ink on walls even in Heaven - but Raphael’s mind isn’t words, it’s things and movement, and they’d needed to see their model in action in order to file the paperwork necessary to justify their choices to the Almighty. And they couldn’t imagine that the ink wouldn’t do what they’d asked.

“It’s too unstable - She’ll never approve it. What are you going to do? Just fling it out the window before She can reject your model? You’re not that much of a star-maker,” Lucifer claps him on the shoulder in a way that is probably supposed to be companionable. “You should stick to your plants.”

It’s true - they love every star in Serpens, and they’d been delighted to join in the work on Alpha and Beta Centauri, but they have a particular style when it comes to star-making, and it isn’t always what the Almighty claims to have had in mind. Gabriel is forever telling them, no, you’re making it too bright, that’s not the right shape at all...  Gabriel had not been a fan of the Red Square Nebula, but Raphael thought it one of their greatest creations. “But that’s precisely what I was talking about before. She puts so many limits on what I can and cannot do with my plants.  It is God who decides how much healing we get.” Lucifer is the only person with whom they can speak so and not fear repercussions, and this is comforts and unnerves them in equal measure.

The other archangel’s laugh is seemingly meant to be empathetic, but it sounds like broken glass. “Can’t give an angel a name like that. Too many syllables.”

Raphael makes a noncommittal noise of agreement and reaches back into the stash of manna that they’d kept hidden away under an empty chair. It was one of those things that occasionally could help them to focus on their work, but recently it tastes dry and empty – superficially similar in appearance to their amanita mushrooms, but as bland as though all the color has been drained from it. “Manna?” They hold out a piece.

Lucifer wrinkles his nose.

Raphael exhales a half-laugh as they shrug and takes the Food of Heaven for themself. “Do you know that when the humans are on Earth, they’re going to literally build their own bodies by eating plants they dig from the ground and the corpses of animals they kill? The humans are built to be healed by plants. It’s fascinating. Their hearts have bitter taste receptors. If their livers aren’t exposed to little bits of toxic things all the time, they get bored and stop working. They need a tiny bit of poison. There are such contradictions in every part of their bodies.” They are glad that someone is willing to listen to them at all, and pretend not to notice that Lucifer is rolling his golden eyes.

“We don’t all share your visceral love of the humans, Raphael,” the other says, more than a little dismissively. But Raphael can’t take it personally, really, because Lucifer is not well, lately. He’s blazing brighter than a hypergiant star, and his eyes are so fiery that Raphael worries that he will burn himself.

“Course you don’t. Not your job, is it?” asks Raphael. “But listen, the new wormwood I made, is even stronger than the last one. It can fight. She was telling me about something called Pestilence, and I thought… maybe it will help.” He frowns at one of the wormwood diagrams on the wall, and then smudges it with his finger to change the shape of the leaf. By now there are so many images pinned to the grey basement, that it looks more like an art display than office work.

“It’s made of fiber and chlorophyll,” Lucifer says dismissively. “Listen, the real reason I came, is that I’m having a meeting in here tonight. Do you mind?” From his tone, it clearly doesn’t matter if Raphael minds or not.

“Oh, of course, I’ll just find somewhere else to - ” They wave a hand, and papers begin to detach themselves from the wall and float down to join the rest of their scrolls on a nearby desk.

“No, please stay,” the other archangel insists, flicking his own fingers at the papers to pin them back to the grey walls. “We could use your input. You’ve got some valuable ideas. You ask good questions.” Lucifer inspires loyalty; his friendship clings to his admirers like spiderweb. Once they choose him, they cannot let go. Raphael never intentionally makes this choice. They are more or less the equivalent of a science nerd working on their latest experiment in the back of the room where their older brother happens to be holding a covert meeting with a group of political dissidents planning to overthrow God. Lucifer says: “There’s a lot to discuss - you’re not the only one unhappy with working conditions around here.  We cannot, ethically, go on like this.” 

Raphael begins to nod, changes their mind halfway, and shakes their head. They open their mouth to protest that they’d really just wanted some personal space, not a revolution. “Listen, you’re not wrong, the way you’re going about this is dangerous – ”

“Then it’s a good thing I have a healer with me.” Lucifer claps them on the shoulder in a manner that feels more controlling than companionable as he stalks from the room.

When the other archangel returns, a few of his cronies greet Raphael as though they’re one of them, and offer them a chair. And Gadreel is glaring at them so pointedly that they figure they might as well join the meeting at the front of the room and pretend not to hear the other angels refer to Lucifer as Lord. The ink of their diagrams, still pinned to the back wall, goes still, occasionally jumping to life again if they fidget and sit in a new position.

The topic tonight is unionizing, apparently, but Raphael isn’t actually paying much attention. They casually fiddle with a few amanita mushrooms that they’d borrowed from the Greenhouse, because they’d had an idea of how to refine them and it was hard to think with Gabriel looking over their shoulder. Sprawled the wrong way on the chair, they sit with their legs on the desk, throwing mushrooms up and down and catching them, for most of the meeting. At the time, it really doesn’t feel much more ungodly than watching Michael and Uriel bicker about some unimportant aspect of Flaming Sword Training in an archangels’ board meeting.

“Any questions?” Lucifer asks.

 

 

EIGHT DAYS AFTER THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

“Well, I think a jolly good time was had by all,” Aziraphale says to Crowley’s back, as brightly as he can, as they watch the Them retreat up the road. Crowley had given Adam his number and the not-antichrist had promised to call in the normal way before engaging in any serious magical endeavours. The children walk four abreast like a proud committee of angels, the last rays of sunset illuminating their upturned faces. The stars they have just seen up close in vivid detail, are beginning to shine out one by one, and Adam points out those that he now recognizes, while Brian supplies the ones he forgets. Pepper has acquired a fallen tree-branch slightly taller than she is, and uses it as a walking-stick as she marches alongside them. Dog occasionally nips excitedly at the bottom of the stick.

“Crowley?”

Crowley is pacing in circles alongside the Bentley, still holding the birch branch that he’d used to transport them outside this plane of reality, gaze tilted up to the sky as though not quite ready to pull himself back down to Earth. He throws the staff a few feet into the air and catches it, as though trying to get a feel for its weight. A single crimson mushroom pushes its way out of the decaying leaves and gravel at his feet, spreading into its mature form, and then withering back into the earth. Aziraphale realizes that the demon is Having A Moment and not intentionally ignoring him, but he can’t help thinking that Crowley metaphysically feels a lot further away - like a mountain he’d thought he’d already climbed, only to find himself at the bottom again. But then the demon turns to face him, and he’s half-smiling as easily as he had before all of the revelations of the day, and Aziraphale feels something in his chest unclench.

“Thank you for showing me your stars, dear. I, er, like the one with the blue swirly bit.” Aziraphale wants to say something more like, you look absolutely resplendent in the starlight. He also wants to say, this whole time you were an archangel and you didn’t tell me. But that’s not really an easy thing to say. Sure, it’s a revelation for Aziraphale, but not exactly one for Crowley.  He knows what his name used to be, and he presumably had good reason for not wanting to mention it before. And under his astonishment, Aziraphale is experiencing something like the feeling that he gets upon finishing a particularly difficult crossword. There have always been things about Crowley that didn’t add up, lots of them, stored away in a messy ledger in the back of Aziraphale’s psyche, and now some of those pieces are falling together.

Aziraphale is not quite as gullible as he comes across. Sometimes his desire to believe in people’s inherent goodness is stronger than that goodness itself. Sometimes feigning to be a bit more gullible than he actually is, can be the best means of evading a difficult situation. In this case, he fancies that he can see the inherent goodness in the demon before him as clearly as he can see the wistful look in his eyes as he clutches his staff like a living staff-of-Asclepius symbol.  You should keep the stick, Adam had said.  You look like a wizard.

“Adam was right,” Crowley says. “The humans did ruin it with their chemical names. I like the blue swirly ones, as well.” There is a fantastical gap in Crowley’s thinking, in which he’d wanted so badly to share everything about himself with Aziraphale, because he wants to believe that the angel will accept him for it and not be weird about it, but, “You know, without thinking it through, I could do this without actually letting slip my, you know.” He gestures in the air with the staff. This is the same approximate degree of rational thinking as I’ll just hang out here with Lucifer for a bit, don’t have to get too involved, or if the antichrist’s upbringing isn’t enough to quench his satanic nature, I’m sure we can deal with that then.

“Your name?”

Under the attentive look that Aziraphale usually wears with him (2), he imagines that the angel’s features are clouded with a bit of the near-invisible resentment that he gets around the corners of his eyes while talking about Michael or Uriel, and Crowley doesn’t want that at all. He stops his pacing and fidgeting. “Yeah. That.”

“If you don’t want me to say it out loud, dear, then I won’t.” Aziraphale is as determined to not let Crowley slip any farther away as Crowley is relieved to still be called dear. “But Adam was right - you should keep the staff. It’s a good look for you.”

“I couldn’t have said anything sooner, you understand. It was none of Heaven’s businesss.” Crowley is standing up a bit too straight, at an almost-normal human angle that looks utterly unnatural on him.

“I understand,” says Aziraphale, not entirely sure that he does, but this is still Crowley, no matter who he used to be, and therefore regardless of what matter they’re discussing they always eventually come to understand one other. “I understand,” he repeats, a shiver running through his voice, “but I must know, did you mean what you said, about.”

“Realistic fiction? Shoddy writing?” Crowley has grown very accustomed to picking up on Aziraphale’s loose trails of conversation over the millennia. “Yeah, of course. I may be a demon, but I wouldn’t lie to you about anything that matters.”

 

-

 

It was a conversation that had begun in 155 B.C. after their Arrangement with Tobit had apparently been disrupted by archangel interference. “Do you think this was part of the Great Plan? Sending Raphael here intentionally to take over my miracle, I mean?” Though his question was half-rhetorical, Aziraphale was unsure what he hoped the answer to be. “No, wait, please don’t answer that. But if She had – if She knew about our Arrangement and didn’t like it – ” He paused. “I’ve been told that the humans are going to be writing a lot more holy texts, soon,” he explained at last, “and I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the moral, somehow. Our Arrangement, I mean, and Raphael taking over. If it weren’t only the matter of proper burial services and a giant fish and so forth, but also us. If we’re the symbolism, as well.”

“I doubt it.” Crowley hadn’t met Aziraphale’s eyes, but at the time the angel hadn’t thought much of it – before the invention of tinted glasses, the demon had often preferred to avoid direct eye contact. “For my money, it was a lucky coincidence.”

Subsequently, Aziraphale had patiently waited for some sort of passive-aggressive “you’re welcome” note from the archangel Raphael, the kind he’d expect from Michael or Gabriel: to Principality Aziraphale, Angel of the Eastern Gate, greetings. It was a pity that I did not get a chance to speak to you while performing your assigned miracle in Nineveh, but I am sure that you were travelling to the city with all haste and would have done an excellent job yourself if you had been there, which I noticed you did not seem to be. I found it a great honor to carry out God’s work in your place…

No message had come. Some weeks later, Uriel had been sent to enquire as to whether or not he’d spoken directly with Raphael or had any prior connection with him. Aziraphale’s stomach had been tying itself into knots at the risk that his head office might find out that he was never in Nineveh at all, and his fear must have shown on his face. But he wasn’t lying when he assured his supervisor that he really didn’t know anything about the archangel Raphael: surely he would be more likely to get in touch with another archangel than the likes of me, never even met him, not so much as a letter or a quick hello, wouldn’t recognize him if he were standing right in front of me, so sorry I can’t be more helpful.

Uriel had narrowed their eyes even more than usual, as though searching for a lie, but did not question the validity of his answers. But Uriel had been cold to Aziraphale ever since that whole affair with the Ark, in any case - although they’d made no public accusations against the principality, it was not so surprising to see a sneer curling their lip, their face a few inches from his. The glare of the gold leaf across their nose and forehead was so intense that he felt as dizzy as if he were staring into the sun.

“I will let you know if he gets in touch.” Aziraphale had arranged his mouth into the most sincere smile that he could muster, while their eyes were twin stars boring straight into his soul and wrenching it out through his throat.

Uriel had outright scoffed at that, which Aziraphale found quite impolite, as he was only telling the truth. But they had left him alone after the paperwork had been verified, and for a while, he was too busy with work to worry overmuch about the divine moral of his own story.

 

-

 

Because it was rather overwhelming to think about, Aziraphale had intentionally pushed the matter of either religious morals or the archangel Raphael from his mind until 33 A.D. After the massive quantities of alcohol required to wash the lingering image of the crucifixion out of their minds, he had mentioned to Crowley the rumors of recent sightings of Raphael in an asclepion just outside of Jerusalem, only a year or two beforehand.

“Can’t’ve been. I was, er. Doing pagan idolatry...” Crowley had slurred and hissed at once, looking like she’d rather like to drown in her wine glass. “Saw the angel up clossse. Looked nothing like ‘im at all. Had, um. White wingsss… blond hair.” At the time, Aziraphale had attributed the demon’s frigid tone to the stress of the day. Sure, the human would be rising back up from the dead soon, but it still hadn’t been fun for either of them to watch.

“I only thought I should thank him.” Aziraphale spoke morosely into his own glass. “For that one time in Nineveh. Oh, I do hope he doesn’t think I’ve been impolite.”

“’M sure he knowss you’re grateful.” Crowley flops back with her head tilted against the arm of the couch, speaking upside-down to the wall behind her rather than to the angel.

“Maybe for the best,” Aziraphale had allowed, needing to keep this conversation going because every time he looked back into his wine he saw the Son of God’s blood. “It would have been a lot for me. I mean, it wasn’t me, it was you. I only mean,” he sighed, flustered, thinking that the only thing that could feel worse than his muddled drunken head would be to sober up and have to dwell on the crucifixion all over again. “It was a bigger job than they usually give to principalities. As you mentioned.”

“’M sure that you’d’ve done a fine job. On your own. If you’d’d to.” This was exactly the opposite of the opinion that the demon had shared on the matter before, which is how Aziraphale knew that Crowley was trying to be kind. He also knew better than to acknowledge aloud that he knew she was trying to be kind. “And… if you had… th’ Almighty should bloody well appreciate you ’s much as any archangel.” She’d sneered the last word in a way that Aziraphale would have found discomfiting if he were any less drunk.

She does seem to have a weakness for - well, heroes from humble beginnings. It makes the story more… poignant.”

“Right,” Crowley had said, wincing horribly as she sobered herself up enough to sit upright and form sentences. “Poignant. But She’s the one picking all the heroes, great and small, isn’t She? She picks one, and She says: you’ll fight a magic fish, or whatever. The Son of God was born in a stable, sure, but she’s the one who put him there.”

After re-drinking all the alcohol she’d dragged out of her system, Crowley had chosen to pass out rather than sober up again, and Aziraphale found himself privately, unangelically envying her temporary state of oblivion more than he blamed her for it.

 

-

 

It hadn’t been long after, in around 80 A.D, that Aziraphale had gotten the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the famed apostle-turned-prophet John of Patmos. He was a very pleasant human to converse with, if the mushroom scent did linger a bit, and before Aziraphale had left with a rare signed first-draft scroll of the Book of Revelation (3), they’d had ample time for a long chat about the art of prophecy and the wording of holy texts and so forth. Apparently, a year or two prior to the crucifixion, John had acquired a taste for fly agaric mushrooms, which he claimed improved his clarity of prophetic ability. He’d found a ring of them growing alongside a clump of artemisia plants outside an inn in his apostle days, during a nice conversation with a friend of Yeshua’s, a few days after that famous miracle at the Pool of Bethesda.

It had particularly intrigued the angel that John swore up and down that it had been Raphael putting miracles into the water at Bethesda by stirring the water with a staff. Though John hadn’t himself seen the archangel, Yeshua had told his beloved disciple without a trace of doubt that it was so.

“He spoke with him personally?” Aziraphale thought he was doing a very good job of posing as a human who just so happened to be travelling to the small Greek island where John had been banished, and he tried to sound academically interested rather than professionally involved.

“Most definitely,” the apostle-turned-hermit had assured him. He had a fond look in his eyes when he spoke about Yeshua, a sort of reverence that was even deeper than the usual respect that humans used when speaking of angels or God. Aziraphale found it touching that God’s child inspired this kind of loyalty in his followers, and tried to think why that look seemed so familiar (4).

The conversation eventually turned - as it usually did with John, in those days – to the End Times and the prophesied apocalypse in his newest manuscript. “But why wormwood, of all things,” Aziraphale had muttered, after several hours of exclaiming oh my! and dear Lord as the human read him excerpts from Revelation, and then immediately stumbled to correct himself.

“Here’s God’s truth: I have no idea,” John had replied, in his usual slow, pensive tone, annunciating every syllable. “A vision came to me, that there could be a star called wormwood - there was a diagram and everything. I don’t need to understand it. The Lord wanted it in His book, and it’s the story that counts.”

That had caught Aziraphale off guard, because it was the sort of thing John would never have said in his pre-exile days, and he couldn’t decide if it was blasphemy or not. This could make things uncomfortable if he did end up revealing himself as an angel. But he decided to give the prophet the benefit of the doubt, if only because the mushrooms seemed to have muddled the human’s mind a bit, and because he couldn’t imagine that someone who had written so many holy texts and been such a devout disciple of God’s son wouldn’t know what they were talking about.

Aziraphale still couldn’t help but assume that the whole vision, and possibly the entire prophetic text, had something to do with amanita mushroom consumption, but he kept this to himself.  Here was someone who understood ineffability.

 

-

 

Aziraphale started to think more seriously about whether it was the moral or the story that counts with the invention of the novel - a feat which, although he had been honored to be involved in, had not been strictly his own. He could not shake the thought that God wasn’t just writing a sequel to the Bible, with a series of religious lessons meant to inspire future generations, but something much worse and more intimate - like gothic romance, or maybe something closer to the novels of sensibility that had become so popular in the eighteenth century.

That was it: for a little while, the human authors were absolutely over-the-top obsessed with the emotional response. Plots were arranged specifically to drag out as much emotion as possible in the reader and character alike. Drawn-out moments of distress and tenderness were valued for their ability to raise feelings, and to the sentimental authors, feeling was the goal. It was hardly even the story that counted, as much as it was a leaping experience like the feathers of doves fluttering in one’s chest, or coals sending flecks of anger against one’s stomach. And emotional response reminded Aziraphale intrinsically of the Almighty’s divine Grace: something which he could not have defined or quantified, and yet which, metaphorically speaking, took empty words and filled them with something more than the sum of their letters on a page.

He decided that this is what John had been talking about at Patmos, and was very relieved to have found a godly explanation for the prophet’s elusive words.

He’d dwelt upon this concept for at least a century, until after the novel of sensibility had long gone out of style, and finally mentioned it to Crowley in 1862, while feeding the ducks of St. James’s Park. Crowley was actually the only one who knew about Aziraphale’s penchant for a certain style of passionate, and sometimes sappy, eighteenth-century novel, though the demon might not have been aware of this.

Crowley had made a vague gesture that seemed to imply told-you-so, but between the sunglasses and top hat, it was difficult to tell. “That’s how everything got so buggered. This isn’t Sumerian mythology or an epic ballad, it’s the kind of story that gets some poor human woman kicked out of a boarding house for keeping a copy under her bed.”

“But stories are how the humans make sense of things,” Aziraphale had said, “and they’re supposed to move you, with you know - the divine artistry of Her Grace, or the majesty of God’s earth, or. Well. If that’s what’s moving their souls and such - if that’s what they’re trying to make sense of, why shouldn’t She feel the same?” He was proud of himself, to have worked this all out in a way that he felt was complimentary of both God and Heaven.

“Sure,” Crowley had said, “But you’re forgetting, this isn’t a human making sense of the world. This is God. She made any sense that’s here in this world at all.  We’re processing Her emotions. If she’s getting sentimental, it’s not for our benefit.”

“We’re making the same point.” Aziraphale was not entirely sure that this was true, but wanted to cancel this conversation before it careened any deeper into sacrilege.

“We are,” Crowley had agreed moodily, “but you like it, and I’m not sure I do. Sometimes I think, if She toned it down, we’d all be better off.”

Aziraphale tossed another piece of bread to the ducks. “Crowley, She’s… God. She doesn’t need to write realistic fiction.”

But after that whole mess of a discussion about holy water, their earlier conversation had been largely dropped until the next time holy water had become an issue.

 

-

 

And so Aziraphale had let the matter drop until Crowley had brought it up again, on a wooden bench in the centre of Tadfield, about twenty minutes after Armageddon: what if this were her plan all along?

But then, another ten minutes and at least seven conversation topics later, on the bus to London, Aziraphale had mused, “I don’t know why it should have to be us.” The resounding stress and shock of the day was mixing with half a bottle of wine into a floating feeling in his abdomen that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. His new corporeal form looked and behaved like the old one, but it felt a bit stiff, like a new jacket that hasn’t been broken in yet. “Wouldn’t it have been better if it were Michael or Uriel or someone? Preventing the apocalypse. Champion of humans.”

“Because that’s shoddy writing, that’s what it is,” Crowley had explained, immediately picking up on which prior thread of conversation Aziraphale had been following, in a manner that one can only do after six thousand years of friendship. “It makes the whole thing less realistic. And it sends the wrong moral. If we were anyone who mattered, and we saved the world, She’s just sent the message that only important people save the world. You’ve seen what important people do to the world.”

“I don’t disagree, precisely,” Aziraphale had said, “but I’m not sure it would have to be for the moral. Nothing has ever quite got me the same as, oh I don’t know…”

“Your novels of sensibility.”

Aziraphale had been thinking of any number of respectable classic texts about royalty and gods and so forth coming into their inherited destinies, but Crowley’s smile seemed so fond and his gentle teasing so kind, that Aziraphale could not bring himself to correct him. He thought again of Agnes Nutter’s last prophecy about playing with fyre, hidden away safely in the pocket of his waistcoat. He pulled the scrap of paper out and held it up to one of the bus’s dim overhead lights. “If I were the Almighty, writing a novel of any genre, designed to elicit a certain emotional response, and two protagonists – ”

Antagonist, still a demon here, yeah?”

“If, in the grand conclusion, two characters were facing charges of treason, I might come up with an ineffable coincidence.”

The last bewildered human had exited the bus. The driver appeared too dazed by the rains of fishes and flaming motorways that she may (or may not) have seen that afternoon, to wonder why her two remaining passengers appeared to be switching bodies - or why she was driving to London at all.

Under his long list of hurried instructions for Crowley regarding how he should present himself in Heaven, Aziraphale had privately thought that Crowley is the only person he’s ever known who he would trust so completely with his earthly vessel.

Crowley, on the other hand, appeared edgy, and not in the ordinary way that comes with the anomaly of watching your body seated next to you and entirely beyond your control or perception. It looked more like the awkwardness that Aziraphale might experience if he found someone he didn’t know very well rifling through his private belongings, and he had an odd rush of shame that Crowley did not seem to share his sense of absolute trust. “Listen, don’t pull my wings out unless you absolutely have to, angel.” It’s strange to hear Crowley’s short, light-lipped words emerge from his own body.

“Darling, I would never...” His words in Crowley’s voice had felt equally strange, and he lets them trail off.

“And if you’ve got no other choice, you’d want to focus on - how they looked last time.”

Aziraphale looked down at Crowley’s hands in his lap. It was strange to see them clasped so primly, both feet on the floor directly beneath him, and he immediately attempted to sprawl out into a more Crowley-like posture. His palms were composed almost entirely red-and-black snakeskin like tiny mosaic tiles, and he honestly wouldn’t have known that about Crowley otherwise. It must be such a bother to concentrate so hard on glamoring them all the time.

“You’ve got to focus - yeah, like that - no, fingernails shorter.”

For the last ten or so minutes of their bus ride, Crowley had drifted briefly off to sleep in Aziraphale’s body, head slumped slightly against Aziraphale’s shoulder in Crowley’s body. As the angel had never slept in his life, it had been as jarring to watch how peaceful his own face looked in slumber, as it had been to find Crowley dozing off against him as though this were something they had always done. Trust, apparently, was not precisely Crowley’s issue. Aziraphale felt the same sort of delighted, tingly awe that he usually associated with small animals falling asleep on his lap.

He was terrifyingly unsure as to whether he wanted their ruse to work - of course he had no desire to be obliterated, but the whole situation held a lot of implications about the Almighty and Ineffability and whatever genre it was that she was writing for the world. It was entirely too much to ponder from within his demon’s body.

 

-

 

 These are a few of the memories fluttering through Aziraphale’s head like so many opened manuscripts on a windy day, when Crowley says, “I wouldn’t lie to you about anything that matters.”

Anything that matters,” the angel repeats. He’s experiencing something like what he’d felt when Crowley had fallen asleep against his shoulder on the bus from Tadfield to London, as though any sudden movement might cause the demon to retreat.

“Because it really doesn’t,” Crowley clarifies, with a tone that others might read as vehemence but which Aziraphale recognizes from their millennia together as self-consciousness and a bit of pleading. “It matters just barely enough that it’s something you should know, because I don’t want to have secrets from you. You know - it took everything from the intentional misfiling of several medical documents in ancient Rome, to an American Army computer hack last century, to get the humans to put me into their medical symbol, and I couldn’t even brag about it at the time (5).” Crowley sees that Aziraphale is not entirely convinced - maybe because, being unspoken, the name Raphael itself feels like a raincloud hovering between them. “Listen, angel, I’m glad you got to see my stars. I’m glad the kids got to see my stars. That’s all. Irrelevant.” Crowley turns partly back toward his car, as though seeking moral support from it. “I don’t want to go back to the city yet,” he says at last, because this seems to be what the Bentley is suggesting, though he knows full well that their conversation is not really closed.

“Me neither.”

“I still owe you that picnic,” the demon offers, “if it’s not too dark and spooky for you.” The early September sunset is all but gone from the horizon, and the moon is new, but the sky is clear, and Aziraphale cannot imagine anything lovelier.

So Crowley lays his staff across the backseat of the Bentley with a slow, wistful reverence, where it lies without a speck of dirt or scrap of loose bark, and then opens the passenger door for Aziraphale. They purchase the best wine available from the general store in the center of the village (miraculously much nicer than expected), as well as bread and cheese and Aziraphale’s favorite chocolates (which the shop owner did not remember ever having in stock), and find a high place to sit on the other side of the quarry. There, they settle down on the tartan picnic-blanket that had manifested in the back of the Bentley, and while dusk turns into night and the stars emerge into clearer focus, they discuss everything from their memories of Warlock’s worst childhood escapades to Aziraphale’s criticisms of twenty-first-century literature.

“Crowley?” Aziraphale asks finally, after a few moments of companionable silence. “There is one thing about you that I simply must know.”

Crowley, who had been very much enjoying watching Aziraphale daintily consume the last of his chocolates, pulls his gaze away from the angel’s lips and steels himself for any number of difficult questions.

“In the first century, did you, by any chance, provide John the Apostle with some of your magical mushrooms?”

 

---

 

(1) This, incidentally, permanently altered the growth habit of the birch tree and is the reason that birch trees do not have lower branches. They would reuse this symbolism in one of their later mushroom religions.

(2) Attentive - or, as anyone other than Crowley might have described it, adoring, or in love.

(3) Aziraphale categorized this document among his prophetic works rather than biblical misprints, because of its relevance to Armageddon, but later he would regret not having the opportunity to question John more closely about the quote: “A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people healed from the water, because it had been made bitter.”

(4) It was the same look that Crowley often wore while talking to Aziraphale, but this wouldn’t occur to him for almost two millennia.

(5) The argument about whether the symbol should have wings is as old as the argument as to whether demons have wings – and as petty, in Crowley’s mind, as the matter of whether snakes should have wings. Crowley has wings, of course, four of them, but Satan gets jealous when he pulls them all out at once. The demon had played both sides and deliberately re-written several ancient Greek manuscripts in order to confuse the matter intentionally, as a passive bit of spite against his boss and also God, hidden under a trail of befuddled miscommunication which no one could specifically trace back to him.

Chapter Text

1978 A.D.

 

When Crowley had first invented the radio interview, he could not have anticipated this ingenuity rebounding against him quite so personally. But when a botany professor interviewed on BBC4 had suggested complimenting his plants to improve their health - you are growing lovely today, that sort of thing - it got him oddly nostalgic. And demons, as a rule, are not meant to feel nostalgia. The scientist had explained, in very simple terms, that wind and vibration will induce changes in plant growth, and that this is, therefore, a reaction to the human voice vibrating at certain frequencies.

That used to be how you created plants, more or less. In the Beginning, everything was vibration. Everything was made from word and song. He’d known his plants like sentient stories, written and rewritten as he altered the hues of their petals or the form of their lenticels. When he’d entered the Greenhouses of Heaven, the flora had turned their faces toward his as though he were sunlight, welcoming him, eager to be a part of Creation.

In Eden, reunited with the results of his labours, he’d greeted them by name, but Crowley’s plants had shrunk in horror from his voice. After all, demonic voices don’t vibrate with the same frequencies as their angelic or human counterparts. And though a minor miracle can whisk away leaf spots or root rots as often as required, in the end, it’s no different than a stain on Aziraphale’s prized camelhair jacket. Crowley would know it was only his own power that had dragged it back to health. It simply wasn’t the same as watching a living plant grow hale and strong because it could feel the Almighty’s grace moving through you.

Crowley’s single houseplant is a dwarf fig whose paper-thin hand-shaped leaves flutter as he lifts it for inspection. He’d rooted the tree from the broken branch of a sickly, yellowed sapling in a local shopping area, following a discussion with Aziraphale, in which the angel had romanticized the humans' theory that the fruit in the garden of Eden had been a fig.

(But we both know it wasn’t, Crowley had protested.

Yes, but if it had been, it would have made such a good metaphor for their love. There is something particularly sensual about figs.

Crowley had raised his eyebrows at that. The tree that covers their nakedness is the tree that stole their innocence, is that it?

I. Er. Well. Aziraphale had said.)

In 3982 B.C., as the rye in Cain’s fields turned chlorotic with drought, Crowley had tried to call the plants back upright by speaking to them as he might have in Heaven’s greenhouses. But this had only hastened their demise, as though all the water in their xylem had turned to black and viscous demon-blood. The tops of the rye had split open with ergot like necrotic claws.

Nothing had been strictly wrong with the crop after he'd raised it back up with a minor demonic miracle – no one took ill from consuming it, anyway, though the humans' fate was ultimately no better for that. But it hadn’t been the same as the days when he'd requested that his plants grow, and they had done so out of nothing more than love and absolute trust for his angelic nature. Crowley did not talk to plants after that incident, apart from Satanically-approved standbys like thistle and autumn crocus. If the plants were too high and mighty to listen to a demon, well, he didn’t need them or their scorn anyhow.

But now the humans are making everything brilliantly overcomplicated with their sciences – they make it seem so exciting and modern, and the concept allures him despite all his misgivings. The demon takes off his sunglasses and stares directly into the terminal bud of the small tree, trying to summon the will to reach out to this young, innocent Ficus carica and have his demonic love destroy it again.

He can’t. He already knows how this will go. It’s like repeatedly releasing a drop of holy water from an eyedropper onto your bare skin and expecting a different result. “I desssigned you,” he snarls at its wilting leaves, “you were a massterpiece, and now you won’t even lisssten to me, will you? ‘Sss cause I’m a demon, hmm? You’re too good for me?”

The tree’s leaves, oversized for its height, wave like the hands of a drowning person. If potted plants could squeal with fear, this one would do so.

“I didn’t assk for thiss.” Crowley’s voice drips with venom. “I wanted to be niccce to you.” He shakes his head disparagingly, knowing full well that the tree is not to blame – that it’s the Almighty with whom he’s truly furious. “Can’t let you go ssspreading that around. Plants have ears.” He grips the pot so tightly that the ceramic cracks beneath his demonic grip. “Oh don’t look at me like that, I know you can hear me, you worthless mass of fibre and chlorophyll.” He shakes the plant pot a bit, and the tree’s slender trunk seems to recoil against the soil like a demon bowing to the Devil.

“You can tell Her I sent you,” he concludes, spitefully upturning tree and soil alike into a nearby bucket. Its exposed white roots shrink away from him in fear, still clinging to life, still utterly silent and unwilling to connect with him, even its last sordid moments of existence. Crowley scowls so emphatically that the plant instantly wilts into well-aged compost. The surface bursts forth with fly agaric mushrooms that break each other apart in their haste as they spread their canopies across the top of the bucket like a speckled red blanket.

Crowley glares once more, even more glaringly, and the mushrooms erupt in flames, settling back into the container in a dusting of ashes.

He drives directly to the nearest plant nursery, where he purchases twelve different species of shade-tolerant medicinal houseplants, none of which have had the dubious honour of witnessing a demon have an emotional breakdown at a potted fruit tree because he secretly did want to be nice and couldn’t bear to have his efforts fail.

He makes sure they never do.

 

 

THURSDAY AFTERNOON

 

Surrounded by Crowley’s hellishly luscious plants in their plastic and cement holdings, nearly convulsing in terror as they cower from the demon’s voice, Aziraphale thinks that nothing could be further from Eden or the Love of God’s Earthly Creations. Watching Crowley stalk from plant to plant to scowl and reprimand – “I leave for three days, and this is how you grow? You can’t be trusted for anything, can you?” – Aziraphale can’t help but ponder as to how greatly one has to be hurt before choosing to be so willfully cruel to a living being who one so unmistakably loves. He feels a strange rush of affection and wonder and sorrow all at once, that his angel should simultaneously have been the Archangel of Healing, and reduced to this, and also the most beautiful person he’s ever seen, all at once. He finds that he cannot picture a version of Crowley who would have greeted a plant with angelic Grace. But though the thought nags and lingers, it’s neither here nor there: Aziraphale is specifically in love with the Houseplants’ Bane and not any prior angel, even if –

Crowley has crouched down before a small fig tree in the corner, its vibrant, eerily healthy leaves shrinking from his touch. “I told you to make figs for my angel,” he snarls, seemingly unaware of Aziraphale’s presence behind him. “Multiple figs, plural. What’s this? One, single fruit? Do you think that’s enough? Do you think he doesn’t deserve better?” In Crowley’s psyche, recent events are making this feel oddly symbolic: Aziraphale deserves better!

The angel clears his throat meaningfully as he steps in place beside him. “Oh, I think it’s lovely!” he exclaims, knowing that if Crowley has been specifically terrorizing a plant for Aziraphale that this is a deliberate and deep show of affection on the demon’s part. “Don’t listen to him.” He reaches out and touches the tree’s smooth bark with the same affection he itches to show to the demon beside him.

“You’ve let me down,” Crowley tells the F. carica, which makes a good show of continuing to shiver, even though it now knows deep in its roots that the angel will not let any harm come to it. “You’ve let us both down.”

“Oh, not at all! I’m sure it’s the best fig that any tree could possibly make,” Aziraphale coos in a voice not unlike the one he'd used with baby Warlock.

The fig tree had known of the fate of its predecessors but was also aware of Crowley’s precise intent in growing the most sensual and symbolic of fruits for Aziraphale. After a lifetime of watching the demon pace back and forth in a manner that could only be described as pining, while evil wrestled with good in the stone statue just behind him, the tree had decided to take matters into its own hands (or, leaves). One single, picturesque fruit was simply more romantic than a whole tree. It was a calculated risk, and the plant has finally reached the moment it had been preparing for all its short life.

Crowley very carefully detaches the fruit from its stalk with his fingernail and holds it out to Aziraphale, resting on his upturned palm like a holy offering. “Can I tempt you to a single, luscious fruit from this tree who, er. Tried its best.”

“I've been tempted!” Aziraphale exclaims delightedly, accepting the gift. It invokes the detail in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in which a half-snake entity coiled around a tree presents Eve with a fig, and he is aware that this was unmistakably deliberate. “No, ehm, forbidden knowledge, I hope.”

“No tricks,” Crowley affirms. “Not for you. Just fruit. I meant to grow you a whole tree of them. Had to release just the right species of wasp into the flat and everything, but someone couldn’t perform up to standard.” He gives the plant another disgusted look.

Aziraphale wonders how such a battered and traumatized tree could possibly create something so ecstatically sweet and rich, and Crowley enjoys observing the angel as he takes an unnecessarily long time to finish the fig in a long series of dainty bites. It’s not entirely clear whether the carnal look in the angel’s eyes is intended for Crowley or the fruit, and the demon makes a show of resuming his work while watching intently out of the corner of his eye.

“Scrumptious,” Aziraphale tells the tree affectionately. “You did an excellent job.” He turns to say something similar to Crowley.

But the demon has already returned to his previous task, which unfortunately consists of emptying unhealthy plants unceremoniously into a large black plastic bin in the centre of the room. The moment is immediately lost.

“Oh no. Are you sure? Oh, the poor dear. We can bring it home. We can take care of it – oh.

Crowley neatly tips another houseplant, soil and all, into the bin. “Nah, see there – ” Even as he points out the matrix of mottled, brown-and-purple spots spreading from the edges of its leaves and twisting nodules through its roots, the plant begins to wilt down into the decaying organic matter beneath it. “That one’s got a virus. You know… plant plague.”

While many home compost bins do not reach adequate temperatures to entirely destroy the microorganisms responsible for leaf-spots and blights, Crowley’s does so instantaneously. It takes little more than a pointed look and an occasional tiny breath of Hellfire for his bin of dead plants to be fully broken down and transformed into usable, nutrient-rich potting soil. You should sell this stuff, said his neighbour, whose cannabis had tripled in size the day he was gifted half a bucket of fresh compost. Crowley had plucked a fly agaric mushroom from the top of the bin and held it out to the human.  Can’t guarantee it’ll do much more than make you hurl, he’d said.  Fifty per cent chance. God’s idea. Not my fault (1).

There had been no compost amid the stark white walls of the Greenhouses of Heaven. The neat pots of soil never spilt and always contained the perfect equilibrium of soil nutrition. And nothing died in Heaven: if it wasn’t functioning properly, you kept working until you got it right. Sometimes the Almighty would come along and finish one of Crowley’s projects while they were away, and then leave further instructions without ever explaining Herself. It was like being the greenhouse assistant for an omnipotent manager who refills the soil-trays with the force of their will alone and is completely and undemocratically in charge of the end result of everyone’s labours but refuses to explain why they are building a garden in the first place.

But Crowley had liked the way decay built the soil up again, like a snake forever eating its tail (2). It was an appeal that Earth would always hold over Heaven.

“May he rest in peace.” Aziraphale bows his head solemnly. Then he gestures toward the remaining plants. “Can I bring these down to the car, dear, or do they need to be murdered as well?”

“Nah, that’s fine,” Crowley replies, pretending not to hear the simultaneously critical and adoring edge in Aziraphale’s tone. “Just leave them by the door, there’s…” He makes a sweeping gesture with an empty plant-pot that implies, a lot to deal with. They’ve agreed to bring Crowley’s things back to the bookshop until any more definite plans can be arranged. The boot of the Bentley has swollen to many times its original size on the inside, to easily accommodate a ten-foot-tall palm tree. And though Aziraphale had seen the demon’s flat while possessing his body, at the time he’d politely tried to avoid snooping - he had contented himself with gratitude that Adam had dealt with the charred circle of demon-goo beneath the doorframe, which based on Crowley’s description had been reminiscent of some of Warlock's unfortunate adventures with Brother Slug. Now, it’s less the contents of the flat itself that make Aziraphale uneasy, as it is the hollow contempt that Crowley exudes for the place that was supposed to be his home.

When they reach the bedroom, Crowley abruptly and dramatically flops sideways onto the bed with his face buried in one of its multitude of pillows and lies there unmoving. The bed is as wide as it is long, and the black silk sheets, the same colour as his clothing, seem to swallow him whole.

“I forgot.” Aziraphale stands back against the doorframe, faintly amused, and wonders what would happen if he were to lie down too. “You would have slept last night, wouldn’t you? If we hadn’t been out. That is what… sleeping people do.” A long night of stargazing had been decent enough rest for Aziraphale, but the demon is tuned to a different rhythm.

“A big miracle yesterday, that’s all.” His voice is muffled into the pillow. “Yeah, that’s all, angel. We were outside of this plane of reality for… long time. 'S not... really biologically necessary. Just. Tired.”

“I have been thinking about sleeping!” Aziraphale declares. “I might like to try it someday. I mean – I understand that you and the humans think it to be good for…” Angels cannot experience physical exhaustion, per se. But if pressed, Aziraphale would describe himself as both weary and whelmed.

Crowley lifts his face from the pillow enough to raise his eyebrows. “Angel, are you saying you're tired?”

“It’s been a long year,” he allows. “Although I would need some guidance from someone who knew what they were doing.”

Crowley detaches himself from the bed, languidly, like dragging himself out of a bog. “Later,” he promises. “I’d rather be done with this place.”

Aziraphale nods. There is nothing lived-in about Crowley’s flat. It’s desolate, and he wants to be rid of it and bring Crowley home with him immediately, and then find somewhere that he can grow his plants in some proper sunlight. And Crowley must have similar feelings; he barely appears to be packing at all, but rather giving his former living space a final long, furious glower. The safe has been emptied, and the original Mona Lisa sketch, vintage voicemail machine, unnecessarily large television, and a large pile of CDs and albums, are accumulating by the door - but even the unpacked areas of the flat feel as grey and barren as the moon.

“I like your throne, dear,” says Aziraphale, trying not to psychoanalyse it overmuch, as Crowley snatches up the Big Book of Astronomy from the centre of the desk. “You really meant it,” he adds softly, peering down at the cover. “But I mean - you looked at a map and everything.”

“Course I meant it. It really seemed like the only option, didn’t it? At the time.”

“You must know,” Aziraphale begins gingerly, “that I would never have said all that about being holier than thou, if I had known you were – ”

Aziraphale may, perhaps, at times, have deliberately goaded Crowley into shoving him up against a wall. On this occasion, however, he is genuinely confused and shaken (if not entirely displeased) to find himself pinned roughly to the cool grey cement, with Crowley’s spiderlike fingers digging into his shoulders. “Take it back,” the demon seethes. Their noses are only inches apart. “Have some blessed integrity, for G – for Satan’s – for fuck’s – no, for your own sake.”

“Oh, Crowley, I only meant – ” Up close he can see every detail of the snake tattoo on Crowley’s face, from its red underbelly to its tiny forked tongue. The demon’s eyes are narrowed into furious slits, and he is not blinking at all.

“I know what you meant,” Crowley fumes, his lips so close to angel’s that Aziraphale can see his tongue moving between his teeth. “And it’s a load of piss. If you feel that way, you might as well say Lucifer deserves special treatment. Or that Uriel has the right to treat you like something stuck to the bottom of their shoe.” He remembers himself a bit and backs off slightly, at a peculiar snakelike angle, hands back in his pockets, defensive. “This doesn’t change anything,” Crowley says, “It can’t.

Aziraphale instinctively knows that he means between us and also that, despite the enraged tone, it’s both a question and a plea. Still stunned, the angel keeps his back pressed to the wall, as the room still spins on the corners of his vision. He re-adjusts his collar where Crowley's hands had rumpled it. “Oh, my dear fellow, of course it doesn’t! I’ve been in love with you for simply ages, this doesn’t change…”

“Wait.” Stars of nervous anger are clearing from the corners of Crowley’s vision. “Could you say that again, but, er. Slower. Please.”

“I’ve been in love with you.” Aziraphale looks directly into Crowley’s eyes, yellow as wormwood blossoms or hardened sulfur, crinkling around the corners with the beginnings of a hopeful grin. “For simply ages, Crowley. It’s nothing whatsoever to do with… who you were Before.”

The shiver of absolute devotion on Aziraphale’s face is stronger than any reverence that Crowley ever can recall being accorded in Heaven. He tries to form a response, but his throat is choked as though he’s just swallowed a live mouse. “Er. Yeah?”

Aziraphale thinks he understands Crowley well enough to know that the demon is lost for words and not rejecting him, and the expression that others might interpret as annoyance is probably something closer to self-doubt. Still, he literally forgets to breathe. “Ages.”

“Right. I. Know I shouldn’t be able to, er. Do that, really, but.”

“I don’t think anyone is going to smite you down for saying it out loud, dear,” Aziraphale says very quietly.

“I love – no, that’s not it, I’m in love with you, as well. Can I...?”

Aziraphale nods.

This time, when Crowley pushes him back up against the wall, his touch is somehow just as desperate as it had been the first time, while simultaneously more tender than Aziraphale could have imagined. It’s not as though they aren’t familiar with each other’s’ mouths, by nature of having inhabited one another's bodies. But there is something so decadent about Crowley’s unnaturally warm lips, the faint taste of sulfur and hellfire that Aziraphale has come to automatically associate with his demon and therefore to crave.

After a brief butterfly-kiss, in which they both half expect an earthquake or a shattered window or a flock of doves, or something worse, Crowley leans in deeper. And he finds that Aziraphale’s soft lips still taste faintly of figs, and loses himself in the angel’s smell like old books and cedarwood and angelic Grace – while unbeknownst to either of them, an asteroid suddenly changes its natural course, astonishing scientists and leaving a trail of debris in Earth’s orbit which will cause a meteor shower to light up the sky later that evening and honour this day for many years to come.

From its position by the door, the fig tree beams with triumph – and also relief that its successful ploy has hopefully procured its own ongoing physical safety.

The sound of approaching footsteps in the hall, and a knock on the open door, immediately drag the angel and demon apart. Crowley immediately takes a defensive posture and pulls his sunglasses out of his pocket, while Aziraphale straightens his rumpled bowtie.

Both prepare to face the full wrath of Heaven and Hell – but the intruder transpires be Crowley’s neighbour, who had noticed the moving boxes and wanted to know if they needed a hand (and also all that compost must be very heavy, I could take care of it for you). From his fashion choices, Aziraphale suspects that the human likely admires and seeks to emulate Mr. Anthony J. Crowley more than he’d be willing to acknowledge out loud. But with his assistance, the possessions they’ve already compiled are quickly stashed in the car, and Crowley offers the human everything remaining in the flat, including various classy kitchen appliances that he's never once used because he’d never once cooked anything, the expensive leather sofa which he'd sat on exactly once at some point in the eighties, and the full bin of demonic compost.

“You sure? Oh, thanks, that’s so kind of you,” says the poor unsuspecting human, and Aziraphale has to bite his lip to keep from laughing aloud at the mix of begrudging politeness and horror written on his demon’s face.

 

 

FIVE YEARS BEFORE THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

Warlock is willing to superglue his action figures to the table when he sees it as an art project, but still has no interest in tearing off their limbs, or in riding his tricycle inside the house. The six-year-old's habit of tossing silver glitter across the floor, so that Crowley finds tiny specks of it in the child’s food - and between the pages of his satanically-themed picture books, and in the corners of his eyes, and also stuck to the inside of her bra and in the soles of her boots when she finally retreats exhausted to her flat for the night – is certainly evil enough, but it’s an unnervingly Heavenly evil. Crowley brings him terrifying glass dolls with missing eyes and chipped-paint smiles, and hellish monster plush toys with an excessive number of limbs, but she can’t possibly say no when they pass by a toy shop and the boy begs for a small plastic unicorn he spots in the window. Nor can she convince him to pocket the toy without paying, although he does look diabolically prepared to break down in tears on the sidewalk if she doesn’t make the purchase.

The little skeleton figurine looks either profoundly symbolic or utterly absurd, atop its new steed, and after the toys have laid siege to his Lego fortress, the child makes sure Unicorn has enough water to drink from his own glass.

Warlock cries when he makes their Jenga tower fall into a pile of blocks, and then re-builds them into a stable for Unicorn. She tries to teach him to gather his terrible satanic army of playthings together to overthrow the oppressive government of the glowing dinosaur lamp, but he only complains that the rest of his friends have robotic dogs and real cell phones. He’s not exactly a saint – and this appears to be a factor of his human parents’ influence as much as Crowley’s – but this kid does not take after Satan at all. And though the child certainly watches fiendish quantities of television and sobs when she takes away the tablet that his father had provided for him at the age of four, it’s not the sort of temper tantrum she would have anticipated from the antichrist. Not one stormcloud appears in the sky, and the foundations of his outrageously large residence do not even tremble.

Hell has sent her a vague demonic curriculum for the boy's education, with topics ranging from public speaking to common species of toxic plants, to the demonic royal hierarchy. She provides him with detailed depictions of the types of lesser demons; Warlock enjoys colouring on them in crayons.

In the margins of the page, he draws a bat, and a red snake surrounded by toadstools, at her suggestion – but also a figure that is intended to resemble his mother, and a beast that might be a hellhound but looks suspiciously closer to a poodle. Finally, the child begs permission to go outside, and she promises to catch up in a minute, knowing that Aziraphale is chomping at the bit for a chance to impart some Heavenly wisdom onto the six-year-old antichrist. She gives him a generous twenty-minute head start before she makes her way outside.

“Warlock was just showing me his lovely unicorn!” says the gardener. He had been sitting on a wooden bench, covered in finches and meadowlarks, but the songbirds scatter at her approach as though Crowley were a bird of prey. His tone is seemingly meant as godly smugness, but given their unfortunate history with children and unicorns, the holy arrogance dies on his lips.

That had been the thing that got to Crowley most about the new rain-bow after the flood. So much of the Old World hadn’t been fully washed away when the water settled again: flotsam and bloated corpses of humans and every creature imaginable were scattered across ghost-towns of drowned trees. And here or there, snagged on the jagged edge of a sharp rock or a piece of driftwood, was a tuft of unicorn hair, streaked with the same colors as the almighty Rainbow of Hope.

Warlock does not appear to notice the sudden strain between his two caretakers and is using his plastic unicorn’s rainbow horn to squish a few particularly juicy cutworms against the stoic red brick of the pathway. Their translucent skins give way to an oozing grey-and-yellow smear of insect innards. Warlock stands Unicorn back up again. Crowley notices that there are a few specks of glitter in his hair, glinting in the sunshine, and more on the path around his small massacre.

“Good job, dear,” she commends the child, flashing Aziraphale a triumphant smile that shows her sharp teeth. “Nasty things. It would have destroyed the geraniums.”

The gardener knows just enough about horticulture to know that he can’t, scientifically speaking, actually debate that one. He has been trying to interest Warlock in the flower gardens, but outside of biblical anecdotes and the names of as many plants as he could memorize from a nineteenth-century wildflower guide in his bookshop, his knowledge is limited in a way that makes Crowley wince. Now that he’s gotten the boy’s attention, he has taken it upon himself to teach the child to transplant a geranium, but he’s holding the plant at entirely the wrong angle, and Crowley finds herself hissing in empathy as its pinched and naked roots sit sadly in their too-shallow hole.

“Oh! It sounds as though your nanny thinks that she can do better!” says Aziraphale with a very deliberate cheerfulness and a bit of pointed desperation.

Crowley snatches up the trowel in a businesslike manner, deepening the hole and more carefully setting the plant back in place. “And don’t you dare wilt,” she tells it, eyes flashing. “You’ve got to let them know who’s in charge, dear,” Crowley adds to wide-eyed Warlock.

“And that would be God!” Aziraphale puts in promptly. Around him, the begonias and foxgloves of the miracle garden in which he’s never worked a day in his life, shine in luminous agreement.

“I’m bored,” Warlock whines.

Fortunately, Crowley just happens to have a kazoo in the pocket of her skirt, which she lends to the child, warning him firmly not to leave her line of vision. The sound of it reverberates across the wide, barren lawn and ricochets from the high brick walls like nails hammered into the skulls of all within earshot. Crowley has been teaching the child some of the battle songs that might be useful when it comes time for Hell to march up from Below. She has been careful to keep the conversation theoretical and not put any real willpower into her own demonstration, because she cannot shake the lingering, passive dread of calling down the troops of Hell by accident. But it was her own head office who had asked for the instruction to be given (if not on a kazoo), so they should be aware of this. And intent, Crowley knows, is key.

Aziraphale dramatically covers his ears with his grimy hands, which nonetheless don’t look like work hands at all, but rather as though he’d rubbed them in the dirt to make it appear that he’d been gardening. “That noise is awful enough to summon all the legions of Hell and hosts of the angels!” the gardener exclaims indignantly.

Crowley smiles mysteriously. “Like any instrument, it is an art. I think his tone is much improved.”

“And for the third time this week! Do you really just carry that demonic device everywhere you go?”

 

THURSDAY NIGHT

 

After a short, emotionally charged car ride – in which the radio had announced a surprise unseasonal meteor shower later that evening, and Aziraphale had continuously insisted, Crowley, I’m madly in love with you but you cannot kiss me while going 95 in central London – the task of finding space for Crowley's plants in the shop has become simultaneously far less emotionally satisfying and far more seductive than Aziraphale would have previously envisioned.

Adam’s accidental post-Armageddon’t cleaning-up had left a great deal more space than the previous dusty piles of old tomes on the floor would have suggested. The first snake plant they had already neatly packaged, wound up in layers of paper and bubble wrap (3), and mailed to Warlock; the package will miraculously not be opened at customs, and will make it safely to the child’s new American residence, where the rest of Crowley’s garden will never hear of its fate. Over the course of unloading Crowley’s belongings, they have kissed under the palm tree in its new location between two tall bookshelves, against the grandfather clock, and most recently against the frame of the front door, while Aziraphale holds a night-blooming cereus in one hand and three books under his other arm – “My dear fellow, people are watching us,” the angel begins.

“Oh, I hope so – c’mon, angel, it’s the twenty-first century and we’re finally free of overhead supervision – but not literally, I hope – do you think they aim their celestial cameras right at your door?” Crowley makes a show of blowing an exaggerated kiss to the clouds.

Aziraphale drags him inside with a pointed, “Your plants are wilting,” so that he can set the aforementioned books and flowerpot on the table, and kiss Crowley again with his hands free to wrap around the demon’s long neck, while asking himself, not entirely rhetorically, why it took him so long to do this in the first place.

A vine of English ivy hangs across the shelf behind his desk, and several diabolically lustrous ginger plants sit in deep pots under the window. Aziraphale is just thinking that the bookshop looks much homier, when the front doors open once more on their own to reveal Crowley with his throne held overhead as though it were lighter than a feather (which it might be). “Should I put this in the back, then?” he asks. “Or would you like me to sit right in the centre of the shop and glare at your customers until they leave.”

“Maybe the back for now,” Aziraphale muses. “Oh, careful of the – ”

An entire shelf of first editions makes a demonically miraculous escape from the legs of the throne, as Aziraphale follows him into the backroom. But instead of attempting to cram the throne amid the myriad of mismatched chairs there, the demon has discovered the dusty, narrow staircase up to the floor above, a space which Aziraphale might use as living quarters if he were a human, but mostly consists of an electric kettle, a few cupboards of tea, and additional storage space.

“You do have a bed around here somewhere, as well?” Crowley calls down, throne presumably still held overhead. “Oh, hang on, it’s under all these – ”

The following clatter sounds suspiciously like a large number of books being roughly miracled out of the way, but when Aziraphale enters the bedroom he finds that all the old tomes and recent newspapers he'd left piled on the unused bed are neatly stacked against the wall, the throne sitting out-of-place in the cluttered room. Crowley’s newly-acquired staff is leaned against it, though Aziraphale had not seen him bring it inside. They will have to rearrange, he thinks vaguely, if they stay long enough.

“Meteor shower tonight,” says Crowley, remembering what had been said on the radio. “Unusual for this time of year. Might not have been altogether harmless, so many occult beings staring into outer space all at once.”

“We should keep an eye on it,” Aziraphale agrees.  Stargazing with Crowley had been quite pleasant on the previous evening and he would be thrilled to do so again. “It could be something noteworthy. Our former head offices up to no good.”

“Alright,” Crowley agrees. “Dinner?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You’re lying. You’re always hungry.”

“I am not. I’m… amorous. Also, you’re exhausted.”

Crowley puts his hands on Aziraphale's shoulders. “You’re undeniably in love with me, and I could sleep for a month – but you’re also worse than Warlock if you don’t get your dinner on time. Let’s do the Ritz again. I’ve been waiting for this day for six thousand years, and we’re going on a date. Couldn’t possibly sit inside and watch you eat takeaway on a night like this.”

Aziraphale frowns as the implication sinks in. “The whole six thousand,” he echoes haltingly, trying to wrap his mind around it.

“Give or take a few weeks. Do you know... I honestly don't know what day of the week it is? Armageddon really does mess with your head.”

Aziraphale opens his mouth to say Wednesday, and then he thinks Friday, and then, but Armageddon was only seven days ago, and also I’m hungry, and finally must agree that Crowley is correct on all counts.

 

-

 

Some hours after sunset, a fissure of eerily clear nighttime sky has opened up in the London smog, directly above the Soho bookshop. The stars are as radiant as though they are picking up where the previous evening had left off – the primary difference being that neither Crowley nor Aziraphale can bear to go more than two minutes without touching, as though afraid that the other will suddenly evaporate and the day will have been a dream. Aziraphale sits as primly as one can on a small plaid blanket, surrounded by grimy city rooftop with various vents and ducts extending from the surrounding buildings in every direction. Crowley is sprawled on his back with his legs spread unnaturally wide, leaning on his elbows, while Aziraphale rests against his knees. “And every time I think I’ve finally gotten used to it, in the back of my mind it’s still the lingering fear of another compliance report,” Aziraphale is saying, making an emphatic gesture with his hand against the ground. Aziraphale has gotten into the habit of saying at least one thing every day, that he would not have articulated prior to the apocalypse-that-wasn’t – for example, Crowley, what if the antichrist actually ends up in Heaven? (Or, most obviously, Crowley, I’m in love with you.)

Crowley follows this movement with the attentiveness of a snake watching a vole, fascinated by the utter perfection of Aziraphale’s hands: his smooth fingernails, the tiny callus on the side of his thumb from spending so much time with a pen, the tension of his knuckles. The impulse to put his own hand over that one and hold it is nearly overpowering, and that in itself is jarring. The demon had regarded temptation to sins of the flesh as an art form – a theatrical display, a deliberate pulling of heartstrings, a whisper in the ear. It’s something he does as an outsider, a task that can be pleasurable or a mandatory nuisance (4) – and if he finds himself befriending the temptee, still, he is accustomed to being the one in control of the situation. Now, he is keenly aware that Aziraphale has him wrapped around his mesmerizingly soft little finger.

“And all that business with Adam and his friends would have been an utter nightmare to file. There would be the logistical matter of interdimensional human soul transfer, and then I suppose I would have had to file some sort of proof of accuracy of any knowledge imparted, not to mention justification for some of your, ehm, alternate versions of certain celestial events.”

“I see someone paid attention in Angel Training. Bet you took notes, too.” Crowley smirks and draws his shoulders together as he raises himself up slightly to bring his gaze level to Aziraphale’s. A particularly vivid meteoroid streaks through the atmosphere behind the angel’s blond curls.

“Well, it would have been an awful lot to remember without them.”

Crowley thinks he could never feel half as much veneration for all of Heaven as he can for the angel before him. And though it’s not a new thought, the utter freedom of thinking so without glancing over his shoulder in case of mind-readers is as exhilarating as it is jarring – like tunnelling into Eden for the first time after the long darkness of Hell. “Listen, I was talking to Di Vinci – this was, oh, 1500, maybe? And an entire bottle of absinthe later, he says, oh, her! Listen, I kept trying to get the eyes right, but I think I made a mess of them. Had to pretend I’d done it on purpose. Try telling that to a human art historian. That’s what I meant about stars. It’s…”

“The swirly ones.” Aziraphale remembers Crowley’s absinthe phase with less fondness than the demon. Crowley hadn’t invented the Spanish Inquisition, but he had invented the substance he’d used to nearly discorporate himself afterwards. Aziraphale hadn’t been consciously aware at the time, though he should have suspected it, that the demon was also responsible for Artemisia absinthium itself.

“’xactly.”

The moments of companionable silence that follow, bring the meteor shower back into full effect. But there’s nothing particularly apocalyptic, or even occult, about the occasional trail of fire as another piece of falling rock burns through the sky, nor is there any implication of supernatural threat to Earth’s physical safety. It does, however, bring the image of angels falling from Heaven rather sharply to Aziraphale’s mind. “I received notification from Michael, six months before Armageddon… didn’t happen, informing me that I had been re-assigned to their Heavenly Host for the upcoming War, because due to extenuating circumstances you would not be there to lead us. I mean, not you, but.”

“I know what you mean.” Crowley, who had primarily been wondering how Aziraphale manages to keep nineteenth-century white silk shoes in such flawless condition without divine intervention, is brought forcibly back to Earth.

Extenuating circumstances!”

“It doesn’t matter."  Crowley rests his forehead against Aziraphale’s shoulder in mild exasperation for lack of any other immediate surface to bury his face in. He wonders how many times he’ll have to say this and whether he believes it himself. The angel's shoulder is pleasantly soft and comfortable – if the jacket is a bit scratchy – and Crowley can't bring himself to raise his head.

Aziraphale runs his hands tentatively through the red hair now resting against him. It’s tousled from a long day of moving heavy objects, but tantalizingly silky, and smells faintly but not unpleasantly of soot, and something earthy, like mushrooms after rain. “You must understand, it’s a lot to take in at once.”

“But it really doesn’t matter,” Crowley repeats, voice still muffled into Aziraphale's jacket, because if he moves the angel will take his hand out of his hair, and Aziraphale has such wonderful hands that it might be worth answering his queries. “No – if it matters at all, being a demon is the fucking redemption arc, don’t you get it? Did you see Sandalphon at Gomorrah? You did see Uriel just before the Flood. You didn’t have to hear Gabriel when he told you to – ” He had repeated the archangel’s words to Aziraphale exactly once, to deter any reservations the principality might have about leaving Heaven behind.

Crowley had claimed not to have been present for that business with Sodom and Gomorrah, (and just as well, Aziraphale thought), but centuries later, the demon had mentioned obscure details of the event with drunken but suspiciously accurate clarity. Crowley had been weird about what had happened at Gomorrah – that is, even weirder than you’d ordinarily be about people being turned to salt. Aziraphale strongly suspected that the demon had been present, but not wanted to admit it.

“I take your point, darling.” Aziraphale lets his hand slip back into his lap. “But the whole thing still feels dodgy, somehow you Falling behind everyone’s back and nobody telling us. Uriel was quite rude to me when I said I’d never met you, but they all act like you’re on holiday.” It doesn’t make sense, and there’s clearly got to be more going on here than either an intentional banishment or an accidental tumble off the escalator of Heaven.

“You might say it’s a bit fishy,” Crowley agrees, sitting back up to meet Aziraphale’s eyes with an entirely straight face. He enjoys the elegant manner in which the angel’s nose crumples as he registers the pun after a delay of several seconds.

Aziraphale chortles and then looks at him sideways. “How long have you been waiting to say that?” he asks.

Thousands of years,” Crowley finally admits, with an only partially-feigned wistfulness.

“You have a lot of explaining to do.”

“I know. I know! Kiss me again. Please.”

Aziraphale does so. And for a while, in the semi-darkness, as the last bright streaks of shooting stars pass overhead, the one thing that both matters and makes sense is that they should have been doing this all along.

“Hang on,” Crowley says, “Put your halo on for a minute, I want to see you.”

“We could use yours, dear. Mine is too bright. The humans will think there’ve been more aliens. Or teenagers.”  

“Mine’s too red. They’ll send the fire department. I just want to see your face.”

He complies. In the light of his halo, the stars behind the angel appear dimmed by his own relative brightness.

Demons, as a rule, are not meant to venerate Heavenly beauty, but Crowley finds himself nearly whimpering with approval. Even after everything, the demon half expects his skin to be singed, and still finds himself as powerless to turn away as a moth drawn to a lamp – as Icarus to the sun. But even as he reaches out a hand to touch the golden ring of light over the angel's tousled hair, he finds himself unburnt.  Aziraphale's halo holds the same sort of familiar warmth that he so craves while in reptilian form, like a tangible replacement for his own inner fire. Awestruck, he swears under his breath in Akkadian, and Aziraphale blushes.

Whatever Crowley is doing with his forked tongue against the nape of Aziraphale’s neck is very pleasant, and he feels a noise rising in the back of his throat despite himself. This is actually nothing like anything the angel has ever done as part of his occupation, because the sort of humans who want to engage in these kinds of relations with angels are generally quivering with existential dread, whereas Crowley looks ready to devour him. He'd wondered, in the past, what precisely it was about romantic and sexual acts that caused humans to go to such wild lengths – making absolute fools of themselves, risking death and war and so forth – for an experience that Aziraphale had previously considered equally enjoyable to particularly good sushi. The missing link, it appears, is something to do with love, because no ancient Babylonian priest or poet could possibly have given him this powerful sense of I-would-do-anything-for-you.

Crowley feels his heart performing decidedly un-demonic somersaults as he loosens the angel’s tartan bowtie. He makes a show of feigning to check for hidden traces of heavenly stardust under the collar of Aziraphale’s shirt, mostly as an excuse to undo his top buttons. “You never did answer my question, angel.” The tiny movements of Aziraphale’s neck underneath are the most exquisite thing he’s ever seen. “Is it gold nipples?”

“Oh. That. If you really must know…” Until Crowley began investigating his collarbone with his tongue, Aziraphale had been unaware that angels actually can be ticklish. Lost in the new sensation of his corporeal form’s peripheral nervous system sending sparks of giddy, twitching energy up the back of his neck, he is reluctant to answer the question.

“Yeah?”

“Nothing.” As the other’s raised brows, he elaborates: “Standard issue humanoid body, principality-grade, and utterly unmarked. Not one speck of glitter or moonlight. Just this.” He gestures down at his pastel pink-and-green plaid waistcoat and beige trousers, feeling vulnerable and foolish and hopeful in equal measure.

“That,” says Crowley flatly, before he can consider, “is the best thing I’ve ever heard.” When Aziraphale appears taken aback, he continues, “It’s just – this whole time I’ve been wondering, what secret angelic mark is he hiding, and – Heaven couldn’t come up with anything to make you any better – no, this is exactly right

“Are you done laughing at me, dear?” Aziraphale asks.

Crowley’s face immediately straightens. “I’m only laughing about how perfect you are,” he half-hisses, absolutely serious. “It’s just... what could the Almighty possibly come up with that’s any better than you already are?”

Since he cannot find one whit of insincerity in Crowley’s expression, Aziraphale has to believe that the demon is serious. The tension that he hadn’t realized he was holding in his abdomen, falls away with a sensation that reminds him of flying. “I don’t think the world's going to end tonight,” he says finally, flustered.  All at once, the wide open sky above them and his partially unbuttoned shirt make him feel uncomfortably exposed.  He waves his hand to dim his halo again. “At least not from the meteors. We might go back inside.”

And although neither had intended to break the laws of physics, somehow they seem to be in the bedroom much too swiftly to have walked.

Crowley appreciates the artistry of the humans’ ever-changing styles of clothing but has never shared Aziraphale’s habit of taking clothes on and off, garment by garment, in the ordinary way. (And the sort of Satanists who choose to have sex with demons, as a rule, are more impressed with the one-snap-and-you’re-naked approach.) But Aziraphale being the one to push him down against the bed is such a fantastically pleasant change of pace, that Crowley is quite contented to let him take charge of the matter. The angel seems to glow like a holy beacon above him, and yet there is something so spectacularly devilish in his blue eyes.

Aziraphale presses his face lightly against the other’s back, which definitely has more ribs than it should. He kisses his way down the snake-scales that trail down the knobs of the demon's too-long spine like a star-strewn galaxy.

Crowley hisses softly between his teeth, turning his head at an inconceivable angle to bury it into the other’s shoulder. He cannot seem to properly glamour his eyes or scales when he’s so caught up in the electrical feeling of Aziraphale’s lips against his skin. He is accustomed to the way in which certain stressful experiences and stimuli will make his eyes turn entirely snakelike and scales appear where he’d tried to maintain an illusion of skin, but he hadn’t anticipated that Aziraphale’s tongue, would be one such catalyst. Instinctively, Crowley begins to mutter something self-defensive about this, but Aziraphale presses a finger to the demon’s lips.

Here is what Aziraphale thinks: Crowley’s scales, black and red, trickling down the side of his neck and along his spine, reflecting the lamplight. That is how his mind works: Crowley’s scales are. Aziraphale is a principality, created by God Herself to appreciate art and encourage love and so forth, and so he doesn’t speculate as to what or why or how they are, or whether they should be, but stays politely in awe of the beauty of the little areas of snakeskin rippling across the demon’s flesh. “If it were going to bother me that you’re a snake, darling, I really don’t think we would be here now.”

 

 

3004 B.C.

 

Uriel approaches Aziraphale on the afterdeck of the Ark with the ghostly silence of a divine being who has not taken the time to learn about human behaviour and therefore doesn’t understand the need for one’s sandals to make audible footsteps, or one’s lungs to take a breath. After delivering God’s message to Noah, the archangel had left Aziraphale to oversee the logistics. He’d been given a checklist and reassurance that Uriel would be carefully monitoring the Earth observation files in case the principality should need any help - or, Aziraphale rather suspected, in case he should do anything wrong.

“Uriel! What a pleasant surprise! No problems here! All is well. Noah’s family are successfully aboard the ark – as you can see – and nobody else is! Just, ah, two of absolutely every animal. Every single one.” Aziraphale wrings his hands apprehensively behind his back. He does not much care for horseback riding, but it would be impossible not to enjoy riding a unicorn. He’s going to miss them, and he’s still hoping that Upstairs will blame the mishap on something else later on. Big risk, taking only two of each animal, in any case. What if they didn’t like each other?

“Aziraphale, why was there a demon flying away with three of the traitorous humans who were ordained to be destroyed in the Almighty’s flood?”

After the third day, the turbulent rains had calmed to a raw, bitter drizzle, and the choppy sea before them now shows no sign of what city might have lain beneath. The water level must still be rising, but nothing remains against which to gauge it. He’s spent a long time staring out across its rough expanse, searching for any sign of Crawley, but until this moment he hadn’t realized that they would have the nerve to – thwart God’s plan. Aziraphale lets out a nervous giggle. “Oh, I have no idea! I did not see any demons before we boarded the boat. None at all! Perhaps he means to eat them.” Doubts are wriggling through his mind. What if you did the wrong thing, and I did the right thing, eh?

“I trust that you will deal with this problem.” Uriel’s tone leaves no room for argument.

“What do you expect me to do, throw the children in the water?” He already knows that it must have been children. Aziraphale neither wants to say anything that will provoke Uriel into going after Crawley himself, nor can he quite process what the archangel is suggesting he do about the situation. And he very much hopes Uriel won’t discorporate Crawley, because there’s no knowing when Hell will be willing to issue them a new body, and there is no one else who Aziraphale can really talk to in quite the same way.

Uriel only stares at him impassively, like a gilded statue against the back of the ship.

“Right – right away! Consider it dealt with.” He manages to keep the corners of his mouth tilted upwards until his boss has dissolved into the clouds on a beam of golden light. Then his face crumples.

 

-

 

It’s damp, unpleasant weather for flying, but the last living beings on a wide, choppy sea of flotsam and angry white foam are not difficult to spot from above. Three small children are huddled against the demon’s body, thin and bedraggled. The older two cower away from Aziraphale as he lights on their makeshift raft, keeping his wings out to guard against overhead surveillance. He wonders how Crawley chose these particular humans – had they known them already, were they simply closest to where he'd been standing when the rains began, were these the only children light enough that they could fly away with them in his arms…?

What if you did the wrong thing, and…

Crawley protectively holds the smallest child closer, balanced against their shoulder with one arm, shielded from the rain with a black wing (5). The tallest of the children, a boy who can’t be much older than four, grabs Crawley’s free arm none too gently and twists it in front of his own face like a shield. The demon does not protest this. 

Aziraphale is as startled by the show of familiarity as he is mortified to be perceived as the villain. “Oh no, no need to be afraid, I’m not going to – to hurt you…” The words die in his throat. The raft shudders sinisterly beneath their feet, as small waves lap over its edges. It seems to have stayed afloat by diabolical power alone.

“Is that so?” Crawley’s red curls hang damp with rain, and dark circles are smudged beneath their yellow eyes. They look less like the indignant demon who had criticized the Almighty’s decision only days ago, and more like an angry mother bear ready to fight anyone and everyone to the – discorporation. The demon’s teeth are literally bared, but it’s the angel who these children seem to fear.

Aziraphale tries to take a step back without slipping from the edge of the precarious vessel. “Oh, don’t give me a hard time, I’ve been sent to smite you, but for goodness’s sake I’m only trying to help!”

“And for badness's sake, I’m not the one giving you a hard time,” Crawley says. “Just doing my job. Three more humans will now have a piss-poor opinion of Heaven.”

“Listen here, my dear fellow, you don't have to lie - I don’t like any of this either, but you know it’s not up to me.” Hearing the shrill edge in his own voice, he exhales deeply. “Listen, if you can fly them up to the second window from the front of the Ark, there’s a bit of extra space in the unicorn stall. But you must wait until it’s absolutely dark. If my people catch this on their observation files, it’ll be.”

Heaven to pay.” The look on the demon's mud-spattered face is far too righteous for an agent of Hell.

“For both of us,” Aziraphale concludes pointedly, a melodic note of hysteria creeping back into his tone despite his best efforts. He glances nervously at the steely grey clouds - if his head office can see anything beneath this roof of black and white feathers, they'll have noticed by now that the principality isn't even thwarting the demon, let alone smiting them.

Crawley almost says thank you, but then reasons with themself – no, a demon thanking an angel for not murdering kids, that’s taking things too far. They compromise by offering an appreciative sort of scowl.

“In any case,” Aziraphale continues, “I wasn’t sure how well stocked you were out here, so I brought…” As all of the raft’s occupants seem determined to stay as far from him as possible, he sets the flask of clean water and the cloth-wrapped loaf of bread from the Ark’s meagre kitchen on the floor between them.

It does not escape Aziraphale’s notice that the middle child looks to Crawley for confirmation before snatching up the proffered food and tearing it into portions.

“It's, er, lovely to meet you…” The angel’s statement trails away into a question as he realizes he had not asked the child’s name. The boy shrinks away from Aziraphale’s affectionate smile and buries his face in Crawley's bedraggled black robes, clutching his bread like a lifeline.

“Ekur,” says Crawley, who has no intention of thanking an angel for feeding children. “His family are – ” were “ – goat herders, and his favourite animal is a unicorn. It's alright,” they add to the children, one of whom is still swinging from their arm, grimy fingernails digging into their skin. “It’s not the angel’s fault. He’s only here to help.” Despite Crawley’s apparently sincere tone, this is the moment in which Aziraphale first genuinely internalizes the concept of irony.

 

 

FRIDAY MORNING

 

Sleeping seems to consist of letting go of all the erratic thoughts flipping through Aziraphale's mind like so many catalogue cards in a library, and floating away on a sea of bedsheets like clouds. It reminds him of a quiet moment in Heaven - of that brief period after he’d given his report and filed his paperwork, and could sit in an ethereally stoic corner for a moment to watch the feathery clouds from within. And if he'd thought himself weary before, now he might genuinely describe himself as fatigued. Here’s your first lesson, Crowley had said with a crooked smile, sleeping is much easier if you tire yourself out beforehand.

On his first attempt, Aziraphale manages to linger in this state for two minutes and twenty-six seconds, according to the pocket-watch that he had left propped against the nearby lamp. In this period, Crowley, who had collapsed dramatically into slumber as the little spoon, has managed to roll over and entangle him like a boa constrictor. Given the timeframe, the demon was actually still awake and politely waiting to pounce at the soonest opportunity, presumably under the assumption that Aziraphale would stay asleep long enough not to realize this. Aziraphale immediately flutters his eyes shut once more.

His second attempt lasts a whopping four minutes and forty-nine seconds. But as the angel can’t imagine anywhere in the universe that he would rather be, than lazing here with Crowley’s long limbs wound so tightly around his body that he wonders seriously what the other’s knee and elbow joints are made of, he closes his eyes again. And he is very contented to continue this practice until sunrise, drifting off in increasingly longer intervals, until he teaches himself to lose consciousness for an entire five minutes at a time.

As demons do not have circadian rhythms, and Aziraphale has known Crowley to hibernate through entire human generations, he can only assume that the demon has intentionally chosen to awaken with Aziraphale in the morning because he desires the experience of doing so.

This is confirmed several hours after sunrise when Crowley detangles himself from the angel just enough to roll on top of him and ask how he enjoyed sleeping. It’s all strangely ordinary, as though he’s been waking up with a mostly-naked half-snake demon on top of him every morning of his life, even though he’s never even woken up in his life (unless you count being Made, and, that’s not really the same).

“Tea,” Crowley says. This is approximately the time of morning that Aziraphale sets down his book and makes himself a cup of tea. “Right. You're definitely the sort of person who wants tea after sleeping. Wait here.” At Aziraphale’s pointed glance toward the uncovered window, he rolls his eyes and fishes around in the bed for his undershirt and boxers, buried amid the larger sea of clothing, floral bedsheets and knitted blankets.

He is correct in his assumption about tea, and also that Aziraphale is someone who wants biscuits with his tea after sleeping. And when he returns to the bedroom, it’s to find that the angel has pulled out the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword that had been sitting on top of a stack of books on a nearby table. Aziraphale immediately sets the paper aside to thank Crowley so repeatedly and near teary-eyed for a single cup of his own tea from his own chipped angel-wing mug, that Crowley looks awkward and steals back one of the biscuits just to pretend he was being selfish. He very much enjoys watching Aziraphale lick the sticky fake chocolate from his fingers, and also licking chocolate from Aziraphale's fingers himself, and also finding every possible way to distract him while he balances the crossword once more against his knees.

“Oh, this one’s almost got me. Fly-swatting device turns out to be fraud. Seven letters.” Aziraphale likes the rhythm of having something wordy in front of him, something down-to-earth, while everything else in his mind is singing louder and more joyous than an angelic choir. But he is distracted by Crowley’s hand in his hair, occasionally catching on the snag of a curl and untangling it with undemonic gentleness. Aziraphale knows better than to comment on this aloud, but if he were a cat, he'd be purring.

Crowley pauses, counts out seven letters with his fingers against the side of Aziraphale’s skull. “Gabriel.”

Aziraphale considers making an exasperated reply and then pencils the letters in to humor him. “Surprise inspection, must be Wednesday, five letters. Last one’s an L.”

“Uriel.”

Dust, fundamentalists, and. Ten letters?”

“Sandalphon.”

Aziraphale frowns as he counts the open slots on the page before him. “My dear boy, have you been meddling with my crosswords? Those aren’t meant to fit together.”

Crowley looks suddenly even more amused. “Are you sure it was me? That newspaper was on your side of the bed.” As there had previously been no known instances of angels sleeping, the effects of angelic slumber on the surrounding material world was previously unmeasurable.

Aziraphale weighs this in his mind. “We should check the news, I suppose. In case of any bigger mishaps. I’m not sure there’s been much research into the environmental effects of an angel and a demon...”

Sleeping together.” Crowley seems to find this incredibly funny.  “Nah, for my money, that was one came from you.  It’s not healthy to bottle up so much rage, angel.  I wouldn’t be surprised if every paper within a five-mile radius was now slandering your former bosses.”  In actuality, the only reason Crowley knows that this particular alteration in reality was not his doing, is that if Crowley’s psyche were going to produce accidental archangel defamation, it presumably should have been happening consistently for the past six thousand years.

“I am,” Aziraphale begins with theatrical melancholy, “but a humble principality – ”

Crowley groans and proceeds to kiss him before he can finish speaking, and then for a while after that, and only stops because he worries that the humble principality’s tea is going cold.

 

-

 

(1) As Crowley’s human neighbour believes himself to have personally spoken with God on several occasions, the demon’s offhanded references to Her are usually greeted with a sort of conspiratorial camaraderie which implies that their experiences with the Divine have been similar.  

(2) So had Lucifer, although they’d had… differing opinions on the matter. His brother had never seemed to understand that it’s what comes after that gives the darkness its intrigue - the mushroom pushing up through the Earth, and not just the mould spores speckling the linoleum walls of Hell. Not a load of paintballing office workers murdering each other for sport, but whatever it was that went through their minds after they looked death in the eyes and then went back to the office.

(3) Bubble wrap had been one of Crowley’s better inventions.

(4) Like the Chattering Order, for example – they were polite enough, and very casual businesslike Satanists, sworn to engage in sexual relations Only with Servants of Satan Our Master, and at least there were no animal sacrifice or burning pentagrams. So it shouldn’t have been the worst of demonic assignments – but they’re under oath to chatter like that the whole time.

(5) If Aziraphale had been less frazzled, he might have noticed that Crawley's four wings were arranged in just the position in which certain holy texts describe the archangel Raphael - one wing above their head to shield them from God (and also heavenly surveillance systems), one wing to guard their body (and also those of the three children in his charge), and the other two extending east and west – and that they’d hidden two of said wings abruptly upon noting the angel’s approach.

Chapter Text

THURSDAY MORNING

ONE MONTH AFTER THE WORLD DIDN’T END

 

“She’s looking right at us,” Aziraphale protests, motioning to the Mona Lisa sketch now hung ominously on the wall to survey their bed with her conspiratorial smile.  Aziraphale has found that he quite enjoys sleeping, and has done so on five different nights, sometimes for up to half an hour. He has also found that reading in bed with Crowley asleep in his arms, book rested against the demon’s shoulders, is twice as enjoyable as any other reading experience.

He and Crowley have set up the second floor of the bookshop enough to make it livable until a more permanent situation can be found. It’s been a pleasant week of rearranging furniture, perusing Aziraphale’s large stack of real estate magazines to look at all the cottages he’d bookmarked even before Armageddon’t, attending two symphonies, having sex on just about every surface in the building – including, at Crowley’s suggestion, the ceiling (I bet no one's ever done that before – humans can't lie on a ceiling, they've got physics – c'mon, don't you want to be the first sentient being ever to have done it on a ceiling) – as well as one memorable night in which Aziraphale fails to coerce Crowley into dancing the gavotte (please, demons dance, you cannot tell me that demons don’t dance, I’ve read every theology thesis on the matter) but they do end up snuggling to eighteenth-century dance music, which is just as pleasant. Crowley scolds his plants politely while Aziraphale is in hearing distance, and more coercively while the angel is not listening.

“What else could she possibly want to look at?” Strictly speaking, the Mona Lisa is gazing directly into the monstrously large television on the opposite side of the room. At Azirphale’s bequest, most electronic gizmos have been relocated upstairs, because Hell forbid a customer in the bookshop thinks that its owner knows what century he’s living in.

“Well, her husband, for a start.”

Crowley catches an incredulous chortle before it leaves his lips, and nods in solemn agreement.  “Or her Bible.”

“...you’re making fun.”

“I am not. I think that Mrs Lisa Gherardini should be looking at only at her beautiful Christian children. I bet there’s a crucifix on the wall opposite, and she’s thinking about Jesus. In fact, the reason she looks so dreamy is that she’s looking forward to going to Mass later.”

Aziraphale clears his throat. “Speaking of which, Sargent Shadwell has rearranged his wedding specifically not to be in a church. We can’t possibly back out now that they’ve changed their plans for us.”

Crowley opens his mouth to say yes we can, but their conversation is interrupted by his phone buzzing softly against the table on the opposite side of the room. The demon lunges out of bed to retrieve it, feeling his chest tighten when he sees the name of the caller.

“Warlock?” He tries to shift into nanny voice as he settles down beside the angel once more and pulls a flowery crochet blanket around his waist, pressing the device tightly against his ear to make out the shaky words jumbled into the boy's panicked sobs. “It’s alright, darling,” he says. “Take a deep breath... Just like that. I need you to answer a few questions for me, okay?”

Aziraphale looks to Crowley in concern and mouths, “Is he alright?”

Crowley shakes his head at the angel. “Are all the maggots gone, dear? You can’t see any awful squirmy things at all?”  He bites the inside of his cheek so hard to keep from swearing that he tastes sour demon-blood. But he keeps his voice as smooth as if they are back in Warlock’s exuberantly decorated playroom, memorizing the three facets of the pharmakon triangle.

Aziraphale whispers, “What in the devil is going on?”

Crowley holds up a hand to silence him. “No, I’m not terribly worried about slugs,” the demon says. To Aziraphale, he mouths, “Hastur.” More accurately, a single maggot had emerged from under the door of the child’s bedroom and multiplied into two maggots, and then ten, and then hundreds. The carnivorous Sansevieria trifasciata that they had gifted to Warlock the previous week, proceeded to ferociously devour the cluster of squirming larvae before it could transform into the Duke of Hell.

Crowley breathes a hiss of relief. “Wonderful. And there aren’t any skeletons. Of humans or anything else? …Warlock, are your parents home?” Crowley had intrinsically despised the child’s parents, but for the sake of Warlock’s sanity hopes that the boy is not going to find his own father’s skeleton picked clean in the next room. “Of course, dear. And the plant is not hurt? It’s still right there beside you?  There’s nothing… inside it?”

Crowley opens his mouth to say, you can’t name your snake plant Wormwood, they’re not remotely the same species, but decides there are more important matters at hand. “Excellent. Listen, you must promise me you’ll keep Wormwood with you at all times, alright? Even at school. And if you see one single maggot or fruit fly, you get out of there and tell me right away. And we’ll sort this out, no need to worry, okay? …Yes, Brother Francis is right here, I’ll put him on. Listen, I’m very proud of you. You’re doing so well.” As he hands over the phone, he hisses to Aziraphale under his breath, “I think he’s safe, don’t make him panic.”

Crowley takes the few minutes that Aziraphale speaks with Warlock to miracle himself some clothing, pace back and forth, dramatically squat down and bury his face in his hands, pull on his own hair, throw his head back in despair, and repeat this process several times.

“Of course,” the angel is saying. “No, I think it’s very good that you are defending yourself. Have you been going to church? …No, not like that - I only thought you might keep a bit of holy water on hand. I know how talented you are at stealing things …no, I don’t think it’s a sin if you’re defending yourself. Aim for the eyes… Please do check in with us again. Yes, yes, I will tell Nanny that you say so. You take care of yourself… God’s blessings on you.” Aziraphale, having never taught himself to use a phone without a turn dial, hands the device back to Crowley for fear of pressing the wrong button.

“He told you everything?” Crowley mumbles dully. The child’s tale makes him want to laugh and scream, and also leaves him bitterly regretful that he had not obliterated Hastur when he had the chance.

“I may have gotten the toned-down version. Crowley, do you think I’m hypocritical?” he asks, mostly wondering if his demon had been the one to teach the child the word hypocritical and whether he’d been specifically referenced in that conversation.

“Your gardener persona did have some... unrealistic standards. Oh, this is so bloody typical.” Of course, of course, now of all times, Hastur decides to wreak his vengeance on the child who accused him of smelling of poo. It was a compliment, for Satan’s sake – Hastur’s odour is significantly worse than excrement.

“You aren’t shocked? Hell tried to eat him.”

“Hell trying to eat humans is the least shocking thing I’ve heard all year. What I really want to know is, was Hastur working on his own – and was he discorporated – but he must have been. No maggot could survive those enzymes. I put those there.” It had seemed like a good offhand amusement at the time. Crowley had not, in any way, anticipated this situation, although if it were one of his former bosses asking he would be willing to pretend that he had.

“We could collect the child and bring him here, perhaps. Or we might pop over and check up on – ”

“Nah. If we’re with him, he’ll make it personal, and then he will come back. I reckon it’s the rest of the world we should be worried about, soon as Hell gives Hastur a new corporation. Should check on anyone else who helped throw off the apocalypse. Bicycle girl and computer boy, for a start.”

“I don’t suppose Hell wants anything to do with Adam anymore,” Aziraphale points out. “He shaped the whole of reality, and I imagine that would have been one of his... provisions.”

Ten minutes later finds Crowley nailing garlands of Artemisia absinthium from every window and doorframe. He’s set a lick of hellfire to a branch of A. annua in a clay bowl on the table, from one of the plants he’d seeded in the cracks in the sidewalk around the bookshop (in addition to those in the compact soil of desolate city trees, and also the gardens of several government buildings). “I didn’t realize you were quite so superstitious, dear.” Aziraphale is frantically checking all of the psychic guards around the shop for either heavenly or demonic intervention.

“Not ‘stitius,” the demon corrects, holding the hammer in his mouth to loop the plant material more firmly around the nail. He is balancing on top of his staff as though it were a ladder to reach the top of the window frame. This should not be feasible, according to either physics or Crowley’s usual state of balance, but the demon knows that if you’re synchronized enough with any object - especially one you were more or less made to synchronize with - it will do whatever you ask. “Repels flies. And gnats.  And maggots. Works a lot better than the mushrooms (1).” He hammers another nail in place and loops another branch of wormwood over the top.

“But are you quite sure that will be enough?”

“I’m sure it's not. D’you suppose you could make us some holy water? It doesn’t have to be the very holiest. Just something to burn their eyes out and make them run.”

“Crowley, we’ve talked about this, I’m not having it in the shop.”

“Would you prefer Hastur in the shop? Or Dagon? Do you think he was working alone?”

“I’d prefer you all in existence to utterly annihilated, yes.” Aziraphale grimaces and then inhales a deep breath of wormwood smoke, which immediately settles some of the panic that had been throwing his whole psyche around the room like so many playing cards tossed into the air. “That actually does smell quite nice.”

 

 

32 B.C.

 

“Do you not believe that there is only one person for each of us?” Yeshua is asking, eyebrows raised, in response to a few of her sharp questions regarding his most recent miracles.

“It’s only the theory of the thing,” Crawley explains. “Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.  But if there were, wouldn’t the responsibility be on her husbands? Weren’t they the ones with the power and choice in the matter? You are blaming a leaf for being blown by the wind.”  She has agreed to tag along with Yeshua and John to a pandocheion where she is commonly known as ‘oh, her, she's back’ - which seems a bit unfair, as she always pays on time and has been informally tending to their fruit trees for many years. But it’s the sort of shabby, godless place where the radical Jew who heals people on the Sabbath and calls himself the son of God, and the black-robed woman with mutant eyes and seemingly inexhaustible wealth, are both allowed to exist unbothered for the night.

“And yet it helped her to find God,” the apostle puts in, “and to know His son on Earth. For every sin plants the opportunity for redemption.”  God’s son has taken it upon himself to introduce her to his disciple as Azarias, and John seems to assume that this is a hint that she’s the archangel Raphael in disguise; the staff leaned up against the wall behind her encourages this misconception.  At least three people have assumed that she and Yeshua are the couple, and John the third wheel, but he lets this slide without comment.

“Only playing devil’s advocate,” Crawley says quickly.  She had prepared to act the part of the sort of sinful human who these two would be very smug about converting to God’s Truth, but finds their current dynamic to be an even more entertaining challenge to maneuver.  Women’s garments, at least, are long enough to nearly cover her feet, making them easier to glamour, although the wooden-soled sandals are bitterly uncomfortable. Crawley has bedecked herself with heavy bronze bracelets in the shape of snakes twined around her arms and clipped gold earrings to her ears.  Most recently, she had been using a backstory which involves travelling down from Rome as a member of the governor Pilotius's household - which isn’t entirely untrue.

“And still, it is what we say, that matters more than what we think, is it not?” But Yeshua is clearly stifling a laugh at her joke.  He appears to regard her sacrilegious sentiments as a sort of endearing character flaw in a friend, and a test that he’s already passed.

They sit out in the courtyard that smells of camel dung, drink wine that tastes woody as the cask it was stored in – the jug continues to refill itself, sometimes by the demon’s doing, and sometimes the Son of God’s – and spend a great deal of time making increasingly illegal disparaging comments about Tiberius, while the two humans team up together against the demon for several rounds of backgammon.  The first she wins without cheating, and the second round she wins without miraculous cheating.  By their fifth game, however, after she has rolled snake eyes on the dice for the third time in a row, Yeshua appears to catch on to her wiles.  He miracles the dice back into his own favour with a good-naturedly teasing smile that seems to say, God prevails!

“Even if the Lord were playing dice with the Earth…” God's human son makes three more of his own game-pieces outright vanish into thin air. “...it would go just like that.”

John gives an exclamation of triumphant delight.  He may be aware of the minor deluge of supernatural acts directing the game-board into a subliminal battle of mystical powers, but as he can’t seem to take his eyes off of Yeshua long enough to follow the game, she rather doubts it.  John gives the Son of God an obvious if this probably-angelic woman weren’t here I’d kiss you look, and then meanders inside in search of more food, strongly reminding her of Aziraphale.

In the next round, she cheats even more blatantly, miracling the pieces that Yeshua had previously vanished back onto the board.

“Healthy-looking swine over there,” he says meaningfully, taking the dice-cup back for himself, but it’s a good-natured threat.  There are certain experiences that no one can share without a subsequent sense of mutual solidarity, and her temptation in the Judean desert, as well as their joint miracle-making at the Pool of Bethesda, are on that list.  As long as he's the one with the blackmail – being the only person this planet (or off of it) who is aware of her hidden penchant for healing miracles – and she’s more or less behaving herself, there does not seem to be any immediate risk of having her demonic spirit shoved into the body of a pig.

“People never seem to understand,” she begins, and Yeshua seems to intuit that people refers to angels and demons and half-human godly entities, “how many things you can theoretically do if you stop limiting yourself so much.  If you believe – ”

“Believe in the Lord,” Yeshua puts in.

“Nah, just Believe.  There really shouldn't be any limit on…”  She reaches behind her for her staff, and taps the ground once, to make the backgammon board become chess.  “If you needed to walk on the surface of the sea, for that matter.”

“...then you could return to your friend in Rome in a hurry.”  Yeshua refills their wine from the jug, and she refills the jug with a quick miracle as he does so.

“Just an acquaintance, really,” she says again.

“I think you worry too much,” Yeshua replies. “Listen, you can say you love him or not, history’s going to remember whatever it likes.”  As he speaks, John slides back into place beside them, disgruntled that the rather brusque innkeeper was unwilling to provide them with any additional foodstuffs.

“Wish I could help with that.”  Crawley casts a disparaging look at a fruitless fig tree some feet away from them in the dusty courtyard. She’d planted it as part of another temptation some decades prior, under a previous disguise, and ever since then has been fighting an internal war as to whether she should admit to any emotional attachment to the plant. “But this useless tree – never does what it's asked.”

“It’s not in season,” Yeshua points out.

“It’s pathetic, is what it is,” says Crawley.  She gives the tree a Look that makes its leaves shiver, though there is not even the slightest breath of wind on the air. “I come back here to check on you, every year. I bring you water and compost, and you can't even give my friends one miserable fig.”  The demon shakes her head in disgust, trying to keep the hiss in her voice to a minimum for the sake of not revealing herself.

“Could you not call one forth?” John asks the other human, with a tone of academic interest and possibly also physical hunger.

“I could.”  The Son of God does not say, so could our friend here, but she can read it in his expression.  

And technically, she could, but she shouldn’t need to nonconsensually drag a fruit out of a tree that she had planted herself.  “Wouldn’t matter if you did,” says Crawley.  “Shouldn’t have to.  That tree has failed us.  After everything I’ve done for it, too.”

Should it defy the seasons of the year that were made by the Almighty?” asks John. The apostle is seemingly not wholly following this evening’s conversations but tries his best to put all this into the context of a disguised angel and the messiah discussing some philosophical concept just beyond his reach.

“Of course it should,” says Crawley. “You deserve figs, and it should have made them for you.  You disgust me,” she adds pointedly to the tree.  If it were a dog, it would have its tail between its legs.

She notices Yeshua raising his hand slightly, as though ready to make the noncompliant tree burst into fruit.  But before he can make his move, she sends forth her best furious display of demonic love, energetically reaching out to the tree in the manner that might have made it double in size when she was an angel, and now immediately makes the whole thing wilt.  Its smooth trunk turns brittle and cracked, bright leaves fading to a dull green color like mold on bread.

“Pathetic,” she repeats.

One of the pigs that had been nosing about the opposite side of the courtyard meanders by, and she genuinely can’t tell if the Son of God is giving her a hint.

“I hear,” Yeshua says gracefully, as they return to what is now their chessboard, alongside the grim corpse of withered wood and crumpled dry fig leaves, “that you are a close acquaintance of governor Pilotius.  You must be needing to return to him soon.”

“About that,” says Crowley. “I’m not in a hurry to get back, really. Bit of a…”

“You should do your job,” Yeshua says. “To each of us is a task appointed.”  His utterly calm tone makes a wordless demonic scream rise in the centre of her chest.

Crawley thinks this might be the worst thing that a friend has ever asked of her.

 

-

 

She’s headed for Pilotious’s mansion – and yes, alright, it’s comforting to have her staff in her hand as she walks – when Hastur is very suddenly striding along beside her.  He is so close that their shoulders brush, and she can feel his diabolical ooze staining the sleeve of her robe. “All hail Satan,” says the Duke of Hell.

“All hail Satan,” Ligur echoes, appearing on her other side – of course, he would be here as well, because what is Hastur without Ligur? (2)

“Oh - er.” Crawley begins to drop her face into her hand, remembers herself, tries to do the proper salute, and compromises by pushing a few stray locks of hair that have fallen out of her braid back behind her ears.  She gives a mediocre half bow. “Duke Hastur, Duke Ligur, what an honor.”

Hastur is wearing his pallid hair long in this century, giving the impression of a warty toad wrapped in overcooked noodles.  He stops walking and steps in front of her so suddenly that she nearly collides with him.  “I hear you’ve been doing such good work, Crawley, and I thought you might tell us about it. Let us recount…”

Crawley feels her eyes metaphorically rolling into the back of her head with instinctual boredom at the surprise review. It’s the kind of immediate mental shutdown that makes her not entirely register the tone with which the Duke of Hell had said, such good work.

“...the deeds of the day.  I have tempted a shepherd into stealing his neighbour's sheep.  He will be ours within the year.”

“I have killed a peasant and blamed it on a politician.  No one will believe his innocence.  Next time, he will do the killing himself.”

“You’ve actually caught me at a funny time,” Crowley says evasively. “Because see, I’m headed to talk with this governor, bosses’ orders, and it’s very important that I get some time with him before – the other side can have too much impact. Make a solid impression.”

“Then we’ll cut right to it.” Slime mold is trickling down the side of Ligur's face.

“Heard some funny rumours in these parts.” As Hastur leans in to sneer at her, the stench is nearly overpowering. “Angels putting healing miracles in a pool and so forth.”

“Angels do that sort of thing,” says Crawley. “I heard there was one hanging around outside the city. Got out of there in a hurry. Glad you guys heard about it – wouldn’t want you getting smote (3).”

“Is that so,” says Hastur. “Nice stick you’ve got there.”

Ligur smiles like one of those frogs that eat its mates. “Say,” he turns to the other duke, “I think she used to have a stick like that. Long time ago. It got all burnt up.”

“You think you’re not one of us?” Hastur sneers.

“Just a stick.” Crawley clutches the staff as tightly as she can, and swallows the urge to use it to discorporate them both. To either attack or to run, would be to confirm their suspicions. “Came in useful for the Assignment. I don’t know if you Dukes spend much time on the Observation Mountain, but that door can be a real nuisance to open by hand.”

When she Fell, her heavenly staff had crumbled away into smouldering ashes like a spent log in the hottest part of a campfire. That must have been the moment the Almighty's grace left her, stripped away like wood varnish from acid, as the point where it had been held against her hand had turned to scar tissue and then snakeskin. She'd grasped at nothing and keened; she still had not hit the ground. 

“Failed that assignment, though, didn’t you?” asks Hastur.

“Listen, guys, it’s been great, but I’m gonna fail the next one as well if I don’t get going.”

“Wouldn’t bother you, then, to get rid of that before you go?” Ligur suggests.  His chameleon leers at her with its beady eyes.

“Wouldn’t bother me at all,” Crawley agrees, every inch of her body and psyche cringing and screeching. It’s acacia, for Satan’s sake – it’s got thorns and everything. Any demon could pick this sort of thing up off the ground. It shouldn’t be such a big deal to them. It shouldn’t matter to her. It doesn’t. Just a stick, really.

She sets a quick lick of hellfire to the wood, and it crumbles to ash on the flagstones.

Crawley's hand feels achingly empty. “Right. If you don’t mind. Places to be, people to tempt.”

Although Satan does briefly raise the matter the next time she’s checking in, at least her brother understands that the metaphysical entrance to the Observation Mountain is a pain to open – and the Lord of Hell has enough of his own habits left over from his stint as an archangel that he has to let it slide. You can’t blame a demon for their harmless quirks, when there’s no evidence of any actual Good deeds - certainly not when they’ve dutifully plotted the Son of God’s execution.

And if she may also have sent Pilotius’s wife an ominous dream, in an effort to convince the woman to persuade her husband to call the execution off? Satan never finds out, and it makes no difference in the end.

 

 

THURSDAY NIGHT

 

“Nonono,” Crowley insists, “I tempted ‘im and he bloody well succumbed. ‘e just didn’t want to admit it.”

It was a metaphor for the power of the Almighty over nature,” Aziraphale explains with drunken enthusiasm.  “And he certainly didn't phrase it like that.  You drink.”

“Nono,” Crowley says, “that fig tree was being a bloody great disobedient git, an’ he told it what he thought've it, an’ made the rest up later. ‘M a teacher. Tempter.” After the stress of the day, they have gotten several hours deep into one of Azirphale’s favourite drinking games, ‘real or fake bible quote.’ The angel always wins, although Crowley considers himself the winner because he prefers alcohol to biblical knowledge anyway. But he enjoys the angel's excitement when he thinks he’s found a particularly clever example - there’s certainly an art to twisting your words just right, to give the appearance of accuracy - and he suspects that Aziraphale misses some of his eight- and nineteenth-century Catholic author friends more than he is willing to admit.

“You’re drunk, love.”

“Yes, ab’ssslutely. But that kid took a leaf outta my tree. Wait, hang on.” If Aziraphale calls him love one more time, he will have to sober up, because his heart might explode with affection and he actually is too drunk for all this love coursing through his demonic veins.

“A leaf out of your book,” Aziraphale offers helpfully. “But it’s a technicality of circumstance, not textual – because. Because.” He is sitting between the now-fruitless fig tree and the night-blooming cereus, looking drunk enough to embrace either plant (cactus spines and all) in solidarity against Crowley’s scorn, or maybe to embrace the demon instead – it’s hard to choose, when his head is so muddled from having to drink five times in a row. Crowley actually does know his Book of Enoch more thoroughly than he’d been letting on.

“Because he bloody lied about it and nobody called ‘im out. Fine. Guess I gotta drink again.”

Aziraphale has begun to coo over the cereus, in part because he’s faintly concerned that Crowley will recreate Jesus’s Withering Of The Fig just to prove an inebriated point if he draws too much attention to the poor tree that had offered such a significant fruit earlier that month.  The cactus’s fleshy stems are tense with fear, but the angel feels a natural tug from the plant at his own heartstrings, as the plant recognizes his angelic nature and reaches out to calm its own anxiety.

Crowley is just barely growing accustomed to the idea that Aziraphale is a door that is no longer closed to him, and the angel seems to feel the same; their need for physical contact is as strong as the need for water after millennia parched in a desert.  Moreover, even if he continues in his new habit of kissing his angel at least once per hour, it will still take years to make up for all their millennia of polite distance.  As such, while Aziraphale is cooing over the night-blooming cereus and very gingerly petting its spiny stalk as though it were a cat, Crowley sets down his glass again and comes to casually wrap himself around the angel from behind and take one of his hands.

Aziraphale leans gratefully into the contact as Crowley buries his face in the back of his neck and kisses him there. The feel of the demon’s fingers laced in his makes his already-wobbly knees feel weak and sends shivers of electricity up his spine.

But the utterly non-Aziraphale sensation travelling through Crowley’s hand and straight into his demonic heart is at once so foreign and familiar that it takes him a moment to register the feeling as pleasurable and not painful. Of course, Crowley technically has a heart – it comes with the humanoid body by default, even in the cruellest of demons – and he’s long past denying his ability to feel love, at least for Aziraphale and maybe also his Bentley. But the last time a night-blooming cereus had given him this sort of long, deep energetic look, straight into his soul, he had still been deliberating as to whether or not it should have spines – and the snake tattoo on his face had been gold, and depicted a snake with talons and wings, and he’d had a staff made from the Original birch tree sprinkled with real stardust.

Though the cactus was not due to bloom for another six months, it instantly unfurls vast, unearthly white flowers in surprise, filling the bookshop with its vanilla-like aroma. Though it doesn’t use words, Crowley can hear the plant – or, more precisely, feel it shouting, as though from a long way away, something that his intoxicated psyche translates as, You!!

Crowley releases the angel’s arm as if stung by a wasp, though he feels quite the opposite. He backs away a few paces, flapping his hand around, half expecting it to dissolve into molten goo. “Wait. Waitwaitwait. I’m picking up some weird feedback or someth’... do that again.”

Aziraphale reaches out and pulls Crowley’s arms around him again, enclosing his thin fingers in his own. Now that he’s aware of it, he almost wishes that the demon wouldn’t put so much effort into hiding the more snakelike parts of himself, because Aziraphale loves every bit of Crowley, snake scales on his hands and glowering yellow eyes and unfortunate coin-supergluing hobbies and all, and he doesn’t like the thought that Crowley dislikes any single part of himself enough to keep it hidden when they’re alone. He interlaces their fingers a little tighter.

“No. I mean, yes, but also – with the plant.”

He complies. “Crowley, what precisely are we – oh.” This time, Aziraphale feels something.  It’s akin to the experience of smelling a particularly beautiful rose in the botanical gardens, or the appreciative energy that would run through him like a wave of white light when the Dowlings’ begonias had reached out to thank him for their miraculous health. But he can also feel Crowley leaning into that energy and holding on as though it were a thread in danger of snapping.

All at once, the demon lets go of his hand and retreats with an expression which anyone else might interpret as hatred and which Aziraphale perceives as hope.

“Crowley?”

“So, let’sss ssay, you wake up tomorrow an’ can’t feel anything when you read your books. They’re jussss… made out’ve words.” He begins to pace again, grabbing his staff to lean on because the floor felt like the deck of a ship even before this development.

“Crowley, do you think you should sober up a bit?”

“Nonono, see... when you’re reading those old romance novels, right? The ones you used to keep in the backroom... where all th’ awful stuff goes wrong and then the terrible grumpy bugger makes big ssentimental proclamations 'n you start getting all teary-eyed.” Crowley did not read any more books in the eighteenth century than he does in the twenty-first, but based on Aziraphale having waxed poetic about his reading materials at the time, this seemed to be the gist. “‘N they’re juss’ words on a page... you can't even care, right?”

Oh, alright, Aziraphale thinks, we’re back to God’s Metaphorical Novel. “This is an analogy.”

“No. Yeah. No.  Yess, so you say: why hast thou forssaken me, oh book!” He sneers the words as sardonically as he can while the floor is a quaking bog and his head is a mire of alcohol and awe and shameful, nerve-wracking hope.  “An’ the book says: ‘cause you’re a demon, you wanker, right.”

“‘M sure my books would be more polite about it.” Aziraphale is keenly aware that, sarcasm or no, Crowley appears to be indirectly admitting to, at some point, having had thoughts along the lines of why hast thou forsaken me, which is in accordance with everything that he knows about the demon and in direct contradiction of almost everything Crowley has ever said about himself. He wonders if he can sober himself up without the demon noticing because it’s hard to think through the situation when his head is so muddled.

“Would they? If they were, you wouldn’t know…  See? That’s my point. My point is that… do that again. I mean, reach out to the flower, say hi or something.”

Aziraphale draws his brows together, trying to figure out what is and is not metaphorical in this discussion. He places a hand very tenderly against one of the plant’s enormous white flowers, which are still heavily perfuming the air.

Crowley lays his hand on top of Aziraphale’s hand. It’s there, alright: like a telephone line made of Angelic Grace, or maybe more like a tube of gift-wrap with the plant whispering down one end and echoing, somehow into Crowley's body. The cactus is astonished and pleased by the attempt at connection with its demonic caretaker, and Crowley can actually feel that. The demon pulls away again. “See? That’s my point. You’re - conducting someth’.”

“Like electricity.”

“Electricccity in water.” Awe is rapidly being replaced by bitterness. This is worse than no Grace at all, he thinks. Using his husband as a telephone is more degrading than not being able to hear anything. “‘M gonna burn you.”

“Don’t be silly,” Aziraphale scolds, catching on to the situation in a murky, boggy sort of way. “Hold my hand, love, and – say hello to this lovely flower.”

“’S not lovely, it’s stuck up little prick, won't even talk to me without...” But there’s no real conviction in his voice, and he takes the hand again nevertheless. He tries to say I missed you!! Can you hear me?? and also simultaneously you worthless creature, won’t even talk to me without the angel standing between –

“Crowley, that’s not nice,” Aziraphale scolds, as the communication reverberates through his earthly vessel.

“'M not nice,” He back up again, giddy and furious, and sinks heavily into the nearest armchair. I couldn’t hear you before, the cactus had seemed to be saying. “Should sober up,” he mumbles. As a rule, demons don’t cry, but if he doesn’t get enough alcohol out of his system to form a coherent thought, Crowley just might start a new phenomenon.

As it transpires, this was a mistake, because once his bloodstream is relatively clear, the world becomes unpleasantly real, and the texture of the cactus’s exquisite flowers is too sharp.  Worst of all, it isn’t even slightly shrinking back from him, but standing up straight and eager and seemingly glad to see him. Crowley’s first sober thought is, of course, night-blooming cereus is a cardiac stimulant – it would reach straight for his heart.  He’d designed it to do so.  Human hearts break so very easily.

Aziraphale, who has also sobered, delicately reaches out and interlaces his fingers in Crowley’s. “One more time?” When the demon neither responds nor pulls away, Aziraphale reaches their hands toward the flower once more. And though plants don’t speak with words, its energy seems to articulate very clearly: Is that you, R –

Crowley sharply jerks his hand away. “I’m going for a walk.”  He is already backing away.

“Would you like some company?” Aziraphale asks. It’s past midnight – not that this is an unusual time for a demon to be out – but Crowley looks more hollow-eyed and woozier now than he had while inebriated.

Crowley shakes his head. The doors of the backroom, and of the bookshop, open at his approach without even a snap of his shaking fingers.

Aziraphale is left alone with the luminous cactus flowers like moons. “Don’t mind him.  He doesn’t mean anything by it,” the angel reassures the houseplant, and also himself. “It's been a difficult year for all of us. I think he likes you quite a lot, actually.”

When Crowley returns, sometime around dawn, the night-blooming cereus flowers have closed once more, drooping their faces toward the floor as their thin white petals begin to brown.  The demon collapses into bed with barely an uncomfortable grunt in Aziraphale’s direction and does not mention this experiment.

 

 

3004 B.C

 

The beams of the unicorn’s stall in the ark’s stables sway with the ship as the rain continues in neverending torrents outside, occasionally slowing to a dull patter, only to send the vessel careening again with another furious downpour.  Perched in the wooden rafters as a snake, Crawley is strategically positioned to spring upon the throat of any human who should open the door and kill them instantly with a well-aimed snakebite. And they would do it, they realize with a blend of confusion and embarrassment. This whole rescue was intended merely as a rash act of rage and defiance against the Almighty. But somewhere between the frigid days floating on a turbulent sea, and long nights in a cramped stable, they’ve become acutely aware that they’d easily trade three other human lives for the fragile beings huddling against a sleeping unicorn in the straw beneath them.

While the children sleep, Crowley prays: This isn’t going to work, God, can you hear me? I understand your creations better than you - you can’t weed out the evil from the good, it’s a package deal, you made this deal - I know you can hear me…  At least one of these children will marry one of Noah’s, presumably, and procreate, for lack of other options – and should anyone discover Crawley’s terrible deed, they’ll say it was these impure humans that caused another downfall for humanity. But you can't end human cruelty or suffering with either miracles or a murder. Give it a year or a century, and they’ll be hurting each other and blaspheming all over again.

In any case, it is Aziraphale who next opens the heavy wooden door and slips inside, pulling it hastily shut behind him. Miraculously, no one feeds the unicorn or mucks its stall, and any human who intends to check on the animal will suddenly recall an urgent matter that must be dealt with on the opposite side of the ark. And yet, the animal is better-fed, cleaner and happier than any other. The unicorn is bewildered to find itself in this situation - alone of its kind, locked away in a floating stable in the sea that has flooded what was once its home - but is exceedingly good-natured about the four-year-old pulling at her tail and braiding her multihued mane in increasingly odd patterns, and the toddler half-asleep with one pudgy hand clenched around her horn.

Aziraphale glances from the humans to the unicorn, frowns, and then raises his gaze to the huge serpent looking down unblinkingly from overhead.

“Funny, isn’t it? Ironic,” Crawley hisses. “Me, above. You, below. Not a view we get often.” They stretch themself out and lean against the ceiling, pause, slither along the rafters, and finally slide down the side of the wall into human form.

“Not funny.

“No,” Crawley agrees, “not really.” They can’t even laugh, because the truth chokes their throat like dust.

Aziraphale holds out a loaf of bread and a jar of milk pilfered from the kitchen. “You need to stop miracling food for them,” he says. “I know, I know, but if Uriel comes back and senses you, I don’t know what will happen. Which he might, in any case, but I don’t know what else to do.” Aziraphale can’t shake this ever-present, nagging panic that he hadn’t experienced even as they waited for the storm that would eliminate all living creatures. A rainstorm could wipe out humanity, but couldn’t do much harm to Crawley. Either an archangel, or a particularly observant human, could lead to all manner of unpleasant fates for the demon. Aziraphale's stomach squirms unpleasantly whenever he thinks on it, which is at least once every three minutes.

“If that happens, I’ll deal with it, angel. This wasn’t your idea, alright? They won’t punish you for it. I won’t let them.”

Aziraphale nods and shakes his head at once. “I - do hope it won’t come to that.” In no case is he going to allow the demon to face Uriel alone, or at all. The stoic, breathtakingly graceful Light of God is not frightening in the warlike manner of Michael or Sandalphon, whose swords are always reading for the smiting. But Uriel is as true to the Almighty as if he were the Great Plan incarnate, and isn't the type to make exceptions for a demon just because their actions might, objectively, by someone’s standards, be called good.  And the consequences of the demon’s actions being reported back to the Dark Council could be just as dire.

 

-

 

Later that night, as the children sleep curled against the unicorn for warmth, Crawley has returned to their perch in the rafters, poised to strike.

Uriel bursts into the room in deafening silence like a blazing star, as though his corporation is not made of matter at all. The stable door makes no sound as it swings closed in his wake.

Anticipating a human, Crawley swings down and bites the archangel, aiming for the jugular, and misses by several inches as they realize their mistake too late. Holy blood burns the inside of their mouth and sends them reeling back, spitting and gagging. They hadn’t formed a proper backup plan beyond if Uriel comes, we’re fucked, but I won't let them blame Aziraphale.

Uriel is here.  They are fucked.  They never even had a Plan A, and it’s already time for Plan B.  But they are still not going to let Aziraphale take the blame.

Behind them, the bleary-eyed children scramble upright, awakened by the noise.   The youngest has begun to whimper, then cry, an awful, piercing wail that would surely call the humans if Crawley hadn’t miraculously soundproofed the stable several days previously; Ekur scoops her up into his arms and holds her protectively. The unicorn, which had been sleeping with its legs folded beneath it in the cramped space, floats to its feet with a finesse that common horses will never master.  Uriel had been partially responsible for the creation of unicorns.  He’s going to be furious when he discovers the animals' fate, if he hasn't already – but as Crawley is likely to be discorporated by then, there’s no time to reflect on it.  And thankfully, the unicorn is giving her original creator a pointed look which implies that he is in danger of being run through by her rainbow-colored horn if he should make the wrong move.

Crawley makes a split-second decision that they’re going to ponder and overthink and stress about for the next several millennia, and swings down to the ground between the archangel and the children, spreading all four of their wings.  Though the space is too narrow for them to entirely unfurl, they create a feathery jet-black barrier between the archangel and the humans. Crawley hisses fiercely as they let their eyes become fully snakelike. If Uriel would like to discorporate a demon to get at the(ir) children, he’ll have to go through Crawley to do so, and he’s going to recognize them and take a good hard look at what he did to them, and they’re not going to tone themself down at all.  The fly agaric mushrooms sprouting from the straw at their feet are an unnecessary flourish from a defensive standpoint, but they do emphasize the point.

Uriel has raised one hand to the wound at his neck, neither deep nor venomous enough to discorporate an archangel.  Silvery blood drips down his neck, but the bite already is healing itself beneath his fingers.  The sword in his other hand is licked with unearthly white flames.  There was a time that Crawley would have rushed forward to heal their sibling without a second thought.

“Uriel!” they greet as amiably as they can, while even the sight of their divine sibling makes their insides writhe and their wings ache with muscle-memory.  “Fancy seeing you here.  Just checking in on the unicorn, then?”  They hope that Uriel will now assume that the loss of the last male unicorn had been their own doing, because they can’t stomach the idea of Aziraphale being blamed for a human’s blunder.

“Don’t think you’ll get away with this, demon,” the archangel scoffs, clearly not referring to the unicorn mishap, his voice as lofty and vacant as the ceilings of Heaven, wound at his throat shifting oddly with each word. “Thwarting God’s will for your infernal means.”

“Infernal – can you hear yourself?” Crawley knows that Uriel must recognize them. He’d been the last person to see them in Heaven – to put it politely – and they don't think they look so incredibly different. The wings really should give it away, in any case.

Uriel’s lip curls disdainfully, an infuriating half-smile like a stone wall. “Do not seek to tempt me.”

“Not tempting.” Crawley wonders frantically what will happen to the children if they and Uriel should discorporate one another. The youngest is still howling piteously behind them, the other two murmuring softly to calm her down. Crawley does not dare turn their head to check. “No, I mean it. Stop being Mother’s Divine Light for a minute, look me in the eyes, and ask me to please murder these kids for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I don’t say please to demons.” Uriel meets Crawley's yellow eyes steadily with his own dark ones. But he immediately looks away and does not advance.

“Course you do.  Angels always say please.” They are impressed with their own ability to keep their voice convincingly nonchalant when their entire internal thought process is a choir of, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.

“Do you dare mock me?”  Uriel's gaze is as stoic as ever, but there’s something oddly shifty in his dark eyes, and he stresses the last word over-emphatically as though trying to convince himself.

"Not mocking, Ur.” Crawley makes their second wildly ad-lib move of the day, folds their wings, crouches down deliberately, and scoops the wailing one-year-old into their own arms, rocking the child very gently until her wailing begins to soften. “How does this go? I've not had much experience with smiting, to be perfectly honest. Did you want the baby first?”

If there is one thing that demonic and angelic psyches have in common with their human counterparts, it’s the inconsistency of traumatic memory. If you’d asked Crawley, slithering out of the brimstone, a snake with charred wings dragging uselessly against the ground, what precisely happened, they wouldn’t have answered, because they hadn't spoken to anyone at first. They’d burrowed into a dark corner, breathing hellfire at anyone who came close, trying to preen away the worst of the damage and only succeeding to make their blistered skin bleed black as they scratched away so many broken feathers.

Fast forward for a minute: if you were to ask Crowley, right after Aziraphale’s trial, still soaring on demonic adrenaline after breathing hellfire straight into Gabriel’s smug purple eyes, how did you Fall, they would tell you that they’d met Uriel’s eyes and sauntered intentionally backwards toward Hell out of contempt, and that only then had the other archangel intentionally raised their sword and cast them down.

If you'd asked while they were nursing their Spanish Inquisition hangover, mortifyingly desperate to believe that there was any good in the world at all, they would have said that there’d been real panic and regret in Uriel’s eyes, and that the other archangel had reached out too late to pull them back.

If you’d asked in the dullest and most wretched days of the fourteenth century, they might have told you that Uriel had clearly been remembering their prior argument just before the battle had commenced, and had sought them out in the last remaining corners of Heaven’s crumbling basement, knowing that they had no weapon but their staff, and vindictively pleased to be the one to send them into a million-lightyear freefall.

If you’d asked on the day that the antichrist was born, the answer might have been: It was Uriel all right, but they were fighting Gadreel and Kokabiel at once, I didn’t think – I mean, it was my sibling and some friends, right, I just jumped in between. I don’t think they were aiming for me at all – sword just tore my wing – I think I tripped. You don’t Fall by accident, though, right? I guess God wanted me to trip. I guess.

If there is one thing angelic and human wars have in common, it’s that they’re chaotic, messy affairs, full of flailing movements and frenzied rage and panicked shouts and people striking out blindly with blood in their eyes and only a vague idea of who’s on the wrong side, especially when everyone is dressed in white.

Here is what can be said for sure: Uriel turns on his heel and exits the unicorn stall without another word. He's haughty about it, but it's the sort of haughty that Crawley associates with petty arguments about square nebulas and funny-shaped reptiles. He walks away with his whole body exposed, shimmering blood still dripping from the partially-healed snakebite at his throat, showing no fear of an attack against his retreating form. It's simultaneously so haughty and so vulnerable and so Uriel that if Crawley didn’t still have the child in their arms, they might have bitten again out of pure spite.

The door closes behind the archangel without a sound.

Aziraphale returns to the stable some hours later, worry-lines clearing from his face as he finds the demon unharmed. “Oh, thank God.  Uriel did another surprise inspection and I was sure he’d find you.”

“Thank – literally anyone else,” Crawley says, “he must not have thought to check down here.”

 

-

 

(1) The popular folklore that fly agaric mushrooms can be used to repel flies has no basis in chemistry, although it is true that Crowley repels Beelzebub - or at least, that they find one another repellant.

(2) As Dagon could now tell you, an awful nuisance.

(3) Crowley and Aziraphale had specifically been the ones to differentiate smote and smitten as forms of the same verb in reference to vastly different phenomenon.

Chapter Text

3004 B.C.

 

A human psychologist who Crowley had heard interviewed on BBC2 in the nineties had a theory, the gist of which seemed to be that dysfunctional families express all of their subconscious conflict in one person, who is really only manifesting the symptoms of an underlying family-wide mess, but is still scapegoated as the problem child. That is why, in every highly successful and professional family with a simultaneously utterly controlling and entirely absentee mother whose expectations might be called unrealistic if She wasn’t literally the one in charge of reality, you’ll get the one sibling who ends up drinking two entire bottles of expensive single-malt scotch in a night and supergluing coins to the sidewalk. According to the human psychologist, this isn’t really their fault.

There were scapegoats in Heaven before the Earth was created.

All of this is to say that while it’s true that Crowley was going by Azazel during all that mess with the Watchers before the Flood, they certainly hadn’t asked for the goat sacrifice. They’d actually had a lot of empathy for the goats.

It’s built right into the humans’ nature to be desperate to do whatever it takes to absolve themselves of sin - whatever it takes, that is, except to stop sinning (1). And so they’d come up with the whole ceremony themselves: every year, the people would choose one goat and put unto that scapegoat all of their sins of the year, and ritually send the poor animal away to Azazel.

And since it was clearly providing social catharsis of a sort, Crawley felt obligated to open up a portal to Hell, and bring their goat back Down Below, and give them a show of it. And the demon had gotten them to offer sacrifice to Lord Satan with no prompting whatsoever, which kept Crawley in good standing with their bosses, even if that wasn’t quite how the humans were framing the ceremony in their minds. The goats certainly didn’t have the best life in the underworld, but they got to live forever and to have glowing crimson eyes and be as strong as ten oxen and so forth, so maybe it wasn’t the worst deal for them, either.

Meanwhile, Crawley-as-Azazel had lived in their city and thrown a bunch of demonic miracles around their science and technology sectors, and quite enjoyed talking with the humans about their new inventions.  Crawley certainly hadn’t been the one behaving irresponsibly, although the city had become something of a demons’ haven. These were interesting humans, worth talking to, and Heaven doesn’t like interesting humans who are worth talking to (2).

In any case, Enoch, grandfather of Noah, claims in his book that four archangels entered the city together before its destruction – Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael – but he certainly didn’t see them all at the same time.

While Michael’s binding Fallen angels and Gabriel is smiting Nephilim, Crawley is hightailing it for their portal back to Hell, the one they ordinarily use with the sacrificial goats - this is really, really not their scene – when they bump straight into Enoch, who’s a bit of an odd old man with a long white beard. The human scribe is shouting, “Azazel, thou shalt have no peace!” and so forth, waving his arms around, and at first it’s very difficult to figure out what he’s going on about.

When Enoch tells them that the Lord has commanded Raphael to bind Azazel in the desert, Crawley at least manages to form an escape plan.

How exactly did that one go? The demon wonders later. The scribe says, What were God’s instructions to your divine brother, O glorious Uriel?

And Uriel freezes and panics, presumably, and instead of saying, obviously they’re not with us because they Fell, or at least, they couldn’t make it, things have been terribly busy in Heaven lately, instead says, they’re here to bind a demon! What else would they be doing?  So Uriel says, Azazel shall be made a scapegoat to set an example for the rest of the Fallen Angels!  And then the archangel recites the exact same ritual that the humans perform when they offer their goats to Azazel: place upon him rough and jagged rocks, cover him with darkness, and so on. And Uriel is apparently really winging it by this point, and tells the first lie that comes to mind, which boomerangs back uneasily close to the truth (as the first lie that comes to mind, often does) – “he shall be cast into the fire. And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth," and so forth.

What else would Raphael be doing?

Irony much, Uriel?

Maybe that’s how it happened. Crawley decides that’s more likely and more comfortable than the alternatives: that God had actually passed a message on down to them, or that Uriel had fully intended for them to do what they end up doing, which is to fake the binding of Azazel at the hands of their former self.

Up until that conversation, Crawley had assumed that they were known to be a Fallen angel – there were quite a lot of Fallen living in the area, and the humans had taken educated guesses at some of their former names. Crawley had no reason to think that it would be any different for them. But the humans of this city have only ever seen Crawley in their current disguise as Azazel, or as a dark figure in the dim light of their rocky cave that leads down to Hell, and none of them has much idea what Raphael is meant to look like. So after Crawley shrugs off Enoch, they miracle their clothing into something white and angelic, pull out their wings, adjust the color of the flames in some of the nearby fires to make their black feathers appear faintly blue, and fly dramatically over the burning city as the sky grows dark.

Then Crawley makes a big spectacle of striding down into Azazel’s portal to Hell, just beyond the outskirts of the war-torn city, as though they intend to battle a demon. They light up their halo, which doesn’t look entirely unangelic from the back, and raise great winds that shake the leaves from the trees, and a small tornado. It seems to work. The humans who’ve never seen anyone bind a demon before, assume that that is what binding a demon is meant to look like. And it fits with God’s words, so they go along with it. If any other archangels notice, they don’t follow.

Enoch follows, though, absurdly and incessantly, battle still raging in the distance, parchment and quill under his arm for note-taking. The old man keeps knocking on the same door to Hell that Crawley had just closed, parchment and quill in hand, begging for a moment of their time, until they finally sigh and groan and open it to allow him entry. This guy really thinks he’s meant to have all the veiled knowledge of the world, and he’s every bit as pretentious as his book makes him sound.

The thing is, Enoch has gotten it into his head that Crawley is Raphael, now, and there’s no correcting him. And so there’s nothing to do but give him the tour, as discreetly as possible: souls of the dead over there, queue usually forms down that side, everybody waits for judgement over here. Yeah? Questions? That’s great, Enoch, but I’m not sure you should be Down Here much longer. Time for the next stop on your celestial tour - I think Michael’s coming for you in a flaming chariot sometime soon.

The demon comes back Upstairs after the archangels have finished their smiting and Enoch has been flown away and Crawley has completed all the paperwork from their most recent escapades (their head office is Not Pleased that they didn't stick around to fight, but they are delighted that he has, no matter how inadvertently, been partly responsible for bringing God's wrath down on the humans) – only to find Aziraphale looking uneasy about the other part of that decree, the part Crawley hadn’t been informed of when they thought they were so clever. There is, apparently, to be a Flood.

The humans bring two goats onto their ark. Crawley’s last thought, as the first raindrops hit their upturned face, is that they wish they’d brought more goats down Below when they’d had the chance.

 

 

ONE MONTH AFTER THE WORLD DIDN’T END

TUESDAY

 

The Book of Enoch states that God instructed Raphael to bind the demon named Azazel, “And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgement he shall be cast into the fire. And heal the earth which the angels have corrupted, and proclaim the healing of the earth, that they may heal the plague...”

That is how Crowley scored his point, in one particular round of ‘real or fake bible quote’ sometime around 2011, on a day off from their jobs with Warlock’s household: heal the earth which the angels have corrupted. He left off the first line, of course, to avoid his old name. He strongly disliked to bring the matter up, but he suspected it would work, and Aziraphale was not nearly drunk enough yet for his own good.

Aziraphale could have sworn that the line read ‘which the Fallen angels have corrupted.’  He got out Enoch’s first draft of his book and everything.

“Well, the Fallen bit was implied, all the Watchers were Fallen and it clearly referred to the Watchers, because what the devil would She have meant by it otherwise?” the angel had finally asked, frustrated.

Implied?  Angel, you made this game. Drink.”

Nothing and everything, are both implied. Maybe Uriel meant something by it, maybe it was all just an easy lie. It’s like trying to read your fortune in a refrigerator magnet poem.

In any case, Crowley pretends that he is not thinking about what is or is not implied by the earth which the angels have corrupted, on this particular Tuesday in September, as he is reading Anathema’s list of most recent possibly-celestial happenings, including a minor locust plague, several cases of sudden-onset blindness, and two unidentified skeletons near a Satanist convent which Crowley vaguely recalls having visited to give a report to Ligur at least two decades previous.  It’s sporadic and irregular, as though Hell and Heaven alike are vaguely aware that they’re upset with the humans but can’t entirely recall which humans or why.

The witch had resumed her investigations of supernatural happenings in local newspapers as soon as he’d alerted her to the situation with the maggots. And though they’ve checked in repeatedly with Warlock and the boy still appears to be safe, now that they’re looking for it, the Earth is not quite so normal as it had appeared in the days after the Apocalypse didn’t happen – and in a lot of cases, it’s difficult to know whether Above or Below is to blame. Or what the Somewhere they are meant to do about it.

Sprawled across the floral upholstery of one of the bookshop’s worn armchairs, Crowley grimaces even more deeply at his phone as he returns to the other equally unpleasant task at hand: for Anathema’s sake, he has compiled his best guess as to how Newt might rearrange the hardware in a computer to prevent it from crashing at his slightest touch. As he doesn't know precisely how the human's curse came about, all that can really be done is to identify and disassemble the diabolical sigils and re-assemble the computer's hardware in a manner that doesn't procure any worse symbology.

It's a complicated mess and soon Crowley sets the device down and lays his head dramatically against the back of the chair. “But why.

“Well, it may have been because you intentionally cursed them in the first place.” Aziraphale had been getting into a deep academic discussion about prophetic texts with Anathema via a letter that she will receive a few days after Crowley’s email, but he reaches out to run his hand comfortingly through the disgruntled demon’s fiery hair.  He is careful not to let the thin smear of black ink along the side of his left thumb, stain Crowley’s skin in turn; the angel had never entirely warmed up to pens with ink on the inside.

Crowley makes a noise that sounds something like, “mmmph,” raising his head again and adjusting his posture to sit with his chin resting against the back of the chair, facing Aziraphale directly.  “You get a chance to take a look at the computers when you were in Hell?”

“My dear fellow, I was on trial.  And the air was quite oppressive. I mean, it couldn’t harm me in your body, but it was – a bit of a strain on my soul.” Aziraphale blushes faintly pink and feels a pang of shame for griping about a twenty-minute strain on his soul to an irrevocably damned demon who regularly reported to his bosses Down There for millennia. He deals with these conflicting emotions by sitting back and popping another pomegranate seed into his mouth from the half-eaten bowl beside him. Crowley has taken to tempting Aziraphale into one fruit per day that humans had theorized to be the Fruit of Eden. Today it’s a pomegranate, which apparently is a symbol of knowledge being laborious to obtain.

“Exactly. There’s hellish energy churning through the whole place. Like putting your phone inside a microwave powered with Hellfire. Anything electric just...” Crowley makes a resentful explosive noise and gestures down toward the phone to signify something combusting from the inside out. This is the same reason that Hell’s fluorescent lights are forever flickering and always go out when you are trying to complete any difficult paperwork – though somehow they remain infuriatingly bright if you are attempting to make a quick escape from someone you didn't want to run into. On top of this, Hell somehow manages only to have nineties desktop computers, and when these break, they are replaced by yet more nineties computers, no matter how many years go. Office workers who sinned in the nineties are faced with an eternity of their worst nightmare.

“Ah.”  Aziraphale has never used a microwave and regards humans who do so with a pitying sort of scorn, but he grasps the allegory.  “Incidentally, there’ve been no more signs of – anyone getting eaten by maggots?” They have made a point of checking in with Warlock every day, and are constantly scanning their own dwelling for threats.

“Maybe two.  But…”  Crowley exhales sharply and wonders if there is some way to broach the even larger, nagging fear that’s tearing apart his mind like a log in a woodchipper, without having to go into too much detail. “Yesterday, as a human scientist... was attempting to pry a quid from the sidewalk, and, er. It wouldn’t come off.”

“My dear fellow, you made one resolution!”

“That’s what I was trying to explain. While I was working…”

“Aren’t we retired?” Aziraphale had almost gotten used to the idea.

“Freelance. We’re freelance.”  Seeing the troubled frown on Aziraphale’s face, Crowley reaches into the bowl and takes another pomegranate seed from the bowl, holding it out an inch in front of the angel’s mouth.

The brush of the demon’s fingertips is unnaturally warm against his lips.  Aziraphale chews the proffered seed very slowly, and finally says, “I am not sure what that would entail.”

“Freelance Principality – you read books, and smile at people. Freelance demon – I make some trouble, and also sometimes I superglue things where they shouldn't be, while I’m… on break.” Crowley justifies this act in his head, on the basis that he is no longer under Hell’s jurisdiction and had not claimed the supergluing of coins to the sidewalk was the demonic work itself – the demonic act was what came later, after he’d gotten all necessary .pdf files from the human’s tablet and put otherwise costly articles on the internet for free use – and therefore has not broken his vow not to count this activity as work. Besides, the human deserved his own frustration and had no need of the money.

You didn’t have to like being a demon, to see that the servants of Hell were painfully mediocre at it, and their inaccurate understanding of human epistemology was largely to blame. And so Crowley approached his profession, no matter how reluctantly, as an art and a challenge, regardless of personal investment in Satan's rule. He’d taken pride in being a lot better at demoning than any demon who’d ever demoned, if only because Satan and Beelzebub had been forced to admit that he’s Bad at his job (okay, not quite as Bad as they think) and that he understands the humans a lot better than they do. There’s a certain vindictive satisfaction in that, especially when you’ve been otherwise treated like something stuck to the bottom of your bosses’ shoes for thousands of years.

It was like being relegated to Choir Duty in Heaven when you would rather be in the Greenhouse: you made some excessively imaginative musical arrangements, maybe directed the heavenly chorus into creating a few new far-flung galaxies by accident, got Gabriel irate but received a commendation from the Almighty via the Metatron, and then went off back to your plants and found you’d also created a new species of moss via whatever song the choir had sung to warm up. And then later Gabriel would say - you were late to the Creation Meeting again - and you’d say, yes, but I’ve just invented this new mushroom and it glows in the dark. Okay, it’s not useful to humans, but it glows in the dark - what kind of angel doesn’t like things that glow in the dark?  Some angels really don't understand angeling, either.

In any case, sending a fiery wave of slow-churning evil to encircle London, demonically forgiving debt from medical loans while pulling down mobile networks, miracling up hospital supplies in war zones and inventing both reality television and educational television (3), isn’t actually as contradictory as it sounds if you think of evil as something that it’s fun to be clever at and very boring to do in the normal way (4). After all, how many souls did Hell buy with the invention of absinthe? Why should Crowley be tempting politicians, when human politicians are already awful creatures, and leaking genuine documents from their financial and personal lives can cause so much more havoc? And if demonhood is meant to be about unleashing Hell on Earth, isn’t holding up all the buses and trains, and taking all the ink cartridges out of the pens, the easiest means to accomplish this?

“But listen, while he was trying to get his money, I found a photo, right. Somewhere up near Antarctica, and there was Pestilence. Clear as anything. Not sure if the humans would be able to see them there.”

“Aren’t they retired?” Maggots and locusts aside, Aziraphale had begun to feel a comforting sense of peace and freedom, and wonders if that had been a falsehood.

“Not when the humans go boiling their own bloody oceans. Melting permafrost, apparently. All number of weird plagues up there. And I’d recognize them anywhere.” Crowley knows that the angel would be thrilled if he followed this up with: I know because I discorporated Pestilence on multiple occasions when I was meant to be assisting them. But it's one thing to say: I used to be a healer, actually kind of Made for it really, really into that sort of thing back in the day, and quite another to outright admit to still meddling in it now. It's a sort of emotional striptease, and this all is too naked, too soon. That business with Tobit had been an amusing mishap to laugh about while meteor-gazing - but the part where Crowley had actually healed the man’s eyesight without Heavenly permission hadn’t been explicitly brought into the conversation.

Fortunately, Crowley is spared having to continue that thought because a customer is browsing perilously close to Aziraphale’s first edition Oscar Wildes. The demon is just thinking that he should probably frighten the human away before she tries to make a purchase, when Aziraphale – who has a sixth sense for this sort of thing – asks, loud enough for the woman to hear, “Oh, Crowley, be a dear and get the rats, won’t you? They need their dinner.”

This has become one of their favourite ruses for getting unwanted customers to exit the shop in a hurry.

“I’m not a – ” he begins.  The whole point is that the customer is clearly listening in, but that wasn’t meant to be part of the script.

“Please, or I’ll never call you dear again.”

Crowley meekly complies. In the backroom, he draws several fiery sigils on the air and hisses a few words in snake language. The demonic rats that had been hanging around in the walls of the bookshop and neighbouring buildings, all flock to his call.

The demon re-enters the shop very casually, as though he really had just popped into the next room to remind their dozens of pet rats to come down for their dinner. He is followed by a small army of beady-eyed rodents who are under strict orders not to attack the customer unless Crowley should give the command, and who are accustomed enough to this drill by now that they form a relatively orderly swarm toward the back wall, where Aziraphale is very nicely setting down a little ceramic dish of food for them.

The customer has already set down the book and is making a beeline for the door.

Aziraphale calls cheerfully after her to have a good day. “In any case, dear, what were you saying?”

 

 

1501 A.D.

 

After her brief investigations into the logistics of the Spanish Inquisition, Crowley drinks absinthe until she sees swirling green nebulae explode on her vision. She passes out on Aziraphale’s couch in London and wakes up on Leonardo da Vinci’s couch in Florence. Presumably, something has occurred between these two events, because the artist does not seem surprised to find her there and only asks if she is feeling well enough to model again today.

In any case, she wakes up in a well-furnished room that is rotating on a horizontal axis, tries to stand, and immediately sinks into the silk cushions again. And so the demon sobers herself up, and tells da Vinci, yes, of course, I’m quite well, it’s no trouble at all. And after some hours, when she’s crawling out of her skin, she reaches for the absinthe again, and he reaches for his scientific notes, and proudly shows off his diagrams of woodpecker beaks and phases of the moon, until the alcohol sends them both reeling.

This becomes a pattern.

Get it together, she tells herself, but humans are awful, and any demon horrible enough to theoretically have inspired the Spanish Inquisition should deserve a substantial quantity of the alcoholic substance she’d invented herself (even if, well, she really hadn’t inspired the Inquisition at all).

And da Vinci is an enabler, right enough. He wants someone to talk art and design with, and the strange woman who knows more about art history than his teachers clearly intrigues him, though he’s generally very professional and makes a point of periodically murmuring things like, “This is indecent, Miss Crowley.” He seems like the sort of human who feels good about himself about having compassion for the destitute woman sprawled on his couch as though she has no skeleton in her body. Often, this is a kindness that Crowley would intentionally nurture and exploit as part of a demonic temptation, and so play up her part accordingly. But in truth, she’d modelled for him once before, and he seemed like a decent guy to be around at a time like this – and she could see that her distraught presence had been upsetting Aziraphale.

“That was me,” Da Vinci is saying. “Tobias and the Archangel, you know the one, it was a big deal at the time. I was the archangel – del Verrocchio needed a model, and I was his student, so I stood in. I painted most of the background myself. The fish, the sea, the dog.” The archangel Raphael in the famous painting had looked an awful lot more like Da Vinci than it had Crowley. And the figure had appeared far holier than either of them - all glowing with golden light.

“Wait.” Crowley takes another drink and letting the situation fall together in that peculiar absinthe-riddled manner that makes anything seem possible.  “He shall strike your head... and you shall strike his heel.  Is that what you meant by it?  You painted it there, because… it bit your heel. Symbol. Symbolic.” The dog in the painting was the same sort of awkward creature that the artist owns now: grey-and-white streaked and foppish and seemingly also ready to sink its canines into your Achilles tendon. The dog had perched on her lap while she modelled, at the painter’s request, but Crowley is glad that the animal has returned to its place by its human’s chair. It’s the sort of creature that she might turn into a snake and devour if Leonardo weren’t an old acquaintance. That would be difficult to excuse.

“How did you know he’d bitten me?” The artist is giving her a look that suggests that if he didn’t pride himself on being a man of Science, she would now be accused of witchcraft.

“Am I correct?”

“Well, yes. But I’m afraid… I’m not following.” The more he refills the absinthe in their glasses, the more the room begins to glitter green around the edges and then flash like a dying star, so that as Crowley sobers herself up a bit now, for the sake of not doing anything too tremendously stupid, the human must be absolutely trashed.

The room comes sharply back into focus, and she fixes her crooked sunglasses. There is no lie on da Vinci’s face; it was the sort of paranoid fairy tale that the absinthe likes to spin. Crowley remembers the group that commissioned that piece of art - a sort of club of pious merchants, all hoping that if they do unto others as the archangel Raphael would want them to, maybe they'd get a few blessings in return. They weren’t the sort for dramatic irony, even if Leonardo might be the sort to mess with them. “If you don’t mind me asking, then… why the dog?”

“A friend’s dog. I wanted an excuse to paint him. He was a very good boy, but you’re right, Miss Crowley - he did nip.”

“But if there were a reason…” Crowley tries to slur her words to still appear as inebriated as the human. “If there were... no such thing as coincidence at all.”

Da Vinci seems to ponder this for a moment, eyes clouded with absinthe. “That would be like knowing why the sky is blue.” But his tone is wistful rather than dismissive, as though he’s hoping for an answer. This human is obsessed with making observations about every natural phenomenon that crosses his path, and forever questions like why do crocodiles have such force in their jaws, or, how might a human be able to breathe underwater? It’s the kind of attitude that might get you kicked out of Heaven in a hurry.

“It’s not,” Crowley says, “you see it that way because of how the air scatters light.”

“Do you?” He is already pulling paper and pencil back toward him. The man has something of an obsession with eyeballs – she suspects that he is less interested in her modelling as he is enthused that she’d been willing to remove her sunglasses and let him make a few sketches of her mutant eyes.

“Yeah.  Blue’s the one that everything can see.” Technically, Crowley sees everything in some combination of blue and green – the world is, well, heavens and wormwood, and everything in between. “Oh, spiders.  Spiders can’t.”

He makes note of that, too, but to her relief does not pull his human eyeball diagrams back out for now, returning instead to their diagrams of wings for human flight with his inebriated late-night enthusiasm. The absinthe will do that: make science feel like poetry, and diagrams seem to fly off the page.

The artist’s ideas have progressed significantly – the main difficulty is ultimately the one that’s been bothering Crowley for most of her long existence, which is that human bodies are incredibly powerful in certain contexts, and absolutely useless in others.  Wood lashed together with rawhide is maybe one step up from feathers and wax, but the real pitfall he’s going to encounter is honestly, as far as Crowley is concerned, the density of his bones, and the fact that she’s much too intrigued by his thought process to miracle his invention into superficially appearing to function.

But his designs for wings on which to soar when one is already in the air, show more immediate promise, and as the evening goes on, Crowley offers some covert pointers: “With all due respect, Mr. da Vinci, Daedalus made the same mistake – it doesn’t need to be so deeply slotted here.  You’re trying to stay in the air, not do tricks.  You’re not a sparrow.”

“How on Earth. I’m quite sure that wasn’t in Metamorphoses.”

“If you could fly, Mr. da Vinci…” Crowley knows full well that nothing she says will be remembered by the other in the morning. “If you could have just the right materials to make those wings actually work, but – here’s the catch – you’d be credited with starting the Spanish Inquisition – that’s the only catch, you could fly, but everyone would think you were responsible for – would you do it?”

“I think you’re drunk, Miss Crowley,” Leonardo says, and then he passes out.

 

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Crowley is avoiding his plants, which is the Crowley equivalent of avoiding one's friends when one has told them something deeply personal and doesn’t want to have to look them in the eyes afterwards.  

Finally, the demon resorts to watching television, because at least televisions aren’t living organisms and are supposed to make you feel a little disconnected and bitter.  He absently watches Queer Eye reruns while constantly repositioning himself on his throne and thinking about the Cactus Incident, occasionally picking up his various demonic computer sigil diagrams in order to pretend he is doing something important and productive, and then setting them down again.  “lOrD, why hast thou fOrSaKeN me?” Crowley sneers again in a theatrical sarcasm, leaning back against his throne to glare at the ceiling, with the television humming in the background.

I love farms!  I feel very comfortable on farms!  I love farms!  BECAUSE YOU DESERVED IT, CRAWLEY.

Satan’s words now blare through the entire upper floor of the bookshop, vocalized by Jonathan, who immediately throws aside the bucket of goat feed he’d been offering to two voracious goats on a derelict American farm, aiming a kick at one of the indignant animals when it tries to chew at the hem of his jeans.  Crowley wonders frantically if switching off the system without waiting to hear what his former boss has to say will make the situation worse. It’s too much of a risk. He turns up the volume instead.

“Wasn’t talking to you.” Crowley deliberately does not address Satan as Lord. “Thought I told you to leave us alone.”  Well, he thinks glumly, slumping back against the arm of the throne, He found out.  He knows we faked the execution, and He’s gonna get us for real this time.

I ONLY WANT TO TALK, CRAWLEY. AND YOU WILL ADDRESS ME AS LORD. DON’T THINK WE CAN’T STILL MAKE THINGS VERY UNPLEASANT FOR YOU.

“Yeah, well. All due respect, lord, you tried to obliterate me, lord. And it’s Crowley.” He knows that Satan is perfectly aware of this and is doing it on purpose. Thankfully, he suspects that if the devil knew that Crowley hadn’t really been the one asking the Powers of Hell to leave him alone, he would say so outright.

THAT WASN’T ME, CROWLEY.

“What, you not in charge down there anymore? Was there a mutiny, my lord.” Crowley leans back dramatically on his throne and looks pointedly at the television. Aziraphale, who had come upstairs at the noise, freezes in the doorway and then backs up a few paces into the stairwell.

I WAS NOT PRESENT FOR THE COURT RULING. YOU KNOW THAT, CROWLEY.

“You could have been, though? If you really hadn’t meant for me to be obliterated. Wouldn’t have been difficult for a powerful Lord of Hell like you to intercede, my lord.”

I WAS… HAVING A MOMENT.

“Right. Lot of that going around.” Crowley does his best to sound bored and moody.  

BECAUSE OF YOUR FAILURES, CROWLEY.

“He does look like you, though, lord, don’t you think?”

WHO?

“Not-the-antichrist who isn’t your spawn, never the lord of darkness, certainly not the Father Of Lies, not a Beast that is called Dragon, all that. He honestly does look just like you, my lord. All blond and blue-eyed as an angel in a renaissance painting.”  That’s the sort of depiction of young Lucifer that no one is allowed to make anymore.  Crowley gazes pointedly at the screen, trusting that whatever Adam's done to un-antichrist himself and defend himself from Hell is strong enough that nothing the demon says risks bringing the devil's wrath back down on him.  From where he’d been eavesdropping, Aziraphale chokes with surprise and presses a hand to his mouth to stifle the noise. “Bright, charismatic. Inspires loyalty in all who follow him.  You could theoretically have had such a great kid, lord.

YOU’RE AN INSOLENT BRAT, CROWLEY.

“Yes, my lord.” Crowley knew that would get to him. You couldn’t beat Lucifer by brute strength, but once you understood how to get under his skin, it wasn’t difficult to get him to leave you alone.

I WAS ONLY TRYING TO WARN YOU… BUT NEVERMIND, CROWLEY. I HOPE MY LOYAL FOLLOWERS DEVOUR YOUR CORPSE. YOU WILL WISH THE HOLY WATER HAD WORKED, CROWLEY. Could I be a farmer? Absolutely not.

And Satan is gone.

“You can come in, angel,” the demon calls over to him. “So much for being left alone,” he adds bitterly, standing up in one fluid motion and snapping his fingers at the television.  The bleating of goats and exclamations of delight at the aesthetic of rural farm life are replaced by a glaringly blank screen.

“I hope I am not interrupting anything… personal.”  Aziraphale steps hesitantly into the room.

Crowley snorts and goes to embrace him, draping his body around the angel’s in something halfway between affection for Aziraphale and exasperation at the situation at hand.  “Guess we’ll have to leave that off for now,” he mutters into Aziraphale’s collar, gazing moodily around at his exuberant collection of electronics behind him.  “Look at… books. Listen to your old phonograph. He’ll sulk for a week, or a decade, and then.”  The demon had been counting on Hell not forcing their way into his life in such a manner for at least a few more years.  The phone might be safe, because Satan would never contact him in the ordinary way – but then again, the devil would be more than likely to diabolically intercept youtube – oh, bloody Heaven, this is going to be worse than the fourteenth century.

Aziraphale is trying to wrap his mind around the concept of the devil himself sulking, can’t, and compromises by wrapping his arms more tightly around Crowley.  “While we try to decipher the contents of his threats, I suppose.”

“He’s bluffing,” says Crowley, quite sure that he isn’t. “But we could check out the place Bicycle Girl mentioned. If it makes you feel better.”

“It might,” says Aziraphale, who is not sure if he’s more shaken by the devil Himself literally shouting in his own living room, or the blatantly familial nature of the argument. “And I could show you some of the cottages I was thinking of, while we’re out, in any case.”

 

--

 

(1) This is not actually intrinsic to human biology, but is a prevalent social construct in most societies where Crowley has lived.

(2) Or enormous half-angel entities wreaking havoc over all the land. Heaven doesn’t like those, either.

(3) As has been documented elsewhere, Crowley was responsible for Welsh language television and managed to present this to Hell as a demonic achievement, despite having assisted in reviving a dying language. Crowley was not directly responsible for Irish language television, but he did curse it specifically so that the only drama it would show for the rest of time would be Ros na Rún - an even more refined piece of devilry, the nuances of which went right over Hell’s head. (To be fair, because of the location of Hell, it is technically difficult for something not to go over Their heads.)

(4) And those people who were so distressed to find their old CDs forever morphing into Best Of Queen after a two-week stint in the car? They were frustrated because they’d been expecting the CD to match the label. But then they’d sing out their pent-up rage – you can’t help but sing along with Queen, you literally can’t, and that wasn’t even Crowley’s doing – and then they’d go out and get themselves a more comprehensive Queen discography. And their emotional wellbeing was actually improved for it, a lot more than it might have been via some sort of conditional angelic intervention with a neat and precise moral at the end.

Chapter Text

THURSDAY AFTERNOON

 

Returning to scapegoats again for a minute: the ancient Greeks called their human scapegoats pharmakoi. They fed and clothed and honoured them, then stoned them and drove them from their cities, not so unlike the goats that had once been offered to Azazel. Their legends brought the matter up, over and over: whoever it may be, Hercules or Oedipus, somebody’s gotta be exalted and then exiled, to bear away the burden of sin, or something – plague or famine or madness – will take us all.

From there, the Greeks had no word for remedy on its own, but rather, their pharmakon, or the thing that alters: remedy, poison, and scapegoat, all at once. The first two sides of that are simple enough to unpack, and after Dioscorides had mucked up a dosage of digitalis for the first time, he'd seemed to get the hang of it: everything a poison, everything a remedy, bearing one's own opposite in itself, and so on. The third side is the weird bit that Crowley and Sophocles had discussed at length: see, your medicine had to function a bit like the scapegoat. Snake venom is the obvious pharmakon, the one for the Greek philosophy 101 courses: still valued for its use in human pharmaceuticals, a single bite from the right snake can kill you in a hurry, and sometimes, for some reason, the humans have a tendency to shun snakes in fear and blame. Or to worship them – that’s the kicker.

The Greeks had taken goats in a slightly different direction with their tragos, ‘goat-song’ – the tragedy. Their theatres had been built right alongside their healing centres, so that Crowley could feel their paeans vibrating through the stone foundations of the temple of Asclepius, somehow more powerful than an angelic choir, in that strange, jagged, imperfect manner of human music.

Tragedy was ultimately Aziraphale’s thing. The angel likes to wallow in Shakespeare’s tragedies, to feel them with his whole being and weep real angel-tears that immediately heal the people in the seats around him of minor ailments. Crowley had liked to toss words and ideas back and forth with Will himself because the human had an interesting mind and it was fascinating to see how he put things together. Ultimately though, if Crowley were going to be moved to celestial levels of emotion with a song, it wouldn’t be a goat-song, no matter how powerful. It would have to be something more like that part of the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony, or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or possibly even that bit of Bohemian Rhapsody – you know which bit.

Sometimes wish I’d never been born at all...

But the real point here is that there’s a flip side to the whole goat issue: there are Satanists sacrificing goats to Azazel without knowing why they’re sacrificing goats to Azazel. They’ve got absolutely no occult or anthropological background in this act. Azazel isn’t there to receive the offering, but they go on killing goats and telling themselves that the sacrifice has been accepted anyway. There’s no song behind it. No great heartwrenching theatrical tragedy. They don’t believe the poor animal is bearing away the burden of sin or casting out the plague or anything so noble. If you asked them, why the goat sacrifice? they would tell you that it was because Duke Hastur instructed them to do so, and if you asked Duke Hastur why he’d given that instruction, he would tell you it was because he could.

Crowley finds it infuriating when people miss the point of a thing so utterly that they destroy it, and he’s personally invested in the history of sacrificial goats. So when he promptly frees the small herd of black Boer goats from the Satanist nuns’ convent before even attempting to find out whether there are any humans on the premises, it’s an instinctual, vindictive, emotionally-loaded act. His conversation with Satan had left Crowley in the kind of mood that makes you slam car doors (but very gently because his Bentley is his second-best friend in the world). He snaps his fingers, and all five goats vanish.

“Should I ask where you sent them, dear?” Aziraphale questions, gazing around the empty goat-paddock behind the Satanic convent.

“Best not.”

Beyond the abandoned goat pen is the sort of turret-laden stone building that the powers of Hell seem to find aesthetically pleasing, and a nun in a black-and-white habit striding primly from the building to investigate both the intruders and the sudden goat vanishment. An inverted cross is hung on a silver chain around her neck. “Demons below save us,” the nun utters in a very serious tone that is utterly void of emotion (1) as she hurriedly crosses herself upside down. “Master Crowley, I was not expecting…”

“Just a few questions,” he declares in the voice that makes houseplants tremble, stepping forward so that she is backed up against the barbed-wire fence of the goat paddock. “And nobody gets hurt.” He had promised Aziraphale that there would be no trance or forced truth-telling in this venture, and already regrets that agreement, but is glad at least that no one seems to have told this nun that he is no longer employed by his former head office.

“Nobody gets hurt in any case, I’m sure,” the angel puts in with forced cheer. The place is absolutely oozing with Evil, but it’s the sort you’d expect from a building that’s served for many years as an outpost of Hell, and not necessarily an army of demons waiting to snatch up Crowley and throw him back into that bathtub of holy water. Still, it’s all he can do not to grab the demon’s hand and cling to him, just in case. Aziraphale straightens his posture and tries to appear non-threatening and professional and also willing to be threatening if anyone from Downstairs should show up, or if this woman confesses to having had anything to do with the attack on Warlock.

“There's nobody here but me,” states the nun, in that same impersonal monotone. “Our order was disbanded, for some reason. I can’t remember clearly. It was about one month ago. Something happened. It's very difficult to think straight.” Though her tone and facial expression are still utterly impassive, the human’s faint scowl suggests consternation at the gap in her own memory.

“Please,” Crowley says to Aziraphale, a little pleadingly.

Deep down, again, it's the thought, of Hell coming after Crowley, that motivates Aziraphale to agree. He grimaces appropriately and mutters, "Well, all right, but only because I should like to get this over with."

Crowley smirks and snaps his fingers, and the human woman's lack of expression deadens even further.

“Hmm. Rains of fishes?” the demon tries to suggest. He’d been able to remember the events of the Armageddon’t as well as he normally remembered anything (2), as had Aziraphale and Adam, but this didn’t seem to be true of most humans. “Er, people digging out of the ground through hidden tunnels.” Most of the planet seems to believe that they’d been very inebriated for a day or two in August, or else that the government had been testing some top-secret weapon, and either way, best not to mention it really. “Human skeletons picked clean by maggots?”

“Yes,” the nun declares, her monotone fading into a quieter half-mumble. “Yes, that was it. But then the next day it hadn’t really happened. And then after Duke Hastur’s summonses were rejected, he left very quickly.”

“Summonses?”

“On the first occasion,” the nun recites in the same slow voice, “War was unavailable to be summoned at this time. On the second occasion, Duke Hastur was left on hold. On the third occasion, he was told he did not have the ability to summon her. On the fourth - ”

“Yes, alright,” Crowley growls. “But you’re telling me he didn’t summon anyone?”

“War was not available at this time,” the nun repeats.

“What a relief,” says Aziraphale.

“And since then? You’re not, I dunno, sending Hastur through the phone lines to America, or setting plagues of frogs loose in Glasgow, or." He wracks his brain, trying to remember what else had come up in the news lately, swaying a bit on his feet. “Great clouds of flies, bigger than a house...”

“We were disbanded,” the nun echoes, in that same vacant tone. “I only take care of the goats.”

“I think she’s telling the truth, dear,” Aziraphale suggests, trying to decide if Crowley is intending to back the dazed human so dangerously close to the barbed wire and whether the demon is going to stumble against it himself. He does seem to be leaning rather heavily on his staff. Aziraphale goes ahead and slips a tiny miracle behind them both, just in case.

Crowley makes a noise like “hmmph” and snaps his fingers once more, before wordlessly swaggering back toward the Bentley, gesturing Aziraphale to follow.

The nun’s expression slips from blank confusion to professional impassivity – then, “Oh, sweet Satan,” she declares, still letting no expression whatsoever slip into the expletive, “I can’t imagine what’s happened to the goats.”

“They’ve been taken to a lovely, er, hellish farm in the country where they can live a happy life,” Aziraphale reassures her, smiling comfortingly as he takes a few steps backwards. “You must have forgotten. In any case, good to meet you, places to be.”

The bewildered nun waves them off with a politely stoic expression as Crowley opens the passenger door of the car from the inside and hisses, “Come on, angel.” They pull away with a shriek of tires before the human can begin to recover some sense of memory retention.

“Well,” says Aziraphale with an exhalation of relief. The door of the Bentley clicks shut, blocking out some of the diabolical energy of the convent with the ordinary, comforting diabolical energy of his demon’s car. “That wasn’t so difficult, was it? In any case, there’s a tea house near here where I thought we might stop. And a few cottages I’d like to show you afterwards.” He’s very glad that all of this has been dealt with.

 

 

1545 A.D.

 

“My dear boy..”

“It’s dear girl now, actually.” Crowley realizes sheepishly that she may not have been coherent enough to mention this on the previous occasion that they had met. But no matter what excuses she gives, when Crowley returns to Spain with the Inquisition still wreaking ruin in the background, it’s for no motive other than to visit Aziraphale, who’s been assigned to perform a minor healing miracle there, for a human who Heaven intends to eventually reward with sainthood. The angel had seemed so flustered in his last letter, that she assumed something disastrous must have occurred.

“What precisely is the difference? I never understood.”

Crowley stifles a chortle. In true Aziraphale fashion, the angel has apparently not noticed that the humans around them have assumed that the demon belongs to him and that he should be frowned upon for having the audacity to bring her into a grimy cantina full of shipyard workers. The allure of a black silk and velvet gown with exuberantly puffy sleeves and a swooping neckline is apparently lost on him as well. “Oh, right now I think it has something to do with hats. Human men have been wearing the most atrocious hats. Also, beer? Women make beer. It’s a woman thing, because… it’s made in a cauldron.”

“Ah.” Aziraphale nods in agreement, taking another sip of his drink and trying to pretend that he has any idea what Crowley is talking about. “So are you brewing your own beer, then?”

Crowley is trying to decide if this is an innuendo or just the sort of thing Aziraphale would say to pretend he is following the conversation, when the angel brings up the actual matter at hand. The angel had revealed his name after performing his miracle – as is expected of him, every few centuries. Occasionally, it’s good that the humans know that they’re being visited by an angel, and sometimes they even write him nice notes after they get into Heaven.

“But I must confess,” Aziraphale goes on, “I rather hope this human won’t get onto my head office’s Acceptance List.” Without consulting anyone, the man has decided that Raphael Centre sounds better than Aziraphale Centre – too difficult to spell – and since no one else had heard Aziraphale declare himself, no one calls him out on it. He’d tried to get in touch with the right people to correct this error, but the cornered, humiliated human had insisted on sticking to his original story, and now Gabriel has been making pointed comments.

The angel is flustered and keeps wringing his hands.

Crowley looks moodily down at her drink, wishing that the angel were upset about something maybe a bit more dire, but less personal. She picks up her glass, swills the liquid around, wonders vaguely if God is doing this on purpose, and sets the drink down again. What she says to Aziraphale is: “Not such a big deal, is it? What could possibly go wrong?”

 

-

 

What could possibly go wrong, is that now everyone is praying to Raphael.

Crowley can’t hear their prayers in the way that an angel might. She doesn’t have a mailbox in Heaven’s offices. She’s not allotted a Heavenly smartphone. And she’s not, we could say, psychically tuned to her old name anymore. These humans are shouting more or less literally into the Void where her old self used to be. But she hears her old name with her humanoid ears, all the same: on the lips of priests at the sickbeds of dying children, in humans’ prayers for their loved ones’ health. There are images of her set into stained-glass windows, with wings of blue.

Every fibre of her being wants to run away, back to London, or farther. Australia. Alpha Serpentis.

Instead, even after Aziraphale has returned to England, Crowley stays in Spain and answers their prayers. With her head office so pleased by the Inquisition, she’s got some leeway here. Hell has a good sense of how much demonic miracle is being used, one could say, if demonic miracle were a substance that could be quantified. They know if there’s a large amount of miracle all being done at once, or if it’s a small bit of miracle for a task otherwise accomplished in the human way, and roughly where it went on. They expect you to fill in the rest, down to the minor details, and they will expect it to be one hundred per cent accurate or YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS which is what makes all those compliance reports so miserable. That, and that the pens are always running out of ink (technically, the blood of disobedient demons).

After the Dukes of Hell had nearly caught on to her earlier healing practices, Crowley had barely risked any healing miracles at all outside of the Arrangement, which gave her the assurance that it would be in Aziraphale’s own best interests to cover for her if anyone started asking questions. She had compensated by slipping money to poor apothecaries and encouraging the use of healing plants in witchcraft wherever possible. Doing so much healing on her own is a dangerous game that makes Crowley feel as though she’s constantly tiptoeing around consecrated ground in thin-soled shoes. But no one seems to catch on. And for a little while, it’s a relief not to feel so helpless, and a not-unenjoyable challenge to manoeuvre the situation of most hospitals on holy ground. She achieves this via a combination of walking on the ceiling and hovering outside of windows, and impersonating various nuns in hospitals not situated directly inside church premises.

She’s really starting to get into the thing, too, enough that she’s visited the same human on several occasions, and only quasi-accidentally reveals herself to a priest at one point. That’s when Michael shows up and starts doing the same thing.

The first time, Crowley is two streets away when she hears people shouting in awe, and by the time she pushes her way to the front of the crowd, the archangel is already gone, but she is informed that Michael had revealed herself. It’s a warning, Crowley thinks, because what else could it be? Michael is subtly reminding her that she isn’t allowed to use her old name anymore.

Then, she’s preparing to perform a healing in one of the ever-growing franchise of Raphael Centres that have been springing up faster than she can offer miracles - that’s the thing about humans, once one prayer works, everyone wants some, and there’s never enough to go around. But when Crowley arrives, Michael is already in the room, and when she attempts to slip away, the archangel follows. It’s only because she’s been living in the area for decades and can slither conveniently through narrow underground spaces, that she’s able to give the other the slip.

Michael is seeking her intentionally – Crowley has no doubt about it. The thing is, she also has no idea how Michael feels about her, or whether the archangel even knows her current name. What she does know is how terrifying Michael had been as they’d struck down Lucifer – who was, contrary to popular artistic opinion, neither a dragon nor a snake at the time of the Great War, but merely a bruised and furious version of his former self, silver blood caked into his hair, most of it not his own, his halo giving off a piercing white light like an LED lamp so that it made your head spin to gaze at him directly. Michael was a brilliant beacon, sword flaming, every bit as glorious as the artists make them out to be. It was like watching a double star battle itself and lose.

Crowley leaves Spain. The hospitals remain.

 

 

THURSDAY EVENING

 

“But in any case, as I was trying to explain earlier,” Aziraphale is saying, back in the passenger seat of the Bentley as they hurtle down increasingly narrow roads, the sheep beyond the car window increasing in number as dwellings are scattered further apart. “I told them that I would preside over the wedding.”

“You told them you what?” Several sheep make impossible leaps from the path of the speeding vehicle, over a nearby fence and into the pasture beyond. Crowley isn’t sure how near they are to their destination – the next on Aziraphale’s list of possible cottages, after rejecting two prior options - but he trusts vaguely that his car knows where it’s going.

“Well, they asked so politely, and they couldn’t be dissuaded. And I do feel obligated to make up for – the future Mrs Shadwell was so generous to let me possess her body.”

“Not exactly a priest, are you?”

“I’m an angel! Angels used to do that sort of thing all the time. Anyways, I was a priest for a while in – back in,” he waves a hand vaguely, trying to remember if it was the second or third century. “It’s not like your priesthood can expire. And I was a monk for a bit, you remember, before they had books anywhere else. I'm six thousand years old – if a human can spend a few years studying theology and then have the right to marry people, surely I should be allowed.”

“The audacity. The demon grins with delighted realization. “Renegade angel survives hellfire, still performs a most holy wedding ceremony.”

Aziraphale returns the smile with devilish innocence. There was a time he might have protested renegade angel, but since he has, or at least has been informed that he has, breathed hellfire at certain archangels, he can hardly argue. He finds that the more time passes since Armageddon’t, the more comfortable he becomes with the jarring sensation of having broken ties with Heaven, and the comfortable knowledge that this somehow did not cause him to Fall. “I am a being of love performing a legal marriage for which all human paperwork shall be in place. Someone Up There will check the register and sign off on it. It would be beneath them not to.”

“By your logic, we wouldn’t need one either,” Crowley points out. “A human to do a wedding, I mean. We should be able to shout up at Her, and She should just hear it.” When Aziraphale calls upon the Almighty, he draws the correct sigils and lights candles and recites all the proper verses and so forth. Crowley was made third of the archangels, and like any middle child, has become creative in demanding his Mother’s attention. And the demon’s relationship with his Divine Mother is, to put it simply, far too complex for him to swear a vow in Her name without a twinge of irony and spite and also possibly causing his own flesh to smoulder. The thing about being Married Under The Eyes Of God is that God has somehow come to mean I created you but am ashamed of your inherent nature, and so every time Crowley looks to God, he thinks: you will reject me for who I am, or you will burn me, or you will try to take something away from me.

“My dear fellow,” Aziraphale responds very calmly, as though they are picking up on a discussion that they’ve had before, which he wishes were the case but which most certainly isn’t (3). “I’ve heard some of the things you shout at Her,” he signals with one finger to the roof of the Bentley, “when you think I’m not listening.” Some things are meant to be done in the proper way, and if there’s one thing Aziraphale has learned about Earth, it’s that partaking in relationships in a non-holy way might or might not lead to a massive continent-wide flood – and you wouldn’t know until too late.

"Well, I can’t do holy words, can I?” Crowley rolls his eyes, as much as snake eyes can roll, which isn't much, to lighten the tension in his chest as he plunges into this conversation like a freezing ocean. “But you might as well stop hinting. You’ve been dropping references to husbands and living in sin five times every blessed day. Using your puppy eyes and everything.” The Bentley steers its way around a large pothole as Crowley puts his hand around the back of the seat and turns himself to face Aziraphale directly. “It’s very effective - but there’s no need to hint. It’s just that I don’t see why there’s any need at all.” Marriage is one of those things, like his old angelic name, that might be significant to certain people Upstairs, but Crowley himself isn’t particularly set on getting God’s official seal stamped onto his love for Aziraphale. He is looking for things that make Aziraphale happy, though, like spun-glass fountain pens, or aged pu-erh tea, or incense with frankincense in it, or, if he’s reading cues correctly, being married.

Emboldened that Crowley has not said no, Aziraphale has enough decency to look affronted by this, but not enough to deny it. “But you’re correct, of course. I was beating around the bush, as they say.” He clears his throat, hesitates, and then reaches out to gently remove the unresisting demon’s sunglasses, folding them carefully and setting them aside without breaking eye contact. “Crowley…”

Generally speaking, Crowley can handle any conversation while the Bentley drives itself at an alarming speed, but on this occasion he uses his one hand still grasping the steering wheel to pull sharply to the side of the road with a wailing screech of tires against pavement, still meeting the angel’s gaze.

Aziraphale clutches at the door to steady himself, wincing at the lurching vehicle as his back thumps awkwardly against the seat. He takes an unnecessarily deep breath, because the oxygen rushing into his lungs steadies the pulse pounding in his throat. The air tastes vaguely of autumn wind from the open window, and of vintage car and the demonic energy holding it together, and therefore also of Crowley and therefore also of home, and he savours the moment like exceptionally good wine. “...will you marry me?”

“Uh.” Crowley swallows audibly. He'd brought the matter up because he could tell that it mattered to the other, but he hadn’t expected the conversation to escalate so quickly. “Yeah. Yes. I will.” This close, he can see each of Aziraphale's white-gold eyelashes.  “Just as long as you know – I’m yours either way, angel.”

“I have no doubt of it,” responds Aziraphale, his half-smile curling wider as he closes the remaining inches between them until their noses graze.  This time, when they kiss, for all the time they have spent in the past weeks, learning every inch of one another’s bodies and all the fantastically pleasant ways that they can move together, still it feels like the first time again – like a promise of something they are only just beginning to believe in.

“Oh, is this the place?” Aziraphale asks finally, catching sight of a stone-walled garden and cottage beyond.

By some miracle, it is.

By some miracle, the cottage is deserted but for a few sparrows on the roof and the FOR SALE sign swinging slightly in the wind, and the front door will be unlocked. “Well, this is lovely,” the angel asserts, dropping Crowley’s hand for long enough to push open the gate and promptly take his hand in his own once more. “I didn’t think they still made them with thatch in the roof.  Look, it's got a wishing well and everything.”

“Bet it's haunted,” Crowley mutters thoughtfully, peering through one of the dusty windows and leaning a little bit wearily on Aziraphale's hand. The well in question might have procured water in the eighteenth century, but now serves primarily as a flowerpot for particularly adventurous ivy vines, and a home for a few garden snakes whose hisses Crowley can hear faintly from somewhere deep in the stone. “Look,” he motions to a lichen-spattered granite bench beneath a wild curtain of trumpet-vine still holding onto the last of its flame-coloured blooms. "You can sit over there, covered in birds, while someone else does the gardening.”

“What if we put your, ehm, statue over here?” A few old fruit trees project looming shadows in a pattern like deer-antlers on the lawn, mushrooms of all colors speckled in the moss at their roots.

They are interrupted by a clamour which transpires to be five newly-liberated black goats, butting one another as they gnaw their way through the brambles along one corner of the cottage.

“Dear lord. Are those the goats from the convent?

“About that.” Crowley had been eager to relocate the satanists' animals as far away from their previous owners as possible and therefore had transferred them to the nearest convenient location that came into his mind. “I didn’t really necessarily mean for…”

“We may want to rearrange the fences before planting anything new,” Aziraphale suggests mildly, watching a particularly ravenous goat tear a whole stalk of borage from the ground and chew at it voraciously.

The dwelling is cottage-shaped, sure enough, and at least two centuries old, but it has a sitting-room that could be used as a library, and a second bedroom that could be used as a library, and an attic which could fit a decent number of books, so Crowley is sure that Aziraphale will like it.

The cottage includes a decently-sized greenhouse window attached to the southern wall, a walled-in garden space enclosed in stone and ivy, and a cellar that could hold substantial quantities of alcohol, so Aziraphale is sure that Crowley will like it.

The demon quietly begins to plan the garden in his mind. Demonic plants, of course: sea buckthorn and monkshood. And pears, for Aziraphale.

The angel sits down primly on the patch of grass and clover in the centre of the garden, considers for a moment, and then reclines with his back to the lawn, trying to decide if this ground feels like home. He senses a miracle slithering through the air around him and realizes that his clothing now appears to be unable to acquire grass stains. The angel settles even more snugly against the lawn, eyes half-closed against the sunlight, cottage and garden walls rising on all sides, with the faint hum of cars in the distance and the wind singing through the trees. “Thank you, love.”

Crowley is as amused by the contented look on the other’s face as Aziraphale is delighted that his demon had been so thoughtful.

“And not just for this time.” He gestures on the air with one hand, folding the other behind his head. “You have not allowed one single stain on this jacket in the hundred and fifty years that I’ve owned it. For that matter, do you remember the time that Nero spilt wine on my toga?”

Togas,” mutters Crowley wistfully. “They were much more practical. But then there were the sandals.” Sandals, after all, make it challenging to hide that there is nothing particularly human about your feet - and when he's not going out of his way to conceal them, the demon’s feet look exactly as snakelike as you’d expect from a snake who’s specifically been cursed so as not to walk. If he were barefoot in tall grass one might not know the difference between feet and snakeskin shoes, and if he were barefoot in central London one might still not know the difference, because no one expects the man in the dark sunglasses to have feet like an animal that doesn’t have feet. But, the humans do have much more efficient attire these days, at least if your goal is to hide that you aren’t really human at all.

Aziraphale had disliked shoes when they were first invented. Later, he’d found out that shoes could be decorated with silk and lace, and he’d learned to appreciate them. But there was something oddly disorienting about going whole months without letting your bare feet touch the soil, so he feels that he vaguely understands what the demon means when he flops with a weary grunt on top of Aziraphale, facing to the sky with his shoulders resting against the angel’s chest, and then nestles himself a bit closer and murmurs, “...like the cactus.”

“The lawn, love?” Aziraphale can’t perceive anything more from the grass and clover beneath him than a general feeling of brightness at being graced by an angel’s presence, and is too caught up in the confusing juxtaposition of Crowley’s pleasantly familiar weight against his chest, and the manner in which the demon’s body is conveying the sort of vibes of pain which angels can easily pick up on (but which you might not notice if you were the sort of angel who was too caught up in sensing evil to sense anything else from the evil entity in question). He’d felt it, too, when he’d inhabited Crowley’s body - a dull ache, the kind that he'd associate with jogging alongside Gabriel for an extensive period of time but without any obvious cause, as though his legs had never fully figured out how to be legs and occasionally forgot how ankle joints are meant to fit together as well.  He resolves immediately that they should rest here as long as possible.

“Mmph. No. Yeah. I mean, when you’re lying like that, with your back to the grass and all, you’re very tuned to the Music In All Things, right.” Crowley fidgets and makes a contented sound in his throat as he feels some strain leave his muscles, repositioning himself to meet Aziraphale’s gaze while still sprawled across the angel's torso as though sunning on a warm rock as a snake.

“Well, yes, I suppose it’s much louder when I’m lying here, than, oh, I don’t know. Standing in a car park.”

Can’t Hear the Earth Singing: that’s part of the Demons’ Guidebook, right up in the first chapter – and even if most copies thereof are missing a page or two and full of other peoples’ rude comments in the margins, that one is pretty self-explanatory. At first, not being able to hear the Music, the true kind that you built stars with, had been a repeated kick in the gut, and Crowley felt blinder than a human: the rocks were only rocks, the water just water. But after a bit, he could appreciate the lengths to which the humans would go to put an echo of that Music into their own work, and so create something somehow even more potent than an angelic choir of Creation. In the humans’ music, you knew it was there – some kind of electromagnetic reaction in your humanoid heart – you could feel it like a secondary vibration. This, now, is another sort of secondary vibration - like putting an ear to the wall to catch the echoes of a radio that you cannot hear.

“‘S nice,” he hisses with begrudging appreciation - like one of those lamps that humans make when they can’t get enough sunlight. It’s not the same as hearing the World, of course, but Crowley would take Aziraphale, warm body buzzing faintly with world-music, one gentle hand running repeatedly down the side of Crowley's back, over any celestial harmonies, even the kind that creates stars, any day. And, for all this unfortunate post-apocalyptic renewal of stress and exhaustion, to recline here with his angel feels a great indulgence, the most healing sensation that he could imagine.  He makes another appreciative hmph noise.

Yes, Crowley thinks, over the sleepy hum of the ground beneath them purring with the Music of Life. Aziraphale is an exceptionally comfortable pillow, his lungs rising and falling very slowly beneath Crowley's corporation as though he is savouring each breath of salty air, and a few autumn blooms of speedwell are scattered in the grass around the angel's ears like a crown. Yes, right here.

 

-

 

Here is the scene: the sort of cottage that’s been fixed up but still remembers the seventeenth century, untamed roses mingled with nettles around time-weathered stone walls, the small herd of bewildered jet-black goats browsing the remains of what might in past years have been a raspberry hedge. A few old apple-trees, the sort that no longer makes much fruit, now stand with hollowed-out trunks like wise old ghouls watching over the space, filtering the dusk light across two forms standing on the grass in the centre of the garden.

One figure is tall as the shadows of the trees draped long and thin across the grass, his eyes glowing faintly yellow in the half-dark. The autumn moon is already visible in the dusky-blue sky – a waxing crescent, lit by a faint dark circle of earthshine, as Crowley had once explained to da Vinci. The other figure, shorter – more solid, more grounded, one could say, a peculiar trait in an angel – might almost pass for a nineteenth-century gentleman newly emerged from his time machine to casually trespass on the garden of an unsold cottage shortly before purchasing it, except that his soul is glowing with such palpable love and angelic joy that it shimmers around him like an aura. They stand only inches from one another, both hands clasped tightly, fingers entwined. The damp September mist tastes faintly of salt from the nearby sea.

“Here?” Aziraphale is asking. “Now? I mean, aren't we meant to, I don't know, wait on it?”

“Haven't we?” Crowley uses their interlaced fingers to draw Aziraphale in nearer to him. Six thousand years is quite a lot of waiting on it.

“I don’t suppose anyone has ever written a guide to this sort of thing,” the angel says. “Two ethereal beings.”

“Occult.”

“Supernatural entities, I don’t think there’s a formal marriage rite to bind two supernatural entities together beyond the ending of the world. Michael certainly isn’t married. I can’t imagine anyone marrying Sandalphon.”

“They made their feelings on angelic relationships quite clear, I think,” Crowley responds drily, gazing warmly down at the angel’s careful academic consternation at the situation. “But anything that doesn’t burn me will have to do. How does this go again? I do swear to take this angel as my angel, none shall come between us, and so help me God, that includes You.” There is something particularly ardent in his eyes as he speaks the last line like a warning to the dusky sky, before directly a smile at Aziraphale that is as snakelike as it is loving.

Aziraphale catches himself before letting slip a may you be forgiven, once again struck by the peculiar feeling of stepping inside an intimate argument. Instead, he meets the demon’s yellow eyes with the awe-inspiring knowledge that his statement was utterly and unshakably true. “I think you may be getting this confused with your crime films, darling.”

“Well, don’t tell me you don’t know the right words,” says Crowley, feigning innocence as though he doesn’t as well (4). “Didn’t you just say you were a priest, or a monk, or whatever?”

“I suppose Latin would be too holy,” Aziraphale muses aloud.  

“English.” Crowley nods and shakes his head at the same time, “because that’s… ours.”

“Ours,” Aziraphale repeats softly. “Alright, then. Light, though. There should be light.” His halo illuminates the space like a sudden recurrence of daylight, sending soft rainbows refracting off of the corners of his own vision. At his pointed gesture, Crowley follows suit, his own halo a fiery red-orange, though he is only aware of this because humans have on multiple occasions mistaken him for a forest fire.

Crowley takes off his sunglasses, shaking his head a bit as he adjusts to the not-unpleasant brightness of their own making, and procures a ring from his pocket, which he had miracled up in the car out of the entirely valid fear that Aziraphale would postpone the whole thing in order for him to purchase just the right wedding ring in the human way. Aziraphale pulls out the ring that he’d purchased in the 1970s, occasionally opening the box to ponder it and feel his heart pound before stowing it away once more behind a collection of old paperweights in a drawer in the backroom of the bookshop, and which he'd been keeping in his jacket pocket just in case. Aziraphale also picks some daisies in the human way, as well, because these are the only flora that the goats have left intact.

The Almighty will have to forgive us for skipping the blessing and scripture, under the circumstances, the angel thinks, as the carefully-chosen psalms and readings that he’d bookmarked while daydreaming about the Shadwell’s wedding, slip from his mind anyway. “Well then,” he says instead, clearing his throat. “Have we come here to enter into marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?” The angel articulates each word, deliberately and clearly, emphasizing wholeheartedly, his eyes wide and earnest.

“I would sssay that’s an understatement.” A nervous hiss slips into Crowley's words despite himself. He grins gently at the angel’s mild indignation. “I have.”

Aziraphale nods and repeats the statement; his gaze flicks to the sky, but no lightning strikes them down. When the angel gets to the bit about love and honour each other for as long as we both shall live, Crowley grips his hand very tightly. Those are momentous words for humans, but especially so for immortals staring down Eternity like the tunnel at the end of a tunnel.

Aziraphale gets as far as “I Aziraphale take you Crowley (5) to be my husband,” voice warbling with emotion, before he feels holy water form in the corners of his eyes. In good times and in bad doesn’t begin to describe it – Crowley has invariably been an intrinsic part of his world, and no matter how difficult circumstances were in the office or whether the humans were facing yet another divinely-sent disaster, somehow Crowley would still be there. And now he is beginning to see Crowley as not only his world but somehow painted into every corner of the World itself: not only in the M25 and the strange trend of humans taking photographs of themselves, but also constellations in the sky and wormwood popping out of London concrete, in the symbol on every hospital door and in every fig he's ever plucked from a tree, as well as in the wild medicinal weeds that their newfound goat herd have munched to the ground.

The demon is careful to put no trace of holiness into his own vows that might cause them to rebound and scorch him, but only his fierce love for the angel standing before him with daisies pinned to his lapel. Aziraphale's eyes are glistening in the manner that he usually reserves for particularly good theatre. If you’d described this scene to Crowley in 4004 B.C., they would never have believed you.

He slides his new ring onto Aziraphale’s finger, simple and bright as the angel’s halo. The antique ring that the angel gives to him in return must have been chosen after careful consideration: the tarnished gold snake, forever eating itself, might not be a traditional wedding ring, but Crowley can easily picture the angel’s delight when he had first discovered it in the shop.

“You may kiss me now, dear,” says Aziraphale at last, holy-text voice softening like the edge of a sunbeam.

As it happens, when there is no one else at the wedding, the grooms can kiss for as long as they please, which transpires to be a long time.  Aziraphale buries a hand in Crowley's hair, which is mussed into the shape of a leaping flame, wrapping the other around Crowley's back.  The demon leans back into his arm like a dance, as he brings the back of his hand up to the side of the angel's slightly flushed cheek. It’s Aziraphale who breaks away first, mildly flustered under the love fluttering with downy bird-wings inside his chest – because what if She is watching? Still, his whole face is beaming, lower lip wobbling with the threat of further tears.

For Crowley, the weeks that have followed the not-apocalypse have had all the suddenness of Falling, the bottom dropping out of your stomach, but in reverse. In Heaven, one moment he was desperately attempting to convince God to stop snubbing his questions and also trying to decide whether southernwood should spread via roots or seeds – the next, all Divine Grace had been stripped from him like acetone on nail polish, and the concerns of his previous life were trivial compared to the dire need to get out of this stinking underground hole and catch a glimpse of distant starlight. Now, one moment he’d been trying desperately to fit into the tiny space in the world where a demon and an angel could be together, to weasel out from beneath the crushing weight of demonic legalities that he’d never desired in the first place – the next, he and Aziraphale are married and kissing in the garden of their cottage.  It happens that quickly.

Did You see this? Crowley asks the darkening heavens beyond their little cloud of red-gold light. Are we married in Your eyes?

They stand for a while, holding each other, in their dome of fire-tinged ethereal-occult light that has briefly returned the yellowing autumn lawn beneath their feet to its green midsummer glory, the angel resting his head against the demon's shoulder.

The sky doesn’t respond to his questions, but for once Crowley finds this a relief.

 

 

FRIDAY

 

Between failed executions and angels crying for war and Gabriel's increasingly frequent disappearances, Uriel has not had an opportunity to sign off on the marriage logs, or any other such mundane task, since long before Armageddon failed to take place. Therefore, she is not remotely prepared to find the ledger smoking slightly from its shelf on the pearly walls of Heaven, its two most recent names elaborate sigils: one glowing silver-gold and the other smouldering as though carved into the page with red-hot metal. “Michael? Take a look at this.”

Michael is as exhausted as an angel can be in Heaven. Convincing their entire host to stand down after six thousand years laboriously training and preparing for the Final Battle had been no easy task, and they’d had Raphael’s host under their command as well.

(“This is just like him, too,” Michael had groaned, when all of their attempted messages to Raphael – to ask where the Hell they had gone to and were they planning on returning before the Big Day – were bouncing back unread with error messages, and they could not sense the other archangel’s presence anywhere. This wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but Michael had thought they’d show up in time for Armageddon, at least out of obligation. They hadn’t found anyone else to blow the horn. They weren't sure that anyone else could blow the horn.

“I think you should prepare for the possibility that you will have to lead his host,” Uriel had responded carefully, seeming unsurprised.

“Prepare – I’m more than prepared. Aside from the rogue principality, they’re all in line, ready to march.”

“As it should be. God knows.” Uriel looked fiercely prepared for a second Great War, too, in that moment, Michael thought, still donning her gleaming armour from a recent training with her heavenly host, sword sheathed at her side, a faint glimmer of flame visible around the base of the hilt.)

Uriel gestures to the still-smouldering line in the register, quite unnecessarily. “So that is how the demon corrupted him,” she continues matter-of-factly. “At least we understand.”

Do we?” Michael inquires, with something akin to pity. They slide two photographs onto the table in front of the other archangel. “But I’d intended to mention - we found these in the observation files.” The first photo depicts the demon and principality kissing on the front steps of the Soho bookshop, beside a vintage car with the tops of a full-sized date palm and a fig tree rising impossibly out of its boot. Aziraphale clutches a night-blooming cereus whose long, spiny stalks flop out of the sides of a plastic flowerpot, and has three books of astronomy clutched under one arm.

“That’s a demon proud of a temptation well done,” Uriel intones flatly, trying to convince herself as well, instead of, oh Jesus, he still grows his plants. “It’s just like him, too. This is an affront to God. ‘Affront to God’ – isn’t that what he was going by before the Flood?” The second photo shows the principality sliding a wedding ring onto the demon’s thin finger in an abandoned garden before an ancient, gnarled apple tree. The combined light of the angel’s and demon’s respective halos obscures the scene like an overexposed human photograph.

After the Great War, while the escalators and Purgatory were still under construction and everything was chaos and nothing was accounted for and angels were ceremoniously tossing their Fallen coworkers’ belongings out the windows into the abyss (6), occasionally someone would say, where’s Raphael gone off to? to which another angel would reply, haven’t seen them in a while, maybe they went down to Earth early?  That Raphael was one of the Fallen wasn’t an option that had arisen - and the more time went by, it became increasingly difficult to initiate that conversation.  It's true that Raphael wasn't exactly getting along with the rest of the office before the War, and they spent more time with their oldest sibling than was probably Good for them. But they didn't strike you as the sort to choose Lucifer over God. And if it hadn't been for the things she'd witnessed and heard just before the start of the War, Uriel might not believe it herself.  The fact remains, though, that if Raphael hadn’t been running around healing Lucifer’s people, maybe God wouldn’t have had to invent Falling, and that if Raphael hadn't intended to Fall, they could have been a bit more... reverent.

Uriel had been able to imply to the rest of their office, truthfully and in good faith, that Raphael was on Earth, and that Uriel had, in fact, seen them there. Nearly four thousand years after the Ark Incident, even though the signature smelled wrong, she’d approved all the paperwork submitted in Raphael’s name, stamped it with her holy signature, and filed it away in the appropriate drawer. The demon’s words on the Ark had been too uncomfortable, the whole situation too much to comprehend, and the only logical reaction was to disregard them and sing God’s praises louder. 

“Just like him? I didn’t think you paid such close attention.” Michael is observing Uriel shrewdly, their arms crossed over their chest. “Still, if this were more than a theoretical,” they continue carefully, “if it was for love of one another that they committed their own respective acts of treason, would that not have impacted the sentence, at least for Aziraphale? Love being inherently holy in the eyes of the Almighty.”

“A legal marriage ceremony was automatically recorded in our files, and two traitors are married.” Even more infuriatingly, the first sigil spills over into the ceremony presided over by line, and the second sigil spills over into the archangel signature line, such that refusing to validate the union is not an option. Uriel subtly rolls her eyes and even more subtly attempts to shut the ledger and set it away before Michael can pick up on this detail. “Demons cannot feel love. It is written.”

“Of course not.” Michael has already memorized the location where the marriage rite had been performed. “But given our recent change of Plans, might it not be worth investigating?” Then, more to theirself, “I should ask Gabriel. He would know.”

“How?”

“He has done more research into that area, I believe.”

The translucent white door slides open in silence, as do all doors in Heaven, and his footsteps are soundless, but still, they Feel the newcomer enter. Jesus bows his head respectfully as he closes the door behind him and mutters a polite greeting, and then stiffens as he catches sight of their faces. “You called for me, your glory?”  Unlike the two luminous beings before him, God’s son still appears fairly human, having the dubious honor of being the only entity in Heaven, outside of the specific areas designated for human souls, to grow a beard.  Like the angels before him, however, he has traded the long robes for business-casual attire in varying shades of silver and beige.

“Yes, I had a few questions about our – situation,” Michael replies, stepping between the Son of God and the marriage log still laid open on the desk. “But perhaps we could use your wisdom.”

“It’s a matter of academic interest,” Uriel puts in smoothly, sliding the ledger back into its place in the Heavenly filing system.

“Of course,” says Jesus, having taken note of its place of the shelf and already resolving to investigate when the archangels aren’t around.

“Would you think that a demon would have the capacity to feel love?”

The half-human smiles secretively. He remembers a demon who had genuinely only seemed to care about his wellbeing. And in a way, he thought, she’d been right about every word of it, even if she’d also been entirely wrong at the same time. He’d thought he might have seen her, or at least sensed her in the blurring corners of his vision, at the end. Someone was standing beside her. “I have no doubt of it.”

 

 

Michael steps into the entryway between Heaven and Hell to place a call away from watchful ears, using the new angelic phone they’d been issued after the screen of their prior device had cracked as though struck by a rock as soon as they’d stepped out of the elevator into Hell clutching their pitcher of holy water. “Did you know about this?”

“Yes? Yes, I am aware that we had the same problem, but it doesn’t seem there is much that we can do about it, as you say.” They step behind one of the polished silver pillars that supports the lobby between Heaven and Hell, to partially conceal themself. They can vaguely sense the wails of souls trapped in Purgatory, technically in this room but caught in a different dimension where they cannot reach the door.

“I’m not sure that would go over well with the rest of my people. Angels, you know. We believe in Almighty intervention.”

“No, not to the point of stupidity.”

“I don’t lie, that’s your job, isn’t it?” Michael pulls their lips into a false smile at Sandalphon as he exits the elevator and heads for the door to Earth.

“Yes, alright. Tuesday. No, not there. Same as last time.”

 

 

– – –

 

(1) Saint Patience Monotonous was awarded sainthood in the eleventh century after allegedly praying to the Lord to intercede in her husband’s habit of “playing devil’s advocate” in every conversation.  According to one version of the legend, the man was an actual associate of Satan, but he is suspected by many modern scholars to have been using the said phrase as a means of avoiding having to listen to anyone's opinion but his own.  The Almighty granted Saint Patience the ability to speak in the sort of rational, emotionless monotone which even Satan could not argue with, at all times, sending her husband into fits of spluttering indignation which eventually stopped the man from advocating for the Devil in her good Christian home (or at least from making their marriage quite so unpleasant with his narrow-minded opinions).  The Rational Order of Saint Monotonous has taken a vow to emulate this saint at all times, except for Monday evenings, when the nuns have permission to display the full range of human emotion in their conversations – and, if they wish, to cry while reading fanfiction.

(2) Which is to say, that he genuinely couldn’t tell you whether Adam’s post-Armageddon reality alterations had impacted him or not.

(3) Unless they’d both been very drunk and forgotten about it the next day, which isn’t entirely unlikely – and if Crowley were to claim that this were true, Aziraphale would be prepared to pretend that he can remember it after all.  But if that is the case, Crowley doesn’t actually remember either, although he’d be willing to go along with it.

(4) As counterintuitive as it may seem from a distance, it’s true that the only ones who know the holy texts as thoroughly as angels are the demons – the Almighty’s prosecution attorneys, as it were – though there’s certainly an art to acquiring such information without catching one’s eyebrows on fire.

(5) It doesn't occur to him to say “Anthony,” not even for a second. He'll wonder later if this was wrong of him, but it actually doesn't occur to Crowley either: this moment is between him and Aziraphale and God, and the angel never calls him by that name.

(6) Many of which went on to orbit distant planets; the most obvious, which human scientists are yet to discover, is the heavenly cardboard box of office supplies that still circles Pluto to this day.

Chapter Text

“In Heaven a spirit doth dwell

Whose heart-strings are a lute;   

None sing so wildly well

As the angel Israfel,

And the giddy stars (so legends tell),   

Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell   

Of his voice, all mute....

 

...Yes, Heaven is thine; but this

Is a world of sweets and sours;

Our flowers are merely—flowers,   

And the shadow of thy perfect bliss

Is the sunshine of ours.”

- “Israfel” Edgar Allan Poe

 

 

 

FRIDAY

FOUR DAYS UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

 

When Adam had widened his angelic blue eyes and asked if Anathema would please teach him to do occultism, her immediate fear was that he would undo his prior reality alteration and bring the fury of Satan back down upon them all. Her second thought had been that if Below or Above did return to claim righteous vengeance, the kid should have a little training.

She weighed these two options in her mind, envisioned Famine’s weighing scales falling to the ground, realized she didn’t want to do the Right thing anyway, and agreed that, yes, of course she would.

Anathema hadn’t planned on being the reclusive witch in a secluded cottage at the edge of a rural English village - but growing up with the firm understanding that the world would end relatively early in her lifetime, had in retrospect enforced in her a very limited view of the future. After half-expecting to perish in the apocalypse of 2019, half-expecting to be the hero of the apocalypse of 2019, the idea that the planet could even be around beyond this summer had been so unthinkable that she’s not sure what else she could do now.

Currently, Adam is eagerly reading the aura of each of the Them in her kitchen, formulating elaborate theories as to their current states of being. The not-antichrist is quite talented for a beginner, considering that he insists he hasn’t been cheating and hiding any more residual Satanic powers than he claims. “Pepper, you’re – you’re just all red, kinda orange, and really bright, halfway 'cross the room. So you’re angry, or,” Adam doesn't dare say in love. Maybe? You’re...”

“Passionate,” Anathema puts in helpfully. Beside her, Brian builds a tower out of tarot cards while Wensleydale examines her collection of spellbooks and makes sceptical noises in the back of his throat. “Inspired. Think of it more like a state of being than an emotion.”

Pepper is flipping through the pages of her magazine at a furious rate, jaw clenched, eyes flashing. “Did you know that they’re killing all the orangutans to grow more palm oil trees.”

That's what it is, Anathema thinks, as she jots down a new entry in the table in her journal that lists different auras and their Crayola crayon-style colours: palm oil red.  Anathema began analyzing auras at a young age. Adam's one of those infuriating yet fascinating people who comes along with an accidental and immediate knack for something you'd studied long and hard to master. By now, at least, she knows that he's like this in everything, and can't take it personally.

“I dunno ‘bout orangutans, but you look like you’re gonna catch the house on fire,” declares Adam reverently. He may be king of the Them, but the king’s advisor and guard is inevitably the more influential position, as any old legend will tell you.

A spiral notebook is laid open on the desk beside the journal, and on top of that, a blurred photocopy of an old rite with numerous lines crossed out and new words scrawled in above them. The title declares, LIBER ISRAFEL SUB FIGURA LXIV, in grainy text under a spreading pair of ink wings.

“Why are you changing it?” Adam asks.

“Oh, some of the old occultists in this country weren’t very good people,” explains Anathema, “so I was modifying a few lines.” Per the title, she’d replaced one verse in the middle with a prayer to San Rafael, also open in a book nearby; as well as used the word knowledge in place of the name of an Egyptian god of whom the original author had probably known nothing; and finally, added in a few lines on the same theme from the relevant Poe poem. It's one thing to value traditional witchcraft, and another to fail to be adaptable or respectful, she explains to the Them, businesslike.

“That makes sense then.” Adam peers more closely from the staff of Asclepius alongside one prayer, to the caudecus standing tall and double-snaked alongside a line about hermetic magic. “That’s not gonna call Asclepps – Asclepisis? ...down from the stars?”

“No, hon. Asclepius was Greek, and this one’s from a nineteenth-century English occultist. It calls on Israfel because he's supposed to be the angel of the apocalypse, but he’s also supposed to sing life into angels, so. It’s a ritual designed to… raise creative energy. awaken knowledge. Inner power. Make you more open to, um, creative expression.”

“If he's the angel of the apocalypse, why wasn't he at the apocalypse?” Adam inquires fairly.

“I ‘spect he was in Jerusalem, with a horn to his lips, like he is all the time,” Wensleydale puts in knowingly, having just read this in one of Anathema’s books.

“Mr Crowley made us promise we wouldn’t call him with magic again,” Brian puts in seriously, jutting out his chin. “And he had a stick just like that one.”

“Brian’s right,” agrees Adam. “Look – it says Crowley right there.”

“This one’s a different Mr Crowley,” Anathema reassures them, having made sure to research that thoroughly beforehand. “But you don’t have to stay if you’re worried.” She kindly doesn’t mention that they weren’t actually invited. “It’s a little advanced for you anyway. And then all the blame is on me.”

Five minutes later finds Anathema pushing aside her kitchen table to draw a circle of all necessary sigils on the floor in chalk, while Pepper, who had lagged behind to help, is assisting her work, mostly by trying out sword fighting tricks with a ritual wand grasped tightly in one fist, and –

“Hey, can I see the knife, please? I need it over here,” the witch lies quickly. Pepper hands it over, and Anathema proceeds to set the ceremonial knife on the opposite side of the circle, both to consecrate her ritual space and also to prevent an impassioned ten-year-old from swinging a sharpened blade around her kitchen. “Actually, there's something else I’d been wanting to talk with you about? While the boys are out.”

Pepper juts her chin out suspiciously, eyes narrowing. “I do whatever the boys do.”

“Yeah, hon, that’s kind of my point. Would you like some chocolate?”

She haughtily accepts, perching again on one of the tall stools in the kitchen, between the radio and a large collection of empty canning jars.

“It’s just – since I respect you so much, and I know you're incredibly intelligent and almost eleven, I wanted to mention… when girls call each other bitch, it’s either internalized misogyny or a term of endearment - those are the only options, really. It’s not an insult you can use against women – even women who aren’t real – without throwing it back at yourself. Bitch is as much a social construct as War, you see?”

Pepper frowns. “Maybe,” she says. She pensively pops a whole chocolate in her mouth.

“Well, War really is masculine imperialism executed on a global scale, but she’s also a sort of male fantasy – so when you call her a bitch, you’re saying that women deserve to be called bitch for manifesting exactly the traits that men were imposing on them in the first place. Does that make sense?”

“I think so.” Pepper wears the serious face that she uses while sitting in on her mother's sociology classes, though she’s resumed twirling a ritual wand in her hands like a baton. “But if War is really masculine imperialism, why is she a woman at all?"

“It's because men want to glorify and sexualize war without having to take responsibility for it,” says Anathema, pleased to be asked. “Men start wars, hon, and they want to pretend it looks like War, even though she’s obviously not what war actually looks like at all. But they want to worship her and tell her it's her fault, anyway.”

“But then War shouldn’t be gone at all, really,” Pepper points out fairly. “If you can’t kill her just by calling her a bitch.”

“Stabbing people with flaming swords usually kills them, no matter what you said to them beforehand,” says Anathema grimly, “even if it's not really the philosophically correct thing.”

Pepper considers this while trying to balance the wand on the side of her outstretched hand. The balance isn't quite right because of the multicoloured strings tied around one end. “If I were War,” she asserts, “I wouldn't go around starting wars in places where people don’t want them. I’d look people in the eyes and say: war isn’t my fault, it’s yours!” She flips the stick back into her hand and wields it like a sword. The pendulum nearby swings ominously of its own accord, and on the corners of Anathema's vision, the girl's aura flares like a stoked campfire.

Then Pepper catches sight of the ritual manuscript again, turned to its second page. “Oh, I get it,” she says, spotting the phrase thy mother the moon and conjuring up an internal vision of naked women dancing around a maypole.  “You’re doing free-thinking worship of the progenerative principle.” She tries to remember what else her mother said about it.

“Kind of.  Like a witch with a cauldron, except you’re the cauldron.  But I’m just experimenting for now,” explains Anathema, setting the last candle in place, “and seeing where it takes me. I was something of a prophecy specialist, before, but I was hoping to try some new kinds of occultism.  See where it takes me.” She’s not entirely sure that the Them realize that what happened last month wasn’t a very confusing apocalyptic game of pretend. She’s pretty sure it wasn’t, though, even if Newt isn’t entirely convinced.

“But then why is Newt your boyfriend just because there was a prophecy? That doesn’t make sense.  He wanted to burn you,” says Pepper, grimacing disapprovingly, her words more a challenge than a question. “And he doesn’t do his dishes,” she adds, nodding pointedly toward the sink.

“Oh, sweetie, he didn’t want to, he just. He’s nice, under all the – witch-burning thing. I mean, he’s an idiot, but he’s not a violent idiot.”

“Would he call you a bitch, if you hadn’t wanted to be his girlfriend? If you just liked being friends.”

Anathema considers it, and also hopes this kid will be Prime Minister some day. “I’ll meditate on it,” she says finally. “You ask good questions. I’m so glad we had this conversation. Here – take some more chocolates.”

“Thanks, bitch,” Pepper intones solemnly, shoving another handful of brightly-wrapped sweets in her pockets as she darts back out the door to join the Them.

Alright then, Anathema tells herself, as the front door clicks shut once more, off to a great start. Something to meditate on. She inhales deeply, lays the updated LIBER ISRAFEL manuscript in its place, and sets her lighter to the first candle.

 

 

ABOUT AN HOUR LATER

 

On the demon formerly known as Israfel’s mobile phone, a modified version of a centuries-old occult rite written by a human some centuries prior (1) sets off an unnoticed alert that flashes face-down into a polished wood desk. Miniature bottles of inordinately priced liquor, most of them empty, are strewn across a table with legs like carved lions and the mantlepiece of a marble fireplace. This zealously gilded suite in the Ritz has been miraculously freed and re-booked by an angel and a demon for the second night in a row, currently both in various states of undress, wings draped over the sides of the bed.

Heaven and Hell, of course, foot the bill, and it’s only the desire to escape unwanted attention that keeps the angel from passive-aggressively submitting that paperwork to his former bosses. If it weren’t for the Shadwell’s wedding tomorrow, both would be glad to draw their own wedding night out for the third night in a row, but Aziraphale doesn’t go back on a promise, and Crowley doesn’t go back on a promise to Aziraphale.

The angel snuggles contentedly in a cocoon of jet-black feathers. Crowley has such an inordinate amount of wings, Aziraphale thinks sleepily, or something akin to sleepily if he were a being whose body required sleep, just so much.

Plenty of sex before marriage, but absolutely no mutual wing-preening before marriage – it’s such an absurdly Crowley concept. Actual crows don’t try to manage all that without a partner.

(Under Aziraphale’s careful fingers, obscured beneath an irregular place where the feathers won’t lie flat, was an area of ancient scar tissue with an obvious old flaming sword wound look to it, the sort of thing that a particularly smug angel like Sandalphon would enjoy showing off. Aziraphale took a long, slow inhale and felt the breath tingle to the tips of his fingers as he flipped another feather to the side and smoothed it lovingly down.

“For the record, it was Uriel. Don’t look like that,” Crowley had said without turning to examine the other’s expression, his previously easy posture gone oddly tight as though his husband’s hands were a hellbeast’s teeth. “I can hear you trying not to ask.”

His hands stilled involuntarily, still half-immersed in feathers. When Crowley mentions his Fall, it's always with some kind of flippant wordplay or demon Dad joke that would probably make everyone groan in Hell. And so even though deep down he knows that Crowley didn't really saunter down the stairs, Aziraphale has always dutifully played along – you don’t push Crowley, not on that sort of thing, because when you do, things catch on fire, or toxic mushrooms grow out of the woodwork, or nematodes eat the roots of all your fruit trees.

“Listen… everything was a mess. I was on the wrong side. She knew me well enough to know that. Give her some credit.”

“Credit where credit is due.” Aziraphale has no difficulty believing the archangel Uriel of being capable of inducing physical injuries. If someone strikes you with a flaming sword, you’re probably going down, no matter the circumstances.

“Then give me some credit, said Crowley, his voice regaining its usual wry smirk. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it’s not like I was on good terms with Her by that point.” And you couldn’t push Crowley on that sort of thing – neither the joy of their wedding night nor the integrity of the expensive Ritz furniture could afford it.)

“No, I would. I will. Alpha Centauri. Wherever you like,” Aziraphale is saying, Crowley resting with his face pressed against him so that the angel can feel his husband's lips smiling into his shoulder as he speaks, “But it’s as I was saying before, about true forms and bodies and so forth. It feels altogether wrong that we should have never seen one another properly at all. I mean, marriage is, you know.”

“Mystical union. Uh. Two souls before the eyes of God, ‘n… something.” Crowley mumbles, distracted, his whole body buzzing contentedly, drifting on Aziraphale’s downy plumage mingled with a heap of silky pillows.

“Because – I should like to at least know what you look like when you’re not cramped inside a human corporation,” the angel continues, eyes wide and earnest, a tremor of emotion running through his voice. “It’s a matter of, well, knowing one another, I suppose.”

“Mmmph,” says Crowley, who should have known where this conversation was headed. Inherent selves, and all the rest. He raises his head. “I’m… quite a lot taller.” And snakier, and more terrifying, for that matter. There’s a reason that Crowley never takes on his true form on Earth: a thousand is a lot of angel eyes, but it’s a lot of snake eyes, and none of them can blink.

Aziraphale, though. Aziraphale must look absolutely breathtaking made out of pure energy, when you can look at him with a thousand eyes at once.

“Thousand's a lot of sssnake tonguess, angel,” the demon hisses teasingly, with his forked tongue flicking at Aziraphale’s ear. “Tall as the heavenss.” His snake sense can taste Aziraphale’s golden aura of devotion.

“Sounds magnificent. A honeymoon in the stars it is,” Aziraphale proclaims, tiny shocks of electricity tingling pleasantly down the side of his throat as he leans up for another kiss.

“Proxima Centauri isn’t too far,” the demon proposes at last, breaking away and propping his head onto his elbow to give himself a better view of his angel. Crowley hadn't actually formulated any sort of meaningful star-travelling itinerary beyond the original better get off this planet in a hurry. “That’s got a good, solid planet. Well. More of a big rock, really. But Alpha Serpentis has two – the humans haven't discovered them yet. Great sandy places, no water, bit boring in the long run, but plenty of room to fly.”

“It’s only that there’s still a load of – that is, a great deal of space between here and, well. Anywhere. I’m sure my wings would be exhausted.” Not to mention the human generations that would have ensued. The angel has grown more accustomed than most of his kind to keeping both feet planted securely on the ground.

“Well, we can’t have that.” He grazes a kiss along the edge of the angel’s wing. “Getting up past the roof of Heaven is the tricky bit,” says Crowley, who had once travelled as far as the moon that way. (Originally, Gabriel had hung the moon in the sky, and he supposes that’s why it gets so dull up there after the initial thrill of having flown to the moon wears off.) “Then you leave gravity behind and there’s no strain on your wings at all. But you’re not wrong, it’d be an awful flight. Sometimes I use photographs.”

“Photographs?”

“They catch the light coming from a star, when you’re taking a photo, right? So you jump into that light, while it’s being caught, see, and go the other way.”

“Darling, I’m not entirely sure that’s how light works.” Aziraphale is entirely sure that isn’t how light works.  But when Crowley believes things, the Universe somehow cannot help but go along with him, as Aziraphale has noted on many occasions - whether they can hear one another or not. He isn't sure that the demon even really notices.

A miracle is just making an opening and filling it with the possible impossible. Find a little gap in reality, and take whatever you need out of the fissure. There could technically be an eighteenth-century handkerchief in your pocket, right now, and you really might never know. It’s the visibility that gets taxing: you’ve got to pull something plausibly out of nothing, and reality can respond strangely to that.

Crowley sees reality as permeable: it’s not ignorance, per se, but rather a mindset older than Creation. Aziraphale sees reality as a series of annoying political niceties and difficult mathematical equations and ineffable Plans and demons waiting to bite your limbs off if you let them dangle over the sides of the bed. He’d rather be in bed with his own demon and a book, than testing the limits of a humanoid corporation. Crowley, on the other hand, had gotten himself discorporated in a few less-than-savoury ways, in that first millennium, and he’d always smiled fiendishly afterwards and insisted that he was just curious about the limits of what human bodies could take, not like he couldn’t get another one, right?

The demon shrugs. “Always worked for me. At one point last century I had to leave a polaroid camera in the Black Eye Galaxy.”

Though Aziraphale doesn’t know much more about cameras than he does about the mechanics of light, he is moderately reassured that Crowley has previously accomplished whatever he is plotting, presumably without being discorporated, and is still sitting before him.

“C'mon.” Crowley clambers upright as Aziraphale automatically reaches out to pull him back. “We haven't drunk at this table over here yet.”

The room is furnished with twice as many frills as Aziraphale's fondest memories of the eighteenth century. It's decorated with yellow roses stuck into narrow pedestals that shouldn’t be able to fit so many flowers at once, and vast painted vases with nothing in them, and old photos of vaguely familiar humans in polished frames. Crowley draws the two aesthetically upholstered but uncomfortably hard armchairs over to the window and chooses another bottle of wine.

Aziraphale's eyes follow the languid movement of the demon’s long, thin fingers curled around a glass of vermouth, holding up the glass like a holy offering. The angel accepts, a now-familiar shiver running from fingertips to heart as their hands graze.

If you had to put wormwood into a drink, Aziraphale finds this one more pleasurable than some past hangovers. The matter of the herb itself is something more complex, something that the angel is only able to express after three glasses of wine and a rambling nostalgic discussion of his favourite taverns in ancient Mesopotamia. “Wormwood,” Aziraphale slurs pensively in the direction of the near-empty bottle. “Seas of it.”

“Bloody accident,” Crowley grunts, catching his drift, absentmindedly lifting his wine glass and repeatedly setting it down again. You could get much better in the sixteenth century, he thinks, before all the regulations. “I was just messing around. Didn’ think it’d be so poison. Poisonous.” He divides the last of the vermouth between their two glasses with a flourish and sets the bottle down rather too heavily.

“You didn't mean it at all?” Aziraphale has a lot of academic experience with the Book of Revelation, and Crowley made no denial of his indirect involvement, but there’s a difference between tempting a human into some visionary mushrooms, and intentionally coming up with the content of their apocalyptic visions yourself. “I don't mean to raise a sensitive issue, m’dear, but it's… somewhat a matter of… security.”

The unspoken question being: I don’t mean to be rude, darling, but did you or did you not intend to bring about the entire book of Revelation?

“The way I see it, ‘sss a bit like your crossword. You get it, right? Right. If Adam hadn’t been reading about… Atlantis, or the Kraken, or whatever, wouldn’t’ve happened.” He's allowing Aziraphale the opportunity to say ineffable, and he's so infatuated that he’s not even going to grumble about it.

“Ineffable.” Aziraphale's drunken frown twitches back into a more comfortable expression again, his inebriated psyche pulling together a sort of story he’ll never be able to articulate after he sobers up, one in which all the doors lead together in a labyrinth of mirrors, with a mushroom-ringed tree at its centre, radiating outwards.

The demon refills their glasses. “What do you dream, angel? When you’re messing with the newspapers in your sleep.”

“Oh, I hardly remember. Nothing too special. White light, sort of neutral. And then there’ll be…”

No secrets between us, the angel reminds himself.

“Last night, well, I was in Heaven, there’s – this presentation space with a terribly fancy stage, and I was meant to be performing Macbeth, only I couldn’t remember my lines. And Mr Shakespeare himself was right in the audience, and Sophocles as well, and Michael and Gabriel, and I had to… improvise...” Aziraphale’s face appears to glitter as silvery blood rushes to his cheeks. He is not entirely sure how dreams are supposed to be when they’re not the prophetic sort, which he’s pretty sure this one isn’t.

“Is that what happened to the Celestial Observer?”

His blush deepens. “That may have been when I tried to throw in some lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  I got very flustered and flew right out the window. And then it all turned into plain white.  Clouds. Just the usual, I suppose.”

Crowley’s lips twitch even farther upward. This is something, he guesses, just beyond Aziraphale’s subconscious psyche to authentically produce (and may it stay that way forever): the resting state of consciousness in oblivion isn't the soft allure of sinking into pillowy clouds, but rather a darkness that’s sometimes soothing and sometimes a net, and too often descends into the ubiquitous falling dream: down down down to an impossible depth, and just when you finally hit the blazing pool of molten sulfur, you're awake. Crowley had been intrigued to learn that all but the finale of this vision was a fairly common human experience and not a specific function of demonic consciousness. “For humans, the usual is dark.”

He’d worried subconsciously, he realizes, that Aziraphale’s dreams would be full of hellfire and holy water, floods and plagues, of the tips of his feet rocking precariously on the edge of the abyss. It’s a relief to know that in his dreams, the floors of Heaven do not let him Fall. It’s a relief to lie beside him – hair tousled, mouth slightly open, satisfied and delighted and somehow still an angel – and let the Falling dreams fade into cozy darkness.

“To better dreams, then,” Aziraphale says, meeting his husband's eyes with a smile that illuminates every corner of his face, and lifts his glass.

 

-

 

Aziraphale blinks himself awake and stretches his arms out, expecting Crowley but finding only handfuls of bedsheets. He grips at these with a lurching wave of white-knuckled panic, ceiling swaying in anxious circles above him, in the long second before it occurs to him to raise his head.

His husband is seated on the desk on the opposite side of the room, bare snakeskin feet planted on the seat of the ornately painted chair. His hair is even more tousled than usual so that from a distance he appears to have horns. Aziraphale is swept with a wave of affection and relief.

“Sometime in the sixteenth century, I think. Yeah. This guy I was supposed to be tempting into Lust.” Crowley is speaking softly into the phone so as not to wake his angel. “No, nothing like that, I turned his horse into a crocodile and it ate him. My head office got his soul, too. It was sort of a win-win.”

“Yeah,” the demon says, “I guess there was a crocodile in the ritual, too, forgot about that. The piercing scales of the Crocodile, or something…” A guy calling himself A. Crowley was running around starting religions and getting himself labelled the actual spawn of Satan and so forth, so naturally A. J. Crowley had figured he’d better stop by and find out what the human's deal was before the Powers of Hell assumed he was responsible. It had seemed a pretty insignificant throwaway bit of miracle at the time. Humans are generally pretty good at working themselves up to states of fantastic creativity without demonic intervention. Still, he'd known said rite to alter reality in some intriguing ways.

“Really depends on whether you believe in coincidence, right.” Crowley notices that Aziraphale is awake, and sends him a lovingly enigmatic smirk from across the room.

“Anyways, it’s not that I don’t admire the sheer volume of righteous rage-laden energy you’re raising here, but ….” In his hand, the phone glows with an effervescent orange-green like fumes from a satanic cauldron of poisonous frogs. “Yeah. Tomorrow.” He turns off the device once more and climbs languidly down from the desk.

“Crowley,” says Aziraphale, who had recognized Anathema's voice through a crackle of occult smog and was relieved that she did not seem to be in any danger, “I may have missed some context, but that's perhaps the worst relationship advice I've ever heard. How on earth did she come to be calling now?”

“Oh.” He shrugs. “Wasn’t advice. And she wasn’t calling, exactly. Old bit of demonic miracle. It’s the chanting, and the belief they’re putting in it, that’s doing the actual magic - doesn’t really matter if I pick up. I just use that thing to keep an eye on it. Easier than always having that weird energy tingling in the corners of your brain, right.”

“I suppose,” agrees Aziraphale, who's certainly had his share of experiences with the residual fallout of old miracles calling him energetically at odd times, if not by phone (2).

“Anyways,” Crowley says.  “I heard from Warlock again while you were asleep.  He’s fine.  We’re fine.  It’s all fine.”  He reaches out and puts a hand over his angel's.

Aziraphale realized belatedly that his fists are still clenched tightly around the edge of the blanket.  He relaxes his grip.  “Of course,” he says, “why wouldn't it be?”

 

-

 

Over the course of his six thousand years of existence, Aziraphale had occasionally inquired about the supervisor whose acquaintance he'd never made, and was offered tales like, “once they brought a twenty-foot-long unfinished prototype snake with seven eyes to an archangels’ board meeting” or “ran off into outer space for the equivalent of several centuries because God wouldn’t approve their ideas for a medicine that brings the dead back to life.” The question of “Whatever happened to Raphael?” was usually met with responses like “probably forsook the Lord to become a Buddhist,” or “I bet they gave up on miracles and became a normal human doctor.”

(Or: “How do you solve a problem like Raphael?” Gabriel had once asked with a roll of his violet eyes, when he thought the principality to be out of earshot.)

Aziraphale fancies that he sees how it happens. Crowley can’t help but to tempt. He's fascinated by the world. He wants to think about it with you. He doesn't take that's just the way it is for an answer. And Crowley can’t explain things with only words, he’s all fire and energy and expression.

Following this particular energy and expression, the demon slithers alongside Aziraphale on the sofa and lies slumped, hissing softly with appreciation. Aziraphale throws one arm around his back to pull him in closer.

Crowley looks at Aziraphale, whose lips are curled softly in blissful appreciation – Aziraphale who tastes the moment, holds it delicately in his mouth, a last shudder of delighted appreciation running through his body - and takes a moment to realize that the angel's aura of light is actually the visible sort, and not just a refraction of his own passion swimming before his eyes.

“You shine like the fucking sun,” breathes Crowley, more than a little awed. “I mean you're literally glowing right now, do you know that?” It's true: not terribly intense, but a distinctive shimmer all the same. Once more, he tries to imagine what sort of disembodied being of ethereal radiance is concealed within Aziraphale's corporation.

“Language,” says the angel habitually, but he's visibly basking in the praise.

The polished obsidian lamp on its marble plinth mingles with the streetlights of the park beyond the gauzy curtains, casting a dusky light like an old temple. Two brass figurines unfurl their celestial wings around an ornate gold clock on the mantelpiece.

Grimacing at the audacity of the space to dare be slightly chilly in October, Crowley raises an arm and snaps his fingers at the vacant fireplace. A fuelless fire springs up with a diabolical sort of cheeriness.

As red flame crackles wildly up into the chimney, a lick of blue heat curling against the iron grate, the fire mimics the passion still running through the angel's whole corporation. As though Crowley is hellfire that floods his veins but cannot hurt him, he thinks. And it feels so deeply luxurious lie here and listen to the demon’s heart beating audibly in his throat, and eventually to wind lazily into some sort of conversation that starts with the colour of Aziraphale’s hair and is drawn somehow magnetically into some technical aspect of the angelic musical vibrations needed to produce the corona of a star. If he had known that the way to get Crowley to stop scowling so much, was to avert the apocalypse and save him from holy water and make love to him and marry him and listen to him ramble enthusiastically about Creation, Aziraphale muses vaguely, he should have done so thousands of years ago.

The demon keeps glancing from his own wedding ring to the angel’s, and Aziraphale can hear his own incredulous joy reflected audibly back at him.

“No,” Crowley is saying, “I really want to explain this, but I think I just did. Our unfortunate meteor accident.”

(The serpenoids, the newspapers are now calling it, because apparently this particular meteor shower now rains down at an angle that makes it appear to be falling from Serpens.

“Whoops,” Crowley had said aloud when he'd read that, with a strange, unfamiliar optimism sinking like a stone in his abdomen, and then, “Hey, I wonder if we could do that again? Let's try.” All subsequent experiments had been rather hit-or-miss.)

“Love. How poetic, darling.” The angel beams.

And Crowley’s seen him from every angle now, the way his eyelids flutter and his breath hitches, the rapture that creeps across his ocean-deep eyes, the celestial quaver of his pulse, the blunted pressure of carefully-trimmed fingernails digging into the demon’s skin - and at the moment, to bring Aziraphale such pleasure feels like an art more exhilarating than star-making and healing and temptation combined.

“Nah, not love, just. Ergh. Passion, ‘s that the word? Something strong enough to channel the Music of the World, right.” The Red Square Nebula, for example, was the aftermath of a quarrel with Michael after which he'd been cathartically singing divine hymns in exasperated tones. His anger had sharp corners, that day.

Alright, Aziraphale gets that, well enough: you read a good book, you’ve got to get up and pace back and forth and wave your hands around a bit before you can turn to the next page.

“Like a great ssssnake of fire,” Crowley is saying, flicking his tongue up between Aziraphale’s ribs. “Or three cauldronsss filled with fire, here,” he jabs the angel’s belly with one long finger, “and here,” he raises his hand to the angel's heart, which is giving off now-familiar rays of angelic pleasure - not burning painfully but still prickling sharply against his fingers, like leaning against an electric heater - “and here.” He tilts up for another kiss, and Aziraphale lets his mouth fall open to receive it, comfortable and secure beneath Crowley's weight on his chest.

That’s the thing about humans: they make stuff up all the time, and it becomes real. Over the millennia, plenty of human philosophers and poets alike have said that you make art out of sexual energy, all that fire pushed upwards instead of down. They form whole religions and schools of philosophy out of it, without any help from Crowley. It’s very hard to explain this concept when you only have two eyes and one tongue, but when you can sing a star into being with a thousand mouths at once, it makes more sense. Like pulling a great burst of flame dragged up and out through all your thousand mouths at once, up up up and out into space, as though it were made of the same stuff as you. All that fire of inspiration, deep inside of you, so strong you must either fuck or sing, and then – boom, Alpha Serpentis.

Aziraphale is reminded of Crowley’s carefully-alphabetized Real Soul Music collection. The angel hadn't thought much of it at first - more like a vibration than a song, really, resounding eerily through his bones - but then he'd noted a peculiar sensation that he might describe as his soul being open to the Universe, if that weren’t something his soul was already pretty good at doing on its own. Aziraphale had been in love with Crowley for quite a while before he’d been aware of his demon’s previous career injecting life into hosts of angels by singing with a thousand voices at once, but he can’t say he’s entirely surprised by it.

“Another demonstration, perhaps?” the angel suggests, eyes gleaming, hooking his arm around the unresisting demon’s abdomen to draw him in closer.

“Lustful, are we?” Crowley draws together mock-serious brows, smile-lines curving through the sharpness of his features.

“It can’t be a sin if you’ve only been married forty-eight hours, dear.” Caught between the silk sheets with impossibly high thread counts and Crowley's lustrous crow-feathers, the angel's whole body is singing softly in a way that seems to understand without words what the demon's drunken lovestruck philosophical ramble had meant to convey.

At what they do next, unbeknownst to angel or demon, the area of new star formation within the star queen nebula known as the Pillars of Creation speeds up its cycles of production to a physically impossible degree, exploding forth with thousands of new stars at once.

 

 

SATURDAY

 

As with Aziraphale and Crowley’s union, though the future Mrs Shadwell’s old flat isn’t technically an approved location for a legal wedding service, both human and angelic legislation will be in place – as will be all necessary paperwork to update the name on the future Marjorie Shadwell, née Potts’s scooter license.

Aziraphale has mentioned on at least five occasions that he has extensive connections and could undoubtedly find them a miraculous reservation in some other venue. But the human seems to find a certain satisfaction in offering a dramatic farewell to her former home and insists that she much prefers to get married in a place where she knows all the ghosts, in any case.

And so the angel amuses himself by helping the humans set up, while Crowley is more amused by the dynamic in which his husband naturally goes from being invited to a wedding to taking responsibility for the whole thing. Aziraphale can’t help but to help, and he can’t help but to enjoy helping: it’s a wonderful, openhearted benevolence that only Heaven could ever be sadistic enough to exploit, Crowley thinks.

(Or at least, only Heaven can get away with exploiting, as would-be bookshop buyers are aware.)

The majority of furniture having been relocated to the Shadwells’ new bungalow – mysteriously available and affordable within days of Armageddon’t, presumably Adam’s doing – there remains still a large exhibit of old porcelain dishes shaped like cats and fish, as well as a prominently displayed collection of decorative teapots. Long strings of sequins are tied back from the windows and doors with purple ribbon. A few soft-glowing lamps reflect off of the multitude of faux-gilded mirrors hung from the walls, and paper lanterns are strung along the ceiling to create the sort of ambience usually intended for a séance. It gives the room an agreeably holy sort of feel, in Aziraphale's mind, without being the caustic sort of holy.

Mismatched wooden chairs, upholstered in shades of pink and crimson, hold a mismatched crowd that includes Crowley, Anathema, the landlord and his family (who won't be missing Shadwell but were fond of Madam Tracy), a few of her former seance-goers, as well as two of her gentleman clients who had been coming over for tea for such a long time that they genuinely just wanted to wish her well on her wedding day. The lingering fragrance of patchouli mixes with the scent of lilies and carnations, presented in a wide assortment of containers on most surfaces, interspersed with sunflowers and pink thistles (which the bride had chosen to appease the spirits and also for colour contrast).

Mrs Omerod keeps tsking at under her breath at the flower arrangements, though no one appears to know who invited her - it certainly wasn’t Madam Tracy. At the human’s indignant comments about the inappropriateness of a crystal ball as a centrepiece for a marriage ceremony, Crowley clears his throat pointedly – more powerfully than pointedly, actually – and at once Mrs Omerod finds herself contemplating the front of the room with unprecedented attentiveness.

Aziraphale only remembers at the very last minute to miracle up a speaker so that no one will ask where the music is coming from.

Shadwell coughs loudly into the sleeve of his jacket and grumbles something like, “Get on w’ it, then.”  He’s not entirely pleased that his presumed Russian spy - Southern pansy – well, southern Russian spy, anyhoo – turns out to be some sort of priest and also a close friend of Madam Tracy for reasons that neither of them can remember clearly but which make her blush and look demurely away and mutter about “that peculiar day in August” whenever he asks.

Aziraphale was never a fan of the direction that the Puritans had taken religious proceedings (3): adding a few flourishes to the performance, a bit of theatrics here and there, and a few extra candles, makes the whole thing more of a divine gift and less of a bore and a bother. Upstairs might not like it; but he puts on his most earnest theatre face anyhow, half-closing his eyes, feeling more akin to the priest he'd once played in an amateur nineteenth-century stage production, than to either a second-century monk or a twenty-first-century religious official performing a marriage ceremony. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here…”

He meets Crowley’s eyes on the first word, before returning his gaze to the gruff and expectant Sargent. Crowley muses that religious ceremonies would be a lot less dull if the rest of them were run by people half as talented as Aziraphale.

The former Madam Tracy's dress trails along the floor, its faintly yellowed lace giving the impression of having previously belonged to a bride left at the altar in the eighteenth century (which it might have). Her posture is confident and her eyes glassy, which in Aziraphale’s mind is enough to override Sargent Shadwell’s brusque demeanour and heavy, impatient breathing.  Still, the two humans’ weathered hands are clasped tightly, and they look intently at one another out of the corners of their eyes.

“I could swear I’ve heard his voice before,” Mrs Omerod is grousing in a frustrated whisper. “Must have been a friend of Ron’s.”

Aziraphale’s intended speech on the sacred bond of marriage keeps choking his throat with the threat of jubilant tears, and he doesn’t dare glance over at his husband again, lounging moodily in his seat in the corner, for fear he’ll start sobbing again.

“Nice to see him so emotionally invested,” whispers one of the humans knowingly.  Seated slightly sideways in a wooden chair with vines of flowers carved into the arms, Crowley throws the angel a quick half-grin, eyes sparkling yellow with love and pride (and hellfire) beneath his sunglasses.

Aziraphale watches intently for the moment when Sargent Shadwell’s eyes begin to roll back toward his bushy grey brows - which takes about five minutes and twenty seconds – and rolls smoothly into their vows. The angel had been hoping to get a first name out of this, but Shadwell only says, “I, Sargent Shadwell (retired), take ye to be muh wife,” and there’s nothing to do but go along with it.

Miraculously, the rings do not slip from their place on the embroidered paisley cushion in Newt’s hands when he trips over the leg of a chair and only narrowly misses landing face-first on the carpet. As he rights himself and dusts off the front of his ill-fitted suit with one hand, Newt is mortified that Mrs Shadwell puts a motherly hand on his shoulder and asks if he’s alright, when she’s meant to be exchanging wedding rings with her impatient groom.

Newton Pulsifer has never been in a wedding, unless you count his great-aunt’s second wedding, when he was one year old and allegedly cried the entire time. Nor has he ever had a breakup, because he’s never had a girlfriend. He’s never had a girl who was a friend, for that matter, unless you count his cousin who’d been crying at the same wedding, and so isn’t entirely sure how you do it.

When Aziraphale asks if anyone objects to the marriage and says, “Speak now or forever hold your peace,” Newt glances at Anathema out of the corner of his eye as though he’s half expecting her to.

Anathema, on the other hand, casts him a perfectly cordial and encouraging smile that makes him quite nearly stumble again.

 

-

 

When the ceremony is completed and the wine keeps discreetly refilling itself, they drink from mismatched glass goblets while complimenting the bride and attempting to compliment the groom, only to receive gruff disparaging noises in reply. The china dishes on the table have become mysteriously much nicer that Mrs Shadwell remembers them being when her mother had first gifted them to her, and the food also much nicer than she remembers ordering.

“A stunning performance,” Crowley praises Aziraphale, while everyone else is still praising the bride, quietly interlacing his fingers with the angel’s under the table.

“Looks like our whole army is here,” Aziraphale mutters disparagingly, squeezing his hand in return.

“Could be worse,” Crowley acknowledges. “Could have been an actual army going after witches.”

Aziraphale starts doing magic tricks after his second glass of wine, and Magic tricks after these prove ineffective. Mr and Mrs Shadwell having seemingly forgotten the extent of the angel’s celestial powers - or, that he’s an angel at all, or how precisely they came to be so close, though it was certainly on a very odd day at the end of the summer - the wedding guests spend a great deal of time oohing and ahhing over the butterflies that come fluttering out of the lantern, until Aziraphale realizes it’s too cold outside to simply let them free, and it’s even more complicated to reassure everyone that they really have vanished and not to worry, they’re certainly not really up his sleeve, no need to check.

From his seat beside the demon, Newt’s gaze keeps flicking miserably from Sargent and Mrs Shadwell’s held hands, to Anathema with her own clasped primly in her lap. At Aziraphale’s nudge, he and Crowley have taken it upon themselves to sit between the two humans, while across the table Anathema and Mrs Shadwell strike up a discussion of the latter’s experiences in professional occultism and plans for retirement, which morphs into a more general discussion of hedgewitchery under capitalism.

Crowley is clearly enjoying Tempting guests into intense political debates, which abate rapidly when his husband gives him a disapproving frown.

The demon slips into Anathema and Mrs Shadwell’s discussion instead, freely mentioning constituents of plants that botanists are yet to identify and drawing a map on a scrap of paper of some of the leylines he’d helped line up himself before the Earth was formed. And Crowley would have left her by the side of the road, too – that’s the thing, Aziraphale thinks distracted, about Crowley, he misses good opportunities by being all scowly.

When the angel scolds them good-naturedly for working during a celebration, talk turns to the Shadwell’s new dwelling, and in turn to their cottage, itself not far away. Though all paperwork is in place, houseplants relocated yet again (4), goats cheerfully munching from a self-refilling haybale and miraculously clean water trough, Crowley and Aziraphale had decided begrudgingly not to move for a few more days - to give themselves time to figure out what to do with all the books and make sure any suspicious celestial activity has blown over. Crowley can’t shake the lurking, nagging feeling that something is about to go wrong – but Bicycle Witch and Aziraphale, at least, are enjoying discussing the goats.

“They’ll need some sort of shelter, I suppose. It’s too bad we don’t know a carpenter,” Aziraphale is saying.

“Or a goat shepherd, says Crowley.  He’s starting to drift pleasantly on the wave of mingled conversations, dropping odd points into a conversation between two wedding attendees across the table, who seem a bit unnerved that the mysterious man in the sunglasses appears to be able to read their thoughts.

“Goatherd,” Aziraphale corrects absently.

“I thought it reminded me of prophecy number five forty-two. In the second volume. I read a bit,” Anathema adds, half-defensively. “For the sake of the future. The goat, whost sacrificeth the goat, who sacrificeth the goat, who takes the Goat sacrifice, who is the goat sacrifice. There might have been a second line? I thought it had something to do with.”

“Duadel,” says Crowley assuredly, not entirely paying attention.

“That’s not a real place,” says Anathema, just as Aziraphale says, “Wasn’t that destroyed in the Flood?”

“It’s right under the fields of whatsit, Armadillo. Armageddon. Meggido.” Crowley shrugs and takes another sip of wine.

Many roads will take you to either Heaven or Hell, but most doorways available to its employees run on the same circuits and are tied to the same celestial and occult switches, respectively. Any demon can apply for a hell-portal pass, and then there’ll be Form 66A, to specify location and duration and so forth, and then they’ll stick it into the same perpetually-malfunctioning system as the rest of them. There are plenty of old abandoned doors that go in, and the humans find them at times – those bogs where you shouldn’t travel or you’ll never be heard from again. Hell, however, does not have an emergency exit (it does have a sign that reads, In Case Of Fire: Just Burn), and if the portal circuit blows an infernal fuse, which it often does, you’re stuck. It is, naturally, a lot easier to get into Hell than out of Hell.

Conversely, as one might expect, it is a lot easier to leave Heaven than get back in. You can exit the office Upstairs by globe or staircase or escalator, or you could open a window and fly out, but the windows of Heaven don’t open from the outside – you’d have to head back down to Earth and then take the elevator back up. Any angel can get Upstairs with the proper rites and the right Words, as long as there’s someone willing to let you in on the other side of the portal – but they will frequently pull the emergency switch to lock all entrances and temporarily close off all teleportation, especially in case of passing alien spaceships or particularly gruesome wars on Earth.

In any case, a key to the underworld is a convenient thing to have, and there’d been enough going on at the time, that the Powers of Hell had never bothered asking Crowley to close this one up. He, in turn, had made a point of knocking the matter into obscurity, and for a while had found it a convenient back door with which to sneak out of the office as quickly as possible, and an excuse to stop in Italy or France on his way back to England. He'd gotten out of the unfortunate lockdown of 785 BC by jumping through his door in a hurry while everyone was fighting over the main exits in those last few seconds before a blown fuse left all the demons of Hell who had any reason to visit Earth, shoving one another in single file up the staircase and out onto the surface. The portals that lead in and out of Hell don’t follow the laws of physics, because Hell doesn’t either - wouldn’t want any human with a shovel falling in by accident - so it’s not like the closed door was blocking anybody’s way.

“Hence the name,” says Crowley. “Er. God's great Kettle of Fire. I didn't name it,” he adds lamely.

“Oh, lovely,” says Aziraphale, a nervous false smile curling his lips as he clutches his wine glass a bit too tightly. “We’re all going to be sacrificed in the fire then, is that it?” Aziraphale tries to be open-minded in all things, but he had a difficult time coming to terms with voluntary book-burning, and an even harder time with the implication that they are still playing with fire and have no roadmap to consult on the matter.

(“But Agnes must have known I meant to burn the book,” Anathema had attempted to console him. “I bet the rest was full of garbage. She wouldn’t have wasted time writing something she’d seen me destroy.”)

“Can’t jump to conclusions, though,” says Crowley, who feels his stomach clench oddly under blunted waves of alcohol at the image of Aziraphale being sacrificed in a fire. “Like those two motorbikes covered with salt.”

“Yes, I suppose somebody may have emptied a few salt-shakers into their seats,” Aziraphale suggests dubiously, brows furrowed under his politely amiable expression.

“No, I only meant – were they anything important, or just, wrong place wrong time?” Crowley begins.

“Throwin’ salt over yer shoulders?” roars Sargent Shadwell at the same time. He has just started on another Guinness, insisting that it’s his wedding and he doesn’t see why he should need any fancy Southerners’ drink. His faint beer moustache is almost the same colour as his shirt. “There’ll be nae talk of the dev’l’s work at me weddin’.”

“Of course!” and it’s Aziraphale’s turn to be abashed and cast around for a change of subject, “Newton! What have you been up to, since your time in the … army?”

Shadwell makes a noise of disgruntled disinterest and returns to staring into the eyes of his new bride, who does her best to wipe away some of the beer before offering him another slice of wedding cake.

As she watches the happy couple, Anathema has an oddly relieved look in her eyes.

Newt turns an odd pink-puce colour and mumbles something vague about moving back with his mum to be closer to his new job, which it was very nice of Mr Crowley to provide.

“You got him a job?” Aziraphale exclaims, surprised.

Crowley looks suddenly guilty. He wasn't being nice – he just needed an actual human agent who was a bit more with it than Shadwell, and Newt seemed desperate for someone to tell him what to do. Not to mention, ready to do just about anything for someone who could help him keep a computer from exploding at his touch. “Not a big deal, really. I was already in their system, er. Changing some things around.”

“What sort of things?” asks Aziraphale suspiciously.

“Money, mostly,” says Crowley. “Donations kept ending up in salaries. But we can talk business some other time. It’s a day of celebration.” The sardonic edge that he would ordinarily put into such a statement, twists sideways as he meets Aziraphale’s eyes and it feels like one.

“Oh,” says Anathema, catching the look, “must be nice, to be out from under your bosses’ noses. You looked so uncomfortable, standing three feet apart in front of them.” To be fair, anyone might look uncomfortable in front of their bosses amid an attempt to avert the apocalypse.

Aziraphale opens his mouth to explain that they actually hadn’t been a couple until very recently, quite a long and fascinating story really –

Crowley very gently steps on the side of his foot and says, “It’s brilliant, yeah,” seductively raises a dainty piece of wedding cake on his fork, hovering just before the angel’s lips. Aziraphale bites his lip and flushes faintly, and accepts in slow motion, eyes brimming with affection.

About twenty minutes later, Aziraphale gets out his fiddle, and when Shadwell complains about his Southern music, asks what he would like, only to receive a blank and taken aback expression. Eventually, the angel chooses an old Scandinavian tune that he'd originally learned in Northern Lapland, flashing the groom a benevolent smile as though daring him to challenge the geography of its origins. Newt dances with Mrs Shadwell, who guides him firmly along, though he's never actually danced in a public place before either.

 

 

TUESDAY

THREE HOURS UNTIL THE END OF THE END OF THE WORLD

 

“You needeth to know what?” Beelzebub, Lord of Hell, buzzes indignantly into the chipped red paint of the turn-dial phone in their infernal office.

“If I szzay no, wilt thou kill him?” The Lord of Hell is spinning the phone cord around their free hand – like a human twirling their hair while talking to the demon who had tempted them into Lust, Dagon thinks, obscured by a wide barrier of broken filing cabinets. She bites at her smirking lower lip, trying not to rattle the drawer of her desk.

Beelzebub is buzzing too intensely to notice that they are not alone. “But could it be arranged?”

“I szzee.” The whole phone is vibrating with an emotion that probably isn’t annoyance. “Yeszzz, Gabriel, I love thee.”

Indiscriminate excited buzzing, like a feast of lovestruck flies over a carcass, rings through the cluttered office and rattles the unstable desks, spilling stale coffee onto the surrounding paperwork.

“For szzience purposes. I understand. No, I wouldst not lie about zat.”

The Master of Torments is unable to stifle her chortle as she slips out the door behind Beelzebub, and is promptly attacked by an angry swarm of black-headed flies, gnawing furiously at her scalp as she hastens toward the escalator. Lower demons in the crowded hall bow gawkily and collide with one another as they part to offer the her a pathway.

“Yesz, alright. Three p.m. We shall deal with zat when the time comeszz.”

 

-

 

“Gabriel’s gone and withered all the avocado trees of Meggido, as you must know. But it’s Uriel. When she saw that our two… predicaments had gone and married one another, there was actual lightning coming from her eyes. I was worried that she’d start a fire in the filing room.” An observant human might notice that water is sliding off of one of the figures by the river as though - well, from a duck - and a small chink of sunlight has opened in the smoggy rainclouds over their head. On the whole, however, considering how rarely they frequent the Earthly realm, they think they’re doing an admirable job of blending in.

Though their companion has no such fortune with the drizzling rain, she appears unbothered. A pool of murky water beneath her boots has turned a greenish-brown colour as though an uncleansable quantity of murk and slime and other demons’ blood has accumulated in her pores. “I expect she’s just upset. They were close, right? The traitor, I mean, and your – well, all of you, really, but Uriel in particular, hmm? I don’t suppose you sully your celestial temple with alcohol.”

“What do you mean, close? And absolutely not.” The ducks of St. James’s park look ready to declare a holy war over who will get to consume the tiny scrap of heavenly manna floating on the choppy water. Michael tosses another piece of manna into the river, where the birds are confused but pleased to find their foodstuff split off into enough portions to feed all the birds in the immediate area.

Dagon had been offering the ducks broken-off crumbs from a package of stale hobnobs that had been sitting on her desk since her last stint on Earth in the previous decade. The same particularly large and demonic-looking duck repeatedly lunges for her crumbling, probably duck-toxic offerings; its feathers have begun to morph from dappled brown to pitch-black. “Well, don’t tell me you weren’t itching to smite Lord Satan again. I don’t pretend to understand the whole familial closeness thing. But you were training overtime – don’t lie, you’re the angel here. Do you sully yourself with smoke?”

Michael gives her a piercing look. “I’m not sure I follow. No, I most certainly don’t.”

“You and the Boss. It’s personal. You cast him down once, and you want to do it again. You could be family more easily than forget him completely. Smoke is just air, really. Like breathing in incense. Angels do incense.” She tosses another piece of biscuit to the duck, whose eyes are beginning to glows slightly red from consuming food that had sat in Hell’s infernal air for so long.

“It was my godly task from the beginning. And your boss deserved it. We don’t, actually - that’s priests. Or witches. Or Aziraphale.”

“That’s what I meant. Whether He’s your nemesis or your brother - you would sooner get drunk with Lord Satan than ignore His existence entirely. I’m the Master of Torment - I do the manipulation thing. I know how this goes. It doesn’t matter if they love or hate each other, your angelic siblings can’t be normal enemies like you and me. Humans used to burn weed in their temples. It’s a temple thing.”

“It’s a sacrilege thing," Michael begins, and then, as the demon's words catch up with them, “which I might like to try. I might like to imbibe smoke.” Mind reeling, the archangel does not to let any emotion slip into their voice, wondering how much information they can get out of Dagon in these last few hours remaining to the planet, without alerting the demon that they have absolutely no idea what she is talking about, and also whether sullying their sacred vessel with cannabis will keep their human pulse from leaping in their chest in such an unprofessional manner (5).

“Angels should say please,” chides Dagon, grinning wickedly at the ease with which she has just tempted her previously stubborn archangel acquaintance to the devil's lettuce. Maybe some small good – bad, that is, but the enjoyable kind - might come out of this post-Armageddon mess after all. And there was time to kill, after all, while Lord Beelzebub arranged everything else.

 

-

 

(1) Crowley had by no means endorsed the name. He’d been interested in the occultist named A. Crowley for obvious reasons, traded a few ideas, made a few arrangements, bought another soul for Hell, and not thought much of it.  He was a bit of a git, but they’d had some intriguing conversations.  “I had a premonition,” said the human later, when asked about the last-minute title change to a ritual inspired by a conversation with A.J. Crowley, and also enhanced with a demonic miracle. He waved his arms in a sweeping gesture, a wild look in his eyes.  “I thought strongly of the angel Israfel. Your words reminded me of him. I could not get it out of my mind.”

Crowley had groaned and buried his face in his hands, but Liber Israfel was already in print by that point, with reviewers calling it “An infpired must-hav for the serius occultift.”

(2) The angel’s computer is the strictly non-magical sort, which exists entirely for doing his taxes and for calculating complicated celestial equations in the ordinary mathematical way.  The old machine’s slowness was irritating at times.  But Crowley was, naturally, responsible for the ever-spinning ouroboros of doom on the loading screen, forcing you to look into the irritating vastness of Eternity until your media is ready - and after he’d learned this, Aziraphale had found it sort of endearing rather than annoying, and couldn’t be bothered to update to something quicker.

(3) Aziraphale was never a fan of Puritans in general.

(4) All but the life-plant, anyway. Aziraphale rather wished that its empty plant-pot didn’t need to grace the centre of their barely-unpacked living room, but he understands that, in a manner just beyond his comprehension but nonetheless important to Crowley, this is a sort of benediction of their new home. So he doesn’t say it.

(5) About an hour, quite a lot of unexpected information, and numerous polite exclamations of surprise later, Michael also discovers the munchies and learns to imbibe a (vegan) burrito.

Chapter Text

TUESDAY

THREE HOURS UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

 

Let’s be honest: the only logical excuse for a great deal of the bullshit that passes for quality of life on Earth, is that the realm of Healing had been gifted to an angel who was undeniably Fallen, but still kinda cared, at least insomuch as the circumstances allowed them to care, which wasn’t much, and at least as much as anyone can care once they've seen a few millennia, and whenever they weren’t too drunk. Did you have a better explanation?

Oh, here’s another: War was shaped into the personification of a beautiful woman, beloved by everyone she meets, so that humans would not have to take responsibility for the gruesome reality of war.

War is War, and Crowley is Healing, but Healing fallen flat on their face, healing inverted, the bit of the ouroboros right where teeth meet scales.

And you can’t have a war without War, no matter her origins, which is unfortunate for anyone who wants one because she’s currently seated at Anathema’s kitchen table in front of a stack of nineteenth-century grimoires, a complicated arrangement of pendulums and amulets, about half of the necessary ingredients for the Salve of Medea, and two half-empty mugs of tea. Her sword is sheathed on the table, untouched by either of them, like the unspoken promise of a truce.

But to explain how she got there, we’d have to back up a couple hours.

Anathema has found herself drawn irresistibly back to documenting all evidence of celestial interference with natural phenomenon, and the success of her most recent experiments in occultism. When going through newspapers isn’t mandatory anymore, she does it anyway, a dull but comfortable pattern, a familiar sort of meditation that she hadn’t realized she could miss. And so when she’d completed her diagram of the snails seated in careful mandalas in her frigid autumn garden – had they gravitated there because of leylines, or just snails being snails? – she journaled a few notes on her conversation with Pepper a few days prior.

But if War is masculine imperialism, why is she a woman at all?

Another early-morning round of Liber Israfel had left the witch feeling lightheaded and a bit giddy.

(“Absolutely not spying,” Crowley had guaranteed her wryly, “plenty of more important things to do, do you have any idea how many of those rituals there are? Making deals with demons to fire up your pagan rites was very popular for a few centuries.” And he’d given her the cheat codes.)

Anathema was wearing an ugly but comfortable flannel skirt, and a warm and even uglier knitted sweater that had been a gift from her grandmother, and thick fuzzy socks, because although witches on television are typically clad in aesthetically pleasing clothing, it was a frigid, rainy autumn morning, and the pockets of the skirt were deep enough to hold two entire grimoires, her phone, several runestones, and a mugwort amulet. The quilt from her bed was wrapped around her shoulders, trailing over the back of the chair.

If I were War, I wouldn't go around starting wars in places where people don’t want them. I’d look people in the eyes and say: war isn’t my fault, it’s yours –

Anathema frowned with concentration, tilting her journal up in her hands to read her last few sentences aloud again.

A great clattering noise like a drawer of silverware being ground in a grain mill rattled the window frames, as the wind whipped rain and yellowed leaves against the glass. Anathema hesitated, gaze flitting from window to window. Her witch instincts indicated that something deeply powerful had just occurred.

This is another way of saying that her cottage is situated in a quiet area of Tadfield, usually void of traffic, and at least two noisy vehicles had just approached the usually desolate backroad at the same time.

After nearly three seconds of hesitation, Anathema detangled herself from her blanket and tiptoed to the window – where the commotion transpired to have been the roar of a motorcycle engine and the clatter of the International Express delivery truck wheedling around the corner at a moderate 25mph, radio whining scratchy through the open window.

Said I’m running but I take my time, a friend of the devil is a friend of mine…

His encounter with death had changed the Delivery Man. The acquaintances he’d met on his quest to understand these existential experiences, had very particular taste in music, and seemed to lack a proper British fear of toadstools.

War dismounted from her motorcycle before the open gate of Jasmine Cottage.

Anathema pulled on her coat, not for the cold but for the breadknife stashed inside, and cracked open the door.

“Bit’ve a last-minute situation,” the Delivery Man was saying, “but that’s the job, innit. When duty calls, we deliver. Packages, that is. Good thing I live in the area, eh? Lovely day we’re having. But if you’d please sign here, Miss.”

War was already endorsing her delivery on his clipboard, package held under her arm.

“Funny ol’ weather we’re having,” the Delivery Man chattered on, pulling up the hood of his raincoat, “Didn’t expect all this rain, but I’m sure it’ll clear up by tomorrow, that’s the way it goes.”

“I’m sure it won’t.” War's smile was sharp as a papercut. She thanked him again, adjusting the box in her arms. Anathema recognized the clear trill of her voice, burned into her nervous system on that day at the airbase.

The delivery man tipped his hat beneath the hood of his rain jacket and looked both ways twice before crossing the vacant street. The Grateful Dead on the radio carried the red-and-blue- striped International Express van around the corner and out of sight.

Anathema descended the steps of her home in slow motion, water dripping from the edge of the roof and running down her back, hand poised over her knife. Shit, Agnes, she thought, I’m sorry, ok? Can you send something, anything? Even a joke. A joke would be fine.

There was no response.

“Oh good.” War's elegant sneer widened as she catches sight of the outline of the weapon. “I’d hoped it would be you.” She was already prying open the cardboard box to bring out a familiar blade. She left the weapon unsheathed, but weighed it thoughtfully in her hand.

“You were destroyed,” said the witch.

“Course I was destroyed,” answered War indifferently. “Stabbed you with a fiery sword, you'd be destroyed too.” She was barely two feet away, at the bottom of the steps, and yet somehow she felt so much taller than Anathema.

At least her eyes weren’t dripping blood.

Raising her bread knife with a steady hand, Anathema tried to remember what she’d been taught about which vein to hit first. It had looked fairly easy, last time. If a ten-year-old could do it, not a big deal, right?

“Oh, hon, put that thing down. You summoned me, remember? I'm not here to fight you.” War’s laugh was like the clatter of a thousand daggers, but Anathema got the strange but relieving impression that they were not aimed at her.

Catching herself before she could say, I didn't mean to summon you, Anathema instead went for, “Of course.” She lowered the knife but did not immediately put it away. Whatever was going to happen if she let War leave this place, was probably worse than whatever will happen if she invites her inside.

There was long, rain-soaked pause, which War appeared to be relishing.

The storm made pools and rivulets of water in the flagstone path. Anathema pulled her coat more firmly around her.  “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“That sounds great,” said War. Her hair was almost as red as the warning painted on a nuclear missile. “It’s been a long ride.”

Inside, War took in the room with an easy half-grin, kicking the mud from her boots.  The walls here no longer held omens of the apocalypse, but rather pressed flowers from the local woods and the occasional report of dubious celestial activity.

“Sorry it’s a mess,” Anathema apologized instinctively. “I wasn’t expecting company.”

“No problem,” said War. “It’s been a weird month.”

Anathema considered asking where precisely War goes when she returns In The Minds Of Man but doesn’t quite know how to phrase it. Anathema herself wouldn’t particularly want to be In The Minds Of Man. “War. Do you go by War?”

Carmine had been easy to find, retrospectively.  The trail of a suspiciously prompt journalist presence in each new War zone, was actually pretty clear, if you already knew that War rode a red motorcycle.

“War is fine,” said War. They both know that after watching her vanish into a cloud of darkness at the apocalypse-that-wasn’t, Anathema would have a hard time thinking of her as anyone else. “Nice place you’ve got here.”

“Of course. War. Thanks. I’m Anathema. Didn’t really get a chance to introduce myself before.” She approached the electric kettle without turning her back to the other. "There’s black tea, or green, or nettle. Or holy basil, or…"

“Whatever you’re having.”  War did not immediately sit, but stood back with her arms crossed. “I don’t believe you called me here to make war in Tadfield, Anathema,” she stated finally, and all at once the witch was forcibly reminded that she was speaking to someone who, not too long ago, tapped into every military on the planet in order to bring about global nuclear warfare.

“I had some questions for you.” Anathema hoped that if she could prevent War from leaving this room, at least she couldn’t bring an unexpected Tadfield Civil War to Adam’s peaceful village. “About... war.”

 

-

 

It’s over an hour – and conceptually, a discussion of the ethics of an apocalyptic end-battle, and at least three separate but equally true answers to Anathema’s fundamental question, how does War choose where to go next? – later, when Anathema’s phone alerts her to a message from Dick Turpin.

It is witch instinct that makes her take this one.  She thought they’d parted on good terms, after a decently amicable discussion of their own philosophical differences, and of the unfortunate human tendency to jump into relationships impulsively during the stress of an apocalypse.  But Newt isn't the sort of person who you get in touch with when the living embodiment of War shows up on your doorstep.  She'd figured she would contact him if there were another computer to break, or if her death in the Lower Tadfield Uprising seemed inevitable, but until then, he'd probably only worry.

War takes another sip of her tea, gazing out the window in unconvincing disinterest.

A few minutes later, Anathema sets down the phone with her heart floating unpinned in the black hole of her chest. “I think my ex has been attacked by angels,” she says very calmly, as the world lurches unpleasantly beneath her in a manner that it really hadn’t when Agnes had been providing the roadmap and the impending apocalypse was inevitable regardless of her actions. She wonders frantically if any of the other burned prophecies might have referenced this scenario. “He didn't deserve it,” she clarifies, “and I don't think he knows any other occultists.”

“We can take my bike,” says War.

Anathema hesitates.

“No wars, promise,” says War. “It’ll take you forever to get into the city and back on your bicycle.”

“Promise?” Anathema asks, eyebrows slightly raised.

“Cross my heart. I can control it, you know. Never had one war at the office when I was in journalism.  You can hold onto the sword, if you like.”

Anathema decides it’s probably rude to ask someone if they have a heart, even if they aren’t technically real. She nods once, and puts on her coat.

“Why is he listed as Dick Turpin in your phone?” War asks.

“Because he interrupts important moments,” sighs Anathema, and feels immediately guilty for it. But she’d actually been quite enjoying the other’s company, and regarded their conversation as an entertaining, if incredibly high-stakes, academic challenge. There’s no time to dwell on it, though, because War is already pulling her leather jacket back on and heading for the door.

Anathema could swear there hadn't been a second helmet waiting on the back of War's motorcycle before.

Three minutes later finds them swooping around narrow corners in the winding back roads of Tadfield, Anathema clinging to War to keep herself balanced in a manner that she would never have considered earlier in the day. The wind whips red hair that smells faintly of gunpowder across the witch’s face.  War turns back to look at her, sometimes, the motorcycle steering itself safely without her attention.

As they speed between narrow lanes of London traffic at a terrifying speed, coloured lights blurring on the edges of her vision, Anathema realizes with a sceptical, floating sort of wonder, that she doesn’t have to keep asking questions about the philosophy warfare in order distract War from starting a war in London.  War already appears utterly unconcerned with anyone but her.

 

 

MEANWHILE

TWO HOURS UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD 

 

When Aziraphale had purported not to open a new bookshop, Crowley had gone through several stages of are you sure, and a place near the cottage could miraculously open up any time you like, and finally landed at well then where are you going to put them all?

Via a tiring but pleasant cycle of miraculous packing, napping (more accurately, snuggling under the guise of needing to regain their strength after all that miraculous packing), miraculous unpacking, and more napping, the angel and demon have transported the majority of their belongings. Crowley’s collection of electronics from slightly different decades that do exactly the same thing, Aziraphale’s collection of five different editions of each of the same old book, and also the bed, have all been relocated, in the hopes of closing up shop today and moving for good. Aziraphale’s more precious books are all neatly miracled away onto the bookshelves that line a majority of the walls of their new cottage.

Meanwhile, the first and only sale in the history of A.Z. Fell & Co. makes Aziraphale fret and wring his hands. Though he knows that reducing the prices of certain volumes that he isn’t reading and doesn’t need, is the charitable and angelic thing to do, it’s still an uncomfortably naked feeling. He makes up for this nerve-wracking experience by giving most of the remaining volumes away to anyone who’d been staring at them longingly, so that at least his angelic soul is soothed by the excitement and gratitude that begin to hum pleasantly through the half-empty shop.

(Adam’s post-Armageddidn't first-edition children's books have been set aside to give to him next time they see him, which the angel very much hopes will be under better circumstances than the last occasion.)

The angel does his best not to hover too much over the humans who are enjoying their purchases, but he finds it just as difficult to sit back and watch politely. Though he keeps reminding himself that this was, in fact, his idea, still, the empty spaces where books used to sit leave an awful hollow in the pit of his stomach.

“Aliens,” one customer nearby is explaining to his companion. A copy of Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality is open in his hands. (Crowley had been the one to slip this volume onto the shelf some decades ago, but as it had already served his purpose by causing Aziraphale to make his adorable angry face, it had been relegated to the sale pile.) “An alien invasion. They made half-alien babies and then destroyed them. It was on youtube. That’s why that Enoch guy was said to ride off on a fiery chariot, same as Elvis.”

“Spaceship,” says the other human. “Like the one last month.”

“Yeah, just like that. They left the mushrooms - you know, the ones in the Garden of Eden - that’s why all the mushrooms have…”

“Alien DNA,” his companion agrees, nodding.

Aziraphale clears his throat discreetly but isn’t sure how to even begin to go about correcting them (1). He’s always wary of humans who wear trenchcoats outside of detective films.

In the distance, through the dusty windows they see it: a flash, like a bolt of golden lightning, as an angel makes an unnecessarily dramatic entrance to the city some distance away, wings spread. A trail of bright electrical energy stains the sky behind them.

“Alien chariot,” says one of the humans knowingly.

“Oh, bugger,” says Aziraphale, before he can stop himself. (Swearing, he's found, is unfortunately one of those things that gets easier after the first two tries.) Angels landing in the city was not on his agenda for the day. They only do that when they have some reason to not care about secrecy. That’s how they landed in Gomorrah.

This isn’t good.

Or rather, this is absolutely the worst and most inconvenient and potentially threatening sort of Good.

“Surprise closing,” Crowley announces sharply, stepping in through the front door. He’d left the shop about an hour prior, muttering something vague about slashing car tires – Aziraphale isn’t sure if this is an actual diabolical instinct or just a bit of self-preservation after an undemonically love-oriented week, but he had nodded and pecked a kiss on his lips all the same, and told him please be back by lunchtime. “There’s been an emergency. Um.”

“Alien invasion,” Aziraphale puts in helpfully. “Take the book. Lovely doing business with you. Out you get.”

The two humans take the situation very seriously, nodding solemnly to Aziraphale as they exit the shop. Crowley glares around at the others, who immediately remember that they have places to be.

The door swings shut and the Closed sign appears in the window with a wave of the angel's hand.

Please tell me that I was joking, dearest,” says Aziraphale tiredly, rubbing his temples and flitting his worried gaze from window to window. “We’re not about to have another Heavenly interference? Was that Michael or Gabriel out there just now?”

“What?” Crowley frowns distractedly, but approaches the Angel and drapes an arm around him as he peers out the murky windows; Aziraphale leans gratefully into the contact. “Gabriel,” Crowley says. “I mean – no idea about that, but I think he’s gone and blinded Computer Boy. I’d asked him to let me know if there was any sign of Pestilence – er, that was kind of why I'd got him that job, really. They’re doing some research with Pestilence crawling out of the arctic – I mean, with the plagues they brought with them, obviously – anyways, Bicycle Girl’s just informed me that he’d meant to send me an update, but apparently, he wasn’t able to get in touch because there was a strike of lightning and a heavenly light and a bunch of feathers and then he couldn’t see at all.”

“Dear Lord,” says Aziraphale.

“I didn’t ask whether there were pigeon droppings involved. I don’t want to know. But whatever, I told them, lucky I’ve got an angel here, and you’d sort it out, right?”

“Of course,” says Aziraphale, giving him one of those looks you give someone you know very well when they’re going so far out of their way to keep from making something weird, that they end up making it weirder. “No problem at all.”

Right up until Crowley had outed himself as the Fallen Archangel of Healing, it would have been fairly normal for Aziraphale to ask Crowley to cover a few minor healings for him, and Crowley would have said, “Yeah, sure,” and maybe doubled the quantity of healing miracles just because he could, but still got the whole thing attributed to Aziraphale. Unfortunately, healing has now become like that embarrassing concert t-shirt that you pretended you were wearing as a joke and suddenly don’t want to wear in public when you can’t laugh it off anymore (2).

“I’ll get the car,” says Crowley.

 

 

BEFORE TIME

 

“To make them not poisonous,” Uriel repeats impassively, surveying the pearly-white walls of Heaven’s Greenhouse, where careful pieces of elderflower stems are laid at an odd angle on a sterile white shelf, tied there with string. They raise their eyebrows at the contraption.

“Every time I try to make them easier, She goes and poisons them again,” Raphael explains. “You’ve got to leave it sitting around and dry it out, until it gets less toxic. And then you can make into medicine.  And as long as they extract it properly, it shouldn’t poison them.”

Twenty different species of thyme are neatly divided into pristine trays. Vervain and ground-ivy grow interspersed with palm trees and cacti in a manner that should not be able to naturally coexist. It looks more or less like the Almighty says that Her garden will look, except that some plants are in early design phases with no stems or roots, and all are divided off into tidy containers.  Raphael works in hypotheticals – the behind-the-scenes setup for a dramatic week-long stage production.  Have everything in place, so that She can pull back the curtain on day three.

“Very creative,” Uriel commends politely.  These human-shaped forms take some getting used to: the gold marks on the archangel’s face are still as fluid as a spiral of liquid starlight, moving as though alive, and they keep casually opening deep brown eyes on their arms and hands to see better.

They both like to play dress-up with these new bodies, Raphael and Uriel, in ways their siblings can’t be bothered with – but where Uriel is solemn and gold-adorned as the living embodiment of Heaven, Raphael’s blue wings and red hair make a pattern like fire against their white robes, and their eyes swirl together shards of color like stained glass.

But take a look at this one.” Raphael lifts a rue bush in its immaculate white vessel beside a taller snakeroot tree, and holds it out. The plant’s leaves are properly blue-silver now, the colour of their wings, not the dull green-blue She’ll ultimately choose.  “What d’you think?”

It's an empty pretence, words falling blunt on ringing silence. They both know it. It’s long since Raphael and Uriel have casually shown their work to one another, let alone co-designed any part of the Universe.

There’s no Time, yet, but there’s a gaping void of space that seems to stretch on for miles, and on the other side, too far to see from a distance, was the point when they’d been closer to each other than anyone else in the budding Universe. Raphael knows when it got there – they even know how it got there - but whether they could have done anything differently is up for debate.

Or at least, it would be, if debate itself hadn’t become so taboo.

Uriel is God's Light. Uriel exists to shine with Her light. Uriel doesn’t stop to think: maybe Her light isn't shining properly.  Uriel created more stars than the rest of them put together, and hung the new sun in the sky, all ready and waiting for their Mother to flip the switch when She’s ready. Uriel has been told that humans will Suffer, and that they’ll be the one to show up and tell them: God is light! Have hope!  But you don’t have to hang bits of light from the ceiling to neutralize the poison in it before using it to heal humans from infectious disease.

Too much light is like Venus, a wasteland of heat, a solid symbol for everything about Lucifer that makes you nervous. Too much Healing is harder to define, but lately Raphael has grown achingly accustomed to hearing themself described as too much.

Uriel politely runs a many-eyed hand through the plant’s curlicue leaves. “It feels sharp,” they say, brown eyes blinking and widening. “In its essence.  Like metal.  It doesn’t feel like Healing.”

“That’s just how it works, though. That’s how She made their bodies to work.  I know what I'm doing,” Raphael chides. “See, they take a little bit, they heal. They take too much, they poison themselves.  Not too badly, with this one.”

The halls for dead souls stand empty and under construction, as the Earth is still being assembled and humans are a new concept that She has not formally brought into being yet.

“Not too badly,” the other archangel echoes stoically.

“But I’ll be there to help them figure it out. Watch.” They hold out their hand to the nearby sweet-wormwood plant and very tenderly pry away a single spark of light, holding it aloft in their palm. “… you take the one molecule out, and it crushes the plague, but it’s too simple, so Pestilence figures it out, comes back,” they stick the single spark back into the leaf, “and when it’s complicated like this, even Pestilence can’t figure it out. Plus, there’s stuff in there to keep it from making the humans throw up.  Their bodies are like riddles.  It took forever to figure out.”

Her divine mystery.”  Uriel gives Raphael a deliberate look that clearly expects them to echo the words.

“Er. Just how things end up fitting together, really,” says Raphael, and they don’t mean to sound dismissive, exactly – but a gut instinct they didn’t realize they possessed, warns them to back out of this conversation before it careens into something worse.

“Gabriel needs you in the conference room,” says Uriel, seemingly done playing along. “There’s been… dissent among some of the Hosts.  Lucifer’s.  And yours, surprisingly.”  They don’t sound surprised.

“Sure,” says Raphael. “Just got to deal with a few things first. Speaking of which, have you seen the Amanita mushrooms? I think She’s gone and taken them somewhere.” The flowering birch tree in the centre of the greenhouse looks naked without them. Its bark is marked with dark crevices that come together in the shape of eyes.

“Why do you need them?” Suspicion creeps into their voice, as well as something that Raphael will only later register as familial concern.

“Uh. No reason.” Somehow, intuitively, they know not to say, for Lucifer. This is an odd instinct because until quite recently that would have been a very normal thing to say. Until Lucifer invented it, also quite recently, lying wasn’t even a thing. And wartime paranoia doesn't exist yet, because war doesn't technically exist either, but even the least observant angel has noticed by now that everyone seems to be taking sides.

“You can’t bring those to Lucifer,” Uriel says, backing up a step. “Knowledge and strength. You can’t bring those to the rebels.”

Raphael doesn’t answer. In the silence where Raphael doesn't answer, an uncomfortable gap widens between them, dark as the side of the Earth that faces away from the sun, waiting for someone to fall in.

“You cannot seriously mean to help him.”

Raphael says, “Why not?”

They actually don’t mean it rhetorically.

They don’t even get to mention that they hadn't meant it rhetorically, because Uriel has already turned and stormed away silently, not bothering to let their feet touch the ground, gold-and-silver-streaked wings spread stiffly as an irate swan’s.

 

-

 

Raphael joined Lucifer. That’s true. It really happened. Or at least, they sort of hung around with Lucifer. At least, if you’d met the competition, you might understand why they preferred to hang around with Lucifer.

If you’d had their siblings, for that matter, you might turn into a snake, as well.

Raphael had shaken the devil’s hand, and so had Fallen. Or at least, Raphael had kind of casually fist-bumped the devil’s hand, and been sort of more on his side than, say, Michael’s, when push came to shove, and shove came to billion lightyear freefall.

But it’s not like they ever intended to worship Satan in place of the Almighty. And some Most Holy types, both human and celestial, just don’t seem to get that. You can, quite frankly, care more about healing people than you care about God – that’s what got so many healers killed in awful ways, with all that Inquisition and witch-burning mess. Some witches are technically Satanists, sure - because unlike his counterparts, the devil is actually willing to help out, as long as you pay the price. More often, of course, humans and celestials alike will use satanism to mean anything not strictly holy or just anything we personally don’t like.

So Raphael says, What’s the big deal? Why can’t there just be a plant that heals the plague immediately – like, one single leaf and it’s gone? I mean, we care about these humans, right, and we’re building their Earth and filling it with all that is godly and good, so why not make it a decent place to live? And why do humans have such fragile digestive systems, anyway? I mean, what’s the point?

Give them hollow bones; they might want to fly someday.

And the Almighty just kind of disapproves their paperwork with an impersonal signature and a brief note at the bottom, like, Please review your Introduction to Humans Handbook, or whatever – which is absurd, because it isn’t as though Raphael doesn’t understand that human bodies are wild, surreal creations full of contradictions and unpredictable genius, but rather, they don’t understand why, or why they’re not allowed to ask why.

But of course, the problem with Heaven isn't Lucifer and Michael getting into such heated arguments that the stars they’d co-created collapse into black holes, and it’s not Gabriel handing out to-do lists almost as long as the Plan itself, or Uriel sending all the hosts of Heaven through seemingly-endless rigorous army training that makes no sense in a world without enemies.  It’s not the never-ending slew of Angelic Performance Reviews and the sheer number of times you have to fill out Creation Permission Form #23 in order to make a minor change to a distant nebula.

No, the problem is obviously Raphael, with their funny-looking reptile things and their celestial chemistry lab where they’re designing something called medicine and making a lot of weird clouds of glittery ethereal smoke in the process, and their long-winded explanations of human physiology that absolutely no one else is interested in, Raphael, don't you have work to do?

One moment, Gabriel is saying, you are making trouble where there is none, with that awful laugh, and their Mother has stopped calling them to Her office. Sometimes She approves their plans with an impersonal signature, but more often their ideas are shut down in creation meetings. Other angels are starting to pretend not to notice when they enter the room.

The next thing they know, Lucifer and Michael must have been arguing again. But this time there is a bruise against the side of his cheekbone, a great purple smudge around the corner of one of his golden eye.  And that is very wrong, because it’s in the shape of a handprint, but angels, as a rule, do not fight and do not hurt one another.

It's a minor injury and such a simple, effortless healing, so why should Raphael’s hand quiver like this?

No one’s ever been injured in Heaven, and so the first time anyone heals anyone, it’s Raphael miracling away Lucifer’s black eye, feeling burst capillaries heal beneath their power, damaged skin regaining its normal state. That’s how Healing actually, properly comes into practical being.

Later, they’ll think that’s where it all went wrong – not just for them, but somehow, where it All went Wrong. Not at the bit with the forbidden fruit, but when the first person the Healer ever Healed was the actual devil in a misguided fistfight. 

But then Lucifer’s cronies are stumbling back down to their basement hideaway, hissing and shrieking in anger and pain, silvery angel-blood saturating their clothing, and instinct takes over. There is a common misconception that healers are soft, which you might believe until you see someone bleeding out and someone else sticks their hands into the blood to heal it. But in practice, as far as Raphael can tell, it’s less to do with soft and more to do with the sound of bones crunching back into place.

And when flaming swords are drawn and blood starts pooling on the spotless floors of Heaven, the angels in Raphael’s immediate vicinity are Lucifer’s, because Lucifer’s people take a more practical approach to being an angel - or at least, so it seems at the time. And more importantly, they don’t shame Raphael out of the room and make them feel like a nuisance. Or at least, they don’t yet.

The first of the archangels was correct on at least one point: it's good to have the Healer on your side.

By the time Raphael can even make it upstairs into the thick of the fight to see what’s going on, the floor is falling away in chunks, and Michael is casting Lucifer off of a jagged ledge. Their fiery sword rends through his unrighteous armour and comes away dripping with blood, the last time that Lucifer will bleed angel-blood. Then Michael aims their foot and kicks.

The future Devil’s form hurtles further and further into the darkness, catching flame like a meteoroid as he hits the new Earth’s atmosphere and sinks away from view.

Raphael thinks, Ouch, and then, Shit, not healing him from that one any time soon, huh?

A few angels try to desert.  Which side?  It won’t matter, in the end, whether they were refusing to fight for Her or attempting to bail on Lucifer, because as they fly away, their wings burst into flame, and then they’re hurtling down with the rest.

Raphael can see someone in the crowd: fiery hair, even redder than their own, an aura that sucks away all the holy light around them into a void. They’re not an angel, and as of yet unarmed. The figure turns and meets Raphael’s eyes through the throng of warring angels, with a dazzling smile that marks Raphael as the opposition.

You. You're the one who will undo my work.

At the time, Raphael still thinks they're going to be around for that.

 

 

TUESDAY

TWO HOURS UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

 

Aziraphale knocks politely on the door of Anathema's cottage, where the jasmine blossoms in the hedge have gone by for winter, and yellowed leaves fall with the rain across the seat of an unnoticed motorcycle. Behind him, Crowley is an anxious shadow, shifting his weight from foot to foot, glaring at the jasmine as though this whole situation is the hedge’s fault. (Needless to say, Crowley has not made any more ventures into plant-communication.)

Anathema opens the door with a hurried greeting and both hands up in a gesture of wait-I-can-explain.

Newt sits on a chair in the corner looking very small and unhappy, wearing a pair of Anathema’s tortoiseshell sunglasses but apparently otherwise uninjured, the Them gathered him around him in a protective ring, while War calmly makes coffee in the kitchen.

War raises her hand from the coffee-grinder to give them a wave.

The angel stops abruptly and then immediately begins to backtrack out the door as and into the rain again, already paranoid that they’ve been tricked into coming here by one or both of their former head offices. Crowley’s hands curl into fists. A few nervous mushrooms poke up in the lawn behind him.

“It’s alright,” Adam reassures the newcomers proudly, stepping forward. The rest of the Them remain around him in a protective ring - less because of the frightening implication of the situation at hand, and more because the Them know that things often get difficult when they are outnumbered by grownups, and the newcomers, however welcome, have tipped the scale. “I can see her aura and it’s not dark anymore.”

It’s greyish, Anathema thinks, like smoke. More of a Timberwolf than Cool Grey (3).

The witch isn’t entirely sure how to destroy War without sending her somewhere worse to cause more damage, but she does know how you unmake an idea: you talk your way out of it. You think your way out of it. You spell your way out of it. That's all spellcraft is, really.

They’ve been talking. Anathema has been taking notes.

If Newton Pulsifer had ever envisioned himself sandwiched on a motorcycle between War and Anathema, it wouldn't have gone quite like this.

Aziraphale presses his lips together and steps hesitantly back over the threshold into the cottage. “Well, this is unexpected. Advance warning might have been appreciated.  And why aren’t you in school?”  This last question addressed to the Them.

“The rain,” Adam says.  “Some electrical wires went down, and they had to send us home.”  It’s true that the weather has gone from ominous to relentless, making the roof an ever-pattering drum.

Crowley barely registers this conversation, gaze still fixed on the living embodiment of War; he moves automatically between her and his angel, half-shielding him.

“She wasn’t responsible, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Anathema says, matter-of-factly, not entirely sure how to signal to the others that she actually hadn’t done this on purpose but is very much hoping that World War Three isn’t about to break out in her kitchen. “I called War here with your ritual. For my own reasons. I was glad she could make it at such short notice. She gave me a ride into London.”

Crowley had been remembering that whole business with Stesichorus after Troy, and had already assumed that War was the guilty party and that he would once again have to covertly clean up her mess (4). But this advancement isn’t particularly reassuring. His yellow eyes flit from person to person, sizing up their posture: no one appears ready to commence the Battle of Jasmine Cottage.

“We’ve met.” War flashes Crowley a conspiratorial smile, as old as that day she'd come into being in Heaven. At the time, he hadn’t realized that she was smiling because she knew she’d already won.

“Yeah, uh, the airbase, with the whole – world-ending thing. Um,” Crowley gestures, “that one. That one stabbed you.”

Beside Adam, Pepper holds the sheathed flaming sword which she’s been given for safekeeping.  She’s taken to her position as the official keeper of her greatest foe’s temporarily surrendered weapon, with all the gravity of a guard attending an ancient battle negotiation.

“Troy,” says War, with something resembling nostalgia, “1243 B.C. I was in the city. I could see you from the walls.”

The tension in the room pulls the air so tight that Anathema’s lungs scramble for oxygen. For one long and illuminating instant, she envisions herself having to stand over Newt and the children, and defend them with her breadknife against an ensuing battle of ancient occult rivalry.

She gets the impression that both occult entities in question want her to feel this way.

“Just trying to stay in the centre of the action,” Crowley lies quickly. Over three thousand years and this fearsome construct of the human collective unconsciousness was walking around knowing what he’d been up to in Greece, and just gone about her business, starting wars in peaceful countries and leaving a trail of bloody footprints, but never once reporting him to either the Dark Council or his prior colleagues in Heaven. It’s a deeply chaotic move that immediately earns his respect, if not his trust.

War’s laugh is like a buried landmine. “We were just discussing the evolutionary origins of warfare,” she explains, with that alluring, guileless tone that had won so many hearts in Troy.  “This one,” she gestures to Pepper, “has been arguing that warfare is a result of childhood socialization and not a universal human occurrence, and does not exist in societies which lack a fundamental concept of aggression.”

(“Yes, but you are aggressive, Pepper,” Wensleydale had protested, remembering his broken spectacles on the day they’d first met.

“That’s what I mean,” Pepper had said, very seriously.  “Socialization.”)

“I really don't mean to intrude on your sociological discussion,” Newt begins testily. When Mr Crowley had gotten him a new position as a wages clerk, Newt had felt powerful, like an agent in a James Bond film – similar to the vague implication of purpose he’d felt when driving off to Tadfield in his kind-of Armour of Righteousness. All he had to do was alert Mr Crowley to any suspicious financial activity, and keep an eye out for a strange-looking person, similar in appearance to a terrorist in an airbase which he’d once seen in a dream but who Anathema insists was real.

(Anathema’s the kind of person who always insists that people in dreams are real. He wishes that particular dream had been real, though, because he’d definitely done something heroic that makes even less sense the more he thinks about it.)

“Of course,” Aziraphale puts in reassuringly. “We’ll get this all sorted out. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. I’m afraid my previous employers may have some, er, alternate standards of morality. But why today, of all times, I do wonder.” He half-addresses that last statement at Anathema, casting an uneasy glance at the sheathed sword with a sinking feeling like a comfortable armchair being pulled out from beneath him all at once.

“Because it’s Tuesday.” Newton Pulsifer has always had terrible luck with Tuesdays: lost jobs and blown fuses, live mice in his boots. This particular Tuesday had soured when been about to alert Mr Crowley that the suspected terrorist had been sighted, when a man in an impeccable beige suit had stepped out of a nearby office, spread wings, raised a hand and brought down a bolt of lightning. Later, he’d thought it was strange that someone who Anathema claimed was an angel had been surrounded by flies.

Aziraphale can’t help but to find this absurdly, inappropriately ironic, and politely masks an unangelic noise of amused surprise under a noise of sympathy, and Crowley finds it incredibly amusing that Aziraphale finds this so amusing, glowering proudly beside him, and Newt is baffled that he’d made a throwaway barely-joke and these two nonhuman entities probably find this so amusing, although it's hard to tell when all you know is a chortle out of the disorienting darkness.

It might not be a coincidence that this is most peoples’ least favourite day of the week. If you’re going to make a calendar with seven days in it and assign an archangel to each day of the week, and then conveniently not notice that one of them is Fallen, you’re pretty much asking for trouble on Tuesdays. The wifi always goes down on Tuesdays. Trains are held up on minor technicalities. The queues in the grocery stores go on and on. People stare into the void and contemplate the futility of existence on Tuesdays in a way that they don’t on, say, Fridays (5).

Anathema bites her lip and wonders how exactly she's meant to bring up prophecy number 342, which says that rapture will come on a Tuesday. At the time, she’d thought that Agnes was making another innuendo about Newt, the Rapture having supposedly already passed. Burning the book had felt incredibly liberating at the time. Like cutting your hair off in a fit of despair, feeling ecstatically liberated for a week and then hopelessly wishing you could get it back.

Only, Agnes had predicted Anathema’s darkest moments already, and so she'd always had the hair dye on hand instead.

“Right,” says the demon, uncomfortable, and deep down really hoping this wasn't his fault. “I dunno what to tell you. Honestly, I didn’t expect any of this mess, and Heaven probably had some sort of vendetta against you already, but you did take occult assistance from a demon of Hell.” (He's going to have to get used to saying Freelance Demon of the South Downs eventually, but it doesn't roll off the tongue in quite the same way.) “Well. We’ve got a bloody angel here and everything, it can be dealt with.” Don’t overwhelm him by asking about Pestilence quite yet, Crowley reminds himself.

“Oh, dear,” Aziraphale frets, with a very obvious hint in his voice, “I suppose I could miracle his sight back, but if only I knew someone who was particularly good at that sort of thing.”

“Well, your lot had one, didn’t you? Got him crucified,” Crowley counters, thinking frantically, not here, not now, still watching War warily out of the corner of his eye. It’s one thing to be a little proud of your prior career in creating the universe, but another thing entirely to heal someone, publicly, undisguised, in a room full of people who know you.

“No, I’d meant…” Aziraphale’s shoulders twist awkwardly as he looks at the demon sideways.

“Ngk.” The demon winces, cornered. It is, objectively, a little selfish to want Aziraphale to waste so much celestial energy on something Crowley could do with minimal effort.

The deal with Tobit’s eyesight is that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, an average miracle. Heavenly miracles are regulated a bit like government regulations on agriculture and trade. It doesn't matter how objectively easy or difficult it might be to perform a particular miracle. If it's something that Heaven thinks shouldn't be happening every day – say, healing the blind, raising the dead – they'll tax it, energetically speaking. There are certain miracles that Heaven won’t approve more than once every few centuries, which apparently has something to do with increasing the humans’ sense of wonder, even if it’s not actually any more complicated than making a motorized scooter fly through the air or relocating a small herd of goats a few miles down the road. And just like organic agriculture, a thing that should theoretically be the easier option is made twice as difficult via the sheer number of bureaucratic hoops that one must jump through in order to practice it. Hell doesn’t think to put those sorts of restrictions in place, because demons don’t heal people unless those people have first bargained away something more precious than their health. They have no reason to.

Crowley isn't under Heaven's jurisdiction anymore – energetically beyond their reach, so to speak - and he also has the benefit of being a snake. Snakes don’t blink, which is a distinction that matters if you’re Crowley. Seeing is Crowley’s thing – the mystical fruit that opens up your eyes to knowledge, the unblinking serpent coiled around the tree, saying, open your eyes.

Crowley snaps his fingers.

A few sparks fly into the air. Newt’s eyes look suspiciously yellowish and snakelike beneath the sunglasses when he first blinks them and tries to focus, before resuming their usual grey-brown.

This is not, strictly speaking, precisely what Aziraphale might originally have expected if someone told him that he was going to have the honour of watching the archangel Raphael healing the blind. He casts Crowley a grateful look.

“Gosh,” the human says, as he takes Anathema’s sunglasses off and folds them in his hand, reaches for his own glasses, and realizes that he neither has them nor needs them. He’s blinking quite a bit, maybe in awe at the miracle, maybe in bewilderment at the whole situation, maybe at the sudden brightness of the room. “You are... like Jesus.”

“Eh, he had his own style. Give it a minute…”

Newt, who had been attempting to stand, decides that this is good advice, and sits heavily back into his chair. He lifts a hand and waves it in front of his face. “Wait. What do you mean, you knew each other.” Newt is pretty sure there’s something kind of spiritual, for better or worse, about these two – people – who he definitely met on the day he met Anathema, but all he can really conclude is that it’s a relief to have his sight back, and that he’s definitely in… something… over his head.

“Er. We met. Few times, really. Kind of colleagues for a bit.”

“But Crowley!” Aziraphale exclaims before he can stop itself. “You didn’t say you’d been so close.”

Crowley looks away and mumbles something like “Iwthpfvhgfcbvd.”

“Come again, dear?”

“That, actually was me, ehrm. With the. At the. Pool. Of Bethesda. I mean.”

Aziraphale’s eyes widen.

“We got drunk afterwards, that’s all, with his boyfriend. And a couple times again after that. Until I – no, until he bloody asks me to backstab him in the name of the Great Plan. Pious bastard.” But his voice is wistful and fond. He turns back to Newt. “Oh, wait... Can you read… that bit of paper over there the wall by the cabinet?”

Newt easily reads the entire soup recipe pinned to the cabinet alongside the stove on the opposite side of the room, handwritten in painstakingly small text. “Hang on,” he says, when he finishes, looking dazed, “I know that handwriting.”

“She stuck it inside the last book. It’s not a prophecy,” Anathema puts in quickly, half-defensively. “It’s a family recipe. Everybody keeps those.”

“Hang on,” Crowley says, returning the focus to Newt before Aziraphale can turn the conversation to Agnes’s soup, “Can you… wait. Angel, can you point out something red and something green.”

Aziraphale points to two different tiles in the floor.

Newt opens and closes his mouth a few times. “I didn’t know those were different colours.”

“Well, isn't that wonderful,” says the angel. “As I've always said, some small good can come out of the most trying of situations.” Some part of him feels intrinsically sad that Crowley can heal other people’s colourblindness but not his own. But as Crowley had phrased it when he’d possessed Aziraphale’s corporation: hey, my hair looks great, look at that - oh bless it, your eyes are so boring, they can’t even see heat properly - how do you even see anybody’s temperature like this? So maybe his words are perfectly true after all.

“But Crowley,” Aziraphale says slowly, having just worked this out in his head, “it was you doing those healings there!” he wants to say, you never really entirely gave up on Healing, did you, “a friend from the theology department at Oxford owes me ten pounds, but I’m afraid I’m over a century too late to collect it.”

“You were betting against me.”

“Technically, I was betting for you, dear. I wanted to believe you,” Aziraphale says, drawing the words out deliberately. “But I know you too well for that, you sly old serpent, even if I didn’t know why you were lying. But tell me, please – ”

“Don’t say it, don’t say it. It was sloppy miracle-making. Hell were catching on. I didn’t want to get caught. I did get caught. I think we have bigger things to worry about here.”

“What do you mean, you got caught?”

“You get in actual trouble for doing Good?” asks Anathema, intrigued, trying to picture it.

“Oh, yeah. First-degree offence.” Crowley really doesn’t like the look that War is giving him, and offers an approximation of the same look back at her from beneath his sunglasses. “Made some excuses.”

“Wait,” says Newt, sounding a little dazed, still blinking repeatedly and staring around the room while in the back of his head fumbling to reconcile we got drunk with his boyfriend with his limited memories of Sunday school, “are we talking about literal Hell here?”

“It’s a bit of a complicated situation,” says Aziraphale.

“Simplest thing in the world.” Crowley rounds on Newt in one fluid motion, feeling rather bad about it, because the poor guy is clearly having an overwhelming day. “You’ve got your eyeballs functioning again, and your computer that doesn’t blow up. We need a location on Pestilence – if your eyes are up to it,” he adds graciously.  The rain is beginning to set Crowley on edge, a constant white noise like fingernails scraping at his ears.

Newt is still flexing his fingers in front of his face and examining microscopic details in the texture of his skin that he’s pretty sure shouldn’t be visible to the human eye. The world feels overwhelmingly sharp and bright.  “My – er, it’s not my eyes. And they were somewhere in Siberia, I think?  I thought it was strange, because we hadn’t hired them properly.  This person you told me to look out for – there was a photo of them doing something with a three-hundred-year-old corpse.”  Newt had thought they looked a bit too happy about it.  “They sort of just appeared in the wages database, er, for the excavation of – it was an old smallpox grave under some thawed permafrost.  It’s fascinating, actually.  But not my department,” he adds, a bit wistfully.

Newt has exactly one computer that doesn’t explode at his touch – which Mr Crowley says is because of satanic sigils arranged into the hardware of most computers, interacting badly with the stars under which he had been born.  Newt had thought he was a bit mad - and no wonder, if he's an acquaintance of Shadwell’s – but the computer with all sigils rearranged, has never had the slightest electrical problem.  Its screen is now disorienting clear.

Newt finds himself accepting the cup of coffee that War offers him, stumbling to thank her too many times.  He waits for a moment, but no one rushes forth with accusations of poison.  She's added a bit too much sugar, but the hot liquid seems to steady his lurching nervous system enough to locate Chalky White in the wages database.

“Those are the coordinates of where they’re working,” he says at last. “I’m sorry that’s all I’ve got.  Funny location.”

“I’m sure that’ll do it,” says Crowley, both thrilled and mortified that Aziraphale is giving him a doe-eyed like he’s a superhero about to jump from a window.

And he’s almost starting to feel like one, when all at once, both demon and angel are hit with the psychic equivalent of a chorus of very loud doorbell being rung repeatedly against their skulls.  It's strong enough that the former stumbles and grabs at the wall to steady himself.

They’d both spent a decent amount of time and energy and miracle on thoroughly warding their cottage against potential threats.  No supernatural entity should be able to get in, be they from Heaven or Hell, with any specifically ill intent against either of the cottage’s owners.  But just about every non-human entity on this planet or off it, seems to have something against him, and somebody is definitely inside.

Their human audience looks on in confused concern.

“Right,” says Crowley again. Occult forces breaking into their new home before they’d even had a chance to finish properly unpacking, had not been what he had in mind.

Oooh, if they dare touch his plants.

“Angel,” Crowley hears himself say, “Stay with the humans. I’m just gonna check on some things.”

“I'm not going to leave you to face them alone,” Aziraphale begins, an edge creeping into his voice.

“What's going on?” ask Anathema and Adam at the same time.

“Stay with the humans,” Crowley says, anxiety tunnelling his vision so that he focuses on Aziraphale to steady himself.  He doesn’t say, We can’t leave the kids alone with War, but it comes across.  “Newt here’s had a bad enough day already. Keep an eye on Adam. Let’s not get anyone else blinded. I just want to know who it is, and why they're there, and how they got in. I'll be back in an hour.”

“The humans,” echoes Aziraphale, godfather instincts kicking in.  “Of course.”

 

--

 

(1) Crowley had found vindictive pleasure in inventing fake youtube documentaries. “You don’t even have to tell them things,” he’d cackled gleefully, “humans like to make things up. They were just waiting for a nudge.”

(2) Crowley does own a t-shirt from the live tour of Todd Rundgren’s 1981 Healing album, which he’s never once worn in public – in this case, not out of embarrassment but out of the fear of his former head office reading anything into it, because he certainly wasn’t involved.

(3) Anathema is the descendant of the smartest witch ever to live, and of the engineer who first invented the device, and it’s in her blood to be innovative. When her mother first caught her doodling on The Book in coloured pencil, she’d needed to come up with a good excuse for it. Important occult research on the subtle colour differences in auras, obviously. She had expanded her system to include crayons, and then self-named combinations of crayon.  Sometimes you come up with a good idea for the wrong reason: Anathema has never met a truly threatening Outrageous Orange, but if she spots an Unmellow Yellow in a crowd, she knows to head the other way.

(4) Contrary to popular belief, after being struck blind for insulting Helen of Troy, Stesichorus hadn’t regained his sight by composing a poem of praise to make up for it, but rather because Crowley happened to be in the area and knew that Aziraphale was a fan of the man’s poetry.

(5) Sunday has its own type of despair, even beyond the bit about being a day of rest – Michael is always there to remind you of how much work lies ahead of you this week, as any principality could tell you.

Chapter Text

HALF AN HOUR UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

 

The Bentley steers itself around potholes like lakes in the country road as its windshield-wipers battle with the frenetic rain. It’s an unpredictable storm, even for England, and Crowley's is the only car on the road.

The utter stupidity of humans, drawing their own apocalypse down on themselves without outside help, the demon thinks absently to himself, as he parks the Bentley in the shadow of the garden wall. Dragging up Pestilence and shoving their planet’s weather-patterns through a leaf-blower.

Lamplight beckons from one window of the cottage. This is a bad sign; they hadn’t actually set up any lights inside yet.

Clouds shroud the noontime sun, creating a gratifying dark-and-stormy-night ambience. Enjoying the feeling that he’s in a human spy film, Crowley slips in through the unlocked door of the cottage and rounds the corner like a shadow. A headache is clouding the corners of his vision; the rain is made of railroad-spikes rattling through his skull. The air pressure bears down on his skeleton as though his very bonemarrow is imploding, but that’s nothing new: England’s never had a good climate for a snake forced roughly into the shape of a human.

Whatever the demon had expected from the intruders, it wasn't Dagon and Michael in his living room, seated on Aziraphale's plush sofa, between the night-blooming cereus and an aloe plant that grazes the ceiling. The former is seated as calmly on his sofa as if she had been invited and has helped herself to a drink from one of the bottles they'd left out on the table the previous evening, while the latter looks dangerously close to touching one of the plants.

They shouldn't have been able to get in if they had any ill intent. That's the only possible loophole in the psychic barriers around the dwelling. Should have hung up some more wormwood, Crowley thinks grumpily, it might not have been the strongest of amulets but it would have annoyed Michael.

He pauses in the doorway, considers fleeing, and strides casually into the room. “Thought I told you to leave us alone,” he snarls, with what he hopes is an effective impersonation of a fearsome rebel demon with inscrutable motives and unpredictable esoteric powers. The pattering of precipitation is dampened by the thick roof of the cottage.

Michael’s gaze is as keen as though all their eyes were open at once. Their face is obscured by the dim light from the rain-soaked windows and the ominous glow of a lamp that does not exist, but the gold markings that vine down the side of their face sparkle as brightly as though lit by daylight. Crowley had seen them on the corner of his vision at a few key biblical events, and there was that near-miss in Spain, but the last time Michael had been actively paying him any attention, he was being scolded for live-streaming the Eagle Nebula on his Heavenly Communication Device while the other archangel was conducting a lecture on Heavenly Host Training Decorum.

“Nice place you’ve got here.” The Master of Torment and Lord of the Files looks much too relaxed. “You must be aware that those goats are the rightful property of Lord Satan.”

Crowley gambles that no matter what the archangel may think of him now, they would not approve of a hierarchy where Crowley bows to Dagon. He doesn’t bow.

“They were sacrifices meant for the great and fearsome demon Azazel,” Crowley counters. “I just grabbed them early. This is tresspassing, you know.”

“No need to get upset, Crowley. I’ve promised this one that I won’t hurt you.” Dagon jerks her head pointedly at Michael. “Today, at least. And if they were going to smite me, they might win. Sit down.” Her tone leaves little room for argument.

Crowley never exactly had rank in Hell. He had not-rank. He had the autonomy necessary to arrange most of his own work schedule and the respect required to skip important meetings and get away with it. (He’d been skipping important meetings and getting away with it for aeons before the Rebellion, and wasn’t about to change that because of a Fall.) He’d still grovel pretty hard if he bumped into any higher-up in Hell’s pecking order in a bad mood. After the Rebellion had failed and Crowley had continually backed out of his offers of lordship in the underworld in favour of staying aboveground, Satan had lost patience with his questions. The King of Hell appeared to like Crowley almost as much as a Medieval monarch likes that one harmless-but-lawless brother who you probably should have assassinated a lot sooner to keep him from threatening your throne, but couldn’t quite bring yourself to do it because he stays out of your way and yells at trees in his spare time. In short, Crowley respects Dagon almost as much as he respects the gang of lower demons who stand guard around her in Hell, oozing slime and beating their maces against the floor, and they aren’t here.

They haven’t promised me anything of the kind. You must understand: you’ve both conspired to execute me once already.” Under Michael’s shrewd gaze, Crowley's skin crawls with the violating impression that his whole body is being held up against a silhouette of his former self and has been found wanting.

“I only want to talk.” The archangel is still a statue, perched on the very edge of their seat, ready to spring up at the slightest provocation. Their immaculate steel-grey suit looks sharply out of place against the threadbare embroidery of Aziraphale’s couch. “It may be to your advantage. Or at least to… your husband's. May I ask where he is?”

God makes no mistakes, and all, but even with the observation files, until today Michael isn’t sure what they’d have expected from their Fallen sibling. Falling changes anyone; that’s the point, really. Except, if you’d met Beelzebub when they were in Heaven, you’d have expected them to end up Fallen, and you’d probably have even expected the swarm of flies.

“He's outside of your jurisdiction,” Crowley responds stiffly. He's starting to wonder how things might have gone differently if everyone who only wants to talk could have wanted to talk before the almost-apocalypse.

“Sit down,” Dagon repeats, clearly enjoying herself too much, gesturing to the bottles of his own alcohol that he and Aziraphale had left out on the shelf the previous evening. “What will it be?”

Crowley is still standing back with his arms crossed, scowling apprehensively at the Master of Torments. “Don’t even dislike you, per se, I just got a lotta bad memories, yeah? Some of which involve thumbscrews. Nothing personal.”

“No hard feelings.” Dagon is the only one whose sharp-toothed grin can rival his own, and it says, audibly, you are not getting out of this. “We all do our jobs, Crowley. Vodka, or – ?”

Crowley weighs the careful balance between numbing the existential panic currently joining forces with his headache, his legs which don’t seem interested in keeping him upright much longer, and the necessity of not letting his guard down in front of these two. The perk of being an occult entity unbound by the laws of physics is that you can usually get away with cleverly purporting to lean against the wall when you’re actually resting on the wall as though it were the floor. The humans wouldn’t do that, so they don’t notice.

Michael and Dagon would notice.

Crowley snaps his fingers to drag his throne out its place behind a stack of packing-boxes and sits. He pours himself a brimming glass without waiting for her to finish offering him his own drinks and leans back in a deliberately casual manner that isn’t casual at all. “Do I have the right to remain silent?”

Judging by the looks on their faces, neither angel nor devil has ever watched human television. Crowley sighs, painfully aware that there is nothing he can say that will not get him into deep trouble with one party or the other. “Well, go on.”

Michael is sizing him up shrewdly. They need to be in the know at all times. Michael knows how to organize a war; they are their own Intelligence Agency. “Your smile was different, last I saw you.”

Michael isn't stupid, and he really really can't afford for them to know that he isn't immune to holy water, or Aziraphale to hellfire. “Proud moment, you know.”

“We can clear Aziraphale’s name,” Michael proclaims crisply, getting to the original point, instead of I've been recently informed that you are a demon and I'm trying to reconcile this knowledge with a file of Heavenly paperwork and a slew of human anecdotes to the contrary. “If his motive were love. If it was not his intent to betray Heaven. Certain allowances might be made. He could come home. Provided it was true.”

Crowley knows that this is a bargaining chip and a legal technicality, not a kindness. Michael's not the sort to be kind to demons or traitors, but nor are they the sort to allow legal action against a being of love for being in a mutual, love-based relationship. Michael’s primary hobbies have always included splitting hairs over the Rules, and disregarding said rules completely themself.

“Are you asking me to prove that I’m capable of love? Is that it?” he begins slowly, catching on. Do angels really not know how offensive and invasive that is? “I don’t think he wants to go back to your home any more than I do.”

"Have some respect, Crowley," Dagon reprimands, clearly having a good (well, pleasantly bad) day. She's always appreciated a good scandal. "The angel is trying to negotiate. Certain... evidence has arisen," Dagon had relished the look in the archangel's faintly-inebriated eyes when she'd shared that particular piece of gossip earlier in the day, "that the discussion of love in the Demons’ Guidebook may not be wholly accurate.”

“Well, yeah, obviously, it's just a guidebook, right? I wrote the book, it’s not exactly set in stone.”

(That is an exaggeration. Crowley had written several chapters, but he'd had nothing to do with the chapter on love; that had been Asmodeus, who had some pretty blatant bias against happily partnered lovers, and had updated it with even harsher terms after the incident when he'd returned from a surprise check-in with Lord Beelzebub to find that Sarah had married Tobias behind his back and sailed happily off to Nineveh with her new husband.)

Michael's lips turn upwards as though his words have already answered their query. Alright, if you had told Michael that Raphael was a Fallen angel, maybe they would have expected to find him in love with another rebellious angel. “Your little stunt was admirable, but he may feel differently after the Final War is over.”

“When’s that?” Crowley asks.

“Hard to say. The battlefield is being... cleared.”

“Battle commences next week,” puts in Dagon. “The twenty-first of October, at 9:13 in the morning. It’s symbolic, you see?”

Crowley’s heart literally stops beating.

That is how this will end. I was going to offer to vouch for Aziraphale's place in Heaven in Eternity, as he doesn’t have a proper supervisor.” Michael gives Crowley a look which implies that Heaven failing to replace him after the Great War had somehow been his fault.

“How benevolent,” Crowley agrees, a sardonic tightness to his lips. “I must ask.  Are you actually intending on, you know.”

“You know,” Michael parrots with feigned incomprehension.

“Oh, smiting each other and tossing somebody’s broken body down into the pits of Hell.”

“We will be. War will be there.”

"Summoned her again, have you?" asks Crowley neutrally, swallowing the last of his drink to cover any shift in his own expression.

“She hasn’t reported yet,” the archangel admits. “We’ve been… unable to locate her.” Michael turns to Dagon, half-questioningly.

“Wasn’t my people,” Dagon replies gloomily. “We had the same problem. Attempted summonses being rejected. No one seems to know who’s qualified for that sort of thing.”

They both look at Crowley.

“Wasn’t me,” he grunts disdainfully, wondering whether it’s worse to let these two descend onto Bicycle Girl in all their colossal occult rage when they discover what she’s done or to take credit for her effort and face her displeasure once these two are through with him. “What’s it to be, then?” he questions with determined impassivity, refilling his glass. He may never have the opportunity to drink again. “Nuclear war?”

“A divine interference,” Michael clarifies. “My boss isn’t happy. Your humans destroyed the Four Horsemen and immediately they've brought another one out of retirement. Gabriel has negotiated with the Almighty and convinced Her to put an end to it. It was quite a challenge to appeal for an audience with Her. Without Pestilence, it couldn’t have happened so smoothly.”

“Not my humans,” Crowley corrects quickly, thinking: stupid, stupid, if he’d just gone and dealt with Pestilence instead of getting preoccupied with homeownership and marriage and human field agents, maybe this wouldn't have happened. But the demon really can’t afford for either Michael or Dagon to know that he considers the ex-retired Horseman his own nemesis. He keeps his expression neutral beneath his sunglasses.

“Armageddon would have stopped it,” Michael explains, and Crowley is dismayed that they sound like they actually believe themself. “The humans failed their test. It’s all been arranged. This storm will become a Flood, quick and clean, and then it’ll be over, and the Earth will be cleared for the Final Battle.”

“Better not,” says Dagon, who isn't smiling anymore, “last time you lot did that, the whole Upper Circle of the office got flooded. I thought it was going to be fire. We talked about this.”

From Michael’s mild expression, you almost wouldn’t know they’d been purposely keeping this information from their acquaintance for several hours.

“Better not,” snaps Crowley, hopelessly searching for some means of denial, but already viscerally aware that she’s telling the truth and that he should have recognized the divine headache. Not unlike how he’d felt in Aziraphale’s body in Heaven: a sort of coarse pain of proximal holiness that can’t quite injure him, still reminding him that he’s wrong and unwanted. “I just got married, you know. My car got brought back to life. Humankind just didn’t get destroyed. I bought a cottage. We were going to make wine.

Michael frowns, unimpressed. “You can make wine from water.”

“Yes, but we were going to make it from grapes – ” Crowley sighs. He looks around at his verdant indoor garden, genuinely glad, for the first time in his Fallen existence, that he won't be able to hear his houseplants’ screams as they drown. I would have tried again, he realizes, with a repulsive, blessed sentimentality that would make Aziraphale proud. I would have tried to explain myself, I would have at least said goodbye if I knew everyone was going to be dead by the end of the day.

How would that conversation go, Crowley muses wryly: Michael, sorry if it’s a bit awkward, but I seem to have been stripped of God’s holy Grace, having a hard time getting in touch with plants these days, do you think you could give me a hand?

His eyes flit calculatingly from shelf to shelf, trying to guess which volume Aziraphale would prize most, once the rest are underwater.

“You’re telling me Lord Beelzebub agreed to this?” Dagon sounds more put out than enthusiastic about the battle she’d thought she was waiting for.

“But Lord Dagon," Crowley begins with all due subtle sarcasm, counting that whatever Michael's purpose, they’re presumably no more on Dagon's side than his own, “You must have been consulted. Don't they keep you in the loop Down There?”

“If you two will excuse me – and whether or not you will – I think I'll be off. Drainage to oversee. Don't you try anything, Crowley, or I'll tell the boss you invited this archangel into your little house to conspire against him. I will.”

“He must know you've been fraternizing,” Crowley says tiredly, his brain churning muddily in his skull. “You were plotting executions together already. Also, I caught this whole exchange on camera. The human kind. They're triggered by the occult alarms on the doors.”

Dagon makes an awful face and exits with a pointed, “All. Hail. Satan,” directed at the other demon.

He feels his body relax by a fraction of an inch when he hears the front door snap shut behind her.

Michael hasn’t moved.

Really?” Crowley asks, wondering how long it will take them to guess that there are no cameras. “I can name at least five ways to get rid of Pestilence without drowning everyone. Stab them, for example, or drown them in sage, or for that matter, slip a bunch of penicillin into their tea,” Crowley had been more than slightly responsible for Pestilence’s early retirement, and the immediate results had been repulsively demonic-looking enough that he couldn’t even feel too guilty about it. He does not suggest: heal everyone so they disappear. Michael can’t know about that one.

“I had to get rid of her,” Michael explains.

“So there’s no Flood?” Crowley straightens on his throne.

“There’s a Flood. We’ll be underwater within thirty minutes.”

“Thirty – ”

He turns and snarls at her sharply with his head in one of his favourite demon-forms: something like dinosaurs could have been, at least, if they’d had yellow eyes the size of pie plates and blazed with hellfire behind three-foot-long snake fangs (1).

“Does that work on the humans?” Michael inquires, unfazed.

“Most of them.” The demon slumps back against his throne, buries his face in his hands, then lifts his head again to glower at the archangel from beneath his sunglasses. “Don’t tell me you came to warn me.”

“No. I will be blunt...” There is an odd space here, where if they didn’t know him they’d call him Demon, and if it were before the beginning of Time they’d call him Raphael, but they can’t call him Crowley as though he were a casual associate. “I was unaware that you were one of the Fallen.”

“Uh,” says Crowley.

“This is a tremendous breach of security on my part. An oversight. I have miscalculated.”

“You look for what you expect,” the demon offers fairly. Say, a car going 95 mph in central London – it simply can’t happen, and so you might not notice. Over-inquisitive outcast biology nerd flung into the abyss for talking back to God and hanging out with the wrong crowd? Nah, that wouldn’t be it. And then you really might not see it, even right in front of your eyes.

“Spain, 1556. You were a demon then?”

“Was I – course I was a demon, it’s not the sort of thing where you get a day off.”

“I had been seeking you to apologize. I believe that before the Great War, I may have been needlessly harsh and dismissive, and if you were not a demon, my words might be said to be cruel.”

“If I weren’t – yeah. Different standards of – communication. Morality. Ngh.”

“You would have made a better associate than Ligur,” Michael allows, “and I regret my networking decisions.”

Crowley knows that this is Michael-speak for, sorry I was an arsehole in Heaven and then tried to get you executed.

And trying to execute Crowley, well, that’s the sort of terrifyingly businesslike decision that Michael was making long before the Dawn of Time – they oversee all the armies of Heaven, can’t expect them to have a lot of empathy for some unknown demon who threw a huge loop in their battle plans. Crowley can forgive just about anyone who’s ever hurt him, as long as he gets a good sulk and grudge-holding first; he draws the line at any threat to his angel.

The demon is already getting in touch with Bicycle Witch; he would be planning on having a serious discussion with his husband about mobile phones and emergencies, but it seems there’s not going to be a planet long enough for that to be an issue.

 

What do you mean, a flood?

A hurricane?

 

No time. Tell Aziraphale he's got

about ten minutes to build you a

boat and gather up two of every unicorn

 

Please tell me you're not saying

what I think you're saying. 

 

 get the kids off the ground. I'll catch up

 

Oh my god

 

“You really have been here too long.” Michael doesn't say aloud, you shouldn't bother, you've already lost here, but they wear that same blithe Who-Is-Like-God? expression that Crowley remembers all too well.

Crowley toasts their words with his drink and takes another sip. He gestures vaguely to the array of bottles in an unspoken offer; Michael shakes their head. “Yeah, right. Celestial… vessel. Not your thing.”

There’s an unsteadiness to his gaze, a bitter self-destructiveness that seems to expand with each gulp of alcohol. They can feel pain crackling through his corporation like radio static, and perhaps that should have been what they expected: the opposite of Healing, is, in fact, being both venomous and in pain.

He internally flinches from their look, because it’s something like pity, and Michael is hardly in a position to be the pitying one here.

“Dagon has been helping me to understand. It makes you dizzy and affectionate and then you have to remove it from your corporation very quickly before it destroys your liver.”

“Dagon needs to work on her communication skills.”

“Those were my observations of her demonstration.”

“In everything a remedy, and everything a poison. You could have said something last time.” He gambles that Michael hasn’t yet picked up on the fact that it hadn’t really been him at all. Get back to Aziraphale, he reminds himself. Just get back to Aziraphale, you can worry about the rest of this mess once you know he’s alright.

“I didn’t know who you were.” Would they have recognized him? They wonder. There was one photo in Rome with a crown of laurel – that was closer to what they would have expected from Raphael. There were numerous images in Rome, actually, spanning a dozen fashion trends and several genders - and if Michael had been looking for Raphael among the Fallen, they might have expected to find them concocting elaborate false backstories for their ancient Roman personas and teaching the Enochians about cosmetics.

“See,” says Crowley, imagining Aziraphale’s earnest smiles as he talks about his angelic assignments, even fully aware that his efforts won’t be valued, “that’s what I really hate about you lot. I mean, so what if I were some lower demon, right, a Fallen principality, and I fucked up your war, you’d have no problem annihilating me then. That’s some Hastur-level thinking right there, you know that?”

Crowley,” they say, and it’s the tone you’d expect from a seven-year-old human reunited with the friendly neighbourhood crow that had flown away years ago. “It's nothing to do with rank. I kept waiting for you to come home.”

“Er,” says the demon, trying to reconcile their sincerity with his memories of Heaven. “You weren’t exactly making it easy for me.” He’s already dragging the alcohol out of his system, wincing as the blunted world comes brutally back into focus, skin crawling with the piercing certainty that this conversation is actually happening.

 

I’ve got an idea.

Really shouldn’t do anything to Aziraphale

just tell him NOT to act on it

 

What does that mean?

 

Don't let War out of your sight

 

??

(seen at 12:28 p.m.)

 

“And I’ve got all of your Host to manage,” Michael adds, before any invisible audience might make accusations of sentimentality. “Not an easy job, you know. You left me with quite a mess.”

If it were Aziraphale, he would mumble, wasn’t like I was trying to shirk my duties as an angel, got on the wrong side of a family argument and got pushed off a cliff into the depths of Hell, not exactly my idea. But that would be willfully handing Michael all his cards. Michael knows everything about everyone; being the wildcard is Crowley’s only strength in this scenario. What he says instead is, “Not all of them.”

He sticks out his forked tongue and vanishes, mycelium splintering through cobb walls and wooden beams, leaving only a perfect ring of Amanita mushrooms in the carpet of his new living room.

Michael is left wondering precisely how many fairy tales originated in their sibling being a bastard.

But they have more important things to worry about now, such as where Crowley has just gone, and what he’s about to do.

 

-

 

You might be wondering the same thing. Crowley has managed to travel nearly a mile underground on mycelium alone, in a pinch, but in this case, he just needed to make a dramatic exit and get two minutes alone on the roof of the cottage, to, well.

If not actually prevent the oncoming War, at least really annoy all the troops of Heaven and Hell. Here is what Crowley knows:

1. The entire planet will be underwater by the end of the day, and they’re up to their ankles already

2. Heaven and Hell don’t dislike each other enough to have a war without War

3. Neither Heaven nor Hell is aware that War is in Tadfield

4. Even if he grabs everyone he cares about and saves them from imminent drowning, they’re not likely to survive whatever Heaven and Hell do to the planet next

5. He almost had a life with Aziraphale. They couldn't give him any time at all, could they?

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck, Crowley thinks, and then: Nothing for it. If we're going down, you’re coming too.

Or at least: you’re gonna get seriously inconvenienced.

He digs through his pocket for the plastic kazoo that has been with him for decades.

Crowley crouches on the thatched roof like a church gargoyle, shielded from the weather by his wings, instrument held to his lips.  He draws a breath, the air tasting of rain and something unpleasantly divine – something that tells him, yes, this flood is the real deal – filling his lungs.

The Call to the Final Battle rings from every corner of the Earth and down to the lowest depths of Hell, where demons find themselves swooning in awe and terror against the mildewed linoleum. In Heaven, angels fall to the floor, struck in amazement and confusion by the ringing of the sacred trumpet-call performed on such an abrasive instrument.  It hums and buzzes like the cry of a prehistoric reptile (2), a wordless announcement vibrating through every inch of the universe.

At Crowley’s second call, all the troops of Heaven and Hell are summoned, unprepared but irrevocably, to the Fields of Armageddon. Heavenly army officials who had barely finished re-filing everyone’s paperwork for the upcoming battle, find themselves unarmed but already falling in line behind Gabriel, who in turn is astonished and more than a little irritated to find himself leading the troops forward in the rain without having put on his armour beforehand. In Hell, Beelzebub clambers to their feet and buzzes “Crowley…!” as they already find themself determinedly marching for the door, thousands of demons already forming ranks behind them.

Crowley changes one note in the middle of the battle-call to leave Aziraphale out of it. This definitely shouldn’t be possible; but because he had decided that it would be, Aziraphale frowns up at the sky beyond the window, where thunderclouds appear to ripple with the energy of thousands of angels making for the Final Battle. He does not follow.

Michael casts Crowley an appalled look over their shoulder as they soar away, inescapably called to the flooded fields of Armageddon.

 

-

 

Crowley flies down from the roof and makes for his car.

This is another way of saying that Crowley flops over the edge of the roof and his wings more or less allow him to soar across the ankle-deep water and clamber into his car before he waves them away again. His whole body collapses into the front seat of the Bentley, humanoid adrenaline allowing him to float temporarily in a detached place where the gravity of the situation cannot quite reach him. The kazoo is still clutched tightly in his fist. The demon stares at it for a moment and finally drops the instrument onto the back seat along with the books he’d snatched at random on his way out of the cottage.

Unfazed by the rain, Crowley’s waterproof watch informs him that Michael was correct: at the rate that the planet is flooding, he’s got just about enough time to get back to Aziraphale before the water level reaches the approximate height of a single-story human dwelling.

In the distance, he hears the goats crying and bleating.

The car stands still, awaiting instructions.

“Oh, come on,” Crowley growls at the Bentley, in a mediocre impression of a heartless demon who doesn’t care that everyone around him is about to die, “You’ve seen worse than this, you’re not giving up on me now.” He makes a deliberate motion at the road ahead. The Bentley roars into action. Its speakers blast Handel’s “Seven Seas of Rhye.”

And though no vintage car should be able to drive through a flood nearly as deep as its tires, still the vehicle climbs dutifully onto the surface of the water.

 

 

MEANWHILE

 

“But won’t you cease to exist?” Anathema had asked. This was around the time that the witch had decided that she was too American to drink tea at a time like this, while Newt sat gripping the arms of his chair very tightly between them.

“I’ll go out with a bang,” said War. “I’ll be everything. A glorious death.” The sort of bloody, triumphant final moment that war has always promised.

“And then you’ll be gone.” Having thoroughly read Carmine Zuigiber’s magazine articles in the weeks following Armagoddon’t, Anathema had found them almost as politically sophisticated as Adam Young’s views on nuclear power stations, or if Brian were to review ice-cream flavours.

“I’ll be victorious,” War corrected. “I will have won forever. I will live on in the triumphant memories of the victor.”

“You don’t care who that is, do you?” Anathema crossed her arms. She noted with distaste that a few poetry books on her shelf have morphed into World War Two history books. Several blunted knives in the kitchen appeared to have gotten sharper by proximity to War’s presence.

“Nothing makes people kill quite like God,” War had said, not directly answering the question, and the gleam in her eye looked positively hungry. “Heaven and Hell will have their real Holy War, whatever happens down here.”

 

-

 

This is how Anathema came to engage War in their current discussion, while Aziraphale wrings his hands and the Them debate amongst themselves as to whether Noah's Ark really existed.

Most academic works on the philosophy of warfare will begin by seeking to define war: as a series of battles, as the state of contending parties engaging in said warfare, as the continuation of political tensions on a physical field, and so on. None of them defines war as having flaming hair like a warrior queen in a television show, and the sort of laid-back spontaneity that Anathema imagines she herself could have achieved in a world without prophecies. Crowley had not taken the time to explain why War must not leave the room, but the witch can make some fairly nice guesses.

“You pride yourself in your pacifism, Anathema,” War is saying with an easy smile that tosses glitter over the subject matter, “But you exist to be casualties of your own thirst for me. You’ve kept me alive for six thousand years, for this reason.” War is a product of everyone’s mind. War is the thought-process of people who wanted to love and to exalt her.

“In other words, we keep you alive,” Anathema is saying, “by undoing your work.”

War shrugs.

“Like your demon friend,” she explains. “I needed a healer. It would be too easy otherwise. I couldn’t let them all kill each other off.”

I was right, Anathema realizes. She does want to survive. She just hasn’t acknowledged her own contradictions yet.

“If there weren’t a final battle to end all war,” she says instead, “and the world still existed, maybe you could come over for coffee again sometime?”

On cue, the Unholy Kazoo drones like the call of an ancient beast against their eardrums. It's a call that's meant to say, God is Good!  but even to her untrained eardrums, the instrument suggests that this isn't really a good thing.

Even War stumbles when the Call to the Final Battle rattles the glass of the windows like a thousand children's birthday parties at once, as everyone’s ears ring with the absolute truth of upcoming confrontation at the fields of Armageddon. She grips at the side of the table, and blood is beginning to well up beneath her fingernails and around the corners of her eyes.

Then War laughs like the clash of swords, but she makes no move to leave the room. “Yeah, I’d like that,” she says. “Let’s wait for this mess to blow over first.”

 

-

 

“Ideally,” the angel hears himself say, “we should start with a boat. I don’t suppose anyone around here has a boat.”

It’s always easier to begin with something tangible and enhance it, than to drag a full-sized ship out of thin air in the middle of the garden. For one thing, although the vessel would miraculously stay afloat, the angel knows very little about ships. He would undoubtedly forget some key features and have to miracle them up later. The first Great Flood had put Aziraphale off of sailing for life – even after five thousand years, he’d never warmed to it.

Wensleydale’s parents, as it transpires, have a boat: the sort of motorboat made for people who don’t understand boats, but want to go in a circle once or twice on their holidays and spend the rest of the year vaguely proud to own a boat.

Crowley would have gotten them to drag it out of the garage with a snap of his fingers and an excuse about time. Aziraphale feels their ominous lack of time inching up on them like the water already creeping over the top of his oxfords as the Them stomp purposefully into the depths of surrounding puddles. But he takes the extra few minutes to let the child explain to his parents that they are about to experience a planet-wide flood of biblical proportions.

Having already lost this point in a debate with the Them and begrudgingly concurred that Noah's Ark must have been real because Mr Aziraphale clearly knows things like that, Wensleydale refuses to back down in sharing this consensus agreement with his family.

And when the situation is getting dire, yes, Aziraphale spreads his wings, wincing at the sound of his torn fabric. He illuminates his halo so that all the humans are bathed in its golden sheen, sends a great vibe of Good Intent at them, and says, “Angel of the Lord, here – I’m terribly sorry about all this, but you simply must get yourself on a boat, and your lovely children as well. It’s tremendously important.”

“Have we been… chosen by the Lord?” Wensleydale’s mother finally asks in a very small voice.

“I’m afraid not.” Something acrid catches in Aziraphale’s throat: Uriel gets to appear unto Noah and say You have been chosen to survive! But all the principality can offer is the ambiguous promise of not-dying-immediately. “But time is still of the essence. I can’t actually guarantee that you’ll be spared when this is over, but you simply must get yourselves off the ground.”

And yes, when it comes down to it, the angel beams at them in a mockery of cordiality, offers a forcibly cheery wave and says, “I really do insist,” in a manner that is not a request.

War offers to help Wensleydale’s father get the boat out of the garage; Anathema quickly offers to help them.

Soon after, a small motorboat whose two-person hold now miraculously fits twenty under its flimsy canvas cover, chugs along just below the level of a windowsill.

 

-

 

From the second floor of his house, R.P. Tyler considers penning an indignant letter about the lack of consideration of the Radio Four weather forecasters to send such a distastefully violent storm to the good citizens of Tadfield.  But the small motorboat, chugging along in the waist-deep water as though it were an ocean, undoubtedly causing all sorts of damage to passing trees, provides a more satisfying target.

R.P. Tyler blinks a few times, but the boat is certainly there, with an altogether unseemly number of people crowded into its small interior, and a gentleman on the deck of the ship is blocking out the rain with wings, of all things.

Worse: Adam Young has somehow acquired a distastefully authentic pirate hat.

 

To The Editor

Sir,

I would like to draw your attention to an inclination of the citizens of this upstanding village to engage in the most appalling of performances. The same young delinquents are, it seems, frequently to blame. To my great consternation, only this afternoon I witnessed a boat floating down the main street of Tadfield in what I can only presume to be a practical joke regarding today's dreadful weather.

In addition to the potential risk of piling upwards of twenty citizens onto a boat of such meagre proportions, and to be parading through an area certainly not designated for boats, I must alert you that this hazardous vehicle was met by a car that was driving…

...across the surface of the water...

 

-

 

Aziraphale has lived through a lot of wretched, deplorable situations: both the sort that God brings down upon humans and the sort that humans bring upon one another. But he never grows entirely used to it. Behind him, Anathema frantically contacts family members who own nicer ships due to all those stock market prophecies, while Newt is already getting seasick over the side of the boat. Adam has named himself captain of the pirate ship and is commanding the Them as they organize a rescue mission to each of their family’s houses.

Here’s something Aziraphale had forgotten about the last Great Flood: the way everyone had laughed. The way no one even tried to survive until too late. That’s the aspect of Free Will that the angel has the most trouble with. And though Aziraphale is tossing out rafts left and right for whoever might be willing to take one, the entire population of Tadfield are mumbling disparaging comments as they lock their doors.  Sirens blare in the distance, but there is nowhere to evacuate to, even if they don’t know it yet.

The angel watches the sky wretchedly as Adam steers the boat expertly down Tadfield’s backroads. Crowley hadn’t actually specified who was at the cottage, or how he intended to get back. Oh, I’ll catch up? Does he think we don’t worry?

Just keep the children safe, Aziraphale reminds himself. Just keep the children...

Warlock.

Aziraphale’s blood turns colder than the rain pelting against his feathers.

Gently shifting reality so that someone finds themself turning around and travelling to wherever you need them to be, is not such a big deal, if you do it right. Vanishing someone is, well, vanishing someone. It’s what demons do with someone who’s in the way. It’s not generally something that angels do, but after intentionally turning his back on Heaven and possessing a human, when there was only a minute chance of anyone surviving the day at all, it had felt comparatively unmomentous. Deciding where someone should go, and then moving them, well, that’s an odd manoeuvre that requires a proper concentration and a detailed understanding of their exact location, and is best done on a day when you haven’t been miraculously moving sofas and re-sizing motorboats. Relocating someone from the other side of the planet is especially complicated, and more so if you have no particular connection to them. But Aziraphale, at least, did raise Warlock – more than the boy’s actual father, in any case.

The snake plant, Aziraphale remembers. His own celestial energy is imprinted there, from the miracle that made it take on the exact appearance of a cluster of snakes; and Crowley’s essence is all over the thing, too. He also knows what Warlock’s room looks like, because the boy had described it to him in avid detail, from the recent art projects that Aziraphale had encouraged him to pursue despite his father’s disapproval, to the snake- and skeleton-themed toys of his childhood still adorning the shelves.

Warlock had been feeding a fly to his snake plant in his parents’ new American mansion, bored with everything and annoyed at everything and glad for the minor excitement of a wild thunderstorm. All at once, the plant appeared to choke on its insect.  It took on a look of surprise, in the specific yet indescribable way that a snake plant made to look exactly like a snake appears surprised when finding itself abruptly teleported across the planet.

Then, Warlock is on a small boat floating alongside the flowerboxes of the flooded main street of an English village that he hasn’t seen since the night he was born, with an eclectic crowd of strangers and an angel with white wings of a span as long as the boat, and a halo, and a suspicious resemblance to his family’s old gardener.

“Brother Francis?” the boy asks, clutching at Wormwood the Snake Plant for moral support. The plant rears up its irate leaves to defend him, widening its jaws.

“Warlock! I… can explain,” says Aziraphale.

 

 

THREE YEARS BEFORE THE END OF THE WORLD

 

Sometimes, Nanny Ashtoreth needs a day off to pour sugar in the salt-shakers and take a nap on the ceiling. And it’s part of their deal that she makes sure to periodically leave young Warlock in the care of his compassionate gardener, to give him a chance to undo her infernal tutorship.

On this particular summer evening, Brother Francis and Warlock are sitting out on one of the many exuberant balconies of the child’s enormous dwelling, overlooking the garden in the sunset. Warlock is wearing the pyjamas with frogs on them that he’d begged his nanny to buy for him (3), and is using Brother Francis’s shoulder as a pillow. The angel chews thoughtfully on a piece of straw as he reads; a small flock of nightingales have settled on the balcony behind him.

“Then the voice which I heard from heaven spoke to me again and said, “Go, take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the earth. So I went to the angel and said to him, “Give me the little book.” And he said to me, “Take and eat it; and it will make your stomach bitter, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.”

Warlock clutches at his unicorn toy and listens intently, eyes wide as bicycle-wheels. It’s heavy material for an eight-year-old, Brother Francis knows, but it’s imperative that the child understand the terrible events that will come to pass if he takes up his place as the Spawn of Satan. And in any case, the angel appreciates the opportunity to experiment with the reading style of his Brother Francis persona.

“Then I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. But when I had eaten it, my stomach became bitter.”

“Ewww.” Warlock wrinkles his nose. “Why’s he eating a book?”

Too many mushrooms, Aziraphale refrains from saying. “He’s not really eating a book,” he explains instead, hoping that this is true – though, having known the author at the time, Aziraphale wouldn’t put it past him. “John of Patmos dreamed about the end of the world and then wrote it down, and that was a very important task that God had appointed to him. So when he says that he sees an angel with rainbows on his head, and his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and a voice like a lion, what he means is that he saw someone who was all these different parts of Heaven and Earth at once. And he took the knowledge into his body so that he could write this book.”

“Oh,” says Warlock, frowning. “But it gave him a stomachache.”

“Well, he was learning a lot of things about the world at once, because he was a great prophet. And sometimes when there’s a lot of good and bad in the world, it can be a lot to take in at once.”

The sight of the first rainbow had given Aziraphale a bit of a stomachache too. He’d expected something a bit more, well, tangible.

“And that is why you must never destroy the world…”

 

 

FIFTEEN MINUTES UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

 

In the wake of the previous apocalypse, the Bentley now cruising across the choppy surface of the water is almost not a surprise for Aziraphale, though he feels his shoulders droop with relief. “Crowley.”

The floating Bentley pulls up alongside the motorboat and bobs there like a raft. Crowley opens the door and slithers clumsily aboard the boat, conjuring up a rope to moor the car to its side. He gives the car an appreciative, half-threatening look, reminding it that sinking now is not an option.

Warlock had grown up with a nanny who would occasionally transform into a huge serpent and conspiratorially hiss shhh, dear, don’t tell your parentssss, so the fact that she could also transform into a roughly man-shaped person in an expensive-looking black jacket that does absolutely nothing against the rain, is slightly less surprising than watching said nanny drive a vintage car across the surface of an ever-rising floodplain.  The fact that Brother Francis would immediately embrace this new manifestation of Nanny Ashtoreth, peck a quick, almost reprimanding kiss against his lips, and cling to him with seemingly no intention of letting go, is also unsurprising.

“Nanny?” Warlock asks, taking a step to the side to remain sheltered underneath the angel’s wings.  Still clutched in his arms, Wormwood’s leaves curl into a smile of snakelike glee.

“Warlock,” says the demon, thinking in the back of his mind that this is the first time his husband has been the one to initiate a public display of affection, and he does it when their kid is right there. “Er. Crowley is fine. I’m glad you got here ok.” He feels something mortifyingly maternal slip into his tone.  The demon glares at the Them and their families, who abruptly turn away and resume their pirate ship enactment, and their anxious grumbling about water damage to their homes, respectively.

Anathema, who doesn’t need a demonic scowl to recognize when a moment of privacy is needed, backs away toward the front of the motorboat, where Adam in Pepper's red poncho is holding a telescope in one hand and an umbrella in the other.

Rain drives at them sideways, whipped by the wind. In the surrounding ocean of wreckage, people are beginning to swim out of windows and grab for Aziraphale's rafts - cumbersome nineteenth-century things which will nonetheless extraordinarily stay afloat. Aziraphale tosses out a few more with a flick of his wrist, feeling lost and helpless as a bumblebee in a tsunami.

Under an umbrella of white wings, Warlock is clinging tightly to Wormwood the Snake Plant, trying to act dignified rather than secretly pleased – because even if the world is about to end, he’d actually missed the people who had raised him more than he would have admitted.

“How was your first teleportation?” Crowley asks fondly.

“It was awesome,” says Warlock.  “And Adam said not to feel bad that I’m not the antichrist, because he’s not the antichrist either.”

“How lovely that you two had a chance to meet,” says Aziraphale, ruffling the child’s hair and thinking dismally that at least both antichrists will be friends when they drown together.  The wailing is growing louder in the distance. 

Adam calls something to Warlock from the other side of the boat, and he scampers away.  Aziraphale miracles a raincoat onto him at the last minute, before he steps out from underneath his wings, and Warlock shouts “Thanks!” as though this were a normal rainy day in the garden.  He’s starting to realize that most children’s gardeners don’t conjure up rain gear out of thin air the moment they run outside in bad weather.

“Nice job with the boat,” says Crowley, peering in at the crowd of the Them and their families huddled in the impossibly small space under the roof.

“Everything’s – as well as it can be, I suppose. Do you know anything more about all this?”

“End of the world,” the demon says flatly. “No survivors.”  Echoing screams of humans beyond the half-submerged trees seem to agree with him.  After collecting each of the Them’s families, Adam has stationed their boat above the garden of his parents’ house; furniture debris and a few rotted apples are floating on the choppy waves.

Aziraphale’s manicured nails dig into his palms. “I did what I could – I got as many as I could…  We’ll… do more, we’ll...”  He lays his head against the demon’s shoulder, and Crowley automatically snakes his arms around his back, beneath his wings, holding him. The angel is standing as stiff as though he were carved out of wood.

“Hey…”

There’s a lump in Azirphale’s throat, blocking his words.  The world has numbed until he can no longer feel the rain on his feathers, and it takes him a moment to realize that this is because Crowley’s wings are shielding his.

“You did great, ok? Fantastic. The best angel who ever angeled.”

Aziraphale realizes, like a horse-kick to the face, that until now he’d still unshakably thought of the Almighty as his boss. Though he knew that Heaven had callously and unceremoniously meant to dispose of him without even a trial, the fact that certain angels could be cruel wasn’t exactly a revelation. If anything, the not-apocalypse had restored his faith that God was still the Mother, and Gabriel just a petty bully. Aziraphale had found it easy enough to come to terms with his current circumstances because he'd convinced himself that She still loved him, loved the humans, loved them all, even if Heaven was a mess – that She must love even Crowley, in Her own way, because hadn’t She clearly intended for them to prevent Armageddon and outsmart their executioners?

And Her grace was obviously a good thing, because it made the world feel good, and because Crowley clearly missed it a bit, no matter his feelings on the Almighty Herself.

It doesn’t feel good now, at all: like a great wailing scream resonating through his whole being, and he finds himself selfishly wishing he could turn it off. There must have been casualties, though it's hard to see more than ten feet beyond the boat. If there's this much flooding, it's killed people by now.

“She broke Her promise, Crowley,” he hears his own voice warble thinly, half-smothered by the heavy clatter of rain.  “She” – he waves his arm in a swooping gesture without lifting his head – “promised.”

Oh.”

“...not to drown everybody again.”

Crowley hisses between his teeth and tightens his embrace, and the pressure makes something inside the angel sag with relief. The demon pulls his wing more tightly over Aziraphale in an instinctive desire to block his angel from God. “Yeah,” he says finally, because there’s nothing else to say.  “She did.”

Aziraphale’s thoughts are eating themselves like a dog catching its tail.  Crowley can hear them anyway.

(“Then give me some credit.  This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it’s not like I was on good terms with Her by that point.”  What he’s trying to say is something like: joining Lucifer was a terrible idea, but I’d still do it again.

“I don’t mean to pry, love.” He could feel his angel’s lips brush a kiss across the back of his neck.  “And I do,” his husband went on, catching his trail of thought. “Give you credit, I mean. For all your – inherent goodness…”

The demon groaned, feeling too vulnerable to protest. The angel’s hands on his wings felt so good that he watched his train of thought fluttering away like so many feathers, vaguely aware that he’d previously been adverse to Aziraphale touching his bad wing for some reason.

“You’re wily, my dear… but whatever you are, I'm one as well. As you said.  If I had been the one to stop the war – if we hadn’t switched – ”

Crowley swivelled his neck at an inhuman angle to face him.  He could see Aziraphale’s hands submerged in his feathers as though dipped in ink.

“I still don’t suppose I could have done anything differently.” The angel laid the last feather of the problem wrist in place.)

“Oh, wait.” Keeping one hand on Aziraphale’s arm, Crowley rolls down the window of the Bentley with a motion of his hand.  He swings around and leans precariously over the side of the boat, reaching for the three books on the back seat of the floating car.  He holds them out.  “I just wanted you to have… something.”

Aziraphale, sniffling, accepts the offering in disbelieving hands, hugging them to his chest. “I love you.”

Crowley spends an uncomfortable few seconds wondering if his angel is speaking to him or to the books. But then those expectant blue eyes are reaching for his own.

“Yeah, love you too, angel.”

“Whoa,” says Adam, sneaking up behind them and breaking the moment, “your aura's got all sorts of colours right now. Like a rainbow over your head.”

Warlock looks suddenly apprehensive in a manner specific to eleven-year-old boys, staring from the angel's wings to the book in his hand, to his foot swung over the side of the boat, dangling over the water. “Uhhhh, I’m not eating that!”

“No worries, nobody’s asking you to!” Aziraphale says hastily, detangling himself from Crowley but not letting go of his hand. “How… meaningful,” he adds, a little sourly.

"There’s not gonna be big locusts with woman faces and scorpion stingers, are there?” Warlock worries aloud. “Those were creepy.”

“Not if we can do something about it first!” Aziraphale is hoping the same thing.

“Nothing to be done.” Crowley clings to the hope that if everyone is to be drowned, at least there will be no need for giant insects. “I'd give us two days at best. Unless Adam here’s been hiding some residual reality-bending abilities that we don’t know about, or old Agnes comes back for a last laugh, or...” He doesn't say: or we make for the stars. He can’t even think it, with Warlock and Adam listening so expectantly.

“Crowley, there must be something we can do...” Desperation edges the angel's voice. The roofs of sheds are being swallowed, whole hedges of boxwood pulled under. Humans are shrieking and wailing in disharmony as they scramble onto Aziraphale's rafts. But his power feels as useless at fighting the course of this storm as if it were lead raining down from the sky.

“So what if we steal a few extra minutes of Time. This isn’t just Heaven and Hell, angel, it’s God. And there’s no reasoning with Her. So if you’re about to say something about interceding between God and humans...” Crowley begins, smarming, his conversation with Michael getting under his skin and making his whole soul lurch.

“I wasn’t, dearest,” says Aziraphale very quietly, and he has that look on his face. “If that’s on your mind, Crowley, it isn’t from me.”

The breath stops short in Crowley’s lungs. He can’t even find a retort to that.

The demon opens and closes his mouth a few times, more defeated than upset. “What d’you expect me to do? Knock on Her door? She stopped caring what I had to say a long time before the Earth was created.”

Anathema groans. “Oh, I can’t believe her. That’s…”

Exactly what Agnes would do.

I told her that a joke would be fine, Anathema reminds herself sourly, resigning herself to gratitude.

“What is it?” asks Aziraphale.

Agnes. She knew I was going to burn the book, so she wrote the prophecy in the margin of her soup recipe. I spent ages and nearly burnt the house down, trying to figure out what she meant by, “Raife the Fyre in the Kettle where the Watter hast Subfided.’ I burnt three pots of soup. I figured that ‘when the demon knocketh on Her doore’ meant that she’d prophesied that you would come over for dinner or something.”

“Well, there we have it,” says Aziraphale, his seasick emotions steadied by the familiar presence of a prophecy. “Agnes hasn’t let us down yet!”

Crowley winces, cornered, trying and failing to find some way to back out of this. “Theoretically,” says the demon, “do you think you’d be able to open the hell-portal at Duadel? You know. Witchily.”

Anathema is trying to believe that someone who has just used the phrase, you know, witchily knows what they are doing. She is already casting around for impromptu occult ritual supplies, grateful for her years in college-dorm witchcraft.  “What, and throw everybody in?”

Crowley tries to look like a person who was thinking that far ahead.  “Well, yeah, goes right straight to Hell, big firey canyon thing.  And you can just make it – huge enough to toss the whole armies of Heaven and Hell down in a hurry, there’s a button to kind of drag them forward – sometimes the goats weren’t thrilled to be there – and then before they can crawl out, uh. Slam it closed.”

“I’m sure we can make it work,” says Aziraphale, even though he isn’t.  “It might help if you gave us the Words.”

Crowley does so, and signs his name with his pen that writes underwater.  The sigil glistens with hellfire as he holds it out to Anathema. “Just put that in the door.”

“Why is it a fancy letter J?” asks Adam.

“Just take it,” says Crowley.

“What’s to stop them coming right back up somewhere else?” Anathema asks suspiciously, taking the paper.

Why don't you ask Agnes, Crowley wants to say. “I guess you could dump coffee grounds into the infernal fusebox,” the demon suggests dubiously, trying to remember what else has worked for him in the past. “Or something worse.”

“What’s my signal?”

“The world’s not flooding anymore.”

“Got it. And otherwise, we...” she makes a motion like drowning.

“Only by God’s will,” Crowley responds with an utterly straight face.

Then, he leaves his human body behind.

 

-

 

(1) A form that he’d first created after St Anthony had described to him some of the demons he’d hallucinated before Crowley showed up to tempt him. They’d had a while to talk about it, and the things that the human psyche fabricates are often far more terrifying than anything a demon would do on their own.

(2) Which, technically, it is.

(3) “I’m supposed to be teaching him to be sinfully greedy,” as Nanny Ashtoreth would phrase it, before buying the child whatever he wanted. “Frogs are evil,” she’d added, half-defensively.