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In The Garden

Chapter Text

…Was darkness. That’s what happens when the sun isn’t up, and as it was almost the middle of the night —the first night, leading into the first day in the Garden of Eden— darkness was only to be expected.

The Great Plan was being set in motion. The countdown to start the countdown to the end of the world had begun. Things were getting down to the wire and the Heavens were in a tizzy to make sure everything went off without a hitch during the official launch.

Down in the Garden of Eden, all was peaceful. This was also to be expected. The only living beings in the entire Garden were two corporeal but unconscious angels reposing among the roots of the Tree. They’d been held in stasis since their incorporation a number of days earlier and weren’t due to wake until things were officially under way. Ostensibly this was to allow them to acclimate to corporeality, but in reality it was to keep them out of everyone’s metaphorical hair.

Of course, even the best laid plans never do go quite as planned, do they?

There was no Heavenly fanfare heralding the occasion, no Celestial sign except the eternal march of the stars across the sky, nothing at all to indicate that something was being set into motion as midnight of the day in question rolled around.

But down in their resting spots, the angels awoke.

The first thing the angel resting on the eastern side of the Tree noticed was the cool comfortable darkness. Awareness slowly spread outward and they distantly took note of the strange ache muffling their thoughts as well as an odd but not entirely unfamiliar heaviness that surrounded them on all sides. What happened? they wondered and instinctively tried to move themself the way they did when non-corporeal, only to gasp and open their eyes in shock when the attempt sent lances of pain radiating from their wings throughout their entire corporation. ...Ow.

They discovered the darkness was not absolute; their resting spot was illuminated by a faint glow, just enough for them to make out their hands when they cautiously lifted them towards their face. They closed their eyes again and took stock of themself, trying to sort out their muddled thoughts. I’m… A Celestial. Part of the Host of Heaven, an angel. And I’ve been… incorporated for some reason? They opened their eyes again and looked around, unable to see much except vague shadowy shapes beyond the range of the light emanating from the single pair of wings furled neatly beneath them. There must be others…

They turned their thoughts outward and immediately noticed there was no pressure against their passive senses indicating the presences of other Celestials nearby. Even the sensation of stray thought-forms sliding over their shields was gone. The angel cautiously relaxed their shields and still sensing no one, sent their Celestial senses outward as far as they could, concerned at how reduced their range proved to be. They still detected no one and they mentally called out, Hello? Is anyone there? but there was no response.

I’ve a feeling I’m not in Heaven anymore.

The angel withdrew back behind their shields and drew in a long shaky breath. Impersonal knowledge, like that gained secondhand from an outdated encyclopedia, rose in their mind to explain what they were experiencing; the scents of moist dirt and plants. Over the pounding of what they understood was their heart, they could hear the greenery rustling as the air stirred, could feel the wind moving over their dew-dampened robes, short curly hair, and the feathers on their still aching wings.

Perhaps I’ve been laying on them wrong. No, that doesn’t seem right. But I’m not sure why that doesn’t seem right. The angel flailed about for a bit before figuring out how to roll over and, after steadying themself for a moment, pushed themself up onto their feet. They stumbled over the uneven ground but a plant-covered wall helped keep them upright.

Inhaling the delightful sweetness of the flowering vines covering the wall of the depression they were in, the angel cautiously stretched open their wings, their primaries brushing the sides of the hollow long before they could fully extend. The radiance coming from their wings barely lifted the gloom in the hollow, but the motion eased some of the ache.

Perhaps I’ve been laying here a very, very long time… They carefully stretched their wings upward, accompanied by the sound of something like sand pattering onto the leaves around them and a little more of the ache eased. Is, was there something I’m supposed to be doing? No, surely someone would have come to scold me if that were the case.

Well, no point in staying in the darkness. Let there be light! They snapped their fingers and a beam of light radiated down around them from a point high above. They took a good look around and finding no sign that anyone else was or had ever been there, furled their wings and began looking for a way out. One part of the depression had collapsed into a gentle incline, and the strong serpentine roots hidden beneath the greenery made it easy for the angel to ascend.

On the western side of the Tree, the angel resting there became aware of the warm, comfortable darkness, and a strange ache constricting their thoughts. Ugh. Where did they send me now? There was an odd but not entirely unfamiliar heaviness and they tried to move themself the way the usually did, but the effort sent shock waves of pain throughout their entire corporation. They hissed out a breath. …Ow.

They rested until the pain receded back into a low-grade ache before slowly lifting their head out from under the dense vegetation surrounding them. It was a relief to discover that the darkness was merely shadow, and they could see with surprising clarity in the starlight-dappled darkness. However their small stature made it almost impossible to see anything beyond the plants growing around them.

They flicked their tongue through the air and the corporation’s instincts named what they were sensing; mostly the scents of the soil and plants around them, but also the faint perfume of flowers blooming far overhead. That triggered a memory: Oh right, I was assigned to the Garden. Lucky me. Didn’t say it was going to hurt. They looked down at the dull dark scales of their snake-like corporation. Didn’t even warn me I’d have to be corporeal.

They looked around at what little they could see and let out a heavy sigh. To their passive senses they seemed to be alone, but they knew passive sensing could be fooled with a bit of shielding as well as simple distance. There’s no way I could ever be lucky enough to have been sent here alone. Right, so, got to be others around here somewhere, just out of range, having a nice laugh at my expense. Well… might as well get it over with.

Using a shielding technique they’d honed to keep themself out of the awareness of the hostile Celestials, the serpent focused on dampening their power signature while carefully extending filaments their awareness beyond the edge of their outer aura. To their dismay, they discovered couldn’t sense very far at all compared to their non-corporeal range. They abandoned being cautious and sent out their awareness as far as they could, still woefully short of even a tenth of their former range, and still encountered no other auras. As far as they could sense, there were neither Celestials or Elementals nearby.

As much as they preferred solitude to the constant derision and sometimes outright hostility of the other Celestials, the thought of being stuck in a small vulnerable body while alone in a place with unknown dangers, was not a good one. Now what?

Well, make this shape stop hurting for one. Maybe moving around’ll help. They began an exploratory slither that revealed they were in a huge mossy plant-filled hollow with no sign of anything but plants nearby. The movement didn’t relieve much of the ache but they kept exploring for lack of anything better to do while they mulled things over. So they sent me here, like this, for what? They said it was a promotion… maybe it’s really a punishment.

When they finally reached a wall they turned to move along it and their chin brushed against the edge of a rock peeking out of the dirt that seemed no different from all the other detritus they’d slithered across. Something was different about it though, because the contact had actually eased the ache for a moment, and glad to have something to distract them from their unhappy thoughts, they experimentally rubbed their snoot against the rock again, then again and again until there was a sharp pain and sudden resistance and pressure.

A surge of instinctive fear jolted though their body. There was a brief desperate struggle before something gave, and the angel bolted away up what they would later realize was the shallow incline of a collapsed wall of the hollow. They hid in a dark crevice beneath a pile of leaf litter gathered between two massive roots.

With the miraculous light illuminating things, the eastern angel quickly discovered the origin of the roots; the gigantic blossom- and fruit-laden Tree whose canopy blotted out almost the entire sky. Seeing the Tree struck the angel with a sense of familiarity that went beyond mere memory into their very soul. They looked around at their verdant but oddly lifeless surroundings in consternation. Where is everyone? Where is… They unconsciously unfurled their wings in alarm as they turned to look around, but the motion sent more lances of pain through them, distracting them from the thought and it trailed away, unfinished and forgotten.

Feeling keenly off balance, the angel took stock of themself in the miraculous light. They were garbed in white linen robes embroidered with golden swirls and they absently brushed their hands over the cloth to magic away the dampness and smudges they’d gained by disturbing the plants. Well, this won’t do. Who thought wearing stark white was a good idea? It’ll be a magnet for every last speck of pollen and dirt! Well, at least I’m comfortable— what’s this?

A golden ring adorned the smallest finger of their right hand. An inexplicable sense of dread formed in the pit of their stomach to see the wingless gryphon emblazoned upon it. They quickly twisted the ring around, trying to slip it off but when that failed to work they pulled hard, gasping at the blaze of pain that shot up their arm into their chest, worse by far than the pain from their wings.

Rubbing at the reddened finger they tried to calm themself, twisting the ring around as they considered. It’s just a ring. Why are you afraid of a ring? There’s certainly no use in panicking. Not that I seem to be able to stop. No, you can’t let this get the better of you! First things first, figure out why your wings are still hurting.

The angel unfurled their wings and curled them forward to look at them, feeling even more frightened by the unfamiliarity of the dull stark-white plumage. But when they tried to recall what they should look like, there was another blank in their memory and they nervously furled their wings tightly against their back and looked around again. I don’t understand… I was… I don’t know, but it seems I’ve been given a new assignment, that much is clear. With a corporeal form, because… oh!

The angel stared about in shock and wonder. This... this has to be the Garden, down in Eden! They carefully moved closer to the Tree, trying to recall more. They knew it was really two Trees; they knew about it and the Garden and the land called Eden, but not how or why it all felt hauntingly familiar. Nor why so many of their memories were missing.

The mindless panic began to subside after a moment and the western angel realized that part of their face was no longer aching even though their chin was throbbing in pain. A distant recollection of snakes shedding their skin had them feeling quite confused. But why would I shed? I’m not actually a snake! A bit of magic and this body is good as new— oi, why didn’t I think of that earlier? They put thought to action and called on their magic to heal the cut on their chin but the persistent ache along the rest of their body was unaffected by the miracle.

What the supernova did they do to me? The serpent contorted around to look at the dark stiff tatters of what was quite clearly not shedding skin, wondering; And what will they do when they realize I’ve broken it?

Doesn’t matter. ‘Snot like I’m going to just put up with it, now that I know I can be rid of it. Course of action decided upon, they peeked out of their hiding spot and tasted the open air, savoring the familiar scents that were almost intoxicating in their richness. They reared up when understanding hit them like a physical blow; the Garden wasn’t just something they’d been told about, it was familiar. But there weren’t any memories to explain how or why it was familiar.

They looked upward, at the Tree silhouetted against the stars, and knew it as deeply as they knew the scents of the Garden. Why can’t I remember? They pushed that worrisome thought away and moved purposefully over the gnarled exposed roots of the Tree until the unnatural covering caught on the coarse bark.

By the time they freed themself of the last tattered patch on their tail, they’d scaled quite a distance up the Tree. Exhausted, triumphant, and at a complete loss for what to do next, they coiled up into a roomy spot sheltered between the two trunks of the Tree. I’m really in for it this time. No point in dwelling on it. The nook they’d found was sheltered from the breeze and surprisingly comfortable and the gentle sway of the Tree soon lulled them back into sleep.

The eastern angel reached the base of the Tree and looked outward, towards the horizon but it was obscured by yet more plants, though here and there a faint glimmer of stars peeked through. What should I do? I was obviously sent here for a reason. The angel found themself smothering a yawn. Probably best I stay here until I can see better. Sunrise is still a ways off.

It didn’t even occur to them to question how or why they knew when the sun would rise.

They settled down on a pile of leaves amid the roots of the Tree and dismissed the light, tossing and turning as they tried to find a comfortable position. Eventually they settled on their back, the leaves giving enough cushion to not not worsen the ache and they stared up at the branches and the occasional glimpse of sky, thoughtfully twisting the ring on their finger.

The darkness and soothing sound of wind rustling through the leaves soon had sleep overtaking them again.

While the angels rested, the night brightened into dawn and flashes of pale blue sky glimmered through the dense canopy of dawn-gilded greenery. It was long past sunrise when a rush of Celestial power against their passive senses startled them both from their slumber.

The serpent reared up fearfully, or tried to, bumping their head quite soundly on the branch above them. They hissed at the upper bough, yet again annoyed with their corporation and themself. Keep that up. They’ll love knowing you’re afraid, they sneered at themself, struggling out of the tight space into the morning light. Huh, could’ve sworn this was bigger. Maybe it just seemed that way in the dark.

They moved toward the source of the wave out of curiosity and a tiny bit of relief. They had made it most of the way around the Tree’s intertwined trunks when one Celestial started talking out loud and then yelling at the other Celestials. They felt a surge of not-very-guilty pleasure that it was someone else being yelled at for once. See how you lot like it. Not so much I bet!

The source of the power and the noise finally came into view and there, washed out by the painful radiance of the gathered non-corporeal Celestials, was the only other corporeal being they could recall seeing. Lucky bastard! Legs and hands!

The angel started awake, casting around with all their senses for what had awoken them. The source of the Celestial magic was lingering beyond the edge of the Tree’s canopy, on the far side of the hollow where they had first awoken, too far away for them to passively sense who was there and caution made them reluctant to try actively sensing too closely.

What they’d recalled of previous interactions with other Celestials had not been reassuring. It was more like the opposite of reassuring. They climbed to their feet and miracled their robes clean, waiting with a sense of trepidation to see what the Celestials would do. When nothing happened they made sure to shift their wings into a more neutral pose to keep their uncertainty and fear hidden before reluctantly moving closer to the spot. When the angel was close enough to passively sense that there were seven of them, they stopped and politely waited for the Celestials to make themselves known.

A moment later the Celestials became visible with a flash of light. The angel flinched away from the painful flash, wiping at their suddenly wet eyes and squinting at the assembly of bright unearthly beings. It took them a moment to recognize the manifestations and process the welter of emotions that followed. Oh… of course it’s them, they thought privately, safe behind their shields before sending out a polite, Hello?

There was an odd hiss then, “…this thing isn’t— ah there we go, that seems to have got it working. So, are we happy with everything so far? Good, okay, so on launch day— Hmm? … No no, Sandalphon, you’ve got it all wrong. I told you, the light and dark thing together is called a day. Days make up a year, Eden circling the sun is a year, not a day, do pay attention. Yes, you would find that confusing, wouldn’t you. Anyway, when the right moment comes, I appear here and I use this spell to wake them up. I give them the whole speech we will have worked out by then, give them the sword and…”

The Celestial speaking had wafted away from the others towards the edge of the canopy, nearer to where the angel was standing and their words trailed away, their projection shifting subtly to display confusion. “What’s the meaning of this?” There was a susurrus and a fluctuation of their radiances as the others reacted to their words.

The angel couldn’t help but flinch, their wings closing up apologetically. I’m sorry, I—

“There’s nothing there! You brought us to the wrong spot! The whole point of this was to make sure I could hit my marks, which I can’t do if we’re not in the right place.” There was a drawn out silence before the audible Celestial responded. “Then go find someone who can figure it out Raphael. I mean, the Elementals can do it, it can’t be that hard.”

The corporeal angel watched and felt one Celestial leave and realized they hadn’t sensed any thought-forms from the Celestials. As often as they’d been excluded from conversations, there had always been what could be equated to whispers: bits of projected thought-forms traveling beyond the intended recipient, accidentally or not. The angel had gotten quite good at blocking them out, but even so, they’d still sensed something. The exclusion had never been so utterly complete as what they were experiencing now. Excuse me? Hello?

Another susurration and the Celestial turned to face the others. “Yes, I suppose it is better to get this sorted out now. Can you imagine what the Almighty will do if things don’t go smoothly on launch day?” A brief pause as one of the others seemed to be asking a question. “Uh, we’ve got three days to launch. Why else would we be here? What? … Well, it’s obvious; day is when the sun’s up in the sky, the night is when it’s not. There was a memo, but I’m guessing none of you bothered to read it.”

Perhaps my shields are too strong and not enough is getting through for them to sense from this distance? the angel wondered, unable to think of another reason why the others hadn’t noticed them standing there. That seemed to be the only possible reason why they weren’t responding either, not even to shush them for interrupting. The angel dredged up a name for the audible Celestial and with a growing yet-unnamed emotion that had their eyes stinging, they partially lowered their shields and called out again; Gabriel? Is that you?

“Now why would anyone think a day starts at sunset Uriel? It only makes sense for a day to start at sunrise. Hmm? … Oh, them. Yes, I suppose going by their rules would make sense, all this being for their sake to begin with…”

With growing understanding the angel risked lowering their shields completely. Gabriel! I… I think you’re being… rude! The angel’s heart was racing from having even thought the thought let alone trying to project it towards the Celestial in question. But the complete lack of reaction combined with their newfound limitations made it clear that their own thought-forms, once so easily projected outward, were all but undetectable now that they were inside of a corporeal form.

And though it posed an obvious problem in terms of communication, they finally had a name for the emotion they’d been feeling: relief. No more getting scolded for being ‘too sensitive’ for having my shields up all the time. Now I can’t sense their thought-forms at all! And they can’t sense mine!

“Starting in the middle of the night doesn’t make any more sense than sunset!” Gabriel’s voice and form clearly displayed their annoyance. “Why are we even discussing this?”

There was another long silence where another of the silent Celestials seemed to be reluctantly explaining something to Gabriel. “So, if I’m understanding right, you lot decided, without consulting me, to have Beelzebub of all people ‘mediate’ deciding when a day should start? And now the Eden day, named, you know, for the time when the sun is visible, starts halfway between sunset and sunrise, when the sun is not visible. Is that right?”

The Celestial that had left had returned by that point and Gabriel made a noise of disgust. “Look, it doesn’t really matter when an Eden day starts or ends, it’s not as though we’d bother to use Eden units for anything this important anyway. The launch is obviously being marked by Celestial days. Now what did you find out? We are on a schedule you know.”

There was a sense of dismay from the returned Celestial and Gabriel went pointy with fury. “How is that even possible?! They weren’t supposed to wake up until I woke them! No, I’m going to stop you right there. You can not honestly expect me to believe that this was just some ‘unexpected side effect of gravity,’ especially after the conversation we just had! All this planning, coming all this way, and for what?”

The other Celestials shifted about placatingly. “Well, nothing for it now,” Gabriel said, making an obvious effort to calm themself. “It’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. But you’d better hope it worked and you damn well better make sure everything else goes according to plan, understand? Very well, let’s get this over with. Where are they? … What do you mean, you don’t know?!”

They can’t even tell that I’m here. The angel thought it best at that point to reveal themself before Gabriel could become any more upset. They stepped out from under the Tree’s canopy and past the collective edge of the gathered Celestials’ auras, raising their hands in greeting but also to shield their eyes from the uncomfortable brightness.

The other Celestials were still clearly trying to appease Gabriel, none of them noticing the corporeal angel as they moved closer and closer. They tried calling out again right at the edge of the circle of looming Celestials and still none of them responded. Desperate, the angel resorted to sending a blip of power towards the one whom they recalled was called Michael.

The Celestial visibly started in surprise when the corporeal angel’s power pinged against their shields like a pebble tossed at a window.

“What happened?” They all turned their regard upon Aziraphale, who gave them an apologetic wave of greeting. “Oh. Is that really them? Not the other one? Yes yes, I believe you, it’s just, I can’t sense a thing with them all corporeal like that. Well, on with the show.” Gabriel turned all their attention on the little corporeal angel, their radiance brightening to painful levels. “Hello! Is this working? Do You Understand Me? I don’t think they understand. HELLO! AZIRAPHALE?”

The angel cringed in pain, scrunching their eyes shut and covering their ears. It took a few tries before they figured out how to make themself heard in turn, but the increasing radiance and volume in which Gabriel was inanely bellowing soon had them desperately yelling back, “Stop Gabriel! Stop, I can hear you! Too loud! Too bright! I said, STOP!

Gabriel’s radiance immediately went back to merely eye-wateringly bright. “Oh. Ah. Well, it’s Archangel Gabriel,” they corrected in their previous only-slightly-too-loud volume. “Suppose we should’ve known you’d forget. Gravity.” They laughed sardonically, their attention momentarily searing the other Celestials who gave a sheepish susurrus in response.

“GR- ahem, gravity?” the angel asked.

There was an awkward pause. “Uh, does weird things we’ve been told. I’m sure you’ll get used to it. You do remember that you’re an angel? Do you know why you’re here?”

“Right, angel,” the angel said but they looked away from Gabriel, down at the wingless gryphon on their ring. “I… I’m afraid I don’t know why I’m here,” they said in a small voice.

“Oh. Well, you’re here to protect the Garden of Eden.” There was another susurrus and Gabriel let out an annoyed noise. “What? Oh, alright. Ahem. You are the angel Aziraphale, and you are the Guardian of the Eastern Gate, and Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge and Life.” Gabriel shifted a little to address the others, clearly unaware that their voice was still being projected. “Really though, why did we decide to let them have even that much… Hmm?” There was a long pause. “Huh. Oh, right.” The air hummed with power and an item dropped to the ground in front of Aziraphale. “This is to help you execute your duties. Anyway, hope you like your new wings, we decided they suited the brand better.”

The angel called Aziraphale was too focused on the sword to respond to Gabriel’s odd comment. This was another thing the angel knew in their very soul and they carefully picked it up and unsheathed it. But the connection the angel expected to be there was gone, and the flames that lit along the bronze blade felt subtly wrong in a way they couldn’t explain. “Did, er, is there anything else?” Aziraphale asked hopefully, unsure exactly what they were hoping for.

Gabriel made a dismissive noise. “Why would there be? You’re here to protect the Garden and the Tree from outsiders. It’s very basic, I mean, even you can’t mess that up, Aziraphale.”

Aziraphale cringed at the disparaging tone. “Yes, right, the Tree and the Garden.” They sheathed the sword and reluctantly tied the belt around their waist.

“What else? …Ah, yes. You haven’t seen anyone else— no? As it happens, someone else is assigned here with you, so you can rest at night, which is when it’s dark,” said Gabriel, clearly for the benefit of the other Celestials. “Big on rest, the Almighty. Try not to distract them with your ridiculous chatter, hmm? But do keep an eye on them — they’re one of Beelzebub’s; sullen, rude, adversarial. The whole lot of them are not to be trusted. You really don’t want to be associated with their sort, Aziraphale,” Gabriel warned. “It might give us the impression that you’re ungrateful for the risk we took in giving you this promotion. So you just do your job and keep to yourself and you’ll get your proper reward when this is all over.”

The gathered Celestials all vanished from view with another flash, and Aziraphale blinked and rubbed at their eyes to clear the lingering spots away, sensing that they were all still there. Gabriel said to the others, “Well, that’s done. Michael, go deal with the paperwork while we get on to the next thing on the schedule.” There was another wash of power as they all departed.

“Uh?” Aziraphale took a moment to make sure the others weren’t going to come back before shaking their head and sighing heavily, relaxing their wings. They were unsure how they knew they couldn’t trust Gabriel, but they had absolutely no doubt that the Archangel was not to be trusted. They really don’t like me, and I have no idea why. There had been something in the Archangel’s voice at the end that had sent a shiver of foreboding down the angel’s spine. Well, I don’t particularly like them either. Insufferable self-aggrandizing autocrat.

They looked back up at the comforting presence of the Tree and did a double-take, distracted for a moment when they thought they saw something move among the branches. When it didn’t happen again they shook their head at their whimsy and looked away, back down at the ring. They tried to remember more, but that impenetrable fog continued to cloud their memories, leaving only the vaguest of recollections. Well, I suppose Gabriel is correct in one regard; I am not grateful. I don’t like not being able to remember things. Important things. Personal things. Not grateful at all!

“Not grateful at all,” the angel murmured, just to get used to the sound of their own voice. They considered the mysterious other guardian and their own disorienting awakening that had apparently happened ahead of schedule. “Well, they put me in the east, so…” They circled south and around to the west, sending their senses out around the base of the Tree, letting out a disappointed sigh to find no one. But it felt different on that side of the Tree. Like they weren’t alone. You’re being silly, they told themself, looking around curiously. But the feeling didn’t subside.

“Well, if they’re to guard at night, perhaps they won’t awaken until nearer sunset?” Aziraphale said aloud, looking around hopefully. They didn’t recognize any signs that anyone else had been there and they twisted the ring around on their finger, trying to ignore the tangle of emotion churning in their stomach. “I’ll just plan to be back here before then, so they won’t be alone in the dark.”

I wish… They didn’t even let themself finish the thought and there was a long silence filled only by the faint rustling of leaves overhead. “Well… I suppose I should get to guarding. Whatever that entails.” Aziraphale quickly oriented themself and without any real purpose in mind, circled north and retreated eastward, throwing one last thoughtful glance over their shoulder before their view of the Tree was blocked by the other trees of the Garden.

The serpent had frozen when the other angel had looked up, reluctant to reveal themself. So that’s the way of it, huh? the serpent thought bitterly, quickly retreating back to the other side of the Tree when they’d had the chance to move unseen.

They’d felt instant sympathy for the angel on hearing the Celestial’s nasty tone. And when Gabriel had given their little warning lecture, an angry hiss had escaped the serpent before they could stop it.

Shouldn’t be surprised. I knew there had to be a catch when Beelzebub said this was a promotion, they thought, looking for the nook they’d been resting in previously. Got a nerve, saying all that just ‘cause Beelzebub’s my boss, like I’ve a say in the matter. And I bet I’ll be blamed the moment anything goes wrong. Well, we’ll see about that. They hissed in frustration when what they thought was their previous resting spot proved far too small.

Resentment simmered in their belly as they slithered from one branch to another in search of a new resting spot, recalling the angel’s bewinged bipedal form. At least they got a useful shape! I got stuck with this! Well, I’m not going to take it laying down! If they can look like that instead of like their astral form, then so can I… I just need to figure out how. They happened into a ray of sunshine and the blissful warmth sapped their anger-fueled energy, reminding them just how exhausted they still were. After I think on what I learned for a bit…

They stretched themself along a branch to soak up as much sun as they could, and had almost fallen into a doze when movement below caught their attention. They watched the angel circle around to their side of the Tree, seemingly looking for something. Probably came to gloat, the serpent thought, but they couldn’t quite believe it, not with the cautiously welcoming posture of the angel’s wings, nor their obvious disappointment when they didn’t find anyone. The serpent found themself easing to a lower branch out of curiosity.

“Well, if they’re to guard at night, perhaps they won’t awaken until nearer sunset,” the serpent heard the angel say to themself as they nervously twisted their hands together. “I’ll just plan be back here before then, so they won’t be alone in the dark.”

Those words, said in such a kindly hopeful tone, had the lingering resentment shifting into something far more painful. I hope… I hope they’re not like the others, the serpent thought, secure in the knowledge that no one could overhear their quiet plea. Let them be… let them be however they wish to be, just …let them not hate me? That’s not too much to ask, is it? they asked, looking up, but not at the Tree. Just one angel…

They slipped lower yet in the silence and heard the angel say, “Well… I suppose I should get to guarding. Whatever that entails.” And the serpent watched the angel walk towards the sunrise, the gently swaying sunlit branches soon lulling them into an exhausted slumber, still blissfully unaware of the ongoing changes being wrought by their unbinding.

At the edge of the Tree’s canopy Aziraphale found a slightly overgrown path through the greenery heading east, towards the wall. The longer the angel walked, the less agitated they felt, soothed by the peace of the Garden and the knowledge that they would have little contact with Gabriel or any other angels aside from their fellow guard. And maybe not even them. Thought I honestly can’t imagine they’re as bad as Gabriel was implying. At least I hope not. I really hope not. …Please?

The wind died down as the sun rose higher in the sky and eventually the giant stone wall loomed before them at the end of the path. There they found an arched tunnel through the wall, partially blocked with a tall pile of rubble and they could just make out, with the help of the miraculous light, the top of the golden Gate beyond it. Neither the wall nor the Gate sparked the sense of knowing.

Relieved to have an outlet for their anxious energy, Aziraphale went to work manually clearing away the debris. It was hot dirty work and the angel found they needed to rest frequently, fanning themself until the unpleasant breathlessness faded. At the hottest part of the day they took a longer break, and found one of the many irrigation canals keeping the Garden watered. Mind occupied with a great many other things, they pulled off their robe and waded into the sparkling clean water to cool off without a second thought. They drank enough to satiate their growing thirst and let themself float as their thoughts circled, the cool water easing some of the ache away.

They were not even aware of what they had done until when they felt it was time to go back to the wall. Why did I do that? Why did I do any of that? they wondered, staring at the dirty robes they’d absently laid over a nearby bush. A little magic returned them to their pristine state but nothing could soothe the disquiet their unthinking actions had awoken. It had felt natural to cool off in the water. The same urge had prompted them to drink when thirsty and was urging them to eat to satisfy their hunger. And though they knew they didn’t have to do those things, the more they thought about it the more it seemed a ridiculous waste to maintain their corporeal form magically when there was a plethora of mundane means right at hand.

It was one more mystery to put aside until a time when they weren’t feeling so off balance, so they put it from their mind as best they could. They finger-groomed their wings some but left their feathers damp to help keep themself cool before miracling their robes on. They started back for the gate, plucking berries from the bushes as they walked, their thoughts returning to the many odd broken artifacts they had found amid the rubble.

When Aziraphale saw how much was left to be rid of before the rapidly approaching sunset they gave in and miracled the rest of the rubble away. That done they examined the plain burnished gold Gate which was adorned with mirror-bright golden filigree hinges and a shiny golden seal where the lock should have been.

They didn’t give me a key, they realized. Well, I suppose it could be magical… They then examined the seal with all of their senses, relieved to discover spells they recognized. Ah it should open at my touch. They reached out to test their theory and the Gate made a melodic chiming noise and swung open with a shocking scream of failing metal from the beautiful but useless hinges.

“Oh good lord,” Aziraphale huffed with wry amusement, pressing a hand to their pounding heart, their whole body having instinctively jumped from the dreadful noise. They miracled the hinges into actual working order, testing them a few times before resealing the Gate and returning to the interior of the Garden, at a loss for what to do next.

It felt too early to return to the Tree. They were quite curious about the rest of the Garden but they didn’t want to get distracted and end up being late returning to the Tree, which only left the wall to focus on.

Upon closer inspection, the wall seemed even stranger than they’d first thought, having not even a speck of anything growing on the massive blocks of pale stone. Further examination revealed magic embedded into the very mortar binding the blocks together. They found they recognized spells of defense against all manner of attack, including the slow degradation caused by nature itself. Further curiosity had them looking for a way to the top of the wall.

Finding no way up, they eventually expended some power to counter the gravity keeping them earthbound, floating upward and instinctively unfurling their wings for balance when a breeze caught them and they flinched when the motion again sent bright lances of pain through them. Perhaps I should’ve asked… no, I can’t imagine Gabriel would have done anything but berate me for damaging this body. And it’s a little better than it was earlier, Aziraphale tried to convince themself. Perhaps I somehow bruised them while I rested and now they’re recovering. That’s probably all it is.

There were more spells at the top of the wall. Some of the spells they could partially puzzle out the purpose of but others yet were a complete mystery. When they grew tired and a little frustrated at the gap in their knowledge, they put aside their examination of the wall’s spells and looked instead into the Garden itself. From their perch Aziraphale could see how much the Tree of Knowledge and Life eclipsed every other plant in the Garden. The Tree of Knowledge’s branches were bright with flowers and ripening fruits of innumerable types while the Tree of Life seemingly bore nothing but leaves.

Unseen by the distant Guardian, the Tree of Life did bear something upon its boughs; a Celestial serpent slumbering fitfully amid a tangle of foliage. As the sun westered, the formerly blissful warmth turned to blistering heat and the serpent sleepily flicked a hand at the unpleasant trickle of sweat rolling down their nose and shifted their weight to try to find a more comfortable position, almost rolling right off of their precarious perch.

Would have rolled off, if not for the instinctive reaction of their currently ape-shaped brain to cling. With a garbled exclamation of shock they desperately wrapped arms and legs draped in black cloth around the branches and splayed out their iridescent black wings.

There was the ominous groaning creak of wood pushed to its limit by the sudden motion and memory supplied an appropriate response to their current situation. “Shit!”

Go back to being a snake, be a snake, snake snake snek! their mind burbled as they closed their eyes against the dizzying sight of the ground far below. There was a momentary struggle with themself to be willing to let go of hands and legs after going so long without, but a gust of wind caught their wings and self preservation had them hurling themself into serpent form.

The creaking stopped and they let out a relieved sigh and slowly lifted their head to assess the situation. They looked back along their length— and back, and back, discovering there was a lot more of themself than there had been earlier. Oh, that’s not good. They couldn’t help but look down at the ground when a flash of light among the green caught their eye and they hissed. I really don’t need this right now! Ugh, maybe if I stay still they won’t notice me.

Aziraphale had left the wall not long after becoming frustrated with the spells, and their nervousness grew the nearer they came to the western side of the Tree. When they arrived at the place they’d visited that morning, they sent their senses out again and sighed heavily to find no sign of the other Guardian. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

A moment later they sensed the arrival of a non-corporeal Celestial and they ducked desperately into a fern-covered depression to hide. Oh, this isn’t nice of me, but I really don’t want to deal with any more archangels. Maybe if I just wait here, they won’t notice me?

“Dunno why I have to do this. Wouldn’t have even known if Ligur hadn’t seen Michael changing the paperwork. Supposed to be Beelzebub’s responsibility but now they’re ‘too busy’, like we aren’t all too busy?” grumbled a sullen slightly-too-loud voice followed by a flash of light as the Celestial made themself visible. “Hello? Crawly?”

The two angels, unknowingly not alone in that moment, tried their best to keep still in the hopes of not being discovered.

The glowing Celestial drifted closer to the Tree and the serpent did their best to keep perfectly still but they had to look away from the painful brightness. “Hey!” The voice was painfully loud at close quarters. “Wake up. How’d you get up in the Tree?”

In the Tree?! I never even considered that they’d be up in the Tree. There was a hissing breath that Aziraphale recognized as a resigned sigh, raising their hopes that if nothing else, they would have one thing in common.

Crawly stared sidelong at the Celestial who they recognized Hastur, wondering what they were playing at, acting like nothing was wrong. “Uh… Slithered?”

“Why?”

They blinked at Hastur’s continued lack of a reaction, remembered snakes couldn’t blink and swore inwardly before cautiously telling them a truth while not actually answering the question they were asking. “It’s warmer up here in the sssun.”

“Oh. Well get out! You’re supposed to start working when the sun sets.”

“But Hastur, what —” Crawly caught themself before they could say what they’d almost said. Don’t call their attention to it if they haven’t noticed! “Er… working?”

“It’s Archangel Hastur now. You’re in the Garden, in Eden, remember?”

Crawly tried to shift themself backward towards the trunks of the Tree but there was another creak of straining wood as the branches dipped downward. Stall. “Uh, what?”

Voice laced with annoyed disgust, Hastur said, “You’re Crawly, Guardian of the Western Gate, Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge and Life. Don’t you remember even that much? They said it would affect your memories but not like this.”

“Uh, right. Why me?” Crawly asked distractedly, trying to figure out a way move themself without straining the branches any more than they were already strained.

“Well,” said the archangel, “another guardian was required, for nighttime. You got picked by the Council. We’d have warned ‘em about picking you, but they never asked for our input.”

“O-oh.” They don’t know about the binding, Crawly realized, almost dizzy with relief. “But what are we guarding it from? Why do we need to be corporeal?”

Another annoyed noise prefaced their explanation. “You’re guarding it from the others, and from those from outside Eden. You need a corporeal body to affect the corporeal world. We decided this form suited you better, given your nature.”

They can’t tell the difference between the little snake form and whatever this is. “That’s almost clever,” the serpent mumbled, “especially for you, Hastur.” They’d long given up on trying to keep in Hastur’s good graces, knowing how much they and the others looked down on them.

“It’s Archangel Hastur now. And I’m not the one being cast down into the dirt, Crawly.

There was a crack as the branch supporting most of Crawly’s weight broke. There wasn’t time for them to react before landing with a painful crashing thump that knocked the breath from them. Need a corporeal form to affect the corporeal world huh? Yeah, right.

Hastur laughed nastily. “I wonder what that other angel did to end up being stuck here? Gabriel must’ve been real mad, to send one of those obedient little goody-four-wings down here in the dirt with you.” Hastur taunted, “Oh, that’s right, you haven’t met them yet. They’ll be even less happy with you than we were. Love following all the rules and making sure everyone else does too. Probably hope to get back into Gabriel’s good graces, dealing with you. Maybe if you actually do what you’re told, serpent, you’ll get a reward when this is over.”

The taunting words stung, all but confirming what Gabriel’s warning had implied. “Reward, sure,” they echoed. “Ssso… what am I supposed to do?”

“Don’t know, don’t care! I’m sure the goody-four-wings will tell you what to do, they like doing that.” There was another nasty laugh and Hastur’s presence vanished completely.

Knowing Hastur wasn’t clever enough to think to play tricks, Crawly didn’t hesitate to close their eyes and focus their entire being on the form they’d woken up in and had oh-so-briefly enjoyed. They felt themself shift back and they let out a sigh that was more like a sob when they opened their eyes and found themself standing upright, wings splayed out as though still on the verge of falling.

Crawly didn’t know if they wanted to laugh or cry or both from the welter of emotions running through them. There was relief, that their breaking of the binding hadn’t been discovered, but there was worry too. There were too many unknowns and unanswered questions to feel safe yet.

They lifted their wings to let the wind play through their feathers and inhaled a slow deep breath, absently noting how different their sense of smell was in this shape. Their ribs twinged at the motion and they pulled on their magic again to heal their injuries, glaring down at the broken branch. They hadn’t sensed Hastur do anything to break it but that didn’t prove anything. It was clear that being in a corporeal form limited a lot of their Celestial abilities in ways they didn’t understand yet.

Aziraphale could hear the other angel moving around but waited a little while to make sure the archangel was going to stay gone before their curiosity overcame their caution and they eased out of their hiding place. They stood for a long moment, just taking in the sight of the first other corporeal being they’d ever seen, that they could remember.

The other angel was dressed in dark robes ornamented in red; So much more practical for a garden, Aziraphale mentally noted. Their angular form was overshadowed by their singular pair of black wings that gleamed with iridescence, their head crowned with long curly hair that matched some of the ripening fruit of the Tree. They were staring down at the ground and Aziraphale moved closer yet, staring at them in fascination, struck by the feeling that they somehow knew the black-winged angel. The feeling became stronger yet when they were about two lengths away and they could actually feel the other’s presence against their passive senses.

Crawly gasped and jumped in alarm to feel the sudden presence of another Celestial, whipping around to face them.

Aziraphale jumped at their reaction and held up their hands apologetically. “Oh, I’m sorry! Didn’t mean to alarm you.”

Crawly stared at the plump white-robed angel they’d seen earlier from a distance, taking in their kindly face haloed by curly white hair, their stark white wings again held in a cautiously welcoming pose and Crawly found themself relaxing a little in spite of themself, drawn to take a step closer. “Oh, uh, hi.”

Aziraphale blinked and sheepishly looked away from the other angel’s bright yellow slit-pupiled eyes when they realized they were staring. “I um, I’m Aziraphale. The other guardian?”

“Ah, Aziraphale. They uh, they call me Crawly,” they answered reluctantly, peering at the white-winged angel curiously. There was something about the sense of them that had Crawly unable to shake the feeling that Aziraphale was as familiar to them as the Garden was. Or had been, before their memories had been muddled. They blurted, “Do we know one another from somewhere? I feel like I know you.”

“I-I don’t know,” Aziraphale admitted, trying to not stare, watching Crawly sidelong as they cautiously sidled closer, taking their own cautious step closer. “You seem rather familiar too. But being incorporated makes us forget things, I was told. Something to do with gravity?”

“Hmm, yeah, gravity... important isn’t it?” asked Crawly as they circled around Aziraphale, who turned to keep them in view. How do I know you? Your name isn’t familiar, but I know you. Crawly didn’t speak the thought out loud however, having learned from experience that it was better to keep those sort of questions to themself. Finally they stopped pacing and stood staring at Aziraphale. “I really feel like I aught to be able to remember…”

“Yes, I’ve been feeling that a lot myself today.” They continued to stare curiously at one another and it was Aziraphale who broke the silence to say, “I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier. Waking up alone was rather disorienting, and I’d hoped to save you from that.”

Crawly wondered if they could really trust their kindness to actually be a kindness. Or if it was an act, as all the others’ had been. “Uh, that’s alright. Thanks though.”

Aziraphale was disappointed but unsurprised by their continued caution, especially after hearing what Hastur had said. When the silence started to become awkward they asked, “So… um, I, I was wondering, what did the archangel mean about this form suiting you?” Crawly’s eyes went wide and Aziraphale could tell from how their wings clamped tightly closed that they were upset by the question. “Oh no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… Bad habit of mine, being curious, please forget I ever asked!”

As upset as they were knowing someone had witnessed that humiliating scene, Crawly was surprised to hear them admit to being curious. “How much did you see?”

Aziraphale could feel their face getting hot with embarrassment. “Oh, I didn’t see— I mean, I was, er, I couldn’t see you from where I was. But, um, I heard, well, everything.” When Crawly closed their eyes with a sigh, Aziraphale blurted, “I’m so sorry! It was terribly rude of me to have mentioned it, wasn’t it? I must assure you that I didn’t mean to overhear your conversation. You see, I was returning to see if you’d awoken yet when the archangel appeared and I covered my ears but they were far too loud to block out —you know, I think they must be projecting their voices magically as well as in an auditory fashion, because there was very little dampening effect—” They cringed at the bemused expression on Crawly’s face. “Er, sorry, I babble when I’m nervous. The others hate when I do that. Um, what was, oh, right, I should have made more of an effort to give you privacy. I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.”

Crawly blinked at the apologetic and informative outpouring and found themself again just staring at Aziraphale. The sheepish expression and apologetic tilt of their wings and worried crease in their brows had Crawly admitting, “’Sokay. I also overheard… stuff? This morning. Woke me up when they all arrived.”

Aziraphale couldn’t help their reaction to those words; disappointment and a sense of dread, waiting for the taunting laughter that was sure to come. “Oh.”

“Not our fault they can’t keep their voices down,” Crawly added hastily when Aziraphale’s wings began to furl defensively closed. “Seems like they’re all just loud and obnoxious, eh? Probably a requirement for the job,” they joked. “But I figure we’re even now, yeah?”

Aziraphale relaxed slightly. That was a far better reaction than they could have hoped for. “All right. And you might have a point there,” they chuckled. “But…” -why didn’t you say anything? Why did you hide? They didn’t ask, sure they didn’t want to know the answer.

Crawly found they could read Aziraphale’s hurt and could guess what they’d bit their lip to keep from saying. “I, er, should’ve said something but I… was so tired I fell right back asleep. Slept all day,” they said with a dismissive wave of their hand, turning away so Aziraphale couldn’t see their face. “’Sides, I figured you wouldn’t want to meet me after what they’d said.”

“Oh… Yes, I can understand that, but I’m not, I mean, they’re, er…” Aziraphale stammered, knowing that no matter what they might instinctively feel towards Crawly, admitting their distrust of Gabriel would be the height of folly. Yet, they wanted to make it clear that they weren’t an unquestioning follower the way Hastur implied. “That is to say, I prefer to form my own conclusions once I have a grasp on a situation, as opposed to just taking someone else’s word for it. And it seems quite clear to me that certain sonorous others are… not in possession of all the facts.” They tried to reassure the black-winged angel with a cautious smile. “I’m quite pleased to meet you Crawly. Hopefully you’re feeling more rested now?”

“Oh. Me, uh, me too. Yeah, rested, thanks.” Crawly tried a shrug and liked it, feeling lightheaded with relief and more feelings that they couldn’t yet name. They really wanted to trust Aziraphale, wanted to tell them about what they’d experienced, but Crawly didn’t really know them, no matter what they might be feeling. But they had to say something. Wanted to say something, as a gesture of goodwill. “Er, to answer your question, about the, uh, form thing? I was in a different shape when Hastur showed up. Changed it to this one after they left.”

“Oh!” Aziraphale’s eyes went wide in amazement. “That sounds quite interesting! Useful too, I should think?” They bit their lip again to keep anything else awkward from escaping.

“Er, I s’pose? To tell the truth, I like this one better.” They looked down at themself and bumped their fists against their thighs. “Legs, good to have legs again,” they mumbled, darting a worried look at Aziraphale when they realized they’d said the thought aloud. “Er, I mean, they could’ve given us a bit of guidance on how to use these things, right?”

Aziraphale nodded in confusion but said, “I suppose they want us to figure them out on our own?”

“Pft. And if we break them beyond repair? I’m sure they’ll give us a telling off for that, never mind not bothering to tell us anything about them to begin with.” Crawly glared at the broken branch, the leaves already wilting. “Breaking them hurts by the way. A lot.”

Aziraphale couldn’t deny any of what Crawly was saying, and being unwilling to discuss their fear about their wings, they changed the subject. “I have a sword, if you’d like to use it? While you’re guarding?”

Crawly canted their head curiously at the offer. “Sword, sword… long sharp cutty thing, right? Haven’t seen one of those, don’t think. What’s it look like?”

Aziraphale pulled it from the sheath, getting it to flame to life without much thought.

“Ooh, that’s something,” said Crawly, rearing away from the unpleasant heat. “That won’t be necessary, will it? Seems a bit excessive, cutting things and setting them on fire at the same time.” They bit their tongue to keep from saying anything more, assuming they’d already said too much. Still, they tried to make amends with a bit of honesty. “And, er, I don’t know how to use it. Probably best you keep it. Thank you, for offering though.”

“Oh, you’re welcome.” Aziraphale sheathed the sword and surreptitiously rubbed their hand against their robe to rid themself of the odd tingling sensation holding it had caused. “I’d be glad to show you how to use it if you change your mind. Doesn’t seem right, that they didn’t give you something too. I mean, we’re in this together, right?”

Crawly’s lingering wariness shifted ever so slightly into something like intrigue. “Yeah, sure. Together.”

Aziraphale graced them with the full power of a joyous smile, but reached out in concern when Crawly’s eyes went wide and they swayed a little. “Ooh, are you all right? Did the gravity get you?” They quickly withdrew when they realized what they’d done. Touching, or brushing outer auras in the case of non-corporeal Celestials, was not something you did willy-nilly, especially not with someone you just met. Why’d I do that?

“Maybe?” Crawly shook their head in confusion, pressing a hand over their heart where the strangest little ache had developed, not noticing Aziraphale’s faux pas. “I’m really not sure about this whole corporeal thing. And look at what they did to my wings-”

Aziraphale frowned worriedly. “They don’t hurt, do they?”

Crawly shook their head, eyes flicking to look again at Aziraphale’s strangely stark white plumage. “No… I just, I know they did something. Changed something. Can’t tell what though.”

“Ah. Yes, Gabriel did say something about that when they gave me the sword, not that they explained mind you. But I must say, yours turned out quite lovely,” said Aziraphale, smile fading when Crawly frowned disbelievingly. “I mean it, with the whatsit, iridescence, I could just watch the light playing over them for ages. They look very soft to the touch.”

Aziraphale’s body went cold with mortification when Crawly’s eyebrows arched in surprise. Touching was also very much NOT something you mentioned to someone after a single conversation! Get a hold of yourself! “I only meant they’re very pretty! I would never touch you- I mean, not without permission of course. Not that I’d presume to think you’d want to give me permission,” the white-winged angel stammered. They closed their eyes and a little miserable laugh escaped at how ill-mannered they were being. They unconsciously pressed a hand to the little stab of pain over their heart and mumbled to themself, “This is why none of the other angels like you. You always say the wrong thing.”

Crawly felt that sentiment down to their core, and a little more of their apprehension faded. They couldn’t help but feel for the white-winged angel and wanted to soothe away the wretched expression on their face. “It’s alright Aziraphale, I know you didn’t mean it.”

But I did mean it, I just didn’t mean to say any of it out loud, Aziraphale didn’t confess, reluctantly opening their eyes. Crawly was smiling at them and they found themself relaxing and cautiously smiling back.

“’Snot like you said something bad.” ‘Specially not in comparison to some of the things I’ve said. Some of them even on purpose. “You didn’t offend me, Aziraphale. I don’t think you could.”

“Oh, well, well thank you Crawly, that really is the nicest thing to say! I was so worried we wouldn’t get on,” Aziraphale admitted, thinking of Gabriel’s warning and the vague memories of interacting with others, which consisted of feeling ridiculed and disdained. And lonely. “The others don’t seem to like me very much.”

Crawly made a face, thinking of their most recent interactions before being told of their assignment, of the others mocking and blatantly avoiding them. “Yeah,” they agreed. “Same. But that’s a bright side I s’pose. Won’t be seeing them much if we’re down here in these,” the black-winged angel said, tapping themself over the heart.

Aziraphale’s expression brightened. “You know, I had that very same thought, my dear.”

Those words sent another little inexplicable twinge around Crawly’s heart. “My wot?”

Aziraphale felt their face get hot again and they twisted the ring nervously. The words had just slipped out, as though they’d been saying them to Crawly since before forever. “Ah, oh, uh, it’s a term of end- to, uh, convey friendship. I-I-I mean—” While nowhere near as rude as talking about touching, it was slightly crass to mention friendship on a first meeting.

“No no, friends, yeah, that- that’s fine. I… I’d like that,” Crawly blurted, looking away when Aziraphale looked up in surprise, their eyes wide with hope. “But, ha, I thought you meant the animal, with the,” Crawly splayed their hands over to their head to represent horns.

Aziraphale laughed in relief that Crawly wasn’t upset by their presumption, heart soaring that they even seemed pleased. “No no, they’re homophones but not nearly the same thing.”

“Homo-what now?”

“Homophones, means words that sound alike when spoken but mean different things.”

Crawly just stared in amazement. “How do you know that?”

Aziraphale opened their mouth and closed it again with a frustrated sigh. “I have no idea. I really am not fond of this gravity nonsense messing with my mind, I must say.” That’s all this is, just gravity muddling things.

Crawly made a few noises of agreement and nodded, darting an uncertain look at Aziraphale when the silence began to drag on again. “So… er, do you know what we’re supposed to be doing? Didn’t sound like you got any more information than I did.”

“They were not forthcoming, no,” Aziraphale agreed. “They said I was Guardian of the Eastern Gate, so, that’s where I went. It was in a shockingly dreadful state of disrepair and once that was fixed up I waited on the wall until I felt it was time to return here.” They copied the black-winged angel’s shrug. “It takes a long time to walk from here to the wall, by the way. And flying is very tiring. Discovered that getting up and down from the wall.”

“Another thing gravity messes with?” Crawly darted another look at Aziraphale, getting a nod in answer before looking off to where the sunset was painting the sky to match their hair. “Well… I suppose we could continue looking around? Unless you need to rest-”

We? Aziraphale did not want Crawly to see the little surge of hope they felt at that. Being too eager was one of the many things the other angels found annoying about them and they did not want to risk annoying Crawly. “Oh no, I’m hardly tired at all,” Aziraphale quickly asserted, wilting to remember what Gabriel had said. “But, I wouldn’t want to distract you— ”

“You’re not,” they corrected in a mild tone that hid the anger they felt on Aziraphale’s behalf. “’Sides,” Crawly drawled with a little smirk that invited them in on the joke, “they said you should keep an eye on me. Can’t do that if I’m too far away to see.”

Aziraphale couldn’t resist that smile. “You do have a point. And I suppose it couldn’t really hurt for me to keep you company while you guard.” As long as I act like a proper angel.

“That way you can make sure I don’t fall asleep on the job.” Crawly gestured to take in the entirety of the Garden. “Where to?”

Aziraphale shook their head in amusement and considered. “Considering the state the Eastern Gate was in, should we check on the Western Gate?”

“Sure,” Crawly agreed, relieved when Aziraphale began walking and they could casually fall into step with them, saving them from having to admit they had no idea what ‘eastern’ or ‘western’ meant. “So what was at the Gate?”

“Oh, there was… stuff, piled in front of it,” Aziraphale said, wondering if they should elaborate. “And the Gate itself clearly wasn’t designed with gravity in mind.” Gabriel’s words rang again in their mind. As little as they trusted the archangel, they didn’t want to annoy Crawly by talking too much either, and definitely didn’t want to admit to being so easily overcome by their very unangelic curiosity.

Crawly hummed thoughtfully and didn’t ask anything else, assuming the odd tone in Aziraphale’s voice was a sign of annoyance and took their silence as proof. They hadn’t been walking long when Crawly realized the emerging stars were being washed out by a ray of light beaming down from above Aziraphale. It showed no sign of dissipating as they walked and Crawly asked, “Ssso, what’s that?”

Aziraphale looked at Crawly quizzically, jarred out of their tired reverie by the question and looked upward when they pointed. “Hmm? The sky?” Crawly made a face and Aziraphale chuckled to realize what they meant. “Oh! It’s a miracle for light. I can’t see very well in the dark I’ve discovered,” they admitted. “It, er, it’s not bothering you, is it?”

“No no, no bother. Just…” Crawly swallowed down the far too risky admission that had almost escaped; a confession of looking forward to seeing the night sky again. “Just er, curious. Good thing you didn’t have it going earlier— Aziraphale? What’s wrong?”

Aziraphale had stopped walking and was looking worriedly up at the radiance. “Yes, being noticed would probably have been unpleasant. Which has made me realize that it’ll be quite the beacon in the darkness, should anyone be looking.” Reluctantly they ended the miracle, blinked and peered into the darkness. They could just barely make out Crawly’s face in the twilight. “Oh, oh dear, it’s gotten dark rather quickly, hasn’t it? Perhaps you should go on without me,” they said unhappily. “I’ll only slow you down, having to pick my way in the darkness.”

“Pft,” Crawly protested. “I’m not in a hurry. ‘Snot like the Gate’s going anywhere, eh?” they said playfully, teasing a smile from Aziraphale. “I’ll let you know if there’s anything dangerous in the way. No moon tonight I’m afraid. No idea how I know that.”

Aziraphale stared at them for long moment, nervously twisting the ring around their finger, wondering if they could trust Crawly. They wanted to. “Are you sure?”

That single softly spoken question, said so lowly Crawly almost didn’t hear them, reassured Crawly of Aziraphale’s sincerity more than a hundred conversations could have and they answered in kind, “Yeah, I’m sure.” When they’d walked together in silence for a while, Crawly said, “If they’d wanted us to hurry, they’d’ve said. ’Sides, it’s your time to rest. Big on rest, the Almighty. Can’t interfere with that.”

Aziraphale’s nervous frown melted into a suppressed smile when they saw Crawly’s sly little smirk in the dim light of their wings’ radiance. “Ah, yes, keeping an eye on you, as I was explicitly told to do, while I just happen to be resting in your general vicinity.”

Crawly’s smirk widened into a pleased grin at Aziraphale’s playfulness. “Exactly. We’re just doing as we’re told.”

They walked on in companionable silence, with Crawly warning Aziraphale of the occasional trip hazard hidden in the deepening darkness. The sun was well down by the time they reached the Western Gate and the shadowy tunnel was completely untouched by the dim starlight.

Crawly stared at the dark archway and then up at the pale towering wall, the first parts of the Garden that didn’t feel vaguely familiar. “Huh. And there’s a Gate in there?”

“I assume so. Wait, Crawly-” Aziraphale hurried ahead to block Crawly from going into the darkness. “It’s, surely it’s too dark for you go in there safely…”

“Eh…” A denial was on the tip of Crawly’s tongue until Aziraphale held up the flaming sword, revealing a jagged piece of splintered wood right in Crawly’s path. “I guess a little light wouldn’t hurt. So you don’t trip on anything.”

Aziraphale gave them an amused look, snorting when Crawly gave them a playful look in return. “Hmm. Right.” They considered miracling light again, but the concern of being spotted had them just keeping the sword raised as they stepped into the mouth of the tunnel behind Crawly. The light revealed a large pile of rubble much like the one Aziraphale had dealt with at the Eastern Gate and watching Crawly picking through the detritus, they again wondered if they should mention the odd things they’d discovered. Gabriel’s words about ‘ridiculous chatter’ echoed in the back of their mind however and kept them silent.

Crawly almost spoke up more than once, about the odd things they were finding while poking at the pile, but their natural caution kept them from saying anything. Aziraphale was still a stranger after all and Crawly didn’t want to jeopardize their tentative friendship, especially by asking questions the white-winged angel might feel obligated to pass on to Gabriel.

When Aziraphale switched which hand was holding up the sword for the second time, Crawly stopped poking about and miracled the rubble away. They checked the Gate, frowning at the shiny golden seal and looked back at Aziraphale, who had respectfully remained near the entrance to give them room. “How’s it work?”

“It opens to your touch, at least the other one did for me. But, er, the hinges made the most awful noise and broke when I opened it. Quite beautiful but, well…”

“Gravity.” Crawly rolled their eyes and shook their head. “Thanks for the warning.”

While the black-winged angel miracled the hinges and tested the Gate, Aziraphale rubbed at their eyes, feeling tired, more tired than seemed natural, but they tried to ignore it and the twinges of pain their wings were giving them again. Unsure what else to do, they miracled themself, getting some relief from the pain, but only making the tiredness worse.

“There. Done. Thanks for the light,” Crawly said with a smile, dusting off their hands and joining Aziraphale at the mouth of the tunnel. “Part of me expected they didn’t really mean it,” the black-winged angel blurted. “The titles, you know?”

“I understand. And you’re quite welcome.” Aziraphale sheathed the sword with a sigh of relief, again wiping their hand against their robe. “So-” They turned to Crawly to ask what they should to do next but the world kept spinning and their knees went weak and they stumbled and barely caught themself, falling back against the wall with a gasp of surprise and pain when their back and wings struck the stone arch. “Ooh!”

“What’s wrong?” Crawly instinctively reached out to steady Aziraphale but caught themself and quickly tucked their hands into the folds of their robe. Being corporeal was proving far more complicated than being non-corporeal had ever been. If just talking about touching was upsetting, then actual touching was probably far worse. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” Aziraphale admitted, pressing a hand to their head and cautiously moving to ease the pain in their wings. “My head went spinny and my legs went all wobbly.”

“Here, Aziraphale, sit,” Crawly urged, miracling back one of the larger pieces of rubble, positioned so the white-winged angel didn’t have to move away from the archway.

“How embarrassing.” Aziraphale slowly lowered themself onto to the cracked stone slab with a heavy sigh and a cringe when the sword hilt prodded them in the side. They fumblingly unbelted it and carefully set it against the wall, resting their shoulder against the wall as well. “I may have overdone it earlier, clearing the Gate by hand.”

“All of it?” Crawly asked in shock, thinking back to the size of the rubble pile. “No wonder you’re tired! Is there, can I do anything?” they asked, watching worriedly.

“Oh, thank you Crawly but I can’t imagine what.” Aziraphale smiled gratefully up at them. “It wasn’t the entire pile, but it wasn’t an insignificant portion. I wanted something to keep me occupied, you see.” Aziraphale let out a heavy sigh. “I suppose the best thing for me is to actually rest,” they said ruefully. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll stay-”

“Here, with me,” Crawly finished, dropping down into a cross-legged seat a polite distance away. “While I guard the Gate. ‘Smy job, right? Well, here I am, doing it.” They leaned back on their hands and let their wings relax open into a more comfortable position as they lifted their face to gaze up at the sky. But their eyes were drawn back down to the deep shadows beneath the archway and the angel quietly sitting there, gilded by the soft radiance of their wings.

Aziraphale felt tears pricking their eyes to see Crawly silvered with starlight, so clearly at ease in their presence. They couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped. “And here I am, watching you watching the Gate. This is proving to be a very successful first day, I must say.”

Crawly laughed and grinned at them. “It’s certainly been an interesting day, angel.”

Aziraphale smiled back. “I heartily agree, my dear.”

Chapter Text

They lapsed back into silence and Aziraphale tried watching the sky too, what they could see of it that wasn’t blocked by the arch and the surrounding vegetation, but kept finding their eyes instead drawn to watch the play of iridescence on Crawly’s faintly glowing wings. When it happened for the third time they gave in and closed their eyes entirely to keep from being caught staring. That in combination with the warm comfortable silence was too much to resist and sleep quickly overtook them.

Crawly split their attention between the sky and watching Aziraphale sleep. The white-winged angel slept deeply while the stars slipped across the sky, shoulder braced against the wall, their head pillowed against their wing, not moving at all except to breathe. It was many hours later when Aziraphale made a soft noise and twitched, beginning to slip face first towards the ground. Crawly was unaware of their reaction until they were bracing their hands against Aziraphale’s shoulders.

They knelt frozen in that tableau, expecting the worst, expecting Aziraphale to wake up furious. They’d not only very rudely intruded on Aziraphale’s space, they’d touched, which had never been an issue before. Bad enough it was without permission, it was without even their awareness, which seemed worse by far. It’s not like I could just watch them get hurt.

A sudden snore made it clear the white-winged angel wasn’t actually going to wake on their own. Now what? Crawly briefly considered propping them back upright and pretending nothing had happened, but that felt somehow worse than trying to help and breaking a taboo in the process. At a loss for what else to do they reluctantly murmured, “Aziraphale?”

Crawly’s hoarse whisper penetrated through Aziraphale’s slumber and triggered an immediate and entirely unexpected response. “Get them to safety,” the white-winged angel growled, flaring their wings and surging upright as they reached for their left hip, only to gasp in pain and grab at Crawly’s arms when they collapsed back onto the slab, their tingling legs refusing to support their weight. “Go — ugh.”

Get who to safety? Crawly wondered, catching hold of Aziraphale’s robes and keeping them upright when they almost toppled backwards. “Hey Aziraphale,” Crawly murmured soothingly. The worriedly watched the white-winged angel’s expression as they came back to themself. There’d been a flicker of something like grief when Aziraphale had spoken those words and they’d reached for the sword with a practiced ease they didn’t have while awake, but those were thoughts for another time.

“C-Crawly?” Whatever Aziraphale had thought was happening, dream or memory, it was gone without a trace. Consciousness returned fully and they opened their eyes wide in shock as they realized they were tightly gripping the dark cloth of the black-winged angel’s sleeves. Inexplicable tears welled in their eyes and they found themself unable to let go. “Oh Crawly, I’m so sorry!” the white-winged angel gasped in dismay, afraid to see Crawly’s expression.

“Wot?” Crawly was taken completely by surprise. They expected shock, anger even, at the unwanted contact. Not an apology.

“I-I-I fell on you!” It was a choked wail. “Invaded your space, t-touched—”

It would have been so easy to let them continue thinking they were the one at fault, but Crawly didn’t even contemplate it, shaking their head and correcting them, “No no, well, yeah but no, you started to slip and would’ve hit your head and I, uh, I didn’t even think about it until, er, until after I’d already…”

Aziraphale hiccuped a surprised breath. “Oh. Oh, Crawly, thank you, that, oh, heavens, forgive me,” they stammered and forced themself to let go. They wiped at their eyes and worriedly clasped their hands together in their lap, trying to ignore the overwhelming urge they had to put their arms around Crawly and hold on. Hug. I want to hug them. Why do I know what hugging is? How do I know it would make me feel better if we hugged?

Crawly reluctantly released Aziraphale’s shoulders and stood to give them space, hoping the darkness hid their confusion. They didn’t want to let go of Aziraphale, didn’t want to move away, the very opposite in fact, and their stomach dropped to see the white-winged angel stare down at their lap and twist their hands together, clearly upset. “I, er, I couldn’t let you get hurt, Aziraphale. I’m sorry, I hope you under—”

“Of course!” Aziraphale chuckled with relief and gratitude and all manner of feelings that rushed through them at Crawly’s apology and they wiped at their eyes, their words spilling out before they could think to moderate them. “I completely understand! I’d have absolutely done the same for you. You- you’ve nothing to apologize for, but I do, for putting you in such an untenable position. It was an extremely kind gesture Crawly, rescuing me from my own folly. I’m grateful that you saved me from what would have surely been a very unpleasant experience.” They cautiously braced themself against the wall and pushed themself to their feet, grimacing at the uncomfortable sensation in their legs. “Another unpleasant experience,” they corrected, giving Crawly a nervous smile when they continued to just mutely stare.

Crawly was still processing Aziraphale’s unexpected outpouring, for a moment at a complete loss at the kindness of it when it was Crawly who had been in the wrong. “Happy to help,” they finally said, smiling when Aziraphale gave them a relieved smile. “Are you hurt?”

“I don’t think so?” Aziraphale frowned down at their legs. “My legs still feel all funny, but ooh, oh, that is not nice,” they grumbled as sensation began to return. “Apparently this corporation can’t tolerate resting for long periods of time on hard surfaces.”

“Oh yeah, I noticed that myself,” Crawly admitted. “Um, while I was sitting. Started feeling, er more like wossname, not feeling? …Numb, that’s it. Got better when I moved around.”

“Yes! Ooh, you do not want to let it go farther than that,” Aziraphale warned, cautiously moving their legs and stretching, making a face but chuckling when Crawly smothered a chuckle. “It’s alright, go ahead and laugh, I did it to myself after all. At least I’m more rested now.”

Crawly’s laugh was actually one of relief. “Nah, not laughing at that. You didn’t know, we didn’t know. I, uh, I’m just glad you’re okay. And not, you know… upset.”

“Goodness no Crawly, I could never be upset with you for helping me, for trying to help me.” Aziraphale gave them a reassuring smile but nervously looked away. They picked up the sword and awkwardly belted it on, pretending to be focused on the lay of their robes as they continued, “And, well, I’ve given this some thought and, er, as we’ve both experienced, being corporeal means having to touch things, doesn’t it? Apparently that’s the whole point of being corporeal.” Another nervous chuckle. “So, I uh, I just want to, to reassure you that if you, er... if we— if contact should happen to, er, happen, again, I won’t be upset by it.”

Crawly canted their head, sensing something in Aziraphale’s demeanor that made them think that maybe the white-winged angel had also found comfort in the contact. But there was only one way to really be sure. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, quite.” Entirely focused on fussing with their robe they nervously asked, “And you?”

“Won’t upset me either.”

“Good, that’s settled then.” Aziraphale chuckled in relief and looked up, eyes going wide when they saw Crawly’s right hand outstretched. “C-Crawly?”

Crawly’s throat felt dry as a desert and they had to clear their throat before they could get the words out. “Since, uh, since you can’t see so great in the dark, I thought maybe, if you’re willing of course…” They were trying to hide their nerves, trying to act like it was nothing of consequence when it very much was. Sustained contact of even just outer auras isn’t a trivial thing in Celestial culture; it’s of a mark of mutual trust. Not that Crawly could recall ever experiencing it. But touching their shoulders didn’t even feel as intimate as pinging someone’s shields to get their attention, Crawly reassured themself, thinking of the least intimate contact they could compare it to. “I’m just thinking that it’d be safer if I hold your hand to show you the way back? Just ‘til you can see again, ‘course,” they said with a nervous shrug, watching Aziraphale sidelong. “I understand if you’d rather not.”

Aziraphale swallowed hard, trying to pretend that they weren’t feeling completely flustered by the kind gesture. Don’t make it awkward! Don’t mess this up! “That’s, that’s very kind of you Crawly. Thank you.” They surreptitiously wiped their damp palms against their robe and held out their left hand. “Where should we go now?”

Crawly tentatively took their hand. “Back to the Tree?”

Aziraphale nodded, and they fell into step together. They walked in silence aside from an occasional dry muffled cough or warning from Crawly, their arms stiffly outstretched to give one another space, each only loosely holding the other’s hand for fear of making the other uncomfortable. They darted looks at one another when they thought the other wasn’t paying attention but neither of them tried to make conversation.

When they came near one of the small irrigation canals Aziraphale slowed and Crawly asked worriedly, “Do you need to rest?”

“No, well yes, I mean...” Aziraphale hesitated to risk earning Crawly disapproval by acting unangelic, but they knew the dryness in their throat wasn’t going to go away without some sort of intervention. They could just use magic and not risk it, but the water looked so inviting and some small part of them rebelled at the idea of wasting magic just to appease the assumed preferences of someone they hardly knew. Even if they were the only other being Aziraphale could remember wanting as a friend. “Can we stop for a moment? If you don’t mind?”

“Sure,” said Crawly, and reluctantly let go of their hand.

Aziraphale gave them a worried smile but stepped up to the water’s edge. Well, if they’re going to dislike me for it, best get it over now. They briefly hesitated again before stepping down into the cool starlit water with a sigh. They splashed their face, feeling quite refreshed, and lastly took a long drink. “Ah. That’s better.” They looked up when Crawly made a noise, the oddest expression on their face. “Crawly? Is something the matter?”

Crawly’s jaw snapped closed and they blinked, wondering how poorly Aziraphale would respond to all the questions that had popped up at seeing them do whatever it was they were doing. “Uh…” They cleared their throat and licked their lips, feeling the oddest urge to copy Aziraphale’s actions. Embarrassment had them shrugging and clearing their throat again. “Nah. Just worried you might slip. Thought I’d better stick close, you know, in case.”

“Ah. Thank you.” Aziraphale watched Crawly through their lashes, at how they kept staring at the water and clearing their throat. I don’t think they understand what their corporation is telling them it needs. A snap of their fingers had a wooden cup appearing in their hand. “What was I thinking, just slurping it out of my hand like that?” They filled it and pretended to be about to drink before offering it to Crawly, who was staring very hard at the filled cup. “How inhospitable of me. Would you like some? It’s very refreshing, especially for a dry tickly throat.”

“Uh, okay?” Crawly took the cup and cautiously brought it up to their face the way Aziraphale had, thoughts racing as they tried to remember anything that would explain why the scent of the cool clean water had them putting the cup to their lips and drinking it dry before they’d even realized what they’d done.

They stared at the cup and then Aziraphale in confusion. How’d they know? And how do I know I need more? “Uh thanks? Er, more please?” Aziraphale smiled and complied. Once Crawly had drunk their fill, they offered their hand to help Aziraphale back onto the path, not holding tightly when they were back beside one another, but not letting go either. “Shall we?”

“Oh yes, thank you. If you’re willing?” Aziraphale couldn’t help the tiny sigh of relief that escaped when the black-winged angel nodded and started walking again. They decided to test the waters. “I’m glad we happened across the water. So soothing for a dry throat, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, is was. I’ll have to remember that.” Crawly made themself watch the path but a part of their mind was still circling around, thinking about what had happened. They kept tapping the little cup they’d slipped into a fold of their robe. No way they told Aziraphale about that. So how’d they know it would help? How’d I know how to do that without spilling it all over me? How do I know what spilling even is? Gah! Blasted gravity and blasted archangels. They darted a look at Aziraphale, who caught them at it and smiled and Crawly couldn’t help but smile back before bringing their eyes back to the path.

They both inhaled appreciatively as they passed a thicket and when Crawly’s stomach growled Aziraphale slowed again. The white-winged angel barely hesitated before picking a few of the ripe berries and popping them into their mouth, suppressing a smile when Crawly again gave them an open-mouthed stare. “Can’t recall what they’re called but they’re quite delicious. I believe the stalks typically have thorns, but of course there’s no point for them here.”

“Blackberries,” Crawly answered and blinked, smiling when Aziraphale smothered a chuckle. “This blasted gravity thing,” they groused, hesitantly pulling a ripe berry and putting it in their mouth, closing their eyes as the flavor momentarily overwhelmed them. “Whoa!”

“It wears off after the first few,” Aziraphale said, smiling at Crawly’s reaction.

“Good thing,” Crawly laughed, giving Aziraphale’s hand the slightest of tugs to get them both moving again, but at a slower pace as they snacked on the berries and continued on their way back to the Tree. The black-winged angel’s good mood withered when the Tree came into view, silhouetted against the brightening sky. Well that was good while it lasted. Too good. I don’t want to let go. Well, too bad, that’s what you agreed to. “So, where will you go?”

“Hmm?” Aziraphale gave Crawly a confused look, unable to read their expression in the dimness. They clasped their hands together, saddened by the loss of contact when the black-winged angel released them and gestured to take in their surroundings. “Oh, to guard, you mean. I’ve been thinking about that and I’m not sure to be honest.”

Crawly flexed their hand and crossed their arms, turning away so Aziraphale wouldn’t be able to see how upset they were feeling. And how upset they were at feeling so upset. They knew it was irrational but being incorporated made every feeling so much stronger than they were used to dealing with. They took a slow breath. “Why’s that?”

Aziraphale squinted, trying in vain to see Crawly without invading their space again. They let out a tiny annoyed sigh at their inability to see in the dark before pulling the sword and lighting it again. They frowned to see the black-winged angel’s unhappy expression before they turned away from the light. “I’m sorry, I can extinguish the sword if you’d— ”

“’Snot that. Probably just the gravity again,” Crawly said with a shrug, trying to shake off their upset. “What were you saying?”

Aziraphale stared worriedly for a moment, but decided to not press. “Well, um, the Tree is the important part of the Garden, at least that’s what they implied, yes? So it made me wonder if perhaps we’re not supposed to go anywhere. Perhaps we’re supposed to just stay here, with the Tree.”

Crawly considered, looking up at the Tree. “Ehh, maybe… but then why make us Guardians of the Gates? Why even have Gates? Is anyone actually coming here that would need a Gate? Are there other Gates that don’t have guards?” They looked back at Aziraphale, who was staring at them with a frown, and tensed for the rejection that typically followed when they asked too many questions. “Er-”

“Those are very good points,” Aziraphale said, turning their frown towards the Tree and not seeing Crawly’s surprise. “And I can’t imagine that if someone were to attack, or more likely many someones, that they would be so polite as to knock and wait for us to open the door.”

Crawly snorted at the idea, some of the tension easing at Aziraphale’s response. “There’s an awful lot of wall for someone to just happen to find those tiny Gates anyway. Probably just try to break the wall down, or climb over it. And it’s so big, how would we even know?” they asked. “They could be attacking the wall as we speak-”

“No, we’d know. There are spells on it.” Aziraphale smiled faintly at Crawly’s confused expression. “At least, I’m relatively sure we would. I had a lot of time to fill yesterday, and moving… things, wasn’t exactly mentally engaging, so I spent some time and magic examining the wall. There’s magic embedded in the mortar and on the Gates.”

“But not enough for them to actually work,” groused Crawly, smirking when Aziraphale chuckled. “I, er, I didn’t sense anything, but then, I wasn’t looking either. Could you tell what the spells were for?”

“They seemed to be almost entirely defensive against physical and magical attacks. And I believe they will sound an alarm if they are triggered.” Aziraphale focused on the Tree again. “I can sense no such magic around the Tree.” Crawly’s wordless noise of annoyed disgust made Aziraphale smile. “So you see why I began to think we should stick close to the Tree.”

“Yeah. I suppose,” Crawly sighed. “But-” They almost didn’t finish the thought but Aziraphale’s expression of interest, actual interest, had them asking, “is the Tree the only important bit? Why bother to have a wall around the whole thing then? Why not just around it?”

“I don’t actually know what else might be here,” Aziraphale admitted, switching which hand was holding the sword and shaking their tingling hand. “I’ve only seen the paths to our Gates and what little I could see from the top of the wall. It’s a very large Garden.”

“Why though?” Crawly wondered, and darted a nervous look at Aziraphale. “Not that you know any more than I do. Just, they should’ve told us more, you know? How’re we supposed to do what we’re told, when they didn’t actually tell us what to do?”

Aziraphale nodded in general agreement with what Crawly was saying. “Those are valid points. Is being Guardians of the Gate more important, or is being Keeper of the Tree? They didn’t bother to explain the responsibilities of either position.”

“Are those the same thing? Keeping and guarding?”

“Not necessarily,” said Aziraphale. “Keepers might tend or care for something without keeping constant vigil over it the way a guard might be expected to. Nor is a guardian necessarily the same thing as a guard, because being a guardian implies authority over something while a guard is usually a subordinate to an authority.” They blinked when they realized what they’d just said. “That must be it. Why they didn’t tell us what to do.”

“Because they haven’t a clue?” Crawly muttered beneath their breath.

“Well, I was going to be a little nicer about it, but yes actually. It’s not as though there are physical boundaries to be guarded or corporeal things to be tended in Heaven. How would they know what that entails? Or how… er, complicated, corporeality is?” Aziraphale explained. “So… we’ve been entrusted to sort it out.”

Crawly made a face. “I think you’re giving them too much credit. And, er, well, me too. Can’t see them entrusting anything to me. ‘Snot like I was given any choice about being sent here either. Told me it was a promotion, if you can imagine, then next thing I know, poof, I’m in the dark with my memories all scrambled.”

Aziraphale stared at them in shock. “You, you too? I don’t remember even that much,” Aziraphale admitted. “Didn’t even remember my name. I barely recalled being an angel,” they said with a mirthless laugh.

Crawly suppressed the momentary surge anger they felt on their own and Aziraphale’s behalf and changed the subject. “But hey, there’s the proof that you might be on to something. Both said that we got promoted. I mean, we got titles, that’s a pretty big thing, right?”

“We did get titles,” Aziraphale agreed, perking up. “And as Guardians of the Gates, and Keepers of the Tree, surely that responsibility extends to the entirety of the Garden.” They sighed. “Which doesn’t actually solve our conundrum of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

“Sure it does,” Crawly said with a grin. “Can’t be guardian of something we don’t know so... we get to know the Garden. And if the alarm ever does sound, we’ll deal with it.”

“That… makes sense. Yes, that’s a sound plan.” Aziraphale found themself relaxing, relieved to have a plan, and to have Crawly’s help. They switched hands again but realized it was bright enough for them to see and they gratefully sheathed the sword and wiped their hands against their robes. “They’re quite powerful spells, the ones on the wall, I mean. I imagine it’d take quite a lot to get past them. I suppose I should probably spend some time studying them, to understand what they actually all do.”

“Yeah? Can you teach me to do whatever it is you do to sense them? Seems like it’d be really useful. I, uh… I could teach you the shape shifting thing?”

Aziraphale’s eyes lit up at the idea. “Really? Well, I don’t see why not. But I’m not sure I’ll be the best teacher, with all the gaps in my memories,” they felt the need to warn.

“’Snot like we’re not in the same, er, wossname… floaty thing?”

“Cloud?”

“No no, floats on water. Anyway, my memory’s all messed up too, I won’t hold it against you if you can’t remember things. What do you say?” Crawly asked with a grin, hopefully holding out their hand again. “Deal?”

Aziraphale couldn’t help but smile in return and gladly took their hand. “Deal.” They looked away, still lightly holding Crawly’s hand and said offhandedly, “Well, I suppose I should go do whatever it is I’m going to do for the day. I imagine you’re looking forward to your rest..?”

“Oh, nah, I rested plenty last night,” Crawly quickly denied. “’Sides, you’ve still got to keep an eye on me,” they teased, grinning when Aziraphale chuckled. “Where to?”

Aziraphale gestured vaguely northward. “You know, I think we should go to the northern wall today, to see if there’s a Gate there. While I’m sure we would have, ahem, heard if there were other Guardians,” they said, getting a grin from Crawly, “I would not put it past them to have more than just two Gates and fail to mention them to us. What do you think?”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point,” Crawly said. “Along with everything else they forgot, another Gate or two doesn’t seem unlikely.”

Aziraphale started them walking north. “I wonder what we’ll find. Oh, we simply must go onto the wall, there’s so much to see from up there! You can see the very top of the Tree from up there and you can see quite far out into Eden too. And while we’re there I could show you how to detect the spells in the mortar, that would be a good first lesson I think, er-” They deflated with the realization of how they’d been going on, Gabriel’s chiding still echoing in the back of their mind. “I-I-I mean, if you don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind at all, angel,” Crawly murmured and gave their hand a gentle squeeze. “Got to start somewhere, right? Looking at the wall’s spells seems reasonable.”

“Right. Yes.” Aziraphale let out a little sigh of relief. They walked in silence for a while and Aziraphale kept darting looks at Crawly, who was mostly watching the still shadowy ground for more hidden pitfalls. Upon being caught giving the black-winged angel another look they finally asked, “Why, um, why do you call me that?”

“Hmm? Big root there, careful.”

“Thanks.” Aziraphale cautiously stepped over the root before continuing. “Why do you call me angel? I mean, you’re an angel too.”

“Uh, well, yeah, but I mean, you’re better at it,” Crawly said, having not even wondered up to that point why it felt so natural to call Aziraphale that. They did not bring up that they didn’t feel much like an angel themself, with how the others acted towards them. “Kind, patient, nice. It suits you. I can stop if you’d rather-”

“No no, I was just wondering.” They walked in silence for a while longer before Aziraphale confessed, “I think it’s rather sweet, that you think that of me.”

Crawly gave them a shy look. “I don’t think anyone’s ever called me sweet.”

“Well, you’ve been extraordinarily sweet and kind and generous with me. And occasionally facetious and flippant, but I don’t mind! The others…” Aziraphale found themself glancing worriedly skyward before murmuring, “They don’t have much sense of humor, do they?”

“Right?!” Crawly agreed with a relieved sigh. “I mean, sometimes things are odd. I don’t see what’s so wrong about commenting on it? But even if they agree they get mad that I pointed it out!”

“I’ve found it best to just not say anything,” admitted Aziraphale. “I couldn’t stand their stares.”

“They do know how to stare,” Crawly agreed with a shudder, making a face. “Why so many eyes? It’s not like they actually use them to see. Could you imagine? How would you even sort out what you were seeing? Would they blink all at once or in groups or pairs or singly?”

Aziraphale snickered at the idea. “I suppose it’s one of those, er, metaphor things, or is it allegory? No, metaphor. Like our wings- they signify our Celestial natures since we don’t actually need them to fly. They’re supposed to be representative of their knowingness. Of ‘seeing all’.”

“But they don’t,” Crawly smirked, “or I’d be in a lot more trouble a lot more often.”

Aziraphale smothered a laugh. “Oh, dear, do try to avoid getting into trouble too often.”

“Eh, ‘snot like they like me anyway. But I’ll try. Sssince you asked so nicely,” Crawly said, pleased when they chuckled at the playful teasing. “So, tell me about that stuff you did...”

The north wall of the Garden, the two angels discovered, was without a gate, though the path went from the Tree directly to the wall, the way the other paths had gone to the Eastern and Western Gates. They shared a look at their discovery but didn’t speak of it. Instead Aziraphale began teaching Crawly how to sense the spells within the mortar of the wall.

It took Crawly most of the morning to really grasp how to bend their senses just so, to be able to sense the spells Aziraphale had found within the mortar, and it was well into afternoon before they were able to differentiate the intertwined spells from one another. When the black-winged angel finally succeeded in being able to sense not just the power but the underlying structure of the magic the way Aziraphale had very patiently explained, Crawly exclaimed with triumph, “Ha! Got it!” making the white-winged angel jump in surprise.

“Oh, ha, excellent! So how would you describe the structure of the spell matrix?” Aziraphale had been purposefully vague about what they’d sensed, partially because they weren’t entirely confident of their abilities but also because they didn’t want to assume that Crawly would be sense things the same way they did and didn’t want them to be discouraged.

Crawly considered. “It’s like a web, or net. Like each strand is a spell tied into the other spells so if one gets set off, the others all react too?” They let out a small relieved breath when Aziraphale nodded smilingly at them.

“That’s how they feel to me too. Interwoven almost. Now, the spells themselves? Could you differentiate between them the way I explained?”

Crawly nodded excitedly. “Yeah! Most of them feel like they’re meant to stop things being broken or breaking down? A bunch of them all have a similar… feel? texture? Like they share a root but go in different directions.”

Aziraphale nodded again. “That’s a good way to describe how spells can be joined and adapted to different purposes. Were there others that you could identify the purpose of?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure there’s one to keep it clean? And there’s one with a, a root? anchor? that spreads out into Eden but is currently passive?”

“Yes! It’s hard to discern against the background of all the other spells, since it’s currently in a passive state, but I believe that is part of the alarm structure as well as also acting as an overflow channel to redirect magical attacks away from the wall and the Garden.” Aziraphale patted Crawly’s arm. “You’ve done fabulously well!”

The black-winged angel basked in the proud beaming smile the white-winged angel was favoring them with. “I had a good teacher,” Crawly said, wiping the sweat from their brow with the back of their wrist, grinning at the bashful shake of their head Aziraphale gave at the compliment. “Whew, that was an effort. And you just knew how to do all this? Not just sensing it but figuring out what all was going on beneath the surface?”

“I didn’t really think about it, to be honest. I could feel the power and I… was curious,” they admitted, watching Crawly’s expression sidelong.

“Why wouldn’t you be?” said Crawly understandingly, watching them back. “I am too, or I wouldn’t have asked you to show me how.”

“Ah. Well, you’ve done wonderfully well in learning it,” Aziraphale assured them, a little more unconscious tension easing away. “Best not to overdo it however. Wouldn’t want you going all wobbly like I did.”

“Oh yeah, but nah, I’m fine,” insisted Crawly with a dismissive wave of their hand. “You said there were more on top of the wall, yeah?”

“Yes, but…” Aziraphale’s brows drew together in concern, looking up at the towering wall and back at Crawly who, while not looking exhausted, was showing signs of fatigue. “Crawly, I’m not sure you should…”

“I’ll be fine, angel. I don’t want to quit just when it’s getting interesting.”

Aziraphale’s protests died in the face of Crawly’s eagerness. “There are some interesting ones at the top of the wall that aren’t down here. I’m not entirely sure what they’re for.”

“Maybe we can figure ‘em out together!” Crawly blurted, face going hot. They kept their eyes on the wall as the silence dragged on, not really wanting to see Aziraphale’s expression. Good going, they scorned themself mentally. Experienced people just love it when a novice thinks they’ve got a better grasp of something than they do. Real good way to make friends.

“A fresh perspective can be quite helpful when problem solving.” Aziraphale gave Crawly a tentative smile when they finally met their eyes. “But I don’t want you overexerting yourself.”

“Alright,” Crawly found themself agreeing out of relief. “But we can go up and look, eh? No harm in that, is there?”

“No, I suppose not,” Aziraphale conceded reluctantly, not wanting to let Crawly down. But countering gravity was work too, and while they weren’t nearly as tired as last time, they were reluctant to risk another… situation. Because while Crawly had said they weren’t upset by the contact, but they might not be so forgiving the next time.

“If there’s something else you’d rather—”

“No no, I really would like you to see them,” Aziraphale said. “I’m, er, curious what you think of them. And we’ve got hours yet until sunset—”

“We don’t actually have to go anywhere at a set time do we?” Crawly asked, grinning when Aziraphale’s worried expression cleared somewhat. “We can stay on the wall as long as we like, looking at the spells, or the sunset, or the stars.”

“You’re quite right.” Aziraphale beamed at them. “Those all sound so lovely. Shall we go?”

“Sure...er?” Crawly blinked in shock as Aziraphale just looked up and floated away.

The white-winged angel quickly floated back down when they realized they were alone, brows beetled with concern to find Crawly pacing at the base of the wall. “Crawly?”

Crawly continued to pace, trying to make light of the situation. “Oh, just thinking ‘bout the best way to, to… you know,” they said with a wave of their hand, but Aziraphale’s sincere expression of concern had the black-winged angel blurting, “Admit I don’t actually know how to do that. I don’t even know what you did?”

“Oh. Well, it’s… Hmm.” Aziraphale considered how best to explain what they did to enable them to fly. “You know how if you don’t pay attention, or conversely if you pay too much attention, your corporation wants to go flat on the ground?”

“More like go splat on the ground,” Crawly smirked and Aziraphale smothered an amused smile. “That’s the gravity, yeah?”

“It is. So you have to neutralize it by channeling your power to push against it. The gravity’s quite strong and it takes some effort to negate, but we’ll have plenty of time to recuperate before we’ll need to do it again.” Aziraphale held out their hands. “I can help steady you until you get the hang of it?”

“Thanks.” Crawly took their hands and closed their eyes, though they didn’t really know why that helped them concentrate. “You know your wings got brighter when you did that?”

“Did they? I hadn’t noticed. I tend to close my eyes at first,” Aziraphale admitted, looking from Crawly’s face to their closely furled black wings. They considered offering more advice, but held their tongue, not wanting to distract them while they were concentrating. A soft sound of surprise escaped them when they saw Crawly’s wings not exactly glowing in the bright daylight, but becoming more iridescent and shimmery.

“Uh.” Crawly squawked and held on tightly to Aziraphale’s hands as they started lifting off of the ground. Their eyes popped open and they wobbled a little as their concentration wavered but they soon steadied themself again. “Ha! C’mon let’s go up.” Crawly tugged on Aziraphale’s hands, grinning when the white-winged angel also began to float upward.

Aziraphale couldn’t smother their smile at seeing the pleased grin Crawly was wearing. “You’re a very fast learner. Here we are.” They released Crawly’s left hand and turned to let the light breeze nudge them onto the wall instead of unfurling their wings and risking the ache worsening.

They both wobbled a bit as they returned to gravity’s grip. “Thanks for the hand, angel,” Crawly said, giving Aziraphale’s hand a gentle squeeze before reluctantly letting go. “Wow you weren’t kidding when you said there was a lot to see.” They wiped their brow when sweat began to trickle down and shaded their eyes to stare out over the surrounding savanna.

“Yes, it’s quite different from what’s inside the Garden. Like it was transplanted from an entirely different place,” Aziraphale said lightly, tilting their head towards the ground when Crawly gave them a sharp look.

Crawly stepped up to lean over the low parapet on the outer edge of the wall to look straight down at the ground very far below. There was a thin perimeter at the base of the wall where nothing at all grew, like someone had cut away the turf and replaced it with pale sand the same color as the stone walls. They turned to give Aziraphale a thoughtful look. “Huh.”

“Don’t linger near the edge Crawly,” Aziraphale chided, letting out a relieved sigh when the black-winged angel backed away from the edge to return to their side. “It can get quite windy up here with no warning at all being we’re well above most of the trees.”

“Yeah.” Crawly’s gaze turned towards the dark lush greenery of the Garden. “Well, aside from the Tree. Look at that!”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Aziraphale smiled at the interior view and fanned themself with their hand. “Oh look, that lake is where the spring starts. It looks so lovely and cool.”

“Hmm. Looks deep. Goes right up to the wall too.” Crawly slid a sly look at Aziraphale who did a double take.

“You can’t possibly be thinking-!”

Crawly smirked and shook their head. “Nah, hitting the water from this far up would be as bad as hitting bedrock. Falling from the Tree was more than enough proof of the dangers of gravity for me, thanks.”

Aziraphale let out a relieved breath, chuckling once they knew Crawly was just teasing. “I imagine you’d be beyond splat all the way to flat, landing from this height.”

The black-winged angel chuckled. “Yeah really.” Crawly pulled on the collar of their robe in an attempt to fan themself. “I think it’s even hotter up here than it was in the Tree.”

“Oh? Ohh!” Aziraphale gestured to Crawly’s robes. “Black absorbs heat, doesn’t it? And the pale stone will just bounce the sun — I say, you’re starting to look rather unwell, I think we’d better get you back into the shade.”

Crawly grunted in agreement, really starting to feel the effects of their earlier efforts, compounded by the unmitigated heat of the sun. “I, uh, would you-” They held out their hands.

Aziraphale clasped their hands with a worried smile and together they lifted away from the stones and wafted over the side of the wall to begin their descent back down the to ground. “I think we should find some water, to help cool you down. And then maybe some food, hmm?”

“Er, uh, yeah, that sounds…” A gust of wind caught them both by surprise and they wobbled and smacked into the wall with enough force to break Crawly’s already wavering concentration.

Crawly slipped from Aziraphale’s grip before they even understood what was happening. “Crawly!” Time slowed as the black-winged angel stared up at them with wide fearful eyes, arms outstretched and Aziraphale didn’t even think. They reached out with their power towards Crawly and dove towards them, in a blink going from too far to save them to grabbing the black-winged angel’s shoulders even as Crawly instinctively grabbed theirs in return.

It wasn’t a miracle or magic that they did, instead using their inherent power as a being outside of time and space to momentarily wrinkle the very fabric of space-time to allow them to be there instead of here in a way that the laws of physics would heavily frown upon, if it could frown. Someone, somewhere, was surely frowning over it anyway.

The odd moment of slowness suddenly vanished and the white-winged angel twisted with surprising agility so that Crawly was above them before exerting their power to deflect as much gravity from both of them as possible, braking and breaking their fall.

It wasn’t the softest of landings, rattling them enough to knock the breath from both of them, but it was infinitely better than what would have happened without intervention and they lay gasping at the base of the wall, holding on to one another as they took stock of themselves.

“Are you hurt?” Aziraphale found the breath to ask, eyes still pressed shut, their hands trembling on Crawly’s shoulders as reaction settled in.

Crawly let out a shocked laugh. “I, uh, no. No, not hurt at all. Are you?”

“Surprisingly, no, nothing broken. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to deflect enough gravity.”

Crawly spluttered, stunned by what Aziraphale had done, had risked, for someone who was no more than a bare acquaintance. They closed their eyes and rubbed a hand across them, reliving the memory. For that brief infinite moment, Aziraphale’s eyes had been Crawly’s entire world, going from blue to green to gold as they dove after them, arms outstretched, wings glowing as they did the impossible. Questions buzzed in Crawly’s mind but they found themself asking, “Did you know your eyes change color?”

Aziraphale blinked in surprise. “They do?”

“Yeah. Oh, er, sorry, let me…” Crawly didn’t actually want to let go but made themself do so, cautiously trying to shift their weight off of Aziraphale without hurting them.

They both gasped and recoiled in shock when Crawly’s wings brushing against Aziraphale’s, allowing their outer auras to not just brush against one another in that instant, but actually mingle together. It was shockingly intimate compared to anything they could recall experiencing before; the Celestial version of an embrace.

Not that either of them could have seen that coming, poor things. The wings of non-corporeal Celestials are just part of their chosen projection, a public face shown to the perceptions of others. But for corporeal Celestials, their wings are far more than mere decorative metaphor; they are a manifestation of their Celestial nature and a channel for their power, allowing them to better affect the corporeal plane.

It actually takes quite a lot of effort for non-corporeal Celestials to interact let alone intermingle with one another, on account of quantum. For corporeal ones however, all that’s needed is mutual consent.

Not that the archangels had known what that would actually mean for those subjected to corporeality. Likely they wouldn’t have mentioned it even if they had. As it was they hadn’t bothered mentioning a great many things they did know about, having assumed the two formerly lowest-ranking, temporarily promoted angels would dislike and distrust one another the same way the rival factions of archangels had, resulting in the Eden Garden Opus concluding exactly as planned, as per the recently composed ‘Great Plan’.

The archangels had however forgotten to take into account a great many things, not the least of which was that these two angels had been chosen explicitly because they didn’t do what was expected of them. None of them could have seen what was going to come of it. Poor things.

“Sorry!” Crawly instinctively recoiled at their trespass and scrambled back to their feet and furled their wings and outer aura tightly in dread. If saying the wrong thing was enough to get them shunned, what was that going to result in? “Didn’t know!”

“I-I’m sorry!” Aziraphale stared at them with wide green eyes. “I didn’t know either.”

Crawly shook their head at the unnecessary apology and almost reached out to help Aziraphale climb to their feet before snatching their hands away in mortification, desperate to not make things worse. “Did I hurt you? Do you need healing?” They wanted to make things right but had no idea how, if they even could. In their experience even tiny transgressions had proven impossible to overcome. “Aziraphale…”

Aziraphale shook their head, trying to ignore their tumultuous feelings, shifting their wings in an effort to ease the pain. The unexpected auraic mingling had been a shock, and though they had withdrawn their outer aura as soon as they’d realized their trespass against Crawly, they found themself feeling bereft. Surely such an intrusion would be too much to be forgiven for. They risked a look at Crawly, whose brows were drawn together, their wings furled tightly closed, and looked down again. “I understand why you’re upset Crawly, and I am truly so dreadfully sorry—”

“Wot? No, Aziraphale, I’m the one who should be sorry! You saved me, from a real nasty fall that would’ve broken something for sure. Maybe everything! And then I, er…” Crawly rubbed at their face and made themself ask, “I just want to make sure you’re okay?” They weren’t asking about being physically well and there was a slight shift in the white-winged angel’s expression and posture showed they understood that.

Aziraphale let out a relieved sigh. “Oh, yes, I’m fine, it’s fine, really. No harm done.”

Crawly frowned, not sure they quite believed that but not sure why they didn’t believe it and after a few false starts said, “Is it? Really? Fine, I mean? It feels like, like this is important, but everything’s...” They gestured broadly to take in the entirety of their experiences so far and smiled a little when Aziraphale chuckled.

“Yes. It is what we decide it is after all. I wasn’t going to let you get hurt my dear, so I did what I thought was best. You did the same for me earlier. I would do it again in a heartbeat and I don’t regret what I did in the slightest, so please put it from your mind,” said Aziraphale soothingly, shivering their wings again, annoyed by the disadvantages of corporeal form and at themself for feeling so odd and always making things so awkward.

“Angel—”

“Now we should see to finding some water and food. You’re still looking a bit peaked.” They turned away from Crawly and rubbed at their burning eyes, not wanting them to see the overwrought tears they couldn’t keep from escaping. They were part relief, part worry over their wings, and part being overwhelmed by the constant fear of ruining their chance to have a real friend.

Crawly gasped in silent dismay at the sight of Aziraphale’s very ruffled feathers, horrified to see some of the feathers near their back were twisted out of place. They hadn’t even realized it was possible to damage their wings in corporeal form. It was the unhappy stiffness in the white-winged angel’s voice and shoulders that hadn’t been there before that made them understand why they hadn’t believed Aziraphale assurances of being ‘fine’. They’re hurting, because of me. I need to fix this. They opened their mouth but closed it again without saying anything, following Aziraphale away from the wall.

The black-winged angel didn’t want to admit it was fear they were feeling, at the idea of further risking their newfound friendship by asking to touch Aziraphale’s wings. Crawly distantly recalled that there were a lot of rules and ceremony usually involved in earning the trust of another Celestial to be invited to actually mingle outer auras.

They’d bypassed much of that formality because of their circumstances and the limitations of corporeality, but even so, holding hands was very different compared to asking to touch their wings, especially after what had just happened. It could go very badly, could ruin whatever chance there was of them being friends. But the third shiver through their wings only ruffled the feathers more. “Aziraphale?”

Aziraphale looked around at the seriousness of Crawly’s tone. “Yes? You’re not feeling worse are you? Oh, I didn’t even think—!”

“Nah, I’m alright, ‘snot that.” A fleeting smile dashed across Crawly’s lips before they settled back into a serious line. “I was just wondering… if you’d let me return the favor?”

Aziraphale frowned in confusion, eyes going wide when Crawly lifted their hands and hesitantly gestured towards Aziraphale’s wings. “Oh! But-”

“I can see your feathers are all ruffled,” Crawly interjected, afraid of what Aziraphale might say. “You saved me from a real nasty landing. Def’nitely would’ve been in a bad way, so that’s a pretty big debt I owe you. Only offering to fix a few feathers and do a bit of sssmoothing, hardly take a moment, barely anything compared to what you did for me, really.” Crawly found themself holding their breath, watching Aziraphale’s face, unable to read the thoughtful expression the white-winged angel was wearing. Dread grew as the silence continued to drag on. “Ssso, uh, what do you say?”

Crawly’s heart sank when Aziraphale turned away, only for it to thud against their rib cage with relief when they unfurled their wings completely and arched them back until Crawly was enfolded among the stark white feathers.

Aziraphale felt as though their heart had somehow climbed into their throat and lodged there, making speech impossible, not that they knew what to say in the face of Crawly’s overwhelming generosity. How can they think they owe me a debt, when what happened is all my fault? It was my idea to go on the wall even when I knew they were tired. They wouldn’t have been in that situation if not for me. If anyone owes a debt, it’s me.

Aziraphale was a relieved to find the touch of fingers over feathers no more intense than holding hands. In truth the sensation was wonderfully soothing and they didn’t really want the contact to end. Their only conscious thought however, was of desperately not wanting to do anything that might drive Crawly away after they’d made such a bold overture of friendship by asking to tend them. The white winged angel forced themself to stand silently frozen instead of relaxing into the contact as they wanted to.

The ruffled edges of Aziraphale’s feathers smoothed out almost before Crawly touched them, and the black-winged angel found themself enthralled by the feeling of the silken feathers slipping through their fingers, at how soothing the motion was. They felt as thought they could do it forever and never tire of it. They wondered, hoped, it was pleasing for Aziraphale too, but couldn’t bring themself to ask after all the trouble they’d already caused.

Crawly hesitantly touched the twisted feathers closest to Aziraphale’s back, dismayed to discover they were somehow fixed in their ruffled out-of-place positions. With a sense of dread, they braced themself to tell Aziraphale what they’d done. “These feathers here,” they touched the twisted feathers, “they’re twisted around and stuck. I’m so sorry, Aziraphale-”

“Is that what that is?” Aziraphale turned to look sidelong over their left shoulder at Crawly, who blinked in surprise at their lack of reaction. “That’s a relief to be honest.”

Crawly let out the breath they’d been unaware of holding. “Wait, you mean I didn’t-?”

“Oh no no, that didn’t cause this! My wings have been bothering me since I first awoke and I, well, I didn’t say anything because I feared I had somehow damaged them permanently. I certainly wasn’t going to tell Gabriel.”

“Gfk, no, ‘course not.” Crawly shuddered at the idea. “But, you mean they’ve been hurting this whole time?”

Aziraphale nodded. “It settled into a dull ache that I could mostly ignore, unless I moved them. Our little mishap started them hurting again, but it was most definitely not your fault.” Aziraphale held up their hand when Crawly opened their mouth to speak. “No, I won’t hear another word of it, you’re not to blame, understood?” Crawly nodded solemnly and Aziraphale looked down and fidgeted nervously with their ring. “And, er, while I am loathe to take advantage of your undeserved generosity, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to try to set them to rights?”

The rush of relief was almost dizzying. “’Course! Gladly! Happy to!” Crawly thought of their own pained awakening and almost said something, but couldn’t quite bring themself to mention the binding. Still, if it was something similar, it wasn’t going to release without an effort. “It, er, it might hurt, and maybe take a bit of magic to, uh, to free them of whatever’s got them stuck. If that’s alright with you?” There were probably more unspoken rules about asking to using magic on someone that they were breaking, but they had to ask, had to offer.

“I would be most grateful if you would,” Aziraphale answered solemnly, twisting the ring and their hands in an effort to keep their voice steady. “A generous gesture of true friendship.”

Crawly gasped a little and their eyes pricked with overwhelmed tears. That wasn’t something you said to just anyone for just any old thing. That was big. At least, from what Crawly remembered it was. But maybe they’re just being polite. Nice. They had to clear their throat a few times before they could get any words out. “Oh, er, yeah, I, I’ll just…”

A startled giggle almost escaped Aziraphale when Crawly unknowingly tickled them when they slipped their hands beneath the tangle of feathers. They bit their lips to keep silent as the black-winged angel began tenderly working to free them, annoyed with their corporeal form for reacting so oddly to every little thing.I really do hope this settles down soon! How in Heaven’s name are we supposed to function in these forms if they’re going to be behaving oddly on their own all the time?

Focused entirely on the delicate work, Crawly took extra care trying to not cause Aziraphale pain as they worked their fingers and a trace of power through the dull white feathers. It was exacting but thankfully not hard work to free them. One by one, bit by bit, little bits of something fell away from the bound feathers and turned to odd shimmering puffs of dust before vanishing as though it had never been. They found themself murmuring reassuringly as they worked: “Not hurting you, am I? There’s another free… Almost there, angel, just a little more.” When the worst spot released there was a larger scatter of the binding that shattered into shimmering dust when it hit the ground, freeing the last of the twisted and bound feathers.

Aziraphale felt close to tears at the tender way Crawly was treating them and they kept mentally repeating, Angels are quiet and reserved and stoic and calm and don’t ruin things by making it awkward! It was mantra to keep themself silent and still but they couldn’t stop their whole body relaxing, nor the heavy relieved sigh that escaped when Crawly freed the last of the twisted feathers and the ache that had plagued them since their awakening vanished.

Crawly froze, afraid they’d done something wrong, terrified they’d hurt Aziraphale in some way, not knowing what else could hurt them, since neither of them knew what to expect of being corporeal and no one had bothered to warn them. “Aziraphale?”

“Oh, thank you so much, Crawly!” said Aziraphale, voice cracking, struggling to talk around the lump of emotion still in their throat. “That was the worst of it. You don’t have to—”

“Just a bit left, almost done,” Crawly said, running their hands over Aziraphale’s feathers to ensure everything was back in place and they hadn’t missed any other bound spots. Finding nothing more to fix, they reluctantly withdrew, surreptitiously wiping their hands against their robes, trying to rid themself of the gritty residue clinging to their skin. “There. Miss any?”

Aziraphale took a deep breath and slowly let it out before letting their wings slowly furl closed, maybe letting the primaries brush against Crawly’s the slightest bit, terrified at their own audacity. “No, my dear, all settled,” they murmured, worried at what Crawly’s reaction would be. Not that the white-winged angel could recall ever having a friendship strong enough to share contact with anyone before, but they knew what to do to initiate or reciprocate an invitation to one— at least, in theory they knew. They were hazy on how to translate the knowledge of proper auraic gestures to equivalent corporeal gestures, but they hoped brushing their aura-less primaries together was an appropriate and obvious reciprocal gesture.

When the silence dragged on Aziraphale’s stomach began to clench with dread. That was terribly presumptuous of me. I must have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Clearly they were just being kind and weren’t actually showing an interest in having a close friendship with me by asking to tend to my wings. What have I done? Crawly cleared their throat and Aziraphale made themself turn to look. The black-winged angel’s face was almost as red as their hair but there was a tentatively hopeful and very vulnerable look in their eyes.

“I, um, well, it was just a few feathers, ssso, you know, clearly I still owe you, like, a lot,” Crawly stammered, relieved to read the hopefulness in Aziraphale’s smile and the relaxed, slightly open pose of their wings. The ache over their heart melted into a happy warmth to know the contact had been on purpose. “So, well, if you’d like me to, uh, you know, do that again...”

“I, yes, I’ll let you know. It, uh, it felt rather lovely,” Aziraphale said, a massive weight lifting with the black-winged angel’s positive reaction and the relaxing of their wings in turn.

“Yeah? Ssso, maybe you’ll return the gesture one day?” Crawly murmured, watching the white-winged angel through their lashes, smiling a little when their eyes lit up at the invitation. “After my debt’s been discharged of course.”

“Oh yes, I, well…” Aziraphale couldn’t help but smile as the utter relief they were feeling. “Well, we still need to find you some water and food, especially now that you’ve exerted yourself even more. Or perhaps you should wait here while I—”

“Can’t do that.” Crawly’s smirk broadened into a smile when Aziraphale frowned at them. “I might cause trouble when you’re not watching.”

“The only trouble you cause is to yourself,” Aziraphale snorted at the idea, almost offering their hand but instead clasping them together and fiddling nervously with the ring. I’ve imposed on them enough today. “But I suppose you’d best come with me.”

“Suppose so.” Crawly grinned but did a double take. “Er, Aziraphale? Where’s the sword?”

“What?” Aziraphale patted their hip and immediately started looking around, circling outward from where they had landed at the base of the wall, the beginnings of panic setting in when they didn’t find it anywhere. “Oh no.”

Crawly began looking as well when Aziraphale didn’t immediately find it but something made the black-winged angel think to look up. “...Uh. Found it.”

Aziraphale looked to where they pointed, biting their lip when they spotted it dangling among the tangle of spindly branches overhead. “Oh. How did I manage that?” They looked around, seeing no easy way to climb up to it and began twisting their hands in earnest. “I’m going to be in so much trouble!”

Crawly could hear the growing panic in their voice and they murmured, “Miracle it down?”

“Ha, yes, thank you!” Aziraphale called on the Host and snapped their fingers to trigger the miracle. They shared a frown of surprise when the sword remained where it was. “Um.”

Crawly tried without being asked, sharing a confused look with the worried white-winged angel. “I didn’t know things could be immune to miracles,” the black-winged angel admitted.

“Me neither. Perhaps a personal spell…” Aziraphale muttered under their breath and Crawly watched interestedly as they made a sharp gesture, sensing the gathered power fly from their hand towards the sword. The leaves shivered and flattened as though a gale were blowing but when it hit the sword the magic fizzled away without shifting it at all.

“Well.” Aziraphale let their hand drop, sharing another look with Crawly.

“Huh.”

“So… apparently the sword absorbs magic.”

“Good to know I suppose but, now what?”

“I, I don’t know. They just said the sword was to help me guard,” Aziraphale said, staring at the sword. “‘Very basic,’ Gabriel said. ‘Even you can’t mess that up,’ they said.” Aziraphale let out a heavy sigh, rubbing their wrist over their eyes. “I just had to keep things safe! First I almost get you discorporated now I lose the sword… If I weren’t such a sorry excuse for a Guardian, for an angel, I’d have noticed it was missing! I'd always have it right here, right at hand!”

Crawly gasped and Aziraphale blinked to find the sword flaming in their hand, the sheath laying at their feet. “Huh?” Aziraphale shared another look with Crawly and put out the flames, tenderly sheathing the sword and reluctantly tying the belt back around their waist. “Did you see..?” they asked, wiping their hand on their robe.

Crawly slowly shook their head. “It just appeared when you said that. Maybe it’s enchanted to respond to you?”

“Something to think on later.” Aziraphale shook their head. Things to ‘think on later’ were beginning to pile up rather alarmingly. “Are you sure you don’t want to rest here?” They didn’t ask again when a mulish expression settled onto Crawly’s face. They soon found a small canal to slake their thirst but they followed it to the spring in hopes of more comfortably cooling off.

They found the canal emptied into a shallow sandy lagoon bordered by huge willow trees, their long trailing branches shading the water and shore from the heat of the sun. The water was mirror smooth and curiosity pulled them both to the edge.

Crawly frowned to see their bright yellow eyes. They knew the color and the slit pupils were not what these forms usually had, and they darted a look at Aziraphale, who was also frowning down at their own reflection. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, I… I’d hoped my eyes were bright like yours, is all. These are rather dull in comparison, like the rest of me I suppose,” Aziraphale admitted with a self-deprecating shrug, not seeing the surprise in Crawly’s expression. “Dull pale eyes, dull pale hair, dull pale wings…”

Crawly shook their head and crouched down to dip their hands into the water to rinse them again. “You’re far from dull, angel. You’re bubbly and kind and sweet and ...radiant, that’s the word.” They grinned at the open-mouthed stare Aziraphale was favoring them with. “’Specially when you blush.”

“Oh stop,” Aziraphale scolded, flapping a hand at them and walking towards a sloped area that would let them get in to and out of the water with ease. They began undoing the swordbelt. “I’ll be over here cooling off in the water so I stop radiating, thank you.”

“That’s fine, but I do mean it,” they called after them, grinning when Aziraphale just waved their hand again without turning around. Crawly chuckled and pulled their hands from the water, frowning to feel that some of the odd gritty residue was still there. They tried to miracle it away and scowled when it, like the sword, didn’t respond to the magic. “Ugh, I need…” One of the nearby plants caught their eye. “Perfect!”

Aziraphale paused in the middle of pulling off their robe, watching in consternation as Crawly yanked up a handful of plants and after a moment of looking around began pounding the roots between two rocks. “Uh, Crawly..?”

“Hmm?” Satisfied by the amount of fluid they’d gotten they scooped some up into their hands and turned towards Aziraphale, blinking to see them frozen mid-disrobing with a worried expression on their face. “Wot? You’re not stuck are you?”

“No no,” Aziraphale reassured them, pulling their robe the rest of the way off and draping it over a nearby bush. “I, um, I was just wondering why, er, why you were smashing that plant? Did it do something to offend you?”

“Heh, not this time, no. It’s soapwort, the juice is good for cleaning things.” They held up their lathered hands and dipped them back into the water, washing away the lather and the last of the residue. “Had some sticky stuff on my hands and, er, the water wasn’t enough to get it off.”

“Oh. That’s quite useful. I could have used that for the berry juice.” Aziraphale shook their head in amazement and waded into the water with a sigh, going in until they could submerge themself completely, wiping the water from their face and turning back to beam at Crawly. “I can’t tell you what a relief this is, Crawly. I could barely move my wings without them hurting and now—” they spread their wings out fully and let themself float on their back, lifting their head just enough to keep Crawly in view. “No pain at all! I can’t thank you enough.”

Crawly sauntered closer to the incline. “I’m happy I could help. No thanks needed.”

Aziraphale beamed at them. “Even so. If you’re still feeling overly warm, do try the water, it will cool you off nicely. I can give you privacy if you’d prefer?”

Crawly watched them floating, plump sexless body serenely buoyed by the water and their outstretched wings. “I’d rather you stay, if you don’t mind. My luck, I’ll get stuck in the mud and need you to get me out.” The white-winged angel chuckled at their joke and Crawly pulled off their black robe and laid it beside Aziraphale’s white one before hesitantly stepping into the water. They relaxed to find it was just the right temperature and they waded in, dipping themself and their wings into the water with a pleased sigh at the coolness. “Oh, this does feel good.”

“Told you. If you lay back and put out your wings, you’ll float. Very relaxing.”

Crawly held on to one of the willow roots and copied what they’d seen Aziraphale do, only letting go once they were sure they wouldn’t sink. “Ha, ‘salmost like being without gravity.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Aziraphale sighed, feeling fully at peace for the first time since waking.

They might have floated there for hours, had Crawly’s stomach not growled followed by Aziraphale’s. By mutual accord they waded out and, leaving their wings to air dry, miracled their robes clean before looking around for something to eat. Aziraphale found they didn’t recognize any of the fruit, but to both their surprise, Crawly did.

“These are grapes,” they told Aziraphale, pulling a bunch from the nearest vine and offering it to Aziraphale. “You can eat the whole little thing, seeds and all. Not the twig obviously.” They plucked another bunch and popped a grape into their mouth as they considered their next words with care. “You know, it’s funny but after the berries this morning, I’m finding myself remembering more. About the plants, like the soapwort. …And the Garden.”

Aziraphale opened their eyes, after having closed them to savor the taste of the grapes, and stared at Crawly in surprise. “Y-you are? I, er…” They ate another grape and admitted, “I am as well, actually.” They ate another grape and watched Crawly sidelong. Their accidental transgression was still preying on them. “Crawly, about, er, about what happened earlier…”

Some of Crawly’s cheer withered at those words. “We don’t really need to—”

“I think we do.” Aziraphale toyed with the grape stem, wondering if they were doing the wrong thing by bringing it back up. “I want to assure you that it won’t happen again, now that I know to keep my auras, well, contained. I don’t want you to think I meant to, to do you harm with er, what happened when our outer auras… And I know it doesn’t excuse what happened, but I truly had no idea it was possible for our auras to mingle without your consent!”

“Aziraphale, of course I know you didn’t mean— wait, wot?” Crawly blinked. “Say that last bit again?”

“What?” Aziraphale blinked back. “That, that it’s no excuse—”

Crawly circled their hand in the air. “No, that last bit, about consent. What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, uh, well, just, er, since it takes such a concerted effort for us, er, non-corporeal Celestials I mean, to brush auras let alone for, er, for more to happen, I just assumed it, um, couldn’t happen here either, without… without.”

“Right, yeah, but you said ‘your consent’ didn’t you?”

“Mm hmm.” Aziraphale’s voice was tiny and they ate a few grapes so they wouldn’t have to say anything more. I’d never have said anything if I knew they were going to drag it out like this. As thought I don’t feel bad enough already.

“But what about your consent?” Crawly asked, watching Aziraphale’s expression closely, eyes going wide when the white-winged angel looked away with embarrassment. “Oh!”

“Alright, well, there’s no reason to belabor the point,” Aziraphale chided, vanishing the empty grape stem away and stepping back near the water to rinse the stickiness from their hands. They looked up in surprise when Crawly crouched beside them, offering hands already lathered with some of the soapwort.

“Ssso,” said Crawly nervously, taking their hesitantly offered hands and lathering them up. “Heh, funny thing, but I, er, I need just a little more clarification. You, you’re saying you..?”

They stared into one another’s eyes, their soapy hands still clasped together but forgotten for the moment. “I wanted to hug you.” A ghost of a smile flitted across Aziraphale’s lips. “I don’t even know how I know what a hug is, but I very much wanted to hug you after you kept me from splatting. And then, when you…” Aziraphale’s voice went hoarse as that terrible moment of watching Crawly slip away replayed in their mind and they blinked their eyes and cleared their throat. “But you were unharmed and it was almost like we were hugging already so I suppose the gravity must have got the better of me.” They gave a false laugh and slipped their hands from Crawly’s, rinsing them in the water.

“A hug,” Crawly exhaled. “I knew there was a name for it!” They let out an amazed laugh and rinsed their hands, watching Aziraphale as they shoved to their feet and paced away a little. “You’ve got it all wrong, angel. Or right, maybe. I don’t think it can happen the way you’re worried it did. We’re still us, still Celestials, even inside these forms.” Crawly stood and cautiously approached when Aziraphale just stared at them frowningly, clearly confused. “What I mean is… I wanted to hug you too.”

Aziraphale’s eyes went wide at the whispered confession. “You did?”

“I mean, you’d just saved me from a whole lot of unpleasantness. No paperwork, for a start.” They smiled when Aziraphale chuckled. “And it was… it was terrifying, but you… and when you told me you weren’t sure it would work? That… that was a generous gesture of true friendship.”

Aziraphale blinked again to hear that phrase returned to them. “I, I couldn’t let you get hurt.” They sniffled with a self-conscious chuckle and wiped their eyes with the hem of their sleeve before changing the subject. “Well, I’m glad that’s settled. More grapes?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Crawly, wiping their own eyes and accepting the grapes with a relieved sigh. “Hey, uh, I’m sorry I pushed, about going up. You warned me but…”

“You were excited,” Aziraphale said understandingly. “I should have protested, but I, I was excited too. I’ve never, no one’s ever been interested in the same things as me before.”

“Me neither. Stars?” Crawly imitated in the snotty tones of one of the other archangels. “How quaint. That’s the sort of thing the Elementals enjoy. Why don’t you go bother them, serpent?” Crawly let out a hissing sigh. “The Elementals are okay but they, they’re afraid of Celestials so it’s not like they really want to risk spending time with one, you know?”

“I don’t remember ever talking with an Elemental,” Aziraphale admitted. “Don’t really remember what I was doing before being sent here, just little bits here and there of being laughed at and excluded from things. I think I spent a lot of time alone actually.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

Aziraphale vanished their empty grape stem and moved through the vines to grab another bunch only to step on something that rolled under their foot and would have sent them sprawling if Crawly hadn’t caught their arm. “Heavens! This gravity thing is a menace! Really, who thought it was a good idea?” the white-winged angel complained, chuckling when Crawly snorted out a laugh. “Thank you for the timely rescue.”

“Anytime, angel. What happened?”

Aziraphale began rummaging around under the broad leaves of the vines to find what they had stepped on. “I don’t… What in the world is this?” They lifted up a pale green sphere that was growing from one of the vines.

“Oh, that‘s a melon. Another type of sweet fruit.”

Aziraphale stared at the large fruit in amazement and thumped the tough rind with their knuckles. “How in the world do you eat it? There’s no way our teeth…”

Crawly chuckled. “You don’t bite it, you cut it open and eat the middle.”

“Ah. Sounds messy. I think we’ll just leave that one where I found it,” Aziraphale decided, setting it back down and carefully picking their way out of the vines. “How are you feeling? You look better but if you need more rest, I can go, or stay, or whatever you’d prefer?”

“The shade and the water helped, and the grapes. I think I’m up for walking with you, so you can keep keeping an eye on me.” Aziraphale smothered a smile and Crawly held out their hand, watching them sidelong. “Where to?”

Aziraphale took their hand. “Back to the Tree? It’ll be sundown before then though, so if there’s somewhere you’d rather—”

“Tree’s fine. Still no moon but I’ll be showing you the way,” Crawly promised. “Whenever you need me to. That’s what are friends for, right?”

“Friends,” Aziraphale echoed, giving Crawly a radiant smile. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

As the first stars began to dot the darkening sky, Aziraphale noticed Crawly pausing when they passed a break in the canopy to take in the sky. When it happened again they said, “You know, I don’t really remember anything about the stars. Would you tell me about them?”

Crawly blinked and stared hard at Aziraphale for a moment. “You, you mean it?”

“Oh yes!” Aziraphale looked up at the sky. “I mean, they’re beautiful to look at, but I’m sure there’s so much more to them than just being pretty.” The white-winged angel gasped when a star seemed to streak across the sky and vanish. “What was that?”

“Shooting star, which isn’t really a star…”

They spent the walk back to the Tree with Crawly teaching Aziraphale about shooting stars that were falling pebbles caught in gravity, and shimmering hissing colors that were solar wind dancing with the magnetosphere. Of the secret movements of the planets, and the births and deaths of stars, of nebula and pulsar, red giants and brown dwarfs. Each memory had spurned others and the white-winged angel had absorbed all of it, utterly fascinated.

By the time the Tree was in view Crawly’s voice was no more than a whisper. “That’s all for now,” the black-winged angel croaked, smiling as Aziraphale pulled the sword to look at them worriedly. “Not used to talking so much.”

“You shouldn’t have kept going if it was hurting!” Aziraphale shook their head scoldingly when Crawly shrugged. “Let me? Why not?” Aziraphale demanded when Crawly shook their head at the offer of healing. “Crawly.”

Crawly just shook their head again. “We should save healing for serious things. It doesn’t really hurt. I’ll be fine with rest,” they whispered.

“But it’s my fault you’re hurting,” worried Aziraphale, getting a soothing hand squeeze and a shake of their head from Crawly as a reply. When they reached the Tree the white-winged angel cleared off a convenient outcrop of rock among the Tree’s roots and urged Crawly to sit. “Well, if you won’t take a healing, I’m going to find another way to soothe your poor voice.”

Crawly didn’t try to speak, instead winging up their eyebrows and smirking.

Aziraphale gave them a playfully superior smile. “I have my ways. Besides, I owe you, for teaching me so much.” It was becoming a joke between them, an excuse for anything and everything.

Crawly smiled but gave a wave of their hand and shrugged. Unnecessary, the gesture said, but I won’t complain. Aziraphale nodded in satisfaction and began their preparations. Crawly pretended to not be interested but watched their every movement with bright curious eyes.

First Aziraphale propped up the still burning sword on another outcrop of rock to light the area then miracled up a glazed clay pot they set on the outcrop near Crawly. Next they found a specific bush they recalled seeing earlier and plucked the tenderest leaves, crushing them in their hand and doing something that made them turn brown, dropping them into the pot. Two clay cups appeared next to the pot, the insides already coated with pools of dark honey from one of the wild Eden beehives. Another vessel full of water appeared, and a brief glare had the water boiling merrily and they poured it into the pot. While it steeped they looked around and absently picked up one of the ripe fruits that had fallen from the Tree, a bright yellow one almost the color of Crawly’s eyes, and began rolling it between their hands.

Crawly sat up in surprise at that. “Are-”

“Hush, dear, you’ll make yourself worse,” Aziraphale scolded, darting a look skyward before extinguishing the sword and guiltily using it to slice the fruit in half. They relit the sword and squeezed a little of the tart juice into each cup before using the hem of their robe to cover the spout as they poured out the aromatic liquid into the cups. Another flick of fingers cleaned and dried their robe and the white-winged angel took a seat beside Crawly on the rock and passed them the cup after cooling it to just the perfect temperature. “There. Drink up.”

The black-winged angel hesitated, inhaling deeply of the enticing smell and once Aziraphale took a sip, so did Crawly. They both closed their eyes and savored the flavors they hadn’t known they’d been craving. With all the ingredients of the tea being so infused with magic, Crawly’s throat was instantly soothed and they took another sip as they considered if they should finish asking the question they’d started. It wasn’t as though it would make a difference now.

“Better?” Aziraphale asked. “Not too sweet?”

“Much better. Thank you for making me tea, it’s just right.” Crawly took another sip and watched them sidelong in the flickering light of the sword. “But, um, are we allowed to eat from the Tree?”

The white-winged angel froze with their cup halfway to their lips. “Well, we must be, or why have fruit at all?” they rationalized. “You must have noticed that more than a few of them have fallen off since we woke up,” they pointed out, gesturing to the brightly ripe fruit among the greenery. “If we leave them they’ll just rot, bring in vermine.”

“Not healthy for the Garden or the Tree,” Crawly agreed, taking another sip of the tea when Aziraphale shot them a look. “It’s not like they told us not to.”

“No, they didn’t,” Aziraphale agreed, feeling just the tiniest shiver of apprehension. “Probably best to not mention it though.”

“Probably.” Crawly poured them both more tea. “So, what made you think of this?”

Aziraphale shrugged sheepishly. “I just knew this would help your throat. It felt…”

“Familiar,” Crawly finished for them, getting a slow nod in agreement. “Yeah. So, you going to show me how to make it?”

Aziraphale brightened out of their worried thoughts. “I’d love to!”

An interesting thing about celestial beings, counted among which are some of those now called angels and demons, is because they are beings without mass or measure, they are not subject to the whims of time, though they may dwell inside of it with the help of a corporeal form. A celestial being, once they know something; what a homophone is, when a certain fruit is considered ripe, how a frowning friend’s eyes will crinkle with hidden laughter — they will somehow have always known it without knowing they know it. Somewhere in their ineffable consciousness, they will have never not known that swords have a cutting edge, that crowns convey power, that tempting gleam of mischief in bright yellow eyes.

This of course leads to paradoxes, but it also doesn’t. You’ll understand when you’re dead.

The complexity of existing outside of time and gravity is not something a mortal brain can really comprehend, not when all of their energy is devoted to keeping themself alive. The complexity of existing inside of time and gravity is not something an immortal being made of consciousness can comprehend, not when the constant knurd[ 1 ] makes them forget things (mostly the futures they don't like) out of sheer self preservation. Combining the two just compounds these issues.

Memories, once made, at least for those of a celestial nature, can not actually be erased. Twisted or smothered, bound up or undermined, yes, but somewhere, beyond forever, the really important ones will gleam from under the detritus like a lost and stolen crown, shining through the miasma like the moon and stars. Some memories have a cutting edge.

Aziraphale picked up the sword and Crawly joined them as they pointed out the plants in question. “So I believe the plant is called cha? Or tea? Both perhaps. And the drink is called the same thing. There’s usually a whole process of drying and sometimes fermenting but I just miracled it.” They plucked a few leaves and passed them to Crawly.

The black-winged angel sniffed at them and nodded. “Oh, yeah. And the hot water leeches the stuff from the leaves, and it’ll get bitter if you let it steep too long.”

“Sounds right. And to sweeten it and soothe your throat I miracled up some honey…” Aziraphale faltered there. “Which comes from bees, from outside the Garden.” They let out a frustrated sigh. “Why do I even know that?”

“And you knew to use a lemon, which I don’t think exist yet,” Crawly said, thoughtfully twirling the leaves between their fingers. “I think some of it’s just premembering.”

“It’s what?

“You know, getting bits from the future?” Crawly frowned when Aziraphale just stared at them in confusion. “You’ve looked ahead, haven’t you? To know what’s going to happen?”

“I… I don’t know. I don’t remember doing that?” they admitted. “How far ahead can you look?”

“Er, well, I mean you can look as far as you want but it’ll be a big ol’ mess the farther you look. Not really worth it for long term things to be honest, too many variables. And not worth it for small things, or you’d spend all your time looking ahead and not, you know, doing things.” Crawly held up the leaves. “But I’m not talking about consciously looking ahead. There’s always bits that stick with you, but you can’t really recall them until you’ve already done it? And that’s how I remembered what tea was after you showed it to me.”

“Yes, I think I understand what you mean.” The white-winged angel looked up at the Tree. “I don’t think that’s what makes things feel familiar though.”

Crawly met their eyes when they looked back down. “No, me neither.” They cleared their throat of the inexplicable lump of emotion that had formed there. “So, where to next?”

Aziraphale cleared their throat as well, switching which hand was holding the sword as they considered. “Are you sure you’re rested enough?”

“Yeah, the floating and the food and tea did wonders. And we’ll walk slow and stop if I need it,” they said with a playful sigh. They eyed the sword, and how Aziraphale kept wiping off their hands when they held it, as though trying to be rid of an unpleasant feeling. “But… you know, you don’t have keep the sword with you, now you know it will come to you. Besides, us using magic to protect stuff should be more than enough, right? I mean, with the sword there’s always a chance of setting the Garden on fire by accident, eh?”

Aziraphale blinked at them. “That’s a good point.” They looked at the sword consideringly. “What do you think I should do with it? Doesn’t feel right to just leave it lying around.”

“What do I think?” Crawly was pretty sure no one had ever sincerely asked for their opinion on something important before. Part of them felt like it was a trap. “Er, you could leave it here by the Tree? I mean, if it gets to the point you need it, this is probably where that would be, right? But maybe hide it, so only you can find it?” And I can’t be blamed if it goes missing.

Aziraphale nodded enthusiastically at the suggestion. “That’s an excellent idea, but you should know where to find it too. If something were to happen and you needed it, I’d feel dreadful if you couldn’t find it. And we don’t know if it will always return to me. Maybe that was just a fluke.”

“Er, alright. If you insist.” Crawly couldn’t say no, not with the white-winged angel smiling at them so hopefully. “So where do you want to keep it?”

“Hmm. We’ll need good light for this.” A snap of their fingers had the whole area bathed in miraculous light. It was a relief to extinguish the sword. They disliked the feel of it more and more the longer they used it, and they again wiped their hand on their robe when it was sheathed, gladly pulling off the belt and bundling it around the sword and sheath.

The two angels considered the area. Much of the ground beneath the Tree’s expansive canopy was covered in gnarly roots with plants blanketing the spaces in between. The dense greenery offered plenty of cover to keep the sword hidden but no real landmarks to find it again. The Tree though, with its ancient intertwined trunks and multitude of branches, seemed to Crawly like a better option. “What about on the Tree itself?”

“Ooh, I don’t know about that, I don’t think they’d approve at all.” Aziraphale made a face and felt drawn to glance skyward. “I mean, we’re supposed to be keeping the Tree safe. Putting a flaming sword on it seems… the opposite of that.”

“Alright, alright, so maybe not on the Tree, but near it, so then it’s right there if you really need to slice and singe something?”

Aziraphale considered and finally gave in, having no better idea of their own. “I suppose. But where though?” they asked. “Everything looks much the same, we need to find something that stands out. So that we’ll be able to find it again quickly. ”

“Huh.” Crawly stared thoughtfully up at the Tree. “Maybe we should get a different perspective on things?”

Aziraphale looked to where they were looking, frowning confusedly at the tangle of branches overhead. “You mean climb? The Tree?” They considered the trunks, with the lowest of the branches not sprouting until well over their heads. “I don’t think I can. I could try flying up I suppose but I, er, I don’t think the branches will support my weight…”

Crawly pretended they weren’t blushing at the reminder of their earlier mishap. They pointedly kept their eyes on the branches when Aziraphale darted a sheepish look in their direction. “Hmm, that is a problem.” They both thoughtfully stared at the branches for a long moment before Crawly darted a nervous look at Aziraphale. Well, if they’re going to make fun of me for it like the others do, I may as well get it over with. “I, er, I suppose I could try my previous shape? It climbed the Tree pretty easily.”

Aziraphale stared, overcome by their continued generosity. “Oh, oh Crawly, could you? Would you? That is so very nice of you! Really, I’d be quite indebted to you-”

Crawly waved their words away with a hesitant smile. “Nah, nothing like that, we’re in this together, said it yourself. Anyway, doesn’t nice mean precise or something?” Crawly sat down, figuring that since these bodies were already prone to falling over on their own, in the middle of exerting themself was when it was likely to happen.

Aziraphale immediately sat down with them, eyes bright with curiosity. “Oh, yes, but it also means polite, at least, I think it does. In any case, you’re being so very kind.”

Crawly looked at the white-winged angel sidelong, for a moment wondering if anyone could really be that sweet, but there was a guilelessness to Aziraphale that made it hard to believe they could be devious. “You’re easy to be kind to, Aziraphale.” They nodded when the white-winged angel shook their head bashfully. “Yes. Anyway, I’m sure I can retake a serpent form pretty easily, what do you think?”

“Serpent?” Aziraphale considered and had to admit, “I don’t recall what they look like.”

“They’re uh, long and uh, snakey? Probably easier to just show you.” It took a moment of concentrating and their form stretched and shifted into that of an improbably large black serpent, with the same bright yellow slit-pupiled eyes Crawly had in their bipedal form.

Aziraphale reared back in surprise, then leaned forward again, fascinated. “That’s amazing! A little off putting at first, but still, amazing! And your scales have the same lovely iridescence as your feathers. Is, was this the form..? I heard the crash— you weren’t hurt were you?”

“Yesss, a little, but I healed myself,” Crawly hissed, tasting the air, relieved to be in a form that couldn’t cry the way their other form could, because Aziraphale’s delight and then concern was almost too much to handle. And they kindly weren’t asking any of the questions they surely wanted to ask. Crawly answered some of them anyway. “My current astral form is akin to thisss one. But with wings.”

“Ah.” Aziraphale made the connection easily enough, to Hastur’s comment about their nature. “I… I don’t think mine is very different from this form actually, but with more wings? It’s a little muzzy. I suppose it must, with what they called me; ‘goody-four-wings’. At least I assume that’s why it took me barely any time at all to get used to moving around in this shape.” They looked away from Crawly and mentioned, “I miracled up the light soon after waking, to see if there was anyone else around.”

Crawly grunted thoughtfully. “I… went looking around after waking up too and ended up in the Tree. Thought I was alone until the yelling started, and I found a spot in the sssun after and fell back asleep. Really could’ve used a warning about the gravity,” they joked, pleased when Aziraphale chuckled. “Now let’sss see...” They slithered purposefully towards the Tree.

“Do be careful,” Aziraphale urged. “Mind how you go!”

“I will. This is the easy part.”

It took a while to climb high enough and longer yet before they could find branches that afforded a good view that were strong enough to support their weight and all the while Aziraphale stood anxiously watching them, quietly ready to catch them with magic if needed.

“I think I sssee a spot nearby to try.”

“Which way?”

“Er.” Crawly slipped their head over the side of the branch to point their snout in the direction of the opening they’d seen. “There’sss something that way. Maybe a cave?”

Aziraphale turned to look and gave Crawly a sheepish look because of course they couldn’t see it from down among the brush. “Is it closer to the Tree than I am?”

“Eh-” The breeze began to pick up, sending the branches groaning and creaking. “This blasssted wind!” they complained, “Enough of that.” They tried to retreat back to the security of the Tree’s trunks but the tossing branches sent them half dangling out of the Tree with a hissed, “Ssshit!” They really didn’t want to make their second attempt at flying with the wind blowing as it was, but they also didn’t want to recreate their earlier experiences with gravity either.

“Don’t worry, Crawly,” Aziraphale called. “I’ve got a spell ready to catch you! Just let go!”

Crawly flicked their tongue in surprise and hesitated. They had learned from experience that if someone was going to do something not nice, this would be time. Well, serve them right if I fall on them, then. The choice was taken from them when the branches dipped lower with a groan and they lost their hold. They squeezed their eyes shut, only to open them again a moment later when they didn’t hit the ground. “Thanksss!”

“You’re quite welcome.” Aziraphale’s spell gently lowered Crawly down and the white-winged angel beamed at the black-winged angel after they shifted back into bipedal form. “That was quite generous and brave of you.”

“You, you think so? I mean, happy to help.” Another casual shrug but Crawly couldn’t stop themself from smiling widely. They looked around and pointed in the direction they’d seen the opening in. “The spot I spotted was over that way. Not far.”

“Oh? That’s good.” They began moving in that direction at a cautious pace, walking in silence for only a little while before Aziraphale worked up the courage to speak. “Uh, Crawly?” Aziraphale cleared their suddenly dry throat when Crawly paused to looked at them. “With, er with how shadowy it is here beneath the Tree… um, not to be presumptuous but, perhaps, if you’re willing of course…” Aziraphale hopefully held out their left hand again.

“Oh, yeah, ‘course! Happy to help, angel,” Crawly said, half wanting to laugh with happiness but half wanting to cry with emotions they couldn’t quite sort out as they returned to circling the Tree together. Get a grip, body! Oi, this nonsense better settle down soon. Not going to get anything done if I’m laughing and crying over every little thing. “Think the spot I saw was around here somewhere…”

Crawly was even more glad they were holding hands a little while later when they stepped into nothing and would have taken quite a tumble if not for Aziraphale’s firm grip and quick reactions. “Huh, looks a bit different from down here.”

“Crawly,” Aziraphale chided, using both hands to help Crawly up and away from the hole. “Are you all right?” they worried, magicking the dirt from Crawly’s robe, clucking their tongue when Crawly revealed a bloody scrape on their leg, quickly healing it with a miracle. “There. I really am quite indebted to you-”

“Psh.” Crawly waved their words away and hopefully offered their hand again. “Let’s see what I led us into, eh?” Hand in hand they moved cautiously closer the to dark space concealed among a dense tangle of ferns. It was obvious by the lushness of the plants hiding the narrow but deep opening that it had lain undisturbed for a very long time.

The two angels exchanged a look, laughing a little when they both hesitated to move any closer. “It’s not like there’s anything in the Garden but us,” said Aziraphale. “Not sure why I’m nervous about it.”

“It’s probably the Tree,” Crawly said lowly, staring into the darkness beneath the ferns. “I mean, are we supposed to muck about with it?”

“This isn’t ‘mucking about’. It’s not as though we’re going to damage the Tree just by looking at a hole in the ground.” Aziraphale squared their shoulders and moved closer to inspect the opening. The light revealed rough sandstone walls covered in roots and mosses, with a mossy root-covered incline that descended north, away from the Tree, before curving sharply west into the rock and out of view. It was all irregular enough to seem natural. “Well, that’s unlikely.”

Crawly snorted with nervous amusement but nodded at the questioning look Aziraphale gave them. With Aziraphale in the lead they cautiously went down, Aziraphale’s light illuminating the cramped space as they followed the sharp switchback turn of the ramp downward towards the Tree. At the bottom they found a door made of wood so dark and dense it felt like stone.

Unlike the Gates, it had a deceptively simple latch keeping it closed and it didn’t take much to make it silently pivot open into whatever was beyond. Cautiously they stepped through into the darkness, both gasping in surprise when magical torches flared to life, revealing a large columned tunnel. The walls were decorated with broad crumbling frescoes that revealed some of the carved bedrock walls, interspersed with narrow sections painted with abstract designs that had mostly escaped whatever had damaged the frescoes. It was in the narrow areas that the magical torches were mounted in V shaped brackets.

“What was this place?” Aziraphale looked around in consternation, more than a little disturbed, feeling as though-

“It feels familiar,” Crawly murmured, darting a look to Aziraphale when they realized they’d spoken aloud, relieved to find them nodding in agreement. “Should we..?”

“Yes, yes I rather think we must.” They gave Crawly a faint smile. “To make sure it’s safe for the Tree, of course.”

Crawly smirked. “Ah, right, sure, makes sense. For the Tree. Def’nitely not ‘cause we’re curious or anything like that.”

“Angels? Curious? Don’t be silly. Why would you even think that?” Aziraphale said deadpan while prodding inquisitively at the door, eyes crinkling with mirth when Crawly chuckled.

The design on the door was of upward pointing black and white chevrons representing scales or wind or waves or mountains or possibly all of them. A quick examination revealed that the door latch was disengaged by pushing up on the bracket and they let it slip shut behind them after testing it.

The tunnel curved gently around to either side and they went to the right, passing an opening due west completely blocked by dirt and rock all bound over with thick roots. They continued around to the south, discovering another collapsed tunnel leading outward and an arched opening into the large open chamber in the center, directly below the Tree.

A large magical brazier hanging in the center of the ceiling lit the entire room with a welcoming glow and strategically placed clusters of crystals cast patches of color and light onto the unadorned white-washed walls and ceiling. “Oh my, how lovely.”

Less lovely were the piles of moldering detritus. A quick inspection revealed crumbling scraps of linen and wool and leather, interspersed with splintered chunks of carved and painted wood and broken bits of pottery and corroded bits of metal whose intended purpose was impossible to ascertain.

Crawly picked up a piece of wood that matched the wood of the other doors, frowning down at the carved and painted pattern of blue-black scales and gilded bronze feathers. “So much of this feels familiar but whenever I try to remember...”

“Maybe they told us about it before we were incorporated?” Aziraphale shrugged when Crawly gave them a scornful look. “Well, what else could it be?”

“I don’t know,” the black-winged angel admitted, still looking around. “There’s a ledge here, look,” said Crawly, pointing to a flat outcropping on the wall to one side of the opening. Aziraphale carefully set the sword bundle on the ledge, sharing a look with Crawly when it proved to be just the right size to hold it. “Almost like it was made for it,” they said thoughtfully.

The white-winged angel nodded, trying to make sense of what they were seeing and feeling. “Well, the Almighty does work in mysteri- ow.” Something metallic bounced and rolled across the floor, stubbed by Aziraphale’s toe.

Crawly bent and picked it up, wiping it off on the hem of their robe. “It’s a circle? With points on?”

“It’s a crown,” breathed Aziraphale, feeling that same knowing that the sword had inspired, and knowing before they even touched it that it was not as it should have been.

Crawly frowned at the unfamiliar word, but had no doubt Aziraphale was right. “Seems an odd place to leave it, doesn’t it? Supposed to be important aren’t they?”

“Yes,” agreed the white-winged angel distractedly, looking at the walls more closely. In the northern wall opposite the chamber’s opening there was a niche with the sad remains of what had probably been a cushion. They magicked the spot clean before gently setting the crown back into its place. “There’s a third item.” They blinked to have said the thought aloud, and they turned to look at Crawly.

“Yeah,” said Crawly, who picked up the weird device they’d almost stepped on.

“There’s a ledge on the other wall.” A quick search discovered the rest of the balance, another thing Aziraphale knew, and they set it back in its place.

“What is this place?” the black-winged angel hissed under their breath, unconsciously moving closer to Aziraphale, their sense of disquiet growing.

“Something… lost.” Aziraphale took a step towards Crawly, soothed instead of startled to feel their wings brush against one another, relieved when they took Crawly’s hand that they held on just as tightly. “I, uh, I imagine we could both benefit from some fresh air?”

“Absolutely,” Crawly readily agreed. They went around the other side of the tunnel, proving it was a circle with more blocked tunnels to the east and north, before they climbed back up and out into the open air beneath the shelter of the Tree.

The white-winged angel was trying and failing to ignore their uneasiness about the chamber, but logic made the choice clear. “It’s an ideal place to keep the sword.”

“And we’ll just wander around until we fall in any time we need it, will we?” Crawly’s disquiet had grown into an active dislike for the chamber, not that they could explain why. Just a surety that something very bad had happened there.

“Alright well, there is a minor flaw to my plan,” Aziraphale said, looking around and smiling in triumph when they had an idea. “So we know the opening’s in the northwest, easy enough to find again and-”

“Wait, no, easy enough why? I don’t even know what that is!”

“Oh. It’s one of the ordinal directions?” When Crawly shook their head Aziraphale frowned. “Where have you been? The compass points were named ages ago. ...er, I think.”

Crawly shrugged. “I, uh, I was on my own for a while, when I wasn’t supposed to be,” they admitted lowly, giving Aziraphale a lopsided smile when they shyly offered their hand again. “Missed out on a lot of stuff I guess. Wasn’t back long before I got sent here,” Crawly explained, clinging just a little too tightly to their hand. “Uh, so northwest is?”

Aziraphale kept a hold of their hand and spent a while explaining the directions and how to figure out which was which. “Does that make sense?”

Crawly nodded, looking around at the Garden thoughtfully. “Yeah, that’s useful.”

“With knowing the opening is to the northwest of the Tree, I was thinking, what if we make an image, an illusion of a big fern or rock or something to mark it as a, a landmark, to be able to easily find it again?”

“But what if you’re looking in the dark and fall in?” Crawly cringed after blurting the words out, expecting Aziraphale to be annoyed the way the other angels always were, but the white-winged angel was staring at the opening, their brows creased with concentration.

“Fair point. I think… I can make it solid. So that it only opens when we want it to?”

Crawly’s eyebrows winged upwards. That wasn’t something a miracle could do. “Really?”

Aziraphale nodded but they were already working on the spell in their mind’s eye. “Let’s see...” Under the miracled light and Crawly’s bright curious gaze the white-winged angel miracled up a small palm-sized quartz crystal cluster, using magic to break it into eight roughly equal pieces. Setting them on a clear spot on the ground they murmured and gestured over them until they glowed faintly with magic before carefully walking widdershins around the jagged opening and firmly wedging a shard of crystal in among the roots at the eight greater points of the compass. “Now the hard part.” Standing to the west of the opening with Crawly, they gathered up more magic, spoke a few strange syllables that echoed oddly from the opening and made a grand gesture.

Power crashed, silently, suddenly, and there was an outcrop where the opening had been, covered in moss and vines and ferns, looking as though it had been there for as long as the Tree had. Aziraphale sagged and staggered, smiling gratefully when Crawly braced them upright.

“You really outdid yourself, angel,” Crawly said, staring in amazement at the glamour, watching the real breeze shiver through the illusionary leaves, bringing the scent of the imaginary flowers to their nose. They grinned at Aziraphale. “How’s opening it work?”

“You touch the rock and say ‘Open in the name of Heaven’,” Aziraphale explained, wringing their hands. “I mean, I’ve never, I don’t remember having done this before, I’m not even sure how I knew this so...”

Crawly patted their shoulder. “Let’s test it out. Here? Ooh, I can actually feel the rock and the moss! Okay, uh, open in the name of Heaven!” From one moment to another the rock changed, revealing an archway over the opening. “Well done! Close in the name of Heaven?” Crawly grinned when the archway vanished. “You really have to teach me how to do that.”

“Well, now might be as good a time as any,” said Aziraphale, sitting down on the ground near the glamour with a sigh. “I’m afraid I need a bit of a rest after that anyway.”

Crawly plopped down beside them without hesitation. “So should I start like you had me do at the wall? Sensing the spells?”

“Yes! Let me know what you sense,” Aziraphale encouraged, dismissing the light.

“Er… oh! You used some of the wall’s spells in this?”

“I did,” they beamed. “They’re very well constructed spells so only seemed natural to replicate them here.”

“It does seem natural, doesn’t it,” Crawly agreed, staring the the rocky glamour, but inwardly seeing the chamber again. “You know, with this here now, we could keep the fallen fruit in there, so they don’t bring in vermine.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. That’s a very good idea. First thing in the morning, so we’re not tumbling into any more pitfalls, hmm?” Aziraphale teased, chuckling when the black-winged angel made a face at them.

“It’s the gravity! ‘Snot my fault they turned it up too high.” Crawly grinned when the white-winged angel let out a laugh before they could contain it.

“Well, I suppose we’ll just have to keep holding hands, hmm? To keep each other safe,” Aziraphale said lightly, watching sidelong what they could see of Crawly in the darkness.

“I suppose we will, angel,” they agreed. “Who know what sort of trouble I might get into without you keeping an eye or twenty on me, eh?”

Aziraphale snorted out a laugh. “I don’t think there’s any amount of eyes that could keep you entirely out of trouble, my dear. But I’ll do my best.”

Chapter Text

The days and nights passed rapidly as the Guardians acquainted themselves with the Garden and with one another. The two odd angels each found a kindred spirit in the other as their friendship blossomed and those early nebulous feelings of knowing one another were soon buried beneath the sturdier trust grown from experience.

“So what’d you say this one was again?” Crawly asked, pointing up at one of the regular trees, if it could really be called that. It, like every other fruiting plant in the Garden, had open flowers and ripe fruit at the same time, which they were both quite sure wasn’t at all how it was supposed to work.

“Ah, that’s an apple tree. Lots of different varieties of those, although the Almighty seems to have mostly chosen the reddish ones for some reason. This is one of the sweeter types. I do wish I could remember how I know that,” said Aziraphale, reaching up and plucking one of the ripe fruit. They offered it to Crawly, watching with interest as a nearby bud swelled into a flower and one of the open flowers closed and began to grow into a ripe apple. “I love the scent of apples. It reminds me of autumn and warm cozy fires and good things.”

“Autumn, yeah, I think I remember that.” Crawly cautiously sniffed the apple. “Oh, I like that. And you said it tastes sweet?” They sniffed it again and cautiously poked it with their tongue, eyes full of laughter. “Eh?”

Aziraphale chuckled and shook their head. “Unlike oranges, you bite through the skin, and then you chew. I did try to warn you.” They picked another apple and out of unfamiliar habit buffed it against the sleeve of their robe before taking a bite. “Oh that is scrummy. Good choice on the Almighty’s part. Watch the center, it has seeds, not fun to bite down on.”

Crawly tried it, nodding in approval. “That is good. I think I remember now, apple, yeah, the seeds are poisonous. But you’d need to eat a lot of them.”

Aziraphale gave them a startled look. “How in the- well, of course you don’t know why you would know that. I don’t know why I know that either.”

Crawly shrugged and finished off the apple, picking out one of the seeds from the core. “They don’t breed true either. Well, normal ones don’t. Each seed is a gamble on what you’ll get.”

“That’s fascinating.” Aziraphale was still eating their apple, savoring every bite. “Must be frustrating for the person trying to grow good apples though.”

“I wonder if we could plant these, see what would grow from them.” Crawly was surprised when Aziraphale shook their head, a sudden look of worry on their face. “Why wouldn’t we? I mean, it’s a garden, right?” Crawly made a face when Aziraphale looked skyward. “Eh, but it’s a garden. They’re meant for growing things. What’s the point if new things can’t be planted?”

“I don’t know,” Aziraphale admitted once they’d finished chewing, again looking upwards with an inexplicable sense of trepidation. “We can try, I suppose. Um, here’s a spot.” They gestured to a nearby area that was just open grassy ground amid the neat rows of apple trees, almost as though there had been trees there at some point in the past.

Crawly crouched down and made a little hole in the dirt and dropped the seed in. They covered it and stood, smiling at Aziraphale. “We should mark the spot.”

“...I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Aziraphale, taking their hand and tugging them away from the spot, both of them watching in amazement as the seed sprouted and creakingly unfurled to maturity. But no buds formed, and certainly no fruit. “Oh. I was rather hopeful for a moment.”

“Yeah, that’s disappointing,” said Crawly. “So we can plant things, but nothing comes of it.” They looked down at the cores and up at each other as a thought occurred to both of them and in unison they found another open area and made a bigger hole, dropping the cores in, covering them and hastily backing away. But nothing seemed to be happening. It took a few moments for them to notice the little pile of dirt had settled back into place and the grass was growing back over it as though nothing had ever disturbed it. “Well that’s interesting.”

“So things we don’t plant for the purpose of growing just get… reabsorbed,” surmised Aziraphale, looking back at the lush but fruitless tree Crawly had planted. “I suppose it makes sense,” said the white-winged angel sadly.

“Huh? No, that doesn’t make any sense,” Crawly protested. “It’s a garden!”

“But it’s not our Garden,” Aziraphale explained. “We’re Guardians, not… It’s not our place to plant things.” They tried to put a smile on. “Part of the Ineffable Plan I imagine. Best not think about it.”

Crawly frowned and took Aziraphale’s hand, urging them away from the empty spot. “We could plant things outside the wall,” they muttered. “I bet they’d grow there. I mean, we know they do, we can see stuff growing. And there’s animals out there. It’s weird there’s no animals in here, isn’t it? Not even insects. Maybe we should let some in?”

“No no, I don’t want to risk getting you in trouble,” said Aziraphale even though they agreed with Crawly, and not just about the odd lack of living creatures inside the Garden. “It’s not as though we really need more plants,” they said, gesturing to take in everything around them, giving Crawly’s hand a grateful squeeze. “Anyway, you were going to teach me about shape shifting today. That’s far more interesting.”

“That’s right,” said Crawly, familiar enough with Aziraphale to know when the white-winged angel was trying to change the subject, and they let the matter drop, seeing how upset it was making their friend. “It’s hungry work. Let’s take some apples with us, eh? They’re a lot less sticky than some of the other fruit. And no rind.”

“I am quite fond of them,” Aziraphale agreed. “I would go so far as to say they are as close to perfect as an earthly thing can be,” the white-winged angel pronounced, plucking an apple each from three of the surrounding trees, only to frown down at their robe when they realized they had no useful way of carrying them. “I should’ve thought this through better.”

Crawly chuckled and with a touch of magic twisted one of the folds of fabric of their own robe into a pouch, taking the apples Aziraphale had picked. “Perfect, huh? Can’t just make a blanket statement like that, angel,” the black-winged angel teased as Aziraphale modified their own robe and picked more apples. “There’s a lot of fruit to compare it to. Where would we even start?”

Aziraphale dusted off their hands before offering one to Crawly so they could continue walking. “I dare say there’s similar fruit, and many might be more flavorful, but for ease of eating, I doubt much can compare.” They gave Crawly a shy sidelong look. “But I’m willing to try some others, if you are. There are quite a few that I’m not currently familiar with.”

“I imagine between us we’ll be able to sort most of ‘em out,” said Crawly, taking a bite of another of the apples. “So, shape shifting, kinda hard to explain but you need to be somewhat familiar with the animal you want to look like. What animals do you know, like pretty well? Not snakes, obviously,” they teased.

“Obviously,” Aziraphale frowned with amusement. “Hmm. I’ll need to think on that.”

They walked on in companionable silence for a little while before Crawly stopped to be rid of the apple core, thoughts on the tree they’d planted as they dug down into another grassy spot in the dirt only to gasp in pain and yank their hand away, staring in shock at the blood dripping from their fingers. “Something bloody cut me!”

“I think the blood comes after the cutting part,” said Aziraphale, quickly taking their hand and healing them.

“Yesss, I do know that,” Crawly said, giving them a smirk and making a sharp gesture with the apple core to part the soil to reveal whatever it was that had cut them. “A rock?” They cautiously pulled out the dark oddly shiny piece of stone and dropped the apple core in its place, closing the soil with another wave. The raw shard of dark shiny stone wasn’t much bigger than the palm of their hand and the sight of it drew out a memory. “Ooh, I know, this is obsidian. Comes from, wossname, volcanoes.”

“Volcanoes?” Aziraphale looked around the Garden and shook their head. “Must have been a very, very long time ago, for there to have been one here.” They cringed at what they’d said, darting a glance upwards. “If there were a long time ago to be had, ha ha. Probably just another little joke on the Almighty’s part.” When nothing happened they let out a sigh, shrugging at the confused look Crawly was giving them. “May I?” They held out their hand and Crawly very carefully passed it over. “Oh… this isn’t earthly obsidian. This is primordial obsidian.”

“What’s the difference?” Crawly asked. They looked at the ground but there weren’t any other obvious pieces of it laying around. “Is it magical? Didn’t seem magical. There’s so much about magic I don’t know,” they complained.

“Give yourself time to learn, Crawly, it’s only been a handful of days since you started learning,” Aziraphale consoled. “When you touch it, it will always feel slightly warm to the touch and won’t change temperature even if you stick it in a fire, that’s one way you can tell the difference. But it’s not exactly magical, more like proto-magical, created when two different planes interact with one another.” Their excitement about the discovery was clear as they continued to explain to Crawly. “It can also be created as a byproduct when volatile types of magic meet and find equilibrium. It is a very rare and powerful spell component; it can store magic indefinitely, it actually amplifies the magic it’s imbued with, and it can be used as a spell anchor, like the mortar in the wall. I wonder if we can find more,” Aziraphale said, offering the piece back to Crawly and frowning when the black-winged angel shook their head.

“You can have it. You should keep it.” Crawly knew that sharing a small special item (an idea, a memory, a melody) with someone was a good way of affirming a friendship. Celestial relationships were complicated enough without adding corporeality to the mix, but Crawly was pretty sure the gift of a special physical item would have the same connotation. “The way you were going on, I, er, I assume you’d like it?”

“What? Yes, but Crawly, I...” No matter how generous Crawly had been, this was a thousand steps beyond generous, especially after all the ill-mannered things Aziraphale had done under the heady new influence of corporeality and gravity. The white-winged angel still had a hard time believing that Crawly would really want that sort of tie with them. Besides- “Oh, goodness, it’s gotten your blood on it. I can’t keep it after that!”

Crawly reluctantly look back the obsidian, frowning down at it, trying to hide how hurt they were by the white-winged angel’s flippant tone. “Oh. Right.”

Aziraphale realized then that Crawly didn’t understand why they were rejecting the gift. “That would be far too powerful of a relic for me to possess, even if, er, you, uh, meant, er,” they stammered, quite sure that the black-winged angel couldn’t be offering it as an affirmation gift and really not wanting to make everything awkward by even bringing it up.

Crawly looked back up at them in surprise. “What do you mean, powerful? Like, magically?”

Aziraphale let out a relieved breath. A much safer topic. “Oh yes. It’s too subtle to passively sense but you’ll be able to feel it if you send your senses into the stone.”

Crawly did as told, gasping in surprise to feel the power humming against their senses. “All that from just a little blood?”

Aziraphale nodded solemnly. “There’s a lot of power to be gained by spilling blood, though it typically fades quickly. There’s more power yet in our blood because these bodies aren’t born but created; not of this world, merely in it. Thankfully it’s not easy to harness the power from our blood, or being corporeal would be quite dangerous for us. But, for primordial obsidian to have had your blood spilled on it, that means the power won’t fade, not for thousands of years, if ever. That would allow whoever possessed it to call upon the power inferred to the stone. Your power.”

“Oh.” Crawly was relieved that it wasn’t disgust, wasn’t a rejection because their blood was somehow bad. “But, I do trust you, you know, if you want it. If it’d be useful for you,” Crawly said, holding it out again, holding their breath as they watched the emotions play over Aziraphale’s face.

“Crawly, I-” Aziraphale tenderly rested their hand over Crawly’s, in their heart wishing they could accept, wishing the black-winged angel really could feel that strongly about their friendship instead of just being generous. “That is an extremely sweet and magnanimous offer but I, if something happened and it got into the wrong hands, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. If they were very clever they could possibly use what’s stored in the stone to affect you directly. There are a number of ways to nullify the risks but the simplest is for you to create a nexus so no one can use it without your permission. It’s safest yet remaining with you.”

Crawly looked down at their hands and back up into Aziraphale’s green eyes and the odd tender sadness they could read there. “Alright. But we could make it so you could use it too, couldn’t we? If we were both to, er, make a nexus with it?”

Aziraphale stared at Crawly, unsure how to respond. They hadn’t expected the black-winged angel to keep offering it to them, especially after knowing that it could be dangerous. They can’t mean it that way!

Crawly looked away when the silence dragged on. “Didn’t mean to upset you,” Crawly said. “I don’t even know what a nexus is.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s, uh, it’s imbuing a physical item with your auras so that it becomes attuned to you, making it almost impossible for someone else to use it, at least magically, without your permission. For the both of us to do that would mean that you, that we...” Aziraphale’s words trailed away into nothingness, flustered. They can’t really mean it, can they? “That we trust one another implicitly. That we are good friends.”

“I don’t get it. What wrong with that?” Crawly said, wishing they could crawl into the hole with the apple core and pretend the last few moments had never happened but needing to understand why. Why Aziraphale was rejecting them now after everything that had happened. Maybe now that we’ve spent time together, they’ve thought better of our friendship. It was probably just the gravity getting to them. Maybe they’re just being nice to me but don’t mean anything by it, like the others. Maybe they were right about me not being a real angel...

“There’s nothing wrong with it… But you did say you were away for a long time and—”

“Look, if you don’t really want to be friends you should’ve just said,” Crawly sneered, face red with embarrassment. They scowled when Aziraphale stepped around to stop them from walking away, ready to tell them off, but the unhappy words died on their lips when they saw Aziraphale’s pained expression. “Ngk?”

“I need to know you truly understand what it is you’re offering me,” Aziraphale said hoarsely, feeling confused and upset. They hated the hurt look on Crawly’s face, the pain they could hear in their voice, how the light dimmed in their eyes when they were unhappy, but these weren’t topics that were usually openly discussed and it was hard to articulate what usually went unspoken. Especially when Aziraphale had no first hand experience with dealing with these matters. They twisted their hands together, stammering over the words but needing to get them out. “I expect you don’t remember, being on your own like you were but it’s, it’s quite significant, what you’re offering, what it would mean. What you’d be entrusting to me…”

The desperate worried hope in Aziraphale’s voice and posture had the black-winged angel sighing with relief. “Aziraphale, I know it hasn’t be very long since we woke up here, and you’ve no reason to think I might feel this way,” Crawly tried to reassure them. “But I… I know you, and like you, and trust you. We are friends. That’s why I offered it to you. As an affirmation of our friendship and trust in one another? I know you, Aziraphale. I know you’re my friend and that I can trust you not to harm me. I’m trying to show you I’m your friend too. Okay?”

“Do, do you really mean that, Crawly?” Aziraphale asked, voice thick with emotion.

“Yeah,” the black-winged angel said, reaching out to touch Aziraphale’s shoulder, their fingers curling against the cloth of Aziraphale’s robe as the white-winged angel stepped closer. “Figured you knew, when you… and then let me, you know, the feathers,” Crawly finished in a rush. “Never had anyone care like that, trust me like that.”

“Ohh.” Aziraphale blinked away the tears that sprang into their eyes. “Yes, yes I care about you and I do trust you.” When Crawly’s hand slid over their shoulder and gently urged them closer, Aziraphale enfolded them their first on purpose, physical hug. “My friend. My dear, dear friend, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you could mean it that way,” they confessed as Crawly hugged them back. “I, it’s been such a short time and I was so sure you didn’t remember what it meant, having been on your own for so long or that I was misunderstanding. I didn’t want to make a mess of things by assuming…”

“I remembered. I meant it, mean it,” Crawly soothed. They held one another for a long moment, sighing in relief at the easing of a tension they hadn’t realized was there. When they finally pulled away Crawly smiled happily at them. “Besides… ‘Sonly fair. You’ve got your sword, and I’ve got, my uh, my obsidian blade,” they smirked, holding it up. When the sun hit it just right the gleam of colors were revealed from within the darkness. “Impressive, right?”

Aziraphale chuckled at Crawly’s playfulness, feeling light with relief and happiness. “It’s pretty. And sharp, I’ll give you that.”

The black-winged angel grinned. “So, show me, what do we need to do?”

“Well, it’s rather simple really, just extend your auras into the stone. You’ll know when it’s enough. In theory.” At Crawly’s raised eyebrow, they glanced skyward and murmured, “This isn’t actually Celestial magic. I believe it originated with the Elementals, but it should work for us too. They figured out how to nexus things when they first began crossing between the planes, because it allows one to sense where the nexused item is and call it to them no matter where or what plane they are in.”

“Oh, that is useful. Can you do that with anything? Like the sword?”

“No. Most Earthly things wouldn’t survive the imbuing process. And I wouldn’t nexus with the sword even if I wanted to,” Aziraphale said shortly. “It belongs to Heaven, not me.”

Crawly frowned but just nodded and did as told, focusing on the stone. The more of their auras they moved into it, the more Crawly could sense about it; every facet and plane became part of them, becoming their whole world for a moment before fading away into normal background noise. “Alright. Now what?”

Aziraphale sighed, not wanting to ask but having to. “Are you really sure, Crawly? The, uh, the others likely won’t approve of you being friends with me. Sharing things with me.”

“Yes, I’m sure. Not that it’s any of their business anyway. No one has to know if you’re worried about it.” Crawly’s confidence wavered with the sudden understanding that Aziraphale’s reluctance was tied to the fear of their friendship being discovered, not because they were ashamed of it, but because they expected their friendship to be used against one or both of them. “But ‘sokay if you don’t want to, if this is dangerous for you. I didn’t even think of that, but you’re going to bleed on the stone too, aren’t you? To make it equal. I don’t want to put you in a bad spot—”

“Goodness, no, Crawly, I’m not worried about me. And once it’s a nexus it can’t be used against the ones it’s bound to. It’s just,” Aziraphale took a deep breath and offered their hand to Crawly, who took it. “You’ve been so generous and sweet to me after all I’ve done. I almost got you discorporated!”

“I almost got myself discorporated because I didn’t listen to you,” Crawly murmured, shifting closer so that their shoulders bumped. “And then you risked yourself to save me. If that isn’t real friendship, I don’t know what is. You said it from the start; we’re in this together.” Crawly met Aziraphale’s eyes, enthralled to see they had shifted from green into blue, and offered them the obsidian. “Will you share this with me, angel?”

Aziraphale gave them a tender smile and accepted it. “I would be honored, my dear.” They nicked the skin on their fingers in keeping with how the blade had marked Crawly, letting Crawly heal them before creating the nexus. When it was done they cleared their throat and gave the obsidian back to the black-winged angel for safe keeping. “This means so very much to me, Crawly, I don’t know that words are enough to express it.”

The black-winged angel looked up from where they had magicked up another pocket in their robe for the obsidian and suggested hopefully, “Maybe another hug?”

“Oh, yes please.” Aziraphale sniffled when Crawly wrapped their arms around them and rested their cheeks together. “I don’t understand why this is affecting me so much,” the white-winged angel whispered. “I was a mess when I woke up, but I thought it had settled.”

“Me too,” Crawly agreed with a sigh. “Maybe…” Their voice went low and rough with emotion. “Maybe it’s relief, that we’ve found one another again.”

Tears sprang afresh to Aziraphale’s eyes. “Yes, I think that must be it. I didn’t know how much I missed you until I met you. Now I don’t have to miss you anymore.”

The black-winged angel pressed their face into Aziraphale’s shoulder to hide their own tears. “I think I must’ve missed you terribly,” they confessed. “’Cause us, here? Together? It feels right.”

“Yes.” Aziraphale opened their eyes and beamed at Crawly. “Yes, that’s how I feel too.”

Crawly grinned and took Aziraphale’s hand, giving it a gentle tug to get them walking again. “Did you think of an animal to try?”

“I did. It’s quite lovely, but I can’t remember the name of it. Of course.”

“Oh, yeah, ‘course. Try describing it?”

“Feathers, just covered in golden-brown feathers, mostly, and has a, not lips, hard thing.” Aziraphale held their hand up to their face, curving it into the shape they meant. “Flies. Just floats on the air currents on great wide wings. Eats, er, mostly other creatures, turtles, hares, the like. Great big claws on its feet.”

“Hmm, a hunting bird of some sort.” Crawly considered the description for a moment. “That’s a beak, by the way, the pointy face thing. Could be an owl you’re thinking of, though I don’t think owls eat turtles. Eagle! I think you mean an eagle.” They looked at shy, retiring, nervous Aziraphale, and had to wonder that they would think fondly of an eagle. Inwardly the black-winged angel found themself wondering at what their friend had been before they’d been sent to the Garden. “Sounds like you know it pretty well?”

“I, I suppose I do,” Aziraphale realized. “There are others but it seems like truly flying would be...”

“Yeah,” Crawly agreed. “So let’s find a good open place to sit and then you can try it.” They found an open field, one of many, beyond the apple orchards that had clearly been used for growing crops but had been left fallow for some ineffable reason. The empty plots were filled instead with the odd low grass they’d noticed elsewhere that didn’t seem to serve any purpose besides covering up the dirt. “Is this weird? This seems really weird. Why have a field in a garden but then cover it with… that?”

“Lawn.” Aziraphale just stared out at the large vacant swathe of short homogeneous grass and felt a pang of sadness that they didn’t know how to explain. “Best not to speculate,” they said, doing their best to ignore the odd disquiet the barren field was giving them. “So, what do I do?”

“Right, here, sit down and close your eyes,” said Crawly, dragging their eyes away from the emptiness and back to Aziraphale, who had done as told. They sat down with them and tried to explain the process. “When I did the serpent thing it was like I was pulling myself in, and imagining really hard how it felt to be the serpent. No arms, no legs, the whole thing. So, for a bird it’s wings instead of hands, and a tail, feathers all over. Really good vision I bet, uh...” Crawly watched with fascination as Aziraphale wavered, hovering at the edge of shifting for a long breathless moment before finally getting the hang of it and taking the form of a large golden eagle. “Oh! That’s good!”

Aziraphale cautiously got to their feet and extended their wings, canting their head this way and that. “Yes, my, this is interesting,” they said, putting out a leg and flexing their talons. “You know, for some reason I feel like I should have more legs? How odd.” They did a few practice flaps then jumped up, and awkwardly flapped back down. After a few more failed attempts Aziraphale said, “I think perhaps I need you to show me. If you don’t mind? I seem to be missing something vital.”

“Oh, er, sure.” Crawly sat back down and considered for a moment before shifting into that of a large black bird with glossy iridescent feathers. They hopped about to get used to their new form, canting their head around and flexing their wings and legs before stalking over to Aziraphale who was watching them curiously. “Not sure I’m going to be much better than you at this,” they admitted.

“I do appreciate you being willing to try though.” Aziraphale watched closely as Crawly crouched down and jumped, unfurling their wings and flapping hurriedly skyward, and the sight triggered something in their bird-shaped brain that said, chase! so they did without even thinking about it, hurling themself skyward after Crawly. They were quite high and gaining on their friend when they came back to themself. “Oh, oh dear!”

“Just hold your wings out, angel, the wind will hold you up!” Crawly called, almost tumbling themself when they saw Aziraphale falter. “There you go!”

“I did it! Oh how lovely,” said Aziraphale as they glided downward. “Ooh, how do I land?”

“Lean back and flap, put out your feet- are you alright?” Crawly asked, bouncing to a halt beside Aziraphale, who was sprawled in the grass, back in their bipedal form, panting for breath. They shifted back as well and bent over their friend worriedly. “Are you hurt?”

“Just my pride, I think.” Aziraphale beamed up at them. “That was very exciting though! And tiring, you were quite right about that.” They let out a little groan as they let Crawly help them up into a sitting position. “I think I have severely underestimated how long it would take to master this. You make it seem so easy, Crawly, I really had no idea it was that complicated.”

“Eh, I mean, we’ve all got our things, that we’re good at. Can’t all be the same,” they shrugged, flustered by the compliment. “Takes time, like you said, learning new things.” They helped Aziraphale up. “We’ll try again later, after you’ve rested.”

“Hopefully I do better,” Aziraphale said, shivering their wings to settled their feathers and dusting themself off with a bit of magic. “I could really use some water.” They made a face at the dryness of their mouth, leading Crawly towards the sound of rushing water when they nodded in agreement. “And now I’m all sweaty too. I’m rather amazed how easy you make it look,” they said, smiling proudly at Crawly.

Crawly blushed but shrugged, giving Aziraphale’s hand a squeeze. “So, I’ve been meaning to ask, how is it you know so much about how these forms work? Weren’t you incorporated the same day I was?”

“Yes, I was. I… I don’t actually know how I know,” Aziraphale admitted. “Sometimes I just find myself doing things without realizing I’m doing them. Rather disconcerting to be honest. Like being overheated that first day and bathing to cool off without even thinking about it.” They shrugged at Crawly’s sidelong smirk. “I know we don’t need to eat, or drink, or bathe, or breathe, or anything else, but it makes me uncomfortable to not do so. Seems a waste.”

“Yeah, takes less energy to eat and breathe and whatnot than not. Actually gain energy. And it’s enjoyable,” Crawly agreed, putting word to action and pulling out another apple and quickly devouring it. “’Snot bad, really, being corporeal, once you get used to it. Aside from the whole lack of any kind of guidance on how these forms work or how to keep them from breaking. And the gravity.”

“Yes. Not particularly fond of gravity. And guidance really would have been nice,” Aziraphale agreed, letting out a pleased sigh as they kilted up their robes and stepped into the shallows of the lake. “Warning that it can get overheated would have been useful. And important, you’d think, considering the environment here.” They moved into a slightly deeper spot, lifting their wings above them to shade themself from the sun and taking a drink, splashing water over their hot face and head. “That’s better.”

“Or cold,” Crawly said with a shiver of memory, joining Aziraphale in the water, which was, of course, the perfect temperature. “I do not like being cold. Why would they make it so we can’t miracle our wings dry? What sense does that -oh!” It wasn’t even a conscious action, to dive in after Aziraphale when the ground shifted beneath their feet and the white-winged angel went under with a gurgle of surprise.

Sound faded away and dark silt swirled past in slow motion as the shimmering white wings led Crawly downward through the darkness, away from the shallows and the shore. They found Aziraphale struggling to get their bearings and time snapped back into place as they hooked their friend under their arm and dragged them back up to the light. They splayed out their wings for buoyancy, and Crawly was trying to help keep Aziraphale’s head above the silty water as they coughed and gasped.

“Hold on, angel.” Crawly focused on the surprisingly distant shore. As Aziraphale had done when rescuing Crawly at the wall, it wasn’t a miracle or magic that they used to allow them to be there instead of here in less than a heartbeat, instead they instinctively called on their inherent power as a being outside of time and space to momentarily create a fold in the fabric of the universe and pulled Aziraphale through with them. Together they staggered out of the water, collapsing together on the edge of the shallows. Crawly healed Aziraphale’s throat and chest, sure from their coughing that they’d inhaled water, silt, and probably a plant or two. “Better?”

Aziraphale nodded and rested their head on Crawly’s shoulder. “Not how I wanted to remember that drowning is a thing that can happen,” they croaked, exhaling a slow relieved breath. “Not that I wanted to recall it at all, really. Thank you for the quick rescue, it caught me quite by surprise and I couldn’t see, couldn’t think.” They shook their head. “Terrifying.”

“Scared me too, angel. What happened?” the black-winged angel asked, stroking their hand soothingly over Aziraphale’s shoulder.

“It collapsed! It felt like normal ground but then it wasn’t there and, well, down I went with it.” Aziraphale scowled down at their drenched and mud streaked robe and wings. “I’m going to need a real bath after that. You too.” They frowned at the lake and then reared back to look at Crawly, realizing they hadn’t swum or walked or even miracled them to shore. “How’d you do that?”

“I, uh, I have no idea,” Crawly shrugged. “I just knew I needed to get you back to dry land. I think you did it too, at the wall. You were out of reach, but then you weren’t.”

“I did? Hmm, that will require some exploration. When we’ve recovered,” said Aziraphale.

Crawly nodded and looked back at the lake, which had mostly settled back into clearness while they’d been recovering. “Eh, if you’re okay, and since I’m already a mess maybe I should go investigate? Seems weird, it collapsing that way. What if there’s something under there?”

“It is rather odd. But I most certainly can’t let you go alone. What if there’s another collapse? You could get hurt down there.” Aziraphale looked at Crawly and then back at the water, before nodding in decision. “But I absolutely refuse to drag my wings through the mud again.” And while Crawly rolled their eyes and began to protest, they spent a moment to concentrate, drawing themself inward so that their wings became non-corporeal, vanishing into the ether, the water and mud formerly saturating the white feathers splashing them both.

Crawly gasped in shock, waving a hand where the shimmering white wings had been, running their hand over Aziraphale’s back, at a complete loss for words to feel no sign of their wings at all. “What, how? Did you—”

Aziraphale couldn’t help but smile a little at their friend’s consternation. “No, I didn’t know we could do that. But it was easy enough to extrapolate that since we can withdraw our auras until they are undetectable that we could, as I’ve demonstrated, be able to hide all manifestations of our natures while inside these forms. And it certainly makes it simpler to deal with deep water.”

Crawly frowned at Aziraphale, and at their own muddy wet wings. “I, I guess.”

Aziraphale took their hand. “You don’t have to. You can accompany me just as you are. Or you could wait on the shore while I look, I don’t mind. Whatever you prefer.”

Crawly made a face. “I’m not going to let you go alone, don’t be daft.” They closed their eyes to help themself concentrate and did as Aziraphale had. They could still vaguely sense their wings, but as a much more distant, peripheral feeling than when their wings were corporeal. “That’s... I’m not sure I like that,” Crawly admitted, rolling their shoulders at how bare their back felt, without the brush of feathers. It was weird, how quickly they’d gotten used to the feel of being in a body.

“Once we’re out of the water, we’ll be back to our usual selves,” Aziraphale reassured them. “Ready? Probably best if we not breathe for a while.”

“Huh, yeah,” Crawly agreed. Hand in hand they waded back into the water and with a nod slipped beneath the surface, letting themselves sink down to the bottom. The bright sunlight pierced down, illuminating the plants growing in the silt, and the odd collapsed area that proved to have been part of the roof of a large sandstone cave that went under the western shoreline.

Only it wasn’t a natural overhang. It had clearly been carved from the stone, at one time supported by a massive variegated-blue stone pillar that they found mostly buried in silt. They could tell the shattered pillar had been carved, but it was almost impossible to tell what it had been shaped into, the details obscured by the damage.

Inside the cave they found the shattered remains of a red pillar, as well as some bits of a black one and a white one. There were piles of broken pottery and what might have been wooden shelves, all of it mostly submerged within a deep layer of silt, with nothing to show what the place had been.

They were both lost in their thoughts as they cleaned themselves up. Crawly left the water and dismissed their wings just long enough for the water to drop from the plumage before drying themself with a snap and magicking their cleaned robes back on. Aziraphale roused from their thoughts when they began to run their fingers through their hair and made an annoyed noise, finding a twig tangled there. “Angel—”

“Oh, might I help?”

“Ugh, yes, please,” said Crawly, settling down on a dry spot nearby. They bowed their head as Aziraphale followed their example before keeling beside them. “Angel…” They sighed a little as their friend began freeing their hair from around the twig, “you know what that was, don’t you?”

Aziraphale had certainly felt the inrush of power that signified holy ground. They’d seen Crawly’s expression when they’d entered the cave and had no doubt they’d felt it too. But more than that, it too had been hauntingly familiar, and that worried the white-winged angel, though they couldn’t put into words why. “I don’t think we should talk about it,” they whispered, darting a worried look skyward. “Best if we just forget about it. Clearly it was… abandoned,” they said, gently untangling Crawly’s long curls. “After whatever disaster destroyed the pillars.”

“It was lightning,” Crawly whispered back. “Fused some of the crystals into a kind of glass.” They let the matter drop when they saw Aziraphale’s worried expression, saying instead, “Thanks for this. Not sure long hair is worth it, with how tangly it gets.”

“Oh, well if you must, you must. It’s quite lovely on you though,” sighed Aziraphale, gently running their fingers over Crawly’s hair once the twig was free. “Ah, a comb! That will help.”

“Gah, why didn’t I think of that?” Crawly smirked, accepting the wooden comb Aziraphale miracled up. “Thanks angel.”

“You’re very welcome Crawly.” They settled back and watched the black-winged angel comb their hair for a moment, slipping a look towards Crawly’s wings, still ruffled from their impromptu dive beneath the water before murmuring, “Of course, I, er, I do owe you, since you saved me from the water. I mean, if you’d li-oof!” They let out a laugh at having a sudden face full of wing, sighing a little at the silken feel of the dark feathers. “I take it this is a yes?”

“Mm hmm,” Crawly said, closing their eyes when they discovered that it did feel as lovely as they’d thought it would, only to open them again when something tickled their nose. “Oh, I see how it is,” they teased, sinking their fingers into Aziraphale’s feathers, and getting a beaming smile in return. “Just like that, huh?”

“Well, fair’s fair, my dear,” said Aziraphale, shifting so their left shoulder was resting against Crawly’s. “I did heal your hand. I wouldn’t want you to have too deep of a debt.”

“Oh, right, right,” Crawly agreed, grinning at Aziraphale. “I mean, I only kept you from crashing into the ground, splat, when you forgot how wings work.”

“Well, that is true,” Aziraphale said lightly, beginning to pull their wing away, only to stop when Crawly failed to let go. “Oh, wait, no, I taught you about the perfection of apples. That’s a terribly big debt, my dear.”

Crawly laughed, bumping their shoulders together. “The perfection of apples is worth just about anything, angel, I’ll agree with you there. I guess I’d better-” They grinned when Aziraphale kept them from furling their wing away. “No?”

“No.” Aziraphale’s smile went a little wobbly and they had to look away for a moment. “I’m so glad to have you as my friend, Crawly.”

“Aziraphale… I’m so glad you’re my friend too.” Crawly looked away from those golden eyes reflecting the sunset, pressing their shoulder tightly against Aziraphale’s. “I, uh, I know we were going to spend the night looking at the spells in the wall, but let’s put that off, yeah? I can walk you back to the Tree, or I can go, do, er, something, if you want some quiet to rest?”

“You know, I think I’d better stay with you, if you don’t mind,” said Aziraphale. “Who knows what sort of trouble you might get into by yourself,” they teased. “And you’re rather restful company, at least, I find you to be.”

“Really?” Crawly’s amusement at the teasing melted into a pleased smile. “I find you restful too.” They stood and helped Aziraphale up. “Where to first?”

“To get something more to eat,” said Aziraphale, lacing their fingers together with Crawly’s. “I ate all the apples I had while bathing and I’m still rather peckish.”

“Should we try something new?” Crawly asked, taking the lead as the sun slipped behind the wall. “There’s an awful lot of competition for your apples to contend with. It’s going to take a while.”

Aziraphale laughed at Crawly’s mock-serious tone. “Oh, indeed, it will be a terrible trial, trying all the variety the Almighty has given us. I really don’t know how we’ll endure it, my dear.”

“Don’t worry angel, you won’t have to endure it alone,” Crawly said, giving their hand a squeeze.

“Oh, yes.” The white-winged angel smiled fondly at them. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Another perfect night illuminated by a brilliant full moon found Crawly in giant serpent form, coiled in the shadow of the garden wall, heart pounding, tensed and ready to strike. There were gibberings and gnashing teeth and scrabbling against the masonry, until finally one of the monsters found a handhold and crawled up and over, mostly falling into the garden, luckily, or unluckily, landing within striking distance.

The creature howled and barely missed Crawly’s head as they brought a massive clawed fist down, too slow to hit them after they delivered their venom and withdrew back into the illusion Aziraphale had cast to hide them. Even as it raised its arm to strike out a second time it crumbled to ash as the venom took effect.

On the wall another Thing’s triumphant crowing ended with a sizzling squawk, and the scent of burning hair filled the air as Aziraphale, also veiled in moonlight and shadows, caught one by surprise, the fire of the sword swiftly consuming it beyond ash. “Another one coming your way,” they warned, retreating back into their illusion as two more came over the top of the wall.

Crawly darted out of the way when one dropped down and attempted to stomp on them in spite of the illusion, dealing a lighting quick bite to the thing’s leg in the meantime. “Nasssty,” they hissed, gagging at the frigid cold sand the skin of the Thing left on their tongue before it too burned away to nothing.

There was another sizzling sound, and this time the stench of burning feathers wafted down from the wall. After that there was only the sound of the angel panting for breath, and Crawly expended some power to slither up the stones to the top. Aziraphale’s white robes and wings smudged with ash and blood and Crawly quickly shifted back into their bipedal form. “You’re hurt!”

“No no, I caught myself on one of the crystals,” Aziraphale admitted, rolling their eyes at themself, holding up their left hand and the already healed cut. “I feel like such an idiot.”

Crawly let out a breath of relief. “Don’t scare me like that, Aziraphale!” The angels had quickly learned that injuries caused by the Things needed to be treated right away or they would fester and refuse to heal, and magic was no use in treating such wounds.

“Sorry, my dear. Any sign of the rift?”

The black-winged angel turned to look outward, scanning the area for signs of where the Things had come from. When that failed to detect anything they sent out their senses in all directions, just in case this time the Things were numerous enough to try attacking on multiple fronts. “Closed already, just one, due west like all the others. Maybe they’re running out of energy, sending only four.”

“I certainly hope so,” said Aziraphale, cleaning off the sword and themself with a snap. “Three nights in a row now. After weeks of quiet. And upstairs is still no use.”

They mimicked their respective bosses in perfect sync, “You’re the Guardian, so Guard!” Crawly led Aziraphale down the steps they’d miracled into being after the first few attacks so they wouldn’t have to waste energy defying gravity. “At least they’re consistent.”

“Who, the Things or the archangels?” groused Aziraphale, making Crawly laugh.

They cleaned up at a nearby canal before beginning their long walk back to the Tree. When they arrived Aziraphale ducked into the chamber to return the sword to its place and when they reemerged Crawly already had tea and a selection of fruits laid out on the rock that had become their spot. “I do believe I owe you, for scaring you so rudely earlier.”

“Yes, I rather think you do,” said Crawly with a small pleased smile, using an obsidian knife to prepare the fruits. “You can make the morning tea.”

“Oh, getting some of the weirder ones again I see,” said Aziraphale, looking over the selection curiously. “I don’t recognize this one?”

“Dragon fruit. And this one is a tomato. Pretty sure neither one of them comes from a tree.”

This was a conversation they’d had many times and Aziraphale hid their smile behind a bite of tomato. “But the Tree is the primordial Tree of Life, the ideal from which all things grow.”

Crawly popped a piece of dragon fruit into their mouth. “Cactus don’t grow from trees! And that’s a kind of nightshade!”

“It’s a very tasty nightshade,” Aziraphale said, eating another piece when Crawly playfully glared. “And some cactus... resemble trees?”

Crawly sputtered. “That’s, that’s not how it works at all!”

“And yet.” Aziraphale laughed quietly as Crawly flopped back onto the rock with a dramatic groan and finished the dragon fruit.

“Go on, angel, say it. I know you want to.”

Aziraphale finished the tomato and said very primly, “It’s ineffable.” Another dramatic groan, drawn out as Crawly pretended to expire purely for Aziraphale’s amusement. When their laughter faded Aziraphale laid back on the rock beside Crawly.

“The ineffable plan will be the effin’ end of me,” Crawly predicted, ensuring their auras were tightly contained while letting their wings unfurl just the slightest, letting their primaries just barely brush against Aziraphale’s.

A pause, then the slightest rustle of Aziraphale’s wings unfurling to allow just their feathers to interlace with Crawly’s in a way no mere mortal feathers could. “I think it will be the end of everything, but also the beginning,” Aziraphale said lowly. They stayed there the rest of the night, staring up at the sky through the Tree’s canopy, the shimmering white feathers interlaced with iridescent black.

Chapter Text

“Crawly… are you seeing what I’m seeing?”

“What?” The black-winged angel looked over Aziraphale’s shoulder, jaw dropping open in shock. There was a giraffe browsing on one of the normal trees below their perch on the wall. Inside the Garden.

There was a sudden trumpeting call, and they shared a horrified look and awe-stepped down towards the Tree, staring in shock as they passed animal after animal, generally in pairs, sometimes in larger groups. It was with a momentary sense of relief that they found the animals were all avoiding even coming close to the Tree, but just to be sure they quickly gathered up all the fallen fruit and set up a magical barrier just to ensure they couldn’t get closer.

“Do we risk leaving to see what’s going on?” Aziraphale asked, staring and shaking their head in shock as a small herd of elephants demolished one of the non-magical fruit trees.

“I can go, I’m supposed to be ‘off duty’ during the day anyway,” Crawly pointed out.

“No, we’ll call them, let them come to us this time. If we’re the ‘Guards so Guard’, then we’re going to stay here guarding,” groused Aziraphale under their breath, summoning up all the ingredients needed to create a speaking circle. They considered going into the chamber but immediately discarded the idea with a sense of dread — something told them it was best if Heaven didn’t know they knew about that strange room and its lost relics.

Instead they had Crawly clear an area near the edge of the Tree’s canopy, turning it to flat black rock. If Aziraphale rushed the spell a bit, smudging a line or two, it didn’t matter with the sheer amount of furious energy they channeled into it, powering through any mistakes there might have been. “I seek guidance from a higher authority!” they snapped when the spell was complete.

“Uh, hello?” The voice had the same startled quality as someone disturbed from their bath.

“Yes, this is Aziraphale-”

“And Crawly.”

“From down in the Garden! There’s suddenly animals everywhere!”

“Oh, er...” There was muffled conversation that they couldn’t make out, what definitely sounded like snickers and the voice returned. “Yes, orders from upstairs. New phase in development you see. Just carry on as you were. You’re the Guardians-”

“THEY’RE DESTROYING THE GARDEN,” Aziraphale roared, and you could have heard a pin drop, if pins had been invented yet. Even the animals had stopped to stare. “If they are NOT brought under CONTROL we will be forced to KILL THEM, and it is WRITTEN that NONE in the GARDEN shall PERISH. So SOMEONE had better SORT IT OUT or will I come up there and DO IT MYSELF!”

Aziraphale stood panting next to the circle, glaring upwards, the echoes of their voice bouncing through the Garden as there was a flurry of worried voices and the shuffling of paper and a voice being raised in panic suddenly cut off with a click and replaced with the faint tinkling music of the celestial harmonies. “HELLO?”

“I think they put us on hold,” said Crawly, still staring in utter awe. Aziraphale looked towards Crawly, smiling just a bit at the black-winged angel’s huge pleased grin. Silently Crawly mouthed, “I think you’ve put the fear of you into them.”

Aziraphale didn’t bother to keep their voice down. “Good! This is ridiculous! And how do they think the Almighty is going to react when they find out about this?!”

At that point there was another click and a different voice came through, hissing for quiet before they spoke. “Hello? Guardians of the Garden of Eden?”

“Archangel Gabriel?”

“Yes. I have just been informed of this terrible mistake, seems the delivery folks went looking for you but they couldn’t find you. Seems you were up on the wall together instead of one of you guarding the Tree? But I just want to assure you that the animals will be taken care of and the damage repaired, fear not! Ha ha, that’s my little joke. We’ll make sure they won’t distract you too much from your very strenuous duties. Is there anything else you need? We really were in a quite important meeting.” There was another spate of snickers in the background that were quickly hushed.

Aziraphale’s face had gone red with fury and Crawly thought it best they step in before the white-winged angel got them both smited back to kingdom come. “Aw, that’s great Gabe, just in time, ol’ Aziraphale had the flaming sword out and everything.” Crawly turned away to yell into the distance, “Oi, Aziraphale! Gabe’s got it sorted out! Yeah, no, no need to smite anyone!”

“Anyway, thought you’d like to know it’s been a few weeks since the last attack. You know, can’t be too vigilant since the last time one of us was alone we almost had to get a new body sent down. I think it was Sandy who ordered us to stay together, isn’t that right Sandy? Would have been a right proper mess you’d be dealing with if we’d had to flambé and fricassee all the Almighty’s work because of this little oversight. And then if we’d been busy with repelling invaders and one of the animals had damaged the Tree? Imagine the paperwork! Close call, that one, whew,” and they kicked over a candle and scuffed the marks, breaking the connection.

There was a breathless moment before bright white light flooded the Garden, and as fast as that the damage had been repaired and the animals no longer feeling hunger or thirst, nor had the drive to hunt or procreate. Aziraphale inhaled deeply in relief and slowly blew out their breath. “Thank you, Crawly. I don’t know what I might have said if you hadn’t stepped in.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling you were at the end of your rope. So, just me or are you getting the feeling they want us to fail?” Aziraphale nodded, scowling at the circle. “What’s up with that?”

“Did you get what they let slip though? They’ve been watching us! They knew we were at the wall together. The utter gall! They probably knew when I’d been hurt and had a grand laugh about it! What if you hadn’t known about those healing herbs?”

“Bastards,” hissed Crawly. “Do you think they’re watching us now?” The black-winged angel looked skyward with a sneer, but a knot of fear formed in their stomach.

“No. The Tree and all beneath its canopy are hidden from scrying, even Heavenly scrying. I tested it one of the times I went up to report.”

“Why? Test it, I mean?”

The white-winged angel’s face went bright red again. “Oh, well, I uh, I wanted to, to be sure we had privacy, if we, uh, you know, wanted it?” Aziraphale felt almost faint, being so bold, asking without asking if the black-winged angel would be interested in an official bond.

Crawly’s eyes went wide and they looked away, their own face getting hot, but they nodded. “Oh, right, right, good idea, yeah, yes. I, uh, I sure appreciate that.” They stood awkwardly for a moment before stooping to begin cleaning up the circle. “Best not leave this sitting around.”

“No, right, that’s all we need, accidentally sending up a pile of elephant dung.” Crawly broke into a grin and Aziraphale snorted but shook their head. “No, we will not do that, no matter how much they deserve it. But it’s fun to imagine.”

Crawly looked up, eyes alight with mischief. “I bet we could deliver it right to Gabriel’s desk.”

“No!” Aziraphale frowned severely at the suggestion, but laughter crinkled their eyes. “Don’t tempt me. Would serve them right, though.”

“Ooh, no, even better, lion poop. Just a little one? Imagine them dealing with the smell.”

Aziraphale laughed but it quickly faded. “They might be able to hear us, when we’re not under here. We’ll have to be careful what we say.”

Crawly made a face but nodded. “Do you… Do you think we should pretend to not be friends?”

“I, I don’t know. Maybe? Why are they doing this? I don’t understand this.”

“They need someone to take the blame when the Garden fails,” growled Crawly, reaching over and lacing their fingers with Aziraphale’s. “That’s what this is all about isn’t it? I remember the complaints about Eden, about the Garden.”

Aziraphale nodded, staring down at their clasped hands. “We’ll have to be more careful.”

“I have an idea.” That light of mischief was back in their eyes, and it drew out Aziraphale’s smile.

“Yes, I was rather worried you might.”

And the plan was this: the others, being non-corporeal, would likely have no idea how to differentiate between a real animal, or one of them shape shifted to look like a real animal. Being bound into corporeal form actually made them harder to detect to Celestial senses, as evidenced by their accidental spying on the first day. No way the archangels would have allowed that had they known. So, pick normal enough animals and they’d be almost undetectable to Heavenly spying.

“But how will we know if they’ve noticed anything?” asked Aziraphale, eyes going wide when Crawly’s grin curled into what they could only call unholy glee. “Crawly, no.”

“Crawly, yesss,” they hissed, shifting into a light colored Arabian sand boa, to not stand out too much against Aziraphale’s clothes. “You know it’s a good idea.”

“I highly doubt that.” Aziraphale let out a heavy sigh but gently gathered them up, trying not to chuckle at their odd appearance, hesitating for a moment before holding them up to their shoulder. “You’ll need to hold on.”

Crawly gently curled themself around Aziraphale’s neck, resting their head below their left ear. “This okay?”

“Mmhmm. So, where do you think?”

“South. The oasis.”

“Hold on.” Aziraphale pressed a hand gently to Crawly’s back and pulled on their power to awe-step farther than they ever had before, bringing them leagues away from the Tree, far outside the bounds of the Garden. They stumbled a little, feeling winded, and looked around as the nearest water birds all whirred into the air in alarm. They were standing on the edge of a large oasis, a mass of birds wheeling overhead, the air full of their cries and swarms of insects.

“It’s so sssodding bright,” Crawly hissed and Aziraphale lifted their hands to shield both their eyes. “Thanksss.”

There was a sudden rush of power and an archangel manifested nearby, terrifying the rest of the animals into fleeing. “Aziraphale! Why are you outside the Garden? Abandoning your duty?” accused Ligur, aswirl with smug superiority. “Running like a coward?”

The white-winged angel licked their lips and said hoarsely and honestly, “We thought there was something dangerous. Had to check.”

“Oh. At least Crawly kept to their post this time. Don’t dawdle,” they said sullenly, vanishing.

Aziraphale pretended to look around before awe-stepping back into the unscryable space beneath the Tree’s canopy. “Are you comfortable? May as well stay there until nightfall.”

“I’m going to shift into something better able to deal with the sun,” Crawly said. Power shivered through their skin and they grew slightly into a light brown horned viper.

“At least you won’t twist your ankles this way,” murmured Aziraphale, supporting Crawly again as they walked away from the Tree, keeping an eye out for any pitfalls of an odoriferous nature.

“That’sss what I was thinking! Ssso, what shape will you wear tonight?”

“Something bigger,” Aziraphale decided, stroking a gentle finger over Crawly’s back when they felt them sigh. “Are you cold? Snakes are sensitive to cold aren’t they?”

“Oh, n- uh... maybe a little,” Crawly said, hissing with pleasure when Aziraphale carefully rested their warm hands on their back, their thumbs slowly stroking over their scales. “That’sss lovely.”

Aziraphale smiled. “I’m happy to hear it, my dear.”

When evening fell, they returned to the Tree. Crawly returned to their bipedal form and began picking up the fallen fruit while Aziraphale decided on what they were going to turn into. There was a snap of fingers and a deep chested huff and a massive golden cat that looked like a cross of leopard and a cheetah was sitting where Aziraphale had been.

“What do you think?”

Crawly paced around them, unconsciously reaching out a hand to touch their fur, almost pulling their hand away in embarrassment when Aziraphale pushed the top of their head against the black-winged angel’s hand. “Oh, you’re so soft,” they breathed, shifting to bury both hands in the ruff of fur around their neck. “Why so big thought?”

“So you can lean on me if you need to,” said Aziraphale, looking up at Crawly with golden eyes. “Should we test them again? West?”

Crawly nodded, leaving one hand buried in their fur and ‘stepping them beyond the Western Gate, onto the expansive plains of Eden, abuzz with life. The stars were just starting to come out, and again almost no time passed before they sensed the presence of an archangel and Gabriel was there lighting up the area and scaring everything quiet.

“Serpent, why have you left the Garden?” Gabriel demanded. “You must guard the Garden!”

“Hey Gabe,” drawled Crawly, their fingers tightening in Aziraphale’s fur. “Just had to check something out. The Things keep coming from this way, you know. Very dangerous.”

“The rules are meant to be followed without question,” the archangel said harshly. “You’ll learn your lesson soon enough, mark my words.”

“And when you twist the rules around to mean whatever you want them to mean?” Crawly asked, looking up at the sky, knowing it would annoy Gabriel, who considered it disrespectful to look away when speaking with someone. “What lesson does that teach?”

“At least that fool Aziraphale knows how to keep a civil tongue.” The archangel vanished.

“Well, that’s ironic,” growled Aziraphale lowly, leaning against Crawly’s side. “Jerk.”

Crawly laughed, digging their fingers into the fur beneath Aziraphale’s ear, grinning when they started to purr. “C’mon angel, let’s go for a little walk, hmm? It’s a nice night for it.”

Aziraphale was peeved enough to agree after only a token protest, and they headed east, towards where the Western Gate in the Garden wall towered.

It was the first of a great many forays into Eden and the wider world.

Chapter Text

In their timeless guarding, the angels chased off more monstrous Things from other dimensions and risked wandering farther and farther from the Garden. It was returning from one such journey that they discovered the sudden installation of a pair of curious young humans and were given neither warning or explanation. When they tried to ask their respective bosses, they were given familiar non-answers and told to mind their business. The exact wrong thing to say, or perhaps right thing, depending on who you ask.

In human guise, Aziraphale taught them the niceties of society, the laws that people create and keep to let them live together in harmony, the stories about why things are the way they are. Also in human seeming, Crawly taught them the secret ways of the animals and the sky, that questions need to be asked even when there isn’t a ready answer. That sometimes rules should be broken. It was an idyllic time, but as the days passed both angels could sense a growing restlessness in the humans, a need for more than just each other and their teachers and the tame beasts of the Garden.

Aziraphale, wings out and basking in the sun after a long day of being hidden from the humans, was walking along the eastern wall, deep in thought. Crawly was draped around Aziraphale’s shoulders in a snake form, also basking in the sun as well as the warmth of Aziraphale’s shoulders and the comfortable silence of long time friendship. They knew something was bothering the white-winged angel but that Aziraphale would talk when they were ready.

“I’m worried. That something bad is going to happen.”

Crawly started from their doze. “Yess, I’ve been having that feeling as well.” Crawly couldn’t help but think about how much the humans had grown and changed in the brief time they’d known them. “Shouldn’t there have been something from upstairs by now? About what to do with them?”

“They’re too clever to be stuck in here forever with nothing to do. You see how they sigh wistfully when we talk about making things, about hunting and farming and exploring. They know almost every nook and cranny of the Garden.” The only places they didn’t know were the hidden ruins and the relic chamber.

“Yes, exactly! We can at least go out into Eden if we’re bored, or even upstairs to socialize if we were really desperate.” Crawly agreed. They had never been that desperate. “I mean, the animals are pretty content to be kept alive with miracles and even they’re getting bored.”

“Your idea of having races was really inspired, though I think we’re going to have to put the cheetahs and gazelles in race by themselves.”

“Yeah, probably.” Crawly tasted the air, sensing something in the distance. “Do you taste that?”

“I think you mean smell,” corrected Aziraphale, taking in a deep breath. “That… that’s, rain?”

“Yeah.” They shared a long look. “It’s never rained.”

Aziraphale swore and awe-stepped off the wall back to the Tree, Crawly clinging tightly to their shoulders, skidding to a stop at the edge of the Metatron’s crackling power where it hovered over the cowering humans, a ripe red fruit on the ground between them, like a splash of blood. “—from this Tree you may not take, and you shall be punished unto death!”

The angels flung themselves between the Metatron and the two terrified young humans, both of them subsuming their corporeal forms to reveal their Celestial selves. Crawly expanded into a massive fiery winged serpent that constantly coiled in on itself, Aziraphale rising radiant into the air with an ever shifting array of wings, the sword unsheathed and aflame in their hand.

“STOP!” they commanded in unison.

“Move aside! They have taken of the Tree without permission!”

“Fruit that has fallen is given, not taken,” Crawly protested.

“Don't play silly buggers with me, serpent! They have earned their demise!”

“It is written that none in the Garden shall perish,” Aziraphale responded.

“Who are you to defy me? I am Metatron! Those who take of this Tree uninvited are to be punished unto death! It is written!”

And the two very brave and foolish angels shared a brief look and said, “Prove it.”

Eve, dressed in swathes of white and black cloth, gently held the tiny snake close, walking as fast as she could over the treacherous root-bound ground, nodding as it hissed directions into her ear. She gathered up everything as she was told and hurried to the north, where Adam, dressed much as Eve was, was busily making a hole in the wall with the aid of a giant golden ox. The gates had been sealed by the Metatron in a fit of pique before they retreated to consult with the Council of Heaven about what and exactly where it was written.

High above them, standing on the top of the wall, two illusionary decoy angels carried out whatever inane dialog the true angels, in their distracted state, could mentally manage. The two humans gave them teary heartfelt goodbyes before escaping out into Eden to a place the angels knew would shelter them from the coming storm. With a bit more magical trickery they slipped inside their illusions, resuming their usual forms just as the rain began to fall. Aziraphale lifted their wing over Crawly when they shivered as the cold drops began falling in greater numbers. They stood vigil on the wall until they could see the two young humans no more and dejected and drenched, they returned to the safety of the Tree.

They sat in silence for a long while, the storm raging overhead, but little rain reached them beneath the shelter of the Tree. “Did we do the wrong thing?” Aziraphale finally asked.

“I mean, it was probably the stupid thing, but wrong…” Crawly made a face and shrugged. “More so, did we do the right thing? We sent them off into the world with barely anything.”

“We taught them all we could. And they have the sword. And the other things..?”

“I was wondering if you’d meant it. Yes, I had her take them. Why, though?”

Aziraphale frowned but shook their head, tears welling in their eyes. “I don’t know, it just felt important that they not be left here. I think… I think this is going to be our last night here.” Together. Words lodged in their throat, but fear kept them from speaking and they turned away, ashamed.

Crawly nodded, looking down at the rock they were sitting on, knowing in their heart it was true. After what they had done, there was no way they would go unpunished for long. Their eyes were drawn to Aziraphale’s back as they stood watching the storm, their wings and clothes still drenched with rain, and Crawly realized this was likely their only chance. “Aziraphale?”

The white-winged angel turned back to them, moving to sit beside them, eyes questioning when the black-winged angel just stared at them. “Crawly? Did you need something?”

Now or never, said a voice in Crawly's mind. “I seek a boon, Aziraphale.” The words crackled with power. It was part of the primordial ceremony for creating a bond between two Celestials. It could only be dissolved by an unsaying, by those involved disavowing the bond and renouncing the oath, but it could be refused and Crawly’s heart was in their eyes.

Aziraphale’s eyes went wide and soft and they mouthed in surprise, You do? but said aloud the proper response, “Ask and be heard, Crawly, I attend you.”

The black-winged angel gave them a tumultuous relieved smile, continuing the ritual. “I seek to forge a bond between us, an arrangement of mutual trust.”

Aziraphale quickly nodded in agreement and smiled. “Once forged it may never be sundered.”[1]

Crawly offered their hand. “Shoulder to shoulder.”[2]

Aziraphale clasped Crawly’s hand and spoke the final phrase. “My wings to yours.”[3]

Ethereal power swept through them and knocked the breath from both of them. Overhead the storm seemingly redoubled with a thunderous crash in response and giant hailstones began to tear through the leaves, sending them fleeing into the stone chamber.

They both found that without the relics, the sense of disquiet they had always felt was gone. They had cleaned it up early on, and had eventually used it to store the fallen fruit and their tea making things, and Crawly had made a pallet for Aziraphale to rest on when the Thing had injured them. By mutual accord they kept the illumination low, to match the somberness of the situation. They stood together next to the cushion for a long moment before Aziraphale asked lowly, “May I groom your wings for you Crawly?”

“Oh, but-” That was quite a departure from the etiquette, as usually the one who asks is the one who does the first tending. But they had been tending to one another’s wings for a long time now, and politeness was for strangers, not the best of friends.

“I’m sure I still owe you for making tea the other day.” Aziraphale’s eyes crinkled a little, inviting Crawly in on the joke.

“Oh, yes, a rather heavy debt.” They smiled crookedly and sat down on the pallet, unfurling their wings when Aziraphale sat down behind them. “If you insist.”

“I very much do,” Aziraphale murmured. They could feel the bond almost but not quite mingling their outer auras together, shimmering over them like the lingering warmth after a hug, and their throat ached with regret that they hadn’t had the courage to ask Crawly for the privilege sooner. “Your wings really are lovely, my dear. Black suits you.”

“You flatter me, angel.” Crawly had their eyes closed, trying to commit every moment and sensation to memory, a painful ache over their heart at the knowledge that this was the end of their time together. That the bond, so new but somehow familiar, would never be given a chance to deepen once they were separated.

They sat in silence as Aziraphale tenderly set Crawly’s feathers to rights, taking care to smooth each one, shifting around to do the same for the inner feathers and stopping when they saw the tears running down Crawly’s face. “Oh, Crawly, I don’t know what I will do without you,” Aziraphale confessed, unable to stop their own tears from falling, lacing their fingers with Crawly’s.

Crawly opened their eyes, which seemed to glow in the dim interior, and swore, “I will find you, wherever, whenever you need me. My wings to yours.”

“My wings to yours,” Aziraphale echoed. “I will always be there for you. Always.”

“Always.”

Chapter Text

Morning did come to the Garden eventually, and it was almost unrecognizable; the greenery had been shredded by the wind and hail, and a portion of the Garden drowned beneath the flooded canals and the temperature had dropped low enough for frost to have formed. It was utterly still once the wind died away, with no sign of any of the animals, as though they’d been spirited away in the night.

The Tree had fared no better than the rest of the Garden with most of the leaves shorn off or shredded, every bloom torn apart and scattered, and where there had been ripening fruit were blackened scorch marks.

It was well after dawn when the storm finally blew over and the two angels reluctantly left their sanctuary under the tree. They stared in horror at the devastation, at a loss for what to do.

“Why destroy the fruit?” murmured Crawly, realizing there wasn’t even any on the ground, just more scorch marks.

“Did they destroy the animals too?” worried Aziraphale, doing a quick magical search but not able to find anything at all within the Garden. Thankfully there weren’t any bodies or scorch marks but it was cold comfort.

“Seems a bit much, don’t it?” Crawly slid their hand into Aziraphale’s.

“Yes,” whispered Aziraphale, clasping their hand tightly. “I, uh, I guess we should we fix the wall?”

Crawly shrugged. “It’s something to do.”

They started from the center and worked outwards, with Aziraphale working towards the outer side and Crawly towards the inner. They were still there when the light shone down from above and the black-winged angel ended up overhearing the whole conversation Aziraphale had with the Almighty. When the holy light was gone Crawly awe-stepped through the wall, staring at the white-winged angel in shock. When they almost began speaking they waved them quiet and awe-stepped them back to the safety of the Tree. “Aziraphale! Must have put it down somewhere?!

“I panicked!” Aziraphale wailed, wringing their hands together. “Why did I do that, oh, I’m so dead, aren’t I? Beyond dead. Destroyed!”

Crawly took Aziraphale’s hands. “No, hey, look at me. I’m pretty sure there would be no doubt if the Almighty were done with us, right? I mean,” they gestured at the destruction of the Garden, “right?”

Aziraphale let out a slow breath and nodded. “Right, right… so, I guess we wait?”

“It’s not like we can fix this.” Hand in hand they walked to their spot and sat, shoulders pressed together, shivering in the ominous quiet.

Unbeknownst to anyone, miraculously sheltered from the wrathful storm in a small cozy nook between the twined Tree trunks, there was one small fruit, just barely kissed with frost and rapidly growing to ripeness.

Pock. It was an infinitesimal noise that on any other day would have been impossible to hear, but in the unnatural silence it seemed thunderous. The angels looked up for the source of the noise, looking around as there was another minute sound of something hard bouncing off of wood. A rustle of leaves and, “Ow!” as something thumped off of Aziraphale’s head into Crawly’s right temple and the angels fumbled to catch it before it could hit the ground. Crawly held open their hand and stared in surprise. “An apple? But… the Tree's never grown apples before?”

It was small with a skin of mottled gold and red but it gleamed like it was made of glass. Aziraphale smiled sadly. “Maybe the Tree’s trying to make up for the potato thing?”

Crawly snorted and pulled out their little obsidian knife, splitting the apple neatly in two, giving half to Aziraphale. “Well, here’s to the Tree. To finally giving us the perfect fruit.”

“To the perfect fruit,” smiled the white-winged angel. They bit into it at the same time, and it was perfect, perfectly ripe, with the perfect ratio of sweet to tart, crisp and delicious. “Ow, what the...” Aziraphale spat out the hard thing they’d had the misfortune to bite down on.

“I do not like that!” Crawly complained, poking at the small dark oblong object that had gotten wedged between their teeth. “Did any of the others have seeds?” they asked, holding it up in the light and realizing it was iridescent.

Aziraphale stared at the seed in their palm, where it gleamed like nugget of gold. “No, never.”

The angels exchanged a confused look and turned to stare at the Tree, which suddenly lit up with an eldritch glow. Crawly sucked in a knowing breath and grabbed Aziraphale and awe-stepped them away, both of them getting knocked into each other and off their feet as the thunderous blast of the Tree being smited caught up with them.

When they got their wits back about them what they noticed first was a bright blue sky filled with non-corporeal angels. Second they noticed they were inside the still smoldering hollowed out base of the Tree. Thirdly they realized they somehow still had the tiny seeds clasped in their hands.

“Are they aware yet? Ah yes, we’re ready now,” said Sandalphon.

“The angels known as Aziraphale and, ahem ‘Crawly’ will stand judgment before the High Court of Heaven, for insubordination, dereliction of duty and the corruption of the humans. Now stand!”

Crawly’s lip curled in a sneer as they climbed to their feet and began to brush themself off, using the movement to drop the iridescent seed in front of Aziraphale. The black-winged angel flared their wings into a rather aggressive pose as a distraction, as Aziraphale quickly dropped the golden seed beside the iridescent one and covered them with a handful of dirt as they pushed themself up. The white-winged angel stepped on the little mound they had made, squared their shoulders and flared their wings as Crawly had, holding up their hand.

“I beg your pardon, uh…?”

A sigh. “Archangel Phanuel.”

“I beg your pardon, Archangel Phanuel, but I really must protest-”

“Silence! You were seen on numerous occasions to be walking around the Garden together, leaving no one guarding the Tree. There’s no way you can justify-”

“Sandalphon told us to stay together if we were ‘too cowardly to be alone’!” snapped Crawly.

“There were threats coming at us from beyond the wall!” protested Aziraphale.

“Yes, well, when there were no threats, one of you was to stay with the Tree,” sneered Phanuel.

“Really? And when were we supposed to rest?” asked Crawly, and in the second row someone groaned in dismay.

“What?” Phanuel asked suspiciously.

“They asked, when were we allowed to rest? I was told that I was to rest at night while Crawly was to guard. Big on rest, the Almighty, isn’t that correct?” Aziraphale asked the assembled angels. They took a deep breath and asked, “Was this a lie?”

If non-corporeal beings could gasp in outrage, the arrayed archangels would have. As it was the susurration they caused was enough to stir up the embers and ash around the two small corporeal angels. “Angels do not lie!”

Crawly did not look at Aziraphale. “Really? Did we forget what resting means, Aziraphale?”

“I don’t believe so, Crawly. For resting is to cease to work in order to renew and refresh oneself after a period of strenuous activity,” Aziraphale said primly, ignoring the heat on their face. “Is this not so?”

Another, louder susurration stirred up the ash and embers, dusting Crawly’s black robe with pale streaks and singeing Aziraphale’s white robe with dark smudges. “How could you be resting while together? You are too different!” said another of the Celestials.

“We are also alone,” said Aziraphale. “These bodies do not like being alone. So we have had to be alone together.” Aziraphale’s eyes were drawn to the stiffly upright figure beside them, their black wings still flared as though prepared for a fight. “But Crawly is very restful company, and I’d have it no other way.”

Crawly had to look at Aziraphale then, giving them just a hint of a smile. “Aziraphale never ceases to amaze me. I’d have gone absolutely mad with boredom if they weren’t here.”

“Boredom? What is this boredom?”

A look of consternation passed between them. How to explain something so mundane to beings who had never even dealt with gravity? “It’s a failing of the corporeal brain,” said Aziraphale. “There are only so many times it can process the same thing before it tires and rejects all further instances of the same processes until it has recovered. The animals experienced it to some degree and the humans were extremely prone to it.” Crawly gave them a look and Aziraphale shrugged, raising their eyebrows to ask if they had any better explanation. “It took everything we had to keep them occupied or they might have torn the Garden apart looking for something new to do.”

“For my money, it’s the gravity,” Crawly added with a smirk. “A soddin’ menace, to be honest.”

A great many scoffing noises issued forth at that, and Aziraphale recognized the gleam in Crawly’s eye. The white-winged angel realized immediately what the black-winged angel was thinking and found themself frowning to cover the grin that wanted to escape. “You’re probably right, my, er, compatriot. We should probably get a commendation for dealing with the gravity alone.”

“Ha, right?! And another promotion! No one else’s as brave as us, what with the gravity and the rocks and the Things, and the blasted animals everywhere.” A sidelong look at Hastur, who was churning with agitation had Crawly’s grin going even sharper. “We’re just lowly guards after all. It’s not as though you ever told us what to do, or sent us any help.”

“Just us two, the lowliest of the Host. Guarding the whole of the Almighty’s creation. Alone.” Beneath the calm tone, Aziraphale’s fury leaked through.

“Makes you wonder who made that decision, doesn’t it?” said Crawly. “And why?”

That silenced the assembled angels rather neatly, and if they had had bums and chairs, they might have been shifting around uncomfortably from the seats beginning to get a little hot. “Oh, well, we were, uh, quite confident in your abilities to deal with one small garden. I mean, you are angels after all.” said Phanuel.

Small being entirely relative, of course,” Aziraphale said, almost apologetically. “Do you know how long it takes to move a body from one gate to the other at normal walking speed? Half the day! And while the awe-step is useful for speed, it uses twice the energy walking does. That means needing more rest.

“And yeah, sure, we can go completely non-corporeal, but that takes even more energy, doesn’t it?” Crawly added. “Especially if we want a body to wear again when we’re done. Seems there’s a lot of paperwork and red tape to get issued a new one if this one gets broken, eh Uriel?”

“Unfortunately, since we needed to guard effectively in this dimension, we could not spend our days in the ethereal plane twiddling our wings to waft about amongst the stars, now could we? Gravity, like responsibility, is unavoidable, and if we must fight a corporeal Thing, so must we stay corporeal.”

“Isn’t that right Hastur?” Crawly called. “Isn’t that what you told me? Might not remember much, but that one’s pretty clear in my mind. Need a body to affect the world you told me, eh?”

There was a drawn out silence as the angels milled about, trying to figure out how they had lost the upper hand in what had seemed like a very clear cut case against the two small but defiant angels. Apparently none of them had decided to remember the futures in which they didn’t get their way. “It can’t be that bad.”

Aziraphale’s eyes blazed in triumph, but the angels did not recognize it and assumed the two corporeal angels folding in their wings and making them incorporeal was a sign of resignation. “You’re welcome to prove us wrong, if you think you can,” drawled Crawly, inventing the dare.

Another interesting fact about celestial beings: the more powerful they are, the harder the transition to corporeal form is for them to adjust to. Humans typically get a handful of years of crying and peeing their pants to grow into to their senses, and then a decade’s worth of fine tuning and another decade of putting on the finishing touches. Instead we have phenomenal cosmic power in an itty bitty living brain, suddenly dealing with gravity and locomotion and limited input that is still so very overwhelming; Touch! Balance! Vision! Sound! Temperature! And that’s not even taking into account the emotions involved.

What the Celestials didn’t really comprehend was that life has a way of, metaphorically speaking, getting under your skin. Each moment inside their bodies—the beating heart, the rush of blood, every puff of breath, all those senses wide open to a world they had never been able to experience before—was another anchor pulling them back. Life is a hard habit to break and even if they did break it, the changes wrought could not be undone. Memories mangled beneath the steamroller of the senses were compressed into the tentative footing on which those fragile new bodies stood.

This was exactly what Crawly and Aziraphale had been banking on, and the gamble had paid off.

It was complete and utter chaos. A cacophonous tangle of feathers and limbs and a hundred voices crying out in shock when aura-projecting wing brushed aura-projecting wing and sent overwhelming sensations through unfamiliar flesh. It was a hurricane of confusion and emotions and ancient beings being suddenly subjected to gravity and corporeality, and in the center of the storm stood two trembling angels who could not risk looking at each other for fear of losing control and the very dangerous game they were playing. Crawly was crying from the effort to not give in to the laughter that wanted to break free. “Now what?” Aziraphale murmured, wiping at their tears with one hand and surreptitiously sliding their other hand into Crawly’s under the cover of chaos.

“Now we wait and see what they remember.” They stood shoulder to shoulder, clasped hands hidden in the folds of their robes, waiting for the others to get themselves into some semblance of order. There were tears and laughter and a few, including Archangel Phanuel, abandoned their corporeal forms and fled in horror from the experience and the sun was beginning to get low in the sky when the sudden presence of Gabriel brought fearful silence.

“What is the meaning of this?!” they demanded.

There was a lot of sheepish shuffling and staring down at the ground and the universal shrug of corporeal bafflement traveled through the crowd like a ripple in a pond. They had enacted the first instance of doing foolish things without fully understanding why, a tradition still carried on today by people throughout the universe.

“They decided that to properly enact justice, the entire Court has to understand the limitations of corporeality,” said Aziraphale truthfully, beaming up hopefully. They had a shivering sense that things could go very badly indeed in the next few moments, and Crawly’s hand tightened convulsively in theirs, showing they also had that sense of foreboding. “Of course gravity does take some getting used to, just like you said!”

Gabriel... hesitated. This wasn’t at all how they premembered things going. “And what was the verdict?” they asked.

There was a moment of almost palpable panic before Crawly said, “They didn’t come to one. How could they, without you? You are part of the High Court, aren’t you?” A sea of relieved faces nodded in agreement.

“Oh.” Another hesitation. “Well… if that’s what the Court has decided.” Of course the form Gabriel took was slightly bigger than any of the others, and they staggered around a bit, apologizing profusely when their wings brushed against another’s. “So sorry, wow, that, uh, very intense, isn’t it? Oh, I’m shaking. Why am I shaking? And my face is wet? Why is my face wet? Is that normal?”

“Oh yes,” said Aziraphale kindly, squeezing Crawly’s hand warningly when they hissed in triumph. “Definitely takes a while to get used to, we’ve found! It’ll pass soon.”

“That, that’s good,” said Gabriel, almost poking themself in the eye if not for one of the others stopping them and murmuring lowly in their ear. “Right, the judgment! I… You, Guardians of the Garden...”

“Retired now, of course, now that there’s no Tree to guard,” said Crawly, not feigning the sadness in their voice as they gestured at the wreckage.

“Kicked the humans right out too,” added Aziraphale. “Seems like more than enough punishment, as weak and vulnerable as they are. Probably be discorporated soon, what with all the, er, snakes and uh, lions, and-” Aziraphale stopped when Crawly elbowed them sharply in the side. “Seems the Almighty has abandoned this project, doesn’t it?”

Gabriel frowned, but couldn’t remember why that didn’t seem quite right. “Well, yes, I suppose so. Right, uh, then that’s all settled! Your superiors will have new assignments for you, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll forget you ever met. Better yet, make sure they’re kept apart, hmm?” Gabriel said to the others in a voice they thought was quiet, before they all ascended back to Heaven, leaving just Aziraphale and Crawly amid the smoldering ruin of the Tree.

Before they could say or do anything, a bright white light shone down, blinding with its intensity and when it was gone, so too were the remains of the Garden, leaving them alone on a small nondescript outcrop in the middle of the desert that had grown around what had been known as the Garden of Eden. They also had their new assignments and they shared sad looks before unclasping their hands. “I’m to work in the library,” said Aziraphale lowly.

“Back to working with the weather workers,” Crawly sneered. Most of them were just air-headed little Elementals that couldn’t even string a sentence together. “Could be worse.”

“Yes,” shivered Aziraphale. “Much, much worse.”

“I guess we’d better go.” They stared at one another for a long moment before falling into a hug.

Aziraphale couldn’t risk saying all they wanted to say for fear of watchers, but dared to whisper, “Always.”

“Always.” They turned away from each other and ascended back into heaven.