Crowley stared through the Bentley’s windscreen and tried to organize his thoughts into something approaching coherence. He felt like… like that time, during the Great War, when he hadn’t quite worked out yet what it was that grenades did, and one had gone off at his feet, and he’d been caught a bit by surprise by the whole thing. Not as much as the soldiers who’d watched him wander away from the blast afterwards, flexing his jaw against the ringing in his ears and pouring half a flask of whiskey down his throat, but still.
It was so much more than that, too--not just physical, and not just one small section of the world, this time, screaming its head off until he couldn’t think straight.
He found he rather wanted a cigarette, which was odd, because he’d never smoked. Had he? He thought back. A bit of opium, here and there, but that had been more to blend in with some of the people he’d been moving among at the time.
Tobacco hadn’t made it over from the Americas until late, and the angel had never much cared for the smell of it, especially the cheap stuff they smoked in the dives and squats Crowley was so often lurking about in this millennium. Crowley hadn’t bothered with it, had made a point of miracling it out of his clothes and off his skin whenever he met Aziraphale. Just in case, except not, because those few months in the 1860s had been a mistake.
Just in case, what? He’d had a reason. It had been a good one, too, he was sure. Just in case some perfectly good reason that had nothing to do with the angel’s preferences and everything to do with his own, or a practical concern, or something. Crowley’s lids closed over his aching eyes. Just in case the angel wanted to pull him close, kiss him, pet him a bit, tell him how beautiful he was. Just in case the angel wanted to warm a serpent at his breast, hold a dagger to his heart, plant the seeds of his own destruction.
Crowley shook himself viciously, trying to think through the miasma of fatigue and stress. It hadn’t been his fault. He’d been a fucking idiot, and so damnably careless, but it had all been falling apart from every direction, and the bookshop burning had had nothing to do with him. Aziraphale had said, and it made a certain, horrible amount of sense that it had been a Shadwell-related accident. God had seen fit to spare Crowley that much guilt, at least, though he was sure it had nothing to do with him personally.
He saw his own knuckles white around the steering wheel, and he made himself relax. The craving was so sharp he could almost smell it, almost taste it, but almost wasn’t of much help when half his neurons were refusing to fire. Vanilla and wine and sunshine and a cologne that hadn’t been manufactured for sixty years and soft fingers catching in his hair. Crowley pushed the thought away. This was some new thing, different than the dependency he’d been trying to kick for almost two centuries now. He wanted something else.
Just not, in all likelihood, a cigarette. Or maybe it was, but it wasn’t him wanting it. Maybe it was psychic spill-over from the billions and billions of primates just come to terms with their own mortality all at once.
Crowley rubbed his eyes, and the car behind him honked, and ah. The light was green. Yes. Green meant… gas pedal. Accelerator. Get moving again.
It had all been so much. It was all still so much. He’d thought it would be better, with Aziraphale dropped off at the bookshop safe and sound and the fuck away from him, but it was worse now, with everything closing in on him, crowding against him. It was like Aziraphale’s need had been serving as a sort of shield against the rest of it, against that nebulous, searching hunger the whole world was generating right now. Without the angel, Crowley was choking on smoke, on shadows, all of it pouring into him too fast to breathe it back out again.
Everyone was so upset, and frightened, and panicky. The world had almost ended, and it was rippling out from military bases and consulates and newsrooms like a tsunami, like the shockwave of a massive earthquake. Crowley felt like a circuit that had carried too much current for too long, charred at the edges and melting at the center, like his brain was leaking out of his ears and his skin was about to burst.
Was this what it was like to be a Duke? A Prince? All that power right there for the grabbing, but it was like eating burning coals the whole time? No wonder they were all such miserable bastards. Or maybe it was just the miserable bastards who found that out and then did it anyway. If any sort of pleasure or happiness was out of reach anyway, why not accept an extra portion of pain if it came with power beyond measure?
Crowley pulled the Bentley half onto the curb in front of his apartment building. He wanted to sleep for the rest of eternity, or at least until he couldn’t remember what it felt like to have the infernal churn of Satan himself surfacing and bringing all the fires of Hell with him, and all that extra malevolence trying to ground itself on the nearest available demon. It had been like lightning trying to shove its way into him through the pores of his skin.
And Heaven. Crowley rested his forehead on the steering wheel. He’d been dragged back to Heaven--kicking and screaming, irony of ironies--and the rotten fuckers had tried to kill his angel. They’d called Aziraphale a traitor, and they’d tried to kill him, and that had probably been at least a little Crowley’s fault, hadn’t it? Not that Aziraphale hadn’t thought it was worth it, at the end. He’d known the consequences of throwing in with Crowley, out there on that God-forsaken tarmac, and he’d done it willingly. And Heaven…
Crowley tried to focus on breathing, just for a minute. It had been so much easier, when Aziraphale had been sitting there next to him, living proof that Heaven hadn’t managed to pull it off. So much easier to think it had been preordained, that Heaven would try and fail and the angel would be safe forever after, a reward for his protection of humanity. Crowley grimaced. It was a nice thought, wasn’t it? Probably not even his.
Heaven had tried to murder Aziraphale, and they hadn’t been screwing around with it, either. All that hellfire had just been another blast of power right to his pituitary gland. Or was it his adrenal grand? Did his corporation even have glands? But it hadn’t been his corporation, and so it must have just been… him.
Either that or Aziraphale would be tearing the bookshop apart for a spring cleaning or a total reshelve and have no idea why he felt like he’d gotten into the vin mariani again. Maybe that was why it had been so difficult to be around him, after they’d switched back, all that coiled, looming angelic expectation ready to bury Crowley alive like a mined trench. It had been too much, that hope and anticipation and longing for God only knew what. Crowley had already offered everything he could, decades and decades and decades ago now, and it hadn’t been enough, hadn’t been right. What was left? What did he have now that he hadn’t had back then, before he’d opened his mouth and asked the angel for help, before he’d let his wounded pride get the better of him when Aziraphale had said no?
His freedom. Crowley slumped back and let his head rest against the seat. That wasn’t nothing, was it? They’d been spoken for, back in the day. All they’d been giving each other was the scraps that wouldn’t be missed. Maybe it could be different, now. Maybe that’s what the angel had wanted from him. Crowley yawned. Such a lovely dream.
Crowley wondered what would happen if he just curled up under the seat for a nap. He closed his eyes and saw Ligur melting, heard Hastur screaming that awful dying-rabbit shriek of his.
Crowley shot up, bolt upright, and blinked stupidly at his own reflection in the glass. He barely remembered getting cleaned up, but he must’ve. He wouldn’t have handed his corporation over to the angel covered in grime, ash, and sweat. He looked somehow normal, right now, at the moment. Normal but tired. Normal, and completely unassassinated, which was likely to be a temporary state of affairs if he just toppled over and passed out in the middle of the fucking street like an idiot.
He made himself get up, made himself move, made himself push his way into the lobby and stumble into the elevator. He felt sick, on top of everything. He’d eaten too much, let the angel feed him too much, swallowed food he didn’t deserve while he’d wallowed in love he hadn’t earned. Or maybe he’d gotten drunk? No, that thin layer of champagne was the only thing keeping him on his feet, the only buffer between him and a shell-shocked, frightened world.
Maybe he should have gone home with Aziraphale instead, accepted the invitation hovering around the angel like a swarm of barely-verbalized…
Crowley shuddered, a violent shiver running through him that he couldn’t stop. Aziraphale had been like one swirling mass of need and want and demands and pain and that first mania of real freedom, and Crowley barely had enough of himself left to select the correct floor on a fucking elevator panel. He was exhausted, like he’d spent the last week trying to reel in a whale and then the last day trying to reel in the kraken.
He’d managed in spite of himself not to make any fatal mistakes yet, had managed to keep it together up until the drive back from the Ritz, but Aziraphale would need to be handled carefully, and…
Crowley glowered at the plastic number buttons in front of him. All right, so he didn’t have enough of himself left to get the floor right, all the more reason not to try and negotiate the ever-shifting quicksand of what the angel might want from him. For a creature who only wanted to be loved, Aziraphale could be unpredictable about what that love looked like, what it would look like when he returned it. Crowley selected the right floor this time and swayed.
The last few days were a horrible, jumbled blur. Maybe when he woke up they’d be a fading blur, the sort of blur humans got from bad dreams, the sort of blur that all vanished into the ether after a big cup of coffee and a nice morning in the park.
The elevator slowed, stopped, chimed a helpful little ding, then began moving again when he didn’t get off. It was, Crowley decided, mocking him. And why not? He could have slithered into the bookshop, shown the angel how much he was hurting, and submitted to whatever supercharged fussing Aziraphale was capable of at the moment. He could even now be coiled up on a soft lap, held in tender arms, making the angel squirm with a well-timed flick of his tongue.
The very thought of it made his soul hurt, like salt on a fresh scrape. No. None of that, not until he’d pulled himself back together, not until he could stand up straight without falling flat on his face. No more blithe requests, no more overconfidence. He’d do it right this time, keep himself in check. No childish fantasies, no demands. Not until he could make sure of what he was asking for, make sure it wouldn’t see everything rescinded again, and for good this time.
And besides, that was assuming it was on offer, that Aziraphale wasn’t the one who’d need it more, and be looking for it from him, and he was…
Crowley frowned at the number pad. He was apparently clinically incapable, at the moment, of even reading a bunch of sequential numbers correctly. He gave up, unable to face the possibility of a third failure, and miracled himself into his apartment.
The resulting ripple of superheated power through his corporation made him want to spread his wings and scream at the heavens. Was that what Aziraphale had felt, when he’d held the flaming sword? Maybe that’s why he’d been so eager to get rid of it. Maybe that’s why humanity was what it was, because he’d given it to them. Crowley’d never had one, never had to worry about it. Been on the pointy side of one a few times, in between “No, what’s happening, surely we can work all this out, what did we even do that was so wrong?” and… well, yesterday.
Maybe that would be one of the things he didn’t quite remember, when he woke up. It would be nice not to remember that bit. It wasn’t like Aziraphale had meant it.
He shed his jacket, flinging it over that stupid throne he’d gotten just to needle Hastur. Not that it had taken much--him existing had seemed to needle Hastur just as much as anything else. Funny, which one of them had blinked first when it came time to face the flames.
Crowley wiped his face on the back of his forearm and staggered toward the bedroom. There was no tipped-over bucket, no unholy slag, no evidence of his crime. Aziraphale wouldn’t have cleaned it up, would he? No. Crowley would have been in for a real lecture, if the angel had let himself into the flat and found that. Maybe Adam had done it. Hell, maybe Dagon had sent some out-of-favor imp up with a rubber jumpsuit and a squeegee to give Ligur a proper burial. He flicked his tongue out, and no. No one else had been in the apartment. It was just clean, now. Probably Adam, then.
Crowley toppled face-first onto the bed. He’d sleep for a few weeks, give everything time to cool off. People could normalize just about anything, given enough time, and eventually all that background radiation and churning malice would dissipate. Maybe if he was unconscious for most of it, it wouldn’t hurt quite so much. If it was still this bad once he woke up, he’d throw himself on the angel’s mercy and face whatever it was Aziraphale was looking for from him in exchange for that drowning out the rest of it.
He had to expect it wouldn’t be, though--even the aftershocks of the plague had settled down within a few months, and that had been a damn sight worse than this. No bodies filling pits, no barricaded streets full of the quarantined dying. Just everyone staring at each other over the near miss and wondering what the everloving hell that had been about.
And… Aziraphale could look after himself for just a bit. It was the one part of it that pricked at Crowley, sank a barb deep and pulled at him, almost had him crawling back out of bed and into the Bentley. But as much as he didn’t like to let it go and leave the angel to it, Aziraphale could. He was trusting and loving and soft as a snail out of its shell, but he was too clever by half and there was a power to him that, even after all this time, Crowley didn’t know the full depths of. Hadn’t been meant to, because Aziraphale had never really quite trusted him, which just went to show that Aziraphale wasn’t the babe in arms everyone always saw him as.
Aziraphale was aware of the danger, and he could take care of himself, and now that he’d broken with Heaven, Crowley was sure he would take care of himself. They’d only gotten as far as they had with him because he’d been unwilling to raise a hand against them, Crowley was sure. That wasn’t a concern, now--Aziraphale knew the score. He’d defend himself, if he was attacked. He’d be fine. And if anything really worried him, he knew where Crowley lived. He could just call, or pound on the door, or tip the mattress over.
It would be fine. Crowley would sleep it off, and then he’d check on the angel first thing, as soon as he woke back up. It wasn’t so much to ask, really, in the grand scheme of things. Everything would be fine.
Crowley miracled his clothes into something more suitable, burrowed into his blankets, and let himself sink gratefully into oblivion.
Aziraphale rubbed his face and listened to the buzz of the doorbell sounding through the heavy wood of Crowley’s front door. Four minutes he’d been at it, trying to rouse Crowley from his damnable nap. Three days, and Aziraphale wasn’t going to tolerate a repeat of the 1800s, not now.
He considered just miracling the lock open. Crowley wouldn’t mind, would he? He’d practically said, back then, that Aziraphale was free to wake him up. Surely that extended to grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him awake just as much as it might spending an entire evening leaning on the doorbell. The memory of his fingers digging into Crowley’s shoulders rose unbidden, a flash of warmth in his hands and gooseflesh on his neck, echoes of what it had been to feel the heat of Crowley’s skin through soft linen and hear him moaning into Aziraphale’s ear. He’d never really shaken those memories, had he? Just buried them under duty and resentment and distance and a sort of stubborn asceticism.
He’d been--they’d been--so happy, those few months. Was it such an awful thing to want that back, to want to bury his face in Crowley’s neck and cry?
Aziraphale let up on the doorbell, took a breath, and then tried again. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the impulse to sleep for a decade, after the past week. He hadn’t slept since Crowley had asked for the holy water, hadn’t seen any point to it without a pretty demon stretched out by his side or curled up in his lap, and he’d still gotten the appeal, after the dust had settled. It would have been nice, just for a day or so, to not have to think about what had almost happened--to forget about Michael and the holy water, and having to possess poor Madame Tracy, and Crowley crying out in pain and falling to his knees and screaming no just when Aziraphale had begun to hope they were in the clear.
To forget about everything, really, his own behavior included.
He’d had such hope, that afternoon at the Ritz. It had been like an enormous weight falling from his shoulders, like suddenly coming out of a terrible fog, like stumbling into the sunshine again after being lost in a cave. They were free, free to do as they pleased on an Earth no longer facing the promise of imminent and utter destruction, free to consort with one another as they saw fit, free of unjust commands from oblivious and uncaring superiors. He’d thought, what? That Crowley would stay, afterwards. That Crowley would give him a lift home, and Crowley would hesitate for that moment it would take for Aziraphale to invite him in, and Crowley would accept.
He’d thought that things between them might go back to normal just as easily as the bookshop and the Bentley had been restored, that a relationship could be reconstituted from ash and slag as easily as a building or a car. He’d thought that if he could just hold Crowley for a few hours, it might make the whole thing a little less real. He’d really been quite stupid about quite a number of things, hadn’t he?
Crowley had given him a lift home, of course, but Crowley hadn’t gotten out of the Bentley, had motored away at an abominable speed as soon as Aziraphale had closed the door behind him, and had then proceeded to sleep for the next three days.
The first day had been bearable, more or less. Crowley had earned it, hadn’t he? They both had, though Aziraphale had found himself unable to do more than pick at a crumpet while his tea went cold, untasted. The new books Adam had thrown in for fun, or because he’d felt they ought to be there, or as a little present--who could tell, with an eleven-year-old boy at the epicenter of the biggest crisis humanity had ever faced?--should have been a welcome distraction. Aziraphale had glanced over them and then immediately plunged into a restless irritation with the whole project.
The bookshop felt empty and sterile, and his tea and biscuits all tasted stale, and his wine was sour, and even the cocoa he’d made had been flat and bland. He wondered if it was something to do with the way Adam had just willed his new corporation into being, but no--it felt exactly the same as his old corporation, to the point that Aziraphale was rather sure it was his old corporation, reconstituted. Whatever was wrong, it wasn’t his physical form. After a bit, he’d given up on food and drink. He’d paced, and fretted, and checked the locks on all the doors and windows a dozen times, as if they might actually stop anyone who’d decided to make another attempt. It had been miserable, but it had been bearable.
The second day, he’d been tired, and perhaps Crowley had the right of it, what was needed after something like that. Aziraphale had stretched out on a couch and tried to nap, and instead he’d stared at the ceiling and remembered every awful thing he’d said to Crowley since Warlock’s birthday party. Crowley had brushed it off, mostly, but Aziraphale would have had to be ten times as blind as he’d been to think the worst of it hadn’t landed. It might have been one thing if they’d fallen back into their old rhythm, or if Crowley had at least let him start to apologize before driving off, but neither of those things had happened.
No, Crowley had gone back to his own place and gone to sleep, and Aziraphale wasn’t sure whether it was a good sign or a bad one that, when he reached out to sense Crowley’s presence, he could tell the sharp brightness of Crowley awake from the muffled glow of Crowley asleep without even straining.
He’d kept a tight lid on things like that before; he’d told himself he really didn’t want to know where Crowley was or what Crowley was up to when he wasn’t with Aziraphale. It was easier that way. And Crowley could take care of himself. Now? Aziraphale wasn’t sure of quite a number of things, now.
Crowley had stood by him to save the world, and Crowley had traded places with him to save themselves, and Crowley had come with him to dinner at the Ritz, and Crowley had always forgiven him for the asinine things he’d said and done before. But there were limits, weren’t there?
Aziraphale had been worried, during the worst of it, if trying to save the world would result in his own private, one-angel Fall. He hadn’t, of course--Gabriel had tried to execute him over something God didn’t seem to care about one way or another. It hadn’t occurred to him to worry about whether or not Crowley would turn away from him, after everything was said and done, if that last dinner had in fact been meant as a good-bye. It hadn’t occurred to him that demons didn’t forgive easily, and whatever little rejections Aziraphale had dealt Crowley before, they were nothing to the full-fledged betrayal he’d managed over that wretched book.
And for what? To be cheerfully informed by God’s answering service that Armageddon would start with a nice little nuclear war, because to Hell with humanity now that they’d served Heaven’s purpose. Aziraphale had the sneaking suspicion that everyone Upstairs had quite forgotten that God had created humans for Herself, not to give Her angels a score-keeping system for their ancient grudge-match against the Fallen.
Not, Aziraphale thought bitterly, that Heaven and Hell couldn’t work together in perfect harmony, under the appropriate circumstances.
The look of smug satisfaction on Michael’s face, when she’d come back for the holy water that should have killed the one demon in all of Hell capable of mercy, and love, and courage…
Aziraphale grimaced. That was what he’d been choosing, over Crowley. That was what he’d kept choosing, over Crowley. He’d lied to Crowley’s face, repeatedly, and all for that. Would Aziraphale be in a forgiving mood, if their positions were reversed? It was a stupid question--of course he would--but the unalterable fact remained that their positions weren’t reversed. He’d done what he’d done, and he’d done it to Crowley.
It had been such a long time since he’d had to deal with a demon who wasn’t Crowley, hadn’t it? That little day-trip to Hell had been something of a necessary reminder. He’d forgotten what they were like, and he’d taken it for granted that Crowley wasn’t, and he’d made Crowley beg, over and over again, for so much in the past few weeks. He hadn’t meant to--he’d never do it deliberately, not to anyone but especially not to Crowley--but the fact remained that he had, and that Crowley hadn’t bothered so much as calling to let him know that the demon was going to sleep again, and that perhaps Crowley’s not calling hadn’t been an oversight.
The third day he’d spent wandering around London, trying to convince himself everything was fine. Crowley would never cut ties quietly. He’d sped away shouting about never thinking of Aziraphale once he was in the stars. He’d thrown an absolute tantrum over the holy water, that first time. The meltdown in the bandstand didn’t bear thinking about. Crowley made scenes, when he was genuinely upset. Crowley wanted the world to know, when he’d been hurt. Crowley wanted grand, sweeping gestures, when…
Aziraphale snatched his hand back from the doorbell and inhaled slowly. Crowley would want something more than empty words, and Aziraphale had shown up to shake him out of a comfortable sleep with nothing to hand but precisely that. God help him, what had he been thinking? At least it wasn’t too late, he hadn’t succeeded in waking Crowley, he could still--
The door in front of him flew open, and Crowley blinked muzzily at him from the suddenly open doorway.
“Angel,” Crowley said flatly.
“Um.” Aziraphale froze. Crowley was wearing nothing but a pair of black pajama pants, and even those were barely clinging to his narrow hips. His hair was mussed, and his limbs were still loose with sleep, and a wave of bone-deep longing hit Aziraphale like an avalanche.
Crowley blinked again, and it was as if everything that made him him snapped back into focus. Crowley shook himself and looked at Aziraphale with narrowed eyes, his whole body tensing like a bowstring. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
He pulled Aziraphale into the foyer and shoved the angel behind him, putting himself between Aziraphale and the door, then leaned into the hallway, gaze sweeping over the walls and nostrils flaring.
Aziraphale held up his hands. “Nothing’s wrong, I just--” He fumbled for words. I just wanted to see you suddenly sounded pathetically inadequate, even in the comforting privacy of his own mind and especially in the face of Crowley’s assumption that they were in danger. In the face of Crowley’s unthinking move to put himself between trouble and Aziraphale. “It’s been days, Crowley.”
“Meant it to be weeks,” Crowley grumbled, some of the tension leeching back out of his body.
He closed the door and threw the bolt, then yawned and stretched, and Aziraphale’s mouth went dry. Was it possible to want so badly and not simply dissolve with it? How much of his energy had he spent these last decades ignoring everything he’d learned about what it was like to have Crowley in those few glorious months? Aziraphale curled his fingers against his palms to keep himself from reaching out and touching.
“Ugh.” Crowley let his arms drop and rolled his head, pulling it to one side until Aziraphale heard the soft pop of vertebrae sliding back into place. He sighed. “’swhat I get for trying to sleep as a human, I suppose.”
Aziraphale focused on resisting the urge to sweep Crowley into a hug, to crush him against Aziraphale’s chest and not let go. He’d been so frantic at the thought of Crowley leaving him alone for years that he hadn’t taken even a moment to consider what he should do--what he should say--once Crowley was awake again.
“Crowley, I--” Aziraphale stopped and took a breath, and Crowley’s eyes finally settled on him, alert and sharp and bright.
“Angel, you look terrible.”
Aziraphale flinched. The past century hadn’t exactly been kind to him, but Crowley’d never seemed to mind before. Crowley flicked his tongue out, and Aziraphale tried not to flush at seeing that thin, curling fork. Crowley hadn’t done that in front of him since the argument about the holy water.
“And you smell like a grinding gearbox.”
Aziraphale felt a very different sort of flush creeping over his face. He had it coming, didn’t he? He’d said worse to Crowley, and for far worse reasons, barely a week ago.
Crowley smoothed his hair back and rubbed his eyes. “Give me half a second to get dressed. Is that breakfast place you like--the one with the goat cheese and fig soufflé and the cheddar scones--open at this hour? Never mind, we’ll find somewhere better if it isn’t.”
Ah. Aziraphale swallowed. Strange, how something could hurt in such a different way so fast on the heels of the first. Strange, too, how quickly he found his appetite coming back when it was Crowley promising food.
“I don’t want to go out,” he said quietly. “That’s not why I came.”
“Well.” Crowley cocked his head and regarded Aziraphale for a moment, then shrugged and sauntered toward the kitchen. “If nothing’s happened, and you don’t want to go out, then I suppose you’re either going to have to tell me why you spent all day leaning on my doorbell or wait for me to keep guessing until after I’ve had some coffee. Do you want any of that, at least?”
“Tea, please,” Aziraphale sighed. “And it was barely a few minutes.”
Crowley snorted, and Aziraphale followed him to the kitchen, too close, practically treading on his heels, but Crowley didn’t seem to mind.
There was a sleek counter with a set of bar stools, and he could sit down instead of hovering awkwardly, trying to keep out of the way without putting too much distance between them. The tea would at least let him focus on something instead of feeling scattered in a thousand different directions at once, though now that he was here, tea actually did sound rather nice. Aziraphale sat down at the counter and watched Crowley work, muscles bunching and stretching under his skin, the pajama pants constantly promising to slip even farther down his hips, in no great hurry to make himself anything approaching decent.
The kitchen looked the same as it had when Aziraphale had spent the night, when they’d traded places--like it had been ordered whole out of a modern design catalog and then nothing but the espresso machine ever used. The bright lights reflecting off every available surface threw odd shadows, and Aziraphale could almost imagine the ghost of black wings flaring and furling along Crowley’s back as he moved.
Crowley got the espresso machine going, then turned and frowned at Aziraphale, who squirmed under the scrutiny. After a moment, the demon pulled a teapot, cup, and saucer out of one of the cupboards, then paused and pulled another dish out, along with a pastry box that certainly hadn’t been there when Aziraphale had stayed the night. A snap of the fingers, and the smell of steeping chamomile wafted from the teapot. Crowley transferred a pair of miniature treacle tarts from the box to the plate, poured a cup of tea, and set it all in front of Aziraphale with the air of a cat depositing a freshly-killed songbird for inspection.
Aziraphale stared at the tarts and the tea. It was just what he’d wanted, wasn’t it? Just what he’d wanted, and he hadn’t had to ask, hadn’t even had to know he’d wanted it.
Aziraphale had been in Dover once when a respectable bit of cliff face fell into the sea. He’d have thought it would have been like a sand dune collapsing, or like an ice berg coming off a glacier, but instead it had been this sliding, crunching give, the chalk crumbling away inside itself as the stress of the bigger pieces moving pulled it apart at invisible seams. This, he thought, must have been how the cliff had felt that day.
“Angel, please,” Crowley sighed, rolling his eyes. He turned back to his espresso, the machine hissing away as it finished. “The bags under your eyes have bags of their own. Drink up and calm down.”
Aziraphale lifted the cup to his lips and sipped at it, and yes, this was what he’d wanted. It tasted fine, better than fine, no hint of that horrid staleness that had plagued him at the bookshop. The tart was one of the best he’d ever eaten.
Crowley retrieved his full cup from the machine, then pursed his lips and reached for the spice rack. Cinnamon and cocoa, and Aziraphale smiled faintly and took another bite of his tart. Crowley was in an indulgent mood, then.
“Is that why you woke me up, then?” Crowley asked, adding a faint dusting of each to the cup. “Bad idea both of us having a kip at the same time, and you can’t keep your eyes open another minute?” He turned back just as a guilty frown curdled Aziraphale’s face. “It’s no bother, angel. I’m not the one who got discorporated, had to possess someone, or put up with Shadwell for the better part of a day, never mind all three.”
“No, that’s not--” Aziraphale pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s not why I woke you. I was, ah, I was afraid you’d decided to sleep for quite a bit longer than a few weeks. You… you didn’t say, you know.” He forced a smile. “And I realized, during all that, that I had a fair bit to apologize for, and I hadn’t even said, well, anything really. Just ‘more champagne?’ and so forth, while we were at dinner.”
Crowley sipped his coffee and leaned back against the island, and Aziraphale almost wished the demon had miracled some clothes on. He didn’t want to have this conversation at all, never mind with this sort of distraction.
“If I took another sixty-year nap, I’d likely wake up to flying cars and telepathy,” Crowley said. “Which given the learning curve on both of those, I think I’d like to be awake for all that.”
Aziraphale’s small smile got a tad more genuine. Of course Crowley would. He’d probably be egging everyone on, encouraging humans to indulge their most reckless and ridiculous impulses.
“As for you apologizing…” Crowley shrugged and looked down at the mug in his hands. “You were never anything less than clear about which side of the line you’d be on, once things couldn’t be stopped.”
Aziraphale drank his tea and turned that one over in his head. There’d been what he’d said, of course, and then there’d been what he’d done. He’d talked a great deal about morality and Heaven’s righteousness and what being an angel meant, but he’d never really stood firm, had he? He’d made a show of his own superiority, and then the moment it looked like Crowley might take him seriously, he’d folded and backpedaled and tried to keep Crowley close. It hadn’t been until he’d gotten his hands on the book of Agnes Nutter’s prophecies that he’d really dug in his heels, and by then Crowley’d been so used to his mixed signals that he’d thought Aziraphale only meant for him to try harder.
“It was hardly your fault I didn’t listen, when it came to what all the,” Crowley chuckled softly, “all the fraternizing--”
“Don’t,” Aziraphale said. It was more of a plea, really, a wish. A hundred and fifty years, and they were still rehashing the one argument he wished to God they’d never had. He rubbed his eyes, then looked up to find Crowley watching him, surprised. “I never should have said that--we’re not fraternizing, we haven’t been fraternizing since the… since the second time Rome got sacked, for God’s sake--but do you have any idea how utterly and completely wretched it felt to be asked to have a hand in your destruction?”
Crowley opened his mouth to speak, and Aziraphale held up his hand.
“The one thing I’d always feared most about this, Crowley,” he said, and the tea and remaining tart sat in front of him like a metaphor made tangible, a symbol of the way Crowley had never stopped calling him ‘angel’ but had been the only person he’d ever met to see him as something more than just that, as someone capable of being something more than just that.
Odd, how that thought made his throat tighten.
“The one thing I’d always feared most about this,” he tried again, “was losing you. Not just for a bit, or until I could find a way to get you out of Hell, or because you were angry with me, but forever. Irrevocably. I always thought, if it happened, it would be because I was careless, or because I asked for too much, or because you just gave me too much, even without being asked. It had never even once occurred to me that you might insist on me participating in it.”
“It was the only thing you ever said that really felt like blasphemy, Crowley.” Aziraphale sipped his tea, trying to swallow around the memory of it. “It hurt. It felt like, if you could ask me for that, even in jest, then maybe what this had meant was all in my head. That I’d simply needed it so badly that I’d made it up and then projected it onto you, and that hurt even more. And then what else might I have done the same thing with, all these years, just a story I was telling myself because being alone was unbearable--”
Aziraphale looked up, and Crowley was in front of him now, leaning forward across the counter and tilting his chin up.
“I know it wasn’t,” Aziraphale said quietly. “I know--”
Crowley rested a finger on Aziraphale’s lips, and Aziraphale tried to blink back tears.
“I’m sorry it hurt. I never meant for it to hurt.” Crowley reached up with his thumb and brushed Aziraphale’s cheek when one of the tears slipped down it, and then his hand dropped back to cup Aziraphale’s jaw. “But the only reason I made it anywhere after Hell found out they had the wrong kid was because you’d given it to me. I’d have been done for, without it. It gave me enough of a head start on the bastards to…”
He sighed and shook his head, then the corner of his mouth twitched up. There was no humor in his eyes, though, and he let his hand drop to the table.
“You know, it’s funny, but there was about an hour there that I thought you were dead. Not discorporated, I mean, but properly dead.” Crowley’s lips twisted, and he was looking not at Aziraphale but past him. “I got to the bookshop, and it was just this complete inferno.”
“Shadwell managed to work quickly for once,” Aziraphale said quietly. He didn’t like to think about what Crowley had looked like, in that bar. About what Crowley’s voice had sounded like, when he’d tried to apologize. Dead had been quite a conclusion to jump to, but...
Crowley shook his head. “I mean, I know that now, but in the thick of it? I couldn’t find you, and I’d just made it out of here,” he waved his hand at the flat around them, “by the skin of my fucking teeth, and you’d only just called me and tried to tell me you knew where Adam was, and I was thinking, you’d been there not fifteen minutes ago, how had all this happened? Had you gone to find him without me and left the stove on? Tried to cover your tracks? And then it hit me that I’d stood in the middle of the street right in front of the shop screaming at the top of my lungs about the fucking arrangement, after you’d already told me that Sandalphon had been sniffing around. Might as well have stuck a ‘smite me’ sign on your back.”
“Worst hour of my fucking life,” he said, grimacing.
Aziraphale looked down. “Surely not the worst.”
“No, it was. At least I got to rail about the injustice of it all and feel sorry for myself after I landed in Hell. Thinking that you were dead and it was my fault was… Well, there was no getting out of that one, was there? And then--” He laughed, and his eyes flashed, and there were tears glittering in them. “And then they really did try. They honestly fucking tried--”
Aziraphale leaned forward and pressed his lips against Crowley’s, and Crowley’s hands curled around the back of his head. When Aziraphale sat back a little, Crowley didn’t loosen his hold until it was that or be pulled across the table, and Aziraphale wasn’t sure which it would be until it was happening.
“They tried, but they couldn’t,” Aziraphale reminded him, reaching out for his hand. “Because you’d gone in my place.”
“Second worst hour of my fucking life,” Crowley grunted. He gulped his coffee and squeezed Aziraphale’s fingers against his palm.
Aziraphale’s heart froze in his chest, and his brows furrowed. “What happened? You said it was just hellfire, that--”
“Not that,” Crowley said, shaking his head. “That was… revolting, but mostly because of the company. It was worrying about you. Heaven wasn’t much of a risk--I mean they’ve always got one idea, at best, and then just kind of stand around looking pretty if it doesn’t work--but there’s hardly only one way to kill a demon.” His hand tightened around Aziraphale’s. “Hardly out of character to settle for hurting, if killing’s off the table. Hastur’s as liable to hit something with a gout of hellfire as look at it, and Dagon’s not especially imaginative but they make up for it with sheer bloodyminded persistence. Seemed like the sort of thing the Almighty might pull at the end of it--save creation just to watch it tick by knowing it had cost the one person who made all the bad parts worth it.”
“She wouldn’t.” It was reflexive, and Aziraphale couldn’t help it. There was moving in mysterious ways, and then there was abject cruelty.
“Fallen, angel,” Crowley reminded him, looking down at his empty cup. “She bloody well fucking would.”
He tugged his hand out of Aziraphale’s grasp and stalked back to the espresso machine. Aziraphale picked up his teacup and found the tea still pleasantly hot.
“You may want to think about conserving your power, love,” he murmured. Not that the subtle reassurance went amiss, after the past ten days, but still.
“I love you.”
As if Crowley didn’t know. As if Crowley could think he didn’t, after what he’d said about the holy water. Aziraphale finished his tea and poured himself another cup from the pot, then nibbled at the last tart.
“Not that,” Crowley said, waving a hand.
Aziraphale raised an eyebrow.
“Really?” Crowley demanded. “I just got done telling you that you are literally more precious to me than life itself, that living here without you would be its own personal hand-crafted hell, that losing you was worse than being stripped of grace, and you’re giving me that face? All right, fine. I love you, too, angel. Happy?” Crowley glared at him, and Aziraphale reflected that it was about par for the course. “I meant about conserving power.”
“They’re hardly going to keep up with our stipends, are they?” Aziraphale asked. It had been a chilling thought, around everything else the past few days. What they had now would run out eventually, no matter how careful they were, and then where would they be? Immortal but powerless, incorporated but for how long, Heaven and Hell knowing all they had to do was play a waiting game…
“With our what?”
There was something in Crowley’s voice that he wasn’t sure he liked, that quiet danger that put Aziraphale in mind of the way antelope moved around a watering hole they knew had a crocodile in it even if they couldn’t see it. Of course, he could no more put a stop to the conversation than the antelope could refuse to drink; Crowley wouldn’t be put off, now that Aziraphale had started it.
“Our stipends,” he said, trying to feel out the nature of the disconnect. “The allotment of power, to keep the miracles going? I mean, it wasn’t more than it needed to be in the first place, and Gabriel’s hardly going to keep authorizing disbursements, is he? And I can’t imagine Beelzebub’s going to be any more generous about it than he is, however forthcoming she might have been when you were still in her...”
He glanced at Crowley and found the demon’s face contorted into a mask of anger. Aziraphale swallowed, suddenly very sure that, terrible as it was, Crowley was doing his level best to keep a lid on it. After a moment, Crowley turned away and took a few slow, deep breaths, and Aziraphale could practically keep count with him.
“It’s things like this that make me want to sleep for weeks on end,” Crowley said, once the espresso was done, and there was a smothered, eons-long rage in his voice. He didn’t bother with the cocoa or the cinnamon this time. “I don’t need, and have never needed, a fucking stipend. And I’d wager another shot at kicking Gabriel right in the ineffables on it being the same for you.”
“But I don’t…” Aziraphale frowned and tried not to think of every sanctimonious scolding about how much power he’d used, of how nothing had ever been right, of how too much had been wrong, but then sometimes too little had also been wrong. It couldn’t all really have been just to put him in his place, could it? There had to have been a reason, it had to have made things difficult for somebody, whatever he’d been doing. “You can’t just… How is that even…?”
It made his head hurt, just thinking about it.
“Skim off the top,” Crowley said, as if that explained anything. “I expect you got something of a sense of Hell’s unique approach to bureaucracy just by walking through the place--we’d never get anything done if we had to rely on timely and regular disbursements of power. The department nominally in charge of it got sick of taking the fall when things got thwarted, the princes got sick of trying to suss out who might conceivably be the ones to blame for a series of spectacular cock-ups, and just punishing everyone would have really brought everything to a standstill. It was easier to cut everyone loose and leave them to figure it out for themselves.”
“You didn’t really think I got the juice to stop the clock on Satan himself by being thrifty with the miracles for a century or two, did you?” Crowley asked, raising his eyebrows. Aziraphale flushed. He hadn’t really thought about it, not with how Crowley tended to make everything he did look so damned easy and how things just seemed to naturally go pear-shaped around Crowley. It had seemed only fitting that even Satan wasn’t exempt from Crowley’s ability to send everything toppling over like a row of dominoes.
“Skim off the top of what, Crowley?” he asked. “Stop being clever for once and--”
“Sin, vice, evil--whatever you want to call it,” Crowley said quickly. “All that energy humanity keeps stuffing into Hell every time they hate each other and hurt each other. When you’re here on the ground floor, there’s a window between it being created and it--I don’t know, sinking or whatever it does, I’m not an occult engineer--where it’s all sort of free-floating and there for the taking. You just siphon off a bit of that whenever you start getting low, or whenever you need a quick boost, and no need to go pestering the quartermaster for the processed version that’s keeping Downstairs chugging along.”
Crowley crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his fingers against his mug, and Aziraphale thought of all the times he might have done some real good in the world, if he hadn’t been rationing his power so obsessively. People saved, comforted, given hope. Small wonder everything was going so badly awry, if demons could feed off the very misery they were causing while he’d been stuck begging for and having to justify every spare scrap of power he got from Heaven.
Aziraphale’s hands tightened on his cup. All the times Crowley had seemed amused by his predicament, or mocking his limitations, he’d just been assuming that Aziraphale was being pettish about finding his own power, hadn’t he?
“You’d be looking for virtue and love, I’m sure,” Crowley continued. His eyes hardened. “Or the raw version of whatever it is Heaven cuts you off from when they apparently feel like making you suffer just to remind you who’s in charge, or almost discorporating you for kicks. We’ll nip down to Tadfield once this,” Crowley gave him a pointed once-over, “isn’t going on anymore, and you can practice on all the goodwill and affection Adam’s been slopping about the place for the past decade. In the meantime, I’ve more than enough for the two of us, between everyone almost bombing each other to molten glass and the Horsemen whipping around the countryside and that psychic blast from the big man himself putting in an appearance. Anything you want, just say the word.”
“This?” Aziraphale asked, pursing his lips.
“Looking like you got run over by the Apocalypse instead of stopping it,” Crowley clarified. “Smelling like you’re this close to giving your corporation a stress-induced heart attack.”
He held his thumb and forefinger about a millimeter apart in a helpful demonstration, and Aziraphale pouted at him. He hadn’t felt nearly so awful since Crowley had woken up.
“You’ll forgive me for spending a few days worried about whether or not you’d see fit to grace me with your presence again before the next century rolled around.”
“Will I? Really?” Crowley asked, and some of his good humor seemed to have returned. “Even after I said to wake me up if you needed me--”
“That was a hundred and fifty years ago,” Aziraphale reminded him. “And rather a great deal has happened since then. And I did, as it so happens, wake you up when I needed you.”
“You did, at that,” Crowley murmured. He ran his fingers through his hair and gave Aziraphale a long look that was more affectionate than judging this time, but it was still very much assessing. “Come to bed, angel.”
Aziraphale blushed and wrenched his idle gaze away from Crowley’s chest. “That’s not why I came here.”
It wasn’t. It was just that now, with Crowley here and awake and clearly not holding a grudge and offering practically anything that Aziraphale could want from him and saying that he loved him, it was quite a bit closer to the surface than it had been when Aziraphale had decided to turn up and lean on the bell.
“Presumptuous thing. That’s not what I’m offering.” Crowley grinned at him. “Unless you change your mind, in which case we’ll see.”
He circled the counter and held out his hand, and Aziraphale took it cautiously. Crowley’s bed had looked quite comfortable, and Aziraphale had been curious about the silk sheets but not enough to risk the embarrassment of being caught trying them, but the one thing Crowley’s bed was not was particularly large. Then again, if power was no obstacle, maybe he was planning on just miracling it into a more generous size.
Crowley’s hand was warm in his, though, and there was something just in that simple contact, in Crowley inviting the closeness and offering the consolation, that made him feel like he had at the Ritz, when simple existence had been a blessed relief. Crowley led him to the bedroom and pulled back the covers.
“There’s not really room for--” Aziraphale broke off with a gasp when his clothes were changed for tartan pajamas. “Crowley!”
“You don’t like them?” the demon asked, his eyebrows climbing. “I have it on good authority that tartan is in, at the moment.”
“I’ve had that coat for too long for you to go miracling it into pajamas,” he protested. Crowley’s grin widened, and he jerked his chin at the wardrobe in the corner. Aziraphale’s clothes were hung up neatly, perfectly themselves and not transformed. “Oh.”
“Tip-top shape,” Crowley said smugly.
“Well, then.” Aziraphale tugged primly at the hem of his shirt. “In that case, these are fine.”
They really were quite nice, now that he knew they hadn’t cost him his suit--loose and warm and soft. Aziraphale climbed into bed and stretched out, and it was like lying on a marshmallow. He let himself sink into it and tried to relax. When Crowley sat down on the bed, he barely felt the mattress shift under him at all.
“Comfortable, angel?” Crowley asked.
Aziraphale pushed himself up on his elbows, his cheeks warming at the memory of the last time he’d heard that tone in that voice. Crowley was coiled on the foot of the bed, scales gleaming in the low light filtering through the curtained windows. Aziraphale squinted at the red scales on Crowley’s belly. It wasn’t a trick of the light, he didn’t think--there really was a mottling of white on them now.
“That’s new,” he murmured. It wasn’t such a bad effect, he supposed; they looked like a star chart, almost, sketched out against the dark red.
Crowley managed, somehow, to communicate a shrug with a localized, sinuous ripple. “Consssecrated ground.”
“Oh.” Aziraphale traced the flecks of white with his eyes. Oh. Burn marks.
Crowley had thought Aziraphale would be able to get himself out of trouble, if he’d really needed to, and still Crowley had done what he’d done, because Crowley had been worried that Aziraphale wouldn’t.
“They’re jussst ssscarsss, angel,” Crowley sighed.
Crowley had done what he’d done, and he still bore the marks of it, and Aziraphale wanted to shake Crowley over it at the same time he wanted to clutch Crowley to his chest and never let the demon out of his sight again. It was such a trial sometimes, loving him.
“Come here, won’t you?” Aziraphale asked, lying back down.
Crowley slithered up the bed and looped himself across Aziraphale’s chest, his hips, his thighs, the solid weight of him pressing Aziraphale against the mattress. It felt like he was pressing the nervous energy out of Aziraphale’s flesh while he was at it, and Aziraphale rested his hand on the back of Crowley’s neck.
“Plenty of room,” Crowley said, satisfied.
“Thank you.” Aziraphale kissed to the top of Crowley’s head, brushing his lips over the flat expanse of fine scales between his eyes. “For everything.”
Crowley closed his eyes and relaxed, his breath coming deep and even and regular. He was drifting off to sleep again, resuming his interrupted nap now that Aziraphale was in bed with him and no longer at risk of ringing the doorbell for half an hour. Everything Aziraphale had done, and Crowley still trusted him like this, would still fall asleep in his arms. He didn’t deserve it, did he? Didn’t deserve any of it, not with how willfully blind he’d been. Aziraphale stroked Crowley’s spine, marveling at the pliant give of the heavy body against his. Very definitely asleep, he decided. Hopefully not for the next three weeks, but at least for the next few hours.
Which meant it came as a rather large surprise when Crowley’s tongue flicked out and brushed Aziraphale’s ear, and he gave a decidedly undignified yelp.
A shiver ran through Crowley’s frame, and his yellow eyes opened, that sardonic smile back on his serpent’s lips. He did it a second time as soon as Aziraphale wasn’t expecting it.
“Good lord,” Aziraphale breathed, glaring at him. “Stop that!”
“For you, angel?” Crowley chuckled. “Anything.”
This time when Crowley subsided, Aziraphale lay his arms over the coils draped across his chest and squeezed him gently. Not just willing to trust him, but to tease him. Aziraphale smiled, and it felt like the first time in ages that he actually meant it, that there was enough of happiness and pleasure and contentment in him to warrant it. Everything had been awful, but they’d done more than just buy themselves a bit of time. Everything had been awful, but right now was actually rather wonderful.
“I love you, Crowley.” I love you, I need you, I don’t know what I’d do without you. Crowley would probably let him say it all now, wouldn’t he? He could say it, and it wouldn’t be some dying declaration, a secret he refused to take to oblivion with him. It wouldn’t be like telling Crowley that Aziraphale forgave him--for shouting, for everything--when it seemed unlikely they’d ever see each other again.
It would be what it was meant to be, something said in joy, to share that joy with the person who’d given it to him in the first place. He hugged Crowley to him. “I love you.”
Crowley contracted against him, coils tightening briefly in something like an embrace. “Then get some ressst, dearessst.”