When Crowley is very small, and his hair is not yet long enough that it trips him up too terribly, he makes a grand discovery.
It’s a trapdoor, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the floor tiles but for the giveaway of a tiny bronze hinge.
It takes him the better part of an hour to work it open, but there’s not a single trapdoor in the whole of the kingdom that’s as stubborn as a bored and clever child who finally has something interesting to do.
Finally, it comes up with a heavy groan, and reveals a narrow flight of stairs. Crowley doesn’t even wonder at where it might go, doesn’t even take an extra moment to grab a lantern or a pair of slippers. The stone is rough underfoot, and the walls are leaning and uneven, and the whole thing smells of novelty and adventure.
There is nothing at the foot of the stairs but a door. It’s a mighty stretch, but Crowley manages to reach the handle, only to find it locked. There isn’t a keyhole as far as he can tell, so he thinks it must be latched from the outside.
This doesn’t deter him in the slightest. He runs back up the stairs, pushing hanks of dark hair out of his eyes as he looks about his room for the only person he can always rely on.
“Bentlee!” he calls. “I need you!”
Crowley is joined in short order by his best friend, a small black rat who hops out of her napping spot in the cupboard and comes to sit on top of his foot. He crouches to lift her up in both hands instead, so they can talk face-to-face.
“There’s a door downstairs we have to unlock,” Crowley says. “Can you go out the window and get the latch for me?”
She squeaks, and nips his nose, and he knows this means of course I will. He carries her to the windowsill, and she starts to climb the helpful creeping vines that grow along the side of the tower. Crowley watches until she’s out of sight, and then runs back down the stairs to the locked door.
Within minutes, he hears the scrabble of her little claws against wood, and his heart is so full of hope and excitement that by all rights he should have started to float right off the floor.
When the latch gives way, and Bentlee is safe in her favorite place beneath his ear, Crowley steps out into the meadow.
The grass is cool and springy under his feet, and the little stream he’s seen from the window is full of darting creatures that glint of silver in the falling light. The sun hasn’t set enough yet that he can look without hurting his eyes, but he looks anyway. He looks and looks and looks. He’s never seen anything from this close before. He chases bugs and birds and a frog he finds on a leaf, he fills his pockets with smooth stones from the river bed and flowers so soft they feel like a dream, he picks berries from the thicket and let them burst sweet and tart on his tongue.
The first trip is the first of many, sneaking down the stairs when he knows his uncle won’t be coming and breathing fresh air, learning what it’s like to play until you’ve grass-stained skin and pollen in your hair. He gets older, and the trapdoor is not so tricky anymore. He wrenches apart the wirework of an old birdcage and fashions a hook so that he can unlatch the outer door for himself. There is a spot in the meadow, by the pool and under the shade of a small flowering tree, that is his favorite.
These brief freedoms become his secret treasure, closely guarded. It goes on for years.
But it does not go on forever.
There seems to be some kind of wild chase afoot in the forest; two burly men nearly knock Aziraphale off his feet as they go tearing by, and the thundering sound of horses aren’t far behind them.
Really, he thinks after them reproachfully, this early in the morning?
Aziraphale puts a hand out to steady himself, but what he thought was a towering rock formation turns out to be nothing of the sort, and he falls straight through a curtain of leafy creepers and into the hidden cave lurking behind it.
Upon his graceless landing, his satchel bursts open and spills most of its contents out across the ground. Aziraphale spends a good five minutes scrambling after banknotes and the few pieces of expensive navigational equipment that Gabriel had insisted he take along with him.
Gifts from his older brother are rare enough that he treasures even the fundamentally useless ones. Aziraphale doesn’t know how to use the nocturnal— truthfully, he’s really not sure what purpose it serves in the first place— but he still breathes a sigh of relief when he finds it.
“In you get,” he murmurs, tucking it into the pocket of his waistcoat. He stuffs his satchel full again and ties it shut with perhaps more force than necessary, and then picks himself back up with dignity. “Well, now,” he says for no one's benefit but his own as he ventures further inside with great interest. “I’ve been through these woods a hundred times now and never knew this was here.”
He follows faint birdsong and the more distant sound of falling water and steps out of the cave into unbroken sunlight. It’s a meadow, tucked at the bottom of a natural bowl made by towering walls of rock outcrop on all sides. There is a waterfall and a natural pool that narrows into a crooked stream of running water, but most impressive is the single tower that sits in the center of it all. There are ruins nearby of what must have once been the rest of the structure, the crumbling remains of stone and mortar.
A small kingdom had hidden here once. Aziraphale’s antiquarian heart leaps. The place is unmarked on his maps and appears undisturbed. It could be that he’s the first to have discovered it. The cave entrance hides it so cleverly, it could easily have been overlooked until now.
And he wonders— oh he wonders what might be left in that tower. He’s not had the privilege of exploring a castle before, but his siblings are friends with lords and ladies who have. The towers are often used for defense, or for the holding of prisoners, but sometimes— sometimes — they are used for storage.
And he might find letters up there, hand-written accounts of events long past. He might find paintings, or jewelery, or books.
Aziraphale is striding across the meadow before he makes any voluntary decision to. There’s a window at the top of the tower, but there’s quite obviously no means of reaching it, so he circles the base. And there, around the back, he finds a door.
If he were thinking clearly, he would find it odd. The latch at the top is obviously much newer than the rest of the tower, and the additional padlock is even newer than that. They’re not even touched with rust, and a key sits inside the lock ready to be turned. It’s strange is what it is.
But Aziraphale pushes open the door without a second thought. There is an adventurous flight of stairs awaiting him, and his excitement doesn’t wane even when he knocks his head rather hard against what turns out to be a trap door at the top. He finds the lever and hauls it open, and lifts himself out onto…
A clean tile floor.
It’s so unlikely that Aziraphale can’t make sense of it at first. There's a wardrobe and an unmade four-poster bed and a tidy little kitchen. Along the wall is a narrow curving staircase that leads up to what appears to be shelves upon shelves of the types of things that ought to catch his eye, but instead Aziraphale finds himself quite stunned by the mundane. He found a home where he was only expecting to find spiderwebs and dust and perhaps some ancient, molding treasures.
“You’re new,” someone says.
Aziraphale fairly leaps out of his skin.
He whipsaws around, but doesn’t see much of anyone. His heart is racing, the way it always does when he knows he’s doing something he shouldn’t be and the consequences might not be avoidable. All the signs pointed right to it, and he still manages to be dumbfounded that someone is actually living here.
“I’m— sorry, I’m what?”
“You’re new,” they say again, and he’s able to follow the voice up toward the vaulted ceiling. They’re sitting up there, he reckons, on a ledge that Aziraphale wouldn’t have trusted to support a child’s weight, let alone someone who sounds close to his own age. But the angle of the daylight through the only window puts the speaker completely in shadow. “He’s never sent anyone new before.”
Their voice comes across more intrigued than hostile. It settles Aziraphale’s nerves somewhat. There are stranger things than accidentally wandering into someone’s living quarters, he decides, straightening his coat. They can afford to be gentlemen about this, surely.
“It’s uncomfortable to talk with you up there,” he says, in the brisk business tone he adopted from Michael. “Would you mind coming down, please?”
There’s a long moment in which Aziraphale doesn’t receive any sort of answer, and his daring almost deserts him. And then a leg drops into view, and then another, and then a young man is swinging himself down from his perch to land with uncanny agility on the floor. Behind him falls wave after wave of what seems to be a black veil or train— except it’s too elastic and shiny to be either of those— and it’s only when the last curl has hit the tile that Aziraphale realizes it’s hair.
“What,” he says at length.
The boy is wearing a pair of round dark-tinted glasses, but his silence implies that he’s staring right back.
“What?” Aziraphale manages to make it a question this time, his voice going slightly higher than normal.
“Where did my uncle find you?” the boy asks. He tilts his head an inch to one side, in the manner of an inquisitive bird. He looks for all the world as if Aziraphale is the more interesting party here. “You don’t seem quite the type for this operation. No offense.”
“None, um, taken, thank you.” Aziraphale reminds himself that this is probably not as odd as he thinks it is, and tries not to stare at the impossible volume of hair on the floor around them. “I’m afraid I wasn’t sent by anyone, and just sort of— let myself in, as it were.”
The boy stares a little more. There’s a stillness to him that puts Aziraphale in mind of a snake, that is not quite suited to this lanky, bendy person who looks as though he was built to constantly be in motion.
“You ‘let yourself in’? Past the locks and the latch and the hidden entrance?”
“Well, put it that way,” Aziraphale retorts.
And then the strange boy laughs.
It’s a bright noise, and loud, as though he never learned to be self-conscious about the way it sounds.
Now Aziraphale is certain he guessed his age correctly. Couldn’t be older than twenty with a laugh like that, which must make him close to Aziraphale’s nineteen.
There’s a sort of kinship that comes with being the same age as someone, an immediate connection that reaches across all barriers of birth and station. The boy laughs, and Aziraphale feels himself smile back, and then they’re meeting in the middle of that tower room as easily as they might have met in a garden or a park.
“You must be a treasure hunter,” the boy says with a grin that leans sideways. “Come on, then. I’ll show you where all the shiny things are.”
“I am not,” Aziraphale protests, following right behind him. “I’m a student of antiquities.”
“Is that what they’re calling it now?”
From this moment, the strange boy in his secret tower belongs to Aziraphale. He belongs to Aziraphale the way a good memory of a long golden afternoon might belong to someone, without greedy ownership or propriety. And in exactly the same way, Aziraphale belongs to him, too.
They don’t know it yet, but maybe there’s a future waiting for them in which they do. Maybe they’ll both look back and remember this moment in exactly the same way. I was yours from the very beginning, they might tell one another then. From the moment you smiled at me. And you were mine.
Even so, it’s getting to that future that’s the tricky part. For now, they go upstairs.
The boy’s name is Crowley, and Aziraphale can’t help but think it suits him. He’s wickedly clever, and somewhat silly, and more than keeps up with Aziraphale’s chatter. And there is also his impossible, shining hair; as black as a crow’s wing, so dark it almost edges into blue.
Aziraphale wants to ask about the hair. More than seventy feet of it, if he had to guess, and he wouldn’t have known that was even possible. But as they clear a place in the loft to sit among the towering shelves, Crowley takes the time to braid it back into something it’s easier not to stare at, and contrary to what his siblings may believe, Aziraphale can take a hint.
It’s why he hasn’t about the tower, either. And lord, does he have questions about the tower.
Why do you live here? he imagines asking. He can imagine it so clearly he can practically taste the words on his tongue. Why are you alone? Where are your people? How is it you get food, and clothes, and enough light to live by? Please— why are there locks on the doors?
It can’t be that Crowley is a criminal. This is a home, not a cell. There are paintings on the walls that must have been done when he was very young, and more pillows on his messy bed than probably exist in the entirety of Fell House. And besides that, he’s far too kind. He offers what he has freely, from the priceless artifacts in the lookout, to the homemade bread in his kitchen. Aziraphale can’t remember the last time he took a midday meal on the floor, eating out of a cloth in his lap and arguing ardently about the better cheese between each bite, but he also can’t remember the last time he’s enjoyed a meal so much.
So he doesn’t ask those pressing questions.
Instead, he asks, “Lord, Crowley, how is that you have all of these books squirreled away and you’re not up here reading them constantly?”
Crowley wrinkles his nose, in a way that aims for peevish and only manages to be charming. “I’ve been through most of them. Not much else to do, ran out of room to paint ages ago. But the ah, the— ” He taps an open page. “This part, the words?”
“The text,” Aziraphale supplies.
“Right. It’s all so small and some if it’s written strangely.” He means the illuminated manuscripts, those beautifully designed things with — admittedly — sometimes incomprehensible lettering. Aziraphale nods thoughtfully, and Crowley pushes his strange glasses higher up his nose. “Hurts my eyes, that’s all.”
“Oh, dear,” Aziraphale says sadly. He can’t imagine being cooped up in a tower with hundreds of books that he couldn’t even read. “That must be frustrating.”
It’s as if he’s never had anyone to commiserate with him before; Crowley sits there without speaking for a moment, as if thrown off balance by the simple act of sympathy, and then he bursts into sudden motion again. He leans far to one side from where he’s sitting, bracing himself on an elbow, and reaches for a few books stacked innocuously near the stairs.
“These are the best ones,” Crowley says, opening the topmost one and setting it on the floor between them. “I’ve read them a hundred times.”
“These are star-maps!” Aziraphale leans in, tracing the stylized stars of a constellation across the page reverently. This book— and it’s fellows— are immaculate, save the wear of time. There are even slips of paper wedged throughout the volume as if to mark certain pages. “Crowley, it’s beautiful. You must tell me everything about it.”
His new friend looks pleased pink, tugging at the end of his braid with nervous fingers, and Aziraphale thinks he could sit here for days talking about nothing but stars if it kept Crowley looking like that.
Sadly enough, though, what one could do and what one knows they should are often two entirely separate creatures. As the light in the room begins to change, shadows stretching as the sunlight wanes, Aziraphale happens a glance out the window to find the burnished gold of late afternoon leaning into evening. The day has all but slipped away.
“Oh, no.” He hastens to his feet and down the curving stairs with an abruptness that belies his good manners. “Oh, it’ll be night soon and I don’t have a lantern.” He doesn’t go on to say, ‘I’m afraid of the dark,’ because he’s been on the receiving end of relentless ridicule for that for years and he’s learned better by now. But he still thinks it.
And maybe Crowley can tell, because he follows Aziraphale down the stairs without prompting.
“You can take my lantern. If you leave now, you might not even need it.”
It's another thrown-away moment of generosity, from this strange boy who’s never experienced the world or its greed, and Aziraphale’s heart is very tight and heavy in his chest as Crowley takes a handsome tole lantern down from the wall and readies it for him. He closes the little hinged door once the fresh candle inside is lit, and passes it over. Their fingers overlap on the loop handle and neither of them pull away.
The firelight does something to Crowley. It inspires a strange warmth in his coloring, the red and gold tones flickering over his face as though they might belong there if only they could find a place to settle.
Aziraphale says, “I can’t thank you enough.”
Crowley’s mouth twists. His expression— open and happy just minutes ago, as they poured over his book together— is back to that blankness he wore when they first met.
“Don’t be stupid,” is all he says. And then he gestures for Aziraphale to wrestle the trap door open, and goes to collect his satchel from where he’d discarded it upstairs. Upon his return, as he presses the bag into Aziraphale’s free hand, Crowley adds, “It’s me who should be thanking you.”
Aziraphale doesn’t have a chance to ask what he means as he’s buffeted gently down the stairs. They exchange farewells and the trapdoor above Aziraphale closes the minute he’s clear of it.
It has all ended so abruptly, as if a magic string was cut the moment Aziraphale noticed the time. He stands there in the dimness of the stairwell for a moment, lantern light flickering, before he reaches up to do as he was asked, securing the latch and effectively locking Crowley inside. He does the same to the outer door, ignoring how odd it feels.
The meadow and its ruins are still a peaceful, tranquil picture in the setting sun, but Aziraphale doesn’t look at them the same way he did this morning. He can’t. This beautiful hidden place feels almost sinister now that he knows the treasure its hoarding to itself in that tower.
The trip through the cave and back onto the more familiar footpath is an easy one. True darkness has only settled once he’s pushed through the front gate of his family’s estate, the warm light of Crowley’s lantern guiding him those last few steps home.
It’s not until much later— after he’s had dinner with the house staff in lieu of his absent siblings, and has seen to the small checklist of concerns the steward brought to his attention— that he unpacks his satchel and an unexpected book spills onto his bed.
Aziraphale’s breath catches in his throat. He recognizes it at once as Crowley’s prized astronomy book. Its treasure-binding glints in the low light, its edges worn and its cover faded, the whole of it unspeakably precious. Crowley must have snuck it into his bag as a— thank you? A goodbye?
He sits on the edge of the bed and holds it for what might have been a very long time.
But really, it only takes about twenty seconds for him to make the decision that will change the rest of his life. It’s perhaps the simplest thing he’s ever made up his mind about.
Aziraphale is out the door bright and early the next morning, without a word to anyone about where he’s going. His satchel is full to bursting, the tole lantern lashed to the strap and swinging merrily, and he finds the hidden cave without more than a few minutes’ search. The waving grass of the meadow, and the busy chatter of the insects and birds, and the babble of the brook all seem to greet him; his heart swells at the sight of the regal, crumbling tower.
Real, he thinks. Not a dream. Proof of it sat on his bedside table, the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes, but it’s nothing compared to being here again.
Cupping a hand around his mouth, he calls up to the window, “Hallo!”
For a long moment, there’s no response. And then the blown glass panes are shoved open, and a tousled head appears. Crowley, still fumbling his glasses on and shoving ridiculous hanks of dark hair away from his face, looking as though he would have slept for hours still if left alone.
Aziraphale beams at the sight of him.
“I’m coming up!” he shouts. “I’ve brought breakfast!”
“You’re a menace,” Crowley tells him by way of hello once he’s inside, but he’s no practice at hiding from people what he’s really thinking, and Aziraphale can tell he’s pleased. He fidgets with the end of his braid, dark hair sliding through his thin fingers like silk. “I figured— ngh. I thought you wouldn’t come back. Not much to see here once you’ve gone through all the rubbish upstairs, is there?”
As if he’s not the single-most interesting thing to have happened to Aziraphale in the last nineteen years. Aziraphale half-wants to give him a good shake. Instead, he digs through his satchel for the pastries he nicked from the kitchen and says, “Well, you were quite mistaken. Here, try this. I’ll bet you’ve never had a turnover as good.”
“Never had a turnover,” Crowley says gamely enough. He tears off the corner of the turnover and… puts it in his pocket?
“Um,” Aziraphale says.
“Oh. For Bentlee,” Crowley explains, which doesn’t explain anything at all.
He withdraws his hand from his pocket and it comes out with a rat. Aziraphale’s immediate reflex is to recoil sharply, thinking instant thoughts of dirt and disease, of keeping it away from their food— but then he imagines that would probably hurt Crowley’s feelings, and he finds he can’t bear the idea.
He manages to keep very still instead, and when he’s faced with the creature, manages a faint, “How lovely.”
Crowley fairly beams with the praise. And truly, she’s a well-kempt little thing, once Aziraphale jumps the hurdle of ingrained distaste. She sits calmly in Crowley’s palm with her little paws braced on the tip of one of his fingers, scenting in Aziraphale’s direction curiously.
She is very, very white— almost luminous. It puts Aziraphale in mind of moonlight, or stardust, a color so pure it’s hard to imagine it actually existing close enough to be touched.
It’s the first compliment he can dredge up, half-hearted. “Her white coat is very pretty.”
Something happens to Crowley’s smile then. It withers a bit, and his eyes— hidden, always— seem to drop away. He is remarkably expressive, and it almost feels like an invasion of privacy just looking at him sometimes.
“She used to have dark fur,” Crowley mutters. “It changed when I was little.”
“Her— fur changed color? When you were little? How old is she, Crowley?”
“As old as I am, I guess. We grew up together.”
Aziraphale becomes aware that he’s clutching an almond cake like a lifeline, reducing it to a handful of crumbs. He stares at the rat and then up at his new friend and says, “I didn’t think rats lived that long.”
It’s absolutely the wrong remark to make. Crowley’s smile falls the rest of the way and he looks stricken with sudden worry, drawing Bentlee towards him unconsciously as if holding her close now might keep her there always. As if it honestly never occurred to him that a human life and the life of a rodent might not quite measure out to the same end.
Aziraphale hastens to backtrack.
“But truthfully I don’t know much about animals! I’ve never kept a pet. We don’t even have dogs at home, my sister can’t abide the noise.” Crowley looks on his way to feeling comforted by that, so Aziraphale soldiers on, “Bentlee looks very well-taken care of. I’d imagine any animal so loved might live forever if it wanted to.”
There, at last; Crowley grins at him, the anxious steel gone out of his spine, his back and shoulders all bending loose and graceful again. He offers his precious friend out for Aziraphale to hold.
In for a penny, Aziraphale thinks grimly, seeing no expedient way out, and accepts the gift of rat.
She’s very soft. She looks up at him with intelligent eyes, and he can almost hear her wondering what on earth this stranger is doing in her house with her boy. The twitch of her whiskers is inquisitive, and when she presses her tiny, cold nose to his thumb, it startles him into a short breath of laughter.
“Oh my,” he says, reluctantly charmed. “Little darling.”
She decides to make herself comfortable in the crook of his arm, nestled there in the fold of his sleeves and accepting small pieces of fruit compote from the tart that Aziraphale gutted for her. He feels inordinately pleased to have passed muster in her eyes.
Crowley is watching the two of them with a dazed sort of happiness, confusion and joy all packed into one. It sends a rush of pain deep into Aziraphale’s heart that lodges painfully there with hooks and claws, an encouragement to go ahead and do something about it already.
So he dusts off his hands and says briskly, “You must help me think of something to give you.”
Crowley looks distinctly wrong-footed. “Pardon?”
“I want to give you something,” Aziraphale says again, patient. “But I’m at a loss as to what.”
They stare at each other for a moment. Crowley’s head dips just enough that Aziraphale can guess his eyes have dropped to the breakfast spread between them.
“Don’t you dare suggest that a turnover is enough in light of what you’ve given me already,” Aziraphale warns. Crowley’s shoulders hunch a bit— hit the nail on the head, apparently— and when he begins to look cornered, Aziraphale attempts to explain himself further. “It’s not a matter of— of a business transaction, an exchange of equal or greater value. I don’t want to pay you back, or make you feel as though I’ve bought the gifts you gave me. I just want to take a turn at giving. That’s what friends do, isn’t it?”
“Is that what we are?” There’s no bite to the words, or underlying sneer, as there might have been from virtually anyone else. Crowley’s open-book face is full of true wonder at the idea. “Friends?”
“I suppose it’s not something I can just decide on my own, is it?” Aziraphale says a bit shyly. Trying to meet Crowley’s honesty with his own, even though he’s spent so many years building up walls around the sincere and easily-hurt half of his heart. “I would like us to be.”
And when it happens, it happens like a flood. Crowley’s smile, shining and brilliant, absolutely filling the room in the way of sunlight pouring through an open door and touching every dark corner with gold.
“Me, too,” Crowley says.
It’s hard to speak for the silly grin on Aziraphale’s face. “Well, then! It’s settled! You have to pick a gift.”
“It can’t be the sweets, and it can’t be another visit to your tower, because I’m going to do that anyway.”
Crowley looks as though he would be annoyed if he weren’t still very happy, and he mulls it over for a long moment. He bites his lip, face turning only slightly toward the window, and Aziraphale pounces on the moment of weakness.
“You thought of something! I can tell! What is it?”
“No I didn’t!”
“Oh, but you wouldn’t be so defensive if that were true!” And you’re quite literally the most transparent person I’ve ever met, Aziraphale thinks, but we won’t get into that today. Leaning in, he presses, “Go on, tell me, please.”
Crowley holds up his hands as if to ward him off. “It’s a terrible idea anyway, and you’ll think it’s silly, and it’s not as if I ever could—”
His face scrunches up in that charming urchin way of his, and he digs a hand into his hair anxiously. “Ngh. Fine, you menace. But if you laugh, I’m going to ask Bentlee to bite you.”
“As if she ever would!” Aziraphale strokes her side with the back of one finger, affronted on her behalf. “She’s a lady.”
Amusement works its way into Crowley’s tense expression. He turns to look more fully out the window this time, at the blue sky that bulges with towering white clouds. His hands are clenched tight, as if trying to hold onto something impossible.
“There are these lights,” Crowley starts slowly. “Like stars, almost, but I’ve charted the stars, and these are different. They only show up once a year, around this time. It could be any day now. I’ve always wondered what they were, ever since I was small.”
Lights, Aziraphale thinks. He’s racking his brain, imagining himself sitting in that window and looking out over the canopy of trees and seeing lights almost like stars once a year. And then, of course, it hits him.
“My dear, I know exactly what you mean,” he says, clapping his hands together. “You must have seen the prince’s lanterns.”
Crowley’s head whips around, snake-like, zeroing in on the answer to this mystery he’s kept close to his chest for all these years. “Lanterns?”
Now, this is a story everyone in the kingdom has grown up with, and it needs a proper telling. Aziraphale gestures for Crowley’s hands, and they help one another up. There isn’t much in the way of comfortable furniture, but they both take a seat on the four-poster bed, Crowley with his legs drawn in tailor-style, and Aziraphale sitting on the edge of the mattress properly, feet on the floor. Bentlee relocates to his knee.
“Now, once upon a time,” Aziraphale begins, enjoying the enraptured way Crowley leans in to listen, “a single drop of moonlight fell from the heavens. And from that small drop of moon grew a magic silver flower.”
“Magic?” Crowley asks. “Truly?”
“I wouldn’t lie to you! This flower had the ability to heal the sick and injured. You see, almost twenty years ago, our Queen grew very sick. She was about to have a baby, but word spread fast throughout the kingdom that she was running out of time. My older brother Gabriel was eight when this happened, and he told me that lessons were canceled and shops were closed for a whole week, because everyone loved the Queen, and everyone wanted to find a miracle that would save her.”
Aziraphale remembers being told this story when he was very young, tucked into Uriel’s bed right next to his sister and listening to Gabriel’s rich storyteller voice paint the picture for them more vividly than any author ever could have. It’s a strange feeling, to be the one telling it now, but Crowley is listening as eagerly as Aziraphale had, all those years ago, and it’s enough to make it a good -strange, rather than a bad one.
“And so, after a long search, the people brought back the silver flower for their Queen, and it healed her,” Aziraphale tells him. “Practically overnight, she regained her strength. That’s why the royal crest is a moon.”
“What does this have to do with the lanterns?” Crowley asks, and Aziraphale remembers with a start that the story does not have a very happy ending.
“Ah. Well, the magic saved the Queen, but her baby died shortly after he was born. He was whisked away by the attending midwife before the Queen even had a chance to hold him. So Their Majesties sent up a lantern in his honor. And every year on his birthday, the kingdom remembers him the same way. It’s all rather lovely.”
After a tense moment of silence, Crowley blurts, “That’s a terrible story! A tale about magic flowers and moondrops ought to at least have a happy ending!”
“I didn’t write it!” Aziraphale retorts. If he had, there would certainly have been a happy reunion before the poor King and Queen passed away themselves. “And the lanterns are a beautiful memorial for the prince, whatever your opinions are on the royal family’s history.”
“I’m only saying, what’s the point of magic if it’s only going to do half the job?”
Aziraphale doesn’t want to tell Crowley he absolutely agrees with him because at the moment Crowley is being annoying. He folds his arms and says smartly, “Look, do you want to see them or not?”
It draws the dark-haired boy up short. “I— I told you I can’t.”
“And why can't you?”
“I can’t leave the tower,” Crowley says haltingly. He’s not moved an inch, but somehow his body language has pulled him what feels like miles away from Aziraphale’s side. His glasses are pointed at his knees. “Not ever. If he found out—”
“Who?” Aziraphale demands without thinking, but he can see Crowley’s open expression beginning to shutter, so he holds up a hand. “Forget I asked. But, Crowley, it would only be the one night. We’d have you back before dawn, I swear it. We could get you shawl and a kerchief to wear over your hair, and no one would recognize you!”
Aziraphale can see his friend begin to be won over. He desperately wants to know what it is Crowley is so afraid of, how to convince him to take what’s been offered when he clearly wants to.
Bentlee evacuates Aziraphale’s person to climb up the length of Crowley’s body instead, settling in beneath his left ear. Crowley picks at the linens on the bed.
“What if I get lost?” he whispers.
Aziraphale’s heart gives over completely. He decides then and there that he must make Crowley feel safe no matter what. He searches his pockets, and his fingers close around the nocturnal, and an idea springs to mind.
He holds it out. Crowley’s head does the bird tilt.
“Do you know what this is?” Aziraphale asks in a conspiratorial way, letting Crowley in on a secret.
“It’s called a nocturnal. It, ah— it’s similar to a compass.” Aziraphale doesn’t actually know very much about it— he knows it’s used to tell the time, and has very little to do with navigation— but that’s neither here nor there, since he’s making this up as he goes. “Instead of a needle to point you where you need to go, it uses the stars. As long as you’re in a place the sky can see you, you’ll never be lost.”
He extends a hand, and Crowley takes it. Aziraphale turns his palm up and places the nocturnal there, folding Crowley’s fingers over the coin and then folding his own over top of them.
“And I will be with you the whole time,” Aziraphale vows, his voice barely more than a whisper. “I won’t leave your side even for a moment. I wouldn’t dream of it.”
They sit there simply holding one another for a moment, Crowley soaking up the contact like a sun-starved flower. His fingers tremble as if with cold. Bentlee comes down his arm and braces her two front paws on the top of their joined hands, and it makes his troubled mouth tilt into a smile.
“Okay,” he decides. It’s perhaps the most beautiful moment of bravery— or rebellion— that Aziraphale has ever been witness to. He wishes he could see what Crowley’s eyes look like as he lifts his head and says more strongly, “Yes. I want to go.”
Aziraphale beams at him, and Crowley’s smile widens, and they spend the rest of the day making plans. Aziraphale is sorry to leave him when the afternoon gives way to evening, even knowing they’ll meet again tomorrow.
The morning of the prince’s birthday dawns on an Aziraphale who barely slept for all his excitement. He dresses quickly in his finest trousers and favorite waistcoat and a lightweight shirt, which he laces up so eagerly he nearly knots it beyond all hope. Raphael doesn’t care for Sandalphon and Uriel tromping through the house in their boots, despairing of the mess and the noise they bring with them everywhere, so Aziraphale carries his with him to the front of the house instead.
“Good lord, the sun hasn’t even come up yet,” Gabriel says by way of greeting, peering at him through the open doorway from the kitchen. He’s seated at the table with paperwork while the staff bustles around him, heating water for baths and beginning meal preparation for the day. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
“I’m meeting with a friend,” Aziraphale reports with satisfaction. “We’re attending the memorial together. He lives aways off, so I’m getting an early start.”
A few years ago, Gabriel might have made an unkind remark about the likelihood of his having friends to do anything with. Shared grief over the loss of their parents turned Aziraphale’s siblings bitter and antagonistic, even with each other and especially with their soft and easily-hurt Aziraphale. His lingering fear of the dark is testament to that time, from the night Uriel locked him in the stables and forgot him there. The footmen found him in the morning, and Gabriel was furious, but it only became fodder for a roof-raising argument between the other four, and it was the house staff who helped Aziraphale inside and got him warm and clean.
Things improved once Raphael returned from his healer training. That is to say, Raphael came down upon the household like a hammer on an anvil, reminding them in no uncertain terms what it was family was supposed to mean. He simply won’t abide cruelty, and Aziraphale’s siblings hadn’t truly understood that cruel is what they were until it was laid out in front of them plainly by someone they respected and admired.
It was a painful adjustment period, as it’s hard for one to admit they’ve been a bully, especially to someone they care about; but what Raphael learned from his time at the monastery proved effective, and his patience and love brought them all back together again with only a few trips and falls.
So now Gabriel only gives his younger brother a shrewd look, born more of concern than suspicion. It’s marked improvement, truly, but Aziraphale could live without scrutiny of any kind.
“Maybe you ought to take a horse. The bandits that made off with the prince’s crown are still at large.”
Aziraphale looks up from tying his boots with a scowl. “Can you believe the nerve of them, stealing from the royal family so close to the anniversary of the prince’s death? They ought to be ashamed of themselves!”
“Yes, Aziraphale, it’s their timing they ought to be ashamed of, not their act of treason.” Heroically, he manages to restrain himself to a single eye-roll before turning back to the table. “If you’re taking a horse, ask Michael to help you with the tack and saddle.”
“Of course,” Aziraphale says brightly, with absolutely no intention of riding a horse or instigating conversation with his sister before breakfast, two equally ranked horrors as far as he was concerned. “Maybe I’ll see you in the square later.”
He sets off on foot, and by the time he makes it to the meadow, the morning sun is high and bright and Crowley is waiting for him outside.
He hasn’t noticed Aziraphale yet, engrossed in a handful of wildflowers that seem greedy for his attention, clambering up his knees and arms as much as any plant is capable of clambering; and so he doesn’t see the spectacle Aziraphale makes of himself, tripping over his own two feet at the vision that is Crowley dressed to go to town.
The tunic he’s wearing is gemstone red with gold embroidery at the hems, and a little too big for his skinny frame. It drapes down his chest and hips gracefully, falling to his knees and cinched tight at the waist with a leather belt. He’s also dressed in dark wool hose and boots tied up to his ankles and a long kerchief to contain as much of his braided hair as it can.
Beautiful, Aziraphale thinks, and it feels like an epiphany. It’s a thought that takes hold and never really lets go.
“Ah, there you are!” Crowley calls, having finally noticed Aziraphale standing there like a stump. His voice spurs Aziraphale into action.
He hurries over to clasp Crowley’s hands in greeting, even though it feels a little bit like coming over to hold a star.
“You look lovely!” Aziraphale says straight away. It absolutely needs to be said. “The red suits you!”
Crowley gets that shyly pleased look on his face that Aziraphale has come to adore, even as he wrinkles his nose down at himself.
“You really think so? I’m so bloody pale I worried it made me look like a ghost.”
His skin is white against Aziraphale’s brown, this well-kept secret of a boy who must have never had a full day in the sun; but it’s a lovely contrast, and the rich hues of his wardrobe only serve to warm his complexion rather than wash it out. Aziraphale tells him as much, earnestly, and Crowley pushes him playfully away.
“You look good, too, though I’m sure that comes as no surprise to you,” he says, as if compliments like this are part and parcel of Aziraphale’s daily life. It sets something inside Aziraphale on fire. He thinks, absurdly, that he could stand here holding Crowley for centuries and not feel the hours as they go. Not for the first time, he wishes he could see Crowley’s eyes as they talk. Teasingly, Crowley adds, “You always look good. My dashing rogue.”
“Oh, would you stop! ‘Menace’ this, ‘rogue’ that— talk like that in town and you’ll give me a reputation!”
Crowley is laughing openly now. “Don’t worry! I’ll tell anyone who asks the truth.”
Wary, Aziraphale ventures, “And what might the truth be?”
“That you are— without a doubt— just enough of a bastard to be worth liking.”
Mouth dropping open, in delight or scandal or a surprised combination of the two, Aziraphale smacks him on the arm and demands, “Where on earth did you learn to talk like that?” to which Crowley brightly replies, “Romance novels are filthy, and there’s a whole box of them upstairs.”
It’s when Crowley nods lazily back at the tower that Aziraphale rather belatedly realizes he’s outside— despite Aziraphale having locked the way behind him when he left the previous evening. He peers at the outer door, and sure enough, the latch is pulled free and even the padlock is hanging open, key left deftly twisted in its hole.
“How did you manage that?” he asks in wonder.
“Bentlee’s cleverness.” The rat in question gives a proud chattering sound from Crowley’s shoulder, and he pets her head with the tip of his finger. “She learned locks when I was still learning how to walk.”
“So you’ve always been free to leave?” Aziraphale stares at him, shock warring with confusion. And there are so many questions he knows better than to ask, for fear of pushing his friend away, but this much he can’t bear. “Then why— Crowley, why do you stay? Why have you spent your whole life hidden away here when you could have escaped at any time?”
It’s like a tragedy, the way Crowley’s bright smile goes out. Standing there, in the flowers and the sun and all his pretty dress, he looks strangely bereft, as though the warmth doesn’t reach him anymore.
“I’ve never been free,” he says. It sounds like it costs him to say it. “Locks aren’t the only things that can keep a person prisoner.”
“I don’t understand,” Aziraphale all but whispers, keeping his tight hold of Crowley’s hands. “I know we’ve only been friends a short while, but you’re already so dear to me. I want to understand. Can you tell me, please? As much as you can?”
The way Crowley’s mouth twists, and the way he frees a hand to rub at his eyes beneath his glasses, is proof enough that Aziraphale’s words touched him. It’s another long moment before he decides whether or not to be moved by them, too.
“Promise you won’t hate me,” he finally says. “Or run away.”
“I would never,” Aziraphale tells him, affronted. And after everything he just said about being Crowley’s friend!
“Of course I do, Crowley, I promise.”
And so Crowley tells him:
“My uncle put me here. He said I’m cursed with some wicked magic that killed my mother as soon as I was born. The tower is supposed to contain it, far from where it can hurt anyone else. He comes by once a month to bleed it out of me.”
“Please stop there for a moment.” Aziraphale can feel his stomach lurching sickly, and his face probably shows the same horrible feeling because Crowley flinches away from him, tries to wring his hands free of Aziraphale’s grip. Aziraphale doesn’t let go. “No, no, I’m not afraid! I just— what do you mean when you say he bleeds it out of you? He surely doesn’t—”
“No, he doesn’t,” Crowley says quickly. He’s very still now, like he was the day they first met, as if any sudden move might tip Aziraphale into fleeing. “It’s my hair. It glows when I need it to, and I scoop the light into a jar that uncle takes away with him. It doesn’t hurt at all.”
“Doesn’t hurt,” Aziraphale gasps, feeling like he might cry. “He locks you up and calls you a killer and leaves you all alone— don’t tell me it doesn’t hurt, I refuse to be lied to!”
“Why don’t you care about the parts you’re supposed to care about? I’m cursed, and my hair glows, and I killed my—”
“You didn’t! Show me how any little baby could willfully kill, Crowley! When we’re that young we’ve no concept of anything beyond our own need. What your uncle said is impossible.”
“But if it was the magic,” Crowley ventures uncertainly, “then—”
“Then it still wasn’t you, was it? It was a force beyond your control.” He leans in until there is nowhere else for Crowley to look, even with those shaded spectacles to hide behind, and says, “Whatever truly happened, it wasn’t your fault. Tell me that you will try to remember that, my dear.”
Absolutely stunned, all Crowley can muster is a nod. Aziraphale decides it will have to do.
“Is that why you wear those glasses?”
It’s a self-conscious hand that reaches up to rearrange them. “Uncle says my eyes have the mark of a monster and to always keep them covered. They’re what killed—” He pauses at Aziraphale’s forbidding expression, and tries again. “He told me my mother died because she looked into them. Which may or may not be true?”
Aziraphale squeezes his hand, pleased with him. “Good boy.”
While Crowley digests that, looking as astonished as he might have if his tower decided to grow legs and leave, Aziraphale manages to stifle a sigh. It appears he won’t get to see Crowley’s eyes for himself until they’ve managed to get this magic off him. Well, something to look forward to.
“So I take it your uncle is the one who added the lock to the outer door?”
“Yes. He found pressed flowers in my room and realized I must have been sneaking out to play.” Crowley tilts his head, pressing his cheek to Bentlee’s fine white fur. “He made me tell him how I got out, and then he— I don’t recall exactly, my memory of it is fuzzy. It was so long ago. But he yelled a lot and stomped about before he left, and he must have hurt Bentlee because I remember holding her body and crying over it. It was very dark, because he’d smashed the lantern when he’d gone, but then the moon came out and it was so bright that everything went silver and white, even Bentlee. And everything was okay when we woke up in the morning.”
Aziraphale wonders how much of the memory was truly lost to time, and how much of it was carefully pushed back into the far corners of Crowley’s mind where it could do him lesser harm. He thinks he’s never hated anyone as much as he hates Crowley’s uncle, whoever the man is.
“You uncle hurt her,” Aziraphale clarifies.
“He must have done.”
“And the… moon healed her?”
“Maybe? I told you I don’t remember.” Crowley seems calmer now that his secret is out and Aziraphale hasn’t gone running for the hills. “You’re taking this better than I thought you would. I wasn’t sure you’d believe me. Magic, and all.”
“Aren’t I the one who told you a story about magic just the other day? Of course I believe you.” Truthfully, he wants to ask Crowley to make his hair glow, just for the spectacle of seeing it, but he rather feels as though he’s pressed enough for one day. Instead, he says, “I’m going to be thinking a lot about this curse of yours, and how to free you from it. Just you wait and see.”
Perhaps he should be more concerned about the so-called curse than he is. But it’s Crowley, who gave him a precious book and a lantern to light his way even when he thought they’d never meet again. How anyone could know him and still think of him poorly is a mystery it would take Aziraphale more than one lifetime to solve. And all that rot his uncle fed him about killing his mother, locking him away in a tower like a monster— it’s a kind of magic in and of itself that Crowley turned out as good as he has.
“Well, that’s enough of that for the time being,” Aziraphale says, adopting a brighter tone. “Today’s my gift to you. Are you ready to go?”
Crowley looks behind him at the tower, and then ahead at the cave looming a handful of harmless yards away. His hand in Aziraphale’s is tight but not the painful grip of panic. He turns his head just enough that Aziraphale can guess he’s looking at him, mouth tilting into that crooked smile that Aziraphale has come to adore.
“Lead the way, angel.”
“Another joke at my expense, I see,” Aziraphale says primly. He takes Crowley’s hand and places it instead in the crook of his arm, leading him in a more gentlemanly fashion through the tall grass. “Are you going to explain it to me?”
“Nope,” says Crowley cheerfully, apparently recovered from the hard conversation they’re leaving behind. He’s happy to lean on Aziraphale’s arm as they walk, and for a split second Aziraphale’s mind dares dart back to those romance novels Crowley mentioned before— unsure what to do when it gets there, wanting something it can’t name. “You’d only argue the point, and we’re both so stubborn we’d probably end up fighting. Best to avoid all that and just go with it, I reckon.”
“Well, if you reckon, it must be so,” Aziraphale concedes magnanimously, just for the sake of hearing his friend laugh.
The day goes by in a blur.
Crowley is overwhelmed at first, fully attached to Aziraphale’s arm as they make their way across the island bridge and into the kingdom proper. There are hundreds of people in all directions and more noise and activity than he could know what to do with after a whole life spent more-or-less alone.
“Alright, dear.” Aziraphale murmurs, patting Crowley’s white-knuckled hand gently. “It’s alright, see? No one’s paying you any mind. They’re all here to enjoy themselves, too.”
It’s not entirely true. Crowley gets more than a few lingering looks, and it’s no wonder why— Aziraphale finds his own gaze lingering on Crowley’s sharp cheekbones, his expressive mouth— but his apparent shyness keeps anyone from approaching him outright, and only earns him pleasant laughter from the first peddler they meet.
“Never come to the market before, have you?” she asks from beside her cart. “You poor thing. It’s a lot to take in. Here, a proper gift for our guest.”
The ribbons she hands over are beautiful, silk dyed in red so dark it leans toward black. Crowley’s eyebrows lift, his hidden eyes probably round with surprise, and he stammers out an uncertain thanks that makes Aziraphale’s heart hurt.
How could he have lived alone all this time? Locked in a tower, away from the kind people of Corona who would have loved a chance to know him?
The peddler waves dismissively when Aziraphale reaches for his coin purse and bids them to enjoy the afternoon.
“She was nice,” Crowley says in a dubious whisper as they make their way through the crowds again. “How come?”
“She doesn’t need a reason,” Aziraphale says firmly. This is a lesson Raphael taught him over and over again, patient and painstaking, everytime one of their siblings did something unkind. At times it was surprisingly easy to slip back into thinking himself deserving of their sometimes casual cruelty, but Aziraphale thinks he’s learned better by now. “No one does. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.”
“Not everyone.” Not me, he might as well have said.
“Now you’re just trying to make me cross with you. I won’t have you talking about yourself the way your uncle probably does.”
Crowley sticks his tongue out, but goes back to his study of the ribbons with an expression more thoughtful than contrary. His tight grip on Aziraphale’s sleeve loosens a bit. Progress, Aziraphale allows himself to hope, and he’s right.
As the day wears on, Crowley’s guard seems to slip. It starts with a child, goading him into a game with her friends because they’re one player short. He goes so reluctantly that Aziraphale almost feels guilty for it, but it’s not as if he’s in any danger amongst a cluster of enthusiastic eight-year-olds. At first, he’s glancing over his shoulder every minute or so to make sure Aziraphale is still right where he left him, but soon enough he’s wrapped up in the children’s noisy, infectious joy, and he forgets to make sure he hasn’t been abandoned. The next time he looks up it’s with a blazing grin, as if to say look at this fun I’m having, and Aziraphale grins right back.
They eat standing in the shade of the fountain, hot pastries filled to bursting with venison, figs and currants that burn their tongues and their fingers. Crowley is charming even with the shine of grease on his lips, cheeks flushed as they pass a jug of wine back and forth. He's never tasted anything that he didn't make himself in his little kitchen, and Aziraphale wants to give him everything. Little squares of cheese and walnut bread drizzled with honey and messy bites of egg custard, and Crowley tries each new thing that Aziraphale holds up to his mouth.
They dance, when a ramshackle band of fiddles and pipes strikes up a song. Neither of them know the steps, but Aziraphale has had enough to drink that he doesn't mind looking silly, and he wants to. Crowley has never danced with anyone before, and Aziraphale has never danced with anyone whose company he's enjoyed, and it's right that they should discover the giddy weightlessness of it together.
They run into Gabriel when Crowley drags Aziraphale towards the group of children drawing on the cobblestones with chalk— literally, a headlong collision that sends Gabriel staggering into an apple cart and Crowley scrambling to make sure his glasses don’t fall off his face.
And Aziraphale laughs. Actually presses a hand to his mouth and laughs at his older brother, looking so winded and out of sorts. And he offers a quick ‘sorry!’ but then Crowley is tugging at his sleeve again and really, it’s Crowley’s day, so off they go.
They cover what feels like every square inch of the kingdom and then some, even popping into the village library to pour over a book of maps, maps of every known kingdom in the world. Crowley bows his head over the lines of those far away places, his fingers tracing the names with a wistfulness that digs into Aziraphale’s heart.
He makes an excuse to leave the library as quickly as possible— there’s a first time for everything, after all— and distracts Crowley with the absolute first thing he sees once they’re outside, which happens to be…
“Ducks!” Crowley exclaims, leaving the forlorn half of him behind with the books as he races into the street.
They eat more, warm pottage with parsnips and carrots, and drink more, a second jug of wine that empties Aziraphale’s purse. Crowley’s smile is so wide it looks as though it might leave a permanent shadow on his face as he passes Aziraphale a surprise piece of lardy cake he must have picked up at the inn before they left. His hair is mussed, escaping from its braid in a few places. There’s blue chalk smeared across his cheek.
He’s so beautiful it’s almost painful to look at him.
“To the boats!” someone cries, and it startles Aziraphale into almost dropping the cake.
Sure enough, the light is changing, dusk beginning to sponge across the bright evening sky. It’s unfair! It’s impossible that they could have spent the day so quickly!
“Boats?” Crowley asks, setting their empty wine jug aside. “What for?”
Aziraphale breaks off a bit of cake for Bentlee and swallows the last bite for himself, drawing every moment out now that he knows the end is near. Dusting his hands off, he says, “For the best view, of course. Follow me, dear.”
One of the Fell House footmen is waiting by the water with a boat moored. He smiles to see Aziraphale, and greets Crowley warmly when introductions are made, and Aziraphale assures him they can handle things from here.
“Never been on a boat,” Crowley says, unnecessarily, but he looks happy as he clambers inside. Bentlee settles on the rope cleat regally, and Aziraphale picks up the oar. “You know, in town, there was a mosaic. The baby must have been the lost prince, but were the two people behind him his parents?”
“Ah, yes. They passed away within a few years of each other. The King’s younger brother took the throne after that, King Lucifer.”
“So who does the lantern thing now? If the prince’s parents aren’t here?”
“I believe it’s Prince Beel who’s kept the tradition going. Our late Queen was their aunt, and it must be a matter close to their heart,” Aziraphale says, and pushes out from the dock. It’s easy enough to get their boat gliding through the dark, peaceful water, and only a few more strokes until they’re about where Aziraphale wants them, in the middle of the harbor. “There we are. It should start soon, now that it’s fully dark.”
“Oh,” Crowley says suddenly, sitting upright so abruptly the boat rocks a bit. “It’s dark. I didn’t even think. Obviously it would be dark when the lanterns came out, but I didn’t— ngh. Are you alright? We can go back.”
He’s so kind, Aziraphale thinks, somehow hurting from it.
“Not to worry,” he says gently. “It’s when I’m alone in the dark that I get frightened. Just don’t swim off and leave me here.”
Crowley gives him the incredulous glare that he deserves for that, and then turns to look out over the water. His hands are clutched tightly in his lap, working back and forth like kneading dough, and his eyebrows are furrowed.
“Are you alright?” Aziraphale asks. His voice is quiet, because the harbor is quiet, the water carrying everything away. Crowley shudders a little, as if chilled, and nods, then shakes his head.
“I don’t know. I’ve waited for this forever, you know, but once the lights go up— it’s over. So I, I dunno. It feels like it’s gone so fast. I kind of wish I’d asked for something else. Something that would’ve given us more time. But I’m glad I didn’t, because this has been the best day of my life.”
Aziraphale’s throat is hot and tight. He leans forward to take Crowley’s restless hands.
“Mine, too,” he says, meaning it. “And it doesn’t have to be over.”
Crowley darts a glance at him. It looks like he’s holding his breath.
“There must be other things you want to see and do,” Aziraphale goes on, heart racing. “We can do them together. Anywhere you want to go, I’ll go with you.”
Crowley frees a hand and wipes his eyes beneath those dark lenses. He was never taught not to cry in front of someone else, never learned that it was a shameful thing, so Aziraphale is afforded the intimate honor of holding him while he does.
“I can’t leave the tower,” he whispers.
“Then I’ll see you there,” Aziraphale tells him, squeezing Crowley’s hand in both of his own. Praying that Crowley believes him, that he’ll never be alone again. “Every day.”
When the lanterns go up, it feels almost like an afterthought. Crowley tugs at Aziraphale’s hand until he moves off his bench seat to meet him in the belly of the boat instead. They sit there in the middle so they can sit together, and Crowley’s head finds a place to rest on Aziraphale’s shoulder.
When the lanterns go up, Crowley slides his glasses off to see them properly. He’s so close that it would be an easy thing to finally get a look at his eyes, but Aziraphale doesn’t. He wouldn’t. He just draws Crowley closer, offering him shelter should he need it, even though the night is warm and still and beautiful, and they watch the lights.
It doesn’t have to be over, Aziraphale reminds himself sternly. This isn’t the end.
They argue briefly once the boat is safely moored, and they’re walking the long way along the water’s edge back into town.
“What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t walk you home?” Aziraphale says heatedly.
“The kind of friend who would have to walk himself back home alone in the dark,” Crowley retorts, and Aziraphale thinks he knows him well enough to know what an eye-roll looks like even from behind those glasses. He bristles, affronted.
“I have the lantern you gave me! I would be fine!”
“And I have the star compass you gave me,” Crowley says, patting his pocket, “so I’ll be fine, too. I remember the way, angel. I’d feel better if I knew you were safe at home.”
It’s hard to argue with that sentiment, and not in the least because he would have to admit that the nocturnal is not at all a compass and more a useless coin than anything else. So he huffs and folds his arms, and Crowley cheerfully takes it as a win.
When they step onto the main road, mostly empty in the twilight, Aziraphale lifts Bentlee from his shoulder and places her on Crowley’s instead.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Aziraphale says, having gracefully conceded his loss. “I’ll bring wine.”
Crowley grins at him, the brightest thing under the whole night sky. He presses Aziraphale’s hands in farewell before he goes away.
That grin keeps Aziraphale company on his own walk home, lingering with a weight and presence in the front of his mind. He shoves open the gate and waves hello to the guard stationed out front. There are still lights on inside, even though it's nearly morning already, but he makes it up to his room without drawing any attention. The lantern goes back onto his nightstand, next to Crowley’s book, and he pushes the window open before blowing out the candles, to better see the stars as he falls asleep.
It seems as though he’s only just shut his eyes when a sharp pain in his ear wakes him again. The sky outside is gray with early dawn and there’s a rat in his bed, chattering impatiently at him.
“Bentlee?” He sits up, careful not to dislodge her, and rubs his ear. “Did you bite me? What are you doing here?”
Aziraphale’s tired mind is scrambling to orient itself, roused abruptly as it was. It doesn’t make sense that Bentlee is in his bedroom, and he would think he was still dreaming if not for the sting left from her wicked teeth. She seems agitated, moving back and forth across the linens, and a cool sense of dread begins to fill Aziraphale’s stomach.
For almost twenty years, she’s been Crowley’s constant companion. What would have made her leave his side? What would have made her come all this way, an improbable journey for such a small creature?
Past feeling foolish, he lifts the rat up in his hands to look her in the eyes. “Is it Crowley? Is he in danger?”
Impossibly, ridiculously, Bentlee nods.
And the dread explodes into panic. He leaps out of bed, still dressed in yesterday’s clothes, and searches for his boots. He’s halfway to the door before he doubles back for the lantern, and then he goes thundering out into the hall as if the gates of hell are at his heels.
The noise is enough to draw three of five siblings out of their own rooms.
“Aziraphale, what on earth?” Raphael asks, brow furrowed. “It’s only a candlemark after dawn.”
“I know, but I have to go. Sorry to wake you,” Aziraphale babbles, hardly hearing himself talk. He sits to tug his boots on, cursing his hands for trembling so much that a mundane task has become a trial. “I’m taking a horse, if that’s alright. I can manage the tack myself, thank you, though.”
“He’s lost his mind,” Gabriel says from somewhere above him.
“Remember the discussion we had about unhelpful comments?” Raphael returns sharply.
Uriel joins the conversation with, “Is that a rat?”
“I wish I had time to explain this to you, but I don’t.” Aziraphale stands up, casting about for an overcoat for all of two seconds before giving up the idea entirely. “This rat and I have a mutual friend, and our friend needs me. So I’m going. I really am sorry to have woken you.”
A hand on his unoccupied shoulder draws him from the door. Uriel says, not unkindly, “It’ll take you until midday to get a horse saddled properly. I’ll ready one for you, and you’ll talk to Raphael.”
She’s gone before he can contest this arrangement, though she does have a point. As captain of the royal guard Uriel is a professional when it comes to handling horses, and what might have taken Aziraphale close to an hour will take her an efficient manner of minutes.
Aziraphale turns to look at his brothers, wringing his hands anxiously.
“We have a few moments now,” Raphael says, as patient as he’s always been. “Tell me about your friend.”
So he does. He tells them about the hidden cave and the tower in the meadow and the locked doors. Gabriel balks when Aziraphale admits to breaking in, but goes absolutely still as he describes meeting Crowley. Raphael is frowning, but doesn’t interrupt, as Aziraphale talks about Crowley's impossible length of hair, and the glasses he’s never without, and the uncle who imprisoned him there because of a curse.
“You said his hair glows?” Raphael asks sharply. “White, you said?”
“That’s what he told me. And his uncle comes to, ah—” He doesn’t want to use the world bleed. “—harvest it, I suppose.”
“And he’s about your age,” Gabriel says, in a tone that matches Raphael’s. “I saw him earlier, just for a second. He’s— Raph, could he be—?”
The clop of hooves on the cobblestones outside draws the entirety of Aziraphale’s attention, but Raphael stops him before he can run out the door.
“Come here,” he says quickly, drawing Aziraphale into the office. He produces a map and unfurls it, Gabriel helping to hold the edges down, and hands Aziraphale a pen. “Mark wherever it is the tower stands.”
As quickly as he can, Aziraphale traces the line of the road into the woods with his eyes, and the sinuous, snaking path that he knows by heart now. The cave systems aren’t mapped, but he dips the pen into an inkwell and circles the general area they ought to be.
“The entrance is covered by thick creepers,” he explains, handing off the pen. “The cave itself is hardly more than a few steps deep, and it opens into the meadow. I really have to go.”
“Of course,” Raphael says. “We’ll be right behind you.”
Aziraphale doesn’t stop to question it. Uriel is waiting outside with the reins of a blue roan gelding, a placid-looking creature that lowers its head to inspect Aziraphale when he stops short of it. Its size is unsettling. Aziraphale has never quite recovered from that night he spent locked in the barn when he was a child, with nothing but a half dozen of these huge beasts to keep him company, but there's no time to wallow in it now. He needs to get to Crowley.
Squaring his shoulders, Aziraphale accepts the reins from his sister, and says to the horse, “I don't really know how to ride, so you'll have to do the bulk of the work, I'm afraid— but this is an emergency. Someone I love needs me, and I need to get to him as soon as I can.”
It might be that he's gotten too used to the company of Crowley's intelligent rat. Uriel looks at him like he's grown a second head, but Bentlee hisses in accord, and the horse shakes its dark mane as if to say 'then what are we waiting for?'
Heartened, Aziraphale passes Uriel the tole lantern, plants a foot in the stirrup, grips the horn, and swings himself up into the saddle. The horse sidles eagerly, and Aziraphale clutches the reins in white-knuckled hands, praying that his newfound courage doesn't desert him.
Uriel lashes his lantern to the saddlebags, but doesn't step back right away. She stares up at him for a moment, expression unfamiliar.
“Did I ever apologize for what I did to you when we were kids?”
Aziraphale stares back at her. He'd thought she'd forgotten all about it by now. “I don't remember,” he says honestly.
Uriel frowns. “Neither do I. Don't get yourself killed before I get the chance, then.”
She moves ahead to open the gate. Mind whirling, Aziraphale resolves to put unexpected conversations with his siblings on the shelf until he has time to puzzle over them later. Sparing a moment to make sure Bentlee is secure in the pocket of his waistcoat, he squeezes with his legs and giving the reins a tiny pull, just enough to cause a light pressure in the horse's mouth. That's all it takes to urge the creature forward through the gate, its initial trot moving quickly into a canter as they tear with blinding speed through the village and over the island bridge.
“Woah!” he cries suddenly. “Stop!”
There, on the ground— Crowley's kerchief, and a tangle of red ribbon, and the dull brassy glint of the nocturnal, abandoned in the dirt.
He never made it back, Aziraphale realizes with a sickly jolt. Something happened before he'd even made it off the bridge.
He snaps the reins, nudging the horse on again desperately, and this time the nausea in his stomach has nothing to do with the breakneck gallop of the frightening animal beneath him. He should have walked Crowley home.
Dawn is getting bolder, moving with brighter color across the sky, but the forest is still dark and there's little time for Aziraphale's eyes to adjust at the pace they're moving. He has to trust the horse's own night vision and familiarity with the road, and only slows them to a brisk walk once they move off the trail and there's a real risk of the horse catching its foot in a hole or burrow and pitching them both.
“You're not so bad, are you?” Aziraphale asks, giving the horse's neck a tentative pat. It blows out through its nose, which Aziraphale isn't sure how to translate, and stands agreeably still when Aziraphale dismounts at the mouth of the cave. “Wait here, please.”
He feels bow-legged, and slightly dizzy, and it's not until he's fumbled the lantern off the saddlebag that he realizes he doesn't even need it. But it's a comfort to hold, even unlit, so he takes it along anyway, pushing his way through the creepers and the few feet of darkness until he spills into the meadow.
The tower stands starkly beneath a vivid pink and blue morning, and the grass waves gently in the breeze, and there's absolutely no sign that anything is wrong. But there's a sort of struggle in Aziraphale's heart that won't let him rest until he sees for himself that his friend is alright.
The outer door is unlocked, and he can see a square of light at the top of the stairs that must mean the trapdoor is open, too. He takes the stairs up two at a time, and lifts himself through the opening without pause, calling out, “Crowley? Crowley, are you here? I saw your things, by the bridge— and Bentlee was so worried— ”
The moment he’s on his feet, two things happen in quick succession.
He sees Crowley, trying to speak through a cloth gag tied around his head, straining so hard against the shackles on his wrist that they bite into his skin.
And then there’s a sudden pain in Aziraphale’s side, a blunt-force blow against his ribs that feels like a punch, and when he puts his hand to the spot it comes away bloody.
He stands there for a moment, stunned by the obscene red glint on his fingers, and then his legs give out beneath him.
The tole lantern shatters. Crowley is screaming, muffled behind the gag, and heavy footsteps move around Aziraphale’s body. A man speaks— and he sounds familiar.
“And now our secret is safe again, just as it should be,” the man who must be Crowley’s uncle says, in a rich, cultured voice that sets alarm bells ringing in the only lucid corner left of Aziraphale’s brain. He knows who that man is, he’s heard that voice before, but he can’t place it. “And no one else will find you.”
Aziraphale’s thoughts are shaking together and apart like loose waves against a dock. Like the dark water that rocked against their boat. The harbor had been so still and quiet the night before, and that stillness and quiet must have followed Aziraphale here, must have come with him to Crowley’s warm room where it doesn’t belong, because he can feel himself floating through it, like one of Crowley’s lanterns.
He rolls onto his side, curling up a bit around the part of his body that still manages to hurt through the numbness, and chokes out, “No.”
His cheek is pressed against the floor and he can't lift his head, so he can’t see more than— a pair of legs moving away from him. Behind them, sweet Crowley, scrabbling like a mad thing to get free of his chains. The legs pausing mid-stride.
Crowley’s uncle says, “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
Aziraphale looks at his friend, blinking slowly. Crowley’s glasses are gone, and the room is too blurry for Aziraphale to make out his eyes, but he thinks Crowley is crying.
Don’t, he wants to tell him. Don’t cry, you lovely boy.
Out loud, in a rambling, conversational tone, Aziraphale mumbles, “I drew a map for my siblings. They’re on their way. This tower isn’t much of a secret anymore. You’ve met them, you know. Uriel of Fell is the head of your guard. Gabriel and Michael have been on your c- ” He shudders, very cold. “Council for years. And Raphael apprenticed under your best healers.”
The room would have been absolutely silent, if not for Crowley’s continued muffled attempts at freedom.
That’s right, Aziraphale realizes, catching up to himself. This man is the King.
Aziraphale has heard his voice at festivals and addresses and the occasional palace dinner, dozens and dozens of times. Crowley’s uncle is the King.
The rest of the pieces are drifting gently into place. A queen saved by a silver flower, her baby pronounced dead before she could hold it, a boy with magic in his hair locked away in a tower where he could never take the throne…
He always kept his eyes covered. Were they as distinctive as his mother's? Would people guess rightly who Crowley really was with a single look? His curse was always a lie; just a cruel way to force obedience, to keep him bound by his own goodness. What a monster his uncle turned out to be.
The sudden sound of a lock giving way and chains rattling to the floor; the King curses, something that sounds like “that damn rat again!” and there’s a brief scuffle before Crowley is collapsing to his knees at Aziraphale’s side.
“Aziraphale! Don’t close your eyes, stay here with me!”
Warm hands turn his face, smooth back the hair stuck to his forehead in cold sweat. There’s commotion somewhere behind them, thundering feet on the stairs and shouting from outside, a noisy struggle, but all Aziraphale knows is this; Crowley’s lips against his cheek, the cradle of his arms.
“You promised it wasn’t over,” Crowley sobs, “you promised me every day.”
A sharp sting slices through the fog of Aziraphale’s brain, and he peels reluctant eyelids open to be met with twitching whiskers and beady little eyes. Bentlee bit him again.
Bentlee, he thinks. She used to have dark fur. Crowley’s uncle hurt her, and Crowley—
He gasps, lurching upright as much as he can. It startles Crowley, but all he does is gather Aziraphale closer, galvanized by the sudden show of spirit. A hand appears on Crowley’s shoulder and he knocks it away, hissing in a manner he must have picked up from his childhood friend. The hand retreats.
“Your hair,” Aziraphale manages. It comes out as more of a wheeze than anything substantial, but Crowley is so close that he must hear. “The— the glow. Make it glow.”
“I don’t—” His mouth firms into a line. He doesn’t understand, it’s clear, but he’ll do as Aziraphale asks. “Right. Alright.”
And it’s clear right away why Crowley must have thought it was the moon who saved his rat, all those years ago. In a way, it was. The light that spills from his dark hair fills the room absolutely, painting everything in shimmering white, and suddenly Crowley knows what to do. He cups it in his hands, directs it to the blood-soaked side of Aziraphale’s waistcoat, lets it pour from between his fingers there like sand. The rest of the light follows suit, and Aziraphale closes his eyes even though it means missing the act of magic, because it’s such an immediate relief it’s almost too much to bear.
Whoever said starlight was cold? Whoever compared the moon to the sun and called it a pale substitution?
Crowley whispers, “Angel?”
It’s hardly fair to leave the poor dear hanging, so Aziraphale goes to the trouble of opening his eyes.
He’s met with gold. Crowley’s eyes, uncovered, shining like coins bare inches away. The pupils are slit, and the color swallows up the spaces that should be white. As far as the first sight of a new life goes, this one is at the absolute top of the pile.
“If you ever put those glasses on again, I’ll never forgive you,” he croaks. Crowley blinks, and then smiles, a shaky thing that finds its footing as it goes.
“You might not forgive me anyway,” he says, tugging on one of Aziraphale’s short curls with gentle fingers. “I think I ruined your hair. It’s pretty, though. Like starlight.”
And after that, Aziraphale can hardly be blamed. He pushes himself up on one hand and cups the back of Crowley’s head with the other, weaving his fingers into that impossible hair, and draws him down into a kiss. Crowley makes a surprised squeaking sound he’ll forever deny, but then melts against Aziraphale eagerly, and the whole business might have gone on for quite a bit longer if they hadn’t been interrupted.
From somewhere in the room, a voice that sounds remarkably like Gabriel’s blurts, “You have got to be kidding me,” but that can’t be right.
With a final kiss to the corner of Crowley’s mouth, Aziraphale turns his head to find they have quite an audience, though it appears the King has been removed— and yes, Gabriel is there, his expression pale and shaken and freshly annoyed. So are Raphael and Uriel, looking as though they might have both been crying a moment ago, and a guardsman Aziraphale doesn’t know, and…
The Prince, and two Dukes.
Oh, dear lord.
He sits up so quickly the room threatens to spin and hauls Crowley close against his side.
“If you think, for one moment,” he says harshly, “that I’ll let you carry on in His Majesty's footsteps— that I’ll let Crowley spend another second in this tower—”
The Prince shakes their head. Their expression is implacable, mouth pressed into a thin line. Their fists are clenched, and their whole body is stiff in a way that speaks of anger, but they look at Crowley the way someone might look at a long-lost loved one, returned home at last.
Ah, Aziraphale thinks, and lets his anger fade in the face of aching sympathy. Crowley taps his arm to get his attention.
“Do something for me,” he says, all but ignoring everyone else in the room. They help each other to their feet, and Crowley tugs Aziraphale with him to the armoire. He pulls open the first drawer, and rustles for a moment until he finds what he’s looking for, and turns to present Aziraphale with a pair of scissors.
Someone somewhere behind them makes an aborted sound. Aziraphale catches his breath.
“You’re sure, sweeting?”
Crowley colors a bit at the petname, but nods with resolve. And really, his is the only word that matters, so Aziraphale gathers up a handful of those dark curls without further ado and begins the arduous task of cutting through them.
The fine, silken strands fall in clumps at their feet, and as they go, they change.
The magic fades with each cut, and what once was midnight black burns into a beautiful, sunset red. When Aziraphale is done, Crowley’s curls fall just past his shoulders. The freedom of it must be astounding, the weight he’s dragged around his whole life suddenly gone.
Crowley shakes his hair back and forth with a smile of such wild joy that Aziraphale can only think, I love you, I love you, I love you.
When Crowley is twenty years old, he walks out of the tower room for the very last time. He brings nothing with him but the clothes on his back, and Bentlee of course, and not even Aziraphale is interested in the books and treasures left upstairs. Crowley's cousins— he has cousins— look as though they're ready to burn the whole place down for him if he only says the word.
He takes one last look at the meadow, at the flowers that grew up the side of the tower to keep him company, at the crooked stream he played in as a child. For all that it was his whole world for most of his life, it isn’t hard to leave behind.
There’s a big blue roan waiting for them on the other side of the cave. It butts Aziraphale in the chest with its head affectionately, and inspects Crowley not unlike the way Bentlee inspected Aziraphale when they first met.
“He brought me to you,” Aziraphale explains, petting the gelding’s neck bravely. “I owe him a lot for that.”
He gathers the reins in one hand, and offers Crowley his other one. Apparently happy to walk with him rather than ride, even though everyone else has started mounting up already. He looks as though he really doesn’t care what anyone else is going to do at all, clearly just as pleased to be contrary as cooperative.
Grinning, Crowley takes his hand, and thinks he’d walk straight into the end of the world if Aziraphale was beside him.
And much later, when they’re laying together in a grand bedchamber at the castle, plotting how the two of them— and Bentlee, and Blueberry— are going to make their daring escape from the kingdom and their respective siblings and begin their travels, Aziraphale takes Crowley's hand and draws it to his lips, kissing the back of it so tenderly Crowley forgets how to breathe.
“Anywhere you want to go,” Aziraphale reminds him, as if it’s not remarkable at all that he let himself into Crowley’s life and changed the whole of it in a matter of days; as if it’s not remarkable at all that he made Crowley a promise and then kept it, against all odds. “Where shall it be?”
Crowley knows exactly where he wants to go with Aziraphale.
“To the world,” he whispers, heart in his throat, hoping it’s the right answer.
His angel smiles at him, radiant, beautiful. And it’s right, it’s right.
“To the whole world,” Aziraphale agrees, and rolls Crowley beneath him for a proper, playful kiss.