Actions

Work Header

Crown of Thorns [The Walls, the Wainscot, and the Mouse] 'Verse

Chapter Text

Once, in the world, there was a cottage.

As cottages went, it was not remarkable. It had been built in the early twenties by a bored, wealthy Londoner for his bored, wealthy wife. They spent two happy weekends under its roof, after which sojourns they decided that the fog was much too damp and the fine kitchen tiles much too cold. Some years later, they remembered that they had built it, and brought their bored, spoiled children on holiday in hope of good weather.

It rained the whole time, and the mist was still damp.

They sold it.

 

 

* * *




Some mornings, gazing out the kitchen window, Aziraphale catches sight of the limestone cliffs through the mist. The seasons seem to turn faster than they did in London, blowing over the fields and down the grassy slope of shore. It isn't a proper inlet by any stretch, no easy boating access to the open sea, as the neighbors had got that. It wouldn't have been worth it, Aziraphale remembers saying, and takes a sip of tea as steam curls gently into his eyes. But this one, with the view, is. He sets the cup down and opens the window, breathing in the chilly air.

Out here, what he misses most—Predictably, Crowley says—is sushi restaurants. The nearest town is six miles away, and it has a grand total of three pubs and one respectable café. When Crowley can be buggered to get up before breakfast, they sometimes take a drive and have breakfast there. The Bentley has become the envy of every local mechanic, and the crestfallen glances they cast upon it are palpable. It never needs repairing, and nobody does a better wash and wax than Crowley.

Aziraphale breathes in, picking up his cup again, and finds the newspaper already inside. Morning in the kitchen is always quiet, not a sound except for his slippered feet on the tile. They discovered promptly that shoes and tile are a bad combination, so Aziraphale bought slippers, and Crowley shrugged and went barefoot. The tile is old, but the restoration job had been a snap. The kitchen floor is the envy of their neighbors, and Aziraphale enjoys having something trivial to beam about.

Outside, the fog is drifting into a transparent mist. Aziraphale takes a seat at the table, unfolding the paper, and opens the patio door with a slight inclining of his head. The Sunday puzzles usually manage to be as good as the ones he used to do in the Telegraph, and sometimes Crowley remembers to fetch a copy of the Times.

Sipping his tea, Aziraphale sets his pen to the page and enjoys the breeze.

 

 

* * *




The cottage would not have known what to think of its new owner.

The gentleman was not rich, but he was not poor, either. He had recently lost his wife, and they had been childless. He had invested wisely, saving enough to retire in comfort. The bedroom, at least, was comfortable, as long as you never left it.

He very rarely did.

 

 

* * *




Driving down a deserted, winding road with the chilly wind streaming through his window, Crowley feels guilty for leaving the house alone. Still, there are errands to be run, and Aziraphale is too lazy to run them. Not that he disapproves.

Unless you count the M25 through Oxfordshire, you really can't get this kind of scenery living in London and environs. This is part of the reason why Crowley doesn't live in London anymore. Also, he had been getting tired of not being able to do 110 miles per hour down Oxford Street. Ever since things changed, something—or, he thinks acerbically, someone—has made it harder for him to tamper with police cars.

Out here, where there are no sushi restaurants, nobody gives a damn, and Crowley is all right with that. He shoves a tape into the Blaupunkt, and it trills solid Haydn. A motorist coming from the opposite direction, one of the neighbors, recognizes Crowley and waves. Cheerfully, Crowley waves back and watches the tiny car whiz past.

He's not the only one speeding, and he approves of that, too.

 

 

* * *




For a decade, the cottage lay locked and abandoned.

The widower's brother, after inheriting the property, didn't exactly know what to do with it. He had the vague feeling that he might also inherit a patch of bad luck if he were to be too hasty in selling it. He stayed on a total of one week, just long enough to gather his brother's belongings, and spent six uncomfortable nights in an uncomfortable bed. On leaving, he dragged out the mattress with the trash.

Without fresh air and music, a decade is a very long time.

 

 

* * *




By noon, sunlight is streaming through the kitchen window. The limestone cliffs catch the light, blinding to look at. Aziraphale tilts the blinds just so, content with the slats of brightness on the tile. He walks back to the table and collects up the newspaper and the teacup. One, he tosses neatly in the bin, and the other, he sets in the sink.

Crowley has left the breadbox open and a jar of jam on the counter. Aziraphale closes the breadbox and takes the jam back to the refrigerator. They seldom lack for necessaries, as many of the locals bake, garden, and keep bees. Three months ago, when they'd first moved in, they'd ended up with enough honey to last a year.

Aziraphale leaves his slippers next to the doorway, pads across the hardwood and into the living room. The carpet is new and soft—Almost too plush, he'd said. Crowley had insisted that his furniture would look ridiculous without carpet. Aziraphale had said his furniture would look ridiculous anyway. They'd struck a bargain: Crowley had brought his furniture, and, now that they're settled in, Aziraphale has picked the carpet.

He understands why Crowley likes to go barefoot.

 

 

* * *




In 1978, the cottage got a name. The plaque was nailed above its door.

They were, as everyone called them, a bunch of hippies. Three men and one woman, to be exact. They stayed all of five months before deciding that the place was a bit too close to the shore. The woman, who was getting pronouncedly rounder about the middle, pointed out that the nighttime storms would scare her daughter.

You don't have a daughter, said the men.

Yet, said the woman.

They moved out before the child was born. The plaque stayed.

It said: Lothlórien. Which was not a very creative name.

 

 

* * *




Crowley doesn't like running errands, but they seem to be his lot in life. From the very Beginning, he's been running errands, whether it's causing trouble in a garden called Eden or renewing Aziraphale's subscriptions online so they don't run out. They come naturally, and in the end he supposes that is better than messing people about.

He hasn't taken the wrong turning for a couple of weeks now, though he catches himself just in time. He has to be careful not to let his mind wander, or he falls into old habits, usually ones that result in the unpleasant experience of having to stop and ask for directions. He is almost on the high street now, which has grown familiar, but the place he is looking for is not. He starts counting the box numbers, anxious.

There had been a rusty metal plaque above the door when they moved in, and, as names went, what was on it hadn't been satisfactory at all. In fact, it had been boring, and it was currently in the back seat, rattling around with the screws still attached.

Crowley has the distinct feeling he's going to have to ask for directions.

 

 

* * *




In 1985, the cottage got a new name. It was not necessarily a better one.

Ms. Jean Alice Prewett—J. Alice to you—got her seven cats and fifteen goldfish all settled in and decided that the plaque had to go. So, she called up some local workmen and had them throw the rusty thing away, and repaint the cottage a pale, soothing blue while they were at it. All in all, J. Alice was pleased with the result, and she lived out the remainder of her days—twenty years, six hours, eleven minutes—in her newly named cottage. None of the animals outlived her.

The cottage might have told you it didn't feel much like a Windy Knoll at all.

 

 

* * *




Lacking anything useful to do, Aziraphale decides to take a walk. The mist has slunk off for the day, and the ocean is particularly calm. He doesn't bother with shoes, as there's nobody around to see him, and they track in the sand something awful.

The cottage is on a bit of a rise, and the slope down to the water is a long, grassy incline where water birds, and even a few ducks, nest in summer, according to the neighbors. Crowley wishes it were summer already, and Aziraphale tells him to be patient. The water is cold, and something scuttles out from under Aziraphale's toe.

Aziraphale tried feeding the seagulls once, but he quickly learned why that was a bad idea. These days, he keeps his hands in his pockets and doesn't make eye contact.

In the living room, Crowley has started a bizarre collection of found objects on the mantelpiece. There are waterlogged watches, shells, china-fragments, and small pieces of driftwood. There are bits of colored glass and a delicate, rose-colored globe with a rotted piece of netting for a shroud. There is a ring, a crab's claw, a pearl. Aziraphale suspects Crowley cheated to get that last one, but it isn't worth arguing over.

Something small has washed up a few feet away, and Aziraphale bends to examine it.

Crowley hasn't got a piece of eight yet, so into his pocket it goes.

 

 

* * *




The estate agent had begun to despair of ever finding a buyer.

The cottage was mouldy, dusty, and the paint was chipping. The name plaque was rusty, and it had one of the worst names she'd ever seen on one of her sale listings. Over the months, she had shown it to dozens of potential buyers, all of whom had shaken their heads because it was too small or too old, or had stubbornly, nervously insisted that something rattled and thumped in the bedroom.

She had hoped that J. Alice Prewett's second cousin would just move in and have done with it, but the cousin had been the one to object to the rattling and thumping.

She'd been about to give up and sell it to a contractor, who had wanted to demolish it, when a young man in sunglasses and his fussy-looking partner had turned up asking to arrange a viewing. In the end, it was the young man in sunglasses who'd been the fussy one and his partner easy to win over. Prewett's cousin had accepted their offer.

The estate agent hadn't known whether to take the Windy Knoll plaque down or not.

She'd left it.

 

 

* * *




It's thirty minutes before Crowley manages to locate 10 Vine Street. He isn't pleased. The receptionist looks frightened, and he wonders vaguely if it's his sunglasses. He takes them off, and she looks even more frightened. She stammers into her phone.

"N—No, Mr. Andrews. I tried, Mr. Andrews. He's very impatient."

The receptionist makes an exasperated noise. Crowley raises his eyebrows.

"Apparently it's arrived," she says. "He said he'll bring it down himself if you can just wait a few minutes. Can you?"

"I have all day," replies Crowley, smiling until she squirms.

"The light must, um, hurt your eyes," babbles the receptionist, uncomfortably. "I've heard of conditions like that. I'm sorry."

Crowley replaces his sunglasses and, taking a seat, says nothing.

When Mr. Andrews finally appears, he seems unhappy about having cut his lunch break short. He is middle-aged, huffy, and will probably have a heart attack sometime in the next decade. Crowley tilts his head, regarding the small parcel in his hands.

"Allow me to apologize for the wait," he says, holding out the parcel. "Thank you, Mr. Crowley. Andrews Signage and Sales appreciates your business." Crowley takes the parcel, flips it over, and stands up, offering a hand to Mr. Andrews.

"You're welcome," he says, smiling in a completely different way. "Any time."

With that, he turns to leave. Behind him, the secretary is wishing silently, but loudly, that she had got his name and phone number instead of making a fool of herself.

Whistling softly, Crowley drives, already half a mile away.

 

 

* * *




These days, the cottage might say it feels much better.

Its roof doesn't leak anymore, and its chipping blue paint has been replaced with a sedate cream color. It has new shingles, and even double glazing. There is the start of a small, terrified garden staked off in the back yard.

Still, it would have said it felt naked somehow without a bloody plaque.

 

 

* * *




Aziraphale is doing the dishes when he hears a car pull up in the driveway. He knows who it is, of course. Mentally, he goes through a list of all the things he's going to say when Crowley walks in the door. You're late, and Lunch is almost ready, and, of course, What could be more important than spending a Saturday morning in?

"I had something to pick up," says Crowley, on his way in the door. "Business."

Aziraphale wanders up the hall to meet him, still holding the dishcloth.

"You missed a lovely walk," he says. "I found something."

Crowley hasn't closed the door yet, and he's wearing a curious expression.

"Oh?"

"Yes," says Aziraphale, and takes the piece of eight out of his pocket.

Crowley lights up and turns the coin over in his hands for a few seconds before palming it in such a way that it vanishes. Aziraphale knows exactly where it's gone. "I always wanted one of those. Thanks."

Aziraphale clears his throat. "This errand of yours—?"

"Yeah," says Crowley, grabbing Aziraphale's hand and leading him outside. "Terribly important." He points above their heads, and Aziraphale looks up. "I'm here," he says, anxiously biting his lip. "Isn't that what matters?"

Aziraphale peruses the plaque, then glances at Crowley, and back at the plaque again.

"Hm," he says, nodding, and sets the dishcloth on the porch railing. "Yes, I suppose."

Predictably, Crowley looks crestfallen. "Is that all you've got to—"

"No, my dear," says Aziraphale, and kisses him soft and slow there on the threshold.

 

 

* * *




All in all, if you had asked it, the cottage would have said it had seen worse days.

In spring, the garden bloomed into something miraculous. The double glazing got redone on a regular basis, and the paint never seemed to chip. Its new inhabitants took better care of it than any of its previous owners had, but then, none of its previous owners had exactly been inhabitants. Either they had spent too much time outside, or not gone out at all, and everybody knows that neither extreme will do.

The mattress in the bedroom—where the rattling and thumping has stopped—is new, and quite comfortable. There, on stormy nights, the new inhabitants lie still, and sometimes not so still, and listen to the thunder. On not so stormy nights, they read, and talk, and sometimes take their not-so-stillness outside. Sometimes they walk, and sometimes they don't. Regardless of which it is, they are almost always touching.

And while the world was not a better place, the cottage, which was in it, was.

It would tell you that it feels exactly like a Home.

Chapter Text

The bookshop walls were crumbling.

Aziraphale had never particularly noticed this before, but then, he'd never particularly had the time or the inclination. He wasn't even sure he could chalk it up to time or inclination, in fact, given that he was, right now, three sheets to the wind and attempting to explain this to Crowley.

“But I like your walls,” protested Crowley. He wasn't drunk enough to hiss, not yet, which was mildly disappointing. There was something endearing about the tendency.

“Whatever for?” Aziraphale asked, indignant, and half of what had been intended for his mouth went down the front of his shirt. He'd leave it for the dry cleaners to quarrel with.

“They have, er,” Crowley said, wagging his index finger at the article he seemed to wish to name, but couldn't. “That thing. Mauve. Moulded, has got flowers on. You know.”

“Wainscot,” sighed Aziraphale, refilling Crowley's glass. “And it's moulding, I fear.”

The demon's yellow eyes widened a little, as if, in his present state, he'd forgot they were perfectly capable of doing so without lifting the bottle. He'd abandoned his sunglasses about an hour ago, as Aziraphale had kept complaining of the glare. Also, his drunken expressions were priceless.

“Replace it,” Crowley suggested in a rare moment of lucidity. “They've got a special on at B&Q.”

“Couldn't possibly,” Aziraphale muttered. “I'd know it was a sham. And this is a listed property.”

“You've got funny ideas about deteriorat—um. Interior decorating.”

“Rub it in, why don't you,” lamented Aziraphale, “since you're so bloody good at it.”

“No, 'm not,” Crowley insisted. “Besidesss, my flat's about as tired as your shop.”

Aziraphale frowned. “But I thought you liked my—”

“I do,” said Crowley, quickly, with a touch of guilt. “Better than mine, anyway.”

“Right.” Aziraphale tapped his chin; a bit more wine ought to do the trick. “Clearly, dear boy, we're in a sorry state of affairs with regard to our respective residences.”

Crowley nodded morosely into his glass. “The carpet mocksss me.”

Whether it had to do with the hissing or the fact that Crowley looked utterly miserable, Aziraphale couldn't rightly say. However, what he did know was that this was simply not on, and that something had to be done about it. Sooner, not later. Perhaps even immediately.

“We ought to relocate,” Aziraphale suggested.

“As in...leave London?” asked Crowley, as if such a thing were inconceivable.

“Well, yes. It would entail packing up—or, if you like, paying someone else to pack you up—and making a fresh start. Somewhere they don't know you.”

“Angel, this is London. Nobody knows me. Or you, for that matter.”

“I think you would be surprised,” said Aziraphale, carefully. He was dimly aware that this was territory that perhaps required more gravity than they were giving it, and so he sobered up just enough to realize that Crowley's eyes were the slightest bit manic, even afraid.

Crowley chewed on his lower lip, and then glanced up, nervously tapping his glass.

“You're saying we should both go?”

Aziraphale blinked. As far as he was concerned, that wasn't even negotiable.

“Of course. What did you think I was saying?”

“Well, there was you this and you that; I thought—”

“Yes, but in general terms. What I said first was that we ought to relocate.”

Crowley's color had gone back to normal, as if he'd seen the merit in sobering up himself.

“You do realize,” he said, slowly, “that we've made an awfully big decision whilst inebriated.”

“Nothing is set in stone,” replied Aziraphale, reasonably. “We might change our minds.”

“Might,” Crowley echoed, regarding his sunglasses. He put them on. “As far as location, what did you have in mind? I veto Yorkshire and the entirety of Wales.”

Aziraphale spluttered. “But Llangollen—”

No.”

“Fine. What about Scotland?”

“Edinburgh is all right, and Inverness might be worth the mischief.”

“Those poor tourists,” Aziraphale groaned. “Crowley, really.”

He grinned, abashed, not snake-like in the least.

“It was worth a shot. Cornwall?”

Aziraphale thought about that for a few seconds, and then shook his head.

“I quite fancy Dublin. There's a lot of excellent property sitting empty.”

“Too volatile,” said Crowley. “I wouldn't invest.”

“Choosy,” Aziraphale muttered. “What's that leave us?”

“You can never go wrong with a seaside cottage, can you?”

“Perhaps Cornwall's a good choice after all.”

Crowley traced patterns on the table, as if trying to remember something.

“Bit too fashionable, now that you mention it.”

“But you mentioned it.”

“Never mind,” Crowley said, snapping his fingers. “South Downs. There are some pockets of not-too-trendy if you look hard enough, and you can see France on a clear day.”

“I thought you were all in favor of trendy,” said Aziraphale.

Crowley wrinkled his nose.

“Trendy things, yes, but have you got much experience with trendy people?”

Aziraphale smirked behind his hand.

“I'm faking it,” Crowley snapped. “There's a difference. Anyway, that's where I'd go.”

“Then let's,” said Aziraphale, converting the smirk effortlessly into a smile.


* * *




“Kitchen,” said the estate agent, stepping over the fine line between hardwood and tile as if superstitious. “As you can see, the window over the sink affords a lovely sea view.”

“Oh, that's perfect,” Aziraphale practically cooed. “My dear, won't you have a look?”

Crowley wrinkled his nose and stepped up beside him.

“Bit small,” he said. “The window, I mean.”

“The bay window in the bedroom's just stunning,” said the estate agent, as if she'd just been handed the key to clinching this sale. “If you'll follow me this way—”

“No,” Crowley said. “I'd rather not. Let's have a look outside, angel,” he added, because, really, it had been happening since time out of mind and, by now, it was patently ridiculous. Best just to play along and let people think what they wanted to think.

And try not to think about it.

They'd chosen a bad day for viewing. The sky was a muddled shade that Crowley suspected he ought to like, but didn't. The back stoop became a sort of boardwalk and meandered toward where the grassy embankment dropped off. The sand was white and crisp in spite of the overcast pall that made sea and sky seem to fade together.

“It'll be no trouble, of course,” said Aziraphale, staring out over the choppy waves. “I rarely indulge in sleep. You may do with the bedroom as you please.”

Crowley shoved his hands deep in his pockets and stared at his feet. “We're really going to do this, aren't we.”

“Of course we are,” said Aziraphale, turning to beam at the estate agent, who had finally caught up with them. “Are there any structural issues of which we ought to be aware?”

“For nineteen-twenties construction, it's quite sound,” the young woman reassured him, running her expensive pen down her cheap clipboard. “It's been renovated several times by past owners. The boiler's in a bit of a state, but that can be replaced before you move in.”

“Please,” said Crowley, acidly. “Some of us appreciate hot water.”

“There, now,” Aziraphale said, patting his shoulder. “We'll be all sorted.”

“You'll take it, then?” asked the estate agent, entirely too hopeful for Crowley's liking.

“Of course we will,” Crowley snapped. “Make an offer, that is.”

The young woman blanched.

“What he means,” Aziraphale said, “is that he's sure that extra five thousand is merely a formality, and, that being done away with, we're more than happy to go through with it.”

“I'll contact the owner and get back to you,” said the estate agent, slightly crestfallen.

Two hours later, as they were sitting in a beach-front café sipping hot cocoa and enjoying still more views of the dismal weather, Crowley's mobile rang. He answered and said mmm-hmmm a lot in response to the young woman's excited wittering, mostly to savor the experience of Aziraphale sitting forward in his seat and biting his flawless nails. Crowley finally hung up and sighed.

“Well?” Aziraphale asked.

“We can drop by and fill out the paperwork today,” Crowley said.

As if the silly grin weren't bad enough, Aziraphale actually squeaked.

“Oh, Crowley,” he said, once he'd recovered himself. “Well done. You're a much better negotiator than I've given you credit for.”

“I'm assuming you can pay for your half straight up? Nothing dodgy on the books?”

“Of course not,” said Aziraphale, primly. “And of course I can.”

“Well, then, we'd best get a move on,” Crowley replied, rising. He left a fiver on the table.

“The service wasn't what I'd call stellar,” Aziraphale said rather too loudly on the way out.

“It's not about the service,” Crowley said. “It's about forging connections.”

“Oh,” said Aziraphale. “Oh, right. Since we're going to be locals and all that.”

“And all that,” Crowley echoed, sliding uneasily into the driver's seat. “Yeah.”

What bothered him wasn't the swiftness with which it had happened, or even the relative ease.

It was how curiously much he wanted it. How easily he'd agreed.


* * *




The installation of Crowley's furniture was, to say the least, a nightmare.

“As much as you can't bear to part with it,” said Aziraphale, watching the movers struggle to find a proper angle for the unwieldy piece, “I'm afraid it's got to go.”

“Never,” Crowley said, folding his arms and squinting at the doorframe disapprovingly. “We've got history, that sofa and me. They'll squeeze it through.” Sure enough, they did. Just barely.

Crowley's book, cassette, CD, LP, and DVD collections came next, in a series of neatly labeled boxes. The potted plants, Crowley carried in himself, having preferred to transport them in the back seat of the Bentley instead of trusting them to the vagaries of a moving van.

Aziraphale's books came after that. They were all he'd brought.

“We'll need more shelves,” said Crowley, frowning, once the movers had cleared out.

“We'll need climate-control,” Aziraphale muttered. “Maybe that spare room at the end of the hall.”

“What? That's my office.”

“But where will I put mine?”

“In the bedroom,” said Crowley, absently. “It's not as if you'll wake me.”

“Very funny,” Aziraphale said. “You'll wake up and natter at all hours.”

Crowley scowled at him and bent to open the nearest box. “What makes you think that?”

“You're a light sleeper.”

“How would you know? Wait, don't answer that.”

Aziraphale sighed and wandered into the sitting-room, inspecting the damages. Crowley's sofa was overlarge, but it didn't make moving about impossible. A few of his plants had already found a home on the coffee table, and he'd placed the remainder on the dusty windowsills. Crowley was neither a skilled interior decorator, nor a logical one.

“Hey, would you look at this! It's that espresso machine you bought me two Christmases ago.”

“Put it in the kitchen,” said Aziraphale. “I'll fight with the instruction manual later.”

Crowley hummed contently as he sauntered past with the box under one arm.

Aside from the bay window, one of the bedroom's more redeeming features was, in fact, the presence of built-in shelves. They lined almost the entirety of one wall, and, Aziraphale reasoned, there'd be space for his desk beneath them. He'd worry about climate-control later.

Unlike the rest of the cottage, the bedroom had carpeting. It looked clean and plush, recently replaced. Aziraphale made sure no one was watching, sat down on the no-longer-bare mattress (easy enough to miracle Crowley's bedclothes out of their box and tailor them to fit), and removed his shoes and socks. He stood up again, wriggling his toes.

Just then, something tiny with soft paws and silky fur scuttled across his right foot.

Aziraphale shrieked. “Crowley! There's a—”

Crowley appeared in the doorway, stricken. “Body in the closet? No phone jack in the bedroom? What?”

“...mouse,” Aziraphale managed, his cheeks heating.

Crowley relaxed. “Oh,” he said. “Well, that's all right. They rarely hurt anybody, mice.”

“I shall have to add traps to the grocery list,” said Aziraphale, determined.

“You bloody well won't,” Crowley said.

Aziraphale blinked at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“It's bad enough, you killing hapless doves. I won't have you adding mice to the bloodbath.”

“Very well,” Aziraphale sighed, and hoped for Crowley's sake the mouse wouldn't cross his path again. He had a dislike of the creatures; they tended to chew on vellum.

“Swear,” Crowley said, holding out his hand.

“I said, very well,” repeated Aziraphale, irritated, and shook it.

“Now,” Crowley said. “Come and give me a hand with that infernal machine, won't you?”


* * *




They'd scarcely been settled in for a week when the first curious neighbor turned up.

“Hallo?” Crowley asked, cracking the door only just enough to see the woman's kindly, wrinkled face, a swath of greying brown hair, and one crow-footed hazel eye.

“So sorry to trouble you,” she said, and her accent was three times as posh as Aziraphale's, if that was even possible. “My Harold heard that the Prewett woman's cousin finally managed to find a buyer. I thought I'd pop by to see how you were settling in, Mr.—?”

“Crowley,” said Crowley, opening the door the rest of the way.

Difficult to feel threatened, what when the woman was standing there holding what looked like a home-made bakewell tart.

“Mr. Crowley, so nice to meet you. May I come in?”

“Er,” said Crowley, stepping back. “Yes. And you are?”

“Oh, dreadfully sorry,” said the woman, offering him her hand. “Phillippa Morrison. Please, call me Pippa. All my friends do.”

“Pippa,” Crowley repeated, starting as the tart was thrust into his hands. “Thanks.” He clipped the word to the roof of his mouth, hard, holding the tip of his tongue immobile.

Pippa breezed past him and into the sitting-room, smiling benevolently at her surroundings. “I must say, the cousin did a good job on renovations. This place was dreadful—no insult to dear Jean, rest her soul. All those cats running about. And the fishbowls everywhere.”

“Cats?” Crowley echoed. He couldn't help but think of the mouse. Good on it. Real survivor.

“She kept after them,” Pippa reassured him. “Very tidy, our Ms. Prewett. My, aren't you high-tech,” she said, admiring the espresso machine. “It looks new.”

“One owner from,” was all Crowley could think to say.

“You've been too terrified to use it,” said Pippa, knowingly. “You'll have it figured out in no time.”

“I've got it figured out already,” said Aziraphale, raising his voice from back the hall. He'd been holed up in the bedroom all day, unpacking and cataloguing his books. “It made a lovely cappuccino this morning. You missed it, my dear. You and your beauty sleep.”

Pippa raised her eyebrows at Crowley, pursing her lips in a not displeased fashion. “I didn't know you had company,” she said.

“He's not company,” said Crowley, flatly. “He lives here.”

“My mistake,” she said, winking. “Would you mind introducing us?”

“Not at all,” said Aziraphale, emerging into the kitchen entirely too quickly for Crowley's liking. “Pippa, what a pleasure. The tart will prove most welcome. We've next to nothing in the house. Would you like a cappuccino? Some nice cocoa? Or would a cup of tea do the trick?”

Crowley busied himself fetching down three mugs. Whatever conversation was imminent, he wanted no part of it. Not because he objected, but because he didn't trust himself.

“We decided it was time for a change of scenery,” Aziraphale was saying to Pippa, already seated at the table across from their nosy visitor, who was busy slicing the tart. “Crowley, fetch a few plates, too, there's a good chap. What was I saying? Oh. Scenery. We felt it was time for a change.”

Pippa was nodding enthusiastically. “I know exactly what you mean. That's what brought Harold and me out here twelve years ago. He'd finally taken retirement.” Crowley tapped the countertop, forcing the water in the kettle to an early boil.

“After a while,” said Aziraphale, in a low voice, “the pace grows dreadfully exhausting.”

“You poor darlings,” said Pippa, thanking Crowley with a nod as he put a steaming mug in front of her. “Well, maybe not you,” she said to him. “You're young yet. Brave of you to give up a good city job with lots of prospects. But that's love, isn't it?”

Crowley was tempted to drop Aziraphale's mug in his lap, but didn't. Instead, he set it down in front of the angel, hard, letting a bit slop over and onto the table. Aziraphale gritted his teeth.

“Absolutely,” Crowley said, sliding into the chair next to her, putting on a disarming smile. “But I've not given anything up; don't be fooled. I work from home.”

“Lucky boy!” said Pippa. Crowley was almost shocked she didn't lean over and pinch his cheek.

For the next hour, Crowley sipped his tea and picked at a slice of tart while Aziraphale and Pippa chattered about everything from the foul weather to the mouse in the bedroom. “Looks as if the cats missed one,” said Pippa, chuckling.

“Glad of it,” Crowley muttered into his mug.

“He's something of an animal lover,” said Aziraphale, with an air of long-suffering affection.

“You don't usually see it in corporate types,” Pippa remarked. “What a catch!”

Aziraphale beamed, and Crowley wanted to smash something.

“Well, I'd best be off,” Pippa said, hastily finishing her tea. “Harold's expecting his supper soon. It's been lovely meeting both of you. I expect we'll run into each other quite often.”

“In a village this size, that's the logical conclusion,” said Crowley, deadpan.

Pippa paused and tilted her head at him, as if she had only just noticed something. “Light sensitivity,” she said. “My niece has got that. They make shades these days that look like normal glasses, you know. They're more compact and let people see your eyes.”

“I'll keep that in mind,” Crowley said. A crack was forming at the juncture of the mug's handle; he could feel it. How she'd failed to notice his white-knuckled grip, he'd never guess.

While Aziraphale saw a still-chattering Pippa to the door, Crowley lingered at the table, pushing the last few crumbs of tart around on his plate. Why couldn't people just mind their own business? Furthermore, why couldn't people just let him figure out what his business was?

Aziraphale finally returned, yawning. “What a lovely woman.”

“If you like them loose-lipped,” Crowley snapped.

“You can be positively dreadful sometimes,” said Aziraphale, giving him a look that he hadn't seen in a good decade or two and that was, unfortunately, genuine. “No manners.”

“At least I've enough sense not to go around knocking on strangers' doors,” Crowley seethed.

“What was it you were saying about forging connections?” asked Aziraphale, wearily.

Scowling, Crowley got up and left the room with his damaged mug in hand. “Maybe I was wrong,” he said, but didn't bother to look back.


* * *




Aziraphale had enough sense to know they had a problem on their hands. But what it was, exactly, he couldn't say, no more than he could've said whether he'd really lacked time or inclination as regarded his erstwhile bookshop's mouldy moulding. To a point: whatever it was, it was making Crowley miserable. Over the next few weeks, Aziraphale organized as many distractions as he could possibly think of: trips to the local farmers' market (every second Saturday of the month), a survey of the local shops, a new restaurant for dinner every few evenings. They ran out of restaurants inside a fortnight.

Which was how they ended up back in the beach-front café sipping cocoa and staring at the rain.

“Bad time of year for a move, winter,” said Crowley, darkly.

“It'll be Christmas soon,” Aziraphale realized aloud. “I haven't sorted your gift.”

“As long as it's not another espresso machine, you'll be fine.”

“Have you given any thought to what you want? We're beyond surprises, I should think.”

Crowley shrugged. “We could lay in a garden come spring.”

“I'm not buying you seed packets,” said Aziraphale. “You start traumatizing them too young.”

“Makes for good upbringing,” Crowley said. “Well-behaved sprouts.”

“You haven't got enough jumpers. You've been chilled, all this damp sea air.”

“I don't do jumpers.”

“You might consider starting.”

Mandy, the girl from the counter, had wandered over and was standing beside their table, one hand frozen on Aziraphale's empty mug. She ducked her head and bit her lip. “Am I interrupting?”

“No, dear girl,” said Aziraphale. “I'll have another, thank you.”

Mandy glanced at Crowley, her wide blue eyes by now accustomed to their own reflection in his sunglasses.

Aziraphale couldn't help but notice that she pitied him. It was upsetting.

“I'm finished,” said Crowley, fishing in his coat pocket. He handed her what sounded like two quid.

“Thanks, sir,” she said, as she always did, but now there was more affection in her pronunciation of sir than Aziraphale found proper. He wondered if Crowley had noticed.

“She likes you,” said Aziraphale, once she was gone. “Rather more than she ought.”

Crowley actually lowered his glasses a fraction and stared Aziraphale in the eyes. “What she ought or ought not to do is her own business,” he said. “Leave her to it.”

Aziraphale's stomach twisted as Crowley pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.

“She ought not to get her hopes up, is all I'm saying,” said Aziraphale.

Crowley snorted, not quite a laugh. “And why's that?”

“Never goes well,” said Aziraphale. “Our sort and humans.”

“Not that you'd know this from personal experience,” retorted Crowley.

“Nor would you,” Aziraphale replied, biting back the urge to attempt sarcasm.

“I don't know,” Crowley said. “It might be worth a shot.”

“What?”

“Giving it a try. While we're on this whole change-of-scenery kick, you understand.”

“Crowley, she's sixteen. And you're—well, you're—”

Crowley stiffened, sitting back in his chair. “I'm what?”

Aziraphale swallowed. Suddenly, Crowley's discontent made perfect sense. “Not interested,” he said.

One sharp eye-tooth crested briefly over Crowley's lower lip. “No,” he said, rather candidly. “I'm not. Not really. I just wondered what you'd say.”

“Nothing favorable,” Aziraphale said, his stomach unclenching. “She's hardly your type.”

Crowley looked almost like he wanted to laugh, but like it might hurt if he did. “What constitutes my type, do you suppose?”

“Security,” said Aziraphale. In for a penny, in for a pound. “You prefer to feel safe. A sixteen year-old waitress hardly fits the bill, no pun intended. Moody. Unpredictable.”

“At least she's kind,” Crowley said.

That gave Aziraphale pause, but it was true, really. Crowley couldn't abide cruelty.

“I'm sorry,” Aziraphale murmured. “This conversation has been anything but.”

“You still haven't answered my question,” Crowley reminded him, smiling sadly.

And it was hard, then, unbelievably so, to gather the courage to say what they both knew.

“It's a terrible idea,” said Aziraphale. “I'll hurt you. I always do.”

“But I feel safe,” Crowley pointed out. “I felt safe enough to follow you here.”

“You felt safe enough to bring us here,” Aziraphale corrected him. “There's a difference.”

Crowley's lips twitched, and this time, his smile was more hopeful than sad. “Call it a lark,” he said. “Everyone thinks we're married as it is.”

“True,” said Aziraphale. “I've been content to let them think so. Easier to fit in that way.”

“Exactly,” Crowley said. “Now, all we've got to do is...” He trailed off and ended up staring at his hands against the battered tabletop.

“Try,” said Aziraphale, reaching across to cover them with his own.


* * *




Human relationships, Crowley reasoned, generally started off small. Hand-holding, quick kisses. That sort of thing. Unless one or more of the parties involved happened to be some sort of sex maniac; in which case, all bets were off and it was straight into the sack. He severely doubted that either he or Aziraphale was prone to nymphomania.

They didn't discuss it again for the remainder of the afternoon, although Aziraphale went out of his way to do a handful of inconsequential things he would rarely have done otherwise, such as pay the bill and hold the door for Crowley on their way out. When they got home, he hung both of their coats and put the kettle on. He even suggested they watch telly for a while, and sat a bit closer than normal. It was, Crowley decided, an acceptable start—and curiously comforting, too.

In fact, they might have gone on like this indefinitely, even quite happily, if not for what happened on the second Saturday in December, which was, in lieu of the farmers' market, an indoor craft fair at the town hall where one was supposed to do one's holiday shopping. While Crowley was perusing some antique watch-chains at a stall otherwise filled with bizarre thrift-shop odds and ends, he overheard Aziraphale and Pippa engaged in conversation with a stranger. He'd seen this gentleman once before, as it happened, walking a gratuitously small dog.

“...used to run a bookshop in London,” Pippa was saying. “His collection's magnificent.”

“Extraordinary,” said the gentleman. Posh, too—even posher than Pippa. Outrageous.

“I wouldn't say that,” said Aziraphale, too modestly, and even somewhat over-protectively. “It's a handful of dusty liturgical texts, hardly worth anyone's while.” The gentleman chuckled: a deep, warm bass that made Crowley's skin crawl.

“You don't strike me as a collector of the insignificant, Mr. Fell.”

“Don't let him fool you,” Pippa said. “I Googled the titles. They're valuable.”

Crowley felt Aziraphale's flinch as keenly as if he'd been standing right next to him, rather than five feet away. He stood up straight and put his hands in his pockets, head tilted. “I'd like a private viewing,” said the gentleman. “If I may be so bold. I've some volumes of my own, and perhaps some of them might interest you. A trade, if you like. Or—”

“Angel, you have got to see this,” Crowley said, insinuating himself between Aziraphale and Pippa, slipping both arms through the crook of Aziraphale's elbow, pulling him in as close as he dared. “One of those chains is a perfect match for your old watch. Fifteen-carat rose gold,” he added, letting his breath ghost over Aziraphale's earlobe. “Delicious.”

It might've remained purely a sham if Aziraphale hadn't actually shivered. “I, er,” he said, gratefully, one hand flying up to cradle Crowley's wrist. “Let's have a look.”

“Ta,” Crowley said, beaming smugly at the gentleman. And your little dog too, he thought.

Pippa thwacked him lightly across the backside with her clutch. “You're a saucy one once you get past the shy stage, aren't you?”

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” said Crowley, and dragged Aziraphale over to the jewellery case. It was strangely thrilling, the fine tremors running through Aziraphale's upper arm and the way he hadn't let go of Crowley's wrist and was suddenly so fiercely possessive

“This is dull,” he said, resting his chin on Aziraphale's shoulder. “Let's go home.”

Aziraphale hadn't been breathing for the better part of five minutes. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Let's. Pippa, my best to Harold.”

“Naughty!” Pippa called after them, her grin positively wicked.

“She'll be the death of us,” Crowley muttered, almost glad of the cold as they emerged into the dim early evening.

Aziraphale laughed, the sound startling and wondrous. “I hope not, my dear,” he said, and kissed Crowley.

If Crowley had been thinking clearly, his first notion might have been that this was a bit faster than he'd intended to proceed. On the other hand, Aziraphale's mouth coaxed his own half-open almost effortlessly, and he fancied he could taste everything that the angel had ever tasted. Château d'Yquem 1784. Dates from Baghdad. Fugu, prepared with a fatal mistake, on that trip they'd taken to Japan. Pippa's admittedly excellent bakewell tart. The pomegranates of Eden.

“Crowley,” Aziraphale murmured against his lips.

“Hmmm, what?” Crowley ducked his head, nosing into the angel's collar, seeking out his pulse-point. There. He kissed it lightly, just to see what Aziraphale would do.

“We were going home,” said Aziraphale, with slight difficulty.

Crowley grinned and breathed him in, warm tobacco-cotton-wool. “You gave me a fright,” he said. “The venom turned you a bit blue. Did you know that?”

Aziraphale took a shaky breath. “Venom?”

“Tokyo, three years ago. Never mind. In hindsight, it was funny.”

“If you want sushi for dinner, you ought to just say so.”

“I don't want anything for dinner,” said Crowley, leading Aziraphale resolutely by the hand. “I want to go home.”

The Bentley was exactly where they'd left it, clamped tyres and all.

“Finally,” Aziraphale sighed, sliding into the passenger seat.

Crowley fumbled his key into the ignition and sped the whole way back.


* * *




On arriving home, neither one of them said a word, trailing into the cottage one after the other, as if it were just another evening upon which Crowley would ask where on earth the remote control had got off to, and then proceed to watch some truly awful telly whilst Aziraphale caught up on the Saturday papers and then made the plant-watering rounds, because that was his job now. Aziraphale was aiming for normal. For careful. For safe.

It was in the midst of plant-watering that Crowley crept up on him, catching Aziraphale by the wrist as he aimed the mister at a stubbornly dormant orchid's exposed roots. Aziraphale paused and turned to look at him, questioning, and his breath fled for the second time that day. No glasses, no glare. Just Crowley's unblinking yellow gaze, hesitant and hopeful.

“I couldn't let them settle down for the night without supper,” Aziraphale explained.

“They never sleep,” said Crowley, his eyes flitting suspiciously from plant to plant.

Aziraphale set down the mister and took Crowley's face in both hands, stilling him. “I won't have this if it will hurt you,” he said. “I simply won't.”

Crowley's breath left him in a rush, half hiss and half laugh. “If you'd had that bloke around, that would've hurt.”

“What if I had him around for purposes of robbing him blind?”

Crowley's lips twitched as Aziraphale's thumbs played at their corners. “Only if he honestly doesn't know the value of his books. Fools deserve what they get.”

“So we do,” Aziraphale murmured, and leaned to kiss Crowley for the second time.

They ended up in the bedroom, because Crowley had issues with the sofa, history be damned. Aziraphale supposed he could understand: popcorn down the cushions and leisurely afternoon naps were not quite the same thing as lovemaking. Crowley caught his eye just then, and what he saw there drew a flush across his fine, high cheekbones. Damn them, too; Aziraphale understood why Mandy wanted what she saw. Well. She couldn't have him.

“Jumper,” Crowley said, fisting his hands in the wool. “Get rid of it. Now. It's putting me off.”

Aziraphale struggled out of it with Crowley's hindrance (not help, he was never any help, bless him) and then turned his attention to the buttons of Crowley's expensive shirt. “I recognize this,” Aziraphale said, parting the linen slowly, tracing spectral lines with his fingertips down Crowley's pale chest. He let his thumb linger over one nipple, thoughtfully circling. "From before. From the Beginning, from the very first time you...changed. Has it really been so long?"

Crowley's breath returned to him, a brief, almost painful stutter deep in his chest. He struggled out of his shirt, disengaging Aziraphale's hand from its cautious explorations. Aziraphale took the opportunity to wish his own shirt away, hardly of a mind to let Crowley attempt buttons in a state of such agitation. He'd get worse, or have second thoughts. Aziraphale watched Crowley drop his shirt on the floor with a look of abject frustration, and then pulled him close before he had the chance to work himself into a snit. Crowley shivered and melted against him, both arms folding tightly about Aziraphale's neck. His breath came fast and shallow against Aziraphale's jaw, and when Aziraphale shifted his weight on the mattress just so, Crowley settled in his lap with a low, helpless moan. There, oh. There.

“Thank you,” said Aziraphale, softly, in his ear, working a hand in between them.

Crowley's trousers were uncomplicated enough to tease open, at least. Crowley's erection had already managed to slip free of his shorts, damp and hard in Aziraphale's palm. Aziraphale stroked him once, gently, kissing Crowley's groan right back into his mouth. He kept stroking, intoxicated and (he was startled to discover) more than a little smitten.

“For...for what?” Crowley panted, pushing forward into Aziraphale's hand.

Aziraphale kissed him, braced his free arm about Crowley's waist, coaxing him as his thrusts grew taut and erratic. Not long now, not long at all, and, oh, they were still half-dressed and it was wonderful just to hold him like this, just to have him. Unexpected, how it made Aziraphale's heart clench just to tell him so. Crowley came clinging and shuddering, not at all quiet, for what seemed like a very long time.

Aziraphale squeezed his eyes shut, swallowing amazed laughter, holding him closer still, calming him. Safe.


* * *




On waking, Crowley was certain of two things: one, that he was naked, and two, that he really hadn't dreamed the previous evening. The fact that he was draped over a warm, motionless Aziraphale was sufficient confirmation. Against all odds, the angel was asleep. And also naked. He wasn't so sure about the not-nymphomaniacs thing anymore. He nuzzled Aziraphale's ear and pressed down with one knee, parting Aziraphale's thighs.

“Get up. I want a cappuccino.”

Mmm,” Aziraphale murmured, and then yawned. “No.”

Crowley wriggled impatiently, and all that got him was a fierce kiss. “Fine,” he sighed, settling into an easy rhythm as Aziraphale's legs came up to wrap around his hips. Fascinating, how effectively sex could shut down all rational thought. It explained a lot about humans, and a lot about why Crowley liked humans. They lived in the moment.

“I thought,” Aziraphale gasped, both hands lost in Crowley's disarrayed hair, “you wanted—”

“Yes,” Crowley managed, remembering this from last night, the part where Aziraphale had tensed and tightened his fingers in Crowley's hair before hauling him bodily back up for a kiss (and for the rest of it, oh God). It was something of a pity Crowley couldn't taste him this time, he thought, driving down harder. “But I want you first, see?”

Aziraphale groaned and went still under him, and then their bellies were warm and slick and yesss. Crowley muffled his shout in the pillow, dimly aware he'd all but brought the house down the night before. It was a good job their nearest neighbor lived a mile off. With his luck, Pippa'd have heard him anyway. And if she'd not heard, she'd certainly know.

The angel curled and uncurled his toes against Crowley's calf. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Cappuccino,” Crowley lied.

A leisurely shower and a frantic mouse-chase later (they'd found him lurking behind the toilet, and Crowley had given him enough of a head-start to vanish out the door), Crowley got his coffee. It was nice, he supposed, if you liked that sort of thing, but there was too much foam, and Aziraphale had overdone it with the wonky cinnamon heart.

At lunchtime, they realized there wasn't any food left in the house. Aziraphale bribed Crowley into making a run to the nearest Tesco Express with a snog on the sofa. Baby steps, Crowley thought. The cushions didn't seem offended, although they'd left some spectacular wrinkles in the leather.

As it happened, Pippa found him in the produce section.

“Hi,” Crowley said. He clung to a bag of carrots, terrified.

“Don't you look well rested,” she said, smiling.

Crowley wondered if he was even speaking to the same brazen, handbag-wielding harpy as the day before. “I suppose,” he said. “But right now, I'm hungry.”

“Not to worry,” Pippa replied, taking the carrots out of Crowley's hands. “I'm about to put together a nice Sunday roast. Won't the two of you join us?" Crowley felt something like relief blossom in his chest. And, for the first time, he smiled right back at her.

Aziraphale would be cross at the unexpected change of plans, of course, but—

“Of course,” he said, brightly. “I'll bring the espresso machine.”


* * *




For Christmas morning, Aziraphale thought, it's dreadfully quiet.

From his vantage point at the kitchen window, he could see the sweep of grass, and then the beach and the ocean just beyond. There was a fine shimmer of frost all over everything—even the sand, which glittered like diamond-dust in the first pale light of morning. Sleeping was pleasant, but he fell out of it from time to time, unable to find his way back in spite of Crowley snuggled up to him. The truth was, he sometimes missed the bustle of London. Two months in this tiny village, almost three, and what he found himself missing most were the fairy lights and the holiday rush.

Aziraphale plucked a mug off the dish-rack and miracled himself a cup of tea. No sense in using the kettle, not at this hour; he'd wake Crowley. And he did very much want Crowley at his best, what with guests coming later—Pippa, Harold, and their grown only child, Nicola. They'd paid the café a visit the day before and left a card with forty quid in for Mandy. There were sails on the horizon, or something that looked an awful lot like sails. Aziraphale sipped his tea and watched the brief flash of white vanish, only to find himself distracted by a familiar figure plodding along in the surf, walking a ridiculously small dog.

And the mouse perched on the windowsill, a stale bakewell crumb clutched in its tiny paws.

Shoo,” whispered Aziraphale, mortified. “It's not proper, you know.”

The creature just went on nibbling the crumb, its black eyes intent on Aziraphale.

“Mice live in fields,” said Aziraphale. “Thickets. Places like that.” The mouse twitched its whiskers and finished off the morsel, padding along until it found an easy point from which to leap down onto the counter and scurry over the far edge.

“It's a seaside mouse,” said Crowley, yawning as he wandered into the kitchen. “Hasn't got any thickets. Or fields. Nothing but sand and salt water, as far as the eye can see.”

“My manuscripts,” said Aziraphale, worriedly. “Once we've run out of crumbs—”

“We'll get more crumbs,” Crowley said, stepping up behind him. “Think of it as similar to feeding the ducks.” His arms snaked tentatively around Aziraphale's waist. The gesture was somehow far more intimate than anything they'd managed in roughly a fortnight of being lovers.

But haven't we always been? Aziraphale wondered.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Crowley whispered, resting his chin on Aziraphale's shoulder.

“The wainscot has got to go,” said Aziraphale, and turned his head for a kiss.

Chapter Text

It took forever for the shaking to stop, it seemed, like Crowley's body couldn't bear to let go of such stunning new information: Right, so, that annoying thing you have to do every once in a while to get an unbidden hard-on to go away? SO MUCH BETTER WHEN SOMEBODY YOU WANT MORE THAN BREATHING IS DOING IT FOR YOU. To you? With you? Whatever. Okay, in summary: solitary orgasms are messy and not always much fun, but orgasms and kissing and touching Aziraphale? Spot on.

"Oh," said Aziraphale, finally, between breath-hitching kisses, easing him down. He rubbed Crowley's back and picked fretfully at his trousers. They melted to nothing beneath the angel's careful fingertips, and, with a sigh, his own disappeared so that there was nothing left between them, no more hope of hiding. "Just look at you."

"At myself? Bit awkward," Crowley panted against Aziraphale's earlobe. "Also a bit weird." He shivered, oversensitive by now, and more than a bit overwhelmed at the sensation of Aziraphale's prick crushed up against his belly. He bit curiously at the patch of skin beneath Aziraphale's ear, and the angel's hands clenched on his thighs.

"You don't give yourself enough credit, dear boy," said Aziraphale, his voice patient and fond in spite of how much discomfort he was probably in. "Not nearly enough."

It was the wonder of what he'd become with the Fall, Crowley supposed, a curse millennia-old turned blessing: instinctive shock at the simple pleasure of loving. "You taste good," murmured Crowley, at a loss, and licked the spot he'd just bit.

Aziraphale turned his head and tilted Crowley's chin up for a questioning kiss. "My dear, mmm, I want..."

Crowley wanted to ask What? in response, but Aziraphale's hand was on him just like earlier, was on both of them, so attentively insistent, and, oh, for the sake of anything holy, he was turned on again. Aziraphale made a disappointed sound when Crowley disengaged himself awkwardly from the kiss and shifted back to sit on the duvet.

The angel's body was as pale as Crowley's own, flushed with inconvenient splotches and bite-marks where Crowley had left them in a frenzy up and down Aziraphale's neck and shoulder. Unthinking, Crowley reached out and touched the marks, both the ones he'd left and that rosy blush beneath the fair, sparse hairs covering Aziraphale's chest. He crawled forward, stretched flat on the duvet, and curled an arm around Aziraphale's waist. Buried his face in the angel's soft belly, breathing in his own scent mingled with Aziraphale's arousal. He let his tongue dart out; Aziraphale shuddered. Bloody miracle, this, Crowley thought. Nothing less.

"If this is what you want," he said as clearly as he could manage, given that he was licking his way toward Aziraphale's hip bone, which was rather in the wrong direction, "now would be a good time to tell me, or I'll just keep going till I've tasted everything else. Save the best for last, if you know what I mean. Take the scenic route."

Aziraphale sagged back on his elbows, stretching his legs out on either side so that Crowley could settle in closer between them. He watched with hungry fascination as Crowley offered him an assenting glance that he hoped wasn't shy and abandoned the course he'd set himself on in favor of nuzzling what he'd so far purposefully neglected. The angel's trembling hands tangled roughly in Crowley's hair.

"Easy," Crowley said, not nearly as calm as he sounded, and took hold of Aziraphale's wrist while he carefully licked at the crease of Aziraphale's thigh. After a few seconds, Aziraphale's grasp let up slightly, so Crowley let go of his wrist, took hold of his erection, and guided the sensitive head to his scarcely parted lips. Aha. Even if he never heard Aziraphale make that sound again, this once would have been worth it. Crowley settled in for however long it was going to take and sucked hard.

Once again, there was far too much information to process. Aziraphale still tasted good, a sentiment he couldn't quite quantify, only here, it was different, darker and stranger and slightly surprising. Crowley hated that he couldn't see the angel's expression, but he could hear everything that he needed to hear, and then some. He'd have a crick in his neck by the end of it, letting Aziraphale move his hips like that, but whatever the angel needed for this to work, whatever Crowley could possibly do...

"Stop," Aziraphale was gasping, voice low and wrecked. "Crowley, stop, it's too—"

"It's the point," said Crowley, instantly regretting the fact that he'd pulled off in order to speak, because now Aziraphale was hauling him up by the shoulders with fearsome strength and it was all Crowley could do not to fold over, fall on him, clamp down with limbs and teeth and suddenly unfurled, unsteady wings and never let go. Which was more or less what happened.

Crowley snaked his arms around Aziraphale's neck and tried to get said urgent point across with lots of kissing, which hadn't really stopped, but it was no use. He could only make helpless whimpering sounds to which Aziraphale responded with breathy half-sobs and oh God, oh Heaven and Earth and everything, he never wanted to be anywhere else ever again but in this bed. Or in the very least wanted the guarantee of a bed, no matter where he happened to be, and Aziraphale always in it with him.

When it all finally became too much again and their bodies demanded completion, Aziraphale rolled Crowley onto his back, wings badly askew even as his own tore free, and drew Crowley's knees up snug against his ribs and then pressed both hands against the small of Crowley's back, rocking them together in tight little thrusts that made Crowley squeeze his eyes shut and stifle an embarrassingly desperate wail.

Was discorporation by sensory overload possible?

Look what you've done, Crowley thought feverishly, his second climax already building, too fast and too fierce and too soon. Angel, just look what you've done. I'm ruined for anything else: good food, better wine, a sunny afternoon with ducks, forget it. Crowley twisted under him and dug his fingers in just beneath where Aziraphale's wings joined with his back, moaning in response to Aziraphale's coaxing tongue.

"No one can hear you, not here," Aziraphale whispered, pressing their damp foreheads together, waves and wisps of hair plastered every which way. "No one but me, and I should very much like...Crowley, look at me, oh, if you'd just look at me..."

Crowley's groans turned to brief, hysterical laughter. "So I've got to keep my eyes on you, never mind that all I can see is feathers—"

"Oh—oh—Crowley, don't move, oh my dear stay right where you are—"

Crowley bit his lip and touched Aziraphale's cheek with hazy disbelief. This was really happening. He wanted to speak those same words just as much, just as badly. "Let go," he panted, bracing himself, eyes squeezed shut as his resolve shattered. "That's what I did, anyway, and oh fuck I can't I don't even oh please Aziraphale!" They were covered in each other: come and stray feathers, sweat and startled tears.

Aziraphale collected himself and rolled gently to one side, tugging Crowley along. Everything was dry and clean again, but the tremors hadn't stopped, and Crowley noticed with quiet astonishment that Aziraphale's pulse-point was triphammering away just beneath his overworked jaw. It wasn't supposed to do that, they weren't...

"I'll say it before I can't," he whispered. "Don't leave me here, angel. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Don't get tired of this wretched, rainy stretch of shore like you got tired of Herculaneum and Beirut and Melbourne and Caracas and London—"

Never tired of London, Aziraphale cut in, snuggling him senseless. Never tired of you.

Oh, Crowley replied, curling in tighter against him. Then that's all right.

"Are you?" Aziraphale asked at length, drowsily stroking Crowley's side.

Crowley nodded and closed his eyes, content enough to follow his own advice.

Chapter Text

Crowley yawned, rubbed his eyes, and blinked until the fine cracks in the ceiling plaster vanished. How'd I miss those? he wondered. Mystifyingly, his head hurt. About the time he remembered it had something to do with having drunk lots of whisky at Pippa's last night because Aziraphale had insisted on mixing up a proper seventeenth-century punch bowl, he'd decided that actually going through with a hangover did not have the same merits as actually going through with—with

Aziraphale was dead to the world, one arm thrown across Crowley's chest.

Happy bloody New Year, he thought, turning his head sideways against the pillow.

In three weeks of sharing a bed and sweat and saliva and heaven knew what else (and, oh, yes, if Aziraphale was Heaven, then Heaven did know), this hadn't happened before. Crowley had rarely been the first one awake. Oddly fascinated, he stared. Aziraphale didn't sleep gracefully.

In fact, the angel seldom did anything gracefully (except remain motionless for hours on end, save for turning pages). Crowley didn't even know if Aziraphale had tried sleep prior their first night together, and, even then, how could he have set about determining that even if he'd been awake to watch? He reached until his palm came into contact with Aziraphale's bare hip, stroked inward and up until soft belly and peaked nipples gave way to collarbone, throat, and cheek. He brushed fly-away strands of faintly peppered hair back from Aziraphale's forehead and wondered why open-mouthed snoring and a drool-spot on the pillowcase made his chest tighten.

Crowley closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe. He needed some air; he needed to think. Last night had been—

Well, strange. Wonderful. Outright terrifying.

Crowley tensed, ready to rise just as he was, but quickly thought better of it.

Aziraphale so rarely got to know the pleasure of an uninterrupted lie-in; sure, he'd got the pleasure of eating down pat a long time ago and was doing just about as well as Crowley (if not better) when it came to the pleasure of...pleasure. His body was taking his line of musing very much to heart, so he disassembled his molecules with a thought, never mind paranoia with regard to changing back, and slithered to the floor.

The carpet tickled Crowley's belly as he nosed his way around the bed and glided into the hall. Wood, a hideous throw-rug that he hadn't been able to coax Aziraphale to part with, and then the cool rasp of kitchen tile. If the mouse was lurking anywhere about, he supposed he ran the risk of scaring it to death. Crowley flicked his forked tongue out in annoyance and shifted back to himself, barefoot and off-balance as the chilly air hit his exposed human skin. He clothed himself just as quickly, including boots and a heavy wool coat.

Outside, where it was even colder, he'd hopefully get some decent fresh air.

Crowley liked the crunch of frost-bitten gravel beneath his soles; he surveyed the driveway and the Bentley covered in a fine sheen of ice, and blew a puff of appreciative breath in its direction. He spun on his heel and headed around the side of the cottage, keeping a brisk pace. The front walk had barren flower beds lining either side, so he imagined hellebore, crocus, and lily-of-the-valley. Maybe just loads of hellebore: they came in enough solemn colors, and they knew how to cower nicely.

Now, there's something, Crowley thought, pausing in front of the sliding glass door that served as the back entrance. He'd known the garden shed existed, of course, in a kind of theoretical, I'll-get-to-it-when-I-get-to-it kind of way. He crossed the small yard and picked his way through the remnants of weeds, broken-down stalks, and frozen earth, wondering what, exactly, this Prewett woman had planted and then neglected such that it had died so spectacularly. Catnip, Crowley reckoned. "Lively, now," he muttered, kicking a patch of sorry-looking nettles.

Inside the dusty, cobweb-festooned shed, Crowley found an assortment of tools that suggested a strange conglomeration of hobbies on the part of all previous owners combined. The rake, shovel, and spades all looked relatively new, or at least in fairly good nick; Crowley could guess easily enough that those had belonged to Prewett. There was a tin watering-can and a stack of empty plastic flower pots, plus a couple of terracotta window boxes. He found a rusty scythe lurking inexplicably in one of the far corners. Maybe those hippies had pretensions of full-scale farming, he thought. Aziraphale would convince him to plant herbs in the window boxes, he just knew it.

Wielding one of the spades, Crowley stepped back out of the shed. He crouched next to the exterior wall that faced the cottage, shielded from the wind and out of view from anyone who might come strolling along the shore. The ground was unyielding at first, resistant to Crowley's prodding with the point of the spade. He hacked loose a clod of root-laced soil and crumbled it between his fingers, sniffing warily. Clay and chalk traces with a hint of salt. He set down the spade and leaned against the shed's rough planking, considering his options. Ornamental plants, certainly: he'd be the envy of the neighborhood come Hell or high water (although he hoped for neither).

Crowley could plant vegetables, he supposed. Foodstuffs he could keep in line with the threat of inevitable slaughter. He might even take up cooking again, given Aziraphale's newly expanded repertoire of showing appreciation. Crowley couldn't believe they'd got so drunk in Pippa's presence, much less her husband's. He also couldn't believe he'd managed to drive them home at one-thirty in said state without wrapping the Bentley around a telephone pole, but that was ineffability for you.

They'd stumbled inside laughing, and Aziraphale had yanked him in by the lapels no sooner than they'd got the door shut. My dear, he'd slurred. My dear Crowley

Crowley had just kissed him, because whatever it was that alcohol was supposed to make more difficult for humans, it was making the aforementioned whatever all the easier for them. They'd shed clothes haphazardly the whole way to the bedroom, just like in those horrible American rom coms that ended up on late-night telly. And then they'd been on the bed, all flushed skin and fierce kisses, and then

(Hissing, Crowley pressed the heel of his palm to the front of his trousers, using his free hand to steady himself against the shed. He'd come out into the cold to clear his thoughts, and instead he was replaying the memory of something he ought to've done much less recklessly and much more sober, but Aziraphale had insisted.)

—and then, simply put, he'd fucked Aziraphale, never mind that neither one of them had bothered to work out the logistics ahead of time, or how badly his hands had shaken on the bottle of lubricant Aziraphale had stashed in the nightstand, or the fact that he hadn't lasted two minutes in the tight heat of Aziraphale's body and somehow even that pathetic brevity had been enough to make the angel come shouting.

Crowley shakily got to his feet, fumbling at the belt of his coat. Not so easy to get at his trousers now that he wasn't crouching, and of course he'd have been the completist even in summoning clothes out of the ether. Ten o'clock in the morning and the rest of England was still passed out in a drunken stupor, Aziraphale included, and he couldn't even bring himself to impose upon the angel's rare sleeping-in stint for the sake of getting off. Oddly, there was something thrilling about being where he was.

The rough wood splintered under Crowley's fingernails as he leaned harder into the shed, the wool covering his forearm and elbow catching in even finer snarls as he stroked himself. His coat hanging open would hide a multitude of sins, or at least the one he'd rucked up his shirt and unzipped his trousers to commit. His breath escaped him in ragged puffs, and he drove harder into his hand, wondering how he'd only grudgingly accepted this activity before and why now

Except it was too late for him to retroactively register the soft crunch of footfalls across the ruin of a garden behind him, too late for him to flinch from the steadying arm that slid around his middle, although he wouldn't have anyway because he knew whose it was, too late to prevent Aziraphale's hand from gently tugging him off-task and taking his oversensitized flesh in a sure, tight grip. Crowley gasped and came, his knees buckling, but Aziraphale held him upright with a breathy kiss tucked into the prickly, sweat-damp collar of Crowley's coat.

“You'll want to turn it under the soil, of course," Aziraphale said. "Very Roman of you.”

“You mean very accidental,” Crowley replied, twisting around greedily for a kiss. He used the distraction to clean and put his clothing back together, at which point it was easy enough to turn his body and knock Aziraphale back against the shed.

“I didn't think,” Aziraphale began, apparently thinking better of whatever he'd been about to say and licking his lips as he watched Crowley sink to his knees and undo the lowest few buttons on Aziraphale's camelhair coat. “Didn't think...you'd like...”

“Out here?” Crowley asked, nuzzling his way into Aziraphale's trousers, which he'd already got open. He smelled sleep and sweat on the angel's skin, poked in careful fingers to coax the head of Aziraphale's erection free. “It's New Year's morning. There's a shed at your back and a cottage to mine. You do the maths.”

“Noted,” breathed Aziraphale, and his perfect nails scraped at the wood.

“You're going to let me finish this,” Crowley said, licking away the salt-dampness that had already painted a smear across his cheek when Aziraphale hadn't been able to keep from jerking his hips. “You haven't yet. Guilty of thwarting all around.”

“Crowley, I don't—oh. Don't. Don't—stop.”

Never, Crowley would have said, but it was more of a hum as he sucked and angled his head. It was true that a jaw-hinge and throat like his had advantages, not to mention the lack of a gag reflex as long as he was on his guard. He wrapped one arm around Aziraphale's waist and twined his fingers with the angel's at his shoulder.

“Oh, my love,” Aziraphale gritted out, and whether it was that or the bitter heat that hit the back of his tongue that made him choke and pull off, he couldn't have said.

Crowley felt faintly dizzy, but he had enough presence of mind to spit approximately where his own seed had already frozen dark and indeterminate on the ground. He maintained his hold on Aziraphale's hand as the angel sank down to sit beside him, boneless, back against the shed. They were both shaking; it definitely wasn't from the cold.

“Forgive me,” Aziraphale wheezed, running his fingers through Crowley's hair.

“Nope,” Crowley said, groping around for the spade. He found it half-stuck under Aziraphale's bottom and yanked it free. “Don't want to,” he added, making quick work of turning the evidence under. “What was it, to a prosperous harvest come spring?”

Aziraphale drew Crowley snug against his shoulder, cradling him. He began, “About what I said. It's not like that time in Tadfield. I didn't intend—”

“I felt it,” Crowley blurted, his words muffled in Aziraphale's coat.

Aziraphale sucked in his breath. “And now?”

“I still do,” Crowley said, burrowing closer. “It wasn't the place. It was you.”

Chapter Text

Crowley's leaning out the hotel window in nothing but his unbuttoned shirt, which he holds shut with tightly folded arms, whistling at the sight below. Aziraphale rolls over and blinks at the wall. One flood is much the same as another, and they should know.

"Ghost town," Crowley says. "You'd need a boat to navigate some of those streets."

"Shut the window," Aziraphale complains. "It's freezing."

"That's November for you," replies Crowley, but he snaps the window shut and walks barefoot over to the desk. Aziraphale shifts quietly onto his back, watching. Pale skin and lean muscle, bony hips and ankles. Crowley's shirt skims the curve of his arse, a perfect tease in the low light. Every time they end up in this godforsaken, gorgeous city, it's near the holidays, and there's snow or some other weather-related disaster.

Crowley fiddles with the kettle, hissing under his breath until it finally clicks to life.

Aziraphale props himself up on his elbows, and, for one hazy, astonished moment, he can't recall how they'd got to this point: to Crowley wandering around posh hotel rooms more than half naked, watching York drown and making mediocre tea, almost completely unaware of the one temptation of which he ought to be most proud.

"Come here," murmurs Aziraphale.

Crowley turns and blinks at him, palms braced on the edge of the desk, letting the shirt fall open. Cheeks flushed and already half-hard, he licks his lips. Two years on, bedroom-talk still isn't his strong suit. It's maddening in the very best of ways.

"What if I want to come here?"

What he wants, though, he always gets.

Chapter Text

Barcelona, 1488

The note had arrived three weeks earlier in the hands of a frazzled young courier; Aziraphale had set out from London posthaste. Crowley's angular script crabbed across the fine Spanish vellum with a visible sense of urgency. The phrase If your lot are behind this, so help me, I will kill discorporate you seemed so uncharacteristic of Crowley that Aziraphale had to wonder how wrong things had really gone.

Catalonia's stately capital was loud, bewildering, and beautiful. In spite of the exhaustion that came of two weeks' travel by sea and land, Aziraphale couldn't help but pause to set a hand on sun-warmed brick and admire the architecture. The church of Santa Maria del Mar, jewel of La Ribera, loomed pale and watchful over the square.

Crowley's return address was an inn on the Plaza del Borne, and it didn't take more than a passing glance to determine that the cantinas of this particular district excelled in every manner of vice known to man (plus some they'd only just begun to work out).

Determined, Aziraphale walked on. He felt he must be getting very close.

The proprietor of La Flor de Sol told Aziraphale he'd find the other Englishman upstairs, second room on the left, most likely dead drunk or asleep. Aziraphale thanked the scruffy gentleman and promptly wiped his memory. It wouldn't do to have him slandering foreigners to every patron he set eyes on, especially not when Crowley was clearly in a vulnerable state. Robbers and cutthroats abounded.

Crowley was neither drunk, nor asleep: he was lying on his back blinking wide-eyed at the ceiling, obviously hung-over and too depressed to do anything about it. The bedclothes around him were a tangled wreck, and—Aziraphale averted his eyes upon noticing, so that his gaze fell on the myriad scattered Madeira bottles instead—he wasn't wearing much more than bedraggled underthings and a loose cotton shirt.

Aziraphale waded through the bottles and sat down on the edge of the bed, clearing his throat. Crowley didn't seem to notice, at least not till Aziraphale placed a stiff hand on his arm. The demon flinched and recoiled, curling in on himself tightly at the far edge of the mattress, breathing hard. His pale skin had a feverish cast.

"I assure you I knew nothing about it, dear boy," said Aziraphale, gently.

"Neither did I," Crowley rasped, his voice rough with disuse. "Not till the commendation arrived." He laughed, short and abrupt. "D'you know what's great? I mean, d'you know what's really great? I had a look at the documentation, Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, all so neatly official, you understand. The charter actually says they're forbidden from causing permanent harm or drawing blood."

It wasn't right that Aziraphale couldn't seem to focus on the words Crowley could scarcely force past his lips. What his eyes seemed hell-bent on noticing was the way Crowley's sharp chin dug into his knees, how fretfully Crowley's long fingers curled at his bony ankles, the smooth line of Crowley's thigh and exposed hip-bone where the side-laces of his braies had all but come undone. In a fit of frustration, he wanted to brush away the fine sheen of sweat on Crowley's forehead; he wanted to pin Crowley's wrists to the pillow, make him stop babbling about torture, talk some sense into him. Aziraphale shifted, scanning the room desperately for the rest of Crowley's clothes.

"So, what do they do?" Crowley continued, unfolding his legs and rolling onto his back. "The garrucha's a clever one; it suspends the victim from the ceiling by the wrists. Dislocated joints and broken bones—no blood, in theory, and those kinds of injuries heal, don't they? I can only fix so much damage, let me tell you. I think my least favorite is the toca, not least because it's going to lead to waterboarding later on—"

"Crowley, stop," Aziraphale pleaded, holding him down. The contortions in his limbs were too much as he spoke; the way his body registered what doubtless flashed across his mind in flawless detail was horrifying. "I know what they've done, because I had a look around myself. I had to cross most of Iberia to get here, after all." The demon's chest rose and fell in panic. He writhed under Aziraphale's weight.

"Then let go of me," Crowley gasped. "Angel, are you deaf? Let me go!"

Aziraphale released Crowley's wrists and backed off the mattress, indignantly straightening his traveling clothes. "Get up," he said, tossing the first pair of breeches he could find in Crowley's direction, "and get dressed, for heaven's sake."

Crowley sat up, furiously picking at the breeches, which had landed in his lap.

"Why should I?" he demanded. "Where are we going?"

Aziraphale found a clean linen shirt and laid it at the foot of the bed.

"Home," he said, regarding Crowley's reflection in the crude wall mirror.

 

 

Home, 2008


The book must have made its way into Aziraphale's stacks quite by accident. Either that, or Adam Young's sense of how things would turn out for them had been more finely tuned than either one of them could have guessed. Aziraphale knelt next to the cardboard box and turned Shibari You Can Use: Japanese Rope Bondage and Erotic Macramé over in his hands while Crowley looked on with feigned indifference.

"It might make for a lively change," said Aziraphale. "Not that we need—er."

Crowley studied the diagrams, shifting his gaze from the book to Aziraphale.

"You want to give it a try," he said, not even inflecting it as a question.

Aziraphale set the book aside. "My dear, only if you think..."

"I think it could be interesting," said Crowley, shrugging. "If you do, that is."

"I'll do some more research," Aziraphale replied, touching Crowley's hand.

The proper materials were easy to acquire, if only because Aziraphale had remained on good terms with his former neighbor in Soho. John Grundel was nothing if not discreet, and Aziraphale's inquiry, by happy accident, coincided with the closing-down sale of Intimate Books. Grundel didn't charge him for shipping; Aziraphale reassured him he was much obliged. Grundel's return email included a tracking number and wry congratulations that things had worked out between [Aziraphale] and that charming young man after all. When the parcel arrived, Crowley was out bullying the garden.

Aziraphale tested lengths of all three types of rope on his own wrist, violent twists of hemp, jute, and silk in thoughtful succession. He'd never pull them that tight on Crowley, of course, but it behooved one to be thorough. Silk did the least damage.

Halfway through dinner, Crowley noticed the residual marks on Aziraphale's wrist and set down his fork. "More research, eh," he remarked. "You started without me?"

"No, of course not," said Aziraphale. "I wanted to make sure it was...safe."

Crowley's lips twitched in amusement. An old joke by now, but no less true.

"I don't know about you," he said, rising, "but I'm not really all that hungry."

Crowley had always seemed strangely vulnerable in various states of undress, but never more so than now. And ever since furtively looking his fill had ceased to be a guilty pleasure which Aziraphale had scarcely ever acknowledged...

The taste of port burned on Aziraphale's tongue as he coaxed Crowley's shirt off his shoulders. "Really," Aziraphale chided, running his palm down the damp front of Crowley's shorts. "You couldn't wait till after? We'd been saving that bottle."

Crowley whimpered and twisted under him, arms snaking up above his head.

"S'not just dessert wine, if you asssk me," he said, canting his hips.

Aziraphale reached under the pillow and caught hold of the silk rope, unspooling it gracelessly as they kissed. He threaded it around Crowley's wrists once, a loose, lazy start to both-wrists binding, ryoute kubi shibari—and let his thoughts take over, the rope guiding itself so that his hands were free to stroke Crowley's thighs. The more complex the knot-work grew, the less responsive Crowley's kisses.

"Too tight?" Aziraphale asked, vanishing the remainder of their clothes.

"Not exactly," said Crowley, breathless, but something was wrong. His chest rose and fell too sharply, breath ghosting jagged against Aziraphale's cheek. Skin curiously slick beneath Aziraphale's palms, almost clammy. His erection was fading fast.

Sunlight crept through the blinds, glinting off the mirror in Aziraphale's peripheral vision. Flash of memory five hundred years gone, something he'd entirely forgot. But Crowley, as always, remembered—and why should he not?

"Oh, my dear," Aziraphale whispered, and the rope fizzled to nothingness.

Crowley ducked his head into the curve of Aziraphale's neck, eyes tightly closed, his arms sliding down to close around Aziraphale's shoulders. His fingernails bit into Aziraphale's flesh, almost hard enough to leave scratches, and then eased off.

They lay still for a while, holding each other, and Aziraphale finally let out a sigh.

"You'll try me next time, of course," he said. "That's how it should have been."

"Next time," Crowley agreed softly, matching Aziraphale breath for breath.

Chapter Text

Almost six years on, Crowley thought, pulling his coat tighter about himself to keep out the chill, hastily knotting the belt as he rounded the corner, and I'm still not sorry.

His flat had never been what you'd call easy to find, tucked down one of those innumerable charming side streets in the heart of Mayfair where the rent was higher than the population of Camden. Before the move, he'd considered putting it on the market, just as Aziraphale had done with the bookshop, but, at the last minute, he'd thought better of it. Or, rather, Aziraphale had thought better of it. He'd reasoned that a flat for weekending in the city might prove useful. Crowley had laughed at him.

Nobody from around here spends their weekends in London, angel, he'd said.

We're not from around here, Aziraphale had pointed out, the clever bastard.

All told, their weekending activities had amounted to roughly three or four times per year, mostly for purposes of visiting favorite haunts and collecting Crowley's post. He'd had a fright when a familiar change-of-address form had turned up several years ago in one such neglected batch, but he'd incinerated it on sight (Aziraphale had kicked up a fuss, worried that the property manager might notice the ashes).

Life had been much more relaxing with Hell well and truly out of his hair, and Crowley intended to keep things that way. Aziraphale hadn't heard anything from Upstairs, but then, his lot had never fully grasped the importance of memos. No: as far as Crowley was concerned, it was business as usual. And, frankly, after a botch-job like that, wouldn't you just soldier on as if it had never even happened? Let it not be said that their respective employers lacked common sense when push came to shove.

Crowley dashed up the front steps and fumbled his key into the lock. It was always a relief to know that they hadn't changed the fittings on him. There were advantages to owning a second-floor flat, the laziness of one's neighbors being chief amongst them. Nobody ever bothered to come up and knock, and in nearly six years of sitting empty, the premises hadn't once experienced a break-in. He hadn't left behind anything of value. The flat was sparsely furnished; next to everything had gone to the cottage.

The pile of accrued letters was substantial enough this time that Crowley had to give his door a good, hard shove. The envelopes went skittering, and he peered into the dim hallway with an irritated hiss. There were at least twenty or thirty pieces of correspondence, all shapes and sizes, most of which looked like rubbish. He shut the door and stalked off to the kitchen, where he dug a plastic Sainsbury's bag out from under the sink. He returned to the hallway and gathered up the post carelessly, dropping it into the bag. He'd leave it for Aziraphale to muck through, as the angel took perverse pleasure in paperwork. Odd, considering his superiors' poor example.

Crowley had scarcely had the chance to turn on the lights and have a look about when his mobile rang. He fished the device hastily out of his coat pocket. It only had three ring-tones. He'd assigned his favorite (Red Priest butchering Vivaldi) to Aziraphale.

"Great timing," Crowley told him, squinting at the ceiling. "These spiders are huge."

"I don't doubt you'll leave them to it," Aziraphale sighed on the other end of the line.

"They aren't hurting anything," Crowley said, idly swinging the bag full of letters as he wandered into the living room. "I guess you're ringing to make sure I got here."

"I would've appreciated a call," replied Aziraphale, tartly. "This winter's been dreadful, and it's freezing out there today. The sky's overcast. One never knows."

"The snow's all buggered off to America," Crowley said, brushing the dust off his lonely side-table. He could never stand to look at it for long; he suspect it resented him for leaving it behind. "Haven't you been watching the news?"

"No," Aziraphale said. "I've been reading those books Pippa brought. Speaking of—"

"We can discuss the relative merits of YA literature once I'm back," Crowley reassured him, not keen on getting another earful of what sounded like the most diabolical plotline since the Inquisition, only it was kids doing the killing. He'd liked it much better when it was those brats in Lower Tadfield dunking each other in the pond.

"Any post?" asked Aziraphale, eagerly.

"Loads of it," Crowley said, peering through the closed blinds and into the street.

"Don't forget my things," said Aziraphale. "You'd better go before they close."

"Yes, that's next, and then I'm off," Crowley reassured him, surveying the room. Nothing out of order: bookshelves still empty, entertainment center still bare. "What was it again? Fortnum and Mason? Red and white, a split half-dozen?"

"I wrote down the labels and vintages," said Aziraphale. "The paper's in your pocket."

"Right, yes, sorry," Crowley said, poking his coat, relieved to hear something crinkle.

"Love, do get out of there," murmured Aziraphale, and hung up.

Crowley bit his lip and smiled, slipping the mobile back in his pocket.



* * *




Aziraphale dropped Mockingjay on the sofa the instant he heard the Bentley pull up in the drive. By the time he reached the kitchen, Crowley had already come inside.

"Here," said Aziraphale, reaching out, "let me—"

Crowley deposited the cardboard box full of wine on the table with a thump.

"Three bottles of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc 2001, plus three bottles of Château Palmer 1996. Do you have any idea how much those cost?"

"Nine hundred pounds, VAT inclusive," Aziraphale said. "The money's in your pocket."

"Not in my coat, it isn't." Crowley glared at him halfheartedly and stuck his hand in his back trouser pocket. "Fine, you've got away with it this time," he conceded, folding the bills and tucking them in his wallet. "It wasn't terribly funny at the till, trust me."

"I do," said Aziraphale, helping him out of his coat. "It's why I send you on errands."

"You might warn me when said errands are set to break the bank," Crowley sighed.

Aziraphale hung Crowley's coat in the hall and returned. "Our accounts are fine."

"Speak for yourself," Crowley said. "Mine have seen better days."

"It's all relative," Aziraphale reassured him. "Shall we open a bottle of the red with dinner?" He squeezed Crowley's shoulders, pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth.

Crowley resisted at first, and then sagged into Aziraphale's arms.

"Best save them for New Year's. 2012 approacheth, et cetera."

"That's nonsense," Aziraphale said. "And a whole year from now, besides."

"Angel?"

"Hmmm?"

"I'm not hungry," Crowley said, teasing at the top button of Aziraphale's waistcoat.

The bed was still unmade, just as they'd left it that morning. Aziraphale had given up on tidying the duvet a long time ago, and Crowley had claimed that having the covers bunched and skewed every which way made for more comfortable circumstances when he ended up flat on his back with his head just shy of hitting the footboard.

He hadn't realized how attractive sarcasm was until he'd heard that statement.

Aziraphale sucked sharply at Crowley's inner thigh, leaving a faint, rosy mark. Crowley clutched at Aziraphale's wrists, already trembling. He tasted of salt, of fever, of himself. He wrenched one hand free and stifled a groan in the crook of his elbow.

"It cou—couldn't wait?" Crowley panted.

Aziraphale pulled off, nuzzling Crowley as he gasped for breath. "No. You left in such a hurry this morning, didn't even finish your breakfast. I would have come with you—"

"But Pippa was stopping by, I know," said Crowley, sounding pained.

"There would have been time," murmured Aziraphale, and drew him back in.

"Yes," Crowley whimpered, mindlessly threading his fingers in Aziraphale's hair. Less than a minute later, he was shouting it, his voice gone dark, lovely, and broken.

And then, retaliation. Aziraphale couldn't bring himself to feel ashamed at how quickly he unraveled beneath Crowley's kisses, the slight warm weight of him, his words.

Half an hour later, Aziraphale shifted a heavily dozing Crowley to one side, got up, retrieved the Sainsbury's bag of post from where Crowley had abandoned it just inside the door, and snagged one of the bottles of Château Palmer as an afterthought.

Crowley was awake by the time he returned to bed, sleepy-eyed and inquisitive.

"Here," Aziraphale said, tucking the wine under Crowley's arm as he dumped the flurry of envelopes out on the sheets between them. "You won't feel a thing."

Crowley muttered and rolled over, clutching the bottle like a security blanket.

"You really ought to have set up forwarding," sighed Aziraphale, and got to work.



* * *




As it turned out, the red wine was good. In fact, it was very good.

Crowley spent a long, lazy while lounging against Aziraphale's side. By then, he'd drunk roughly half the bottle, and Aziraphale seemed so absorbed in his task of sorting papers that he'd forgot the wine was even there. At some point, when Crowley had returned to drifting in and out of consciousness, he felt the bottle pried gently from his fingers and something flat and smooth, yet scratchy set down on his belly.

"My dear, what's this?" Aziraphale asked, tapping on it.

Crowley propped himself up on his elbows. His stomach lurched, but it had nothing to do with the wine or how quickly he'd risen. He'd know that stationery anywhere.

"I can't persuade it to open," Aziraphale continued. "The seal's quite persistent."

"Hell does nothing by halves," said Crowley, picking it up by one corner.

He turned the document over. The seal wasn't one he recognized: not Dagon's, not Hastur's, not even one belonging to an under-secretary (and he'd always made good with the administrative staff, because you never knew when having them on your side might matter). With his free hand, Crowley made an intricate gesture, the one that always made his fingers cramp. The seal fizzled, popped neatly out of existence.

The letter, previously folded in three, dramatically fell open.

Crowley sat up and spread it flat against the mattress, frowning.

"Inhuman Resources?" said Aziraphale, leaning over and squinting at the letter.

"I advised them to re-name the department," Crowley replied. "Slaves and Minions was too outdated. Morale went up twenty percent with the change; I'm amazed they didn't revert back." They'd redesigned the seal, which explained why it was unfamiliar.

"Crowley, they're firing you," Aziraphale blurted.

Did he always have to read ahead?

"Correction," Crowley said, squinting at the next paragraph of sigils. "Literally translated, they're downsizing. I'm being let go. My job's been rolled into..." His stomach dropped lower. "Let it not be said that adopting a policy of non-interference in the affairs of man is unwise. Humans are doing a smashing job all on their own."

Aziraphale frowned. "Does that mean—"

"The severance package is two thousand years' pay, so that's all right; add that to what I've got currently and I'll probably last until the mortal inhabitants of this planet manage to annihilate themselves. As for what we'll do when that happens, I can't..."

He really couldn't imagine.

"Shhh, don't think like that," Aziraphale said, and before Crowley knew it, he was bundled into one of those too-close-for-comfort embraces that was, actually, just what he needed at the minute, because this nonsense was nowhere in the programming and what in God's actual name did they think they were doing? He had tenure.

"No more nine-hundred pound wine!" Crowley choked.

"I haven't been fired. There's nothing wrong with a one-salary household."

Crowley laughed hysterically.

"Time to face the music. It's not as if we've been of any use whatsoever to them for the past...what, when was it, 1990? Twenty-one years. So, Below's finally caught on, and I'm willing to bet you the remainder of our wine-rack that Up Above is next!"

"We never change policy," said Aziraphale, crisply. "It's policy."

"Oh, brilliant," Crowley groaned. He slitted one eye and skimmed the remainder of the letter. Nothing about what he was supposed to do with himself. No personalized addendum from Beelzebub saying they'd caught wind of where he'd set his allegiances (with humanity and with a ludicrous, infuriating, wonderful angel), no summons warning that if he failed to comply, he'd be rather painfully collected.

Nothing at all.

"It must be very liberating," said Aziraphale, with a touch of envy.

"Change makes me nervous," Crowley muttered.

"I have no idea how you've lasted, then," Aziraphale sighed fondly.

"With a little help," replied Crowley, chewing his lip.

Aziraphale took the letter out of his hand and set it on the bedside table. The rest of the correspondence, in five neat piles, scattered and mingled as the mattress shifted beneath them. Crowley allowed himself to be turned and tugged closer, burying his face against the angel's neck. Aziraphale took a thoughtful swig of wine, which turned into polishing off the bottle, and then set it down on top of Crowley's letter.

"Just to be certain," said Aziraphale, slowly, "can you still..."

Crowley snapped his fingers. The lights went out. He blinked, and they went back on. He summoned his shirt from where it lay discarded on the floor, only to have Aziraphale impatiently push it off his shoulders before he banished it again.

"Apparently?" he said.

"It wouldn't have been terribly sporting of them to disarm you."

Crowley shivered. He hadn't even thought of it until Aziraphale had brought it up.

"I believe the term clusterfuck applies."

"Of course not," said Aziraphale. "It's business as usual. Only without pay."

"I liked the part where I got paid."

"You'll get paid one more time."

Crowley winced.

"Do you trust me?" Aziraphale asked, his voice flat and calm.

Crowley lifted his head. "Yes, why wouldn't I? I let you send me on errands."

Aziraphale gave him that endearing, slightly tilted smile.

"Good," he said. "Because if they interfere, I shan't be responsible for my actions."

Crowley shivered again as they kissed, but for an entirely different reason.

Maybe he did like it dangerous. Once in a while.



* * *




That night, Aziraphale didn't sleep. He slipped out of bed as soon as Crowley was dead to the world, dressed with a thought, and resumed his reading. It's not that he'd been impatient to get back to the book, not really: reading helped to clear his thoughts prior to facing a particularly unpleasant task. He finished inside half an hour and set the book aside. Much better than those mystifying vampire novels, at any rate.

He was hard pressed to think of anything more unpleasant than Crowley frightened.

The address-book on his computer was badly out of date, not to mention sorely lacking in parties who might be of assistance. As far as Aziraphale was aware, none of the humans had any conscious memory of what they'd been through, and even if they had, what good would any of them be able to do, except for Adam Young himself?

Aziraphale shivered. He wouldn't go to the boy, not yet.

Perhaps it's all a misunderstanding, Aziraphale thought, clicking through tabs and closing windows in disgust. Some personnel files got scrambled, and Crowley got somebody else's letter. Much though Aziraphale wanted to believe that for Crowley's sake, instinct told him it wasn't likely. Hell's bureaucracy was far more efficient than Heaven's had ever been, no small thanks to Crowley. What a loss.

If only they'd have him back, Aziraphale thought, and banished the notion as quickly as it came. No; Gabriel would want him for a PA, and I'd never see him again.

Aziraphale was about to click away from the current tab when his eyes fell on the name: DEVICE-PULSIFER. A quick Google search and some quicker psychic snooping told Aziraphale that the couple had not only relocated to the vicinity of London shortly after the debacle at the air base (Newt had enrolled in some IT courses), but Anathema had managed to both complete a law degree and give birth to three daughters (Sophia, twenty, reading Politics and International Studies at Cambridge; twins, Janet and Natalie, seventeen, rebelling their way through sixth-form).

With a name like that, Anathema's website wasn't difficult to find.

Ten minutes later, having read several pages of cleverly veiled language, Aziraphale wondered, admiringly, exactly how many housewives in England could boast that they were not only an independent scholar, but also an Occult Solicitor in their spare time. Granted, the title appeared nowhere on her website; no, that was entirely Aziraphale's devising. She marketed herself as an all-around freelance family solicitor, but used terms like obscure matters and discreet handling and all other options exhausted.

Sophia on the front steps of Downing Street, smiling and waving for the cameras. Green Party, absolutely impossible. She's made history. And the blond man standing beside her, holding a black-haired, pale-eyed boy, perhaps three years old—

Aziraphale shook his head, told himself to focus. He jotted down Anathema's phone number and, on a lark, checked the AFFILIATES section of her site. Individuals who were equal parts dodgy and intriguing, all of them: Amsterdam, Chicago, New York, São Paulo. Her London counterparts sounded curiously mundane; since when did Occult Solicitors work with Consulting Detectives? Aziraphale squinted at the address.

Oh. Old magic, archetypes, and love that made Lower Tadfield's aura look like a tremor after a 10.0 earthquake, assuming there'd be anybody alive left to look.

(You knew it once you'd felt it. Always.)

Tucking the scrap of paper in his pocket, Aziraphale wandered into the kitchen. Sunrise through the kitchen window was his favorite thing about the cottage; if they'd stayed in the city, he'd never have known what he'd been missing.

Crowley straggled out of bed at eight to find tea and toast waiting for him.

"You're up to something," he told Aziraphale around a mouthful.

The angel pursed his lips.

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Did I get the sugar right?"

Crowley was already cradling his tea as if it were something precious.

"You always get it right. Which is rather annoying, actually."

"Eat," Aziraphale told him, brushing Crowley's arm as he passed. "I'll be in the study."

"You left the computer on. There was all this stuff about deduction. I closed it."

"No matter," Aziraphale called back over his shoulder, summoning Crowley's mobile to the palm of his hand. He'd have to make the call brief. Crowley wouldn't stay away.

He hadn't been so nervous about dialing someone in—well, twenty-one years.

It was the right number. Of course it was the right number.

"Good morning, Device-Pulsifer Consulting. Just so you know, we don't open for another hour." There was some rustling in the background, and then, plaintively, "Mum, Nat took my earrings!" followed by "I didn't! They're right here! She's mental!"

"I'm terribly sorry, my dear girl," said Aziraphale. "Forgive my familiarity, but—"

There was a long pause on the end of the line.

"It's you," Anathema said. "You fixed my bike. And stole my book."

"MUM!"

"Go to school," said Anathema, thinly, covering the mouthpiece.

"Can't find my Oyster card, either." Janet, Aziraphale presumed.

"Not my problem," sighed Anathema, returning to the call. "I'm sorry. My daughters."

I know, Aziraphale wanted to say, but instead, he replied, "It happens to the best of us, my dear. Yes, I fixed your bike, and as for the book, you'd left it behind."

"Are you still with him? Dark hair, sunglasses, nice smile when he bothers?"

"Yes, for all my sins," Aziraphale sighed. "He's why I'm calling."

Anathema suppressed a laugh. "What did he do?"

"No, it's the other way around. He's been done unto."

"I see. What's the trouble?"

"He's been let go. By his employer, that is."

"I hardly think my services are required in such a mundane matter."

"His former employer is anything but."

More silence, followed by another brief scuffle and the slamming of a door.

"They're gone, thank goodness," Anathema said. "Right, first things first: I know who you are, and I know what happened. Most of it, anyway. It took me a few years after the fact to piece everything together, but I got the shape of it. Adam kept dropping clues. He wouldn't go away. I think he wanted me to remember."

"You're a useful ally, certainly. What about your husband?"

"He doesn't like to talk about it," Anathema said. "He gets on with machines now. Sorts them out the traditional way, as opposed to applying brute ignorance. The truth is, I suspect he had some kind of curse, and Adam fixed it."

"Like he fixed everything else," Aziraphale murmured, tapping his chin.

"I'd ask him if he knows anything about this. By the way, which of you is which?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Who did the firing?" asked Anathema, wryly.

"Just who you'd expect, given your verb-choice. Pardon the pun."

"I'll be damned," she said.

"Nobody's perfect. Listen, do you think there's anything—"

"I'll have to talk to him myself."

"To whom?"

"Your young man, Mr. Fell. Whose mobile you're using without his permission."

"Right," said Aziraphale, swiveling around in the chair at a sudden noise behind him.

Crowley stood in the doorway, mug in hand, his eyes glowing worried gold.

"How does next Tuesday sound?" asked Aziraphale. "I'll pay for your rail fare."

"Excellent. Email me later today to arrange particulars," she said, and hung up.

"What are you doing, angel?" asked Crowley, warily.

"Getting you some help," Aziraphale admitted, holding out the mobile.

Crowley snatched it away and took a sullen sip of tea, staring hard at the floor. He looked fragile like this, but also strangely fierce, muscles coiled tight beneath his well worn grey Bentley-logo tee and nondescript pyjama bottoms from Marks & Spencer.

"How is Ms. Device-Pulsifer keeping?" he asked.



* * *




"Remind me why we never come here in nicer weather?" Crowley asked, idly stirring sugar into what promised to be a mediocre cappucino. Since Mandy had gone off to uni, the beach-front café hadn't managed to hire anyone who could make one as well as she could (or, for that matter, as well as Aziraphale could make them at home).

"Because we're normally at home when it's nice out, or at Pippa's, or that Thai place with outdoor seating," said Aziraphale, waving at someone over Crowley's shoulder.

"Speak of the devil," Crowley muttered. This outing had not been his idea.

"I'm so glad you liked the books!" Pippa said, pulling up a chair right between them. She took the boxed set off the table and set it down on the floor beside her handbag. "And not a scratch on them. Nicola will never know I lent them out."

"How is your charming daughter?" Aziraphale asked.

"Busy with the little one," Pippa said, signaling to the bar that she'd be having what Crowley was having. "Robert turned three last week, can you believe it?"

"Yes," Crowley said, yawning. "They tend to do that."

Pippa chuckled, patting his hand. "I've missed your sense of humor! I wish we'd been home for Christmas, but the kids have been demanding. We'd have had you over."

"Crowley's had a spot of bad luck, I'm afraid," Aziraphale said. "His job's been cut."

Pippa's eyes widened, that oh-you-poor-dear look she reserved solely for Crowley.

"It was bound to happen eventually," Crowley said, which was more or less true.

"But you work so hard," Pippa said. "Always on the computer when I drop by..."

Are you kidding? I play Sims and Solitaire, was what he wanted to say, but instead, at a warning glance from Aziraphale, he just shrugged ruefully and sipped his cappucino.

Symathy from the devil, even this version of the devil, was better than none at all.

"All those jobs being moved overseas," Pippa murmured darkly.

Oh, just what I need, Crowley thought. Another reminder that you read the Daily Mail.

"Dreadful business," Aziraphale cut in before Crowley could draw breath to speak. "But we'll sort it out. And, if not, I should think we'll get on just fine. I'm still well enough connected through the antiquarian book trade—"

"Of course you are!" Pippa chided, slinging one arm across Crowley's shoulders and hugging him tight. "You should've encouraged him to take early retirement when you two first moved here. Would've spared you an awful lot of trouble, I should think."

Crowley wanted to shrug her off, but he couldn't think of any way of doing so that wouldn't offend Aziraphale. As for Pippa, well, nothing ever seemed to offend her. She seemed incapable of reading gestures as malicious, and if Aziraphale hadn't given him a look, he probably would've gone on about the computer games.

"We have a friend who might be able to help," Aziraphale said carefully. "A solicitor."

Aziraphale hadn't mentioned that's what Anathema was up to these days.

"Well, maybe he'll be able to help you," Pippa said, nodding thanks to the waiter as he delivered her cappucino. "Ooh, gracious. It's a bit strong today, isn't it, Crowley?"

"I'd noticed," he said, shoving the sugar bowl in her direction.

"In the very least she'll have some advice," Aziraphale said.

"A young lady, is it? They have opportunities these days I'd never have dreamed of."

That's because, for all of your kindness, you lack imagination, Crowley thought.

"She's coming for supper next Tuesday," Aziraphale replied, averting his eyes.

"Thanks for giving me fair warning," said Crowley, icily. Oh, now he'd done it.

Aziraphale cringed.

"You're hesitant to accept help, I understand that. But she might—"

Have previous experience running a law-suit against Hell? Not likely!

Crowley bit the inside of his cheek. "She might what, angel?"

"Have some ideas," said Aziraphale, helplessly. "Set your mind at ease."

"Oh dear," Pippa murmured into her cappuccino. "Ought I to—"

"No, not at all," Crowley said, and his hand was on hers before he could stop himself. "It's fine. It's just, communication isn't always his strong suit, you know?"

"Oh, don't I. That's my Harold for you. Well, I don't doubt you'll sort it all out," she added, giving Aziraphale a mildly reproachful look, which didn't happen very often and was far more satisfying than it ought to have been. Crowley grinned behind his hand.

"Of course we will," said Aziraphale, firmly.

"Let's talk of happier things," said Pippa. "Which of the trilogy was your favorite?"

Crowley got up and excused himself, not bothering to take along his cappuccino, which had gone cold. He'd have thrown in some kind of jab, perhaps I'll leave you bookworms to it, but it always rankled that his reading preferences never seemed to line up with what Pippa constantly brought through their door. He'd recently read Cloud Atlas and found it nothing short of extraordinary, but how was he supposed to explain that to people who preferred violent post-apocalyptic futures and probably sparkly vampires, too? Granted, part of Cloud Atlas was post-apocalyptic...

There was sand all over his shoes by the time he reached the tide-line, but that hardly mattered. There was nothing of interest strewn on the shore. There rarely was. You needed Aziraphale for truly spectacular finds. He had a knack for them, and that knack was cheating. For what it got him, Crowley was willing to turn a blind eye.

It had been wrong of him to get angry over Anathema, he supposed.

At least one of them was willing to cheat when there was no other option.



* * *




In the living room, after they'd eaten, Anathema pored over Crowley's letter while Aziraphale busied himself with a tray of coffee and biscuits in the kitchen. She'd aged visibly, which shouldn't have been so startling, except the long-haired nineteen-year old who'd worn skirts and dangly earrings had transformed into a jeans-and-clogs-wearing forty year-old mother with hair neatly cropped to her chin (no less brilliant).

Her earrings were still eccentric, but now you had to squint to see them.

"They have nice stationery," Anathema was saying to Crowley as Aziraphale carried in the tray. "Why worry about image when you're in the business of damning people?"

"Because I advised them to," said Crowley, wearily.

"They seem to have taken your advice in quite a number of matters, then," Anathema said. "We could always highlight that in your response."

"I'll be responding?" asked Crowley. "I thought you were just here to give advice."

Anathema tucked her hair behind her ear and glanced up at Aziraphale.

"We hadn't really discussed a course of action," said Aziraphale, defensively.

"You'll be paid for your time," said Crowley, grimly. "Don't worry about that."

Anathema set the letter down and accepted a cup of coffee.

"I'm not. I think you'd have a case. They didn't give you fair warning."

"There isn't exactly a court system in place to hear things like this," Crowley said, eyeing Aziraphale pointedly. "You should've thought of that."

"Why wouldn't a human courtroom hear it?" Anathema asked. "You're proof that Hell can send up representatives that don't look like walking nightmares, and—"

"In case you weren't paying attention, I'm the exception to that rule."

Anathema nibbled on a biscuit. "I suppose they'd laugh at a threat, wouldn't they?"

"Depends on the language you use?" Aziraphale asked, taking a seat beside Crowley.

"Angel, the language won't matter. A law-suit is a threat."

"I hate to say this," Anathema said, "but why didn't you go to Adam instead of me?"

Aziraphale exchanged a nervous glance with Crowley.

"Because he's terrifying," said Anathema, flatly. "Right. I'll grant you that."

"You're much more level-headed," Aziraphale told her. "Less impulsive."

"Ah, I see. You're afraid that if he were to Change things again—and, yes, you heard me right, that's a capital C—he might upset the balance. And it doesn't take a genius to see that balance means the world to you. It means a lot to me, too."

"On the contrary," said Crowley, softly. "World without end."

How is it that your heart survived intact? Aziraphale thought, momentarily overwhelmed. And how is it that I deserve to be at the center of it all, what when you love doves and mice and spiders, otherwise good and innocent things?

"Should you decide you want to speak with him, I'd be happy to set you up."

"About him not going away," Aziraphale said. "He always was fond of you."

"These days, it's not me," Anathema said wryly. "He's dating my eldest daughter."

Sophia, Downing Street, the child, Aziraphale thought. That explains everything.

"Even more terrifying," Crowley said. "Antichrist as prospective son-in-law."

"Not anymore," said Anathema. "I always did wonder what he kept for himself, what he got rid of. He's very good at playing by the rules. My rules, anyway."

"Or maybe he's the terrified one," Crowley added, breaking into a full grin.

Anathema smirked. "So, are we sending a letter to these twats or what?"

Aziraphale sipped his coffee in the silence. It was Crowley's decision. It had to be.

"I'll think it over," Crowley said. "I'll email you by Friday, I promise."

"Excellent," Anathema said. "For now, we've got a lot of catching-up to do."

She seemed sad to hear that they were hardly ever in London anymore, and Aziraphale got the uncanny sense that, for her, that absence made some sort of palpable difference. He'd never considered the void they'd leave behind, if any at all: there would always be someone to dine at the Ritz, always be someone to go speeding down Oxford street, always someone to feed the ducks in St. James's Park.

Did the who really make a difference?

"How's Newt?" Aziraphale asked, shifting in his seat uncomfortably.

"Settled," Anathema said. "He's so patient with the girls, never loses his temper. That's more than can be said for me. The twins never stopped being a handful."

"And how does he feel about Adam...?" Crowley ventured.

"Are you kidding? I was barely twenty when he and I met, so you can imagine he sees nothing wrong with the age gap. And, as I said, Adam's very good at playing by the rules. Newt keeps less of an eye on him than I do."

Anathema excused herself after her third cup of coffee, insisting that she'd better get going if she planned on catching her train. Realizing that volunteering Crowley's services as a chauffeur probably wasn't the best idea at the moment, Aziraphale said that, yes, of course, that was perfectly understandable. Crowley embraced her briefly and wished her goodbye, excusing himself with even less grace than usual.

Aziraphale saw Anathema to the door.

"I can't thank you enough for coming, although I should expect nothing will come of this," he said, pressing a folded cheque into her hand. "As unsettled as Crowley is by these circumstances, I don't think he truly wants to fight them."

"Why would he?" Anathema asked, handing it back to him. "If there's no sign that they intend to follow up, and you're sure there will be no negative repercussions, why bother taking action? In his shoes, I'd be downright relieved. Good riddance."

"I think me might be," Aziraphale said. "But he hasn't taken the time to let it sink in."

"He really doesn't cope well with it, does he?" Anathema asked.

"With what?" Aziraphale asked, holding the door as she went out.

"Change," Anathema said, waving from the foot of the steps.



* * *




Crowley slumped forward, jaw resting heavily on Aziraphale's shoulder, temple plastered to the headboard. His thighs ached from the strain, although they wouldn't do for long, and he was still searching for his breath, which at times like this tended to fail him completely. He felt open and wholly undone. That look in Aziraphale's eyes as Crowley had positioned himself, borne down hard, taken in all of him.

He hadn't seen it in twenty-one years.

"Penny for your thoughts?" asked Aziraphale, scarcely above a whisper.

That's my line, Crowley thought, drawing a desperate lungful. "None as of yet."

"Liar," Aziraphale murmured, trailing one hand from Crowley's hip up to his nape.

He banished the mess before Aziraphale decided to run for a washcloth, settling in closer. He traced an absent pattern on the angel's upper arm, unable to find words.

I'm sorry I was mad about Anathema; I know you were only trying to improve the situation. I'm about to do something that'll upset you. I'm sorry about that, too.

"You're heavy enough without brooding," Aziraphale teased gently.

"She looked so different," Crowley said. "So different from what I remember."

"She's been through quite a lot since last we saw her," Aziraphale replied, pressing his mouth to the side of Crowley's neck. "But she's aged gracefully. I would have liked to have seen Newt again, too. And their daughters."

"Nothing says we can't," said Crowley. I'll be seeing one of them soon.

"There you go again. Crowley, what's the matter? We've just..."

Crowley turned his head and kissed Aziraphale as deeply as he dared. What Aziraphale couldn't read from his expression, he'd certainly have tasted in the wistfulness of Crowley's lips and tongue and newly restored breath.

"But we haven't," he said, breaking away. "Not in the least."

"Haven't what?" asked Aziraphale, his voice tinged with worry.

"Changed," Crowley said. "Why didn't she run? It must have been unnerving."

"She knows what we are. And I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with you."

"On what?"

"Our not changing. Crowley, there's more to change than appearances. We have."

Crowley sighed and shifted away from him, settling down against the pillows. "The sight of her affected us more deeply than the sight of us affected her."

"That's precisely what I mean," said Aziraphale, settling down beside him. He slid one arm around Crowley's waist, drawing him in close. "You've had a long day. Rest."

"You'd do well to get some sleep, too," Crowley said, cringing inwardly.

"Sleep for everyone," Aziraphale said, sounding so relieved that Crowley felt sick with guilt all over again. "That's wise, my dear. Very wise."

You'll hate me in the morning, Crowley thought, counting the interminable minutes until Aziraphale's breath had slowed to almost nothing and his arm thrown across Crowley's middle had gone limp. Good thing I won't be here to see it.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Shifted shape, slithered free. Vanished.

It was a two and a half hour drive to Cambridge. That's where she was: Sophia, the eldest daughter. He'd pulled it from Aziraphale before he'd sounded Anathema out for confirmation, so strong was the wave of recollection he'd felt rolling off the angel during that point in the conversation. Find Sophia, he'd told himself, and you'll find Adam. He had no plans to disturb Anathema any further, and she was right. He ought to have gone looking for Adam in the first place, rather than worrying Aziraphale.

Crowley arrived just after two in the morning. Parking was easy to come by, so long as you could justify cheating. He wandered the streets aimlessly until dawn, although it wasn't as if there were many streets to wander, at least not where the town center was concerned. Sophia lived in a private flat not far from Sidney Sussex College.

Perched on the front steps of Great St. Mary's, Crowley bullied his mobile into yielding up a photograph off a closed campus directory. Second-year student, just beginning spring term. Already earning high marks. She looked very much like her mother had when she was younger, although she had her father's eyes and a sense of mischief in her expression that Crowley couldn't help but imagine was pure Agnes Nutter.

Crowley's phone rang. Vivaldi. He rose and ignored it, crossing the market square.

Through some strange confluence of cobbled side-streets and sheer force of not trying to get anywhere, Crowley found himself standing next to the entrance of King's College Chapel. He'd unwittingly gone from one church to another.

"It doesn't open for an hour and a half," a passing student told him. She looked tired, maybe even worse for wear. Crowley felt in her an exhaustion equal to his own, a hope both quiet and unspeakably fragile. She was in love and stood to lose it.

"Thanks," he said, and, once she'd passed, slipped inside.

The art of passing through places unseen wasn't as difficult as Crowley seemed to remember. Maybe it was because there were so few souls about in the cavernous space, no hushed voices to echo off the ancient stones and myriad, towering panes of glass. He stood still in the center aisle for a very long while, staring, until his mobile went off again, the irreverent strings harsh and vibrant. Footsteps echoed behind him.

Help her, he thought, and fled as quickly as he'd come.

Catching up with Sophia proved slightly more difficult than he'd imagined, if only because, by the time he reached her front door, both she and her flatmate had already gone. In his second feat of breaking and entering that day, Crowley managed to learn from some saved email on her laptop (how lucky that she didn't carry it everywhere, he supposed, but how unwise, given that their common-room window was right at street level) that she was meeting Adam at Caffè Nero on Market Street once her morning seminar let out. Perfect. He'd intercept them.

Crowley had a good few hours yet to decide how on earth he was going to explain himself, although something told him that wouldn't be necessary, if Adam setting eyes on him this time was going to be anything like the first. He wasted an hour in Waterstones and ended up purchasing the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy in a fit of guilt. He'd give it a chance, but he'd also make Aziraphale read Cloud Atlas.

Lacking anything to do besides drink coffee, Crowley settled in at Caffè Nero with a mediocre cup of tea and started to read. His phone went off again, which earned him some irritated glances. Crowley turned it off.

And, nearly two hours later, when he was certain he couldn't stand any more heartbreak than he'd just waded through, the door opened, and a tell-tale prickle raced down his spine. Adam took a detour and ordered some hot cocoa before making his way directly to Crowley's table in the corner.

"I expect Soph will be late," he said, setting down his drink before flopping into the armchair across from Crowley. He broke into a genuinely delighted grin, and, instead of fear, Crowley found himself mesmerized at how much the same Adam was, never mind the fact that he wasn't eleven anymore and had grown so tall that he had nearly an inch on Crowley. "It's been ages, hasn't it? What are you doing here?"

"You mean you don't know?" Crowley managed.

Adam shook his head. "Not a clue. But it can't be anything good. You look troubled."

Oh, God, Crowley thought. He remembers, but he's given it up. He can't do a thing.

"Losing one's employment is rarely good," Crowley said, resuming his mug.

Adam frowned, nodding gravely. "Yeah, I know what that's like. I got laid off last week. Mum had a fit, but I told her it was all right; something else will come along."

The former Antichrist at a loose end. This economic crisis has gone far enough.

"Did you study here, too?" Crowley said at length.

"I went to Oxford and couldn't wait to leave. Pepper came here, though. She did postgraduate work at Canterbury and teaches in London now. Do you remember her?"

"Red hair," Crowley murmured. "Yes, of course. Do you think I forget any of it?"

"It gets hazy sometimes," Adam admitted. "I hope it doesn't haunt you."

"Sometimes," Crowley echoed. "So, about what's happened...you don't know..."

"Not as such," said Adam, thoughtfully, "but I reckon it was inevitable. When I said no more messing about, I seem to recall meaning it, and that didn't just go for you and for him, you know. It went for both your sides, full stop."

Both our sides, thought Crowley, wonderingly. No more messing about. Full stop.

"Thank you," he said. "That explains a lot. Explains everything, actually."

"Ace," Adam said, clinking his mug against Crowley's. "Because Soph says she can't make heads or tails of it when I get to talking to her mum. She says we ought to be locked up for our own safety and everyone else's. She may have a point."

You're going to marry her. You're going to marry her and she's going to be Prime Minister and bloody hell. Your son will grow up and do something really very important, but I'm not sure I want to know. Not right now. I'll let it go.

"I don't know," Crowley said. "You seem harmless enough."

"That's not what my mother says."

Crowley and Adam both looked up in shock, and it must have been comical, of course it had been comical, to prompt such a smug, familiar smile from the young woman who stood watching them with one slim hand resting on the back of Adam's chair.

"What's going on?" Sophia asked Adam. "And who's this?"

"Crowley's a very old friend of mine," he said. "And your mother's, as it happens."

"That village you grew up in seems creepier every time I hear about it, let alone visit," Sophia said. She leaned across the table, offering her free hand to Crowley. "Hello. It's very nice to meet you, and I'm sure you're not crazy."

"Pleasure's all mine," said Crowley, and thought, I'm not sure that's not true.

"Will you stay for a while?" Adam asked. "Have something else? My treat."

"I'd love to," Crowley said—and, oddly, meant it—"but I've really got to be going."

"You didn't tell him you were coming, did you?"

"No," Crowley admitted, rising. "And so—"

"Your name sounds familiar," Sophia said. "Mum mentioned on the phone last night—"

"I'll see you again," Crowley said, stumbling past them. "Both of you. Very soon."

He thought he heard Sophia say You've got a lot of explaining to do as he rushed out.

Which was exactly what he was going to hear from Aziraphale, only worse.



* * *




Aziraphale had done the only thing he knew how to do when waiting was the only option left. He'd staked out a spot at the kitchen table, made himself cup after cup of hot cocoa, and begun to read whatever was on hand. As it happened, he'd found a copy of a novel called Cloud Atlas buried in the covers at the foot of the bed.

He'd attempted to ring Crowley several times as the intricate, nesting-doll narrative unfolded and began to collapse back in on itself, from spectacular supernova to a dying star. And at its center, inevitably, a black hole: Crowley's absence.

By mid-morning, it was all a bit too much to bear. He tried ringing Pippa, but there was no answer. She and Harold were likely on their morning walk.

Crowley's preferred method of clearing his head was normally strolling on the beach, so Aziraphale abandoned his shoes just inside the front door, never mind how cold it was, and headed down the strand. The beach went for miles in either direction, and Aziraphale doubted Crowley could have got far. He'd find him hunched down next to one of his favorite tide pools, perhaps, collecting shells and God knew what else.

Three tide pools within the first mile and a half, and Crowley wasn't at any of them.

Aziraphale lingered at the farthest one for a very long time, seated on an unpleasantly damp patch of sand. Perhaps if he waited, Crowley would eventually show. He pulled wonder after wonder from the shallow pool at his feet: a painted medieval tile fragment, an Elizabethan coin, a tiny Regency finger-ring made of hammered gold.

Crowley would tell you to stop, he thought. Save some of those wonders for later.

Rising, Aziraphale pocketed the three he'd got with very little sense of guilt.

By the time he got home, it was almost three in the afternoon, and the Bentley was back where it should be. Aziraphale brushed his feet off and entered the house soundlessly. Whatever Crowley had done, he would remain calm. He would try.

He found Crowley asleep on the sofa—shirt untucked, sunglasses askew, shoes abandoned—with two familiar paperbacks clutched to his chest. One of them, he must have acquired wherever he'd gone. The other, Aziraphale had been reading up until he'd left the house. He bent and carefully removed Crowley's sunglasses.

Crowley stirred with a gasp, but his eyes opened slowly, already focused.

"My dear," Aziraphale murmured, "where have you been?"

"This is the part where you yell at me," said Crowley. "I think."

Aziraphale shook his head, taking a seat on the edge of the cushion. Crowley shifted to accommodate him, losing his hold on the books in the process. They tumbled to the floor in a messy flutter of pages. When he tried to fetch them, Aziraphale stilled him.

"Did you find what you were looking for?" he asked. "Answers, perhaps?"

"You might say that," Crowley replied. "We're not in any danger, if that helps."

In spite of himself, Aziraphale felt a rush of unadulterated relief.

"I always knew he was sensible. That'll be Anathema's good influence, of course."

"Of course," said Crowley. He curled a bit closer, uncertainty hovering about his lips.

"I imagine you found him by stalking the girl. She didn't mind terribly, did she?"

"Adam found me first. She never even knew she'd been stalked."

Aziraphale frowned at him, leaning until their noses almost touched.

"What is it, Crowley? For heaven's sake, I can only take so much."

"Let's not lose track of them," he said desperately. "Or London."

Aziraphale kissed his forehead.

"What are we waiting for, then? Let's go."

Chapter Text

1.

Inasmuch as it was a rare occurrence, this was not the first time that Aziraphale had awakened to find Crowley's side of the bed empty. Only once, a few weeks ago, had it ever given him cause for concern. Crowley had been sufficiently (if unnecessarily) penitent. He'd taken to rising with Aziraphale, no matter the hour: an impressive feat for someone so attached to sleep. When nightmares set in, he slept lightly.

Aziraphale ran his fingers across Crowley's pillow-slip, finding a few soft, dark hairs caught in the weave. The worn cotton smelled faintly of the clove cigarettes Anathema had given him. She'd confiscated them from the twins. Crowley hadn't quite known what to do with them, but it was clear he'd decided otherwise on the sly. Which was fair enough, given Aziraphale enjoyed a nice, solitary pipe now and again.

There was time enough to rise and dress and have a cup of tea, as Crowley couldn't have got far. He tended to follow the tide-line with willful deliberation: zig-zagging barefoot across the wet, freshly exposed sand, leaving a snake's trail at a snail's pace.

Crowley was choosy about what he picked up. Shells needed to be intact, unbroken and unmarked. Limpets were too common to consider unless the color of a specimen proved exceptional. The shells he most wanted washed up in warmer climes, but that hadn't prevented Aziraphale from indulging him. The treasures on their mantelpiece were Crowley's pride and joy. He suspected that the houseplants had grown jealous.

Aziraphale washed out his mug and left it in the drying rack. He checked the closet and found his suspicions confirmed; Crowley had forgot his pail again and was likely getting sand all through his pockets. Aziraphale slipped it over his arm and left the house, not bothering with shoes. It was cold, and inasmuch as Crowley disliked winter, springtime and the sea were near enough to lure him out-of-doors.

The breakers were beginning to come in, but they hadn't yet made a wreck of Crowley's footprints. Aziraphale followed the trail for a good half-mile, found Crowley at the third tide pool down (precisely where he'd thought to look before).

The sight never failed to make Aziraphale's heart clench, make him remember he had a human heart. Crowley almost never realized he was being watched, his quiet, exposed gaze trained on the waves. He looked a fright, what with his windblown hair and the t-shirt he'd slept in rumpled and sand-flecked. The pair of faded jeans that normally languished in the wardrobe's bottom drawer were rolled up to his knees. Doubtless his backside was damp from being sat on that seaweed-strewn rock for heaven knew how long. Crowley shifted and straightened up, suddenly wary.

Aziraphale paused and, over the short distance between them, smiled.

"Bring it over," Crowley said, rummaging in his pockets. "I've got..."

By the time Aziraphale reached him, proffering the pail, Crowley sat with both hands outstretched. In his right palm, a cache of worn china-fragments: blue and white and rose-tinted and burgundy. In his left, a perfect scallop shell. One by one, Aziraphale placed them at the bottom of the pail. He set it aside and took Crowley's hands.

"Breakfast, my dear," he said. "The sea can wait."

Crowley went warm and pliant, shivered effortlessly into a kiss.

"Yeah," Crowley murmured. "But I can't."

And so, side by side, they walked on, racing the tide.


2.

If I'm lucky, Crowley thought, the sofa cushions will have mercy and swallow me.

"Gracious," said Pippa, reaching for another handful of popcorn. "That looks painful."

"It's quite stylized," Aziraphale replied. "Hardly convincing, I find."

Crowley slouched a little bit closer to Aziraphale's side, averting his gaze. He'd never liked watching torture scenes, especially where more was implied than shown. His mind could fill in the details. Unfortunately, the details he had to work with were real.

That the film was set in Spain was just an added bonus.

"Dying for a cup of tea," Crowley said, rising, his back to the screen. "Anyone else?"

"I'd love one," said Pippa, her eyes still fixed on the carnage.

"Shall I pause it, my dear?" asked Aziraphale.

"No," Crowley said, already halfway to the kitchen. "Don't." With any luck, by the time he got back, they'd be on a scene free of razor blades and creatures more nightmarish than Hell could ever conceive of. Guillermo del Toro had a fascinatingly sick and gifted mind, Crowley would give him that. Right up there with Hieronymus Bosch.

Crowley was busy fishing bags of Lady Grey out of three neatly lined up mugs when a hand gently squeezed his shoulder. He jumped, dropping the third and final tea bag back into the mug with a splash. He cursed under his breath.

"I'm so sorry," Pippa said, giving him a brief, bracing hug. "I'd have brought a different film if I'd known this one would bother you."

"I'm enjoying it," Crowley said, which was true. He liked the brooding atmosphere and the sense of wonder, even if the girl was an unreliable narrator. He stepped aside to let Pippa mop up the spilled tea with a dish cloth. "It has a happy ending, doesn't it? Even the darkest fairytales these days tend to have happy endings of a sort."

"Of a sort," said Pippa, with a contrite grin. "Two lumps or three?"


3.

"Are you certain you ought to be prodding it like that?" Aziraphale asked.

Crowley continued in his task of carefully uncurling wayward, leafy tendrils and guiding them to unoccupied sections of the trellis. Of all the seeds he'd planted in late spring, the pea vines had proved most contrary. Already they had rocket and mint and a handful of other herbs, and the heirloom tomato plants seemed to be doing nicely, but the peas, in spite of flowering early, had yet to bear anything edible.

"It needs to spread," Crowley said, "but isn't bright enough to figure that out."

"Crowley, it's a vine. I'm sure it knows what's what."

"You don't know what plants are like," Crowley said, poking at the soil with a frown.

"No threats?" Aziraphale asked. "No showing it who's boss?"

"That only works on houseplants," Crowley replied. "Outdoor ones—they know better."

"That would explain why the nettles don't back down," Aziraphale muttered.

"That's what the gloves are for," Crowley said, handing him a pair. "Check on the carrots, would you? They're nice when they're young. Tender."

"You find fish and plants endearing, but you'll quite happily eat them."

"Shhh," Crowley hissed. He reached for the mister and spritzed the peas.

Aziraphale pulled up one small carrot: pale orange and perfect.


4.

If not for Aziraphale taking hold of his hand, Crowley would have slipped climbing over the side. There was somehow enough room in the tub for both of them and all of the water, but Aziraphale insisted on pulling him in close, curling them both against the far end, the cool porcelain warming at his back and hard against Crowley's knees as he settled. The water was almost scalding, a preference they had in common.

"A week of plumbers trailing in and out for this," Crowley said, allowing himself to be manhandled so that he sat between Aziraphale's thighs, his back to Aziraphale's chest. "They demanded tea and biscuits. As if that were part of the contract."

"It's only polite," Aziraphale said, one hand sliding from Crowley's upper arm to cup his elbow underwater. "It would've been less time if the younger chap hadn't got part of the installation wrong." His other hand splayed across Crowley's belly, teasing.

"That's not," Crowley sighed, letting his head fall back against Aziraphale's shoulder. "Now that you've got me here, what did you have in mind?"

Aziraphale pressed his mouth to the side of Crowley's neck and parted his lips, letting both hands glide lower to find Crowley's wrist, his thigh, his palm, his cock. Crowley shivered and closed his eyes, sank lower in the water and waited.

"Everything," said the angel.


5.

"Oh my," Aziraphale murmured as they followed Sophia through the front doors.

"I'll say," Adam agreed. "Vinopolis. It's like a theme-park. You can take tasting tours and everything. Soph and her friends did this custom one, all Chardonnays—"

"Rieslings," she corrected him, studying a bin-end half bottle of 2005 Crianza.

"A booze theme-park," said Crowley, as if he wished he'd thought of it. Which answered that question. Besides, he'd never have hidden it down an alley in Borough Market. He'd have put it on a main thoroughfare and stood back to watch.

"My dear, look at this," said Aziraphale, setting a reverent hand on the security-capped bottle. "It's the '98. It's been years since we've had—"

"Until you find an '01, we're not discussing this," Crowley said cheerfully, holding a bottle of Chianti up to the light. He hummed and shook it a little. "Nice sediment. Has the d'Yquem got sediment? I like my wine with a bit of character."

"Not that I'm aware," Aziraphale sighed. "It's the '98, not the '99. You're confusing—"

"I am not," Crowley said, clutching the Chianti to his chest. "We had the '99, which was all well and good, but one year back isn't likely to make much difference."

"And three years forward is?" asked Aziraphale, somewhat defensively.

"The reviewer at Berry Brothers & Rudd calls it ethereal," Crowley murmured.

"What've you guys got there?" Adam asked, cutting in. He was carrying the Crianza.

"Swill," lamented Aziraphale, glaring at Crowley's Chianti.

"Second-rate Sauternes," Crowley countered bitterly.

"The '98 is pretty sought-after," Sophia said, picking up the bottle. She whistled when she saw the security cap and the price-tag. "Hey, big spender. He'll love you for that."

"He won't," Adam said. "Haven't you been listening? He wants the '01."

Sophia inspected the label. "Well, you've misread it. This is the '01."

Aziraphale pursed his lips smugly, and Crowley's face lit up like Christmas.


6.

Crowley managed to keep himself from flinching until the third time the machine gave him a faceful of steam and foam. He set the sticky mug down and thumped the bloody thing just hard enough to get some satisfaction out of the gesture.

Aziraphale would never forgive him if he were to break it. He tried again, but to no avail. If he lost any more foam, there'd be nothing left in the mug.

Just then, Aziraphale wandered in.

"My dear, are you getting on all right?"

"Yes," said Crowley, peevishly, picking up the mug and inspecting the bottom.

"I don't expect anything fancy, you know."

"Says Mr. Cinnamon-and-Cocoa-Hearts," Crowley muttered. In his frustration, he almost dumped in half the sugar bowl. He stirred the mug's contents surreptitiously, but it was no use hiding; Aziraphale was already looming over his shoulder.

"Café au lait will do nicely," said Aziraphale, pressing a kiss against Crowley's nape.

Crowley shivered, thinking of windswept beaches and long, hot baths.

"Good," he said, turning, and raised the mug to Aziraphale's lips.

Chapter Text

Given Aziraphale's choice of footwear, Crowley should've been suspicious.

"You're wearing trainers," Crowley said, hesitating, his hand frozen on the doorknob. "And we're going where?" He wouldn't have let Aziraphale leave the flat looking like this under most circumstances, much less for a day trip to—

"Richmond," said Azirahale, pleasantly, adjusting his ratty scarf. In fact, everything he had on smacked of a charity-shop raid; even at home, around the cottage and environs, he certainly didn't favor such frumpery. "Orleans House Gallery. That Asian festival I'd mentioned, don't you remember? Worth a look, I should have thought."

Crowley sighed and opened the door, ushering the angel into the corridor. His Mayfair flat was keeping dustily enough in their absence, although it sparkled on the odd weekend they decided they'd had enough of the sea air and needed a dose of city excitement. This wasn't so much his idea of excitement as it was Aziraphale's.

Crowley punched the down-button on the lift. The things he'd do for love.

Aziraphale tried to insist that they use public transport, but Crowley wouldn't hear of it, even if parking promised to be a somewhat hellish affair. What should have been a thirty-minute drive turned into a fifty-minute one courtesy of some inexplicable traffic; Aziraphale cheerfully suggested that they weren't the only ones headed for Twickenham today, and Crowley could only turn up the radio and jam his sunglasses bit further up the bridge of his nose. They could've had a cozy lie-in and a perfectly civilized breakfast at Claridge's, but no. Rampant multiculturalism had won out.

Still, he felt better when the parking space he'd been expecting to turn up did.

"Well," said Aziraphale, squeezing his knee. "Not such a terrible drive, was it?"

"Get out of the car, angel," Crowley muttered, but he warmed to the touch.

The grounds of Orleans House were lovely, but they were also completely mobbed with young people in an odd mix of appalling modern fashion and traditional Indian garb. The music wasn't anything Crowley would have chosen given half a chance, but it had a catchy beat, and Aziraphale seemed genuinely content to be amidst the ruckus. Crowley took hold of his hand, preferring to be dragged along.

"What's this, again?" he shouted above the crowd.

"Holi," replied Aziraphale. "It's the Hindu festival of colors, dear boy!"

"The point being?"

"To celebrate spring. Or, if you like, the burning of Holika and Prahlada's survival."

Crowley stopped and yanked Aziraphale around to face him. They were jostled and elbowed on all sides, but nobody seemed annoyed in the least. A blonde university student shimmied past Crowley, her hair a riot of sapphire and fuschia.

"Wait a minute, what's with—"

"Oh," said Aziraphale. "I'm sorry, I hadn't considered this might be in poor taste."

Crowley blinked as a young man wearing bright red face-paint sprinted by.

"Poor taste?" he blurted, his initial confusion momentarily forgotten.

Aziraphale's features softened in a way Crowley had only come to recognize since, well, since everything that had brought them to where they were now had transpired. He had one hand in his cardigan pocket, probably fussing with a loose thread; all signs pointed to a manifestation of his newfound fear of hurting Crowley's feelings.

"Ssspit it out," Crowley hissed, leaning close to Aziraphale's ear.

"Prahlada, the demon-king Hiranyakashipu's son, refused to show his father reverence, praying instead to Lord Vishnu," Aziraphale recited, like a human child tired of being asked to repeat nursery rhymes. "Hiranyakashipu's sister, the demoness Holika, built a pyre in her lap with intent to burn her nephew to death. Prahlada prayed to Vishnu and was spared; Holika, on the other hand, was not."

Crowley realized then that Aziraphale's hand had at some point made its way from his pocket to rest against Crowley's cheek. His fingertips felt strangely gritty against Crowley's skin as they stroked slowly, deliberately down to his chin.

"Swell," Crowley said. "You'd best keep me away from the bonfires."

Aziraphale was the one who looked hurt. He ran his thumb over Crowley's lips.

"I hadn't meant..."

Crowley's tongue flicked out briefly, just enough for him to notice the acrid taste.

"What," Crowley demanded, "have you done?"

Aziraphale's fingertips were covered in a thick dusting of luminescent emerald powder. His expression was stuck in that curious space between guilt and amusement. "Festival of colors," he repeated, unable to keep from smiling. "My dear, you look—"

Just then, a shrieking gaggle of teenagers hurled a bucketful of canary yellow chalk at them. Crowley stumbled forward, his eyes shut tight against the grit, knocking into Aziraphale. His sunglasses went flying, and Aziraphale caught him around the waist.

Crowley opened his eyes and smeared his gritty palm across Aziraphale's forehead.

"You were saying?"

Aziraphale kissed him in spite of the bitter taste, a little bit breathless.

"Ravishing," he said, tracing a scale-pattern from Crowley's jaw down to his throat.

Indignant, Crowley retaliated—but, the truth was, he knew Aziraphale meant it.

Chapter Text

1. Early to bed, early to rise. Some of the rarest blossoms open at sun-up.

Crowley woke with a start, limbs shooting out in all directions. The sensation of falling always hit him on waking from night terrors, and, much to his rattled irritation, his twitching left foot found Aziraphale's side of the bed empty. Crowley closed his eyes, willed his trembling body still, and took a series of deep, deliberate breaths. Slats of sunlight poured across his cheeks, lush and golden, which answered his half-formed question of what bloody time it was. As his ears acclimated to the bedroom's familiar silence, other sounds filtered in: the low, busy hum of the espresso machine; Aziraphale pottering about the kitchen, humming a good song rather badly.

Yawning, Crowley grimaced at the ceiling. Venus in Furs, disgraced.

Hauling himself off to the shower first wouldn't normally have been his preference, but given that Aziraphale was busy being a disgustingly cheerful morning person in the kitchen rather than being a warm and suggestive one in the bedroom, he'd make do.

Freezing water hit Crowley full-force on the chin. He flinched, cowering against the tiled wall until the water had settled down to scorching. He sagged and exhaled, watching his breath curl upward in tendrils of steam. Horrid stuff, that dream.

Pippa really needed to stop bringing her gore-drenched epics on Movie Night.

Crowley had just about managed to scrub the lingering image of Commodus jamming his blade hard into Maximus's side (tea-tree shampoo made his scalp tingle; it was almost like proverbial brain-bleach) when the shower curtain stirred and a whisper of chilly air filtered in. He lashed out reflexively, eyes screwed shut against the suds sluicing down his forehead, but a steady hand caught his forearm and used the momentum to drag him in close. He reached over Aziraphale's shoulder and raked the curtain shut, otherwise hanging on for dear life, mouth pressed to the angel's neck.

"I shouldn't have left you," Aziraphale crooned regretfully, threading his fingers through Crowley's drenched, soapy hair. He'd let it grow longer than usual, and wisps of it were unexpectedly beginning to curl. "Not after last night's main feature. The blood's ghastly enough, I should have thought, but that soundtrack did you in."

"Please don't remind me," said Crowley, gloomily.

Aziraphale kissed his jaw and rummaged on the rack for the loofah, which he promptly set to work on Crowley's back. Bathing together hadn't been a typical occurrence till relatively recently (they'd had a monstrous tub installed, plus both bathrooms completely refurbished), and Crowley still wasn't sure how he felt about communal showers. They tended to be awkward and afforded much less space. That said, at this particular moment, he was simply glad Aziraphale was there. He sighed.

Aziraphale set the sponge aside and stroked down Crowley's flanks, clearing whatever residue might have remained. He maneuvered Crowley until he stood directly under the jet, plastering Crowley's hair back to catch the remainder of the shampoo.

Crowley's skin prickled, and he slitted his eyes expectantly in spite of the fuss.

"News for you, my dear," said Aziraphale, his tone suggesting that he was about to import something Crowley would find less than thrilling. "Uriel rang up this morning, such a delightful surprise. She's been in San Francisco for the past six months; no wonder I couldn't reach her at home in Toronto. Raphael's been terribly persuasive."

"Convincing her to get a mobile would have solved this problem for everybody," Crowley muttered, but he leaned closer to Aziraphale, savoring the contact. "And?"

"And they miss us," Aziraphale replied, backing Crowley carefully up against the wall so that he could take his turn under the spray. Crowley reached up and returned the favor, flicking Aziraphale's not-quite-dampened hair off his forehead.

"They miss you," Crowley corrected him.

"Do give Uriel a bit of credit," Aziraphale said, slipping an arm low around Crowley's waist. He tugged hard enough to crush their hips together, and Crowley hissed with pleasure. This was the sort of thing he preferred after a harrowing night, but, for some reason, it hadn't occurred to him to prefer it in the shower. "I know you got off to a rough start all those years ago, but why not let it go? She's grown fond of you."

"Not ssso with the other one," Crowley gritted out, shifting so that his erection nudged up against Aziraphale's. He wasn't sure how dangerous this venture would prove, but he was both love-struck and lust-hazed enough to give it a try.

"Raphael, I fear, is no better than Michael in some respects, and I'm sorry for it."

Fervent apologies, as delivered by Aziraphale, were an unbelievable turn-on.

Crowley squirmed, leaning back enough to hook one slippery leg around him.

"Your news was...?"

"Not important," said Aziraphale, dismissively, and hefted Crowley up into his arms.

They got the bedclothes wet, but that kind of mishap was minor in light of the fact that Aziraphale unerringly knew just when a thorough shag was in order. Crowley shuddered with every slow thrust, his thighs screaming protest at the fact he'd wound both legs around Aziraphale's. Normally, he wanted eye contact while Aziraphale took him, but, right now, not having eye contact while he took Aziraphale was just fine.

Better than fine, better than brain-bleach, better than anything on God's green earth.

"Please, yes, do that, yes," Aziraphale panted, craning his neck for a kiss. "Soon."

Crowley obliged him and made a teeth-clashing mess of it, groping mindlessly in the sheets beneath them for Aziraphale's cock. He had just enough presence of mind left to throw his weight backwards, swinging them onto their sides at the last minute.

Aziraphale caught Crowley's free hand and dragged it across his belly, locking Crowley's wrist in a white-knuckled grip. "Oh, love. Shouldn't, shouldn't have left."

"I just—" Crowley faltered, his pace grown frantic "—want you to know—"

But adding you're fucking perfect would've been a moot point, what when he was already coming with great, ragged gasps and Aziraphale was a second behind him. In the damp, sticky silence that followed, the other shoe dropped.

"They've invited us on holiday," Aziraphale said at length, stroking Crowley's hip.

"I am not going to Canada," Crowley said firmly, turning his face into the pillow.

"They haven't invited us to Canada," Aziraphale replied, and suddenly everything was dry and comfortable again, except for the sweat cooling on their flushed skin, which Crowley actually quite enjoyed. "Or to California, for that matter."

"There goes the option of drinking myself stupid."

"Crowley, shush. You've a soft spot for New England, haven't you?"

Boston's perpetual construction nightmare was a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

"What part of it? They've got lots of tiny states you might miss if you blink."

"No, only the one—something to do with Island Road?—and we're not going there."

The decision had not only been made without his consent, but Aziraphale had also seemingly assumed that subjecting him to Raphael for an extended period of time was, as they say, no big thing. "It's Rhode Island, angel. Get it right. You can borrow my world atlas for an afternoon." Crowley stretched, and then coiled himself into as little space as possible. "So, where are we going?" he asked peevishly.

"They've booked us a lovely holiday flat in Provincetown. Cape Cod, well within reach of the Boston grind?"

Crowley turned in Aziraphale's embrace, still wary. "If we're all staying in the same flat, you can count me out."

"Of course not," Aziraphale said, nuzzling his cheek. "They like privacy these days."

"Cop-outs," Crowley blurted. "Don't tell me they've settled down."

"We've settled down," Aziraphale pointed out, bemused.

"Yes," Crowley conceded, finally settling in for a cuddle, "but that's different."

He dozed for another forty-five minutes, calm and dreamless, until Aziraphale rattled in with a tray containing two mugs of Twinings Classic Irish Breakfast and a plate heaped with toasted soda bread. Comfort food. Crowley ate four pieces in quick succession and wrapped both hands around his mug, leaving the remaining two for Aziraphale. The angel ignored his mug in favor of lavishing attention on Crowley: arm snug around his waist, lips lingering at his temple, fingers combing through his hair.

"So long," Aziraphale murmured. "Deliberate choice on your part, dear boy?"

Crowley sipped his tea; it was milked and sweetened to perfection. "Neglect is more like it," he said. "Gross indifference. No more city crowd to impress. You don't seem to mind, so I don't either. By the way, don't think you're getting off so easy."

"I don't know about that. You didn't make it terribly difficult for me earlier."

Crowley's cheeks heated, and he set about finishing his tea with mute determination while Aziraphale happily ate the remaining pieces of soda bread. So utterly smug when he got in the last word. Absolutely sickening. Crowley adored him for it.

The garden was a breath of fresh air after the angel's insistent coddling. Crowley idly ran his fingertips across the heirloom tomato plants' leaves, making his way steadily toward the trellis. The Pisum sativum had yet to flower, much to his annoyance, although the royal purple clematis ran gleeful riot amidst the stubborn pea-vines. Crowley touched one vibrant petal and showered it with praise.

"You show them how it's done," he said, "and let them be grateful your root-systems share the same patch of soil. I've ripped sprouts up for less."

"And promptly repotted them," Aziraphale cut in, ambling leisurely down the path. "Pippa was ever so grateful for the alpine strawberries. They're thriving for her."

"Shhh," Crowley hissed. "Must you always undermine my authority?"

"Deep down, they know you've got a soft heart."

Crowley rolled his eyes and looked the other way, suppressing a smile.

"Just like you do, eh?"

"Tempting offer, but I'll not rise to it," said Aziraphale, admiring a Bermuda lily in full bloom. "You may want to take your North American field guides on this trip," he suggested. "The Cape is home to some fascinating flora, I'm told."

"Clever of Uriel, isn't it? Slipping that in to seal my complicity."

"She was very impressed with your handling of Pippa's begonias last spring. Perhaps she's got a bet going with Raphael concerning how easy you will—or won't—find turning your hand to the cultivation and disciplining of Rosa rugosa."

Crowley ceased pinching dead leaves off the small, pathetic potted date-palm that the previous owner had left behind. He searched his memory for the scientific name Aziraphale had just used, but came up blank. "Wild roses?" he ventured. "Pale pink to white, five petals? Wait, no. Dog-rose varietal? Favors coastal areas."

"Not originally native to America, according to this," Aziraphale said, drawing one of Crowley's pocket-sized Audubon guides from behind his back. "An Asian import, it would seem. The bushes ran riot on the islands off Massachusetts, and that was that. The dunes are covered with them, if this write-up is to be believed. They thrive in sandy soil and require no care; they'll be here long after humanity is gone."

And us, Crowley thought, taking the open book from Aziraphale's freshly-moisturized hand. Bright fuschia to dusty pink blossoms against a fine-thorned, knee-high glossy sea of dark green leaves. Fierce, stark, and defiant. These prickly plants had style.

"I want one," he said, and stalked determinedly inside.

Google would surely enlighten him further.

 

2. Stand your ground. Not all seedlings will show such principle.

Aziraphale's second mistake, without a doubt, had been not telling Crowley till supper that they were leaving in four days' time. He ate scarcely half a dozen bites of shepherd's pie, after which point he spent the better part of the next forty-eight hours not speaking to Aziraphale above and beyond two-syllable responses whilst fretfully packing and web-surfing. Aziraphale wondered if he'd run across the unfortunate fact that the UKBA would never permit him to bring back a cutting from one of those lovely rose bushes. He'd have to hope Crowley's smuggling skills were up to snuff.

Several hours before they were due to drive to West Drayton (Anathema had kindly agreed to let them stay overnight and then drive them to Heathrow at what Crowley dryly referred to as arse o'clock), Aziraphale sidled quietly up behind him in front of the full-length closet mirror. He was clearly discontent, fiddling with the top buttons of his new shirt. His hair had grown so much that it nearly brushed his collar.

The reflection of his eyes gleamed with accusatory doubt, fixed on Aziraphale's.

"Nobody's expecting you to look as if you've stepped straight off the runway at London Fashion Week," Aziraphale told him. "To the best of my recollection, Americans are very casual. They go in for t-shirts and whatnot. Perhaps wear your jeans instead?"

"I'm hardly going to wear the same trousers every day for five days," Crowley snapped, curtly unbuttoning his cuffs. "Besides, you know as well as I do that that insufferable twat of an Archangel will be judging me right down to the way I blink."

"I thought that's what the sunglasses were for," said Aziraphale, and then realized instantly it had been the wrong thing to say, not least because Crowley hardly bothered with them anymore except when they were out, around strangers—and, even then, enough of the locals had got used to his appearance that they accepted his unusual eye-coloring as either a medical condition or an unusual quirk of genetics. Pippa's young grandson was simply star-struck by them, and the first time Mandy at the café (home on break from uni) had seen them, she'd stood stammering for a full thirty seconds before gathering her wits sufficiently to take their drinks order.

"Let's hope it doesn't bucket down rain, then," Crowley said, lowering his eyes as he set about unbuttoning his shirt, fingers flying in quick, angry dips and plucks.

Aziraphale grabbed his hands, forcing them still. Crowley's fingers clenched in Aziraphale's grasp, and then went limp. His eyes remained fixed on the plush carpet, strangely impassive. In moments like that, he looked so foreign, so cold, so other.

Aziraphale breathed in to steady himself and pressed a quiet kiss to Crowley's nape.

"You," he said, "are beautiful in spite of yourself, in spite of every assumption Raphael could possibly make. I won't let him belittle you, and I won't let you belittle yourself."

"He's made quite a lot of them over time," Crowley said, his lips scarcely moving.

"Yes," said Aziraphale, patiently, "and, in every case, you've proven him wrong."

Crowley sighed and reluctantly lifted his chin, staring haughtily down the bridge of his nose at their reflection. He wrapped Aziraphale's arms around his waist, shifting his weight slightly from one high-arched bare foot to the other, wriggling his toes.

"What do you think she sees in him, a whip-smart creature like her?"

Aziraphale pursed his lips; it was his turn to stare at the floor, although Crowley's feet were distracting. He had sensitive ankles. Aziraphale hadn't known that was possible.

"To play devil's advocate, she once asked me the same thing about you."

Crowley nodded, apparently unsurprised. "And what was your answer?"

"I told her to mind her own fucking business," said Aziraphale.

"Would you tell me? If I ever decided to ask you, I mean."

Aziraphale closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Crowley's wayward hair.

"If I've failed to show you at any time since we arrived here, then I'm undeserving."

They spoke no further that evening, but not out of anger. They were half an hour late getting on the road, and Crowley was moody again in no time thanks to an unplanned petrol stop. Fortunately, Anathema's effusive welcome melted his icy demeanor in no time. He quickly lost himself in a few glasses of wine, as Anathema's teenage twins, Janet and Natalie, kept peering in from the hallway to stare at him (until Newt, without looking up from his iPad, told them to go back to bed or they'd be banned from using his Angry Birds app for a week). Aziraphale fought the urge to regard them the same way he did Mandy: with completely unwarranted coldness. They could not take what was his, no matter how thoroughly they may fantasize about trying.

Crowley set down his wine-glass and stretched, offering Anathema an apologetic grin.

"It's been a long day, and I'm knackered. I hope you'll excuse me?"

"You could've just buggered off to bed, and I'd have thought nothing of it," said Anathema, waving her hand in the direction of the hallway. She was on her third glass of wine, and Aziraphale was somewhat concerned about the fact she had to drive them in the morning. "You know formalities aren't neck—necessary," she enunciated. "We're beyond them. Sleep tight, and I'd lock the door if I were you."

"Why?" Crowley asked, already halfway there, but he stopped. "Oh," he said. "Oh."

Once he'd gone in a flustered hurry, Aziraphale and Anathema burst out laughing.

"What is it this time?" Anathema finally asked, once they'd regained their composure.

"Not job woes, thank goodness," Aziraphale said, wiping an errant tear off the side of his nose. "Unemployment suits him very well. It's this trip we're taking, you see. They're old friends of mine—older even than him, although not by much; I do try not to mention it—and he's never got on with one of them in particular."

Anathema's expression softened, and her eyes grew distant. "I know I've never met them, but I feel as if I must have. Very long ago, perhaps, or maybe not just yet."

Aziraphale should've known that excessive alcohol would bring Agnes out in full force.

"Listen, dear girl," he said, leaning to close the space between them as he reached for her hand. "Pray that you never do. Pray with all your might, mind, and strength. The likes of me, I'm for interaction, even acquaintance and friendship, with mortals in the most ordinary of times. The friends of which I speak? If they ever make themselves known to you beyond just passing by, a glance in the street, if ever you found yourself offering them shelter or the other way around, you'd know things were over. You'd know this precious world of ours was done for. Of all people, you must know this."

There it was: the widening in horrified amazement, the ring of electric flame from the fake hearth catching fire in Anathema's dark eyes as she saw what might have been.

"You didn't tell me about her," said Anathema, quietly. "My Sophia. Thank the stars she's not home this weekend. You didn't tell me that if things had gone differently—"

"She would have loved Adam Young regardless, come the End or come nothing."

"They're getting married," Anathema sighed. "Next spring. Did I tell you?"

"No, my dear, you did not," said Aziraphale, beaming. "A toast!"

Anathema was hung-over the next morning, but it didn't impair her driving.

Aziraphale had seen to that.

Once they'd checked in (first-class priority, express lane, the whole nine yards; Crowley did love his conveniences), Terminal 5 offered an array of shiny distractions, which Crowley, strangely enough, ignored. He parked himself in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs, safely hidden behind his sunglasses and the smartest suit he could conjure, and told Aziraphale to knock himself out. Harrod's was that way, Bulgari was that way, and there was apparently something called Chocolate Box that sounded quite sinful. Aziraphale bent and kissed him before wandering off.

He wished he'd been able to see Crowley's eyes, because the demon's expression had remained neutral. If this sulk was going to last a while, he'd best get on with determining how best to break it. Under normal circumstances, given a leisurely morning, sex and a cozy breakfast would have solved any stroppy conundrum Crowley was capable of throwing his way. Maybe the chocolate place would have cocoa.

In the end, Aziraphale drank the cocoa and ate the croissant himself while Crowley continued reading whatever surprising novel he'd ordered most recently from Waterstones. A glance at the cover told him it was another one of those brooding, yet beautiful existential epics he was forever finding in the covers at the foot of the bed.

Crowley slept through most of the flight, curled sideways in his seat, leaning heavily on Aziraphale's shoulder and snuggled into the curve of his neck. Aziraphale vanished the sunglasses so that they were no longer digging into his jugular. The stewardess brought him a tiny bottle of scotch and a glass of ice every time he asked.

"Out like a light, poor thing," she said, regarding Crowley with amused pity.

"You'ave no idea," Aziraphale slurred. "Another, if you please."

Crowley woke up half an hour before landing, just as the stewardess was handing Aziraphale their landing cards. He snuffled groggily and rubbed his eyes, at which point several things happened in quick succession. The stewardess screamed, Aziraphale dropped the landing cards, and Crowley performed a quick pat-down examination of his nose-temple-forehead-eyebrows with barely concealed fury.

He lowered his eyes and shushed the stewardess, reaching for her placatingly while Aziraphale collected the landing cards off the floor. "It's a condition," he said. "Don't be startled." And, with much more composure than he actually had to hand, he calmly reached inside his jacket and drew out a pair of sunglasses. "There," he said, and put them on. "Much better." He tilted his head up and flashed her a winning smile.

She moved off in a hurry, and Crowley's smile faded the instant Aziraphale had finished messing about with the landing cards (which had included miracling their information onto them; he'd grown good at forging Crowley's tidy, angular script).

"Why, why did you do that?" he demanded, snatching his card away from the angel.

"Do what?" asked Aziraphale, helplessly, still rather drunk.

"Remove them," Crowley snapped, leaning forward to sniff Aziraphale's breath.

"You were asleep," said Aziraphale, vaguely hurt. "They were digging into my neck."

Crowley's eyebrows unwrinkled, and the tension at the corners of his mouth subsided.

"Sssorry," he sighed, and turned to watch the harbor below loom ever closer.

According to the rental car's sat-nav, the drive from Logan International to Provincetown should've taken two hours and five minutes. In reality, it took three hours of navigating what felt like one interminable, jammed stretch of highway. Crowley blared '90s rock stations and laid on the horn almost cheerfully. Harsh on the ears, but an improvement, Aziraphale thought. He even liked some of the songs.

Four hours later, once Crowley had negotiated weekend-long parking and they'd argued over who was carrying which suitcases, they settled into the agreed rendezvous point, which was Café Heaven at 199 Commercial Street. Crowley didn't appreciate the joke; then again, he'd never been one for Raphael's heavy-handed (and sometimes cruel) sense of humor. He ordered cappuccino and resumed reading his book, leaving Aziraphale to dither over the menu and handle the admittedly very handsome waiter, at whose urging he caved in and ordered Eggs Benedict.

By the time a familiar pair of ne'er-do-wells swaggered up to their table, Crowley had warmed to sharing Aziraphale's food and was happily picking apart tiny complexities of plot and characterization in Doomsday Book. Aziraphale smiled and let him continue, as yet unwilling to acknowledge Raphael's impatient foot-tapping.

"I only just realized it!" Crowley continued, thumping the table. "She was up against a wagon wheel; no wonder Roche thinks she's Saint Catherine. And now she's healed the younger brat's leg wound using old Communion wine as antiseptic, so of course—"

"It'll end in tears," Raphael drawled. "Which ought to please you."

The rest of Crowley's breath left him in a low, aggravated hiss. He paused, composed himself, deliberately removed his sunglasses, and placed them neatly inside his coat. "Thanks for the spoiler," he said, tartly, fixing the Archangel with a sharp smile. "Hi."

Aziraphale couldn't help feeling a swell of pride. He hadn't miscalculated the pep-talk.

Uriel elbowed Raphael out of the way and attacked Crowley with a hug that nearly rocked him out of his chair. "You look like a movie star!" she exclaimed, smacking a loud kiss on his cheek. "Oh my God, your hair. I love it," she said, tousling it with artful care. While Crowley scrabbled uselessly at her forearms, trying to wrestle her off, she gave Raphael a knowing look and said, "Be nice."

"Oh, it's all we can any of us be," he assured her, still shaking Aziraphale's hand. "Except for that one. What's the latest on the Dig? Another twenty years? Thirty?"

"I wouldn't know," Crowley said, finally untangling himself from Uriel's enthusiasm. Remembering propriety, he rose and kissed her on the cheek. "I lost my job."

Uriel gasped. "When did that happen? And how are you still here?"

"A year and a half ago," Aziraphale answered for him. "The same way all of us are."

"All that overspending was bound to catch up with them," said Raphael.

Aziraphale tactfully busied himself with piling his used silverware onto the plate.

Uriel put an arm around Crowley's neck, beaming. Crowley gave her a nervous grin.

"So much catching up to do. Is shopping your thing, or is that just Aziraphale?"

"Er," Crowley said, and shrugged. "There's always beach-combing. Much cheaper."

"You won't find many shells here," Raphael said, heading for the door. "Right, accommodation's just a stroll up the road. Pip-pip, tally-ho, and all that, chaps!"

Aziraphale noticed that Crowley was bristling, but Uriel had him in check.

"There's a shop that sells some," she told him. "I saw it when we drove in."

"Sells what?" Crowley ventured as they filed into the street. "Ball gags, or shells?"

"You be nice, too," said Uriel, taking his arm as they followed Raphael's lead.

For once, Aziraphale was grateful to have some assistance on damage control.

 

3. Be mindful of weeds. Great beauty often conceals great danger.

Check-in at Angels' Landing was everything Raphael had hoped it would be: painless, efficient, and a massive source of annoyance to one Anthony James Crowley. Between that and Café Heaven, he'd wedged in a thorn for the duration.

“I've put you in numbers 17 and 18,” explained the receptionist. “I don't care who goes where, as long as it's only two of you sleeping in each suite at any given time. Otherwise, I've got to charge extra. Parties are okay by me, but make sure you don't bother your neighbors or break anything, and make sure to kick your friends out before bedtime, no matter how late that is.”

“Fabulous,” said Raphael, and dropped one of the two sets of keys into Crowley's impatient palm. It had a tag reading #18 - FALLEN ANGEL. Raphael's own set was labeled #17 - ANGEL'S FOLLY. “We're the balcony directly above you. Yours has a ground-level view of the garden. Unless you'd like to swap?”

“I'll take my chances with the plantsss,” Crowley hissed, snapping his fingers. The receptionist had already turned to another task, and therefore didn't notice that his luggage and Aziraphale's had vanished. “Come on, angel. Let's get settled.”

Aziraphale followed him out of the office without any protest.

“I simply don't like it,” Raphael said, turning to Uriel, who'd already wrangled all of their luggage onto her back and into the crooks of her arms and around her delicate wrists. So slender, so strong. Later, he'd have her in handcuffs.

“You don't like what?” she asked, smirking. “That they're ridiculously happy?”

“No,” he said, leading the way into the breezy courtyard. “I don't like the fact that that serpent has our mutual friend cock-whipped or pussy-whipped or whatever-the-hell-he's-got-down-there whipped. There's danger in relinquishing the upper hand.”

“I think you're full of shit,” Uriel told him. “And also not seeing straight. Whatever he's got down there is his business. I don't see you flashing your freak-show voluntarily.”

Raphael grinned and dashed up the stairs, sliding the key smoothly into #17's lock.

“You like my freak-show just fine,” he told her, winking, and went inside.

The real kicker, Raphael thought as he unpacked his things, was that Crowley really was gorgeous. That wasn't up for dispute. Losing the sunglasses was an excellent decision, because who wouldn't want to see those stunning pupils widened in unabashed pleasure? If not for the fact that Aziraphale would have cut him in half with a certain lost-but-retrievable-in-moments-of-extreme-need object, he'd have had the demon long ago. But not for a lover, never for a lover. His sort, Raphael imagined, were best kept for casual amusement, perhaps the odd dalliance.

Uriel's grey eyes bored furiously into the back of his head.

How dare you, she sent plaintively. You racist asshole!

Race has nothing to do with it, Raphael countered, humming in satisfaction as he hung up a few skirts. We're all the same stock, remember? I mean, look at him; clearly a fallen angel and not one of those lumps born down there. Have you seen Duke Hastur?

Fine, Uriel snapped, knocking his skirts on the floor as she hung up some tank tops. Then you're a bigot. Which is sick and ironic in all the worst ways. You know Hastur and that persistent sidekick of his were with us before the Fall. Knock it off.

“As you will,” he purred, retrieving the skirts. “Which one of these for dinner?”

“Who cares,” said Uriel, from the bathroom. “You look like a hooker in all of them.”

Raphael sat down on the bed and removed his hat. It hadn't all been wine and roses, learning to live with her. She was anal-retentive about cleanliness, to the point where she'd scrubbed down his entire apartment within a week of her most recent arrival. Six months on, the place still smelled like Clorox. She insisted on doing the dishes right after they ate, and she didn't like leaving clothes lying everywhere after sex. Which had, much to Raphael's alarm, grown more tame and familiar over time. Leather and foodstuffs had fallen out of favor. At least she still liked being tied up. And he was relieved that she was content to call San Francisco home for now.

There were some other nasty trade-offs, though—such as all the restless dead that tended to hang around waiting for her. Dominion Over the Souls of Men, the ones not neatly whisked off by Azrael to one place or the other, meant that she'd acquired all the hang-ups of a human social worker. Her sometime duties as Holy Assassin had mostly fallen by the wayside, as humans almost always took the initiative in such matters these days. Still, she'd been the best archer in Heaven's army. Tanith had been second-best, and Uriel had been disconsolate when she'd Fallen.

Raphael wondered if he'd only ever be, at most, an entertaining substitute.

Just then, Uriel emerged from the bathroom. She'd ditched her jeans and tee for a sun-dress and sandals, a rare enough vision in its own right. Raphael stared at her. “You're really not pretending, are you?” she said, fastening her hoop earrings.

Raphael offered her a hand. “You are the loveliest creature this side of Paradise.”

Uriel slid easily into his lap and played absently with his short, textured hair.

“Let it grow again,” she begged. “I remember your wild auburn mane even now.”

“Don't you dare grow yours out,” Raphael whispered in her ear, letting a hand slide down to the small of her back. She wasn't wearing anything under the sun-dress. Her sandals dropped to the floor. “You seemed to like the snake's an awful lot. I won't dye mine black, not even for you.”

“You'd look like a trimmer, gothed-up version of Eddie Izzard,” she said. “Appealing, but it really wouldn't suit. Your hair looks great on fire, and I should know.” His skirt melted into firmament between them, and she canted her hips forward with a sigh.

Uriel liked the fact he was an easy fit, none of the pain of adjusting to inch after thick inch. He had just enough to fuck with, and just enough besides for being fucked. He wondered why biology didn't permit the birth of more humans with such variations, and he wondered why they stigmatized and cut each other up when they were. It all worked just fine; hadn't they figured that out?

They turned up for dinner in excellent spirits, although Uriel still had him on notice.

Aziraphale had sorted out a picnic basket—excuse him, hamper, and the accent still rankled no matter how many times Raphael heard it—and a blanket on the sand. He beckoned, and then thrust a glass of wine in each of their hands once they'd settled.

Crowley was nowhere in immediate evidence.

“Scared him off too soon, did I?” Raphael asked, raising his glass. “Apologies.”

“Not in the least,” Aziraphale said, taking a sip of what turned out to be an excellent blush. He gestured off down the strand, his eyes following. “He wanted to get a head start, you see. Find out if what you said was really true.”

Uriel snorted. “Which part of what he said? He says a lot, and not much of it's true.”

“About the shells, at a guess,” Raphael sighed. “Look, it's true. If it's shells he likes and you're hell-bent on keeping him happy, which I can see you are, why didn't you just talk me out of the Cape and suggest Sanibel instead?”

“This is a sensible halfway point,” Aziraphale said. “And I fear I don't know much about shelling, although if you let me join him for a moment, I'm sure I can sort out a find worth his while, and we can get on with supper.”

Uriel drained her wine as they watched him shuffle off toward the water. He looked ridiculous, Raphael thought, barefoot in his spectacles and all that tweed. He could stand to lose twenty pounds, and why in the world was that so irresistible to a demon, anyway? Ample proof of Gluttony? It wasn't natural for their kind to need this; you could argue it was a choice open to any of them, but did they need it? Not really. Gabriel was married to his desk-job, and Michael wasn't interested in a relationship unless it involved beating someone—or something—up.

Raphael refilled Uriel's glass and gave it back to her.

“Watch them,” Uriel said gently, turning up his palm so that she could cross it with a with a sprinkling of fine, white sand. Raphael turned his gaze back to the sea.

Aziraphale was standing ankle-deep in the quickly approaching surf, examining something in Crowley's cupped hands. Even at that distance, you couldn't help but notice that the demon's eyes glowed. What could've raised his spirits so dramatically?

“Aziraphale cheats,” Uriel explained. “Miracles up all kinds of things. Coins, rings, tiles, priceless relics from the deep.” She rose to her knees, smoothing down her skirt as the wind buffeted it about her thighs, quicksilver eyes squinting in their direction. “It's gold from the Whydah,” she continued. “Maybe he dredged it from the sea floor, or maybe he spirited it out of the museum that's not even a mile from here. My point is, Rafe, that you can't buy love like that. You just can't. It happens or it doesn't, and if it does, in Aziraphale's shoes, you'd move Heaven, Earth, and Hell to keep Crowley safe and content. Don't you think he's suffered enough? Don't you remember what happened? He's escaped: one eternal, deathless soul out of so many thousands.”

“Luck,” Raphael murmured. “The Devil's own.” She was thinking of Tanith, and it made his heart clench. He hated, hated, hated his human nickname, but she enjoyed the unique privilege of getting to call him that without suffering verbal torment.

Crowley let Aziraphale kiss him, not even caring who might see. Moody creatures, demons. One moment, they've got daggers for you; the next, they'll snog you silly.

After they ate cheese and pickle sandwiches (vile, but it was obvious this constituted one of Crowley's favorite foods) and drank their way through two more bottles of Barefoot Zinfandel (not the best California fare, after all, but the best they could do out East, what with how little of the gross total production got exported), Uriel tipsily tugged Crowley to his feet and hauled him back down to the water. She'd taken the basket—hamper—so they could toss further finds in it. At a distance, they were a sterling facsimile of carefree humans doing what humans did best: make discoveries.

From the look of things, Uriel was cheating a lot.

Aziraphale looked somewhat relieved to be off the hook for a little while. Raphael offered him some more wine, but, this time, the bottle wasn't labeled Barefoot. It was Rosenblum Cellars' holy grail of red Zins, the legendary 2005 Paso Robles.

“Crowley will be sorry he's missing this,” Aziraphale said. “Save him a glass?”

“I'll save you a glass,” Raphael replied, pouring some for himself, “and if you want to give it to him, that's no skin off my back.”

Aziraphale's expression suggested he wasn't pleased. “Still like it rough, do you?”

“She's happy to oblige,” said Raphael, trying for nonchalance. He hadn't succeeded.

“I see,” mused Aziraphale. “She's thinner than I remember. Do you feed her at all, I wonder, you fashionistas out there in New Sodom?”

“Don't look at me like that. Of course I do. She's taken up a strenuous form of yoga.”

Aziraphale didn't look impressed. “If you hurt her,” he said, calmly sipping his wine, “I'll see to it that you never again enjoy what you so callously take for granted.”

Raphael gaped at him in mock-horror. “Threats again, darling? Would you really?”

“You ought to've comforted her when it happened, but all you did was watch.”

“And, as I recall, you were right there beside me.”

“Yes, I was, for all my sins. But I wasn't laughing with you.”

“Did you know he was there amongst the Fallen? Did you even know who he was until he slithered up to you one fine day in a garden that none of us will ever see again?”

“I didn't,” said Aziraphale, as if the admission pained him. “I mean, I knew who they were in a general sense, you know, our sisters and brothers, but...”

“Does he please you?” asked Raphael. “How often do you, how did you put it, enjoy that skinny, neurotic piece of infernal arse?” The last word tasted strange, sounded ludicrous passing his lips. He couldn't mimic their diction, not even to ridicule.

Aziraphale didn't speak for a long time. He finished his wine, watching the two figures growing ever more distant down the strand. His clear blue eyes never wavered.

“As often as he'll have me,” he said, so softly Raphael almost didn't hear him. “I'm dreaming, I think, endlessly, that he's content to share my bed. There's nothing he won't gladly take, nothing he won't willingly give. He has nightmares like you wouldn't believe—dear boy, don't look so shocked. He's seen horrors at which we can't possibly guess, and if you think I'm talking about Hell, guess again. He was in England during the Plague and in Spain during the Inquisition. That book he's reading, for example: if I've got the shape of it from what he's said and from reading the dust jacket, he'll have bad dreams for a month afterward. I'm tempted to toss it in the sea, if you want to know the truth, but he'd never forgive me. He'll risk no end of heartbreak for even one moment of heart-stopping beauty. Tell me, is there something like that coming?”

Fucking Christ. First Uriel's infuriating insight, and now this.

“Let him finish it,” said Raphael, convinced that the stinging in his eyes was sand.

“I thought so,” said Aziraphale. “More wine? No? More's the pity. I'll save the rest. Thank you ever so much for bringing a spot of the stuff you keep for yourselves.”

What bothered Raphael the most wasn't the fact that Crowley was a demon, not really. It was just how astonishingly well they were making the relationship work.

You can never come home, he told Aziraphale, the thought heavy with regret.

I didn't want to twenty-two years ago, not even when the door was standing wide open, and I don't now. Whatever happens, I'll stay here with him. And you're wrong.

About what? Raphael frowned at him.

Eden, Aziraphale said, already rising to meet Crowley and Uriel. It's here. All around us. Every bird, every mouse, every fish, and every last shining grain of sand.

The demon wore a crown of bright beach roses, thorns catching in his windswept hair.

Judging by Aziraphale's expression, there wasn't any part of Crowley's anatomy, whatever it might be, that would lack for the attention of his hands, his mouth, and his solid, comforting body long into morning. The thought made Raphael shiver.

 

 

And even though Uriel's fingertips were cut to shreds for her flower-picking trouble, she was still the loveliest thing that Raphael had ever seen: standing there with a basket of damp, sand-dusted treasures in the bruised crook of her arm.

“It's cold,” he said, stumbling to his feet. He draped his shirt around her.

“Pretty fly, but you could use a tan,” she said, and went up on tiptoe to kiss him.

For all his sins, he let her.



4. Never lose your sense of wonder. Always turn toward the sun.

Uriel woke to the sound of muffled snoring, which wasn't unusual of itself.

What was strange was how clear-headed she felt, even after how much they'd all drunk. She'd known Aziraphale to surreptitiously fix things for people—total strangers, even, not just for his best-friend-turned-lover. She sat straight up in bed.

Was that the problem with her and Raphael, she wondered: that they hadn't bothered to become friends first? The sex had always been fantastic, no questions asked, although she had the sneaking suspicion that, as satisfied as they were, Raphael was starting to worry. She had less of a tolerance for complicated gear, and sticky bedclothes, where once she'd endured them for his sake, were nigh unthinkable. She'd grown more assertive, had fewer reservations about telling him what didn't work.

That was what friends did, wasn't it? Told the truth even when it hurt?

Raphael rolled over and reached for her, but got an armful of pillow instead.

Uriel slipped out of bed and wandered over to the sliding glass door. If someone reported her for public nudity, she'd accept the consequences. It was a beautiful morning. She unlocked the door, slid it open, and stepped out onto the balcony.

Down below, Crowley, in a ratty Bentley-logo tee and faded blue-and-white plaid pyjama bottoms, crouched next to the garden verge. He prodded a sturdy Solomon's Seal stalk with careful fingers, asking it some question too hushed for her to hear.

Uriel covered her mouth, but it was too late.

Crowley stood to attention, his cheeks turning faintly pink when he finally looked up.

“Good morning,” said Uriel, laughing. “I'm sorry. You're rather reserved, aren't you?”

“I've seen naked women,” Crowley replied. “Usually not by preference, but I don't find you repulsive, so, yeah. Keen. Might as well add woman-shaped angels to the list.”

“Have you ever lain with one?” Uriel asked—not to be rude, but because it was so rare to have the opportunity to ask him such questions. “A woman, I mean,” she clarified. Aziraphale would tell her anything provided she got him drunk enough, and it had always been disappointing to hear, decade after decade after century, that he'd never slept with anybody. She was of the opinion he'd accrue the kind of conquests worth relating. Human bodies were a miracle, in her estimation. Best invention since wings.

Crowley appeared to have turned pink again, but it might have been sunburn.

“No,” he said. “I've never really been so...inclined.”

“What about with men? And, no, Aziraphale doesn't count, because he's like us.”

“What does that mean?” asked Crowley, frowning at her. “No. Not with men, either.”

“Not human, is what it means,” said Uriel, standing up. Her nipples peaked in the cool morning air, and she couldn't help but notice that Crowley had averted his gaze.

“But we're like them,” Crowley said. “At least in part. Now, like this, as we are.”

Uriel leaned forward again, hugging herself against the chill. The demon looked up at her again, thoughtfully chewing his lower lip. He was studying her wrists. “You have bruises,” he said.

“And you've got a hickey,” she countered.

Crowley rubbed at his neck, suddenly self-conscious.

“From the luggage,” Uriel said, showing him her inner arms just below the elbow.

“You had those yesterday,” he said slowly, “but not the ones on your wrists.”

“Handcuffs,” she said, grinning down at him. “Ever try them?”

Crowley's eyes went so dark they held nearly no color at all. “I've had more than enough of restraints in other contexts,” he said, and crouched back down beside the Solomon's Seal. He set a hand on one broad, strong leaf.

“Get back in here, for God's sake,” Raphael groaned from inside.

“In a minute,” she said. “Let me do some stretches.”

“We may be in P-town, darling, but this is the US of A. Prudes everywhere.”

“Fuck 'em,” she said, already folded in half on the rug-covered concrete.

They met up for breakfast at Café Heaven. In spite of how relaxed Crowley seemed in comparison to the day before, he was strangely quiet. She'd expected him to open up after the beach-combing they'd done, during which she'd fetched him no fewer than six precious objects: an intact seventeenth-century clay pipe, a Viking glass bead that had been manufactured near York sometime in the late nine-hundreds, an Egyptian burial amulet shaped like a bunch of grapes that had been with the mummy on the Titanic, another coin from the Whydah (this one silver), a tiny doll's arm carved from pearly grey granite, and a wave-tumbled piece of Baltic amber (rather a stretch).

Maybe it was too early. Aziraphale had once told her he wasn't a morning person.

“What should we do today?” Uriel asked. She'd dressed casually, low-riding denim shorts and a top that, Raphael said, showed off her archer's arms to perfection. He was, as she was so fond of telling him, full of shit, because she was out of practice.

“You'd mentioned you like shopping?” said Crowley, uncertainly.

“Leave that to your sugar daddy and me,” she said, and winked at him.

Crowley's sunburnt cheeks went very pink indeed. She hadn't been seeing things.

Aziraphale, on the other hand, didn't get the joke. He smiled at her beneficently.

“I'd be up for a stroll through the shops,” he said. “The high street's full of them.”

“Main street,” Crowley corrected him. “They don't say that here.”

“A high street is a high street,” Aziraphale insisted. “This is New England, after all.”

“You'll never hear this out of me again, but: what Crowley said,” Raphael added.

The demon rolled his eyes and flagged down a waitress.

Before she had the chance to scream, Aziraphale miracled his sunglasses into place.

“How often does that happen?” Uriel asked him later, once they'd all finished their Eggs Benedict, French toast, and Maine-blueberry pancakes and piled into the nearest shop. She picked up a handcrafted leather wallet and noticed that the man who'd made it was based in the Bay Area. She'd look him up when she got home. Raphael came into contact with lots of artists on a passing basis; surely he'd—

Home. Oh hell no. Was she that far gone?

“It's a strange feeling, I must admit,” said Aziraphale, from behind her, placing reassuring hands on her arms, her wrists, her hips. The tender spots faded, although she was sorry to lose them. “How often does what happen, dear girl?”

“How often do you have to cover for him? Make sure he doesn't put his foot in it?”

“Hardly at all,” Aziraphale said. “In fact, I'm more often prone to exposing him when he'd rather stay hidden—of which I'm hardly proud.”

Uriel traced the black-and-teal wave pattern tooled into the soft leather.

“He's got such a sense of wonder,” she said. “Everything is always and already new.”

Aziraphale hummed in agreement, reaching around her to inspect the price tag.

“His delight in the small and peculiar knows no bounds.”

“Those windscreen transfers were hilarious,” Uriel said, letting Aziraphale take the wallet out of her hands for inspection. “I hope he never grows out of it. What a dork! Actually, though, it's kind of hot, so I don't blame you for loving him. Sorry I ever doubted. Speaking of dorky, how long did it take him to fess up to the fact that he devours literary fiction and SF novels like a procrastinating first-year English major?”

“I caught him out shortly after we started living together.”

“You mean sleeping together.”

“Living. The rest of it came after,” Aziraphale said, tucking the wallet under his arm.

“You moved in with him before taking him to bed? I'm impressed.” Uriel grabbed for the wallet, but Aziraphale turned and walked toward the till. “Seriously, don't you dare. It's a hundred and twelve dollars, and Crowley's lost his job.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said Aziraphale. “You deserve nice things.”

“Both my thanks and my protestations fall on deaf ears,” Uriel lamented, but she couldn't stop grinning. “Where have they got off to? Rafe's probably trapped Crowley in a fitting room and won't let him out till he tries on something outrageous.”

“Oh, they're over the road in one of the gallery shops,” Aziraphale said, handing his debit card to the proprietor. “Crowley saw a painting, and Rafe saw lots of paintings. They won't come out till they've inspected everything.”

“He's what you've always wanted,” Uriel said, “From the very Beginning. I can tell.”

Aziraphale thanked the proprietor and handed the tissue-wrapped parcel to Uriel.

“What's that, my dear?”

“Someone to coddle and do for and cherish and call your very own.” She would have ended with call George, but Aziraphale wouldn't have recognized that joke, either.

Aziraphale sighed. “I suppose you're right. From the moment our paths crossed, I couldn't leave him. Not knowing who he was, not knowing I'd done nothing when...”

“I forgive you,” said Uriel, and it was harder than she'd have thought. “Rafe, too.”

“I didn't want to think I'd let him into my existence out of guilt. It was a very long time before I realized that wasn't it at all. I couldn't put my finger on it. Not till now.”

“I'm glad it wasn't guilt,” Uriel said, “but he'd have been completely lost out there, in the grand scheme of things, without someone to share all his treasures with.”

Aziraphale smiled sadly. “Not lost, I should think—just very misguided and lonely.”

“And you,” said Uriel, darkly, “would have been a holy terror.”

“Let's go find them,” said Aziraphale, tone mildly warning, and strode out of the shop.

Uriel followed, but she kept some distance. Arrows were no match for a sword at close range.

They found Crowley trying to talk Raphael out of making a purchase.

“Paintings don't travel well,” said the demon, desperately. “Packing's expensive.”

Pffft,” said Raphael. “I thought you were more persuasive than that.” He winked at the dour-looking woman beside them who was clearly waiting for an answer. “That'll be a yes. Send it to Angels' Landing.” He handed her a stack of bills that, at a glance, contained an extra few hundred at least. “Fantastic doing business with you.”

Crowley slunk to Aziraphale's side. “Make it stop,” he pleaded.

Aziraphale studied the canvas while the woman counted Raphael's cash.

“This isn't your taste at all, Rafe,” he said. “Surreal color washes, blatant abstraction—”

“As I was saying to Crowley, I wouldn't dream of setting foot in your cottage until it's properly decorated,” Raphael said casually. He got right in Aziraphale's face.

Uriel felt her stomach drop through the floor. Her right hand flew instinctively to her back, grasped at empty air. But that could be fixed, so very easily fixed...

Raphael said, “Do you love him—”

“Tread carefully—”

“—more than anything else in Creation,” Raphael ploughed on. “Answer me true.”

Torn between duty and compassion, Uriel let her arm fall limp and stepped close to Crowley, pulling him back from Aziraphale's side. He'd gone whiter than the sand, his worried yellow eyes blazing and uncovered for all to see. She held him.

Oblivious to the showdown happening in front of her, the woman murmured something that sounded like Be right back, counting greenbacks, and left the room. Aziraphale stood his ground and said, “I do.”

Raphael's deadly expression melted. In its place, naked admiration.

“Then it's yours,” he said, and clapped Aziraphale on the shoulder. “Enjoy.”

“We're leaving,” Uriel said, patting a stunned Crowley on the shoulder. She grabbed Raphael's hand and started for the door, hauling him along with all her might. “We'll catch up with you for dinner. Lobster Pot at seven? What do you say?”

“He bought us a painting,” Crowley said, flabbergasted.

Aziraphale sighed and rubbed his temples.

“Fine,” he said. “Yes. Splendid.”

The last thing Uriel saw was how quickly Aziraphale forgot they were still there, forgot the woman was still there, forgot everyone else in the world was still there. He held Crowley so close she thought their atoms might combine and occupy the same space.

So much for that dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin question.

Breathless and half a block away, she brought Raphael to a painful halt.

“Don't do that again,” said Uriel, and shoved him up against the side of a convenient brick building. “You're a bigot and a bully and a busybody and I don't even—”

“He's fine,” said Raphael, actually raising his arms to shield himself from her blows. “It's all fine, I'm done. I understand now, but before, I just couldn't—”

“Couldn't stand not having whatever it is they have,” Uriel spat. “Covetous fuck.”

And then she noticed how pale and scared he looked under all that eye make-up.

Raphael's words left him in a devastated rush. “I'm sorry, I had it, we had it, I was too stupid to see it, I didn't know how—”

Uriel gave in and clung to him, burying her face in his expensive shirt.

“There's no how,” she cried, snarling her fingers in the sheer fabric. “And no why!”

“A war would have been good for us,” said Raphael, unsteadily. He kissed her gel-spiked hair, traced her ribs, realizing for the first time how gaunt she'd grown.

“I want lobster,” she seethed. “And I love you, you stupid fucking cunt.”

Raphael blinked in amazement. His eyes were filled with tears.

“I can't go back to the Beginning. I can't change my actions. I can't bring her back from Hell. I can't be what she was, but I can be myself, and maybe if you'd let me...”

She looked up at him, sniffling loudly. “Yes?”

“Love you, darling,” he said. “Flawed as I am.”

Uriel wiped her nose on his shirt, but she was smiling.

“Let's try this again,” she said. “England in the spring. There's a wedding.”

“Rules are rules,” Raphael said, touching her cheek wistfully.

“And if those two can break them, so can we. I'm sick to death of them, rules.”

“So am I, darling,” he said, blinking dazedly into the sunlight. “So am I.”

Uriel led him back into the street, giddy with how tightly he held her hand.

And once they'd all gone home, she'd send wild roses to a cottage by the sea.

Chapter Text

Moonlighting

Uriel fished in the packet between them, careful not to up-end it in the sand, and delicately extracted another cigarette. She lit it, shivering, sheltering the flame she'd produced with a snap of her fingers. Raphael's blue eyes—So like Aziraphale's, she thought—flickered with amusement. She couldn't tell whether he was laughing at her or at the action going on twenty yards off to her left.

“Always thought it'd be the other way around, didn't you?” Uriel asked, flicking a shower of ash at the stars. She missed Orion in summer; she didn't know why.

“Not so loud,” Raphael murmured, reaching for the cigarette. “They'll hear.”

“Get your own, dude,” she said, taking a long, dizzying drag. “We have five left.”

“Uneven numbers never bode well,” he said, producing a lit Cuban from nowhere.

“I mean it,” Uriel said, squinting through the shadows produced by the artificial light filtering dimly down from the street far behind them. “I'd have sooner thought...”

The mess of tartan blankets was overkill, because there'd be sand everywhere by the time they got around to a walk of shame back to #18 in the early hours of morning, but the couple under it seemed genuinely oblivious. She hadn't heard them pause breathe or even to speak, but then, they didn't need to breathe, no more than she needed to smoke, and, if she listened closely, the only audio more obvious than the bass-line of deep, constant kissing was Crowley's complete inability to stifle the broken sounds he made when Aziraphale moved under him.

Or at least she thought that's the order they were in; Crowley's tumble of black hair, waving profusely in the humidity, was about the only thing not covered by those awful blankets. She didn't think they were foolish enough to risk total undress, but you didn't pile on the cover if you weren't reasonably exposed. She imagined them both naked from the waist down, their skin prickling with sweat at all that swaddling wool, and her own skin prickled with a flash of heat and faint want.

Raphael picked the burnt-out cigarette stub from between her fingers. He scooted up behind her, legs spread, and drew her back tight against his chest, raising the Cuban to her lips. She pulled deeply and coughed, turning her head to muffle the sound in Raphael's bare shoulder. The shirtless thing was sexy as hell, and she groped at his thigh, only to be thwarted by swim-trunks. They'd spent the entire evening on the water, and she wondered if Aziraphale and Crowley had realized the stretch of beach they'd cautiously approached at dusk was already occupied. She and Raphael had discovered them on strolling back up from the tide pools and kept a quiet distance.

We'd have done it because we're thrill-seekers, but I doubt that's what we're seeing here," he said. "They must do this at home, on that secluded beach of theirs.”

“So, about this mess...” Uriel blew smoke against the light breeze. “What do we do?”

Raphael stuck the Cuban between his teeth and was silent for a long time. They both watched the pile of blankets, which was talking now, in Aziraphale's low soothing murmur, and Crowley's pale hands had snaked their way out from between voluminous folds to clutch at something, anything, but found only the frayed edge of the blanket they were lying on and a mess of forgiving sand.

“I don't know,” he said, pointing with the cigar, “but we could always do that.”

“No way,” Uriel countered, stealing it back. “This is too interesting. Are they fucking?”

“Wrong angle,” Raphael said. He slid his free hand inside the lower half of Uriel's two-piece, deftly thumbing his way home. “The snake's clingy, needs lots of skin contact—heat-loss thing, biology—and he loves it when good old Az uses his hands.”

Uriel shifted her hips, trying to squirm him off-task, but it felt too unbelievably good, and with her skin and her head and her body buzzing as it was...

“Would you please stop calling him that?”

“Calling which one of them what, darling? Mmm, so wet, if you'd just turn around—”

“Won't do another damned thing until you stop calling him that, it's not so hard, ahaaah, you did it in the cafe this morning, I heard you...”

“Crowley,” Raphael whispered, slipping two fingers inside her. “Do you suppose he hates being called Anthony as much as I hate being called Rafe? If that's the case—”

“You've still got a mean-streak a fathom wide,” Uriel gasped. “Another.”

Raphael's breath sped up at her ear; she tossed the cigar into oblivion. He was thrusting against the small of her back, and, oh, if she turned, it would be so easy to palm him through those designer swim-trunks, wipe that smug look off his face. He kissed her neck and complied, knowing that was all she preferred to take. His wrist must have been aching, unless he wasn't too distracted to control his nerves.

“He saw you this morning,” Raphael said. “On the balcony. You spoke to him. Asked him scandalous things, didn't you? Perhaps made him an offer?”

“I value my own skin too highly for that,” laughed Uriel, breathless. She braced herself, arms hooked around Raphael's knees, kneading his calves. She could move as much as she wanted, perhaps even take away some of his leverage.

Raphael sighed and stilled his hips, withdrawing his fingers. “It was a near thing, you know,” he said. “Earlier today. I saw you reach for an arrow before you decided to tug dear Crowley out of harm's way. Does he remind you so much of her, my love; is that why you're so fond? That same spark in both of them, questioning mischief and insatiable wonder, which led to the Fall for so many?”

Uriel twisted around with a hiss of pent-up lust; she knocked him flat on his back, and they were naked inside a heartbeat, sand sticking to their damp skin. “Maybe it started out like that, okay? But what if it's different now? What if I like him for him? What if I'd ever decided you were a massive dickhead, which, by the way, was a pretty near thing? I'd have needed somebody to keep me company, wouldn't I? What if good old Az ever had been stupid enough to let him go? Do you understand why I think like this, plans within plans?”

Raphael nodded mutely, reaching up to frame her face as she covered all of him easily with her fist, working the loose skin over his shaft to perfection. Large clit, small dick, she didn't care; if Crowley had anything half as responsive as this between his legs, then Aziraphale was one lucky bastard. She let her thumb find the slick cleft just below, so very like her own. Raphael was trembling.

“Did he like what he saw, the old serpent?” he gasped.

“Hard to tell,” Uriel said gently, curling over to kiss him. “He's so far gone, Rafe. Beloved Enemy, His Only Holy One. Call it whatever you like in any mythology or in any tongue. He'll never stray from his place, not as long as there's a place for us here in the Garden. And not even after that.”

“Pity.” Raphael swatted her hand and pulled her down. “We could've shared him.”

“You'd leave Aziraphale out?” Uriel asked, smiling; she pressed their damp foreheads together and made short work of taking him inside herself, safe out of sand's way. She knew the answer, as it was the same for both of them, but making him say it—

“It'd be like incest, only worse,” Raphael groaned. “Please, please will you stay, will you look at me the way Aziraphale looks at him, the complete idiot, will you let me—”

The pile of tartan blankets had gone very, very quiet and very, very still.

Uriel covered her mouth and shook with laughter, didn't stop riding him till the tension broke. She felt grit between her teeth, beneath her eyelids. She knew Raphael was close to coming because he'd levered them back up to sitting, folded together as they were; even if he happened to slip free, which he might, as fast as they were moving, he'd hopefully still find enough friction—oh, there.

He was so quiet it hurt her heart; she shielded them with sudden, sand-strewn wings. “You'd risk it all,” he whispered, slumping under her, spent. He raked his fingers through her pin-feathers, gathered them in at the small of her back. “Come for me.”

Nothing spectacular this time, not with as much effort as she'd burnt in those last moments, but: with what little breath she had, she told him yes.

 

 

Think of England

Aziraphale swore testily, hauling the blankets up over their heads. “Let there be light,” he murmured, and then kissed Crowley to calm him as the muted blue glow formed a halo around them. He'd gone so tense and still, fight or flight kicking in, never mind that human eyes wouldn't find them an easy spectacle.

The problem was, ethereal ones already had. Crowley's breath was still coming in short, ragged bursts, but he'd softened against Aziraphale's belly. He bit the kiss short, moaning in abject frustration. “Didn't think they'd be so reckless? Or voyeuristic, in the event of a happy accident?”

“She's cloaked them now,” Aziraphale said, working his hand back in between them. “They'd like disturbing even less than we would, at this point, I should think. Lift up a bit, my dear, and you'll—yes, mmm, better. Shhh,” he whispered, mouthing Crowley's earlobe. The demon shuddered and clamped down again, canting his hips in tight, controlled thrusts. Aziraphale fumbled gracelessly till he had them both in hand, sighing. Even in spite of the interruption, still it was bliss.

“Wouldn't have had this problem at home,” Crowley was muttering against Aziraphale's shoulder. “Think of it. No prying eyes, no light pollution.” He made a fretful sound, his thighs tensing with effort. He was hardening again, but not enough.

Aziraphale hated to see him driven to distraction; much though Crowley enjoyed taking their leisure out-of-doors, they shouldn't have risked...

“Now who's drifting?” he asked, covering Aziraphale's hand with his own. Fond, measured, undemanding. They breathed harshly in the cocoon they'd constructed.

“Not any longer,” Aziraphale said, batting the covers back with his free hand, which until then had been concerned with tracing the curve of Crowley's arse. The room was as dark as they'd left it, and the curtains stirred with the breeze of their unexpected entry. They'd manifested more or less neatly on the bed, as had the blankets, but the sheets were now scratchy with traces of sand.

Aziraphale's skin prickled with the sudden electricity of Crowley banishing the remainder of their clothing, the woollen blankets, the sand, all of it. He rolled off of Aziraphale and onto the pile of crisp, clean pillows with an exhalation of profound relief, stretching against the fine thread-count. He'd improved that, too, as hotel-grade was never to his liking. Aziraphale leaned close and kissed Crowley's forehead, stroked his belly, his thighs, his flagging erection. Crowley shivered, let Aziraphale set the pace again, but he lay reserved and quiet.

“My dear, if you've had quite enough..." Aziraphale paused, pressed a hand to Crowley's racing heart.

Crowley's eyes seemed to glow brighter as Aziraphale spoke. Had they always done, he wondered, or did they truly so seldom make love in the dark? “Listen, all this heartsss and flowers stuff,” whispered the demon. “How...”

Aziraphale was quickly losing patience, but not with Crowley.

“Don't ask me the same daft question, please,” said the angel, wearily, and gathered him close, hesitantly manifested wings and all. He sat up, precariously balancing Crowley in his lap, and closed the circle with his own unkempt feathers. It felt wonderful to stretch them.

“What question would that be?” asked Crowley. “There are two of them, remember.”

“Raphael's and yours, yes,” Aziraphale sighed, running wistful fingers through the fine white fluff at the base of Crowley's wings. “But they're essentially one and the same.”

Crowley leaned forward, sagging more heavily into Aziraphale's embrace. He squirmed, increasingly restless, as Aziraphale absently groomed him. The wrecked, helpless sound stuck in his throat was more than enough warning.

“You have the answer to his—that is, my dear, I do, the rest of Creation be damned—but it's the answer to Uriel's and yours that you're seeking, the matter of what I see in you, never mind that I'll readily enough say I love you beyond reason?”

Crowley flinched; he muffled his cry against Aziraphale's neck, shaking hard as he took his pleasure. “Yes,” he gasped as Aziraphale coaxed the last tremors from him. Aziraphale wasn't terribly fussed about whether he got off, not with Crowley warm and pliant and sated now in his arms, but once Crowley recovered, he probably would be.

“It's not just your spark of goodness, you see. It's that you are, simply put, yourself, dear boy, and this world, our world, is much better for it.”

Crowley winched in his wings and ruffled every inch of Aziraphale's he could reach.

“Is that your way of saying you're better for it, angel?”

“As are you,” said Aziraphale, but he was pitched up to the edge, already falling.

“I'd say you really have no idea,” said Crowley, softly, “but I know you do.”

Chapter Text

Crowley woke from his forty-eight-hour coma (later, he'd face a quandary as to whether he ought to blame the return-flight jet lag or the trip itself) to a plate of Hob Nobs and a neatly folded note on the bedside table. The dried rose petals that fell out into his sheet-covered lap smacked of overkill, but his heart clenched a little at the realization that Aziraphale could only have smuggled them back pressed in a book.

My dear (it read),

Have popped off for a day at the shops with Pippa; would have
asked you along, but I just couldn't bring myself to wake you;
still shattered, poor love. Tea's on the table; it ought to have
kept. If not, give it a poke, and it'll be right as rain. Don't
expect me back till seven-ish, as we've ever so much catching
up to do. Say hello on your behalf, shall I? Do get some rest

Yours,
A.

Normally, Crowley might have been irritated by such gross sentimentality first thing in the morning, but, given the fragrant, papery scattering of Rosa rugosa and the fact he wasn't yet fully awake, instead, his brain did its best impression of warm, bewildered, affectionate mush. In short, he wanted to do something nice for Aziraphale.

As for the plan already forming in the auto-piloted part of his subconscious, well. It had, simply put, been a while; he hoped it'd be worth his trouble. If nothing else, it'd be worth Aziraphale's stunned expression (and, hopefully, hours of fantastic sex).

He decided he'd best get to work; the quail weren't going to cook themselves.



* * *




Poultry, check. One good thing about living in the arse-end of nowhere: abundant earthy-crunchy, free-range, hippy-dippy farmers. Crowley left the birds locked in the boot and put on a brave face. He didn't like supermarkets, even tiny local ones.

The shallots weren't going to be a problem. Those, he had at home in the garden; likewise, carrots and onions and rocket for the starter. He didn't like celery and cucumber, as they crunched strangely and often tasted weird (respectively).

While they were in the States, Aziraphale had taken a shine to Maine-blueberry vinaigrette. Shropshire ones would have to suffice, so he transferred a carton from the refrigerator case to his trolley. He already had extra-virgin olive oil and ten-year aged balsamic. He ignored Escoffier's horrified commentary on his salad plans. The thing about stubborn old mentors was, they stuck with you—dead or not.

Butter next, and then eggs. Crowley caught himself hesitating between brown free-range and white free-range, at which point a rogue toddler, pursued by his perturbed young father, got into one of the cartons and made a mess of the floor.

The small boy stuck two yolk-covered fingers in his mouth and blinked up at Crowley while his father muttered outrageous apologies to a shelf-stacking flunky. The girl had a mop and looked frazzled enough to cry.

"I believe this is yours," Crowley said, bending to scoop up the child.

He blinked at the mess.

"Little devil," said the boy's father, taking the creature off Crowley's hands.

The supermarket girl stared at the floor, where four whole, perfect white eggs rolled idly to a stop against the scribbled-on rubber toe-caps of her black Chuck Taylors.

"Near miss," said Crowley, grinning, and gave her shoulder a pat. He grabbed a carton of brown eggs and left.

Appalling, what they were charging for saffron these days.


* * *




Specialty shops, on the other hand, Crowley liked very much. Especially tiny local ones.

"You're looking for what?" asked the middle-aged proprietress.

"Armagnac," Crowley repeated. "I'll take VSOP in a pinch, but if you've got XO or Napoleon, that'd be better." Distractedly, he squinted at the fine print on the bag of rock-salt he'd already picked up. "Better yet, Hors d'Age. We'll drink what's left."

"Picky," said the lady, shuffling down an adjacent aisle. "I'll see what I can do."

You would be, too, Crowley thought, if your lover were prone to meddling on a molecular level. The rock-salt was pink. Since when was rock-salt pink? Himalayan, said the label. Huh. As a rule of thumb, he'd try just about anything once.

The Japanese silk rope (never mind handcuffs) had been a minor disaster.

"What'll it be?" the lady was asking, holding up two bottles for him to inspect. "Clos Martin Folle Blanche XO—good value, that one—or Domaine de Rieston 1992?" Crowley shook himself and blinked at the Domaine de Rieston.

"Have you got anything from two years earlier?" he asked, tapping the label.

Ninety quid later, wincing, he left with both the rock-salt and some Grosperrin 1990.

The Escoffier in his head approved, and you couldn't put a price on memories.



* * *




Damn and blast. He always managed to forget something.

Crowley deposited his parcels on the kitchen table, only to turn on his heel, dash out of the cottage, and hop back into the Bentley. It was already pushing four o'clock, and even if he didn't need more than two hours' prep-time, that was cutting it close.

If you can't get the cream fresh and the mushrooms fresher, forget it, Escoffier had told him once. The trick's in those, no matter how fine the brandy or the eggs.

Ten minutes later, he bit his lip and jammed the Bentley in park. He'd never been to the café's back entrance, and he hoped this didn't mark the start of a trend. One of the assistant chefs answered; Crowley made his request snappishly, and the lad fled.

It took fifteen seconds for both Crowley to lose his nerve and Mandy to show up.

"Er," Crowley said, pushing his sunglasses up into his hair. "Hi."

Mandy gave him a helplessly muddled look. Was uni rotting her brain?

"D'you have fresh cream? And that chantarelle paté, are you still making it in-house?"

"We do," she said, "and yeah to the second, but our supplies are running short."

Crowley produced a crisp, folded twenty-pound note from his jacket.

"I need a carton of the cream and half-pound of those mushrooms," he said.

"That'll clear us out," said Mandy, troubled. "Of the chantarelles, I mean."

"Forty, then," said Crowley, desperately. "Fifty, whatever you wa—"

Mandy kissed him on the cheek, a tense puff of breath escaping her lips.

"Be right back," she said, and dashed into the humid kitchen.

Crowley stood rubbing her lipstick off his cheekbone, flustered.

"Here," said Mandy's voice, accompanied by her bangled arm dangling a take-away bag out the door. "Sorry about the, um—look, mate, considering the amount of trouble I'll be in? It was a fair price. Your husband's gonna be mad at me, I get that."

He left with not only the requested items, but also what was left in his wallet.

Best not to mention it to Aziraphale, perhaps. He did want the girl to live.



* * *




The front door opened while Crowley was in the thick of it: a face full of saffron-scented, cream-laden steam. The Armagnac and the eggs were playing along beautifully; the soup was almost finished. And as for the salad...

Aziraphale pottered up behind him (with a number of crinkly plastic bags in tow from the sound of it), but Crowley didn't let that derail his concentration. Perilous business, negotiating the addition of chantarelle purée to the rest of the simmering mix. Not even the sound of Aziraphale's dropped parcels and the angel's firm hand on his hip as he leaned in to kiss Crowley's cheek deterred him from his careful stirring.

Aziraphale froze, delicately inhaling against the fine sheen of sweat at Crowley's temple. He sighed and said, "Whatever it is she's tried this time, I'll not stand—"

Crowley whisked the wooden spoon to one side, plopping the lid on the pot.

"She's a lovesick kid," he said, "and not my type. Let it go."

Aziraphale watched, fascinated, as Crowley licked the spoon and frowned at it.

"You have a type?" he asked vaguely, and then, wonderingly: "Crowley, you cook?"

"Yup," he said, hastily reaching for a fresh dish-cloth. "Took lessons."

Aziraphale watched him clean the spoon fastidiously, still baffled.

"But—when?"

"While you were busy messing about with that hack Maskelyne, of course."

"That doesn't answer my question," said Aziraphale, who hadn't quite managed to hide how impressed he was and that he didn't quite know what to do with this information.

"Oh, I don't know," Crowley said, tossing the dish-cloth aside as he turned to face the angel. "Eighteen-nineties, nineteen-oughts? It's all a bit fuzzy now. Listen, there's a salad on the table, and if you don't start to eat it while I finish this up, the dressing will go all soggy, and I simply won't be held accountable—"

Aziraphale kissed him on the mouth, throwing them both off-balance.

Crowley's elbow just missed knocking the pot off the hob.

"You made supper," said Aziraphale, stupidly.

"I'm looking at it," replied Crowley, belatedly.

"I beg your pardon?"

"My type. Now, if you don't mind, there's salad. Shoo."

"My dear, I could help—"

"Blueberries, angel," said Crowley, casting about for the rock-salt. "Rocket, baby carrots, those sweet little vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes..."

Aziraphale made it to the table in record time.

Crowley just barely prevented the soup from scorching.

Totally worth it, he thought, pouring the lovely stuff into a hastily miracled tureen.

He turned just in time to catch the dawning of Aziraphale's fondest smile.

Chapter Text

Crowley's first warning should've been the giggling. He'd scarcely dropped one sand-and-soil encrusted flip-flop on the kitchen tile when the sound started right back up where it had left off, a terrible chorus of just-post-pubescent female glee.

And Aziraphale, which about put the icing on the proverbial cream cake.

Anathema sat at the kitchen table, calm as you please, surrounded by legal tomes.

"Hi," she said, briefly looking up from her laptop, fledgling crows' feet crinkling at the corners of her eyes. "Aziraphale's put the twins to work on that shipment you two just got from London. I've had a look through myself. Rather amazing stuff."

Crowley wiggled his other foot free of the remaining flip-flop, attempting a smile.

"You're here to use the library, then, as it were?"

"No, it's for one of the twins' courses. They're taking a medieval literature seminar. I mentioned it to Aziraphale on the phone the other day, and he said they might enjoy helping him pick apart what was coming in from his last safety deposit box."

Autumn-term freshers' whimsy, Crowley thought grimly, dusting his hands off on his jeans. It ought not to be allowed. "Didn't know they were both reading English at uni," he said casually. Or anything other than Twilight, for that matter.

"Much to the department's chagrin, they are," said Anathema. "How's the garden?"

"Putting on airs," said Crowley, distractedly, searching for the bottle of red wine he'd only half drunk the night before. "You'd better take those potted tomato starters I've left at the foot of the drive. I can't let them stay. It'd be too good for morale."

"Your crazy is incomprehensible," Anathema said, typing away, "but it's cute."

Crowley yanked the cork free of the bottle and answered her with a silent toast before following the sound of teenage wittering through the kitchen and down the hall.

Eighteen year-old hellions in the office meant eighteen year-old hellions in the bedroom. He wondered if he and Aziraphale were going to have to negotiate a surreptitiously miracled addition, or, perish the thought, hire actual builders. He nudged the cracked door wide, only to discover a scene far worse than he'd been expecting.

The twins' dark heads, previously bent over the fragile-looking manuscript Aziraphale had just opened before them on the duvet, shot up in tandem. They were sitting on the bed, all three of them sitting on the bed with a thing that might have bookworms.

"Off," Crowley said, taking another very long drink. "Now."

"My dear, what have I told you about open wine bottles and fragile stock—"

"You don't have a shop anymore; ergo, it's no longer stock, and your argument is invalid." Crowley pointed the bottle at the one he thought was Janet, impatiently snapping his fingers. "Oi! Feet off the pillows. Those linens cost more than your life."

"Told you, Nat," said the one who was actually Janet. "He's proper fussy."

Natalie curled her legs tightly under herself with a muttered sorry.

Aziraphale had fixed Crowley with the sort of look that strongly suggested he'd be in for several days' worth of semi-silent treatment in favor of the newly arrived vermin with crumbling pages. Far worse than mice, in Crowley's estimation.

Crowley sighed in defeat and sat down on the edge of the bed opposite them, setting the wine bottle on the floor. "Now that I'm here, you might as well share with the class," he said, leaning over to squint at the vellum beneath the angel's fingers.

"Your Latin's as good as mine at least," Aziraphale demurred. "Why don't you translate? The girls are ever so keen on a firsthand lesson. Lecturers are so very out of touch with the young people of today. It's dreadfully unfortunate."

Crowley gave him a stupefied blink. Wasn't he the one who'd been drinking? "But you're, er, you know, more the literary, ah, type." The letter-forms were actually starting to make sense even through the protective barrier of his sunglasses.

As if she'd been reading his mind, Janet leaned forward and yanked them off his face. "There, that's better," she said smugly.

Crowley caught Aziraphale's approving nod out of the corner of his eye.

Right. He'd not be shown up by his complete git of a lover and two witch-brats.

"Incipit liber de Coytu," Crowley read aloud. "Creator volens animalium genus firmiter—wait, hold on." The part of his brain that translated everything automatically had been thrown by the fourteenth-century spelling, but as soon as Coytu resolved itself into Coitu, he wondered if Anathema would come after him with one of those impressively heavy volumes because he'd exposed her youngest daughters to...

"You were doing just fine," said Aziraphale, sweetly. "Continue."

Janet looked fiercely puzzled, but Natalie had one hand over her mouth and was trying desperately not to laugh. Somebody had paid attention during sixth-form Latin.

"What?" asked Janet, irritably. "What's so funny? What's it say?"

Crowley cleared his throat and picked the book up, relocating it to his lap.

"Liber de CoytuCoitu, if you like—means Book of Coitus. Have you got that?"

Janet opened her mouth and then shut it again; Natalie punched her arm.

"It's a book about sex, you numpty. The title means Book of Sex, in fact."

"Cor! What kind of sex? Is it all that Kama Sutra stuff?"

Aziraphale gave Crowley another cheerfully expectant look, which was completely unfair, because by then his face was probably ten shades of red and, yes, Anathema was going to squash him like an insect when word of this got out.

Bugger this for a game of soldiers, thought Crowley, and picked up the bottle.

"Let's see," he said, idly flipping forward a few folios. "What have we got? This first bit here is all about how God wants you to enjoy sex—no, really—as long as you're down with making babies, and, oh, this here's really ace—you could horrify your father with the delightfully poor grasp medieval minds had of male anatomy, and then—"

Janet looked kind of traumatized, and Natalie, who had edged forward so she could read along as Crowley flipped through and took a drink every few pages, was laughing so hard that her tears were in more danger of damaging the pages than the wine.

Aziraphale tried to insinuate himself between Natalie and Crowley, but it was no use.

"There are, well, complications," Crowley said, tapping the page on which he'd come to rest. "Lack of...vigor, you understand. Maybe you know all about that; kids and self-temptation these days, eh? Look, natural aphrodisiacs! Also, there's more on the benefits," he added, flipping forward to the next quire at a speed that caused Aziraphale to turn slightly purple. "Has a calming effect on the high-strung."

"What does?" croaked Janet, just as her sister's hysterics started afresh.

"Orgasm, of course," said Aziraphale, tartly, finally working a determined arm in, and snapped the book shut one-handed. "That will be quite enough for today."

Natalie flopped onto her back and wiped her eyes, grinning. Her head was almost in Crowley's lap. "You should come do our next seminar," she told him.

Janet gave Aziraphale an imploring look, touching the manuscript's delicate binding. "Can I borrow that?" she asked shyly.

"That's it, off you go," said Aziraphale. "Here endeth the lesson."

The twins disappeared in a scuffle of bare, painted toenails and hastily snatched-up bags. Crowley drank the last of the wine, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "I hope you realize that was cruel and unusual in the extremest sense of both words."

Aziraphale grimaced and set the book gingerly down on his desk.

"They'll be grateful of it one day, I have no doubt."

"Natalie already knows which way's up and what goes where," said Crowley, grimly.

Aziraphale sat down beside him on the mattress, sighing heavily.

"They grow up so fast," he lamented. "Sophia and Adam—"

"Wedding's not till spring," Crowley reminded him, leaning into Aziraphale's shoulder.

Just then, Anathema peeked in the door and gave them a double thumbs-up.

"Gotta go," she said. "Thanks, you've sorted Janet out for a week at least."

Once she'd gone, with girls and tomatoes in tow, Crowley flopped onto the duvet.

Aziraphale returned from the window, where he'd been waving, and joined him.

"Calms one right down, does it?" Crowley ventured, sobering up slightly.

"I should know," Aziraphale replied, brushing back Crowley's hair. "It works on you."

Chapter Text

Aziraphale took care of the booking discreetly, careful not to leave any ticket receipt print-offs lying around the study. There was no guarantee that Crowley wouldn't hack into his email account and find them anyway, but one did one's best. They hadn't traveled by boat in quite some time, so perhaps Crowley wouldn't even register a subject line containing Brittany Ferries as anything more than droll travel spam.

Telling, when you found that you needed a holiday after your holiday.

It's not to say that the Cape Cod jaunt back in June hadn't been relaxing; far from it, in spite of those few tense moments, which Aziraphale found he could put out of his mind without too much effort. It was more for Crowley's sake than anything: a little bit of time away from Pippa and Anathema and all the rest. Just the two of them.

It wasn't until several days after the trip was bought and paid for, when Aziraphale double-checked the ferry and hotel bookings just to make sure he could forewarn Crowley about the drive to Plymouth for purposes of catching said ferry, that he noticed the dates (23-30 September 2012), which he'd chosen for the reasonable return fare more than anything else. There was nothing wrong with off-season.

A sojourn at Mont Saint-Michel with Michaelmas smack in the middle of it came off even worse than the outing to that festival with allusions to demon-burning and Raphael's Provincetown room assignments combined. Aziraphale held out some hope that 29 September had never been over-firmly planted on Crowley's temporal radar.

Considering the past thousand years' iconography, he ought not to hold out too much.



* * *




The drive coupled with the prospect of an overnight sea voyage had made Crowley somewhat cranky, but now, at the Bretagne's bar with a six glasses of a passable Rhône Valley rosé down him, everything looked considerably more promising.

"Thisss place," said Crowley, unfussed at how far down the bridge of his nose his sunglasses had managed to slide. "Tell me about it. Don't think I've ever been there. Not since it got civilization, you underssstand. Very, very dull without cheese."

Aziraphale steadied him on his stool, his arm firmly about Crowley's waist.

"Well, you see, we'll be passing through more than one, er, town on the way—"

"Sssaint-Malo. Ssspeck on the map where thisss thing lands. Who the hell was he?"

Aziraphale shushed him with a brief kiss, pressing his thumb to Crowley's lower lip.

"No one of very great import, my dear," he said. "Not with a name like Malo."

Crowley bit down softly, understanding, and positioned his tongue more carefully.

"This place we're going, then, it's just another seaside dive with bugger-all to do?"

"We're not staying in Saint-Malo. We transfer from there to Mont Saint-Michel."

Crowley tottered in his seat, no small thanks to the fit of laughter that seized him.

"Now, I was in Avranches," he said. "Poor Aubert never knew what hit him."

Aziraphale looked away and took a judicious sip of his fourth glass.

"I wouldn't know," he said. "The Bishop and I never did get on."

Later, tangled up warm and naked and slightly worse for wear in their surprisingly comfortable cabin (on that, at least, Aziraphale had splurged a little), Crowley gave him a hazy look from the edge of sleep suggesting he'd remembered something.

It wasn't at all difficult to make him forget, at least for the time being.



* * *




Crowley stared forlornly at the rusty signpost and the empty bus shelter.

"The first one's not until nine forty-five," he said, yawning. "This schedule sucks."

"There were once far fewer, I'm told," said Aziraphale. "No matter; we'll hire a cab."

Crowley blinked in sleepy disbelief; it was six-thirty in the morning.

"That's, let me see—seventy or eighty euros. I'm not springing for that."

"Of course you're not," said Aziraphale, already waving at the nearest lazily smoking taxi driver. He had to wrestle Crowley's shoulder bag off him and bundle the poor dear into the back seat, protests and all. It was high time he let the money anxiety go.

The driver wasn't miffed by their Englishness or by the prospect of an hour-long drive.

Will wonders never cease, Aziraphale thought, and got in the back beside Crowley.

Of course, the fact that they both spoke flawless Breton probably helped.

For the majority of the ride, Crowley dozed with his cheek mashed up against the window while Aziraphale chatted with the driver. Lovely chap, really; he had children and grandchildren in the area. It would've been rude to refuse his offer of a cigarette.

Aziraphale watched the daylight break over the ocean, which was visible at a distance.

"My dear," he murmured, shaking Crowley's arm. "Look."

The demon grunted and peeled himself off the window; he removed his sunglasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose where they'd dug in. Aziraphale scooted up behind him, tilting his head, as the sight he was interested in now certainly wasn't outside.

Crowley's pupils reflected sunrise and the Mont's dark, flame-ringed silhouette.




* * *




At least once in every meticulously planned trip, something tended to go awry.

Their hotel room at an establishment on the Mont itself not being available due to pipe-flooding counted as just such a mishap. Aziraphale listened patiently while the concierge made effusive apologies (French, not Breton) that were an affront to her pride; meanwhile, Crowley wandered around the quaint, cramped lobby and peered at the seashells and other maritime memorabilia adorning every wall and fixture.

Not here, love, Aziraphale thought. So many lives lost to the perilous tide over time; we would find so many of them. Shoes and buttons, pilgrim-badges and teeth. You would mourn the loss of every single one, down to the last drowned soul.

Crowley straightened, turned, and fixed him with a determined glare. You know there are still tours that cross the flooded sands out there. Tourist attraction since time out of mind. I'll brave the whirlpools without you if I have to, angel.

"You're so stubborn," said Aziraphale, sharply, and turned back to the concierge.

"Check for cancellations," Crowley said, sidling up behind him. "He didn't mean you."

The woman's expression went from irate to neutral. She flipped pages in the register.

"You may be correct," she replied cautiously, tapping a scribbled-out block.

Aziraphale instantly recognized the scrawl, even though it didn't say anything.

"It's smaller than the room we'd booked you into first. But it's got a sea view."

"Very good," Aziraphale sighed. Trickery and deception, just like the old days.

Crowley took the key and raced ahead, leaving him to sort the luggage.



* * *




They strolled idly beneath the cloister: Aziraphale admired the columns while Crowley admired the hedges. It had been a marvel of modern architecture in its day, this lonely rooftop garden, and it had stood up to the centuries admirably.

"Clipped within an inch of their lives. I'll give those nuns credit where it's due. They run a tight ship. Those roses look a bit anemic, though, don't you think?"

Aziraphale set one hand against a patch of worn masonry and closed his eyes. "That's the color nature intended, at a guess," he said.

The column hummed with solitude, resigned to supporting the weight of forgetting.

Opening his eyes once more, Aziraphale let his hand drop back to his side.

Crowley had breached the hedge barrier and was crouching next to the rose bush.

"Your wild North American cousins put you to shame, you know," he told it.

"Crowley, for goodness' sake, get out of there," Aziraphale pleaded.

"I could use a proper telling-off," he said. "They're good at that, too, nuns."

"I don't want to make a scene, but you're leaving me very little choice."

"There's no one else here, angel," said Crowley, rising. "Come on," he said, offering Aziraphale his fist. "Step out of those shadows, won't you? It's much warmer here in the sun." He opened his outstretched hand, let go a shower of pale petals.

"You've been difficult ever since the hotel this morning," Aziraphale said, standing his ground. "I don't understand it. You've no reason to be on your guard, my dear."

Crowley removed his sunglasses and stared up at the cloudless sky, brow furrowed. "All of that business with you and Aubert not getting on," he ventured. "Remind me, what was it? No luck egging him into an early Crusade? A divine property dispute over this island when it was nothing more than a miserable chunk of rock?"

Aziraphale managed to snag his sleeve and yank him back through the hedge. "He was onto you," he told Crowley, in a low voice. "I suspected that he knew—"

"Clerics sometimes do," said Crowley, brushing dry shrub-leaves off his trousers.

"And if he'd gone after you with Holy Water? A sanctified weapon of some sort?"

Crowley paused in the act of withdrawing his sunglasses from his pocket and fixed Aziraphale with a strange, disquieted look. Objects and substances that could harm either one of them were few and far in between, but they did, in fact, exist.

He took a shaky, smiling breath and said, "I never thought..."

"No, you wouldn't have," said Aziraphale. "So trusting, my dear."

Crowley's smile faded. He replaced the sunglasses, shoving both hands in his pockets.

"You mentioned model ships suspended in the chapel," Crowley said. "Sounds neat."

Aziraphale followed him out of the cloister, releasing the breath he'd been holding.

Let it not be said that keeping him out of harm's way had ever been easy.



* * *




"Those," said Crowley, "are tacky beyond belief. How do you manage it, how?"

Aziraphale wistfully admired the brightly painted bols de chocolat.

"They'd hold so much more than those mugs Pippa gave us for Christmas."

"Pathetic handles," Crowley said, dubiously picking one up. "Not very ergonomic."

"The point is that they're traditional," said Aziraphale, lifting another. "And pretty."

Crowley gave him a long-suffering look and placed the bowl he'd selected in Aziraphale's free hand. He folded his arms and stood there glancing from one to the other, as if searching out imperfections. Intensely familiar, this search-and-destroy methodology. No flaws permitted in the paint, no unseen chips along the rims. "Fine, they're on your head," he said, taking Aziraphale by the elbow. "Till's this way."

The bought four, as it wouldn't have done to forget Pippa and Harold. Once they'd deposited their parcels back at the hotel, Crowley suggested a stroll along the parapets, as the tide would soon be coming in, and the weather was as clear.

The wind was brisk out on the walls, and it bit tenaciously at their clothes and skin.

Crowley stood staring down at an impressive vortex of dazzling, foam-flecked waves.

"You were protecting me," he said, not looking up from his meditation. "Why?"

Aziraphale leaned close to him and considered the death-trap below. "It seemed like the thing to do," he said, measuring his words carefully. "At the time."

"In 708," said Crowley. "When the Franks had scarcely worked out how to use forks, and well before our little understanding of some three hundred years later."

"Three hundred and twelve," Aziraphale corrected him. "And, not to put too fine a point on it, yes. Even then, it seemed like the way forward. I can't expect you to understand what must have possessed me, what when I don't even understand..."

Crowley turned from the stunning scene below and tilted his head: an unspoken question. But you understand now, I take it? We understand now, I mean. Aziraphale reached for him, reached for anything, and caught Crowley's lapels.

Once upon a time, he thought, a man had a vision about this very spot.

Crowley smirked. It was a bit further up, I think.

No matter. A man had a vision detailing what he was to do with this chunk of rock, as you put it yesterday. An oratory in a high and desolate place, a beacon that would become Geoffrey of Monmouth's fire on the hill. You know his narrative about the giant, I take it? This place has seen no end of carnage, both real and imagined.

What's your point, angel?

Do you know the man, my dear? Do you know the story?

Crowley shifted where he stood, and then stepped closer. The toes of their shoes touched.

Aubert was delusional. The Archangel Michael told me blah blah blah, and, oh, what do you think about this nice, impossible construction project? Would you like to help me oversee it? Might be of some interest to you, Crowley. Pour us some more wine.

Aziraphale felt the stab of panic in his chest, as if Crowley's original relay of this information had happened the day before, not in the year seven-hundred and eight, anno domini, when the world was still clawing its way out of newborn chaos.

I remember. When you told me he'd offered you a job on-site, what happened then?

Crowley frowned and looked down at their feet, forehead bumping Aziraphale's nose. You suggested it was a fine time for me to get out of dodge, perhaps go and cause some mischief for the actual Northmen. See what they had going by way of saints.

You did quite well with Lucia, dear boy. So striking, those wreaths of candles.

"There's something you're not telling me. The man is Aubert, and the story..."

"Is emblazoned on stained-glass windows from here to the Holy Land. Carved in every cathedral, drawn in every manuscript margin and miniature, forever and ever, amen."

"Michael and the Dragon," Crowley said. "Or the serpent, if you like. Never happened."

"And we know this because..."

"I'm still here," said Crowley, impatiently. "I told you, it never happened. So why—"

"Aubert had his second vision after you left," Aziraphale replied gently.

Crowley's eyes were on fire, and, this time, the sun wasn't even to blame. You gave him that bloody stupid vision in order to save my life? Skin. Something like that. But it still doesn't account for the first one, his reason for wanting to build...

In spite of the fact Aziraphale's hands were still fisted in Crowley's coat, it was Crowley who drew Aziraphale forward instead. They stood locked like that for a minute at least, with the tide whispering fervently up with each fresh gust.

The first one was Michael. The second one—well, that was my doing, I'm afraid.

You got me out of the picture, but the picture stayed anyway. Crowley's thoughts were a hysterical psychic giggle, but underneath them, there was genuine terror, too, at realizing he hadn't known how close he'd brushed with an untimely, unpleasant end.

Aziraphale tilted his chin up and kissed him: brief and longing, an apology past due.

Crowley drew back, smiling, actually smiling, and then pressed close again, all pliant lips and clever tongue. Never easy to shield him, no; that, Aziraphale knew. But he was worth every shred of effort under heaven, fierce as the tide and as true.

Chapter Text

Uriel tucked her chilly feet under herself and stared out the patio doors. She'd been up most of the night, restless, although a few spirits had kept her company until dawn broke over the glittering horizon. Raphael had acquired this property in the late nineteen-fifties, and he'd been smart not to sell. He'd let it to various tenants over time, he'd assured her, but had been resident since the eighties.

The sofa was comfortable: black damask with even blacker abstract embroidery.

She contemplated how unusually calm the waves seemed, and then considered tea.

She'd just about drifted off before she could complete the thought, her head lolling to one side against the sofa's overstuffed back. Someone's careful fingertip drew a straight, unwavering line from her wrist up to her shoulder. She shivered awake.

"Move over," Raphael said softly, insinuating himself behind her so that she really had nowhere to go but on him. "Burning the candle at both ends again, I see. You've got to let all those suicides get on with their business. Your presence distracts them."

Uriel elbowed him in the ribs and squirmed around so that they faced each other.

"They want some reassurance on the way out," she said. "Wouldn't you?"

Raphael framed her face with both hands, studying her features in the low light.

"I would want yours," he said, "so in that respect, at least, I can't begrudge them."

They kissed for a long while, tangled in thin nightclothes and vague drowsiness, and, around the time things started to get interesting, the sun through the glass behind them grew bright, although something seemed wrong about the angle—

Uriel paused mid-grope and twisted her head around, only to find herself squinting up into a pale blue spotlight. "Shit," she hissed. "How about knocking first, you creep?"

"Language," warned the familiar, fussy voice, but was that an undertone of laughter?

"That's no way to treat old friends," Raphael said, keeping a hold on her as he sat up.

"A little decency, if you please?" asked Gabriel, thinly, his amusement receding.

"Of course," Raphael said, letting his robe slip lower. "What was I thinking?"

"We had, of course, foreseen this eventuality," Gabriel said with long-suffering candor. "Please accept our congratulations, but be mindful of the fact that you are on duty."

"Not me," Raphael reminded him, cheerfully. "I resigned, remember?"

"One cannot resign if one's resignation is not accepted," replied Gabriel. "As per our records, you are, in fact, an active field agent—an exceptionally lazy one, I'll grant."

"So now you're making house calls when employees shack up?" Uriel asked.

Unexpectedly, Raphael tensed under her and sucked in an unnecessary breath.

A split-second later, she knew why, but the words were already out of her mouth.

"Oh, that reminds me," said Gabriel, absently, shuffling what sounded like a thick stack of vellum sheets, "there is, of course, the matter of your immediate superior."

Immediate superior? Uriel mouthed at Raphael, flabbergasted.

Aziraphale, he returned, grimacing. I know; easy to forget we're outranked.

"Matter?" asked Uriel, struggling to keep her tone neutral. "Which is?"

"He's been keeping strange company of late," Gabriel said. "Besides yourselves."

"Smile, you're on candid camera," Raphael sing-songed under his breath.

"I don't understand," Uriel said. "Dates? Times? Specific instances?"

"Nine months ago," Gabriel replied. "Almost to the day, if you insist upon precision."

Raphael eased Uriel off his lap and straightened his robe, peering up into the glow.

"That's right," he said. "We went on holiday together. June last year."

"My records show it wasn't just the three of you."

Uriel wanted to throw something. Preferably upward.

"How would you know?" she asked, tone as non-confrontational as possible.

"Aura Confluence," Gabriel said. "I keep the trace running on principle, even if there's very little call for it these days. I thought it might interest you to know that two Archangels plus a Principality plus the Adversary's rather ineffective meddler constitutes a Four. Thanks for the Richter Scale model, by the way. Works great."

"You built a fucking spectral seismograph?" Raphael blurted.

"Language. Asmodai helped, so I can't take all the credit. Brilliant boy; David's incredibly proud. He came 'round in the end. I couldn't have asked for a finer PA. It does take one of those infernal types to develop real innovation. They've got vision."

And yet the kind of vision you're looking for really doesn't extend to a green thumb and a keen appreciation for fine cuisine, seashells, and sundry human artifacts, thought Uriel, bitterly. You could've made him Head Gardener, or maybe even Curator of Collections in the Hall of Wonders. Who's ineffective now, you nosy quill-pusher?

"What are Aziraphale's dealings with the enemy agent known as Crowley?"

Arrows, Uriel seethed. If you want a fuck-ton in your stupid face, just keep talking.

"Do you mean last summer, or generally?" Raphael asked, squeezing Uriel's arm.

More vellum-shuffling, chit-chat that might've meant Asmodai's presence, and then—

"Contact seems to have been more or less par for the course up until the year mortals call nineteen-hundred and ninety, at which point there's a, shall we say, forgivable spike in late summer to early autumn—stressful time for all of us—at which point Aura Confluence points to almost constant direct contact for the next fifteen years, at which point it is, quite simply put, off the charts from two-thousand and five onward."

"Hard to say," Raphael murmured, tapping his chin. "I thought perhaps it was some kind of complicated double-cross; Aziraphale is awfully clever, darling, and an absolute bastard when it comes down to what he's willing to do for the cause."

Uriel hadn't heard that tell-tale hint of scared in his voice for ages.

"I don't think Crowley knows what he's in for," she lied, playing along.

"I see. In any case, I thought that the two of you might be able to provide some insight, having had some days' extended exposure. You're both as neglectful and uninsightful as ever, it would seem. I should have expected nothing less."

Can I shoot him? Uriel shook off Raphael's grip. Can I? Can I please?

"Principalities are best left to their own business," Raphael said, a sterling imitation.

"Ah," Gabriel sighed. "That's as may have been, but times, as they say, are changing."

"No," Uriel corrected him. "Time has changed, and there's nothing we can do about it."

"The matter of the boy," said Gabriel, wearily. "Yes. Self-neutralizing bomb at this point, which is the best we could have hoped for in the face of such an...unexpected and demoralizing turn of events. A disappointment to all of us, no doubt."

"He's getting married," Uriel said, enjoying the slight choke from above.

"To a very nice young witch," Raphael added, and the choke became a splutter.

"You will," said Gabriel, recovering himself, "attend this affair—"

"Yes," said Uriel. "We've been invited. That is, Aziraphale implied he'd see to it—"

"—whether you're invited to do so or not, and you will report your findings."

Forget her bow. At this point, Uriel just wanted to punch him in the teeth.

"We'll proceed with due caution," Raphael said. "You have our word."

"Speaking for yourself and for your consort," Gabriel mused. "How traditional."

"Get out of here before I shove something longer and a lot more complex than an arrow up your ass!" Raphael snapped. "If you've forgotten exactly what that means—"

The blue light fizzled to nothingness, leaving a few trace shimmers in its wake.

"We're screwed," Uriel said, rubbing her arms to force blood into them. "Right?"

"Maybe," said Raphael, clearly troubled. "Or it might come to nothing."

"Still. Target practice?" Uriel asked, rising, and hauled him to his feet.

"Target practice," Raphael agreed balefully, shining weapon suddenly in hand.



* * *




"I don't understand it," Crowley said to the rose bush, which stood as compelling proof that Uriel wasn't such a bad sort. "It's late March, and unseasonably warm to boot. There's really no excuse, what with leaves that glossy already out en force. If you haven't got any buds to show by the first of April, mark my words, I'll—"

"Crowley, someone's come calling! Get the door, would you?" Aziraphale shouted from the sitting-room window. "I've got to get back to the kitchen, or else—"

"Busy!" he replied. "What's so bloody important you can't bookmark it for later?"

"Your eggy-in-a-basket might burn, and then whose fault would it be?"

"Sod off!" Crowley shot back. He stood and stalked barefoot to the front yard.

"Hullo," said Adam, grinning as he leaned on the doorframe. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, not at all," Crowley said, brushing his hands on his pyjama bottoms. "Just, er, tending the garden, you know, early to rise and all that," he said, yanking the door wide open. "Don't just stand there; come in. You're in time to join us for breakfast."

Aziraphale's glare didn't last for long; five minutes later, there was enough eggy-in-the-basket for everybody, along with tea, a plate of warm blueberry scones, and a dish of clotted cream. Adam situated his chair across from both of them and waited until Aziraphale had finished serving Crowley to reach eagerly for a scone.

"Mug's hot, do be careful," said Aziraphale, nudging the sugar bowl in his direction.

"Early for you to be up on a Saturday," Crowley remarked around a mouthful of egg and toast. "Not to mention the drive. I can't imagine Sophia would've been up for it."

Adam reached inside his coat, and then handed them a pair of posh-looking envelopes across the table. "I hadn't expected food, but thanks," he said. "I just wanted to deliver these in person. And you're right about Soph; she kicked the alarm off the nightstand and pulled the blankets up over her head." He leaned forward a little, conspiratorially. "I think she's got gills. And an extra set of lungs or something."

"So much for all that third nipple nonsense, then?" asked Aziraphale, dabbing his lips.

It ever ceased to take Crowley by surprise, his angel making a successful joke.

"Oh, that's a good one," Adam said, smirking. "I'll run it by her dad, shall I?"

"Don't," Crowley groaned. "Please, if you know what's good for you. He's already got daggers for us thanks to that train-wreck of a Latin palaeography lesson—"

Adam laughed for an impressive duration and ended up choking on his tea.

"I reckon you saved poor Janet's life," he said at length, wiping his eyes.

"It's always good to know one's charitable efforts haven't been in vain," said Aziraphale, mildly, opening the envelope addressed jointly to him and to Crowley. He held out the invitation and smiled at it in a sort of sappy, sickening way. "Oh, isn't that superb. Twenty-eighth of April. We should be absolutely delighted to attend."

Crowley squinted at the smaller line of elegant script along the bottom.

"What's this? Venue to be announced?"

"Ah, yeah, that," Adam said, rubbing the side of his neck. "These are sort of the...advance invites, if you know what I mean. We had a few prototypes printed up, and you know Anathema—waste not, want not; reduce, reuse, and recycle. Pippa won't mind that, will she?" he asked, looking genuinely concerned, fingering the second envelope. "Thought I'd leave the one for her and Harold with you."

Aziraphale already looked worried. "That's a month and four days off," he said. "You've an awful lot of planning to wrap up, never mind sorting a venue."

Crowley patted him on the back. "They're big kids," he said. "They'll figure it out."

"The thing is," Adam admitted, "we can't seem to agree on one. Anathema's pushing for some kind of ancient holy site, but good luck getting that kind of thing past English Heritage or UNESCO without shelling out a boat-load of money. Newt keeps mentioning the village church where he grew up, but he always sounds guilty and half-hearted about it. My parents don't actually give a toss; they got that out of their systems with Sarah, stonking great white wedding for the firstborn and all that rot."

"What about you and Sophia?" asked Aziraphale, pointedly, in protective-godparent mode. "What do you want? It's all very noble, taking into consideration others' suggestions and frivolous desires, however..." He spread his hands meaningfully.

Oh, sure, thought Crowley, sarcastically. The world on a platter, anything for the former Princeling of Darkness—who, by the way, seems to think absolutely nothing of dropping in on our nice, quiet morning with a load of personal baggage to dump.

Adam fixed him with a wry glance, as if he'd caught every word. He probably had.

"Honestly? I don't mind," he said. "We could've agreed to a plainclothes civil ceremony at the registry with nobody there but our parents and anybody else who might be arsed, and I wouldn't have minded. But Soph does want something distinctive."

"Let me guess," Crowley said. "Her mum's calling in the high priestess of some obscure coven of New Age nutters—no pun intended, by the way—and it's going to be a right solemn hand-fasting with a vegan pot-luck and tarot-card readings afterward."

"You do know Anathema gave up on the whole dietary endeavor ages ago, right? These days, she's happy if the meat's free-range and the veggies and other produce are locally sourced. She keeps talking about moving to the country once she and Newt are retired, wants to open some kind of off-grid farm-commune-campground thing."

"That doesn't really answer my question, dear boy," Aziraphale said, curling one hand around Crowley's under the table. This usually indicated an apology (not far enough) in advance for being about to say something incredibly reckless and ill-advised.

"Fine," Adam said, as if regretting what he was about to say. "She wants a seaside ceremony. Civil, of course, none of that other nonsense, although I think there might've been some talk in the early stages. So Anathema started pushing for some coastal nature reserve in Cornwall, and Newt went on about Brighton being perfectly serviceable, if a bit touristy, and the twins started yammering about how it would be really cool if we all just took a trip to Ibiza or someplace and had done with it—"

Crowley tightened his grip on Aziraphale's hand, but it was no use trying to stop him.

"Nonsense," Aziraphale said. "There's a lovely beach just outside. We'll hold it here."

Adam's eyes widened, as if he couldn't believe he hadn't thought to ask them in the first place. Crowley sighed, swilling his tea. The young man sincerely hadn't.

"That would be ace," Adam said, "and it would also solve a lot of problems. But even though you're offering, it's a lot to ask; I know you value your privacy these days, and a load of people you don't know turning up on your doorstep doesn't seem right."

"I have only one favor to ask in return," said Aziraphale, firmly.

Aha, Crowley thought, lacing their fingers together. Bastard. I love you.

"What's that?" asked Adam, warily. "Keep in mind I've sworn off a lot of things—"

"A trifle, I assure you," Aziraphale replied. "We have two very good friends in America, and they've not visited in ages. You may have met them in passing; I can't be certain, and you would have been rather small at the time. They're going to be staying with us around then, you see, and I couldn't possibly ask them to nip off while such extensive festivities carry on. Surely the rules could be...modified?"

"Oh, them," said Adam. "Anathema might have a thing or two to say about that."

"Good old Rafe and Uriel," Crowley muttered. "Life of the party."

"It can't hurt," Adam reasoned. "They'd make excellent security detail. You know, in case anybody else gets any ideas. Not that I expect they would, but what do I know? Out of the loop's a dangerous place to be when there are loved ones to consider."

"Most definitely," Aziraphale agreed. "Does the arrangement satisfy all parties?"

Crowley stared at him; uncanny, to hear it again after so long and in another tongue.

"Soph will be over the moon," said Adam, gulping down the rest of his tea before rising. "Maybe I can catch her before she wakes up; it's really funny, let me tell you, when she's a snoring pile of blankets. I reckon she'll think she's dreaming."

Aziraphale had an annoying way of drawing out goodbyes, and he insisted on sending the remainder of the scones off with Adam. They lingered in the doorway until Adam's car vanished around the bend that would soon carry him past Pippa's and the café.

"You haven't lost your touch," said Crowley, shooing Aziraphale inside. "That was low even by my standards." He slammed the door behind them, advancing on Aziraphale until his back was against the wall. "And if there's anything you've taught me, they're not nearly low enough." He didn't try to escape as Aziraphale took hold of his wrists.

"I know you're not keen on crowds or strangers, my dear, but please tolerate it for their sakes," said the angel, gaze modestly lowered. "I'm not as selfish as all that."

"Yes, you are," Crowley insisted, melting against him. "Take me back to bed."



* * *




Such extended, subtle endeavors in the realm of seduction, Aziraphale knew, were invariably worth the effort. It was all well and good taking the direct approach; Crowley responded to just about any overt advance without hesitation, provided he wasn't in a funk about something. That morning's tetchy exchange, plus Aziraphale's bold invitation to Adam Young and his bride-to-be, definitely required that amends be made in a deft, feather-unruffling manner. And leisurely fellatio never did hurt.

Aziraphale breathed deeply against the side of Crowley's neck, nosing up an angle until he found soft, neatly-clipped wisps that smelled of that morning's dew on the garden hedge. He'd cut his hair again not long after they'd returned from France in the autumn. Strange, how little things took getting used to even if they were, in fact, a shift away from something that had been a novel change in the first place.

Crowley shivered, tucking his chin so low that his forehead was plastered against Aziraphale's collarbone. "That was a ssstupid thing to do," he murmured drowsily.

"I don't know," Aziraphale said, massaging a knot below his clavicle. "You did ask..."

"Nicely," Crowley reminded him, nuzzling Aziraphale's breastbone, breath humid under the covers. "And all I get for my trouble is a—" the phrase thorough sucking-off got muffled against Aziraphale's belly "—and a blessed white-lighter wedding to plan."

Aziraphale closed his eyes and bit his lip as Crowley mouthed him.

"Like their style, though," he mumbled. "Nontraditional. Bet Dad's bent out of shape."

"Which—which one?" Aziraphale gasped. "And what do you mean?"

"Former Witchfinder-Private Dad," Crowley clarified, kissing Aziraphale's hip. Endlessly charming, his slightly muffled voice and the way he slithered so effortlessly under the clinging sheets and heavy duvet. "He's progressive enough to have married a witch, sure, but deep down, he and Mr. Young, Senior have got a lot in common."

"But that doesn't explain..." Aziraphale lost the plot, groaning into his pillow.

Crowley stopped mid-lick and slid back up the length of Aziraphale's body.

"He was wearing a diamond engagement band. Hadn't you noticed?"

Aziraphale rolled Crowley onto his back and kissed him a while before responding.

"Sophia may already have one to match, my dear. One never knows."

Crowley regarded him hazily, all half-lidded eyes and enticingly swollen lips.

"D'you want me to finish you or not?"

Aziraphale settled in closer against Crowley's belly, finding him aroused.

"Shhh," he said, working one hand between them, and it didn't take long at all.

"Had a ring once," Crowley said as they lay recovering. "Remember?"

Aziraphale shook his head, yawning in spite of himself.

"You've had all manner of finery over time. That watch, for example."

"Sold it," said Crowley. "No use keeping tabs on time Down There anymore."

"And you don't scuba-dive," Aziraphale told him. "The Calatrava suits you better."

Crowley turned pink; he hadn't quite forgiven Aziraphale that holiday extravagance.

"It was old when I lost it," he went on. "Roman gold. Set with moulded glass."

Aziraphale wondered vaguely if he'd ever pulled it from the sea, but...surely not.

The truth was, he couldn't even picture it, and that bothered him a great deal.

"You lost it when?" Aziraphale murmured against Crowley's mouth.

Crowley hummed and shrugged. "On Crusade?"

"Which?" asked Aziraphale, with fond exasperation.

Crowley closed his eyes and squirmed closer, latching fiercely onto Aziraphale.

"Children's," he whispered.

How do I do this? Aziraphale wondered. So much pain, and still you don't leave.

"We'd best get up," he said, kissing the top of Crowley's head.

"Why?" asked Crowley, plaintively. He tightened his arms around Aziraphale.

"Because we have an invitation to deliver," Aziraphale replied, but it was no use. He'd wrapped himself around Crowley, too, desperate to erase the memories he'd evoked.

"It can wait," said Crowley, his tone low and hopeful. "A few days at least."

Aziraphale kissed him feverishly and, with a thought, locked every door in the house.



* * *




Crowley had a haunted look about him as Aziraphale bundled him up the flagstone walkway; the older-looking man steered him along with infinite patience and a careful hand against the small of his back. The truth was, it was difficult to tell exactly what their ages might be, or how they even came to be so hopelessly in love. Or what they must have seen in each other at the very start, for that matter, before how much they needed each other had become apparent. Magic of the best sort, really. Fairytale stuff.

Pippa extracted her fingers from between the blinds and grinned.

She waited for the doorbell and dashed to answer (insofar as her hip permitted).

"That'll be yours, Pip!" Harold called from his seat in front of the telly.

"Hush, you!" she called over her shoulder, opening the door. "So sorry. Come in."

"Whatever for?" Aziraphale asked, taking her hands, and kissed her on one cheek, and then the other. "Your young man's done no harm, I'm sure," he added, and then raised his voice to a sort of pleasant shout. "A fine afternoon to you, Mr. Morrison!"

Harold's response was little more than a crotchety mutter ending in Hullo to you, too.

Honestly, she couldn't take him anywhere, which was why she usually didn't.

"Pippa," said Crowley, tucking away his sunglasses and offering that fragile, tentative smile of his. He didn't reach for her—he never did—but his arms slid around her when she hugged him, and he held on even when she kissed him on the cheek.

"How cold you get, no blood whatsoever!" Pippa lamented. "I'll put the kettle on."

She watched out of the corner of her eye as Aziraphale helped him out of his coat and hung it before sorting out his own. It was the opposite of what she'd expected, nearly, the way in which they complemented each other. For all that Aziraphale looked like the absent-minded, sensitive one who might need a bit of managing, it was the other way around. Although quite sensitive, Crowley wasn't absent-minded, not by half.

Aziraphale leaned close, touched Crowley's neck, and smoothed down his raised collar.

Pippa pursed her lips and carried the tea tray over to her kitchen table. They hadn't answered the phone when she'd tried ringing the day before, which was a fair to good sign they'd needed some time alone. She pulled out two consecutive chairs and then sat down at the head of the table. Her body wasn't thanking her for the run-about.

"You mustn't overdo it," said Aziraphale, setting a hand on her shoulder.

Something about him always calmed Pippa. The ache in her hip subsided.

She didn't protest when he busied himself pouring cups for all three of them. Crowley sat down adjacent to her, depriving Aziraphale of his usual spot. He peered at her with tense concern, eyes luminous. That famous National Geographic cover didn't have a patch on him. Green eyes, yellow eyes—it was all the same sort of genetic miracle in the end, wasn't it? And to think he felt he'd needed to hide them from her at first!

"Are you well?" he asked, hands curling around the cup Aziraphale set before him.

"Oh, you know the usual," she said, reaching for the one Aziraphale offered her. "Thank you, dear—as I was saying," she continued, turning back to Crowley. "These old bones aren't what they were when you first met me. Arthritis runs in the family. "

Crowley lowered his eyes and took a long sip of tea.

Years ahead of you yet, my lad, she thought. Why such sadness

Was it for Aziraphale, she wondered, or was it for her?

"A little bird left this on our doorstep," said Aziraphale, finally seated, and handed her an envelope. "You've met him—let me think, perhaps two or three times? Adam Young. If you recall, he's marrying Anathema's eldest, Sophia. An excellent match."

"They'd best get on finding a venue soon," Pippa said.

"Actually, that's settled," Aziraphale replied. "It's our beach and back garden."

"Lovely!" Pippa exclaimed. "Not having children of your own, I suppose..."

"We're Adam's godfathers," Crowley put in. He sounded ever so proud.

"For all the time we've been friends, there's a lot I don't know about you," Pippa said.

"So much planning to do," Aziraphale murmured. "Catering, decorations—"

"Anyone would think it was your wedding, angel," Crowley remarked.

Pippa blinked. That, for instance, was an excellent example.

"You never did tell me about yours," she said. "What was it like?"

Aziraphale snapped out of his reverie. "I beg your pardon?"

Crowley was staring into his teacup again; Pippa took it and topped it up.

"Your wedding," she prompted, adding milk and some extra sugar.

"Oh," said Aziraphale. "Well, we—" He paused, as if the question had only just sunk in.

"We didn't have one," Crowley said, taking the cup from her grasp using both hands. "You might argue that moving out here was, as they say, it. Pooling resources is a huge commitment these days, and you don't just move in with somebody on a lark."

It broke Pippa's heart a little, the hidden depths of meaning beneath his flippant tone.

"It's not everybody's style, I'll grant, a big to-do," she said, patting Crowley's fingers. "The registry's enough these days for some. As long as you're looking out for your rights. Common-law marriage is a myth. Make sure you've got wills sorted out."

Aziraphale looked somewhat lost, and more than slightly guilty, too.

As well you should, thought Pippa, and squeezed Crowley's hand.

"It was a long time coming," Aziraphale said, as if that in any way helped.

"What he's trying to say is, we're thick as two short planks," said Crowley.

"Well, you got there eventually," Pippa said, but she had the niggling suspicion they hadn't even got to the registry. "Now, what can I do to help out with your godson's special day? Harold knows his way around a hammer and nails if you need—"

"I charge by the hour!" Harold called.

Two pots of Oolong and a packet of biscuits later, Pippa had agreed to help with sundry decorations. Crowley didn't look as displeased as she might've expected him to, given he'd just been assigned the task of working out a spread of canapés. Full catering was too much of a fuss, they all agreed on that. Crowley seemed grateful. Four o'clock came and went, and Harold started making noises about wanting supper.

"Why don't you go fetch the coats, dear?" Pippa suggested to Crowley.

Aziraphale was busy clearing the tea tray, but she stopped him mid-lift.

"Just leave that," she said, "and you listen to me for a minute."

"Of course," he said, and set the tray down, eternally patient.

"You haven't even got rings, have you?" asked Pippa, sharply. She couldn't help it.

Aziraphale's brow furrowed; she thought she'd seen a flash of anger.

"One didn't feel it was necessary at the time," he said. "It never came up."

"One might wish to reconsider," she said, beaming at Crowley as he returned.

"Speaking of supper, it won't cook itself," Crowley said, holding out Aziraphale's coat.

"It might do, if we drop in on them up the road," said Aziraphale, shrugging into it.

"That paté is back on the menu," said Pippa, encouragingly. "The one you like." She sent them off with four pieces of her most recent bakewell tart, although it had gone a bit stale. Served Aziraphale right, after all. Let him chew on that.



* * *




It was raining by the time they reached the café, which put Crowley in an altogether unpleasant mood. He parked the Bentley crooked in a spot reserved for staff and clamped the wheels within an inch of the tyres popping while he was at it.

Aziraphale gave him a disapproving look, but he got out of the car and headed straight for the entrance. The angel dashed to catch up, taking hold of Crowley's hand as he pushed his way inside. The door handle was clammy, and the floor-mat slipped.

"Bit too late for that," Crowley said, hanging up his coat.

Aziraphale hung his own in a huff, slightly out of breath. "She means well," he said. "We'll need the help; we've never done this."

"So many firsts, so little time," Crowley remarked, scanning the café distractedly. At least five or six tables were occupied, but it didn't otherwise look full. And, thankfully, Mandy was nowhere—

"We had a bet going. Me and the kitchen staff, I mean."

Crowley wheeled around and blinked at her. "Yeah?" he asked, but, really, he just wanted to swear.

"On whether or not you guys would turn up this weekend," Mandy said, collecting two menus from the front desk. "They let me pick up a few odd shifts if I'm home."

"I imagine so," Aziraphale said, insinuating himself between her and Crowley. "At the window, if you please. It's quieter back there. Our apologies for not calling ahead."

"Right this way," she said, hips swinging as she turned. High heels? That'd end badly.

"Shameless," Aziraphale muttered, sliding an arm around Crowley as they walked.

"Pot, kettle, black?" Crowley suggested, and ahead of them, Mandy wobbled a little.

Aziraphale suggested that they share an order of the chantarelle paté, but Crowley stubbornly ordered his own. He couldn't untangle the complicated mess of uneasy thoughts the visit to Pippa had left him with, so he asked Mandy to bring two bottles of the house red, which made Aziraphale cringe behind his napkin. Let him turn that into whatever the hell he pleased.

"If it's too much, my dear," Aziraphale pressed once she'd gone to submit their order, "you need only say so. I won't have you agreeing to this out of some misplaced sense of duty, or because you'd like to please me—"

"The kids deserve it. What bugs me is that you've dragged Pippa into this. She's..."

Aziraphale gazed at him expectantly, with no criticism implied.

"...dying," Crowley finished, covering his mouth with both hands.

"I wouldn't say that," Aziraphale reassured him. "She's seventy-one, that's hardly—"

"They all are, humans," Crowley insisted, unable to stem the ache that had swelled in his chest. "Slowly and constantly, without warning. One day you're having a chat and sipping white wine in the sun, turns out the artist's a decent bloke, and the next..."

"Acceptable losses," Aziraphale murmured. "It can't be helped."

Crowley kicked the leg of the table and upset his water-glass.

"No loss is acceptable," Crowley hissed. "Not if I know them, anyway."

Aziraphale was mopping up the mess with napkins from a neighboring table.

"My dear, really?"

Crowley closed his eyes and leaned hard into his hands.

"You're right. It doesn't matter if I know them or not."

"We can't save them all. That's not how it works."

"What's this it you're so keen on? Last I checked, we'd sailed right over the edge into some happy little no-man's land where all bets are off and we ride into the sunset."

Aziraphale pried his hands away from his face, leaning perilously across the table.

"We love them, Crowley," he said in a quiet voice. "And we do our best."

Crowley was astonished to realize his vision had gone a bit blurry.

"What about us?" He twitched as Aziraphale dabbed at his nose with a damp napkin.

"We do our best there, too," the angel sighed, resuming his seat. "Most of the time."

Mandy returned with the bottles of wine in one arm and a pair of glasses in hand.

"You're keeping an eye out for odd jobs, then?" Crowley ventured.

"As and when," she said, setting the glasses down, and proceeded to uncork the bottles with practiced ease. She'd got used to the fact that when they ordered two bottles, it meant one for each of them, and that was just to start. "Why?"

"April twenty-eighth," he continued. "Are you busy?"

"Don't think so," she said, pouring them each a half-glass. "Again, why?"

"Some dear friends of ours are getting married," Aziraphale said, falling easily back into the tag-teaming snare tactic at which they'd got so good since...well, since.

"We're holding the ceremony at ours," Crowley said. "I'm overseeing the food, but I'll need help with serving. I expect it won't be as extravagant as it sounds."

"What kind of food? Full service dinner? Buffet?"

"Small nibbles before the ceremony," said Aziraphale. "Nothing too taxing."

"Yeah, always good to keep people fat and happy while everyone else arrives," Mandy agreed, apparently considering the proposition. "You never can count on everybody to turn up on time, the bride and groom least of all. They get cold feet."

"In this case, the bride won't be a problem," Crowley said.

He was thinking of Shadwell and Tracy.

"I'm in," Mandy said, clearing away the napkins and water-glasses.

"Thanks," Crowley said. "You're a gem. Payment to be decided later. Er."

Mandy winked at him. "No more lipstick on your cheek, I promise."

Aziraphale stiffened, but he smiled in benign, feigned agreement.

Crowley couldn't drink his first glass of wine fast enough.

 

 

* * *

 

Raphael shifted in his seat, staring off into the distance, Uriel's head heavy on his shoulder. The train ride out of London had been tiresome enough, but twenty minutes by cab on top of it was ludicrous. How sleep came so easily to her, he had no clue.

He'd never admit it to Aziraphale's face, the smug bastard, but the English countryside was sickeningly pretty. They'd paid a visit to the cottage three years ago—a belated housewarming, of course Uriel had insisted—and his impressions had been much the same. They'd passed a very quiet week between London and the new homestead, during which time Uriel had pestered Aziraphale persistently about their human friends and neighbors. She'd been rewarded with little more than a brief walk-about and a survey of Pippa's garden while the good lady herself and the husband had been out (rather stalkerish on Aziraphale's part, Raphael had thought, although he'd enjoyed watching Crowley quietly blow a gasket while he waited in the car). Things were different now, though; Raphael could sense it.

Was one word with that stupid boy really all it took?

"The one called Home, you said?" asked the driver. "Not too far off. Always thought that was clever, meself. The Morrisons, now, they call theirs The Shambles."

"It's twee, is what it is," Raphael replied. "Isn't that your turn of phrase? Twee?"

The driver grinned at Raphael's reflection in the rearview mirror.

"That's right, lad. You'll do well enough out here."

"Sweetheart," Raphael murmured, shaking Uriel awake. "Almost showtime."

Uriel groaned and kicked his shin. "No shows, okay?" she yawned.

"Nonsense. If I don't make a scene, I'll never live it down."

"Make a scene and I'll go stay with Pippa, just see if I won't."

"You don't actually know her yet," Raphael chided.

"Well, I feel like I do," Uriel insisted, rubbing her eyes.

"Everybody knows Pippa," the driver reassured them, already slowing.

Twenty pounds sterling, plus tip. Raphael stuffed his wallet into his back pocket and let Uriel bully their luggage through the front gate, idly surveying his surroundings. The faint salt-taste of the air clung to his lips and bit the back of his throat, and it was at times like this that he had to admit breathing was one of his guilty pleasures. He dashed to catch up with Uriel, wrestling one of the heavy suitcases away from her. The front walk was neatly kept cobblestone; the flower beds running along each side boasted a riot of tasteful, muted shades. Crowley's patience knew no bounds, he realized, upon counting no fewer than five varieties of hellebore all in full bloom.

Christmas rose indeed, he thought. So fond of Lenten trappings, this dour island.

Between the blossoms' fragrance and the effect of mingled dark purple, luminescent white, deep burgundy, pale green, and ethereal pink, his thesis was, perhaps, not the strongest argument he'd ever constructed. Uriel was at the door, already knocking.

To Raphael's surprise, Crowley answered, peering owlishly out at them.

"You're early," he remarked, opening the door a fraction wider.

"Not really," Uriel said, tiredly smiling. "We're only just on time."

"Aziraphale's not here," Crowley said, accepting Uriel's embrace with much more ease than he had on previous occasions. "He's gone up the road to have a chat with Pippa about decorations. I don't know about you," he said in a low voice, holding the door while both of them filed through, "but I can't imagine how your lot get anything done. Committees and sub-committees and endless lists, and who knows what else..."

"You have my deepest, sincerest sympathies," Raphael offered, if only because, to his memory, working on even a minor project headed by Aziraphale had, back in the day, been nothing short of career suicide. "How are you holding up, darling?"

Crowley busied himself with clearing breakfast off the coffee table.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he said. "Tea, anyone? Cappuccino?"

Uriel collapsed on the white leather sofa, sighing blissfully at the ceiling.

"Anything with caffeine in it, seriously," she said. "I'm game."

"Whatever you're having," said Raphael, absently, abandoning his suitcase next to the sofa. His eyes had already lit on the mantelpiece, which, although it had been a hot mess of ephemera even three years ago, was just mesmerizing in the scope of its beach-plucked contents. Was that a fountain-pen nib next to the piece of eight?

"Don't touch that," said Crowley, turning in the kitchen doorway. "It's platinum."

Raphael withdrew his hand, sighing, and went to join Uriel on the sofa.

The machine in the kitchen made a horrible racket, but the espresso was, in fact, heavenly. Crowley sat across from them in the tartan armchair that he no doubt pretended to hate, but secretly loved for the fact that he could curl up in it just like he was doing now with his bare toes wiggling against the arm-rest. He was much more at ease in his own home, and, Raphael was shocked to discover, a charming host.

"You flew San Francisco to London direct? Whooo-eee," he remarked. "Brave."

"Convenient," Raphael countered, peering into the dregs of his tiny, fashionable white cup. It was really more of a Turkish coffee than an espresso, and the sediment had more than enough punch for Uriel's taste. At least they'd be up all night together.

"Look at us all," said Crowley. "So tame we can't be bothered to do anything the old-fashioned way. It's a good job they don't keep tabs on that sort of thing anymore."

"I don't know about you, but a flight that long fucks my wings right up," Uriel said.

"She's too lazy to keep after them," Raphael explained. "I have to do it for her. She hates ironing, too. When was the last time you met somebody who based their clothes-shopping decisions on whether or not stuff will wrinkle in the wash?"

"Everybody hates ironing," said Crowley, downing the rest of his coffee. "Biscuits?"

"Those chocolate ones?" asked Uriel, hopefully. "Please."

Between the three of them, they'd cleared two and a half packets by the time Aziraphale got home. Sometime since their arrival, it had begun to rain; Aziraphale shrugged out of his camel-hair coat and propped his umbrella against the door.

"Fairy lights," he lamented, turning as he hung his coat on one of the charmingly old-fashioned hooks affixed to the wall. "White, blue, and purple fairy lights all through the house and in the tent and good gracious, where are my manners? Hallo."

"That's assuming you ever had them?" asked Uriel, bouncing to her feet. "Hey!"

Crowley sank lower in the armchair, stuffing half a biscuit in his mouth.

"She'll regret it," he muttered. "Has she even met the bride?"

"Manners are overrated," Raphael said, leaning to embrace Aziraphale once he'd managed to peel Uriel's arms from around his neck. "You're a wedding planner now?"

"It's not what you think," said Aziraphale, huffily. "Surely Crowley explained—"

"It's okay," Uriel said, flopping on the sofa. "I'd have done the same. Possibly."

Raphael sat back down beside her and took away her espresso cup.

"See?" Aziraphale said, stepping close to the armchair. "Entertaining's not so bad."

Crowley glowered at him, but it was halfhearted at best, and the biscuit crumbs stuck to the corner of his mouth really did nothing to bolster his credibility. Aziraphale crouched next to him, resting one damp arm on Crowley's drawn-up knees.

"Anathema's coming tomorrow," said Crowley. "She rang after you left. Woke me up."

"To inspect the beach, I suppose," Aziraphale replied. "Is she bringing the girls?"

"What d'you think? Yes. All three of them. If you don't lock the bedroom, I'll—"

Raphael continued to watch, fascinated, as Aziraphale leaned and brushed away the crumbs. Crowley unfolded his limbs and tilted his head into the touch, closing his eyes as Aziraphale pressed a kiss there instead. The tableau lasted all of a quarter-second, and still Raphael was sure he'd never forget it. It came to them so easily, didn't it?

"Good morning, my dear," said Aziraphale, as if he'd forgotten they weren't alone.

Uriel nudged Raphael in the ribs, surreptitiously inclining her head at them.

"You could learn a thing or two," she said.



* * *




Crowley handed Uriel the spade, pointing beneath the bush's low-hanging branches. "There's an exposed root. No matter what I do, it keeps poking back up. Maybe it'll listen to you. I've tried heaping on more soil, but clearly the air's preferable."

Uriel tapped the root with the flat of the spade, clucking her tongue.

"Listen, dude. Behave your spiky self, or I won't be responsible for the consequences."

"Sure, defer back to me," Crowley said. "Since that's been going so well."

Uriel stuck the spade point-first in the dirt, heaped a handful over the root, and brushed her hands off. "Oh, I wasn't," she reassured him. "The stupid thing'll die of blight if you don't get blooms in time for next Saturday. Jeez. Only a week."

Crowley reached out and touched the tightly curled tips of one branch. More new leaves. He thought idly of the tea bushes they'd managed to cultivate at Tregothnan. "Bit harsh, don't you think? Blight?"

"Whatever you say," Uriel replied, nudging him with a grin. "Come on," she said, tugging him up. "I want to hear what they're saying down there. Sounds lively."

"If shrieking teenagers are your thing," sighed Crowley, and followed.

It was cool and windy for mid-morning. Uriel took his arm as they strolled down the sandy stretch toward the three figures locked in heated debate on the tide-line. Anathema glanced sidelong and spared them an isn't-he-hopeless kind of smile, and, having known Aziraphale all too well for far too long, both of them returned it.

"I assure you there isn't any problem," Aziraphale was saying. "Locals do stroll by on occasion, but I'm sure they wouldn't dream of interfering with the ceremony."

"They can stop and watch if they want," Sophia said, hugging herself against the chill. "I don't mind. I think it'd be sweet if some random passer-by caught the bouquet." Crowley hunched closer to Uriel; it was making him cold, just looking at her.

"Do you want strangers recording you on their smart-phones?" Anathema countered.

"Depends on how the dress looks," Raphael offered, strolling up behind Aziraphale with the twins eagerly trailing after him. The three of them were barefoot, shivering, and more than half soaked. Crowley wondered if they'd gone as far as the tide pools.

"It would look great if we could get the zip up," said Natalie. "Gotta lose an inch, sis."

"Oi, shut up," Janet told her. "It was just the once. We'd all had a big lunch."

Sophia winked at Janet. "Guess who gets to carry my train?"

"We'll both do it," said Natalie, petulantly. "Jesus, sorry."

Crowley wriggled free of Uriel's arm, broke from the circle, and waded into the surf.

Human family politics were hellishly complicated, but being party to such exchanges never ceased to amaze him. How did they switch from love to enmity to annoyance back to love, often all in the same breath? Why didn't they take more care with each other, knowing that nothing is permanent? And why, in the end, did it not seem to matter terribly much, as if blood actually had some inherent advantage over water?

"Let them fight it out," said Sophia, softly, wading out to stand beside him.

Crowley turned to look at her. "Why? I thought this was what you wanted."

"It is," she said. "This. The sea, the sky, and your good company. I don't give a toss otherwise; fairy lights make no difference to anyone but Pippa and Aziraphale, and anyway, that bit's more about them than about me. They're so determined."

"Careful," Crowley said, taking her arm, steadying them both against a wave that crashed against their knees. Sophia shrieked and clung to him, losing her balance. They fell in the water fully clothed; Sophia was laughing madly. They had an audience by now, but, strangely, neither one of them cared. High tide stopped for no one. They sat waist-deep, hand in hand, letting the next wave crash over their heads.

Crowley fished his sunglasses out of the water and laughed with her.



* * *




Aziraphale left the driest of the four Device-Pulsifer women in the kitchen with Raphael, Uriel, and Pippa (she'd noticed the commotion from a distance and had driven up just in time to catch them at the house). He escorted Sophia to the bathroom and told her she ought to find whatever she needed in the cupboard. Hopefully he'd got her size right. She looked much healthier now than the last time he'd seen her. Shame on Natalie's wicked tongue; she was fine just as she was. He crossed the hall and rapped on the bedroom door.

"Crowley, how are you getting on? Pippa's asking after you."

He made a noncommittal noise that sounded like it was muffled in a pillow.

Aziraphale opened the door and slipped inside, found him curled up naked under the woven cotton throw that they kept folded at the foot of the bed. His wet clothes were in a pile on the floor. Aziraphale sat down on the edge of the bed, reaching to stroke Crowley's exposed shoulder. His skin prickled: dry now, but rough with residual salt.

"Too much exposure, I see," Aziraphale said, stretching out beside him. "Guests, weather, and otherwise." He untangled the blanket and reached underneath, pulling Crowley against him. Novel, almost, feeling every exposed contour of him through this many layers of clothing; Crowley's breath hitched a little as he pushed against the teasing fabric of Aziraphale's rucked-up shirt and badly wrinkled trousers.

Guiltily, Aziraphale encouraged him; for heaven's sake, they had company, and he could hear Sophia running hot water from the tap. Crowley whimpered as Aziraphale shoved his trousers down just far enough to let skin touch skin.

"Oh, oh God," Crowley moaned, coming no sooner than he'd got in half a dozen helpless thrusts against Aziraphale's hip. "Sssorry, oh, I really have no idea what I thought—why did you have to do that, somebody's lissstening, angel, I just know—"

Aziraphale kissed him, biting down hard on Crowley's lower lip as they shook against each other. "Get dressed," he said after a moment, when breathing seemed easier.

"Speak for yourself," said Crowley, untangling himself from Aziraphale and the throw. "Just a quick zip-up for you, very convenient. Where the devil are my pants?"

Aziraphale got him presentable and out the door just as Sophia was emerging from the bathroom. She hung back against the wall and winked, letting them pass by first.

"Oh Lord," Crowley muttered under his breath. "They're all just wrong, these kids."

"Off you go, all dry," Aziraphale said, leaving him beside the sofa, which was already populated by Uriel, Raphael, and Pippa. Anathema sat reading in the armchair, and the twins lay sprawled on the floor, both absorbed in their elaborate mobile phones.

The kitchen was warm and quiet, and Aziraphale soaked it in gratefully.

They had enough mugs to go around, although the real conundrum was making something that would suit everybody. He wasn't in any mood to take individual orders; he readied the tea tray on autopilot. One look at Crowley and he'd wanted them all gone, had wanted time and space and leisure enough to shut out the world beyond these four walls and what he could never seem to hold for long enough.

Something wasn't right, and Aziraphale hadn't caught wind of it till that morning.

Raphael and Uriel could be secretive, but the wordless argument he'd walked in on at dawn had left them frozen and staring at him for at least ten seconds before Raphael shot off his mouth in a cover-up attempt. He'd caught Gabriel and What do we do if...

What indeed. Instead of pushing it, Aziraphale had gone to make breakfast.

Pippa shuffled into the kitchen just as the water came to a boil, watching Aziraphale drop a bag of Yorkshire Gold into each one of the mugs. She carefully took hold of two mugs as soon as he filled them, but she didn't return to the living room.

"They make him uneasy, you know," she said.

"Yes," said Aziraphale, thinly, filling the remaining cups. "I had noticed."

"That Uriel, she's a lovely girl, but I can't quite..." Pippa trailed off, setting the two mugs back down on the tray. She leaned against the work-top and folded her arms, fixing Aziraphale with a reproachful look. "Rafe's always mocking Crowley somehow, I just know it, and that's about the worst hypocrisy I can imagine, come to think—"

"Phillippa, enough," said Aziraphale, returning the kettle to its coil. "What is it?"

"Marry him, you sodding idiot," Pippa snapped.

With that, she took one cup off the tray, sloshed it down next to Aziraphale, picked up the rest with difficulty, and wobbled back into the living room. The sound of eight voices dipping in and out of animated conversation was warm, familiar, and inviting.

Aziraphale wandered over to the sink, peering out the window at the gathering fog.

Neither the mouse, nor Crowley turned up, so he drank his tea alone.



* * *





Adam shifted uncomfortably on his milk crate. It was well past dusk, and he'd been waiting for the better part of half an hour for the others to show. As many things as had changed in the past twenty-two years, this, at least, hadn't. He hated waiting.

Also, they didn't make milk crates as big as they used to. Shame, really.

"What a tosser," Pepper said, striding over the rise and into plain view. She wore black trousers, sensible boots, and a charcoal pea-coat that blended almost perfectly with the descending dusk. "Sitting there all alone in the dark, brooding on your last week of freedom," she added, thunking two six-packs of Bulmers Red Apple down at his feet. "Do you know how hard it is to find this stuff? It was a limited edition two or three years ago. Well? What have you got to say for yourself?" She kicked the toe of his trainer and pulled up one of the three remaining milk crates. It creaked under her.

"You're late," he told her, grinning. "That's what."

Pepper removed her beret and hit him with it, and then pulled a bottle opener out of her pocket. "Might as well get started," she said. "You can't count on Brian to be punctual for shite these days, and Wen's working late again. I got out of the city just in time, missed the traffic. Cheers," she added, handing him an open bottle.

"I resent that statement," Brian said, strolling up behind Pepper. He mussed her hair, which didn't make much difference, because it was short and feathery and artfully mussed to begin with. "Annie still doesn't like you lot. Thinks you're a bad influence."

"Oh, right," Pepper said. "Me—the responsible university lecturer—a bad influence!"

"Adam's a bad influence," Brian said, teetering on his milk crate, which was split along one seam. "Here we are, mate, you and me: thirty-three and still working odd jobs for sod-all. Lucky thing we found us some bright, ambitious ladies, innit?"

Pepper didn't look the least bit amused. Her beret hit him next.

"Is that hello from Katerina?" Brian asked, plucking the hat off his shoulder.

"No. Hello from Katerina has a lot more syllables and, in your case, some Russian swears thrown in. And maybe a bucket of paint chucked along with 'em."

Adam cleared his throat. "How're you two holding up, Pep?"

"Couldn't say," Pepper sighed, resting her chin in her hands. "I'm working long hours at the uni, she's putting in long hours at the studio, and, between one thing and the next, we're only ever home at the same time for three hours out of any given day."

"That's nonsense," Wensleydale said from a short distance off, his brown-bagged armful a comforting rattle. "It's all down to scheduling," he said, producing a six-pack of London Pride Porter and two bottles of Jack Daniel's from the bag. "That's what Liz and I do, anyway. Coordinate. Sure, go on and laugh, but it really works."

Brian wiped his eyes and reached for a bottle of London Pride.

"Still got that bottle opener, Pep?"

"Not if that's how you're asking."

"For fuck's sake. Please."

Pepper handed it over, and Wensleydale politely waited his turn.

Adam thought it was time they got things started, even though there hadn't ever been a plan beyond this: the first of them to get married would have a bachelor's party here, at the Airbase, for old times' sake. Though they'd all been with their respective partners for a few years at least, Adam reached the altar ahead of them.

"Well, thanks for coming," he said, and the rest of them fell silent.

After a few moments of awkward silence and deep drinks all around, Pepper said, "Of course we came. We always were good at keeping promises, so here we are."

"I can only stay for two hours," said Wensleydale. "I've got to go in early tomorrow."

"Oh, bollocks," said Brian. "We'll stay all night if that's what you want."

"I don't know about all night," Pepper said, "but as late as I can, sure."

Inexplicably—or maybe it was the cider going to his head by way of his empty stomach; he couldn't be sure—Adam started to laugh. By the time he'd been laughing for about thirty seconds straight and ended up wheezing on the ground, his bottle unceremoniously up-ended, Pepper was kneeling beside him and Wensleydale was leaning over her shoulder wearing a look of pinched concern. Brian stayed where he was, quietly alternating sips of porter with sips of Jack Daniel's.

"Are you sleeping well?" Pepper asked, tilting his chin up so she could peer into his eyes with the mini-torch on her keychain. "Stressed? Not having second thoughts about marrying Sophia, are you? If you are, you've got another thing coming. She's absolutely lovely, and I'll kick your sorry arse if it's anything like that, so help me."

Wensleydale helped Pepper settle him back on his milk crate. Adam didn't protest.

"Nothing like that," he said, gesturing to Brian, who handed him the Jack Daniel's. He took a long swig, savored the burn of it going down. "I never imagined this, to tell you the truth. I'm nothing special, and she's everything special. How does that happen?"

Pepper leaned over and ruffled his hair, taking the bottle away from him.

"Love's a fucking sneaky bastard," she said, and took a drink. "That's how."

"Did you ever notice," said Brian, "how we kind of turned out to be matchmakers?"

Wensleydale frowned at him and said, "Explain?"

"When we were kids," Brian continued. "D'you remember all those people we met when there was a spot of bother down here, all that cops and robbers business that probably had something to do with national security or America's trigger-happy president, or MI6 and the FBI or whatever? Not them, I mean. The nice people. That cranky Mr. Shadwell married Madame Whatserface, and those odd gents with the vintage car who you neglected to mention were your godfathers shacked up, and..."

"Anathema and Newt," said Pepper to Adam, fondly. "Look at where that's got you."

Adam closed his eyes and pretended to be processing all of this, but the truth was, he'd processed it long ago. Let them think they'd been involved in some big, romantic star-crossing, sure—it was better that way. Let them never know that he was the one who'd messed people about without realizing what the consequences would be.

Let them never know the exquisite agony of a love that was a direct consequence of his meddling. He'd got what he deserved for his hand in it all, that was for sure. Sophia was everything: his Woman Clothed With the Sun, everything and all.

And as for the others—oh, the others. Had he done right by them, he wondered?

"Adam," said Pepper, quietly, touching his shoulder.

"You okay, mate?" Brian asked, his bleary smile uncertain.

Wensleydale put his hand on Adam's other shoulder, squeezing tightly.

"You were the only ones I couldn't touch," said Adam. "The only ones safe."

"Cor, is he that drunk already?" Brian asked, finishing off the Jack Daniel's.

Pepper yanked the bottle away from him and tossed it over her shoulder.

It smashed on the unforgiving chalk scree, making them all jump.

"If you think you somehow bollocksed things up for all those other people just by getting in the middle of things," Wensleydale offered, still reasonably sober, "I doubt that's anywhere near the truth. It's all one big happy accident. That's life."

"Happy," Adam said. "There's the rub. I hope they are. I hope we'll be."

"Pffft!" Pepper said. "Look at you two," she said. "It's like...I don't know. Cupid and Psyche. No, wait, worse—Zeus and Hera. Maybe? I don't know. Don't attempt mythology whilst drunk is the moral of this story, but my point is—"

The point is the dolphins, Adam thought, and then shook himself. No. That was somebody else's intoxicated thought, somebody else's mind, somebody else's fairytale that he'd glimpsed in the making and had perhaps even helped wish into being.

"Your point is rubbish," Brian said, starting on a bottle of cider.

Red Apple, Adam thought. Yes. It always started with one of those.

"Hey," Wensleydale said, shifting from his milk crate onto the ground next to Adam's. "Penny for your thoughts? You're getting married seven days from now. We'll all pile into Pep's car and turn up on your godfathers' doorstep, and it'll be ace."

How did that song go? The wolf is getting married, and he'll never cry again

"I'm not sorry, though, is the strange part," Adam said, grinning at each one in turn.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," Pepper insisted. "C'mon. Let's drink."

Never sorry, he thought, accepting another bottle of cider. Not in the least.



* * *





"Shadwell at twelve o'clock," Crowley hissed to Mandy in passing. "Look sharp!"

In retrospect, Crowley's prediction that it wouldn't be as elaborate an affair as it had sounded had been proved an outright lie. Between Adam's childhood friends and one of their significant others, the bride's parents and the groom's parents and all of their siblings, plus Shadwell and Tracy and the Archangels and Pippa and Harold...

It was all they could do to bloody well keep up.

"Aye, aye," Mandy said, putting on a come-hither smile.

Shadwell muttered something about painted Jezebels; Madame Tracy beamed at her.

Takes one to know one, Crowley thought, offering his tray to the man beside him.

"How very kind," said Mr. Young, faintly puzzled. "What's this?"

"Gougères," replied Crowley, distractedly. "Er. Puff pastry filled with Mornay sauce."

"Terribly exotic, Dierdre," he told his wife, handing her one first. "That girl."

"Sophia, you mean?" Crowley asked, stepping away. "Perfectly nice, if you ask me."

He dodged his way out the back door and into the garden, somewhat relieved to see that Pippa had cornered Raphael and Uriel into what sounded like a lengthy explanation of how they had got together. They were having an awfully hard time putting together a human-friendly story from the sound of things.

"There won't be any more of these coming out of the oven, so stuff your face while you can," Crowley told them, thrusting the tray into their midst. "I'm going to have to evacuate the kitchen. The bride, her sisters, the groom, and the erstwhile Tadfield brats have got it in their heads that it's some kind of VIP lounge."

"You could go into catering," Pippa raved, licking her fingers. "You really could."

"No more for me," Raphael said, waving Crowley off. "I've had at least a dozen."

"Don't forget the prawns Mandy's taking around," Uriel said, stuffing another gougère in her mouth. "Mmmh. Crowley, you could make a killing in Los Angeles."

"I'm looking for Aziraphale," Crowley said, scanning the yard. "Have you seen him?"

"Something about a faulty strand of lights out front, last time I checked," said Pippa.

Crowley passed the tray off to her and cut around the side of the cottage.

Aziraphale was sitting on the front steps, an incongruously casual pose for as finely as he was dressed (and Crowley had seen to that), smoking his pipe. The number of times Crowley had ever caught him in the act, counting now, amounted to twice.

"We could just agree to make an evening of it now and then," Crowley said, taking a seat beside him. Aziraphale blew a puff of smoke and handed Crowley the pipe.

"Just as long as you don't mean another one of these blessed affairs," he said.

Crowley took a few puffs and sighed, tasting apricot and clove.

"I don't know how you can claim not to like my cigarettes."

"I don't know how you can claim pipes aren't fashionable."

They passed the pipe back and forth until its embers burned low.

Aziraphale tilted his head so that it almost, but not quite, rested on Crowley's shoulder. Crowley tilted his head so that it rested against the top of Aziraphale's.

"The best man's getting anxious. She thinks the bride and groom need a run-through."

"She?" asked Aziraphale, with a frown in his voice.

"Yeah," Crowley said. "Pepper's Adam's best man. Where have you been?"

"Heaven knows," replied Aziraphale, shrugging. "What about the bridesmaids?"

"The twins make it all up as they go along. They'll be fine."

"That young man with dubious certification...?" Aziraphale asked.

"Wensleydale has been vetted by the Universal Life Church website," Crowley said.

"I thought that was only legally binding in America?"

"They don't give a damn," Crowley said. "If it's not binding, they'll sort it out later." He turned his head and breathed in the scent of Aziraphale's hair: pipe smoke and dew, plenty of fresh worry. Cream cake, maybe, if he closed his eyes tightly enough.

"My dear," said Aziraphale, almost inaudibly. "Have I done wrong by you?"

"Not unless you've got another dove up your sleeve," Crowley said. "Don't think so."

Aziraphale took hold of Crowley's left hand and pressed it between his palms.

"Pippa's got it in her head that I ought to marry you, and I think she may be right."

Crowley frowned into Aziraphale's hair. "But it would be superfluous," he said.

"I know, dear boy," Aziraphale said, and did something peculiar with his right index finger along the underside of Crowley's left ring finger. "But doubt's a funny thing." At first, Crowley's skin tingled; after a few seconds, it burned. He pulled free.

"Ow! What are you playing a—oh," said Crowley, blinking at his hand. "Oh."

"Uriel has a better knack for finding lost objects than I do," Aziraphale explained, eyes lowered. "Comes of all that Dominion Over the Souls of Men business. If humans have loved something enough to pour a piece of their soul into the crafting..."

Crowley stared at the gold signet ring set with a piece of carnelian glass. The features moulded into the oval setting were much worse for wear now, less distinct than he remembered them. He'd bought the ring secondhand from a street vendor; he hadn't even known whose likeness the glass bore, only that it had fascinated him to know someone had been devoted enough to commemorate a loved one's face and wear it.

Gently waving hair and a calm, constant profile worn by centuries of care.

It could have been anyone, but now, there was no one else it could be.

They kissed for even longer than it had taken them to share the pipe.

Somebody finally sent Pippa after them, because the ceremony was about to start.

"We'd best get out there," she said, ignoring the fact that Crowley couldn't look her straight in the eye and that it was taking Aziraphale far too long to adjust his collar. "They'd never forgive you if you missed it, and all for a quick snog, at that!"

Crowley trailed after her, contrite but giddy, and Aziraphale wasn't far behind.

Ironically, the whole affair took roughly fifteen minutes. There wasn't any faffing about with lengthy vows, so standing on the wind-buffeted sand wasn't too taxing on the more elderly persons in attendance. Behind Crowley, the father of the bride was in silent, dignified tears; to his right, Pippa sniffled into her lace handkerchief and Harold kept nudging her arm. Up front, beside Adam, Pepper had on a brave face—perhaps too brave. Janet and Natalie stood on either side of her, tall and serene in matching green gowns; they held hellebore bouquets. Crowley had never seen them so still.

As Wensleydale proclaimed that Sophia could now kiss the groom, Crowley noticed a flash of bright pink petals behind her ear. He searched the small crowd for Uriel and found her standing behind Shadwell and Tracy. She met his eyes and nodded.

That was a relief, at least. He couldn't very well risk the spread of blight.

While everyone else applauded the kiss, Crowley stood motionless, Aziraphale's hand clasped in his. And while none of it made the complex politics of human family relations any clearer, it was an entrancing tableau nonetheless. And breathtaking.

Afterward, Mandy served cocktails in the living room for anyone who wanted them.

Pippa, Harold, Shadwell, Tracy, and the parents were eager to file in and get off their feet—except for Anathema, who lingered outside to serve as DJ on her laptop while everyone who was left over danced. Or stood on the sidelines and watched everyone else dance. Uriel tried to convince Raphael it'd be fun, but he preferred to smoke. The twins badgered Adam and Sophia into choosing a slow number first.

"Oh, unbelievable," Uriel muttered into her glass of wine as, barefoot, the newlyweds took to the sand. "I swear, you get sick of this one in my line of work. Humans get funny about it, especially dead film-buffs. What's that movie called? Ghost."

Crowley snatched the pipe away from Aziraphale and stuck it between his teeth.

"I don't know," he said. "I never minded it. There are worse songs."

"Righteous Brothers," Raphael agreed. "You can't go wrong."

"It's very pretty," said Aziraphale. "I'm not sure I've heard it."

Uriel set her glass on the sand, where it tipped over, and then spent five minutes wheedling Raphael. "Look, everyone else is out there," she told him. "Adam and Sophia! Pepper and the pretty Russian girl! Brian and Wensleydale have each got one of the twins, and I bet their girlfriends are going to be sorry they didn't come!"

Raphael shook his head and lit another cigarette. "Later," he promised.

"Fine," Uriel said, offering her hand to Crowley instead. "Dance with me."

Crowley smiled at her, but Aziraphale was watching him with the kind of quiet hunger that suggested making a fool of himself would, later on, pay off in spades.

"Shall we?" he asked the angel, setting the pipe beside Uriel's glass.

"I thought you'd never ask," said Aziraphale, rising, and pulled him to his feet.



* * *





Aziraphale woke just before dawn, finding that the window was obscured from his line of sight by Crowley's dark, tousled head. He tasted smoke and brine in the curve of Crowley's neck and could feel a few grains of sand, gritty beneath the sole of his foot, still stuck to Crowley's calf. They'd never danced before last night. Remarkable. Crowley sighed in his sleep as Aziraphale slipped free of both him and the covers.

Aziraphale looked in on Uriel and Raphael on his way through the living room.

Crowley didn't like the sofa functioning as a pull-out, but he'd been considerably friendlier to the idea this time around. Raphael snored, wrapped tightly around Uriel's slight form. His unfurled wings very nearly obscured them both.

By the time he reached the front door, Aziraphale was fully dressed.

He walked the shore alone for much the same reason Crowley did, although he rarely found himself searching intently unless he knew there was something Crowley wanted. This was for clearing his thoughts, for reflecting on what had transpired the day before. And there it was again, huddled in the corner of his mind: doubt. But not about Crowley, never again about Crowley for as long as they had left. He'd fight anyone to the death if it meant they would get to dance again.

The air just ahead of him shimmered and tore, red with warning.

"That's what you wanted to hear," Aziraphale said. "What you've been waiting for."

Michael stood directly in Aziraphale's path, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Gabriel said I wouldn't be disappointed. For once, the fuss-budget was right."

"Who put you up to this, I wonder?" Aziraphale mused. "Orders from Gabriel are not, as such, Orders. You've both experienced a great deal of frustration in the past twenty-odd years. What a disappointment, all of that time and effort—"

"You've grown clever," Michael said. "The Metatron made such outlandish claims about your verbal prowess that I thought there'd been some mistake. Aziraphale the ditherer? Aziraphale of the endless lists? You couldn't even keep order in the Garden, it was said, which was why you deserved to stay. Cast out for a time, as it were, doomed to wander. Put to the same test as mortals. Do you think you've passed?"

Aziraphale smiled at him sadly, taking in the dark hair and even darker eyes, the flawless burnished armor. He still looked every inch the consummate soldier-saint. "I'm afraid that's not for you to decide," he told Michael. "It never was."

The Archangel's perfect demeanor twisted and cracked in a scowl.

"Surely you know this isn't business," he seethed. "It's personal."

And suddenly it all fell into place: France in the autumn, remembrance of things past.

"Ah, I see," Aziraphale said. "You convinced Gabriel to keep the trace running. To make spies of them. Wouldn't it have been easier to come yourself to begin with?"

"Crossing you is a risk, old man," said Michael, "and everyone knows it."

"What, Aziraphale the ditherer? Shall I slay you with lists?"

"It's what you've become. You are not what you once were."

"Then what am I now?" Aziraphale asked, carefully slipping his hands in his coat pockets. There was no miraculous dagger forthcoming, not even a poisoned dart to throw. He looked Michael up and down and weighed his odds. They weren't good.

"No better than the monster you lie with," replied Michael, and drew his sword.

What happened next was fuzzy, although Aziraphale realized the tide was up to their ankles only when it bubbled and seethed to boiling with the force Crowley must have used to manifest, directly from bedroom to garden shed to shore, poised exactly between Aziraphale and Michael with the previous resident's rusty scythe in hand.

"You never did play fair, did you?" said Crowley, breathing hard. "So they say."

"Although the gesture is largely meaningless now," said Michael, "I'll find it satisfying to know that this task, however long overdue, didn't go unaccomplished. Shall I give you a fair chance, wretched Adversary? Do you even know how to fight?"

Once his wits returned, Aziraphale couldn't feel anything but raw terror and the sense that if he didn't do something quickly, he wouldn't get the chance to do either killing or dancing. He raced forward and grabbed Crowley from behind, one arm tight across his chest and the other on his wrist, creeping up to get a grip on the scythe.

"Angel, what d'you think you're doing? This isn't—"

Aziraphale's fingers found purchase between Crowley's, wrapping around the handle.

The dull, decrepit curved blade erupted in an arc of blue flame.

Stunned, Crowley let go; Aziraphale pushed him down in the surf and shielded him.

"Shouldn't have let them in," Crowley hissed, disbelieving. "I should never..."

In Aziraphale's peripheral vision, Uriel advanced from the right with her bow at the ready. Raphael flanked him to the left, his pollaxe trained—well, on Aziraphale. Crowley's fingers twisted in Aziraphale's soaked trouser legs, tight with anguish.

"Stay where you are," said Uriel, her tone strangely neutral. "What a lovely reunion."

"Entirely charming," Raphael agreed, edging closer to Michael. "Do the honors?"

Michael shrugged, lowering his sword. "Wouldn't you rather have a bit of fun first?"

"Arrows aren't exactly sporting material," Uriel said. "Swift. No time for a tease."

Crowley, I'm sorry, thought Aziraphale, and stood his ground with the scythe extended at arms' length, waiting. Whatever comes of this, we'll share the same fate.

"Go on," Michael said, nodding to Raphael. "Do you even remember how to use that?"

Raphael grinned: companionable, but cold. He took one step closer to Michael, as if to embrace him briefly, and then—

"Stay where you are," he gritted out, sinking the pollaxe into Michael's breastplate, using it to yank him off balance. Michael went down face-first in the surf, sputtering. Uriel cleared the remaining distance in just a few strides, crouching so that her arrow was level with Michael's sopping, slightly raised head. If she fired, he was done for.

"Now I remember why you guys were no fun to hang out with," Crowley said, sagging against Aziraphale's shins. "No sense of humor whatsoever." He was soaked now, shivering with the swells that were threatening to cover Michael entirely.

Aziraphale dropped the scythe and sank down beside him, taking hold of whatever part of Crowley he could reach, which was, admittedly, just about all of him. Crowley stiffened—only briefly, thank goodness—and then clung to him, utterly exhausted.

"You're a fucking idiot," Uriel said, using her arrow to indicate that Michael should let go of his sword. Raphael hauled him to his feet and roughly dislodged the pollaxe.

"Are you going to get out of here?" Raphael asked. "Or shall we escort you back?"

"Just like the old days," Uriel chided, lowering her bow. She returned the arrow to her quiver with a flourish. "All bloodied up after a street brawl. You never could hold your liquor on the odd weekend down here, but seriously, dude, you're not even drunk."

Michael glared at her, scrubbing at his sand-burned cheek. "If you think the manner in which you conduct yourselves is dignified—"

"Dignity's kind of uncool these days," Raphael said. "It's more about being yourself."

Aziraphale wanted to say something clever, but he knew he was outclassed.

"Can we go now?" asked Crowley, resting his chin on Aziraphale's shoulder.

Michael was studying the demon with something akin to confusion.

"When the scythe transformed," he said, "you were touching it. You should've been..."

Crowley's eyes went wide. "Vaporized on the spot? Quite possibly. Huh."

They regarded each other warily, and then both of them looked at Aziraphale.

"If you think I've got any idea, then you'll be sorely disappointed."

Raphael and Uriel each took one of Michael's arms.

"He got laid off," Uriel said. "Long story. Would you like to hear it on the way back?"

"Who keeps the keys to lock-up these days?" Raphael asked him.

"That won't be necessary," Michael insisted, struggling in their combined grasp.

"It looked an awful lot like disturbing the peace to me," Crowley remarked.

Uriel shaded her eyes and stared up at the clouds, which were luminous with sunrise.

"I'm so not looking forward to this," she said. "Unless I get to punch Gabriel."

"We'll see, darling," Raphael said, flexing his wings. "Are you all finished here?"

Michael gave a curt nod, but his eyes never once left Crowley.

"I'll call you when we get home," Uriel said. "You owe me a dance," she added, and winked at Crowley. "I can think of at least a dozen ways to make you pay up."

Before Crowley could respond, liquid-gold lightning cracked the sky and lit the horizon from end to end. His wings unfurled a fraction of a second behind Aziraphale's, attemping to shield them from the blowback. They ended up in a sprawl on the sand, and the next breaker wasn't far behind. Crowley's sodden wings flopped uselessly.

Aziraphale regained his footing first, helping Crowley to his feet. "Indoors, my dear," he said, adjusting Crowley's ring, which had swiveled around on his finger. He drew Crowley's knuckles up to his lips, kissed them, and studied Crowley's drawn, apprehensive face. "Get some tea and decent hot breakfast in you."

"Did you see it coming, angel?" asked Crowley.

"No," admitted Aziraphale, sighing. "Not by a long shot."

"Do you think it'll happen again?" Crowley pressed, wincing as they made their way up the beach with arms slung about each other's shoulders. "If that was more than just a divine temper tantrum on time-delay, we're in trouble. Totally screwed, even."

"I doubt it," said Aziraphale, "but if he so much as tries, I'll run him through."

"With a scythe?" asked Crowley, with a wry sidelong smile. "Difficult."

"His head makes for a fine target," Aziraphale said, coaxing him through the garden gate and up to the back porch. "What a mess they've left," he said, glancing about.

"Humans tend to do that," said Crowley, holding the door open for him.

"With a little bit of help," Aziraphale replied, and followed him in.

Chapter Text

"This is awesome," Mandy said, grinning conspiratorially at Crowley, elbows propped on her raised knees. "Anybody else would've shouted at me by now. Mum never liked it when I put my feet up on the seat in front of me at the cinema."

"Well, it's for a good cause," Crowley said, his feet likewise firmly planted on the stool next to the one he currently occupied. "When Aziraphale tells you to stake out seats and reserve them, he doesn't particularly care how you go about it."

Mandy peered across the cafeteria table, almost losing her balance.

"I like your socks," she said, eyes on Crowley's ankles. "Where'd you get those?"

"Covent Garden," said Crowley, distractedly, waving at Pippa and Aziraphale, who had finished paying the cashier for two dangerously overloaded trays full of assorted edibles. "Sock Shop. I think it's in King Street, but don't quote me on that—"

"Careful, love," Pippa said, setting her tray down in front of Mandy. "Everyone can see your knickers." The girl straightened up sulkily, planting both feet firmly on the floor.

Madame Tracy would be proud, Crowley thought, swinging his own legs down so Aziraphale could sit. The angel positioned his tray between them; before Crowley could reach for the mug of Earl Grey he'd requested, Aziraphale handed it to him.

"Sugar's already in, my dear," he said. "I've got extras if it's not enough."

Crowley shoved his sunglasses up into his hair and took a grateful sip.

"Thanks," he said, leaning ever so slightly into Aziraphale's shoulder. "Hits the spot."

"One does try," replied Aziraphale, and took a brisk sip of his coffee. "Now, would you like the egg and cress or the cheese and pickle?" He opened the sandwich cartons one after the other for Crowley to inspect, shiftily eyeing the cheese and pickle.

"Whichever," Crowley said, taking the egg and cress. He'd surrender his prize.

"You guys are so cute it's gross," Mandy muttered into a bite of her Cornish pasty.

"It's just give and take," Pippa said, poking her salad, which looked a bit brown at the edges; Crowley fixed it before she could complain. "Takes years to cultivate, of course, and when what you've got to work with is as stubborn as Harold..."

Mandy yawned behind her napkin. "Can we see the Roman galleries next?"

"An excellent choice," said Aziraphale, already two-thirds finished with the first half of his sandwich. "You'll find Room Forty-Nine especially interesting, I expect."

Crowley focused on his tea, because that, at least, was lovely. "Roman Britain?" he ventured, relaxing under Aziraphale's hand on his thigh. "That's an odd one, given your course. Aren't you reading Comparative Religion?" That, at least, was a step up from the bloody Device-Pulsifer twins reading bloody English.

"I switched to History," said Mandy, guiltily. "Graduation's in June, remember?"

"Acceptable pursuits, both," said Aziraphale, diplomatically, although Crowley instantly recognized that subtle whiff of disappointment. Most humans, even ones who'd got to know Aziraphale reasonably well, rarely did. "How did you find the transition?"

Mandy never did get to answer, because, from across the table, Pippa suddenly had Crowley's left wrist in a vise-grip. Alarming and heartening all at once, he supposed, how strong she was. There wasn't the slightest tremor in her soft, wrinkled fingers.

"Young man, have you been keeping secrets from me?" she asked in a delighted tone, her thumb tracing the upper arc of his ring's gold bezel with fond care. "It looks very old," she said, peering at the weathered portrait in the glass setting as Crowley obediently extended his arm. "A happy coincidence, I'm sure," she added, her eyes flicking up to study Aziraphale's features. "And a striking one, at that. Clever."

"I had it a long..." Crowley paused, considering his explanation carefully. "No, actually. I should say, I had one like it a long while ago, but I lost it under less than fortunate circumstances." Kids dying faster than you can revive them; that's always really great. "Aziraphale still knows some of the antiquities-dealer types here in London, so..." Sorry, he thought to Uriel, wherever she was: whether in Heaven or in America, it was nonetheless a world away. Believe it or not, I wish you were here.

"You old romantic," Pippa said to Aziraphale, letting Mandy take Crowley's hand.

Rather than answer, Aziraphale pursed his lips and watched her trace the full bezel.

Mandy's fingertips were cool against Crowley's palm; he hadn't come in contact with her skin since the kiss she'd stolen all those months ago behind the café. She traced the oval a second time, probably just to make Aziraphale squirm. For once, all of that delicate intensity wasn't focused on Crowley's face or on his ankles or on any other part of him. He knew covetousness when he saw it; that, at least, was second nature, an old habit peering in briefly from retirement. She'd become a collector one day.

"Second century," she murmured, leaning over to squint at the portrait. "Third?"

Aziraphale's hand drifted down to Crowley's knee, squeezing gently.

"That's about right," Crowley said, extracting his hand smoothly. He picked up the half of his sandwich that he'd reluctantly started on and finished it, buying himself a minute or so. "Those first few centuries after got pretty blurry for everyone."

"One imagines," added Aziraphale, hastily. "So much going on, such volatile change."

Mandy picked up what was left of her pasty and gave Crowley a strange, sad smile.

"Dance at my wedding," she said, and then looked to Aziraphale. "Promise."

Crowley let his free hand drop beneath the table; Aziraphale caught and held it fast.

"Oh, bless," Pippa said, dabbing her eyes. "You've got ages yet, don't talk like that!"

"There is nothing, my dear girl," said Aziraphale, "that I would more gladly do."

Crowley returned her smile, but he was sure his rendition paled in comparison.

"Not just with him," he said, tilting his head at Aziraphale. "I promise."

Chapter Text

1. Consultation

"She's bringing what?" asked Crowley, stupefied. "And who?"

"The Hunger Games," repeated Aziraphale, patiently. "It's out on DVD and blue rays and such now. And Robert—you know, her daughter's boy. She's got him this week while Nicola and her husband are on holiday in Provence. They ought to've taken the child, if you ask me. Travel from a young age does them a world of good."

"Blu-ray," Crowley corrected him. And too little results in army-base playgrounds and backyard Inquisitions, he thought, fetching a dishcloth to wipe down the table. "Robert is five," he said. "What's that film rated? I mean, I remember the books from when you blitzed them a couple of years ago. Not what I'd call standard fare for a toddler."

"He speaks in fully formed sentences and excels at basic maths," said Aziraphale, hastily taking the dishcloth off of him. "My dear, please let me. He's old enough for those dreadful video games full of guns and gore, so why not this film?"

Crowley stood back and folded his arms, watching Aziraphale make an extravagant show of herding the crumbs from breakfast and lunch into a soggy pile at the far end of the table; he hoped the mouse had got a few. "What time are they coming?"

"Six o'clock, and I promised we'd sort out nibbles," said Aziraphale, cringing, using the cloth to brush the crumbs into his palm. He marched them over to the bin with a grimace that Crowley ought to have photographed with his mobile. "Why?"

"It's Monday," Crowley said. "Movie Night is Wednesday, unless it's canceled."

Aziraphale was busy scrubbing his hands clean under the tap. "Which means..."

"Which means I have a Skype date with Uriel," Crowley said.

"Since when?" Aziraphale asked, drying his hands.

"Every Monday since the one after the weekend we took Pippa and Mandy to London."

"So, three weeks now," said Aziraphale. "Can't you cancel? Surely she'll understand."

"No," Crowley told him, turning to face the work-top. He took down a single mug and punched the switch on the kettle. There was no explaining that Pippa was half the reason for tonight's chat to begin with. He needed advice, and he needed it from a sane person. He'd have asked Sophia, but her MA dissertation was riding her hard.

Aziraphale stepped up behind him, reaching around to take the mug from his hand.

"I had forgot," he said, his cheek pressed to Crowley's ear. "What would you like?"

"Anything that's not that stupid caffeine-free rooibos," Crowley sighed.

"You can just nip out when it's time," Aziraphale said, setting the mug down.

"I'll have nipped out by then anyway, if the film's paced properly," he said.

Aziraphale sucked in his breath and let it out again: acknowledgment of deep error.

"You needn't watch at all," he said. "Apologies. I should know better by now—"

"Shut up," said Crowley, and kissed him. "Tea. And then Tesco, because I want popcorn. You'd better be up on what five year-olds eat, because I haven't a clue."

Two mugs of tea and a phone-call to Pippa later, they had it on proud granny's good authority that young master Rob liked raw carrots, diced-up tomatoes, cucumber sticks, and about anything else green he could get his clever little hands on.

There might be hope for this one, Crowley thought on their way out the door.

Three hours later, they returned and arranged a full spread that included a few early carrots from the garden. They had an hour and a half to spare, during which time Crowley insisted a nap was in order; Aziraphale sat beside him in bed with a book, although the pretense didn't last long (because, truth be told, Crowley wasn't all that sleepy, and Aziraphale had other, warmer ways of making missteps up to him).

They'd only just got dressed again when the doorbell rang.

"Your timing's getting better," Crowley said, dodging a tossed pillow.

When they answered the door, Rob vaulted himself straight at Aziraphale.

"I learned a new magic trick from Mum!" he exclaimed.

"Then you must show me later," said Aziraphale, swinging the boy from side to side until he'd managed to extract a giggle. "In the meantime, we've got plenty for you to eat, and your Gran's brought an exciting film for us to watch together."

Rob turned to watch Crowley, who hadn't managed to extract himself from Pippa.

"Well, how's it going?" she hissed in his ear. "Any luck yet?"

"No," Crowley said, making his escape. He straightened his shirt and looked at Rob. "How're you, then?" Crowley asked. "I haven't seen you since Christmas."

"Mum says when I'm older there are things I can put in my eyes to make them look like yours. It's not exactly the same, but I'm sure nobody will know the difference."

"They're called contact lenses," Crowley said, "and I think that sort are for Halloween costumes. They can cause allergic reactions, I've heard, so you'd best be careful."

"Some people wear them all the time," Rob insisted. "My eyes are starting to get blurry. I can't even read that," he said, pointing to the calendar on the wall. "Mum says we'll have a 'scussion with the optics-man who's a lady at my next check-up."

"Very good, Rob, my lad," said Pippa, taking him from Aziraphale. "Run along and have some veggies while we set up the film." She turned to Crowley and set a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, bless him, there's no hearing the end of it. Sorry."

"At least he doesn't want piercings," Crowley said, wrestling a bag of popcorn out of its wrapper. "I hope you'll forgive my absence," he added. "I've got a video-chat date in half an hour." He put the bag in the microwave and slammed it shut.

"Uriel's very determined to keep in touch," Aziraphale explained.

"Ooh! Well, surely you'll be wanting to nip off and say hello, too! We can hit pause."

"There's really no need," said Crowley. "On either count."

"She has a point," said Aziraphale. "I might nip in and say hello."

Crowley's gut twisted uncomfortably. "She wanted to ask my advice on something."

Pippa gave Crowley a knowing look, which she instantly turned on Aziraphale.

"Let the bright young things have their secrets," she chided, catching his sleeve. "Come on, I've been dying for you to see this. They've done a marvelous job..."

They vanished into the sitting-room, leaving Crowley alone with Rob's gleeful crunching and the sound of popping corn. The boy hopped down from his chair, plate of veggies in hand, and wandered over to stand beside Crowley at the microwave.

"Uriel's not your girlfriend, is she?" he asked worriedly. "I thought you were taken."

"I am," Crowley told him. "I'm with that silly man in there, and don't you forget it. You'll learn the difference, school-yards being what they are. Uriel's a friend."

"Who's a girl," Rob added, sticking a carrot in his mouth. "I was just making sure."

"How conscientious of you," Crowley said, taking the boy by the shoulders. "Now, off you go to see Gran and Aziraphale. They've got the title screen up and running."

"I've seen it already," said Rob. "With Mum and Dad. There's lots of blood."

"I've heard," Crowley said, ushering him along. "I don't know if that's my thing."

"I'll watch it again just for you," said the boy, bravely, "and report back."

"How very considerate," Crowley said, leaving him next to the sofa, enduring amused glances from Pippa and Aziraphale as he crossed the room, ducked into the study, and closed the door firmly behind him. The computer was just as he'd left it, turned on with Skype booted up, and damn it, Uriel's call was already ringing through.

"Sorry!" Crowley exclaimed, clicking rapidly and adjusting the webcam. "Sorry. Hi."

Uriel's image feed went from grainy to crystal clear. She beamed at him.

"Let me guess," she said as he adjusted the sound. "Surprise!Pippa?"

"Is there any other kind?" Crowley asked. "The grandson, too."

"The one from Christmas? You said he was adorable."

"Did I?" Crowley asked. "Must've been drunk at the time."

"You were," Uriel replied. "I hope somebody got you two dancing on video."

One blue eye and a strand of fiery auburn hair invaded the feed.

"You're blocking my view," Crowley told them irritably.

"Hey there," said Raphael, drawing back until the rest of his face was visible. "What's up on your side of the pond, darling? Where's our favorite Principality?"

"Get the hell out of here," Uriel said, shoving him roughly; the camera went wonky, and all Crowley could see was some papers and a purple gel-pen on her desk until the camera righted itself again and her apologetic expression filled the lens. "He's having one of his douchebag days, but you could probably already tell. Where were we?"

"Fiercely hoping nobody had caught Aziraphale and me on video," Crowley said.

"Let me see it again," Uriel said, resting her chin on her hand. "It was so dark out there, and then, of course, we all just kind of stumbled to bed—and, well, what happened in the morning bumped getting a closer look off my list of priorities."

"I thought you must've had a good look when you traced it?" Crowley asked, removing the ring. He held it up to the lens of his webcam, adjusting the distance until the likeness in the moulded glass was clear. Even in simulacrum, it was perfect.

"Nope," Uriel said, her silvery eyes widening slightly as she studied it. "I just told him where he'd have to focus his energy as far as retrieval. It's so pretty," she said. "Put it back on; I don't want you to drop it. I'd never forgive myself if the glass cracked."

Crowley twisted it back onto his finger. "I don't even know where to begin," he said.

"I got your email, and I've been thinking about those few ideas you mentioned," Uriel replied. "I think he'd have a fit if you were to buy a snuffbox and have it torn apart; he'd always regret not seeing what it looked like in its original form. Also, silver tarnishes very easily, and I doubt he'd be the sort to conscientiously remove a ring for purposes of bathing or doing dishes. If he can sit and read for three days and nights without interruption, he's damned well going to put the thing on and leave it."

"Right," Crowley said, crestfallen. He ticked Great Idea Number One off his list.

"Next up: the tyre iron. Personally, I think that's incredible, but I've seen that thing; it's as old as your car, and the metal's pitted and worse for wear. You'd end up kicking yourself if you cannibalized even a little bit of it for melting down. Just like the car, it's got memories attached. You'd do better to keep it in one piece."

"Why is she always right?" Crowley asked the ceiling.

"If I'm actually wrong, you can tell me," Uriel reassured him.

"But you're not," Crowley sighed. Great Idea Number Two bit the dust.

"That leaves the option of some other type of custom job," Uriel said, "but I know you're hesitant to spend money, and you have a point about the inherent difficulty. Aziraphale is either totally unfussed or fucking picky. And I have no idea which end of his spectrum a ring would fall on, given I've never even seen him wear one."

"My prospects for pulling this off, then," Crowley said, "are nil." Great Idea Number Three didn't just go down like a lead balloon; it took out some floorboards on the way.

"Don't give up hope," Uriel said, reaching for the screen, as if to touch his face. Her fingers stopped short and dropped to the desk, planting themselves on the gel-pen. "I'm the wrong person to ask," she said, fiddling with it. "I don't have much use for jewelry unless it's cheap earrings. The humans you guys have been hanging out with might have a better sense for what his inclinations might be. Although Pippa..."

"...is a pain in the arse, so let's not go there," Crowley finished for her.

"Please don't cry. You look like you might. You know so many clever people, and—"

Crowley pinched the bridge of his nose. "Let's not talk about this anymore."

They spent the next forty-five minutes discussing the improbability of Shadwell and Tracy ever formally tying the knot, although it was clear from Uriel's vague distraction and furrowed brow that she was running just as many eBay searches as he was. Why were Regency-era men's rings so gaudy in comparison to the delicate wonders wrought for women? He couldn't see Aziraphale sporting a huge square of polished opal any sooner than he could approve of all those ungainly three-stone settings.

Just then, Aziraphale pottered in with a mug of tea and a bowl of popcorn.

Crowley hastily clicked the browser shut and turned around.

"I wondered if you'd turn up," Uriel said. "That's better room service than I ever get."

Aziraphale set the food down on the desk beside Crowley's arm and bent to kiss his temple. Crowley tilted his head up and kissed Aziraphale on the mouth, hoping his agitation wouldn't show. Aziraphale touched his cheek, brow furrowed.

"Loo break for the little one," he explained. "Hello, dear girl. Nearly finished?"

"Nearly," Crowley said, cutting Uriel off. "How's the film?"

"Unexpectedly gripping," Aziraphale said. "Coming up on the worst of it, I fear."

"I'll keep him busy," Uriel promised, crossing her fingers. "Scout's honor."

"I'll leave you to it," Aziraphale said, helping himself to a few pieces of popcorn.

"We might've been onto something," Uriel told Crowley once he was gone.

"Clearly we weren't," said Crowley, frowning. "Explain?"

"Not what," she said, idly scribbling on her wrist. "Think who."



2. Aggravation

It was several days before Crowley got enough time alone to make the call.

Aziraphale had arranged to meet Anathema at the local historical society for a chat (a tricky case, apparently, that called for research skills slightly more practiced than even a human as clever as Anathema could boast), and a chat normally meant five or six hours of poring over books and going mmm-hmmm at each other.

Crowley clicked through the neatly organized tabs in Aziraphale's address book. If there was anything he'd learned since they moved in together, it was that Aziraphale religiously upgraded both his machines and his operating systems. He'd switched from Apple to PC sometime in the mid-nineties, and Crowley still wasn't sure he approved.

There it was: Shadwell / Tracy Household - Shangri La, Folkestone, Kent.

He experienced a moment of deep gratitude that they hadn't moved to Dover.

Crowley's fingers faltered a bit on the keypad of his mobile.

"Hello, love," answered a motherly voice. "Sadly, Madame Tracy No Longer Draws Aside the Veil unless it's for private functions at a very good fee. How can I help?"

"Er, hi," Crowley said. "It's me. Lovely seeing you at the wedding, by the way—"

"Crowley, how nice," said Madame Tracy. "Lovely seeing you and the husband, too!"

Crowley scratched the side of his neck. "How's Shadwell keeping? He seemed a bit...worse for wear by the end of the evening. I trust he's fully recovered by now."

"You know how he is once he's had a few pints in him, love. He only means well."

"Yes, wonderful," Crowley said, leaning hard on the desk. "I was wondering..."

"Is everything all right between you two?" asked Madame Tracy, concerned.

"If it's not, I'd be the last to know," Crowley told her. "It is to do with Aziraphale, though, and I thought you might be able to point me in the right direction."

"Last time you rang up, you were in a right state," sighed Madame Tracy.

"We agreed to disagree," said Crowley, clearing his throat. "This is a happier matter."

"Really, love?" asked Madame Tracy, dubiously. "I'd have put the kettle on by now."

"That's very touching," Crowley said, rising, and headed for the kitchen. "I'll do it for you if you like. Just—listen, you saw the ring, I'm sure, as perceptive as you are, and now I haven't got a bloody clue where to start with Aziraphale's and I thought—"

"Ring," she said, her voice soft and wondering. "Oh, you dear thing. Congratulations."

Crowley covered his eyes and cursed silently at the kettle, which was as slow as ever.

"I thought everybody had noticed, but, no, Mandy and Pippa hadn't, either, so leave it to Uriel and Rafe to be the only ones, splendid, right," Crowley babbled, pulling his thoughts back on task. "I want to get one for Aziraphale. That's how it's done, yeah? You exchange rings. You in the general sense, of course, as I wouldn't presume—"

"We did the paperwork a long time ago," said Madame Tracy. "Very low key."

Well, what do you know, Crowley thought. I just won a bet.

"Then I'm happy for you," he said. "Did you...ah..."

"Plain gold bands in fifteen-karat," she replied. "I forget to wear mine half the time."

"Listen, I hope this isn't rude or anything, but he was in your head for at least a few hours," Crowley said, pushing his tea bag around fretfully with a fork, which was the only piece of silverware he'd found to hand. "I know it was over twenty years ago now, but—quite frankly, I can't even boast that kind of extended exposure, and you've kept up correspondence with him over the years, so I just thought—"

"He doesn't spend much time thinking about jewelry, love," chuckled Madame Tracy.

"Then what was he thinking about, for heaven's sake?"

"Finding a way to Tadfield, of course. Finding that dear, sweet boy. Finding you."

"Third on the list, sure," Crowley said. "Not surprised in the least."

"You know better than that," Madame Tracy chided him. "Now, then: have you considered hitting the antique shops? I'm sure you've scoured eBay and all of those other computer things, but sometimes you've got to do it the old-fashioned way."

"I've been through all of the local ones a dozen times," Crowley said, rummaging in the cupboard for his jar of Italian acacia honey. "Couldn't really steal away when I was in London a few weeks ago, either," he said. "I was surrounded."

"You know, when I was in Cambridge years ago visiting my niece Petula at uni," she mused, "I remember browsing the shops. Such a charming town, if you can tolerate all those giddy first-years running about. Most of them aren't interested in antiques."

Then you haven't properly got to know Amanda Tomlin, Crowley thought, although that was a bit irrelevant now, as Mandy was in her third year at Bristol and just a month off graduating. Humans had got it right: time did fly, and it was alarming.

"I hadn't thought of that," he said. "And I know somebody who lives there."

"Pay them a visit," suggested Madame Tracy. "You never know what you might find."

They spent the next two hours discussing the frustrations of life-partners who rarely did housework unless it was for purposes of sucking up or out of some misplaced sense of guilt. Crowley was pleased to note that Aziraphale's guilt was rarely misplaced these days, and Madame Tracy admitted that she envied him on that score. Aziraphale and Anathema turned up just as he was saying his goodbyes.

"Don't be a stranger," Madame Tracy told him. "Come see us more often, won't you?"

Crowley waved at Anathema first, who was hovering next to Aziraphale in the doorway. Much to his shock, she was dressed closer to the way he remembered her as a young woman. Her skirt almost brushed the floor, but it didn't hide her clogs.

"I'll mention your invitation to Aziraphale," he said. "I'm sure we will do."

"As you young people are fond of putting it: go get him, tiger!" she said, and hung up.

"You'll mention what, my dear?" asked Aziraphale. "Who was it?"

Crowley sat blinking at his phone for a few seconds before responding.

"Madame Tracy," he said finally. "She'd like us to come 'round more often."

"She does get awfully chatty," said Aziraphale, offering Crowley his hand. "Up with you, my dear. Time for some fresh air. I promised Anathema we'd treat her to lunch."

"Shoes," Crowley said, casting about the room, and then looked up at Anathema. "You don't mind, do you?" He snapped his fingers, and they were suddenly just where they ought to be. "Are Sophia and Adam at home this weekend, or at yours?"

"Not at all," Anathema said. "And why do you ask?"

"Sophia mentioned some new wine shop she wanted to show me," Crowley lied.

"Sophia's supposed to come home Saturday evening," Anathema said. "Otherwise, she's free. Adam's in Tadfield, because Sarah's in town visiting their parents."

"Brilliant," said Crowley, finishing off his tea in one gulp. "Let's go."

 

3. Excavation

"I won't need it," Crowley insisted. "We're meeting at Caffè Nero."

"It's a two and a quarter hours' drive," Aziraphale replied, handing him the thermos.

"An hour and forty-five when I drive it," Crowley said, but he didn't hand the tea back.

Aziraphale kissed him, and they stumbled back against the doorframe.

"You'll be back late?" he asked, straightening Crowley's sunglasses.

"Possibly," Crowley said. "I promised I'd drive her to her parents' place this evening."

"That takes you an hour and a half out of your way," Aziraphale sighed. "Very well."

Crowley opened the door, thermos clutched to his chest, and paused for a moment.

"Angel?"

"Hmmm?"

"I'll come back," he said, stepping out into the sun. "I'll always come back."

They stood palm to palm through the glass for a moment, and then Crowley left.

The drive seemed less ominous than the last time Crowley had made it (although the primary difference may have been Aziraphale's tea). It took him a while to find parking, however, which necessitated profuse apologies on sighting Sophia in the coffee shop. She'd situated herself in the back right-hand corner, the exact spot where they'd first met. She snapped her book shut and rose to hug him. Her black hair was impossibly soft against his jaw, several airy wisps escaping her tight fishtail braid.

He held onto her like a lifeline; why she comforted him so, he couldn't say.

"I got your email," Sophia murmured. "You're having a rough time, aren't you?"

Crowley let go of her and stepped back, adjusting his jacket.

"Now I know what hu—you mean when you say someone's tough to shop for."

Sophia narrowed her eyes at him, unblinking, and earnestly studied his face.

"I'm nearly there. I can't get Mum to talk straight about you two, no matter what. I accept impossible things; I've grown up with quite a number of them as just a matter of course. You're one of those things, aren't you? You and Aziraphale, I mean."

Crowley smiled nervously, took her offered hand, and gestured toward the door.

"It's almost eleven," he said. "Even the most cantankerous of the lot will be open."

"I'm sorry," she said, leading him out into daylight. "I shouldn't pry."

"I'd rather she told you," Crowley admitted, following her past an open-air fruit stand. "Or let you work it out for yourself," he said, watching her trail delicate fingertips over cherries, pomegranates, and apples. She handed the vendor fifty pence and took one.

She gave him a dazzling grin over her shoulder as she walked, and time stopped.

(The resemblance was there to torment him, he imagined: black-haired, headstrong, and brave. If any gene pool had a chance at holding the memory of her likeness fast, he didn't doubt the Device family tree one whit. And she'd gone and married Adam.)

"The first one's just up here," she told him. "Had a look in the window yesterday."

You're proof something went right in spite of it all, he thought, following her inside.

The establishment reminded Crowley of every other antique-dealer's shop he'd ever run across, Aziraphale's included. Dim lighting, dust, and a certain hush: you'd sooner talk in a bloody library. Sophia trailed along the first glass case, carefully concealing the apple in her pocket. It was unusually early in the season to see russets. She'd already taken a bite, telltale sheen of juice on her upturned hand.

"Can I help you?" asked the proprietress brusquely, looking up from her magazine.

"No," Sophia reassured her before Crowley could open his mouth. "We're just looking."

The woman's features softened. She nodded and went back to reading.

Crowley paused over a display of Victorian pocket-watches. He remembered a time when Aziraphale carried one, although he couldn't say when that had stopped. Nineteen thirty, perhaps, or nineteen forty? He wouldn't have minded if that feature had stuck around, because pocket-watches had never really fallen out of fashion.

"Hey," said Sophia, quietly. "There are some gents' rings over here. Come and see."

They were, as Crowley had feared, nearly all masonic pieces. The ones that weren't masonic were signets engraved with cryptic initials, all of them wrong. There was a shield-shaped one set with coral, and even a split-setting with opal and lapis, but he'd seen any number of pieces similar to those on eBay.

"Not quite right," Crowley said. "They're all too clunky and impersonal."

Sophia frowned. "Now I know what you mean by hard to shop for."

They tried three more shops before deciding it was time to get lunch, and none of them proved more helpful than the first. Sophia suggested Rainbow Café; although it was a popular student hang-out, she assured him the food was worth any ambient undergraduate chatter they might have to endure. She managed to tempt him in on the merits of its organic wine list alone. Crowley wasn't sure the Can Vandrell Tinto was going to pair well with his tagine l'algerienne, but what the hell. Fifteen quid for a bottle of quality Spanish red was difficult to pass up under any circumstances. Sophia learned the hard way that spinach lasagna didn't pair well, either.

"Mum said you guys took her out the other day," she said, on her second glass.

"That's right," Crowley said, pushing couscous and sultanas around on his plate.

"She and Aziraphale get on," Sophia continued. "Does it ever bug you, his social life?"

Crowley shrugged and emptied the dregs of the wine into his glass.

"Most of them are friends of mine, too. I'm more of a homebody these days, is all."

"You're not as good with crowds. There's nothing wrong with preferring one-on-one."

Guess I've always been like that, he thought. Where one equals Aziraphale.

Sophia almost dropped her fork. "Did you...did you just let me..."

Crowley gave her an innocent look. "How did you put it? Just one of those things?"

"It's not funny when you grow up with a mum who can do that," she said. "It's even less funny when you realize you're reading your younger sisters all the damn time unless you make a real effort to shut it out. So, kindly don't take the piss."

"Your birthright," Crowley told her, "is complicated. You'd better get used to it."

"Adam's part of it," she said, emptying her glass. "He must be, the wanker."

"Finish your lasagna," Crowley said. "I want to see if they'll sell me another bottle of this stuff on the way out." Much like with her mother, even mild drunkenness gave way to bluntness and cursing. He paid the tab, and they left with more of the wine.

They meandered their way through four more antique shops before Crowley announced that he'd had it up to here with the nonstop, multi-stone setting sapphire and ruby nonsense. Still slightly tipsy, Sophia agreed. They made their way to the riverside green behind King's College Chapel and opened the second bottle.

"I think," Sophia said, passing the wine, "you've got to consider later pieces."

Crowley took a long swig and gave her a bleary stare, wiping his chin on his sleeve.

"Later than what?"

"Later than Regency and Victorian. Have you tried searching for Art Deco stuff?"

Crowley cringed and passed her the bottle. "No thanksss. The architecture was bad enough."

"My friend's dad's a jeweler," Sophia said. "He sells estate pieces. Anyway, he gave Marjorie this gorgeous platinum ring from around nineteen twenty for Christmas. My point is mostly that platinum would suit Aziraphale better than any shade of gold."

Crowley lay back in the grass and considered this, watching some clouds drift by.

"Maybe," he said. "Expensssive, though. I mean, guess this once wouldn't hurt."

Sophia leaned over him, braid dangling, and plucked off his sunglasses.

"You hiss when you're drunk," she said. "Or you hiss when I'm drunk. Either way."

Crowley put his arms behind his head and shrugged. "It can't be helped. Ssso, platinum? Really?"

"Yeah," she said, setting the sunglasses on his chest, and flopped down beside him.

He must have drifted off, because the sun was low in the sky when Sophia shook him awake. She must have done, too, because there were grass-imprints on her chin. "Crowley," she whispered, lightly patting his cheek. "I've thought of something."

"What?" he asked, replacing his sunglasses. "Surely it's too late, though."

"Too late for the shops," she said. "But not for what I'm thinking of. Take me home."

Crowley knew better than to ignore that kind of quiet urgency. He helped Sophia to her feet and they walked arm-in-arm to where he'd left the Bentley, both of them more or less sober by the time they got there. He'd surreptitiously seen to it.

"This is still warm," Sophia said, examining the thermos once she'd buckled herself in.

"And it'll never cool," Crowley said, jamming the Bentley into reverse. "Have some."

Aziraphale's estimate of an hour and a half from Cambridge to West Drayton wasn't too far off, although Crowley managed to cut it by about twenty minutes. By the time they pulled up in the Device-Pulsifer driveway, Crowley had heard Sophia sing along with all of the words to his favorite Velvet Underground album. She clearly hadn't got her taste in music from either of her parents. He followed her up the front stairs.

"Eight o'clock," said Anathema, answering the door. "Better than Adam ever did."

"Mum, shut it," Sophia said. "I've got to ask you something. It's important."

Before Crowley could so much as say hello, she'd stepped up close and begun to whisper something quick and complicated in Anathema's ear. Her mother stepped back and made a face, as if trying to remember something she had forgot on purpose.

"We must have it somewhere," she told Sophia, "but if you think I'm digging around in that attic with you, forget it. Why don't you two go up and have a rummage?" Sophia hugged Anathema hard, and then beckoned Crowley into the house.

The way to the attic was up a rickety pull-down ladder that narrowly missed hitting Sophia on the head. Crowley soldered the connecting joints solid with a glare as he climbed up after her. He'd worry about reversing the process later; the last thing he needed was for Adam Young's new bride to break her neck on his watch.

"Gah, it's stuffy up here," Sophia wheezed, crawling on all fours to reach a dangling chain. She yanked on it once, and harsh orange light filled the cramped space. "Mum said she thinks that what we're looking for is in the Device Trunk."

Crowley disguised his snicker as a violent sneeze.

"What are we looking for?" he asked.

"Treasure," said Sophia, gravely.

They had to move five or six boxes in order to get at the trunk, which was large, unfriendly, and sported an ancient padlock. Sophia swore under her breath and muttered something about a key, but Crowley touched the lock and it instantly clicked open in his hand. With a wordless nod, they each took a corner of the lid and lifted.

"Ages ago," Sophia said, leaning to feel around inside while Crowley held the massive thing open, "when Mum was on one of her reciting-family-history kicks, she said something about her paternal great-grandfather being a metalsmith. We have a silver tea service that he made, plus some brass and copper vessels from when he was young and learning the ropes." She drew out a thick sheaf of papers wrapped in a leather wallet that didn't quite contain them and set them aside. "He didn't just make housewares; he'd sometimes try his hand at jewelry, too. He only ever made that for family, given the cost of precious metals. Mum has a pair of elaborate gold earrings that she made. In fact, I think she wore them to the wedding."

Crowley shifted from crouching to kneeling, still bracing the lid up with both hands.

Hesitantly, he said, "Are you telling me..."

"He was making jewelry around the right time," Sophia said, followed by a triumphant exclamation that made Crowley jump. She sat back on her heels and presented a jewelry box covered in moth-eaten dark blue velvet. "You can close the trunk."

Crowley did as he was told and settled down cross-legged beside her.

Sophia brushed a fine layer of dust off of the box and opened it.

To say that the contents of the box would fetch a small fortune was, in Crowley's estimation, grossly short of the mark. The bottom was strewn with bright, winking artifacts in the artificial light. Sophia picked up a few gold rings to study them more closely, rejecting them on the basis of both make and material (most seemed to be bands etched with abstract floral patterns or signets engraved with initials). She picked aside tangled chains and filigree earrings set with emeralds, revealing another cluster of rings. Diamond and sapphire solitaires. She picked up one piece in polished white metal and eyed the inside of the band. It was thicker than most of the others, and Crowley couldn't see the stone because she was holding it upside-down.

"Birmingham," Sophia said. "There's the anchor. Next to it, nine-five-zero. Platinum."

"Do you all go around with a catalogue of family possessions fresh in your minds?"

Rather than answer, she turned the ring around to study the setting.

There. There it was, out of nothing, as if she'd known his mind and wished it so.

"What is that?" Crowley whispered. "Between the diamonds, what—"

Sophia tapped the central stone with her fingernail, held it up to the light.

"Damned if I know," she said. "There's a tiny bit of translucency. Smoky quartz?"

Crowley closed his eyes. Five hundred dollars he'd won from Uriel. Would it even...

"Jesus, that old thing," Anathema said, poking her head up through the trapdoor.

"It's heavy," Sophia said, putting it in Crowley's hand. "Whose was it, Mum?"

"Your great-great grandfather made that for himself, the old miser," Anathema said. "In his memoirs, he swears he'll never work with that blasted metal again—I mean, look at how he grooved the band, carving the mold can't have been easy."

Crowley just stared at the ring where it sat in his palm. He didn't dare look up.

"Mum," said Sophia, very softly. "We searched all day. There was nothing."

"He made that in nineteen eighteen," Anathema said. "Mad project in madder times."

Crowley held the ring out to her. "Your husband should wear it."

Anathema didn't take the ring. She fixed Crowley with an ironic look.

"I offered it to Newt once upon a time," she said. "We came across the jewelry box when we relocated from Jasmine Cottage to here. Every time I turned around, I found it sitting on the bathroom sink or the shower ledge. He said it felt strange, just wasn't him, so I put it away again. It looked modest, yet refined, I told him. His loss."

Stop it, Crowley thought. He held the ring out to Sophia instead.

"Adam, then," he said. "Surely. It's a bit large and all, but I don't doubt—"

Sophia took Crowley's hand in both of her own, folding the ring into it.

"Whatever you did all those years ago," she said, "I can't even begin to guess. Mum said once that she owed you a debt so great she'd never even begin to pay it back. Presumptuous of me, maybe, but she's standing right there and has no objections."

"I can't," Crowley said, realizing he hadn't blinked in several minutes. "I really can't."

"Would a token payment make you feel better?" asked Anathema. "Go on, make me an offer. Have you got a fiver in your pocket? I'm sure Sophia would lend you one."

"I won a bet," said Crowley, weakly, "but I don't think it's enough."

"Your bet winnings for my great-grandfather's dead-end project of a ring. Sold!"

"Aren't you even going to ask how much you've made?" Sophia asked her mother.

"Five hundred dollars, as it happens," said Crowley. "At a terrible exchange rate."

"Come on," Anathema said. "Stop staring and put it in your pocket. I've made tea."

Crowley followed them down the ladder in a daze, fizzling the solder as he went.



4. Illumination

Crowley glanced at the clock as he drove, cursing under his breath.

Ten minutes till midnight. He hadn't meant to stay out that late, but how on earth could he have refused the offer of tea after he'd all but been given a Device family heirloom that could easily have fetched two thousand quid or more at auction?

Crowley flew past Pippa's cottage at seventy miles per hour, noting nonetheless that every light appeared to be on. He wondered if Aziraphale had rung her up for a long chat, or if he'd arrive home to find that Aziraphale had gone to see her.

Nearly there, he thought, pressing one palm flat to his pocket. Nearly.

Two minutes later, he pulled into his own drive. The kitchen windows glowed softly, and even after Crowley had killed the ignition, he couldn't bring himself to vacate the Bentley. He was safe there. Safe from the discovery that he hadn't quite got it right after all, or, worse yet, that Aziraphale would turn out to have no need—

The porch light went on as Aziraphale opened the door.

In for a penny, in for a pound, Crowley thought, and got out of the car.

"No wine after all," said Aziraphale as he approached, with slight disappointment.

"There were two bottles," Crowley admitted, climbing the stairs, "but we drank them."

"She'll have needed a day off," Aziraphale said. "My dear, come in. It's chilly."

Crowley held the door open, frozen there on the threshold.

Aziraphale took another step backward onto the kitchen tile, expectant.

I couldn't have planned this, thought Crowley, and swallowed hard. He let go of the door and took off his sunglasses, sticking them in his pocket one-handed. He snagged the ring unseen with his pinkie, to make sure it wouldn't get away.

"Crowley, is something the matter?" Aziraphale asked.

He thought about the last time he'd been in this position. It had been over the matter of a sodding plaque, which hung above his head even as they spoke. He'd never had a knack for surprises, but they were worth it if Aziraphale was on the receiving end.

"I hope not," Crowley said, withdrawing his hand from his pocket. He fisted the ring against the hem of his jacket and reached for Aziraphale's left hand with terrified determination. It was a bit far, so he stepped forward. And tripped. How he'd managed to keep hold of the ring, he wasn't certain, especially not with Aziraphale, grave and concerned, bent over to help him up on his knees.

"You're not hurt," Aziraphale murmured, touching his cheek.

Not a question, it was never a question.

"I will be if I've got this wrong," Crowley said, taking hold of Aziraphale's left hand again and sliding the ring into place. Sizing on the spot was easy; it would burn about as much as Aziraphale materializing his own ring into place had done.

Instead of flinching, Aziraphale lifted his hand up to the porch light and stared.

"Carré cut diamonds," he said, slowly, his voice clipped. "These are...rare. Crowley—"

"I didn't do anything stupid," Crowley babbled, using Aziraphale's dangling right hand to haul himself to his feet. "Don't ask me where it came from; that'll spoil the moment. Oh, what do I know; maybe you've guessed. All you need to know is that I've been to hell and back again in order to find it, metaphorically of course, and I—"

Aziraphale drew him inside with a crushing kiss, slammed the door behind them with a thought. "You didn't need to," he said against Crowley's mouth. "You're enough."

"Nonsense," managed Crowley, giddy enough to feel lightheaded. "It's tradition."

Aziraphale kissed him again. "We'll not hear the end of it."

"We weren't going to anyway," Crowley said, grinning helplessly.

He'd email Anathema's bank details to Uriel, but definitely not tonight.

Chapter Text

"Let me get this straight," said Crowley, opening the container in which his latest culinary experiment had, hopefully, not gone awry. "You chucked the dissertation at your department secretary around four, and here you are? You're knackered, surely. It's de rigueur on the MA course to pull an all-nighter leading up to hand-in, isn't it?"

"Not if you're me," Sophia said, leaning on the work-top. She peered under the lid along with Crowley, wrinkling her nose at the sharp-sweet tang of fermentation. "Besides, you promised we'd celebrate. I borrowed Adam's car. What is that?"

"Date-palm paste," Crowley said. "Waste not, want not. If it's cocktails you're after, there's no time like the present. This stuff smells ready to me. Can you get those tumblers down from the cupboard? Thanks. Also the tin of coconut milk if you find it; that'll probably make for an excellent base, although I can't be sure what else that barkeep used to throw in. Besides nutmeg and crushed lemongrass, I mean."

While Crowley poked the vile-looking stuff with a fork, Sophia paused with the glasses and the tin cradled in one arm. "Lemongrass," she said. "Is it a Thai specialty?"

"Mmm, no," Crowley said, licking a bit of date-palm paste off the fork. "Say, that's pretty close to what I remember. I wish I'd paid more attention at the time."

"Fine, then," Sophia said, depositing her burden on the work-top. "Indian? African?"

"Try ancient Near East," Crowley said, reaching for the tin-opener. "Jordanian, maybe, going by today's borders? I promise you it's nothing but sand out there now."

Sophia was strangely quiet as she watched him work; he tried to pay it no mind. She fetched everything else he asked for: fresh lemongrass from the refrigerator, ground nutmeg from the spice-rack, and vodka from the liquor cabinet. It would hide beneath the rest of the flavors easily enough; if the date-palm hadn't fermented properly, he wanted to make damned sure the alcohol content was to their liking.

"Are you having one of these, angel?" Crowley called into the living room.

"One of what?" Aziraphale asked thirty seconds later, absorbed in his reading.

"One of these cocktails you never had the good sense to try."

"Whatever you wish, my dear."

Crowley made a face at Sophia's amused shrug.

"I guess that means three," he said, and Sophia fetched another tumbler from the cupboard. Mixing by hand proved difficult, as the paste was thicker than it should have been, and the coconut milk wasn't a very efficient solvent. In the end, they threw it all in the food processor with honey, vodka, and crushed ice for good measure.

"This is not, strictly speaking, authentic," Crowley said, somewhat dissatisfied as he poured an even amount of the contents into all three tumblers. "I've done the best I can from memory, and it's not as if anybody wrote this down." He handed a glass to Sophia and picked up the other two, which were already slick with condensation. "Let's go in and keep him company. We'll make him celebrate with us, if you like."

"Oh?" Sophia asked, trailing after Crowley into the living room. "You had me thinking you'd pulled this from one of Aziraphale's rare books," she said, nodding to the angel where he sat in his tartan armchair. "Did that barkeep teach you how to make it?"

"The barkeep never offered me anything except every tenth drink free," Crowley said, gesturing for her to take a seat on the sofa. "Therefore, this is entirely experimental." He stepped in front of the armchair, waving one of the cocktails directly beneath Aziraphale's nose. "Sophia's handed in her dissertation," he said, passing the tumbler off to Aziraphale. "Many happy returns, and, of course, to an eventual PhD."

"Hell no," Sophia said, leaning to clink her tumbler against Aziraphale's, and then against Crowley's as he took a seat beside her. "Mum expects it, of course, but that's because she earned hers at scarcely twenty," she added. "What a freak."

"Have you tasted this?" Aziraphale asked both of them, with mild trepidation.

"Nope," Crowley said, bringing the tumbler to his lips. "Bottoms up!"

Sophia and Aziraphale both choked, but Crowley did his best to remain composed.

"Okay, that's gross," Sophia said. "No offense, but the vodka is overkill."

"I fear the young lady's assessment is correct," Aziraphale sighed.

Crowley snapped his fingers in irritation, taking another sip of his own. There.

"It's better now," he said. "Takes a minute to...you know, settle."

Sophia grimaced and swilled her cocktail. "Are you serious?"

"Actually, yes," said Aziraphale, blinking on his second sip. "Surprising."

Crowley drank some more of the miraculously corrected concoction and watched as Sophia peered into her tumbler, swilled its contents again, and then frowned. She sniffed the cocktail suspiciously, and then held it up to the light in wonder.

"It smells different now," she said. "It even looks different."

Aziraphale set his paperback aside and gave Crowley a warning glance.

The ingredients were all wrong, Crowley protested. I had to fix them.

Serves you right, thinking you could replicate it, Aziraphale replied.

Just then, Crowley realized that Sophia had bravely emptied a third of her glass and was staring at both of them with the glassy expression of someone who'd not only just tried the most fantastic drink in Creation, but who'd also heard both of their thoughts as clearly as she'd heard Crowley's the day they'd gone to lunch in Cambridge.

"Oh God," she said, taking another gulp. "Why does it always happen when I drink?"

"Because you have a talent for it," Aziraphale told her. "Just like your mother."

"Lowers your inhibitions," Crowley said. "Makes the whole process a bit easier."

She squinted at him, then at Aziraphale, and downed the remainder of her glass. For several seconds, Crowley thought she might be sick, but she closed her eyes tightly and held out a hand. "I'm fine," she whispered, lifting her head. "I'm..."

Crowley, what did you put in this? asked Aziraphale, somewhat desperately.

What do you think? Crowley shot back. Whatever originally went in it!

"Which you don't," said Sophia, eyes opening, "kno—oh holy fuck. You have wings."

Crowley felt a thrill of terror; it had been ages since he'd known a human who could catch the impression of them even when not fully manifested, much less pitch from mundane to switched-on so quickly. In fact, only her husband as an eleven year-old boy had earned that distinction (but, of course, Adam had been sober at the time). The wine in Cambridge simply hadn't been strong enough to tip her.

"Which of us, dear girl? You've drunk that rather fast, and the angle of the light—"

"Both," she said, just barely managing to slam her glass on the coffee table as her hand sagged toward the floor. "Oh God," she repeated, covering her mouth with her other hand, which was shaking. "Maybe I'm having an allergic reaction. But what...?"

"Calm down," said Crowley, taking her wrist. "You were nearly there anyway."

"Yes, but you didn't have to force it!" hissed Aziraphale.

"I didn't force anything! All I did was adjust the recipe!"

"Then there must be something in it modern humans aren't used to!"

"Shut it!" Sophia shouted.

They both looked at her, chagrined and instantly contrite.

"It's just...wow, my head hurts," she said, and dazedly reached out to touch Crowley's face. "Your eyes," she said, tracing the plane of his cheekbone up to his temple. "Not human. I always knew." Her eyes flicked over to Aziraphale, quietly afraid. "Nobody can read that many dead languages. Not even Mum. Where'd you first have that cocktail, then? Ur? Babylon? No, wait. Maybe you'll tell me it was Atlantis."

"Actually, it was Gomorrah," said Crowley, pensively staring into his tumbler.

Sophia groaned. "Oh, of all the tired paradigms—"

"If it's any consolation," said Aziraphale, "we got tired of it, too."

"Explain?" she asked, allowing Crowley to remove her hand from his cheek.

"With regard to what we did all those years ago, the thing your mum and Adam both remember in spite of certain Powers' best efforts to the contrary," he said, "you might say we helped your lot stage a rebellion of sorts. And together, fortunately, we won."

"Suddenly," said Sophia, "those note-cards in Mum's files make sense." She folded her hands in her lap and stared at them, as if piecing things together the way Aziraphale must have when he'd got his hands on the Book. "Powers," she echoed. "I always did wonder about the Two Powers nonsense. Agnes had an odd sense of humor, and Mum had always tried to explain it away as a cautionary tale or a metaphor. Imagine."

"You don't know the half of it," Aziraphale muttered.

"I do," she said. "You're angels, and not in the fluffy sense people like to imagine."

Crowley opened his mouth, shut it again, and then sighed.

"Fluff never had anything to do with it, believe me. If you'd met the others—"

"No kidding. Those two at the wedding? Mum was afraid of them, but I felt safe."

"As safe as you feel with your husband, no doubt," said Aziraphale, carefully.

Sophia gave him a wry smile as knowing, innocent, and old as Earth itself.

"He's got a lot of explaining to do. Don't worry; I've got his car."

"Which you won't be driving back," said Crowley. "Not in this state."

"I'm not drunk, thanks very much," said Sophia, over-enunciating.

"No, but you're under the influence of a mild narcotic," replied Aziraphale. "Or an opiate, or heaven knows what. Dreadful stuff, of course. They didn't regulate what was put in drinks back then, and I'm afraid Crowley's reproduced this to a fault."

"Not with the blender," Sophia insisted. "I saw everything go in."

"Not with the blender," agreed Crowley, wearily, taking a sip. "When I fixed it."

Sophia blinked at him in stupid fascination and mimed snapping her fingers.

"Just like that? You transformed it without even knowing what went in?"

"He transforms inferior wine all the bloody time," Crowley said.

"Why shouldn't I?" asked Aziraphale, defensively. "No harm, no foul. Er."

Sophia was studying them both with the same intent consideration that Adam could summon even in a casual glance. Crowley wondered what the label pasted to the back of his skull said when she looked at it; was it slightly blurry, he wondered, like the distant letters on the wall that young Robert's optician would make him try to read?

"But you're so human," she whispered. "You fell in love."

Before either one of them could respond, Crowley's mobile, which was on the coffee table, rang. Aziraphale picked it up before Crowley could even react, apologizing as he answered it. Pippa, from the sound of things, judging by that greeting—

Aziraphale's expression withered, unlike anything Crowley had ever seen.

"Oh," murmured Sophia, in prescient warning. "Oh no."

"We'll be there straightaway," said Aziraphale, and hung up.

Crowley tugged Sophia to her feet, nudging her urgently toward the door.

"The Bentley," he said, reaching to catch Aziraphale's hand. "Now. I'll drive."




* * *





Even at Crowley's habitual breakneck speed, they didn't beat the ambulance.

Pippa hovered on the porch as medics passed her with the stretcher, oddly stoic.

It wasn't till she saw the Bentley roar into park along the road that her expression began to crumble, till she saw Crowley racing across the lawn ahead of Aziraphale, who had the unenviable task of keeping Sophia on her feet. The girl stumbled as they walked arm-in-arm, almost dragging them both down in the muddy grass.

"Sorry," she murmured, pulling free of Aziraphale's grasp. "God, what was in..."

Aziraphale left her swaying with one hand on the bird-bath and continued to the porch, where Crowley already had Pippa folded so tightly in his arms that Aziraphale wondered if either of them could breathe. He touched Crowley's shoulder.

"What happened?" he asked. Bewildered panic hovered beneath his sense of calm.

Crowley tucked Pippa's head under his chin, gathered her shaking form even closer.

"Heart attack," he said, eyes fixed unblinking on the front door. "Stroke. Hard to say."

Aziraphale stroked Pippa's hair; her sobs were muffled in Crowley's jacket.

"Go get her," Crowley snapped, his eyes darting to Sophia. "What's wrong with you?"

"I'm okay," said Sophia, hovering nearby, unsteady in her muddy shoes. "I'm here."

"Up you get," Aziraphale helping her step onto the porch. She didn't let go of him this time, her eyes wavering between Crowley's pale, pinched features and the medic emerging to hold the door open for his colleagues as they bore Harold outside.

"Who're you?" asked the medic, closing the door. "We can't take you all."

"The neighbors," said Crowley, indicating Aziraphale with a nod. "Next cottage up."

"You too?" the medic asked Sophia. "Daughter? Granddaughter?"

"Friend of the family," said Sophia, helplessly. "I'm just visiting—"

"There's no time for that," said the medic, taking Pippa's shoulder. "Come along."

Pippa disentangled herself from Crowley, dabbing her eyes on her sleeve.

"I'll ride with these gentlemen here, if it's all the same to you. Get a move on!"

"Yes, ma'am," said the medic, and dashed hurriedly away.

Twenty-five minutes later, once Harold had been stabilized and the team on-site had found all of the initial paperwork miraculously completed, a young Indian woman in a lavender lab-coat met the four of them in a secluded waiting-room at Saint Richard's Hospital. Aziraphale, Crowley, and Sophia hadn't been told to leave, as no one since the young medic had attempted to cross Pippa. Nobody had dared to try.

"Mrs. Morrison," said the woman, gently, extending a hand to Pippa. "My name is Doctor Rathod, but you can call me Aishwarya—actually, just Asha if that's easier."

Pippa blew her nose on Aziraphale's handkerchief and let go of Crowley's hand, to which she'd been clinging on the arm-rest of her chair ever since they'd been shown into the waiting room. Sophia, much improved, had run to the vending machine and got them all tea. She sat across the aisle from the rest of them, nursing her cup.

"Phillippa," she said, shaking Asha's hand. "But you can call me Pippa."

"I'll be taking care of Harold," Asha said. "This is not an easy thing to tell you, but your husband has suffered a major stroke. He is unconscious and in critical condition, but stable for now. We are doing everything we can to make him comfortable, Pippa, and we are considering the possibility of surgery to alleviate the pressure caused by hemorrhage in his brain. Do you understand, or would you like me to clarify further?"

Aziraphale stared at his hands, not quite able to meet Crowley's gaze across the space between them, which was occupied by Pippa. It was a terrible prognosis: coma on the heels of a stroke. Asha had essentially asked Pippa if she understood that her husband was dying and that there was very little they would be able to do to save him.

"No, that won't be necessary," said Pippa. "I understand. It's how my mother passed."

Asha crouched in front of Pippa and took hold of her free hand.

"I can't imagine how difficult it must be for you to hear this again. I meant every word about the surgery; we will leave no option unconsidered. If surgery is possible and he survives, he may never speak again. There will be significant paralysis. If we can't perform surgery, he may last forty-eight hours, or he could last a week."

Pippa nodded, closing her eyes. "Three days we waited on Mum," she said.

"You can stay if you like," said Asha, "but I strongly suggest that you return home and get some rest. We'll call you when we have further answers, and I'm so, so sorry."

"Goodness, it's not your fault," Pippa said, welling up as she patted Asha's hand.

"If you'd like to stay, my dear, I'll stay with you," said Aziraphale. "Crowley's got to get poor Sophia back to Cambridge; Adam will be wondering where she's got off to."

"I went to Cambridge," said Asha, turning to Sophia. "Give it my best."

"She's a bright girl," said Pippa. "A good girl, and a very great friend."

Crowley rose, releasing Pippa's hand. "You've got my number. If you need anything, call. I'll have the phone on—angel, don't worry, Sophia can answer if I'm driving."

Aziraphale stood and grasped Crowley's lapel, kissing him on the cheek in spite of Asha's vaguely surprised expression and Sophia's failed attempt to look away. "Be careful," he said. "Mind the speed limits."

"I'm always careful with her," Crowley said, offering Sophia his arm. "Let's go."

And then Aziraphale and Pippa were alone, each staring into a cup of lukewarm tea.

"This isn't how I imagined it would be," Pippa said. "Sit back down, love."

"I should think not," sighed Aziraphale, and sat. "Things rarely turn out as we expect."

Pippa nodded. "You'd know that better than most, I don't doubt."

"How do you suppose?" Aziraphale asked, surreptitiously heating both cups of tea.

"You found love later on in life, so you never know how much time you've got. It's all well and good you've exchanged rings, but it's times like this that I'd fear for you."

If only you knew how little you need worry, thought Aziraphale. "Why?"

"If you end up in hospital," said Pippa, pressing the handkerchief to her lips, "they could bar him from seeing you. Not as likely these days, but if the paperwork's not all signed and sealed, they could. Do you mean to tell me you've never had a scare?"

"There was once," Aziraphale told her, before he quite realized what he was saying. "We went to Tokyo eleven years ago. This was before—well, not long before we became—before we moved out here," he continued, mindful of Crowley's preference for privacy even in his absence. "There was a very famous sushi restaurant with an even more famous chef. Foolishly, I decided to try fugu—pufferfish, that is."

"The one that's poisonous if they don't do it right," said Pippa, darkly.

"Yes, the one that's poisonous if they don't do it right," Aziraphale sighed.

"Close call? I mean, the chef had to've done it right. You wouldn't be here otherwise."

"I choked on it," he continued. "Crowley caught on to what was happening—" miracled the poison from my bloodstream, he thought, just before it could shut down anything important "—and, well, thank goodness for the Heimlich maneuver, I always say."

"I suppose you must worry about him, too," Pippa said, "what with the way he drives."

It was the tone of her voice, perhaps, the fragile emptiness that only genuine loss could impart to a statement that, for Aziraphale, would otherwise have gone in one ear and out the other, if not for the memory of a certain windswept morning several months before, by sword and scythe and arrow-point, how close they'd really come—

I'd have been discorporated if Crowley hadn't been faster than the poison. If he's ever in a collision and I'm not there to stop it, too far gone to repair the damage himself...

Aziraphale had never had a particularly difficult time obtaining a new body. These days, he didn't doubt Gabriel would require a significant amount of bullying if it came to it, but having two out of four Archangels on one's side did rather bode well—

But Crowley, set adrift by his former employer, no longer had any such recourse.

If he were to be discorporated—if, heaven forbid—

"Fuck," Aziraphale whispered, every other thought pushed from his mind.

"I'm sorry," said Pippa, in tears again. "I didn't mean..."

She'd burrowed against Aziraphale's shoulder, sobbing, before Aziraphale could collect himself. "My dear, I need your mobile," he said shakily. "We ought to call Nicola."




* * *





Crowley was sitting at Anathema's dining-room table, drinking some tea that was much better than what he'd got at the hospital. Sophia had instructed him to drive her to her parents' house instead of to the flat in Cambridge, as she suspected she'd find Adam there anyway. Newt had invited him to informally crash-test some software.

"How'd it drive?" asked Adam, joining Crowley and Sophia at the table.

"It makes less noise than I'm used to," Crowley admitted, studying his mug.

"It's not half bad," Adam said. "Want me to drive you home? Rough day, sounds like."

"Yes," Crowley agreed. "And that's not necessary. I can just as easily fly."

Adam gave him a curious look, and then turned to Sophia.

"Yep," she said, blowing on her tea. "Shit just got real."

"I guess that means you've got a lot of questions," said Adam, pensively.

"Yeah, but they can wait till later," she replied. "I'll steal the note-cards."

"Borrow them, you mean," said Anathema, wandering in from the kitchen with a bowl of kettle corn. She set it down in the middle of the table and sat down beside Crowley, leaning over to look at him more closely. "You're not really ready for this, are you?"

Crowley shook his head. "That's not the problem. Not by far."

"Aziraphale's not ready, then. He knows intellectually, I'm sure, that we're all going to die on you. He hasn't let it sink in, though. Not the way you have. Is that right?"

"And then some," said Crowley. He looked at Adam, but the young man's face was impassive, as difficult to read as Aziraphale at his most closed-off. Will you die on us, I wonder? I still don't know just how much you've kept and just how much you've sworn off. You've let half of Heaven's SWAT team get cosy with humans. What next?

I'll figure that out when the time comes, Adam sent back tetchily.

I beg your pardon, Crowley replied. What?

Sophia was trying hard to pretend she hadn't heard, but she looked frightened.

Anathema set her chin in her palm. "Crowley, what can I do?"

"Stand by," he said, rising, loath to leave his tea unfinished.

You didn't think I knew enough to decide all the rules for myself in a neat little row, did you, which ones I'd hang onto and which ones I wouldn't? Adam asked. I was eleven. I knew I could do anything I wanted, but in the broadest sense possible. I knew that no more messing about sounded like a great idea, and I knew enough to put things back the way they were, with interest. Should I have left off the interest? Should I have forbidden collateral, the good and the bad? What do you think?

Crowley blinked at him. So you don't know if you're going to die?

Not exactly, Adam said. It's just that I haven't decided.

We're not finished here, Crowley thought, buttoning his jacket. "Anathema, Sophia, thanks ever so much. As always, it's been a pleasure. You," he said, pointing at Adam, "keep your nose clean, and don't break anything your father-in-law can't fix."

He disappeared before any of them could respond; the last thing he saw was Sophia's wide eyes, her lips parted in eloquent dismay. He hated this part. Reassembly still gave him the creeps no matter how many times he'd done it or would yet do.

Aziraphale was sitting at the kitchen table with his crossword and a cappuccino. He looked up, and Crowley had never seen such unabashed relief in...well, ever, and he'd seen more humans with cause to wear that expression than he'd have cared to recall.

"I was wondering when you'd return," said the angel, standing in such a rush that he spilled half the cappuccino across his copy of The Telegraph. He vanished the spill with an irritated huff, reflexively reaching for Crowley. "I couldn't help—"

"Pippa," Crowley said, holding him at arms' length. "Why aren't you with her?"

"Nicola and Trevor came as soon as they could," Aziraphale said. "I rang them."

"What about Rob?" asked Crowley. Did the boy know his grandfather was dying?

"He's with Trevor's parents," Aziraphale reassured him. "Crowley, you look..."

"Awful, yeah," Crowley said, sagging into Aziraphale's embrace. "We've got to talk."

Aziraphale stiffened against him, but relaxed again just as quickly.

"It can wait, my dear, surely," he said. "You're wrecked."

Crowley turned his head, perfectly willing to lose himself in Aziraphale's kiss. Besides, he hadn't quite found a way of framing the information he'd got his hands on: Oh, yeah, by the way, the former Antichrist hasn't quite thought things out as clearly as we would have liked. D'you suppose this will pose a problem? It wouldn't do to spring that on Aziraphale, not after the shock of what had happened earlier that evening.

Bed seemed as logical a place to take this as any. It very rarely hurt, at least.

"Slow down," Crowley muttered several minutes later, halfway out of his clothes and already pinned to the mattress. Letting Aziraphale have his way usually wasn't anything to complain about; as Crowley understood this in human terms, the angel was what most of them would call thorough to a fault. He nuzzled and then bit Aziraphale's lower lip, working both hands down the back of Aziraphale's trousers.

"Terribly sorry," Aziraphale sighed, his breath hitching as Crowley's fingertips skated down the backs of his thighs. When their trousers and underthings vanished, all pairs present, it wasn't really worth asking who'd done it. "It's just that I've missed..."

"I was gone for all of three hours," Crowley said, distracted by the fact that Aziraphale had got at his hips and his lower back and was slowly, teasingly kneading his way down to Crowley's arse. "This isn't going to work, angel. You've got my arms trapped."

"Then lie back," Aziraphale murmured, running one knuckle deftly down the cleft, "and leave me to it." Crowley shivered at the sudden slickness. One finger, two...

Aziraphale left it at that, knew exactly where to press. He worked a thigh in between Crowley's as they twisted and gasped, never wavering, his pacing clever and careful. Crowley came first, clenching with it: pleasure like a knife slipped in where you'd least expect. He flipped Aziraphale over, finished him off with fervent mouth and hands. Afterward, Aziraphale arranged them front to front and drowsily draped one leg over Crowley's hip. He traced the length of Crowley's spine and asked what was the matter.

"Nothing," lied Crowley, snuggling closer with a yawn. "Pippa and all. 'M tired."

"Yes," sighed Aziraphale, sounding genuinely exhausted. "Yes, quite."

Whatever the matters were, they'd both do well to sleep on them.




* * *





Aziraphale woke up at eight-thirty in the morning to the sound of Crowley's mobile vibrating its way off the bedside table. He caught it just in time, fumbling the ancient flip-phone open. He'd have a word or two with Crowley about an upgrade.

"Mmm, yes? Hallo?"

"I didn't mean to wake you," said Pippa, her words slow, tone hollow.

"Don't even think it," Aziraphale said, sitting straight up in bed. Crowley had rolled away from him sometime in the night to curl toward the door, one hand fisted fretfully in his pillowcase. "How are you holding up? Has there been any news?"

"They can't operate," she said. "Trevor's father's bringing Rob this afternoon."

"Oh, my dear," said Aziraphale, his throat constricting. "Is there anything I can do?"

Crowley took hold of Aziraphale's upper arm, startling him.

"I'll go over," he said, rolling out of bed. "Ask her if they need food."

Aziraphale felt a wash of relief. "Would you like breakfast? Is it the three of you?"

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," said Pippa, her voice so taut it hurt to listen.

"Are you at the house, or have you gone back to the hospital?"

"On our way back there now," she said. "Trevor's driving."

"Three, got it," Crowley said, fully dressed, holding out his hand. "I'll need that."

Aziraphale sighed. "I'm sending Crowley," he said. "I'll follow soon."

Pippa hung up with a whispered thank you, saving him the trouble.

Crowley snapped the phone shut and stuck it in his back pocket, leaning to kiss Aziraphale on the mouth. "You got the worst of it yesterday," he explained hastily, donning his sunglasses. "The least I can do is give you a breather."

"I have some things to do online," Aziraphale said. "I won't be long. A few hours."

"Funny, that's exactly what I owe you," said Crowley, kissed him again, and left.

If Aziraphale had learned anything from Crowley's weekly Skype sessions with Uriel, it was the sheer, brilliant utility of a web-camera over more traditional means of conference-call. It certainly beat getting a crick in one's neck and eye fatigue from staring so long into glowing, nebulous blue. Aziraphale turned on the computer, went to make tea and toast, and returned with his hands full. He fired off a brief email, mindful not to get crumbs or marmelade down the keyboard, and booted up Skype.

Twelve minutes later, Uriel's number rang through. He answered it.

"You're lucky I've got a BlackBerry," Raphael said, yawning. In the grainy camera feed, his hair was a wild, mussed halo glinting fiery by desk-lamp light, much longer than it had been at the wedding. "And that I had the sound turned on. What's up?"

"Is Uriel there?" Aziraphale peered at the edges of the feed. "I need to be certain—"

"If she's the one you wanted to talk to, darling, you should've asked. She's out."

"Good," said Aziraphale. "I'd rather she didn't hear what I'm about to ask."

Raphael tapped his nose and winked. "I see. We don't want demon-dear to know."

Aziraphale took a sip of his tea before continuing, and the Archangel made a face.

"You always did have a flair for the dramatic," he said. "Or was that dithering?"

"What do you know about Gabriel's current stance on discorporation?"

"Tricky," Raphael said, scratching his temple. "It hasn't been an issue in the last few thousand years, so I haven't made any up-to-date inquiries. Which goes against procedure every which way, I know, so please don't point that out."

"Wasn't about to," Aziraphale admitted. "My situation's been similar. Neither have I."

"Before you go asking if Uriel knows anything, she's never needed a replacement."

"Fortunate," said Aziraphale, "but unhelpful. Theoretically, what would you guess?"

"My feeling," Raphael confided, "is that Gabriel's been so tight since Himself stopped handing down orders that any one of us would be lucky as to get so much as a toenail out of him. What would be the use in a replacement body if he feels we are, essentially, currently useless? Discorporation? Bam, instant recall. Either that or being doomed to hopping from channel to channel, host to host. Neither one is a thought I relish, as you can imagine, so I keep clear of bullets and reckless drivers."

"Those are easy enough to deflect if one is vigilant," said Aziraphale, uncomfortably.

"Yes, but I have the feeling your theoretical denotes a circumstance in which one has not been. You tend not to worry about yourself overmuch, do you? Perhaps you ought to, given that little incident twenty-odd years ago. Would the boy be as quick to help, I wonder, now he's settled down with a pretty, charming, thoroughly mortal wife?"

"It's Crowley," said Aziraphale. "If anything were to happen when I'm not to hand..."

"Perhaps that woman would help you out again," Raphael said. "Shadwell's tart."

"Would you please just be serious, even for a moment?"

Raphael rubbed his eyes. "Az, I'm always serious. I don't like the thought one bit."

"Then, short of sharing him with some recalcitrant human—which, by the way, was not at all pleasant, I can assure you, having once been stuck in that particular bind—what would you suggest in such a circumstance, however improbable?"

"How can you be sure Hell wouldn't pull him straight down? Do they attach some kind of reel-back mechanism? Not keen on releasing souls once they've got them, you know, not either side. There's the real value of a human body. Autonomy."

Aziraphale's mind spun. On top of it all, Harold would surely pass before night fell.

"Listen," Raphael continued. "If you're that concerned, go to the boy. Raise the issue."

"Lose him," said Aziraphale, disbelieving. "To think that I even could..."

"Hey, there you are," said a familiar voice offscreen. "Waited up for me, huh?"

Raphael fixed Aziraphale with a determined look, reaching to switch off his web-cam.

"I've got to go, darling," he said. "Do what I say for once, would you? Good luck."




* * *





Somber breakfast in the waiting-room had given way to a brief visit to Harold's bedside, from which Crowley had tactfully hung back, lingering in the doorway. There had been tubes and monitors everywhere, and if not for the name on the clipboard at the foot of the bed, Crowley would scarcely have recognized the man had he not been party to the proceedings from ground zero. Harold's skin had taken on a waxy, unnatural cast. His dry, motionless lips were cracked, looked almost purple.

The worst part of it by far was Pippa, who clung silently to her husband's stiff hand while Nicola bent over her father's pillow and stroked his sparse hair, her constant, frantically murmured words an ineffectual litany against hopelessness.

Crowley had turned away and gone back to sit down with Trevor, whose dark eyes and even darker skin, when coupled with his somber, melancholy air, had given him the impression of a living shadow. He'd offered Crowley a cigarette, which Crowley had accepted with murmured thanks and put in his pocket for later. He'd need it.

The four of them had gone to lunch in the hospital cafeteria, during which time Crowley had endured a number of fascinated questions from Nicola with regard to Aziraphale's erstwhile bookshop and how they were finding life in Sussex.

Robert's paternal grandfather, a stern, wise-looking seventy year-old islander—from Haiti, Crowley thought, or perhaps Jamaica—had brought the boy up to the waiting-room shortly after they'd returned from lunch. He'd chattered happily to Crowley about the fact he hadn't needed glasses after all, but that it didn't mean he couldn't have contacts someday. Trevor's father had joined his son, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law at Harold's bedside. They'd taken Rob in shortly after, but he hadn't stayed for very long. He'd run back to Crowley with a tear-streaked face.

"Pap won't come back once the doctors take him away," the boy had sobbed.

Crowley had scooped Rob up and rocked him, at a loss for words.

"Sometimes people don't when they're old or sick," he'd said. "That's the way of it."

"Will Gran go away?" Rob had hiccuped against Crowley's shoulder.

"One day," Crowley had said, cursing Above, Below, and everything. "But not soon."

"Will you go away?" the boy had asked.

"No," Crowley had said, and hated himself for it.

Now, outside and alone, he'd never needed the blessed cigarette more. He'd only managed to smoke around a third of it when his mobile rang; he fumbled it out of his pocket and almost dropped the cigarette in the process of flipping it open.

"Bloody thing. Angel, I swear I'll get one of those smart-phones soon, just you wait—"

"Crowley?" Uriel asked uncertainly. "What's going on?"

"Oh, what's not," Crowley moaned, taking a deep drag on what was left of his hard-earned prize. "Harold's dying. D'you remember Pippa's husband? Maybe you don't. Anyway, he suffered a major stroke last night, and we were first on the scene. Sophia was there. It's kind of a disaster; she knows...Uriel, she knows."

"All in one day," she said. "Gosh. That's a lot. Are you okay?"

"I'm at the hospital," Crowley replied. "Outside it, rather. Just having a smoke."

"I would ask you why Aziraphale's not there, but I already know he's not."

Crowley took a final puff and pinched the stub out between thumb and forefinger.

"Why do you say that?" he asked, ignoring an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

"I came home to Raphael wrapping up a little Skype session with him."

"Is that unusual? Aziraphale's pretty tech-savvy, don't let him fool you."

"It's unusual when Raphael won't tell me shit about the conversation."

"He's not taking it very well," Crowley told her. "That could be the reason."

"What, Raphael's not? Don't make me laugh. He didn't even talk to Harold."

"No, I meant Aziraphale. There's that whole emotional intelligence issue, and..."

"And it's something more serious than that. Before I got to the back room, I caught a few choice words like Gabriel and autonomy and do what I say for once, would you?"

"Damn it," Crowley hissed. "Why!"

"I don't know," said Uriel, helplessly. "That's why I called you. I wanted to know if Aziraphale's been acting strangely, but I guess the answer there is, yeah, sure, he's only losing his mind over the notion that all of his human friends are going to die."

"We're not particularly close to Harold," Crowley admitted.

"It's Pippa," Uriel said. "And it hits close to home."

"And it's the rest of them," Crowley said. "Anathema. Newt. Shadwell and Tracy."

"Mandy and Sophia," said Uriel, not missing a beat. "But what about Adam?"

"That," Crowley said, "is an interesting question, and I'd like to hear your thoughts."

He described the unspoken exchange he'd had with Adam the evening before, as well as the conversation he'd had with the boy some two and a half years ago in a Cambridge Caffè Nero. Which had also been the first time he'd met Sophia.

"I really hate to say this," said Uriel, at length, "but that is ineffability for you."

"I hate you," Crowley said. "Not in general terms, of course, and no offense meant, but in this one painfully specific instance? Without hesitation or reservations, I do."

"None taken," Uriel sighed. "If it's that big a problem, do what you did last time."

Crowley dropped the cigarette stub and stamped on it. "Which is?"

"Go to the boy. You just told me you told him that the conversation wasn't over."

"Yeah, and I also very likely got myself on his black-list by mouthing off."

"That's your real weak spot, sweetie," said Uriel, almost sadly.

"What? Are you serious? What is?"

"Getting in the last fucking word."

Crowley opened his mouth, shut it again, and hung up. As per usual, she was right, and he was done playing silly buggers. And, judging by who was headed across the parking lot toward him at that very minute, he wouldn't have to go far in order to set the proverbial ball rolling, either.



* * *





Aziraphale stuck his hands in his coat pockets, glancing sidelong at Adam. Crowley met them halfway, having pushed off the brick wall and broken into a hurried walk the moment he spotted them. He smelled like smoke and someone else's tears.

"Moral support, is it?" Crowley asked, looking Adam up and down.

"Aziraphale came to find me," Adam clarified, "but we needed to come here."

"Harold won't last much longer," said Aziraphale. "And there's something—"

"You bet there's something," said Crowley, pointing a finger at Adam. "If our favorite godchild doesn't make a few important decisions, who knows what trouble we'll be in."

Adam pursed his lips, and Aziraphale blinked at him in undisguised horror.

"Do you mean you've...realized, I mean...has it crossed your mind, too?"

It was Crowley's turn to blink at Aziraphale.

"I have no idea what you're talking about, unless we're talking about the same thing."

Adam held out a hand to silence them, chopping the air curtly.

"One at a time," he said, and extended his open palm to Aziraphale.

"I'm talking about you," said Aziraphale, miserably. "Have you given any thought to what might happen if you were to get discorporated at this point in time, as unlikely as that may sound? Please don't look at me like that, my dear. Think about it," he said desperately. "Insofar as we know, you've been cut off. No more...no more bloody-minded stationery department, wasn't that how you once put it?"

"Oh," Crowley said, "my God."

Aziraphale reached for him as he staggered forward, caught him just in time.

"Was that what you meant? And do you have any idea? I spoke with Raphael, but—"

"Neither did Uriel, to be fair," said Crowley, leaning hard into Aziraphale. "Nobody knows anything. It doesn't matter what I was talking about, because it's really all the same thing. Our humans are going to die, and you're going to have to accept that, but what about him? If he eventually chooses to go, what about the rest of us?"

They both turned their heads to stare at Adam, still clinging to one another. Adam breathed in through his nostrils and stepped back from them, shifting his stance. He held his hand out in front of him as he'd done once before, and Aziraphale swore he could hear the same low, faint, ominous hum that had surrounded them twenty-three years ago to the day. Death on the anniversary of rebirth.

"I reckon you've got a choice to make, too," said Adam. "Just like I have."

"Terms," Crowley said, steadying himself, but he didn't let go. "Yours first."

"I'll go," he said. "I'll go when she goes, if she goes first, or not very long after. I'm not really interested in hanging about if she's not here to share it with. Is that fair?"

"Abundantly," said Crowley, indicating that Adam should continue. "And?"

"And everything I've said will hold," said Adam, gravely. "No more messing about."

"You were curiously unspecific about that at the time," Crowley continued, and it was all Aziraphale could do to hold his breath. "Since then, a couple of pretty fascinating things have happened, both of which we could've done without. Well, wait, no—one of them's pretty all right, but it's got worrying ramifications, and as for the other—"

"What happened?" asked Adam, his brow furrowing. "Aside from you getting fired?"

"Laid off," Crowley corrected him. "The other thing happened the morning after your wedding. Michael turned up on the beach with an eye to...hmmm, what's the expression they're so fond of in gangster films? Sending me to sleep with the fishes."

"Uriel and Raphael took care of it," said Adam. "We agreed that's what they were for."

"For safeguarding the humans, yes," interjected Aziraphale, "but—"

"I wasn't talking about humans when I said security detail. I was talking about you."

"Raphael doesn't put much stock in Gabriel's ability as an organizer, and neither do I."

"Organizer?" echoed Crowley. "Is that what they're calling it these days?"

"You may have a point," said Adam, turning his hand a fraction. "As above, so below. Two up there and two down here, that's fair. No moving back and forth, and no swaps, either. That way they can get on with their job and not worry so much."

"Which ones?" asked Crowley, stupefied.

"The ones upstairs, doing what they do, and the ones down here, doing what they do."

"Gabriel and Michael mostly run things with iron, er, fists," Aziraphale muttered.

"Right, so they can go on doing that, but only up there," said Adam, reasonably.

"And the other two?" asked Crowley. "What is their job, exactly?"

"Looking after you two, of course," said Adam, turning his hand another fraction. "Somebody's got to do it if I'm not always going to be here to be doing it, which actually brings me to my next question. How long do you want to stay?"

"I beg your pardon?" asked Aziraphale. "Is this some kind of joke?"

"I don't think so," Crowley said. "When have you ever known him to joke?"

"Hell's out of your hair," Adam told Crowley. "They really are. Can't be bothered."

"None of them?" said Crowley. "Are you sure? Not even—"

"Not even those two," Adam said. "They got awfully interested in each other."

"If you mean more than before, you can stop right there," said Crowley, shuddering.

"As I was saying," Adam repeated, "you've got a choice, and we haven't got all day. Your friend is dying, and his wife needs you there. D'you see? All's fair in love and war, or at least everything will be as soon as you give me an answer."

Aziraphale and Crowley looked at each other for one long, considering moment.

They'll all die, Crowley repeated. Can you bear it?

I know they will, my dear, Aziraphale answered. Can you?

I can bear anything as long as you're beside me, angel. Hadn't you guessed?

Aziraphale felt an endless weight lift, and Crowley was smiling—really smiling.

"We'll stay," he said. "Someone's got to look out for them, the ones we love—"

"—and the ones we will love," Crowley cut in. "Rob's not bad. There's hope for him."

And Sophia's son, Aziraphale reminded him. Someday.

"Right," said Adam, turning his hand in a tight circle.

Not to erase this time, Aziraphale realized, but to seal. Something shook the ground just beneath them; Crowley stumbled, and they clung together for dear life. It didn't last more than a few seconds. Everything settled again, much the same as before.

"Now, what did that do, exactly?" Crowley asked.

"Your favorite," said Adam, grinning from ear to ear. "Miraculous escapes for everybody, and I do mean everybody. You know, should you ever need 'em."

"Yes, oh," said Aziraphale, holding Crowley close. "Yes, I do know."

"Perfect," Adam said, dusting his hands off. "At least till next time. I've got to get out of here; Soph's sick as a dog. We went out with some of her friends last night, even after I told her that wasn't the best idea after what she had at your place."

"What, are you nuts?" Crowley asked. "She's just handed in. Celebration's in order."

"Don't I know it," said Adam, strolling away. "I've made up my mind. Feels great!"

"I should hope," said Aziraphale, glancing upward. "Which window? We'd better go."

"You do realize he looks awful," Crowley said, "and that Pippa's even worse?"

"As you said," Aziraphale replied, "there's nothing for it, but as long as I'm here...?"

"As long as we're here," Crowley corrected him. "Don't forget it."

"Perhaps we'd better take the stairs," said Aziraphale, opening the door. "After you."

Eyes set resolutely forward, Crowley reached back and took his hand.

Chapter Text

"That can't be right," said Crowley, staring out the window. "What's today?"

"Friday," Aziraphale replied from the sofa. "Sit with me a while. You're restless."

"No, I mean the date," Crowley clarified, squinting. "I count five of them."

"Crowley, it's the thirteenth. Please, just come here. You'll miss the show."

"It's September," Crowley said, beckoning for Aziraphale to join him at the window. "And sod the show. Who, I ask you, who lays eggs in September?"

"My dear, what on earth are you talking about?"

"The mallards," said Crowley. "They've finally turned up."

"Goodness," said Aziraphale, rising. He bumped his thigh off the armchair in his haste to get past it, cursing under his breath. "It's been two years, hasn't it?"

"No, three," Crowley said, leaning on the windowsill. He reached back and touched Aziraphale's thigh, halting any chance of a bruise through the layer of cotton twill. "Look at them. Balls of fluff on legs. Makes me think of spring in St. James's Park."

"I count six," said Aziraphale, bringing the back of Crowley's hand up to his lips in silent thanks. "They're quite small, a day or two old at most. And just milling about all on their own, the poor things! It's odd of the parents to leave them unattended."

"It's quiet out here," said Crowley. "Safe, remember? I think mum and dad know that. They're probably off looking for food. I saw a few ducks paddling in the sea at low tide last week. We've also acquired a pair of noisy, contentious swans. No cygnets."

"We ought to feed them," Aziraphale replied, already heading for the kitchen. He rustled around in the breadbox, presumably for the croissants left over from breakfast.

Crowley followed him outside, not bothering with shoes. The weather was unusually warm, if breezy, which likely accounted for the ducks breeding out of season. They stood at the edge of the rise, watching the six tiny brown-and-yellow creatures amble through the grass. They pecked fretfully at the sandy soil, and Crowley couldn't help but hear distress in the soft, pathetic peeping sounds they made.

It was to his credit, he hoped, that he'd never dunked a duck as young as these.

"Give me some of that," he said to Aziraphale, reaching for the bag.

"Don't scare them off," said the angel, handing him a squashed croissant.

Crowley crouched in the grass and scooted forward, finally settling down cross-legged when he'd achieved a distance of about three feet. Several of the ducklings had quieted and were looking at him, watching with intense, uncertain curiosity as he flaked off a bit of croissant crust and crumbled it between his fingers. "Here," he said, reaching out to sprinkle it as near to them as he could.

One of the ducklings stretched its stubby wings and toddled forward to investigate. They're so awkward, baby birds, Crowley thought as he watched it gulp down a flake of crust. The duckling nosed at another piece, burbling to itself as if pleased, and three of the others quickly followed suit, snapping up the remainder of the flakes.

"Those two aren't so sure," said Aziraphale. "Toss some a bit nearer."

"What happened to not scaring them?" Crowley asked, sticking the croissant in his mouth. He scooted forward a bit more, by now less than a foot away from the four that had quite happily polished off his initial offering. They blinked at him placidly, chirping amongst themselves as he crumbled another bit of crust and sprinkled it nearer to the hesitant pair. "Look," he said. "See? There's plenty to go around."

One of the two wayward ducklings sidled up to the croissant-bits and nosed at them with inquisitive deliberation. The remaining one gave in to temptation, scuttling past its more cautious sibling to snag several pieces in quick succession.

The other four, catching on, practically stumbled over each other to get there.

Aziraphale murmured something that sounded suspiciously like precious.

Crowley ignored him, crumbling an entire handful this time. He sprinkled it directly in front of himself, folded his hands around what was left of the croissant, and waited. The ducklings, having got coordinated, swarmed the fresh patch of flakes.

"Don't make them fight for it," Aziraphale chided. "They'll gorge themselves."

"Their beaks aren't very well suited to gorging at this stage, angel," Crowley pointed out, unable to suppress a smile as he watched one of them struggle with a larger flake. It quickly gave up. "Not till they're grown, anyway."

"Oh dear," said Aziraphale, and it wasn't till something that was scaly and fluffy all at once scrabbled at the exposed arch of Crowley's foot that he realized why. One of the ducklings perched there, wobbling slightly. It squeaked at him.

Crowley tore off a soft, white shred of croissant-innards and held it out.

The duckling gulped it down and climbed unsteadily onto his ankle, tripped up slightly by the hem of his jeans. Crowley reached out instinctively to steady the youngster with one cupped hand. The duckling paused, nibbled on the tip of Crowley's thumb, and decided the curve of his palm was as good a place as any to huddle for warmth.

"This is ridiculous," said Aziraphale, in faintly amused disbelief.

Crowley heard a series muted clicking sounds behind him, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the crowd of five more ducklings that had scrambled up to cluster around his bare feet and rather clumsily attempt to follow their sibling to where it rested on his calf, still sheltering in the curve of his hand, which he dared not move.

"Um," he managed. "A little help?"

Several of the more athletically inclined ducklings had scrambled their way up almost to his knee. At this rate, there was a very real risk of them falling. He dropped the mangled pastry and used both hands to herd in the soft, nippy gaggle. A few huddled in the space between his thighs and bit off pieces of the abandoned croissant.

"Smile, my dear," said Aziraphale, stepping in front of Crowley. He held the BlackBerry he'd acquired the week before out at arm's length, grinning smugly at the screen. A pinpoint of red light next to its camera lens winked on and off, taunting him.

"If this ends up on YouTube," said Crowley, stroking one duckling's fuzzy head, "you're not getting any for a week. And, as you know, my definition of any is pretty broad."

Guiltily, Aziraphale tucked the phone back in his pocket.

Chapter Text

Aziraphale hadn't slept. He sat up, reaching to lay a hand on Crowley's shoulder.

Crowley woke and turned in the rumpled nest of covers, blinking sleepily. Drawn blinds hid the overcast sky; in the dim room, his eyes were the only source of light. "I hear rain," he said thickly. "D'you want me to drive you?"

"No," Aziraphale said, tugging the duvet back around him. "We'll walk."

"You'd best take an umbrella," Crowley murmured. "She hates getting wet."

"Go back to sleep, my dear," Aziraphale told him, leaning to kiss Crowley's temple, and got up. "If I'm gone longer than usual, which may be the case—she was especially rough last week, and understandably so—I promise you we can drive somewhere nice for a late lunch or an early dinner," he added, reaching into the closet.

"We had plans," said Crowley, burrowing grumpily back into his pillow.

Already buttoning his best shirt, Aziraphale stiffened and turned.

"Crowley, I'm terribly sorry. What have I forgot?"

"That sushi place in Brighton. We were going to try it."

"I'll do my best to see to it I'm only gone a few hours."

"Last week, she kept you through till early evening."

"She needed me through till early evening."

"I know," sighed Crowley, sleep settling back into his voice.

"Saturday mornings," Aziraphale reminded him. "It's what you'd call a date."

"Yeah, whatever," Crowley yawned. "Like my Monday nights."

Aziraphale finished dressing and gave his appearance a sidelong glance in the full-length mirror. He looked like he'd lost half a stone, Pippa had told him the week before. That's utter nonsense, he thought. She's projecting, the poor dear.

"You look fine, angel," Crowley muttered into the sheets.

Crossing to his side of the bed, Aziraphale lifted the duvet just far enough to peer at him. Crowley was curled on his side, knees drawn up nearly to his chest. "Please don't just lie there and sulk," Aziraphale entreated him.

"I'll sleep when you're gone," said Crowley. "What are you waiting for?"

Aziraphale bent and kissed him on his stubborn, maddening mouth.

"I love you," whispered Crowley, scarcely audible. "Now, get out."

The ten-minute walk to Pippa's cottage felt more like fifteen; the drizzle was deeply unpleasant, as Aziraphale's umbrella did very little to shield him from side-drafts. Still, he felt a warm flush from those half-hissed words. It was rare for Crowley to say what he had nonetheless unabashedly worn on his sleeve for the longest time.

Since when? Aziraphale asked himself, knocking on Pippa's door. Can you pinpoint the year in which the way he looks at you changed? The month, the fortnight? The day?

"You'll catch your death," Pippa told him, stepping outside as he took her hand.

"Not on your watch, surely," Aziraphale said. "How are you keeping?"

"Dour as ever," she replied, tucking her arm in his. "Shall we go?"

The café was another ten minutes' walk, and, by the time they arrived, the rain had let up. For nine in the morning, the establishment was busy. Aziraphale told Pippa about the ducks while Mandy cleared their favorite table. Newly graduated, she was taking a year at home to sort herself out. She'd begun dating one of the line cooks.

"In his lap, really?" asked Mandy, dubiously, setting a mug of black coffee down in front of each of them. "Hope the parents don't abandon them," she said. "Then, you'd have to adopt the whole lot. I bet duck poo is tough to clean out of carpeting."

The manager, who'd been passing by just then, shot her a disapproving look.

"It's quite all right, dear girl," said Aziraphale. "But your other customers might mind."

"Six mouths to feed!" said Pippa, offering a wan smile. "Imagine that."

"Bastard's lucky I didn't say duck shite," Mandy muttered, leaving with their order.

"Too much bread's bad for them, you know," Pippa told Aziraphale.

"I didn't," he admitted guiltily, sipping his coffee. "What's best?"

"Nicola found this website because Rob likes to feed the ducks near his school, and it says soft fruit is very good, as are live insects. Meal-worms. Crickets. Chopped veg."

Aziraphale made a mental note to add grapes and peas to the grocery list.

"Crowley will be glad of the advice, I'm quite sure."

"He's upset with you, isn't he?" Pippa asked.

"Why would you say that?" Aziraphale replied.

"Your brow creased just now as you thought of him. Oh, please don't give me that look; you play at being ever so dim, don't you? Tell me what you've done."

"I forgot our dinner plans," said Aziraphale, averting his gaze.

"Well, dinner's ages away," Pippa told him, but her lips tightened. "Ah," she said, much more softly, intent on her coffee. "You mustn't worry. I won't keep you today."

"For all his complaining, you must know he'd rather you kept me if—"

"Hush, you," said Pippa, with forced cheer. "You've taken the brunt of this, don't think I don't know it. Whisk him away for a little while. Think about setting a date; I should like another spring wedding very much. Your godson's was lovely."

Aziraphale sighed, opening his mouth to protest, and then shut it again.

"You think Crowley needs a holiday?" he asked instead.

"I think you both do," Mandy interjected, setting a full English breakfast in front of each of them. "Scratch that: all three of you do, but not together. Pip, if you don't eat, I'm telling Rob his gran's a hypocrite," she added, patting Pippa on the shoulder.

Resolutely, Pippa ignored her and forged on.

"You took him where last year, France? Right about this time, too."

"Michaelmas weekend," said Aziraphale, fixing his eyes on the waves.

"The sea makes him moody as much as it soothes him," Pippa remarked. "Get off these cold northern beaches for a change. Go somewhere warm."

Echoes caught and held, endlessly. Aziraphale gave her a look, but softened it instantly; she couldn't have known he'd thoughtlessly said the same thing to Crowley, once upon a time. Even if a bit sunken, Pippa's eyes were oddly clear.

"You get the strangest, saddest look sometimes," she said. "I never know why."

"It's been so very long," Aziraphale told her. "There are times I wish I could tell you."

"Go away with him, you silly man!" Pippa exclaimed, showing some of her usual fire for the first time in weeks. "If not someplace warm, then someplace interesting."

"That," said Aziraphale, wryly, picking up his fork, "I'm sure I can do."



 

* * *





Crowley spent a rather dull Saturday morning in his pyjamas, curled up on the sofa with tea and Season One of The Borgias to keep him company. Dreadful stuff, of course. Bloody. More than a bit upsetting. He couldn't help but wonder if Showtime specialized in hunting down screenwriters with an uncanny knack for getting certain things right, where uncanny knack equaled unholy pact. He'd seen Rodrigo's brood from a distance, but he'd never got too close. Humans of their ilk were the worst.

He'd felt keenly sorry for Lucrezia, though; the gossip mills had not been kind.

After three episodes, Crowley turned off the television and stared at the ceiling. It was just after noontime, and he wondered if Aziraphale would actually manage to peel away, or if Pippa would crash all over again and he'd eventually have to drive down...

The truth was, they'd already tried the sushi restaurant in Brighton. Several times, in fact. They'd decided that the phrase would serve as code for when he wanted to try again, if he wanted to try again. And, very recently, Crowley had decided that he did.

Crowley must have dozed off, because he woke to Aziraphale sitting alongside him on the cushion, more off the sofa than on it. Aziraphale's cheek and neck felt damp beneath his touch, as if the rain hadn't quite let up for the return walk.

"Did you happen to check on them?" Crowley asked. "And how's Pippa?"

"The mother's got them hunkered down in that patch of Danish scurvy-grass, safe under her wings," Aziraphale told him. "The drake's on watch at the edge of the garden; I believe he's onto you. Pippa is much improved, as it happens."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Crowley, and then tentatively added, "but, speaking of scurvy-grass, did you know wasabi was once erroneously classified as Cochlearia?"

Aziraphale bent and kissed Crowley, biting at his lower lip with gentle insistence.

"You needn't belabor the point. If you're sure, I'm more than amenable."

"Prove it," said Crowley, undoing the first few buttons of Aziraphale's shirt.

The bedroom was as warm and dark as they'd left it, so Aziraphale switched on the bedside lamp and then turned his attention back to undressing himself. He did it with an air of unfussed confidence now that made it impossible for Crowley to tear his eyes away. He draped his shirt and trousers over the mirror, and then climbed over the footboard and crawled up the mattress to where Crowley reclined. Crowley let himself be stripped of his nightshirt between kisses, sucked in his breath sharply when Aziraphale's thumbs caught the elastic at his hips and drew his pyjama bottoms down. Discarding both garments on the floor, Aziraphale pressed him back into the pillows.

"If you need to stop at any point, dear boy," he said firmly, "we stop."

Crowley closed his eyes and nodded, pressing one thigh up between Aziraphale's.

Aziraphale made a low, appreciative sound and shifted, nuzzling Crowley's throat. Foreplay was Aziraphale's strong suit. Even if not as extensive as this particular instance—licks and open-mouthed kisses from throat to chest to belly that left Crowley a wreck—he'd learned Crowley's weak spots to a fault, and he'd discovered that his hands, his mouth, and full-body contact got Crowley off more efficiently than fucking.

Aziraphale kissed the head of Crowley's cock and wrapped an arm around his waist.

"If the idea's to use the...the rope to...well, I think you're doing it wrong."

"The idea's for you to lie back and enjoy this, Crowley, if you please."

The brush of frayed silk up the underside of Crowley's erection was pleasant, if unexpected. He jumped, but Aziraphale's arm held him securely in place, and he hadn't stopped lavishing attention on Crowley with his mouth, either, which added a whole shivery, thrilling dimension to an otherwise intensely ticklish experience. Crowley wound his fingers in the pillowcase, registering the feel of one loop pulled skillfully snug around the base of his cock. He let out a brief, startled breath. Aziraphale wasn't kissing him anymore, but his hair brushed Crowley's belly as he looped the rope once, twice more, again, and then gave an experimental tug. Crowley opened his eyes, blinking dizzily at the ceiling.

"It feels like it's...more...well, more," he said thinly.

"The skin's stretched taut as a result," said Aziraphale, his breath teasing at Crowley's strained flesh. "More nerve endings exposed, I think, is what you meant." Crowley let go of the pillowcase and scrabbled at Aziraphale's shoulders.

"For heaven's sake, keep doing tha—oh," Crowley moaned.

Aziraphale didn't add any more loops or tighten the improvised cock-ring further, but there wasn't really any need. He sucked Crowley off with the merciless enjoyment of somebody who knew they'd done something bloody brilliant for once.

Crowley came so hard it almost hurt, shouting himself hoarse.

He couldn't do much more than cling while Aziraphale breathed blasphemies into his ear and worked Crowley's pliant hand on his own hardness. Superb, Crowley thought, taking over when Aziraphale was too far gone to be doing all the work. Wet heat slicked his fingers, and Aziraphale's ragged gasps dampened the pillow.

Crowley threaded his fingers in Aziraphale's unkempt hair and inhaled against the side of his neck. It was an irrational fancy, perhaps, but Aziraphale had always smelled wonderful. Even before he'd had cause to realize there was an element of genuine chemistry involved, Crowley had always associated his scent with comfort. "Mine," he said, banishing the tangled mess (ruined rope and all).

Aziraphale rolled onto his back and hauled Crowley along so that he could settle in for as much warmth as he wanted. He twined their fingers together and held them up, studying the rings. Both settings caught the lamplight, winking with sullen, sated fire.

"They're not an obvious match," he said.

"Neither are we," Crowley pointed out.

"I beg to differ, my dear. We've come a long way."

"Try me again later, and you can beg all you want."

Aziraphale pinched Crowley's backside, and then stroked the spot, sighing.

"Pippa says we need a holiday. I'm inclined to agree."

"Not France," Crowley said. "Not this year. I've had enough of their saints."

"If you did want sushi," said Aziraphale, surreptitiously, "there's always..."

Crowley propped himself on his forearms, resting against Aziraphale's chest. "Let's steer clear of Tokyo," he said. "And Fukushima, of course. They say Kyoto's lovely this time of year, what with the leaves. I've never actually been."

"Somewhere quiet," said Aziraphale, thoughtfully. "Yes."



 

* * *





"God," Mandy said, frozen at the edge of the garden. "I thought you were kidding."

Aziraphale tossed a few more peas into the grass. The ducklings ambled closer, greedily snatching them up. Their mother watched from a safe distance away, head tucked half under her wing, one weary, watchful eye trained on Aziraphale.

"I ought to have shown you the video," he said.

"You recorded it? No way," said Mandy, grinning. "Can I see?"

"I'm sure you know how to play it," said Aziraphale, fishing in his coat pocket. "Ah. Here you are. Leave my emails alone, please. I'll know if you've opened them."

Mandy snatched the phone, thumbs instantly busy at the track-ball and keyboard. "I can't imagine what kind of dark secrets you've got in there, unless it's drunk party photos from those crazy American friends of yours I met at the wedding."

"Uriel is Canadian," Aziraphale said, crouching to offer the bravest duckling a pea directly from his open palm. "Er. Sort of. She lived in Toronto for quite some time."

"Her boyfriend—um—partner, Rafe, is he...?" Her eyes widened a little as the video started playing. "Oh, Jesus Christ. That's just sickening. He'd make a great dad; I've seen him with Rob. Have you guys ever considered adopting?"

"Dear girl, if I knew exactly what Rafe considered himself, I'd tell you," sighed Aziraphale. He knelt and poured more peas from the mug into his hand, and then set the mug aside. He cupped both palms and spread the peas between them, startled at how quickly the youngsters gathered around to eat. "As for adoption, no, it's out of the question. We've got our hands full enough, looking after you and the rest."

Mandy looked up from the video with a smug half-smile.

"I require lots of looking after, do I? I guess you mean Anathema's girls, too."

"And Adam," said Aziraphale, resisting the urge to laugh as two of the ducklings nipped at his wrists, almost as if they thought he required preening. "That boy has been a challenge since the day he arrived on this unsuspecting planet."

"You make it sound like he's a threat to world security," said Mandy, tapping him on the shoulder with the BlackBerry. "Sorry I thought you were exaggerating. They are precious. So's Crowley. Where is he? I wanted to see him before you guys take off."

"Out shopping for the day," Aziraphale told her. "In Cambridge."

"Right, forgot," said Mandy, somewhat crestfallen as Aziraphale spread the remaining peas on the grass, brushed his hands off, and took back the phone. "Sophia's his BFF."

Aziraphale gave her a questioning look, idly noticing that the drake had returned.

"I'm afraid I don't know what that means, inasmuch as I am, as they say, wired."

"Best friend forever," Mandy clarified. "Sorry. It's a stupid internet thing."

"Crowley is very fond of you," Aziraphale told her, tilting the girl's chin up. "He always has been. In fact, he warmed to you much more quickly than I did at first. He'll be sorry to have missed you, and when we get home from our trip, we'd be delighted to have you and your young man pop by for dinner. How's that?"

"Do you really mean it?" Mandy asked, her eyes luminous and sad.

"Absolutely," Aziraphale said. "Crowley enjoys cooking for loved ones."

"No," she said. "I mean about him always having been fond of me."

Aziraphale sighed and stepped between Mandy and the drake, who'd begun hissing and flapping at both of them. The annoyed father rounded up his chicks and herded them back to where his mate rested, urging them to forage on the scurvy-grass.

"I knew you'd taken a fancy to him," he said, setting a hand on her shoulder. "I may be oblivious to a great number of things, my dear, but attraction is not one of them. At the time, everything was still so new—that is, what we had seemed so fragile—"

"You fought for him," Mandy said tearfully, "and you didn't even need to. I've never seen anybody fight so hard. It made me hate you, but now I just can't imagine..."

Aziraphale pulled Mandy close and let her sob on his shoulder.

"He's protective of me, just like you are," she hiccuped. "He's going to hate Iván."

"Why?" asked Aziraphale, bewildered, awkwardly stroking her hair.

"I don't know! Because he's dating me! Because he's Spanish!"

You needn't worry about the former, thought Aziraphale, and led her inside for tea.



 

* * *





"I bet you wish Uriel was here, not me," said Sophia, dubiously. "I think it all looks fine. You can carry off so many different styles." She glanced at the tag on the sleeve of the shirt and flipped it back over in disgust. "Yiiikes. I hope Aziraphale's paying."

"He almost always is," replied Crowley, absently, holding the shirt up one more time and frowning at his reflection. "I don't know; I was always just aiming for what I hoped looked good. It's nice not having to keep up the charade anymore, but now I just wonder if it was the equivalent of a bad Halloween costume. Or Raphael in drag."

"He looks better in drag than in trousers," said Sophia, and leaned on the rack of overpriced sale items. "Did he think he had to dumb his wardrobe down while he was here? I saw the photos from last summer. He rocked those skirts."

"Blue one, grey one, green one?" asked Crowley, flipping between hangers. "They all fit. Everybody's going to be staring at the awkward gaijin anyway, just like last time."

Sophia picked through the rack until she found one in garnet. She held it up under his chin and covered her mouth with her free hand, eyes filled with mischief.

"You're awful," said Crowley. "Just, no. That's not even funny."

"Why did they keep you?" she asked wonderingly. "You were failtastic!"

"You've got through the note-cards, I see," Crowley said, tucking both the green and grey under his arm. "You must be better acquainted with your infamous ancestress."

"I'm going to get you drunk and then have you say that. Ten times fast," she added, dashing to catch him at the till. "Let's have those cocktails again when you get back."

"We'll see," said Crowley, sticking his debit card in the chip-and-PIN machine. "I used to get through about ten in one sitting, but that many would probably kill—" he paused before he could manage to say a human, because the cashier was looking at him quite strangely "—me now. Heh. My tolerance isn't what it used to be."

"Two or three would do me in for sure," said Sophia. "And induce hallucinations."

"Did you take your gap-year in Thailand?" the cashier asked Crowley, tucking the receipt in his bag. "Because I know this place in Bangkok—" he paused and eyed Sophia, winking at her. "Well, maybe not in front of your little sister."

Crowley and Sophia looked at each other, mystified, but by the time they both glanced back at the cashier, they were laughing about exactly the same thing.

"He's my cousin," said Sophia, punching Crowley's shoulder. "You should see his amazing eyes. They're nothing like mine. He got the fantastic cheekbones, too."

Crowley pushed his sunglasses a bit further up the bridge of his nose. "Maybe next time," he told the cashier, playfully grabbing Sophia's arm. "I've got to get her home to the husband, or there will be hell to pay. Quite literally," he added.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

Aziraphale's BlackBerry alerted him to the arrival of a text-message just as they hit the runway in Dubai. Crowley had slept for most of the seven-hour first leg, although he was currently hunkered down in his seat with his earphones tuned to whatever in-flight music station he found least appalling. They'd given up on watching a film when nearly all of the cinematic features had turned out to be cringe-worthy romantic comedies. Angling the screen away from Crowley, Aziraphale opened the message.


have you reached the halfway point,
darling? is he climbing the walls?



As he'd learned in the past week-and-change, Raphael never bothered with proper capitalization. Aziraphale replied, resisting the urge to make a snide comment.


We're on the ground at DXB,
nearly to the runway. No plane-
change. He's listening to music.



Crowley turned in his seat and waved at the BlackBerry with a quick, sharp flick of his tongue. Aziraphale gave him a mildly reproachful look, but his heart just wasn't in it.


feed him or fuck him if
necessary, az. good luck.



Aziraphale ignored the response and deleted it, tucking the gadget away. Crowley looked as cramped and tired as he felt himself; they'd get off the plane and find refreshment in the terminal, perhaps, before re-boarding. Ahead of the final nine-hour stretch, Aziraphale fancied some coffee that wasn't horrid, over-brewed instant stuff.

Crowley yanked out the earphones and wrestled them back into their plastic baggie. He stuffed them in the back-pocket of the seat in front of him, stretching, and then took off his seat-belt. Leaning across Aziraphale's lap, he stared out the window.

"How long till we have to get back on this thing?"

"Two and a half hours. If gate hook-up takes a while, two."

"More than enough time to find a Costa or Caffè Nero or..."

"You'll be spoiled for choice," said Aziraphale. "They've got both of those, and also Starbucks. I looked it up. Perhaps we ought to go in for a local specialty, though."

"Mint tea," Crowley said. The plane hit a rough patch of tarmac, pitching him against Aziraphale's shoulder. Instead of lifting his head, he sighed and let it rest there. Aziraphale stroked his hair, silently cursing Raphael's suggestion.

Fifteen minutes later, they were off the plane and stretching their limbs inside the terminal. The nearest source of what they both wanted was Starbucks, so they settled for a deserted corner sofa. Crowley pulled the lid off his cup and sipped the tea scalding while Aziraphale stirred his café au lait to cool it slightly. Anathema had forwarded him some case-documents to peruse. He'd taken to informally assisting her behind the scenes on tough cases. Much more fun than crosswords, he'd found.

By the time they had to think about re-boarding, Aziraphale was engaged in an idle text-exchange with Anathema. Crowley had fallen asleep with his head in Aziraphale's lap. When Aziraphale shook him awake, he was grumpy and needed the loo.

"Serves you right, nodding off right after a drink," Aziraphale told him.

"One of these days, it'll be you," said Crowley, as he rose to go off in search of the nearest restroom. "It won't seem so funny then, angel. Just you wait." Aziraphale photographed Crowley's annoyed expression and sent it to Anathema.

"Troll!" Crowley called over his shoulder, vanishing into the crowd.

You're really awful, Anathema texted back a split-second later.

Duly noted, Aziraphale replied. Talk to you soon, dear girl.

Between the caffeine and the brief rest, they hit a second wind and decided to drink their way through the remaining flight. This resulted in surreptitious glances from the young couple in front of them. Aziraphale inferred that it was because they weren't accustomed to conversations regarding not only what it was like to literally fly through rough weather over the Pacific, but also proposing what impact current levels of sea-mammal intelligence might have on the continuing economic crisis. After a while, Aziraphale got tired of the stares; he quieted Crowley with a kiss, which sorted the issue right out. The couple were eavesdroppers, it would seem, but not voyeurs.

They both slept soundly through the final four hours of the flight. Crowley was wobbly and a bit worse for wear during their wait to clear customs at Kansai International, so Aziraphale propped him up with a description of where they were staying. He was fortunate he'd been able to make the reservation without cheating too terribly much; he'd done far worse over time than wish illness on unsuspecting parties so they wouldn't turn up. The staff at Mume Hotel would receive a call canceling the previous party's claim on its Hana suite ten minutes before their arrival. Small mercies.

A ninety-minute taxi ride later—neither one of them could be bothered with the train, not after around twenty hours cooped up in a plane—the astonishingly helpful and welcoming staff checked them into their fortuitously-snagged suite without a fuss.

Crowley stood uncomfortably still beside Aziraphale while he spoke to the concierge in fluent (if slightly rusty) Japanese, and he seemed all too glad to escape the bubbly young woman's attention. When they reached the top of the stairs, Aziraphale produced the room-key and did the honors with as much flair as he could muster. Crowley took off his sunglasses and stood staring in the doorway.

"I hope nobody died so we could have this," he said stupidly.

"Nonsense," said Aziraphale, ferrying their luggage inside. "A minor ailment, I assure you." He left their suitcases next to the elegant table and chairs, and then turned to tug Crowley inside. "Five days," he said. "For five days, it's ours, and they'll arrive late and have it for the rest of the time they were meant to stay. No harm, no foul."

"That," said Crowley, eyeing the elegant, screen-canopied bed sidelong, "still counts as messing people about, doesn't it?" He stepped close and worked both hands inside Aziraphale's rumpled waistcoat, tugging until Aziraphale's shirt came untucked.

"Not when your happiness depends upon it, my dear," Aziraphale said.



 

* * *





Crowley blinked lazily at the cherry-blossom karakami pattern on the ceiling above the bed, stretching in the luxuriously soft sheets. He rolled over and considered the view at eye-level, struck by how profoundly rare the circumstances were.

It wasn't often he got to watch Aziraphale sleep.

They'd spent the previous afternoon and evening in bed, not even venturing out to explore. He'd expected Aziraphale to suggest that they'd wasted their first half-day, but no such insinuations had been forthcoming. They'd ordered dinner in, and aside from Aziraphale donning a dressing-gown to answer the door and pay for the delivery, they hadn't bothered to dress. Afterward, they'd shared a cigarette on the balcony, admired their view of the Shirakawa River, and retired to make love again.

Uriel had texted him just after midnight: How's the dirty get-away so far?

Not dirty enough by your standards, he'd typed back, and filthy by mine.

Crowley slid an arm across Aziraphale's chest, closing his eyes. There was little he could do to halt the memory, and even less he could do to keep from admitting that this strange, serene country had been where it all started. For him, at least.


"It's beautiful," Crowley said, regarding the plate with wary fascination. "Almost too beautiful. White dahlia, if ever there was such a thing," he remarked grimly.

"There's enough to share," said Aziraphale, taking up his chopsticks, left hand slightly trembling. It was clear he'd wanted to try this for a very long time, and, for them, the definition of a long time was certainly longer than it was for most.

Crowley leaned forward and sniffed the sashimi, right hand hesitating on his own utensils. It was fresh, there was no doubt of it: pulled from the sea that morning. He inhaled again. Beneath the promise of fine flavor, he detected something foreign, something
wrong: a terrifying, prescient spike at the back of his throat.

"Don't eat it, angel," he said. "I'm not very sure."

"The chef has twenty years' experience. I hardly think we're in danger."

Crowley looked up at Aziraphale, intently studying his eyes.

Hard to refuse him something so fiercely wanted, especially after what they'd been through scarcely a decade before. The point was to enjoy the world now, wasn't it? Enjoy it while they still had a second lease on existence. That was part of why they'd come. What when you'd nearly lost all of the sushi restaurants in Creation, what was the logical course of action? Get sushi at its source, the most exquisite there is.

The fish was laced with venom; the chef had made his first and only fatal error.

But Crowley was in a position to let Aziraphale have his cake and eat it, too.

"As you will," he said, waving his chopsticks at Aziraphale. "I'll abstain."



Crowley clung tightly to Aziraphale as the recollection subsided, waking him.

"Hush," Aziraphale yawned, stroking Crowley's arm. "Bad dream?"

"Yeah," Crowley said, opening his eyes in relief. "Something like that."

While Aziraphale pottered about in the spacious white-tiled bathroom, investigating the tub and the sinks (Two! he exclaimed) and the electric kettle, Crowley lounged on the bed with his travel guide open, idly flipping pages. He was as proud of his travel-guide library as he was of the rest of his reference collection, and he intended to put The Rough Guide to Japan to good use. Failing that, he'd attempt it.

"We could have a look at Nishi-Honganji and Higashi-Honganji first," he said.

The sound of running water subsided, and Aziraphale stepped out of the bathroom, patting his face and neck dry with a fluffy white towel. He was still naked. "Perhaps we ought to take it easy," he said. "Wander the streets, nose through the shops. Get our bearings. Find some nice restaurants to try over the next few days."

Crowley turned a few more pages. At this rate, he'd just want to stay in bed. "Nishiki-Koji Dori is a produce market right in the center of town," he said, skimming the next write-up. "Fresh fish and all sorts. See where your sushi's coming from."

"Weren't you on the lookout for a sake set?" asked Aziraphale, thoughtfully.

"Yes," Crowley confirmed, snapping the book shut. "One too nice for you to break."

"I assure you it was an accident," Aziraphale said, rummaging in his suitcase.

Crowley watched him straighten and turn, clothes carelessly flung over one arm.

"I believe you," he sighed, getting up to join the angel. "At least now."

The produce market was as busy and vibrant as promised, although they'd missed the weekday morning rush by a couple of hours, which meant most of the choicest cuts of fish had gone (snapped up by the local restaurants' astute provisioners, Crowley realized). The pavements were slick with rain-gloss that shimmered attractively in the early afternoon sun. They bought postcards to send Pippa and Mandy, as well as to the Device-Pulsifer, Device-Pulsifer/Young, and Shadwell/Tracy households. Aziraphale pointed out that Raphael and Uriel didn't deserve postcards, having made a nuisance of themselves already via text-message by demanding photos every couple of hours.

The damp air carried a slight chill, so something hot was in order for lunch. "What's in yours, again?" asked Aziraphale, fishing through his yakisoba, inordinately pleased when his chopsticks turned up another tender slice of beef.

"Shrimp, scallops, and squid," said Crowley, chewing happily. Next to his plate on the glass-topped table, his flip-phone vibrated.

Tell Aziraphale I want to see your lunch, too! wrote Uriel.

No, Crowley texted back one-handed, winding noodles around his chopsticks.

Why don't you just replace that dinosaur already? she shot back.

Because it's not broken, Crowley replied.

"Honestly," he said to Aziraphale. "Why do you indulge them? You've spent so much time taking photos you haven't seen a thing firsthand, not even your food."

"Real-time updates in lieu of postcards," said Aziraphale. "Fair is fair."

Come over to the dark side, pressed Uriel. You know you want an iPhone.

I want you to shut up, Crowley texted back, turning off his mobile just as Aziraphale snapped a picture of him mid-bite and sent it off to the guilty parties.

They decided that Kiyomizu Temple wasn't too ambitious a destination for the remainder of the afternoon, as they planned on taking a leisurely stroll through Gojo-zaka and Chawan-zaka on the way. They'd missed August's annual Gojo-zaka Festival, so browsing the pottery-district's shops would be the next best thing. Crowley flitted from shop to shop so quickly that Aziraphale couldn't keep up.

"How do you know what you're looking for?" Aziraphale asked, taking Crowley by the shoulder as he examined an arresting black and brown ash-glazed guinomi with a fascinating carved texture. "You're moving too fast. You might miss something."

"This is what I'm looking for," said Crowley, cradling the piece in his palm. "Isezaki Koichiro, son of the current Living National Treasure, Isezaki Jun."

Aziraphale picked up the piece that had been sitting next to it. "They're not precisely a matched set, my dear, are they?"

"He doesn't make sets as such," Crowley said. "The bottle's separate, too, see?"

Crowley took the second guinomi out of Aziraphale's hand and set it down beside its fellow and the bottle, studying the three pieces appraisingly. Aziraphale went to the till, and, after an exchange with the shopkeeper, grimly handed over his debit card.

"We'll tell Pippa it's an engagement gift," he sighed, "rather than reparations."

Crowley smiled and brought the items up to the obliging shopkeeper.

"That's right," he said sternly, folding his arms. "Call it what it is."

Aziraphale poised the BlackBerry to photograph his purchases being wrapped.

Crowley leaned into the frame at the last second, beaming in satisfaction.

Later, as they explored the temple complex, Crowley tugged Aziraphale into an alcove and stole an unhurried kiss.

After Mont Saint-Michel, he reasoned, it was tradition.



 

* * *





The trouble was that there was simply too much to choose from.

"No more fugu," Crowley warned over the top of his menu. "Don't you dare."

"It was on my bucket list," said Aziraphale, reassuringly. "The once will suffice."

"Speaking of which, you almost kicked it," Crowley muttered. "I fancy the red snapper, salmon, and fatty tuna sashimi. What about you?"

"It was delicious, poison be damned," said Aziraphale. "I'll never forget it."

Crowley set down his menu and stared at him rather a bit desperately.

"Can we please not talk about it?" he asked. "I'd like to stay hungry."

"It's over and done with," said Aziraphale, testily. "Your quick thinking won out."


Aziraphale plucked up one delicate slice and put it in his mouth.

Far too soon for his liking, Crowley's eyes went wide and terrified.

"It's lovely," he began, swallowing. "Like nothing else you've ever tasted, dear boy. The texture is similar to yellowtail, I'll grant, but—" he paused to put another piece in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully "—it's odd. My tongue's gone numb. Then again, they say that's normal." He picked up three slices in one go and ate them with relish.

"Can you feel anything else?" asked Crowley. "Besides not feeling your tongue—"

Aziraphale reached for his glass of water, taking a swallow. His throat was tingling. He cleared it, noting Crowley's increased agitation. Did he want to try it after all? "Perfectly fine," said Aziraphale, finding his tongue uncooperative. "I'm still breathing."

Crowley rose from his chair and rounded the table, crouching at Aziraphale's side.

"Listen to me," he said, voice low and urgent. "The chef made a mistake."

"What do you mean?" asked Aziraphale, but it came out more like "At ooh yoo een?"

"I could smell it, I should have told you, I shouldn't have let you—sodding hell, you stupid prat, why did you have to convince me there was no harm in letting you—"

Crowley's words were a blur, as was everything else.

Aziraphale couldn't breathe, and he couldn't speak anymore, either.

Crowley pressed one hand to Aziraphale's throat and the other to his stomach, muttering words that would make a memory-wipe of every other party in the restaurant mandatory. By then, everything was burning, including Crowley's hands.

Aziraphale clutched at them and blacked out.



"Aziraphale," pleaded Crowley, quietly, his voice full of anguish.

"You knew," Aziraphale said, his mind catching up. "You let me try it."

"You wouldn't have let me stop you!" said Crowley, bitterly. "And I thought, well, removing that kind of toxin from the system isn't terribly different from removing alcohol-poisoning levels of wine, which we've done loads of times, so I just..."

"Thank you," said Aziraphale, reaching across the table to take his hand.

Crowley let out a pained laugh, grasping Aziraphale's fingers so tightly it hurt.

"For what? Letting you try it, or saving your life?"

"Both, but—no, more than that," Aziraphale replied, slowly. His pulse raced. They both had perfect visual recall, but Crowley's had always been that much sharper, that much more cutting, and to think that Aziraphale had missed what had been staring him in the face all along, what he hadn't really got until he'd had too much to drink and taken a hard, honest look at the wainscot in the back room of his erstwhile bookshop.

"I don't follow," said Crowley, staring hard at the table. He'd folded both hands around Aziraphale's and drawn it up to his mouth, the menu forgotten. His breath skimmed Aziraphale's knuckles, heated and shallow. "You'll have to be a lot more specific."

"The way you looked at me," said Aziraphale, gently. "It was another three years before I managed to sort that out even subconsciously; can you even forgive..." They stared at each other dumbly, neither one of them daring to breathe.

At length, Crowley took a great, shuddering lungful and kissed Aziraphale's hand.

The young, perplexed waitress stepped up just then and asked if they were ready.

"Yes," said Crowley, fervently. "Six thousand times, yes."



 

* * *





They stood on the small wooden bridge and stared out over the water, entranced.

"Reds and oranges as far as the eye can see," Aziraphale murmured, peering into their reflection just as it was interrupted by the dorsal fins of several koi. "A world on fire."

"The Rough Guide wasn't lying, at least," said Crowley, at a loss.

"Neither was the internet," said Aziraphale, taking a photograph with his BlackBerry.

"Put that thing away," Crowley muttered. "Mine's been off since yesterday."

"Yes, and I've not heard the end of it from Uriel," Aziraphale replied.

Crowley curled his hand around Aziraphale's on the wooden railing, tracing a line with his thumb from the underside of Aziraphale's wrist up to the heart of his palm. "Mandy said I'd make a good father? Really? I'm not sure whether I ought to take it as a compliment or whether I ought to be sort of appalled. She did kiss me on the cheek."

"That's a perfectly reasonable place to kiss one's father," Aziraphale reassured him. "I think that chap who took you and Sophia for siblings had it much nearer the mark."

"Family," said Crowley, considering their twined fingers, "is a funny thing."

"Odd, isn't it," Aziraphale mused. "To think that we've got one."

Crowley looked up at him, removing his sunglasses, and saw to it that their eyes locked. Best to do it now while his defenses were down (But haven't they always been? he wondered) and everything carried with it the weight of their shared world.

"Marry me," Crowley said, turning to face him fully.

Aziraphale sucked in his breath, his hand tightening on Crowley's. "I wouldn't want you to do it simply because Pippa expects it. No authority Above or Below would recognize such a thing. And it's so little in comparison to the recognition I could have given you, I mean with respect to my superiors, if I'd only thought to name it in my terms when Adam asked—my dear, I've been kicking myself—"

"I don't care one whit," Crowley said vehemently, "for any authority other than those that recognize us right here in the middle, thank you very fucking much."

"I see," said Aziraphale, turning to face him in kind. "Oh, my love. I do."

Chapter Text

This has gone too quickly, thought Aziraphale, twisting the cap off the blue bottle.

The good news was, sake rarely required a corkscrew, as the Japanese were blessedly sensible when it came to ease of getting plastered. The bad news was, they were on bottle number four, and they'd planned on taking two of said bottles home. Oops.

"Nigori Rock Sake Cloud," read Crowley, somewhat fuzzily, reaching across the able to take the bottle out of Aziraphale's hand. He squinted at the fine print on the back of the label. "No way," he said. "This stuff's made in Oregon." He emptied the contents into their newly acquired tokkuri, set the bottle down on the floor. He proceeded to fill the darker of the two guinomi, which he passed back to Aziraphale, and then the paler one, which he kept for himself. "Cheers," he said, raising it. "Again. Or something."

Aziraphale tossed it back like a shot, savoring the sweet burn on his tongue. They'd never been much for the drier, lighter, filtered varieties, and he'd read a rather excellent review of this particular sake (in a Japanese magazine, no less, while Crowley had been busy photographing Minzoku Shiryokan from top to bottom with Aziraphale's BlackBerry; the endless stream of images had bored Raphael to tears).

He held the guinomi out for more, and Crowley complied, knocking both sets of chopsticks off the empty wooden platter between them. There was not much left on it except for eel-sauce stains, traces of wasabi, and a pitiful shred of pickled ginger.

"It's quite all right," said Aziraphale, sipping judiciously. "We've run out of toasts."

"And unagi," Crowley lamented, peeling the ginger off the platter. He stuck it in his mouth, chewing for a while with his eyes closed, and then downed his sake shot.

Aziraphale refilled his guinomi and reached to brush a tiny sliver of ginger off Crowley's lower lip. Crowley's tongue darted out, pink and unforked, missing Aziraphale's thumb. They were both reasonably tipsy, and the Hana suite was warm, except for when the breeze stole in through the half-open balcony door. It was their last night in Kyoto; neither one of them intended to waste it.

"Have you seen everything you wished to see, my dear?" Aziraphale asked.

Crowley refilled his guinomi, not quite frowning, and sipped.

"Never," he replied solemnly. "But that's not your fault. Bloody big world, eh?"

"We could travel for a while if you like," Aziraphale told him, collecting the scattered chopsticks and piling them back on the platter. He rose, carried the whole lot over to the door, and set it out in the hall, guiltily hoping the staff would clear it. "Hop on to New Zealand from here, perhaps? Australia if you absolutely insist, however—"

"Not yet," said Crowley, and Aziraphale turned to find him standing with his arse planted against the edge of the table, tugging ineffectually at his collar. "It's too soon," he slurred, by way of clarification. "Pippa's still too hurt, and I ssseem to recall you promised Mandy I'd cook for her and some Spanish blaggard from the kitchens who, by the way, had better speak English fluently, because I can't ssstand..."

Aziraphale patiently unbuttoned Crowley's shirt for him—the grey one he'd bought in Cambridge, understated and elegant—and proceeded to unfasten the trendy Pure Blue Japan jeans he'd bought at a denim boutique in Kansai. Crowley's head fell forward onto Aziraphale's shoulder as Aziraphale fondled him through his underthings.

"Too drunk for this," he muttered, and then sighed in defeat. "Fine."

Aziraphale kissed Crowley's neck and bit his earlobe, pushing jeans and pants both down around his hips. "That's quite easily solved," he said, and two-thirds of the alcohol they'd consumed vanished from their bloodstreams. "I've left just enough, what you might call a pleasant buzz. Although, if I've removed too much..."

He reached for Crowley's guinomi and drank some of what was left in it, and then held the remainder up to Crowley's lips. He drank obediently, tilting his chin up and opening his mouth to tease against Aziraphale's once the cup was safely set aside.

"If you break one of those, angel, so help me," he said, "I'll let you have fugu again any time you want it. Just you watch. I might even laugh at yo—oooh, that's not fair."

"Nobody's keeping track," Aziraphale reassured him, having impatiently got rid of their disarrayed clothing by less-than-traditional means. He knew Crowley wouldn't last long, not after that kind of tease; he was already leaking a warm trail across Aziraphale's belly, using the table for leverage to thrust up as they kissed. "Not anymore," he breathed directly in Crowley's ear, and the shudder that went through Crowley in response was nothing to the words that came tumbling out of his mouth.

"Where," he moaned, "is that God-forsaken rope when you need it?"

"When I need it? Or when one needs it, generally speaking?"

Crowley hissed and twisted Aziraphale's wrists around demonstratively, pinning them at the small of Aziraphale's back. "Punishment," he explained. "For moving too fast."

"Under the pillows, I believe," said Aziraphale, helpfully. "Unless housekeeping's made off with it. I'd rather not find it necessary to have a word with the management."

Eased off the edge of the table, Crowley proved tense and wobbly on his feet, so Aziraphale led him over to the bed by both hands. It would have been entirely too easy to pin him down, to kiss and suck and stroke him to release. Aziraphale was content enough with lying side by side for several unhurried minutes, breathing each other in while Crowley's trembling subsided to a manageable level.

Aziraphale found the especially ticklish spot behind Crowley's right knee and stroked it, idly tolerating the exquisite frustration of not being touched. Crowley writhed and pressed flush up against Aziraphale, his breath escaping in an expressive rush.

That'll do it, Aziraphale thought. That'll do it every damned time.

"What, then?" Crowley asked. "D'you want me to tie you up, or fuck you, or both?"

"The latter," said Aziraphale, a little bit breathlessly. "An experiment, if you like," he added, and it took some maneuvering, but he eventually got Crowley to sit propped up against a pile of pillows with the silk rope unspooled in his hands and in his lap.

Aziraphale knelt next to Crowley and kissed him until he relaxed, loose-limbed, into the pillows; repeating the cock-ring bind took ten seconds, but Aziraphale found it necessary to flick the loops away just as quickly, as Crowley had begun to shake again with the effort of not giving in. Aziraphale shifted to straddle Crowley's lap, his thigh-muscles protesting, and immediately understood how much control it took on Crowley's part to perform strenuous acts in this position even with his hands free.

"Ushiro te shibari," Crowley said uncertainly, steadying him. "Yes?"

Aziraphale obediently crossed his arms behind his back, leaning forward for a kiss.

The rope slithered from between them and insinuated itself in a series of dreadfully complex loops and twists around Aziraphale's wrists. Crowley hadn't even lifted a finger, except to take Aziraphale's face in both hands and kiss him more deeply.

Aziraphale didn't need to look over his shoulder to know that the knots Crowley had used weren't in the book they'd unceremoniously abandoned between the bed and the nightstand back at home. In fact, if they had been pulled any tighter, it would have been painfully obvious, in the most literal sense, that the rope's current configuration had originally been designed to cut off circulation (or, even worse, extremities).

"It's all I could remember in a pinch," said Crowley, gaze lowered, one hand already working its unsteady way down Aziraphale's chest. "I'd rather see it used for something like this than for torture," he said, his fingers abruptly going slick as he stroked Aziraphale. "I swear, it's hard to get the consistency of this stuff right, but I am not getting up to go dig around in your suitcase for that travel-size bottle."

Sucking in his breath at the sharp swell of pleasure, Aziraphale couldn't decide which Crowley wore more attractively: complete and total irony, or nothing at all.

"I believe what matters is that the knots hold," Aziraphale said, shifting his weight cautiously onto his knees as Crowley stroked himself with the hastily summoned lubricant. Even with one of Crowley's hands at his hip, the balancing act would remain precarious until he was...more firmly anchored. Perhaps if he manifested his wings—

"No, no you don't," Crowley said through gritted teeth, positioning himself.

"You could, too," Aziraphale replied, gratefully bearing down to meet him.

The burn of Crowley filling him was far better than any sake, and they both forgot about wings just as quickly as the subject had emerged. Crowley twisted under him with a groan, one arm wrapped tightly about Aziraphale's waist, the other planted firmly against the mattress for leverage. Aziraphale was torn between kissing him and watching him; in the end, watching won out, and the play of expressions across Crowley's features was worth the minor inconvenience of not being able to touch him in kind. Aziraphale met every snap of Crowley's hips with a thrust of his own.

Crowley folded forward, lips parted on some silent plea against Aziraphale's throat.

Aziraphale buried his nose in Crowley's damp, disarrayed hair, breathing shallowly.

"My dear, if you can just—ah, if you can just hold that thought—"

Irrelevant. He was unraveling faster and harder than Crowley, although Crowley wasn't that far behind, gasping and swearing with wave after wave of it. "Ergh," said Crowley, finally, slumping back against the pillows. "Help."

As the rope fizzled and fell slack, Aziraphale managed to sprawl backwards on his arse between Crowley's parted thighs. He winced at the absolute wreck they'd made of the sheets. The staff would never know, and Aziraphale hoped, if they ever came back, that they wouldn't be saddled with the same bedclothes. He'd always know what they'd done to them, Crowley's perpetually clear conscience notwithstanding.

"Well, don't just sit there," murmured Crowley, hazy-eyed, reaching for him.

Aziraphale went willingly, kicking the rope aside. It would need repairing where Crowley had burned through it, or perhaps he'd just replace it when they returned to England. Crowley wrapped around Aziraphale with a strange, hitching little sigh buried in the crook of Aziraphale's neck. Aziraphale stroked Crowley's hair and rubbed his back, mapped every part of Crowley that he could reach. When he got like this...

"Crowley, please," he said. "I'm listening. Won't you just—"

"Why," said Crowley, his voice muffled, "did it have to take us so bloody long?"

Aziraphale sighed and drew Crowley's hand up to the pillow, kissing his palm.

"Because we are, as you once so astutely pointed out, thick as two short planks."

Crowley grimaced against Aziraphale's shoulder, but at least he wasn't brooding.

"Six thousand years, angel," he said. "That's quite a few rings in the proverbial tree."

"Just imagine how terrible it would have been if we'd been at all competent," Aziraphale replied, hoping that this particular past echo wasn't in bad taste. Judging by Crowley's sudden, uncontrollable fit of delighted laughter, it wasn't.

Chapter Text

"It's still blooming," Crowley said, abandoning his rolling carry-on in favor of opening the sliding glass door. Aziraphale hastily dropped his suitcase and followed him into the garden; Crowley stopped short in front of the Rosa rugosa, which trembled where it sprawled along the shed wall. "How is it still blooming? November's almost here."

"We're set to have a mild winter," Aziraphale reminded him. "It's still fairly warm."

Crowley crouched next to the flourishing roses, pale fingers turning the soil.

"That stubborn exposed root finally got the message," he said. "Good."

"Uriel's very persuasive," said Aziraphale, kneeling beside him. He reached to thumb one velvety petal, and it came away in his grasp. "Your field guide was right; these buggers spread quite quickly. You'll have to keep after them with the pruning shears."

"Don't tell me how to do my job," Crowley said irritably, but he was suppressing a half-smile. "D'you know," he mused, "that it just occurred to me..." He reached above the waist-high level of thorny branches and placed one palm against the shed, tilting his head just so. "How did you phrase it at the time—said it was very Roman of me?"

Before Aziraphale could respond, his coat pocket chimed and vibrated cheerfully.

"Anathema nattering on about a case?" Crowley asked, rising to his feet, and dusted off his hands. "No, wait, don't tell me. It's Pippa asking how the return flight was."

"Amanda Tomlin," said Aziraphale, reading off Mandy's official label in his Contacts folder as he opened her text message. "She hopes we've had a pleasant return journey, and she'd like to schedule coming over for a meal, as the holidays are coming on and she's not sure how much of next month she'll have off. Thoughts?"

"Bit forward of her, isn't it? I know you invited them and everything, but this place is a tip. And I haven't the faintest idea what to cook for them. He's Spanish, you said?"

"Er, what?" said Aziraphale, guiltily, already typing a response in which he'd begun to say Tuesday the next week ought to be fine. "Oh, you mean her young man. Yes."

Crowley frowned, stepping away from Aziraphale and the roses. He was looking for the ducks, Aziraphale realized, one hand shading his eyes against the bright sunset.

"Does Romeo have a name? I know you must have told me, but I've forgot."

"Iván," Aziraphale said, wincing a little as Crowley attempted a duck-call.

"Iván what? How am I supposed to know what part of the country he's from if I haven't got a surname to go on—aha, look! Here they come."

"I haven't the faintest idea," Aziraphale sighed, joining Crowley at the edge of the garden. All six of the ducklings had crowded around his feet, cheeping expectantly. They were bigger now, but still covered in fine, downy fuzz. One of them pottered over to Aziraphale and tugged on the hem of his trousers, followed by two of its siblings.

"Sounds incredibly Basque," said Crowley, darkly, crouching to scritch their fluffy heads and let them nip at his wrists. "Bomb-happy rebels, the lot of them."

"Crowley, please remember your manners," Aziraphale sighed, bending to let the ducklings inspect his empty hands. "We can't know that, and anyway, I highly doubt he'd be working abroad in the EU if he harbored separatist sentiments."

"They're bloody hungry," Crowley said, scanning the rise and the scarcely visible stretch of beach beyond. "Where have Mum and Dad got off to?" he asked the smallest of the lot, which just tilted his head at him forlornly. "Look at that coloring starting to develop. They're all girls." He muttered about being surrounded.

Aziraphale studied the overgrown patch of Danish scurvy-grass until something amiss caught his eye. He left Crowley to distribute some hastily miracled meal-worms and approached the tangle of greenery. There were feathers scattered amidst the leaves.

Feathers and splotches of blood that had dried so dark they seemed black.

"My dear, one hates to be the harbinger of bad news, but I think—"

"Foxes," Crowley said grimly, already cross-legged in the grass with the whole gaggle in his lap, still handing out worms. "Why they didn't take this lot, too? Hey, not so fast," he told the little one. "You'll end up with a belly-ache."

"I suspect it was a pair of them hunting together," Aziraphale said, scratching at some of the blood. "They got one parent each; the young ones managed to scatter and escape. It must have happened last night," he continued. "The poor things."

"There's nothing for it," Crowley said, brushing his hands off. "That's enough for now," he told the ducklings, glancing up at Aziraphale. "They'll have to stay in the shed."

"Not with those dangerous gardening implements, they won't," said Aziraphale.

"Fine. I'll clear it," Crowley replied, and snapped his fingers. "Satisfied?"

"I suppose," Aziraphale sighed. "As long as there's straw and heat-lamps."

"You'd better finish that text," Crowley told him, busy coaxing the ducklings out of his lap and in the direction of the shed (the door of which now stood invitingly open).

Aziraphale had silenced his phone, so Crowley hadn't heard Mandy's response arrive.

"Tuesday it is," he said, feeling only a vague wash of relief. "Plenty of time."




* * *





Late the next morning, Aziraphale was busy frowning at an attachment-laden email from Anathema when a teaspoon full of something that smelled suspiciously like Branston Pickle—but infinitely more tempting—insinuated itself beneath his nose.

"Try this," Crowley demanded, waving the spoon. "Have I got it right?"

"You've got taste-buds of your own, my dear," Aziraphale reminded him, but one look at Crowley's vexed expression was sufficient to prompt him to close the email and obediently open his mouth. The sweet-sour tang of malt vinegar gave way to apple-and-sultana sweetness with a hint of apricot; he detected chopped swede, carrot, gherkin, red onion, cauliflower, and beetroot in the flawlessly textured crunch of it. He caught a stray dollop of the stuff on his index finger and licked it away.

"I used russets instead of pippins," Crowley said. "It's probably too swee—mmm."

Aziraphale swiveled his chair around, fixing the angle at which he'd caught Crowley's mouth, which had been rather awkward. He heard the teaspoon slip from Crowley's grasp and land on the carpet with a soft thump. Crowley slid into Aziraphale's lap.

"Do you think so?" Aziraphale asked, breathing hotly against Crowley's cheek.

"Not really," Crowley said. "I just wanted to see what you'd do."

"I think," Aziraphale continued, "I'd like to feed you some of that myself."

Crowley shivered and squirmed invitingly. "I wouldn't be averse."

Just then, something squeaked and tugged on Aziraphale's trouser leg. Within ten seconds, it was several fluffy, restless somethings squeaking and tugging by turns. "Crowley, you didn't," sighed Aziraphale, but the appeal was, admittedly, futile.

"I put some grapes in a bowl on the kitchen floor and piled some ratty towels for them to play in," Crowley said, sounding more baffled than annoyed. "They were perfectly content to just eat and chase each other about while I worked."

"And follow you if it suited them, no doubt," Aziraphale muttered.

"Game's up, kids," Crowley told the ducklings, shifting out of Aziraphale's lap with a wince. "Time to go back outside. Don't get too used to this, now."

Flustered, Aziraphale watched the three ducklings that had strayed into the study follow Crowley out at an obedient, wing-flapping dash. There really was nothing for it, he supposed. He got up and followed them to the kitchen, watched as Crowley herded all six out the front door, vanished for about ten minutes, and pointedly returned without them. By then, Aziraphale had managed to inspect the jars on the work-top and the pot on the hob. They'd have enough pickle to give three or four jars away.

"I'd like to give two of them to Pippa," Crowley said, rubbing the back of his neck. "One for Nicola and Trevor, one for Anathema and Newt, one for Sophia and Adam..."

"That'll leave us only one or two jars for ourselves," Aziraphale replied.

"I'll make more," Crowley said. "Granted, this dinner you've arranged for tomorrow—"

"You needn't overstretch," Aziraphale told him, watching as Crowley continued to spoon the mostly cooled batch into jars. "They're not expecting anything elaborate."

"Mandy probably is," said Crowley, wearily. "She tried everything I made for the wedding and then went and raved about it to everybody at work. Did you know the manager has asked me to give the staff some advanced cookery lessons?"

"No," Aziraphale said, startled. "What did you tell him?"

"I said I'd think about it," Crowley sighed. "He said he'd pay me."

Why hadn't I thought of that? Aziraphale wondered. Why hadn't he, for that matter?

He suppressed his excitement and shrugged. "If you fancy the diversion, I suppose."

"I fancy an afternoon with you and as little clothing as possible," Crowley said waspishly, licking some pickle off his wrist. "Not plotting a whole blessed menu."

Aziraphale caught him around the waist and wrested the latest jar out of his grasp. "We've got all the makings of a proper English ploughman's lunch and high tea to hand. Much easier on you, and Iván will appreciate the cultural gesture, I'm sure."

Crowley turned his head and tilted it until Aziraphale's mouth brushed his cheekbone.

"The only gesture I'd appreciate," he said, "is you picking up right where you left off."

"Duly noted," Aziraphale whispered, kissing the faint blush he found there.



* * *




"Amanda, my dear girl," said Aziraphale, standing back as he opened the door. "How lovely to see you! And your young man, too, of course," he added.

Mandy launched herself at Aziraphale so fast it was a miracle he even caught her. "I'm so glad to see you," she mumbled into his neck. "That bastard sacked me last night." Aziraphale appealed silently to Iván for help.

"Iván Sagarra," the lad offered, as if in apology, shaking Aziraphale's hand where it rested at he small of Mandy's back. He was brown-eyed, fair-skinned, and had bright ginger-blond hair. Most notably of all, he was half an inch taller than Mandy, who was a tall girl to begin with (she was almost exactly the same height as Crowley, on whom Aziraphale had perhaps a quarter of an inch and which most people tended never to notice). "The manager," Iván clarified, releasing Aziraphale's hand. "They finally had a—hmmm, pues, how do you say it—a verbal altercation that could not be resolved."

"Your English is superb," Aziraphale told him, and genuinely meant it.

"Fuck him," Mandy said, disentangling herself from Aziraphale. "I don't want to work for an unethical bastard who cheats the new wait-staff out of hours anyway!"

"It's not the same manager, is it, as when we first arrived?" Aziraphale ventured.

"No," she said. "Ed retired about a year and a half ago. He was lovely."

"I regret not to have worked for him," said Iván, stroking Mandy's arm. There was tenderness in the gesture: an awed, delicate affection too fearful to be spoken.

"Do come in," Aziraphale said, gesturing for them to follow.

In the kitchen, they found Crowley fussing with four artfully arranged plates. He didn't turn from placing small pots of pickle at the center of each until he'd nudged the various wedges of cheese and apple back into place, frowning critically at his watch.

"Terminally early, you," Crowley told Mandy, wiping his hands off on the dish towel he'd set to one side. "I thought maybe this one—" he indicated Iván with a nod and a friendly, if restrained smile "—might cure you of it in this instance."

Try as he might, Aziraphale couldn't entirely shift his focus from the pile of tuckered-out ducklings sleeping soundly in a pile of towels in the farthest corner of the kitchen. He wondered if they'd be paddling in the bathtub for he rest of the winter.

"I'm afraid not," Mandy said, returning Crowley's chagrin with a tilted smile, but her eyes almost immediately followed Aziraphale's and went wide. "You didn't tell him what I said that morning when you and Pippa were in for breakfast, did you?"

"Nothing of the sort," Aziraphale sighed. "Foxes got the parents."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Iván told Crowley earnestly, although he stood transfixed and more than slightly terrified of the sharp, appraising yellow eyes. Aziraphale tactfully joined Mandy in staring at the snoozing youngsters.

"They're all girls," she said. "You guys really are outnumbered."

"We'd noticed," replied Aziraphale, and bent to arrange the towels more snugly.

"Have they got names?" Mandy asked, turning her head to listen in on what Crowley and Iván were saying. Her conspiratorial expression faded. "Aziraphale," she said slowly, "how is it that your husband can speak my boyfriend's obscure dialect?"

"No names, I fear," said Aziraphale. "You and your young man might have a crack at it, though, if you like. As for Crowley, well, I'm sure he's mentioned before that he spent some considerable time working in Spain and had reasonable cause to make sure he had Catalan and Basque as well as the majority—"

"You both speak excellent French," Mandy continued, lowering her voice. "I heard you translate for that lady in the café a few months ago, and Crowley just had to add his tuppence-worth, as if hearing just you hadn't been surprising enough..."

"French isn't surprising," said Aziraphale, reasonably. "It's sensible."

Mandy stared at him in curious, quiet wonder, and then the other shoe dropped.

"Do you guys work for MI6 or something?" she asked hesitantly.

"Should I ever have cause to tell you what I did for a living—or what Crowley did for a living, for that matter—I imagine we'd have lost the capacity to surprise each other, and I'd be quite sorry to see that happen. Let it suffice to say that our respective lines of work, which were parallel if not the same, required a great deal of linguistic agility."

"Yeah, but Medieval Latin? Biblical Greek? Oh, yeah, don't look so shocked. I talk to Sophia and the twins on Facebook. You guys are both secret super-geniuses."

Aziraphale glanced worriedly over his shoulder, but he needn't have been anxious.

Crowley was mincing something on the cutting board, in the middle of an explanation that sounded dreadfully archaic in Basque, but which was actually his favored method of preparing watercress sandwiches. Iván watched intently, interjecting every now and again with an eager question. The next thing Crowley said made him laugh.

"I don't know about that," Aziraphale said, watching Mandy cuddle the smallest duckling, which had begun to stir. "We're awfully ordinary in spite of all the rest."

"Not a chance," said Mandy, grinning. "This one's Judith. How's that for a start?"

"Your young man's surname means apple, dear girl. That's how everything starts."

Chapter Text

Paris, Brumaire 1793

The first time Crowley said it, it came easy, because that's what Aziraphale was.

The streets were peaceful, scarcely a patch on what was to come. The truth was, neither one of them knew what had got the populace in a tizzy; suffice it to say that they'd run into each other completely by accident, their respective superiors having handed orders—up and down—for each of them to investigate the unrest.

“It's not the first time America will set a bad example, mark my words,” said Crowley, earning a perplexed look from the shy young man who had just served their wine. The lad clearly didn't speak English, which was an excellent reason for them to be speaking it. “Your people ought not to have incited that little rebellion,” he added, taking a sip of the Chardonnay. “It'll have dreadful knock-on effects. By the way, it's still October, isn't it? I haven't got the hang of this new calendar.”

“It's a bit late for hindsight, isn't it?” asked Aziraphale, sniffing the contents of his glass. “You're absolutely sure this stuff is up to standard? I do so prefer a nice, full-bodied red. And, yes, it's still October. The twenty-third, to be exact.”

“I mean, did you really want to ensure that they'll be pushing around the rest of the world for the foreseeable future? Revolt shouldn't have worked; all the odds were stacked against them, and they knew that. Now, quite frankly, they seem think they're Go—well. Better than everybody else.”

“Britain would do well to mind its own affairs. It's grown stretched, one feels.”

“And that's why your people put a bee in the Colonists' bonnet, is it?” Crowley asked, snatching a brioche from the basket between them on the table. “To unburden England of some ballast? Free up some resources for empire-building elsewhere?”

“Those people are better off on their own,” said Aziraphale, evasively. He passed Crowley the tiny pot of butter, having finished using it on his own pastry. “I thought we were here to, er, catch up, as it were. How have you been?”

Crowley shrugged and made busy with the butter, using too much in the process.

“Same old, same old. I thought it might be smart to steer clear of Spain for a while. Italy wasn't any fun after Signor da Vinci and all that lot returned to dust, so...I went East for a while, and I've been working my way back ever since. Listen, they've got this thing in Japan you're going to love—”

“If you're trying to tempt me,” Aziraphale sniffed, “it won't work. I spent a bit of time there in the—oh, what was it, seventh century?—and didn't find much to crow about.”

“Pity,” said Crowley, grinning. “If you'd only stayed on up through the eighth.”

Aziraphale nodded kindly to the young man as he brought out their parsnip soup.

“What happened, then?” he asked, blowing on a steaming spoonful.

“A Southeast Asian specialty was introduced,” said Crowley, already on his third scalding mouthful (being able to withstand such temperatures had distinct advantages). “I hadn't really had cause to eat raw fish for quite some time, so I was a bit skeptical, but they did this brilliant thing with rice and mirin, and then—”

“Crowley, please,” sighed Aziraphale, stirring his soup. “I'm trying to eat.”

“Trust me on this one, angel,” Crowley said, leaning forward on the table with a suggestive smirk. “You'll like it. It's even better than chocolate.”

Aziraphale's look of discomfort might not have been so bad if the young man hadn't chosen that precise moment to bring out their main courses. He stared from Crowley to Aziraphale and then back again, shoving both plates onto the edge of the table with a muttered Désolé! before fleeing back to the kitchen.

“There's no need for sarcasm,” Aziraphale said, pulling the dish of coq au vin over to rest neatly beside his unfinished soup. “You needn't rub in what you think of my sort.”

Crowley pushed his tinted glasses up into his hair and blinked pointedly.

“I wasn't being sarcastic,” he said. “I was trying to convince you.”

“Call it whatever you like, you old serpent, but it's all temptation in the end. Nothing personal, I assure you. Our arrangement has complicated things, wouldn't you say?”

Complicated? thought Crowley, staring down at his poached sole, which didn't look so appetizing anymore. Bollocksed things up, I would have said, but never mind.

“It's more that you didn't like what I called you,” he said. “Am I right?”

Aziraphale paused mid-chew, thoughtfully regarding Crowley.

“Not as such, no,” he admitted at length. “As long as you weren't having a go...”

“When I'm having a go, you'll know it,” he said, picking up his fish fork. “Angel.”




Bombay, July 1901

The first time Aziraphale said it, it surprised him as much as it did Crowley.

He dashed onto the verandah just in time to escape the oncoming downpour, which was the third such instance of inclement weather since sun-up, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. He brushed perfunctorily at his suit, hoping he'd got the scattering of droplets before they managed to sink in.

At the table next to the café entrance, a familiar figure cleared its throat.

“You run later and later by the decade,” Crowley chided. “It's high time I invested in some transportation, don't you think? That way, I can collect you on time, and you can have your door-to-door service. What do you say?”

“How often have we been in the same city for long enough, let alone the same country?” asked Aziraphale, sliding into the chair next to Crowley with as much dignity as he could muster. The humidity had caused his hair to wave rather appallingly. He ran a frustrated hand through it, and the result was annoyingly charming.

“Here, don't do that,” said Crowley, batting Aziraphale's hand away. “Let me fix—”

“It's fine,” Aziraphale insisted, scooting back so that Crowley's fingers combed at the damp, heavy air. “Besides, your sense of style is, I often find, markedly lacking.”

“You'll be wearing that suit twenty years from now, won't you?” Crowley lamented.

“Of course,” said Aziraphale, accepting a cup of hot chai from the lovely young woman who had approached their table with a tray. “If I manage to keep it in good nick.”

“More's the pity,” Crowley sighed, sipping the spiced, milky tea with relish. “You'll never get the proper vintage look if you don't allow for a little bit of wear and tear.”

Aziraphale ignored Crowley's mystifying statement and regarded the street, which was by now flowing with six inches of water. Children had come out to play in the rain.

“Monsoon season. You couldn't have decided to be sociable during a drought?”

Crowley shrugged, cradling his cup in both hands as he watched the children.

“You have to admit it's got atmosphere. Loads of character. Excellent curries.”

“We'll be stuck here till dinner as it is,” Aziraphale replied. “Is the food passable?”

“A bit rustic, but yeah, it'll do,” said Crowley, smiling. “Try the lamb pathia.”

Just then, Aziraphale remembered something. Guiltily, he averted his eyes.

“You were quite right about the raw-fish thing. It was...”

“You tried sushi?” asked Crowley, his smile blossoming into a grin.

As far as Aziraphale could tell, his expression was genuine.

“...it was, as humans say without a touch of irony, divine.”

“Sushi restaurants will never catch on Up There,” Crowley said.

“Nor Down Below, I should think,” Aziraphale sniffed. “Wouldn't stay raw for long.”

“Yeah, and you'd be contending with ice crystals. Condensation. Cloud-bits.”

“That,” Aziraphale said, “must be sarcasm. My dear, come off it.”

Strangely enough, Crowley did. He sat back in his chair, pursing his lips against his cup. Steam from the chai fogged his dark glasses, which would've been comical if not for the fact that Crowley had clearly taken issue with something Aziraphale had sai—

Oh.

“It's common parlance these days,” said Aziraphale, trying for nonchalance (and failing appallingly). “Quite fashionable, even. If I can't maintain your particular standard of personal appearance,” Aziraphale forged on, “then I'll try for speech and carriage.”

Crowley relaxed in his chair, apparently satisfied, but he was quiet for a long while.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Aziraphale murmured eventually, signaling for more chai.

“I've missed the rain,” said Crowley, hesitantly. “And you.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Paris, October 2006


“It was around here somewhere,” Crowley insisted. “I know it was.”

“We haven't tried to find it for two hundred and thirteen years,” said Aziraphale, scanning the busy street. They were in the heart of the Marais, surrounded by harried students and star-struck tourists. He seemed anxious to move on, as Crowley knew he preferred the quaint art galleries and antiquarian bookshops surrounding Île de la Cité.

“Some establishments manage to remain what they've always been, even if not under the same ownership,” said Crowley, hopefully. “You know, like that restaurant in Salzburg that's been an eatery in one form or another since 803.”

“Your ability to keep track of these things,” said Aziraphale, “genuinely baffles me.”

“It's not my fault you don't bother to pay attention,” Crowley replied, taking hold of Aziraphale's arm. “Look! Over the road. Crêpes and other good, proper northern fare.”

“It's rustic, certainly,” said Aziraphale, leaning into him. “Shall we give it a try?”

“They'll have sweet ones as well as savory,” Crowley said, pressing closer. “Sugar and butter. Honey and myrtilles. Nutella with real Chantilly cream...”

“You,” Aziraphale told him, allowing their mouths to brush, “are positively wicked.”

Half an hour later, they were tucking into what was really a very nice meal, although Aziraphale seemed somewhat on-edge in spite of the fact they'd already consumed several pint-size bottles of Breton and Norman cider each.

Perhaps it reminded him of all that tedious business with Bishop Aubert.

“We ought to head for the coast,” said Crowley. “It's a lovely drive this time of year. Honfleur, Deauville, Cap Blanc-Nez. You can see home on a clear day.”

Aziraphale made a noncommittal sound, working on his sugar-and-butter crêpe.

Crowley tapped his chin. Clearly, he'd have to try a lot harder now that Aziraphale indulged him in most things from leisurely lie-ins to reading in the afternoon sun while Crowley bullied the garden. And such miraculous indulgences they were...

“Shouldn't repairs on Amiens Cathedral should be finished by now?” he ventured.

Unexpectedly, Aziraphale reached across the table and took his hand.

“If it's all the same to you, my dear, I'd much prefer the south.”

Crowley took another swallow of cider and laced their fingers together.

“Bordeaux it is,” he said, feeling shivery and content all at once.




Mumbai, July 2012

“It's...clean,” Crowley said, staring at the upper floors of the building as they mounted the stairs onto the verandah. “Far less crumbling and cozy than I remember.”

“They've done a great deal of restoration in the past century,” Aziraphale replied, noting that the table they'd once occupied next to the door had been replaced by a set of elegant wrought-iron chairs. “I knew I oughtn't to have let us watch that film.”

“I liked that film,” said Crowley, a touch defensively. “How often can you say I manage to stay there till the end, never mind your inane chatter, eh?”

“Rather sad for your tastes, I thought,” Aziraphale said, holding the door for him.

“If you think I'm comparing this place to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” Crowley sighed, reaching back to prop it open, “then you've got another thing coming.”

“I'll look forward to it,” said Aziraphale, stepping up to the concierge with a warm smile. “We have a reservation from today up through the fourteenth. Name of Fell.”

“Absolutely, sir,” said the handsome middle-aged woman, her dark eyes gleaming mischievously. “Before you opened your mouth, I was about to wish you a happy Fourth of July. I can see now that would have been in poor taste.”

“Told you so,” Crowley muttered under his breath. “Bloody Yanks.”

Aziraphale slid an arm around Crowley's waist while the concierge retrieved their information on their computer, giving his hip a sharp, affectionate tap. As reprimands went, it wasn't Aziraphale's most effective. He'd much rather keep Crowley in high spirits, especially if he had another thing coming, to which he did so look forward.

Crowley turned and pressed closer, resting his chin on Aziraphale's shoulder.

“It's not raining, angel,” he said. “That's something, isn't it?”

Aziraphale smiled at the concierge and thanked her for the room keys.

“Yes, my dear,” he said, steering Crowley toward the lift. “It is.”

Chapter Text

“How's that?” Crowley asked, angling the desk-lamp. “Less grainy, more grainy? Kind of crap, but nonetheless acceptable?”

“Muddled,” Aziraphale confessed. “Not as sharp as it should be.”

Crowley fiddled with the webcam's focus next, studying his own image on the screen where it hovered next to Aziraphale's feed. Briefly, he experienced an unpleasant flashback to his ash-smudged reflection in the Bentley's rear-view mirror. That's behind you now, he told himself, might as well be forever ago, smiling apologetically at Aziraphale.

He minimized his feed to the task-bar and ventured, “Better?”

“You look a bit peaked,” said Aziraphale. “Is everything all right? No emergencies, I trust?”

“No, nothing of the sort,” Crowley reassured him, adjusting the volume so that Aziraphale's voice came through the speakers as more than a faint murmur. “The phone hasn't rung since you left.”

“You haven't got the land-line unplugged, have you?”

No, angel. And my mobile's right here, see?”

Aziraphale squinted and adjusted the feed on his end, resulting in a moment of comically blurred features. “You got bored and went shopping,” he said. “Which model is that?”

“It's an iPhone 4S,” Crowley muttered, tapping through screens till he'd got out of iTunes, and deleted a few errant texts from Anathema (she seemed to be under the erroneous impression that his brainstorming abilities were a suitable substitute for Aziraphale's). “Sixty-four gigs. Doesn't come close to holding my entire music library, but that's a start. I won't touch the 5.”

“Nothing's been quite the same since Jobs passed, or so I'm told,” Aziraphale said.

“Your lot must have got him,” Crowley mused, setting the phone aside with care on top of Aziraphale's sudoku books. “I bet he was in for a nasty surprise when Gabriel unveiled his plans for a network overhaul. Enough to make him wish he'd been less virtuous.”

“I don't know about him, but we'll certainly get Gates,” Aziraphale replied.

“Charitable giving is all well and good, but does it make up for Windows Vista?”

“Come now, my dear. I'd say he more than redeemed himself with XP, 7, and 8.”

“For what it's worth, you're still running XP,” Crowley said, quickly nosing into Aziraphale's My Computer folder. “Conveniently forgot to upgrade this time, did you?”

“What about your philosophy of not fixing something if it isn't broken?”

“Oh, fine. Rub it in,” Crowley sighed. “Bloody PC users.”

“Where's your MacBook got off to, then? More battery woes, one fears.”

“Charging in the bedroom. Don't look at me like that!”

Aziraphale smirked at him, teasingly affectionate.

There it was, a sharp twist in the gut: Crowley missed him.

"Where are your kind hosts tonight?" he asked.

"Out," said Aziraphale. "There's a trendy night-club several blocks from here. It's not—how do you put it? Not my scene."

“You probably would've enjoyed the cocktails,” Crowley replied. “Why didn't you go?”

“They'd left the desktop booted up, Skype and all. You were logged in, so I thought—”

“For the record, I was playing Minesweeper and contemplating a de-frag. You've accrued so much spyware it isn't even funny. How's Apple sounding to you now, eh?”

“I'd rather spend time with you than while away another night drinking.”

“Ah,” Crowley said, lowering his eyes. “Out for the evening, you say?”

“I wouldn't expect them till dawn,” said Aziraphale, encouragingly.

Crowley rose and drew the curtains, and then sat back down again.

“What time is it over there now? I'm fuzzy on how many hours behind you are.”

“It's just turning nine o'clock. What time is it at home? I'm not entirely clear, either.”

“Almost five in the morning,” Crowley said, idly tugging off his socks.

“Good gracious,” said Aziraphale. “Why aren't you asleep?”

“Couldn't,” Crowley replied, shrugging. “So I came out here.”

“Poor love. Seems to me you could use a little wearing out.”

Crowley felt his cheeks heat, but he couldn't help grinning. He hadn't miscalculated his offhand remark upon how long Aziraphale's hosts planned to stay out. However mystifying he'd found it initially, he'd finally got the seduction game down pat—at least where Aziraphale was concerned, and, quite frankly, that was the only place it mattered.

“There's a first time for everything,” he said, untying the belt of Aziraphale's dressing-gown. He'd thrown it on over his pyjamas, because the cottage was rather chilly in the early morning hours this time of year. Aziraphale watched intently as he shrugged it off his shoulders and plucked at his t-shirt. “Although I don't know if skipping the phone and going straight for cyber-sex is advisable.”

“Would you rather we logged off? I could just ring you,” Aziraphale suggested, his voice somewhat muffled, as he was already struggling out of his slipover jumper. For a moment, Crowley found the style-choice baffling given that Aziraphale was currently in a warmer part of the world, but he supposed cold wind and rain weren't unusual even there during winter. “That way,” the angel continued, “you could just nip off back to bed and get comfortable.”

“No, that's all right,” Crowley heard himself saying as he watched Aziraphale discard the slipover somewhere off-camera. He'd scooted the chair he was occupying back just far enough from the desk to give Crowley a decent view from his lap upward, and Crowley supposed he'd better do the same if they expected this to work. He pushed back what he hoped was a reasonable distance, not too far for visibility's sake, and took off his t-shirt. He dropped it on the floor, blinked, and brushed the hair out of his eyes.

Aziraphale had paused in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt to watch.

“Makes multi-tasking a bit difficult, doesn't it, having to watch the screen in addition to stripping off?” he asked, proceeding with the buttons without looking down. “Move a bit closer.”

Crowley scooted his chair forward a fraction, suddenly self-conscious.

“Can you still see...er, well, down below?” he asked, hooking one thumb beneath the waistband of his pyjama bottoms, and then thought better of it. He unbuttoned the flies instead, but let the dark flannel stay where it was, stroking himself once through the fabric. His nerve-endings sparked as his eyes drifted up to the screen; Aziraphale, newly shirtless, was watching his every move.

“Yes. And you're every bit as much the prick-tease I'd expected.”

“What does that mean?” Crowley asked, leaning forward in his chair to jab a finger at the webcam. “Eight years of sharing my bed and, I don't know, you'd somehow failed to notice?”

Aziraphale sighed and casually reached down to unzip his trousers, which were...ah. Already visibly strained, and there was the tell-tale flush from chest to belly, too. Crowley's mouth went slightly dry; even as worn and yielding as they were, his pyjama bottoms suddenly seemed far too restrictive. I'd be in his lap by now, Crowley thought, brushing the unfastened flap aside in order to give Aziraphale some idea of just how much he was beginning to appreciate this.

“It means you're every bit as much a tease as I'd expect you to be in this particular medium,” Aziraphale clarified, his voice satisfyingly hoarse. “Simply put, you don't disappoint. Of course, you'd be in my lap by now—”

Crowley let out a breathy laugh and stroked himself so Aziraphale could see he hadn't bothered with the usual shorts under his pyjamas, dimly aware that his left hand had the arm of the chair in a vise-grip.

“That's a relief, then,” he said, “because I really, ah, really wouldn't want to waste your...”

He lost the thread of what he'd been saying, not least because he couldn't drag his eyes away from Aziraphale simultaneously trying to watch him and shimmy out of his trousers. Just over five thousand miles away, someone else's desk-chair was squeaking and doing its best to scoot out from under Aziraphale's arse while he got undressed. It was funnier than it ought to have been.

“Why don't you try it, Crowley, since you're so keen?” said Aziraphale, huffily, situating himself back in the chair wearing nothing but sedately striped cotton boxers and a pair of argyle socks. He didn't do simultaneously-turned-on-and-irritated terribly well.

Still, Crowley found the entire situation just as hot as it was ridiculous.

“Shortcut,” said Crowley, standing to get rid of his pyjama bottoms. “Much easier,” he explained, knowing that everything above his waist was now cut out of the feed, “and you get a bit of a close-up while I'm at it.” He dropped the garment and paused for a moment, steadying himself with one hand on the edge of the desk. Aziraphale was staring glassy-eyed at...well, at whatever he could see, and Crowley didn't doubt that was mostly everything between his thighs and his bellybutton. He palmed the head of his cock and hissed at the contact; he was already hypersensitive, his body eagerly expecting any number of the things that usually came next.

Only none of those things were going to happen, given Aziraphale's physical absence.

“Sit down, please,” said Aziraphale, breathlessly. “I can't see your face.”

Crowley took one shaky step backward and did exactly as he was told. The lacquered wood felt strange under his backside, and while he hoped there weren't any splinters ripe for catching, he also found that he didn't particularly care. What mattered most was the fact that Aziraphale had taken off his socks and was lifting his hips just enough to make getting rid of his shorts easier. Seeing Aziraphale stark naked on a computer screen was...strange. The thought that he was sitting in a house that belonged to a pair of the most shameless voyeurs either of them knew made the situation ten times worse—and, somehow, that much more compelling.

“Can you see me now?” he asked once the angel had got situated.

“Yes,” Aziraphale sighed, both hands restless on his thighs, but the dithering gesture didn't last for long. Eyes fixed on the camera, he curled his left hand around his erection, by now in the same desperate condition as Crowley. His eyes slid shut at the touch, and while it would have been easy to tell him not to do that, to focus, Crowley bit his lip and mirrored the action on himself.

“You'd better wish it was me,” he said, voice faltering as he stroked. “I wish this was you.”

Aziraphale's eyes flew open; it had been the right thing to say, but at absolutely the wrong time. Crowley watched, dumb-struck with fierce fascination and even fiercer desire, as Aziraphale leaned forward to brace himself against the desk and, with a few more unsteady thrusts into his fist, come with a sharp, silent gasp. His own pace faltered a little even as he felt his own climax gathering; the urge to reach out was even stronger than the urge to watch, but what could he have touched except for dense, pixel-lit glass?

What he ached for was a kiss

He came with one palm braced flat against the monitor and his eyes shut tight.

The white noise cleared eventually, giving way to Aziraphale's voice.

“...at me, my dear,” he was saying gently. “Look at me.”

Crowley swallowed thickly and opened his eyes, letting his hand drop to the desk.

“I don't know about you,” said Aziraphale, already mopping at himself with a handful of tissues, “but I could really use a cigarette.”

“Only if you don't mind this place smelling like smoke when you get back,” Crowley replied, leaning bonelessly forward to rest on his elbows. “Five more days. Can't you leave early?”

“You could've tagged along,” Aziraphale reminded him. “The invitation was open.”

“I know,” Crowley said, clearing the mess he'd left on the chair and on the floor with one distracted thought. “But someone had to stay behind this time. Just in case.”

“Give them all my best,” Aziraphale replied. “I hope Anathema hasn't pestered you horribly.”

“Just a touch,” Crowley said with a wry, tired grin. “Newt's blown something up. First time that's happened in ages, of course, so it's understandably given her a fright.”

“Sleep for a while, my love,” Aziraphale said. “I'll be back before you know it.”

“Three or four days ought to suffice,” said Crowley, yawning. “Don't mind if I do.”

Chapter Text

The suggestion was innocuous enough, in much the same way that nearly everything else Aziraphale said or did was seemingly innocuous. Of course, one had to keep in mind that seemingly was the operative word. Crowley grudgingly had to admit that love often resulted in selective amnesia. He tended to toss it in the same bucket of failings occupied by his fondness for small intelligent animals, well-mannered children, and terrestrial life-forms in general.

“Why don't you come along, my dear?” asked Aziraphale, adjusting his scarf. “Auditioners appreciate an audience, especially when they've got nobody along for moral support.”

“You're asking me?” Crowley remarked, idly flipping channels. He'd heard there was a River Monsters marathon on BBC Two, although he hoped the one about piranhas wasn't on the docket. He curled into the corner of the sofa, wrapping himself more snugly in the quilt he'd dragged out of the closet. It had been a recent gift from Madame Tracy, and while her handiwork left something to be desired, none of the fabric was synthetic, and it was the thought that counted.

Aziraphale wandered into his field of vision, blocking the telly, and bent to kiss him on the forehead. He muttered and tried to squirm away, but only half-heartedly. The end result was Aziraphale sitting down with a huffy sigh and Crowley sprawling across his lap.

“I've got to be there in twenty minutes,” Aziraphale reminded him, ruffling Crowley's hair. “I'd like to watch the others before going myself. Just to see what I'm up against, you understand.”

Crowley rolled over onto his back, one cheek smashed against Aziraphale's belly.

“Then you'd better start walking, eh?” he said with a yawn, cozy enough to sleep.

“I can leave fifteen minutes later than I'd planned if you drive me,” Aziraphale replied, idly trailing his left hand from where it had rested on Crowley's hip down to the folds of quilt bunched between Crowley's legs. “And if you stay to watch, we'll get home all the quicker afterward.”

Hissing, Crowley twisted into the touch with an involuntary jerk of his hips. “Unconscionable,” he murmured, rucking up Aziraphale's jumper to mouth at soft skin. “Preying on unsuspecting souls who've just settled in for some mindless nature programmes...”

He got Aziraphale to the theatre five minutes late, smug and somewhat short of breath.

“Won't you stay?” Aziraphale asked, opening the passenger-side door. “It'll be more interesting than four hours of Jeremy Wade. Besides, you've seen every single episode in existence.” Crowley tapped the steering wheel and guiltily chewed his lower lip.

“Dammit,” he said, jamming the Bentley into park. “All right.”

A dozy, kind old lady whom Crowley didn't recognize handed them both thick, stapled packets of A4 paper on their way through the door. He flipped through the pages, lagging a bit behind Aziraphale as they made their way down the stage-right aisle. The place was dusty and smelled of floor wax, most lights dimmed except for those directly over the proscenium. The building had seen better days, or so the neighbors said, having once been a run-down local cinema.

“Whose idea was it to stage The Tempest in March?” Crowley asked nobody in particular. “And who runs auditions and starts rehearsing two weeks before Christmas, anyway?”

“Someone rather intelligent, that's who,” said Aziraphale, hustling him down the fifth row back and pushing him into a squeaky, uncomfortable seat. “Now, shhh. They're starting.”

The young woman on the stage gave a stammering introduction to the director, the back of whose head Crowley could see perfectly from where he sat. Her hair was salt-and-pepper black, coarse, and wavy; he could discern from her hands on he clipboard that she was past middle age, but nowhere near as ancient as the woman volunteering out front. The youth reading Ferdinand opposite the girl's terrified Miranda introduced himself far too softly.

“Speak up, lad,” said the director in a thick Sheffield accent. “I don't bite.”

This ought to be worth the price of admission, Crowley thought, chin in hand.

Aziraphale stroked Crowley's arm, watching as the pair began to read (badly).

Annoyingly enough, the proceedings were amusing to watch. The couple who'd gone first didn't stand a chance, especially not against the blonde Belfast girl and a young dark-skinned man whose unexpected stage presence had the director riveted. The usual rogues' gallery of local has-beens had turned out, and Crowley, lightly dozing on Aziraphale's shoulder by the thick of it, was sure they'd populate the more ridiculous and doddering roles on offer with suitable aplomb. They were down to the third-to-last hopeful when Aziraphale shook him awake.

“I'm, er, up in two,” he said apologetically, and gave Crowley a worried grin.

Crowley sat up straight, rubbed his eyes, and abruptly realized—

“Glasses,” he whispered, rising, and made for the opposite aisle. “Shit.”

Aziraphale followed him as far as the back of the theatre, tugging on his sleeve.

“Nobody's paying any attention,” he said, desperately clutching Crowley's hand. “I know there are out-of-towners, but none of them have given us a second glance. I wouldn't worry—”

“Right here,” Crowley said, shaking him off, and folded his arms. “No further.”

Aziraphale sighed and nodded, shrugging out of his coat. He handed it to Crowley, draped his scarf around Crowley's neck, and agitatedly shuffled the hodgepodge script of scene selections.

“What will you read?” Crowley asked, shifting Aziraphale's coat to the crook of his arm.

“The exchange beginning with Ariel's entrance,” Aziraphale replied, running a visibly frazzled hand through his fly-away hair. “I suspect the director will have to read opposite my Prospero.”

“An island-sprite with a Yorkshire burr,” mused Crowley. “Fascinating.”

“Are you and your fellow quite finished back there, Mr. Fell?” called the director.

She was standing directly down the aisle from them, hands on broad hips, and Crowley could see her face clearly for the first time. She had enviable, striking features framed by wavy, black chin-length hair. Her eyes were lighter than he would have expected, warm hazel-green behind her reading glasses. She smiled at them.

“Ah, er, yes,” Aziraphale said, advancing a few steps in her direction. “I thought we had Miss Weston still to go? Is she not reading for Caliban and one of the nymphs?”

“I let her go early,” said the director. “Lost her voice, the poor thing. She can read for me over the weekend. You were too busy fussing over...” Her steps slowed as she approached Aziraphale, and she walked straight past him, quick eyes fixed suddenly on Crowley. “I don't believe we've met.”

Crowley turned his head to one side and lowered his glance, re-folding Aziraphale's coat.

“We won't have done,” he said dismissively. “I haven't volunteered with the company.”

“Rani, dear girl,” Aziraphale began, “if you insist on badgering him—”

“Look at me,” she said, arms folded, her voice luminous with curiosity.

Crowley sighed and faced forward, chin tucked low, and met her gaze.

“Anthony,” he said. “Anthony Crowley. Er. Just Crowley, really.”

Rani reached with her gold-ringed right hand and lifted his chin, smiling kindly.

“It's a pleasure to meet you,” she told him. “Now, get up there and read with your man.”

“Right,” Crowley muttered, draping Aziraphale's coat across the nearest seat.

Aziraphale was already onstage, clutching the script with a hint of nervousness.

Rani followed Crowley down to the front and put a script in his hand, resuming her seat while he climbed the stage-right stairs and realized belatedly that Aziraphale's scarf was still around his neck.

“It's just us,” Rani told them, and Crowley shaded his eyes to squint down at her under the lights' hot glare. “Well, us and Letitia out there on the door.” On Rani's tongue, the conspiratorially repeated word emerged sounding more like oohz: northern, clipped, and intimate. “Right, then! Who's reading what?”

“Prospero, if you don't mind,” said Aziraphale, over-assertively.

“That leaves me with Ariel,” Crowley said. “For the record, I'm not trying out.”

“Maybe not,” replied Rani, winking at him. “But you're reading.”

“Come away, my servant, come; I am ready now,” Aziraphale cut in.

Crowley gaped at him for a moment and then blinked at the script.

“Um,” he said, frantically flipping pages. “Just a minute—”

“Approach, my Ariel. Come.”

“All hail, great master!” said Crowley, irritably, more or less from memory, “Grave sir, hail! I come to answer thy best pleasure, be 't to fly—” he paused, folding back the few remaining pages, and caught up “—to swim, to dive into the fire—” he made a face, because, just, no, his days of doing that were long over “—to ride on the curl'd clouds. To do thy strong bidding, task Ariel and all his quality.”

Down in the front row, Rani made a startled, thoughtful sound.

Aziraphale gave him an unsettled, piercing look, more honest than acted.

“Hast thou, spirit, perform'd to point the tempest that I bade thee?”

Crowley shut his eyes for a few seconds and stood his ground. His next reply was something of a speech, consisting of ten or twelve lines at least, and subservience would not suit. “To every article,” he snapped, launching into a veritable laundry-list of retorts. “I boarded the king's ship; now on the deck, now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, I flam'd amazement.” He ignored Rani's sudden snort of laughter and ploughed on. “Sometime I'd divide, and burn in many places—on the topmast, the yards and bowsprit would I flame distinctly, then meet and join. Jove's lightnings, the precursors o' the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary and sight-outrunning were not; the fire and cracks of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune seem to besiege, and make his bold waves tremble—yea, his dread trident shake.”

“Pick it up,” said Rani, encouragingly. “You can go even faster than that.”

“My brave spirit!” Aziraphale exclaimed, drawing nearer, “Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil would not infect his reason?” The taunt was sly, yet oddly appealing.

“Not a soul but felt the fever of the mad,” replied Crowley, crossing downstage, “and play'd some tricks of desperation. All but mariners plung'd in the foaming brine and quit the vessel, then all afire with me. The King's son, Ferdinand, with hair up-staring—then like reeds, not hair!—was the first man that leap'd, cried, Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”

He stopped, short of breath, and crossed back to Aziraphale with hesitant steps.

“Why, that's my spirit,” said the angel, gently, extending his hand. “But was not this nigh shore?”

Crowley nodded, not quite smiling. He could easily draw this out.

“Close by, my master.”

“But are they, Ariel, safe?”

“Not a hair perish'd! On their sustaining garments, not a blemish, but fresher than before; and, as thou bad'st me, in troops I have dispers'd them 'bout the isle. The King's son have I landed by himself...”

They easily fell into the exchange of who-had-landed-where-and-in-what-state, for when had they ever found such a thing other than second nature? Aziraphale parried Crowley's delivery of Ariel's proud, eager claims with cool, restrained admiration, although his intrinsic fondness tainted the great magician's reserve with delightful irony.

We play them mad for each other, Crowley thought, rattling off the fate of the harbor-beached flagship and Naples-bound fleet. Constantly in orbit and almost never touching, with words upon words striving for a kiss.

In his peripheral vision, Crowley could see Rani standing at the foot of the stage with one hand over her mouth: watching Crowley's every move, anticipating what Aziraphale would say next.

“Ariel, thy charge exactly is perform'd, but there's more work. What is the time o' the day?”

“Past the mid season,” Crowley replied, trying for nonchalance, but the phrase was heavy.

“At least two glasses,” agreed Aziraphale, gravely, but with a hint of mischief. “The time 'twixt six and now must by us both be spent most preciously...”

Oh, sod you, Crowley thought, adding an ellipsis where there's none. “Is there more toil?” he asked innocently. “Since thou dost give me pains, let me remember thee what thou hast promis'd, which is not yet...perform'd me.”

Aziraphale actually gaped at him, and then indignantly sucked in his breath.

“How now? Moody? What is 't thou canst demand?”

Crowley gave Aziraphale his saddest, fondest smile; in this, there was no pretending, for the memories it was bound to bring down on them both were even heavier still, and, yes, precious. “My liberty,” he said, finding the taste of it strange even now.

Aziraphale's expression clashed jarringly with the next line, unexpected and moving. “Before the time be out? No more!”

“I prithee, remember I have done thee worthy service, told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, serv'd without grudge or grumblings. Thou did promise—”

“Dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee?” asked Aziraphale, softly.

“No,” Crowley said, no longer reading off the page. He hadn't been for some time.

“Stop,” Rani said, and both of them jumped. “You can stop right there, that's quite enough, good night. I've got plenty to think about, no two ways about it. Give me those scripts, lads, and get out of here. Well, shoo. Off home with you!”

They left Rani to her sudden, fitful brooding as she moved about to collect discarded scripts.

Crowley let Aziraphale whisk him up the aisle with one possessive arm about his waist; they made it to the lobby just in time to give Letitia something to gawk at, so Crowley broke away with a muttered, doubly-intended apology and went back to fetch Aziraphale's coat. They left the theatre in silence, hands in pockets, neither one of them wishing to scandalize the old lady any further.

The drive home consisted of five whole minutes' pensive, torturous silence.

“Well, that happened,” Crowley said, skidding them to a halt in the drive. He got out of the car and released a tremulous plume of breath in the frozen air. “I'm not one for leading roles. Put me in the background as an extra—or, better yet, stick me behind the scenes—and everything's fine. Shove me out front, though, and that's blatantly courting disaster. You should know.”

“I think,” said Aziraphale, crunching his way around the Bentley (cold sand, grit, and gravel glittering with frost underfoot), “that you sorely underestimate your capacity to captivate.” They made their way up the walk in silence, arm in arm, listening to the sea's constant murmur.

Crowley pinned him against the front door. “If she casts us, angel, so help me—”

“But imagine,” said Aziraphale, framing his face. “Just imagine what we could do.”

Crowley fumbled his key into the lock, twisted it, and they both stumbled awkwardly inside.

“At least for now,” he said, “I'm far more interested in doing than in imagining.”

“My brave spirit,” Aziraphale murmured, drawing him on toward promise. “Indeed.”

Chapter Text

We see death come into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash: the early ornaments of black death.

—Jeuan Gethin, Welsh poet, d. 1349

 

 

* * *

 

 

London, 1 November 1348

The commendation turned up in the guise of a crisp vellum missive from one of Crowley's colleagues in the chancery. Hell hadn't quite got the hang of using Crowley's books to communicate—how easy it would've been for Beelzebub or Dagon or whoever to just rearrange some text on the page while he was enjoying a hilariously bad spot of Langland's latest revisions by candlelight—so they tended to send incorporeal underling demons to possess underling human copyists for purposes of writing out missives, which had the unnerving tendency to appear on Crowley's desk.

He'd been aware of the outbreak for months, in an abstract sort of way. Reports coming in from the Continent were both thorough and harrowing, so Crowley had taken to keeping emergency stashes of honey-chamomile ale and Rhineland white wine on hand.

He broke Hastur's seal with the requisite gesture, fingers seizing uncomfortably.

Three paragraphs into the commendation, both of his hands started to shake.

Crowley dropped the correspondence on his rush-and-lavender strewn floor and reached for his cloak on the door-peg, wondering if he'd regret the walk to Southwark at this time of night.

As it turned out, the streets were empty: every shutter drawn, eerily backlit by tapers.

Aziraphale didn't answer his first knock—or his second, or his third. Just as Crowley prepared, teeth gritted, to kick down the door (not something he liked to do terribly often, as humans tended to notice and grow skittish around such things as displays of unnatural strength), it swung inward.

“Ah,” said the angel, lifting the brim of Crowley's hat up from his eyes. “What are you doing here?”

“Asking you what in Go—Sa—what in the world is going on,” Crowley hissed, pushing his way inside Aziraphale's humble one-room lodging. “I got a commendation for Himself's latest crack at a cleansing by plague. Why'd you do it, eh? Did they tell you the buggers are just breeding too fast for their own good and could sand a thorough cull? No, wait, let me guess—it's got something to do with this explosion of bawdy vernacular literature and a corresponding drop in piety rates, so they've ordered you to sort it all out by killing off at least a third of the population—”

“Half,” said Aziraphale, calmly, closing the door behind Crowley as he ranted and paced.

Crowley stopped dead in his tracks, clenching his outstretched hands.

“What do you mean, half?” he demanded, incredulous.

“One day they'll call it Yersinia pestis,” Aziraphale explained. “The bacteria responsible for this contagion, I mean. I'd always assumed that your people—”

“As I recall, my people didn't create the bloody Garden and all of its various pathogens.”

Aziraphale blanched and made for the cupboard, in which he kept a ready supply of Gascon red.

“Have a drink,” he said, offering Crowley some wine in a wooden tumbler. “You'll feel better.”

“Why don't you offer some to the poor souls starting to puff up with fever and rot?” retorted Crowley, and knocked the proffered cup out of Aziraphale's hand. “See what good it does them?”

Angrily, Aziraphale fetched the vessel, refilled it, and downed half its contents. “I have nothing to do with it! The first news I've had, in fact, comes by way of this nonsense,” he said, shoving a piece of wrinkled vellum into Crowley's hands.

Crowley scanned the terrifyingly elegant script, which could only have been Gabriel's.

“I don't believe this,” he said. “They think we're behind it.”

“Now you're the one talking nonsense. They don't know about our little...er...”

“You don't understand,” Crowley said, handing the vellum back to Aziraphale. “I got a commendation, too, but the major difference is that mine makes no mention of a projected death toll. I don't give much thought to the statistics accompanying human illness, but your boy Gabriel must be a regular aficionado. Does he keep sample cultures to hand for reference?”

“Crowley,” said Aziraphale, suddenly brandishing a chair at him. “Sit down.”

Much to his dismay, Crowley didn't make it to the chair. His legs gave out, so Aziraphale hauled him up by the armpits and settled him in it somewhat ungracefully. He didn't protest when Aziraphale refilled the tumbler and thrust it into his hands. He drank deep and hiccupped, his vision swimming. “I don't know what came over me,” he murmured, pensively swilling the wine.

“I suspect it's to do with the prospect of losing half or more of your targets.”

Crowley lowered the tumbler and stared despairingly at the angel.

“Targets,” he echoed. “Is that how you think of them?”

Aziraphale sniffed, busy pouring himself a fresh tumbler of wine.

“It doesn't behoove one to wax sentimental,” he said. “They're humans.”

“They're complicated,” Crowley shot back. “They're clever.”

“I don't follow,” Aziraphale said, taking a long swig of wine.

“If not for them, we'd have no alcohol, for starters.”

Aziraphale pulled a stool up beside Crowley's chair, lost in thought. “I suppose you're right,” he said at length, and then reached to briskly pat Crowley's knee. “Still, it's their lot to tarry here in sorrow. Part of the Great Plan, et cetera. Ineffable.”

Crowley set his empty tumbler down on the floor and folded his arms. “So it wasn't you and it wasn't me, and it wasn't Upstairs and it wasn't Downstairs, but they'd both like to think they can claim credit. That's just swell. Don't you ever feel stuck in the middle?”

“Dear boy, we are stuck in the middle,” sighed Aziraphale. “Technically speaking.”

“Well, at times like this, I hate it,” said Crowley, flatly. “D'you know what it'll be like?”

“What what'll be like?” asked Aziraphale, neatly finishing off his wine.

“Watching them die,” Crowley continued. “Do you know how they're suffering, these first victims? One of my people at court was in Melcombe when the first case arrived by sea.”

“Dreadfully unpleasant symptoms, I should think,” said Aziraphale, shrugging.

Crowley indicated his left armpit, which was bruised thanks to Aziraphale's manhandling. “The lymph nodes swell and form hard, fever-hot pustules. They burst and ooze, spreading the contagion. Some say it can directly enter the blood, and my guess is they'd be right.”

“It'll be airborne before too long,” said Aziraphale, frowning into his tumbler.

“Either you'd best get on with healing a poor sod or two when and as you can, or leave me to it in peace if you're not so inclined,” said Crowley, rising. “I'm going home. This is giving me a headache.”

“Then fix it,” said Aziraphale, following him to the door, wearing an expression that almost passed for one of concern. “You needn't suffer as they do. That is, we needn't—”

“They're the size and shape of an apple,” Crowley said, his hand on the latch. “And as hard.”

Aziraphale covered Crowley's hand with his own, staying it.

“But it needn't be,” he insisted. “Stay and share the rest of this bottle, won't you?”

“The next time either one of us gets a commendation, I want to make damned sure we deserve it,” Crowley seethed. “In this instance, no one does, least of all the humans. Where's your mercy now, eh? Where will it be as thousands perish in torment?”

Aziraphale coaxed Crowley's fingers off the latch and set his soft palm to Crowley's forehead.

“We mustn't burn with them,” he said simply, and then stroked Crowley's temple.

“No,” said Crowley, suddenly weary, and carefully side-stepped the touch. “Wine?”

“Wine,” said Aziraphale, firmly, and went to fetch the bottle from his cupboard.

Crowley resumed his seat in the chair, watching as the window taper guttered.

Chapter Text

The curt knock jarred Gabriel out of his frankincense-induced reverie. The small box of whimsical tissue-wrapped coils—Only on Earth, he'd mused—had turned up on his desk amidst otherwise routine interdepartmental post. HORIKAWA, it said, and, beneath that, SHOYEIDO INCENSE CO. No surprise, of course: Aura Confluence had briefly shifted its focus to Kyoto, followed by a blip in San Francisco, before training its feather-sheathed silver needle back on a tiny coastal village just outside of East Dean.

(Foolish Aziraphale: as if a gift held enough sway to unpin the trace! Of course, a bribe would have required knowledge of the trace to begin with.)

"Enter," Gabriel said, reaching to unhook the needle from its spun-electrum suspension. He twisted it deeper into the shaft, until the needle's gleaming point protruded from the quill-tip of the feather. He put it back. The pendulum obediently swung back and froze over its perpetual nexus on the South Downs of England.

"Good afternoon," said Asmodai, poised nebulous and golden in the doorway. His pupil-less black eyes glinted, glassy and astute under the glare of the chandelier.

"Have a seat," Gabriel sighed, gesturing at the chair before his desk. "The invitation to sit is implied; you need not ever ask my permission."

Asmodai smiled, his regal features taking shape on a face otherwise composed of swirling light and shadow, an expression like slow-spreading poison. The son of mortal King David and Agrat bat Mahlat (fallen angel, succubus, and Duchess of Hell) had returned twenty-four years before at the pleading of his father. There had been a handful of disillusioned in the ranks on each side, and Heaven had offered those from Below with sincere petitions a pardon. There hadn't been many, perhaps ten.

(He had been the only demon of any truly significant rank to defect.)

"I didn't ask," Asmodai replied, drifting forward, "but I'm glad to accept." He flowed through and into the cushioned mauve damask, reaching with idle, tendril-like fingers to spin the needle on its axis. "It still holds, then?" he asked, plotting points on the gilt-and-gemstone inlaid map below the pendulum. "And those filaments from the feathers of the other three that I forged into the needle—they glow true?"

Gabriel nodded at his protégé. Eight years he'd been working with this boy, and he was brilliant. With Solomon's Mines on his CV, there had really been no contest.

"Red for Raphael, blue for Uriel, and gold for the Principality's lover," said Asmodai, smoothing the unkempt edges of Aziraphale's feather. "Whose idea was it to keep a few pinions from every one of us on file, before humans even dreamed up fingerprinting? It's stellar. Innovation is not solely the province of Mankind."

"Did you know him?" Gabriel asked, index fingers steepled against his chin.

Asmodai looked up at him: startling, that pensive, dark star-sapphire gaze.

"I didn't," he admitted, "but Crawly is a much-cursed name in Duke Hastur's demesne. It's rumored that the old man wanted the serpent's gig, but Dagon rejected his application. Instead, he and Ligur got assigned to Spot-Checks and Liaison. It got them up there—down there—every few centuries. Hastur's jealousy only grew."

"And the Duke's unfortunately dim sidekick?" Gabriel pressed. "Any bad blood?"

"Frankly, Ligur never got the hang of Envy," Asmodai said. "It's too complex."

"You read my briefing, I assume," Gabriel said. "Do you know why you're here?"

Asmodai regarded him with cool, but genuine sympathy. He nodded once.

"Lucifer's brat," he said. "Still meddling, from the sound of things?"

"Michael and I had planned a visit last month," Gabriel sighed. "Nothing serious, you understand—reconnaissance only, a quick survey of all those humans they've collected. There's been a death in the family; we know because your former people have got him. Instead of landing back on that stretch of beach, do you know where we ended up?"

Asmodai shook his head, frowning fiercely at the needle. Its corkscrew streak of gold, almost perpetual in its own right (except when Aziraphale traveled alone), flashed harshly yellow and spiked like barbed wire, resembling a thorn-bearing vine.

"No," he said. "And how often does it do that—turn yellow and throb, I mean?"

"We ended up five feet from where we started," said Gabriel, grimly. "We can't leave."

"How often?" Asmodai repeated, mesmerized as Crawly's filament flashed again.

"Not often," sighed Gabriel, impatiently. "Why? What does it mean?"

"It's a distress signal," Asmodai replied, pursing his incorporeal lips.

"Would you care to explain why this is the first I've heard of such a feature?"

"You said you wanted to know how they affect each other. If they're happy."

"Do you see that content glow on the feather itself, my boy? It's constant."

"It's not the Principality in whom I'm most interested," said Asmodai.

They looked at each other, rising at almost exactly the same moment.

"Do you know," repeated Gabriel, suppressing a shiver, "why you are here?"

"The Former Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness has bound you. You can no longer leave this place, doomed to watch what remains of the Garden bloom and flourish from afar while your brother and mine partake of any and every forbidden fruit they so desire in mockery of your plight."

Gabriel felt a surge of white-hot anger. He clenched his fists and quelled it.

Asmodai's ghostlike features solidified further, his glassy gaze turning predatory.

"You can no longer leave this place," he said, smile turning deadly. "But I can."

"You will be issued a body," Gabriel told Asmodai. "Any human shape you wish, you need only picture it." He extended his hands, palms facing upward, indicating that Asmodai should take them. "This authority is mine. What skin will you wear?"

Asmodai's tendril-fingers flowed between Gabriel's, flexed, and became flesh.

Gabriel looked the braid-crowned, brown-skinned being in its wide black eyes.

"You choose a woman's shape," he observed. "Most wise. What shall I call you?"

"I am Asmodai," he said, voice sweet and strange. "But Earth will call me Sarah."

"It's bad enough you've taken your lost love's name. Don't dwell on the past," said Gabriel, pressing a vellum envelope into Asmodai's hands, "and perform the duties I have assigned you. We mustn't fail this time."


 

* * *




"He's here to see you, sir," said a soft, familiar voice from just outside the door.

"Send him in, Tanith," Dagon sighed. He set down his pen and put on his spectacles.

The office door opened a fraction, revealing one of Tanith's slitted garnet snake-eyes framed by her nearly white skin and a wavy swath of dark hair. It whispered shut again, and when it reopened, Ligur stood there blinking in the dim, smoky cast of Dagon's desk lamp. He shuffled in with a surly air, slamming the door behind him.

"Woss her name again?" Ligur asked, plunking himself down in the crumbling goat-leather armchair opposite Dagon. "She's pretty. One of them elegant buggers wot still looks almost like an angel. 'Cept for those peepers she's got, of course."

"Never mind," said Dagon, mildly. "She's an industrious worker and prefers keeping to herself." He uncovered the polished obsidian scrying mirror that lay between them on the battered, charred desktop. "Do you know why you've been sent for, lad?"

"Not really," said Ligur, scratching the side of his nose. "Hastur gone and done somethin' without your permission again, has he? You want I should go clean it up?"

"No, no, nothing of the sort," Dagon reassured him, tracing an inverted pentagram with his fingertip on the mirror's smooth surface. He muttered the requisite incantation, scarcely aware of the words. The black plane rippled, turning to viscous fluid that reflected both of their faces with uncanny clarity. "But it is an assignment requiring a great amount of...discretion, you see, at which you're known to excel. Personal interest on my part, not to be reported any higher. Are we understood?"

"Wotcher," said Ligur, with conspiratorial glee. "Dunt nobody else need to know."

"Do you remember this slippery fellow?" Dagon asked, poking the scry with a weathered, yet steady fingertip. His stomach clenched in unexpected anticipation, as he had, in the past three years, collected a most startling batch of mental images by that very means. It had become a sort of game, furtive guilt and hope pitted against idle curiosity: he never quite knew what the glass would show him next, and what it had always shown him was simultaneously revolting and wondrous strange. Admittedly, what it showed them this time was mundane, if vaguely puzzling.

Ligur regarded the moving picture, which was entirely silent, with dim perplexity. "That flash bastard Crawly," he sniffed, as he wasn't so much confused by who he was looking at as what. "Hastur dunt like him one bit, but, I dunno, he's got a nice pen. And a horseless carriage with a phone in it," he added, with a touch of admiration.

"Correct," Dagon said. "But do you have any idea who the girl is?" He squinted at the black-haired young woman who stood before Crowley with strained features and worry in her glance. She'd never appeared in the scry before; he'd only ever seen Crowley with the enemy agent known as Aziraphale, and although Dagon wasn't sure he approved of the relationship, it was rather a relief to know that the lad had been getting on all right since Beelzebub's ruthless mass lay-off back in early 2011.

Ligur shrugged. "Someone he's been temptin'? She dunt look too happy."

"She doesn't, does she," said Dagon, frowning, and it was then that he realized Tanith was hovering apprehensively on the threshold with a singed manila folder in her hand. He hadn't even heard the door open.

"You needed this for today," Tanith said apologetically, holding out the folder. "I tried to give it to you, but then Duke Ligur went straight in, and I didn't want to interrupt—"

"Nonsense," Dagon told her. "Perhaps you can shed some light on this mystery."

Tanith took one look at the quarreling figures in the scrying mirror and gasped. "Sir, that's Sophia Device-Pulsifer. She's human. Her parents are Anathema Device and Newton Pulsifer, and her younger twin sisters are called Natalie and Janet."

"The witch and the technician," Dagon murmured, studying Sophia's face.

"Sir," said Tanith, hesitantly setting the folder down in front of him. "You'll want to have a look at this. She's not just Agnes Nutter's great-great-great-great—"

"Woss wrong with her belly?" asked Ligur, tapping the scrying mirror. He sniffed the droplet of tarry ooze it left on his finger, and then, quite pleased, licked it off. Dagon looked up from his perusal of the first page in the folder, blank with shock.

"What do you mean, what's wrong with her belly?" he demanded.

"She keeps clutchin' it like it hurts," Ligur said. "Is she sick or somethin'?"

"She's Adam Young's wife, sir," said Tanith, quietly. "Sorry. I'm leaving now."

Before Dagon could consider thanking her for the indispensable service, she'd gone.

"Who's Adam Young?" Ligur asked. "Wossat got to do with Crawly?"

Dagon snapped his fingers irritably, and the scry instantly dissipated. He wasted no time in shoving the heavy-laden folder into Ligur's unsuspecting hands. "You're to read this briefing and get up there as fast as you possibly can."

Ligur made a face. "Readin' is not what you'd call my strong suit," he said.

"You'll manage," Dagon told him, showing some teeth. "And you'll do as I say."

"Yessir," Ligur muttered, shoving the folder under his arm. "Standard stalk-and-lurk?"

"Standard S-and-L," Dagon confirmed. "I expect weekly reports on what you see."

"Just Crawly, or am I lookin' for anyone he spends time with?"

"Crowley and all of his associates, be they human or otherwise."

"There's some that ain't human?" asked Ligur, incredulously.

Dagon sighed and re-activated the scrying mirror. "Look."

Ligur watched Aziraphale, Principality of Earth, strut back and forth onstage.

"They still do them play-things?" he asked, pleased. "Like Shakespeare?"

Dagon squinted at the dog-eared script in the angel's neatly manicured hand.

"Yes," he said, gesturing so that the scry zoomed in, "and it is Shakespeare."

"Dunt look like him," said Ligur. "He had a beard and much better hair."

Dagon covered his mouth and hissed in abject frustration. Olympic-grade lurker and champion spy Ligur might have been, but swift on the up-take he was not.

"Crowley's closest associate," he said. "As for being human, you'll find Aziraphale is anything but. Take care not to cross any of them, but that one especially."

Ligur's expression turned from one of amusement to one of suspicion.

"I've seen him before," he said, slowly, as if in a trance. "Long time ago."

"Don't dwell on it," Dagon told Ligur, clapping him on the shoulder. "Get along now, lad. Do your homework, don't mention it to Hastur, and be on your way, won't you?"


 

* * *




"You're certain?" Crowley demanded. "I mean, you're absolutely certain?"

Sophia finally sat down on the sofa, her face tear-streaked, and gave a weary nod.

"You know how I mentioned I was feeling sick right after New Year's? I thought I'd just drunk too much out celebrating with Adam and the girls, but that didn't seem right, as I only had a few pints of cider..." She trailed off, staring miserably at the coffee table. "My period hasn't turned up. Three different pregnancy tests, all positive."

Crowley sat down beside her, unable to hide the fact his hands were shaking.

"I know you're not happy about it," he said, "but just think. You've finished the MA, you've got no plans to start a PhD any time soon, maybe not ever, you and Adam have got a nice new flat that's not student accommodation, and—"

"And what?" demanded Sophia, through a fresh burst of tears. "I've got that internship lined up for spring, and it's got the option for transitioning to permanent hire. Who's going to want to keep me if I've got a newborn to worry about?"

"This isn't America," Crowley pointed out, awkwardly putting an arm around her.

"Yeah, and it's also not France! They've got their shit figured out with respect to employment and parenting on the Continent, but Britain's got a long way to go."

That's your mother talking, Crowley thought, but he kept his mouth shut. Also, you'll want to re-check your figures: Britain offers twenty weeks' paid maternity leave, whereas France only offers sixteen. And I should know, having engineered most forms of productivity-cut and resource-drainage in the average human workplace.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Sophia said despairingly. "We fucked up."

Crowley tried to find a tactful way of saying he'd once got a glimpse of her handbag contents and that he thought he'd seen a contraceptive-pill compact. He couldn't. "I thought you were taking, er, precautions," was what he said instead.

"We were," said Sophia. "But there's that one-point-whatever percent chance..."

"Condoms help," Crowley offered, and then felt just as foolish as when he'd sat translating parts of a Latin sex manual in front of her sisters (only less concerned about what her mother might do to him, although the answer was probably nothing).

"We use those, too!" Sophia snapped. "We're young, but we're not stupid."

Bloody hell, Crowley thought, staring past her and out the window. This kid must really want to live. "Why are you telling me about this first?" he asked her. "Shouldn't you be discussing the issue with Adam? He's, er, partly responsible, after all."

Sophia folded her hands together in her lap, altogether too quiet for Crowley's liking.

"So he already knows," Crowley gathered. "Not surprising, given you can both read—"

"Actually, no," Sophia murmured, averting her gaze. "He hasn't a clue."

"Something's very wrong with this picture," Crowley said. "I don't understand."

"We worked out an arrangement of sorts," Sophia explained. "Not too long after that night you fucked up the cocktails and I saw your wings and Harold had a stroke."

Biggest mistake you'll ever make, Crowley thought. But you won't regret it.

Sophia didn't even react to the intentional broadcast; she was seemingly too upset.

"What's this arrangement, then?" he asked. "What are the terms? I hope he's getting better at hashing those out, because he's otherwise something of a generalist."

"We agreed we'd never read each other's thoughts or use our...well, what would you call it, intuition?...to suss out each other's secrets. Sometimes those are important."

"What, secrets?" Crowley considered this. "Depends on the secret, I guess."

"This isn't something I'd like to trouble him with," said Sophia, too quietly.

Crowley produced a handkerchief from his jeans pocket (where there had been none just moments before) and used it to dry her cheeks. He tilted her chin up. "There's something else you're not telling me," he said. "Trouble him?"

Unblinking, Sophia swallowed and slipped a hand into the pocket of her cardigan.

"I need someone to drive me to the appointment on Saturday. You're the only one I can really trust, and, if I'm not mistaken, you mentioned that Aziraphale has some kind of all-day blocking rehearsal? That way, we'd avoid any awkward questions."

She pressed an ominously folded piece of paper into Crowley's free hand.

"And you came here this evening, because you also knew he'd be out," said Crowley, releasing her so that he could unfold and look at whatever she'd handed him. "Surely you could get Adam to drive you, pass it off as just a routine check-up with your GP—"

His eyes scanned the page, which was a carbon copy. She'd signed it the day before.

"I just want to take care of this quietly," Sophia whispered. "Please."

Crowley cleared his throat, re-folded the paper, and handed it back to her.

"I won't," he said, releasing a single, unsteady breath. "I can't."

"Thought maybe you'd say that," Sophia said. "Think it over, though. Please?"

"You had to've gone to a lot of trouble to arrange this," Crowley sighed. He rose and walked over to the window, setting both hands on the sill, lest they betray his shock. "You must've got an emergency same-day appointment with your GP earlier in the week; I must say, as referrals go, that was fast. Have you thought about this?" he asked. "Really thought about it? Free will isn't entirely without consequences."

Sophia nodded gravely. "It's the wrong time. And I don't want Adam to know."

"You've put me in a difficult position," Crowley told her, watching as Judith (by now shortened to Jude) and her sisters foraged on the lawn and flapped at one another over particularly choice pickings. He'd discovered Sophia sobbing at the wheel of Adam's car in the driveway no sooner than he'd let them out of the shed. She must have pulled in while he was busy replacing the straw and adjusting the heat-lamps.

"I know," Sophia said, her voice drifting nearer. "And I'm sorry."

Crowley caught her wrist before her hand could settle on his shoulder.

"Aziraphale will be home soon. I don't want him to see you in such a state."

He heard Sophia swallow as she tugged her wrist out of his grasp.

"Adam's staying at home from Friday till Sunday," she said. "His sister's back in town again, making a fuss about wanting to see more of her slacker little brother. Show up Saturday morning around ten o'clock if you can. I'll be awake and ready."

Crowley saw her out the door with a kiss on the forehead, although he couldn't bring himself to embrace her or to say another word. He waited till she'd driven away to track down the ducks. He found them paddling in the calm, gradually rising tide.

"Oi, you," he said to Tamar, scooping her out of the water. "Let's see that leg."

The wound—a surprisingly deep laceration about four centimeters long—was healing nicely. Regular dousing in sea-salt had soundly staved off infection, so Crowley had resisted the urge to heal it outright ("Let nature take its course," Aziraphale had said).

Tamar squirmed and hissed at him, catching Crowley's sleeve ineffectually in her bill.

"From now on, you'd best leave Jemima alone when she's eating," Crowley sighed, running his thumb over what was left of the cut. It vanished in the wake of his touch. "When the diced mango and dried crickets come out, she's not inclined to share."

Tamar waggled her tail happily as Crowley plopped her back in the water.

Meanwhile, Jemima bobbed to the surface with a shrill, indignant squawk.

"Serves you right," Crowley told her, wading out of the rising surf, finding his shoes and trouser-hems sodden. "Biting your sister just for being hungry. Tsssk."

Ruth, Eve, and Lilith (curse Mandy and her twisted sense of humor) dashed after him, flapping salt water everywhere. He paused to pull his shoes off and shake out the sand. They hovered, heads tilted upward, peering at him with expectant brown eyes.

"I can't feed you all the time," Crowley protested, hobbling back into his miraculously dry footwear. "That's what this daily foraging lark is about, you understand. Aziraphale thinks it's time you learned to fend for yourselves. Bit early for that, I thought, but what can you do? Listen, it wasn't my idea. There's no sense in arguing with him."

"Is there not?" asked Aziraphale's amused voice from behind him.

For the first time in centuries, Crowley's blood froze at the sound.

He straightened up, brushing off his hands. "Done letting Rani order you about?"

"It's her job, Crowley," said Aziraphale stepping up beside him. "If I'm not mistaken, that sort of thing is what directors do—good gracious, young lady, how are you?" he asked, crouching to scratch under Lilith's chin. Her sisters, including the three who'd been in the water till a few seconds ago, scrambled to gather around for their turn.

Crowley folded his arms and watched, his stomach clenching uneasily.

"Sophia dropped by," he said before he could stop himself. "She says hello."

"Then I'm quite sorry to have missed her," said Aziraphale, dusting sand off the knees of his trousers as he stood. "What's she up to? Anything of interest?"

Crowley shrugged, staring up the rise. Turf and rushes, scurvy-grass and garden.

Yarrow, he thought bitterly. Isn't that what witches favor? The fairest of all.

Aziraphale set both hands on Crowley's shoulders, startling him.

"My dear, you've caught a chill," he said. "You're jumpy. Come inside."

Crowley tilted his head so that Aziraphale's kiss hit his ear instead of his cheek.

"Right, kids," he said, snapping his fingers. "Back in the shed. Party's over."


 

* * *




Uriel woke drenched and shaking, clutching her sides as she rolled off the mattress.

"Do you," she began in a quavering voice, "do you ever get those dreams—"

The bedside lamp flickered to life, and Raphael's long arm curled down to fetch her.

"Not the way you do, darling," he said, hauling her into his embrace. "What now?"

Shuddering, Uriel buried her face against his chest and dug her nails into his hip.

"For me, different things," she said. "The deaths of strangers I'll never meet, but who I'm supposed to meet. Bodies in abandoned places. Shipwrecks. The plague."

"Which one? There were a shit-ton of outbreaks, let me tell you."

"Every one, you hoser! But it's not just that."

Raphael arched both wings above their heads, closing them in.

"It's not the others, is it?" he asked, frowning. "Tell me it's not the others."

Uriel lifted her head and regarded him gravely, nodding.

"Not Michael," she said. "He's too busy gambling with those slutty Dominions."

Raphael closed his eyes and did an astonishingly good impression of a human with a headache. What came next, though—the covering of his mouth with one tense hand, his sudden inability to look her in the eye—was genuine, and entirely him.

"Gabriel," he said, voice badly muffled. "What the fuck do you suppose..."

Propping herself up on one elbow, Uriel rolled him onto his back and tumbled down the strong, broad curve of his well-kept wing till she had no choice but to sprawl on top of him. She pried his hand away from his mouth and pressed her forehead to his.

"He's up to something," she said. "It makes these old bones ache. No good."

"The snake's rubbing off on you," muttered Raphael. "First hangovers, now arthritis—"

"Would you listen, dammit?" she pleaded, punching him in the side. "There's a new soul hovering. The kind I don't get often. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

"Some confused unborn human whose existence is in question before it's even got started is haunting your sleep," said Raphael. "What's that got to do with Gabriel?"

"He sent it," she said. "And he's sunk in the most powerful hooks Heaven's got at its disposal to make sure that poor, confused spirit binds to somebody we know well."

Raphael pulled away and rubbed his eyes with one hand, clenching the other at the small of Uriel's back. They were both covered in bite-marks; Uriel tactfully didn't mention it, lest Raphael realize how much the snake had rubbed off on him, too.

"Anathema's daughters," he said. "Please don't tell me it's the naughty twin."

"No," replied Uriel, sadly. "Their big sister's in the crosshairs."

"That makes no sense," Raphael reasoned. "Get the ex-Antichrist's wife knocked up, and then give her second thoughts? It's not as if he can damn her."

"The second thoughts are her own. The child, however, is a time-bomb. I didn't think he'd ever be so stupid to try something like this without explicit clearance."

"I'm still lost, my love," Raphael sighed. "Please translate."

"Last time, the kid came from Down There," Uriel told him. "So he's thinking, hey, why not try again ourselves? If it goes pear-shaped, how much bad can actually happen?"

"Okay," Raphael said, sitting up, unceremoniously dumping Uriel out from the curve of his wing. "This is tantamount to, I don't know, attempting the whole Messiah clusterfuck all over again. And look how well that went down."

"Like a lead balloon," Uriel murmured, curling up in a pile of pillows.

"What do you think we should do?" Raphael asked, setting two fingers between her shoulder blades. She didn't want her wings right now, couldn't abide them, but her muscles rippled beneath his touch, caught the tingle of warning.

"Have a word with Gabriel," she said. "Find out what he's playing at."

"Out they come," Raphael said, poking her spine. "Let's get this over with."

"I don't want to go," she whispered, screwing her eyes shut.

"No more than I do," Raphael said, narrowly avoiding both of her wings catching him in the face, "but you know better than to think we can shirk—"

Reality melted around them as she tried to send them both Heavenward with a grudging blink, but a few seconds later, she opened her eyes to find them lying in a half-naked tangle of limbs and feathers on the floor next to the bay window.

"What the fuck just happened?" she wondered aloud, shaky and bewildered.

"You just teleported us from the bedroom to the living room," Raphael informed her.

"No, I just tried to teleport us to Gabriel's office," she said, frowning.

"Try again?" Raphael offered, setting his robe to rights and tying it off at the waist. He tugged down her rucked-up tank top and materialized her a set of silk shorts. "Here..."

His wave of Intent smacked painfully off the walls, leaving them flat on their backs.

"Why do we always do this shit still half-drunk?" Uriel asked the ceiling.

Raphael sat up and winched in his wings, considering the first streaks of sunrise.

"We're blocked," he said in amazement. "Some kind of barricade between here and there, and it's strong, too. And I'm willing to bet that if we can't get past it—"

"—neither can they," Uriel finished for him, stumbling to her feet, grateful she had her wings for balance. "Oh, holy shit," she said. "That infuriating boy—do you think—"

"I just realized," said Raphael, slowly, "that Gabriel need not set foot here personally in order to cause chaos. He's got an assistant, that infernal creature—"

"His name," Uriel cut in with firm, apprehensive resolve, "is Asmodai."


 

* * *





Sophia turned from the mirror, twisting the elastic firmly about her braid.

Any minute now, she thought. Any minute now, and he'll be here.

A lonely cup of Lady Grey in her small kitchen (Adam's kitchen, in truth, given that he did most of the cooking for both of them) only wasted ten minutes. She turned her sticky mug upside-down in the sink and wandered listlessly into the living room, where she sat down on the sofa and grew heavy-lidded, drifting. Any minute. The sound of the Bentley's horn was harsh, blaring in the silence.

Sophia started awake, fishing on the floor for her shoulder bag.

"I'm coming!" she shouted, waving at Crowley through the parted curtains.

He didn't look at her, his eyes fixed on something further up the street.

Swallowing the slight, bitter rise at the back of her throat, Sophia shrugged into her coat, shouldered her bag, and dashed out the front door. Just as she spun on her heel, realizing she hadn't locked it, the bolt threw itself with a jarring clank.

Crowley was leaning out of the driver's-side window, which was now open.

"You'll be late," he said. "Doctors don't like that, in my experience."

"What experience have you got with doctors?" Sophia demanded, rounding the front of the car. She opened the passenger-door and slid into the seat. "You never get sick."

"I had to deliver your better half to a convent hospital when he was a squalling brat fresh from the fires of Dis, don't you tell me from not having experience. Buckle up!"

"Oh," Sophia said in a voice rather smaller than she'd have liked. "I'd forgot."

"You're so good at that," said Crowley, absently, driving faster than was necessary.

"Good at what?" she asked, watching the bucolic scenery fly past. Cambridge was unabashedly pretty in winter, never mind the lackluster foliage and endless puddles.

"Forgetting," Crowley replied, handing her a thermos from the seat between them, still not turning to face her. "You humans have got a knack for it. Here, drink up."

"I'm not supposed to have anything. Not till the procedure is done, at least."

"Well, I say you'll be needing this," Crowley insisted, shaking it at her. "Drink."

Sophia took the thermos, removed the lid, and sniffed. Fragrant steam like a slap in the face: Turkish apple tea laced with the bite of bitter herbs. Willow-bark, mugwort...

"Now I see it," she said. "It's hard most of the time, but I see it now."

Crowley made a non-committal noise, but he took his glasses off and hung them from the visor. Vintage cars of this sort didn't normally have visors, but Sophia knew better than to ask where this particular vintage car was concerned.

"Yeah?" he asked, casting her a brief, nervous glance. His eyes burned.

"The one cruelty you mete out with exacting precision," she said.

"And what's that?"

"Irony, of course."

"Listen, this is the last thing I want—"

"This is not, I repeat, not about what you want!"

"Let me finish," said Crowley, in slow, pained tones. "The last thing I want to be doing with my Saturday morning. Aziraphale had asked me to come watch the rehearsal, and Rani wanted to take us out for lunch afterward, but, no, I've gone and begged off. My point is mostly that you had better be damned sure this is what you want, because I'm not ever to be recounted as an accomplice in this, and futhermore—"

"Then you should have said no," Sophia cut in, laying a hand on his arm.

Crowley laughed: high, sharp, and breathless. His left hand clenched, unclenched.

"There's no one else you could've gone to. No one else you could've trusted."

Sophia sat back in her seat and raised the thermos to her mouth, feeling numb.

"What else is in here?" she asked. "What'll it do to me?"

"Calm you," Crowley said. "Dull the pain, induce..." He made a vague, snakelike gesture at the lower half of his own anatomy. "Help things along, if you will."

"I'm sure this violates all of the aftercare advice I'm going to get," she said, "but bottoms up." She took several long swallows of the tea. It was unsweetened, and the fruit-tartness did nothing to mask that telltale hint of yarrow. She'd bleed more heavily in the aftermath, perhaps, but it would clear whatever happened to be left. The drive continued in silence, so she drank some more of the concoction.

It was extremely unnerving, not being able to read Crowley. Sophia flipped on the radio without asking, and, after a few failed attempts at finding a good station, she opened the glove box and rummaged until she found her favorite Velvet Underground album. Who Loves the Sun and Sweet Jane played without incident, although Sophia couldn't muster the nerve to sing along. A third of the way into Rock & Roll, she began tapping the frenetic drumbeat on her knee and stole a sidelong glance at Crowley.

Nothing at all. His expression was a complete, impassive blank.

Cool It Down did nothing of the sort for her nerves. She punched the Blaupunkt's STOP button and sat back in her seat, swilling the bitter tisane down to mere dregs.

A mile and a half later, still twenty minutes from their destination, Crowley pulled over at a convenient lay-by. In fact, it was too convenient. Sophia was fairly certain there had never been a lay-by in this particular spot before. She knew these roads.

"What now?" she asked, fingers winding in the straps of her bag. "Another lecture?"

"I won't be complicit in this again," Crowley said, and Sophia had the distinct impression he was saying it to anyone but her. "I absolutely refuse. So get out."

Sophia couldn't quite believe her ears. "Come again?"

"Get out," Crowley said, and her door swung violently open, "of the car."

She was ready to just sit tight, arms folded, but Crowley was looking her full in the eyes now with those blazing, slitted yellow eyes of his, and he looked dangerous. Snake in the grass, thought Sophia, wildly. Ready to strike.

She fumbled her seat-belt off and clambered out; she stumbled and nearly fell face-first into the damp grit and gravel. She steadied herself with one hand flat against the window-glass, staring in at Crowley with vision blurred and stinging.

"You'll just leave me," she said. "Just like that."

"Just like that," Crowley agreed, replacing his sunglasses. "You've got a mobile."

"Fuck you," hissed Sophia, angrily. "No, really! All that pasted-on cool of yours can't help you now, can it, as lost as you are? You sodding spineless jerk!" She watched him flinch precisely as if he'd been stabbed in the side.

"I'm done," Crowley said, gesturing the ignition to life. He slammed one chelsea-booted heel to the accelerator and yanked the wheel sharply, cutting a wide, burnt-rubber arc around Sophia where she stood. Fine time for aura-vision to kick in, she thought: the entire car flickered, engulfed in distressed red-orange-yellow flame.

And, yes, just like that—just as she'd feared—he was gone.


 

* * *





Aziraphale was mid-scene with Gwen, the young lady who'd been cast as Miranda, when Crowley slunk into the back of the theatre. Even across the distance and through abysmally dim lighting, he looked pale, pinched, and shaken, hunched into his heavy coat with the collar turned up and his glasses high on the bridge of his nose.

"Focus," Rani said from the front row, just loudly enough for Aziraphale to hear.

Aziraphale took a deep breath and stopped. "Yes," he sighed. "From the top?"

Rani nodded warningly, her lips twisted in that knowing, impatient smile.

Aziraphale kept a weather eye on the back row as the scene spun out. Crowley occupied one of the squeaky, ratty chairs with discomfited grace, black-and-grey python patterned boots propped primly on the back of the seat in front of him.

In spite of himself, Aziraphale thought of the British Museum and smiled.

"Enough for today!" Rani shouted, cutting them off. "You're both distracted."

Gwen fled the stage with a grateful, if terrified See-you-Monday-'bye!

"My dear girl, thank you," said Aziraphale, and made his way down the stage-left stairs. He felt Rani's eyes heavy on his back even as she shuffled papers and wrestled her laptop back into its ponderous carrying-case, and they lingered until he reached the chair at the end of the row in which Crowley had so tensely, patiently waited. He crouched, leaning on the battered wooden arm-rest, and nudged Crowley's elbow.

"We don't have to go out. She'll have sense enough to know you're not up to it."

Crowley sighed and turned, his feet dropping to the floor in one sinuous movement.

"We could have lunch without her," he said softly. "Just the two of us."

Aziraphale nodded and got to his feet, reaching for Crowley's hand.

"What shall we have? The café's out of that soup, and it's bucketing down in Bristol—"

"Not ready to go back there," said Crowley, adamantly. "And sushi's too cold on a night like this." Reluctantly, he let Aziraphale pull him to his feet and kiss his cheek.

Aziraphale nodded. The beach-front café had fallen out of favor since the new manager had fired Mandy for calling him on mistreating the even newer wait-staff. Rani waved at them from the foot of the stage and exited via the opposite aisle.

"There now," Aziraphale said. "I'd told you she'd be reasonable. Let's be off."

"Thai," said Crowley, too vaguely for Aziraphale's liking. "Could use some red curry."

Cause for concern compounded over supper, not least because Aziraphale only managed to get a few glasses of wine down Crowley alongside the Panang curry he ordered instead of the red. He seemed content (although that was not the right word for his demeanor, not by any stretch) to eat and listen to Aziraphale's account of the rehearsal without offering his usual snide commentary. It was outright worrying.

Aziraphale returned from paying the tab to find Crowley staring balefully at a handful of fortune-cookie slips. He'd opened all four that had come along with the bill. He studied the slips of paper for a few seconds longer, and then looked up at Aziraphale.

"Not sure why they bring these," Crowley said. "If I ran this place, I'd take every precaution to distance myself from the tacky Chinese take-away over the road."

"Sound and fury, my dear," Aziraphale said, pulling him to his feet. "Leave them."

Crowley drove them home in silence, keeping almost too cautiously under the speed limit, his hands white-knuckled on the wheel. The Bentley smelled faintly of fruit tea and medicinal herbs. Aziraphale frowned. None of these scents proved comforting.

On arriving home, Aziraphale couldn't bear to wait. He stopped Crowley three feet from where he'd left his boots and coat in a jumble on the kitchen floor and kissed him up against the work-top. Crowley winced as the back of his head hit the cupboards.

"Sorry," Aziraphale murmured, parting Crowley's miraculously unbuttoned shirt to stroke smooth skin and peaked nipples underneath. "I'm not sure what's got into..."

"Doesn't matter," Crowley mumbled against Aziraphale's mouth, suddenly frantic.

Aziraphale braced one palm flat against the work-top alongside Crowley's hip and sighed, abruptly weak-kneed at Crowley's warm hand down the front of his trousers. "That day you made supper," he breathed against Crowley's ear, "not too long after we'd got home from the Cape—" he paused, gasping, and swore at the chilly sensation of his trousers, pants and all, being efficiently shucked down to his knees by the twist and creep of Crowley's clever bare feet. "My dear, I hope you know—I wanted—"

"Then take it, angel," Crowley said, unclothed now except for his shirt hanging unbuttoned and the brushed-cotton Red Sox boxers he'd bought in a Provincetown gift shop still inexplicably on him, albeit rubbing and clinging in all the right places.

Unthinking, Aziraphale kissed him so soundly Crowley's head hit the cupboards again, one hand delving between them to unbutton Crowley's flies and coax the tip of his erection free. Crowley whimpered, knees hitching Aziraphale in close by the hips.

"Leave them on," Aziraphale panted, teasing at Crowley's waistband, "if you like."

He'd never tire of Crowley's arms wrapped sinuously about his shoulders, the effortless slithering cadence of each rhythmic, writhing thrust (until, until, until)—

"Aziraphale," managed Crowley, plaintively, his cheek plastered against Aziraphale's collarbone—sticky, yielding, and impossibly flushed—"Aziraphale." Never any missed syllables, not so much as even the hint of a hiss.

Aziraphale bit his lip, drawing deep, furious breaths in the softness of Crowley's mussed hair. He could only hold this pace for so long; he shook with the strain of standing through it, letting Crowley ride the pace he'd chosen for them hard.

Crowley tensed: a perfect armful of awkward grace, his limbs unclenching.

(Not quiet this time, either, no; even less so than at their very first—)

Only rasping now, Crowley's half-words against Aziraphale's shoulder as he came.

Damn you, thought Aziraphale, almost distantly through the surge of it, ages-buried sentiment unbidden, not-quite-pain his body once had shunned and now cared far, far too much to remember. He slumped, pinning Crowley to the work-top and smack against the cupboards, Crowley's belly gone slick with heat as he shuddered. Crowley released a great, shaking breath and let his feet drop to the floor.

Once they'd recovered, Aziraphale led him into the living room. They curled together bonelessly on the sofa—wrists and ankles dangling off, bundled in not nearly enough space—and let Madame Tracy's quilt cover what their scant clothing could not.

Half an hour later, muzzily, Aziraphale lifted his head with annoyance from the crook of Crowley's neck to squint in the direction of a rather unwelcome sound: the doorbell.

"I'll get it," muttered Crowley, yawning, and disentangled himself from Aziraphale's quite determined embrace. Aziraphale rolled over and watched him materialize underthings, jeans, and a t-shirt as he walked still barefoot back into the kitchen.

Aziraphale curled in on himself, idly dozing as he summoned clothes, and listened.

"Hey," Crowley was saying in a tone that could only imply one person, "what brings—"

The sound that came next was a cruel, echoing crack of flesh on flesh.

Mandy shrieked and cursed to high heaven, and Aziraphale reached the entryway just in time to see the girl doubled over, one hand clutched to her breast, while Crowley leaned heavily against the wall with one hand pressed in astonishment to his jaw.

"I think there's been some misunderstanding," he said with pained effort.

"Like bloody hell there hasn't," Mandy snarled, straightening up in order to glare at Aziraphale, but it wasn't long until her eyes tracked back to Crowley. "How could you do that? How on earth could you do that, what when she trusted you to help?"

Crowley's eyes flitted to Aziraphale now, blazing, both fearful and hunted.

"She should have trusted someone else," he said wearily, glancing back at Mandy. He worked his jaw a few times and then pressed the heels of his hands to the junctures of skull and mandible just beneath his ears. Hinge, unhinge, snap. He shook himself.

Mandy was gaping at him, her expression far more angry than afraid.

"I don't care if you're ex-KGB or MI6 or any of that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy bollocks," she told him. "You don't kick a friend out of the car on your way to the clinic. What the fuck were you thinking? That she could just walk to and from?"

As Crowley stood fretfully chewing his lip, Aziraphale stared at him.

"My dear, I'm somewhat lost," he said. "Would you and Amanda mind—"

"I wouldn't," said Mandy, vehemently, "but he might. Hypocrite!"

"I like to think of it more as sticking to my principles even in a moment of weakness," said Crowley, stepping forward until he stood between them. "I can explain this," he said. "I will explain this," he told Aziraphale, and then added, turning fully to face Mandy, "but first you've got to tell me if Sophia actually—"

"What she actually did is her own fucking business and her own fucking choice," Mandy told him. "All you need to know is that I got her home safe, okay?" Needles, droves of them, pierced and prickled Aziraphale's stomach.

"Dear girl," he said, "if you'd just come sit down and have some tea, I'm sure—"

"I'm not sure about anything," Mandy said, batting Crowley's imploring hand away. "Not anymore. She was raving by the time I drove her home, something about serpents and apples and the whole nine yards. I read Comparative Religion at uni, remember? That particular metaphor didn't take too much parsing!"

No, Aziraphale thought, oh, no. That simply, absolutely cannot be.

"If I may," he said, scarcely thinking, and pulled Crowley out of the way. Next, he took Mandy by the shoulder and tugged her aside, opening the door its full span. "Miss Tomlin, I'm very sorry, but your hysterics are hardly shedding any light on this circumstance. If you can't be civil, then I'm afraid I must ask you to run along."

"Run along?" Mandy echoed, blinking at him in disbelief. "Run along?"

Crowley had covered his face with both hands, was hissing indecipherable curses.

"A bit of advice," said Mandy, coldly, backing outside with one shaking hand poised accusingly on the doorframe. "Get your misogynistic, biblical shit sorted!" She slammed the door, leaving Aziraphale with nowhere to gape but at Crowley.

"I'm afraid," he said carefully, finding the sound of his own voice thin and strained, "that the young lady has left me with little choice but to ask..."

Crowley stood stock-still, his eyes fixed clear and desolate on the door. In profile, his expression looked cool and far-away, even dispassionate. He did not blink. "She'd got pregnant," he said, distantly. "Sophia had, I mean. Not Mandy."

Aziraphale backed up three steps and set one hand on the edge of the sink.

"The child's a boy," he told Crowley. "That morning I called Anathema, I saw—"

"It doesn't matter what you saw," snapped the demon. "The child is gone."

Their world faltered on its axis just then, tilting beneath Aziraphale's bare feet.

"Whatever you say next," he pleaded, "for the love of anything, do not lie."

In that instant, Crowley looked more lost than Aziraphale had ever seen him.

(London, 1348. Barcelona, 1488. Bombay, 1901. Tokyo, 2002—)

"I don't know how," he said softly. "And, believe it or not, I never have."

Aziraphale cleared his throat and lowered his chin, not-so-patiently waiting.

"Fine," said Crowley, with a sigh like a silenced sob. He turned it into a sardonic laugh, running one hand distractedly through hair that was by then thoroughly immune to further ruin. "As you like it. I'll break my word to her, and then I'll have told a lie. My very first. Here goes: she came to me for help, and I told her I'd keep her secret. Keep it from everyone. From you, from Adam..." He swallowed and stared at the floor, his eyes radiating vivid despair. "Adam's at home for the weekend, and she needed a lift to the appointment. I was not happy about this, I want you to understand, but if she was so determined—free will's a bugger and all that—I at least wanted to make sure she was in the hands of someone she trusted, and God only knows why, but she chose me." Crowley stepped forward without looking up, one hand starting forward in supplication, but he stayed it. "I kicked her out of the car about two thirds of the way there," he admitted. "Left her alone there by the roadside, just like that."

The only sound between them was the complete and vacuous absence of breath.

"I cannot believe," said Aziraphale, at length, too numb at the revelation's prospect to say anything else, "that you could possibly have been so foolish."

Only then did Crowley's anger flare, fierce and terrible in its honesty.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did it again, did I? Went and mistook foolishness for loyalty? Well, I'll tell you something. I'm bloody tired of your moral commentary on this, that, and the other, right up to the point where I'm constantly trying to do the decent thing, and you still haven't got it through your thick ethereal skull that there's no such thing as basic nature. There are only choices, choices and doing one's best in the most utterly appalling circumstances any omnipotent creature in or out of its right mind has ever engineered. She had a mobile phone and enough time to call a cab; at least she had the good sense to call a friend instead. I didn't agree with it, but I wasn't about to judge her. I may have made a mistake, angel, but don't you dare judge me."

"That empty thermos," said Aziraphale, his mind racing. "What did you give her?"

Crowley stared and stopped just short of tearing at his hair, incredulous.

"Nothing that would hurt! Okay, so maybe the tea flavor was uncalled for—"

"I'm sorry, but I've got to think about this," said Aziraphale, rubbing his forehead. Too many crumbling images; too many complex implications. "If you'll excuse me..."

"Excuse you for what?" asked Crowley, anxiously, and Aziraphale could hear him trailing hurriedly after as he made his way out of the kitchen and into the study. "For why? Being a complete and utter prat? Bit too late, really, but I'd take—"

Aziraphale took a single breath, shut the study door in Crowley's face, and locked it.

And as for the hurried footfalls and rummaging sounds that came from bedroom and hallway until a complete, uneasy silence fell, he tried his best not to think about them.


 

* * *





Snow had begun to fall outside, faint and glimmering on the grassy sand.

Pippa turned from the window, mindful of her hip, and went to the kettle. She'd got used to quiet evenings alone, she supposed, and maybe she even liked them. Much though she wished Nicola would let him, Rob couldn't stay with her all the time; he had school. Pippa poked the tea bag, watching amber-colored tendrils spread.

She pottered back into the living room once it had brewed sufficiently strong and took her usual seat in one corner of the sofa. There wasn't anything decent on telly.

Pippa got out the novels that Aziraphale had given her last Saturday. Not today, though, and not for any Saturdays until the play had was over. She'd promised to come see him, and maybe even Crowley. He'd been so proud that his young man had assented to understudy Ariel and Sebastian (on condition of not having to rehearse).

Six pages into Cloud Atlas, she heard a familiar engine-roar die outside.

Speak of the devil, thought Pippa, fondly, and set the daunting book down.

At her current stiff pace, the front door was already open when she reached it.

"You must have needed those keys," she said softly, "to finally have used them."

Crowley stood barefoot and coatless in the doorway, his unkempt hair flecked with ice.

Pippa considered his trembling hands: key-ring in one, overnight bag in the other.

"I won't impose," Crowley began, eyes everywhere but on her face. "That is, only if..."

He's the right one, bless his heart, Pippa thought, and felt her own breaking.

"Don't just stand there, you dear thing," she murmured, reaching. "Come in."

Chapter Text

"Here we are again," said Raphael, watching the taxi drive off. "Ass-end of nowhere, England, and the weather's drearier than last time. Is your inner Canadian happy?"

"Fuck off," Uriel said, already wheeling her suitcase briskly up the front walk. "I wear my Canadian-ness on my sleeve, thank you very much. Go Leafs!"

"Deplorable," Raphael muttered. He took up his jilted luggage and followed.

Aziraphale answered the door with the distant, glassy-eyed look of a creature that had spent the better part of a week not indulging its human body's recently acquired taste for sleep in favor of such pursuits as forty-hour reading binges (and indulging its human body's not-so-recently acquired taste for fits of acute, dithering worry).

"Oh, sweetie," said Uriel, falling on him with one of her impressive, uninvited full-body hugs, "why didn't you say something happened? I wouldn't have called staying with Pippa for a few days any cause for alarm, because I know what a rough patch she's been in since Harold died and how fond of her Crowley's grown, but—"

"I wish this were a warm-fuzzy social call," Raphael said, edging up behind her, "but it's not. There's some serious trouble afoot, and we wanted to compare notes."

"Come in," said Aziraphale, disentangling himself from Uriel. "I'll put on the kettle."

Raphael wrestled his boots off and then stood to take in his surroundings, neglecting to take off his coat. The cottage was ten degrees colder than it should have been, and a fine layer of dust had settled on the mantelpiece, which was, disturbingly, empty of any and all usual contents except for three picture frames. The shot farthest to the left, he didn't recognize, mostly due to lack of context; it showed a half-smiling Crowley, safe behind his sunglasses, leaning casually against a nondescript bridge railing. The second photograph was a somewhat blurred shot taken at a distance, but unmistakable in its origins (somebody, probably one of the Device-Pulsifer twins, had got a photo of Aziraphale and Crowley dancing to Unchained Melody at their sister's wedding). The third image was also familiar and far more recent: Crowley standing on a bridge in front of Kyoto autumn leaves, sunglasses off, permitting that smile, the one he just couldn't help but hardly ever showed, to be captured for posterity.

Uriel stepped up quietly beside him, reaching to touch the frame. Behind them in the kitchen, clinking noises indicated that preparations on tea were underway. "He took it all," she whispered. "Not so much as a shell or a coin left behind."

"The question," replied Raphael, under his breath, "is what Az can possibly have done to make him think running off for an indeterminate period of time was a good idea."

"Your manners leave something to be desired," Aziraphale said, rattling in with the tea tray. "I would explain why he's gone up the road to sulk, but I fear—"

"Then do," said Raphael, curtly, turning to face him. "No buts, please."

Aziraphale set the tray down on the coffee table and indicated that they should take seats on Crowley's beloved sofa and help themselves. Raphael prepared his cup of Earl Grey in silence, glancing every now and again to Aziraphale. He sat to Raphael's right in the tartan armchair, eyes fixed on the floor, perhaps choosing his words carefully. "Uriel, my dear, you must know about the child," he sighed. "You would be the first."

"I do," she said, adding a spoonful of sugar to her cup. "Gabriel's doing."

Aziraphale took a shaky breath, nodded, and continued, "And has the nature of this soul, its state, its...whereabouts...changed at all since it entered your awareness?"

"No," she said, puzzled, giving Aziraphale a sharp look. "Why?"

Raphael watched Aziraphale's eyes lose a fraction of their dull, glazed resignation.

"Interesting," murmured the Principality. "Very much so. Thank you for your forthrightness. I suppose now is as good a time as any to explain..."

And he did. In painful, dispassionate detail, he told them what Crowley had done.

Raphael stared into his mug and swilled it, contents cooling before he'd had a taste.

Something's not right, sent Uriel, urgently. The boy's still here, still waiting, still bound to Sophia as strongly as ever. I don't sense the termination, don't sense any physical loss. Is someone broadcasting interference? Are we being watched?

You must remember she's a witch, Raphael sent back. And descended from the only one who was ever clever enough to give us and Hell alike the slip. He turned to Aziraphale and sighed, sipping the lukewarm tea. "First of all, I'm pleased you didn't kick him out. You're correct insofar as leaving the house was on his own initiative, but, second of all, do you even realize the depth of your fuck-up?"

Aziraphale stiffened and said, "Look, what I'm afraid of ought to be obvious. I know full well Crowley wouldn't hurt a flea even if one had him at sword-point, so his last minute bail-out was an admirable attempt at redeeming the situation, but what if it's really true that he just can't help what he is because of the decision he made—"

Raphael set down his teacup and stood, looming his full six feet and two inches. Not a card he pulled terribly often, and not usually with other angels, but the effect was cruelly satisfying. Aziraphale leaned back in the armchair and blinked.

"That's goddamned nonsense, Az, and you know it. He didn't choose what happened; it was thrust on him just as much as the rest of this cock-and-bull Ineffable Plan nonsense was thrust on us. We may not have chosen our initial roles as fully as we could have been permitted, but we've all done the best we can with a stacked hand, wouldn't you agree? No, no, I simply won't let you interrupt, so just shut your cake-hole and fucking listen. And before you call me a hypocrite, I'll do it for you: I distrusted your boy and doubted him up to a point, and, yes, not nice of me to have kept on teasing him for so long afterward. I've been working on that. Our little run-in with Michael last spring was a bit of a wake-up call; there's an example of an angel who's frankly more rotten at his core than most demons I've met, and maybe even most humans. Trufax, as they're now saying on the worldwide web—oh, nice use of our camera and desk-chair, by the by. Know about it? Of course I do, darling, don't look at me like that. But anyway, getting back on track: I'm as guilty in the past of making assumptions based on so-called nature according to typology, when in fact it's all down to basic nature of the soul. Michael's soul? Rotten. Gabriel's soul? Possibly even more rotten, as we're no doubt going to discover before all of this is said and done. Crowley's soul? Good as gold, and look at what you've gone and done to him."

Uriel made a tight, discomfited sound, eyes casting wildly about the room. She rose and went to the window, twisting her head from side to side, and then suddenly her back was to the window, her bow was drawn, and her eyes were fixed on the ceiling.

"What is it?" asked Aziraphale, on his feet a split-second later.

"Somebody's here," she said. "Very well cloaked, which says to me they're one of ours, or at least somebody trained by one of ours. We are being watched."

"It can't be Michael or Gabriel," Aziraphale said. "Adam bound them."

"Like he bound us while he was at it," Raphael muttered. He found his pollaxe easily, pulled it from thin air, and then looked questioningly at Aziraphale.

The Principality shook his head with an air of grave sadness. "Last time I called, it didn't come," he said. "Wherever it's gone, again, the sword is lost. You saw what happened with the scythe. My best guess is that I've been sentenced hereafter to make do with whatever's lying about."

The Archangels closed in on either side of him, weapons raised, and waited.

Twenty minutes later, the three of them still stood motionless and waiting.

"Nothing's coming," Uriel sighed, lowering her bow. "At least not now. It's gone."

Raphael frowned and spun the pollaxe like a baton; whistling, it vanished.

"We'll want to be on our guard, and we'll want to keep an eye on the Shambles, too."

Aziraphale had gone to the mantelpiece, resting his forearms heavily upon it.

"I'll go," Uriel said, stepping to place a hand on Aziraphale's shoulder. "I'll stand watch, just like in the old days. They'll hopefully never know I'm there, and maybe I'll be able to find out if this thing that's watching us has also got them in its sights."

"Thank you, dear girl," was all that Aziraphale said in solemn reply.

Raphael placed their mugs on the tea tray, hefted it to his hip, and left the room. Dishes were his least favorite chore, but, right now, he didn't know what else to do. He was elbow deep in unpleasant green-tinged Fairy suds before he noticed the sleek, well-fed field mouse that was perched on the windowsill and watching him intently.

"We're awful creatures, all of us two-leggers," he told it. "Don't get involved."

The mouse twitched its nose scuttled off: across the counter, down to the floor, and vanished beneath the gnawed-up bit of wainscot next to the firmly shut front door.




* * *





Invisible within his human skin, Asmodai spread his nebulous fingers—wondrous, how even this shell responded to transformation with scarcely a thought—and watched. He'd scuttled lithely from the cottage rafters to the biting cold outside (he hardly felt it, although his new body seemed determined to make sure he'd at least noticed) and was now peering in through the kitchen window, rewarded with an eyeful of surly, worried-looking Archangel performing a task so menial as washing up.

Raphael was an interesting one; he'd taken a body considered controversially variant by human standards, but had molded to his utmost advantage. In a nutshell, its metaphysical coding said this: one drop of blood in a human DNA test would show him for an intersex chimera, 46XX/46XY. Infamous for effortless fluidity, this one had always insisted on he for a pronoun even so. As Asmodai would do between himself and other eternals, but while interacting with humans as Sarah, she would have to suffice. Secretly, he'd always wanted to try his hand at being a master of disguise.

A sound from behind interrupted his reverie, sending a chill down his spine.

"What's a pretty thing like you doing out by your lonesome?" asked the voice.

Asmodai spun around and bowed low, palms pressed to the frozen ground.

"As you commanded me, Your Grace," he said. "As Gabriel did, if you'd rather."

Hastur took Asmodai by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet, looking him critically up and down. He paced a slow circle around Asmodai, running the hem of the purple wool coat between his fingertips and idly adjusting the patterned silk Hermès scarf knotted at Asmodai's throat. Touched Asmodai's hair, tracing the neat, coarse braids up to where they were knotted together at the crown of his head in graceful coils.

"Not all of us were cursed with fashion sense. Seems you've got it in spades."

Asmodai smiled thinly. "Does it please you, Your Grace? Would it?"

Hastur's unpleasant features softened for the briefest of moments, but a scowl swiftly replaced the befuddled flash of lust. "Up There's rubbed off on you," he sniffed, wiping his nose on the wrist of his grubby overcoat. "Twenty-four years you've been undercover, mate. How can you stand it? Gabriel's the worst."

"Revenge is patient," Asmodai said sweetly. "A virtue, even, dare I say it?"

Sighing heavily, Hastur nodded. "Yes, I told you to take your time about it. No mistakes, I said, and bless me if you haven't gone and delivered. Did you bring 'em?"

Asmodai fished in the innermost pocket of his coat, drawing out a packet. "Incinerated on crossing Heaven's outermost boundary," he said, laying the packet in Hastur's outstretched hand. "But perhaps ashes are better suited to your purposes."

"The ones from each of 'em you forged into the trace needle," he said. "Still whole?"

"The only whole feather in its construction belongs to the Principality, if you want to get technical, whereas it's single filaments from the other three worked straight into the needle. Your Grace, I've tried to keep my explanations simple. I know that complex machinery isn't your strong suit. It's not, ah, everyone's," Asmodai added.

"D'you know," said Hastur, thoughtfully, pocketing the packet of feather-ashes, "that you're the only one who bothers callin' me that these days?"

"You are my Duke," said Asmodai, this time favoring a curtsey. "I will obey."

"Nobody Up There suspects your defection was insincere?" Hastur asked.

"Not a soul," replied Asmodai, grinning, white teeth bared. "None I know of."

"Dagon didn't suspect, either, to your credit," Hastur said with satisfaction.

"What's he up to these days? I miss him," Asmodai admitted. "The old task-master."

"Gone soft as an angel's arse," Hastur muttered. "Anything else you got for me?"

"Just a question," Asmodai said. "Discord has been achieved. Further orders?"

Hastur smiled his slow, terrible sharp-toothed smile and vanished.

I'LL WORK THE CHARM TO WEAKEN THEM, he said in Asmodai's head. DESTROY CRAWLY AND SCAR THE REST. STRIKE WHEN AND WHERE IT WILL HURT MOST.

"Yes, Your Grace," said Asmodai, and decided a stroll on the beach was in order.




* * *





"Royal Flush, read 'em and weep," said Mandy, laying her cards flat on the table. She scooped up the pot with satisfaction. It consisted mostly of pound coins and fivers, but she'd take anything she could get these days. She missed getting regular tips.

Adam whistled and dropped his cards on the untidy remnants of the deck.

"You've got the devil's luck," he said. "That's a nice haul. One more hand?"

"I have no more pocket change," said Iván, glumly. "Fortunately, I'm with her."

"Maybe in a little while," said Sophia. She'd sat quiet and pale across the table from Mandy, and it was more than she'd said in one breath all evening. "Excuse me," she added, and got to her feet. There was something trance-like about her progress toward the loo, as if she didn't know the way. For crying out loud, it was her own flat.

Adam frowned apologetically at Mandy and Iván by turns. "Sorry about that," he said. "She hasn't been feeling well. I told her we could put off tonight if she was still under the weather, but she insisted you guys come."

Mandy averted her gaze and got up, stretching with a feigned yawn.

"I need a break, too," she said. "I'll go check on her while I'm at it."

Iván shot her a questioning look, but she ignored it and went straight for the bathroom door. Light filtered out from under it, and she could hear Sophia breathing.

"Let me in," said Mandy, knocking softly. "Please, Soph. If you can."

The door swung inward, and, caught off-guard, she stumbled inside.

"I insisted on tonight because I wanted to see you," Sophia said, taking Mandy's hands once she'd closed the door. "I didn't thank you properly for coming to get me."

"You weren't in any state to be thinking about things like that," Mandy insisted. "And even then, you don't have to. It's what any decent friend would have done."

"Don't be so angry with him," Sophia pleaded. "Leave that to me. I'm almost over it, even. If you knew what I know about his past, I don't think you'd blame him."

"You were cursing him every which way when I found you. What's changed?"

"My head's cleared," said Sophia, sadly. "A little. I'm still not sure..."

"You shouldn't keep it if you don't want to keep it," said Mandy, desperately, both hands on Sophia's shoulders. "What with all the stress you've been under, I'd say pregnancy poses a risk to your well-being. Are you still getting morning sickness?"

"No," Sophia said. "Listen, I've been trying to tell you, I don't know—"

"And I don't care about where Crowley's been," Mandy insisted, sitting down on the edge of the bathtub. "All I know is that he did an incredibly shitty thing, leaving you out there like that, and he'd better apologize the next time he sees you."

Sophia sat down beside her, and it was then Mandy realized just how much weight she'd lost over the nine months since she'd got married. Adam had filled out a little. "If I know anything about Crowley, it's this: he'd never hurt anyone if he could help it. He makes a hobby of annoying people if he feels it's justified, but he's so subtle about it. Sometimes he'll even use that to get a message across. But hurt people intentionally? That's a rare thing, because he'd hurt himself in the process."

"Pippa tells me he's been camped out in her spare bedroom for five days."

"What? Really? Oh, God, I didn't think he'd be foolish enough to tell..."

Mandy stared at the floor and dug the toe of her ballet flat between the tiles. "He didn't. Not voluntarily, anyway. I drove over there right after dropping you off and gave Crowley a piece of my mind, just assuming Aziraphale would've been in on it or possibly even hoping he'd still be at the theatre, and it...didn't go so well."

Sophia groaned and covered her face, mumbling a string of curses. It was eerie.

"Are you being straight with me when you claim you and Crowley aren't related?" Mandy asked. "You guys seem like the most dysfunctional cousins I ever saw."

"If I could tell you why my family knows him," said Sophia, plaintively, "I would."

Mandy tilted her head and peered into Sophia's eyes, resisting the urge to cry.

"Will you please tell me what's going on here? Not now, but sometime?"

"I can't promise that," Sophia said. "But there's something else I need to tell you."

Biting her lower lip, Mandy closed her eyes until the sting of tears subsided.

"Okay," she said. "Shoot. I've only cut you off like three times anyway."




* * *





"What do you think of this one, then?" Crowley asked, holding out the piece of eight.

Robert took the ancient, sea-polished coin reverently between thumb and forefinger and set it in the palm of his left hand. He cupped his right hand and flipped the silver disc over into it, his dark eyes wide with admiration.

"It's luminous," he said. "I learned that word today. It means very shiny."

"That it is," Crowley agreed, astonished to find that he'd cracked a smile for the first time in six days. "Maybe when you're old enough you can borrow it for show and tell."

"We only have show and tell for one more year," said Rob, concerned.

"Then you can take it to school next year," Crowley promised. "But not before."

"Cor!" said the boy, breaking into a wide grin. He looked like his mother.

"I've got to put it back now," Crowley said, carefully taking back the coin.

"Where's Gran gone?" Rob asked. "Has she seen it? We should let her."

"Just to check on the ducks," Crowley said. "And yes, she's seen it loads of times."

"Ducks?" said Rob. This was news to him, as Nicola had only just dropped him off.

"Yep," Crowley said. "Out in the sunroom. Would you like to meet them?"

"Are you mental?" Rob asked, hopping excitedly up and down. "Yeah!"

The sunroom floor was strewn with towels: most of them were Pippa's ratty old ones, but some of them purchased just for the occasion. Crowley nudged the boy forward to where his grandmother sat cross-legged in the midst of the heat-lamp warmed chaos.

Pippa had Tamar and Judith asleep in her lap, and she was doling out meal-worms and diced mango to the other four ducks as they milled about her and squabbled with one another over who got to paddle in the roasting pan full of water.

"Six," Rob blurted. "That's more than there are by my school. Do they bite?"

"Jemima does," Crowley said, pointing. "She's the one with the white patch under her chin, see? That's Jude and Tamar in your Gran's lap, and the two trying to get in the water are Ruth and Lilith. The one who's taken her mango under the chair is Eve."

"Then I shan't touch Jemima," Rob said, hesitantly approaching Pippa. "Is she called that because of Beatrix Potter? My teacher read us those books."

"Sharp lad," Pippa said, giving Rob a handful of mango. "Go give that to Lilith."

The boy hesitated, looking at Crowley. "All the rest are Bible names," he said.

"That's right," Crowley said. "How did you know?" Rob's parents weren't religious.

"Pap Garmon tells me stories from his church," Rob said, and went to find Lilith.

"That's Trevor's father," Pippa explained to Crowley. "You met him at the hospital."

"He'll have a thorough education when all's said and done," Crowley mused, and sat down beside Pippa. He scanned the space and frowned away as many messes as he could find while Rob was busy explaining to Lilith that she mustn't eat too quickly.

"It was kind of you to show him your treasures," Pippa said. "I know it must hurt."

Crowley shrugged and let Eve clamber into his lap. She plucked at his worn t-shirt and butted her feathery head up under his chin. Crowley gave her a meal-worm. "Uriel found some of them," he said. "And I found most of the rest."

"You wear grief so ill," Pippa told him. "Why don't you go back and talk to him?"

"Because I want him to realize what he's like sometimes. How much harm he's done."

"He must be hurting just as much as you are," Pippa said, "and just can't show it."

"Oh, sure," said Crowley, rubbing Eve's breast-feathers till she settled down drowsily. "Stand up for him this time, what when you're usually so keen on scolding him."

"Listen, young man," Pippa said, stroking Tamar's back as she started to squeak about Jude's leg poking her wing. "I'll live to see you two married if it's the last thing I do."

Crowley sighed and watched Rob instructing Lilith and Ruth in diving for bits of mango submerged at the bottom of the roasting pan. Neither duck looked impressed. "I'll give him a few more days, much good may it do us both," he finally said.

"That's wise," Pippa said. "Make sure you've got your heads on straight. You've got far more years ahead of you yet than Harold and I had even as a matter of course." Shaken, Crowley let his eyes dart back to her. If she didn't know, she was close.

"What makes you say that?" he asked, smoothing down Eve's unkempt wing-feathers.

"You're young yet," replied Pippa, and winked at him. "Just wait and see."




* * *





Watching the perplexing scene unfold before him, Ligur was certain of only two things: one, that Crowley had baffling taste in human associates, and two, that those ducks would prove very tasty if roasted (thanks to the careful hand-rearing and choice diet).

He turned away at length and sat down in the frost-rimed grass, heedless of the sand that stuck to his trousers and relishing the freezing sensation of the sunroom's glass-panel window at his back. What should he tell Dagon? That he'd come directly to the first place he'd sensed Crowley's presence and found him bunking down with a sweet old lady and her sickeningly precious grandson? There had been no sign of the dangerous one with a funny name, and for that, at least, Ligur was almost grateful.

A sudden fluttering and scratching from above jarred him out of his reverie.

"You ain't one of them ducks," Ligur told the red-eyed white dove that landed unceremoniously on the ground in front of him. "That's for sure. Yer name?"

The dove shook itself and transformed: a pretty demoness sat glaring at him.

"I'm Tanith," she said, brushing off her sleeves. "Er, that is—Your Grace."

Ligur shrugged and said, "Nobody calls me that no more. S'just Ligur."

Tanith's wary expression softened, and she held out her stark, pale hand.

"Then it's a pleasure to properly meet you. I mean, unless it's not, in which case..."

Ligur shook her hand and dropped it. She was hot to the touch, fresh from fire.

"Wot you doin' up here, anyway? Did the old man send you to keep tabs?"

"Yes," Tanith said, tucking her chin-length black hair behind her ear. "Well—yes and no. There's an old friend of mine mixed up in all of this business, so I couldn't refuse."

"It ain't Crawly, is it? He weren't friends with nobody back in the day. Never really—hum, wot d'you call it, fit in, as them human buggers say. But he was good at arguin' with the higher-ups. Had a way of seein' inside the hypocrisy of things."

"No," said Tanith, softly, rising to move toward the glass structure on which she'd attempted to land only moments before. She pressed her palms flat against the window and peered inside, steam rising from beneath her fingertips. "It's not him."

"Well, that's him in there, or at least it was last I checked," said Ligur, joining her for a second look. "Dunt know about the lady and the kid. Or them ducks. You looked up lots of stuff and knew that girl in the scry. Who're these ones? Are they important?"

"Phillippa Morrison, known as Pippa. And the boy is called Robert Garmon."

Her breath frosted the glass as she spoke; she wrote something with her fingertip.

"And your friend wot's mixed up in this," ventured Ligur, awkwardly, "is it one of them? One of the humans? Aside from Crawly and the one that's not human, Az-somethin', Dagon didn't mention nobody else tangled up in this business."

"Aziraphale," said Tanith, her eyes never once leaving Crawly as he shooed the ducks and pulled the boy out of the pan full of water and helped the old lady to her feet.

"That one," said Ligur, nodding. "D'you know why he's dangerous? Dagon didn't say."

Tanith turned to look at him somewhat incredulously, cocking her head to one side.

"Do you mean to tell me you didn't read the file I prepared on this assignment?"

"Yeah," Ligur replied. "So maybe you'd better tell me why he's dangerous."

"He's dangerous for the same reason that my old friend is dangerous," Tanith said.

"And why's that?" Ligur asked. "For a smart'un, you speak in circles and nonsense."

"Because they're angels," replied Tanith. "An Archangel and a Principality, in fact."

Ligur let this information sink in, and, a full minute later, decided he didn't like it.




* * *





Aziraphale huffed, lowering his broom. The chase had ended in a stand-off. "How many more holes have you gnawed in my walls?" he demanded. "Give me one good reason why I ought not to nip right down to Tesco and pick up some rat poison."

The mouse just sat on its hind legs and stared back at him, breathing fast.

"Oh, don't you play that card," Aziraphale said. "What would Crowley say indeed!"

The mouse dropped down on all fours, creeping forward to sniff at the broom.

"Yes, I don't doubt you smell what's left of crumbs from yesterday's scones."

Scuttling halfway up the broom's bristles, the mouse stuck its nose in and munched.

Aziraphale sighed and propped the broom against the wall, crouching to watch.

"Go on, gorge yourself," he said. "Perhaps you'll fall and save me the trouble."

The mouse stopped foraging and climbed up a bit further, until he was at nose-level with Aziraphale. He snuffled the air as close to Aziraphale's face as he could manage.

"My, you're a brave one," said Aziraphale, transfixed. "You always have been."

The mouse tilted its head and stuck out its tiny pink tongue, perhaps a yawn.

"Very clever," Aziraphale told it. "There's no doubt where you learned sarcasm."

Raising one tiny, well-groomed paw to its mouth, the mouse preened itself.

"Pride is a sin, you know. You're no different from the rest of God's creatures."

The mouse snuffled at him, contrarily twitching its fine silver-white whiskers.

"You've grown old," said Aziraphale, in awe. "Is it us? Have we kept you?"

The rodent scuttled back down, from handle to bristles to floor, and sat blinking.

"I don't know what to do," Aziraphale whispered. "I simply don't. Do you?"

The mouse considered this for a moment, and then scampered down the hall.

Raphael wandered out of the study and stood blinking at Aziraphale, his eyes darting sidelong in the direction the mouse had gone. He had a mug in one hand and a notepad in the other, his eyes glinting with something like restrained laughter.

"He's a cheeky fellow, that one," Raphael said at length. "Met him yesterday."

"Crowley's spoiled the little wretch rotten, I'm afraid," Aziraphale said.

"From the look of things," Raphael replied, walking on past, "so have you."

Aziraphale rose and followed, ready to protest, snatching the broom as he went.




* * *





"Now my charms are all o'erthrown, and what strength I have’s mine own—which is most faint. Now, ’tis true: I must be here confined by you, or sent to Naples—"

"Stop," said Rani, frazzled, running her fingers through her hair. "I said, STOP!"

"But we've only just begun?" protested Aziraphale, eternally polite and tentative.

"Where's your brain right now, exactly? And, no, can't be in your trousers, because I've seen neither hide, nor hair of your Anthony in over a week. Trouble at home?"

Aziraphale flustered and turned faintly pink, indignantly lowering his script.

"Let me not, since I have my dukedom got and pardon'd the deceiver, dwell," he continued stubbornly, speaking swiftly so as not to be cut off, "in this bare island by your spell—but release me from my bands, with the help—"

"You need more of it than I can give you," said Rani, tartly, and made a few notes. Scattered. Not enough depth of feeling, or maybe the wrong tone. Falls flat. "I don't believe you've pardoned anybody, not for a second. Who's the deceiver?"

"—of your good hands," Aziraphale forged on, and then inhaled, closing his eyes. "Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to...to please. Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant, and my ending is despair—"

"Why?" Rani asked, finding herself more affected than she ought to have been.

"—unless I be relieved by prayer, which pierces so that it assaults mercy itself," said Aziraphale, too quietly, but in the right emotional register, "and frees all faults."

"Come down," Rani said, grateful they were alone in the theatre, "and tell me what happened, because then I've got something to tell you, and we'll both need a drink."

Aziraphale plunked himself down in the seat beside her and stuffed his script back into the canvas London Review of Books tote-bag he'd taken to carrying to rehearsal. Out of it, as if in answer to Rani's prayer, he drew a screw-top bottle of nondescript 2012 Beaujolais that had probably been languishing in the bargain bin at Tesco.

"To make a long story short," he said, twisting off the cap, "Crowley and I had a rather impressive row, and he's been hiding out at Pippa's ever since."

"Good place to hide," said Rani, accepting the bottle, and took a long swig. "I'd go to someone like her if someone like you had put me in the doghouse, no question."

"I didn't kick him out," said Aziraphale, testily, and snatched the bottle back. He drank down almost a quarter of it, which Rani might have found shocking if they hadn't already gone for post-rehearsal drinks several times. "He left of his own accord."

"People never do that unless they're hurt. Or fear causing further harm."

"Oh, he's hurt. Indubitably, dear girl. And it's partly, if not mostly, my doing."

On her next turn with the bottle, Rani drank down the equivalent of a glass.

"Then you'd best go fetch him, lad, and kiss and make up and all that, because I've got some grim news. Gregory can only perform Ariel the first weekend of the run."

Aziraphale almost dropped the bottle when she handed it back, blinking stupidly.

"Crowley's our only understudy."

"Yes."

"Not fond of the idea to begin with."

"Mhmmm."

"And I've got to break the news to him," Aziraphale sighed.

"You bet your arse you do," Rani said, patting his shoulder.

They sat drinking in relative silence from there on out, and they even managed to put a decent dent in Aziraphale's miraculously produced second bottle before Letitia caught them at it, made an almighty fuss, and told them to find greener pastures.

Chapter Text

The bottle of obscure human intoxicant had appeared in Michael's quarters on the same day that a box of incense had turned up on Gabriel's desk. Aziraphale's brief note had been somewhat cryptic: Enjoy in moderation. Fuck that. The poor sod was a Principality, the old joke went, because he didn't know the meaning of the word.

The bottle completely lacked Roman characters, and the symbols creeping across the label bore no resemblance to anything celestial or infernal. The only certainties were that it was a) far too small for something masquerading as wine, and b) went down about as smoothly as Samael's early earthbound experiments in bath-basin hooch.

Michael drank it in four skeptical gulps, sat coughing until the burning in his throat subsided, and blinked with keen interest as the room began to swim pleasantly. Speaking of Gabriel, he thought, I ought to pay old bossy-robes a visit.

The way to Gabriel's office was longer and far more winding than Michael remembered it being the last time he'd gone (and that particular meeting had been a disaster and a half, no small thanks to the botched interdimensional travel attempts). He found the door inexplicably closed, so he hammered on it with both fists until it swung open.

"Enter," Gabriel said from his habitual post at the desk. "Oh. It's you."

"What the hell's so compelling that you sit staring at that goddamned needle all day?" Michael demanded, wobbling his way to the chair opposite Gabriel. Operations should really see to those floor tiles. "Give it up. They're on Earth, we're up here, and there's not a fucking thing you can do about it. Isandriel and Galdor keep asking if you'll join us for dice, but I have to keep making your God-awful vague apologies."

"Language," sighed Gabriel, but his tone was one of resignation. He leaned forward and sniffed the aether an inch from Michael's nose. "And whatever you've just drunk is, by my nose and by human reckoning, approximately forty percent alcohol."

"Huh," Michael said, momentarily impressed with Azirphale's judgement.

Gabriel sat back in his seat and folded his hands on top of some parchments.

"What do you want?" he asked. "If this is a social call, it'll have to wait."

Michael shrugged and regarded the needle, momentarily fascinated by the glowing filaments. The unusual spiked pattern in the yellow one had begun to subside, but it glowed with a steady, subdued halo, as did the blue and the red. Aziraphale's feather had nothing of the luminescent whiteness that he'd seen on it once before; it glimmered with a dull, curious silver-grey phosphor even in the brightly lit office.

"Complicated weird-ass gadget," he said, unhooking the needle, testing its protruding point against his left index finger. "So it tells you what—no, wait, let me guess, all four of 'em are in the same place at the same time, and the ashy glow and the spiky thing mean dither-wings and the serpent are having a lovers' spat. Am I right?"

"Bizarrely, yes," Gabriel conceded. "You must have been paying attention last time."

Michael grinned at him. "I have brains, too, you know," he insisted. "I do."

Gabriel, who had been watching the needle with renewed interest, abruptly frowned.

"Put it back," he said. "Your fingers are in the way, and it's shifting—"

"Ow!" Michael shouted, and dropped it on the floor. "It's gone hot."

"Pick it up," said Gabriel, in his This Is An Order tone, "and put it back."

Michael did as he was told, but the endeavor left him sucking desultorily on his fingers while Gabriel leaned forward and watched, with something like confusion or horror (Or maybe it's both, Michael thought drunkenly), as a viscous, tarry black ichor began to ooze from the eye of the needle and flow inexorably downward.

"Not possible," Gabriel whispered. He rose and backed away from the desk, and then, as if only just remembering himself, hauled Michael out of the chair and said, "Run!"

They did, and, once clear of Gabriel's office, the corridor seemed to spin around them. Something flared blinding green, a flash-bulb reaction, and then exploded in a deafening wave of glittering silver and electrum shards from Gabriel's office doorway.

"Shit," Gabriel said, steadying both of them against the wall.

"Got that right," muttered Michael, and promptly passed out.




* * *





Leaning patiently over the scry on Dagon's desk, Hastur admired his handiwork.

Breaking into the old bureaucrat's office had been the easy part, of course. Why Lord of the Files, Master of Madness, and Under-Duke of the Seventh Torment outranked the likes of him and Ligur was, frankly, mystifying. In the Beginning, when the titles had got handed out, somebody had valued the managerial class a bit too highly.

But it wasn't Hastur's place—or anyone's, really—to question the Morningstar.

He flicked the last bit of ash from beneath his thumbnail at the bottom-most point of the glowing pentagram he'd drawn in the surface of the scry. It fizzled exquisitely, strobed white-red-blue-gold, and a jet of greenish flame knocked him backwards.

Which was how Dagon found him several seconds later as the smoke cleared, on his arse in the middle of the office floor and covered in fragments of goat-leather chair. "Hello, lad," said Dagon, pleasantly. "Indulging in a spot of pyromancy, are we?"

Hastur rose and dusted off his overcoat, took his best stab at looking dignified.

"All in the line of duty, sir," he said. "Would you like to have a look?"

Dagon stood over the scry, as if attempting to work out what charm had been deployed, and then turned to regard Hastur with a disturbingly neutral expression. "I've sent two into the line of danger, and it would appear you've also sent one."

"Years ago," Hastur said. "What's done is done. Asmodai knew the risks involved."

"You're a horse's ass and a fool," said Dagon. "He'll be facing down two Archangels, a Principality, and a rogue ex-employee. And, what's worse, I don't know whose side Ligur and Tanith will take. If they'll take any side in this odd affair at all."

"Ligur?" echoed Hastur, stupidly. "He's up there? You bastard! What for?"

Dagon sighed heavily and sat down at his desk, brushing away the ashy remnants.

"I wanted to know how Crawly was getting on. Selfish curiosity, pure and simple."

Hastur considered this for a few seconds. Nothing wrong with indulging selfishness.

"How is Crawly getting on?" he asked, before he realized what he was saying.

"You sent Asmodai Topside as a mole to destroy him," Dagon said, "and you mean to tell me you don't even know how our erstwhile serpent has been occupying himself?"

"Once a snake, always a snake," Hastur shot back. "Take it from me. I know."

"Your unwillingness to let go of certain likely-hallucinated events puzzles me."

Never mind that the climate in Dagon's office was consistently a few thousand degrees above sweltering; Hastur felt whatever he had instead of blood and sweat run cold. "You sent him up there without fair warning, I'd wager. Does he know?"

"Does he know how dangerous the shamed Principality remains? Yes."

Hastur cast about the office for something to ram through Dagon's windpipe, but there was nothing of any use. He could have used one of the candelabrum as a club, but that wouldn't have been as satisfying as skewering the old fool with something pointy.

"You'd best get up there if you'd like to look out for him, lad," Dagon said.

"What makes you say that?" asked Hastur, uncertainly. "Where are you taking this?"

"Go," said Dagon, waving his hand in disgust. "You have leave. Now, get out."

"Yessir," Hastur muttered, jamming his hands deep in his pockets, and left.




* * *





Uriel had all but fallen asleep in the bay-window nook when someone knocked on the door. She yawned and stretched, double-checking her invisibility ward. She'd always been good at cloaking, but a sleep-hazed human body often meant lowered defenses.

Crowley, passing by with a mug of something hot in hand, spectacularly dropped it. "What are you doing here?" he hissed, hastily retrieving the mug and waving the mess away. "How am I supposed to explain your presence when Pippa gets back, eh?"

"Wrong inflection," she told him, rising to stretch. "It's eh. Come live in Canada for a while, and we'll show you how it's done. Okay, listen: sorry to cut greetings short, but we've got a problem. I'm not invisible anymore, and I can't seem to restore the ward. Do you know anything about counter-charms and stupid shit like that?"

Crowley was frowning at her as if he knew exactly what counter-charm or unspecified stupid shit might be the cause of their present conundrum. He sighed gloomily. "Hastur's good with that sort of thing. Aside from setting things on fire."

"But in order to mess with our metaphysical cores, he'd have to have got his hands on..." Uriel felt her stomach sink. "Oh," she said, running both hands through her unkempt hair and then back as if to touch her wings. "Oh. Fuck fuck fuck shit—"

"Sorry," Crowley said, indicating she should follow him to Pippa's kitchen. "You've lost me. In order to mess with our metaphysical cores, he'd have to have got what?"

"I just figured something out," she said, "and the implications aren't pretty. Gabriel's had this...oh, I'd like to say butt-boy, but in reality Asmodai's really just his PA—"

"Asmodai? Gosh. Not that we were close, but I haven't seen him since—"

"Don't interrupt; this will make a bit more sense in a minute. Back when...back when you and Aziraphale helped the Antichrist and all those humans shut down the Apocalypse, there was...a lot of shouting. Lots of trying to figure out who was to blame for what, a lot of questioning, and, above all, a lot of doubt. The Metatron and Beelzebub had a series of talks, and one of several pointless results was that both sides issued an amnesty for any parties on the opposing side who might want either to defect or to come back. A reshuffling of sorts. Allegiances reconsidered, reset button hit. I'm not sure what they thought would come of it, but a very small number from each side crossed over to the other. Asmodai came back. I'm sure the fact that Daddy Dearest was on our side helped, or I think that's what we were meant to believe."

Crowley was so flummoxed he'd quite forgot his objective was refilling the kettle.

"So some demons went back to Heaven, and some angels went to Hell. Your point?"

"I think Asmodai went as a spy, but as to who sent him, I have no clue."

Crowley dropped the kettle in the sink and leaned weakly on the counter's edge. "This is where I pick up the narrative," he said. "I can tell you who it was. Three guesses, and the first two don't count. Raphael crossed him once. Bad blood there."

"Something tells me the perp has already cropped up in this conversation."

"If Hastur has even the faintest memory of what I did to Ligur, then that's justification enough," Crowley said. "That and he'd just like to see me suffer."

Uriel nudged Crowley aside—he was shaking, useless, no sense in letting him continue under the illusion he had the focus required for making tea—and fished the kettle out of the sink. She dried it with a dish towel, refilled it, and set it back in its cradle. The switch flipped beneath her thumb's pressure with a neat, satisfying click. "This is nasty shit," she said. "You guys have got to stop this and help us figure out what Gabriel and Hastur have got planned for Asmodai—independently of each other, Jesus fuck—and also figure out if the two-timing creep has got any plans of his own."

"Gabriel will have issued him a body," Crowley said. "I haven't seen any strangers."

"Body or no body, he'll have kept himself on the DL," Uriel said, fetching two fresh mugs from the dish rack. "I'm sure Gabriel has sent him to spy on Aziraphale—" she tactfully omitted the part about Gabriel and Asmodai seeing to it that Sophia had got pregnant in order to produce a vessel to hold some boy-child destined for unspecified glory; Crowley was probably still sore about the situation as it was "—whereas Hastur's two-decade-and-change plan is, as you say, focused on taking you out."

"To the bloody cleaners," murmured Crowley, distantly, and then shuddered.

Uriel snapped her fingers in front of him. "No time for freaking out. Focus."

Just then, with perfect comic timing, somebody knocked on the door.

"Crowley, dear," Pippa called from outside. "You'll never guess who I found on my way home from Tesco! Don't be contrary, now," she said. "Open the door."

Crowley rolled his eyes and made a curt gesture; the door promptly obeyed.

"Mustn't have been locked after all," Pippa was saying to Aziraphale as she ushered him in the door, "I'm so forgetful these days, you see, and I'm sure your young man's got no use for locks at home when you're about to keep a watchful eye..."

She stared at Uriel for a few moments, the unexpected presence not registering.

"I'd neglected to mention she and Rafe are in town," Aziraphale said hastily. "Staying with me, in fact, and of course they wanted to know where Crowley was, so I—"

Uriel gave Pippa a sheepish little wave. "Hi there," she said. "Long time no see!"

Much to Uriel's relief, Pippa's confusion dissolved into a fit of delighted laughter.

"Come here, you," she said, and promptly squashed the breath out of Uriel.

"Always the last to know," Crowley said pointedly to Aziraphale. "As usual."

"My dear, you left before I could say anything. And now here we are."

Uriel disentangled herself from Pippa's shopping bags and stepped in.

"You guys are stupid," she told them, "and Aziraphale wants you to come home."

Pippa set her bags down and straightened up, hands on hips. "Is that so?"

Aziraphale gave a rueful sigh. "I never asked him to go. I needed to think."

"You've had well over a week," Crowley told him, arms folded. "Any conclusions?"

"Not any I should like to air for public consumption, but this much I can say," said Aziraphale, somewhat regretfully, and shifted his stance. "Gregory's unable to perform with us during the second weekend of the run, which means Rani respectfully requires your presence once before curtain-up next week, preferably at the next rehearsal in two days' time. Just a block of twenty minutes or so at the very end will do. She wants us to run the audition scene, just to reassure her we're all on the same page."

Crowley twitched and folded his arms more tightly against his chest. Uriel just wanted to hug him when that kind of body language kicked in, and the absence of his sunglasses just made things ten times worse. He looked so incredibly fragile.

"Are we on the same page?" he asked, eyes fixed unblinking on Aziraphale.

"To the very last," Aziraphale said, reaching for him. "My dear, please come home."

Pippa had busied herself with putting away the groceries, pretending not to listen, but her conspicuous pause to sniffle into a square of paper towel gave her away.

"We'd better go," Uriel said, nodding at the door. "Somebody promised Rafe dinner."

"Better collect your things," Pippa told Crowley, but her intent was aimed elsewhere.

"I'll get them," said Aziraphale, hastily, and made his way into the adjoining room.

"You're good," Uriel told Pippa, fetching her surreptitiously planted coat from the peg.




* * *





Iván heard the Bentley before he saw it. He put down the pot he'd been scrubbing (last night's dinner had gone a bit wrong; even chefs sometimes suffered for their art) and went over to the window. Iván recognized two of the three parties emerging from the car, but not the slender, wiry blonde in a houndstooth pea-coat. Her earrings whirled in the breeze, beset by errant snowflakes. He went to the door and let them in.

"Ene maitea, you have company!" Iván called over his shoulder.

"Kabroi, utzi pakean!" Mandy shouted. "I'm still watching this!"

Taking note of the slightly chagrined expressions that Aziraphale, Crowley, and their unspecified hanger-on wore, he wondered at how wise it had been to spend the past six months teaching his girlfriend Basque. She'd taken well to the fact that swearing was all but obligatory, and Crowley (having proved his proficiency in Iván's native language) would certainly know that in response to having been so courteously addressed as My love, Mandy had promptly shot back with Asshole, leave me alone.

"Please come in," Iván said. "She will be a few more minutes."

"Never attempt to separate that girl from her telly," Crowley muttered.

Iván offered his guests coffee and quickly learned that the attractive punk-chic blonde was named Uriel. They chattered aimless pleasantries, although there was a definite air of tension between Aziraphale and Crowley, and given that Mandy had mentioned some kind of fight between them, it wasn't surprising. Uriel was insufferably upbeat.

"I'm afraid we haven't got long," Crowley said at length. "Can you fetch her?"

"Yes, may the devil take her," Iván sighed. "I will. Give me a moment."

On his way out of the kitchen, he wondered vaguely why Uriel was laughing.

"Is it really that important?" Mandy asked, looking up from her laptop when Iván poked his head into the bedroom. "I don't want to talk to them. They're both jerks."

"I think there was some misunderstanding," Iván said. "Just see what they want?"

"Misunderstanding, my arse," Mandy said, but she took off her headphones and got up. "This had better not take long. I'd been looking forward to marathoning all week."

"They have to go soon," Iván reassured her, holding the bedroom door wide open.

He trailed after Mandy into the kitchen, not quite sure if he ought to hang around for what was coming or not. She'd gone to see them a little over a week ago regarding an as-yet unspecified conflict with Sophia, and she'd come back so angry that Iván had feared apoplexy. Only once she'd calmed down had he been able to get out of her that Aziraphale had said something extraordinarily condescending and that Crowley was a massive douchebag. In an attempt at being helpful, Iván had pointed out that men of their generation weren't necessarily with it, and all that had got him was a glare. He opted for hanging back in the doorway; everyone but Uriel ignored him. Her eyes were a pale, sharp grey, silvery in the artificial light. She'd sounded American.

"Making house-calls?" Mandy asked. "Hey, haven't seen you since the wedding."

"Nice to see you," Uriel said, her eyes briefly flicking away from Iván.

Aziraphale rose and pushed his chair, sighing down at his unfinished coffee.

"To say that I owe you an apology would, I fear, be an understatement."

Mandy nodded and took a step closer to him. "Damn straight it would."

"What I should have said was merely that your approach was unhelpful."

Crowley cleared his throat and cringed with what was clearly contact embarrassment.

"Where's this going?" Mandy asked. "You do realize you can't save face, right?"

"Yes," sighed Aziraphale, ruefully, "and I'm genuinely sorry for having insulted you."

"That wasn't so hard, was it?" asked Uriel, glancing slyly up at him.

Ah, Iván thought. The American mystery friend comes as a mediator.

"For him, it's harder than you'd think," Crowley muttered under his breath.

Aziraphale stalwartly pretended he hadn't heard the disparaging remark.

"Can you forgive me, dear girl? We've missed you greatly."

Mandy nodded slowly, but with a touch of distraction; her eyes were on Crowley.

Iván knew she'd been in love with him once; she'd never even tried to hide it. He'd been on shift that afternoon when she'd returned flustered from the kitchen door with a twenty-pound note in her hand. She said she'd sold their last mushrooms to him.

"Please go to her," Mandy said to Crowley. "She has something to tell you."

"I have plenty to tell her myself," said Crowley. "Bihar," he promised.

Tomorrow, Iván echoed to himself, returning quietly to the sink while the tension broke and settled into cautious conversation between the four of them. Tomorrow, I will ask her to explain everything about this six-ways-to-Sunday fucked situation.




* * *





Tanith flew down from her perch in the eaves as soon as she spotted the Bentley approaching a small distance up the road. She had no idea where Ligur was—still lurking about Pippa's cottage, probably—but her more immediate concern was trained on the fact that she'd seen plenty of Raphael through the windows of this particular cottage, but none of Uriel whatsoever. Which was puzzling in the extreme.

She'd felt her old lover, that much was certain. She would never forget.

As a white dove pecking idly in the frost, she watched Aziraphale, Crowley, and Uriel emerge from the Bentley and hasten their way inside. As soon as the door had shut, she shifted shape, cloaked herself, and stepped up to the kitchen window.

Raphael was at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and poring over his notebook, but as soon as he saw the arrivals, he stubbed out the fag and hastened to meet Uriel at the door. He hung her coat for her and swung her up in his arms, effortless, as if he hadn't seen her in days. Visually, they made an incongruous pair; once Uriel's feet hit the floor, it was astonishing to see that Raphael towered over her by nearly a foot.

Her throat clenched as she watched them kiss, and by the time the embrace had degenerated into jibes and arse-grabbing, the other pair had gone missing. Fuck, Tanith thought. Sucking in her breath, she walked right through the wall.

From this close, she risked one of the others sensing her presence, but she hadn't much choice. She crept down the darkened hallway until she found the one door with a knife's-edge sliver of light filtering out from under it. Tempted to pass through, she remained motionless where she was with her ear pressed up against it.

"...will have to collect them tomorrow," Crowley was saying. "They'll wear her out."

"As long as Rob's there, I don't doubt he'll see to care and feeding," said Aziraphale.

Oh, right, Tanith thought, smiling in spite of herself. Those ridiculous ducks.

By placement of their voices, Crowley was stationary on the bed, while Aziraphale moved about the room. She wondered if she'd hear anything not meant for her consumption, or if they hadn't sufficiently forgiven each other for that to happen. The silence was awkward, stretched thin. The mattress dipped, and she strained to listen.

Someone's cool, firm pair of hands caught Tanith by the shoulders.

"Why don't we step through, little sister? See what we can see?"

"You left," she whispered, struggling to turn herself around in Asmodai's unyielding grasp. "You left twenty years ago. No, more than that. I saw you go."

"You could have come with me," Asmodai said, his eyes warm in the scarcely lit space, almost compassionate. He inclined his head (such a regal beauty, the body he'd chosen) toward the faint voices in the kitchen. "You could have won her back."

Tanith shook her head adamantly. "No, I don't think so. I made my choice."

"But do you see how easily they're unmade?" Asmodai asked, his eyes focused now on the bedroom door at her back. His costly purple wool coat hung open, revealing his shapely, muscular female body clad in a knee-length black cotton dress. His perfume was the height of human arrogance and elegance, and it overwhelmed Tanith's senses as he slid one thigh up between hers. "Those two in there, for example. Think of where they came from, and look at where they choose to be. Who's stopping them?"

"Your bosses would like to," she said tartly, attempting to free herself. "Both of them."

"Serving two masters," Asmodai said, bending to kiss her neck, "has served me well."

"I don't have time for this," Tanith said. "They could sense us any minute. Two cloaking wards in one small space? Uriel's a sharp one. She'll find us."

"They would have found us," Tanith said, "if not for His Grace's intervention."

"Fuck, dude, you're still on formal terms with Hastur? I guess being away for all that time means you've missed a lot. Nobody even calls Ligur that anymore. And back the hell off, okay? Whatever scent you're wearing is going to make me pass out."

"What are you doing here?" Asmodai asked. "Did the old man in the office send you?"

"Yes," she said, deciding to leave out the fact that Ligur was also on the loose, although Asmodai might very well have sensed him already as it was. "I'm a spy."

"And whose side are you on, sweet spy?" Asmodai replied, releasing her unexpectedly.

"I'm file-gathering for Dagon," Tanith said, straightening her denim jacket. "That's it."

"Is that why you didn't leave?" Asmodai asked. "Is that where your heart lies?"

Tanith stared at the floor, aware that Aziraphale and Crowley had begun to talk again, only in hushed tones and closer together, although there was nothing in that closeness except a desire for comfort. Asmodai would be disappointed, and she was glad.

"If he ever bothers to notice, then, yes, I hope that's how it'll be," she said.

"Hell's finest private investigator in love with her boss," said Asmodai. "How touching. But it doesn't really explain why you were mooning about back there for a few seconds over the holy hermaphrodite and your old flame kissing in the kitchen, now, does it?"

"I don't have to explain myself," said Tanith, defiantly. "Especially not to you."

"There's a battle coming," replied Asmodai, irrelevantly. "Which side will you take?"

"I'm impartial," she said, but her heart wasn't in the words. "I observe."

"Then I will see you there, little sister," Asmodai murmured, and vanished.

Tanith sagged against the door and turned her ear against it once again.

"I never stopped," Aziraphale said, scarcely above a whisper. "Please take my word."

"I never will stop, angel," Crowley replied fiercely. "You already have mine."

Suddenly weary, Tanith slid to the floor and listened till she heard nothing else.

You won, Crowley, she thought, brushing a tear off her cheek. You beat us all.




* * *





"Soph, you've got company," Adam said, nodding in the direction of the window.

"I'll believe it when I see it," she said, not bothering to look up from her book.

Adam closed his eyes and focused. They were close, much closer than usual, and drawing nearer by the minute. At Crowley's present driving speed, they'd arrive...

"I give them eight minutes at most," he said, grinning. "Your call."

"No fair," Sophia said, setting the novel down. "You can track them."

"You can get their thoughts at what kind of range?" Adam asked.

"As soon as I can see them," she said. "Where have you been? Asleep?"

Aside from being worried sick about you, nowhere, Adam thought.

Sophia resumed her book and read until the Bentley roared up in the front drive.

"Answer the door," she said curtly, eyes flicking back from the window. "Go finish making tea. The kettle's done heating, or, wait, did you forget you'd put it on? That's tea for four now instead of just us; it would've been for six if they'd brought their guests, but their guests are all fucked out from last night, pardon my language."

"You got that all from just seeing them get out of the car? Ace."

"Ugh, just go," said Sophia, more than a bit smugly. "I'll be waiting."

"Hallo, dear boy," said Aziraphale, beaming as Adam opened the door. "How are you?"

"Pretty good, all things considered. How are you?" he asked Crowley.

Behind his sunglasses, Crowley's expression was unreadable. "Not bad. May we...?"

"By all means," Adam said, holding the door for them. "Tea's ready and everything."

Carrying the tea tray, he led the way into the living room, getting the distinct impression that the pair behind him were, for some reason, about as enthusiastic about this visit as men bound for the gallows. And he wondered.

Sophia uncurled herself from the corner of the sofa and sat up straight, but she did not stand to greet them. She gestured for Adam to set the tea tray on the coffee table, which he did, and then promptly took a seat beside her. Aziraphale and Crowley took the small armchairs directly opposite, neither one speaking a word while Sophia poured four cups of tea and sweetened each one precisely to its recipient's liking. She handed Crowley his cup last, and her fingers seemed to catch and linger on his.

What can possibly have happened, Adam thought, to shatter you all so? Worse still, the news we've got for you tonight, Soph and me, it's...not pleasant at all.

"I'm sorry," Crowley said, reaching for her even as she withdrew, holding his cup one-handed. "I'm so sorry, but I'm asking you to understand. Bad enough I played the enabler once, but a second time? I've been a pawn for too long; I just couldn't—"

"Shhh," she whispered, and took his hand. "You're forgiven."

Crowley sat motionless for several seconds, at which point the glasses came off and he blinked at her—so uncharacteristic, that in and of itself—with vaguely watery eyes. "Just like that?" he asked, voice so quiet and hope-filled it was too much to bear.

"Just like that," said Sophia, gently, but she was somber. "Now, please forget it."

"If I could, we'd be better off. As it stands, I can't, so you have my silence instead."

Whatever this is about, Adam told himself, you'll just have to wait. If she wants you to know, she'll tell you in her own time. He tried to read Aziraphale and Crowley again, but turned up nothing. Were they blocking him by not thinking? No, surely not: he could see the subtle play of emotions across both of their faces so clearly that it might as well have been a pantomime. It was like a candle snuffer had been fitted over them, perhaps, or a bell-jar. He let the supposition pass and took a deep breath.

"We've got some bad news, but Soph didn't want to say anything till she was sure."

"I think I was pregnant," Sophia said, "but not for very long. I'm afraid I lost it."

Crowley's eyes widened ever so slightly, his eyebrows knit in pained confusion.

"You're...you're sure about that?" he asked. "I mean really, absolutely sure?"

"Oh, dear girl," Aziraphale said, abruptly unreadable, "I'm sorry for your loss."

"About as sure as I can be," she said. "I read up on the indications, and then I saw my doctor at the end of last week. She ran a test, and it turned up negative. If anything was there, believe me, there's nothing now. The thing that happened was...gross."

"It'll have been the stress following your studies, no doubt," said Aziraphale, firmly.

Adam watched Crowley. He'd expected that's where the news would hit hardest.

"I don't—" he faltered, pausing to swallow hard. "I don't understand."

Sophia reached across the table for his hands again, stilling them between her own.

"It's all right," she said. "Mandy drove me home. Nowhere else. Just home."

Crowley released a shuddering breath. His smile might have made it seem like silent laughter, but the unaccustomed gleam to his eyes had, improbably, brimmed over. Adam and Aziraphale both watched Sophia touch his cheeks in astonishment.

"I've never seen you cry," she said. "You didn't even cry at my wedding."

"I never did," said Crowley, wonderingly. "Not back in the day. Not even then."

Some fights, Adam thought, clearing the tray, are best left to those who start them.




* * *





It was one of the most preposterous things that Raphael had ever seen. And somehow also one of the most compelling, although he would neglect to mention that in his next snidely whispered assessment, because Uriel was about as wrapped up in it as the director-lady down front, and, for fuck's sake, somebody had to be her buzz-kill.

"If the audience is full of little old ladies like the one who left ten minutes ago, this isn't going to go over well at all," he said grimly. "And if there are any sexually adventurous young people, they'll start heckling our unlikely heroes for a kiss."

"Shush," Uriel whispered, waving him off. "That little old lady is the stage manager, and I think she's very sweet. With luck, the chemistry will fly right over their heads."

"Darling, it'll fly somewhere," muttered Raphael. "From your mouth to God's ears."

"Can you hear Crowley backsliding?" Uriel said. "When you put his seventeenth-century diction up against Aziraphale's bloody-minded RP, whoa. He sounds like us."

"North America's your great fossilizer of the English language," Raphael replied. "Of course he's going to sound a bit like us, given the playback loop got stuck somewhere in the former Colonies and just didn't change much. Also, it makes the jokes funnier, but your average audience member won't be able to recognize the Jacobean puns."

"More's the pity," Uriel murmured, grinning at the stage as Crowley slithered his way through Ariel's various methods of scaring those poor Milanese sailors half to death.

The director let them finish the scene in-character, and then she had them begin a quick, noncommittal speak-through that didn't even last five minutes. Coughing harshly, she waved her arms and cut them off mid-banter.

"That's enough," Rani said, raising her voice only just enough. "I don't know about you two, but I'm well knackered. Got a bit of the lurgy coming on and all. Go home, why don't you, and get some rest. I wouldn't want you catching what I've got."

Crowley raised his hand, which was so ridiculous Raphael had to disguise his laugh as a cough. Uriel's statement about all of these women bossing them around: it was true.

"Can we stay and finish running it this last time? Just to make sure."

"Be my guest, lads," Rani said, and tossed a set of keys up onto the stage.

Raphael wasn't sure what to make of the wink she gave him on her way out.

Aziraphale picked up the keys and put them in his pocket. "From the top?" he asked Crowley, reluctantly setting aside his script. "I don't know how you're off-book."

"You're not the one cursed with impeccable memory," Crowley said. "Begin."

As if on command, the house lights flickered, and half of them went out. "Gladly," said a woman's low, rich voice over the sound-system. Grating feedback bounced off the walls and crackled weirdly in the stale air. "Little brother mine."

"That..." Raphael turned his head, but Uriel was already on her feet. "That wasn't..."

"Wasn't the director or the stage manager or anybody I'd like to see," Uriel said thinly, her bow already drawn. "Show yourself!" she shouted. "I said, show yourself!"

Raphael looked to Aziraphale across the rows upon rows of seats that separated them. He had his weapon at the ready in less than a heartbeat and moved swiftly into the aisle, just as Uriel had done on the opposite side. They advanced toward the stage.

Crowley had gravitated to the edge of the stage, his eyes suspiciously narrowed. "Who is this?" he asked, his tone skeptical. "It's a nice change from hearing you over the Blaupunkt, but, seriously, I thought our heart-to-heart days were over."

Aziraphale's eyes widened, as if he'd seen something the rest of them couldn't.

"Crowley," he said urgently, dashing forward, "Crowley, get down—!"

What happened next happened far, far too quickly, but the figure that caught the crossbow-bolt that had been fired from the light-booth squarely in the stomach was not Crowley. In fact, it was only not Crowley by about four tenths of a second.

Even in the pandemonium that followed, Uriel's disbelieving wail was deafening.




* * *





Aziraphale tried to process what he was seeing, and his first attempt failed.

The creature writhing and rapidly bleeding out in Crowley's arms wasn't anyone he immediately recognized, and she definitely wasn't human. White skin, wavy black hair, eyes shut tight in agony. The tongue that flicked out from between her bloody lips was almost human, but too pointed (Rather like a bird's, he thought distantly). When her eyes opened, they were as vivid an aubergine-red as Crowley's were yellow.

"Do you hear me?" Crowley asked frantically just as Uriel reached his side, dropped her weapon, and fell on the wounded stranger. "Please, who are you, and what was—"

"Tanith," said Uriel, desperately, shredding her pull-over. "Tan, please hold still—"

Aziraphale covered his mouth and met Raphael's strangely terrified gaze. The thing that flew down from the light-booth with three beats of its great wings looked human, but the wings and the otherworldly weapon suggested otherwise.

Two more figures trundled out of the shadows at the back of the house, watching.

"How nice of you to come," said the dark-skinned beauty to the two man-shaped beings. "It's been a while since I've seen you, Your Grace," said the woman-shaped menace, and genuflected. "Your Grace," it repeated, and nodded to the other.

"Asmodai," Aziraphale said, wings manifested, and flew down from the stage. "I name you. Asmodai, son of King David and Agrat bat Mahlat, I charge you: stand down."

"I told you it'd be a good show," Hastur said. "Just like a play, see?"

"Yeah," Ligur agreed, grinning stupidly. "With blood and everything."

"Fuck off," Tanith choked from behind Aziraphale, her voice scarcely audible.

Uriel and Crowley were speaking in low, frantic tones to Tanith and to each other.

"Great party," Raphael told Asmodai. "A little advance warning would've been nice."

"Duke Hastur saw to it there'd be none of that," Asmodai said, crossbow at the ready. "Do you think this will end well with two against three? Your lady love's too distraught over her lady love to be of any use. Fortunately, I'm only here to end one of you."

"You've already done that," said Aziraphale, reasonably, taking a step closer to the creature who had somehow failed to respond to his command. Hastur's doing, perhaps, through whatever type of net-charm or binding he'd cast on them.

"You're not helping, angel!" Crowley shouted over Uriel's increasing distress.

"Collateral damage, that one," said Ligur. "'M afraid it can't be helped."

"Sir," rasped Tanith, urgently, "sir—" her next breath, a gurgle "—the scry."

"What is she doing," Uriel was repeating over and over, "Crowley, what is she—"

"Be quiet," Crowley hissed. "Tanith, hold that thought, you're brilliant—"

There was another bizarre fit of crackling from the sound-system. Crowley made a strained sound, as if in momentary discomfort. The theatre went pitch-black. "Let there be light," said Aziraphale, and smiled when it worked. "Much better."

"And let's toast these fuckers," said Raphael. "I'll get the two at the back."

"YOU BLOODY SNAKE!" Hastur howled. "And that meddling, pigeon-brained—"

"The charm's undone," Aziraphale said. "Shall I bind you, or give you a fair fight?"

"I see no weapon in your hand," Asmodai sneered. "Did you lose it somewhere?"

"She's gone, I'm sorry—listen to me, Uriel, get down there, I need a minute—"

"No," said Aziraphale, calmly. "I simply haven't drawn it. I hoped I might talk you out of this, or at least send you back where you came from with a sound lecturing in tow."

Raphael had pursued the Dukes into the lobby; Uriel hovered suddenly beside him.

"I'm sorry," Aziraphale told her softly, never once letting his eyes leave Asmodai. "I should have done more, but I did nothing. How you can bear to stand with me now..."

Uriel didn't respond, but instead trained an arrow squarely on Asmodai's forehead.

"Should've made the trip to shoot you both a year ago, you and Gabriel," she snarled.

Asmodai responded by reloading his crossbow, pointing the bolt at Aziraphale's chest.

There was a lot of muffled swearing and flailing behind them, and it sounded like someone struggling their way out from under a heavy velvet curtain. "Shall I wait till Crawly can watch and shoot you first?" asked Asmodai, raising his aim to stage-level. "Or let you watch while I shoot the serpent tangled in the arras?"

"I'd rather you didn't shoot anyone," Aziraphale said, setting a hand on Uriel's arm.

"Found one!" Crowley shouted, and then sent something heavy and metallic skidding across the stage. "There's no edge, but for a prop it's got some serviceable heft—"

Uriel dropped the bow and flung herself at Asmodai, arms bloody and wings unfurled.

"My dear, your timing is impeccable," said Aziraphale, and picked up the sword.




* * *





Crowley watched from the vantage point of being sprawled flat on his belly, half under the curtain and half free of it, as Aziraphale lifted the sword and, just like the scythe on the beach, it went FWOOMP. He scooted forward, kicked off the remainder of the heavy velvet, and got to his feet. From what he could see, Uriel had both arms locked around Asmodai's neck as they lay twisting and struggling, and the crossbow had unloaded its bolt into a chair-cushion and gone harmlessly skidding into the third row.

"Don't just stand there," he told Aziraphale, urgently. "Get him!"

"But Uriel—" Aziraphale gestured at the tussle of arms and legs and wings. "I might—"

"This is ridiculous," Crowley said, and vaulted off the stage. He landed hard on his left shoulder and rolled, felt bones crack and instantly knit, put all of his strength into catching the joint of Uriel's right wing. He struggled for purchase on the concrete floor, finally managing to lever himself into a crouch without losing his hold on solid, feather-covered muscle. "Uriel, let go!" he shouted, pulling on her wing. "Now!"

She did, and the backlash sent her rolling straight into Crowley. By some miracle, Crowley got her down flat, shielded with both his body and his wings, just in time to see Aziraphale—wearing an expression so nonchalant that the action might have been rehearsed—run the blunt sword-point through the hollow of Asmodai's throat.

"Let me go!" said Uriel, struggling, and Crowley sat up so that she could, too. "I want to see—ah, there. Yes. Good," she added, and lay back down again, panting hard.

"Impressive," rasped Asmodai, spitting up blood and whorls of blue flame. He lay pinned by Aziraphale's borrowed sword, wings gone limp, life draining from his limbs.

"Put him out of his misery," Crowley said, using the nearest chair-arm for support as he got to his feet. "Quickly, because we've got a nutter with a pollaxe to track down."

Aziraphale tugged the sword free of Asmodai's flesh; the sound of it was sufficient to turn Crowley's stomach, but he clutched the arm of the chair and didn't look away. Asmodai returned Crowley's gaze with serene acceptance, lips quirking in a smile.

You've won, little brother, he sent, now beyond speech. You and the monster you call lover. Remember why we hated them all. Remember for the rest of your days.

Crowley shook his head. "How can I remember hate I never really had?"

Aziraphale brought the sword down sideways, but it wasn't sharp enough to sever the spinal column. Half a dozen clanging blows later, there was more blood than there ought to have been, and Asmodai's head was only partly detached from his body.

"That's enough," said Crowley, and turned away. Uriel was sitting up again, watching with satisfied, yet slightly sickened interest. She offered Crowley both of her hands, and he pulled her easily to her feet (as unsteady as he felt on his own).

"I let the two stooges get away," Raphael shouted from the back of the theatre, "but the chase was fun for a while! Have you ever seen the short one try to run?"

The four of them watched as Asmodai's body turned to fine ash and promptly crumbled. Tanith's remains had done the same, scattered down-center on the stage. "We'd better clean this up," sighed Aziraphale, "or I'll never hear the end of it."

Clean-up was, in reality, much easier than it sounded. Even the blood had turned to dry, powdery ash, and the industrial-grade brooms and vaccuum in the maintenance closet were more than up to the task. Raphael had suggested just miracling it all away, but, oddly, Uriel had fiercely objected. While Aziraphale and Raphael saw to what was left of Asmodai, Crowley and Uriel tended to Tanith's ashes. Uriel wrapped one small, gritty handful in a strip from her shredded cardigan and pocketed the relic.

Crowley gave her a questioning look, pausing mid-sweep. "What will you..."

"Dispatched by someone from her own side," she said quietly, "so I wonder..."

Crowley nodded readily, but he didn't have the heart to mention that he was pretty sure the sort of weaponry both sides were issued as standard kit would just as thoroughly obliterate the soul of one of their own as it would the soul of an Enemy. And there was the whole complicated issue of Asmodai having been registered as one of Heaven's agents in spite of his undercover status as Hastur's spy—

He turned away, frowned, and kept sweeping. More complex than he'd thought; maybe it was worth asking questions. There were only a few cases of resurrection on the books, and in all cases it had been humans whose bodies had been kept intact.

Raphael will look into it, Aziraphale sent unexpectedly. Healer. His province.

Even without the ability to go back for supplies? They're stuck here, remember?

I do believe we'll find Gabriel very compliant from this point forward, my dear.

Will you kill him if he doesn't? Crowley asked, now gazing down at Aziraphale from his vantage point on the stage. Maybe you'd better hold onto that sword.

Asmodai was sent to destroy you, replied Aziraphale, pained. What else could I do?

What's that binding thing you mentioned? Crowley asked, leaning on the broom.

Aziraphale's brow furrowed. Too much of a risk, he sent. Too much of a risk to let live.

Why did you let me live? Crowley asked. All those thousands of years, why? Not enough of a risk? Some of that weird prescience you've got, perhaps?

I didn't know then. I had no clue, my dear, but I know now. Is it enough?

Yes, Crowley told him, and wanted them to be done with this, wanted them to be through with improvised flaming weapons and scheming ex-coworkers and war.

"The damage won't be noticed," Aziraphale said, fingering the spot on the chair cushion where Asmodai's bolt had buried itself. "Good as new. Are we finished?"

"You're going to let me sleep for like three days," Uriel said, her eyes sweeping past each one of them, "and anybody who tries to wake me up is ashes, got it?"

Raphael went up to the edge of the stage and lifted her down, as if she weighed nothing. Uriel's wings closed over her head and Raphael's as her shoulders shook. Crowley climbed down and went to stand beside Aziraphale, who was fiddling mindlessly with his ring, thumb fussing at the smooth platinum band. The moulded glass setting of Crowley's ring had swiveled around to the back of his finger; he used this thumb to push it front-side and wordlessly took Aziraphale's hand.

"I don't think Adam knows about any of this," he said. "Remarkably enough."

"Nor should he," Aziraphale replied, squeezing Crowley's hand. "Let's go."

Crowley was grateful to find the roads clear, even if slick with freezing rain. It was just past ten o'clock at night, far too early given the events of the past hour. On arrival at the cottage, Raphael carried Uriel inside, readied the sofa-bed with a turn of his hand, and closed the living room off with a pair of folding doors that hadn't been there before, but that Crowley quite liked. Aziraphale was already in the bedroom, sitting on the edge of the mattress, looking more tired than Crowley had ever seen him.

"I don't know about you," Crowley said, shutting and locking the door behind him, "but I'm not touching the living room or the study for a week if I can help it."

When Aziraphale didn't respond, he climbed hesitantly into Aziraphale's lap.

"So," Crowley ventured, "I think Pippa has a point. I may have overreacted."

"To what, my dear?" Aziraphale asked, wrapping both arms around Crowley's waist so he wouldn't fall backwards onto the floor. "My utter lack of compassion in the face of your quandary, which you handled the best way you knew how?"

"To your needing some time to think," Crowley clarified. "Walking out was a stupid, melodramatic thing to do. But you sounded so cold, and I was upset."

"You promised Sophia you wouldn't speak of this any further," Aziraphale said, pressing his right index and middle finger over Crowley's lips. "Nor will I, my love. I ask your forgiveness, and, as far as I'm concerned, it's already forgot."

"Put that into Prospero's speech," Crowley told him, "and the audience is yours."

"I care very little for our audience," Aziraphale said. "What matters is you."

Crowley buried his face against Aziraphale's neck, wondering if tears would always come so easily now that he'd permitted them once. "Well, you have me. Don't doubt it, or it's an insult to both of us. You always did, and I didn't know back then, either. What do humans call it? A hunch? Stupid word, hunch. It sounds like slang for—"

Just as Crowley had hoped he would, Aziraphale cut him off soundly with a kiss.

They were both too exhausted for anything elaborate, but this, this Crowley remembered, would remember in lieu of Asmodai's last words. Aziraphale's discarded slipover and hastily unbuttoned shirt; pants and trousers wished away on all sides, helpless movement skin to skin, and Aziraphale's hand just where Crowley wanted it.

"Can't," he was panting now, thrusting into Aziraphale's fist, "won't make it, oh."

"What did you do, I want you to tell me what you did, you broke the charm," Aziraphale was murmuring with mindless adoration in his hear, "how did you..."

Crowley couldn't think till his climax subsided, gasping against Azirahale's shoulder.

"She was trying to get through to Dagon. Dagon's the only person who could've sent her, and he's one of very few people authorized to use a scry for access to and influence on matters pertaining to Earth. Hastur would've had to have used that to work his charm with the pinfeathers Uriel told me about; she thinks Asmodai supplied those to him, which would have been part of his objective in the first place. So, I used the sound system to patch her through to Dagon. Almost didn't reach him in time."

Absurdly enough, Crowley's explanation was at least in part what got Aziraphale off.

"Have I ever mentioned," Crowley said, patiently stroking him through it, "that losing control now and again does you a world of good?"

Aziraphale lay back, finally finished, and tugged Crowley along with him.

"Then see to it that I do," he panted, drying them tidily. "But for now, I think..."

Aziraphale was drowsy in seconds, and Crowley drifted contently, listening to the rain.

"I have to mention it one more time," he murmured. "The child. Uriel said he hadn't exactly gone away, that there was still someone hanging about."

"I know little of these matters," Aziraphale said, "but we will find out in time."

Time, Crowley thought, determinedly tugging corners of the duvet and blankets up until he'd managed to close them in a sort of nest. Time is what we've always got.




* * *





Most humans, it must be said, are quite exceptionally stupid creatures.

These not-humans, however, somehow manage absolute, flagrant idiocy.

He knows these tiles and carpets by heart, knows them cool and plush alike beneath his paws. He knows that set of doors closing off the living room has not always been there, and he finds breaching the barrier no object. He knows the pair sleeping in the sofa-bed will come and go as is their wont. He knows the small blonde one is wounded far worse than the bruises and traces of another's blood still on her arms, knows that the tall red-furred one would sooner perish than see her hurt again.

He knows the empty study will fill with books and papers for days on end, that the small parcel next to the computer keyboard containing another not-human's ashes will be the subject of much research and debate, knows that in this relic the small blonde one's grief may either find great solace or come to further desolation.

He takes the hole in the wainscot behind the desk, passes through the insulated wall, and emerges in the room in which he's seen the world end and begin many times.

He knows the masters of this house are good creatures, knows they will spare him in spite of every halfhearted threat that the stern one might make. He knows that there will always be crumbs for eating and tea-drips for drinking. He knows that no trial can part them for long, knows that the one who chooses to leave will always return.

He knows he'll be here as long as they remain, and knows that this is Home.

Chapter Text

Kukkutarma, 2674 BC

Tanith sat alone on an outcropping, watching sunset ignite the glittering sand.

"What are we doing here?" she asked the other swiftly approaching presence.

"If we knew that, darling," it said nonchalantly, "then we wouldn't be here."

Tanith ajusted her shawl, scooting around to face the angel standing over her.

"You look awful in that get-up," she told him. "No wonder the humans are afraid."

The angel dubiously adjusted his peacock-feather-and-jewel bedecked headdress.

"Listen, why all of this ceremony tomorrow? Can't I just dispatch you now?"

"Because the guy from your side who should've been doing this job is far too busy hanging around with the guy from my side who should've been doing this job. Word on the metaphysical street says they're something approaching casual drinking buddies. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that nonsense, would you?"

"I don't know anything right now, other than the last time I saw you," said the angel, who was quite tall, and crouched down to Tanith's level. He—or at least Tanith thought it was a he, as the eyeliner and the rouge made for some confusion—smiled dangerously. "I remember your eyes. They glittered, red stars the whole way down."

"Clever," Tanith said, adjusting her nose-ring, which itched awfully courtesy of some errant sand-grains that had worked their way under it. "But it's not going to work."

Imperiously, the angel frowned at her. "I don't follow. Setting fire to your kind with holy weapons normally does, so what makes you think you know something I don't?"

"Krishna," Tanith said. "Brahma, Vishnu. Whichever. Those aren't your real names."

"Holika," Raphael replied. "That's not yours. Do you know what they'll call this?"

"Mohenjo-daro," she said, staring out across the dunes. "Mound of the Dead."

Raphael sighed. "I meant, do you know what they'll call this particular day?"

"Holika Dahan," answered Tanith, rising, dusting off her skirt. "It still won't work."

The shining trident caught her under the chin, tilting her head upward once again.

"Why is that?" asked Raphael, blue eyes burning coldly under kohl-rimmed lashes.

Tanith took hold of the trident with thumb and forefinger, shifting the weapon away.

"I'm losing my faith in some of this shit," she said. "In time, I suspect, so will you."

Raphael stared at her fingers, which were still poised delicately on the weapon.

"I will destroy you," muttered the Archangel, at least half to himself. "Tomorrow."

Tanith shrugged, letting go of his trident; come pike or pollaxe, it would remain.

"And I'll just wake up somewhere else," she said. "If I can, that is. See you there."

 

 

East Dean & Environs, mid-January 2014


"It's a great story," Adam said, taking a sip of his coffee. "Both the Indian legend and this...source version, I guess you could say." The elderly waitress who'd been seeing to them for the past hour had been bored by their initial pleasantries, but now seemed oddly intrigued. "Had Rafe told you about that before, or only recently?"

Uriel rubbed her sore eyes and stared into her sturdy, industrial-grade diner mug. "He told me about this two nights ago, and the night before that was—" she paused and drank a third of her mug's contents, feeling vaguely ill "—is the reason I'm here."

"You might want to start from the beginning, then," Adam said, frowning at her. His adult gaze was piercing in exactly the same way that Crowley had described his childhood scrutiny: penetrating and cool, no quarter and no corners for hiding in.

Uriel stared back at him, her eyes misting. Read me, you smug bastard; read me, and you'll learn everything. It'll save me the trouble of sobbing in front of our waitress.

Do you really want that? he sent back. I can see you've got reservations.

She tilted her chin up, freely offering him her fragile, if unblinking defiance.

Adam's assessment of the past fortnight was quick and brutal; he blinked, just once, when Uriel toppled the vast barricade she'd erected around the parts involving Sophia. And then he sat there for a few minutes, chin perched on his hands, and stared.

Uriel was suddenly freezing. She waved the waitress over and pointed to her mug.

"Well, you lot made a mess of that one," said Adam, once the nosy server had gone. "But it could have been a lot worse. No loose ends, I guess. What do you want?"

Uriel uncurled her aching fist and slid a tightly-knotted scrap of fabric across the table, as yet unable to meet his eyes again. She wrapped both of her hands around the mug.

"I can't just keep making exceptions. It's tiresome, and it messes people about."

"You messed us about. And Michael and...and Gabe, come to it. Why did Rafe let those creeps get away? He keeps telling me it was as if he just couldn't bring himself to do to them what..." She swallowed, remembering Aziraphale with the stage-prop sword.

"They're covered from the first time around," Adam said. "In a manner of speaking. Ligur had already snuffed it once, and, if you ask me, he really didn't deserve—"

"Look," Uriel hissed, jabbing both index fingers at him, "how easily you play God."

Adam scratched the tip of his nose and fiddled with a sugar packet, frowning.

"She didn't die when she touched Rafe's weapon," he said. "Why d'you think that is?"

"She did die when Asmodai shot her," Uriel replied. "So just try me, buster."

The erstwhile Antichrist shook the sugar into his mug and stirred thoughtfully.

"Crowley wasn't hurt on the beach, was he? I mean the incident with the scythe."

Uriel shook her head. "Not that I'm aware. It gave him a real fright, though."

"Tanith told Raphael she was beginning to have doubts about what they were doing. Crowley hasn't bought the party line for a long time. You and Rafe eventually came around, too. It's even safe to say my biological dad's admin guy is thinking straight."

"Then by that logic, she shouldn't be ashes," Uriel said bitterly. "She should've been immune to the arrow, and Crowley would have been immune, too, in theory."

"Tanith was his miraculous escape," murmured Adam, which was irrelevantly obvious.

Disgusted, Uriel flung her spoon at him. "What the fuck is your problem? Huh?"

"My problem," sighed Adam, "is that you guys are as good at influencing and changing the rules as I am. Didn't you know that? Every time one of you or a pair of you or the whole lot of you make a decision or a series of decisions, the borders get re-drawn, and I'm as bound by your circles and lines as you are by mine. Or at least I think that's how it works. The evidence would suggest as much. Are you with me so far?"

Uriel nodded at him, chewing her lower lip, and felt suddenly very, very stupid.

"Cor. So, the way this seems to work is...do you use the internet much? Okay, so it's like figuring out who to add to what filters or to put on the permissions list. Who's covered by what, who gets away, who doesn't get away, who needs to stay where—"

"Did you really say no more messing about, once upon a time? I can't imagine."

Adam covered his eyes and rubbed them. When he looked up again, they were wet.

"I had to figure this out all on my own," he said. "I am still figuring this shit out."

Uriel reached, touched the back of his hand, and felt something click into place.

"Tanith believed the arrow would harm Crowley. She didn't know about the beach. All she knew was that Hastur and Asmodai wanted Crowley dead, and that Crowley meant something to me, and so she believed it was a sacrifice that she needed to make—"

"Wow," Adam said, turning his hand under hers till their palms touched. "Yeah."

"Your son," Uriel told him, squeezing his hand, "will not fade if I tell him to wait."

Adam's free hand closed around the scrap of cardigan containing Tanith's ashes.

"It'll be her life," he said. "Her second chance, not yours. Whatever she wants."

"That," Uriel said with a tearful grin, accepting his handshake, "is why I fight."

 

 

The Seventh Torment, Indeterminate (but not Too Late)


Grit against her chin and itching the side of her nose. Across her closed eyes.

Long-ago charred wood against her cheek, familiar and worn. Her hands and wrists supported by chair-arms far more plush and comfortable than the chair her boss had originally provided, her legs extended and crossed, her feet inexplicably bare.

Someone brushed her temple and then, reverently, tucked her hair behind her ear.

Tanith opened her eyes and yawned, one hand flying to cover her grit-coated lips.

"I don't pay you enough for this," Dagon said. "Your contract ended centuries ago."

Stretching, Tanith sat up, grimaced, and studied her ash-streaked face in the cracked desk mirror. She looked pale and exhausted, although she couldn't exactly say why. "I was dreaming," she said. "About some people I hadn't seen in ages. Literally."

Unexpectedly, Dagon took hold of her hand and tugged it away from her cheek.

"I would never have put you in harm's way if I'd known," he said roughly.

Tanith turned in her chair and smiled at him, taking his other hand in kind.

"Ah, my Holika," Dagon said. "Twice-burned, thrice-cursed, always blessed."

"Let me tell you a story," she said. "We can catch up on paperwork later."

Chapter Text

Sophia squinted at the dust-mote flecked sunlight streaming in through the bathroom window, yawning as she did her best to keep her robe from coming apart. The toilet seat was cold, as were the glazed tiles beneath her feet, and she could see through the frosted-glass shower door that the twins' collection of shampoo bottles had escaped the caddy again. Not picking up your bath shit anymore, Sophia thought.

Sophia flushed the toilet, washed her hands, and wandered into the living room. Not even marriage had broken her habit of spending one weekend a month at home. Her parents insisted that, where the twins were concerned, her influence was sorely needed. In Sophia's view, whether it helped or hindered was a different matter.

Anathema had been all too glad to keep Sophia's bedroom as it was, although Natalie tended to use it more than half the time because she insisted that Janet had a snoring problem. From the look of things, Sophia was the only one awake. The new job had turned her into something of an early riser, which for Adam was a source of endless amusement. Sighing, she lifted a pile of books off the sofa. She peered just inside the cover of the top one, completely unsurprised to find Aziraphale's bookplate.

The kitchen table, as it turned out, was a similar disaster: there were several piles of books, each one taller than the stack balanced perilously in her arms. Two notebooks and three coffee cups indicated that her parents had made a late night of it; she dumped the books in her arms next to her mother's notebook and carried the mugs over to the sink. Two had held coffee, one had contained green tea. She wasn't sure how her father could stand to drink both substances at once, but to each his own.

The kitchen light came on while she was rinsing the mugs under scalding water.

"My daughter the early bird," said a low, sleepy voice behind her, just a beat ahead of the lanky arm that pulled her into a shoulder-crushing hug. "Sleep well, Soph?"

"Yeah, Dad," Sophia sighed, unable to hide her grin. "Just fine. You?"

Newt yawned and ruffled her hair, flicking several gossamer strands straight into her eyes. Irritably, Sophia shrugged him off and brushed the fly-away nuisances back into place. She'd got her father's woefully fine hair, and although hers was thicker than his, she was paranoid that it would one day wear just as thin. She turned the mugs upside-down in the dish rack and turned around just in time to see her bath-robed mother, who was clearly displeased, shuffling and shifting the piles of books.

"Why did you bring these in here? I needed them in the living room."

"No, Mum, you didn't. Those four had been sitting there for six weeks. You've done exactly sod-all with them, the same with the ones at the far end of the table."

"Don't you know better than to cross her?" Newt whispered wryly in her ear, and then went to fetch two of the three mugs she'd just rinsed. "Dearest wife," he added, in louder, more assertive tones, "the cleverest of our clever girls does have a point."

"Oi! Dad, you suck," said Natalie, who stood mostly naked in the doorway and was fiercely rubbing her eyes. "Somebody open the drapes. It's still too dark in here."

"Where's Janet?" Sophia asked, putting the kettle on. "Did she come home last night?"

"No," Natalie yawned. "She was too drunk to leave Mandy's place. We put her on the sofa with a bin handy and left her some water and paracetamol on the coffee table."

"Why didn't you stay with her?" Anathema chided, still inscrutably sorting the books.

"Because I'm always the one who has to take care of her! Let Mandy do it for once. Maybe Iván knows some kind of miracle Spanish back-country mumbo jumbo cure."

"That's uncharitable of you, sweetheart," Newt said, eyes shifting between them.

"Nat, everybody, please shut up," Sophia sighed. "What do you want, tea or coffee?"

"Every woman for herself," Anathema said. "Every man, too. There's no agreement in this house. Just fetch the teapot and the French press. It's a veritable free-for-all."

It's all downhill since I left home, thought Sophia, wistfully fond of them all.

They all had English Breakfast except for Anathema, who'd opted for some Ethiopia Sidamo. Janet's job at Starbucks meant a free bag of coffee per week, and the backlog, in Sophia's estimation, was getting ugly. There was no room in the tea cupboard; it seemed wrong that so many sacks of roasted beans were to blame.

"Let me take some of that stuff over to the cottage," Sophia suggested, pointing to her mother's mug. "Aziraphale makes himself coffee all the time with that hilariously out-of-date contraption in the kitchen. I think he'd really appreciate it."

"Janet's the one you should be asking," said Natalie, peevishly, which indicated that she was more hung-over than she was willing to let on. So much for saving face.

"Janet doesn't drink it," said Newt, flipping the page of his newspaper. "It's fine with me if it's fine by your mother. Take some of those books back while you're at it."

"I'm not finished with them!" Anathema protested. "But, yes, take the coffee."

"You're finished with some of them, dear," Newt said dryly. "Those six-weekers, for instance. Like company, books often long outstay their welcome."

Something in his tone made Sophia dead certain she knew what he meant.

"Fine," Anathema said. "Next time you're headed over there, take those four books, but only those four, and get at least three quarters of that coffee out of my sight."

Natalie was giving Sophia her best you-sodding-goody-two-shoes look.

"I have no plans for today, and I've got Adam's car here. I think I will."

"Can I go, too?" Natalie asked sweetly. "I want to feed those ducks."

"Dental appointments," Anathema reminded her. "You and me, two o'clock."

"Balls," Natalie sulked. "Feed them for me, and take pictures. They're getting big!"

Sophia rose and took her mug over to the sink, hastily drinking the rest of her tea on the way. She'd shower and grab a wholegrain bagel for the road. She'd had more than enough of her family for one day, and it was only seven o'clock in the morning.

If she missed the traffic and got creative with the speed limit, she could make it to the cottage in two hours. Crowley could drive it in under two, the flash bastard.

"Drive safe," Newt told her, leaning to place his own mug in the sink.

It took Sophia two hours and fifteen minutes to reach her destination, so she was somewhat tetchy by the time she pulled up and parked behind the Bentley in the cottage drive. Three raps on the door produced no result, so she leaned hard on the doorbell. Finally, at the end of her tether, she fished her key-ring out of her handbag and let herself in. As far as she knew, Pippa held the only other spare key.

"Aziraphale?" she called, drifting awkwardly through the kitchen with her armful of books and a plastic Tesco bag full of coffee. She was pretty certain Crowley must be somewhere, probably out in the garden with the ducks, as his transport was very much in evidence. She set Aziraphale's books down on the table and left the coffee beside Crowley's espresso machine, which in truth she'd never seen Crowley use and was sure he left it to Aziraphale on account of not liking anything that gave off so much steam. "Anybody there? Crowley? Don't tell me I made the drive for nothing."

A pair of beady eyes peered at her from the hallway and quickly scampered off.

"You guys have mice," she said wearily, following the tiny, dark four-footed streak to no avail. She passed the bedroom door, peered into the bathroom, glanced out the window, and then backtracked. The bedroom door was closed; she glanced at her watch. Eleven thirty-four. If Crowley was home and wasn't in the garden, he'd be...

She turned the doorknob with tense, exacting care. It made hardly any sound.

The bed was empty, covers rucked every which way, except for the pillow on the side nearest the door—nearest to her—where a rather unremarkable medium-sized grass snake lay coiled and basking in a sunbeam that filtered in lazily between the curtains.

Sophia stared at this curious scene for all of three seconds before she realized what she was looking at. To know a thing was different from seeing it, she'd always found: usually the wiser path, and infinitely safer. That didn't prevent her from approaching the bed, for her sense of wonder had always outweighed her tendency toward fear.

"The devil hath power," she quoted, almost in a whisper, "to assume a pleasing shape." The patterned back-scales were smooth beneath her fingertips, shining. "I just never dreamed that shape was a garden-variety Natrix natrix helvetica," she added, by then on the verge of delighted laughter, "and I bet Prince Hamlet didn't, either."

Sophia backpedaled with a gasp, hit the wall full-force as the creature beneath her palm transformed, displacing everything in its immediate vicinity, herself included. Crowley scrabbled at the bed-sheets, bewildered, not quite covering himself in time.

What a skinny thing you are, Sophia wanted to say, but she held her tongue. She only just managed to cover her mouth and think instead: But also very, very pretty.

"I thought you'd heard of that thing called knocking," Crowley said, sitting on the edge of the mattress with his arms folded and the sheet draped over everything from mid-thigh to bellybutton (and wrapped around behind). Unblinking, he glared at her.

"In my defense, I tried knocking," Sophia said. "You didn't answer the door."

"You've got a mobile," Crowley said, rubbing the left side of his neck, which drew Sophia's attention to several obvious marks there. "You could have called ahead."

"Get off my case," she snapped. "You gave me a fucking spare key, so I used it."

Crowley sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Well, there's one more feat of occult transformation out of the way. No need to worry about pulling that one in front of you should the need arise. Wings, check; scales, check. Let's see, am I missing anything?"

"Mum says you made your shoes appear out of nowhere one time," Sophia blurted.

"Oh, right," said Crowley, sarcastically, "clothes." And, just like that, he sat fully dressed on the edge of the bed, wearing a plain grey button-down twill collared shirt and that ridiculously expensive pair of jeans he'd got in Japan, which were breaking in beautifully. He was barefoot, which she'd seen before, but she'd never looked closely enough to notice that his toenails were composed of fine snake-scales that were now as translucent as human fingernails. She stared at his folded hands, transfixed.

"Do you somehow keep people from noticing that most of the time? Why don't you do it with your eyes? It would've been a lot less awkward than sunglasses. Hey, how in the world did you do it before sunglasses were invented? That's impressive."

"Ways and means," Crowley sighed, absently running his fingers through his hair, which was still badly mussed, and not just from sleep. "Masks and such. Hats with low brims. Counting on most humans being relatively unobservant, which they are."

"People notice your eyes all the time," said Sophia, taking a seat beside him. "I mean when you're not wearing the glasses, and some people are even startled or scared. You told me about that airline stewardess. Are modern humans more observant?"

"There's no such thing as a modern human," Crowley said, "and it's really just that I don't bother to count on it anymore. It was so much blessed effort all the time. Besides, I'm in retirement now, so why should I bother? Get back to me when you're this old and tell me if you feel like faffing with something as trivial as cosmetics."

"I only wear make-up on formal occasions," Sophia said. "But okay, fair point."

"Good morning," said Crowley, belatedly, offering her a sheepishly tired smile.

"Bed-head is a good look on you," Sophia told him, winking. "I'm just saying."

"Eggs!" said Crowley, blushing, and rose abruptly. "I've got duck-eggs coming out my ears. Do your parents want any? Pippa's threatening to pay me for them."

"We'll take some," Sophia said, joining him at the window. She squinted as he drew the curtains back, flooding the room with light. "Free-range. Mum will be happy."

"You're going to give me a bad name," Crowley sighed. "Come on," he said, grabbing her hand, and Sophia let herself be led briskly out of the bedroom.

"Oh, by the way, you've got mice," she told him. "I saw one in the hall."

"We've only got the one, and he's better behaved than the plants," Crowley replied.

"Ah," said Sophia, smirking as she let go of Crowley's hand. "So you let him stay?"

"Yes," Crowley said, sliding the patio door open to usher her out. "Besides, he was here before we were. Survived the previous resident's seven cats and Aziraphale."

"Look at my babies!" Sophia exclaimed, dropping down to her knees as six excitedly flapping ducks, all grown now, made straight for them. "Eve and Jude and hello sweetie-pie!" She scratched Lilith's chin and hustled all three ducks into her lap.

"Where'd you hide them today, then?" Crowley was asking Jemima, Tamar, and Ruth, who all hovered about his feet and fussed at him expectantly. Hands on hips, he shook his head gravely and strode into the shed with the other three ducks hot on his heels.

"Hide what?" Sophia called after him, tugging a bit of her hair out of Jude's bill.

"The eggs," Crowley shouted back. "Each one lays two or three eggs per day, and although I'm finding most of them, I've found evidence that some of the ones they leave outside the shed make a nice breakfast for foxes and the like. Hey, here's another one! Five so far, and, I'm telling you, you'll leave with at least a dozen."

"Always hungry," Sophia said to the ducks, and finally shooed them so she could assist Crowley in his search. They found a total of thirteen perfect, pale-greenish eggs.

"Funny things," Crowley said once they were back in the kitchen, carefully transferring their findings from his tin pail into an empty egg carton. "Mallard egg-shells, I mean. You don't get that color anywhere else. They're sort of a dull olive shade, really."

"They're lovely," Sophia agreed, and then paused. "Where's Aziraphale?"

"Down at the theatre," Crowley said, shutting the carton. "Last night was opening."

"Did you go see it? You're not stepping in as Ariel till next weekend, right?"

"Right, and yes, I went," said Crowley, his tone somewhat grim. "So did the others."

"Still rough going, huh? And how are Uriel and Rafe finding that holiday cottage up the road? You must be fucking thrilled to have them out of your hair."

Crowley turned and gave her the most desperate look she could possibly imagine.

"You really have no idea. I thought I'd never have use of the living room again, much less my sofa. They left scratches in the leather. Scratches. You might as well stop smirking at me and take your smug teasing up the road to that property they've let, because I can tell you it's probably all sex, all the time, which is more than you'll find here. Don't look at me like that; you know it's true. A few marks on my neck and you're snickering like you're twelve, but have you seen Uriel's wrists and arms?"

"Shush," Sophia said, setting a hand on Crowley's shoulder. "I only meant to tease."

"Well, good for you," Crowley said, dumping the parcels of coffee out on the counter so he could place the carton of eggs inside the Tesco bag. He held it out to her.

"I only just got here," Sophia protested. "I'm not leaving this soon. You're going to tell me about how awful opening night was. Did Aziraphale manage to tone it down?"

Crowley sighed and took the empty kettle over to the sink. He filled it.

"And you're also going to tell me how the wedding plans are coming along."

Crowley stiffened, his hand lingering on the tap well after he'd turned it off.

"I'll tell you all you want to hear about the play, but don't ask about that."

"About the wedding? Why not? It's the middle of March now, so clock's ticking. I thought you guys were shooting for late April, just like Adam and I did last year."

Crowley put the kettle in its cradle and punched the button rather too hard.

"Something like that. We haven't fixed a date. As for the play, the local paper says this morning that Aziraphale's a competent and charming Prospero, if a bit stiff, and that the bloke playing Ariel steals the show. The lovers are fine. The rest of the retinue, not so much. The actor playing Sebastian thinks he's funny, but for a role that should be funny, that never works. It didn't work the first time this play was staged, take it from me. We've got a strong Caliban and an even better pair of fools following him about, so that's all right. The tech crew have got to get their act together."

Sophia stared at the steaming cup he set in front of her. The kettle hadn't boiled.

"I'll stay for tea and then be going," she said hesitantly, "unless you want me to come to the show with you tonight. I assume you're going again? Or not. Totally fine if not."

"If you wouldn't mind terribly," Crowley said, sounding relieved. "Leaving, I mean. Aziraphale will be home for a little while before he's got to go back for curtain-up."

Why on earth is something always wrong? thought Sophia, and sipped her tea.

"Crowley," she ventured softly, "I'm not like what you call most humans, am I?"

He bent down, eyes fierce with sudden tenderness, and kissed her forehead.

"Never," he said. "And you know bloody well that I'd have told you if you were."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Wrong, Aziraphale thought, painting over the patchy spot in the backdrop a second time. We had it all wrong. The pacing was off, entrances and exits weren't tight enough, and Ariel had acted circles around everyone (Crowley wouldn't take the stage for another week yet). He touched up a bare spot about the size of a pin-head. There.

He'd had a pleasant enough morning at home, of course. He hadn't gone for drinks after curtain-down the night before on account of Rani having left right away in order to keep a long-distance telephone rendezvous with a relative in Karachi. On the drive home, Crowley had been pleasant, if somewhat reserved in his commentary. They'd retired early and slept till eight, which was early rising for Crowley of a Saturday, but left Aziraphale a good two hours in which to make it up to him before returning to the theatre to help with the touch-ups he was now finding miserably slow work.

Aziraphale's grip on the paintbrush faltered at the thought of Crowley flushed and responsive beneath him, inside him, not three hours before. He'd have drawn it out longer, he reflected, would have ridden Crowley more slowly if he'd been at leisure.

He sucked in his breath and licked a spot of paint off his thumbnail. The acrid taste brought back a memory equally as vivid and intimate: Crowley bent over him in the blue dusk outside Tadfield Manor, sunglasses having slid far enough down the bridge of his nose to reveal eyes far more concerned than he'd have ever let on.

Someone's hand fell on Aziraphale's shoulder. He cleared his throat, embarrassed.

“So that's what it's like when you're thinking with what's below the belt,” Rani said dryly. “Good to know. Might come in handy next time I catch you distracted.”

Aziraphale released the breath he'd been holding. “Your discretion leaves something to be desired, dear girl,” he said, somewhat huffily in spite of his best efforts to the contrary. “I admire your self-sufficiency and pride in being single, but please do try to understand what it's like for those of us with loved ones who want looking after.”

“With your idea of looking after,” Rani remarked, “he must want for nothing.” She studied Aziraphale's handiwork and shot him a dubious glance. “You must be preoccupied, poor lads, what with the wedding. You've waited an awfully long time.”

“We haven't set a date,” said Aziraphale, brushing the matter aside, “but it'll be soon, I don't doubt. You'll be among the first to know.” He sighed, studied the patch he'd been painting, and had to agree that repeating the same few strokes over and over hadn't done much good. “I wouldn't dream of leaving this unfinished. Let me fix it.”

“Are you kidding?” Rani asked, prying the paintbrush out of his hand. “Go home and spoil your Anthony. Don't you blush at me. Curtain-call's six o'clock, so look sharp!”

“Bless you,” Aziraphale said. He returned her warm, dry kiss to the cheek and fled.

Much though he normally enjoyed the walk, he called a cab and made it home in eight minutes instead of fifteen. He checked the garden first, but all he got for his trouble was a thorough tripping-up by six eager ducks. He gave each one of them a shred of hastily miracled croissant (still a guilty favorite they shared) and got enough of a lead to make it through the patio door without any of them following him inside.

Crowley was in the kitchen stirring something doughy and unpleasant-looking.

“I found this recipe online,” he explained, licking a bit of the stuff off his knuckle. “Too savory, damn! It's that thing you liked from the sweet-shop just a few streets away from our hotel in Kyoto, and I don't think the recipe's working the way it should—”

Aziraphale kissed him quiet and got one elegantly arched eyebrow for his trouble.

“Leave it for now. I'll have Pippa fetch us some mochi next time she's in Bristol.”

“Bad day on the set, I gather. Too many divas, not enough paintbrushes?”

“Crowley, by now I'd have expected much better. Don't be cruel; they're volunteers.”

“So are you, but somehow you get a free pass home for a few hours. How is that?”

“Rani understands that my obligations to you are, quite frankly, more important.”

“Meaning she caught you with your head in the—hmmmngh. Enough said.”

Copping a feel en route to the sofa wasn't the wisest move Aziraphale had ever made, as it resulted in Crowley going dead-weight and dragging him to the floor on the wrong side of the coffee table. The plush carpeting was finally set to prove its worth.

“Sophia stopped by,” Crowley panted, “with a load of your books and an ungodly amount of coffee.” He sighed and wished his shirt-buttons undone while Aziraphale was busy unfastening his trousers. “I don't know how you can stand the bent pages, angel. I spent forty-five minutes undoing some damage to that—gah, what—”

“I find both your reserve and your cookery devastatingly attractive,” Aziraphale told him, leaving the nipple he'd bent to tease with his teeth in favor of pinching the other between thumb and forefinger. “But I'd prefer to hear about your social call later.”

“Wh—why's that?” Crowley managed, his back arching involuntarily at the contact. “I like the fact that you've got a real mouth on you. You know. Um. Talkative.”

“I can think of a better use for it,” Aziraphale told him, and abandoned his efforts across Crowley's chest in favor of slipping one hand down the front of his shorts.

Crowley hissed, clutching at Aziraphale. Their remaining clothes vanished, leaving the progress of Aziraphale's hand no mystery to the observer (if they'd but had any).

“Except those are called fingers,” Crowley pointed out. “You're doing it wrong.”

Aziraphale gave Crowley's cock a firm, teasing twist and set his lips to the task.

“I don't know, dear boy,” he murmured against the tip. “We'll see about that.”

Although neither one of them said much for the next few minutes, the room was far from quiet. Aziraphale had come to ruthlessly enjoy Crowley's complete inability to stifle (in the crook of his arm or in the palm of Aziraphale's free hand, which he often dragged into place expressly for the purpose) the sounds he made, however hard he tried. Holding him still for more than a few minutes was similarly impossible.

With a groan, Aziraphale relented when Crowley pushed him off and up and shimmied his way down until their bodies fit together comfortably and their foreheads touched. “Impossible to please,” Aziraphale gasped, kissing him hard. “What do you want?”

Crowley rolled them side by side and pressed against Aziraphale's sweat-slick hip.

“Just this,” he said tersely. “That and your hands pretty much everywhere.”

Breathlessly, Aziraphale obliged him. Easy enough, even in the thick of it, to stroke Crowley from neck to sides to buttocks to thighs and back again. He shuddered uncontrollably, whatever he was trying to say lost in the curve of Aziraphale's neck, his release spattering Aziraphale's belly, thighs, and the luxurious carpet besides.  There was nothing left to do but follow suit, so Aziraphale did.

"Excitable," he sighed, thoroughly sated, and kissed Crowley's cheek.

"Wound up," Crowley countered, leaning into it, "no small thanks to you."

Aziraphale let his hands rest at the small of Crowley's back, following his breath.

“Rani's after us for a date,” he said eventually. “Not just Pippa now, I'm afraid.”

“Add Sophia to the list,” Crowley muttered. “Look, all it'll take is ringing up the registrar two weeks in advance. Nagging harpies, the whole lot. We have time.”

Aziraphale pursed his lips, but he couldn't quite bring himself to respond.

Not that stalling wasn't characteristic of Crowley—in fact, he did it all the time, even in matters small and mundane—but in this particular case, it was puzzling and even slighly worrying. He'd been the one to insist on adding a layer of ceremony to vows that were, as far as Aziraphale was concerned, set in proverbial stone ages ago.

“There's the reception to consider, although I won't hear of fairy lights this time.”

“Then we'll have it catered,” Crowley replied, drowsy against Aziraphale's chest. “I'm not cooking for my own bloody wedding, and Mandy's a guest this time, not staff.”

"Are you coming to see the show tonight?" Aziraphale asked, mussing Crowley's hair.

"I'm afraid not," Crowley said. "Uriel's popping by for a Tribe marathon. She liked the episodes I showed her last week, and I think she fancies Bruce Parry. Or wants to determine what that tattoo on his arse is, at least. Google doesn't even know."

"You and your documentaries," Aziraphale sighed. "Perhaps I'll ring Raphael—"

"Unfortunately, Uriel's coming here because he's going over to tend one of Anathema's brats who got so intoxicated at Mandy's last night that she's plastered to the sofa."

"Oh dear," Aziraphale murmured. "Well, then, it's off to the pub for drinks with the cast afterward. Shall I text the location when I know it so the two of you can join us?"

"We'll see," said Crowley, and folded in closer, wings rising for a hesitant stretch.

Aziraphale combed some feathers loose, brow furrowed while Crowley couldn't see.

"So much for Raphael's resignation," he said, but it didn't lighten the mood one bit.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Three pints of Strongbow and a chaser consisting of Jack Daniel's, Bacardi, and Coke," Rafe observed cheerfully, removing both hands from Janet's abdomen in favor of shining Mandy's clunky utility torch directly in Janet's watery eyes. "Good one!"


"My insides feel funny," Janet muttered, covering her eyes once he'd set aside the torch. "And empty. I thought I was going to puke again, but I guess that accupressure thing you did kind of worked." She grimaced. "Can you teach Natalie how to do it?"

Mandy watched from the doorway, arms folded across her chest. Good job Iván's working late, she thought. Who'd want to deal with this circus? I don't even.

Meanwhile, Sophia was frog-marching Natalie back from the kitchen, where she'd presumably given her kid sister a lecture covering the basics of Thou Shalt Not Leave Thy Twin Drooling In a Puddle of Her Own Puke All Night On a Well Meaning Friend's Sofa. They stopped in the doorway next to Mandy, watching intently as Rafe gave Janet's arms a vigorous rub-down and then set one hand against the pulse-point of her neck and the other over her heart. There wasn't anything pervy about it, either.

"What's your day job?" Mandy asked. "Are you a nurse or a paramedic or something?"

Rafe turned to look at her, his hands firm and sure on Janet's body. "Doctor," he said with an unforced smile. "For years, darling, so you can be sure I won't kill her."

"You're still young," Mandy replied, feeling confrontational. Aziraphale and Crowley being cagey about what they'd done for a living was one thing, but these screwball friends of theirs being vague about it, too, was quite another. "Why did you quit?"

Sophia punched Mandy in the arm. "What's your problem? Let him work. I didn't haul him over here for nothing. He knows his stuff. Janet's feeling better already."

Ignoring a thoroughly bewildered (and incredibly butt-hurt) Natalie, Mandy took hold of Sophia's arm and hauled her into the kitchen, slamming the door behind them. "Why is your whole fucking family friends with a bunch of fucking whack-jobs?"

"You were friends with a couple of said whack-jobs well before you met my family!"

"All right, fine," Mandy conceded. "If not for them, I wouldn't be friends with you and your sisters. But, seriously, don't you ever find it strange that none of them will go into much detail about where they've come from or what they used to do with their lives before they became insanely wealthy people of leisure? Don't interrupt me; you know they must be loaded if they can afford to travel as much as they do, all four of them. If I've got it right, Aziraphale and Crowley just up and decided one day about nine years ago that they wanted to leave London and move out here on a lark. How much do you think they paid for that place, huh? Beach-front property in this area isn't cheap. Mum raised me all by herself on a council estate outside of Bristol. I've hated these smug bastards all my life, and, look at me, I ended up waiting on them."

"And friends with two of them for how many years, even?" Sophia asked.

Mandy closed her eyes, frustrated, and rapped the work-top with her fist.

"Come November, it'll be nine years exactly. Did I ever tell you how dreary that winter was out here, how hard it rained? The sky was so grey the day they first came. They sat in that table by the window like they always do and stared out at the sea. They had a kind of halfhearted argument that was too quiet for me to hear, and by the end of it, they had each other by the hands across the table. I thought they were lovers already. Everybody did. Can you believe it took them till just before Christmas? How many years do you have to know somebody before you decide to move in with them first and then, only then, decide you might as well call a spade a spade?"

Sophia looked hurt and a little confused: finally, something Crowley hadn't told her.

Mandy shouldn't have felt so smug, but she took a kind of vicious pleasure in knowing that some information about him was still hers. Not hers alone, perhaps, but she didn't really count Pippa. You couldn't hate somebody who knew everything about everybody within a ten-mile radius. Local gossips had certain inalienable rights.

"I'm worried about them," Sophia blurted. "Something's still wrong!"

"Way to change the subject," Mandy sighed. "What do you mean?"

"Crowley's dragging his feet about setting a date. Hadn't you noticed?"

"Not really. He's fickle. There's no making him do anything till he's ready."

"He's the one who proposed! Well, sort of. Pippa guilted Aziraphale into getting him a ring in the lead-up to my wedding, and then I helped Crowley sort out one for Aziraphale, and then they took that trip to Kyoto that seemed like a honeymoon—"

"Even their names!" Mandy seethed. "Anthony Crowley is normal enough, I'll grant you, and I've known enough blokes to prefer going by their surname, but seriously, who has a name like Aziraphale Fell, or whatever the hell his paperwork says? Okay, you get some weird old family names, it's true; that's what he chalks it up to, and to a point, I believe it, because heaven knows your family is ample proof of the same phenomenon. Soph, I just..." She spread her hands helplessly. "I don't know. Something's not right. What if they're war criminals or something? Well, probably not Crowley, but Aziraphale just creeps me out sometimes, the misogynistic twat."

Sophia had gone still. Mandy touched her arm and found her skin strangely cold.

"You're shivering," she murmured. "Soph, you're prickling all over—"

"Janet," she said, turned on her heel, and yanked open the kitchen door.

"She's fine," Mandy said, peering over her shoulder into the living room.

Oddly enough, Sophia's eyes weren't fixed on her smiling younger sister, who now at least had normal human coloring in her cheeks and a fresh glass of water in her hand. A fresh glass of water. Unless Rafe had filled the glass in the bathroom...

Sophia's eyes swept from Rafe's shoulders to the air six feet above his head.

"No matter how many times I see..." she murmured, and then fell silent again.

"We'll get it out of them," Mandy said, patting Sophia's shoulder. "Just you wait."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Ligur didn't like delivering the post, but he supposed somebody had to do it. He just wished that somebody had been an individual better suited to deciphering letters and sigils than his own impatient self. He squinted at the next envelope on the stack.

"Well, says here you're for Dagon," he told it. "Woss this made of?" he wondered aloud, running his grubby fingers across the smooth, pale surface. It rasped unpleasantly in a way that vellum did not. The ink steamed and bubbled a little, but the neat handwriting remained clear. Something about the slant of it bothered him. "S'not from a quill, is it," he muttered, licking his thumb, and smudged at the letters again. This time, the ink didn't react, although the envelope got a bit soggy. "Huh."

The walk to Dagon's office and apartments always seemed like a small eternity.

In all unfairness, it was. Hell's highways and byways weren't difficult for nothing.

Ligur knocked heavily on the outer entrance, dispirited and out of breath. It took a further indeterminate amount of time for somebody to answer, and when the heavy, ancient door finally opened, it definitely wasn't Dagon's face that greeted him.

Tanith—should he be this pleased to have remembered her name?—smiled.

"Hey," she said. "I remember you. Did that mission of yours turn out okay?"

"Dunno," Ligur admitted somewhat dubiously. "Me an' Hastur got the run-around."

"That's okay," Tanith said. "It happens to all of us. What have you got there?"

"Mail for Himself. Not Himself Himself, 'course, but you know what I mean."

Tanith extended one shapely white arm. She might still have looked somewhat like an angel, but she wasn't exactly skinny like Ligur remembered most of them being. She was only just a little taller than Ligur was, but shorter than Dagon by a head, and her shoulders and hips were both broader than her narrow waist. Some meat on her, Hastur would have said (a phrase for humans who might make good eating).

"Give it here," she said, reaching for the envelope. "I'll see that Dagon gets it."

Ligur started to hand the letter over, but drew it back at the last second.

"You don't live 'round here," he said. "Wot you doin' at work all the time?"

"Oh, I do live here," Tanith replied. "At least now I do. In sin, no less."

Ligur considered this, nodded approvingly, and then handed over the envelope.

"Wotcher. Just makin' double sure," he said, tipping his imaginary hat to her. He'd had a hat once. He'd got it ages ago for one of those excursions Topside, maybe even the time he and Hastur had first seen a horseless carriage. "Give the old man my worst."

"Where did this come from?" Tanith asked, staying him. She'd even gone so far as to step outside, her pale bare feet luminous in the haze. "Did you happen to see?"

Ligur shook his head. "All they do is hand 'em to me, and I get on with it."

"Do you know what this is?" Tanith asked him, the corners of her mouth slightly upturned again. She smiled more than anyone Ligur knew except for Hastur, and it wasn't the same kind of smile. She smiled like only one other person he knew.

"No," Ligur said glumly. "Haven't got the faintest bloody clue."

"It's paper," she said. "Plain, old-fashioned human office paper."

Ligur shrugged and turned to go. He didn't like thinking about Crowley.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Uriel set her glass of wine on the coffee table, flailing at the screen.

"Pause it!" she exclaimed. "There. Right there. As he's walking away."

Crowley sighed and waved at the screen; the image froze. She felt instantly stupid.

"Sorry, I know, could've done it myself. Okay, so what the fuck are we looking at?"

Uriel watched Crowley squint at the screen. She loved watching him make faces.

"Honest to God, I couldn't tell you," he said, flabbergasted. "I've Googled it at least a hundred times since this series first hit the airwaves, and I swear nobody bloody knows. I've scoured every fan forum you could possibly imagine."

"Next time we go to London, we should stalk him," Uriel said. She'd drunk just enough to think that was a good idea, and also just enough to forget she could have easily paused the DVD herself. Judging by his expression, Crowley wasn't impressed.

"I don't even know if he lives in London," he admitted. "Hmmm."

"You're giving it serious thought," Uriel said, jabbing a finger at his chest. They were on the sofa, and although there had been space between them at the outset, they'd managed to meet somewhere in the middle, companionably shoulder to shoulder. "You want to get a close look at that ink, not least because he's got a cute behind."

"How many times do I have to tell you that humans don't really do it for me?"

"Whoo, finally. Dish!" Uriel cried, slinging one arm around his neck. "Do you think Raphael's hot? He'd kill me for telling you as much, but he thinks you're pretty easy on the eyes. I think he'd do you if there weren't obvious consequences."

Crowley's rapid blinking was as almost as endearing as his pink cheeks.

"That's assuming I'd do him," he said humorlessly. "Which, um, no."

Uriel smirked at him. "Okay. Lacking repercussions, would you do me?"

"At what point did repercussions become shorthand for Aziraphale?"

"Shush, you're spoiling my fun. I asked you a question. Would you?"

Crowley shook his head in disbelief. "How did we get from Bruce Parry's arse to whether I'd shag anything that moves? What's in this wine? I didn't tamper with it."

"So you won't do Bruce Parry and you won't do Raphael. I get it. But that still—"

Crowley snatched the remote control off the coffee table and shut off the television.

"What part of I am getting married within a month's time don't you understand?"

"HA!" Uriel crowed. "You set a date, then? Oh my gosh. When is it? When?"

Crowley sank back against the sofa and drew his knees up under his chin.

"No, the date's not set. You would have known by now. Not set, but soon."

Uriel turned and regarded him critically, one forearm resting on his shoulder.

"Honey, you do know this is some kind of hot mess right now, right?"

Crowley shrugged and gave her a cautious glance. "Why do you say that?"

"You remember how much planning Adam's wedding took. Not inconsiderable."

"This is different," Crowley said. "It'll be a relatively simple affair."

"True, but you're having a reception or else," she told him. "And bachelor parties. You and Aziraphale can't see each other the night before. It's tradition."

"We should just leave the whole affair to you. Spare ourselves the trouble."

"Why are you holding out?" Uriel implored him. "Aziraphale doesn't even know, and although he doesn't seem too fussed, you know he won't stay like that indefinitely."

"Funny, but he stayed lots of other ways for millennia on end. He's got a knack."

Uriel grabbed Crowley's chin roughly and yanked his head around to look at her.

"Your neck's so bendy," she said, and that's when it hit her. "Oh. It's like last time, only you can't bring yourself to ask me to strike them down with blight even now."

Crowley twisted away from her and curled up in the far corner of the sofa.

"Nice try, but that's not it," he said. "I can make the roses bloom in time."

"Then what the hell's your problem, Crowley? Will you keep him waiting forever?"

"I'm waiting for a reply. A very specific reply, one that might not even come. I'll give it a fortnight. I know that's cutting things close, but you've got to trust me on this."

Uriel retreated to her own corner and flopped back against the overstuffed leather.

"You still haven't answered my question," she said, poking Crowley's shin with her toe.

"You still haven't sussed out what's on Bruce Parry's arse," he said, waving the television back on. "You keep your eyes peeled, and I'll go get my laptop."

No wonder they couldn't hold you, Uriel thought. Slippery doesn't begin to cover it.

Chapter Text

Crowley studied his reflection critically in the dust-coated dressing room mirror.

He'd seldom had call for wearing cosmetics, much less stage make-up. The effect unnerved him, never mind that he'd done the job himself. His eyes were luminous and strange, stood out more than usual. He rubbed at the liner on his eyelids, but all it did was produce a smudged effect that threw his eyes into even sharper relief.

Aziraphale's reflection hovered at his shoulder, already in full costume.

"Gregory was good, my dear, but you're far better. Remember that."

"I'm not so sure," Crowley said, reaching for the brush and powder compact. Aziraphale got his hands on both before Crowley could dust over the latest round of fussing on his eyelids and did it for him. "The audiences loved him last weekend, and so did the critics." Aziraphale lifted the brush away, so Crowley opened his eyes.

"You'll do," Aziraphale told him. "Remember the look on Rani's face at our audition?"

"It wasn't my audition," Crowley reminded him. "And I was looking at you."

"Terrible of me to have tricked you into it, but I just knew—"

"You didn't trick me into anything," Crowley sighed. "Who's here tonight?"

"Pippa and Robert," Aziraphale said, brushing some powder off Crowley's shoulder. "Mandy's with them. Iván had to work. Adam and Sophia are just a few rows ahead."

Crowley rubbed the corner of his mouth. "What about the others?"

"Uriel convinced Raphael you needed the first two nights of the run without him—how do these young people put it?—creeping on you, so they aren't coming till Sunday."

"His etiquette training is shaping up nicely, I suppose. How long have we got?"

"Ten minutes till curtain," Aziraphale said. "Is there anything you'd like to run?"

Crowley shook his head. "The less I touch this, the better. You know that, angel."

Rani squashed them together from behind, grinning at their combined reflection.

"Break a leg, my lads, and thank you so, so very much for stepping in like this," she told Crowley, smacking a lipstick-heavy kiss to his temple. "You'll blow Gregory out of the water. If the critics don't say you've outdone him, I owe our dear Caliban a fiver."

Crowley set his chin in his hands. "Your pocketbook's confidence is touching."

She let go of them and dashed off to hug Miranda and Ferdinand in similar fashion.

"I," Crowley announced, "am about to forget lines I've known for four hundred years."

"Four hundred and two now, isn't it?" Aziraphale mused. "How time does fly."

"You're not helping. Just so you know. Pippa said it's best to point things out."

"Yes," Aziraphale sighed, stroking his cheek, "and I'm grateful." The lights went off and flickered back on, and Rani was shouting something about getting this shite on the road. "It's off to the front with me, I'm afraid. I'll see you out there."

"Wouldn't miss it for the worlds," Crowley told him, and winked. "Go to, go to."

Rani would never believe him if he were to tell her the reason why he'd known these lines by heart since the Year of Our Lord sixteen-hundred and eleven. Back then, he hadn't exactly intended to audition for the role, either. He'd only been hanging around at court because the tempting had been easy and he'd rarely, if ever, had to pay for his own drinks. He missed James the First, true, but he missed Elizabeth even more.

Hastur had turned up for the premiere; Crowley had seen him lurking at the back of the gallery. He'd snagged Crowley afterward for a bit of mockery; although, if Crowley wasn't mistaken, he'd actually rather enjoyed the novelty of the experience.

Caught up in moody reminiscence, Crowley kept to himself until his first entrance.

Aziraphale's eyes brightened as he crept onstage, vivid even under the harsh lights.

"Approach, my Ariel," he said, delivering the line as if filled with the uncertain, simmering excitement of their unplanned audition all over again. "Come."

“All hail, great master!” said Crowley. “Grave sir, hail! I come to answer...”

The show passed in a whirl of quicksilver exchanges and thoroughly unrehearsed choreography. Crowley was grateful that the rest of the cast was competent enough to respond in spite of the fact he'd scarcely rehearsed with them more than twice, and Aziraphale stealing kisses and gropes in the darkened wings certainly did a great deal to ramp up the sexual tension of their interpretation. He was sure he'd never before heard isolated instances of sniffling in the audience upon the granting of Ariel's freedom. Moreover, he couldn't remember the role of Ariel drawing so much laughter, and not the kind of laughter he'd got from Hastur. In it, he heard sheer delight.

When the curtain fell and the lights went down once they'd taken their final bows, Aziraphale had to brace Crowley on his feet. He'd spent so much of his existence intent upon pulling strings behind the scenes, mucking about in wet fields at night.

"Were we alone, I would have you right here," Aziraphale whispered in his ear.

"As it happens, we're not," Crowley shot back, "so hold that thought, would you?"

Out in the lobby, freshly scrubbed of his make-up, Crowley scarcely heard what Mandy and Sophia were saying to him, largely because they were both speaking at once and neither one had ceased hanging on his arm (Mandy to his right, Sophia to his left) for the better part of fifteen minutes. Rani, Pippa, and Aziraphale were too busy being insufferable at each other to rescue him, and Robert was so terrified he'd latched onto his grandmother's legs and wouldn't budge. Adam grinned at him somewhat grimly.

"Was it better than the first time around, d'you reckon?" he asked. So much for having hoped he'd forgot most of what he'd seen when he'd had a rifle through the contents of Crowley's head as an eleven year-old. Adam's memory was astonishing.

"Bizarrely enough, yes," Crowley answered without hesitation. He shook Mandy off, handed Sophia back to Adam, and forced his way over to where Aziraphale was not-so-subtly congratulating himself to both his best friend and his director.

He knelt down and brushed several handbags aside, peering glumly at Robert.

"They never stop wittering away," Crowley told him. "I know how it is."

"There's way too many people here," said the boy. "I don't like it."

"Neither do I," said Crowley, and meant it. "Why don't we go out to the car?"

"Your car?" asked Robert, his eyes widening. "The really weird black one?"

"Don't know that I'd call it weird," Crowley said, extending one hand, "but, yeah, that one. It does look different from modern cars, I'll grant, but it runs ten times better."

"A million times better!" Rob exclaimed, launching himself at Crowley. "Can I drive?"

"No," Crowley said, rising with the boy in his arms. "But you can sit at the wheel."

To Mandy's consternation, between three separate cars, they all ended up at the café.

"I don't care if you're on break," she muttered to Iván, who'd nipped out to greet them. "Just get us a table for eight. You know those fold-out ones in the back?"

"I don't think David will like that," Iván said. "But I will try my best."

"Blame it on me," said Mandy, cheerfully. "My reputation's bad enough already."

"I had not thought of that," replied Iván, and dashed off as quickly as he'd come.

The fold-out tables weren't necessary, as two tables along the back windows vacated almost instantly. It took a couple of new waitresses about ten minutes to clear them.

"You must like being waited on these days," Pippa told Mandy smugly.

"It's nice," Mandy agreed, meeting Crowley's interested glance. "I can't lie."

"Hear, hear!" Rani shouted, tapping her glass of water with a fork. "To the cast!"

"Most of whom aren't here," Crowley muttered, but he raised his glass anyway. Rob, still planted firmly in Crowley's lap, picked up a butter knife and clacked it against the sippy-cup of milk Pippa had produced from her handbag. "To the bloody show."

"It wasn't very bloody at all," Rob reminded him. "Not like that movie you hate."

Sophia managed to spill some of her water all over Mandy's hand, which resulted in ice cubes everywhere. Crowley didn't think he could get away with clearing the mess, so he made do with sending Rob after the nearest wait-staff instead. Cute children were less likely to incur wrath than seemingly late-thirtysomething regulars.

Appetizers and wine worked miracles for their rag-tag party's collective mood.

"How are plans coming along, then?" Pippa asked. "Do you need any help?"

In spite of the warm, lively burden in his lap, Crowley felt suddenly cold.

"Any day now," said Aziraphale, trying for a reassuring tone. "We're ironing out a few last-minute scheduling complications, thank you so much for understanding—"

"You've got to inform the registrar of your intentions sixteen days in advance," said Adam, unexpectedly. "On account of your intentions needing to be posted for fifteen days. I don't think anybody's going to object, least of all me, but there's that."

The whole table fell silent, Adam's level-headed statement snuffing out the chaos.

Crowley's blood ran even colder. "We're aware of that," he said, lying through his teeth, hoping that no one but Adam would know he actually hadn't been. "Very likely late April," he forged on. "There's a month and a half yet. Be patient."

"Some of us are worrying about what to wear," said Pippa, tetchily.

"Some of us are worrying about you guys, full stop," Sophia added.

Crowley put Robert down on the floor and spent the next thirty seconds staring hopelessly at his spinach dip while Aziraphale did his best to salvage the situation. There's no use waiting any longer, he told himself. I should forget the whole thing.



* * *




Duke Hastur was having an exceptionally bad day, not to mention a lonely one.

By most demons' standards, that was quite an accomplishment. Granted, so was the audio-surveillance charm he'd managed to set up on Dagon's premises. Appropriately enough, his bad day was courtesy of the conversation he was currently overhearing.

"We ought to get back to him soon," Dagon's assistant was saying. In Hastur's view, whatever else she happened to be (Slut, he thought), Tanith was a complication. "This affair's on behalf of his humans, largely, and humans don't like to be kept waiting."

"No matter how safe you insist it is," Dagon replied, "we'd still be taking a risk."

"Sir," said Tanith, softly, but her inflection suggested a connotation closer to any of a colorful array of sickeningly affectionate endearments, "he remembers you fondly."

"I remember him fondly, too, Saint Peter take us all," Dagon muttered. "Why do you think I bothered looking in on him for all those years, had you do all of that research?"

"They're like us," insisted Tanith, loudly and impatiently. "The only difference is that they've carved out a space for themselves on Earth and we're content to stay here!"

"The Principality," Dagon said. "You're certain that he poses no threat to us?"

"He posed a pretty good threat to Asmodai, but the fucker was gunning for it."

Hastur flinched and covered his eyes, and then furiously recovered himself.

"I'm still not clear on what happened to you," Dagon said at length. "You were missing for what seemed like an eternity, and then there you were, asleep at your desk."

Hastur hunched down in his coat. All he could remember was getting ready for what promised to be a bloody good show (and it had been a long time since he'd treated Ligur to one), and then running from the one Archangel that no demon in his right mind would ever want to cross. Not that demons tended to have right minds.

"Let's not talk about that," Tanith replied. "I told you what I could recall."

At the latter half of the statement, Hastur's ears pricked up. Too uncannily familiar, dreams that seemed like memories and memories that might have been dreams...

"Tanith, dear girl, I want him to be happy," said Dagon, wearily. "Is he?"

"Insofar as those who choose an existence with humans can be happy. But I get the impression from this letter that he'd really like to have us there. Nobody else would know us, and given they only moved to that area about a decade ago, they've got plenty of secrets yet. We can issue ourselves bodies using your clearance, right?"

Hastur studied his filthy fingernails. He'd been wearing this thing since he'd first got it—as many chose to do, even after returning to Hell—and, likewise, Ligur had held onto his. So they hadn't kept their corporations in pristine nick; bodies were fussy things, what with requiring baths all the time and insisting on haircuts. He'd done a pretty good job by sheer force of will, maintaining a bare minimum of presentability. And Ligur always looked very, very presentable, if he had any right to say as much.

He'd been wondering where Ligur was for most of the time he'd been lurking on Dagon's doorstep. Lurking just wasn't the same without his companion on hand. Dagon sighed heavily, sounding as if he was about to give in to Tanith's nagging.

"The ceremony's not likely to be held in a church, is it? That's the deal-breaker."

"Why?" Tanith asked, just as confused as Hastur felt hearing church and ceremony.

Almost too softly for the charm to carry, Dagon said two words: "Holy Water."

"So don't dip your fingers in the stoup!" Tanith snapped. "It's just common sense. Anyway, I don't think they're the sort to go in for a church, sentimental human friends be damned. I may not know the guy very well, but I like him. A lot. Uriel likes him, and that counts for even more. Please, please don't say anything awful about Archangels. Just deal with it. Our old co-worker's marrying somebody who far outranks her and Raphael, and has been with him for ages besides. Are you actually worried about the presence of Holy Water? I'm pretty sure it's all down to how seriously you take that shit. I've handled angelic weapons and come to no harm."

Once again, Dagon's response was measured and unnaturally quiet. "What you're forgetting is that Holy Water wasn't devised by either side, neither Above nor Below. Human conviction makes it what it is, and human conviction alone."

"Most humans who bless water in order to sanctify it believe demons are a bad thing; therefore, it annihilates demons? Have I got that right, or is it deadly to angels, too?"

"I don't know. But an old colleague of ours insists he once saw it at work firsthand."

Unsettled and fuming, Hastur snapped his fingers. The charm went dead, leaving the scorched air abuzz with Dagon's last words. There were few things worse than hearing oneself talked about, regardless of the light in which one happened to be cast.

"You dunt look too happy," said a voice off to Hastur's left. "Situation normal?"

Hastur turned to Ligur, doing his best to conceal how pleased he was to see him.

"I knew you'd turn up sooner or later," he said. "How about another trip Upstairs?"

"Dunno," said Ligur, hesitantly. "That tall one with the spear, is he still..."

"We won't be alone," Hastur told him. "Strength in numbers. We go when they go."

"Judgin' by what I heard, they're takin' some personal trip for a wedding. No thanks."

Hastur resisted the urge to smack Ligur's head hard enough to take it off his neck.

"Do you realize they got an invitation? Furthermore, do you know who delivered it?"

Ligur's expression went from clueless to clued-in faster than Hastur had ever seen.

"Oh, blimey," he muttered. "That funny white one with the waterproof ink."

Hastur let this sink in for another few minutes, as the pay-off was surely worth it.

Ligur's eyes went round and glassy, repeating one word to himself: wedding.

"Does that mean Crawly an' that one angel Dagon says is really dangerous—"

"Yes," said Hastur, gruffly, cutting him off. "But the serpent's dangerous, too."



* * *




After the show, drinks, and dinner, Aziraphale found himself too knackered (mentally, if not physically) to make good on his curtain-call promise. Which, given Crowley had climbed into bed clothes and all while Aziraphale stripped down was just as well. He was asleep by the time Aziraphale settled in beside him. Easy enough to wish Crowley's clothes away, lest he wake overheated and irritable in the wee hours.

Aziraphale woke just before seven in the morning, feeling well rested, although Crowley was still dead to the world (and waking him before eight was never, under any circumstances, advisable). He got up, donned his robe, and went to the kitchen.

Upon opening the breadbox and finding it occupied, he got in a decently long lecture regarding why food-storage areas did not make favorable homes for mice. The little scoundrel got away with a quizzical expression and a belly full of crumbs, as usual.

Aziraphale had just settled down with a duck-egg omelet to watch some breakfast telly when Crowley straggled groggily into the living room and flopped down on the sofa against his side. He let Crowley tuck in under his left arm and burrow against his chest, much though it made effective use of his fork somewhat difficult.

"Why do you watch this drivel," Crowley muttered, yawning. It wasn't a question.

"Because I feel better for keeping up with events in London," Aziraphale told him, waving the volume down a few notches. "My dear, your nightshirt's inside out."

"Not my fault you didn't put me in it properly when you took off all the rest."

Aziraphale set his fork on the plate and gave Crowley's back a thorough rubbing.

"Are you hungry? Our whiskered friend's been kind enough to leave some brioche."

Crowley fumbled the fork off the plate and used it to steal a few bites of omelet.

"Why didn't you add any cheese? I've got that aged gouda you like in the fridge."

"Because you know full well I'm more likely to burn the whole endeavor if I do."

"Noted," said Crowley, and fed Aziraphale the next bite. "Want me to make it?"

"Please," replied Aziraphale, all too gratefully, and hustled Crowley to his feet.

Once the cooking was finished and the coffee brewed (none for Crowley, though: he'd made himself a cup of sencha), Crowley seemed far too hungry for conversation. Inasmuch as taking him back to bed after he'd eaten would be the logical next step, Aziraphale's thoughts turned back to the night before. He frowned into his mug.

"I do hate to belabor the issue," he said, "but Adam made an expedient point."

Crowley looked up from cutting his second full omelet into neat little squares.

"Give it till Monday," he said. "Bureaucrats dislike being bothered on weekends."

"Please don't take this the wrong way," Aziraphale continued, taking a careful sip of coffee as his stomach twisted uncomfortably, "but if you're having second thoughts or if you've got any misgivings whatsoever, now would be the time—"

Crowley dropped his cutlery and covered his face, fingers clawing briefly at his closed eyes before creeping up into his disarrayed hair. He blinked tiredly at Aziraphale.

"It's nothing of the sort. Stupid, really, but the truth is that I thought I was being clever. And before I tell you what this is about, I'd like to reassure you that the party in question has only ever proved himself a decent sort, right up through our recent—"

"Crowley, you're rambling," said Aziraphale, mildly. "Er. What Pippa said about—"

"Telling each other when we're being sod-all useless twats, yes, good, got it! Uh. Right. What would you say if I told you I'd written to my old boss, you know, sort of thanking him for the hand he lent back there in the theatre when Tanith was bleeding out and asking him if he'd, um, consider turning up for an important event."

Aziraphale pressed both hands to his temples. "When you say your old boss, do you mean—" he paused, struggling to find words "—that is, dear boy, I assume you mean your immediate supervisor or some other individual nearer your own former station."

Crowley slumped in his chair and took a few slow, moody bites of his omelet.

"I mean that I asked Dagon if he'd at least consider coming to the reception."

"Oh," said Aziraphale, overwhelmed as unexpected relief washed over him. "Well, I should think there's no harm in that. He's been slow to RSVP, is that it?"

"It's not even like it was a formal invitation," Crowley said. "I just..."

On time for once, the Saturday post slipped through the front door and skittered across the floor tiles. Aziraphale went to fetch the whole lot, having caught sight of Hell's uncannily familiar stationery almost as soon as it had emerged from the slot.

"Yours, I believe," he said to Crowley, holding out the oversized vellum envelope.

Crowley's hands were shaking badly enough that it took him several tries to gesture the seal open. Just as a similar-looking missive had done three years earlier, it unfolded obediently in his grasp. His eyes flicked down the page, heedless of the fact that he'd let the envelope drop directly onto what was left of his omelet.

"What news?" Aziraphale asked. "Is it Dagon's response, or is it something else?"

Crowley dropped the letter in his lap and shrugged, clearing the envelope off his food.

"He says that he's giving it serious thought, but that he can't make any promises."

Aziraphale experienced a decent pang of guilt on top of his second wave of relief.

"Take comfort in the fact that it's not a flat-out refusal," he said, "and that we can finally contact the proper authorities and start planning the reception."

"Today's the Ides of March. If we call in Monday, we can arrange for the registrar to perform the ceremony as early as April Fool's Day. What, angel? Don't look at me like that! It's true. April first is the sixteenth day after notification; we'd be in the clear."

"What about the twentieth?" Aziraphale suggested. "That'd still be a week earlier than the date Adam and Sophia chose last year, and I'm sure your roses will be blooming."

"April twentieth is Easter Sunday," Crowley said. "Now who's playing silly buggers?"

"Then it's April Fool's, Easter, or somewhere in between. Take your pick!"

"Or we could just be sensible and go with the twenty-eighth. No? Why not?"

Aziraphale reached across the table and took hold of Crowley's hands.

"Because Pippa would rather not wait so long, and neither would I."

Crowley got to his feet and moved around the side of the table, letting go of Aziraphale's hands only when climbing into Aziraphale's lap demanded it. "I'd sooner risk foolishness than Rob demanding dyed duck-eggs as decorations."

"Wisely chosen, my dear," said Aziraphale, and simply held him there for a while.



* * *




Anathema shifted in her seat and let her dress shoes fall off. She'd never liked intermissions much, not least when the play in question benefited from tighter pacing when executed in one fell swoop. She grabbed Newt's arm and checked his watch.

"They should have resumed five minutes ago," she said. "I wish am-drams knew it's their job to show the professionals how things ought to be done, i.e. on time."

"Shhh," Newt replied. "This company's cheeky enough to get above themselves."

"This rarely happens at home," said Uriel, patting Anathema's hand. "I'll take you to see a few shows in Toronto sometime. You'll be so pleased."

On Uriel's other side, Raphael leaned forward and wagged his finger.

"She'd have you believe Canada's a haven of hyper-punctual propriety, but don't believe her for a second. It's all lies. Come visit San Francisco! We'll teach you not to mind chronic tardiness. Patience—by which I mean marijuana—is a virtue."

"In your world, resignation must actually mean gone homeopathic," Uriel said. "Just keep your mouth shut. You're scaring all of these proper British old ladies."

"The play's scaring all of these proper British old ladies," Newt amended cheerfully. "I think it's bloody well refreshing, don't you? Keeps the pensioners kicking."

"Rearrange the letters in subtext, and off you go," Anathema said. "Now hush up, all of you. The lights are coming down, and I don't want to miss this anagram."

One of the ladies in front of them, belatedly getting the joke, stifled a giggle.

"I'm getting to like this country," Raphael whispered to Uriel. "What if I don't want to go back? Could you stand to leave me here? I'll send you postcards and McVitie's."

"Shut it," Anathema hissed. "For now, I'd rather hear the arses onstage."

The lady in front of them giggled again, not at Stephano and Trinculo.

"It's a losing battle, my love," Newt whispered. "Arses and...subtext?"

"Oh God, we're going to get thrown out," Anathema choked under her breath, laughing so hard that struggling to keep silent was hindering her ability to breathe. In the lobby afterward, the lady who'd sat in front of them bought Anathema a drink.

Newt, finding this hilarious, retaliated by buying one for Anathema's benefactress.

"He's a keeper, darling," Raphael told Anathema, hanging casually on her shoulder.

"Three daughters later, he'd better be," she said, clinking her glass against his.

Aziraphale and Crowley turned up forty minutes later, both back in their street clothes and ever so slightly red in the cheeks. At first, Anathema thought it must have been on account of scrubbing off the stage make-up, but a closer look at Crowley revealed a certain endearing sheepishness that only public displays of affection could prompt.

"Well done, you two," Newt said, raising his glass. "That ought to please the press."

"It did!" Rani crowed, coming up behind her leading gents with two glasses of red wine. "Drink up, lads, you've earned it, and I won my bet! I'd take them on the road if I could. Ditch the rest of the lot and up the budget, if you know what I mean—"

"I do, but don't let them hear you," Anathema said, indicating a number of other cast members still milling about with friends and lamenting the fact that their show was finally over. She glanced from Crowley to Aziraphale, grinning. "Er—hear, hear!"

Rather than rise to the praise and deflect it with false modesty, Aziraphale glanced at Crowley, who reached inside his coat and produced three envelopes. With eyes lowered, half smiling, he handed one to Anathema, one to Rani, and one to Uriel.

Anathema worked her thumb under the flap and tore it. "If this is what I think..."

Uriel was already shrieking and hugging Crowley to death, whereas Raphael had worked his way around the crowd so that he could offer Aziraphale a handshake. Anathema leaned back against the bar next to Newt and glanced up at him.

"Matrimony's no picnic. Should we tell them what they're in for?"

Newt covered his smirk too late; Anathema was already laughing.

"Aside from lots of subtext, you mean?" he asked wryly.

Come second round, the lady bought drinks for them both.



* * *




Madame Tracy signed the cheque with a neat flourish and handed it over.

"For your trouble over these past few months, Ms. Hodges," she said.

"I've seen ledgers in a much worse state," said the accountant. She was sharply dressed, if a bit no-nonsense for Madame Tracy's taste. "In a previous life, I ran a conference-and-retreat center for corporate types. The premises needed massive renovations, and sorting out the finances? It was a nightmare. There'd been a fire."

"Ledgers literally in a worse state, then, I gather," said Madame Tracy. "How dreadful! To be honest with you, love, I know that Mister S did the best he could given limited staffing and other obstacles. Admirable, how he cracked on for so many years!"

Shadwell muttered in the adjoining room, indistinct over the sound of the telly.

"I've rarely seen such creative bookkeeping," Ms. Hodges agreed. "Inspired work."

"Stay for a cup of tea, won't you? Tell me how a sharp lass like yourself ended up out here in the middle of nowhere. You remind me of my niece. She went to Cambridge."

"It's a long story," said Ms. Hodges. "Maybe some other time. I used to be a nun."

"Good thing you got out, pretty thing like you," said Madame Tracy, winking.

Ms. Hodges didn't comment, but thanked Madame Tracy for fetching her coat and left.

"Witch-wumman, if ye ask me!" Shadwell bellowed energetically. "Workin' wi' numbers an' all, a member o' the fairer sex? Accountancy? Hah! Sorcery, the lot. Mark me."

"That's nice, Mister S," Madame Tracy said, taking his three-quarters empty pint of Guinness and replacing it with some water. "I'll go out and check the post, shall I?"

"Hmph," Shadwell said, eyes sidling back to the telly. "Nun, my arse. Sorcery."

Having the Witchfinder Army's accounts finally laid to rest was, to say the least, a weight off Madame Tracy's shoulders. She put on her slippers and hobbled down the front walk; there weren't many days her knees didn't act up anymore, but the pain wasn't as fierce today. Small mercies, she told herself, and opened the mailbox.

Once she'd carried the day's haul inside (always heavy of a Monday), she dumped a handful of take-away flyers in the trash bin and was left with a small, unassuming cream-colored envelope addressed both to herself and to Sergeant Shadwell.

Recognizing Aziraphale's distinctive handwriting on sight, she opened it.

She read the contents of the card twice, set it on the table, and gasped.

"Mister S! Oh, what surprising news. You'll never guess."

"Wedding or funeral," he said with dry clarity. "Which?"

"Wedding," she said. "I think I just won our little bet."



Chapter Text

Adam knocked on the cottage door. He could hear the others shuffling and clearing their throats behind him, entirely too uncomfortable to be delivering what was essentially really great news to a pair of old friends whom they all wished well.

Crowley opened the door, briefly looked pleased to see Adam, and then sort-of-frowned when he saw Sophia, Mandy, and Iván clustered ominously on the stairs. "Hi," he said, a bit less cheerfully than usual. "Did I miss something?"

"Nope," Adam said. "We're just here to offer our services, that's all."

Crowley sighed and opened the door wider, holding it so they could file in.

"Services?" he asked, returning Iván's apologetic salute. "To what end?"

"Soph and I figured we owe you one, so we'll take care of the decorations and all that stuff," Adam explained, nodding to Aziraphale as he belatedly wandered in. "Neither of us is as brilliant when it comes to cooking as these two, though," he continued, indicating Mandy and Iván, "so they're going to sort out food for the reception."

"As in cook it," Iván clarified. "If I may have the honor of using your kitchen."

"Nonsense," Aziraphale said. "We can just hire externally. You're all our guests."

"Crowley, would you talk some sense into him?" Sophia pleaded. "We want to do this."

"Both of us have proved ourselves competent enough to use your appliances," Mandy pointed out, tugging Iván in by the waist. "We'll even clean everything up afterward."

Adam squeezed Sophia's hand to reassure her, and then beamed at Crowley.

"You just worry about getting the ceremony set up and leave the rest to us."

Crowley muttered something that sounded a lot like bloody Antichrist Mind Tricks and shuffled over to put on the kettle. "Fine," he said. "You might as well stay a while. We don't have any food allergies to consider, at least not that I'm aware, but we've got a lot of eccentric preferences. I'd rather not leave the hors d'oeuvres menu to chance."

"I'll grab us some pens and notebooks from the study," sighed Aziraphale, resigned.

For a wedding planning session, Adam reasoned, it was pretty relaxed. Just like it should be, he thought approvingly, and got up to add more hot water to the teapot.

Crowley and Iván had retreated to the safety of refrigerator and work-top, and were actually mocking things up in tiny sample batches as they went, some of which made their way over to the table where Adam, Sophia, and Mandy sat talking decoration logistics with Aziraphale. Adam listened in on the cooks' conversation every once in a while; Basque wasn't much more difficult to pick up than any other language.

"I wouldn't have thought to do it like that," Iván was saying around a mouthful of puff-pastry. "You've basically turned that soup recipe into a savory tart. David still really wants you to come give us lessons. He's serious, and he'll pay you well."

"I'll think about it," said Crowley, evasively, and bent to check the progress of whatever they'd most recently popped in the oven. "Take the rest of those other ones over to the peanut gallery, would you? Sophia can eat her weight in anything."

"Hey, I understood what you just said," Mandy cut in. Her Basque, if still somewhat accented, had got formidably good. "Are you calling my bestie a glutton?"

"I'm implying that I've never seen anybody eat so much and gain so little, relatively speaking," Crowley said, switching back to English for Sophia's benefit. "Seriously, kids, where does it go? Is her stomach hooked up to a black hole somewhere?"

"There's nothing wrong with a healthy appetite," Aziraphale said. "Or an efficient metabolism." He turned to Sophia and told her, "You're in politics now, so you've got to keep up your strength. Don't listen to them, dear girl. You eat whatever you like."

"I'm only an intern," Sophia muttered into her teacup. "But thanks. I do, and I will."

"You'd better," said Adam, teasingly. "I don't like my girls as skinny as Pepper does."

"Oh!" Mandy said, waving her pen at Adam. "Are they coming, all your old friends?"

Crowley was making desperate No, I don't think so! gestures at Aziraphale.

"Nah," Adam said. "They've all got stuff on, but I bet they'll send cards and such."

Iván cursed a rapid string of Basque and yanked open the oven. "Whew."

"Nice save," Crowley told him, and stuck the tip of his knife into whatever kind of bread it was they'd just rescued from burning. Satisfied when the steel re-emerged clean, he cut up the bread and sent Iván around the table with pieces for everybody.

"No fairy lights?" Mandy was saying, moving down her checklist. "Are you sure?"

"Positively," Aziraphale said. "It's bad enough I've assented to Mardi Gras beads."

Adam watched Crowley's expression turn from placated back to horrified.

"You've assented to what, angel?" he demanded, stalking over to the table.

"That's the sweetest thing, you know," said Mandy, in an unusual tone of voice.

"What is?" several of them asked all at once, Iván abashedly trailing behind.

"How you call him that," she said to Crowley. "Angel. It suits him, but what an unlikely endearment these days. It's kind of sickening and clichéd when other people use it, but not at all coming from you." She gave Aziraphale an oddly penetrating look.

"I can't even recall when I started," said Crowley, too hastily, busy removing an armful of preserve and pickle jars from the refrigerator. "Ages ago. Now, all right, you're going to want to try this one on the bread first and then follow up with this..."

Adam sat back and frowned, studying Mandy out of the corner of his eye. She'd gone back to perusing her list, but her body language suggested she wasn't in the least bit satisfied with Crowley's answer or with Aziraphale's refusal to even comment.

Soph was right, he thought. She's suspicious. We'd best keep an eye out.

"So, bachelor parties!" Sophia exclaimed, gracefully changing the subject. "Pippa says she's talked you into having separate ones, honoring tradition and all that."

"Yes," said Crowley, forever charmingly put-upon, "although I don't see why. It's not exactly your average bride-and-groom situation, so I hardly see how it applies."

"Who's hanging out where? We can't all be both places at once," Mandy said.

"I should think everyone will have to choose," said Aziraphale, cautiously.

"Actually, the two of you should get to choose," Adam said. "It's only fair."

"Then I'm claiming you lot," Crowley said, in a sweeping gesture around the table that didn't include Aziraphale. "Evening of the thirty-first, right here. I'm making those cocktails Sophia's been talking up since autumn. We'll have better music, of course."

"I have to work," said Iván, somewhat stricken, "but I will be here the next day."

"Then I claim Uriel on Crowley's behalf," Sophia said. "He's already down a body."

"How can you be so sure she won't stay with Rafe?" Aziraphale asked, mildly stung.

"She'll be here for the cocktails," Crowley said. "And for Bruce Parry's bottom."

"If you're talking about that stupid tattoo again, I know what it is," Adam said.

Everyone dropped what they were doing and stared, which was the intended effect.

"Spit it out," Mandy said. "I want details. Crowley does, too, because he's a creeper."

Crowley stiffened, snatching Mandy's notebook away. "Let me see that. I am not—"

"How do you know?" Sophia asked, blinking at Adam in surprise. "Fess up."

"Brian's mates with somebody who was in the Marines with him. Not telling, though."

Everyone groaned and went back to what they'd been doing, their curiosity thwarted.

"Uriel will get it out of you," Crowley told Adam on his way back to the oven. "It will involve lots of alcohol and even more hitting on you, and it will not be pleasant."

"Tell her I can't wait," said Adam, grinning smugly. "Your party will do."

Purely on principle, Sophia hit him upside the head with her notebook.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Ligur inclined his head and sidled closer to the wall. He could hear voices.

"Crowley's going to be so pleased," Tanith was saying. "You have no idea. I flew recon yesterday while you were sorting that batch of Immortal Soul agreements. Plans for the reception are in full swing, and they're even having separate bachelor parties."

"Somehow, I don't think we're invited to the parties," said Dagon, with regret.

Ligur turned to Hastur, who was sat with his back against the wall and his legs splayed out in front of him. He'd got tired of listening some time ago, the poor sod.

"D'you reckon we ought ter go up ahead of 'em?" he asked. "They're talking about bachler parties or somethin'. I ain't never heard of a bachler. Wossat mean?"

"It's a nonsensical human courtship tradition," Hastur intoned. "It means nothing."

"Yeah, but see, I could stake out one party an' you could stake out the other."

Hastur sat up and tilted his head at Ligur, sporting the beginnings of a nasty, conspiratorial smile. That was the kind of smile Ligur liked. In fact, it was probably just any smile on Hastur, full stop, that he liked. Hastur's sharp eye-teeth always showed, no matter what. It was downright bloody fetching, if you Ligur had anything to say on the matter. Especially if Hastur's teeth actually were covered in blood.

They weren't right now, but parties meant humans, and humans meant food.

"You just might have a point for once," Hastur said, tugging Ligur down to sit beside him. "Even if we can't strike directly at the heart of the matter, by which I mean the happy newlyweds, we can surely...infiltrate the proceedings by other means."

"An' then get to 'em that way," said Ligur, helpfully, scooting much closer. "Cor."

"Shhh," Hastur said, turning his head to the wall, twisting his hand so that the charm's resonance doubled. "Let's see if there's anything else worth our while, eh?"

Ligur didn't know how Hastur had got so good at charms, but he liked that, too.

"We'll go to the reception, Tanith. Just the reception, and then we leave."

"It's all taking place at the cottage. The ceremony itself will take all of five or ten minutes, vows and signatures and a kiss, big whoop. The reception follows immediately after. We might as well go for the whole shebang, don't you think?"

"She knows interestin' words," Ligur whispered. "Looks like plans 'ave changed."

"Indeed," Hastur whispered back. "The slut is, as I feared, a complication."

"I thought we was just goin' up to watch," Ligur replied. "Fer old times' sake. It ain't every century somebody from the ol' office ties the knot, so maybe we ought ter—"

Hastur frowned at him, and that wasn't nice at all, so Ligur shut his gob.

"What I had in mind was more of a prank. A prank of which we may not foresee the circumstances. There may be collateral damage. Just like the theatre, remember?"

"Hmmm, yeah," said Ligur, dreamily. "Blood an' guts an' the like. Wot 'ave we got to do, then? Pranks need settin' up, an' I know set-up, if you don't mind my sayin'."

Hastur's smile widened, dangerously pleased, and Ligur felt his stomach flip.

"You got reasonably familiar with that cottage Crawly calls Home, correct?"

"Yep. Inside, out, an' in between. They've got ducks in the garden shed."

"There's an item in Crawly's possession that might prove useful," Hastur said, sliding an arm around Ligur. "You know those plants? It's the thing he uses to water them."

"Right," Ligur said, cozying up to Hastur as much as he dared. "Green, innit?"

"That's the one," Hastur said. "Now, here's what else you've got to do..."

The rest of what Hastur described sounded massively dangerous, but Ligur prided himself on a modicum of creativity. He told Hastur he'd see what he could do. Hastur snarled and told him that had better mean he sodding well would. Ligur nodded eagerly and, ready for the proverbial kill, caught a startled Hastur by the lapels.

"Yer gonna owe me," he said, and, ignoring the horrid flutter in his stomach, licked Hastur's lower lip. "Seein' as I'm takin' an awfully big risk. Are we clear?"

Hastur snarled again, like he meant to strike, but instead kissed Ligur like he was a man gallows-bound. Which he just might be, given what Hastur had asked of him. "You fucking stupid bastard," Hastur panted. "I'd have done it anyhow."

"Then what are we waitin' for?" Ligur demanded. "Pay up front, or else."

And Hastur did. For hours and hours, long into the interminable night.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Uriel frowned at her reflection, and then turned to look at Raphael.

"What on earth is this? You've dressed me for a bad '80s prom night."

"Hush now, darling," he said, pulling her in for a kiss. "It suits you."

"Blue sequin tube dress, my ass," she said. "If they laugh, you'll pay."

"Rumor has it that Tanith's charming young savior is in possession of some information you'd like," Raphael said. "Why not go and get it from him?"

"I won't stoop that low," Uriel replied. "Sophia's a nice girl, and I like her."

"Suit yourself, darling. All that's between you and that tattoo is stubbornness."

"If he won't tell Crowley, then there's no way he's telling me. Fuck off."

"I'm about to," Raphael said, rising from the edge of the bed. "Pippa's a stickler for punctuality, and, out of deference for Mrs. Device-Pulsifer, I'll deign to be on time."

"So Newt and Anathema will be there," Uriel said. "Who else is Snoresville bound?"

"Madame Tracy and her pet Witchfinder, would you believe? I'm going to have fun."

"You're holding out on me, aren't you. Don't lie. Anyone else I ought to know about?"

"That saucy Pakistani director," said Raphael, grimly. "What's her name, Rani?"

"Ahaaah!" Uriel exclaimed, grinning, and threw one of the feather boas Raphael had pulled out of the closet around her neck. "She's got a crush on you, sweetie!"

"Don't remind me," Raphael sighed, swaggering over to the dressing table. He leaned over Uriel's shoulder and reached for his eyeliner, briefly touching up the already meticulous job he'd done earlier. "Be good, my love," he said, and kissed her cheek.

"Wouldn't dream of misbehaving," she said, and smacked his ass. "Get out of here!"

Raphael walked backwards out of the room, his eyes fixed on her till the very last.

Lacking anything else to do, Uriel made a number of gratuitous and glittery additions to her make-up until she heard a familiar car-horn blare out front. She shoved her iPhone down the front of her dress, dashed out of the bedroom, and practically tripped out the front door courtesy of the stiletto heels Raphael had stuck her in.

"That's, um, interesting," Crowley said as she slid into the front seat next to him. He put the car back in gear and swerved out into the road. "The sooner we get back, the better. Adam and Sophia turned up early, so I mixed a couple pitchers of that cocktail in advance. She's got two in her already, and, when I left, she was starting a third."

"I'm already sick of these shoes," Uriel said, pulling them off and tossing them in the back seat. "Fishnets are dress code, right? I hope there's no duck shit to worry about."

Crowley's eyes flicked sideways again, looking her up and down a second time.

"As I said," he muttered, failing to maintain a neutral tone, "interesting."

"I guess that answers my question," sighed Uriel, watching the scenery whiz past.

"Look, you are attractive," Crowley said consolingly. "I just don't want to sleep with you. One relationship's enough bloody work; I have no clue how you and Raphael kept it together for so many years while you were having it off with humans on the side."

"Practice," Uriel said. "Trial and error. Lots of mistakes, and I do mean lots."

"My mistake was waiting too long to act. It's a good job Aziraphale made his move."

Uriel waited until Crowley had pulled up in the cottage driveway and killed the ignition to lean over, yank Crowley around to face her, and kiss him full on the mouth. She'd take this trophy the one and only time she could, lay her curiosity to rest. He used human strength to try and pull away; she used monstrous strength to hold him fast.

A minute later, once she'd released him, Crowley swiped his fingers across his lips.

"And just look at you now," Uriel told him, affectionately proud. "Getting married."

"Um," Crowley said, and waved the passenger door open. "Get out of my car."

Uriel dashed after him up the front walk, finding it difficult to match his pace.

"I didn't mean anything by it!" she said, staying his hand on the doorknob. "You know I didn't, and you know I was teasing you the other night. We're good, right? Crowley?"

In spite of the fact he wasn't wearing sunglasses, his expression was completely unreadable. A moment of deliberation passed, at which point he cracked the ghost of a smile that looked nervous, but actually wasn't, because he bent and kissed her back: a warm, fond, familiar press of his lips against hers that lasted several seconds.

"Of course we are, don't be daft," he said, and opened the door. "After you!"

Apparently Sophia had been watching out the kitchen window, because she had braced herself against the kitchen sink, pink-cheeked, applauding as they walked in. "Hey, now, I didn't know it was that kind of bachelor party!" she exclaimed.

"Well, it wasn't, but now it might as well be," Crowley said. "Where's your husband?"

"In the loo," replied Sophia, tipsily, stepping up close to him. "Why do you ask?"

"Because if you're going to kiss me, too, I suggest you do it before he gets back."

Uriel was impressed with the girl's gumption, because Sophia somehow managed to lay it on him even heavier than she had managed to do herself. More out of surprise than anything else, Crowley caught her around the waist and accidentally ended up dipping her a little on account of the fact she'd gone slightly limp in his arms.

"Okay, that was weird," she said, furiously rubbing at her mouth when it was over. "That was weird, right? If you don't think that was weird, then I'm going to die."

Crowley steered her over to the kitchen table and sat her in the nearest chair. He went and drew a glass of water from the tap, which he brought back and put in front of her. Uriel, having helped herself to a glass of the cocktail, took the chair next to Sophia's.

"Yes, it was weird, and here's what you're going to do," Crowley told her, tapping the rim of the glass. "You're going to drink one of these for every alcoholic beverage that passes your lips, are we clear? I'm not calling Raphael over here to sort you out."

"Pity," Sophia said, grinning her face off as Adam strode back into the kitchen.

"Both cats got the canary, I see," he said good-naturedly, and went over to pour himself a cocktail. He shook the unopened bag of novelty mini-umbrellas at Crowley.

"Be my guest," Crowley sighed, taking a seat on the other side of Sophia. "Go ahead and open them. Fetch me a drink while you're over there, won't you?"

Adam poured a second cocktail and stuck an umbrella in it, as well as in his own. He carried both over to the table and, in a move that made Uriel choke on the sip she'd just taken, bent over and planted one on Crowley with as much aplomb as his wife.

"What?" he said to Uriel, grinning. "Why should you two have all the fun?"

"Why indeed," Crowley muttered, making quick work of nearly half his drink.

While Uriel, Crowley, and Adam polished off their first round, Sophia sat complaining about how the water rule meant she'd be running to the loo all night. Mandy and the twins arrived while Adam poured seconds (leaving Sophia out) and Crowley pulled a tray of prawns, cheese, vegetables, and homemade pickle from the fridge.

"You started without us?" Natalie asked Crowley, mock-affronted. "What gives?"

"We brought music!" Janet exclaimed, waving her iPod. "Where do I plug this in?"

"Okay, you two, the sound system's in here," Mandy sighed, dumping her overnight bag and the twins' next to Adam's and Sophia's. "I'll show you. It's not that hard."

"Wait, wait, wait," Sophia said. "Not so fast. You've got to kiss him."

Uriel concealed her smirk while Crowley glowered daggers at Sophia.

"I beg your—wait, what?" Mandy asked. "Kiss Adam? Or do you mean—"

"She means kiss the groom," Adam explained. "We've all had a go."

"Oh, that I'd like to see," said Mandy, sarcastically. "You fucking liar."

Without skipping a beat, Sophia punched a few buttons on her mobile and played back the footage. Uriel hadn't even realized she was sober enough to have thought of such a thing, much less that she'd actually managed it without the rest of them noticing.

Mandy's eyes went round as she watched. She cleared her throat, beckoned to the twins, and led them into the living room. "News flash!" she shouted over the first blast of Bad Romance. "I kissed him before any of you lot ever did, so suck it!"

Uriel hid her laughter behind her hands. She'd picked the right place to start off her evening. Meanwhile, Crowley had out his iPhone and was composing a text message. It was addressed to Aziraphale, and it read, quite simply, HELP ME.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Raphael passed his half-smoked cigarette to Anathema and winked. There was no way Pippa hadn't noticed there wasn't just tobacco in it, and she didn't seem to care. She took a long drag and held it in for a while, coughing slightly on exhalation.

"Easy does it," Newt said, patting her on the back. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Piss off," said Anathema, brightly, sticking the cigarette in his mouth, "or join in."

"Pass that along, would you?" Pippa asked, gesturing for it once Newt had finished sputtering. "I haven't had that stuff in forty years. Maybe it'll help my arthritis."

"I guarantee that it will," Raphael said, stealing a sidelong glance at Aziraphale. He'd gone slightly pink at whatever Madame Tracy was saying to him, and he'd been texting Crowley for the better part of the evening. Some of the texts had contained phrases like I don't think the others will permit it and I'd really like that, too.

Pleased with himself, Raphael leaned over, the better to read and to listen.

"I always did wonder, ever since we met," Madame Tracy continued, swirling the wine in her glass with a sigh. "You were far too refined, of course, and then there was your lovely boy. Oh, don't blush so; you know that he is! What a prize, just look at him."

What do you mean by 'snogged'? Aziraphale typed, all the while sipping on his own wine and humming noncommittally at Madame Tracy as she forged boldly on.

"I don't suppose you'll tell us what he's like between the sheets," Rani interrupted, having grown more and more blunt as the evening progressed. "What with this being your last night of freedom. Out with it already, lad! Inquiring minds and all that."

Aziraphale regarded Raphael with a cool, vaguely annoyed glance and turned his BlackBerry over. "I don't see how that's your business," he said to Rani, tartly, raising his glass for a sip of wine, "or anyone else's, really, so kindly shove off."

"I'll tell you all you like about this one," Anathema said, indicating Newt with a single jerk of her thumb. "His idea of seduction's doing it smack in the middle of a tornado."

"But it wasn't my idea," Newt protested. "You practically threw yourself at me."

"See?" Anathema demanded, several glasses of wine and the remainder of the cigarette gone. "Men. You can't trust a word of it, so what's the use in asking?"

"Sweetheart," Newt whispered, stroking the back of her hand. "You're drunk."

"Glad somebody noticed," Anathema said. "Pippa, have you got any gin?"

Raphael rolled a fresh cigarette, lit it, and passed it across the circle to Pippa.

"All yours, darling. Don't let anybody take that away from you, understand?"

"Oh, I shan't," said Pippa, taking a long, leisurely drag. "Not for the world."

Shadwell staggered in from the sitting room and warily regarded them one by one.

"What're we gettin' into, then, that's stunk the whole place up to high heaven?"

"If only," Raphael said wistfully, offering Shadwell a spare he'd tucked behind his ear for safekeeping. "I wouldn't mind driving good old Gabriel to a fit of histrionics."

You're rather lucky I'm past that sort of thing, Aziraphale was typing.

Madame Tracy chuckled at Raphael. "What an odd sense of humor you've got!"

Shadwell harrumphed at the cigarette, stuck it in his mouth, and wandered off.

Raphael tapped Aziraphale on the shoulder and then gestured at the BlackBerry.

"What in God's name do you think you're doing? This is your party, not theirs."

"In case you hadn't noticed, I've never been much use at this sort of affair."

"Which is why you're clandestinely arranging another?" Raphael asked.

"Uriel's been busy tonight," said Aziraphale, nonchalantly, "or so I hear."

"I'd expected as much," Raphael replied. "Has she got Adam to fess up?"

"It's his regimental insignia," Aziraphale insisted. "You know I'm right. Given the general color scheme and shape, that's the only reasonable assumption."

"Again with the endless tattoo debate," Anathema said, raising the gin and tonic Raphael had surreptitiously materialized beside her. "To Bruce Parry's bottom!"

"I'll drink to that," Rani agreed, raising her glass. "It is a nice bottom."

Also tell Uriel she's at the wrong party, Aziraphale typed. My dear, how soon?

Raphael snatched the BlackBerry from him. "I'm not supposed to let you leave."

"Let me guess: Uriel's not supposed to let Crowley leave the cottage, either?"

"You assented to a human wedding," Raphael said. "You can't see him till tomorrow, so there's nothing for it. Come on, let's have more wine. Join me for a smoke?"

Between Raphael's closed hands, Aziraphale's BlackBerry buzzed insistently.

Aziraphale gave Raphael a desperate look and proceeded to finish his wine.

"I don't know what anyone else thinks," Raphael said, rising, "but throwing this gadget in the ocean is beginning to sound like an excellent idea. How about it?"

Aziraphale scrabbled to his feet and grabbed Raphael's arm. "Are you insane?"

Raphael turned the BlackBerry over and read Crowley's latest text: Twenty minutes.

"Uriel would very much like to see you," Aziraphale said. "And some others here."

Raphael chewed his lip thoughtfully and texted Crowley back: I'll be there.

"Yes, into the sea with you," he told the BlackBerry, and then winked at Aziraphale.

To a chorus of cheers, Raphael dashed out the back door with Aziraphale in pursuit.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Thisss song," Crowley said to Janet, dancing along beside her, "is not ssso bad."

"Oh my God," Mandy groaned from somewhere across the room, which had begun to swim pleasantly, "he moves much better than I do, and he's hardly even got hips."

"Yeah, but he's still awkward in comparison to those three," Uriel whispered loudly. "Where'd they learn that kind of choreography? I doubt Anathema taught them."

"Probably the music video," Mandy sighed. "And to think, before tonight, I'd have told you I really love Alejandro. Fucking Lady Gaga, spoiling my fun. Absolutely naff."

Crowley let Sophia tug him away from the twins and danced with her instead.

"Is somebody getting this on video?" Adam asked from his seat on the sofa.

"If you're not, nobody is," Mandy said glumly. "I promised Soph I wouldn't."

Out of the corner of his eye, Crowley saw Uriel pull something from her dress.

"Oh no you don't," he muttered, diving across the coffee table a bit too late.

The ensuing scramble got Crowley up close and personal with a lot more of Uriel's anatomy than he'd ever intended to experience, but he finally got hold of her iPhone and slithered off the opposite end of the sofa, victorious. He checked the time. Only fifteen minutes till the rendezvous, and he hadn't even planned his escape.

"I'm afraid," Crowley said, "that this device has got to be made an example of."

"You could just make an example of those three over there and have done with it," said Mandy, and woozily got to her feet. "Sorry, I don't feel that great. Back in a sec."

Uriel caught Crowley's wrist in an urgent vise-grip. "What are you doing?"

"Getting the hell out of here," Crowley hissed. "Jussst try and ssstop me."

"You're pretty drunk," she told him. "You know that, right? He probably is, too."

Sophia killed the music and dashed unsteadily after Mandy. "I'll be right back!"

"Touching how they look after one another, isn't it?" Adam asked wearily.

Uriel spent the next few minutes unsuccessfully trying to wrestle her phone back off of Crowley, but she just wasn't fast enough or flexible enough. Mandy wandered back into the middle of the room looking rather peaked, firmly propped up by Sophia. She had Crowley's plant mister clutched in her right hand and was waving it at him.

"I hope your plants like puke," she said dazedly. "Can I borrow this?"

"Sure, knock yourself out," Crowley sighed. "Iván's orchids will thank you for it." He stuck Uriel's phone in his breast pocket and patted it. "We're going for a walk. If Uriel behaves herself, this fine piece of tech won't end up at the bottom of the Channel."

Too late, Crowley felt a slim hand work its way into his back pocket and out again.

"HOSTAGE CRISIS!" Natalie shouted, waving Crowley's iPhone over her head. She jumped up on the coffee table and flicked through several screens before Crowley could even react. "Oooh, look at this! He's been sexting his hubby-to-be. Just thinking about you over there is driving me mad, can't you get away for just a little while—"

Adam caught Natalie around the waist and yanked her kicking and screaming down onto the sofa. He took the phone out of her hand and tossed it back to Crowley. "Now give Uriel's phone back, too," he said, "or that video clip's going viral."

Crowley took it out of his pocket and handed it over. "Spoil my fun," he said.

Janet ran to Natalie's aid and helped her to sit up between Adam and herself.

"I think that our kind host needs to do some kind of penance," she said.

Sophia steered Mandy back over to Aziraphale's armchair and planted her in it. Mandy was hugging the plant mister like a teddy bear. She still looked woefully disoriented.

"Tell us about how you and Aziraphale got together," Natalie said. "And I don't mean the whole cutesy we-bought-a-house-together version, I mean real details."

Crowley shot an accusatory look at Mandy. "What have you been telling them?"

"Oh, I couldn't say," she said faintly. "Stories. Remembrances. Just how long it took you guys to decide that fucking each other was a good idea, for example."

Crowley took a long-suffering breath, and then decided he'd put a nail in this coffin once and for all. Might've been the alcohol talking, but it was worth a shot. "Spot on, excellent memory," he said to Mandy, and then let his eyes drift back to Natalie. "It took a month or so. Let's see, real details. He's great with his hands and even better with his mouth, and I should like to join Adam in registering my preference for a partner with more substance than, say, this one right here," he added, patting Uriel on the shoulder. "Now, as I said: we're going for a walk." With that, he turned the pat into a full-on grasp and hauled Uriel out of the room. He didn't stop till they'd reached the back entrance, and, fortunately, she'd kept up. "You're not to hang about," he told her, slamming the sliding glass door behind them. The night air was cool, a welcome breath of salt across his skin. "I won't be half surprised if Aziraphale's got Raphael in tow, seeing as you two have been appointed de facto best men and guardians of our virtue. Ergo, I'd advise the two of you to head back in one direction or the other and not to answer any questions. How's that?"

"Peachy," Uriel sighed, shaking Crowley off. "Let go of me. I can walk. I've been your stay-sober-and-keep-the-kids-from-poisoning-themselves bitch for long enough this evening. I'm going to Pippa's whether Raphael's come out for this excursion or not."

"That's fine by me," Crowley said, trudging through the sea-rushes and scurvy-grass and down over the rise. The beach was deserted and peaceful, scoured stark by low tide. He hadn't bothered with shoes, so the damp sand felt good between his toes.

Uriel swore and picked her way along behind him, struggling out of her fishnets. "Sweetie, you're really drunk," she implored him, catching up. "You're so drunk you told a whole room-full of twentysomethings about your sex life, do you realize that?"

"At least right now, I don't care," Crowley said, scanning the expanse ahead of them. He could see two figures standing about twenty yards off and could hear the faintest nonsensical snatches of their conversation on the chilly breeze. "Maybe it'll do them some good. Anathema will probably thank me for continuing Natalie's education."

Uriel waved both arms wildly in the air. "RAFE, GET THE FUCK OVER HERE!"

The shorter of the two figures shook its head; the taller one waved back.

"We'll be there before you know it," said Crowley, and suddenly they were.

"Somebody cheated and sobered up a bit," Raphael said disapprovingly.

"I suppose next you'll say I cheated by not getting drunk in the first place," Aziraphale said, already reaching for Crowley. "There, there, my dear, what have they done?"

"It was terrible," Crowley said, his voice muffled in the crook of Aziraphale's neck. He furtively bit the spot just beneath Aziraphale's collar, flicking his tongue across the reddening skin. Aziraphale smelled wonderful, tasted wonderful. He wanted—

"Crocodile tears, wah," Uriel said, insinuating herself behind Aziraphale's back for the express purpose of flipping Crowley off. Then, she turned furiously to Raphael and said, "We're going to take so much flack from Pippa and Rani for this..."

Raphael, grinning widely at Crowley, didn't even seem to care. He grabbed Uriel as if she weighed nothing—to be fair, she really did—and swung her up over his shoulder. She hammered on Raphael's back with her fists. "Bastards! I didn't approve this!"

"You boys have fun," Raphael said, turning to bear Uriel off in the direction of Pippa's house. "Be sure to return to your respective festivities when you're finished, now!" Crowley wasn't particularly listening to him by now, and neither was Aziraphale.

"What were you saying," Aziraphale panted, "about wanting to shag me senseless?"

"I'm afraid that almost got read aloud," Crowley said, already most of the way out of his shirt and determinedly working on Aziraphale's, "but it is, nonetheless, quite true."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Hastur sneered at the predictable and thoroughly human scene unfolding.

Cloaked from mortal eyes they might have been, but not from his. He'd tailed the Archangel and the Principality from the old woman's home, only to discover an unexpected windfall: Crawly and the other Archangel likewise out for a late stroll.

Crawly's absence from the cottage meant that Ligur ought to have ample time.

All else having been set in motion, for now, Hastur was simply content to watch.

He supposed that Crawly's mortal flesh was desirable enough, contingent upon its being empty of Crawly first, but what he couldn't wrap his head around was Crawly's shocking display of lust toward the rather unremarkable angelic corporation he'd pinned to the sand. Aziraphale, Guardian of the Eastern Gate, had let himself go. Defiling an angel was an enviable task for any demon worth his salt, and therein lay the trouble. Crawly wasn't worth his scales, much less his borrowed blood's salinity. He'd gone and fallen in love, grown attached to a sworn Enemy. Learned to trust.

The latter, in Hastur's book, was the rankest offense he could possibly imagine.

Hastur paced a slow, wide circle around the pair coupling languidly in the sand. He'd expected the pace might remain frantic, had been looking forward to Crawly being made to beg or debase himself in some other exquisite fashion, but the quiet, compelling reality of this display confirmed what Hastur had long ago decided. He should have been the demon for the job, not this sorry excuse for a snake. He finally sat down a little ways off and watched them finish. Sickening, to endure so much selflessly apparent devotion, but he found that he couldn't look away.

The breeze picked up, colder than before, and blew Crawly's hair into his unchanged, unrelenting yellow eyes as he bent over a boneless and willingly prone Aziraphale. "I hate to admit that Raphael's right," he said, "but we should be getting back."

"We could stay here till dawn," replied Aziraphale, yawning. "They'll all have passed out by then. We can slip in before any of them wake up; they'll be none the wiser." Crawly kissed Aziraphale fiercely, and the angel's arms locked about his shoulders.

"I admire your underhandedness," he said, "but we're playing this one straight."

"Oh," murmured Aziraphale, smug, brushing sand off Crawly's cheek. "Hardly."

Hastur got up and stalked away, kicking several limpet-shells strewn in his path.

He'd seen enough to last an eternity, and they'd somehow made him miss Ligur.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Aziraphale found knocking on his own front door nothing short of peculiar.

Sophia, a vision in gold who looked nonetheless worse for wear, admitted him.

"Good morning," said Aziraphale. "I trust you all had an enjoyable evening?"

"Oh, er, yeah," she said. "Wait till you hear. I hope you guys did, too?"

"They're all still freshening up, but Pippa and Rani will ferry them over shortly."

Sophia put a mug of tea in Aziraphale's hand and smacked her forehead when Janet screeched from the bathroom, "Where in the world did Mandy put the curling iron?"

"Mandy's gone up the road to Mass!" she shouted back, and then gave Aziraphale an apologetic look. "And on a Tuesday morning, I ask you. Catholics, what can you do? She ought to be back any time now."

Aziraphale and Sophia chatted at the kitchen table until the twins emerged: also wearing gold satin, the two of them already festooned in Mardi Gras beads. Natalie couldn't quite meet Aziraphale's eyes, about which peculiar behavior Aziraphale wished he could say he knew far less. Janet looked shockingly chipper for a girl who couldn't hold her drink. Someone knocked on the door, and Sophia ran to answer.

Mandy looked lovely in a knee-length blue taffeta dress, her late-spring freckles having blossomed overnight. She squinted even once she'd got inside, as if the light hurt her eyes, and she clutched her handbag nervously to her chest. Aziraphale surreptitiously wished away her hangover. She gave him a sharp, befuddled look. "Hi," she said. "Can I just sit in the living room until this show's on the road?"

"Honest to God, I drank more than you did," Sophia muttered, and whisked her off.

Aziraphale pursed his lips, about to ask a question when Sophia returned, but another flurry of knocks sounded. The twins just stared at him, so he went to answer them himself. What he got was an armful of Anathema and the rest in full procession, right down to Uriel and Raphael helping Madame Tracy and Shadwell along at the rear. The house was crowded, and the registrar wouldn't arrive for thirty minutes.

“Where's Crowley hiding?” Uriel asked Sophia. “Did he remember to give it to you?”

“Of course,” Sophia replied, turning to Aziraphale. “That reminds me: hand it over.”

“Oh!” said Aziraphale, and twisted the ring off his finger. “Sorry. I had quite forgot.”

Sophia slipped it on her left middle finger. Crowley's ring was already on her right.

“Makes me wish I'd dug around up there and tried you on years ago,” she said to it.

“Pardon my daughter's covetousness,” Anathema sighed, laying a hand on Aziraphale's arm. “It suits you through and through. Nobody else could have worn it.”

“Mum, get in here and help with our hair!” Natalie shouted from down the hall.

“You'd better go, dear girl,” Aziraphale said. “I can hold my own, I assure you.”

Anathema left the room, which meant that Sophia and Aziraphale were alone. All of the rest had gone into the living room, where the ceremony was going to take place in front of the mantelpiece. Crowley's collection was really a joint collection, Pippa had pointed out, and she loved the photo of them dancing at last year's reception.

“Are you nervous?” Sophia asked, just as Pippa bustled in with a few empty mugs.

“I see no reason why he shouldn't be,” she said, coming to join them at the table.

“I'm more than ready,” Aziraphale said. “If only to have some peace and quiet again.”

“You're not planning on taking a honeymoon, are you?” Pippa asked. “You've traveled a great deal in recent months. I imagine you're both still knackered from Japan.”

Aziraphale hummed noncommittally. He'd keep the road-trip a secret.

Pippa went on at great length about how lovely New Zealand was this time of year until Aziraphale couldn't take it anymore. He wandered back the hall, stopped before the bedroom door, and leaned close enough to listen. Beyond, there was eerie silence.

He stood there for at least five minutes, until someone else knocked on the front door.

The registrar was a young Irish woman in officiant's robes with a binder in her arms.

“I found these two out here waiting,” she said, indicating the couple behind her.

Aziraphale studied the tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, a well-lined Mediterranean face, and serious hazel eyes. The pale woman on his arm had wavy, chin-length black hair; her fashion sense and carriage were Continental, but something in her features and the shape of her brown eyes indicated mixed European and Asian ancestry. French and Japanese? Aziraphale wondered. No, Korean. When the sunlight caught her irises, they glinted red. Ah, Aziraphale thought. Dear me, much further south.

“You're welcome, all three of you,” Aziraphale said, stepping backwards. “Come in.”

“Thank you for this hospitality,” said the tall stranger, and shook Aziraphale's hand.

The woman with him took Aziraphale's hand next, pressing it between her own.

“I got him here in the end, the old curmudgeon. Hello again. I owe you thanks.”

“No, dear girl,” Aziraphale said, leading Tanith ahead of Dagon and the registrar. He paused with her in the entrance to the living room and looked at Uriel where she sat on the sofa beside Madame Tracy. “I owe you an apology, and I ask your forgiveness.”

“Look at everyone,” Tanith murmured in tearful amazement. "You have it.”

Aziraphale retreated to the kitchen no sooner than she'd rushed to sit by Uriel.

He found Sophia and Mandy adjusting wreaths of flowers in each other's hair. Mandy sucked on one of her fingers, giving Sophia's crown of roses one last tweak. Crowley stood behind Mandy, plucking fretfully at the hellebores garlanding her hair.

“Are we ready?” Aziraphale asked, his throat tightening. “The registrar's here. So are your old friends,” he told Crowley. “You'll be pleased to know they made it after all.”

Sophia swatted at Mandy's hands and wove in a hellebore that was trying to escape.

“Water the plants!” Mandy gasped. “I told Crawly I would. I'll meet you in there.”

“For heaven's sake,” Aziraphale muttered, but held out his arm to Crowley all the same. “Let's go in, shall we? Sophia, collect Mandy once she's finished.”

Everyone applauded when Aziraphale and Crowley entered the living room. The registrar was waiting in front of the mantelpiece with the binder open in her arms, and Dagon had found himself an unlikely seat between Shadwell and Newt.

Aziraphale tried not to dwell too terribly long on the irony.

“Where are your groomsmaids?” asked the registrar. “We ought to start. I have another appointment in forty minutes, but I'd like to stay for a bit afterward.”

“Iván arrived just now with a load of stuff ready to pop in the oven,” Crowley said, indicating the shy, slightly out-of-breath young man where he'd stolen a seat next to Janet. “Please do stay for champagne and some nibbles. He's worked hard.”

“Sorry!” Sophia exclaimed, dragging Mandy in by the wrist. “So very sorry.”

Whether it was that the plant mister remained in Mandy's free hand, which trembled as it slowly rose, or how unaccountably dazed her expression remained—

I told Crawly I would, she'd said. I'll meet you in there.

Aziraphale blinked in almost the same instant as Adam jumped to his feet.

The fine mist that hit Crowley in the face resulted in little more than an irritated expression. He wiped his cheek and said, “Hey, look, I appreciate a joke as much as the next person, but you could've thought this through. And been more subtle.”

Mandy shuddered, eyes rolling back into her head, and promptly passed out.

Adam rushed forward to help Aziraphale catch and lower her to the floor.

“Looks like somebody partied a bit too hard,” said the registrar, awkwardly.

“I'm so, so sorry,” Sophia said again. “I can't even begin to tell you—”

Aziraphale rose, grabbing Crowley's hands before anyone else could interrupt.

“I do,” he told the registrar firmly. “I absolutely take this man to be my husband.”

Crowley opened and shut his mouth, confused, but wisely decided to comply.

“So do I,” he said. “Er, take this man to be my husband, I mean. Yes. That.”

Adam had moved Mandy off to one side, where Raphael was looking her over.

“The rings, Soph,” he hissed, gesturing to his wife. “They need the rings!”

“Oh!” Sophia exclaimed. “Oh, God. Sorry, again, so so so sorry...”

She twisted both adornments off her fingers and handed them to the registrar.

“You're going to have to help me out here,” said the woman, holding them out.

Aziraphale, hardly skipping a beat, put the gold-set glass signet on Crowley's finger.

Crowley studied his hand. “It felt pretty odd without that there, I have to say.”

Sophia elbowed Crowley. He cleared his throat and picked up the platinum ring.

“You're not allowed to take this off ever again,” he told Aziraphale, putting it back where it belonged. “Just so you know. Uriel says you'll lose it if you do.”

Never mind that Hell had just made one last attempt on Crowley's existence, and never mind that Mandy was currently undergoing thorough post-Exorcism repair at the hands of an Archangel perfectly suited to the task. Never mind that Dagon and the former Antichrist crouched next to Mandy on the floor, the latter turning his palm against a threatening otherworldly presence that none of the rest of them could see.

Dagon set one weathered, proud, and almost fatherly hand on Adam's shoulder.

“You two as well,” said the boy. “Stay down there if you know what's good for you.”

Aziraphale kissed Crowley while he had the chance, as he'd vowed he always would.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Ooh, gracious!" Pippa exclaimed, backpedaling as she lowered her camera.

Rani clapped her on the arm, pulling her into a hug. "Think nothing of it."

The weather had warmed up just enough since earlier that it made sense to take the reception outside, and Pippa was glad of it. The Mardi Gras beads were tacky in her opinion, not a patch on those lovely fairy lights, but everyone seemed to be having fun collecting and swapping them (not to mention fashioning necklaces for the ducks).

Iván would have been stuck serving hors d'oeuvres on his own, the poor lad, if Sophia and Adam hadn't stepped in to help. Mandy was laid out in the bedroom, full of painkillers with an ice pack on her head. She'd revived only a short time before, much to everyone's relief. She'd told Mandy she ought to have avoided any party at which the twins might coax her to binge. Pippa hoped she'd learned her lesson.

Pippa felt that she had got quite good at taking pictures. She strolled about snapping candids until everyone had eaten their fill and the glasses of champagne had begun to circulate. Anathema had her MacBook set up already in the grass, putting together a playlist. She'd done such a wonderful job last time, Pippa had thought. The correct version of Unchained Melody crackled out from her speakers.

Nobody knew she'd been the one to take that photograph last year using Janet's phone, least of all the photograph's unwitting subjects. She'd just given it to them as a post-wedding token, explaining that one of the girls had emailed it to her.

Pippa accepted a glass of champagne from Adam, thanked him, and had a sip before handing it back. A number of couples had already got up and begun to dance. She knew a prime opportunity when she saw one.

Raphael sat in the sand smoking a cigarette, as ever, watching Uriel and Tanith in a world all their own. She'd have felt sorry for him, except he was smiling at them, and that old boss of Crowley's was sitting right next to him and sharing the smoke.

Click.

Madame Tracy had bullied Shadwell into having a dance, and although it looked like they were having a difficult time of things, Pippa could imagine what a dashing thing Shadwell must have been in his youth. She thought of Harold and closed her eyes.

Click.

The twins were sat off to one side with their father, busy clicking photographs with their phones and flicking sand at each other. Newt was intently watching his wife.

Click.

Pippa stood in the middle of what passed as the dance floor by now. They were a rag-tag bunch, but they were her rag-tag bunch, and she edged her way carefully around Tanith and Uriel (who waved, the dear girl) to find the dearest of them all.

She didn't know if the fact that Crowley was in a dapper-looking white coat almost like the one Iván was wearing held any significance, only that she thought it was a curious choice. Aziraphale's coat was black, a long-tailed antique cut, and there was a duck-egg blue silk handkerchief tucked in his breast pocket. They didn't match. Unlike last time, it was Aziraphale who had his head on Crowley's shoulder.

Pippa raised the camera as the pair of them spun a few steps closer.

Crowley caught her eye and smiled.

Chapter Text

"Will you look at that," Raphael remarked, the first words he'd spoken in half an hour, and passed the cigarette stub back. They were on their fourth or fifth. "Six thousand years gone in the blink of an eye. Decades, centuries' worth in change, even. Did she ever mention us?" he asked, turning those cool, unblinking blue eyes on Dagon.

"No," Dagon said, taking a drag long and slow enough to draw out the rest of the tiny fire's life, ash and all. He swallowed thoughtfully, spit out the ragged remnants of paper, meeting the Archangel's tilted, are-you-kidding-me grin with one of his own. "She's a private one, Tanith, not much for small-talk. Not till all this wedding business cropped up, at least. Not till I realized what a complete and utter fool I'd been."

"I wonder if They know," Raphael said softly, "what a fine mess They've made."

"I don't give a damn, old boy," Dagon said as the music died down. "I just get on with things. I've got people to worry about, order to keep. Just like you've got your hands full with that lot," waving one nicotine-stained hand. "Do you think you'll go back?"

"What, up there?" Raphael asked, waving at Uriel, who had Tanith in tow and was heading straight for them. "Couldn't even if I wanted to, darling. Rules are rules, and our young Adam's a strict one. Now, if you mean back to America, that's another matter." He stood up and folded his arms, businesslike. "Uriel, my love, the old man here poses an excellent question. Are we going back to the good old US of A?"

Uriel glanced at Tanith, who'd let go of her hand and sat down by Dagon.

"Are you telling me you like it here that much?" she asked. "You'd stay?"

Dagon watched Raphael attempt a casual shrug, and then said to Tanith, "Where's Crowley gone?" Aziraphale was helping Anathema pack up her laptop and speakers. Sophia and Adam were busy helping Madame Tracy and Shadwell back into the cottage; the dancing seemed to have worn them out. "I'd like a word with him."

"Last I saw him," Tanith said, "was about five minutes ago. He had a duck under each arm and the other four following him, so it must be their bedtime. Check the shed."

"We don't have to decide now," Raphael was saying somewhat testily.

"You're not selling that gorgeous house," Uriel told him. "I won't let you."

Dagon started to rise, but Tanith briefly stayed him, both hands on his arm.

"Don't scare him," she said. "Today of all days, please don't. He's happy."

Dagon kissed the top of her head and got up, brushing sand off his trousers. "It would be thoughtless of me not to congratulate him," he said, and picked his way up over the rise to where an orderly riot of greenery was just on the edge of spring bloom. He noticed that the roses along the shed wall had got a head-start, bright pink and fragrant. The door swung inward at Dagon's touch, rustling the hay-strewn floor.

Crowley crouched amidst six ducks in various stages of settling down for the evening, handing out wriggling hard-shelled worms and bits of crumbled fruit hors d'oeuvres. "It's a special occasion," he explained without looking up, "so they're allowed."

"Much more of this, my boy, and you'll have a proper smallholding," Dagon said.

Crowley glanced up, startled, and got to his feet. "Sir," he said, tugging hastily at his rolled-up shirtsleeves and casting about for his jacket, only to find two of the ducks had bedded down on it, "sorry, I hadn't really expected—uh, that's to say—"

Dagon clapped him on the shoulder. "You hadn't expected me to come?"

"Not so much that," said Crowley, sheepishly; his returning of the gesture was both awkward and earnest. "It was that, um, the last thing you'd heard from me was..."

"That memo's still pinned to my wall, I'll have you know. I'd like to think I did."

Crowley blinked at him stupidly. "I'm sorry, you'd like to think that you what?"

"Learned," Dagon said, and patted Crowley's shoulder again before letting his arm drop back to his side. "I won't pretend to understand what you love about this place, but you were the best innovator we ever had. This environment let you thrive."

Crowley rubbed his neck and averted his eyes. "You should've sent someone who wanted to come," he said, "but I don't think I'd have ever forgiven you if you had."

"Forgiveness isn't a requirement. Your eternal grudge would have been enough."

Crowley squinted at him, his eyes a liquid-gold gleam under the artificial light.

"You sent someone who'd grow," he said. "Who'd change. How did you know?"

"That's what managers are for," Dagon said, bending down to greet an inquisitive Jemima, who'd got up and started nibbling on his trouser-leg. "Identifying potential." Crowley leaned against the shed's back wall, fingers splayed against the rough wood.

"Then you'd have had some inkling," he said, "that obedience isn't really my thing."

Dagon looked up at him, still stroking Jemima's soft breast-feathers with his knuckle.

"But curiosity is," he said. "And dedication, after your own fashion. And wonder."

"Can I ask," said Crowley, baffled, "how the likes of you and me got where we are?"

Dagon tucked Jemima's feet under her, arranged the surrounding straw like a nest.

"My boy, there never were answers," he said, brushing off his hands. "Just questions."

"Was it better than boredom? Better than staying as we were, better than burning?"

"Oh, come now. We'll always burn, won't we, but it's a different kind of burning."

Crowley lowered his eyes and glared at an inquisitive Lilith, faintly blushing.

"Well, I'm glad you've got her," he said. "That ought to make life more interesting."

"Listen here, my boy, because I'll only ask once," Dagon said severely, finding it unexpectedly difficult to maintain an even tone. "Is the angel good to you?"

"That's not a sensible thing to ask. Not very sensible at all. He's been a right git to me sometimes, and I've been no better to him. Maybe you're after a different question?"

Dagon sighed and tried again, because, as ever, Crowley had made an excellent point.

"Could this have gone differently? That is to say, did you have any other choice?"

Crowley pushed away from the wall and stood up to his full height in front of Dagon, which meant he had to lift his chin to look Dagon in the eye. Only Hastur could do that without additional effort; blast him, but he and Ligur needed a serious talking-to...

"Of course," Crowley said. "Loads of them, but I chose to ignore all but one."

Content, Dagon nodded and clapped him on the shoulder again, and Crowley smiled.

"You'd better go and find him, then, lad. Patience isn't a virtue with that one."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Sophia tottered outside and sat down on the front stoop. The world was spinning; she'd done a terrible job of treating her hangover, and she'd just come from checking on Mandy, who was asleep again in the bedroom with a worried Iván at her side.

Adam joined Sophia on the steps, sighing heavily as he settled beside her. "I've got to help Iván get her out of there and into the car. She can't stay here tonight; something tells me they'll be wanting their bed back. What do you think?"

Sophia regarded him blearily in the falling dusk, rose petals drooping in her eyes. "I'm drunk," she said. "Like, really, hopelessly drunk. I want to throw up, but I can't. I might have to drink more just to accomplish that, d'you know what I'm saying?"

Adam grimaced and put a consoling arm around her, staring down at their feet.

"I want to know what happened," Sophia said. "It wasn't just how much she drank."

"No, but intoxication gave the guy who possessed her an easy way in," Adam said.

"What the hell was up with the plant mister? Why did Aziraphale look so scared?"

"Do you know what Holy Water does to demons? Never mind, I s'pose you don't."

Through the muddled haze of her thoughts, Sophia considered this and shuddered.

"But his face didn't melt or burn up or anything. He just looked really annoyed."

"Aziraphale transformed the water," Adam said. "Un-sanctified it, if you like."

"I don't think Crowley believes in that kind of thing anymore, so maybe...?"

"But humans do, Soph. Humans believe in it a lot. They bless the water."

"Adam, reality check. We're humans, too, and we don't. Not all humans."

"But enough humans," he said. "Enough for us not to know, for even me not to know, and I'm not about to go testing it on them. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I'm going to throw up," Sophia said, twisting sideways into the grass, and did.

Adam steadied her until the fit passed. Her mouth tasted awful, but she felt better.

"I've got to go help Iván with Mandy," he said. "Will you be okay without me?"

"Yeah," she said, using his arm to lever herself up. "I've got to find Crowley."

Demons could die. Angels could die. Humans had to go believing things and they—

They'd all die, and Crowley and Aziraphale wouldn't, assuming Holy Water didn't work on them as long as they didn't believe it would, or maybe that was wishful thinking—

She ran straight into Pippa on her way around the side of the cottage, shaking.

"Dear heart, what's the matter?" Pippa asked, rubbing Sophia's bare shoulders.

"Where's Crowley?" she croaked. "I've really got to find Crowley. Where's he gone?"

Pippa frowned at her. "He's just come out of the shed, got the girls all tucked in."

"Good," Sophia said, and stumbled away from Pippa, leaving her high heels behind.

Crowley was next to the roses, untangling something from the bushes' glossy leaves. Aziraphale was standing a little distance off with her mother and father and Rani. She didn't know where the twins had got off to; they were probably down by the sea with the Archangels, trying to see who could drown whom. It didn't really matter.

"Crowley, we're going to die," she said plaintively. "We're all going to die, but as long as nothing stupid or impossible happens, you and Aziraphale won't. Crowley!"

Crowley wound the string of silver Mardi Gras beads around his wrist and stood up, regarding her with an expression he would've liked to come across as undreadable, but Sophia knew better. His eyes shimmered too much for him to be all right.

"That's right," he said hesitantly. "Hadn't you worked it out already? Harold was—"

"Harold was really all about Pippa," Sophia said. "We weren't that close to him."

Crowley stared at the beads on his wrist. "It doesn't lessen our loss. Or hers."

Sophia felt sudden anger seize her. She wanted to smack him, make him see.

"You'll still be here when we're all gone and this planet's just a garden again."

She'd hit him all right, sunk the proverbial blade right where it needed to go.

"What, exactly," said Crowley, brokenly, "in the world would you have me do?"

"I don't know!" Sophia sobbed, aware now of just how wet her cheeks were and how difficult it was to speak through the fire in her chest and in her throat. She dug her toes into the grass and fisted her hands in her dress, tugging till the threads hissed.

"I can only stay," Crowley told her, haltingly, as if human language had grown difficult. "Can only keep watch, can only accept loss, can only love. You're such strange girls, both of you, shedding precious questions like so much dead skin."

Not a single one of the sibilants clipped this time, nothing of his snake-like expression spared. Someone else had her by the shoulders as Crowley approached, someone familiar and terrifying, someone whispering There, there, dear girl and It's all right.

"Oh, sssure," Crowley sighed. "Send her to dreamland. That'll solve everything."

"I haven't got any better ideas, my dear, and she's really grown quite agitated."

"Do it quickly," Adam said from somewhere off behind them, "and give her here."

Sophia tore herself away from Aziraphale and fell forward into Crowley's arms.

"You," she whispered. "Since she trusted you, I'll keep on trusting you, too."

Crowley kissed her cheek, took the roses from her hair, rocked her to sleep.

Why? she sent as she slipped under, her head gone heavy on his shoulder.

Because life's too short, he sent back. Yes, Eve—yes, Sophia—even mine.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Hodges, you say?" replied Aziraphale, politely. They'd only just managed to get Adam and Iván on the road with their respective somnolent cargoes, and Anathema had also chosen that moment to depart with her husband and two younger daughters in tow.

"Yes," said Madame Tracy, pleased to have related this news, however trivial. "Anathema knew all about the place that burned down, said it used to be a convent, and then I remembered that Mary said she'd once been a nun. Such a nice girl."

Aziraphale remembered the young woman he and Crowley had hypnotized with sudden clarity. Sister Mary, and Crowley had recalled the Latin only in translation. "It's certainly good to know she's, er, carved out a stable existence for herself."

"It's not easy being a woman on one's own," said Madame Tracy, "and I should know. Look at all these bright young things, what opportunities they've got! My niece Petula's a barrister, you know, and just look at our Sophia, all grown up and in politics! Mary said she's off on holiday somewhere next month—somewhere in South America, I think? Mmm, yes, Brazil. Wouldn't that make a lovely trip, Mister S?"

"Not at our stonkin' great age it isn't, wumman," he muttered, and then turned to Aziraphale. "Yer young man's waitin', ye great southern pansy. Best look to 'im!"

"Good night, both of you," said Aziraphale, wearily. "Please give Folkestone my best."

Rani was much more difficult to coax out the door, but Raphael and Uriel convinced her that going out for a late supper with Tanith and Dagon was worth the pursuit.

"Be responsible," Aziraphale told Raphael. "None of your shenanigans. I've had enough for one day, thank you very much. The damage remains to be seen."

Raphael gave him a mock-salute and closed the door behind all five of them.

Aziraphale sagged against the work-top, taking in the abrupt silence. The only sound came from the left-hand sink basin; on closer inspection, he spotted the mouse crouched behind a mug that Adam and Iván hadn't got around to washing. It was lapping at some errant water droplets, drinking and washing its whiskers by turns.

"Where have you been?" Aziraphale asked. "Not so much as a shred of regard for our big day, is it, except for the leftovers? You might have had the decency to attend the ceremony, or to buy us some time by scrambling up Miss Tomlin's arm as a distraction. Granted, you're right, she may not have noticed, not with a demon sat in her skull. You're off the hook this time, but a little due diligence wouldn't go amiss—"

Crowley peered in from the hall just then: half undressed, completely bewildered.

"It's our wedding night," he said, "and you're stood there talking to a mouse."

Aziraphale looked him up and down—delectably bare feet, unbuttoned shirt hanging low off his elbows, forearms taut across his abdomen in an attempt to hold up his trousers—and realized that there was, indeed, something wrong with this picture.

"He's not just any mouse by now, though, as you're so fond of pointing out."

"I'll just go back in there and continue starting without you, shall I?"

"Do you know how easy it would have been," Aziraphale said with some difficulty, "how frighteningly easy it would have been—at so many different points in time, no less, and I'll declare Barcelona the starting point—for you to have had me if you'd but said the word, if you'd but given any sign at all that you were interested?"

Crowley's mouth fell open a little, but all he managed to say was, "Barcelona?"

"Five hundred and twenty-six years," said Aziraphale, "out of six thousand and eighteen. That's not a long time to want something, is it, in the grand scheme of things—er, I mean, to want someone—but I can't help but think of what you told her, dear boy, what you told both of them, how life isn't nearly long enough, not even yours. I can't help but lament how much time I wasted, but if it took you as long as Tokyo and the fugu to sort your head out, then it wasn't really time wasted so much as time in which I often dismissed you out of frustration and, in doing so, hurt you—"

Crowley stepped from the shadowed hall into the low-lit kitchen, letting his shirt fall.

"Two thousand and two—that's Tokyo—I hoped you'd really start to get the hint, and it turns out you did; nineteen ninety was the first time I let it show at all, but it couldn't be helped, what with the circumstances; let's call everything from nineteen hundred through at least the nineteen-eighties a sequence of failed flirtations on an incredibly grand scale, because, let's face it, that's a lot of war-related trauma and social progress. It was hard to watch Oscar Wilde do his level best to get at you, but I also wonder if it was hard for you to watch Leonardo da Vinci try to get at me. That's a lungful, isn't it? My point is that both of us had plenty of offers, plenty of chances, plenty of choice, but we weren't having any of it, weren't having any of them, wouldn't you agree?"

Crowley had given up on trying to hold his trousers shut. It was distracting.

"Do you mean to tell me they never once thought of putting you up to it with intent to cause harm," said Aziraphale, "never once handed you the opportunity on a platter? Quite a blow, I'd have thought, tempting one's Enemy to the point of seduction."

"Nah," Crowley said. "I never particularly liked the idea, and besides, that's Hastur's division, not mine. You should see him pick away at the clergy—well, no, you needn't look too hard," he added, wincing. "It's all over the papers these days."

Aziraphale steered Crowley back into the bedroom, seeing to it that the door was firmly shut and locked behind them (never mind that the guests were gone and the mouse could easily slip in by other means). Shadwell had given him orders.

"How long, dear boy?" he asked. "How long did I keep you waiting?"

Crowley wriggled impatiently out of his trousers and stretched.

"This time, only about twenty minutes," he said, reaching out.

"Very funny," Aziraphale said, undressing. "You know what I meant."

Crowley extended both hands this time, drawing Aziraphale down to him.

"I liked you from the start," he said. "I wouldn't have talked to you if I hadn't, and I didn't even care that my joke went down harder than its subject matter. You listened like the girl had done, and you also had the courtesy to make conversation. What made you different was that you didn't leave, didn't run off and cower in the forest and never speak to me again, shouty voice Upstairs be damned."

"Oh, Crowley," Aziraphale said. "That isn't funny. That isn't funny in the least—"

"It's not supposed to be funny," said Crowley, breathlessly, when they stopped kissing for a little while. "It's supposed to be honest, and anyway, I'm not asking you to be funny, either. You're funny enough without trying, take it from me."

Aziraphale sighed, stroked him from ribcage to thigh and back up again.

"Then what are you asking, my dear? And won't you give me an answer?"

"I can't remember the exact moment it started, so I can't help you. What I'm telling you is that I'd have waited forever," Crowley said, "and that I never want it to end."

Aziraphale twined their fingers and bent closer, until their foreheads touched.

"All else around us will end in time, make no mistake about that."

"I know that," Crowley said. "But not today, at least, and not soon."

"Should we have come to nothing, our atoms disassembled—" Aziraphale paused, dizzied by the thought of it "—I'd have loved you even then. I would have stayed."

"That's all right, then," Crowley said, "but it's a good job we got out in one piece."

"Which time?" asked Aziraphale, finding his eyelids heavy.

"Every time," Crowley said, yawning. "Ngh. Um, I think..."

Neither one of them stayed awake long enough to complete the sentence, and that was all right, too.

Chapter Text

Boston, 11 February 1932

"How," asked Crowley, tipsily squinting into his glass, "did thisss get here?"

"This establishment?" Aziraphale replied. "Eighteenth Amendment, I expect."

"Nonono, I mean this," Crowley said, careful to rein in his tongue, and waved the champagne flute under Aziraphale's nose. "S'not from around here. Look." He tapped the ornate insignia etched into its side. "Hotel Astor, Times Square. Long way from home, eh?" He cast a suspicious glance at the pair occupying the table next to them; the dark-haired one kept glancing in Crowley's direction whenever he hit sibilants.

"Stolen," lamented Aziraphale, having reached the point where despairing of humanity was his preferred theme. "Don't stare. They're trying not to stand out."

"With a suit that shade and a state of inebriation that advanced, they're bound to," Crowley said. "Just think about it. We're not the spectacle du jour for once."

"I don't know, my dear," Aziraphale mused. "We might give them a run for their money, or in the very least shift some attention away so that the poor things can conduct their tryst in peace. Their government doesn't make things terribly easy."

Crowley goggled at him. "Let me get this straight—you disapprove of humans stealing glassware, but you'll let their flagrant buggery and shameless bootlegging pass?"

Aziraphale scooted his chair closer to Crowley's and refilled both of their glasses.

"It's in our own best interests to let the alcohol slide, wouldn't you agree?"

"In which case," Crowley said, casting an uneasy sidelong glance at Aziraphale, who was rather temptingly warm and solid and nearer than usual, "we'll prove far more beneficent than the local law enforcement would if they knew about this place."

The angel gulped down some wine and grimaced. "We'd best help them drink up."

"Were you expecting better?" Crowley asked, grinning behind his hand. "That was distilled in a bucket." Out of the corner of his eye, as liberal with the interpretation of shapes and angles as his vision had waxed, he couldn't help but notice that the fairer-haired one in outlandish pale pink was now paying much closer attention. The cut of his suit was ten years out of date, and his expression was rather distinctly haunted.

Wobbling a little, Aziraphale picked up Crowley's glass and raised it to eye level.

"Red wine's rather attractive in the hollow stem, wouldn't you agree?" he cooed.

Crowley rubbed his eyes, replaced his glasses, and snatched back the wine.

"Whatever you say, angel," he muttered, and drank it all in one swallow. At least that way he could use the ensuing head-rush as an excuse to lean closer, the better to let Aziraphale's shoulder prop him up. He set down the empty glass and inclined his head, nostrils flaring intently. Aziraphale smelled of expensive pipe tobacco and that evening's unexpected rain. The window just above their table was open a fraction, admitting a cool breath of air in the otherwise dim and smoky jazz-laced cellar.

"Do you suppose they're happy?" asked Aziraphale, loudly enough to suggest he was truly soused, startling Crowley out of his reverie (he'd grown mildly entranced, watching the way the men's hands constantly touched without ever quite touching).

"What, those two in particular, or humans who fornicate generally speaking?"

Aziraphale hesitated, and then refilled his glass—without using the bottle to do so.

Fortunately, the men were too deep in their low, cocooned conversation to notice.

"Those two," Aziraphale said, gesturing vaguely, "and others like them. You know."

Crowley felt his heart choose that moment to start triphammering, an unearthly staccato muffled by his all-too-earthly flesh. "They look happy," he hazarded, parking his cheek against Aziraphale's upper arm. In any other circumstances, he'd already have scooted as far away as his conscience would permit. "Don't they? Mean, it can't be all bad, can it, liking somebody elssse well enough to share air and ssspit and—"

Borne in on the breeze, a cacophony of sirens fractured the musicians' improv.

"Fuck," Aziraphale hissed, casting wildly about for their fifth and only remaining bottle of wine. Dislodged from his cozy stupor, Crowley staggered to his feet and drunkenly surveyed the chaos. His conclusion was not much different from Aziraphale's.

"Chair," he said, attempting to snap his fingers. "Up to the—the—that thing, the window, now!" He stumbled backward against the one he'd been sitting in, twisted his body, grabbed the arms, and slammed it up against the wall hard enough to splinter the back. "Aziraphale, you stupid—get up there—wait, wait, what are you—"

Aziraphale had confiscated an extra bottle of wine from a nearby abandoned table.

"If we take the evidence with us," he said maniacally, "then maybe the police—"

"Go, go, go," Crowley ordered, wrenching the bottles out of Aziraphale's grasp. While Aziraphale made an unsteady start of climbing onto the chair, Crowley instinctively turned to glance at the couple they'd been watching for the better part of the past hour. They'd almost fought their way to the door, lost in a gaudy, well-dressed crush of inebriated bodies. Strained at arms' length, they were finally, finally hand in hand.

You'll get out, thought Crowley, fiercely. You'll get out, and the cops won't find you.

"Crowley," said Aziraphale, from somewhere above his head, "I don't think..."

"Right, hey, I've got you," Crowley said, because all it took was one step back to where he'd started, with both bottles of wine cradled in one arm and his other hand braced—unintentionally, he told himself—against Aziraphale's backside. "Open it the whole way and climb out—yes, yes, good—and I'll hand you these like so—"

Crowley never did find out who had him by the ankle; Aziraphale hauled him clear of that perilous dangling like it was no effort at all (and, for them, Crowley supposed dimly, the alcohol beginning to wear off, it wasn't). He collected himself and stood.

A persistent, misting rain had settled in, refracting the combined streetlamps and police spotlight to an eerie, steadily strobing glow. He blinked; his vision swam green.

"Come on, my dear," said Aziraphale, hefting the wine, and grabbed Crowley's hand.

Crowley turned from the lights and followed: did not look back, held on for dear life.

Chapter Text

Sunday Evening: 26 August 1990

 

1.

 

And perhaps the recent exertions had had some fallout in the nature of reality, because, while [Aziraphale and Crowley] were eating, for the first time ever, a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square. —p. 262

 

Crowley was livid. No: Crowley was annoyed and maybe even slightly furious, but it was rather difficult to be actually livid when one was in one's second upscale restaurant of the day eating excellent food in (for the most part) good company.

Still, it rankled a bit that he could no longer blame Aziraphale's basic nature for the fact that he'd promised Madame Tracy and her so-called young man a ride back to London and supper after they'd finished fearing for their lives at Tadfield Air Base.

Granted, Crowley had never really believed much in basic nature in the first place.

"We thought you'd forgot," Madame Tracy was saying to the angel, dabbing her lips after another sip of red wine that Aziraphale had, unbeknownst to her, transmuted into yet another laudable late nineteenth-century Beaujolais. "It's all well and good we had the motorbike, of course, but it would have been lovely to share the ride back. So kind of you to call this afternoon and collect us! This wine's just gorgeous, love."

If Aziraphale's wings had been manifest, he'd have been preening. "We're regulars here," he explained, and his hand covering the back of Crowley's for the briefest of moments against the crisp tablecloth caused Crowley to start. "We've tried almost everything on the list, dear lady, so if there's anything that strikes your fancy..."

"I'd steer clear of the Duckhorn Vineyards '84 Merlot," said Crowley, recovering himself. Aziraphale so rarely offered or invited touch that Crowley's skin was still buzzing; he hadn't felt anything like that at the Air Base, had he, the two times (oh, yes, he'd counted) he'd impulsively touched the angel's arm, his hand?

There'd been a third time, of course, at the end, when Aziraphale had signed for the sword and then helped Crowley to his feet. Gentlemanly of him, Crowley had caught himself thinking, and had squashed the notion before his cheeks had gone pink with it.

"I dunnae aboot no wines," muttered Shadwell, "ye backgammon-playin' southern—"

"Mister S, that will be enough of your cheek! Mister Fell and Mister Crowley very kindly got us out of a spot of bother last night, and now they're paying for dinner. Manners."

That takes the dating of his slur repertoire back to the eighteenth century, Crowley thought, swallowing half his glass of the house white. I ought to be impressed. Strangely, what he felt instead was the urge to let his arm brush Aziraphale's.

"What will you do now that you've taken retirement, Sergeant?" Crowley asked.

"Oh, it's all been decided," gushed Madame Tracy. "We're in the market for a nice little place somewhere outside the city, just the two of us. I've been skimming estate agents' leaflets, and there are some lovely cottages for sale. We're popping out for a stay in Kent next week to look at a few. Off to find our own Shangri La."

"My sincerest congratulations to you both," Aziraphale said, refilling his own glass and Madame Tracy's. Shadwell covered his pint of Guinness with one suspicious, grubby hand, and Crowley shook his head, still cradling what was left of his white. He'd give in eventually, but not yet. Maybe after the humans were gone for the night. Abruptly, he found he wanted to be sober for this, wanted to remember...

"What about you?" Madame Tracy asked him. "Any plans on your horizon?"

"Er," Crowley stuttered, his gaze dropping conveniently into his glass, "well. I hadn't exactly given it much thought, you see, as I've got a perfectly nice bit of property in Mayfair, and who in their right mind would give that up when—"

"I've got the bookshop in Soho to look after," Aziraphale cut in, too quickly for comfort. "You're quite welcome to stop by, of course. Any time at all."

"He keeps odd hours," Crowley supplied, and he could feel the weight of Aziraphale's glare against the side of his neck. "You might try knocking 'round the back."

"Bah," growled Shadwell. "Light-loafered pillow biters, the both o' ye."

"Not to worry," said Madame Tracy, reaching across the table to pat Crowley's hand exactly as Aziraphale had, "I wouldn't dream of intruding. I always call ahead. And you ought to take your time, absolutely take your time. We've had years, old sillies like me and Mister S. No sense in rushing, bright young things like you."

Aziraphale's expression was a fairly inept impression of not quite understanding what was going on. Crowley, on the other hand, made busy drinking, because there was no way in Creation he could fake his way out of blushing six ways to Sunday. And it just happened to be Sunday. The last of his wine burned all the way down.

"We'd discussed traveling for a while," said Aziraphale, mercifully preventing the necessity of response on Crowley's part. "A grand tour of sorts. There are so many places we've not seen in—er. Not seen in ages. I should like to see Africa again. South America, perhaps. We've neglected the Pacific of late. New Zealand. Japan."

"Australia," Crowley said into his glass, which he'd just filled with Beaujoulais.

Aziraphale cleared his throat. "So much to see, so little time. Wouldn't you agree?"

"Tibet," offered Shadwell, in a rare moment of sincerity. "I always did wan' tae go."

"To new beginnings, then," said Madame Tracy, raising her glass. "To us."

"Yeah," echoed Crowley, light-headed as Aziraphale raised his glass and took Crowley's hand. "To, um—to that. Exactly what she said. And a happy..."

Aziraphale's hand was gone just as quickly as before, but that didn't matter.

(What mattered was that it would surely come again, and perhaps even stay.)

 

 

2.

 

The Them hesitated. Loyalty was a great thing, but no lieutenants should be forced to choose between their leader and a circus with elephants. They left. The sun continued to shine. The thrush continued to sing. —p. 266

 

Adam found that there was only so far he could run, what with a soggy apple core in his back pocket and his legs gradually tiring on him. Dog had taken up a pitiful, begging refrain some dozen or so yards back, and although the orchard's owner was no longer in hot pursuit, his father, thanks to an inevitable phonecall, would be.

He doubled back, scratching behind Dog's ears on the way, for Jasmine Cottage. He was badly out of breath by the time he reached Anathema's doorstep, and Dog was limping slightly—probably because he'd plowed paws first through a patch of stinging nettles as they'd come clear of the field and cut through the hedge.

"Sanctuary!" Adam called, hanging on the door knocker. "Anybody there? Let us in!"

The door opened, but it wasn't Anathema who stood peering down at him. The stern young man in glasses was quite plain, Adam thought, but there was something more to him—the pale Welsh eyes, the sardonic lines at one corner of his mouth—that made you pay attention. That face had what Adam's mother would call character.

"What's this, then?" asked Newton Pulsifer. "Anathema! That Young boy's here."

"Well, don't just stand there," called Anathema's voice. "Ask him in for supper."

As he stepped inside and Newt closed the door behind him, Adam realized with no small amount of discomfort that he'd interrupted a rather meager meal indeed: Anathema's habitual miso soup augmented by take-away from Tadfield's only Chinese eatery (which, some months ago, had not even been Chinese-owned, but Adam had thought it ought to be, and, within weeks, it had been). Dog whined, doubtless able to smell Newt's chicken lo mein. Adam was more partial to General Tso's himself.

"Just a minute," said Anathema, rising from the table. She was barefoot, wearing an oversize bath robe over her pyjamas, and bustled about the kitchen opening cupboards and drawers at random as if she couldn't remember where anything was. Guiltily, Adam wondered if that was his fault. She finally produced a box of dog biscuits from under the sink with a triumphant Aha! Dog's tail thumped the floor.

"I knew I'd got some," she explained, bringing the box over and shaking a few of the treats out in front of Dog. "For the next time you stopped by, although at the time I had the oddest feeling there wouldn't be a next—" She cleared her throat and gestured at Adam. "Eat with us. There's more than enough to go 'round."

"Thanks awfully," said Adam, drawing the apple core out of his pocket, "but I'm afraid I just had some fruit. I s'pose I could sit and talk a while. There's no harm in it."

Newt took the apple core off Adam's hands and threw it away before coming to join Adam and Anathema at the table. He cleared his throat and glanced sidelong at Dog, who was gnawing away at the biscuits with intermittent satisfied growls.

"I suppose your father's not terribly pleased with you right now," he said.

"You're right," Adam agreed. "I reckon he wouldn't be, what with all that ridin' around last night and now me runnin' off like this when I'm meant to stay in the yard. I'm sure ole Picky saw me run on by the church an' called him up. That's why I can't ask for sanctuary at the church, you see. I figured maybe witches can offer sanctuary as well as anybody. Not that you're a witch," he added, fixing his eyes on Newt.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry," said Anathema, raising the soup bowl to her lips for a sip of miso. "He might be some kind of wizard. One who breaks things for the greater good."

"There are no such things as wizards," said Newt, but his heart wasn't really in it.

"Or witches?" Adam ventured, taking a crab rangoon at Anathema's insistence.

"Ah," said Newt, winding noodles around his fork. "They just might exist."

"I know they do," Adam agreed, "an' I think it's wicked. The Witchfinders will come lookin' one day, just you wait, but it won't be them findin' you exactly, I mean not so much as you all finding each other." He squinted at Anathema's face, shut his eyes, and then opened them again when the shivery, stunned flash of knowing was too much to bear. "Oh," he said. "I reckon there's things you'll find out sooner or later."

Anathema was smiling at him, and not in that tired, patronizing way most adults did.

"I think we've all found each other already," she said, "and that's a good start."

"I don't think anybody's going to find us if we stay in this shack," Newt said.

"You won't stay for long," Adam said. "I know all about you two. You'll go far."

"Not too far, I hope," said Newt. "Mum's in Dorking, and getting on in years."

"I meant you'll do lots of things," Adam said. "Important, interestin' things."

"But I doubt we stay here," said Anathema, frowning, and got up again. She went over to the fireplace and scraped around in the glowing embers with a poker, fishing out a scrap of charred paper. She scanned it, frowned at it, and tossed it back in the fire. "At least I don't think we stay here, but damned if I can make sense—"

"Come back to the table," said Newt, "and eat with us. Your soup's getting cold."

Anathema came back to the table, frowning, eyes lingering wistfully on the hearth.

"Don't worry," said Adam, and took her hand between both of his. "You'll see."

Chapter Text

1. imagine hastur riding a bus

 

Ligur stared thoughtfully out the window, then tapped the glass.

"Oi!  Is this where we get off, then?" he asked his companion.

Hastur shrugged as the bus ground to a halt at Victoria Station.

"As good a place as any," he said, and reached for Ligur’s belt.

 

 

 

2. imagine hastur wearing heels

 

"Dunt know about this," said Ligur, shifting from one foot to the other.  "They made ’em for fashion, you said, and not torture?"  He kicked out of the shoes and shuddered, which is really the closest he could get to a shiver in their present environment.  "Nasty things."

"Where’s your sense of adventure?" Hastur sneered, toeing into one shoe and then the other, striking a pose that was intended as parody of those skinny humans on the…the…railway?  The correct term had thoroughly gone out of Ligur’s head, and little wonder.

"If that’s what yer after, try the leopard-print ones," Ligur said.

 

 

 

3. imagine hastur watching a disney movie

 

Ligur tilted his head thoughtfully.  “I dunno, it may come right.  She’s got a lot goin’ for her, even bein’ mute and all.  Them big expressive eyes.”

Hastur threw scorched popcorn at the screen.  “What have her eyes got that those nice fresh ones I brought up from the Eighth Circle haven’t, eh?”

"They inspire romantic musical numbers, for one," said Ligur.

Hastur brooded his way through Kiss the Girl, wondering if he ought to have brought the poor, unfortunate soulgood expression, thatand just done the extraction in front of Ligur.  At least then there’d have been some accompaniment.

Fortunately, Ligur didn’t expect a boat ride, and the ratty sofa didn’t tip.

 

 

 

4. imagine hastur trying to outsmart an automatic door

 

Whoosh.  Hastur peered cautiously into the air-conditioned interior.

"I can’t find the wires," said Ligur, warily.  "Wouldn’t trust it if I were you."

"Well, I’m not you," said Hastur, watching the glass panel glide open again.  He stepped aside to let a human pass from within (not as if the bugger could see them anyway), watched the glass slide shut, and then gestured to Ligur.  "I’ve got the shape of it now."

He stepped forward and smacked nose-first into the closed panel.

Ligur didn’t manage to hide his snort, and didn’t run fast enough, either.

 

 

 

5. imagine hastur watching ligur getting dressed

 

It wasn’t so much the feeling of being watched as the way the air in the room changed (insofar as the boiling point had any capacity to shift).

"Quit lurkin’ and show yerself," said Ligur, pausing, and let his shirt hang open.  "Pervy git.  If a tumble’s what yer after, just say so."

Hastur emerged seamlessly from between the ash-streaked curtains, eyes glowing muted vermilion in the dim, vaulted bedchamber.  The place wasn’t much to crow about, but it had been home for so long—

"Turn around," he rasped, grasping Ligur roughly by the shoulders.  "No messin’ about.  Bloody prick-tease, that’s what you are.”

The rest of Ligur’s clothes lay forgotten: home was what you made of it.

 

 

 

6. imagine hastur bleeding

 

"Hey, c’mere," Ligur said, and drew a ragged, greying handkerchief out of his trouser pocket (which required a lot of fishing around in the piles of clothes at the foot of the…well, let’s call it a bed).  “You’ve got some

“’S nothing,” Hastur insisted, fingering the livid slashes between his ribs with satisfaction.  “Better work on the depth next time.  Or else.”

Ligur considered this, dabbing at the cuts anyway.  “They was always tellin’ me to trim my nails.  Back then, I mean.  Up There.”

Hastur ran the sharp tip of his index finger from the curve of Ligur’s jaw down to his collarbone, swiped the fresh black-red trail it left, and licked Ligur’s blood off his thumb.  "Don’t you dare," he hissed, rolling them back into the stained pillows.

 

 

 

7. imagine hastur imitating crowley

 

"That was good," said Ligur, clapping.  "You nailed ’im.  Just better hope he weren’t listenin’ or nothing.  I heard ol’ bossy-boots upped his surveillance after we

"Dagon is distracted," sneered Hastur, "and the least of my concerns."

"All right, then," said Ligur, expectantly.  "Go on and do another one."

"Who’d you have in mind?" asked Hastur, flattered.  "Just name it."

"Not so much an it as a he,” Ligur mused slyly.  “You know who.”

Hastur bristled and spat.  “I wouldn’t stoop so far as to give him the honor of even my cruelest mockery,” he insisted.  “You ask far too much.”

"Please?" Ligur begged, and, curse him, batted his singed eyelashes.

Hastur sighed and kicked off his shoes, likewise discarding his clothes in a sizzle of hot, stale air.  He hated this part most of all: shape-shifting, the sense that he’d been crammed into a space too long and narrow for even someone of his not inconsiderable height.  He crossed the floor and wound his way up Ligur’s leg, slid across his lap (felt wrong, that part, wronger than anything Hastur had ever done, and that was saying a lot), and finally up Ligur’s chest so that he could wind in a murderous strangle-hold around Ligur’s neck.  He flicked his forked tongue at Ligur’s earlobe, tempted to sink in both ineffectual fangs.

"Is thisss what you wanted?" hissed Hastur, scornfully.  "Are you happy?”

"It’s just," gasped Ligur, in mild asphyxiation, "snakes are so cute, ain’t they?”

 

 

 

8. imagine hastur visiting america for the first time

 

Amidst the carnage—fresh blood, melted ice cream, and shredded Baskin-Robbins uniformsLigur licked the back of his sticky, no-longer-manifest-as-maggots hand in satisfaction.  "How many flavors was it s’posed to be?" he asked.  "Thirty-one?"

"More," said Hastur, wiping his chin with a napkin from the miraculously untouched nearby dispenser.  "They forgot to count the employees."

 

 

 

9. imagine hastur at a gatsby party

 

"What d’you mean Crowley ain’t here?" shouted Ligur, casting about wildly.  He couldn’t hear over the racket all of the humans were makinghe was at present jammed in the midst of a bunch who’d decided making party hats of their empty martini glasses was a great idea—and Hastur was getting progressively more cross.  “He likes parties.  You said so.”

Hastur pushed his way through the throng hemming them in, past Ligur and the tall young woman standing with the awkward young man who were being watched by the very person for whom they were searching (humans were stupidly unobservant, the lot of them), and surveyed the chaotic scene below from his new vantage point at the railing.

"If he isn’t here now, he’ll be here later," Hastur sneered, and then turned to lock eyes with the host-turned-voyeur for the briefest of moments.  "He’ll have orders, of course.  The question, as always, will be what he chooses to do with them."

 


 

10. imagine hastur meeting irisbleufic

 

"Dunt see why," Ligur mutters. "Rather plain, ain’t she? Looks kind of sad. Why’s she just ignorin’ everyone else like that? I’d be people watchin’ if I was human." She’s distracted: swift greyish eyes, blown-about short red hair.

Just as Hastur decks him a good one, hisses for him to keep quiet, the girl’s eyes flick up from her phone and lock on both of them, fingers still tapping keys on the screen. She deletes something, rewrites it, and then regards the negligible space between Hastur’s and Ligur’s subway-car seats as as if it’s no more than empty air. Chews her lip, deletes.

"Because we’re more real to her than they are," he says.

Not quite smiling, she flips Hastur off, continues to type.

 

 

 

11. imagine hastur feeding ducks

 

"You sure it’s safe, gettin’ this close?" asked Ligur, hesitantly. "Just ’cause I was here the once for a week or so keepin’ an eye on things don’t mean I recommend hangin’ about as such."

"You said they looked tasty," Hastur reminded him, peering over the garden hedge at the six unassuming ducks foraging amidst the vegetation. "That’s reason enough for me to believe the endeavor is, shall we say, worthwhile."

Ligur gave him a disapproving frown. “I think it’s just ’cause yer wantin’ to get back at—”

"Silence!" Hastur snapped, pushing his way through the hedge and into the grass. "What did you say they like?"

"Fruit an’ bugs mostly," said Ligur, hanging back. "Meal-worms. Crickets an' all sorts."

Effortlessly, Hastur produced a handful of maggots and took a step closer to the ducks, who had all looked up and were regarding him with blank, yet wary eyes. “While I keep them occupied with these, you grab a couple, got it?”

Ligur just grunted, not budging an inch.

"As per usual," Hastur sighed, crouching to extend his teeming hand into the ducks’ midst, "any job worth doing, I’ve got to handle myself."

"Look out for that ’un," warned Ligur as the bravest of the lot hissed and approached Hastur. "She bi—"

What happened next was too swift for Ligur to ascertain, save for the obvious fact that Hastur was now covered in a vicious flurry of hissing, quacking waterfowl. "OW!" Hastur roared. "Get in here and get them off me, you sod-all good for nothing—"

"Nuh-uh," said Ligur, unwilling to budge. "They’ve got teeth, ducks."

 

 

 

12. imagine hastur crying

 

"C’mon, lay off it," said Ligur, awkwardly patting Hastur’s shoulder.  "It weren’t so bad as all that.  You got that nippy ’un back pretty good.  Singed her bossy pinfeathers right off, I reckon.  Crawly won’t like that one bit."

Sullenly, Hastur shrugged him off.  The stuff oozing from the corners of his eyes certainly looked enough like tears to fool your average human, but Ligur wasn’t human.  He also liked to think he wasn’t average.

"If you don’t lay off that poncy fussing," Hastur growled, "I’ll feed you to those bleedin’ useless flappy monsters next time, just see if I don’t.”

"We could get some of that organic mango from Tesco’s," said Ligur, evasively.  "Makes ’em fight up a right storm.  You ought ter see.”

And whatever else he might be, he definitely wasn’t a fool.

 

 

 

13. imagine hastur winning a contest

 

Hastur studied the trophy. It looked like it might be made of bone, blackened, and the plaque was made of something dull and shiny that had been hammered flat. There were dark flecks in it. He squinted at the inscription in the gloom.  Some weather the Seventh Torment was having.

"Filling material," said Dagon’s pretty assistant, helpfully (he’d never deign to think of her as anything but that). "Extracted from the molars of gluttons."

"I thought we was here because we was in trouble," said Ligur, and sniffed as he studied the inscription. "This here says he’s done Service to the Realm. Wossat?"

"It means Dagon is going to keeping a very close eye out," she said. "You are in trouble. What gave you the impression you weren’t?”

"Wishful bloody thinking," Hastur snarled, yanking Ligur after him by the collar. "Let’s get out of here. I fancy a glutton or two."

 

 

 

14. imagine hastur dancing

 

"Didn’t sound hard,” Ligur muttered under his breath, bending to dust off the scuffed tips of his boots.  “There’s no call for steppin’ on yer partner’s toes.  I’m leadin’ next time.”

Hastur folded his arms and sneered.  “I’d like to see you try.”

Ligur fiddled with the volume knob on the battered, fried-out radioHastur grudgingly had to admit his companion was getting the hang of anything involving wireand held out his hand.  “Old, this ’un, at least by human standards.”

There was far too much mincing and sashaying for Hastur’s taste, and, this time, his toes were the ones that got repeatedly stepped on.  It made him cross.  But he got a kiss for his trouble at the end, so that was all right.

 

 

 

15. imagine hastur being happy

 

"Can we try it just once the way you say you saw ’em do it?” Ligur implored, panting, his lower lip fetchingly split.  ”Without the scratchin’ an’ bleedin’ an’ such?”

"Why the hell would you want that?" Hastur demanded, flipping him over, but his stomach felt fluttery. "That pansy nancing about’s gone to your head, eh?”

"Sounds different, is all," Ligur managed, but the words dissipated in a squeak when Hastur lightly pinched his nipple.  "Feels funny without yer nails.  Oi!  That tickles!”

Hastur had to agree.  It did tickle, at least most of it, especially the part where feathers got involved.  His wings, unaccustomed to the contact, shuddered and spread.

"What’re you grinnin’ for?" Ligur demanded afterward, passing back the dogend.  "It weren’t nothin’ special.  Nice enough if yer into that kind of thing, I s’pose."

Hastur grunted, took a long puff, and pitched away what was left of the cigar before slinging an arm over Ligur’s side.  He promptly drifted to sleep, and did not dream.

 

 

 

16. imagine hastur cooking

 

"I don’t understand it," said Ligur, baffled, licking scalding oil off the tip of his index finger.  "It turned out just fine Up There when Crawly did it.  I saw.  The humans all ate it, and they didn’t even die.  Defeats the purpose, if you ask me."

Hastur took hold of the skillet and flung it across the room, narrowly missing Ligur’s head in the process.  He glared at the minced up bits of onion, garlic, and chili pepper sizzling on the floor tiles.  He’d followed that recipe to the letter.

"Next time, we are not shopping at bloody Tesco,” he seethed.

Ligur decided he’d best keep his gob shut about mango this time.

 

 

 

17. imagine hastur baking

 

Ligur licked the mixing spoon and hummed.  ”S’more like it.”

"Takes long enough, if you ask me," said Hastur, drumming his fingers on the hob.  He emphatically was not stealing glances at the dimly lit oven window just below.  ”Too fussy by half, and a waste of those crinkly paper things besides.”

"Dunno why you’ve got to bake it," Ligur said.  "Tastes fine as-is."

"Salmonella risk," Hastur sniffed.  "A petty mortal concern, all told."

"Good job them eggs was free-range," said Ligur, and licked some more.

 

 

 

18. imagine hastur in a female corporation

 

"Change back," Ligur muttered, prodding both mounds of surplus flesh again with dubious fingertips.  "I dunt know what to do with ’em.  They’re too soft."

"Your lack of creativity," Hastur sneered, "is concerning."  He shifted under Ligur’s weight, legs spread, finding his current shape a novel excursion.  "And with this?”

"Sure, but them things are still…there.  Mockin’ me, I tell you.”

Hastur sighed and shapeshifted, rolling Ligur onto his back.

"Better?" he countered, with a pointed thrust of his hips.

"Nah," said Ligur, almost lovingly, "yer the absolute worst.”

 


 

19. imagine hastur painting a ceiling

 

"I’m pretty sure that’s not the color I gave you," said a dreaded, familiar voice from the foot of the charred scaffolding.  "In fact, there’s a world of difference between Provençal yellow andum—coagulated human blood.  Charming.”

"I did the mixin’ myself," said Ligur, somewhat crestfallen.  "Yer boss don’t like it?"

"Um," Tanith said again, grimacing.  "He’s your boss, too.  And, for the record, I’m the one who doesn’t like it.  Although I doubt he will, either.”

"Your precious imported pigment," said Hastur, "or, should I say, down-cycled pigment, cannot withstand such temperatures as

"Hacks, dearest," Dagon called from the next room.  "Never mind them."

"You’re lucky I’m an especially dab hand at transformation on an atomic level, buddy," Tanith seethed at Hastur.  She stalked out, but not before mouthing sorry up at Ligur.

"I like her," said Ligur.  "She’s real nice, that ’un.  Regular keeper."

Hastur didn’t think twice about up-ending the bucket on his head.

 


 

20. i magine hastur in a corporation smaller than crowley (or ligur)

 

"If I were bein’ honestnot that I’d want ter be, mindthat ain’t doin’ it fer me,” Ligur admitted as he stared down at Hastur.  “Not much more’n that time you tried

"So much for adventurousness," Hastur sneered.  "What next?"

"It’s just," said Ligur, grinding his toe into the ashy dust underfoot, unable to meet Hastur’s eyes as he shifted back to his full height, "I like bein’ able terwell

Hastur snagged Ligur by his filthy collar and slung him over his shoulder.

"Point taken," he said gruffly, and wanted to add So do Ibut didn’t.

 

 

 

21. imagine hastur trying to learn the tango

 

"This is workin’ about as well as before,” observed Ligur, frustrated, stopping mid-stride.  “You ’ave no sense of timin’ whatsoever.”

"Maybe it’s because you haven’t got a rose in your mouth," said Hastur, sarcastically.  "At least you’d keep bloody quiet, and I could concentrate.”

Ligur grinned: slow, wide, and terrible around the stem suddenly clenched between his teeth.  A thorn snagged his lower lip, pierced it, sent a dark trickle of blood down his chin.

"Er," said Hastur, somewhat distractedly.  "From the top?"

 

 

 

22. imagine hastur in world war two

 

The farmhouse was abandoned, from the look of things, its shutters hanging wide, windows smashed. Hastur advanced through the early morning gloom, squinting at the intact cellar doors.

The shape hunkered down in the weeds beside them stirred and raised its head, revealing the gleam of startled yellow eyes through the mist.

"Fancy meeting you here," said Hastur, with nasty delight. "Keeping watch, are we?"

"Er, hi," said Crowley, sheepishly, and waved with one filthy, tatter-gloved hand. "Yeah. You know me. Always, ah, vigilant.”

Hastur bent down, palms flat against the damp wood, and sniffed. “Looks to me like you waited too long,” he said. “Smells dead.”

"That’s just the dog," explained Crowley, hastily. "The soldier’s been stuck down there for three days. I think there are also a few chickens."

"Scared out of his bloody mind by now, I imagine," said Hastur, turning back to the snake. "His platoon’s long gone. Time to move in for the kill, eh? Didn’t think playing cat-and-mouse with ’em was your style."

Crowley sniffed and rubbed the tip of his nose, which was raw and pink with the cold. “Let this one go,” he said.

If Hastur hadn’t known better, he’d have thought that was a tone of pleading in Crowley’s voice. “Why should I?” he countered.

"He’s somebody’s grandfather," replied Crowley, a bit too quickly. "Er. I mean—”

"The boy’s twenty-three if he’s a day," Hastur sneered.

"I know," Crowley forged on, somewhat desperately, "but he will be. Think of it as…um, as looking after your future returns.”

Hastur grinned and set his palms back against the wood. The doors rattled as the rusty bolt inside threw itself open.

"About time he came out, then," said Hastur, "and found some French whore to fuck."

"He’s already got a girl at home," murmured Crowley, irrelevantly.  "Leave him to me."

Hastur slunk off, watching as the other demon huddled back down in his ill-fitting gear with a shiver.

 

 

 

23. imagine hastur discovering tumblr

 

Tap.  Flick.  Type.  Tap.  Scroll.  Type.

They’re watching the girl on the train again, mystified by the kaleidoscope of color and text cradled in her left hand.  Hastur shifts in his plastic seat and glances sidelong at Ligur.  "All for this," he says.  "Frittering away her life on that gadget."

"Dunno," replies Ligur, and shrugs.  "S’interesting, kind of."

"Bloody snake," Hastur mutters.  "Was it worth it in the end?”

The subway car rattles to a stop.  Harvard Square, it intones.

The girl rises as the door slides open, and brushes past them.

"Every minute," she says, pocketing the phone.  "Every word."

Chapter Text

1. Getting in the Way

"Shhh," whispers Uriel, and then, in German, "you will not feel this way for long."

The soldier's pale eyes are fever-glazed, blank. His filthy hand clutches at hers, slick with mud and sweat. Uriel glances upward, searching the jagged patch of sky. There has not been gunfire for hours, but it might change at any moment.

Others are watching her with curiosity, their looks too exhausted to be contemptuous.

Meanwhile, the soldier squeezes her hand, his breath rattling high and shallow. The sickness has reached his lungs.

"A dozen will be ill by morning," says the red-haired soldier beside her. His uniform ill becomes him, and his forget-me-not eyes are not the same without Parisian mascara.

"Be quiet," Uriel hisses, stroking the soldier's forehead. The fever is rampant, now, tearing him through. She almost says, "This one will be dead by morning," but thinks better of it. Once, briefly, they lapsed into French, and he understood it.

"Are you an angel?" he asks, lips cracked, voice rasping.

Uriel glances away from her companion and down at the soldier, silencing him.

"You are feverish," she says, keeping her voice low. "What makes you say that?"

"You are too beautiful," he whispers, the phrase broken by a cough, "to be a soldier."

Uriel ignores the snort from beside her, stroking the back of the soldier's hand.

"I am no different than you," she says, and knocks on her helmet.

Unexpectedly, the soldier lets go of her hand and reaches up, one filthy fingernail scratching at her cheek. Uriel freezes, fascinated, as he picks away something long and shimmering. At the sudden sting under her helmet, she realizes what he's found.

"You," rasps the soldier, his smile faint and distant, "are not a boy."

Uriel catches his hand, which falls, trembling, into her lap. Carefully, she rummages in the first-aid kit that lies open between her and the red-haired soldier. It is several moments before she locates the scissors. She hands them to her companion.

"Any loose hairs that you see," she whispers in French. "Quickly."

Raphael's features crumple, pained.

"But darling, your natural wave is to die for—"

"I don't care," she hisses as he makes the first cut. "It'll be all the rage next decade."

In her lap, the soldier's head has fallen to one side. Gently, she closes his eyes.

 

 

2. All Yesterday's Parties

"I can't believe you ever wore this," Uriel said in disbelief. The garment she was holding up wasn't recognizable as either a top or a bottom, and it wouldn't cover even half of one's important bits in either case. It was covered in bright orange sequins.

"I don't believe I did," mused Raphael, draping a few evening gowns over his arm. "That belonged to, oh, what's-his-name. The one with the heels."

"That only covers three quarters of your yearly guest-lists since 1920," Uriel sighed, dropping the thing back on Raphael's closet floor. At least he never used mothballs. Everything smelled of lavender.

"On the contrary, darling," said Raphael, holding one of the gowns up under Uriel's chin. "Since 1790 at least. Now, be a good girl and strip down, would you?"

 

 

3. Fair Game

With shaking fingers, Uriel raises the fag to her lips. It's not the best rolling she's ever done, but there's more weed than tobacco, so that's all right. The first hit goes straight to her head, and she doesn't bother to dampen the effects.

“Jesus, what is this shit?” she asks, reclining hazily in the chaise.

Raphael smirks, pleased with himself, and reaches up to snatch the fag before she drops it. He's always preferred the floor. Biggest seat in the house, he says.

“Wouldn't you love to know,” he replies, taking a cool, casual drag. “It's been a little side-project of mine. I've found that botany is an agreeable pursuit.” Without turning his head, he reaches up with his free hand and twines his fingers in Uriel's unkempt hair. “Dreadful. What are you putting in it these days? Superglue?”

“Fuck you,” Uriel mutters. One long drag and several second-hand lungfuls and she's already too dizzily relaxed to say much else. She tries to dislodge Raphael's fingers from her hair, but suddenly he's looming over her and the fag's back between her lips.

She sucks, hard, and tastes cinders.

“That's my girl,” Raphael purrs, plucking away what's left of it. He leans to kiss her, deep and hungry, and, strangely enough, Uriel doesn't feel like pulling away. She wraps her arms around his neck and shifts on the chaise, fixing the angle.

“No,” she says. “You're my girl. I thought we had this sorted.”

“Sorted,” echoes Raphael, nose wrinkled, with pseudo-British diction. Uriel wonders if she really sounds like that. “You've been spending too much time in London, darling.”

“The company's better, I'll say that,” she taunts, hauling Raphael onto the chaise. It's satisfying to see his eyes widen, as if he's forgotten her strength is equal to his.

“Sorry, but I never did like snakes,” he sighs, nuzzling her neck. The bite that follows is rough, enough to make Uriel yelp in surprise. She'll let the bruise blossom.

“Tough shit,” she says. “Now, about this little science-fair project of yours...”

“Clever girl,” Raphael whispers. “Weapons-grade aphrodisiac. How do you like it?”

“I like you better,” Uriel says. She's getting uncomfortable and impatient.

“Better than the snake and his poor, besotted keeper?”

“Fuck you,” she repeats—and, well, she'll do just that.

 

 

4. Sunday Morning

Uriel isn't accustomed to houseguests. Her Toronto apartment, in which she barely spends any time at all, is ill equipped to deal with such a demanding presence as a pansexual intersex Archangel feeling somewhat out-of-touch with his feminine side.

She roams the sitting room listlessly, plucking up half-empty bottles of American microbrew and wondering if she's this bad when she's crashing at his place—or even in London. Most certainly not. She sniffs one mostly-full bottle of Magic Hat #9, frowns, and chugs it.

Hair of the dog, Aziraphale always says, cheerfully. Hair of the dog that bit you. Her hangover doesn't seem to respond, so she dumps the armful of bottles, twelve in total, unceremoniously into the sink.

"Sexy," observes a sleep-muddled voice in the kitchen doorway. "But it falls a little too far. The point's to show off your shoulders, not your armpits."

Uriel squares her shoulders and adjusts the bathrobe she'd carelessly thrown on, turning to face him with a look of challenge. "I admit I was going for function, not style. Do you have any idea what a mess you made?"

Raphael shrugs, casting a nonchalant glance over his shoulder. He's standing there wearing—well, nothing. Not that this is unusual. In fact, it would have been far stranger if he'd even bothered with such a formality as underwear. He hardly bothers with them anyway, which makes clubbing a tad...interesting.

"Your carpet's stain resistant, darling. Beer is a cinch. Now, if you'd had those wine-loving English heathens drinking till all hours—"

"Shut your mouth," says Uriel, irritably, and fills the kettle. "We're having tea."

Chapter Text

2003

Aziraphale stared moodily into his wine as Crowley sighed and waved off the telly.

"It was quite an excellent production," he said. "Would they had done it on stage."

"He got to do it live in plenty of other arrangements," said Crowley, setting his wine down on the coffee table so he could count productions off on his fingers. "Title role when he was a mere sixth-former at Edinburgh Fringe, Laertes opposite O'Toole at the National Theatre in sixty-three, on tour in the title role again in seventy-nine, up to and including a performance at the Kronborg in Helsingør—"

"I had no idea you'd followed Jacobi's career with such interest, my dear," said Aziraphale, attempting to feign nonchalance (and failing rather appallingly). "That brings us up to the filming of what we've just seen, no doubt."

Crowley nodded, retrieving his wine. "Nineteen eighty. Almost makes me feel old."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Aziraphale, polishing off his wine. "We can't be made to feel old." He fished through the agitated murk of his thoughts for words he knew would suit the purpose. "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

"Then that must go for you and me as well, eh?"

Aziraphale watched Crowley take a cautious sip.

"I'll have you know that's not funny," he said.

"Of course not," agreed Crowley, drunkenly. "It's only the best-known bloodbath in all of Western literature and performance art, unless you count anything by Tarantino—"

"Leave it to you to gloss over the point," Aziraphale sniffed. "You've missed it."

"Not really," said Crowley, standing up, and offered Aziraphale his hand. "The real tragedy lies in the failures of communication, the isolation between family members, the mistaken assumptions with regard to who bears whom genuine affection. Love, even, if you like." He got them out in the open and stood Aziraphale in front of the coffee table, and then placed himself opposite Aziraphale. "For my money, what we're seeing is a brilliant young man who, in addition to being deeply grieved by his father's death, isn't free to openly love whom he'd like. Don't look at me like that, angel. I'll prove it. First of all, those so-called love letters..." Crowley wrinkled his nose. "You can't tell me the prince would write like that if his heart was in it. No, he's desperately afraid of displeasing his mother, so off he goes writing trite nothings to the girl Mummy so dearly hopes he'll marry. Meanwhile, she and his uncle can't even get it right when it comes to with what friends—or, as the case actually stands, friend—he keeps the closest counsel. So, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to it. Do you follow?"

Aziraphale's brow had knit so fiercely, and without his express consent, that the muscles of his forehead actually hurt. "I think so. Now, if only our actor of the hour had been free to carry that stroking of Horatio's cheek to its logical..."

Crowley cleared his throat and straightened, eyes closed, his swift nervous hands clenched on his lapels. "I'll demonstrate, shall I? Line: Laertes, his very last. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: mine and my father's death come not upon thee, nor thine on me." He opened his eyes and gestured toward the floor, indicating that Aziraphale should kneel. That being accomplished, Crowley knelt, too, reaching urgently for Aziraphale's shoulders, using them to steady himself. He blinked, having lost his sunglasses some time ago, half-lidded and uncertain.

"Heaven make thee free of it," prompted Aziraphale, under his breath. "I follow thee."

"I am dead, Horatio," Crowley muttered, sagging nearly to boneless weight, giving Aziraphale little choice but to catch him by the elbows and hold him up. "Wretched queen, adieu! You that look pale and tremble at this chance, that are but mutes or audience to this act, had I but time—as this fell sergeant, death, is strict in his arrest—" at that, Crowley seemed to falter with some genuine remembrance, some recollection that drew his bright eyes wide in something like terror "—O, I could tell you..." The trail-off, Aziraphale hadn't been expecting, no more than he'd expected Crowley to take that moment and stroke his cheek with all of the sincerity they'd just seen, no, perhaps more. He laughed, short and wistful. "But let it be, Horatio. I am dead; thou livest. Report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied."

He remembers the lines, thought Aziraphale, amazed, every word, as clearly as I do.

Instinctively, he covered Crowley's hand with his own and pressed it more fully to his cheek, inclining his head to the gesture so that his lips brushed Crowley's palm. He ignored the way Crowley jumped, tried for the briefest instant to turn away. "Never believe it," said Aziraphale, with quiet resolve, and reached for Crowley's glass on the coffee table. "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane: here's yet some liquor left."

And Crowley was terrified, then; Aziraphale wouldn't have known the look if he hadn't seen it so lately (Almost exactly a year ago, he thought), if he hadn't had to bear it before the world contained in that tiny Tokyo restaurant had gone black—

"As thou'rt a man," Crowley hissed, shaking him, "give me the cup: let go! By heaven, I'll have't." His expression softened again, yellow eyes flickering, and said with pitch-perfect regret, "O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me. If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story."

Aziraphale closed his eyes. March afar off, and shot within. "What warlike noise is this?" he murmured on Crowley's behalf, and then, on Osric's, "Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland, to the ambassadors of England gives this warlike volley."

Crowley sucked in an unnecessary breath and wound both arms around Aziraphale's neck, hanging on him now without reserve, gasping warmth into Aziraphale's collar. "O, I die, Horatio," he muttered, faint laughter rising again in his throat, manic and strange. "The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit. I cannot live to hear the news from England, but I do prophesy the election lights on Fortinbras: he has my dying voice. So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less, which have solicited." He tightened his hold, abruptly let go, and trusted with perfect, inebriated insistence that Aziraphale would catch him, cradle him, turn his face up so that they stared hazily at one another as if for the very first time. He ran his fingertips across Aziraphale's lower lip, the gesture exquisite in its excess, and said, "The rest is silence."

Dies, thought Aziraphale, unable to turn off the stage directions embedded in his recollection courtesy of many centuries' rereading, and caught hold of Crowley's hand as it fell limply away. "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and—"

"Stop," Crowley said, but he didn't open his eyes. "See under point, not missed."

Chapter Text

April 1655

John Device removed his hat and stepped across the threshold, although it wasn’t much of a threshold anymore, not as such, as the upper three-quarters of the doorframe had been entirely blown away. So had most of the roof.

A fine layer of ash crunched beneath the soles of John’s shoes as he approached the singed, battered table. He ran his fingers across the well-worn wood, easily finding the spot in which he’d carved his initials with a cheese knife when he was young. JSN, he’d put, but his mother had wrested the knife out of his hand, hacked out the N, and put D. Foresight, perhaps—or just bloody-minded insistence that John’s father remain part of his life in the only way the man really knew how.

He always came to see John on holidays. There was that.

John shivered and set his hand on the Book: that foul, accursed tome. It had been the last straw, perhaps. He’d begged his mother not to send it to press. If not for brazen, printed proof, she might at least have remained a healer and an eccentric.

Next to the Book, there was a box, and on top of that, a letter.

He did the only thing that there was left to do: he opened it with shaking hands, and he read.

 

Deareste John,

Bastarde though yowe be, nonetheless I leave yowe thif. Convey the bocks untoe somme Lawyers, scumme though yowe may think them alle. My Will must be Done. I neede never reminde yowe what will Come if yowe doe notte. My love to yowre Father, the daft olde foole. Telle him my answer is still Noe. Perchance I may see him again, Here or There—it matters notte. Be goode now, and yf not for me, doe it for yowre Child. Below, yowe will find a Name. This man owes me a tidy Sum, and he will Pay by my reckoning. Give somme to the Clerk, for he struggles sore.  And with thatte, my Sonne, I schalle say no more.

Yowre dotynge Mother,
Agnes

 

Part of it explained a lot, certainly. Maud had been ill of a morning or three this past fortnight.

Anger rose in John as abruptly as his grief; the whole place ought to be cinders, he thought fiercely, Book and table and all. He went over to the ruined hearth and found the makings for tinder, just enough charred wood to set a pathetic blaze. Smoke stung his eyes as he worked, and on that, at least, he could blame his tears.

He went over to the table, took hold of the Book, and stacked it on top of both box and letter. He carried them resolutely over to the hearth and stood staring at the breeze-fanned flames for a moment. Curse his mother and his childhood both: grit and dust, gone.

Just as he bent to place his burden on the makeshift pyre, wind buffeted the ruin around him, and he heard—

MY AFTERLYFE FOR A HAMMER, BOY! WAS THE POYNT NOTTE CLEAR?

John shivered and clutched the Book, box, and letter to his chest. Once he’d got a grip on himself, he stuffed the bundle in his satchel and, with blurred vision, cast about the room for anything else he might take. His mother’s library in the shelves on the wall, precious, a small fortune—obliterated, not a scrap or spine surviving but the one he carried.

“Yes, Mum,” he muttered, and, from behind him, as the wind fell abruptly still, he heard a clink.

A single roofing nail skittered across the floor and bounced neatly off the toe of his shoe.

John picked it up and, pocketing the last of his mother’s legacy, walked out of the ruin.

 

 

October 1757

“No more, George,” said Constance Plashkin, “to the devil with you, for aught I care,” and slammed the door.

“Tough break, Mister Cranby,” offered Connie’s neighbor in passing. “Women spit brimstone, ain’t it the truth.”

“Get out of my bloody way, Amos,” muttered George, and swept out into the muddy, storm-blown street.

The relentless wind was picking up, and the deluge showed no sign of stopping. George had hoped he’d find shelter for the night in Connie’s bed, but she’d cooled to his advances since Michaelmas last. Home was two miles on, and there wasn’t a carriage in sight. Cursing under his breath, he rounded the corner at the end of the lane.

George had been with the firm for twelve years. The offices were close, five minutes’ walk at most, and although he’d just left there and wanted nothing so much as a warm fire and his own bed, he’d find his spare cloak and the stoup of whisky under his desk suitable companions until the gale blew over.

To Hell with Connie: he could pay for his own drink now, what with his debts all clear.

He thumped up two flights of stairs and fumbled his key into the lock, struggling to open the heavy door. Damn the ague in his creaking bones, but he wasn’t getting any younger. His left arm ached.

Finding his office too drafty for comfort (the fire wouldn’t stay lit, no matter how he tried), he took whisky, his spare cloak, and a fistful of candles to the store-room. It was the smallest enclosed space on the premises, windowless, and, between the burn of one thing and another, would warm quickly enough.

Hunkered down on the floor by candlelight, he’d drunk three or four long pulls by the time his glazed, swimming eyes drifted up to the shelves and lit on the Box. They’d had it for a donkey’s years, since time out of mind. Strict orders not to open and all that rot, but what of them? He’d be stuck till morning. Might prove good sport.

George took another swig of whisky and staggered to his feet, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. He held one of his candles up to the box and squinted at it, prodding the ancient twine. It fell away like cobwebbing beneath his touch, and it was simple, really, to set aside the candle and lift the Box down from its perch.

A quick rummage within its shadowed depths turned up an ancient letter with its wax seal still intact. He set the Box down and turned the letter over in his hands. The ache in his arm intensified, spiked when he saw what was written there in a spidery script:

 

To One Mr. George Cranby, Esq., Nosey Goose & Drownt Ratte

 

So the whole sordid business was meant for him, then. He’d best open it.

No sooner had he got past the part where the writer seemed to know about the money he’d got from Connie—and what he’d done with her these several years past, snatch-pastry indeed—than the door, which he’d shut behind him, creaked and swung open.

“Mr. Redfearn, sir, I can explain—” he slurred, and fell silent as he turned and saw who stood there.

In the dimness and shadow, thanks to his drunken confusion, he might have taken the handsome middle-aged woman for Connie—something similar about the lines of the mouth, he supposed, and the vivacious dark eyes. The figure took a few steps forward, sniffed, and eyed the two candles: one on the shelf and one on the floor, both guttering dangerously. She bent and pinched out the one at his feet, and then stood, grabbed the remaining one off the shelf, and thrust the flame in his face.

“It ys notte tyme for the Book to burne,” she said. “Notte yet. But as for yowe—”

George watched as, too stupefied and pain-ridden to move, she blew out the candle