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how big the hourglass, how deep the sand

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Crowley parks the Jeep thoughtlessly, and the music trickles away into a muted city-silence of distant chattering people and the occasional car alarm. Saturday has slipped into a cold evening dress, and when he pulls the latch and opens the door, the fug of the car's heating dissipates into an indifferent August evening. It feels as though it's just finished raining, and what with the light pollution, he barely sights any stars.

He realises, looking at the carefully swept pavement and the concierge smartly standing by the inner door, that he's brought them both back to his place. He blinks, before the memory trudges back that of course he has, Aziraphale doesn't have a home any more.

That, all this really, seems like a problem for tomorrow. Today has felt dreadfully long. This week has felt dreadfully long.

“Come on up,” he says, waving a tired hand in a beckon, and Aziraphale nods, gracelessly almost tripping over the pavement curb. He hadn't slept in the car, but he has the crumpled, sleep-heavy look of someone who has only just been jolted awake.

Crowley waves for the concierge to buzz them in. The smartly dressed man graciously seems to look at both men and know that small talk isn't required.

They don't say anything in the lift. Crowley stares at the blinking lights moving up the floors without taking it in. Aziraphale runs a hand through his frazzled hair, picks at some lint or soot clinging to the fibres of his jacket. They stand close, arms touching. There isn't really anything left to say at this point.

Aziraphale takes off his shoes, the weathered brogues spotted with mud and dust, and sets them neatly by the door while Crowley throws his house keys into a key bowl that possesses all the multi-faceted shininess of a dowager's diamond fortune. He slips off his own shoes and kicks them to one side, hearing them thump against the wall, and makes a sock-shod beeline for the kettle. He hears Aziraphale collect up the snake-skin shoes and place them by the door next to his own. Something about the idea makes him uncoil, just a little bit.

He pulls down two mugs from the cupboards. He doesn't ask how the angel takes it because he doesn't need to. He steadies his hands on the marble-counter top and thinks about nothing at all as he listens to the water heat up to boiling.

There's a soft tugging behind him.

“Your jacket is simply filthy, my dear.”

Crowley allows Aziraphale to pull the jacket from his shoulders. He's found a hanger somewhere, and he hangs it from the door handle, says a couple of mournful words about how it's probably un-salvageable, how he always thought that cut particularly fetching. There's the shush of fabric as the angel pulls off his own worse-for-wear jacket and drapes it over the back of a chair.

After the kettle boils, Crowley joins Aziraphale on the sofa, passing him the too-hot mug. He grabs the remote that looks like it could achieve Mach 1 and flicks a plethora of near-identical buttons until he finds some dull talk-show. Aziraphale makes some politically snide comment about whoever they have on talking, and Crowley smirks and reminds him to be merciful. Aziraphale scoffs. Crowley gives a small laugh and sips at his tea.

It's about ten minutes later that Aziraphale's gone quiet, and Crowley notices he's fallen asleep, leaning against Crowley's shoulder, his mouth slightly open and snoring softly. Crowley takes the drained mug from him, puts it down on the coffee table next to his own, flicks the TV onto standby.

He thinks of two pairs of shoes stood neatly next to each other by the door. A hand in his, uncompromising in the face of certain destruction. There's something new here, an axis tilted slightly or some final barriers fallen, something growing and stretching out from under the skin of the old days.

Aziraphale's weight is solid, comfortable against him, and Crowley feels right at home.

Tomorrow, he thinks to himself, stretching out, closing his eyes. Tomorrow.


 

It is the Tuesday evening after the end of the world.

Crowley has dressed in clothes that could cut, and brings a well-sourced tipple around to Aziraphale's restored bookshop in the early evening. They've spent the last few days practically living in each other's pockets, and there's a lingering jitteriness there that hasn't quite dissipated. In fairness to them, not three days ago they thought the world was going to end. Today Aziraphale had clearly been itching to look over his books. He'd been vague about what exactly he wanted to do, something about getting some things in order, finally getting round to getting rid of some things, and he'd patted Crowley's arm as he handed him an overly-black hot drink that he'd fought the coffee machine to get and told him he'd be a few hours, nothing more.

Crowley didn't drink the coffee, but he'd appreciated the effort nonetheless.

The bookshop looks the same when Crowley arrives, but he's not sure he'd notice the difference. When he sits down in the back room, the chairs are certainly more forgiving on his back, and he nods his head approvingly as he gets himself settled, but then again that could be as much Adam's addition to the re-formulated bookshop as Aziraphale's hand at switching things up a bit.

Aziraphale is excitable, that's the first thing he notices. More so than usual. He swishes around the shop like he doesn't know where to put himself, moving things that look interchangeable in Crowley's unenlightened eyes. It's a good change from the slightly stressed look he's been carrying the past while. It softens the lines around his eyes, brightens his whole face from the inside.

Crowley finds himself smothering a small smile despite himself.

“I've been thinking, my dear,” he says airily. Aziraphale's airy sentence is clearly a giddiness that's trying too hard to be cool and uninvested, leaning against the conversational wall and obviously loitering. “That we should take a little holiday. Get away for a while. What would you say to a ride out into the countryside? A spot of tea and cake somewhere.”

He doesn't say how long they'll be gone. Crowley is slowly coming to terms with the fact that, from the radio silence they're being treated to, it's the first time in eleven years he doesn't have to do anything. Doesn't have to stay or go anywhere.

He smiles and shows off too many teeth, leans back.

“You've tempted me,” he drawls, successfully achieving a level of nonchalantness that Aziraphale could only dream of.

The angel beams.

“Excellent. I'll pack us a picnic,” he says happily. “A couple of sandwiches, a prosecco.”

Aziraphale has many strengths, but sandwich making is not one of them. His fillings are always well-chosen and tastefully bold, but he always massacres the bread with too much butter that's too cold to spread. Crowley doesn't mind so much. Aziraphale's 'couple of sandwiches' always include carefully selected cuts from the delicatessens, a handful of scotch eggs and dainty, flaky pastries, and what appears to be half the condiments aisle of Waitrose. He always knows how to choose the best chutneys for whatever wedge of cheese he's convinced they'll need, and the number will be numerous and far too much cheese for two beings to feasibly manage.

But Aziraphale is smiling, all the heaviness from the previous days lifted, and Crowley finds himself smiling too, getting soft in his old age.

He wonders, picking up the gentle thought from where it's tugging at his trouser leg, whether Aziraphale had always smiled at him like that. Thinks he's known the answer for a while now.

“You coming back to the flat?” he hints.

“I'm afraid I can't, dear boy,” Aziraphale says, and he looks genuinely mournful, putting his hand on Crowley's arm before he stands and starts clearing their glasses away. “I have a few things I simply must do before tomorrow. What do you say to nine o'clock?”

“Nine o'clock,” Crowley agrees, thinking he'll have a look over his plants this evening, see what insubordination has been occurring in his absence. He gives Aziraphale a warm ciao as he leaves.

He whistles as he walks back to the Bentley, and Aziraphale waves from the shop window as he drives off. It's tipping into dusk, and Crowley considers what he'll pack, what cassettes he has in the car for the drive, the two of them, the road and whatever they find at the end. The night is warm and the moon is out even as the street-lamps come on.

By nine o'clock, Aziraphale is gone.


 

A precision of motion, and a wobble of rhythmic circles as the man intones and gyrates like a lazy spinning top. His robe is pocked with dried tallow wax, and over-sized, deliberately so. He believes the excess length of the sleeves gives him an air of mystery, and he's been misled.

He has anointed his forehead and fingers with the sticky oil to ward off demonic intent, and it's dripping down his face with the slow dribble of honey. He's burned herbs to cleanse the air. It is the middle of the night, because all the books say that this is the only proper time to do this sort of thing. The books have not been written by experts.

On the floor, a series of concentric circles have been laboured over in dusty chalk, a huge intricate spirograph that takes up most of the floor-space of the room. At the centre, about the width of a Premier Inn en-suite bathroom, is the masterpiece that it has taken Frederick Roseley ten years to design and create – a bubble of perfectly formed glass, flattened at the bottom to create a floor. Carved delicately into the glass and detailed precisely in chalk on the wooden floorboards, pretentious symbols abound, clearly demonstrating that humans, and especially this one, have no real clue what most of them mean and are making things up on the spot to sound knowledgable and sell things. Wiccan runes and Norse letters are mixed with the Enochian alphabet. At the compass points of the outer edge of the circle, on four plinths there sits a stick of knobbly wood professing to be a wand; a pewter necklace in the shape of a pentacle; a dull-edged knife and a chalice nicked from a church vestibule.

He's lit the candles at the edges of the circle. He's positioned the items of power and triple-checked his evocation markings. He'd almost finished an hour ago, but he'd worried over the security of the circle and had then had to run upstairs to the pantry to find some salt to go over his outer circle lines, just to make sure. Salt applied and bowl of holy water within easy reach, Frederick Roseley monotonously and arduously intones the scared words of summoning, raising his hands to their zenith like he wants to work out a stretch in his back.

There is no rustle of wind or howling storm outside, but Roseley is patient and undeterred.

On any other day, today's evocation would have ended like all the others; disappointingly, with blown out candles and a grumpy concession to sod it, have a takeaway and watch BBC Four to calm down. The house is quiet, empty but for him, and his wayward attempt would have been forgotten by morning.

But in applying his salt lines, Frederick's cloak has smudged some of his chalk drawings. Rendering his Leviathan's Cross and unicursal hexagram barely readable as to what they're intended to be, but understandable, in the most cruel and cursory of flukes, as something else. A slight shifting of the universe to a different alignment, a smudging of the general rules.

Roseley recites and chants and gets an itch at the side of his nose, and doesn't realise he's going to be the first human to ever be sort of successful in what he will achieve.

There is a wrenching, popping sound, like a plug being pulled out of a full bath, and then a being staggers as they appear in the glass bubble, dropping into sitting out of surprise.

“Goodness me!” the man-shaped being exclaims.

He looks around with the wide-eyed look of someone who has taken a very wrong turning somewhere further back down the road. Taking in the flickering candles, the chalk lines, and then at Roseley, standing at the edge with his arms still raised with his too-long sleeves.

The expression on his face is quickly becoming indignant. Not at all demonic like Roseley has been expecting. He's wearing gingham trousers and a bow-tie for a start. None of the books had mentioned anything about that.

“What?” the being splutters furiously. “is the meaning of this?”


 

Crowley waits ten minutes after nine, lounging against the side of the Bentley with his hair perfectly moulded with product and his shoes carefully pressured into honing their best shine before tapping at the door. Aziraphale isn't famed for his punctuality but he's usually mostly on time. Crowley reckons that either he's struggling to decide between Dijon and wholegrain mustard to go with the ham sandwiches, or he's labouring over which of his selection of books he should bring for some light reading, and figures he should go and put him out of his misery before he pulls something in his brain.

He nudges the lock, knocking the bell on his way in, calling out Aziraphale's name in a questioning, exasperated way that he hopes communicates exactly how long he's been standing outside waiting.

The shop is silent. The shelves that usually crowd in imposingly, bent-backed from years of service, are empty, polished of dust, and in the corner stands a small mountainside of boxes, carefully labelled with contents and preservation instructions. Crowley stops, feeling wrong-footed, staring at the boxes, the air thick with the stench of furniture polish. He looks down, and sees that even the floors have been waxed.

“Aziraphale?”

He walks into the kitchenette, and it's as though Aziraphale was just here. The radio has been turned down low, playing Classic FM. There's the wicker hamper there on the table-top, the cutlery and glasses washed and cleaned to be stowed inside. Inside the fridge are precisely wrapped piles of charcuterie and cheeses, and a cooling bottle of prosecco. Aziraphale had opened a packet of Jacob's crackers to munch on as he'd prepared, and there are crumbs scattered about over the floor. On the paltry kitchen counter that counts as Aziraphale's workspace, he's laid out a row of artisan bread slices, half buttered.

Aziraphale hasn't left. Was here, hours ago, preparing, fussing over the little details. His jacket is folded carefully over the back of the kitchen chair. He hasn't just gone anywhere, because he would have told Crowley. Crowley would have gone with him.

The thought leaves Crowley oddly weightless because a swell of a newer, sharper panic rolls in.

Something's happened.

There's the smell of something off in the air, like mould and damp and chalk dust. There's a butter-knife on the floor as though it's been dropped. Aziraphale has left his coat, and Aziraphale said he would be here and he isn't.

The angel wouldn't have left him, so someone has taken him. Stolen him from Crowley.

He's reminded of a building on fire, screaming and choking through the smoke, and he shakes his head. He's feeling a wash of panic begin to rise, doesn't know what to do with the rage beginning to crackle under his skin.

He wonders which of them took him.

He's had Aziraphale back for barely a week, and one of them took him.

He snarls and stalks out of the bookshop.


 

“I know you're there, you know,” the being calls out shrilly, banging a fist on the glass. “Excuse me! It's jolly rude, lurking like that. Excuse me!”

Roseley has in fact, been standing outside the door since he bolted out of the room, and has been trying to psych himself up for the last couple of hours. If he's being honest, he doesn't have the confidence that his spells have held – the wards he drew were designed to dampen and cut off a demon's power, but... well, he doesn't know quite what's he's ensnared. If he's being even more honest, he would rather close his eyes and have the thing just go right back to where it came from, no questions asked.

When he finds the courage to go back inside, the candles have long guttered out, and he flails for the overhead light which flickers and beams harshly. The being blinks at the sudden illumination and winces.

Roseley takes a shaky breath and walks to the edge of the chalk line. The being takes a slight, wary step back, looking him up and down with the same matronly disapproving over-the-glasses look as many of his nanny's and more than one of his wives.

And Roseley, well, he's not sure what to make of whatever he's got a hold of. The being has a smart, faintly creased check shirt that looks like it's shuffling a few decades behind the current fashion, the sleeves precisely rolled to above the elbow. He has a bow tie that appears slightly askew. His hair, shockingly blond to the point of whiteness, has sprung up messily. He doesn't look sly or fiendish or any of the adjectives stressed in the book.

Incensed would be more the word.

“And just who do you think you are,” the being demands, drawing himself up to his full height, “to be dragging me here at the all hours of the night?”

“You mean, you don't know?” Roseley asks hoarsely. He tries to hold himself straighter in response, to look taller than he really is, but he gets a crick in his neck and has to abort that angle. “You can't look into my soul, find out?”

“Firstly,” says the being coldly, “why on earth would I want to do that? And of course, no, you know fine well, what with this contraption you've locked me in to.”

“You mean....” Roseley licks his dry lips, feeling he could do with a sit down. He didn't quite think of adding chairs to the summoning room. “You... aren't a demon?”

The being gives a stupefied splutter.

“This is prepos.... Do I look like a demon?” he exclaims.

“I was trying to summon a demon!” says Roseley defensively.

“Well, congratulations, you failed,” says the being scathingly, folding his arms. “Now, will you let me out of this thing so I can go home?”

Roseley pauses. “What will you do if I let you out?”

“I will,” the being says, managing to pirouette a fine tight-rope between long-suffering and enraged. “... continue with what I was doing before I was so unceremoniously yanked into this delightfully draughty dungeon of yours...”

“It's the old grain storage,” Roseley corrects pettily, his feelings of being incredibly patronised over-weighing his fear momentarily. “Under the foundation of my estate.”

“And where is that exactly?”

“What will you do with that information?”

The being throws up his hands in exasperation.

“Nothing! Look, my dear fellow, there has been some sort of embarrassing mix-up here, happens to the best of us, I assure you, no one to blame. But as charming as your basement is, I want to go home. Just break the seal and let me go. You can't just keep me here!”

The infuriated stranger in the glass bubble doesn't look like a demon. He looks like the sort of person who would write to Gardener's Question Time about the state of his petunias, or who collects stamps. He has neatly manicured nails and a round stomach and he looks, underneath his bluster and affront, quite anxious.

Roseley has never seen a demon before. The books told him to be wary. That they were tricksters, able to take forms of human and beast, that they would try and beguile him, tempt him into the circle, to break the seal. If he lets him out, who knows what manner of calamity he'll invite upon himself.

“I'll think about it,” he stammers and steeling his shoulders, turns away.

“You cannot be serious!” the being exclaims, his voice growing thready, high-pitched. “Look, this is a huge misunderstanding, y-you can't, do you understand, let me out!”

Roseley slams the door closed on the being's protests.


 

There is a Gothic-looking building off Oxford Street that looks like a bank. Like the British Museum lions but trying too hard to be edgy and in-keeping with the overall theme, there are two gurning gargoyles at the foot of pristine stone steps leading up to the main entrance. The building implies a lot of things about where its finances have ultimately come from, and its thick wooden doors, lacquered in a sultry red, suggest to all passing that they have a particular clientele at a particular pay-grade and it is not going to be theirs.

Crowley lurks outside. He's got the clothing to suggest he might work there, a vicious, expensive line to his suit and a thrumming restless energy like he's been supplementing his financial lifestyle with too many pills. He glowers at anyone who looks his way and they give him a berth in the shape of an increasingly widening semi-circle.

Using a sleek and up-market mobile that cost more than his monthly inner-city rent, he calls Downstairs.

His first contact is not promising.

“Speak,” comes the abrupt summons of the help-desk.

There is a wail of torment in the background, but that's similar to most banks.

“It's me,” he says firmly. “Crowley.”

The demon on the other end curses, tries to smother the speaker with their hand, panics when they can't find an immediate superior to tell them what to do, and puts the phone down.

Crowley has maybe been expecting this response.

He pockets his phone, stalks up to the red lacquered doors and shoves them open.

The demon behind the help desk makes a 'mep' noise as he strides over.

“I want to talk to someone about the angel,” he says, in a perfected way that implies both politeness and untold violence. It's a combination he had been singularly failing at achieving for most of his materialisation on Earth, although Aziraphale had always kindly assured him he'd get it one day.

The demon at the desk blanches a funny colour, and Crowley adds a bitingly sharp smile to his demands.

“T-t-he....” the demon looks like she's about to become incorporeal on the spot.

“The angel,” Crowley repeats. He allows his words to take on a pallor of rain-clouds and thunderstorms. “In fact, the only angel in operation on Earth, in London.”

“I wouldn't know anything about...”

“Then put me through to someone who will,” Crowley interrupts, and adds more teeth to his smile. “Put me through to Acquisitions.”

The demon hasn't even asked for his ID. If she had, she'd know that he has really no right, or business or power to be barging in demanding things. But Crowley is beyond kowtowing to their rules and positions. A week ago, things were very different. He's grown spiritually, if you want to think of it that way. His limited loyalty to this office got rescinded when he stood next to an angel to tell Satan to get fucked, and any lingering nerves about retribution and punishment shrivelled up and died when they stole that angel from him right before their bloody holiday.

“Acquisitions?” the demon repeats slowly and hopefully. She has the exact relieved tone of someone who knows that whatever it is, it's going to be someone else's problem if she just keeps her head down.

Crowley's smile looks like a rend across his face.

“Putting you through!” she trills nervously. “Second floor, third on your right.”

“Thankss,” Crowley says, and stalks off.

“A-all hail his infernal Majesty!” she stammers as a learned-by-rote farewell. Crowley ignores her.

The geography of Hell is difficult to describe to mortals, being on all planes and existing concurrently in all time and space. This part of Hell, to some mortal eyes, looks exactly like an investment bank, although on different levels it looks somewhat different, and more full of burny stuff.

On reaching the second floor, Crowley slams open the office door, trying very hard to look imposing (which he is not) and furious (which he most definitely is).

“Good morning, Master Crowley,” says the demon who greets him. Corpulent, bored-sounding, and clearly in the midst of filing his nails when the demon at the front desk buzzed up in warning. “Welcome to Infernal Acquisitions. How may we be of service?”

“I want to know,” Crowley seethes (and slightly pants, because those stairs were not kind to his knees nor his unnecessary lungs). “What exactly Hell is playing at, making a open and obvious pass for an Enemy operative. Immediately after, I might add, what was very nearly a full-scale war.”

The demon's forehead folds in displeasure at the mention.

“I'm afraid I don't quite see...”

“The angel,” Crowley snaps. “The angel of London. Who worksss here, in this city. The only angel. The one who hasss mysterioussly just vanisshed.”

The demon pauses for a heavily laden moment.

“The angel,” comes the dry response. A singular, well-plucked eyebrow is sardonically raised.

“Yes.”

“This would be the angel Aziraphale, involved in thwarting the goals and plan of our Infernal Majesty. And you think he's here? In Hell?”

“Well, is he?” Crowley hisses, and the sigh he gets in reply is dusty and sarcastically deferential. He gives Crowley a look that suggests that he might think this is all well and amusing but some of them have real work to be getting on with. Crowley gives a look back that replies with several rather uncouth expletives.

The demon slopes over to his desk and picks up a thick pile of paperwork. There is the scratching of long fingers as he turns the pages, and the demon interjects with some thoughtful humming noises.

There's a paperweight on his desk, and Crowley wants to break it over his head.

He wonders what on earth he's going to do if it turns out Aziraphale is here. Something violent and foolish, Crowley assumes.

A final sigh, and the demon looks back at him, putting the papers down.

“There's nothing on the roster here,” he says firmly. “General ground-rules are to ignore the both of you until certain courses of action have been established.”

“You mean...?”

“I mean,” the demon stresses curtly. “That if anything has happened, it would be an in-house matter. We wouldn't be having anything to do with the relocation of angel types. I would suspect it's an enquiry best directed to the other lot.”

“I see,” Crowley replies.

Useless, he thinks, utterly bloody useless.

He thinks that banging the door shut and frightening the help-desk demon on the way out would make him feel better, but it doesn't.

Manners, my dear, Aziraphale would have said, but Aziraphale isn't here, should be here, but that's the whole bloody problem.

So that decides it, he thinks as he gets back in the Bentley he's parked on a double yellow, clicking the clamp off with a thought.

He'll have to talk to upstairs instead.


 

It would be an incorrect assessment to claim that Aziraphale is not worried. In fact, the angel is realising that, really, he has spent a lot of his life up to this point concerned about one thing or another, whether he's doing the right thing or saying the right words or following the right plan. Things get muddied so very easily for him, there's always questions on top of questions and very few answers, and it seems so simple for everyone else. There is Good and there is Evil and that is that.

It was simple then, on the tarmac of a military base, gripping his reclaimed sword fiercely and prepared to be extinguished from existence on a fool's hope. The ground had been solid and his hold had been steady, and he'd known, finally known what side he was on after all those years.

The worry now fizzes in the centre of him like an alka-seltzer. The panic is like a headache building up.

He spends a long time going over every inch of his glass prison. It's maybe three strides across if he's charitable, so there's not anywhere else he can go. Testing the smooth curved walls with his fingers, reading the inscriptions which are precisely and incorrectly carved, tutting at the grammar and conjunction of the runic symbols all thrown together as a hodgepodge.

Every so often, he'll tentatively give a push to see if he can use his powers. He does this, because logically he knows that it's impossible for him to be he's unable to. It's all tied up as part of his Grace, a similar part that allows him to inhabit an almost-mortal form. His body Is. Change is a human quality, not divine. His Grace means he wants for no sustenance, needs no food nor shelter nor sleep. He doesn't get ill, and he doesn't get drunk unless he wants to, and – barring violent accidents – he won't be dying of anything any time soon.

He could shatter this glass with a gesture, but his powers are like a forgotten lyric at the back of his head. He can feel where the shape of them would be, the absence, and the cut-off brings him up short, makes him nauseous, incomplete and more vulnerable than he wants to admit.

He spends hours reading each of the runes and sigils drawn like children's doodles over the floor. It's a nonsense language and half of it doesn't mean anything, but there must be something in there as to why someone has managed to imprison him, apparently by accident, so he perseveres.

The strange man in the ridiculous get-up hasn't come back since he legged it out the door, and Aziraphale's sick of the sound of his own muttering, his own footsteps as he paces. He's alone, utterly it seems, and he was not created to be so. He tries kicking the glass hard, and ends up clutching his foot in pain, feeling the bones realign themselves to his factory settings of unbroken. There are tears sprung up at the corner of his eyes, and he scolds himself with a thick voice, wiping them away harshly.

After a while he just sits, his forehead leant against the slight chill of the glass, closing his eyes against the beaming, unrelenting light. He ignores the damp brick walls of the house's foundation, the concrete flooring marred with chalk, the echo-sensation that while he doesn't need to eat or drink, he'd quite like to at this moment. He brings his knees up to his chest, and allows himself to selfishly think of how unfair this whole stupid mess is.

He was so looking forward to their holiday. There hadn't been much time to think before the end of the world, or, maybe more truthfully, Aziraphale had avoided doing too much thinking because he was never quite happy with the conclusions he came to. But in the quiet lull that shaped the formless days of the aftermath, things were different, and Aziraphale... he'd been thinking quite a lot. About what he wanted, really wanted. Free from what he thought he should want, what others assumed he should want, what others told him he should want.

Aziraphale had wanted, entirely and completely for himself, so badly to leave it all behind.

Now of course, well the picnic will be ruined. The bread will be stale and he's not sure the cheese will keep, and even though he's no clue how long he's been here, they'll have lost the best days of Autumn where the breeze brings in pollen from the meadows and the sun strikes dappled on ponds and trees, and Crowley....

Oh Crowley.

He'll be so worried, he thinks miserably.

He hopes he doesn't do anything too rash in his absence.


 

If Crowley was ever in the unlikely situation of having to explain to someone the exact set of emotions that came with his plan to call Heaven, he might hypothetically think of putting it a little like this:

Imagine you've gone through a bad break-up, full of lots of shouting and finger-pointing. Or left a cult, moved across the country and changed your number. Or decided to join the circus against the wishes of your disapproving and conservative family. Something in between these sort of describes Crowley's relationship with his former employers. And now, like having to call an ex to ask tentatively after some of his old things, he's aware that however high and noble his intentions are, this conversation is a few misconstrued words away from a blazing row. In a metaphorical sense.

He mutters to himself as he draws the imperfect lines in chalk – difficult on his well-varnished floor, knowing he'll never get the stink out of the grain. It is made even more difficult by the fact that Upstairs has, to all intents and purposes, blocked his number, and as such the chalk is not playing ball about inscribing the symbols he wants, the circle is shaky and is starting to smoke, and Crowley's hands feel like he's holding onto a pan that's been left on the boil for too long.

Aziraphale better bloody appreciate this when he gets back, he thinks sourly.

It takes a few tries to speak the special words to re-establish the connection, mostly because he retches around half of them, gagging on the sensation in his throat, has to force them through his unwilling, barely capable mouth.

He waits, feeling sweaty and queasy. He taps his shoes in an irregular beat, listening to the hum of the fridge.

The circle suddenly blossoms to life, glowing obnoxiously like a glitter-ball, and Crowley steps back from the main cone, feeling like he's standing back from an open oven.

“Divine greetings,” simpers the voice at the other end. “You have reached our help-desk. How may we be of service?”

Crowley swallows, coughs to clear his throat, and regrets this whole endeavour deeply. He clears his throat again to see if it will help any.

“Hey,” he says, forcefully calm. “Listen, I'm calling from Earth....”

“Could I have your customer reference number?”

“My... my what?”

The voice is placid and soothing as an untroubled lake, and is going a long way to pissing Crowley off without doing anything at all. Aziraphale, he thinks with a loyal certainty, was never this bad, even in the early days.

“All enquiries are assigned with a customer reference number in order to help streamline the process of aiding and answering your query.”

“I don't... I don't have any...”

“Your customer reference number will be clearly displayed on any official missives that have been sent to you.”

For someone's sake.

Crowley edges closer to the circle warily, wincing slightly as the warmth as though from a particularly bright Mediterranean afternoon starts to creep through the layers of his jacket.

“Look,” he tries again. “I don't have a number. My name is Crowley. I'm from Downstairs.”

There is an excruciatingly awkward silence.

“Ah,” the voice says eventually, a bit more faintly, clearly scrabbling for what to say in the absence of a carefully written company-approved script. “You'll... you'll have to excuse me, we don't really get... I mean, not many of your sort try and get in touch.”

Crowley is going to lose a perfectly functional set of teeth if he has to keep grinding them in an effort to chew back his words.

“I am calling to enquire about my counterpart here on Earth,” he pushes through. “Aziraphale, Principality? He's been an operative for about six thousand years.”

“I'm not sure I can disclose...”

“It's nothing confidential,” he emphasises. “Could you just... put me through to someone who might be able to tell me if he's been reassigned?”

There is another pause, before it's followed by a slightly strained “Hold please!”

Crowley sighs, and thinks he might be finally getting somewhere.

He is, as is often the case, wrong.

Over the next four hours, Crowley is passed from Personnel Management to Relocation Affairs to Interdepartmental Services, before being shunted back to Personnel Management via the Postal Room. He's had the same conversation repeatedly with a host of different morons, he's been tooth-achingly polite for hours and hours, he's had to listen to he isn't sure how many versions of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 as he's left on hold, and still he has no idea where Aziraphale is.

He is reassured slightly to know that Aziraphale would have lost his temper with this whole rigmarole ages ago.

“Listen here,” he bites when he's picked up again by Personnel. “I just want to know where he is. Surely you would have documents, records...”

“The department has been going through a major reshuffle over the last week,” the angel says frostily. “We ask that all enquiries are directed through the proper channels, and we can guarantee we'll get back to you within ten working days...”

“I don't have ten days!” Crowley practically shouts. “Could you just.... Can you just get his file? It'll tell you where he's stationed, won't it? If he's been moved, his current location. You keep tracks on all of your agents so surely you could do this one teeny tiny little thing and then I'll leave you alone and you can go back to organising your files in peace.”

There is a sigh, an exasperated 'Fine', and Liszt comes back. Crowley resists the very real urge to draw obscene sigils into the connection line.

After a few minutes, the line is picked up again.

“Erm, Mr... Crawly was it?”

“Crowley.”

“I see,” the angel repeats, sounding like he doesn't give the slightest jot about it. “Look here, Crawly, I have the angel's file here. Aziraphale, Principality, on Permanent Assignment on Earth.”

“Yes?” Crowley prompts.

“And... it's a little embarrassing really, must be an administrative error, not my department at all...”

“Has be been moved?” Crowley stresses. “Relocated? Reassigned?” He swallows and breathes harshly out. “Fired?”

“None of those, Mr Crawly,” the angel sounds uncomfortable. “His assignment, from the paperwork, is the same as it's been these past thousands of years, his last known location was in Soho at his residence. His current location is merely....inaccessible at the moment.”

Crowley's response is very slow and serpentine.

“What does that mean – inaccessible?”

“It's highly irregular!” says the angel. “Within all rights, it shouldn't be possible – we know where all God's creatures are on His Earth, and for him to have vanished, it simply can't be done, it must be an error....”

“But it has been done!” Crowley interjects, getting heated. “Because he's not here. He's not Above or Below so where is he?”

“I'm sorry to have been unable to help you with your request, Mr Crawly,” says the angel faintly. “If you would be so kind, please fill out a satisfaction report regarding how you've found our service.”

“Wait a minute! Isn't there someone else who could....?”

The call is sharply dropped, the light snaps out like the click of finger, and Crowley is left standing in the middle of his living room now grown dark, having absolutely no clue what to do next.


 

Roseley had quite fancied – once upon a time, when he was younger, died his hair black and walked around dressed like he was in a thrash metal band – to make a name for himself as the first official member of the Wizarding Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to properly summon a demon. His membership request had been denied, and so had subsequent requests to the Grand Guild of Trans-Pacific Wizards, the Warlocks of Gwynedd and the Witches Coven of Shrewsbury. By that time, he'd got a job doing exactly the same thing as his father had done, which was moving vast amounts of money around according to a certain, inexplicable logic and going pheasant shooting once a year with lots of men who smoked and were in exactly the same line of business.

He'd gotten back  into wizardry after retirement. He'd dabbled at weekends, went to summoning circles and solstices at some of the local gatherings. Once his diagnosis had come through it'd taken a more serious edge. He'd scoured for old and rare books, spent a fortune on paraphernalia that promised to be a bridge to the unseen world of the occult. As a precaution, he'd set up a camera in his summoning room, hoping to catch the moment for subsequent accolades and glory.

And now, he's done it, in some fashion or another. And as it is, he tells no-one of his achievement, and retreats to the camera room from where he can safely watch what he's got his hands on.

Whatever it is, his wards are working as intended. It's becoming increasingly obvious that no powers, demonic or otherwise, can be used to effect the reality inside the glass cage, and the being is becoming increasingly desperate. He's got a face that shows anxiety well, worn lines of care scrunched around the corner of his eyes, across his forehead, his hands fluttery and nervous, and he seems to mutter to himself on occasion. The CCTV doesn't have sound, so he can't tell what he's saying. But maybe that's part of the act, be like the innocent flower or whatever Roseley's English teacher had been trying to educate him about.

Roseley is not an intelligent man, although he has pretensions to it, so in order to settle his growing terror at whatever is trapped in his basement, he thinks that it stands to reason he can work it out. He pours through his old tomes and books, reading about sprites and imps and familiars and demonic entities large and small, but none of them seem to fit with the infuriated man-shaped being that paces and frets around the limited circumference of his glass world.

He might not have a demon, and the thought sidles up to him that he might, just possibly, have accidentally scooped up a normal human being by mistake.

Deductions, he thinks, using a shaking hand to light his pipe and coughing and puffing his chest out.

The being, whatever he is, doesn't seem to need sleep. It wouldn't be easy, because in his haste to escape Roseley had left the overhead light on, but after a week, a human being would have succumbed to exhaustion. The being paces endlessly, testing all the edging of the glass, running his fingers over the imprints of the runic symbols and frowning. When he does finally sit down, looking haggard and worried, he doesn't sleep, just stares off at the walls, pondering with a wretched expression. His shock of white hair doesn't get greasy, he doesn't seem to sweat, doesn't faint from lack of food or water. At some point, he undoes his bow-tie and pops a button in his collar, but it's not because of the heat, and he doesn't seem effected by the low temperatures in the basement.

Roseley didn't design the glass for long-term liveability. His aims had been simple – summon a demon, contain the demon, and then the demon would disappear again. He hadn't thought more steps ahead because as the books made it out, there wasn't that much road to work with. As it stands, he hasn't the first clue of how to get rid of the thing in his summoning room without breaking the seal.

He would be the first in line to put his hand up and admit that he's in way over his head.

After a week of watching the uneasy, pacing being, he's been able to rule out human.

Roseley writes out a long list of questions and braves the room again for the next step.

The being is sitting down, cross-legged and lost in thought when he opens the door.

“Finally!” it coughs to clear its throat. “I hope you've finally seen sense, because really, this is most...”

“I have some questions for you, entity,” Roseley interrupts stiffly, standing taut in front of the being and ignoring his words.

The being's eyes spark with annoyance, and he stands wobbly, shaking out pins and needles from his leg.

“I have a name,” he bites out.

Roseley blinks. It hadn't been on his list of questions, and the statement has wrong-footed him somewhat. He hadn't thought that the being would have a name. It makes this all harder somehow.

“My name is Aziraphale,” continues the being bullishly. There's a pause and he taps his foot, the sound making a ringing sound against the glass floor. “It's considered polite, you know, to return the sentiment in kind.”

Roseley has the sudden impression of being at a fancy dinner party and being pulled up in front of everyone for not knowing which fork to use. He feels himself flushing.

“Frederick Roseley,” he says finally, and the being nods.

“Charmed, I'm sure,” he responds in a flat, chilly voice.

Roseley coughs, attempting to steel himself again, and holds the piece of paper in his hands further up. He'd written with a quill and ink, because it had felt like the right thing to do, but some of the letters have smudged and his penmanship leaves a lot to be desired.

“Firstly, hast thou the powers bequeathed to those who hath turned away from the light of the Lord on High into the clutches of his Infernal Majesty?”

The being Aziraphale blinks nonplussed.

“Pardon?” he says, before, “Oh.. well, you could have just said that normally. And as I've said repeatedly now, I'm not a demon or anything of the sort. Now, would you...”

“What are you?”

“I'm a bookseller,” says the being, and then he sniffs. “And you're a wizard, I suppose. Probably a weekend hobby until you retired, and now you've too much time on your hands, and think that rifling through the mysteries of the unknown because you've read a book or two is a good way to spend your time.”

Roseley clears his throat.

“How hath...?”

“No,” the being interrupts firmly. There's a high blush beginning to spread across his cheeks, and his hands have fisted by his sides. “No, I have a question for you. What sort of a person tries to summon a demon in the first place? Have you ever met any? For the most part, with some exceptions, poor company. Crude, unsubtle and obnoxious. What could you possibly want with them?”

“Are you trying to make me a deal?” Roseley attempts to clarify, thinking aha, he's got him here, but the being scoffs and rolls his eyes.

“I summoned a demon,” Roseley says, “to do my bidding.”

“My dear fellow, what could you possibly want enough to exchange your eternal soul for?”

“I would bid them restore my fortunes and my health. I have.... I have a disease. It's incurable, and it's slow and I want... no, I need more time. Could you offer me that, entity?”

The being shuffles his feet. He opens his mouth slightly, and then closes it again.

“Mr Roseley,” he says after a moment. “I am sorry for your suffering, I truly am.”

“So you'll help me?”

“I cannot help you. Such things are not in my hands.”

“But you're not human,” Roseley insists. “You have powers, surely you could give me...?”

The being looks straight at Roseley, pity in his round face.

“We all want more time, my dear fellow,” he says softly. “We all have regrets. It is the price for your humanity.”

“Then if you can't help me, what use are you?” Roseley snaps, and the being stands there, rolled-up sleeves and worn leather brogues, untouched by age or illness or hurt, and says nothing.

“Please,” the being finally says in reply. “Let me go.”

Roseley brings the list back up in his trembling hands, clears his stoppered throat.

“What manner of being or beast be ye that inhabits this circle?” he demands.

“If you'd just allow me....”

“What being or beast,” Roseley repeats louder, “inhabits this circle?”

The being has striking blue eyes, and he can barely meet them.

“Answer me!” he says angrily. “What are you?”

“I am the Principality Aziraphale,” the being says, “Guardian of the Eastern Gate and Angel of the Seventh Order.”

Roseley's breath comes out as a shudder.

An angel. An angel. Oh God.

“Prove it,” he whispers.

The being looks around guiltily, like he's expecting to be told off. There's a ripping sound and a flutter, and Roseley cries out in shock, tears in his eyes.

The being – the angel – stands awkwardly, holding himself self-consciously, wing-tips pointed skyward, cramped and curled against the upper curve of the glass. The width of his wings mean they span out wide, too wide for the space, and he has to hold him half ducked down to avoid squashing them. The feathers cascade down, pristine and startling in the dim shades of the room.

“Will that do?” he says impatiently.

“Oh God,” Roseley says finally, quaking where he stands. Because he's fucked now, well and truly, and he knows it in the marrow of his soul.

He's captured an angel. Imprisoned an angel.

There is nothing he can do in any version of this scenario to make this right.


 

Weeks limp by. Crowley renews contacts he'd forgotten he'd had, the disparate connections that make up the poorly acknowledged ground troops of the armies of darkness; covens, satanist gatherings, knitting circles, and not one of them has heard a thing along their sparse and ill-tended grapevine. Closer to home, he asks the shop-workers and staff that make up the neighbourhood of Aziraphale's bookshop. The heavily tattooed couple that run the cafe Aziraphale likes to read in, the maître d' at a little exclusive little restaurant he sometimes frequents with Crowley, his bi-monthly manicurist, the booksellers that on the face of it make up his rivals but really function more as a local gossip circle.

“He was here, oh, on that Monday,” one of them, Dorcus Moring sticks her head in while Crowley's interrogating the part-timer on the till. “Bought a new book. He was ever so chipper. Said he was going away on holiday.”

Crowley tries to patiently explain he never got the chance to actually leave, but it isn't much use.

He makes several more irate phone calls to both Above and Below, and his line of inquiry swerves from questioning to outright accusation at their feckless attitude. The reason why, according to Above, is explained to him in dribs and drabs through clenched pearly-white teeth. From what Crowley can piece together and translate from their holier-than-thou bureaucratic linguistic charades, Aziraphale has apparently, actually vanished. No one in either court has any clue where the ball is, and frankly, it's ruffled a lot of feathers. Because it's meant to be impossible, and if someone that's not on either side has managed to get the drop on one of the Angels of the Lord for their own purposes, well, what it is is embarrassing from a PR perspective. The current line seems to be best just to wait for it to tide over, till Aziraphale pops up again, figure out things from there. They'd know if he'd discorporated, so he's obviously not in too much trouble.

Crowley is so enraged by the blasé callousness he's hearing that he swears profusely and virulently, managing to invent a few new ones before he's hung up on.

He entertains the idea that maybe one of them is lying but demons are notoriously bad at keeping secrets, and the angels would have been unbearably smug about it if they'd recalled an unwilling Aziraphale from his mortal assignment. They'd have also sent a replacement.

As it is, the shop sits empty, and Crowley puts his head in his hands and wonders what he's missing.

Eventually, both sides stop picking up his calls. And Crowley is on his own.

He can't stay here. He can't just give up.

Crowley makes arrangements for Aziraphale's books to go into storage. He has questions, of course he does, about why the angel had packed up all his many books, why he knew he was going to leave the shop, leave London, but didn't know what was coming.

The food in the kitchenette is beginning to go off, and when Aziraphale comes back, Crowley will get a disappointed sigh at the state of the place. So he grabs a plastic bag and throws away the bundles of grapes gone soggy and brown, the carefully wrapped meats, the now-stale pastries and crackers. He thinks about the picnic they'd have had. He'd have pulled the top down from the Bentley and let the wind tussle his hair, the weather of a glorious August now gone warming his skin. They would have chatted, sitting carefully on a tartan blanket, and they'd have made their own plans.

They might have even found the right time to talk properly. Honestly. About everything that's been, about the possibilities that could be now that everything's different.

About maybe not going back to London. Going back to their Jobs.

About leaving it all behind, together.

The words Crowley didn't say are clogging up his throat.

He's putting away the plates and cutlery from the hamper when he finds the pieces of paper, carefully folded and stored behind the cake plate.

Crowley didn't even know Aziraphale knew that he had a printer, much less how to use one. He stares down uncomprehending at three shoddily-printed webpages, clearly running out of ink and mixing the remainders, all from property websites. Advertising small cottages across Essex and Sussex. All situated in quiet little villages with big gardens, trees in the front of the house laden with fruit, boughs crouching over a white-painted wooden gate. In the margins in Aziraphale's infuriatingly neat hand-writing, he's made little notes about each property; space for herb-garden, sizeable conservatory in the back for plants, large pantry, could be converted to acceptable-sized library.

Crowley's brow crinkles up like a crisp packet, and for a second, he doesn't understand.

The truth settles like a deep snow over him, and he has to sit down heavily at the table.

He thinks about Aziraphale's giddiness, his excitement. His mysterious desire to go to the countryside for a trip, his over-joyed response when Crowley had agreed. The fact he'd packed up his whole shop in preparation.

Aziraphale had wanted to stay out there. To shut up shop on a life-time of following orders and worrying about rules and plans, to leave without permission and just not go back. To buy a quaint little cottage somewhere on the South Downs with space for life's comforts and away from all the politics they've been embroiled in for far too long.

And above all else, he'd wanted Crowley to come with him. To be with him.

Maybe Aziraphale had planned on asking him in that indirect, hand-wringing way of his, or maybe he'd just assumed that if he showed Crowley the houses, he would have understood, and said yes, because Crowley would have, he would have, in a heartbeat, the image of two mismatched shoes stood neatly by the doorway resounding loudly in his head. He's staring down at a little white-washed cottage on the edge of a West Sussex village, where Aziraphale's written things like should have enough space for C's plants and C will want good wifi – check connection? and Crowley's eyes are beginning to blur. He looks up, breathing hard and blinking rapidly, pressing his lips tightly together because Aziraphale had wanted this, wanted this life, wanted him, and now he's vanished somewhere, and Crowley's fast realising he can't... he wasn't meant to be here, not alone.

Crowley rubs his hands roughly over his face and sniffs, wipes at his eyes, trying to pull himself together.

It doesn't work.


 

Roseley spends a long time, thinking about what to do. If he was an ambitious, more ruthless man, he'd be able to take advantage of this, reap the benefits and rewards he feels the world owes him for what he's done. He'd invite hand-picked selections of the greatest to marvel at his trophy trapped like a creature in amber, he'd bask in the honours and praise for his hard-work, his ingenuity at capturing an angel. He'd work out how to manipulate his success, how to improve on it, and in time he'd make the angel follow his bidding, willing or not. But Roseley is not ambitious, and has never quite been ruthless enough to be successful in his field. He is not a cruel man, in the way that most men aren't deliberately cruel, but yet he's not a kind man in the way most men are not unselfishly kind.

He's a man, old and dying and frightened for the future. He's tormented in his dreams by visions of damnation, of vengeful angels, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah brought down upon his head for his pride and over-reaching avarice.

Rather than do something – do what he knows really is the right thing – he cowers, and for a long time, does nothing at all.

He never goes back to the summoning room. He can't meet the baleful eye of the angel he's imprisoned in shining glass, that he's trapped down in the dark. He feels guilt at what he's done, but his guilt is not greater than his fear of retribution and so he does nothing.

He orders the door barred so no-one can enter without a key. He retreats from the world, reclusive and distressed by nameless fears. Weeks pass into months.

The room is in darkness, but the CCTV works in night vision. Nightly, awoken by shadowy dreams, he watches the ethereal green-ish shape of the angel on the camera. Growing more feverish as time passes, more desperate, slamming his hands and fists on the immovable glass, crying out in fury and pain. He'll continue relentlessly before he's forced to stop, clutching his hands in agony, and then he'll try with his wings, and he must be damaging himself somehow because he has to stop, bent on all fours, his hands curled into claws. His head pressed hard against the glass floor, breathing hard, his body shaking. He'll sleep then, or collapse, it's difficult to tell, and then when he awakes his injuries must have healed or the pain has been numbed because he'll start again, slamming and screaming soundlessly to Roseley's ears. He wonders what he shouts for, what he's saying.

Finally, he can't take watching it any more, and switches off the screen.