Humans like to give their neuroses names—makes them feel comfortable, makes them feel like they're friends. Crowley doesn't own up to having any, at least none that he can list right off the top of his head, but there's something about standing utterly exposed in the sterile emptiness of Heaven in a body that was entrusted to him with safe keeping that sets his unfamiliar teeth on edge. They have a name for that one, but fucked if he knows what it is.
He'd forgotten how big it was, how the walls are there only if they want to be. He has a vague recollection of a time before he Tripped when his battalion tried lining up against the wall, but the closer any of them got the farther away it moved. "Stand against the wall" is mostly metaphorical in a place like this. The All Mighty probably thinks it's hysterical.
With a long exhale, he decides to end the show and steps out of the maelstrom. Hellfire licks at his clothes, at his eyes, but it rolls off him like water on a duck to spill onto the pristine floor, leaving ash marks like shoe scuffs where it pools by his feet.
The angels recoil as one, standing as far from him as they can without showing their bellies, but their shocked stares feel as though they're mere inches away, trying to see into the core of him where that kernel of truth lies sandwiched between latticework and the stuff nebulae are made of.
He rocks amiably on his heels and makes a show of tucking his hands into his coat pockets. Seems the sort of facade Aziraphale would've put on, the whole 'I'm just an innocent little Principality, nothing to see here, it's tickety-boo' bit, just enough to keep toeing Heaven's line without anyone asking too many questions. Just enough to remind them, despite having gone native in their view, he's still one of them.
"Well!" He chirps, all smiles, as if he hasn't just hocked a loogie of certain death at them. "If that's all…"
Michael opens their mouth as if they want to bring down the very far-away walls with their rage, but nothing comes, and they close it with a sullen snap of teeth.
He positively wiggles. "In my humble opinion, it'd be best—for all of us—if I were allowed to continue my work on the mortal plane. Oh, just think of the paperwork should it get out that you attempted to discipline me and it, well, simply didn't take."
If word got out that an angel not only openly defied the Powers That Be and had to remind them of the ineffability of the Great Plan, but also was able to withstand hellfire on Heaven's own turf, things might get a little topsy-turvy. By simply standing before them without a scratch on them, Aziraphale has become proof that the system isn't infallible. To any angel wrestling with the slightest bit of doubt, he would be their symbol of revolution.
Crowley knows that, knows they know that, and he stands back and relishes every bit of the cold rage in their eyes at having been outsmarted by a mere Principality. Even worse: a Principality who chose Earth over Heaven. They can do nothing against him now.
He smiles. "Think of the questions."
At that, Gabriel's eyes narrow, and oops, might've laid it on a little too thick, but Gabriel very loudly doesn't say a single word. Instead, it's Uriel who gives an exasperated sigh, the little gold foils on her face going a bit dim.
"Well, it appears we've no recourse left." It sounds like she's speaking through the broken glass of her annoyance, but grudgingly she allows, "You will take up your post on the mortal plane until such time we call upon you once more."
Crowley breathes out slowly through Aziraphale's nose, and it whistles a little. He'll fix the deviated septum before he hands the body back.
"I thank you. Do stop by the shop the next time you're in London. It would be lovely to see all of you," he simpers, and goes the extra mile by sketching a bow that's haphazard at best. They don't bow back, of course. Courtesy apparently only goes one way in Heaven; at least in Hell it doesn't go either way, so there's no offense to be taken no matter which side you're standing on.
Uriel grumbles something he can't hear before dissolving into a thousand points of light, but Michael—glowering, chomping-at-the-bit-to-take-his-head-off Michael—disappears with a thunderous crack that reverberates in both the vast room and his head. If they were on Earth, his ears would no doubt be bleeding.
There's no shame in running, but there's finesse to be found in everything, so he turns on his heel, a little too slick, a little too easy for the form he's in. All that matters is it's quick. He needs to get out of dodge before—
"I bet you think you're very clever."
Crowley stops, but doesn't do Gabriel the courtesy of turning around. "I beg your pardon?"
"So, if you're here, then that means he's doing his best to get your ass out of the pot," Gabriel says.
At that, he does turn around, because he thinks of the way the hellfire stung his nostrils, brimstone clawing its way inside his mouth to curl like a purring cat on the back of his tongue. It whispered such sweet lies into his very core. Come now, you've earned this. It won't hurt all that much, and then soon the pain will stop and your soul will be free. They wanted Aziraphale to step into that. Gladly would've smeared his death all over their pristine hands and called it mercy.
Something cold and furious crawls out of the misalignment inside where he doesn't quite fit in this form, and takes up a low, simmering growl.
"I figured I'd take over for the frying pan bit," Crowley agrees and lets the mask slip a little, just enough to flash gold. "He said you were all idiots, but I forgot about you. But you're no run of the mill moron, are you, Gabriel? Nah, you're an idiot, to be sure, but you're a smart idiot, and that makes you the most dangerous of the lot. Must've burned you to be thwarted so thoroughly."
A muscle jumps in Gabriel's cheek.
Crowley grins, and it's the parting of flesh beneath the kiss of a blade. "Too soon?"
"I don't understand why you… did this. Came in his stead. What's in it for you?"
"Survival sure does have its perks," Crowley says with a shrug, but Gabriel isn't swayed. In fact, Gabriel's gaze catches the artificial light and uses it as a whetstone, sharpening his stare to a keen edge. He tilts his head, curious, like a little sparrow. Or rather like a shoebill finally done with its hours of stock-still consideration of its prey and ready to strike.
"No, it's not that. Or not just that. If it were, you would've made a run for it like the sniveling coward you are."
Crowley juts out his lip and makes a wounded noise. "That's not nice."
"But you risked coming here to spare him," Gabriel railroads right over him. "I don't understand why you'd put your existence on the line like this. If you weren't a demon I'd say you were…" With the slow drag of a coming wave, Gabriel slowly turns and slams him with a wide-eyed stare. "No, it can't be."
This is going to be either really bad or really, really bad. Crowley straightens up as much as he can; his center of gravity's all wrong in this body. "Are you having a—what's the thing when the blood goes all fiddly in the brain? Is that a stroke?"
"You love him," Gabriel says, quiet, almost awed, but he gets louder with every word until he's almost bellowing. "You're—You're in love with him!"
It echoes so much in this awful room that it's like an entire bloody Greek chorus screaming at him, and he clenches his teeth to keep from hissing; locks his knees to stop himself from doing a runner.
Gabriel shakes his head in utter disbelief. "Incredible. It shouldn't be possible."
"That's because it's not. Possible, I mean. Not for my lot, at least. Messes with the whole 'Eternally Damned and Twice on Sunday' thing." Crowley's voice barely even shakes. "Not sure where you're getting this from. This sounds like fake news. Did you check your sources?"
"Demons can't love—"
Crowley lifts a finger and wiggles it. "Exactly! See, we're on the same page. How's that for a twist?"
"—but you do."
He keeps wiggling his finger in the hope that Gabriel will get bored and walk away or fed up and start a fight—either way will allow Crowley to scuttle out from the spotlight that's been pinned to him. But this is no mere angel. This is Gabriel, one of the Glorious Seven, who brought the Good Word to the people of Earth and let Mary know she had the dubious honor of giving birth to the Messiah. He's one of the lucky few who has permission to gaze upon the Almighty, which means he won't let Crowley out of his clutches so easily.
There's nothing for it. "You seem a bit shocked, Gabe. Can I call you Gabe?"
"Gabe, demons can spark lust in humans without a problem, and on a good day when the wind blows just right you can get a good obsession going, but we can't inspire love," Crowley says, with a big grin. It splits just a very little bit at the edges, enough to be uncomfortable, like a paper cut.
"But you feel it. I can feel you feeling it now."
"Do you also feel me feeling the urge to set you on fire?"
Gabriel sucks in air between his teeth. "How can you even… You're Fallen."
"The Drop takes a lot from you. Can't taste anything with basil in it, and I can't see the color purple for some reason, but the capacity for feeling… that … isn't so easily lost. Just gets knocked a bit out of place. Hangs around your elbow instead of your heart."
Head tilted, thoughtful, considering, Gabriel takes a single step forward. Then another.
"He'll never reciprocate, you know."
For a split second, the face he's wearing does something complicated, and whatever it is inspires a grin so wide that it threatens to rip Gabriel's big, dumb face in half.
"He might have once when your wings were still white, but the second one of you gets tossed over the edge something snaps. Breaks clean away. It's a chasm neither of you will ever be able to cross, no matter how hard you try," Gabriel croons, and it's so gentle, so compassionate, that Crowley has to fight to keep his eyes from sliding shut.
"You ever thought about trying your hand at motivational speaking?"
"He'll never give you what you want. You know that, I think, deep down. You know I'm right."
Crowley chokes on a laugh, or a razor blade. "Unlike some I could name, I'm both smart and not an idiot. Of course I know."
An ugly shadow chucks Gabriel's handsome features into a food processor and hits BLEND as he snarls with all the power of Above baying behind him like the hounds of Below, "Then why would you bother? "
Six thousand years ago, an angel had been on Earth for about five minutes before shrugging off Heaven's big plans like an old cloak and giving a bloody flaming sword to the naughty humans who disobeyed the one rule they were meant to abide.
Crowley had Fallen simply for asking questions, and it should have been unfair that one of Heaven's own idiots wouldn't be punished for such a grave transgression. It should have filled him with rage, with jealousy and hatred, and he should have spoken sweet words tipped with poison to drag the angel down to Crowley's level. But the angel had done it not for himself. It was simply a kindness, the easiest way to keep the humans safe from the harm that was certain to befall them the moment they stepped foot outside the Garden. It would forever put him on Heaven's radar, keep him under their thumb.
But the angel didn't care. It was the holiest act of self-sabotage Crowley ever witnessed, and so he'd taken a form that would allow him to be closer the creature that introduced himself as Aziraphale and offered to share a wing against the coming storm.
Oh, he'd thought as the first flashes of lightning burned through the sky. Oh, you were the answer to every question I asked.
"He's the most beautiful thing in a world full of beautiful things," Crowley murmurs, taking in the room through a squint. There's nothing particularly incredible about it, but it's easier to tell the truth when he's looking at a whole lot of shiny nothing. "I could've Tempted him then, easily, and I could do it now. I've had every opportunity. If I delivered an angel to Hell, I would be in their Not-So-Bad Books for all eternity. I'd have enough clout to kick Satan off the throne and take it for myself. And I'm pretty sure you lot wouldn't have cared if I manage to drag him down—you'd be downright giddy if he Fell."
"If it's so easy, why don't you?" Genuine curiosity furrows Gabriel's brow.
Crowley lifts a hand he's longed to hold for centuries. It’s the sort that’s made for hand holding.
"Can you imagine ruining something so frustratingly perfect just to get a leg up with Management?" Crowley then remembers who he's talking to and why he's here in the first place. "Sorry, bad example, of course you can."
Gabriel rolls his eyes. "Do you have a point?"
"The point is that's not how it works." Confusion chases the annoyance on Gabriel's face away, and Crowley looks to the ceiling, hoping the All Mighty is watching and might give him strength for dealing with such a ponce. "Love, you idiot. You can't Tempt someone to love you, same way you can't make any of them believe in Her. It has to be them, full stop, without an ounce of influence. You know, for an angel of the Lord, you don't seem to know anything when it comes to love, and I was under the impression that was your job. Did you lie on your CV? I won't rat you out, you can tell me."
The breath Gabriel draws in is entirely unnecessary and ragged. Maybe he's just now realized there isn't a truth he can fashion into a weapon that can be wielded. Crowley's armor has been forged in the fires of amused resignation, after all. But Gabriel's still an idiot because he tries to land another hit anyway. "It'll never be the way you want. You'll be stuck in this in-between state forever."
Which means Crowley's in for another six thousand years of sitting across tables and clinking glasses with his favorite person.
"Oh no, what a hardship," Crowley says sarcastically, then looks down at Aziraphale's hand again. Pudgy, warm, and flushed with a triumph that shouldn't feel as good as it does. His fingers close over the palm and he's helpless against the smile that pulls at his mouth. "How will I ever go on? All that companionship and fancy dinners and inside jokes. That'll learn me."
He steals a glance at Gabriel, who looks for all Heaven as though someone deflated his big, stupid shoulders.
"Well, not that this hasn't been a total scream, but I really do have to be on my way." Crowley looks at his bare wrist. "I've a date."
Gabriel says nothing.
"I'll keep quiet about this if you will," Crowley adds. "Wouldn't do to throw the place into a tailspin. I'd never hear the end of it. Oh, Crowley, how could you—wearing my body, even! Maybe I should send them a nice note, or perhaps a gift basket. You see, for reasons more ineffable than the Ineffable Plan, he's still concerned about what you idiots think."
He doesn't bother waiting for an agreement, because he knows it's a given. There is no way Gabriel will blab about what happened here. No one can know, ever. It would send everything tumbling down. And Aziraphale really would bitch and moan about Crowley giving Heaven a good ol' upheaval while wearing his face, and honestly, he doesn't have the bandwidth to deal with that this week.
With a snap of his fingers, a pocket of the universe tears itself wide next to him, and on the other side is the familiar bustle and din of London. Peeking around the edges is the arm of their bench, and he knows, with a happy beat of a heart that isn't and will never be his, who's waiting for him there.
"This isn't over."
Crowley gets one leg in and then stops, groans. He'd been so close.
"You may have thwarted us, but the peace won't last. This is a stopgap. War may not be part of the Ineffable Plan, but it's part of the Great one, and that counts just as much, if not more, because it's actionable. The Glorious End is Written."
It's an unfortunate truth, as much as Crowley hates to admit it, even to himself. This is a hiccup, a blip on the monitor. It may not be tomorrow nor a hundred years from now, but at some point down the line the troops of Above and the hoards of Below will come together, finally, on the battlefield that stretches blue and green between. Earth will be the collateral damage in the search of lasting victory.
"And no angel or demon—or Antichrist with ugly hair—will be able to stop it when it comes."
In the rip, a duck takes flight over the rush and flow of the world, and Crowley has had enough.
He takes his leg back out, turns around, and lets the gilded throb of his wrath be fully seen; his pupils open wide and suck in every bit of light they can find until the beautiful, antiseptic chamber in which they stand threatens to buckle under the coming darkness.
"You're right, Gabe." The cold, pacing thing inside of him purrs in sweet anticipation, and it speaks from a most beloved mouth when he promises, "And I can tell you right now: when you die, you won't be able to shut your stupid mouth to do it. I'm going to make sure you go screaming."
Hatred steals over Gabriel's face. "What makes you so certain you'll still be around to do it when the time comes? He couldn't keep hold of his sword within five minutes of getting it."
Crowley smiles. It tastes like fire.
"What do you mean? I've been here all along."