THIS IS HIGHLY IRREGULAR.
"Er, yes. I'm aware of that," Aziraphale said, inordinately pleased at how lacking in panic his own voice sounded. "I am sorry to inconvenience you. I know you must be dreadfully busy, but I'm afraid I simply can't allow it."
YOU'RE OBSTRUCTING THE DUTIES OF A DULY APPOINTED REPRESENTATIVE OF THE MOST HIGH.
Aziraphale swallowed audibly. "Yes. I-I suppose I am."
CONSORTING WITH THE ADVERSARY, IN DIRECT VIOLATION OF HEAVENLY LAW.
"I wouldn't call it consorting, exactly..."
YOU ARE, IN FACT, RUNNING AMOK.
"Rub it in, why don't you," the angel muttered sullenly.
YOU'RE AWARE OF THE PENALTIES. It wasn't a question.
Aziraphale sighed. His head ached; he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this tired. "I know exactly what it is that I'm doing, Azrael, yes. I think we've established that." He fanned his wings slightly, wincing as his flight muscles complained of their ill-treatment. But he dared not lower them; not while the ghastly figure with whom he was conversing remained in the room. "Look, it's very sporting of you to take the time to discuss it with me, I'm sure. But you've got a timetable to adhere to and quite frankly, I'm knackered. Can we just get on with it, please?"
The gaunt figure in black raised a skeletal hand and scratched its skull. It managed to convey, without the benefit of expression (or indeed of any features that might wear one,) an impression of puzzled irritation.
AZIRAPHALE. HAS ANYONE EVER TOLD YOU THAT YOU ARE A COLOSSAL PAIN IN THE BACKSIDE?
A ghost of a smile flitted across the angel's face, and he glanced briefly over his shoulder at the figure that lay ominously still, wrapped in heavy blankets on the bed behind him.
"Oh yes. Many times," he said softly.
Then he turned back to the Angel of Death and added politely, "Are you quite certain you wouldn't care for a cup of tea?"
It hadn't started off as a particularly awful sort of week. Though, to be sure, it hadn't looked especially promising either. Aziraphale had been dispatched to a wretched, bullet-riddled little village in a middle-eastern country whose name three-quarters of the world had never heard, with instructions to head off a conflict that would (so Heavenly intelligence claimed) give rise to a particularly nasty international terrorist movement within a few years if it was left unchecked.
As was not unusual in these situations, he had run into Crowley not long after arriving. A quick comparison of notes over lunch (or what passed for lunch in this godfor--er, desolate place) confirmed what Aziraphale had suspected from the start: Hell wasn't behind this "religious" conflict, which was in fact nothing more than an ongoing tribal war with the name of God slapped on it by both sides in an ill-conceived attempt to capture the moral high ground. But they, too, saw the potential in the situation, and Crowley had orders to exacerbate matters.
"It's the same tired old sssodding sssstory," the demon grumbled as they walked unseen down the dusty, filth-strewn street afterward. "The mortals get to fighting over land, or resources, or whatever it is that's at issue, I doubt they even remember anymore. And they do it all on their own. They're remarkably clever that way. But it's not enough to fight in the name of the tribe or the leader du jour or simple principle, oh no. They've got to drag usss into it."
Aziraphale nodded sadly. "Which is it this time? I can never keep track."
"Muslims versus Christians, I think, but there's at least three or four sects involved, and the odd foreign mercenary who's crashed the party just to keep things interesting. Not that it matters." Crowley absent-mindedly waved a hand as they passed an ancient, battered car of indeterminate make, and the sound of spattering liquid was heard from underneath. "Fanatics, the lot of 'em."
Aziraphale tutted at the leak, and miracled a new gasket and a several bottles of motor oil into the vehicle's boot. He watched unobtrusively as a heavily-veiled woman walked past, leading a small, ragged, underfed child by the hand. "I simply don't understand them. They disregard everything in their own holy writings about love and peace and caring for one's fellow man, and zero in on the parts that they can take out of context to make it sound as though killing each other, or mistreating their wives, or...or whatnot is part and parcel of the Word." He shook his head, baffled. "And if anyone disagrees with their interpretation, why then obviously they must be working for your side. It's incomprehensible."
"Ineffable, isn't that the word you're looking for?" Crowley grinned maliciously.
Aziraphale kicked irritably at a small stone, watching it skitter away, trailing small puffs of dust. "No, actually, the word that comes to mind at the moment is stupid." He sighed. "Ah, well. Mine's not to reason why."
"Funny, you devote enough time to it..." Crowley paused suddenly as a rather sickly-sounding sputter wafted over the subdued noises of the small town. "Hello. That bears a vague resemblance to the sound of an internal combustion engine."
Aziraphale cocked his head, and winced as he heard the unmistakable report of a gunshot. "Oh, dear. The fighting's getting close. Be a dear and help me get these people off the streets, won't you?"
"You're going to get me into real trouble one of these days, angel." But Crowley obligingly waved himself visible, shouting to the scattering of bystanders to get under cover, as Aziraphale did the same.
Their preternaturally keen hearing gave them time to find shelter for the villagers and themselves before the battle roared into town in the form of a few dozen men on foot, armed with a bizarre mishmash of antiquated weaponry, and several rickety Jeeps. But it was dicey shelter at best; the buildings were already peppered with bullet holes, and what was still intact was none too solidly constructed.
"Blast and bless it all!" Crowley threw himself flat, and dragged Aziraphale down as an afterthought as a swarm of bullets tore through the front wall of the grubby inn where they'd taken cover. "This is ridiculousss! They don't need my help, they're perfectly capable of fomenting chaos on their own. If I get discorporated because of these idiots, I'm going to file a formal protesst."
"I'm sure your superiors would give it all due consideration before they filed it in the nearest lava pit." Aziraphale raised his head and peered cautiously out a fresh hole in the wall, and groaned. "Oh, no, no, no. Don't. Oh, please don't..."
"Don't what?" Crowley followed the angel's gaze, and swore quietly. A young boy, ten at most, had crept outside to crouch in a doorway across the street, and was struggling to cock a shotgun nearly as large as himself. High-pitched shrieks drew their attention to a woman visible through a large hole in the building, reaching a hand out toward the boy, her eyes filled with terror.
"Well, go on, woman, drag his stupid arse inside before he gets himssself--ah, shit." The woman had shifted, and from under the shelter of her body, two small frightened sets of eyes peered out at the carnage. She had other children to protect. Bullets sprayed the ground meters from where the boy crouched, and he paled visibly, but managed with a valiant effort to get the gun cocked and ready.
Crowley shook his head. There was no one else near the child, and no way anyone could get safely through the gunfire to reach him. Men were falling here, there, and everywhere with great holes blown in their bodies--impossible to tell who was on which side; there'd be a lot of casualties due to friendly fire today, no doubt--and the gas tank on one of the Jeeps had been hit. It blossomed into an impressive fireball as they watched, setting a nearby home ablaze. "Hate to say it, angel, but I think our brave young lad is--oi! Just hold on a--Aziraphale, you daft bugger! Come back here!"
Aziraphale had presence of mind enough to will himself unseen by the combatants as he plunged into the fray, but he knew that wouldn't stop a stray round (or two, or ten) from hitting him anyway. He heard Crowley shout his name with something like fear in his voice, and was forced to smile; it just wasn't in the nature of a demon to understand the concept of self-sacrifice. But it was nice to know that Crowley gave a damn. Or a blessing, as the case might be.
He breathed a prayer of supplication as deadly projectiles zinged past on all sides, their high-pitched whine hurting his sensitive ears. Just let me get to the boy before they kill me, he pleaded. Discorporation in the line of duty was inconvenient, but Upstairs wouldn't give him too much grief if he was cut down while saving an innocent. He ought to be back to work in, oh, three or four months...
He was almost across when another Jeep came screeching up, disgorging another half-dozen fighters into the street, all firing wildly and without taking overmuch care where they aimed. Aziraphale had just time enough to register that he wouldn't be able to get past them without being hit (probably several times) when something heavy plowed into him from behind, knocked him into the boy, and carried them both on through the doorway, coming to rest well inside the building.
The woman, still shrieking, hurried over with her other little ones in tow to snatch up the boy, who appeared to be completely unscathed. Somehow she still managed to pull Aziraphale into a frantic hug as well, trying somewhat unintelligibly in her panic to thank him, berate the child for his recklessness, reassure her crying daughter, and curse the bloodthirsty men outside all at the same time.
"Yes yes, think nothing of it, dear lady. No, I'm quite all right, I assure you--" In point of fact, he had been hit--twice--but neither wound seemed serious. In fact, they hurt less than he thought they really should; but before investigating this curiosity, he shook off the woman's concerned attentions and turned to see who had got them out of harm's way.
And blinked in astonishment. "Crowley?"
The demon lay panting harshly where he'd fallen, curled around himself in a peculiar awkward position, looking stunned and very, very pale. He'd lost his sunglasses in the crash landing, and Aziraphale noted with concern that his strange, reptilian pupils were dilated so widely they no longer appeared as slits.
"Crowley?" he repeated softly, kneeling beside his friend. Outside, the gunfire and the screams of the wounded and dying continued; he resolutely tuned them out. A dark pool was spreading on the floor around the demon. "Oh, my dear. What were you thinking?" He miracled up a clean handkerchief, searching for the source of the blood. "It'd be no good both of us getting blown off-plane. How badly are you hurt?"
Crowley made a strange, guttural sound, as though he wanted to scream but couldn't catch his breath. Concern giving way to genuine alarm, Aziraphale checked him over quickly, and found he'd been grazed in several places, but none of them looked too bad. Then he noticed that Crowley's right hand was clamped tight to his left shoulder, his fingers bloodstained.
"Let me see, Crowley. Easy, now...shh, shh, don't try to talk. Just breathe. Let me see it," the angel murmured, carefully prying loose the white-knuckled grip.
The wound looked deceptively small. But Aziraphale watched with an awful sick feeling as a tendril of greasy smoke seeped out and rose lazily into the air. The dark blood oozing forth was streaked and sworled with black, and looking closer, he saw that the edges of the wound were blackened, too, as though they'd been partially cauterized. He caught the nauseating smell of burning flesh.
He swallowed hard, and turned back to the woman, who still hovered nearby, her concern divided between the strangers, the battle outside, and her children. The older boy was complaining loudly, trying to tug away from her; trying to get back to his gun. He didn't seem to understand what had just happened to him. Old enough to want to protect his own, but too young to fight, too young to understand the price that came attached.
"Madam, if you'd be so kind," Aziraphale said, willing his voice steady, "I need warm blankets, clean water, and whatever you can spare for bandages."
Then he bent and scooped Crowley into his arms, trying not to notice the tainted blood that soaked his shirt-front, or the little strangled keening sounds his friend was making.
Some time later, Aziraphale sat wearily next to the unconscious demon, staring at a small misshapen lump of lead; turning it over and over in his hand, as though its grotesque shape offered the answers to six thousand years' worth of questions.
The fight was over, neither side clearly victorious, and the villagers were busy picking up the pieces as best they could. Some of the village men had staggered in, wounded or dying. A lucky few had returned in one piece. Aziraphale should have been ministering to them. Tending the wounded, helping to bury the dead and repair the damage. And convincing them to call the whole thing off, of course.
He couldn't bring himself to do it; he simply couldn't. Not after what had happened. Not knowing what it was he held in his hand.
"How could they," he repeated dully for the umpteenth time, to no one in particular. "How dare they?" It was an outrage, an abomination. Crowley would no doubt have laughed at the patent absurdity of it, if he hadn't been flat on his back with a great hole in his shoulder, and missing a good third of his total blood volume. So would Aziraphale, come to that.
Some crazy bastard had gone and blessed the ammunition.
It would have been one thing, he thought bitterly, if any of them had known there was an agent of Hell in the vicinity. Then it might have made some sense. But that seemed highly unlikely; even if someone in town had a way of detecting a demonic presence, Crowley had arrived just recently, and had millennia of practice in covering his tracks. Even he, Aziraphale, rarely sensed his counterpart until he was quite close by. He supposed it was possible some demonic rival of Crowley's might have arranged it--he'd heard about the holy water incident during the Apocalypse-that-wasn't--but really, that was just playing the mortals' game. Blaming the Forces of Darkness for an evil that was most likely entirely human in origin.
No, he decided grimly, some overzealous "holy" man had no doubt taken it into his head to vouchsafe his side a little extra luck, and had invoked the Blessing of the Most High upon an object whose sole reason for existence was to kill His creatures. Aziraphale couldn't even tell whether it was a Christian or a Muslim blessing, but in practical terms, it scarcely mattered. For whatever inexplicable reason--the word "ineffable" came unwillingly to mind, and it made Aziraphale feel vaguely ill--it had worked, it had taken. Crowley had simply had the bad luck to get in the way.
Aziraphale thought back over the seemingly endless wars they'd seen, the strange ideas that cropped up again and again in every corner of the globe. He shouldn't be surprised, really. Knights had once carried blessed swords, after all. He hadn't approved of that either--he disliked weapons in general, and had disposed of the only one he'd ever owned at the first opportunity.
Still...you had to get right up close to someone to kill them with a sword, he thought. Look them in the eyes. Acknowledge them. You didn't run someone through at random because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had to mean it. This seemed different, and so terribly impersonal.
It could also have been much worse. Demons were tough creatures, but as outcasts from the Presence, they had no defense against its power. If the bullet had struck Crowley's heart, or if Aziraphale hadn't managed to dig it out of him in time, he'd have been gone. Not just sent packing until Hell saw fit to issue him a new body--annihilated.
Aziraphale fought down a stab of panic at the thought. It didn't happen, it didn't happen, he told himself firmly again and again until the tightness in his chest had eased up enough that he could breathe.
The reality was bad enough, however. The sanctified metal had lodged deep beneath Crowley's collarbone and had burned him from the inside out, spreading its holy influence like poison, not only through his corporeal body but through his true form as well. It had taken Aziraphale a horribly long time to extract it, and before the end he'd been forced to impose his Will on the terrified demon to keep him still enough to get it done. Crowley would undoubtedly have a word or two to say to him about that when he woke.
When, not if. He refused to burden himself further with ifs.
Aziraphale sighed and rubbed tiredly at his forehead. Angelic healing didn't work very well on demons, but he'd poured as much power as he could muster into knitting the ravaged tissues back together. It would never heal properly on its own, he was quite certain. He'd managed to stop the bleeding before he was too drained to continue, but it would take a great deal more work before Crowley would have the use of his arm again. He'll hate that, he thought ruefully.
He had just materialized a teapot and a matching cup and saucer, dismayed at how much effort it took, when a small sound drew his attention to the bed.
Crowley was blinking dazedly at the ceiling, and after a moment he shifted slightly, discovered that his arm was strapped to his side, and again made a small sound of discomfort. "th' Hell happen'?" he whispered hoarsely. The ceiling, not surprisingly, declined to answer.
Aziraphale set his tea things aside and went to perch on the edge of the bed. Crowley turned his head toward him, wincing with the motion. "Angel...I did something ssstupid, didn't I," he said with a feeble attempt at a grin.
"Hush. Let's say you did something...not entirely reprehensible," Aziraphale said, smiling faintly.
Crowley started to laugh, but apparently thought better of it. "What hit me? Feels like someone found that sword you lost and...decided I'd look good with a piercing."
Aziraphale grimaced. "Close." He held up the bullet. "Someone sanctified it, apparently. I had the devil's own time getting it out, if you'll excuse the expression."
Crowley stared at the thing, incredulity written large on his face. "A blessed bullet. They blessed...a fucking bullet."
"I'm afraid so, yes." Aziraphale felt his face warming with a sort of guilt by association. "And before you ask, I had nothing to do with it. I'd never condone such a thing. Especially knowing you were liable to come around."
And then Crowley did laugh, quietly and painfully, hugging himself with his good arm. "Ah. Oh, that's funny...hurts, though. Ow." Aziraphale hovered anxiously, unsure what to do, until he'd got it out of his system and collapsed back into the pillows, panting.
"You'd think they knew I was coming. Wouldn't have thought they had that much imagination." He chuckled again. "'And the Lord said unto them, Thou shalt carry an extra clip, that thou might blow away thine enemies wherever they may appear, oh and while you're at it, cap any stray demons who happen by.' Armaments 5:12. Shit." He coughed quietly. Aziraphale swallowed a lecture on Bible etiquette and got him a glass of water.
"It never ceases to amaze me, the lengths people will go to to hurt one another," the angel said unhappily.
"After six millennia, it shouldn't. My talent for getting into these absurd predicaments, now that's astounding." Crowley shut his eyes tightly, strain deepening the lines of his face. The illusion of perpetual youth couldn't hold up properly under this kind of punishment. "Should've known better than to give in to my nobler instincts, it never works out..." Crowley's voice was rising steadily in pitch as he spoke, taking on a frenetic edge.
"You did save the boy's life. And mine."
"Don't remind me. Ten quid says the kid grows up to--be a petty dictator." Crowley barked a laugh, then hissed, twisting involuntarily under the blankets as his body tried instinctively and futilely to escape the pain. "Bloody heaven, angel. This really, really hurts."
Aziraphale sighed deeply. There was very little in the way of proper medicine to be had, out here in the middle of nowhere, and most of the alcohol in town had gone for Molotov cocktails or disinfectant. He might be able to summon something up, but it probably wasn't the best solution.
Gathering himself wearily, he drew ruthlessly on his deepest reserves and found he had just enough left, just barely. Resting a hand lightly on Crowley's forehead, he stroked back the dark, sweat-damp hair and murmured, "Shhh...be still, now. It'll be all right. Just go to sleep."
They never used their powers on one another; it was an implicit part of the Arrangement, and now here he'd broken that unwritten taboo several times in one day. Crowley made no objection, but he smiled ironically as he let his eyes drift shut, relaxing slowly under the angel's touch.
"Finally got me...right where you want me, huh?" he mumbled groggily.
Aziraphale smiled. "Hush. Rest easy. I owe you at least that much."
When he was certain Crowley was sleeping soundly, Aziraphale tugged his chair over next to the bed and collapsed into it, letting his head sink into his folded arms on the edge of the mattress.
Good was ever-vigilant, but just this once, it was going to follow Evil's example.
They spent the next several days there in the home of the woman, who was neither ungrateful nor unkind, but did fret that the neighbors would make trouble for her if they realized she was keeping strange men in the house. Her husband and brothers, apparently, had been killed in the conflict a short time before, leaving her in a precarious situation without the protection of a male relative. Aziraphale reassured her as often as possible and saw to it that no one noticed anything out of the ordinary, explaining away Crowley's strange eyes as a rare genetic condition* and doing what he could to help her and her children in small, unobtrusive ways. But most of his attention went to tending Crowley.
As Aziraphale had feared, the terrible wound showed no inclination to heal on its own. That was usually the case with wounds inflicted by blessed objects, but it was disheartening all the same. Coaxing everything back into its proper form and function was a slow, tedious process that left Aziraphale nursing a headache most evenings, and Crowley nearly apoplectic with frustration.
To his credit, he did try to be as patient and agreeable as possible. Sadly, patient and agreeable were not part of Crowley's repertoire at the best of times, and he made a terrible convalescent. He was by turns whingy, cranky, surly and fretful; complained about the food, the accommodations, and the lack of diversion; insisted on trying to get up and promptly passed out cold, barely saved from cracking his head on the floor by Aziraphale's hasty grab; and invented at least a hundred new and creative insults by way of amusing himself, which he lavished on Heaven, Hell, the backwater country and its inhabitants, and (when he was feeling especially peevish) random inanimate objects with equal generosity. He refrained from insulting Aziraphale, for the most part, but it clearly cost him a Herculean effort.
The angel endured it all with a kind smile and soothing words, and when he simply couldn't stand it anymore he would calmly excuse himself, go for a walk, and nurse secret thoughts of sealing Crowley up in a cave for the next thousand years with only a CD player and a recording of his own petulant grumbling for company.
On returning from his walks, though, he would often find Crowley sleeping, and at those times it was very difficult to remain annoyed with him. Whatever innocence he might long ago have possessed stole back onto his face then, taking up residence in his long thick lashes, slightly parted lips and open, guileless expression as though it had never left.
Aziraphale sometimes found himself just sitting there, watching him sleep, and thinking how lovely it would be if just a little of that solemn sweetness would remain when he was awake.
In spite of everything, progress was being made. The injury was gradually being mended, and Crowley's strength was slowly returning. Aziraphale was just daring to hope that they might soon be able to get out of this dismal place when, as all too often happened, things abruptly went pear-shaped.
To be fair, neither Aziraphale nor Crowley could have been expected to see it coming. It's not every day that a denizen of Hell is stuck on Earth, in a human body damaged by holy means, in a less-than-ideally-hygienic environment, after all; and of course most angels don't bother with medical training. They can heal with a thought--unless, of course, the patient happens to be a demon. And there are very, very few such cases on record.
'"m hot," Crowley complained in a tone that Aziraphale had begun to classify alongside sharp objects applied to chalkboards or cheap aluminum, and audio equipment feedback.
Aziraphale sighed, his concentration broken for the third time in half an hour. "It is a bit close in here. But I'm afraid I can't do much about the ambient temperature and work on fixing you at the same time."
Crowley sulked, and complained some more, and finally turned his face to the wall in a huff. Aziraphale dismissed it as more of the same tired recitation as before, and went on trying to persuade two stubborn bits of clavicle to fuse together.
It wasn't until a few hours later, when the demon began to toss and turn in obvious discomfort, whimpering softly, that Aziraphale really looked at him and understood that something was genuinely amiss.
He was unnaturally flushed, his eyes too bright, his skin dry and alarmingly hot. The angel was at a loss; he knew what a fever was, of course, and had a vague idea that it was caused by some tiny malevolent creature (of Infernal origin, no doubt,) but he hadn't the first idea how to remedy it. Beings of angelic stock could be hurt, but as a rule, they didn't get sick. Trust Crowley to be the exception.
Crowley ventured a guess that the poisonous effects of the bullet had weakened his true form to the point that his innate power could no longer protect his human body from worldly infections. "It's a double whammy," he said irritably, "they couldn't have planned it better if they'd tried. Your side ought to hire the bastards as consultants."
"You may very well be right, my dear," Aziraphale said gently, "but what do we do about it?"
"Hell if I know," Crowley muttered, fretfully throwing off his blankets, then snarling at Aziraphale when the latter patiently tucked him back in. "Asspirin, maybe. Antibiotics. If they have such things in this blessed cesssspool of a country, which I'm sure they don't."
Aziraphale forgave him his ill temper this time. He had good reason; though they carefully avoided mentioning it, they both knew that in his weakened state, Crowley might not survive a discorporation, which did tend to be rather a shock to the system. And if he did...
Well, actually, it might be better if he didn't. Hell had little sympathy and less use for invalids.
Aziraphale inquired of the lady of the house, who did in fact have some aspirin and was willing to share it. It helped, but Aziraphale had an uneasy feeling that it was a temporary solution at best.
Unfortunately, he was correct.
Aziraphale woke suddenly from an uneasy sleep to the feeling that something was very, very wrong, though he couldn't place what it was.
He propped himself up on one elbow, scanning the room. Crowley's condition had worsened steadily, simple fever progressing to a state of delirium that segued in and out of a heavy, unrestful sleep. The aspirin was long since used up, and Aziraphale had been channeling every bit of energy he could summon into trying to stem the infection, to cool the raging fire that was gradually burning his friend up from within; but his efforts had less and less effect, until it seemed they were making no difference at all. He kept at it anyway, too stubborn or too desperate to quit.
He'd taken to curling up next to Crowley when he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, so that any movement or sound the demon made would wake him immediately. It seemed important that he bear witness to what was happening, if he could do nothing else. And Crowley, in those increasingly rare moments that he was lucid enough to recognize him, seemed reassured by his presence.
The hallucinations had been most unkind to his friend, throwing him back to the time of his Fall and memories of what had come after. He'd railed at the Name and the Host, wept openly, screamed at horrors that the angel couldn't see, and finally simply repeated in a fragile, lost voice that broke Aziraphale's heart, "I didn't mean it. I’m sorry. I didn't mean to, I didn't know, please, never meant..." until sleep took him again.
Aziraphale was unutterably grateful to see that Crowley was sleeping now. He burned like a furnace, though, his breathing shallow and labored. His aura flickered dimly, like a candle near to going out.
The room was unnaturally quiet, and the shadows oppressively dark.
It finally dawned on Aziraphale that what he was doing was keeping a death watch; and he understood, with a sudden chilling clarity, what felt so wrong. A name formed in his unwilling mind, and with the name there came a dreadful sense of presence.
"Let there be light," he whispered. The soft glow that sprang up in the room illuminated him, if only he could have seen it, like a master sculptor's ideal of how an angel should look, masking the signs of worry and fatigue and too many rich desserts; it cast its gentle touch over Crowley, smoothing away the marks of sickness and pain, and he looked almost normal. But it reflected coldly off the sharp angles of the newcomer's bleached rictus face, gleamed wickedly along the surface of the massive curved blade he carried; and where it touched his dark robe it was simply swallowed up, vanishing as though it had never been.
Aziraphale rose from the bed and, moving as much by instinct as anything else, placed himself between Crowley and the Incarnation of Death.
"Hello, Azrael," he said, smiling pleasantly, as though greeting a longtime customer who hadn't stopped by the book shop recently. "It's been a while."
Death regarded him impassively. NOT REALLY.
"Erm. Well. Yes. I, ah, see your point, I suppose." Aziraphale's smile faded, his thoughts racing. This was it, then. If he couldn't talk his way (or more accurately, Crowley's way) out of this one, it was all over.
He didn't stop to think too carefully about what "it" was, exactly. He simply knew that after six thousand years, his existence wouldn't be worth a blessed bullet's worth of lead without it. He wondered distractedly if that meant he was about to Fall, or if he perhaps already had, and simply hadn't got to the actual falling part yet. But he didn't feel any different; and after a moment's consideration, he decided (greatly to his own surprise) that he honestly didn't care anymore.
Aziraphale was, very simply, sick and tired of playing along. He'd long ago lost count of the questions and objections he'd swallowed in the name of faith, in the name of the Plan, as good little angels did. But a brief encounter with one small golden-haired boy had called into question all the layers upon layers of assumptions that had made that possible; and now, if faith meant accepting a Plan that could include such a pointlessly cruel end for a decent and worthy soul, who'd never even meant to Fall--
For the first time in his long existence, Aziraphale found himself thinking, No. Just, no. There was ineffable, and then there was just plain bloody unacceptable. This wasn't just another poor sod winding up his all-too-brief span upon the Earth; this was Crowley, and the death of a demon was a true death, not a transition to some higher (or lower) state of being.
A universe without Crowley in it, for all its glorious splendour, would be a sad and empty place--if for no one else, then at least for him. Aziraphale. The One who'd made them, and who (he was still as certain as he'd ever been of anything) loved them, surely would not plan so poorly for His creations.
Aziraphale studied the forbidding figure opposite him with no small trepidation. Of all the beings in Creation, this one was not to be trifled with. His authority was absolute within his own bailiwick; he wasn't subject to such piddling concerns as compassion or mercy; and he literally had no life. His job was everything. And everywhere. All the time.
But he was still bound by certain rules. And Aziraphale had at one time or another read every single book in Heaven's vast library, no matter how obscure or esoteric.
"I'm terribly sorry you've come all this way for nothing," he said softly, unfurling his wings in a gesture that was instantly recognizable to every being of celestial persuasion, no matter their rank or allegiance. This one is under my protection. "And I truly don't wish to offend. But, well...not to put too fine a point on it, you can't have him."
Death, who had been standing quite motionless, nonetheless paused at this.
YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS.
"Afraid so," Aziraphale said apologetically. He waved a hand at the teapot, which began to steam invitingly. "Allow me to offer you a cup of tea, and we can discuss it like civilized Beings."
But, the perceptive reader might now ask, Why doesn't Death just go around, or move the silly clod out of his way? He's Death, right? You can't thwart Death in his appointed rounds. It's a violation of natural (and supernatural) law. It's like tax evasion on a cosmic scale. It simply isn't done.
It should be noted, at this juncture, that the scene described herein is taking place upon two parallel but fundamentally separate planes of existence.
In one of them, a towering black-clad skeleton is being held at bay by a tired, rather frumpy-looking middle-aged bookshop owner, who has placed himself physically between said skeleton and the desperately ill young man on the bed behind him.
This is, in effect, a metaphor for the much more complex situation playing out on a higher level of reality. It's a bit awkward for the mortal brain to wrap itself around the six-dimensional concepts involved. The reader is advised not to try, as the cost of good psychiatric care is far out of proportion to the entertainment value of this fanfic.
Suffice it to say, angels are first and foremost creatures of Will. And while Aziraphale's Will might founder when confronted with such obstacles as a rare first edition or a second helping of dessert, when fully engaged, it is formidable indeed.
He wasn't appointed Guardian of the Eastern Gate for nothing.
Faced with a Principality who is in effect immovable, and who has thrown the mantle of his Will about the ailing demon at the center of all this hubbub, the Incarnation of Death finds himself momentarily stymied.
Of course, the problem with willpower, as untold millions of dieters throughout history can attest, is that it is a finite thing. And Aziraphale is already very tired.
"Are you quite certain you wouldn't care for a cup of tea?"
I DON'T DRINK.
"Well, I hope you won't mind if I indulge then. It's been an extremely stressful week." Aziraphale poured a cup, trying unsuccessfully to still the tremor in his hands.
YOU SEEM INTENT ON PROLONGING IT, Death observed.
"On the contrary, I'd prefer to get this over with as quickly as possible."
THEN I SUGGEST YOU STAND ASIDE.
"Sorry. Not an option." Aziraphale sipped his tea, his eyes never leaving his opponent.
"Don't call me that," Aziraphale snapped, setting his teacup down with a splash and a clatter.
IT IS WHAT YOU ARE. Death cocked its skull to one side. UNLESS YOUR INTENT IS TO FALL, OF COURSE. IF SO, YOU ARE CERTAINLY ON THE RIGHT TRACK.
Aziraphale's eyes narrowed. "Far from it. I simply don't care to be addressed that way by you."
AS YOU WISH. STATE YOUR INTENT, THEN, AZIRAPHALE. I DON'T HAVE ALL NIGHT.
"I don't have an intent, as such. More of an anti-intent, if that makes sense. I don't mean to do anything," Aziraphale explained, a trifle sheepishly. "I'm simply not going to let you take him. That's all."
Death paused again, seeming to consider this. YOU CAN'T STAND THERE SHIELDING HIM FOREVER.
"Try me," Aziraphale said with completely feigned calm, clasping his hands together to still them. "Oh, I suppose I'll have to give out sooner or later. But in the meantime, you do realize you'll be piling up a dreadful backlog."
Death shifted from one bony foot to the other. In any other creature, this behavior might have been described as "fidgeting," but such a vulgar term can scarcely be applied to the greatest of the Four, Creation's dark shadow, the Reaper before whom all creatures must one day bow. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. SURELY YOU UNDERSTAND THAT I MUST BE FREE TO FULFILL MY DUTY.
Aziraphale smiled tiredly. "Yes, according to the terms that the Creator has set down."
PRECISELY. Pause. WHY DON'T I LIKE THE WAY YOU SAID THAT?
Anyone who knew both Aziraphale and Crowley well would, at this point, have known exactly whence originated the look of malicious satisfaction that now flared in the angel's blue eyes. If he didn't carry it off quite as well as his counterpart, he nonetheless managed to look surprisingly diabolical for an angel. "Because I'm about to make your existence more difficult, I expect. It's very simple, Azrael. If you want him, you'll have to come through me."
Death shook its cowled head. YOU CANNOT FIGHT ME, GUARDIAN OF THE EASTERN GATE.
"I have no intention of fighting you," Aziraphale said, sinking into the chair next to the bed. He really was tired, so very tired. "But I'm not going to let you pass, either. I know how this works, you see. Death is your dominion, and in matters pertaining to death you cannot be gainsaid."
I THINK I HARDLY NEED POINT OUT THAT YOUR INTERFERENCE CONSTITUES AN ATTEMPT AT GAINSAYING.
"Oh, not really," Aziraphale said, his tone eminently reasonable. "Once Crowley is in your custody, I can't do anything about it. I know that. But your authority has very specific boundaries. You oversee the end of life, and that's it. Life itself is strictly off-limits. Lay a hand on any being, for any other purpose than their scheduled collection, and you're in breach of your charter."
"I'm not going to get out of your way. And you can't make me move--not without setting up a hubbub the likes of which hasn't been seen since, well, since Lower Tadfield." He leaned back in the chair, folding his arms. "Ergo, if you want Crowley, you'll have to take me first."
There was a long moment of silence.
"You could," Aziraphale agreed, "if you want to have a long conversation with the Metatron concerning why you took one of the Host out of turn. Sadly, I won't be there to accept responsibility."
It had already occurred to him that Azrael just might take him up on it, Metatron or no Metatron, and Aziraphale found that he was all right with that. They'd both been here since the very Beginning, after all; it was only fitting that they should leave together, as well.
And who could say? Beyond the circles of the world, there might indeed be more than memory, even for creatures not designed to die.
COCKY BASTARD, AREN'T YOU? Death was saying.
The angel smiled sweetly. "I've learned from the best."
WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I WON'T COME FOR HIM THE MINUTE HE'S OUT OF YOUR SIGHT?
"By the time he leaves my sight," Aziraphale said firmly, "I intend to see that he's well again. You'll have no reason to take him, and if you do, you'll be in exactly the same pickle as if you take me now. Except, of course, that it will be Hell you'll answer to."
YOU'VE REALLY THOUGHT THIS OUT.
Aziraphale chuckled, sounding just a little hysterical to his own ears. "Would you believe I'm making this up as I go? The logic's sound, though. All I have to do is sit here. And I can do that for a very long time."
AT LEAST UNTIL YOU'RE SUMMONED TO YOUR HEARING.
Aziraphale raised his eyebrows. "Ah, yes. The hearing that will no doubt ensue after you file the lengthy complaint that will be required of you. In triplicate," he emphasized. "Of course nobody in Heaven really gives a pile of moldy chickpeas what becomes of an Agent of the Enemy, and I've got an airtight defense if it comes to that, so I wouldn't count on my punishment being pushed through the bureaucracy any time this millennium."
Death leaned casually on his scythe, his posture radiating skepticism. REALLY. I'D VERY MUCH LIKE TO HEAR THIS 'AIRTIGHT DEFENSE' OF YOURS.
"Can't you guess?" Aziraphale said softly, and he quoted:
"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
And Death was silent.
"Come now, Azrael," Aziraphale said at last, in his best Crowley-inspired Voice of Persuasion. "Wouldn't it just be easier to cross one name off your list for now? There's no escaping you in the end, after all. We'll all come to you someday. Chairs up on the tables, lock the Universe behind you and all that." He spread his hands entreatingly. "All I'm asking you to do is put this one off for a while."
The silence lengthened, punctuated only by the softest rustling of feathers and Crowley's faint, labored breathing. On another level entirely, all around them grew a mounting clamor of waiting souls, demanding to be off to their final destinations.
Finally, Death pointed a menacing finger at Aziraphale's chest. YOU WILL SPEAK OF THIS TO NO ONE.
"Do I strike you as completely daft? Of course I won't tell anyone," Aziraphale said, affronted.
The angel nodded slowly. "As you wish."
Death waved a skeletal hand in Crowley's direction, and Aziraphale leaped to his feet in alarm. "What are you--"
OH, KEEP YOUR KNICKERS ON. IF HE REMAINS IN THIS CONDITION, I'LL JUST BE SUMMONED BACK STRAIGHTAWAY, Death said impatiently. AND FRANKLY, I HAVE HAD QUITE ENOUGH OF YOU TWO.
Crowley sighed quietly, stirring a little in his sleep. Aziraphale saw that he'd broken out in a sweat, and the ghastly bluish-green tinge of impending death had begun to recede from his face.
FOR THE TIME BEING, Death added.
Aziraphale sank back into his chair, his legs refusing to support him any longer. "Thank you," he said softly, bowing his head.
I WOULDN'T BE SO QUICK TO THANK ME. HE'S YOUR PROBLEM NOW. Death gathered his tattered robes about him with a flourish.
The angel smiled. "I can live with that."
HAH. I'LL JUST BET YOU CAN. With that cryptic remark, and a sudden whoosh of air filling empty space, Azrael quite abruptly ceased to be there.
Aziraphale sat there for some time, reflecting that he ought to be feeling triumphant. He'd bargained successfully with Death--well, backed Death down with a threat of red tape really, but it had achieved the desired result. No sense quibbling.
But all he felt just then was exhausted, and slightly numb. He turned to have a good look at Crowley, and laid a gentle hand on his forehead, just to reassure himself that all was well. Sure enough, the fever had broken; the youthful face was still a bit too pale, but no longer sickly. He slept peacefully, oblivious to the battle of wits that had just decided his fate.
Typical, Aziraphale thought fondly, and yawned. Carefully, so as not to disturb Crowley, he crept under the covers and curled up close, draping his wings protectively around them both.
It took longer to fall asleep than he had expected. One didn't casually shake off an encounter with Azrael, exhausted or no. But in time, lulled by the deep steady cadence of the demon's respiration, he drifted off.
They slept long and deep, sheltered in their dreams that night by the grace of an old and mighty Power who does not come into this tale.
Crowley sauntered gradually back toward consciousness much later, with a vague nagging impression that he'd missed something important, and also with the mother of all itches in the vicinity of his left shoulder. Reaching over with his other hand to deal with it, he became aware of three things:
One, he had approximately as much energy as a geriatric tree-sloth.
Two, he was almost completely surrounded by white feathers.
And three--he had to double-check this one to be certain his eyes weren't playing tricks on him--his right arm was asleep, pinned underneath a likewise sleeping angel. One who, he couldn't help but notice, looked a little older and not quite so preternaturally serene as usual.
If his left shoulder hadn't still hurt like He-- like the Dev-- like it had been damaged pretty badly, the situation might have suggested some intriguing possibilities. Under the circumstances, though, it was simply confusing. He let Aziraphale sleep a bit longer while he tried to piece together what had happened.
Everything up to the onset of the fever was pretty clear. Too clear, in fact. Note to Self: If the opportunity to play hero should come knocking again, kick it in the unmentionables, slam and lock the door, and flee out the back way to a secure location. He wasn't sure where the impulse had come from, nor why, lying stunned and bleeding on the floor afterward, all that had seemed important was the fact that Aziraphale and that damned idiot kid were still breathing. That was before the pain had really kicked in full force, of course, and before the extent of the damage he'd unwittingly done himself became clear. Blessed bullets, for the love of Somebody...it probably wasn't the first time some enterprising cleric had tried it, but as far as he knew, he was the first demon who'd been lucky enough to get caught in the line of fire.
Downstairs wasn't going to be happy. Granted, the swords humans used to lug around in the old days had been worse in their way--more than one of his colleagues had promptly gone up in smoke upon being smited by some overzealous bastard armed with a Pigsticker of Righteousness--but they couldn't be mass-produced either. And most demons, needless to say, didn't have their very own guardian angel conveniently loitering about to recognize the problem and fix it in the nick of time. Or in time to stop it obliterating them in short order, at any rate.
He shuddered involuntarily at the thought of how close he had come to being wiped off the face of existence. Being a demon hadn't been his first choice of jobs, but it certainly beat a career as Nothing At All.
Falling ill on top of that had been a regular kick in the head. It wasn't supposed to be possible, at least according to the boys in R&D. Crowley would have a few words to say about that in his next report. (He had a sneaking suspicion that quality control in that department had gone miserably downhill since that creepy little brat had taken over Pestilence's job. It was all very well and good, being immune to the effects of nuclear fallout and Benzene and such; but that was worth bugger all, now wasn't it, if he could be laid low by some nasty flu strain that hadn't been accounted for in the latest upgrade?)
After that...he remembered feeling hot, and horribly sick, and blurry fragments of thoroughly unpleasant dreams. He remembered a sense of unreasoning terror, and had a very dim sense that Something Awful had come and had gone away again, leaving him unmolested.
He glanced down at Aziraphale, huddled close with one arm thrown protectively over him, and he remembered a calm, steady presence that had never left his side; cool hands touching him so gently, and the kind, familiar voice speaking his name, driving back the fear.
Well, shit. I'm never going to live this one down, he thought with a sigh, tugging his arm free with no small effort. The angel who allegedly never slept didn't so much as twitch. Crowley eyed him thoughtfully as he flexed his tingling hand, wondering just what his counterpart had got up to while he'd snoozed.
After indulging in a good (but careful) scratch, and swearing a bit at the bandages that impeded his efforts, he considered waking Aziraphale for a round of Twenty Questions. He hated feeling left out of the loop, particularly in matters of his own well-being.
The angel stirred in his sleep, murmuring what might have been a reassurance or just some bit of random Aziraphalian nonsense. His arm curled tighter around Crowley, who thought that the gesture seemed almost...possessive. For no reason he could fathom, that observation made his throat and chest tighten up uncomfortably.
Maybe he was still a little sick. Yeah, that must be it.
In the end he just draped his good arm around Aziraphale's shoulders, and settled himself to sleep a while longer. It was one of his favorite activities, and he was comfortable (or as much as he could be with one arm immobilized,) and there seemed to be no hurry.
Questions could wait until they both had the wherewithal to survive the conversation.
Aziraphale took one last look around the tiny, bullet-riddled town, and tried to remember that it was part of God’s creation, and therefore no more nor less worthy than any other place on His good Earth. But despite his best efforts, and his deep gratitude toward the good woman who had sheltered them in their time of need (and who had, by a stroke of luck, met a kind and extremely wealthy traveler who was at that very moment packing up the little family to take them far away to a new life,) all he found himself thinking as he trudged up the street to where Crowley waited for him was a heartfelt good riddance!
Crowley got to his feet with a visible effort as the angel came up. “Finished playing matchmaker, are you? Good, good. Now can we please get out of this shithole of a town and back to a civilized country, where a demon can walk down the street without fear of being randomly smited?”
His arm was still in a sling, a fact about which he complained incessantly; but the wounded shoulder had finally begun to knit on its own, and he’d recovered enough to travel safely. And to pester Aziraphale endlessly about exactly what had happened while he lay unconscious. Some of his guesses struck uncomfortably close to home, but Aziraphale had no intention of breaking his word to Death. “Things got a bit dicey there, for a little while,” he’d finally said to quiet the demon’s curiosity, “but it all seems to have worked out, so let’s not dwell on it, shall we?”
“Our ride should be here very shortly,” he assured his friend, smiling. Crowley was back to his usual irascible self, his thoughts once again safely hidden behind his sunglasses. But there had been a moment, before Crowley had got back on his feet, when Aziraphale had turned and found the demon watching him drowsily with that soft unguarded expression he wore when he slept; and he’d let it linger a full five seconds before he’d turned away and said something obnoxious to break the mood. The memory suffused the angel with a pleasant sense of warmth, and he secretly hoped to add more to it in the very near future.
“So did you get around to having a word with that cleric?” Crowley asked, his tone carefully nonchalant.
Aziraphale’s smile turned slightly grim at that. It had taken him some time to track down the man responsible, who, though sincere in his faith, had not surprisingly had a very skewed idea of how it should be expressed. Manifesting in full regalia to deliver divine pronouncements was out of fashion these days, and frowned upon without official sanction, but Aziraphale was willing to take the reprimand that would no doubt be coming his way; the look of abject terror on the man’s face as he’d prostrated himself on the floor had been worth it. “Oh, yes. We had a very pleasant little chat. I believe he’ll think twice, if not several times, before he tries anything like that again.”
Crowley nodded, though he still looked a bit disgruntled. The hapless cleric would never know how lucky he had been that Aziraphale found him first, and then refused to tell Crowley where he was.
Angel and demon caught the sound of the approaching engine at the same moment, and both tensed instinctively, ready to run for cover; but it turned out to be their ride, an opportunistic local in a dilapidated old beast that would probably need plenty of supernatural encouragement to make it all the way to the distant airport. Aziraphale took note that Crowley didn’t complain about the substandard transport; he climbed in without a moment’s hesitation. The angel hastened to follow, and did not spare a backward glance as the rickety vehicle pulled away, leaving the town to its dust and blood and its oppressive sense of despair.
The car’s shocks were badly in need of replacing, and the dirt road was not at all good. The vehicle’s noisy engine and the rough ride made conversation impossible. But in spite of the continual bumps and jolts that must be painful to his half-healed shoulder, Crowley fell asleep not long after the town dropped out of sight behind the horizon.
Aziraphale wrapped an arm around him, cushioning them both somewhat from the impacts, and thought longingly of his bookshop, and the Bentley, and the small luxuries he’d come to take so for granted. For a moment he felt a terrible sense of guilt; it seemed a shameful dereliction of duty to spend his days in comfort while so many of God’s children suffered like the people in that town, watching helplessly as friends and loved ones died, having no recourse against the ever-present spectre of Death.
The car struck a particularly nasty pothole and fairly leaped into the air, crashing down with a bone-jarring thump, and Crowley moaned softly in his sleep. Aziraphale sighed and gently tipped him over, resting the demon’s head in his lap, and turned his attention to the wearisome task of smoothing the road before them.
It was all right. They’d be back in London soon, and all this would be behind them. Not even an angel could save the entire world, after all.
He’d settle for the little part of it that he called home.
* Technically not untrue. Man-shaped beings with a dollop of serpent DNA left over in their genetic mix from a transformation several millennia before are exceedingly rare.