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Ourselves under pressure

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Aziraphale had never really gotten television. Deep down, he had a tiny spark of annoyance that films and television had overtaken books and live theatre as popular entertainment; a being that could feel love (of the audience, of actors) for a work would never really understand the appeal of watching something coldly regurgitated on a screen.

(That’s not to say that he couldn’t see some benefits. There were movies and television shows that were as much sublime artworks as a sculpture or painting or poetry; he’d even been known to spark little moments of inspiration as a blessing now and then. There were those whose ability to pass on a message or sheer feel-good factor meant they were of net benefit to humanity. That didn’t mean that Aziraphale had to enjoy them himself.)

Crowley, on the other hand, liked television shows. And so, if in the months after the End of the World, an angel was spending a lot more time with his favourite demon, that meant that angel was getting exposed to more television than he’d seen in the last twenty years. It was quite usual for Crowley to set himself up with a tablet in the backroom of the bookshop to “stream” some show while Aziraphale pottered around and put off customers, or for Aziraphale to bring a book along to Crowley’s Mayfair flat to read on the sofa while Crowley slung his feet onto Aziraphale’s lap and chuckled at some movie or another.

Sometimes, despite himself, Aziraphale found his attention caught by what was on the screen. There were nature documentaries narrated by an amazingly reassuring British voice, which captured the beauty of the Earth and Her creations so well that Aziraphale was actually transfixed. There was a little comedy about a bookshop with a rather obstreperous owner that Crowley put on with a sly glance and suggestion that Aziraphale took notes, only for Crowley’s smirk to turn into a genuine grin when Aziraphale did, in fact, start taking notes.

Then, there was the show that caused a few problems. It wasn’t that it wasn’t good – it was very good. Aziraphale had vaguely listened as Crowley watched the first ‘season’ on his tablet, glancing at the screen once or twice as he passed through the back room, only to end up absentmindedly sitting down beside Crowley to actually watch the last few episodes. Then, having watched the end of that season (what a twist!), he demanded they start it again so he could watch the whole thing from the start. It was about good and evil and philosophy, and while Crowley was enjoying the entertainment, it was making Aziraphale think.

And ask questions.

He pottered and pondered and went about his daily business and thought about Heaven and bad angels and Michael pouring holy water into a bathtub for Hell and a column of hellfire in the middle of heaven, and he thought-

-I love God. I believe in Her Ineffable Plan. But I don’t trust Heaven.

And once that thought crystallised, Aziraphale Fell.

He was in his bookshop, and the contented normality around him (sunlight through the dusty window; the sound of Crowley laughing at something in the back room; the smell of wood polish and vanillin scent of old paper) was abruptly unreal for a moment, like a record scratch across reality. And somehow, he was still there, but he was also on the metaphysical plane where Heaven and Hell were, and he was in the bookshop and it felt like something was tearing out his spine through his stomach. He looked down, expecting to see blood on his shirt, but there was nothing. Just the pain.

Aziraphale’s yell of agony brought Crowley out of the back room, frantic, just in time to try to catch the angel as he fell heavily to his knees. Aziraphale landed awkwardly on top of Crowley, both of them knocked to the floor, and he immediately curled into the foetal position, gasping.

“Crowley-“ he managed. “Something’s wrong.”

“Aziraphale, what-“ said Crowley, even as he pushed Aziraphale’s coat off his shoulders, hands patting his arms and torso, trying to see if he was hurt.

Aziraphale gritted his teeth and tried to draw enough breath to talk. “I don’t know. Nothing. Then it hurts.”

“Where, what hurts?” Crowley put his hands on the sides of Aziraphale’s face. “Angel!”

Aziraphale managed meet Crowley’s eyes for a second before a new wave of pain ripped through him. Ripping, that was it. Something was being torn from him, inexorably and terribly.

Aziraphale felt his wings rush into the Earthly plane of reality, and flailed, trying to sit up enough that they weren’t caught awkwardly under him. His eye caught on the tip of one wing, and he froze. The long feathers were darkening, like they were sucking up ink. Stained.

Crowley had seen what he was looking at, and stilled too, one hand reaching out but not touching the feathers. “Oh, shit. Oh, no, no, no. Aziraphale, are you Falling?” His voice was horrified, and somehow that was enough for Azirphale’s sense of time and reality to crash in on him for a moment.

“I suppose I- oh, blast that hurts- must be.” Aziraphale gritted out. He was balanced on knees and one hand, and before his eyes for a moment the hand on the floor seemed to have talons.

“What…why…” Crowley reached forward to press one hand on the feathers above the growing black stain, like someone would apply pressure above a snakebite to stop the venom spreading. Instead, the black seemed to rush towards his fingers. He jerked his hand back, but it was too late – there was a black handprint on the wing for a moment before the feathers around it turned black and it disappeared into the spreading black.

Aziraphale grabbed Crowley’s hand with his own. “Please…I suppose it was inevitable after everything. Just don’t…will you stay here with me?” He could feel the cool light of Heaven leaving him, the sense of general love for creation that was like a background radiation for angels was dimming – like a gas lamp being turned down, but sputtering and flaring as it went. There was a scent of sulphur in the air.

“Of course, of course. I’m not going anywhere. Not as long as you need me.” Crowley pulled Aziraphale awkwardly into an embrace. Aziraphale buried his nose where Crowley’s neck and shoulder met, and gulped in the comforting smell. A hint of sulphur, yes, but also the slightly spicy smell of snakeskin, and something indefinable that was Crowley.  He grasped Crowley’s shirt and held on, eyes squeezed tight to stop the tears leaking out. He supposed that he’d always vaguely been waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially once he’d realised how much his version of ‘good’ differed from Heaven’s. And knowing Crowley for so long, he’d sort of thought that it wouldn’t really be that bad. But…this was pain and violation that he’d never known. Aziraphale was scared, and so grateful that he had Crowley to hang on to.

Falling is very violent. If you could only perceive one level of reality, you would see two men (albeit one with wings) holding each other in the middle of a bookshop floor. On another level of perception, you would see the metaphysical equivalent of watching someone being flayed alive or having a limb twisted until it tore from a socket. Just because it wasn’t happening on a material plane didn’t make it any less terrible to the person it was happening to, or to someone watching their best and dearest friend suffer through it.

For the first time in a very, very long time, a genuine prayer left Crowley’s heart. Not a question, not an entreaty, not a curse, but a desperate and disbelieving plea. Please. Not him. Stop this, You can stop this, he doesn’t deserve this.

Somewhere Else, Her attention turned. Another Fall? But not a rebellion against Her. Just…against Heaven. Her faithful, beloved angel didn’t belong Hell, that was true. It wasn’t part of the Plan. With a shrug, God gathered up a hand of cards, and dealt them again.

A thought coalesced in the back of Crowley’s head.

If someone was falling, you could catch them.

Had a Falling angel ever had someone try to catch them? (No. None have ever been loved enough by someone who was in a position to try.)

What happened next was, of course, happening in a reality that humans can’t see or understand. It’s all metaphorical. It’s the best we can do:

Aziraphale was falling through space. He was distantly aware of stars, nebulas and galaxies, but his attention was split between the glowing white light that was rapidly dwindling behind him, and the awful dark, stinking maw below him. It was somehow both on fire, and endlessly dark; completely featureless but Aziraphale also knew it was a mouth that was waiting to consume him, and that once he fell into it he would never come out. A lick of fire came out, writhing like a lascivious tongue. Aziraphale shuddered in horror.

Wings were useless for slowing the descent. They were in agony anyway – what on Earth had looked like ink seeping into the feathers, here looked like something being stripped away. His wings were shedding light, like shards of a mirror shattering and flying upwards, leaving a myriad of small cuts as it went.

Worse, Aziraphale felt like some part of him was being ripped away. It was still attached to the light of Heaven, and at some point – it must be soon, oh God, let it not be too soon – he would fall so far that it would be ripped right out. Like bungy jumping with something like intestines as the rope, and just as horrifying.

Suddenly, Aziraphale realised that there was a speck spiralling up and out of the dark of Hell below him. Were those…wings? Beating furiously to pull out of the gravitational well of Hell’s mouth. The shape climbed quickly, furiously, and Aziraphale realised it was a demon, it was Crowley, and he was screaming as he came, with the effort, with pain, with Aziraphale’s name in his mouth.

Aziraphale started flailing, grasping at nothing in an effort to slow his fall. He was going to hit Crowley, and it was going to hurt Crowley, a lot. He only succeeded in turning his fall into an out-of-control tumble. He saw in flashes – Heaven (its light gone from illuminating to painfully, blindingly bright), stars, Hell, Crowley, stars, Heaven, Crowley…

At last, he tumbled once more and right into Crowley. It was (metaphorically) the impact of a car crash, like a dive into water from too far up so it was like hitting concrete – but concrete that wrapped its arms and wings around him before the wings snapped open again and beat against the metaphorical space. Aziraphale felt that sense of connection to the light start to tear, awfully, finally, before with a grunt of pain and effort Crowley’s wings beat one more time and took them back up. Something was…damaged, perhaps, but not gone. Not entirely.

Aziraphale stopped Falling.

Distantly, She reached out and nudged the mostly-angel and demon at the point of time-and-space they impacted. Aziraphale was, for now, full of Her Grace, like a bowl full of water. When Aziraphale hit Crowley, it was like a bowl being dropped on the ground, with the water about to spill over the side. With Her attention, the Grace didn’t tip out but just…spilled a little, into the empty vessel of a demon who loved so much he chose to catch a Falling angel. It seemed appropriate.

Aziraphale gasped, trembling at the sudden absence of pain and gravity. “Crowley?” he asked, trying to make sense of it all.

Crowley’s hands tightened around his back. “Maybe if we do this again, you could lay off the cream buns a little first, angel,” he said. His voice was strained, and Aziraphale pulled back enough to see that Crowley looked wrecked from the impact. Blood was dripping from his nose and the corner of his mouth, a bruise was forming around one eye and his wings – beating slowly to hold them in place, like treading water – were ragged, feathers occasionally falling out to drift below.

Aziraphale pulled in a shaken breath, and just tipped them back into the reality of the bookshop.

Both of them both promptly passed out.

Aziraphale came to first. He was lying on his back in the middle of the floor, wings out and caught under him and under Crowley’s weight and wings next to him. He blinked at the ceiling and groaned slightly, trying to catalogue how he was feeling. No pain, that was a relief, just the kind of weak shakiness that comes when pain and adrenalin have subsided. Tentatively, he extended his senses to where he had always felt Heaven and moaned quietly when there was…nothing. It was like expecting to walk onto firm ground and missing a step instead, a horrible swoop in his stomach.

So, I’m Fallen, he thought. I’m not part of Heaven, cut off from Her love- but with that thought he realised her could still feel love. Her love, overwhelming, unfiltered by Heaven. And all the smaller loves that he had always felt: that which imbued his bookshop, his love for Crowley, Crowley’s love for him, the flashes and glimpses from people outside, even the general love of the population for London. It was all still there, a little more distant than usual but…he hadn’t lost it.

“Crowley,” he said hoarsely, trying to sit up, but only managing lever himself onto his side. He flailed weakly at Crowley, patting his chest. “My dear, my dear, wake up. Oh, shit. Crowley?”

Crowley groaned, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. “Ohhhh….you swore. Did we forget to sober up before the hangover kicked in?” he asked, before memory obviously came back to him and his eyes flew open in panic. “Angel! You…!” Like Aziraphale, he tried to sit up, but between the weakness and wings he only managed to roll over. He reached up one hand to rest on Aziraphale’s cheek, and the two just stared at each other for a moment.

“You didn’t Fall,” Crowley finally croaked.

“I think I did, a little bit,” Aziraphale vaguely. He couldn’t look away from Crowley’s eyes. They had changed: his pupils were still elongated, but no longer fully slit, and the brilliant yellow had darkened slightly, to a bright burnished amber. “But you saved me. I don’t think….demons can’t feel love, can they? I feel it. It’s still there.”

“No, we can’t-“ started Crowley, then his hand on Aziraphale’s cheek spasmed slightly and he went still. “Oh…oh. I can feel that you…that you love me. And I think I can feel…”

Aziraphale covered Aziraphale’s hand with his own, holding it against his face. He couldn’t help the brilliant smile that came over his face. “Her. You can feel God, can’t you?”

Crowley just nodded, mutely. His eyes glistened a little. Aziraphale sympathised. It was a lot to take in.

Finally, Crowley shook himself a little, and made another effort to sit up. Aziraphale wriggled back a little to help free their trapped wings, and both of them paused at the same time, looking at the feathers. They both shook them out and spread them out (as much as possible within the bookshop), looking in astonishment.

“Well, would you look at that!” said Crowley. Neither set of wings was entirely black or white any more. Aziraphale’s were still brilliant white along the top edges, but rapidly faded to gradients of grey. The long primary feathers at the tip of his wing were inky black. Crowley’s were mirror images -black along the top, dark grey gradients and one pale, nearly white feather at the tip of each wing.

“Is there anything…that is to say, do I have any other, um, physical changes?” Aziraphale asked, simultaneously rolling up his sleeves to look at his arms, twisting to try to look at his own back and managing to turn in a circle, nearly stumbling over his feet.

Crowley looked at him critically. “Are you usually that short?”

Aziraphale gaped at him, then glared, even as something in him settled at their usual banter. “Really! It’s a serious question, Crowley.”

Crowley sighed and looked again. “Not really. Your hair’s a little darker. And you have a little…” He tapped the inside of his own left forearm.

“Oh!” Aziraphale lifted his arm in front of his eyes and looked at the pale brown mark etched on the skin like a tattoo. He frowned a little, trying to make it out. He was quite fond of the handsome little snake on the side of Crowley’s face, and while he had nothing personally against animals like toads, flies or lizards the demonic interpretation of such left a lot to be desired. “It’s a little…goat head I think. How sweet! Very intelligent animals, goats.”

“Don’t they eat books?”

Aziraphale humped, but he looked pleased.

Crowley looked a little nervous. “What about…” He waved a hand at his own face.

Aziraphale tottered on still slightly shaky legs to pick up the small gilt-framed mirror that sat on his desk (useful for the occasional mirror-image books). He handed it to Crowley who looked for a long moment, tilting his head to look at his eyes, and inspect the paler snake on his cheekbone. “Hm. Suppose I can live with that.” He handed the mirror back. “I think I would like to get very drunk now, if you don’t mind.”

Aziraphale was already heading to the cupboard with the bottles. “I think alcohol is definitely the, er, recommended course of action when one has gone through a fundamental change in one’s status as an ethereal or occult being.” He rifled through the bottles. “Liquor? There’s a rather nice Talisker here. Seems the right occasion.”

“Oh, yes please,” said Crowley, dropping onto the sofa, wings settling carefully behind him. “Can you still do miracles? It wouldn’t do to get absolutely hammered, then find out we can’t sober up.”

Aziraphale paused in pouring two very healthy measures into heavy-bottomed whiskey glasses. “Good point. Um.” He looked around and patted his pockets, trying to think of something minor to try. “Ah hah!” His pockets produced a white handkerchief, and he held it up with a flourish. He snapped his fingers. Nothing happened. “Oh, how embarrassing.”

“Now, it happens to all men at some time or other,” drawled Crowley. He leaned forward and waved his hand at the bit of cloth. Nothing continued to happen.

“Hmm!” snorted Aziraphale. “Let me just…” He frowned, and mentally reached towards the place that usually gave him the power to perform miracles. It wasn’t there, like hitting a wall – but a slippery wall, and he felt himself kind of…turning a mental corner, a twist in perception and there it was, an Earthy, rather than Heavenly, well of energy. He snapped again, and as he intended the white handkerchief turned black. (And perhaps a little singed at the edges.)

Crowley was still wriggling his fingers, glaring at his hand. “Let me show you,” said Aziraphale, reaching for the demon’s hand. He snapped his fingers again and turned the handkerchief blue, feeling Crowley’s supernatural perception following the twist and miracle.

“Right, got it,” said Crowley and he waved his hand. The handkerchief turned red, the singed edges repaired, and he tucked it in his shirt pocket. “Close enough. Alcohol, please, angel.”

Aziraphale sat with a sigh, handing over a glass. “But am I, though?”

“Well, you’re not a demon.”

“Are you?”

Crowley didn’t answer for a minute. “I don’t know. If you define a demon as being cast out of Heaven, sure. That doesn’t feel any different. But if you say it’s not feeling Her love…” he shrugged, then made a funny expression and poked his tongue out, trying to look at it cross-eyed. “’N ah ca’ sthill do th’ sthake thin’”

“Pardon?”

“Forked tongue. I can still do the snake thing. That was new after I fell, I wasn’t slithering around in heaven.”

“Oh, right, of course. Well, I can still feel…love. But not Heaven. Can you feel Hell?”

“Nope.” Crowley took a large sip of the whiskey. “But still like the idea of going out and causing a little chaos. Just a bit. When it’s funny.”

Aziraphale looked at him fondly. “Well, if it’s funny.”

“What about you? Still have those angelic instincts?”

“Do you mean I want to help people? Yes, I suppose so. But I’m not sure that’s much of an angelic instinct after all. I don’t know that they much cared about really helping people, in the end.”

“Hmm. True. Oh, can you do any goat things?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Crowley grinned at Aziraphale. “Goat on your head? Just kidding.”

Aziraphale rolled his eyes. “Oh, har har. Well, you can’t have Risen that much if you’re making puns that bad.” He scrunched up his face for a moment, then raised his hands to pat his hair. He looked delighted. “I have horns! Look, Crowley!” He bent forward to show Crowley that there were, indeed, two small pale horns just showing through his hair.

Crowley examined them seriously. “That’s rather cute, really. Say, do you feel-“

Aziraphale put his hand over Crowley’s mouth. “If you say horny…” He jerked his hand away when Crowley raised one eyebrow at him and flickered his forked tongue on Aziraphale’s palm.

Crowley smirked and leaned in. “But, do you, though? I always thought demons were more in touch with good old lust more than angels.”

Aziraphale knew how this was meant to go – Crowley would tease, he would act at being flustered, Crowley would back down with a grin, and they would both have another drink.

But. “You know what,” Aziraphale said slowly. “I rather think I do.” Aziraphale had, of course, tried making an Effort a few times over the millennia, but that had been done with the same detached curiosity that led him to try a new dish, even though he didn’t really feel hunger or need sustenance. But now, with a languorous warmth filling his limbs from the alcohol, and Crowley leaning so close… Aziraphale’s eyes flicked down to Crowley’s mouth. Crowley licked his lips nervously. What an odd feeling…

“Do…do you, now,” said Crowley hoarsely. “For anyone in particular?”

Aziraphale met his eyes, and raised an eyebrow of his own. He could still feel Crowley’s love for him, and knew Crowley could now feel how Aziraphale felt. Even as the whole sense was a little dimmed, he fancied there were nuances to it now that he’d never been able to perceive before. After the day they’d had, it didn’t behove them to pretend that either of them weren’t experiencing the same feeling in this regard.

“Yeah, fair enough,” said Crowley. “Should we…”

“Make relationship-altering decisions while under the influence of alcohol and after a very, very alarming day? Yes, I think that sounds like an excellent idea,” said Aziraphale. Oh, it seemed like sarcasm came easier now.

Crowley started to sit back and put some distance between them, but Aziraphale darted forward and pressed his lips to Crowley’s.

“Mmph!” said Crowley, startled. Then, “Are you sure, angel?”

Aziraphale reached forward and laced his fingers with Crowley’s. “You can feel it, can’t you?” Crowley nodded slowly. “Crowley, you’re my best friend. You caught me. I felt some of my grace flow into you. We’re our own side. I don’t think any being in the universe could mean more to me. This is almost an…afterthought, really.”

Crowley stiffened a little, outraged. “Well, if it’s only an afterthought…”

Aziraphale was looking at Crowley’s lips again, and let go of Crowley’s hand to pull him closer by the front of his shirt. “An afterthought I would very, very much like to indulge in with you, my dear.”

“When you put it that way,” murmured Crowley, letting himself be pulled closer until he was straddling Aziraphale’s lap. Their wings, both awkwardly working around the sofa and small room, mantled over the sofa, making a grey feathered curtain around them. Aziraphale leaned up eagerly as Crowley dipped his head to kiss him, letting his hands rest on Crowley’s hips. He heard himself whimper a little as the sensation of lust made his stomach swoop and hips twitch a little at the prospect of getting closer to Crowley.

“It’s okay, angel,” said Crowley against Aziraphale’s lips. “I’ve got you.”

You do, thought Aziraphale. You really do.

(Their relationship would, however, soon face a new test, when Crowley found great amusement in handing bits of paper or fabric to a distracted, slightly goat-inclined mostly-angel, and seeing how often he would end up eating it before he realised what he was doing. Aziraphale claimed that if Crowley were being so rude as to take advantage of his new…component, then he simply couldn’t be held responsible if he felt the occasional urge to headbutt something, and that something was the nearest mostly-demon.

They got over it, and lived happily – and morally ambiguously - ever after.)