Chapter 1: pride
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth
After twenty :mumbles: years I finally got around to writing a Good Omens fic. Give it another decade and I might even put away the laundry.
Footnotes are in square brackets (these [ ] things) because I love you too much to make you scroll through 13k for a joke.
Thanks go to Zee, for her enthusiasm and peerless beta reading, and Michael Sheen, for making life difficult.
Special thanks to Amoursdivines, you know why
Despite how things had seemed destined a few weeks previously, life somehow goes on.
Life has a habit of that, Crowley muses, staring out the restaurant window at the people walking past while Aziraphale lingers over his dessert. They move like salmon swimming upstream, [the people, not Aziraphale, who is currently sighing over a mouthful of panna cotta. Why most London restaurants have abandoned the near infinite varieties of pastry and sugar in favour of pale creamy lumps with a drizzle of something red is beyond him, and he quietly apologises to Scotland for coming up with raspberry coulis] or a susurration of starlings. Crowley frowns to himself. A susurration of starling, he can never say that out loud, he may as well go belly-down on the ground and start hissing while he’s at it.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale says, an edge of impatience in his voice which suggests Crowley has been caught woolgathering when he should have been listening.
“Sorry, what?” he mumbles, resting his elbow on the linen tablecloth and perching his chin on the palm of his hand.
Whatever Aziraphale had said is lost to the ages, his interest diverted to Crowley’s distraction. “Is something the matter?”
Crowley shakes his head, as much as he can while supported by his hand. “No.” Yes. “Nothing’s wrong.” It’s a secret.
The Angel looks unconvinced, so Crowley gestures to the window in a vague, sinuous manner. “Just. People, y’know? All trundling along the same as before.”
“Hm.” Aziraphale looks unconvinced, but is willing to let the matter drop, along with his spoon onto an empty plate. “How about a nice walk?”
St James Park had always been the favoured place for clandestine meetings, but now that there was no need to be clandestine anymore it felt a little odd to go there. Not that they didn’t, Aziraphale was too fond of feeding the ducks, though it was peas and grains of wheat that he threw for them these days while Crowley skulked at his side, shoving away any little bastard that took an interest in the Angel’s shoes. Hyde park was always lousy with tourists, and Crowley was still a little bitter about the Serpentine [who the bloody hell looked at that and thought ‘serpent’? Not ‘breeze block’ or if you were feeling generous ‘eel that met an unfortunate end under the wheel of a truck’. Thank you for nothing Queen bloody Caroline], and after the last meeting there Crowley has no intention of ever setting foot in Battersea Park again, not even to burn down that blasted Bandstand. But Green Park is just around the corner from the Ritz, and has very little in the way of foot traffic because its main features are bloody big trees and Not Much Else. No statues for tourists to photograph or sites of historical interest, just a swathe of green from St James palace to Wellington Arch with the A4 to keep it from getting any ideas above its station.
Aziraphale brightens up at the suggestion, and once the bill is paid [at least as far as the Ritz is concerned] they head out onto the street, and Crowley gently shepherds Aziraphale left before he can spot Fortnum and Mason down the street and start going on about picking up a few things.
The walk is pleasant enough, though Aziraphale persists on keeping to the tarmac paths while Crowley meanders around on the grass, orbiting him like a dark, if well-fed, star.
“It’s a shame we’re too late for the narcissus,” Aziraphale remarks, pausing to admire a London Plane tree that looks no different from all the other ones. A squirrel runs across the path in front of them, pausing to give them the evil eye before scampering off again. Aziraphale probably thinks it quite delightful, but of course he does.
Central London might be a stone’s throw away [well, more of a lobbed half-brick away], but the park is peaceful, and aside from the occasional figure in a pinstripe suit on the way from one thing to another, or jogger in brightly coloured lycra, they are alone.
Salmon in the stream, Crowley thinks again. All bright colours and short lives.
“Crowley.” Aziraphale goes as far as stepping onto the grass after him, trying to get his attention.
“Huh?” Crowley glances up, and finally realises how far his wandering feet have taken him, far across the scruffy grass. “Sorry.”
He skulks back to where Aziraphale is waiting, no doubt midway through a treatise on that whole business with the tulips back in 1637. Honestly, Crowley wasn’t even in Amsterdam at the time and it really wasn’t his fault, he’d just been trying to get hold a few Semper Augustus bulbs for Aziraphale’s garden at the time.
“If there’s somewhere else you’d rather be…” Aziraphale begins, and Crowley grimaces, his sunglasses threatening to slide down his nose.
“Nowhere else I’d rather be, Angel.”
That’s the problem really.
As a Demon, Crowley has somewhat prided himself on his skill at temptation. Sure, anyone could make a priest look twice at a pretty girl, or nudge politicians into taking a bribe, Crowley could do those things in his sleep [mainly because they would happen with or without his input, humans being distressingly keen on self-corruption. Crowley got a commendation for that whole business with the former Prime Minister and the - well - he gladly took the credit but that? That was all human stupidity]. But the secret to a good temptation is empathy, knowing their desires before they did, and then presenting it to them in such a way that free will kind of did the rest of the work for him, like gravity does when applying a sledgehammer to a watermelon. Temptation he can handle with aplomb, whatever an aplomb is, but this is something else. Every time he watches the Angel sigh over a delicately sliced piece of sashimi, or a nice little bottle of burgundy, or the first sip of hot, sweet tea when he’s closed the bookshop early for the day. A thousand little things and every time they happen a warmth suffuses through Crowley’s breast. A quiet calm fills his veins where before there was static.
The first time that wave of, of bliss hit him, no more than a day after the world didn’t end, Crowley thought it was heartburn, and rubbed at his breastbone irritably while Aziraphale fussed over the biscuit tin in search of one of those pink iced numbers. The second time, a moment later, when Aziraphale made a happy little sound at finding one hidden under a piece of shortbread, Crowley realised he was in trouble.
Underneath it all, all these sweet, tender sensations that whisper of cherry blossoms and madeleines dipped in coffee and sunlight filtering through a London Plane, is a great, sucking void.
Where had the damn thing even come from? How do you miss something like that? A gaping maw open wide beneath his feet, like the event horizon of a collapsing star, and Crowley hadn’t even noticed it was there. He walked right into it, into the fire and the ash and the burning pages. But then the world was going to end and all that was good and worthwhile was already gone from it, what did Crowley care for his own fate? But now that the world is safe here he is, on the verge of unspooling into a single agonised thread of consciousness.
So he keeps his distance. He washes away the taste of ash with red wine and whiskey. He circles the chasm warily, caught in its orbit, and all he can do is maintain equilibrium, and not fall any further. He has fallen once before, and has no intention of doing so again.
If he looks, he can see the open mouth of it, so he doesn’t. He studiously ignores it like a cat, he gets easily distracted, feigning an interest in passing whims because it’s easier than acknowledging the ground crumbling under his feet.
After all they'd gone through to get here, not agents of Heaven or Hell but of themselves, on their own side, and he is paralysed between what he was and what he could never be.
Crowley kicks at the grass a little, and blames the park for his odd mood. He remembers when it was a graveyard for the lepers of St James hospital, back when Charles II was still kicking his heels, and that kind of thing is bound to make a place feel gloomy. London is an old city, she was old when the Romans parked up in their chariots and took a shine to the place, and having both an Angel and a Demon walking her streets for a few hundred years is bound to have an effect.
[He’s wrong, though not about London. In retrospect it will seem obvious, but then hindsight is a smug bastard like that.]
“Crowley?” Aziraphale edges towards him, not close enough to touch because that is something they don’t do. Even facing down the Morningstar, certain of their own ends, it was easier to take the hand of a child than of his Angel.
“Mmm?” Crowley feigns airiness. He’s not gone wandering off, or walked into a dustbin, so what has he done now?
“What ever is the matter?” Aziraphale looks concerned, the lines around his eyes creasing. “You’ve been a bit out of sorts since the… well… the whole Apocalypse-that-wasn’t.”
You would think a Demon would be entirely at ease with fire, infernos and perdition going hand in hand and all. But the memory of flames licking up those dusty shelves, of smoke billowing across the unusually high ceiling, makes Crowley miss a step and wobble precariously on one foot. “Apocalypse-that-wasn’t?” he sneers, because mockery is preferable to hurting.
“Well, whatever you want to call it,” Aziraphale says patiently. “You’ve seemed, well, distracted ever since.”
Shit. So much for keeping a lid on things. “Have I?” Crowley asks, for lack of any better ideas.
“Yes.”Aziraphale fidgets, his gaze flitting from tree to ground to tree again. “I’ve been. Worried.”
“If this is your idea of an intervention, and you’re going to tell me about a nice little support group that meets every wednesday at the local library.” Crowley enunciates each word carefully. “Then I suggest you shut it.”
“Oh, of course not,” Aziraphale flusters slightly, in a way that suggests that is exactly what he had been thinking. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Last thing to cross my mind.”
If left to it, the Angel will continue with a stream of nervous chatter until the sun goes down, so it’s best to nip these things in the bud.
“I’m fine, Angel,” Crowley says, not entirely unkindly. “Just got things on my mind is all. Rumour is there’s some sort of discord among the Demons, a few of them think I got off a little too lightly.”
“Oh dear.” Aziraphale turns his worried gaze back on Crowley, eyes wide and far too blue for comfort. “Do we need to be… well are they likely to…”
“Nah.” Crowley dismisses his concerns. “That’s just Demons in general, always whining about something or other.”
“I’d never noticed,” Aziraphale says with the slightest smile. Cheeky little sod.
The air clears a little between them, and for that alone Crowley lets the Angel have his joke. A comfortable silence falls as they pass the Canada gate, the tall pillars of Portland stone and the gilded wrought iron always looking a little ridiculous to Crowley’s eye. Oh, the gate itself is impressive enough, all five portals of it, it’s just that… well that’s all there is. There’s no wall on either side of the gate, just the usual black painted London bollards, and what’s the point of sticking a gate that big somewhere when you can just go around it?
Crowley throws a glance or two the Angel’s way when he isn’t looking, not really listening to what Aziraphale is saying, only watching the shape of his lips as they form sounds.
“Well.” Aziraphale says as they finish their circuit of the park, ending right back where they started [oh, the irony]. “I ought to be getting back to the shop.”
Crowley hums, not really paying attention, but not so much that he doesn’t notice the Angel deflate a little.
“So, I’ll see you Friday, if not before?” Aziraphale adds, taking a moment to get his bearings. He’s probably already planning his route back to Soho, less than half an hour’s walk at a gentle stroll, not including time spent in Fortnum and Mason for a nice red and a little box of florentines. It gives Crowley plenty of time to catch on.
“Friday?” Crowley frowns, nose wrinkling. “What’s happening Friday?”
“Chichester, remember?” Aziraphale gives him an odd look, exasperated and fond. “We’re going to see King Lear. That is if you don’t discorporate us both on the drive down.”
“Oh bloody hell,” Crowley whines. “Not another gloomy one. Can’t we see Midsummer Night’s Dream, I liked that one.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Aziraphale murmurs. Git. A hundred years ago he wouldn’t say boo to a goose [and rightly so, say boo to a goose and it will snap your arm off for being such a witless imbecile] and now here he is making affectionate little digs at Crowley’s expense. It’s fantastic. “And besides, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t being performed anywhere, and doubtless won’t be until next summer. This play, however, is.”
“It’s depressing,” Crowley retorts, shoulders rounded like a sulking child.
“Yes, but it’s also a masterpiece,” Aziraphale points out. “And it has that fellow who played the wizard in that cinematograph you like.”
“In that film you like,” Aziraphale corrects smoothly. He gives Crowley a look that might pass for sympathy. “But when somewhere does perform it we should definitely go, I rather liked the one we saw at the Globe a couple of years ago.” Crowley remembers the play. Puck and Oberon had kissed, and Aziraphale had marvelled at how after 300 years humans were still able to find such clever new ways of interpreting the original text. He was supposed to be shocked at two men kissing on stage, not find it all rather lovely. Crowley had been in serious danger of having hope, so he crushed the sensation mericessly and consoled himself by coming up with the selfie.
“How does that sound?” Aziraphale regains Crowley’s attention by reaching out for his arm, a light brush of fingers against his sleeve. The sensation is akin to a toaster in a bathtub, and it takes all Crowley’s resolve not to jump out of his skin altogether.
“Fine.” Crowley mumbles, his skin prickling. They stand in silence a minute, waiting as another jogger goes huffing past, clearly regarding the maintaining of their heart rate as more important than basic courtesy to others. Crowley watches Aziraphale duck out of their path, and with a twitch of his fingers unravels their shoelaces. Watching them go arse over tit does something to improve his mood at least.
“Much Ado About Nothing,” he says, shepherding Aziraphale back to the street before he can notice the sprawling jogger and do something tedious like help. “That’s a pretty good one too.”
“I’ll check the listings,” Aziraphale promises, giving him one of those fleeting, shy smiles that makes his lungs fill with sunlight, warm and light and unspeakably awful.
Crowley mumbles something along the line of “Later,” and stalks off without a backwards glance. He can feel the Angel watching him, the soft, ethereal glow of concern and affection trailing after him like mist.
The play is, as it turns out, very good. Crowley still winces at Lear’s treatment of Cordelia, raging at her honesty. Maybe it hits a little too close to home, casting out your child for their perfectly reasonable opinions.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. So maybe there’s more to Crowley’s discomfort than bad parenting, not that it matters.
Aziraphale enjoys the play immensely, and chatters away while Crowley leads them both out to the Bentley, parked on a double yellow line next to a slightly confused looking Traffic Warden. Their handheld device is emitting a merry little cloud of smoke, and vanishes entirely at the snap of Crowley’s fingers.
He doesn’t feel like returning to London just yet, and there’s still a little daylight left so Crowley drives south, nodding along as Aziraphale remarks on the theatre staging, and how marvellously talented that wizard-playing fellow was. The Angel stops mid-sentence when he realises they are going in entirely the wrong direction.
“Just a little detour,” Crowley reassures him. “It’s a nice evening, might as well make the most of it.”
They drive until they reach a small town, the quiet streets lined with dull little semi-detatched houses, the front lawns neat squares mown to within an inch of their lives.
“This should do us,” Crowley announces, parking the Bentley across someone’s drive. He sees a curtain twitch as he climbs out, and leans on the bonnet, sending a wide, toothy grin the curtain’s way until the twitching abruptly stops.
Aziraphale fusses a little, but joins him on the narrow strip of pavement, brushing down some imaginary creases on his jacket. The air is fresh and cool, sharply scented with salt and gritty with sand.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale murmurs, looking around at the quiet little housing estate.
“Come on, Angel,” Crowley says with more cheer than he’s felt in weeks, and starts walking down the street to a narrow, fence-lined footpath between the houses. Sand gathers along the ground where fence meets tarmac, and a faint rushing sound, like the pounding of blood in Crowley’s ears, grows steadily louder.
“Oh!” Aziraphale gasps when the path comes to an end. “We’re at the seaside!”
Before them is a long stretch of white sand, untouched but for the angular footprints of wading birds seeking out morsels. The sea is close enough to afford them the sight of waves crashing onto sand, but not so close as to intrude if they were to stop for a while.
Crowley steps down from the path onto the beach, snakeskin boots churning up the soft dry sand. After a few ungainly steps he lurches forward, spared from an embarrassing fall by Aziraphake grasping his sleeve.
“Mind how you go, dear,” Aziraphale chides gently, tucking his hand into the crook of Crowley’s elbow.
Every ounce of skin and flesh and sinew that makes up Crowley’s corporeal form tries to scatter like a panicked flock of chickens, with a similar rate of success. Aziraphale, seemingly oblivious to Crowley’s internal clucking and flapping, gives his elbow a gentle tug, and guides him down to where the sand is damp and a little firmer underfoot.
Once Crowley is stabilised to his satisfaction, Aziraphale leads them on a gentle stroll along the beach, making something of a show of breathing in the sea air. His hand stays on Crowley, linking them together like two pieces of a chain, one moon silver and the other black as night.
After a while they turn around, following their footprints back the way they had come, and when the sun touches the horizon Aziraphale miracles up a blanket (tartan, of course) and lays it out on the sand. He sits on one side, knees drawn up to his chest, and pats the empty side of the blanket invitingly. Crowley, standing with his hands in his pockets and desperately trying to radiate an air of one who would never be caught dead on a picnic blanket, finds it hard to refuse and plonks himself down.
“This is quite lovely,” Aziraphale sighs. “We should have brought a picnic.”
“Next time, Angel,” Crowley says absently, and Aziraphale seems to glow a little in the dusk.
“It was a very good theatre,” Aziraphale adds, warming to the idea of coming back. “They’re performing Present Laughter in the spring.”
Crowley has little interest in watching one of Noël Coward's plays, but if they ever tired of London it might be nice to move somewhere like this. Not here specifically, not this mean little town with its twitching curtains and serried ranks of bungalows. Somewhere… not quiet, that would be boring, but peaceful. A place with a decent theatre and a nice restaurant or two, a place where someone could open a little bookshop. A cottage overlooking the sea with a garden, maybe a conservatory for all his plants.
Crowley stretches his legs, letting his heels dig into the sand, and tries not to see the open chasm before him.
The sun sets in a riot of red and gold, the sea turning to flame. Beside him Aziraphale lets out a breathy little sigh, as if some burden has finally slipped from his shoulders and he can at last find peace.
It must be nice, being at peace. Crowley wonders what it must feel like.
When the bright colours fade from the world, and the night is painted in shades of blue and silver, Crowley tips back his head and looks up at the stars. He searches, more habit than anything, until he finds Barnard’s Star. He helped make so many of the lights glittering overhead, long before the fall, but most of them are only visible in the Southern hemisphere. Maybe that’s why he gravitated so far north. He certainly didn’t fetch up on this damp little rock chasing the heels of a certain principality. Of course not.
He is proud of the things he created, but then pride is his business, or at least it used to be.
Beside him Aziraphale looks content, eyes closed as if sleeping.
“Come on, Angel.” Crowley pats the blanket just to the left of Aziraphale’s thigh, a scant inch that might as well be six thousand light years. “Let’s get you home.”
Aziraphale takes his elbow again, but this time it’s Crowley leading the way up the beach, surefooted in the dying light. They walk up the path to the street and back to the Bentley, Aziraphale only letting go of his arm to climb into the passenger seat.
With the world so calm and still, Crowley is reluctant to turn on the stereo and break the silence, and clicks the dial to off before starting the engine, turning the car around in the curtain-twitcher’s driveway and spinning the wheels on his lawn before heading back the way they had come.
Six thousand years of half-hearted bickering and an ocean’s worth of wine have made them comfortable in each other’s company, enough so that the silence that falls over them is like a favoured old blanket, threadbare in places and rough with snagged fibres. Familiar enough that the tension eases in Crowley’s shoulders. Unfortunate enough that it loosens Aziraphale’s tongue.
“What you said before,” Aziraphale says softly. “About Demons…”
“Nothing to worry about,” Crowley is quick to reassure him. “They won’t do anything, they don’t have the imagination.”
Aziraphale doesn’t look reassured. “If you say so,” he murmurs, brushing at the grains of sand clinging to his trousers. “But how did you hear of it? Are you… Are you still in touch with. Them?”
Crowley ignores the road, and the sodium glare of streetlights soaking the tarmac with blurred circles of light, to face Aziraphale. “What? Hell? No, of course not! I’m out of that place for good, I don’t plan on going back.”
He doesn’t mention the torments that wait for him should he ever return. The deepest pit set aside just for the traitor, and an eternity of every horror and agony the Morningstar can conjure up for the one bastard that made a grasp for free will. Because one Demon got away with it, and eventually someone else will figure it out, that there is a choice. That kind of thinking needs to be nipped right in the fucking bud. With rusted shears. As the bud in question, Crowley has no intention of ever stepping foot in Hell, he’d sooner belly flop into a font of Holy Water.
“Oh.” Aziraphale’s mouth is a flat, thin line. “Good.” He frowns, and Crowley can practically see the cogs and gears of his mind turning click click click. “How do you know?”
“I keep a tab on things.” Crowley shrugs. “Not hard when you know the system, the grapevine and all that.” He gives the Angel a concerned look. “Why, don’t you? You’ve got your fingers in a few pies, right?”
Aziraphale looks briefly distracted, no doubt at the mention of pies. “I keep a few minor channels open, a subscription to a periodical or two.”
“But that’s all.” It’s not a question, but for some deep, unsettled reason Crowley needs to be reassured.
“Our side, remember?” Aziraphale says softly, his hand brushing the edge of Crowley’s seat. “Eyes on the road, my dear.”
Crowley grips the wheel a little tighter, facing forward. “Good,” he says, sounding far too loud and blunt to his ears. “That’s okay then.”
Something lodges in Crowley’s throat, and try as he might, he can’t swallow it down. It works its way up, constricting his airway like a repressed sob, and for a terrible moment he thinks that this is it, this is when it happens. After everything, he’s just going to throw out his arms and plunge straight off the edge of the cliff like some stupid fucking lemming.
“If.” Don’t say it don’t say it. “If I.” Shut your stupid fucking mouth. “If I just up and vanish one day.”
The furious voice in the back of his head screaming at Crowley to bite off his own tongue rather than utter another fucking word falls silent.
“Don’t come looking for me.”
“What?” Aziraphale blusters, wriggling around in his seat to get a good look at Crowley’s profile.
He keeps his eyes fixed on the blurred curve of street lights through the Bentley’s windscreen. Why is everything so out of focus?
“You survived Hell once, and that was in disguise.” He must have breathed in too much sea air, inhaled a bit of sand, that must be why his throat feels raw. “Don’t go back. Not for anything. Not for me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Aziraphale’s voice pitches dangerously close to hysteria. “Of course I’ll come looking for you!” Aziraphale twists around again until he is facing forward, and Crowley can almost see his feathers ruffling in indignation. “After all the times you’ve been there to… to…”
“Pull your arse out of the fire?” Crowley finishes, and despite everything he smiles. The ache in his throat lessens, and he blinks until his vision clears.
“Well.” Aziraphale settles, shifting in his seat as if he could preen his feathers against antique leather. “Yes.”
Crowley lets out a soft breath, mostly laugh and very little scoff.
“Don’t worry, Angel.” Crowley sees their junction ahead and pulls at the wheel, ignoring the indicator which hasn’t been flicked since 1978 and only then when he knocked it with his elbow. “Nothing will come of it.”
They reach Soho, Crowley parking on the double yellow lines outside the shop, and Aziraphale turns to him, hesitant, almost hopeful.
“Would you like to come in for a nightcap?” He raises his eyebrows a little, giving Crowley a quietly beseeching look, one he has been unable to refuse since 1601. “I have a case of Chateau Margaux that I picked up in 1972 in need of drinking.”
“Well.” Crowley turns off the engine. “Can’t let it go to waste, can we?”
It is a few short steps to the door, but walking it seems to take far too long. Crowley steels himself while Aziraphale fusses with the keys, getting the door open and leading the way inside. The shop smells of glue and paper and dust, but no matter how deeply he breathes, no matter how much he reminds himself that the Angel is alive and safe (and currently struggling with a corkscrew), Crowley’s mouth fills with the taste of ash, bitter enough to choke on.
“Here we are.” Aziraphale hands him a glass, and Crowley downs the contents in one single, desperate swallow. “Oh, do have some decorum!”
Crowley holds out his glass for a refill and the Angel indulges him with a reproachful little tsk, setting the bottle on a little side table and making himself comfortable in his favourite armchair. Crowley folds himself up like a concertina on the sofa, cradling the wine glass in both hands, and looks at the Angel.
It is something he used to indulge in often, before the end of the world, taking pleasure in watching Aziraphale. Crowley catalogued every line and crease and movement of the Angel’s weathered features, marvelling in just how expressive he allows himself to be. Every emotion, however fleeting, showed itself in the creases around his mouth and the arch of his eyebrows. Every sigh of pleasure over a bite of pastry or passage of text was memorised and replayed in the nights when sleep could not find the Demon. There was a secret language in the pitch of the Angel’s voice and the slope of his shoulders that Crowley had learned, in some six thousand years of intensive study, a language none other in all creation could utter.
Aziraphale catches him staring, amber eyes shielded by black glass, and smiles. It is like drowning in sunlight, warmth soaking into him, down to his bones, and there it is again. That susurration under his skin, like the play of a breeze over a field of ripe barley, prickly grasses honey-bright and ceaseless in their motion.
He sits back, bringing his wine glass to his lips, and finds his footing. An Angel can dance on the head of a pin, and a Demon can navigate the crest of a chasm, and though his thoughts are scattered his body remembers, moving to a rhythm tap-tapped out by his heart.
Chapter 2: the fall
“I’m in Hell,” Crowley mutters. At least he’s got his voice back, no doubt so the Demon’s can enjoy the sound of his screams.
“You’re in Soho, my dear.” the thing that definitely isn’t Aziraphale turns a page. “I’ve been assured there is a difference.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Crowley scrambles across the train tracks, the steel rails shuddering in the wake of the passing train. An afterimage of the 18:32 LNER to Sheffield slamming into the Demon is burned onto his mind. The bastard had discorporated instantly, his dagger clattering on the track, and Crowley had just enough common sense to stagger out of the way of 400 tonnes of steel blurring past at 140 miles an hour.
He kicks the mangled dagger into the rubble piled alongside the tracks, cursing under his breath. A fucking demon blade, what was this, the 1500’s? The point where the blade had struck feels numb, and the acrid smell of his own blood makes him nauseous. Crowley takes an unsteady step forward, catching his foot on another rail, and through the sole of his snakeskin boot he feels the tell-tale shiver of another train approaching. Fuck.
On either side of the tracks there are rows of brick archways, supports for roads or some Victorian constructions long since fallen out of use. British Rail has seen fit to use some for storage, stacking pipework and boxes away out of the rain, and Crowley shambles over to an empty arch, leaning his back against the mouldering brick.
Bastard fucking Demon. The damn thing came out of nowhere, jumping him on the bridge and knocking the both of them down onto the railway line below. Crowley gingerly tugs up the hem of his t-shirt, revealing a long, deep cut stretching from navel to hip. Blood flows from the wound like a waterfall, Demonic blood the dark, visceral shade of nightmares.
“Fuck,” Crowley hisses. Blood drips down onto the sparse grass, staining it with ichor. He presses the palm of his hand to the cut, drawing up a little miracle, and curses vehemently as flesh and skin knit together.
Crowley tips his head back, skull pressing against crumbling stone, and breathes in. He counts to five and exhales, counts to five again and breathes in. If he pretends hard enough he’ll be fine.
In the distance there is a rumble of thunder, the heavy clouds that have pressed down on the city all day darkening to charcoal.
If there is one Demon after him, no doubt there are others, and Crowley screws his eyes shut, stretching out his senses. A drop in air pressure, the promise of rain a relief from the oppressive heat of the day. He can hear the faint whine of engines, a plane passing overhead, the cloud cover obscuring it from sight.
He reaches too far, senses dipping into the past. A city in flames, its gutters piled with severed Roman heads, a swathe of ash and blood and vengeance buried under the tracks.
Battle Bridge, he remembers looking down from Parliament Hill, where the people made sacrifices to an indifferent Father Sun, and saw that no horror devised of Hell could match what man did to one another of their own violition. But the Iceni queen? He admired the depth of her spitefulness in the face of defeat, choosing to burn her city to the ground rather than let the Roman’s have it.
Crowley straightens up, tugging his t-shirt down. He can’t stay here, not where he’s so exposed, treading on the bones of so many dead. As if there was any place left on this earth that isn’t a thin scree of soil over countless bodies of those that had come before.
He pushes away from the arch and stumbles down the track, leaving a smear of blood on the bricks that seems black in the fading light.
It is instinct that pulls him west along Euston road, the compass of his true nature directing him towards Soho. There is an oddly-shaped shadow lurking outside Euston station, and out of the corner of his eye he sees it detach from the wall and slink along the ground after him.
It moves faster as he makes an abrupt left turn left at the sheer glass edifice of the University hospital, crossing the pavement in a steady, loping stride. Crowley hisses, pushing air between his teeth. You.
There is no waiting for traffic lights to turn red, and Crowley launches himself into the road, running across all the lanes of traffic as busses honk their horns and taxis skim past. When he reaches the far side the shadow is nowhere to be seen. He sucks in a breath, forcing his rattled nerves to hold, and walks south, the BT tower advising him to drink Coca-cola.
Naberius. Fucking bastard pestilant piece of crap Nabeirus. A Margrave of Hell with a legion of nineteen under him. That shadow by Euston station was the fourth he’d caught sight of, the first two were easily dispatched with a little cunning and the third by a well-timed commuter train.
The problem wasn’t the legion themselves, they were not much more taxing than those interchangeable imps running around hell with their nervous smiles and their weird hair. No, the problem was their number. Crowley could dispatch one or two fairly easily (it was the third one that gave him trouble, that little shit had been cunning - which is bad enough, and armed - which is much, much worse), but he is one demon against twenty, and frankly out-of-practice when it comes to fighting. Given time, they’ll wear him down, and when Naberius finally shows up to finish him off… well then he’s fucked.
“Okay.” Crowley tugs the collar of his jacket straight. “This isn’t a problem, I can figure something out.”
He needs shelter, somewhere safe to catch his breath and come up with a plan.
Overhead there is a shriek of nails against glass, and Crowley’s head snaps up. Another shape, almost canine in appearance, edges its way down the sheer-sided building, sharp claws scrabbling for purchase. It slips, paws skidding as it tries to regain its grip, and comes tumbling down, landing in a sickening, wet crunch at Crowley’s feet and bursting into flames.
Crowley lets out a panicked little ngk! and starts walking a little faster down the street, throwing glances over his shoulder at the smoking heap on the pavement that other pedestrians don’t even seem to notice.
Okay, so he’s definitely being hunted. At least Tottenham Court road is a straight line between where he is and where he wants to be, with enough snickets and alleys to duck into when the next Demon appears.
Because they’re not going to give up, are they? Whatever he does, they’ll persist until they’re dead, or their master is served.
Crowley lurches to a halt in the middle of the pavement, some kid in a beanie hat looping around him without tearing their gaze away from their phone.
“Wait,” he mutters to himself, turning in a circle.
What is he doing? He’s on the move but to where? Soho, his gut tells him, not quite at his usual leisurely pace and not a run either, but something frenetic between the two. He’s on his way to Soho and a bookshop and an Angel.
“Fuck!” Crowley hisses, and a woman walking past pushing an over-engineered pram glares at him.
He can’t. The shock of it is like a punch to the gut. He can’t take trouble to Aziraphale’s door.
Something moves in an upper branches of the tree-lined street up ahead. It looks bird-like, in some vague way. Larger than a raven and greasy-winged, turning its head from side to side to regard him with an oily black eye.
Crowley doesn’t turn and run. Absolutely not. Crowley does, however, take the next left turn very quickly, and runs down the residential street towards the oppressive psychic pulse of the British Museum. Hundreds of years worth of ill-gotten gains of the British Empire, all those grave goods and temple carvings and dead bodies, all calling out for home. It’s enough to throw off even Crowley, who has walked these streets, and the mud tracks that were laid out before them, for going on two thousand years, so any Demon taking his first steps on the corporeal plane is going to get knocked on his arse.
Crowley founders, the lament of old temples making his skull ache. He rubs at his forehead, trying to force his own body to cooperate. If he can get past the clamouring of forgotten gods, he can throw the Demons off, get himself a little distance and come up with a clever way of incinerating the bastards.
Because he can’t go to Aziraphale. The Angel is gentle and petty and brilliant and soft. For all he loves to reprimand Crowley for his actions, he isn’t capable of hurt, and millennia in the company of one poor example of a Demon hasn’t prepared him for the real thing.
The wail of an Egyptian ushabti, separated from its tomb by 5,000 years and one egotist in a pith helmet, makes Crowley double over, lungs seizing up for a terrible second.
Aziraphale will think that a minion of Naberius can be reasoned with or something, even when it tears out his throat.
The closer he gets to the Museum, the worse he feels, an ache older than the garden twisting in his gut. Before. Before the fall, before the pit, when his body was radiant and his being suffused in love. He longs to feel that love again, aches for it like a missing limb that still itches and twitches, a ghost of heavenly grace.
“No!” Crowley snarls, shaking his head. No he does not miss it. He doesn’t miss his old form, bright and shallow as a butterfly, it’s only purpose to adore and praise like a fucking lapdog.
Agency cost him everything, but it’s a price he was glad to pay, and the Almighty can get fucked if she thinks a cellar full of old pottery will make him feel any different.
This was a stupid plan, he needs to get away from this place. Whatever forces that work against Demons also work against him, so maybe he needs to use that to his advantage, maybe a church or…
Crowley turns on his heel, an idea barely formed, and walks right into the path of the Demon.
It looms over him, dressed in what looks like ragged black robes until it spreads its wings. It looks human but for the parts that don’t, the broad wings and long, tapering beak. Before Crowley can raise a hand it strikes, wings raised as it plunges its beak in to his shoulder.
Crowley shrieks, grabbing the creatures feathered head as it twists, and bright spots of light crowd at the corners of his eyes.
“Bastard!” he yells and summons up Demonic fire between his spasming fingers, holding tight as the creature flares up with an unholy wailing. It kicks and batters at him with its wings, knocking his glasses clean off his face. Crowley hangs on, the stink of burning feathers filling his senses and the heat of damnation scorching his skin.
The Demon crumbles to ash, and Crowley throws himself backwards, smacking into the window of a gift shop. He drops to a crouch, hunching over with a muffled whine of pain.
On the other side of the glass, plaster statues of Bast and Anubis watch with gold-painted eyes. Crowley would glare back, but he’s too preoccupied, letting out a soft whine as he slips his hand under his jacket. The wound stings when he touches it, and the back of his shirt feels unpleasantly warm and wet.
He pulls at the threads of reality, trying to knit the wound closed but there is resistance, as though the bindings of the world are tangled. He tugs harder, sweat trickling down the nape of his neck and gathering on his brow, forcing until it gives. The wound closes but the ache remains, and he knows he’s getting weaker, too much blood spilled.
Crowley rests his cheek against the window, the cool glass tempering the fever-sweat of his skin. He stares at the golden eyes of the jackal god, and despite the oppressive blanket of clouds overhead everything seems much too bright.
“Oh for the love of-” Crowley cuts himself off. His sunglasses. He looks over and sees them lying in the road, crushed by the wheels of passing cars. “Bollocks,” he mutters.
There are white plastic baskets of souvenirs arranged around the doorway to the shop, cheap tea towels printed with pictures of London buses and red phone boxes. Racks of postcards and bright, tacky gold keyrings. There’s a bin of sunglasses too, cheap plastic ones with thick black frames.
“I shouldn’t steal,” Crowley mutters, half hearted, and hauls himself to his feet. He grabs a pair when no one is looking, pulling apart the arms and shoving them on as he walks away.
Where to go? He heads south again, away from the Museum and whatever might be lurking there. The half-formed plan of hiding out at a church he discards, he doesn’t have the strength to walk on consecrated ground now. Hell, walking in general feels like a bit of a stretch. A graveyard? Crowley dismisses the idea, graveyards are just as consecrated as churches, and there are no Potter’s Fields in London anymore.
He needs somewhere neither heavenly nor hellish, somewhere that will dampen a Demon’s power but not his own. Something earthly, something human, governed by its own laws. Crowley keeps moving, one foot in front of the other, his head down. London, distilled into a single thread, then stitched into the canvas of the world.
Crowley’s mouth twitches up, not quite a smile, but close.
No Demons lurk in the lengthening shadows of Covent Gardens, though there is no shortage of places for them to hide amongst the stalls and tourists.
There is a dull ache spreading across Crowley’s shoulder that he can’t work loose.
He can feel the river up ahead, the steady pulse of it like London’s heartbeat. Old Father Thames, they used to call it, back when it was filled with cargo ships moored three deep against the high-sided banks, and the stevedores had to cross each others decks to bring their goods ashore.
Myths gathered on the river like flotsam; the queen rat who offered riches to young toshers who pleased her and drowned the ones who didn’t, the man-eating pigs that lurked in the sewers.
He crosses the Strand, one hand rubbing absently at his shoulder, and heads west until he sees a narrow passageway between the designer clothing stores. London is filled with these places, the razor edge between excess wealth and extreme poverty that slices London into its component parts - streets you don’t cross, lanes and snickets only a fool would take after dark. Crowley slips from one London to another, stepping over the beggars and the used needles, and the alley opens out to a slightly less narrow road. The road then leads to a park where a statue of Rabbie Burns stands, looking somewhat out of place. Crowley skulks along the grass, scowling at the tall, wrought iron fences that keep him from reaching Victoria embankment, and grudgingly follows the footpath to the nearest gate.
He stops when he catches sight of a stone spire overlooking the river.
Stupid, useless, idiot Demon, too distracted by pain and the endless wheeling of his idiot fucking mind to look where he was going.
Search every inch of London, lever up every floorboard and delve into the cellar of every museum and you will not find something so cursed as Cleopatra’s Needle.
It is poorly named, built long before Cleopatra was even born, and fobbed off as a gift to Nelson for being a monumental dick. The first attempt to cart the damned obelisk across the world had ended in disaster, the ship wrecking both itself and its rescue ship in the Bay of Biscay. It took almost a year, several Spanish trawlers, a Glaswegian steamer and a paddle tug to finally drag it up the Thames, and even then no one could decide where to put it.
A pair of bronze sphinx (not even Egyptian, designed in 1878 by an English architect) flank the obelisk, but instead of standing guard, looking out to the east and the west, they are turned inwards.
Crowley had gotten a commendation for the whole farago, and had felt guilty enough to let Aziraphale sneak a copy of the bible into the time capsule buried underneath it.
Okay, so this is bad. Crowley tugs at the lapels of his jacket, pulling them straight. He can still reach the river, there’s a set of watermans steps not far ahead. He can get to them, and clatter down the wide, granite steps to the water and… and then what?
There is the slightest touch of damp against Crowley’s cheek, and he rubs it away, looking up at the bruised sky. Just a little rain. A little rain never hurt anyone.
There is a rustle in the trees around him, and a few more droplets cascade down. Crowley spins around, trying to find the source. Four large black crows, greasy winged and baleful eyed, stare down at him.
“Oh,” Crowley mutters as one spreads its wings. “Oh, shit.”
Crowley makes a break for it, snakeskin boots smacking against the pavement as he hares out of the park and to the road. A bus, one of those luxury coach trips for tourists who want to see the city but without actually doing any walking, careens past, the driver leaning on the horn, and Crowley flails, arms windmilling, one foot still raised to step into traffic. He lets out a frustrated sound as the Demon birds take to the air, spread wings blotting out the sky, and starts running east.
He dances from foot to foot, hesitating each time he thinks he can dart across to the river on the far side, and curses when something speeds out of a side road, blocking his path. He could snap his fingers, miracle a path, but his energy is waning, and he realises with a sick jolt of fear that he can’t afford to waste what he has left. He darts out in front of a promising looking Toyota Yaris, and the driver slams on the breaks, sticking his head out of the window to cast aspersions on Crowley’s nature. Crowley ignores him, running over to the monument. There is a waist high stone wall separating the pavement from the water, and Crowley is almost in reach of it when four crow Demons slam into his back.
He hits the ground with a crunch, the wind knocked out of him, and four sets of claws dig into his back, tearing through his jacket. With the claws come beaks, far shorter than the crane Demon but no less effective, and Crowley screams as they stab and tear at his flesh, shredding his back from shoulder to hip. He rolls on the paving stones, boots scrabbling for purchase, but the weight of the Demons keeps him pinned down. His flailing arm connects with one and he snatches at it, grasping hold of one greasy black wing. Crowley calls up Hellfire, and the creature ignites, squalling and thrashing as it goes up in flames. It’s flailing wings connect with the other Demon’s tearing into Crowley’s back, and he feels the dull percussive whmf of them burning up like pockets of noxious gas.
Two, maybe three seconds after getting struck, it’s over, and Crowley sprawls on the pavement, a ragged little whimper escaping him. He needs to get up, keep moving, figure something out, but before he can do any of that he needs to just lie and bleed for a minute or two.
“Gah!” Crowley sits up, his back letting him know how much it dislikes the action, and shrugs off what’s left of his jacket. He can’t see the damage, and he’s not going to stop a passer by and ask them how it looks. He pushes the pain to one side, one more thing to deal with later when this whole mess is over, and forces himself up, cursing loudly. Every breath is strained, throat aching with the exertion of it.
He has never been good at coming up with a plan at the best of times, and now he’s running out of ideas. Well, that’s not quite true, there is one. One he’s not ready to look at, not just yet.
The faint spit of rain becomes a light drizzle. Crowley heads east, the Thames at his right hand.
The rain soaks into Crowley’s hair, flattening it against his skull. It beads on his sunglasses and soaks into his ragged shirt, cold water soothing the cuts on his back. He had tried to miracle them away, but when he snapped his fingers it only raised a few sparks, like a piece of flint being struck but with no tinder to catch. The failure hurt almost as much as the wounds, there is a sick sensation in his stomach that he has no word for.
Crowley, lacking an alternative, keeps moving, arms wrapped around himself, head darting from side to side. How many minions has he fought off now? And how many more are still to come? And even if he can outrun them or outsmart them, Naberius himself is a Margrave of Hell, and it will take a lot more than Hellfire to get rid of him.
The pedestrianised area around Blackfriars Bridge leads him away from the river, and Crowley pushes himself into a run. The buildings of Blackfriars are tall, ominous looking office buildings that crowd out the sky, hemmed in by a dual carriageway that he can’t cross in his current state. A few hundred yards to his left is St Paul’s, the faint chime of Angelic residue like needles jabbing into his ears. Underneath the choir is the bass thrum of Solomon himself, fuck him and his seals. Crowley breathes a little easier when he is back in reach of the river, at the foot of Southwark Bridge.
Across the river and the tourist ferries and the police boats Crowley can see the Globe. Not the first one, or the second one, or even the third. The new one is a good likeness of the first, though it’s on the wrong side of the Bridge and nowhere near as crowded. But then there had been times when there was hardly anyone there for a performance at all.
Crowley pauses. If he closes his eyes he can recall it, as though it were yesterday. The smell of raw oak and sawdust and unwashed bodies. Aziraphale holding a handkerchief full of grapes, his expression so tender and open as Laertes uttered his last stanza.
Over on Southwark Bridge a shadow detaches from an arch. Another rises up from the granite pier closest to the shore. They crawl across the iron spans, joined by another and another. Black wings rouse and settle. Claws carve gouges in the stone.
There will be no flights of Angels to sing Crowley to his rest, not even one.
The rain begins to fall in earnest. Fat drops of clear water that turn the London Street to mud. Where else in the world could the application of water in abundance make everything seem somehow more dirty?
The surface of the Thames becomes pockmarked, the air filling with the white noise of rain on water, clattering against the pavement and turning the pale stones dark.
Crowley moves away from the river, from the noise and the shadows moving closer. On the streets the skies are so dark that the passing cars have turned on their lights, the mass of red brake lights and yellow indicators and blinding white headlights refracting off the wet tarmac. For a moment Crowley is disoriented, too much noise and light doing violence upon his senses. He follows Thames street, curving like the river itself, towards London Bridge.
Like everything else in the city, the bridge is not the original one, only a copy built over the bones of the last. For all its popularity with tourists, Crowley doesn’t much care for this incarnation, he much preferred the Becket Bridge. It was wide enough to be lined with little shops, many several stories high and leaning in to each other. There were stories told of the people in the attic on one side of the road being able to hand a pot over to the person in the attic on their opposite side, the buildings so close they were almost kissing.
It had been a favoured place to meet Aziraphale, with the river below and the storied buildings above, they reasoned that they could go unobserved along its length. A fine place for clandestine meetings, but in truth they had talked little of temptations and blessings, Aziraphale far more interested in the marchpane and sugared almonds for sale, and Crowley more interested in indulging him.
The bridge is gone, but one of the archways remains, on the grounds of an old church. A memory of the city as it was that only matters to the two who still remember it.
Two figures step out onto the road in front of Crowley. He doesn’t stop, pulling his spine taut and raising his head. Fuck them if they think he’ll go down without a fight, and this is as good a place to end it, if it has to end.
The shadows keep pace with Crowley, matching him stride for stride. They are in no hurry, not with their quarry exhausted and no ground left to run to, and if he runs, they’ll easily catch him. They could catch him now but it’s more fun for them to watch him limp, let him linger in the delusion of an escape until his corporation gives out. Then they’ll drag him down to hell, and whatever pain he’s in now will be nothing compared to the torments that await.
Crowley bares his teeth, rain soaking through his tattered shirt. Let them lurk, he’ll not give them the satisfaction. He snaps his fingers, trying to raise a spark of Hellfire. If he could just get a bit of flame going, hide it in the cup of his palm, and then ram it into the face of the first bastard that tries to touch him.
There is a faint snap, and a sting in his fingers like a jolt of static charge, but no flame. Crowley curses under his breath, and then when that doesn’t satisfy tries it again, much louder and in the direction of one of the new Demons shadowing him. It slopes along the street, unseen by human eyes, something canine in the roll of its shoulders and the timber of its growl.
London as it was and London as it will be crowd up against each other, Victorian brickwork rubbing up against sleek office buildings like sandpaper. The church, old by the city’s standards, lies within reach, and Crowley feels an odd sort of hope fill his lungs, a bitter pride at ending it on his own fucking terms. Until a weight hits his back, knocking him to the ground. His stolen sunglasses skitter across the pavement, and a figure walks forward, stooping down to pluck them from the ground.
“Crowley,” it growls, voice low and rasping.
“Naberius,” Crowley wheezes, the weight of four monsterous paws bearing down on the lacerations on his back. “Fancy seeing…” he wheezes again, a cough buried in his lungs that he can’t bring up. “you here.”
He can barely make out the shape of Naberius in the rain, not with his face mashed up against the wet pavement, but he remembers the bastard well enough.
“Do you know what I have planned for you, serpent?” Naberius rumbles, regarding the cracked glasses and tossing them aside.. “Down in the deepest pit.”
The Hellhound rakes a paw down Crowley’s back, making him cry out in anger and frustration. “Get fucked!” Crowley snarls at him. “The whole lot of you can kiss my fucking-”
The Demon lunges, grabbing Crowley by the throat and hauling him up, the Hellhound leaping out of the way.
Crowley twists in the Demon’s grip, sinuous as though he were in serpent form again, and Naberius heaves him up and throws him up against the nearest building. Crowley slams against the smooth glass and chrome edifice, the toughened glass cracking under the impact but not shattering. He drops to the ground, landing on his side, and lets out another shout of pain. The world drifts out of focus, the sound of rain like the slow pounding of a fist against a drum. Or maybe that’s his heart, about to give out.
Crowley tries to get his feet under him, tries to haul himself up, but his corporation refuses to respond, his hands numb and shaking.
“Come on,” he snarls to himself, tasting blood. “Come on, get up.”
Naberius makes no move towards him, watching with amusement as Crowley presses his palms to the pavement, trying to brace himself and slipping on the rain-slick stone. He gasps for breath, vision blurring, and when he looks up at the streetlights flickering on one by one, the rain washed streets seem paved with stars.
To his right he can see the church, and the arch that once led to London Bridge of old.
Maybe they will let him crawl a little further, as far as the churchyard where the last of him can burn up on the consecrated ground, and beyond the reach of hell. Funny how he’d always thought, when his time was finally up, he’d go out in ablaze of glory. Not like this, not broken and bleeding and so far from his Angel.
Will Aziraphale know? Will he feel it when Crowley fades from creation? Will he be alright?
Crowley huffs out a weak little laugh, more cough than anything. All this time he had been so afraid of falling, and now if that chasm were to open up before him he would dive in.
“Oh, Angel,” Crowley whispers. His Angel. Sweet, stupid, brilliant, bastard Angel. “I’m so sorry.” The Demons gather around him, waiting for the order to strike. “I should have told you everything.”
“Time’s a-wasting,” Naberius growls, and his minions snarl with him, a Hellish chorus rising over the percussive rain. Crowley has every intention of telling him to go fuck himself again, but when he opens his mouth only something strangled and shrill comes out. The pain burns, bright and all encompassing, chasing away every thought before it can form, every action before it can be enforced. His eyes water, points of light behind his eyes expanding, burning brighter than the streetlights, chasing away the shadows that surround him and making the Demons shriek and howl.
“Wh-” Naberius mutters, and the light flares out, leaving an afterimage of something vast and golden etched against the sky.
“Where is…” a familiar voice demands. “Crowley!”
No. Nononono. If there was enough breath left in him Crowley would scream it out loud. Aziraphale, sweet, soft, kind Aziraphale stands at the entrance to the churchyard, his coat (180 years I’ve had this) soaked and mud stained, his hair plastered to his forehead.
“Run,” Crowley gasps.
He meant run away, but the Angel runs towards him, stupid bastard, kneeling down in the filth and gathering Crowley up in his arms.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale takes in the sight of him with round, frightened eyes.
“Run!” Crowley hisses, gripping the Angel by the sleeves, smears of Demon blood marring the pale fabric. He tries to push Aziraphale away, but there’s no force behind it.
“An Angel?” Naberius snarls, moving closer, and Crowley bares his teeth and hisses at him, at the whole bastard lot of them. There is venom enough in it to make the Demon pause.
“Come on,”Aziraphale mutters, trying to pull Crowley to his feet. It’s like handling a marionette, the strings tangled, the limbs twisted out of shape. Crowley can feel his corporation tearing at the seams, nothing left to hold the pieces together. Nothing but one not-very-good-angel.
Aziraphale grasps him around the waist, and less than a day ago Crowley would have been a stuttering mess at the idea, but now he can only rest his head against the Angel’s shoulder, heels of his boots scraping against the ground as Aziraphale drags him into the church grounds, finally coming to a stop under the arch, sheltering them both from the rain.
“You think that can stop us?” Naberius sneers, stalking after them up to the church gate and no further. His minions don’t seem to share his confidence, keeping their distance.
Aziraphale doesn’t pay them any heed, fingers brushing Crowley’s cheek, urging him gently to open his eyes. Crowley could weep with it, to be handled with such tenderness, by fingertips roughened by centuries of diligent page turning.
There will be no more trips to the theatre. No more dinners, no more bottles of wine passed back and forth. They never even got to go back to that beach and have their picnic.
“Angel,” Crowley whispers, voice barely audible under the sound of rain. “‘m sssorry.”
“Shush now.” Aziraphale pulls him closer, tucks in his unravelling edges, keeps him whole. “It’s going to be alright.”
Naberius takes a first step into the courtyard, shuddering a little, and then smirking. He snaps his fingers, and one by one the Demons follow.
If Crowley were better, if he was good, he would send the Angel away. Let him go on and live a long, indulgent life free from the constraints of Heaven or Hell. But he is not good, and he is not kind, and he does not want to be alone at the end.
“I should have told you.” There is no breath left in him to speak, but he hopes that his Angel hears him, that the movement of his lips against Aziraphale’s throat is a language known to him already, that he can divine their meanings, a codex written in a thousand years of miracles and teacups and bites of sugared pastry. “I should have told you how much I love you.”
The soft murmurings of reassurance stop, and Aziraphale freezes. It is not a hesitation, not a moment between one state and another, but an absolute stillness.
Crowley lets what last shred of hope he had carried so long go, and it is cold comfort that at least he will not be alive long to suffer the consequences.
“I didn’t mean to,” he tells the cold marble of Aziraphale’s throat. “Tried to stop.”
“Hush now.” Aziraphale seems to come back to himself, his voice steady and assured. “It’s going to be alright.”
“Bring him out,” Naberius shouts. “And we’ll let you go, little Angel.”
Aziraphale lays Crowley down, resting his head on the dry dirt under the archway, making sure no part of him is exposed to the elements. He rises to his feet, and takes a moment to adjust the sleeves of his coat, mottled black with Demon blood. Crowley’s blood.
“No, that won’t be happening,” Aziraphale says mildly, and raises his hands to the sky.
“E xorcizo te, creatura aquæ, in nomine Dei + Patris omnipotentis,” the Angel calls out. “Ut fias aqua exorcizata ad effugandam omnem potestatem inimici.”
Aziraphale stops, no doubt unwilling to include all the business about fallen angels, and clasps his hands behind his back, giving the Demons a vague smile.
“What are you playing at?” Naberius scowls, and in the shelter of the archway Crowley starts wheezing with laughter.
“Amen,” Aziraphale finishes, something vicious glinting in his eyes.
Naberius takes another step forward, reaching out to grab the Angel. Behind him one of the Crow Demons caws loudly, spreading out its wings as they bubble and melt like heated wax. It collapses in on itself, leaving a stain on the tarmac that the rain washes away. A Dog Demon howls, long and low and cut off mid-wail, gone in an instant.
Crowley laughs, delirious, as the Demons vanish one by one. Not discorporated, not banished back to Hell, but gone. Gone gone gone and never to return.
“What have you-” Naberius looks up, at the rain falling in sheets. He says nothing more, and the ground where he once stood roils and bubbles before the rain carries it to the overflowing gutters.
The moment passes, as Aziraphale had blessed the rain, not the clouds. Holy water sluices down slate roofs and guttering, soaking into the dirt and causing the elderly tea rose in the churchyard to bloom, its branches weighed down with pale yellow blossoms.
Aziraphale picks a bud and tucks it into his lapel, letting the rain wash away the last traces of Holy water before returning to the arch.
Crolwey is still wheezing, gasping something about Africa as Aziraphale crouches down and gathers him up again.
“Isss this what it feelsss like?” Crowley asks as Aziraphale cups his cheek in one gentle hand. “Being disthcorp’r’ted? Iss warm.”
“Shh,” Aziraphale murmurs as he unwinds like a thread.
“‘m glad I tol’ you.” Crowley blinks slowly, yellows eyes soft and unfocused. “Ssscared to.” He is so tired, so weary he could sleep for a thousand years. “‘Sssss good,” he says, and the light is fading. “You know you were loved.”
“Oh, Crowley,” Aziraphale sighs, and if he says anything more, Crowley does not hear it.
Waking comes with some reluctance, as though dawdling in a hallway between one room and the next.
Crowley does not want to wake up. He is warm, and though most of him feels sore and stiff he is not actively in pain, and he is pretty sure that when he wakes up whatever agonies are lurking impatiently at the edge of consciousness are desperate to get acquainted. So he lies very still, a snake showing its belly, as if feigning death might make any pain waiting for him to wake up get bored and wander away.
He dozes a while, time pouring out like warm honey, sweet and golden, and that in itself is enough to make him suspicious.
One eye flickers open, catching a brief sliver of light before closing again. There is no pit, no flames, no rattling chains and dismembered bodies. This means nothing. Not everyone in Hell is a talentless hack, and some even realise that there’s more to torment than jabbing people with pitchforks. A few of the more pregressive layers of Perdition have even taken to outsourcing punishment to the humans in their torment. A chartered accountant from Hemel Hempstead can conjure far more horrifying punishments than your average Demon, especially when supplied with a clipboard and a bi-monthly progress report.
Crowley opens his eye again. He is lying on his side, dressed in flannel pyjamas patterned in red and black tartan. Yes, he’s definitely in Hell.
But he is lying on a bed. The quilt under his cheek is old, the pattern faded in places and the neatly embroidered flowers feel like braille under his fingers.
The bed is a double, and the pillowcases are fit only for burning. They have frills for Go- for someone’s sake.
The bed also has another occupant.
Something that looks like Aziraphale is lying on the bed beside him, propped up by half a dozen more hideous, chitzy, frilled pillows. The ruined coat is gone, and he is wearing what looks like a different waistcoat from the usual faun velvet number that also needs burning [Crowley has had several disconcerting daydreams that have begun with the gleeful burning of Aziraphale’s outdated wardrobe, only to be derailed by the resulting half-naked Angel, all bare armed and rosy cheeked]. The thing wearing Aziraphale’s face is wearing his silly little reading glasse too, attention focused on a first edition of Pride and Prejudice.
Eighteen shillings the bloody thing had cost Crowley, and he’d never once seen the Angel read it.
Oh yes, this has got to be Hell.
“I’m in Hell,” Crowley mutters. At least he’s got his voice back, no doubt so the Demon’s can enjoy the sound of his screams.
“You’re in Soho, my dear.” the thing that definitely isn’t Aziraphale turns a page. “I’ve been assured there is a difference.”
Not-Aziraphale shifts slightly, crossing his ankles. His socks are decorated with tiny little doves.
Crowley tries to scowl, but having most of his face mashed into the quilt makes it difficult, and he’s not invested enough in the idea to move just yet.
“I’m in the deepest pit of Hell,” Crowley says, just to see if it sounds right. “Being tormented by Demons.”
Yes, that sounds plausible.
“I assure you you’re not.” Damnation but this Demon had better get a commendation when this is all over. He’s convincing. Maybe they’ll let Crowley write a glowing review, when they’re not flaying him open and playing his ribs like a… like a…
“Glockenspiel,” Crowley says, rolling over onto his back so he doesn’t have to look at Not-Aziraphale giving him a quizzical look.
“Well of course you would say that,” Crowley tells the ceiling. “But we both know any minute now you’re going to turn into one of them. Just when I think it’s safe.” Crowley sighs, the last uttered quietly. “When it’ll hurt the most.”
It’s hard for Crowley to hold on to his convictions when the thing masquerading as Aziraphale sighs. It’s not an I’m-dissapointed-in-you sigh, which would be an obvious choice. It’s not exasperated, or irritated, or even a You-are-being-tiresome sigh. It’s fond.
“Maybe if you’d actually listened once in a while,” it says, and the hint of reproach is very deftly done. Almost convincing. “I tried to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” Crowley frowns. Okay so he’s been… preoccupied of late, but he wouldn’t have missed something important. Would he?
“Oh dear.” The thing that probably isn’t Aziraphale marks his page with a receipt and puts it on the bedside table. “We have gone about this all wrong, haven’t we?”
Crowley shrugs. On the bedside table is a white cup with little wings for a handle. The devil is in the details after all.
“I promise I am not a Demon sent to torment you, Crowley,” Not-Aziraphale continues. “Can anything I say convince you otherwise?”
The moment Crowley believes, the second he starts to hope, it will all be taken away. And he is not ready for this illusion to shatter.
Not-Aziraphale takes off his glasses, not that he needs them. He folds them up and lays them on top of his book, squaring his shoulders like a man preparing to go into battle. “What if I were to…” He pauses, as if he needs to gather a little more courage. “What if I were to do something? Something a Demon pretending to be me wouldn’t think of doing?”
“Like what?” Crowley snorts. “Like a Demon wouldn’t do anything to mpf!”
Aziraphale calmly leans over and kisses him. A brief, hard press of lips to lips. Not to Crowley’s cheek or his forehead. His mouth.
“Something like that,” Aziraphale says, looking somehow both alarmed and resolute, and straightens up again.
The silence that follows the kiss is not especially weighted, or ominous. It is thoughtful, almost, and Crowley’s tongue darts out to touch his lower lip, tasting the faintest trace of cocoa.
“You couldn’t have found me in time,” Crowley addresses the room in general, not the probably-not-Angel rolling onto his side to look at him.
“You dragged your bleeding self across half of London, my dear.” The Angel says, and Crowley remembers being held in the shelter of an arch. “I could hardly miss you.”
Something lodges in Crowley’s throat, probably his idiot heart trying to escape. It’s making it difficult for him to breathe.
“Crowley-” Not-Aziraphale reaches out to him, and that is just too much to deal with. Crowley grabs the hand before it can reach him, and quick as a serpent rolls over, pushing the deception onto his back, pinning him down with six feet of barely repressed serpent. Aziraphale lets out a little gasp, cheeks staining pink, but doesn’t resist, even when Crowley grips his wrist far too tightly, pulling it out to the side and over the edge of the bed.
“You can’t trick me!” Crowley snarls. “I’m untrickable.”
“I know, dear,” Aziraphale tells him, as gentle as ever. He doesn’t play up to Crowley’s claims or dismiss what is patently false, and Crowley’s resolve almost breaks with it. He leans down, teeth bared, pressing down on the Angel until their noses are touching. Aziraphale doesn’t tense up, doesn’t push back, just regards him with such affection it makes him ache.
“Any minute now you’ll turn into Hassstur.” Aziraphale’s gaze flicks to his mouth. “All maggoty and-”
“I certainly hope not,” Maybe-Aziraphale says mildly, and Crowley kisses him.
Of the handful of characteristics used to describe Crowley, aside from ones like ‘Serpent of Eden’ and ‘Flash bastard’, little has been made of the fact that he can do really weird things with his tongue. For the most part he tries not to, not out of humility or shame, more that it’s always handy to have something in reserve when you need the element of surprise (or want to scare some cunning wanker shitless).
Maybe-Aziraphale lets out a startled little sound at the press of Crowley’s lips, followed by another, pitched up and almost ravenous when the Demon tilts his head a little and opens his mouth, dragging his tongue across the Angel’s lips.
Aziraphale wraps his free arm around Crowley’s shoulder, hand resting against the nape of his neck, and when Crowley cups a hand to his cheek, pressing his thumb to the hinge of his jaw, he is welcomed.
Before this moment, in his furtive, abortive thoughts on the matter, Crowley would take things much more slowly, breathing in the scent of the Angel’s skin, as if anything more would ruin them both. In truth he has no patience for delay and licks into the Angel’s mouth. There is a crackle and spark as their tongues meet, like rain hitting the wires of an electricity pylon. Fire burns, brief and bright, scorching a mark on both of them before flaring out.
Aziraphale sighs, fingers curling in Crowley’s hair, and he wrenches himself away, staring down at the Angel, at his dazed expression and singed lips.
Crowley knows that sigh. It’s the sound Aziraphale makes at the first bite of Bülbül Yuvası, that pistachio baklava he’s so fond of. It’s the contented sigh that follows a rich desert, usually accompanied by the word ‘scrumptious’ as he licks the last trace of cream from his fork. It is the sound of pure, distilled happiness.
“You’re you,” Crowley says, because Aziraphale apparently loves an idiot.
“I believe I mentioned that,” Aziraphale remarks, swiping his tongue along the soot smudges on his lip.
“If you’re you then we-”
He doesn’t get any further down that panicked train of thought as Aziraphale makes the most of his grip in Crowley’s hair, pulling him down for another kiss. Just this once, the fall comes easily.
Crowley has never cared much for ducks, web-footed bastards. Oh, sure, he would skulk alongside Aziraphale while he fed them brioche crumbs, and then in more recent years fresh peas and chopped lettuce and wheat groats, spoilt little gits.
But really, when it comes down to it ducks are celestial doves made of kitten purrs and starlight when it comes to the true psychopaths; seagulls.
He can see one now, honing in on the tartan blanket spread out on the sand, and when Aziraphale isn’t looking explodes it with a twitch of his fingers.
A light shower of grey and white feathers flutter down around them. Aziraphale plucks a tufty little secondary from his glass of champagne and gives Crowley a reproachful look.
Aziraphale goes as far as pouting, and Crowley pouts right back at him. “Sorry, love.”
He snaps his fingers, and with a faint pop the gull reappears, upside down in midair. It lets out a loud squawk, wings flapping, and rights itself, spinning round in a circle and heading out to sea, presumably not stopping until it reaches Arromanches-les-Bains.
“Thank you,” Aziraphale says with a warm smile, and offers him a scotch egg.
“Mnnh,” Crowley mumbles, he’s already eaten plenty.
“Oh, go on,” the Angel wheedles. “I bought it especially for you. It’s duck and black pudding.”
Crowley raises his eyebrows. “Duck?”
Aziraphale nods, waving the breadcrumbed and frankly enormous egg under his nose, and when did the bastard get so good at temptation?
Crowley takes the egg with minimal grace, and eats it mostly because it’s a duck, or at least 50g of one. He licks the last few crumbs from his fingers and turns down the offer of a macaron, content enough to lie back on the blanket and digest for a while.
Aziraphale takes out a napkin from somewhere and dabs at his lips, letting out a satisfied little sound.
“That was delicious,” he says, folding the napkin up and secreting it away somewhere. When he reaches into the picnic basket again Crowley fights the urge to groan at the offer of more food, but it’s just a book he’s retrieving.
There had been an initial, rather fraught period of things being stated in mortifyingly direct language. Then, once everyone had had a drink or two, the application of a few tastefully illustrated books to help certain things move from theoretical to practical. Aziraphale was fortunately an avid reader, and a firm believer in practice making perfect.
On an interesting note, now everything was out in the open (and on one memorable occasion in Regent’s Park quite literally out in the open) Aziraphale’s reading material has taken a dramatic turn towards the dramatic. Austen and De Maurier Crowley raised an eyebrow at, E. M. Forster he tolerated, and Wilde made him hiss and snipe so much that Aziraphale had to put his copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray into storage before it got incinerated. Then to add insult to injury he’d patted Crowley on the cheek afterwards and called him a silly old thing.
After a brief phase of naive but brave girls who have fallen on hard times being rescued by wild-eyed, dark haired men with good cheekbones and rough temperaments, Aziraphale has turned to the classics. Crowley harbours a mild suspicion that the Angel plans to read every romance in history, just to compare it to his own and say mine is better, and that prideful streak makes him want to push the Angel down on the blanket and ruffle his feathers a little.
Aziraphale shifts about, making himself comfortable before opening his book. He looks inviting, sated and basking in the sun, and Crowley sidles over to him. It’s barely a seconds wait before the Angel lifts up his book, making space for Crowley’s head in his lap, and he curls up against his Angel, pressing his face to Aziraphale’s stomach. The tartan waistcoat is frankly a crime and needs burning, but every time Crowley manages to wrestle it off the Angel he gets entirely distracted by everything underneath it. All that warm, flushed skin, and the breathy giggles he is rewarded when he puts his lips here, curls his fingers there. It’s no wonder he gets distracted. Even now, in the perfect place for some localised arson, Crowley can only think about the fingers threading through his hair.
“Go to sleep, my dear,” Aziraphale murmurs. “The play isn’t for a few hours. I’ll wake you then.”
Crowley doesn’t even remember what play they’re going to see, it’s not like he’ll be watching it, not when he can look upon his Angel, savouring every moment of the story through his eyes. Because he can. Because Aziraphale will look back at him, and neither of them will have to look away, or pretend that they didn’t see. When they drive back to London, or along the coast until they find somewhere quiet to stop for a while, Aziraphale will rest his hand on Crowley’s leg, fingers curling against the inseam of his jeans, and Crowley will do his best not to crash the car if they should wander up a little.
“‘m not sleepy,” Crowley insists, because he’s a contrary bastard at heart.
“Of course not, my dear,” Aziraphale agrees. And because he’s a contrary bastard at heart too he rubs his thumb along the sensitive skin under Crowley’s ear, reciting passages from A Year in Arkadia until he drifts off to sleep.
For those who might be interested, a playlist of sorts
A nightingale sang in Berkeley square
London can you wait - Gene
The not knowing - Tindersticks
Lie and bleed a while - Alastair Roberts
Into my arms - Nick cave
Lime Tree - Bright Eyes
Dance while the sky crashes down - Jason Webley
The loom of the land - Nick Cave
Let Go Of My Hand - Grant Lee Buffalo
Living in Sin - the Broken family Band
Lion's Mane - Iron & Wine