Crowley is doing a good job of dithering without looking like he’s dithering, slouched in the doorway as though he isn’t sure of his welcome, or he isn’t sure Aziraphale has thought this through.
Which is silly. Aziraphale has thought this through more than once.
“Don’t fuss,” the angel chides lightly. “Come here.”
Which is all it takes to coax the demon the rest of the way inside, though he crosses the room to the bed with a grumble. Aziraphale helps him out of his jacket, and then his silk shirt, and then the undershirt beneath that, and then a tanktop. He has to bite on the edge of an amused smile, or else Crowley will sulk, but he thinks its rather cute of his snake to seek that extra bit of warmth in every nook and corner he might find it.
“It is not, ” Crowley gripes aloud, reading his mind with the ease of someone who has known and loved Aziraphale for more than six thousand years. He’s faced resolutely away and his bare shoulders are hunched, the skin there and on the tips of his ears turning a telling pink. “I’m cold-blooded, angel. Cute has nothing to do with it.”
“Of course not, dear,” Aziraphale capitulates easily. He can afford to surrender these little victories when he’s already won the greater prize. It’s an effort to keep his hands to himself in his eagerness. “May I see them now?”
Plucking anxiously at his trousers, Crowley ducks his head in what could have been a nod, except he doesn’t lift it again. And then he brings out his wings, filling the room like a rush of dark water.
(Crowley’s wings are black, yes, but that’s no way to judge a fellow’s character. Not all angel wings are white, the way humans tend to depict them in their art and literature; Gabriel’s are dove gray, and Uriel’s are shining gold. The Morningstar, before he Fell, had wings of every color. Aziraphale’s pale feathers, against the iridescent black and blues of Crowley’s, feel rather plain.
Look at you, Crowley will say, awed. He will touch the faun brown and off-white cream with a reverence he keeps a secret all the rest of the time, with hands that are much too generous to belong to a proper demon. His eyes will linger on Aziraphale’s face, as though they can’t help themselves.
And Aziraphale will feel, for a welcome change, beautiful.)
But along with the familiar wings, as was their agreement, Crowley manifested the ruined skin that Aziraphale has never seen, the mark of a fallen angel that he has kept carefully hidden for all these years.
They cut across the long lines of his back, the raised burns eating from the smooth skin of his shoulder blades with jagged teeth.
Aziraphale wants to touch, to soothe them, but he doesn’t quite dare.
His dearest is tense and still; he hasn’t taken a breath since he bared his back. He is braced for something, it seems, something that he expects will hurt.
He hides his scars like he hides his eyes, and Aziraphale’s heart is so full it aches, fragile human thing that it is. He can’t bear to think of Crowley carrying this wound for so long, this angry, ancient, anguished thing.
And so he leans forward and presses his lips to Crowley’s shoulder, kisses the ruins of him so there can be no mistake. Crowley’s feathers are soft in Aziraphale’s hands, and beneath them, so are the scars.
“Look at you,” Aziraphale tells him, returning an old favor. “You're perfect, you know. Just as you are. All that you are.”
He could stand to say it more, it seems. Crowley gropes blindly behind him until he finds one of Aziraphale’s hands and then he holds on as though he’s terrified he might fall again, fingers trembling, grip tight enough to bruise. Aziraphale hushes him, and draws him back until he’s safe in the circle of Aziraphale’s arms, the safest creature to be found on the whole of the earth with how far and how fiercely Aziraphale would go to protect him.
Aziraphale thinks the world could end around them, and his own wings could burn, and all else could be lost, and still he would be right here, holding his love.
“Perfect,” he presses against Crowley’s hair. “You’re perfect.”
It’s another intimate evening, another warm night in the bedroom above the bookshop, when Aziraphale asks, “Did it hurt?”
Crowley is pliant against his side, dozing with his eyes half-open because he sometimes forgets his eyelids when he’s sleepy. He hums at the feel of Aziraphale’s fingers brushing against the side of his face, tilting his head to chase the warmth.
“Did what hurt?”
As soon as the question is out, Aziraphale wishes he could take it back. He’s not sure he can bear the answer. He doesn’t want Crowley to have hurt back then, and doesn’t want him to hurt now, and isn’t sure where he found such thoughtless daring to broach the subject they’ve both avoided for millennia.
But after a brief pause, Crowley’s frozen surprise thaws, and his stiff, guarded lines smooth out. The slight weight of him goes boneless again as Aziraphale cards rueful fingers into his hair.
“Must have done,” he murmurs. “Don’t really remember.”
Aziraphale loses his breath in a rush, relieved.
“What a mercy,” he says, and gathers Crowley up for a kiss. The demon whines, but resettles quickly enough atop Aziraphale’s chest-- always an opportunist, Aziraphale thinks wryly-- and then they are eager to distract one another from maudlin thoughts.
(He is right about the mercy, though he doesn’t know it yet.)
Nanael slices their hand open with a letter opener, somehow, bleeding from the meat of their palm. They stand there looking at the alarming swell of blood with an expression of mild surprise.
Aziraphale isn’t proud that his knee-jerk reaction is to snatch the rest of his mail out of the way of the drip. He assumes the younger angel is going to miracle the hurt away, and forgets how foreign life on earth is to them at large.
Thankfully, Crowley remembers.
“Nice one, Feathers,” he snaps, rounding the counter. He shoves his glasses up to his forehead, eyes absurdly yellow in the low light of the shop. “You trying to get yourself discorporated? Let me see.”
Nanael’s corporeal form is that of a young man in his early twenties, but the way they waffle beneath Crowley’s disapproval puts Aziraphale in mind of a scolded child. And really, they’re not even a whole millennia old.
Crowley takes them by the wrist and glares at the offending slice in their hand. With a gentle prod of his thumb, he miracles the hurt away.
Aziraphale intervenes then, to save his estranged little sibling what is probably shaping up to be a lengthy lecture, since Crowley’s caring tends to manifest that way; as though coughing up enough sharp edges will be enough to hide his soft heart. Aziraphale sets his mail aside and pats Crowley on the elbow, taking the wind out of his sails with a disarming smile.
“Well done, my dear, as always. Now what do you say about pulling the car around, hm? It’s well past time for lunch, and I’m rather in the mood for Greek.”
When the demon has gone, slouching out of the store with a surly expression that doesn’t fool Aziraphale in the slightest and hasn’t done since that first day in the garden, he gives Nanael a firm look.
“You must be more careful. Heaven isn’t in the business of handing out corporations freely, and especially not after clumsy mishaps. You’re doing yourself no favors, hanging around here as much as you do, so you really should strive to take caution.”
He doesn’t add anything about all the many clumsy mishaps of his own. He was only spared them, like Nanael was, by Crowley’s timely arrival and flagrant disregard for company policy, and he would prefer Nanael to abide by a better precedent. They can’t always count on Crowley to bail them out of trouble, even if he always has before.
But Nanael is staring at him, their hand still open and outstretched in front of them. They haven’t moved since Crowley was beside them. Their dark eyes are mystified.
“How did he do that?” they ask. “Demons can’t do that.”
Aziraphale frowns. “Nanael, whatever rot they’ve been feeding you Upstairs about the Fallen, I can assure you-- “
“No, not-- I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t mean he wouldn’t, I mean he can’t.” The angel touches their healed palm, folding careful fingers around where the cut sat moments ago, as though it’s a secret they should hide. “You need Grace to perform miracles. The Fallen are cut off from the Host, they can’t access that anymore. Demon’s powers are anti- miracles, really. They can’t do purely good.” They squint at Aziraphale, suspicion taking the place of confusion. “How don’t you know all this? You’ve been down here forever.”
Aziraphale doesn’t say there is a lot to learn down here, and I am still learning. He doesn’t say how much of that can you believe to be true, when your side and theirs won’t take the time to understand each other? He doesn’t say I have only known one demon, and he has always been good.
He looks at his young friend and listens to the sound of a Bentley honking impatiently outside the shop and doesn’t say anything at all. He’s thinking, instead.
About the Arrangement, about the years of trading an unwanted workload back and forth to make it more bearable, about the countless miracles under Aziraphale’s name that could actually be credited to a demon who shouldn’t have been capable of them.
About their charade after Armageddon, when they chose their faces wisely. He has walked in Crowley’s shape, he has known him down to the bone and sinew and soul. He thinks, surely, he would have felt the sudden absence of the Host as keenly as a puppet with its strings cut during every second of their charade. He thinks, surely, he would have recognized an emptiness where that light should have been, having lived with it since God breathed life into him eons ago.
But he didn’t notice anything missing at all.
(Who is there to compare Crowley to? What source is there for Aziraphale to draw understanding from? There has never been anyone like his love, not in all the turns of the earth.
Someone who Fell, not out of spite or malice, but hungry curiosity and countless unanswered questions; who was fond of Eve and gave her the tool she needed to make her own choices because he saw himself in her endless, fearless wondering; who played the hand he was dealt without ever giving into bitterness or cruelty the way of the other angels in Hell, looking instead upon the humans with the amused affection and secondhand delight of an estranged uncle or a displaced step-sibling.
Aziraphale remembers a winter afternoon in 1783, all but forgotten after that close call during the Reign of Terror a decade later, when Crowley burst into his flat with shining eyes and mussed hair and clothes still rumpled from travel.
“They’re flying, angel!” he’d said, buoyed by his own disbelief and wonder and ecstatic, aching pride. “Two brothers in Annonay, they’ve built a balloon! They were only up for a few minutes, but they really flew !”
And how, Aziraphale thought back then, has thought a hundred times since, how could he have Fallen? This bright and beautiful thing? As close to blasphemy as he dared venture in those days, Aziraphale would look at Crowley with love a vast and painful secret in his heart and wonder how.)
Aziraphale has never been one to spring into action, tending instead towards study and reflection, and in that vein he might have sat on these new and alarming questions for years if left to his own devices.
But interference came in the form of a gaggle of angels, following Nanael back to Soho to see what they were getting up to in all these days spent on earth.
Nanael was stricken to find themself cornered in the bookstore, as though they had betrayed the beloved place somehow. When they look around for help, they look to Crowley first.
He doesn’t disappoint.
“This isn’t a daycare center,” he says blithely. He’s still lounging, propped up on his elbows behind Aziraphale’s counter, but the lanky, lazy lines of his body are deceptive. “We’ve got all the holy feather dusters around here that I can stand, so you lot can see yourselves out now.”
Aziraphale taps his fingers against the table, hot ire rising like a tide inside him. It has barely been three years since the apocalypse that wasn’t, three years since their respective former bosses agreed to leave them be, and they can’t even begin to enjoy retirement.
The angels aren’t sense-blind, and seem wary to encroach any further into Aziraphale’s territory. But they are so like Nanael was those years ago when they first stood inside the door and glared at Crowley with an eternity of borrowed hatred they didn’t even understand, carried like a mantle or an inheritance they never learned how to leave behind.
It rankles, to have Crowley looked at like that. Here, of all places, in this corner of the world that belongs to them, where they have plotted and promised and argued and loved, always together.
Aziraphale says, with an edge of anger, “The three of you should leave.”
Three, not four. Nanael looks hopelessly gratified not to be included in that number, and slinks a little closer to the counter. One of Nanael’s sisters follows, her hand clenched in the pocket of a sensible sweater with nonsensical pom-poms hanging from the drawstrings.
“If the company of a demon did this to you, it can do it anyone,” she says. “I won’t allow anyone else to Fall.”
Her heart is in the right place, Aziraphale will grudgingly allow, much, much later. But her hand, fisted around a small bottle of enough holy water to do all the damage it needs to, is not.
She yanks Nanael to one side, and tosses the contents of the bottle over the counter, and Aziraphale is
He is too horrified to beg mercy, to spare even a word of prayer. The water falls, and lands, a damning splash against his dear love's skin.
The promise of the world ending, the Antichrist’s arrival, Lucifer himself clawing up from the pit, none of it, absolutely none of it was as frightening as that one second he was too slow.
Aziraphale is lightheaded with fear, nauseous with it, colliding with Crowley and grabbing him up in hands that shake and beginning to miracle away all of the damp that he can before it sets into the fetching leather of his jacket more than it already has.
Crowley blinks, the water dripping harmlessly from his fringe and the sharp jut of his chin, beading in his eyelashes like tiny pearls. There is no steam, no visible pain, no destruction. Crowley is befuddled but whole in his hands, alive, that stubborn heart racing furiously away inside him.
“Angel,” he says, and it comes out sounding afraid.
Aziraphale says, "Shh, I've got you," and there is a long, long moment after that where absolutely no one else moves or speaks or even breathes.
And then Aziraphale, to put it politely, loses his temper.
“Must have been a bluff,” Crowley says much later, when the unwanted angels have been run off with a fury that would have done Hell proud, and the welcome angel is sleeping away their distress on the lumpy sofa in the back room, and it is just the two of them alone in the flat upstairs.
Pouring out glasses of scotch and passing one across the table, the angel says, with the air of someone making polite conversation, “It was Holy. I could feel it from where I was standing.”
Crowley goes still, drink halfway suspended. After a beat, he lowers it.
“What does that mean?”
“It means-- I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what you are.”
He says it with reverence, but Crowley flinches, as though it landed with a blow. He’s curling in on himself, this snake without a hole to hide in, and Aziraphale rounds the table before he can go away entirely.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he says. “Really, my dear, have I ever hurt you?”
The split-second after he asks feels like an eternity, and his stomach turns. He looks down at his own hands, then away at some far corner of the room. He thinks of you go too fast for me and there is no our side and the look on Crowley’s face both times.
Sickly, he adds, “Intentionally, that is. Of course.”
A groan, and Crowley shoves his sunglasses up his forehead so he can dig the heels of his palms into his eyes.
“Don’t be daft, angel,” he bites without heat. “You’ve never hurt me.”
Almost forgiveness, but an aimless sort; Crowley is offering it freely, just as he offers everything else, but as far as he’s concerned, there is nothing to forgive. Aziraphale tugs his hands down by the wrists and kisses first one palm, then the other, and by then Crowley is recovered enough to look back at him.
“A demon immune to holy water,” he hedges.
“An angel immune to hellfire,” Aziraphale counters neatly. “There’s also your Grace, my dear.”
Crowley frowns. “What’s wrong with it?”
Aziraphale realizes that Crowley probably has little more idea than he does about how demons get on. He spends the majority of his time on earth, and the majority of his company with an angel, and the rest he makes up as he goes along.
“It shouldn’t be there,” Aziraphale explains gently. “You should have been cut off. I hadn’t even thought about it until Nanael brought it up, clever thing.”
“Should have-- “ Crowley’s expression shifts rapidly, through offense and hurt and indignation, to settle squarely on bemusement. “I have been cut off, Angel. I haven’t heard Her voice in-- “
It’s a painful thing, this demon and his faith. It wouldn’t hurt so much if he didn’t still love Her. Aziraphale holds him closer, before he gets any ideas about running away to that empty flat in Mayfair to heal from these wounds in private.
There is proof of something here. Proof in the holy water and the hellfire and the miracles. Proof in how much Crowley has been allowed to get away with, consorting with the adversary, skating by with little mischiefs and frustrations over any true evil deeds, as though some higher power was safeguarding him from his employers’ suspicions. He has never truly caused any harm, has never truly cost any human their faith, and his temptations are only that: temptations.
Just like in the garden, he only presents the choice, good or bad, and Aziraphale has seen the light go on in his eyes when a human chooses rightly.
There is proof. Here, in this. In choices, and choosing rightly. As though it’s all been--
"Ineffable,” they say together, Aziraphale inspired, Crowley dull.
“Oh, it must have been a part of the Plan, Crowley,” Aziraphale goes on, all but scooping him up. “There must have been a reason. She must have needed you here.”
It isn’t always good or bad, right or wrong, black or white. Sometimes there is a gray area, a middle ground, and not everyone can see that. Not everyone can find it. It would take a soul like the one wrapped up in Aziraphale’s arms-- the one who created both stars and original sin, who glues fivepence to the sidewalk and brings dead birds back to life, who has been a soldier on both sides of the same war and when the time came to declare loyalty he chose door number three.
He chose humanity.
“You didn’t fail,” Aziraphale whispers. So glad his faith survived intact up to this moment, because there were times when he questioned, when he wondered. “Oh, my darling. You did exactly right.”
He Fell, but without the pain or memory. Relegated to Hell, but only for a short time before he slithered right out again. Retained his Grace, and roamed the earth alongside the humans he threw his lot in with. Not evil, and not righteous, but good.
Crowley is blinking rapidly, yielding when Aziraphale brings their foreheads together, hooking fingers into the pocket of Aziraphale’s waistcoat for something to hold onto.
"Then why was I punished?" he asks in the tone of someone trying to understand a puzzle they've been stuck with for six thousand years. "Why did She leave me alone?"
"But She didn't," Aziraphale says. "You were never alone. And neither was I."
"Angel," Crowley says slowly some days later, a pretty picture in the morning sunlight beaming across the kitchen. He's frowning, but his hand in Aziraphale's is warm. "If I'm not one or the other, what am I?"
"Haven't I told you enough by now?" Aziraphale says in playful dismay, leaning over the table to meet him with a kiss. "You're perfect, my dear."
The best thing She ever did, really.