Chapter 1: Eden
The air is clear in Eden. He can rise to his full height without getting pushed out of the way, he can sway and taste the air without colliding with something unpleasant. As he looks up at the sky in Eden, at the great expanse of blue that watches him slither towards a stream, he tries to remember Before. The same images as always rise to meet him: hot and white and Falling and fear and blood and a sword and Falling . He examines his scales. Filthy, not just from pushing through the soil but from the gunk that permeates everything Below.
He finds a stream. He leans forward and tastes the air above it to test that it isn't holy. It isn't, just refreshingly clean and pure, and he slithers in. The water carries some of the filth away. Only some. You can't wash all of Hell away. That's sort of the deal with damnation: you can never really get clean.
There are angels on the walls, he notices. It hits him again: hot and white and afraid . They have swords wrought in holy fire, blades that burn at their sides and would leap at the chance to cut into a creature like him. He shudders and looks around. He isn't safe, not here. Not anywhere, for that matter. That’s another part of damnation.
Get up there and make some trouble , they said. A particularly slimy demon grabbed his throat with a particularly slimy hand, leaned in very close and suggested with a mouth full of particularly slimy teeth that he ought to get up to Eden and make some trouble. Well, he's here now, and searching for trouble like one searches for verruca medication in a pharmacy - that is, he needs trouble, but he doesn’t particularly want to be seen needing it.
He winds his way through Eden, getting used to the air, to the feel of grass against his underbelly. His body feels too big and too small all at once. He moves by instinct, but it all feels new and foreign to him. It's by pure accident that he first comes across the Tree. It is verdant, beautiful. Like nothing he's ever seen before. The fruit is a brighter red than blood, and it calls him. He slithers towards it.
"Be careful!” The first woman is alone. “We are forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge."
He can taste her desire on the air. Forbidden knowledge, eh? Well, if this isn't trouble, he doesn't know what is.
It isn't over immediately. He hangs around in the Garden for a while, enjoying the warm air and the sun and the clean water. They didn't tell him when he had to come back, after all. He enjoys the fruits - he’s never tasted anything before, and quite quickly decides that he likes it. Sometimes, he catches the eye of one of the angels. It's the guardian of the eastern gate, a long, sprawling angel with flaming red hair and an even more flaming sword. He'll get a feeling that someone’s watching, look up, and invariably find this angel peering down at him. Once, he feels eyes burn into him and nods at the angel out of politeness, forgetting that this is not something that snakes ordinarily do. The angel tilts his head in surprise, winks, and turns away. He can't be very good at his job, if he's going around winking at suspicious snakes.
He decides to get a move on when Eve explains about the serpent, and storm clouds start to brew in the distance. The sin has been discovered, the humans banished. He slithers up the eastern wall and slides back into a more angelic- no, that isn’t right. A more bipedal form. For a moment he’s afraid he’s forgotten how, but he just nudges his body forwards and everything comes back. It’s like riding a bicycle, although they haven’t been invented yet.
He cracks his neck, getting used to the bones he didn't have a few moments ago. He counts his fingers. Ten, that seems normal. But there are scales that remain stubbornly in large patches on his hands. He rubs at them and tries to will them away, but they won’t budge. The pattern is irregular, the edges splotchy, like ink. There’s more patches on his arms, and he feels it on his neck, too. None of it goes away.
He probably ought to get back and report his success. But they didn’t specify when he ought to return, and he has never seen a sight like this before. A desert rolling in every direction, the sun burning down, the hot open sky. The humans, taking their first steps into the sand. The air is free up here. He can breathe without tasting ash. ( Before still burns in the back of his head. White space. Falling.)
"That went down like a lead balloon." He flinches at the voice. There stands the angel of the eastern gate, with his white wings and white robes and flaming red hair, red as blood and darker than the apple. He watches Adam and Eve trudge forward.
"What was that?"
"I said," the angel says, with a quick glance across that shows his eyes are pure, bright gold, " that went down like a lead balloon. " The angel is talking to him. Him . The angel . He stammers back.
“Yes. Yes, it did, rather.”
“Bit of an overreaction if you ask me. First offence and everything. I can’t see what’s so bad about knowing the difference between good and evil anyway.”
“It must be bad...”
“Kroliel. It must be bad, otherwise I wouldn’t have tempted them into it.” The angel looks at him properly, with eyes of shining gold that bore deep into him. “I am a demon,” he adds, gesturing loosely at himself in case there has been any confusion. He's fairly sure the guardians are supposed to do unpleasant things to demons. That is the whole point of guardians, isn't it? For his part, the angel just looks him up and down once, gives the facial equivalent of a shrug and looks back at the desert.
“Not very subtle of the Almighty, though. Fruit tree in the middle of a garden with a ‘don’t touch’ sign. I mean, why not put it on top of a high mountain? Or on the moon? Makes you wonder what God’s really planning.”
He looks at Kroliel very carefully. He is definitely an angel. There are the white wings, the white robes. He’s seen him guarding the gate for quite a while. But the flaming sword is gone, he notices, and he isn't talking like an angel. Not that he remembers, really, outside of white, and cold, and Falling. But he thinks if all angels talked like he did, so many more would have Fallen.
“I thought it was ineffable,” he says.
They talk about the Plan, Downstairs. He likes the sound of it, he likes the certainty he can hold onto in a bleak world he doesn’t always understand. The Plan says, this is how things are . To go against the Plan is to argue with God, and look where that got him the last time. Kroliel looks at him like a very curious museum exhibit.
“The Great Plan’s ineffable?” The angel asks.
“Well, I thought so. Isn’t it beyond understanding, and incapable of being put into words?”
The angel’s gaze is warm, and constant, and piercing, but for some reason he’s not afraid of him. Kroliel doesn’t look at him like he’s filthy. He casts around for something else to look at, and his gaze drops to the angel’s hands.
“I thought you had a flaming sword, you know,” he says, keen to get the attention off himself for a moment. “I could have sworn you did. Very impressive, I thought. Almost put me off my temptation.”
Kroliel eyes him up with an odd smile, and then leans forward conspiratorially.
“Gave it away,” he admits, not at all regretfully.
“Well, it’s cold out there. There are vicious animals. And she’s expecting already. So I said, ‘here you go. Flaming sword, don’t thank me. And don’t let the sun go down on you here’.” He sounds so calm, as though he isn't seconds away from Falling for even considering such a thing.
“Well, I suppose it must have been the right thing to do.” It must have been, otherwise he wouldn't still be here.
“You think?” Kroliel glances at him, curious. He only lets a little worry seep through.
“You are an angel. I don’t think you can do the wrong thing.”
“Right,” says the angel, sounding a bit disappointed. “But what if you did the right thing with the whole ‘eat the apple’ business?”
He suddenly feels ill. The setting sun loses its warmth, and the chill of evening takes over. His whole success here hinges on the ‘eat the apple’ business.
“A demon can get into a lot of trouble for doing the right thing." He thinks of black eyes and burns and a sickening smell that never goes away, and scratches the scales on the back of his hand.
“Be funny if we both got it wrong, eh? If I did the bad thing and you did the good one.” What a peculiar angel. He smiles nervously for a second, but then remembers himself.
“No!” The slimy demon’s face swims before his eyes. “It wouldn’t be funny at all.”
Kroliel just shrugs. Thunder rumbles on the horizon. Rain starts to fall. The first rain, in fact. The angel raises his wing, and he ducks under it without thinking.
"What's your name?"
(He remembers the first time he was asked that. He'd choked on it and coughed up something black and spit half of it out. The demon who asked grunted it back at him, and that became his name. The old one burns in the back of his head, too holy to even speak now he is this dirtied creature that crawls in the ash. Another burning white thing he can only bear to imagine in flashes, with his eyes closed.)
"Ezra," he replies.
What stops him at first is that he’s never seen a demon before.
He was there when the great army fell, when the Almighty opened the gates and sent Lucifer’s army all tumbling down through the burning clouds and into the pit. He turned to Gabriel, standing righteous with golden blood drenching his hands and holy fire dancing in his eyes, with a question on his lips. And then, he heard them scream. The question curled up in the back of his mind and started to rot.
He’s never seen a demon, but he was there when they were made. So he stays his hand when he sees the serpent plotting. He watches. He says nothing. He waits for the demon to climb up so he can find out what it’s all about, find out whether he ought to have asked that question or not.
Ezra isn’t the vile, spitting thing Kroliel imagined drawing a sword to if it crawled up the wall of Eden. He is, for the want of a better word, awkward. Black hair, patchy scaled hands that tap together and twitch. He picks at his hands sometimes, like he’s trying to peel the scales off. He’s just so different from anything Kroliel has seen before. He’s used to static white and waiting and pacing and stiff lines. Ezra still has the stiffness in the way he stands, in his straight back, but he moves constantly. His hands wave and emotions flick across his face so fast it’s a miracle he has time to feel them all. And his eyes- they look almost black, but when they catch the light they’re slate grey, lined and tired but still bright with something. When he turns his head, Kroliel can see a large patch of black scales on his throat.
Kroliel can’t bring himself to report seeing him, much less actually fight him. Sword or no, he’d probably win, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t feel a drop of righteous hatred. Not even an inkling of holy judgement. All he feels is envy, of the serpent that can wind through Eden and see and smell and taste it all, while Kroliel remains up here. He watches Ezra glide to the ground on black wings. He knocks on the sand like it’s a door, and Kroliel suppresses a laugh. The sand opens, and swallows him whole. It looks suffocating. He doesn’t envy him that.
The question takes a breath.
“Kroliel, angel of the eastern gate.” God’s voice shines down to him in a beam of light. She’s never addressed him like this before.
“Hi,” he says, to the Almighty God.
“Where is the flaming sword I gave you, Kroliel?”
“Sword? Right, yeah.” He makes a broad shrugging gesture. “Big sharp cutty thing. Uh...” he blusters and stutters a bit, hoping to evoke the sense that he’s lost something accidentally rather than very much on purpose. “Had it here a minute ago. Forget my own head next.”
And then Her light is gone.
He's in trouble Upstairs. Well, all the guardians are. But apparently, the serpent had come in the Eastern side, so the whole Original Sin mess turns out to be largely Kroliel's fault. He sighs through the disciplinary. Gabriel pats him on the shoulder when it's over, a mechanical motion that's colder than his eyes, and tells him he's got a special assignment for him: Earth. Everyone else seems to see that as an embarrassing punishment. But Heaven hasn't felt like home since the War, so Kroliel goes, with only token begrudgement. He's curious about this world, about the colour and life and freedom of it. He'd spent his time in creation up in the stars, and now he can look up at them from the surface of a new world.
Time travels differently in the celestial plane. By the time he's sent back down, there aren't two humans any more. There are towns, there's trade, there's farming and growth and exploration. He's given a list of instructions, in the unpleasant way angelic information is plugged directly into the brain. He has miracles to perform, minds to influence without influencing too strongly. And just before Gabriel sends him off, he warns him that demons have had the same idea. One of them has been spotted in the first town on Kroliel's list. He knows which it will be without thinking.
He first sees him on the other side of a ramshackle place too patchy to be called a town. Ezra turns, perhaps sensing the only angelic presence for miles, and meets his gaze cautiously. He's been speaking to a young man. A polite nod, and he swallows and suggests something to the man, and they both disappear into one of the huts. Kroliel performs his miracle that night, an unexpected pregnancy after years of infertility. In the morning, the young man is fighting in the dust with his father. Ezra meets Kroliel's gaze from the road, and disappears behind a rolling wave of sand.
He walks to the next village with a trade caravan. His instructions have no time limit, and neither does he. The desert stretches out in every direction, blinding him with white sand and a hot sky. There's a woman carrying a child on her back. The child stares at him. He knows he’s out of place, with his red hair and golden eyes. He pulls his veil over his face and keeps walking.
The second time, all he sees is a shadow pacing away into the cool night. He thinks about calling out, but the shadow is gone.
The third time, he's in one of the larger towns, somewhere with a marketplace. His own work done, Kroliel peeks out from behind a veil to watch Ezra. He has a black shawl wrapped around his neck. He greets a fruit seller politely, and exchanges what looks like a handful of pure gold for a soft, ripe fruit. He leans in to murmur something to the seller, with a gesture to a wool merchant across the square. The fruit seller eyes the man, then clasps Ezra's shoulder in a hurried thanks.
The demon steps over to another stall and buys a bottle of wine. He's just about to approach the butcher when he stops dead, turning his head a little to the side. His eyes narrow. He purses his lips. Then, he turns promptly around and continues on his way, apparently content to ignore him. Kroliel slips through the crowd and follows him to the mouth of an alleyway.
"Fancy meeting you here," he says, leaning against the wall. Ezra stiffens and turns on his heel.
"Ignoring me, were you?"
"Well, it’s hardly proper to be seen cavorting with an angel," Ezra says, but since demons don’t make a habit of being proper, he makes no move to leave. “So, giving the mortals a flaming sword. How did that work out for you?” He raises his eyebrows in a sort of challenging way.
“Well, the Almighty hasn’t actually mentioned it again.”
“Probably a good thing,” Ezra nods stiffly. “What brings you here?"
"Same as you. Spreading holy influence, and suchlike." Ezra raises an eyebrow and smoothes down the front of his robes, with a casual glance at the fruit seller he's left in the market. His fingers are still dotted with scales. A permanent mark, then. He knows there are more, but he can’t see them under all the demon’s clothes. He suspects that’s intentional.
"I'm spreading unholy influence, actually," he corrects. He removes two of the fruits from a bag over his shoulder and puts the wine in instead. "Have you tried these? Plums, they're called. They're absolutely divine." Kroliel raises his eyebrows. "Er- well- that is to say. They're very good. I mean, they taste pleasurable." He offers one to Kroliel to avoid saying anything else embarrassing.
"Are you tempting me, demon?" Kroliel asks, putting on a lazy smile. Ezra huffs. He takes the fruit anyway. It's good, but what’s better is the pure contentment on Ezra's face when he sinks his teeth into the soft, juicy flesh and lets out a small moan at the taste.
"What does spreading holy influence entail, exactly?" Ezra asks, seeming to remember after a few contented mouthfuls of plum that he's standing in front of an angel of the Lord.
"Oh, a few miracles here and there to keep the faith. They've got some interesting new ideas Upstairs. Oh, and I've got orders to thwart any demonic activity that crops up while I'm on the job," he adds, just to see how Ezra will react. He pauses, swallows and then adjusts his shoulders a bit, shifting his position into a more fluid stance, like he’s preparing for a fight.
“I daresay you couldn’t thwart me if you tried.” He sticks out his chin a bit and gives an expectant look. Kroliel raises his eyebrows and looks back at the market. The fruit seller slips out from behind his stall to speak in hushed whispers to a goatherd, and point out the wool merchant Ezra gestured to before.
"Go on, I'm curious. What did you say to that poor fellow? How does one spread un holy influence?"
"You'll have to wait and see, I'm afraid," Ezra says. He glances back at Kroliel and puts on a theatrical tone. "Unless..."
"Unless you wish to thwart me, that is. In which case, I imagine you'll never know." Kroliel cocks his head to the side. It's a daring look on Ezra's face, but there's a question under there, too. Once again, Kroliel finds he has little desire to stop whatever is about to happen.
"Have it your way," he says. Surprised appreciation flashes across Ezra's face, and he takes another bite.
The goatherd leaves his goats in their pen, tied shut with rope, and always to the merchant that was pointed out to him. Well, speak is a kind word. It turns out to be more of a yell, followed by something which is more commonly known as being slugged in the face.
“Ouch.” He glances over at Ezra, who looks back with an innocent shrug. The fruit seller dives into the fight to attack the wool merchant, who summons up a couple of allies himself. “What’s this all about, then?”
“Patience, dear chap,” Ezra chides, and clicks his fingers. The rope holding the goat pen closed unravels, and the goats sprints freely into the crowd. Chaos reigns. People are fighting and running and goats are running and fighting. The entire market square descends into madness within minutes.
A goat comes barrelling towards them and Kroliel grabs Ezra’s arm to pull him out of its path and into the safety of the narrow space between huts. He lets him go almost immediately, but he can still feel the electric warmth of his touch on his fingertips. Ezra won’t look at him. His shawl has fallen in such a way that it’s exposed the smooth scales that down his neck. He sees Kroliel looking and tugs it back up.
“Well, I would say thank you,” he awkwardly says, brushing himself off. “But a demon can get into all sorts of trouble going around being grateful to angels.”
“You’re most unwelcome,” Kroliel drawls. “So what’s this all about? I mean, the big picture. Satan himself orders you up here to start fights with goat farmers? What’s that all about?”
Ezra tries his best to look insulted. “Hardly. There’s a system. Things are delegated. We’re not animals.” He smooths out his clothes and frowns at Kroliel. “I told the fruit seller that his rival had been sleeping with the goat farmer’s wife. He chose to eliminate his rival with a very public display of violence. The goal is to put him on the path towards greater sin.” He sucks some of the juice from his black fingers with the satisfaction of a job well done.
“Right,” says Kroliel, having had much the same talk from Upstairs. “The thing is, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do, only in the opposite direction.”
Ezra looks up cautiously. “That is unfortunate.”
“Look, what’s to stop me going over there and telling that poor chap that he’s just traded some very nice plums with a demon, and if he’s not very, very careful he’ll end up somewhere very hot and slimy when he kicks it? Or telling him God’s watching, and She‘d prefer if he were nicer?”
Ezra scoffs. “That’s against policy, and you know it.”
“Why’s a demon care about policy?”
“There’s no point just telling them all the answers, or it isn’t organic. It’s about the choice to be good. Or not.”
Kroliel hums. “Why’s a demon care about choice?”
“We‘re not animals,” Ezra repeats, more forcefully this time.
“You were a snake.”
Ezra just scowls at that. They listen to the chaos for a while, and Ezra makes his way along the space between the huts and out into the open desert. Kroliel assumes he means to leave him there, and follows regardless.
Ezra looks back and jumps at the sight of him. “I’d better be going.” He points to the desert behind him. “People to tempt, evil to spread. No rest for the wicked.”
“Watch out for goats,” Kroliel advises. Ezra shoots him an uncertain smile, like he knows he isn’t supposed to be smiling at an angel but has found himself doing it involuntarily. “By the way, was he?”
“Was he what?” Ezra turns back, getting more distressed by the second now.
“Was he sleeping with the goat chap’s wife?”
He picks at a bit of nonexistent dirt on his finger. “You ask an awful lot of questions, you know,” he says, and trudges off into the desert.
Chapter 2: Sumeria
tw for minor self-harm /self-destructive behaviour in this chapter
The world is changing, and Hell is changing too. When he descends after completing his recent temptations, there are cramped walls and dripping ceilings and everything is damp and dark. Demons shuffle past, shoulders and hands shoving against him as they push by. He stiffens and keeps his hands tight behind his back, careful not to brush against anything himself.
“Where’s the paperwork?” Hastur grunts behind his desk, which is little more than a hunk of granite against the wall, covered in wilting scrolls. Ezra produces another from his robe and hands it over. Hastur’s slimy hand grabs his wrist instead. He can practically feel the filth seeping into his skin. He keeps his eyes on Hastur’s, though.
“Is there a problem?” He asks, lifting his chin just an inch.
“Something smells holy,” Hastur growls. He feels Ligur looming behind him. Ezra purses his lips. He’s a hopeless liar, so it’s pointless to even try.
“There are angels in the villages now. It seems they’ve caught on to us, as it were.”
“Did they try to stop you?” Ligur asks.
“If they had, we would be having a very different conversation,” he says. They probably wouldn’t be having any conversation at all. He knows somewhere in the old parts of himself, the Before parts, that he can fight. He was made for it, in fact. But Kroliel had looked rather impressive with that flaming sword, and probably has quite an advantage by virtue of being...virtuous. Thank God- or someone - that he hadn’t been keen to destroy him in the Garden. He’s never asked why.
Hastur narrows his eyes, but lets Ezra go. He returns his hand to a tight grip behind his back and resists the urge to wipe it on his robes. He receives another list of temptations directly to his consciousness and bows his head slightly, eager to leave. The air down here is so thick he can feel the ash crawling down his throat and filling his lungs when he breathes. Ligur doesn’t move out of his way, so he dodges around. Shoulders thump him. Eyes listlessly find him and then fall away.
When he gets to the surface, he scrubs his hands till the skin around his nails goes dry and peels. The scales never shift.
He travels, for a while. Back and forth along desert roads and rivers and the coast. Something in him rebels when he tries to move too far from the water.
Humans are a mess of desires that he can use to his advantage. He might slide up to a man and his desire will be so strong and thick he can smell it in the air. Other times, he’ll have to draw it out, gently coaxing with something demonic that draws the desire out like poison from a wound. And then he suggests things. Go on. Confront your brother. Take the money . Things they already want to do, mind, if only they had a little courage. He just nudges them that way.
If he’s feeling bold, he settles on the periphery of a community. He finds something to trade in, something not strictly necessary but still desirable. Art, or ceramics, or rare fruits. He talks to others who trade in the markets, and develops a habit of befriending old women who call him a ‘nice young man’. They seem so taken with him that he can’t bring himself to admit they’re wrong on all three counts.
The money isn’t the object of his human work. It’s the need to live with and understand these fragile, fleeting people who seem to take their first breath and their last only seconds apart. But he does end up with money, since it’s almost impossible for a demon to go anywhere without wrangling themselves some profit, and mostly, he uses it for food and drink. He could miracle it up, or miracle up fake gold, but it never tastes quite the same. Eating is a pleasure that lasts only a moment at a time, an entirely selfish, human pleasure, (which is probably why he likes it so much, and has since Eden) so he wants to enjoy it the human way.
Gradually, his trades and temptations drive him up through the continent towards Mesopotamia. He travels with groups of humans. It isn’t safe on the roads at night, so they make camp together under the stars when the sun goes down. He volunteers to keep watch. It’s practical, since he doesn’t need to sleep, and he takes the time to look at the stars. He remembers some of them being created, Before. Whether the hands he remembers are his own, he can’t tell. They’re not flawed like his.
There are millions of people now. He can’t stay in one place too long, of course, or people might start to notice him, but it’s getting easier to blend in. Today, he’s joined a trade caravan heading north to the great Sumerian city of Uruk. He ought to be able to stay for a while in a big place like that, and he’s got instructions for a lot of temptations. They stop by the river for the night, the Euphrates, one of four rivers that began in Eden. Some of the men are washing in the cool water, and he scrubs his hands raw a little way off, careful not to show too much of himself. The water is no longer as pure as it was the first time he cleansed himself in it. Absently, he wonders if it’s because of him.
Uruk is unlike anything he’s ever seen. The roads turn off in every direction on three levels at once, and all of them are full of people. A man leads a pack of donkeys past, to a large market full of stalls and canopies and tents. Ezra follows, captivated by the sheer volume of sound and colour and smell pressing into him from every angle. Children sprint past, shrieking. There are stalls buckling under the weight of mounds of spices and fruits he hasn’t seen before. People everywhere, and not trudging and miserable and grey like in Hell, but bustling and talking and working, calling out to their friends and customers alike.
People push past and he remembers himself, quickly gripping his hands behind his back, but he lets it all happen around him. Drummers are playing in the street, men dash past carrying rugs and chickens and and timber. The streets climb high in the upper city, and right at the top, on a pyramid lined with steps, is a temple, pointing straight up into the heavens. It’s the most wonderful architecture he’s seen yet, and he’s got so much time to explore it all that he doesn’t know what to do first. Naturally, he chooses what he always does - the food. Specifically, a selection of fruit he hasn’t seen before.
When night falls over Uruk, he walks the steps up to the temple. People barely give him a second glance here, it’s so full of travellers that he blends in perfectly. It’s exactly what he’s been missing all this time on Earth. Most left with the daylight, but there are still some worshippers in the temple. He doesn’t know which god they worship here, nor if it matters for their chances to get into Heaven. They’ve come up with so many incarnations of the Almighty already that it’s all a bit complicated these days. He’s curious to see how they do things here, and to examine more of the beautiful carvings he’s seen around the city inside.
The temple door has fires burning on either side. He slips through, and the ground is burning hot. He hops a bit, trying to balance himself, and the few visitors there turn to look at him. The stone scalds him even through his shoes. He backs out of the door again, and the burning diminishes to a residual pain that he doesn’t understand. None of the humans in the temple show any sign of pain, nor do they offer any explanation. The realisation hits him like a cold fish hits the hot deck of a fishing boat.
The temple is holy. He is not.
He feels it all again; the white light, and falling, the golden blood on his hands and the sword he dropped, and the utter wretchedness that latched onto his soul and has followed him everywhere since.
“Are you alright?” A holy woman has come out of the temple. He blinks, and the braziers on either side of the door spit and crackle, two blots of white light that blind his periphery.
“Terribly sorry. Must have taken a wrong turn,” he finds himself saying, and swiftly turns down the steps again. He doesn’t get far before he has to stop and sit, because he’s shaking too much to walk. There are two flashing spots in the corners of his eyes where the fires were. The rest of his vision is blurry, half obscured by images he’s spent years dreaming about when he looks up at the stars.
There is someone beside him. He glances up, trying to blink the light out of his eyes, and sees the holy woman again. And now, he remembers one of the reasons he came to Uruk. She’s on his list.
“In my experience, men do not run from temples because they are lost, but because they are afraid of what may be found,” she says, crouching beside him.
“But I’m afraid I am lost. Utterly so,” he desperately says, and though he doesn’t know why he’s telling her, he doesn’t know how to stop. “God cast me out, you see.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I did a terrible thing.” Gold on his hands, dripping from a sword, staining his white robes. He crumples his hands together, digging his nails under some of the scales and pulling up.
“What did you do?” It’s always the same scattered images, no matter how hard he tries to remember what came before them. What he did before them. Gold on white. A sword clattering to the ground beside a shuddering body. He doesn’t even remember the face.
“A terrible thing,” he whispers. His hands sting where he’s scraping the skin away, but he can’t stop. There is only gold and white and the clatter of metal, and Falling.
“The gods only abandon us when we have nothing to offer them. It is an exchange. Our devotion for theirs. I believe everyone has something to offer them. Especially those who believe they do not.”
“And what if you were bad? The worst, most despicable kind of creature? What could any god want from you then?” A tiny drop of blood beads on his thumb. He keeps digging and feels the blood spread, hot and wet, under his nails.
“Even the most terrible things can be used for good. A knife is a very different thing to a criminal than it is to a cook.”
She isn’t looking at him when he finally looks up from his bleeding hands. It’s a good thing, really, since he’s bleeding black. She’s watching the city. They’re still high on the steps, and from here, almost every street on the Eastern side is visible. People are returning home, lights are going out. A dog barks at a passerby somewhere in the lower city. The Euphrates rushes by in the distance, carrying the once pure water of Eden through the land to the sea. He gets the urge to unfold his wings and fly, and submerge himself wholly in the water, as though that might cleanse him.
“Do you want to be a holy woman all your life?” He asks, after a while. He has a job to do, after all, and he’ll be reprimanded for failing at it, regardless of his feelings. She glances at him.
“I don’t know. Why?” He sighs. She’s too clever for manipulation, and he’s really not in the mood.
“You might consider another path, that’s all.”
“Did my mother put you up to this?” He just shakes his head. “You think I should give up a life of devotion?”
“I don’t think you should do anything. I’m just passing on the message. That’s what I do, you see. I just suggest things to people.” He makes a half-hearted gesture to the air and lets his sore hands fall back into his lap.
“Yes, but it’s not like I make them do anything. I’ve never forced them, that isn’t the point. I just encourage them, tempt them a bit. I just let them know that-“ he comes to a realisation so suddenly that he gasps. “I just let them know they have another choice.”
“A bad choice,” she points out.
“But still a choice! ” He leaps to his feet. “There has to be a good side and a bad side, otherwise things fall out of balance!”
“Well, yes, I suppose.”
“Thank you, Inanna. You’ve been wonderful.”
“How do you know my...?”
He’s already gone.
Kroliel lounges against the wall like an expert in the art - he is one, by now - and waits. The child is due to pass by in a few minutes, so he’s got some time to kill.
Earth is infinitely more interesting than Heaven ever was. The only things that change up there are the robes, every century or so. Thankfully, Upstairs haven’t caught on to how much time it actually takes to perform his miracles and blessings, so he has a great deal of down time in which to explore it. He favours the cities, even when he isn’t assigned to them. They’re full of life and colour and movement and love, and it’s so easy to lose himself in the chaos. He likes doing that.
The child is coming. He clicks his fingers to hide himself for a moment and steps in front of her and her mother. Another click, and the street goes still, except for Kroliel and the girl. Her eyes are cloudy and unfocused; she stares at nothing.
“You, human child. You’re blind at this present moment, right?”
She laughs. They usually do when he calls them that.
“Yes, I am. You’re funny.”
“Great.” He clicks his finger in front of her face and she goes still. “Right, so here’s the deal. When you wake up you’re going to tell everyone a very handsome angel gave your sight back, so everyone had better go ‘round believing in the Almighty extra, extra hard. Got it?”
He doesn’t wait for a response before clicking his fingers and sweeping down the alleyway again. He just wants it over with. Gabriel’s already given him a warning for asking why he’s not allowed to just heal all the sick children he comes across instead of putting on a show for one or two in a decade. It seems obvious to him that doing that would spread infinitely more divine influence, but apparently that isn’t part of the Plan. If he has to hear one more sanctimonious archangel lecture him about the sodding Plan, he’s going to start blessing demons.
One last blessing for the week: making a rose flower out of season in a holy man’s garden (essential to the war effort, obviously) and once that’s done he can find a nice tavern somewhere and pass out for the next week. He’s glad humans turned him on to the concept of sleep, because without it he’d probably have lost his mind by now. The questions tire him out far more than the work. And not the questions, as such, but the strain of keeping the vast majority of them to himself. He can’t trust the other angels. Any who might’ve listened to him were kicked out in a very big, very fiery scandal before time began. And he’s really not keen on the idea of nose-diving into a burning pit and being damned for all eternity.
He gets to spend his life doing Good things and exploring the Earth. He shouldn’t be as troubled as he is. He wouldn’t be, if he knew how not to be. But he doesn’t, so he is.
They send him south when humanity discovers war. Somewhere’s invading somewhere else with thousands of organised soldiers, and somewhere else is fighting back with thousands of their own. When he first arrives, he sees red hair and a flaming sword and almost runs, but the woman is gone as quickly as she appeared. Everything smells of evil.
He thinks of the War in Heaven, of the swords and fire and neat lines charging at each other and the battle cries that turn to screams as they cut each other down. He wasn’t made to fight. He was made to be a creator, a protector. And what he can’t admit, what he’ll never admit to anyone, is that he barely lifted his sword. For one very simple reason that would have got him excommunicated the second he opened his mouth to voice it: he couldn’t tell the good and bad angels apart. He ducked around them and shielded himself when necessary, but he couldn’t bring himself to strike. When it was over, the white floors were slick with blood and they were tossing the rebels into fire. He blustered his way out of being caught. And the first chance he got, he gave away that flaming sword with their screams fresh in his ears.
He stays in the shadows, keeps a veil over his face. The fighting is over in days, but he’s there for weeks, trudging from body to body covered in dried blood, wheezing and shuddering in the dust. It’s too much like the War, too much like weaving through the bodies of his people. Some of them are soldiers, but a lot of them are slaves. Infections take most of them, regardless. He hears them whisper about the woman in white, a healing angel with flaming hair who comes to the dying in their final hour. It takes him a long time to realise they are talking about him.
New orders drag him up north, up to Sumeria. Gabriel has to send them twice. The road is long and sometimes when his hair blows in front of his face all he can see is blood. He cuts it off at sunrise.
When he gets to Uruk, all he wants is to find some nice wine in a nice tavern and go to ground, and try not to think about damnation. Of course it’s the same bloody tavern as him. He’s bent over a clay tablet, squinting intently at the writing and mouthing to himself. There’s a cup of wine and a plate of grapes beside him, and he’s got a shawl wrapped around his neck to hide the marks there. He looks so normal that it’s intolerable.
They’ve met a few times in various places now. It’s not deliberate, but they don’t avoid each other either. On a normal day, he quite likes Ezra. He’s odd, and a bit uppity, but he’s good to talk to. He’s the only person Kroliel can actually voice his questions to. But today, he’s very tired, and very angry.
He crosses the inn to tap his shoulder. Ezra jumps like he’s been struck.
“Oh, Kroliel! You know, I was just thinking how strange it was that I hadn’t seen any angelic influence around here lately,” Ezra breathlessly says, smiling at him so brightly that he has to take a moment just to stare. He can see the pure cool grey of his eyes, the little crinkles at the edges when he smiles. Kroliel freezes. How can a creature who’s done what he’s done possibly look at an angel like that?
“Takes that lot Upstairs a century and a half to catch up to your lot,” he stiffly says. Ezra coughs, remembering himself.
“Oh, let me get you a drink!”
“Thanks.” Kroliel checks they aren’t being watched and slides into the seat beside him. Ezra calls over the innkeeper with a bright smile.
“Wine for my friend,” Ezra says, and only seems to realise what he’s said after he’s said it. The word lingers in Kroliel’s head far longer than he’d like it to. “I mean- him. The present acquaintance.”
“Of course. How are we looking, Mr Ezra?” The man nods apprehensively at the tablet.
“Not good, I’m afraid. You’re most certainly being swindled. Nasir has added a new clause claiming he ought to receive a share of the profits for every barrel he sells you, on top of the flat rate for selling them.”
Kroliel sips his wine and tries to drown out the sound of swords clashing and men’s last breaths rattling in their chests. The conversation around him carries on blindly.
“Well, this is ridiculous. I’m not paying him twice.”
“No, no, of course not. Frankly, you ought to go and have a word with him before this gets out of hand.”
“Yes, I will. Thank you for your help.” Ezra hands over some coins for the drinks, but he refuses. “No, please. On the house.”
“Oh, thank you,” Ezra beams back. “Good luck with Nasir.” The innkeeper nods grimly. Kroliel leans closer once he’s wandered off. He can feel the anger that’s built up through the war and the sickness and the constant death crawling up and starting to spread its arms.
“Is that real money?” He incredulously asks.
“Of course it is. What do you take me for?” Kroliel tries not think about how indignant he sounds. “There are such things as manners, you know. Even for demons.”
“Don’t think it counts as good manners when it’s stolen,” he points out.
“Stolen?” Ezra frowns. “Oh, I see your confusion. No, I’ve been working as a scribe, you see. And as it turns out, I’ve got quite a talent for contracts.”
“Demon? Contracts? Shocker,” Kroliel drawls. Ezra shoots him a devilish smile.
“Yes, well. It’s something to do when I’m not tempting, isn’t it? And it certainly makes it easier to blend in. What have you been up to, then? You’ve cut your hair.” He asks it so innocently, like he doesn’t know exactly what’s been happening in the south. The taste of blood rises up Kroliel's throat and he forces it down with the rest of his wine.
“Humans," he starts, like he's about to make a grand speech, "have figured out that they can kill a lot of people very quickly if they all start hitting each other with swords in a big field.” He can practically feel Ezra wilt beside him, and gets a nauseating kind of satisfaction from it. There’s a war drum coming to life in the back of his head.
“Yes. I’ve heard. I suppose that was inevitable.”
“Your work, I imagine? Very impressive.” Every word is caustic now, and he couldn’t stop it if he wanted to.
Ezra pauses with a grape half-way to his mouth. “You think this war is something to do with me?” He can’t look at him. The timid uncertainty in his voice is too much too bear.
“Demons started the first war.”
“Well, we didn’t start this one. I’ve not been that far south in quite some time.” Ezra’s light tone has been tainted with something that sounds a lot like hurt, and it only makes the drum in the back of Kroliel’s head pound louder. He slams down his cup.
“And what if you got that order? You’d just go along with it, would you? Start a war where thousands will die?” As soon as he says it, he realises how stupid it is. Ezra's hands are raw around the scales. Kroliel watches him peel away flakes of skin from his thumb. He ought to have miracled the tiny wounds away, but he just keeps picking them open. Ezra keeps his eyes down when he speaks.
“I fought in the War too, you know. Perhaps on the wrong side, but I fought. I saw...horrible things. Things I can never forget.“ His voice is quiet and low, and he’s tense now. Kroliel forgets that he was a soldier. He makes it easy to forget. There’s nothing about him that betrays it, nothing except the stiff way he holds himself. “What I mean to say is that I know how that sort of thing stays with you. I understand why you’re upset.”
Kroliel can’t look at him, can’t bring himself to admit that he barely fought at all, and can’t bring himself to lie to him either. He drinks the rest of his wine in silence. The drums quieten a little.
“Would you do it?” He asks again. Ezra just looks at him in an awful heartbroken way and he doesn’t know what it means.
“There has to be a bad side,” he says, after a while. It isn’t an answer. “And someone has to be on that side.”
“Humans can destroy themselves without your help,” Kroliel mutters. Ezra gives a flash of a sad smile that disappears in an instant.
“And they do plenty of good without yours, dear boy.”
The anger locks itself up in his chest and rattles the bars for good measure, but he forces it down.
“You ever think they’d be better off if we didn’t interfere at all?”
“It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it?”
In the morning, he sends a prophetic vision to a slave, and leaves the city.
Chapter 3: The Flood
Humans age and die. Ezra knows this, he’s used to this. He’s watched the children who run around the streets turn to old men, and old men turn to dust. And every generation, when he has to move to a new city or work up a new identity for himself in the old one, it hurts. Every time, it takes more effort, and every time he withdraws a little more. The fewer people notice him, the less conspicuous he is, and the less he has to worry about standing out. But he sticks to the cities, to Sumer, despite the risks. There’s a drive in him to settle in a place and make it truly his, for as long as he can.
He collects things. Tablets, art, instruments. He maintains them precisely, making sure every object in his possession is properly cleaned and cared for. But even that will not save them from time. He had part of a tapestry that a young thief gave him, a young thief who became a great leader, who then grew old and died. He preserved it and displayed it out of sunlight and made sure nothing whatsoever could harm it, but it fell to threads nonetheless. Once, he miracled it back together, but it was wrong. He keeps the pieces in a little box, over fifty years old itself.
Wherever he goes, there is only one constant: Kroliel always seems to know where he is. And, unsettlingly, he also seems to know when Ezra is thinking about him. He’ll be sitting in a hut somewhere or watching the stars and wonder what he’s up to, remembering that it’s been decades since he’s seen him last, and a week later he’ll feel angelic eyes on his back from across the street. And it’s not as though he’s been ordered to thwart him, because he never makes a move to stop him carrying out his curses and temptations. Most of the time he doesn’t even ask what he’s doing. He just waits for him to be done and sidles up to complain about the weather.
Ezra worries for him sometimes. He’s always moving, always pacing. And he’s always asking questions. About the city, sometimes. Sometimes about what Ezra is working on in his human occupation. And sometimes, when his golden eyes are hidden under the shadow of night, he asks Questions. Ones Ezra knows would get him in awful trouble if he voiced them to anyone else. Every time, he feels so lucky to be the one he comes to when he has doubts. Too lucky, like the rug is about to be pulled from under him. He doesn’t know the answers, of course (only God knows, and She isn’t the communicative type), but he tries. He might mention the Plan or human nature, or he might just let the questions sit in the air. Sometimes that’s all Kroliel needs, and the next day he’ll be gone.
Every time he goes, Ezra wonders if the next time he returns, he’ll have pushed too much Upstairs. But every time he returns, he’s still the same old angel, lounging on walls and grinning when Ezra causes a bit of harmless trouble in the market. He never fails to point out the presence of goats. In fact, out of the two of them, Ezra is the one that worries more about their conversations being discovered.
Worrying about Kroliel’s divinity is a long-term occupation, but another thing has been bothering him more recently. It might be his imagination, but his work seems to be getting easier. It doesn’t take him half as long to tempt someone into blasphemy or to spread a rumour as it used to. And even the tricky stuff, corrupting laws and bribing good men, seems inexplicably easier. He goes back and forth in his mind about it for a long time. Either he’s getting better at his job, or people are getting easier to tempt. This ought to be a good thing, for a demon. And for a while, he does relish the relaxed pace of things. But he can’t help but worry if things are going downhill with humanity. If his lot have pushed too far.
Wind rushes into his room one day and he turns, relief flooding him because now he can ask Kroliel if he’s noticed anything similar, but the eyes staring at him are black, not gold. Hastur stands there, draped in outdated robes and dripping a nasty ooze.
“Ah, Duke Hastur.” Ezra straightens up and tries to pretend he’s relieved to see him. Hastur, either because he’s not clever enough to notice or because he thinks it’s funny, grins back.
“Got a special job for you,” he says, those black eyes glancing around the room at his tablets and souvenirs. “Since you’ve settled in so nicely.”
“A special job?” Generally, that means something especially unpleasant that he isn’t going to enjoy. Quite often, something slimy. Hastur grins.
There’s a man building a boat. All Ezra has to do is spread the word that he’s mad, and nobody will get on it. Simple enough. He has to travel south for it, further than he’s gone in years, and when he gets there, he isn’t quite prepared for what he sees. There’s a boat, alright. And there’s a crowd watching it fill with animals. His job has already been done for him on that front; they’re all treating it like entertainment.
He sees Kroliel leaning against a fence, watching the animals line up with an impenetrably dour expression. Ezra realises this is the first time he has approached him, and not the other way around. Kroliel has always found him first. It’s not that he can’t seek the angel out, exactly. Just that he shouldn’t.
“Ezra.” The angel glances at him, and goes straight back to being dour again. Not a promising start.
“What’s all this about, then? Build a big boat and fill it with a travelling zoo?” He tries to keep his tone light, but Kroliel remains tense.
“Word is, the Almighty’s getting a bit tetchy, isn’t She?” There‘s a whole lot of something packed up in Kroliel’s voice, wound up and waiting to be released. Something between divine wrath and complete apathy. “She’s going to wipe out the human race. Great. Big. Storm.”
Ezra looks from him to the ark to the people in the crowd. “What, all of them?”
“Just the locals. She’s not upset with the Chinese, or the Australians, or the Native Americans. And Noah, up there. His wife, their sons. Their families. They’ll all be fine.” He doesn’t sound particularly gratified by that. That’s what the boat is for, he assumes.
“But they’re going to drown the rest?” Kroliel says nothing. A group of children sprint past, herding goats and chickens towards the ark. Ezra swallows. “Even the children?”
“Yep.” His eyes are bright gold, almost glowing with stifled anger.
“You can’t kill children. That’s the sort of thing you’d expect my side to do.”
Kroliel is very stiff, and pretending not to be by sprawling his arms on the fence.
“It’s all part of the Divine Plan,” he recites, with a loose, hopeless gesture.
“There must be a reason for it, then,” Ezra cautiously says.
Kroliel turns to him expectantly, daring him to come up with one like he usually does when he shows up in Uruk with his head full of doubts. But this time. Ezra has an answer, and it’s too painful to voice. The people here, specifically, are being punished. He has spent centuries in this land, specifically, cultivating his minor evils. And lately, he’s noticed his job getting easier. He swallows that thought down, and spits out his generic response because the real one will turn Kroliel against him forever. It’s his fault .
“You can’t question the Almighty, Kroliel. God’s plans are-“
“Are you going to say ineffable?” Kroliel snaps. Ezra shifts a bit, trying to shake the feeling that he’s the one under scrutiny here.
Rain starts to fall in the East, and he thinks of that day in Eden. Most of the people have left for shelter, so Kroliel stretches out a hidden wing and Ezra shuffles beneath it. They watch the rain fall, the children run about in it. They don’t know, yet. Kroliel makes no effort to protect himself from the weather. He leans against the fence like it’s all that’s keeping him upright, letting the rain soak his hair. He‘s grown it out again.
“Did She ever mention that flaming sword again?” Ezra asks.
“You and that bloody sword. No, She didn’t. Not half as much as you.”
“You must have done the right thing, then. I mean- I do know what happens when God thinks you’ve done the wrong thing.” Kroliel’s eyes narrow so he can only see the slightest sliver of gold, and he wonders if he’s poking this too much. “I’d better be off home,” he says, gesturing behind him. Kroliel gives him a look he’s never seen before, not close up. And not directed at him. He thinks it’s sympathy.
“Uruk’s going to flood, Ezra. And Kish, and Ur, and all of it. The whole country’s going under.”
Ezra goes still. There’s a little room on a street in Uruk full of things he’s collected over the years. There’s a little box with ruined threads of an old tapestry. Insignificant, in the grand scheme, and it’s foolish to get attached. But they are his things, and he is attached to the room and the city and the river and the temple at the top that he loves but can’t enter. Hastur’s grin returns to him and he realises that he must have known exactly what‘s going to happen. He wonders if the humans are the only ones being punished.
“Look, you could come with me,” Kroliel suggests, like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world. “I’ve got a place in the west, on the coast. Flood isn’t going to reach that far.”
For a moment, Ezra considers it. By now, he knows he likes Kroliel, this bitter angel who asks too many questions and would rather do anything other than what he’s told. And every time he comes back and shares his questions with Ezra, he feels strangely honoured to be the one he trusts with them. But it’s dangerous even to be seen together, more so to get attached. And he isn’t worth the risk to Kroliel. He certainly isn’t worth Falling for. He backs out of the protection of his wing and lets the rain soak him.
“I don’t think my side would like that.”
Damn him. He’s already damned, but damn him again. Whether it’s pride or fear or because he just doesn’t like him that much, the streak of stubborn bastard in Ezra refuses to let him help, and he’s alone by the fence, waiting for the floodwater to rise. He doesn’t know where he’s gone, and he doesn’t care. Probably back home to salvage some of his clay tablets before the city is swallowed whole. If he’s going to be discorporated over anything, it’ll be those.
The animals are in the ark now, so it’s just him, the fence and the children that occasionally sprint past. Several times, he comes up with something to yell up at the sky. Why kill the animals? Why kill the children? What has Noah done that gives his family the right to live when all others are to be slaughtered? But he always closes his mouth when he remembers the rebel angels’ burning wings. What good will it do to ask a question he’ll never get an answer to? (He knows the answer he’ll get, and it’ll be written in fire and blood and burning flesh. The Plan .) There is nothing he can do. He doesn’t think any angel has spoken to Her since Eden. Gabriel has a direct line to the Metatron, which is supposed to be close enough. But God Herself has been absent these past centuries.
The rain hardens, soaking him through, but he can’t move. Thunder grumbles overhead. Is this what’s going to happen every time God is disappointed in Her creations? First, She cast the rebel angels into fire. Then She rendered all of humanity mortal, for the crime of curiosity. And now, She’s going to wipe out hundreds of thousands more? And then what? Start again, with new humans and stricter rules until it happens again?
Free will is a strictly human phenomenon. He has his own thoughts, his own ideas of what good is, but the second he voices them or acts on them he’ll be cast into Hell. Once upon a time, he might have thought it was worth it, for freedom. But meeting Ezra has more or less silenced that dream. Hell is no more free than Heaven, they just give different orders. Any ideas he has about Goodness are as useless down there as they are Upstairs. He doesn’t want to Fall, but he doesn’t want to serve, and blood pounds in his ears as the wind picks up and whips his soaked hair across his face.
He’s sitting in the mud now. It soaks through his robes but he doesn’t care. He pulls his veil over his head and down over his face. He squeezes his eyes shut and presses the cloth into him, lets the water slam into him.
“What are you doing?”
There’s a child sitting on the fence in front of him, swinging his legs.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Yeah. well spotted.”
“My mother says sarcasm is rude.”
He snorts, and pulls the shawl from his head, letting the rain soak him down to the scalp. He glances up at the sky.
“Mine too.” He squeezes water out of the cloth and it dribbles down his hands. The boy stares. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“What are you doing down there? Did you lose something?”
He breathes in, grumbles a bit.
“I think I lost it a very long time ago.”
“Oh. Do you want help looking?”
“No, thank you. What are you doing here, boy?” The boy wrinkles his nose.
“I have a name, you know.”
“Good for you.” Rain floods down his face. The boy doesn’t seem to mind it. (The boy who is going to die.) Kroliel is a servant of God, he is of Her like a drop of water is of the sea. So he knows, at least a little bit, that She doesn’t mind a little...bending of the rules. For the right reasons. Humanity prevails, after all. And She hasn't mentioned that flaming sword again.
“You have a family here, boy?”
“Just me and my mother.”
“Right. Look, Noah is right about this whole Flood thing. This whole country is going to be underwater in a month. You need to tell your mother to pack up and get out.”
The boy frowns at him.
“Why are your eyes yellow?”
“What kind of stupid question is that?”
Almost every angel in Heaven can blend in perfectly with humans. Sure, they have no idea about the customs or the clothes, and they give off a kind of unnatural, electric energy that makes people stare when they pass, but on the surface, they can appear human. But not Kroliel. He isn’t safe Up There, with his doubts and his questions, and he isn’t safe on Earth, with his odd eyes. Nor would he be safe in Hell. (Nobody’s safe in Hell, but that’s beside the point.)
“It’s not stupid. They’re cool,” the boy insists. Kroliel stares at him. He doesn’t know what to do with that.
“Tell your mother it isn’t safe here.” The boy cocks his head to the side.
“Can’t you tell her?”
“I can’t. I’m not allowed. I’m not really allowed to tell you either, but you seem like a trustworthy human and I’m having a very bad day at work.”
“Why aren’t you allowed?”
Kroliel looks up at the darkening sky and scowls.
“I really don’t know.”
Lightning cracks down behind him. Rain hammers him. He's forgotten how to breathe. Somewhere above him, the boy is whooping in excitement. This is finally it, he’s finally gone too far, doubted too much. He’s freezing cold, he’s shaking, waiting for ice to turn to fire, waiting for the ground to open up and swallow him down into the pit.
Thunder growls above them. A woman’s voice breaks through the water, calling to the boy. He turns to go, but he looks back at Kroliel.
“How do I get her to listen?” The boy‘s voice is almost lost in the wind and rain, and Kroliel has no answer. The sky is heavy, cold grey, full of electricity, a blank wall of fury. He shrugs hopelessly.
The boy runs off through the puddles to where his mother waits, squinting at the valley. If she sees a crumpled grey shape folded in the mud, she doesn’t say anything. They both disappear into the city.
The water rises and he lets it. Every crack of lightning feels like the strike that will tear him from Heaven. He wraps himself up tightly in his wings and waits for it to happen. Night falls with the rain and still nothing happens, and when the sun rises again he’s sitting in a foot of water. The ark is ready, the doors bolted shut. And though he is cold and exhausted and shaking down to the bone, he is not Fallen.
“Why?” He snarls up at the sky. The rain keeps falling. Thunder growls. And far, far away, the river Euphrates bursts its banks.
Chapter 4: Sodom and Gomorrah
Kroliel doesn’t see the water sink. He doesn’t see the dove and the olive branch, or the rainbow, though he hears it all from Gabriel a hundred times. He spends years in western Africa, and sees deserts. He sees drought. He sees children desperate for a drop of rain. He sleeps.
He’s called back east eventually, to guide Noah’s descendants. They speak in awe of God’s mercy, of the virtue of their ancestor, virtue so great that he alone was spared death. They treat the Flood like a legend. Abram and Sarai seem nice enough people, but he can’t look at them without thinking of the young boy with his legs swinging on the fence that wasn’t afraid of the rain. He doesn’t know if he survived.
He pities Ishmael. He is not the son Abraham has been promised by God, he is a loophole, a cheat. Hagar turns on Sarai when he’s born and she is banished to the desert with him. After days, she turns from him in the sand, eyes too dry to leak tears, and begs God not to make her watch him die. And then, only then, is Kroliel permitted to clicks his fingers. A well appears in the desert. Ishmael is not to die here, he is to be the father of many nations. The Almighty seems very keen on globalisation at the moment. Gabriel says it’s because She’s made an awfully big planet and a lot of it hasn’t been appreciated yet. Kroliel grumbles in agreement, but it seems more like She’s playing favourites and getting a bit imperial with it.
No longer shall thy name be Abram. Thy name shall be Abraham, for a father of many nations I have made thee.
She’s always been very prescriptive with Her names. Every angel in Heaven was named by Her command, and quite a few humans, too. It seems only the Fallen angels have the right to name themselves, if only because their holy names ripped from them. For the first time, he wonders what Ezra’s name was before, and if he still thinks of it. He wonders if the name shapes the man, or the other way around.
He goes with Michael and Sandalphon in the guise of poor travellers to visit Abraham and Sarah. Sarah is to have her own child, and he is to be called Isaac. She laughs when they tell her, and Michael responds with a soulless smile. Sarah’s all thin limbs and thin skin and thin white hair. Too old for this. Kroliel can’t meet her gaze. Why her? Why now?
“Tonight we ride to Sodom, and to Gomorrah. Sin has run rampant in these cities for too long,” Michael says, before they leave. They haven’t told Abraham that they are angels, but they haven’t told him that they aren’t, either.
“They will be burnt to the ground,” Sandalphon adds, somewhat gleefully.
Kroliel remains deathly silent. There is no surprise in this for him, only the kind of numb disappointment that comes from the knife that’s been hurting him since day one twisting a little deeper into his gut. She promised that the Flood would be the last of it. She promised .
“The people are all to die?” Abraham asks. Sandalphon nods grandly. “My brother is down there. What if, say, there are fifty like him in those cities who are virtuous? Would God burn them with the sinful?”
Kroliel looks slowly from Abraham to Michael, who has just exchanged a sharp glance with Sandalphon. That’s the sort of question Kroliel usually asks, and the sort of question that usually gets him in trouble. They’ve never been questioned by a human before.
“The virtuous will be saved. God is merciful,” Michael says, and Kroliel almost laughs. And then they’re gone.
Four are saved. Michael stays to watch Sodom burn as Kroliel leads the humans out into the desert, away from the smoke and ash of the city. Lot and his family. And he tells them: don’t look back. Don’t stay here. Keep moving . And Lot’s wife looks back, and she turns to a pillar of salt. She’s just gone, like it’s nothing, like it’s righteous, and he wants to fall to his knees and be sick in the sand because he can taste salt in the air. Instead, he miracles himself back into the city.
Sodom is burning. Everything around him is scorched black and twisted with heat. Some are running, but they won’t make it. Michael has made sure of that. The gates are locked, the paths blocked by debris and flames. They who lived here will die here.
The fire won’t hurt him, but it’s hot and suffocating and he can’t bring himself to move.
And then .
And then he feels it.
He ignores Michael’s cold question and runs. He’s here somewhere, he can feel the thick aura of demonic energy. He skids past a wall of flame and there he is, watching the holy temple burn. He’s covered in ash and blood and there’s an empty bucket dangling from his black fingers, standing on what once was holy ground, and is now a pile of rubble. He’s just standing there.
“Ezra!” The bucket falls to the ground with a clatter and rolls away, and Ezra backs away from him with his shaking hands raised in defence. There’s blood all over him, human and demon. His clothes might once have been grey, but they’re black from soot now.
“I didn’t know they were going to do this,” he says, and his voice is tremulous and hoarse from breathing in the smoke. “I swear it, if I’d known I would never-”
“You need to get out. My lot are here, and if they find you-” he doesn’t finish that thought. He won’t fight him, and he won’t be able to protect him from two archangels.
“They didn’t tell me, you know. I was just minding my own business, doing my job, and then the city’s on fire. And they didn’t even think to tell me. I mean, it’s bad manners, isn’t it?” He tries to laugh but it comes out like a sob. There are already tear tracks in the soot on his face. Kroliel steps closer and Ezra stumbles back. Kroliel freezes. He’s seen Ezra content, and melancholy, and quietly worried. But he’s never seen him like this, openly afraid and desperate.
"It’s not like you’ve got a direct line to the Metatron. Now get out, you idiot!” He’s waving him away but Ezra won’t move .
“They’ll save the city, then.” His voice is urgent. “The angels, your people, they’re here to fix this. To save everyone and put out the fire.”
“What the bloody Hell are you talking about?”
“That’s why you came, isn’t it?”
“Ezra, my people are the ones that started the sodding fire!”
He can see the moment Ezra’s heart breaks. He’s looking at Kroliel, but not really seeing him. And then out of nowhere, he’s gone. The space that held him has simply compressed into a dot and left the smell of smoke and sulphur behind.
“Time to go, Kroliel.” Michael’s cold voice cuts through the fire. She’s spotless, of course. Her eyes track over to the place where Ezra stood. “Company?”
“Er- yeah. No. Got away,” he grunts. Michael hums, and turns away.
She and Sandalphon don’t stay after the cities are burnt out. They have work to do Upstairs, after all. Kroliel has new orders to shadow Abraham’s family. He can’t, yet. He ends up on a sand dune, miles outside the charred wreckage, watching smoke trail up into the dark sky. He can still smell sulphur, even from here.
There’s a cough, somewhere to his left. He looks, and there’s a black mass huddled in the sand a few yards away, staring at the city. The fifth survivor of Sodom. Carefully, slowly, he approaches, making sure Ezra can see him coming this time.
“You alright?” He asks. It’s a stupid question, given the state he’s in, but he has to say something to break the silence. Ezra blinks at him. The fear is gone, now replaced with static tears. He’s slumped in the sand in a way he never normally would, filthy with blood and sweat and ash. Ezra is always clean, always washing his hands and picking dirt off his clothes. But now, all he’s doing is scratching absently at the scales on the back of his hand, indistinguishable from the rest of him now he’s covered in soot.
“I thought it was my lot, when it started,” he quietly says. He straightens himself up a bit to talk to Kroliel, who sits in the sand beside him. “Thought they’d sent me off to die. Well, discorporate very unpleasantly.”
“Bastards. And then you saw me, and you thought…”
“I thought that you thought I’d set the city on fire.”
“So- what? You thought I’d come to kill you?” It hurts to even say. Ezra swallows and looks at him out of the corner of his eye.
“You’d have to, surely. If I did something so horrible as that.”
“I’m really not a fan of the smiting.” Kroliel looks at him when he says that, makes sure he knows he never would. Ezra’s eyes soften a little, and go wide enough for Kroliel to see their slate grey colour. Then he coughs awkwardly and looks away.
Kroliel picks up handfuls of dry sand, and lets them drift away through his fingers and dance in the cool wind.
“Why?” Ezra’s voice is tired, sad. He’s watching the smoke.
“They said it was because the city was overrun with sin,” Kroliel says, through gritted teeth. Ezra hums. He’s back to scratching his hands again. They’re already ruined as it is with the burns and the soot, so he’s just making them into a raw mess. He sees scales drop into the sand. It’s painful just to watch, but Kroliel doesn’t think touching him is a good idea right now.
“And the Flood. That was because the locals were getting too out of hand.” He makes it sound very casual, but his voice wavers.
“And in the Garden-”
“Shut it. Don’t do this to yourself.” Kroliel cuts him off before he can get any further. Ezra stares at the sand. Bits of it have gone clumpy and black where he’s touched it with his bloody hands. He suddenly, raising his hand to his blackened shoulder, and pulls tattered cloth aside to reveal a shining, raw wound.
“That doesn’t look good,” Kroliel says. He leans forward to look closer, and Ezra goes very still. He inhales sharply, and doesn’t exhale until Kroliel moves away.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” he says, in a tight voice.
“Why haven’t you fixed it?” Ezra purses his lips and scrapes sand off his hands. They look burnt, not as badly as his shoulder but certainly tender. “You can’t, can you? You’re out of juice.”
“Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. I have plenty of ‘juice’. I’m just choosing not to use it at present.” Ezra is a hopeless liar and they both know it. If he was alright, he would have healed himself and cleaned off all the dirt and blood by now.
“You tried to save it.” Kroliel quietly says, nodding at the city. Ezra won’t look at him now. His eyes get redder and fill with tears at the corners. He frustratedly dabs them away with his sleeve, and only ends up getting more dirt on his face.
“Don’t tell anyone.”
“Yeah, right. Who am I gonna tell, the camels?” Kroliel waves his arm at the great desert that surrounds them. That evokes a wet laugh, at least.
“You must think I’m a sentimental old fool.” Kroliel shakes his head. He doesn’t know how to tell him that his sentiment is a strength. Ezra is far braver than him, for facing down a city in flames and standing his ground. He didn’t run away, he didn’t try to save himself. He tried to save them .
“Let me help.” Ezra offers a weak smile, and shakes his head.
“You’re very kind.”
“I’m really not.”
“It’s quite alright. I’ve dealt with far worse.”
The smell of smoke drifts back into his head from Ezra’s charred clothes, and it all hits him at once. Thousands of burning angels, their wings going up in smoke as they fell. Halos shattering in the heat. Fire embracing them, swallowing them whole. And Kroliel, standing at the edge, watching it all happen. Kroliel, watching the Flood. Kroliel, watching the city burn. Kroliel, watching Ezra burn. And all for Her.
“God’s going to make this bloke sacrifice his son for Her. Did you know that?”
“Abraham. God grants him a kid, one thing he’s always wanted. But wait! He’s got to show that he loves Her more, so when Isaac’s old enough, She’s going to tell Abraham to kill him.”
The anger he’s been cultivating for the better part of 1500 years growls again and he shoves his fist deeper into the sand with a forceful grunt. Ezra either doesn’t notice or is too polite to comment.
“She can’t mean for him to go through with it. It’s a test of faith, surely.”
“Do you really think a God who demands that kind of sacrifice is a God worth having faith in?”
“Please! You can’t say things like that!” Ezra’s voice shoots up a few pitches and he glances quickly around them like an angel is about to swoop down from the Heavens to smite him personally. Kroliel carries on, regardless.
“So what if the point is to say no? Stand up to the great Almighty and say that’s too far ?”
“You cannot stand up to God, Kroliel.”
“Your lot did. Still alive, aren’t you?” Ezra takes on a new expression then, one he doesn’t quite know what to do with. Astonishment, then a little bit of hurt. He doesn’t want to dwell on that. Neither of them usually mention the Fall. “Sometimes, I wonder what She’s really testing. Or who.”
“You wonder a great many things which I would really prefer you didn’t wonder aloud.”
“No-one’s listening. There’s millions of angels and demons to keep track of. Who’s taking the time to spy on little old you and me?”
“Someone could be!”
“If they are, you can tell your lot you’re seducing me. That’ll get you bonus points, won’t it?”
Ezra laughs. “What would you tell your people, hm? You’re seducing me back into the light? Getting me to repent my wicked ways?”
“Something like that,” Kroliel shrugs. “Never say never.”
“I’m afraid Falling is a one-way street. I wish it were so easy to...” he waves his hand upwards. Kroliel glances at him, but he just looks resigned. Trust him to befriend the only demon in all of Hell who would go back to Heaven if he could.
The sun is rising over Sodom now, turning the sky above it to a new flood of fire. There are no more cries from the city. The flames are dead. A gust of wind slides across the desert, scoops up a handful of sand and sprays it past them towards the city.
“I heard Uruk survived the Flood. They rebuilt,” Kroliel says. “Did you stay, in the end?”
“No. It wasn’t the same. It’s all ruined now.”
“Where you gonna go, then?”
“Back to Hell, I imagine.”
“Oh. For good?” He can’t help the disappointment in his voice.
“For evil, obviously.” He glances over and sees a mischievous smile on Ezra’s face. He’s still in there, beneath the ash and blood. “Only to get new instructions. And then, I shall find somewhere else. After that Tower of Babel business there’s only so far I can go without running into a language barrier, of course. But I’ll find somewhere.”
“Yeah, I really don’t know what She was thinking with that one. It’s like She’s encouraging unnecessary divisions.”
He looks at Ezra. Ezra looks at him.
“Better not to question the Almighty,” the demon coughs, and Kroliel rolls his eyes. When he looks back at the city, he tastes salt on the wind.
He’s always avoided looking at himself, at the scales. He knows where they are, but he does not look at them, the same way one knows where one’s local graveyard is but doesn’t seek it out without a particular reason. He tried to change back, in the beginning. To see if he could get a different form, with less disfigurements. It was the same every time, and he’s long since given up on being rid of them.
His clothes are a filthy, smouldering pile by the shoreline. He wades deeper, until he’s submerged to the chest. It’s freezing, but it surrounds him like the embrace of something white and cold and stiff that he tries to remember and forget at the same time. He’ll have to wash again after he comes up from Hell, but he can’t wait for that. He can’t go down there like this, raw and filthy.
He blinks at his watery self, staring back up at him with an odd sort of frown, and plunges down into it.
Absently, he’s aware of the pounding in his ears. Everything is slower in the cool dark, and he allows himself to drift further into the sea, to sink closer to the bottom, hoping it will cancel out the panic and the fire of Sodom burning. Always, he comes back to the water.
Kroliel helped him. Saved him, in fact. Told him Michael was coming and made sure he got away before she found him. He closes his eyes at the thought of an angel seeing him in the midst of that fire and thinking of anything except letting him die. A voice whispers, he’s wrong, he’ll Fall, he’s not like the others. But another, quieter one ignores it and murmurs in his ear, an angel thinks you are worthy of life.
He doesn’t need to breathe, but after a few minutes he feels like this is a bit melodramatic, and he really ought to take in some air. The salt stings his burnt skin when he wades back to the shallows. There is no-one else on the beach, because he doesn’t think there ought to be, so he collapses on his back in the wet sand and lets the gentle tide wash over him again and again. The dirt and ash are gone.
He knows there is misery in the world that he is responsible for. It’s an unavoidable part of the contract, really. (Most of it is petty stuff, as small and insignificant as he can find.) But he also knows that there is a much greater amount of misery that is not due to him. There were people at Sodom and Gomorrah who were happy before the flames. There were children taken during the Flood that had never known the name of sin. He never spoke a word to Adam. His hands are dirty, but his are not the only dirty hands.
His shoulder stings when he pushes himself up. He clicks his fingers, and the burns are gone.
He didn’t tell Kroliel how he tried to live in Uruk after it was rebuilt. How he tried to love a temple that he had never set foot in. How he tried to bathe in a river that burst its banks and drowned everything in its path. How he tried to fit himself into a space that simply wasn’t there anymore, and in the middle of the night rode out and found himself a new place. And now that, too, is burnt, and can never be the same. Ruined like Heaven, like Eden, like him.
Salt water rushes over his legs, and he looks at himself properly. He looks at the way his black scales crack with dryness on his hands, but sit smooth and painless on his thighs. He traces the border they make with the white on his stomach. He crosses his legs, and lets the sea wash clumps of wet sand from the black sole of his left foot, and the white sole of his right. He looks at himself, at how he is ruined, and only sighs. It could be worse.
He’ll have to start again. Again . He isn’t fond of change, not really. He’ll allow a new food or two to crop up every few years, but beyond that he’d rather people quietly stopped inventing things and just went on their way as their ancestors had.
(He will maintain this thought right through to the 21st century, when he’ll have enjoyed a great many excellent inventions, such as crepes and bookshops and Radio 4, but, like everyone who is middle-aged (in his case, philosophically speaking), he will continue to argue that the last thing humanity came up with will be the last thing it really needed.)
For now, though, his main complaint about change is that every time God gets a bit tetchy, or the locals rediscover their love of swords, he has to set up a new life. And perhaps if he got less attached to every place he went, it wouldn’t be such a problem. But he can’t stop himself. He watches the water and remembers trying to extinguish the burning temple in Sodom. People burnt by the very angels they prayed to for salvation.
This is one of those things that he will never understand. Not being the Almighty himself, it’s impossible to comprehend, but he still wonders what it must take for Her to be able to do what She does. To carefully balance the universe in such a way that everything comes out as She intends, down to the finest point. To end a life, in order that a thousand years down the line, a more important one might be saved. He ought to know how to do that. That’s the point of being a demon, really, to give that little touch of evil that balances out the Plan, but he doesn’t have that strength. He’s never killed anything. What good is a demon that can’t even kill?
(That’s a lie, whispers a body on a white floor, bleeding gold, soaking his robes, and a sword clatters to the ground.)
He goes to Hell with saltwater still in his hair, and tells them of the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah. The general consensus downstairs is that this is an inconvenient loss, and that angels are a bunch of feathery pricks.
“City full of angelzzz and not one of them noticed you?” Beelzebub asks, after his little presentation. Ezra smiles.
“I’m good at what I do,” is all he says. He often wishes other demons would be a bit more polite, but their lack of manners means he cares a great deal less about lying to them. It’s not as though any of them would find it surprising. Hell functions like a criminal underworld, or an underpaid and corrupt government department. As long as he does the work, the higher-ups (or lower-downs, depending on your philosophy of Hell’s hierarchy) don’t care.
He travels. He eats new things, he meets new people. He settles, for a decade or two. He moves on again. Kroliel does not appear. Still busy with Abraham’s descendants, most likely. These days he has much fewer specific instructions. He’s left to his own devices, save for a few important events, and just expected to turn in some paperwork every now and again proving he’s done something worthy. Dagon is very keen on paperwork.
He travels the length of Egypt with another caravan. The men wash in the Nile, and he joins them. They stare at his scales, and he smiles politely back.
Later, he’s sitting on the riverbank, while others are fishing. One of the men wades over. Ezra stands and offers his hand, but he ignores him. Ezra only lets the rejection show on his face for a moment before he replaces it with a smile and retracts his hand, clasping it behind his back as he usually does. The man trips getting out of the river and falls face-first into the dust. He scowls, shooting Ezra a distrustful glare when his friends laugh behind him, and goes to rinse the dirt off his face in the water again. Something ripples beneath the surface. The man yelps, scrambles to his feet and sprints off towards the camp.
Behind him, the other men in the river howl with laughter. He looks back, and they cough awkwardly. Most turn away. The water churns beneath them and they stumble, and then they start to yell too. There’s something in the water , they shout, and splash their way up the riverbank. Ezra watches them go with the polite smile. If they suspect him, they don’t say anything.
Sometimes, in the early morning on the coast when the sky is more white than blue, he thinks of Heaven and the name he buried in the back of his mind, the name that burns. Then he turns to the sunrise and thinks of Sodom turning to ash, and of angels turning into demons. In the middle he’ll start thinking about pears, or something similar, and then he’ll busy himself with work before he starts to get too philosophical. He is what he is, and he has to act like it.
He follows instructions. He tempts, he prods, he suggests, he encourages. He sticks his fingers into layers of repression and wiggles desire out into the open. He asks, what is it you want, that you’re not supposed to want? What will make you happy? What will make you miserable to live without? He enjoys poking at greed the most, though when he pokes, it usually looks like a person buying themselves a nice villa or a ceramic vase. He likes decorated vases. He assumes they’ll be one of the things future historians dig out of the sand and squint a lot at. And because he assumes it, it turns out to be true.
The first time it happens, it’s an accident. There’s a fistfight in the street, which turns into a riot, which turns into a civil war. He mentions it in passing to Beelzebub after reporting his other evil deeds, since the only kind of pleasant conversation demons will tolerate is about unpleasant things.
“And when will you be handing in that paperwork, Ezzzra?” they ask, in that way where every word is actually a veiled threat. He gets ready to correct them, and say that humans generally come up with much worse ideas than he does, and then stops himself. They’d never know. And besides, it’s not as though he’s lying. He’s just not telling the whole truth.
“As soon as it’s finished, my lord.” He does a little bow, and Hastur and Ligur exchange looks behind them. They’ve been based somewhere in China, if he recalls correctly, so they have no way of knowing which wars he has and hasn’t been responsible for.
“I had worried that you were...underperforming. And you know what happens to thozzze who underperform.” He doesn’t, actually. There is a department where Beelzebub sends those who have displeased them, and no-one is at all keen to find out what actually happens down there. Execution? Torture? Filing? The uncertainty is more unsettling than any specific threats against life and limb could be.
“Well, I’m glad to prove you wrong,” he says, fixing his smile back on. He wants out of here, now. He’s always been a terrible liar, but he’s getting better at it, and he’s not bad at twisting the truth to suit him when he needs it to.
He settles in Egypt. He doesn’t blend in quite as well as he did in Mesopotamia, but it’s not so bad as all that. He likes the way they worship, here. Different gods for different things. Humans are very good at making sense of the world by dividing it into parts they can understand. The temples still burn his feet, because it doesn’t make a difference what they worship - if it’s sacred to them, it’s poison to a creature of sacrilege. He admires them all the same, even if he mutters to himself that they really ought to stop building more of the things.
Things are unpleasant in Egypt, at present. Most of it isn’t even his doing, though he won’t tell that to his superiors Downstairs. They’ve enslaved the Israelites, these travellers who are looked upon as lesser simply because they are other. He watches them work in the streets with a cold, empty feeling.
But there are whispers of a man who fled from the city after killing an Egyptian, a child of Israel who saw the oppression of his people and fought back. Ezra has a soft spot for rebels. There is no longer that honest, earnest defiance in Satan, of course, but when he was Lucifer there was power in the way he turned to God and said why? Are we not your children too?
He stands with the Israelites and listens to Moses. He is not Egyptian, he is not an Israelite. But he is a stranger in a strange land, and so are they. God has heard the cry of Her people and is ready to free them of their oppression. There is a land flowing with milk and honey, a new land that will be theirs alone, and since when does God treat rebellion with anything other than holy rage?
He doesn’t notice Kroliel stalking up to him until it’s too late. There are twigs and leaves tangled in his hair, and Ezra smells smoke.
“You are not going to believe the day I’ve had.”
“I should have known. All this rebellion talk is your holy influence, is it?”
“Actually, it’s coming straight from the top,” Kroliel says. “Apparently, anyway. That’s what Gabriel says.”
And She said unto Moses, I am that I am . And yes, that sounds more like Her. He assumes rebellion is alright so long as it isn’t against Her.
“Things are about to get very nasty,” Kroliel grumbles, and tugs him gently by the hand to a quiet alley where they can talk.
It only lasts a few seconds, but the contact almost floors him. An angel has touched the worst part of him, the part that he hates and picks at, the part people stare at and refuse to touch. He just grabbed his hand like it’s nothing. He almost expects a holy touch to burn. It does sting, a bit, but that’s because it’s covered in scratches. He’s trying not to do that so much, these days.
Ezra stares at the angel, at the ridiculous mess of his hair, at the way he doesn’t seem to notice what he’s done even when his hand is returned to him.
“Er- you’ve got- er-” he points to his hair. Kroliel runs his hands through it and shakes out a few sticks, but misses a leaf next to his ear. Ezra reaches out and plucks it gently out between his black fingers. Kroliel stares.
“Right,” he awkwardly says. There’s a moment where they both just look at each other. It’s been a few years, this time. He has seen him a few times since Sodom and Gomorrah, but there’s not a day that goes by when he doesn’t think about Kroliel yelling desperately for him to run. He realises he’s staring, and coughs.
“You were saying?”
“Oh, yeah. You’ll love this.” Kroliel launches into it immediately in a very loud whisper that fills up the alley. There’s a whole business with a burning bush, and a bit with a rod that turns into a snake that he doesn’t really follow, and then he’s off about convincing the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go with a river of blood, and then a plan to have them wander about in the desert for a bit. Frankly, it’s incomprehensible.
“What part of that was I supposed to love, exactly?”
“Figure of speech. Anyway, it’s all about to get very unpleasant around here.”
After two weeks of the worst weather he’s ever encountered - including the Flood - Ezra realises that Kroliel is rapidly running out of plagues. He bluffs with the dying livestock and the boils and the thunderstorm of hail and fire, and every time Moses threatens, the Pharaoh denies him. He runs into him after the storm, lurking outside the palace with a very dour look.
“Have you thought about locusts?” He offers. “You’ve done lice and flies, but he might have a phobia of locusts. You never know.” Kroliel groans.
“Any other suggestions?”
“No no. Of course not. I can’t be seen to be helping an angel.”
“Come on . Rising up against an oppressive tyrant is what your lot banded together for, isn’t it?”
“It wasn’t as noble as all that, Kroliel.”
“What did you fight for, then? Food hadn’t been that good lately?” What did you Fall for? is the real question. Ezra tuts because it’s easier and only slightly more polite than what he wants to say, which is that what he fought for, what he Fell for, is none of Kroliel’s blessed business. He remembers the white body on the white floor, stained with gold. He didn’t mean to Fall.
He can tell from the electricity in the air the next night that another angel has arrived. The sun doesn’t rise again for three days. He doesn’t see Kroliel again, either. They’re coming for the Egyptians’ first born children, and he knows (he hopes) must have been replaced. Kroliel could never.
In the morning, after the blood, the Israelites are released. Ezra takes one look at the city he has found a home in, the one which imprisoned and enslaved, the one which has not been destroyed but tainted once again, and leaves with them. He tells himself it’s work; he could get a lot of praise Downstairs for tempting God’s favourites. But really, it’s curiosity for this promised land, for the land where the oppressed will no longer bear their chains.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as that. Knowing God - or at least knowing of Her, because knowing her is like knowing the sun - nothing can ever be that straightforward. There are rules, and Moses brings tablets down Mount from Sinai. There is war, and Moses keeps his staff aloft with a man at either side holding up his arms, to keep it in their favour. There are an awful lot of very specific instructions about what you can and can’t eat, and a lot of measurements for a thing called a Tabernacle. And even for a demon who’s been around pretty much since time itself was invented, forty years is still a long time to sit in a desert feeling sorry for oneself. But he can be patient. (It’s the only virtue he’ll admit to, mostly because it’s polite.) The people are nice enough, and he’s grown attached. And despite everything, he’s entranced by the promise, by the land of milk and honey. This is all going somewhere in the end. He’s going somewhere.
Sometimes, when the sun is overhead and the sand looks flat and white, he thinks of Heaven and the name he buried in the back of his mind, the name that burns. There is an angel out there somewhere who thinks he is worthy of life. There are people who do not spurn him. And there is a place, he is told, where things will be better. He doesn’t sleep, but he lets himself dream of a time when he was promised freedom.
“He’s not going to make it, you know,” Kroliel murmurs in his ear one night. He’s been absent since the Passover, but now materialises by Ezra at sunrise. “Moses. He’s going to snuff it before this lot get their new country.”
“He’s supposed to climb a mountain and see it all there in front of him, and kick the bucket before he can set foot in it.”
“That seems a little cruel.” He can hear himself talking as though this is just another one of their conversations over just another one of God’s tragedies.
“It’s ineffable. Statement on life, I suppose. You can do everything right and still not get what you want,” Kroliel sighs.
“These are Her people. She promised She’d save them.” He doesn’t know why he’s arguing. Kroliel can’t do anything about it. His words have no meaning, no value, no impact on the universe. He just has to get them out, or he’ll start to implode.
“She did. Sort of.” Kroliel speaks more genuinely now, like he’s trying to reassure him. “They’re not slaves anymore, are they? It’s a long game. The people will get there, eventually. All part of the Plan.” Kroliel doesn’t believe in that, he never has, and Ezra doesn’t understand why he’s reciting it all at him now as though it helps.
“These people won’t.” I won’t , he thinks, but would never say. It’s tainted, now. Again. And it’s ridiculous to be so upset, because it’s not even his paradise he’s been dreaming about.
Kroliel rests his hand on Ezra’s shoulder for a moment, warm and gentle. It takes him a very long moment to realise that Kroliel can see the weakness in him, the desperation. The useless longing for a home, for a name, for a love that burns and can never be his again. There are no second chances. There is no paradise for him, on Earth or in Heaven. And Kroliel can see it breaking him.
Ezra pulls his arm away, smooths out his face and nods once.
“All part of the Plan.” There are things that must be done. There is balance and order to the universe that he is a part of. There is pain and evil and misery and he must be the cause of it, so that light might balance it. He has a duty, just like Kroliel. The only difference is that he has sacrificed his celestial reward. He still has fruit and sunsets and rivers, but there is no light at the end for him to return to, not anymore. That doesn’t stop him from hoping, though, always hoping and remembering Before when there was light. No matter how hopeless it is, he still hopes.
When Ezra turns to go, he resists the burning urge to scrape at his hands. Golden eyes stare carefully into his, and that hope, that treacherous want rises again. That’s probably part of being a demon, always wanting what he can’t have. Kroliel’s hair shines blood red in the sunrise, and when Ezra looks at him he is Moses standing on top of a mountain, seeing the promised land spread out in front of him.
“I sometimes think you’d make a better angel than me, you know,” Kroliel says, like it’s nothing. Like it isn’t the cruellest and kindest thing he’s ever said. And before Ezra can ask him what in Hell’s name that is supposed to mean, he’s gone. It’s just him and the sunrise.
Chapter 5: The Crucifixion
liberties with biblical matieral + crowley has issues with imperialism
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Ezra purses his lips. In his opinion, bread is rather good, and he isn’t sure God actually has a mouth. He tells the man as much, but he just smiles in a knowing kind of way.
He’s spent an awful lot of time in dry, cracking deserts by now. This time, it’s the Judean Desert, and he is here not as an observer but a tempter. It’s just the two of them beneath the great open sky. He’s sitting on a rough, warm rock like a stool, while the prophet sits cross-legged in the dirt. Ezra picks up a rock and clicks his fingers to turn it into a loaf of bread.
“One lives by bread at least a little bit,” he says, holding out the loaf. He knows the man is fasting, so it’s a little cruel, but it also seems rude not to offer. He can feel the man’s desire, just snaking up to the surface, but it is easily quashed. Again, he smiles and shakes his head.
He knows what Ezra is, he knew the moment he looked at him, but he hasn’t mentioned it. Nor has he sent him away. In fact, he seems interested by him, or at least grateful for the company after forty days of solitude in the desert. He’s never had that silent acceptance before, not from someone like him. The only other he can think of is Kroliel.
They keep running into each other, a few times every decade. Difficult not to when you’re the only two permanent agents of Heaven and Hell on Earth. Kroliel likes to drink, and Ezra likes to eat, so more often than not they combine the two in a shadowy room somewhere and chat. Something changed between them after Sodom, and Moses. It feels like Kroliel sees more of him than he can really see of himself.
He’s done a fair bit of tempting since Moses, and he’s actually starting to find it rather fun. There’s something satisfying about whispering a little hint into one end of a room and having a fist collide with someone’s face at the other. It’s a duty, but it’s also an art. It takes careful practice and patience. And he’s got all the time in the world.
He had been excited for this temptation, which, judging by Beelzebub’s threats the last time he was downstairs, is a Big One, but now he’s a little unsettled.
“Do you mind if I…?” He gestures the bread at himself. He is a bit peckish, and it would be silly to let it go to waste.
“Not at all. Please, go ahead.”
“You have a lot of faith in the Almighty,” he says. This is obvious, but he’s a bit tired and a bit confused by the prophet and a bit sick of lurking about in deserts.
“As do you.” Ezra pauses in ripping off a bit of bread to stare at him. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he is, after all. The man looks back, open and honest. No, he knows far too well, and Ezra isn’t sure he likes it. He swallows, throat suddenly dry, and miracles up a cup of wine. This, too, he offers, and the man declines.
“How do you know you’re on the right track?” Ezra asks, after a moment.
“I trust my Lord to guide me, regardless of whether I can see the path or not.”
“Just like that.”
“Yes. Just like that.”
Ezra hums and chews a bit of bread, thinking. He doesn’t often get a chance to converse with a true believer, let alone one who is so content to carry on with the Great Plan when he has even less knowledge of it than a demon.
“But don’t you ever want to prove it? I mean, don’t you want to toss yourself from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem to see if God will send down a host to pick you up?”
“Either that would teach me what I already know, which is my Father’s infinite mercy, or it would teach me little, since I would be dead.” Ezra laughs a bit at that. But then the cries of the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and the wandering Israelites return. The cries of the falling angels return.
“You really believe God has infinite mercy?” The man gives him a look which he can only read as sympathy. Again, the only people who have ever looked at him like that are holy people and Kroliel (who is technically also a holy man, but could never cope with the restrictions of the human occupation).
“Man abandons God, never the other way around.” He sounds so sure of himself that it hurts. Oh, to have that certainty. Ezra sometimes feels the emptiness where God’s grace used to be as keenly as he did the day it was ripped out. “Doubt is part of faith. It is up to me to conquer it, not God. It is not my place to test Him.”
“But God is testing you . All of you. Has been since the Beginning.”
“The Garden,” he nods, and then leans forward, curious. “Do you think we failed?”
“If that was passing, dear boy, I’d hate to see failure.” He takes a rather worried bite of bread. “If you really are the son of God - you know, the genuine article - you could do anything. You could have all the kingdoms of the world under your control with a click of your fingers, and you could bring them into the light.”
He shows him with a click of his fingers. The world is all sunlight and people bustling in cities and smiling at each other and being in love. For a moment, he wants him to do it. It would be so easy. It’s barely even a temptation, it’s just a minute bit of evil that could be used for overwhelming good. Perhaps it’s the nature of being Fallen, but he can’t see what would be so bad about that.
“I could,” the prophet agrees. Desire spikes for a moment, but then it disappears. The vision fades. “But one cannot oppress one’s people into righteousness.”
“Never stopped anyone trying before.” He uses his temptation voice out of habit, not really expecting it to work. He knew this was a lost cause the moment he arrived, but he still hopes. The prophet looks keenly at him.
“You have that power too.”
“You can make bread from stone.”
“Well- it’s different. I get my talents from- er- elsewhere.”
“Where you come from matters far less than where you go afterwards.” Ezra’s neck almost snaps with the speed he looks up at him. He seems earnest enough, honest enough. Surely he can’t mean that a demon has the same chance to save the world as he does?
“I’m afraid I don’t have your bravery, dear boy. Or your faith.” He’s certainly not brave enough to face down all of Hell for the sake of the greater good.
“I think it is your faith that keeps you from taking action. You believe, as I do, that our Father will lead this world to salvation. A man without that faith might take it upon himself to act.”
Ezra stares at him for a moment. He is a demon, and he is bound by that, no matter how fervently he may wish otherwise. His role is clear: spread evil. Spread misery. Tempt the good and the bad with equal measure. Maintain the balance, because that is the Plan. That is written into his soul (if he still has one, he’s not entirely sure). And he enjoys it, these days. But perhaps- perhaps he could do good, technically. But he could never do it properly, not like an angel. A good thing done badly, or for the wrong reasons, or a bad thing done for the right ones, is still rooted in Bad. In the badness that makes up the core of him. It could never be Good.
He tastes electricity on the air and rises to his feet immediately. They are coming.
“I’m afraid I must make a rather hasty departure. This has been…” he gestures weakly. “Nice. I don’t suppose you were at all tempted, were you?”
The prophet smiles. “They would be poor temptations if I was not.”
Ezra moves to descend into the sand, but turns back for a final moment. “I hope you’re right. About salvation.”
“God has a purpose for us all, my friend,” he says. Ezra’s mouth twitches a bit, and then he is gone. When he sinks into Hell, he tells them how he tempted the man who calls himself the son of God, and escaped just before the angels came to heal him. It is not a lie, but the pride in his voice is.
It is far too soon afterwards that the Romans get spear-happy.
“Come to smirk at the poor bugger, have you?” Kroliel’s voice comes from behind him as they hammer Christ’s feet into the cross. It’s been years since he’s felt his presence at his side. He’s covered his head with a veil, golden eyes peering out from it like the sun from clouds.
“It’s your lot that put him up there, Kroliel.” Four thousand years on Earth have not made him immune to the screams of men in pain. If anything, the time seems to have had the opposite effect. The Plan, the Plan, the Plan , he tries to remember. There is balance. There is misery and there is joy. The joy is harder to find - you have to seek it out in apples and sunsets and someone tripping face-first into a river - that doesn’t mean there is less of it.
“Oh, I’ve changed it.”
“My name.” Ezra blinks and glances over at him. “Kroliel just wasn’t really doing it for me. It’s a bit too holier-than-thou.”
“Well, you are an angel.” His first thought is that angels can’t be allowed to go around changing their names. They’re a gift from God, only to be changed when She forsakes you entirely. And Kroliel - or whatever his name is now - must still be an angel. He still smells the electricity on the air. If he were Fallen, Ezra would know it. “So what is it now? Seraphiel? Imamiah?”
He wants to point out that he’s hardly changed it, just chopped off the end and altered the emphasis, but he thinks about it for another moment and realises that’s the whole point. He’s cut off the end, the -el that almost all the angels have. He’s cut God out of his name.
Crowley watches the nails go in, watches the crowd, watches the sky. He seems to be waiting for a judgement. Ezra goes cold. This angel has taken the mutilation of the Fallen upon himself, voluntarily. And yet he is not Fallen. What Ezra wouldn’t give for his name, the forbidden one that no one has spoken in so long that it’s more like a feeling than a memory, a feeling of love and light and home. He’s clinging to scraps of divinity while Kroliel- Crowley, now, is tossing his away. If he wants to play at damnation, he’s already got the cruelty right.
He can’t say any of it. He’s not supposed to care about Heaven, or his name, or the home he’s given up. He’s not supposed to care that Crowley is teetering on the edge of Falling and has been for so, so long. Saying anything would be admitting he cares about anything other than the role that has been given to him. Crowley already knows, of course. But he can never say it. He is a demon, and that is all he can be, and he’s trying to live with that.
“Did you ever meet him?” He asks instead.
“Yes. Seemed a very bright young man,” Crowley says. Crowley, Crowley. Every time he thinks his name he has to go back and cut off the - el . It’s ludicrous. How can he separate Crowley from God when he can feel Her power right there, coursing through him? Ezra thinks of the desert and the bread and the wine, and the man with more faith in God than an angel.
“I showed him all the kingdoms of the world,” he says. Crowley glances at him. He has to know about the temptation. There have been angels watching Christ all his life.
“Why?” Because that’s what he was told to do. Because it would tempt him. Because it was fun. He doesn’t say any of these things. Nor does he say the truth, which he’s been avoiding thinking about ever since it happened: because Christ tempted him , with a single foolish moment where he thought he could do something about the state of the world. He doesn’t say that, either. There is no fixing the world with a single miracle.
“He’s a carpenter from Galilee, his travel opportunities are limited.” He glances around at the crowd. “What was it he said that got everyone so upset?”
“Be kind to each other,” Crowley says, and Ezra waits for divine anger to flash across his face, but it isn’t there. Crowley looks tired, more than anything. He can’t find it in himself to be so angry about his name, anymore.
“Yes, that’ll do it,” he murmurs.
They stay there long into the sunset.
Changing his name was a risk. Scrap that, it was practically suicide. Only the Fallen change their names, because their own are lost when Her grace is ripped from them. But something felt wrong about his old name. It had ever since the Flood, really. Every time he hears it, it feels like people are talking to the thing he's supposed to be, rather than talking to him. He doesn't want God in the back of people's heads when they look at him. He doesn't want to think of Her whenever he hears his name, because thinking of Her makes him think of the Flood and the Crucifixion and the Israelites stranded in the desert. He's attached to these humans now. They've got a good thing going here, with their wine and sleep and art, and though he has to keep his distance, he sometimes feels more like one of them than an angel of God.
Christ’s followers are starting to make a name for themselves - unimaginatively, that name is Christians. They’re settling in communities now, and there’s one in Damascus he’s been assigned to until now. There’s hope there, but he’s been alive far too long to really feel it these days.
Crowley is having a Bad Day. Well, he’s having a bad decade, to be frank, but something about today has really driven home the misery of human existence and he’s trying to find a good reason not to pack up and bugger off to Neptune or something, with a memo to head office saying there’s no hope for the lot of them. The Empire is far too big and bloody, and it bothers him that Heaven is so supportive of it. The Romans have rubbed him the wrong way since the Crucifixion and he hasn’t really got the hang of their clothes yet. But the city isn’t terrible, and there’s nice architecture, and they’ve invented little spectacles he can tint to hide his eyes. They’ve also got alcohol, which is all he really wants at present. He picks a tavern at random and slumps into it.
“What have you got?” He grumbles to the barmaid, who gives him a tired look. “Give me a jug of whatever you think’s drinkable.”
“Jug of house brown. Two sesterces,” she says, handing it over with a scowl. He’s a foreigner, and a rude one at that, so she hasn’t got any obligation to look happy about it. The coins materialise in his hand and he puts them on the table in front of him. He’s never been one for fiddling around with real money. It’s far too complicated and messy for him. Money means work, work means stability, stability means sticking around in one place long enough for people to learn his name. He’s never found anywhere that really seems worth it.
“Kroliel- Crowley?” Ezra’s voice comes from behind him. He turns to see the demon smiling at him, looking perfectly at home. It’s only been a few years since the last time. “Well! Fancy running into you here. Still an angel, then?” Crowley pauses with his cup half-way to his lips to glare at him over the top of his glasses. Either Ezra is incredibly bad at small talk or he genuinely thinks it’s funny to joke that Crowley might be thrown out of Heaven the next time he asks an awkward question.
“What kind of stupid question’s that? Still an angel- what else am I going to be, an aardvark?”
Ezra’s eyes widen and he winces. Bad at small talk. Crowley notices that for the first time since Eden, he’s not wearing anything to cover his neck. His black scales shine innocently in full view.
“Salutaria,” he apologetically says, raising his cup to Crowley’s. “In Rome long?”
“Just nipped in for a quick blessing. You?”
“I thought I’d try Petronius’ new restaurant. I hear he does remarkable things to oysters.” Crowley almost smiles at that. Of course . He thinks about it for a moment before raising the cup to his lips. There’s no sense being pissed off with the only other supernatural entity he can hold a decent conversation with.
“I’ve never eaten an oyster,” he says, and Ezra practically begins to vibrate.
“Oh, well, let me tempt you.” Crowley turns to look him dead in the eye, unable to stop the fond smile that drifts out of him. Ezra shifts with a bit of a daring look, and self-satisfaction flashes across his face for a moment. Crowley smiles into his cup.
Oysters aren’t good, Crowley finds, but they’re not bad either. He thinks that’s very metaphysical of them. He pretends they are good, though, because Ezra seems to be obsessed with them and talks of nothing except all the times he’s had oysters for at least an hour while Crowley ploughs through the wine. He doesn’t know how, but Ezra has a way of making him forget that the world is as awful as it is. It shouldn’t work like that, but it does. Ezra has always found beauty in things that Crowley grumbles at.
Over the meal, he notices that Ezra’s hands aren’t as raw as they often have been before, and he doesn’t pick at the scales half as often. Crowley doesn’t mention it, he never has done, but seeing smooth skin where so often there have been open wounds makes him feel warm in a way he can’t describe.
There’s a group of men laughing loudly in the background that Crowley can’t tune out. They’re talking about Emperor Claudius. Crowley’s heard there’s a chance he’ll grant the Jews religious freedom in the empire within the year. One of them starts to say that it’s ridiculous to even consider such a thing, when his wine moulds itself into a writhing mass of snakes and hisses at him. He shrieks and throws the cup into the lap of another man, who staggers to his feet in a fit of hysterics as snakes start to wriggle up his toga.
Crowley looks back at Ezra with a lopsided grin, since he's a bit too drunk to manage symmetry, and for a moment there’s a blank, cold look in those grey eyes that he’s never, never seen before, like he’s falling down a granite cliff-face as the ground rises up to meet him. And then it’s gone, replaced with a cheeky smile he offers Crowley before a surreptitious sip of wine. The snakes infest the whole restaurant, and they have to continue their talk outside. The streets are empty and quiet now the sun has set.
“I heard that prick Caligula was ordering people to worship a statue of himself in Jerusalem,” Crowley says, trying vaguely not to stumble over. “And now he’s dead, the Jewish people over there aren’t to be punished for refusing. In fact, now Claudius is in charge, it would seem that things are looking up for them.”
“So it would seem.” Ezra’s voice swims through the air towards him. He isn’t as drunk as Crowley, and sounds a bit tense about something.
“I also heard it was his own guards that got him in the end,” Crowley carries on, poking a bit deeper and trying a bit harder to remain upright. “Imagine that. I wonder what it was that pushed them over the edge.”
“The man was a tyrant,” Ezra says, now sounding deliberately casual. Crowley considers sobering up enough to walk in a straight line. It doesn’t seem worth it. He feels good, and he isn’t about to give that up just because gravity isn’t cooperating.
“Almost seems like a miracle,” he adds.
“Might well have been. You angels are very fond of smiting the wicked,” Ezra says, now sounding downright cold. Crowley stops walking, because it’s getting quite difficult, and slings his arm over Ezra’s shoulder to steady himself. The demon goes very stiff and watches him carefully, like he’s getting ready to defend himself.
“I’m not,” Crowley says, leaning much closer to Ezra’s ear than he really ought under the guise of being too drunk to correct himself. “Fond of smiting, that is.” He can see the small patch of scales on the right side of his throat, and watch the way they shift when he swallows.
“No,” says Ezra, who lets Crowley drape over him like a new toga without much complaint. “No, I suppose you aren’t.”
“T’s not to say I judge it all the time. Flood is one thing, but you know, some people need to be smited. Smote. Smitten?” One of them is right, and Crowley isn’t sure which it is. Ezra relaxes a little bit beneath his arm.
“You think so?” A little bit of his normal voice comes back.
“‘Course. Nasty bastard, he was. Good riddance.” Crowley pats Eza’s chest, since his other shoulder seems to have wandered off somewhere.
“Quite. And it’s hardly even smiting, if the humans are the ones that- you know, commit the act,” Ezra says, and he’s back to normal. “Oh, don’t you think you ought to sober up, before you start to keel over? I really don’t fancy carrying you all the way to the inn.”
Crowley takes a very long moment to consider this. First, he agrees, and thinks about sobering up. But then he thinks that he’s having a good time, which he certainly wasn’t having before. And then he thinks that Ezra’s the only person he could ever do this with, and that he’s cool and soft and he smells a little bit like wine and woodsmoke, and he’d like to keep using him as a crutch, which is difficult to justify when sober.
“No, I don’t think so,” he firmly says, and pulls Ezra along with him down the street again.
“Really, my dear,” Ezra sighs, though he makes no effort to actually remove him. Cool air nudges them down the street to the inn, where Ezra helps him stumble up the stairs and slump onto the bed with a sigh. It’s all very nice and comfortable, except for the moments where he turns his head and the room spins, or when he has to blink and squint very hard to focus on what’s in front of him.
What’s currently in front of him seems to be Ezra’s hand. Crowley’s grabs his wrist before he can pluck his glasses off.
“Well, there’s no sense in you sleeping with them on,” he hears a muffled voice say. Crowley groans, and tries to explain that it’s like if he walked up to Ezra and pulled his clothes off. What actually comes out of his mouth doesn’t seem to match the words he cobbled together in his head, but Ezra huffs and leaves the glasses where they are nonetheless.
He’s held his hand before, in a quiet alley in Egypt, but never seen it quite so close, and never so unmarred. There are a few scratches, but not so many as all that, and for the first time Crowley can appreciate the pattern of his scales close up. They fade seamlessly into his skin, and they’re not wholly black, he realises - there are hints of green and red and gold when he turns his hand in the light. His skin is cool, too. Must come with being cold-blooded. He can feel Ezra shifting awkwardly on the other end of his arm, tensing up like he’s about to snatch it back.
“‘M glad you’re doing good,” he mumbles, and awkwardly pats the hand before letting it go.
“I most certainly am not doing good , Kroliel,” the grey shape somewhere in front of him tuts.
“ Crowley ,” he groans back. That isn’t his name anymore, he isn’t about God and Heaven and perfect straight lines of soldiers, he’s just him, on Earth, trying to have a good time. “I meant-”
“I know what you meant.” There’s a hand on his shoulder for a moment, and when he wakes up in the morning there’s a jug of water and a plate of apples on the table. Damn him. Always reinforcing the barrier. An angel and a demon.
The Roman conquest continues. North, south, east, and bloody west. Always marching around and spreading themselves out with their regiments and shields. There’s something about them that’s inexplicably heavenly, and not in a good way. The strictness of it all, the mathematical precision, the white buildings and titles and rank. It’s all a little bit too perfect. Crowley follows them around Europe, tries the wine, tries the beds. Tries not to lose his mind. It’s all part of the Plan, apparently.
They go north until they can’t anymore, and then they get on a boat and keep going on to Britannia. The Celts that fight back are slaughtered, and the Romans keep going north until they can’t anymore. Not because they’ve reached the sea, but because they’ve reached Scotland. They try very hard about it, and build an awful lot of forts and roads and walls, but rebellion is never completely quashed. Heaven isn’t too concerned about that - they’re more insistent that the south gets properly squared away - in particular, the bit of it that would become England, and even more particularly, the bit of it that would become Tadfield. Crowley isn’t told this, of course, or why this particular bit of this particular island ought to be so particularly important, but he does it anyway.
He lingers in the south for a while. It’s a bit damp, and a bit cold, but it’s not so bad. The main problem he encounters is when Romans look at his red hair and treat him like one of the locals. This becomes a major problem when the locals start to revolt again. Part of him wishes they’d stop, wishes they’d just let this happen because otherwise they’re going to be slaughtered, but he knows that isn’t the point.
There is blood, and fire, and death. And one day, he slips across a burning town in a part of Britannia that will one day be known as Wales to send a reluctant miracle to the aid of the Romans, he sees the worst thing he has ever seen: Ezra, striding through swords and torches and screaming rebels. He’s holding a sword , for God’s sake. He nudges a Roman with a curse that sends him falling straight into the path of a rebel’s dagger. And he watches him die, and he looks up at Crowley with that cold, cold look on his face that he doesn’t understand, and just stares.
The battle happens around them for a long, cold moment while Crowley struggles to understand what he’s seeing. Ezra was doing better, the last time they met, so what the Hell is this? Nudging forward the assassination of a tyrant is one thing, but this? This is so viscerally not him that Crowley can’t even comprehend it.
Ezra mouths his name and the coldness flickers out of his face, and he’s just standing there with a panicked sort of look, like he’s just woken up from a nightmare. By the time Crowley thinks to cross the burning town square to help, he’s gone, leaving only his sword and the Roman’s body. And then, Crowley comes to the uncomfortable realisation that he’s afraid. Not of Ezra, but for him.
If it was any other demon, he wouldn’t even blink. Heaven is supporting the Romans, more or less, so of course there will be demons on the battleground fighting back. That’s what they do. That’s what they’ve been doing since the beginning. But not Ezra. He’s always coasted along, doing the bare minimum of evil and enjoying himself far too much in the process to be capable of any real malice. But that’s always been Crowley’s problem, because after all this time he still doesn’t know what it was that first made Ezra pick up a sword and turn against his brothers in the War. He’s never been able to imagine it. Not until today.
If he was any other angel, he wouldn’t care. But in the last four thousand years, he’s only been able to rely on one thing. Ezra is his friend, and his friend is in trouble, so he has to do something about it.
Chapter 6: The Black Knight
tw for suicidal ideation and self-harm / self-destructive behaviour + brief reference to destructive eating habits.
Crowley proposes The Arrangement for the first time.
It takes another five hundred years before Crowley can actually propose anything, mostly because whenever he finds time to locate where Ezra has been living, he seems to have conveniently disappeared. There’s never anything as murderous as the last time, but things do seem to be a bit more malicious than he’s used to. He arrives in Oxford in 131 to find a woman slapping her cheating husband, and a room at the inn is conspicuously empty. He trudges into London in 287 and there’s a carriage floating in the Thames. He sprints into a bar in Hastings in 409 and finds it in chaos, wine on the floor and a man trying to fight six people at once. The back door hangs open.
He lets his worry for Hell’s fussiest serpent take a back seat for a while, because there’s nothing else he can do. And between his blessings and miracles, he ends up finding himself a nice castle to go to ground in and falling in with Arthur’s lot. The knights remind him of angels in a lot of ways. There’s all the rules, of course. And the killing. And the rules about killing that clearly define when the killing is bad and when it’s quite alright, actually. He could do without the armour, which chafes, and horses never seem to like him, but the outfits can be quite dashing, and the helmets hide his eyes. And because they’re human, the knights don’t get on his back for sleeping every night and drinking every day. They know how to have fun.
There’s an orchard just outside the castle walls. He spends a lot of the summer basking in the sun under fruit trees, feeling the light on his skin like he’s back in Eden. And he’ll watch lords and ladies wander past and pick the fruit, and it’s so very human. See what you want, and take it, and more importantly: share it. One of the trees is dying, though. It’s his favourite, and every time he sits beneath it he nudges it just a little bit back to health. It’s ancient, by apple tree standards: over two hundred years old. It’s not even a tenth of Crowley’s life, but he feels a kinship with it nonetheless. Sometimes, he wonders if the trees in Eden were supposed to live forever, like the humans, and if picking their fruit doomed them, too.
Everything on Earth is so fleeting compared to Heaven. It suits his impatience, but it still scares him. Empires rise and fall, trees grow and die, people are born and fade to dust. He ought to be used to it by now. He appreciates how urgent it makes their lives, and how quickly they have to do everything, but he’s never met a person on the brink of death that hasn’t wondered what they might have done if they’d had more time.
He does have to engage in knightly things occasionally. Mostly, that means answering calls to fix local disputes in the area he’s decided to be a lord of. He really doesn’t mean to be the one that goes after the Black Knight. He didn’t have anything on for the weekend, that’s all, and then Arthur’s saying Sir Crowley, why don’t you check out this Black Knight chap that keeps issuing deadly challenges to our friends, and Crowley’s a bit drunk so he says alright . He has to ride a horse, and everything.
The field is teeming with overdramatic fog that smells just a little bit too much of brimstone to be a coincidence.
“Er-” he addresses the fog. “Hello? I, Sir Crowley, of the Table Round, seek an audience with the Black Knight?” Someone scampers out of the fog, muttering. That’s concerning. “Er- hi. I was looking for the Black Knight?”
And out of the swirling fog he strides.
“You have sought the Black Knight, foolish one! But you have found...your death!” He knows the voice in seconds and suppresses an eye roll at the melodramatics.
“Is that you under there, Ezra?”
“Kroliel?” The demon lifts his visor and blinks very anxiously at him. He looks appropriately guilty, presumably for avoiding him since the revolt. That’s a good thing, since he hopes it means he hasn’t actually lost himself in what he’s been doing.
“ Crowley .” He lifts his own visor and rolls his eyes. It hurts a little that Ezra hasn’t bothered to remember his name. “What the hell are you playing at?” With regards both to his knightly melodrama, and the aforementioned five hundred years of avoidance.
“Well, you know, I’m spreading foment,” Ezra gestures like he’s sprinkling something, and his gauntlet creaks awfully. He doesn’t have that awful cold look that he did in that burning street. He looks embarrassed, and tired. And thankfully, he doesn’t seem to be interested in actually fighting him.
“What’s that, porridge?” That does seem like the kind of thing he’d be spreading.
“No! I’m fomenting dissent and discord. King Arthur’s been spreading too much peace and tranquility in the land, so I’m here, you know…” he waves his hand again. “Fomenting.” He looks nonchalant about that, but in a very deliberate way, like he’s trying to convince both himself and Crowley that it’s completely fine and ordinary thing to be doing.
“Well, I’m meant to be fomenting peace,” Crowley sighs. “So we’re both working very hard in damp places and just cancelling each other out?”
“Well, you could put it like that,” Ezra grumbles. “It is a bit damp.”
Crowley shuffles a bit, puts on his best temptation voice. Personally, he thinks it’s better than Ezra’s, but then he’s only rarely been privy to his actual temptation process.
“Be easier if we both stayed home. If we just sent messages back to our head offices saying we’d done everything they asked for, wouldn’t it?” He tries very hard to convey what he really means: you don’t have to do this. I’m giving you a chance. You don’t have to do any of this.
Ezra stares at him.
“But that would be lying,” he says, like it isn’t obvious.
“Eh, possibly, but the end result would be the same. Cancel each other out.”
“But my dear fellow...well, they’d check,” Ezra says, with a kind of quiet anxiety that tells Crowley he’s actually considering it rather than dismissing it outright. “Dagon’s a bit of a stickler. You don’t want to get Beelzebub upset with you.”
This is good, Crowley thinks. It’s not that Ezra actually wants to do what he’s been doing. He’s not protesting on that front. He’s just worried about getting in trouble. And even on that front, he’s always bent the rules a little bit. He tried to save a burning city, for God’s sake. Since when was that a demonic activity?
“Oh, our lot have better things to do than verifying compliance reports from Earth. As long as they get the paperwork, they seem happy enough. As long as you’re seen to be doing something, every now and again.”
Crowley tries to be casual about it, like he hasn’t spent the last five centuries thinking about this. Ezra frowns at him. He’s thinking about it, Crowley can tell. But then he seems to remember something and shuts the thought away somewhere in his head.
“No! Absolutely not.” Crowley sighs. Stubborn bastard. “I am shocked that you would even imply such a thing. We are not having this conversation. Not another word.” He turns away and stalks off back into the fog.
“Fine,” Crowley says.
“Right,” Ezra calls over his shoulder.
Stubborn bastard , Crowley curses. He can’t tell exactly what it is that’s putting Ezra off. He’s never been one for big changes, of course. And he has been avoiding Crowley - only out of embarrassment, he hopes, but still. But the Ezra from a thousand years ago might have jumped at the chance to not have to do the temptations and curses he’s been told to do. He’s always been about balancing the universe - and neither of them doing the work is the same as both of them doing the work.
Crowley heaves off his helmet and curses again. How dare he avoid him for so long and then bugger off the second Crowley proposes something he doesn’t agree with? They’re supposed to be friends, aren’t they? That’s not the way this is supposed to go. Crowley always finds Ezra, and Ezra always gives him that surprised look and beams at him and they go and drink and get oysters or whatever he’s fawning over that century.
It’s a dance. Crowley takes the role of the benevolent angel, mercifully deigning to bless a demon with his presence, and Ezra acts like the repentant demon, undeserving of the angel’s grace. That isn’t how it really is, obviously, but Ezra always seems to fall back on it. He needs the assurance of the divide, of Good and Evil and Heaven and Hell. God knows he’d find life easier if he scrapped the whole thing and did whatever he bloody wanted, but for some reason he can’t. And Crowley’s been fine with that, he’s been patient. But it’s starting to get tiring, always having to meet Ezra where he is, and never being met himself.
It’s not as though he has a choice, though. He can’t force Ezra to do anything, and if he did, he’s afraid he might lose him. It’s just the two of them, and he realises with a sort of cold feeling that it has been for quite a long time now.
So then, between falling off horses and pretending he has any interest in physical combat, he tries to tell himself that of course Ezra has no regard for his feelings, he’s a demon. They don’t do feelings. They aren’t capable of love. But that doesn’t really help, because he’s seen Ezra cry at a burning city he couldn’t save, and he’s watched him hurt himself for so long that it became a habit, and he’s seen him smile dizzyingly at silly things like peaches and rain. So he knows Ezra has feelings. And that makes it worse, in fact. Because he doesn’t seem to care about Crowley’s.
Things are starting to get sticky with the other knights. He usually manages to complete his knightly deeds with a miracle or two, just enough to make it look like he actually used his sword for it. But they’ve got this complicated chivalry business going, and something in there must say that he ought to be doing some actual fighting every now and again, because the other knights are starting to look at him funny. Especially since none of the others wear tinted glasses or spend quite so much time sleeping under apple trees.
And when, one evening, the doors to Arthur’s great hall are thrown open and the Black Knight strides in, Crowley’s year goes from bad to worse.
(Incidentally, a lot of Arthur’s anecdotes seem to begin with mysterious knights strolling into the castle. This may be because Arthur annoys a lot of people so much that they feel the need to make uninvited house calls.)
The knight paces up to the table, where Arthur has risen to his feet with a steely look. Everyone in the kingdom is familiar with the Black Knight’s formidable sword. The rumours make Crowley a little ill. He hears whispers: the Black Knight leaves no survivors.
“What business have you in my court, sir?” Arthur asks. Ezra pushes up the visor of his helmet, and it clangs down again before he can talk. The noise echoes painfully, and several of the knights wince. He lifts it up again.
“Hello,” he says, with a polite smile. He’s mostly addressing Arthur, but gives a side glance to Crowley every few seconds. He seems to remember that he’s supposed to be intimidating and puts on a bit of a lower voice that rumbles in his helmet. “I have come to issue...a challenge .” Crowley, for the first time in about two thousand years, stands up straight.
“Name your challenge.” Arthur tiredly says. He’s usually the one that gets heaped with mysterious challenges from mysterious knights, and Crowley is usually the one that has to make sure he doesn’t get his head cut off before Heaven is satisfied with his work.
Ezra winks, and Crowley’s mind goes blank. He’s so utterly confused by whatever madness is occurring here that when Ezra removes his gauntlet and drops it in front of him, he doesn’t even register what it means for a good few seconds.
“Er-” He looks from the black gauntlet to Ezra, who is smiling more or less like a child involved in a very exciting conspiracy to steal a muffin from a bakery. The other knights are glancing at each other, whispering. Ezra gives him a look that tries very hard to contain about four different meanings at once, all of which seem obvious to him but none of which can even possibly begin to occur to Crowley, who just stares at him. He sighs and puts on a very patient voice.
“A fight to the death at sunrise. Yes or no, dear?” Crowley stares at Ezra. Ezra looks encouragingly at Crowley. Everyone else stares at them both.
“ What? ” There is no way he can say no to this without looking like a monumental coward - which he is - or without looking like a bad knight - which he is, but for some reason Heaven thinks he’s qualified to impersonate one. What on earth does Ezra think he’s doing?
“Do you accept?” Ezra says, looking very pointedly at the gauntlet. Crowley hurriedly snatches it up. “Excellent.” And then he winks - at Crowley - and turns back to Arthur. “Lovely castle you’ve got, dear chap. I adore the tapestries. Though you ought to do something about that awful draught.”
Arthur, if he were not a king and therefore required to be somewhat polite to everybody, might then have asked him what on earth he was on about. But because he is a king, and therefore required not to ask people what on earth they’re on about, he just smiles and thanks him and offers him lodging for the night, because that’s apparently the chivalrous thing to do when a murderous knight turns up in your castle demanding a fight to the death. Crowley waits as long as he can handle (about thirty seconds - patience is not one of his heavenly virtues) and storms into the rooms he’s staying in.
“What the hell are you playing at?” Crowley slams the gauntlet onto the table and the whole thing rattles. They do not get involved in each other’s work. They certainly do not fight. And they most certainly do not fight to the death at sunrise in awfully uncomfortable suits of armour.
“I don’t suppose you could give me a hand with this, could you?” Ezra is fiddling with the fastenings of his chestplate, focusing on himself in the mirror.
“Give you a hand- what on Earth do you think you’re doing?” Crowley can barely get the words out of his mouth fast enough.
“Well, I would have thought that was obvious.” Ezra does not look at him, nor think to elaborate on what he considers to be obvious.
“You’ve been wandering all over Wessex murdering humans, and now you come here to what? Discorporate me? Sorry, but what the fuck is that?”
Ezra makes eye contact with Crowley in the mirror.
“What are you talking about?”
“‘ The Black Knight leaves no survivors ’? That’s what all the stories say.” Ezra has the gall to look hurt by that, and turns away to put his chestplate on the table. He pulls off his gloves, and sits down to untie his boots.
“You really mustn’t believe everything you hear,” he says, like he’s talking about a bad newspaper article and not about the many corroborated reports that he’s killed men in duels. “If there are no survivors, then where do all the stories come from?”
Ezra removes the last few awkward pieces of armour around his legs and puts them delicately on the table, leaving himself sitting in the chair in a thin shirt and trousers. Crowley considers yelling at him again, but then he sees him scrape unconsciously at his hands. Even the pale skin there is covered in raw red lines again. He takes a deep breath and puts his anger aside for a moment. Ezra has come to him, for once, and he looks more exhausted than he’s ever seen him. He doesn’t want to discourage him.
“What’s this nonsense about, then? You’re not going to discorporate me?”
“Of course I’m not going to discorporate you! Really, Crowley,” Ezra huffs. He reaches over the table to a plate of fruit in the centre, and picks up an apple. “I’m here because you were right. This fomenting business isn’t going to get us anywhere when we’re working against each other in such a small place.”
“I’m sorry, can you say that again? I’m sure I must have misheard. Did the demon Ezra, the most stubborn bastard this side of Hell, just say that I was right?” Ezra scowls and fiddles with the apple, rolling it around in his hands rather than eating it.
“Oh, hush. I still don’t think we ought to stop working entirely. It’s just on this particular matter that I think we ought to come to some kind of arrangement .”
“And this arrangement involves a fight to the death at sunrise? I never knew you had such a flair for the dramatic.”
“Well, one of us needs to be seen to lose, so we can get this over with and be reassigned. It may as well be me. Once I’m discorporated, you’ll have the confidence of the other knights, and Heaven will no doubt be pleased that you’ve thwarted my demonic wiles.”
He may still be talking, but Crowley can’t hear him.
“Once you’re discorporated?” He repeats, cutting off whatever he’s been saying.
“Yes, dear, do try to keep up.”
“I’m not discorporating you.”
“Why not?” Ezra is looking at him like he’s being ridiculous, like he should be perfectly fine with running him through with a sword in front of a crowd of humans, like he should be grateful because Heaven will pat him on the back for it. He imagines it, only for a moment: grey eyes going dull, lips slackening, hands lying still on the ground. He feels sick.
“Wh- why- what do you mean, why not?”
“I mean, what seems to be the problem? It is the most convenient option.”
“Yes! And would you stop repeating what I’m saying? It’s awfully unnerving.” Ezra frowns at him and scratches the scales on his neck, the large patch on the left side that, now Crowley looks at it, perfectly matches the shape of his hand. His fingers are cut and scratched again, littered with small, raw wounds that have been picked open over and over. He looks exhausted, and awkward, and guilty. And he thinks Crowley is going to kill him because it’s convenient.
“You bastard,” Crowley breathes, and Ezra blinks up at him and he just wants to yell, but he has to restrain himself again. “I am not going to be a tool you use to punish yourself.”
“Really, Crowley, that isn’t-” He protests but he’s picking at a scab on his neck and he won’t look him in the eye.
“Prove it, then. It would be just as convenient for you to discorporate me, wouldn’t it? If this is just about convenience, you’ll have no trouble going out there and killing me. Hell would love you for it. You’re always so anxious to please them.” Ezra twists the apple between his fingers, staring at the floor. “Go on, then. Say it. Say it’s just about convenience and I’ll go out there in the morning and let you run me through.”
Ezra places the apple very carefully on the table and picks at his hands. He says nothing.
There’s blood running down his fingers now. Crowley grabs his wrist to stop him scratching open his skin any further, and he jerks out of the chair, staggering away. He ends up next to the window, where the cool moonlight flows in and tussles with the flickering flame to trace his silhouette. Crowley hears pounding in his head, and his own breathing fills his ears.
What hurts is that Ezra came here looking for salvation, thinking he’d find not from Crowley himself, but from his divine absolution. He watches him lower his head, curl up on himself and scrape his fingers deep into the black skin on his neck. A breeze sighs through the window. A drop of blood runs down his elbow and hits the floor.
Crowley turns and storms out.
The arena fills with observers by dawn. Soft light grows and drapes itself over the trees and the castle walls as the sun gradually rises.
Ezra feels absolutely wretched. It’s been getting worse for years now, ever since that Celtic revolt against the Romans. Perhaps even since the Crucifixion. He got too invested, too emotional. He’s always worried about the oppressed, the rebels, the ones that don’t get a chance to speak for themselves, but never before has he actually involved himself. Not since the War. That was a mistake. After the revolt, he wanted nothing more than to forget everything. That he was once an angel, that he ever had any hope of doing some good in the world. He did his job, and that was all.
He drank through a lot of those years. Sometimes he wouldn’t eat, and that made him feel empty and sick. Other times he couldn’t stop eating until he threw up, and that made him feel worse. Demons are all about punishment, though. His whole existence has been four thousand years of punishment. One night he strode into an empty church and stared at the altar while his feet burned. He drank the wine and ate the bread and it all burned. He scratched at the ugly scales that litter his body until he ripped them out, and they grew back harder and rougher.
Nothing helped, and he knew in the back of his head that Crowley would help, if he could just let Crowley find him then he could feel better, but he didn’t want that. He didn’t want to be better or feel better or feel anything at all.
He did his job and drifted around the country and he hid from Crowley, but Crowley found him anyway. Crowley, who was still so kind to him. So he thought he would be kind enough to fix him. He came to the castle ready to discorporate, to start over with a new body with no history attached and find a patch of the world to be utterly emotionless in.
Ezra’s heart pounds when Crowley strides into the arena. The crowd descends into flurries of whispers, and Crowley draws his sword, his face blank. Ezra draws his. There’s no reason to be so afraid. All they’re going to do is exchange a few blows, and when Crowley beats him, he’ll discorporate. It’s not as though he’s actually, properly dying. They lower their visors.
Arthur stands and raises his hand. The crowd breathes in. He drops it.
Nothing happens for a moment. Crowley stands there, swinging his sword back and forth. But then he’s darting forward and Ezra parries. He grabs Crowley’s weapon and wrests it from him by using his body as a counterweight. And then he’s holding both swords with a dumb feeling, because surely Crowley knew he was going to do that. Crowley goes still, also apparently confused. Ezra does the polite thing and holds the blade out, handle-first. Crowley takes it and tries again, and this time Ezra dodges around and slams his own blade into his helmet.
He keeps forgetting that this isn’t actually a real fight. It’s the instinct, he supposes, still wired into him after thousands of years.
Crowley curses and jabs his sword forward, directly at his chest plate. Ezra parries easily, wondering what on earth he’s thinking by charging straight at his most armoured points, and hopes they don’t both look like a pair of fools because Crowley insists on fighting like a child. He really did look very dashing with that flaming sword, all those years ago, and Ezra’s quite keen to see him in action. Even if that action discorporates him.
“You just ought to go for it,” he tries to say when they get close again, and the worst Crowley’s done is hit his armoured thigh like he’s swinging a mallet. “I’m no principality, but I can hold my own.”
He can’t see Crowley’s face beneath the visor, so he has no idea what his actual response to that is. All he sees is Crowley’s elbow coming up to hit him in the face, which he ducks, and then slides his leg out to trip him over.
“Really, dear,” he exclaims, as Crowley ends up on his back. He circles him, thinking it only polite to let him get back up again.
“There isn’t meant to be this much talking,” Crowley groans, and pushes himself to his feet.
“There wouldn’t be if you weren’t swinging your sword about like a child!”
He finds himself getting annoyed and slashes out when Crowley gets up. He blocks, but staggers. Crowley hits back and it lands easily on his blade. Then again, on his gauntlet, and his chest, and easily blocked by his sword. In the meantime, he puts in a few good hits that ought to be easily blocked, but Crowley doesn’t catch them.
“Come on, Crowley. This doesn’t need to go on!” And then he realises what’s happening here. It’s not that Crowley is going easy on him. He’s not protecting Ezra from himself. He genuinely doesn’t know how to fight.
His hands go limp. He’s not going to kill an angel. Never again.
“No,” he says, and tosses his sword to the dust. He unfastens his helmet and throws it off, too, letting the cool morning breeze run through his sweaty hair. “I won’t fight you.”
He drops to his knees in front of Crowley, who approaches with his sword still in his hand. He pulls off his own helmet, and long red hair streams out in curls. He looks up at Crowley as calmly as he can manage, and smiles. He knows Crowley hates this position, where he has to be a righteous angel and Ezra has to be the lowly demon. So he smiles up at him, waiting for the blade to drop, and shows him as honestly as he can that he trusts him. This is where they had to end up, the angel and the serpent. It’s been overdue since Eden. He trusts Crowley to make the right decision. He closes his eyes, and in that in this moment, he doesn’t care what that decision is.
“Stop this,” Crowley begs, and what kind of a creature is he that can make an angel beg when he’s the one on his knees? His voice is close, and Ezra opens his eyes to see Crowley is crouching right in front of him, eyes boring into his.
“It’s alright. Go ahead. I deserve it,” he says, nodding to his sword. Crowley curses and tosses it aside. His hands find Ezra’s shoulders and he feels him shaking through the armour.
“Don’t be an idiot. If you were so wretchedly evil, you would’ve just killed me.” I am, I am, I am . He remembers a body drenched in golden blood at his feet, he remembers a sword clattering to the ground. He remembers slithering through grass and ripping out his scales.
“Then what am I ?”
“You’re supposed to be my friend .” He practically snarls it. Ezra wants so badly to say to stay in the dirt and die. He wants to start again, far away from here. But when he looks up at Crowley, at the morning sun casting light through his red hair, he sees fear in those golden eyes. He is hurting the holiest creature he has ever seen and suddenly what he wants isn’t important at all.
He takes Crowley’s hand, and he pulls him to his feet. Their swords remain on the ground.
The crowd is confused, understandably, and they both make it out with Crowley’s odd reputation only growing odder. Ezra declines the king’s invitation to remain. It would not do to be seen in close company with an angel for too long. He’s due to ride for London, and is making the final preparations for his horse. A regretful necessity, horses, but he tries not to hold their discomfort against them.
“So…” Crowley’s leaning against the stable wall, divested of armour now and looking much more comfortable for it. It does tend to chafe. He is wearing those funny tinted spectacles, like he had in Rome, and Ezra is beginning to dislike them. He misses being able to see those golden eyes. It’s harder to read Crowley’s thoughts without them. “You mentioned an arrangement .”
“Before you ask, no. I am not going to ignore my orders, nor do I think you should ignore yours.” The punishment for him Downstairs would undoubtedly be immeasurable, and he can’t conceive of the guilt he’d feel if Crowley were to Fall because he’d been caught making a deal with a demon.
“What I was going to say was that I’ve got some work to do in London.” Crowley’s got a positively devilish look about him, and he’s talking deliberately casually. He pushes himself off the wall and circles around the horse to stand as close to Ezra as one can get without actually touching. “I was thinking that it’s a bit of a waste, both of us getting into a mess here and then getting into another one up in London.”
“Perhaps,” Ezra says. He isn’t sure he likes where Crowley’s suggestive voice is taking him.
“I was thinking,” Crowley slowly says, “that it’s only a very quick blessing I’ve got to do.”
“You’re suggesting- oh, Crowley, no. That’s ridiculous.” He sighs very pointedly to express his very pointed frustration on the matter. “Think of the trouble we’d both be in if we were found out!”
“No-one has to know. It’s not even five minutes. Just a quick blessing, and you’re done.”
“But- well, my dear boy, it’s not as though I can perform blessings like you can. I’m a demon.” Crowley only shrugs.
“Just think of it like a very polite curse, then.” Ezra sighs and picks his hands. He couldn’t actually do that, could he? Demonic powers are a corruption of angelic ones - which means they do come from the same original stock. But he is not of God any longer, and he is constantly damaging everything around him. Even Crowley.
“But what if it stains? Taints this person’s soul? It could put the whole Plan out of order if just one person is treated incorrectly, you know.”
“You think too much.”
“Pot, kettle, black?” Ezra points at him. Crowley rolls his eyes. He can’t see, behind the glasses, but Crowley has a way of doing things with his whole body that makes it difficult to miss.
“You won’t taint anything,” Crowley says, looking at him a bit too keenly for his liking. “Look, it doesn’t matter who does it, as long as it gets done.”
The trouble is, Ezra is very seriously considering it. He can do his own job, and Crowley’s, and keep the balance. And at the same time, he can feel a scrap of divinity, something tangible, something with only a minimal risk attached. Something he’s longed for since he Fell. It’s been locked away in a box with his old name since Moses and the desert, but the selfish desire for everything holy forces its way out into his head again. Crowley knows it. Maybe he can see it in the way Ezra looks at him, his longing for just a tiny bit of something good to clear his sins.
His hands itch and he scratches at the tip of his finger. Crowley leans over and before he can stop him, he’s miracled the scratches away, leaving his hands warm and smooth. His fingers tingle a little from the electric touch of something holy. Crowley is just watching, and he stares up at him in awe. He’ll never understand why this angel has chosen to be so kind to him.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Well, now you owe me one,” Crowley says, with a grin. He probably doesn’t mean it, but that’s what it takes for Ezra to breathe in and make a decision. He is a demon. Demons make deals, demons trade things.
“Yes, I suppose I do.”
“Is that a yes?” Crowley asks. He’s holding out an apple as red as his hair. Ezra rolls his eyes. Always the theatrics.
“Yes, alright. We have an arrangement. Now, don’t go shouting about it, or I shall be horribly cross.” Agreeing is worth it just for the smile on Crowley’s face when he takes the apple. Usually he finds miracled foods to be less satisfying than organic ones, but this time, perhaps because it’s angelic, or perhaps just because it’s Crowley’s, it’s perfect.
Crowley grins at him. “We’ll make an angel of you yet.”
Chapter 7: London
Crowley and Aziraphale move to London and the Arrangement develops.
Crowley likes London. He’s a fan of cities in general, but London in particular is full of so much that he never gets bored, and he’s decided to settle here for a while. It makes sense, since Upstairs have established a business entrance for the head office down here. It’s an old place. Well, every place is old. But it’s one of those places with thousands of years of history just sitting underneath it, and it’s easier to notice it when you’ve lived and breathed that history yourself.
Between miracles, he prefers looking at the river or the botanical gardens or getting absolutely plastered, but he won’t object to comedy, if it’s good. Sometimes it’s better if it’s bad, because the crowd loudly tell the actors so. Proper theatre, however, is such an Ezra thing to love that he almost rolls his eyes when he gets a note telling him that if he’d like to meet, he’s likely to be at the Globe most days that week. Something about a wonderful new play he’s in love with. Crowley’s just glad there’ll be crowds to blend in with. Now that he and Ezra have settled in the same place, spending time together is both more frequent and more risky. If he gets summoned back to Heaven with the smell of hellfire on his doublet there’ll be Hell to pay.
(That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to spend time with him, of course - he’s always surprised and touched when Ezra sends him a note about this or that he’d like him to come and see. It just means he has to keep an eye out. They both do.)
This is why, when he strides into the Globe with a proposition for Ezra and sees about six people in the whole building observing the farcical tragedy happening on stage, he sighs.
“I thought you said we’d be inconspicuous here. Blend in among the crowds,” he says, when he reaches Ezra, who’s eating some grapes and looking very pleased with himself. He’s got one of those fashionable ruffs that covers his whole neck, and some very expensive-looking gloves.
“Well, that was the idea,” Ezra says, looking a bit dejected at the turnout. Crowley squints at the stage. There’s only one actor on it, monologuing, and no-one is laughing. Oh no .
“This isn’t one of Shakespeare’s gloomy ones, is it? Oh, no wonder nobody’s here.” He groans, and Ezra shoots him a disapproving look. He loves the gloomy ones, for reasons Crowley does not understand. Something about art and beauty and truth and the inherent tragedy of the human condition. Ezra practically shushes him when he sees the playwright himself wandering over, and he prays that this isn’t a new age tragedy with audience participation.
“Prithee gentles, might I request a small favour?” Crowley resists a joke about making a deal with the devil, which he knows Ezra would scowl at. “Could you, in your role as ‘the audience’, give us a bit more to work with?” .
“You mean, like when the ghost of his father came on, and I said ‘he’s behind you!’.” Crowley smiles, because of course he did, but makes sure Ezra can’t see it. He’ll probably think he’s laughing at him. Well, he is, a bit, but only because he’s so earnest and engaging in a world that becoming irredeemably cynical, and Crowley can’t help smiling at him. He’s jealous, sometimes, of how much he loves things. And knowing Ezra, he’ll have befriended Shakespeare and had three plays written about him by the end of the month.
“Just so, that was jolly helpful. Made everyone on stage feel appreciated. A bit more of that.” He backs away again, to address the actor. “Good master Burbage, please, speak the lines trippingly!”
Burbage looks as exasperated with the play as the theatre itself is for having it performed there.
“I am wasting my time up here!” He hisses.
“No, no, you’re very good!” Ezra calls up. “I love all the…” he waves his grapes a bit. “Talking.”
“And what does your friend think?”
“Oh, he’s not my friend. We’ve never met before. We don’t know each other,” Ezra insists, like they’ve been caught robbing a bank together. Crowley grins. Still a terrible liar.
“I think you should get on with the play.” Shakespeare hurries him on, and he starts again about being and not being and suffering the eternal torment of being alive. And that is the question, isn’t it? Whether being alive is worth the pain of living. Or whether living is worth the pain of being alive. One or the other. That does sound familiar, but he doesn’t know why Ezra enjoys hearing about it. They’ve both lived it for five thousand years now.
“To be!” Ezra calls. “I mean, not to be! Come on, Hamlet, buck up!” He turns to Crowley for some encouragement, and he raises his eyebrows back. “He’s very good, isn’t he?” he leans over to murmur.
“Age does not wither, nor custom stale his infinite variety,” Crowley sarcastically says. Then, he starts to pace around. Ezra glances at him with a mistrustful look.
“What do you want?” He asks. Crowley grins back.
“Whyever would you insinuate that I might possibly want something?”
“You’re up to no good,” Ezra says, and then frowns. “Or up to good , I suppose.”
“Obviously. You’re up to no good, I take it? Lots of evil deeds?”
“No rest for the wicked,” Ezra says, with a mischievous smile. That’s a good start. He’s in a receptive mood, then.
“I have to be in Edinburgh at the end of the week,” Crowley says.
“Couple of blessings to do, a minor miracle to perform. Apparently, I have to ride a horse,” he says, trying to elicit sympathy. Ezra does wince convincingly, though it is a bit like the face he puts on when Hamlet gets to a particularly gloomy moment. “Hard on the buttocks, horses. Major design flaw, if you ask me.” Ezra raises an eyebrow, sensing the complaints have a purpose.
“I’m meant to be heading to Edinburgh too, this week,” he says, testing out the words as though he’s pretty sure he’s going to regret saying them, and is doing so against his better (worse) nature. “Tempting a clan leader to steal some cattle.”
“Doesn’t sound like hard work,” Crowley says. In the background, Burbage is going on about the pangs of despised love. He swallows. “Which is why I thought we should…” Ezra shoots him a sharp look. “Well, it’s a bit of a waste of effort, both of us going all the way to Scotland.”
“You cannot be suggesting...what I infer...you’re implying.” Ezra takes on a sort of anxious look, tinted with just a little bit of hope. Crowley knows he loves doing his miracles and blessings. He just takes a bit of convincing every time to remind him that it’s not as dangerous as he makes it out to be.
“That just one of us goes to Edinburgh, does both. The blessing and the tempting.”
“We’ve done it before,” Crowley reminds him. It’s always the same dance, ever since that day he suggested it in Arthur’s stables, a thousand years ago now. It’s beginning to feel like convincing a toddler to eat his vegetables. “Dozens of times, now. The Arrangement…”
“Don’t say that!” Ezra glances back at the stage, like Beelzebub might appear on it and smite him. As if anyone other than him is actually paying attention to a word that’s being said in the Globe right now.
“Our respective head offices don’t actually care how things get done. They just want to know they can cross it off the list.”
“But if Heaven finds out, they won’t just be angry,” Ezra says, with that broken, worried look. “You could Fall.” This is a more recent worry Ezra seems to be having. Either that or he’s always worried about it, and is just now starting to worry vocally about it. Either way, Crowley is starting to tire of that argument, too. Heaven has better things to do than monitor his whereabouts day and night. As long as things get done, he’s left to his own devices.
“Nobody ever has to know. Toss you for Edinburgh.” Crowley holds up a coin. Ezra looks glumly at it for a moment, doing the same mental arithmetic he always does.
“Fine. Tails.” He straightens himself out and tries to look even more proper than usual. Crowley flips the coin.
“Heads. You’re going to Scotland.” Ezra sighs, but doesn’t complain. Crowley glances at him out of the corner of his eye, and he can see a little glimmer of excitement there when he looks back at the stage that is wholly unrelated to the play.
On the other side of the theatre, the play’s author bemoans the turnout.
“It’s been like this every performance, Juliet. Complete dud. It would take a miracle to get anyone to come and see Hamlet.” And Ezra turns and looks at Crowley with that desperately hopeful face that he can’t ever say no to.
“Yes, alright. I’ll do that one. My treat.”
“Oh, really?” Ezra beams like starlight. It’s unfair, really, how far Crowley is willing to go to see him smile like that more often. He’s a hundred miles away from the misery he was in before they started the Arrangement. Part of it is finding a home - he knows Ezra likes to settle in places for a long, long time. Part of it is the Arrangement, and the chance that he can do the occasional miracle. They can’t swap jobs too regularly, though. Ezra still refuses if he suggests it too soon after the last one. (Crowley’s worked out that ‘too soon’ means anywhere from three months to three years afterwards) and it isn’t safe to do it noticeably often.
It’s complicated, though. Ezra lights up when he gets to do good things, and Crowley would do anything to keep that smile on his face, but he’s still ashamed of it, and terrified of being caught. So it’s always difficult, even after the standard interval has passed, to convince him to turn out a little blessing or miracle once in a while.
There’s a barrier between them. There has to be, or at least that’s what Ezra would insist. They are on opposite sides. Their friendship is dangerous enough as it is without getting any closer. So he keeps his looks of longing to himself, and pretends he doesn’t notice when Ezra does the same. However, after an unpleasant incident during the Spanish Inquisition, Crowley has discovered a loophole in Ezra’s barrier: he has no problem ignoring the rules to save his life.
So, after years of back-and-forth where Crowley does a quick temptation in Dundee and Ezra reluctantly agrees to perform a miracle in Portsmouth, he finds himself locked in the Bastille, dressed in the most ridiculously expensive coat he could find, listening to a maniac enthuse about the guillotine.
Time stops in the cell, and Crowley suppresses a smile.
“Oh, good lord .” Ezra is standing in the corner with his hands behind his back, making a disapproving expression like a parent who’s caught their child making a horrible mess. Crowley definitely sees his grey eyes give him a once-over before remembering that he’s supposed to be cross. “What in Hell’s name have you landed yourself in now, Crowley?”
“Well, you know how it is. Can’t get good wine these days anywhere but Paris.”
“So you just popped across the Channel during a revolution because you wanted to get drunk? Dressed like that?” Crowley just smiles innocently. “I’d heard they were getting a bit carried away over here.”
“Yeah, this is not getting carried away. This is cutting off a lot of people’s heads very efficiently with a big head-cutting machine.” Ezra frowns at him. He’s always disliked Crowley being vulgar about death.
“Why don’t you just perform another miracle and go home?” He asks. Crowley only lies a little bit.
“I was reprimanded last month. They said I’d performed too many ‘frivolous’ miracles. Got a strongly worded note from Gabriel.” He can tell Ezra’s not quite sold on that. He did get a note, but he’s had hundreds of the things over the years and has never actually got into proper trouble. And there’s definitely a clause that allows for extra miracle usage in the event of saving one’s corporation from being beheaded.
“You’re lucky I was in the area,” Ezra says, still disapproving.
“I suppose I am. Why are you here? I thought you were opening a bookshop,” Crowley asks, knowing full well why. They both pretend they don’t monitor what the other is doing.
“I was. I got peckish. If you must know, it was the crepes. And the brioche.” Crowley raises his eyebrows.
“Dressed like that?” Ezra is only marginally less extravagantly dressed than him, and only because Crowley made a particular effort to get noticed that morning. He’s got a high collar that covers most of his throat.
“I have standards.” Ezra’s face twitches a bit and he doesn’t look so satisfied with himself. “My lot sent me a commendation for outstanding job performance.”
“So all this is your demonic work?” Crowley teases. He knows it isn’t.
“No! The humans thought it up themselves, nothing to do with me.” He clicks his fingers to release Crowley’s chains.
“I suppose I should say thank you, angel ,” Crowley drawls. Ezra goes red and sighs very pointedly. The first time Crowley called him that was after he helped him out of Spain during the Inquisition. Ezra had looked like he’d been slapped, but with the barest hint of being a bit pleased about it. The interval he has to wait to call him angel without getting snapped at is about ten times as long as the interval between asking him to do miracles, but just as worth it for the flustered look he gets.
“I’ve told you how I feel about that . And if my people hear I rescued an angel, I’ll be the one in trouble. My lot don’t send rude notes.” Ezra points at the ground like Beelzebub might rise out of it. Crowley’s explained a thousand times that unless he does something incredibly suspicious, nobody’s going to put surveillance out on him. Nobody’s got the time.
“Well, anyway, I’m very grateful,” he says, standing up now. Ezra tries to keep frowning but Crowley can tell it’s because he feels like he ought to, rather than because he’s actually cross. “How about if I buy you lunch?”
That usually does the job. Ezra’s eyes rake over him.
“Dressed like that?”
Crowley clicks his fingers and his clothes are replaced with more ordinary ones.
“Barely counts as a miracle, really.” He says, when Ezra frowns. He suspects that at this point, Ezra might have an idea of what he’s doing, but he knows he won’t mention it. He’s happy to be useful, and that’s all Crowley wants for him.
“What’s for lunch?” Ezra asks.
“What would you say to some crepes?”
The moment he opens his bookshop, it’s like coming home. It’s warm and cluttered and cosy, and the serpentine instinct that he can’t quite shake off feels like curling up in a nest in the window. It’s perfect. He’s always had a yearning to find a more permanent home, and the worst times of his life have been when he’s had to drift around the country without a proper base to return to. He still shudders thinking about the centuries he spent in misery after the Roman conquest of Britain, drifting up and down after his work. But now he’s got a place that’s entirely his, and he has no intention of giving it up.
Crowley asks him what the A. Z. in A. Z. Fell and Co stands for, and he just stammers a bit. His old name lingers in the back of his head.
“Just to make it look official, dear,” he says.
He’s always been drawn to water, too, ever since Eden, and here there is the Thames. It isn’t exactly clean and pure like the rivers of Eden, but he loves it nonetheless. There are ponds and lakes all around the place in gardens and parks that he likes to spend an afternoon strolling around. If Crowley’s in a good mood, he might be able to invite him for a covert duck feeding, as well. London seems good for both of them.
Crowley’s all rigid, staring at the water but not really seeing it. He’s taken to wearing these rather hideous glasses with panels that cover his eyes from the sides as well as the front. It was his idea to meet today.
“I need a favour.” Ah, a miracle he needs doing. Ezra tenses just a little bit.
“We already have the agreement, Crowley. Stay out of each other’s way. Lend a hand, when needed.” He has to recite it often, to remind himself of their position. They’re friends, yes, but Crowley’s divinity burns hot and ever-present between them. No matter how fiercely he’s drawn to it, Ezra cannot allow himself to get any closer. It would spell disaster for both of them.
“This is something else. For if it all goes pear-shaped.” That reminds him of a lovely restaurant he’s been meaning to take Crowley to, just down the road from his bookshop.
“I like pears,” he absently says. Crowley doesn’t even roll his eyes, which is a bad sign. He has been awfully glum these past few years. Ezra wonders if he isn’t as suited to London as he thought. It’s a dirty place, full of corruption and consumption and death. Most of which isn’t even Ezra’s fault.
“For if it all goes wrong. I want insurance.” Ezra adjusts his high collar, making sure it’s still covering the scales on his neck.
“What?” A piece of paper is pushed into his hands. He sighs and unfolds it. Crowley has always been a bit fond of playing up the dramatic intrigue of their meetings like they’re government agents working for the crown.
“I wrote it down. Walls have ears. Well, not walls. Trees have ears. Ducks have ears. Do ducks have ears? Must do, that’s how they hear other ducks.”
The note holds one word, in Crowley’s scratchy writing: hellfire . Crowley is rambling, and it’s hitting Ezra sort of like a plate of cold spaghetti hits a wall.
“Out of the question.” He pushes it back at Crowley. He doesn’t even want to look at the word.
“It would destroy you. I’m not bringing you a suicide pill, Crowley.”
“That’s not what I want it for. Just insurance.” Crowley thrusts the paper back at him. Insurance, he says. Like it’s nothing. Like it’s just a quick favour for Ezra to dredge up something vile and unholy from inside himself and hand it over so he can- what? An awful, sickening realisation crawls up his throat. Crowley would rather kill himself than Fall. Crowley would rather burn himself out of existence than become like him. And he wants to use Ezra, the awful thing he's trying not to become, to help him do it.
“I’m not an idiot, Crowley.” He points at the ground. “Do you know what trouble I’d be in if they knew I’d been- fraternising? It’s completely out of the question.”
“Fraternising?” Crowley snarls back. So he’s in that sort of mood, then, where everything Ezra says is something to be poked at.
“Well, whatever you wish to call it. I do not think there is any point in discussing it further.”
“I have lots of other people to fraternise with, angel.” He glares back. Just like Crowley to whip out that infernal nickname just when he knows it will hurt him.
“Oh, of course you do.”
“I don’t need you.” What a perfectly wonderful life he must have when he doesn’t have to stoop to Ezra’s level and demand awful things of him.
“And the feeling is mutual. Obviously.” He tosses the note into the pond and makes sure it catches fire when he leaves.
He can’t remember the last time he was so angry. Most things slide off him as a minor annoyance, but Crowley has always had a way of getting under his skin. Of course he, the divine and perfect and holy angel, can’t be expected to even discorporate a demon in a fair duel, but Ezra ought to be perfectly alright with conjuring a weapon for Crowley to destroy himself with.
The door rattles when it slams, and he tosses his hat onto the coatstand. The curtains, knowing what’s good for them, whip themselves shut across the windows and the sign on the door flips to ‘closed’.
Most of the time, he’s pleasantly cool. It comes with being cold-blooded, and there are only a few things he can do about it. He can sit in the sun. He can stand near Crowley, and feel divine warmth rolling off him. He can stand in a church and burn the skin from his feet. He can stand in hellfire. Or, as he is currently doing, he can get angry. He hates very few things, because it’s a lot of effort, but he truly hates being like this. Hating it doesn’t do him much good, because it only makes him angrier. But it’s a Hellish instinct he can’t always control, to poke at irritation until it becomes ugly rage and then poke at it until it burns hot and things fall apart around him.
He yanks off his gloves and throws them onto the desk. For a very long time, he grips the back of his chair and stares down at his hands, trying not to set the whole shop on fire. Flames flicker in his head, push up in his hands, begging to be released. He’s a demon, he’s a serpent of the pit, this is his nature. A nature so awful Crowley would rather obliterate himself than endure.
Fine. He swallows and shoves it all down again. The fire screams but he won’t let it out. Fine . Crowley doesn’t need him, and he doesn’t need Crowley. He has his own life. He has his shop and his books, he has work to do. Politicians to influence, criminals to tempt. He has the whole human world to himself. None of that need include a bitter old angel who swings from ignoring his nature, and letting him play at miracles and blessings, to despising it and forcing him to use it for pure evil.
He quite enjoys his life, really. He tempts, he curses, he meets interesting people, and at the end of it he comes home to the shop with a quiet book. Calling it a shop is probably a mistake, since he has very little intention of selling anything. He doesn’t need the money, and besides, it can be quite entertaining to watch other book collectors lose their minds trying to convince him to sell. He goes to banks and talks circles around the clerks about investments made in the 1600s that he still ought to be seeing profits from. They don’t know how, but the contracts are always correct. He never leaves the shop without a pair of gloves on.
Sometimes, he follows trails of desire through London to see where they take him. He goes to discreet gentlemen’s clubs at the weekend, to see what they’re all about. The people there are polite, and they have good food, and they know how to have a good time, but they are full of desire that reminds him of red hair and apples and golden eyes he ought not be thinking of. They are people who have had to bury what they are in all but the most select company. Sometimes, a man might look at him the way he looks at Crowley, and he’ll find his shoelaces have been tied together before he can approach.
The world is moving faster. Has been since the invention of the printing press, really, but the steam engine has really hurried things along. Things fall in and out of fashion faster than he can keep track of. There’s newspapers, and then there’s telephones, and radios, all full of noise and hustle and bustle and the world moving constantly forwards. People can communicate with each other on a grand scale far better than ever before. And, because they’re human, they use this to start wars.
He has no involvement in the Great War. But when he pops down to Hell for a moment to speak to Dagon and she scowls at him about missing the paperwork, it would take more courage than he has to tell her than he isn’t responsible for it at all. So he writes up some tosh about orchestrating the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. It’s for the best, anyway. He needs them off his back while he stays in the shop, drinks rather a lot, and refuses to look at the newspapers. There’s nothing he can do to make it better, and he certainly has no desire to make it worse.
The second one angers him more than he’d care to admit. (He doesn’t send a memo this time, either, but they congratulate him on it nonetheless.) He was there in the desert with the Jewish people. He was there when Christ was killed. He’s seen all this hatred and fear before. And in hindsight, he really ought to have thought properly before agreeing to deliver a handful of prophecy books to a pair of Nazis outside a church as part of a complicated sting operation. (He insists on it being outside the church because he has very little interest in torturing himself in front of people like that.) But he’s desperate, and Hell isn’t watching, and that’s how he ends up at the business end of rather more guns than he’s ever been interested in seeing.
And there go his priceless books, into the bag of a nasty little man who strolls straight into the church. God has an odd sense of humour, he thinks, when a man like that can stand on holy ground and he can’t.
“You can’t kill me. There’ll be paperwork.” That’s as much of a warning as he’s willing to give them. Because he’s angry now, tired and angry and they’ve taken something important to him. He raises his hand, ready to perform a very nasty demonic miracle that he’s going to have to explain very carefully to head office when they find out, when the two remaining outside the church look over his shoulder in surprise.
“Mr Anthony J. Crowley. Your fame precedes you,” the man says, and Ezra feels his whole body go hot and cold, and a little bit sick. He turns, and there he is, in a sharp suit and hat with sunglasses over his eyes, even at night.
“What are you doing here?”
“Stopping you from getting into trouble,” Crowley sternly says, like they haven’t been avoiding each other for the past eighty years. “This lot working for you?”
“For me? They’re a bunch of half-witted Nazi spies running around London blackmailing and murdering people!” He exclaims. How dare he even consider that Ezra has anything to do with the vile things their agency is enabling? He glares at him a bit, and then deflates. “Anthony?”
“You don’t like it?”
“No, no, I didn’t say that. I’ll get used to it.”
“The famous Mr Crowley?” The woman who is probably not called Captain Rose Montgomery says. Does everyone in London know what Crowley’s been up to except for him? “Such a pity you both must die.”
Ezra barely glances at her. “What does the J stand for?” He asks. Crowley shrugs.
“Just a J, really. You really do know how to pick ‘em. A church, really?” He gestures at the scene and Ezra scowls. Of course. Straight back to poking fun at him.
“Enough babbling,” the Nazi man sighs. “Kill them both.”
Crowley’s mouth twitches a bit. “In about a minute, a German bomber will release a bomb that will land right here. If you all run away very, very fast, you might not die. You won’t enjoy dying, definitely won’t enjoy what comes after.”
Ezra stares at him. He can’t actually be saying what he thinks he’s saying.
“You expect us to believe that? The bombs tonight will fall on the East End.”
“Yes, it would take a last-minute miracle to throw them off-course, yes.” Ezra stares at him very, very hard. There is absolutely no way Crowley can actually do what he’s suggesting he’s about to do. “And if, in thirty seconds, a bomb does land here, it would take a real demonic intervention for my friend and I to survive it.” Crowley gives him a pointed look.
“A real demonic intervention,” he nods. My friend, he hears echoing in his head. They’re still friends. Crowley has come here after eighty years of silence, specifically to save him, because they're friends.
It’s just the two of them left in the rubble after the bomb falls. Crowley cleans his sunglasses by a gravestone.
“That was very kind of you.”
“Shut up,” Crowley says, but he’s smiling.
“Well, it was. No paperwork, for a start.” Crowley saved him, not just from discorporation but from something worse. Instead of letting Ezra kill them, he let him perform the miracle that saved them, and took the burden of bombing them on himself. It’s completely justified for an agent of Heaven to get involved with thwarting Nazis, he supposes, but still. He’s more than a little stunned.
“Oh, the books! I forgot all the books! Oh, they’ll all be blown to-” Crowley puts his sunglasses on and strides past him towards the wreckage. He plucks something out of it, and turns to Ezra. He’s holding the bag.
“Little miracle of my own,” Crowley says, casual as can be. Ezra’s fingers brush his when he takes it, completely dumbfounded, and warmth spreads through him. “Lift home?” And then he’s gone, striding off towards the street.
Oh . He’s standing in the rubble of a church Crowley destroyed for him, holding a bag of books Crowley rescued for him. Crowley, an angel, just destroyed a church for a demon. That’s as clear a message as he is ever going to get.
Chapter 8: Hellfire
1941 to present, featuring 'you go too fast for me, Crowley', the line that broke my heart
He decides very quickly that he does not like Crowley’s car. He drives it incredibly quickly - far faster than it physically ought to allow - and he seems to have no regard for road safety. However, since Crowley has just saved him, he braces himself against the ceiling with only minimal complaint. The drive to the bookshop takes far less time than he’d like. Crowley doesn’t cut the engine, just sits there with the brake on, waiting for him to get out. He finds he doesn’t want to get out. He’s missed Crowley, and the car is warm and comfortable when it’s not moving.
He still thinks about that argument at St James’ Park, sometimes. That was the last time they spoke. And since Crowley seems to have...if not forgiven him, but at least decided to overlook it, he ought to do the same.
“Would you like to come in?” He tentatively asks. Crowley blows air through his lips and looks straight ahead. He still feels giddy from the touch of his hand.
“Would you like me to?”
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I?” He doesn’t want to mention the argument, because he hasn’t changed his mind and he knows Crowley won’t have, either. He doesn’t want to set him off, he doesn’t want him to go away again. But then, of course, ignoring the argument might set him off too.
“I don’t know. Why wouldn’t you?” Crowley has a way of saying things sometimes where he’ll ask an ordinary question and it will be more loaded than Ezra understands. He sounds casual enough, but with a knife’s edge of tension that he doesn’t like. He’s still angry about the hellfire, then. Ezra rubs the scales on the back of his hand instinctively.
“I haven’t changed my mind.”
Crowley sighs heavily. “Didn’t think so.”
“But you still…” He still saved him. Not his life, because he was just about to do something very nasty to save himself. But saved him in a more important way than that. The books sit innocently in their bag beneath the passenger seat. Crowley turns his head to look at him. He wishes he could see his eyes. Then he looks away again, hands firmly on the steering wheel.
And there’s that word again. Crowley isn’t looking at him anymore, so he can spare one last look at that sharp face silhouetted in the streetlight before he gets out and lets him drive away. He knows why he calls him that. Or at least, he thinks so. He’s trying to tell him that he sees the good in him, still. After six thousand years of being Fallen, Crowley, who doesn’t even know what he did to Fall in the first place, still thinks there’s something about him worth saving.
He hopes, foolishly, that will be the end of Crowley avoiding him. But he doesn’t come by in the next week, or the next month. And by the time the war is over, he hasn’t so much as spotted him or that frightful car on a street corner. Crowley has always come to him, always. And if he isn’t going to come to him, it means he doesn’t want to see him. He won’t, not until Ezra gives him what he wants. And if it was anything else, he would do it in a heartbeat. He’d give him the world, but not this. He can’t. He refuses to be author of Crowley’s destruction. And for him to be offended, to be so angry that Ezra wouldn’t be alright with him committing suicide...he can’t understand it. Does he think so little of Ezra’s feelings? Does he think he has none, as a demon, and has maintained their friendship for amusement alone? He tries not to think about it anymore. It doesn’t anger him like it did, but it does tend to ruin an evening when he remembers it.
Humans invent a lot of new things. Bad things, most of them, and he doesn’t approve. But he can make a great deal of relatively harmless demonic mischief by interfering with their newfound passion for electronics. He doesn’t mind the movies so much. He can’t bring himself to go very often, though, since every time he does, he realises about half-way through that he’d rather be there with Crowley.
And then, one day in 1967, he hears from the nice lady from the bakery on the corner that there’s a rumour going around about that odd Mr Crowley in Mayfair. That he’s been seen organising meetings with occultists and all sorts of funny types. And that really puts him off his croissant. He’s going to get himself killed. Angels and occultists do not mix. Especially not the dangerous ones, the ones who know a few of the right words and can summon up something awful that they don’t know how to control. And knowing Crowley, those are the people he’s found.
So then he has a decision to make. He can ignore what’s happening, and let Crowley get a sample of hellfire on his own, or- no, he can’t ignore it. If he’s conjuring hellfire, it’s going to be unimaginably dangerous for him, and Ezra cannot live with that, especially not when it’s partially because of him. No, he’s going to have to do it.
He knows where Crowley is, tonight, and he materialises in the car just as Crowley gets into it. The red neon lights outside flash against his skin, curving their hands around his cheekbones like Ezra wishes to. He’s grown his hair out again, found some new clothes. Always changing, always moving with the times. Ezra’s had this overcoat since the 1860s. He can’t keep up. Stuck in the past, stuck in the shadows.
“What are you doing here?” he asks. It’s not aggressive, exactly, but a bit surprised.
“I needed a word with you.”
“I work in Soho. I hear things. I hear you’ve got yourself involved with these occult types.” He feels Crowley sigh beside him. “Crowley, hellfire won’t just kill your body, it will destroy you completely.”
“You told me what you think. A hundred and five years ago.” He isn’t going to be argued with. Slowly, painfully, he realises that Crowley has a right to choose when he wants to die. If to him, Falling is an unimaginable, intolerable event that he would rather die than suffer through, then he has to respect that. Especially since if Crowley does Fall, it will be because of him.
“And I haven’t changed my mind. But I can’t have you risking your life. Not even for something dangerous.” He holds out the little jar he stowed in his jacket. Tiny flames lick the sides of the glass, scrambling around themselves to get out. He’s sealed them in properly, so they won’t escape unless it’s opened. “So...you can call off the witches. Don’t go unscrewing the cap.”
Crowley’s hands brush against his as he takes the jar, and warmth rockets through him. For a moment he fears the fire won’t be well-contained enough, and it will burn him, but Crowley holds it steadily in his hands. The fire flickers in his sunglasses.
“After everything you said.” He sounds almost touched. Ezra doesn’t know how to feel about that. He’s just handed him a loaded gun. “Should I say thank you?”
He imagines what will happen when he unscrews the lid. He will be responsible for the death of another angel. “Better not.”
“Can I drop you anywhere?”
“No, thank you.” Crowley pouts a bit. “Oh, don’t look so disappointed. Perhaps one day we could...I don’t know. Go for a picnic. Dine at the Ritz.” He wants to, desperately. But he can’t, not now.
“I’ll give you a lift. Anywhere you want to go.” His voice is painfully soft, so earnest that Ezra can’t bear it. He doesn’t want Crowley to Fall, he doesn’t want him to die. He just wants him. And he knows from that earnest voice that Crowley wants him too. And he may even be ready to die for it. But Ezra isn’t ready to let him.
“You go too fast for me, Crowley,” he says. And then he’s sitting in the bookshop, in semi-darkness because he left a pair of candles lit on the table in the back room before he left. He stares at them, how they flicker when he breathes, and cries harder than he did at Sodom and Gomorrah, harder than the Fall, harder than the night he did that first blessing in their Arrangement.
If having Crowley as completely as he wants means he must also lose him, then he cannot have him at all.
Crowley sits in the car for a long time after Ezra gets out of it. The jar is warm in his hands, but not hot enough to burn. Lights flick on and off outside, bathing the side of the jar in red for a few seconds at a time.
If he’s being truthful with himself - which he tries not to be these days, when it comes to Ezra - he was hoping that this would happen. That if he made the right calls, the news would get back to a fussy demon who would give in and swoop over to help him. Sort of like positioning himself in the Bastille, or giving him the chance to perform a miracle. He’s always giving Ezra chances to get closer, to do what he really wants to do, but every time he thinks the demon is finally going to stay, he backs away again.
They’re only enemies on a professional level. Hardly just acquaintances, and well past just being friends. They already have pet names, for God’s sake. It will only take one final step, just a nudge, a few centimetres closing between them to reach the inevitable conclusion. And Crowley can’t be the one to do it. None of this works if he really has to force it. Most of the time, Ezra lets himself be forced into doing things, because they’re things he already quite wants to do. But Crowley can’t force this, because he’ll run. Judging by the way he left the car, he already has, to an extent.
Too fast . As if it hasn’t taken a hundred years for Ezra to concede one argument. As if it hasn’t been six thousand years of back and forth, of looks over wine and restaurant tables and secret meetings in the park. But he’ll wait. He has waited before, and he’ll wait again.
The jar goes into a safe in his Mayfair flat, and waits too.
The world pushes ever-forward. He drags Ezra into his flat to watch the moon landing, since he refuses to get a television in the shop. One of his prouder achievements, in fact. The moon, and the landing.
“Not that it’s not very clever, but what does sending them to the moon have to do with spreading divine influence?” Ezra asks him, once they’re three bottles deep in wine.
Crowley tries to explain how powerful it is for the human race to stare up at this great shining light for six thousand years, to feel it pulling the tide, to see it every night shining down on their world, and after all that, to finally touch it. It’s a metaphor for God’s light, and goodness, and Heaven, and all that good stuff. Well, that’s what he told head office, anyway. He doesn’t really believe in metaphors. When he’s rambled his way through that thought for several minutes, he finds Ezra staring at him painfully. He’s too drunk to be making any sense, then.
“It’s a metaphor. You like those, don’t you? Books are full of them.”
“Yes, dear. I know.”
There’s no room for a garden in his flat, so he starts collecting houseplants. People say that talking to them helps them grow, so he lines them up and stalks down the rows like the drill sergeant he couldn’t stand in Heaven, and takes great pleasure in menacing them. They grow rich and verdant like Eden. He considers buying a fruit tree, but thinks better of it. It’s one thing to cultivate one he comes across in the wild, and quite another to deliberately buy one.
“I am not,” he stubbornly insists to a fern, “getting an apple tree.” The fern shivers in fear.
The world goes on. There’s politics, there’s war, there’s new cars (none of which are anywhere near as good as the Bentley). There’s pain, and suffering, and adverts in the middle of TV shows. Then there’s colour TV and digital cameras and he takes credit for both, and finds out Ezra still doesn’t know what a VCR is. Everything changes, and everything stays the same. He can’t shake the feeling that all this progress is sending humanity hurtling towards something very Not Good, from which they will not return. Well, that is the Plan. But the Plan seems to be happening faster and faster these days, which is probably not the fault of mobile phones, but may well be related.
And then, one day in the summer, he’s stalking through a garden centre (excellent human invention) looking for something acceptable to add to his collection of mortified houseplants, and electricity hums through the air.
“Gabriel. What an unexpected pleasure. It’s been…” not nearly long enough, he thinks. He’s getting tired of having to hear Gabriel’s name every Christmas.
“A while, hasn’t it.” Gabriel leans over to peer into his trolley. “Why are you purchasing that?”
Crowley does not feel like explaining the concept of hobbies to an archangel. “It’s what humans do. And if I am going to be living among them,” he says, like it’s a new thing and he hasn’t been doing it since the beginning, “well. Keeping up appearances. Nice suit, by the way.” It isn’t that nice, but he doesn’t think insulting an archangel is going to get him any further in life than explaining humanity to one.
“Yes, I like the clothes. Pity they won’t be around much longer.”
Crowley pauses. A child whizzes past, riding a trolley down the aisle of fig trees.
Gabriel leans in. “We have reliable information that things...are afoot.”
“They are?” He tries to sound interested, rather than like he’s bricking it.
“Yes, my informants suggest that the demon... Ezra ? may be involved.” Of bloody course. He barely hears the rest of what Gabriel says, because he’s trying to figure out what kind of Godforsaken, Hellish, idiotic plot Ezra could possibly have got himself involved in. There’s a line between following the Plan as ordered and actually participating in the destruction of the world as we know it.
He doesn’t call him as soon as Gabriel is gone, because a) it’s too risky, and b) all the London networks seem to be down. He walks out with an angel wing begonia and straps it carefully into the Bentley and yells at it all the way home. And when he gets into the flat, the landline rings.
“Crowley. It’s me. We need to talk.”
“So I’ve heard. Is this about…?”
Chapter 9: Welcome to the End Times
the antichrist is here, and then he's not again.
“All hail Satan,” Hastur declares.
“All hail Satan,” Ligur intones.
“Yes, hello, sorry I’m late, there was a dreadful business with the bus coming up from Shoreditch-”
“Now that we art all here, let us recount the deeds of the day.”
“Of course. Deeds. Yes.” This is a routine meeting. Or at least, he hopes it is. He hasn’t had to stand around in a graveyard and recount his deeds since at least the 14th century now. They just accept the paperwork he sends and that’s that. “Ah. Well, I think you’ll like this,” Ezra says, because he’s quite proud of himself. “I brought down every London area mobile phone network tonight.”
He dislikes mobile phones. Crowley has insisted in their last three meetings that he get one, but they’re far too intelligent for his liking and people are far too dependent on them. It’s probably because Crowley keeps insisting on them that the wave of irritation crawling across London at present is so satisfying for him.
“Yeah?” Hastur grunts.
“Yes, it wasn’t easy-”
“And what exactly has that done to secure souls for our master?”
Ezra sighs. The chaps Downstairs have never really gotten a grip on the bigger picture of demonic mischief. The advancements of the last two hundred years in particular have allowed him the opportunity to create quite a lot of low-grade annoyances without having to do a lot of work. The humans do a great deal of the work for him.
“It’s not exactly craftsmanship,” Ligur sneers.
“Well, head office don’t seem to mind.” Ezra smiles politely, and a little bit smugly. “In fact, they seem rather pleased with me down there. Times are changing, as it were. So…” he glances between them. There must be a more pressing reason for a meeting with two dukes of Hell than recounting their deeds. “Is there any other business?”
“This.” Ligur holds up a basket which has been shrouded in shadow until this moment. It is a wicker basket, not unlike the kind used to hold babies. Ezra glances at it for a moment. Then he glances back.
Ezra Fell is more or less a ‘keep calm and carry on’ sort of demon. In this moment, it’s a bit less ‘keep calm’ and a bit more ‘keep oneself from discorporating in terror’, because the Apocalypse is coming and trying dreadfully hard not to explode. He’s known it was coming since the Beginning, obviously. They all have. It’s part of the Plan. The Antichrist, the Horsemen, the Great War between Heaven and Hell (Round Two) and then the whole world will be either one or the other. However, knowing the world is going to end is a bit like knowing you’re going to die. It’s going to happen eventually, but you sort of assume you’ll be alright anyway because your brain can’t fathom not existing.
“You know, listen- this sort of thing really isn’t my scene.”
“Your scene. Your starring role.” Ligur holds out the basket. “Take it.” Ezra swallows. “Like you said, times are changing. They’re coming to an end for a start.”
“Well- why me?” He’s an absolutely useless excuse for a demon, and not particularly high ranking, and the only real bit of evil he’s ever done was six thousand years ago, and even he isn’t sure whether that whole apple business was really his fault in the first place. Just because he happened to get a nice spot in Genesis doesn’t mean he wants one in a modern reworking of Revelations.
“They seem quite pleased with you down there,” Hastur sneers. “And what an opportunity. Ligur here would give his right arm to be you tonight.”
“Someone’s right arm, anyway.”
He conjures a sigil out of hellfire to sign the paperwork, which always makes his hand itch, and takes the basket. The basket containing the instigator of the Apocalypse.
“Well,” he says, regretfully. “Now what?”
“You will receive your instructions. And why so glum? The moment we’ve been working for all these centuries is at hand,” Hastur leers, and Ezra offers an amiable smile.
“Our moment of eternal triumph awaits,” Ligur adds. Triumph which is likely to involve the world turning to fire and brimstone and those nasty machines they have at supermarket checkouts these days.
“And you will be a tool of that glorious destiny.”
“Oh, yes. A glorious tool.” He smiles as convincingly as he can. “Er- I’ll be off, then. Get it over with. Oh, not that I want to get it over with, obviously. But I’ll be popping along now.” He turns to go, head spinning. Where’s the bus stop? “Wonderful. Just tickety-boo.”
He ought to call Crowley. But, he recalls as he settles into the back of the bus and hopes the Antichrist sitting on the seat beside him doesn’t start to cry, he doesn’t have a mobile phone. And even if he did, the phone networks are down. He sighs and thinks very pointedly about how annoyed he is at mobiles rather than at how utterly terrified he is of the Apocalypse. He might end up getting one in about two hundred years, when they’ve been properly integrated into society and people have developed proper etiquette for them.
No he won’t, because the world is ending in eleven years.
Sod the bus , he thinks, and miracles himself into the courtyard of the nunnery. He hands over the child to a very strange nun and pauses for a moment to admire the statue of Adam wrestling a serpent they’ve got in the middle of the hall. It does make him look rather fetching.
“Do you think he’ll remember me when he grows up?” The nun asks, as though that could possibly be a good thing. Ezra is starting to tire of her.
“Pray that he doesn’t,” he says, and leaves.
St James’ Park is an obvious choice for this particular rendez-vous. Crowley slouches over the bench in a very unangelic fashion, and Ezra frowns at the ducks. The world carries on around them. Discreet agents, tourists, businessmen having their lunches. It’s all so normal. None of them know what’s coming. Except the ducks, perhaps. They’ve always got that look about them like they know rather more about God than they ought to.
“I suppose your people will win, in the end. Heaven will finally triumph over Hell.”
Crowley frowns. Ezra’s always been a bit of a defeatist, but surrendering the Great War before it’s even begun is a bit of a stretch even for him. “You really believe that?”
“Well, I’d obviously prefer if we won. But we haven’t got the Almighty on our side.”
Crowley shrugs. “Sometimes, I wonder whether my lot do, either.”
“Really, Crowley.” Ezra glances up at the sky, anxious as ever. Crowley rolls his eyes.
“Look, our options are: Hell wins, whole world turns to fire and brimstone. Nasty business. Heaven wins, it’s not much better.”
“What do you mean? Of course it will be better, it’s Heaven.”
It’s very obvious to Crowley that either side winning the war is going to be a complete nightmare for everyone involved, so it’s best they never let it get off the ground. And he’s pretty sure Ezra also knows this. But he’s already accepted it as inevitable, too scared of the repercussions if he’s caught interfering. He doesn’t blame him, really. Hell is, well, Hell. He keeps trying anyway, though. He’s just bought a new begonia, after all.
“How many first class composers do you think we’ve got Upstairs? And more to that point, how many of them Downstairs are going to be allowed to whip out a nice sonata when the world’s all turned to ash?”
Ezra frowns. “Well…”
“No more fascinating little restaurants where they know you. No more gravlax with dill sauce. No more...old bookshops.” Ezra stops frowning and starts scowling.
There has to be a way to stop all this. The entire Apocalypse depends on one boy reaching eleven years old and manifesting his repressed satanic powers to become The Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Prince of this World and Lord of Darkness. One boy stands between Crowley and his angel wing begonia, and he's got the beginnings of an idea.
Crowley needles Ezra again on the way back from the Ritz, with little success.
“Crowley, I’ve told you, I’m not interested. This is purely social. You are an angel, I am a demon. We’re hereditary enemies.” He usually recites that when he can’t actually see the problem with whatever Crowley is suggesting and is getting quite worried about it.
Getting him drunk usually helps. They end up in the back of the bookshop, which he’s learned is the best place to go if he wants to say something particularly bold that neither Upstairs or Downstairs will like. This isn’t the first time he’s had to convince Ezra that things don’t have to be the way they’re written in the Plan, but it’s certainly the riskiest.
“You can’t help, Crowley,” Ezra insists. “You’re an angel, you can’t interfere with the Divine Plan!”
Crowley sighs. The trouble with Ezra is that despite all his insistence about evil and rebellion in general terms, and the fact that he’s even open to lying to his superiors every now and then, he’s far too keen on following the Big Rules. It’s probably his way of balancing out his desire to be Good, with a capital G, when Crowley can’t convince him to do a quick miracle. The trouble with caring about the rules during the Apocalypse is that being in trouble with head office really isn’t going to matter if one or both of them ends up dead in eleven years. But still, Ezra sticks to them. Always reciting the Plan, the divide between angels and demons, Heaven and Hell. So that’s where Crowley has to meet him.
“Well, what about diabolical plans? How do you know that thwarting you isn’t part of the Divine Plan, too? I’m supposed to thwart the wiles of the Evil One at every turn, aren’t I? See a wile, I thwart. Am I right?” Ezra seems to be having a very reluctant revelation.
“Broadly,” he suspiciously says, like he’s starting to agree but is greatly unsure of how he arrived at that agreement. His gloves are off now, as are Crowley’s sunglasses.
“Look, the Antichrist has been born. But it’s the upbringing that’s important. The actual influences.” Crowley leans forward on the sofa, where he’s perched on the arm. “The evil influences, that’s all gonna be you. But it would be too bad if someone was around to make sure you failed.”
Ezra blinks, and glances upwards. “If you put it that way...Heaven can’t actually object to you thwarting me.”
“No. Be a real feather in my wing.”
Ezra takes in a breath and holds out his hand. Crowley takes it with a smile, and it’s warm and smooth where the scales are.
“We’d be like godfathers, sort of. If we do it right, he won’t be evil. Or good. He’ll just be normal.”
“Godfathers,” Ezra repeats. “Well, I’ll be damned.” Crowley raises his eyebrows at him, and he frowns a bit. “Well, it’s not so bad, once you get used to it.”
They don’t strictly raise Warlock. He does have parents, after all. But they’re gone more often than not, so Crowley and Ezra can send in tutors and nannies and gardeners and babysitters to put all sorts of wildly conflicting ideas about morality into his head. They do have personal experience with absent mothers, after all. One of the difficult things that crops up is knowing which influences are taking hold, because children are already amoral creatures of unpredictable chaos, and the Antichrist is going to be a great deal more unpredictable and chaotic than the average child.
Another difficult thing is that Ezra is there, a lot. They meet on buses and at bandstands and galleries and talk about the boy. It wouldn’t be difficult, but there was that awfully odd thing that happened in 1967 where it felt like Ezra was breaking up a relationship they’d never started, and the memory of it lingers. He knows the hellfire was a sacrifice for him, a reminder of what he is, which he alternates between desperately hiding from Crowley and throwing in his face to put him off when he gets too close.
If he ever bothered to ask, Crowley would tell him categorically that he doesn’t care. But Ezra doesn’t ask, because he already knows. They both know. But there’s so much self-hatred and fear and damned righteousness wound up in Ezra that Crowley is starting to think he’ll never admit it. And they’re running out of time.
The third difficult thing is reporting back to Heaven.
“So I am proud to say, that on a very real level, the Antichrist child is now being influenced...towards the light.” If Heaven had the facilities for powerpoint presentations, Crowley would have flicked to a slide depicting Jesus, or perhaps a sunrise with a funky font. But because it didn’t, he just gave a self-satisfied grin and rocked back on his heels.
“Very commendable, Kroliel,” Gabriel says, with a smattering of unpleasant applause from the other Archangels. “Excellent work, as usual.”
“Crowley,” he corrects, trying to keep it friendly rather than irritable. It’s been two thousand years, and they still conveniently forget his name every time he comes back, and he has to spend every meeting reminding them. He did the official paperwork and everything; they had to invent a new form just for him. Correcting them feels less like a rebellion now than it did in the old days. Now it’s just tiring.
“Yes,” Michael interjects. “But Kroliel-”
“ Crowley ,” he corrects again, this time more irritable.
Michael smiles stiffly. “Crowley. We will be most understanding when you fail. After all, wars are to be won…”
“Not avoided,” Uriel finishes. Oh, he really hates giving presentations to the four of them at once. It’s like the twins from The Shining got taller and more self-righteous.
“Mmmm...yeah,” he starts, trying to figure out how to word this in a way that isn’t going to scream what the fuck are you talking about? “But I won’t fail, guys. I mean, that would be bad, right?”
Gabriel smiles in that plastic way of his. “Kroliel. Crowley. Whatever. What you’re doing is praiseworthy, but obviously doomed to fail.” He chuckles, and Crowley smiles back with more teeth than feeling. It would be so easy to let them keep using his old name, to let them paint over him and pretend he’s like all the other good, obedient little angels who never ask any questions. But he’s difficult by nature, and his name is his name. If his Great Adversary can get it right (after about six hundred years of reminding, that is), so can the people who are supposed to be on his side.
Crowley really, really hates performance reviews.
And there’s yet another thing, which he voices when he gets on a very secret meeting bus to meet Ezra not long after that particularly unpromising presentation: “The boy’s too normal.” There hasn’t been any chanting, any demonic magic, any sign at all of an infernal nature.
“Excellent,” Ezra says, peeking around at him from behind those ridiculous little reading glasses he insists on wearing even though his eyesight is perfect. “It’s working. The Heavenly influences are balancing out the Hellish. A no score draw.”
“I hope you’re right. Only six years left to go.”
“Crowley.” Ezra’s closed his newspaper now, and removed the spectacles. Crowley prefers them on, during conversations like this. They make the End Times a little less morbid.
“If he does come into his full power...how do we stop him then?”
Crowley breathes in and slumps against the seat. If the demon responsible for delivering the Antichrist doesn’t know how to stop him once he’s charged up, then how the Hell is Heaven’s worst angel supposed to come up with something?
“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
It’s a Monday, six days before the end of the world, and they’re watching Warlock argue with his mother. Crowley has changed his hair again, got a new jacket. It’s like every time Ezra sees him, he’s seeing him again for the first time. Or at least, a new iteration of him. He’s always changing, even now, even when the Apocalypse is looming over their heads. And he always looks good, not just Good.
“The hellhound will be the key. It’s supposed to arrive at three o’clock on Wednesday.”
Crowley turns his head very deliberately to look at him. “Right. You’ve never actually mentioned a hellhound before.” He can feel his gaze piercing him through the sunglasses. He may have forgotten to mention it, yes. Only because talking about it makes it real, and he really, desperately doesn’t want the end of the world to be real.
“Ah. Yes. Yes, they’re sending him a hellhound. To, er- pad by his side and guard him from all harm. Biggest one they’ve got.”
“Won’t people notice the sudden appearance of a huge bloody black dog? Like his parents, for a start?”
“No-one will notice anything.” That’s part of the power of the Antichrist. Nobody will notice anything is odd about him until they’re swallowed up in the fire and flame. It’s the same power angels and demons have which lets them go unnoticed, but dialled up to a thousand. “The boy is supposed to name the dog. Something terrible and evil, like Stalks-By-Night, or Throat-Ripper.”
“But if you and I have done our job properly?” Crowley leans in a bit.
“Then he’ll send it away unnamed. But if he does name it…” he shudders a bit.
“Then you and I will have lost, he’ll have all his powers and Armageddon will be days away,” Crowley finishes for him, folding his arms and slumping back into the bench. “There must be some way of stopping it.” He stares up into the sky, and Ezra presumes he’s being rhetorical, because there’s very little a rogue angel and demon can do against the son of Satan with his full powers. But then he sits up again. “If there was no boy, what would happen?”
Crowley and his questions. Even now.
“Well, obviously, the process would stop. But there is a boy. He’s over there, writing a rude word on a description of a dinosaur.”
“Well, there is a boy now. That could change.” Crowley leans closer. “Something could happen to him.” Ezra squints. He’s trying to say something very furtive and mysterious, and he ought to have learned by now that Ezra is hopeless at deciphering him when he gets like this. He’s just not built to understand the nuances of that kind of conversation. Or perhaps he’s just not built to understand the nuances of Crowley. “I’m saying you could kill him,” Crowley snaps, and Ezra’s whole body goes stiff.
“I’ve never actually killed...anything.” Several modifiers for this statement appear in his head the moment he says it: not since the War. Not a human. Not directly. He hopes Crowley doesn’t know they’re there, but for him to ask...he must know. He must know that he’s killed. “I don’t think I could.”
“Not even to save everything? One life against the universe.”
And now Crowley is just being cruel. It’s like he’s asking for hellfire all over again. Hasn’t he spent the past six thousand years trying to nudge Ezra toward the light? Giving him the chance to do miracles, saving him from having to do unpleasant things?
Ezra has tried to accept his role in everything. He’s been trying for six thousand years. He’s a minor evil, a little unpleasantness that tempts humanity to the left. Does that role really extend to executioner? He’s never had the conviction of the angels that caused the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Crucifixion, and a hundred other tragedies that are part of the Plan. Is that to be his role, then, if it all goes wrong? One last evil act that balances out the world and stops the Apocalypse?
He turns to look at the boy. He’s a child, completely unaware of his role in the upcoming End of All Things. He’s a child. His hands itch under his gloves.
“The hellhound is going to show up at his birthday party,” he says, rather than give Crowley any sort of answer to that question. “We ought to be there. Maybe you can stop the dog. In fact…” he shakes himself out of the misery that the last question has evoked, and twitches his fingers. “I could entertain.”
Crowley groans and starts begging him to stop.
“I just need to get back into practice.” He whips a coin out of his pocket and tries a sleight of hand. Crowley writhes in despair, and he loves it.
“Don’t do your magic act. Please, please, I’m actually begging you. You have no idea how demeaning that is.” He gets up and tries the old ‘coin from the ear’ ploy that he picked up from a lovely chap in a gentleman’s club in 1892. “It was in your finger.”
“No, it was in your ear.”
“It was in your pocket.”
“It was close to your ear.”
“Never anywhere near my ear.”
He sits back down next to Crowley with a pleased smile. He’s distracted them both from the awful Question that has become capitalised somewhere between it being asked and him realising he doesn’t have a proper answer.
“You’re no fun.”
“Fun? It’s humiliating. You can do proper magic. You can make things disappear.”
Ezra shrugs. “It’s not as fun!”
“Make you disappear,” Crowley grumbles, and he just smiles devilishly back.
The party is an unmitigated disaster, obviously, but he can’t really blame himself for putting on a poor show while also worrying about a hellhound and the Antichrist and the End of Days. And what’s more, Crowley’s got a very fetching white suit on, which Ezra is trying very hard not to stare at. There is an Apocalypse on, after all. And after all that, there is no hellhound.
“No dog,” he blankly says to Crowley.
“Wrong boy,” Crowley blankly says back.
Armageddon is days away, and they’ve lost the Antichrist. He comes to the incredibly embarrassing revelation that somewhere along the line, he’s been a complete fool, and immediately counters this by pouring out a great deal of strong alcohol in the bookshop.
“Why did the powers of Hell have to drag me into this, anyway?” He irritably says.
“Well, don’t quote me on this, but I reckon it’s because of all those memos you kept sending them, saying how amazingly well you were doing,” Crowley says, clinking their glasses together before taking a laboured shot.
“Oh, everyone exaggerates in memos to head office.”
“Yes, but you told them you invented the Spanish Inquisition, and started the Second World War.” He didn’t tell them that at all. It was just that they assumed he did, and he never actually corrected them. It’s hardly the same as lying, and even if it was, lying is a perfectly reasonable demonic thing for him to be doing. He’s about to say this to Crowley when he gets the most peculiar feeling, like the whole world has shifted just a centimetre off its axis. If he were still a proper snake, he’d taste it on the air.
“Something’s changed,” he says. Crowley raises his eyebrows at him.
“Yeah. I cut my hair. Wondered when you’d notice.”
“Oh, not you.” He noticed that as soon as it happened, thank you very much. “The hellhound has found its master.”
“Are you sure?”
“I felt it. Would I lie to you?”
“You are a demon,” Crowley says, now sounding very pointed and very tired. “It is what you do.”
“Well, I’m not lying.” Ezra straightens up and tries not to be hurt by that. “The boy, wherever he is, has named the dog. He’s coming into his power.”
“Well, then,” says Crowley, lifting his glass in a toast. “Welcome to the end times.”
Chapter 10: A Child Has Been Lost
an angel and a demon on a mission to find the actual antichrist
He’s going to die. They’re going to kill him. Ezra is not going to die in the Apocalypse, as previously feared, or in the War to End All Wars that is to follow, he’s going to be summarily executed in a dark, slimy room by the lords of Hell because the End is coming and he’s gone and lost the Antichrist.
But, as previously stated, he’s a ‘keep calm and carry on’ sort of demon. If he makes it obvious that something is amiss, Hastur and Ligur will be on him like vultures. So he keeps the shop open and keeps customers out of it, and tries very hard not to set everything on fire before it’s due to be set on fire by the Antichrist, which he has most definitely not lost. There has to be a way to rectify it, he’s just not thought of it yet.
“Morning, Ezra.” Tchaikovsky fades out of his gramophone, and Hastur’s voice oozes in. He deeply regrets telling anyone Downstairs about the latest advancements in communication technology, because, due to both Hell’s ineptitude and his own unwillingness to learn any more than strictly necessary about how things like microphones and speakers work, there has been a great misunderstanding about it. So now, when they want to talk to him, they just open up a line to the nearest device that makes a sound and yell down it like a child into a tin-can tied to another tin-can with string.
“Just checking in. It’s about the Antichrist.” Of course it is. Ezra breathes deeply and tries not to discorporate on the spot. He’s been working on getting better at lying, but he’s still dreadful under pressure. Terrible trait for a demon, really.
“Ah, yes. A wonderful child. He really reminds me of his father, you know.”
“Our operatives in the State Department have arranged for the child’s family to be flown to the Middle East. There he and the hellhound will be taken to the valley of Megiddo. The Four Horsemen will begin their final ride.”
“Wonderful,” Ezra weakly says, suddenly very glad that Hastur can’t see his face.
“Armageddon will begin. The final combat. It’s what we’ve been working towards since we rebelled. We are the Fallen. Never forget that.”
“Well, no, it’s not the sort of thing you forget,” he says, forgetting for a moment that being irritable with a Duke of Hell will land you in all sorts of nasty places.
“I don’t trust you, Ezra.”
“Everything is going wonderfully. Just marvellous.” He lifts the needle up and the record stops spinning. Hastur, thankfully, stops talking.
They don’t know that the child they’ve been watching isn’t the Antichrist. That buys him time to do- well. He doesn’t know what, but he ought to do something other than sit around and wait to be discorporated. And all in all, he’s not greatly pleased that he’s the one that seems to be responsible for it all. Well, he and Crowley, but since they’ve lost the Antichrist there’s not a lot either of them can do about it.
Crowley calls with an idea. Unfortunately, the idea Crowley has involves picking him up in the Bentley and driving very, very fast towards wherever they’re going.
“You’ve lost the boy,” Crowley says, as they speed through traffic.
“A child has been lost,” Ezra agrees, trying to be glum and anxious at the same time and succeeding remarkably well.
“But there’s got to be records, right? At this hospital?”
“Yes, I suppose. But, supposing we find him, then what- watch out for that pedestrian!” Crowley swerves wildly and honks at the woman who stepped into the street ahead of the car.
“She’s on the street, she knows the risks she’s taking.”
“Just watch the road, please!” He sighs. Even if they do find the real Antichrist, they still don’t have a way to stop him. And they certainly won’t be able to do anything if Crowley discorporates the pair of them. “Crowley, you can’t do ninety miles an hour in Central London!”
Crowley takes his hands off the wheel in a dramatic shrug. “Why not?”
“You’ll get us killed! Well, inconveniently discorporated.” And that’s starting to sound worryingly appealing. Keep calm and don’t discorporate, he reminds himself. He searches around the Bentley for something that approaches relaxation, and all he finds are a few CDs. “What’s a ‘Velvet Underground’?” He asks. It doesn’t sound like it will be particularly relaxing.
“You wouldn’t like it.”
“Oh. Bebop.” He puts the CDs back. Certainly not relaxing, then.
The Satanic nunnery is not exactly what Crowley expected it to be. For one thing, there’s no Satanic nuns.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” He asks. Ezra appears to be having the same doubts, but strides ahead nonetheless. “This doesn’t look like a hospital. And-” then he’s hit by a warm sort of feeling, the one he gets when he looks at the stars or goes into the bookshop. “It feels loved.” It’s an embarrassingly angelic feeling, one that really doesn’t go with his sunglasses and nice jackets, but he can’t deny that it feels good, once in a while, to enter somewhere that feels loved.
“No, this is definitely the place. What do you mean, ‘it feels loved’?”
“I mean the opposite of when you say ‘I don’t like this place, it feels spooky.’”
Ezra looks a bit offended by that. “I don’t say that. I like spooky. I’m a demon. We love...spooky.”
“Right. Let’s go talk to some nuns.”
They make it another few paces before something hard and wet barrels into his chest like he’s been shot. He peers down at it, and, sure enough, his hand is soaked with red. Unfortunate, that. He looks at Ezra, who’s turned around to reveal his coat and glove are bright blue. Demons bleed black, he thought. And angels bleed gold.
“It’s paint,” he blankly says, after licking it and spitting it out. Ezra looks revolted. A man jogs up to them in army fatigues, holding a gun.
“Hey! You’ve been hit!” Ezra clicks his fingers and the man faints to the ground. Crowley glances at him, with just a touch of judgement, and goes to pick up the man’s gun.
“Look at the state of this coat. I’ve kept this in tip-top condition for 180 years now!” He smooths his hand over it and the stain disappears, but he still looks greatly put out by the whole affair. Crowley raises his eyebrows at him. It’s not a very good reason to render a man unconscious, but he is very fussy about his clothes. He glances down to remove the mess on his own shirt, but it’s been done for him.
“Don’t your lot disapprove of guns?” Ezra asks, once he’s straightened himself out.
“It’s not a proper gun.” Crowley hoists it onto his shoulder and points it at Ezra, who frowns and pushes the tip away. “And apparently, they’re alright in the right hands. Gives weight to a moral argument.”
“A moral argument?” Ezra frowns a bit. "Really?" He hasn’t really accepted what they’re going to have to do, yet. Crowley’s trying to nudge him towards it. Even if they find the boy, they can’t exactly re-raise him. There’s only one thing Crowley can think of to do that will fix things if they find him before he’s at his full potential. Angels are supposed to be unselfish executors of the Divine Plan. And, well, he hasn’t been that for a very long time. But Ezra is, still. Still believes in the Plan and the yin and yang of it all. And he is a demon. It ought to be his responsibility to deal with the Antichrist, to do something bad with the end result of doing Good.
He drops the paintball gun, and tries not to think about the little boy he spoke to before the Flood, and the way he swung his legs on the fence. Is it selfish to let the world end because he can’t bear the weight of one sin?
“This is definitely the place,” Ezra says, as they walk through the building. It appears to be a management training centre now, rather than a Satanic nunnery. He isn’t sure which one is technically worse.
“Wonder where all the nuns went.”
A woman in army fatigues sprints past. “Millie from accounts caught me on the elbow! Who’s winning?”
“I’m afraid you’re all going to lose,” Ezra says. He waves his hand, and suddenly the paintball pellets outside sound quite a lot like gunshots.
“What the Hell did you just do?” He asks, somewhat bewildered. Those are real gunshots he’s hearing. Real people firing real guns at other real people.
“Well, they wanted real guns, so I gave them what they wanted,” Ezra casually says, and Crowley breathes very deeply. Now is really not the time for Ezra to fill his quota of demonic mischief for the day. “It lends weight to their moral argument.”
“They’re killing each other?”
Ezra shoots him a very irritated look, before wilting a bit. “No-one’s killing anyone,” he says, in such a pointed way that it has to refer to more than just the people outside. Crowley smirks.
“You know, angel, I’ve always said-”
And then Ezra has him pressed against the wall, staring at him with those frightened grey eyes, with his gloved hands planted on his chest. He’s never touched him like this before. And alright, maybe he shouldn’t whip out that nickname in a place that used to be crawling with demons and Satan worshippers, since it could get him into quite a lot of hot water, but that seems to be worth it to Crowley at present.
“Be quiet!” Ezra hisses, and that’s how he knows he’s really, properly upset. “I am a demon, not an angel, and I cannot- ”
“Excuse me, gentlemen. Sorry to break up an intimate moment. Can I help you?”
Ezra turns his head, and seems to recognise the woman. “You.”
She seems to recognise him, too, and Crowley waves his hand to silence her before she can go on. Ezra sighs and steps back, smoothing out his coat again.
“You didn’t have to do that. You could have just asked her,” he says, seemingly content to pretend that little incident never happened. Unfortunately, the ex-nun doesn’t know anything. And on top of that, all their carefully-kept records were conveniently burned in a fire the night the Antichrist was born. Wonderful.
Night falls on their drive back to London. He keeps getting that warm feeling in odd bursts. There’s no pattern to it at all. And he’s trying to explain it to Ezra, who seems quite put out by the whole concept of sensing love in the first place, when something collides with the front of the Bentley. The something turns out to be a bike, which turns out to have been carrying a young woman. Ezra insists on giving her a lift back into the village, because it’s polite. Crowley might have done so without his insistence, because it’s probably his prerogative as an angel, but he feels he has a duty to pointedly disagree with most things Ezra says. His disagreement turns out to be justified when, just to spite him, a bike rack appears on the back of the Bentley. The absolute nerve.
They stop off at a dingy cafe on the way back to London. Crowley has spent the past ten minutes staring dully at Ezra’s plate, trying not to become nihilistic and failing miserably. His angel wing begonia was starting to look quite good, and now he’s got to go home and tell it the world’s going to end. That’s really going to give it leaf spots.
It’s late at night by the time Crowley pulls up to the bookshop and climbs out to stretch his legs. Ezra clambers out much less confidently, looking somewhat like he’s going to be sick.
“You know, if you lined up everyone in the whole world and asked them to describe the Velvet Underground, nobody, at all, would say ‘bebop’.” Ezra just frowns at him, but then peers back into the back seat of the car.
“There’s a book back there.”
“Well, it’s not mine. I don’t read books.”
“It has to belong to the young lady you hit with your car.” Ezra plucks it out and stares at it like it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe. Which it does, to an extent. But Crowley doesn’t know that yet.
“There’s an apocalypse on, I’m not gonna start returning lost property."
"That's what your lot do, isn't it?" Ezra distractedly says.
Crowley rolls his eyes. "Why not just send it to the Tadfield post office addressed to ‘the mad American woman with the bicycle’?”
Ezra doesn’t seem to have heard him. “Oh, er- jolly good, yes. Rather.”
“So we’ll both contact our respective human operatives, then.” They decided in the car that they might be able to get another human to find the boy, since the nunnery had been a disaster.
“Sorry?” Ezra is still enraptured by the book as he steps onto the pavement and heads for the bookshop.
“Perfectly. Yes. Tip-top. Absolutely tickety-boo.”
“Mind how you go.” And then the shop door swings shut and he’s gone. Crowley leans against the top of his car and stares at it for a long moment, suddenly feeling very alone.
“Right. Well, that was a thing.”
He’s got to talk to Gabriel. Find out just how much trouble he’s going to be in for losing the Antichrist he told them he was influencing, and then find out what on Earth he’s supposed to do about it now.
Heaven is blank, and white, and miserable. It’s all very well being spotless, but there’s no soul to it. No plants, no life, no love. It’s all angels in 80s power suits with bad shoes. He doesn’t like it. He certainly doesn’t want the whole universe to be like it. He’s glad humans invented sunglasses so he doesn’t have to look at all that bright light.
The archangels stride out to meet him in a line.
“So, Kroliel. Got your message. Have you got something big? Lay it on us.” Gabriel starts.
“Crowley. Well. It’s about the Antichrist,” he starts, and then takes on a stage-whisper. “I think the other side might have lost track of him.”
“Lost track of him? He’s the son of the US ambassador, he’s under constant surveillance,” Gabriel says.
“The other side are currently transporting him to the plains of Megiddo. Apparently that’s the traditional starting point,” Michael explains.
“Middle Eastern unrest. Everything else just follows,” Gabriel adds. “The Four Horsemen ride out, last great battle between Heaven and Hell.”
Crowley sighs. It’s not very easy to bluster his way through meetings in Heaven. There’s very little to bounce off of.
“Yeah, well. Uh. It’s possible that the ambassador’s son- well, it may have been a ruse. And the actual Antichrist might be- uh, somewhere else.” He smiles and shrugs, trying to ooze the confidence that he ought to have if this weren’t a little bit his fault.
Gabriel’s face tightens. “Where?”
“Not sure. I mean, I could find out. I have a team of agents who could investigate the possibility. Hypothetically speaking, if that were the case…”
“It wouldn’t change anything, Crowley,” Uriel says. He doesn’t mind Uriel, so much. They’re not as outright nasty as some of the others can be, and they’ve been pleasant to him, on occasion. They even get his name right from time to time. But it’s been millennia since he could call any of these angels friends.
“There was war in Heaven long before the Earth was created,” Gabriel says. “Ezra and the rest were cast out, but nothing was ever really settled.” There’s something very discomfiting about them knowing anything about Ezra. Even Gabriel knowing that he exists puts Crowley on edge.
“Yeah, no. But there doesn’t have to be another one, does there?”
Gabriel smiles. “As much as we appreciate your hypotheticals, I’m afraid we have other things to do. The Earth isn’t just going to end itself, you know.”
That’s it, then. He’s always known that the other angels didn’t care as much for Earth and humanity as he does, because they’ve never had to live in it. But they’re supposed to care a little bit, aren’t they? Humans are part of the Great Plan, too. They’re God’s creations too. Not that it matters to angels or demons anywhere. It’s all still about the Great Bloody War.
Crowley descends the escalator from head office feeling incredibly nihilistic and just a little bit rebellious.
Ezra has a rather large collection of prophecies. He’s used to some of them coming true by mistake, or because the author was accidentally told part of the Great Plan that they really ought not have known. He is not used to being addressed directly by a witch who has been dead for four hundred years, reminding him that his cocoa has gone cold. It’s really true then, what they say about The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch . No wonder those Nazi fellows were so keen on getting their hands on it. Not only are the prophecies nice and accurate, they are also about the Apocalypse. The Apocalypse which is about to happen in two days.
Night flies by and the sun shoots up into the sky as he reads, making notes and feeling a little less useless in the face of impending doom. If there’s one thing he knows how to do, it’s microanalyse books.
The phone rings sometime in the morning. He only notices it’s morning because he looks up from the book and the sun is in his eyes.
Crowley’s urgent voice jolts him out of his daze somewhat. “Any news? Find the missing Antichrist yet?”
Ezra panics. “No. No news. Nothing. Nothing at all. If I had anything, I would tell you immediately. Obviously. We’re friends. Why would you even ask?”
“No news here, either. Call me if you find anything.”
“Absolutely. Why would you think I wouldn’t?” He slams down the receiver and returns to the book. Call the number of the beast ...oh, it can’t be that simple.
Apparently, it is.
And now he has a new thing to panic about: he knows where the Antichrist is, broadly, and he’s pretty sure he’ll be easy to spot. The question is, what does he do with that information? It was one thing to raise the Antichrist to be normal, and have the Apocalypse fizzle out before it started with nobody concrete to blame, but it’s quite another to go around killing the boy and cutting off the Great War (Round Two) with his own hands. For one thing, he’s meddling far too deeply with the Plan, and that’s never a good idea. And for another, they’ll certainly know it was him.
He ought to tell Crowley. No, he wants to tell Crowley. He ought to tell Hell. They might not kill him if he explains everything very, very nicely and says it’s all been a thwarting tactic from Heaven to put off the Apocalypse.
“I’ll just go to head office and explain it all,” he says to himself, pacing around the shop. “So, Beelzebub, er- listen, Lord Beelzebub, most unholy Lord of Hell- oh, no, that’s too formal. Er- hi Beelzebub, quick question: would it be alright if I lost the Antichrist? Oh, Go- Satan.” He drops into his armchair and groans very loudly.
They’re definitely going to kill him.
Chapter 11: The Principality Aziraphale
the long-awaited bandstand scene...
The sky is dark, full of the promise of thunder. He stalks onto the bandstand, where Ezra is waiting, looking just as anxious and bleak as he feels. Things are quickly getting desperate. His only real hope at the moment is that Shadwell, who he’s put on the case, might be able to find something. And that isn’t a particularly solid hope at all. He’s grateful for the sunglasses, so Ezra can’t tell just how frightened he actually is.
“Er- what- what kind of news would that be?”
“Well, have you got the Antichrist’s name, address and shoe size yet?” He’s trying to joke because he can’t stand how intolerably disastrous everything is at the moment. Ezra, as usual, does not make this easy.
“Wh- his shoe size? Why would I have his shoe size?”
“It’s a joke. I’ve got nothing either.” They could both go back to Tadfield and look for eleven-year-old boys, he supposes, but there’s no guarantee he lives there, and the Antichrist isn’t going to look like the Antichrist and they don’t have the time for any of this.
“Well, maybe it’s for the best. It’s the Great Plan, Crowley.”
Crowley growls. There’s no time for him to be sanctimonious right now. “Sod the Plan! Bloody Hell, just because something’s written down doesn’t mean it’s right!”
Ezra winces and glances up at the sky. “Since the Almighty is the one that did the- the- er, writing, I think that maybe we ought not to question it.”
Crowley gapes at him. After all this time, after everything, he still believes in Her. “How can you still defend Her after everything we’ve seen? After the Flood? Sodom and Gomorrah? I mean, you’re a demon, She cast you into Hell!” Ezra won’t look at him. He’s rubbing his neck, the scales there looking dry and raw. “Eternal damnation? Exile from Heaven? Is that ringing any bells?”
Ezra exhales sharply. “Yes, Crowley, I do remember, thank you! I do believe the whole point of that was to demonstrate what happens when you rebel against God.”
“Why’d you do it, then? You must have had doubts. There must have been one moment way back in your stubborn existence when you had a problem with the Great Blasted Plan!”
Ezra withdraws. He steps backwards, away from Crowley. His hands jerk down to his sides. This is a line Crowley doesn’t cross often. He mentioned the Fall once, in Egypt, and got nothing. For a moment, Crowley just stares, silently begging him to just tell him why he rebelled so he can remind him that it was for a good reason and they can get on with saving the world. God has abandoned them, or She’s just sitting up there watching it all play out for the fun of it. She doesn’t care, and he needs Ezra to understand that, understand what Crowley has known since the Flood. But then Ezra just swallows and turns away, looking out at the greying park and not seeing any of it.
“That was a long time ago,” he finally says. Crowley steps forward. They don’t have time for this.
“We find the boy. My agents can do it.”
“And then what? We eliminate him?”
“Well, someone does. I’m not personally up for killing kids.”
“You should do it,” Ezra says. “Smite him. He’s the Antichrist, after all. And since you’re so keen on stopping the War, it ought to be your responsibility to deal with him.”
“You should kill the boy yourself. That’s your whole thing, isn’t it? Doing a bad thing to balance out the good?” Ezra’s the one that keeps saying he’s evil and wretched and Fallen. He might as well use that to his advantage once in a blue moon and do some proper, righteous Bad.
“I can’t kill the Antichrist , Crowley. Do you know the trouble I’d be in?” Crowley stares at him. Doesn’t he get that they’re far past that now? That they’re going to be found out sooner or later, so they might as well do something while they can? He knows there’s good in him. Well, he hopes. He has to hope, because otherwise what the Hell has he been doing for six thousand years? But if Ezra is so damned determined to be a coward, he can’t stop him.
“This is ridiculous. You’re ridiculous. I don’t know why I’m still talking to you.”
“Well, frankly, neither do I.”
“Enough. I’m leaving.” He can call Shadwell and head over to Tadfield himself. Or talk to Gabriel, try and get some kind of message Upstairs that this really isn’t a good idea, and could God please have a look at the Plan and realise that destroying humanity isn’t really a good test of anything? Or, he could just bugger off into the stars and wait for this to blow over. He’s never been a fighter.
“You can’t leave, Crowley!” Ezra’s panicked voice comes from over his shoulder, and he turns back. “There isn’t anywhere to go.” There’s still a chance of getting through to him, a chance they can both make it out of this alive.
“It’s a big universe. Even if this all ends up in a puddle of burning goo, we can...go off together.” That’s their last resort. If they do it right, their superiors won’t even notice until the fighting starts, and then they won’t have the resources to spare to come after them. For a moment, he’s leaning against a fence, watching the rain fall, asking Ezra to come home with him to escape the Flood. He’s sitting in a car, holding a jar of hellfire, offering him a lift anywhere he wants to go.
Ezra stares at him. “Go off...together? Listen to yourself.” He says it like it’s ridiculous.
“How long have we been friends? Six thousand years!” They’ve been together since the bloody Beginning, haven’t they? Six thousand years of bars and deserts and funny restaurants and wars and floods, of meeting longing looks across dusty streets and drinking long and hard enough to start asking Questions.
“Friends? We’re not friends. We are an angel and a demon . We have nothing whatsoever in common. I don’t even like you!” And there he goes again. The Plan, the divide, the great balance of the universe, all of it conveniently lined up so neither of them can have what they want.
“You do!” Crowley growls back.
“Even if I did know where the Antichrist was, I wouldn’t tell you. We’re on opposite sides!”
“We’re on our side,” Crowley growls as he steps forward. One last chance. One final attempt to reach through the barrier that Ezra is constantly building up, putting up a new wall for every brick Crowley manages to wiggle free.
“There is no ‘our side’, Crowley, not anymore. It‘s over.” It’s over . As if what they have can just suddenly disappear, as if they aren’t a part of each other now. He can’t imagine Earth without Ezra on it, somewhere. They’ve argued before, and there was a time once when they didn’t see each other for five hundred years, but never once in all that time did Crowley think that the separation would be forever. They’re too old for that. It’s been too long.
“Right.” Crowley stares at him, waiting for him to take it back. He doesn’t. “Well then.” He steps back, makes a rude sort of noise and turns away. “Have a nice doomsday.”
He thinks - no, he knows - that it’s the same for Ezra. That they can argue as much as they like, but they have six thousand years of shared bloody history that can’t be thrown away in a single argument. Ezra just watches him go, silent. He’s always been a hopeless liar. What hurts is that he’s still trying, still forcing a wedge between them because he can’t stand to go against the proper order of things. He said once, against his better judgement, that Ezra would make a better angel than him. He’s starting to think he was right.
He runs into Gabriel mid-way through storming out of the park. Well, Gabriel runs into him.
“Er- Gabriel, hi!” He plasters on a very fake smile and thankfully, Gabriel stops running. “I was wondering, er- is there any way we could get word up to the Almighty about this Apocalypse thing? You know, check that it’s all going properly.”
Gabriel laughs. “Everything’s right on schedule.”
“Yeah, okay, but- but does there really have to be a war? I mean, it’s a nasty business, you know. Remember the last one?”
“Of course there has to be a war. How else would we win it? Now look, wrap up whatever you have to wrap up down here, report back to active service and…” Gabriel taps the lens of his sunglasses and he has to stop himself from flinching. “Lose the glasses.”
And then he’s jogged off again, and Crowley takes in a deep breath. He’s not going to do any of those things, thank you very much. He glances over to check Ezra’s gone, that Gabriel isn’t going to run straight into him. Thankfully, he’s disappeared.
“Almost forgot.” Gabriel is inches from him again and he tries not to jump. “According to our records, you were issued a flaming sword. You didn’t lose that?”
Crowley laughs. “What, like I’d just give it away?” Gabriel gives him a thumbs up and jogs away again. Crowley almost makes a rude gesture at his receding back. He left a fingerprint on his sunglasses.
There’s no stopping it now. The Antichrist is lost, Heaven’s generals are hungry for war, and he can already feel the storm brewing. All he can think to do at this point is run, and convince Ezra to come with him. They’ve argued and made up before. What Crowley feels for him- the shared history they have is stronger than a few words said out of fear. No, he has to make things up so they can both get the Hell out of here before things go to...well, Hell.
The question is: how? Crowley knows Ezra doesn’t actually want the War. But he’s got too much damned faith in God to actively stop it, and Crowley doesn’t get it. He’ll let himself be killed by Hell or the Apocalypse, or slaughtered in the War, because he thinks that’s what’s supposed to happen. Why? How does an angel go from obedience to rebellion, to becoming a demon, and then straight back to blind obedience again? What did he rebel against Heaven for? How could he decide straight afterwards that it wasn’t worth the trouble?
He can still see Gabriel sinking into the distance. Paperwork. Records. If there’s one thing Heaven is bloody good at, it’s keeping records. And maybe, if he’s very lucky, they’ll have records of that.
He’s alone. Crowley is gone. He’d known there would be no convincing him about the Plan or any of it, but he couldn’t just let him do it. He can’t let Crowley kill a child, Antichrist or not. He can’t let him interfere like that. But he can’t bring himself to tell Hell, either, because they’ll just kill him the second he opens his mouth. He’s paralysed, stuck between death and some worse, divine punishment that will come from directly interfering with God’s work. There could be something worse than Falling, something to torture a demon who doesn’t follow orders. Worse than death.
He’s glad Crowley’s leaving, in a way. It means they won’t have to face each other on the battlefield. Crowley won’t have to hold a blade to his throat, like he feared all those years ago when they duelled in front of Arthur. But it also means that someone else will kill him, either a messy execution from Hell or a clean kill by some other angel who doesn’t know him or care about him in the slightest. He’ll just die, alone and unimportant, and the battle will go on.
He goes back to Soho, because where else can he go? He can’t get to Tadfield, and going to Hell would be unpleasant at best. Unfortunately, Hell has a habit of coming to him when he least wants it. He passes the window of an electronics shop and Hastur’s slimy face appears on all the screens at once. “What the Heaven is going on, Ezra? What have you done?”
He’s faintly aware that you’re not supposed to be able to hear the televisions on display through the shop window, but because Hastur doesn’t know that, it happens anyway. “Hastur. Ah- um- what do you mean? I’m not following you.”
“The boy. The boy called Warlock. We took him to the fields of Megiddo. The dog is not with him. The child knows nothing of the Great War. He is not our master’s son. He said that I...smelled of poo.” Oh dear.
“Ah. Well, you can see his point,” he says, given that it’s true, and Hastur already wants him dead, so there’s really no sense in trying to be polite now.
“You’re dead meat. You’re bloody history. You stay where you are, we’re coming to collect you.”
Ezra does not stay where he is. He jogs rather ungracefully out of sight of the windows and panics very thoroughly. There is nowhere he can go, nothing he can do. Crowley’s gone. Hell is coming for him. He can’t do anything about the Antichrist. The Apocalypse is about to start - and Plan or not, he’s not particularly excited about that.
There’s a reception desk at the top of the escalator in head office. It’s always the same angel there, a woman with golden lipstick who smiles at Crowley very stiffly. He’s never been able to tell whether she’s real.
“The armies are gathering at the side entrances,” she says. He smiles stiffly back.
“Cool. But, uh, before I join up with the boys and get to righteous smiting, I’ve got a bit of a request for some information. On a fallen angel.”
She blinks at him, tilts her head to the side. “A fallen angel.”
“Yeah. Been working an angle with him for a while now, trying to get him to co-operate and feed us information on the Other Side.” He leans forward, resting his hands on the desk. “What would really help is if I could get a bit more on him, so I know what I’m dealing with. Stuff from before the War.”
The receptionist hums disinterestedly. “How will information from six thousand years ago possibly influence this demon’s behaviour today?”
Crowley stutters a bit. “Uh- he’s got a very good memory. Bonkers. Could recite the whole of Paradise Lost , if you gave him the chance. Probably a good thing no-one does.” He tries to laugh, but he’s met with stony indifference. He’s got a sneaking suspicion that she isn’t actually capable of laughter.
“And this is essential to the war effort, is it?”
“Completely. It’s part of my divine duties.”
She picks up something like a telephone on the desk and holds it up to her ear. “So you won’t mind waiting while I contact your superiors. Just to check.”
“Uh- well, you don’t want to do that, do you? Gabriel’s got legions to coordinate. I mean, just hundreds of the things. He doesn’t want to be bothered with petty little administrative requests, now, does he?” Crowley rocks on his heels. “ And , last I saw him, he was in a very bad mood. Nearly smited a cherub for turning up in the wrong uniform.”
“It’s smote,” she corrects, but lowers the phone from her ear nonetheless, looking a bit nervous now.
“Right. And I do need this pretty fast. I mean, the world’s ending already. The War’s coming, and we’re really gonna need this guy on the inside to help the effort.”
She replaces the phone on the receiver and puts her smile back on. “Very well. What’s the name?”
He hesitates. What if Ezra doesn’t even remember any of it? What if, a much darker and more worried voice murmurs, he doesn’t care? What if he’ll be furious that Crowley dug it out without asking him? But he did ask, and Ezra didn’t tell, and honestly, he’d rather have Ezra alive and furious than dead, and he’s already furious. He’s got to try something, and what’s one more argument? They can have it on the way to Alpha Centauri. He’s quite proud of that one.
“Ezra. Ezra Fell,” he says, because he did, and he was also far too fond of wordplay in the 19th century. The receptionist dutifully types it into what might be a computer, but he can’t be sure. She raises her hand over what could be an enter key, if an angel had ever seen such a thing as a keyboard, and then pauses, staring at something on the screen.
“You’re certain this is the demon that’s going to feed you information on the Opposition?”
He feels an odd sort of fear twist itself around in his stomach. It’s one thing to ask for information, and quite another to receive it. It hadn’t actually occurred to him until this point that he might not like what he’s about to hear. That Ezra did actually do horrible things in the War. But he’s gone too far to back off now. He plasters a bit more confidence over the hole she’s just poked into it. “Yeah. He’s a changed demon. Why?”
The receptionist presses her golden lips together and looks very carefully at him. “Because he killed the archangel Raphael.”
Frankly, the world can just hurry up and end, for all Ezra cares. He hopes Crowley can get away to some faraway planet before it all kicks off. It might not, given the absence of Hellish influence over the real Antichrist’s life, but if the storm rattling through London is anything to go by, that’s a very thin hope.
His hands itch and he tugs off his gloves. He’s in the middle of the street, but the street isn’t going to be here for much longer so it doesn’t really matter. He picks at the scales on the back of his hand as he walks back to the bookshop in a daze. The world happens around him, and he just trudges through it. He’s very much trying not to discorporate out of terror. No good, discorporating at this point. It’s not like Hell will give him another body.
Something sleek and black skids into view just as he reaches the corner where the bookshop is. Crowley leaps out of his car and comes towards him, babbling.
“I’m sorry. I apologise. Whatever I said, I didn’t mean it. Work with me, I’m apologising here. Yes. Good? Get in the car!”
Ezra stares at him, taking a minute to process what he’s actually saying. He hasn’t left yet. He hasn’t given up on the world, or on him. He wants to say something about that, but what actually comes out is just an awkward sort of questioning noise.
Crowley rolls his eyes. “Heaven isn’t going to listen, and it’s only a matter of time before Hell figures out this was your fault. But we can run away together. Alpha Centauri. Lots of spare planets up there. No one would even notice us.”
Run away together . But if they’re still friends, if they’re still together, maybe they can still fix this. He hasn’t a hope of being forgiven in Hell, so all they can do is find the boy and deal with him themselves, and maybe they won’t get killed in the process. With Heaven’s help, it could all be resolved before too many people die.
“Crowley, you’re being ridiculous. Look, I’m quite sure that if we can just reach the right people, then we can get all this sorted out.”
“There aren’t any right people! There’s just God, moving in mysterious ways and not talking to any of us!”
“Well, yes, and that is why you ought to have a word with the Almighty, and then the Almighty will fix it.”
Crowley stares at him like he’s lost his mind. “That won’t happen. You’re so clever! How can somebody as clever as you be so stupid?” Ezra just stares at him. “We don’t have time for this. Heaven isn’t going to help. They don’t care, they want the War.”
Crowley gestures at the car again, but Ezra doesn’t move. They can still fix this. There has to be someone Up There that they can talk to, to find the Antichrist and stop the War. Crowley can tell what he’s thinking, and by the looks of things, he doesn’t like it. “Look, I’m sorry, but I looked you up. I had to get you to listen. I need you to see that it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows up there. Heaven isn’t perfect. It isn’t even good.”
“ Crowley ,” Ezra hisses, with a glance up at the sky, and then promptly stops himself talking. He wishes he’d kept his gloves on, too.
“I know why you Fell.” People on the street keep pushing past them. The wind keeps blowing. Ezra’s body turns to ice, and Crowley keeps hurling words at him. “Raphael was torturing one of the rebel angels. You tried to stop him, and he turned on you, and you fought, and you killed him in self-defence. And when the other angels saw, they thought you were rebelling too, so you had to fight, or they would have killed you.”
He remembers holy fire, and a body drenched in gold on a white floor. He remembers the clattering sound of Raphael’s sword. There was blood on his hands, blood seeping into his robes where Raphael had fallen against him, and he remembers rubbing at his neck and there was blood there, too.
And he looks down at his raw hands and there are scales where once was blood. He touches his neck and there, too, are the scales he earned for this sin. There are more beneath his clothes, marks that remind him of the worst thing he has ever done, and Crowley is standing there impatiently, like saying all of this ought to be proving something about Heaven.
“Don’t you see? It wasn’t fair, what they did to you. You never should have Fallen.” Crowley’s voice is urgent, pressing into him. He wants to go now, and Ezra’s holding him back.
“I killed an angel, Crowley.” He’s never said it out loud before. Not Below, where such a thing would be praised. Not on Earth, not even drunk. He’s never even said those words to himself.
“And it was the right thing to do!”
He recoils. “How can you say that? It’s- it’s unforgivable.”
And Crowley just shrugs and says, “I forgive you.” Just like that. And then he’s pointing back at the car and saying something about Alpha Centauri like nothing happened, trying to hurry him in so they can run away together and escape the end of the world.
“That’s enough!” Crowley stops abruptly, turns to him with a hurt look. He’s still panicking, impatient. He really thinks they can get out of this mess by running away. There is nowhere in the universe where God won’t find them. He can feel his eyes burning, his scales itching. “We can do something about this. If- if you just talked to Heaven. Got them to understand about the Antichrist. I’m sure we could-”
“Have you been listening? Heaven isn’t good, Ezra. All they want is the bloody War. I’m never going to get through to the archangels. I’m certainly not getting through to a higher authority. Get. In. The. Car.” He gestures to the Bentley one final time. Not getting through to a higher authority. He has a sort of idea, then. Not a very good one, but still. Ideas are running thin on the ground these days. “For Heaven’s- The world is going to end! Come on.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’ve- I’ve just remembered something terribly important. Look, you should go. I’ll- if this doesn’t work- you go, Crowley.” He backs away, towards the bookshop door.
“Whatever it is, do it quick. I’ll wait.”
“No! Just go , Crowley.”
Crowley slams the car door. He assumes, for a moment, that he’s just got in the car and driven off. But then there’s a divine presence behind him.
“ Aziraphale ,” Crowley says, and the whole street freezes. He doesn’t mean to do it, really. It’s just that the sound of his name, his real, holy name, burns him so deeply that the only thing he can tolerate is complete silence and stillness. His head burns, throbs with the divinity of it. He turns, and Crowley is there, still desperate, still hopeful. He is the only thing that moves.
“That’s your name, right? Aziraphale? They said you were a principality, back in the day. Proper angel.” It still echoes. White hot and painful, the name sears into his head and it’s all he can think about. And Crowley has dredged it up to use against him, to remind him of everything he’s lost and doesn’t deserve to get back.
“Stop,” he chokes out, and Crowley just presses closer. White light blinds him like two braziers on either side of his head, and he can’t blink it out of his vision. He's Falling all over again.
“It was your job to protect people. That’s what She made you for, and that’s what you did, and She cast you out for it. Don't you see it yet?”
“Please, just go.”
Crowley waits there a second. Pauses, just for a moment, waiting. But when the street comes back to life, he knows. So he casts his hands up and stalks back to the car. “Fine. I’m going home, angel. I’m getting my stuff and I’m leaving. And when I’m off in the stars, I won’t even think about you!”
He doesn’t watch as he slams the door and the car shoots up the street, away from him. He can’t bear it. A passer-by says something and he doesn’t even hear it. He enters the shop in a daze, swings the sign closed and draws down the blinds.
Heaven can’t really want to destroy the world. They were ordered, specifically, to love it. To love humanity. This is just Crowley’s fatalism. He’s always had Doubts and Questions, ever since the Beginning, but that’s the way he is. They can do something about it, and they will, if he can just talk to someone who understands all this. If Crowley won’t try it, he’s damn well going to. The world is ending. He has to do something. He wondered, before, if they had some divine way of punishing a demon, but sending Crowley away has already answered that question. He's already living on borrowed time. What more can they do to him but kill him?
He pulls aside the large circular rug on the floor to reveal the circle he's supposed to use to communicate directly with Hell, in case of emergencies. He grabs Agnes Nutter’s book and places it on the floor beside the circle. Before he activates it, he scrubs out one very critical rune in the centre, and replaces it with an identical one, only upside-down. He lights the candles, presses his hands together and closes his eyes. This is madness. Completely out of the vicinity of even remotely, possibly working. But he’s got to try.
When he reaches for his name, it still burns white hot, but he can touch it.
“Hello. This is the Principality Aziraphale. I’m looking for a higher authority. Is there anybody there?”
Chapter 12: Bit of a Fallen Angel
the long-dreaded burning bookshop scene...
He just needs time. Just a bit more time, and he’ll come around. Throwing his old name out there was too much, but he’ll come around. He’ll understand. Ezra, Aziraphale, whatever his name is, he’s clever, he’ll understand and he’ll come back.
Crowley convinces himself of this so successfully that when he arrives at his apartment building, he almost doesn’t notice the three archangels that appear out of nowhere and surround the car. He knows where this is going. Casually, he opens the glove compartment and picks up a small tin of engine oil that’s been in there since he bought the car.
He opens the door and slides out with a smile. “Hi, guys.”
Michael does not smile. “We’ve just been learning some rather disturbing things about you. You’ve been a bit of a fallen angel, haven’t you? Consorting with the enemy?”
“Consorting? That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?” This is one situation he really can’t charm his way out of. Which is inconvenient, because it’s one situation he really, desperately needs to be out of, and quite quickly, too. Of course it’s now, after carefully keeping a secret for six thousand years, that everything comes out.
“Don’t think your boyfriend in the bookshop will get you special treatment in Hell,” Uriel says. He’s starting to forget why he tolerated them in the first place. “He’s in trouble too.” Hell have found out, then. He has to get back. He’ll knock Ezra out and carry him to the bloody stars if he has to.
“Kroliel. It’s time to choose sides.” Michael’s voice is clear and sharp. He knows what will happen if the next thing out of his mouth isn’t exactly what they want to hear. None of them are dressed for battle, but there are three of them and there’s only one of him. He doesn’t correct them on his name, not this time.
“Right. Yeah. Sides.” He knows where he has to go, but he can’t go yet. He can’t lead them to Ezra. “Yeah, I’ve been doing some thinking about that,” he says, pulling his phone out of his pocket as casually as one might do to check the time. The archangels don’t take much notice, already gearing up for a smiting. “And what I think, is that we ought to think about it.” He opens it, and flicks through his contacts. “I mean, good and evil. Heaven and Hell. It’s all for the humans, really, isn’t it?”
“The humans exist to start the War,” Sandalphon says, looming closer.
“Yeah. But, hypothetically, if we didn’t have the humans,” Crowley casually says, dialling his home telephone number, “we wouldn’t be able to do things like this. So long, suckers!” And then he’s flying through the phone network.
It will only buy him a few seconds, but he only needs a few seconds. He shoots out of his answering machine and wrenches open the safe. The hellfire sits innocently in its jar, still burning after fifty years. He doesn’t have time for protection, just grabs it and runs. He makes it to the office door before he hears the archangels emerge from his desk phone. He pours a line of engine oil in the doorway and spins around. Sandalphon is in front. He’s always been keen on smiting.
“It’s over, Kroliel,” he smugly says.
“It’s Crowley ,” he snarls back, and raises the hellfire above his head.
He sees the moment Sandalphon realises what’s about to happen, and it’s very, very satisfying for half a second before he smashes the jar to the ground and runs, as a great wall of hellfire rises up behind him. He doesn’t know if the flat will survive, he doesn’t even know if any of the angels will survive. He doesn’t care, none of it matters anymore. He can’t go back to Heaven now. He can only go back to Ezra.
Nothing happens. God does not speak to him, but neither is he violently smote from Above. He didn’t expect to be able to say his old name aloud, not after so many years of having it burn in his head for even thinking it. He still feels raw and weak from Crowley saying it on the street, like he’s been violated in a way he’s never known could happen.
“Look, this really is frightfully important. I’m prepared to take this all the way to the top.” And apparently this is the correct thing to say, because a blueish white light manifests in the circle and a beam shoots down through the shop’s circular skylight. Out of the light emerges an enormous, stern face.
“You are not Aziraphale,” the voice echoes, filling every crevice of the shop. Ezra swallows and keeps his hands together.
“Well, I was once. And nobody else is going to be, so- um. Am I speaking to God?”
“You are speaking to the Metatron. To speak to me is to speak to God. I am the voice of the Almighty.” Just what he needs: a customer service manager.
“Well, yes, but you are the voice of the Almighty in the same way as a presidential spokesman is the voice of the president. I actually need to speak directly to God.”
“Demons do not speak with God,” the great voice booms, and for a moment he wonders whether he really is about the be smote. “Well?”
He stutters. He didn’t actually expect to get this far. “It’s about the Antichrist. I know who he is. I know where he is. So there doesn’t need to be any of that nonsense about, erm, a third of the seas turning to blood or anything. There needn’t be a war. We can save everyone.”
“The point is not to avoid the war,” the terrible voice says, and Ezra’s breath catches. This is the moment, the answer he’s been waiting on: what it’s all been for . “The point is to win it.” And everything feels very hot and white, and an unpleasant thought crawls up like a serpent out of the ash in his mind and hisses, Crowley was right .
Someone hammers on the door.
“We’re closed!” The divine light is so hot it burns, and he backs away from it a little.
“ Ezra... ” Hastur’s voice slips through the letterbox. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. He scrambles around the circle, and the Metatron turns to face him as he goes without seeming to move. Ligur smashes the window. He needs time, he needs information, he needs- he needs Crowley. What would Crowley do? Ask questions.
“Um- what sort of initiating event will precipitate the war?”
“Ezra!” Ligur croons .
“We thought a multi-nation nuclear exchange would be a nice start,” the Metatron apathetically informs him.
“We only want to talk to you,” Ligur calls, jamming his hand through the smashed window to open the lock. Ezra contemplates hiding, but it’s a bit late for that. Not to mention rude.
“How imaginative. Would you mind- um- holding, for a moment? I’ll call you back.” The Metatron raises its eyebrows, but, with a glance at the door, does as asked. The face disappears, but the light remains, and Ezra positions himself behind it. Hastur and Ligur charge into the shop, sending a whole display flying to the ground, and come straight towards him. Oh dear.
“Er- hello. What can I do for you?” For a moment he doesn’t think it will work. There’s no way they’re actually that stupid. But apparently, they are. First Ligur, then Hastur lunge for him and step into the circle.
What follows is sort of like what happens when you drop lithium in water, only with a brighter light and a great deal more hissing and screaming. It’s absolutely dreadful to watch, and probably worse to experience. When it’s over, there is absolutely nothing left of either Hastur or Ligur except a cloud of unfurling smoke and a pair of grimy trenchcoats.
“There is a call for you on the other line.” He jumps at the Metatron’s voice. The giant head has reappeared, looking even more disapproving than before. “I suggest you take it.”
“Oh dear,” Ezra weakly says. “Er- thank you. Jolly good.” The Metatron disappears. The white light wavers for a moment, and then snaps into a bloody red as every electric bulb in the shop explodes.
THE BATTLE COMMENCES, EZRA. A great buzzing voice roars from the sigil, now glowing orange like the embers of a dying fire.
“Yes, er, just a minute. Two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” He hasn’t got a lot of time. Hell is coming, the War is coming, and Heaven isn’t going to stop it. The only person who can do anything is currently packing up his obnoxious Bentley to fly to Alpha Centauri. (He’s still not sure how Crowley is actually planning to execute that.)
He picks up his proper telephone and hesitates. Crowley dug into his past, dug into the core of him and ripped up the awful thing that has defined him since he Fell. He used his name . It’s a violation he’s not felt since that Fall, and one he never expected from him. But at the same time, Crowley looked at that awful thing and forgave it like it was nothing. Crowley really, truly doesn’t care what he is or what he’s done. Even after what he’s done, Ezra realises that he trusts him.
Flames start to emerge from the burning sigil and creep towards him. He doesn’t have time to be angry at Crowley anymore. He’ll save that for after they save the world. If they save the world, that is. He calls Crowley’s flat, and there’s a beep on the other end. “I know where the Antichrist-”
“This is Anthony Crowley. You know what to do. Do it with style.”
“Well I know who you are, you idiot, I telephoned you!” Crowley says nothing in response. Probably still upset with him, too.
DO NOT DAWDLE. The flames lick the edges of his trousers and he kicks them off. He likes these trousers.
“I know where the Antichrist is,” he says into the phone, and before he can say anything else, the flames grab hold of his ankle and drag him to the ground. He tries to hold on, but they tug him back to the sigil, sending books and candles flying as he goes. He feels the fire yanking him downwards, back into the pit, and he has time for one last cognisant thought before everything goes to Hell, the thought he’s been having more or less constantly for the past hour: “Oh, fuck .”
“Please hang up and try your call again.”
Crowley curses and swings the wheel around, shooting past a loitering taxi. Of course the stubborn idiot isn’t going to answer his phone right now, at the end of the world, right after leaving a message saying he knows where the Antichrist is. Serves him right for digging too deep, he supposes. Never got the hang of when to stop asking questions he shouldn’t be asking. But Ezra called him, so that’s a good sign. Maybe he’s not so utterly furious with him that they’ll never be friends again.
Something evil wafts through the air, carried by the storm winds, and he tenses. They might still have a shot of getting away. There’s no telling how long a wall of hellfire can contain three archangels, and he knows Ezra is in trouble with his lot, too.
He turns the corner and smells smoke. Everything inside him turns cold and he forgets how to breathe. It doesn’t seem so important anymore, because the bookshop is burning. Flames spit out of the windows, and there are fire crews rallying around it. He’s only been gone twenty minutes.
“Are you the owner of this establishment?” A fireman hurries up to him as he gets out of the car, slams the door and strides towards the shop.
“Do I look like I run a bookshop?” He snaps his fingers and the doors swing open, and he charges in. “Ezra! Ezra, where the Hell are you, you idiot? I can’t find you!” He ducks around towering stacks of books that tumble to the ground, turning to ash. It can’t be hellfire, or he wouldn’t be able to stand so close. “Ezra, for God’s-” he chokes on that. She isn’t here, and She hasn’t been for a very long time. She abandoned him, and the world, and his friend. “For somebody’s sake, where are you?”
The window smashes and a blast of water knocks him to the ground, sending his senses scattering across the floor. He pushes himself up and looks around. Everything is ruined, burning. He was only gone twenty minutes, and the last time they spoke was an argument.
Crowley has never been one for settling in one place for too long. It’s convenient, but he gets restless. He’s never understood Ezra’s insistence on nesting somewhere, for want of a better word. Not until now, that is, when he sees the bookshop crumbling to ash around him and realises that the only home he’s ever had is gone. He reaches out for that place a little bit outside his mind, the sense he has of where Ezra ought to be. On a clear day he can sense his aura of fussy brimstone on the other side of the world. But now it’s gone, and it’s left a raw, burning wound in its place.
“You’ve gone,” he breathes. “Somebody killed my best friend!” Everything burns, inside and out. He can feel the itch of heat against his skin, the beginnings of burns starting to crawl up his fingers, but he doesn’t care. It’s nothing compared to the agony of knowing that after six thousand years of always knowing , always feeling where Ezra is, he’s gone.
He wasn’t enough. If he’d stayed, if he hadn’t wielded his old name like a weapon and pushed him away, they could have fought this off together. He’d still be alive. But because they argued, because Crowley did something unforgivable, Ezra was alone. Unprotected. And now he’s dead.
He shifts his hand to push himself up, and something nudges against it. A book, of course, and one that’s mostly undamaged by the fire: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter . Ezra always loved prophecies. Said they made him laugh when humans made improbable connections even he hadn’t thought of to make them seem true. Crowley heaves himself to his feet and stows the book in his jacket. It’s the only thing he can touch without being burned.
To Hell with it all, with God and Heaven and Hell and the whole bloody world. There is nothing in it worth saving. Not anymore.
Being dragged into Hell is sort of like going down a waterslide, except much faster and much angrier and with a great deal less water. He staggers out the other side mostly intact, but with an odd sort of empty, smoky feeling to his whole body. He’s in a dark, dripping sort of room, which is to be expected in Hell.
“You.” He spins around and there’s Dagon, standing at the head of a very nasty looking platoon of soldiers. Oh dear. She knows what he did, she knows about Crowley. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. She stalks forward, face oozing slime, and opens a mouth of sharp, fishlike teeth to say, “you’re late.”
How odd. That’s not quite what he was expecting. He’s not been violently executed yet, either. Is there a chance Hastur and Ligur didn’t tell their superiors they were coming after him, and his overzealous summoning was actually just Hell’s idea of a call to battle?
“Yes, well. Actually, I didn’t mean to be here, yet. Still sorting things out on Earth.” He points upwards.
“Ezra, isn’t it? The worm?” She ushers a demon forward with a clipboard to check him off.
He bristles at that. “Well, I was a serpent, actually.”
“Your whole platoon is waiting for you,” she snarls. “Ezra, Ezra, why is that name so familiar?”
“Oh, I was the one with the apple, in the Garden. Yes, it was quite a big deal in the end, wasn’t it-”
“Shut it. You were issued with a body! Where is it?” He opens his mouth to tell her that actually, it’s standing right in front of her, when he gets another wave of that odd, empty feeling and looks down at himself. His hand wavers in reality for a moment, like it’s made of smoke. Oh dear.
“Ah. Um, I’m afraid I hadn’t actually prepared to step into the transportation portal, you see. And the body…” he waves his smoky hand at himself awkwardly. “Discorporated.” She stares at him in disgust, open-mouthed. “It was six thousand years old,” he adds.
“I count them all out, and I count them all in again. And now you turn up, late for Armageddon, and you don’t even have a body? You pathetic excuse for a demon!” A great deal of ooze that might have been spit ends up on his face. He’s glad he’s not really corporeal at present, because it seems very unpleasant.
“Well, yes. I suppose I am, really.” The most demonic thing he’s ever done was over six thousand years ago, after all, and somewhere between talking to the Metatron and sliding through dimensions to Hell, he’s become quite determined to save the world. Not particularly demonic of him. “I mean, I have no intention of fighting in any war.”
Dagon stalks even closer. “Don’t be a coward. Get in line and I’ll think about not having you executed.”
“I was in the middle of something important. I demand to be returned.”
“Without a body? What are you going to do, possess someone?”
He blinks. “Why not? I am a demon.” He’s never done it before, having had his corporation almost as long as he’s been a demon, but there’s a first time for everything.
Dagon sneers at him. “Not a proper one. Have you actually done anything worth mentioning since the Garden, or is that your crowning glory?”
“Well, I am about to do something rather interesting,” Ezra says, thinking about how it feels to miracle himself somewhere and wondering if he can get it to work by snapping fingers he doesn’t actually have anymore. “But I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
He shuts his eyes, focuses on the bit of electric divinity somewhere above him that he knows is Crowley, and wills himself there. They’ve got an apocalypse to stop.
Not having a corporation doesn’t make much of a difference in Hell, but it definitely seems to make a difference on Earth. For one thing, he doesn’t have eyes anymore, so can’t see very much. There are auras around him, humans bustling past. He can feel spaces and walls, and gets the vague sense that he’s sitting. All he can really focus on is Crowley, and the warm, divine aura he gives off. Words float through the muddled darkness towards him.
“...never asked to be an angel...don’t give you a career day up in Heaven...next thing you know they’re drowning the human race…”
He concentrates hard, and feels Crowley’s... Crowley-ness materialise more firmly in front of him, in shades of warmth and electricity.
“...are you listening? Are you there? Show me a Plan…don’t test them to destruction...to the end of the world...”
If he tries very hard, he can make out a sort of outline of Crowley, not entirely physical but not entirely abstract, either. It might be his imagination, but he can make out a flash of light coming off his sunglasses.
“Ezra? Are you here?”
“Good question. Not certain. Never done this before. Can you hear me?” Also a good question, given that he doesn’t really have a mouth at present.
“Of course I can hear you.” Crowley’s voice gets clearer. He’s still angry at Crowley, and he’s also sorry about lying about the Antichrist, but there isn’t much time for any of that.
“I’m afraid I’ve made rather a mess of things. Did you go to Alpha Centauri?” He doesn’t think that’s where they are right now, but he also doesn’t have eyes, so he doesn’t really know what’s going on.
“Nah. I changed my mind. Stuff happened.” Crowley sniffs. “I lost my best friend.”
We’re not friends , he’d said, and he really wishes he hadn’t. He could say a lot of things, none of which really manifest themselves properly in his mind because he’s concentrating rather hard on not floating away back to Hell.
“So sorry to hear it,” he awkwardly says. “Listen. Back in my bookshop, there’s a book I need you to get.”
“Oh, look, your bookshop isn’t there anymore.”
“I’m really sorry. It burned down.” Is he crying? Ezra certainly feels like crying, and quite possibly would if he still had tear ducts. He vaguely remembers knocking a candle aside in his struggle with the portal to Hell.
“All of it?”
Crowley stammers and his voice wavers in and out of focus for a moment. “M- wh- yeah. What was the book?”
“The one the young lady with the bicycle left behind. The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of-”
“Agnes Nutter!” Crowley practically shrieks, and his aura spikes with excitement. He might be moving a bit, too, but it’s difficult to tell. “Yes, I took it!”
“You have it?”
“Oh, look inside, I made notes. It’s all in there, the boy’s name, address, everything else.” He tries to smile, which is awkward without a mouth. “I worked it all out.” There isn’t much hope yet, but Crowley’s still got a body and a car and he might be able to get to the Antichrist before it’s too late.
“Look, wherever you are, I’ll come to you. Where are you?”
Ezra looks around him at the muddled, sightless place he seems to be occupying. “I- I- I’m not really anywhere, yet. I’ve been discorporated. You need to get to Tadfield Air Base.”
“World ending. That’s where it’s all going to happen, quite soon now. I’ll head there too.” He can feel himself drifting a bit, like smoke in the wind. It’s a very discomfiting sensation for an entity that’s spent the last six thousand years being in a comfortable body with two feet firmly on the ground. “I just need to find a receptive body. Harder than you’d think.”
“I’m not gonna go there.” Crowley’s voice is drifting away from him now.
“Pity I can’t inhabit yours. Angel, demon, probably explode.” Crowley’s aura fades and he’s being pulled gently away into the nothingness. “So I’ll meet you at Tadfield. But we’re both going to have to get a bit of a wiggle-on.”
“Tadfield! Air base!”
And then he’s gone, back into the ether, spiralling around the spiritual equivalent of London in search of somewhere corporeal to situate his currently non-corporeal soul.
Chapter 13: Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds
things start heating up on the M25 as people converge at the airbase.
Crowley still feels only half-alive when he sobers up and gets into the Bentley. God, predictably, hasn’t answered his prayers. She never answers the humans, whether they’re piss-drunk about the Apocalypse or not, so he doesn’t know why he even entertained the idea that She might answer him. It’s not like he’s an angel who’s been following Her orders (more or less) since the dawn of time, or anything. He’s not at all important to the Divine Plan, certainly not important enough to warrant a single answer to his questions.
Sod it all, to be honest. If She isn’t going to answer, then he isn’t going to pretend to follow Her rules any longer.
Ezra came back to him, though. That's some sort of sign that there’s still a chance all this might turn out alright. A small chance, but since God has neglected to share Her wisdom on the matter, Crowley’s going to bloody well try. There is one small problem that stands between Crowley and Tadfield: the M25.
“This is the biggest traffic jam in England’s history,” the radio helpfully informs him.
“I see that,” he snaps. “But why? Not very apocalyptic, is it?” He squints out of the window at the rows of unmoving cars. Smoke rises in the distance, which seems a bit more apocalyptic. And then, in a manner very much befitting of the End of Days, cars start to explode. Metal screeches as it’s torn apart. People scream and sprint away from their vehicles as they fly into the air. Fire erupts from the road into a great burning wall that encircles the whole of London, and Crowley is stuck inside it.
“What’s that about?” He dredges through his memory for any memos from Heaven about infernal ring-roads, and comes up with nothing. But then, he remembers a very odd conversation he had with Ezra sometime in the seventies about the Dark Priesthood of Mu. Ezra had just found an ancient book on the cult, and was thrilled to pieces with it, while Crowley flipped through the book and told him that one of the symbols looked an awful lot like that ring road they were planning on building around London.
“Ah, yes. Odegra. It means ‘hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds’,” Ezra had said. “What ring road, dear boy?” And Crowley, to the future misfortune of everyone ever to enter London via the M25, told him. He ought to have taken more note of the curiously mischievous expression he’d made.
Crowley squints at the wall of fire. “Right. The M25 is now an impassable burning ring of infernal fire, and that’s my fault. Come on, Tadfield, Tadfield, Tadfield.” He pulls out of the queue he’s in and tries for another off-ramp, as though that one might not be on fire. It is.
The whole of London being encircled by flame seems like the sort of thing a witch might note in her prophecies for future reference, so he leafs through Agnes Nutter’s book in search of answers. “Come on, there must be a way across it. Burning roads. Did you predict this, Agnes?” The thing about the Apocalypse is that a lot of it is about being on fire, which makes it difficult to narrow down any of the prophecies to his current situation. “Why isn’t there an index?”
There’s an odd electrical crackling sound, and he looks up from the book to see Michael sitting in the passenger seat, looking quite calmly out of the windscreen. The front of her suit is just a tad bit singed. Crowley glances back to see Uriel in the back seat, but no Sandalphon.
“You’ll never escape London,” Michael dispassionately says. “Nothing can.”
“Aren’t you meant to be lining up ready for battle around now?” Crowley asks, because they definitely are. It must be personal, if two archangels are coming after his lowly arse rather than readying their platoons. Definitely no Sandalphon, he realises. No Sandalphon ever again. That’s a comforting thought, at least.
Uriel leans forward. “You know where the real Antichrist is, don’t you?”
“You’ll never reach him,” Michael says, not even giving him a chance to come up with a bad lie.
“Think you’re going to get across that?” Uriel smugly says. “There’s nowhere to go.”
Crowley knows this. But Crowley, being at heart a very contrary sort of angel, puts the Bentley into gear and starts driving anyway. “Let’s find out.”
Michael blinks. “What are you doing?”
He’s stuck in a car with two pissed-off archangels in the biggest traffic jam in England’s history, the only way out is through a great big wall of hellfire, his best friend has been discorporated and there’s less than an hour left until the Apocalypse. Things are not looking great. So, Crowley starts doing what he does best when faced with an approaching deadline in front of two of his bosses: he starts bullshitting.
“You know, the thing I like best about time is that every day, it takes us further away from the fourteenth century. I really didn’t like the fourteenth century. You’d’ve loved it then.”
The car starts to get uncomfortably warm as it approaches the flames.
“They didn’t have any cars in the fourteenth century. Lovely, clever human people inventing cars, and motorways, and windscreen wipers. You’ve got to hand it to them, haven’t you?”
“Stop this, Kroliel,” Uriel snaps. “It’s over. There’s nowhere to go.” Michael looks back at them with a look that says she’s getting quite calmly worried, but doesn’t want to admit it.
“You’ll kill us all!” Michael says, but Crowley just grins.
“See? This day’s already getting better.” He slams the accelerator and the Bentley charges straight into hellfire. He doesn’t know what he expects to happen next. He glances left, to see Michael and Uriel have sensibly teleported back to Heaven, which rids him of one problem. However, he is now inside a car inside a big fire, which is another problem. The Bentley is pretty indestructible, as cars powered by miracles go, but there’s probably a limit to that, and that limit is probably an impassable burning ring of infernal fire.
He presses his foot harder into the pedal, and decides that he is going to be alright, actually. The car will keep the fire on the outside, and he’ll be alright on the inside. That’s half the point of cars, anyway, to keep out nasty things like rain and pedestrians and hellfire. He’s going to be fine. It’s not like it’s proper hellfire, anyway. He walked in and out of the burning bookshop without a problem, and now he’s going to drive in and out of the burning M25 without a problem, too, because he has something no other angels have: an imagination.
Right now, he is imagining that he is just fine, and that a ton of burning metal, rubber and leather is a fully functioning car. He had started that journey in his Bentley, and he was damned if he wasn’t going to finish it in the Bentley as well.
Demonic possession, Ezra quickly discovers, is a highly overrated experience. It’s sort of like two people trying to drive a car at the same time, only the car is on legs and also has a mouth. Madame Tracy is a very pleasant woman, if a bit odd, and rather alarmingly unbothered by being possessed. This is good, because if she really wanted him out, she could probably get rid of him by standing in a church or taking a shot of holy water. Thankfully, she’s listened to his explanation of the situation very politely, and, like any Brit faced with impending disaster, made a cup of tea.
Shadwell is a surprise, but a convenient one, seeing as he happens to possess a rather large gun. Whether it’s big enough to stop an Antichrist is a matter for later concern, but he seems confident in its ability to stop a witch, a werewolf or a vampire, so that’s something. Madame Tracy’s moped is not large at all, but seems equally ancient, and it takes a proper demonic miracle to get it going fast enough to get out of London before the world turns to fire and flame.
And then there’s the odd matter of the ring of hellfire surrounding London. He can miracle Madame Tracy’s moped to soar over the top of it without scorching anything, of course, but it is a rather unexpected obstacle.
“Hail the Great Beast, Devourer of Worlds,” he hears people chanting below. It sounds familiar, and if he were in a more relaxed frame of mind he might recall why, and subsequently be quite cross with himself, but since the world is ending he’s got more important things to worry about.
For example, every time Madame Tracy wants to talk over him, he gets a sensation somewhere between having a microphone snatched away from him at a wedding and having his head dunked into a tepid bath. It’s a very odd experience all round, and he really wouldn’t recommend it. He can’t understand what all the other demons are making such a fuss about. It seems to him that they’re bragging about shoplifting an expensive car, when what they’re really doing is stealing a pair of trousers by getting into them with the person who already owned them and refusing to get out again.
Not having a body of his own is starting to become a bit nerve-wracking, in actuality. As gracious a host as she is, Madame Tracy is hardly a permanent solution to his problem. And since Hell will most definitely have figured out his role in all this by now, there’s no chance of being issued with a new corporation - if he’ll even have a use for one, seeing as the Antichrist is about to trigger the Apocalypse and he’s likely going to be violently killed within the next few hours. He hasn’t got a body, or a reliable weapon, or even his bookshop. Crowley is presumably on his way, but he doesn’t know how he’s going to get past the hellfire.
Satan, the hellfire . After all the years of agony he went through, after all the back-and-forth in his head about giving Crowley that tiny, insignificant jar, is he going to meet his end in a giant, towering wall of the stuff anyway? On Ezra’s instruction, no less?
No body, no bookshop, and very possibly no Crowley.
“Terrible weather we’re having, isn’t it?” Madame Tracy suddenly remarks, as they speed down a country lane on the way to Tadfield. He isn’t quite up to Crowley’s usual velocity, but he’s getting rather close on the straight bits of the road. Storm clouds grumble overhead, and he spots a flash of lightning in the distance.
“That would be the Apocalypse, I’m afraid.”
“You never know, dear. It does get all hot and muggy up there this time of year. Sets off all sorts of storms.”
He watched the first ever storm roll in from east of Eden after humanity’s fall. Crowley had sheltered him from it with his wing. And now, at the end of the world, humanity is to fall again, and he and Crowley will be there to watch that, too. If Crowley isn’t dead, or held up by hellfire, or captured by his own people, or stuck in traffic.
“I’m sure your Mr Crowley will be alright,” she says, out of nowhere. He stammers and tries not to crash into the side of the road. He didn’t realise she could hear all that. “I didn’t mean to pry. You do think about him very loudly, that’s all.”
“Er- I do?”
“No need to be shy. He seems like a very handsome man.”
He certainly can’t justify answering that in any possible manner. There’s no point denying it to the woman who can apparently read his thoughts, and there isn’t time to unpack all his feelings towards Crowley, not when he doesn’t know from minute to minute whether one or both of them is about to be killed.
“Love isn’t always convenient,” she says. And doesn’t he know it. A demon, in love with an angel, and only really admitting it to himself at the end of everything. He swallows that thought and swerves to avoid crashing into the side of the road again.
“What’re ye on about?” Comes Shadwell’s disgruntled voice from behind. Frankly, he hadn’t wanted to bring him along, but it’s his gun that’s going to be aimed at the Antichrist, and he seems willing to fire it. That’s more than can be said for Ezra. Or Crowley, if he gets there.
They have to stop in Tadfield and get directions from a man with a tiny little sausage dog, because the signs have blown over in the storm. And when they finally arrive at the air base, there’s a soldier outside it with a gun that looks rather more severe than Sergeant Shadwell’s.
“It’s really vitally important that we speak to whoever is in charge,” he says.
“He’s telling the truth,” Madame Tracy cuts in, “I’d know if he wasn’t.”
“Will you please stop interrupting, I am trying-”
“Yeah, I just thought I’d put in a good word for-”
“I understand, but you must really-”
“Will you please be quiet?” the soldier snaps, brandishing his gun. “Both of you? I mean ma’am, I must respectfully ask you to…” He trails off. There’s something loud racing towards them. Ezra turns. Screeching on nonexistent tires, rumbling with an engine that must be at least 50% flames, and blasting a song Ezra vaguely recognises as one of its staples, the Bentley roars down the road, submerged in flame, and comes to a violent halt outside the airbase. And from the car emerges Crowley.
“You wouldn’t get that sort of a performance from a modern car,” he proudly says as he shuts the door. Did he drive through the wall of hellfire to get here?
“Hey, Ezra! I see you found a ride. Nice dress, it suits you.” Crowley strides over, slouching and swinging his hips as usual. What isn’t usual is that his sunglasses are gone, he’s covered in soot and reeks of smoke. His golden eyes stand out starkly from the grime.
“This young man won’t let us in,” he points back at the soldier, who seems to be having a very confusing day. It’s about to get a great deal more confusing.
Crowley nods, and stalks towards the soldier. “Army human, my friend and I have come a long way, and…”
An alarm starts blaring from inside the base, and the gate slides open of its own accord.
“Which one of you did that?” The soldier points the gun at them. A troupe of children on bicycles rides straight past him and right on inside. “Okay, those kids are in big trouble, and so are you people. Don’t move!”
Things are not going well, diplomatically speaking. Well, that’s Americans for you. Ezra sighs and is about to nudge Crowley to use a cheeky miracle to speed things along when something deafening explodes behind them. They turn. The Bentley has submitted to the fire, and there’s smoke pouring out of the hood, and pieces of it clattering to the ground. It’s ruined.
Crowley staggers past him and falls to his knees in front of the wreckage. “Ninety years and not a scratch. Now look at you.” The American raises his gun again, but Crowley doesn’t even notice.
“Crowley, he’s got a gun. He’s pointing it.” Crowley keeps staring at the flaming car, looking heartbroken. “Do something!”
“I am having a moment here!” Crowley snaps at him. For the second time that day, it sounds almost like he’s about to cry. Ezra looks back at the soldier.
“Crowley! You’re the nice one, you can’t expect me to do the talking.” Crowley usually deals with things like this. Not gun-toting Americans specifically; they’ve not encountered a great many of those since settling in London, but human inconveniences. Crowley usually deals with most things, actually.
“Ma’am, I am giving you all five seconds to vacate this area!”
He looks at Crowley. He looks at the Bentley, miserably smouldering away (presumably the same way his bookshop is smouldering), and sighs. With a click of Madame Tracy’s fingers, the soldier ends up...somewhere. He’s not exactly sure where. He aimed for America, as a polite courtesy, but America is rather large and he’s not used to performing miracles in this shared tenancy situation.
Crowley picks up the tire iron that landed at his feet kisses it mournfully. Unhygienic, but they probably won’t have time to worry about germs developing.
“Rest in peace. You were a good car.” He gets to his feet and turns back, still holding the crank. “Nice work on the soldier.”
“Oh, I do hope I haven’t sent him somewhere unpleasant,” Ezra says. A lot of America is unpleasant, now he comes to think of it. He’d pictured New York, though there’s no guarantee that he hasn’t sent him to the sewers. Or New Jersey.
A jeepful of soldiers comes into view from the airbase, all of whom are carrying large, menacing guns. He wonders what they spend all their time doing here, when there isn’t an Apocalypse on. There’s generally not a lot of military conflict in the Oxfordshire area.
“Er, okay, I need to get over the car thing. I’ll deal with them.”
To Crowley, dealing with them means sending them all to sleep and commandeering their car. It turns out that his high-speed driving style is even worse to endure without the luxury of a roof on the vehicle. It’s not the only reason his heart - Madame Tracy’s heart, that is, which she is currently staring - is racing. They don’t have much time left, in any sense. He can feel the pure concentrated evil in the area weighing down on him now.
And then, in the middle of the airfield: four children, and four people who are not really people at all. The oldest, the one who is both the most evil and the least, speaks.
IT HAS BEGUN.
“I didn’t ask for it to begin,” says a child with curly brown hair. It’s him, then. He expected...well, someone a bit more like Warlock, perhaps. He looks younger.
YOUR VERY EXISTENCE DEMANDS THE ENDING OF THE WORLD.
Crowley leaps out of the car, and seems to have noticed the boy too. He turns his head to watch them arrive, and Ezra can’t see the blank, world-rending evil he’s been expecting. He just looks like a boy.
YOU COULD FINISH THIS FOR THEM WITH ONE THOUGHT. YOU COULD MAKE THE WORLD ANEW.
“That’s him,” he says, nodding to the boy in the middle. Crowley points too, and nudges Shadwell forward.
“Shoot him, save the world.”
Shadwell protests, clutching the gun closer. “He’s just a wee bairn, ye cannae expect me to-”
Ezra snatches the gun and aims it at the boy, who doesn’t even move.
IGNORE THIS NONSENSE. A WORD FROM YOU AND I WILL END THEIR LIVES.
He feels all hot and cold, shaking with the weight of what is to come, and what he has to do to stop it. The boy is standing in front of Death like he’s just another grown-up, but he looks normal. He has friends .
“You can’t just shoot children!” Madame Tracy rises up and he gets the feeling of being dunked in a psychic swimming pool again.
“Perhaps we should wait,” he nervously says to Crowley.
“What, until he grows up? Shoot him, Aziraphale!”
The name falls so naturally from Crowley’s lips that he forgets for a moment that it isn’t his. It feels right, it feels like an evocation of something long-buried but always present, just beneath the surface. And it feels like the universe is trying to tell him something. Because he’s punished himself all these years for stepping in and killing Raphael, for taking a life to spare another. That’s what God punished him for. And whether She was right or wrong, whether She’s right or wrong about this, he doesn’t know. She certainly isn’t going to tell him. But there has to be a reason that he’s here, at the end of the world, with an angel telling him to shoot. That is his purpose, isn’t it? To bring about good by doing bad. To keep the world in balance. To take a life to spare another. Crowley believes this is the right thing to do, and Ezra has stopped trusting himself to know what right and wrong really are.
He raises the gun, and fires.
And then he’s being dunked into a tepid bath, the arms he’s lost control of swing wildly up and the gun discharges with an odd honk into the air.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t let you do it.”
He doesn’t know whether to be angry or grateful. She only keeps him submerged long enough to ensure that he won’t try again, and then lets him back up. The boy is watching them with a sort of amused look.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Why are you two people?”
“Ah, long story. You see, I was in my bookshop-”
“It’s not right,” the boy interrupts. “You should go back to being two separate people again.”
And they do. He feels how water must feel when it gurgles down the drain of a bathtub, only sideways, and suddenly he’s got two feet firmly on the ground and he can feel the wind in his hair. He’s back. This Apocalypse really isn’t going the way he thought it would.
this is half the air base scene, would have been one long chapter, but splitting them in two made more sense for ease of editing - Alex
Chapter 14: Is that the Ineffable Plan?
second half of the airbase scene!
The Apocalypse isn’t going the way Crowley thought it would, either. For one thing, the Antichrist doesn’t seem to want to end the world. Nor has he actually killed anyone, not even the people who just tried to kill him. In fact, he’s restored Ezra to his body.
War is a woman with red hair and a flaming sword, and he feels sick with something indescribable just looking at her. He’s caught glimpses of her hundreds of times over the millennia, but he’s never forgotten the first. He was somewhere south of Sumeria, tending to the victims of the first war ever fought, and there was a flash of red and a flash of flame before she was gone. She’s not really real , the boy says, and his friend destroys her with her own sword.
“Didn’t that used to be your sword?” Ezra says. It clatters to the ground, the flame extinguished.
“Yeah, I think it was.” And look what humanity has done with it. That was the point, he supposes. Free will to make bad choices as well as good ones. But if he hadn’t given that sword to Adam, all those centuries ago, would they have ended up here?
Pollution and Famine fall the same way as War, destroyed by a word and a thought from a group of children that are doing a better job at averting the Apocalypse than he is.
“Death, this all has to stop now.”
IT HAS STOPPED. BUT THEY WILL BE BACK. WE ARE NEVER FAR AWAY. I AM CREATION’S SHADOW. YOU CANNOT DESTROY ME, THAT WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD.
Death opens wings of eternal night, filled with tiny points of light that could be stars, but could be something else entirely.
GOOD DAY, GENTLEMEN.
Ezra sighs in relief, but his own pounding heart doesn’t slow.
“It isn’t over,” he finds himself saying. “Nothing’s over. Both Heaven and Hell still want their war.” Gabriel isn’t going to be stopped by four children with their bicycles, that’s for sure. Even if one of the children is the Antichrist. “You, boy, Antichrist. What was your name again?”
“Adam Young.” Adam. Round and round we go, always back to the beginning. Borne back ceaselessly into the past , Ezra’s taken to saying in the past century.
“So, your friends got together and saved the world. Well done. Have a gold star. Won’t make any difference.” They’re still coming here, any moment now, and they’re going to be pissed.
“You! You’re the man in the car! You stole my book!” An odd looking pair of people in glasses have emerged from the bunker, and he realises he recognises the girl. Everything keeps converging, which keeps making him nervous. It has to mean the end is still coming.
“Oh, book girl?” He fishes the prophecy book out of his jacket, and throws it over. A piece of paper flies out, and Ezra catches it.
“What is going on here?” She asks.
He glances around at the four children, the remains of the Four Horsemen, the Witchfinder Sergeant, the strange psychic woman with the strange wig, and Ezra.
“Long story, no time.”
Ezra steps forward. “Er, okay. So, in the beginning, in the garden, there was- well, I was a wily old serpent, and he- ” he gestures at Crowley, who is now contemplating teleporting himself directly to Heaven to escape this conversation. “Was technically on apple tree duty…” Crowley shushes him before he can get to the part about the sword, which is still lying innocently on the tarmac. He now recognises the sick feeling in his stomach as guilt.
And of course the odd witch is friendly with the Antichrist. Maybe they should have just asked her if she’d seen him when she collided with the Bentley, which is probably still smoking miserably outside the airbase.
Lightning cracks through the air and Gabriel materialises on the concrete. Beside him, a demon with a large fly on their head, who he infers from Ezra’s drunken descriptions to be Beelzebub, rises from the Earth and brushes dirt off their shoulders. Both look exceptionally disgruntled. Ezra adjusts his bow tie like he’s about to walk into his manager’s office.
“The Archangel Gabriel,” Crowley greets his own boss with a mocking bow. “What an honour.”
“Crowley, the traitor.” Ah, so now he gets his name right. Now Heaven doesn’t want to be associated with him, he’s allowed to be Crowley. If that’s all it took, he should have killed Sandalphon two thousand years ago.
“That’s not a nice word.”
“All the other words we have for you are worse.”
“Where’s the boy?” Beelzebub interrupts. They’ve been glowering at Ezra, who just smiles politely back. He's never actually seen him interact with his superiors before. Part of him has often wondered if his awkward looks and twitches and smiles would disappear in front of them, and he'd put on a front of smooth confidence. Sometimes, in the early days, he'd wondered if the awkwardness was the front. But he knows better now.
“That one. Adam Young.” Gabriel hops over to the children. Adam does not seem any more impressed with an archangel and a lord of Hell than he did with Death. “Young man, Armageddon must...restart. Right now. Temporary inconvenience can not stand in the get of the greater good.”
“As to what it stands in the way of, that has yet to be decided,” Beelzebub cuts in, and Gabriel rolls his eyes. “But the battle must be decided now, boy. That izzz your destiny. It is written. Now start. The War.”
Crowley watches them go back and forth. Adam continues to be unimpressed, and Gabriel and Beelzebub continue to insist on the War.
“You can’t just refuse to be who you are. Your birth, your destiny, they’re part of the Great Plan,” Gabriel says, and isn’t that just the core of the problem? Everything is written down and decided for them. It has been before any of them were created, and they’re blindly following instructions for who they are and what they’re supposed to do.
Ezra shifts next to him. “Um, excuse me.” He clears his throat and darts across the tarmac to stand next to Adam. “You keep talking about the Great Plan.”
“Be quiet, worm.”
“One thing I’m not clear on,” he carries on despite Beelzebub’s interruption. “Is that the Ineffable Plan?”
“The Great Plan! It is written! There shall be a world and it shall last for six thousand years and end in fire and flame!”
Ezra nods politely. “Yes, yes, that sounds like the Great Plan. Just wondering: is that the Ineffable Plan, as well?”
Gabriel shrugs. “Well, they’re the same thing,” he says, at the precise moment that Crowley realises they aren’t the same thing at all. She isn’t in control of all this. That’s the whole point. Free will isn’t just for humans, it never has been. It’s for all of them. He’s always been a ‘rules are made to be broken’ kind of angel, and he’s coming to the odd realisation that there aren’t any rules at all, not on the cosmic scale. Heaven and Hell have their rules, but God? No-one’s heard from her for thousands of years. Her rules are ineffable.
He joins Ezra on the other side of Adam. “It would be a pity if you thought you were doing what the Great Plan said, but you were actually going directly against God’s Ineffable Plan. I mean, everyone knows the Great Plan, yeah? But the Ineffable Plan, it’s...well, it’s ineffable, isn’t it? By definition, we can’t know it.”
He can feel Ezra glowing with pride next to him.
“God does not play games with the universe,” Gabriel firmly says.
“Where have you been?”
Gabriel pulls Beelzebub aside to complain about the situation for a moment. Crowley exchanges a glance with Ezra, who looks quite pleased with himself. For once, his six thousand years of meditation on the ineffability of the Great Plan have come in handy. Gabriel turns back to lecture Adam.
“Young man, you were put on this Earth for one reason, and one reason only: to end it. You’re a disobedient little brat. And I hope someone tells your father.”
“Oh, they will,” Beelzebub looks very gratified about that. “And your father will not be pleazzzed.”
And then they’re gone in a crack of lightning. Crowley glances at Ezra. For a moment, he entertains the possibility that things are going to be alright. That even though they’ve both been found out, and they’ve both been seen interfering with the Great War (Part Two), they’ll be able to escape the repercussions somehow. But then the ground shakes and growls, and Ezra falls to his hands and knees like he’s being dragged towards the centre of the Earth.
“Oh dear,” he says.
Crowley can feel pure malice in the air, and he can smell smoke and sulphur. Something evil is coming. “What’s happening? I can feel something.”
“They told his father,” Ezra says. He looks like he’s about to pass out with fear. “And his Satanic father is not happy.”
This, by all accounts, is not good. Crowley can’t remember much about Satan from Before, when he was Lucifer, but judging by the fact that Ezra is usually too anxious to even speak his name outside of the usual curses, he’s probably not improved in character since the Fall. The ground rumbles beneath his feet and he stumbles on the way to the sword. He hasn’t held it in six thousand years, and it feels just as wrong and uncomfortable as it did then.
“Right,” Ezra says. He makes no move to get up from the tarmac. He’s sort of slumped on the ground, getting dirt all over his pristine trousers. “That was that. It was nice knowing you.”
“We can’t give up now,” Crowley firmly says. If they’re about to die, then they’ll die on their feet knowing they did everything they could.
Ezra scoffs. “This is Satan himself! It isn’t about Armageddon. This is personal. We are fucked !” As delighted as Crowley is to hear him swear - and of course it would take the End of Days to bring that about - he’s not going to let him give in so easily. He raises his sword out of instinct, not yet burning but still deadly.
“Come up with something, or-” Ezra’s eyes flick to the weapon, and this is exactly what they’ve both been dreading all these years, maybe even since Eden. Certainly since that duel at Arthur’s castle, when he stood over Ezra and begged him to understand that they don’t have to be an angel and a demon, they can just be them . He lowers the blade, and, like he did for Adam six thousand years ago, holds out the handle. “Or I’ll never talk to you again.”
All those miracles, all those blessings done in secret in the shadows under the guise of the Arrangement, all those favours and rescues and acts of love; all of them are contained in the sword. He holds out the worst part of his divinity, the part he’s always hated and traded off and left to the other angels, and Ezra’s cold, scaled fingers brush against his when he takes it.
For a moment, nothing happens. And then Ezra slams the blade of the sword into the ground, and everything stops.
The place they’re in is not technically a place. It’s sort of like the in-between space he drifted through after he was discorporated, except that while that place was without form, this one is without time. He can relax, just for a moment, and stretch out his wings behind him for the first time in thousands of years. In his hand rests Crowley’s sword, burning now not with holy flame but with hellfire. He had a sword like this once, a lifetime ago. Crowley stands to his right, fixing his sunglasses back on. Adam is in front of them, looking remarkably less bothered by the whole experience than he ought.
“Adam, listen. Your father is coming to destroy you. Probably to destroy all of us,” he urgently says. Even in this timeless land, they don’t have a lot of time before Satan pushes through. His powers far surpass Ezra’s, and he’s already straining to keep the three of them in this dimension with him approaching.
“My dad? He wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
“Not your earthly father. Satan, your father who is no longer in Heaven,” Crowley explains.
“He is coming, and he is angry.” Ezra can still feel the utter hatred that rose up from Hell and dragged him to the ground in fury. He’s not seen Satan in a very long time, and he had rather been hoping to keep it that way.
“So what do you want me to do about it? Fight him?” Adam asks.
“I don’t think fighting him would do any good,” Ezra gently says. “You’re going to have to come up with something else.”
Adam turns away, looking out at the white nothingness that surrounds them. “But I’m just a kid.”
“But that’s not a bad thing to be, Adam,” Crowley says. Ezra glances over at him. He knows Crowley’s always had a soft spot for children, though he’ll never admit it out loud.
“I was scared you’d be Hell incarnate. I hoped you’d be Heaven incarnate. But you’re not either of those things, you’re much better. You’re human incarnate,” he says. The humans have always been better, somehow. Fallen from grace though they are, they’re not cut off from God’s love completely like demons are, nor are they instinctively obedient to Her like angels are. They are free to make their own choices, free to love and hate, free to stand up to what the world says is The Way Things Should Be and say ‘no’.
“Adam, reality will listen to you right now. You can change things,” Crowley says.
“And whatever happens, for good or for evil, we’re beside you.” Ezra takes Adam’s left hand, and Crowley takes his right. If it comes to it, they’ll fight to give him time to do what he’s going to do. The world around them flickers just for a moment, shuddering under the strain of holding the three of them completely out of time, and Crowley gets out the Bentley’s tire iron. He looks over at Crowley. If this doesn’t work, this could be the last chance he gets to see him.
“I’m going to start time. You won’t have long to do whatever you’re going to do.” He spins the tire iron like a crank to start the world going again, and Ezra lets go of the time shift.
They’re back in the airfield, and the ground is shaking, bursting apart and glowing brimstone pushes up through the surface. A great clawed hand grabs hold of the tarmac and wrenches up a burning red body. Satan himself has arrived.
“Where is my son?” Adam looks up at the Devil with far more bravery and nonchalance than Ezra has ever mustered in the few meetings he’s endured since the Fall. “You? You’re my rebellious son?” He wonders if, given his own history with rebelling against The Way Things Should Be, Satan ought to have thought a bit more carefully about what he expected to happen when he sent his son up to Earth.
Adam steps forward. “You’re not my dad. Dads don’t wait until you’re eleven to say hello, and then turn up to tell you off.”
“What?” Nobody says no to Lucifer, the first fallen angel, the King of Hell. No-one has ever dared disagree, not since the Fall.
“If I’m in trouble with my dad, then it won’t be you. It’s gonna be the dad that was there. You’re not my dad!”
Satan recoils. There’s power in those words, and he’s just starting to feel the potency of it. “What did you say?”
“You’re not my dad!” Adam shouts. “You never were.”
Satan’s hand turns to dust. The ground rumbles, and he sinks back into it in a cloud of smoke and ash. From the cloud emerges an odd little car, and from the car emerges a man.
“Would anyone here care to explain to me what exactly is going on?”
He exchanges a brief look with Crowley, who ran to his side as soon as Satan disappeared. His sword has extinguished itself, and there is no sign that the ground beneath them was ever broken. And that seems to be the end of the End of the World.
now the world-ending has ended, i'm really excited to get to the body-swap scenes...
Chapter 15: We're on Our Own Side
a bit of a longer chapter this time, an interlude i was morally obligated to write before the body-swap, aka hand-holding on the bus and the missing scene at Crowley's flat
get ready for yearning, and pining
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“It all worked out for the best, though,” Ezra sighs. “Just imagine how awful it might have been if we’d been at all competent.” They’re on a bench outside the church in Tadfield, waiting for the bus that will take them to Oxford. The driver will carry on to London, he just won’t know why. The Bentley is gone, and all he’s got left of it is a tire iron in his impossibly deep jacket pocket.
“Yeah, point taken.” He sips the wine they bought from a very confused corner shop owner about an hour after the world failed to end. The children quickly cleared off when Adam’s father arrived, and after a few awkward explanations to the humans, they’ve all gone their separate ways. Madame Tracy and Sergeant Shadwell had gone back to London on that terrifying-looking moped, and the witch and her boyfriend are staying in the village. That just leaves the two of them, sitting on a park bench after nightfall, drinking.
Ezra gets a piece of paper out of his pocket and examines it with a frown.
“Fell out of Agnes Nutter’s book.” He hands it over to Crowley. ‘ When alle is sayed and all is done, ye must choose your faces wisely, for soon enouff ye will be playing with fyre ’, it reads.
“ For soon enough you will be playing with fire.” They’ve certainly played with a lot of fire already. Maybe it’s a metaphor. Damned prophecies. “So this is the final one of Agnes’ prophecies?”
“As far as I know.”
“And Adam? Human again?”
“As far as I can tell, yes.”
Ezra sounds like he’s in shock. Crowley feels the same way. It’s one thing to hope you can stop the Apocalypse, and another thing to actually do it. Sort of, anyway. It was mostly the Antichrist in the end. And there’s something else that’s been bothering him, too.
“Angel,” he starts, mostly to test Ezra’s reaction. He glances up with a frown, but doesn’t complain. “What if the Almighty planned it like this all along? From the very beginning?”
It seems far-fetched, but the more he thinks about it, the more it seems to make sense. The two of them were in the Garden together, at the dawn of humanity, and here they are again, just in time to stop their dusk. There was Crowley’s sword. And after everything, the whole damn world rested on the human right to choose between right and wrong - the gift Ezra tempted them into, six thousand years ago. And there’s Adam, of course, which certainly feels like God is playing some kind of joke.
Ezra takes the bottle of wine back, and for once, doesn’t look up at the sky in fear of being struck down. “Could have. Wouldn’t put it past her.”
The delivery man comes to collect the scales, and the crown, and the flaming sword. Crowley doesn’t know who called him in. They outsource that kind of thing these days. A moment later, the bus trundles down the road towards them.
“I suppose I should get him to drop me off at the bookshop,” Ezra says.
Crowley turns to him and tries to keep the memory of the flames and the fear out of his head. The fear that he was gone forever. “It burned down, remember?” Ezra looks away. He’s seen that look of heartbreak before, at the Flood, and after Sodom and Gomorrah. And out of all the homes he’s lost, he can tell that this one hurts the most. “You can stay at my place, if you like.” To be honest, he doesn’t know if his place is still standing either, but it’s less about the practicality than the sentiment of the thing. We can do it together , he thinks. Whatever comes next, we can deal with it together .
Ezra looks at him with fragile, pained hope, but swallows it down and tries to smile. “I don’t think my side would like that.”
He sighs. “You don’t have a side, anymore. Neither of us do. We’re on our own side.” He lets that sit in the air for a moment. Ezra doesn’t say anything, so he carries on. “Like Agnes said, we’re going to have to choose our faces wisely.”
The bus pulls up and he gets on first, with a quick miracle to get the driver to take them to London after he reaches Oxford. He doesn’t look back to check if Ezra is behind him. He can’t. They’ve been here so many times before, with Crowley holding out his hand and Ezra refusing to take it. He doesn’t think he can cope with it again, not tonight, not after everything they’ve been through.
He sits down near the front, somewhere with seats free behind him so Ezra can keep up their usual facade if he wants, and looks out of the window. Is it still going to be like this, for the rest of the short time they have left?
There’s a presence next to him, and he jerks his head to look. Ezra is there, sitting beside him. Not behind him, but by his side. And when the bus starts to move, he feels a cool hand close around his. The touch is light and uncertain enough that he could brush it off if he wanted, but he doesn’t. He gently links their fingers together, and rubs his thumb over Ezra’s damaged scales. The little cuts disappear, the scales right themselves, and he looks up at Ezra.
His grey eyes are wide, and shine in the harsh electric lights of the bus. “Thank you,” he whispers, so hoarse that Crowley wonders if he might cry. He’s not just talking about his hand.
“No problem,” he mutters.
Ezra smiles and shakes his head, squeezing Crowley’s hand a little. “ Thank you .”
They don’t talk for a long time after that. Crowley watches the night roll past the windows, and Ezra gazes blankly ahead. It’s not an angry silence, but a tired, companionable one. There is much that could be said, but neither of them wants to say it.
He knows, vaguely, that he’s probably going to Fall, now. And if he does Fall, he’ll only last a few minutes in Hell before being executed for his part in the Apocalypse. That is, if Heaven doesn’t just execute him outright. He did kill an angel, after all, and that’s somehow not the strangest thing to happen to him today. He ought to be afraid, but all he can manage is a thudding heartbeat. He’s too tired for anything else.
The bus enters Oxford and leaves it again on the motorway without seeming to notice. There are cars driving both ways, thousands of people just going about their lives as normal.
“The M25 was on fire, you know,” Crowley says, wondering if that’s going to pose a problem getting back into London.
Ezra blinks, coming out of his thoughts. “Yes, I noticed that. Funny weather we’re having.” That elicits a tired snort from Crowley. “They’re going to come after us, aren’t they?” It’s not really a question.
Crowley sighs and traces over the scales on Ezra’s thumb. “Not tonight.” He doesn’t know that for sure, of course, but Ezra doesn’t push it.
If he ever thought about dying, before, he imagined himself dying in the Apocalypse. It felt like a general sort of dying where it wouldn’t happen to him, specifically. The world would end and he’d end along with it. But now he’s facing the thought of an execution, not as a nameless nobody in a bar somewhere but as an identifiable target. It’s harder to reconcile. Especially knowing that sooner or later, Hell will be coming for Ezra, too.
It’s another hour and a half before they reach London, and most of the journey is spent in silence, with their hands laced together, and their shoulders brushing, and Crowley’s spread knee pressing against Ezra’s thigh. He’s touched him before; a few accidental nudges here and there, mostly. He threw himself over Ezra’s shoulder in Rome once. But it’s never been like this. Never with both of them knowing exactly what they’re doing and why, and with both of them refusing to acknowledge it.
Occasionally, he’ll glance over, as if to check Ezra’s still there, and he’ll wake up from his own thoughts to squeeze his hand, and remind him that he is. For tonight, at least.
“Crowley.” He looks up and realises the bus has stopped. Ezra lets go of his hand when he gets up, and he misses the touch immediately. He steps out into the night and looks up at his apartment building while Ezra pays the driver a great deal of money, because it’s polite, and really, Crowley, you are an angel , and strains his eyes to detect any sign of the fire. The M25 seemed to be back to normal when they drove through earlier.
The lift still works, but when they reach the penthouse, his door hangs open. Ezra goes stiff and throws his arm instinctively in front of Crowley, pushing him back a few feet.
“Hellfire,” he whispers. Crowley can smell the sulphur in the air. “The prophecy.”
Crowley can’t detect any other signs of a demonic presence in the building, except the one right next to him. He steps forward and cranes his neck to see through the door. There’s no sound, no sign of movement. It’s all dark. He clicks his fingers and the lights come on.
“ Crowley ,” Ezra hisses, trying to pull him back with a cool hand around his forearm.
There’s a giant scorch mark in the hallway, from wall to wall, and beside it is a pile of ashes. But, as he peers in, he can’t see any intruders. Everything is just as he left it. “It’s fine. There’s no-one here.”
Ezra sighs and quietly joins him in the doorway, but any relief he might have exhibited quickly snaps into something tense and cold at the sight of the ash. “Crowley.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. Come in, make yourself at home.” The last time Ezra was here was the moon landing, if he recalls correctly. He steps over the scorched bit of floor and shrugs off his jacket, ruined now by two fires and a day of panicked sweating. He sweeps through to his office and dumps the jacket on his chair, and leaves the tire iron on his desk. Ezra hasn’t followed him. He looks back to see him still frozen in the hall, staring at the blackened floor.
“Er- well. That used to be Sandalphon, I think. Let himself go a bit, hasn’t he?” He grins up at Ezra, who just looks horrified.
“You- you killed him?”
Crowley quickly loses the grin. “I had to. It was a smite or be smited kind of situation. Smote, I think, actually.” Ezra stares at him. “It was self-defence. They found out about us, and I had to do something, or the three of them were going to smite me before I could get back to you.”
“You killed an angel.” They’ve had this conversation already today, he remembers, outside the bookshop.
“Would you rather I’d let him kill me, instead?”
Ezra recoils. “What? No. I just- I didn’t think- Crowley, well, you- you’ll- you’ll Fall .”
Crowley shrugs. He’s been trying not to think about that. “Probably. Difficult to avoid, after today.”
“And that doesn’t bother you? You’re not afraid of becoming like- of becoming a demon?”
He shrugs again. “We’re not that different, are we?”
It’s funny, the way things keep coming back around today. He remembers the day he asked Ezra for hellfire for the first time. He’d tried to appeal to him, to their friendship, by saying they had a lot in common, and, as usual, Ezra had calmly denied it. They are an angel and a demon, one Fallen, one not. He’s been trying to think of a way to articulate his feelings on that, and now they’ve more or less materialised: an angel is just a demon who hasn’t broken the right rules yet.
They have one night left, by his reckoning. A few short, long hours together after six thousand years of more-than-friendship. If he’s to die, tomorrow, he’d rather die having reached across the gap between them and tried to make Ezra understand what he fees.
Ezra seems to understand that the question is about more than this moment, too. He looks down at the ash, and with a solemn gesture, the whole mess disappears. He steps over the place it used to be, and sighs.
“No. I suppose we aren’t.”
Thoughts thunder through his head faster than Crowley’s driving. Crowley killed an angel, and instead of being furious with him, or disgusted by it, Ezra is just glad that he’s alive. Is that how Crowley felt, when he found out what he’d done all those years ago? Is that how he could be so certain that he did the right thing in killing Raphael? Is that why doesn’t care that he’s Fallen, or that he is shortly to Fall himself?
Crowley is watching, waiting. Since he took Crowley’s hand on the bus, it’s felt like both of them are standing on the precipice of the same cliff, joined together by a rope, each waiting for the other to fall.
He scrambles to get the prophecy out of his pocket. “Do you suppose that’s what it means? Falling? Soon you will be playing with fire ?”
Crowley sighs with an irritated sort of look. That isn’t the answer he wanted. “Maybe. Not very helpful, is it?”
He hums. “ Choose your faces wisely , though. What does that mean?”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
“What if…?” he murmurs to himself, as Crowley starts poking about in what can only technically be called his kitchen. From the looks of it, he’s certainly never cooked in it. “What if you don’t have to Fall? What if there’s a way around it?”
Crowley groans as he lifts a case of wine out of one of his cupboards. “Angel…”
“Demon,” he absently corrects, staring at the little piece of paper, and he’s certain he sees Crowley pulling a face over his shoulder. “Wait a minute. Choose your faces wisely , that’s- well, that might actually work.” Crowley scowls at him over the bottle he’s uncorking.
“You think too much,” he says. What he means is stop thinking about this, there isn’t anything we can do . What he means is, we’re tied together now. If you fall, I fall. Don’t make me push you . He isn’t ready to be pushed, not when there’s still something he can do.
“No, just listen. What if, when they come for you, I go instead?”
“We’re not exactly twins.”
“But if I borrowed your body, I could go in your place. And when they Fell me, I can put on a show of it, but it won’t actually do anything to me. And you’ll be alright here.”
Crowley hands him the bottle and their fingers brush together. It tingles long after he pulls his hand away. “Even if that worked, Hell would still want you dead.”
“Oh. Oh, no. They could take you while you’re in my body, and you’d-” he drinks a rather large gulp of wine to avoid finishing that thought. “No, forget that. Silly idea, anyway.”
Crowley shrugs. He leans over the counter, which might have been a breakfast bar, had he ever actually eaten breakfast on it, and takes off his sunglasses. In the dim light of the flat, his golden eyes almost glow. “I don’t think they’re going to Fell me,” he says, after a moment.
“Wh- well, they’re not just going to let you go, are they? I mean, you killed an angel.”
“Exactly.” Crowley takes the wine back and swirls it around in the bottle morosely. “We’re not at War anymore, and they’re going to want a scapegoat. Falling won’t be good enough for them.”
“You don’t think…” Ezra stares at him. It’s Heaven they’re talking about. Angels. God, for goodness’ sake. They can’t kill one of their own in cold blood. Crowley meets his gaze with a shrug. “But they can’t. I mean, you’re one of the good guys.”
Crowley snorts. “There are no good guys.” He’s said that before. There are no right people. But this- he’s talking about dying. They’re going to kill him. The universe will no longer have Crowley in it. It was one thing to accept his own death, knowing that somewhere, Crowley might still be alright, but this? Total extinction of not only himself, but everything he loves?
“We have to do something.”
Crowley looks up from the counter, his eyes piercing Ezra the way they did in Eden, seeing something beyond what he’s showing. “Wherever we go, they’ll find us. Hell too.”
He’s resigned to it, by the looks of things. To him, there’s only one night left. He looks at Ezra like he’s waiting for something, for one of them to make the move. For one of them to fall and pull the other down with him. Things are different now. When they used to drink and talk, it was about the world, about the Apocalypse, about the War. But now all that is over, and it’s just the two of them. No sides, no War. Just them and the executioner’s block.
He can still feel the warmth of Crowley’s hand around his on the bus. There’s so much he ought to say, so much pushing up from the inside and threatening to spill over, but even now at the end of everything, he can’t . Maybe it’s just habit, at this point, to deny himself this final fleeting moment of happiness. Or maybe it’s because if he bridges this gap now, he’ll learn that he could have had what he wanted all along, and he’ll go to his death knowing that he has wasted his life longing for something that has been right there all along.
No. There has to be something, some way to give them more time. If there’s anything he’s learned from Crowley, it’s that there’s always a way out, always a loophole. He re-reads the prophecy. He looks behind him, where there used to be a large scorch mark and a pile of ashes that once was called Sandalphon. “How do you think they’ll do it?”
Crowley sighs, a long, laboured motion that seems to drag his whole body down with it. That isn’t the answer he was looking for, either. “I have had a very long day, and I’m trying to get pissed so I can enjoy the last night of my life. Would you mind not asking me how I’m going to die?”
Ezra ploughs on. Somewhere, at the end of this thought, there has to be an answer. There wouldn’t be a prophecy if there wasn’t an answer. “What if they use hellfire? It would be poetic, given what you did to Sandalphon, and your...association with me.”
Crowley rolls his eyes at that word. “Where would they get…” he seems to realise something and sighs. Every sentence seems to burden him. He’s tired of this conversation. “They’ve got people working together. That’s how they found out about us at the same time.”
“Working together? This whole mess was because they wanted the War, wasn’t it?”
“The War, yeah. They both wanted the bloody thing so much they’d even give each other information to make sure it happened. I bet it’s Michael, that slimy…” Crowley trails off into a trail of expletives and grumbles at his wine.
“Hellfire, then. And I suppose my execution is to be equally poetic, considering the nature of my crimes.”
“Yeah, yeah. If it’s hellfire for me, then it might be holy water for you.” Ironic, really, after he’s been drawn to the water all his life. Ever since Eden. He hums, and looks down at the prophecy on the counter. An odd thought occurs to him then. He looks up, and Crowley is looking at him with the same realisation mirrored on his face.
“You don’t think-”
“Impossible, for a start.”
“It would never work.”
Crowley gives him a crooked grin. Ezra holds out his hand, and for the second time, Crowley takes it.
Once he gets over the initial confusion of experiencing the world in a different corporation, and the much greater shock of seeing his own face staring at him with a distinctly Ezra-like expression on it, things go rather smoothly. It turns out that after six thousand years, they know each other’s mannerisms quite well. Crowley does have to keep telling Ezra to slouch more, and Ezra has to keep telling him to straighten up, but for the most part, they can do it.
They switch back after an hour or so. It’s still dark outside, and he’s still sticking to the idea that nothing’s going to happen until tomorrow. The flat is probably safe enough, since Michael and Uriel saw him light up hellfire in it, and are unlikely to want to return to the risk of permanent discorporation. His own limbs feel a bit odd and hot from the way Ezra’s been sitting with them, but the discomfort soon fades into a background hum of terror.
It’s funny how much scarier the possibility of death is than the certainty of it. Even now they’ve reduced their chances from 100% to a solid 98%, fear pounds through him like a vicious thing. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, whether one or both or neither of them will survive. Nor does he know which outcome is worse. And still, after six thousand years and the End of the World and after he held his hand for hours on an empty bus, Ezra still isn’t crossing the gap.
One of them has to do it. One of them has to fall, so that they’ll both go. The hot, trembling thing he feels pressing against his ribs when he looks across the counter at that strange, familiar face is the only thing he has any certainty of, anymore. But he doesn’t know how. He can bullshit for hours on end to a room full of archangels, but he can’t strip himself bare in his own flat in front of the one person who has ever really known him.
Cool grey eyes watch him when he looks away. The silence has gone on too long to be meaningless. Every blink, every passing of the wine holds the tension of thousands of years of something bottled up and waiting to come out.
He’s always been the one to reach out first, the one who pushed and nudged and hurried things along in the direction they were always going to go and just needed a little encouragement. He’s always started it. But now, this? Ezra took his hand, not the other way around, and it’s down to him. He’s the one with the books and the sonnets and the poems, he’s the one who’s spent his life listening to the stories. He should be able to label this, categorise it, explain in a few neat words what, exactly , it is they’re supposed to be and then file it away on a shelf for later.
But he doesn’t, and he won’t, because after everything he’s still afraid of something. Maybe his presence here is as much of an answer as he’s ever going to get. Maybe he’s read all of this wrong from the beginning.
Crowley sighs and stands up straight, pretending for a moment that the warmth of the wine in his mouth is a good substitute for what he’s too much of a coward to ask for. The movement sends ripples across the silent room, and Ezra looks straight at him. “I could do with a nap.”
It’s almost ridiculous, after the long, weighted silence. Ezra blinks rapidly, looking hurt. It’s infuriating. It’s not as though he was bloody saying anything, is it? “Oh. Alright. Er- goodnight?”
Crowley makes a noncommittal noise and turns to go. He won’t be able to sleep, he knows that already, but he can’t stand sitting here any longer.
“Crowley, wait.” There’s an odd shuffling footstep and when he turns back, Ezra is standing in front of him.
He fiddles with his hands, picking at the scales on his thumb that Crowley had gently traced hours before. He breathes awkwardly, jerkily, inhaling and exhaling uneven breaths several times before he can speak. “I told you once that you go too fast for me.” Crowley feels the temperature in the flat shoot up by a few degrees. “The hellfire- I was so scared that if Heaven found out, you’d use it on yourself.”
“That’s not what it was for,” Crowley says. They’re balancing on the edge, still, with Ezra gently tugging at the rope between them.
“I know that now, but all the time we’ve been friends, I have been terrified that it would destroy you. That I would destroy you.”
He breathes in. He’s felt that fear, too. There were days, even long ago in the beginning, where he’d visit the place Ezra was living and he’d be gone, and he’d wonder if it was forever, and if it was because of him. He closes his eyes and sees the burning bookshop. “I know.”
“I wanted to go with you, then. I wanted a lot of things that I could never have." He looks desperately sad, for a moment, and then a more angry, righteous tone emerges. "But nothing I wanted- none of it was worth your life. I would rather you hated me, and thought I hated you right back. Do you understand?”
Crowley just nods. He doesn’t know what else to say. He can feel the rope tightening.
“But none of that matters anymore, does it? The awful thing I’ve been dreading all this time is going to happen tomorrow, so there’s nothing left to fear." He looks down at his hands, and swallows. "That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid. I am. I don’t think I know how to be anything else.” He smiles in a self-deprecating kind of way and looks up at Crowley. “But I’m ready now.”
Crowley breathes in again, forgetting that he already did that before, and ends up with a sort of hiccup that turns into a breathless stammer. Ezra stands, motionless, waiting. “Wh- uh- ready. You’re ready.” He repeats, because words never seem to do him any good when he really, really needs them to. He hasn’t got a speech or a perfect phrase that will sum it all up. All he’s got is a head full of pounding thoughts and a rope tied around his waist, gently tugging him closer.
Ezra gives him a small smile. “If you are.”
There wasn’t a defining moment in their history where a switch flipped and Crowley suddenly started looking at Ezra differently. There is no line in the sand between friendship and romance. They have both, neither. It’s all part of the great, shifting mass that is them . All Crowley wants is to be as close to him as he can get, so he steps cautiously forward, afraid of breaking the fragile moment.
“I- uh- well, you know. You do know, don’t you?” Frankly, he’d be staggered if he didn’t, by now.
There’s gentle laugh. “I know.”
His breathing fills the room. He’s close, now, closer even than when they shared each other’s bodies, so close that he can tell the colour of those grey eyes matches the walls of his flat exactly. A desperate want pushes up to the surface, forced along by years of wanting to touch and never being allowed. (He’s awful in museums.) The rope tightens to the point where he can no longer breathe. All he can do is follow where it’s pulling him, closer and closer, and then, with his eyes screwed shut and his toes on the edge of the precipice, he jumps.
Sometimes, loving something doesn’t feel like loving it so much as being afraid of losing it, and Ezra is terrified of losing Crowley. He has been for longer than he can remember, and he will be for the rest of his life, be that a few hours or a few millennia. He’s lost everything else. But tonight, in this one silent moment, he’s kissing Crowley, and he knows he isn’t going anywhere.
He doesn’t really know what he’s doing - observation of human behaviour only tells you so much - so he goes with what feels good. Kissing Crowley feels good, needless to say, so he keeps doing that. He touches his face, still dirty with dust and soot, and brushes his hair from his forehead. It’s a bit crusty in places from hair gel that’s been in there too long, and he combs his fingers through it while Crowley sighs. Seconds, minutes tick by where he just touches him, and allows himself to enjoy it. Long fingers find their way to his throat and trace the scales there almost reverently. He breathes in, his own hands going still.
Crowley leans back. “Sorry.” His hand drops from Ezra’s neck, but he grabs it and places it back where it was. Golden eyes blink at him. “You sure?” He doesn’t trust himself to speak, so he just kisses him again. How can he tell Crowley that he is the only person who has ever looked at him like he is something to be loved, not dismissed or feared or hated? There are no words to express the feeling of having gentle hands trace the parts of him he has been disgusted by all his life. He closes his eyes, frozen in the moment, and forgets how to do anything else but feel.
It takes him a moment to realise he's crying. It's only when Crowley breaks away again and he sees tears shining on his cheeks that he realises his eyes are stinging.
“You alright?” Crowley asks.
Ezra presses against his forehead, both of them breathing unevenly. He manages a breathy laugh. “Yes. I’m very glad you’re here, that’s all.”
Crowley shrugs. He’s just about the only person on the planet Ezra can think of that can make a shrug into a heartfelt emotional gesture. “Me too. I mean- glad that you’re here. And that I’m here. Er. With you. Doing...things.” He suppresses a yawn.
“You ought to get some rest. I believe you mentioned a nap.” Crowley kisses him rather than coming up with a dignified answer, and ends up yawning again. He does look exhausted, beneath all the soot and ash. “Crowley.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’ve made your point.” A final kiss, and he turns towards his bedroom. Ezra watches him go, frozen with the feeling of his touch still lingering all over him. It wouldn’t surprise him in that moment to wake up and find that this has all been a dream, or a very pleasant hallucination. “Oi!” Crowley is standing at the end of the hall, waiting. “You coming?”
“Oh- er- what?”
“I’m not leaving you out here by yourself. God knows what trouble you’ll get into,” Crowley says, and Ezra tuts before catching up with him. Crowley leads him through the flat to his bedroom, where he throws off his shoes and slumps onto the black sheets, still smudged with soot and still mostly dressed. Ezra has never been in here before. It’s mostly blank and sparse, like the rest of the flat, but there’s an expensive-looking abstract painting on the wall and several interesting statues on the windowsill.
“Where’s your guest bedroom?” Ezra hovers in the doorway, peering at things and then pretending not to when Crowley pushes himself up to look at him incredulously.
“Guest- when the Hell do you think I have guests? You think I’ve got Michael and Gabriel round for sleepovers on the weekends? Get in the bed, shut up and go to sleep.”
“No need to be rude, my dear,” Ezra huffs, removing his coat and hanging it fussily on the door. He sits on the edge of the bed to take off his shoes, and then pauses. “Are you certain about this?” Are you certain about me? he wants to ask.
Crowley sighs. He feels him shifting in the bed, and then he’s kneeling behind him, resting his chin on his shoulder. When he talks, he can feel the vibration of his voice in his chest. “If I didn’t want you here, I wouldn’t have asked.” This closeness, this warmth, this love...it feels like he always thought Heaven ought to feel like. But it isn’t because he’s an angel. It’s just because he’s Crowley.
Crowley misreads his thoughtfulness for hesitation and leans back. “You don’t have to. You don’t even sleep, do you?”
“Evil never sleeps,” he quips, and he can feel Crowley’s eyes rolling almost out of his head. He has a special way of showing annoyance with his whole body that must have taken millennia to perfect. He’s very good at it. Ezra turns and takes his hand. Long, thin fingers fit perfectly between his shorter, softer ones. “I’ll watch over you. For as long as you’ll let me.”
“My guardian angel, eh?” Crowley says, settling into the sheets with their hands still locked together.
“Demon,” he corrects, without any bite. At some point, perhaps very recently, he doesn’t know quite when, he’s stopped pretending that he doesn’t like it when Crowley calls him angel.
“Same thing,” Crowley grumbles.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
Crowley clicks his fingers and the lights go out. Knowing Crowley, that could just as easily be due to some clever human gadget as a miracle. “Night, angel,” his voice finds him in the darkness, as it always does.
this chapter held me at gunpoint. i have a lot of feelings about these bastards and they're all coming together.
additional note - we're coming to the end of canon material in a couple of chapters, and i want to continue the story afterwards (their relationship developing, moving to the south downs etc), so this may end up being a series! thank u to everybody who's read so far, i'm enjoying this project a lot! - alex
Chapter 16: He's Gone Native
the long-awaited trials...
In the morning, the world has the sense that something has happened, even if it doesn’t quite know what. There’s no evidence of anything apocalyptic - the M25 is still as slow and demonic as ever, the sky isn’t raining fish, Atlantis no longer exists and there have been no more visits from extraterrestrials.
And in that morning, after the world has spectacularly failed to end, Ezra looks across and sees Crowley stirring. He didn’t dare sleep himself, and never was much good at it in the first place. So, instead, he spent the night watching Crowley. Watching over him, generally, but also just watching him. Asleep, there were no guards up, no airs of indifference or swagger, it was just the raw, exposed Crowley. And he let Ezra see it. Thinking about that was almost enough to occupy the whole night.
Now, though, Crowley stirs, as sunlight trickles through the window and nudges him awake. A weary sigh escapes him as he stretches out his spine and slumps onto his back, staring at the ceiling. Ezra barely breathes, not wanting to break the last few hours of silence. He wonders, for a moment, if Crowley has forgotten he’s there. But he glances over and sees Ezra looking. He waits for the barriers to come back up, for the years of false indifference to catch up with him. But Crowley just looks at him curiously, and says, “you’re still here.”
He smiles. “Where else?” There is nowhere else he can imagine himself existing, anymore, than beside him.
Crowley glances at his watch. It’s a diving watch, which has always baffled Ezra, because to his knowledge, Crowley has never been diving. “Better get a move on.”
“I suppose we better had.”
The reality of it crashes back into him now that Crowley has awoken. There is still so much that could go wrong. Crowley slides reluctantly out of bed and miracles himself a new set of clothes. The ash and dust disappear from him at last, and he looks just as he always does, except that his sunglasses are still on the counter in the kitchen.
“Crowley, if this doesn’t work-”
Crowley looks up, his golden eyes tired and strained. “Don’t.”
Ezra gets out of bed too, and walks around the end of it to stand in front of him. “Please.” His breath catches in his throat as he reaches out. Crowley doesn’t move, but he doesn’t pull back. He lets Ezra kiss him, a barely-there brushing of lips before he sighs and lowers his head. “If this doesn’t work..."
Crowley sighs, and his breath ruffles Ezra’s hair. He raises his hand. “It was worth it.”
Ezra takes it. “Every second.”
They swap again, and Ezra has to watch Crowley sauntering off towards the bookshop - which he hopes has been restored the same way the rest of the world has been - and quickly remind him that his body is not suited to sauntering. He has to wait in the flat, so they’re not seen leaving together, and spends the time staring at Crowley’s reflection in the mirror. It’s almost like having him there, only wrong. It’s a dream he has to construct himself.
They’re to meet at St James’ Park; a fitting end to all their clandestine meetings. The minute he steps outside, he has to behave as though he’s being watched. His skin - Crowley’s skin, but his for the time being - crawls when he leaves the apartment building. There’s no guarantee he’ll even get to the park before being taken. Nor is there a guarantee that either of them will be taken today. It’s all uncertain.
He rounds the corner and sees the Bentley parked in its usual place, and smiles. Hopefully, that means his bookshop is back, too. Crowley must have been thrilled to see it when he left earlier. He was devastated to lose it, though he tried not to show it afterwards. Sometimes he thinks he’s really had the wrong impression of Crowley, after all. He’s always wondered at how quickly he runs through clothes and styles, how easily he moves homes, even countries. But certain things, the things that really matter, he sticks with for a long time.
He finds himself adjusting Crowley’s sunglasses on his nose a few times in the cab. (He’s never learned to drive, and he doesn’t trust himself not to explode the Bentley all over again.) The world is darker than he’s used to behind the glasses, and he feels oddly protected by them; he can see people, and they can’t see him. It’s a similar feeling to wearing gloves, in a way, like a barrier that prevents humanity from seeing that he’s not one of them.
He forgets that he isn’t looking for Crowley, but himself, and gets distracted by people walking past in sunglasses. He’s waiting on their usual bench, on the left, where Ezra usually sits. It’s odd to sit next to him on the other side, and the distance between them feels like a gulf after kissing him again in the morning. (Not that he particularly wants to kiss him just at this moment - there would be something a bit narcissistic about that.) There’s a small ice-cream cart just across the way, and Ezra glances at it a couple of times. Crowley doesn’t keep any food in his apartment, so he hasn’t eaten anything for a while now. He doesn’t need to, but it is comforting.
Crowley notices him looking. “Tempt you to some ice-cream?” He says. It sounds odd coming out of his mouth. He looks all awkward, too, trying to figure out how to put his limbs in the right place. He wonders if that’s what he usually looks like, or if Crowley is making fun of him. He tries to shrug in the lopsided, careless way Crowley usually does, and stands up again as casually as he can. It’s really very difficult, all this lounging about and sauntering. He wonders how Crowley can possibly make it look so natural.
“How’s the car?” Crowley asks.
“Not a scratch on it,” he says, as Crowley paces behind him. “How’s the bookshop?” He hands Crowley the ice-cream, which he barely glances at.
“Not a smudge. Not a book burned.” He has to restrain himself from grinning too enthusiastically. There’s no point having a bookshop if the bookshop owner isn’t around to own it. He settles for politely smiling at the ice-cream man and hoping he doesn’t find it too forward.
“Everything back just the way it was. Have you heard from your people yet?”
Ezra shakes his head. It’s not going to be a polite meeting when they do. “Yours?”
He leans in a bit. “Do you understand what happened yesterday?”
“Well, I understand some of it. But some of it…”
He promptly stops listening to Crowley when his arms are grabbed from behind and a gag is thrust over his mouth. No time for ice-cream, unfortunately. There are angels on either side of him, and two more stepping up to address Crowley- well, to address him , but Crowley happens to be him at the moment, and it’s all getting a bit confusing. He tries to shout for him to run, because they don’t know yet how this is supposed to play out, but they’re already dragging him away. The last thing he sees is a swarm of demons surrounding Crowley, and his body buckling to the ground, before a blinding white light absorbs him and the park disappears.
“...and the murder of two fellow demons.”
As far as trials go, this one isn’t going spectacularly well. For one thing, he doesn’t actually have a defence. For another, they seem to know everything the pair of them did to stop the Apocalypse, including the disposal of Hastur and Ligur. And what’s more, he’s got a throbbing headache from that crowbar they hit him with.
“Creatures of Hell,” Beelzebub calls, “you have heard the evidence against the demon known as Ezra. What is your verdict?”
“Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” the onlookers cry. He’d hoped, vaguely, that the other demons might be a bit more sociable. Beelzebub might be tolerable, under different circumstances, as might the odd little lizard fellow that seems to be a court official, but the whole place reeks of menace.
Hell is, well, Hell. No-one here trusts anyone else. It’s unpleasant, it’s dark and slimy and everyone in the viewing gallery is pressed together, shoving each other out of the way and spitting at the window. No wonder Ezra always looks so rigid and keeps his hands so close to himself. Crowley has always thought that he’s an odd sort of demon, from their very first meeting on the wall of Eden, and now he knows for certain that he really doesn’t belong here. He isn’t like the others. For one thing, he bathes.
“Do you have anything to say before we take our vengeance on you?” Beelzebub asks.
“Er- what’s it to be? An eternity in the deepest pit?” He aims for the polite, inquisitive tone Ezra uses to ask waiters in restaurants about their specials.
“Oh, no. we’re going to do something even worse. Letting the punishment fit the crime.”
The lift doors at the end of the corridor creak ominously open and a set of precise footsteps approaches. The onlookers see the new arrival before he does, and start to shriek and roar.
“The Archangel Michael?” Crowley says, trying not to look relieved at the sight of either her or the jug of water. His end of the plan might actually work. “That’s...unlikely.” It’s difficult to adjust to not wearing sunglasses all the time. He has to focus on where he’s looking and how his expression changes in a way he usually doesn’t have to bother with, and what’s more, he has to focus on doing it the way Ezra does.
“Cooperation with our old enemies,” Dagon sneers. “Well, wank-wings, have you brought the stuff?”
Michael ignores the jibe and holds out the jug. “I did. I’ll be back to collect it.”
Dagon recoils. “You do the honours.” Michael nods and begins to pour the holy water into the bathtub. It goes on for much longer than the jug ought to allow, seemingly conjured directly from Heaven as the bath fills.
“That’s holy water,” Crowley says, looking from the jug to Beelzebub and back to Michael.
“The holiest,” Michael nods, rather smugly, and turns to go.
He’s never really been that keen on being an angel. It’s a job, the way chartered accountancy is a job. He doesn’t like his co-workers, he doesn’t respect his superiors, and it’s not at the core of who he is, the way it seems to be for the others. But if being an angel means he can do this for Ezra, then it’s worth it. Every time he’s saved him has been worth the thousand other pains and inconveniences and staff meetings that come with being what he is.
“Uh, it’s not that we don’t trust you, Michael, but we don’t trust you,” Beelzebub says. They nod to Dagon. “Test it.”
Dagon, with a grin that exposes her eel-like teeth, crosses the mock-courtroom and picks up the round lizard demon. “Wh- what are you- I’m a court official, what the Hell do you think you’re doing? No! No! What have I done?”
She dunks him directly into the bath, where he hisses and fizzles out into nothing, leaving only a trail of steam in the air. “Wrong place, wrong time.” The crowd cheers in excitement.
That’s what they would have done to him. His clever, soft, nervous demon would have been extinguished just like that, and no-one would have cared. A feeling arises in Crowley, then, a sort of holy fury that he’s not felt for a very, very long time. It is a burning determination, a promise to himself that he will never allow Ezra to set foot in this place again.
“Demon Ezra. I sentence you to extinction by holy water. You have anything to say?”
“Er- well, yes.” He thinks for a moment. What would Ezra do, if he was about to die? (What is he doing right now, Upstairs?) “I’ve kept this coat in tip-top condition for over a hundred and eighty years, and I’d hate to ruin it. Do you mind if I take it off?”
Beelzebub squints at him. Dagon exchanges a confused look with them. He sets about stripping off anyway. If they do get out of this, Ezra might just kill Crowley himself for getting his favourite coat drenched in holy water. Gloves, then coat, then waistcoat, then shirt, then- God, he really does wear an awful lot of layers in August. That must have been the fashion about a hundred and fifty years ago.
He ends up in an undershirt and underwear, partly because he knows Ezra is quite fond of those trousers, too, and partly because it gives him time to rile up the crowd. The more impatient he makes them with each article of clothing he carefully folds, the more horrified they’ll be when the entertainment they’ve been screaming for backfires spectacularly.
“Get on with it, worm,” Dagon scowls, once he’s placed his socks on top of the neatly folded pile.
He hums and turns around with an innocent expression, as though he’s forgotten what it was he was undressing for in the first place. “Hm? Ah, yes.” The crowd roars as he steps towards the tub, and he offers them a polite smile and a wave. The scales on the bottom of his foot feel odd on the slimy floor. He wonders if Ezra can still turn into a snake, and whether he could, too, now he’s occupying his body.
He claps his hands together the way Ezra does when he puts down his cutlery after a good dessert, and glances back at Beelzebub and Dagon. “Well, it’s been lovely knowing you all. May we meet on a better occasion.”
Beelzebub rolls their eyes. “Yes, yes. Get on with it.”
Crowley winks and sets one foot into the tub. The water is cold, and doesn’t so much as sting the scales on the sole of his foot. The crowd pounds on the glass, shouting and scrambling to see. He puts another foot in and sits down as straight and prim as he can manage. The shouting gets louder, the manic shuffling and pounding increases. He turns to the glass and catches a glimpse of his reflection - Ezra’s face smiles back, calm and confident - and then, they start to notice.
He hums and goes about washing his hair as the screams turn to confused shouts, which turn to worried whispers. He can practically feel Beelzebub and Dagon squinting from across the room. He carries on, adjusting his shoulders with that wiggle Ezra does sometimes. He flicks a bit of water at the window, where it hisses and spits like acid reacting with the glass. He sighs contentedly and turns back to Beelzebub.
“I don’t suppose any of you chaps has a rubber duck?”
Dagon and Beelzebub exchange worried glances. “He’s gone native,” Beelzebub says. “He isn’t one of us anymore.”
He smiles and flicks a bit more water at the window, pretending to be surprised when the gathered demons scramble away from it.
Beelzebub stands. “Get him out of here, this’ll cause a riot.” They sweep over to the screen and wave away the onlookers. “What are you all looking at? Nothing to see! Nothing to see here!”
Michael returns at such a perfect moment that it seems like divine intervention. “I came to bring back the- oh, Lord.”
“Michael, dear! Oh, do us a quick miracle, would you? I need a bath towel.” She conjures one out of sheer confusion and he takes it with a smile. He’s always wanted to wipe that smug look off her face. “Thank you. Now,” he dries off his hands and stands up, with water dripping from him in streams holier than the rivers of Eden. “I think we need to have a little talk, don’t you?”
He steps out of the bath, dries his hair with the towel, and starts getting dressed again. He’s itching to get out, now that the worst part of the charade is over, but this bit has to go smoothly, too. He doesn’t betray his nerves by hurrying, merely letting his observers stew in worry as he meticulously puts on each article of clothing. The Lords of Hell flinch back when he wrings out the towel and holy water dribbles off onto the ground.
“Might I suggest that in future, we avoid this kind of embarrassment altogether?” He asks, buttoning up his waistcoat. “Not that this hasn’t been charming, of course, I do so love our little meetings. But perhaps, before you consider something like this again, you ought to remember the sad fate of our dear friends Hastur and Ligur.”
Beelzebub’s eyes widen. The flies buzzing around their head flit quickly back into their greasy hair. “Yes. Of courzzze.”
He straightens his bow tie and smiles at Dagon, who swallows and tries to look like she’s not shitting bricks. “No hard feelings, worm. Serpent, I mean. Very impressive work, in the Garden.”
“Oh, thank you. Well, this has been enlightening, but I’m afraid I must get on.” He pats his pockets and pulls out a pair of gloves. “Good day, Lord Beelzebub. Lord Dagon. Archangel Michael.” He nods to each of them and strides past towards the corridor, and onwards to the lift at the end. He presses the button, but hears them shuffling behind him and turns back. The three of them are standing at the end of the corridor, staring, and trying not to look like that’s what they’re doing.
“One more thing: I shan’t be coming back. Is that going to be a problem?” Beelzebub and Dagon shake their heads minutely. He glances at Michael, who also shakes her head in dumb shock. “Wonderful. I’d hate to inconvenience anyone. Tally-ho.” He winks, and steps back into the lift. The doors close in front of him, and it’s over. The first thing he does is slouch. The second is to sigh very deeply. And the third is to miracle every drop of holy water from his body. His side of it is done. All he can do now is hope that things went as well Upstairs as they did here.
Crowley doesn’t pray often. Angels generally don’t. It’s sort of the equivalent of being an intern and phoning the CEO in the middle of the board meeting because you want to ask what filing cabinet you ought to use. And the last time he prayed, he didn’t get an answer. God didn’t speak to him, nor has She spoken to anyone without the mediation of the Metatron for thousands of years. But the last time he prayed, in that miserable bar before the End of the World, Ezra came back to him. He doesn’t believe in coincidence, not with the game the Almighty plays with the universe.
So, in the lift up from Hell, he closes his eyes and mutters so aggressively that it can only really be called ‘praying’ on a technicality. He’s lost him in fire once. If Ezra doesn’t come back from Heaven, he’s going to go up there and have a word with God Herself.
He understands very quickly why Crowley is so fond of his sunglasses. Heaven is nothing but blank white walls and sterile lights that hurt his eyes when he looks at them even through the tinted glass. He doesn’t remember it being like this. When he remembers Heaven, he remembers the War, he remembers white floors full of bodies and golden blood, full of movement and shouting. This Heaven feels lifeless.
The angels thrust him down into a chair in the middle of the empty space and his hands are bound. He doesn’t recognise them; it’s been so long since he was here last. He half-expected his feet to burn like they do in churches when he arrived, but it seems that Crowley’s corporation is protecting him.
Crowley, Crowley, he has to act like Crowley. What would Crowley do? He lounges back in the chair as much as his restraints will allow, and stretches out his legs. The angels that held him disappear, and he’s left with two archangels. One is Gabriel; he recognises him from yesterday. The other, from a process of elimination, must be Uriel. Where’s Michael? he wonders, and swallows a burst of fear for what’s going to happen to Crowley Downstairs.
Gabriel speaks first. “Ah, Crowley. So glad you could join us.”
He shrugs. “You could’ve sent a text. I mean, kidnapping’s a bit last century, isn’t it?”
Gabriel smiles in that very unconvincing way of his that Ezra is really starting to dislike. “Call it what it was: an extraordinary rendition.” He turns to Uriel. “Now, have we heard from our new associate?”
“He’s on his way.”
“He’s on his way. I think you’re going to like this, I really do. And I bet you didn’t see this one coming.”
Ezra raises his eyebrows in the way Crowley does when he’s pretending to be more interested than he is. He desperately hopes that they did see it coming, that what Gabriel is looking so smug about is indeed the situation they planned for.
He looks out of the window, and sees a row of Earth’s most famous landmarks. He doesn’t remember this faceless urban landscape. In his memory - admittedly, a foggy one - Heaven is full of life and plants and starlight. It must have been squashed out sometime after the War. Or was that Eden? All he can remember of Heaven is the white floors and the blood and the fighting. He remembers a sword clattering to the ground and a warm body slumped against him, and the rattling breath of a dying angel.
He can feel himself starting to panic. He can’t get lost thinking about the Fall, not now. He’s supposed to be here, he’s supposed to be an angel. He leans back and tries to remember anything else but that. All that rises to the surface is Aziraphale, and just thinking it makes him twitch.
What would Crowley do? (What is Crowley doing right at this moment?) “You know, guys, I’ve always thought this place needed a bit of...well, anything . A sofa, maybe a few of those little televisions you get in pubs. Some houseplants? Cocktail bar? I mean, come on. What do you do up here all day? Play frisbee with your halos?”
Gabriel blinks and looks around the floor out of the corner of his eye, as if he’s never actually noticed that there isn’t anything in it.
“You don’t get this view down in the basement,” comes a familiar voice. It’s one of those new replaceable demons, the sort that Hell churns out for its most menial and unpleasant tasks. They were never angels. This one is holding an odd carved box, and he can feel the power surging from it even at a distance.
He turns as best he can to look at the demon. They don’t seem to be in pain, standing on the holy ground of Heaven. Curious. He wonders if angels and demons really are so different, after all. They open the box and cast a great swirling tornado of heat into the centre of the room. The hellfire roars and reaches up to the ceiling in a spiral, and the demon winks before departing. Fear stabs deep into him. His hands twitch, but there are no scales to pick at. He tests the ropes around his wrists, and the rough scratch distracts him from his panic for a moment. He thought there would be a trial before this, that perhaps he could talk his way out like Crowley could have.
“So,” Gabriel starts, clasping his hands together. “With one act of treason, you averted the War.”
“Well, treason’s a bit strong, isn’t it? I mean, it was for the greater good-”
“Don’t talk to be about the greater good, sunshine. I’m the Archangel fucking Gabriel.” Well, now he knows that angels have just as appalling manners as demons. “The greater good was that we were finally going to settle things with the Opposition, once and for all.”
He’s already heard it from the Metatron, and Gabriel himself said much the same at the air base yesterday, but every time, the admission that Heaven doesn’t care stings, somehow. It shouldn’t, he’s a demon, he’s seen first-hand the cruelty of angels. But he can’t help the bitter disappointment. They aren’t following God anymore. God isn’t here, not in these blank white walls and empty smiles, not in the stolen landmarks outside or the violence of the Great War. She isn’t here.
Uriel approaches, and the ropes vanish. “Up.” He stands languidly and rolls his shoulders back. They really are just going to kill Crowley. If he wasn’t here, Crowley would be about to die. This isn't a murder trial. It's an execution.
“You don’t have to do this. I don’t suppose we could work this out?” He casually says, because he knows Crowley wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of showing his fear. “I mean, we’re meant to be the good guys, for Heaven’s sake.”
“Well, for Heaven’s sake , we are meant to make an example of traitors. So. Into the flame,” Gabriel says, with that obnoxious grin, and Ezra finally understands why Crowley has been systematically cutting himself off from Heaven in every way but one for the past six thousand years. If this is the divinity he’s been dreaming of since he Fell, he doesn’t want it.
He shrugs. “Right. Nice knowing you. You really ought to get an interior designer in.”
“Shut your stupid mouth and die already.”
Ezra smiles, then, one of Crowley’s vicious grins, the ones designed to let you know that he isn’t human, thank you very much, and he doesn’t have to play by your rules. It unsettles Gabriel just a touch, and he shoves his hands into his pockets. He could forgive his own Fall. He could forgive the Flood taking Uruk, and fire taking his home in Sodom. He might have deserved to lose that. But destroying Crowley? No, this is where he draws the line. Whether he deserves it or not, he doesn’t care. This is the home he will not allow to burn.
Last time he was in Heaven, he was thrown out. He Fell, he burned, tossed into the fire without a second thought. This time, he looks straight into Gabriel’s eyes and steps into the flame like he’s coming home.
There is a moment of complete uncertainty, when he still doesn’t know if the hellfire will have an effect on his body, regardless of who’s piloting it - it has been the vessel of an angel for over six thousand years, now. And then the fire hugs him close, warming his core in a way nothing else can, and he closes his eyes. He straightens out a bit, and lets the flames soothe the ache of occupying a body he wasn’t designed for. And in the flames, he realises something.
There was a man, once. Popular chap, especially after his run-in with a cross. Ezra tried to tempt him in the desert, and he’d treated him like any other person. And before he left, he looked up at Ezra and said, God has a purpose for us all.
If he hadn’t stepped in and fought Raphael during the War, the angel he was torturing would have died in agony. If he hadn’t Fallen, he wouldn’t be immune to hellfire. If he wasn’t a demon, he wouldn’t be able to save Crowley. He looks up at the ceiling, at the blank expanse of white that might, somewhere, give way to the Almighty. I understand now , he thinks, almost in prayer. He doesn’t expect an answer, but his presence here is an answer all by itself.
“It may be worse than we thought,” he can vaguely hear Gabriel saying from outside the roaring fire.
“What is he?” Uriel asks, and for the first time in his life, he is glad to be a demon. He is glad to put that look of fear on their faces. He is glad to punish. For what they would have done to Crowley, to his brave, clever, rebellious angel, they deserve it. They would have taken Crowley from him. He saunters forward out of the fire, and it billows back like the Red Sea parting to allow him through. The archangels stagger backwards.
“So, you’re probably thinking, ‘if he can do this, I wonder what else he can do?’” He flicks a little flame off his shoulder and it lands on the floor, sparking into a sizzling black crater. “And very, very soon, you’re going to get the chance to find out.”
“Uh-” Gabriel stutters. “Uh, well, uh, that sounds great, and all, but- we weren’t wondering anything at all. It’s not of any interest to us what you get up to on Earth, is it?” He looks at Uriel with a fairly desperate attempt at his usual confident smile, and they shake their head rapidly in concurrence.
“I think it would be better for everyone if I were to be left alone in future, don’t you?” He looks at Uriel, who appears to be rather ill, and they nod fervently. He looks at Gabriel, who appears to be even more ill, and who nods even more fervently. “Right. I’ll see myself out. Ciao!” He gives them a lazy salute and turns towards the only door in sight, which looks promisingly like a lift. He turns his back on the archangels, he turns his back on Heaven, and goes home. And on the way out, he saunters through the flames.
i have to say, this chapter and the last one have been incredibly satisfying to write. the next chapter will be the last in this fic, since that's where canon ends, but i do plan on making this a series and writing more fics in this au after the main story (most likely shorter fics, because this one has taken over my life). thanks for reading so far! - alex
Chapter 17: The Very First Day of the Rest of their Lives
final chapter! Berkeley Square, the Ritz, and after.
The late summer sun beats down hot and heavy as Crowley walks towards the bench in the very centre of Berkeley Square, where there sits a demon, occupying the body of an angel. Relief floods through him. The anxiety, the relentless possibilities, the wondering, the what-if, what-if, all of it sputters out and he’s left with the warm summer sun and giddy excitement. Ezra has taken his usual place on the left. Crowley takes his on the right, and sprawls lazily into the bench.
“Do you think they’ll leave us alone now?” He asks. They’ve been here before. To Berkeley Square, obviously, but they’ve also been here: an angel and a demon, fresh from Heaven and Hell, watching the Garden. Alone, but together.
“At a guess, they’ll pretend it never happened,” Ezra says. His intonations sound odd in Crowley’s voice. “Right. Anyone looking?”
Crowley closes his eyes and checks for the scent of brimstone, or the electric sting of divinity. He detects neither, except the familiar warmth beside him. “Nobody. Right. Swap back then.”
He holds out his gloved hand, and Ezra takes it. It’s an odd feeling, and difficult to interpret when one isn’t a celestial being. The best description would be stepping out of a pair of uncomfortable shoes and into a pair of slippers, if the slippers were a metaphor for your human corporeal form. Crowley slides into his slippers, and wiggles his hand to get rid of some of the odd tingling. His body feels warmer than he’s used to, and the air around him cooler.
He fiddles with his jacket, sensing something wrong, and flips it back to the way it’s supposed to be. “Tartan collar? Really?”
“Tartan is stylish,” Ezra says, outraged. Crowley blows out a long breath. That’s an argument for another day. “So, Agnes Nutter’s last prophecy was on the money.” He sounds very pleased with himself.
Crowley leans over conspiratorially, and is suddenly struck with the memory of leaning over and telling him about the flaming sword. “I asked them for a rubber duck, and made the Archangel Michael miracle me a towel.” Ezra gapes at him, and then starts to laugh. Crowley can’t help it. They’re both here, both alive, both free. He laughs with him.
“Yeah, they’ll leave us alone. For a bit.” He shrugs, and his pessimism takes over. “If you ask me, both sides are gonna use this as breathing space before the big one.”
Ezra glances over. “I thought that was the big one.”
“No, for my money, the really big one is all of Us against all of Them.”
“What, Heaven and Hell, against...humanity?” Humans pass by in the background, and they watch. Just like the beginning. But, just like the beginning, they know they won’t only watch. When the Really Big One comes, they’ll be there, not fighting for Heaven or Hell but for the world they’ve lived in for six thousand years. They probably won’t do a very good job, judging by how this last adventure has progressed, but they’ll be there nonetheless.
They are a they, now. At least, he hopes so, after last night, and what they’ve done today.
“Right. Time to leave the garden. Let me...tempt you to a spot of lunch?”
“Temptation accomplished.” They stand, and a flock of birds scurries through the air behind them on fluttering wings. “Hmm. What about the Ritz? I believe a table for two has just miraculously come free.”
At the gate, Ezra pauses.
“You alright?” Crowley asks, checking him over for any sign that a drop of holy water might have remained on his body. Nothing. He checks around for demons, or angels, or odd humans with clipboards carrying out network provider surveys, but Ezra’s voice brings him back to the moment.
“I think I’ve forgotten something, that’s all.” Before he can ask what, Ezra pulls off his gloves and stuffs them in his pockets, and a cool, smooth hand takes his. “There. That’s better.”
This time, they leave the garden together.
They walk rather than getting a taxi, so they can breathe the air of this new world where they no longer have to be afraid. It doesn’t feel real, yet. Part of him screams that this is borrowed time, that any moment now, Heaven and Hell will come pounding through the streets and slaughter them where they stand. He has to squeeze Ezra’s hand every few seconds to remind himself that he’s here.
Has it all been leading to this? Those awkward first meetings driven by curiosity, when the world was first getting onto its feet, the Questions, the arguments in taverns, the wars and floods and fires? Six thousand years of Crowley holding out his hand in secret and saying, come on, it’ll be fun, and now Ezra has finally taken it, and he’s walking down the street clasping it without caring who sees. It’s the two of them against the world. Well, that’s the expression. They did just save the world.
He barely notices their arrival at the Ritz. Ezra does all the talking; most of the staff know him and, as promised, there is a table miraculously free for them near the piano. His scaled hands drop to his lap now that they’re in human company. Crowley reaches over and grabs one when their champagne has been poured.
“You know, none of this would have worked out if you weren’t, deep down, just a little bit a good person,” he says, and Ezra looks up in surprise. Crowley saw him with tears in his eyes as Sodom burned, he saw him outraged at the plight of the Israelites. It’s another of God’s cruelties, this; to make a demon, and then make him feel the pain of every tragedy he is supposed to revel in. If he’d said this at any other time, Ezra might have pulled away and told him to be quiet, that he’s wrong, that someone might have heard. But now, here, he just lifts their joined hands onto the table and smiles.
“And if you weren’t, at heart, just enough of a bastard to be worth knowing,” he says. Crowley grins, and lifts his glass. Sometimes he worries that Ezra expects too much good of him, that he doesn’t understand what angels really are anymore. But he’s been back to Heaven. And now, Crowley knows he understands.
“Cheers. To the world.”
“To the world.”
Crowley makes them walk back to his place to pick up the Bentley. Apparently, losing it in a terrible explosion has given him no more care for its wellbeing than he had before, nor for the wellbeing of anyone else occupying the road. His driving is worse than abysmal, but when they get to it, the bookshop is still there, standing innocently on the corner like nothing ever happened to it. And, he supposes, nothing did.
“It did burn down, you said?” Ezra says, turning to Crowley before he unlocks the door. Crowley is tense, and shrugs the question off like an unpleasant itch. The last time they were outside the shop, they didn’t part on good terms.
“Yeah. It did. Hurry up, it’s getting cold out here.” It’s mid-August, and it isn’t getting cold at all, but Ezra sighs and pushes open the door. The warm smell of aged paper and dust hits him and he smiles. Crowley is beside him, and the shop is alright, and he’s home.
“Care for a tipple?” He says, making a beeline for the back room.
“Love to,” Crowley drawls, strolling along behind him. Things are different, now. He’s all but told him he loves him, he’s held his hand and kissed him. Neither of them have to fear their superiors anymore. But when Crowley settles into the sofa like he has what must be hundreds of times before, he looks tense, distracted.
He pours the drinks and tries to ignore it. The corners of his vision are buzzing pleasantly from the champagne at lunch, and he’s keen to elongate the feeling. After six thousand years of chronic anxiety, then eleven years of extreme anxiety, followed by a week of unparalleled terror, it’s a bit of a shock to the system to have the main source of his worry just disappear. Currently, it feels like he’s searching for things to justify his worry, rather than worrying about justifiable things in the first place.
“What do you suppose you’ll do now?” He asks, trying to keep his tone light.
Crowley shrugs, and with his arm sprawled over the armrest, nearly spills his drink. “We can do whatever we want.”
“No more paperwork, for a start,” Ezra agrees. Now that’s a weight off his back. No more Dagon, Lord of the Files, Master of Torments. He’s going to have so much more time to read.
“No more bloody paperwork. If I hadn’t been there myself, I’d say this was Heaven,” Crowley says, tipping his glass to Ezra with a grin. “To us, then.”
Ezra clinks their glasses together. “To us.”
He isn’t quite sure what that means, though. They’ve never been an ‘us’, before. It’s always been a rebellious angel prodding a reluctant demon. For the last eleven years they’ve been co-conspirators, and for the past days they’ve been traitors. But he’s never thought of them as an ‘us’. Not until he picked up the phone and to tell Crowley where the Antichrist was, that is.
Are they together now? Deeply, closely? Will they share things they never thought they’d share? Will they share a bed again, out of more than necessity? Or will Crowley back away, realise that what he said and did last night was a fluke brought on by the fear of death and cut himself off? He doesn’t know.
Six thousand years, he’s always known where he stood and what he was supposed to do. But now? What on Earth is he to do now, with this? With them? If Crowley runs now, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. Curl up in his armchair and go insane, most likely. He breathes deeply and reminds himself that he’s just inventing things to worry about again.
“I need to say something before we’re both too plastered to be reasonable,” Crowley says. That tense look is back, in the way his shoulders stiffen even as he sprawls. Dread drops like a stone into his gut.
“Well, I’ve never accused you of being reasonable,” Ezra says, with a nervous laugh. He stares into his drink in the vain hope that it will offer some kind of solution to this.
“Yeah, that’s my point,” Crowley says. He sighs with his whole body, folding forwards and collecting his glass in both hands. His sunglasses glint in the yellowish light. “I wasn’t very reasonable, yesterday.”
Oh, Satan. That’s it, isn’t it? He’s going to cut his losses and run. Ezra doesn’t blame him. He must have been deluded last night and forgotten that Ezra is a dreadful, awful, despicable, slimy little worm who belongs in a filing office somewhere in Hell. He gulps down half his glass and finds that his hand is shaking.
“Spit it out, then,” he says, finding his voice a little shrill. Crowley pauses, put off his rhythm for a moment, and then gestures with his glass.
“I was out of line, digging up that stuff about you.” That’s not what he was expecting. And then the worry hits him like a train again. Crowley has changed his mind. He does actually care that he killed Raphael, and he’s leaving at once for Peru. Ezra pours another shaky drink and doesn’t look at him. “I know how it feels to have your old name dragged up like that. It wasn’t fair. Basically, I was being a prat.”
Ezra stares at him. He can see a glint of gold behind the impassive black of his glasses. Crowley is as apologising to him. Again . He can’t help but let out a slightly manic laugh.
“Is that all?”
Crowley stares. “What?”
“Well- well, that’s not to say it wasn’t an unpleasant shock, dear. But after all the things I said, the last thing I expected from you was an apology.”
“Well, you know me. I hate to be predictable,” Crowley says, looking quietly worried now. “What did you think I was gonna say?”
Ezra stammers and stutters and eventually gives up on answering entirely in favour of sipping his drink. Crowley lets him pour another one into his glass, too, and watches him with those careful eyes that have been peering a little too deeply into him since Eden.
“I thought you were dead, for a bit,” Crowley says, swilling around his wine. “And the last thing I said to you...” I won’t even think about you.
“Oh. Oh, I see.”
“Yeah.” Crowley sips his wine and lifts his hand. He pauses, with his fingers wrapped around his sunglasses. Ezra looks at him, waiting. He lifts them off, and puts them down on a shelf behind him.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, too,” Ezra finds himself saying. It’s only fair to balance this out. “I didn’t mean any of it.”
Crowley nods. “I know. Water under the bridge, angel.”
Ezra makes his customary irritated expression, but it segues into exasperated fondness without his permission and before long he’s just staring at Crowley adoringly again. Crowley, who lets him perform miracles, Crowley, who calls him angel and thinks he’s a little bit a good person. Crowley, who handed him his God-given sword at the end of the world.
“The thing is that I don’t mind, actually.” His voice comes out oddly strained. Crowley tilts his head. “It hurt, I won’t deny that. I don’t think we were supposed to remember our names, after we Fell. But I did, you see. It was always there. I could no more say it than I could bathe in holy water, but it was there.” He smiles a bit nervously and drinks some more to give himself something to do.
Crowley thinks about that for a moment. “I envied you for a while, in the beginning. You got to choose your name.”
“I didn’t have a choice. My real name was taken from me.”
It takes him a second to realise what he’s just said. He tries to correct himself, but finds he doesn’t want to. He’s been Ezra Fell for centuries now, and just Ezra for millennia before that, and never once has it felt like his real name. His old one has lurked in the background all this time, burning in the depths of him. Never has he heard Ezra without itching to fix it, to complete it. He was only called that in the first place because he choked trying to say his real one, and never found the strength to try again.
“Angel?” Crowley looks worried. He realises that for all his objections, he’s more comfortable with the teasing, soft whisper of angel than the cold placeholder that is Ezra .
“I can say it, now, you know. That’s how I called the Metatron,” he absently says. He’s getting that odd feeling he got when he was discorporated, when he remembered he could possess people. It’s like there’s an ancient part of him awakening, a part that’s always been waiting under the surface.
“You can?” Crowley says, trying to sound appropriately surprised and failing miserably.
“Yes. It’s not a bad name, all in all.”
“No,” Crowley agrees. “You know, strictly speaking, there’s no reason you couldn’t just…”
His eyes dart from his drink to the angel sitting on his sofa. “You’re not suggesting...”
Crowley shrugs. “Well. Just between us, I don’t think anyone’s gonna notice.”
He stares. He chases down a volley of questions with a large gulp of wine. He pours out a great deal more. Is that what he wants? Is that what he deserves? There’s a reason he hasn’t been able to speak his name since he Fell, after all.
“I remember when you changed your name,” he says, to buy himself more time to think. “I was so angry. I couldn’t understand why you would cut a piece of God out of you like that. Come to think of it, I was awfully, terribly envious.” He doesn’t blame him anymore, after the Flood and the wars and the near-miss apocalypse. But while he has no faith left in those angels left Upstairs after what they did to Crowley, he still wants to believe in Her. Nothing is simply a coincidence.
He wants to believe that he Fell so that one day he might save Crowley from hellfire. Perhaps She let him remember his name in the aftermath so that one day, when he earned it, he might reclaim it. Perhaps there’s a reason that the first voice to speak it after six thousand years was Crowley’s, and only after hearing Crowley say it could he repeat it himself.
“Do you suppose She meant for me to have it now? Maybe I needed an angel to do it first. Maybe it’s a test.” Maybe it’s like the apple in the garden, and he’s supposed to resist the temptation. Or maybe it’s like the apple in the garden, and he’s supposed to have learned the value of breaking the rules.
“Or maybe,” Crowley says, very deliberately, “you need to get your head out of your arse and realise that the only thing stopping you is you.”
He starts to say something snappy, but the sentiment dies in his throat. Could it really be so simple as that? Has he been incapable of using his real name all this time because he didn’t believe he deserved to have it? It's a familiar thought. Crowley watches him. There are many things he's wanted that he hasn't allowed himself to have, so he's taken simpler things and loved them as fiercely as he could to make up for it. Food and books and cities with golden temples. Things that hurt to lose, but that he can pick up and put down again, things he could survive without. The things he's wanted most of his life are things that, once he gets them, he knows he can never disentangle himself from.
“In that case,” he begins, not quite knowing where he’s going to end up. “Well, In that case, I may as well just…” he waves his hands in the air, not quite knowing what he means by that, either. Crowley seems to decipher it, though, and leans forward again.
“I’ll call you anything you like," he says. "Might even take me less than five hundred years to get it right, too.”
Crowley does that twisted grin he uses to cover up when he’s being unfathomably kind, and he can’t stop himself from creeping forward to kiss him. For a few seconds he sees nothing and feels everything - his hands on Crowley’s jaw, his lips on his, his real name ringing in his head - and then he pulls back. What if he’s wrong? What if that was the wrong thing to do entirely? But Crowley just smiles and blinks lazily up at him.
“Aziraphale?” he asks, the same way he might say pass the wine? It doesn’t sound like a lie when Crowley says it. It sounds like angel, like let’s run away together, like we’re on our side.
He barely breathes. “You don’t like it?”
Crowley smiles. When you live long enough, everything comes back around again once or twice. A garden, a conversation, a sword, a name. “I’ll get used to it.”
He doesn’t want Heaven and its sterile divinity. He falls into the realisation like he fell in love: He doesn’t want to be an angel, but he doesn’t mind being Crowley’s. Though he misses Her love as keenly as he did the day he Fell, he has a part of it with him now, in his name. All he wants is this: the two of them in the back room of a dusty old bookshop, with Crowley murmuring his name against his lips.
Crowley, for all his ability to bullshit left, right and centre, is not very good at expressing his personal feelings in an articulate and concise manner. To be fair, he’s never had to. Until this point, all he’s had to do is imply. A bag of books rescued from a burning church is a very strong implication, for example, but requires no specific words. Now, though, he’s in trouble.
Weeks pass with no threat from either side and it seems that they have nothing to fear. Well, except this: Ezra - Aziraphale, now - is always telling him how he feels. He ends phone calls with love you, dear. He gets exasperated and says, really, Crowley, you know I adore you, but this is ridiculous. He leaves little notes on the bedside table when he goes out early in the morning that start dearest Crowley, and he knows it isn’t just because his letter-writing is stuck in the Victorian era.
All that, and Crowley just can’t say it back. It’s difficult for him to even articulate what his problem is, exactly. Which is, in itself, a problem. Articulation. Theoretically, it should be just as easy for him to open his mouth and spit it out as it is for Aziraphale. Easier, even. He’s the angel. But Heavenly love rings hollow. It’s like a company-wide memo that reads ‘please be assured that you are appropriately loved. Regards, God.’ And that’s what he’s always hated, the cold, detached nature of it all. Where’s the point in saying the words when the words can sound like that?
It feels genuine from Aziraphale because he’s never had to deal with the corporate mandate of Heaven. He says he loves something because he genuinely does. But Crowley can’t bear to say it himself, because it won’t feel real. It will feel like a bit of paperwork or a grudging prayer in Sunday church. It will feel like a lie. He knows what he feels is the same as what Aziraphale feels, but he can’t put the same words to it because they’ll just feel empty coming from him.
Aziraphale is patient. He doesn’t say I love you like a question awaiting a response, he just slips it into conversation to remind him every now and then. If he’s hurt by Crowley’s reticence, he doesn’t show it. Nonetheless, Crowley worries. Words are important to Aziraphale. They must be, he says them all the time. He’s got a whole shop full of them. He deserves to be loved properly, doesn’t he?
Crowley uses his new, old name far more often than he needs to just to see him light up. He takes him to lunch and dinner, and, if he’s feeling exceptionally generous, he might even get up for breakfast. He kisses the back of his hands and his neck and every other place that shines with those beautiful, iridescent scales that he’s taught himself to hate. The absence of the words presses onto him in silence, so he fills it with teasing and complaining about the dust and yes, alright, my treat.
Still, he worries. And Aziraphale, who has presumably spent the last six thousand years being unobservant and obtuse on purpose, notices.
“There’s something bothering you,” he says one night, while Crowley is staring at the ceiling and trying not to worry desperately about all this. He indulges Crowley’s sleeping habit by sitting in bed with him and reading for a few hours, and no matter how he starts, Crowley invariably ends up pressed against him in his sleep, with Aziraphale stroking his hair. The bed in question is a ridiculous Victorian thing that Crowley was surprised to learn he even owned, much less that it could fit in the small living space above the bookshop.
Crowley’s mind flashes through several stages of grief and several idiotic excuses, including but not limited to the flu (which he can’t get), the state of the economy (which he doesn’t care about) and changing duck migration patterns (which he doesn’t know enough about to comfortably bullshit) before finally settling on a weak “...no?”
Aziraphale looks at him disapprovingly from over his spectacles. “Crowley.”
“Then you shouldn’t have any problem telling me.”
He sighs. Bastard. “Alright, it’s something, but it doesn’t concern you.”
“If it concerns you, then it concerns me.” Crowley closes his eyes and resists the urge to roll onto his side. He also resists the subsequent urge to roll off the bed completely. He hears pages turning, and cool fingers brush against his wrist. “We’re on our side, Crowley. Whatever it is, I’m with you.”
Bastard, bastard, bastard. Crowley deeply regrets everything he’s ever said and everything he’s ever left unsaid, and turns his head to look at him. Aziraphale has his book open in his lap, something very old and well-loved, but he’s looking at Crowley, waiting. His cool grey eyes are almost black in the dim light, but Crowley can tell the difference.
“You know that I- uh- you know how I feel about-”
“Yes, of course I do,” Aziraphale says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“But I don’t say it. I never just say- ugh.” He can’t do it. He’s right there, waiting, and he still can’t force the words out. Just say it, just say I love you, no matter how odd and hollow and embarrassing it might seem, he needs to hear it. He could have died, once. Crowley thought he was dead, and even still he can't bring himself to say the damned thing now.
Aziraphale’s hand drifts up to his hair and brushes slowly through it. “Don’t be ridiculous, dear. You say it all the time.”
“Angel.” He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say, but somehow Aziraphale understands it all the same.
“There, you see?” He smugly says.
He snatches Aziraphale’s fingers down from his hair. He doesn’t understand. Crowley wasn’t made to be gentle, or to be loved. He was made to be hard and cold, and though he’s tried, he sometimes wonders how he can be different from the other angels, if he can’t even accept gentle fingers in his hair or trailing along his shoulder without tensing up.
He has never been this close with anyone. He might have imagined, might have hoped that one day he’d have something like this with his demon, maybe, if he was lucky. But he’d never really prepared himself for the possibility that he would get it. Sometimes he wonders if it’s too late in his life to try and get used to it, or he’s always going to feel uncomfortable being treated this softly after a lifetime of careful separation. He’s torn between whether this is too much, too soon or not enough, too late. Sometimes it feels like both.
Aziraphale takes off his little glasses and puts them on the bedside table. “You don’t say it the way I say it. But I hear it, Crowley. I’m only sorry that I didn’t hear it sooner.”
Crowley sighs, and lets go of his wrist. “You do know, don’t you?” Aziraphale’s fingers follow his, and rest gently on top of them on the sheets.
They’re sitting on a bench in St James’ Park, not because they have any secret business to conduct but because Crowley quite enjoys feeling like a government agent, and Aziraphale likes the ducks. He’s always been drawn to the water. The ducks, not so much, but they’re a pleasant addition. It’s all coming full circle at the moment, with the two of them in the garden. This feels uncomfortably like an ending. Or a beginning. Difficult to know which, with circles.
“It’s funny how things come back around, isn’t it?” Aziraphale says.
“Funny, yeah,” Crowley nods. There’s a fat little bumblebee trundling around the bench, which Crowley is ignoring and Aziraphale is trying not to miracle into nonexistence. It isn’t the poor thing’s fault.
“Do you suppose She plans it all like that? Down to the very last detail?”
“Who’s got the time?” Crowley incredulously says.
“Perhaps She doesn’t experience time like we do.”
“Well, I never asked.”
Aziraphale gasps. “A question you haven’t asked, my dear? What is the world coming to?”
“I thought God’s plans were ineffable,” Crowley says, in a very poor mimicry of Aziraphale’s voice. “They’re beyond understanding and incapable of being put into words.”
Aziraphale huffs. “Yes, quite. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give it a go anyway.”
Crowley moves to argue, but then looks over with a look of quiet surprise. Aziraphale smiles innocently back. The bee bumps into his hand and finds itself on the other side of London, bothering a traffic policeman.
“Maybe that’s the point,” Aziraphale suggests, after a while. “To try and make sense of it all.”
“Just as likely that there’s no point at all,” Crowley dourly counters. Aziraphale looks around him, and wonders. There is no certainty anymore. Whatever he believes about this world, about God and the rest of it, he has to believe by choice. And he likes to believe that there is a point to it all, even if that point is something as simple as being able to have a conversation with Crowley about it on a park bench. Maybe the point is that they have to choose what they think the point is.
“Perhaps. But it’s quite an adventure, isn’t it?”
“If you say so, angel.”
Crowley leans a bit closer to him, lowering his arm from where he had it sprawled over the back of the bench. Aziraphale takes his offered hand.
The air is clear in the garden. He can breathe deeply and taste flowers and rain and pollen in the early September air. As he looks up at the sky in St James’ Park, at the great expanse of blue that watches them sitting there on the bench, he finds he doesn’t care to remember what things were like Before. He looks down at his hand, twined securely with Crowley’s. No, he likes things much better now.
that's it! working out how to end this story has been agonising, since there's six thousand years of emotions to wrap up and so many tangents to go on about love and identity and freedom, and being able to choose who you are and what you want, which is why I want to add some oneshots in a series later on. (definitely going to have a break from it first though). thank you to everyone who has read and enjoyed this story, it's the first time i've written such a long fanfiction and it's been really fun to work on.
https://www.tumblr.com/blog/anxiousvictor99 my tumblr if u want to yell at me, which is 99% good omens at the moment, since it's taken over my life (and so has this fic)
thank you! - alex