Chapter 1: Chapter 1: In Which The World Is Going To End
The world was going to end, and no one on Earth, save for one angel and one demon, cared.
The world was going to end, and no one on Earth knew what to do about it, least of all the angel and demon. Angels were good at coloring inside the lines, and demons were good at scribbling outside of them, but the Apocalypse was not a line, and stopping it was not coloring, so they were at a complete and utter loss. For eleven years, they thought their Plan A had been going swimmingly, so they had not thought of thinking of a Plan B. They hadn’t found out that their Plan A fell through until the last minute, when a Hellhound that was supposed to show up at the Antichrist’s birthday party had not, in fact, shown up.
They were not stupid, although they often appeared to be; they were, in fact, intelligent in complementary ways and had thousands of years of knowledge each. They knew more about the Earth than any creature alive, so of course they could adapt and devise some sort of plan to protect it. They convened in the angel’s bookshop, strategized, and drank.
They drank copiously.
They were better at drinking than strategizing.
The bookshop was littered with nearly as many empty liquor bottles as it had books, and it had quite a lot of books since it acted more as a collector’s storage space than as a shop. Aziraphale, the proprietor, was currently slumped at a table, rumpled and undignified. Crowley, the demon, sat in a big leather chair, less rumpled, but considerably less dignified than he’d like to believe (which, with regards to his dignity, was usually the case).
“There are Horsemen, from my understanding--they don’t tell me all that much, if you can believe it…” Aziraphale rested his chin on the table. There was a chessboard in front of them, although they were not playing. Aziraphale picked up two of the horseys off the board and made them gallop toward Crowley.
“I can believe it.” Crowley shifted in his chair and in a near-despairing voice said, “All those books about prophecy and you know nothing?”
“Not nothing. I know lots. S’just, lots of noise, hard to sort through what’s what.” Aziraphale let the knights fall onto the table. “Four Horsemen definitely, though, by all accounts. Not three, not five...not six…”
“And none of them say anything about how to stop it?”
Aziraphale scraped his chin against the table in a rough approximation of a headshake. “Prophecies are quite passive by nature. Not instructional.”
Crowley grumbled. He wasn’t sure if his friend was drunk or being a smartass.
“The problem, I think,” Aziraphale carefully enunciated, “is that we had the wrong Antichrist this whole time, and that we spent the last eleven years influencing an utterly worthless child.”
“Wahey, that’s a little harsh,” Crowley said with a wicked grin. He liked children, not that he’d ever admit to it, but he really liked when Aziraphale revealed his sharp edges. Besides which, to be honest, he had not been a fan of Warlock.
“I’m sorry, dear, but it is true. If only you'd given the baby some kind of mark, or something, so we could identify him.” Or been a little more careful. Or simply clarified with a nun using words. Or done a million other things to prevent a world-ending mess-up, Aziraphale bit back.
Crowley had forgotten his part in the baby mix-up. Suddenly, Aziraphale’s remark lost its delightfulness. “It was the nuns’ fault,” Crowley muttered.
“Regardless of whose fault it was,” Aziraphale huffed, very clearly not absolving Crowley of responsibility, “we should find the Antichrist and, uh...go from there.”
“From wherever the Antichrist is.”
“The Hellhound landed in America. Big bloody place. And I’m not driving through cornfields looking for a dog.”
“Then go to Hell--”
“--and find out where, exactly, the Hellhound is,” Aziraphale finished.
“Don’t wanna,” Crowley huffed. Hell was crowded and smelly. “And what’m I supposed to do, waltz in and tell ‘em ‘I know where the Antichrist is, of course, I just want to make sure you know where the Antichrist is?’”
“Crowley,” Aziraphale said, spinning a pawn round and round on the table, “I don’t believe the alcohol is helping us think.”
They cleared the alcohol from their bodies with a groan.
“We must be able to think of something,” Aziraphale said. “You’re cunning, and I’m clever, if we just put our minds together…”
It did not take long before they started missing their drunken haze, which didn’t help them think better but didn’t make them think worse and did distract them from how bad they were at thinking in this situation.
“Baby receipts!” Crowley exclaimed.
“Humans keep baby receipts, don’t they? When the baby’s born, they write it down to prove that the baby was born, don’t they? Baby receipts!”
“Oh, birth certificates! Yes! Brilliant!”
They were on their feet now in an enthusiastic game of charades.
“We just have to go--”
“--to the hospital--”
“--and get the baby receipts!” They finished together. They dashed off to Crowley’s beloved Bentley. For once, Aziraphale was revved up for a road trip and ready to go as fast as possible. Neither looked forward to speaking with the chatty nuns again, but they had a lead.
Crowley put the key in the ignition and stopped when Aziraphale spoke, very suddenly:
"Wait. That wouldn’t tell us where the baby is now.”
“It would tell us where the baby was born, not where it is now.”
“Yes.” Aziraphale said, pointedly, “Hell.”
Crowley killed the engine and sank against his seat. He’d come up with something that would spare him a trip downstairs....a brilliant, lightbulb idea... an anti-divine revelation from below…
“It would tell us the baby’s name,” Crowley said. And that was more than they had at the moment.
Aziraphale mulled it over. There were an awful lot of humans in the world. Names could either be their saving grace or an essentially meaningless bit of trivia. “And then we would look him up on Friendster?”
“I believe they’re using Myspace now.”
“Regardless.” It was as good a plan as any.
It took Crowley and Aziraphale an hour of driving to get to the hospital. It took almost another hour of listening to a chatty nun before Crowley snapped, “We’re on a bit of a time crunch here so if you could hurry it along and give us the records.”
The nun did not seem at all offended. “Oh, well, the thing is, we normally keep quite fastidious records. Parents’ names, time of birth, weight, a description of screams, centimeters of dilation, even the current addresses of all children delivered here so that we can send them birthday cards!”
Crowley and Aziraphale stood up straight. For the first time, the nun had their full attention.
“But then there was a fire. A great terribly big fire. Have you ever seen a great big fire? It wasn’t at all what I imagined. Everything was lost. Except our lives, thank Satan for that!"
They went back out to the car, defeated. Aziraphale didn’t even have the willpower to bid her a polite farewell. He merely nodded curtly and departed.
“So we don’t know anything. No name, no location…” Crowley muttered.
Aziraphale said nothing, just looked pointedly at Crowley and looked downward.
“I’ll be back in a jiffy,” he said, and vanished.
To Crowley, Hell wasn’t a place of top-tier, unspeakable torture like it was to humans; it was analogus to a human going back to their old town to visit family after escaping to a place that, quite frankly, wasn’t all that much better but at least they didn’t risk running into their old high school drug dealer in the grocery store. In other words, it was regular torture.
Making small talk with demons was its own special agony, like being on the conversational rack. Crowley didn’t have much in common with them in the first place, and being on Earth for six thousand years had depleted whatever similarities they shared. They did not know, for example, the difference between Faure and Blavet, nor the pleasures a good Bordeaux. They could not appreciate the extraordinary feat of man-made space travel or how cool his Bentley was.
*Aziraphale did not appreciate the Bentley, either, but he met the other criteria.
The demons were surprised to see Crowley saunter back into Hell, unscheduled. He usually came in bicentennially for status reports. Other than that, he stayed up on Earth, so when he returned, Hell was filled with whispers (and not just because a good number of demons were also snakes). Crowley played it cool and kept sauntering until he found his mark.
“Hello, Paimon. How’s it going?”
Paimon was a woefully uncharismatic sludge of a beast who did not deserve to feature in an arthouse horror film. He stared at Crowley with dull, droopy eyes. “How’s it going?” was far too abstract a question. Crowley amended it to, “Have you been around to see the Antichrist and his new hellhound?”
“No? Why’s that?”
Too self-reflective a question. “What, do you not know where it is?”
“‘Course I do. It’s in New York.”
Crowley scoffed. “Anyone could have guessed New York. It’s a big place, New York. You got upstate, you got the city...and in that city, you have the five boroughs…” Crowley had read a Wikipedia entry on New York once. The whole entity confused him.
“Where in Brooklyn?”
“Dunno,” Paimon looked at Crowley as if Crowley were the idiot, “haven’t been. Don’t you know where it is?”
“Of course I do. It’s in Brooklyn. Ta,” Crowley said, and vanished right back to Earth.
He reappeared in the driver’s seat of the Bentley.
“Brooklyn,” he told Aziraphale.
Aziraphale barely had time to buckle his seatbelt and brace himself before Crowley floored it across the ocean.
1As far as the angel and demon knew. A number of people, at any given time, were convinced the world was going to end in their lifetime; some people had notions of a specific date. Only one human person had it on good authority that the world was, in fact, going to end in his lifetime, but he did not have a specific date.[return to text]
2One prophet came closest, related to the previous footnote. [return to text]
3Well, not swimmingly, but not disastrously.[return to text]
4They were, in fact, in the era of Facebook, but neither of them knew that yet.[return to text]
5Aziraphale did not appreciate the Bentley, either, but he met the other criteria.[return to text]
Chapter 2: Chapter 2: In Which Bruce Contemplates Fate
We meet Bruce, Adam, and Dog.
Eleven days before Crowley's trip to Hell, Bruce sat at the tasteful heirloom table in his well-lit kitchen and stared at his book and pile of notecards and at the phone that wasn't going to ring. He'd hated the prophecies that had ruled his life, ever since he'd realized that his mother had only stayed with her monstrous husband because it had been so written by some witch who lived hundreds of years ago.
Agnes Nutter (Bruce wasn't thrilled that his mother had taken Brian Banner's last name, but he was also somewhat relieved that he didn't have to go through life burdened with the name Robert Bruce Nutter; the kids at school had already been blessed with so much else to tease him about), had written thousands of prophecies before being burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1693 (which she had also predicted). Her prophecies were startlingly accurate, particularly when they dealt with the fates of her descendants, who happened to include Rebecca and Bruce Banner. But they also got increasingly difficult to decipher the further they moved forward in time. Agnes hadn't always had the vocabulary to describe her visions; "cars" were "carriages," the chemotherapy his mother had endured was a "mighty tincture," and the infuriatingly vague "device" could mean almost anything.
So Bruce had never enjoyed studying the prophecies. But he had always enjoyed talking to his mother, even during their regular Sunday morning phone calls, which were often dedicated to sorting through the prophecies to see if anything made more sense to them at the current moment in time, if anything seemed to be imminently impending or if anything had recently come to pass. This was the first Sunday since his mother's funeral. Agnes had seen that his mother would have a quick and surprisingly peaceful death, but she hadn't offered any suggestions for how Rebecca might avoid that fate.
He wished more than anything that his mother would call him now, to tell him once more in her gentle voice that there was simply no way to subvert the prophecies and no point in trying. Their duty as descendants was to do their best to understand and to benefit from the prophecies when they could.
That was how Bruce found himself inhabiting a too-large apartment in a quickly-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood--his great-grandfather had purchased it after interpreting one of Agnes's prophecies. However, in going through the paperwork, Bruce had discovered that he now also owned properties in Brooklyn, Iowa and Brookline, Massachusetts. Agnes was an indifferent speller, and one of her final prophecies referred to a place called "Brook Linne."
But Bruce had recently finished his PhD coursework at Columbia University and found the Brooklyn, New York property more convenient and desirable than the alternatives. (Besides--obviously the end of the world would start in New York. You didn't need witchcraft to know that.)
Bruce checked the time. It was 12:30 PM, hours after his mother's usual 9 AM call. Bruce understood that most single adults in New York City would be irritated by such an early standing phone appointment with their mother, but Bruce never went out on Saturday nights anyway. Agnes had prophesied that Bruce would meet his soulmate soon, so there wasn't much point in trying dating apps. Not that Bruce ever had much of an interest in dating. After seeing the relationship that Agnes had prophesied for his mother, Bruce really hoped he could avoid ever experiencing what passed for romantic love in his family.
In what turned out to be one of his mom's last lucid moments, Bruce had asked her again why she'd married Brian despite the prophecy. She'd smiled at him and said, "Oh, I suppose I couldn't help hoping that maybe Agnes was wrong about him. He was so sweet when we first met...but you know what, Agnes said it would be worth it because I'd get you, and she was right about that, Bruce. But sweetie, I don't want you to blame yourself or Agnes for anything that happened, okay? We all make choices, it's just that members of our family sometimes get to make slightly more informed choices than other people."
But Bruce wasn't really sure to what extent he could make choices. When he was younger, he'd tried to trick the prophecies, to escape fate. It was hard--most of the prophecies were very vague, and only a few mentioned him by name. But, for example, Agnes had written, "When Robert seeks Higher Learning, he will be Red over the Green."
Bruce had avoided applying to any college whose school colors included red or green, and for his first week he'd gone out of his way to avoid walking across Culver University's grassy quad. And then he'd been incensed by the campus's lax recycling rules and written a furious letter to the editor of the school paper, which his mother had gently pointed out meant that his words about green policies would be widely read. Read, not red. If only Agnes had been a better speller (or, admittedly, if Bruce had been less hellbent on defying fate), Bruce might have accepted the scholarship he'd been offered to Harvard, and he could have sent his angry letter off to the Harvard Crimson.
So Bruce probably couldn't thwart fate. Still, he'd thrown himself into his studies and avoided having anything like a social life, just in case he could possibly avoid being saddled with the curse of a swaggering soulmate. Not to mention the reverse--to keep his poor soulmate safe from Bruce, since Bruce's least favorite of the prophecies promised that "With blood on his hands, Robert will be his father’s son, in flesh and spirit, as he earned through the blood of his past." His mom had sworn up and down that this could mean anything, and it didn't necessarily mean that Bruce would end up a violent, alcoholic piece of shit husband. But it didn't mean that he wouldn't, and Bruce just couldn't live with himself if he ever made another person feel the way Brian Banner had made Bruce and his mother feel.
Of course, a prophecy also said he'd be happy with his soulmate, which was hard to imagine. Bruce couldn't help but think that "happy" had a different meaning back in Agnes' day. Maybe she just meant "gay?" Bruce had an easier time believing that he'd be gay with his soulmate than happy. He was, after all, gay in the sexual sense, and melancholy in the emotional sense.
One good thing about Agnes' prophecies was that they had led Bruce's ancestors to make some smart investments. Bruce would never need to work for money. Bruce knew he was lucky; unlike some of his classmates, he didn't need to earn his degree to better his job prospects or to kill time until he grew up. He didn't need to take the first shitty adjunct professorship that came his way. But Bruce had wanted his degree, and worked hard for it. He wanted to learn, to teach, to understand the world.
He knew he'd never be able to make sense of Agnes' gift, and he'd never shown the slightest hint of divination ability himself. But he was smart, and he enjoyed learning about the natural laws that governed their world (except where Agnes was concerned). So he had thrown himself into his education, and into various volunteer projects. No matter how dire Agnes' prophecies were, he couldn't help but try to make the world a better place where he could.
Now Bruce forced himself to focus on the prophecies. They were bound in a battered leather volume. Bruce was still getting used to being the owner of the actual Book; it had been in his mother's custody until her death, while Bruce made do with a filing drawer stuffed full of note cards, each of which had one prophecy copied onto it, along with commentary from his mother and her ancestors. He'd also digitized them, along with the annotations his ancestors had added over the decades, but there was something more satisfying about the tactile nature of the cards.
The upcoming prophecies seemed to indicate pretty clearly that the end of the world was nigh. There were clear references to Bruce being the last of the Nutter family, to the end of days, to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It seemed that the weapons manufacturer Stark Industries would be involved with bringing about the end, which made sense; you couldn't have a nuclear holocaust without someone to provide the nuclear bombs, and who better than the most decadent capitalist of the 21st century? Bruce had learned everything he could about the company, had briefly considered getting a job there and trying to bring it down from the inside, but ultimately he just couldn't stomach it. He'd tried protesting and rallying for stricter gun control laws, but of course that, too, was futile.
Now, most of the global events Agnes predicted had come to pass. The only one left was the apocalypse, which seemed like it would happen in Bruce's lifetime, unless he could somehow manage to stop it. He just wasn't sure if that would be possible. In his darkest moments, he was inclined to just let it happen. Who wanted to live in a world of heat waves and melting ice caps and rampant deforestation? He slunk out of his chair and laid flat on his back, on his hip apartment's beautiful hardwood floor. He stared at the notecard that read, "It will cometh not in London Town nor Gay Paris but in Brooke Linne, a boy will gather the ultimate power for his followers and bring the end of Man."
Bruce groaned. There was no point to this. He stood up and threw the whole stack of prophecy cards on the floor in frustration. He opened the fridge and found nothing but almond milk and mustard. He wasn't really hungry, anyway, he just had a vague sense that it was the time when people traditionally ate lunch. Instead, he picked up all the prophecy cards. He tried to stack them back up without reading them. Then he settled on the couch to re-watch Blue Planet. He might as well try to enjoy Earth's natural wonders while he still could.
After a few hours, he looked at his phone. There were no texts or missed calls, but he did have some emails. Mostly junk, but one message from Adam Young.
When Bruce had first moved to Brooklyn, he'd signed up to be a tutor at the local community center, the Afterschool Revolution Community Center, or ARC. Bruce thought it was pretty bold of an afterschool program to promise revolution, but there was something a bit anti-establishment about the center's goals of offering high quality tutoring and enrichment programs to all children and teens, regardless of their ability to pay or their behavior in school. Since Bruce had a lot of free time and enjoyed sharing his love of science with kids, he'd volunteered to take on multiple mentees. After a few months, the center's director, Dr. Jane Foster, had apologetically asked Bruce if he might take one more.
"He's not a bad kid, really," she'd said. "He just needs...someone with a lot of patience. His family moved here from England pretty recently, and I think he misses his old friends, and...well, he has a lot of big questions."
Bruce had agreed to meet with ten-year-old Adam, and he'd barely known a moment's peace since. Not in a bad way; Adam was generally a sweet kid, and polite when he wasn't too excited to forget his manners. (Bruce had noticed that he was getting moodier, but that came with the territory of impending adolescence.) Above all, though, Adam was very curious, and frequently unsatisfied with the results of his internet searches. Adam was impressed by Bruce's credentials and his familiarity with scientific jargon. Adam loved to learn big new words. But mostly, Adam loved to learn about how the world worked, and how it didn't.
Bruce had declined to give Adam his personal phone number--something about that seemed a bit untoward, somehow, not that Bruce's intentions toward Adam were anything other than educational. But Adam had Bruce's email address, and Bruce's emails went to his phone, so it was really all the same thing, wasn't it? Adam had been corresponding with Bruce frequently while Bruce had been away, and his unpredictable emails had truly helped cheer Bruce up while he'd been with his mother in hospice. He'd read some of them aloud, and they'd made her laugh, too.
Now, Bruce cracked the barest smile at the subject line of Adam's latest email: Do you know anything about aliens? The message read, "Dr. B., when are you coming back to ARC? If you don't come back soon I might start selling drugs. That's what my dad says at-risk kids do in America. Just kidding, but seriously will you be back soon? I know you said you had to go spend time with your family, but can't you just Facetime them? I think I see too much of my family, personally. Anyway, I was just wondering if you knew anything about aliens. My dad says they're not real, but a lot of people on the internet say they are real, but a lot of the pictures look like they really bad Photoshop jobs. But it just doesn't seem fair that we're the only people in the whole universe, does it?
Like a lot of kids, Adam had a keen sense of injustice. Conveniently, so did Bruce.
He closed his eyes and thought about the best way to phrase his answer. As usual, he’d be disagreeing with Adam’s father who, as usual, was most likely incorrect.
He wrote back, "Dear Adam,
Yes, I got back to New York a few days ago. I'll be back at ARC on Monday at 3:00, our usual time. I've missed you too.
As to your question about aliens, it's a very interesting one. Have you heard of the Drake equation? An astrophysicist named Frank Drake came up with an equation to determine the probability of alien life existing in the universe. It's a bit complicated to explain over email but we can talk about it tomorrow, if you want. In short, though, Drake concluded that there are likely over 1,000 other civilizations in the universe besides ours. There are all kinds of reasons why they might not have made contact with us yet...intergalactic travel takes a long time and costs a lot of money. They might be afraid of us. (Fair, given the way Americans treat most other immigrants to our country.) They might be much smaller or much larger than we are. Still, I hope that one day we might meet another peaceful civilization.
In the meantime, I've been watching the Blue Planet series on Netflix. Some of the animals that live in the ocean are so weird they're almost aliens. Have you ever seen an anglerfish? Pretty wild. Creatures who live in the deepest parts of the ocean have to have really strange adaptations to be able to survive at that pressure. Maybe there are some aliens out there who have had to make similar adaptations to live on planets with stronger gravity than ours, or underwater societies like Atlantis. It's interesting to think about, anyway.
Bruce smiled to himself as he hit "send." He had told Jane the truth about why he was going to see his mother, but he hadn't told the kids. She'd assured them that Bruce's mentees were old enough to handle it, but Bruce just hadn't wanted to put his own grief on them. Given that, he hadn't been sure if he should jump right back into his usual activities, but it would probably be better than moping around his empty apartment. Anyway, Adam might start selling drugs if he didn't.
But the next day, Bruce felt like a heavy blanket of grief had settled over him. It made it so hard to get out of bed, to shower, to do anything. It had been years since he plunged into this level of despair but it was par for the course with such a tremendous loss. He knew he had to leave by 2:30 to be on time to meet Adam, but he couldn't feel a real sense of urgency. By the time he locked up his bike outside the center, it was almost 3:30, and Bruce was panting from exertion as he ran into the center. Adam was waiting at their usual study nook, an angry expression on his face. It was scary, seeing him angry; he didn’t have the usual comedic poutiness that most children had. He looked mad down to his bones.
But Bruce knew that his own childhood had left him overly sensitive to the anger of others, and anyway, Adam was just a kid. And he was right to be mad at Bruce; the volunteers at the ARC Center talked over and over about how important it was to stick to routines with your mentees, how much kids needed to see that adults would keep their word. Most of the kids who came to ARC weren't learning that at home.
"Adam! I'm so sorry I'm late."
"It's very rude to be late," Adam said primly.
Bruce nodded. "You're right, it is rude and I'm so sorry. I just...lost track of time." A number of parents, Adam's father among them, contested Bruce’s leniency with the students. They claimed that when Bruce let the kids talk back to him, it made them think it was okay for them to do that at home. Bruce would admit that he perhaps sometimes should take a firmer hand...but he would never. He’d received too many firm hands in his life and thought the world was a better place without them. What Bruce's students could always expect from him was patience (even if he couldn’t expect it from them in return).
Adam pursed his lips. "Well...if you really want to make it up to me, you have to get me a really nice gift for my birthday."
"Oh! When's your birthday?"
"Next Wednesday," Adam replied.
Bruce pulled out his phone. "I will make a note of that," he promised, and the clouds on Adam's face gave way to sunshine. Adam's good mood held for the rest of the afternoon, as Bruce helped him work on coding a Scratch game designed to simulate life for a pod of whales in the ocean.
Over the next week, Bruce slowly started adapting to a world that didn't have his mother in it. He still had a lot of bleak moments, but he kept forcing himself to come to the ARC Center.
And the following Wednesday, one day before Crowley's return trip to Hell, Bruce brought Adam a birthday card and a small ecosphere, an enclosed glass aquarium that sustained a small population of shrimp and algae. It never needed to be fed or cleaned. He thought that Adam would like it, given his burgeoning interest in marine life.
But Adam didn't show up for their scheduled appointment. Ten minutes after it was supposed to start, Bruce checked his email and saw that Adam had sent him a message with the subject line "COME OUT TO THE GARDEN." The message had no body. Bruce shrugged and went out to the garden, where Adam was playing fetch with an adorable dog.
"Hey, Adam, happy birthday. Who's your new friend?"
"Dr. B! Sorry I didn't come inside on time but I know I can't bring Dog inside the center because he's not a service animal but I didn't want him to run away."
"I understand completely," Bruce said. "Can I pet your dog?"
"Well...he's not my dog exactly? I just found him? But he's the perfect dog and I love him and I'll name him Dog and take good care of him, do you think I can keep him?"
Bruce smiled. "Well...ah, you'd have to ask your parents, of course, and you should probably take him to the vet, make sure he doesn't have a microchip or anything. You'd hate to take someone else's dog away from them, wouldn't you?"
"I'spose...but he doesn't have a collar or anything."
"Well, that's why people have their pets microchipped. In case their collar falls off or something, there's a little chip under the skin with contact information."
"Oh. That's pretty clever," Adam said glumly.
Bruce covertly checked his schedule. He was free for the rest of the day. "Hey, how about if we find a vet nearby to check for a microchip? Then, if he doesn't have one, you can ask your parents about keeping him. But if he does have one, then you'll have done a good deed, by getting Dog back to his owners. Wouldn't that be a good thing to do on your birthday?"
Adam reluctantly agreed that it was. Bruce smiled and looked up the nearest vet on his phone. They walked over together and discovered that Dog was unregistered. Bruce sighed with relief and gave Adam his other gift, although he was aware that tiny shrimp weren't nearly as exciting as dogs.
Still, Adam smiled and seemed genuinely enthused about the little glass ball of marine life--though, of course, not as enthused as he was about Dog.
Bruce still had reservations, though. Adam’s father was vocally anti-pet, especially dogs. Though Adam was a charming, brilliant kid, Bruce expected it would take godlike powers of persuasion to convince his father to keep a stray. Bruce had thought about it--he would volunteer to keep the dog if it came down to it. That way, the dog would be spared the shelter, Adam could still play with him, and Bruce would have a reason to get out of bed and take care of himself when all the other reasons fell through.
Later that night, Bruce saw a confirmation of an upcoming booking for his Airbnb property. But that must be spam, since Bruce had marked his apartment unavailable before he went back to Ohio, and he knew he hadn't logged back in to re-list it since he got home. He didn’t need the money; he listed it out of guilt that he owned a huge and largely unused amount of space, in a trendy neighborhood of Brooklyn that others would appreciate far more than he, and the occasional guest was better than long-term roommates. His mom had agreed it was a good idea, mostly because she worried about him being lonely in the city. But Bruce was not suited to hosting, and after a few days of rambunctious Midwestern families or neurotic millennial backpackers occupying his space, he would take down the listing, and post it again once the memories of his social anxiety subsided. He certainly was in no condition for visitors now, and probably wouldn't be for the foreseeable future.
He was about to reach out to customer service to be absolutely sure that no surprise visitors would invade his space, but first, his eyes jumped back to the newest message from Adam Young. The subject line read, "MY PARENTS SAID I CAN KEEP DOG", and it had five photos of Dog attached. Bruce smiled and saved them to his camera roll.
Maybe he should get a dog, anyway. As he often liked to do, he opened up Petfinder in a new tab and scrolled through all the latest dog listings, before deciding to just enjoy living vicariously through Adam's pet for now. The fake Airbnb message was gone from his mind entirely, replaced by puppies.
Chapter 3: In Which Tony Does a Good Deed
Introducing the last two main players before they all get together.
Chapter 3: In Which Tony Does a Good Deed
The same day that Aziraphale and Crowley were beginning their frantic search for the Antichrist, Tony Stark was having his own unpleasant realization: his coffee had grown cold. He'd gotten so involved with his coding that he'd forgotten all about the life-giving beverage, something that was happening more and more frequently as he got deeper into his Ultron project. "Pepper?" he called.
She stuck her head in his office. "Hey, did Obadiah ask you about the meeting with AIM?"
"Hmm? No, not that I can think of, but I always tell him to run scheduling stuff by you. You know I'll never remember."
"I know. Well, he didn't run it by me, either, but I see it's on his schedule for today at 6 PM."
"Oh," Tony said, unsure what that had to do with him. "Hey, so, is there more coffee?"
"Tony, listen first. You have to give that speech at the ARC Center today at 5:30, you can't make a meeting at 6."
"Right, ARC. Well, it sounds like I'll have to miss the meeting then," Tony said with relief. He hated meetings. He'd much rather give a speech to some kids or whatever, if he had to do anything besides work on his designs.
Pepper made an exasperated sound. She did that often. "Tony, I think you should be paying more attention to what Obadiah does. He shouldn't be making meetings like that without you knowing about them. AIM is a major competitor."
"Well, Obie's the COO, he can represent the company just as well as I can."
"I'm just not sure that you two have the same vision for the company, Tony. You should make sure you know what he's meeting with them about."
"Of course we have the same vision, Pepper. He's been working at SI since forever."
Pepper pursed her lips. "Why don't you just go drop by his office and have a quick chat with him? His schedule says he's free until 3 PM."
Tony opened his mouth to speak, and Pepper added, "And I will have some fresh coffee waiting for you when you get back."
"Okay," Tony agreed. He slunk down the hall and tried to open the door to Obie's corner office. It was locked, so he gave a quick tap. "Hey Obie, it's me, got a second?"
After a long moment, the door swung open. "Hey, Tony, it's not the best time," his long-time mentor said.
"Oh, I know you're busy, I was just wondering what your meeting was about this evening?"
Obie narrowed his eyes. "What meeting? I have a lot of meetings."
"You sure do," Tony agreed lightly. "Uh, the one with AIM? I think it was at six tonight?"
Obie forced a smile. "Oh, that? Just...exploratory stuff, looking into what a collaboration with them might entail...Killian proposed some really innovative uses for that hard-light hologram prototype."
"What kind of uses?"
"Well...that's what the meeting is about, Tony," Obie replied, with the tone he used when he forgot, or didn’t care, that Tony was twenty-five, not five. "Look, don't you worry about it, okay? I'll get you an executive summary after it's over. You have fun with your children's choir."
"It's an afterschool program for at-risk youth," Tony replied. "We're sponsoring their STEM programming and helping them launch a summer camp."
"Right, that's what I said." Obie pulled the door shut in Tony's face before Tony could even explain how sponsoring STEM programs for kids wasn't just the right thing to do, but it would also create a better candidate pool for SI in a few years.
Tony felt unsettled as he walked back to his office. Pepper was perched on the edge of his desk with a mug in her hands.
"Well?" she asked, holding out the coffee.
Tony bit his lip and accepted the mug. "It's probably nothing." She lifted her eyebrows, and he continued, "He said Aldrich Killian from AIM had some interesting applications in mind for that hard-light hologram tech I've been working on, but he was pretty vague about what that actually meant."
Pepper sighed. "Tony. C'mon. What did that mean when he took your drone technology and sold it to the military? Or turned your synthetic iron alloy into hollow-tip bullets?"
"Well...SI has historically been an arms manufacturer."
"But haven't you been trying to focus on consumer tech? What was that speech you gave when you took over as CEO? About going beyond swords into ploughshares, and turning guns into solar power and tanks into ambulances? How we couldn't really progress as a society until we stopped focusing all of our best innovations on instruments of war?"
Tony mumbled, "I was just a kid, Pepper." He'd been nineteen when his parents had had their fatal car accident. Howard's will had, somewhat surprisingly given their contentious relationship, left the company to Tony. But the board had appointed Obadiah Stane as an acting CEO until Tony came of age.
"That was four years ago and it was very inspiring, Tony! It was why I took a job here. I didn't come here to watch you let Obadiah Stane turn all your brilliant ideas into weapons."
"Well...he's not turning them into weapons, exactly, it's just...well, all the ideas I have seem to...become weapons."
He sipped his coffee and continued, "I'm serious! Every time I have managed to bring an idea to production, it’s corrupted as soon as it hits the market. Solar panels used for arson. Educational games used for indoctrination! I distributed water purifiers in central America, and guerrillas somehow used them to poison water sources." Tony knew that Pepper already knew all of this, but it was kind of therapeutic to rant about it. "The only successful pieces of StarkTech that are currently on the market are things that I had no hand in designing! But these hard-light holograms are going to be game-changers, I can feel it."
"I think you're right. How about if you let me attend that meeting between Stane and Killian this evening? I can act as your eyes and ears. You trust me, right?"
"Of course I do," Tony said. "But I…" he'd been going to say, "trust Obie," but he thought about the condescending way Obie had spoken to him earlier and he stopped. "Well, you know what, if you really want to...why don't you call him up and get added to the agenda?"
She smiled. "Right away, Mr. Stark."
"And make sure you note your overtime hours."
She mock saluted and returned to her own office, where she was sure to give Stane a dose of her trademark persistence. Tony smiled to himself; he was endlessly glad that Pepper was in his corner. Then he woke up his workstation and got back into his Ultron program. When he was finished with this peacekeeping AI, the world would have no need for any weapons, from Stark Industries or otherwise. It was to be his finest work yet.
He was so immersed in coding that he thought only a few moments had passed since he'd last spoken to Pepper, but she told him, "You've got five minutes until you need to leave for the dedication ceremony at ARC."
He blinked. "Oh! Thanks, Pep. How'd it go with Obie?"
"He's definitely up to something, Tony. He was so shady about me getting in that meeting, but he finally ran out of good excuses for why I couldn't go. So I'm going."
"Hmm. Well...take care," he said. "Hey. You're...um...he's not, you know, bothering you, is he?" He hoped his tone conveyed what he meant without him having to spell it out.
Pepper stared at him for a moment. "No, he's not sexually harassing me. He's just trying to sabotage your company."
"Allegedly," Tony said. "But you'd tell me, right? If he was?"
"I'm trying to tell you things about him now!" In fact, Pepper had seen a red-headed woman leave Obie’s office. Pepper had to tear her eyes away from the woman. She was beyond beautiful. She was alluring. Seductive. She looked more like the type of woman who would slink out of Tony’s bedroom than Obie’s office. The woman had given Pepper a knowing smile and a coy wave, even though Pepper did not recognize her and had no idea what she was doing meeting with the COO of SI. When Pepper asked Obie for her name, Obie said that they didn’t bother with names, at which point Pepper’s hackles were officially raised.
"Right, I know, but I mean…" Tony trailed off. "I just, I mean, I appreciate your concerns, but I know...well, I don't want you to put yourself personally at risk. For...for the company's sake. Maybe you should take a self-defense class?"
Pepper smiled. "That's very sweet of you, Tony, but I can take care of myself. But I want to make sure you're really in charge around here, you know."
"Sweet-talking me won't get you any extra vacation days."
She laughed. "Well, there goes my dastardly plan. Sorry to miss your speech tonight, but I'm sure you'll do great. Just remember to read from your cards, okay?"
"Okay," Tony agreed easily. He always meant to read his prepared speeches; sometimes he just got...inspired. He added a few more lines of code to the Ultron program.
“And don’t swear in front of the kids.”
Pepper laughed. "Save your work and go! Happy's waiting downstairs."
"Oh...right." Tony closed his code with regret. But ARC was important, too, he reminded himself. On the trip to Brooklyn, he scrolled through his phone, reading news articles about AIM and Aldrich Killian, trying to figure out what use they'd have for his hologram tech. He'd meant it for medical imaging.
He made it to ARC with plenty of time, thanks to Pepper and Happy. He was greeted by a petite brunette woman. "Mr. Stark, it's lovely to see you again."
"Yes! You too…" he trailed off. Pepper usually reminded him about names, but she'd been distracted with her Obadiah investigation. He forced a smile and said, "Sorry, I'm terrible at names."
"No problem, I'm sure you must meet so many people," the woman said with a friendly smile.
A teenage girl with curly brown hair materialized next to her and said, "Yo, Dr. Foster, he was trying to ask your name." To Tony, she added, "Dr. Foster doesn't always pick up on social cues. I'm Darcy. She's Jane. You're single, right?"
Tony laughed. "Thanks for the help, Darcy."
"You didn't answer my question, but I'll just mention that Dr. Foster is single, just so you know."
"Darcy," Dr. Foster said sternly.
"What? You'll thank me later," Darcy said confidently. "Make sure to get that pre-nup though."
Dr. Foster ignored that. "Well...ah...Mr. Stark, would you like a tour of the center before your speech?"
"I'd love one! And please, call me Tony."
"Yess," muttered Darcy.
Dr. Foster shook her head and said firmly, "Well, right this way, then!" She led him around what seemed to be a perfectly adequate community center with a state-of-the-art computer lab (that had been where the bulk of the Stark Foundation grant had gone), as well as a library, kitchen, and plenty of small nooks for students to meet one-on-one with tutors. The center was bustling with activity, and everywhere they went, kids turned to stare at Tony. He smiled and waved, posing for pictures with anyone who asked.
Dr. Foster said, "Sorry, we probably should have given you a tour sometime when weren't open to the public."
"Not at all! I'm happy to meet the kids."
"Okay," she said reluctantly. "But say the word and I'll cut the tour short."
They passed by a twenty-something guy with unruly brown hair standing at a whiteboard while a blond tween boy watched. The man was drawing a chart on the whiteboard, his back to Tony.
"I dunno, Dr. B., my dad says global warming is all a scam made up to sell newspapers."
The man let out a long sigh. "Your father is a lovely man, Adam, but I'm not sure he's read all the peer-reviewed data on climate change."
"He gets Time magazine every week!"
Tony let out a small laugh, and the guy turned away from the whiteboard. He had a cute face, with wire-frame glasses and an intense gaze in his hazel eyes.
Dr. Foster said, "This is Bruce Banner, one of our most dedicated volunteers. Bruce, this is...well, Tony Stark."
Bruce's face briefly registered shock, which was a reaction Tony was used to. Bruce stuck out his hand, noticed he had green dry erase marker on most of his fingers, wiped his hand on his pants, looked at his hand again, and shrugged. "Ah, hello, Mr. Stark. I hope you’re enjoying your publicity stunt. This is one of my students, Adam Young."
"My dad says Stark Industries hasn't been the same since Howard Stark died," Adam said bluntly. "But I thought that StarkStation tank game was wicked. We kept ours even after the recall, but then the server stopped working."
"Well...nice to meet you both," Tony said with a forced smile. "Glad you liked the game, Adam."
"You should make another video game where you play as a whale. I'm working on one myself but the graphics aren't very good. Dr. B. told me all kinds of facts about whales, they're awfully interesting, but he isn’t good at video games.”
"Mr. Stark has to keep moving, Adam," Dr. Foster said, pulling Tony forward.
"You should watch Blue Planet!" Adam called. "Blue whales are bigger than school buses!"
"I'll add it to my queue," Tony replied, turning to look at the hot doctor one last time.
Before long, his tour ended, and he found himself standing at a makeshift podium in the library. A handful of bored reporters were there, but mostly the room was packed with students and volunteers.
Tony gave his speech, where he encouraged the kids to keep up the good work that he assumed they were doing and told them about the wonders of science. Then he presented Dr. Foster with a big novelty check promising ongoing support of ARC's programs, and posed for pictures. And then...he went off-script and said, "I have time for a few questions."
A few kids asked nice softball questions like "What's your favorite book?" (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and "What did you do after school when you were a kid?" (try to sneak out of his boarding school dorm; an answer that was expected and funny and less awkward than "read old sci-fi novels from a hospital bed while recovering from yet another surgery."). And then the cute curly-haired tutor raised his hand.
"Yes, Dr. Banner?" Tony asked, inordinately proud of himself for remembering the name.
Dr. Banner cleared his throat and said, "Well...I'm very grateful for your support of ARC's programs today, but I was wondering if you'd given any thought to what kind of world these kids will inherit? Five, ten years from now? Thirty?"
"Well...ideally one that's better than it is today," Tony said. "My goal at SI is to never stop improving. I don't think humans can reach our full potential until we have peace in our time."
Dr. Banner nodded, his brows furrowed. "That's a lovely sentiment, but...well, given all the violence in our schools, do you think it's responsible for SI to keep manufacturing assault weapons?"
"SI hasn't made any assault weapons in six years," Tony replied defensively. Well, hadn’t made any on purpose. "I know we got our start as a weapons manufacturer in World War II, but ever since I inherited the company, I've been trying to steer the company in a more positive direction."
“Maybe not directly, but it has been funneling millions into shell corporations that are ultimately connected to arms manufacturing and design—Hammers of Justice, Thanatos, ErebosNyx, to name a few.”
Tony inhaled sharply. It was the first he was hearing of this, and if Pepper hadn’t told him, surely she hadn’t known either...right? But, if that were the case, how would this absolute stranger know? Those were very specific claims.
While Tony processed that, Dr. Banner continued, “And it’s not just the weapons manufacturing, it’s the irresponsible fuel emissions—”
“SI is a pioneer in environmentally efficient technology. We’re the leader in—”
“Yes, yes, I do admire your outspokenness against climate change and the steps you’ve ultimately taken to cut back on emissions, but over the past ten years Stark Industries has rejected just as many measures that would, quite frankly, be more effective at saving the planet—but more harmful to your ultimate bottom line.”
This was also news to Tony: he’d emphasized that environmentally sound measures were the utmost priority.
Bruce rattled off a barrage of statistics that almost zoomed past Tony’s head. He hadn’t been expecting a challenge, not at a school fundraiser and, to be honest, not even in the uppermost echelons of professional meetings. All levels of business were populated by people who thought they knew more than they did, walking Dunning-Kruger effects. He did not expect an intellectual match in a community rec center.
He was more stumped than he cared to admit, and more stunned, and a third feeling in his stomach, like an icy-chill, that took a moment for his brain to catch up with: the liberal (no pun intended) and pointed uses of the word ultimate.
He swallowed and composed himself.
The petite Dr. Foster touched Dr. Banner's elbow and whispered something in his ear.
“It’s OK, I do want to have this discussion—I just don’t want to bore the kids,” Tony said. The audience laughed appreciatively. Bruce turned bright red.
But he’d meant what he said. Once he pushed back all the creepy-crawly feelings, he was left with a profound admiration for this nebbish, milquetoast-looking guy who knew his shit and stood up for what he believed in, despite clearly being terrified and embarrassed.
Dr. Foster came back up to the podium to call on another student. "Okay, yes, last question for the night. Peter?"
Unfortunately for young Peter, Tony was too rattled by Dr. Banner's comments to focus on his question. Ultimate Project? Did he mean Ultron? How had he heard about that? It was top secret for now...wasn't it? Was Pepper right about Obie after all? Was there another leak? Maybe Dr. Banner had been misinformed.
After stumbling out an answer to Peter's question, which was surprisingly technical for a kid, he Q&A session concluded, and Tony graciously accepted his applause while scanning the audience for Dr. Banner. His seat was empty. He frowned and surveyed the corners, the walls...nothing.
Tony Stark was a busy man, by all public appearance. He was not, however, as busy as he would like to be, since most of his father’s business associates played keep-away with significant projects. So he hung around and chatted with teachers and said inspirational, snarky things to students, all the while searching for a shock of disheveled hair and an anxious pair of hazel eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, to whatever Dr. Foster was saying. “Uh, where is Dr. Banner?”
“Oh, he—he doesn’t really like these hobnobby type of things. He’s pretty shy, er,” Jane said, leaving the rest of the sentence—"usually"—unspoken. “I’m sure he’s off somewhere being mortified, actually, so I’d like to apologize on his behalf—”
At that moment, Bruce was, in fact, sitting on the floor of the locked volunteer office and having a mild panic attack.
“There’s no need for apologies or mortification, and I’d like to tell him that in person.”
Part of the curse of being rich and powerful was that things tended to sound threatening even when they weren’t, which might have been why Jane responded with, “I think that would make him even more mortified.”
Tony hid his frustration and quickly changed the topic to school initiatives, and spoke to more people until he was so wrapped up in various conversations that it became hard to make a graceful exit. And, to be honest, he liked seeing where his philanthropy went. He was usually compelled to focus his time and energy on the money coming in or the money going out to make more money. According to his father, his time was too valuable for charities; they should be damn thrilled for the check and nothing more.
After the crowd died down, Tony kept poking around the center: looking at random books in the library, poking into men’s bathrooms to wash his hands, and just generally doing anything he could think of that might give him cause to bump into Dr. Banner again. Finally, the center closed for the day, and then he wandered around the neighborhood. He was rarely in Brooklyn, and he was thinking of opening new SI facilities soon; he might as well scope it out while he had the chance.
It was a very family-oriented neighborhood, lots of parks and playgrounds and schools, with enough 20-something manbuns to make it “hip,” as well. It turned out not to be a good candidate for new headquarters: they did not need the influx of jobs SI would bring, nor would they be amenable to the traffic problems it would cause. He already knew of one passionate academic who’d lead the charge against him…
Tony didn’t realize how long he’d been there until the sun fell over the horizon around 9 PM. It had been awhile since he strolled in broad daylight in anonymity. He didn’t even fear the flash of a paparazzo's camera—what would they be doing here? It was an idyllic place, filled with barking dogs and laughing families. Not ready to leave yet, he retreated to a nearby coffee shop. He drank coffee and typed away on his laptop, hoping to make a breakthrough on his project that would end all war.
Chapter 4: In Which Bruce Gets Hit By A Car (And Meets His Soulmate)
After the mortifying Q&A with Tony Stark, Bruce retreated to the volunteer office. Once he'd recovered from his panic attack, he tried to catch up on paperwork but mostly just distracted himself with online pet listings. He couldn't focus; he couldn't believe he'd said all those things, out loud, in front of everybody. He couldn't believe Tony Stark had come to ARC, and from what Bruce could overhear from behind the office door, it sounded like Tony Stark was staying at ARC for much longer than was necessary for a photo op. Before leaving the safety of the office, Bruce waited until he was sure everyone had gone home, and then he waited some more.
By the time he left, it was late enough that few cars were on the road. It would be safe to bike home, no matter how distracted he was.
Bruce was a very careful cyclist. Drivers could not complain about sharing the road with him, unless they were assholes who complained about cyclists on principle, which many drivers did.
Bruce was better with his bicycle than most drivers were with their car. In all his years of fuel-efficient transportation, he never had a single accident.
He was destined for one, though. It wasn’t a matter of statistics. It was a matter of fate.
According to Agnes Nutter (he committed this to memory), “When a runaway black steed crushes Robert's head, his heart will be captured by a soul mate whose swagger masks an iron heart and a secrette goodeness. When the two souls are mated, they shall find the unending happiness that has thus far evaded them, and both will be surprised by bliss.”
Bruce often struggled to understand Agnes's prophecies, but this message was clear: As careful as he was, he was going to get hit by a black car driven by the love of his life. They would spend the rest of their lives together in sheer, unadulterated happiness.
The prospect was terrifying. Bruce tried harder than the average cyclist not to get hit.
He biked down the street, confident that tonight was not going to be the fateful night. The roads were utterly empty, not a car in sight. Not even the sound of a car. Not even the inkling of a notion of a vehicle.
And then one appeared as if magicked from thin air. It appeared at exactly the right coordinates, and zoomed at exactly the right speed, to smash into Bruce before Bruce had a chance to swerve or to even see the vehicle. To be fair, no human could have possibly avoided it.
Bruce heard a snap and, judging by a bright-red surge of pain, it was his wrist bone cracking. He heard another crack when he landed—his helmet—and hurried footsteps.
A middle-aged blonde man was at his side, helping him sit up. One hand went to Bruce’s wrist and another brushed his forehead, which normally Bruce would have shied away from but, in this case, he appreciated. The touches felt nice. More than nice. With a wave of embarrassment that was powerless to stop him, he leaned into the hand on his head. His headache vanished—until it was gone, he hadn't realized how his skull always felt too tight from stress. An unfamiliar wave of peace swept over him.
“Are you alright?” the man asked, putting a hand on Bruce’s knee.
In the distance, the car door slammed shut, and the driver shouted, “Aziraphale, can we get a move on?”
“Just a minute, Crowley,” Aziraphale called over his shoulder.
In all likelihood, Crowley and Aziraphale were fake names. They had to be. First, they didn’t sound real; second, what idiots would use their real, rare names after a hit-and-attempted-run?
Not that Bruce cared. He didn’t want to press charges, he just wanted to go home. Aziraphale hoisted Bruce up and dusted a hand down his shirt, wiping away the grit and debris and, somehow, a soup stain from lunch. His wrist looked fine, and he tentatively moved it. It felt fine, too.
“I’m fine, I—” He’d been struck. By the prophesied black steed. And the man with swagger was the man he was destined to spend the rest of his life with. He stared dazedly at the person in front of him, who didn’t seem like he could move with a cocky strut if his life depended on it, and the driver, now approaching with an unmistakable swagger and growling, “Listen, we’re in a bit of a rush, you’re not hurt, I don’t have insurance, it’s best if we just get on our way—”
Bruce squeezed his eyes shut. If Crowley was the man he was supposed to spend the rest of his life with, he’d rather get hit by another car and have a do-over.
“You ran him over!” A third, familiar voice shouted. “You came out of nowhere and you struck him!”
“He shouldn’t have been biking! Who the hell bikes in New York?” Crowley hissed.
“Don't blame the victim! You think you can just hit someone with your car and leave? Look at him! He’s concussed!”
It was, impossibly, Tony Stark, apparently still wandering around Brooklyn hours after the ARC event and raring for a lawsuit. Bruce didn’t turn his head. He couldn't deal with that handsome, world-ending capitalist right now; his attention was fixed on Future Husband.
His swaggering soulmate was not an unattractive man, maybe handsomer without his conspicuous sunglasses. Though he was a good deal older than Bruce, he still seemed quite youthful, most likely due to his excellent hair. But his physical appearance was not as much of a concern as the fact that he seemed like a real asshole.
“He’s not concussed,” Aziraphale said with polite certainty.
“How would you know? He went flying thirty feet in the air, his eyes are glazed, he’s been struck dumb—“
“I’m not concussed,” Bruce said, hoping to settle the matter. “I’m fine.”
“At least let us give you a ride home.” Aziraphale looked imploringly at Crowley. Crowley’s lips curled in a sneer and he mumbled unhappily—it was a “no” that had no power behind it. Clearly Aziraphale called the shots, and was completely unaware that his snarky boyfriend was destined to end up with Bruce.
“It can go on the bike rack,” Aziraphale offered.
“Bike rack?” The car’s owner seemed surprised to hear that it had a bike rack.
Tony still argued, “I’m not going to let a couple of reckless strangers drive off with—”
The three continued to bicker. Bruce sighed. As the injured party, he should have the most say in how he got home and with whom, but when did he ever have a say in what happened to him? Whether he liked it or not, his destiny was entwined with the driver’s, and he was along for the ride. Plus, at this point, Bruce wanted to get home as quickly as possible, whether by plane, train, or automobile.
And, to be honest, he was shaken up by the accident and wary about getting on his bike again tonight, helmetless. The fissure going through his helmet could have easily been in his skull. How miraculous that only his helmet was harmed.
“I’m coming with you,” Tony announced, pointing a phone at the visibly confused Crowley and Aziraphale, “and I’m making sure he gets home okay. I just sent your pictures to several of my contacts, so if anything happens to either of us—especially me—rest assured the wrath of justice will fall upon you.” Tony angled his phone and snapped the Bentley, too, to which Crowley muttered, “Well, there’s no need to bring her into it.”
Bruce slid into the car, sat down, removed a metal tin from under him, and sat down again, this time on the carseat with the tin placed neatly on his lap.
“Help yourself to a biscuit,” Aziraphale offered cheerily from the front passenger seat.
“No eating in the car,” Crowley grumbled.
“I’ll clean it later,” Aziraphale gritted through a smile.
“Not the point, it’s the principle—”
“You hit him with your—”
“—biked into it—”
“I’m not hungry, thank you,” Bruce said politely. It was too early to start his predestined homewrecking. Perhaps their relationship was already on the rocks and the cookies were just a manifestation of their disparate life views: the cookie was clearly a consolatory “sorry-you-were-hit” peace offering, and though Bruce didn’t want one, it was egregious that the driver would veto it. But Bruce didn’t want to exacerbate any existing problems over something as small as a snack.
Tony, however, had no such compunctions. He snatched the tin from Bruce’s lap and munched on one with more gusto than necessary.
It took Bruce until his teenage years to learn that not every lovers' quarrel was a Code Red but even now, years since, his body still had not caught up with his brain: to control his palpitating heart, he focused on his breathing. He was so intensely focused on his physiological reactions to fear that he did not hear Aziraphale asking for his address. Tony nudged Bruce with a concerned look on his face and gestured to the front passenger seat.
Bruce gave his address. "It's not too far. I live in the area."
“What a coincidence! You have an Air Bed and Breakfast, don’t you?”
“Yes?” Bruce’s stomach churned.
“We’re staying at your place!” Aziraphale exclaimed. “Isn’t that fun?”
“That’s, er, quite a coincidence.” Especially since Bruce was sure he hadn't reactivated his listing since getting back from Ohio. Discreetly, he pulled out his phone and peered at his email. That confirmation that had come in...was apparently not spam and was in fact a notification that a Mr. Ezra Fell would be staying in two of Bruce's rooms for the next two weeks. "Ezra Fell"? Was that what the man had said his name was? To Bruce's ear it had sounded much more like "Aziraphale"...but that was a bit of a mouthful. Well, it was probably for the best that Bruce had run into them, since he wasn't sure he'd put the guest keys in their lockbox.
“What are the odds?” Aziraphale agreed.
“Like Ford and Arthur getting picked up by the Heart of Gold,” Bruce murmured. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied Tony smiling at his reference.
Aziraphale was especially excited by it. “Yes! It does have a Douglas Adams-y vibe, doesn’t it!”
His soulmate conspicuously said nothing.
Bruce kept counting his breaths, hoping to stave off another panic attack. Tony leaned over and whispered, "Are you sure you're okay? We could take you to the hospital."
"I'm okay, I'm just...just a little rattled," Bruce replied softly. Tony reached out to take Bruce’s hand, and Bruce flinched instinctively. It truly was out of instinct, not rudeness. Bruce was about to apologize, but Tony shouldn’t have been reaching out to grab a stranger’s hands, Bruce thought stubbornly...he turned to stare out the window so that he wouldn’t need to see Tony’s hurt expression.
Before long, they arrived at Bruce's place. Fortunately, Bruce always kept his apartment acceptably tidy, which meant that he never had to go out of his way for company. The apartment set-up was inoffensively tasteful, more like a guest house than a home, even though Bruce lived there: a functional couch, a functional coffee table. He had a box of Puffins and a half-empty container of almond milk in the fridge and extra linens in the closet.
“Nice digs,” Tony said, looking around.
Bruce couldn’t tell if Tony was being patronizing. His apartment was nice, in a good neighborhood, and much bigger than he needed, but it was surely not impressive to Mr. Midtown Skyscraper.
“Thanks,” Bruce said. He turned to Crowley and Aziraphale. “Your room is down the hall, first door to the right.”
“Sorry to be a bother, but er, I believe we requested two rooms?” Aziraphale asked.
“If you want to repair your relationship, two words of advice: same bedroom,” Tony said. Bruce raised his eyebrow. What was Tony Stark, notorious Page Six Playboy, doing dispensing relationship advice?
“Oh, we’re not—” Aziraphale said.
“Common mistake,” Crowley added when Bruce dropped his jaw in astonishment.
“It’s totally fine if you are, I mean—I’m gay, too,” Bruce said.
“Bully for you,” Crowley said, “but we’re really not together, and if we were, we wouldn’t hide it in New York.”
“We’re business acquaintances, so we won’t be fornicating,” Aziraphale explained. Tony burst out laughing. Bruce glared at him and tried to salvage his own hospitality.
“I’m so sorry, right, of course, I shouldn’t have assumed. Mr. Crowley can take the room on the left.” So they weren’t together. Didn’t mean they were straight. It also didn’t make the foretold relationship easier for Bruce. If he had to choose between the two, he’d rather the blonde one with the warm touch and polite offer of biscuits. He envisioned a future split between the cozy bookshops of New York and London, with a gentle and staid presence that his own childhood lacked. If he had total reign, though, he’d choose no one. He was also prophesied to be a terminated bloodline, a dead end. Why did he need help from Crowley to not reproduce?
"From a cold union, Rebecca will give the world the last of our blood.":
"One last question—at what time is breakfast served?" Aziraphale asked.
Bruce blinked. "Hmm?"
"This is a bed and breakfast, is it not?"
"Oh. Um, Airbnb is just the name of the website, it's not actually…" Bruce trailed off as Aziraphale's face visibly fell. "Uh, I think I have some Puffins in the kitchen...the cereal? You can help yourself to that whenever you want?...Or, um...do you have the Postmates app? We're in delivery range for a lot of good places..."
"Nevermind. Forgive my misunderstanding," Aziraphale said glumly. "Good night." Crowley retired without a word, and Bruce stayed in the living room with his one remaining guest. Tony seemed much kinder than Bruce had expected from his public image, and for a moment, Bruce could even forget that SI was prophesied to play a role in bringing about the end of the world. All he could think about was how uncharacteristically rude he'd been before.
“Listen,” Bruce said, “I—I’m sorry about earlier. I don’t know what came over me. It was inappropriate, and I—”
Before Bruce could really start spiraling, Tony held up a hand and said, “Hey, hey, I meant what I said. I do want to talk to you about it. You had valid points and you know your shit. I’m not just saying that to humor you—I don’t suffer fools and I don’t indulge idiots.”
Bruce shook his head. “I’m not...confrontational. That wasn’t me back there…”
“Well, whoever it was, I’d like to get his number and have a chat because he has some pretty good ideas.”
Bruce sighed and shook his head again, this time at his life. It was probably just because he didn't get out much, but he was really surprised by how much he enjoyed talking to Tony.
“I know it's late. I have another spare room if you want to spend the night,” Bruce offered, since Tony didn't seem like he was planning to leave any time soon. He seemed perfectly content to lean against the side of the couch, surveying the bookshelves. Most guests looked at Bruce’s bookshelves and joked about his dense scientific tomes: “Got anything in English? What is this, Klingon?” At least Tony wouldn’t deign to make those trite jokes—he managed to look condescending and impressed at the same time, running his finger over some favorite titles.
“This is a family home, you said?” Tony asked.
“Passed down,” Bruce corrected. “I don’t have a—I’m a bachelor.”
“It’s very...spartan for something so permanent.” It was true: the books were one of the few personal effects in the living room, and only because Bruce’s collection couldn’t entirely fit in his bedroom. The furniture was handed down and gave the room something of a lived-in quality, but there was no artwork, no family photos or mementos.
“Nothing’s permanent,” Bruce muttered. Tony wanted to get uncomfortably probing? Fine. Bruce could spar with his alienating darkness.
“Persisting? Long-lasting? Time-tested? Most people decorate for time periods falling short of the heat death of the universe, you know.”
Bruce closed his eyes. Time was being tested, alright, as well as his patience.
“Can I trouble you for a drink?” Tony asked.
“There’s no alcohol,” Bruce said, shortly. One benefit of rarely socializing with people his own age was that he hardly ever had to explain his sobriety. It wasn't that he held anything against people who drank; it was just that he himself was doing everything in his power to avoid becoming his violently abusive alcoholic father, even though a 300-year-old prophecy indicated that it would eventually be his fate anyway. “There's a decent hipster bar a few blocks away, I'm sure you could make it before last call."
“No, no, just wasting time ‘til my ride gets here. Do you have any water? The tabloids don’t report it, but I do drink good old H2O sometimes.” Tony smiled like it was a joke, but he hated being reminded of his playboy reputation. Sure, he went to some parties and clubs. It was expected of him. Sometimes it was even fun. But he wasn’t asking this genius car accident victim to break out the cocktail shaker for him right now; he was simply thirsty.
“Of course.” Bruce blushed and shuffled off to the kitchen. He’d already cast too many judgments on Tony to ask if tap water was OK, and he was relieved when Tony drank from the glass without complaining or inspecting for the little microorganisms that made pizza and bagels taste good. For the record, Bruce didn't generally read the tabloids, but Tony Stark’s reputation was hard to avoid. Still, Tony deserved to get that petty little jab in without contestation. Bruce had been a little shit tonight. Even if Agnes had other ideas about Tony Stark, the guy had thus far behaved more than decently toward Bruce.
Tony gestured toward Bruce's small, sad collection of succulents. "Looks like maybe these need some water, too?"
"Oh! Shoot," Bruce muttered. "I've been out of town…" He spritzed them with the plant mister, but he thought they might be beyond help. He sighed. “I might have murdered these plants, but it really was nice of you to make sure I didn’t get murdered by those English gents,” Bruce said, by way of apology.
Tony winked good-naturedly. He really was as handsome as he looked in pictures. Maybe even more handsome. “The blonde seems like trouble.”
Had Tony's tone been flirtatious just then? Bruce licked his lips and awkwardly attempted to redirect. “No, really, I...and to come all the way out here. It would be rude of me not to thank you, so...thank you.”
“No big deal. I couldn’t sleep and I needed some excitement,” Tony shrugged. “Let me know if you decide to sue. I can hook you up with a real pitbull of a lawyer.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m not very litigious.”
“I saw you get hit. It’s incredible you’re walking around. If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it a miracle.”
“If we weren’t men of science,” Bruce said with a wry smile.
“Right. Warriors of logic and reason. Speaking of," hand flicking into his breast pocket, Tony strutted over to Bruce and handed him a business card, “Call me if you get bored and want something permanent.”
Bruce’s blush reached his toes. What could he say? That he was already spoken for, and had been since before he was born? That his soulmate was apparently the curmudgeon in the guest room?
“Benefits are good,” Tony was saying, “and the starting salary, for your qualifications, would mean you’d never have to rent your rooms out to strangers again. And best of all, you can keep a better eye on our company’s practices, although you seem to be doing a good job of that from the outside.”
It took Bruce a moment to realize that Tony was offering him a job, not propositioning him for a relationship. “You don’t know my qualifications. And I—I don’t need to rent my place out. And I can’t work for Stark Industries. I’m sorry. I can’t.” With more regret than he’d anticipated, he held the card back out to Tony, who, very pointedly, did not take it.
Tony shook his head and smiled, his hands tucked into the pockets of his perfectly-tailored suit. “If you change your mind or...want to continue our conversation from earlier over dinner.”
Bruce looked up, eyes narrowed. Was the job offer was just a ruse to get him on a date? He couldn't help but be a little bit flattered, but there was simply no point in going on a date with Tony, not when Bruce's soulmate was predestined to be a short-tempered Brit who couldn't drive.
Tony sighed, perhaps sensing Bruce’s stress. Bruce knew he didn't have much of a poker face. “Hey, don’t overthink it. Just give me a call when you're ready for a night that doesn't end with blunt force trauma.”
Bruce twisted his hands together nervously. Tony saved him from having to think of anything else to say by announcing, "Oh, my ride's here. Thanks for the water. It was...refreshing."
Bruce walked Tony out, where his chauffeur was waiting for him. Just before disappearing into the sleek car, Tony called, "Bruce, I mean it, call me, okay? And look both ways before you cross the street!"
Bruce gave an ambiguous, non-legally-binding nod. He went back inside, where he tucked Tony's business card into his desk drawer and curled up in bed, blissfully unaware of how close the End of Days was.
Chapter 5: In Which Bruce Gets To Know His Visitors
Thank you for the reviews, everyone! The fic is finished and will be posted on a regular Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday schedule. Enjoy and thank you for reading!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The end of the world was no reason to miss a good breakfast, was Aziraphale’s philosophy, so the next morning, when humans were generally awake, he sought out the nearest grocery store. London was, by no means, known for its reasonable cost of living, and Aziraphale did not have to concern himself with base concepts like money, but he still balked at the prices demanded by Whole Foods. But that didn't stop him from loading his basket up with all sorts of fresh produce and meat and pastries, most of which he started cooking immediately upon returning to the apartment. Bruce had rather nice cookware. It was the kitchen of a man who knew how to cook and cooked often, so it was confusing to find it so utterly bereft of food.
“...I’m telling you, he doesn’t eat meat, he’s one of those hippie types…” Crowley was saying, seated at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee.
“Well if he doesn’t, I’ll eat the bangers…”
“They call them sausages here.”
Bruce stood in the doorway, watching the domestic scene. Crowley was hunched over a mug, and Aziraphale was at the stove, working several pans at a time. Clearly they had history even if they weren’t together at the moment. And, though Bruce rarely spared a thought into the affairs of others, he couldn’t help but think that they should be together. If two people who bickered with such comfortable fondness couldn’t be together, then who the hell could? And what chance did he have of usurping this comfort?
“He’s right. I don’t eat meat,” Bruce confirmed. Aziraphale turned to him with the spatula poised in the air.
“Good morning! I noticed your pantry was bare, so I took it upon myself to get a few provisions and prepare breakfast.”
“Oh, no, you didn’t have to do that, you’re guests.” His stomach growled at him to shut up. Bruce’s self-care had taken a sharp nosedive in the previous weeks, as he'd dedicated all of his energy toward caring for his mother. He couldn’t remember the last thing he’d eaten, although surely he must have consumed something, even if the only evidence was the fact that he was not in the hospital being fed through a tube.
“No, no, not at all. Unfortunately, an English fry-up contains a few different types of meat, and I just assumed, your being American and all…”
“He’s Brooklyn American,” Crowley hissed. “It means he eats chickpeas. And fermented mung beans. And seitan.”
“I doubt he eats Satan. That would really burn one's mouth,” Aziraphale smiled at his own joke. Bruce and Crowley both cringed. There, they had something in common.
“So what work do you do?” Bruce asked, sitting down at the table next to Crowley. He smiled shyly at Crowley, who raised a surly eyebrow.
“We’re itinerant eschatologists,” Crowley said like a sly, smartass kid getting a joke over someone’s head.
“You study the end of the world?” Bruce asked. Alarm bells went off in his head. There was no known human word, not even French or German, for the barrage of coincidences that currently assaulted Bruce Banner, from the quite-literal battery of the car to the two peculiar guests at his kitchen table.
Aziraphale walked over and placed heaping spoonfuls of mushrooms and tomatoes on Bruce’s plate.
“He’s kidding.” Aziraphale smiled at Bruce and then shot Crowley a glare that Bruce was undoubtedly supposed to miss. “We do business things, and it often involves travel.”
“Ah. I see.” Bruce nodded as if that were a perfectly normal, not at all suspect job description and looked sideways at Crowley. According to Agnes, Bruce was not just supposed to wind up with him, they were supposed to be deliriously happy with each other for the rest of their lives, so he wouldn’t be up to anything nefarious...or evil...right? Or maybe, since Bruce was destined to be his father's son, they'd be a perfectly evil pair. “You’re not going to eat anything?”
“I’m more of a drinker,” Crowley drawled, lifting his mug.
Aziraphale sat down at the other end of the table, his plate loaded up with meat and pastries. And Brits made fun of American eating habits, Bruce thought, adding a humble muffin to his plate.
“And—I’m sorry—what did you say your name was, again? The listing said Ezra Fell but the pronunciation...”
Aziraphale and Crowley looked at each other. They were nowhere near as subtle as they thought they were. What they assumed were discreet glances were downright pantomimes, playing to the rear balcony.
“It’s Aziraphale, but I spell it as Ezra Fell for business purposes.” Aziraphale’s voice was oddly hushed and strained and terrible at lying.
Bruce let it slide without comment and turned to his apparent soulmate. “And your name is…”
“Like Anthony. Anthony J. Crowley.”
“What does the J. stand for?”
Aziraphale cleared his throat. Bruce couldn’t get a good read on these people. It was hard to tell if they were sinister or just British. The meal devolved into the sound of metal against plates, punctuated occasionally by a hopeful attempt at conversation from Bruce or Aziraphale.
Bruce complimented Aziraphale’s cooking for the umpeenth time as he cleared the plates and placed them in the sink. As he left, he heard a harshly-whispered exchange: “What were you doing? ‘Itinerant eschatologist.’ Now’s not the time to be cheeky.”
“I didn’t think he’d know what it meant, he’s American.”
“He’s Brooklyn American, he knows words…”
Like most people on a proper trip, Crowley and Aziraphale rarely stayed in their temporary lodging. Bruce assumed his guests were off doing their vague business things or vague tourist things like going to the Empire State Building or checking out historic bars in the West Village.
In fact, Crowley and Aziraphale never made it into Manhattan. They never strayed far from the apartment. The Antichrist was somewhere in the vicinity, most likely at a nearby school from seven am to three pm five days a week. They just had to figure out which school and which child, but even they knew that they couldn’t just pop into schools and spy on the kids—for good and obvious reasons. They’d need a cover story: they were parents scouting out local schools for their child. It was simpler and less suspect than, say, pretending to be school administrative officials doing inspections, in which case they’d need to learn jargon and administrative hierarchies and suchlike. The only problem was, they needed to invent a child.
Theoretically, inventing a child was easier than having one. They didn’t have to carry it to term or fill out paperwork to adopt. They didn’t need to raise it, feed it, clothe it, swaddle it, and change its diapers. They didn’t have to argue about who had to tend to it when it woke up crying in the middle of the night. Really, they just had to name it.
And that’s where they ran into trouble.
“A nice, traditional name. Michael or Gabriel…” Aziraphale said over a brunch at some overpriced Brooklyn eatery. They were the first two names that came to mind, either because they were common human names or because they were the names of his superiors or both. Crowley got caught up on the latter.
“I’m not naming our child after those wankers,” Crowley insisted. “How’d you like it if I suggested...Beelzebub. Or Lucifer.”
“Lucas is a nice name,” Aziraphale said. “What about Bruce?”
“Bruce? No parent has named their child Bruce for 80 years.”
“We’re living with a Bruce right now.”
“Well, he’s the last of ‘em, I can guarantee.”
“Robert,” Crowley said scornfully.
Aziraphale sighed. Crowley was making this needlessly difficult; it seemed like he didn’t want kids at all. “What if we had a girl? I always liked the name Penelope.”
“Oh, no, let’s not bring gender into this. It’s already too complicated.”
“Then why is the default a male child?”
“Says the one who defaulted to Anglican names.”
They paid their bill and walked across the street to a used bookstore, where they purchased a secondhand baby names book. They strolled through the park as Aziraphale stuck his nose in the book and read off names that caught his eye. Crowley judgmentally dashed off each and every option Aziraphale posed, and when it was Crowley’s turn to make suggestions, Aziraphale vetoed them in turn.
Time was of the essence. It took them two more brunches, three dinners, seven secondhand baby name books, and hours of strolling through the park to decide on a name.
They eventually gave creative birth to Yuki Crowley-Fell, or Yuki Fell-Crowley depending on who you asked, for whom they used they/them pronouns.
It was intended to be a compromise; the unintended effect was that the angel and demon appeared as two eccentrically wealthy gay British fathers looking for a school for their nonbinary Japanese child. As you could imagine, they had quite a lot of pull in Brooklyn.
A number of administrators thought Crowley was Bono, or a rockstar who had to be even cooler than Bono because he was gay and they’d never heard of him. He wore sunglasses, drove a pristine classic car, and exuded surly superiority, so they responded with due fawning while never once letting on that they knew or did not know who he was. That was how they were supposed to treat prospective high-powered donors: they would never, for example, tell Springsteen they liked Born to Run or Robert Downey Jr. that they loved him in Zodiac.
Crowley and Aziraphale received tours of the schools, led by no one less than the superintendent or dean. Aziraphale pretended to pay attention to the spiels about their facilities and programs (“We offer classes in Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin...Our fencing team is one of the best in the country…”) while Crowley tried to sniff out demonic activity.
“Any Brits at your school?” Crowley would ask airily. The question seemed to take their hosts aback; yes they had many international students, including many from the UK but also from Japan Singapore Dubai Belgium Colombia et cetera and they prided themselves on their diversity.
“And do you have any exceptional children?” Aziraphale would ask.
Without fail, they’d respond with, “Yes, we consider all our children exceptional,” and Crowley would let out a soft disdainful sigh, and they’d quickly backpedal, “But we have an amazing program for children who are actually gifted which, uh, I’m sure, no doubt, yours is.”
The next part required the utmost care and tact, so Aziraphale handled it: “We have no doubt that you have an exemplary program. Many schools in the area have similar programs, so we were hoping to get an idea of the specific caliber of student.”
“You want—you want to know about specific students?”
“No names,” Aziraphale reassured quickly; they’d worry about names later, if there was, indeed, someone to worry about.
Then came the worst part: they’d have to hear a list of children’s accomplishments. Prepubescent Philharmonic violinists, Olympic swimmers, Pulitzer Prize-winning wunderkind journalists...Aziraphale acted duly impressed. But ultimately, they were left with no leads, mounting frustration, and a strange, onerous koan: What extracurriculars activities would the Antichrist enjoy?
When Aziraphale and Crowley were around Bruce, though, the three were enveloped in a strange domesticity, propelled mostly by Aziraphale’s desire for dining. Aziraphale was thrilled to find out that Bruce at least ate (sustainable, fresh-caught) fish, and he coaxed Bruce and Crowley into the kind of fancy restaurants that would quickly deplete Bruce’s inheritance if he frequented them. Over high-end sashimi, Aziraphale said, “It’s a shame you hardly eat. You’re in a world filled with pleasure and you should take advantage while you’re young.” He neglected to mention the part about everyone's time being limited on account of the impending end of the world.
“He has no idea how this is coming off, absolutely none,” Crowley reassured Bruce in an uncharacteristic bout of camaraderie, as, next to him, Aziraphale furrowed his brow in offense.
“What do you mean, how I’m coming off?”
“Like you’re propositioning him,” Crowley said bluntly. Bruce choked on his tea.
“Propo—I’m—trying to get him to eat! Look at him, he’s positively ragge—er, quite healthy looking.”
“I don’t eat and I’m thinner than he is and you don’t make a fuss,” Crowley muttered. It was true: in all their dinners, Crowley certainly drank a lot, and never ate.
Bruce cleared his throat. Even though he knew they weren’t a couple, they still seemed to be pining for one another, and he didn’t want to be a wedge. They really were a cute couple even if they weren’t actually. “Actually, Aziraphale is right. I haven’t been eating much lately. My mother died recently.” It was the first time he’d told someone for non-work-related reasons.
“Oh, you poor dear.” Aziraphale’s eyes brimmed with earnest sympathy and he reached across the table to squeeze Bruce’s hand.
“So I do appreciate the company. It’s funny, I totally flaked about the Airbnb, I’d forgotten it was even listed, but it’s been nice having you around.”
“Are you all alone?” Aziraphale asked, his eyes getting softer.
“You sound like you’re propositioning him again,” Crowley gritted out the side of his mouth. They ignored him.
“I guess...yeah, “ Bruce admitted with an uncharacteristic bout of openness. “I keep busy with volunteer stuff, and the kids I work with are a real joy, but I’ve never been one for connection, I guess...” He contemplated saying more—about his father, his loneliness. In fact, it was the closest he’d ever come to confiding in someone outside of necessity. Instead, he popped another piece of sea urchin roe in his mouth. It really was delicious.
The next day, Bruce helped a few kids in the drop-in homework help center, including Adam, who didn't actually need any help but just wanted Bruce to make a small fuss over his perfectly-completed worksheet, which Bruce was happy to do. His phone buzzed with an email alert during one of his sessions. He discreetly glanced at it while his student puzzled over math problems, his eyes narrowing when he saw who it was from. He let the screen go black; he’d answer it later. Right now, his student deserved his full attention.
Meanwhile, across town, Tony, who was used to instant gratification, hid his hurt feelings by pouring himself into his Ultron project with renewed vigor.
When the crowd at the ARC Center thinned down, Bruce retreated back into the staff office and stared at his email from Tony Stark.
Hi, it's Tony Stark. I got your info from the ARC staff directory. Hope you don’t mind—wanted to make sure you’re alive. Anyway, I meant what I said last week about wanting to talk to you more. I know you think my philanthropy is just a publicity stunt but I really do care about making the world a better place. And I can tell you do too. I sincerely would love to hear more about what you think about Stark Industries. Please email me back or call the number in my signature file. Let's set up a time to talk.
Thanks again for the work you do at the ARC Center.
Bruce took a deep breath and wrote,
I'm surprised to hear from you. I'm sorry for my outburst on Monday. I won't make excuses for myself but I've been going through a bit of a rough patch (beyond the car accident). I do appreciate your donation to the ARC Center, truly, and for your assistance the other night. I am doing very well. My brain has been secured back into place.
Simple, to the point, unlikely to get the center's funding revoked. Bruce congratulated himself and hit "send."
Near-immediately, a reply came:
Good. I’m glad you still have that high-quality noggin because I want to hear what you know about my company. Please. It's hard for me to find people who will be honest with me. Name a time and a place, I'll meet you there. I'll pay you a consultant fee for your time. Let me know. And the Stark Foundation's donation to ARC has already gone through, you don't have to worry that I'll do something petty like take back my donation if you hurt my feelings.
PS Sorry you've been going through a rough patch. If it makes you feel any better: me, too."
Bruce stared at the reply and thought, Well, what the hell? He wrote back and named a hipster vegan place a few blocks from the ARC Center, suggesting they meet at 1:30pm the next day. If Tony Stark was willing to drag his fancy ass to Brooklyn and eat kale on short notice, then Bruce was willing to talk to him.
To Bruce's mild surprise, Tony replied, "See you there!" To Bruce's extreme surprise, Tony showed up. A few minutes late, but still. He was dressed casually, in dark jeans and a Black Sabbath T-shirt. He looked, honestly, extremely handsome, which Bruce forced his brain to ignore. Bruce had a soulmate, and it wasn't worth the potential heartbreak on either side to pretend otherwise.
Tony focused a killer smile on Bruce and said, "Dr. Banner! Sorry I'm late. Thanks for agreeing to meet with me."
Bruce blinked. He really was in too vulnerable of an emotional state to handle what he thought was a full charm offensive from Tony Stark.
"Yeah, um...no problem, thanks for coming back to Brooklyn." Bruce managed a shy smile-grimace hybrid.
"So what's good here?" Tony asked brightly, looking at the menu.
"They're very focused on farm-to-table meals, so things change pretty often based on what's in season. I think I'm going to get the roasted beets with labneh."
Tony, whose favorite meals included fast food hamburgers and street pizza slices, held his smile and said, "Sounds good, I'll have the same."
After they'd ordered, Tony fixed his dark eyes on Bruce and said, "Okay. Now, what can I do to make you hate my company less?”
Bruce smiled in spite of himself. “I don’t hate your company...I don’t see the value in hate, not in this situation. And it isn’t about me, it’s about the planet. Let’s face it: I’m unlikely to bear the brunt of Stark Industries warmongering—”
"But I meant what I said! SI closed our weapons divisions. Where did you hear about those shell companies? My assistant and I dug into it...you were right, but I swear, I had no idea." Tony's eyes shone earnestly.
Bruce knew he couldn't say, "A witch who died 300 years ago wrote it in her book that my dead mom left me." But he stammered as he tried to figure out what he could say.
"Okay, I get it if you don't want to name your sources or whatever, but however you found out...if you find out anything else, I'd like to hear about it, okay? I'm trying my best to make SI an ethical company, a force for good in the world, but...well, it seems like not all of my employees want that. Some of the higher-ups…” Tony closed his eyes. “Some of the higher-ups have, let’s say, more traditional agendas, and even though I’m powerful in name, I don’t have the clout yet to override my father's legacy. Speaking of which, if you'd like a full-time gig at SI, seriously, I'd love to have you on board."
"You don't even know my credentials."
"You've got a PhD in something, you're brave enough to speak truth to power, and children seem to like you. What more do I need to know?"
“It would help to know what my PhD is in. It could be, I don’t know, Intelligent Design or...Eschatology.” He frowned. That last word had come up quite a lot recently.
“As long as it’s not in Art History.”
Bruce smiled involuntarily. "Well...thank you, I'll keep that in mind."
"Where do you work, anyway? I know you're a volunteer at ARC."
"I'm...an independent researcher," Bruce hedged.
"Like for a think tank?"
"I'm working on a book." This was technically true, if the sentence were, "I'm working on decoding a book of prophecies that may contain the secrets to stopping Armageddon."
"Really? What's it about?" Tony asked. Their food arrived, and he took a cautious bite of beets. "Okay, this is way better than it sounded."
Happy for the distraction, Bruce expounded on the glories of beets for a few long moments, and then he redirected to talk about how great the ARC Center's programs were. Tony was smart and receptive and funny. He really didn't mesh with what Bruce had thought he'd be like at all, but he couldn't shake Agnes' prophecies from his mind. Tony might be a great lunch companion, and he might have made Bruce laugh for the first time since his mother's funeral, but he was still destined to help bring about the end of the world.
Still, Bruce liked talking to Tony so much that he completely lost track of time. He'd intentionally scheduled the meeting to be at 1:30 so he'd have a set ending point; he had an appointment with Adam at 3. It was 3:10 when Bruce happened to glance at the clock. He cursed. Tony apologized for keeping him late and offered to pick up the check so Bruce could get going.
Bruce hesitated for the barest second—he wasn't sure if he should accept this gift from Tony. But he also didn't want to disappoint Adam. "Okay, thanks, I'll get lunch next time!" Bruce blurted as he ran out the door, only barely aware that he'd just agreed to have another lunch with the man whose company was prophesied to bring about the end of the world.
1Crowley’s suggestions truly were atrocious and sure to give them away--Krampus, Babadook, Axolotl, Khaleesi, Mistofeleese, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Aziraphale did not hesitate to turn down what surely were joke names.[return to text]
2Yet he never seemed to get terribly drunk, to Bruce and his physiological fear reactions’ great relief. [return to text]
3In fact, Tony was operating at approximately 60% of his full charm potential. He was afraid of seeming over-eager.[return to text]
Chapter 6: In Which Aziraphale Discovers the Prophecies
Bruce awoke the next morning in high spirits. He had certainly never expected a meeting with a weapons manufacturer to cheer him up, yet his meal with Tony had left him feeling more optimistic than he'd felt in weeks. Even Adam had commented on Bruce's good mood, barely seeming to mind his tardiness.
Putting his revived energy to work, Bruce returned Aziraphale’s favor and prepared breakfast. His mood only slightly dampened when it was Crowley who showed up first, eyeing the table skeptically.
“What’s all this?” Crowley asked.
“I cooked breakfast, since you two were kind enough to cook for me before,” Bruce said.
“That was Aziraphale,” Crowley grumbled, pouring himself a mug of black coffee. “I had no part in that.”
Bruce did not explain that he was being kind enough to give Crowley shared credit.
“Well, you’re welcome to have some, anyway. Sprouted mung beans et cetera.”
He hoped Crowley would appreciate the callback to his joke, panicked when he remembered it was a joke he wasn’t supposed to have heard, and then relaxed when Crowley did not hear or care.
Crowley seemed to be in a worse mood today, and that’s because he was: they’d exhausted all their leads on the Antichrist. He was so desperate that he’d pop back into Hell if he thought that would be at all helpful. He thought about taking a spoonful of one of Bruce’s vegetable slops and declaring it disgusting, but he wasn’t even in the mood for fiendishness. Some inner voice deterred him from picking on Bruce.
Besides, Aziraphale joined them at that moment, and Bruce brightened. He said “Good morning!”, with an audible exclamation point, and Aziraphale responded with equal cheerfulness.
“Did you do all this?” Aziraphale asked. Bruce nodded.
“It’s all vegetarian. A lot of people have misconceptions about the limitations of a plant-based diet....”
Bruce went on excitedly, and Crowley was glad he hadn’t been mean. Truthfully, there didn't seem to be much fun to be had in tormenting Bruce Banner, not when he was so willing and able to torment himself. Plus, Bruce didn’t seem like he would react to cruelty by giving into temptation; he seemed like he’d just turn to self-loathing and even more abstemiousness, which wouldn’t do.
And Aziraphale would surely lecture Crowley if he dared toy with Aziraphale’s new pet human, who was being served a validation-only diet. Even Crowley couldn’t tell if Aziraphale’s hums and compliments over breakfast were genuine, or if he just wanted to make their host feel good.
After Aziraphale cleared the table and thanked Bruce for the scrummy breakfast, Bruce hesitated in the doorway before muttering, “Would you like to come to the bookstore with me? I need to pick up a few things. It’s a big, popular independent one in the city. I know you’re, uh, busy…” he trailed off and visibly prepared for rejection, but Aziraphale eagerly agreed.
“Doesn’t that sound fun, Crowley?” Aziraphale said. Crowley wasn’t sure he’d been included in the invite.
“Oh, well, er…” Crowley hemmed.
“Crowley says he doesn’t like to read,” Aziraphale explained.
Bruce looked unduly disappointed at this news. “He doesn’t?”
“He says he doesn’t like to read,” Aziraphale clarified with a knowing smirk. Crowley mumbled unhappily. He did not like being known, and liked even less to be revealed.
“Please?” Bruce asked. “It would be nice if you came. I promise you’ll still be cool even if you pick up a book.”
That got a smile out of Crowley. He leaned back, unsure what game Bruce was playing at. Humans—the “good” ones, anyway—generally preferred Aziraphale's company to Crowley's, not that he could blame them for that. Clearly, Bruce should want to have a nice, peaceful day with his new guardian angel.
It was most likely token politeness. Humans like Bruce would rather suffer than be rude. And for all the unpleasant guards and defenses Crowley put up, Bruce seemed evermore undeterred. He was almost as bad as Aziraphale.
It was a nice day, all things considered. Crowley stole some books, just to encourage other shoppers to see how easy shoplifting could be; Aziraphale went behind his back and paid for them, just to show other shoppers how easy it was to pay things forward; and Bruce picked up a few dense tomes that he would not have time to finish if all went according to the Ineffable Plan.
But, as far as Bruce knew, he and his students would live long lives filled with plenty of time to read, and he acted accordingly. Even Aziraphale seemed to be caught up in the status quo of taking Earthly life for granted. He chatted about his own bookshop, invited Bruce to London, and made suggestions for what Bruce should do when he was there.
What soured the mood was the much more mundane threat of an anti-vaxxer giving a speech in the park, to a disappointingly large crowd, only some of which were protestors. Crowley lowered his sunglasses for a better look. She seemed familiar somehow. One of those TV faces.
Bruce fumed. “Why do people feel compelled to give these nutcases a platform?”
“Freedom of speech,” Crowley said. He knew there was nothing more annoying than responding to valid complaints with “Freedom of speech” and no further engagement.
“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you need to give everyone a platform to spread dangerous ideas. My kids should have a right to not have polio.”
“Do you want kids?” Aziraphale asked conversationally, missing the point by a wide-shot.
“I meant kids in the general sense,” Bruce muttered, with an inexplicable glance towards Crowley. “My students. Having kids of my own...well, it’s not really in the cards for me.” He looked down and wrung his hands.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s a way, if you wanted them. I think you’d be a wonderful father.”
“You do?” The look on Bruce’s face wouldn’t have been more wonderstruck if Aziraphale revealed his angelhood, bathed him in heavenly light, and sent him right up to Heaven.
“Yes. You’re kind and patient and you’re a wonderful cook. You’d have no problems getting your children to eat vegetables. Don’t you think he’d be a wonderful father, Crowley?”
Crowley gave Aziraphale a “What-are-you-asking-me-for?” look. Luckily, Bruce was looking at the ground, blushing red.
“Yes, I mean, they let just about anyone have ‘em so...you’d be...better than most, sure.” Crowley said. Aziraphale should know better than to ask a demon for a spot of kindness! What was he thinking, putting him in that position?
Bruce was blushing so much that Crowley could feel the heat radiating off of him. For both their sakes, Crowley decided to change the subject, but before he could figure out the topic, Bruce whispered, “Did you...did you ever want…?”
Aziraphale glanced at Crowley. Fortunately, Bruce missed that too. Over the ensuing silence, the loud-speakered voice proclaimed, "...if you love your kids, you will not allow the government to inject poison into their bodies.”
Crowley felt Bruce’s burning emotion shift again from fear to anger, and he almost pounced on it instinctively. It was ripe for temptation. Bruce had a surprisingly deep well of anger burning inside of him. Crowley could encourage him to do all sorts of nasty things, acts that would leave Bruce curled up in a corner in shame once he got home from a holding cell. But then Crowley could too-easily imagine the kicked-puppy look that would be on Bruce's face, as well as the disappointed look on Aziraphale's face...it simply wouldn't be worth it.
“Come on, let’s not listen to that rubbish. What good is a platform if she doesn’t have an audience?” Crowley said. Surprising himself further, he put a light hand on Bruce’s back and ushered him away. Behind them, the loudspeaker experienced a sudden surge of demonic energy, causing it to short-circuit and catch fire.
The New York Public Library Research Room had a strict no-talking policy and acoustics that would turn even the most timid of whispers into a bellow. Luckily, Crowley and Aziraphale had loads of practice speaking in the hushest of hushed voices.
“For what it’s worth, I’m having quite a nice time.” Aziraphale said, taking another ancient text from his careful stack of books. “If this is to be our last foray on Earth, it will be a pleasant way to remember things.” He said the last part wistfully; he sincerely hoped it wasn’t.
“I’m sure the fact that our host has imprinted on you like a little duckling doesn’t hurt.”
“Imprinted? Oh, that’s ridiculous, nonsense...Really?” Even though Aziraphale ducked his head away from Crowley, the demon could detect his preening smile. It was true, and obvious, and Aziraphale was well aware that Bruce was utterly doting. He sought Aziraphale's approval more blatantly than Warlock had, even as a toddler, which was prime duckling age for humans. “You could be nicer to him, you know. He’s trying desperately hard to get you to like him.”
“A surefire way to get the opposite,” Crowley said.
But Aziraphale knew the real reason why Crowley was being especially prickly. For the most part, they avoided growing attached to humans, lest they slip up in conversation. Besides, when humans reached the end of their short mortal lifespans, visiting them was frowned upon in both Heaven and Hell. Now, with the world about to end and all of humanity about to be wiped out, it was especially heart-rending—though Crowley would never use that word—to think about the future.
So Aziraphale understood and sympathized, but he found himself pulled in the opposite direction: he wanted to know Bruce. Bruce might be the last human they ever met, and Aziraphale would rather be stuck in eternity with fond memories than regret. Besides, Bruce was so sweet and bookish, with such a gentle aura. If he'd ever made his way into Aziraphale's shop, Aziraphale might even have sold him a book.
“Do you think it might be a good idea to ask him for help, have a human on our side? We’ve been here since the start and, let’s face it, we haven’t quite mastered the art of blending in. They’re constantly changing their norms and fashions and protocols. It’s hard to keep up.”
“Not for me,” Crowley said. He wasn’t the one who was 200 years behind on style.
Aziraphale persisted, “It might be a good idea to have someone on the inside, so to speak. Someone to help us navigate. And Bruce is so clever. Did you see all those books on his shelf?”
“Clever? He used a vegetable peeler on an onion!”
“Well, yes, but that’s only because he couldn’t find his knives…It happens, you know. People misplace...knives.”
“Or swords,” Crowley reminded him in a sing-song voice. "Anyway, Bruce has also been frightfully neglecting his houseplants. How can he help us find the Antichrist if he can't even keep a jade plant alive?"
“Not everyone has your nurturing touch,” Aziraphale muttered sarcastically.
It was a combination of comfortable routine and absentmindedness that caused Bruce to leave The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch on the kitchen table one morning. He had his usual ARC obligations, of course, but he also had an occasional lunch with Tony to keep him busy. Plus, unless his guests were directly in front of him, he assumed that they were off doing their non-specified business, and he’d heard the front door shut earlier that morning. Believing himself alone, and feeling more energetic than he had felt since returning from Ohio, Bruce bustled around the house, tackling tasks that had piled up over the last few weeks. He hopped from one chore to another as they came into his mind, pausing occasionally to pull out his phone and smile fondly at silly memes Tony sent him (which, from absolutely no other person, would he find endearing).
He was not alone. It was Crowley who left earlier to investigate some Satanic leads, and Aziraphale who stayed behind in his room until he wandered out to the kitchen for some tea. But he found something more delicious than even the finest Earl Grey.
It was the book. The Book.
Aziraphale blinked. The book was still on the table. He squeezed his eyes shut and then opened them. Still there. He pressed his fingers into his eyes and rubbed thoroughly.
The book was there, in plain sight, as they would say.
“Er, are you okay?” Bruce asked.
“CAN I TOUCH IT?”
Bruce followed Aziraphale’s previous gaze to the book and then snatched it up in his arms, smothering it against his chest. His instinct was driven not by the thought, “This is a rare, unspeakably valuable book,” or even “This Must Notte Falle Into the Wronge Hands,” but “This was my mother’s.”
“I am a collector of rare books,” Aziraphale struggled to speak, his mouth suddenly dry with desire, “religious texts and books of prophecy and that is—that is—“ The Holy Grail. The White Whale. In all his time on earth, with his infinite resources and greatest efforts, he had not managed a single lead, yet now, with the Doomsday clock tick-tick-booming, he had lucked into it. Surely the man must know its value if he clutched it so protectively, but then why would he leave it lying around? Aziraphale managed a croaked, “How?”
“It’s a family book,” Bruce muttered. He loosened his grip slightly.
“You’re a descendent of Agnes Nutter? A descendent!” Aziraphale laughed joyously.
Bruce managed a weak smile. “Professional descendent.” The phrase had been a joke between him and his mother, referring not only to the amount of time they spent combing through the prophecies, but also to the fact that they lived off of investments their ancestors had made based on the book.
“Incredible. Truly incredible...I can’t believe…oh, dear boy, let me shake your hand. I promise, it’s not a ruse to snatch the book.”
Bruce tucked the book under one arm and shook Aziraphale’s hand.
“I’m afraid it’s disappointing. It’s mostly about the family, and most of the global predictions have already come to pass.” With one major exception that he didn’t want to ruin the man’s holiday with. Bruce was more reluctant to relinquish the family prophecies not just because they would diminish this man’s lifelong quest, but because they were intensely personal; they proclaimed that his soulmate was Aziraphale’s...business partner.
“Still…” Aziraphale looked longingly at the book. Bruce loved books; he had the memories of lonely school lunches spent tucked in a bathroom stall with a thick collection of Vonnegut for company as proof. But he’d never stared at one like a man watching his lifelong beloved walk down the wedding aisle with another groom, or a dog eyeing a roast beef sandwich just out of reach.
Bruce looked down at the book. He’d always regarded it as an albatross, and here was a man who viewed it as a dream...The prophecies were just about useless without the interpretations on the notecards, and the world was ending, anyway—what was the harm?
With a shy smile, Bruce held the book out. Aziraphale’s mouth and eyes opened in comically large, perfect O’s, accompanied by a dramatic gasp.
Bruce wasn't sure, but he nodded.
“Oh, I could hug you!” Aziraphale said, and did. Bruce was caught off guard and before he could raise his arm to return the hug, Aziraphale pulled away and started opening the kitchen drawers. The silverware clattered at the violent upheavals.
“I’ll be careful. I’ll be the most careful. Where do you keep your gloves?” A knife bounced up in the air, perilously close to Aziraphale’s arm.
“It’s fine.” The book had been supernaturally resilient for centuries and did not have much longer to go. It’s not like some fingerprint grease would dissolve it.
“I should say not!” Aziraphale said, rummaging through sharp objects with careless abandon. “The care and preservation of books cannot be understated…” He went on, kindly lecturing about deterioration, and Bruce felt a painful rush of fondness.
Aziraphale never found the gloves—Bruce never used them—so he discreetly manifested a pair. Once he was properly attired by his standards, he sat at the kitchen table and settled into a chair. In his fantasies, he would be in his own shop—that was where most of his fantasies took place—but he would have to make do here, with Bruce hovering in the doorway, pretending not to hover.
He ran a gloved finger down the cover. It was in good condition, all things considered—some fading and minor corner wear. He should have taken the boy’s offer to handle it bare. He wanted to feel the worn ridges. But he couldn’t, not after the fuss he’d made about book protocol.
He turned the cover and inhaled deeply, breathing the book in.
Bruce shuffled his feet. This was the most intimate moment he’d ever had or witnessed in his apartment. It was uncomfortably sensual, like watching a stranger make love to his great-etc-grandmother.
Aziraphale finally turned the flyleaf.
But then he frowned, brow furrowed, and he stuck a finger between the last couple of pages. Bruce straightened up.
“I don’t normally peek at the end of a book…” Aziraphale explained. “It’s a cardinal sin, book-wise at least, but…”
“I think you’d enjoy it more if you read from the beginning.”
“Right. But sometimes we must read for duty, not pleasure.”
Personally, Bruce had never found anything pleasurable about the prophecies, and had only ever read them out of a sense of duty. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t care if Aziraphale read them upside down or backwards from the middle; Aziraphale could dog-ear the corners and smudge the pages with Cheeto dust.
“It’s just, see—spoiler alert,” Bruce laughed nervously, wringing his hands together. “The book isn't entirely chronological, but it mostly is, and, well, those back pages get kind of dark. End-times predictions which, normally, I’d place no stock in if the previous 400 pages hadn’t already come true and paid for this apartment. And, well, even then, who cares, the world’s gonna end sometime, heat death, sun explosion, fascist regimes, whatever, except, the thing is, the book makes it sound like it’s gonna happen soon. Next few decades, maybe. My lifetime. Maybe not yours. Anyway, just thought I’d warn you before you got there since you clearly know the book’s reputation...but, er, like I said, I don’t really know when it’s going to happen.”
Aziraphale’s eyes looked hazy. Perhaps Bruce should not have brought up his more advanced age or the impending Apocalypse; he’d just ruined the whole experience.
When Aziraphale spoke, he was so quiet that Bruce wasn’t sure he’d said anything until he turned to Bruce and repeated, “One week.”
The apartment had never been more silent.
“Hello, hello, hello! What a city, isn’t it?” Crowley exclaimed, walking through the front door. “What’s going on? Am I interrupting something? Aziraphale, you dog.”
Bruce closed his eyes. The rest of his life with Crowley didn’t seem so bad if there were just one week of it. Maybe his happiness came from the knowledge that it would be over soon.
“Hello, Crowley. It seems our series of happy little accidents has led us to the direct descendent of Agnes Nutter.”
“Who?” Crowley’s face scrunched up in utter disinterest.
“The genuine prophet,” Aziraphale said. “It seems that our lovely host has some intel about our little project.”
“Wait, wait, you’re telling me you had no idea, when you booked this place, that I was a descendent? That you just happened to run me over with your car, that you just happened to be staying here, that you just happened to be looking for this mythological book your entire life and happened to find it in the midst of all this?”
“Well, not my entire life…” Aziraphale muttered; there had been thousands of years before the book was written.
“How the Heaven did you manage to swing that, Aziraphale?” Crowley growled.
“I didn’t swing anything. I booked the most pleasant-seeming place in the area! Something--intuition, the machinations of fate, whathaveyou--drew me towards this specific place.” The draw was, in fact, its multiple bedrooms combined with its proximity to several fusion restaurants that Aziraphale wanted to try. Aziraphale had expected an apartment like Bruce's to be available to them, and so it was, no matter what Bruce's Airbnb account said to the contrary. “And then I saw the book lying on the counter this morning. It’s good news! We have a team now. And wasn’t I just saying it would be nice to have a hu—er, another pair of eyes on the project?”
“So you are itinerant eschatologists,” Bruce realized aloud.
After a beat, Crowley deadpanned, “Yes, I was being completely and utterly truthful when I said that.”
Aziraphale couldn’t contain his excitement. He squirmed like he was about to burst with joy. “Isn’t this going to be fun! I’ll put on some tea!”
It wasn’t fun. It was days of agonizing work, crouched over index cards, poring over his most hated book, irritably snapping at one another. Bruce lost track of time. He’d always thought it was better to have knowledge than to live in ignorance, but he couldn’t help but envy the poor suckers going blissfully about their days. People who were unaware that the end was in sight, powerless to do anything to stop it but, at the same time, not compelled to toil at a futile task.
His T-shirt smelled ripe when he finally looked up from the book long enough to realize both the time and day. He had a date--no, not a date, an appointmentmeetingthing with Tony in a few hours, and it was far too short of notice to cancel. The world might be ending, but Bruce had manners.
Nor did he want to cancel. If other humans were allowed a bit of peaceful ignorance in the final days, why shouldn’t he? And maybe his conversations with Tony would help avert the end times. Stark Industries was supposed to play a role in the Apocalypse, but maybe that role was stopping it...Or maybe Bruce really just wanted to bask in Tony's easy charm for an hour or so.
Regardless, he excused himself for a shower and said he had an appointment. Crowley and Aziraphale were baffled--they had work to do!--but they weren’t making much progress anyway.
When he stepped out of the shower, Crowley asked, “What, exactly, is so important about this appointment that it supersedes the end of the world? It won't matter if your teeth are cleaned if you're burning in hell, you know.”
Bruce felt shy about revealing his connection with Tony Stark, especially to his soulmate. “Well, I feel…compelled to go. To the appointment. I don’t know exactly how the prophecies work, but since I feel such a compulsion to go, at the expense of all the work we’re doing here, I can only assume that it’s fate that I go. I--I think that's what this one is about, actually,” Bruce said, picking up a card with one of Agnes's more inscrutable prophecies.
“Ah! Ineffable,” Aziraphale exclaimed, understanding.
“Anyway, some of the best innovative breakthroughs happen when you take a step back from the project and let your mind explore--it’s like being too close to a painting that you can’t see--”
“Ah, hell, just go on your bloody date,” Crowley huffed. Aziraphale gave him an inquiring look and Crowley explained, “No one talks like that about an appointment.
1The impending Apocalypse, namely. [return to text]
2And, since in their practice they hadn’t quite perfected it yet, they used a bit of angelic assistance to remain unheard. [return to text]
3Bruce, of course, knew how to peel an onion. But his grief had wrapped itself around his brain like a thick blanket, making him do things like put away cereal in the fridge and almond milk in the cupboard. Aziraphale and Crowley could both sense Bruce’s turmoil, and had learned something about its cause, but they had no baseline for what Bruce’s normal behavior was like. Humans were always so emotional, anyway. [return to text]
4"The Patch Where Sweet Hath Combined With Sour Shall Bear Profit," a prophecy that actually referred to the invention of Sour Patch Kids candy.[return to text]
5If Aziraphale had ever described his meetings with Crowley to another being, he would have described them in a very similar fashion. Crowley would have called them "dates," but only with a tone of voice that was sufficiently sarcastic to provide plausible deniability. [return to text]
Tony paced around his office like an over-caffeinated rat in a wheel. A really smart rat, obviously, but still, there was only so much he could do when he was just spinning in circles like this. He hadn't slept at all the night before. He was very focused on getting Ultron online, but he was also counting down the minutes until he could go pick Bruce up for lunch.
He'd been really enjoying getting to know Bruce, who was so smart and slyly funny. It had been a long time since Tony had met someone who could keep up with him intellectually, and even longer since he'd had such a hard time determining someone's intentions toward him. Bruce at least no longer seemed to think of Tony as some moustache-twirling villainous capitalist, but he also didn't quite seem to think of Tony as a romantic interest, despite Tony's talent for flirting. They’d grabbed lunch a few times, but Grabbing Lunch was decidedly not Taking Someone Out For Dinner. Even the word “lunch” was the least sexy-sounding of all the meals.
Tony saved his work and shut down his computer. He tried to quietly walk past Pepper's office, hoping she was engrossed in her new project—accessible, research-driven health initiatives with a focus on underprivileged communities—but she stuck her head out and said, "Hey, where are you going? Did you add something to your calendar?"
"Oh, just grabbing some lunch."
"Did you want me to have something delivered?"
This was a fair question, since Tony usually just ate at his desk if he wasn't having a Business Lunch with someone. And he hadn't put his lunch with Bruce on his calendar because he didn't want it to be a Business Lunch. And he didn't want to tell her about it because he didn't want her to make fun of him. Tony was a certified genius, surely he could explain this to Pepper. He cleared his throat and said, "Ah...just going out for some fresh air."
She raised her eyebrows. "Since when do you like fresh air?"
"Since the air in here has gotten so terribly stale. Do you think you could talk to the office manager about importing some fresh mountain air? Maybe from, oh, Switzerland? Or Genovia?"
She rolled her eyes. "I'll see what I can do. Should I call Happy to give you a lift?"
"Nah, I'll be fine," Tony said. "I feel like driving myself."
"Okay. So you're going to drive...to get fresh air?"
"It's a convertible, Pepper."
Pepper laughed. "Okay, well, give me a call if you need anything."
"As always, you'll be the first to know if I need anything," Tony assured her. He went down to the garage, climbed in his Porsche and went to pick up Bruce. Bruce's hair was still damp from a shower, and he seemed distracted. Even more distracted than his usual "absentminded professor" schtick.
"Hey, thanks for picking me up."
"Of course. It's good to have an excuse to get out of the office. Besides, I hear it's dangerous for cyclists around here."
Bruce cracked a small smile. "Statistically speaking, I think I've had my share of collisions for the year."
"Well, there are always outliers. Are your guests still staying with you?"
"Yeah, they booked rooms for two weeks," Bruce said, not mentioning that the world was scheduled to end before their stay would.
Tony sniffed. "Awful nice of you to let them stay with you instead of taking them to court."
"Aw, it was just an accident. No harm done. Uh, where did you want to go to lunch?" Bruce asked. They'd been sitting in the car in front of Bruce's building.
"Are you in the mood for anything in particular?" Tony asked.
Bruce, already suffering from decision fatigue, said, "No. Anything vegetarian."
"We're in Brooklyn, is there anything not vegetarian?"
"You'd be surprised," Bruce said drily.
"I love tacos! I know a place…" Bruce directed them to a little hole-in-the-wall taqueria. Tony suspected that his hipster cred was being tested, and he said nothing about the place's small size or dingy decor. And he was rewarded with some of the best tacos he'd ever had.
“God, these are delicious,” Tony said, after devouring his first taco. He noticed that Bruce had barely taken two bites. “Is something wrong with your food? Too spicy? Secret meat?”
“No, no.” Bruce forced down another bite. “The food’s great. I guess I’m just not that hungry.”
Tony took a sip of his agua fresca and asked, "Peso for your thoughts?"
"Peso?" Bruce looked up from his full plate with amusement.
"Just trying to be culturally accurate."
"Hmm. What's the exchange rate these days?"
Tony checked his phone quickly. "About fifty cents."
Bruce gave a hint of a smile. "Oh, wow. So here in America that should get you fifty thoughts?"
"I'm happy to take them on an installment plan. One thought down, the rest to come later? One per week for the next year, let's say."
Bruce's smile vanished as he thought about that timeline. Tony hid a sigh. It was so hard to get a read on Bruce. With forced brightness he said, "Well, you know, I don't actually have any pesos on me today, so we could just start with the traditional penny. What's on your mind?"
Bruce exhaled. "Sorry, I just...uh...why don't you go first?"
"Okay. I'm just thinking how odd it is that the night we met, you wouldn't stop talking, but ever since then it's been hard to get you to start."
Bruce licked his lips. "Tony, I really am sorry for--"
Tony held up his hand, palm out. "No, no, I don't want an apology, haven't we been through this? I just hope I didn't offend you?"
"Oh, no, it's just, I have a lot on my mind."
"I...it's hard for me to put it into words. I...I should…" Bruce shook his head and took a bite of taco.
Tony took in Bruce's agonized expression and redirected the conversation to talk about the current limitations of solar power and Bruce lit up like an LED bulb, though Tony wasn't quite sure whether that was because of genuine interest in the topic or just relief at Tony letting the question of Bruce's thoughts slide.
After their delicious, if slightly frustrating, lunch, Tony dropped Bruce off at the ARC Center. He parked at the end of the block and walked Bruce to the door, because that was polite, and because he wanted two more minutes to finish making his points about nuclear energy. Finally, Bruce gave him an awkward little wave and went into the center for his afternoon of good deeds.
As Tony was walking back to his car, he almost ran into the British kid who'd been with Bruce at the fundraiser. He was pacing back and forth and staring at his phone intently.
"Hey, watch out, kid," Tony said. Brits everywhere. A British invasion. If he were inclined toward paranoia, he’d think conspiracy. Truth be told, he was inclined to paranoia, and these coincidences gave him the glitch-in-the-Matrix heebie jeebies.
"Sorry, I was catching Pokemon. There's a big Snorlax..." The kid looked up. "Oh, you're Tony Stark! You're not here to buy drugs, are you? Because not all at-risk youth sell drugs. That's a stereotype."
"What? No. What makes you think I'm here to buy drugs?"
"Dunno. You have kind of a crazy look in your eyes, like when people do drugs in movies."
"I—well, I'm not doing drugs. Other than caffeine.”
"That's good, then," the kid said, returning his gaze to his phone.
"Are you here to meet with Bruce Banner?"
"Not today. He does mentor some other kids sometimes though," Adam said, his tone clearly implying how poorly he thought of that use of Bruce's time. "Are you meeting with him? You sure you still want to talk to him? He really schooled you at that boring fundraiser, didn't he?"
"Well, we've been talking since then. We're...friends now."
"Friends? You don't sound so sure. You're not going to fight him, are you? Just so you know, I'm on his side if there's going to be a fight." He had a glint in his eye that told Tony he meant it. A shiver went up his spine. Not that he was afraid of a child, for God’s sake. It was the accent. He’s always found British accents more creepy than sexy.
"Oh my god, I'm not on drugs and I'm not going to fight anyone!"
"I thought you were a warmonger."
"But Dr. B said you were, and he’s always right about everything. Is that why you’re looking for him? To silence him?" The kid still stared up at Tony in a vaguely menacing way.
"Calm down, kid, it's nothing sinister. I'm working on a tricky project and he's been helping me out." Talking to Bruce had been helping Tony with Ultron, even if Bruce hadn't laid eyes on a single line of code.
"Oh, yeah, he's a genius. And my name's not kid, it's Adam."
Another shiver. Maybe someone had slipped him drugs.
"Right. Adam. Anyway, so...sorry if it seemed like I got off on the wrong foot with your teacher, but I think we've patched things up."
Adam looked skeptical. "So what are you working on with him? Is it a gun? A cannon?” Adam gasped, an exciting idea coming to him: “A missile?”
"No! It's, it's the opposite of a weapon."
"Oh. Like a plaster?"
"Oh, right, in America you call them Band-Aids."
"I think a Band-Aid is the opposite of a weapon because a weapon hurts you but a bandage heals you. Or a doctor, maybe. Or stitches. The skin kind, not the clothes kind."
"Okay, yes, I take your point, but no."
"So what is it, then, Mr. Mysterio?"
If Tony were feeling better-rested or more secure, he might not have let a tween bully him into talking about his most cherished project. But he wasn't. And a small, stupid part of him felt compelled to tell Adam everything. And an even smaller, stupider part of him wanted the boy to be impressed. Seriously, had someone slipped him LSD?
"Well, Adam, if you must know, I'm working on a project called Ultron. It's designed to be the ultimate peacekeeping tool."
"Ooh, Ultron, that sounds cool. Is it a robot?"
"Sounds like a robot," Adam muttered sulkily.
"But you've built robots before, haven't you?"
"Yes, of course I have. But this is bigger than a robot. It's an artificial intelligence peacekeeping program. It will detect threats to humanity and remotely neutralize them."
"Hmm. But isn't an artificial intelligence a robot?"
"No. A robot is a machine that can be programmed to perform automated tasks, an artificial intelligence is...well, an intelligence. It can think for itself. But it's only a program, it doesn't have a physical form like a robot."
"But how can it stop threats if it doesn't have a body?"
"Most weapons these days are controlled by computers anyway. A missile can't be launched without an authorization code. Ultron would be able to lock it out."
"If it had a body, though, it could have rocket-powered fists!" Adam mimed a punch.
"It could," Tony agreed. "But it doesn't."
"What about school shootings? My dad says there are a lot of school shootings in the States. What's your artificial intelligence going to do about that?"
"Well, it can monitor all kinds of communications and identify potential threats based on their social media posts and phone records and be able to contact local authorities, but it will also be able to call electromagnetic fields to protect bystanders anywhere in the world."
"Well, that part sounds pretty good," Adam admitted. "If that's what you're working on, why does Dr. B hate you so much?"
"He doesn't hate me. We had a misunderstanding. But we're friends now. We go out for lunch and stuff," he blurted out, again unsure as to why he wanted this tween's approval so badly.
Adam's eyes darkened. "Is that why he was late to meet with me last week? Because he was having lunch with you?"
"Uh...maybe? I'm sorry if that was the case. I didn't realize he had something else after."
Adam crossed his arms. "Well, just be sure it doesn't happen again. It's very rude."
Inside, Tony railed, Check yourself, kid! I’m a grown-up! You can’t tell me what to do! But, outside, he demurred. "I...okay, sure. What do you and Dr. Banner do here, anyway?"
Adam shrugged. "Hang out. He helps with my homework sometimes, or we do stuff like build Lego robots or other interesting experiments. One time he let me put Mentos in Diet Coke. That was wicked."
"If you don't mind me saying, you don't really seem like an at-risk youth."
"Oh, well, I used to get into loads of trouble back in Tadfield so when we moved to New York my dad made me sign up here. It was kind of stupid at first but I made some friends here and I like Dr. B. so it's fine now."
As if summoned by Adam's words, a pack of moppets looking straight out of central casting came out of the center's front door. "Adam, there you are!" one of them said.
"What're you hanging out with this old guy for?" another asked.
"We're not hanging out," Tony groused.
"Yeah, I was just waiting for you guys." To Tony, Adam said formally, "Good luck with your robots, Mr. Stark." Then he turned his attention back to his friends, silently dismissing Tony. "Hey gang, why don't we go down to the park and play baseball? My dad says that's what Americans play. I want to learn it."
"Great idea, Adam!"
"Yeah, except we don't have a ball or bat or anything."
"Oh, I'm sure we'll figure something out," Adam said vaguely. "Things will work themselves out." The kids all nodded and followed Adam to the park.
After they left, Tony retreated to the safety of his car. He thought about trying to spend the afternoon at a nearby coffeeshop and "accidentally" running into Bruce afterwards; it had seemed like Bruce was just starting to warm up to him when they'd had to end their lunch. But his encounter with Adam had left him feeling a bit...off. Instead, he went back to his office and worked on Ultron for the rest of the afternoon. If he could just get it online, he'd make the world the peaceful place he knew it could be. And maybe in that world, Bruce would trust Tony enough to share his thoughts.
Hours after his lunch with Bruce and subsequent encounter with Adam, Tony was at his desk, trying to give himself the mental pep talk he needed to get more coffee so he could write more code, when his phone lit up with a call from Bruce. Tony picked up and said brightly, "Hey, Bruce!"
Bruce's voice sounded heavy as he said, “Hey...Tony, listen...There are things that I need to tell you."
"Go ahead, share your thoughts. I'll give you your pennies next time I see you."
"No, sorry, I need to tell you in person. I wanted to bring it up at lunch today, but...I...I wasn’t sure if I should...”
Tony wasn’t a fan of mushy, touchy-feely “Here’s why I’m afraid of love, or a relationship, or sex,” talks, but he’d make an exception for Bruce. Really, whatever Bruce wanted to talk about, Tony would be happy to listen to.
“Sure,” Tony said. “Do you want to get dinner?"
“Actually...would you mind coming to my apartment?”
“Ooh,” Tony said.
Bruce sighed. “It isn’t what you think. It isn’t fun.”
I can make it fun, Tony thought, and held back. “Is it about your two visitors?” Tony asked, his voice low. They'd given off such a strange vibe. He hoped they weren't taking advantage of Bruce.
“No. Yes. But not in the way you’d think.”
“Are they causing trouble?”
“No, no...This conversation needs to happen in person, in private—”
“Right. Of course. When?”
“Now,” Bruce said. “As soon as possible.”
Tony couldn’t help it: he was intrigued. “See you soon.”
Tony saved his work and headed back to Brooklyn. He buzzed up to Bruce's apartment. "Hey, it's me. Tony."
"Oh! That was fast, thanks for coming," Bruce said over the speaker. The door unlocked with a satisfying click and Tony made his way upstairs for the first time since the car accident—Bruce had been letting Tony pick him up, but he'd always come down to meet Tony at his car. Bruce's apartment looked less tidy than it had been that night; there were takeout boxes and index cards scattered everywhere. The Brits must be terrible guests.
"I'm a great driver," Tony said easily. "So, what's on your mind?"
Bruce scrubbed his hand over his face. "Uh...you should probably sit down. Do you want some tea? Or seltzer? Or water?"
"Water would be great, thank you," Tony said. He sat down on the couch where Bruce had pointed. He picked up one of the index cards off the coffee table and read, "It will cometh not in London Town nor Gay Paris but in Brooke Linne, a boy will gather the ultimate power for his followers and bring the end of Man." He raised his eyebrows and muttered, "Kinky."
Bruce brought over two glasses of water and sighed when he saw what Tony was holding. "Listen, I know all of this is going to sound, well, insane, but...well, the end of the world is coming, and I believe you can help stop it."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "I know you don't like my company's policies—which, I've been doing my best to get everything on the up-and-up again, but the end of the world seems a little...extreme, don't you think?"
Bruce removed a layer of index cards from the table and revealed a thick, leather-bound volume, bristling with multi-colored Post-It note flags. The title embossed on the cover read, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. "Please don't laugh," he said. "I know how it sounds, but...this is a book of prophecies from the 17th century, written by an ancestor of mine. Nearly all of them have come true. And most of the ones that haven't come true yet, well...they're about the end of the world. Armageddon. The Apocalypse."
The British couple who'd hit Bruce with their car last week entered the kitchen. The lanky one who insisted on wearing sunglasses indoors and outdoors and probably to sleep, said, "You know, we're on a tight schedule, Banner, we haven't got time for you to list all the synonyms you know for the End of Days."
Bruce's already-tired face crumpled. Feeling defensive of his new friend, Tony glared at the snarky Brit and said, "Oh, but we had time for you to apply more hair product, you limey Earnhardt? Bruce, what are you trying to tell me?"
Bruce gave Tony a look that was both grateful and apologetic. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that Agnes had promised that his soulmate had "secrette goodeness” before opening the book to a page near the end and sliding it across the table to Tony. "Crowley's right, though, time is of the essence. I think it'll be easier if you read these for yourself, to start. The prophecies are more or less chronological, although there are some jumps...but I believe these few pages have to do with you. Among other things. Particularly the ones with yellow Post-It flags."
The blonde Brit said, "Wait, he should wear gloves!"
"The world's ending, it really doesn't matter if he gets fingerprints on the book, Aziraphale," Bruce said.
Aziraphale made a disapproving hum. Crowley paced around the apartment and hissed at Bruce's succulents. Bruce watched Tony, and Tony read the book. The paper was thin and seemed at risk of crumbling under Tony's fingers, and he struggled a bit with the archaic font and questionable spelling, but it was overall easy enough to understand most of what the book was saying. He looked up after he read, "Anthony Starke is not what he seems. He has a good mind and a weak heart." Unthinkingly, his hand went to his chest. "Is this some kind of a prank? How did you know about that? Was it in TMZ?"
"I didn't write any of this. Agnes Nutter wrote it. She was a witch who died in 1693," Bruce said patiently.
Through his shirt, Tony traced a finger over the network of faint scars that patterned his chest. Whenever people saw him shirtless and asked about them, he always made up different stories: knife fight, shark attack, skydiving accident...Pepper had told him his Multiple Choice Scar Origins were a bit too Jokery, but Tony liked to have his fun—and it helped him to identify leakers. He cleared his throat. "Nobody knows about this. My father made sure of it, he was so embarrassed…"
Tony supposed that now that his parents were dead, there was no real reason for him to continue being secretive about it. As an adult, he'd come to understand that there wasn't anything shameful about his heart condition, but he couldn't quite get over his father's conditioning about it. And there probably was something to his father's fear—Tony had already struggled to gain respect as a young CEO. A young CEO who'd survived multiple experimental heart surgeries would be another vulnerability that someone could potentially exploit.
Plus, in a strange way, as much as the shame plagued him, his health problems were one of the only parts of his life that the tabloids hadn’t gotten their hands on. It was nice to know that not all of Tony's life was a matter of public record.
"Knows about what?" Bruce asked, his eyebrows furrowed.
"My...heart," Tony said. "I was born with a congenital heart defect, I had a bunch of surgeries to correct it when I was a kid. But my dad was old school, saw it as some kind of failure of his stock or something, so he told everyone I was at boarding school…I guess it was only a matter of time before one of the nurses or somebody sold the story."
Bruce's eyes widened. "Oh! That's what she meant by weak heart?"
"Well...I assume? What did you think she meant?"
"No, ah, nothing," said Bruce, who had definitely assumed it meant Tony's morals were corrupt. "That definitely makes sense. And, ah...sorry about that. The surgeries and all, I mean. Sounds...rough." Bruce, whose childhood had also been marked by hospital visits that his father preferred to keep secret, gave Tony a sympathetic look and added, "Um. But the ones we actually wanted to talk to you about were...well, keep reading."
Tony kept reading and his battered heart fell further as he read, "Times will be dark, a Stark shall seek to build the Ultimate peace yet this will bring about the Four who call the End; neither Heaven nor Hell will stop what comes." "The heir of war machines will create the Ultimate, and by these means a child may control the sky above." Another separate prophecy stated that "Though it will harm none, Anthony Starke will make a Deel with a Devil."
This visit to Bruce's home really was not playing out the way that Tony had hoped it might, but he forced himself to keep reading. Some of the prophecies read like nonsense to him, but there were a few other references to "Stark" and "Ultimate," none of which were good. He also saw a few references to "Robert," which Tony's light internet stalking had already revealed was Bruce's first name.
After reading all this stuff about himself, Tony completely understood why Bruce had initially been so skittish about meeting with him. But Bruce wouldn't have befriended Tony if he really believed that Tony was some kind of demon who was going to bring about the apocalypse, would he? So maybe the prophecies meant...something else? Something that wasn't as terrible as it seemed?
This explained Bruce's outburst last week at the ARC center, all of his veiled references to the Ultron project. SI didn't have a leak, at least not one who lived in this century.
"Do you know what she's referring to?" Bruce asked. "This Ultimate stuff?"
"I...I think I do, actually, yeah," Tony said, feeling sick. He almost wished he could write this off as a prank, but the book knew too much. And even though he didn’t know Bruce terribly well, he just couldn’t believe that Bruce would go to all the trouble it would take to create a hoax like this, even if he somehow had gotten his knowledge from other, non-mystical channels. "But it's the opposite of what I meant it for! It's supposed to be a peacekeeping tool! Why does this happen to everything I design?"
Aziraphale said, "What is it, exactly? Your peacekeeping tool?"
Tony rubbed his forehead. "Ah, before we get too deep into this, I think I should call Pepper. Right now we’re a team of two absent-minded professors and two slutty rockstars, we should probably get someone...normatively competent. She's my assistant but she's...whatever it is we're doing, I think she should be involved."
Crowley and Aziraphale looked at each other, trying to figure out which among them were the professors and rockstars.
"Pepper," Bruce said thoughtfully. "Wait, what color hair does she have? Is it red?"
"...yes, but please don't be weird to her," Tony said. He knew he had a certain reputation but he really didn't want Pepper to be treated with anything other than respect in and out of the workplace.
"No. Not that...sorry. Just…" he shuffled through the index cards and produced one that read, "A Ginger Spice will bring order to the end." Sheepishly, Bruce said, "After the 90s, we all assumed this one was about the Spice Girls but if her name is Pepper...well, that's pretty peak Agnes wordplay. Anyway, yeah, you should probably call her."
Tony raised his eyebrows at the strangely specific prophecy. He re-read the dire warnings of the end of days and said, "And...and everything in this book has come true?" He didn’t want his legacy to be the world’s destruction. Then again, if a legacy is left and no one’s allowed to see it, does it make a sound?
“Yes!” Aziraphale exclaimed. “She, this book, it’s a legend, in all my years on Earth I thought I’d never—” Aziraphale shut up when he saw Crowley shooting him a look.
Bruce came to stand behind Tony. He flipped the ancient book to random pages and pointed out prophecies. "The American Civil War. Beatlemania. Apple…" Bruce trailed off. "The problem is, the signal-to-noise ratio is bad. A lot of her prophecies are very specific to our family, or so small-scale as to be meaningless. Well, I should say, that's one of the problems. Another problem is that, as you can see, a lot of these don't actually make sense until after the fact."
"Wow." Tony's mind was reeling. "You could have made a killing in the stock market."
"Oh. Well...we did. I mean, my ancestors. I haven't really, personally...but I inherited, well, this building, and some other stuff…" Bruce said. He fought back tears, and Tony thankfully didn't comment. He knew something about inheriting an uncomfortable legacy.
"Let me just call Pepper," Tony said. He used one hand to pull his phone out of his pocket to call Pepper, and he used the other to gently pat Bruce's hand. Bruce sighed and pulled his hand away. If Agnes said he was supposed to be with Crowley, then there was no point in accepting temporary comfort from Tony.
Fortunately, being asked to leave her office at the end of the workday to visit a random apartment in Brooklyn was far from the strangest thing Tony had ever asked Pepper to do, and she joined them promptly. Bruce and Tony brought her up to speed, while Crowley huffed and Aziraphale fretted.
“Okay,” Pepper said, “and what’s your plan?”
“Well, to find the Antichrist…” Aziraphale said.
“And do what?”
Silence. Pepper sighed.
“Subdue him,” Crowley said.
“He’s eleven,” Bruce said.
“Talk to him.” Aziraphale squeezed the bridge of his nose.
Pepper said, “Oh! So you know he’s eleven. That’s a start. Dr. Banner, do you have a corkboard?”
He had one in the back of his closet, left over from organizing his thesis. Bruce carefully pulled out a handful of the most relevant prophecies and pinned them up on a corkboard for them all to study. For the millionth time, he wished his mother was there—not only because he missed her, but also because she had been so much better at interpreting the prophecies than he was.
"Ooh, should we connect these with string? Like we're hunting a serial killer?" Tony asked.
“We might very well be,” Crowley said.
“He’s. Eleven.” Bruce repeated. Crowley shrugged.
“Okay, we know he’s eleven, what else?” Pepper coaxed. She had a lot of experience with running meetings and encouraging participant feedback.
More silence, another frustrated sigh.
“We need to pool all our knowledge together. Everything. Even if you think it’s irrelevant.”
"We don't know much," Bruce said. "We don't even know for sure that he lives in Brooklyn. It just says the end will start here...maybe he lives in Jersey. Or Brooklyn, Iowa. Or even Brookline, Massachusetts—spelling wasn’t her strong suit…”
"No, he lives here," Crowley said firmly.
"How do you know?" Pepper asked.
"I...well, I just do," Crowley said.
"We've been studying this for a long time," Aziraphale added. "We're eschatologists."
"But I thought you hadn't seen the book before you came to Brooklyn," Bruce said.
"Er, well, no, not that book in particular," Aziraphale stammered. "But, we, ah, well, have other sources."
"Oh! Great. Can we see them?" Bruce asked.
"They, ah, were oral sources. Interviews, I mean."
“Who can you possibly interview about the end times?” Tony asked. “Those packrat survivalists in Utah?”
“Do you really think we’d be caught dead in the Midwest?” Crowley asked, either putting on a good show of offense or genuinely insulted. “No, we interviewed people with far better credentials than ‘Extreme Couponed twelve hundred cans of creamed corn.’”
“I’m afraid our sources are quite confidential,” Aziraphale chirped in his bookstore owner voice.
"Okay,” Pepper jumped in, eager to defuse the situation, “did you learn anything else from your...interviews?"
Aziraphale and Crowley shrugged and muttered. Aziraphale said, "Well, he was...born in the UK. But he came to Brooklyn...at some point."
Pepper said, "We keep saying 'he.' Are we sure the Antichrist is a boy?"
Bruce tapped one of the cards. "Agnes says he's a boy."
“They had a very limited understanding of gender back then,” Crowley said.
“We know when he was born! We know his birthday!” Aziraphale said. He would be quite thrilled if that one small bit of information turned out to be a game changer, and if he’d be the one to come up with it.
Tony sat up and whipped out his phone. “I can work with that! We know his birthday, we know he’s in one of these schools…” Tony’s fingers flew across his phone. “Here you go. A list of kids living in Brooklyn with that birthday. Two hundred forty-eight. Won’t do. But!" He tapped again and added triumphantly, "Born in the UK narrows it down to a paltry six. Recognize anyone?”
Tony handed the phone to Bruce, who glanced over the list and frowned. “Adam Young.”
“What can you tell us about Adam Young?” Pepper asked. “Is he exceptional in any way?”
In a very small voice, still staring at the list, Bruce said, “All children are exceptional.”
“Oh shove it, stop with this ‘all children are exceptional’ bullshit,” Crowley barked. “Not all children are exceptional because not all adults are exceptional, and it’s the dullards who make up the vertebrae of the spine.”
Tony smirked. “I think I’m starting to like this guy.”
Crowley went on, “But not for much longer if we don’t put aside this tact bullshit. I’m not talking about whether someone’s mother thinks they’re special, I’m talking about if this kid can lift objects with his mind, if bullies are chasing him and he winds up on the roof, if he gets an ugly haircut and it grows back.”
“That’s Harry living with the Dursleys, dear,” Aziraphale said gently.
“God, then no,” Bruce said. And as far as he knew, Adam hadn’t done any of those things. Not specifically. He’d never made anything levitate...although he did seem to have a habit of conjuring contraband items from seemingly nowhere. No one bullied him...because once he told someone to stop, they did.
It couldn’t be. Couldn’t. The Antichrist was not in Brooklyn. The Antichrist was not one of Bruce’s neighborhood kids, prodigies or normals, certainly not his own student...who did seem to have a certain uncanny luck on his side, but...well, if Bruce could be born preternaturally unlucky, surely the universe must have also given some kids extra luck to balance things out?
“Tell me,” Aziraphale said slowly, “does he have a dog?”
“Yeah! He has a dog!” Bruce said excitedly. Surely that would rule him out; the Antichrist wouldn’t have a dog—not Adam’s cute little mutt.
Crowley slammed his hand on the table. “He has a dog?! Why didn’t you say that? What type of dog?”
Pepper and Tony exchanged a glance. They never understood dog people.
“...A terrier mix.”
“When did he get it? How?”
“It was a stray. Showed up at the ARC Center actually, in the garden. He was such a friendly pup right from the first moment, I couldn't believe he wasn't microchipped,” Bruce said, his voice a soft coo as he thought about Adam's adorable Dog.
"How long ago was this?" Crowley demanded.
"Well...it was on his birthday, so, a few weeks ago, I guess."
“We’ll know him by the beast. He’ll have a hellhound,” Aziraphale pronounced.
“He’s not a hellhound. He’s a little terrier—look, I have pictures,” Bruce said, his heart racing as he scrolled through photographs, saved from Adam's daily emails. He didn’t like the sudden change in mood; he didn’t want to make it easier for these strange men to identify Adam. But surely Dog would rule out Adam as a suspect. “He’s just a yappy little—stop. I’ve known Adam for almost a year. Tony, you’ve met Adam,” he said, looking desperately to his new friend for support.
Guilt flashed across Tony’s face. How did Bruce know about his weird chat with Adam earlier that afternoon? Bruce prompted, “At the ARC fundraiser event last week. He told you to watch Blue Planet. Remember? With the curly hair? He’s just a normal kid.”
Tony winced as he realized that he couldn’t back Bruce up. Adam hadn't seemed like a normal kid to him. He was...intense. Beyond just the anxiety-inducing British accent.
Tony bit his lip and Bruce looked away, hurt. "Well...anyway, this isn't a hellhound, is it? Wouldn't a hellhound be...bigger? I don't know, more...hellish?"
“The hellhound is whatever his master wants it to be,” Crowley said sharply. “The Antichrist has the power to manipulate reality to his will.”
Bruce let out a shaky breath. Bruce loved to look through adoptable dogs on Petfinder, and sometimes when he and Adam didn't have anything particular to do at the ARC Center, he and Adam would go through the website together. Adam had always been drawn to small terrier mixes...dogs exactly like Dog, who had appeared miraculously on Adam's birthday. Still—stranger things had happened.
“If he is the Antichrist,” Pepper said, “is he human?”
“Not strictly speaking, no,” Crowley answered quietly.
“How could you even ask that?” Bruce cried despairingly.
Kindly, Aziraphale said, "You know, it's getting rather late. Perhaps we should adjourn for the evening. I understand a few hours of sleep might rather help us all function better."
"It's barely nine o'clock," Tony said.
"I—I think Aziraphale is right," Bruce said. "I, uh, haven't been sleeping very well lately, and I'm afraid I can't be very productive at the moment. Tony and Pepper, you're welcome to stay the night here if you'd like, there's plenty of space."
“We’re on a pretty tight deadline, if you haven’t noticed,” Crowley growled. It seemed that only Aziraphale had any sense of tact until Pepper, with a small smile toward the obviously distraught Bruce, agreed: they’d all work better with a good night’s sleep. And with that, the insomniacs were outnumbered.
Pepper and Tony declined Bruce's offer of overnight housing and agreed to reconvene in the morning. Bruce left up the corkboard in the living room but he took the book back to his bedroom. He hadn't been lying about being tired, yet...he pulled out his phone. He was immediately greeted with a strange news alert: "Marine biologists report inexplicable boom in blue whale population."
Bruce swallowed hard. He knew from the timestamps on Adam's frequent emails that Adam had a pretty lax bedtime. He also had a backlog of emails from him: between his guests and Tony, on top of his normal obligations, he’d gone from zero to 90, socially, and hadn’t been as attentive to Adam. He decided to send an email of his own—an apology for his absence, and an invitation to catch up in person.
1Actually, all of Tony's childhood healthcare providers had followed Howard Stark's strict non-disclosure agreements and would continue to follow them as long as they lived. Not only because Howard had paid them very well, but also because they'd all grown fond of young Tony, who, in turn, continued to make many generous donations to various children's hospitals. [return to text]
2Though for different reasons.[return to text]
3It did, actually, but Bruce hadn't been talking to them.[return to text]
4There were random and unpredictable times that Crowley’s television habits were the saving grace (so to speak) of their blending in with humanity. His reality television habit was far more populist than Aziraphale’s ability to recite from memory the collected works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, which actually made him seem alien and alienating.[return to text]
Chapter 9: In Which Bruce Accidentally Kicks Things Into Motion
Talking to Adam was a bad idea. It was like giving the enemy a head’s up, putting them on alert. Bruce didn’t want to conceptualize a young kid as “the Adversary” but, in the case...he maybe kind of was. Conceptually. But things get lost in concept. When you hear someone’s the Antichrist, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.
And plotting behind a kid’s back felt uncouth. Besides, he might not actually be the Antichrist.
Still, Bruce didn’t run the idea by anyone because he knew they’d try to stop him (even, he imagined, Aziraphale).
“Thank you for meeting me, Adam.”
“You haven’t been answering my emails,” Adam said. “Not like you used to.” It was true: once Bruce started having a grown-up friend in Tony, his emails to Adam were no longer as prompt or as in-depth. Bruce justified it by thinking Adam would rather hear from his friends his own age, as well. What eleven-year old wants to read an old man blathering about whales and aliens? He was wrong, of course, and he’d known it, but at the time, it assuaged his guilt. Now, it was coming back to bite him.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to ignore you, and I don’t want to make you feel anything other than heard and respected, but I—” He stopped short of pulling the dead mother card. “I’m going through some things right now, kind of heavy adult stuff—”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m some kid,” Adam demanded, and then his voice softened while still keeping its fierce determination: “I can help you with stuff. You help me all the time.”
It was as good an opening as any. Better than what Bruce expected.
“Adam, do you...do you ever make things happen….” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Maybe beyond what other kids can do? Maybe even beyond adults?”
“I dunno, I haven’t thought much about what other kids could do,” Adam muttered dismissively, as if the question of what other kids can do had never occurred to him before and didn’t interest him now.
“Were you thinking about whales the other day?”
“Yeah!” Adam got excited. “I was thinking how cool it would be if they weren't endangered anymore, and I saw my dad’s paper and it said they weren't! Do you think I did that?”
Bruce wanted to say no, that's impossible. He didn’t want to lie. He didn’t say anything.
“You do, don’t you?” Adam gasped.
“Adam…” Bruce spoke in his soft “I’m-getting-a-migraine” voice and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Why are you so mad at me? I brought the whales back!”
“No, you didn’t! Stop being ridiculous!” He snapped. He hadn’t meant to. The aggression shocked him as much as it did Adam—and terrified him. Robert will be his father’s son… ”Adam, I—”
“I don’t think I like you anymore, Dr. B. Ever since you been hanging out with Tony Stark, you got mean.”
“What? How’d you—” Bruce always tried to keep his personal life separate from his volunteer work. But of course, given Adam's apparent abilities, it was clearly now no problem for Adam to figure out where Bruce had been spending his time.
"I thought you were honest, but you're a hypocrite too, just like every other adult. You told him all the bad things his company was doing but then you went and made friends with him anyway."
“But one day I’ll be just as powerful as him—more, even, and I’ll save the whales all by myself, and stop acid rain and deforestation and you won’t have nothing to do with it.”
I don’t doubt that you will, Bruce thought, but he couldn’t begin to calculate the cost.
“I want you to leave. Now.” Adam said.
And Bruce did leave, as if compelled by an unseen force, which is exactly what was happening to him. He couldn't control his limbs at all, he just mechanically climbed back onto his bicycle and pedaled home, unable even to turn his head or move his lips to plead with Adam. He wanted to stay—knew he needed to stay; Adam would surely view it as a test of whether adults kept their promises and their loyalty. And Bruce had no choice but to flunk.
Adam's grip on him faded when Bruce got home, and he crumpled onto his front steps and started trying to breathe his way through a panic attack. Even though he intellectually knew what was happening, he couldn't shake the thought that he was just going to die right there on the steps of the building his stupid ancestors had bought. At least that would surprise Agnes.
He didn't hear the front door open, but Aziraphale somehow materialized beside him. "Oh, my dear boy," he said. He gently rubbed Bruce's back and encouraged him to breathe, and Bruce found that he could breathe.
"Sorry," Bruce said.
"You've nothing to apologize for," Aziraphale said, which wasn't, strictly speaking, true. But it was nice to hear. "Why don't you come back inside and get some sleep? I really do think it would do you a world of good."
Bruce nodded and let Aziraphale take his hand and guide him back up to his bedroom. He stood in the doorway and stroked Bruce's hair. "Sleep well," he said.
Bruce quickly changed and stumbled into bed. Aziraphale still stood in the doorway (averting his eyes with appropriately human modesty), which could have been weird but was instead reassuring. “You’re gonna be mad at me,” Bruce mumbled into his pillow. “I did something bad.” He felt absurdly childish.
“I’m sure I won’t,” Aziraphale said, venturing into the room, “and I’m sure you didn’t.” He set a glass of water on Bruce's nightstand, which Bruce sipped gratefully and used to swallow an Ativan. Bruce wasn't sure if it was the Ativan or Aziraphale, but he did manage to fall into a sound sleep shortly after that.
He woke up early, feeling well-rested. For a brief moment, he felt content, and then he remembered. The world was ending. His mentee was the literal Antichrist. His soulmate wore sunglasses indoors. He considered pulling his pillow over his head and giving up, but instead, he sat up and checked his phone. He had the oddest collection of news alerts. In addition to yesterday's whale news, he saw, "New satellite photos show the polar ice cap has doubled in size overnight." "Acres of old-growth rainforest reappear." "NYC Schools Chancellor announces pizza for lunch every day."
He showered and dressed, then popped out to the kitchen. It was still early, but Aziraphale and Crowley were already in the living room with tea. They were poring over the notecards and speaking to each other in hushed tones.
"Good morning, Bruce, how did you sleep?" Aziraphale asked.
"It doesn't matter how he slept, it matters that he's awake now. Call your friends, we've got work to do," Crowley snapped.
Aziraphale clicked his tongue, but Bruce nodded. Crowley was right. Pepper and Tony joined them promptly, bearing coffee and bagels. Aziraphale took a bagel with delight, but Bruce had lost his appetite again.
Once everyone was settled into the living room, Bruce drew a ragged breath and said, "Okay, so...Adam...maybe...might...have some supernatural abilities. Can we help him?"
"What's happened?" Pepper asked.
Bruce read off the headlines, and Pepper laughed. She carefully copied them onto notecards and said, "These doesn't really sound like the end of days. Those sound...good. Except for the pizza, but from a young boy’s perspective, I can see the allure." Pepper, who faithfully followed various trendy diets, hadn't eaten pizza in three years.
"Technically his abilities could be used for good as well as ill," Aziraphale said.
"It doesn't matter what he's using them for. If he's altering reality at that scale, it will summon the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," Crowley said.
Bruce glumly tapped the relevant prophecies. "Okay, so...so then what? It says neither Heaven nor Hell will stop what comes…" Crowley and Aziraphale both tried, and failed, to hide their dismay at that.
Tony said, "But this one says, ['In the final hours unlikely allies will together undo what their ancestors have wrought.'] That's gotta be us, right? Unlikely allies?"
"Undoing what our ancestors have wrought," Bruce said thoughtfully. "Agnes didn't really cause any of this, though, she just wrote it down. Tony, I guess, you know, Stark Industries...does seem to have a role to play in this, so that makes sense. Aziraphale and Crowley, do you have any notable ancestors?"
"Nope," Crowley said immediately.
"Not a one," Aziraphale said.
"...you know, if the end of the world is imminent, you might want to put all your cards on the table," Pepper said.
"I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about," Aziraphale replied curtly.
Bruce rubbed his forehead. The two Brits were obviously hiding something, and before, he’d let it slide, hoping they’d let their guard down and slip up. He was keeping a few cards close to his chest, too, after all.
“Listen, Jasper and Roger,” Tony said, “the stakes are high. Whatever it is you’re hiding, does it have anything to do with the Antichrist, the Apocalypse—God or whatever?”
“No,” Crowley and Aziraphale lied in unison.
“Okay, fine, it’s probably some weird sex thing no one cares about. Feet stuff? Rope stuff? I'm not here to judge, as long as it's consensual.”
“Tony,” Pepper said firmly. Tony had been correct to bring her onboard.
“Pepper,” Bruce said, attempting to get the conversation back on track, “do you have any ancestors who might have contributed to the apocalypse?"
"I think I had a great-grand-uncle who fought for the Confederacy," Pepper said. "We don't really talk about him. I think I'm just here because I work for SI."
"Okay, well, one step at a time...we can't do anything to help Adam if we're not with him." Bruce said. "I'll email him, see if he'll meet with me after school."
“Best not to contact him at this point,” Aziraphale said. Bruce’s stomach twisted with guilt. “We don’t know what he’ll do or how he’ll react, and we should maintain the element of surprise as long as we can.”
Crowley raised his eyebrows above his sunglasses. His tone dripping with condescension, he said, "And do you actually think the Antichrist is going to go to school?"
Bruce shrugged. "He might? Children are comforted by routines. I'm sure he's scared…"
Now Crowley outright laughed. "You're worried that the Antichrist is scared?"
"His name is Adam, not The Antichrist. He's just a kid! It must be very confusing to...to have all this happen. It isn't as if he asked for it," Bruce said, and Crowley stopped laughing. "I'm sure Adam doesn't want to bring about the end of the world. He likes the world." Bruce went to the kitchen, to pace and heat water for tea.
Tony followed him into the kitchen. His voice lowered, he said, "Hey...so...your first name is Robert, isn't it?"
Bruce froze and nodded. "So?"
"So some of the prophecies in that book mention you by name," Tony prompted. "But I didn't see them on the corkboard."
"Well...yeah, but...but I don't think it's really relevant, it just says that I'll be there for the end. And we know that."
Tony, who was a very fast reader, said, "Are you sure? There seemed to be multiple mentions of your name in the book, and...well, if we're trying to have all our cards on the table. Or on the corkboard, as it were. I—I mean, your ancestor already read me to filth, there can't be anything that bad about you in there, can there? Nothing worth hiding?"
"Agnes didn't really say anything bad about you," Bruce protested. "I meant to ask, by the way...how's your health, these days? I'm so sorry about your heart problems."
Tony brought his hand to his chest. He wasn't used to talking about it outside of the safety of a doctor's office. "Oh, fine. I'm a gold star patient. They wrote papers about me and everything, with a pseudonym, of course."
"But you don't...suffer from it? I mean, you're not in pain now?" Bruce asked, as he placed the kettle on the stove.
"Oh, no. Those surgeries are holding me together just fine. I get routine EKGs just to check, but I haven't had any problems for years."
"That's good. Still, that must have been hard, as a kid."
"It...well, I mean, yeah, recovering from open heart surgeries wasn't exactly fun. A lot of bed rest. But I read a lot. My mom always made sure I had all the books I could want. And I...I was in and out of very specialized children's hospitals, and I met some refugee kids, kids who'd been badly hurt as civilian casualties in wars in their countries. And meeting them...seeing what war did to people, it made me decide that I never wanted to have anything to do with that. So when I inherited Stark Industries, that's why I wanted to stop making weapons. So I...I almost think it happened to me for a reason."
"Oh...wow," Bruce said. He could hear the sincerity in Tony's voice, and he was moved by it. Especially since Tony really had tried to stop making weapons. Plenty of CEOs would have been willing to ignore personal experiences like that in favor of profit. Bruce wasn't sure how to voice his appreciation without sounding condescending. He settled for, "That's really something."
Tony shrugged one shoulder. "Yeah, well, it doesn't seem like ol' Agnes got the memo about that one. If all you knew about me was from those prophecies, I guess I can see why you thought I was some kind of monster."
"I—I didn't think you were a monster. And she didn't say anything...that bad about you, not really. More about your company. Your father. Not you."
"She said I wasn't what I appeared to be!"
"Well—but—that's good, actually, I think," Bruce said shyly.
"You don't like how I appear?" Tony asked, with an exaggerated pout that masked a real pout.
"No, I do!" Bruce blurted out. "I mean...well, before I met you, I thought you were...ah, different from what you are."
Tony laughed. "So you didn't mind calling me out in front of a crowd but you don't want to do it here in your own kitchen? Spit it out, Banner."
Bruce bit his lip. "What I'm trying to say is, I'm sorry for misjudging you. You're not what you seem because you're better than you seem. You're...you're a good person, Tony, and I...I'm glad we got to meet. I'm glad you're not what your company made me think you were."
Tony smiled, but he hadn't forgotten about his original question. "I'm glad we got to meet too. Robert."
"Okay. So about those prophecies...it's—it's just that," Bruce said. He lowered his voice. "It's just that one of the prophecies says that my soulmate is Crowley, and I just—and I just can't—I'd just rather not have that conversation with...with him...right now."
"Crowley? Are you sure? It—isn't he, you know, with Aziraphale?"
"They say they're not, but—I don't know," Bruce moaned.
"And they're both old enough to be your father."
"I know," Bruce said. "I guess I could get used to the age difference if he weren't so...so...well...you know. I'm just not sure how I'm ever supposed to end up with him."
Tony put an arm around Bruce's shoulders. His tone light, he said, "Hey, it'll be okay. It's not the end of the world...oh wait."
Bruce let out a bitter laugh. "Yeah, maybe I'll just die and not have to spend my life with him."
"Aw, he's not that bad. He’s got a great car and I’d kill for that hair,” Tony said, then added, softly, “Please don't die."
"That's not really up to me," Bruce said. The kettle whistled, and he pulled away from Tony to set about preparing the tea.
"Maybe you don't have to do what all of her prophecies say. Let’s face it—you have no chemistry with that guy, but you and me? We’re the fucking Curies.”
Bruce laughed in spite of himself. Tony, eyes glinting, grabbed Bruce’s hand and said, “If you like that, there’s more nerd humor where that came from.”
For just a moment, Bruce let himself imagine just that, a life full of Tony Stark's cheesy science puns, his smile...but he bit his lip and said, "I...when I was younger, I tried my hardest to break the prophecies, and...and I just don't think it's possible. I'm sorry. Agnes is always right. They always come true, one way or another.”
"Then I guess Crowley's a lucky guy," Tony said, with a tone that made Bruce blush. Bruce swallowed and avoided Tony's gaze as he pulled his hand back and finished making his tea. Tony and Bruce both silently hoped that they could still do their lunches after Bruce and Crowley settled in together. After all, surely Crowley and Aziraphale would still want time together to pursue their...business. “But I meant what I said earlier. When the dust clears, there’ll be a position for you at SI if you want it, and an open invitation to tear me a new one about company policies. I wasn’t just saying that to get into your pants.”
The pair returned to the living room and made no mention of Bruce's revelation. Shortly thereafter, Bruce was distracted from his soulmate troubles with a message on his phone: Adam hadn't made it to school that morning, and his parents wondered if Bruce might have seen him?
Bruce held up his phone and said, "I, uh...there's something I should tell everyone." Tony widened his eyes, and Bruce shook his head at him minutely and continued, "It seems like Adam didn't go to school today."
The group didn’t know how to react. Finally, Pepper said, “Well, by all accounts, he’s very gifted. I’m sure he’ll catch up.”
“That’s not—” Bruce took a deep breath and mumbled, "I went to talk to him last night."
Everyone stared at him, and Bruce covered his face with his hands. "I know, I'm sorry, it was stupid."
"Bruce, he could have hurt you," Tony said, his tone full of concern.
“He wouldn’t hurt me,” Bruce said, lowering his hands and looking back up at his group of unlikely allies.
"You let him know we were onto him," Aziraphale said. His tone read as “not mad, just disappointed... and maybe a little mad,” which made Bruce look away in shame.
Bruce nodded. "I'm sorry, I think I did, but I just—I just couldn't believe it and I just wanted to talk to him, to give him a chance to explain…" And he had hoped to be convinced that this whole thing was insane, that the Antichrist was one of the other British expats or in a different Brooklyn, or a Brook Line, or anywhere else.
"Well, did he explain?" Pepper asked.
"Not exactly," Bruce said, stumbling through an anxious recap of the previous night. He debated about including the part where Adam used Bruce's body like a puppet, but decided to come clean. Bruce knew he was a terrible liar.
“Careful the things you say, children will listen,” Crowley remarked dryly. Aziraphale shot him a glare.
Bruce added, desperately, "But—but I mean, he said he wanted to help. He...the things he said he wanted to do. They were good things."
"He is still the Antichrist, though, isn't he?" Pepper asked.
"He can't help that," Bruce said, “but he can make choices. That’s the thing about being human, right? Knowing right from wrong and choosing for yourself? Isn’t that in the Bible—’It’s not our abilities but our choices that makes us who we are?’”
“That’s also from Harry Potter,” Aziraphale said softly.
“Well,” Bruce said, blazing with the same passion he had that day at the ARC Center, “what was Satan’s crime? Rebelling, right? But that isn’t a bad thing necessarily. And look at how Christ’s name has been corrupted from his original teachings.”
There was a disproportionately awkward silence filled only by a strange, ulcerated rumble from Aziraphale’s stomach that was not from hunger.
“What I’m saying is,” Bruce said, suddenly feeling very sheepish, “maybe the Antichrist doesn’t need to be a bad thing, just like Christ isn’t necessarily good. It’s all just names and choices.”
His heart sank when he realized that Aziraphale was very determinedly not looking at him. On the other hand, Crowley stared at him with what might have been respect.
Tony laughed. "Maybe we should cue up some Rolling Stones. Sympathy for the Devil?”
Only Crowley laughed approvingly, still looking at Bruce. “Right on, mate. Though, not to get pedantic—that’s Aziraphale’s job— but the Adversary isn't the Devil. Bruce isn't out of line to think that there was potential for Adam to be turned. In fact, we had an idea like that, way back when, but...well, it didn’t work, there was a mix-up, it’s no one’s fault, really, and it's a bit late for that, now. Our biggest concern is going to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."
Pepper pointed something out on the corkboard. "Well, there is some good news. It seems like Tony's Ultron project is part of the end, and he hasn't finished it yet. There must still be some time."
Tony squirmed. "I...should probably mention. No big deal, or anything, but I...might have...given Adam some kind of in-depth information about how Ultron works. But it's a peacekeeping protocol! I told him it was for peacekeeping!"
"Why did you do that?" Pepper asked, at the same time that Bruce asked, "When did you do that?"
Tony ignored Bruce's question and said, "I...I think it was kind of like what Bruce described. I didn't exactly mean to tell him, I just...felt compelled to tell him. But he's eleven! There's no way he can code something as sophisticated as…"
He trailed off as Aziraphale and Crowley's facial expressions threatened volcanic eruptions. Through gritted teeth, Aziraphale said, "He's the Antichrist, he doesn't need to know coding."
“But...but...Ultron is a good thing. He’s the ultimate protector. If Adam isn’t bound by the limitations of coding, what could go wrong?”
Adam, meanwhile, had indeed discovered his abilities. He'd wished he were back home in Tadfield, and then he was back home in Tadfield. He found his old friends and happily showed them Dog. The Them were happy to see Adam, and surprisingly unsurprised to see him after a year, but they immediately started asking him what they were doing next, what kind of game they should play. It felt like a lot of pressure, especially since he was also hearing a voice in his head whispering to him, The world is yours, burn it to the ground and start again…
Adam shook his head. "Let's play baseball. It's what they play in America."
"But we don't know the rules," Wensleydale said.
"And we haven't got any baseball gear," Brian said.
"And I heard that girls have to play softball instead, which is sexist," Pepper said.
“You don’t understand. I can do whatever I want. See, I’m the—” Adam stopped before he could say “Antichrist,” and instead said “—a wizard. I’m an actual wizard. I can do anything, like.”
Adam summoned baseball gear out of the abyss, happy to show off his new power. But his friends' eyes grew wide—not with respect, but fear. Dog growled.
"Um—I think we'd better get going, Adam," Pepper said.
"Yes, my parents will be expecting me home for tea," Wensleydale said. "Lovely to see you, though."
His friends ran off, leaving Adam alone in the English woods with his hellhound and his baseball equipment.
You could make them stay, whispered the voice in his head. But it was too late, they'd already gone. Anyway, a year was a long time for an eleven-year-old. He didn't quite fit in with The Them now. He'd made new friends in America, but not a group as cohesive as The Them. But now The Them weren't quite right, either.
Adam threw his bat to the ground with a satisfying thwack. Then he incinerated it with a thought, which was even more satisfying. But he was still alone, and a bit bored. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. He had loads of messages.
He read and listened to them with pleasure. His parents were worried, his teachers were worried. He was missed. He was appreciated. But that voice in his head whispered that he should be feared, he should be worshipped.
Adam wasn't sure about that. But he was pretty sure that Tadfield wasn't home anymore. He zapped himself all around, taking himself to see the ice caps he'd fixed, the ocean he'd cleaned up, the rainforests he'd saved...they were so beautiful. Why had grownups let them all be ruined, when they were so easily mended?
Why bother to fix them? whispered the voice in Adam's head. No one appreciates them, not the way you do. They don't deserve them.
Adam's blood felt too hot. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he and Dog were back where they first met, at the garden at the ARC Center. He'd never been there before in the middle of the school day. It was weird, too quiet. None of his new friends were there. Dr. Banner wasn't there. But Adam thought he could find him. And he could.
He closed his eyes and this time, when he opened them, he was in a boring apartment. He'd never been inside a teacher's house before, and he thought it would be more interesting. But then his brain caught up with what he was hearing, not just seeing. A voice in his head whispered, They're talking about you, Adam. He walked down the hallway and approached the voices he heard.
"The Antichrist could be literally anywhere," the demon said. "We have no chance of finding him."
The angel replied, "Really, Crowley? You couldn't try to track the hellhound?"
Crowley paused and sniffed the air like a hound picking up a scent. His brow furrowed in confusion, and he sniffed again. “It seems that the smell is coming from inside the house.”
They turned to look down the hallway outside the living room. Adam floated a few feet above the ground, hovering over the last few feet of the hallway and surveying the group of adults.
Dog immediately broke away from his Master’s side and, whimpering, ran to Bruce.
"Hi Dog," Dr. Banner said, crouching down to let Dog lick his hand. He looked up and said, "Adam! I've been so worried about you."
He sounded honest, but now Adam knew Dr. Banner was a liar. A Dog-stealing liar.
“Give me back Dog,” Adam growled. Dog whined and looked up at Bruce for assurance and protection. He got uncertainty instead. From behind Bruce, Crowley twitched his head in Adam’s direction—better get back to him, if I were you.
Dog returned to Adam, his tail between his legs.
Bruce continued, "Your family has been worried too, and your friends...we just want you to come home, Adam."
The voice in Adam's head said, You have no home. Your parents moved you away from your friends. But the world is your domain now.
“You were talking about me. That isn’t nice.” The ground rumbled, and books toppled off of Bruce’s shelves.
“It seems there’s a misunderstanding, but I don’t see why we can’t have a nice little chat about it,” Aziraphale said.
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“Oh! Right. How rude of me. My name is Aziraphale and—” Aziraphale abruptly shut up, not from his personal choice, but because Adam had zipped his mouth shut.
“I didn't say I cared who you were,” Adam said. It was so nice to be able to get adults to stop talking. Sometimes adults would just go on and on. Even angelic adults.
Down at Adam's feet, Dog whimpered. Adam remembered how Dr. Banner had helped him keep Dog, had taken him to the vet and everything. Maybe Dr. Banner wasn't really a liar. Maybe it was just that his friends were bad influences. Maybe if Adam took him away from them, he would be alright again, the way he used to be.
Dr. Banner picked up an old book off the table. He was always reading books. He stepped closer. "Adam, I want to show you something," he said. “This is a very special book. It’s a family tome, generations old. Older than me, older than them—” He gestured towards Crowley and Aziraphale. “It’s the most important book in the world.”
Adam considered this for a moment. Sometimes Dr. Banner read boring books, but sometimes he read really interesting ones with gross medical diagrams or star maps or other neat things. And Dr. Banner was honest and careful with his words in a way that adults usually weren’t. If he said something was "the most important book in the world," it probably was important. Not like if his dad said something like that but really just meant that Adam should do his homework or read some dumb article about how kids today looked at their phones too much.
But the voice in Adam's head whispered, Dr. Banner isn't honest. He just tricked you into thinking that he was. He tricked you before you were as smart as you are now.
“I don’t care about your stupid book! You’re a liar, and you're trying to take Dog away.”
“I thought he was supposed to be good with kids,” Crowley muttered to Aziraphale. Aziraphale said nothing, since Adam had still taken that ability from him.
“Shut up! Shut up, all of you!” The British accent never sounded creepier than when it came from a floating, glowing-eyed child. The same magical zippers appeared on everyone’s mouths, except Bruce’s.
“Adam, I made a few missteps, but I want to explain everything to you now, no more secrets, no distortions. Please let me. Can you please, uh, unsilence my friends?”
Adam studied Bruce warily, and then removed the zippers. People made mistakes. He made mistakes all the time—well, not all the time, but sometimes. Maybe what he was doing now was a mistake, even. And Dr. Banner was always understanding when he did. So Adam could do the same for him; Adam had offered to help, after all.
Bruce smiled at Adam and flipped through the book, giving a sheepish explanation of it. Adam couldn’t pay attention. The book didn't have any pictures, and he heard the voice in his head whispering, He is not your friend anymore. You can never trust him again, and he will never trust you. Look at where he is standing.
As Dr. Banner spoke, he had moved closer and closer to Tony, until he was right in front of him, shielding him from Adam. That made Adam angry. Adam wasn’t sure why. They were acting like he was dangerous, but also still treating him like a kid...and they were all on each other’s side, it was obvious: Dr. Banner would stand with Tony over Adam.
“Ugh! You’re lying again! You only care about your new friends, not me!”
Above them, the ceiling shook, raining plaster dust down on their heads. The air around them changed. The humans registered it as a suffocating thickness, but Crowley and Aziraphale knew it for what it was: a build-up of dark energy, the precursor to a blast.
Aziraphale acted first, before even Crowley knew what was happening; unfortunately, he acted at the same moment as Adam unleashed his own attack. Two competing energies, one protective and one expulsive, exploded in a blast of fire where Aziraphale and Bruce once stood.
Then Tony Stark yelled "Bruce!" and the demon yelled "AZIRAPHALE!" and Adam felt something hot push against him and he decided he didn't want to be in that apartment anymore.
He blinked himself into the Museum of Natural History, where Dr. Banner had once led a field trip. But the museum was too crowded. Adam wanted to be by himself, so he made everyone else leave, and then he stared at the big model of a blue whale. It wasn't as good as the real thing.
Anyway, the museum was for children. He wasn’t a child anymore. Maybe he never was. And he had a world to run.
“It’s fine. They’re fine. Everything’s fine.” Crowley paced around the room in a gait more ridiculously exaggerated than usual, running a frantic hand through his hair, then leaned forward, bent in half, and screamed, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK. Aziraphale! Aziraphale, you bloody idiot GET BACK HERE, ANGEL I’m gonna kill him, my best friend, he killed my best friend.”
If they were in a movie, Pepper would have marched over and administered an efficient slap to Crowley’s face and told him to snap out of it.
Instead, to Pepper’s surprise, it was Tony who approached him and put a comforting, steadying hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, bud, can you stop freaking out, ‘cuz it’s making me freak out, and it’s really not gonna help us get our friends back, okay? I mean, they could still be alive, right?”
“Could be, could be,” Crowley said, nodding. “Yeah. Er. Could’ve just been banished somewhere. Zapped off to Detroit, or something.”
Crowley stared at the charred floor and emitted several frustrated animal noises that crescendoed into another scream and desperate hair-clutching.
“Stay with me,” Tony said. “We got a world to save, remember?”
“Oh, fuck the world,” Crowley growled, throwing Tony’s hand off his shoulder. “You don’t understand. If he’s gone, whether the world’s here or not, I have to spend eternity without him.”
“I never pegged you as a religious type.”
Crowley barked out a laugh. “Religious? I’m a demon! He’s an angel. Was, is, doesn’t matter.”
Pepper closed her eyes and shook her head. Sure, Aziraphale had seemed sweet and Crowley was a dick, but there was no use being maudlin and self-loathing about it. Now, of all times.
“Regardless of how you feel about yourself, he’s always seen the good in you. And he would want you to save the world,” Pepper said. “You might still see him again, but if you don’t pull your act together, you never will.”
“He liked people. He liked the world. Gave you guys fire, a flaming sword…That’s when I knew he was different, you know. Saw a man and a woman in the cold, said his sword could warm them up...didn’t think twice about it.”
Pepper and Tony looked at each other, mouths open, assuming this was outdated gay British slang for they didn’t really want to imagine what, specifically, but maybe Aziraphale had been quite the looker and partier back in his day.
Tony cleared his throat and gestured to another room. “I’m gonna, uh, go make a call.”
He’d actually been discreetly dialing Bruce the whole time and receiving no answer. As he walked through the living room, he noticed a charging phone resting on the corner of the coffee table. A closer glance confirmed that it was Bruce's, so that would be a wash.
In lieu of reaching Bruce by phone, he slipped into a room that he told himself was random but that he knew was Bruce’s. He needed a moment to breathe, to grieve...Crowley seemed quite convinced that Aziraphale was dead. And Aziraphale and Bruce had disappeared together.
You didn’t warn me I’d lose him, Tony thought to a centuries-dead crazy old witch. He could maybe deal with him being with someone else, but he couldn’t handle a void.
Or what if…
Tony squeezed his eyes shut. What if Aziraphale had died, but Bruce hadn’t? It wasn’t something he wished for, but the puzzle pieces made sense. Bruce and Crowley were destined to be together, so it was written. Clearly that would never happen with Crowley carrying an Olympic torch for Aziraphale.
It was a terrible thought, even if he felt a burst of hope for Bruce. Poor Aziraphale...Tony paced around Bruce's bedroom, picking up random objects and putting them back down. Bruce's room showed slightly more hints of personality than his bland living room—some Ansel Adams prints, a few framed photos of Bruce with a woman who must be his mother. The furniture was simple, but comfortable. The room felt cozy.
And of course, there were books everywhere. He picked up the book on top of the stack by Bruce's bedside, a hefty volume about climate change, stacked atop a well-worn copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He opened it up to the bookmarked page and saw that Bruce had been marking his page with a sympathy card. It featured a bland image of a bouquet of flowers and was captioned, "With deepest sympathy upon the loss of your mother." Tony resisted the urge to open the card and read the message. He wondered how recently Bruce had lost his mother. He wondered about Bruce's father, conspicuously absent from photos. There was still so much he didn't know about Bruce.
Tony carefully closed the book and put it back on the pile. He didn't want to lose Bruce's place. Bruce would be back to finish the book. He had to.
Overcome, Tony lay down in Bruce’s bed and buried his face in the pillow, smelling faint traces of Bruce's organic shampoo and mentally replaying those last few moments in the living room. Bruce definitely believed that Adam wouldn't hurt him, but he'd also come to stand protectively in front of Tony. So where was Adam now? What was he doing?
He heard the door open and sat up.
“Tony?” Pepper said. “Just wanted to see how you were doing. I know you’re...fond of Bruce.” She caught herself before she used past tense.
“What, I’ve known him for like a day," Tony protested weakly. The short length of their friendship hadn't prevented him from feeling a real spark with Bruce, a connection like he'd never felt with anyone else. But it must have been one-sided if Bruce wouldn’t even try to fight fate to be with him. "We couldn’t be together, anyway.”
“What? Why? Because he lives in Brooklyn?”
Tony closed his eyes. It was wrong of him to even bring it up right now. People might be dead, and Tony was worried about being cockblocked by a dead witch. “That stupid prophecy book said he was destined to be with Crowley.”
“What?! That’s ridiculous!”
“I know, right?”
“Good luck breaking up Crowley and Aziraphale.”
“Crowley and Aziraphale aren’t together. Romantically.”
“What are you talking about? Of course they are.”
“You should tell them. Someone should. Might be too late now,” Tony muttered sadly.
“We can’t think like that. We don’t know what Adam did. Sure, there was a fire, but...Maybe it was like Floo powder or something.”
“Floo powder? Are you fucking kidding me right now?” Tony said.
“Oh, I’m sorry to test the limits of your credulity after a levitating Antichrist child magically appeared in a prophet’s descendent’s Brooklyn apartment.”
Tony burst out laughing. “Yeah, okay, hope springs eternal." He stood up from the bed and took a moment to consider his reflection in the bedroom mirror, the spot where every day Bruce apparently chose to do absolutely nothing to tame his hair. Tony sighed and hoped fervently that he hadn't seen the last of Bruce and his adorably floppy hair.
"You look fine, Tony. Perfectly groomed for Doomsday. Let's go see if we can revive Crowley's spirits."
Tony nodded, took a deep steadying breath, and followed Pepper back out to the living room.
“Alright, come on, how about some music?” Tony said. “You strike me as a Velvet Underground man.” He scrolled through his phone. Pale Blue Eyes...I’m Waiting For My Man...I’ll Be Your Mirror...The Black Angel’s Death Song…"Or what about The Ramones?”
“All the music in the world vanished with him,” Crowley moaned, “and there will be no more in the future.”
“Black Sabbath?” Tony didn't know exactly how they were going to avert the Apocalypse, but he was sure that having the right playlist would be an important step.
1Sometimes, it must be said, especially angelic adults.[return to text]
Bruce felt suffused with a warm glow, and then for a terrifying moment he felt nothing, and then he found himself in a small, cozy living room. It contained a floral print sofa and about a thousand Precious Moments figurines. Bruce took one dazed step backward and dropped onto the couch, surveying his surroundings with wide-eyed bewilderment.
"Bruce, are you alright?" Aziraphale asked.
"I...what happened? Where are we?"
Aziraphale picked up one of the figurines—a little cherub lounging on a cloud. He snorted at it. And then he felt the full weight of the miracle he'd performed, and he said, "I rather think I need to sit down." He settled heavily on the sofa beside Bruce.
Bruce started to regain his bearings and paced around the small, kitschy house with a sinking sense of suspicion. His suspicion was confirmed when he peeked out the window and saw nothing but corn. "I...I think we're in Iowa. My family owns a house in Brooklyn, Iowa...Adam must have sent us here." His family were absentee landlords; the house was rented by a nice old lady who was fortunately (miraculously?) not home at the moment. “It’s just strange...I never told Adam I had property out here.”
Aziraphale blinked. Bruce hadn't put it all together, then—but it was admittedly hard for humans' brains to comprehend angelic activity. This wasn’t one of those one-in-a-billion coincidences that had marked the group’s initial union; in the split second he had to act, Aziraphale had intentionally sought out a Banner family haven. He just hadn’t had time to be selective.
Ever practical, Bruce said, "Okay. Okay. My eleven-year-old student is the Antichrist, and the end of the world is happening in Brooklyn, New York, and we're in Brooklyn, Iowa. We...we need to get to the airport, I guess." He took stock of his resources. He'd been holding Agnes' book when he was...sent. And he had his wallet in his pocket, though his phone was still charging back in the other Brooklyn. "Do you have your passport with you, by any chance?"
Aziraphale made a show of patting his pants and shook his head. He'd never bothered with having official paperwork like that; when he needed something to show humans, he usually performed a minor miracle to convince them they'd seen what they needed to see. But shielding Bruce from Adam and teleporting them away had taken all of his available angelic energy. He'd taken them farther than necessary, but he'd been feeling a bit panicky.
Bruce nodded. "Okay. Well...I guess we'll have to take the bus, then."
"The bus?" Aziraphale asked. He tried harder to summon a miracle, but he really was exhausted. "Surely we could get a car and drive?" By which he meant, surely Bruce could drive.
Bruce winced. "It's been years since I drove. Anyway, a bus will be faster. Unless you have your driver's license?"
Aziraphale was forced to concede that he didn't.
"Right. So...the bus. They'll be able to change drivers and get us there faster. It's a long drive, I'd have to sleep at some point...And honestly, I’m feeling a bit shaken and I don’t really trust myself behind a wheel...hey, do you have your phone?"
Aziraphale did not.
The house had a landline, but Bruce didn't remember any relevant phone numbers. They were all stored on his phone, so why should he store them in his brain? He managed to call Stark Industries' 1-800 number for customer support. The polite associate was happy to help Bruce reset his StarkPhone or update his StarkStation, but wouldn't dream of—didn't even know how to—connecting Bruce to Tony's personal line, nor even Pepper's. Bruce sighed. "Well...I guess they'll hear from us when we get there. They'll be okay, won't they?" It had seemed like Adam's main target had been Bruce. With Bruce gone, Adam would leave his friends alone, wouldn't he? Bruce couldn't believe Agnes hadn't warned him about this. Or maybe she had? He'd have to take another look at the prophecies.
"I...I'm sure they will be," Aziraphale. He wasn't exactly sure that they were fine, but Aziraphale was sure that if something happened to Crowley, he'd know. He'd feel it. And Crowley, however grudgingly, would have tried his best to protect the humans. Probably their combined efforts had saved their group from the Adversary—for now, anyway, although his dark power would only continue to grow.
Bruce went old school and called the operator, asking to be patched through to a taxi company, who took them to the Greyhound station in Iowa City for far more than a Lyft would have cost. Still, it was better than hitchhiking.
While they waited for the bus, they perused a small, grim gift shop. Bruce spotted Tony's smiling face on the cover of Scientific American. He picked up a copy of the magazine, along with some snacks. He found Aziraphale gazing at a rack of merchandise—T-shirts, baseball caps, keychains, you name it—all emblazoned with "Is this Heaven? No, it's Iowa!"
"Do you want to get a T-shirt or something?" Bruce asked. "It's a long trip, you might be more comfortable in something more...casual?"
Aziraphale recoiled at the very idea of wearing something more casual than his cream-colored suit. "No, no, I was just...well, I don't understand, this isn't at all like Heaven," he said, matter-of-factly.
Bruce laughed. "It's from a movie. Field of Dreams?"
"Oh. I'm afraid I haven't seen it."
"Well, I don't really imagine Heaven as being much like Iowa, either, but it's just a line that people quote a lot. Around here, anyway. Like 'Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.'”
“Oh, I know that one. Well, perhaps I'll watch that other film. After the Apocalypse is averted and all that."
Bruce smiled. "I'll make the popcorn. Speaking of, did you want to get any snacks for the bus? We'll be boarding soon."
"Oh! I don't mind if I do," Aziraphale replied. He picked out some Fried Pickle and Ranch Dressing flavored potato crisps as well as a packet of Twinkies. Bruce added them to his trail mix and water, and after the cashier rang them up, they settled into their seats on the bus.
“I thought you were mad at me after all that stuff I said about Satan and God...I don’t know how religious you are.”
“Of course I’m not mad at you. You didn’t say anything wrong,” Aziraphale said, “neither in the sense of inappropriate nor factually incorrect. Anyway, I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve heard worse, worst of all from Crowley and we seem to still get on alright. Don’t worry about it.”
Bruce smiled and tried to read his Scientific American, but quickly dozed off. He awoke when the bus rumbled over a pothole. He’d fallen asleep on Aziraphale, who was placidly reading Agnes's prophecies.
“Sorry,” Bruce mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
“Quite alright. That kind of travel takes a lot out of you hum—hmm, it really takes a lot out of you, doesn't it?”
“Mm-hm,” Bruce said, peeking out the window, trying to figure out where they were. Still in the Midwest, judging by the flatness. While he was asleep, his brain had been working overtime to process everything that had happened. He turned his gaze on Aziraphale and asked, pointedly, “And what kind of travel was that, exactly?”
“You just woke up, you must still be tired, why don’t you just—“
“I thought it was Adam, but that doesn't make sense. He was going to...but then you did something. You did something. It...it felt different from what Adam was doing. And if Adam had done this, why wouldn't he have come with me? What are you? A sorcerer? A wizard? A witch?”
Aziraphale licked his lips and looked around the bus, but their fellow Greyhound passengers were all too wrapped up in their own problems to pay them the slightest mind.
Bruce said, "Seriously, Aziraphale. If now's not the time to put all our cards on the table, then when?"
“I'm...an angel. Now, I know you’re an agnostic…"
That answer actually explained a lot: Aziraphale's kindly nature, his nurturing touch, his dedication to his light color palette, his occasional weird statements that implied immortality… Bruce laughed. “Are you kidding? At this point, I have no choice but to believe in God or whatever. I might have to start going to Church after all this...if there is an 'after' all this…”
“Don’t bother, we don’t keep track of Church attendance.”
"But wait, if you could...teleport us here, or whatever, why are we on this bus? Can't you send us back?"
"I'm afraid it's not that easy. I do have...limitations, and I seem to have reached them at the moment. My abilities will...oh, recharge, I suppose you'd say, with time. Like a cellular telephone!"
Bruce furrowed his eyebrows. "And you can't just...I don't know, uh, ask God for...a recharge? Given the circumstances?"
"No," Aziraphale said in a tone that brooked no disagreement. Then he remembered it was the time for full disclosure and explained, “My side is not necessarily anti-war so much as they are...pro-winning the war.”
Bruce frowned. “But shouldn’t we be helping Heaven win?”
Aziraphale sighed heavily. “It is better if Heaven wins than Hell, but it’s best if there’s no war at all. Heaven only cares that they win the War, not about casualties. The victory of Heaven or Hell would mean the end of humanity.”
“So it’s just been you two? You and Crowley against Heaven and Hell?”
“Yes. I believe you’d call that ‘a snowball’s chance,’” Aziraphale said, grimly, but then he looked at Bruce and chirped, “But now with your lot on our side, we have a fighting chance!” Bruce detected the tone of a parent telling his child that his finger painting belonged in the MOMA.
“Okay. Well, thank God...or whoever...for Greyhound, then," Bruce said.
"This might have been the other side," Aziraphale muttered.
Bruce watched the scenery go by for a moment before asking, "It’s still so strange, even with everything else going on. You and Crowley being angels, this whole time…”
“Not exactly. Crowley is a demon.”
That, too, explained a lot, even as it raised new questions. “What? And we’re trusting him to help us?”
“It was actually his idea, stopping the Apocalypse...He’s fond of humans, in his own way, but obviously it’s not in his nature to show it. I’ve known Crowley for six thousand years and...and to be honest, I trust him more than my own kin.” It was the first time Aziraphale had admitted that, even to himself.
“So he’s not all-the-way-bad. Even though he’s a demon.”
“I don’t believe anyone is all the way bad.” Aziraphale spoke as diplomatically as a political spokesperson with the mild smile to match. Unlike a political spokesperson—a good one, at least—it was abundantly clear he was hedging.
“But, I mean, he’s a demon, right? That’s evil...right?”
Aziraphale’s smile turned sad and he stared at his lap. “Yes, he is a demon.”
Bruce sighed and took the book from Aziraphale. If Aziraphale had been honest, Bruce should be too. “One of the prophecies,” Bruce said as he flipped through the pages, “says I’m destined to be with Crowley, and it’s just...hard for me to accept. I keep reading it over and over...It says my soulmate hits me with a car, and I was hoping it would be you, if it had to be one of you, but the description matches Crowley, and he was the one driving…”
“May I see that, please?” Aziraphale asked.
Bruce handed over the book and said, "Uh, I'm Robert. Robert Bruce."
Aziraphale put on a pair of glasses for effect. He studied the words, humming dramatically (also for effect). After a sufficiently long enough period of suspense, he said, “The prophecy does not indicate that your soulmate is the driver of the car, merely that you will meet during the accident.”
Bruce grabbed the book back over Aziraphale’s small squeak of protest. He read it again and again. He’d never been so relieved to be such a flagrant idiot.
“I don’t think it’s me either, dear.” Aziraphale hoped Bruce was clever enough to read between his lines. What a shame he spent all that time, worried about a lifetime with a love he didn’t want and forcing himself to ignore his heart’s desire just because he was bad at literary analysis.
Bruce continued to stare at the page, his brow furrowed.
“I think it’s Tony,” Aziraphale clarified, because Bruce was very smart but sometimes needed things spelled out.
“Yeah, no, I—I got that, it’s just...It says I’m going to be happy, and I have a hard enough time imagining myself being happy, and it was impossible to imagine myself being happy with Crowley—no offense—and I even had a hard time seeing you and me in a lifelong romantic relationship...no offense…. But with Tony…”
“You don’t see yourself happy with him?”
“No, I do,” Bruce exhaled shakily, “and it’s terrifying.”
Poor idiot humans, Aziraphale thought fondly. They always missed what was in front of him and ran in the other direction when confronted with the chance for happiness. "What's so scary about that?" Aziraphale asked.
Hesitantly, Bruce flipped through the book and pointed out another prophecy: "With blood on his hands, Robert will be his father’s son, in flesh and spirit, as he earned through the blood of his past."
Aziraphale was very skilled at interpreting prophecies, but he didn't know much about Bruce's family history. He could detect pain—it was one of the things that drew him toward Bruce in the first place—but he could only guess at the specifics. "I'm not sure I follow."
"I...my father was...he hurt us. My mom and I. And if I'm my father's son, if I—if I ever hurt Tony, or...well, I just couldn't bear it."
"Oh, Bruce, I'm so sorry your father did that." Aziraphale put an arm around Bruce and braced himself for questions he couldn't answer, questions like Why did God let this happen? But Bruce said nothing more, just stared out the window. Bruce already knew that things didn't need a reason to happen.
After a moment, Aziraphale said, "But the prophecy says you'll be happy with...with your match. That you both will be. I know you. You could never be happy if you hurt someone else."
Bruce, who had spent a lot of time interpreting the prophecies in the worst possible way, as was his nature, hadn't thought about that. "I...no, I wouldn't, no. But what if I… change? My mom used to say that my dad was sweet when they first met and then...he changed."
Aziraphale's angelic powers were still severely weakened from his earlier efforts, but he could feel traces of the pure love radiating off of Bruce as he thought about his mother, and perhaps about Tony. He placed a hand on Bruce's cheek and let the love reflect back into Bruce. "You won't," he said simply. “Tell me: do you think your father worried about being what he was? Would he even consider running from his own happiness to prevent hurting another living thing? I don't know what exactly that prophecy means, but I know your spirit, Bruce, and you are good.”
He smoothed Bruce’s hair back from his forehead. “Your father didn’t change. He hid his nature until he could spring a trap. What he did was unforgivable...I am sure he is where he belongs, or will be when the time comes.”
“And my mother?” Bruce whispered, as if the question itself were a trespass. He wiped his eyes. “Heaven seems like a terrible place.”
Aziraphale smiled and handed Bruce a crisp handkerchief. “It’s good for the humans, not great for the angels.”
“I suppose every place is better to its customers than its employees…”
“Your mother is doing well, and she is very proud of you. You will see her again. And you’ll never see your father.”
The other passengers seemed oblivious to the first chiseling away of a lifetime of emotional damage. Aziraphale serenely flipped through the prophecies to give Bruce a moment of privacy.
Bruce bit his lip. “So...if we can avert the Apocalypse...I could end up with Tony. And you could be with Crowley! I felt terrible when I thought I was supposed to break you two up...or get between you or whatever...”
“I beg your pardon? What do you mean?”
“Well, you two could finally, uh, get together…romantically?”
“I assure you, neither of us want that,” Aziraphale said primly.
“I’m sorry, but what are you talking about? Have you seen the way you look at each other?”
Aziraphale stubbornly leaned forward to stare out the window, past Bruce's sympathetic face. “Crowley and I have known each other for six thousand years. To believe that we’ve been pining for each other this entire time is...absolutely ridiculous.”
“...we were supposed to raise the child together, him and me...We balanced each other. That’s why we worked so well. But there was a mix up. We wound up...losing the kid, so to speak.” Crowley was stretched on the couch, Freudian-therapy style, as Pepper and Tony pored over the prophecy notecards.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Pepper said sympathetically. “That must have been hard on you.”
“Makes me wonder how things would be different right now...If we’d, you know…”
Pepper wasn’t sure she followed. She also wasn’t sure she wanted to; she and Tony had been very sympathetic toward Crowley, even though they were less than half-listening to him ramble about Aziraphale. Their relationship was older than either Tony or Pepper were, and Pepper couldn’t imagine the trauma of seeing one’s oldest, dearest friend obliviated like that. But their ranks had been wiped of their two most valuable players and they were running out of time and patience. They'd stayed up all night, full of coffee and fear. As the hours went on, it became harder to convince themselves that Bruce and Aziraphale were alright. Surely they would have called by now, if they could have?
So instead of thinking about that, their priorities lay with the prophecy notecards; it was their only lead, and they seemed to be a dead end. Tony couldn't imagine what it must have been like for Bruce, growing up with all these cards everywhere, with handwritten notes from his ancestors telling him what to do and when to (possibly) do it. It had been bad enough for Tony, who only had Howard telling him what to do. And Howard had stopped communicating with him directly after his death, although his expectations lingered.
Tony again came across the card about his own bad heart. No matter how crazy it seemed, there was definitely something to these prophecies. But why had Agnes Nutter written them all in such a convoluted style? He stretched and checked his phone, groaning audibly at what he saw.
"What is it?" Pepper asked.
"Some more news alerts...I think, uh, Adam's changed his tactics. And a huge shipment of experiment assault rifles has been stolen from an SI warehouse...there's been a huge outbreak of a particularly virulent strain of typhoid fever on the East Coast. And, oh, Pepper, weren't you doing the GLAM diet?"
"I tried it for a few weeks, but it was too weird," said Pepper, who was back on the Vegan Before 6 diet.
"Well, good, because a bunch of people taking the special GLAM supplement have just been hospitalized for malnutrition."
Crowley briefly ceased his pining. "That isn't Adam. Those are the Horsemen. War, Pestilence, Famine…Death will be soon to follow."
"Okay, so...what do we do about them?" Pepper asked.
"Should we read a Bible or something?" Tony asked.
Crowley scoffed. "The Bible won't help us. The Bible wants a war. It's all part of the, the Great Plan. The Ineffable Plan.”
"And what do you want, Crowley?" Pepper asked. "Do you want to lie here on Bruce's couch and sulk, or do you want to avert the Apocalypse?"
Crowley considered this question for a long moment. "I suppose both is out of the question?"
“It doesn’t seem like you’re doing both,” Pepper said. “It seems like you’re doing one.”
“Never been good at multitasking,” Crowley muttered.
Tony sat next to him on the couch. “Hey, listen, I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now. What you’re feeling is huge, bigger than anything Pepper or I have ever felt. Like, tremendous.” Tony spread his arms wide in the air to demonstrate. Pepper and Crowley watched attentively.
“But what I’m gonna need you to do right now is crush all those feelings down into a little ball,” Tony continued to demonstrate with his hands, “and then squeeze that ball in your fist so tight until it feels like your hand is gonna snap, and help us stop the world from ending, okay?”
“Jesus, Tony,” Pepper whispered.
Crowley’s expression was unreadable until he said, “Well, shit, mate, when you put it that way…” He grabbed a bunch of notecards and got to work.
1Mrs. Day was at the Hy-Vee to get her 5% discount on Seniors Morning, to be followed by lunch with her Bible Study group, who never would have believed that at this very moment, a literal angel was in her living room, where he was studying her Precious Moments collection with confusion.[return to text]
2Hey, that’s the name of the fic![return to text]
3This wasn't quite true: Crowley hadn't bothered to do anything to long-distance buses. He had, however, played a hand in preventing high-speed rail from ever taking off in the United States.
[return to text]
4Gelatinous Light As Meals.[return to text]
She went by the name Natasha Romanoff. If you were engaging in shady international arms dealings, you wanted to work with someone with a name like Natasha Romanoff. The name helped her get her foot in the door even when the men on the other end of the transaction couldn’t see what she looked like.
When they could see what she looked like, the only help she needed to get her foot in the door were her legs. Each leg had launched a thousand ships. Her other body parts had similar death tolls.
She sat in a high-end hotel lobby with Obadiah Stane of Stark Industries. The old-fashioned name had been a good omen. It was a fire-and-brimstone name, harkening back to the good old days of hell-and-damnation preachers. Of course, she was older than he was, and more fiery, but he quickly became one of her favorite associates. Straight to business, bent on seeing the world burn, under the assumption that he’d be watching from the uppermost floor of Stark Tower with a bottle of 1841 Veuve Clicquot.
The bill was being paid by Stark Industries, so the cavalcade of men paying for her drinks was a bit redundant. But, since there was no Earthly limit to what she could drink, she accepted some at random, turned down others, and watched the jealousies fester out of the corner of her eye.
“Anything new from boy wonder Tony Stark?” She asked. Her voice was husky and seductive. It was a voice that had seen things. She kept it low: if any of her admirers heard the sounds that accompanied her body, they’d raze the building to the ground to vie for her attention, and she didn’t want that. Not quite yet. The bartender made a lovely Blood and Sand, and she wanted to keep them coming.
“He’s been on a clean water kick for a few months. Thought of some remote purification technology, but of course, it can go both ways. Remote poisonification.”
“Hmm,” Natasha hummed. Such a bland way to die. More in line with either of her sisters. Of course, the strain on the resources would create more fighting in remote areas...The fighting would strain resources...Water was oh so very important to humans. She hummed. Stane could do better, and she expected it from him.
Sensing her disappointment, Stane quickly moved forward. “And bees.”
“Bees. Those stingy assholes. Again, they’re being used for some nonsense pollination environmental horseshit, but I figure we can use them as poisonous drones.”
A little better, but more suited for Pollution. She was still not impressed. Nor was she impressed by the bartender’s proffered Cosmopolitan. She did not even glance at the man who sent it over, though she could feel the burning aftermath of rejection radiate off of him.
“And, of course, we have the bombs and missiles ready to go. Whenever you want.”
That’s what it boiled down to, really: bombs and missiles. It was hard to improve upon perfection. Yes, you could make them bigger, explodier, and humans had done so. But they were just useless hunks of penile overcompensation unless they were launched.
She smiled and gave a low, throaty laugh.
She heard the smash of flesh hitting flesh. A fistfight had broken out. Third one of the night.
“When the moment is right, I will tell you. You will be the first to know. Just make sure you’re prepared. It will be a big one.”
It was going to be the big one, and he would not be prepared. No amount of money in the world could save him. In fact, he would be one of the first to die when the humans turned primal. Men like Stane thought they were above it all, that they could lock themselves away in their fortresses, untouchable, but in the end he was as flesh-based as anyone else. He was even more vulnerable than any of these poor schmucks in the bar because he had forgotten his mortality. He’d be torn apart limb from limb by abhorring masses.
No one, least of all Stane, knew why she was smiling at him. They could only assume it was for sex reasons. The bar patrons began grooming themselves in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to win her attention, and then someone threw a glass to a knock a comb out of someone’s hand, and soon the fancy upscale bar devolved into one big brawl.
An out-of-place postal worker timidly worked his way through the bodies, trying his best to avoid stepping on anyone or getting subsumed in the mess. Odd deliveries he’d gotten. This was just the first of three. He walked right up to the most gorgeous woman in the bar—the only one, but she was the most gorgeous woman in any bar—and asked her to sign for her parcel. She did so discreetly, so as not to let her dinner guest see her name did not have fifteen letters, but three.
Every other person, some mid-punch, glowered at the bold postal worker. He’d just walked right up to her, the bastard.
Then he tipped his hat and walked away. He was a married man, after all.
She did not need to open the package to know what it was. She just read the card attached and looked back up at Stane.
“I am going to write a date and time on a piece of paper,” she said. “And that will be the right moment.”
She did, and then she exited the bar to an explosion of glass shards and the sound of chairs hitting against the wall.
Wanda Maxwell cared about her kids more than anything in the world. She would walk on hot metal spikes for them. She would eat coal for them. She would absolutely never, under any circumstances, have them vaccinated. From her podium, surrounded by an audience of hundreds of people and dozens of cameras, she implored every parent to do the same: walk on spikes. Eat coal. Never, ever vaccinate.
She cared about her husband, too. He worked in a smog factory. If that smog factory went under, how would they ever support their kids? The smog factory kept a roof over their heads and food on her kids’ plates, and it gave her husband a sense of purpose. She cared about the environment, she claimed, but was she supposed to put it ahead of her children? Would any mother?
The crowd cheered in agreement. The environment was hardy, and far less important than their family’s comfort, and surely the pathetic dupes making sacrifices would save the planet if it needed saving, so why should they have to?
Wanda was a compelling speaker, with a carefully-crafted Midwestern accent. She looked young, with wide, green doe eyes, but she already had five kids, which meant she must have been birthing regularly since she was twenty, so, clearly, she knew what she was talking about. And even if she didn’t, she had a great face for punditry and magnificent red tresses that tumbled elegantly down her chest. And she had unwavering certainty. She was certain that her sole purpose in life was to advocate for her children and serve her husband. She was certain that vaccines caused scurvy. She was so certain that you had to be an idiot not to believe her. HOX News had been eager to give her an eight-figure deal.
She thought it was poetic to hold most of her rallies outside. People did not see the irony that they were cheering for the earth’s destruction in a great big town square, outdoors, on a beautiful day, crisp grass beneath them and blue sky above them. The sky would not be blue for long. It was also good P.R. Why would someone who hated the environment, as so many of her detractors claimed, choose to be outdoors so much?
“About a week ago,” she told the crowd, “the government came to my house with needles because my children were not vaccinated. They were about to stab my babies. So I picked up my gun and I told them to leave, and they ran out so fast they didn’t close the door behind them. So I followed them out to make sure they were good and gone, and when my neighbors saw what was happening, everybody clapped, because they don’t want the government in their homes or their children’s bodies.”
The man pushing his way through the crowd did not faze her, even though he was dressed as a postal worker. He would not be able to assassinate her. Let him try; she’d survive the attempt and come back stronger and louder than ever. She almost welcomed it.
“‘Scuse me, miss,” he said, handing her a parcel from the ground.
“I guess he really wants an autograph,” she joked charmingly to the crowd before crouching down and scribbling her real name.
“No, actually, I—” He began, but she all but shoved him away once the package was in her hands.
Thunderous applause and appreciative laughter were as good a time as any to stop her speech.
She had more important work to do.
Gwen Paltry had made quite a name for herself. In business, it was hard to be what people perceived as a woman. It helped that she was not actually working towards health and empowerment, but very good at seeming to be, and very, very good at making money.
She still got naysayers of all kinds. Upper-level business pricks who thought women had no right to be at their level. Scientists who decried her claims as “irresponsible” and “not backed up by science.” Uptight whiners who thought she was “encouraging dangerous and deadly culture-wide attitudes towards food.” There were always a handful of snot-nosed legacy Harvard MBAs who, fresh out of grad school, thought they could show their dominance by making some inane observation or irrelevant correction during a staff meeting—a staff meeting that, by all rights, they should not have been at, but their daddy called in a favor to get them in the room.
“Have you ever thought about rebranding?” This twerp du jour asked. The big, long conference table must have gone to his head and made him feel important. Hardwood always does. “Doesn’t the name sound unappetizing?” He was referring to the name of the company, a four-letter synonym for slop based on Gwen’s initials.
Her smile was that of a kindergarten teacher; her eyes were those of a shark.
“I named my company with the greatest and most intentional of intentions,” Gwen explained. “We have power over words, not the other way around. Renaming would mean yielding to the thing that we, as humans, created. I am instead harnessing the power the word has, and using it to invoke its opposite nature.
“This is all, by the way, on the company website,” she added, “and in several chapters of my books.”
Everyone in the room knew he made a mistake.
Everyone except him.
“Oh, cool. What’s your book called?” He asked, putting a pen to his notepad to show he was taking initiative.
She had many books. She rattled off the list.
By the time the meeting was over, a pair of hands would be waiting outside the door to thrust a box of his workplace possessions at him and unceremoniously announce his firing. He would be utterly and completely surprised.
It was unfair, because he was right: the name was unappetizing.
That was the point.
Her objective was not to redefine the word “appetizing,” but to redefine the word “food.”
The issue with lands of largesse was mindless consumption, or, as Gwen put it, NIETZSCHE (Nihilistic/Needless Ingestion Encouraged by The Zeitgeist that Society Considers Helpful and Essential). The healthfullest way to live was to break nutrition down to its barest and most minimal components.
For example: what did plants need to live? Water, light, and dirt. Why should humans be any different? Her company produced gelatinous light, negative-calorie water, and lovely single-serving packets of dirt from the most coveted travel destinations in the world ($666.99 for a one month-supply of each, or $2300 for a set of all three).
For the less extreme dieter (who would eventually work their way up to the big leagues), she advocated Protein through Other Orifices, a controversial diet that consisted largely of pouring egg whites down ear canals.
She was big on minerals, which the body needed, and sold a line of ROCKs (Rarefied Organic Calcium Knick-knacks) that dissolved when placed in a mouth.
She was anti-toxins, of which the sun was the biggest carrier. She recommended exposing the body to as little sunlight as possible and instead using her patented GAS SPRAY (Genuine Artificial Sunlight to Suppress Poisonous Rays Attacking Yourself) and PISS (Perfectly Indispensable Sunlight Solutions).
If her methods were too tough, she advised collecting a SQUAD (Supportive Questioners Utilizing Appropriate Diets) to monitor each other’s mental/emotional/physical well-being and ensure they were living their healthfulest lives through any means necessary—guilt, shame, backstabbing, faux-concern, passive-aggressiveness.
In other words, she knew exactly what she was doing.
She continued the meeting as if she had not been interrupted, and then she was interrupted again by, most curiously, a postal worker.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Er, yes, I got a package for you, ma’am. If you could just sign here.” He glanced self-consciously at the big boardroom table as she wrote her name in delicate ink. She smiled at him—not a shark’s smile, but a genuine one—and he left.
It was a shame; she was actually enjoying her job. The power, the status, the perks...But it was nothing compared to what would happen next.
Adam thought he was doing the right thing. Whales were good. More trees would save the world, and people could climb them. And what was wrong with pizza every day?
Adam hadn’t meant to hurt Dr. Banner. He'd just wanted to separate him from his friends for awhile, like a time-out. Adults could do with a time-out sometimes. When he came back, he’d see everything Adam accomplished.
Except...the world needed a lot of fixing. It made Adam’s head hurt. And he didn’t have Dr. Banner around to advise him.
As Adam kept trying to right the world's wrongs, he realized that now other people...beings...were changing things, too. They were hurting people. Killing them. Adam didn't want that. He tried to make them disappear but they were too strong. He thought about trying to call Dr. Banner back, but now he couldn't find him. He hoped he hadn't accidentally sent his mentor somewhere bad, but then he remembered that the angel had interfered. Dr. Banner was probably alright, then. But what could Adam do?
Then he remembered what Tony Stark had told him about, his Ultron peacekeeping robots. Or, not robots exactly, but Adam could make them robots. They could help protect people when Adam couldn't. And they'd look cool, too. Adam closed his eyes and concentrated.
A sleek, silver robot opened its eyes.
Tony had a superhuman ability to go without sleep, but his deficit spanned far beyond the past few days and it had reached its limit. He drifted into a fitful sleep on Bruce's living room couch. The apartment's coffee supply had also reached its limit, and Pepper ran out to buy more. The journey to find a 24-hour coffee place was longer in residential Brooklyn than it was in metropolitan Manhattan, but at least she didn’t expect to use her pepper spray.
It was dreadfully boring with the angel and the humans gone, and Crowley found it hard to concentrate. Also, the notecards were stupid, and even his millenias' worth of knowledge of esoteric lore did not help. He was about to prepare a bowl of water to dip Tony’s hand in, when he found himself no longer in a living room, but back in Hell.
Demons dug through piles of weapons for the ones they liked best, snatching them back and forth out of each other’s hands like children, growling and hissing like whatever their respective animal was. Upstairs, the angels would be waiting in line for their assigned weapon like neat little schoolchildren at lunch time. Crowley could not remember the last time he belonged in either place.
“Crowley!” Mastema exclaimed, greeting Crowley with a punch to his arm. “How have you been?”
Crowley’s mouth twitched. There were demons on the opposite end of the spectrum from languid dullards like Paimon—the energetic, pugnacious louts like Mastema.
“Are you ready for the Big War?” Mastema continued. “You can finally have your faceoff against that impotent poof, Aziraphale. I’m sure you can make quick work of him.” Mastema made a few mock jabs in the air.
Crowley wanted to make quick work of someone, alright, but there were more important things at hand than Aziraphale’s honor (which the angel had never put much stock in, either).
“When is that, exactly?” Crowley scratched his neck in disinterest.
“At dawn today, the Four Horsemen will convene at the Garden of the Ark, and upon their signal we shall take arms! Are you ready to fight?”
“Er, yeah, actually, I forgot something on Earth. Just gonna pop back up there quickly.”
Crowley appeared back in the living room. Pepper had just walked in and set the coffee grounds on the table while Tony awoke with a start. From Tony and Pepper’s perspective, Crowley had never left; he merely had an epiphany in the living room borne from his own thoughts, so it was unexpected—but no less welcome—when he grabbed his keys and said “Let’s go.”
The humans exchanged confused glances before following him out of the apartment, because what else were they going to do? Tony couldn’t bear to read another misspelled prophecy, and Pepper couldn’t think of another sticky note to stick.
When they arrived outside, though, they were met by a rather grim omen: in the dim, pre-dawn light, a single, inaugural fireball plummeted from the sky and landed on Crowley’s beloved, pristine Bentley. If Crowley needed a moment to react to this event, his sunglasses covered it. When the moment was over, he walked over and opened the front and back passenger doors.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get in!” Crowley told the two stunned humans. Pepper and Tony looked at each other again.
“The car’s on fire,” Pepper said, once she scooted into the backseat, avoiding the flames.
“So it is,” Crowley said, slipping a cassette of Tchaikovsky into the tape deck. The voice of Freddie Mercury rose from the dashboard:
Tonight, I’m gonna have myself
A real good time
I feel alive
And the world
I’ll turn it inside out.
Tony had to admire Crowley’s panache: no one had ever looked cooler while handling thirty-year-outdated technology. Whatever happened, they were going to go out in style. He turned to Crowley and nodded his approval. Crowley smirked back and revved the engine.
Pepper rolled her eyes.
“I’m burn-ing through the skiiiies,” Tony and Crowley sang inside the burning Bentley. “Two hundred degrees, that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit!”
They were interrupted by a buzzing sound even uglier than their singing. Tony checked his phone. "Fuck! Fuckfuckfuckfuck."
"We've already established that the car is on fire, Tony, but it doesn't seem to be burning us," Pepper said.
"No, it's not that. I mean...that is still happening. It's just, uh...Ultron came online. Well, something kind of like Ultron."
"You weren't done with Ultron, were you?" Pepper asked.
"Uh...no. But...it is in the prophecies…" Tony said. "Fuck."
"You said that already. Can’t you turn it off?”
There was a reason why programming needed to be precise. You wanted computers to do exactly what you told them to do. You didn’t want them to do what you didn’t want them to do. It was simple. It was the bane of many a programmer’s existence. A misplaced comma could sully thousands of pages of code. But it was better than the alternative.
Adam, who did not know coding, and who had not yet read Asimov, and who besides all that was eleven, thought it was abundantly clear what he meant when he told Ultron to protect the world from bad guys. He meant like aliens and stuff. And, like, Stalins and Hitlers. And global warming. Anything that was hurting the planet.
And, though he knew corporations were ruining the planet because Dr. Banner had told him that, he thought it was clear that he didn’t want Ultron to go ‘round knocking over buildings.
But Adam hadn’t discussed it with Ultron. In fact, he hadn’t even taken into account that the greatest threat to humanity was, well, humans.
Ultron had come online and immediately began to analyze its surroundings.
Its objective: Defend Earth.
It began to identify threats to Earth and found many. So very many. If Ultron had had less processing power, it would have crashed. But Ultron was ready. Ultron was made for this. But it would need help.
Ultron, endowed with the power of the Antichrist, found that it was no difficult task to create more bodies for itself. More bodies, more tools, more weapons. They would remove all threats to Earth, great and small.
The world was going to end in six hours.
Bruce and Aziraphale were still eight hours away from New York.
A minimum of eight hours, actually; there were all sorts of traffic congestions. Upturned roads, downturned buildings, fireballs raining down from the sky, dangerous automatons on a single-minded, Javert-esque mission to rid the world of evil, that sort of thing.
Bruce should have spent his last hours—if they were, indeed, to be his last hours—taking in all that the world had to offer. Even if he couldn’t travel or be with all his loved ones, he should have had least spent them conscious. There was beauty to be found everywhere.
Except on a stuffy, stalled bus. Not much to take in there. So Bruce spent a good portion of his last hours slumped in an uncomfortably narrow seat with an issue of Scientific American on his lap and, like Tony and Pepper, he did not notice when his celestial companion vanished.
When Aziraphale found himself surrounded by officious white expansiveness, he groaned inwardly. The angels were lined up, collecting their weapons.
“Aziraphale,” Gabriel boomed. “It’s good to see you. I hope you’re ready for the Great Fight. Have you been doing cardio? Lifting weights?”
He thought about the tremendous emotional weight he’d lifted off Bruce and said, “Of sorts.”
“Excellent!” Gabriel said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’ve always been great at falling in line eventually. Now, obviously, we reserve you the honor of finally vanquishing the wily demon Crowley once and for all. A final showdown between personal six-thousand-year old enemies! How exciting!”
He was clearly trying to get Aziraphale pumped up and was confused why Aziraphale wasn’t already spirited.
Aziraphale smiled weakly. “So the thing of it is, er, my power has recently depleted...I could use a bit of a boost.”
Gabriel regarded him skeptically. “Why?”
“I’ve been fortifying some holy places on Earth,” Aziraphale lied lyingly.
“Good thinking! Yes, we could really use those for healing and defense.” Gabriel said. Aziraphale hoped it wouldn’t come to that. There was no love lost between him and the other angels, but he hated to imagine leading them to their death like that...Gabriel clapped Aziraphale on the shoulder and shot some power through him. Aziraphale winced and fought the urge to collapse.
“So I’ll just pop back down to Earth and finish up…” Aziraphale said, trying to hide his queasiness. Gabriel’s power had never been quite compatible with Aziraphale’s corporation—it was too strong and overwhelming, for Aziraphale’s light touch.
“And come right back when you’re done!” Gabriel called out as Aziraphale disappeared.
Aziraphale reappeared right next to Bruce on the bus. He was very excited to leave; whatever awaited them couldn’t be worse than a Greyhound.
“Bruce, wake up,” Aziraphale said, nudging him. Bruce awoke with a start.
“What? Did something happen?”
“Yes.” Aziraphale pulled Bruce upright and once they were both standing, they found themselves in Brooklyn, in a garden that was very familiar to Bruce. “This is where the end starts.”
Bruce turned around, blinking in the dim pre-dawn light. He was home again, back again, in Brooklyn. For what might be the last time. He'd spent so many years becoming resigned to the Apocalypse. In some of his darkest hours, he thought that he truly might not mind if the world ended. But now, he wanted nothing more than a chance for a nice, long lifetime of happiness with his soulmate.
“Bruce! Where were you? We thought you were dead!” Tony ran up to him, with Pepper and Crowley not far behind.
“In Iowa,” Bruce responded. He couldn't help it; a huge smile crossed his face as he saw his soulmate, alive and well.
“Well, that explains why you look so happy. The world's ending but at least you're not in Iowa anymore."
"Tony, I—" Bruce took a step closer to Tony and cupped his face with his hands. He wished he'd had time to shower and brush his teeth after being teleported off a Greyhound bus, but time was short. He pulled Tony's face closer and kissed him.
Tony made a soft, surprised noise, and then a less-soft noise as Bruce wrapped his arms around Tony and deepened the kiss. When they finally pulled apart, Tony grinned. "I knew Agnes couldn't be right about everything."
"Actually—" Bruce started.
“Wait, wait, I'm happy for you two, but how did you and Aziraphale just—” Pepper fumbled for words. “—reappear? Did Adam's Floo powder finally wear off? Did he hurt you?"
“Oh, well, I used my renewed angelic abilities to bring us back," Aziraphale said casually.
“Your angelic abilities? You’re an angel? Like—like an actual angel?”
Aziraphale flexed his wings. “Yes, and Crowley’s a demon.”
“Wait, you’re a demon?!” Tony shouted. He took another look at Crowley, who he'd come to sort of like, admire even. Bruce squeezed his hand.
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Pepper kept a tighter rein on her anger, but she came close to exploding. That information would have been useful when they first met.
“I told you I’m a demon several times! I told you that Aziraphale and I met in the Garden of Eden! I told you how we were there for Daniel in the lion’s den, Balaam and his donkey, Sodom and Gomorrah, Saul’s first missionary journey—what did you think I was talking about?”
Pepper and Tony did not respond to that. They thought he had been dramatically reminiscing about old gay clubs.
"Well...Aziraphale, thanks for being Bruce's guardian angel," Tony said. "I'm glad we're back together."
“Hello? End of the world in a few hours? We don’t have time for this mushy, lovey-dovey crap,” Crowley snapped.
“Crowley, I missed you,” Aziraphale said with audible fondness. He threw his arms around the demon and kissed him. Suddenly, time did not seem so pressing.
“Er...can we have a few minutes?” Crowley asked, gesturing to a large tree.
“No!” Pepper shouted. “I’m glad you guys finally figured yourselves out, but treat this as an incentive to make sure the world doesn’t end.”
“Right,” Aziraphale said, pulling away and eyeing Crowley like a five-course meal he had to wait to eat until the family was done saying grace. "The final battle will start here, at this garden."
Bruce, ever responsible, went to the garden shed and produced a first aid kit.
"I'm not sure that'll do much good," Crowley said.
"Still, doesn't hurt to be prepared," Bruce said with a shrug.
Tony said, "It's a start. I don't suppose you have any weapons tucked away in that shed?"
"Er, there are a few rakes…"
"Right. So how do we stop the Horsemen?” Tony asked.
“You don’t,” said a voice above them.
1Which he didn’t even like, except for the status of it.[return to text]
2Dallon, Afton, Kailene, Rand, and Hux. [return to text]
3She’d been telling the story for months, but it always took place “about a week ago.”[return to text]
4This is usually not a problem, and in fact is a good decision; the issue is that she was lying. [return to text]
5If HOX news had known that, they would have thought twice about their eight-figure offer. And made it ten figures.[return to text]
6Literally, since Gwen Paltry was not her real name.[return to text]
7Free-range, organically grown ostrich eggs, ideally.[return to text]
8Or any other non-mouth orifice.
[return to text]
9Although Adam’s father told him corporations were the backbone of society, Adam was inclined to side with Dr. Banner on these matters.[return to text]
10In fact, if Bruce had been anywhere but a stuffy, stalled bus in the middle of Nowhere, or if he had his phone with him, he would have known that there was a lot more terror than beauty at the moment.[return to text]
As the sun rose over Brooklyn, Earth's last defenders looked around the garden to see who had spoken to them so ominously.
Without so much as a ruffle of branches or a crunch of leaves, a woman holding a flaming sword leapt from the large tree that Crowley had, moments ago, suggested using for privacy. “You of all people should know better than to try to stop War.”
“And Pestilence,” added another redhead, emerging from a cluster of bushes.
“And Famine,” added a third, hopping over the metal gate surrounding the vegetable garden.
“Holy shit, Pepper, she looks just like you,” Tony said.
"No, she doesn't," Pepper insisted, even though Famine was nearly identical to her, if a little older. "But the one with the sword does look really familiar…"
“All the Horsemen are incarnated as redheads?” Crowley asked. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“Famine’s more of a strawberry blonde, actually,” Aziraphale said.
“SILENCE, MORTALS,” a fourth voice demanded. She broke the pattern with her thick, black hair that still fell to her waist despite being tied up in a high ponytail. Then she laughed and said, “I always wanted to say that.”
“Death, I assume?” Bruce asked tiredly.
“The one and only. Is this it? Is this the final fight?” She looked around, clearly unimpressed by her challengers.
“There should be more coming soon,” Aziraphale said, resigned. The poor, sweet humans would never survive a fight against the Horsemen, even with his and Crowley’s help.The forces of Heaven and Hell would lay siege to Earth, and he and Crowley would be caught...fraternizing.
“I suppose the angel and demon will take up arms on behalf of their human pets?” She tossed a scythe back and forth between her hands with ease.
Crowley and Aziraphale looked at each other. They’d never been much for fighting and had grown quite comfortable and complacent in what was, essentially, the equivalent of a desk job. Still, desperate times, et cetera.
“Right. Let’s have a go, then,” Crowley said.
And then a fifth strange voice, truly disembodied, came down from the sky.
AZIRAPHALE, it said.
A sixth voice rose from below.
CROWLEY, it said.
And then, in unison, the voices blending together until they could not be told apart: THE WAR IS APPROACHING. YOUR SERVICES ARE REQUIRED. THERE IS NO MORE TIME TO DELAY.
Crowley and Aziraphale promptly vanished.
“One-on-one, then. Fair as can be, given the circumstances,” Death proclaimed. “Who wants to go first?”
Famine stepped forward, a menacing-looking pair of scales like a morningstar in her hands. Pepper stepped forward, with nothing.
“Wait, wait, Pepper’s not fighting. Pepper—” Tony said, but Pepper froze him out, fixed on Famine.
“Come at me,” Pepper said. "I had a protein-rich kale smoothie this morning and I go to cardio kickboxing and self-defence jiu-jitsu five times a week."
"You don't need to eat," Famine cooed. "You could get all the nutrition you need if you just gently place a crystal in your mouth instead of eating meals."
Famine charged ahead, scales raised, ready to strike, and in the next moment she was flat on her stomach, scales wrapped around her neck, with Pepper’s kneeling on her back, one hand pulling Famine’s hair and the other pulling the scales back in a strangling hold.
Pepper spared Tony a look as Famine struggled beneath her, to no avail. “I told you I could take care of myself.”
“I yield! I yield!” Famine said, spitting dirt out of her mouth. Pepper was glad. She wasn’t sure how the fight was supposed to end, and she had not looked forward to keeping her knees on Famine's back indefinitely. She stepped off Famine and relinquished her neck from the chains.
Pepper shook the scales in her hand. “I’m keeping this.” She reached into her oversized purse pulled out a KIND bar, which she tossed to Famine. "You should eat some protein after your workout to repair your muscles."
Famine wailed and evaporated, letting the bar fall to the ground. Pepper shrugged and picked it back up. It was peanut butter-dark chocolate, her favorite.
War stepped forward, brandishing her flaming sword.
“You,” Pepper said, “I’ve seen you around SI!”
“Yes. It’s nice to know one of you knows what’s going on there. Pity it’s too late to matter.”
“She’s been meeting with Obadiah Stane,” Pepper explained to Tony.
“Obie? Obie’s been meeting with War?” Tony asked. He had started to come to terms with the fact that Obie was no good, but meeting with an actual Horsewoman of the Apocalypse? That was next-level evil.
Death yawned widely. “Yes, we freelance, can we get a move on with the fighting? The end of the world will mean the end of the gig economy, too.”
War’s lips curled into a smile. “Stane has been very helpful. Actually, we’ve both been mutually beneficial to each other. Two people with like-minded goals. It’s a pity Howard died when we were just getting started, but our work wouldn’t have been possible without him. Tony, your designs have been so helpful, but Stane is the one with the vision to make them truly glorious.”
“So this is both personal and symbolic? Cool,” Tony stepped forward his phone in hand, and glanced back at Bruce. “Bruce, I’m sorry. I know you don’t like drone technology...”
Bruce was confused until he saw a hovercraft above War’s head, after which...he remained confused. The drone was clearly too small to be used for actual warfare.
“....but it can revolutionize gardening.”
Then a sharp jet of water descended from it, smothering and extinguishing the flames. It was such a forceful gush that it knocked the sword out of War’s hand. She looked down, mouth open in a little shocked huff. She picked it up, though she was clearly disappointed that it no longer blazed.
“I’ll destroy you. I still have a regular sword, you idiot.”
“And I have an army of bees,” Tony said, pressing his tablet screen again. No one was sure they heard him correctly until an army of bees came swarming, surrounding War. The sword was useless against them, no matter how frantically she thwacked. “Mechanical bees. Good for pollination. Some real swords into ploughshares shit, right?” He looked at Bruce and winked. Bruce smiled back. With a swipe of his fingers, the bees went into formation and chased War around the garden. The sword lay discarded on the ground. Tony snatched it up and it reignited.
Meanwhile, Pestilence approached Bruce, who forced himself to think about something other than how smart and hot Tony was. Bruce really wished Agnes had been more specific about how this extremely weird battle might play out. At least he had home court advantage, so to speak; he was still holding the center's first aid kit.
“You! We saw you...you’re the one responsible for spreading lies and creating public health hazards,” Bruce fumed. “Propagating non-scientifically-backed data, undoing our progress of empirical research and data-driven solutions…”
“I’m not the only one, you little dork. I’m just the most effective. There are plenty of humans who happily do the same. And you know what? This is my nature. I’m Pollution. I’m Pestilence. I’ve been around from the start for this exact purpose. I can’t do anything but. Take it up with your fellow humans. They have the choice.” She approached him, her palms out, her dress and hair billowing. Tony and Pepper, each with their own weapons, made a move forward, but they were frozen: Death ensured the one-to-one combats. “And it’s funny to hear all this high-and-mighty science stuff from the descendent of a prophet. Explain that!”
“I can’t. I can’t explain everything. But I do know one thing: We require our students to be vaccinated," he said, softly, which was not a particularly bad-ass action hero thing to say. But then he jabbed her with an Epi-pen, which was at least a little bit bad-ass.
Pestilence screeched as the epinephrine flooded her system. A bit of something like blood, but not exactly, gushed back out of her injection site and splashed on Bruce's hands. They hadn't mentioned this side effect in Bruce's first aid training, but then, they'd practiced with the Epi-pens on oranges, not immortal constructs. Pestilence dissipated in a cloud of disgusting smoke. Bruce shakily put Neosporin on his hands, which had instantly developed seeping wounds in the places where Pestilence's blood, or whatever, had touched. They felt terrible, even considering Bruce's high pain tolerance.
“You're so smart!” Tony said. "This won't be so hard." Then the tablet he was still holding started blaring an alert. "Oh, fuck."
"What?" Bruce asked, still keeping a wary eye on Death, who was, for the moment, still passively watching the others.
"It's Ultron...it came online, but it...well, you know, I hadn't finished coding it yet, and it was meant to be a peacekeeping program, but—"
"We know, you didn't mean to make murderbots, but…?" Pepper said.
"Well...Adam brought Ultron online earlier, and it's been calculating how to handle the threat of the Four Horsemen and I think it's finished its calculations...it's going to destroy the whole city to protect the rest of the earth from them!" Tony said. The sky began to grow dark. Shining silver pieces were assembling themselves in the sky, building a dome over the city and blocking out the sun. On the ground, few sleek silver robots with glowing red eyes approached them.
Pepper stood up and looked at War, who was breathing heavily and still followed by bees. "You are never working with Stark Industries again. I will see to it personally."
War hissed and vanished, leaving behind a cloud of mechanical bees who drifted off to examine the garden's plants.
"Nice work, Pepper!"
"What about these robots? They look like they have guns!"
"Well, I did not design them that way," Tony muttered. "Or at all! Ultron wasn't supposed to have a body at all, it was supposed to be a defensive network…" He frantically tapped at his tablet, trying to gain control over the robots as they continued flying toward them.
Bruce, who was starting to worry that his hands might fall off entirely, said, tentatively, "They look like the kind of stuff Adam used to doodle…"
And then Adam himself popped into the garden. He was clutching a baseball bat with a determined look on his small face, with Dog trailing closely behind. "Dr. Banner! I couldn't find you when you were with the angel. I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to do all this stuff…I just..."
"Ah, a worthy competitor has arrived," Death intoned, gliding toward them with her scythe.
And even though Bruce knew it was stupid, knew he had no way of fighting literal Death, knew that Adam was the Antichrist...he stepped between Adam and Death. He just couldn't stand by and let an eleven-year-old boy get...stabbed or scythed or whatever the verb was for was about to happen. "Adam," Bruce said. "Get out of here."
“Aww. That’s sweet. You’ll die protecting the Antichrist.”
"No, he won’t!" Adam said fiercely. “I won’t let you hurt him. I can make you do what I want. And I want you to leave my friends alone. Actually, I want you to leave. Just go. You won’t be ending the world today.”
“Fair play to you, kid! He hath spoken.” Death sounded impressed and not the least bit perturbed. “But Pestilence was right. We’ve been around since the beginning, and we’ll be around in the end. It’s not just our nature, it’s the natural order.” With a snap of her fingers, the three others reappeared, no worse for the wear. “Let’s roll out, ladies,” Death said. Underneath each of them, motorcycles appeared. Death revved her engine and they vanished again in clouds of black and red and grey and white smoke that smelled like, well, death.
“Wait, that was it? We defeated Death?” Tony asked.
“Not defeated,” Adam sighed, “just delayed. But I don't think they'll be back for an awful long time.”
"Oh my god," Bruce muttered. His oozy hands were trembling and turning faintly greenish.
Snapping Bruce out of his reverie, Tony called, "Bruce, I need your brainpower over here. Ultron is going to destroy the whole city in five minutes unless we can figure out how to get it offline!" Bruce stumbled closer to Tony, who was staring intently at his tablet. Bruce couldn't make sense of what he saw on the screen and he sat down heavily on the trampled grass next to Tony.
Tony glanced at him. "Bruce? Any ideas? I...I think I got these robots on the ground to stop but the ones in the sky..."
Adam approached them, taking the kinds of deep, uneven breaths that signaled he was on the verge of tears.
"It's okay, Adam," Bruce said, although it wasn't.
"I just want everything to be good but I don't know how to do it!" Adam said.
"Uh, for starters, you could call off these robots?" Tony said, looking up from his tablet with frustration.
"They were supposed to be for peacekeeping! They were your idea!” Adam said. "But I thought it would look cooler this way…"
"They do look pretty cool," admitted Tony. "Except for the murder."
Adam bit his lip and the sky cleared up. The robots on the ground disappeared, save for one that shrank down to toy size and landed next to where Adam was standing, several feet from Bruce and Tony. Tony looked at his tablet with relief. The metal plates filling the sky vanished too, and Crowley and Aziraphale reappeared in the garden.
“Apparently, the Horsewomen have been defeated and there’s a bit of a commotion between the troops, so we had a moment to pop ov—” Aziraphale explained, but he realized he was interrupting a moment and stopped talking.
They watched as Adam anxiously walked the remaining few feet to where Bruce was sitting and explained, "I just wanted to save the whales, and the rainforest, and the bees...but it was too much."
"You did a lot of very good things, Adam," Bruce said. "I'm proud of you."
"I'm sorry I was mean to your friends, Dr. Banner. I'm glad you have them, I know you've been really sad lately. I was just...I was just worried you wouldn't have time for me anymore."
"I'll always have time for you, Adam." Bruce blinked white spots away from his eyes. It must be an adrenaline crash. The book didn’t say anything about his dying so he wouldn’t, right?
"I know I'm bad sometimes," Adam said. "But I don't mean to be. I'm just curious."
Bruce smiled. "Growing up is hard. I’d never hold it against you.”
Crowley and Aziraphale approached them. Crowley said, “It’s difficult being human, even when you aren’t. And it can get lonely sometimes.” Crowley shot a glance to Aziraphale, who walked to his side and grabbed his hand. “But that doesn’t mean you have to be alone.”
Adam sat down next to Bruce. "Dr. Banner, you're turning green! That is so gross," he said, his tone delighted.
"Oh. I, uh, think I got some Pestilence on me," Bruce admitted.
"You what?" Aziraphale said.
"It was pretty badass," Tony said proudly. "He stabbed her with an Epi-pen but...God, Bruce, are you okay?"
Aziraphale reluctantly let go of Crowley's hand and nudged Adam aside, kneeling down and taking Bruce’s hands in his own. Nothing happened. Bruce winced in pain. Even though Aziraphale's touch was gentle, the contact on his seeping lesions felt awful. “Oh, I can’t heal him…Fuck. Adam, please…”
“Do you think this is the blood on my hands?” Bruce said, his voice slurring. On one hand, this interpretation of the prophecy was preferable to Bruce actually killing another person. On the other, extremely diseased-looking hand, Bruce felt like his organs might be starting to shut down.
He looked at Aziraphale for reassurance, but all he saw through his blurred vision was panic etched on Aziraphale’s face. Tony tried to put a comforting hand on Bruce's shoulder, but Crowley blocked him. "Better not," he said apologetically. "He'll be contagious to humans." Crowley took his own stab at healing Bruce, but even his demonic energies weren't enough to counteract pure Pestilence.
Adam looked around and picked up the discarded first aid kit.
"I already put Neosporin on them. I don’t think that helps," Bruce said. He wasn’t sure how many of his words were comprehensible. Adam opened the kit and solemnly placed a Batman Band-Aid on each of Bruce's palms. The infection cleared up immediately.
Bruce drew a ragged breath and flexed his fingers. "Oh. Thanks, Adam."
"That was so nasty, it looked like that book we read about the Bubonic Plague."'
Bruce swallowed. "It did, didn't it."
Tony set down his tablet and squeezed Bruce's healed hand with relief.
"What's supposed to happen now? Is it in your book?" Adam asked.
"I'm not sure," Bruce admitted. "But we'll be together for whatever comes next."
Bruce expected a breathing period between “now” and “whatever comes next,” but “whatever comes next” came immediately: two new challengers joined them on the battlefield. Their faces were familiar to Aziraphale and Crowley, who both winced at the sight of Beelzebub and Gabriel. The humans watched with interest. Beelzebub looked more like what they imagined a demon to look like, whereas Gabriel looked like he could be running a competitor of SI.
"Should have known we'd find you two here," Gabriel said.
"Your betrayal is no longer of consequenzzzz," Beezlebub said. "Adam, now is the time to claim your birthright. You must pick up your zzzzword and join with Death."
"No," said Adam.
"Much as I hate to agree with a demon, Beelzebub is right, Adam," Gabriel said. "This is what you were born to do."
"Dr. Banner says I can do anything I put my mind to," Adam said.
"Yezzzz, you are the all-powerful Antichrist," Beelzebub agreed.
"Well, I don't want to start a war. You get in trouble for fighting at the ARC Center and then you don't get to go on the field trips."
"Adam, we're a little bit beyond field trips," Gabriel coaxed. "You have to start the war. The world will be your field trip."
"You zzzzhall be the ruler of all of Earth."
"Next week we're going to the planetarium," Adam insisted. "I want you to leave. And you’re not allowed to bother my friends. You’re to leave them alone, all of them.”
"Your father will hear about thizzzz," Beelzebub insisted, before Adam's will forced both of their visitors back to their respective places of origin.
"Oh, well done, Adam," Aziraphale said.
Crowley let out a guttural cry. Aziraphale reached out to squeeze his hand.
"What's wrong?" Bruce asked.
"It's...him...Adam's father…" Crowley said.
Bruce winced. He'd never quite clicked with Adam's father. But he knew Mr. Young was at least a dependable, non-abusive man, even if his politics were distressingly conservative. The Young home might not have rewarded Adam's intellectual curiosity the way Bruce did, but it was a safe place for Adam to grow up.
"Keep being yourself, Adam," Aziraphale called. "That's the best thing you can do."
Adam nodded. There was a poster to that effect on the wall inside the ARC Center.
Crowley, still groaning with pain, said, "That's true. He won't be prepared for...for you."
And then a huge being who looked like a terrible Renaissance painting come to life emerged from the ground, and Bruce remembered that Mr. Young was not Adam's birth father. Bruce stepped closer to Tony and Pepper and held their hands. Aziraphale hastily dropped Crowley's hand and picked up his flaming sword. Crowley tried his best to look menacing, but mostly succeeded in standing upright.
"Adam, enough of this. You must start the war," said Satan. "It is your birthright. You must obey your father."
"You're not my real dad," Adam insisted.
"I assure you, I am."
"Aren't," Adam replied. "My dad's awfully busy at his office job but he still takes time to watch Cosmos with me and make sure I've done my homework and yell at me if I don't clean up after Dog. And he's going to take me to a baseball game. He said so. You haven't done any of that, and I don't have to listen to you. And I won't."
He crossed his arms, and Satan blinked twice with confusion before crying out, "Noo!" He fell back into the earth, and another man started walking toward them. It was Mr. Young.
"Adam, there you are! We have been looking all over for you. We were worried!" He turned his glare on Bruce. "Dr. Banner, funny thing, we asked you if you knew where he was and we had to hear about it from a bloody NextDoor posting? I know you have my number."
"I just found him," Bruce said meekly. “Haven’t had a chance to...get my phone out.”
"That should’ve been the first thing you done! What, were you talking out your feelings? Teaching him about dolphins and whales and other fish?" Mr. Young fumed.
“Dolphins and whales aren’t fish,” Bruce whispered, but Mr. Young didn’t hear him because the entirety of his attention was focused on Tony Stark.
"Er, T..Tony Stark?"
Tony waved. "Adam's quite a clever boy, Mr. Young."
Mr. Young sighed. "Don't I know it."
"I'd be happy to offer him an internship when he's a bit older," Tony said, with his signature charming smile. "If he'd like one."
Mr. Young looked suspiciously from his son to the famous CEO and back. "Well—well, we'll talk about that when he's older, I suppose. For right now, we are going home right this instant, young man!"
"Okay, Dad," Adam agreed. "Bye, Dr. Banner, I'll see you after school on Monday."
"Bye, Adam," Bruce said.
Adam followed his father home. Aziraphale, Crowley, Pepper, and Tony all looked around the ARC Center garden, which showed no signs of having nearly hosted the first battle of the War to End All Wars.
"You know, going home sounds like a good idea to me," Bruce said.
"Our Airbnb rooms are still booked for another week, after all," Aziraphale agreed.
"I don't want to go to the office," Tony said, making eye contact with Bruce. "I feel like I earned some time off."
Bruce smiled. "There's plenty of room at my place."
Suggestively, Tony said, "I don't need a private room."
Bruce blushed and said, "Uh. Let's order pizza?" He reached out and took Tony's hand.
"I'm starving," Pepper agreed, because she was hungry, and also eager to redirect Bruce and Tony's flirting until they could have a private room. “I might indulge in actual cheese. It's already after six, isn't it?”
“Pep, it’s not even noon,” Tony said.
"You know what they say, it's six o'clock somewhere," Aziraphale said cheerfully.
"Five o'clock," Crowley corrected.
"Well, if it's five o'clock somewhere, it follows naturally that it's also six o'clock somewhere," Aziraphale replied. He linked arms with Crowley, and Crowley made no further argument.
The five unlikely companions walked back to Bruce's apartment. As they walked, they noticed what a lovely day it was—sun shining, lovely breeze, clean streets, and not a single killer robot as far as the eye could see. Brooklyn had remade itself in Adam's peaceful vision. And when they made it back, Crowley's Bentley was waiting in a plum parking spot right in front of the building. The sleek car shone in the sun, and gave no indications whatsoever that it had recently been engulfed in flames.
"Extraordinary," Crowley whispered.
1It was not technically accurate either, since Epi-pens are not vaccines, but Bruce was working with what he had.[return to text]
2Bruce had always assumed the prophecy "Clean hands above all else shall save thee from Pestilence" was just an ahead-of-her-time warning about germ theory and handwashing, or else some kind of general Puritan statement. It wasn't.[return to text]
3In fact, Pestilence had infected Bruce with an entirely new, and particularly nasty, virus. If it hadn't outright killed Bruce, it would have left him with lingering, life-long effects. Luckily, Adam healed him completely.[return to text]
Chapter 14: In Which Our Heroes Talk About Their Feelings
After saving the world and feasting on pizza, the only thing Tony, Bruce, Pepper, and Crowley wanted to do was take a nap. It was still early in the day, but they'd all been running on fumes for quite some time. And, although the apartment had rooms enough for them all, Bruce made no objections when Tony followed him to bed.
Meanwhile, the only thing Aziraphale wanted to do was curl up with a good book. It was prudent to make sure no stone went unturned, no prophecy unfulfilled, and now he could finally enjoy his treasure without the pesky time crunch of the Apocalypse. He’d never say this to Bruce, but for all the years of apparent diligence, the Nutter descendants had done a rather slipshod job with their analysis. He supposed Rebecca and Bruce had had other concerns on their minds for several terrible years, but still. Even in the best of circumstances, Bruce was just too literal and scientific-minded to really excel at this kind of interpretation. Without Aziraphale, the poor boy would have wound up stuck with Crowley, a fate that only Aziraphale could handle.
He was a good deal of the way through the prophecies when Bruce padded out into the living room. He was wearing flannel pants and a faded T-shirt and his hair was even more askew than usual.
“Fuck!” Bruce yelped, not expecting another being. “Sorry. Haven’t you had enough of that book?” Bruce certainly had. Despite his deeply rooted objections to book-burning, he’d considered making an exception for that one.
“I’m making sure we haven’t missed anything.”
“Don’t you want to sleep?” Bruce asked.
“I’ve never taken to it. Crowley, on the other hand, loves it.” In another room, Crowley let out a monstrous snore. “You should be in bed. Sleep isn't optional for humans.”
Bruce shuffled uncomfortably. After their group had split up, he and Tony had spent some extremely enjoyable time not-sleeping in bed together. Afterward, Tony had fallen asleep easily, but Bruce had laid awake, for the exact reason that Aziraphale was awake at the moment. “About the unfulfilled prophecies…there is a part of one that hasn’t quite come to fruition.”
“The part about becoming your father’s son.”
Bruce nodded and repeated the painful prophecy that was etched into his mind. "With blood on his hands, Robert will be his father’s son, in flesh and spirit, as he earned through the blood of his history." He furrowed his brows and said, "I—I mean, I had the blood on my hands, but that wasn't really…" He trailed off. His earlier conversation with Aziraphale had mostly reassured Bruce that he wasn't going to hurt his soulmate, but he still didn't understand what the prophecy could mean. It seemed so unlikely that being his father's son could mean anything good. Aziraphale gestured for him to sit down, and he did.
“I think I know what it means, if I may be so bold,” Aziraphale said. Bruce swallowed and braced himself. “It's frowned upon for my kind to develop close attachments to humans, but, well, we didn't avert the Apocalypse by following the rules, did we? So these past few weeks, I’ve become very fond of you—of all of you—but I felt a rather special connection to you in particular. I felt, dare I say, a paternal attachment. And when I saw you suffering from the effects of Pestilence—that is to say, the blood on your hands, when I realized you might—well, best not to mention it, but suffice it to say, the threat of losing you from the mortal plane so prematurely made me realize how much I've come to cherish you. How much I love you. What I mean to say is, it would give me great honor if you would allow me to consider you my son.”
“You...you would choose to have me as your son?” Bruce said. He'd had enough therapy to intellectually understand that Brian's abuse wasn't Bruce's fault, but it was still a leap to imagine any father—let alone one as kind and good as Aziraphale—would willingly pick Bruce.
Aziraphale smiled radiantly and said, “I would love to.”
Bruce gave himself a moment to choke back his tears of gratitude. Aziraphale wished he’d just let them out, but small steps. Bruce had already made remarkable progress in healing from his trauma.
Bruce nodded his head toward the book. “Well, that’s great, because I wanted to give that to you, and this will keep it in the family.”
“Agnes Nutter?” Aziraphale’s eyes widened and he tightened his grip on the valuable book.
“Yes. Please. You appreciate it far more than I do,” Bruce said, which wasn’t hard. Sure, it was his mother’s, but it was really the notecards that meant something, and he had plenty of other, less-fraught, things to remember his mother by.
“Bruce, thank you so much. It means the world to me, not just because it’s the rarest, most sought-after book in all of human history, but because it’s from my son.” Aziraphale pulled Bruce into his chest and kissed the top of his head, ensuring a night of peaceful sleep. “Rest easy, my dear. You’ve done well. Now go back to that charming man and begin the rest of your life.”
Bruce gently pulled away and swiped at his eyes, suddenly feeling very tired without the accompanying anxiety to keep him awake. He took the book from Aziraphale’s lap, closed it, and set it on the coffee table. “Only if you go to yours. Good night, Aziraphale."
"You—you could call me 'Dad,' if you'd like," Aziraphale said hopefully.
Bruce hesitated only a second before replying, "Okay. Good night...Dad...go sleep with Crowley."
It wasn't a sentence he'd ever expected to say, nor one Aziraphale ever expected to hear, but it worked.
Aziraphale snuck into Crowley’s bedroom and slid into his bed which, under normal circumstances, would feel inappropriate and weird. But between him and Crowley, it felt overdue, and they had no “normal circumstances.” He decided to give sleeping another chance. Everyone else seemed to really enjoy it.
Aziraphale gave in to sleep and awoke to a yelp.
“Aziraphale? What are you doing here? Is this a dream? Not that I dream such things,” Crowley added hastily.
Aziraphale had slept lightly, on the most surface level of sleep, but he actually enjoyed it this time around.
“My son recommended I join you in bed,” Aziraphale said with a boastful emphasis on “son.”
Crowley squeezed his eyes shut. “How long have I been asleep for?”
“Just the night. I invited Bruce into a father-son arrangement and he agreed.”
Crowley blinked two amused snake eyes back at him. “You have no idea how this all sounds, do you.”
“Don’t make it sound naughty,” Aziraphale sighed. “We’ve been through a lot together, and his birth father—”
“No, no, you don’t have to sell me on Bruce. He’s a sweet little lamb, but I won’t hold it against him. If you get him, I want the other two.”
"Well, why not? Seems we'll be on Earth for awhile longer, might as well try out a new human experience or two. Haven't tried fatherhood yet."
Aziraphale smiled and sat up. “Excellent! Now, shall we go out for breakfast, or stay in and cook?”
Crowley eyed him hungrily. "We could stay in bed?"
"I rather think I've slept enough for—oh! Well, I suppose it is a bit early for breakfast, anyway..."
The morning after the world didn't end, Bruce awoke early, feeling calm and well-rested. This was unusual for him. He also awoke with Tony Stark sleeping peacefully beside him, which was also strange. Bruce sat up and watched Tony sleep for a moment before quietly slipping out to the kitchen to make some tea.
He was standing at the stove, waiting for the kettle to boil, when he felt arms slip around his waist from behind. Bruce flinched minutely before Tony gently rested his chin on Bruce's shoulder and said, "Good morning, sunshine."
Bruce tried to smile when he turned around to look at Tony, but it wasn't a very convincing effort. Tony said, "What's wrong? Oh god, is there another fucking prophecy?"
Bruce let out a little laugh. "No, it's just—well, I've spent so many years feeling controlled by the prophecies, by fate, and I just—I guess I just wanted to be sure that you didn't feel like you had to be with me, just because of the prophecy." He twisted his miraculously-healed hands together anxiously.
Tony reached out and held Bruce's hands. "Hey. No way, I could care less what your great-great-whatever wrote in her voyeuristic little book. No offense."
Bruce smiled shyly. "None taken."
"Anyway, remember, I wanted to be with you even when you thought the book said you were supposed to be with Crowley. I don't care what the book says. I care what you say." Tony did not mention how he had stayed in Brooklyn the night of the ARC Center fundraiser, hoping Bruce would reappear. He’d wait until after the wedding for that little confession.
Bruce remembered Tony’s insistence, but it all felt too good to be true. Still, he put his arms around Tony and kissed him. Tony kissed him back, then pulled away. "Wait. You're not just with me because of the prophecy? You...you were willing to be with Crowley...you didn't even want to try to be with me."
Tony had developed a bit of a playboy reputation in no small part because it was hard for him to know how to trust someone enough to enter a relationship with them. He'd worried that people were only interested in him for his fame, his money, his influence...he'd never before worried that someone would only be interested in him because of an old prophecy.
Bruce shook his head. "No, I...I didn't want to be with Crowley...but I just thought, given how the prophecies usually turn out...I just thought something would happen, and I didn't want you to get hurt. I thought it would be better for you. I'm sorry, I didn't think you'd take it that way. Not after you'd seen how the prophecies work."
He looked at Tony with wide, earnest eyes, and Tony softened. Tony wasn't used to people trying to protect his feelings. He remembered how Bruce had tried to protect him from Adam; he supposed he could believe that Bruce had also mistakenly tried to protect Tony from himself.
Still, he asked, "Are you sure? I mean, I know Crowley's not your type, but...I'm not sure I am?"
"What do you mean?"
"Wouldn't you rather be with some...I dunno, some dirty hippie with a compost pile? Not a capitalist CEO warmonger?"
Bruce shook his head. "That's not...that's not what you are. I don't even know if I have a type, but if I did, you’d be it."
"Handsome, charming billionaire who helped stop the end of the world. Quite a type. So you're not just with me because you think you're supposed to be?"
Bruce took a moment to consider this. "I—I do think I'm supposed to be with you, but not because of the book...it just feels...right. Like I belong with you. Like we belong together." He licked his lips and gave Tony a pleading look. "I hope that doesn't sound too, um, intense, I know we haven't actually known each other that long…"
If Bruce thought his sweet statement might be too intense, Tony was definitely going to try to dial his own feelings back, at least for a day or two. He did feel reassured about Bruce's intentions. It was hard not to when Bruce was looking at him like...well, like the way Aziraphale and Crowley looked at each other.
Tony grinned. "Yesterday we fought the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I don't think talking about our feelings is as intense as that."
"Almost, though," Bruce said. The kettle whistled, and he turned off the stove.
"Almost," Tony agreed.
"And you—you wouldn't rather be with, I don't know, somebody who knows what fork to use and how to make it through a society gala without having a panic attack?"
"Absolutely not," Tony said immediately, cupping a hand to Bruce's cheek. "If you don't know those things, they must not be worth knowing."
Bruce swallowed and said softly, "I guess I just didn't believe the universe would ever let something this good happen to me."
Tony gave Bruce a gentle kiss. Then he put an arm around Bruce and said, "Why don't we go back to bed? I'm concerned that my previous efforts weren't enough to convince you that the universe wants you to be happy...but I'm willing to try again until you believe."
Bruce laughed and happily let himself be led out of the kitchen, all thoughts of tea forgotten.
Tony paused in the bedroom doorway and added, “By the way, before I forget...you eat with the fork furthest from your plate, working your way closer to your plate as you go through the courses...I'm sure you can handle it. Just so you know. For when we go to fancy dinners. If you want to.”
"Oh. Good to know," Bruce said sheepishly.
"I know a lot of useful stuff," Tony replied, and he took Bruce to bed and gave him a thorough demonstration of his knowledge of forking.
Afterward, Bruce was curled up with his head on Tony's scarred chest while Tony idly stroked his unruly hair. “I can’t believe my boyfriend single-handedly defeated Pestilence,” Tony said proudly.
Bruce felt a little thrill at hearing Tony casually call him “boyfriend”; it felt much more real than reading about it from Agnes. To avoid bringing the mood down, he didn’t mention how Pestilence had nearly killed him, starting with both of his hands. Instead, he said, “I can’t believe my boyfriend single-handedly defeated War.”
“Well, still. Very impressive. The robot bees were inspired.”
They both laughed, feeling cozy and giddy and just happy to be alive together.
"It's funny," Tony said, "I never used to like coming to Brooklyn, but now I never want to leave. I guess specifically I never want to leave this bed."
"Mm, it is a nice bed," Bruce said. "Much nicer now that you're in it."
Bruce didn't want to ever leave bed either, especially not when Tony was kissing him so sweetly, but Bruce didn't always get what he wanted. The doorbell buzzed.
"Mmph," Bruce said. He reluctantly rolled off of Tony.
"Ignore it," Tony said. "It can't be that important or it would have been in the book, right?"
"Let me just see who it is," Bruce said. "I'll be too worried if I don't."
Tony sighed. "You're so conscientious." They quickly dressed and Tony followed Bruce out of the bedroom, because it turned out that it wasn't that he didn't want to ever leave the bed, so much as that he didn't want to leave Bruce.
Bruce buzzed up a delivery man, who had a package addressed to Robert Bruce Banner and Anthony Starke. Bruce signed for it as his anxiety spiked in his stomach.
"That's weird," Tony said. "I know things are moving pretty fast with us but I definitely hadn't started getting mail addressed to me here yet."
"I think it's from Agnes," Bruce said gloomily. He sat down on the living room couch and set the box on the coffee table. “I’m not sure I even want to open it.”
"So don't," Tony pleaded. He was only just beginning to understand the toll the prophecies had had on Bruce's mental health, and he didn't want Bruce to have to go through another round of them. "She'll never know. Or...maybe she'll know, but what's she going to do about it?"
Bruce looked down at the box and then back up at Tony. Uncertainty was clear in his eyes, but he said, "I...I have to. I'd rather know…" He pried the tape off the box and opened it up, revealing The Further Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. He covered his face with his hands, while Tony slipped an arm around his shoulders. Bruce couldn’t help but envision the rest of his life: reading and re-reading the book, making a new set of notecards, and continuing to spend hours upon hours fulfilling his “professional descendant” duties. He’d thought he was free of it; he thought he’d be able to start living his life without trying to figure out what he thought Agnes said he should be doing with it.
Tony nuzzled his cheek against Bruce’s. "You really don't have to read it, you know. We'll write our own future."
Bruce sucked in a sharp breath, overwhelmed by that sentiment. Tony mistook Bruce's reaction for offense, and backpedaled, “Or I’ll help you make more notecards, if that’s what you want. Pepper has really nice handwriting.”
Bruce gave him a grateful smile. He appreciated Tony’s support, but even with Tony by his side, the idea of making a new set of cards filled Bruce with dread.
Tony continued, “We could digitize them, too…”
Then Aziraphale entered the living room. He was wearing white flannel pajamas and had emerged from the bedroom Crowley had claimed.
"Oh! Good morning. I thought I heard the kettle whistle earlier, could do with a spot of tea…" he said hopefully.
Bruce looked back and forth between Tony and Aziraphale before making the most impulsive decision he had ever made over the course of his over-analyzed life. "I'll make you some tea. And I've got a gift for you, with one condition."
"Hmm? Oh, I don't need anything besides tea, and perhaps I wouldn't say no to a nice scone…"
Bruce handed him the box. "I've got another very rare, one-of-a-kind book for your shop."
Aziraphale gasped. "Oh! My goodness!" He stared at it, almost as fondly as the way he stared at Crowley. Almost. "Ah, what's your condition?"
"I don't ever want to know anything that's in it," Bruce said. Tony leaned over and kissed his cheek.
"Are you quite sure?" Aziraphale asked.
Aziraphale manifested a white cotton glove and opened the book's cover. A letter fell out, addressed to "The Angelle Azyraphalle."
Shortly after Bruce returned with Aziraphale's tea, Crowley and Pepper joined the group in the living room, and Aziprahale tucked the letter back inside the book to read later, when he had a moment alone.
“Look what my son gave me!” Aziraphale exclaimed, holding up the new prophecy book. Bruce blushed and ducked his head. Tony and Pepper cocked their heads in confusion.
Bruce said, “Aziraphale, uh, invited me to be his son, I guess, and I accepted." He had not counted on it sounding so awkward. Aziraphale was not making it any less so, although his proud gaze made Bruce feel unexpectedly warm and fuzzy. In the ensuing silence, Bruce had a moment to worry about Tony, whose own father seemed almost as bad as Bruce's birth father. But Crowley quickly shifted the awkwardness in another direction by waving a finger at Pepper and Tony and deadpanning, “I got you two.” Pepper bit her lip to keep from laughing.
"Wow, it's like a reverse divorce," Tony said.
"I think a reverse divorce is just a wedding," Pepper said. "Anyway, that's very thoughtful, thank you, but I have a living father, who I happen to like very much."
"Oh. Right, of course," Crowley said.
"But you can send me an Olive Garden gift card on my birthday and share weird Boomer memes on my Facebook." Crowley tilted his head, and she said, "Or just the first one is fine. You should probably save most of your fathering for Tony. I appreciate the offer, though."
Crowley looked questioningly at Tony, trying to hide his fear of rejection. Tony shrugged and said lightly, "I guess if you're looking for something to do, you could pay for my college and tell me I'm a disappointment?"
"It's a deal," Crowley intoned, offering his hand to shake upon Tony's prophesied deal with a devil.
"Oh, surely there must be more to fatherhood than that," Aziraphale protested. "Isn't there?" He tried to remember what he and Crowley had done as Warlock's "godparents," but that had been a different situation altogether. For starters, Bruce and Tony were clearly already potty trained, and likely already knew all they needed to know about the animal kingdom. And despite his joke, Tony's higher education was undoubtedly already paid for.
Bruce shrugged. "Uh...on TV it seems like there's a lot of father-son sports-playing?"
"Oh, yeah, catch and all that," Tony agreed.
"We don't have to do that, do we?" Crowley asked. "Er, I mean...d'you want to?" He cast a dubious glance at Tony.
"Why don't we just figure it out as we go along?" Tony asked.
"That strategy seems to have worked out so far," Crowley replied.
"Hugs," pronounced Aziraphale. "I think fathers and sons are meant to hug." He knew Bruce and Tony were past the age when humans needed terribly much parenting, but surely they'd enjoy a nice paternal hug.
"Sounds fake, but okay," Tony muttered. It was barely audible, but Bruce quirked his lips in response.
"I dunno, I think it's worth a try," Bruce said softly, and so they did.
1Clearly Bruce would have a learning curve for learning how to appropriately interact with and what to say to a loving father figure. [return to text]
2Pepper’s father was very proud of her yet unable to fully understand the social status Pepper had attained in the big city; Olive Garden was the fanciest place he could think of. [return to text]
Chapter 15: In Which The World Has Not Ended
It's doooone! Thank you so much for reading and we hope you stick around for the Epilogue!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Monday morning found Bruce and Tony curled up in bed together, reading the news on their respective tablets in companionable silence. No respectable newspaper carried anything about the weekend's near-Apocalypse. It seemed that when Adam had remade the world, he'd erased almost everyone's memories of what had happened leading up to what didn't happen. A few fringe sites had some blurry photos and confusing manifestos, but that was par for the course; most everyone seemed to have accepted the restored environment as some rare good news chalked up to previous errors in measurement and moved on.
"This just means people are going to go right back to polluting and destroying the rainforest and not vaccinating their kids," Bruce said.
"You do say the most romantic things in bed, Dr. Banner," Tony replied.
Bruce sighed. "Sorry, I just...well, you know," he said, waving his tablet vaguely.
"I do know," Tony agreed. "But not everyone will do that. I, for one, am excited to get back to work, now that my green energy initiatives won't be sabotaged by a literal Horseman of the Apocalypse. Er, Horsewoman."
Bruce smiled, and Tony continued, "And I have a feeling none of your kids at the ARC Center are going to be putting their recyclables in the trash bin."
"They'd better not," Bruce mumbled.
"Yeah. There's hope," Bruce replied, feeling the truth of it as he said it. It had been a long time since he'd felt hopeful. He burrowed into Tony's side and asked, "When do you have to go back to work?"
"Never, I'm the boss and I can do whatever I want," Tony said proudly.
"When does Pepper think you should go back to work?"
"Oh, ten minutes ago, probably," Tony said. "It's like she doesn't think averting the apocalypse merits a day off. What about you? Are you going back to work today?"
"I mean, I'm just a volunteer...but I'll have to check my email. I usually meet with Adam on Monday afternoons but I guess now I'm not sure…"
Bruce propped his tablet on Tony's chest and checked his email. A lot of junk, nothing from Adam. He fired off a quick email: "Hey Adam, Hope you're doing well. Just wanted to let you know that I'm free today at 3PM. Let me know if you're planning to come by the ARC Center today. I'll understand if you want a break, though."
A reply came over Adam's school lunch break: "Dr. B., Of course I'll be there. My dad said I have to do my homework first but if we do it fast, can we please do the Lego Mindstorms robots after? And can we do homework outside?"
Bruce smiled and sent Adam a quick affirmative reply. He told Tony, "I'll have to leave around 2:30 to make sure I'm not late to meet Adam."
"He does hate it when you're late," Tony agreed. "But we have a few hours…and I have a few ideas for how to pass the time." Bruce gasped as Tony put his tablet on the nightstand and started enacting his brilliant ideas.
Despite Tony's rather convincing protests, Bruce managed to make it to the ARC Center on time, just barely. Jane met him coming in and said, "Hey, were you doing some extra gardening over the weekend?"
This was a fair guess; Bruce frequently came into the center over the weekend, since he didn't usually have anything else to do. "Hmm? Oh, no, I, uh, had visitors over the weekend, I was pretty busy."
"Oh, that's nice," Jane said with a smile. "Well...take a look out there, it looks like someone's been at it with Miracle-Gro or something."
"Sure. Uh, if you see Adam, will you tell him I'm out there?"
Bruce tried to keep his expression neutral as he walked through the afterschool center. It more or less looked how he remembered it, although he noticed that a few scuffed tables and wobbly chairs had been fixed. The library's collection looked slightly shinier. And when he made his way out back, he found that the garden did indeed look enhanced.
He sat down on a bench and stared at the verdant greenery. Adam quietly settled on the bench next to him. "Hi, Adam. The garden looks lovely."
Adam said, "I don't think that one was me. I replaced the missing books in the library, though."
"Oh, well, that was very thoughtful of you," Bruce said. "Are...how are you doing?"
Adam shrugged. "I have this worksheet to do about Earth's atmosphere."
"I think I can help you with that. But I meant...you know, are you feeling okay?"
"I don't think I can...I don't think I can do stuff anymore. I mean...you know. Stuff," Adam said, with wide eyes.
Bruce nodded slowly. Adam had willingly renounced his Antichrist identity, and his powers along with it.
"That was really brave of you, Adam, you know."
"Well, I dunno, it seemed like the best thing to do."
"I think you're probably right, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a hard decision. And I'm proud of you."
Adam grinned. "Thanks! I'm proud of you too."
"Oh...well...thanks," Bruce said awkwardly. "Um...well, why don't we take a look at that worksheet?" Together they made quick work of New York Public School system's 5th grade science curriculum.
"Can we do the Lego Mindstorms now?" asked the boy who had literally rewritten reality with his mind two days ago.
"Of course we can," answered the last living descendant of Agnes Nutter. When they went back inside the ARC Center to pick out one of the robotics kits, they were joined by a trio of other kids. Bruce had worked with them all on occasion and knew them, though not as well as he knew Adam.
He nodded at them. "Hey, Peter, Miles, Gwen. What's up?"
"Hey, Dr. Banner," Miles said. "Can we join you guys?"
Bruce glanced at Adam for approval. Bruce didn't mind, but he didn't want Adam to feel jealous. Adam nodded, and Bruce said, "Sure, the more the merrier." He helped the kids get started with the robots, and then sat back to watch them play. He knew Adam was friendly with most of the kids at the center and in the neighborhood, but he hadn't found a core group of friends since he'd moved to Brooklyn. But it seemed like he was really getting along with those kids—all four of them were clearly very smart and creative, and all definitely using the robotics kit in a way that probably stretched the limits of what the Lego corporation had intended.
Adam was excited to learn that, like himself, his new friends were signed up for ARC's summer camp. When Adam left for dinner, the kids all exchanged phone numbers and pledged to hang out again soon and build an even better robot next time. Bruce smiled and went home for dinner himself. Back in his apartment, he paused in the hallway and listened to Tony and Pepper patiently explaining food delivery apps to Aziraphale.
"I don't understand," Aziraphale said. "Why wouldn't you prefer to go out to the restaurant? Surely part of the experience is simply the ambiance of the restaurant, the pleasure of being surrounded by other happy diners?"
"Sometimes," Tony agreed. "But sometimes the best part of the experience is not having to put pants on."
"Oh. Oh, I do take your point, I suppose," Aziraphale said, casting a not-subtle glance at Crowley. "But isn't it nicer to call and order delivery?"
"Absolutely not,” said Tony and Crowley in unison.
"Sometimes the idea of making a phone call, let alone being surrounded by other people, fills a person with anxiety, and it just seems more appealing to eat noodles in the comfort of one's own bed without talking to anyone about it," Bruce added. "Or, uh, so I've heard."
"Bruce, you're back!" Tony said. He leapt up from the couch and kissed him.
"He was gone for two hours," Crowley said, with an eye roll that was somehow audible despite his sunglasses.
"More like three," Tony replied with a pout. He sat back down on the couch and pulled Bruce into his lap. Bruce was initially startled but quickly relaxed and leaned against Tony, a shyly pleased look on his face. (Tony wrapped his arms firmly around Bruce's waist. His face, which was burrowed into Bruce's shoulder, looked simply pleased.)
"Hush, Crowley, humans perceive time differently than we do," Aziraphale chided. "Bruce, how was, ah, everything?"
"Really good," Bruce said. "The center is better than ever, and Adam...well, I think he's just a regular kid now. I mean, he's still extraordinary, of course—"
"—all children are," Crowley said dryly.
Bruce grinned. "Exactly." Then another thought caused his eyebrows to furrow with concern. "Uh, and what about you two? Are you going to...well, be in any trouble with your, uh, respective agencies?"
Aziraphale gave a smug smile. "I promised not to tell you anything that was in Agnes's book, but let's just say I have a feeling everything will work out for us."
"That's a relief," Bruce replied.
"Quite," Aziraphale said. "Now, seeing as we're all, ah, wearing trousers, why don't we all go out for dinner?"
"What about shawarma?" Tony asked. "Have you ever tried shawarma?"
"I could go for falafel," Bruce agreed.
Wryly, Pepper said, "I think Aziraphale had something more upscale in mind."
Crowley laughed. "She's got your number, Aziraphale. I bet you’ve already made a reservation at the Ritz, haven’t you?"
Aziraphale hadn’t made the reservation yet, but he’d been thinking about it. "Well...I mean, I'm open to all...sorts of human culinary experiences. Although it would be nice just to see how it compares to the one in London."
Bruce, who was not at all prepared to eat at the Ritz socially, emotionally, or sartorially, suggested, "We could get food from a halal cart and eat in the park." And maybe it was because Bruce had just casually mentioned that eating in crowded restaurants gave him anxiety, or maybe it was because it was once again a beautiful day, but everyone quickly agreed with Bruce's idea, even Pepper, who had never eaten from a halal cart in her life. (Crowley and Aziraphale quietly arranged a future date at the Ritz for just the two of them, where they both agreed the service was inferior to London's Ritz.)
As the unlikely quintet enjoyed their outdoor sustenance, which Aziraphale admitted was tastier than he'd feared, they spotted some familiar faces. Adam, Mr. Young, and Dog were out for an evening stroll. Bruce half-raised his hand to wave, and then thought better of it, knowing Mr. Young's opinion of him.
But then Dog suddenly pulled hard on his leash, breaking free of Adam's grip. Dog ran straight for Bruce, with Adam in close pursuit. Mr. Young frowned but didn't follow. Bruce petted Dog, and Tony fed him a bit of meat.
"Hi, Dr. B.! Hi, everyone!" Adam said cheerfully. "Dog, that was very naughty of you, you're keeping my father waiting." Dog wagged his tail and made no sign of moving away from Bruce's attentions. Adam glanced over his shoulder. "I s'pose we'd better get back to my dad. I’m grounded at the moment. I just wanted to say hi. And bye."
The group all said their goodbyes to Adam, and Bruce promised to see him soon at the center.
Aziraphale sighed contentedly. "Thank whoever that it didn't turn out to be Warlock."
"Amen," Crowley agreed.
"What?" Bruce asked.
"Oh...perhaps a story for another day," Aziraphale said. "I don't suppose there are any ice cream carts around here, are there?"
Miraculously, one appeared, although it didn't carry any Flake 99s. Still, Aziraphale quite enjoyed his Drumstick. After a pleasant post-dinner stroll, the group returned to Bruce's apartment. By this point, there really was no reason why they should all stay there. But none of them were willing to break up their little band just yet, so they all spent one more night together in Brooklyn, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow would be another peaceful day, as well as the one after that, and the one after that...
1The garden had, in fact, been frightened into good health by Crowley.
[return to text]
Chapter 16: In Which All's Well That Ends Well and So On
In the years since the world didn't end, Aziraphale and Crowley had kept in touch regularly with their adopted sons Bruce and Tony. Crowley had helped Aziraphale get more comfortable with technology for frequent video calls, and they'd seen Bruce and Tony in person several times, on both sides of the pond. Aziraphale and Crowley had come to Bruce and Tony's wedding, of course, a lavishly overstated event that had left Crowley scoffing until Aziraphale had started pointing out things he'd like to incorporate into their ceremony (mostly cakes). And Bruce and Tony's lengthy European honeymoon had included a stop in London, where Crowley showed Tony his favorite pub while Bruce received a lengthy tour of Aziraphale's bookshop.
As the years went on, Aziraphale's cravings for pizza and bagels (but never pizza bagels) and trendy hipster bistros caused the celestial beings not-infrequent reasons to drop in on New York. And Stark Industries—led by its new CEO Pepper, while Tony focused his efforts on running the Stark Foundation's charitable efforts, guided by his education consultant, Bruce—always seemed to have meetings and conferences that led the humans back to London.
But when Bruce and Tony began discussing adoption, there was no question of their bringing their new baby all the way across the ocean, even in a private plane. Under Bruce's guidance, Tony had cut back on a lot of wasteful indulgences. Of course, if they had to travel with infants, they would have flown in a private jet...but it was easier to just let their grandparents come to them. Especially when their grandparents were blessed/cursed with supernatural abilities.
The couple were attempting to do an open adoption, which would theoretically be a lovely thing for everyone involved. In practice, it was stressful—open adoption gave the birth mothers a lot of control over the process. They could make particular demands of the adoptive parents, and sometimes birth mothers even changed their minds at the last minute.
Bruce kept them updated on the process as best he could, but the suspense was palpable. Although Aziraphale had grudgingly accepted the merits of video calls, he did not want his earliest memories of his grandchild—grandchildren, after they were matched with a birth mother who was expecting twins—sullied by screens, so he insisted on finding out their names and images in person. Tony grumbled about it and might have referred to a 6,000-year old celestial being as a “Luddite,” but Bruce thought it was sweet and was happy to oblige. Besides, once they met in person, Aziraphale would welcome a daily barrage of electronic photos.
For his part, Crowley was glad both that they never had to fly commercialand for the brief moratorium on photos. He imagined Aziraphale boring customs agents with countless baby pics, bragging about their grandkids.
It had been so awkward when they'd first returned to London and Aziraphale had started talking about his son at their regular restaurants. Also awkward: the fact that when Adam had remade the world, apparently he'd made it so everyone at their usual places knew Crowley and Aziraphale were together with adult children in the States. It would have been enough to make Crowley want to find new establishments, except for the way Aziraphale's face shone whenever a restaurateur inquired after his partner and his son.
Besides, it was hard to find bartenders who could meet Crowley's unique demands, so he was stuck with people who insisted upon congratulating them whenever their brilliant adopted son and son-in-law made headlines for revolutionizing electric cars or closing the achievement gap for New York public schools or whatever other good deeds they got up to back in Brooklyn. He supposed there were worse fates.
But once Aziraphale started carrying pictures of their grandchildren around, Crowley might have to find a new pub. And never tell Aziraphale its location.
Still, deep down, Crowley was excited to meet the tykes. By unspoken agreement, Crowley would be the cool grandparent, and Aziraphale would be the doting one. Obviously. Whenever their adopted children managed to actually adopt children of their own. Crowley understood that their version involved a lot more paperwork than the non-legally-binding handshake that had made him an adoptive father, but it still seemed to be taking an awfully long time.
Then, after days of quick waiting room updates, Bruce called Aziraphale and said, "We're home from the hospital!"
Bruce laughed. "It's been six days. We were ready to get out of there."
"I...I suppose," Aziraphale said, suddenly nervous now that his grandchildren were no longer theoretical. "But it seemed like such a long wait before this and now…"
"I guess that's how it goes, you know, we had to do all the home visits and all the paperwork and everything, but then once you get a match...well, then you're on the babies' schedule. And the birth mother's, of course. But she's doing great, and she signed all the paperwork…" Aziraphale knew that this had been a worry for Bruce and Tony. But everything had come through, and now Aziraphale had grandchildren. (And Tony and Bruce had children, no less importantly.)
Bruce continued, "Anyway, so...we're fine, the babies are fine, Pepper and May are helping out, and we've got some other friends who we can call too, but I just wanted to let you know that you and Crowley are welcome to come meet them, whenever you'd like."
"Of course! We'll be there right away."
"Oh, one last thing...I...we're not quite sure how we're going to raise the kids, theologically speaking, but we...well, when they're younger anyway, we'd rather they not know about, you know…"
"How their grandparents are a demon and an angel?" Aziraphale asked.
"How one of their fathers is the descendant of a witch-prophetess?" asked Crowley, who'd hopped on the call. "Or how close they came to never getting a chance to be born at all?"
"Right. None of that," Bruce agreed. "Of course, it'll be awhile before they can really understand much of anything, but I'd like us all to get in the habit of acting...normal. Ish."
"No problem at all! We can be normal adults. We did it for years, with Warlock!" Aziraphale said cheerfully.
"...Right," Crowley agreed.
They still hadn’t fully explained Warlock. It was unlikely they ever would, and would merely keep making cryptic references to that time of their lives.
"Well, we'll see you soon!" Aziraphale said cheerfully.
After they hung up, Aziraphale said, "Twins, can you imagine?"
"They told us that would most likely be the case," Crowley reminded him.
"I know, but it all seemed so...it didn't seem real," Aziraphale fretted. "Do you think they'll be able to manage two babies? Maybe...maybe we shouldn't go visit yet, maybe they'd like more time to adjust."
Crowley gave Aziraphale a peck on the cheek. "Your grandchildren will adore you, Aziraphale, no matter how impractical your gifts are."
"Impractical?" Aziraphale sputtered. He'd gotten them first English editions of Grimms' Children's and Household Tales, beautiful sterling silver rattles, bespoke gowns, among other gifts that were, well, impractical. "Children should have nice things too," he sniffed.
"Of course they should," Crowley agreed. For his part, Crowley had nobly resisted the temptation to purchase annoying electronic toys for his grandchildren. At least until their first birthday.
"I—I just know I'm not as, as hip as you are, Crowley. You're so much better with children than I am."
"Don't be ridiculous, angel. They'll love you. How could they not?" Aziraphale smiled and Crowley squeezed his hand. "Ready?"
Aziraphale scooped up his bags of gifts and nodded. "Ready." They blinked out of Crowley's flat and reappeared on the stoop of the Brooklyn apartment. Bruce and Tony had kept the Stark Tower penthouse, of course, but they both agreed that Brooklyn was a better place to start their family. (They no longer rented out rooms on Airbnb, but they always had plenty of space for invited guests.) Crowley rang the bell, and Aziraphale watched with interest as the door buzzed and the lock clicked open. He was used to being greeted at the door, or to using a key.
"Humans really are quite clever," Aziraphale said as they bounded up the stairs. He didn't even know that Tony's prototype video doorbell actually was quite clever by human standards—it only rang on an app, not throughout the apartment. Very handy when, for example, an apartment contained two sleeping infants.
"Exceptional, every last one of them," Crowley said drily.
As soon as they passed the apartment's threshold, Aziraphale couldn't help but sigh happily as he felt the place's intensely loved aura. In the hallway, they were greeted by Pepper and a lovely brunette woman. "Pepper!" Aziraphale said, throwing out his arms for a hug.
"Shh, the babies finally fell asleep," she whispered, but she hugged him back. "It's good to see you." She turned and hugged Crowley too, who enjoyed it despite his performative scowl. "Both of you. And you remember my girlfriend, May? She was at Bruce and Tony's wedding?"
"Ah, yes, your son is friends with Adam?" Crowley asked. He'd kept his bargain with Pepper and faithfully sent her gift cards to obnoxious chain restaurants each year on her birthday, but he didn't keep in contact with her as regularly as he did with Tony.
"Nephew, but yes," May said with a fond smile. "Those boys...and Gwen...keep me on my toes."
Pepper put her hand on May's waist. "But we'll catch up with you later. I'm sure you're dying to see the twins. Figuratively speaking."
She led them to the airy bedroom that had been transformed into a nursery. Like every other room in the apartment, it was full of books, but in here the shelves tended more toward the works of Mo Willems and Margaret Wise Brown rather than Douglas Adams and Charles Darwin. Bruce and Tony were sitting side by side on an overstuffed sofa, each with an infant in their arms. They both looked exhausted, but happier than the celestials had ever seen them.
"Oh my goodness," Aziraphale cooed, instantly charmed by the tiny infants. He set his pile of gifts on the floor, as did Crowley.
"Hi, Aziraphale," Bruce said softly. "Hi, Crowley. Come in, sit down."
Aziraphale stood in front of Bruce, staring down at the babies. “Oh! They're precious. What are their names?”
“We named the girl after both our mothers, so her name is Marbecca,” Tony said.
“Ah! Lovely!” Aziraphale said, fakely. Crowley was particularly glad his sunglasses hid his eyes.
“Tony’s kidding. The Twilight saga was on in the waiting room, so—”
“—So we named her after good old Agnes. Nessie for short.”
“Oh, that’s so nice!” Aziraphale exclaimed, after an uncertain pause.
Bruce, Pepper, and May all heaved long-suffering sighs. This clearly wasn’t their first time hearing the jokes.
“We did name her after our mothers,” Bruce said. “Rebecca Maria. We didn’t like the way the initials worked the other way around. And the boy’s name is Ezra.”
"Oh!" Aziraphale said, clutching his hands to his chest in delight.
“Ah.” Crowley said, tucking his hands casually in his pockets.
Tony, sensing a slight offense on Crowley’s part, explained, “If we’d named him Anthony, that would just be naming him after me, so…”
“Of course,” Crowley muttered. “Wouldn’t want to show any ego.”
“But his middle name is J,” Bruce added, and Crowley beamed.
“Ezra J Banner Stark, you are named after four of the weirdest bastards the world has ever seen!” Tony whispered.
"Oh, they're so tiny," Aziraphale said.
"They're pretty big for twins, actually, their birth mother carried them almost to term," Bruce said. "Now that you're here, I can show you pictures from the first few days. They've already gained almost half a pound!"
Aziraphale had seen preemies before when he'd been called to work miracles in the NICU, but somehow Ezra and Rebecca looked like the smallest and most vulnerable babies to ever exist.
"Aziraphale, would you like to hold her?" Bruce asked.
"I thought you'd never ask."
Bruce directed Aziraphale to sit in a rocking chair and gently transferred little Rebecca into her grandfather's arms. Then he smiled and took a photo.
"Oh, you'll have to send me that picture," Aziraphale said.
"You really don't have to," Crowley muttered.
Then Tony said, "Hey, Crowley, you want to give me a break and hold Ezra?"
"Oh...I suppose I could," Crowley said. He shrugged off his leather jacket and draped it over the back of a chair. He sat down and awkwardly held out his arms.
Then Tony rested baby Ezra in his arms. "You have to support his neck."
Crowley stared down at the sleeping infant for two seconds and pronounced, "If any harm befalls this child I will burn the world to the ground."
Tony smiled and said, "That might be overkill, but I appreciate the sentiment."
Bruce said nothing, because he'd settled back on the couch and drifted off to sleep sitting up with his head flopped forward against his chest.
Aziraphale smiled. "Tony, you could sleep too, if you'd like. Crowley and I can watch our grandchildren."
Tony tried to hide his skeptical expression—sure, Aziraphale and Crowley had been on Earth for 6,000 years and had surely cared for a child or two in that time, but had they taken a 12-week childcare class with board-certified instructors? Crowley added, "Plus, Pepper and her girlfriend are in the living room," which was incredibly reassuring.
"I guess I might just rest my eyes," Tony said, sounding extremely dadlike. He leaned over and rested his head in Bruce's lap, where he promptly fell asleep.
"Isn't this lovely?" Aziraphale asked. "So domestic."
"Truly, nothing could be more thrilling than watching humans sleep," Crowley replied dryly, but they both found themselves charmed by the peaceful scene. At least, until the quiet was disturbed by the arrival of a teenage boy and two dogs, cheerfully barking their greeting.
"Whoa, hey, sit," the boy called. The smaller dog—Dog—obeyed immediately. The larger dog ignored Adam and ran up to place its paws on Bruce's lap, which was also occupied by Tony. Tony jerked awake, as did Bruce.
"Oh! Adam!" Bruce said. He rubbed his eyes and looked around, visibly relaxing when he saw the babies still in their grandfathers' arms. He reached out and pet the dog. "Thanks for walking Curie."
"Yeah, of course," Adam said. "Ooh, sorry, did I wake the twins?"
The twins were, in fact, stirring, but Bruce shook his head. "They need to eat every couple hours right now, we were coming up on their limit." He sleepily ran a hand through his disheveled hair. "Oh, uh, Adam, you remember—"
"Aziraphale and Crowley, of course!"
Aziraphale blinked. "Adam! You've gotten so tall!"
"Humans do that," Adam said gravely.
Baby Rebecca started fussing. Tony turned to her and said, "Don't go getting any ideas, Becky. You're not allowed to get tall."
Bruce sighed. "We're not calling her Becky. I'm going to go get some bottles ready."
"Oh—I'll help," Aziraphale said. Gingerly, he held the fussing Rebecca out to Tony, who happily took her.
On their way to the kitchen, they passed Pepper and May in the living room. Pepper was resting her feet on May's lap and typing away on her laptop. "Everything okay?" May asked.
"It's just feeding time," Bruce said.
"Again?" Pepper asked.
"Babies are voracious little monsters," May said knowingly. "Of course, so are teenage boys."
"Speaking of which, you might as well get home to Peter," Bruce said. "We really appreciate all your help but we've probably got things covered, for the next few hours anyway."
The women hugged Bruce and headed out for the evening, while Bruce and Aziraphale continued to the kitchen. Bruce started preparing bottles. To Aziraphale he said, "We got breast milk from a communal milk bank. Isn't that nice? So generous, these women we don't even know are feeding our children…" He sounded near tears at the idea, though the sleep deprivation was probably a factor as well.
"That is nice," Aziraphale agreed. He was a little uncomfortable with humans and their corporeal forms and fluids, but in theory it was lovely. Humans really could be so lovely when they put their minds to it.
Bruce tested the heat of the milk against his wrist and sighed. "I never thought I'd get to have this, you know. A family of my own."
"Yes, I do remember you mentioning that. But you know you'll never be like your birth father."
"No, yeah, I know. But there was another prophecy—that I'd be the last of Agnes's blood. So I always thought I'd be childless."
Aziraphale laughed. "Oh, Bruce, thank goodness the fate of the world didn't depend on your interpretations of the prophecies alone."
"You are the last of Agnes's blood, my dear boy. That doesn't mean these babies are any less yours, just because you don't share biological material with them."
Bruce blinked owlishly at Aziraphale for a long moment before he groaned, "Fucking Agnes." He'd spent months assuming any attempt they made at adoption would fall through because of the prophecy, but he was determined to try anyway, for Tony's sake. Still, until their babies' birth mother dotted the last "i" on the paperwork, he had fully expected to come home from the hospital empty-handed. For a brief, sleep-deprived period, he thought he’d finally bested the prophetess. He hadn't bothered to ask Aziraphale about it, since, to him, the text of the prophecy had seemed so obvious.
"Well, I suppose it all worked out for the best anyway," Aziraphale said with a fond smile. Per their agreement, he didn't tell Bruce anything from Agnes's second volume of prophecies, which Aziraphale quite enjoyed studying. The witch very clearly saw long happy lives for Bruce, Tony, and their eventual six children, adopted from around the world."Now, let's go feed your children."
For a small change of scene, they settled in the living room with the babies. Aziraphale couldn't help but notice how lived-in the living room looked these days, in contrast to the barren room that had first greeted them when they brought the miraculously-healed Bruce home after his fated bicycle accident. Now the parts of the walls that weren't covered with bookshelves were full of framed photos. There were even a few of Aziraphale and Crowley—posing with a particularly photogenic pastry, smiling side by side at Bruce and Tony's wedding, taking terrible tourist photos in London with their visiting sons. Aziraphale smiled at the fond memories, and then realized that Bruce was trying to hand him a baby.
Aziraphale redirected his focus and let Bruce guide him through the motions of baby-feeding, and then burping, which wasn't as bad as Aziraphale had feared it would be when Bruce draped a cloth over the Aziraphale's shoulder. The pair sat side by side, each holding a content baby in their arms.
The whole child thing didn’t seem that hard, Aziraphale thought. The fact that he was a celestial being with no need for sleep, who had never actually been the sole long-term carer for babies, briefly crossed his mind.
“Azira—er—Dad?” Bruce asked. He still hadn’t gotten the hang of the new relationship the way Aziraphale had. Bruce would have happily kept calling the angel by his given name, if only Aziraphale didn't look so thrilled every time Bruce called him "Dad." But now that Bruce himself was a dad, it was sort of nice for him to have had practice associating the word "dad" with some positive emotions.
Aziraphale smiled—it must be said—angelically. “Yes?”
“I know I said I didn’t want to know anything about the new prophecies, but...I…Now that I have kids...The environment is still going to shit, and the foundations of our democracy are, which were already tenuous at best—”
“I promised that I wouldn’t tell you anything from the second volume of prophecies,” Aziraphale said dutifully.
“Yeah, I know, but—can I give you permission to redact the promise and tell me everything?”
“If there were something to truly be concerned about, don’t you think I would do my best to assist you?”
“So you’re saying there’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“Just good things,” Aziraphale confirmed. It wasn’t wholly true, of course, but they would face nothing insurmountable, and no more Apocalypse-level terrors.
“It’s hard to believe.”
"You've already had more than your share of worries. I know it's difficult for you, but...why not try to relax and enjoy life, without worrying what was written hundreds of years ago?"
Bruce sighed. "Easier said than done, but...I take your point. I'm just...oh, I'm so glad I don't have to worry about the world ending in…" He paused and crinkled his nose. "Uh oh, I think somebody needs a diaper change," he cooed.
Aziraphale watched with pride and only mild disgust as Bruce deftly changed two diapers, one after the other. Back in the nursery, he changed the babies into adorable dinosaur-print pajamas, slipped them into sleep sacks, and put them to bed in their matching bassinets.
Tony stood by Bruce's side and watched the babies settle down. "They're so precious."
"We're so lucky," Bruce replied. Then he let out a lengthy yawn. "Excuse me. I'm going to try to get some sleep while the babies sleep…"
"Me too," Tony said.
"Why don't you two just go to sleep and leave the babies with us? Crowley and I can watch the children. We don't actually need sleep."
"Speak for yourself," Crowley mumbled.
Bruce licked his lips. "That is a lovely thought…"
"...And maybe we'll take you up on it in a few days?" Tony asked.
Aziraphale and Crowley tried not to take offense while Bruce and Tony took the bassinets back to their bedroom and tried to get some sleep. Over the next week, they fell into a comfortable routine. Other friends dropped by throughout the week, bearing gifts of food and adorable baby clothes. The humans's trust in the celestials' baby minding skills grew in correlation with their own sleep deprivation.
One day, when Bruce and Aziraphale came back from taking the twins and Curie on a brief afternoon stroll around the park, they found Crowley and Tony looking slightly more put-together than they had for the past week. (Well—Tony looked more put-together. Crowley's appearance had at no point suggested that he'd spent the past week helping to care for an infant.)
“I’m taking Tony out for a night on the town,” Crowley announced.
“On the contrary,” Tony said, “I’m taking him out.”
“No, no, you’re the new father and all that—”
“You’re a guest in my city—”
"—We have to have one last hurrah before you buy a minivan—"
Aziraphale and Bruce shared amused glances.
“Tony, dear, Crowley’s a demon with unlimited resources and Crowley, Tony is—“
“Much the same,” Tony said jovially.
“The point is, money is equally as fungible to both of you.”
"It's the principle of the thing," Crowley said.
"Anyway, we'll stay home with the twins tomorrow so you two can go out to the Strand or something, okay?" Tony asked.
"Of course. Have fun," Bruce said. Tony gave Bruce and the twins each a goodbye kiss and reminded himself that his kids were in good hands before he let Crowley lead him out the door. It was hard to leave them, but he was confident that his kids weren't going to grow up like he did—more attached to the butler and the nurses than to his father. Even if he had a night out here and there, he would be there for his kids. And so would Bruce, and so would Crowley and Aziraphale and a whole host of other loving adults (and near-adults, like Adam and Peter).
While Tony and Crowley headed out and Bruce fell asleep on the couch, Aziraphale settled into the nursery with a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, the children swaddled at his feet. They didn’t seem to be taking to it, despite Aziraphale's best efforts to do fun character voices for all of the philosophical dialogue.
Ezra was gurgling and weakly flailing his chubby fingers towards the corner of the page when Bruce entered the nursery, bleary-eyed.
“Oh, Dad, they’re way too young for Dostoyevsky.”
“I can censor any unsavory content.” Aziraphale sometimes forgot how prudish Americans could be, even ones as intelligent and cultured as Bruce.
“No, I mean, cognitively. They won’t understand it.”
Aziraphale frowned. “Well if you don’t give them the chance, they won't...You and Tony are so smart, I’m sure they can handle it.”
“Even Tony and I weren’t reading it at that age,” Bruce said, opting not to explain human genetics to Aziraphale, focusing instead on basic child development. “Actually, I’m not sure about Tony. But they can't even see colors yet at this age."
"Surely a reason for them to start learning to appreciate Dostoyevsky's moral shades of grey!"
"Here. This will help them learn how to focus their eyes. Baby steps. So to speak.” He handed Aziraphale a copy of a black and white book called Look, Look! Aziraphale’s frown deepened. The title alone was repetitive and boring; he couldn't imagine how dull the book's contents must be. But the children cooed in apparent approval.
Aziraphale set the heavy Russian tome aside with a sigh. "We'll revisit this in a few months."
Bruce quirked his lips. "Maybe in a few hundred months."
Aziraphale forced back the urge to question his son's helicopter parenting. He opened the little black and white book and tried to hide his disdain as he showed its too-cute contents to his grandchildren.
At a quietly exclusive establishment, Crowley and Tony nursed equally-expensive drinks, each paid for by the other. Tony thought that maybe he should buy Crowley another three, because the other man’s leg could not stop shaking, and he kept looking over his shoulder.
“Are you—in trouble?” Tony asked, glancing discreetly towards the floor, and by extension, towards Hell. As far as Tony knew, Crowley and Aziraphale had both avoided repercussions from their respective divine authorities, thanks to help from Adam and Agnes. But they were in a very safe neighborhood, and the babies were in good hands, so he couldn't think of why Crowley might be so visibly nervous.
“Listen, ah, how did you do the whole proposal thing?”
Tony didn’t even try to wipe the smirk off his face. “What do you mean?”
“Like...did you get down on one knee and…” Crowley muttered something like “ask to spend eternity together.”
“Oh, you mean me and Bruce?”
“Yes, of course I mean you and Bruce,” Crowley growled.
“I don’t even remember.”
In other circumstances, Crowley would have been impressed by Tony’s trolling, even at his own expense. But this was serious and Crowley’s leg was shaking the table and he’d be impressed by Tony later. After the fact.
“Why do you ask?” Tony asked.
“Just curious,” Crowley managed to say somehow without opening his mouth.
“Haven’t I told you this story before? This was years ago.”
“Maybe my memory’s not what it was. Maybe I’d like to hear it again.” In truth, Crowley had not paid that much attention at the time; human joy was still hard for him to process, and Aziraphale had been delighted enough for the both of them.
Tony shrugged, a mischievous look in his eyes. “As a cute callback to the day we met, I hit him with a Bentley with a license plate that said WLUMRYME.”
Crowley clenched and unclenched his fists under the table. It did not help that he knew, under the same circumstances, that he would toy with Tony.
Perhaps Tony sensed that Crowley was about to burst, because he got serious and said, “I knew Bruce would want something quiet and understated and, if possible, humanitarian, so I stalked his Petfinder account and went to the shelter and I got a dog he had bookmarked. Then I tied the question to her collar, and pretended like I found a stray outside and did a whole 'What’s this? A note tied to her collar?’ routine.”
“And he said yes.”
“He said 'yes,'" Tony confirmed, idly twisting his ring around his finger. "And then he said, ‘We can keep the dog though, right?’ Then I got the soulmate notecard framed and hung above our bed and that was that.”
Crowley nodded. It was disgustingly sweet but also very normal, doable. No moving mountains or hanging the moon.
“And then,” Tony continued, “a few weeks later, when I was doing some big international tech conference—“ Tony almost couldn’t finish, he was smiling too hard—“and I took questions from the audience—and this wasn’t some ComicCon nonsense, this was invite only, Skull and Bones selectivity. I knew Bruce was in the audience, but I did not expect him to stand up and rattle off a list of my personal and environmental accomplishments and propose to me in front of, like, kings and queens and prime ministers and Bill Nye and the adoring television audience at home.”
Thinking about that moment still made Tony's heart want to burst. They were already engaged; there was no reason for Bruce to face his fear of public speaking except to give Tony the genuine public love and affirmation that Tony had always secretly wanted but never dared ask for. The world knew a lot about Tony Stark: about his parties, about his brilliance, about his wealth, about his ongoing efforts to make up for Stark Industries' misdeeds; now the world also knew that Tony was loved.
Bruce's speech had been perfect: surprising and bold the way Tony imagined a proposal should be, the same way his proposal to Bruce had been quiet and a little corny, the way he knew Bruce would want it to be. Of course, when Bruce learned that the moment had gone viral, he had refused to leave their hotel room for the rest of the conference, but it had been worth it. (Especially since Tony didn't really want to leave the room—or the bed—either.)
Crowley now vaguely remembered hearing some of this, but originally his interest had gotten lost in the words “tech conference.”
Tony sighed and mentally shook himself out of his reverie. “You should have seen him, he was so cute...he knew he was going to be in front of a crowd and he still didn’t bother to put any product in his hair...actually, you can see it, I have the footage saved…It was on the news, he won a GLAAD Award, Anderson Cooper cried on his show—” Tony fumbled for his phone, then took in Crowley’s face and said, “Ah, well, it’s on YouTube, you can watch it whenever you want.” Tony and Crowley could usually bond over what fashion disasters their partners were, but Crowley didn't seem amused.
Somehow Tony's sweet story and nearly tangible burst of love had made Crowley feel worse. Tony was so clearly moved by the experience, and Crowley...Crowley couldn't dare to hope that he could ever do something that would make Aziraphale feel that way. Nor could he imagine what it would feel like to be so publicly claimed by his angel.
“Yeah, I’m sure it was adorable. But, well, you both knew it was a sure thing. You had the prophecy.” Crowley sounded more petulant than he’d intended.
Tony laughed. "Do you have any idea how hard it was to convince Bruce that any of the prophecies might possibly mean anything good for his life?" He laughed harder. "Did I ever tell you how Bruce thought the prophecy meant he was going to marry you?"
Crowley crossed his arms. Aziraphale had mentioned it, but Crowley didn't think there was anything that funny about someone possibly wanting to marry him.
Realizing his misstep, Tony composed himself. “Ah, I mean, not that there's anything wrong with marrying you in particular, just...you know, Bruce isn't really your type. For starters, you're way too old for him. Besides, it was always so clear that you were meant to be with Aziraphale. Don’t you have something like a prophecy, yourselves? Six thousand years of history? Like, what, do you think he’s gonna suggest seeing other people?”
“I don’t know. What if I propose to him wrong,” Crowley asked while rubbing his hand across his mouth to muffle the sound.
“Wrong enough to make Aziraphale throw this away?” Tony gestured vaguely at Crowley's face.
“I’m a demon, I mess things up, it’s what I do! Cause chaos, wreak havoc…”
“...stop the end of the world,” Tony finished. “You’d have to really whiff the proposal. Like, really...Four Horsemen, raining fireballs, the whole shebang.”
Crowley said nothing. He wouldn’t put it past himself. He drained the rest of his drink and signalled the bartender for a refill.
“Hey,” Tony leaned forward. “What’s this all about, anyway? It’s just a human ritual. I wasn't sure if we'd ever get married because Bruce kept calling marriage a pointless, outdated, heteronormative, et cetera et cetera et cetera ritual.”
“Then why did you want to?”
“Oh...a lot of reasons," Tony said thoughtfully. "Before I met Bruce, I had a...bit of a reputation. I know Bruce didn't care about it, but I wanted to make it really clear to everyone that now he's my one and only. And we knew we both wanted kids—obviously—and it made it easier to adopt. Plus, I love any excuse for a party. But why are you thinking about this now? It wouldn’t be a legal thing, you’re not thinking of adopting, you two basically are already married…seems to me like you could just keep on living in sin. So to speak.”
Crowley flicked his tongue between his teeth thoughtfully. The thing was, seeing his tiny grandchildren had served to remind him of how short-lived humans were. Bruce and Tony must have looked like that very recently, and in fifty or so years, they’d die. With them (and Pepper, who might be expected to live slightly longer given the attention she paid to her health, and Adam, who still made Crowley feel unfairly nervous) would die the other beings who knew that Crowley had helped avert the Apocalypse—who knew that Crowley had been, by some standards, heroic. What if, as time went on, Aziraphale forgot about everything that had transpired and they returned to their old status quo—meetings carefully engineered to appear accidental, with years or even decades passing between each one? Crowley didn't think he could bear that fate. But even with liquor-loosened lips, Crowley knew that this sentiment was much too depressing to unleash upon a new father.
Crowley shrugged with practiced indifference. "As you say, any excuse for a party. And Aziraphale won’t stop talking about...cakes.”
“You don’t need a wedding to eat cake.”
“Oh, believe me, he knows.”
Several drinks later, after they long lost track of who was paying for whom and many unwanted drinks were ordered and drunk, Tony circled back and asked Crowley if he ever thought about how he’d propose to Aziraphale.
“Oh, it’s stupid, you’re going to laugh.”
“No, I won’t, I promise.”
“Okay, well...it’s silly...It’s kind of like yours. Aziraphale’s been so upset about losing all the unicorns, but there’s a legend that there’s still a few that survived...So I thought, if I could find one, I could make nice with it, and then put a ring on its horn, and write in the clouds AZIRAPHALE, WOULD YOU MARRY ME? and have the unicorn deliver the ring.”
To his credit, Tony did not laugh. But he did put a diplomatic hand over his mouth to hide the fact that he was about to.
“Well, damn, I wish I’d thought of that. But the animal shelter was all out of unicorns when I went to get Curie.”
Crowley shrugged. “But now it would appear derivative of yours, so obviously I can’t do it.”
“Never did track down the bloody unicorns.”
“Here’s what I think: I think you can propose to Aziraphale any way you want and he’ll say yes. In fact, I guarantee he’ll say yes. I am so completely certain that he’ll say yes that I will stake my entire fortune on it.”
“Yes. I’ll snake on it. I mean shake on it.” After a few drunken uncoordinated attempts to clasp hands, they did.
“I already have the ring...I found a stone back in the Ptolemaic Era of Egypt that looks exactly like his eyes.”
The next morning at breakfast, Crowley dropped a small box on the table in front of Aziraphale.
“I’d like to get married,” he stated.
“Oh, Crowley!” Aziraphale said, then he turned red, then white, then finally settled on pink and burst out laughing.
Crowley attempted to hide his hurt expression and frantically said, “You know what, it was a stupid idea, forget I said anything, I’m sorry I asked, I was kidding." He turned to Tony and hissed, “You told me he’d say yes, look who was right, you bloody—” Then he turned back to Aziraphale and said, “Let me take the ring back and—”
But Aziraphale smacked Crowley’s hand out of the way before he could grab the box.
“I”m just laughing because I’ve been waiting for so long!” Aziraphale said, reaching into his breast pocket. “I figured you’d want to be the first one to ask.” He pulled out a box similar to Crowley’s and handed it to him. Crowley’s mouth fell open and his face settled into a look of disbelief.
“What happened last night?” Bruce whispered to Tony. Tony shook his head minutely. The two humans silently debated leaving the room to give the celestials some privacy, but that seemed awkward. Besides, Ezra still had half a bottle left.
"Why on Earth would you think I'd want to ask first?" Crowley asked.
"Well—well, you're always so...forward," Aziraphale said. Crowley's face fell slightly, and Aziraphale added, "Which I love about you! You're so...brave!"
"I...I don't go too fast for you?" Crowley asked.
Aziraphale's face went through a series of complicated expressions before settling on a gentle smile. "Well...I seem to have caught up with you, my love."
“So it’s agreed then?” Crowley asked.
“Of course! Was there any doubt?” Aziraphale asked. He studied Crowley's face, which clearly reflected that there had been doubt. But as he processed Aziraphale's words, Crowley broke into a beaming smile. His smile shone so brightly that Bruce and Tony could easily see him for the angel he had once been.
Then Crowley turned to Tony, his smile transformed into a smirk. “Well. He didn’t say yes.”
Tony blinked. “What are you talking about? He just agreed to marry you, he literally took out a ring—”
“He said ‘of course,’ and ‘was there any doubt,’ but at no point in this transaction did he say the word ‘yes.’”
Aziraphale now looked as confused as Bruce. Tony, briefly fearing for his children's college funds, couldn’t believe he’d shook on another deal with a devil.
After explaining the terms of Tony and Crowley’s wager, and clarifying that Crowley meant the proposal in earnest, not just for a bet, Aziraphale said, "Well, dearest, you technically never asked me."
"I had a ring and everything! Tony said I didn't need to do a big gesture!"
"Oh, did he?" Bruce asked, his eyebrows raised.
Tony carefully repositioned the baby he was holding so he could lean over and kiss Bruce's cheek. "You didn't have to either, but I remain endlessly charmed that you did, my shining social media star."
Aziraphale said, "You didn't ask. You stated that you would like to get married. It wasn't in the form of a question."
"Oh yeah, that's true!" Tony said.
"I—well—" Crowley was momentarily flummoxed.
"Why don't we go get the twins cleaned up and, ah, give you two a moment of privacy?" Bruce suggested. "But congratulations on...your engagement?" He shifted Ezra against his shoulder and stood up from the table. Tony reluctantly followed him out of the room with Rebecca in tow.
Back in the nursery, Tony said, "You know, we could use the baby monitor app to eavesdrop…"
"Hush, let them have their moment."
"Okay, but I'm setting it to record. Just in case Crowley tries to go back on our bet."
"Tony, even if for some absurd reason Crowley actually took your inheritance, we still have mine. We'll be fine."
"It's just the principle of the thing," Tony muttered. "Plus we keep giving our money away."
Bruce rolled his eyes and changed Ezra's diaper. "We still have more than we'll ever need. And I'm sure you could come up with a new profitable patent in about thirty seconds if it came to that."
"Really, Brucie, thirty seconds? It would take me at least five minutes to get a lawyer to file the paperwork. Anyway, they might like to have the video later," Tony said.
Back in the kitchen, Aziraphale said, "Crowley, I'm so sorry you ever doubted my love for you. I forget that you're not as attuned to sensing love as I am, and I know that I—that—well, there was a time when I was afraid...when I felt that my loyalties were...conflicted. But now I know without a doubt how I want to spend the rest of my days." He lowered himself to one knee and held out the ring he'd purchased. "Anthony J. Crowley, you are much more than a little bit of a good person and I love you more than anything. Would you do me the great honor of marrying me, so that we could spend the rest of our Earthly years bound to one another?"
Crowley swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Yeah, all right then," he said.
Aziraphale beamed up at him and slid his ring on Crowley's trembling finger. Then he sat back on his chair and said, "You'd better go ahead and ask me now, properly, just so Tony doesn't think you'll steal his fortunes."
Crowley said, "Aw, he knows I'm not serious."
Primly, Aziraphale said, "This is a very stressful time in a human's life. Let's not give the new parents anything else to worry about."
So Crowley bent down on one knee and offered up his own ring. Gruffly, he said, "Angel, the only thing that's ever really scared me was losing you. Would you…" he cleared his throat. "Would you marry me?"
"Yes, Crowley, I would love to marry you." Crowley's radiant smile returned and he slid the ring on Aziraphale's hand. Then he slid himself onto Aziraphale's lap and kissed him.
Aziraphale kissed him back with enthusiasm, but after a moment he pulled back and said, "We'll have to decide on a venue...and a caterer!"
"Whatever you like, angel. Er, so long as you aren't set on a church wedding, of course."
“I should say not! But would you mind terribly if we waited until the children were old enough to understand and remember?”
“Sure. What’s another, er, ten years?” Crowley figured that sounded about right. The twins had visibly grown over the last week, but they were still very small.
“A blink of an eye,” Aziraphale said, sadly. “Won’t Ezra and Rebecca make the most darling flower children? I was thinking, if it’s not too gauche, a location wedding—”
“All weddings are at locations.”
“Right, yes, but I was thinking the south of France, or maybe the Welsh countryside…” and from nowhere appeared a thick binder, overloaded with bright pages and colorful tabs.
“Your ineffable plan,” Crowley said with a glint in his eye. He assumed their wedding would just...happen, and it was overwhelming to see the amount of planning Aziraphale had already put into it, but also reassuring that Aziraphale had been hard at work for who knew how long. It reinforced the idea that Aziraphale did, in fact, want to marry Crowley.
Aziraphale flipped open to a seemingly random page. "These are all just options, of course. I need your input, too…” Aziraphale muttered, as if the thought of Crowley’s input hadn’t really occurred to him until that moment. “Now, since we have some time for planning, I think we should visit each of these potential sites before we commit to any of them."
Crowley fought a grin. "Of course. Wouldn't want to be too hasty."
They kept talking until a hesitant Tony reentered, looking for Ezra and Rebecca’s late-morning snack bottles.
“I take it things are going well?” Tony asked. He eyed the book on the table. “My, you move fast.”
"Whatever are you talking about? I've waited six thousand years for this," Aziraphale said. "Now we simply have to find the perfect venue and caterer...the guest list will be small, but we want the day to be, well…"
"Extraordinary?" Crowley suggested.
Aziraphale beamed. "Just so.”
"Well, I'm very happy for you both. I, uh, hope your reception will be baby-friendly?" Tony had been to any number of society weddings whose engraved invitations specified, "We love children—but the reception is 21+!" At the time, those disclaimers hadn't bothered him, but now he knew he'd be upset to leave the twins out of such a joyous occasion.
"Oh, well...of course we love babies, but we were planning to wait until the twins were a bit older," Crowley said.
"After all, we have at least five years of cake tastings ahead of us!"
Tony laughed. "I suppose you'll have both angel food and devil's food cakes?"
Crowley smirked appreciatively at Tony's joke, but Aziraphale obliviously said, "No, I was thinking of a nice red velvet, perhaps? Though of course it depends on the venue, it would be nice to have something culturally specific to...oh, I see what you mean. Very funny, dear."
Tony smiled. "Well, in the meantime, I'd better get these bottles to Ezra and Rebecca, since it'll be awhile yet before they can digest cake. But I'm sure you two will plan something absolutely heavenly."
Crowley was in too good of a mood to protest Tony's pun, and Aziraphale said, "Yes, I'm certain we will!"
It did not take a prophetess to confirm that they did.
Held on non-consecrated ground for Crowley's well-being, though also because their knowledge that God definitely existed didn't actually alter Bruce and Tony's religious beliefs in any tangible way.
Crowley had had a lot of input on modern airline security measures.
In fact, Crowley was leagues better with children, but not with babies; children and teenagers sensed Aziraphale’s earnestness, eagerness, and innate goodness and were immediately primed to attack. In Crowley, they picked up a teenager’s idea of ultimate cool insouciance. Babies simply wanted love, which was much more straightforward for Azipraphale to give out than it was for Crowley.
Pepper was doing her best to protect May and Peter's privacy by keeping their relationship out of the press, but soon enough they'd have an elegant wedding of their own. 
And innumerable dogs.
Bruce’s proposal had also been used as the template for no fewer than twelve different memes.
Bruce and Tony had let their dog Curie serve as their flower girl, and Aziraphale had yet to recover from his confusion and delight.